Author's Chapter Notes:
Pokemon etc. is (c) of Nintendo. No infringement or implied ownership is intended.
Don't Let the Music Die
How odd the working of the mind could be.
Ariette reclined in a plush, fake leather chair, a thick blanket draped across her haunches. A bubbling flute of champagne perched on the tray next to her, along with the most recent edition of Composer's Monthly, a heart-shaped box of assorted chocolates, a plate of fine cheeses and deli meats, and a bowl of fresh berries. Soft classical music wafted in through hidden speakers—Yeaton? No, Alsem, definitely—and while she had the cabin to herself for glorious solitude, if she wished for company, any of the crew would be happy to accommodate her.
So, why, surrounded by all this luxury, was it so difficult to take her mind off the taste of recycled air, the muted drone of the engine, or the soft vibrations through her seat which weren't a result of the built-in massage feature? Why was it so hard to ignore each little shudder of the floor beneath her paws, or block the terrible nightmare images from her mind of metal wings spiralling off into the dark, sending them—
Shaking her head, Ariette seized the champagne, downing a generous pull. The small glass clacked against her front fangs, misaligning the rim and splashing cold liquid across the cream fur of her belly.
"Dammit," she whispered, setting the glass down and mopping up the spill with the edge of the blanket. It hadn't soaked in of course—the moisture beaded up on her water-resistant pelt—but now she would smell of the stuff until she had a chance to wash.
Alsem's Sonata in G Minor swelled through its final notes, trailing off into a lingering coda which, under most circumstances, she would appreciate. If only she were the type to enjoy video games or other such distractions. That would possibly help keep her mind off of how far off the ground her paws were. She could pull up a movie on the flat screen set into the tasteful mahogany veneer on the wall in front of her, but even on this charter flight, the selection was rather thin, and not much to her taste.
Maybe she should just take her sleeping pills… But, with only a two hour flight between Sinnoh and Unova, there wasn't much point. They would knock her out, certainly, but then she'd need to submit to the indignity of being carried off the plane like so much luggage, possibly snoring. No. Better to endure. Muttering under her breath, she picked up the magazine, flipping through the pages until she reached the section on current events. As expected, a review of her company's tour featured front and center.
'Twilight Reverie', the blurb proclaimed, is an experience not to be missed. From the opening notes, the listener is drawn into a world of haunting beauty, each symphonic composition telling a new piece of the story. We are lead by the beautiful and mysterious Ariette D'lecour, who, with a deft paw on the strings and bow in hand, blends classical technique and modern sentiment with such eloquence, one is left spellbound. This performance is a follow-up to the award-winning 'Divination of Dawn', and looks to surpass its predecessor in all accounts.
Her muzzle twitched upwards. If ticket sales were any indication, the reviewer wasn't embellishing. Three stops into their two month tour, and every show had been sold out. While some might have seen it already, she'd need to show this article to the rest of the company once they reconvened in Castelia. A tiny prickle of guilt prodded her. Hopefully their flight went smoothly. If she could, she'd have them fly in the charter with her, but as good as they did, the tour wasn't made of money. Commercial first class would have to do. Besides, she was the star.
The plane dropped. Ariette's stomach leaped into her throat. A shudder, the cabin's recessed lighting flickered, and then once more all was smooth, save for the rapid pounding of her heart.
Kssht! The music cut out with the electronic hiss of the plane's intercom.
"Apologies for the bumps. Bit of turbulence coming in over the coast. Seems there's a storm brewing. Nothing to worry about, but take it easy if you need to use the restroom."
So nice that she could get up to relieve herself with the blasted plane falling apart! At least her champagne hadn't spilled again. Ariette glanced out the window. Not much to see aside from the dark mist of cloud streaming past, and the regular white and red flashes off the wing running lights. Wait, white flashes?
The plane shook, a wall of consuming sound reverberating through the tiny cabin, setting every nerve she had alight.
Wonderful. Exactly what she needed.
"Everything alright, miss? Can I get you anything?"
Ariette nearly jumped, the bangles around her hindpaws tinkling. One of the flight crew—something with an 'M'. Maggie?—was standing next to her seat, a look of studied appropriate concern and willingness to help painted over her narrow, tan features. Ariette returned the look with a glare, fiddling with the small, elegant celtic knot charm on her necklace. She could turn the translator on, tell this woman, "No, everything is not alright, we're about to fucking die," and receive a gushed litany of reassurance that everything was normal…
She shook her head, waving Maggie away and picking up the magazine again. Not worth it.
"Okay. Please don't hesitate to call if you need anything at all."
"I don't think you have the power to get me on the ground in Unova immediately," Ariette muttered as the woman withdrew. She probably thought the untranslated poké-speech to be acknowledgement. Let her. Leafing through the glossy pages of articles, she tried to settle her jittering nerves. One of the interviews caught her eye; an almost scandalous picture of a young woman atop a piano. Some Kanto up-and-comer named Cindy Walker. Perhaps Mario, her pianist, had heard of her? She'd have to ask him later. It was always a good idea to keep an eye on the new talent entering the classical circuit. Collaborations were good business.
Outside, another brilliant flash ripped through the night. The plane trembled, battered in the resulting peal of thunder. Another Kssht! broke into a stirring section from one of Keshnikov's compositions.
"Maude, could you come to the cockpit please?"
Slow, deep breaths. Just like her yoga instructor showed her. Find her center. Nothing outside of her mattered. A one, two, three, four… Maude's rapid steps passed by, though Ariette didn't bother to open her eyes. Yes, she was swimming in a placid pool beneath a waterfall, her floatation ring bobbing her along the surface while her tails stirred up ripples, propelling her in lazy circles through the cool wetness…
Brilliant light, framing the world behind her eyelids in red. The plane bucked, sending her tumbling out of her seat, a cry flying from her muzzle. Her back hit the wall, knocking her breath away, her bangles jangling in protest. The contents of the tray arced through the air, champagne spattering her, candies and fruit bouncing off her chest like rubber bullets, the glass striking her nose and shattering, streaks of hot pain slicing across her muzzle. Ariette squealed, her hindpaws flailing in empty air. Shouldn't they be on the floor? No. The plane was listing, its nose pointed down…
An invisible giant squeezed her skull. She was floating free once more, her stomach attempting to fold itself inside out. Her eyes rolled back. Blessed darkness claimed her.
Sharp, artificial scents burned in her nose.
Beep… Beep… Beep…
Numb. Everything was numb, save for a dull ache permeating every muscle.
"Hey… is she awake? Mario, call the nurse." Footsteps.
Her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth, her parched throat tight.
She twitched, and through the numbness, a shooting pain in her left paw. Why couldn't she move it?
"...wearing off. She's going to be groggy. Please let me speak with her first."
More footsteps. Cool air across her face. Ariette blinked, but her eyes seemed glued shut.
"Miss D'lecour, can you hear me?"
Her muzzle cracked open, but no sound escaped. Was she paralyzed? Blind?
Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.
"Miss D'lecour, please remain calm. You're in a safe place, and you're alright. Please try to nod if you can."
It felt like lifting a boulder, but she managed to raise and lower her chin. Light, blinding white light, stabbed at her eyes, eliciting a jolt. More stabbing agony up her left paw. No… that brilliant flash...
"Don't push yourself if it's too difficult. This is a good sign. Your vitals are strong. I'm impressed you're conscious so soon, in fact."
Who was this person? What was going on? Where was she? Why couldn't she move? Ignoring the pain, Ariette wrestled with her stubborn eyes, inching her awareness into that obnoxious brightness, spots popping in her vision…
A human face loomed. Female, framed by loops of shockingly pink hair. A white cap with a blue cross symbol perched atop her head. She knew what that meant. Something… medical. Nurse. Yes, that was it. Ariette blinked, more of her surroundings coming into focus. Above her to the right, a clear bag of liquid dangled, a tube spiralling down to meet her body. Two more faces hovered near the bag. Familiar faces. Mario and Janna, from her company. She was lying in a bed. Yes. Metal bars cut across either side in her peripheral view.
"Excellent. You're doing great, miss D'lecour. Here, please try to suck on this a little."
Something soft pushed past her lips, rested on her flaccid tongue, tasting vaguely bitter and rubbery. Moisture dripped from the tip, soothing her arid palate. Water! It took several tries, but she managed to close her muzzle around it and work her cheeks into pulling, filling her maw with glorious, cool liquid. Two, three, four swallows, and then it was dragged away, leaving her gasping and wanting more.
"Slow down. You'll do yourself no good by vomiting. Let your stomach deal with that first."
Feeling was returning to her face, her tongue once more able to form the patterns needed for words. Focusing on the nurse's face—her neck still wouldn't cooperate—she fumbled for some.
"Where am I?"
Belatedly, she realized it was a futile gesture. Her translator! She hadn't turned it on.
"Castelia Center. You were in a plane crash last night. You're quite fortunate."
A center. Of course. And the plane. Yes, she'd been flying to Castelia. Wait, the nurse had understood her?
"How are we talking?"
"One of the monitors is equipped with a translator. Much easier when our critical care patients can communicate with all of us, not just the chanseys."
She tried to nod, but her head still seemed to weigh a ton.
"Your pilot didn't have much control, but managed to bring the plane down close to a major highway without causing collateral damage. If not for that, the rescue crew might not have made it in time for you. Here, drink some more."
The rubber tube squeezed past her lips, and she drank, facts slowly sifting in her mind.
"The pilot and crew?"
A momentary pause, a frown flicking across the nurse's face, before her features smoothed. "Don't worry about that right now. They were taken to General."
Of course. Humans and pokémon didn't go to the same hospitals. The equipment was too different. It had been so long since she'd been in a center…
"Why can't I move?"
"You're coming out of heavy anaesthetic. Your major muscles need a bit more time to recover. Try to relax, it will pass."
Her right paw twitched. Her left… Hot needles, jabbing her up to her elbow-fin. "My paw."
"That may be a bit uncomfortable right now. Please rest. That's the best thing for you."
No! She had to see. Ariette struggled, fighting the impossible weight on her forehead.
Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.
"Miss D'lecour, please…"
Snarling, she managed to gain an inch. Then two. There was an apparatus surrounding the left side of her bed, appearing as a small cage. Metal pins stuck out at all angles like the needles of a jolteon. Another inch.
Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.
The nurse was reaching out, about to push her back down. No! It floated on the lower edge of her sight. She just needed…
Ariette's breath caught. The cage enclosed her left paw up to the elbow, a plastic base holding it aloft. Needles protruded from the limb at every joint, stabbing her, fixing her in place like some seamstress' nightmare. Her knuckle twitched, the pins shuddering in response, pain lancing her—
The nurse's palm met her shoulder, gently nudging her back. She didn't growl or fight, not even as the nurse murmured something that was likely meant to be soothing and patted her shoulder like she were a favored pup.
Her paw, her string paw, her playing paw. Ruined. Dancing in front of those too-bright lights overhead, those pins wiggled before her eyes. She couldn't even feel the plastic beneath her pad. Ruined.
"...unclear how extensive the nerve damage will be. Won't know until the fractures heal…"
Ruined. She was ruined.
"...observation for at least a week, and then…"
She wanted to scream, but her throat wouldn't make the sound. No more music. No more cello. Gone as surely as if the limb had been severed.
"...Excuse me, nurse, I think we might want to give her a break."
"Of course. I know this is a lot to process. Perhaps it might be best if we administer a light sedative."
The light faded, the strain of holding her eyes open too much to bear.
"Ariette, we're here for you. All of us. We're taking turns keeping an eye on you, okay? Anything you need. Just ask."
Through the numbness, the moisture dripping down her cheek felt almost like rain.
"Make a fist for me please."
Ariette scowled, inserting as much heat as she could into the look, though she directed it at her bound paw rather than her tormentor. Third damned time in this damned clinic, sitting in this stupid 'ergonomic' chair that failed to account for her damned tails, trying these pointless exercises with an Arceus blasted useless paw!
Lava raced up and down inside her limb. Her clawtips twitched. The digits remained stubbornly half-curled, her wrist locked straight as much by the black fabric brace around her entire forearm as by the stiffness of the joint itself. Ariette blew out a huff, letting the paw fall to her belly, and turned her glare to the pokémon standing over her.
"I can't. See?"
The big samurott glanced down at his tablet on the floor between his forelegs, tapped a button on the screen, and said, "Extremity motion remains minimal. Articulation of digits is normal, no deformity or swelling."
"You call this no deformity?"
"Please don't interrupt my notes." He tapped the tablet again, his moustaches bouncing as he looked back to her. "Again, please."
"Why? It's not going to work, and it hurts like hell."
"Is the pain less or greater than before, or about the same?"
She shrugged. "About the same."
"How!" She wanted to slap that stoic calm right off his muzzle, and damn the consequences. "How is my entire arm burning from within good?"
"Less feeling would mean atrophy of the muscles or deadening of the nerves, either of which would put an end to your chances of recovering even partial mobility. More pain could be good or bad, depending on how it manifests."
"So glad you have all the answers." Ariette glanced out the window, the half-closed blinds lending a view out through the afternoon sun down onto the streets of Lacunosa. Out there, humans and pokémon alike went about their daily lives. Normal, happy lives...
"That physio degree on the wall isn't from the internet."
Ariette snorted. So, there was a personality hidden under his calm. Her referral from Castelia Center had claimed he was the best in the region, and, conveniently, his office was in her hometown. Not that she'd been back here for years.
"You must love having a client to torture who isn't about to keel over."
"Not especially. Most of my elderly patients complain far less."
Ariette whipped around, her bangles ringing, her new translator necklace bouncing on her chest, a snarl marring her muzzle. Latent energy swirled up into a bank of high-pressure water at the back of her throat, begging to be released. He didn't even have the decency to look smug at his comment! Just standing there, head tilted to the side, studying her like some damned experiment with his calm blue gaze...
"If you're going to release that attack, please aim it away from my tablet or any of the equipment."
No. She wouldn't be lowered to this… this emotional thing. She let the energy go, flopping back into the chair with a grunt. Her forelimb ached, but that was hardly new. She'd almost grown used to it over the past six weeks.
"It's understandable. Frustration and anger are normal parts of the recovery process." He nodded at her paw. "You have been performing the exercises I recommended?"
She rolled her eyes. "Yes, Doctor Silvershell, every night. For all the good it's done."
"As previously mentioned, I'm not a doctor. Ven is fine."
"My painkillers are running low."
That brought a narrowing of his eyes, his bushy whiskers twitching. "While I'm aware I told you to take them as required, you should not be through a month's supply already."
"Try breaking your forepaw in fifty-two places sometime, then tell me how many painkillers I can take. I need more."
"No." He shook his head, the motion causing the sharp tip of his horn to cast shadows across her belly. "I will prescribe you more in a week, as scheduled. You must make them last. Use the heat packs during the exercise as I told you, until the pain is too great to continue, then wait five minutes and apply the ice."
"But it isn't working!" Ariette threw up her paws, ignoring the jab of agony, hating how her voice quivered. She wasn't being petulant! "You said I should be seeing results in three weeks!"
"You are. You've gained at least two millimeters of movement since we began."
Ariette fixed him with her flattest stare, crossing her forelimbs over her chest. "Tauros shit. You haven't even measured it yet."
"Correct, but as of last week, your metrics showed marginal improvement."
"And you were withholding this information because…?"
"I didn't wish to discourage you. I generally advise patients of their metrics only if requested, or once easily demonstrable progress has been made."
"Is that a normal amount of recovery?"
His barrel chest swelled, a heavy sigh puffing his moustaches aside. "Every case is unique—"
"Don't feed me that. Is it normal?"
"...It is slightly below average."
Of course. Like every part of her life these days. Ariette slid herself out of the chair, dropping to the padded floor.
"Do you need to visit the restroom?"
"No, I'm heading home for the day."
"We still have fifteen minutes in your assessment."
"Add it to next time."
"I can't do that."
"Then keep the change. Extend your lunch break. I'm done with this for today." She spun on her heel, heading for the door. The office wasn't tiny; what with its patient chair, bed, and various pieces of specialized exercise equipment, but his presence made it feel much smaller.
"I'll see you next week, Doctor Silvershell."
His grunt sounded pained, lending her a bit of perverse satisfaction.
"Please continue your exercises, and apply the heat packs in particular. I expect to see additional improvement next week."
"I'll keep that in mind." She laid her paw on the door handle and twisted it with as much force as she could squeeze from her good paw, throwing the door open against the frame with a thud. What was the point? Three weeks of agonizing struggle, bringing herself to tears with the torturous make-work tasks he gave her, for two millimeters?!
"Ah! Miss D'lecour!" Ven's receptionist, a rosy-cheeked young man maybe in his early twenties, with curly blonde hair and dewy blue eyes that probably had all the elderly women fawning when they came in, stood and waved at her. "May I book your appointment for next week? Same time?"
"I'll call you." She waved him off with her good paw, angling for the door to the street, for freedom from this sorry excuse for a medical office.
"Oh, umm, if you don't book now though, I can't guarantee you'll get the time you want…"
"I'll call you," she repeated, not looking back at him.
"Okay…" He sounded as if she'd taken his pet lillipup and kicked it across his desk. Almost enough to make her feel guilty—he was a sweet kid—but she was in no mood for niceties. The bell on the glass door jangled as she shoved her way out into the fresh spring air. There was a poké-mart on her route back to her rented apartment. Potions and over-the-counter headache pills weren't much of a painkiller, but it was better than nothing. Perhaps a bottle or two of wine. Yes. A nice rosé would be just the thing. If her Arceus-cursed doctor—wait, no, physiotherapist—wouldn't help her, she'd have to help herself!
"...Authorities have been unsuccessful in tracking down the culprits behind the multi-million dollar heist at Parfum—"
The slow, pounding throb in her behind her eyes pulsed in time with the ache in her paw.
"...Here we go folks, that right there is a wild Salamence! These boys are absurdly rare, and to be so close to one—"
She sipped at her wine—cheap stuff from Johto, its bitter undertone not usually to her taste, but at least the percentage was high. Half a bottle was about enough to dull her nerves for awhile.
"...New, from Clarity Envisioned, a revolution in pokémon-human relationships—"
Putting her glass down, she tapped the remote again.
"...And as we enter the final seconds on the clock, it looks like the Castelia Cutters have managed to hold off the onslaught, bringing this one into overtime!"
The flashing window into the outside world carried on, her claws tapping restless arpeggios on her wine glass in counterpoint to the announcer's excited babbling. It was nothing but noise. No rhythm, no build and fall. Just noise. Yet, it helped in a way that none of her yoga mantras or symphony vinyls had. The former only focused her mind too much, while the latter had her weeping like a fool.
Motion in the corner caught her eye. A heart-shaped balloon, Get Well Soon emblazoned on its silver surface in bright pink letters, bounced in a draft from the air vent. One of many, sent to her door along with bouquets of flowers, cards, candy, fruit, plush toys. Some were from her company, others from fans, forwarded via her agent. The whole mess lay piled on the table of the tiny apartment she'd rented, next to the stacks of empty takeout containers. She'd get rid of them, eventually.
Her tip of the wineglass was overeager. Ariette coughed, splashing red droplets across her belly. Blast it, that would stain if she let it sit. Growling, she set the glass down and levered herself up, wincing against the protest of her hips and injured paw. One of her hindpaws had fallen asleep, and her balance wavered, her bangles jingling, until the room stopped its spinning and allowed her to totter into the kitchen for a cloth.
At least renting this place hadn't been too much of a chore. Milla, her agent, kept inquiring when she planned to return to her hometown of Jubilife. Surely she could get an equal level of treatment there, and at least be near her friends?
She couldn't face them yet. The looks of sympathy, the sickening condescension… Not to mention how the sight of her string instrument collection, which would go unplayed forevermore, might break her entirely.
The wine had dribbled down her belly, crimson beads on her cream pelt. Snatching a dish cloth from the sink with her good paw, she swiped them away, fangs bared. Had it soaked in? Hard to tell in the half-light from the apartment window. She could turn on the kitchen lights, but…
Grimacing, she flipped the switch on the opposite wall. The sudden flare stabbed at her eyes, renewing the dulled throb in her skull. She swept her good paw along her belly, checking the fur. No pink residue, thank Arceus. Bathing—even showering—was a chore she was not up for right now.
The cloth hit the sink with a wet smack. For an instant, the image of crimson on cream taunted her once more, wavering in the chrome fixture, but she turned away before her eyes could focus on it. Right on cue, those same crimson lines marring her muzzle itched, demanding that she acknowledge their accursed existence.
Snarling, Ariette jerked open the cupboard, sending it crashing against the wall. It was empty aside from several plastic bottles. She snatched the smallest one, its contents rattling like angry castanets. These were much faster than the wine. The top popped free with a squeeze and flick of her good paw. Four small pink pills piled in the bottom. She'd made them last, alright. Shaking one free, she popped it into her mouth, swallowed before the bitter flavour could rest on her tongue, and sagged against the counter. Not long now, and she wouldn't feel any of it. In fact…
The digital clock above the microwave read 1:32. Had she eaten lunch? She wasn't hungry. She carefully replaced the top on the pill bottle and returned it to the cupboard, before trudging to the apartment's tiny bedroom. She hadn't bothered with a full bed; just a mattress on the floor. They'd insisted on getting her a good one, though she probably could sleep on a stone slab these days. It squished beneath her weight as she rolled herself into the covers, keeping her bad paw free.
Heavy blinds covered the window, firmly shut, though a hint of sun crept around their edges. She turned onto her side, away from the light. Her paw-pad sat next to her bed, plugged in to charge. Should she set an alarm? Was there any point? The mattress was indeed comfortable at least. Her eyes closed, the familiar cotton haze of the pills blooming at the base of her skull. Soon…
Hadn't she put the damn thing on silent? Probably her agent, calling again. Ariette fumbled with her good paw. Plastic slid across her palm.
She found the volume button, turning it down to silence the ringing. She'd call Milla back later, when she wasn't so bloody tired…
Click! "Hello, Miss D'lecour, this is Calvin from Mr. Silvershell's office."
Dammit, the voicemail feature was set to auto-speaker too. She'd fix that later.
"Hoping we can book you in for a checkup," the perky, disembodied voice continued. "It's been uh… two weeks since your last visit, hope everything is okay! Please give us a call when you can. Thank you!"
It cut off with another click! Ariette rolled her eyes. She should block their number so they'd stop bothering her. Why waste her time and money on treatment that wasn't working? If he wasn't going to give her more of the damned pills, she'd just go to someone who would! Maybe she should go back to Jubilife. The air in Lacunosa was supposed to be refreshing to those with ailments, but she'd not noticed much.
Thought blurred into contemplation, images bleeding together as her mind drifted deeper into the medicinal fog. Drawing the blankets up, Ariette surrendered. Maybe she'd wake up, and this would all have been a fever dream...
Something, far away. Annoying.
A sound. Incessant.
It was familiar. Phone call?
Her limbs were too heavy, her good arm flopping about as she tried to move it. She'd been lying on it, and it was as useless as her other one.
Bzzt! Bzzt! Click!
She blinked, trying to focus. The only light came from the dim glow of the paw-pad's screen.
"Good evening, Miss D'lecour. This is Ven Silvershell." Even through the device's tiny speakers, his voice was deep. "I was hoping to speak with you directly, but it seems I will need to trust that you will receive this message."
Her good paw tingled. She flexed it, working feeling back, and scooted to the edge of the bed, reaching out to pick up the paw-pad with a frown. This wasn't right. He was calling her personally? The display read, 5:56.
"While you are certainly within your rights to seek out a second opinion or alternative treatment for your injury," the samurott's baritone went on, "I would hope that you might consider returning to my office for further assessment. You have been pre-paid for two months worth of treatment, and if cost is at all the issue, we can discuss. There are various plans in place designed to assist those in your situation. Of course, should you wish to end all treatment, you may do so, and all remaining sessions will be credited."
Ariette snorted. If she'd cared about that, she'd have already asked for her money back.
"However, it is my belief that there is a different issue at hand here, one I have seen before, and which this situation matches quite closely. Miss D'lecour, I know I can help you. I have dealt with many cases which, at first, seemed hopeless. I will not lie to you—it will not be easy. Nor is there any guarantee that you will regain full mobility in your paw. The key is persistence. It will take time. There will be pain. Yet, if you can agree to work with me, I believe you can see great improvement. Quitting now will serve you no good in the future."
She scowled at the device. Did he think she was lazy? What did he know about her?! She'd fought her way to a successful music career in an insular industry that didn't welcome her. She'd won out against competitors which, by all rights, should have had every advantage over her. No one had helped her do that. She was not a quitter!
"You have a choice, Miss D'lecour. It is one many patients face, and it is by no means an simple one. The mind often loves to walk the less challenging road. You can give up, wallow in self-pity, and accept a life with only one working paw. Painkillers will only work for so long, before you need stronger prescriptions simply to function. If that sounds like the sort of life you wish, then so be it. Call my office, have your account credited, and you will not hear from me again. Blame me if you wish, if it helps."
Ariette's paw tightened on the paw-pad, her claws scratching across the plastic. Who the hell did he think he was?!
"Or, you can work hard, pick yourself up, and turn that determination I saw in you toward recovery. Make no mistake—it will not happen quickly. That is precisely the reason I do not share metric results with patients who are struggling. However, if you agree to return to your treatments and stick to the exercise regimen I give you, I promise that you will recover. At the very least, enough to enjoy a higher quality of life. The decision is yours. I hope to see you soon. Take care, Miss D'lecour."
Ariette sat up, snarling, cobwebs sliding free of her thoughts. Accepting the easy way out? Wallowing in self-pity? How dare he! She tossed the paw-pad aside, heedless of it bouncing off the wall as she fought free of the blankets and heaved herself to her footpaws. Her bangles jingled with each stalking step she took to the door. A rumble in her belly was similarly ignored. It would take fifteen minutes to walk there. He'd see her soon alright… much sooner than he expected!
The lowered sun turned her shadow into a looming beast as she approached Ven's office. An elderly couple gave her a wide berth on the sidewalk, the poochyena walking at their side taking one look at her, yipping, and lowering his tail between his legs. The plastic sign hanging on the door read 'closed'. Too bad. Striding up to it, she hammered on the glass with her good paw.
"I know you're in there! Open up!"
Motion inside. Calvin, the receptionist, popped up from behind the desk, his eyes widening when he caught sight of her. He waved his hands, mouthing, 'Closed'.
She pounded the door again, glaring at him. If he didn't open up right now, he'd find out just how much pressure she could put into a hydro pump! His lips were moving, calling out. She was about to rattle the door again when he rose, walking around the desk and crossing the waiting room to meet her. She stepped back, folding her forelimbs across her chest while he fiddled with the lock and opened the door a crack.
"Ah, h-hello Miss D'lecour," he stammered, keeping his body in front of the door as if she'd bowl him over. "I'm terribly sorry, but we're closed for the evening. If you could call tomorrow, we can certainly schedule you for—"
"Where's Silvershell," she growled. "I need to talk to him. Now."
"Mr. Silvershell is—"
Motion behind Calvin. Ven's wide form filled the doorframe leading deeper into the office, his features indistinct under the dimmed lights. They must have been just about to leave.
"It is alright, Calvin. Let her in. You may go."
The human wavered, glancing between his boss and the fuming floatzel. Discretion for his limbs remaining attached won out, and he nodded, hurriedly swinging the door open and stepping aside for Ariette to march past, bangles heralding her.
"I'll uh… See you tomorrow, sir."
"Thank you, Calvin. Good evening."
"Ah… Good luck!"
He scurried out before Ariette could fix him with another scowl, the door's bell jangling behind him. Fine. He wasn't the one she was after. She turned back to the waiting samurott. Ven hadn't moved, his features infuriatingly impassive, save for a hint of weariness in the droop of his moustaches.
"Good evening, Miss D'lecour. I trust you received my message."
If she'd been a fire type, smoke would have been curling from her muzzle. She closed in, halting close enough to poke him in the chest with her good paw.
"You. Have. No. Right!"
It felt like prodding a boulder.
"I have every right, Miss D'lecour. As your physician, it is my duty to tell my patients the truth, even when they do not wish to hear it."
"Do you have any idea who I am?! What I've lost?"
"I have read your patient file."
She threw her paws skyward, beseeching the heavens and ignoring the flare of pain from her left paw. Arceus! Was there anything about him that wasn't infuriating? "Do you know, that after the crash, everyone kept telling me how lucky I was. It could have been worse, at least you walked away, yada yada. I was the only blasted survivor! I'm sure the families of the crew are so thrilled that I made it and their loved ones didn't!"
"That isn't your fault, Miss D'lecour."
"I fucking know that!" Her voice was shaking, scratching her throat with each increase in her volume. She didn't care. "Everyone seems to think that means I should be grateful. They don't understand! Dying would have been better than… than this!"
She held up her braced paw, shaking it at him like a fist. The useless digits twitched, mocking her.
"No. Listen!" She jabbed his chest again, uncaring that she was probably bruising her knuckles. "I was on top of everything. Music was my life! I fought for years to make that life. I was a queen of the symphony, a beautiful enchantress with a cello." She laughed, the sound bitter on her tongue. "Now? Do you think I can pluck a chord?" She shook her paw at him again. "Do you think anyone will call me lovely?" Her good paw traced the puckered red marks on her muzzle, remnants of the glass shards they'd dug free.
"What am I supposed to do? Learn to play the flute? But wait, can't do that without a left paw either! I can't even play a backup instrument in a symphony more complex than a triangle!" She was practically screaming now, her throat raw. With supreme effort, she lowered her voice to a growl.
"Every waking hour, what was once my greatest asset is a source of constant suffering. So, tell me, not-doctor Silvershell. How exactly am I lucky? Am I just wallowing in self-pity? Do I not have the right to grieve for myself? Should I throw myself on the whims of some therapist, dragging myself through agony in the dim hope that I might improve? Should I seek some higher power, beg forgiveness for whatever sins threw me into this living hell? Should I drown my sorrows and surround myself with friends who will tell me it will be alright? Will any of that bring back the life I loved and lost? I don't think so."
Her entire body shook. The tirade left her breathless, her chest heaving. She would not weep. She was done with that nonsense. Her muzzle clenched tight as she glared up at the other pokémon, her bangles tinkling softly with every movement. Could he at least have the decency to look surprised at her outburst?!
A long sigh, his breath gusting over her—sweet and minty. He must keep a supply of candies in his office. He regarded her, inclining his head. "Miss D'lecour, what you are feeling is perfectly normal—"
"Don't give me the tauros shit. I only want to know one thing." She held up her left paw, pointing at it. "Can you fix this?"
She blinked. That wasn't what he was supposed to say.
"I can't 'fix' it, Miss D'lecour. No one can. Perhaps a legendary could, but I do not often see them attending medical conventions. No. What we can do is improve it. If you are expecting me to wave my paw and kiss it better overnight, that will not happen. It will likely be an unpleasant experience most of the time. I strive to minimize discomfort as much as reasonably possible, but if you expect me to cower before you and cease pushing you towards your goal when it grows difficult, that also will not happen." His gaze was hard, steady as his stance. "My role is to help you, Miss D'lecour, not fix you. In these cases, healing comes as much from the patient as it does from the treatment. I know how hard it is, but if you seek an answer, you must persevere."
Ariette snorted. "How can you talk as if you know what this is like? You want perseverance? Try practicing every single day until your paws bleed. Try playing in every subway station and plaza you can find, foraging for food in the wild so every dollar you earn is saved, until you make enough to go through music school. How about staying up late every night, studying and practicing more, in the hopes that you might be noticed among the other students. I know all about perseverance. You said it yourself—I won't get back full mobility. I could go through all this pain, and still be stuck in the same damned boat!"
"You are certain of that? Are you part xatu, by chance?"
"I…" How did he keep throwing her off guard like this? "What?"
"You seem quite convinced of your future." His head bobbed, moustaches twitching. "If you will forgive me a touch of vulgarity; there is more than one way to catch a rattata. There may be a means to allow you to play again."
Her breath caught. "How?"
"You need only one paw for the strings, correct?"
"It would take some work, but your left paw could certainly grip a bow, in time."
As things stood, she could barely curl her digits enough to stop the bow from falling out of her grip, and even that was an exercise of agony. Learn to play left pawed? Play around her mangled paw, rather than through it? It seemed simple in theory, though she'd never been any sort of ambidextrous. It would be like learning to play all over again. But, maybe… "Are you sure?"
"Absolutely. Barring further injury or other incidents to prevent recovery of course." He chuckled, the deep rumble rolling over her. "I myself am no psychic. But, you asked how I can know what it is like? I am an example of successful recovery from a debilitating injury. I too once thought my life was over. Now?" He tossed his head, an approximation of a human shrug. "I have built a new one."
Ariette's bangles rung as she stepped back, leaning against the reception desk for support. For the first time in two months, she dared to entertain a wisp of hope. "What happened to you?"
"A construction accident. I used to work in that industry as a laborer. The pay was good, and I enjoyed it." His muzzle twitched. "Do not worry, everyone is surprised to hear this. Apparently I do not seem to be 'the type'."
"You don't," Ariette mumbled, trying to reconcile this precise, soft-spoken 'mon with the rougher-hewn sort often seen in heavy industry.
"Be that as it may. That was my occupation, until one day, a crane's load-line snapped, and dropped a steel girder on top of me."
"He had nothing to do with it, I assure you. I sustained three broken vertebrae, a concussion, and many smaller injuries. But, I survived. Early diagnosis indicated I would be unlikely to walk again." He shifted, leaning first on one side, then the other, shaking his forelimbs and chuckling.
"I refused to accept that. I was in traction for a month. It took a year of sheer agony in physical therapy before I could put weight on my paws unaided. Early on, I was close to giving up several times. Fortunate for me, I had a friend who kicked my ass and told me what I needed to hear instead of what I wanted to hear. It took another year before I could walk without any support. To this day, I have chronic pain, and I set off every metal detector I encounter. Yet…" He shook his forepaws again, as if inviting her to touch them.
Ariette's head spun. She'd just been thoroughly scolded in the most polite way possible, then had her expectations turned on their side and a possibility she'd never considered waved under her nose like the proverbial poffin. She should have seen it. It was so bloody obvious. She'd been stuck on seeing nothing but the wall of an unmoving playing paw, the paw that had been her golden ticket out of a life on the streets of Jubilife.
"How long, do you think?"
"Difficult to guess, but I could see you being able to grip a bow within weeks, if adequate exercise and muscle relaxation is applied."
"What if it doesn't work?" Her tails whisked across the carpet as she examined her brace-wrapped paw. "It feels like it will never move that far again. I don't know..." She swallowed her pride. "I don't know if I would be anywhere near as good."
"Unless you have some other pressing concern? I do not see what you will gain by not trying. If—and this is a slim possibility—the treatment does not succeed as intended, then we will reexamine accordingly."
"Can we tailor my exercises slightly? I'd like to focus on getting enough grip to play as soon as possible, so that I can start training with my opposite paw. That's going to be a big challenge in and of itself."
"Certainly. As switching professions was for me. I was not exactly a scholar in my old life. I would be delighted to assist you, Miss D'lecour. My apologies, I should have suggested such earlier. It did not occur to me that you would be unable to play with your right paw."
"I… thanks, I think?"
"It is indeed a compliment. You are quite gifted, from what I understand."
"So you did know!"
"Of course. I would be a poor physician if I did not gather relevant information on my patients. You are not the first celebrity to darken my doorstep."
"Is that so." A smile tugged at her muzzle. "Used to dealing with temperamental artists, are you?"
"I will beg the right of patient confidentiality for that question."
"Uh-huh." Ariette straightened. Her belly was grumbling in earnest now, reminding her that she hadn't eaten since… when, exactly? The wine was making its presence all-too-known as well. "Two questions, Mr. Silvershell. When can I see you for my next appointment?"
"Next Monday. I will have Calvin pencil you in for your usual time."
"And the other question?"
Ariette glanced away, her tails twitching, her good paw gripping her floatation ring. "Could I please use your restroom?"
Ariette's left forelimb shook, straining to curl her paw against the machine's resistance. The plastic loops around each digit clacked, their attached tension bands vibrating like harp strings. Flaming needles jabbed through her elbow, her teeth clenched tight to ward them off.
"Good, now release."
She ignored the samurott, glaring at the twitching bands. Just a bit more… Were her clawtips closer to her pad?
"Miss D'lecour, you can let go."
A heartbeat. Two. Gasping, Ariette released the bands, the loops popping free to bounce against the block they emanated from. She shook her paw, the relief from the stretch rushing through her in a cool wave, temporarily dousing the fire in her muscles.
"Please try not to overdo it, Miss D'lecour."
"I know what I can handle." Her paw pads were damp with sweat. She swiped a hand towel from a nearby table and patted them dry.
Ven grunted, tapping a note into his tablet. "It is not merely about enduring the pain. If the muscles become overtaxed, you could cause damage. During my own recovery, I was bed-bound for a week by doing so."
"Good thing I don't walk on my forepaws."
He chuckled. "Indeed, though some of your species prefer it so, from what I have read."
"Why, Doctor, you've been reading up on me?" Ariette leaned back against the table, bangles tinkling, swapped the towel for her water bottle and took a sip.
"Of course. Muscle structure varies from species to species. I would be remiss to neglect researching a patient's specific physiology."
"Oh my." Ariette placed a paw over her muzzle, widening her eyes. "Careful, Doc, a girl might think you're developing inappropriate interest with that sort of talk."
The small, choked sound he made, coupled with the jerk of his head and swishing of his moustaches was too perfect. "Miss D'lecour, I assure you…"
Ariette giggled, waving off his attempted explanation. "Teasing. I'm sure you'd never be so unprofessional."
He eyed her, muzzle wrinkled in thought, before nodding. "Thank you. I would merely ask that you be careful with your assigned exercises. Push yourself, yes, but allow the muscles time to rest."
"I'll keep that in mind. What now?"
He consulted his tablet. "How is your cello practice progressing?"
Ariette winced. "Not great. Three weeks apparently isn't enough to retrain. I still sound like an elementary music student. Individual notes are fine, but anything more complex than an E Minor chord tends to fall apart."
"You are able to manipulate the bow?"
"Somewhat. This one is lighter than the real thing." She'd ordered an electric left-hand cello for practice. Hardly her favourite way to play, but she couldn't handle a full-size yet. "The main problem is feeling the strings."
"I confess I am not certain what that means."
She gestured at the forearm resistance machine. "Try running something over those bands."
"Hmm." Ven turned, picked up a pencil from a counter attached to the wall, and moved to the machine. He pulled a band out several inches, and passed the pencil across it, sending it vibrating. "Ah! I believe I see."
"It's not quite the same as using your paw, but normally you can still 'feel' them through the bow. I can't."
"Yet," he corrected. "Your auto-nervous response is dulled, but still present. We could include more exercises to assist with that."
"I think I would rather focus on dexterity and strength. That's more important. I still can't hold it for too long either."
"Very well. I believe I have something new which may assist with the former. On both paws, in fact." His muzzle quirked upwards, moustaches twitching. "Though it may seem a bit unusual."
He stepped back to the counter, replacing the pencil and opening a cabinet to withdraw a small plastic tub. Walking back, he offered it to her. "You may take this home to practice with."
Ariette took the container, eyes narrowing as she read the label. It held cartoonish child's drawings of various pokémon. "Modelling clay? Is this a joke?"
"Not at all. Work with it. Manipulate it with both paws making basic shapes. Focus on pinching and rolling. It will help increase digital dexterity."
"You're sure you're not trying to get me to make something for your desk?"
"Well, if you feel so inclined…" He chuckled. "But no. A colleague of mine swears by this technique, and I am curious of how well it will work for you."
Ariette shrugged. "I'll give it a shot."
"Thank you." He glanced at the clock on the wall. "I am afraid that is time for today. Before you go, however, there is one thing I must discuss with you."
"If it's about Calvin's harassment issue, I promise it wasn't me."
He shook his head, wincing. "No, no. Mrs. Lafayette is a… known issue. I apologize that you were involved in any way."
She shrugged. Rescuing the poor boy from the elderly woman's advances had been a public service, in her opinion. "Go on then."
"This is somewhat difficult." His chest swelled with a heavy breath. "Miss D'lecour, I fear there is little left that I, personally, can do for you."
Ariette tilted her head. "What are you talking about?
"From this point, your recovery is a matter of diligently performing your assigned exercises. This is something which can be done at any physio clinic you might wish to attend." He waved a paw. "I am aware that my services are of higher cost, and that you are additionally living far from home. Should you wish to return to Sinnoh and seek more cost effective treatment, I am quite certain your recovery would not be hindered."
A scowl wrinkled her muzzle, the scar tissue itching as it drew tight. "Are you trying to get rid of me, Ven?"
"No!" He shook his head violently. "Certainly not. I do, however, have a duty to you as a client to present you with the available options. Additionally, I have another prospective patient incoming next week, who is more in need of my specific service."
"Too bad." Her jaw muscles tightened. "Unless you're booting me out, plan on seeing more of me." As if she'd go to some discount clinic! She wasn't yet ready to return home either.
Ven held up a forepaw. "Understood. Please, Miss D'lecour, do not take it as an insult. If you wish to continue our sessions, I am more than happy to accomodate. I would ask, however, that we schedule you for a later time slot, so that I may intake the new patient. Analysis work is best done earlier in the day, whereas monitoring exercise is less difficult."
"Fine." Her bangles clinked as she stepped toward him, poking him in the chest. "I don't want another doctor. You're the one who helped me get this far, even when I didn't want your help. It isn't easy for me to trust someone, to rely on them. All my life, I've made my own way. Don't think you can pawn me off on someone else after gaining my trust. Clear?"
"Crystal." He bowed his head, his warm breath tickling her nose. Mint again. Where did he keep those candies? "Please speak with Calvin on your way out. He will schedule your new appointments."
"Good." Ariette backed off, the tub of modelling clay clutched to her chest. "See you next week, Doc."
How long had it been? A month? Two? Her sense of time no longer consisted of days or weeks. Aside from day-to-day necessities like eating, sleeping, and other necessary elements of self-care, her waking moments involved exercising until the pain had her gritting her teeth and fighting back tears, then after enough rest, hours of practice working through beginner exercises and simple progressions until she wanted to scream from the monotony.
But it was working.
Bit by bit, like a slugma wending its way up a steep hill, she was improving. The bow no longer clattered from her paw after a mere twenty minutes. Her right paw slipped from the positions fewer times, or stumbled across the strings. She took the painkillers only before bed, to help her sleep. Ven had said she could take them before her practice sessions, but they muddied her thoughts, made focus difficult. The pain sung through her with every tug of the bow, but even it dulled somewhat as her paw grew ever more limber.
It would probably never go away completely, according to Ven. Every performance, the throbbing ache would be a reminder, just like the brace she wore, though that, in time, might be discarded. That didn't matter though. All that mattered was that she could play again.
Milla had come to visit her, again urging her to return to Sinnoh. The conversation had been brief, particularly when Ariette demonstrated her current skill level. She had no interest in being touted around on talk shows and magazine interviews to 'tell her story'. Not yet. Apparently some author was after the rights to her biography too. Already! As if she were on the deathbed of her career! She'd instructed Milla to tell him, in more politic words, to put his offer somewhere uncomfortable.
She understood Milla's frustration. After all, if Ariette wasn't earning from anything more than royalties, neither was Milla. But, neither of them were hurting in that regard, and Milla had other clients. She'd been soothed by Ariette's mention of a new symphony idea. Nothing concrete had emerged yet, but she chased a wisp of thought every time she picked up the bow now. A fitful story danced between the notes; sung by the rolling fire in her paw, the struggle for that which had once been second nature, the gritted determination to win it back.
Several of her company had been by as well, and she'd discussed it with them. 'Paradox of Pain', perhaps, or, 'Ordeal of Triumph'. Something along those lines. Mario in particular had been enthusiastic.
"Are you sure you're feeling alright? Sorry, that's probably a silly question. Normally you just tell us what's going to happen, rather than asking for ideas. I'll get the gang together and we'll brainstorm on it for awhile, see what we can come up with for you!"
The early evening breeze kissed her muzzle with warmth as she strolled down the street toward Ven's office. Daffodil, hyacinth, and lily played across her nose from the blooming flower boxes along the sidewalk. Her electric cello, slung across her back, bounced in time to the jingle of her bangles. Couples and families now ate on the outdoor patios of cafés and restaurants rather than huddled inside.
The air here might not truly be anything special, but it was peaceful. Maybe she'd keep the apartment as a vacation spot, once this was all over. Her muzzle twitched. It would give her an excuse to come bother Ven, even if he wasn't treating her. He probably wouldn't mind. Even if he did, he'd get over it.
"Miss D'lecour!" Calvin said as she walked through the door, greeting her with a wide grin. "Right on time as usual. How have you been? Can I get you anything? Anything at all? Say the word…"
Ariette chuckled. He really was a sweetheart. "I'm fine, thanks. Is he ready for me?"
"Of course. Go right on in. I'll be locking up behind you and heading out."
Ariette nodded and strolled into the back office. She'd received several "anonymous" gifts ever since the little incident of "rescuing" Calvin. It really hadn't been a big deal. The boy just needed to learn the word "no".
Ven was indeed waiting for her, standing next to the patient bed in the corner of his office, studying his tablet. He looked up as she entered, announced by the gentle ring of her bangles.
"Ah, good evening, Miss D'lecour."
"If you keep calling me that, I swear I will keep calling you 'Doc'."
He chuckled, inclining his head. "Duly noted. I apologize, it is not a simple thing to discard my ingrained professionalism."
"We'll see about that."
His moustaches twitched, his eyes narrowing slightly. Good. Let him wonder. He cleared his throat and said, "What is that you have? Your instrument?"
"Yes." She unslung the cello and held it up. "This is an electric model. No body to speak of, just the neck and strings, with a speaker here." She pointed to the middle, above the control panel on the side of the length of black metal and plastic. "No substitute for the real thing, but what it lacks in sound it makes up for in portability."
"Interesting." He walked closer, peering at it. "You plan to demonstrate your progress then?"
"I thought that might make a good follow-up to the exercises and measurements. Might make us go a bit long though. Are you okay with that?"
"For a private performance from one of your stature? Certainly. I will look forward to it."
Ariette's tails twitched, a grin tugging at her muzzle. "Good. I have something special in mind for you."
Once again, that twitch of uncertainty flashed across his features, quickly smoothed into the calm mask he typically wore. He really was quite fetching, between that sturdy body, strong muzzle, powerful haunches, clean and masculine scent, and his placid, gentle demeanour. Which of them might be the better swimmer? She didn't exactly train for it, but she was no slouch in the water. Surely there must be a pool in Lacunosa, and she could likely book a private session…
"Miss… Ah, Ariette?"
He nodded at the measurement machine in the corner, its bench seat sprouting adjustable attachments for various limbs. "Perhaps we might begin with your metrics?"
"Of course." Setting the cello down and shoving her ideas for later to the back of her mind, she settled herself in for the checkup.
The next twenty minutes flew by in a whirl of measurements, exercises, dexterity tests, and light banter. If Ven noticed how her gaze fixed on him more than what she was doing, he didn't comment. Half the time, his eyes were glued to that damned tablet.
What did he see when he looked at her? Was she merely a patient? A 'problem' to be solved? Surely they'd moved beyond that. He didn't get a lot of pokémon patients, she knew that much. Injuries to the degree that one of his profession—especially at his fees—were required occured much more often in humans than in pokémon. Add to that the percentage of his patients who were in the "mature" state of life, and, well… It didn't take much deduction to know that she was an unusual case for him.
But, was there more to it than that? Did he joke with his other patients as he did with her? In many of the more recent visits, they had wrapped up the session with animated discussions on various topics, ranging from music to politics to vacation destinations. Was this a familiarity all of his clients enjoyed, or was it reserved for her?
"...every right to be proud," he was saying, once more tapping away on his tablet as she wiggled her paw, loosening the muscles in her forelimb. "You started with below average metrics, but all of your dedication has paid off. Within two or three more months, I believe you will reach your maximum mobility and flexibility."
"Good. That should be about the same amount of time for my off-handed playing to improve to an acceptable level as well. I'm also getting tired of takeout."
"Indeed?" His eyes bore that faint gleam of mischief she'd come to recognize. "More accustomed to cooking your own meals?"
"Hardly. Back home, I have a chef."
"Naturally." He waved a paw at her, wiggling his stumpy digits. "Alas, cooking is a skill that eludes me. It is fortunate I am a 'mon of simple tastes in that regard."
"What do you usually eat?"
"Pre-prepared meals, mainly."
Ariette wrinkled her nose. "Blech. You, sir, need an intervention. Come by my home in Jubilife sometime. Angelo will show you the light, trust me."
He shifted, glancing down. "I… I am not sure that would be proper…"
"Nonsense. You can call it a house call, if you like." She winked. "I won't tell. Promise."
"I will keep that in mind." It was rather cute, the way his moustaches twitched when he grew flustered. Each rare break in his calm veneer was a hard won victory. "Moving on, that is all I have on the regimen for you this evening. Are there any free-form exercises you wish to practice?"
"Why don't we move into the cello instead?"
He nodded. "As you wish."
Ariette hopped down from the ergonomic chair—she'd finally figured out how to sit in it without crushing her tails—and retrieved her cello from its resting place in the corner. "Do you mind if I turn off the lights? Fluorescent is murder on creativity."
Removing the bow from its slot in the cello neck, she walked to the door and poked the light switch, plunging them into twilight shadow. The windows near the examination bed were only half-shuttered by the blinds, allowing red-gold light to pool in, rendering Ven in sharp outline where he stood near the bed.
"Better. Please, feel free to get comfortable," Ariette said, taking the instrument to the center of the room and setting it upright against her right shoulder. It still felt wrong, but the feeling passed once she gripped the bow and laid it on the strings. Ven set his tablet aside and settled on his belly, folding his forelegs beneath him.
"So that's how you do it. Do you sleep like that too?"
He shook his head, muzzle twitching. "No, on my side, typically, but that would be a rather rude pose in this context."
"I promise I won't be offended."
"Ah… Thank you, but this is perfectly comfortable."
How did such a large male manage to be so adorable? "Suit yourself." Drawing a deep breath, Ariette set her paw in the G Minor position and began to play. The opening solo of Twilight Reverie to start, each bar a struggle to form with her off-paw, but a tussle she won with sweat on her paws and the odd slip or dropped note, the errors seemingly unnoticed by her audience of one. Ven sat perfectly still through the movement, his eyes drifting closed somewhere in the fourth line, a smile curving across his muzzle.
Without a pause, she transitioned the solo's end into a bridge, scaling the piece into the key of C Major. This bit was new, faster, tiny vibratos and tremolos accenting the rise and fall. Pain chased her motions, and she chased it in return, their pitched battle taking form through the music. Mistakes clattered through the mix, but those too wove into the whole. The piece had no name as of yet, and it came from somewhere deeply personal.
He was the first to hear it.
The shadows were lengthening as she drew the section to a close. Here now was pure improvisation. A slower time signature, yes. Returning to G, but in the major key. How did he make her feel? A sharp, resonant scale, oh yes. That would flow into a soft ebb, each note examined carefully and given its due consideration. Then, a frolicking build, finishing with an almost devious arpeggio which tested her right paw's accuracy to its limit. Last, a gradual, soothing journey through E, G, and D, before closing with a harmonious rest on the major chord, allowing the notes to peter out in finality, as if a question hung in the air.
Her paw ached, but it was a good ache. She let the bow dip, and placed it back in the holder on the rear of the cello, powering the instrument off. Ven's eyes were still closed, savoring the music, perhaps anticipating more. His right side lay cast in shadow, while his left warmed in the setting sun, highlighting the attractive curve of his haunch. How firm would that muscle be under her touch?
His eyes blinked open as she set the cello down and took a step, her bangles tinkling. He met her gaze, cool blue tangling with intense crimson, and hurried to rise as she closed the gap between them.
"That was… Thank you, Miss D'lecour. That was beautiful."
"Ariette," she corrected, her muzzle twitching upward at the uncertainty painted across his muzzle, his forepaws shifting as she drew near, her steps marked by soft ringing. "Call me Ariette, Ven."
"Ah… Yes. I have never before had the pleasure of a live performance of this nature. My cultural tastes have been expanded." He backed up from her advance, his tail bumping the examination bed when she set herself within reach of him, her paws on her hips. "Ariette, what are you doing?"
"I'm glad you liked the music." She put out her good paw, resting a clawtip on his chest. "I don't often give private performances."
"I am honoured, then." His breathing quickened, warm mint aroma pouring over her. "I believe we should break off for the evening and—"
It was ever so satisfying to hear his muzzle click shut like that.
"You see, I've been giving my treatment a lot of thought," she continued, leaving her clawtip on his chest, and tracing small, random circles, her gaze holding his wide-eyed stare. "You did something for me that was very special, something I don't believe anyone else could have done."
"Please, Ariette, I—"
"Was just doing your job, certainly. But, you didn't give up on me, Ven. You chased me down after I pushed you away. You told me a hard truth, and made me listen. That's a bit above the call, wouldn't you say?"
I don't think I would go that far—"
"What do you think of me, Ven? Not as a patient, but as a female?" She tilted her head to the side, exposing the scars on her muzzle. "Am I still beautiful, even with these? Do you find me pleasing to look at?"
"Miss D'lecour, this really is not—"
"Just answer the damn question."
An indignant huff blew across her face. "You are persistent indeed."
"It's one of my qualities. Now, answer, or I swear I will walk out of here and you won't see me again."
"...Yes. You are a very attractive female."
"See? Was that so hard?" She patted his chest, damping down the surge of glee in her own. "I know I'm not as stunning as my old self, but maybe it isn't the end of the world, right?"
"Of course not." He squirmed, trying to look anywhere but at her. "You are still very beautiful."
"Ha! And I wasn't even fishing for the compliment that time." Hopping up on the stool at the edge of it, Ariette climbed atop the examination bed, took hold of one of his moustaches, and gently tugged him to face her, placing her paws on either side of his muzzle. He didn't try to pull away, though he shuddered beneath her touch. His skin was smooth, warm, the muscles of his jaw working beneath her paws as he fumbled for words.
"Ah… Please… Ariette…"
"If you're worried about being 'unprofessional', don't be," she murmured. "It's just us here, and I'm the one making the moves."
"I am not sure what this is."
She giggled. "Really, Doc? Do I need to educate you on biology?"
"That is not what I meant."
"I know. Don't worry, it's not complicated. Try not to overthink this, okay?" She leaned in, pressing her muzzle to his.
He resisted at first, his lips walling her out, a hot exhalation gusting over her brow, his stony veneer immovable. Was she making a terrible mistake? Did he truly not want this?
Then, he melted beneath her touch. Tilting his head to the side, his muzzle parted, allowing a wide, flat tongue to meet hers, sharing heat and the sharpness of mint. Ariette's grip found his whiskers once more, tugging him deeper, learning his movements as he learned hers. He easily could have overpowered her, but he allowed her to lead their duet, submitting to her desires. She breathed a contented sigh, the warmth and closeness igniting a quiet pleasure within her that had lain dormant for oh so long...
Eventually, he pulled, and she released her hold on his moustache, the pair of them panting as their muzzles parted. He shook his head, the speartip of his crest ghosting past her own.
"I… am sorry," he said. "This… I should not have done that."
Oh for… "Regrets already? It doesn't become you, Ven." She laid a clawtip on his nose, focusing him on her once more. "Give me one good reason why we can't have this. Unless you don't want it. You told me before that you don't have a mate. I don't either. It took a while, but I've come to like you, irritating and frustrating as you can be. I thought the same was true for you."
"It is not that I do not like you, I…" He huffed, again washing her in the warm mint breeze. "This is highly inappropriate!"
"Why? Just because I'm your patient?" She smirked. "Never heard of exploring by playing 'doctor'?"
"To imply that what I do with my patients is remotely sexual would go against many principals of the profession."
"Are you worried that you'll be unable to resist your other female patients if we do this?"
He shuffled his feet, glancing at the carpet. "Well, no. I suppose not."
"Then what's the problem? Do you prefer males?"
He shook his head. "Not that. I do not fully understand your motivation here."
She chuckled, reaching out to cup his chin and turn him back to face her. "I see. You're concerned that I want something, that I'll blackmail you? Do you honestly think I would do that?"
"No. I think you are experiencing an inflated sense of personal gratitude that is expressing itself through sexual desire."
"My my, you certainly do know how to set a girl's heart racing," she murmured, rolling her eyes. Leaning in until their noses were almost touching, she said, "Here's what I think. You've been taught—and rightfully so—not to see patients sexually. You're afraid that doing something with me would be breaking the rules. Maybe it would be, but who cares? I'm not planning to tell. Are you?"
"...I suppose not."
"Good. It isn't as if you're pushing me to do this through your authority or whatever." A giggle rose in her throat. "Somewhat the opposite, if I'm having to talk you into it like this. I really didn't expect you to be this difficult."
"I will consider that a compliment to my self control."
"Sure." He really had such lovely eyes.
"But if you are doing this out of gratitude alone, then it is still misplaced, and would be wrong of me to encourage. I did for you what I would have done for any in your situation."
How stubborn could he be? It was almost as endearing as it was frustrating. "It's partially that. But I've also come to admire you. Not just for what you do, but for who you are. This could be just a night of fun, and I would be fine with that, but I bet we could find more." He'd stilled, listening to her intently. She winked, her smirk spreading across her muzzle. "It doesn't hurt that you're quite handsome. I really want this, Ven. If you won't let me do it for you, let me do it for me. Consider it… alternative medicine."
Ven groaned, though it lead into an upwards tug of his muzzle. "That is quite possibly the worst line I have ever heard."
"Give me a break, I'm improvising here. I thought I'd have you five minutes ago."
"Oh? And you 'have me' now?" His grin widened.
"Perhaps you do. You are quite something, Ariette."
"Right now what I am is quite impatient from all your damn stalling. C'mere."
The gap between their lips closed, furred muzzle meeting smooth. There was no resistance now, his tongue twisting with hers, swapping flavour, exploring one another. Ven leaned in, tilting her head back, drawing a gasp from her, paws finding the back of his neck and wrapping tight. Her tails swished lazily, eyes drifting closed, the delightful intimacy stirring her desire.
His scent filled her nose. Mint, certainly, but beneath that a clean aroma vaguely reminiscent of the ocean, tempered by the definitive hearty aroma of a male. His tongue captured hers, swirling about in a manner that had her toes curling and digging into the bed. How long had it been since she'd enjoyed the pleasure of something more than her own paws? Four years? Five?
When their muzzles separated, leaving them panting, the light streaming though the half-shuttered blinds painted them orange. Ariette licked her muzzle, savouring the hints of him left behind, and beckoned him with her good paw. "Here, I have an idea… Why don't you lie down on this convenient bed? Looks big enough for you."
"My equipment needs to be sized for many kinds of patients." He put his forepaws up on the edge of the bed, nodding at her to make space.
"I think your equipment will be sized just fine for me."
The mortified look on his face drew a burst of laughter from her, accented by the tinkling of her bangles as she moved to the end of the bed to allow him up. The bed groaned slightly beneath his bulk as he hauled himself up, but proved to be made of sterner stuff. Cautiously circling, he laid down on his side, head resting on the pillow, and glanced down at her standing next to his fin-like tail.
"Almost. Can you lie on your back?" She smirked, another chuckle bursting free. "Easier for me to exercise with your equipment that way."
"Oh for Arceus' sake." Despite the shaking of his head, he too wore a grin as he squirmed about, his tail brushing across her belly as he rolled, until he was draped across the bed like a sunbather, the smooth curves of his underside accented in orange bars of light from the window. His hind legs lay stiff for a moment, as though he were having second thoughts, but gradually relaxed and settled, allowing his haunches to spread.
"Much better." Her good paw fell to his belly, just where it met the muscular firmness of his hip. His gaze followed her as she followed that arcing line, tracing across his inner haunch, and stepped over his hind leg to stand between them, straddling the fan of his tail. He shuddered as her clawtips drew small circles along his thigh, his hindpaw twitching.
"Don't worry, I'll be gentle."
A sizable slit between his legs was bulging, light blue flesh parting to reveal crimson. Ariette trailed her paw inward, teasing closer to the meeting of thigh and body, swaying herself to an inaudible rhythm as she neared his emerging maleness. His aroma mingled with her growing lust, the heavier scents of arousal bubbling on every breath. Her left paw rested on his groin, just shy of that straining slit. Heat tickled her pad, the soft skin throbbing beneath her touch.
She looked up along his body, eyes half-lidded. He was watching her every move, moustaches drooped, forelegs resting on his chest. What did he see in her now? Hopefully more than before. Her right paw slid down his inner thigh, mirrored her left.
"Ah…" His hips quivered. More deep red shaft slipped into view, sprouting between her paws. He had a gracefully tapered length, no barbs or grooves or ridges to speak of, though the widening slit spoke of more to come. It glistened in the sunlight, a bead of clear fluid sparkling on the elegantly protruding tip, which slid down as she watched, following the S-shaped curve of his shaft. Ariette's good paw squeezed, kneading the suppleness of his groin.
"Well, this is quite the impressive tool you were hiding, Doc." She grinned, raising her good paw to hover over the straining pillar of flesh. "May I?"
A nod. "But do mind the claws. It is quite—"
He broke off in a gasp and shudder as her right paw closed on the narrow bulb of his tip, squeezing.
"Don't worry, my last partner was a canine. I have a pretty good idea of what I'm doing." She smirked as he swelled beneath her ministrations, the gap between the lips of his slit and the girth of his shaft shrinking while she slid her paw up and down that length. "You're a lot bigger than him though. Damn."
"It's definitely a compliment. Now, quiet, I want to enjoy more of those sounds from you."
His snort gave adequate insight to his thoughts on the matter, but he subsided, allowing her to play with her prize. Such a prize it was too! Longer than her forelimb, and now fully extended into the encouraging strokes of her paws. She didn't try terribly hard to grip with her left paw—this wasn't the time to strain herself. If his delightful twitches and small grunts were any indication, he was enjoying the stimulation of her pads well enough.
He didn't have a knot like her last lover, so where might his hot spots be? His bobbing tip twitched when she ran her paw down the length of the underside, but he shuddered when she circled around the base. Then again, massaging that intriguing bulb crowning his length summoned a groan, a fresh bubble of sticky pre flowing into her grip.
Ariette hummed quietly to herself, tails twitching as she watched the larger 'mon's movements. How thrilling it was, to wield such control over a powerful male like this! To watch his chest heave in response to her ministrations, to hear him whisper encouragements while she pleased him, to smell his rising need, mirrored by the increased runnels of fluids lubricating her paws and that throbbing shaft. She increased her tempo, rewarded with a breathy moan and a buck of his hips, his crimson rod straining in her grip. The fur of her forelimbs was growing soaked with his pre, but that was alright. He smelled of the sea.
It was time to blow his mind. Without warning, Ariette dipped down, capturing that twitching head within her muzzle. Ven stiffened, his body arching, though he refrained from the wild humping he clearly wished to do. Salty stickiness coursed over her tongue, and she swallowed around the warm meat, settling it further into her maw, its tapered length stretching her cheeks, until that bulbous tip tickled the back of her throat. Her paws settled around the girth of his base, steadying it, kneading gently.
You're going to love this, big guy.
It didn't take much water. Barely enough for a Water Gun. Jetting from her throat at high pressure, bubbling foam massaged and carressed the upper third of Ven's cock, trapped in the warm confines of her maw. The samurott jerked, a cry on his lips, his shaft seeking more by pure instinct.
She rode out his hunching, squeezing her muzzle as tight as she could without biting, water dripping freely from her maw to pool on his belly and run down her chest. Several questing prods nearly seated him in her throat, which she was far from ready for, but she'd been expecting that, and pulled off enough to keep the flow going. The discordant gurgling was probably not the sexiest sound, but…
There it was. The flesh beneath her pads pulsed, his shaft and body stiffening. She let the bubbles drain, instead suckling on him, entreating him to give up what she'd earned for her efforts. Any second now…
"Ah!" He threw his head back, his loins rising to meet her. Thin salty fluid gushed across her palate, rapidly filling her maw. She gulped, swallowing as much of his release as she could, but spurt after heavy spurt overwhelmed her, streams of sticky cream drizzling from her muzzle, until she had to pull back with a gasp, allowing his seed to fountain across his belly.
Her eyes widened at the impressive display, milking him languidly with her paws while she savored the flavour of her victory, licking her lips and drinking in the remaining cream. Another mighty burst, then a pair of quick pulses, and the geyser settled to a trickle dripping down his length. Ven groaned, settling back, his head and moustaches sagging. Ariette couldn't contain a giggle.
His eyes cracked open, peering down at her. "Dare I ask?"
Smirking, she wiggled his still-hard shaft, flinging a fluid bead off into space. "Nothing, just the first time I've seen that dopey look of contentment on you. It's cute. And your belly looks like the aftermath of an angry spatter-painter."
He grunted. "I see you managed to keep yourself mostly clean. Gracious of you."
She licked her lips, collecting some of the remaining flavour. The fur of her muzzle felt stiff, and a bit had landed on her chest, but nothing near the mess which coated her lover. "Easier for you to clean up. I must say, I'm rather impressed. I've never been with a fellow water type before."
"Ah… neither have I."
A thought struck, freezing her in place. "Ven… I'm not your first, am I?"
"No, though certainly the first to perform… that."
"I would certainly hope so. I consider that a personal innovation."
He chuckled. "An effective one." Glancing down at himself, his moustaches drooped. "I should probably—"
"Not yet. No point when you're about to be messier."
Ariette rose, her bangles chiming, her eyes half-lidded and muzzle curved in a predatory smirk. He was hers to claim, the salve to the lust now burning within her. The orange velvet of her nethers darkened to umber, damp and scenting the air with her need. She straddled him, her sex kissing his groin, tracing a line of nectar across his skin until her swollen flesh met his.
"I'm not through with you yet, Ven."
"I… may need a moment."
"I know, don't worry, we'll start nice and slow. Just like this." She slid higher, pressing her lower lips to his softened shaft, grinding along its heated length, marking him with her scent. Gentle tinkling accompanied each undulation of her body, the ebb and flow of her movement teasing both of them as she worked her way up. Her sex parted, the narrow girth near his tip slipping between her folds, rubbing across her clit in a way that drew a moan. Ven murmured in response, his body rising and falling with each breath, rocking her gently.
"How does that feel?" Ariette breathed, bracing her forepaws on his belly heedless of the sticky puddles and rolling her hips, her passage tingling with the anticipation of sinking down on the firm maleness spreading her lips.
"Mm, lovely." He moved with her now, sliding himself against her dripping mound, his arousal remaining firm enough for her to play with, rather than retreating into his slit. "Are you quite certain of this? I believe we are… ah, compatible."
"Most definitely." She winked at him. "Don’t give me that face, I know what you meant. Not my time of month, handsome."
He nodded, though he still wore a look of apprehension as she scooted higher still, reaching down to toy with the flexible tip of his pride, teasing it against her aroused nub. His flesh pulsed in her grip, a fresh wave of clear fluid dribbling free to wet her paw, and he let out a pleased grunt.
“Looks like you’re ready enough to keep going.”
“Please ah! Promise me ooh! One thing…”
“Yes? Go on.” It was ever so much fun to break his composure with each firm squeeze of her paw, while she ground her sopping sex against his shaft.
“Do not… Mmm… Strain yourself on my account.”
Such a gentlemon! Capturing his gaze, Ariette bent low, grateful for her natural flexibility, and placed a gentle, lewd kiss on the head of his cock.
The combination of shock and admiration on his face was absolutely priceless, but she was in no mood to savour it. Rising on her haunches and steadying herself on his chest with her left paw, Ariette positioned that bulb tip at her folds, and sank down.
Twin moans joined the wet slurp of their bodies joining, several inches of that smooth taper slipping into her sodden passage with ease. Arceus, she’d needed this! His heated girth soothed the needy ache, her inner walls twitching and gripping the welcome invader, needing to adjust to the sudden stretch, but already wanting more.
She held herself still, savouring the first inches, feeling out his shape with her sensitive folds, allowing her body to relax. Slowly, in quarter time to start. A beat, and she rose, her instincts protesting the withdrawal of that promised relief, until she bobbed back down at an equal pace, allowing more of him to sink into her, her petals gradually stretching wider around his girth.
“You feel incredible,” he murmured, shuddering as she settled at the halfway point of his shaft. “I don’t wish to hurt you, but I may not be able to entirely prevent myself from… ah… thrusting.”
“I’m tougher than I look, Ven.” She wriggled, dropping herself another inch or two, her walls clenching in response.
He chuckled. “Of that, I have no doubt.”
Another roll of her hips, easing the rising pressure in her tunnel, then stuffing it full once more. Warmth spurted within her, matching the cascade of her juices soaking his shaft, easing his penetration. She couldn’t take all of it. There was still another third of that mighty shaft outside of her, and already he was close to kissing her womb, her lips distended lewdly around his proud length.
But dammit, she wanted all of it!
“What I’m hearing is, you’re going to make me do all the work here.”
“I did not mean—”
She smirked up at him, clamping down on his buried cock, cutting off his retort in a groan. A deep breath, an undulation of her hips, and those final elusive inches slid home, his narrow tip nudging her innermost depths. Discomfort flashed across her nerves ever so briefly, her body protesting the stretch, the demand against that final, sensitive barrier, but she was no stranger to pain. It quickly muted against the song of delight sung by the beautiful fullness, the soothing, throbbing heat, the tingling pleasure as so many long-untouched places were stroked and caressed.
She followed his widened gaze. A good quarter of his cock still eluded her, but her belly bulged slightly with what she’d managed, her swollen petals wrapped tight around his thick S-curve. She laid her good paw on the protruding lump beneath her fur, massaging in time with a clench of her inner walls, and was rewarded with a throb and a fresh spurt of heat deep inside.
Arceus indeed! Tails flicking, she set herself, resting her weight on him, revelling in the pure sensation of fullness, of being as close with her lover as it was possible to be. Glancing up, she beckoned to him, enticing him to lean down until she could reach his moustaches and pull him in for a kiss. They sighed into each other’s muzzles, tongues dancing a delightful waltz while their bodies adjusted to one another.
Both were panting by the time she released him, though she kept her grip on his whiskers, holding him close, staring into those cerulean eyes and inhaling minty breaths.
“I need this, Ven,” she whispered. “No more hesitation, no holding back. Please?”
He bowed his head, or, tried to, as much as her death grip on his facial hair would allow. “As you wish. Whenever you are prepared.”
In answer, she let go of his moustaches, braced herself on his belly, and pushed off with her haunches. Her tunnel protested, gripping that retreating flesh, her newly plowed depths empty without his welcome firmness. Smoothly, she sank back down, a wordless “Flooaa…” escaping her as that wonderful maleness stroked her insides just right, plunged in as deep as she could bear.
She rolled her hips, riding him, their intimate flesh meeting and parting in steady tempo. He shivered and bucked in time, bouncing her, intensifying the rhythm. The ache had faded into pure delight, her nerves tingling, her walls squeezing and embracing him on every thrust. Each movement came punctuated by wet squishing, the jangle of her bells, heavy breaths. The raw scent of sex wafted on the air, and her thighs were damp with their combined juices.
Faster now, full-time, their movements forming a raucous crescendo. Steady pulses of warmth bathed her depths now, each throb adding to the slickness dripping from their union. The girth of his cock rubbed across her clit with each thrust, sending shudders through her. Ariette gasped, stiffening as his tip battered against her deepest place, tiny jolts of pain sparking through the rising ecstasy.
“No! Don’t you dare stop!” She laid a paw on the lewd shape of his shaft bulging in her belly, squeezing to emphasize her point. His groan and shiver were purely delicious. Running that paw lower, past her distended lips, she massaged his straining base, coaxing him on. She was so close, ever so close…
Gripping the root of that straining rod, she gyrated like a wild thing, all sense of rhythm lost in the fervent need. She slammed down, grinding and gripping, her loins quivering, a cry of desire on her lips. Her balance slipped, a fraction more of that straining flesh cramming its way into her, squeezing her buzzing clit…
Her whole body sang. Ripples of ecstatic relief rolled through her stuffed loins, washing through every inch of her, all four paws curling reflexively as she arched and moaned. Dimly, through the crashing delight, the sensation of liquid heat pumping into her joined the beautiful symphony, that heavy load gushing forth to settle deep within, filling her to the brim.
Blinking away spots from her eyes as the incredible sensation began to fade, Ariette realized she’d collapsed, panting, lying limply on Ven’s belly, cold stickiness from their earlier fun seeping into her fur. She couldn’t move, every muscle slack. Her hind paws kicked feebly, a shiver running up her spine. He was still buried in her, filling her gently clenching sex, pulses of warm cream adding to the volume pooling in her womb.
A heavy sigh of contentment from above—a paw rested on her shoulders, stroking slowly. Ariette murmured something in reply, nuzzling against his chest. Times like this, one didn’t need words. With an effort, she reached down with her good paw, running it over her belly. It squished at her touch, gurgling, softer and rounder than its usual shape. Her thighs and crotch felt sticky, and more thick fluid was dribbling free, even past the firm seal of Ven’s shaft. A giggle escaped her.
“Hmm?” The paw on her shoulders paused.
“Nothing. Just thinking it’s a good thing I was on top. We might have ruined your bed.”
He chuckled. “I have an excellent cleaning contractor, but you make a good point. We will both need a good rinse. Luckily, I have a shower on the premises.”
“My my, Doctor, is that an invitation?”
“A medical recommendation, in fact.”
“Fine, but only if we can go for dinner after.”
“It would be my pleasure, Miss D’lecour.”
Ariette stood in the wings, cello in paw, awaiting her cue. The house lights were dimmed, and the maestro was welcoming the crowd, introducing the symphony. Sweat slicked her pads, and she took a deep, steadying breath. First time on stage in a year, but with all her experience, why did it feel like that first performance in Sinnoh all those years ago? She wore only a light brace on her left paw now, custom coloured to her fur, and nearly invisible unless one was looking for it. The audience wouldn’t see it any more than they would see the slight quiver of her paw.
"And now, it is my true pleasure to welcome to the stage for her inaugural returning performance, presenting the world premiere of 'Don't Let the Music Die'…" One of the spotlights swung across the stage, lighting her corner in brilliance. Her grip tightened on the neck of the cello.
"Please give a warm welcome, to the enchanting Ariette D'lecour!"
Ariette stepped into the harsh light, drawn by the thunderous applause. The boards of the stage felt right beneath her hindpaws, their grain a familiar friend. She couldn't see much of the crowd beyond the glare, their individual forms blurred to a dark mass past the front row. Did some of them gasp at the sight of her scarred muzzle?
The maestro bowed to her, surrendering center stage and moving off into the darkness of the wings. Ariette's heart thundered in her chest as she set her stance, resting the cello neck against her chin. Indistinct murmurs in the dark—wondering at the opposite grip, no doubt. Were there those who wished to see her fail?
One shape caught her eye, seated front and center, two of the regular chairs cleared away for him to occupy the space. Sturdy, unmissable, focused on her. Ven wore a black bow-tie around his neck, and a broad smile on his muzzle.
Their eyes met. He nodded. Ariette's shoulders loosened. She pressed her paw to her lips and blew him a kiss. Several voices in the crowd Ooohed.
Then, she began to play.