Ch 4: The Gambler
the cat is mightier than the pen
The mist had developed into a steady drizzle when Wataru emerged from the tree cover. He closed his eyes as the cool water wet his face. The rain, the air, the thrumming green of the plants that lined the route—all confirmed that spring had come at last.
Wataru had lingered in Cerulean through autumn, training Ibuki and Toku on the open sea. The beaches had been almost completely deserted when he finally left the city. A few determined tourists still staked their rainbow umbrellas in the sand, but when they stretched out on their towels, a warm jacket became a more common sight than a bare back.
Wataru was a day out from Saffron when the first snow fell. At once Toku had shuddered and whined for the comfort of her apricorn ball. Kana made a game of meeting each snowflake with a flaming ember, but as the snow continued to come down, she'd given up, letting the flakes melt where they settled on her heated skin.
From the first, Saffron City had been unwelcoming. Entry into the city was funneled through a checkpoint, where a long line stretched out into the wintery air. When Wataru finally reached the front, thoroughly chilled from standing in the cold, the guard had examined his trainer's card with a skeptical face. She'd demanded his visa next, subjecting that slip of paper to the same scrutiny. Finally, the guard had declared that foreign trainers paid a special processing fee. Wataru didn't know what that meant—in the end, she'd let him through only after he'd paid her with almost all that was left of Uncle's money.
Innumerable gray towers, tall and grim as mountains, faced Wataru when he stepped into Saffron City. Lean and with windows like a hundred eyes, the buildings watched Wataru stonily as he trudged through streets already muddy with grey-brown slush.
The sign outside the Saffron Gym proclaimed it "The Finest Fighting Dojo in All of Kanto," but the inner hall reeked of unwashed sweat and the practice mats were ripped. When Wataru asked for the gym leader, the activity in the room came to a momentary halt. After a muttered conference, a tall woman with loosely braided black hair called out to Wataru, "I can take your challenge."
The fight had been brief. Toku swept easily through the first two pokemon, both machoke. She clearly had the energy to continue, but Wataru let Kana handle the final battle. He thought the charmeleon would throw a sulk at being left out. When her last pokemon slumped to the ground, the woman had let out a weary sigh and tossed a badge to Wataru. The gym was set to close next month, she explained. Their sensei had joined the Elite Four, and the newly appointed gym leader didn't specialize in fighting-types. Resignation was plain on the woman's face, written into every line of the neglected gym. It seemed to Wataru that the trainers there were just killing time with their practicing as they waited for the end. The thought annoyed him. If they wanted to keep their gym, they should have been willing to fight for it.
After that, Wataru had been eager to move on from Saffron. But in the short two weeks since he'd arrived, the heavy snows had too. Wataru didn't have the funds to buy the thick down coat, wool pants, and snug boots that he would need to travel by foot to the next city. Saffron's nurse had told him as much, a bored look on her face as she recited the statistics of winter weather casualties for traveling trainers and their pokemon.
So Wataru found himself trapped. The weather made out-door training all but impossible and the battling halls in the basement of the pokemon center were always packed. The cold left Toku and Ibuki sleepy and slow-moving, and even Kana's energy seemed dampened. With training out of the picture, Wataru finished the professor's book and even tried writing him a letter, though he ended up leaving almost everything important out: he didn't particularly want the professor poking his nose around the abandoned ryu den in Cerulean.
Like a kairyu, Wataru didn't leave his bed much those dark February days. It was hard to say if the darkness came from the clouds or from the thick smog that rose constantly from Saffron's industrial district. From time to time, Kana would begin to whine and would not stop until Wataru dragged himself over to the cafeteria for a bowl of stew that tasted exactly like the stew of the day before. Wataru didn't have much appetite and if it hadn't been for Kana, he didn't know if he would have ventured down into the noisy cafeteria at all. Locked in his small room, too hot near the radiator and too cold near the window, Wataru couldn't hold back the thought of home. The ryu would be hibernating now, gathering in a lichen-packed den to sleep, kairyu over kairyu, hakuryu and miniryu draped on top. Two dragon-masters would be guarding the entrance, tending to the fires outside so that the cave stayed warm at all hours—part of the ancient agreement.
When the lake froze over and the ice had been tested, Wataru and the other children were allowed onto the surface. The first time he'd gone, Toku had refused to join him, watching from under a thick blanket as he skid clumsily over the ice. It was only the next year, when he'd convinced her that he was good enough not to fall, that she consented to ride on his shoulder, only her eyes peeking out from the thick scarf as Wataru drew wide circles on the ice-over lake. Ibuki had just managed some fancy spin and not to be outdone, Wataru made a tight turn of his own. The momentum unbalanced him and sent him slamming down into the cold ice. On his shoulder, Toku, unscathed but unamused, whined her displeasure. A full winter sun was shining down and somehow it was all too funny. Wataru burst out laughing, his chest heaving up and down as he lay belly-up on the ice. Afterwards, there had been hot mulled wine and freshly-made rolls. He'd eaten his fill and gone to sleep with a full stomach and a fuller heart.
Remembering that as he sat alone on his cot, staring at the dirty gray wall of the opposite building, Wataru had felt so miserable that he'd crawled back into bed, even though it was only noon.
A droplet fell squarely into Wataru's left eye, making him blink furiously. Surrounded by newly budding trees washed by the rain, those dark winter days already seemed far away. Wataru craned his head around the route. The rain must have kept travelers inside: there wasn't another person in sight. Coming to a decision, Wataru released Toku's pokeball. She let out a delighted trill when the water hit her back. She gave Wataru a quick, affectionate nuzzle and then took off through the air, the water sleeking her scales. Some hakuryu were rain-callers, Wataru recalled. They'd have to try it some time, see if Toku had the knack.
The sight of Toku gamboling though the fresh spring air loosened something in Wataru's chest. They'd survived their first winter away from home. From here, everything was possible.
Wataru looked down at the city map he'd picked up at the Celadon Pokemon Center and back up at the building in front of him. According to the map he was in the right place, but according to his eyes he was standing in front of a gigantic perfume emporium, a glass structure in the shape of a blooming flower. His nose was assaulted by upswell of floral scents when he stepped through the sliding doors.
Wataru ambled through the wide, glittering lobby, avoiding the eyes of the perfume-wielding salespeople, until he spotted a sign at the very back that read "Pokemon Gym."
The corridor led into a small waiting room. A few other kids were sprawled out on the red cushioned seats. One had a tattered jacket, a bored expression as she flipped through a magazine, and a nidorino dozing at her feet.
"Hello, trainer!" chirped the man at the desk. He wore a forest-green kimono and cheery smile. "And welcome to the Celadon City Gym! Are you looking to schedule a gym battle with Leader Erika?"
"Schedule?" Wataru echoed in confusion.
"That's right! Her next opening is in just over a month, at 11:30 am on April 27th. Shall I put you down for that, or would you prefer a different date or time?"
"A month?" Wataru said, unsure if he'd heard correctly. "Just to have a battle?"
The man's smile grew slightly fixed. "Leader Erika's a very busy woman, I'm afraid. Running a world-famous multinational corporation takes a bit of time, as you may be able to imagine, but Leader Erika still honors her commitment to battle every challenger who wishes to face her. Now . . . the appointment?"
"Next one's fine," Wataru mumbled. If this gym leader was so busy selling her perfume, why didn't she let someone else run the gym?
"Excellent! I'll just need your trainer's card and your badges, please. Now," he continued once he'd typed the information down, "if you're really itching for an earlier fight, take a look at the calendar on the wall. It's updated weekly with the scheduled matches. You're welcome to come here on those days and join the on-call list. If the scheduled challenger is more than five minutes late, the first person on the list gets their spot."
The bored-looking girl and her nidorino suddenly made a lot more sense. But what a way to waste a day, Wataru thought. Anyway, if everyone had to wait months for their battle, he doubted many of them would be late.
"Enjoy the sights of Celadon!" the attendant called out as he left. "And do try our world-famous perfume!"
As he counted down the days until his gym battle, Wataru got to know Celadon, a city of rolling hills and gardens. Ginko trees lined the red-bricked streets, their small buds beginning to uncurl into wide green fans. Everywhere Wataru wandered he saw slender maples, some with dark red leaves, others a calm pale yellow, still others a bright green blushing with pink at the edges. Off of the main circle, the roads were winding and didn't always connect. Some dead-ended into houses clustered together like buds off a short stem. Wataru saw shabbier houses, their bright paint more worn and the brickwork in worse repair, but there was no neighborhood where the flowers didn't grow densely. The city air was fresh and fragrant, without a trace of Saffron's foul-smelling smokes, and the skies buzzed thick with beedrill.
The city was beautiful, but in a different way than the Ryu's Gift. The trees and flowers of the five valleys sprang up wild, and the Dragon's Clan left them to themselves. In Celadon Wataru glimpsed gardeners constantly at work, pruning, tending, planting. The beauty here was cultivated, as if the city itself were one giant garden.
A vigorous river ran through Celadon's central park, decorated by bridges curved like wrist bangles. Watching the river run, Wataru hit upon an idea. The park was much too crowded for training—small children ran everywhere and picnickers blanketed the slopes. But after a week of wandering the city's perimeter, Toku found the spot where the central river flowed in from the hills. Up the tumbling slopes, the river grew wider and more rapid. At last, they came to a broad spot where the river passed under a cave. It made for a quiet place to train, and Wataru could leave Ibuki there in the evenings to sleep, hidden beneath the shadowed rock.
The city at night was pleasant too—venomoths gathered around the yellow street-lamps, clustered so closely their purple wings overlapped like a living, humming cascade of wisteria. As Wataru came down the main boulevard, in sight of the Pokemon Center, he stopped to watch a street performer raise a torch, the flame blazing hugely. Kana let out a startled hiss as the man brought the flame to his mouth and swallowed it in a single gulp. The performer closed his eyes, silver cape catching in the streetlights, and then his face slackened; his lips parted to let out a puff of smoke. The crowd burst into riotous applause. Wataru joined them, grinning against the glow of the street-lamps, warm and buzzing and marvelously content.
There was one building Wataru hadn't yet entered, though he had noticed it often enough in passing. Styled in an eye-catching check pattern of black and red brick, the building occupied nearly a whole block by itself. The entryway was grand—white marble steps that passed under a golden archway. On a particularly warm bright day, when the streets were packed so close that walking was a chore, Wataru climbed the marble steps.
"No loose pokemon inside," rumbled the broad-chested man at the door. When Kana hissed, the machamp at the man's side stared down at her, arm muscles flexing slightly. Wataru recalled Kana hastily before she could start a fight.
He entered the building alone; instantly he was enveloped by cool air. At first Wataru saw only darkness, as if he'd just stepped into a giant cavern where thick rock blocked out the sun. As his eyes changed, Wataru found he was inside a massive space, high-walled and windowless. The ceiling was all silver, mirrored panels overlayed like scales, which gleamed with faint reflected light. It was impossible, standing in this calm, dark place, to believe that outside, only a stone's throw away, the sun blazed and the beedrill hummed.
The hall that stretched out before Wataru was arrayed with strange machines. Light came from every part of them, glowing screens, flashing dials, and currents that shot around the tops and down the sides, the color of their light shifting from second to second, so that glancing from machine to machine the eye made a rainbow. Each machine had a leather stool before it. Some were occupied by people, who stared slack-faced into the glowing displays. They were very still, as if in trance, but suddenly a hand would shoot forward to press down on a button, setting the screens spinning and lights flashing. Past the rows of machines were large tables, some with huge rolling wheels, others flat but strewn with black and red backs of cards. The people there were similarly intent, speaking in cryptic bursts as they drew cards and lay them down. Wataru climbed the wide staircase that curved upwards from the center of the hall and leaned out over the banister. From up here, the lights of the machines all ran together, like stars in the same constellation.
Turning left from the stairway, down another dark corridor, Wataru came upon a sign whose glowing letters read, Welcome to the Dragon's Lair. Pillars rose on either side of the entrance, etched with scenes of gyarados and kairyu in fierce battle. Wataru walked forward, past red-tinted waterfalls that crashed down from nowhere, into another room, also dark, also glittering with machines. But Wataru didn't pay these much attention. At the center of the room, a giant glass tank rose from the floor. Pink stones sparkled at its base and the leaves of translucent green plants swayed in the dark blue water. Hanging lethargically above the stones and the plants was a small miniryu.
Wataru tried to make sense of what he was seeing.
Spin and Win the Jackpot, blared red and gold letters emblazoned above the tank. Ultra-Rare Dragon Dratini!
As if caught in a trance, Wataru stepped closer, until his nose was almost touching the glass. The miniryu's scales, which should have been the cool blue of a cloudless sky, were a muddied grey. The miniryu's eyes were dull and glassy, apathetic as he floated motionless, without so much as a twitch of the tail. He didn't react at all when Wataru rapped the glass walls of the tank. But just when Wataru began to fear he was staring at a corpse, the miniryu dove down slightly and resumed its motionless suspension next to a curling frond. The miniryu's skin, Wataru noticed suddenly, was flaking off. One scale, dislodged by the motion, floated down to settle on the pink rocks. Wataru had seen this once before, in a miniryu too sick to move. If a miniryu couldn't shed properly, the outer skin would eventually deteriorate, coming off in ragged strips and flakes. The miniryu clearly needed to shed, but looking at the tank, the problem was obvious. No miniryu, however determined, could shed underwater. Dry air was needed, and rocks.
How had a miniryu come to be here? Why had they trapped him in this cylinder of unnaturally blue water? Was he—was he not allowed to leave the tank? The idea was almost inconceivable. Miniryu could breathe underwater and hid there in times of danger, but they needed air as well as water, warm rocks and sunlight. Wataru glanced up at the silver ceiling shimmering overhead and wondered in horror how long it had been since this miniryu had seen the sun.
"No touching, kid." A strong hand clamped down on Wataru's shoulder. "Admire from a distance, okay?"
The man standing over Wataru was large, fit into a dark gray suit and red striped tie, a machoke at his back.
Too dazed to argue, Wataru took a stumbling step backwards. "Does he stay in there all the time?" Wataru asked in a strained whisper.
The man looked up at the tank and shrugged. "Sure."
"But miniryu need land, not just water."
"Doesn't seem to be drowning," the man said. His eyes narrowed as they locked onto something over Wataru's head. "Remember, no touching."
He moved away without another word.
Wataru stared up at the still tank, the motionless miniryu. Everything about this picture was wrong. For a moment, an image of Toku trapped in a tall glass cylinder captured his mind, and bile rose in his throat. This was too cruel. It was unacceptable. The anger washed over him like a boiling wave, making his fingers tingle and his face burn.
"I'll get you out of there," Wataru whispered, trembling. "I swear it, by the kairyu, by fire and ash."
For a moment, the miniryu seemed to study Wataru with dark glassy eyes. Then his head drooped once more and he settled down on the pink rocks, curling into a tight ball.
Blinking the sudden wetness from his eyes, Wataru turned away from the tank and stumbled downstairs. By the time he reached the front of the long line at the desks, his eyes had cleared and his breathing was coming more steady.
"Are you staying with us tonight, young man?" the desk attendant asked, the slight frown on her face betraying skepticism. She wore a pink kimono, patterned with butterfree.
"You're hurting the dratini," Wataru said, making sure to use the foreign name.
"Oh, uh . . ." the woman stammered. "The prize dratini?"
"He's not healthy," Wataru said firmly. "Have you seen his scales?"
She shook her head. "I-I don't know anything about that. Hold on a moment, I'll call the floor manager for you, all right?"
But it was a full half-hour before the manager came, a serious-faced woman in a purple pinstripe suit.
"What's all this about the dratini?" she asked, when the desk attendant had pointed her over to Wataru.
Wataru forced himself to speak calmly. This was too important to mess up. "That dratini isn't healthy. He needs to shed, first of all. You can see that by looking at his scales. Also, dratini shouldn't stay in water that long. They need time on dry land, too. Also he's lonely." Wataru hadn't meant to say that last part, but it slipped out anyway.
"You some dratini expert?"
"Yes," Wataru said, raising his chin.
The woman laughed. A small smile lit her face and she glanced distractedly down at the silver watch on her wrist. "Listen, kid. You read something in a fairytale? Heard Professor Okido spout some haiku? Dratini are rarer than five-leaf clovers. Anyone who claims to know what's best for them is talking out of their ass."
But I do know, Wataru thought, frustration making his teeth clench. His hand itched to release Toku then and there. No one who saw the hakuryu's beautiful scales could think that this miniryu's condition was anything close to normal.
But caution restrained him. He remembered the words on the miniryu's tank—"ultra-rare", "jackpot." The people here thought of miniryu as nothing more or less than currency, like the coins and bills they traded in the market. What would they do if they saw Toku? If a miniryu was valuable, what was a hakuryu?
The image rose again in his mind of Toku trapped inside the glass tank, her scales greying and her eyes going dull.
No, Wataru couldn't risk that.
"You're a little young for this place anyway," the woman muttered to herself. "But hey, if you've got all these big ideas, you could always try and win it for yourself."
She let out another chuckle, gave Wataru a friendly pat on the shoulders, and disappeared back into the rows of glittering machines. Wataru looked from the machines to the false silver sky, feeling small and lost and terribly alone.
By the kairyu. By fire and ash. What was he supposed to do now?
The Pokemon Center attendant frowned when he explained the problem. "If it's a business that owns the pokemon, not a trainer, that's not our jurisdiction," she said. "You can always try the police, if you're really that concerned."
Police was a word that Wataru connected vaguely to blaring lights and ear-splitting sirens in Saffron, and growlithe that sniffed intrusively at passerby. He found them in a busy brick building. It was several hours in the dimly lit waiting room before Wataru was led into a small office.
"You have a complaint to make about a mistreated pokemon?" the officer there said, his tone polite and noncommittal.
"A dratini. At the big casino. They're—"
"At the Grand Royale Casino?" The officer straightened slightly and his voice grew cold. "The casino has a permit for Class X pokemon."
"But they're not letting him shed!" Wataru realized with a faltering heart that those words meant nothing to the officer, who met his gaze blankly. "Miniryu need to—I mean, dratini—"
"I don't know who put you up to this, kid, but it's a crime to waste police time. The Grand Royale has a permit. Don't go around trying to stir up trouble."
His tone made it clear the conversation was over. Wataru got stiffly to his feet and left the station without even a shallow bow.
The professor answered on the fourth ring. His eyes went wide.
"Wataru! What a pleasant surprise! I got your letter—so my little char's evolved, has she? Let me see her and offer my congratulations."
Kana spent the next minute posturing while the professor complimented her tail flame—"very vigorous"—and her skin—"what a bright, healthy orange hue"—until Wataru couldn't stand it any longer and blurted out, "Professor, I need your help."
At once, the professor's face grew soft with concern. "What is it, my boy? Speak, speak!"
So, his words tripping over themselves, Wataru told him all about the miniryu trapped in the glass tank. The professor's face grew grimmer as he listened and at last he let out a long sigh.
"I see. So the Celadon casino keeps a dratini, do they? I wonder where they managed to obtain one from. And it seems the permitting is all in order, too. A pity, that. I could try and kick up the fuss, but the plain truth of it is, I have no claim on being a dratini expert. If you were willing to make public how it is you've come by your own dratini and your expertise—"
The professor left his sentence hanging.
Make public? So that every single ryu in the Ryu's Gift could be taken and placed in a glass tank of their own? Wataru swung his head rapidly from side to side, his fingers shaking.
"I thought not." The professor fell into thought for a moment, then let out another sigh. "Very unfortunate, this whole business. I'll write them a letter, at least. What do you advise, now?"
"He needs dry air and large rocks to shed. And time in the sun. And real water, that runs, not that fake blue water. But it's not just that, he needs company! Ryu aren't meant to live on their own. It's not right." Wataru found his voice going thick. The water was back in his eyes.
"I'm sorry, my boy," the professor said after a moment. "The world can be very cruel sometimes, very cruel. But let's talk about something cheerier. You've won your third gym battle, you wrote?"
Wataru stared at the professor in disbelief. He wanted to talk about stupid bits of metal when a miniryu was suffering even as they spoke?
"Yes," he said finally, when Kana nudged him.
"And you'll be challenging Erika next?"
"Well, your charmeleon should be a big help there. But do watch out for her spore attacks! They can be debilitating."
"I should go," Wataru said, when the silence stretched. He turned off the picture screen without waiting for the professor's response and then sank into a crouch on the floor.
"Char-me?" Kana's yelp was concerned.
"They're hurting a miniryu, just like Toku, and no one will help," Wataru whispered.
With effort, he got to his feet and stepped back outside. The air was just as fragrant as ever. The late afternoon sun fell golden on the five-fingered leaves of maple, the dense clusters of purple-faced mallow and pansies that ringed the pokemon center. But all that beauty suddenly struck Wataru as utterly deceptive and false. This city was like a poisonous flower, whose wide-petals and sweet scent concealed its rotten core.
How could the professor talk like Wataru was supposed to just accept it? He couldn't. He'd made an oath.
Could he sneak in during the night and spirit the miniryu safely away? For a moment, Wataru's mind was filled with a vision of breaking the glass tank, the blue water gushing out and leaving the miniryu free. Only—Wataru remembered hearing that the casino stayed open all through the night. He remembered the men who paced the floor with their machokes. To fight his way out, Wataru would need Toku, and if they saw Toku—the two of them wouldn't be safe anywhere they went, even if they did get away. Toku wasn't a kairyu yet. She couldn't fly them safely back across the sea.
As Wataru stood there, his back hot from the afternoon sun, the floor manager's words suddenly rang through his mind. You could always try and win it for yourself.
Slowly, Wataru lifted his head. Past the other buildings, in the distance, he could glimpse a hint of red and black checked brick. If no one would help him, then Wataru would save the miniryu the way he'd always done everything else—all by himself.
In the so-called Dragon's Lair, Wataru found a slot machine styled in the shape of a towering kairyu, all orange plastic and red eyes. When he pressed the red button on the center of the board, the kairyu's eyes flashed and a thunderous roar emitted from the machine.
The glowing display had five spinning columns, which each showed three images. To win the "jackpot," every single image of the fifteen had to come up with the face of a miniryu. On Wataru's first spin, he didn't see a single miniryu. He only had enough money for one more, but here the kairyu machine brought Wataru luck. A row of kairyu lit up on the screen and the number at the bottom rose almost faster than he could register. There's nothing to this at all, Wataru marveled, reaching for the red button again.
But the kairyu's luck didn't hold. By the fifth spin his new money was halved, so Wataru moved on to a different machine, which depicted a koiking coughing up an endless shower of gold. The koiking had no gold for Wataru, though, and no miniryu either. Frustrated, Wataru spun again. Each spin made the screen dissolve into a dizzying whirl of images and lights. The screen showed golden coins falling in the background, even as the number that tracked Wataru's own money diminished. It was hard to keep count of the time or of his spins, but when Wataru finally stumbled outside, the sun was low in the sky and he had only a very few coins left.
The rest of the week, Wataru observed instead of gambling. In the evenings, especially weekends, the place was packed, with few seats free at the slots. Families flooded the buffet and groups of friends clustered around the roulette and poker tables, cheering each other on. In the mornings and on mid-day, the people at the machines were more grim-faced and more alone. The only sounds were the buzz and roar of the machines and the quiet murmurs of the servers, as they offered drinks.
A group of old men, with loose jackets and curved wood canes, always gathered around eleven in the morning at the poker table farthest to the back. They dealt several games, then broke for lunch, then returned, playing until three in the afternoon, when they sighed and pushed their chairs back. When the men noticed Wataru watching, one of them gestured him over and that day Wataru received an education in poker. But he didn't much like the game. It was too dependent on holding your face still and thinking hard about other people's cards. More to Wataru's liking was roulette—it was thrilling to watch the ball go round and round and see the winnings pile up high on the tables.
But to save the miniryu, Wataru needed to play at the slots, and to play at the slots he needed more money. That evening he hiked up to the river cave and explained the situation to his pokemon. Toku and Ibuki were adamant that there was no choice: the miniryu had to be rescued, whatever the cost. But Kana disliked the idea of putting a halt to their training. The charmeleon hissed and whined and when she saw that she was overruled, stomped off into the forest.
For a while, there was silence, except for the faint flapping of zubat in the cave and the distant rattling of metapods in their shells. Wataru dipped his feet into the river and stared up at the starry sky. He wasn't much fonder of the idea than the charmeleon was. But what else was there to do? He imagined carrying the miniryu from the casino to this place. The miniryu could shed his old, flaking skin against the rocky shore here and then swim freely down the running stream.
The thought strengthened Wataru's resolve. He got to his feet and followed the trace of orange light, until he caught up with Kana. The charmeleon had found the edge of a paras colony. The tips of pink and yellow mushrooms were visible by the moonlight slanting in through the tree trunks.
"Listen," Wataru said. "I swore an oath by the kairyu. And you know, it's not enough to be strong yourself. The ryu have always given their help when it's needed. Maybe you should think about that. You can split rocks like a kairyu, and one day you'll be able to fly like a kairyu too. But you wouldn't be worthy to go among the kairyu if all you think about is yourself."
At that, Kana turned, a hard look in her dark eyes. Her tail swished back and forth in challenge. Wataru met her gaze calmly and didn't flinch, even when a hot burst of embers shot past his ears. The stand-off stretched on, but Wataru didn't say another word. He'd made the only point he had to make. At length, he turned back to the river.
It was very late when Kana finally returned, her eyes downcast. Their journey back was tense and still, and the city seemed deserted when they at last reached the Pokemon Center. Even the venomoth had gone to bed.
Wataru's new job ran from five to eleven at night, washing dishes in the back of a bustling restaurant. The owner paid weekly in cash and didn't care about Wataru's visa, unlike other places he'd tried, which had waved him off, muttering about training visas as opposed to work visas. The dish-washing left his hands red and swollen from the hot water. The work was dull and somehow exhausting, and Wataru found himself waking late and irritable most days. Sometimes he forced himself out of bed and took Kana out to battle, but most days he went straight to the casino.
He tried not to hang around the miniryu's tank too much, but when the bouncers were busy elsewhere, he slipped over to the cage. The miniryu never seemed to pay him much attention, but Wataru spoke to him anyway, describing life back at the Ryu's Gift in a quiet voice.
By now most of the staff knew him by face. One of the servers had taken to him, and brought him sweet pecha juice from time to time even when he wasn't gambling. Aki was just a few years older than Wataru, with a short bob of dark brown hair and baby fat still puffing her cheeks. Wataru was lurking at the edge of the roulette when he caught her voice from across the room, strung tight with tension.
"I'm sorry, Sir, I have to cut you off."
Turning from the game, Wataru found Aki across the room, dwarfed by a man in a long tan trench coat, his face twisted into a dark scowl.
"Didn't you hear me, girl? I asked you for another shot. You got cotton in your ears, or something?"
With those words, the man reached out and shook Aki roughly from the wrist. Wataru looked around the room in alarm, but he didn't see a machoke or dark-suited bouncer nearby. Aki's face was pale and the man was flushed high on his cheeks.
"Maybe there's cotton in your ears," Wataru called out, cutting across the room to them. "Because Aki said you're cut off and that means no more drinks." He drew in a breath. "So leave her alone."
The man turned to face Wataru with a grin stretched across his face, but his eyes were humorless. "Didn't realize they let kids in here."
"I'm not a kid!" Wataru spat. His eyes fell on the pokeballs ringing the man's belt. "Fight me and I'll show you."
"Nah, I don't battle kids."
"Bet you a thousand yen I'd win," Wataru said. It was all he had in his money pouch, but that part seemed unimportant.
The man raised an eyebrow. "Well, I don't make a habit of taking candy from babies, but if you're offering—"
The casino had a few battling halls, where trainers could battle for stakes. Wataru hadn't been allowed inside—if you couldn't show four badges, the deposit to enter was higher than Wataru could pay. He couldn't see how many badges were in the case the man flashed quickly, but the doors slid open for them.
"Stake is two thousand yen. The match will be one on one. No need to drag it out," the man told the attendant as he stepped into the battling hall. Wataru handed over his money, his stomach starting to flutter. He trusted Kana . . . but it had been weeks since their last real fight.
The electabuzz the man released stood four feet tall. Energy crackled between its antenna. Kana took the battlefield with an excited cry, lifting her tail high. The pokemon held each other's gazes in silence for a moment. Then the electabuzz dove forward with a powerful thunderpunch, Kana with a metal fist. But the impact sent Kana hurtling backwards with a hiss.
"Ember!" Wataru called out, but the man laughed and murmured something to his electabuzz, who erected a golden barrier with a wave of its hand. Kana's flames dispersed quickly against the shimmering surface. Before Wataru could call another attack, the electabuzz took the offensive with a barrage of sharp-edged stars. As Kana struggled to block each one with metal-fisted claws, the electabuzz undercut her with a kick that sent her tumbling to the ground.
The man laughed.
Wataru clenched his fists and Kana leapt to her feet, her eyes flashing. A pillar of flame rushed from her mouth—not embers, Wataru saw with sudden excitement, but a full-throated flamethrower attack.
But the electabuzz broke the flames with a thunder punch and immediately sent off another barrage of stars.
They were outmatched, Wataru realized. If he'd been training Kana like she wanted instead of wasting time washing dishes—
Kana had abandoned all caution or restraint. Flames poured out from her mouth, wild and undirected. The electabuzz dodged them easily, or broke the spray of fire with another golden shield. Its sharp-edged stars caught Kana from the sides, knocking her to the ground. She sprang back to her feet and let loose another flamethrower, though it seemed weaker this time.
Wataru's opponent wasn't bothering with commands. He leaned against the back wall, a smile on his flushed face as he watched Kana sputter and flame. They might be outmatched, but they could still win if they took advantage of his distraction, Wataru thought.
"Block with metal claw," he shouted as another barrage rushed Kana's way, but instead a column of flame roared out of her mouth. The flame consumed the sharp-edged stars, but left Kana panting furiously.
Wataru put his fingers to his lips. His whistle rang sharply through the battle-hall, making Kana whirl around. Her eyes were dark with fury and her tail-flame burned erratically, dwindling low and then swelling up untenably high.
"Kana," Wataru said softly, hearing his own heart pound. "We can win if you listen to me."
Her harsh pants cut the air. They only had a moment: the electabuzz was gathering energy for a thunderpunch. They were back in the forest, gazes locked, every breath coming tight. But this time, something shifted in Kana's eyes. Her tail flame steadied.
"Dodge and use ember!" Wataru called out as the electabuzz sprang forward. "Just ember," he repeated in his firmest voice, holding his breath as Kana swung to the side, drew herself up—and sent a spray of hot embers racing towards the electabuzz.
Almost casually, the electabuzz raised its golden shield. But that was what Wataru had been waiting for.
"Jump behind it!" he shouted.
There was a single instant when everything stood still. The man lifted his head from the wall, lips shaping around a command—but Kana had already sprung up, over the electabuzz and its shield, lashing out from behind with a metal-fisted strike. The electabuzz fell to its knees.
"Now use flamethrower."
For a moment, Wataru feared the charmeleon was out of fire at last. But at the sight of her downed enemy, Kana's tail flame swelled up. Flames gushed out from her mouth like a pounding waterfall. The high shriek of the electabuzz cut the air as the flames engulfed it. Kana continued the attack until her fire trailed off into hot spurts. She bore down on her charred opponent with a last metal claw attack that knocked it back several feet on the ground, where it didn't stir.
A buzzer rang.
"The electabuzz is unable to battle," the attendant's voice crackled through the speakers. "The winner is Fusube Wataru. The payout is 2,000 yen. You have five minutes to set stakes for another battle. Otherwise, please vacate the battle room."
The man in the tan trench coat recalled his electabuzz in silence. His cheeks were still flushed but his eyes were ugly. He strode from the room without another word.
Kana let out a loud yip of triumph. She turned back to Wataru, a grin on her face.
"I want to keep fighting with you, Kana," he said to her quietly. "But I have to save that miniryu. If you can't wait—"
But Kana shook her head, eyes bright. The battle had steadied something inside her. She met Wataru's gaze calmly and then raised a claw to clasp his arm. Wataru put his other hand over her claw, feeling the heat of her smooth skin. They stayed that way for a moment and Wataru felt something unclench in his own chest. Maybe the battle had done him some good too.
"Thanks, Kana," he murmured, casting his eyes down.
When they stepped out together into the hallway, Wataru realized their battle hadn't passed unobserved. Aki was there watching, and next to her, the floor manager in her pinstripe suit, her arms crossed.
Had he broken some rule? Wataru wondered, sudden apprehension mounting in his chest. If he got banned from the casino—
"Impressive charmeleon," the floor manager called out. "You come here a lot, don't you? Well, how would the two of you like a job?"
A job? Wataru stared at her. Aki flashed him a smile and nodded encouragingly. But Wataru dropped his gaze to Kana, silently asking her permission.
Only when the charmeleon gave a short nod did Wataru lift his head and say, "Okay. What kind of job?"
They gave Wataru a shiny red vest, as well as matching bowties for him and Kana. No matter what he did, Wataru's bow-tie hung askew. Aki tried to steady it for him the next day in the break-room, and for a moment, Wataru flashed back to Ibuki, adjusting his headband with irritated patience. Had Ibuki's miniryu evolved too? If only he had some way of telling her! If only Ibuki were here . . . They might listen then, about the miniryu; everyone at home had always listened to Ibuki.
"I didn't thank you yet," Aki said, giving up on the bow-tie and moving towards the mirror to check her kimono. "For yesterday. I can handle it most of the time, but people can turn so vicious so quickly . . ."
Wataru scuffed his new, shiny shoes against the carpet. "Well, I had to thank you too. For the juice."
A small smile broke out on Aki's face. She turned back from the mirror.
"You have a strange accent. What part of Kanto are you from?"
Her mouth formed a small oh. "You ran away really far."
When Wataru jerked up his head to stare at her, Aki flushed slightly. "Sorry! I didn't mean to assume. I just thought—"
"I didn't want to leave home." Wataru spoke louder than he'd intended. "I had to. Did—did you run away from home?"
Aki nodded, smoothing down her kimono as she sat down next to him. "My parents both died in the mines when I was little. I don't remember them at all. So I grew up in the Pewter orphanage. It wasn't so bad there, but you grow up knowing—I mean, nobody says it, but everyone knows—we were all supposed to work the mines when we grew up. I didn't want to. I don't remember my parents, but I always had dreams about the rocks falling and suffocating me, burying me in with them. Almost like their ghosts were calling out to take me back . . ."
As she spoke, her face went pale and her hands fell limply to her lap.
"I don't remember my parents either," Wataru offered. "All they'd ever tell me was that my mom was a gaijin. It's because of her that they sent me away," he added, and then faltered, surprised at himself. It felt strange to say that out loud. He'd thought it sometimes, in the long dark winter of Saffron. Uncle had denied it, but Wataru hadn't believed him.
"Did she die too?" Aki asked. The paleness had lifted a bit from her face. "Your mom?"
"I don't know," Wataru said. She wasn't part of the Dragon's Clan and for twelve years that had been as good as being dead. But Wataru was outside the Ryu's Gift too now. The thought unsettled him. Was he as good as dead to Ibuki now? When he returned with Toku a kairyu, would she look at him like he was a ghost?
"Do you like it here?" he asked Aki, not wanting to dwell on that thought. "Better than you liked Pewter?"
Her nod was energetic. "It's so much greener here! And there aren't rock-slides. Though . . . back in Pewter, I'd sneak out sometimes to watch the clefairy dance on the full moon. That's the only part I really miss."
Kana stuck her head around the door and let out a yelp.
"Break's over, I think," Aki said. They stepped together back into the clamoring room. Aki made for the bar, Wataru trailing behind. Kana headed in the opposite direction, over to the bouncers, and took up position next to a muscled machoke. The charmeleon seemed to enjoy the work, which mostly consisted of grinning menacingly and swishing her tail at passerby. Wataru was less fond of his job bringing people their meals. He couldn't forget that upstairs the miniryu floated listless and lonely in his glass cage. He'd thought the job might give him an opportunity to sneak the miniryu out, but the floor manager's kadabra had quashed that hope. The pokemon meditated with closed eyes at the center of the casino. It could sense bad intentions and teleport at the slightest hint of trouble. There was nothing for Wataru to do but grab another plate and wade back into the casino's glittering sea.
Wataru's first full night at the casino kept him until midnight. The second night stretched even longer. At breakfast the next morning, Wataru was bleary-eyed as he handed over his meal token, tuning out the cashier's friendly words, until—
"Good luck?" Wataru repeated, squinting up at her in confusion.
"On your battle," she said brightly. "The gym syncs the appointments with our system. You're due to fight Erika in two hours!"
The gym battle. In the haze of the past few weeks, Wataru had completely forgotten about it. But two hours—Toku and Ibuki were up at the river! There was no time to retrieve them.
Wataru wanted to meet the gym leader, though. He remembered how Hamako had spoken so passionately about the kairyu. He didn't think she would have let anything like the caged miniryu stand.
"Are you up to fighting all on your own?' Wataru asked Kana. He wasn't really surprised when the charmeleon answered with a confident yip.
At the gym, the attendant took his trainer card and then led Wataru down a long corridor, up an elevator, and onto a platform that jutted out over a grassy battlefield. Erika was a distant figure on the other platform. All Wataru could make out was the pink and green of her kimono.
"Good morning, challenger!" she said in a smooth voice, magnified by some hidden device. "I'm sure you've prepared long and hard for this battle. Impress me with your elegance and skill!"
Kana did win in the end, but the victory wasn't anything close to elegant. As Wataru slumped on the railing of the platform, still exhausted from the long night, Kana burned her way through a weepinbell, a tangela, and a gloom, keeping a wide distance from their noxious sprays.
From what Wataru could see, Erika was just as detached from the battle as he was. She gave a few commands, but mostly she stood there, and Wataru was sure that at one point she'd taken a quick phone call. When Kana stood triumphant over her last pokemon, and the field was a mess of sputtering flames and ash, Erika called out brightly, "Congratulations, challenger! Your skilled pokemon has won you the Rainbow Badge of Celadon City. I wish you the best of luck in your aspirations going forward!"
And that was it. Before Wataru could even try to make his voice reach the distant platform, he was led firmly away by the attendant, back down the corridor. A badge and a complementary perfume sample were pressed into his hand. Standing outside the gym, Wataru felt anger spark up through his fist, so intense that he almost cast the badge down a gutter. The perfume bottle he broke against the ground.
Kana let out a short whine. She lacked her usual post-battling cheer—perhaps because, like Wataru, she guessed that the gym leader hadn't fought them with anything close to her true strength.
"Let's get to the casino," Wataru said finally. The smell of jasmine chased them down the street.
Wataru was weaving his way between the slot machines, when Aki grabbed him by the arm, beaming.
"The dratini—" she began.
Wataru's whole body tensed. Had someone won him? Had they—
"I talked to the manager and she told me that they're changing its water tomorrow, early in the morning, and she said if you still have ideas about how to deal with that nasty flaking, you can try. Some professor sent a letter about it, or something."
Wataru stared at her for a moment, open-mouthed. His fixation on the miniryu was an open secret among the staff. But this was—
"Aki, thank you so much," Wataru said fervently, giving her a deep bow. When he finally got off shift, he raced off towards the river. It took hours for him and Kana to cart down the two largest stones they could carry, but at last the stones were safely stowed inside the casino. Wataru collapsed onto the break-room couch and slept, until a prod woke him.
The manager's kadabra jerked a finger, and Wataru followed it up to the Dragon's Lair, which was now roped off with a maintenance sign. The tank was connected to a large machine and the water was slowly draining. When Wataru had lugged over the rocks, the kadabra lifted the miniryu with a lazy wave of its spoon out of the tank.
For several minutes, the miniryu didn't move. He held himself completely still on the rocks, as if petrified. Wataru watched, holding his breath without meaning to, unsure how the kadabra would respond if he knelt down and gave the miniryu some comfort. Then the miniryu's tongue flicked out, once, twice, tasting the air. He bent down and licked the rock considerately. At last the miniryu began to wriggle and twist. Dead scales flaked away in massive strips. The blue of the scales underneath was still muddied with gray, but the scales were brighter and layered tightly.
"Hello," Wataru whispered, when the miniryu had finished his shedding and lay stretched out on the rock. "My name's Wataru. Toku, my best friend, was a miniryu like you. But she's a hakuryu now. She's so big." Tears were starting to poke at Wataru's eyes. "One day you'll be a hakuryu too. And we'll get you out of here, and you and Toku can be friends."
He didn't think the miniryu had heard him at first. But at last the small ryu lifted her head and examined Wataru with dull eyes.
"I promise," Wataru whispered. He reached out a hand to stroke her scales, but the kadabra let out a warning rumble. While he'd been watching the miniryu shed, the tank had been emptied and filled. The kadabra waved its spoon, and the same blue light covered the miniryu.
But this time, the miniryu resisted, his small body clinging to the river stone, struggling against the telekinesis with a thin, tormented whine. It was the first sound Wataru had heard from the miniryu and it pierced his heart. By the time the miniryu was again submerged, Wataru's face was wet.
That evening he stayed by the river, on the cold dirt bank. Toku wound herself around his chest and her trills lulled him to sleep.
Spring became late summer, though Wataru didn't see much of the sun. He was mostly a nocturnal creature now. His moods followed the spin of the slots.
One afternoon, Wataru pressed mechanically down on the red button—the kairyu roared; the lines spun. A column of miniryu, and another, and another, until the very last column jerked into place, its final slot taken by a grinning gold magikarp. Wataru stared blankly up at the screen, counting.
Fourteen. But fourteen wasn't enough. It wasn't enough!
Wataru punched his hand against the plastic belly of the kairyu, pain flaring in his knuckles. He stumbled outside, where the sun beat down on his back. The streets were busy and no one noticed him sink his head into his knees and sob until his shoulders shook.
That night, he had work. Wataru paced the game floor, angry and restless, aggrieved by every shout of pleasure or victory. As he turned, he caught sight of a stranger heading with purposeful steps down a small corridor. Everything down that hallway was restricted—only the managers went there. Tensing, Wataru whistled for Kana and followed the man at a run, catching him just as he approached the door.
"Hold it!" Wataru shouted. The man didn't turn immediately. But when he did turn, the motion was sudden, like the spring of an arbok. He was a tall man, dressed in dark clothes, with a cap pulled tightly over his face. Wataru could only make out a sharp chin, severe cheeks, and eyes that gleamed in the dim light. "That door's restricted," Wataru said. "Restricted to staff."
When the man spoke, his voice was soft and cool with incredulity. "I am staff."
His expression reminded Wataru of a kairyu he'd once seen, challenged by a miniryu over a juicy berry. The kairyu had stared down, arrogance mingling with disbelief at the miniryu's impudence. His wings had flared out; he'd raised his head and his chest had swelled. I am bigger than you, the posture said, I am stronger than you. I am your elder and your better and I know secrets you do not. So don't try me.
But Wataru was not a small, helpless miniryu. He tilted up his chin and said through clenched teeth, "I don't know you. So please show me an ID, or I'll escort you from the premises."
Still, the man stared. "Perhaps you don't know me because I'm well above your pay-grade," he suggested, dark amusement slithering through his voice.
He took a step forward and Wataru noticed the five pokeballs on his belt—not ordinary pokeballs, but the black and yellow ones only advanced trainers wore. Kana moved forward, a growl building in her throat.
"Executive Archer!" The floor manager and her kadabra had materialized in the hallway. "Forgive the wait, sir, I was only just informed of your arrival."
"Apparently, I am not permitted entry," the man said, his cold gaze not moving from Wataru's face.
The floor manager blanched as she looked between the man, Wataru, and Kana. It was the most extreme reaction Wataru had ever seen from her. She bowed. "Please accept my sincerest apologies for any rudeness you have experienced. This boy is new and doesn't know any better."
"He knows enough," the man said. "Enough not to let apparent strangers pass. I am impressed by the tenacity of your staff."
When his eyes finally moved from Wataru's face, Wataru let out a breath.
"My time here is limited. We'll speak briefly," the man—Executive Archer—said to the floor manager, who nodded and stepped past Wataru to hold open the door.
But the man paused a moment before stepping through. His gaze moved from Kana, whose tail-flame was still burning hot in anticipation of a fight, to Wataru's still-clenched fist.
"We will speak again," he said mildly. The door shut behind them with a metallic clunk.
A few weeks later, Wataru stepped out to leaves as red and orange as kairyu dancers. As the crisp air broke brightly against his face, a wild impulse seized him to race down the bricked streets of Celadon, climb the tumbling hills, and never return. He was tired of smoke and darkness, long nights and losing, the gray gloom that pressed down heavily with every new day.
When Wataru looked up, he found the red and black checked face of the casino staring back at him, impassive and all the same mocking. Because Wataru couldn't leave. He couldn't run away.
I swore it, Wataru reminded himself. He could still hear the miniryu's tormented whine as he was forced back into the tank. I swore it by the kairyu.
So once more Wataru climbed the marble steps. The darkness closed around him like a maw.