Chapter Two - The Exile
When Wataru opened his eyes, the sleeping room was still and empty. All the mats had already been rolled and propped against the walls. He'd slept through the morning rush, and no one had bothered to wake him.
Numb legs. A circle of accusatory stares. Uncle's face, stern and impenetrable.
Wataru shot up, sending Toku tumbling to the floor.
"Did that happen?" he whispered. Sunlight poured in through the window, casting the room a warm yellow. The call and response of pidgey and sentret filtered in; otherwise, Wataru only heard the silence of the village mid-morning, when everyone had left for lessons or labor.
Toku let out a subdued trill. The answer was clear in her eyes, if it hadn't been clear already from the deserted sleeping room. Wataru fell slowly back onto his pillow.
The word wasn't any less bewildering in the morning's light.
Wataru had never once ventured outside the five valleys that comprised the Ryu's Gift. Everything he knew about the outside world came from Elder Kyo's stories. But those stories were of the past, when the land had been locked in a constant state of war. Her stories had never mentioned what it was like now, and it had never once occurred to Wataru to ask.
Airi was from the outside, though. The memory of the boy's fat cheeks and puffing breath didn't fit with Wataru's image of hardened men and women picking their way through war-torn fields. The outside world couldn't be that bad, if Airi had thrived in it.
Reaching that conclusion didn't make Wataru feel any better, though. Whatever the outside world was like, it wasn't the Ryu's Gift. And Toku wouldn't be there with him. The miniryu had coiled herself around his arm, tighter than usual, almost painful.
"Toku—" Wataru began, but he didn't know what to say. If life outside the Ryu's Gift was hard to picture, life without Toku was impossible to imagine. A ryu and her tamer were meant to be bonded for life.
Instead of doing his morning stretches, Wataru curled back up on his sleeping mat, Toku's head settling under his chin. If he kept his eyes shut, he could pretend it was just another morning. He was blowing off class to let Toku sleep. Soon someone would come yell at him, but for now—
"How are you still in bed?"
Wataru jolted upright. Ibuki was standing in the doorway, her arms crossed. A large bag of laundry was slung over her shoulder.
"Do something useful, will you?" she hissed, tossing the bag at him. It landed at his side with a heavy thump. Too astonished to answer, Wataru got to his feet and followed Ibuki down to the river, dragging the overladen bag.
"Ibuki—" he began. Had she not heard? Wataru's stomach clenched at the thought that he'd have to tell her.
"Shut up," Ibuki said. Her face was set stonily, and her arms swung violently as they walked.
They'd reached the river now. Wataru set down the bag of laundry. When Ibuki handed him the soap, he saw that her nails had gouged deep impressions into it. Wataru pulled the first piece of clothing from the sack—a thick brown shawl, like the one Elder Io had worn. Wataru's stomach twisted as he bent to work. For several minutes, the only sound was the gurgle of the river and the slap of wet cloth.
"What does Father think he's doing?!"
Ibuki's outburst came without warning. Wataru almost fumbled the bar of soap.
"So you did something stupid. Well, you do stupid things all the time. That doesn't mean you should—"
Ibuki couldn't say it either.
Wataru bent back over the running water, scrubbing hard at the shawl. Foolish hafu boy
. The gurgling water seemed to be spitting back Elder Io's words.
"If I'd gone and battled you, instead of doing laundry—"
"It's not your fault, Ibuki." The words were the hardest ones he'd ever spoken, but they came out steady. "It's my fault. Okay?"
Ibuki was always trying to keep him out of trouble, like she thought he was her responsibility. But he would be the one living with it, not her. His gaze dropped to Toku's tail, draping down his arm.
"Will you take care of Toku, when I'm gone?"
"What are you talking about?" Ibuki gaped at him. "Toku's not going with you? But that's nonsense, she—"
Uncle's shout came from a distance and made them both flinch. "Wataru! Wataru!"
"Please," Wataru said again. Tears burned at his eyes. He peeled Toku off of his arm. Her body was hard and rigid, and she whined when he set her down on the riverbank. "You have to stay with Ibuki now."
Toku's eyes latched onto his own, dark and pleading.
"I'm so sorry, Toku," he whispered and wheeled around, in the direction of Uncle's voice. Would he have another chance to see her? Or had that been his last?
Wataru ran, unspoken words caught like bitter berries in his throat.
Uncle wasn't waiting alone. A stranger stood at his side—he was about Uncle's age, but that was where the similarity ended. Where Uncle was tall and lean, this man was short and squat and shared Airi's puffy cheeks. His brown eyes were friendly when they fell on Wataru.
"Good day!" he said in Airi's same thick accent. "You can call me Mr. Inushi. My son Airi, I think you've met already."
He and Uncle exchanged a short, knowing glance.
"My name is Wataru." Wataru ducked his head into a bow, surreptitiously wiping his eyes. Bad enough that he'd cried in front of Uncle.
As Mr. Inushi smiled, Uncle broke in, "Nephew, Mr. Inushi has agreed to do us a big favor. He's going to take you to the next town and get you set up with everything you'll need in the outside world." Uncle unwrapped the bundle in his hands, which was full of crumpled-looking paper and smooth metallic circle-stones. "This is the currency they use there. It will be enough to cover your needs as you settle in." His face grew solemn. "Now Wataru, you have to watch your words, out there. If you let your tongue wag about the kairyu, they'll be put in danger, do you understand?"
"I understand," Wataru said thickly. Uncle looked at him for several long seconds, then nodded, seeming satisfied by whatever he'd seen in Wataru's eyes.
"I suppose you've finished packing by now," interjected Mr. Inushi. "Sun's getting high, and I'd like to be on my way soon."
Packing? Had they been expecting him to gather food for the journey? Wataru looked over to Uncle in alarm. "I was helping Ibuki do laundry. But I could run to the storehouse—"
Uncle shook his head. "I've already provided Mr. Inushi with enough supplies. He means a different kind of packing, I think, but there's nothing you need to bring along."
Ibuki's voice caught everyone by surprise. She'd approached them quietly, though the flush on her cheeks indicated she'd just been running. The dark blue cloak from her hakuryu odori was clutched in her hands.
"Here," she said, thrusting the bundle of cloth towards him. "Take it." She turned a glare on Uncle, as if daring him to object. "I prepared and dyed that cloth all by myself. It's mine to do what I want with." Turning back to Wataru, she softened her voice. "You could have done it, you know. You were much better than all the little kids dancing."
Wataru stepped forward to take the bundle. Then, on impulse, he threw his arms around Ibuki, pressing the two of them into a tight hug. He couldn't remember a time Ibuki hadn't been there—bossy, all-knowing, comforting
"I'll miss you," he whispered, ashamed to feel his eyes going wet again. "I'm sorry."
Ibuki squeezed him back hard. "I'll miss you too," she said in a small voice.
When Wataru finally lifted his head from the hug, Uncle was watching them impassively. Still, there was something in the way his lips quirked upwards that Wataru took for approval.
"You've said your goodbyes, Ibuki," he said firmly. "Now you need to get back to your chores."
Ibuki nodded. It looked like she was on the verge of saying one more thing, but at the last moment, she seemed to think better of it. Wataru watched her pick her way back towards the river, until she was hidden by the curve of the valley.
The cloth still smelled smoky from the bonfire. It was surprisingly heavy in his hands. Wataru pressed the bundle close to his chest, stunned by the gift. He'd watched Ibuki work this fabric for months, determined that her debut in the hakuryu odori be nothing less than perfect. He'd never owned anything this fine before.
"I'm ready," Wataru said to the two adults, even though those words were the farthest thing from the truth.
Mr. Inushi nodded. "Then let's get going!"
His cheery voice cut loudly through the village.
"I'm sorry," Airi blurted when Wataru joined him at the front of the wagon. The color was back in the boy's face, but his energetic spirit seemed dampened. Wataru wondered just what Uncle had said to him.
"Why are you sorry? I'm the one who got us in trouble."
"I guess," said Airi. "But I asked to see them—" He glanced over to the two adults, who were speaking with their heads held close, and added in a hurried whisper, "and it was brilliant! It was the most brilliant thing ever! Thank you so much!"
What was Wataru supposed to say to that?
"You're welcome," he settled on, though the polite phrase sounded absurd.
As they sat waiting for Mr. Inushi, the bundle of cloth on Wataru's lap suddenly wriggled. His breath caught. Beneath the folds of dark blue was the sky blue of a miniryu's scales.
Ibuki hadn't just given him her cloak. She'd snuck him Toku!
Wataru hurriedly drew the bundle of cloth to his chest as Mr. Inushi squeezed onto the wagon bench. The three of them barely fit—Wataru found himself pressed in tightly against Airi's side. "All right, Fancy Toes! We're off!"
The ponyta began to walk, pulling the wagon down the dirt path that led out from the valley.
"Well, lad," said Mr. Inushi, the reins held loosely in his hands, "I know it's not the best of circumstances, but me and Airi here will try to bring you up to speed a bit on life outside your valley. You haven't been to any other towns, have you?" When Wataru shook his head mutely, he gave an unsurprised nod. "Thought so. Airi, why don't you tell this lad about the wide, wonderful world of Johto?"
Airi didn't need a further excuse. His words poured out like a waterfall, too quickly for Wataru to absorb them, even if he'd been trying. His eyes kept flickering down to the cloth bundle on his lap. "Before we came to your town, we were in Mahogany. It's a bit quiet there, but the lake is the biggest lake I've ever seen. It's so big it's almost like the sea—have you seen the sea before?"
His eyes went wide when Wataru shook his head again. "Well, the sea's like"—Airi floundered like a landlocked koiking—"it's like a big lake!"
Mr. Inushi chortled loudly. "You've sure got a way with words, my boy."
Airi flushed at his father's comment. But he was silent for only a few seconds before he spoke up again. "Now, Goldenrod's the biggest city, but Ecruteak's pretty great too. There's always a festival on there where they sell these fried, crunchy treats and put on dancing shows."
What's so special about that? Wataru thought unhappily. We have dancing too. And it would be better than the dancing anywhere else, because anywhere else didn't have kairyu. The bundle on Wataru's lap wiggled slightly. He glanced nervously from Airi to Mr. Inushi, but neither of them seemed to have noticed.
"You have to cross the sea to go to Cianwood, so we don't go there. But we go everywhere else. Can't beat a wagon. Slow and steady and gets the job done is what Dad says."
"Damn straight," grunted Mr. Inushi. "All this talk of building new roads, sending trains zipping back and forth—when there's a train track capable of crossing the Ilex forest, I'll eat my hat. But don't let us talk your ear off, lad. Do you have any questions? Anything we can set straight?"
You could set things straight by turning this wagon around. But he couldn't say that.
"What's a train?" Wataru asked finally.
Mr. Inushi flopped his arm dismissively. "A screeching metal box on wheels that conveys goods and people from place to place. They're dumb things, trains, need the tracks to be laid down for them to get anywhere. Haven't caught on here yet, by Ho-oh's grace. Plenty of the blasted things over in Kanto, though."
Another unfamiliar word. "Kanto?"
"Our neighbors. Past the silver mountains. Haven't been the worst neighbors, all things considered. A bit godless, but that's what technology does to you."
"Da-ad," Airi whined from his place in the middle. "Wataru doesn't want to hear stupid talk about politics."
"You're right, you're right. Just go on chatting, kids, and I'll sit here mum as a diglett."
Mr. Inushi made a show of raising his hand to sew up his mouth.
"I bet you want to hear about battling," Airi said, twisting himself so he was facing Wataru. "You're going to become a pokemon trainer, right? That dratini you had was so tough. I didn't think it looked like much at first, but you sure had me and Koge beat."
A satisfied parrumph rose from the bundle on Wataru's lap. He froze, his heart thudding.
Mr. Inushi turned his head. "Now what have you got in there, lad?" he asked, furrowing his eyebrows. There was nowhere to hide. The folds of the cloak fell away and Toku raised her head, her fins twitching as the fresh air hit her.
"Ryu!" she said, sounding immensely pleased with herself. Wataru cocooned his arms protectively over her body.
"Oh ho, so we've got a stowaway, do we?"
"Please, sir," Wataru said, his mouth gone completely dry. "Please don't take her back. Toku and I only have each other now."
Mr. Inushi stared at them. Wataru couldn't tell what he was thinking—his face was like a mountain hidden by clouds.
"Go back?" he said at last. "My word, we're behind schedule enough as is. I want to reach Cherrygrove while there's still light to steer by."
When Mr. Inushi turned his gaze back to the road, Wataru slumped back, boneless with relief. Airi seemed oblivious to the significance of what had occurred. He began to chatter on about pokemon trainers.
"People, when they get their first pokemon, they go on a journey. A life-changing journey. Not everyone goes, I mean, a lot of us have to help out at home. I'm lucky, I guess, since I get to travel, even if I am stuck with Dad.
"But you're completely free!" Airi continued. "You could go anywhere, to all the gyms. There's seven, total. Some people say we should have eight, though, 'cause Kanto has eight and we wouldn't want to have less gyms than Kanto. They're only in the important towns, like Ecruteak, and Goldenrod, and Violet City . . ."
Wataru found himself tuning the other boy out. He ran his hand over Toku's smooth scales again and again, trying to convince himself she was really there with him.
The land was changing ahead, sloping down sharply, and the road was growing more and more rocky, causing the wagon to jerk and sway. Craning his head back around, Wataru tried to find the familiar crests of the Ryu's Gift, but there was nothing behind them except the sloping road and the scraggly trees that rose around it.
While they'd been talking, home had passed completely out of sight.
Wataru must have slipped to sleep at some point, lulled by the regular, rocking motion of the wagon. He woke to a gentle shake and the murmured words, "We've arrived, lad. Welcome to Cherrygrove."
Wataru looked around blearily, holding off a yawn. Dusky light streamed in from the low-sunken sun, and everywhere he turned, buildings cast long, trailing shadows. The building in front of them was low and sprawling, and larger than the largest hut in the village. Something was engraved across its bright red exterior.
As Wataru squinted upwards, Mr. Inushi asked, "Do you know your kanji, lad?"
"I can read!" Wataru answered, indignant at the question. "But that's written strangely."
"It says, Pokemon Center: Welcome. You should memorize those words. Anywhere you see them, you're safe."
Welcome. If someone had written the word really quickly, not bothering with the annoying little markings, he supposed it would come out looking like that.
A small smile crossed his face. So he and the outside world had at least one thing in common—their bad hand-writing.
In the short time they'd spent staring at the red building, the sun had completed its descent. Clambering down from the wagon, his whole body sore from the awkwardly-positioned nap, Wataru noticed that light spilled out from every window. Strange, since the night was warm enough to sleep with just a blanket.
"Why so many fires?" he asked out loud. "Is tonight a celebration?"
"Not fire, electricity," Mr. Inushi corrected. "Cherrygrove has seen the light of the future."
Wataru managed a perfunctory smile as Mr. Inushi chuckled at his own comment. He still didn't get why the fires had all been lit separately, instead of at the center of town.
"We'll unload tomorrow, Airi," Mr. Inushi called out. "I'm going to get Fancy Toes settled in round the back. You take Wataru and get us our room, all right?"
Airi's chest swelled. "Sure, Dad," he said. Grabbing Wataru by the arm, he led him towards the red building. Wataru blinked as his eyes were hit by a wash of white light. The wide room they'd entered didn't have a single dark corner.
Airi was already dragging him forward to a low counter. He jabbed his hand down and a high-pitched ring shrieked through the room, making Toku flinch in Wataru's arms.
A moment later, a young woman ran in.
"Sorry," she said breathlessly, "we were just putting out supper. Hello, boys. Stopping in for a meal, or for the night?"
"Both," Airi said. "Me and him and my dad too. Dad's a trader. We need stable space for our ponyta."
"You're traders?" the woman said, her expression brightening. "How wonderful. What town are you coming in from?"
"We were up by Mahogany," Airi said. "Up North."
"Oh, it's horribly mountainous up there, isn't it?"
"That's right, Ma'am, but we manage." If the pride radiating off Airi had been light, it could have lit the whole room just as well.
"It's a bit busy tonight, but I'll squeeze you in somewhere. Name, please?"
The woman turned away and a brief clattering sound rose from behind the counter. "Thank you. Supper's just through the door on your left. Hurry before it gets cold!"
They came into an even wider room, still mysteriously well-lit. A loud hubbub hit them as they entered: the long benches were crowded with people. Wataru followed Airi to the far corner of the room, where a large pot of soup was waiting. Bread was set out next to the bowls.
"Pokemunch is in the bins," Airi said, pointing to an aisle of containers, each engraved with different kanji. Wataru gradually made out the words for "fire" "water" and "grass." He didn't see the distinctive spirals that made up "ryu."
"Do you want any of that?" he asked Toku, who was hidden now in the dip of his shirt. No one was looking their way, so he let the miniryu sniff at each container one by one. She let out a whine and flicked her tail back towards the soup. "Good idea. Let's just share."
They'd done that often enough back home. A tamer and his ryu should share a single stomach, the saying went.
Dinner passed in a daze. The broth was hot, if mostly tasteless, and the room warm. Mr. Inushi joined them at some point, but he drank his soup down in a few slurps and then wandered to a different table, exchanging greetings with the men and women gathered there.
When his bowl was empty, Wataru followed Airi and Mr. Inushi to a small room with stacked cots. He crawled into the lower one and remained there huddled as Mr Inushi bustled back and forth through the room. At some point, the light vanished and sleep dragged Wataru down again.
"Full name?" the white-capped woman asked for the second time.
Wataru shifted his weight from foot to foot, one hand rising to rub some sleep-dust from his eyes. It was too early for this, whatever this was.
"I can write it out for you," he offered.
The woman looked to Mr. Inushi, the plea in her eyes clear.
"What she means, lad, is she wants your family name too. Like how Airi has his own name, that's Airi, but he's also an Inushi, like me."
"Oh," said Wataru. They wanted his parents' names. He stared at the blank, perfectly white wall opposite him. "Can't you just put Wataru?"
"To look you up in the census records I need your full name," she said.
"Wataru is from a real small hamlet, Nurse," Mr. Inushi cut in. "I don't think you'll find him in the system. Might be best to just start fresh."
The woman nodded and shuffled around behind the counter. "You'll serve as witness?"
As the two adults fussed over the forms, Wataru caught Toku's eye. The miniryu was snaking determinedly across the floor, towards the meal room. He wished he could sneak away after her. Mr. Inushi had insisted they come here before eating breakfast, and Wataru's stomach felt decidedly hollow.
Wataru realized the adults were looking at him again. "What?"
"When were you born, lad?"
"About twelve winters ago," Wataru said, wondering why it mattered.
"But what day, what month, do you know?"
He stared back at them, his mouth slightly agape. Who knew the exact day they were born on?
"I'll put today's date then," the woman said after a moment, her tone slightly irritable. "In another year, you'll be thirteen. Does that sound right?"
Another year? That was too long. "Make me thirteen now," Wataru shot back, since age suddenly seemed up for debate. "I'm as good as thirteen anyway."
Mr. Inushi and the woman exchanged a long look.
"April 22, 1976," the woman said finally. "Given name, Wataru. No known family name. Born in—" Her gaze rose to Mr. Inushi.
"Near Fusube mountain. I suppose that's as close to an official name as his town has."
"Born in Fusube. Fine." She bent over the paper for another moment, then offered it to Mr. Inushi, who scrawled his signature loosely. "It will take at least a week for the paperwork to reach Goldenrod. I won't be able to register him until they process it there."
Mr. Inushi nodded. "That's fine. Thanks, Nurse. We appreciate the time."
Wataru still wasn't sure what they were thanking her for, but he dipped his head in a bow. "Thank you," he added quietly.
The woman's face softened at the gesture. "Of course. And welcome to Cherrygrove."
Toku and Airi were waiting for them in the meal room, which was much less crowded now than it had been the night before. Breakfast was a thick porridge and strangely flavored tea.
"Eat quickly, boys," said Mr. Inushi. "We've got a lot of shopping to do today." He smiled at Wataru, his eyes sparking with sudden humor. "After all, today's your birthday!"
"What's wrong with the clothes I have?" Wataru asked an hour later, trying not to raise his voice. The pack, sleeping bag, knife and lantern had all made sense. But his clothes had been made only last year and, unlike his festival attire, they still fit him fine.
"Nothing wrong with them, lad, but they do make you stand out. You don't want people gawking at you all the time, now do you? Besides, with what you're wearing there's nowhere to strap a belt." Mr. Inushi seemed to feel that point had been a finishing blow.
Wataru stared out at the racks of clothing, completely overwhelmed. "I can pick whichever ones I want?" he asked.
"In reason. Don't want to burn through your cash too quickly. But this stuff's all pretty cheap. Not like we're in Goldenrod."
So Wataru and Toku set out through the forest of racks that rose above his head. He was drawn at once to a billowing red shirt that made him think of the kairyu dancers. Toku let out a trill when they passed a long blue scarf. It was very soft to the touch and the same color as her scales. He didn't like the pants, though. They all stuck too close to his legs. At last he found a pair that were about the same brown as his current clothes and decently loose.
Mr. Inushi raised an eyebrow as Wataru returned with the clothes, picking a shirt out of the pile and holding it up to Wataru's chest. "Bit big for you, aren't all those?"
"I'll grow into them," Wataru answered, raising his chin.
His words startled a laugh out of Mr. Inushi. "So you will. A good philosophy to have, lad. Very thrifty. Guess I don't have to warn you about loose spending."
Wataru thought the ordeal was finally over, then, but there was one more stop, a small building with a blue overhang.
"Can't leave out your pokemon," said Mr. Inushi. "If you have that dratini along, you're going to need a pokeball!"
Which was a small, white-red sphere with a strange, slippery texture. It reflected back the white ceiling light like the surface of a lake.
"What's it for?" Wataru asked.
"For your dratini. She can rest in it when she's tired or sick."
Toku was supposed to go inside that strange-smelling gleaming thing? Wataru stared down at it in disbelief. "How would anyone fit in there?"
"Ah, no use asking me, lad. Physics is beyond me. Here, I'll show you."
He placed the ball against Toku's head. There was a click and a flash of unnatural red light. When Wataru blinked, Toku was gone.
Hot, tight panic clamped down on Wataru. He was standing in a strange, over-lit room, stacked high with gleaming canisters bearing incomprehensible writing, and he was alone. He was wearing the clothes they'd just purchased at Mr. Inushi's insistence, and their smell was wrong, sharp and acrid, burning his nose just like the white ceiling light burned his eyes. This place was ugly and wrong and there was not a single thing to anchor him, to hold off the bright pain that started in the back of his head and moved forward into his eyes, because Toku was—
There again. Blinking up at him with confusion lodged deep in her dark eyes. Trembling, he opened his arms and pressed her close against his chest. His heartbeat was racing wildly and warm water had somehow trailed onto his cheeks.
"Don't—" he said, when he could finally breathe. "Don't ever do that again."
"My mistake, lad," Mr. Inushi said quietly. "I should have warned you."
Wataru stared at the pokeball, gleaming innocently on the floor. "What was it like?" he asked Toku.
Her nose wrinkled and tail twitched. "Riii," she trilled.
"Toku didn't like that. We don't want it," Wataru told Mr. Inushi firmly.
"It may be disorienting at first, but you're gonna need a pokeball at some point, lad. There's places pokemon aren't allowed. And with a rare one like you have—there are places it may be best to keep her hidden safely away."
"What do you mean, rare
"What I'm saying is that there are some people who might be inclined to take that dratini away from you. She's valuable, lad. Are you following me?"
Toku gone. That would be the very worst thing. He tightened his grip so much that Toku let out a short whine in protest.
"Look, it's been a long morning," said Mr. Inushi, when Wataru didn't respond. "We'll deal with the pokeball some other time. Come on, lad. Let's see if Airi's kept himself out of trouble."
It took a moment before Wataru could move his legs forward. The town was busier as noon approached, and as they headed back towards the Pokemon Center, people streamed by on either side. Wataru found himself watching them suspiciously. Some people.
But how was he supposed to recognize them?
Back on his cot, Wataru pressed his nose into the hakuryu cloth, taking in its smoky, familiar scent. He wished he could tell Uncle how wrong he was. Hafu or not, Wataru didn't belong here, in this bright, foreign place.
As he lay in his cot, Wataru realized for the first time that Uncle had never said how long the exile would last.
"You don't think he meant forever, do you?" he asked Toku.
The miniryu's eyes widened, and she let out a low whine. Wataru wondered if she was thinking of her litter mates, the low, cool pools of Dragon's Den, the fragrant grasslands where the kairyu lay sunning—everything she'd left behind.
"He couldn't mean forever . . ."
But it was hard to imagine Uncle changing his mind after a month or even a year. Especially when Wataru had taken Toku with him when he wasn't supposed to. That was probably worth a second exile on top of the first one. The thought was so absurd that Wataru almost laughed.
He wondered suddenly if Ibuki had gotten into trouble for helping him out. They wouldn't kick her out too, would they?
. The truth settled uncomfortably in his stomach. They would never kick Ibuki out.
Airi and Mr. Inushi had left for the afternoon, out to sell their wares at the daily market. They'd offered to bring him along, but Wataru had shaken his head. It was all too much to deal with, and he wanted some time to think.
But the more he thought, the worse he felt.
Toku let out a pleased trill as he held out his arm for her and swung out of bed. They wandered together over to the big room at the front of the center. A crew of children around Wataru's age had just burst in, talking loudly. They each had pokemon at their feet and gleaming white-red balls on their belts. Wataru wasn't close enough to catch their conversation and for the moment, he didn't feel inclined to move closer.
The door opened again, seemingly on its own. Wataru watched as an old man inched his way slowly inside. A suitcase hung at an awkward angle off one of his arms, and both his hands were balancing a stack of books. He was using his back to prop open the door.
Frowning, Wataru looked over to the loud group, which hadn't appeared to notice the old man's entrance. The space behind the counter was empty as well.
Someone should be helping him!
Wataru thought to himself, wincing as the door narrowly missed the old man's back as it slammed shut behind him.
Wataru started at Toku's nudge. Oh right, there's me.
He caught up to the old man in the hallway, where he was staring at a doorknob as if he could make it turn from mental force alone.
"Can I help you, please?" Wataru said.
The old man jerked around. "Oh! By all means. Here."
The stack of what turned out to be very heavy books dropped into Wataru's hands.
"My room's just through here," the old man said, opening the door. "Lay them on the bed, there's a good lad. I really need to learn to say no to books," he continued as he followed Wataru in. "No thank you, I already have enough on the subject. A simple sentence, but alas, completely beyond my capacity. Though, of course, it would be both simple and false, because it's just not possible to have enough
on any subject, even the most narrow and mundane. As a phenomenon, evolution is neither."
He patted around his pockets, and his face fell. Turning back to Wataru, he said, "If you want an autograph, I'm afraid you'll need to produce your own pen. I swear I start out with ten of the damn things, but by the end every single one's gone."
He wasn't a very old man, Wataru thought. Not old in the way Elder Io was. His hair still had traces of black and the wrinkles hadn't worked too deeply into his face.
"Look at you, Okido Yukinari," he muttered to himself. "Look at you and your over-swollen head. Lad has no idea who you are. Johto, Johto, Johto. Are you a pokemon trainer?" he asked Wataru, who had been enduring the monologue in polite bafflement.
Clearly he hadn't noticed Toku, who'd abandoned Wataru's shoulder for the warmth inside his shirt. Wataru nodded slowly.
"Well, stick around a moment and I'll show you something neat, as thanks for your help."
Wataru sat on the edge of the bed as the man busied himself with his luggage. This room was bigger than the one Wataru was staying in and only had a single bed. The window looked out onto a blossoming cheri tree.
"Ah ha!" With a satisfied grin, the old man produced a pokeball from the depths of his suitcase. "That's the one. A week ago it would have been three. Ah well. You're impressive enough for three, aren't you?" he said to the ball.
A moment later, a small orange pokemon appeared in a burst of that same unnatural red light. Wataru had never seen anything like it before. Its tail, lit with a fire on one end, swished from side to side and its dark eyes flashed curiously around the room, before locking onto Wataru.
Before Wataru could say anything, a hot cloud of embers rushed through the air towards him. As he hastily sprang back, they fell to the carpet, where they hissed and simmered.
"Charmander!" the old man snapped. The small pokemon raised its head defiantly. "I can't bring you anywhere, can I? Did this nice young lad do anything to you? No? Well, then, why—"
"It wants to battle," Wataru said. The attack had startled him, but looking at where the embers had fallen, he could see he'd never been in actual danger of getting hit. It had been a challenge, not an assault.
"This one always wants to battle," the old man grumbled. "But as I'm always telling her, there's a time and place. If you could keep your cool for just five minutes," the old man continued, addressing the pokemon, "you'd be with your friends waiting for a trainer and all the battles you could ever want. But instead you're stuck back with boring old Okido Yukinari, because my girl, it would be professional irresponsibility to stick someone with you."
In answer, the charmander stuck out her tongue.
"Oh, very mature. Really helps your case, doesn't that—"
"Toku and I could battle her," Wataru interrupted. He felt bad for the small, orange pokemon, who was clearly itching for a fight.
"You—" The old man's surprised gaze fell on Wataru. "Well, why not. She could use some fresh air. Yes, why not." As the charmander moved eagerly for the door, the old man called out behind them, "I'll come if I hear any screams!"
Toku raised herself up high on her belly as she faced the charmander. Wataru smiled at the change in her body-language. If Toku was trying to make herself look big, that meant she thought the charmander would make a decent fight.
"Once, the ryu fought with fire and ash," Wataru began. He could see the charmander's fire grow brighter in anticipation as he spoke, but the small pokemon made no move to begin the battle early. In fact, her head was tilted in concentration as she listened.
When Wataru had finished, Toku's challenging gaze shifted into a glinting red glare. The charmander whimpered and shook her head uneasily. Letting out a short hiss, she suddenly sprang forward, stubby claws flashing. Toku slithered between the blows, though they were coming faster and faster as the charmander worked itself up.
"Wrap it now," said Wataru when the angle of the charmander's strike left her off-balance. Before the charmander could recover her bearings, Toku's sinuous body curved tight around her, pinning her arms to her sides. As Toku squeezed, the charmander huffed and whined. Directing her head downwards, she managed to expel a burst of hot embers. Wataru caught Toku's flinch as they simmered against her skin.
"If you can use the friction—" Wataru suggested. Toku only needed a second to complete the thought. The skin-to-skin contact of the wrap attack became a rippling charge. The charmander twitched, its mouth falling slack. No more fire-attacks followed as Toku continued to press her advantage, constricting tighter.
At last, the charmander let out a subdued whine, edged with pleading. Toku loosened her hold, allowing the charmander to crawl away. The miniryu returned to Wataru with a smug look on her face.
"That was great, Toku. I bet there are a ton more ways we can use that new move of yours." Wataru bent down to examine the miniryu's skin where the fire-attack had made contact. The scales seemed irritated, reddened and slightly raised as Wataru ran his finger along them. Toku's huff told him that she found his fussing unnecessary. A ryu's thick scales could protect against almost any heat.
Wataru looked up to find the charmander watching them, something almost covetous in her gaze.
"You're pretty good too," Wataru told her. "Quick on your feet. Watching you made me think of someone really impressive. Her name's Kana, and she's one of the best dragon tamers in the valley."
The charmander moved closer, clearly listening.
"Toku and I," Wataru said, "we're from the Ryu's Gift. That's five valleys strung together. A long time ago, the ryu and my people made an agreement, that we'd always help each other and fight by each other's side. Do you know what a kairyu is? They're massive and can fly anywhere. And they're strong enough to cut through solid rock."
"Char!" the small orange pokemon said. She suddenly balled up one fist, her face tightening with concentration. As Wataru watched, the fist began to glow a bright silver.
"Is that another move you know?" Wataru asked. He didn't recognize it. When the light faded as abruptly as it had emerged and the charmander let out a frustrated hiss, Wataru realized his mistake. "Oh, you're trying to learn it."
He sat back on the ground, thinking hard. She'd demonstrated the move when he'd mentioned the kairyu cutting through rock. Maybe that was what it was supposed to do? Wataru's gaze fell on a pile of old bricks stacked near the back of the Pokemon Center. Nobody would notice if he took just one or two . . .
The charmander watched with interest as Wataru dragged over three of the bricks.
"Can you do it again, with the light?" Wataru asked, fisting his own hand in example. The charmander followed suit, the silver light beginning again. "Okay, are you ready?"
He heaved one brick through the air towards the charmander. Letting out a surprised yelp, the pokemon darted to the side.
"No," said Wataru. "You have to—Toku, can you show her?"
When the second brick hurtled through the air towards her, the miniryu twisted her tail upwards and caught it in a tight coil.
"Nice one, Toku. You see?" Wataru added to the charmander. The small fire-type narrowed her eyes. Then she let out a short, challenging yip.
Toku wheeled around and sent the brick flying back towards the charmander, who struck out determinedly with her claws. But the silvery light wasn't there this time. The brick slammed into her chest and sent her tumbling backwards with a pained yelp.
Wataru and Toku exchanged a glance. Maybe this had been a bad idea. "We should go back inside," Wataru said slowly.
"Char char!" The charmander was back on her feet in an instant, tail fire blazing and eyes insistent. "Charmander, char!" Her gaze was fixed on the final brick.
"One more go?" Wataru asked, and received a nod. "Fine, but this time you have to listen to me. Make the light right when I say and hold onto it, okay?"
Another nod. Wataru lifted the brick and prepared his throw. "Right. Now do it."
As the silver completed its spread over the charmander's fist, Wataru sent the brick sailing through the air. Charmander lunged forward, her fist still gleaming.
With a loud crack, the brick splintered. Charmander stared at the two fallen halves, her breath coming in quick pants.
"You did it!" Wataru shouted. "Just like a kairyu!"
The charmander's mouth curled into a wide grin. "Char!" she yipped back, in the cheeriest tone Wataru had heard from her yet. She shuffled forward to examine the pieces of brick. Then, balling her fist again, she split the nearest one with a silver punch.
Wataru couldn't hold back an answering grin. "You learn quick," he said, and Toku trilled her agreement.
They all jumped at the new voice. The old man had rounded the Pokemon Center and was watching them, his back resting against the wall.
"I heard shouting," he said, coming forward. "So, you've picked up metal claw, have you?" The charmander drew herself up proudly, fist once again silver. "Well done."
The old man's gaze fell curiously on Wataru and Toku. "And that's a dratini there, if I haven't gone completely senile. Where in the world did you find a dratini, young man?"
Wataru froze at the question, Mr. Inushi's words coming back to him. There are some people who might be inclined to take that dratini away from you.
"None of your business," Wataru shot back, aware that he was being rude and not caring. He scooped up Toku in his arms, gave the charmander a quick bow, and took off towards Mr. Inushi's room, his hands shaking.
Airi and Mr. Inushi returned soon after with flushed faces, chattering happily. Wataru got the impression they'd had a successful afternoon.
"You just didn't let up, Dad," Airi was saying admiringly as they came in. "Oh, I can order it by pidgey-catalogue, she says, but you let her know just what junk they'll pass off to you if you can't test it out first!"
"That's right, my boy. It's a premium, getting to handle the wares yourself before the buy, and you've always got to keep your customer reminded of the fact."
Their two beaming faces fell on Wataru. "Hope you haven't been keeping yourself all cooped up in here?" Mr. Inushi said, some concern edging into his voice.
"I got out," Wataru said. He took a deep breath. "Mr. Inushi, can we try again with the poke ball? I'm worried about Toku. Some people have been noticing her."
Mr. Inushi's face softened. "Of course we can, lad. In fact, I was thinking it over at the market today and I picked you up something that I think'll help." He rustled around in his pack and pulled out another pokeball. Except this one was different. Not just the color, which was a green like the tender inner part of a tree, but the smell of it too, rich and oaky. It didn't make Wataru's stomach turn.
"That's an apricorn ball. Speciality of Azalea—I noticed one of their venders at the market. These balls are made from naturally grown shells. Might be a little closer to what you and your little gal are used to."
Toku sniffed the ball curiously. A moment later, she let out an approving trill.
"You want to try it, Toku?"
"See that button?" Mr. Inushi pointed. "Hit it once to recall your pokemon and once again to let her back out."
When Wataru pressed the indentation, Toku vanished. There wasn't a flash of light this time, but the ball grew warmer in Wataru's hands. Just touching it, he could tell Toku was safely inside.
Another click, and Toku was back. He noticed her fins were lifted slightly, a sign that she was pleased. "Was that better?"
Toku's trill was the last confirmation Wataru needed. Yes, this was better.
"Thank you, Mr. Inushi," Wataru said quietly, turning to face the squat, smiling man. It hit him suddenly how much time the trader had taken today, guiding Wataru through one thing after another, instead of doing that job that so clearly brought him joy. Whatever Uncle had told the man and however much money Uncle had paid him, nothing had obligated the trader to be so kind.
Wataru sank into a deep, full bow, the kind he would have made to a dragon master. "Thank you for everything," he said again.
As they entered the meal room for supper, Wataru stiffened. The old man from earlier was there, caught up in an energetic discussion. But he'd clearly noticed Wataru. His eyes tracked him across the room.
"Mr. Inushi," Wataru whispered, catching the trader by the arm. "See the man in the white coat? He's the one who was asking about Toku."
He was glad Toku was back to hiding in the dip of his shirt, safe from the room's prying eyes.
Mr. Inushi's face shifted into a scowl. "I see."
The old man chose that moment to break away from his conversation and cut across the room. "Young man," he called out to Wataru.
Mr. Inushi stepped purposefully into his path. "Good day to you," the trader called back jovially, but Wataru could see the tension in his shoulders. "Hope this lad hasn't been bothering you."
"Bothering me? Oh no," the old man replied, stopping a few feet away from them.
"Good to hear," said Mr. Inushi, nodding his head. "And I hope, Sir, that you haven't been bothering this lad."
The old man narrowed his eyes slightly, his back straightening. "I'm an awfully bothersome person, or so my daughter tells me. But I try my best not to bother anyone. My name's Okido Yukinari. Professor Okido. I don't think we've been introduced . . ?"
Surprise washed the scowl from Mr. Inushi's face. "Hang on, you're that pokemon professor everyone was goggling over last night. Here from Kanto, is that right?"
The old man, the professor, smiled. "I see my reputation precedes me. That's right, I call Kanto home. I was here on a brief visit to my colleague in New Bark Town. My business is all wrapped up now, but I thought I'd stay on a few days to take in the sights. Is this boy your son?"
The question was asked with a skeptical air, as his eyes moved from Wataru's sharp features and blazingly red hair to Mr. Inushi's thickset, rounded face.
Mr. Inushi's chuckle was friendly, though some of the wariness remained in his eyes. "Oh no, but he's my responsibility for now."
"I can talk, you know," Wataru said suddenly. He felt emboldened by Mr. Inushi's presence.
The professor blinked, taken aback. Then he shook his head with a rueful chuckle. "Please accept my apologies. It's an awful habit one gets into at my age, of talking over people instead of to them. I hope you can forgive me," he said, looking Wataru straight in the eyes.
It was Wataru's turn to blink. He didn't think an adult had ever apologized to him before and seemed to mean it. "'S fine," he mumbled.
"Why don't we talk over our food," Mr. Inushi cut in. "These boys need to eat, you know."
Wataru kept an eye fixed on the old man as they all settled in at one of the tables in the back.
"I've seen you on TV," Airi piped up. "You showed all these different pokemon and had silly rhymes that went with them."
"Ah, one of the true joys of the job—an open mic to spout my poetry whenever I want it. Are you a pokemon trainer as well?"
Airi squirmed. "Sort of. I'm a trader-in-training, too."
The professor nodded, but his eyes were back on Wataru. "I believe I offended you earlier with my reaction," he said suddenly, "but, I confess, I was simply stunned to see a dratini just like that. This isn't the right habitat at all, for one thing."
"Why does everyone keep saying dratini?" Wataru muttered, the long-simmering irritation choosing that moment to spill out. "She's a miniryu."
, did you say?" A chord of excitement had entered the professor's voice. "Yes, of course, but that's a very old usage. Only pops up in out-of-date dexes or in myths. Miniryu being the diminutive of ryu, the archaic word for dragon."
Wataru narrowed his eyes, trying to make sense of all that. Archaic didn't sound like an insult, but . . .
"Miniryu, hakuryu, kairyu," the professor continued in a reflective voice. "Yes, that's right. That's the full chain. Of course, there have always been legends floating around about a lost community of dragons and their tamers—"
A cold feeling swept over Wataru. Don't let your tongue wag, or the kairyu will be in danger.
"But—" The professor looked from Wataru's pale face to Airi, sitting frozen with his lower lip sucked in, to Mr. Inushi's flat-footed expression "—it's all nonsense, I'm sure. And absolutely none of my business in any case. Do I have that right?"
"That's right, Sir," said Mr. Inushi quietly. "I see you're a very wise and learned man. So I hope you're wise enough to let a subject rest."
A long, tense silence followed, in which Airi's slurping noises as he drank his soup were obnoxiously loud.
"Charmander took a real shine to you, lad," the professor said in a normal tone of voice, like nothing had happened. "Pitched me a mighty tantrum after you took off."
"She was really smart," Wataru replied, relieved that they'd left off talking about ryu. "I don't think I've ever seen anyone pick up a move so fast."
"Well, your direction didn't hurt, lad. It didn't hurt. Have you been a trainer long?"
"Toku and I have fought together a long time," Wataru said, still somewhat unsure what was meant by the word 'trainer.'
The professor nodded. "You know, I was quite the hot-shot trainer back in my day. Did very well for myself in the league, before I succumbed to the siren call of research."
Wataru didn't have to work hard to imagine it. There was something about the free-wheeling, confident way the professor spoke that put Wataru in mind of the dragon masters.
"Perhaps you have some advice for this lad," Mr. Inushi prompted. Wataru shot him an annoyed look. He didn't need advice.
"Well . . ." Professor Okido let out an awkward laugh. "I dispense advice with every breath, but if you're asking me to limit it down to one important thing—I'd say, know your goal. A lot of trainers are a bit aimless. Win this badge, win the next badge. The structure gives a certain momentum, but they get lost outside of it. So try to figure out what you're working towards, what you're trying to achieve. There was a time when I could have continued down the trainer's path, fought it out for my place on the pinnacle, but I asked myself, what do you really want, Yukinari? And, you know, it wasn't to be the best or the strongest, but simply to know the most."
Wataru stared down at the pressed wood of the table. Know your goal. He'd had a goal, once. Toku would become a kairyu and together they'd be masters. When the Ryu Odori came, he'd be chosen for the honor of the tamer's dance. But all that was impossible now.
He sank into a deep stupor, giving only single-word answers to the professor's questions, until the man eventually switched his attention over to Airi and Mr. Inushi. Wataru knew the others were casting him concerned looks, but he couldn't be bothered to care.
Know your goal.
Everything suddenly felt like a cruel joke.
Wataru knew Toku was deeply annoyed with him when she bit down hard on his ear. It was some time mid-morning, Mr. Inushi was back at the market, and Wataru hadn't moved from bed since he'd woken up.
"What do you want to do so bad?" Wataru muttered to her.
Her eyes glinted red for a moment. Battling, then.
"What's the point? Winning a hundred battles won't let us go home."
A frustrated whine rose from the miniryu's throat. This time she actually sent a spark of static down Wataru's arm. "Ouch! Fine, we'll go where you want."
His feet dragging, he followed her out of the Pokemon Center and round to the back, to the place they'd battled with the charmander. Toku set to work on a patch of ground where the grass grew scattered, clearing it so that only dirt remained. Wataru settled down on his knees to watch her, unsure of what the miniryu was doing.
Tense with concentration, Toku used her tail to draw five upside-down triangles in the dirt.
Wataru's throat went tight. "That's home," he said.
Toku nodded. The next shape she drew was harder to interpret. It was a tall blob, spiky on the top. As Wataru blinked at it, Toku let out a short frustrated whine. She slithered over to the base of a nearby cheri tree, gripping one of the fallen fruits in her teeth. When she laid the red berry at the top of the mystery shape, Wataru suddenly understood.
"That's me, isn't it? Thanks, Toku."
"Ri-i-i," Toku giggled, but she wasn't done yet. Another shape was emerging under the Wataru-blob. Her tail sketched wide, curving arcs, like . . . wings.
"A kairyu!" Wataru guessed. "Is that—you?"
"Rii!" Toku let out a pleased trill and curled up next to the picture, her eyes expectant.
And then, all at once, Wataru had it. "You mean, like with Master Kaisho! He returned on the back of the kairyu and that's how they knew he belonged to the clan. Toku, that's brilliant!"
The miniryu's pahrump informed Wataru that she was well aware of her own brilliance, thank you. Wataru fell back against the dirt, not caring that he was dirtying his new clothes. Relief made his muscles so loose and light that he almost felt like a hakuryu.
The answer was so obvious
. Wataru couldn't believe he'd needed Toku to draw it out for him. When Toku became a kairyu, there'd be no question that he belonged in the Dragon's Clan. The elders called the raising of a miniryu into a kairyu the ultimate test of strength and wisdom. Everyone was probably mad that Toku had gone along with him, but none of that would matter if she came back as a kairyu.
"You're right," Wataru said. "All we've got to do is get strong
The days were coming more easily now. Every morning, Wataru woke with the sun and raced to the professor's room, where the charmander was waiting. She and Toku had taken to each other, and the charmander, who Wataru had started to call Kana, was eager to make up for her initial loss. As they fought in the quiet space behind the Pokemon Center, Wataru found himself standing in the middle, calling out advice to both sides, not just Toku. It made the fight more fun, even if Toku still managed to come out on top most of the time.
But Wataru knew in the back of his mind that this equilibrium couldn't last forever. Mr. Inushi was talking about the road to Violet City and the professor was haggling with the local sailors over his trip home. And as for Wataru . . . he knew he'd have to travel if he wanted to get strong, find more and better 'trainers' to battle. But staring at Mr. Inushi's big map left him lost and directionless.
So when the professor asked him one morning if he'd like to accompany him and Kana to Kanto, Wataru couldn't find any reason to refuse. Mr. Inushi had supported the suggestion. He seemed to think Toku would draw less notice in Kanto, far from the old legends of the ryu.
One bright spring morning, Wataru said his farewells to Airi and Mr. Inushi. The trader clasped him in a quick hug and gruffly told him, "Keep safe now, lad." He pressed the bundle of money he'd been safekeeping into Wataru's arms.
And then they were off, cutting across the rippling blue surface of what had at first seemed to Wataru merely a giant lake—
"Ah, the sea," sighed the professor, stepping up to the railing beside Wataru. "You know, there's a Johtanese riddle I've always found poignant. 'They say that Lugia only suffers the same traveler to cross her oceans once. How, then, can a traveler return?'"
The answer seemed obvious.
"You fly back," Wataru said.
He was startled when Professor Okido broke into a chuckle. "Oh my, I haven't heard that one before. I see. You'd fly back on this little one, would you?"
He smiled down at Toku, who was coiled tight around the railing, her eyes fixed on the blue expanse ahead.
"She'll be bigger
when we fly," Wataru said, a little annoyed. He didn't understand why the professor was laughing, since he'd solved the riddle.
"Evolution . . . Well, in a way you've hit the nail on the head, my boy. The traditional answer is that the traveler who returns is not the same as the one who set out. The meaning of the riddle is, to put it simply, that the very act of a long journey changes people."
Wataru humored the professor with a nod. But he didn't think it mattered how far they went or how much water they crossed. When Toku became a kairyu, none of that would matter.
Like a mantra, Wataru whispered to the white-breaking waves, "When Toku becomes a kairyu, we can go home."