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In the Bleak Midwinter

Discussion in 'Completed Fics' started by Cutlerine, Dec 19, 2016.

  1. Cutlerine

    Cutlerine Gone. Not coming back.

    Here's a weird little story I wrote for SilentMemento in last year's Yuletide event; I thought I'd share it now that it's become seasonal again. For the interested (and those perhaps confused by a couple of the turns the story takes), here's the prompt that started it:

    No real warnings to speak of, I think. There is a tiny bit of violence, but only in the sense that a spider catching its prey is violent. Nothing more than that.

    So, without further ado:

    In the Bleak Midwinter

    Why did it have to be the dress? If it hadn't been for that, he wouldn't be here right now, tugging ineffectually at strands of glue and shedding wing-scales like snow. He almost suspected it of being a trap: the old print dress, flapping in the breeze like butterfly's wings, and the spiderweb waiting underneath for anyone who came to investigate. But that didn't seem like an ariados' style.

    Click-click.

    The owner of the web was coming.

    Something primal bucked inside him and he flapped again, violently, trying to stir up winds to cut the threads – but his wings were too firmly caught to manage even a gust. His legs were free, and his head, but honestly he couldn't see that that was going to do him much good at this point. There's not a whole lot of leg on a vivillon. None of them have ever been known for kicking.

    Click-click.

    What had possessed him? There had been no reason to enter the ruin. None! It wasn't like he needed shelter. The day wasn't even half over. He could have been miles further down the Road by now. But no, he had to investigate. Had to see what it was that was hanging out of that window, fluttering so alluringly.

    Even butterflies appreciate irony. All this time spent trying to pin down the mysteries of the Old Ones, and now they had him pinned down. Dangling headfirst from his wings in a cobweb, staring at rotten floorboards and decaying furniture and waiting for something to come along and eat him.

    Click-click.

    Two large fangs, two large eyes, too large in general. Sliding into view from the side of his peripheral vision.

    His antennae danced.

    I have a proposition.


    The ariados stopped. The blade on her forehead was uncomfortably close to his face.

    Her reply came in clicks of her jaws and shifts in the way she held her forelegs.

    I have one too.

    He paused for a moment, concerned. One antenna dithered in midair, then twitched hopefully.

    You want to let me go?

    The ariados stood exceptionally still for a moment, the arachnid equivalent of raised eyebrows, and air hissed from her spiracles in a kind of laughter.

    My proposition was a little more culinary.

    The vivillon's wings tried to twitch, to cast their scales and whip up a defensive wind, but he held them in check. Instinct said panic. Instinct was not useful here.

    I can show you something better than food, he offered.

    Sss, laughed the ariados.

    He repeated the antenna-signs, more firmly this time. He meant it. He had to; if the ariados didn't take the bait, he was fairly sure that he wasn't going to be around much longer.

    You're serious. The ariados took hold of his head with one claw and tilted it so that her glassy eyes met his. Like what?

    Power, signed the vivillon. Peace.

    The ariados swept one leg through the air, indicating the ruins of the farmhouse.

    It's peaceful in here. And it's my territory. I am power here.

    More than that, insisted the vivillon. There's a ritual. Something to do with the Old Ones. It's meant to bring peace to everyone.

    She stood very still again. This time, for six whole seconds. (He counted.)

    What would that even mean? she asked.

    He was getting somewhere. She wouldn't be asking him questions if she wasn't intrigued – and that meant there was a chance that he wasn't going to end up being drunk through a straw after all. That he might, after all, be able to continue down the Road.

    I don't know, he said, choosing his signals carefully. But it's on the spells they used to send each other. Peace and joy to the world, and things like that. He paused, trying to gauge her reaction, but the ariados, for once, was utterly unreadable. Some form of perfect joy, he said. Like midsummer in midwinter.

    Perfect joy, repeated the ariados, although she said it with her horn rather than with antennae. What does that mean?

    I don't know. But I've come a very long way to find out.

    Click-click.

    The ariados began to retreat, inching backwards across the curtained expanse of her web. A few puffs of shimmering brown dust leaped away from the vivillon's wings in alarm.

    Where are you going?

    I don't usually catch philosophers
    , signed the ariados. I have to think this one over.

    Click-click, and she was gone. No more two large, too large.

    The vivillon sent a jet of air out of his foremost spiracle, which was about as close as he could come to a sigh.

    The thing about spiders is that they're patient. They consider things. Nature made them for sitting around waiting all day, and darn it that's what they do. That slowness of thought was what had saved him, he was sure – you can't put doubts into the mind of a diving pidgeot, no matter how persuasive you are – but it also meant he was probably going to be here for a while yet.

    He sighed again, and settled down to wait.

    *​

    Click-click.

    The vivillon looked up, but the ariados was nowhere to be seen. He'd sort of been expecting that. Like all spiders, Ariados can't move fast for longer than a few seconds, and to compensate they usually appear in the opposite direction to the one you're currently looking at.

    Click-click.

    The vivillon's antennae shot straight out for a moment, then slackened.

    You startled me, he signed. Have you, um, come to a decision?

    His captor moved a little closer, and unfolded her chelicerae. They were a lot longer than they looked when folded against her face, he noticed. There were little red hairs on their inner edges, and along where the fangs burst from their tips.

    He rather wished he hadn't noticed that.

    Hold very still, she signed, and scythed her jaws together―

    The vivillon fell.

    Twelve feet and a sharp stop later, he hissed gently in an insectoid groan. When you're as light as he was, you can survive a long drop onto a hardwood floor. That does not mean it is particularly pleasant.

    Ouch. He wriggled his legs ineffectually in midair. I'm guessing that means I'm not going to be lunch. But still. Ouch.

    I ate last week, signed the ariados, descending towards him on a silken thread. You're lucky I'm not hungry.

    The vivillon fluttered feebly, trying to right himself.

    So ... I take it you're interested?

    I suppose I could do with a break
    . Unimpressed, or pretending to be. It's difficult to tell when a spider is lying. The eyes always stay the same. So perhaps you can show me this ... perfect joy.

    The vivillon fluttered again, and succeeded in flipping himself over onto his legs.

    Exellent!
    he signed, perhaps a little too eagerly. And can I just say, I am very grateful not to be eaten―

    The ariados raised her forelegs halfway to a threat display and back again.

    Don't remind me. Another of those threatening clicks. Keep talking about it and I might change my mind.

    Right. Sure. Least said, soonest mended, right?

    Glassy spider eyes bored into his forehead, and he suddenly became very interested in cleaning a strand of silk off his thorax.

    All right. We'll need to head into the city, down―

    What is that?


    The vivillon hesitated.

    Oh. Um. It's a ruin. A very, very big one. Thousands and thousands of ruins like this, and bigger ones than it too, all together.

    The ariados rotated slowly on her thread, taking in the room. It was as if she'd never seen it before. Perhaps she hadn't, not really. One of the perks of being an animal was that higher thought wasn't mandatory. You could crawl into a hundred-year-old abandoned farmhouse and make it your home without ever actually having to stop and think about who built it, and why.

    At least, that was how it was for the others. The vivillon was different. When he went into a ruin, he stayed there for six months and came out with a burning desire to follow the Road all the way to the hulking shape on the horizon.

    That would be a very big ruin, the ariados signed at last. Very big indeed.

    She spread her forelegs to show just how big. Given that those legs spanned several feet and were tipped with hooked claws, this was not a comforting gesture.

    Er ... yes
    , agreed the vivillon. It is.

    It seemed the ariados was still getting her head around the idea. Her chelicerae were moving up and down rhythmically. If she had actually had conventional jaws, one might have said she was chewing things over.

    And where is it? she asked, after a time had passed.

    Down the Road
    , signed the vivillon. The big black thing on the ground outside.

    Oh.
    The ariados tapped an idle foot. I always wondered what that was.

    Clearly not very much, thought the vivillon, but that probably wasn't a wise thought to share. His wings were still gluey: right now, he was about as aerodynamic as the average ludicolo. Until the silk dried out and flaked away, there was no way he could get away from the ariados if she decided she didn't like something he said.

    Well. If we follow it, we'll get to the city. It's in there somewhere. The key to this ritual.


    Perfect joy. The hairs on the ariados' joints flattened out for a moment in response to some mysterious arachnid emotion. Peace.

    The vivillon waited. A cold wind blew in from the shattered window above, and outside he heard the dress start flapping again.

    Hm. Whatever stillness had taken over the ariados, she shook herself out of it and turned her eyes upwards. Can you fly?

    Barely. The vivillon flexed his wings. Stiff, he thought. Useless. I can probably climb to the window.

    The what?

    That gap up there. It's what the Old Ones called it
    . He whipped his antennae back and forth, miming a theatrical cancelling-out of speech. Never mind. I think I can get up there, but I might need a rest afterwards.

    The ariados looked at him for a long moment with those inscrutable eyes, then shifted her head slightly and began to ascend her silken wire.

    I'll see you up there
    , said the tilt of her hairs and the movement of her head. Don't run off now.

    Very funny, signed the vivillon. But only when he was sure that she was looking the other way.

    *​

    It's cold out here.

    The vivillon did his best to look politely interested. Spiders don't get out much, and the ariados was not the most scintillating of wits, but she was very large and very dangerous, and creatures like that don't really need a way with words.

    I haven't felt the wind in my setae for a long time.

    Is that so.

    Yes.


    They moved on in silence for a while. Winter was thickening around them, and the trees that pressed up against the edges of the Road were bare and fruitless. Their roots were knotted beneath its foundation, making cracked knuckles appear on the surface of the tarmac.

    It was a quiet place, and a dead one. Beasts did not like the Road. Few of them were old enough to remember the days before the Old Ones left – certainly not the vivillon; fifty summers is an unimaginable expanse of time to a butterfly – but the Road itself seemed to have a memory, and somehow when you came near it you had the sense that if you didn't leave you might soon be flattened against the front of one of the Old Ones' machines.

    But of course you never would be. The machines were silent, their skeletons picked apart by roaming steel-types. There was nothing left here any more.

    Just an ariados and a half-flightless vivillon, making their slow way west towards the city.

    How is it that you know the name of this ruin?
    signed the ariados, after a while.

    Right on cue. She seemed to be rationing her questions, or maybe she could only think of one a day; this was the fifth day of their journey out from her lair, and this was the fifth question she'd asked.

    I can read their marks, the vivillon replied. I taught myself.

    The ariados stood very still for a moment. A nameless bird sensed their presence and exploded upwards out of the trees.

    You can read their marks?

    How surprising. She'd never asked a follow-up question before.

    Yes. He paused, modesty briefly duelling with pride in his head. I ... I'm quite clever.

    Yes.


    The vivillon's wings drooped slightly. He'd been hoping for something a bit better than that. Most people he told were amazed. Even kirlia were proud if they could decipher the odd road sign, and they had the psychic residue of the Old Ones who'd manufactured the thing to help them. For a bug-type – a mere butterfly, as fit a symbol as you could get for brainless vanity – to have learned how to read was pretty impressive, especially since he'd done it all by himself.

    And the ariados just said yes.

    I've always been interested in the Old Ones
    , the vivillon persisted. I grew up on the plains, and you can see the city on the horizon there. I always wanted to know what went on in there.

    The ariados glanced at him.

    Perhaps other creatures have moved in, she signed. The Old Ones aren't using it any more.

    Well – yes, but ...
    The vivillon sighed. Never mind.

    He flexed his wings. Ariados silk is even tougher than the usual spider stuff, but in this dry winter air, it was already starting to come apart. A few more days and some careful timing, and he'd be flying clean out of the ariados' clutches. Then he could continue on his quest with the gravity it deserved.

    You've stopped, noted the ariados, in her literal-mechanical way. Why?

    The vivillon started, his mouthparts twitching.

    Er. No reason. I only have short legs, he added, a moment too late.

    Oh, signed the ariados.

    They walked on, and below their feet the Road rolled on with them.



    Days passed.

    The Road is a long and lonely place. Even flying, it would have taken the vivillon over a week to reach the city. But on foot, and with the slow pace of the ariados, it looked like it would take much longer.

    Every day, the ariados asked her question. Every day, the vivillon gave her an answer. These weren't exactly the kind of conversations that people record for future generations, but they were at least conversations.

    In the vivillon's mind, the best you could say about them was that they were short.

    What does this say? the ariados would ask, stopping by a road sign, and the vivillon would look up and do what he could.

    Fuh, ogh, ruh ...

    For Santalune, take next left.

    What does that mean?


    The vivillon would hiss to himself for a moment, and say:

    I don't know.

    And the ariados would stand very still, peering hard at the sign with expressionless eyes.

    None of this was the right reaction, that was the problem. Ariados – well, they weren't particularly bright. Bugs weren't, in general, but it seemed to him that spiders were even less so than usual. And why should they be otherwise? They weren't much more than living flytraps. All they had to do was sit still for hours until something was fool enough to blunder into them. And so the ariados was, not to put too fine a point on it, stupid. This pained the vivillon, because after all when you've devoted your life to uncovering the mysteries of an ancient race of giants and you suddenly find yourself with a travelling companion you want to explain things to them. You want them to be suitably awed.

    What you don't want is for them to respond to everything with the same vacant stare and mild surprise, day in, day out, while all around you the air gets colder and ominous clouds appear on the horizon.

    Where do vivillon go in the winter? asked the ariados, one day. I've never seen one past November before.

    The vivillon's antennae wavered uncertainly.

    Sorry, signed the ariados, with an uncharacteristic flick of her foreleg. I didn't catch that.

    We migrate, replied the vivillon, shivering slightly. Winter is a bad time for bugs.

    The ariados made a sage motion of assent with her chelicerae.

    Yes, she agreed. And then, a moment later: Ariados hibernate.

    I see
    , signed the vivillon politely.

    The fact that she was not hibernating and he was not migrating went unmentioned. Speech takes energy, after all, and the days were getting colder.

    On the vivillon's wings, the silk was coming away in shreds. A couple of days, he thought. No more than that. And about time: if he could fly, he could reach the edge of the city before winter arrived in force. There were still enough late berries that he wouldn't starve.

    The ariados would be all right, he thought. Spiders don't need to eat much. And it wasn't like she was going to appreciate the ritual, anyway.

    And also, really, he didn't particularly care. There's not a whole lot of love lost between predators and prey.



    Two days later, he got his chance.

    On either side of the Road, the trees were thinning out, replaced by the tangled thickets of feral roses that signalled the city was approaching, and on clear days, the vivillon could just about make out a hazy shadow in the distance that had to be the mass of its outlying buildings. The ariados saw nothing, of course. Spiders do not have good eyesight. But they are sensitive in other ways, and the vivillon knew it wouldn't be long until she noticed the changes in the air.

    At any rate, he didn't tell her anything about the buildings in the distance.

    How much further do you think it is? she asked, and he fumbled for a moment, half-convinced she was reading his mind.

    Er. Um, not too much further, I think. He paused. There are supposed to have been flowers planted along the way to the city.

    The ariados looked around.

    Do these things flower?

    Another follow-up question! This was a rare day indeed.

    Yes, he signed. The Old Ones cultivated them. They grew lots of plants. I think they ate them.

    Eating ... plants
    , mused the ariados. Weird. Then, with another awkward flick of her foreleg: No offence.

    The vivillon fluttered his wings gently. None taken.

    To the right, the thick stems of the rose-bushes creaked.

    There was no wind.

    So quickly that the vivillon could not track her movement, the ariados turned to face the bushes, forelegs raised and chelicera spread―

    He took his chance and sprung away from the ground in the opposite direction―

    And as he rose, wings beating irregularly after days of inactivity, something like a sharp, white monkey soared up from the bushes, sailing on a wind the vivillon could not feel with the flower clutched in its hands.

    The language of flower-fairies and of bugs is pretty different. Generally speaking, there isn't a lot of contact between the two, except when an insect visits what appears to be a perfectly hospitable flower and ends up being snatched and eaten by the fairy hiding beneath. All things considered, the vivillon could not have known that the snapping of the floette's teeth and the whiplike curl of its tail indicated something along the lines of I'm going to kill you.

    However, under the circumstances, it is safe to say that the vivillon got the gist of it.

    He twisted violently in midair, scattering a cloud of noxious scales and barrelling away over the thorns; behind him, the floette twirled its flower and a sudden gust of tinted air blew the scales harmlessly down into the bushes. The vivillon made certain movements of his antennae that, translated, would be utterly unprintable, and flapped on upwards – but suddenly the clouds above him parted, revealing a cratered daymoon like a worm-eaten peach, and as the beam of light lanced down the vivillon turned his head away―

    There was a brief shriek and the light fizzled out twenty feet above his head, the clouds rolling back across the face of the moon.

    Silence. And then the sound of something heavy being dragged across tarmac.

    The vivillon looked down.

    You're all right, signed the ariados, setae relaxing in her relief. You should have left it to me. Your wings are too weak right now to outfly a floette.

    At her feet was the floette, translucent spider venom sleeking its fur. Its flower lay a little way off, stem snapped.

    Of course, thought the vivillon, although the thought seemed to be happening many miles away from his head. Poison beats fairy.

    You are all right, aren't you? asked the ariados. You can come down now. She swept one foreleg over the floette. It's not conscious.

    The vivillon stared down at her, at the eyes and the fangs and the horn and the hairs and the claws, and without quite knowing how felt himself come to a decision.

    Yes, he said, fluttering gently back down to the Road. Sorry. I panicked.

    I know, signed the ariados, dragging the floette beneath her and pitching her spinneret forwards. I see that a lot.

    The vivillon suppressed a shudder. Of course. What do all the flies do when they blunder into a spider's web? The ariados must be intimately familiar with the blind terror of frightened insects.

    Do you mind if we take a break? she asked. I haven't eaten in a few weeks.

    He glanced at the – now partly cocooned – floette, and then, when it blinked back at him, looked away again.

    Sure, he signed distractedly. Knock yourself out.

    A wave of thanks, and the tiny sound of a spinneret pumping.

    The vivillon sat, wings trembling slightly, and thought again: there's not a lot of love lost between predators and prey.



    We're actually quite close, signed the vivillon, the next day. I can see it now.

    The ariados looked up intently into the distance, as if she too could see it if she tried hard enough.

    Yes, she replied. I think the air is different.

    She moved a little faster than usual that day, and with something more than the usual sheen in her eyes, but the vivillon honestly couldn't tell whether that was because they were closer to the city or because she'd drunk the innards of a whole floette the day before.

    Actually, he thought, he probably didn't want to know. Just keep going, that was all he needed to do. Just keep going, with the ariados he was supposed to have ditched already.

    It was sort of hard to know what to do with that. He wasn't much given to self-doubt. In fact, the vivillon couldn't remember not being certain that he was right before. All in all, it was a troubling situation.

    On top of that, it was rapidly getting colder now. Midwinter was on its way, and while it didn't snow down here – thankfully he'd made it through the mountains before autumn – the vivillon could feel himself slowing down. Sometimes, when he flew on ahead in search of berries, he would lose his grip on the air and find himself slipping towards the ground, his wings moving too slowly to sustain flight. It was probably too late now to abandon the ariados, he thought. He didn't stand much chance of getting to the city alone like this.

    Beside him, she moved on, implacable. She must have been feeling the strain too – spiders are no more cold-resistant than butterflies – but he would never have guessed if he hadn't known. The same measured pace. The same blank stare. Whether it said more about her toughness or her relatively slim capacity for self-expression the vivillon wasn't sure.

    This was less new to him. By this point, he was getting used to being puzzled by the ariados.

    Why didn't you wait until spring? asked the ariados. She had to ask it again before he noticed she was signing.

    Oh. Um. This is a specific ritual. It has to be done at midwinter. The vivillon paused. His original plan had been to fly in to the city, stockpile supplies in a ruin and seal out the outside world to keep himself warm until the day came. For some reason, though, he couldn't quite bring himself to say it. I think it's how the Old Ones survived. They were able to keep food and warmth right through the winter.

    So the ritual is the key. The ariados made motions with her forelegs as if brushing away overhanging leaves. We must get there soon.

    Yes
    , agreed the vivillon, and then it was back to the silence.

    Somehow, it didn't seem quite as dead as usual.

    *​

    They stood in the centre of the Road and looked up.

    Well, said the ariados. I can see it now.

    Ruins are large. Everyone knows that: the Old Ones were builders on a fantastic scale. Their humblest settlements are put together with an intricacy, with a mastery of every conceivable material, that no beast or bird could ever hope to match. The vivillon remembered passing through one of the stations where they fed their giant machines, back when he was a scatterbug, and being struck dumb by the way in which metal intersected with stone, and tarmac with wood, all in such a way that the whole colossal thing was still standing now, countless summers later. It was a magic trick more astonishing than anything a ghost-type could pull off. Phasing through a wall is one thing – but someone has to have built the wall first.

    So: ruins are large, and impressive.

    But the city – now that was something else.

    The two of them had passed through an arch so high that the ariados could make out the ceiling only as a fuzzy darkness above them, and now they stood on an expanse of broad, cracked asphalt that stretched away to the left and right as far as the vivillon could see, curving between two lines of buildings that rose to altitudes at which he had not been aware that flightless animals could breathe. The rusting skeletons of Old One machines lay dotted along the road, small mounds of detritus rotting gently in their lees.

    It is enormous, signed the ariados, and for a moment the vivillon wanted to slap her – how could she sign that? how could she sign just that, just enormous, in that level expressionless way? – but an instant later the feeling subsided. She was bigger than him and highly carnivorous, he told himself. It's generally a bad idea to slap people who match that description. This is excellent advice for anyone, but it was not, perhaps, all that was going through the vivillon's head.

    Where do we go from here? she asked, hairs bristling in unfamiliar ways as she read the air.

    We have to, uh, find a tree, he replied. There'll be a tree somewhere. Like a pine tree, but it may be false.

    A sudowoodo?

    No, you― uh, no. It will be a tree made by the Old Ones out of ... of their materials.


    The ariados considered this. Briefly, the vivillon wondered if she had ever even seen any plastic.

    I'll rely on you to tell me when we find it
    , she signed, after a while. You know a lot about the Old Ones.

    All right. The vivillon looked around. No road he could see looked more promising than any of the others. Or rather, all of them probably led to untold wonders of one kind or another, and given more time he'd have loved to investigate. Which of them might lead to the tree was rather less clear. Er. Let's just try going on ahead. I imagine it will be deeper in the city.

    The ariados signed her assent and began to move again with her slow, implacable footsteps. Still casting looks around him – he was really here, he really was – the vivillon fluttered in her wake.



    What are the sights of the city? Machines: some as big as hippopotas, some even bigger, so big that the vivillon thought they were buildings until he saw the rusting metal cores of the wheels. Lights: real electric lights glowing atop the lampposts, or a few of them anyway; the Old Ones' electricity came from above the clouds, they say, and the giant flying machine that generates it still beams it down, though sometimes in its old age it stops working for a week now and then. Glass: almost every window in the ruins is broken, but in the city, from which those who remember the Old Ones still keep their distance, many of them are intact, miracles of engineering like a psychic-type's barrier frozen in time.

    There was more, too – the trash of a whole universe of which the vivillon had previously only ever caught glimpses. Plastic forks and metal pens, old corroded bits of pocket machinery, clothes blown through a broken window (unpleasant memories there), celluloid gewgaws and scraps of discarded images – and all of it covered in writing, letters upon letters that seemed to cover the entire city, as if it were one gigantic sentence uttered by its inhabitants and awaiting one who could understand it. OMNIBUS, said one sign. CAFÉ TRISTE, said another. RARE STONES BOUGHT AND SOLD. COMING UP THIS WEEK. EXCLUSIVE! CAFÉ SOLEIL. INTERVIEW WITH AUGUSTINE SYCAMORE. It made the vivillon's head spin; so much writing, so much meaning, concentrated into all these bits of paper and plastic and brick. How did the Old Ones live here without going mad? They couldn't have done anything else but read and reread, lost in this memorial to information. And yet, somehow, they thrived.

    The vivillon found this an unpleasant thought. No one likes to be confronted with the fact of their own limitations, and here were his. This was not a place for butterflies.

    But it could be a place for him, he told himself. He was not like other vivillon. He could read. Look: SILVER RECORD STORE. And, moreover―!

    Irritated at himself for even needing to do this, he snatched up a discarded case from the pavement outside the RECORD STORE. It had a disc in it that shone like a rainbow, and a faded square of folded paper, protected from the ravages of light and rain by its plastic shell.

    What is it?
    signed the ariados. Directions?

    He ignored her. Luh, yuh, ruh, ih, cuh, suh, he read, trying to recreate the extinct sounds.

    It's gone away, it's gone away, it's gone for good
    Animal spirits come calling me home
    Through the tunnels of brilliant light
    The magnet of wisdom is pulling
    Burrowing faster, the fabric of time


    That didn't help at all. In fact, that only made things worse. He couldn't see even the slightest shred of meaning in it.

    What does that mean? asked the ariados, interested.

    It ... it means ... it's a message about them leaving, improvised the vivillon. The Old Ones. They had to leave this place because something was gone and to follow it they had to ... leave. Yes. That's what it means.

    I see, signed the ariados, with that infuriating calmness, and the vivillon hurled the case and its paper away with a sharp jerk of his foreleg.

    Yes, he replied. That's what it means. He paused. It is. It all adds up.

    Yes, you might have mentioned that already. The ariados shifted between her legs, tilting in the direction of the inner city. Shall we?

    Yes, signed the vivillon. Why not.

    In the grammar of insects, there is very little difference between a question and a statement. It's mostly in the order of the word-gestures. But on this occasion, you might have been left with an odd feeling that the vivillon's question hadn't quite been a question after all.



    Onwards, and the hours passed. Where the lights have burnt out or broken, the streets of the city get dark early; the sun slips behind a building and suddenly the road below is in shadow. It made it difficult for the vivillon to judge the time. Whether or not there really is anything still living in the city is difficult to say, but everyone has heard the stories of the ancient magneton that was left behind by its Old One master, back in the day when there was partnership still, and the vivillon didn't particularly want to risk staying out too late. Neither he nor the ariados could hope to so much as scratch a magneton, and the language barrier made them virtually impossible to reason with. If one decided it didn't like you (and often, for reasons that presumably made sense to them if not to those animals which actually had flesh-and-blood brains, they did), a humble bug-type had the choice of learning to speak in electromagnetic pulses or run.

    It's dark for so early, remarked the ariados. Even for winter, this is early.

    The vivillon started.

    How can you tell the time?

    It's in the air. The hairs on her joints stiffened and swayed in response to shifts in the atmosphere too minute for the vivillon to detect. A few hours yet till sunset.

    Oh. Um. Good to know.


    They were getting somewhere, he thought. It was clear. The street was less cluttered here; the machines did not seem to have been allowed into this zone. Virtually every building had a sign over its windows – many more than earlier. This place must have been special, maybe even sacred; why else would it be so much more saturated with writing, so carefully kept free of the dangerous, noisy machines? And, more importantly, where else would you hold a ritual?

    I think the tree might be around here somewhere, suggested the vivillon, trying to retake control of the situation. Hopefully we'll reach it before dark.

    That would be good, agreed the ariados, and kept moving.

    The roads changed beneath their feet: tarmac to paving-stones, and paving to cobbles. Maybe it was easy for the Old Ones to navigate, with their great long legs and supernatural balance (just two legs! The mind boggles), but it was something of a challenge for the vivillon.

    You could fly on and wait for me to catch up, offered the ariados, when he slipped for the fifth time.

    Are you sure? It felt wrong, somehow.

    You move faster than me, she signed. If I have to wait for you, we'll freeze to death before we find the tree.

    He winced. It would have been nice if she'd put it a little less bluntly, but the point was a sound one.

    All right, he signed, and flew on a few dozen wingspans to wait on the back of a crumbling bench. She moved over the stones with the steady assurance of one who can walk on virtually anything, and he hadn't been there more than half an hour before she'd caught up. The whole thing developed its own rhythm: hop, perch, crawl, hop, perch, crawl; the sun fell, the shadows lengthened, the omnipresent signs became indecipherable, and dimly the vivillon began to make out the shadow of something up ahead.

    Do you see― um. Sense that? he signed, as the ariados drew near. It took a while; her eyes were even worse in the twilight, and he had to be sure she was close enough to catch the gestures.

    What? she asked.

    I suppose not. He paused, staring hard into the gloom and not picking up anything in particular. We'll see when we get there.

    Onwards. And the minutes passed.

    The trash took a turn for the bizarre: a glittering thing like a feathered serpent wrapped around a lamppost, wire core stripped bare on one side by time and wind but still shining on the other; a cracked orb of gleaming plastic, once coloured and now faded; a crook of what looked to the vivillon like pure sugar, sealed against rot by a plastic coating. This last one at least seemed too good to pass up, especially for someone who had been subsisting meagrely on berries instead of nectar for the past few weeks, and once he'd stripped the plastic off he found that his intuition had been right. If there were any more of these around, he thought, winter might not be such a problem after all. Hole up somewhere warm, hoard these, and hope.

    As for the rest of the junk, he couldn't see what practical use it might have had. But then, lots of it was shiny. And the ritual, he was sure, had involved some kind of decoration ...

    The street broadened out into a plaza, and at its centre was the tree.

    The vivillon had seen trees of that size before, of course, but this one was made of steel and plastic, and it had been here longer than he had been alive. And so, although it was big, it seemed even bigger, as a floette looks bigger when it's chasing you; it thrust up towards the sky, branches hung with tattered strips of glittering wire and round objects like plastic fruit, and it loomed over the two bugs like a dark god on a concrete throne.

    So they stared.

    What now? asked the ariados, and the vivillon sank gently to the ground. He knew, really. He had always known.

    I don't know, he admitted, antennae twitching listlessly. I don't know.

    There was a silence. No birds. No breeze. Just the inscrutable mass of the tree above them: one last sentence, one sign that no one would ever read again.

    But it worked, signed the ariados, confused. Didn't it?

    The vivillon started.

    What? We didn't do anything.

    That's right
    . The ariados hesitated. When I said I know panic, I meant it. I know that you weren't panicking when you tried to fly away.

    Ah. Right. The vivillon tapped his mouthparts anxiously. He should have guessed that. He should have―

    But you didn't leave, continued the ariados. You came back and I ... I didn't do anything about it.

    No
    , signed the vivillon. Slow. Deliberate. You didn't.

    The two of them looked up at the tree. They had the feeling that it was looking back.

    Power, signed the ariados. Joy. And then: Peace.

    But this isn't what they meant, protested the vivillon weakly. It can't be ...

    The ariados made a noncommittal movement of her abdomen.

    I don't know what they meant, she replied. I don't think even you are that clever. She waved a leg at the tree. Maybe whatever it did for them, it can't do for us. But we're not them. And we're here.

    It was the longest speech he had ever heard her make.

    And here we are indeed, thought the vivillon. Despite everything. A butterfly and a spider.

    He was such an idiot.

    I'm sorry
    , he signed. I must have offended you deeply.

    Air hissed out of her spiracles in a kind of arachnid laughter.

    I'm a spider, she replied. We're very sensible. And everybody knows what butterflies are like.

    The vivillon had never thought of it that way before. In fact, it had never occurred to him at all that spiders might have as many preconceptions about butterflies as butterflies about spiders before, either.

    So I'm beginning to realise, he signed. What ... what now?

    The ariados tilted her chelicerae, and the vivillon realised with a start that she was smiling.

    Let's find somewhere warm, she suggested. And then, tomorrow, we can leave, and wait for spring.

    The vivillon hesitated.

    'We'? he asked.

    The ariados hissed out a sigh.

    What do you think?
    she signed. You're very clever, but I'm not sure I trust you to make it through to spring without some help.

    The vivillon's antennae drooped in embarrassment.

    I really should have migrated, he admitted.

    Yes, she agreed, in her literal-mechanical way. But don't worry. We'll make it.

    Together.

    Together
    , repeated the ariados in different gestures.

    The vivillon looked up at the tree again – at its huge, impassive bulk, an inscrutable relict of someone else's meaning. He had to wonder: did it matter, really, what it was meant for? The ones who put it there were gone, after all. It was something new now. The whole city could be, if you looked at it right – the whole world, even. It was theirs, he realised with a little shock.

    A hairy foreleg descended on his shoulder.

    Are you coming? signed the ariados.

    Yes, replied the vivillon. Something felt strange at the back of his thorax. It took him a moment to identify it as his heart. Yes, I am, he repeated happily, and they turned their backs to the tree, and walked away in the direction of the coming spring.
     
    Last edited: Jan 7, 2017
  2. Bay

    Bay YEAHHHHHHH

    I admit to not realizing until near the end that Vivillon and Ariados are signing, which is a nice form of communication between them. Their conversations themselves, while kinda on a lull phase in the middle, is interesting overall and I like them going to wait for spring together in the end. Enjoyed this a lot!
     
  3. Cutlerine

    Cutlerine Gone. Not coming back.

    Hah, yeah, looking back on it one year on, I think I can safely say that like most of my writing, it could probably have stood some pruning somewhere in the middle. As for the whole signing thing, well. I've never really written pokémon communicating before, except for like psychic-types that have telepathy, and since the prompt required me to write about a vivillon and an ariados, I had to figure out a way of making it work. Neither butterflies nor spiders are really known for their vocalisations -- I don't think butterflies even have lungs, and while some (all? I am not a very good entomologist) spiders do I'm pretty sure they don't have any of the other apparatus necessary for making sounds -- so I figured that I'd have to go with some sort of sign language.

    Anyway. Thanks for reading and responding; I'm glad you enjoyed it!
     
  4. diamondpearl876

    diamondpearl876 → follow your fire.

    Heh, I really like this opening. It's vivid and the words all flow extremely well together.

    The vivillon's proposal sound pretty appealing, to be honest. And the quoted dialogue was an amusing response. XD Also, I like how they use sign language to communicate. It makes the dialogue particularly unique, especially during some parts where they don't understand each other (or like when the vivillon purposely waited until the ariados wasn't looking to say something).

    Your take on how sentient pokemon can be is interesting. I also kind of wish this was a longer fic since you brought up a lot of interesting worldbuilding stuff. D:

    Lol, and what does it say about the vivillon that he's the idiot who ran into the web in the first place? :p Well, I guess he's also a bug-type, so...

    I like the tension portrayed in the dialogue here. I wasn't expecting the two of them to end on friendly terms with the vivillon's initial distrust and the ariados's standoffish demeanor, but I'm glad they did.

    I never thought of it that way. :p

    The description leading up to the second paragraph in the quoted part was well done, and the emotional impact of the idea of limitations resonated with me. Nicely done.

    I like these two pokemon and the dynamic between them. I wasn't sure what to think of the ariados at first, but I was pleasantly surprised at the end when she started talking and revealed her own personal interpretation of the ritual. Overall, I thought this was a sweet, heartfelt and thought provoking one-shot. Thanks for posting!
     
  5. Cutlerine

    Cutlerine Gone. Not coming back.

    Nice! That means I pulled off the part of the prompt about using the specific phrase to open or close with, which part I honestly thought my response to was sort of dicey. I just tried to distract from the slightly aberrant opening phrase with a bunch of other information, and it seems like, somehow, it worked.

    It does. It had to, I guess, or the ariados would've just eaten him. And thanks; like I said in my response to Bay, it took me a little while to figure out how to do arthropod communication, and while I had a few doubts about whether or not I'd be able to suggest enough of the system within the confines of this short piece to flesh it out as a means of communication with nuance and history it seems to have gone down well.

    I've never really done a fic that treats pokémon as essentially human in their cognitive capacity before, so I took a stab at it and came up with the idea that I should at least try to represent their mindsets as in some ways inhuman. Not that I really know much about either butterflies or spiders. As for the worldbuilding, well! Thanks. I did consider answering the question of what exactly happened in this weird, abandoned Kalos, but I figured that giving the 'right' or human answers to any of the questions I raised was probably going against the spirit of the story. The point is not in finding out what was up with the humans, but what meaning the inhabitants of the new world could find in it for themselves.

    Ssh, you'll hurt his feelings. :p It's a lot of fun, writing someone as snarky and oblivious as the vivillon. You get to do bits like this where he doesn't even realise how he's implicating himself.

    The real Christmas was the friends we made along the way! (Can I use the same joke twice in two review responses in one day? I think so.) I mean, this was a Christmas story, and I couldn't think of anything more Christmas-y than bugs reconsidering predator-prey relationships.

    ... on second thoughts, I might be able to come up with something more Christmas-y if I was asked a second time.

    I mean, superpowers seem normal if you're a pokémon, and advanced tool usage seems normal if you're a human. Since I was asked to do something with perspectives, I figured this was the way to go.

    Poor vivillon. He put far too much effort into trying to be human, but of course everything starts to make more sense when he approaches it as a bug. Anyway, thank you!

    Thank you! It was a fun little thing to write, a way outside my usual orbit and an interesting challenge. Thanks for reading and responding!
     
  6. Chibi Pika

    Chibi Pika Stay positive

    Now this is certainly a unique one-shot! And such unusual prompts you had to follow, too!

    No doubt my favorite aspect of this was the way you wrote the Pokemon themselves. It's a simple addition, but the constant references to the bug Pokemon's unique anatomy and behavior and mannerisms are what made this story, imo. And I mean, this is a Poke-POV fic with intelligent Pokemon who think and wonder and are self-aware, and yet they are so delightfully not-human. This is absolutely something I want to practice for my own writings, and seeing it done so strongly here has been an inspiration.

    I also gotta give some special focus to Ariados, because she fascinates me. I'm sure she gets prey begging and pleading for their lives all time, and has gotten used to disregarding anything they say as obvious lies--because why the hell wouldn't you desperately make up any garbage to keep yourself from being eaten? And yet Vivillon's words resonated with her. She was curious enough to embark on that lengthy journey with him, with a vague, nebulous goal, in a time when bug Pokemon have no sense being out and about. Vivillon might think himself a philosopher, and think of Ariados as a simple being with no need to analyze the world around her. And perhaps she doesn't have much need for things like that. And yet she did it anyway. She found meaning where he struggled. She saw the irony in that they had made a strange sort of peace with each other.

    (One last side note: for some reason my mental imagery kept rendering the narrator as a mothim, not a vivillon. I can't fathom why, seeing as mothim is 1000% more forgettable. Just thought you might find that amusing. :p

    ~Chibi~;249;;448;
     
  7. Cutlerine

    Cutlerine Gone. Not coming back.

    Thanks! They were definitely not the easiest set of prompts I've ever received, but I can't knock them, I guess; they made this story one of my better ones.

    Thank you! It was my first time doing something that absolutely required me to write from a pokémon perspective, and the prompt gave me two extremely inhuman pokémon, as well, so it took a fair bit of thinking, and some research into arthropod physiology too. Spiders and insects are built incredibly differently to people, and I really wanted to give a sense of how a sapient version of each might view the world and struggle to understand us as much as we struggle to understand them. Living among the ruins of a race of giant master builders as someone who only builds webs or chrysalises would be pretty stressful, I think.

    Excellent, that's just what I wanted. Sensibleness is underrated, and as the vivillon himself might say, spiders are nothing if not sensible. And sure, a sensible person might not go off on a tremendously ill-advised road trip in search of the true meaning of Christmas, but that's what their impulsive, quick-thinking friends are for, just as the sensible people are the ones who stop those friends from getting themselves killed. They pair very well with each other, and that was sort of what got me a handle on the prompt: spider and butterfly, steady and flighty, unified by improvised Christmas spirit. That they both turn out to be much more than those stereotypes as well was meant as kind of an unspoken comment on that, I guess, from their own more enlightened perspective after reaching the Christmas tree.

    Intriguing! You know, I'd pretty much forgotten mothim existed up until now, but having just briefly looked them up, they actually seem better than I ever gave them credit for. I should remember to use one next time I play Pearl or Platinum. Anyway, that aside, thank you for your response! I quite like this little story, and it's gratifying that other people do as well.
     

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