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Pokémon Dragon's Dance

Ch 4: The Gambler

Pen

the cat is mightier than the pen
Staff
The Gambler

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.

Plonk!

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?"

"Yes."

"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—"

"I am."

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?"

"Johto."

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.
 
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kintsugi

golden scars
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she/her/hers
Partner
silvally-grass
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.
extra space before the em dash here I think?
Also, fun detail. Wataru is learning but not fast enough lol

Lean and with windows like a hundred eyes, the buildings watched Wataru stonily as he trudged through streets already muddy with grey-brown slush.
lovely bit of description here

The thought annoyed him. They trained fighting-types, didn't they? If they wanted to keep their gym, they should have been willing to fight for it.
The link here isn't there for me. Wataru has seen tons of types of pokemon fighting for what they want, so the fact that it's just training fighting-types doesn't make sense. Maybe something about how they train their pokemon to fight with just their bodies, the trainers also work out with their own bodies, something else?

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.
oh baby that darkness isn't coming from outside

"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."
bureaucracy! I like how this ties in with magic being taken out of the world -- even battling is itemized and scheduled.

"Enjoy the sites of Celadon!"
sights, I think? sites could probably count but I don't think that's what you wanted.

Kana let out a startled hiss as the man brought the flame to his mouth and swallowed it in a single gulp.
omg this is such a good detail

Turning left from the stairway, down another dark corridor, Wataru came upon a sign whose glowing letters read, Welcome to the Dragon's Lair.
i feel like this is ripe for a foreign-language pun that's dragon's lair dragonair or something

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.
see it's ironic because last section wataru was a dragon who had not seen the sun and was slowly dying but just on the inside

"You're hurting the dratini," Wataru said, making sure to use the foreign name.
learning much but not enough

"At the Grand Royale Casino?" The officer straightened slightly and his voice grew cold. "The casino has a permit for Class X pokemon."
funny way to spell bribe
although! pokemon ownership permits!! will this become an issue later since presumably Wataru doesn't have a Class X permit? I get that he might not know this, but Okido or someone would probably point it out, right?

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, then Wataru would do what he'd always done. He'd save that miniryu all by himself.
good decisions only

The glowing display had four spinning lines, which each showed four images. To win the "jackpot," every single image of the sixteen had to come up with the face of a miniryu.
I admittedly don't gamble but I had a hard time wrapping my head around this--usually traditional slots have spinning reels and the wheels need to line up so you get 4 in a horizontal row? So you'd never get 4 in a column unless there are 4 in succession on each wheel, in which case the odds would actually be higher than if there was just 1 on each wheel and you needed to get 4 in a horizontal row. Can use pictures if you want.

Unless the point is that it's digitized and run by team rocket and it's rigged so you can't win? which I think is fair but they seem pretty smart in this universe so I feel like they'd be a bit more subtle.

"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."
This showdown was really a high point imo -- Wataru is very passive for the first half of the chapter, and even towards the end a lot of things just end up happening to him while he's chasing the miniryu, but this is a really good conversation for him!

"Bet you a thousand yen I'd win,"
The payout is 2,000 yen.
Continuity error or do payouts get doubled out?

It's tricky here since he definitely scraped that win out and it isn't guaranteed, but I feel like betting on battling would give Wataru what he wanted while also giving his pokemon (or at least Kana and Ibuki) time to fight/train? Not sure how much money he makes washing dishes but if 1,000 is all he has in his money pouch and he gets twice that in a match, it seems like compulsively entering a fighting ring and taking the profits would be a lot more appealing to our boy, especially since he has yet to lose and probably thinks he's hot shit.

They might listen then, about the miniryu; everyone at home had always listened to Ibuki.
yes like that time she asked them not to exile you

"Table six," she said crisply as Wataru jogged up. "In the red blazer and pink shirt. Low-level psychic. Deal with him quietly, that table has some high-rollers."
Wasn't entirely sure what his casino job was, actually? Is he just a bouncer/asks them to leave? It seems ... risky to have a small child doing that when the other bouncers are muscly men with machoke.

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!"
lmao

Some professor sent a letter about it, or something."
!! I liked this bit of continuity

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.
my heart

Once, Wataru had seen a miniryu scale a fruit tree, her eyes fixed upon an especially large and juicy berry on the outermost branch. Just as the miniryu was snaking her way down that thin branch, a kairyu plucked the berry. Indignant over this obvious poaching, the miniryu has drawn herself up and let out a long hiss. The kairyu stared her down, arrogance mingling with disbelief at the challenge. His wings had flared out; he'd raised his head and his chest 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.
I think this flashback could've been placed higher up? It breaks the tension up in this scene a little, and the flashback is longer than the dialogue exchange itself even though it takes up no time at all in the actual fic. I really like how you did the "the image of Toku in a glass cylinder" and then pulled it back at the end of that scene for emotional weight without referencing the full image; I think something similar would be more effective here and would let the scene flow more smoothly.

"We will speak again," he said mildly. The door shut behind them with a metallic clunk.
i really dig that there's at least "this is the last year i'll wear the miniryu blue" lines each chapter

So once more Wataru climbed the marble steps. The darkness closed around him like a maw.
good decisions club welcomes its newest member

Passage of time chapters are tricky. I think you did a good job of making it feel like things took a while without making the story itself drag; I'm starting to see what you mean by each chapter representing a different stage of Wataru's life. On the first read, the Saffron bits felt disconnected from the rest of the story, but after having read the rest of the chapter I think it's necessary to show Wataru tipping into a low point. I found myself wishing for more scenes that were repercussions of that low pointing--the actual scenes that get fleshed out he tends to still be driven to help others/winning at battles/having wholesome conversations with Aki--so it's a little hard to gauge if his character is changing throughout this or if he's mostly still the same.

Aki is a fun character. I like how, unlike the other human characters who have appeared in different sections post-exile, she doesn't actually offer anything that makes Wataru feel at ease; they just reminisce about things they miss and how life used to be better.
Aki???

I'm excited for the chapter where he becomes the president of bad decision club after discovering that his employer has an underground crime lab and uses toku to blast through the floor or something -- probably isn't covered in workman's comp
 

OldschoolJohto

Never not editing
Pronouns
She/Her
Partner
solrock
You’ve really risen to the challenge of bringing the setting to life in this chapter. Lots of lovely descriptions here, starting with your opening lines. The winter flashback was quite long though—when we came back to the spring in the present, I was disoriented.

This story reads very much like YA fantasy, but this chapter in particular was a juicy read because it’s fanfic. Throughout, I had this sense of grown-ass, E4 Lance superimposed over baby Wataru. The way he stumbles into the casino feels very appropriate for his experiences so far, but it’s also impossible to ignore that we already know future Lance will be fighting and hunting down the rockets who run the casino. We can see him building skills he’ll need later, learning by observing. Very exciting.

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.
I love that Toku reads as a little bit of a diva. I mean, understandably. And Kana reacting to the snowflakes a little like a kid Was so good.

From the first, Saffron City had been unwelcoming.
That checks out.

Entry into the city was funneled through a checkpoint,
Oooooooh

she'd let him through only after he'd paid her with almost all that was left of Uncle's money.
Shit. This is a nice setup for later when his goal hinges on money—a lot of it.

Their sensei had joined the Elite Four,
Nice. Is that canon? I don’t remember.

They trained fighting-types, didn't they? If they wanted to keep their gym, they should have been willing to fight for it.
This is so good! It feels both childishly simplistic and like a show of his character. Gotta be resolute to be a dragon master.

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.
Inject it into my veinsssssssss

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.
I love how he thinks of it not as a resource on pokemon but as “Okido’s book or whatever.” And this really speaks to Wataru’s loneliness. He still doesn’t trust Oak, but he doesn’t have anyone else to reach out to in this low.

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.
I appreciate how you use his team to reflect aspects of his own nature. And they really are a team! He keeps her in check, and she gets him out of bed.

too hot near the radiator and too cold near the window,
Apartment hunting MOOD.

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.
Oh I liked this nugget of world-building.

when he'd convinced her that he was good enough not to fall,
This feels like an explanation of how trainers in this world earn their partners’ trust and get them on their team.

Some hakuryu were rain-callers, Wataru recalled. They'd have to try it some time, see if Toku had the knack.
This is a nice way to justify having multiples of the same pokemon: they’re individuals with different skills! Is this foreshadowing for dratini-in-the-tank being a rain set? 👀

They'd survived their first winter away from home. From here, everything was possible.
That’s the spirit! (Wait til you get to winter camping, kiddo.)

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?"
Lol why on earth is Wataru not into corporations? I only see positives.

In Celadon Wataru glimpsed
I’m wanting a comma between Celadon and Wataru.

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.
I wanted more commas in this sentence too, after map and eyes. Maybe even splitting these sentences into two.

as if the city itself were one giant garden.
Sign me up.

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.
Ahhhh this is so nice in context. He’s really rejoicing in Spring, charmed by the city.

As his eyes changed, Wataru
Adjusted?

The people there were similarly intent, speaking in cryptic bursts
This was really evocative all by itself.

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.
I loved this image too, Wataru leaning on the banister. Showing his age a little haha.

But caution restrained him. He remembered the words on the miniryu's tank—"ultra-rare", "jackpot."
Probably being ostracized as a kid taught him a thing or two about what it means to be outnumbered. Good thing, too. He’s right—he doesn’t know he’s surrounded by rockets, but he does know he’s surrounded by bouncers.

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"—
This is cute. For all his fussing with her, Okido did care about her!

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?"
Oof. Thanks for the help, Oak.

I also appreciate the phrasing: 3rd battle, second badge. I wonder if that’s gonna bite him in the ass later.

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.
I was thinking this literally right before this paragraph hit, haha.

If no one would help, then Wataru would do what he'd always done. He'd save that miniryu all by himself.
I think these two sentences could transition a little better. He’s usually doing things by himself, right, not saving miniryu by himself specifically?

He only had enough money for one more,
Lol oh boy he doesn’t know how it works.

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.
This checks out. Two lineages.

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
I liked this transition a lot.

it's not enough to be strong yourself.
I think Lance is still learning to internalize this one.

Wataru met her gaze calmly and didn't flinch,
Another one of those moments when I was imagining Adult Lance superimposed on the kid. He’s not scared of a draconic hissy fit.

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.
Oof.

Maybe some fluff's gotten into your ears."
This felt a little game dialogue-y. Suggestion: “You got cotton between your ears?”

Bet you a thousand yen I'd win," Wataru said. It was all he had in his money pouch, but that part seemed unimportant.
Good decisions only.

Before Wataru could call another attack, the electabuzz took the offensive with a barrage of sharp-edged stars.
This passage flowed so nicely—felt dynamic and aggressive. I also liked that you chose to highlight not the matches that signify Lance’s “completion of the game” but the moments that show his growth as a trainer and his bond with his team.

Kana had abandoned all caution or restraint.
Nice—again, making Wataru’s role relevant.

They might be outmatched, but they could still win if they took advantage of his distraction, Wataru thought.
Nice. I love the trope of pride coming before the fall. Cocky trainer eats crow.

Wataru put his fingers to his lips. His whistle rang sharply through the battle-hall,
Ooh this was a good idea.

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.
I loved this moment. It also brought to mind the scene in Salvage where the child confronts Titan. ... Two kinds of people. 🙃

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.
Great descriptions. And the buzzer somehow really solidified this scene for me. Brought to mind like a Dave & Busters or a shooting range—bright lights and metal and maybe bits of trash pushed up against the grate.

But Wataru dropped his gaze to Kana, silently asking her permission.
Conscious decision to share power! So great that he didn’t take her compliance as a blank check.

They gave Wataru a shiny red vest and a bow-tie that always hung askew over his shirt.
That’s almost like a red cape, right?

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!
He misses her so much! :( I also thought this was a nice way to “hi hello this is not a ship.”

My parents both died in the mines when I was little.
F

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."
Okay, they can be friends now: she appreciates folk traditions and magic.

Erika was a distant figure on the other platform.
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.
Oof.

A badge and a complementary perfume sample were pressed into his hand.
Double oof.

The smell of jasmine chased them down the street.
I love this—the flowers and gardens have become completely antagonistic.

Some professor sent a letter about it, or something."
! It mattered! Goes to show Oak could probably have a little more influence than he thinks—but he wouldn’t have done it if Wataru hadn't asked.

tasting the air. He bent down and licked the rock considerately.
Consideringly? Or even, licked the rock, considering.

My name's Wataru. Toku, my best friend, was a miniryu like you.
Both so cute and so sad that Toku is his best friend. This guy needs more friends. And yet! Presented with Aki, he does open up ... but it doesn’t seem to radically change his life or his social structure.

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.
Oof.

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.
Very nice.

He knows enough," the man said. "Enough not to let apparent strangers pass. I am impressed by the tenacity of your staff."
Uh oh.

Though I agree with Kintsugi’s assessment that the story about the smug kairyu and the miniryu in the tree went a little long.

So once more Wataru climbed the marble steps. The darkness closed around him like a maw.
Great ending line! 👏🏻
I guess gambling towards a Goal might be keeping him from being addicted to the slots themselves—why would he continue once he frees the dratini? But he’s still totally sucked in.

One last thing I would’ve liked is a line or two talking about how the dratini in the tank fits into his daily routine as he settles into the casino. Does he avoid visiting him because it’s too painful? Or does he look in on him every day to keep the fire lit and to let the little guy know he’s not alone?
 
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zion of arcadia

Bug Catcher
Pronouns
she
I can't remember the last time I read a chapter this close to flawless. The way you set up conflicts, establish character dynamics, introduce exposition, and seamlessly blend these concepts together and build them toward an inevitable conclusion is incredibly satisfying.

Lance--Wataru in this opening section--is someone raised in a culture that treats him as an outsider. The natural dichotomy you explore, the subtle way he resists the traditional hierarchy while simultaneously operating within the systems of his home, is all laid out in a clear, digestible manner. When the people in Wataru's clan treat him wrong, he reacts. He runs away. He fights to get stronger. The pursuit of physical strength is Wataru's means of seeking validation from people who constantly deny it because it's something he has control over. The narrative both assesses Wataru's flaws and also how the environment he was born into cultivated those flaws. And these two opposing forces lead to his eventual exile.

His festival clothes didn't fit right. When he'd first danced the miniryu odori at the age of eight, they'd been too big for him; now the legs were short and the cloth of his tunic stretched tight across his shoulders. Even Wataru's clothes knew he was too old for this—why couldn't Uncle figure it out?
I love the mental image here. The unspoken subtext is that Wataru is on the cusp of adolescence. He might be aging out of the 'miniryu odori' group, but he's still quite young and immature. He's just caught in an uncomfortable transitional period. When he actually does the dance, though, Wataru briefly feels at peace and like he belongs with the rest of the group.

The Ryo Odori festival overall was delightful. I particularly like how you viewed two of the three dances through the lense of Wataru and Ibuki as characters (and Kana as the dragon tamer). I kind of wish that had extended to every facet, as kairyu dancers have no named participants compared to every other dance before and after. My only other complaint is that I wish the dragon tamer dance had a bit more lyrical flourish to it. The prose has a straightforwardness to it that I appreciate, but there was something almost clinical about the descriptions of the dance itself that failed to capture the mysticism and spirituality of the moment (the build-up to the dance was good though, using descriptions of time--such as the hoothoot or the dwindling flame--to create dramatic tension).

Toku is adorable, and her relationship with Wataru feels equal while still clearly framing her as inhuman. I particularly liked how you'd have Wataru converse with her and understand her without ever using dialogue on her end.

The mystery of Wataru's parentage is one I'm curious about. The way his uncle gets choked up about his father implies something must've taken place. I'm interested to see more of that in the following chapters.

Enjoyed the culture clash between Wataru and Airi. The clan seems to have much more of an emphasis on nature and respect for nature compared to the outsiders that enter the valley. I'm sure these differences will be examined more in-depth in the upcoming chapters.

"Miniryu? Oh, that's the name you have here for dratini. I'm a trainer too."
I like that they have their own names for the dratini line, but I did find it incongruous that Wataru referred to hoothoot by their English name earlier in the story. At the same time, the dratini line is revered and hoothoot aren't, so I can buy it.

Wataru eyed their downed opponent in disappointment. Ibuki would have put up much more of a fight.
I like to imagine he literally means Ibuki would've put up a better fight. The image of Toku sparring against her made me laugh.

But Wataru's mind was as blank as it had been that morning during his lesson. Only this time, he doubted he'd guess lucky. "Because —because —" They were staring at him, that same stare he always got. The one that said he didn't belong. "I don't know!" Wataru finally shouted. "Why shouldn't they see kairyu? Airi didn't bother them. He didn't throw stones . . ."
Nice callback to the earlier lesson. Also, I appreciated how so many elements setup beforehand clicked into place here. Wataru's stubborn, willful ignorance is finally biting him the ass hard. This is much more than being punished with extra chores. It's an organic, character-driven reason to explain the political position of the clan and their neutrality, as well as reference some of the political forces outside the clan. A lot of authors would've just put up a prologue or something, with these worldbuilding elements bluntly explained and devoid of any other narrative context until they're touched on again thirty chapters later or something.

The decision to exile Wataru is harsh and unexpected. I do wish the severity had been set up more. On first read, it feels like it comes out of nowhere--however, I also think the severity has to do with Wataru being a hafu. They wouldn't have done this to someone born naturally within the community. It displays the hypocrisy of the clan. Not to mention stripping a young boy of everything his identity hinges on is punishment to the point of obscene cruelty (doubly so since they already talked everything out with the merchant).

There are a couple of directions this story can take, I think. The most likely is a coming-of-age story for Wataru, whose exile leads to growth as a person and ultimately comes into his own. I could also see this having tragic implications, as the clan's harsh stance on Wataru might ultimately lead to their own ways being forcibly changed by outsiders. Regardless, I enjoyed it immensely, and I'm excited to read more and learn more about Wataru's fate.

Have a good day.
 
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Pen

the cat is mightier than the pen
Staff
@zion of arcadia Hi! Wow, it's an incredible treat for as a writer to get a reader who picks up on like everything you're going for! Thank you for the in-depth analysis here and I'm really excited for your thoughts in the upcoming chapters if you choose to continue with the fic!

Lance--Wataru in this opening section--is someone raised in a culture that treats him as an outsider. The natural dichotomy you explore, the subtle way he resists the traditional hierarchy while simultaneously operating within the systems of his home, is all laid out in a clear, digestible manner. When the people in Wataru's clan treat him wrong, he reacts. He runs away. He fights to get stronger. The pursuit of physical strength is Wataru's means of seeking validation from people who constantly deny it because it's something he has control over. The narrative both assesses Wataru's flaws and also how the environment he was born into cultivated those flaws. And these two opposing forces lead to his eventual exile.
All of this, yes. He's both fundamentally part of the clan's culture since he's known nothing else, and fundamentally separate. And absolutely, the pursuit of strength is the one place he can show that he's just as good as his peers, if not better. And of course, his tunnel-vision there comes back to bite him.

I love the mental image here. The unspoken subtext is that Wataru is on the cusp of adolescence. He might be aging out of the 'miniryu odori' group, but he's still quite young and immature. He's just caught in an uncomfortable transitional period. When he actually does the dance, though, Wataru briefly feels at peace and like he belongs with the rest of the group.
Yes and that sense of belonging is something he'll continue to chase.

I kind of wish that had extended to every facet, as kairyu dancers have no named participants compared to every other dance before and after.
Mm, yeah, I was worried about too many new names, but I'll think about ways to expand on the kairyu dance a bit. It's the dance Wataru is furthest removed from, especially since he has no parents, but the one he most idealizes.

Toku is adorable, and her relationship with Wataru feels equal while still clearly framing her as inhuman. I particularly liked how you'd have Wataru converse with her and understand her without ever using dialogue on her end.
Toku is a Very Good Snek.

The mystery of Wataru's parentage is one I'm curious about. The way his uncle gets choked up about his father implies something must've taken place. I'm interested to see more of that in the following chapters.
You will get answers there, but it will take some time.

Enjoyed the culture clash between Wataru and Airi. The clan seems to have much more of an emphasis on nature and respect for nature compared to the outsiders that enter the valley. I'm sure these differences will be examined more in-depth in the upcoming chapters.
My nickname for the next chapter is basically "Chapter Two - Culture Clash."

I like to imagine he literally means Ibuki would've put up a better fight. The image of Toku sparring against her made me laugh.
Thank you for the mental image, I cracked up so hard. Ibuki and her bag of laundry versus Toku oh wait that's next chapter

Wataru's stubborn, willful ignorance is finally biting him the ass hard. This is much more than being punished with extra chores. It's an organic, character-driven reason to explain the political position of the clan and their neutrality, as well as reference some of the political forces outside the clan.
I joke a lot about Wataru and the Only Good Decisions club, but more seriously, his flaws and limitations as a character are a huge driving force in the narrative and the story couldn't exist without them. This fic obviously comes from a place of admiration for a canon character, but he has a lot of growing to do before he gets there.

A lot of authors would've just put up a prologue or something, with these worldbuilding elements bluntly explained and devoid of any other narrative context until they're touched on again thirty chapters later or something.
Organic world-building is something I really strive for, so it's great to hear that worked for you.

The decision to exile Wataru is harsh and unexpected. I do wish the severity had been set up more. On first read, it feels like it comes out of nowhere--however, I also think the severity has to do with Wataru being a hafu. They wouldn't have done this to someone born naturally within the community. It displays the hypocrisy of the clan.
Yes. It's very fraught--Wataru really did mess up, but his personal mistakes can't be separated from prejudice towards him as a hafu.

Not to mention stripping a young boy of everything his identity hinges on is punishment to the point of obscene cruelty (doubly so since they already talked everything out with the merchant).
Identity, you say? That's not going to be a big theme in this story at all . . . :wink:
 
Ch 5: The Recruit, Part One New

Pen

the cat is mightier than the pen
Staff
The Recruit, Part One

Wataru dabbed the sweat from his face with a fluffy pink towel. With his free hand he tugged his bow-tie loose. He sighed. Friday nights were always terrible, and this one had been no exception. Wataru sniffed suspiciously at a wet patch on his sleeve, making a face at the sharp scent of alcohol. As he undid the final button on his vest, the manager's kadabra poked its snout into the break-room and jerked a finger pointedly towards him. Wataru was used to the kadabra's imperious gestures by now. He followed the pokemon without a word, Kana trailing behind. They took the elevator up to the penthouse floor, where the floor manager stood waiting.

"Mind your manners in there," she said to Wataru. Her eyes lingered for a moment on his undone bow-tie and her hand twitched, as if tempted to redo it, but she waved him inside without another word. Wataru found himself in one of the resort's deluxe suits—gold brocade curtains, a bed swathed in purple hangings, and a wide-windowed view of Celadon City.

The man standing by the window didn't match the room. He was dressed in black—not the satiny, midnight black of the dealers downstairs, but a drab, unremarkable black that faded into the shadows. His posture was straight, almost rigid. After a moment, Wataru recognized him as the stranger he'd confronted several weeks ago. The dark cap he wore still shielded his face.

When the man made no move to speak, Kana twitched impatiently at Wataru's side. A stray spark flitted from her swishing tail and fizzled out in the air with a sound like water hitting hot oil.

"Do you expect to make yourself rich here?" the man asked abruptly. He still hadn't turned from the window.

Baffled, Wataru shook his head and then, realizing the gesture wouldn't be seen, found his tongue. "No," he said.

"The thrill of the spin?"

The words were spoken softly, but the man articulated each syllable with cutting precision.

"No," Wataru said again, bafflement swelling slowly into anger. It was late. His shift was over. What had they brought him here for? What did they want from him now?

The man turned. "Then why in the world are you frittering away your life here?"

The question struck Wataru like a hammer.

"I'm told," the man continued, "that you are obsessed with winning the prize dratini. You understand that it's a farce, don't you? A simple lure to draw in players. Winning that jackpot is impossible."

Impossible. Wataru's mouth went dry. His head swum with the memory of fourteen miniryu faces, the mocking koiking that stared back at him from the fifteenth slot. Impossible. Six months laid bare with one disdainful word.

"Either you're a fool or you're desperate," the man said. "Well?"

What kind of question was that?

Wataru held his mouth shut, his eyes burning.

"Let me rephrase. Why is winning this dratini so important to you? There are other and better ways to obtain rare pokemon. There are certainly other ways to obtain powerful pokemon. I can see you've raised a strong charmeleon. I'm told you're a competent battler. You have options—"

"I don't have any option!" Wataru hadn't intended to shout. There was a rustle from the canopied bed and a houndoom poked its dark snout out from between the purple drapes. "I need to save him. Nobody here knows how to raise a miniryu. I'm the only one who—"

The man spoke over him. "Knows how to raise a dratini? Nonsense. If you're that concerned, you should be hoping an experienced trainer—"

"Experienced how?"

"More experienced than you—"

"More experienced than someone who's actually raised a miniryu?"

The words shot across the room like firecrackers. The man snapped his mouth shut and regarded Wataru with pursed lips.

"You're claiming to have trained a dratini? I don't believe you."

"I'm not asking you to believe me," Wataru answered, raising his chin. He was panting as if he'd just run a sprint.

The houndoom leaped off the bed and approached Wataru with loping steps. Reflexively, he held out his hand, which she sniffed thoroughly, studying him with penetrating dark eyes. At last, she let out a satisfied hum and his hand lowered tentatively to stroke her back.

"I've never seen Acova take to a liar," the man said, watching the movement of Wataru's hand with interest. "Perhaps I should believe you. And perhaps it would be in your interests that I do. I may be able to assist you in acquiring the—this miniryu."

Miniryu. The man pronounced the name awkwardly, with the odd intonation of a gaijin. But he had tried. He'd been listening when Wataru spoke.

Winning that jackpot is impossible. Those words held the inescapable ring of truth. The floor manager, Aki, all his colleagues—they'd teased him for his fixation, but none of them had mentioned that. Had they known? Had they laughed to themselves as he spun at the slots? Laughed at him?

"I don't trust this place," Wataru said quietly. "And I don't trust you."

A grim smile flashed across the man's shadowed face. "I don't take offense to that. This is a dreadful place. It profits off greed and desperation, the worst traits of humanity. Still, you can trust two things. First, that my acquaintanceship with the main business of this casino is entirely in passing. Second, that I have no interest in possessing another trainer's pokemon, no matter its species. The pokemon I train are loyal to me, and that is all I ask from them."

At his words, the houndoom let out an approving yip. Wataru studied the man again, his first impression coming back to him—he doesn't match this place. The man held his back straight like a dragon master and his voice was thick with disdain when he spoke of the casino.

Hope stirred in Wataru's chest, like the ripple of a pebble cast into an algae-choked pond.

"Come with me," he said, "and I'll prove it."

There was no way Wataru was bringing Toku within a mile of this place. But he could bring this man to Toku.

At Wataru's words, the man lifted his head. Amusement danced in his eyes, which shone a startling blue-green, like the oceans of Cerulean.

"Come with you?" he said softly. "You're quick to give commands." He smiled. "Come with you? I think I will."

~*~​

A pale moon tracked their ascent up the hills that bordered Celadon. The night air held a sharp chill, and the wind set the trees groaning. Dry leaves broke loudly under Wataru's feet, but the man behind him made no sound, following in Wataru's tracks like a shadow. Several times, Wataru found himself glancing back to make sure he hadn't lost him.

Water gurgled gently as they approached the broad expanse of river streaming out from the mountains. Wataru came to a halt by the riverbank. When he gave a short, high whistle, Toku soared out from the dark mouth of the cave like an unraveling silver ribbon. The man watched her curve through the air in silence. Then he took the cap from his head and pressed it to his chest. His hair, Wataru noticed, was the same blue-green as his eyes. Bangs styled into a triangle pointed sharply down his forehead. Below, his skin was taut and darkly tanned.

"Hello," the man said softly. "You're very beautiful."

"Her name's Toku," Wataru interjected, as the hakuryu let out a pleased trill at the compliment.

"Toku. A pleasure. And I am called Archer. I never introduced myself, did I?"

Archer. He enunciated the strange name crisply.

"But how," Archer continued, his eyes still fixed on Toku, "am I to know you are a competent trainer of dragons without a demonstration?"

Indignation flared in Wataru's chest, until he noticed the slight smile tugging at Archer's lips. "You want to battle?"

"I confess that I would quite like a battle." The houndoom at his feet stepped forward, her tail lashing through the air like a whip. At once, Kana let out a growl, her tail flame billowing, but Archer shook his head.

"The dragonair, please."

Wataru and Toku exchanged a look, and he felt a grin edge up on his face. How long had it been since they'd battled together, a proper battle, just the two of them? The exhaustion of the long night fell away, subsumed by a burst of warm adrenaline.

"Ready, Toku?"

The hakuryu let out a piercing trill and drew herself into a tight coil. As the houndoom loped forward, Wataru considered the terrain, which was clearly to his advantage. If they could force the houndoom into the river, the battle would be over before it began.

"Twister," he called out. At once a gale of wind surged towards the houndoom, who sprang to the side with a long leap. She'd dodged away from the river, Water noticed. "Send off a series of twisters, Toku—force her into the water."

Toku trilled her understanding, and the air became a sea of rocketing winds. The houndoom ducked and weaved between the gusts, but at last one buffeted her into the air, off-balance.

"Aqua tail, quick!"

Toku swept in, her tail pulsing with blue water. The houndoom was splayed out in the air like a koiking caught on dry land. Wataru could see the sequence play out: Toku would knock the houndoom down into the river, where she could engulf her with a dragon rage attack.

But Archer's voice cut through the night. "Flame up."

A tower of fire poured from the houndoom's mouth, impacting on the rocky ground of the riverbank. The force pushed her up above Toku's glowing tail and she landed on the riverbank a moment later, unharmed.

Wataru huffed out a frustrated breath. Although—the houndoom was only a few feet from the river now. Close enough now that Toku could use—

"Dragon rage!"

Four massive pillars of water shot up from the river, pulsing with green light.

"Feint—"

Archer's command was cut off as the water crashed down over the houndoom. A gust of wind whistled through the sudden silence, as stray water splashed down on the bank. Wataru and Toku watched the churning river, waiting to see if the houndoom would emerge.

Archer smirked. "Crunch."

What in the world—the shadows above the water solidified into the shape of a houndoom, who seized onto Toku's tail with gleaming fangs and slammed her roughly into the dirt. While Toku lay dazed, the houndoom bit down hard around her neck, using her back legs to pin Toku's tail. Toku couldn't whip up a twister, couldn't do anything more than squirm on the rocky shore.

But if she could do that much—Wataru recovered from his shock and shouted, "Thunder wave!"

Sparks began to flit over Toku's skin. Wataru saw the houndoom wince slightly and loosen its grip.

"Thunder fang."

At once, the stray sparks leaped to the houndoom's mouth. The houndoom bit down with renewed vigor, and Toku let out a sharp cry. She writhed, trapped, while Wataru looked on helplessly, scrambling for a way out.

The river surged up. A waterfall barreled suddenly out from the shadows of the cave.

Ibuki, Wataru realized, as the houndoom leaped out of the way, freeing Toku to dart into the air. Ibuki loomed over the houndoom, her massive tail beginning to glow.

Archer hadn't flinched or changed position. The man hadn't done more than raise his eyes to take in their new opponent.

"Feint and thunder fang," he said, almost laconically, as the gyarados' huge tail swung out. Wataru sucked in a breath as the attack seemed to connect, but an instant later, the houndoom emerged atop Ibuki's head and bit down with a mouth full of lightning.

Ibuki's howl jolted Wataru back into the moment.

"Stop it, Ibuki!" he called out, as the gyarados reared up once more with reddening eyes. "Toku's fine. This is a friendly battle!"

Gliding to Wataru's side, Toku reinforced his words with a soothing two-toned trill. A shudder rippled down the gyarados' long body. Her tail crashed back into the water, which slowly ceased to churn.

"I'm sorry," Wataru said, dropping into a hasty bow. "Ibuki's very protective and she—"

"So you didn't plan all along to begin a battle of two against one?" Archer said darkly, but when Wataru blanched, his expression eased into a faint smile. "There are some who would have set that ambush on purpose, and there's some sense in that. Still, I can see it's not in your character."

"That wouldn't be a fair way to fight," Wataru said slowly. The adrenaline was ebbing away, leaving the chill of the autumn night. He hugged his arms around his chest, wishing he'd thought to bring a jacket.

Archer's shoulders rippled in a shrug. "Some fights aren't fair. You should keep that in mind." He fell silent for a moment, looking thoughtfully up at the starry sky. "Gather some wood. It's too cold for my taste to linger here without a fire."

Wataru found himself springing to obey: the note of command in Archer's voice seemed natural. As Wataru collected fallen sticks, his mind flashed back to the calm way Archer had turned to face Ibuki. The man hadn't needed more than a second to shift his focus from one opponent to another.

"How'd you learn to fight like that?" Wataru asked when he returned with the firewood. Archer had staked out a spot just under the eaves of the cave, sheltered from the wind.

"Experience, necessity, and a very good teacher," he answered, arranging the sticks between a ring of stones and giving a nod to his houndoom, who lit the pile with a gentle huff of flame.

Wataru plopped down on the rocky ground. The afterglow of the battle along with the waxing warmth of the fire combined to burn away any lingering wariness he had. Toku curled herself around his chest, and Kana lay on her belly close to the fire. Above them all, Ibuki stared watchfully into the forest. Archer's houndoom had shoved her snout into his lap. Her chest rose and fell restfully as he moved his hand over her back. They sat like this for several minutes, the only sound the creak of the trees in the forest and the comforting crackle of burning wood. Archer broke the silence.

"I understand you're from Johto. Tell me, what has your impression of Kanto been?"

The blunt question left Wataru flat-footed. Kanto wasn't the Ryu's Gift. Those were the only terms he'd ever bothered to think in. As he considered the question, Saffron's grim gray skyscrapers flashed through his mind, followed by the crashing rocks of Pewter and Aki's pale face. He thought of Cerulean's tall lighthouse, full beaches, and skies empty of kairyu. He thought of Celadon's fragrant flowers and everything their fragrance hid.

"Kanto isn't . . ." Wataru wasn't sure he had the words. "When something's wrong, the leader or one of the dragon masters is supposed to fix it. But here, I don't think anyone does that."

When Archer didn't answer, Wataru wondered if he'd offended him. But then he spoke.

"Very astute. Kanto is . . . akin to a ship without its helmsman. She drifts rudderless through choppy seas, endangering her passengers, while those who should be steering play at petty games of profit. It is corrupt politicians and penny-pinching bureaucrats that steer this ship. They care little for the pains and struggles of those in their care. Little for their lives, even. I will illustrate my point. Are you familiar with the island of Cinnabar?"

Wataru shook his head.

"Cinnabar is hot and tropical. The island is blessed with warm beaches and plentiful fruit, but cursed with an active volcano. However, at the time this story takes place the volcano had lain silent for three generations, and the people had forgotten their fear of it. The islanders lived boldly on the volcano's base and often scaled those rocky cliffs.

"One day, the scientific observatory detected tremors that heralded a potential eruption. If their readings were correct, they had little more than twenty-four hours to prepare. Cinnabar is now, and was then, what some call a tourist economy. The island's main city was a mosaic of gleaming resorts and shopping centers. When Cinnabar's government got wind of the soon-to-be eruption, they moved quickly to evacuate these resorts and send their many tourists, holidayers and visitors to safety. But they spared little thought for the homes scattered on the far side of the peak. Why should they? The people who lived in these homes were poor. They made their living through fishing, weaving, and other menial work. They were . . . insignificant." Archer's jaw clenched and his eyes flashed, but his voice when he continued was level and gave no hint of strain. "No resources were spared to warn these people. In all the bustle, they were forgotten and continued as they always had. The morning dawned dark. A snake of ash and flame ran down the mountainside and swallowed them."

Wataru shivered.

"Eight hundred lives were lost that day. More lives would have been lost if not for Gym Leader Isami and her young apprentice. These two were skilled in the training of earth-type pokemon. Together, they faced the fiery snake. Raised mounds of dirt and stone. Diverted the magma flow. Saved lives. Leader Isami lost her own life that day and for that sacrifice her name is still spoken with reverence among those who call Cinnabar home."

Archer drew in a breath and then continued in a flat voice.

"Kanto is broken. Once, this nation was ruled by a council of four trainers, as wise as they were powerful, and the strongest of these was named champion. We live in a different age now. All hail the League—an endless hierarchy of bureaucrats, content in their petty tyrannies. All hail the so-called Assembly, nothing more than corrupt politicians who fatten themselves off of their people's suffering. And as for the gym leaders . . . we will not see Leader Isami's like again. Our modern gym leaders nod their heads at every injustice and hide in their enclaves. They are not up to the task."

Wataru thought of Muno, hunched helplessly on a rock; Hamako's tired face as she told her old stories; the ripped practice mats of the Saffron gym and the sweet-smelling, apathetic emporium of Celadon. Archer was right. These were not the kind of people who would take a stand against injustice.

"In my home," Wataru said slowly, "we understand that strength and wisdom go together. Only people who have trained a miniryu to a kairyu can join the council and make important decisions. But here . . . it doesn't seem to be that way."

Archer gave a sharp nod. "Your leaders sound very sensible. Indeed, Kanto could learn much from that arrangement. I help lead a group of people who share this perspective—an elite team of trainers, who wish to see Kanto's greatness restored."

"An elite team of trainers?"

The firelight caught off of Wataru's widened eyes.

"Yes. If you share our concerns and wish to fight for the future of this nation, you could join us. I was impressed by the skill you demonstrated tonight. Of course, you are from Johto. Perhaps our affairs are of little concern to you."

Wataru found himself shaking his head. "If something's wrong, I want to do something about it. That's what we—" He faltered. That was what members of the Dragon's Clan were supposed to do. Wataru wasn't, though. He was an exile. So what? I can still follow the kairyu. I can still do what's right. He met Archer's eyes with a determined tilt of his chin. "Injustice anywhere is my concern."

Toku trilled her agreement. The hakuryu also had her eyes fixed on Archer. Her tail moved restlessly over the rocky earth.

Archer regarded them solemnly. "I'm glad to hear that. We have a training camp for new recruits. If you truly wish to join us, I can bring you there."

Just as Wataru began to nod, he caught himself. Forgotten in the heat of the battle, Archer's story, and his sudden resolve, was the reason he'd stayed in Celadon so long. Wataru shook his head. "I can't abandon the miniryu," he said thickly.

Archer was silent for a moment. "I am not currently in the position to secure that pokemon immediately or unconditionally," he said quietly. "However, if you can prove your worth in the eyes of . . . those above me . . . by surpassing our other recruits in your training, I believe that the request will not be denied. Of course, I make no promises. But I will say, your odds if you continue on your current path are zero. Take the other road, and the possibilities are without limit."

Wataru stared into the sputtering flames of the bonfire. The wood was almost burnt through. He was pretending to consider, but he knew his mind was made up.

"I want to join you," he said. "And I will beat all the others."

I won't let the miniryu down.

Archer's face was cloaked as the bonfire receded to embers. But from what Wataru could make out through the gathering shadows, he seemed pleased.

~*~​

Three days later, Wataru found himself blindfolded and led into a small helicopter. Archer made no conversation during the journey and even if he had tried, Wataru wouldn't have heard it over the din of the engine, louder than a waterfall. He shut his eyes under the blindfold, trying to enjoy the sensation of flight, but the motion of the machine was jerky and uneven, not at all like the smooth motion of a soaring kairyu. Hours passed—Wataru lost count of how many—and then the noise abruptly cut out.

"You may look," Archer said.

They had landed in a sparse section of forest. The landscape was unremarkable, hard-packed earth scattered with brown scrub. Between thin pine trees, Wataru made out squat wood buildings. A scyther and a golem were squaring off in a cleared patch of dirt. Both their trainers, dressed in the same plain black clothing, had paused to watch the landing. Now their eyes were fixed on him with a scrutiny that left Wataru uneasy. He averted his eyes.

"You will join the fourth cohort," Archer said, coming up behind him. "Your training instructor will be Antares. She knows to expect you." He paused. "Ah, yes. You will need a new name here. Do you have any preference?"

Wataru shook his head. He was noticing more people now—some doing push-ups in the shadow of the wood buildings, others moving with speed among the pines.

"With your permission, then, I will pick one." Archer's eyes were cast a cool teal in the morning light. "Lance. Does that suffice?"

Lance. The name sounded sharp, like a single blade-thrust. The name of someone who wouldn't falter, who would always pick his path without hesitation.

"Yes," he said, taking a deep breath of the fresh, resin-scented air. "It does."

~*~​

Wataru—Lance, as he was introduced that evening—was the fifteenth member of the fourth cohort and the youngest. He spent that first day separate from the others, as Antares, a terse woman with lips that seemed carved into a permanent frown, ran him through an obstacle course he could only partially complete. Collapsed panting on the ground, Wataru sought out her face in alarm, half-convinced he was about to be sent back, but she only nodded and directed him to a shower room that smelled of sweat and mildew. Wataru was tending to a large stew-pot as the other recruits in his cohort filed in for supper, their faces flushed pink from exertion and the chill October air.

A barrage of questions hit Wataru as he navigated between them, straining to lift and pour the oversized pot. Did he know Executive Archer well? How young was he? Did he have family in the team already? How many badges did he have? How had he met Executive Archer?

It soon dawned on Wataru that arriving together with Archer was not usual for new recruits. His stomach sank as he hunched over his stew bowl, listening to the chatter ricocheting around the bonfire. Somehow, he'd managed to mark himself an outsider before he'd even begun.

After months of sedentary, nocturnal living, the routine of the training camp hit Wataru like the plunge into an icy lake. He was woken each morning at 4:30 to the teeth-chattering blackness of the barrack rooms. After the morning run, the day became a blur of physical sparring, tactics lessons and group exercises. On his seventh day in the camp, Wataru was finally allowed to join the battling practice.

"Partners!" Antares belted out, and the recruits split off into pre-defined pairs. As Wataru stood there, the odd one out, the past year seemed to fall away. He was twelve again, awash with the fragrant grasses of the Ryu's Gift, and no one wanted the hafu boy in their group.

A voice cut across the clearing. "Join us, Flame-head. Let's see if your fighting's as hot as your hair."

Wataru recognized the speaker as the trainer with the scyther from the day he first arrived. She had a short, flat face with a pugnacious chin and watchful gray eyes, but her most striking feature was the thick black braid that snaked endlessly down her back. When Antares gave a short nod, Wataru almost skipped across the clearing.

The trainer's scyther was quick-footed, weaving past Kana's every metal-fisted blow. That day's sparring was limited to physical moves only, a restriction that left Kana chafing, but Wataru found himself appreciating the rule. Kana had grown too used to relying on her flame—facing the scyther, she was forced to depend on agility and strength alone. Wataru broke into a grin as Kana swept out with her tail, tangling the scyther's feet, and at last landed a hit that sent the green-bladed pokemon down into the dirt.

That evening during dinner, the scyther trainer quietly made a place for Wataru on her log. She was eighteen, born in Viridian Town, and called herself Hunter. More information, she didn't offer, and Wataru quickly learned not to ask. That was fine with him—he didn't want to discuss the past much either.

In the weeks that followed, Wataru began to adjust to the camp's training regimen. He woke with a clearer head, his breaths came cleaner, he began to trust his arms and his legs, the agility of his own body. The long morning runs were no longer something to dread—Wataru came to relish that time, when the fog hung low on the trees, and the damp air tingled with the scent of pine.

Kana took well to camp life, though its discipline took some getting used to. In their second week, she continued to battle even after the sparring session had been called to a halt. For that, she and Wataru were given the 2:30am watch for the week, as well as an additional ten mile run for Wataru, and for Kana, an hour of endurance training under a cold shower. Toku struggled with the deepening cold, which left her exhausted and sluggish. She shivered in the open air and ended most battles with her tongue flicking rapidly in and out. But a month into the training, Toku shed. Her new scales were thicker and darker-hued. After that, she endured the cold more easily, and soon became almost impossible to bring down.

Free time was nonexistent in the camp—every waking hour had a purpose. But in the late afternoon, the recruits were sometimes given their choice of tasks. Whether it was scrubbing the lavatories or chopping firewood, Wataru always chose the same task as Hunter. At first, she didn't speak to him, only watched him sometimes with an amused smile. But over the weeks they fell into quiet conversation.

Hunter's hobby was the other recruits. She critiqued them to Wataru, identifying their battling weaknesses in a low voice: "That hypno's damn powerful, but have you noticed it freaks every time a combatant gets closer than a few feet?" Most of the time, Wataru hadn't noticed, but he did after she said.

"So what's my big flaw?" he asked her one evening, as they prepped vegetables in the kitchen.

Hunter didn't answer immediately. She chopped off the ends of her onion and then dragged off its crinkling yellow skin in one motion. "You expect battles to be straight-forward—two opponents meeting on an open field," she said finally.

Wataru shrugged. He didn't really see the problem with that.

Later that evening, her nidorina nudged him from his bunk and led him deep into the forest. Hunter stood waiting, flanked by her scyther and fearow.

"They always cut us off too early," she said, in a low voice that wasn't quite a whisper. "So let's finish out here."

These secretive, midnight battles became the most thrilling part of Wataru's week, even though they left him bleary and slow-moving the day after. They called their commands in hushed voices, so as not to wake the camp, and often didn't speak at all once their pokemon settled into the rhythm of battle. Wataru suspected that Antares knew about their curfew-breaking, but they were never punished for it. In that respect, the camp differed from the Ryu's Gift. Bending of the rules was allowed if that bending fit with the camp's larger aims. And, though Lance was by no means the fastest, the strongest, or the hardiest of the recruits, no one could deny that he and Hunter were the best battlers in the cohort.

From time to time, Wataru heard a helicopter in the sky. Archer never spoke to Wataru on these visits, but he would sometimes pause to observe the sparring matches. When Toku grounded Hunter's fearow with a twister attack that left the nearby trees shuddering, Archer gave a small nod.

~*~​

As the second month of training drew to a close, Hunter fell. She'd misjudged either the distance or her own strength on the obstacle course and landed heavily on the ground. An instant later, she sprang to her feet, but her jaw trembled and her right arm hung gingerly. When Antares led her away, whispers broke out at once about a broken arm. But when Wataru raced his way through his evening run and received permission to visit her in the infirmary, the nurse told him that the wrist was only sprained, not broken. Hunter would be forbidden from physical sparring and other heavy exercise. The arm would heal in several weeks.

Hunter kept silent as the nurse spoke to Wataru. Her eyes were fixed on the far wall and her leg tapped furiously against the side of her cot.

That night, Wataru snuck out of his barracks and over to the infirmary, where he rapped the window twice. He waited for several minutes, listening to the distant whine of zubat. Then a thump came from inside. Hunter took off past him into the forest, her hair streaming loose.

They fought without speaking. Hunter's eyes gleamed in the moonlight and the wind tangled her hair in front of her face. Her scyther struck out boldly but neglected to watch her flank—Kana somersaulted over the scyther's head and ended the fight with an iron tail.

"We concede," Hunter said flatly, the first words she'd spoken to Wataru since the accident. As the wind whipped up again, she pushed her hair out of her face with a disgusted scowl. "Undid my braid before bed like an idiot. Now I can't redo it, not with one good hand. Useless—"

She spat on the ground and turned away, tears sparking at the corners of her eyes.

Wataru hesitated. "I could—" Would she want his help? "My cousin Ibuki, she sometimes needed—I mean, I know how—"

"You know how to braid," Hunter finished for him. She stood silent for a moment and then let out a strangled snort. "Well, you couldn't do a worse job of it than me in this state."

She sat on a stump, and Wataru took up a place behind her. He split her glossy black hair into three parts and began to cross them, right over middle, left over right, middle over left. Their pokemon stood ringed around them like sentries, but the forest remained still except for the distant scrabbling of rattata. When Wataru reached the wisping ends of her hair, Hunter passed him a dark green ribbon.

"I never did this alone until I came here," Hunter said, in a low, reflective voice, as if to herself. "I'd always get one of my sisters to help—easy, when you have five of them. Five sisters, two brothers, and me. Hachi. The eighth. No one ever expects anything from the eighth, especially if she's a daughter. But I'm not washing out. I'm going to rank first in this cohort, hell, first across all five cohorts."

The moonlight made a profile of her determined face: chin set, eyes narrowed, lips pursed. Wataru said nothing, but his stomach twisted sharply. She couldn't rank first, because he had to. That was the deal he'd made with Archer.

The miniryu depended on it.

~*~​

Ten weeks after Archer's helicopter had first touched down, Wataru stood at attention with his cohort. December had cloaked the camp with snow. A few flakes spiraled lazily down as Antares spoke.

"Over the course of the past three months, you have trained, labored, and fought together, learning to work as a team. But the final trial tests your abilities as individuals. The task is simple; you must make your way alone across the wilderness to a certain destination. You will be given a token and an emergency flare. No traps await you except for the traps of nature.

"However, your fellow recruits will act in this scenario as your enemies. They may find you, defeat you, and take your token as proof. Rankings are awarded not based on how quickly you reach your destination, but by how many tokens you hold when you signal for pick-up. Of course, reaching the destination point, even without a token, is enough to qualify you as an agent. We will end training early today. Assemble here tomorrow at 4:00am sharp."

When she left, the recruits broke rank and began to chatter softly.

"No one reaches the command track without at least one extra token," Wataru heard Alto, one of the oldest recruits in the cohort, murmuring to his friend. "And if your token's taken—"

"A grunt's life it is," finished Opal, a grim look on his usually laughing face. The recruits around them let out playful hisses.

Wataru looked around for Hunter, but she had slipped off from the group. Eventually he found her in their battling spot, crouched over her nidorina.

"Come on, Mio," she was saying, a hint of desperation bleeding into her voice. "I know you've got it in you . . ."

Silvery light rippled across the nidorina's back, but faltered like a wave climbing too steep a shore. The nidorina let out a frustrated whine.

"Hunter?" Wataru said. She jerked her head around, relaxing when she saw Wataru and no one else. She unclenched her fist, revealing the glittering stone in her palm.

"A moonstone fragment, the biggest I could afford. The vendor warned me it wouldn't have enough energy for an evolution, but I thought if Mio became strong enough, it might not matter." Her laugh was harsh. "He was right. I was wrong."

Wataru stared at the glittering fragment, struck by a sudden memory. "H-hold on," he stammered. "I'll be right back."

Muno's gift was still there, buried at the bottom of his pack. Wataru raced back to Hunter and held out his fragment. "Maybe if you combine them—"

Her face lit up. She snatched the fragment from his palm and touched both stones to the nidorina's back. Wataru sucked in his breath as the silver light rippled out once more, wavering. Then, like a cup shifting from full to overflowing, the light spilled outwards into a radiant burst that left both of them blinking.

When Wataru's vision cleared, a nidoqueen stood proudly in the clearing. Hunter's eyes widened. She clasped Wataru into a quick hug.

"Thank you, Lance."

The words were jerky, as if pulled out from her, but her eyes shone.

Wataru managed a smile. Just then it had hit him that tomorrow they were supposed to become enemies. As he watched Hunter and her nidoqueen celebrate, that seemed altogether impossible.

Wataru sat quiet that evening through dinner, which was unusually good, with seconds served to everyone who asked. Afterwards, they gathered around the bonfire and grilled dango on wood skewers. The sticky rice balls burned Wataru's mouth. Their sweetness lingered on his tongue as he fell into fitful sleep.

~*~​

"Time."

Wataru jolted awake at the softly spoken word. But Antares had already left the barracks. All around him, the other recruits were swinging out of bed and running through their morning routines in silence. Wataru dressed slowly, silk underclothes, thermal pants, gloves, a facemask, and a thick coat that reached past his knees. Bundled up, the barrack room seemed stiflingly hot. All the same, Wataru hesitated by his bunk. He wished he could bring along Ibuki's hakuryu cloak, but Antares had been clear yesterday: bring nothing except yourself and your pokemon.

A frigid blast of air hit Wataru's face as he pushed outside, but the dark sky seemed clear, with no threat of a blizzard. Antares handed Wataru a bronze token.

"The coordinates on the token denote your starting point. You'll find your gear waiting for you there. Do not depart until you hear the bell." Wataru nodded and began to turn, but she clasped his shoulder for a moment. "Good luck."

Wataru caught sight of Hunter at the other end of the clearing, her eyes closed and her head tilted up towards the sky. Should he go over and wish her luck? As Wataru wavered, a piercing ring cut through camp.

Like the snapping of an elastic cord, the recruits scattered.

Wataru followed his coordinates south-west. He saw silhouettes on either side of him, but at some point they turned off or the tree hid them. A large rucksack awaited Wataru at his starting point. Inside, he found a laminated map, five days worth of rations, a knife, a marker, a rope, a headlight, and a lighter. Wataru smiled at the last item. Kana would make a far better fire lighter than that.

The map charted a fifteen-mile journey to a spot marked by a thick red x. The route covered only a corner of the map. The rest depicted blank, anonymous terrain. At the map's base lay a row of icons: a hollow tree, a fruiting bush, a rope bridge, a waterfall, and a stone tower. Five icons and five days rations—a day allotted to each one. Probably the next piece of the route would be waiting at the spot marked x.

The sky was perfectly dark. Hemmed in by the pines and set shivering from the chill morning air, Wataru felt submerged by a sense of vastness. He didn't know what lay ahead. And if he failed—

No. He couldn't fail. Lance was ready for this, even if Wataru wasn't. He hoisted up his pack and cut decisively into the snow-covered wood.
 
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OldschoolJohto

Never not editing
Pronouns
She/Her
Partner
solrock
I have precious little constructive to add here. This time it’s mostly wheee dragons! I was swept right up.

They took the elevator up to the penthouse floor,
Oh shit.

He was dressed in black—not the satiny, midnight black of the dealers downstairs,
This observation feels spot-on.

No," Wataru said again, bafflement swelling slowly into anger. It was late. His shift was over. What had they brought him here for? What did they want from him now?
This felt real. He’s been bottling up quite a bit—keeping his head down and his nose to the grindstone.

Then why in the world are you frittering away your life here?"
This shows a lot about Archer as a person. Backhanded compliments spoken softly.

Wataru held his mouth shut, his eyes burning.
*with tears? I feel like the clarity would help.

There are other and better ways to obtain rare pokemon. There are certainly other ways to obtain powerful pokemon. I can see you've raised a strong charmeleon. I'm told you're a competent battler. You have options—"
Ah, he thinks he’s recognizing ambition in him, huh?

I've never seen Acova take to a liar," the man said,
addhjhfshjjgf

Miniryu. The man pronounced the name awkwardly, with the odd intonation of a gaijin. But he had tried. He'd been listening when Wataru spoke.
Damn. This was a compelling way to sell the idea of Wataru’s respect for him.

"I don't trust this place," Wataru said quietly. "And I don't trust you."
Good plan.

First, that my acquaintanceship with the main business of this casino is entirely in passing.
LOL well, not a lie, is it ....

"Come with you?" he said softly. "You're quick to give commands." He smiled. "Come with you? I think I will."
The splitting into three bursts of dialogue is a little odd for me visually. Condense the first two?

Toku soared out from the dark mouth of the cave like an unraveling silver ribbon.
Lovely image. I was so stressed for her here, imagining what Archer might do. But I guess it wouldn’t serve him to unarm someone he wants to join his team.

The exhaustion of the long night fell away, subsumed by a burst of warm adrenaline.
Very nice line.

Wataru considered the terrain, which was clearly to his advantage. If they could force the houndoom into the river, the battle would be over before it began.
FISH FIGHTS ONLY 2020

Archer's command was cut off as the water crashed down over the houndoom.
I liked this grounding in the senses, the way it affects their ability to communicate with each other.

Archer smirked. "Crunch."

What in the world—the shadows above the water solidified into the shape of a houndoom,
Very nice.

But if she could do that much—Wataru recovered from his shock and shouted, "Thunder wave!"
Good use of showing us his thoughts. He’s pretty good at acting under pressure!

So you didn't plan all along to begin a battle of two against one?" Archer said darkly, but when Wataru blanched, his expression eased into a faint smile. "There are some who would have set that ambush on purpose, and there's some sense in that. Still, I can see it's not in your character."
“Some.”

Archer's shoulders rippled in a shrug. "Some fights aren't fair. You should keep that in mind."
Advice that will surely be relevant later in the course of their relationship.

necessity, and a very good teacher,"
👀

"Kanto isn't . . ." Wataru wasn't sure he had the words. "When something's wrong, the leader or one of the dragon masters is supposed to fix it. But here, I don't think anyone does that."
Damn.

But they spared little thought for the homes scattered on the far side of the peak. Why should they? The people who lived in these homes were poor. They made their living through fishing, weaving, and other menial work. They were . . . insignificant." Archer's jaw clenched and his eyes flashed, but his voice when he continued was level and gave no hint of strain
Ooh, hometown hints?

Gym Leader Isami and her young apprentice. These two were skilled in the training of earth-type pokemon.
I noticed we didn’t hear what happened to the apprentice. 👀 The description of how they worked to deal with the volcano was great.

Wataru thought of Muno, hunched helplessly on a rock; Hamako's tired face as she told her old stories; the ripped practice mats of the Saffron gym and the sweet-smelling, apathetic emporium of Celadon. Archer was right. These were not the kind of people who would take a stand against injustice.
Oof.

who wish to see Kanto's greatness restored."
Make Kanto great again. Red light, Wataru!

So what? I can still follow the kairyu. I can still do what's right. He met Archer's eyes with a determined tilt of his chin. "Injustice anywhere is my concern."
Aww, baby. He feels so young here. He really wants to help, but he’s not asking the right questions. But he’s got so much resolve!

Three days later, Wataru found himself blindfolded and led into a small helicopter.
Sounds great.

the motion of the machine was jerky and uneven, not at all like the smooth motion of a soaring kairyu.
Does that mean he’s ridden one before?

Lance. The name sounded sharp, like a single blade-thrust. The name of someone who wouldn't falter, who would always pick his path without hesitation.
YES.

the fifteenth member of the fourth cohort and the youngest.
Lol he graduated to the next dance class.

Somehow, he'd managed to mark himself an outsider before he'd even begun.
:c

Partners!" Antares belted out
I realized I had no mental image of her whatsoever. I guess she wasn’t the most important character here, but she was a floating head.

As Wataru stood there, the odd one out, the past year seemed to fall away.
This was handled so nicely. I know that feeling, the floor dropping out from under.

Join us, Flame-head. Let's see if your fighting's as hot as your hair."
Lol! Yup, kids.

That day's sparring was limited to physical moves only,
I was Curious how this would be enforced. The description of Wataru being punished later answers a lot of that, but ... it seems like there might be a fine line in some cases?

she continued to battle even after the sparring session had been called to a halt. For that, she and Wataru were given the 2:30am watch for the week, as well as an additional ten mile run for Wataru, and for Kana, an hour of endurance training under a cold shower.
Ooooof.

But a month into the training, Toku shed. Her new scales were thicker and darker-hued. After that, she endured the cold more easily,
I love the suggestion that, as much as Lance is being shaped by the circumstance he finds himself in, so are his pokemon. She’s probably better-adapted to cold than other hakuryu would be.

So what's my big flaw?" he asked her one evening, as they prepped vegetables in the kitchen.
I liked that he had the guts to ask.

They always cut us off too early," she said, in a low voice that wasn't quite a whisper. "So let's finish out here."
Oooooooh.

That night, Wataru snuck out of his barracks and over to the infirmary, where he rapped the window twice. He waited for several minutes, listening to the distant whine of zubat. Then a thump came from inside. Hunter took off past him into the forest, her hair streaming loose.
Bad influence! 😁

Her scyther struck out boldly but neglected to watch her flank—
This felt like foreshadowing and like a reflection of Hunter, too.

She spat on the ground and turned away, tears sparking at the corners of her eyes.
*sparkling?

Wataru hesitated. "I could—" Would she want his help? "My cousin Ibuki, she sometimes needed—I mean, I know how—"
💔💔💔💔

Their pokemon stood ringed around them like sentries, but the forest remained still except for the distant scrabbling of rattata.
Ooh, spooky and lovely.

She couldn't rank first, because he had to.
That awkward feeling when ....

However, your fellow recruits will act in this scenario as your enemies. They may find you, defeat you, and take your token as proof. Rankings are awarded not based on how quickly you reach your destination, but by how many tokens you hold when you signal for pick-up. Of course, reaching the destination point, even without a token, is enough to qualify you as an agent. We will end training early today. Assemble here tomorrow at 4:00am sharp."
👏🏻

A moonstone fragment, the biggest I could afford.
Oof.

Wataru stared at the glittering fragment, struck by a sudden memory. "H-hold on," he stammered. "I'll be right back."
My heart. I think I’m feeling sensitive to unequal friendships right now (and distrusting her because I know what it means to be a Rocket more than Lance does) but I’m noticing how much he gives her. But she’s not necessarily giving him the same back. She invited him into the circle once, and that’s all it took to make him fixate, because he so badly doesn’t want to be the outsider. Their sparring will serve him well though, for sure.

I’m also wondering if it’s gonna bite him in the butt later being a badge short.

Then, like a cup shifting from full to overflowing,
Nice!

Like the snapping of an elastic cord, the recruits scattered.
This one didn’t quite work for me.

Probably the next piece of the route would be waiting at the spot marked x.
At first it wasn’t clear that the 15-mile route was only that day’s journey. I thought the blank map was meant to evoke the other recruits on parallel tracks.

Lance was ready for this, even if Wataru wasn't.
So good. And so relatable!

The one thing I felt I was missing here was an indication of whether he’s reminding himself of the miniryu in the tank to keep himself on course. We get a little bit with his “uh oh, we both watch to win” with Hunter, but that’s all.

VERY excited for part 2.
 
  • Quag
Reactions: Pen

Adamhuarts

Mew specialist
Pronouns
He/Him
Partner
mew
Read the first chapter for catnip, but after being this gripped by the story, I doubt it'd be the last time I take a look at this story :quag:.

I found Wataru, or Lance rather, to be a pretty relatable character. His feelings of being a bit of an outcast, his desire to prove himself, and the recklessness of his actions. They're all believable things for someone his age.

The dragon dancing festival was also a joy to read through and you managed to paint a pretty vivid image in my mind through the descriptions, so well done on that. I thought the story was going to lead up to Wataru eventually doing the dragon dance as well, but alas it's not to be because he's been exiled.

It feels a bit weird that he's being exiled though. Like nothing stops him from just spreading everything he knows about the village out of spite when he's in the outside world, though it depends on where he's being exiled too. Seeing him separated from Toku was pretty sad, but I hope they reunite somewhere down the line.

You've got a pretty great story going here, Pen. I look forward to seeing where it goes.
 
Ch 5: the Recruit, Part Two New

Pen

the cat is mightier than the pen
Staff
The Recruit, Part Two

The sun had risen, casting out scarves of red and orange, and still Lance had not seen another soul. Kana marched at his side. Her tail-flame had been a guide in the thick predawn gray; now, in the light of day, it was merely a reassurance. Toku glided overhead. Swaddled in Lance's scarf, she looked perhaps less dignified than a hakuryu should, but was undoubtedly the warmer for it. Better for his pokemon to be out and ready. He had no way of knowing how close the other recruits were—no way of knowing when their paths might suddenly cross.

Late-morning, a light snow began to fall, deepening the hush of the forest. The wild pokemon were closeted away in their dens. A single rattata broke cover to scuttle quickly across the silvery dusting of snow, leaving maple-leaf patterned tracks. Lance glanced backwards, where his own tracks stretched out. Should he be covering them? But the snow would do that job soon enough, and anyway, Lance wasn't averse to being found. Being found would mean a battle, and a battle would mean a token.

He walked on, weighed down by his pack but refreshed by the quiet beauty of the landscape. The light had turned dusky when he noticed the trees beginning to thin out. A forest fire, Lance determined, seeing the scorched bark, but it must have been some time ago. New trees had begun to shoot up, their slender trunks already taller than Lance. Ahead in the distance, a massive oak stood alone at the center of a wide clearing. Lightning had cleaved a gaping hole into its broad trunk.

Lance's mind flashed to the icons on his map. This must be the first waypoint! But he checked his excitement, scanning the ground that lay between him and the oak carefully. Circling the perimeter, he found tracks leading out from the oak, but they were not the fine-grooved imprints of human hiking boots. These were three-toed, with a size that suggested their owner would tower above Lance.

"Toku, can you see if anything is waiting inside there?"

After a tense few minutes, the hakuryu gestured him forward with her tail. When Lance poked his head inside the hollow, he was hit with the scent of musty, rotted leaves and another, ranker odor that put Lance in mind of dried blood. The hollow gaped wide enough for two kairyu to slumber there comfortably. Matted fungi, large leaves, and bits of rags were heaped to one side. Opposite, Lance caught a glint of bronze. He hoisted himself inside and found a bronze weight holding down a laminated map.

The map was to the same scale as Lance's, and indeed, was identical in almost every respect, except that where Lance's map showed a red x marker, this one showed the icon of a hollowed oak. From the oak, a route curved westwards, ending in another x. The next waypoint!

Lance hesitated. His pack contained a black marker. He could mark this new route without taking the map with him. Maybe he was meant to. Antares had instructed them to take each other's tokens, not leave the others stranded in the woods. As he rippled the map through the air, it occurred to Lance that he was probably not the first recruit to face this choice. He knew his legs were shorter than most of the others and he had far less experience with winter hiking. At least one person, maybe many more, had already held this map, and decided to leave it behind. He thought he knew why. This hollow made a bad place to lay a trap. There was nowhere to hide except in the hollow itself and, remembering the tracks outside, Lance doubted that was the smartest idea. Better to leave the map, and hope to seize some tokens later on, when the recruits converged at a later waypoint.

After copying down the map, Lance continued a few miles along the new route until he spotted a divot sheltered by two closely entangled trees. He staked his tent, finished the first day's rations, and fell to sleep snug in his sleeping bag with Toku, Kana splayed out over them like a gently-breathing heater.

He woke to a soft thump. Poking his head out, Lance saw that it had snowed heavily during the night. Only the dense branches of the trees above had prevented his tent from being completely buried. As he stared out at the glittering white landscape, Lance realized he'd been laxer than he ought to have been. He should have set a watch. The silence of the first day didn't mean no one was around—it just meant Lance hadn't seen them. For the rest of the day, he kept on higher alert as he trudged through the thick snow. But the landscape remained hushed around him, and the sky clear.

Towards evening, the ground sloped downwards, into a valley where the trees grew thicker and closer. As he continued, the branches intertwined as if grasping hands, to form a structure like a tunnel. The light cut out as Lance passed underneath. Inside, the air was warmer, stiller, and somehow thicker. Bright yellow husks hung on all sides—he'd entered a beedrill grove.

"Carefully, Kana," Lance whispered. A stray ember could bring the whole swarm down on him.

Kana's tail-flame cast a dim, wavering glow, illuminating pitted tree bark, large, heart-shaped leaves, and dark red berries. Lance's footfalls were muffled by the peat that covered the ground. He craned his head around the tree tunnel, but no telltale glint of bronze caught his eye.

As he quickened his pace, the ground shifted under him. A hard root closed tight around his leg and jerked him upward. Reflexively, Lance splayed his hands outward to steady himself, but they swung through the empty air like helicopter blades. Heat bloomed against his side; he turned his head to see a massive flame building in Kana's mouth.

"No!" he cried out shrilly. This grove would go up like tinder if she let the flame loose. "Swallow it, Kana!"

The charmeleon choked back on the flame. She clamped her mouth shut, face contorting. Acrid-smelling smoke dribbled from her clenched jaw, but not a single spark.

Lance expelled a shaky breath. A trap. He and Kana hung upside-down in the grip of tough vines. Toku, who had escaped the trip-wire, blinked quizzically at them from where she hovered in the air.

"Cut us loose," Lance almost said. But this was a trap. Someone had set it, and that someone couldn't be far away. They'd approach to deal with their catch. Then Toku could deal with them.

"Hide in the trees," Lance whispered. He thought he caught a shuffling sound in the distance. "Don't flame, Kana, whatever you do."

Yes, those had to be footsteps. Lance tensed to call out for Toku—

"Sleep powder," a low voice commanded.

A warm tingle bit into Lance's exposed skin. A massive yawn knocked his head to the side.

"The butterfree," Lance began, but his tongue was too heavy to finish the command. Sleep surged remorselessly over him.

~*~​

Lance woke to darkness. His head was fogged, and a giant root dug painfully into his back.

"Toku?" he said. And then it came back. The trial. The second way-point. The butterfree. He scrambled to his feet, straining to penetrate the thick darkness. "What happened?"

Toku's answering trill was muted. He followed the sound of her voice, tripping over his pack in the process. Inside, he found his head-light and tugged it over his head. The yellow light spilled out over an unconscious body. Freckle-dusted face, with bleached hair tied back in a ponytail—Opal. A butterfree, a weepinbell, and a golbat lay slumped a few paces away.

"You beat them!" Lance said in surprise. From the dispirited tone of Toku's voice, he'd thought the battle had gone the other way. Light flickered in the distance and resolved into Kana's shape. The charmeleon's mouth stretched wide in a yawn.

They found Toku huddled on a makeshift nest of fine-haired moss. At first, Lance didn't see any sign of injury, but at last he noticed a long, deep cut across her back. The skin around the cut had turned an unsettling purple.

"The beedrill attacked?" Lance said, dropping his voice to a hush midway through the question. When Toku nodded, he glanced around nervously, but the yellow cocoons hung silently and the leaves didn't stir. "I think you've been poisoned."

Poisoned. What were they going to do?

The hakuryu didn't answer, just coiled herself tighter with an unhappy whine. Lance stumbled back over to Opal's unconscious form. Inside the other recruit's pack, he found three bronze tokens and a map depicting the route to the next waypoint. This, along with an extra day's worth of rations, he shoved into his own pack.

"We should go," Lance said, half to his pokemon, half to himself. Everything felt fuzzy, and his legs dragged like weights. Sleep spore attacks on humans could have an after-effect of up to twelve hours, he remembered from training.

He glanced uneasily at Opal. The two of them had never talked much, but Opal had been at the center of the dinner conversation every night, cracking jokes that sent the other recruits roaring with laughter, though honestly, Lance had never been able to make sense of the humor. Should Lance leave him here, or send up a flare? If he sent the flare, Opal would be taken back to the camp and Lance wouldn't have to worry about sudden sleep powder attacks. But Opal would lose his shot . . .

"Let's go," Lance murmured. He picked up Toku, who lay limp and heavy in his arms. Ten minutes later, they broke out into dark, frigid air. Shivering, Lance was tempted for a moment to turn back into the grove's musty warmth for the night. But that would be too risky. Another recruit could come or Opal could wake up.

They had a bigger problem, though. Toku was poisoned. Their packs hadn't come with any antidotes and Lance had no idea where, if at all, berries grew here that could cure the beedrill's toxin. Shelter first. He stumbled onwards for almost a mile, relying on the faint beam of his headlight and the full sky of stars to pick his path. Kana was too sleepy to walk.

At last Lance pitched tent at the base of a broad oak, ringed by thick bushes, and called out Ibuki to stand guard, even though the gyarados was anything but inconspicuous. Toku was still coiled tight, moaning faintly, Kana had fallen asleep the moment she hit the ground, and Lance could barely keep his own eyes open.

Later, Lance woke abruptly. He held still for a moment, straining to catch footsteps. Nothing, but as he glanced blearily around the low tent, he realized Toku was gone. Wiggling out of his sleeping bag and pulling on his coat, he stepped outside. He found Toku pressed against a tree trunk, her face twisted in concentration.

Shedding, Lance realized, as he bent closer, but this wasn't a normal shedding. The shed layer of skin was unusually thin and purpled in hue. A half-remembered story from one of Elder Kyo's lessons surfaced in Lance's mind of a poisoned hakuryu that had shed his illness.

Toku was doing the same, but the toll it was taking on her was obvious. Lance kept the hakuryu company for another hour. In a low, lulling voice, he spoke mostly nonsense, fragments of stories from the Ryu's Gift, new stories he'd heard in the training camp. "And when we come first in the rankings, Toku, the miniryu will join us. That'll surprise everyone back home, won't it?"

At last, sleep and the deepening chill forced Lance back into the tent. When he woke again, the sun was already blazing low in the sky. Toku's shedding was complete, but the hakuryu seemed as weak as a miniryu. She flinched terribly against the cold wind, her skin raw and sensitive. Lance undid his coat for her to rest inside, but the extra weight slowed him down, especially as the terrain began to turn mountainous.

The route climbed upward—Lance stuck on his crampons and began his ascent. He soon realized the full sun was no blessing. The ice that had formed overnight grew slippery and treacherous as it began to melt. When he grew weary of his slip-slide progress, Lance ordered Kana to burn the ice off the path. After that, the walk was wet and muddy, but at least his feet no longer wheeled out from under him. They found shelter that night in a small alcove carved into the mountainside. This time, they all took turns at watch. Lance's turn fell in the deep of night. He stared out into the inky blackness, straining his ears for the sound of footfalls, but he heard nothing except the occasional crash of rock and the scratching sounds of digging far away.

Once more, the day dawned clear. Lance set a hurried pace up the mountain path. He had been overtaken in the night by the uneasy sense that everyone was ahead of him. When he came to a clear open bend, he looked back out over the broad span of forest he'd already crossed, wondering if he would spot another recruit—Opal, perhaps—on his trail. But if anyone was moving far below, he didn't see them. As Lance lingered, it hit him that his position was open in more ways than one. He could see everything from here—but he could also be seen. He tilted his head up. Directly above him, perhaps a half-mile upwards, the black silhouette of a recruit was visible against the red-brown rock. Over the distance, their features were impossible to make out, but their gaze seemed to lock onto Lance's face.

A crack split the air. A moment later, the sky above Lance filled with dark shapes.

Clouds, he thought absurdly, but heavy.

Time slowed to a sap-trickle. The narrow path had no alcoves. He stood flanked by sheer cliff and empty air.

"Twister!"

Lance heard his own strangled shout as if from a distance. A vortex burst from Toku's tail with such force that Lance staggered. As air met rock, he flashed to their first gym battle. The stones had crashed down anyway, the twister hadn't held—

But here it held. Her face tight with concentration, Toku jerked her tail to the side, and the whirling mass of rocks followed. A silence stretched like an indrawn breath, and then a crash shook the mountain. Lance stood frozen as the reverberations slowly died away. When he looked back up, the figure had vanished. Did they expect to get away with that? Lance thought, sudden fury churning in his stomach.

"Get them, Toku."

The hakuryu shot upwards. Lance took off at a sprint up the steep path. Twice he slipped and fell on the ice-slick rock, scraping his face and hands, but he continued to run, propelled by the hot aftershock of panic, ignoring the cramping of his stomach and the shortness of his breath. Twenty minutes later, he rounded a bend onto a wider outcrop to see Toku facing a towering wall of ice. Behind it, Lance made out the face of another recruit, a dewgong, and a golem.

Delphin. She stood a foot taller than Lance; her eyes were wide-set and her hair was cropped close to her scalp. Lance had been paired a few times with her dewgong. "Too scared a stray attack's gonna hit her to give proper commands," had been Hunter's scathing evaluation of her battling, and Lance hadn't disagreed. She blanched now as she caught sight of him.

"You're all right!" Delphin's voice came muffled from behind the ice wall. "I-I'm sorry, I didn't mean—"

"To send the mountain down on me?" Lance finished for her. "Metal claw, Kana."

The charmeleon broke the ice-wall with one blow and planted herself menacingly over the dewgong, fist alight. Lance's mind worked furiously. With Toku so weak, the dewgong's ice attacks could be deadly. But Delphin didn't know that. If she thought they were at full-power, maybe she'd give in without a fight.

"Give me your token and I'll let you go."

Delphin stared at him. "I can't," she said slowly. "Mine's already gone. I—"

"Opal got you?" Lance blurted out, his mind flashing back to the two extra tokens in Opal's back.

A startled look crossed her face. "Yeah," she said after a moment. "Listen, I really wasn't trying to—" She shook her head as if at a loss for words. "I just panicked."

"Recall your pokemon and roll their pokeballs to me."

When she hesitated, he nodded to Kana, whose tail-flame flared.

Delphin raised her hands hastily. "Okay!" She recalled the golem first, then the dewgong.

"Your third?" Lance asked, as he picked up the two pokeballs.

"She's just a venonat, not a fighter—"

"The venonat too." Was he making the right choice? Lance suspected Hunter would have already knocked Delphin out. "Walk ahead of me."

They set off in a silence cut only by Lance's heavy breathing. His sprint up the steep mountain path had been misjudged. Delphin's legs were longer than Lance's, and the pace she set made his sides burn.

Three hours later, the path fell abruptly into a chasm. Two wood posts stood three feet apart, but the rope bridge that had once stretched between them lay in tatters. Nature? A badly-placed battle? Or deliberate sabotage from a recruit who had already passed through? Lance searched the nearby crevices for a bronze weight and map, but he found nothing. Delphine crouched by the two posts, examining the rope tied to them.

"Anything?" she asked, as Lance came up behind her.

"No. How's the bridge?"

Delphin shook her head. "Impassible. But—" She got up slowly, posture deliberately unthreatening. "I think Kioshi could get us across. My dewgong."

Lance hesitated. There was no way Toku could carry him all the way across right now. "What did you have in mind?"

"An ice-bridge. I've used them before. Kioshi can make her ice strong enough to support my weight."

"Fine." He tossed the pokeball to her, watching closely for any sign of a sneak attack, but Delphin ignored him. The bridge her dewgong shaped was two feet abreast and slightly convex.

"I can go first, if you don't trust it."

"You go first," Lance said, "but your pokemon stay here."

He couldn't help holding his breath as she slid across the bridge, but the ice held steady beneath her. She gave Lance a small wave from the other side.

He recalled Kana and the dewgong, and sat gingerly down on the ice. Even through his layers of clothing, the cold was palpable. The journey lasted less than a minute, but that minute was terrifying and exhilarating in turn. He slid frictionlessly across the ice, wind whipping past his ears, aware that all that separated him from a thousand-foot fall was the skill of a trainer he hardly knew.

The rocky ground of the opposite side felt blissfully firm under his feet as he stumbled off the slide. When he looked up, Delphin was watching him warily. He managed a small smile.

"Thanks. I'm not sure how we'd have crossed without you. When we get off the mountain, I'll give you your pokemon back. Neither of us knows where to go next, so let's just go our separate ways, okay?"

Delphin smiled too. "Thanks," she said, relief clear in her voice. "That's fair."

The descent down the mountain took another three hours. The sun was almost completely sunk when they split ways.

"Good luck," Delphin said.

"You too."

And then she was gone, and Lance stood alone in the dark. He'd passed the third waypoint, but had no map to show for it. From here, the path was unknown.

~*~​

A waterfall. That was the key. Lance and Toku spent the next day in search of running water. At last Toku located a small stream, which they followed until it joined a broader, fast-moving river. Here Lance grinned. Ibuki materialized in the water with a loud roar, and cut northwards against the icy current. Lance draped himself against her smooth scales, grateful for the respite. Between the aftermath of the sleeping spore and his panicked run up the mountain, his whole body ached. The sound of Ibuki cutting through the water was soothing, and before Lance knew it he had drifted asleep.

He woke to the crash of a waterfall. The tall, white cascade was a relief to see, but as Lance looked around he began to wonder where the map could be hidden, if it was there at all. When he posed the question out loud, Ibuki spun round and whipped her tail out, cutting the waterfall's flow for a second. Lance had a brief impression of gloomy vastness before the crash of the water resumed.

"Behind the waterfall? Okay. Toku, can you cut an opening with a twister? Then Ibuki, dive through."

She leaped through the scattered spray into a dark wide cave. The water continued for several feet and then climbed into rocky shore. As Lance swung himself off Ibuki's back, a low moan rose from deeper within. Lance froze. Another trap? He edged forward cautiously, his headlight illuminating the rock step by step. A figure was swaddled in a sleeping bag against the back wall of the cave, as far from the water as possible. Sweat glinted on his forehead and his eyes were squeezed shut.

"Alto?" Lance whispered, recognizing him as one of the oldest recruits in the cohort. His forehead was hot against Lance's palm. "What happened?"

Alto blinked twice, squinting slowly up at Lance. "Climbing," he rasped. "Climbing the cliff. A water demon leaped out. Fangs and blue scales. I lost my grip . . ."

"A gyarados attacked you?"

"A water demon. Broke my arm, I think. It wanted to eat me, but my pokemon held it off. Exhausted them. If it comes back, I don't know—"

"Gyarados don't eat humans," Lance said sharply. Alto's fevered state unnerved him. "Can you get up? We need to send your flare."

Alto's eyes widened as he stared over Lance's shoulder.

"It's come back," he whispered, stiffening.

He must have finally noticed Ibuki. Lance turned to wave her out of sight, and saw the water was churning up in the pool. Ibuki sank down suddenly with a strangled cry. Lance sprang to his feet and raced over to the shore-side.

A moment later, two gyarados broke the surface. In the dark, it was hard to make out where one ended and the other began. A low grunt, as an aqua tail hit home. The wild gyarados, Lance thought.

The battle took place half under-water, half out of it. The gyarados were intertwined too tightly for Toku to come to Ibuki's aid. Lance was reduced to rapid fire commands—"Teeth!", "Tail!", "Belly!"—whenever the writhing ryu came back into sight. It seemed to Lance a whole hour had passed, but perhaps it had only been ten minutes, when Ibuki surfaced alone. She reared back her crested-head and let out a bellow that echoed deafeningly in the small cave. At the noise, Alto moaned and pressed his hands over his ears.

Lance didn't have the heart to cut short Ibuki's celebration. He felt too relieved himself, anyway. He'd been all but helpless during the battle, trapped at the edge of the water.

"You did brilliant, Ibuki," he murmured, when the gyarados finally quieted. She let out a low rumble of pleasure as he ran his hands across the sensitive undersides of her cheek-fins.

With Kana's help, Lance heaved Alto, who had slipped into unconsciousness, onto Ibuki's back. Together they crossed the waterfall, back into the dazzling wintery light. Lance did his best to position Alto comfortably against the trunk of a tree. In the recruit's pack, Lance found his token, a laminated map marked with the final red x, and an emergency flare. The flare burst in red like an overripe fruit. When Lance looked back from the top of the waterfall, the light was still hanging in the sky.

He'd hoped the final stage of the journey would continue along the river, but after only a few miles, the route diverged. Lance recalled Ibuki and shouldered his pack, lighter now in terms of rations, but weighed down by five bronze tokens, including his own. He only made it five more miles that day. His steps came slow and heavy, like a sleepwalker.

That night, his dreams were a confusion of images: Toku crawled out from a massive shed husk, suddenly the size of a miniryu. His cousin Ibuki shouted at him by the riverside, clutching a bag of laundry, until her bellowing transformed her into a red-eyed gyarados. Lance was flying, alone on the back of some great ryu. But his eyelids were incredibly heavy. At some point his fingers went slack, his grip loosened, and he tumbled into a roaring white sea.

~*~​

The sky was still dark when Lance opened his eyes on the sixth day of the trial. Chewing listlessly at his trail rations, he stared hard at the thick red x on the map. His pack seemed heavier than ever when he hoisted it onto his back, and his legs ached, but at least his head felt clear. Ten miles and they would be done.

The cold seemed less biting today, but the sky was overcast, leaving the world a veil of whites and shadowed grays. Lance focused on his footfalls. A light snow covering had descended in the night, hiding roots and stinging nettle.

After five hours and two brief rests, Lance reached the tower. It rose up suddenly in the distance, a brooding black silhouette cut out against the pale sky. He quickened his pace. In a half-mile, the trees ended, cleared away in a twenty-meter radius of the tower. Closer, Lance could see that the structure was in serious disrepair. The rampart at the top had worn away jagged and the walls were pockmarked where stones had fallen loose.

Lance didn't spot any movement in the tower, but he was uneasily aware that with such a structure it was entirely possible to see without being seen. Maybe his approach had already been noticed.

The fresh covering of snow that lay between Lance and the tower seemed undisturbed by tracks, but from the uneven way the snow had fallen, Lance suspected the ground had been previously turned up by battle. He circled the perimeter twice. As they came round the second time, Kana let out a startled hiss, lifting her right foot. A barb was embedded there—it was three times the size of a natural thorn and blue-gray in hue.

As he turned the barb in his hands, Lance understood all at once just who was waiting in the tower.

"How do you feel, Kana?" he asked quietly, examining the deep cut where the barb had entered.

Kana's answering yip was strong, but she stared uneasily down at her foot. Poisoned, Lance thought, his heart sinking.

There was no point waiting, then. They had to challenge the tower before the poison's effect worsened.

"Burn a path."

They approached like a forest-fire. Any further barbs or traps dissolved in the heat of Kana's flame. But no movement came from the tower; no pokemon interrupted their progress with a challenge.

At last, Lance stood in front of the ancient, iron-fastened door. As he stepped forward, the ground gave way suddenly under his feet; he was thrown backwards. A blue-gray shape burst from the dirt, its hot breath grazing his cheeks for only a second before it vaulted away. The door to the tower jerked open.

Hunter stood inside. She wore a small smile, but somehow the expression wasn't friendly.

"So you made it," she said softly, bending to retrieve something from her nidoqueen. "I was beginning to wonder."

A pokeball. Lance's hand jumped automatically to his belt. Only two balls there—Ibuki's was gone.

"How many tokens did you manage to get?"

"Four." Lance's tongue smacked clumsily against the roof of his mouth. "Four and my own."

"Four, huh? Not bad. I've got five. Five and my own," she added, a hint of mockery in the repetition.

Lance's gaze followed Ibuki's pokeball as Hunter tossed it from hand to hand.

"I'd offer you the same deal I've offered everyone who's made it this far," she said after a moment. "Give me your tokens, and I'll let you pass without a fight. Raw deal, do you think?" she added, seeing Lance's expression shift. "Maybe. But people took it. The ones who didn't—well, they won't be taking the oath tomorrow. Don't worry, though. That's not the deal I'm offering you, 'cause I owe you. Don't like owing people, but there it is. I'll let you keep your own token—hell, I'll let you keep an extra one too. That'll set you on the command track. Give me the rest, and you can pass."

For a long second, Lance considered it. Exhaustion lay on him like a hard gray weight. Toku's scales were still tender, poison was working its way up Kana's leg, and Ibuki was out of his reach. He could become an agent, follow Hunter into the command track. If anyone was going to beat him, he wouldn't mind it being her.

But becoming an agent wasn't enough. Surpass the others, Archer had said. Lance couldn't come in second. He couldn't.

"No," he said quietly, and then louder, "No. No deal."

Beside him, Kana let out an approving growl. Hunter sighed.

"Look, I like you, so I'm going to give you one more chance. Keep two tokens. Give me three."

She doesn't want to fight me! Does she think she'd lose?

Wordlessly, Lance shook his head.

"So be it," said Hunter.

Even as her shoulders dipped in a shrug, a sharp whistle split from her mouth. A brown blur dove from the ramparts, seizing onto Toku. Hunter's fearow. His talons gripped a black strip of cloth, which he rubbed once, twice, across Toku's face before she bucked him off. The fearow retreated with a triumphant caw. But Toku sagged suddenly, listless as the miniryu in the casino tank. She sank through the air, twisting as if trying to shake off an invisible grip, and thumped to the ground. When Lance called out to her, she didn't stir.

"Sleep spore," Hunter said flatly. "She won't wake up anytime soon, not with that dose. Butterfree-boy gave me some, in exchange for sparing his token. Thought it would come in handy."

Lance stared disbelievingly at Toku's still form. When he looked up, he and Kana were flanked by Hunter's nidoqueen and scyther. Above, her fearow circled.

You expect battles to be straight-forward. Two opponents meeting on a clear field. Lance shook his head against the ghost of Hunter's words. Three against one. It was three against one now—

"I gave you a chance," Hunter broke his thoughts. Her voice was as angry as he'd ever heard it. "Don't give me that face. I even gave you two chances." She drew in a breath and seemed to collect herself. "Gust, earth power, slash."

Lance reeled. How were they supposed to defend against three simultaneous attacks?

"Flamethrower—"

The gust knocked Kana off her feet. A plume of earth sent her flying backwards, where the scyther's blade connected with a hard thunk against her back. The charmeleon pushed herself back up, eyes glinting furiously at the injustice of the situation. Lance swallowed. Even Kana couldn't defend against three skilled opponents.

They had to try, though. What else could they do?

"Flame the scyther, keep your tail ready," Lance shouted, and Kana sprung forward with a roar. But the scyther side-stepped her flame easily, lifting off into the air, out of reach, even as the nidoqueen slammed roughly into Kana from behind. As Kana spun round with a gleaming iron-tail, the fearow appeared out of nowhere. His hard-edged wing absorbed the attack. An instant later, the scyther struck another blow off Kana's back. Lance winced.

Kana swayed. Her tail-flame doubled, then tripled. She dove forward at the fearow, who soared easily upwards. Kana leaped after her—uselessly, Lance thought, because an updraft had already borne the fearow far above their heads.

But as Kana leaped, she changed. Her outstretched arms rippled; her tail elongated; broad wings unfurled from her back. She hurtled forward like a pure white comet. Before Lance could process the shift, she overtook the fearow, gripped its tail-feathers in one three-clawed fist, and slammed the bird into the stone-face of the tower. As the fearow dropped like a stone, Kana's fire engulfed her.

For a moment, all of them stared in silence at the blazing bird. Then Kana, as if not yet satisfied, struck a metal-fisted claw against the fearow's charred back. The crunch of a breaking bone reverberated across the clearing.

With a hiss, the scyther shot forward, blades bared.

"Flamethrower," Lance called out giddily. As the scyther dipped down to avoid the flame, Kana fell on her with metal-claw. Fire billowed out from her from mouth; she threw herself into a tight spiral, the flames spinning into a vortex, and caught up as the scyther limped away through the air. The flaming twister crashed them both into the ground. Kana broke upwards, tail blazing a brilliant blue. The scyther lay crushed on the ground.

Hunter's face had turned terribly pale. She stared up with her mouth hanging as Kana somersaulted gleefully through the air, expelling puffs of fire.

"Dig," Hunter whispered. Her nidoqueen vanished into the ground. An instant later, the earth surged under Lance. The nidoqueen flung him down, purple toxin pooling in her claw as she held it over his neck. He twisted frantically, but couldn't break her grip. A scent, sweet and spicy like jasmine mingled with wild garlic, clogged Lance's senses. He coughed, sputtered, and felt his head start to spin—

Kana ripped the nidoqueen from Lance's chest and flung her across the clearing with a terrible roar. She shoved her snout forward, fury softening into concern as her eyes quested over his face.

"I'm fine," Lance rasped. His chest panged as he pulled in a breath of clear, cold air. When he looked around the clearing, the nidoqueen had vanished once more under the dirt.

Lance's fingers closed around the thick blades of Kana's back. As if in a trance, he hauled himself upwards, until he was perched between the charizard's wings.

"Fly," he whispered, and Kana soared up into the air. Her skin gave off heat like a fire-warmed stone. Lance pressed his cheek into her back, letting his eyes dip for just a moment as he gave himself over entirely to the weightless rush of the air.

When at last he opened his eyes, Hunter stood like a pinprick of shadow at the base of the tower. Farther out, Lance could see the dark green heads of the trees, the place where forest rose into mountain. He even fancied he could glimpse the sea in the distance, where the gray roof of the sky bent into blue.

For a moment, he wished he could fly far away. But Toku and Ibuki were back below. Hunter was back below. The battle wasn't over.

Hunter was crouched over her fearow when Kana landed. Her nidoqueen let off a low warning growl. Hunter raised her head slowly, her jaw clenched.

"Hand over your tokens," Lance said steadily, from the height of Kana's back. "You can keep your own."

Her gaze dropped back to her injured fearow, to her scyther, still unmoving on the ground, and finally to her nidoqueen. Wordlessly, she turned into the dark entryway of the tower. A bronze token flew out, then another, and another, until five tokens glinted on the ground. She withdrew her fallen pokemon in two quick flashes.

"Ibuki's pokeball," Lance said.

The red and white sphere bounced off Kana's chest. Hunter turned into the tower, her nidoqueen at her heels. Five minutes later, a green light blazed from the ramparts. Motionless, as if made of stone, Lance watched the tower from Kana's back, until an hour later the roar of a helicopter cut the air. The black craft hovered for a minute; then it was gone.

Lance lingered atop the tower until dusk, half-hoping someone would stumble out of the woods for Kana to challenge, but no one came. The charizard rippled with unspent energy. Lance sat with his knees pulled to his chest, watching her twist and somersault through the air. Sunset turned the clouds into puffs of flame. When Kana at last landed on the rampart, folding in her wings, Lance asked quietly, "Are you ready to go?"

She stood several inches taller than Lance now, but her answering grin was the same.

The green flare flashed brightly in the dimming light. When the helicopter came, Lance stepped inside, but Kana spread her wings. She followed the craft back to camp like the blazing tail of a comet.

~*~​

Three days later, Lance stood with eight members of his cohort in the center of camp. He held his back very straight, conscious of the new uniform he wore. The dark fabric was heavy, but finely-woven and surprisingly soft. The red R on his chest seemed to blaze in the faint gold light of evening. The air was cool and bright. It seemed the heavy snow of the past two days had let up just in time for the ceremony.

Antares surveyed the line of recruits. Her expression was neutral, but something in the tilt of her chin betrayed her pride. "Each of you," she began softly, "has proven your worth by trial. You have risen above your fellows and demonstrated your excellence. Some of you—" Her eyes seemed to fall on Lance "—have surpassed all expectations. You have indeed earned the uniforms you wear tonight. Now the time has come for you to take the oath that matches this uniform. Repeat after me: I am a rocket."

"I am a rocket," Lance murmured with the rest, feeling the words catch and light like tinder in his chest. "I rise above the mob. Unified in strength. Unmatched in aspiration. My blood, my fist, my heart, I pledge to our joint venture. This I swear—to hold fast; to obey; to act and not to falter; from this day, until the day our future is made whole."

When the oath ended, the camp stood completely silent. As Lance stared out, his heart racing, he caught movement in the shadows. A houndoom looked back at him, her lips seeming to draw back into a grin.

Was Archer here somewhere? Had he been watching the ceremony?

"Dismissed." Antares voice rang out. "Tomorrow you will receive your first assignments. But tonight —the rest of this night belongs to you, agents."

Agents. Lance couldn't help the grin that split his face at the new form of address. He followed his fellow agents to the main bonfire, where several other cohorts were already gathered. A red R gleamed on everyone's chest. People were roasting kiritanpo over the fire; in the corner, one sturdy table groaned with a vast assortment of drinks. Low chatter mixed and mingled. Someone pressed a bright green drink into Lance's hands. Alcoholic, he decided after a sniff, but he downed it anyway. The sharp, herb-y taste wasn't exactly pleasant, but new warmth rose in his stomach, and a glow spread across his cheeks. Agents from the other cohorts kept coming up to introduce themselves. Somehow, everyone seemed to know how many tokens he'd finished with. Lance smiled and nodded and tried to keep all the names straight in his head.

Delphin's familiar face came as a relief, when he ran into her by the makeshift bar.

"Congratulations!" she said. "They're saying you finished with ten other tokens. Is that really true?"

"Yes," Lance answered, tired of having this conversation every five minutes. "Congratulations to you, too. How did you find your way?"

"Kioshi has a good nose for water," she said with a shrug, "and after, I used the flares to set my course. But—I'm not really owed congratulations." She grimaced. "I didn't even finish with a token."

"I know," Lance reminded her.

She blinked. "You—oh." A sheepish grin crossed her face. "Oh that. Uh, sorry about that. I was lying when we met on the mountain. I still had my token then. I knew you could knock Kioshi out in no time flat, so I thought it was worth a try."

Lance strained to keep his face blank. "You had it the whole time?"

"All the way to the watch-tower. And that's where Hunter got me." Delphin let out a short laugh. "She didn't buy the whole 'lost-my-token' routine. Searched my backpack and patted me down until she found it. But you beat her in the end, huh?"

"I beat her," Lance said. Though at that moment, the words seemed completely false. Delphin had her token the whole time! Some agent Lance would make, if he couldn't catch an obvious lie like that. Hunter had obviously seen through it in a second. Lance glanced around the party, noticing Hunter's absence for the first time.

They hadn't spoken since their battle. Lance had spent the time since his return either curled up in bed with Toku or flying on Kana's back, exploring the area from the sky. He hadn't looked for Hunter—he hadn't wanted to face her. But it would be wrong to start his first night as an agent by acting like a coward. Lance slipped away from the party and headed into the forest, Toku draping herself lazily around his neck. The cold air beat refreshingly against his face after the heat of the bonfire.

When he caught sight of a figure sitting on a tree stump by their old battling spot, Lance wasn't sure at first if it was Hunter. As he stepped closer, he realized with a start what had struck him as odd about her silhouette. Her braid was gone. It lay in her lap like the discarded skin of a miniryu.

"Shouldn't you be at the party, where everyone can kiss up to you?" Hunter asked without turning.

Lance swallowed. "Are you all right?"

"All right? What do you think?" When she faced him, he saw her face was free of tears, but her eyes were red. "What are you doing out here, bothering with a grunt like me?"

"Don't be ridiculous." Lance said, narrowing his eyes. "I don't believe all these stupid rumors about tokens and tracks and promotions. They'll see how good you are and you'll rise just as quick as anyone. I'll tell Archer—"

Her short, bitter laugh made him flinch.

"Tell Archer," she echoed him mockingly. "Yes, you're his little protege, aren't you? That was clear from the beginning. And why not? You train dragons. You better keep your head about that. It's the dragons people care about, not you. No wonder I couldn't win, huh? Eighth-born scum of Viridian against dragons."

The tone hurt more than the words. Lance knew he'd beaten Hunter fairly. If anything, he was the one with a right to be upset. She'd planned to ambush him, planned to beat him three on one and rob him of his tokens. But she was also the closest he'd come to having a friend since Ibuki.

All the warmth of the alcohol had fizzled away. For a moment, Lance wished fervently that he had taken Hunter's deal and handed over his tokens. If he had, they could have scaled the watchtower together. If he had, maybe they'd be back at the party now, smiling in the corner as they watched the other agents make fools of themselves.

"Hunter—" he began, stepping forward.

"Lance." The soft voice cut the night air. He spun around to see Archer standing between two slim trees, his houndoom at his side. "Come with me."

Lance hesitated, his gaze stuck on Hunter.

"You're not making a great start as an agent if you can't follow simple orders," she said. Her eyes shone furiously in her pale face. "Didn't you hear him?"

So Lance turned away, trailing Archer deeper into the forest. He tried to imitate the man's noiseless footfalls and loping stride. He moves like his houndoom, Lance thought.

When they entered a small clearing, washed a bright silver in the moonlight, Archer turned. "Perhaps you are aware that you set a record. Your token total has only been surpassed by recruits five years your senior. Well done."

The two terse words of praise lit through Lance like a flame. There's another agent, Hunter, who's really amazing, he meant to say, but Archer's next sentence drove everything out of his mind.

"I think you've earned your reward." Archer held out a pokeball, its light blue surface crossed with yellow.

"Is that—"

"Your jackpot?" Archer spoke laconically, a hint of a smile playing around his mouth. "Indeed. I keep my promises."

Lance took the pokeball with trembling fingers. Toku nudged her head against the release, and light spilled out into the shape of a tightly coiled miniryu. Lance stared. He'd forgotten how small a miniryu could look. His eyes were squeezed shut, his head tucked into his tail.

"Hello," Lance whispered, crouching down. "I'm Wataru. Do you remember me?"

Slowly, the miniryu raised his head. First his gaze latched on Lance, and his eyes seemed to sharpen in recognition. Then his gaze rose to Toku. His little mouth sagged open as the hakuryu chimed a gentle trill of hello. His eyes traced every inch of her, from her proud silver horn to the pulsing blue beads of her tail, with an expression that proclaimed Toku all the stars in the sky, and the moon too.

Hoarsely, the miniryu trilled. Toku answered, gliding closer, and then the two were speaking, their tones overlapping. Lance's chest glowed with joy as he listened, splayed out on the scrub soil, heedless of the dirt staining his new uniform. Everything—agents, tokens, Hunter—had dropped completely from his mind.

At some point, Archer must have slipped away as soundlessly as he'd arrived. But Lance didn't notice. He sat listening to the soft melody of the ryu's speech until the sky lightened with dawn.

~*~​



Art is by the amazing Plebis! Check out their twitter @plebisian or attack them on Art Fight (~plebis)
 
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OldschoolJohto

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Pronouns
She/Her
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solrock
!
He's Lance in his own head now!

Being found would mean a battle, and a battle would mean a token.
So very confident!

Bright yellow husks hung on all sides—he'd entered a beedrill grove.

"Carefully, Kana," Lance whispered. A stray ember could bring the whole swarm down on him.
I absolutely adore how the other recruits aren't the only danger to consider. Loved this detail.

Kana's tail-flame cast a dim, wavering glow on the pitted tree bark, large, heart-shaped leaves, and dark red berries.
Suggestion: Kana's tail-flame cast a dim, wavering glow, illuminating pitted tree bark, large, heart-shaped leaves, and dark red berries.

Heat bloomed against his side; he
Love this description.

"Sleep powder," a low voice commanded.
Oooh they are not pulling punches.

from the dispirited tone of TokI'd voice,
That's a heck of a typo!

If he sent the flare, Opal would be taken back to the camp and Lance wouldn't have to worry about sudden sleep powder attacks. But Opal would lose his shot . . .

"Let's go,"
Two kinds of kindness.

In a low, lulling voice, he spoke mostly nonsense, fragments of stories from the Ryu's Gift, new stories he'd heard in the training camp.
So sweet.

He soon realized the full sun was no blessing. The ice that had formed overnight grew slippery and treacherous as it began to melt. When he grew weary of his slip-slide progress, Lance ordered Kana to burn the ice off the path.
Love.

This time, they all took turns at watch.
Each?

Did they expect to get away with that? Lance thought, sudden fury churning in his stomach.
The preamble to a good decision.

propelled by the hot aftershock of panic,
I like the sound of this phrase, but I'm not sure aftershock is right. I feel like what comes on the tails of panic is exhaustion.

Twenty minutes later,
That felt long! Later, there's a sense that Opal is running just ahead of him, but I didn't feel that in this passage.

"Too scared a stray attack's gonna hit her to give proper commands," had been Hunter's scathing evaluation of her battling, and Lance hadn't disagreed.
Nice. Very useful insight into his tactical brain.

"To send the mountain down on me?" Lance finished for her. "
Our boy does not mince his words.

"Recall your pokemon and roll their pokeballs to me."
Good practice for future encounters with rockets, tbh.

He'd passed the third waypoint, but had no map to show for it. From here, the path was unknown.
Yikes.

"Gyarados don't eat humans," Lance said sharply.
P R I O R I T I E S

Ibuki shouted at him by the riverside, clutching a bag of laundry, until her bellowing transformed her into a red-eyed gyarados.
Worth clarifying which Ibuki here.

If anyone was going to beat him, he wouldn't mind it being her.

But becoming an agent wasn't enough. Surpass the others, Archer had said. Lance couldn't come in second. He couldn't.

"No," he said quietly, and then louder, "No. No deal."

Besides him, Kana let out an approving growl. Hunter sighed.
I loved watching him think through this and Kana's reaction. *Beside

A scent, sweet and spicy like lilac tossed with wild chives
This one got a little too culinary for me. But! I think this is the time Lance has been directly under attack by a trainer's pokemon? Again, good practice.

Lance's fingers closed around the thick blades of Kana's back. As if in a trance, he hauled himself upwards, until he was perched between the charizard's wings.
Blergh <3 Goosebumps. I love that the response to him being vulnerable and in danger is to work together like this.

He held his back very straight, conscious of the new uniform he wore.
Oh goodness. Lil Lance is so proud, which is cute. And also ... 🙃

Alcoholic, he decided after a sniff, but he downed it anyway.
Good decisions, part 999999 ....

Her braid was gone. It lay in her lap like the discarded skin of a miniryu.
Oof.

For a moment, Lance wished fervently that he had taken Hunter's deal and handed over his tokens. If he had, they could have scaled the watchtower together.
Oh man, he continues to be successful at the cost of belonging. (Boy oh boy, he and Chris could have some conversations about this if they didn't exist in separate universes.)

He tried to imitate the man's noiseless footfalls and loping stride.
Oh dear. So sweet and clever that he's trying to learn from this person he looks up to. And Jesus, Lance, pick better heroes.

This was satisfying to see play out. It felt inevitable, in a good way. But! What! Is! New! Friend's! Name! I'm also intrigued to see how this miniryu's recovery will play out. I can't imagine it'll come easy.
 
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