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Pokémon Dragon's Dance

Table of Contents
  • Pen

    the cat is mightier than the pen
    Staff
    Partners
    1. dratini
    2. custom/dratini-pen
    3. custom/dratini-pen2
    Dragon's Dance

    How does an orphan from a nameless hamlet in Johto rise to become the first champion of the unified Kanto-Johto region? This is a story of leaving home, finding home, politics, corruption, betrayal, and of course, dragons. This is the story of Lance.

    Dragon's Dance Cress.png

    (amazing art by @Cresselia92!)

    Welcome to The Lance Fic TM! This baby has sat in the back of my head for years. It's my attempt to tell the story of my favorite dragon-master and how his life plays into the rise and fall of Team Rocket and the unification of the Kanto and Johto regions.

    Please note, this fic uses the Japanese names for many of the characters, since I view the Kanto region as being linguistically closer to Japan. So Wataru is Lance, Ibuki is Clair, etc.



    Content Warnings: Chapter 6 (The Agent) features violence and mild gore.
     
    Last edited:
    Ch 1: The Miniryu Dancer
  • Pen

    the cat is mightier than the pen
    Staff
    Partners
    1. dratini
    2. custom/dratini-pen
    3. custom/dratini-pen2
    Chapter One - The Miniryu Dancer

    Wataru palmed a smooth, flat stone and rolled it from hand to hand. The sky had darkened to a dim orange as the late afternoon sun dipped behind the hills. A few streaks of light still struck the lake, which glinted like a silver plate in the middle of the valley.

    "Riii," Toku trilled softly from where she lay draped around his neck.

    Wataru felt the weight of the stone one last time, then lobbed it across the water. It skipped twice before it sank. He watched as the circles danced out.

    "I know," he said. "But it doesn't matter. They won't miss me if I don't go."

    The evening was warm and muggy. Birds still chattered softly in the trees. He could spend the rest of the night here, watching the moon light the lake. Maybe, if he was lucky, the gyarados would come out to dance.

    "Ow!" Wataru's hand leapt to his ear, where Toku had bitten him lightly. He pulled her off his shoulders and held her up so their eyes were level. "You really want to go?"

    Before Toku could answer, a shout caught his attention.

    "Wataru!" The sound was distant, but his name was clearly audible. "Wa-ta-ru."

    He and Toku exchanged a look. When the miniryu tilted her head pointedly towards the hills, Wataru bit his lip. "Fine."

    Louder, he called out, "I'm over here, Ibuki!"

    Ibuki took some time to crest the hill, but at last he saw her silhouetted against the dusky light. "What are you waiting for?" she shouted down. "Can't you see it's nearly sundown?"

    Of course he could see it was sundown. But Wataru didn't want to bother explaining why he'd been shunning the celebrations. Ibuki had a way of turning his reasons stupid just by listening to them.

    Setting Toku back on his shoulder, Wataru jogged up to meet his cousin. She was already in her festival clothes, Wataru realized as he came closer. She had to hold her newly-made cloak up with one hand to avoid it trailing the ground.

    "You're not even dressed!" Ibuki exclaimed when she'd gotten a good look at him. "We're going to be so late. Father's going to kill me. Come on."

    She grabbed him by the wrist and tugged him forward. It was either run or be dragged, so Wataru followed her into a run, stumbling slightly as he tried to keep pace. It wasn't fair. Ibuki was only a year older, but she was already so much taller.

    And tonight, she would dance the hakuryu odori.

    ~*~
    By the time they reached the village, the sky had turned a deep red. The thatched huts were completely deserted. Everyone had already left for the third valley, where meetings and celebrations were held.

    Ibuki waited outside as Wataru changed into his festival clothes, drumming her hand impatiently against the outer wall. The light blue headband was a struggle to pull over his bushy hair. Wataru wrestled with it for a minute, frustration welling up in his chest, before he gave in and asked Ibuki for help.

    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?

    "Finally," Ibuki muttered when the headband sat level across his forehead. They made their way in stony silence up the sloping hills.

    Wataru smelled the bonfire smoke before he saw the lights. Ahead of him, Ibuki's pace quickened. As they came down the rocky path, she sprang ahead without looking back to see if he was following.

    Wataru approached the pavilion at a slower pace. The scent of roasted meat and berries hit his nose, setting his stomach rumbling. He'd missed dinner, Wataru realized, and now it was too late to eat. Everyone was splitting off into their groups: Ibuki had already taken her place with the other blue-cloaked dancers. Glancing around, Wataru found his fellow miniryu dancers gathering in a disordered circle to the left. They seemed even smaller than usual in their silly-looking blue headbands.

    But Uncle was looking impatient as he cut through the crowd, so Wataru slunk over to his group and sat down. Excited chatter bubbled up around him—some of the children were dancing for their very first time tonight. This was Wataru's fourth time dancing in the Ryu Odori, and the novelty had long since worn off. His eyes wandered over to the final set of dancers, greedily taking in the bold red of their capes. The kaiyru dancers. One day, Wataru would stand with them.

    The high, mournful call of the long horn cut through the small talk, signalling the start of the ceremony. Uncle stepped into the firelight. He wouldn't be dancing tonight, but he wore red all the same—his privilege as the clan's leader. The shadows from the firelight made caves and caverns of his long, stern face. Wataru found himself straightening as Uncle waited for the crowd to come to complete silence. Only then did he speak.

    "Every spring, we hold the Ryu Odori," Uncle began. His voice had the low, lulling cadence of a story-teller. "We dance to celebrate the passage of life. The ryu have taught us this, as they have taught us many things.

    "As our celebrations begin tonight, we look to our children. The miniryu's dance is a simple one—playful, sometimes clumsy. We welcome that imperfection in this dance of beginnings, as we celebrate the vibrant energy of youth, the boundless potential of our children."

    Wataru scowled, tugging at the blue band, which pressed too tightly against his forehead.

    "The middle dance, the hakuryu odori, is the dance of adolescence. Those that dance the hakuryu's dance can no longer be considered children. We admire the elegance and refinement of their movements, while acknowledging their continued striving. After all, the hakuryu has achieved much, but there is much that awaits her yet."

    Uncle paused for a moment, his lips curving up faintly, and Wataru wondered if he was thinking about Ibuki. Glancing over, he found her among the other hakuryu dancers. Sweat beaded on her face, even though she wasn't seated too close to the fire.

    She's nervous, Wataru realized, amazed. But she was Ibuki! There was no way she wouldn't dance perfectly.

    Wataru set his chin forward. "You'll be the best one," he whispered.

    A solemn note entered Uncle's voice as he continued, "Last of all, we dance the kairyu odori. The honor of this dance is reserved for adults at the peak of their potential. In the kairyu, power and peace are realized without contradiction. The energy of the miniryu is harnessed with the grace of hard-won wisdom. Not everyone can dance the kairyu's dance."

    As Uncle paused, the crowd began to murmur syo-syo, sending strength to the dancers who waited at the edge of the firelight, their red cloaks flashing.

    "Well," said Uncle, making a show of turning his face to the sky, "the moon is full, so enough from me. Let's get this underway."

    The drums began to pound loudly and the elders shook their rattles, creating a sound like wind passing through dry leaves. When Elder Kyo stood and lifted her hands, the children began to rise. Wataru jumped to his feet and raced to the front of the waywardly forming line, ignoring the dirty looks he received. He was the oldest in the group; he had a right to go first.

    Elder Kyo's quiet clap signaled the start of the dance. On the downbeat of the drums, Wataru stepped out into the clearing. For a single moment, it was like he was standing entirely alone, the whole village staring at him in judgement. Then the familiar beats of the dance began to fall and Wataru was jumping into the air, his body twisting automatically to the tune. Leg over leg, clap and turn, touch the sky and fall and spin.

    The miniryu odori was a children's dance, but as he moved, Wataru forgot to resent that fact. It was fun to spin and leap in the torchlight, forgetting the eyes beyond it. When he jumped, it was just him and the night sky, and the brief, soaring moment where the jump almost felt like flight.

    Wataru was breathing hard as the music cut out and the night filled with cheers from the audience. They weren't applauding for him, not really, but Wataru still held his head high as he filed back to his place. He and the other children plopped down on the grass as the dancers of the second circle filed into place.

    Again, a quiet clap signaled the start of the dance, but this time the drummers waited, their hands held high above their instruments. Wataru caught the distant call of a hoothoot as the dancers raised the ends of their cloaks in unison. One by one, they spun outwards, positioned like the overlapping petals of a poppy. As the drumbeat picked up, the pace of the dance grew more rapid. Ibuki and the others spun and ducked, their dark blue cloaks extensions of their arms.

    Wataru held his breath when Ibuki shifted to the front for her solo. Had she managed to shake off her earlier nerves? Standing in the shadow of the bonfire, her expression was impossible to read. A lull fell in the music, and Ibuki brought her arms up slowly, the gesture meant to mirror a hakuryu's new potential for flight. Suddenly, the drums crashed down and Ibuki spun to the side, her cloak completing a graceful arc behind her. On the grass, Wataru released his breath as the solo performance picked up speed. All of Ibuki's moves were perfectly timed to the beat as she acted out the determined ambition of the hakuryu.

    Once the dance had ended and the second circle dancers joined the audience, Wataru crawled over to Ibuki.

    "That was amazing," he whispered. "Your dancing was the best."

    Ibuki didn't say anything, but she lifted her chin just a little, and her eyes sparkled. Wataru flopped back on the grass, satisfied that he'd made amends for earlier.

    The excitement was tangible as the third circle took their places. Dressed in resplendent oranges and reds that caught the moonlight, the kairyu dancers instantly outshone everyone who had come before. They leaped, cartwheeled, and spun, always seeming on the verge of a collision that never occurred. Wataru imagined dancing with them, extending his arms in their sharp energetic movements. By the end of the dance, he was grinning, his legs still tapping out the fast beat even when the drums cut out. He almost wanted to leap up and perform the miniryu odori all over again.

    But the audience was quieting down again as the stage cleared. A lone dancer stepped into the light of the bonfire. Wataru recognized her as Kana, a dragon master of about thirty. She must have done something exceptional this year to receive the honor of the tamer's dance. The only sound as she began was the click of the orange beads braided through her blue-black hair. Even the usual sounds of the nocturnal pokemon seemed to have faded away. Wataru imagined the hoothoot from earlier standing stock still on its perch, red eyes alight with anticipation.

    When he was younger, this particular dance had always left Wataru uneasy. It looked wrong, somehow. All the movements seemed incomplete and unsatisfying, as if they were missing an essential part.

    Of course, Wataru knew now why that was the case. The dance of the dragon-tamer was not complete on its own. Only the presence of a kairyu could turn the dance into what it was truly meant to be. The performance was a call; most years, that call was left unanswered.

    As Kana flipped masterfully through the air, Wataru found himself leaning forward. Every movement was seamless. Surely she wouldn't be left to dance alone?

    But the wood was nearly burned through now. Wataru watched the fire shrink, fighting back his disappointment. When the last ember flared out, the celebration would end. Kana was running out of time.

    Suddenly, a murmur ran through the crowd. Wataru craned his head upwards to see a kairyu passing overhead. As they watched with bated breath, the kairyu swooped down, hovering just meters from the dancer and the dimming firelight. Did Kana realize she'd just gained the only audience that mattered? Lit mostly by moonlight now, the dragon master didn't falter. She ducked and weaved around her invisible partner, every gesture calling out to be completed.

    Wataru kept his eyes fixed on the kairyu, whose tail whipped lazily from side to side. There was something in the way the broad muscles of its back tensed, the stilling of its tail—

    "It's going to happen!" Wataru blurted out, just as the kairyu let out a tree-rattling roar and entered the flickering circle of fire-light.

    And the dance . . . changed. All the halted movements and strange turns transformed into a dance of perfect harmony. This was a wild kairyu, Wataru knew. It had never danced with Kana before tonight. But the two moved together as if they'd spent the last month in rehearsal. The dancer spun fearlessly, trusting the gigantic ryu to turn in time to avoid a collision.

    The crowd watched in complete silence. Even the small children, who usually began to cry this late in the ceremony, hushed to take in the dance.

    Wataru let out an unconscious sigh when the last flickering ember of the bonfire went dark. He wished the dance could have continued all through the night, into the early morning. But Kana was bowing now, dwarfed by the kairyu, who returned the gesture, proud head bent for a moment in recognition of her skill. Letting loose another, almost triumphant roar, the wild kairyu took off into the night.

    "Thank you," Wataru whispered, as the kairyu passed beyond the hills.

    He followed Ibuki home in an unusually thoughtful mood. Wataru had seen many talented dancers perform to an empty stage. Their performances hadn't lacked anything that he could notice. So what had made Kana's different? And how could Wataru hope to one day dance in her place if he didn't know?

    It was a problem for another day. Wataru ignored the excited chatter from the other boys as he undressed and folded away his festival clothes. As he stretched out on his sleeping mat, all his musings were subsumed by one satisfying thought.

    This is the last year I'll wear the miniryu's blue.

    ~*~​

    Wataru woke to someone's foot in his face.

    "Sorry," the other boy murmured, as Wataru shoved the offending limb away with a grimace. Bright sunlight cut in through the curtains. Wataru guessed it was already mid-morning. The elders must have given them extra time to sleep off the festival's excitement. Stifling a yawn, he started to sit up. Toku's whine from her place nestled against his stomach made him pause. He removed the miniryu gently from his chest and started on his morning stretches.

    When he returned to his sleeping mat, he found it almost entirely monopolized by Toku's long, thin body. She'd wriggled into the place his torso had been, no doubt eager to take in the residual body heat.

    "I've got to roll this up, Toku," Wataru said. The hut was almost empty now; most of the other boys had taken off in the direction of their morning lessons. "Come on, don't make me late again . . ."

    Toku's wide, dark eyes latched imploringly onto his own. With a short flick of her tail, the miniryu communicated that she was still exceedingly tired.

    Wataru sighed, sitting down next to her. The elders always complained that he spoiled Toku, but in Wataru's opinion, she deserved the rest. The hours they'd spent by the lakeside yesterday hadn't been wasted. Toku had finally managed to generate a thin electric wave that didn't fizz out the instant it left her ear fins.

    Besides, what mattered more to him? The scowl Elder Kyo would wear when he showed up late, or Toku's contented trill as he said, "All right, five more minutes"?

    It wasn't even close.

    Sure enough, when the two of them finally arrived at the fourth valley, Elder Kyo was mid-sentence: "After completing these great journeys, Master Kaisho at last returned to the Dragon's Clan."

    Wataru sunk cautiously onto his knees at the back of the group, hoping his late entrance would pass without comment. But today, luck wasn't on his side. Elder Kyo's eyes snapped onto him like a spearow spotting a juicy caterpie. "Since you know Master Kaisho's story well enough to skip out on its beginning, perhaps you can tell us how Master Kaisho made his return, a return still memorialized on the walls of Dragon's Den."

    Wataru scrambled for an answer. Only, there were so many murals in Dragon's Den. The few times he'd been to the inner sanctum, he hadn't paid them much attention, busy imagining the ceremony when Toku finally became a kairyu.

    He didn't even remember who Master Kaisho had been.

    "He flew back," Wataru guessed. "On his kairyu. He flew back with two kairyu," he added defiantly. That sounded like a return worthy of a dragon master.

    Elder Kyo's mouth hung slightly open. "Correct," she said after a moment. Regaining her balance, she continued, "His kairyu were named La and Ri. Yes, by returning with two kairyu, he showed the whole clan the depth of the expertise he had gained in his travels."

    Letting out a soft sigh, Wataru tuned out Elder Kyo as she continued with her lecture. It was another unbearably fine spring day. The blue of the sky matched Toku's back, the sun was full, and he couldn't spot a single cloud. It was a day meant for battling, not for listening to droning history lessons.

    "—to battle." Wataru's ears perked up at the word. By the time he got to his feet, the other children had already split off into groups of two. Wataru was left standing alone at the center of the clearing.

    "I made the battling assignments before you arrived, Wataru," Elder Kyo called out. "You'll just have to join a group and take turns. Which group would like Wataru to join them, please?"

    Silence fell, and a tight feeling took over Wataru's chest. No one was meeting his eyes.

    Elder Kyo cleared her throat. "I said, which group will take Wataru and make a group of three?"

    "Not three . . ." The comment was whispered too softly for Elder Kyo to catch, but Wataru heard it loud and clear. "Two and a hafu doesn't make three."

    Wataru's face flushed horribly. He managed to choke out, "Looks like they're all too scared to face me."

    Then, before Elder Kyo could chide him for his rudeness, Wataru spun on his feet and took off up the hill. He knew from experience that Elder Kyo wouldn't bother with chasing him. Uncle would chide him and he'd get extra chores for the week, but all that seemed like a small price to pay to get away from the other children. He came to a stop, panting, only when he had reached the edge of the village.

    "So what if I'm hafu?" Wataru demanded of the sky. "It's not like I'm any less than them. If I were, how come I always beat them? They're just mad, 'cause I always beat them." His voice didn't match the surety of his words. It cracked as he spoke, causing Toku to let out a concerned trill. "They're just mad there's not a single miniryu as strong as you, Toku," he said, hugging her close. He felt a raspy tongue lick his cheek in answer.

    Wiping his face in case any embarrassing moisture had snuck out of his eyes, Wataru made his way over to the river, where the festival clothes were being laundered.

    "Toku," he whispered, ducking behind a tree. "Get Ibuki, will you?"

    Toku let out an affirmative chirp and snaked away through the grass. Wataru occupied himself with peeling off some old bark from the trunk as he waited, trying to think about anything but the morning lesson.

    "Wataru?" Ibuki's whisper came out more like a shout. He grabbed her arm and dragged her behind the tree, out of sight.

    "Let's battle," he said.

    Ibuki sighed. Her black-blue hair was tied back from her face and a thick bar of soap was clutched in her left hand. "Wataru, I'm on laundry-duty right now. I have chores to complete today and entertaining you isn't one of them. Besides—" Her eyes narrowed "—aren't you supposed to be in class?"

    Wataru hated it when Ibuki got like this, like she thought she was his mom just because she was a single year older. "None of your business," he shot back. "But listen, Toku mastered her thunder wave. Fight me, and we'll show you."

    "Don't be ridiculous," Ibuki snapped. "We're just starting that move in my class and I only ever showed you the first steps. There's no way you can do it, so quit lying."

    "I'm not lying!" Wataru heard his voice rise and tried to get a handle on himself. "I'm not lying," he said in a quieter tone. "I'm not. Let's go have a battle by the lake and I'll show you."

    The offer came out more desperate than he'd have liked. Ibuki's eyes softened for a moment as she looked at him. "Did something happen in class?" she said finally.

    Wataru looked away. If he told Ibuki, she'd probably storm back there and tell Elder Kyo. Then Elder Kyo would halt the battling practice and make them sit for an hour while she explained that discrimination based on blood was wrong. It was ritual and practice that made one a member of the Dragon's Clan, not birth alone. And Wataru would have to sit there, his face flushing the same color as his hair, as the accusing glares burned into his back.

    And then they would know that the words had gotten to him.

    "Nothing happened," Wataru said firmly. Ibuki held his gaze for a moment, her brow furrowed, but at last she shrugged.

    "Okay, then. I'm still not going to battle with you. I'm not a kid anymore—I danced the hakuryu's dance and I've got duties today. I can't go goofing off with you."

    She took off without a backwards glance, towards the washers arrayed along the river.

    "Ryu-a?" asked Toku. What now?

    It was a good question. Wataru picked out a path towards the outer-valley ridge. No one went that way and from up there he could see everything else.

    "Ibuki thinks she's so mature now that she's danced the hakuryu odori," he muttered as he walked. "But she's just being stupid. Imagine, Toku! Choosing laundry over battling."

    The miniryu's trill echoed his disbelief.

    "And she's not my mom," he said, settling on the ground, where he began to pull up and shred blades of grass. "I don't have a mom. And Uncle's not my dad, either," he continued, picking up steam. "So where do any of them get off telling me what I should do? I—"

    But his rant was cut off by Toku's sudden trill. The miniryu had slithered up a rock and was craning her neck out over the ridge. Joining her, Wataru saw a ponyta-pulled wagon making its way along the dirt road that fed into the first valley.

    A trader, probably. They stopped by every month or so and Wataru knew some of the rarer dyes and finer cloth came from their wares. But Wataru had never seen a trade take place up close before.

    His eyes met Toku's and he knew the miniryu shared his idea. "All right, let's investigate!"

    ~*~​

    When they raced into the village, flushed from the quick descent, the trader was already closeted away with Uncle. Disappointed but undaunted, Wataru decided to explore the wagon instead. He wandered closer, stopping to give the ponyta a quick pat along its neck.

    As Wataru rounded the wagon, he ran right into another boy. The boy had a nose and mouth and eyes, and seemed about Wataru's age, but other than that, he looked odd. His hair was fully black, not the black-blue of everyone in the clan except Wataru. His cheeks were big and puffy, and his clothes were startlingly bright, a yellow shirt paired with tightly cut blue pants like it was still festival day. If those indicators weren't enough, the weird sheen of his vest marked him a complete gaijin.

    "Hey," the boy said. His eyes fell on Wataru's shoulder. "Wow, is that a dratini?"

    The accent was a little hard to parse, but Wataru figured he was asking about Toku. "She's the strongest miniryu in the whole village," he said. Toku preened at the words.

    "Miniryu? Oh, that's the name you have here for dratini. I'm a trainer too." The boy angled his head towards the wagon and called, "Hey, Koge, come over here!"

    A large bug with spotted red wings buzzed out from the back of the wagon. It chittered a light greeting to Toku, who responded in kind.

    Wataru stared at the two foreigners, struck suddenly by an idea. "Do you want to have a battle?" he asked.

    The other boy's face brightened. "Sure! I never get to battle anyone when we're on the road. Koge and I are full power, ready to go!" To emphasize the point, he pumped his fist through the air.

    Wataru blinked, a bit surprised at how readily the other boy had agreed. He glanced around cautiously. The village was quiet, with everyone out at lessons or chores. But there was no knowing when someone might wander by and witness their unsupervised battle.

    "Let's go somewhere where we won't be disturbed, okay?" he said, and took off without checking to see if the other boy was following. The confirmation came soon enough, the buzz of the bug pokemon's wings mingled with heavy breathing behind him.

    Wataru waited impatiently by the small den he and Ibuki had used for their secret battles, back before she got all rule-abiding. Really, he'd have thought a world traveler like the gaijin boy would be in better shape.

    "I'm Airi, by the way," the boy said with a short bob of his head when he finally reached the rocks.

    "I'm Wataru," Wataru said, returning a fuller bow. "Right, let's get started." He clasped his eyes shut and chanted, "Once, the ryu fought with fire and ash. Now we are free, that time is past. I fight for my skill, I won't aim to kill. Ryu, bless this battle before you."

    He opened his eyes to find Airi watching him with his mouth agape.

    "Blessing's all done," Wataru said. "Ready to go?"

    "Y-yeah. Koge, start off with a tackle!"

    Wataru frowned as the bug started towards them. It was so slow.

    "Leer at it, Toku." The miniryu's eyes flashed red. The bug fluttered to a nervous halt. "Great. Now let's see if you can do a thunder wave." Toku began to gather static from the ground. The sparks danced and flitted around her body. "I think you've got it. Try the attack now!"

    As Toku closed her eyes in concentration, the bug shook off its daze. It started forward just as a thin line of sparks shot from the miniryu's head. With an alarmed cry, the bug sank to the ground, shivering from the static charge.

    Wataru eyed their downed opponent in disappointment. Ibuki and Masako would have put up much more of a fight. Still, he was glad they'd had the chance to try out Toku's newest move for real.

    "Do you want to keep going?" he asked the other boy.

    Airi shook his head. "Nah, we're beat." He lifted the bug pokemon carefully in his arms, flinching as a small spark met his finger. "You two are pretty strong."

    Wataru gave what he hoped was a modest shrug, but inside he was beaming. It was nice to hear someone admit it, even if that someone was gaijin and really weak.

    "There's a cheri berry bush nearby," Wataru said. He smiled as Toku crawled up into his arms. "You did so good! By the time Ibuki fights us, she's not going to know what hit her."

    "A cheri bush?" Airi repeated, his face a picture of confusion. "I think Dad's got a paralyze heal back in the wagon."

    "Cheri berries are a paralyze heal," Wataru said, a little annoyed. "Just follow me."

    When they reached the cheri bush, a hakuryu was curled in the branches, munching away at the small red berries.

    Wataru bowed deeply. "Honored hakuryu, may I take a berry to heal our friend?"

    The ryu's soft trill was clearly in the affirmative. Wataru plucked the nearest berry and held it out to the bug pokemon. "Eat this. You'll feel better."

    The pokemon gulped the berry down in a single swallow. Its trainer was still staring at the berry bush in amazement. "T-that's a dragonair, right? Do they really just run wild around here?"

    Oh, so he'd been staring at the hakuryu in amazement. "Yes?" said Wataru with a shrug. "But if you think a hakuryu's impressive, you should see a kairyu." Catching the hakuryu's narrowed eyes, Wataru mumbled, "No disrespect meant, of course."

    "A kairyu?" Airi's eyes suddenly went wide. "Wait, you don't mean a dragonite, do you? Big, orange, flying dragon? Only the rarest and most powerful pokemon in all of Johto?"

    "I don't know about rare," Wataru said, giving his new acquaintance a funny look. "Most powerful, no question." He fell silent for a moment, thinking. "It's a nice day. I bet we'd find a few sunning in Dragon's Den if we looked."

    "A few dragonite?" Airi's eyes were still comically wide. "You can't really mean dragonite . . ."

    "You want to see them?" Wataru asked. He figured he owed the gaijin boy something for beating him so soundly. And it was kind of fun to imagine what his face would look like when he saw a kairyu, if this was how he reacted to a hakuryu.

    Airi sounded dazed as he said, "See them? Do I ever!"

    ~*~​

    It was only when they neared Dragon's Den and Wataru caught sight of one of the villagers standing guard at the entrance that he felt a pang of doubt. He wasn't really supposed to enter Dragon's Den without permission. And to bring a gaijin along . . .

    "Is it much farther?" Airi asked from behind him. The other boy's eyes shone with excitement.

    Wataru brushed aside his hesitation. It was a stupid rule, anyway. And he did know another way in, though it involved some climbing.

    "Not too far," Wataru said. He eyed the sweat already beading on the boy's forehead. "Uh, just try and keep up."

    The descent down the side of the cavern proved worse than Wataru's lowest expectations. He had to coax the other boy through every bad handhold and short drop. Wataru kept glancing up nervously, worried someone would take notice, but their luck held.

    Every painful moment from the climb was worth it, though, when they finally dropped to the ground in the lush field that stretched out behind the pools of the den. Sure enough, three kairyu were taking in the sunshine, their scaled chests rising and falling slowly.

    Wataru turned to his companion, satisfied by the gobsmacked look on his face.

    "They won't attack us, will they?" the other boy whispered, once he'd remembered to shut his mouth.

    Wataru shook his head. "Just stay quiet. The kairyu won't bother us if we don't bother them."

    The sunlight warmed their backs as they sat in silence, watching the kairyu doze. A light breeze stirred the blossoming koiking grass. Wataru inhaled happily, tipping back his head. Toku was stretched out in his lap, as content in the sunlight as her twice-evolved form.

    It was a perfect moment. So of course, someone had to ruin it.

    "There they are!" Wataru had barely registered the shout when a firm hand descended on his back. The noise caused the kairyu to stir. The nearest one blinked open an enormous eye and took in the proceedings lazily.

    It was Uncle's hand that was gripping so tightly against Wataru's shoulder. A few other men and women from the village were with him. One grabbed Airi and jerked him roughly to his feet.

    "Uncle—" Wataru began, but was cut off by a sharp squeeze.

    "Save it, Wataru." His uncle turned to the others. "Let's get out of here. We're disturbing the kairyu." He bowed deeply, though his grip on Wataru didn't lessen. "Please excuse the interruption, Great Ones."

    Then they were heading back through the cavern—being dragged, really. Airi's face was pale and Wataru guessed the hand tugging him along wasn't much kinder than Uncle's. The boy tripped over a jutting rock and nearly tumbled headfirst into the shallow water.

    "Don't make him go so fast, he doesn't know the way," Wataru shouted, catching the miserable look on the gaijin boy's face as he got to his feet.

    "Then how did he get in?" Uncle asked icily. He didn't seem to be looking for an answer, so Wataru kept his mouth shut.

    "Take the boy back to his father," Uncle said as they neared the exit. The last Wataru saw of Airi was his pale face craning back, before he was dragged out of sight.

    Uncle finally removed his hand from Wataru's shoulder. At once, Wataru reached up to massage the sore spot where Uncle had been gripping him. He recognized that now was the time to speak, but he couldn't think of anything to say, so he preserved a mulish silence.

    "Wataru," Uncle said after a long moment, "do you have any idea how much trouble you're in?"

    He didn't sound mad anymore. That was the scary part. That was what made Wataru finally look up. Uncle's face was crinkled into one giant frown, his bushy black eyebrows drawn close together.

    "All I did was show him the kairyu," Wataru said. He knew at once it had been the wrong thing to say.

    Uncle passed his palm over his face. "All you did. That's a pretty big 'all you did', Wataru. Do you know why we have that rule? Do you know why it's so important?"

    When Wataru didn't answer, Uncle said, "Think about it. And you'll have a lot of time to think, because you're grounded, until we figure out what your punishment should be. Kana will keep an eye on you for now. I need to speak with that trader."

    Uncle took off without another word, leaving Wataru alone with the dragon master. She didn't say anything either, just widened her stance to something more comfortable and fixed her gaze on the mural past Wataru's head. He'd admired her, last night, dreamed of dancing in her place. Now she was watching him like he was some kind of baby. Thoroughly humiliated, Wataru sank his head onto his knees and tried to think.

    Outsiders weren't supposed to see the kairyu. Only those dragon-blessed may witness the ryu at rest. Wataru had grown up hearing those words, but he'd never given them much thought. It wasn't as if many outsiders came by in the first place. There were a few traders, but that was about it. Why shouldn't a gaijin get to see the kairyu, as long as they were respectful and didn't do anything stupid, like flicking acorns at them?

    He didn't know the answer, but he did know the look on Uncle's face.

    Wataru wriggled around for several minutes, trying to find a comfortable position on the ground, but the cold rock bit into him however he sat. Shivering in the cool wind that gusted through the cave, he hugged Toku close and settled in to wait.

    ~*~​

    By evening, Uncle still hadn't returned and Wataru was chilled all through. Kana hadn't moved more than to shift her posture occasionally. He desperately wanted to ask her what was happening, but that felt somehow like admitting defeat. Toku had already burrowed deep inside his tunic to escape the chill. Wataru felt anger worm its way through his chest as Toku trembled. Toku hadn't done anything wrong—why was she being punished too?

    He'd just made up his mind to ask Kana to let Toku go home, when footsteps began to clatter through the cave. Wataru jumped to his feet, stumbling slightly on his numb limbs. He tried to straighten his back as Uncle came into sight, flanked by a battalion of distinguished elders and masters. Wataru didn't think he'd seen them all in one place before, except at celebrations and council meetings.

    Soft mats were set down for the elders. Along with Uncle, the masters remained standing. Wataru realized that they'd fanned out in a semi-circle, with him at the center. The arrangement made him uneasy. He swallowed, wishing that someone would say something.

    But Uncle's words, when he finally spoke, offered no relief. "We are gathered here to discuss the punishment of Wataru, son of Riku." Wataru narrowed his eyes when his mother's name didn't follow. "A recommendation has been presented to me by the council. I respect their wisdom, but wish to question Wataru myself. Is that acceptable?"

    "It is," said Elder Io, the oldest person in the clan. Wataru flinched as her milky eyes settled on him. "The boy is your nephew, but we trust your judgement. We trust you will rule in the best interest of the community."

    "Wataru," Uncle said. "I asked you a question when I left. Can you answer it for me?" When Wataru didn't immediately speak, Uncle's voice hardened. "What question did I ask you?"

    "You asked why we have the rule about gaijin not seeing the kairyu," Wataru said. He'd meant to speak firmly, but his voice came out small, almost a whisper.

    Uncle nodded. "Correct. Well? You've had at least three hours to think about it, by my count. What's the answer?"

    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 . . ."

    Wataru's voice trailed off as the elders traded significant glances.

    "What have you been teaching this boy, Kyo?" Elder Io demanded.

    Looking flustered, Elder Kyo adjusted her shawl. "Hard to teach this boy anything, when he's always running from class."

    "Is it true you skipped class this morning, Wataru?" Uncle interjected calmly.

    He must already know the answer, Wataru thought, so why's he asking?

    "Yes," he said, "But—"

    "Maybe if you'd stayed through your whole lesson, you would have learned about the Battle of Five Fires," Uncle said, cutting Wataru off. "Well?"

    "That was when—" Wataru knew the name, of course, knew the mural, even. "People attacked the valley. The masters and their kairyu fought them off."

    "And why did they attack, Wataru? What did they want from us?"

    "They wanted—" What had they wanted? What would make people do a thing like that? It was called the Battle of Five Fires because the invaders had set every valley aflame. "I don't know what they wanted."

    "Ignorant boy!" Elder Io said sharply. "Do you have no wits at all—"

    But she subsided at Uncle's quick glance. "Wataru," he said, "do you know what happened after that? What resolution the council passed, all those years ago?"

    "No," Wataru said dully. "I don't know." He was cold and he was tired and the stares were increasingly hard to take. From inside his tunic, Toku let out a short whine. "Sorry," Wataru added, for good measure.

    "I don't see how you can be sorry," Elder Io muttered, "if you don't know what you're sorry for."

    "Elder Kyo, can you please fill in the gaps in my nephew's memory?"

    The old woman gave a short nod. Pulling her shawl a little tighter around her, she said, "Long ago, it was known far and wide throughout Johto that no pokemon could best a dragon, and that these dragons dwelled in our valley. At the time, our clan lived separately from the mass of warlords who fought over Johto's land like two spearow at work on the same fruit. The clan bothered no one and asked for nothing. But these warlords were greedy for the advantages offered by the kairyu in battle. One bold tyrant gathered his troops and advanced war against our borders. His purpose was to capture the kairyu for his own use.

    "We were victorious, in the end. But the battle was a costly one. The council realized that our numbers were dwindling, as the numbers of our enemies grew. We had no wish to violate the philosophy of the ryu by seeking out needless conflict. So the council resolved to completely close our borders. We retreated deep into the valleys and hid ourselves whenever outsiders came, until they assumed we'd abandoned this place. In this way the knowledge of the ryu's home faded from the world. Our current peace is the hard labor of many centuries."

    "—And we cannot have it endangered by a foolish hafu boy!" Elder Io cut in. "These gaijin have big mouths, especially these traders. Tell one and you might as well have told the whole world."

    The cold feeling wasn't just in Wataru's arms and legs now. It had sunk deep into his chest. "They'd come for the kairyu?" he whispered. "I don't, I didn't know—"

    "Clearly you didn't know," Uncle said wearily. "And plainly, you didn't think. Worst of all, it seems you didn't care."

    "I care!" Wataru shouted, stung at the accusation. "I'd die to protect the kairyu, you know I would!"

    A look crossed Uncle's face that Wataru couldn't parse. It was gone a moment later, his features flattening to the same blankness he'd held since the beginning of what was feeling more and more to Wataru like a trial.

    "No one's asking that of you," he said levelly. "However—" He glanced at the assembled members of the council. "It has been impressed upon me that your reckless behavior is part of a long and disturbing trend. We would like to think that the gravity of your actions today will mark the end of this behavior. But some believe your actions merit more than a reprimand, however strong. I was not initially inclined to agree. But your willfulness, your disregard for the precarity of our situation, I find very disturbing. Perhaps Elder Io's remedy is the correct one."

    The old woman inclined her head. "Well-reasoned."

    "The remedy proposed is exile," Uncle said. He turned abruptly to the dragon master who had stood silent throughout the proceedings so far. "What do you think of that, Kana?"

    Exile? The word sent an icy tremor down Wataru's back. Slowly, his eyes rose to meet the appraising gaze of the dragon master. Her face betrayed none of her thoughts.

    Wataru wished, suddenly, that he'd spoken during the three hours they'd waited together. She danced with dragons—maybe she would have understood the fire that took him over sometimes, the drive to prove that he was better than the others, to defeat them so decisively they'd never taunt him again.

    But it was too late now. He'd sat there and he hadn't said a word.

    "He's a stubborn boy, Chief," Kana said slowly. She seemed to be choosing each word with care. "A stubborn ryu only learns by ice."

    "Thank you for your wisdom, Kana," Uncle said. He stared down at Wataru for a long moment. "Is it the will of this council that Wataru, son of Riku, be sent into exile?"

    The answering murmur was low and chaotic. But every voice Wataru could make out said yes.

    "Then I accede to the council's will," Uncle said heavily. "This session is dismissed."

    Wataru sat numbly on the ground as the masters helped the elders to their feet, and the whole party made their way out of Dragon's Den. He squeezed his eyes shut as Uncle dropped to the ground next to him.

    "Look at me, Wataru. Look at me."

    But Wataru didn't want to look. If he looked he would cry and at the moment, all he had left was the fact that he hadn't yet cried.

    "Are the ryu going to be okay?" he finally managed to whisper. "Is the valley going to be set on fire again?"

    Uncle sighed. "I don't think so, Wataru. I've had a long talk with the boy's father. He's a good man and understands our need for secrecy. If his son talks, his words will be dismissed as a child's nonsense imaginings."

    Wataru cracked open his eyes, but kept them fixed on the hard black rock of the cavern. "Is it because of my mom you're sending me away?"

    This time, Uncle's sigh was pained. "I know sometimes you have been made to feel unwelcome here because of what your mother was. But this is a consequence of your actions, not your blood. Do you understand, Wataru? This is a consequence. It's not—I know it may seem to you like the end of the world. But perhaps you'll take to life outside these valleys. My brother—" Uncle's voice suddenly cracked. "My brother seemed to."

    Wataru's third question came to him as the miniryu wriggled restlessly under his tunic. "Toku. She can come with me, right?"

    When Uncle didn't answer, the icy pit in Wataru's stomach tightened.

    "I've explained the need for secrecy, haven't I, Wataru?"

    "Yes, but . . ." Toku had been with Wataru since he was five. She'd chosen him. "Toku's a ryu. You can't make her stay behind if she doesn't want to."

    Wataru's certainty fell away when Uncle's expression didn't budge. He'd been wrong about so much today already. Please don't let me be wrong about this, too.

    Toku poked her head out of his tunic. She stared up at Uncle, her eyes glinting with the red light of a leer attack, like he was an enemy they were facing in battle.

    "Toku's only a miniryu," Uncle said at last. "I'm sorry, little one," he added, looking down at Toku. "You can't go with him. We can't allow it."

    Toku let out a hiss, which was more than Wataru could manage at the moment. He gaped up at Uncle, trying and failing to put into words the impossibility of parting from Toku. Ryu and their tamers were supposed to be bonded for life. That was the rule.

    "But—" Wataru tried again.

    Uncle cut him off. "I'm sorry. I didn't want it to come to this."

    You could have stopped it, though, and you didn't. You didn't speak up for me. No one did.

    Wataru squeezed his eyes shut to prevent the wetness there escaping. Warm, strong arms hoisted him up. "Let's get you home, nephew," Uncle murmured. "You need to rest. Tomorrow will be a big day."

    Home? Wataru blinked open his eyes as they left the cave. Wetness blurred the sky above into a smear of yellow stars. But it's not. It's not my home anymore.
     
    Last edited:
    Ch 2: The Exile
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    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.

    Exile. 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."

    "Wataru!"

    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."

    "There is."

    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?"

    "Inushi Airi."

    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?"

    "Happy to."

    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.

    "Birth date?"

    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?

    No. 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.

    "My, my."

    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."

    "Where exactly—"

    "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."

    "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."
     
    Last edited:
    Ch 3: The Traveler, Part One
  • Pen

    the cat is mightier than the pen
    Staff
    Partners
    1. dratini
    2. custom/dratini-pen
    3. custom/dratini-pen2
    The Traveler, Part One

    The days had turned long and dry when Wataru set out down the road. He'd wanted to leave straight-away, but paperwork had delayed him, the visa and trainer's card he'd need to stay free at Pokemon Centers. Wataru had the card now—a thin, gleaming rectangle bearing the words, "NAME: Fusube Wataru, HOMETOWN: Fusube City."

    Fusube City. The professor had chuckled when he saw it. "If you're from a city, lad, Pallet Town's a regular metropolis."

    The time spent waiting hadn't been so bad. The professor's ranch was home to more pokemon than Wataru had ever seen before in one place, and most of them were new to him. There were ponds and streams, wide-open plains, a fragrant garden and a heated terrarium. Wataru spent his days observing the different pokemon, who were sometimes game for a quick battle, at least those days when the spring showers didn't force him inside.

    The rainy days were the worst, because on those days it was impossible to escape Professor Okido. The professor tried his best, but during a lecture on hereditary moves or during lunch, when Wataru was trapped at the table and the rain drummed relentlessly against the window panes, a question would inevitably slip out. Were dratini amphibious? Did the thunder wave attack hint at a latent electric typing? What diet, exactly, did dratini consume in the wild—

    Some of the questions Wataru couldn't answer, others he didn't want to. The professor had been kind to him, but Wataru didn't like the thought of the man roaming the valleys of the Ryu's Gift, looking for a miniryu to bring back to his private ranch. None of the pokemon here seemed unhappy, but Wataru knew a miniryu would be. So he held his tongue, enduring the questions with shrugged shoulders until Kana finally grew bored and tried to set the professor's coat on fire again.

    The charmander had begun to yip furiously when she realized Wataru and Toku were setting out for good. She sucked in a breath, her tail flame doubling, and Wataru watched in fascination, wondering if he was about to witness a full-throated flamethrower attack.

    In the face of imminent fiery wrath, the professor had only sighed. "Say please."

    Kana bared her teeth, her tail whipping dangerously.

    "No one can say I didn't try to my very last breath," the professor muttered to himself. "Yes, you can go with him, if he agrees."

    She'd marched over without waiting for Wataru's nod.

    "Make sure to write!" the professor had shouted after them down the road.

    Remembering, Wataru cast an uneasy glance towards his pack, laden down with a big book—dex, the professor had called it—and some sheets of paper. Writing was a pain and anyway, it wasn't like he had much to write about yet. The days were a blur of sun and heat. Around them the trees were fruiting, bright pops of yellow and red against the vigorous green of their leaves. The road was broad and easy to follow, and Wataru had it mostly to himself, other than the occasional passing wagon.

    He liked the solitude. No one told him when to wake up or when to fall asleep, though on most mornings, Wataru woke with the light. Kana always rose to watch the sun rise. She stood outside the tent and turned to the east, her tail-flame flaring up three times as if in salute. Elder Kyo had once told a story about ryu who were born in the sun—maybe Kana was a ryu like that. He wondered if she dreamed about returning to the sun once she'd gotten her wings. At least it wouldn't be hard to find the way, Wataru thought, and wondered for a moment which direction the Ryu's Gift lay from this place. The next morning, he and Toku joined Kana in her morning salute. They stood together, and a warm breeze stirred Wataru's hair.

    It wasn't long before he began to notice small huts and farms in the distance. Several hours later, the line of trees ended, and Wataru found himself in the middle of a town. The place was smaller than Cherrygrove and bigger than Pallet, but was unlike either in its air of desolation. The houses seemed badly cared for, their roofs unpatched, and many buildings had windows boarded over with wood rotting from the spring-time storms and summer heat.

    The exception was a bustling construction site in the middle of town, where the buzz of machines and occasional shout broke the stillness of the midday heat. Wataru slowed to a stop, gaping upwards at the network of scaffolding and gleaming poles that stretched towards the sky. People moved far above in yellow hats and jackets.

    "Impressive, ain't it?"

    Wataru hadn't noticed the worker who spoke up from the shade of a nearby crane. The man's short beard was frosted with white, but Wataru could see the strength in his arms.

    "What's it for?" he asked. From the height of the poles, Wataru could tell this structure was meant to be tall enough for a large tree to grow comfortably inside.

    "You're looking, lad, at the soon-to-be Viridian Gym." Pride was evident in the man's voice as he came forward. He tipped back his head, perhaps imagining staring up at the finished building.

    "I didn't know there was a gym here," Wataru answered. He found it hard to keep track of the endless settlement names, but the professor had repeated often enough that the nearest gym to Pallet was in Pewter.

    The man grimaced. "There was a gym here once, thirty, forty years ago, maybe more now. Back when you didn't see a soul without a shoe or handkerchief hand-made here in Viridian. But once they started up those factories in Saffron, everyone forgot us. Shut our gym down, not a care at all for people trying to make their honest living." He darted forward abruptly, jerking up the hem of Wataru's shirt to peer at something. "Machine-made. Won't last you through the winter, you know."

    Wataru nodded reflexively.

    "Now, though," the man continued, "now we're getting it back. Back from that bi—that witch in Lavender—" He paused to spit at the ground. "Know who got it back, boy?"

    The man didn't wait for an answer from Wataru, who was staring at the white globule of saliva on the dirt.

    "Mr. Fiorelli. Learn the name, boy, learn the name, because I'll bet my boots the whole damn country's going to be learning it soon. Local boy, though not born here. He came as a lad not much older than you are now, fleeing some godsforsaken foreign place. Put his nose to the grindstone from the very first day, that boy did. One moment he's doing sums at the local shop, you blink and he's running the place. We knew he had big things in store for him, yes we did, but what I could notta told you, what I could notta guessed—" The man's finger jabbed out, emphasizing each word "—He. Came. Back. Oh yes. Not many would've. He came back to Viridian a rich man and said to me, Mr. Kimura, build me the finest gym in Kanto! A superb man, a very fine man."

    The rant seemed to have tired the worker. He heaved in a few gulping breaths of air and retreated back into the shade.

    Beyond the constant sounds of construction, there was little to see or do in Viridian, and it wasn't long before Wataru took back to the road, which ran along the edge of a deep and sprawling forest. In the days that followed, the three of them didn't lack for battles. Innumerable bugs were drawn to the light of his camp-fire.

    Kana seemed to find it good sport; the charmander shot off burst after burst of sizzling embers, letting out a triumphant yip every time her opponent retreated back between the oversized trees. Often the interplay continued even after Wataru called it quits for the night. He'd roll out his mat, pull his blanket over his head, and fall asleep to the sound of hiss and yip, hiss and yip, interspersed sometimes by a static buzz and a satisfied trill, when Toku decided to take a turn.

    In the second week, the trees grew sparser and the ground harder. The road sloped upwards now. Wataru began to find himself out of breath at the end of a long stretch of walking. Gradually, the trees thinned out almost entirely, giving way to a craggy landscape dotted with thick bushes and twisting undergrowth. The cabins he began to see were not isolated, but had been built in small clusters connected to the main road. The spacing between the clusters lessened as he continued. Finally, passing between two high-rising ridges as the sun set, Wataru entered the city of Pewter.

    He ate the hearty stew offered at the Pokemon Center quietly that night. No one paid him any mind as he sat, listening to the lively conversation that spilled out around him. It was strange to hear so many voices after the silence of the road. Pewter was a mining town, an outpost that had grown into a sprawling city as the workers accumulated. The miners at the center praised the Pokemon Center's hot cooking, complained about the newest equipment, and bemoaned the summer heat.

    It was terribly hot, worse with no trees to dampen the overbearing sun. The wind filled the air with dust and grit from the mining operations, setting Toku coughing every time they went outdoors. At last, Kana found an entrance into the winding caverns of Mt Moon free of any blasting equipment or towering riggings. The cool caves provided shelter from the stifling heat and made the perfect practice ground for Wataru's team. After all, it was common knowledge around town that the gym leader's pokemon were all native to Mt Moon.

    A month's time found Wataru picking his way through a mining site, in search of a man called Muno. Things seemed quiet today, he noted. The big machines sat unused and for once the air wasn't rent by periodic booms. The miners seemed in low spirits as well, smoking in silence or talking softly in the shade of the cliffs. They guided Wataru through the site with lazy nods, until he came upon a stocky man with a bristling beard, hunched over on a big rock.

    "Are you Master Muno?" Wataru asked in almost a whisper. He was unnerved by the silence and sense of gloom that pervaded the site.

    The man didn't answer. Just as Wataru was preparing to repeat himself in a louder voice—they were probably all deaf from the constant clamor of the machines—the man said, "Who's asking?"

    "Char!" Kana yipped defiantly, perhaps taking the man's failure to turn and face them as a sign of disrespect.

    He looked up at the sound of her voice. "Oh, a challenger? You're out of luck, I'm afraid. Huge cave-in today. Took out my gym as well as half the camp. Badges all buried inside, too, and my league-assigned ref's taken off. Poor gal. Hope they stick her somewhere nicer next time."

    A cave-in. That explained the silence, Wataru supposed. "Was anyone hurt?"

    "One of my best drillers had his leg crushed, and six of the other men were hurt as well. No deaths, by Mew's mercy, but it was a damn close thing. If my onix hadn't been there to hold off the collapse until we'd evacuated, I don't know if I'd be sitting here right now." His fist clenched suddenly. "Dammit, I told them this junk was no good. But do any of those big-headed idiots in Saffron listen to a lunk like me?"

    Wataru frowned. He'd thought, from the way the townspeople acted, that this man was like Uncle, the leader of his people. Why did he sound so helpless, then?

    "Sorry, kid," Muno added, mistaking the look on Wataru's face. "I'd be happy to give you a battle, but without a ref, it won't be official, and you sure as hell won't get a badge out of it. Best if you hold off a week. Or maybe two. Who knows how long they'll take to ship it all out here."

    "Oh," Wataru said. "Is that the only problem?" Everyone in this place seemed so obsessed with badges. As far as Wataru was concerned, the battle was the important part. "I don't mind about that."

    The man stared at him for a moment, then stood, dusting his pants. "All right, kid. Follow me, then. I don't want to do any battling around here. The tremors could trigger a second cave-in, and none of us wants that."

    Wataru followed him in silence, thinking. onix, the man had said. Wataru didn't recognize the name. Maybe he should have spent more time looking at the professor's dex. But in Wataru's opinion, reading about pokémon was next to useless. Watching them was the way to learn, seeing how they moved, how they fought, what moves they resorted to when frightened. The professor's book couldn't tell him any of that.

    After twenty minutes of walking, Muno came to a stop. They were far from the mining site, now, on a leveler stretch of rock.

    "This'll do," the man said. He rolled his shoulders twice and then put his hand on his belt. "How many badges you got, kid?"

    "No badges," Wataru answered.

    Muno's hand fell back to the last pokeball on his belt. "Then come out, Geodude."

    Wataru watched the rocky pokemon materialize in disappointment. He'd been expecting something more impressive. "We've beaten loads of those before," he said. On his shoulder, Toku huffed her agreement.

    Muno let out a short chuckle. "Cocky one, ain't you? All right, if you're bored with geodudes, let's see how you like graveler."

    Two flashes later, a pokemon very similar to the geodude, but substantially larger, planted its feet on the craggy ground. Wataru had run into one or two of them practicing in the caves. They had watched him battle with unblinking eyes, but never offered challenge themselves, even when Kana sent taunting embers their way.

    "Let's go, Toku," Wataru said. He'd learned by now not to expect time for a dedication before the battle. He let the words pass through his mind as Toku sized up her opponent. Once, the Ryu fought . . .

    "Curious pokemon you've got there," Muno said. "Some fancy water-type, I expect. Well, let's see how you handle graveler's magnitude."

    At the word, the graveler leaped high into the air. Wataru knew what would happen when it touched down, and so did Toku. She was already wiggling her belly against the rocky ground, gathering static just the way they'd practiced.

    A shock-wave rippled out as the graveler impacted the ground, causing Wataru to topple backwards. Muno hadn't lost his footing, but his grin shrunk when he realized the attack hadn't touched Toku. The miniryu settled back on the ground, spare static still crackling across her scales.

    "Hang on," Muno said, narrowing his eyes. "You've used a static charge to stay off the ground, haven't you? Well, well. I don't see that one everyday. But good luck making any headway against graveler with an electric-type."

    "Leer," Wataru called out, ignoring the gym leader's commentary. The graveler looked down into Toku's glinting red eyes.

    "Roll-out!"

    At the command, the rocky pokemon tucked in its arms and legs. Toku tensed as it picked up speed, almost blurring. They'd met with this attack often enough in the caves, though. The added size and speed didn't change anything.

    "Wait for it," Wataru muttered, watching the tip of Toku's tail, where the air was condensing. As the graveler hurtled forward, Toku edged to the side. "Now!" Wataru shouted. Toku's tail, sheathed in water, swung around to strike the graveler right where its body made contact with the ground. The angle of the attack sent it soaring into the air, unwinding from its tight curl.

    Toku was already gathering water for a second attack. As she bore down, the graveler let out a surprisingly high shout, like the whine of metal on rock.

    "Hold it, please," Muno called out. "I think Graveler's had enough, and I don't want it out of commission all day."

    Toku shot Wataru a quick glance, and he nodded. She lay down her tail, letting the excess water drip to the ground, staining the rocks dark. Wataru let out a breath. They'd worked hard to perfect her aqua tail, but it was still a relief to see her pull off the move in battle.

    "As the ref would say if she were here, the first battle goes to the challenger. Had a water-type move up your sleeve after all, did you?" Muno didn't wait for an answer. "Let's see how you do with my good friend Onix!"

    Wataru gaped up at the materializing form. The pokemon's basic shape was similar to Toku's, its body long and winding. But the resemblance ended there. Where Toku was slight and scaled, this pokemon's body consisted of enormous boulders. It looked down on Toku with a confident glare on its sharp, craggy face.

    They hadn't seen this pokemon in the caves. Though—Wataru remembered times the walls had tremored, times a boulder would seem to vanish or reappear. Perhaps he simply hadn't known enough to notice.

    "Get ready, Toku," Wataru said quietly. He didn't know this pokemon, but he could hazard a guess as to how it would make its initial attack.

    When the ground began to shake, Toku was ready, lifting herself the scant inch off the ground necessary to escape the impact. But neither she nor Wataru noticed the onix's gleaming tail until it crashed into Toku, throwing her back heavily against the hard, rocky ground.

    "Tricks don't work twice, kid," Muno rumbled. "You'd better keep that in mind."

    Wataru watched as Toku slowly raised her head.

    "Are you okay?" he whispered. The impact had looked brutal. Toku gave him a small nod, but he didn't like the stiff way she was holding herself, as if lifting her head off the ground required all her concentration.

    Muno seemed to decide he'd let them rest long enough. "Finish it off with a rock throw!"

    Normally, Toku could have dodged the falling rocks with ease. But as the onix sent up hunks of stone into the air, Wataru registered her stillness. Still winded from the impact, she wouldn't be able to move aside in time.

    If there was just some way to repel the rocks from where she was—but they'd never pulled off that move successfully before!

    Toku's urgent trill shook Wataru from his thoughts.

    "Twister!" he called out before he could second-guess it. The rocks were only feet from Toku's prone body, which seemed impossibly frail against the rugged landscape.

    The swirling wind that erupted from Toku's tail was more than she'd ever managed before. It was enough to halt the rocks, buffeting them up in defiance of gravity, but not enough, Wataru realized, to turn defense into offense and throw them back. The twister was already weakening, with Toku still trapped underneath the rocks.

    "You have to get out of there!" Wataru shouted. The miniryu squeezed her eyes shut and threw her body backwards just as the rocks clattered down, kicking up so much dust that the battlefield was obscured.

    When it cleared, Wataru found the onix looming over Toku, the two locked in a staring match. Toku's eyes burned a bright, defiant red, but that tactic could only work so long. Muni wasn't giving them time to think. "Iron tail, again!"

    Time seemed to slow as the onix's silver tail swung towards them. Suddenly, Wataru glimpsed a way forward. "Wrap!" he shouted, hoping Toku would see it too.

    As the tail swept closer, Toku threw herself into the air, clinging to the base of the onix's rocky joint. On the up-swing, Wataru cried out, "Aqua tail!"

    Carried by the momentum of the iron tail attack, Toku fell through the air. Her tail struck cleanly against the enormous slabs of the onix's back, causing it to let out a short, displeased rumble. But Wataru could see the attack hadn't been enough. Toku was pressed close to the ground, her tongue flicking in and out. Fatigue.

    A tug on his pants drew Wataru's gaze downwards. Kana was trembling, her tail fire lit brightly.

    "You want to fight?"

    Wataru looked back at the battlefield, where the onix had Toku trapped between its rocky joints, readying a wrap attack of its own.

    "That's enough!" Wataru called out. "Toku, Kana's going to take over."

    "Good decision, kid."

    The onix uncoiled at Muno's nod, allowing Toku to worm her way back over to Wataru. Her eyes were dull with exhaustion and a dark bruise had already spread across her side. Wataru scooped her up onto his shoulders, where she lay almost limp. But after a moment, her tongue flicked wetly across his left ear.

    As Kana stepped forward, bristling, the onix made a low, clanging sound. Laughter, Wataru thought. Kana must have thought so too, because her mouth twisted into a grimace and the flame rose higher on her tail.

    "This little fire-type against my onix?" Muno said skeptically.

    They were overconfident, Wataru realized. They didn't know Kana at all.

    "Let's finish this off quickly, with another rock throw."

    No use dodging, Wataru thought. It can hit from the sky and the ground.

    "Break through like a kairyu!" Wataru shouted.

    With a joyful yip, Kana jumped straight towards the largest of the incoming boulders, cleaving it cleanly in two with her fist.

    "Land on its back and get to the head!" Toku's aqua tail hadn't done much against the boulders that made up the onix's body. Maybe the body hadn't been the right place to strike. "Now metal claw again," Wataru shouted, when Kana stood atop the rocky snake.

    The onix sagged noticeably at the first blow.

    "Shake it off—" Muno called out, a frantic note entering his voice. The onix reared, but Kana dug in her claws.

    "Again!" Wataru shouted to her, though the charmander hardly needed his encouragement. She landed blow after blow with evident satisfaction. At the fifth, the onix slackened. Its head slammed down hard onto the ground, the rest of its body clattering behind.

    As Kana stood triumphant atop her fallen foe, her tail flame doubled in size. It had grown brighter too, so bright it almost hurt to look at. The white light of the flame spread up Kana's tail, then through her whole body. When the light cleared, Kana stood taller, her claws sharper and her skull more pronounced. She scratched one new gleaming claw against her chest and let out a boastful yip.

    "Well, well," Muno said, as Wataru and Toku showered Kana with praise. He'd come up quietly, and was watching them with a small smile on his face. "It's been some time since my onix has been laid low by a runt without a water-attack to its name. That's some fighting spirit your pokemon have got, both of them." Toku let out a short trill from Wataru's shoulder. "If anyone deserves a badge, you do, but I really am all out."

    "I really don't mind," Wataru said again. At last he remembered his manners and dipped into a low bow. "Thank you for the honor of this battle, sir."

    Muno chuckled. "It's me should be thanking you. Would have just sat stewing myself in the sun all day, not doing anything useful. I gotta send another letter to Saffron, even if it's just going to line their waste-paper baskets."

    "About the equipment?" Wataru asked. "Master Muno, if it's so bad, why won't they listen to you?"

    The gym leader gave a shrug. "My opinion isn't worth much these days, I'm afraid. The big cities need our steel, but couldn't care less about our lives, and that's just the way it is." His hand fell to his pocket. "Here now! I know what I can give you as a keepsake of our little fight." His palm opened around a fragment of stone that caught silver in the midday sun. "Moon stone fragment. Not big enough to sell on the market and you won't get an evolution out of it, but pretty. It's good to have pretty things."

    Wataru took the stone, which felt oddly cool in his hands.

    "Thank you, Master Muno," he said again.

    The way back to the Pokemon Center was long and hot. Kana's tail swung back and forth as she walked, humming happily. Nothing in the world could have dampened the charmeleon's mood after her joint victory and evolution. Periodically, she opened her mouth and watered the rocky ground with flaming embers. Toku had fallen asleep on Wataru's shoulder, her snoring loud in his ears.

    Wataru felt strangely melancholy as he made his way down into Pewter City. The absence of the machinery noises was disorienting, now that he was listening for them. It would be like Dragon's Den without the kairyu, he thought.

    That night, Wataru slept uneasily. His dreams were filled with the crash of falling rocks.
     
    Last edited:
    Ch 4: The Traveler, Part Two
  • Pen

    the cat is mightier than the pen
    Staff
    Partners
    1. dratini
    2. custom/dratini-pen
    3. custom/dratini-pen2
    The Traveler, Part Two

    The walking pass cut high across Mt Moon. Below him, Wataru could sometimes make out the curve of the transport road. Out of sight, but not out of hearing, conveyors ran their shipments. The air was still warm when the path at last turned downwards, but a chilly breeze was beginning to blow in from the east. As he came around a bend, Wataru caught his first sight of Cerulean City—a vast expanse of blue sea blanketed by fluffy white clouds.

    It was another day, though, before they could continue. Toku's shedding had come, her second that year. The sparse, rocky path wasn't the best place, but they made do, huddling in a small alcove while Toku twisted back and forth, inching slowly out of her old skin. When the shedding was complete, there was no stream nearby for her to soak in, and Wataru couldn't spare water from his bottle to soothe her newly exposed scales. So Toku spent the evening with her eyes closed in concentration, condensation beading over her body. They left the shed skin pushed behind a boulder—a dry, leathery husk, still a vibrant blue, though Wataru knew the color would fade with time, especially in the dry mountain air.

    One day and another, and the mountains softened into rolling hills, speckled with green. The cool breeze was more constant now, bringing the taste of brine to Wataru's lips. He found himself hiking faster, eager to eat something other than dried berries and protein bars. In the leafy route that connected the mountain pass to the city, Toku stopped to nibble at the base of a patch of bright yellow flowers. If it suited Toku, Wataru decided it could suit him too. The roots of the flowers were sour, but the tang was pleasant and the grassy taste refreshing.

    Catching the tell-tale white of artificial lights in the distance, Wataru hurried on. Cerulean City was huge. Its streets were paved with cobblestones—not that the streets were too visible beneath the crush of people streaming through. The Pokemon Center wasn't any less packed.

    "There's at least another month left in the season," the on-duty nurse told Wataru when he checked in. "People won't abandon the beaches until the water freezes their toes."

    Due to the abundance of guests, Wataru was placed in a shared room, lined with four sets of doubly-stacked cots. There was enough space to maneuver between them, but no more than that, and certainly not enough for his usual morning stretches. Wataru wasn't a stranger to sleeping tightly packed, but these roommates were louder than the ones back home had been. There was no group curfew, and so the door slid open and shut what seemed to be every five minutes, washing the room in blinding light each time. Wataru stuck his pillow over his head, but even that couldn't drown out the constant whispering and giggles that rose from the other beds.

    The close quarters also left Wataru worried about Toku. People were constantly noticing her, saying, "Hey, that's an unusual pokemon you've got there? What's it called?" He'd snapped loudly at the first person to ask and glared long and hard at the second; now Wataru's roommates kept their distance and didn't bother inviting him to join them in the cafeteria. That wasn't a problem, though. Wataru was used to keeping his own company and preventing Kana from picking fights with the other trainers' pokemon was a full-time job anyway.

    It was a relief to escape the city, staking out turf on the grassy route that ran to the beach and battling any passing trainers willing to delay their dipping. Wataru didn't spend much time at the beach himself: Kana hated all the water and the salt irritated Toku's still fresh scales. Besides, the noise was worst at the beach, high-pitched hooting and even screaming that had Wataru flinching around to see who was in distress.

    The nights the constant open-and-shut of the door made sleep impossible, Wataru began to study the professor's book. On one such night, he flipped a page and found a sketch of a pokemon very much like Toku staring up at him.

    Dratini, he read. Folk Typing: Dragon. Scientific Typing: Unknown. Lives in proximity to water. First stage of the Dragonite line. (See Dragonite.) Rarity: Mythic.

    Wataru turned the page, but there was nothing more written about miniryu.

    ~*~​

    One afternoon, Wataru noticed a large crowd gathered by the edge of a stream. He pushed his way through to find himself staring at a large koiking, swimming determinedly up-stream against the current. It was making progress, but the miniaturized waterfall created by the rising cliffs was too steep for it to climb. A few chuckles rose from the watching crowd as the koiking flung itself forward and was once again buffeted back.

    "How long do you think it'll try?"

    "I've read they don't have any sense of time. Their mental clock resets like every five minutes. So it could keep on trying forever without realizing."

    "Well I've read every koiking has a golden coin inside. Should we check?"

    But this suggestion was booed down. When the koiking did nothing more exciting than persist in its frantic swim, the crowd slowly dispersed, until only Wataru was left. He wondered if it was true about the mental clock. Somehow, Wataru didn't think so. The koiking's eyes were narrowed in concentration and its leaps were becoming more wild, as if frustrated by its lack of success.

    Pride, Wataru thought. That was probably all that was keeping it going.

    Wataru felt bad for the small water-ryu. Especially after being watched by all those people, how could it just give up and let the current carry it away?

    "Hey," he called out to it, "Let's battle."

    Nestled inside Wataru's shirt, Toku let out a yawn, but Kana was game, chiming in with a taunting yip. One of the koiking's large eyes flicked over to them.

    Wataru pointed down-river, where the current slowed and the water pooled. "We can fight there. And after we're done you can finish your climb."

    For a moment, he thought the koiking would refuse. But its tail ceased its frantic beating and the koiking let itself be pushed down-stream.

    When Kana reached the pooling water, the koiking attacked in a flurry, using its fins to strike up bands of water. Kana let out an irritated hiss as she was hit. The terrain was in the small water-ryu's favor: each time Kana struck out with a gleaming claw, the koiking vanished under the water, only to send another wave against Kana's exposed side. Toku peeked her nose out of Wataru's shirt to take in the spectacle of Kana, a fire-ryu half-grown, her tail flame blazing and crested head proudly raised, snorting and stamping as she tried to pin down the insistent fish. As Kana lunged forward yet again only to receive a splash of water to the face, Toku let out an amused trill.

    The koiking froze at the sound, its eyes craning upwards until they landed on the miniryu. Taking advantage of the water-ryu's distraction, Kana swiped out her claws. Her attack knocked the koiking from the water to the grassy bank, where it flopped from side to side, gaze still fixed on Toku. The miniryu let out a questioning trill and the koiking gasped out a strained response.

    "Put it back in the water, Kana," Wataru told the charmeleon, who complied with a small snort, her pride clearly still smarting from the one-sided battle. Wataru set Toku down by the stream side, where she listened to the koiking's glubbing with her ear fins angled forward.

    "What is it, Toku?" Wataru asked afterwards, but the miniryu didn't seem inclined to share. She tended to stay moody in the weeks after a shedding. "I'll get you some ice cream," he decided. That frozen treat had definitely been the highlight of the new city.

    Fifteen minutes later, Toku was licking away at an enormous vanilla swirl. Kana had turned her nose up at the ice cream and was sprawled out on the beach sand, her sulk gradually mellowing into a sunning session. It was another bright afternoon.

    "Oh my."

    Wataru lifted his head to see an elderly woman staring down at them. Her cheeks were sunken and her nose sharp; stringy hair dyed a bright blue fell down her back. She was wrapped in a light shawl patterned with waves and an open sky and her gaze was fixed on Toku.

    "I haven't seen one of those since I was a gel," she said softly, dropping unceremoniously onto the sand by Wataru. She kicked off her sandals and dug her bare feet into the warm sand with a pleased sigh.

    Wataru watched her warily. He'd been stopped by enough beach-goers with disposable yellow cameras that he'd learn how to shut these interactions down quickly. But—

    "Seen one?" he echoed.

    The old woman nodded. She waved one veined hand at the coast-side. "Fifty years ago—merciful Mew, I've gotten old—fifty years ago, if you can even imagine, this beach was a quiet place, frequented by fishers and no one else. No light-house, either. The fishing boats returned before sunset, or sometimes, when the moon shone full, they'd tempt fate and stay out a little longer.

    "Of course, that wasn't always wise. A storm might creep up, quite suddenly, creating trouble for even the most experienced sailors. The waves turn choppy, the moon covers over, and a woman is forced to realize how lonely we are, poor finless, wingless creatures, caught far from our home shores. It happened to my mother and her small crew—a calm, silver night that turned nasty in an instant. A wave broke over the decks and a vicious wind tore through the sail. All would have been lost then, if not for the dragonite."

    "Dragonite?" Wataru said with a start. That was the name from the book . . .

    The old woman smiled. Her eyes had fallen closed as she spoke, as if seeing the sequence play out behind her eyelids. "Yes, a dragonite. The sailors told tales of them, of course. You'd catch a glimpse on full moon nights, a shadowed shape coasting above the waves with impossible ease. The dragonite were known to be deadly powerful, but kind. My mother found that out for herself. Just when all hope seemed lost and she'd resigned herself to the gaping maw of the sea, the ship tugged into motion. She looked up to the sound of beating wings and found a dragonite aloft over her, one enormous claw gripping the broken sail. It towed them in silence as the storm continued to crash, betraying no sign of exertion despite the ship's weight. At last, they were back in shallow waters. The dragonite took off as silently as it had come, and the current washed my mother and her crew safe to shore . . ."

    The woman let out a long sigh. "Our quiet guardians, we called them. We built no shrines, but we sang to them on full moon nights, and I like to think they understood our gratitude. Of course, that was long ago. The light-house rose and shortly after, the dragonite sightings began to slow, until even during the brightest harvest moon, the skies stayed empty. Just us sailors and the beacon light of the tower to guide us home. Progress, to be sure. Fewer lives lost to the sea. But we lost the dragonite and we gained all this—" Her hand rose in a dismissive sweep of the crowded beach-side. "It can make an old woman melancholy, it really can."

    "Kairyu—dragonite once lived here?" Wataru said, his head spinning. Toku made a small sound from his shoulder. "Is that why the koiking was looking at you so funny, Toku? Is that what it said?"

    "A koiking, you say?" the old woman interjected, speaking over Toku's quiet trill of confirmation. "Little guides, we've always called them here. They swim upstream, always, as if seeking something. Gold, idiots speculate, but I've always wondered—" She fell silent for a moment. "Perhaps it's a foolish fantasy, but I've always liked to think the dragonite never completely left us. Perhaps they just hid themselves away, far from the lights and noise, in the immeasurable nooks and crannies of Cerulean Cave. The cave's never been fully explored, you know. Not profitable. Too many cliffs and watery rises, and no trace of ore to mine."

    "You think the ryu are still here?" Wataru said. "Toku, do you think that's possible?"

    He realized he was holding in his breath, waiting for the miniryu's answer.

    "Riiii," Toku trilled at last. Yes. It could be possible.

    "If you find that koiking," the old woman said, "it might be able to show you the way."

    Wataru leaped to his feet like a fire had been lit under him. "Then what are we waiting for?"

    He took off, ignoring Kana's indignant yelp, up the sandy beach, onto the leafy path, until he'd reached the same stream as before, with its small waterfall. But there was no sign of the koiking there.

    "Riii ii!" Toku trilled suddenly. Wataru followed her gaze up above the waterfall, where he caught an orange flash.

    "It made it up!" Wataru exclaimed, impressed by the water-ryu's tenacity. Scrambling up the steep incline, Wataru found the koiking resting near the bank. It had latched one fin around a deeply rooted reed to keep itself from being pushed back downstream.

    "Hi again," Wataru said breathlessly. "We're trying to find the ryu. Do you know them? Miniryu, like Toku." He set the miniryu down by the stream side, belatedly realizing that she should probably do the talking. His foot tapped impatiently as the two spoke, exchanging trills and gulps. Finally, Toku nodded, her eyes sparkling.

    "It does? And can show us?"

    The miniryu's tail twitched uncertainly. Then she pointed it towards the pool of water the koiking was resting in.

    Wataru thought for a moment, trying to make out Toku's meaning. "Like this pool? Oh! It knows, but it hasn't been before. Is that right?"

    This time Toku's trill was satisfied. Wataru fell back on the grassy shore, his mind buzzing. Could it be possible? A ryu colony, all the way out here? And he'd be the one to discover them!

    "Tomorrow!" The shout made Wataru and Toku both jump. The old woman had caught up with them and was standing beneath the waterfall, Kana at her side. "If you're going to traipse around in Cerulean Cave, you'll need supplies. And you'll need a guide." It was obvious she meant herself. "Can you tell that koiking to meet us here tomorrow, at dawn?

    Wataru and Toku exchanged a glance. He'd seen enough of Mt Moon to know that the caves in these parts could be labyrinths, full of precarious passages and sudden dead-ends. And the old woman seemed to know what she was doing. Wataru wouldn't have known about the kairyu at all without her story.

    "Do you think it's okay, Toku?" Wataru whispered.

    The miniryu looked down on the old woman with a hard, evaluative gaze. "Rii-a," she trilled back softly. Okay for now.

    "Excellent," said the old woman, before Wataru could answer her. "I'll see you at dawn."

    ~*~​

    Wataru woke to a cold, rasping tongue dragging against his cheek.

    "Toku," he groaned in protest, pulling his blanket up over his head. When Toku whined again, he sat up blearily. The sleeping room was silent except for the occasional snore, and the sky outside was dark, though a red glint suggested that soon it would be dawn—

    Dawn!

    The memory of yesterday lit through Wataru like an electric jolt. He flung aside the blanket and fumbled for his clothes in the dark. The air was freezing when he stepped outside. Knotting a scarf around his neck, Wataru set out at a run for the stream. He passed a few joggers and several fishers, but other than that, the cobblestone streets were empty. The stillness of early morning transformed Cerulean; for the first time, Wataru could imagine it as the quiet fishing town from the old woman's story.

    The old woman was waiting for him by the stream. She'd managed to clamber up the cliff-side and was tickling the koiking on its stomach. The water-ryu's eyes were closed in pleasure.

    "Finally!" the old woman exclaimed when she caught sight of them. Wataru noticed an overladen pack set down at her side.

    "Sorry," Wataru panted. "We're ready now," he told the koiking. But the water-ryu didn't move until Toku let out a short trill.

    Before Wataru could blink, it shot upstream, leaving them scrambling to follow. The stream continued straight upwards for several yards more, then twisted sharply left as the ground leveled. After twenty minutes walking, they found themselves at the mouth of a cave. The opening was small enough that Wataru had to duck and the old woman practically had to crawl inside. They had entered a narrow tunnel, lit a gloomy gray. Wataru shivered as a rush of cold air met them.

    "So," the old woman began as they trailed after the koiking. "In all this excitement, I don't believe I caught your name."

    "Wataru. And this is Toku."

    "Mine's Hamako." After a pause, she added, "I can't entirely place your accent. But you're from Johto, aren't you?"

    Wataru nodded slowly. "And you grew up here?" he asked politely in return.

    "That I did. Though I traveled many years. Ship after ship, some of 'em big and some of 'em small. I saw Cinnabar and all the Sevi Islands. Even made a trip to Cianwood."

    The small stream they were following joined with another tributary and then split again. At each crossroads, the koiking didn't hesitate before picking its direction. Water dripped loudly from the stalactites that lined the roof of the cave. After an hour of walking, Wataru's stomach began to rumble loudly.

    "Hold on," Hamako said. Her pack fell to the ground with a thunk and she began to root around. "Ah, here they are."

    The onigiri she held out to Wataru were loosely wrapped in seaweed and still warm. "Made them at 4am this morning. I couldn't seem to catch any sleep. Kept thinking about the dratini and dragonite. This little one sure seems confident, doesn't she?" Hamako said, nodding at the koiking. Toku and Wataru shared a rice ball, while Hamako fed the koiking with something else from her pack.

    "I can take that," Wataru blurted out, when she made to heave the giant rucksack onto her back again.

    Hamako laughed. "I'm old, not enfeebled. But I appreciate the offer."

    She took off after the koiking, humming a cheery tune. His stomach full, and more awake than he had been, Wataru followed.

    ~*~​

    At first, Wataru thought he was imagining it. But the rushing sound in his ears grew louder and more insistent as he walked, until it was hard to hear his own foot-falls. They rounded the bend and found themselves in a high cavern. The stream they had followed met with four others of equal size, all flowing out from a gigantic waterfall, taller than a tree and wider than a kairyu at full wingspan.

    The crashing water was mesmerizing as it flowed down in its intricate, rippling whites. But Wataru's heart sank as he gaped upwards. Just how were they supposed to make their way up?

    "Do you have rope?" he asked Hamako, shouting to make his voice heard over the din.

    "Rope? I do. But rope won't be much help unless it's firmly staked up top."

    She was right. Wataru eyed the sheer cliffs that edged the waterfall speculatively. He'd spent hours and hours climbing back in Dragon's Den—

    "Don't even think about it. Those cliffs are slippery as seaweed. You wouldn't get more than a few feet." Hamako's gaze fell to the koiking, who was staring at the falling water as if stuck in a trance. "Well, little guide?" she called out. "It seems we're stuck."

    The koiking blinked at the words and then started forward, towards the crashing whites. But this wasn't the miniature waterfall it had climbed before, Wataru thought. There was no way the small water-ryu could make it up.

    Sure enough, the koiking fell back a moment later, carried by the swift current. She had to clench her teeth around a jagged stone to avoid being swept back further.

    "She can't do it—" Wataru began, but Hamako shushed him with a gesture.

    "Just watch," she murmured, her eyes fixed on the koiking, who was gazing up at the waterfall with narrowed eyes.

    The koiking started forward again, her golden crest angled straight. Her tail worked furiously, churning up the water. When the small ryu hit the crashing spray, something changed. At first, Wataru thought he was just dazzled by the way the cavern light caught off the white water. But the white gleam was expanding—here extending into a long tail, here an enormous head that spiked into a tall crest—until at last a gyarados towered over them. The water glinted off her dark blue scales and the creamy white of her underbelly. Her large, fanged mouth was curved into a self-satisfied grin.

    The expression put Wataru so in mind of Ibuki that for a moment he couldn't speak.

    "Fantastic," Hamako breathed beside him. "Simply fantastic."

    Toku's loud trill sounded through the cavern. Recovering from his daze, Wataru joined his voice to hers, making the walls ring with cheers. The gyarados basked in the attention, flicking her tail through the water to create rippling waves, reveling in her new weight and power.

    "Yes, yes," Hamako said after a few minutes of this. "Very well done, but my blood's congealing into pudding, so let's be on our way." She strode over to the gyarados and hoisted herself up as easily as a dragon master would mount a kairyu. Wataru scrambled to climb behind her. To his embarrassment, he found himself clinging tightly to Hamako's woolen shawl as the gyarados started forward.

    Seated on the back of a gyarados, the frantic rush of the waterfall seemed no more troublesome than a mild creek's current. Their guide—not so little now, Wataru thought—plunged up through the water. Cold spray slapped at Wataru's legs, but in less than a minute it was over.

    They'd scaled the waterfall.

    At the crest, the gyarados craned her head around. The ceiling was lower here, and the river wider. Wataru realized this place must be as new to the gyarados as it was to them, but there was only one direction to go. No tributaries split off that Wataru could see.

    As they continued up the river, sunlight slipped in through cracks in the ceiling. Moss covered the rocks now and creepers wound their way up the walls, chasing the fragments of sunlight. Wataru noticed small streams winding off from the main river, forming into cascading pools. It was all beginning to remind him of the Dragon's Den.

    "I think we're close," he whispered to Hamako, who nodded silently. Toku had snaked her way up the gyarados' back and was curled around its crest, her eyes fixed forward and her body tense with anticipation.

    Another bend, and—Wataru raised a hand against the sudden outpouring of light. When the sun-spots faded from his eyes, he was looking up at the open blue sky, only partially obscured by the arcing rocks above. A wide lake stretched out before them, glistening in the morning light. Rivulets spread out from the lake like the veins of a leaf, depositing into puddles and pools. Creepers with small white blossoms lined the walls, and ice plant shot up from the rocky ground, reaching for the sky with silver-blue fingers. The air was wet and pleasantly cool.

    Silently, Wataru slid from gyarados' back. His foot-falls echoed loudly against the rocks as he came to the edge of the lake and dipped his fingers in the cool water. Casting his eyes around the wide cavern, his gaze caught on a trace of sinuous blue. Wataru stood and began to walk towards a shallow pool, overhung by a smooth rock slab. There was something—

    Wataru inhaled jerkily when he saw what was behind the rock. On his shoulder, Toku let out a low whine.

    "Did you find something?" Hamako called out from behind him, but Wataru didn't answer.

    Now that he knew what to look for, he saw them everywhere, a rainbow of dimmed blue, purple, and gray. The leathery husks lay strewn about the cavern, one behind almost every rock. Some of the husks stretched more than three meters—the shed skins of hakuryu.

    "What is all this? What does it mean?"

    Hamako's voice seemed to reach him from very far away. Wataru needed a moment before he could speak. His throat was tight when he answered.

    "It means that miniryu and hakuryu lived here once, but now they don't."

    The shed skins would dry out more slowly in a cool, damp cave like this one, Wataru thought distantly. It could be another half century before the husks crumbled to unrecognizable dust. Probably the miniryu had made the migration safely, clinging tightly to the backs of the hakuryu and kairyu. Probably none of them had perished in the journey, protected from wind and storm by their elders. But as Wataru looked from husk to husk in the silent, too still cavern, he couldn't shake the feeling that he was standing in nothing more or less than a graveyard.

    Blinking the wetness from his eyes, Wataru finally turned to look at his companions. Hamako was crouched by the lakeside, her expression solemn. And the gyarados—swinging her head from side to side, she craned frantically into the pools and puddles, a lost look on her fierce new face.

    The koiking must not have known, Wataru realized. How could they, unable to scale the waterfall? Were stories passed from mother to daughter of their cousins the ryu, who slept in shallow waters and lit the sky lightning? Had the water-ryu dreamed of one day scaling the waterfall, being welcomed as an equal into this secret place?

    As if finally admitting to the evidence of her eyes, the gyarados let out an anguished wail. She rammed her head hard against one rocky wall, tearing through the white-blossomed creepers growing there. Her tail began to beat wildly, churning up quick-moving waves in the lake. Her eyes gleamed a frenzied red.

    "She's going out of control!" Hamako called from the lake side. "She's new to this, doesn't know how to deal with the power!"

    Wataru stared up at the thrashing gyarados, his breath rising and falling with strange steadiness. Perhaps it was because the gyarados was acting the way he wanted to act himself. Shout until he made himself hoarse, stamp his feet and throw rocks into the lake. But Wataru couldn't do that, because he had an obligation. He'd known it as soon as he'd known the husks of shed skin.

    Stepping squarely in front of the raging gyarados, Wataru wished he had a long horn, the kind used to call the community together for celebrations or funerals. But all he had was himself. He put his fingers to his lips and let out a whistle that ricocheted from wall to wall. The gyarados ceased its screaming, turning its blood-red eyes on Wataru. Froth had collected on its wide-lipped mouth.

    "Enough," Wataru said. His voice sounded so quiet after the piercing whistle. "Enough. We have rites to complete. The kairyu have passed from this place, the hakuryu and the miniryu too. We have to honor their passing." Sucking in a breath, Wataru turned back to Hamako, who was standing motionless, one hand hovering awkwardly at her hip. "If you could clap," he said, "a steady beat. That would help."

    The old woman nodded. The gyarados' fury didn't seem to have rattled her. "Whatever's needed."

    Her claps were loud and surprisingly powerful, the tempo slow.

    "Toku," Wataru said, shutting his eyes for a moment. "Dance with me."

    At the miniryu's soft trill, Wataru began the routine. Leg over leg, clap and turn, touch the sky and fall and spin. He'd never felt so heavy before performing these familiar motions. His steps echoed eerily through the cavern; this wasn't a dance meant for one. Then again, he wasn't alone, because Toku was dancing too, her small body twisting and somersaulting. The morning sun glittered off her scales, fresh from shedding and so vibrant in contrast to the husks surrounding them that it pained Wataru to look at her.

    When the circular movement of the dance brought Wataru past the gyarados, he risked a glance up and saw that the water-ryu had closed its eyes and was swaying gently in time to Hamako's claps. The old woman was moving too, in an awkward shuffle as she kept up the beat. Her shawl flapped as she jumped, landing lightly on sandaled feet.

    Toku trilled suddenly. She snaked over to Wataru's pack and came up gripping Ibuki's hakuryu cloak in her mouth. Wataru wrapped the well-worked fabric around him, breathing in its smoky scent.

    "Faster, please," he told Hamako. He wouldn't have chosen these circumstances for his very first hakuryu dance. But Toku was right. It wasn't enough to honor only the miniryu.

    The routine came to him as he began, the steps familiar from all the times he had practiced the dance in secret. He ducked and spun through the cavern, the hakuryu cloak flaring out behind him. His movements weren't as polished as Ibuki's had been at the Ryu Odori. But they were enough. Wataru was breathing heavily as he completed the final twist.

    The kairyu dance should come next. Here, though, Wataru hesitated. It was one thing to take up Ibuki's cloak and dance, another thing altogether to attempt the sacred dance of the kairyu, which he had no right to. He'd have to find some other way.

    "A battle would honor the kairyu," he said, thinking out loud. If he called out Kana, maybe she and Toku could . . .

    Hamako's voice made him start. He'd almost forgotten the old woman's presence.

    "A battle, you say? I'm not much of a dancer, but I think I can help you out there." She'd pushed back her heavy wool shawl to reveal four pokeballs clipped to her belt. "And I think our guide would like to participate," she added. "I think she'd like to do her part, wouldn't you?"

    The gyarados' roar of agreement rang through the cavern. Hamako smiled and flicked a pokeball into the air. A second gyarados materialized in the lake, almost twice the size of the first.

    Wataru's mouth fell open. "You had a gyarados? This whole time? But then why didn't you . . ."

    Hamako shrugged one shoulder. "I could see this little one was close to evolution. She just needed a good enough reason to make the final push."

    The 'little one' bared its teeth at the larger gyarados, who snapped back with something like a grin on its massive face.

    "Shall we begin?" Hamako said mildly. With her woolen shawl drawn back over her body, she hardly cut an imposing figure, but her gaze was steady and intent as she looked out across the lake. "Crunch."

    A blur of blue and white, her gyarados shot through the water and closed its fangs around the smaller gyarados before Wataru could blink. The bitten gyarados let out a howl and slammed her tail up hastily into her opponent's side. An aqua tail attack, but not a proper one. It hardly fazed the larger gyarados, who hit back at once with its own tail, this time glowing with hard, silvery light.

    Watching the gyarados thrash back and forth across the lake, with Hamako uttering only a sparse word here and there, Wataru realized this wasn't really a battle—it was a demonstration. The larger gyarados was teaching the smaller one how to fight—where to bite, how to twist, when to make use of the water. Maybe the smaller gyarados couldn't appreciate it, caught up in their frenzied back and forth. But Wataru could. Every bite, every hit was a lesson.

    At last, the smaller gyarados slumped down into the lake. She flipped so that her creamy underside was visible, an admission of defeat. Hamako smiled.

    "You're a good fighter, little one!" she called out to the fallen gyarados. "Keep in mind, mastery is like a waterfall, and you're just now starting at the base." To her own gyarados she said, "Well done, Katashi."

    The high screech that rang suddenly through the cavern made all of them start. Toku had slithered to the edge of the lake, where her gaze was locked onto Hamako's gyarados. The miniryu had arched herself up so high that only the very tip of her tail still touched the ground, the challenge unmistakable.

    "You want to battle, Toku?" Wataru asked, surprised. Toku turned her dark eyes back on him for a moment, something unreadable swirling in their depths.

    "Well," said Hamako from the other end of the lake. "I've always wanted to fight a dragon."

    The lake was still turbulent from the gyarados' battle. Small waves rippled outwards, breaking gently against the rocks. Toku and Hamako's gyarados squared off, as the smaller gyarados watched from the shore. Something about Toku struck Wataru as different. Was it the morning light that was making her scales gleam so brightly? Strength and health seemed to radiate from her body.

    Before a battle, dragon masters and their kairyu would always perform a brief dance. Wataru had taken that as a ceremonial gesture, a sign of the fighters' mutual respect. But had it been something more? Did the dance unlock some inner power in the ryu?

    Hamako's gyarados was circling the lake silently. They seemed to be leaving the first move to Wataru.

    "Thunder wave!" he called out.

    "Block it," came the calm command from across the lake. Almost casually, the gyarados flicked its tail, sending up a wall of water that broke the electric beam into nothing but fizzling sparks. "Surf."

    Again the gyarados brought down its tail, but this time the gesture carried more force. The wave that surged forward was ten-feet tall and rapid, bearing down on Toku and Wataru both.

    "Twister!" Wataru shouted. He smiled at the whirling vortex that erupted from Toku's tail. The twister cut the wave down its middle, leaving the water to slosh harmlessly back into the lake. Since her shedding, Toku hadn't had a problem whipping her tail speedily enough to pull off the move that had baffled them back in Pewter.

    "Waterfall."

    The gyarados drew ribbons of water around itself and dove straight forwards. There was no time to move; it slammed Toku hard against the cave wall. Wataru sucked in a breath at the impact.

    But Toku was already moving, her eyes lit a furious red. Wataru took it for a leer attack at first, until three swirling vortices erupted from the lake, each one wreathed in the same angry green light. The vortices closed in on the gyarados.

    "Dragon rage," Hamako murmured. "Must be." Raising her voice, she called out, "Iron tail to break through and then crunch, Katashi!"

    The gyarados' gleaming tail tore through one vortex and then the other, but the third was already upon it, a twisting mass of bubbling water.

    "Twister, while it's stuck!" Wataru shouted. The cyclone lifted the gyarados out of the lake and slammed it back against the wall. We can do that too! Wataru thought, his mouth curving into a triumphant grin.

    But the triumph was short-lived. The gyarados' tail slammed down, sending another wall of water hurtling towards Toku. She split the wave with a twister attack, but was unprepared for the fangs that followed, digging mercilessly into her newly-shed skin.

    Thunder wave, Wataru wanted to shout, but Toku was far from the ground: there was nowhere to gather the static charge. He flinched violently as she let out a pained cry. Think, think. Anything that would make the gyarados let go—

    "Twister, as big as you can make it!"

    Toku's tail was still free to move, whipping the air into a whirlwind with force enough to push herself from the gyarados' grip. She landed in the pool and resurfaced a moment later, gasping.

    Wataru wondered if he should call an end to the fight. Despite the earlier battle and Toku's attacks, Hamako's gyarados had only just begun to breath hard. Toku's tongue was flicking rapidly in and out, a sign of deep exhaustion, but when Wataru caught her eye, he knew he couldn't call a retreat. Toku was fighting for more than just herself; she was fighting for the honor of every single miniryu that had once dwelled here.

    No, they couldn't back down now.

    At Hamako's command, the gyarados once again brought down its tail. Tricks don't work twice, Wataru remembered Muno saying, but this trick had worked twice. The wave, Wataru realized now, was just a distraction for the direct attack that would follow. Breaking the wave would just be playing Hamako's game.

    "Dive under it!"

    Toku shot into the water just before the wave hit. Wataru had to jump back to avoid the leaping spray. When he caught sight of Toku's head breaking the surface, Wataru shouted, "Now use twister!"

    Half air, half water, the twister made an impressive sight. But Wataru only intended the attack to serve as cover for their next move. When the gyarados broke through with its iron tail, Toku was ready. Her thunder wave struck head on, amplified by the water that still drenched the gyarados. The static leapt from scale to scale, making the gyarados wince and whine.

    "Clever," Hamako said. The cavern had fallen silent, the only sound the fizz of static charge and the panting of the two ryu as they faced each other. The difference in size between them was almost comical; Toku could have fit easily into the gyarados' maw.

    Wataru tried to take advantage of the sudden lull to form a plan. The gyarados might have lost some of its mobility, but it was still nowhere near defeated. He could see that Toku was dangerously tired. The earlier gleam had all but vanished from her scales. Hold on . . .

    Toku needed more power. Perhaps what had worked once could work again.

    "Dance, Toku," Wataru said quietly.

    But when the miniryu began to twist through the air, it was not to the slow rhythm of the miniryu odori. Her movements were too elongated, too soaring. As she moved, the gleam returned to her scales, but stronger now, a powerful white light that spread up from her tail to her snout. When Toku threw herself into the air for a final leap, she hung there suspended, the white line of her body lengthening.

    Wataru blinked heavily against the unbearably bright light. A musical trill echoed through the cavern, the sound high and pure, like the sky after the storm has broken.

    When the light cleared, Wataru looked up into the solemn eyes of a gorgeous hakuryu. She flew through the air, over three meters long fully uncurled. The sun caught off her silver horn and the dark blue orb that adorned her neck and the tip of her tail. Her scales had darkened to a lustrous blue and her ear fins extended into gleaming wings.

    "My word," breathed Hamako.

    Wataru couldn't speak, overwhelmed by the graceful way Toku glided through the air. The gyarados were watching too; something bright and covetous sparked in the smaller one's eyes. Toku flitted down in front of Wataru, so they were face to face. A long tongue darted out and rasped against his cheek. The touch was cold enough to make Wataru flinch.

    An instant later, he laughed, from exhilaration and relief.

    Toku was still Toku, cold licks and all. As if coming out of a trance, he drew in another breath and looked across the lake to Hamako's gyarados. The water-ryu watched them warily.

    "Dragon rage," Wataru whispered.

    Toku shot up towards the open sky. At her trill, four seething columns of water erupted under her, pulsing with greenish light. The columns converged on the gyarados before it could muster any response, combining into a great, swirling tower.

    Wataru watched the vortex, his heart pounding. Hamako was calling commands to her gyarados, but they were swallowed by the roar of the water. In the sky, Toku waited, her expression serene.

    At last, the water subsided, splashing back into the lake. The gyarados floated on the surface of the water, its tail fins twitching weakly as if it were a koiking once more.

    Wataru took a deep breath. Then he planted his feet and shouted, in a voice that rang through the cavern, "I dedicate this battle to the miniryu, hakuryu, and kairyu of the Cerulean Cave! Wherever they are now, let them thrive!"

    As the echoes died down, Toku flew down to his side, and Wataru clasped her into an awkward hug.

    "You can fly!" he whispered, his voice once again unsteady. Toku huffed out a laugh and dug her snout into his shoulder. "Oof! Watch the horn, Toku!"

    He still couldn't believe it, even with her lustrous blue scales only inches from his face.

    "Congratulations." Hamako's voice made him and Toku look up. The old woman had drawn closer and was watching them with a smile in her eyes. "Hold out your hand," she said. When Wataru did, she dropped something small and gleaming onto his open palm. "The Wave Badge. I think it's safe to say you've earned it."

    "You're—" Wataru clamped his mouth shut before it could fall open again.

    "Cerulean's Gym Leader?" Hamako gave a warm chuckle. "You really didn't know, then? I'd wondered if you were humoring an old woman."

    Mutely, Wataru shook his head.

    "Ah, then it seems today's been a day of surprises, for you as well as for me. I'm very grateful you let an old woman tag along. What I've seen today I'll hold to a special place in my heart. Your dragonair's a real beauty, whatever shore she hails from. I wish both of you the best of luck."

    Wataru bowed, somewhat awkwardly with Toku still wrapped around him. "Thank you, Master Hamako. Without your wisdom, we'd have never gotten up that waterfall. And thanks to your powerful ryu, Toku evolved."

    Hamako smiled. "Now don't flatter me. I did what any right-thinking gyarados specialist would have done in my place." She glanced around the cavern and let out a sigh. "Much as I'd like to stay here, they'll be missing me at the gym soon. I imagine you'll want to take some time to gather your thoughts. I can make my own way back, even if Katashi's too winded for the journey. You know, that lug—" She jerked a finger towards the stirring gyarados "—never dropped one hint about this place, even with all those long evenings I bored him telling my dragonite stories. Gyarados are deep waters, no doubting it. You'll find that out soon enough for yourself, I suppose."

    Before Wataru could ask what she meant, the old woman had recalled her gyarados and released an enormous seaking.

    "If you fancy a cup of tea and a longer chat, just stop by my gym," she said, seating herself comfortably on the fish's broad back.

    The seaking cut silently down the river, and after a moment, Hamako passed out of sight.

    ~*~​

    The rocks had grown warm from the sunlight when Wataru came over to the gyarados still resting on the lake-side. Above them, Toku soared through the air, exploring her new agility and power.

    "Toku and I come from a place a lot like this one," Wataru said quietly. "Small pools, running streams, and a valley full of sunshine. That's where the kairyu live. Toku and I will go back one day. If you'd like, you can come along."

    The gyarados huffed gently in Wataru's face, her breath warm and salty. A low rumble rose in her throat. Wataru didn't need Toku's nod to interpret the answer.

    "I can't call you 'little guide,' anymore," he said. "May I address you as Ibuki? It's my cousin's name. For some reason, you remind me of her."

    Overhead, Toku snorted. The gyarados lifted her head, her whiskers curling in satisfaction.

    "Good," Wataru said softly. "That's good."

    They lingered another hour more. The gyarados needed to regain her strength for the ride back, and Toku was content to spiral through the air, trilling her pleasure. Wataru wandered from rock to rock, running his hands absently over the old husks.

    With Toku's evolution, he was closer to home than he'd been since he first stepped aboard Mr. Inushi's wagon. But as Wataru gazed down at the dried-out miniryu husks, home felt impossibly far away.

    ~*~

    Hamako 2.png
     
    Last edited:
    Ch 5: The Gambler
  • Pen

    the cat is mightier than the pen
    Staff
    Partners
    1. dratini
    2. custom/dratini-pen
    3. custom/dratini-pen2
    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 wore intent expressions, 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 walls of red-tinted waterfalls that seemed to crash 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 out of the tank with a lazy wave of its spoon.

    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.
     
    Last edited:
    Ch 6: The Recruit, Part One
  • Pen

    the cat is mightier than the pen
    Staff
    Partners
    1. dratini
    2. custom/dratini-pen
    3. custom/dratini-pen2
    The Recruit, Part One


    archer.jpg


    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 suites—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.
     
    Last edited:
    Ch 7: The Recruit, Part Two
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    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.

    ~*~​

    vJOmBIW.jpg


    Art is by the amazing Plebis! Check out their twitter @plebisian or attack them on Art Fight (~plebis)
     
    Last edited:
    Ch 8: The Agent
  • Pen

    the cat is mightier than the pen
    Staff
    Partners
    1. dratini
    2. custom/dratini-pen
    3. custom/dratini-pen2
    Violence and mild gore.

    The Agent

    Agent Lance.png


    ~*~​

    The koiking grass is blooming in the five valleys.

    The thought dogged Lance as he hiked up Rabenda Mountain. Shoots of lavender sprang from every dip and crevice off the rocky path. But Lance's mind transformed the sweet-smelling sprigs into the gape-mouthed flowers that shot up each April in the Ryu's Gift, a dazzling sweep of orange, gold, and red, until the open circle of each valley became like a lake teeming with koiking.

    "Back home," Lance murmured. When he didn't finish the sentence, Kaisho let out a tremulous trill from Lance's shoulder. What would be the point of describing it? "You'll see it for yourself one day," he told the miniryu.

    To his left the air burst into fiery blossom as Kana soared by with a pleased roar. But Toku was silent. Lance had noticed her silence more and more these past weeks, her mouth set grimly and her body tensed as she fought. That was why he had chosen to spend his day off on the mountain, hoping the open sky and clear air would bring her some ease. But as Lance crested an intermediary peak, where the ground smoothed and leveled, Toku let out a sharp cry.

    Surprised, Lance turned to the hakuryu. Her gaze was already fixed on Kana, who flew forward to answer Toku's challenge. Their opening exchanges followed a familiar sequence: Toku's blue-edged tail countered by Kana's iron tail, Kana's flamethrower dissipated by Toku's twister. Since Kana had come into her wings, the two had battled countless times, at last equally matched. But something felt different today.

    Toku's angry. The thought took on the hard edge of certainty in Lance's mind.

    As the hakuryu hovered in the air, the sun flashed red off her eyes. Lance blinked, and the phosphorescent red tinge seemed to spread, engulfing Toku's whole body. The air around her distorted, as if around a hot flame.

    When she shot forward, Kana released a gushing flamethrower, but the hakuryu didn't swerve. She passed through the fire as if passing through morning mist, and slammed into Kana with terrible force. As the charizard buckled, Toku executed a tight somersault and bore down with an aqua tail. Kana hit the rocks with a heavy thud.

    It's over.

    But the red hadn't left Toku's eyes. Her tail began to whip, stirring the air into a massive twister attack. Loose rocks were drawn upwards, the lavender swayed and unrooted, and the miniryu clung tight enough to strangle around Lance's neck, whining—

    "Enough, Toku."

    His words didn't seem to register. A buffet pushed Lance only inches from the cliffside, and he threw himself to the ground before he was sent over the edge. Kana pressed herself low against the rocks, shielding her face with her wings. Around Toku, boulders danced weightless as sheets of paper. Lance lifted himself into a crouch and drew in a breath.

    "You're scaring the miniryu!" he screamed over the rushing wind. His voice cracked mid-sentence.

    The winds slackened, and the rocks crashed back down, bringing up clouds of dust. Toku turned, the red light gone. Her eyes were dark and startled.

    Gently, Lance unwound the miniryu from his shoulder. Toku soared down to them and let out an anxious, apologetic trill. But the miniryu kept his head buried in Lance's sleeve. His body was still trembling.

    "It's all right, Kaisho. Toku was just—"

    Their eyes met. The koiking grass is blooming in the five valleys. Lance swallowed.

    "Toku's just missing home."

    And we won't see home until she becomes a kairyu.

    Toku had trained hard in the months since the training camp. She'd fought with Kana, raced with her in the air, and perhaps with each beat of the charizard's wings, she'd wondered, why hasn't my time come? Lance didn't have any reassurance to offer her. The elders said, A hakuryu is like a furled bud in spring. She blossoms in her own time, or not at all.

    "I know," Lance said softly.

    When he held out his arms, Toku draped herself over him. She spanned four feet—too big now to wind herself comfortably around Lance, and her weight almost made him stagger. But it felt good to be close like this.

    It felt, if only for a moment, like home.

    ~*~​

    If Toku was concerned that change wasn't coming quickly enough, these days, Lance felt as if his body was changing too fast. Every time he looked into the mirror he seemed to have added another inch. I bet I'm taller than Ibuki now, Lance thought one morning, but the idea brought a pang to his chest. Seemingly overnight, Lance's voice had transformed into a wild ponyta, jumping and rearing unexpectedly as he spoke. It was worst during battles, when his voice would crack unexpectedly as if he had lost his nerve. His muscles ached, he felt as sleepy as a hibernating kairyu, and after work-outs he stank.

    "You're evolving," his bunk-mate, a bushy-bearded agent in his mid-thirties, liked to crack. It had not been funny the first time, and was certainly not funny the eleventh time.

    Still, life at Rocket HQ kept Lance busy. From 0800 to 1200 he held court in Battle Hall No 6. His job had seemed simple when the training instructor first explained it—beat everyone. But gradually, Lance realized there was more to it than that. Agent Katana, the training instructor, watched each battle and at the end gave the defeated agent a rapid-fire breakdown of their battling flaws. Just like Hunter, Lance thought the first time, his chest twisting. Hunter must have been assigned to a different base: Lance hadn't seen her since the training camp.

    Watching Agent Katana, Lance learned how to extend his battles in order to probe the other agent's weak points. There was skill not just in winning a battle quickly, but in controlling its flow, knowing you could end it at any time. Katana began to ask him to give his own feedback after the battle. Three months in, he informed Lance that he could now carry on the assessment battles alone.

    Mornings were for battling. Afternoons were for training. Lance's first assignment had been to teach a nervy raticate hyper fang. He'd been stumped initially. The raticate lacked Toku's focus, Kana's battle-fire, and Ibuki's determination. The pokemon's first instinct was to dodge, and he bit only at last resort. Lance had been at his wit's end, until he chanced to see the raticate during feeding hour, a blur of brown fur and flashing fangs. After that, Lance requisitioned a metal cube, which he stuffed with berries. The raticate broke the cube with a hyper fang after only a week.

    Kaisho, at least, was eager to learn. Ever since he'd set eyes on Toku, the miniryu's desire to become a hakuryu had been obvious. But the miniryu was frailer than Toku had ever been. His wrap attack was closer to a cuddle, and try as he might, he couldn't summon a red-eyed leer.

    Lance and Toku had met when he was seven and she was just a year old, still living with her fellow hatchlings. When the elders had led Lance into the nursery, she hadn't looked up. Her focus had been exclusively on digesting a very ripe berry. As another miniryu clambered over her, in hopes of stealing a bite, she'd flicked her tail and sent her sibling flying. Lance's laugh made her raise her dark eyes. He'd offered her another berry and his arm, and that had been that.

    Kaisho reminded Lance of the miniryu Toku had batted away. But what Kaisho lacked in physical strength, he made up for in speed. The confinement in the tank had left its mark: Kaisho hated to be still. Left unattended, he climbed, he weaved, he chased determinedly after Toku as she outpaced him in the air.

    One night, Lance was woken by flickering light. Rolling over in bed, he saw Kaisho dangling from the room's overhead lamp, where the magneton belonging to Lance's roommate liked to hover. As Lance watched, a spark ran down Kaisho's back to the tip of his tail and leaped towards the magneton. The magneton's one open eye swiveled, and it sent back an electric spark. A conversation! Lance thought, wondering if he was dreaming. Kaisho was too in awe of Toku to speak much to her, and he shied away from Ibuki and especially from Kana, who'd made the mistake of greeting the miniryu with a friendly fire blast. He was glad Kaisho had made a friend—he just hadn't expected that friend to be an impassive metal automaton.

    The next day, Lance had Toku demonstrate a thunder wave. He hadn't bothered trying to teach Kaisho that attack before, thinking it too advanced, but the miniryu copied Toku almost instantly. He didn't seem to need to make friction against the ground the way Toku did. The static energy came to him effortlessly, as if drawn out of the air.

    Watching, Lance finally understood what should have been clear from the first. Kaisho wasn't Toku. Lance would have to train him differently.

    ~*~​

    Lance was finishing his dinner in the cafeteria when the intercom rang out, Agent Lance to Room 304. Repeat, Agent Lance to room 304. He'd never been summoned like that before.

    When he had found his way to the correct room, in a wing of HQ he'd never been to before, Archer was waiting. Lance halted in the doorway, a greeting catching on his tongue.

    In Lance's first week at HQ, he'd been told all about the 'Elite Four,' what the agents jestingly called the four executives. Athena ran Strategic Communications, Petrel Espionage, Proton Security, and Archer the largest section of all—Operations. If anyone ranked higher than him, Lance hadn't heard of them.

    Archer was dressed formally today—a slim gray vest over a crisp white shirt, and stiffly creased gray pants. The white shirt emphasized the sharp, tanned lines of his face.

    "Lance," he said neutrally. "I trust you still have your winter clothes from training camp? You will need them for this mission. That is—" A smile tugged at his lips as his gaze trailed over Lance. "If you haven't outgrown them, that is."

    Lance flushed hotly. It was the same teasing he got from everyone, only this was Archer. His palms were wet, and his tongue lay in his mouth like a sluggish miniryu. He managed to nod.

    "Good. You will meet me at the helipad at promptly 0630 tomorrow, dressed for the cold. You are excused from your duties for that day. Any questions?"

    Lance shook his head. He was going on a mission? With Archer?

    He hardly slept that night. His heart was pounding, and the restless heat of anticipation kept him tossing from side to side. Archer met him alone on the helipad the next morning, and gestured him into a two-person copter without a word. After several hours, a mountain loomed ahead. Archer cut downwards, and they landed in a sparsely wooded area towards the base. Snow still clung thickly here. When Lance stepped out, his boot sank down a foot.

    "Mt Silver," Archer said, Acova already out by his side. "Known to produce especially strong and vicious pokemon. This is mainly due to the inhospitable nature of the area. Very few species of pokemon are obligate carnivores. In more bountiful ecosystems, most subsist on berries, nuts, and other vegetation. Here, that hardly an option. The pokemon here will not hesitate before attacking a human. Follow me closely and do not stray."

    Acova led the way with her nose pressed to the snowy ground. After fifteen minutes of walking, Archer said, "Halt." He pointed his finger to the right, at an uneven patch of snow. At first, Lance saw nothing out of the ordinary. Then all at once he noticed texture, coils of blue and grey that faded seamlessly into the snow.

    "An arctic arbok," Archer said. "Most are still hibernating this time of year, but they can move extremely quickly if disturbed. Give it a wide berth. We're not dressed for snake-wrangling: I leave that to Athena."

    "You can learn a lot out here," he said, as they continued upwards. "Arbok are predators, but they do not lower themselves to proactive hunting." A smile softened his face for a moment. "They wait for their prey. Ursaring, on the other hand, and contrary to common belief, are not predators. Their nature is gentle, but they are fierce if their homes come under threat."

    "Like kairyu," Lance interrupted, flushing when Archer turned to him with a raised eyebrow. "D-dragonite. They could defeat anyone, but they choose peace."

    "Like kairyu," Archer agreed after a moment.

    "Take sneasel, now," he continued. "They are solitary and cunning hunters, able to bring down ponyta in a single blow. But lone ponyta are rare. They have learned to group in herds. Sneasel have gained a reputation as cruel for the way they fight. But that reputation is ill-deserved. Efficiency is not cruelty—" Archer paused as Acova halted. "You've caught the scent? Solitary? Excellent." He turned back to Lance. "We are hunting sneasel today."

    When he released a fat raticate onto the snow, Acova let out a pleased growl and leaped forward. Lance expected the raticate to flinch away, but it chittered happily and pressed its nose to Acova's.

    "Blitz will play the bait in this game," Archer said. "Acova will follow in parallel, and you will follow by air. When the sneasel realizes it is being hunted, it will climb uphill. You are to cut it off and capture it."

    Lance eyed the raticate dubiously. It looked chubby—and slow. "Are you sure . . ."

    "Blitz can take care of himself. Ready your charizard."

    Once Lance and Kana had taken off, the raticate began to meander through the trees. Occasionally it stopped to lick its paw. Injured, Lance would have thought, if he hadn't known better.

    Lance didn't notice the sneasel until it leaped. Blitz had already shot forward. The raticate became a brown blur against the snow as it weaved through the trees, the sneasel following like a deadly shadow, until at last the pair broke out into a clear run of snow.

    That was their cue. Lance nudged Kana downwards. She aimed a flamethrower at the sneasel's back, but it leaped aside a moment before the attack landed. Closer now, Lance could see the pokemon was lean and glossy, with arms that ended in massive claws. Her wary eyes took in the warning orange of Kana's leathery skin and the fire gathering in her mouth. The sneasel turned—in three jumps, she was already yards away, heading straight for the place the mountain curved most steeply.

    "After her, Kana!"

    Acova swept in from the left. As the sneasel veered, Kana landed in front of her. Lance read the flash of panic in the sneasel's eyes. Trapped!

    For a minute, Kana and the sneasel traded metal-fisted blows. A single flamethrower would end the fight. Only, the sneasel moved so quickly . . .

    At that moment, the sneasel leaped forward, her eyes scrunched shut and her outline seeming somehow smudged. Lance frowned as Kana flamed. He'd seen something like that before—

    Cold, sharp pain cut into his back. An instant later, he was slammed into the snow. Ice bit into his face. He rolled over and opened his eyes in time to see Acova slamming into the sneasel's side with a fire-ringed mouth.

    His back stung. Somehow, the sneasel had gotten behind him, but how . . ?

    Sluggishly, his hand closed around the pokeball Archer had given him. He tossed it at the sneasel's still form and stared at the dancing black and yellow sphere until a sharp click cut the air.

    Archer found them ten minutes later. He must have been running to catch up so fast, and Lance could see a glimmer of sweat on his temple, but his voice sounded as mild as ever when he spoke.

    "Ah. It got behind you."

    Lance nodded. "I don't know—"

    "Demonstrate, Acova," Archer said shortly. The houndoom raced straight at Kana. Just as the charizard lunged to meet her with a metal-claw, the houndoom's form seemed to flicker. A moment later, she bit in hard against Kana's back. "The maneuver is generally called a feint attack. A useful and subtle move, though not undetectable. It can be identified through . . ." His eyes landed expectantly on Lance, who straightened.

    "There's a fuzziness before the pokemon vanishes."

    "Correct. With training, you and your pokemon can identify the maneuver and defend against it. Those using feint attack can lapse into overconfidence. In that way, the feinter can fall victim."

    He stepped behind Lance and examined the cut from the sneasel's claw.

    "Not serious, but I'll treat it before we continue. My intention is to catch at least five before we return. I trust you'll be more careful next time?"

    "Of course," Lance said, stiffening. "I know what to expect now."

    They took shelter in a small alcove. Archer instructed Kana and Acova to heat the rocks, warming the air enough that Lance didn't shiver when he removed his heavy jacket and thermal undershirt. He did shiver when Archer's cool hand traced clinically around the wound. He ducked his head, conscious suddenly of how scrawny his back must look. Archer's back was probably muscled like Lance's bunkmate, who spent several minutes each morning solemnly examining his abs in the mirror. Lance had never meant to stare, but it was a small room. He hadn't been able to help it.

    Lance clenched his teeth as a cold sting hit his back. The pain only lasted a minute, and his head felt clearer when he put his layers back on. They stayed on the mountain until dusk turned the snow gold. In the end, they captured seven sneasel, though Archer released two—one was still juvenile, the other had already mated.

    "I'm told you're progressing well in the Training Division," Archer said, as they made their way back to the helicopter.

    A minute passed before Lance worked up the courage to say, "I like the training. But, I'd like to do a real mission."

    Archer halted. "A 'real' mission?" he said sharply. "Agents are not assigned unreal tasks."

    Lance's face burned at the rebuke.

    "Agents are assigned according to their capabilities," Archer continued. "You have not to my knowledge demonstrated any great proficiency in the domains of say, subterfuge, or savvy political reasoning. But please correct me if I'm in error." Lance held his silence. "Such proficiencies can be developed, of course, if you apply yourself. Take this." He tossed a pokeball to Lance. "The first sneasel. Train her. She will give you quite the education in stealth and cunning, if you are prepared to learn."

    Lance kept silent for the rest of the journey back. But when the helicopter landed in HQ, Lance caught Archer's sleeve before he could disembark and met his surprised gaze steadily.

    "I know I have a lot to learn. But I'm going to learn it."

    The surprise in Archer's eyes leveled out into satisfaction.

    "Excellent," he said. And added in a crisp imperative, "Impress me."

    ~*~​

    Impress me.

    Those words drummed against Lance's mind waking and sleeping. He trained the sneasel late into the night. She learned quickly, but shunned his other pokemon, watching them with a suspicious gaze from where she lurked in the corner. Her expression reminded Lance so strongly of Hunter's demeanor during training camp dinners that he took to calling the sneasel Hunter. Her other habit was less pleasantly nostalgic. The sneasel made a point of touching her claw against Lance's back whenever he let down his guard, a nasty grin playing on her face. Somehow, she always managed to find the very same place she'd cut him.

    At last, Lance got fed up enough to play a trick of his own. The feinter can fall victim, Archer had said. Lance planned to test that himself. He hunched over his backpack, making a show of engaging in a deep and concentrated search. In reality, though, his eyes were fixed on the small mirror that he'd propped to show the area behind him. When the sneasel padded soundlessly forward, Lance tensed. He dropped flat to the floor as she lunged, catching her leg as she sailed over him, carried forward by the momentum of her leap. He slammed her down against the floor, and as she lay dazed, he jabbed his finger triumphantly into her back.

    "Got you! How do you like that?"

    Silence at first. Then Hunter's back began to shake with huffing laughter. She squirmed out from under him, but didn't dart away. Her eyes were alight with grudging humor.

    After that, her gaze was less forboding and she began to spar with his other pokemon. She seemed to particularly enjoy practicing with Kaisho, aiming swipe after swipe at the miniryu as he frantically snaked between her claws. Whether that was really friendliness, or a kind of sadistic enjoyment, Lance didn't know, but the miniryu seemed to appreciate the attention.

    Impress me.

    But as Lance attended sessions led by the Espionage team on lockpicking, stealth, and disguise, an irrational guilt began to take over his chest. It only grew each time he watched Toku slam an opponent to the ground, her triumphant trill always slightly stained with expectation.

    They said, back home, that a kairyu and her tamer had to be of one mind. But Lance felt split. He wanted Toku to evolve, of course, to become a kairyu and fly him home—but he also wanted to earn his second star as an agent, to participate in a real mission, with stealth, and danger, and Archer's approving nod when Lance saved the whole operation.

    His ambivalence couldn't really be keeping Toku from evolution, Lance told himself. But at the end of a long day, when the hakuryu wound herself into a tight ball at the foot of his bed, Lance's certainty evaporated. He slept uneasily.

    ~*~​

    When the door to the training room opened, Lance didn't look up to see who else had chosen to spend the 0100 hour training. Kaisho had just tripped the sneasel with his tail and paralyzed her with a static burst.

    "Wrap her now," Lance urged, but the miniryu hesitated long enough for the sneasel to jump back to her feet, snickering.

    Footsteps clapped behind him. Then a female voice spoke curtly.

    "Are gyarados intelligent?"

    Lance spun around, entirely baffled. A woman dressed in all-white was watching him, her arms crossed. A massive arctic arbok towered behind her, its chest gleaming with a red warning pattern. The woman's hair was the same blood-red shade.

    "You train one, don't you?" the woman demanded, stepping forward. "So answer me. Are gyarados intelligent?"

    "Yes," Lance said finally, as the final piece clicked. Executive Athena. Her mind moves even quicker than her arbok, the other agents said. But neither's as quick as her temper, someone would add to hushed laughter.

    "Hmph. That will need to be demonstrated. Report to Strategic Communications tomorrow."

    She left without waiting for Lance's hurried nod.

    To his bemusement, Lance spent the next week assigned to the seaside, running bizarre tests with Ibuki and an agent from SC. They tested everything from Ibuki's time perception (accurate to the quarter hour) to her ability to swim out of sight. The next week, Lance received instructions to attend an SC briefing in Conference Room 08. He sat awkwardly in a rolling chair off of the main table, trying to follow the rapid discussion pinging from one side of the table to another, with Athena occasionally injecting a quick comment from her seat at the table's head.

    "It's crucial that there are no casualties, though."

    "Agreed. Would send the wrong message entirely."

    "Particularly with Assemblyman Nakamura's licensing bill—"

    "If it goes on a rampage—"

    "—Better have the trainer on hand."

    Athena nodded, and with her gesture that line of discussion to end. Five minutes later, something beeped from Athena's pocket. She glanced down, cursed, and then shot from the room. The other agents filed out in a more leisurely fashion. The SC agent who had spent the past week with Lance lingered.

    "Did you catch all that?" she asked, a sympathetic smile lighting her face when Lance vigorously shook his head. "In two weeks, you and your gyarados will be shipping out to Cerulean. We'll rehearse a few times before then, of course."

    "But what is Ibuki going to do?" Lance asked.

    The agent grinned. "Scare the shit out of a politician. That's really all you need to know."

    ~*~​

    Two weeks later, Lance stood at the center of a packed crowd on Cerulean Beach. He felt odd without his uniform. Before leaving HQ, Espionage had given him what the SC agent referred to as a "makeover." Blue jeans, a flimsy t-shirt with 'I Love the League' emblazoned over the chest, and black dye that chased all the red from his hair. The crowd swirled with stray limbs and noise, a far contrast from the controlled, way agents moved in HQ.

    "Can I squeeze in front of you, please?" a girl asked Lance suddenly. "I can't see over you."

    "Sure," he mumbled, stepping aside. His focus wasn't on the podium, but on the still, serene waters of Cerulean Bay, dazzling in the afternoon sun. Ibuki would begin her swim any second now. She'd reach the shore in thirty minutes and then wait for the signal, an under-water bubble-beam from a krabby somewhere on the same beach, watching the same podium.

    The crowd was beginning to settle. A woman stepped up to the podium and tapped the mic twice. "Thank you so much for coming out on this gorgeous day. My name's Sakura, and I serve on Cerulean's Beautification Commission. It's my honor to introduce the president of the Pokemon League—"

    Lance's eyes caught on a flash of bright blue from the front of the crowd. Hamako! He ducked his head hastily, even though there was no reason she'd notice him with this many people around. But would she recognize Ibuki? Lance wondered suddenly. No, there was no way. The gyarados had grown since Cerulean Cave and Hamako had only seen her the one time anyway.

    "—please welcome to the stage, President Fugino!"

    There were two machamp flanking the stage now. Machamp were just for show, though. Lance remembered that much from the casino. Real security required a psychic pokemon.

    The crowd burst into applause. Lance flapped his hands together, gaze drifting back to the water. If something went wrong, if Ibuki entered some kind of fury, Lance was supposed to calm her down. But if the crowd panicked, would he even be able to reach her? He should have found a place closer to the edge.

    Mr. Fugino was speaking now. The sun beat down on Lance's neck. Sweat glued the thin t-shirt onto his back. Any moment now—

    But when Ibuki burst bellowing from the water, Lance gaped together with the rest of the crowd. The light flashed silver off Ibuki's scales. Her mouth hung open, slaver dripping, and her eyes shone red as she lunged towards the podium.

    Mr. Fugino's voice failed. He backed away, step by step, his face a pale rictus of sudden terror. A scream shot from the crowd, and then everything was in motion. The crowd developed a current: Lance was pushed inextricably away from the water, caught in a jostle of backs and elbows.

    By the time Lance was able to break away, he'd been pushed to the edge of the beach, where the sand was subsumed by jade plant. His gaze tore back across the beach. Ibuki had vanished, sunk safely back under the waves. Mr. Fugino was being escorted into a helicopter, cameras clicking behind him. A few trainers were bunched by the shoreline, their pokemon out at their sides in battle-ready postures.

    Hamako stood apart, an island of stillness on the turbulent beach. She was staring out at the water with a furrowed brow.

    An arm fell over Lance's shoulders.

    "Time to go," hissed the SC agent, ridiculous in a starmie-patterned shirt and pink skirt. "Come on."

    They fell back in with the retreating crowd.

    "But wild gyarados never come in this far," the man ahead of them was insisting to his companion. "They stop at the sandbar."

    "Must have gotten hungry," someone else cracked, and nervous laughter wafted into the air.

    Gyarados don't eat humans. But Lance knew enough now to hold his tongue.

    ~*~​

    He wasn't invited to the post-operation briefing, if there was one. But two days later, Lance found an article clipping from some paper called "The Beacon" slipped under his door.

    Cerulean Fiasco! proclaimed the paper in bright red letters. PokeLeague President Runs Like Scared Meowth. Below, in smaller letters: Time to Retire? Gyarados Crashes Gyarados-'Expert' Hamako's Party.

    On Monday, PokeLeague President Fugino's tired pablum about universal pokemon training and Kantonian democracy was brought to a crashing halt when a full-size, rabid gyarados burst out of the waters of Cerulean Bay, to general panic and confusion. Faced with this twenty-foot water demon, our brave league president put his philosophy into practice—that is to say, he turned tail and ran, not sparing a thought to the crowd who'd unwisely assembled to soak in his sage words.


    "It just left me wondering why we have bureaucrats running the league instead of trainers," commented Yoshioka Yoshi, a seven-badge trainer on the Indigo Conference run. "They clearly have no idea. And no guts."

    Ryo and Rei Morimoto, who run a local Cerulean eatery, said they were grateful to the trainers who had stepped in. "No hesitation at all," Morimoto said. "I really admire that spirit and boldness in our youth."

    Notably slow on the draw was Cerulean Gym Leader Hamako, who turned seventy last spring. Hamako rose to prominence as a water-type specialist with an emphasis on training gyarados. When asked why she didn't step in at once, the gym leader delivered this baffling response, "The gyarados clearly didn't mean any harm."

    Unfortunately, age appears to have caught up with Cerulean's gym leader, who most recently embarrassed herself by opposing the sale of slowpoke tail popsicles, a harmless treat for children that consists of no actual slowpoke meat.

    No casualties resulted from the gyarados attack, except for the emotional damages President Fugino is sure to deduct from tax-payers' wallets come fall. The president's address had been rescheduled to June 28th. It will take place in Cerulean's main square, far from the waterside. Whether that will be enough to shield our beleaguered president from further embarrassment remains to be seen.


    'Congrats!' someone had scrawled in the margins.

    Lance set the clipping down on his bed-side table. He didn't think the article had been very fair to Hamako. After all, she'd been right—Ibuki hadn't meant any harm. Didn't the fact that no one was attacked prove that? The article's writer had all but called her senile.

    Hamako aside, Lance couldn't find fault with the article's general gist. Someone who ran away from a gyarados clearly wasn't qualified to lead anyone.

    Congrats. Lance wasn't entirely sure just what he and Ibuki had achieved. But it had been a mission, and apparently a successful one. He wondered if Archer had heard.

    ~*~​

    "Shit," groaned Lance's bunkmate, as the intercom cried out, "Security Squad Seven. Report to helipad at 0755. Code Red. Repeat, Security Squad Seven. Report to helipad at 0755. Code Red."

    Lance shot him a sympathetic look. The summer solstice had been yesterday, and the carousing had stretched into the early morning. Lance's bunkmate must have drunk too much. He'd been vomiting since he woke up and still looked terribly pale.

    "Shit, shit shit," he said, swinging his legs over the side of the bed. He was only wearing boxers. Lance hastily averted his eyes. "Code yellow, I'd skip. Code orange, maybe. Code red, though . . ."

    "What does it mean?"

    "Means there's been an f-up," the man said bluntly. "And Proton does not like f-ups."

    As he stared at his pants like they'd just transformed into a rampaging gyarados, Lance was hit with an idea. "What if I went in your place?"

    His bunkmate blinked. "Don't you have assignments?"

    "Just training this morning. I can do it in the evening if I have to."

    "Dragon-boy, have you ever been on a security mission?"

    "No," Lance said, figuring honesty was the better approach. "But my team can handle anything. I want to help."

    Code red. This was a real mission. His chance to prove himself.

    "I can't believe I'm even—" The agent broke off as a new wave of pain twisted his face. "Okay. Do everything Proton says. Instantly. I'm talking instantly, do you understand? Hesitation will get you killed, if not right away, then at HQ when Proton fucking decapitates you. When in doubt, stick with the group. Got it?"

    "Got it," Lance said, his heart soaring. He recalled Toku and Kaisho, and clipped their pokeballs onto his belt next to Toku and Ibuki's. Hunter's pokeball lived in the training room, since she was only temporarily assigned to him. If he ran there quickly—

    The clock read 0749. No, no time to bring Hunter along. Lance adjusted his cap and ran out into the corridor. He reached the helipad with two minutes to spare. A group was gathered by a large helicopter. Slowing his pace to a walk, Lance crossed over, making sure to hold his back straight. An agent at the edge of the group squinted at him.

    "Rigel is sick," he whispered to her. "I'm subbing in for him."

    Her expression cleared. "Oh, you're his little punk bunkmate," she said. "Have you been on a security mission before?"

    "Yes," Lance lied. At that moment, the agent at the center of the crowd, who wore in place of a uniform a black blazer with no tie, clapped his hands together.

    "Move out!" he called in a voice that carried across the whole helipad.

    The agents filed into the back of the copter. There were no seats. Lance pressed himself against the curved wall and drew his knees to his chest. The whir of the rotors above made it impossible for him to catch the other agents' low conversation.

    It seemed to Lance that no time passed at all before the sound cut and the door swung open. They had landed in a wooded area, though the regularity of the trees and absence of brush all suggested cultivation. In the distance, Lance made out the roof of a large house. The summer air was warm and muggy.

    "Perimeter squad, places. The rest of you, with me."

    Five agents broke away. Lance and four others followed the man in the blazer—Proton—towards the house. They passed under an ornamental gate and walked up a paved path lined with neatly trimmed hedges. Two butterfree passed in fluttering circles around a red-leafed maple tree.

    Proton flicked a pokeball, and a kadabra appeared in a flash.

    "Standard protocol," he said. When the kadabra had teleported away, Proton glanced disdainfully around the garden and aimed a kick at the hedge. "Cutting sticks into shapes. How about a moat or a lava pit if this house is so fucking precious?" He grinned. "Moat filled with goddamn gyarados."

    His head tilted to the side suddenly, as if listening to an invisible voice. "All right, that's the all clear. Front, back, two ground-level windows. Cover them."

    The words had hardly left his mouth before the remaining agents scattered. Lance resisted the urge to shuffle his feet as Proton's gaze fell on him. He didn't expect to be recognized. With his hair dyed black, people in HQ had stopped identifying him as "flamer," "dragon-boy," and "Archer's pet" in the corridors.

    "Do I know you?" Proton asked.

    "Rigel asked me to sub for him," Lance said, which was close to the truth. And then, without meaning to say more—"He was vomiting his face off."

    Proton's laugh rose from deep in his belly. "That shit. Boozed himself up, did he? Listen up, then. We get inside, you don't talk. No threatening moves. No pokemon, till I say so. Got it? I need to check the lay of the land."

    The kadabra teleported them to just inside the door. Proton straightened his blazer and stepped forward, Lance at his heels.

    They met the man in the hall-way. He wore a robe of rich red velvet, sashed sloppily, and held a steaming cup of tea and a bun. When he saw them, his face turned the same pale color as the bun.

    "The door was open," Proton said breezily. "Sorry to burst in on you, sir. Won't take more than a minute of your time."

    "The door was not—" The man visibly recalibrated. "Is this about the business with the contract? I made perfectly clear—"

    "We can talk in your study." Proton swept forward without waiting for a response. After a moment's hesitation, the man followed.

    The study was a tall room, lined floor to ceiling with thick-bound books. Two claw-footed chairs faced each other, separated by a mahogany desk. A crystal pitcher on a side-table was filled with dark amber liquid.

    "Wait outside," Proton told Lance. In a lower voice, he added, "Stop him if he bolts."

    His heart thudding, Lance nodded and stepped outside the room. He released Toku, clasping his hand over her mouth before she could let out a questioning trill.

    "We're on a mission," he whispered. "If anyone leaves the room, wrap them."

    The hakuryu bobbed her head silently. She took up a position on the left side of the doorway, Lance to the right. He wasn't trying to listen in, but they hadn't shut the door, and the words floated out into the hallway.

    "Do have a seat," the man said in a cold voice.

    "How gracious." A pause that contained the scrape of wood on wood. "You know why I'm here?"

    "I will not be renewing the contract. I have business standards to maintain."

    "I would appreciate if you could elaborate, sir."

    Lance wondered if the man heard the anger sloshing under the surface of Proton's lazy tone.

    "I received some very disturbing information about how your boss conducts his affairs. I'm as aware as anyone that a certain level of compensation is necessary to get anything done around here, but there are places I draw the line. I don't know what it's like in Etalia, but here in Kanto—"

    Proton's voice slithered between his words. "What did you say?"

    "I said, here in Kanto businessmen aren't in the habit of commissioning private militias!"

    A tense silence fell. Lance resisted the urge to peek into the room. His high-necked uniform felt stifling in the warm air.

    "I see," Proton said at length. "And you can't be persuaded."

    "Correct."

    "Well, I suppose we don't have much more to say to each other."

    "Indeed."

    "I'll be taking my leave then. My best to you and—you have a daughter, don't you?"

    "If you intend to make any kind of ridiculous threats—"

    "Sir, you completely mistake me. I'm just asking out of personal curiosity. I heard you got your daughter a sweet little teddiursa for her birthday when she was a kid. And then she raised it up into a big bad ursaring, didn't she."

    "I think you've outstayed your welcome, sir."

    "An ursaring like this."

    The click of a pokeball punctured the air. Lance heard a thump, as if something heavy had emerged. He turned and looked into the room.

    An ursaring towered at Proton's side, seven-feet tall and covered in thick brown fur. The man behind the desk had blanched. He hovered half-risen from his chair, as if frozen.

    But ursaring were gentle like ryu, Lance remembered. There was no reason for him to look so frightened.

    "Kill him," Proton said.

    The ursaring lunged forward. The man bolted to the side as the pokemon vaulted over the desk. His hand closed around the crystal pitcher on the side-table. It shattered against the ursaring's claws. Step by step, the man backed away from the advancing pokemon, until with a cry he spun around. His gaze locked on Lance.

    He saw a dark uniform, a pale face, a red R. And a blocked exit.

    Lance saw a neat beard, laugh-lined skin, blown pupils in a bloodless face.

    It couldn't have been more than a second, but it seemed to Lance they stared at each other for hours. Then the ursaring cleaved down. The man fell forward onto his knees, his eyes still fixed on Lance even as they bulged. Even as his mouth gaped open—

    "Again."

    The lazy voice seemed to drift in from somewhere far away.

    A second blow knocked the man onto his back. A third ripped through the white shirt under his robe, spilled out a purple-red, brighter than the red velvet of the robe, wetter.

    The ursaring withdrew its dripping red claw slowly and held it away from its body, as if troubled by either the color or the smell.

    Lance hadn't moved. Hadn't even breathed. The air was hot enough to suffocate, and his ears buzzed like a hoard of beedrill had been set loose inside. Proton recalled the ursaring and stepped over the bloodied body.

    "Idiot." To Lance, he said, "Time to move-out."

    The hallway moved past him. The stairs under him. And then they came to the door. Sunlight spilled in, warm and yellow, from the garden. The butterfree were still circling delicately through the air.

    "Automatic lock," Proton muttered, examining the doorknob. "Makes my life easier. They'll probably go with 'tragic accident,' but maybe someone will get creative and pin it on the daughter. She'll be inheriting the big bucks, that's for sure."

    He shut the door and let out a sharp whistle. Dark shapes emerged from the sides of the house. Like sneasel, Lance thought. His mind was occupied by a vivid sequence: Blitz the raticate running across the snow. A bright claw stabbed out suddenly. The raticate's mouth opened. His eyes bulged. A red stream wound down the snowy slope. Blitz the raticate, running—

    He staggered and nearly fell onto the grass. Toku. She'd rammed her head into his side. She was trembling. He was trembling. The agents were passing under the gate. Nobody had noticed yet that he hadn't followed.

    He needed to—

    "Run."

    Toku shot forward at the whispered word. They passed under the gate, veered left where the agents veered right. Brittle twigs snapped under his feet.

    "Hey," someone called out. "You're going the wrong—"

    Run. His legs wheeled to the heavy thump of his pulse. They were going to catch him. Their pokemon, or the helicopter, and his breath was already ragged, his lungs were fire, and ahead the trees thinned out, into wide, open grassland. That's where you trap the prey.

    Ahead of him, Toku dipped down, offering the long, blue curve of her back. As he swung his leg over, her body flared white. Blue burst into golden yellow like a rising sun. His arms wrapped around Toku's neck and she rose, above the tips of the trees behind them, above the white fluff of the low-lying clouds.

    "Run," Lance whispered, and the world fell away.

    ~*~​

    The stars were out when Lance woke up. He had slept curled into Toku's belly. A willow tree leaned over them; a creek gurgled somewhere in the distance. His clothes were still wet from the cloud-cover, but the night air was warm and dry. He peeled off his tight turtleneck, undid his belt, and kicked off his boots, until he stood, shivering gently in the summer breeze.

    Toku blinked open one dark, beautiful eye. She watched him, but said nothing. The pokeballs were all there. Kana, Ibuki, Kaisho. He'd have to let them out. He'd have to explain—

    Not yet. Just the purple-black sweep of the night and the steady hum of Toku's breathing. I saw and I did nothing

    He met Toku's gaze again. We did nothing.

    "Toku," he began quietly. The scales around her eyes were damp under his palm.

    A week after the summer solstice, the benibana plants opened in golden puffs across the five valleys. The flower only bloomed briefly, so the next morning the whole village woke early, when the dew softened the plants' thorns. The elders washed the flowers and gave the barrels to the children to stomp. After three days soaking, the crushed petals darkened from yellow into red. That dye made the red cape of a kairyu master.

    "We would kneel," Lance whispered. He could see it in his mind. The bright red fabric on his back. Toku's golden head bent next to his own. "A master would sprinkle the water that passed over Sho's Tooth on our heads. Just as if the great kairyu were breathing on us, blessing us." And he would say, "I am a kairyu. Proud, yet humble. Powerful, yet kind. All of these are mine: the broad sky, the running stream, the green earth. Wherever the strong trouble the weak, I am there. So do I—"

    Swear.

    Lance faltered on the final word. Toku pressed her head heavily into his shoulder. His tears, when they came, were almost soundless. A passing rattata might have imagined it was the willow crying. He cried until his eyes were dry, and still his shoulders shook.

    Toku was a kairyu now. But while Team Rocket stood, until he could wash that stain away—Lance knew he could never go home.



    ~End of Part One~
     
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    Interlude: The Puppetmaster
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    Gonna be some time until Part Two, but for now, here is the Interlude!

    Interlude
    The Puppetmaster

    Archer is worried.

    How do you know? He’s certainly not clearing his throat or shuffling his weight from foot to foot. If he were doing either of those things you’d send your persian straight for his throat, convinced it was a ditto imposter here with you in the room.

    It’s not any particular sound or a movement that clues you in, just a sense you honed back in that interminable crossing, when your life hung on a sugar-sheet peg. And you know Archer. You know Archer better than he knows himself.

    “How’s the boy doing?” you ask, just to push him further off-balance. Archer hates discussing this: he’s paranoid you mean to promote Athena up over him, just because she happened to have a womb and be convenient. A ridiculous fear. If he’d had a womb you’d have been just as happy to use him. Best not to say that, though. You prefer Archer a little stained by self-doubt.

    “Silver?”

    Of course Silver. Irritated, you finally spin your chair to get a good look at him. Did he suffer some horrible injury and not bother to tell you? Is that why he’s so slow this morning?

    No, his uniform is pressed and spotless. Not a hair out of place on his glossy head. And if anything’s paining him, he’s hiding it well with his posture.

    Well—not the guilty conscience. He’s not hiding that well. But you’ll let him get to it in his own time. Archer’s earned that much from you, and he’s never tried keeping secrets yet.

    You don’t end up having to clarify. He’s already speaking when your eyes meet.

    “Silver is doing well. Yesterday he pushed his playmate off the top of the playground tower and lied about it when asked.”

    That’s your boy all right. Loosened up by fatherly pride, you drape one well-heeled leg over the other.

    “And how is your boy doing?” you say, deciding to throw Archer a bone. It’s endearing how he’s found his own little prodigy to bring up, as if he thinks you’ll forget about your son if he can present a superior child in his place. Even got the hair color right. The whole thing amuses you, so you’ve let it take its course. And it could come in handy, if your flesh offspring grows into any concerning quirks.

    Archer’s straightened, though. Amazing he could get much straighter.

    “Sir, I’ve made a mistake.”

    You lean back in your chair, eyes narrowing. Archer doesn’t make mistakes, so that’s a little distressing. On the other hand, it’s nice to have things to hold over him, provided the mistake isn’t disastrous. You wait for him to continue.

    “The boy I’ve been training. He ended up on a mission he shouldn’t have been on. A code red. You know Proton isn't always the most . . . efficient with these things.”

    “He’s effective,” you say mildly.

    “Yes. But the boy saw and took off. It was too early.”

    Not disastrous. To you, at least. Archer’s looking crushed, though.

    “Your dragon-wielding prodigy,” you muse, just to twist the knife in further. “I assume you’ve already pulled back operations in the relevant areas.”

    “Yes, sir.”

    “Then that’s all there is to be done. You win some, you lose some, Archer.”

    It was a foolish idea in the first place. You don’t think you actually would have given up on your flesh and blood. That’s not the Fiorelli way.

    Though you find yourself liking the unnamed boy a lot more now that he’s run away. Running away shows character and leadership. It made you everything you are.

    There’s nothing you could do that would send Archer running away. This is why he will never be a leader.

    “Keep an eye out, though,” you continue, “in case he pops up again and does anything interesting. He has a dragon, you’ve said?”

    “Two of them, actually.”

    Two dragons! Certainly worth some oversight. And since Archer’s bound to do it anyway, better that you’ve made it an order.

    Actually. That was a little cheeky, wasn’t it? And Archer still sounds too proud.

    “Any other failures to report?” you ask.

    “No, sir.”

    His left eye twitches slightly. Good. Got to keep the troops in line.

    “Then get on with things.”

    As Archer closes the door, you look out the window, where the sun glares at you with a furious orange eye. It looks to be a beautiful day, maybe even warm enough to make you think you’re home if you close your eyes.

    Things are going well, really. You can’t complain. And you’ve decided Archer’s mistake is more amusing than annoying.

    Your dear persian stirs in the corner and you coo to her. Time to get back to work.

    ~*~​

    Gym leaders meetings are certainly the highlight of your month. There are other pleasures, certainly, such as crushing the dreams of single-badge trainers and marking off politicians as fatly and thoroughly bribed, but gym leader meetings hold a special charm for you.

    The gym-leaders fall into two groups: those who have power and influence, and those who do not. And you, of course.

    Natsume’s early, though her eyes are shut and her legs crossed like she’s meditating. Natsume’s an ally. You try not to dwell on her much, in case she decides to drop in on your thoughts.

    Erika nods to you when she walks through the door. A smart woman, with an ambition within her capacity. You appreciate her tasteful kimono, exquisite manners, and complete lack of sentimentality in business matters. She also thinks the apex of success is a multi-million dollar perfume company, so you don’t spend much time worrying about her.

    Then there’s the ruffage. Muno from Pewter, his face permanently fixed into a scowl. Hamako of Cerulean, who is courting irrelevance with her staunch and wholly futile opposition to her city’s shipping industry. The Unovan, who preserves a mullish silence every month. Sometimes you doubt he even has the language ability to follow along. Vermillion’s leaders thought it was good imaging for trade relations, and you don’t really mind. He’s a non-factor, like the other two.

    Koga ought to be a non-factor, but he nags at you. Fuschia’s a nowhere town with its own code law and a half-hearted economy in silk and tourist chachkas. But the ninjas have respect. In time immemorial, they swooped in to save Kanto from invaders and for that they have the nation’s enduring gratitude. When the nation remembers they exist, that is. You’ve been careful to keep your people out of Fuschia. If you’ve read Koga right, he won’t bother anyone who doesn’t bother him first. Some kind of ninja principle. Some motto of caution or restraint. You wouldn’t know.

    Katsura skips these meetings. Nobody misses him.

    The meeting begins when Erika clears her throat gently. You lean back in your seat, aquiver with quiet pleasure. Everyone gives badge reports. Muno complains again about faulty mine equipment. Erika reminds him again that it's not gym business. Natsume smiles, but doesn’t say anything, even though everyone knows the problems come from Saffron. Hamako complains about ships clogging her port. Honestly, does this woman understand the first thing about economic power?

    Koga watches everybody. The Unovan watches the clock.

    It’s a quiet crowd, so it falls to you to maintain a pleasant back and forth with Erika. You can tell she appreciates it; in her opinion, the others are complete bores.

    Kanto has a problem. They’ve lost track of where power lies. Between the gyms, the assembly, the league, and the emergent industry sector, it’s a muddle. The game will go to the first person to consolidate. That’s you.

    The gyms are nearly neutralized now. Natsume’s appointment was a coup, of course. Killed several pidgey with one stone. Silph’s president stayed late at Friday’s gala just to give you a handshake for it.

    You’ll be replacing Hamako soon; after the gyarados fiasco, it’s all but inevitable. Maybe with one of those bright young things from that delightful watershow you watched—what was it now, the Sensational Sisters they’d called themselves? Vendors outside the performance hall had sold conch-shells and garish starmie-patterned shirts. You occupy yourself with picturing Hamako’s expression, should she have happened to have wandered inside. Oh, that settles it. The Sensational Sisters it is.

    Muno’s a defeatist, so you don’t worry about him. Maybe you’ll stop by Pewter and tour one of his horrible, dusty camps. Remind him that Viridian is also suffering beneath the cruel yoke of the city industries. That will make him feel very cared for. It's attention Pewter craves, not solutions.

    You’d feel better if Koga were gone as well—but no. You’ll let the ninja issue lie. They can’t fight a whole country. If worst comes to worst, they’ll secede and you won’t miss them.

    You feel a headache coming on. That’s Natsume. She does it because petty displays of power amuse her, and you take it because you understand how power actually works. It’s not the way she thinks it does—for a psychic trainer, she’s fairly obtuse.

    When the meeting ends, you give her a short nod, ignoring the small smirk that crosses her lips. Soon construction will begin in Cinnabar—

    Ah, but that’s a thought for another time and place.

    ~*~​

    When you return home, you shrug off your double-breasted blazer and unknot your tie. Your vest hanging loose and your shirt half unbuttoned, you pause to examine your reflection in the broad mirror that overhangs your rose-veined marble sink.

    You’re 36. That’s the age your grandmother always answered, if anyone was uncouth enough to ask. “I’m thirty-six,” she said, white hair severely bunned and ribboned, diamond choker clasped tightly around her sagging neck.

    Everyone would let out a gentle titter at this charming response, but you were the only one who knew Grandmother believed those words with all her heart. She believed she could make the world anything she wanted it to be by the strength of her belief.

    You pull the purple velveteen ribbon from your pocket. Her diamond choker you sold long ago, back in that desperate crossing, but the ribbon you kept. It was of no value to anyone, and perhaps not even to you. Still. Your jaw is square, your eyebrows sharp, your hair silky, and your gaze keen. She would have been proud of this face, had she lived to see it. Though it’s not exactly your face you’re counting on to make your ancestors proud.

    Political power’s not enough. You need real power. You need an empire.

    And when you’ve got that—

    Well.

    You study your face again. Do you have your father’s jaw? You think not. Yours is sterner. Your eyes are harder and more relentless.

    Once you’ve got that, maybe then it will come time to pay your homeland a little return visit. Remind them that the Fiorelli name is not one to be thrown lightly aside.

    Your hand clenches around the worn ribbon. No, not lightly.

    ~*~​

    Your gym, newly built, is the tallest building in Viridian. Of course, taller buildings stand upon every single street in Saffron, but they’re far enough away that the comparison isn’t worth making. Distance alters things. The name you are making here, the name you left behind in Etalia—one day they will be measured against each other. But not yet.

    For now, you are circulating, the gracious host at a rather fabulous gala. The attendance is excellent. More than half of the assembly have clocked in, and not just the ones you’ve bribed either. All the major corporations are represented. You catch the rosy pink of Erika’s kimono, hear Jiro’s bright laugh, find Muno off in the corner nursing a glass of sake and his own resentments, and—

    Oh my.

    “The champion, at my humble gathering?” you call out. “You do me too great an honor, Lady Kikuko.”

    She turns to face you slowly, in her own time. She’s wearing purple tonight and a shrewd expression on her haggard face. You think of your grandmother for an instant, then banish the thought before it shows in your eyes.

    “Modesty doesn’t suit you, Giovanni Fiorelli.”

    The knowing way she pronounces your full name makes you twitch. Witch, they call her in Viridian—in polite company, at least. And you know witches, the shadow-benders back home who plied their trade in forgotten alleyways. Once, when you were plagued with sleepless nights and haunting dreams, your mother brought you to one of their shadow dens. She did so at night, woke you from your bed and bundled you into a dark jacket. Father never heard about it. He would have castigated you both, locked you away for nights and days with only bread to eat.

    You never saw the face of the woman who treated you, only her gnarled hands in the flickering candlelight. Something seemed to move in the corner of your vision as you lay there, stiff with fright and dizzy from the sweet incense. A shadow of a shadow, darker than the night.

    Had she cured you? Or had the terror of the experience taught you to clear your own mind?

    Kikuko stares at you knowingly, and you bow your head to hide your sudden loss of words.

    “I hope you have found everything here to your satisfaction,” you say. A plain, fumbling phrase, but you were not expecting her here tonight.

    “You’ve built yourself a magnificent gym.”

    The words are delivered tonelessly. You can’t tell if the compliment is perfunctory, bitter, or sincere. The Lavender Town gym was a humble building, a single floor, low-roofed and dark. The air tingled with sickly-sweet incense and rattata skittered behind the walls. Perhaps the Lady Kikuko thinks you are too big for your boots.

    “Why, thank you. Perhaps you’ll honor me with your presence some other time, when I can attend to you with the attention you deserve? I am sure you have much to teach me.”

    Kikuko studies you from beneath thinly drawn brows. “Perhaps so, Mr. Fiorelli. Perhaps so.”

    ~*~​

    Battle hall matches are an exercise in tedium. The infantile groaning of the crowd, the trainers parading in their ostentatious kit, the terrible refreshments—you would have left already, if it weren’t for the dragonite. It’s massive, meter upon meter of bulging gold muscle. Behind the dragonite stands a trainer with blazing red hair, a garish red cape, and a cheap festival mask. You could safely write off the whole ensemble as ridiculous if the dragonite weren’t currently tearing its way through the best the Kanto battle hall scene seems able to offer.

    Idly, you wonder how the armor of your rhyperior would stand up against that assault.

    That evening, you cut off Archer mid-sentence as he makes the evening report. “Has your young protege been—busy?”

    “Three battle hall tournaments this month,” Archer answers promptly, as if he’d been anticipating the question. Then he hesitates. “Also, potentially, the sabotage at the Power Station project.”

    Your eyes narrow into slits. The rogue generator your people had assembled was found ruptured in half one cold morning. The last you’d heard, they suspected a rogue wild onyx.

    “There were claw marks,” Archer adds.

    You lean back in your chair, digesting this. So he’s on a mission now, is he, this little red-head and his dragons? What does he want? What’s he trying to achieve?

    It’s all small potatoes so far. Annoying, but nothing that could alter the inextricable trajectory of Team Rocket. If he were standing here, you might pat him on the back and tell him with a fatherly air, “True power doesn’t come from your dragonite’s claws, my boy. And until you understand that, you’ll never meet me eye to eye.”

    “Should I—”

    But you cut Archer off with a wave of your hand.

    ~*~
    Katsura, it is universally agreed, makes for unpleasant company. Since he is arguably one of the brightest minds of his generation and a ferocious battler to boot, the league’s stuck him in Cinnabar, where he doesn’t bother anyone, except you on the days you’re forced to visit.

    Luckily, Katsura doesn’t suffer from an excess of morals. You clink mimosas as you wait on the last of the permitting, the product of several handsome bribes, a few hideously expensive bottles of champagne, and the agony of enduring the rare prolonged conversation with the man.

    You sip your mimosa, and wince. Oversweet. Of course. Why had you expected any different?

    “What sun rises from blue to orange, and never sinks?” Katsura asks suddenly, with an airy wave of his hand.

    The inane riddles are yet another one of Katsura’s less-than-charming tendencies. Most of them are homebrewn, and impossible to answer sensibly, even if you’d been inclined to that sort of childish wordplay to begin with. Although—

    “A sun that’s a dragonite,” you answer.

    Katsura’s bushy eyebrows lift in surprise.

    “You’re a learned man, Mr Fiorelli,” he exclaims as if that’s some sort of revelation. You had the best tutors Etalia had to offer for the first twelve years of your life, and your learning never stopped afterwards, either.

    “Why a dragonite riddle?” you ask, setting down your drink.

    It’s just the mildest of suspicions, but Katsura chuckles and says, “Fought one of the damned things just last week, if you can believe it. My magmar’s fire-blast couldn’t even touch that thick hide.”

    Your face must stay just a little too still, because Katsura chuckles again, wagging his eyebrows knowingly.

    “Has he hit your gym yet? No? Ah, but you’re waiting for it.”

    The words don’t leave your mind as you lay kiku flowers down on Isami’s gravestone and take the helicopter back to Viridian. Perhaps you are waiting. Enough of rumor, hear-say and ridiculous festival masks. Meet your enemies in the light of day, even if you stab them in the shadows, they said back home. At least, your grandmother did.

    “Arrange a meeting,” you tell Archer. You’re a little disconcerted when he doesn’t even ask who with, just nods, worry flattening his lips. But he doesn’t leave. You watch him for a while, the way your darling watches the rattata when she is fed and lazy.

    “Do you think that’s wise, sir?” he says at last.

    Questioning you? Rare enough that you actually take a moment to consider. With one hand you pat your darling, with the other you finger the ribbon curled in your pocket. The silence stretches. You are sifting through conversations, fitting problems against each other like puzzle pieces, seeing where the edges fit.

    And then you have it.

    “We wait,” you tell Archer, who nods his head and removes himself with poorly-veiled relief.

    Because you have a plan now. It’s a darling, this plan. It’s not just going to kill two pidgeys—it will kill a dragonite, metaphorically at least, and more besides.

    If the boy comes, you’ll give him a gym battle and every courtesy he’s owed. But he’s on your board now and, though he doesn’t know it, soon he’ll be playing for you.
     
    Last edited:
    Ch 10: The Vigilante
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    The Vigilante

    "In the leeeeft corner, we have Adamantius," boomed the loudspeaker.

    The tyranitar stood twice Toku's height. When he stamped his foot, the stadium shook.

    "And in the riiiiiiight corner we have The Dragonmaster, who still holds the title of undefeated in this rink. Will the wrath of a raaaging tyranitar be enough to topple him?"

    Lance tugged his cape so that the fabric sat evenly over his shoulders, waiting for the ring that signaled the start of the battle. They usually drew the opening out five or even ten minutes, to get the crowd properly hyped. Overhead, Toku flew in lazy loops. Someone with binoculars might have noticed the reddish tinge clinging to her scales, but only a dragon master would have recognized what Toku was actually doing—opening herself to the speed and power of the ancient ryu.

    The bell sang. The tyranitar raised his arms and three boulders jutted up from the stadium floor. They would have been easy enough to dodge, but dodging wasn't a crowd-pleaser here. Toku broke the first with her fist, the second with her tail; the third she caught in a massive twister and hurled back at the tyranitar. The stone broke against his jaw with a painful crack.

    The hit was enough to send the tyranitar into a fury. A hyper-beam split from his mouth as he charged forward, half-cocked and badly aimed. The beam missed Toku by a foot, passed over Lance's head, and fizzled against the psychic barrier that shielded the crowd. One glance at the tyranitar's "trainer" confirmed Lance's suspicion. He was facing a wild tyranitar and someone stupid enough to stand in the stadium near him. Toku moved easily between the purple-black pulses the tyranitar was now spitting from his mouth. But the massive pokemon was drawing uncomfortably close to Lance's side of the stadium.

    Time to end this.

    "Trip it," he called to Toku. As the tyranitar surged forward, Toku's twister knocked him off his feet. The pokemon slammed down back-first, his tail cutting a crevice into the ground. The reverberations ran up Lance's legs, but he kept his footing—more than could be said for his opponent. "Dragon claw."

    A claw of green dragon-fire sprang from Toku's fist. She caught the prone tyranitar under the chin with a blow that shuddered down his body.

    "Finish with aqua tail."

    The upward sweep of Toku's tail stole the moisture from the air. Lance took a breath, his mouth suddenly bone-dry, as a ten-foot whip of water extended from Toku's tail. The water hit the tyranitar's belly with a slap that rang through the stadium. The pokemon grunted once and then went limp.

    The barriers muffled the cheers, but Lance could see the crowd rising. He signaled to Toku, who flew down so that he could climb on her back. Together they made a quick lap of the stadium. It was pleasant to feel wind in his hair; it was also a convenient way to avoid shaking his opponent's hand. By the time he landed, the stadium had been cleared of both tyranitar and "trainer."

    Hideyoshi was waiting for him inside. The stadium-master was a slim man with a drooping mustache and a gold blazer that suited him about as much as gold glitter would suit a eucalyptus tree.

    "Not bad," he said, staring at his watch. Hideyoshi made a habit of not looking people in the eye when he addressed them. "Could have drawn it out longer. Maybe feigned an injury. I'm beginning to have trouble getting decent odds against you."

    Lance shrugged. He was thirsty from Toku's aqua tail attack and dealing with Hideyoshi was a pain even when he was hydrated. "That was a wild tyranitar."

    "Of course it was. Why do you think I matched it against you?"

    "You know I prefer to fight actual trainers."

    "You know you're one of the only ones I have who doesn't lose their cool when some monster-beast goes rampaging. Listen, I'm doing a VIP event tonight. I want you there."

    "No thanks," Lance said.

    Hideyoshi directed a glare at the light fixture above Lance's head. "I've got some information you might want to hear. Concerning—" He drew an exaggerated R in the air.

    Lance stiffened. "Fine."

    "Excellent." The stadium-master brought his hands together. "5:00pm, on the penthouse floor. Oh, and wear the dratini."

    Wear the dratini, like Kaisho was some kind of scarf?

    Before an indignant rebuke could pass Lance's lips, Hideyoshi took off down the corridor, his suit glittering copper-green in the fluorescent light. Lance sighed, his fist unclenching at his side.

    He didn't make the rules here and he knew it, but living with that wasn't easy. Hideyoshi's fight-hall existed in a world outside the Pokemon League's carefully structured tournaments. Some fights were normal, but others were staged, and others were like the one Lance had just participated in—trained pokemon set against the most vicious-looking wild pokemon Hideyoshi could get his hands on. Lance's lack of ID and badges—both sitting somewhere back in Rocket HQ—had barred him from League-certified tournaments. Hideyoshi's fight hall left a nasty itch in his throat, but the money was quick and Hideyoshi had connections, most of them with the criminal underworld.

    "The Rockets are legal," Hideyoshi had told Lance when he first raised the topic. "They're legal 'cause they've got the pocket of everyone who matters, same as me."

    The locker room was empty. Lance changed quickly, swapping his bright red outfit and cape for a jacket and loose pants. The cape, made of faux spinsilk, was a mockery of a kairyu cape. It was slippery, insubstantial, and already fraying at the hem. Every time he held it, Lance couldn't help but think of Ibuki's cloak, abandoned at the Team Rocket headquarters. His gut twisted sharply.

    5:00pm. Enough time for a quick flight with Toku, if he hurried. Saffron City, in Lance's opinion, was best endured from the height of a ryu's back.

    ~*~​

    Lance hated the VIP parties. They took place on the penthouse floor, where the carpet was lush and candles lent the room a shadowy light. Lance's apparent function at these gatherings was to stand like a miniryu in a tank, to be poked and prodded at. He made his way straight for the buffet and loaded his plate. Food generally made for the best defense against unwanted conversation.

    "Here he is!" Hideyoshi's hand clapped Lance's back. Another man was with him—something about him struck Lance as vaguely familiar. He had an agile, handsome face, and wore his hair tied back in a high ponytail. His eyes were bright when they landed on Lance.

    "I'm Jiro," he said. "A pleasure to meet you. I caught your battle today."

    "Wasn't much of a battle." The words passed Lance's lips before he could stop them, but the man only chuckled.

    "No it wasn't," he agreed. "But your dragonite was impressive, nonetheless. I'd like to see her tested against a real opponent."

    Kaisho wriggled forward on Lance's neck to get a look at the stranger. As he did so, Jiro's tunic rippled, and a blue face peeked out. A miniryu's face.

    Lance's eyes went wide. "How—"

    The man frowned. He reached up and lifted the miniryu off his shoulder with one hand, expression shifting from confusion to understanding. "Oh, excuse Gigaku. She gets carried away when she meets a new face. Change back, will you, darling?" The miniryu let out a reluctant trill, her tail drooping. But when Jiro fixed her with a stern expression a pink blush spread across her scales. Her body seemed to soften like melting butter. When Lance blinked, in the place of a miniryu Jiro held a pink blob with a furtive expression. "Makes for quite the party trick," Jiro said. "Gigaku's a ditto. She can change her shape into anything she sees."

    Even a kairyu? Lance wondered. But the ditto was small, and kairyu were quite big.

    "I'd quite like to battle you and your dragonite," Jiro said suddenly. "The day after tomorrow I have time free in the evening, if that suits you." Behind the man, Hideyoshi shot Lance a meaningful look. So the information was contingent on this too? Not that Lance ever minded a fight. He nodded his head.

    "Excellent." Jiro's smile was warm. He seemed on the verge of saying more, but a passing woman recognized him, and they swept off together, wrapped in low conversation.

    Lance turned to Hideyoshi with crossed arms. He had an inkling that this was the reason he'd been made to attend the party. "Now the information," Lance hissed.

    For once, Hideyoshi didn't mince words. "I heard on the grapevine that the Rockets have arranged a buy with J's people. Tomorrow night, 11pm, at warehouse thirty-seven. Sounds like a big one."

    That was way more specific than any of the information Hideyoshi had slipped him in the past. Lance narrowed his eyes. "You want me to interfere."

    Hideyoshi sniffed. "Those Rockets have been pricing me out. J's the best, but she's got standards. Cross her once, she won't deal, no matter how much money you offer."

    "If I crash the sale, she won't sell to them again?"

    "That's the idea. Not that I'd dream of suggesting you do that," Hideyoshi added, his gaze drifting up to the chandelier.

    "Right." Lance rolled his eyes. He quickly downed the contents of his plate—mushrooms stuffed with some sort of buttery, tangy goo—and made for the exit. Tomorrow evening didn't leave him much time to prepare.

    ~*~
    The red Rs caught in the half-moon light, moving through the darkness like the crests of hunting gyarados. The fall air was smoggy and humid tonight, and condensation lay thickly on Lance's neck. He straightened his back and raised his arm in a stiff salute.

    "All clear inside," he said tonelessly.

    A pause stretched out. Lance kept his eyes fixed on the pavement, waiting for his presence to be challenged and rolling his answer around in his mind. Proton got wind there might be trouble. He sent me ahead to make sure no ambush was being laid. But tonight, the posture and uniform were enough.

    "Excellent," came a woman's voice. "Fall in, agent."

    There were three of them, two women and a man. Ten pokeballs total between them. Lance swallowed as he took his place in the back. Hideyoshi had been right, this was a big sale. He'd only expected a single agent, two at most.

    The woman at the rear of the group shot Lance a quick glance as he approached her. She was middle-aged, with nondescript features, but her sharp gaze prickled uncomfortably over his skin and then fell to his belt. Toku's apricorn ball. That wasn't standard issue. Had she noticed it?

    Whatever the woman saw, she said nothing. They entered the warehouse in silence, their boots squeaking against the vinyl floor. The woman leading the group flicked her hand and a venomoth appeared.

    "Give us some light."

    Energy collected in the venomoth's wings, until the warehouse was bathed in a wavering silver glow. Lance glanced nervously up to the shelftops where Toku and Kana lay waiting, but the light didn't illuminate that far up. The group leader checked her watch.

    "Eight minutes to eleven," she said. "Shouldn't be long now."

    The waiting was almost unbearable. Lance thought he could catch the rumble of Toku's breathing, deeper and slower than human breaths. Could none of them hear it? The group leader was staring at her watch, the man was adjusting a clunky-looking instrument, and the woman at the rear was looking at Lance. He snuck a quick glance her way. No, he didn't know her, and there was no way she could know him. He'd taken pains to tuck every strand of red hair into his cap tonight. He fiddled with the glass ball in his pocket, and tried to ignore her scrutiny.

    The rev of an engine outside made Lance start. The group-leader lifted her head as the door groaned open and two men stepped inside. They wore caps and nondescript gray clothing that blended with the shadows. Each of them held a large suitcase.

    "Evening," said the first man, a head shorter than his companion. "You're busy people, I'm sure, so let's get to business. Show us the money."

    "Show us the goods," the group-leader countered calmly.

    The shorter man nodded. His companion set his suitcase down, unlatched it, and took a small step back. Inside, Lance counted eighteen pokeballs, slotted in a neat array. The man from the Rocket group came forward with his instrument—a scanner of some kind—and moved it over the pokeballs. Lance began to edge backwards, out of the circle of light.

    "All correct," the man said at last, latching the suitcase and hefting it up in his hand.

    Now, Lance thought. He drew the small glass ball from his pocket and lobbed it across the room. Every head turned at the sound of breaking glass. That was Toku's cue. A sudden wind gusted from the depths of the warehouse, knocking everyone to their feet except for Lance, who had already thrown himself to the ground. Kana dived out of the darkness. Before anyone could react, she'd swept up the two suitcases and returned to Lance's side.

    The sellers were the first to react. The shorter man looked from Kana to Lance to the three other Rockets, and plainly decided he didn't like his odds.

    "Fuckers," he hissed concisely, and bolted for the door, the other man at his heel. An engine revved and then silence fell for an instant, broken by the cacophony of ten pokeballs released in near simultaneity. Lance's quick glance caught a machoke, a weezing, and several golbat, before Kana expelled a curtain of fire. It surged over the venomoth and the silvery light sputtered out.

    Kana's tail-flame was the only light left, making her and Lance clear targets. He grabbed a suitcase in either hand and lunged for the darkness of the shelves. Kana spun, flame flaring out as the golbat clustered around her. The eerie pitch of a supersonic attack split the air. As Kana clasped her hands over her ears, a second golbat bit down on her neck. Lance winced from where he stood nestled into the shelves. There was a roar and another gust whirled from the back of the warehouse. Toku swooped down, catching the machoke with a dragon claw and grounding the two golbat with a swipe of her tail.

    Lance exhaled. Nine was a lot, but none of these agents knew anything about battling. Kana and Toku could take them—

    Something cold and sharp came to rest against the back of Lance's neck. He went still.

    "Sneee," a soft voice whispered, the menace unmistakable. A claw tapped against his right wrist. Lance opened his hand, and the suitcase hit the ground with a crash. A second tap. A second crash. "Sneasel!" the pokemon called out.

    Lance stood absolutely still, his heart pounding in his head. Something about that voice . . .

    "You've got him? Hey—listen-up, we've got your trainer!"

    Kana let out a frustrated whine, and her dancing flames flickered out. Footsteps were coming closer. In a moment they'd find him, take the pokeballs back and take him too—

    "Hunter?" he whispered. The blade lifted from his neck and he was flipped around. A wet nose snuffled over his face. "Hunter, it's you, isn't it?" Through the darkness he could make out the sneasel's unblinking gaze. "I'm so sorry, I didn't mean to leave you, I had no choice."

    "Sneee—"

    "I found the lights," someone shouted, and the world erupted in white. Hunter recoiled, and Lance was able to twist away.

    "Toku, I'm fine!" he shouted. At once, another twister whipped through the warehouse, setting the shelves rattling. Lance hoisted up the two suitcases. Hunter hadn't moved. When Lance met her eyes, the sneasel jerked her claw.

    Go.

    Lance took off down the row of shelves. The bitter smell of smoke filled the air. He turned the corner, coughing. Were those footsteps? A red R loomed out of the smoke. As Lance spun around, a foot tripped him and he hit the ground. The Rocket bent over him, one hand pressing down on his back. Hot breath touched his ears.

    "Listen to me. Tomorrow. 5:00am. Mr. Mime Ramen. Understand?" The pressure on his back built into something painful.

    "Yes," Lance gasped out, entirely baffled. The pressure vanished. The smoke lay thick around. He stumbled to his feet as Toku emerged from between the shelves. "Let's go," Lance whispered. She blasted a hole in the nearest wall and rumbled. They broke into the damp air, Kana close behind.

    Ten minutes' flight brought Lance to the door of his hostel. He could see Kana gritting her teeth as they tramped inside—the golbat's poison fang, probably. He treated her in his room with a store-bought antidote, glancing occasionally at the suitcases of pokeballs sitting on his bed as the adrenaline slowly fizzled away. He'd got them, but what was he supposed to do with them? Hideyoshi was probably hoping Lance would bring the pokemon to him. That wouldn't be any better than Team Rocket having them, though.

    "Sorry," Lance murmured, as Kana flinched at the medicine-spray. "I didn't expect three people. I should have made a better plan."

    As Kana snorted, Lance's hand moved up to rub the back of his own neck. And if that sneasel hadn't been Hunter, would he have gotten out at all?

    Tomorrow. 5:00am. Mr. Mime Ramen. Do you understand?

    Someone had helped him. They'd flipped the lights on and filled the room with smoke. Lance settled to sleep with his head resting against Kana's warm belly, the thought zizzing in his mind like hot oil hitting water. Someone had helped him.

    Who?

    ~*~
    Mr Mime's twenty-four hour ramen shack was all but deserted when Lance shuffled in at 5:05am, rubbing at his eyes. The restaurant was small—three booths on either side, and a counter squeezed in the back. A couple kissed in one, a construction worker bent over an enormous bowl in another, and a thin-faced girl sat in the last, sharing her soup with an equally bony meowth. None of them in any way resembled the Rockets from last night.

    As Lance lingered in the threshold, a hand fell firmly on his shoulder. A middle-aged woman had entered the restaurant behind him. She gave Lance a tight smile as he turned to face her. He had a few inches on her, but the fact didn't reassure him.

    "We'll take the back booth," she said.

    A yawning teenager delivered their menus. Lance sat stiffly, his eyes fixed on the Rocket woman. She'd replaced her uniform with a shapeless gray shirt. Her hair was cut close to the scalp and her eyes were as watchful as they'd been the night before. When Lance didn't make a move to pick up his menu, she said, "You'll probably want the jumbo size after such an eventful evening."

    The waitress circled back with a pot of tea. "You ready?"

    "I'll have a Mr Mime special, regular size, magmar hot, with extra wood-ears," the woman said without looking at the menu. She waited a moment to see if Lance would chime in, then added, "He'll have a jumbo size Mr Mime special and a pecha ramune."

    Lance sucked in a breath. He waited until the waiter had disappeared into the back to say in a low voice, "Who are you and why did you help me?"

    The woman raised an eyebrow, the corner of her lip tugging downward. "I think the better question is who are you, and what is your business with Team Rocket?"

    Lance kept his mouth clamped shut. He wasn't going to volunteer anything until he knew what was going on. After a moment, the woman let out a small sigh. "I go by Noriko. I'm working to bring Team Rocket to an end. There. Does that help?"

    Lance's lips parted. "You—"

    An enormous, steaming bowl of ramen thunked onto the table in front of him. Corn floated on the top, sprinkled with green scallions. A rich scent rose from the dark broth.

    "Me too," Lance said, when the waiter had left. The words sounded nonsensical. "I mean, I'm also trying—"

    "How old are you?" The woman's gaze had dropped to her ramen.

    He lifted his chin. "Eighteen."

    She lifted a wood-ear mushroom with her chopsticks, brought it to her mouth, and chewed. "Nice try, but I wasn't born yesterday. How old are you."

    " . . . Sixteen."

    "Sixteen," the woman repeated. "So I'll ask you again, what business do you have with Team Rocket?"

    Lance took a sip of ramen to avoid answering. The hot broth scalded his tongue, and he reached hastily for the pecha soda. The sweet fizz of the liquid didn't help much, though. He set down the drink to find Noriko studying him, her expression unreadable.

    "I joined," Lance said. The words were hard to get out. He lowered his eyes to the table, where someone had taken the trouble to carve natsume's a bitch into the plastic veneer. "Two years ago. I thought—that part doesn't matter. They need to be stopped."

    "And you fancy you're the one to stop them?"

    Her tone was mild, not mocking, but Lance still flinched. "I did last night," he bit out.

    "Last night you nearly got yourself killed and nearly blew my cover bailing you out." Her eyes narrowed. "You still have those pokeballs?"

    "Yes."

    "You have plans for them?"

    "No."

    "Of course you don't. That's the problem with vigilantes. You make messes you don't know how to clean up."

    A tense silence fell. Lance sipped at his ramen, but he felt more nauseous than hungry. Noriko slurped vigorously at her noodles.

    "What else am I supposed to do?" he said finally. Kairyu masters had a duty, wherever the strong troubled the weak. He hasn't sworn it, not properly, but the duty had been his from the moment Toku evolved.

    "Let the law handle this."

    Lance looked up at her in disbelief. "The law doesn't handle it. Team Rocket bribes them!" He set down his spoon with a clatter. "No one is doing anything—"

    Noriko held up one hand. "Don't get yourself overexcited, please. It's not correct to say that nobody is doing anything, since I'm a person and I'm doing something. Particularly since I am not just a person but a representative of a larger organization. Are you familiar with the G-Force?"

    Lance shook his head and Noriko's expression soured.

    "I'm not surprised. We've somewhat fallen from the peak of our glory. Centuries back, after the ninjas of Fuschia repelled the Hoennese invasion, an elite band was formed, comprising both ninjas and warriors from the main fiefs of Kanto. They were set under the direct command of the champion and their purpose was to root out threats to the entire nation. Times have changed since then. Grown more peaceful, though not more innocent. Now it's all we can do to prevent our office from getting cut out of the budget." Noriko shook her head and with that gesture seemed to reel herself back in. "The G-Force is aware of Team Rocket and we're handling it. What we don't need is sixteen-year-olds getting involved."

    Something sour rose in Lance's mouth. An ursaring's paw cut down. He stood there, still. Useless.

    "I'm involved already." Lance didn't think his voice had changed, but Noriko's head jerked up from her soup. "I'm involved, and I can help. You saw my pokemon. We can handle anything they throw at us."

    "Kid, very few things that matter are won or lost in pokemon battles." Noriko raised her bowl to her mouth and sucked in the last of the broth. "I've got to get back. My shift starts soon. Listen, tomorrow's my off-day. Meet me here at 8:00am and I'll get you debriefed at the G-Force office. And bring those pokeballs."

    She stuck down several bills on the table—enough to cover both their meals. When she'd left, Lance picked at his ramen, but he had no appetite. He pushed the bowl over to Kaisho and let the miniryu feast.

    If there was an organization fighting Team Rocket, Lance had to join them. So what if he was sixteen? He'd joined Team Rocket when he was only fourteen.

    He returned to the hostel and crawled into bed. When he woke it was early afternoon, and his mind felt heavy with mud. He found his feet turning towards the battle hall. Maybe training would clear his head.

    ~*~
    When Lance entered the massive pool in the basement of Hideyoshi's battle-hall, he saw a woman drilling hydro-pumps with her vaporeon and a man timing his poliwhirl as it ran laps. Both of them cleared out quickly when Lance released Ibuki into the water. He felt bad about that, but not as bad as he should have.

    Kaisho dived off his shoulder into the water. She trilled to Ibuki, who took up a watchful stance. Static crackled between Kaisho's fins. The bolt of electricity broke against the water churned up by Ibuki's tail. All Lance's pokemon had begun to take the miniryu a lot more seriously once he began to spit lightning with all the ease of Toku summoning a twister.

    When Kaisho showed signs of tiring, Lance sent out Toku and Kana. The two ryu banded together; Ibuki and Kana exchanged begrudging looks and then flamed out in unison. Steam filled the air as the flamethrower met Toku's aqua tail. Lance started to call out commands, the hiss and flare of clashing attacks washing over him.

    Ibuki had just let off a particularly fine hyper beam, when the sound of clapping made them all start. A man was watching from the doorway. The hot, steamy air stuck his turtleneck to his chest. A miniryu was draped around his shoulders.

    The man from the party! Lance had completely forgotten about him. He dropped into a short bow and mumbled an apology.

    "No need for that—you put on quite the show. Though if your dragonite still has energy, I'd like to hold you to the battle you promised me."

    Lance caught Toku's harumph. This had only been a play fight. Of course she still had energy.

    "Excellent. You might want to throw on a coat. The day's turned cold out there."

    "We're going out?" Lance said in surprise. "But there's plenty of battling rooms free down here and there's nowhere to fight in the city—"

    The man waved his hand. "I know a place. It's a bit of a walk, but you don't mind, do you? I think a battle in the open air is always preferable to an indoor fight."

    Lance couldn't argue with that. He recalled his pokemon and threw on his jacket, following the man—Jiro, he recalled—outside. It was a typical Saffron day, sullen and overcast. Tendrils of wet fog hung thickly in the air and the scent of tar and smoke clung to every breath. Jiro wore a russet coat over his gold-yellow turtleneck. He walked at an easy amble, his scarf and pony-tail streaming back with the wind. Lance noticed gold studs glinting in his ears.

    "Have you spent much time in Saffron?" he asked as they walked.

    "Not too much."

    "Well, what's your impression been of Kanto's capital?" Jiro turned as he spoke the question and laughed at whatever he saw on Lance's face. "Too gray and too dark?"

    "And smelly and dirty."

    "Fair enough, I suppose. Though I like the grays we get here. They come in different textures like different makes of cloth, and the sun's all the more brilliant when she chooses to show her face. Even the smell I don't mind. Sometimes I even miss it, when I'm out somewhere pastoral and perfect. The bitter tinge to the air . . ." He looked again at Lance. "No? Well, I suppose home is the one place you're allowed to be sentimental about. But I think you'll appreciate this spot I'm bringing you."

    They were climbing upwards, Lance could tell, though their route wasn't straight. At first they'd followed a busy boulevard, but soon Jiro turned off, and from there they took smaller streets, until the pavement ended and the road beneath them turned pot-holed and white-gray. It curved up and around and, as they turned the bend, rose suddenly above the gray buildings into a broad hill, thick with vegetation and crowned with cotton-wood trees, their spade-shaped leaves flashing yellow as some late-afternoon sunlight penetrated the fog.

    "Welcome to Fearow Hill," said Jiro, as Lance slowed to take in the sight. "Never let anyone tell you we don't have any wild places left in Saffron." He strode forward, his coat flaring out as a sharp gust of wind twisted by. A shriek rose from the hilltop and the air filled with red and russet. Fearows, Lance realized, more of them than he'd ever seen in one place. They made a circle above Jiro's head, then one dove downwards, beak-first. Lance cried out a warning, his hand falling to Toku's pokeball, but even as the kairyu took to the air, Lance saw Jiro was in no danger. The fearow's dive levelled out. The massive bird, whose crest reached Jiro's shoulder, folded its wings and allowed the man to work his fingers gently down its ruff.

    As Lance and Toku neared, the fearow turned a suspicious gaze on them, but when Jiro murmured something to it, the bird looked away.

    "I'm something of a regular, you see," Jiro told Lance. "Fearow are loyal pokemon. This is Asahi. I fed him bread-crumbs when we were both small, and now he's got a beak that could snap me in two." He tossed a pokeball into the air. "We're here, Kint."

    A glossy persian materialized on the hill-side. She let out a short mewl as the wet fog hit her and at once began to groom her butter-cream coat.

    "Darling, are you in the mood for a quick battle?" The persian raised her head to study Lance and Toku with blood-red eyes. The jewel on her forehead sparkled and flared, even though the sky was once again clouded. Her mew sounded dismissive to Lance, but Jiro plainly took it for agreement. They climbed about fifty more feet to where the hill levelled. From here, the whole city was visible, crests and ridges of building tops, upon which the smog lay like muddied snow. It was so different from the pure greens and blazing oranges of the Ryu's Gift. Lance wondered if he would have found it beautiful if some twist of fate had made this place his home.

    He and Jiro stood about thirty-feet distant. The fearow had returned to their perches, but Lance could make out their red crests, scattered among the branches. Toku took to the air, looping into the broad somersaults of a kairyu dance.

    Jiro's eyes narrowed as he traced Toku's movements.

    "Power gem," he said softly. Gold light split from the gem on the persian's forehead. The ray was slim, but concentrated, and it clipped Toku across the foot before she could react. Where it had struck, the beam solidified into something hard and amber-colored. Toku sagged in the air as if a chain had been clapped around her ankle.

    Jiro met Lance's eyes. "I hope that wasn't out of line. My impression was that the battle had already begun."

    Lance shook his head, staring up at Toku. "You're right. We'd begun."

    No one had worked out that Toku's opening dance was anything more than aerial show-boating before.

    "Break that thing off with a dragon claw," Lance called up to Toku. He turned to watch the persian, who was sitting with her paws demurely crossed. Something about the way the red jewel on her forehead flickered, its red deepening, made him uneasy. But no attack came. Toku soared back into the air, unencumbered. "Use twister!"

    The hilltop was already windy, but the gale that pushed from Toku's wings made the cotton-woods groan and the fearow shriek in protest. The wind carried away Jiro's command, but his persian extended her claws into the craggy ground and pressed herself flat. Jiro hadn't been pushed back either. Squinting, Lance made out a shimmering blue barrier in front of him, eggshell-thin, but powerful enough that not a hair moved on Jiro's head. The ditto must have created it.

    Lance had been expecting the twister attack to throw the persian up into the air, where she would be vulnerable. Still—his gaze dipped to her dug-in claws. It would take her more than a few seconds to pull herself free.

    "Get closer, and then use dragon claw," Lance called up to Toku. He doubted Jiro would be able to make out his words over the wind. Toku dove down, the twister attack unrelenting. At five feet, her fist sharpened into a green claw. The persian was still stuck fast in place. Perfect.

    But when the blow connected, the persian's form dissolved. Lance blinked, but there was only white cotton fuzz on the breeze. Toku's antenna curled in confusion. She swung her head from side to side—

    The lull in the wind carried Jiro's words to Lance with crisp precision. "Throat chop."

    "Up!" Lance yelled, but it was too late. The air rippled by Toku's feet and a white shape sprung upwards, knocking Toku back against the dirt. The persian leaped onto Toph's belly and slashed across the tender scales beneath her chin. Toku howled. She thrashed against the ground, her wings fluttering.

    "Twister!" Lance cried in panic.

    Wind swirled weakly and then burst out, flinging the persian high into the air. Toku followed. She lunged forward with a dragon-claw, but the persian had pulled itself into a tight ball. Somersaulting, the persian countered Toku's attack with a gleaming iron tail.

    A persian only had one tail, though. Toku had—

    "Your other claw!'

    The second hit struck the persian squarely against her side. She dropped through the air like a stone, out of sight where the hill sloped down. Toku descended slowly through the air. Closer, Lance could see that the persian's attack had scored pink lines across her throat.

    "Do you want to stop?" Lance asked, but Toku shook her head, her gaze drifting to where the persian had fallen. "Careful," Lance called as she took off down the hill-side. "That persian is—"

    Brilliant gold light flooded the hill-top. Lance shielded his face as it surged over him, seeming to come from everywhere at once. When he lowered his hand, the clearing seemed dark in contrast, like night had fallen in a moment.

    Toku lay grounded. A hard, amber substance covered her wings and body, leaving only her neck clear. As she struggled, the persian slunk forward. She raised her right paw over Toku's neck, the claw extended.

    "We concede." Lance managed to shape his suddenly dry mouth over the words.

    Letting out a satisfied parrumph, the persian began to groom atop Toku's amber-encrusted body. Jiro crossed the hill-top and knelt next to his persian, scritching her near her whiskers.

    "Flawless as always, Kint. But would you mind breaking this poor dragon out?"

    With a huff, the persian brought down her tail against the stone. The crack was enough for Toku to free herself. The kairyu scratched a few shards of amber off her body and retreated to Lance's side, rumbling unhappily. The slash-marks had already scabbed over, but the dark pink lines left made Lance's stomach twist.

    "Not many people can lay a hit on Kintsugi," Jiro said, examining the mottled bruise on the persian's side. The persian let out a hiss and nudged him away with her tail.

    Jiro's impressed tone seemed entirely unwarranted to Lance. "We lost."

    Jiro chuckled. "Of course you lost! If you'd won, they'd be calling you a member of the Elite Four." His grin widened at Lance's bemused expression. "What, you really didn't know who you were fighting?"

    Mutely, Lance shook his head.

    Jiro stood and made an elaborate bow. "Jiro of the Elite Four, at your service. I don't usually say that—everyone already knows and it sounds a bit gauche, I think." His persian snorted. "And Kint agrees."

    Some levity left him as his eyes fell on Lance. "Seriously, you did well. Kint doesn't usually feel the need to end a battle with a claw to the throat—she only does that when her fur's been ruffled a little. You and your team have a lot of potential. The raw power's there, and your control's not bad at all. Tactics could use some refinement, of course. I'd be open to taking you on."

    Lance was thinking about the persian's final attack. The light had only solidified once it touched Toku. If they countered with aqua tail before it reached her . . .

    "Taking me on?" Lance repeated, his eyes drifting up in confusion.

    "As an apprentice. Used to be fairly common practice, though it's fallen out of fashion a bit."

    The Elite Four were the four strongest trainers in all Kanto, weren't they? Lance thought he should feel elated, but he just felt tired. Two suitcases of stolen pokeballs lay back on his hostel bed. Noriko's dismissive words rang through his mind. Very few things that matter are won or lost in pokemon battles.

    "Can I think about it?"

    Jiro's mouth crinkled into a smile. The wind stirred the tail of his coat. "Sure," he said. "Just don't think too long."

    ~*~
    Lance's shoulder ached from holding the suitcase, but he didn't want to set it down. Mr Mime's ramen shack grew busier as the hour neared 8:00am. Lance thought he looked strange, standing off to the side, but nobody in line paid him any attention. He stared hard into the crowded avenue, craning his head left and right. For all that, though, he somehow missed Noriko's approach.

    "Where's the other suitcase?" she said, after looking him up and down closely.

    "I'll bring it next time."

    Noriko's unamused grin told Lance she'd seen straight through that ploy. "There's not going to be a next time. Where's the other suitcase at?"

    "My hostel. Room 308."

    "I'll have someone retrieve it. Come on." Noriko took off at a brisk walk. Only fifteen minutes had passed before she stopped in front of a huge building. Nothing, to Lance's eyes, set it apart from the other gray buildings that lined the block. Inside, the foyer was small and funneled through a tall metal machine, watched over by a security guard.

    Noriko nodded to the security guard and handed Lance a small plastic bin. "Put your pokeballs in here. Any other weapons too, if you have them." She and the security guard spoke in low voices for a moment. Lance saw her flash some kind of card. "All right, step through."

    Noriko followed him a moment later.

    "Pokeballs are restricted in this building to authorized personnel," she said. "They'll be kept here while we talk."

    Lance twisted around. "What? No." His gaze leaped to the conveyor belt where his pokeballs sat.

    "Those are the rules." Noriko spoke flatly. "This building is government property and we can't allow reckless teenagers with dragonites to do whatever they want in here. Look, your pokeballs will go in the central safe and you'll get a claim number." A small smile cracked her stern expression. "Nobody's going to steal your pokemon, if that's what you're worried about."

    No. He didn't want Toku and Kana and Ibuki and Kaisho locked away anywhere. Especially Kaisho. "Can't my miniryu come with? You've seen him, he's small. He won't cause any trouble."

    Noriko shook her head. "If you're really interested in joining the G-Force the first thing you need to understand is that rules are rules."

    "Fine," Lance said at length. "But I want to see where you put them."

    When they finally took the elevator up, Lance felt twitchy and horribly alone. Noriko led him into a cramped office. A jumbo-sized bag of leppa-pocky peaked out from under the caverns of paperwork on the desk. Noriko wheeled two chars into facing positions, stuck a device on the desk, and sat herself down, leg over knee.

    "Let's start with the basics," she said. "What's your name? And give me your ID as well, I'll do a scan."

    "I don't have any ID. It's with Team Rocket."

    Noriko frowned. "I see. Well, thumb here, then." She pulled another machine out of a drawer and held it out to Lance. "Once your print is verified, we can get you set up with a new ID. Full name?"

    Lance hesitated. He barely recalled the family name Mr Inushi had made up for him. "Fu-Fusube Wataru." If the family name sounded ridiculous, his own name didn't feel much better. It felt like a miniryu's old skin—something that didn't fit right. "I go by Lance now."

    "Name changes are Department of Registry business, not mine. How did you get involved with Team Rocket?"

    "I was working at the casino. In Celadon."

    "The Grand Royale?" Noriko interjected sharply. When Lance nodded she said, "Yes, we're aware of them. Nothing to be done there. The casino industry's more thickly shielded than a cloyster in its shell."

    She listened in silence as Lance went through the rest. He left out everything to do with Kaisho, though. He had a sneaking suspicion that if Noriko knew Archer had given him the miniryu, she'd try to confiscate him. He didn't say anything about Archer either. The omission hadn't been conscious at first, but as Lance spoke, he realized that he was avoiding the man's name.

    Just then the whirring device on Noriko's desk cut out. The woman muttered a curse. "Damn penny-pinching—" She placed a finger to her temple and sighed. "All right, let's wrap this quickly. Did you happen to learn the real names of any Team Rocket members? Not code names."

    Lance was about to shake his head when he hesitated. Hunter—the human Hunter, not the sneasel . . . he knew her real name, at least one of them. Hachi from Viridian. That would have been enough in the Ryu's Gift, but in Kanto's cities?

    "No, just code-names," Lance said.

    "Anything else I should know?" The note of finality in her tone made Lance stiffen.

    "You should know that I can help! I've been doing a lot." Lance was going to list examples, but Noriko shook her head.

    "Clearly, but what you've been doing isn't helpful. Take two nights ago. What did your actions achieve? We got back two suitcases of pokeballs before an illegal sale took place."

    "And now that poacher J won't sell to them," Lance interrupted.

    "Yes, but that's not the good thing you seem to think it is. A few more sales in, we could have brought in everyone at the meeting. Gotten a lead on J and Team Rocket at the same time. The poacher might not sell to Team Rocket anymore, but she's going to keep selling to other people, until she's brought to justice. Did you consider that?"

    Numbly, Lance shook his head. He hadn't thought about that at all.

    Noriko's tone softened a smidge. "I recognize you're trying to do the right thing here. But this work isn't easy. Eighteen's the youngest we let people join—I joined then, and I was a disaster for years, until I finally had my head set straight. Wait two years, make sure you really want to devote your life to this—you're a pretty serious trainer, aren't you? Pokemon can be powerful weapons, but on the G-Force it's more useful to be able to spot a ditto mask than to win an open fight. You probably don't even know what a ditto mask is—"

    "I do." Something like relief washed over Lance; for the first time in this conversation, he felt like he was on solid ground. "Ditto are pokemon that change their shapes. Jiro has one who keeps imitating my miniryu. I bet I could work out the difference if I tried."

    "What's a miniryu?" Noriko muttered. Then her eyes narrowed. "Jiro? You don't mean Jiro of the Elite Four?"

    "Yes, but he doesn't say it like that because it sounds gauche."

    "I'm sorry," Noriko said after a brief pause. "Are you saying you know him? Personally?"

    "Sure," said Lance, raising his chin. She actually sounded impressed. "He wants me to be his apprentice."

    Noriko opened her mouth and then closed it. She uncrossed her legs. Her words, when she spoke, were enunciated very precisely. "Jiro of the Elite Four wants you to be his apprentice."

    Lance nodded. "I said I'd think about it," he added. "Because I'd rather join the G-Force."

    Maybe that would show her he was serious about this.

    Noriko said nothing for several seconds. "Kid, the ear of an Elite Four member is worth fifty successful stings. Look, you can't join officially at sixteen, but I should be able to get you in the system as an informant. Jiro floats through all the political circles. Stick with him, make some connections—when the budget comes around again, we can cash them in." She spoke with rising enthusiasm. "Get new agents and equipment that doesn't break. Move to a building where the goddamn ceiling doesn't leak." Her gaze fell back to Lance. "Come on, let's get you kitted up."

    He blinked as she rose suddenly to her feet. When Lance remained sitting, she crossed her arms and spoke in an impatient voice. "Well, do you want to be a member of the G-Force or don't you?"

    Lance shot up. "I do!"

    "Then listen carefully . . ."

    ~*~
    Noon had come and gone by the time Lance returned to the fight-hall. He found Hideyoshi in the private dining room, finishing off a pink and white confection. "Have you seen Jiro?"

    "Not since the party," the stadium-master answered, looking up from his dessert. "Nice work, by the way. J's mad as a salamence. I can give you a fair price for those pokemon, you know. You'll have trouble re-selling them anywhere else—" Lance turned and headed out of the room. Hideyoshi called after him, "He's doing an exhibition battle this afternoon, over in the league stadium. My humble establishment's not good enough for an Elite Four member, apparently . . ."

    The line was already around the block when Lance reached Saffron's main stadium. Excited chatter buzzed all around him.

    "I hope Jiro uses his clefable. There's this one attack clefable do, where it's like they bring the moon down into the stadium. Everytime the cameras try to catch it they just white out."

    "Nah, I want to see his ditto."

    "What do you mean, see it? It would just look like Akane's pokemon. Boring."

    "At least it's not Kikuko fighting. You can barely tell where her pokemon are half the time."

    One of the girls in the group noticed Lance listening and said in a friendly voice, "What pokemon do you want to see today?"

    "Uh," Lance said. The whole conversation felt surreal to him. "His persian is pretty strong?"

    The line shuffled forward. By the time they'd reached the front, Lance had received the full run-down of Jiro's team and an in-depth evaluation of his fashion sense. The ticket was pricier than Lance would have liked, but he handed over the money, and found himself squeezed onto the bleachers at the top of an enormous stadium. Only the sudden din let him know that figures had walked out onto the battlefield—he could hardly make them out from where he was sitting. The enormous screens on either side of the stadium showed Jiro, wearing a slim-cut coat made out in russet and gold, and a young woman with hair that blazed brighter than Lance's.

    "What a match-up we have today! Saffron's own Jiro of the Kanto Elite Four faces off against Johto's Champion Akane. They bring very different styles to the battlefield. Jiro is known for his flexibility, surprising move-pool, and imitative tricks. Akane is famous world-wide for her utterly bold fighting style."

    "Indeed. I was there at the 1990 Silver Conference when her flareon tore through the largest steelix I'd ever laid eyes on with Flare Blitz, her signature move. A stunning sight."

    "And the referee is checking in with each trainer. Both flash the ready sign. Looks like we're getting underway! Akane sends out Flareon, her ace, and Jiro his snorlax. That snorlax may not be winning awards for speed, but he's a tough customer to be sure, especially for a fire-type."

    "Jiro opens with Belly Drumnot usual for him. That's more Akane's style, I'd say, though Saffron's Star excels at taking on and shedding different strategies. Oh mytalk about imitation! That was Flareon's CopycatAkane's setting up with Belly Drum as well. We're going to be looking at a swift and brutal battle with opening moves like that. An adrenaline-inducing ride from start to finish, I reckon."

    "Akane seems set on transforming this stadium into a volcano, with that Lava Plume. People in the ring-side seats are certainly getting immersed in the heat of the battle, even with the screens up. . . Ah, looks like Jiro's managed to trap Flareon with a Rock Tomb. That won't last long at these temperaturesand indeed, Flareon breaks free with Flare Blitz, running head-long intosome kind of fighting-move, looks like."

    "I think that was a Focus Punch, Maiko. Impressive, if so, to pull off that technique under those conditions. Still, that's the kind of skill we'd expect to see in a match like this."

    "The aftermath of the collision looks inconclusive. Both pokemon are still standing. In the battle of pure endurance this has quickly become, in any other match-up I'd put my money on the snorlax, but I think everyone's learned that underestimating Champion Akane is a mistake."

    "Now what was that? Jiro seems to have lured Akane into a repeat of their earlier collision, with his Snorlax pulling a Counter at the last minute!"

    "Anyone else would be down for the count after a feint that brutal, but Flareon holds on with Endure and strikes back with a mind-boggling Superpower attack, lifting the snorlax and slamming it down, vulnerable to a Fire Spin."

    "Flareon's on her last-legs, but can Snorlax break-out of that fiery vortex? Most fire-spins flicker out after a few seconds without fuel, but Champion Akane's have been known to last whole minutes."

    "Oh my! Let's see if we can sort that out for the people watching at home. Jiro utilized Rock Tomb to quench the fire spin attack. Akane hit out with another Superpower and the two pokemon went down together. Neither's rising. I think we're looking at a draw."

    "Yes, the ref's called it now! What a refreshingly heated battle. I get the sense that both trainers were trying out new techniques today. It's a true pleasure to witness the craft advanced on the battlefield itself."

    Lance's mind was bursting with the after-images of the battle as he filed out. He'd never seen anything like it before. The cameras and commentary had only managed to convey so much—he wished he'd been down there, feeling the heat in the air, attuned to every strike and counter-strike.

    A huge crowd was gathered outside. He caught Jiro's name and pressed on, though the people were packed so closely that moving forward was like trudging through shoulder-high snow. Finally, Lance caught sight of Jiro, flanked by a clefable as he signed pokeballs and exchanged words with the crowd. Getting closer was impossible, but Jiro's eyes landed on Lance as he looked out. Recognition flashed through them. Five minutes later, a man in a Pokemon League vest shouldered through the crowd, and told Lance to follow him.

    He led Lance to a roomy, dark-windowed car. Between the driver's seat and the seats along the back, there was a raised cushion, white with shed hair. If Lance had wondered whose car this was, that left him with no doubt.

    Ten minutes later, Jiro slid into the backseat. He smelled of smoke and sweat and when he threw off his coat, the shirt underneath was plastered to his chest. He was grinning as he turned to face Lance. "Did you like the battle?"

    "It was brilliant," Lance answered honestly.

    "Who do you think won?"

    An odd question. Hadn't it been a draw?

    Jiro read the confusion on Lance's face. "Technically a draw, but Akane could have swung it if she'd wanted to. You could drop a mountain on that flareon and it would still get up. Rule number one of exhibition matches—battles between Kanto and Johto always end in draws. It's just one of those things." His eyes narrowed. "I'm not getting ahead of myself, am I? You are here to become my apprentice, right?"

    "Yes," Lance said hastily. He ducked his head in an awkward bow. "I'd be honored if you'd take me on, Master Jiro—"

    Jiro grimaced. "Well, your first task as my apprentice is to never call me Master Jiro again. I'm not even thirty yet, but with a title like that I might as well be as old as Kikuko." He stared out the window for a moment. "Your second task is to cut all contact with Yoshioka Hideyoshi. That man's a piece of shit."

    Lance blinked. "Yes, Mast—Jiro," he said with feeling.

    "As for your third task—"Jiro's sudden scrutiny was intense enough that Lance almost lowered his eyes. "A haircut."

    "A . . . haircut?"

    "Yes, a haircut. What do you think?"

    The smile crept up on Lance. "Fine by me."

    When Jiro laughed, Lance found himself laughing too. The sound startled him, bright and sharp. As the car slid along the murky streets of Saffron, he found his breathing settling into a slow rhythm.

    For the first time since his flight from Team Rocket, Lance didn't feel like running away.

    ~*~


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    Ch 11: The Protege, Part One
  • Pen

    the cat is mightier than the pen
    Staff
    Partners
    1. dratini
    2. custom/dratini-pen
    3. custom/dratini-pen2
    The Protege, Part One
    "Have you finished changing?"

    Wet ocean air gusted in through the open window. Lance pushed back the clump of hair clinging to his forehead. The band of his hakama cut tightly into his stomach.

    "Yes," he called back. There was a soft clatter of pokeballs, and then Jiro appeared behind him in the mirror, Kintsugi at his feet. A thick cord hung around his neck: six pokeballs dangled on one side, balanced by a netsuke carved into the shape of a persian, raising one ivory claw. He'd twisted his hair up into an elegant bun, and his gold haori flashed in the lamp light.

    "Hm," he said, studying Lance. "I'm glad I thought to buy a little something for your hair." He opened a small container, and a bright, fruity scent filled the room. "Pomade from Kalos," Jiro said with satisfaction. His fingers moving in quick, sure strokes, he worked the sweet-smelling lotion into Lance's hair. "Better, isn't that?"

    "Better," Lance whispered, when Jiro had finished. His hair lay smooth and stiff now. When he touched it, the texture of the hair felt strange. Below, his eyes watched him distrustfully in the mirror. Who are you? they seemed to ask. When a miniryu or hakuryu shed, they could see the evidence of the change left behind. People aren't like that, Lance thought suddenly. The silk fabric clung uncomfortably to his arms and chest.

    "You're tense." Jiro sounded concerned. "What's the matter?"

    "All this—"

    When words failed him, Lance swung out his arm in a broad gesture that set the pokeballs corded around his neck clattering.

    "Ah. Yes." Jiro's smile fell away. "I know."

    Without meaning to, Lance turned and shot his mentor a doubtful look. In the months they'd spent together, he had never seen Jiro uncomfortable or at a loss for words. The man always had a smile on his face, a ready phrase on his lips. And he always moved like he knew exactly where he was going. Even now, as he crossed his arms, the gesture oozed grace.

    "You don't believe me? But it's true. I wasn't born to all this." Jiro looked down. "And neither was Kintsugi." The persian's ears pricked up at the sound of her name. "In other parts of the world, meowth are treated like royalty, or so I've heard. Well, the only special treatment Kintsugi ever got was that they didn't bother knotting the bag too tightly when they dropped her in the trash. I found her curled up inside a broken flowerpot to keep off the rain. But she was a fighter. We won her pokeball in a bet against a kid who couldn't believe the nerve of us and couldn't believe it when he lost, either. Pure-bred growlithe to back-alley meowth."

    Jiro smiled as he looked at Kintsugi, though the expression was slightly strained. He dropped into a crouch and began to scritch her chin. Lance dropped to his knees as well. It seemed more respectful.

    "My first party," Jiro continued after a moment, in the same soft, strained voice, like he was making a confession. "Well, that was a disaster. I had no idea, no idea at all how to act. Imagine a ditto that had tried to transform based on a picture. I wore the brightest clothing I could find, draped Kintsugi in rhinestones. We must have looked a sight—really, it's a wonder no one laughed to my face, though I'm sure they all laughed behind my back." A grimace twisted Jiro's mouth, but only for a blink. "And now—" He spread out his arms as if to say, look at me. When he spoke again, his voice was edged with pride. "Don't worry. You're my protege, and nobody's going to laugh at you."

    A thick silence fell. Before Lance could consider breaking it, the pidgey clock chimed, making both of them flinch. Kintsugi let out an irritated mewl. Jiro smiled, the humor back in his eyes.

    "Well," he said, standing up and smoothing out a crease in his haori. "They'll laugh a little if we show up late. It's time we were on our way."

    Outside, the clouds hung low and heavy. It wasn't yet 4:00, but the darkened sky made it seem as if evening had come early. Jiro hailed them a ponyta taxi. Staring out at the street, though, Lance wondered if walking would be faster. People streamed up and down Cerulean's crowded main boulevard, moving from shop to shop, and the taxi had to swerve every few feet to avoid a collision. Jiro made himself comfortable on the padded bench, unconcerned with their slow progress.

    "These are a funny relic," he said conversationally, holding up his corded pokeballs. "From feudal times, when these kinds of formal occasions were fraught with danger, and no one wanted to turn up without protection. Parties aren't violent occasions anymore, of course—well, leaving aside that time Muno got in a fist-fight—but the custom has endured."

    Lance tried to listen but found his attention drifting in and out.

    "Jiro," he said hesitantly. "Do you know why she's stepping down?"

    The question had loomed in Lance's mind like a storm cloud ever since Jiro had informed him exactly what ceremony they'd be attending tonight.

    Jiro shrugged. "Hamako's got a stubborn streak an ocean wide, but she's got enough grace to bow to the inevitable."

    "Was she injured, then? Or her pokemon?"

    "Oh no, nothing like that." Outside, a large crowd forced the taxi to a standstill, and the driver swore loudly. "She's a perfectly capable trainer. Those gyarados could still win her a tourney or two if she had the inclination, but a gym leader has to do more than just win battles, you know, and Hamako—let's just say she hasn't been doing that. There was an incident a year or so back with a wild gyarados crashing the league president's speech—"

    "That made a difference?" Lance interrupted, his heart suddenly thudding. The clip-clop of ponyta hooves on the cobblestone resumed.

    "Weeeell," Jiro dragged out the word between his teeth. "It didn't exactly look great. Ah, here we are!"

    The city square was coming into view. A stage had been set up before long rows of collapsible chairs. It all seemed slightly distorted, as if viewed through thick glass. As they climbed out of the taxi and drew closer, Lance realized the pavilion was covered in a protective barrier just like the one used in the battle halls.

    "Can't have the occasion rained on," Jiro said, following Lance's gaze. "Not at a torch-passing ceremony."

    An usher directed them to seats in the second row from the front. The woman to Jiro's right immediately turned to speak to him, but she had hardly opened her mouth when the ceremony began. Hamako stood at one side of the stage in a simple blue kimono and dark shawl. Three young women entered at the other end of the stage, striking in pinks and reds. A long series of introductions followed, until at last Hamako stepped up to the podium. Lance straightened in anticipation as she began to speak.

    "People of Cerulean," she said hoarsely. "I am grateful to have been given the honor of serving as your Gym Leader for more than thirty years. In this role, I have tried my best to execute my duties faithfully; to remember my obligations to this community; to the people and pokemon that dwell here; and to the land and sea that we have been blessed with. I hope future generations will bear this blessing in mind, and shape their actions accordingly."

    Lance's vigorous clapping rose above the polite applause around him. He lowered his hands to his lap, feeling like he'd made a misstep. Jiro shot him a quick, reassuring smile.

    A torch was handed to Hamako. The younger women stepped forward.

    "That's some of the actual sacred flame up there." Jiro leaned over to whisper in Lance's ear. "From Indigo Plateau. Ho-Oh's own flame, they say. Johto gifted it to Kanto centuries back, as part of the peace accord—the Compact of Flame."

    The words Hamako spoke next were simple, but Lance felt the weight of them—old words, words that had been spoken over many years, by many mouths. "I am Hamako, Leader of Cerulean. This place has been entrusted to me, and I keep it. Now this place passes to you. Do you swear to keep it?

    A pause stretched out as the three women attempted to work out how to all hold the torch at the same time. Jiro chuckled under his breath, and Hamako's lips tugged back sardonically. At last, all four of them gripped the torch. The crowd fell silent.

    "I swear to keep it, safe from storms and foes," the women chanted together. "And may the flames consume me, if I have sworn false."

    For a moment, the flame seemed to flare up, burning white-hot. But when Lance blinked, he saw only normal fire crackling atop the torch.

    "And now, a few words from our newly-annointed Leader Sakura!"

    The tallest of the women, wearing a kimono adorned with pink luvdisc, stepped forward. She had a pleasant, emphatic manner of speaking and at the end of each sentence tugged gently at her strangely golden hair.

    "Thank you so much. And thank you to everyone who has come here today to join us in this torch-passing ceremony. I first want to say just how much respect I hold for Leader Hamako, who has been a well of strength for Cerulean City and an inspiration to so many water-type specialists over the years, and to me personally, as well as to my sisters." Hamako dipped her head in acknowledgement, as polite applause broke out. Her hair fell over her eyes, but she didn't bother to push it back. Lance was struck by the thought that she wanted to hide her expression. "I only hope my sisters and I can live up to her reputation as we transform the Cerulean Gym into a hub for art and performance. Let's work together to share the beauty of Cerulean City with the entire world!"

    Applause roared out as she stepped back from the podium. Louder than they'd clapped for Hamako, Lance noticed, unsure what to make of it. There were a few more speeches, each longer and more boring than the next. He found his attention drifting, returning to Hamako, who stood with her hands clasped. Her hair covered most of her face, but Lance could see that her lips were tight and unsmiling.

    "Now for the important part," Jiro murmured, as the ceremony concluded and the crowd began to stir. The rain was still holding off, but condensation hung thick in the air as they ducked into another taxi.

    The party. Agent Noriko had been ecstatic when Lance told her about it at their last check-in. She'd pelted him with an impossibly long list of names and epithets, which he'd tried his best to memorize. He had an uneasy feeling not all of it had stuck.

    "Is it all right if I let out Kaisho?" Lance asked aloud. He thought he'd feel a little less lost with the miniryu there on his shoulder.

    Jiro nodded languidly. "Now remember, be polite, don't speak unless spoken to, and always smile. Everything you do in there is going to reflect on me." Jiro held Lance's gaze for a moment, his expression serious, before it dissolved into a wink as he added, "So don't do anything I wouldn't do, okay?"

    Lance laughed and ducked his head, feeling more at ease. The taxi had pulled up in front of a tall, grand building. Wide doors opened into a wide lobby, and they took the broad, red-carpeted stairway upwards into a brightly-lit room, big enough to double as a battle stadium. An enormous fountain flowed in the center of the room, the stones styled into a leaping gyarados flanked by koiking and seaking. Waiters circulated with plates of single-bite foods.

    They'd only gone a few steps inside when Jiro stiffened and whispered in Lance's ear, "You see the woman in purple?"

    He was looking towards an elderly woman, with a beaky nose and hair like dull straw. She grasped a dark cane, the knob shaped like a gengar, but she didn't seem to need it for support. As Lance watched, she jabbed it forcefully into the air, emphasizing a point in her conversation.

    "That's Champion Kikuko. Watch yourself around her. She—"

    A voice rumbled, "Well now, I'd know that hair anywhere!"

    Lance jerked around. He didn't recognize the burly man looming over him until he noticed the onix-shaped netsuke.

    "Muno!" Jiro exclaimed. "Have you run across my protege before?"

    "His little charmander knocked out one of my onix, if you can believe it!" Muno said. "Hey, how's that little char doing now?"

    Lance smiled. "She's got wings now," he said proudly.

    "Of course, of course. I'm sure she's a real terror if she's anything like what I've been dealing with. Jiro, you won't believe what these damn white-coats have done now—" Muno's head swiveled suddenly to the side and he cursed emphatically. "There's Saffron's mayor! I really need to have a word with that bast—ah, if you could excuse me, Jiro."

    He marched into the crowd, a determined set to his chin.

    "Poor man," Jiro said, watching him go. "He tends to approach delicate conversations like an onix trying to tunnel through hard rock. But he means well. Ah! Giovanni!"

    The man coming towards them stuck out from the sea of haoris in his bright, double-breasted suit. He was tall and broad-shouldered, but navigated easily through the thick crowd. It wasn't so much that he was graceful, Lance noticed, as that people seemed to move out of his way.

    "Your dragon-wielding protege, Jiro?" The man's voice was low and polished, burnished with a trace of something foreign. Before Jiro could answer, he spoke directly to Lance, eyes sharpening with scrutiny. "A pleasure. I've heard so much. Giovanni Fiorelli, Leader of the Viridian Gym."

    Giovanni Fiorelli. Noriko had mentioned him. Gym leader and businessman, she had said. Highly influential. Not a man to cross.

    "Viridian Gym?" Lance repeated. He had a distant memory of scaffolding towering over run-down huts. "Has the construction finished, then? The building must be huge."

    "Perhaps you'll come and see for yourself," said Giovanni. "I hear you've been giving my other colleagues a hard time, though I seem to have been left out."

    Lance faltered, unsure if that was a joke, or if the man had actually taken some kind of offense. He wasn't smiling, but his eyes glinted with dark amusement.

    "He's saved the best for last, of course," Jiro interjected. "Now don't you dare go easy on him, Giovanni. I promise you, he's got what it takes to go up against your personal team."

    "Go easy?" Giovanni said. He stared at Lance for a moment and then said sharply, "Would you go easy on me, young man?"

    What kind of question was that? Lance met Giovanni's gaze squarely. "No."

    "No. There you have it, Jiro. I try to practice reciprocality in my life." He gave them both a short, almost casual nod. "Would you excuse me for a moment? But I do expect to see you at my gym without further delay, young man."

    Lance let out a breath as the man strode away. Jiro noticed and gave a chuckle. "He can be a bit imposing at first. A good man to befriend, though. And a very fine trainer. You won't find it an easy battle to win, though I think you can win it."

    A politician introduced herself, and then another. There were far too many of them, in Lance's opinion. He did his best to keep track of the names, but after a while they began to blur together. He focused on smiling, even though his face felt stiff. Luckily, like with Hideyoshi's VIP parties, no one seemed to require him to actually say much. Jiro handled most of the conversation. He seemed to have a limitless store of minutiae about hobbies, children, and vacations to Kalos at his disposal.

    When a break came in the string of people, Lance asked him how he kept track of it all. Jiro laughed. "Can a krabby learn metal claw?"

    "Yes," Lance said, his eyes narrowing.

    "What about a sandshrew?"

    "No."

    "Well, however do you keep track of all that? It's the same skill, you just have to make the effort."

    Lance pondered that as Jiro fell into a longer conversation. Five minutes in, he waved Lance away with the command, "Go and mingle."

    The party was in full swing now, and people had sorted into small clusters. Lance made for the balcony. The wetness in the air was tangible as he stepped outside, the moisture settling on his skin. Kaisho let out a pleased trill from his shoulder. The noise caught the attention of one of the men on the balcony. He broke away from his conversation and made his way over to Lance.

    "Mizuno Sukejuro," he introduced himself. The name struck a faint chord. Mizuno sits at the head of the Appropriations Committee. They hold the purse strings. Impossible to get anything into the budget without his support. "Jiro's new protege, are you? What a peculiar little pokemon you have there. Can I hold it?"

    "Him," Lance corrected reflexively. His lips were already shaping a refusal, when he hesitated. He had a feeling Agent Noriko would have told him to agree. "Are you okay with that, Kaisho?" he asked, a note of pleading slipping into his voice.

    "Rii," Kaisho agreed, but without enthusiasm. Lance placed the miniryu gently into the politician's arms. The man ran a curious finger up his scales. Kaisho endured this until the finger moved on to the sensitive white of his fins. Then the miniryu whined and snaked up the man's arms to the back of his neck, out of the reach of any prodding fingers.

    Mizuno let out a surprised huff of laughter. "A very peculiar little pokemon," he said again. "Ah, you better take it back. I'm no trainer, I'm afraid. Tried it briefly in my youth. That sandshrew wouldn't listen to a thing I said, just curled up in the sunlight and dozed. Ah, well. It takes all sorts to keep a country running."

    Lance nodded, placing Kaisho back on his shoulder. "You decide who should get money, right sir?"

    The man laughed again, though Lance hadn't been trying to be funny. "Charmingly put. I do indeed. Does that sort of thing interest you?"

    Lance answered honestly before he could pause to consider if he should. "Not really. But—" His brow furrowed slightly as he tried to shape what he meant into words. "I know that it's important. Getting money and not getting money is like priorities, right? It's about what's worth doing and what's not."

    That was why Noriko cared so much.

    "Indeed. A solemn responsibility, for all of us who undertake it. I should get back to my colleagues, but it was a pleasure to make your acquaintance, young man."

    When the politician had gone, Lance leaned over the railing, shutting his eyes. He felt wrung out and exhausted. All these new faces and names. The balcony was growing more crowded and feeling less like a refuge. Lance sucked in a breath and ducked back inside. Dry air and overlapping conversation surged over him. He found Jiro, impossible to miss in his bright gold haori, laughing and gesticulating with a solemn-looking woman whose dark hair fell past her waist. Suddenly she laughed and extended her hand. The two began to dance, even though there was no music.

    Jiro seemed to be having a good time, and Lance didn't want to disturb him. Somewhat at a loss, his gaze trailed across the room. He noticed Giovanni, locked in close conversation with an older woman—Champion Kikuko, he realized after another moment. As if feeling his eyes on her back, she turned and directed an unblinking stare in his direction. It had the predatory, watchful quality of an arbok, and Lance shivered, remembering Jiro's warning. Giovanni turned as well, following her gaze. A smile tugged at his lips and he raised his glass as if making a toast.

    Almost hidden against the back wall, Lance spotted Hamako. She was watching the crowd with her arms crossed. Her gyarados netsuke bobbed from side to side, its red eyes blazing furiously. A few people stopped by to speak with her, but each of them moved on after only a few words. Lance began to make his way over. Half-way, Hamako looked in his direction, and her eyes widened in recognition.

    She looked older than he remembered, the lines sunk deeper into her face, but her voice hadn't lost any of its sharpness when she said, "Well, so we meet again. Are you going to congratulate me on my retirement? Going to tell me what an honor it is, to have the whole contingent turn up to usher me out?"

    Lance stared at her. Slowly, he shook his head.

    "No? Well, I appreciate that, I do." Hamako's gaze rose to the glittering, swirling crowd. "Damned bejeweled murkrows. I've endured this long enough. Time to make good my escape." She cocked an eyebrow at Lance. "Are you planning to stick around?"

    Lance didn't need time to consider his answer. "No," he said emphatically. He'd done everything Jiro had asked him to do, and he'd even spoken to one of Noriko's prized politicians. That was plenty for one night.

    Hamako led him to a side-door, through a corridor, and down a cramped stairway. A few waiters passed them, going up. When they emerged into the night air, Hamako set off at a brisk pace in the direction of the beach. Lance followed her, feeling uneasy. He didn't know how to break the silence that had fallen.

    The beach was almost entirely deserted, and the few people that remained were hurriedly packing up their blankets. It wasn't hard to guess why. Thick, threatening clouds hung close to the ground, and the sea water moved restlessly. Lance looked back towards Cerulean City. The sky above the buildings was yellow, resembling an island of butter melting into the coming night. Kaisho snaked down Lance's back onto the sand. His tongue flicked out, tasting the air.

    Hamako stood with her eyes closed and her head slightly upraised. "Storm's brewing. The fishing boats have all come in, and the tourists are scuttling back into their dens. Only fools and gyarados stay out on a night like this one." She opened her eyes, pinning Lance with her gaze. "Your gyarados has grown quite a bit, hasn't she?"

    She knew. The certainty lodged like a biting pit in Lance's throat. Hamako must have recognized Ibuki that day on the beach.

    "Master Hamako, I—"

    A shrill cry cut him off. Kaisho!

    The miniryu stood at the lip of the sea, fully uncoiled. His gaze was fixed on the darkened sky. As if answering his call, thunder cracked above. A lightning bolt split from the dark clouds. Lance started forward with a shout.

    As the after-image of the lightning cleared, he saw Kaisho's head glowing white where the bolt had struck. The light spread down his body in a silver wave. Lance's steps slowed, and then stopped.

    "Blessed." Hamako spoke in a hushed voice as she came up behind him. "Truly I am blessed, to twice bear witness to a dratini's evolution."

    Oblivious to everything but the rising storm, Kaisho dipped and arced through the air. The deep blue of his back shone against the storm clouds. Thunder rumbled once more, and the hakuryu let out a pure, joyful trill.

    A rain-caller, Lance realized in awe. Kaisho was a rain-caller.

    A few droplets burst on Lance's upturned face. The downpour quickened. In a few seconds, he was soaked through.

    "I'm a fool," Hamako said in a low voice. "If you are too, what do you say we have ourselves a proper battle?"

    She jerked her head toward the open sea, where the waves were beginning to dance.

    ~*~​

    Hamako rode out on the back of her seaking, flanked by two massive gyarados. Her hair, soaked a deep blue, clung to the back of her kimono. Lance took off on Toku's back, Kaisho soaring alongside them. The two ryu exchanged excited trills. Kaisho cartwheeled backwards into the air, each spin executed with new and sudden grace. Below, Ibuki cut through the waves, her crest like a determined helm.

    The battle began by wordless agreement. "Dance!" Lance called out to Kaisho and Ibuki. On the sea, Hamako's mouth shaped the same word, though the wind dragged it from her lips. Her two gyarados began to circle.

    A proper battle, Hamako had said. What followed was nothing like the practice battles Lance fought with Jiro. The wind stole the commands from his mouth and the water clogged his ears. Kaisho struck out with a wave of electricity, which Hamako's gyarados blocked with a shield of wind. The two spun together and sent up a whirling vortex, pulsing with green light.

    As the battle progressed, the winds grew more intense. They didn't just come from the sky now. Wind wrapped around the gyarados and lifted them aloft. Lance remembered the old saying, the storm gives gyarados wings.

    Hamako's gyarados were masters of sea and wind. But not lightning, Lance thought, raising his eyes to the swirling mouth of the sky. Kaisho only needed the opportunity. Maybe Lance could give it to him.

    He shouted hoarsely over the wind and rain. "Kaisho. Fly with us and use protect. Ibuki, hyper-beam!"

    White-yellow light bolted from Ibuki's mouth, ripping through the shield of wind and scattering the two gyarados left and right. Lance tightened his grip as Toku shot forward into the gap, Kaisho close behind. The roar of the rain cut out as a blue bubble shimmered up around them. The silence was more startling than the noise had been. Lance's ears felt scoured and raw. No water pounded his back. The gyarados hovered only feet away, one on either side. Their mouths roared furiously but soundlessly beyond the egg-shell barrier.

    Lance's voice rang out absurdly clear in the silence. "When I say now, Kaisho, drop the protect and use thunder. Toku, when he does that, you have to drop like an anchor. We'll only have a few seconds to get clear."

    Toku rumbled uneasily, but there was no way out now other than down. The sides of the barrier were bowing inwards, lashed by the wind.

    "Now."

    A roar, wetness, and then terrible, slicing wind. Lance clung to Toku's back as they plummeted down. Lightning flashed, painting white blossoms across the backs of his eyelids, and the smell of burnt flesh clogged his nose. Toku banked hard over the water. Waves leaped up, clapping Lance's feet. He lifted his head.

    Above, Kaisho hung in the sky like a golden rod. Lightning coursed down his body; the gyarados were suspended in the air, their massive bodies twisting. The tableau stretched out longer than seemed possible. Lance found himself counting, to three and then to five. On six, all light seemed to vanish. The sun was gone and the storm-clouds hid all traces of the moon. There was a wet smack as the gyarados hit the sea.

    It was over.

    Two bright flashes arced through the night. Hamako's seaking was cutting back towards the beach. Toku followed, Lance slumping against her neck. The rain hadn't let up. It streamed down his neck, under his clothing, accumulated in his shoes. He was noticing the cold now. A gust of wind pirouetted by, and he shivered.

    Kaisho and Ibuki beat them to the beach. Ibuki dragged herself onto the sand, her creamy underside facing the sky. Kaisho curled up on her belly. The rainwater glinted blue off his new scales.

    The adrenaline that had zizzed through Lance's arms and legs during the battle was leaving him. His muscles felt leaden and at the same time terribly light, as if ready to evaporate up into the sky and join the chorus of falling water. When he swung off Toku's back, his knees buckled, and he nearly collapsed onto the sand. Hamako lay stretched out on the beach. She cracked an eye open.

    "Fools and gyarados indeed. I haven't seen a ploy that foolish in thirty years."

    But she was smiling.

    The last exhilaration of battle fell away as Lance looked at her. He dropped to his knees on the wet sand, his head finally clear. He knew what he needed to say now.

    "Master Hamako, I owe you an apology."

    Her eyes had closed again. Several seconds passed before she spoke. "An apology? For what?"

    "It's my fault that you—"

    "You were behind that mischief with the gyarados, then." Hamako's expression was impossible to read. "Well, don't give yourself too much credit. It would have happened with or without that nonsense, though I daresay you sped things along." Lance dropped his head to the sand, dark gray and cratered with rain drops. "There's just one thing I want to know. Was that your idea, or somebody else's?"

    Lance remembered sitting in a conference room, spinning idly in his chair as conversation streamed over him. Oblivious. He hadn't understood what was being planned and he hadn't tried to understand it. He should have tried. Why hadn't he tried?

    "Not my idea," Lance said. He straightened his back and added, "but that doesn't excuse—"

    One veined hand settled on his shoulder, the grip tight.

    "I'm a gyarados trainer," Hamako said. The wind had hit a lull and Lance caught every hoarse word. "There aren't many of us. Why should that be so? Koiking swim everywhere, flourish in every clime and sea. But gyarados are considered wild, frightening, impossible to tame. People covet their power yet fear that power, so they turn instead to the few who train them, thinking that even if they cannot tame a gyarados, they can tame the tamer of a gyarados." Her mouth twisted. "It won't be any different for you and your dragons. They'll flock to you, as they once flocked to me, seeking to make use of that power for themselves, to manipulate and use you. I want you to promise me one thing, lad, one thing only. Do not allow yourself to be used."

    Hamako's blue eyes blazed; her nails dug into his shoulder like talons.

    "I promise," Lance whispered. He raised his voice. "I swear, Master Hamako."

    She studied him for a moment. "Good," she said, releasing his shoulder and falling back once more on to the sand. The rain streamed over and around her like she was a piece of driftwood.

    "Too damn old for this," she mumbled to herself. "Perhaps they were right to retire me. A battle like that used to leave my blood singing, but now all I want is a dry towel and a hot flask of sake. And the walk home is so dreadfully long."

    Lance looked over to Toku. "We could fly you home," he offered. "If you want."

    "Fly me? On the back of your lovely dragonite?" Hamako sat up, a beatific smile lighting her face. "You'd make an old woman who was once a young girl listening to tales of the dragonite very happy, lad."

    She looked out at the purple-black sky.

    "Yes," she added quietly. "Very happy indeed."

    ~*~​

    Soaked silk clung to Lance's legs as he climbed the hotel steps. When he opened the door, the lights inside the room were blazing. Jiro waited on the couch, his persian's head nuzzled into his lap. As soon as he caught sight of Lance, he burst out laughing.

    "Goodness," he said, taking in the bedraggled clothing, ripped in places and encrusted with sand in others, "Decided to take a swim, did you? And fight a gyarados while you were at it?"

    "Two gyarados," Lance said under his breath, his eyes falling to the hem of his pants, where water was running down onto the carpet. He managed a lopsided bow. "I'm sorry about the clothes, Jiro. I promise I'll pay you back for them."

    "Nonsense. Those clothes were a gift, yours to do what you wanted with them. If that means destroying them on your first night out, so be it." Jiro dislodged Kintsugi from his lap and crossed to the phone. The persian let out a short mewl of protest. "Yes, hello, I'd like a pot of genmaicha for room 234 and some hot towels." He laid the phone back down and frowned up at Lance. "What are you waiting for? Change out of those wet rags before you catch something."

    When Lance emerged from the bathroom, Jiro had set two tea cups down on the table in front of the couch. He tossed a towel over to Lance, who wrapped it around his wet hair and curled up on the edge of the couch, lifting his knees to his chest. Kintsugi sniffed at him curiously and Lance gave the persian a small pat. He still stank of sea-water.

    Jiro watched them with a smile. "So," he said, when Lance had taken a cautious sip of the hot tea. "Two gyarados, eh? Now I know where Hamako snuck off to."

    The couch was wonderfully warm and solid. Kintsugi rested her head against Lance's feet. Her fur felt softer than silk against his bare skin.

    "Just what possessed the two of you to have a water battle in a thunderstorm?" Lance opened his mouth, but Jiro was already waving a dismissive hand. "More importantly, did you win?"

    "Yes," Lance said. A smile broke out on his face. "And Kaisho evolved!"

    It already felt strange for Lance to picture Kaisho as anything but the beautiful creature who had lent his body to the lightning and sung with the storm.

    "Wonderful," Jiro said, setting down his cup of tea. "And that wasn't your only victory tonight either. I got a lot of compliments over your behavior. Very dignified—now who said that? Erika, must have been." Jiro chuckled. "Perhaps she'd take that back if she could see you in those wet clothes."

    A yawn split Lance's face before he could answer. The air in the room seemed very warm and the tea pooled in his stomach like sleepy lava. Jiro's words drifted into his ears as if from a long way off. The light of the room hurt his eyes. It was so bright. Not even the lightning flash had been that bright.

    "Come on, protege," Jiro murmured. "You need to get some sleep."

    Lance shuffled towards his bedroom. Heavy covers fell over him. The towel unwound gently, and his head flopped back against a mountain-ridge of pillows. The light receded and a soothing darkness surged up like surf. Lance slept.
     
    Last edited:
    Ch: 12 The Protege, Part Two
  • Pen

    the cat is mightier than the pen
    Staff
    Partners
    1. dratini
    2. custom/dratini-pen
    3. custom/dratini-pen2
    The Protege, Part Two

    Light. And noise. Lance buried his face deeper into his pillow. He could feel his mind treacherously unmooring from the warm shore of sleep.

    The knock came again. "Lance, are you up yet?"

    I'm up now, Lance thought mulishly, but he didn't make any move to leave bed. He felt as if Toku had sat on him.

    "I promised Muno we'd visit him in Pewter today, and the morning's already half gone!"

    Muno? Lance sat up, frowning. Why were they going to see Muno? He didn't remember anything about that. He climbed out of bed and opened the door. "We're going to see Muno?"

    Jiro was sitting at the table in a yellow bathrobe. He grinned, and Lance rolled his eyes. Jiro always had far too much energy in the morning.

    "You really were out of it last night. Yes, we're going to see Muno today. Now come on, breakfast is on the table. Eat up, and we'll be on our way."

    When Lance had polished off his rice and was halfway through his miso soup, a flaw in Jiro's plan occurred to him. "Pewter's more than a day away."

    "Not if we fly."

    ". . . Oh." Lance blinked, shoved a slice of pickled radish into his mouth, and went to get dressed.

    The storm had blown over in the night. Outside, the sun shone brightly and the breeze was fresh and salty. It really was a perfect day for flying. Toku sniffed the air and let out a pleased rumble.

    "You'll fly on Asahi?" Lance asked. Jiro hadn't released the fearow yet. He lifted his ditto off his shoulder and set her on the ground.

    "Today I thought I'd try something a little different. What about it, Gigaku?"

    For a moment, the ditto's face showed nothing more than a cocky smile. Then she expanded outwards like she'd been blown full of air, her color shifting from pink to golden yellow. An instant later, a kairyu towered over Jiro. She raised her head and roared.

    Jiro chuckled at the dumbfounded look on Lance's face. "You've seen Gigaku transform before."

    Not into a kairyu, Lance thought, but didn't say. What makes a kairyu any different? Jiro would ask, and Lance wouldn't know how to answer. He hadn't spoken to Jiro about his life in the Ryu's Gift. The subject never seemed to come up, and Lance wasn't sure he wanted to raise it. The thought of home still throbbed like a dull pain.

    They quieted as the kairyu rose into the sky. The day was too brilliant for words. Toku's wing beats were slightly sluggish from the storm-battle last night, but the wind stayed strong, making flight easy. Mount Moon spread out before them. Conveyor trains glinted below like fish moving in a stream.

    Lance was hit with a rush of disorientation as he looked down at the winding mountain path. What if time and place were bound together, like double-faced fabric, and somewhere below he was still walking, a miniryu coiled around his neck?

    "Your shed-skin is down there," he whispered into Toku's ear, fighting back a wash of vertigo. He raised his voice to Jiro, trying to distract himself from the sensation of being in two places at once. "Why are we going to see Muno?"

    "He asked me for help last night at the party. Seems he's got a bit of a headache to deal with—a resurrected fossil pokemon that's become an absolute terror. The laboratory doesn't have the means to house it properly and so it's been going around destroying mining equipment. Some kind of flying type that's been able to elude everything Muno's thrown at it, apparently. I told him you'd handle it."

    "Me? Are you not up to it?" Lance asked solemnly. Toku snorted.

    Jiro caught the teasing and laughed. "Listen, I'm doing you a favor. It's good to have people in your debt. Eventually, you can come and collect."

    The sun had fallen from its zenith when they landed in front of a tall building some distance from Pewter City. Muno stood waiting outside, accompanied by a woman in a long white coat. His face bristled into a smile as they dismounted.

    "Flew, did you?" he exclaimed. "Had Natsume already booked it back to Saffron?"

    Jiro shrugged. "I didn't check. Teleportation always leaves me with a stomachache, you know. Flying's much more pleasant."

    "You're not wrong about the stomachache," Muno said with a grimace. "But your timing's good. We spotted it less than an hour ago, lurking around the west camp. That's only a short walk from here. Oh, and this is Doctor Amari, a researcher from the Pewter Institute."

    The woman offered them each a short bow. "Thank you for taking the time to help us out," she said, as they began to walk. "It's all gotten a bit out of hand. When the grant came through to fund the resurrection, I'm afraid there was a little less attention paid to post-resurrection containment than was necessary—"

    "More than a little," Muno interjected with a snort.

    The researcher shot him an annoyed look. "We're grateful for Leader Muno's assistance," she said, a trifle coldly. "Initially there was a hope that as a rock-type specialist, he would be capable—"

    "Call it a rock-type all you want, it's a goddamned winged thing. Outside my wheelhouse. Above my wheelhouse, I should say."

    The two were all but glaring at each other now and Jiro was barely managing to hold back an amused smile. "Excuse me," Lance said to the researcher, hoping to distract her. "What do you mean by resurrection?"

    She turned to him, her disgruntled expression vanishing. "Fossil resurrection. The reviving of extinct pokemon." Lance's face stayed blank. "Let me put it in simple terms. Millions of years ago, different pokemon lived in this area than do now. Many of these ancient pokemon died out completely, but their fossils remained in the rock. We excavated one of these fossils and brought the pokemon back to life. It's all been quite thrilling."

    "Millions?" Lance said, trying to wrap his head around the idea. "It must have been very different then." Less people, less noise. He remembered how shocked he'd been when he'd first come to Pewter and heard the booms and blasts of the mining machines. The ancient pokemon had probably been shocked too.

    "Very different," the researcher agreed. "Wetter, for one thing. Vast chunks of Pewter were underwater at that time. Aerodactyl were quite common then. From the spacing of the fossil remains, we suspect they used to live in flocks. That could very well be the reason for this aerodactyl's erratic behavior. Clearly they aren't meant for solitary life. Now if we could just resurrect a few more, enough to form a proper flock—"

    "Full of bright ideas, aren't you!" Muno exclaimed through a scowl. "A whole flock of those things harrying my miners? No thank you. One is more than plenty."

    From the rising din, Lance guessed they were getting close to the mining site. In another few minutes, they reached the edge of the camp. An onix was coiled protectively around a large rigging. Several of the miners had abandoned their work to watch the sky, where a dark grey shape circled. Suddenly, there was a loud roar and a white blast shot towards the rigging. The onix's stones flashed a protective silver as it flung itself in the way of the blast. An explosion shook the campsite—when the smoke cleared, the onix lay slumped to the ground. Muno swore and ran into the fray, two more onix appearing at his side.

    "I think that's your cue," Jiro said. Lance nodded and climbed on Toku's back. He sent out Kana and smiled as the charizard appeared, huffing fire.

    "Feeling up to an air-fight?" Lance asked her, not surprised when she bared her teeth in a grin. The three of them took off towards the gray pokemon—aerodactyl, the researcher had called it. Kana let out a trumpeting roar, drawing the aerodactyl's attention. It shot forward. Closer, Lance made out a spiked head, a blade-shaped tail, and a massive jaw, where another hyper-beam was already building.

    Toku swerved left and Kana right. The beam drilled into the cliff behind them, leaving a smoking hole several feet deep. Kana spat back a shimmering cone of fire. But the aerodactyl didn't even try to move out of the way. It waded into the flames as if unbothered by the heat and emerged with its wings glowing white.

    The attack caught Kana in the belly. She buckled, but recovered quickly, swiping out with a metal claw. Her attack met with empty air; the aerodactyl had retreated out of reach. It's fast. Now the pokemon was circling back. Light struck off its head, which had taken on a metallic sheen.

    "Air slash," Lance called out, when it was close enough that he could make out the bright amber of its eyes. The blast caught the pokemon squarely in the face, slowing its momentum enough for Kana to maneuver above it. She landed a green-fisted dragon claw on its back. As it sagged from the blow, Kana slammed a metal claw into its head.

    With a whine, the pokemon dropped. It caught a low draft and circled back up, but didn't move to attack, watching them warily from a distance. Lance noticed the way its ears were flattened and the edged tips of its wings were angled inwards. He didn't think that was the posture of a pokemon preparing another attack.

    "What do you think?" he asked Toku. She let out a ponderous rumble and then winged towards a cliff ledge that overlooked the mining camp. The pokemon followed. Toku called out to it and after a moment's hesitation, it joined them on the ledge, a few feet distant with its wings drawn protectively around its body.

    "Hello," Lance said, stepping closer and keeping his hands tucked to his sides. The pokemon was as big as Toku—Lance's head would have fit easily inside its long jaw. Its skin was thick and rock-like, but not actually made of rock, Lance saw as he stepped closer. "We don't mean you any harm." He'd noticed that the aerodactyl had aimed its attack at the mining machine, not the people or the onix, and he thought he knew why. If he and Toku had returned to find the Ryu's Gift overrun by ravenous machines, he doubted they would have acted any differently. "You've been sleeping a long time," he told the gray pokemon, who tracked his approach suspiciously. "Everything's changed. I know that's hard. This is your home, but you don't fit here now."

    He wasn't sure if the pokemon followed his words, but Lance's tone seemed to reassure him. He stared with unblinking yellow eyes as Lance extended his hand towards the side of his snout. But Lance noticed a tensing in the aerodactyl's neck muscles and withdrew his hand just as the pokemon snapped at it. Kana let out a roar. She smacked her claw hard against the aerodactyl's head. Her wings fanned out behind her, the threat clear. Lance waited to see if the aerodactyl would unfurl his own wings and resume the fight, but after a moment he dropped his head and let out another low whine.

    Steadying himself with a breath, Lance extended his hand again. This time, no tensing came. The pokemon's skin was rough like a cliff-side, pocketed with grooves and divots. As Lance stroked at its snout, the pokemon snuffled and closed its eyes. Lance edged closer, fascinated by how the rocky skin gave way to tough, membranous wings. A ridge jutted up from the pokemon's back and small, three-clawed hands extended from the tips of its wings.

    The wing muscles rippled under his hands. Suddenly, the pokemon surged forward, knocking Lance off his feet. Strong claws clamped around his side, and the ground fell away.

    Stunned, Lance hung limp. The ground swam back into view—distant and at the same time, all too close. This wasn't like flying on Toku's back. There was nothing separating him from the fall except for the painful jut of claws against his stomach. He twisted his head around and made out Toku and Kana on their tail. But they were growing smaller—the aerodactyl was outpacing them.

    Ridges rose ahead. They'd left the valley behind and were climbing the side of a mountain. Without any warning, the pokemon let go.

    Lance opened his mouth to scream, but the impact knocked the sound out of him—a soft impact, he realized through the red rush of panic. He sat up hazily. He'd been dropped into the center of a large nest, lined with moss, leaves, and fur. There was a loud flapping and then the aerodactyl settled in behind him. Something rough and warm dragged through his hair. A . . . tongue?

    As Lance sat there, too baffled to move, the sensation came again. He twitched as the tongue ran down his neck. A claw gripped his shoulder, holding him in place. The tongue resumed its work.

    I'm being groomed, Lance realized. He began to laugh shakily. The sound made the pokemon pause. It let out an uncertain whine. "It's all right," Lance said, beginning to smile. "You can keep going. My hair could probably use it."

    When Toku and Kana, snorting and leaking steam like a Saffron factory, finally found them, Lance waved cheerfully. The charizard huffed. She stamped forward and entered into a cautious exchange of sniffs and nudges with the aerodactyl. Toku came over to Lance's side and rumbled a question.

    "I'm fine, Toku." Lance looked back at the aerodactyl, who had taken to the air and began a playful back and forth with Kana. "I think he's lonely." The kairyu followed Lance's and nodded after a moment, her eyes softening.

    Lance sighed, flopping down onto the aerodactyl's nest, which was surprisingly comfortable considering the aerodactyl's thick skin. Kana and the ancient pokemon seemed completely at ease now, trading blows back and forth. After a few minutes, they landed and began to fuss with each other's wings. It occurred to Lance that Jiro and Muno were probably wondering where he'd gone. Reluctantly, he sat up and whistled to Kana.

    "We should head back." Lance looked at the aerodactyl, thinking that the researcher had been right. Even if they could find him a quiet valley to live in, free from mining noise, he would still be unhappy without company. Lance frowned. They should have thought about that before they woke the aerodactyl up.

    "I'll make sure they don't leave you alone."

    Or worse, stick him in a glass cage, like they'd done to Kaisho. Lance's chin set. No, he wouldn't let that happen.

    Lance wasn't surprised to see the aerodactyl follow Toku and Kana without any prompting. After a few minutes flying, the mining camp came into view. The camp looked calmer now, though work still hadn't resumed. Toku spotted Jiro standing off to the side, and landed by him. The aerodactyl hung back in the sky, circling low.

    "What happened to your hair?" were Jiro's first words. Lance jerked a finger towards the circling pokemon. "Hah! Don't tell me it's adopted you."

    "I think he may have," Lance admitted. "Do you know what's going to happen to him, Jiro?"

    "The researchers will probably want him back. Although . . ." Jiro trailed off, a thoughtful look on his face.

    "What happened?" Muno hurried towards them, shooting dark glances up at the aerodactyl. As he neared, the pokemon swooped down and landed in front of Lance. He bared his teeth at Muno, who took a hasty step back, his hand falling to his belt.

    "It's all right!" Lance said, giving the aerodactyl a quick pat on the neck. "He doesn't mean me any harm." He wondered which of them he was trying to reassure.

    Muno stared. "You've tamed the damn thing . . ?"

    "Oh excellent!" Doctor Amari had joined them. "Very nice work. If you can just lead him back to the lab, we can take it from there—"

    "Not so fast." Muno crossed his arms. "Take it back to the lab? And then what? What's changed? You still don't have the cash for a psychic security team. Until you do, I insist you keep that thing in a pokeball and don't let it out."

    Lance's eyes narrowed. The researcher looked similarly affronted. "Don't be ridiculous. We didn't go through all the work of resurrecting this gorgeous pokemon to lock it away. We'll take stricter precautions this time—and anyway, that's our business, not yours."

    "It's my business as gym leader, and you'd better remember that! The safety of Pewter is my responsibility."

    The researcher snorted, no longer bothering to hide her disdain. "The safety of Pewter? When children are getting lung conditions from your mining—"

    "Without the mines, those children would starve," Muno snapped.

    When a tense silence fell, Lance seized the opportunity to interject, "What if he came with me?"

    "I wouldn't object," Muno said, just as the researcher answered, "That would also entirely defeat the point of this. We resurrected that aerodactyl in order to study it!"

    "Doctor Amari." They all turned to Jiro, who continued in a soft but deliberate voice. "If you'll allow me to make a brief point? From what I've heard, your institute has a serious need for funding and further resurrection research will be impractical until that funding is realized. Now, my protege here will be competing very visibly in tournaments and other high profile matches. If he competes with your aerodactyl—well, that's quite the advertisement for your work, isn't it? You're sure to receive all sorts of attention. Indeed, I would offer my personal guarantee of it."

    The researcher wavered. Her gaze dropped to Lance's arm, still resting on the aerodactyl's neck.

    "You make a good point," she said at last. "I'll need to talk it over with my colleagues, of course. Would you mind coming back to the Institute with me? Your word as a member of the Elite Four would hold some weight."

    "Happy to," Jiro said. He winked at Lance, and followed Doctor Amari down the trail. Muno lingered, ignoring the glowering aerodactyl.

    "Before I forget—and if your bodyguard permits—I owe you this. Doubly owe it, now." He handed Lance a badge fashioned in the shape of a boulder.

    "Thank you, Muno," Lance said with a short bow. "I was happy to help."

    "Well—" Muno tugged at his ear. "I'd better get back to the boys. We're behind schedule enough as is. I won't forget this, though."

    The aerodactyl remained on high alert even after Muno hurried off. He stood stiffly, his sharp eyes darting from cliff to cliff as if seeking out further threats. Something about the stance gave Lance a painful twinge of nostalgia.

    "There was a man I once knew who was very sharp-eyed and cunning," Lance said slowly. The aerodactyl's ears pricked up and one amber eye settled on him. "He never missed his mark. Maybe that's why they called him Archer."

    Lance faltered. His stomach clenched at the name. Since he'd left Team Rocket, he'd tried not to think about Archer at all. Every time he did, questions threatened to bury him like one of Muno's cave-ins. Was Archer also a murderer? Had he hoped to make Lance into one?

    "It suits you," he finished in a whisper. He half-hoped the aerodactyl would reject the name, but the pokemon let out a pleased croon and licked Lance on the cheek. Lance tried the name again. "Archer."

    This time, it came easier.

    ~*~​

    Jiro returned to Saffron the next day, but Lance remained in Pewter three more weeks, part of the deal Jiro had struck with the Pewter Institute. The researchers had all sorts of tests they wanted to run, and Lance did his best to coax Archer through them. The aerodactyl was an early riser. Lance got up while the morning was still gray to watch him and Kana make a loop of mountain—Kana had taken to Archer immediately. They shared the same quick-burning spirit, quick to quarrel and quick to make up.

    When the three weeks were through, Lance set off down the road to keep his appointment with Leader Fiorelli. He could have flown to Viridian—that would certainly have been the quicker way. But he wanted some time to himself and his pokemon before he returned to the noise and bustle of Saffron city. It was good to fall asleep huddled up next to Toku, warmed from the heat of her body.

    They kept off the main road after a wagon nearly swerved into a ditch at the sight of Archer, roaring happily in the morning air. Their progress was slow and not very quiet. Archer broke trees; Kana fought beedrill hordes. In one such battle, she lit up the edge of a cultivated field. That delayed them some more. Lance had to find the farmer to offer money and his deepest apologies. But the old couple were gracious. Kana had only charred the corner of their field that they left unharvested for the wild pokemon. They invited Lance to dinner, and that evening he sat quietly in their dark, low-roofed house, listening to their rambling talk.

    The road needed fixing. The extra traffic to Viridian was well and good, but the ruts hadn't been patched for five years and the path was terribly treacherous after sunset. All of Kanto could use some fixing, really. Well, who could expect any different with a ghost-witch for a champion? Ghosts and metal cities. These were dark days, indeed.

    Lance kept a respectful silence. He lingered the next morning, helping with a few odd jobs. Kana chased off a pinsir colony that had been nesting nearby and worrying the old couple's crops.

    A few days after leaving the farm, he spotted Viridian's welcome sign, staked by the road. It looked new.

    Lance's memory of Viridian was a distant one, of run-down huts and summer silence. But the town seemed livelier than he remembered it. Many of the houses were newly roofed, and the small Pokemon Center seemed at the verge of capacity. The Viridian Gym's arching white roof crested high above the other buildings. It was visible from every part of town, shining like a mountain peak. For a moment, Lance was reminded of the way the casino in Celadon had towered, unmissable, over the rest of the city.

    Entering the gym, Lance found himself in a brightly-lit room, scattered with suede coaches. A receptionist in a white blouse stood up behind the desk.

    "Are you here for a gym challenge?" When Lance nodded, she asked for his name, and then said, apologetically, "I'm afraid Leader Fiorelli is having a late lunch."

    "Will he be long?"

    "Not more than a half-hour, I'm sure. You're welcome to wait here. Would you like some water, tea?"

    "No, I'm fine." Lance hesitated. "Would it be all right if I let out my pokémon?"

    "I don't see why not, as long as they're well-behaved."

    That left out Kana and Archer then, Lance thought with an internal grin. Toku settled next to him on the couch, resting her snout on his shoulder, but Kaisho soared around investigating the room. He ended up hovering near the receptionist, eyes fixed on her long braid. She looked up from her work and offered the hakuryu a slightly nervous smile.

    "He likes your braid." Lance spoke up from the couch. "It is very pretty," he added politely.

    This won him a more natural-looking smile. The receptionist held up the end of her braid to Kaisho. "You're very pretty too," she told the hakuryu, the tension leaving her shoulders. "You like my braid?" Kaisho trilled and darted closer. "It's a tradition in my family. All my sisters have beautiful braids. Well, except for my youngest sister." The smile slid from the woman's face. "She cut hers off."

    "Like Hunter," Lance muttered under his breath, discomforted by the memory. Hunter was also someone he tried not to think about these days.

    The receptionist stiffened. "What did you say?"

    "You reminded me of someone I know. Knew." Lance faltered as the receptionist stared at him and mumbled, "Hunter. She was also from Viridian."

    The harsh ring of a bell cut off the receptionist's words. She retreated behind her desk, looking slightly pale. "Leader Fiorelli has returned," she said. "Please follow me, Challenger Lance. And if you could please return your pokemon to their balls? Thank you."

    They passed down a long corridor and through a broad set of reinforced doors. The stadium was dimly-lit by orange lamps hung mid-way up the walls, but even by the low light, Lance could tell the room was huge. The battlefield was a mixture of rocky terrain and sandpit. There were three elevated boxes—to the right, the referee stood with two kadabra; opposite, Giovanni sat in a high-backed chair. The remaining box, presumably, was meant for Lance.

    Giovanni spoke without rising. "A pleasure to see you again, young man," he said courteously. "I have Jiro's word that you'll give me a riveting battle."

    "I'll try not to disappoint you, sir," Lance said. Jiro claimed Giovanni was the best battler of all the gym leaders. Lance had been looking forward to their fight ever since Cerulean. He added, "And I hope you won't disappoint me," and then tensed, wondering if it was inappropriate to tease this man as if he were Jiro. He'd been friendly enough back at the party, but sitting up in his high-backed chair, face half-hidden by shadow, he seemed intimidating and remote.

    Giovanni's chuckle echoed through the stadium. "A bold tongue. Let's see if you can live up to it."

    As soon as Lance had taken his place in the challenger's box, a blue barrier sprang up behind him. There was no one watching from the rafter seats, so Lance could only assume that the protective barrier was for the benefit of the building. Giovanni's battling style must be powerfully destructive, to require two kadabra to maintain the shielding.

    The referee announced that the battle would be three on three. Giovanni's first pokemon was a nidoking, unusually large. The light gleamed off its spiky armor. Lance hesitated before settling on Archer's pokeball. The aerodactyl's wings and thick skin offered natural advantages against a poison-type like the nidoking, and Lance thought Archer would enjoy the chance to fight.

    The aerodactyl took to the air with an ear-splitting shriek. He made straight for the rafters—probably reminded of the Pewter cliffs—and ran head-first into the psychic barrier. He let out a whine as he was pushed back by the invisible force, turning to cast Lance a beseeching look.

    "It's all right, Archer!" Lance called up to him. He pointed towards the nidoking, who was watching them with disdain. "There's your opponent."

    It was a good thing the referee chose that moment to raise her flag, signalling the official start of the battle, because Archer didn't wait for the gesture to spring forward. He harried the nidoking with a rapid series of wing attacks, letting out a satisfied roar with each strike. Before the nidoking could land a counter-attack, he retreated into the air, crowing.

    Giovanni watched the back-and-forth calmly from his chair. His stillness gave Lance an uneasy feeling. The nidoking, he noticed, barely seemed fazed by Archer's barrage. It had moved with each strike—not trying to dodge completely, which would have been useless—but angling its body so that Archer's wings struck against the thickest portion of its back armor. The pokemon clearly knew what it was doing.

    And Giovanni still hadn't spoken a single command.

    Maybe he should have saved Archer's first real battle for a less experienced opponent. But it was too late for second thoughts. Distance was the way to go, Lance decided. That was where Archer's wings lent him an advantage. Attacking close would forfeit that.

    "Hyper beam," he called out. The heat of the beam fused the sand together, casting a trail of glass, but the nidoking had already vanished. Dug under the floor, Lance realized, taken aback by its speed. Archer let out an irritated roar and began to circle close to the ground.

    "Keep your distance—" Lance began. Even as he spoke a purple tail peeked out from the sand. Archer moved like lightning. But when his jaws bit down on the exposed tail, the nidoking shot up from the ground, its left claw alight.

    "Iron head!" Lance shouted, moving to the rim of the box, but the nidoking's punch had already caught Archer across the skull. As he reeled, the nidoking leaped forward and pushed him to the ground, one massive claw pinning each wing.

    "Sludge wave." Giovanni spoke his first command without rising from his chair.

    The nidoking grinned. As Archer roared his indignation, the nidoking bent over him. Thick, purple-black liquid oozed from its throat into Archer's open mouth. The aerodactyl began to thrash madly, fighting to close his jaw, but the nidoking held it open with both its claws, using the rest of its body weight to keep him immobile.

    "Hyper beam!" Lance tried, but Archer was beyond sense now. He twisted frantically, almost managing to break away, and then fell abruptly limp as the poison took hold. Veins of ugly purple bubbled up under his rocky skin. The sight turned Lance's stomach. He took the stairs down from the challenger's box two at a time, barely noticing the referee's call, "The challenger's pokemon is unable to battle. Leader Fiorelli is the winner."

    Archer's rocky skin felt warm, like a heated coal. His eyes had shut but he twitched every few seconds, his claws clenching and unclenching. His breathing was erratic.

    "A spirited pokemon, but not very wise." Giovanni's voice floated down, thick with amusement. "Archer, you called him? What an interesting choice of name."

    Lance took a breath, fighting to keep his voice level. He didn't like the glibness in the gym leader's tone. He didn't like it at all. "I need to take Archer to the Pokemon Center now and get him treated. I'm sorry I couldn't give you the battle you wanted, sir."

    "Nonsense! It would be a shame to end the battle now." The gym leader spoke into a device by his chair. "Miss Iwata, bring me the nidoking antidote." To Lance, he said, "The Pokemon Center would just treat him with my antidote anyway. Believe me," he said with a short chuckle, "Viridian isn't at the cutting edge of medical care."

    Lance stayed crouched by Archer's body, running his hands gently over the aerodactyl's snout. The door groaned and the receptionist hurried in, a canister in her arms. Lance snatched it from her and sprayed the contents carefully into Archer's mouth. An anxious minute ticked by. Had the spread of the purple slowed? Archer's breathing did seem more regular.

    "A rest in its pokeball, and it'll be right as rain," Giovanni said, an edge of impatience to his voice. "Shall we proceed?"

    "All right," Lance answered, but his heart felt leaden as he returned to the challenger's box. He couldn't shrug off the thought that Giovanni could have defeated Archer in a less painful way if he had chosen to. Still, it had been Lance's fault for sending out a half-wild pokemon. He shouldn't blame his opponent for that.

    His hand fell to Kana's pokeball. She could handle this.

    "Be careful at close range," Lance told the charizard in a low voice, as she materialized at his side. "It will try to pin your wings."

    Kana huffed her understanding and directed a dark look at the nidoking. As the referee called out the new match-up, Lance noticed Giovanni pulling something from his pocket. His eyes narrowed. It looked like . . . a giant pair of glasses?

    "Sandstorm," Giovanni said in a ringing voice.

    A wind stirred across the battlefield that had no clear source. The sand whipped up. Lance raised his sleeves over his eyes as the air clouded with grit. He could just make out the figure of Giovanni, still reclining comfortably. Behind his glasses, he—unlike Lance—could see the battlefield clearly. Lance twisted his head from side to side, but he couldn't find the nidoking.

    Kana was keeping to a high altitude. Her tail flame burned like a beacon through the sandstorm: the concealment would only work one way. A hunk of rock sped through the air like a fast-moving stormcloud. Kana dodged narrowly. She broke the next few boulders with her claws, but they seemed to have no end. The winds were intensifying, forcing Kana towards the ground. Lance could barely keep his eyes open now—even a quick glance stung horribly.

    Hold on. Why bother looking? Their strategy was clear enough. They meant to bring Kana close to the ground, where she'd be vulnerable to the same maneuver that defeated Archer. He shut his eyes.

    "It'll come from below, Kana! When it comes, grab it!"

    For a minute there was only darkness behind Lance's lids and the rushing sound of the sandstorm. Then Kana roared. The nidoking must have made the leap.

    "Fire spin!" Lance shouted and opened his eyes.

    A vortex of flame shone in the middle of the sandstorm, like a sand-beast that had grown a fiery heart. The wind fell off and the sand settled, but the vortex continued to burn. Lance counted fifteen seconds until the flames dispersed. Kana soared up with a roar, and the nidoking dropped to the ground. The referee hesitated as the nidoking struggled to its feet.

    "Air slash," Lance said sharply. The blow knocked the nidoking back, and this time it did not make a move to rise.

    "Nidoking is unable to battle. The challenger is the winner."

    Lance let out a breath. His still eyes stung horribly from the sand. Kana flew to the side of the box. "That was a beautiful fire spin," he told her, running his hand down her neck.

    "That's more like it," Giovanni said approvingly from across the battlefield, removing the glasses and placing them back in his pocket. He flicked his wrist and a marowak appeared. The pokemon stood only three feet tall, but Lance didn't miss the sharpness in its eyes as they locked onto Kana, nor the deliberate way it twirled its bone boomerang. When the referee's flag rose, the marowak became a blur of movement, but no attack came. It spun across the sand, throwing up and catching its club. Each time the boomerang returned to its hand, the white of the bone seemed to shine more brightly.

    Lance narrowed his eyes. "Air slash," he called out. The marowak caught its boomerang and darted to the side, the blast passing harmlessly by him. When Lance blinked, there was not just one marowak but ten, arrayed in a circle beneath Kana. In unison, the marowak threw their boomerangs.

    Kana ducked beneath the ten spinning clubs and blazed out with a flamethrower. The fire devoured the copies one by one, leaving the battlefield empty. Lance realized the ploy too late. Kana was only feet from the ground.

    "Up!" he shouted, "Go up!"

    Before she could rise, the rebound of the boomerang caught Kana in the head. She stilled, dazed, and the marowak shot up from the sand, catching the end of her tail in one hand. With its other hand it caught the boomerang. Reacting on instinct, Kana whipped her tail up—the marowak used the momentum to spring onto her back.

    "Fire spin," Lance said quickly. But as the flame rushed up from Kana's tail, the marowak moved. It tapped its boomerang in a rapid pattern across Kana's right wing; the wing sagged as if it had become sheeted with metal, and her flight went lop-sided. The marowak jumped to the left wing. The boomerang struck out once more, too fast for Lance's eye to follow. Kana dropped into free-fall. She hit the sand with a dull thump, belly-first, and whined—the sound was high-pitched and tight with panic. Her wings hung limply at her side.

    How had that—but there was no time to ponder how. The marowak was advancing down Kana's back, boomerang in hand.

    "Your tail flame!" Lance shouted. "Kana, calm down, use your tail-flame—"

    His words reached her as the marowak raised its boomerang over her head. Fire flared from Kana's tail, rippling out like the surface of a lake, but the boomerang had already hit home with a sickeningly sharp thud.

    Kana's head drooped. The fire dissipated. Lance stared at her motionless body, stunned.

    "Her wings," he said, unable to keep the panic from his voice, "what did you do to her wings?"

    Giovanni smiled and spoke affably. "No need to get yourself worked up. My marowak has perfected the art of dislocating bones. She knows to make the injury non-permanent. I'm not in the habit of crippling my challengers' pokemon." He let out a short chuckle.

    Non-permanent. From a distance, Kana's wings looked like two crumpled kairyu capes.

    The gym leader's words had been spoken in a reassuring tone, but Lance heard a darker implication hanging behind them. He could have crippled Kana, if he'd chosen to. He could have taken her wings away for good, and Lance would have been helpless to stop it. He couldn't shake the feeling that Giovanni wanted him to understand that—to understand how powerless he had been at that moment. Lance clenched his fists around the metal rim of the challenger's box. His legs felt shaky.

    Giovanni's smile was disquieting. The man was still reclining comfortably in his chair, but his relaxed posture now seemed to Lance like that of an arbok before it struck. For a moment, he wanted to call an end to the battle. Then anger flooded him, hot and simple with clarity.

    No. He didn't want to end the battle. He wanted to win it.

    "Recalling her won't damage her wings further?" Lance asked tightly.

    "You needn't worry. That's quite safe."

    Red light wrapped around Kana.

    "Your final pokemon?" Giovanni asked. He leaned slightly forward in his chair. "I hope you don't intend to deprive me of dueling a dragon."

    Toku didn't make a sound when she materialized into the dimly-lit stadium. Catching Lance's mood, she turned, and their eyes met. "They hurt Kana," Lance said to her quietly. "The marowak's fast. The bone's the threat, not the rest of it."

    Toku nodded. She winged to the center of the stadium, still silent. Lance felt his breathing slow to match hers. She weaved gracefully through the air, in a dance the marowak down below was powerless to interrupt. The yellow luster of her scales shone with their own light, like gold ore in a dark mine. Below, the marowak multiplied. Each image watched with an upturned skull as Toku danced.

    "Up," Lance called, as ten bommerangs sang through the air. "Twister."

    The wind punctured every false image, turned the false boomerangs into empty air. The real boomerang was born aloft by the updraft.

    "Dragon claw," Lance said firmly. Toku caught his meaning. Green dragon-fire sprang up around her claws. She bore down through the air and cleaved the boomerang in one clean strike.

    The fragments hit the sand without a sound. The marowak flinched. As if in a trance, it stepped forward and bent slowly over the bone fragments. It turned up towards Giovanni's box and let out a keening whine.

    A deep silence fell. Giovanni stirred.

    "So you have a ruthless streak after all," he said, recalling the marowak. "Very well. I see your dragonite has some power. You will find I have some as well."

    Their eyes met across the stadium, and Lance raised his chin. Anger simmered under his skin. Over Giovanni's head, Lance thought that he caught movement in the rafters. He looked up, but the shadows were impenetrable.

    The release of a pokeball drew his gaze back down. The pokemon was taller than Toku and certainly heavier. Its body was a fortress of gray and orange rock. The horn that jutted from its head gleamed a sharp silver. Its red eyes rose to Toku, and the two stared at each other in stiff, combative silence.

    "Stealth rock," Giovanni said. Five hunks of rock rose from the sidelines and hovered in a circle around Toku. The kairyu eyed them warily, but the stones didn't move any closer. "Earth power."

    A column of sand shot up beneath Toku.

    "Twister," Lance said sharply. The blast scattered the sand, but it reformed an instant later. A second column shot up, then a third. The columns moved towards Toku like circling gyarados.

    Rocks above. Sand below. Giovanni's pokemon had the power to animate both at once. And Toku was trapped between them. But as the sand-columns and stones converged, Lance was subsumed by calm. This he understood. There were no tricks here, no poisons, no illusions, just the pure power of earth and rock.

    Toku had power too. And Lance knew the word for it—for anger that became power.

    "Outrage," he said softly.

    A red tinge spread down Toku's scales, like the deepest and hottest coals of a fire. Wind surged around her. The columns of sand were pushed back to the protective barrier. As the rocks closed in, Toku spun, her claws shining green and her tail pulsing blue. She blurred. When her form resolved, the stones were gray dust falling to the ground like fresh snow. Air rushed around Toku, forming into rapid, invisible armor. Giovanni's pokemon summoned more columns of sand as Toku approached, but she tore through them. A silver glow flashed across the pokemon's body. Both its arms extended, hard with metallic light.

    Their collision sent out hairline cracks in the floor. The pokemon's hammer arms faltered against the wind that covered Toku like armor. Her green-fisted claw caught it under the chin.

    "Megahorn," Giovanni called out. He was standing. Lance hadn't noticed him get up.

    The blow caught Toku in the chest, but she hardly seemed to feel it. She grabbed the pokemon by its horn and heaved it into the air as if it weighed no more than a lump of driftwood.

    "Rock wrecker!" The shout came from Giovanni's box. Midair, the pokemon's skin erupted into rocky crests. Energy rippled around it, distorting the shape of the air. Toku surged up to meet it, born up by a tornado of swirling green and red. The room burst with light. For an instant, Lance saw everything illuminated clearly—Giovanni standing at the edge of his box; the watcher in the rafters, straight-backed and silent; the two kadabra with their spoons raised. The light was too intense. Lance shut his eyes.

    When he eased them back open, Toku hung alone in the air, panting. Giovanni's pokemon had left a crater several yards deep into the ground, where it now lay slumped. There was a large hole in the ceiling. Sunlight fell through, making a warm yellow circle on the sand. Lance stared up in confusion, then looked around. The blue of the psychic barrier was gone.

    "Well." Giovanni's voice was level. Hearing him, Lance wondered if he'd imagined the frantic note in the gym leader's final command. He nodded up at the damaged ceiling. "Jiro was right. You leave quite the impression."

    He stepped down from his box and crossed the battlefield—what remained of it. Lance met him, Toku hovering protectively at his side.

    "Sorry about the roof," Lance said, even though, in all honesty, he wasn't.

    "A hazard of this job," Giovanni answered dismissively. "It seems Jiro wasn't exaggerating your capabilities. I fully expect great things from you, young man." There was an almost triumphant gleam in his eye that Lance didn't know what to make of. Giovanni had lost. Why did he look so satisfied? "You have earned yourself the Earth Badge."

    When Lance had tucked the badge away, Giovanni's hand remained outstretched. "A custom we have in my home country," he said, reaching out and lifting Lance's hand in his own. He moved their clasped hands up and down.

    "Are you from very far away?"

    "Quite far, yes. The journey took two weeks by boat. I spent them in an orange crate." A broad, humorless smile crossed Giovanni's face. "To this day I can't stand the stink of those damn things."

    An orange crate?

    But Giovanni's face was a mask that invited no more questions. As the gym leader made for the doors, Lance ran his eyes around the stadium one last time. The rafters were empty. Had he imagined . . ?

    The receptionist stood waiting for them in the ante-room. She bowed and spoke quickly to Lance, "You forgot your notebook, sir." Lance blinked as she thrust a plain black notebook into his hands. He hadn't—but she had already retreated behind the desk, and Giovanni was facing him again.

    The man had half a foot on Lance, and Lance felt every inch of it as Giovanni set a hand down on his shoulder. The gesture was almost fatherly, but Giovanni's smile cut like a knife.

    "Great things," he said again.

    ~*~​

    At 10pm, the nurse politely but firmly told Lance that visiting hours were over. Archer and Kana lay on separate beds in the Pokemon Center room. The aerodactyl hadn't woken since the gym battle, but his breathing was level as he slept, and the purple tinge had all but faded from his skin. Kana was awake, sniffing unhappily at the stiff gauze that had been taped over her wings.

    "Kana," Lance said to her, "I have to go now, but I'll be back in the morning. Keep an eye on Archer for me, okay? He's going to be confused when he wakes up. It wouldn't be good if he brought down the building."

    Kana nodded, wiggling into a more attentive posture. The task would distract her from her wings, Lance hoped. "And try to leave your wings alone. I know it's uncomfortable, but if you mess with them, they won't heal right."

    Back in his room, he sat down on the bed, exhausted. The badge they'd won sat next to the plain black notebook on the bedside table, hastily placed there when he'd returned from the gym battle. Frowning, he picked up the notebook and leafed through. The pages were blank, until he came to the last one, where someone had scrawled, "Iwata Hachi (she goes by Hunter now) is my sister. If you know anything about her, please call me."

    A number had been written underneath. Lance stared at the page for a while, blinking slowly. Finally, he set the notebook back down, climbed beneath the bed sheets, and fell into a dream.

    Kaisho had called the rain. Lance stood on the rain-slickened shore before a boat, but the sea was too high for the journey home and the air stank of oranges. He turned away, but the waves rose and dragged him down. Water filled his mouth, salty and cold. When he fought his way to the surface, he saw a figure obscured by shadow, watching him from the deck of the boat.

    "Help!" Lance called out. The figure watched him in silence and did not stir. He wore all black and a cap hung low over his face. Then the light shifted, and his eyes were green and blue.

    Lance woke to darkness. The soft shadows of the room curled around him. He pushed off the covers, which had turned stiflingly warm, and padded to the window. A half-moon shone dimly through the early-morning mist.

    "A dream." His words settled into the silence like silt at the base of a pond. Lance shivered, suddenly cold. Dream or no dream, he was sure now.

    The watcher in the rafters—had been Archer.
     
    Last edited:
    Ch 13: The Citizen, Part One
  • Pen

    the cat is mightier than the pen
    Staff
    Partners
    1. dratini
    2. custom/dratini-pen
    3. custom/dratini-pen2
    The Citizen, Part One

    Thank you, Lance. I know I can count on you.

    Lance tugged a tuft of grass from the hillside and twirled it in his hand. Next to him, Toku lay stretched out on the grass, slumbering after their afternoon sparring session. He raised a slice of tamagoyaki to his lips, then lowered it without taking a bite. Overhead, the fearow exchanged screams.

    "Something on your mind?" Jiro said in a mild voice. "You've been miles away ever since you got back from Viridian."

    Lance startled. "It's nothing. I'm just tired."

    He'd met with Hunter's sister in a cabin on the outskirts of the town.

    "My fiancé's," she told him as she set the table with quick, fluttering hands. "He's at work, though. We can speak in private. I'm sorry to make you come out all this way, but people around here are terrible gossips."

    She was uneasy. When the tea cups were set out and the tea poured, she sat, but her hand kept rising to smooth down her blouse. Lance sipped his tea in silence, not knowing how to begin.

    "Hachi's in trouble, isn't she," Miss Iwata said at last. She seemed to find her confirmation in Lance's face. "I thought so. She looked so desperate the last time she visited, and when I saw what she'd done to her hair . . . but she wouldn't tell me anything. Maybe I pressed too hard. She left before I served dessert."

    "Have you heard of Team Rocket?"

    "Team Rocket?" She raised her head. "Yes . . . I think so. Some kind of trainer organization, aren't they? I've heard the name, at least."

    Lance spoke harshly. "They're criminals. Bad people."

    "And Hachi joined them. That's what you mean?" The color had leached from her face. "And you . . . how do you know?"

    Because I joined them too.

    Shame curdled in his chest. He couldn't say it.

    "I'm an agent with the G-Force," he said instead. The words rose readily on his tongue, even though he hadn't planned them. "We're investigating Team Rocket. I met Hunter in the Rocket training camp. Undercover," he added sloppily, but Miss Iwata didn't seem to notice the slip.

    "The G-Force," she repeated in a troubled voice. "That sounds serious. Please believe me when I say Hachi has a good heart. She hasn't had it easy since Mother died. I tried my best to raise everyone, but Hachi was always difficult. Sullen. Played more easily with her little nidoran than with the other children. She thought they looked down on her."

    "I know." Lance interrupted hoarsely. "I know she's not a bad person."

    A smile loosened Miss Iwata's face. "You know? I'm so glad. I'm sure Hachi wouldn't do anything really wrong. If you could find her, convince her to come home . . ."

    She traced the lip of her saucer with a nervous finger.

    "Maybe I can help," Lance had said slowly. "But in return, I'm going to need you to help me."

    He'd left the cabin feeling like an imposter who'd just pulled off a successful con. She'd taken him at his word easily—too easily. For all she'd known, he could have been an imposter, a member of Team Rocket sniffing around for weak links. She hadn't even asked him for ID.

    And maybe he really was an imposter. He still wasn't a real member of the G-Force. He hadn't yet told Agent Noriko the deal he'd made with Miss Iwata or who he'd seen at Giovanni's gym.

    Archer was there, watching me.

    Watching you? he imagined her saying in response, her eyes sharpening. Why would he watch you?

    Because he cared about me, Agent Noriko. At least, I thought he did.


    Even the imagined conversation made Lance wince. Lately, he'd been feeling like two separate people. One wore bright colors and sparred with Jiro, made cheerful small talk at stuffy parties and navigated Saffron's crowded streets with ease. The other was a shade: known to nobody, belonging nowhere.

    Jiro was still watching him, one finger drumming against the lid of his bento box. Every time Lance thought about telling him about the Rockets, he didn't know where to begin. Jiro trusted him. If Lance told him the truth, would that change?

    "I'm glad, you know," Lance blurted out, buoyed by a sudden upsurge of guilt.

    Jiro's hand stopped drumming. "Glad?"

    "That I became your apprentice. I like training with you."

    Spending time with you. Lance felt his face begin to redden as Jiro's mouth crinkled into a fond grin. "Well, it's mutual. Things have been more interesting with you around. Keeping me and Kintsugi on our toes."

    The persian lifted her head and mewled dismissively, but after a few moments she shifted position, one of her paws coming to rest possessively over Lance's foot.

    "In fact," Jiro said, "There's something I've been meaning to ask. How would you like to become my peer instead of my protege?"

    "Your peer? You mean—"

    "Join me on the Elite Four," Jiro finished for him, leaning forward. "The hustings begin in three months."

    "The hustings?" The word rang a vague bell, but Lance couldn't put any meaning to it. "I don't actually know . . ."

    "Of course. I keep forgetting you aren't from Kanto. The hustings are an old tradition, dating back to the unification of the fiefdoms. Every four years the current champion and any would-be champions tour from town to town accepting challenges. If you defeat Kikuko at the hustings, you'd be offered a place on the Elite Four."

    "Champion Kikuko," Lance murmured, remembering the old woman's disconcerting gaze. "Is she a lot stronger than you?"

    Jiro laughed. "Well, I don't know about a lot. It's hard for us to spar properly—we have incompatible styles." His expression darkened. "In more ways than one. I don't want to give you the impression it will be easy. But I think you could pull it off. And you wouldn't be alone. I've also got to up my training for the hustings."

    "Why? I thought you said they were only for the champion," Lance said with a slight frown.

    "The champion, and would-be champions."

    It took a moment to sink in. "You mean you—"

    "I've decided enough is enough. Time to throw my own hat into the ring." Jiro ran a hand through his hair, the gesture uncharacteristically sheepish, and spread open his arms. "What do you think?"

    "I think you'd be great," Lance said with conviction, sitting up straighter. "You're strong and a good speaker. You're already solving people's problems, like we did with Muno, and you're not even the champion yet. Champion Kikuko—" Lance hesitated, remembering how the old couple he'd met outside of Viridian had spat her name like a curse. "Nobody seems to like her much."

    "So surprising, considering her charming personality," Jiro murmured under his breath. A smile spread slowly across his face. "Thanks, Lance. The vote of confidence—it means a lot."

    Lance returned his smile, mind whirring. He thought of the way people turned when Jiro entered a room, the way they flocked around him, chattering like pidgey. It meant something to be on the Elite Four. It meant having a voice that people listened to. Surely he'd be able to do more about Team Rocket if he joined them. He wouldn't have to feel like a fraud when he heard the words, Thank you, Lance. I know I can count on you.

    And Jiro could help him. Three months was a long time to figure out the best way to come clean about Team Rocket. He'd find the words, and then there would be no more secrets.

    "If you're serious about this," Jiro said, "there's one thing we're going to have to get sorted. Only citizens can challenge at the hustings. The timeline's a little short, but I know one or two people at the immigration office. I'm sure they'll let us rush the paperwork."

    "Citizens?" Lance repeated.

    "Just a formality. Don't worry, Johto and Kanto have a close visa relationship. You'd be able to see your family anytime you wanted—do you have family in Johto?" Jiro's chuckle sounded forced. "All this time and I don't think I've ever asked."

    The wind was picking up. Lance shivered and drew his jacket closer, avoiding Jiro's gaze.

    Yes, he wanted to answer. Yes, I have family in the land you call Johto. There's my cousin Ibuki, and my uncle, though he never wanted me, and my aunt, though she was always strict. Family's a matter of blood. Distance and time can't take it away.

    Miss Iwata's pale face floated into his mind, asking after her sister. Her concern had been tangible, like condensation on the morning air. Lance tried to fit that expression to the faces of his memory and could come up with nothing except the stern chisel of Uncle's jaw and the disgusted way Ibuki had looked down at him as he huddled on his sleeping mat.

    It had been five years. Maybe they'd forgotten him—maybe forgetting him had been a relief.

    He swallowed and bent down to scritch Kintsugi's chin, hoping the fall of his hair would hide his discomposure.

    "Hey." Jiro's voice was gentle. "The only family that counts is the family that sticks with you, okay? Kintsugi's my family. So's Asahi. Those assholes who happen to share my blood—who didn't want anything to do with me until I made it—they aren't my family."

    Kintsugi mewed her agreement. She unfolded from the ground and pushed her paws into Lance's chest, knocking him back on the grass. With a vigorous purr her paws kneaded his chest as if trying to work every doubt out of him. Lance let out a ragged laugh. He cleared his throat.

    "So what's the plan? For beating Kikuko."

    Jiro narrowed his eyes, but accepted the change in subject. "I was thinking you could start by heading to Fuschia. Spend some time with Koga, pick up some knowledge about poison-types and dirty tactics. You still need his badge, don't you?"

    Lance nodded. The year he'd spent chasing rumors of Team Rocket activity had never brought him within the borders of Fuschia Town.

    "That'll make a good excuse. Try to learn what you can from him, though it may not be easy; that man's as closed as a cloyster."

    The sun had dropped as they spoke. A red glare crept through the haze and another rush of wind made Kintsugi mew a loud complaint. Jiro rolled up the picnic blanket, Lance woke Toku, and they wound their way down the hill in silence as the street lights flickered on. Lance still found the way Saffron City transitioned from day to night startling. The drab grays became potent blacks; magnemite connected to neon panels floated above the major boulevards, washing the streets with fluxing, kaleidoscopic light. Somewhere, music was playing—a pulsing, spine-rattling drumbeat. With each beat, Jiro's question reverberated grimly in his head.

    Do you have family in Johto?

    Lance shut his eyes against the burn of the neon lights. In the privacy of his mind he answered, I don't know, anymore.

    ~*~​

    Fuschia lay nestled in a wide-ranging forest, several miles inland of the sea. From the air, the forest made an odd picture. A gap ran through it, clear of all growth like a furrow. The forest on one side seemed substantially denser than the other.

    Archer touched down where the road curved away from the coast. The sea made him skittish, but he relaxed as the smell of salt faded and the air dried out. After a few hours, they reached a massive archway, painted an ostentatious red. Carved letters proclaimed, Welcome To Ninja Land! The archway was littered with glossy posters depicting lithe figures wielding gleaming shuriken.

    Lance frowned. Noriko had told him stories about the ninjas of Fuschia: they were cunning warriors, silent as ghosts and deadly as the poison-types they trained. They hadn't sounded like the kind of people who advertised.

    A crash drew Lance's attention back to Archer. The aerodactyl was harassing a swarm of spinarak by the roadside. One spinarak—small enough to fit into Archer's jaws thrice-over—let out a disgusted hiss and spat a swathe of spin-silk. Lance whistled before Archer could reprise with a hyper beam.

    "Don't destroy other people's homes," Lance said wearily. Archer's eyes widened and he let out a crooning whine. "Trees aren't like mountains. You can do a lot of damage here." He stepped over to the spinarak and dropped into a quick bow. "Please excuse us."

    The small pokemon chortled. It was perched atop an old sign, almost unreadable between the dirt, the lichen, and the overlapping spinarak webs. Lance squinted and made out small, square letters.

    You are entering the sovereign lands of the Unified Ninja Clans. 17 Revised Kanto Code 2000-b establishes the sovereignty of Ninja Clan law within the borders of the Fuschia Region. Consult with the Bureau of Information to learn your rights here.

    The spinarak blew another gob of sticky silk, this time at Lance. With a last chortle the pokemon swung itself upward, out of sight. Lance sighed. The goop was already hardening over his shirt.

    "No, you still can't use hyper beam," Lance told Archer before he could open his mouth, and tramped under the gate.

    The wind carried the stink of refried grease and the shrill shrieks of children. Shortly, they came to a wide pavilion, dense with stalls and chattering people. Archer twitched, his head swiveling back and forth. Lance had been trying to acclimate him to larger groups of people, but Saffron was simply too enclosed for the aerodactyl's comfort. At least here the air was open; if Archer got too nervous, he could fly.

    A large crowd had gathered up ahead around a man dressed in eye-catching black. He struck a dramatic pose next to his golbat and called out in a carrying voice, "Who here dares to take the ninja's challenge?"

    The ninja's challenge, it turned out, consisted of two pokemon trying to tag each other with staining berry juice. The man's golbat was very fast; Lance watched a geodude, a pikachu, and a pidgeotto toss their paint at one of its double-team illusions before getting tagged just as they realized their mistake.

    It wasn't a very good double-team, though. Giovanni's marowak had created figures with three-dimensional forms. This golbat's illusions were paper-thin and rippled with the wind. Lance didn't blame the challengers for not knowing the difference—it was obvious they weren't experienced trainers. But the amateur quality of the attack irritated him. He studied the ninja again with a dubious eye. His form-fitting black clothing gleamed in the weak sunlight. It was the kind of black casino dealers wore. The kind of black meant to stand out.

    When the man called out his challenge again, in a voice that now struck Lance as slightly bored, Lance stepped forward, Archer at his side. Interest lit in the man's eyes.

    "And where might you be from, challenger?"

    It was a harder question now than it had been a week before. Lance chose to answer it with a shrug.

    Their battle, if it could be called that, was short and not particularly stimulating. The thin fakes didn't fool Archer: the aerodactyl dove straight at the golbat and clipped it with berry juice before it could swerve away. He would have followed up with a bruising steel wing if Lance hadn't whistled sharply to call him back.

    "That's quite the speedy pokemon you have there!" the man said to Lance with a forced grin. "On the gym challenge, are you?"

    "Something like that," Lance said, accepting the object the man thrust into his hand. He examined it as he walked away—a plastic shuriken with the words "Winner" inscribed in the center. The trophy was as half-hearted as the golbat's double-team attack had been. Lance swallowed his disappointment. For some reason he had expected more from the home of the ninja clans, the founders of the G-Force. This was all just bad illusions and tourist tricks.

    A man from the crowd fell into step beside him, drawing a suspicious glare from Archer.

    "Well done," he said.

    Lance answered more sharply than he intended. "Not really. I don't think he's a real ninja."

    "Not a real ninja? You shock me."

    The sarcasm in his words was thicker than the grease in the air.

    Startled, Lance gave the man a once-over. His garishly patterned shirt and souvenir pendant marked him a tourist. But the clothing didn't match his fluid, controlled stride or the way his eyes rose to take in the whole pavilion with a single glance.

    "I don't think a real ninja would be so flashy," Lance said thoughtfully. "He would know how to hide in plain sight."

    The man said nothing, but his pace quickened. His course led away from the pavilion into a residential area, strewn with well-maintained huts. A few children were splayed on the grass, casting stones, but they scattered as Lance and the man approached.

    Lance didn't ask where they were going. He had a suspicion about who this stranger was that only strengthened when he noticed the way the man's patterned shirt bunched over his waist.

    They skirted along the edge of the village and then passed back under the eaves of the forest. Lichen hung thickly from the trees here, and the roots grew in close tangles. Lance remembered the view he'd had from the sky—this must be the older portion of the forest. The path was thin and badly-marked. It diminished as they went until there was no path at all, at least to Lance's eye. But the man moved without hesitation even as the branches formed into a dense canopy and the shadows thickened. Archer let out an uneasy croon.

    When the man came to a sudden halt, Lance almost ran into him. They'd come into a small clearing, and the canopy was open enough to let in dappled light.

    "Your mentor is a terrible gossip," the man said in a slow, stiff voice. "You've come for your last badge?"

    "You're Koga?" Lance said, unable to keep the statement from slipping into a question.

    The man turned, his face cast in mottled shadow. He was middle-aged, with no silver streaking his hair, though the frown lines imprinted on his face made him seem older. It was a harsh face, thin-lipped and angular. He scowled.

    "A ninja is not in the habit of giving out his name to one who has not earned it."

    "Test me, then," Lance said easily, squaring his stance. "I'll earn—"

    The man was looking behind him. Not at him. Behind him.

    Lance threw himself to the side just as a gob of webbing shot from between the trees. He rolled: the bitter scent of soil and decomposing leaves entered his nostrils. Where he'd stood before, the ground was carpeted with white goop. Through the branches, he caught a flash of purple and red—the warning colors of an ariados. A roar drew his eyes up. Archer circled an enormous crobat. And only feet away, closing fast, was a venomoth, wings heavy with powder, close enough now that Lance could see the light reflecting off its small incisors—

    "Whirlwind!" he yelled and flung his arms around the nearest tree. The wind hit like a hammer. The trees groaned and swayed, and from somewhere in the distance came the sharp crack of a branch splitting.

    When Lance opened his eyes, the venomoth lay stunned, its wings twitching weakly. His hand dropped to Kana's pokeball—then he hesitated, remembering the nearby village with its wooden huts.

    He threw Kaisho's ball just as a shrill note pierced the air. It seemed to penetrate straight into Lance's head, beating silver fists against his mind. A supersonic. Archer howled, writhing like a trapped magikarp. Pure white light tore from his mouth, scorching the tree tops. Lance smelled smoke, then felt static as Kaisho's electric pulse caught the venomoth from behind. It twitched for several seconds, awash with fizzing light, before falling limp.

    "In the trees," Lance told Kaisho, pointing. Another hyper beam crackled into the clearing, missing Lance by less than foot. Archer, still braying madly in the clouds. Lance called out Toku, on her back even before the light solidified. They sped upward, into the open sky.

    Lance's breathing steadied. From the air, everything was clearer. He whistled sharply, and Archer twisted his head up, tracing the sound. In his amber eyes, Lance saw a terrific struggle towards clarity. The crobat took advantage of his distraction to lash out with an air slash. The blow sent Archer reeling back, but he somersaulted, and when he rose again, his wing-beats had steadied. At Toku's questioning rumble, he let out a deep croon. The two turned their gazes on the crobat and let fire hyper beams in unison. The afterimage blazed behind Lance's eyelids. When it faded, the sky was clear.

    They winged back down to find Kaisho coiled in guard-position over the venomoth, crobat, and ariados. The trees behind her were blackened and the air had taken on an acrid tinge. Lance turned at Archer's triumphant call. The aerodactyl dragged their attacker into the clearing, spiked tail wound around his throat. In the course of the battle, he'd shed his tourist garb like a false skin. Underneath, the clothing was a green so dark it was almost black. His face was completely blank—if the blade at his throat bothered him, it didn't show in his eyes.

    "I am Koga," he said simply. It didn't sound like a concession.

    Lance frowned at him, blood still pumping hotly from the unexpected fight. "Do you ambush all your challengers?"

    "Only the ambitious ones."

    In a movement too rapid and somehow innocuous for Lance's gaze to follow, he extracted himself from Archer's grip and then was bending by his fallen pokemon's side. Archer roared, but Lance whistled him back before he pounced. Koga checked his pokemon carefully, lingering longest on the venomoth's wings. At last he seemed satisfied, and all three vanished in white light. He stood, casting his gaze around the clearing. Lance tensed as Koga stuck his hand into the folds of clothing, and Toku rumbled, but the object he tossed through the air was no weapon. Lance caught the badge on reflex.

    "What you came for," the ninja said. He turned away.

    If I lose him now, I may not find him again.

    "Wait!" Lance called out. "That's not what I came here for. I came to meet you. To learn from you."

    "From me?" The words were threaded with mockery. "What would you learn from me?"

    Koga spread out his arms in a gesture that encompassed the scorched and broken trees, the destruction of their impromptu battle. His eyes shone with a hard, unfriendly light.

    Lance's indignation fell away as he looked around the clearing, seeing the scene through Koga's eyes. Koga had attacked him. But his pokemon belonged to this place. Their webs and spores didn't do harm. Lance had.

    "I'm sorry," he said, coupling the words with a bow low enough that his eyes left Koga's face. "This is a very old forest. I should have taken more care."

    When Lance lifted his eyes, the ninja was still there. That was something, at least. But his hard expression hadn't changed. Lance studied the way he held himself, his back straight, his chin tilted upward—the picture of a man undaunted despite his defeat. A proud man, Lance decided.

    But that pride was hard to square with his behavior earlier. What kind of pride let him stand by while charlatans drew coins trading on the false name of ninja? If Lance had found someone flashing a false kairyu cape—but that thought stung oddly, and Lance forced it away. He met Koga's gaze head-on.

    "Don't they dishonor your traditions? Why do you allow that?"

    Something flashed in the ninja's eyes, but the man tamed it before Lance could decipher the emotion.

    "What do you know of our traditions?" he demanded.

    "Not much," Lance admitted. He stepped forward. "But I know the ninja clans once saved Kanto. I know they were responsible for the founding of the G-Force. I know enough to know your name should not be taken lightly."

    Koga seemed to consider this. Then he spoke, in a sing-song tone completely at odds with the tension tightening his jaw. "Tell me, what did you see when you first entered Fuschia?"

    Lance knew that tone. It was the voice the elders put on when they were asking riddles. But the question didn't sound like a riddle. What had he seen? He'd seen a bold red archway. If he tried, Lance could even remember the writing from a few of the posters.

    He opened his mouth—and closed it. No, this was too important to rush. When the elders asked their riddles, the obvious answer had never been the right one. Though that had never stopped Lance from giving it . . .

    Memory swelled up like a sudden updraft. He was lying on the fragrant grass, tickling Toku's belly. Above, the sky was a startling azure, and the air was warm and languid. At intervals, Elder Kyo asked questions, and he threw back whatever words were floating at the top of his mind. No question had seemed worth the effort to think its answer through.

    If Lance could find that past-him, he thought he might shake the boy and shout, Wake up! Clear your ears! This matters.

    Would it have changed anything, if he'd answered differently that terrible day?

    The sunlight shifted. A hot beam found its way into the clearing, forcing Lance to blink against the glare. He became aware of the forest again, of Koga's unblinking stare.

    "I saw two signs," he said softly.

    There was a long pause. "Correct. Well, at least you are in possession of eyes. Two signs—one to be seen, the other to be obeyed. In Fuschia, we keep our own laws. Here one may not fight with fire in battle, nor may an active psychic pass our borders. Were you to commit a crime here, that crime's punishment would be left to the discretion of the clans. And when my service as gym leader comes to an end, the league will not choose my successor. Do you think we have won this lightly? You say that this forest is old. What would you say of the forest you passed through before?"

    "It was younger," Lance said, frowning. He remembered the view from the sky, and certainty seized him. "It burned."

    "It burned," repeated Koga, his voice low and grim. "Yes. One hundred years ago, Kanto forgot her gratitude. Her people distrusted us—distrusted our isolation, our pride, our independence. They whispered that we plotted secret war. With this mood at its fervor, the champion of Kanto perished by poison. It was not surprising. In those days Kanto was a nest of swarming arbok. My people had nothing to do with it, but what does a simple truth like that matter to the frightened and leaderless? The whispers swelled into an avenging sea.

    "They came for us. Burned the webs of our ariados, the nests of our venomoth. Our forest. Our homes. It brings me no satisfaction to say that for every life of ours they took, we took in return two of theirs. And after, when half our lands wore garments of ash, we came to the negotiating table all the same. Such pragmatism has ever been the way of the ninja. A treaty was signed. A gym founded. The lands devastated by the fire were opened to the rest of Kanto, our gaping wound for them to tramp in. Our leader journeyed to the Sacred Flame, and there she bowed and swore once more our allegiance to the champion.

    "So. You ask why I suffer those fools who parade before tourists under the name of ninja? I tell you that my people have suffered far worse. We know that this thing some call pride is little more than a bright cape, to be donned and doffed as circumstance allows."

    His eyes bore into Lance fiercely, full of anger, full of challenge.

    Lance didn't think before he answered; the words flowed from him like water running downhill.

    "My people burned too. It was called the Battle of the Five Valleys. Every valley burned. That was before I was born, and now the valleys are green again. But my people still hide themselves away. And so no one in Johto sees the glory of the kairyu, or the proud red of a kairyu cape."

    My people, Lance thought, his tongue catching. Why was it so easy to fall back into claiming them? He closed his eyes for a moment and saw a low fire, a woman weaving between the wings of a dragon, but the image seemed distant and strange. When he looked back up, he found Koga watching him closely. For the first time there was something like softness in his face.

    "We hide as well," he said. "We hide in plain sight. That was astute of you to see. We parade the fangless arbok, allowing them to trash and adulterate our heritage, all in the name of their sense of safety, for upon that sense our own safety rests. An honorless, precarious existence, do you judge it? But the blood of our mothers and fathers fashioned it, and that is honor enough. Champion Kikuko understands this. She knows our struggle, respects our sovereignty. The clans know her. We do not know Adachi Jiro."

    Lance startled at his mentor's name. This was about politics, then. And where politics began, Lance's comfort ended. If only Jiro were here. He was knowledgeable, tactful, charming—everything Lance wasn't. But Jiro was back in Saffron, and Koga's gaze was expectant.

    "You don't know him. So, why do you assume he'd be worse than Kikuko?"

    Koga's lips curved into a grim smile. "I do not know him, but I know his kind. He is from the Saffron Megapolis. Such people have no understanding, no ability to see beyond themselves. They think it would be right and fitting if all Kanto became Saffron's fief. Had they the power, they would extinguish the Sacred Flame and put in its place electric lights, thinking that those burn brighter. These city-folk are all alike: arrogant, self-centered, too busy talking to listen."

    "I'm listening," Lance said. "And I know Jiro, even if you don't. I promise he—"

    Koga spoke over him in a hard voice. "Promise no promises on the behalf of others. There's as much sense in that as the summer sun promising to shine in winter."

    "Then I promise for myself." Lance lifted his chin. "Do you doubt my word?"

    Koga stared at him, so long that Lance began to feel uneasy.

    "I do not play at politics," Koga said in a slow, deliberate voice. But that wasn't true, was it? Lance thought. This whole conversation had been politics from start to finish. "Kanto's internal affairs are of no interest to the ninja clans, except when Kanto's endless squabbles and industrial enterprises put our way of life at risk. Champion Kikuko has been a good friend to us. There is no more to say on the matter. But you—" Koga nodded, as if coming to a decision. "You I will teach, if it is teaching that you have come for."

    He stepped into the shadow of two trees and vanished, but the wind bore back his voice.

    "Come with me."

    ~*~​

    In Fuschia, the morning bell rang promptly at dawn. The first morning, Lance stumbled to his feet, feeling like he was twelve again. He had been given a private room, large enough for all of his pokemon to stretch out together. As the bell chimed again, Toku yawned and flopped over on her side. Archer blinked open a single eye, then drooped it shut. Only Kana seemed at all excited by the idea of rising. She butted her head into Lance's side, huffing curls of smoke.

    They stepped outside together. Fires had been lit in the main clearing, and the savory smell of porridge woke hunger pangs in Lance's stomach. He saw children grouped around one fire, yawning and bickering. Nostalgia rose like bile; he averted his eyes and made his way over to a squat woman who seemed to be directing most of the activity.

    "Can I help?" he asked quietly.

    She eyed him warily, everything in the tightness of her face speaking the word "outsider," but after a pause she answered, "There's wood to be cut. And that big orange lug can help tend the fires, as long as it doesn't burn the houses down."

    Kana snorted, but shuffled without further comment over to the furthermost fire, where the kindling hadn't yet caught, and stuck her tail into the wood.

    It was another two hours before Lance, sweaty and a little light-headed from exertion, sat down to eat. Only one fire was still lit: most of the community had dispersed. Lance had gulped down a few spoonfuls of lukewarm porridge when he felt a hand on his back. Koga stood over him. The ninja gave a short nod, almost approving, and said, "When you've eaten, come find me."

    Jiro had always been an amiable teacher, cracking jokes, softening any criticism with a quick word of praise. Koga had no such compunctions.

    "You are sloppy," the ninja snapped when Lance and all his pokemon stood before him. "Too much power, not enough subtlety. There is nothing admirable in blowing out a candle with a hurricane when a single breath would do the same. You can overwhelm many opponents this way, that is true. But Kikuko is not one of them."

    It was the first and last time Koga invoked the champion's name. He set them a series of bizarre exercises—knocking a solitary twig off a tree, destroying an egg without breaking the glass it rested on. Kana's first air slash snapped the twig—and continued cleanly through the trunk of the tree behind it. Lance had winced as the tree crashed down, and Koga had smirked, his point made.

    The days that followed were long and frustrating. Kaisho was the first to succeed, scorching her egg with a single spark of electricity sent zagging through the air.

    "This one remembers what it is to be weak," Koga announced. "That is good. That is the essence of strength. The arbok must always remember his time as an ekans; the ariados must treasure the fragility and cunning of the spinarak."

    It was easy to fall into the rhythms of the ninja village. Lance knew the pace of life here, and slipped into it like a rediscovered skin. Elders told late-night stories, their time-worn faces gilded by the firelight; children played invented games and whined as they did the washing-up in the river; ekans sunned on the slanting rooftops like purple-skinned miniryu. Sometimes the nostalgia grew so acute that Lance would see a flash of blue and turn, expecting to see his cousin running past.

    He knew Toku felt it too. His other pokemon were thriving in the clean, pine-fresh air and open space. Archer went off with the golbat flocks, biting and scuffling and shrieking happily. Kana had become fast friends with the cooks, stoking their fires and nabbing the first taste of every meal. Kaisho was fascinated by the silk-weaving. He watched the looms spin, his eyes bright and focused. Even Ibuki seemed content, mud-bathing in the river and surfacing occasionally to have her belly tickled by the bolder children. But Toku hung back, her green eyes clouded. Some nights, Lance woke to a coldness and found the place by his side empty.

    One such night, Lance threw on his jacket and waded into the chilly, pre-dawn murk. He found Toku on the roof and joined her silently. Her scales glowed, even in the weak moonlight. Her eyes were shut.

    "You could go back," Lance said.

    Toku's antenna stiffened, but she otherwise gave no sign that she had heard.

    "Home. Without me. I was the one who was banished, not you. And I think—" Lance drew a breath, the words coming hard. "Toku, I think they meant banished for good. But you're a kairyu. The whole world belongs to you—the Ryu's Gift is still your home."

    His words trailed off like a failing stream.

    Toku opened her eyes. Hurt blazed in them so brightly that Lance flinched. She whined—a thin, high sound—and shoved her face into his shoulder, like she was a miniryu again, trying to coil around him, to find safety in the fold of his shirt. Lance felt wetness gather in his eyes. He wrapped his arms around her neck, holding her close and listening to the rise and fall of her breath.

    Strength and wisdom. That was what it took to raise a kairyu. Lance had never known what wisdom meant, and if Koga was right, maybe he'd never understood strength either.

    "It was easier, wasn't it?" he said softly. "Before."

    There were things they couldn't unsee now; obligations they couldn't shrug aside.

    Toku nudged him onto her back. They flew for hours, until the sky grew bright.

    For the rest of the day, Lance was bleary-eyed and distracted. A few children approached him for a game of stones, but he waved them away. He sat in a patch of sunlight, idly stroking an ekans in her tender spot just under the venom sacks. It surprised him when the light failed, and the evening fires began to crackle. On half-sleeping legs, he approached the cooks.

    "How can I—" he began, and was cut off by a laden tray shoved into his hands.

    "Master Koga's evening meal. He requested that you bring it to him."

    Lance had never received that honor before. Surprised, he made his way to Koga's dwelling, a small, inconspicuous hut at the edge of the town, almost subsumed by the eaves of the forest. Koga nodded to Lance as he set the tray down.

    "Stay a moment," he said. He didn't touch the tray, but watched Lance for a half-minute, gathering his thoughts. "You have been a diligent student. But the lesson you most need, I can't teach you. You should visit Lavender. Ghost pokemon obey their own rules—you'll need to learn them, if you wish to have any hope against the champion."

    "Thank you," Lance murmured. He bowed, and prepared to go, but Koga's voice halted him.

    "This is . . . not a dismissal. That is one course—you do not have to take it. You are welcome here, as long as you choose to stay."

    His voice lacked its usual gruffness. In the dark gloom of evening, his face long and stern but his eyes almost soft, he might have been Uncle.

    A lot of things might have been, Lance thought with a bitter pang, but they aren't. Pretending couldn't bring anything back.

    "Thank you," he said again, but his voice was clipped, and Lance knew Koga heard the refusal written there. The ninja nodded back, unsurprised.

    The next day, Lance climbed on Toku's back. They were gone before the morning bell chimed.
     
    Last edited:
    Ch 14: The Citizen, Part Two
  • Pen

    the cat is mightier than the pen
    Staff
    Partners
    1. dratini
    2. custom/dratini-pen
    3. custom/dratini-pen2
    The Citizen, Part Two

    The tower that stood at the center of Lavender Town had been formed from thick slabs of stone; it rose aslant, the walls rough and somehow wild. Lance took the place for Champion Kikuko's old gym, and it wasn't until he stepped inside that he realized his mistake.

    He stood in a dimly-lit lobby. Long, low benches, scattered with dark figures—some sitting up, others sleeping—lined the walls, and the air was clogged with the overlapping scents of sandalwood and cinnamon. In the corner a stand sold flowers, gold-embossed paper, and neatly-bound sticks of incense. A steady stream of people passed between the stand and the staircase that led up into the tower. All wore loose, dark clothing and had an inward, preoccupied air.

    An attendant in a black kimono approached Lance as he hesitated in the middle of the room. She spoke in a stiff voice, her eyes fixed on his pokeballs.

    "This tower is for mourners, young man. Please do not disturb the spirits of the dead or their ghostly guardians."

    "The dead?" Lance repeated, and then he understood. This place was a grave-site. He paled, an apology for his intrusion rising on his lips, but before he could speak it an old woman approached and tugged lightly at the attendant's sleeve. The attendant handed her a thin wooden plaque, carved into a shape that was difficult to make out in the low light. The old woman whispered a hoarse thanks and began to shuffle towards the staircase.

    "What is that?" Lance asked. In the Ryu's Gift, the dead were burned. Their remains were mingled with the soil of the innermost valley, and their names spoken each year at the Festival of Ash. Lance had never thought before about how Kanto might honor their dead.

    "A rapidash token. It's said that rapidash can travel between this world and the next if they so choose. Mourners write messages to their loved ones on these tokens, praying that the picture holds the potency of the original and might reach the lost spirits on the other side. Still others believe that the ghost pokemon who dwell in this tower read the messages left behind; sometimes the words written there will intrigue them, and they will carry the message themselves."

    "Is that true?" Lance blurted out before he could think better of the question. He snapped his mouth shut, feeling strangely exposed.

    The attendant looked hard at him. "True? To answer that, I'd need to first pass over to the other side myself. There are things that are beyond true and false, young man. They have their own existence in our spirits." Her face softened, and she held out another rapidash-shaped token. "They say that to the dead, all places are one. If there is someone you wish to write to, here is as good as anywhere else."

    Lance took the token gingerly. The wood edges were rough, unfinished.

    "Pens are by the stairway," the attendant said, and left on soft-toed shoes as silently as she had approached.

    The staircase wound narrowly; the steps were high and unevenly spaced. On the lower floors, Lance saw neat rows of gravestones. People were laying flowers, burning incense sticks, and cleaning the stones with buckets of soapy water. As Lance continued to climb, the arrangements of grave-markers grew more disordered, and the people thinned out. When he found an empty alcove, Lance ducked inside. There were only three gravestones here, dark with the dust and dirt of accumulated years, the inscribed names unreadable. A single window let in muddied light, and the air smelled of old, decaying wood.

    Lance sat cross-legged on the floor, turning the rapidash-token over in his hands.

    Uncle had never told him that his parents were dead. Gone, he had said, the first time it had occurred to Lance to wonder why everyone else had a mother and a father but he only had an uncle and an aunt. Gone, he had said, and his expression was such—so stiff, so startlingly fragile—that Lance had never found the courage to ask again. But the first time Lance was old enough to join the Festival of Ash, he had stood close by Uncle and heard him whisper Riku when the time came to recite the names of the dead.

    Riku, he had said, and two other names that Lance later learned belonged to Uncle's parents. There had been no fourth. Once, he had taken that to mean his mother wasn't dead; now, with sudden darkness, he wondered if Uncle just hadn't considered her worth mourning.

    Reciting the names was important, though. Kairyu-ancestors watched over the spirits of the dead and protected them from being devoured in the tearing winds of the beyond-world. But the kairyu couldn't protect spirits that strayed outside the bounds of the Ryu's Gift. That was why the festival was necessary; each year, the spirits heard their names and were reminded not to stray.

    If his mother was dead, her spirit had probably wandered far away by now.

    To the dead, all places are one.

    Lance took up the token again, studying the figure's curved legs, the fly-away tail. Maybe there was some power here. Maybe, if he wrote something, she would—

    He didn't know her name, though.

    Lance hesitated, pen dangling limply from his hand. Mother of, he began to write, and was forced to stop again, caught between the kanji for Lance and for Wataru. Wataru was the name her spirit would know, but Wataru was a shed-skin, a lie. Could a lie survive the crossing between the worlds?

    The anger curled slowly over Lance, like a thick fog rolling in off the water, until he was all but choking on it. He didn't know his mother's name. They'd taken that from him, the way they'd taken everything else.

    How was he supposed to know who he was, if he didn't know his own past?

    His hand clenched. With sudden, frenzied force, he threw the token across the room, where it hit the gravestone and fell to the ground with a muffled clatter. Lance got to his feet, feeling hot, almost woozy. He sped down the staircase, taking the steps two at a time, and almost knocked over an old man making his laborious ascent. Judgement flashed through the man's eyes, burning into Lance's back.

    The outside air was cold but clear of scent. Lance took it in large gulps, panting.

    Enough. Enough with dead spirits and the ghosts of the past.

    He had come here to face more tangible ghosts.

    ~*~​

    But Lavender's ghost pokemon didn't seem inclined to face him. As soon as dusk drew in, the air thickened, and the shadows began to move. Down the main boulevard, Lance found gastly lurking behind every stall, looping lazy circles around street lanterns, surfing the wind that blew in cold from the mountains. But whenever Lance drew too close, Toku roaring a challenge, the purple gas retracted like a blown candle and, in a blink, the shadow was gone.

    "They're not fighters, boy," an old man commented from a takoyaki stand. It was late, an hour before midnight. Most of the other stalls had closed up, and the street was sparse and lifeless.

    Lance turned. "But Champion Kikuko trains ghosts."

    "Ah, well, Kikuko's a rare one," the man said. He held out his hand, the gesture so casual that it took Lance a moment to work out what was expected. The old man waited patiently as Lance fumbled with his money purse. Coins in hand, he continued, "If you're really determined to make sport with ghosts, you should stop by her old gym, on block nine. Not all of Kikuko's pokemon followed her to the Plateau, you know."

    The gym had no signs or distinguishing features. Lance wandered past it several times, until at last one of the local kids pointed it out in exchange for a quick, wondering pat to Toku's muzzle. He frowned as he took in the gym's outer facade. Everyone in Lavender had spoken of Kikuko with respect, but the gym's disrepair told a different story. The purple paint was soiled, and one window visibly cracked. The door slid open at his touch.

    Stepping inside, Lance was hit with the pungent odor of rattata droppings. The air felt warmer than the chilling autumn outside, even though no fires were lit and no heaters hummed. White daylight crept through the unshaded windows, illuminating a small entry-space partitioned off by thin panels, their delicate paper torn. Lance could see through to a larger room, likely the former battlefield.

    The room was littered with pieces of old furniture and scattered objects—here a rocking chair, missing one arm; here a cracked clay teapot, incongruously perched on the seat of a wheel-less bicycle. Lance studied the panoply of objects in bemusement. It looked like a hoard of merchants had chosen this spot to dump all their defective wares.

    As he bent to examine the teapot, Toku let out a soft rumble. Her antenna had flared, and her eyes flicked warily from one corner of the room to another. Lance felt it too, a stillness to the air that suggested imminent movement. A watchfulness.

    The teapot wobbled. Surprised, Lance took a step backwards and smacked into something cold and wet. He spun: a haunter hung an inch from his face, its tongue lolling a bloated, unnatural pink. It cackled as Toku lunged, dispersing into nothing and reforming at the other end of the room.

    Lance and Toku exchanged glances. The haunter watched them with startlingly white eyes. It hadn't vanished yet. That was something.

    "We're looking for a battle," Lance called out. "What do you think?"

    A muffled chuckle rose from behind him, but Lance resisted the urge to turn. The air around the haunter began to vibrate and flash in red and blue. A confuse ray.

    "Close your eyes, Toku," Lance warned. She struck out sightlessly with a blast of wind in the direction the haunter had been, but it was already gone. "Behind you!"

    The shadow ball was about the size of a melon. It whizzed harmlessly past Toku's head as she winged to the right and sent back another clipped blast. This time, Lance noticed, the haunter didn't dematerialize. It tumbled upwards, spinning in dizzying circles.

    Did preparing an attack anchor it somehow to the material world? Lance's eyes narrowed.

    "Wait until it builds another shadow ball, then try an aqua tail."

    Toku crooned her agreement. She hovered in the air, her tail whipping lazily. The haunter vanished again, reappearing behind Toku's back. Black energy gathered in its hands—

    "Now!"

    Toku's water whip cleaved through the air, striking the haunter across the face with an audible smack. It let out a high whine, and floated backwards in a bobbing up-and-down fashion that Lance could only describe as a limp. Its body seemed more tangible, too. Preparing an attack and taking one, Lance decided. That was where they were most vulnerable.

    Before he could call out a closing command, the furniture in the room began to rattle. The light cut out, as if the windows had been shuttered. Lance ran forward, relying on his memory of where Toku had been. His hand found her smooth scales, and she rumbled reassuringly.

    When the lights returned, they found themselves surrounded. Gastly and haunter had formed into a circle around them, so closely packed that their purple and blacks blended into one single ring. The haunter they had been fighting had vanished.

    Toku tensed, and Lance dropped his hand to his belt, wondering if they needed back-up, but the seconds ticked into minutes, and the ghost pokemon didn't attack. Their attitude was intent, not menacing, Lance decided. He let his arm fall away from his belt. Catching his change in mood, Toku also relaxed her stance.

    Lance studied the silent ring of ghosts again. They'd intervened after Toku hit the haunter. Were they—protecting it?

    "Battle's over," Lance said, stepping forward with his hands held carefully away from his pokeballs. "That's the message, right? I'm sorry—I didn't mean to frighten your friend or push him past his limits. We're used to fights that go on longer, but that's our problem, not yours."

    There was turbulence in the ring, and then a single haunter emerged. The same one from before, Lance realized. Its gaseous body was vaguely teapot shaped.

    "Thank you," Lance said to him, keeping his voice gentle. "It was a good battle. We learned a lot." He raised his gaze to take in the rest of the assembled ghosts. "I hope we can do it again without making anyone uncomfortable. What if you gave me a sign, to show that the battle's over." With sudden inspiration he added, "Like this," and stuck out his tongue.

    There was a silence like an indrawn breath. Then the teapot-shaped haunter began to cackle, and the others joined him, until the room was resounding with groaning laughter. The ring broke apart—some ghosts vanished into the furniture, others hung in the air, studying Lance and Toku with bulging eyes. The teapot-shaped haunter floated back towards the teapot, crooking its hand for Lance to follow. Its body merged with the teapot, until only the whites of its eyes were visible.

    "Is this your home?" Lance asked, examining the dark-red surface and the long crack down the snout. "It's very nice."

    This place was home to all of them, he realized, casting his gaze around the room. All at once, the gym's neglected state took on a new meaning. It wasn't lack of care, but respect for the pokemon that lived here.

    After that, Lance returned every few days. The ghosts weren't hardy or persistent fighters—most of the battles ended when Lance's pokemon managed to land a single blow. Some days not a single gastly or haunter was inclined to fight, but they could always be induced to play tag. They particularly enjoyed blinking out of sight just as Archer's jaws snapped shut around them, giggling at the aerodactyl's frustrated roar. But Archer learned: soon he was bluffing with a bite, only to lash out with his spiked tail at the form that had just materialized behind him. Kaisho and the teapot-shaped haunter got on particularly well. A week in, Kaisho began to huff out dark wisps, much to the haunter's excitement. The ghost took on the role of tutor, until Kaisho could manage to spit a shadow ball about the size of an apple. That attack hit the gastly and haunter no matter how discorporeal they were. Lance was sure it would come in handy when they went toe to toe with Kikuko.

    One overcast morning, Lance and Toku entered to find the abandoned gym in a state of uproar. Gastly whizzed through the air; haunter spun in whirling sets of two. Lance watched in bemusement from the entryway.

    "Did something good happen?" he ventured.

    A voice answered him from the far end of the room. "They're shockingly sentimental creatures."

    Startled, Lance turned to find an old woman sitting in the broken rocking chair. She wore a simple purple dress, and her eyes were like small black stones.

    Kikuko!

    While Lance stood at a loss for words, the champion pushed herself to her feet. She approached him slowly, her gengar-headed staff clunking against the floor with each deliberate step.

    "Took your time this morning, didn't you," she said. "Sleep in late? Enjoy that while it lasts. You reach my age, you won't sleep at all."

    Her laugh came out a harsh murkrow-call. The ghosts joined in, their cackling like a chorus.

    Lance remembered himself enough to drop a bow.

    "Champion Kikuko," he said, "what—"

    "You know my name. But I don't know yours. Someone told me, but I forgot it. Well?"

    "Lance. I—"

    "Lance? What kind of name is that? If your mother gave it to you, she must be a fool."

    His fists clenched before he could stop them. "Where I got my name isn't your business, is it, Champion?" he said, proud that his voice had stayed level.

    "Sure isn't. I just want to know where you got that hair. A bottle, I expect."

    Lance stared. Behind Kikuko, the gastly and haunter had arrayed themselves like the train of a gown. The teapot-shaped haunter broke away from the others and floated up to Kikuko's head. Its body distorted in a complicated series of shapes, before finally it pointed at Lance.

    "Hmph. Clay Teapot claims you've been tolerable," said Kikuko. Her tone suggested that, personally, she had her doubts.

    "Is there something you want from me?" Lance said, not managing this time to keep the mounting anger from his voice.

    "No," Kikuko said sharply. "You're the one who wants something from me." She jabbed her staff at him. "You want my champiancy. Why?"

    "Do I need a reason?" Lance shot back.

    "Need? No. It's a free country, with the usual terms and conditions. Not your country, though, is it? Xatu knows where Jiro picked you up. Johto, someone told me. Well, there's plenty of power to grab in Johto, if you're in the power-grabbing business. Ah," she said, tapping her staff against the floor. "It was Giovanni Fiorelli who told me that. He claims you're quite the battler."

    Giovanni's name brought a sour taste to Lance's mouth—a flash of crumpled wings and a satisfied smirk. "It's not his country either, is it," he said quietly.

    Kikuko flashed him a quick, evaluative glance. "Well, perhaps not. And so, you think Adachi Jiro should take my place. He does have fewer wrinkles—I can't argue with that." She gave another unpleasant chuckle. "Go on, then. You want a fight, don't you? Here I am, ready for a fight."

    She wore no pokeballs. But when held out her staff, Lance realized she didn't need them. A shadow oozed from its tapered end and pooled into the form of a grinning gengar. Two haunter split from the bangles Kikuko wore on either wrist. Their dark arms elongated until they had encircled the battlefield. A sharp blue light sprang up, surrounding Lance, Toku and Kikuko in a convex bubble.

    To protect the ghost pokemon's homes from the fight, Lance told himself, trying to ignore how the light hemmed them in. Toku stepped in front of him, her antenna flaring.

    In the silence that followed, Kikuko's gengar produced a shadow ball in its left hand like a magician pulling a coin from mid-air. A second popped up in its other hand; a third materialized above its head. The gengar began to juggle all three until they blurred, while Lance watched in mounting disbelief. All the haunter he'd fought had needed time to grow their shadow balls. If Kikuko's gengar didn't need that time, how would they be able to strike it?

    Without warning, the gengar lobbed the three balls toward Toku: one moving straight, one curving left, one right.

    "Send them back," Lance called out.

    Before, that would have meant a single, massive twister from Toku. But Koga had taught them to be more precise. Toku beat her wings, summoning three miniature vortexes. Each trapped a shadow ball and sent it spinning back. Just before they impacted the gengar, the ghost vanished.

    Predictable, thought Lance. Toku knew how to handle this. She reared around, her fist blazing with dragonfire, except that when the gengar rematerialized, it wasn't behind her.

    It was above.

    The shadow ball sent Toku reeling back. Snorting, she caught her bearings and sent a whip of water lashing up through the air. Lance expected the gengar to vanish again, but it stayed in place, grinning.

    And Toku's aqua tail missed. The water whip hit empty air and splattered limply onto the floor, wetting the wood like a wayward burst of rain. Toku fluttered backward, her puzzled expression mirroring Lance's.

    The gengar still hadn't moved.

    "Dragon claw," Lance tried. Toku lunged forward, both fists glowing. Again, the gengar stayed visible. It flitted between Toku's blows with ease, a gaping grin still fixed on its face and widening as Toku's movements grew more and more frenzied.

    Something was wrong. Was the gengar really moving that quickly? Or was it that each time Toku's claws neared its shadowy body, the angle of her attack changed just enough to go wide of her mark. And . . . His eyes narrowed. The blue glow cast by the protective bubble had tinted Toku's scales the sickly green of corroded copper, but Lance thought he saw another shade overlayed—a pinkish gloss coating Toku's scales.

    A psychic attack!

    But to use psychic energy like that . . . the few psychic pokemon Lance had fought used their power like a blunt hammer, a pushing wave of energy that could either attack or repel. This was far more subtle and controlled, and the implications set his heart pounding. Toku couldn't beat what she couldn't hit.

    "Enough, Toku! That's not going to work. Try a dance."

    She drew back, avoiding a parting shadow ball, and began to loop easily through the air. With each somersault, her body gleamed more brightly, until the warm light chased both pink and green off her scales.

    Kikuko tapped her staff twice against the ground. The gengar raised its stubby arms; shadow overtook the floor like a flood of tar. Gengar-shaped figures formed out of the dark morass and hurled themselves up towards Toku with unsettling speed.

    "Full twister!" Lance shouted.

    The blast tore into the tarry shades, rupturing them into chunks. But those chunks of shadow sought each other out like water droplets on a leaf, until they had reformed. The gengar shades advanced again as if Toku's attack hadn't even occurred.

    They'd have to hit the real thing, Lance decided, gritting his teeth. As Toku splattered gengar-shade after gengar-shade, he scanned the battlefield until he found Kikuko's gengar, camouflaged by the dark purple of the shadow patch. The edges of its body looked distinctly solid, at least: maintaining this attack must be keeping it anchored.

    Lance waited until the progress of Toku's mid-air fight brought her above the gengar. Then he called out, "Aqua tail down!"

    Toku didn't bother looking. Her tail slashed through the air the instant Lance had finished speaking. The gengar twisted its eyes up, extended one stubby hand into a massive fist . . . and caught the water whip.

    The shades receded and the pool of shadow vanished. Pink light, more distinct now, ran from the gengar's fist up the stream of water, onto Toku. The moment hung in a tableau. Then the gengar brought its arm down. Toku had no time to break away; she hit the ground with a heavy thump.

    Lance flinched at the impact. The gengar re-materialized over Toku, who lay prone. Not enough time for a dragon claw or enough momentum for an aqua tail. And the angle was all wrong for a twister—

    Koga's lesson first lesson came back to Lance. The arbok should remember its time as an ekans, and the kairyu—her time as a miniryu.

    He called out a move that Toku had not resorted to once since her evolution. "Thunderwave!"

    Her eyes snapped open. Static rippled up her tail, trapping the gengar in a prism of snapping and popping electricity. Lance grinned, and Toku's snout curled in satisfaction. She winged up from the ground, her claw glowing with green dragonfire—

    "Lick it," said Kikuko.

    Pink and somehow wet, the tongue lolled from the gengar's mouth and caught Toku under the chin. Her body stiffened; her arm went limp, the green light extinguishing. Before Lance could speak, the gengar had darted forward and grasped Toku's head, tilting it until their gazes met. Its eyes throbbed with a pure, pulsing red, so intense that Lance found he couldn't look away.

    The flap of Toku's wings slowed and then ceased. Her eyes fell shut. Lance inhaled sharply as she hit the ground again, still as a sunken stone.

    But the gengar wasn't finished. Its shadowy arms once again clasped Toku's head, almost tender. The air became sweet, redolent with a scent very much like blossoming koiking grass. Gold light collected around Toku's antenna, then flared out, filling the room with a bright haze that seemed to ripple with images. Lance made out the Ryu's Gift as if from a great height, every valley quilted with red and orange blossoms. He blinked, and now he was surrounded by fellow kairyu. Their welcoming croons morphed into horrified rumbles. He—Toku looked down.

    Her claws were bright with blood.

    "No!" Lance heard his own thin shout as if from a distance. He plunged into the cloud of gold; a numbness at once seized his body. "No, that's not yours, you have no right—"

    "That's enough, Staff. This is a friendly fight."

    Kikuko hadn't raised her voice, but when she spoke, the vision cut out. The room grew dark again, and the fragrance of blossoming plants gave way to the bitter tang of old wood. The gengar somersaulted away, bits of gold clinging to its mouth like the remnants of a tasty stew. Trembling, Lance cradled Toku's head in his lap. She was still gripped by unnatural sleep; under her closed eyes, her scales were wet.

    Clunk.

    Clunk, clunk.

    Lance heard Kikuko's approach, but didn't acknowledge it. A long moment passed before she spoke.

    "Go home, boy." Her dry voice was neither mocking nor triumphant and somehow that neutrality made it all the more terrible. "Go home, and stop meddling in what you don't understand."

    Lance knelt there long after the hollow clunk of her walking stick had faded away. Long enough that Clay Teapot floated out from the shadows and licked him cautiously, as if checking for signs of life. Toku stirred in his arms. She blinked fogged green eyes and let out a mournful croon.

    "You're wrong," Lance said to the silent room. The haunter and Toku both flinched at the harsh rasp of his voice. "We don't have a home. And we're not going back."

    He noticed his hands were shaking, but at least—at least his eyes were dry.

    ~*~​

    "Don't sound so glum, Lance!" Jiro's bright voice poured over the phone line like a balm. Lance imagined him throwing out his arms expansively as he spoke. "Honestly, it might have been for the best. You know what you're up against now, and Kikuko will be complacent. She'll think, I've beaten him once, I can do it again."

    "Would she be wrong?" Lance said in a low voice.

    "I beat you once. Do I beat you every time, these days?"

    That drew an involuntary smile from him. "Only when you cheat."

    "Substitution is not cheating, it's strategy. And strategy is how you'll beat Kikuko. Come back to Saffron! We've still got a month left before the hustings and anyway, you've got an appointment."

    Right. Lance had almost forgotten about that.

    The immigration office was stuffy, overheated, and smelled faintly like the spoiled remains of someone's forgotten katsu don. The clerk assisting Lance had an air of limitless exhaustion, but she was kind enough, and didn't blink when he told her that the name he wanted didn't match the name on his visa.

    There were some questions to answer first. Lance obediently recited back the date of the Hoennese invasion, the start of the Thirty Years War with Johto, the signing of the Compact of Flame. He told her that the Unified Clans of Fuschia held 'limited sovereignty,' as Koga's grim face flashed through his mind.

    "Congratulations, Lance," she said at last, stamping a final form. "Expect your official ID in ten to fourteen days."

    As he stood, surprised by how exhausted he felt after doing nothing more than sit for the past three hours, she added, "Welcome home."

    The words, spoken mechanically but not without a vein of sincerity, staggered him. He murmured something incoherent in reply, bowed, and bolted for the waiting room, where Jiro sat with a celebrity magazine, his sunny-day yellow scarf a beacon against the gray walls. When he caught sight of Lance, his face split into a grin.

    "Everything go well? Excellent." He steered Lance out of the building and into the dusk of early evening. "You must be starved; I know I am. I thought we could check out the new Kalosian restaurant that opened in the east end. I've heard rave reviews, though if you're in the mood for something less rich, Chef Nozawa always saves a seat for me, even though the lines at his place have gotten outrageous. We could—"

    Lance poked him in the side, cutting off the stream of words. "Could we go somewhere not fancy? Somewhere quiet?"

    Jiro's eyes softened. "Of course we can. It's your celebration, not mine."

    They settled on a home-style cafe, neglected next to a booming soba shop. The owners realized who Jiro was halfway through the meal and after that became exceedingly attentive, fluttering to the table with "free sides" and waiting anxiously as he tried each one and obliged them with an effusive compliment. Still, the food was warm and hearty, and Lance found himself relaxing, lulled by Jiro's chatter. He seemed determined to catch Lance up on Saffron's latest goings-on, never mind that half of it involved people and places Lance still only vaguely recognized. When their plates were clear, Lance slipped outside, leaving Jiro to fight with the owners over his extravagant overpayment.

    It was a typical Saffron night. Lance breathed in the smoggy air, remembering something he'd told Jiro when they first met. Too gray and too dark, too smelly and too dirty. None of that had changed, and Lance doubted it ever would. He fit uneasily into Saffron's maze of gray buildings, its claustrophobic avenues and always-on lights. It wasn't the home he would have chosen.

    But it was the home that had chosen him, and that had to mean something.

    Lance tilted his head, staring at one of the streetlights until it blurred into a star.

    Maybe it meant everything.
     
    Last edited:
    Ch 15: The Challenger, Part One
  • Pen

    the cat is mightier than the pen
    Staff
    Partners
    1. dratini
    2. custom/dratini-pen
    3. custom/dratini-pen2
    The Challenger, Part One

    The sandstorm cloaked the battlefield. Seated in Jiro’s private booth, Lance had a better view of the stadium than most, but the wall of sand left him just as blind as the general audience.

    Beside him, Kaisho’s fins vibrated, but before Lance could ask what the hakuryu had sensed, the storm slackened and his gaze was drawn back to the arena. Billows of dust and grit eased down onto the ground, where Jiro’s snorlax lay unmoving.

    Lance began to count under his breath. Seven, eight―as he reached ten, the announcer’s voice broke the expectant silence.

    “Fiiiirst knock-out!”

    As scattered cheers rose from the crowd, the announcer continued, “What we just witnessed was a triple combination: Iron Defense, paired with Roll-out, the move’s increasing power veiled by a Sandstorm. A combination that surely required immense focus and years of training to master, and with quite the pay-off―Jiro hardly knew what hit him.”

    With the sandstorm gone, Lance could see how Jiro’s jaw clenched at the announcer’s words. In the weeks leading up to the hustings, he and Lance had poured over the names, faces, and battle records of Kanto’s top-ranked trainers; this challenger hadn’t been among them.

    “Challenger,” the referee called out, “the first knockout is yours. You may now press your challenge or rest on your victory.”

    This was only the seventh knockout Lance had witnessed in the first three furious days of the hustings, but he could already mouth the standard answer: My victory belongs to Kanto. I relent.

    But the pause stretched out a beat too long. Then the challenger said, “All in.”

    A murmur raced through the crowd, and Lance shifted in his seat, surprised. The hustings were held to determine the champion, but most trainers who participated were after a more achievable prize—the prestige that came with defeating a member of the Elite Four in a one-on-one battle. There was a reason challengers lucky enough to win a first knock-out chose to end the battle there. If they continued to a full battle and lost, that initial victory would be erased. But someone who fought a full battle and won . . .

    Lance studied the challenger’s face, remembering for a moment the old men at the Grand Royale’s poker tables, their eyes gleaming as they shoved their chips forward. All in.

    Jiro would have to fight through the challenger’s whole team now. Lance saw him scowl slightly as he considered his next move. Then his expression cleared. He gestured, and Akira, his clefable, floated into the ring.

    “Close your eyes, Kaisho,” Lance warned as the referee raised his flag. He followed his own advice just in time: the white and pink radiance stabbed against his eyelids. As the afterlight faded, he risked a look. The challenger’s golem lay motionless on the battlefield, surrounded by wrecked stones. They’d tried to block with a stone edge, Lance guessed, but what was stone against the power of the moon?

    “Jiro’s Moonblast, ladies and gentleman,” the announcer crowed. “What is more exceptional, the power or the speed? And in a single move, the tally evens out. The challenger has four pokemon left. Should she triumph, she will claim Jiro’s place on the Elite Four and if she wishes, may take his place in the hustings as a contender for the championship. If she fails, she walks out of this stadium with nothing.”

    She’ll fail, Lance thought. The triple combination had been impressive, but winning five knock-outs was a very different proposition than winning one. Still, Lance worried. A full battle would wear Jiro’s team down, and he was still open to two more challenges before the Rule of Three would force the battle back on Kikuko.

    The champion sat on the dais behind the referee, her hands clasped primly in her lap. Her arbok lay coiled at her feet; her crobat perched on her shoulder. The only sign of her other pokemon were the thick, unnatural shadows that spread out around her. Her expression was masklike as she watched the battle.

    For once Jiro was eschewing his usual flourishes. He called out his commands with single-minded focus until the challenger’s last pokemon fell. None of Jiro’s remaining pokemon had been knocked-out, but from their sluggish dodges, Lance could gauge their exhaustion. If the next challenger was as skilled as this one had been, Jiro might be in real trouble. The hustings were a contest of attrition just as much as they were one of skill. A string of bad luck could end Jiro’s hopes for the championship before the hustings even made it out of Saffron.

    Lance tightened his grip on the token in his hand. It could end before he had the chance to take on Kikuko himself.

    He watched the challenger’s diamond expectantly, but one minute turned into five, with no new challenger announced. Then the announcer’s voice boomed, “The next challenge is by right. Representing Saffron City, please rise for Leader Natsume!””

    Relief flashed almost imperceptibly across Jiro’s face as Natsume stepped into the harsh light of the stadium. The crowd broke into a roar.

    “As gym leader of Saffron City, my challenge is by right,” Natsume called out in her cold, carrying voice. “Champion Kikuko, stand and face me.”

    Like always, Kikuko took her time. But she seemed especially slow-moving today as she shuffled down from the dias.

    At the ring of the battle bell, Natsume sent out her alakazam. Lance had sparred a few times with that alakazam, part of Jiro’s plan to strengthen his team’s psychic resistance. Natsume’s psychic pokemon had incredible force, but they lacked the fine control that had confounded Lance when he had fought Kikuko. He was curious to see how she’d fare against Kikuko’s gengar.

    Kikuko’s lips drew back into a small, dry smile. She let out a low whistle, and her arbok slithered forward.

    What? Lance and Kaisho shared a baffled look.

    The announcer echoed their confusion. “An . . . unconventional choice by the champion. She’s hobbled herself by pitting an earth-bound poison-type against a teleporting psychic.”

    What game was Kikuko playing? The ability to select second was the greatest advantage the hustings candidates had. But Natsume couldn’t have gotten a more favorable match-up if she’d chosen it herself.

    Lance’s confusion deepened as the battle got underway. For some time, the arbok and alakazam played a fast-moving game of tag. Alakazam flitted from place to place, barely touching the ground; Arbok kept to the safety of deep dirt. Then Natsume seemed to grow impatient. Alakazam sent out a volley of energy balls that left the battlefield covered with craters.

    A dark fog spilled suddenly from the ground. The battlefield obscured; when the smog finally cleared, Alakazam and Arbok were locked together, Arbok’s fangs clamped onto Alakazam’s abdomen. The tableau lasted only seconds, before Alakazam threw off the snake with a psychic blast and pressed its advantage with a whip-like psybeam. The cord of energy tangled around Arbok and bound it in place. Leisurely now, Alakazam floated across the cratered field. She held up her spoons, forming a psychic fist. The blow struck Arbok head-on.

    “Fiiiiirst knockout!”

    The crowd stamped and roared. They always cheered a knockout against Kikuko more loudly. No surprise there―Saffron was Jiro’s home turf. It was his name the crowd screamed when the two contenders took their places each day on the dais.

    Kikuko waited until the noise died down, a small smirk on her face. Then she called out, “Objection. Unsteadiness.”

    There was a long pause. The referee flashed five fingers.

    “Kikuko objects, and it’s been sustained with a five-minute wait. If the challenger’s pokemon is on its feet after the time passes, the knockout is proper. If not―”

    Poison, Lance realized in a flash. The arbok got in a bite.

    He studied Alakazam closely. She stood relaxed, twirling her mustache. Surely, a single bite wouldn’t be enough―but Kikuko looked awfully assured. Two minutes had elapsed when Lance saw the alakazam shudder. Natsume’s face grew stormy. Another minute passed, and the alakazam began to gently sway.

    She’s not going to make it. Just as the thought formed in Lance’s mind, the whine of a recall split the silence.

    “Natsume withdraws before the time has been called, forfeiting her victory!”

    There were no cheers this time. In the audience, people bent their heads, muttering. Natsume bowed stiffly and departed the stage.

    Lance clenched the token in his fist, sharing the audience’s displeasure. Kikuko hadn’t needed to do that. She could have chosen her gengar and beat Natsume easily. Instead, she’d gone with her arbok, and Lance could only find one reason for that choice: humiliation. Kikuko had all but proclaimed, “Even with every advantage, you can’t defeat me.”

    “She’s arrogant,” Lance told Kaisho. “We can use that when we face her.”

    He looked down at his token. He’d stood in line for it on the first day of the hustings, eager for the fight to come. But Jiro had been adamant that he not register his token yet.

    “There’s a strategy to this, Lance. Let the early hustings wear her down before you enter. You don't want to face Kikuko fresh if you can avoid it.”

    “We’re ready now,” Lance said aloud, staring at Kikuko’s face. She’d hunched back over her staff, but her eyes gleamed with private satisfaction. She’d looked the same way as she stood over him and Toku.

    Lance’s glare deepened. He ignored Kaisho’s chiding trill until the hakuryu’s tail whapped lightly against his face. With effort, Lance forced himself to relax back into his seat. Kaisho trilled again.

    “I know,” Lance murmured.

    This was Jiro’s show, not his. All Lance had to do was play his part.

    ~*~​

    By the end of the fifth and final day of the Saffron hustings, Jiro’s team had taken twelve knockouts in total and they all looked exhausted. Even Kintsugi’s usually perfect coat had become patchy and unevenly groomed.

    “Saffron’s usually the worst of it,” Jiro said, as they departed the stadium. “Town hall tomorrow, and then we’ll have one free day before the hustings resume in Celadon. The town hall should be a good time, at least. People love me here.”

    He wasn’t wrong. The discrepancy in cheers that Lance had noticed at the stadium was even more pronounced at the town hall, as Jiro and Kikuko fielded a volley of questions about industrial standards, trade with Hoenn, and Saffron’s housing crunch. Kikuko’s answers were distant and non-committal; she seemed to recognize that she was fighting a losing battle. Jiro was at his most animated, grinning and gesturing as he spoke.

    Lance paid close attention for the first half-hour, but as one hour wore into two, his concentration began to drift. When Kintsugi batted his leg and flicked her tail imperiously towards the exit, he followed her out with a silent apology to Jiro.

    The town hall concluded just after three. Jiro shook his head as Lance and Kintsugi slunk into the backstage room to meet him.

    “Truants. Come on, if we keep Natsume waiting much longer she might refuse to teleport us.”

    Lance wouldn’t have minded giving teleportation a pass. He’d stopped getting a stomachache from it, but the experience always left him woozy. After they materialized, Lance sat down on one of the plushy hotel couches, waiting for the world to stop spinning. Jiro chatted for some time at the front desk, then rejoined Lance, looking pleased.

    “Good news! I was able to reserve us the full spa for our exclusive use tomorrow morning. And I was very specific about your gyarados. There won't be any complaints this time.”

    “You're serious,” Lance said flatly, shaking his head at the extravagance. Over-the-top, but well-meant. That was Jiro in a nutshell. “Ibuki will appreciate it,” he conceded.

    But it still nagged at him the next morning, as Ibuki and Kaisho slithered off towards the wet rooms and most of the others followed Lance and Jiro into the dry sauna, stretching out on the oaken benches. Kana let out a blissful groan and flopped onto the heated floor, belly-up. Archer nestled next to her, crooning. The air was thick and steamy.

    “Doesn’t it look bad?” Lance said.

    “Hmm?” Jiro had already closed his eyes. The heat brought up sweat on his forehead, glistening in the dim yellow light.

    “Reserving the whole spa like this. Isn’t it a bit―” Lance floundered for a word.

    “Oh, so now you want to talk about image?” Jiro stretched out his arms, cracking his shoulders. “My team’s been fighting for five straight days. They deserve this, and so do I. No one in Saffron would bat an eye at our taking some well-deserved rest.”

    “How about outside Saffron?” Lance said, his thoughts turning to Pewter’s miners. He was pretty sure they worked more than five days in a row and didn’t see a spa at the end of it, much less a private one.

    Jiro snorted. “If Kanto really believed in democracy, I wouldn’t have to worry about ‘outside Saffron.’ We’ve got more people than every other township and municipality in Kanto, but thanks to this damned archaic system, Saffron has the same say in the champiancy as Pallet Town―and calling Pallet a town is stretching it. More like Professor Okido’s personal research fief.”

    Lance frowned. He didn’t exactly agree with the idea that Saffron should get more of a say just because it happened to have more people crammed into its brooding high-rises. “Like it or not, the other places do vote.”

    “They do.” Jiro splayed out his fingers and began to count them off. “Kikuko’s got her strongholds in Lavender and Fuschia. She’ll get Pallet, too―Oak knows where his funding bread is buttered. Cinnabar and the Sevis are always wildcards, but I’m guessing they’ll swing her way out of inertia more than anything else. Half the islanders don’t even have radios―absolutely hopeless trying to make headway out there. Saffron and Celadon are in my corner, obviously, and Vermillion follows Saffron. Pewter’s trickier. Muno's promised to endorse, which carries a fair bit of weight with the miners. But there’s a lot of anti-urban sentiment there. Hard to know which way it will come out. Cerulean’s a safer bet. I had my doubts back when Hamako was still kicking around―a traditionalist to her core, that one―but I've had some very productive conversations with the Waterflower Sisters and I can't see them putting in for Kikuko. They understand that Kanto’s not getting anywhere hiding from the future.”

    “You left out Viridian,” Lance said, choosing to ignore the jab at Hamako.

    "Oh, Giovanni’s a friend, but he’s also a cagey bastard. Wants to keep his finger in every pie, you know.” Jiro cracked open an eye. “I’m glad you’re taking an interest, Lance, but you shouldn’t worry too much about the politics. It’s not going to come to a vote. You’ll beat Kikuko first.”

    “Right,” Lance said. His gaze fell on Toku. She had both her eyes shut and her breathing had evened out. In the thick haze of the sauna, she looked more peaceful than she had in months. “You’re right,” he said, more emphatically.

    ~*~​

    That evening, they went to see a play. During the ride, Jiro was uncharacteristically stony, staring in fixed silence out the cab window. He’d taken a call in the afternoon, and when he returned, his whole body thrummed with tension.

    “Is everything all right?” Lance finally ventured. Jiro’s gaze snapped over to him, and he waved a vague hand.

    “Theater’s just so tedious. And Kazuki’s Tale is horribly overdone. They always perform it for the hustings and of course it’s a snub to Celadon if we don’t show up, so here we are.”

    Lance was pretty sure the play wasn’t the actual issue, but he held his tongue.

    He had never been to a theater before. With its stage surrounded by a half-circle of bleachers, Lance thought it looked a lot like a battle stadium, though the seats were definitely more comfortable. The air was thick with the same anticipation that heralded a pokemon battle, but when the lights dimmed, the crowd went quiet instead of loud.

    In the beginning, Lance struggled to follow anything that was happening. The actors’ faces were painted so thickly they hardly seemed human, and they spoke in a strange, archaic dialect that passed right over Lance’s head. The battling was strange, too. The pokemon’s attacks were as exaggerated and artificial as the actors’ gestures. Nothing like real battling at all, he thought at first, but as the play progressed, he began to find a logic―even artistry―in it. Each battle had been condensed to its most essential moments, those crucial shifts that normally occurred in the space between blinks.

    The play told the story of the very first hustings. Kanto lay under siege by a great army. But instead of meeting the threat in battle, the lords of Kanto squabbled and did nothing. When Viridian sent desperate pleas for aid, Kazuki saw that the lands would fall if they did not unite. He traveled from fief to fief and stood in the town square thirty days and thirty nights, taking every challenge. After this, the lords swore to follow him, and he led Kanto’s first combined army into combat, pushing back Johto’s forces and holding the narrow pass against them through a punishing winter, until at long last Johto relented.

    Kazuki was the first champion. After him, the towns of Kanto never stood alone.

    When the curtain fell and the lights returned, Lance rose in a thoughtful mood. What would have happened if the great dragon masters had been like Kazuki? If they had stood and fought, rather than retreating into their seclusion?

    On the way out, their paths crossed with Kikuko. Jiro made her a deep bow, elaborate enough to verge on mocking. She returned a curt nod, her lips curling.

    They didn’t speak.

    ~*~​

    By the time Lance woke the next day, Jiro’s bad mood had burned off as thoroughly as Saffron’s morning fogs. He hummed as he smeared spicy mustard over his natto and rice, and sent Lance back to change twice. “I don’t think any photographers will be bothering with me,” Lance said at last in exasperation when Jiro raked a critical eye over Lance’s third ensemble and opened his mouth once more.

    “Never assume that,” Jiro said. “Always look your best, even if you think no one’s watching. But I was thinking it’s time for you to register your token.”

    “Now?” Lance’s irritation dropped away. “Didn’t you say I should wait until Cerulean?”

    “I did. But, you’re ready, aren’t you? So why wait.”

    Lance refrained from rolling his eyes. He’d been saying that since the start, after all.

    “Kaisho,” Lance said. “Are you ready?”

    The hakuryu stirred from where he lay curled on the couch. They had decided Kaisho would be his lead. Kikuko would most likely expect Toku; the hakuryu’s appearance would make her drop her guard. But underestimating Kaisho would be her mistake. Kaisho had the agility to match her gengar and Kikuko wouldn’t be counting on his shadow ball.

    Kaisho’s answering trill sounded less than sure. Jiro turned around.

    “Come here,” he said firmly. When Kaisho floated over, he undid the yellow ribbon from his bun and tied it neatly around Kaisho’s horn. “You need to look your best, too,” he said. “Now listen. You’re strong. You’re smart. You’ve trained hard every day. Kikuko doesn’t stand a chance.”

    Kaisho trilled again, more warmly.

    When they arrived at the hustings, Lance joined the line that wound out from the registration table. A half-hour passed before he reached the front. He showed his citizenship papers and badges and signed an affidavit. The clerk wrote down the number of Lance’s token, then passed it back to him.

    “This token is your battling ticket,” said the clerk. “Remember, you’re only entitled to one. Sale of tokens is forbidden by law and carries a civil fine and league expulsion. If your token is called and you do not present yourself within fifteen minutes, you forfeit your challenge and your token number will be struck. Please affirm that you understand the rules.”

    “I understand,” Lance said. His pulse quickened as he made his way into Jiro’s reserved booth. Celadon’s hustings took place in an open-air stadium, perfumed by the late autumn flowers. It would make good terrain for Lance’s team. Kaisho could even call the rain here.

    Now that he was registered, Lance took more interest in the large board where the called token numbers were displayed. Most numbers passed unclaimed―Lance guessed those belonged to Saffron trainers who weren’t inclined to follow the hustings to Celadon―but the day dragged on and Lance’s number still didn’t come up. As the final challenge concluded with a clean knock-out by Kintsugi, Lance sighed and tucked away his token. It would have been very lucky to get called on his very first day. He heaved another, deeper sigh when Jiro informed him that they’d be attending another gala tonight.

    “Don’t even start,” Jiro said, when Lance opened his mouth to suggest that maybe his time would be better spent training than partying. “The moment you beat Kikuko, you become a member of the Elite Four. You should start acting like it.”

    The rebuke was mild, but it still stung. Lance straightened his back and nodded. That evening, he smiled until his face hurt, and when Kaisho grew restless, Lance didn’t follow him out into the hibiscus-scented night.

    It was nearing eleven when they returned to the hotel. Jiro’s face was red and flushed―he’d been drinking more than usual. Lance sat cross-legged on the carpet, rubbing Kintsugi’s belly.

    “I’ve decided.” Jiro spoke up from the couch, his words slightly slurred. “When I’m champion, I won’t live at Indigo Plateau. It’s ridiculous having the champion so remote. If Saffron’s good enough for Parliament, it's good enough for me.”

    “Mmm,” Lance said. He’d never been to Indigo Plateau, but he’d heard about it. A broad mountain, topped by a wide, flat plain, from which all Kanto was visible. Kana and Archer would probably enjoy the open space there. He wondered if it had a lake.

    A pleasant lull fell. Lance closed his eyes and rested his head by Kintsugi’s paws, knowing he should go to bed, but unwilling to move from the floor. Tomorrow, his token might be called. Since the hustings had begun, he’d itched to fight Kikuko, but now that it might happen at any moment, Lance felt a small stab of reluctance. He wanted to win that battle, of course. But if he won―when he won―everything would change. For all the attention Jiro paid to how he dressed, the reporters that followed Jiro like second shadows mostly ignored him. That wouldn’t last once he took Kikuko’s place.

    The sudden shrill of the phone startled Lance from his thoughts. Muttering under his breath, Jiro hoisted himself from the couch and picked up the receiver. His forehead scrunched. “Lance, do you know a Miss Iwata?” he called across the room.

    Lance got to his feet. Miss Iwata called him every other Friday―what was she doing calling on a Monday? And why so late? He pulled the receiver from Jiro’s hand.

    “Hello?”

    “Agent Lance?” Miss Iwata’s voice was indistinct. “I’m so sorry to call at this hour. I tried to reach you three times already, but they said you were out―”

    “It’s fine,” Lance said. He turned to Jiro, who looked desperately curious, and flapped his hand. “Can you, uh―”

    A grin split his face. “I’ll give you two your privacy,” he said with an exaggerated wink and ambled unsteadily off towards his bedroom.

    Great, Lance thought with an internal groan. Jiro would be teasing him about this for weeks.

    “Is something wrong?” he asked Miss Iwata, trying to keep the annoyance from his voice.

    “Not wrong, right! I finally have some information for you. That criminal you’re after―he’s going to be in Celadon City tomorrow. 6:00pm, at the Grand Royale Casino.”

    Lance’s heart began to pound. “Are you sure?” he demanded. “How do you know?”

    “Mr. Fiorelli canceled his lunch meeting today, and told me he’d be having lunch in. I thought it was odd, so toward the end of the lunch hour I took some papers that needed his signature and went up to his study. The door was locked, but I could hear voices. Then I heard Mr. Fiorelli say “Archer,” so I knew it was your man. He speaks softly, though. I couldn’t catch much, just that something was “risky.” But then Mr. Fiorelli said loud and clear, ‘6:00pm tonight, the Grand Royale. I’ll see you there.’ Is that―you people can do something with that, right?”

    “Yes,” Lance said, though he wasn’t actually sure they could. Agent Noriko had explained to him in her usual dry way that as far as they could prove, Archer hadn’t done anything illegal. He gave his profession on his tax returns as the Grand Royale’s Chief Executive Officer and he held himself out as a businessman and high-society lender. Visiting his own casino probably wasn’t out of the ordinary. But Giovanni would be there too. If Lance could listen in on their meeting, if he could get proof that Archer was threatening Leader Fiorelli― “That’s really helpful, Miss Iwata. But listen, you have to be careful. Archer’s dangerous. If he realizes you’ve been eavesdropping on him―”

    Miss Iwata cut him off, her tone polite but firm. “Respectfully, agent, where my sister is concerned, I’ll take whatever risks I like.”

    “Of course,” Lance said, chagrined. “Just be careful, please.”

    After she rang off, he sat for some time, staring at nothing. He fell asleep on the couch.

    ~*~

    Tuesday’s hustings came and went without Lance’s token coming up. He had an excuse prepared if Jiro insisted on another gala, but they made it back to the hotel by five. Lance changed into his Rocket uniform, then threw on a dark sweater to hide the bright R. It took him some time to find one in his luggage―Jiro had been energetic in his efforts to replace Lance’s “entirely unsuitable” clothing.

    Lastly, he grabbed the tape recorder Noriko had given him. Again, he wondered if he should try to contact her first. But what would be the point? He knew she didn’t trust him to do anything about Team Rocket. When he’d asked her for a real mission, all she’d done was give him this tape recorder and said to keep his ears peeled. Well, that was what he was doing, wasn’t it?

    Jiro was also heading out. He raised an eyebrow at Lance’s all-black attire, but didn’t comment. They took the stairs down together, and as they stepped outside, both turned left, almost bumping. Jiro laughed. “The practice hall’s the other way,” he reminded Lance. His expression turned sly. “Or are you meeting a friend?”

    “I’m going to see someone I haven’t seen in a while,” Lance said carefully. It wasn’t a lie, not exactly, but he felt rotten the moment he spoke, and even more so when Jiro nodded, oblivious to the undercurrent in Lance’s words.

    Jiro was more than a mentor. He’d opened his life to Lance, and he deserved better than secrets. He deserved the truth―all of it, no matter how much it hurt to tell.

    “Will you be free later tonight? To talk about―” Secrets and lies, Lance thought, wincing. “Just to talk,” he finished weakly.

    Looking faintly bemused, Jiro nodded. “Of course. I’ve got business now, but it shouldn’t run too late.”

    Lance shot him a quick smile, then set off down the street at a brisk walk. It had been years since he’d been in Celadon, but he could have found his way to the casino in his sleep. He followed a shortcut that led directly to the casino’s back entrance. A block away, he drew out his battered black cap and worked it onto his head, tucking in wayward strands of red hair.

    Two men were stationed at the back entrance, their stances slumped and bored. Neither wore Rocket uniforms, just the midnight black of the casino staff. Lance steadied himself and then took off toward them at a run.

    They watched him approach without any change in stance. Lance stopped a few feet away. “Is Archer here yet?” he said breathlessly.

    “Executive Archer to you,” one of the men answered. “I haven't seen him. What's going on?”

    Lance tried to look nervous and lost―he didn’t have to pretend very hard. “I don't know, they just told me ‘show up.’ Thought I was gonna be late. You-you don't know where I can find him?”

    The other man shrugged. “Better check with the manager.”

    Lance nodded. But as he stepped between them, a hand came down on his shoulder. He stiffened, his blood pumping hot.

    “First time you’ll be assisting the executive?” the man asked.

    Lance swallowed. “Yes,” he said. Seizing onto a thread of inspiration, he looked up and said in a rush, “Is it true that he―”

    Both men laughed.

    “He won't bite, boy, not if you keep a respectful tongue in your mouth.”

    A jovial slap to the back propelled Lance through the entranceway. He jogged down the corridor until it turned a corner, then paused to collect himself. This was going to be harder than he’d thought. He didn't dare try the same ploy out on the manager―she was too likely to recognize him.

    He decided to canvas the third floor, where the casino had its private meeting rooms. Trotting down the winding halls, Lance kept his head low. It was the dinner hour and downstairs the casino bustled, but the landing on the third floor was deserted. Most of the rooms were locked. But the room at the far end of the corridor had its door slightly ajar. Coming closer, Lance noticed a discrete ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign.

    Wataru?”

    He froze.

    “Wataru,” the voice said again, more sure this time.

    Lance turned slowly, his heart thudding. A server in a pink kimono was coming towards him, pushing an ice cart in front of her. A stranger―at least, until she stepped out from behind the cart and their eyes met.

    “It is you!” Aki breathed. “You’ve gotten so tall!”

    He smiled uncertainly. She had also gotten taller. The baby fat in her cheeks had thinned out, and her hair was longer now, loose around her shoulders. She wheeled the cart past him, into the meeting room, then looked back, her uncertainty mirroring his own. “I have to prepare the room, but nobody will be here for a while yet. We can catch up?”

    He stepped inside, closing the door behind him. The walls and floor were dark-paneled wood, lit by a low-hanging chandelier. A table stood at the center of the room, surrounded by plush chairs.

    “Important guests?” Lance said, fighting to keep his voice casual.

    She nodded as she draped a thick red cloth over the table and set out a silver bucket and three champagne glasses. “The executive’s coming. Are you here to see him? The manager told me you’d gone to work in his personal office.” She began to scoop ice, her eyes cast down. “I had to ask. You didn’t exactly say goodbye.”

    Guilt prickled in his chest. “I’m sorry, Aki,” he said heavily. “I didn’t think―it happened really fast. How have you been?”

    “I’m fine,” she said. “I’m great.” She shoved a bottle of champagne into the ice-bucket. The ice crunched loudly. “I’m a senior server now. I’ve got―well, my boyfriend’s got―a nice apartment on the west end.”

    As she reached to place another bottle in the bucket, her arm knocked against a glass, sending it rolling off the table edge. It hit the wood and shattered.

    “Shit,” Aki said. Before Lance could react, she was on her knees, snatching up shards of glass with her bare fingers. “Shit, shit.”

    He joined her on the ground, noticing how her hands trembled.

    “Aki,” he said, alarmed. “Are you okay?”

    She didn’t answer. Dumping the largest glass shards on the cart, she grabbed a cloth napkin and swept up the rest.

    “It’s fine,” she said, pulling another glass out from the cart. “See? I always bring spares.”

    “That’s not what I asked.”

    She set the spare glass on the table. Then, finally, she looked at him. Now that he was paying more attention, he noticed the puffiness under her eyes, the chalky paleness that indicated heavy make-up.

    “You’re the first person to ask me that all month,” she said flatly. “And I haven’t seen you for three years.”

    Lance glanced towards the closed door. He wasn’t sure how long they had until 6:00pm―as a rule, the casino rooms displayed no clocks. If Archer found him here . . .

    “Aki, if something’s wrong, maybe I can help.”

    “You can’t.” She wheeled the cart into a small alcove, drawing a curtain closed in front of it. Her back to him, she said, “For weeks, I haven’t been feeling well. Nausea in the mornings, throwing up my food. And every day I’m so tired I don’t know how I’m going to get up. So I stopped by a chansey shop last week. They told me I’m―that I’m.”

    “―sick?”

    “Pregnant.”

    “Oh,” Lance said stupidly. He looked at her stomach, but it didn’t seem that big.

    “I haven’t told anyone,” Aki said, her voice picking up speed. “I haven’t told Benjiro. I just don’t know if he―I don’t know if this is what he signed up for. And if it’s not and if he doesn’t―I put all my savings into the deposit, but the apartment’s in his name, and I think maybe I’ve been really dumb.” Her throat worked. “I just don’t know how I’m going to do this. I don’t know.”

    Lance didn't know either. He sought for something to say, but all his mind offered back was the empty saunas of the spa Jiro had reserved. He wondered how much money it had cost, and what that kind of money would have meant to Aki.

    She rubbed her temples. “Sorry. Gods, I haven’t even asked how you are.”

    “I’m―”

    Were those footsteps in the hallway?

    “Aki,” he said, fear sharpening his tone. “They can’t see me in here.”

    She blinked at him. “Executive’s orders?”

    It would be so easy to say yes. But after her honesty, Lance couldn’t bear to lie to her.

    “No,” he said softly.

    Definitely footsteps. Aki stared at him, then gestured frantically toward the alcove. He made it behind the curtain just as the door swung open.

    The alcove was about as large as Toku. Along with the ice cart, Lance barely fit. He heard footsteps clattering on wood and then the scrape of chairs being drawn back. Hoping the noise would cover his actions, Lance opened his pack and pulled out the recorder. He winced at the low hiss it made as the cassette began to turn.

    “May I pour you some champagne, sirs?” Aki asked, crisp and professional.

    “Certainly, my dear.” Giovanni’s smooth baritone was unmistakable. There was a clink and a loud pop.

    “None for me.”

    Lance had been bracing himself for it, but Archer’s stiff drawl still hit him like a slap to the face. He heard his breathing speed up and forced it steady.

    “Of course, executive,” said Aki. “And you, sir?”

    “I’ll indulge.”

    Lance froze.

    The third voice continued brightly, “Genuine Kalos import? You’re spoiling us, executive.”

    He knew that voice. But it was impossible.

    Lance couldn’t help it: he twitched back the curtain just enough for the room to flash into view. Three men were seated around the table. Giovanni swirled his glass, expression indulgent. Archer sat rigid in his chair. And smiling up at Aki as she poured his drink . . . was Jiro.

    The curtain flopped back into place. Lance stared at its coarse red fabric, unable to form a single coherent thought.

    “But of course. Only the best for yourself and Leader Fiorelli. That’s all, girl. We aren’t to be disturbed for the next hour.”

    There was a lull, filled by Aki’s departing footsteps. The door thudded shut.

    “A toast,” Giovanni said into the silence. “To Kanto’s future champion, Adachi Jiro!”

    The glasses clinked.

    “Won’t you drink to that, executive?” Jiro asked, his tone teasing.

    “You’ll forgive me, Master Jiro. I make a habit of avoiding intoxicants, particularly when discussing business.”

    Giovanni chuckled. “He’s hopeless, Jiro―believe me, I’ve tried.”

    Jiro chuckled too. More seriously, he said, “I’m grateful that you’re taking the time, executive. I know you’ve got a busy schedule.”

    “As do you, for the next few weeks. I’m slightly perplexed as to why we’re here, Master Jiro. I thought we had agreed that you would receive your loan once your position was secure.”

    “That’s right. But the situation’s changed. I got word on Sunday that the city’s pushing the auction forward. I’m afraid I’ve run out of ways to delay.”

    “I appreciate that circumstances have changed for you, Master Jiro, but I don’t see how they’ve changed for me. You’re requesting I advance the full sum on a probability, rather than a certainty. You can hardly fail to grasp my reservations.”

    “I think, Jiro,” Giovanni interjected, “that what Executive Archer wants to know is how sure you are. Even if I endorse, if it goes to vote and you lose Pewter, that’s the end of it. And you know I’d prefer not to go public on the race. The politics are delicate, to say the least.”

    “I understand completely, Giovanni, and I’m telling you, there’s no need. Lance is going to win.”

    Lance flinched at the sound of his name. Had Jiro always said it like that? Proud. Proprietary.

    “Ah, yes.” Archer’s voice was drier than Pewter’s parched air. “Your dragon-wielding prodigy. I heard Champion Kikuko thrashed him in a private battle last month. Given that, do you really expect me to take your assurances seriously?”

    “Respectfully, Executive Archer, you don’t know Lance. I do. You’d be hard pressed to find a more capable trainer―or a more stubborn one. When I first fought him, my persian took down his dragonite. After that, the two of them didn’t give it a rest until they could match us. More than match, if I’m being entirely honest. He’s going to beat Kikuko, and in my opinion, it’s not going to be close. The old zubat’s gotten cocky.”

    A short silence followed Jiro’s pronouncement. Then came the sound of a hand slapped against wood. Lance almost dropped the recorder.

    “Well dammit, Jiro, you’ve convinced me. Haven’t you heard enough, Archer? I say, give this man his money.”

    “As one of our chief investors, your opinion is, of course, entitled to the highest deference, Leader Fiorelli. Master Jiro, you understand that if I were to grant this advance, under these highly exceptional circumstances, I would expect, shall we say, reciprocal consideration on your part in the future.”

    “That goes without saying, executive. I promise you, when I’m champion you won’t find me ungrateful.”

    “It’s settled, then!” boomed Giovanni. “Executive, I’m sure you can manage the fiddly details. Jiro, shall we head down to the floor and go a few rounds of poker?”

    Jiro’s laughter sparkled with relief. “How can I refuse? But only a round, Giovanni. You’re a dangerous man at the poker table. If I’m not careful, it’ll be you, not me, walking out of here with Executive Archer’s money!”

    “You’re a scandalous flatterer, Jiro. Very well. One round only, but do make it good. Worthy opponents are so hard to come by these days.”

    The chairs scraped again. The door opened and shut. After a minute had passed in silence, Lance dared another twitch of the curtain.

    Archer hadn’t left. He stood with his back half to the alcove, unmoving. Lance froze. The recorder’s whirring sounded louder in his ears than a rushing waterfall. Any moment now Archer would turn, their eyes would meet―

    As Lance watched, Archer lifted Giovanni’s abandoned glass to his lips. He contemplated it with a strange, private smile, then took a single sip. Without even a glance in Lance’s direction, he slipped out the door.

    ~*~​

    The ginkgo trees had all shed their leaves.

    When had it happened? Only yesterday, Lance remembered looking out the taxi window and seeing a limitless sweep of gold. But the branches were bare beneath the street lamps, and pale yellow leaves clung to the soles of his boots. As the hotel came into view, his walk slowed into a trudge.

    He wanted to fly. He wanted it so much he could almost feel the cold wind on his face, how the city would become nothing more than a grounded constellation. But he had to talk to Jiro. He had to try and understand what he’d heard. Lance had the strangest feeling that he’d just witnessed another kabuki play, all labyrinthine words and artificial gestures, and beneath it all some meaning, just out of reach.

    But if it was a play, who had been the audience?

    Lance’s heart hammered as he unlocked the door, but the hotel suite was empty. He walked over to the room where Jiro slept and for the first time, tried the door. It opened without resistance. Inside, Jiro’s bed was strewn with clothes, shimmers of gold and russet, sunny yellows and burnt reds. Lance began to poke around in the drawers, under the bed, not sure why he was searching or what he was searching for. Maybe he was just looking for anything hidden, anything that hinted at some discrepancy between outward and inward―but there was nothing to find.

    He crossed back into the living room. A glance at the clock told him that almost an hour had slipped by. He slumped on the couch, and it was only then that he realized how tired he was. His legs and eyes seemed to have turned into stone weights. But despite the fatigue, he couldn’t stay still. Jittery, he swung to his feet and made a circuit of the room, from the couch to the window, then back to the door. He did it again, and again, picking up speed until he was moving at just short of a run. The pidgey clock trilled. It was 9:00pm.

    When the door finally swung open, Lance had his face pressed to the window, watching the city lights flicker. He spun around as Jiro entered the room, humming.

    “Winter’s coming on quickly,” Jiro said conversationally. He unlooped his scarf, tossing it across the nearest armchair, and began to work on his coat buttons. Lance said nothing. Once his coat was shucked, Jiro glanced at the clock and performed a double-take. “Quarter after nine already?” he said. “I hope I haven’t been keeping you waiting. I got a bit caught up.”

    “Playing poker?” Lance said quietly. His voice came out hoarse, like some grit had lodged in his throat.

    Jiro blinked. “Yes, as a matter of fact. Lance,” he said, playfully stern. “You weren’t meeting this friend of yours at the Grand Royale, were you? I know it’s hypocritical coming from me, but there are some bad habits you don’t want to develop too young. If you’ve really got your heart set on gambling, I can take you sometime this spring, after you’ve turned eighteen.”

    Lance studied Jiro’s loose smile. He seemed at ease, as if this conversation was no different than a hundred ones they’d had before.

    “Is playing poker all you were doing?”

    “Bit of business, bit of pleasure,” Jiro said vaguely. He squinted at Lance. “What’s this all about? Kikuko hasn’t been feeding you some nonsense, has she? I thought I saw that damn gengar of hers lurking around. Well, she can take―”

    “This is nothing to do with Kikuko,” Lance interrupted. The anger spiked in him suddenly. Jiro could talk until the tauros came home and still not come to the point. He drew in a short breath. “I saw you. I heard you. What’s Archer giving you? What does he want in return?”

    For a long moment, Jiro didn’t speak. Then he walked slowly over to the couch and sat, gesturing towards the armchair opposite. “Sit down, Lance. Let’s talk.”

    It felt a bit like conceding something, but Lance took a seat.

    “I don’t suppose you want to tell me how you heard this.”

    “Does it matter?”

    “I guess not. Listen, it’s simple enough. I need a loan; Executive Archer’s giving me one. That’s all.”

    “But what do you need a loan for?” Lance burst out. He’d been turning it over in his mind while he waited, and the more he thought about it, the less sense it made. “You’ve got more money than there’s koiking in the sea!”

    “Ah. Well.” Jiro’s smile shaded on a grimace. “That’s certainly the impression I aim to impart, yes. However, there are certain debts that have gotten a little on top of me in recent years. And now that I’m in a position where I need a substantial sum right at this moment, it’s been a tad difficult to find a lender willing to extend their goodwill. Even with Archer it was a close call―if Giovanni hadn’t had my back, I’m sure he would have sent me packing.”

    “But you―” Lance shook his head, trying to square that with everything he knew about Jiro. The pieces didn’t fit. “If you need money so much, what are you doing reserving spas and buying me shiny new clothes every other day?”

    “Appearances are important, Lance. How many times have I told you that? And it’s not like―” For the first time, Jiro looked slightly uncomfortable. “Well, take the spa. The manager was happy to do me that favor. No money needed.”

    Lance’s forehead creased. “What?” he said sharply. “You mean you didn’t even pay? Why would the manager agree to that?”

    Jiro seemed to weigh his words. Then he shrugged and said simply, “Because I’m going to be champion.”

    Lance digested that in silence. The room felt very warm. “So it was a bribe. Archer too. It’s all bribes.”

    Hideyoshi’s words rang through his mind. They’ve got the pocket of everyone who matters.

    Jiro’s nose wrinkled. “That’s an ugly word, and an inaccurate one. It’s favors, Lance. Favors are the grease that turns the world’s gears. Everyone does it.”

    Then everyone was wrong. What kind of thing was that to say?

    “So Archer does you a favor and you’ll do him one back? What do you think that’ll be?” His voice rose. “Don’t you know who he is?”

    “The Grand Royale’s CEO,” Jiro answered, tone entirely baffled. “And a seriously cold ‘karp if you want my opinion, but that’s neither here nor there. I know what he wants: looser licensing, fewer restrictions on the import-export of pokemon, shaking the dust off some of the old morality laws. It’s practically my platform anyway.”

    “He all but runs Team Rocket.”

    “What’s that? Oh,” Jiro said, before Lance could open his mouth, “they’re that trainer’s rights group. What’s your point? They’re a bit obnoxious, but nothing to get worked up about.”

    “They kill people,” Lance said flatly. “If you don’t believe me, talk to Agent Noriko from the G-Force. She’ll tell you.”

    “Slow down,” Jiro said, blinking. “Kill people? The G-Force? Lance―” He held out his arms placatingly. “It’s just a loan, all right? No need to get the G-Men involved.”

    He’s not lying. He really doesn’t know. Lance’s anger faltered, punctured by a rush of relief. He forced his voice back down. “This is serious, Jiro. You have no idea. Whatever you need that money for, it’s not worth it. Give it back. Tell them you don’t need it.”

    “I do need it, though.” Jiro leaned forward, his eyes bright. “I was planning to tell you once the sale was complete, but―it’s Fearow Hill. I’m buying Fearow Hill. And it can’t wait. The city needs revenue, they’re putting the land up for auction. It’s prime pickings for development―the view alone is a goldmine, and nobody but me cares that construction there would mean stripping the trees, driving away the fearow.” Jiro’s face went tight as he spoke. “I can’t just let that happen.”

    Lance’s eyes widened. Jiro had never said it outright, but from his offhand comments Lance had come to understand that Fearow Hill was the closest Jiro had gotten to a permanent home. In a burst of sympathy, Lance imagined monstrous bulldozers piling into the Ryu’s Gift like an invading army, tearing up the koiking grass and banishing the kairyu.

    “That’s―that’s terrible,” Lance said emphatically. “But surely―surely you can’t be the only one who’d want to stop it. People probably just don’t know. You should tell them. If you speak up about it, about how it’s been the fearow’s home so long, and what that means, wouldn’t Saffron support you?”

    Of course they would. Saffron loved Jiro. He could do it at the Celadon town hall, in front of all the journalists with their notebooks and recorders. Lance was opening his mouth to suggest it, when Jiro started to laugh, low and bitter.

    “Raise a stink and piss off all of local government, not to mention the development industry and the construction unions to boot?” His voice was sharp, incredulous. “You have no idea how badly that would go. No, I’ve got to buy the land. It’s the only option.”

    “Sounds to me,” Lance fired back, “sounds to me like it’s the easy option, not the only one.”

    Jiro sucked in a breath. Anger flashed across his face, distorting his handsome features, but when he spoke his voice was level, almost bored. “Think what you want, then, but it’s my choice to make.”

    “It’s not. Not when it involves me. Don’t sit there and tell me it doesn’t. They don’t think you’re going to win. They don’t want to give you money. So you use me―” Lance’s voice cracked. The anger was back, hot and thick, and it was impossible to sit still, so Lance got to his feet. He was shouting. “I’m supposed to hand you the championship so you can go and take their bribes and make their laws. Aren’t I?”

    Jiro shook his head sharply. “It’s not like that, Lance. You’ve got it all turned around. You’re in the hustings to join the Elite Four because you want to be there and because I want you to be there with me.” His gaze latched on to Lance, arms open and beseeching. “And I want that because I trust you. Don’t you trust me?”

    Lance shut his eyes to block out Jiro’s face. His head buzzed, and his body felt strangely weightless―liable to float away.

    “Jiro, just. Please. This isn’t right. Give the money back. Tell Archer you won’t have anything to do with him ever again.”

    His eyes were still closed when Jiro’s answer came. “I’m sorry, Lance. I can’t do that.”

    “Then you’re a coward,” Lance whispered.

    He didn’t wait for Jiro’s reaction. Turning, he grabbed his backpack from the table and made for the door. He had nothing else to say.

    Nothing.

    ~*~​

    The late autumn wind snapped and bit at Lance’s face. It was a cold night for outdoor camping, and he wasn’t dressed for it. When he shivered again, Kana rumbled and pulled him flush against her belly, draping him with her warm, leathery wings. He’d fled to their old spot outside Celadon―a little more trampled than it had been three years ago, but still isolated. Still a place to get away and think.

    He’d tried calling Noriko first. She hadn’t picked up until his third attempt, and when she did her voice was edged with irritation at the lateness of the hour. The irritation hadn’t gone away when he explained.

    “Going after Elite Four members for taking loans is not in our mandate, Lance.”

    “Not loans, bribes. And from Team Rocket.”

    “Unless you’re telling me that Jiro’s actively collaborating with them and you can prove it . . .” When he stayed silent, she continued, “Look. I’ve already told you—we don’t have anything on Archer yet. If Jiro’s taking loans from him, that’s a matter for an ethics committee but not for us. We fight crime, Lance. We’re not a roving morality commission. And frankly, if we start going after popular Elite Four members, we can kiss our funding goodbye. ”

    Then what good are you? Lance had thought furiously. He hadn’t said it, though. Just set down the phone and walked out into the night.

    Now he looked out at his pokemon, arranged in a loose circle like his very own counsel of elders. It had been hard to put Jiro’s conduct into words they understood. Money didn’t hold the same weight to pokemon. But betrayal did.

    Kaisho’s trill broke the silence. The hakuryu slithered forward, jutting out his head. Jiro’s yellow ribbon, still tied around his horn, shone in the thin moonlight.

    Lance undid the ribbon and twined it around his fingers. He thought of the clothes Jiro had gifted him, their fine fabrics and careful embroidery. And then he thought of Kaisho, displayed in the artificial blue water of the casino tank.

    “Everything he’s given us,” Lance said slowly. “Maybe it was always more for him than for us.”

    Kaisho whined, his tail whipping from side to side. From the river, Ibuki let out a roar. She bent down her massive neck and snatched the ribbon from Lance’s hand, taking care not to graze his skin with her teeth. Slaver dripped down the sides of her mouth.

    Despite everything, Lance had to laugh. “How about we save eating him for plan B?” he managed.

    Archer let out a caw. With the help of the others, he acted out an elaborate charade showing what the aerodactyl did to the ones who took more food than was their share. The flock pushed them from the nest, and harried them if they dared approach again.

    “I’m just a person, though. Not a whole flock.”

    Lance twisted around.

    “Toku?” he said. “What do you think?”

    She’d been silent since he first spoke, her eyes dark and hooded. Now she pointed up at the sky, where the half-moon beamed. Then she pointed towards a level patch of dirt. She crooned softly.

    “Oh,” said Lance. The fatigue hit him suddenly, like a mallet. “You’re right.”

    He pulled out a thin blanket from his backpack and lay it out on the dirt, wishing he’d thought to grab his coat when he’d stormed out of the room. But Toku and Kana crowded in next to him, their bodies blocking out the worst of the wind. His mind churned, muddy and turbulent.

    Tomorrow.

    Tomorrow I’ll figure it out.

    ~*~​

    Jiro hadn’t slept.

    Even from the distance of the bleachers, Lance could tell. He’d applied kohl to hide his red-rimmed eyes, but nothing could disguise the dullness in his voice or the hollowness of his smile as he greeted the crowd. His gaze skipped right over Lance, sitting with his cap pressed low in the challenger’s section of the bleachers. It was the first time Lance had sat with the other challengers. They buzzed with boasts and stratagems, but Lance was deaf to it all.

    He almost hadn’t come. A part of him still longed to leap on Toku’s back and leave Celadon behind. But running wouldn’t solve anything this time. With a night’s sleep behind him, he could see that he’d handled the confrontation all wrong. He’d been too ruled by his outrage to think straight―so sure that if Jiro only understood what he’d gotten himself into, he’d do the right thing.

    Well, Lance knew him better now. He wouldn’t, not on his own. But that didn’t make Lance helpless. When the hustings wrapped for the day, he’d give Jiro an ultimatum. Give back the money, or I won’t fight Kikuko.

    “Thirty two!” The bleachers began to chant for the benefit of anyone in the back who couldn’t see the board. “Thirty two!”

    “Saffron number,” muttered a woman next to Lance. The chant continued ten more times, then died down.

    Lance turned his eyes back to the battlefield. Jiro had been fighting poorly. He’d suffered an early knock-out, losing Asahi to an icebeam that on any other day he would have countered with a mirror move. Between battles he sat slumped in his seat, his face drawn. Kintsugi, who usually claimed his lap, lay curled an arm’s length away, her tail twitching. Lance wondered if he’d told her what had happened.

    “Fifty seven!” Lance startled. The woman next to him joined her voice to the chorus. “Fifty seven!”

    Lance had memorized the surface of his token, every groove and scuff. But he still drew it from his pocket, unwilling to believe. Fifty seven. The number hadn’t changed.

    “That’s me,” he said. His words were swallowed by the chanting, but the woman next to him heard. Her eyes lit up and she hollered, “Hey, make space! We’ve got one!”

    The rest of the bleachers took up her call. “Budge up, make space!”

    Knees were drawn in, backpacks lifted off the ground. Lance stood unsteadily. As he passed, someone gave his back an encouraging slap.

    And then, with all the suddenness of teleportation, he was at the foot of the stairs, holding out his token to a burly man in striped league garb and a bored-looking kadabra at his side.

    “Name?” the man said.

    “Lance.” His voice was so soft he barely heard himself. “Lance,” he said again, more distinctly.

    “You know the challenge words?”

    He nodded.

    “Rule of Three isn’t active. When you hear the bell, take your place in the challenger’s diamond. Don’t speak until you’ve been announced. And please remove the headgear. Good luck, challenger.”

    The kadabra gestured, and a gap formed in the shield that separated the battlefield from the spectator stands. Lance pulled off his cap. His mind had gone completely blank.

    Then he heard the bell.

    It took him ten strides to reach the white chalk outline of the challenger’s diamond. At the sight of him, Jiro’s whole face lit up like noonday sun. His mouth jerked open as if he meant to continue their conversation then and there, in front of all Kanto.

    He’s thought better of it, Lance’s thoughts sang out desperately. He’ll give it back. He’ll turn it down.

    Kikuko’s gaze bored into him, her black eyes narrowing into slits. Shadows curled at her feet. Her fingers closed around her staff.

    “―the challenger, Lance!”

    He remembered rain beating on his back, sand pressed under his knees. Hamako’s nails digging into his shoulders.

    Promise me, boy.

    You could only draw your token once. You couldn’t cross an ocean twice. He had to choose, and if he chose wrong, there wouldn’t be another chance.

    He opened his mouth.

    When he finished the challenge, no one moved. They just stared at him, like he was an actor who had given the wrong line.

    So Lance said it again.

    “Jiro of the Elite Four, stand and face me.”
     
    Ch 16: The Challenger, Part Two New
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    The Challenger, Part Two


    Hunching his shoulders, Lance slurped up another mouthful of noodles and winced as the hot broth stung his tongue. Despite the late hour, the soba shop was bustling, but the conversation wasn’t quite loud enough to drown out the radio.

    “—we return with hustings highlights from today’s shocking upset. Master Jiro has lost his place on the Elite Four to seventeen-year-old unknown Fusube Lance. Their high-powered battle commenced with a rapid initial knock-out—”

    “Is this seat taken?”

    The restaurant was crowded, but not that crowded. Lance looked up with a frown. The stranger couldn’t have been more than a few years older than Lance, but he was dressed like a middle-aged businessman. A growlithe sat at his feet, tail thumping energetically. Before Lance could say a word, he slid onto the opposite bench and set down an open notebook.

    A reporter. Lance had thought he’d shaken them all. He transferred his gaze back to his dinner, hoping it was a coincidence. Reporters had to eat too, right?

    “You’re a hard man to track down, Master Lance!”

    Lance flinched slightly at the honorific, wondering if repetition would make it more or less strange. He wondered if he could convince the reporter he’d accosted the wrong person. But the growlithe looked smug at her trainer’s words, and Lance realized with an uneasy twinge that they’d probably followed his scent.

    “No comment,” he said, a little too sharply. Jiro had taught him those words early on, though he seldom followed his own advice. Jiro liked talking to people.

    Unfazed, the journalist beamed at him. “I’m Habiki, from the Saffron Sentinel. I’ve got to say, you took me by surprise. I thought, I mean, we all did, that you and Jiro were cooking up Kikuko’s defeat.”

    Lance took another slurp of his noodles, ignoring him.

    “—taking advantage of the soaked battlefield, the challenger’s gyarados covered itself in mud, handily insulating it from Jiro’s electric attacks—”

    “So what happened?” the reporter continued. “That didn’t strike me as a torch-passing. Jiro looked like he’d smelled a muk. Of course, Kikuko’s people are saying it’s because you knew you didn’t have a chance against her.” He paused, waiting for a reaction, but Lance kept his head down. “I don’t think I buy that, though. I watched you at the Saffron town hall. You walked out right when Jiro began talking about loosening up the alcohol laws. And then, yesterday morning—”

    He pulled out a thin broadsheet and spread it triumphantly out on the table. Lance didn’t mean to look, but the blaring caption drew the eye. Another Night of Debauchery. The picture showed Jiro, bent over a roulette table. Even in the casino’s dim lighting, Lance could make out the unrestrained joy on his face.

    Something must have slipped in his expression. The reporter sat back, satisfied. “Thought so. You were his protege, but you don’t like his politics. Well, now’s your chance. You’ve just taken center stage and everyone in Kanto wants to hear from you. What do you want to tell them?”

    But Lance didn’t want to tell anyone anything. His body still rang with soreness from the night spent on the hard-packed autumn earth, and he couldn’t seem to look away from Jiro’s grinning paper facsimile.

    When he’d realized what Lance intended, all the color had fled Jiro’s face. He’d stood up shakily, and the shakiness hadn’t left. It was there in every command he spoke, jerky and increasingly frantic. He’d pulled out every trick, threw down every ace from his deck, but it hadn’t been any use. Lance knew them all, and if he had wondered, as he stepped into the challenger’s diamond, just how much Jiro had held back from him, by the final match-up he knew that in this, at least, Jiro had been honest.

    “—a spectacle that has not been witnessed in Kanto in living memory: two dragonite, tumbling through the sky. It was impossible to tell one from the other, until at last, with a trumpeting roar, Lance’s dragonite cast its opponent ditto down into the mud.”

    And then it had been over, and the world had rushed back in.

    A frown began to inch across the reporter’s face. Maybe it had occurred to him that if Jiro sat in Lance’s place, he’d be getting more than slurped noodles and mullish silence.

    “I really thought Jiro was going to pull it off,” he said finally. “First serious challenge Kikuko’s seen in five years. I suppose she’s sailing to an uncontested reelection now, unless—will we be seeing you at the hustings tomorrow, Master Lance?”

    “I told you,” Lance said stiffly. “No comment.”

    There was still some broth left in his bowl, but abruptly, Lance decided he was done here. Thankful that he’d already paid at the counter, he stood up and pushed into the night.

    The cold instantly set his teeth chattering. Longingly, Lance thought about a private hostel room, but he only had a few rolls of yen left in his backpack, and he couldn’t waste them. He needed gloves and a warmer change of clothes. His current ones were still clammy from Kaisho’s rainstorm—and the rest were back in Jiro’s hotel room.

    The thought was still hard to wrap his head around. It had been a long time since he’d had to worry about having dry clothing or a soft place to sleep. With Jiro, he hadn’t had to think. And that was just the problem, Lance reminded himself. Not thinking.

    He ducked into the first second-hand store he passed. The place was deserted, and the cashier ignored him, his nose tucked into a battered magazine. Maybe it was just his mood, but the racks of hanging clothes put Lance in mind of discarded miniryu skins, slowly decomposing.

    He flicked through the clothing slowly. Despite himself, the reporter’s words nagged at him. You were his protege, but you don’t like his politics. Was that really how people saw it? He wondered if he should tell someone the real reason but shied from the thought—it felt wrong somehow, like a second betrayal.

    And he’d solved it, hadn’t he? Team Rocket had wanted something and he’d made sure they wouldn’t get it. Mission accomplished, he thought to himself, aware of his own bitterness but unable to articulate its source. Job well done.

    As Lance reached the end of the rack, a flash of red caught his eye. A jacket, he assumed, but when he gave it a tug, the fabric kept coming.

    It was a cape, red on one side and black on the other and smelling faintly of smoke. Lance turned it over in his hands. The fabric was sturdy and soft, but the cloth was marred with singes. One of the street performers must have used it, Lance speculated. One of the fire-eaters. He hesitated for a moment, then swung it on. The heavy fabric pressed down on his shoulders, but the sensation was comforting, like Kana’s wings braced against his back.

    Reluctantly, Lance set the cape down. He couldn’t be reckless with the little money he had left. Archer and Ibuki still preferred to hunt for themselves, but the others would need more in their diets than the cheap, nutritionally-questionable food that the pokemon centers gave out for free.

    And soon it would be winter.

    Lance shivered slightly, feeling the loss of the cape’s warmth. The store smelled of dust-balls, and the weak light flickered erratically. Disorientation swept over him, so potent that his legs almost buckled. What was he doing here?

    He was a member of the Elite Four now. But if that meant stepping into Jiro’s shoes—the galas, the small talk, the bribes—Lance wanted nothing to do with it. He’d be eighteen in a few months. Maybe Noriko would take him seriously this time, when he told her he wanted to join the G-Force.

    Only, Lance wasn’t sure he wanted that anymore. Noriko and the G-Force hadn’t been willing to raise a hand against Jiro. Whatever they had been once, these days they had no power to do anything about real problems.

    The champion had some power. She must have—otherwise Archer wouldn’t have been wasting his time bribing Jiro to try and get it. Lance frowned, picking out a final pair of pants. He dumped the medley of clothes on the counter.

    Kikuko had been champion for fifteen years, almost as long as Lance had been alive, but what had she got to show for it? She hadn’t fixed anything.

    Maybe no one could. Maybe it was just all just rotten. His fingers tapped restlessly against the counter. He wanted to hit something. He wanted—

    He wanted something that made him feel real.

    “Hold on,” Lance said to the cashier.

    The old cape was sprawled where he’d left it. Lance pressed the fabric to his nose. Smoke. If he closed his eyes, he could conjure a bonfire, stars, all the things he had once known with a certainty that now seemed out of reach.

    His footsteps were heavy as he returned to the counter, where the cashier was watching him with badly-concealed annoyance.

    “I’ll take this too.”

    He let another roll of yen fall onto the counter and for a brief moment, he thought of nothing at all.

    ~*~​

    The moon was full tonight. Cape wrapped around him like a blanket, Lance braced himself against Toku’s belly. Fatigue made his vision swim, turned the stars into darting light bugs, but he didn’t want to sleep yet. The day felt like an undigested meal.

    “I could try for champion,” he said in a voice slurred at the edges with exhaustion. “It might mean something. It might make a difference.”

    Toku’s snout settled on his shoulder. She rumbled, questioning.

    “I don’t know. I feel . . . tired, I guess. Of trying. Of being wrong. And”—Lance dropped his voice—“there’s a part of me that wishes I hadn’t gone to the Grand Royale at all. That I hadn’t seen Jiro there. That I hadn’t—” He closed his eyes. “I didn’t think I was such a coward.”

    Toku snorted. The next instant, Lance’s face hit the dirt. He scrambled to his feet, wakefulness sparking down his veins.

    “Hey, what was that for—”

    Toku dove at him again. He jumped back just in time to avoid being clipped by her wing.

    “Toku!”

    But she was making a third lap, her eyes glinting a furious green. This time Lance feinted to the right and, as she sailed past, gripped the end of her tail, using the momentum to swing himself onto her back. Still shaking from the sudden shock of adrenaline, he inched forward into a more secure position.

    “Toku—” he tried again.

    She climbed higher. At this height and speed the night wind had a physical bite, but beneath him Toku’s body heat flamed like a torch. They had left the treetops behind: the whole country lay spread out in the moonlight. Toku let out a rumble laced with an imperative.

    “I am looking. It’s Kanto. I don’t see—”

    She whapped his back with the tip of her tail, so he shut his mouth and looked again. Below them, the lights of Celadon City shone like the thousand shards of a shattered gem. To the west, Mt. Moon stood tall, its rock-face flecked with the silver of early snows.

    “It’s beautiful. Is that what you want me to say? And it's ours now. I know. I know.” He pressed his face against her scales. It was easier to be honest with only Toku and the night sky as his witnesses. “It’s just, I thought I’d found something. A place where we fit. But it’s gone now. I don’t know if I’m strong enough to try again.”

    He felt her answer reverberate through his whole body.

    He closed his eyes. “I’m cold, Toku,” he said. “Take me down.”

    They couldn’t have been in the air for more than ten minutes, but when they landed he was numb all through. His legs wobbled beneath him as he slid from Toku’s back. Their impromptu flight had woken the rest of the team, who watched them curiously.

    “Toku thinks we should fight,” he told them flatly. “To become champion. It’ll be weeks, you know. Weeks and weeks of fighting. I don’t know if it’s worth it. What do you think?”

    Kana didn’t hesitate to let out an approving roar. Archer joined her a moment later. Their combined trumpeting and shrieking sent a harried hoothoot fluttering from the trees. Ibuki made the terrible choking sound that Lance had long ago learned to call a laugh and sent up a pillar of dragon fire. Like the rest, she’d been buoyant when he’d come back to pick them up from the pokemon center. To her, the victory against Jiro was uncomplicated. It was something to be worn with pride.

    I betrayed him too, though. That was the thought that ambushed him in every quiet moment. The way Jiro had paled, the way his eyes kept seeking Lance across the battlefield—for some reason it made Lance think of Archer in the Grand Royale. Your dragon-wielding prodigy, he’d said, disdain dripping from his voice. As if he’d never put his hand on Lance’s shoulder and smiled down at him with quiet approval.

    How could so much be erased in a moment?

    Blue light flared. Lance looked up to find Kaisho hovering close, worry coiled through his body. The safeguard attack washed over them all, quieting Kana and Archer. The forest returned to stillness as they watched the undulating light.

    “We’ll do it your way, Toku,” Lance said at last. He smiled without humor. “My way hasn’t been going very well.”


    ~*~​

    At first, the guard stationed at the back door of the tournament hall refused to let Lance in. Even after he showed her his identification card, she continued to shoot him dubious looks.

    “The restroom’s to your left if you want to . . . freshen up.”

    Examining himself in the bathroom mirror, Lance had to concede her point. He looked awful. Bags had sprung up under his eyes; his hair was disheveled and still half sopping from his morning dunk in the freezing river water. He smelled like river too, but there wasn't much he could do about that.

    “Look what the meowth dragged in,” Kikuko murmured when he walked into the ready room. He made her a stiff bow, unsure of what to say. He'd expected their next encounter to be at opposite ends of a battlefield, where words weren't needed. Her gaze followed him as he sat down on the farthest chair he could find.

    Presently, she spoke again. “I was right about you.”

    He didn’t know what she thought she’d been right about, but the flat disdain in her tone made clear that it wasn’t a compliment. Lance’s eyes found the floor and for several minutes they sat there in heavy silence.

    Finally, a league official stepped in, slightly out-of-breath

    “Challenger Lance, welcome,” he said with a perfunctory bow. “Welcome to the hustings. As I hope you’re aware, you are limited to five active pokemon for the full duration of the hustings, with a sixth held in reserve, in the event of any permanent incapacitation. That hasn't happened since the 30s, of course. Performance enhancing drugs, including those commonly referred to as “vitamins” and “x enhancements” are strictly prohibited and their detection will result in both your expulsion from contention for the championship and the revocation of your place on the Elite Four. Participation in each husting is mandatory; failure to attend is considered withdrawal from the championship race, though it will not impact your Elite Four position. This is the final day of the Celadon hustings. It will wrap up by four instead of five, leaving time for a town hall this evening at six. Tomorrow the hustings will move on to Cerulean. Do you have any questions?”

    Overwhelmed, Lance shook his head.

    “Well, if any occur to you, I'm sure Champion Kikuko would be delighted to fill you in on the more abstruse turns of this age-old rite.”

    Kikuko scowled, not exactly looking the picture of delighted.

    “We’ve had a few technical difficulties this morning—I apologize deeply for the delay. We’ll begin in just fifteen more minutes Champion, Challenger.”

    It felt like a lot longer than fifteen minutes when the official returned to lead them out into the stadium. Kikuko moved with surprising speed for her age, but Lance still had to check his pace so that he fell into step behind her.

    The day had dawned cold and wet. Moisture settled on Lance’s face as they stepped outside. A roar of applause greeted them, though Lance thought it sounded muted compared to yesterday’s.

    Lance could hardly blame the crowd. At this moment, Jiro would have been raising his arms with a grin, his gold studs flashing, but Lance slunk after Kikuko and sat himself stiffly in the wooden chair next to hers. From this position he could see almost the whole amphitheater, though the faces of the crowd were obscured behind the psychic barrier. Inside the barrier camped a small contingent of battle photographers, armed with magnemite and abra. Right now their lenses were all pointed towards his face, which Lance tried to school into a neutral expression. Lance was horribly aware that his new clothing fit him badly and that he looked like a tauros had run him over. When he saw the photos, Jiro would have a fit—

    Would have had a fit. Lance wrenched his mind away from an image of Jiro drinking his morning tea and crinkling his nose as he opened the newspaper.

    “WELCOME”—Lance flinched as the announcer’s voice boomed from behind him, as if shouting into his ear—“to the final day of the Celadon hustings! You may have noticed a new face joining us. Challenger Lance has defeated Master Jiro of the Elite Four and will be taking his place in the hustings.”

    The announcer’s words drew some scattered applause. Lance was grateful when it ended, and even more grateful when the first challenger named him. He hopped down from the dias, glad to escape the weight of a hundred anonymous eyes. At least during the battle, they’d be watching his pokemon, not him.

    His opponent led with an onix. Lance’s first impulse was to send out Kana, for old time’s sake, but he caught himself at the last moment. This was the first battle of many—better to play it safe. He sent out Ibuki instead for the easy knock-out.

    The second challenge was also for Lance and the third too, until Rule of Three forced the next one on Kikuko. As her haunter spun circles around a snapping arcanine, Lance leaned back in his chair, idly rubbing Toku’s snout. He’d probably pull the majority of the challenges today. After all, he was the newcomer, the easy target. Lance didn’t mind. He’d prove on the battlefield that his victory hadn’t been a fluke. And he had at least one advantage over Kikuko—nobody had entered the hustings planning to fight him.

    After days of sitting on the sidelines, anticipating a fight and never knowing when it would come, the constant stream of hustings challengers came almost as a relief. Lance quickly taught himself to tune out the too-loud commentary, ignore the noise that filtered through the barrier, and pay no attention to Kikuko’s glare each time he returned to his seat. In the lulls between battles, he tended to his pokemon. There didn’t seem to be any rule against it, so they joined him on the dais—all except Ibuki, who coiled herself around it.

    Lance had so sunk into the flow of the hustings that the end of the day caught him by surprise. Kaisho grounded a pidgeot with a bolt of lightning and then, instead of announcing the next challenger, the overhead voice was thanking all the participants for their fighting spirit.

    Slightly at a loss, Lance wandered back to the dais.

    “That’s it for today, I guess,” he told Toku. Kikuko was hobbling towards the exit and with the barrier down, Lance could see the crowd filing out of the bleachers. The battling had energized him, but now Lance felt the exhaustion of yesterday threatening to crash back down. He stifled a yawn.

    A few reporters began to close in, but Archer interposed himself and let out a warning cry. Probably Lance shouldn’t have cracked a smile at the way that sent the reporters stumbling, but he seized upon their distraction to make his way out the back.

    He had just enough time before the town hall to drop off his pokemon at the pokecenter and grab a quick bite to eat. He kept his head down, but even nestled into a corner table he was conscious of the eyes and whispers following him. Being at the center of a crowd wasn’t entirely new, but Jiro had always held the spotlight.

    Lance hadn’t appreciated just how much of a gift that had been until it was taken away.

    ~*~​

    At the town hall, the spotlight was literal. Lance blinked against it, dazzled, as he and Kikuko were once again introduced to the crowd. His hand dropped reflexively to his belt, but his pokemon were still at the pokemon center. He’d have to face this one alone.

    The first question was about pokemon importation laws. Kikuko answered crispy, defending the existing system as striking the right balance between restriction and exchange. Lance didn’t know if it was a good answer or a bad one. At the past town hall he’d judged answers by the crowd’s reaction and by the confidence in Jiro’s voice. Jiro had—Lance strained to remember—Jiro had favored loosening them. Because the current laws were out-of-date and . . . something.

    “Challenger Lance?” the moderator said courteously. “You have two minutes, if you’d like to respond.”

    Lance’s mouth had gone dry. The lights blinded him to everything except Kikuko’s burgeoning smirk. Even if he remembered Jiro’s view, how could he trust it? How was he supposed to know what Jiro had really believed and what he’d said because it was useful for him to say? Lance couldn’t know and if he said something now that was wrong—

    “I don’t have anything to add,” he managed. The microphone clipped at his collar took his hushed words and amplified them so that his unsteady voice crashed through the stadium. He winced as Kikuko’s smirk widened.

    The second question was the same story. And the third. A hot haze seemed to have settled on Lance, stuffing up his vision. His heartbeat drummed in his ears. He wished this were a nightmare—at least then he would be able to wake up. But the ordeal stretched on. There was nothing he knew, nothing he felt sure enough of to answer.

    Then he heard it, a word like a lifeline.

    The noise in his ears cleared. He listened hard as Kikuko spoke about the historic importance of gambling in Celadon City and reiterated her commitment to respecting that tradition. His hands tightened on the side of his chair, gripped with sudden excitement. He had an answer to this.

    “Challenger Lance?”

    By this point, the moderator’s tone had become perfunctory when she turned to him. He could already see her preparing to ask the next question, when he shifted forward in his seat and spoke in a rush.

    “I have something to say.” Startled, her eyebrow rose, but she gestured for him to speak. He forced himself to take a breath before he continued. “Casinos are—out-of-control. It’s not just entertainment. Well, for some people, it’s just entertainment, but for others, it’s their whole lives. It controls their lives. It takes people’s hope and it turns that against them; it takes everything they have, until they don’t have anything, and so they don’t have any choice then but to come back again and again. It hurts people,” Lance insisted. He wasn’t sure where he should be looking—when he looked out towards the crowd, the lights burned his eyes. “Anything that hurts people, you can’t give it a pass just because it’s hurt them for a long time. I think they should be shut down.”

    He finished, breathing hard like he’d just been running. Kikuko watched him with an incredulous look on her face. His cheeks burned, but he kept his chin raised. Maybe he hadn’t put it well, but at least he knew he’d said what he meant. The glow of answering maintained him through the final, dragging half-hour. He didn’t speak up for any other questions, but his head had cleared and he was able to follow along.

    Still, he had never been more relieved than when the moderator thanked them both and the lights dimmed. He bolted, knowing that it looked like he was running away but too desperate to care. Backstage, he took whichever turn led him somewhere emptier, until he was finally alone. He sank against the wall and groaned.

    What had he been thinking? The husting battles were one thing. This was entirely another, and nothing he’d done with Jiro had remotely prepared him for it. He squeezed his eyes shut. There were seven towns left. Seven town halls. The best he could hope for was that someone would knock Kikuko out in battle. Otherwise—

    A low trill interrupted his thoughts. Lance’s eyes snapped open and he stared in surprise at the miniryu crawling up to him—a pink miniryu.

    “Gigaku?” he breathed. The ditto trilled an affirmative and began to snake down the corridor, her message clear: follow me.

    Gigaku meant Jiro.

    Lance hesitated, torn by two conflicting impulses. He wanted to talk to Jiro. He really didn’t want to talk to Jiro.

    Gigaku looked back at him and trilled an interrogative.

    It didn’t matter what he wanted, Lance decided at last. He owed Jiro enough to listen to whatever he wanted to say.

    “I’m coming,” Lance said. His fingers thumbed uneasily over his empty belt.

    ~*~​

    If Lance had passed Jiro on the street, he wouldn’t have recognized him: Jiro wore a wide-brimmed hat and a muted tan coat in the place of his usual bright yellows. The smile he drudged up for Lance was a poor mockery of his usual carefree grin and it didn’t show in his eyes.

    “Lance,” he said, gesturing. “Have a seat.”

    Lance sat quietly. He didn’t trust himself to speak.

    “Before anything else, I need to know . . . was this your plan from the very start?”

    “No!” Lance said indignantly, his head whipping up. “Of course not. How could you even—I never planned—”

    “All right, all right,” Jiro interrupted, some tension draining from his shoulders. “Don’t sputter. I had to ask, though your performance tonight was an answer in its own right.” His smile became simultaneously nastier and more genuine. “What was that, Lance? I mean, really. Tongue-tied silence is one thing, but bad-mouthing casinos in Celadon of all places? I can practically write the headlines.”

    “I meant what I said about the casinos.”

    “You meant—” Jiro passed a hand over his forehead. “It doesn’t matter what you mean, it matters what people hear and how they’ll vote. Look, I’m not going to beat around the bush. You need my endorsement. So let’s talk about what I’m going to get for it.”

    Whatever Lance had expected, it wasn’t that.

    “Your endorsement?” he repeated.

    “I hope you’re not under the delusion that you have even a fraction of a chance at the champiancy without it.” Jiro’s tone was pleasant, but his eyes were hard. “I endorse you, we present a unified front, and that’s Saffron and Viridian. Celadon too, if you walk back your ridiculous casino statement. Getting to six from there won’t be easy, but there’s a path. Of course, I have conditions.”

    Apparently mistaking Lance’s incredulous silence for acquiescence, he continued.

    “First, everything I promised Executive Archer. I’ve already pledged the money he gave me—if I don’t convince him he’s getting his money’s worth, he’s going to get nasty. Second—”

    “Jiro,” Lance interrupted. “You don’t—you don’t seem to get this. I didn’t fight you because I wanted to be champion. I didn’t want to fight you at all and I’m sorry that we had to, but I can’t change what happened. I told you to give back that money and you wouldn’t—”

    “And I told you I didn’t have any choice,” Jiro snapped. “You didn’t want to fight me? You’re sorry that we fought? Thanks for that, Lance. Thanks a lot. I’ve worked my whole life for this, I lifted you up from the gutter, and you think you have the right to stab me in the back? Not even for ambition, but because I offended your mystifying sense of propriety?”

    “It’s not mystifying.” Lance was hit with a sense of deja vu; they were back in Jiro’s hotel room, talking straight past each other. “Don’t pretend that taking bribes isn’t wrong, don’t pretend it doesn’t matter—”

    “Give me a break. Fearow Hill matters. And if it had been your home on the line, you’d have done exactly the same.” Jiro’s lip curled. “But then, you don’t really have one, do you.”

    “Shut up,” Lance said quietly.

    But Jiro didn’t. His gaze floated past Lance’s shoulder, as if unwilling to meet his eyes. “It’s come to my attention,” he said flatly, “that there are some irregularities in your citizenship documentation. As I’m sure you’re aware, the hustings are reserved for bona fide citizens. If these irregularities are born out, your citizenship will be revoked, invalidating your position. I don’t want to report you, but it seems you’re determined to leave me no choice.”

    Jiro kept talking, but Lance had stopped listening. The world seemed to have turned slow and viscous.

    I refuse. The thought cut him like a glass shard. Kanto wasn’t perfect, but it was his. His home. I refuse to do this. Not again.

    He reached for anger, but there was nothing. He felt chilled all the way through.

    “That would be too bad,” he said after a moment. He didn’t recognize his voice. It seemed to come from somewhere outside of him, soft and clipped and so very, very cold. “Too bad for you. I know a reporter on the Saffron Sentinel. Do you think he’d be interested in a recording I have? It’s of three men talking at the Grand Royale. You know them. One of them, you know really well.”

    Jiro twitched, like a raticate run head-long into a sneasel. “There’s no way,” he said. And, more vigorously, “You’re bluffing.”

    An extraordinary stillness possessed Lance. He met Jiro’s gaze without blinking. “I don’t tell lies. That’s what you do. So keep threatening me if you want. But when that tape is public, I won’t be the only one who doesn’t have a place here. It’s your choice.”

    Jiro stared at him like he’d never seen him before in his life.

    “My god,” he said, slumping back in his chair. “I weaned a little arbok.”

    “It’s your choice,” Lance said again.

    Jiro laughed bitterly and stood. “Fine. Looks like I’ve wasted both our time. Enjoy the Elite Four, Lance. Enjoy Kikuko’s shadow—I hope you choke on it.”

    The door slammed behind him.

    Still, Lance didn’t move. He wasn’t sure if he could. His bones seemed to have become stone, his blood ice. That’s the only way kairyu learn, he thought nonsensically. They’d said that before they sent him away—

    He didn’t want this lesson. He didn’t want this terrible stillness, this cold.

    One thought looped through his mind, inescapable: I sounded like Archer.

    I sounded like Archer—and it worked.

    ~*~​

    Cerulean City received Lance with a hailstorm. At first it was just a few pellets, but the closer Toku flew the worse it got, as if the city was saying, turn back. We don’t want you here. Lance had gone numb a few minutes in, but even with the cold a distant burn in his extremities, the hail still hurt.

    Toku endured the onslaught grimly, the only sign of her discomfort the increased pace of her flight. At last, the red roof of the Pokemon Center came into view. Toku banked down, snorting in disgust as an icy barrage fell on them like a parting shot.

    The only silver lining was that the storm had cleared the streets of any lurking reporters. When Lance trudged inside the Pokemon Center, he garnered only a few anonymously sympathetic looks from the people in the waiting room. Soaked and shivering, he made his way to the front desk.

    “I’m in town for the hustings,” he said. It was difficult with his teeth chattering, but he tried to speak the way Jiro always had, with a confidence that couldn’t be questioned. “I need a private room.”

    The nurse’s eyes fluttered from his soaked clothing to his rain-slicked red hair. A spark of recognition lit in her eyes.

    “Of course, Master Lance,” she said.

    It was the biggest room he’d ever seen at a pokemon center, and it was still smaller than any hotel room he’d stayed at with Jiro. The windows faced toward the ocean, though in the current weather everything outside had been transmuted into the same relentless gray. Lance opened his pack. The clothes inside were only a little less wet than he was. He draped them awkwardly over the room’s heater and started to towel his hair, but it suddenly seemed useless, and he stopped.

    Hail beat against the windowpane. Hot air rushed from an overhead vent. The heat made his hands tingle unpleasantly. He flexed them and noticed that his fingers had turned swollen and red. Sitting down on the edge of the bed, he listened to the hail’s drumbeat, surrendering all sense of time.

    A loud rapping at the door brought him back to himself. Reporters, was his first, unhappy thought. He hunched over on the bed, determined to wait them out.

    The rapping stopped.

    “Lad,” the voice floated under the door, “if you don’t open this door, I’ll hyperbeam it.”

    Lance flung the door open. Hamako looked back at him, one eyebrow raised.

    ”Well, you look terrible,” she said matter-of-a-factly. “Come on. You’re staying with me.”

    They didn’t speak on the way over to her house. Hamako led him to a small bedroom, smelling of starched linen and dust.

    “Here. My son’s old room. He’s a ship mechanic now. Took after me too much to stay in one place; didn’t take after me enough to come crawling back to Cerulean. There’s some clothes in the closet. They won’t be a perfect fit, but dry over wet, eh?”

    Ten minutes later, and dry, he made his way cautiously into the kitchen, following the sound of a whistling kettle. When he tried to greet her and burst into a fit of sneezing instead, she clucked loudly and pushed a steaming cup into his hands.

    “Ginger tea. Drink all of it.”

    He did. The sharpness made his throat burn, but when he finished he almost felt awake.

    “How did you know I was here?” he asked finally.

    “I was storm-watching. Then I saw a miserable-looking dragonite.” She scooped some rice into bowls, poured over green tea, and set them down. “I didn’t realize perishing of frost-bite was a winning hustings strategy.”

    Lance was spared answering by the spoonful of rice in his mouth.

    “Congratulations,” Hamako added belatedly. “It was some fight. Not exactly the fight I was expecting, though.”

    Her unspoken question hung in the air.

    “You tried to warn me about him, didn’t you?” Lance said, putting down his spoon. “That night on the beach. I should have listened sooner. I—” His voice cracked. “I thought I knew him, but I really didn’t know him at all.”

    “Knowing’s a tricky business,” Hamako said contemplatively. “I’ve found that sooner or later, people show you who they are. It’s quite often later, of course.”

    They finished their meal in silence, broken only by Lance’s occasional sneezes. It was a good thing that no hustings were scheduled for the next day, because when Lance next woke up the sun was out in full force. His throat tickled and the sneezing had only gotten worse. After taking one look at him, Hamako returned with more ginger tea, as well as a plate of noxious-smelling sucking candies.

    “I’m fine,” he protested, but Toku, obnoxiously well-rested, snorted and settled her head on his stomach. The others followed her cue. Resistance was futile; Lance lay trapped beneath a warm pile of pokemon for the rest of the day.

    The sore throat lingered the next three days, not helped by the constant commands he had to shout during the hustings. By the morning of the town hall, his voice had been reduced to a croak.

    He was dreading it. The feeling thickened as the day progressed, clamping down on him every time a break came in the battling. He’d tried to prepare, this time. He’d talked with Hamako about the local issues, tried to figure out what he thought about them and why. Strangely, the preparation just made him feel worse.

    There was an hour’s respite between the end of the day’s hustings and the town hall’s start. He found a deserted room in the lower levels of the newly-refurbished Cerulean Gym and munched unenthusiastically at the onigiri Hamako had packed him, wishing he had something hot to drink. It was only as he wiped his hands clean that he became aware he was being watched.

    A girl with hair the color of a koiking, tied back in two scruffy pig-tails, squinted at Lance from the doorway.

    “You have a gyarados,” she announced when their eyes met.

    A little taken aback, he nodded.

    She seemed to take that as permission to wander further into the room.

    “Leiko’s still a ‘karp, but she’s going to be the strongest gyarados when she’s evolved. Stronger than Hamako’s, even. My sisters don’t train koiking. So they’re not going to have gyarados. So that means I’ll be the real gym leader, ‘cause it used to be that you could only be a gym leader in Cerulean if you had a gyarados. That’s ‘cause the gyarados protect us, and when Hoenn tried to attack by sea, the gyarados ate up all their ships.”

    She spoke very fast, like she was expecting to be cut off at any second.

    “Gyarados protect their homes,” Lance agreed when she came to a breathless halt. “How long—” His voice cracked and he tried again. “How long have you and Leiko been together?”

    “Since she hatched,” the girl answered promptly. “She was the best swimmer. Like me. I’m the best swimmer in my class, and I even go out where the rip currents form, even though my sisters scream at me.” Her face brightened. “Do you want to meet Leiko?”

    “I’d love to,” Lance said with too much fervor. He followed the girl down the winding, seafoam-colored corridors until they came to a small pool room. A koiking and a goldeen were chasing each other in circles. They broke off when they saw the girl and darted to the side of the pool, gupping furiously. She laughed as the koiking swished its tail, splattering them with water.

    “This is Leiko!” she declared, beaming with pride. Lance bent over the side of the pool and extended a finger for the koiking to nibble on.

    “I’m Lance,” he said hoarsely. “I knew a koiking just like you. She beat up a charmeleon and climbed a waterfall.”

    “A charmelon?” the girl repeated, her eyes wide. She and her koiking exchanged a look. “Leiko could beat a charmeleon too.”

    Lance found himself smiling. Their easy back and forth reminded him of Toku, back when she was still a miniryu.

    “Kasumi? Kasumi, I swear to Ho-oh’s high heavens—”

    At the voice, the girl seemed to shrink several inches. Her grin dropped into a sullen frown. Footsteps slapped in the distance, and then a woman about Lance’s age in a lily-pad green kimono rushed in.

    “There you are. Don’t you know what time—” She broke off to look at Lance. “Oh! You’re the challenger. Has Kasumi been bothering you? I am so, so sorry.”

    “It’s all right,” Lance said, looking between the two of them. “She was just introducing me to Leiko.”

    “You’re wet!” the woman said in horror, following his gaze to the skirt of Kasume’s kimono. “You can’t attend the town hall like that.” She grabbed Kasume by the wrist. “Change at once, young lady.”

    “Don’t call me that!” Kasume spat back. “You’re only five years older. That doesn’t make you an adult. Stop pretending you’re Sakura.”

    “Kasume!” The woman jerked at her arm. “You’re embarrassing yourself, and all of us, behaving like this.” In a much softer voice, she said to Lance, “The town hall will be starting in ten minutes. I think you may be expected soon.”

    Just like that, the dread was back. Lance sketched a short bow and beat a retreat as the quarrel bloomed into a full-blown shouting match.

    He set his shoulders and took his place onstage.

    ~*~​

    “Well,” Hamako said cheerily as they walked out from the stadium. “At least you talked this time.”

    Lance said nothing. She patted his back roughly.

    “Don’t be hard on yourself; you’ve been a politician less than a week.”

    When he made a scratchy sound of protest she raised an eyebrow. “What else should I call it? The champion’s a politician, lad, and the sooner you get that fixed in your head the better. Siba of the Elite Four can get away with spending all his time meditating under waterfalls because he doesn’t have any interest in rising higher. But a champion has duties. You know it was only ten years ago that the law finally changed so that foreign ambassadors don’t all need to be presented directly to the champion? If, Ho-oh forbid, we got ourselves into a war, it’s the champion who’s responsible for leading us safely through it. You might get that position by being good at battling, but you won’t stay in it long if that’s the only thing you’re good at.”

    “Should I stop, Hamako?”

    She shot him a side-long look. “Can’t decide that for you, lad. It’s not the worst thing for Kikuko to have to fight for her throne for once. I don’t know why you’d want it, though. And I’m not sure you do, either.”

    When they reached her apartment, Lance ate the food Hamako set in front of him without tasting it.

    “I’m going to the beach,” he announced when his plate was clean.

    Hamako glanced outside, where the cold rain had progressed into sleet. “Right,” she said with a crooked grin. “Never a bad time for the beach.”

    Kana hissed and inched closer to Hamako’s fireplace, and Archer and Kaisho looked thoroughly unenthusiastic. Lance met Toku’s eyes. At his silent plea, she snorted and lumbered to her feet.

    “Try not to get pneumonia,” Hamako muttered as they went out the door.

    When Lance was twenty steps into the sleet and fully soaked, it occurred to him that this hadn’t been the best idea. But he pressed on until he reached the river where he’d met Ibuki and ducked into the shelter of the caverns.

    They made their way in silence. Toku seemed to remember the path. All the while, Lance felt words building in his chest, but he didn’t speak until they had flown up the waterfall and entered the clearing. The pools were running over from the rain, spilling out over the cavern floor, and the water beat out a constant tempo.

    Toku watched him patiently. She’d always been able to sense when he was trying and failing to put something into words. He was glad she was the only one that had come, glad no one else had to hear this.

    “I can’t do it, Toku.”

    Toku’s breath steamed in the cold air. Her tail whipped back and forth, but she waited for him to continue.

    “You don’t know what it’s like. When we battle, we’re together. But with these town halls, it’s just me. And I don’t know who I am when I’m out there, Toku, I just. I don’t know who I am.”

    It was wrong to expect her to answer a question he could barely put into words. But he couldn’t help the plaintive catch in his voice.

    Toku stepped behind him. He felt a tug at his backpack; a moment later soggy fabric fell over his back. He knew without looking that it was the cape he’d bought in Saffron. A kairyu master’s cape, or as close as he would get to one now.

    Toku took to the air. She hovered for a few seconds, then dove into a tight loop. With a jolt, Lance recognized it as the opening step of the kairyu dance.

    “Toku,” he said, startled. “Toku, we can’t. It’s—it’s not right. I can’t.”

    Why not? Toku rumbled back, looping again.

    Because I’m not worthy yet. The words were almost on his lips, but he’d never lied to Toku before and he didn’t plan to start now.

    “Because I don’t remember,” he admitted.

    He saw them sometimes in dreams, ready and waiting behind his closed eyes. But the images were blurred by time and distance, just flashes of color and a sensation of rightness so hazy that he wondered if it was a figment of his imagination.

    All he had left were the memories, and memories faded. They weren’t enough to hold onto; they were a lighthouse that faltered in the dark.

    I don’t know how,” he shouted above the crash of falling water, angry she was making him say it, making him strip away that last illusion.

    But Toku only parrumphed, the same impatient sound she’d made as a miniryu when he was too slow to grasp something simple. She flared her wings and twisted, then banked, watching him expectantly. When he still didn’t move, she harrumped again and charted a looping arc around the room. It was a dance, but not one Lance remembered.

    Could she really remember so well, when he didn’t?

    And then he understood. It was in the name, after all. The kairyu dance. The clan had never claimed to have taught it. The ryu had danced it first, and the first tamers had followed them.

    Toku looped again in the air. Lance sucked in a breath and cartwheeled, the cavern floor hard under his palms. She rose in the air and he leaped. The simplicity of the revelation dizzied him. To dance the kairyu dance, all Lance had to do was follow his kairyu.

    He wasn’t sure how long they danced together. At some point the rain subsided to a trickle. Toku fluttered down in front of him and licked him very precisely on the nose. He flung his arms around her belly and felt her low, pleased rumble.

    “Wherever you are, that’s home, Toku,” he said softly. The rain chill had lifted as he danced. He felt warm inside and steady, like the world had kicked back into balance.

    Hamako was still in her armchair when they returned to the house, but she was sleeping, her breathing coming in long, dry whistles. Lance draped a quilted blanket over her and saw himself to bed.

    ~*~​

    When Lance and Toku touched down in Pewter City, Muno met them in front of the pokecenter with a grin that seemed slightly strained. He batted away the reporters and hustled Lance into a quick march down Pewter’s dusty streets.

    “You’ve sure put me in an awkward position, kid,” he said as they walked. “Jiro was going to help me make Pewter’s case to those damned Saffronites, you know. Cost me a lot of credibility, endorsing a cityslicker like him, and all for nothing now.”

    “I’m sorry,” Lance said uncertainly. He didn’t know how to broach the topic of Jiro’s bribes, or if he should even try. “It was complicated.” He glanced behind him, where a few reporters were trailing at a distance. “Is there any place to stay around here that’s not the pokecenter?”

    “Eh?” Muno followed Lance’s gaze. “Yeah, I suppose you wouldn’t want to hang around there, not with that beedrill hive about. Platinum Inn’s our nicest bed-and-breakfast. Jiro always stayed there.”

    “I can’t afford that,” Lance said tightly.

    Muno shot him a look tinged with incredulity. “They’d probably give you a discount, kid. It may not have sunk in yet, but you’re on the Elite Four now, and that means perks.”

    “Perks,” Lance repeated, the word tasting like ash. “You mean bribes. That’s what Jiro did, he took bribes.” When Muno didn’t react except for a slight grimace, Lance felt a stab of betrayal. “You knew that.”

    “Not as such . . .” Muno scratched his head. “Look kid, you gotta understand, all the bigshots take bribes. It’s just how it works. Only reason I don’t is that I’m not worth anyone’s money.” He sighed at Lance’s frozen expression. “Believe it or not, I remember being your age. Things seemed pretty simple then. Right and wrong were something you could just see, like veins of ore in rock. But life’s really more like migmatite, all mixed up together. And when you’re between a rock and an onix, you take what you can get.”

    Sooner or later, people show you who they are, Lance thought. He wondered if he’d ever stop being surprised by it.

    “More hard-headed than a geodude,” Muno muttered to himself. “Listen, if you don’t mind roughing it, we’ve got open spots in the mine barracks—you and your pokemon could earn your keep hauling rocks, if you really insist. It’s not a pleasant place to stay, though. Lotta noise, and you won’t have hot water unless you heat it yourself—”

    “I’ll take it,” Lance said instantly. “Thank you, Muno. It means a lot.”

    “Not a problem. Not a problem. Heading back there now, if you want to tag along.”

    They continued for fifteen minutes in tense silence.

    “You know, of course,” Muno began without warning, “I truly like you a lot, kid, I admire your spunk, but you know I can’t endorse you, right? Kikuko’s gonna win, and I’ve already screwed myself backing Jiro. It won’t be pretty if I go against her twice.”

    “I understand,” Lance said. He hadn’t exactly been planning to ask, but the rebuke still stung.

    Muno wasn’t wrong, though. Hamako hadn’t minced words when she saw him off. Not everyone liked Kikuko, but at least they knew who she was.

    Nobody knew Lance.

    ~*~​

    The mining barracks were everything Muno had promised: loud and dirty, with a sagging mattress and smelly shared restroom. Dust settled in Lance’s hair, his nose, his ears, and fingernails, reluctant to come out. He ate his meals with the miners, mostly ignored. A boy who Muno had introduced as his son Takeshi shot Lance the occasional curious glance, but kept his distance. They were opening a new shaft, and the whole camp was on edge until the passage was fully secured.

    Pewter had three days of hustings. The morning of the first day, Lance hesitated, but pulled the red cape around his shoulders. He ignored Kikuko’s raised eyebrow and steady smirk at his new look. People didn’t know Lance—well, how could they, when he hadn’t known himself? He felt honest in the black and red of the not-quite-a-kairyu-cape, honest in a way he hadn’t felt for a long time. Kikuko could smirk all she wanted.

    The morning of the third day—the town hall—he clasped the cape and ran a hand through his hair, frizzy from the spate of humid weather.

    “How do I look?” he asked Toku.

    She squinted at him, then took up a position behind his back and began to flatten his hair with her tongue.

    “Who needs Kalosian pomade when you have kairyu spit?” Lance cracked. His face fell when he realized he’d made yet another joke meant for Jiro. Groaning, he turned and buried his head in Toku’s belly.

    The ground trembled.

    “Toku?” Lance lifted his head, but her confused expression mirrored his own.

    Outside, people were beginning to shout.

    Lance darted out the door, Toku close behind. The camp was abuzz, miners streaming out from the barracks, geodude filling the air.

    “What’s happening?” Lance asked the nearest miner.

    “Cave-in,” came the snapped response. The man’s face twisted. “Again.”

    “Which way?”

    He pointed up.

    Then Lance saw it: a gray plume spiraling in the distance.

    He whistled to Toku and swung onto her back. By air, they outpaced the rush of miners and mining pokemon. The site of the cave-in was mostly rubble, with a small opening held aloft by a straining onix. Nobody else was in sight. But if the onix was still holding up the tunnel—

    “Are there people in there?” Lance called out, horrified. The onix wheezed a short affirmative. Lance drew in a breath and dropped his hand to Kaisho and Archer’s pokeballs.

    “Cover me with protect!” he shouted to the hakuryru. “Toku, Archer, get ready. We’re going in.”

    The shaft plunged steeply downwards. Soon the daylight cut out, leaving just the thin blue of Kaisho’s protective shield. The air was warm and stagnant, carrying an unpleasant acrid smell. In several places, rocks completely obstructed the path. Toku punched through them and they moved onwards, until Archer let out a shriek and dove ahead.

    A few yards more, and Lance spotted the weak twinkle of headlights. A group of miners was huddled under the coils of another onix.

    “How many?” Lance called out.

    “Six! But some of us are injured. And Naozumi and Hirota are further in, they got cut off.”

    “How long can your onix hold up the tunnel?”

    There was a gaping silence. “Not long.”

    Ignore the darkness, Lance told himself. Ignore the closeness of the air, the intermittent crashes, the bitten-off moans of pain.

    Ignore it. Think.

    His voice echoing strangely in the cavern, he said, “Everyone who can walk, come over here. Kaisho’s protect will shield you. My aerodactyl can carry you up the shaft. Archer, you understand? You need to go with them and carry them out. When you’re done, come back.”

    As Archer barked his agreement, four miners shuffled forward.

    “Go,” Lance told them, moving with Toku into an open spot under the onix’s coils. In the receding light of Kaisho’s protect, he made out two prone forms.

    “How badly are you hurt?” he asked.

    “Leg,” came a muffled answer. “Setsuko got hit in the head, I think. She’s out entirely.”

    “Okay. Hold on. I’m going to try and break through to the others.”

    “Don’t!” His urgency stopped Lance short. “You’ll bring everything down again.”

    In the distance a crash reverberated. The light was entirely gone now. Kana’s flame would give them visibility, but Lance had listened to the miners enough to know that underground, fire could sometimes mean instant death.

    He stood paralyzed. Beyond those rocks, two people might be dying. But if he did anything rash, he could doom them all.

    “Fine,” he said. “We’ll wait.”

    Thirty seconds passed in silence, a small eternity. Lance listened to the onix’s straining breath, the grinding of stones in the distance. He could feel Toku’s wings, spread out protectively over his back, but if the ceiling really came down on them, there wasn’t much she could do except summon a twister powerful enough to save herself. Toku had never mastered protect.

    “What’s your name?” Lance said to the conscious miner, desperate to break the stifling silence.

    “Shoko.”

    “Do you have family?”

    “A small army.” His voice was hoarse with pain but fond. “I married three years ago. We have two daughters and my Harumi’s five months pregnant now. A boy, the xatu-teller said.”

    “Congratulations,” Lance said awkwardly. Under the circumstances, the words felt horribly inadequate.

    “Harumi wants to leave Pewter. There’s construction jobs in Vermillion, she said. Longer hours, but the work’s safer. I told her not to be silly. Our families have lived here for—aghhh.” He broke off. “Rock’s right on my fucking leg.”

    Lance crouched down, feeling with his hands. “Toku, can you—”

    They shifted it off.

    “I still can’t move it. Must be broken. Don’t be a silly fool, that’s what I told her. Gods. Who’s the fool now?” He began to laugh unevenly. Suddenly his arm darted out and grasped the edge of Lance’s cape. “Tell her I’m sorry. Tell her she was right. Tell her—”

    “You can tell her yourself,” Lance stopped him. “When we get out of here.”

    Dust cascaded down on them as the onix shifted. Lance flinched, but no larger bits of cave followed the dust.

    “Just a little longer,” he told the onix in a steady voice, hoping it was true. The weight must be almost unbearable.

    What they needed was a distraction.

    Lance started to hum one of the campfire songs the miners liked to sing in the evenings. Toku joined him and after a few bars so did Shoko, his words low and clipped, but audible. Lance closed his eyes—like that, he could pretend they were somewhere else. He focused on the melody, one note after the next.

    He wasn’t sure how much time had passed when a shriek interrupted them.

    Archer!

    The aerodactyl barreled into the chamber, Kaisho close on his tail. They weren’t alone. A squad of miners followed them, their headlights bright.

    “Two injured here, two further in,” Lance called out.

    “We’ve got an abra!” the leader of the group shouted back.

    The next few moments passed in a blur. The abra teleported out Shoko and Setsuko. Kaisho and the miner’s sandslash maintained a protect while a group of graveler excavated into the blocked chamber. It was slow, careful going. Lance waited uselessly at the edge of the protective sphere, until one of the miners gently told him the fewer bodies in the tunnel, the better. He made sure Kaisho had the energy to continue, then gestured for Archer and Toku to follow him up.

    The outside air hit like a cool spurt of water, gloriously clear and bracing. Lance gulped in a few heaving breaths. A passing breeze lifted up his hair and set it down. As his eyes readjusted to the daylight, the commotion filtered in. The area outside the shaft entrance swarmed with miners and mining pokemon. They had managed to prop the entrance, freeing the onix that had been holding it up. One of the miners came up to him with a bottle of water, which Lance downed greedily.

    “Excuse me.” Lance turned around, swaying slightly on his feet. It wasn’t a miner addressing him—her clothes were too clean and too flowing for mine-work. A reporter, he realized, as a man with a camera stepped up behind her. Now that he was looking, he noticed a few sleek transport pidgeot grooming their feathers at the edges of the impromptu camp. “You’re Master Lance, right?”

    “Yes,” he said scratchily. “Do you know what caused it?”

    “Some kind of equipment breakdown. Everyone’s been too frantic to give me the details.” She narrowed her eyes. “You’re covered in dirt—were you down there?”

    “We got here first. Why don’t they have more abra?” The question burst out of him. Psychics had issues teleporting into dark, unfixed locations like mining tunnels, Lance knew, but they should be able to reach the shaft entrances. He recalled a crash he’d witnessed in Saffron—abra and medics had been on the scene almost instantly.

    “Trained abra are expensive. I don’t think they can afford them full-time.”

    Lance blinked. The battle halls, the gyms, the hustings—they all had psychic teams maintaining the battle shields, a fixture so familiar that Lance had stopped noticing it. It was important to keep people safe during battles. But battle-goers were there for fun; the miners were here because they had to be.

    The reporter was watching him with burgeoning interest. “Do you think the regional government should give Pewter more support?”

    “More support?” Lance couldn’t help his snort. He gestured towards the shaft entrance. “How about any support? There were eight people in that shaft when it collapsed and two of them are still inside. There’s a man, Shoko, the rock fell right on his legs. He might not be able to use them after this, and he’s got three kids depending on him. And if he can’t work, he’ll still be lucky, because he’ll be alive. His kids will grow up and he’ll still be there for them.

    “I have a friend from Pewter. Both her parents worked in the mines and both of them died there. She didn’t have anyone growing up. She had to make her own way. But it shouldn’t have to be like that. These problems aren’t mysteries; they’re not sent by the gods. We can prevent this.”

    “As champion, Pewter would be a priority for you, then?”

    “It’s not just about Pewter. It’s about all of us. Hundreds of years ago, Kanto was just a collection of towns. Closed-off and vulnerable, because we didn’t help each other. If one town burned, what did that matter to anyone else? The war with Johto changed that. The first champion changed that. But if we’re willing to sit back and watch as Pewter suffers to provide Kanto with steel, then we learned nothing—nothing at all. If being champion’s good for anything, it’s to remind people of that.”

    Lance broke off, realizing how much his voice had risen as he spoke, until he was almost shouting. A lull had fallen around him. Several more reporters had gathered, ringing around Lance in a loose circle. Beyond them, some of the miners had turned to stare.

    Suddenly self-conscious, Lance took a small step back. Before he could take another, a calloused hand closed around his arm and hoisted it into the air.

    You hear that?” Muno shouted, pumping Lance’s arm for emphasis. A crimson gash ran across his forehead, and his eyes were wild. “That’s our future champion. That’s Lance!”

    His words had the effect of a second rockslide. Noise surged. The miners were clapping, the reporters shouting, the onix baying. Lance’s eyes went wide as the noise swept over him.

    . . . They were all shouting his name.
     
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