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Pokémon Dragon's Dance

Ch 1: The Miniryu Dancer
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    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, yellow 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 clouds. "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 thirty 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."

    The cheri bush wasn't empty when they reached it. 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 felt compelled to shout, 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
  • Pen

    the cat is mightier than the pen
    Staff
    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 everything Wataru had done, he'd chosen. He'd 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 behind 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?

    Unspoken words caught in his throat like bitter berries, Wataru ran.

    ~*~​

    Uncle wasn't waiting for him alone. The stranger 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, her voice softened. "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 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 go, 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 watch 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 zip 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, casting long, trailing shadows. Everywhere he turned, he saw buildings, each of them larger than the largest huts in the village. The building in front of them was low and sprawling. 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 wrinkled her nose 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 overhanging.

    "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 said 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 sprung back, they fell to the carpet, where they hissed and simmered.

    "Charmander!" The small pokemon raised its head defiantly at the annoyance in the old man's voice. "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 sprung forward, stubby claws flashing. Toku managed to move 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 side. 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 static. 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 can 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, letting out a howl of pain.

    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 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 squat and 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—"

    At the professor's words, a cold feeling swept over Watatu. 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 stretch his imagination very far 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 sunk 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. Wataru woke in the mornings 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
    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 limbs 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 3: The Traveler, Part Two
  • Pen

    the cat is mightier than the pen
    Staff
    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 flecked 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.

    ~*~

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    Ch 4: The Gambler
  • Pen

    the cat is mightier than the pen
    Staff
    The Gambler

    The mist had developed into a steady drizzle when Wataru emerged from the tree cover. He closed his eyes as the cool water wet his face. The rain, the air, the thrumming green of the plants that lined the route—all confirmed that spring had come at last.

    Wataru had lingered in Cerulean through autumn, training Ibuki and Toku on the open sea. The beaches had been almost completely deserted when he finally left the city. A few determined tourists still staked their rainbow umbrellas in the sand, but when they stretched out on their towels, a warm jacket became a more common sight than a bare back.

    Wataru was a day out from Saffron when the first snow fell. At once Toku had shuddered and whined for the comfort of her apricorn ball. Kana made a game of meeting each snowflake with a flaming ember, but as the snow continued to come down, she'd given up, letting the flakes melt where they settled on her heated skin.

    From the first, Saffron City had been unwelcoming. Entry into the city was funneled through a checkpoint, where a long line stretched out into the wintery air. When Wataru finally reached the front, thoroughly chilled from standing in the cold, the guard had examined his trainer's card with a skeptical face. She'd demanded his visa next, subjecting that slip of paper to the same scrutiny. Finally, the guard had declared that foreign trainers paid a special processing fee. Wataru didn't know what that meant—in the end, she'd let him through only after he'd paid her with almost all that was left of Uncle's money.

    Innumerable gray towers, tall and grim as mountains, faced Wataru when he stepped into Saffron City. Lean and with windows like a hundred eyes, the buildings watched Wataru stonily as he trudged through streets already muddy with grey-brown slush.

    The sign outside the Saffron Gym proclaimed it "The Finest Fighting Dojo in All of Kanto," but the inner hall reeked of unwashed sweat and the practice mats were ripped. When Wataru asked for the gym leader, the activity in the room came to a momentary halt. After a muttered conference, a tall woman with loosely braided black hair called out to Wataru, "I can take your challenge."

    The fight had been brief. Toku swept easily through the first two pokemon, both machoke. She clearly had the energy to continue, but Wataru let Kana handle the final battle. He thought the charmeleon would throw a sulk at being left out. When her last pokemon slumped to the ground, the woman had let out a weary sigh and tossed a badge to Wataru. The gym was set to close next month, she explained. Their sensei had joined the Elite Four, and the newly appointed gym leader didn't specialize in fighting-types. Resignation was plain on the woman's face, written into every line of the neglected gym. It seemed to Wataru that the trainers there were just killing time with their practicing as they waited for the end. The thought annoyed him. If they wanted to keep their gym, they should have been willing to fight for it.

    After that, Wataru had been eager to move on from Saffron. But in the short two weeks since he'd arrived, the heavy snows had too. Wataru didn't have the funds to buy the thick down coat, wool pants, and snug boots that he would need to travel by foot to the next city. Saffron's nurse had told him as much, a bored look on her face as she recited the statistics of winter weather casualties for traveling trainers and their pokemon.

    So Wataru found himself trapped. The weather made out-door training all but impossible and the battling halls in the basement of the pokemon center were always packed. The cold left Toku and Ibuki sleepy and slow-moving, and even Kana's energy seemed dampened. With training out of the picture, Wataru finished the professor's book and even tried writing him a letter, though he ended up leaving almost everything important out: he didn't particularly want the professor poking his nose around the abandoned ryu den in Cerulean.

    Like a kairyu, Wataru didn't leave his bed much those dark February days. It was hard to say if the darkness came from the clouds or from the thick smog that rose constantly from Saffron's industrial district. From time to time, Kana would begin to whine and would not stop until Wataru dragged himself over to the cafeteria for a bowl of stew that tasted exactly like the stew of the day before. Wataru didn't have much appetite and if it hadn't been for Kana, he didn't know if he would have ventured down into the noisy cafeteria at all. Locked in his small room, too hot near the radiator and too cold near the window, Wataru couldn't hold back the thought of home. The ryu would be hibernating now, gathering in a lichen-packed den to sleep, kairyu over kairyu, hakuryu and miniryu draped on top. Two dragon-masters would be guarding the entrance, tending to the fires outside so that the cave stayed warm at all hours—part of the ancient agreement.

    When the lake froze over and the ice had been tested, Wataru and the other children were allowed onto the surface. The first time he'd gone, Toku had refused to join him, watching from under a thick blanket as he skid clumsily over the ice. It was only the next year, when he'd convinced her that he was good enough not to fall, that she consented to ride on his shoulder, only her eyes peeking out from the thick scarf as Wataru drew wide circles on the ice-over lake. Ibuki had just managed some fancy spin and not to be outdone, Wataru made a tight turn of his own. The momentum unbalanced him and sent him slamming down into the cold ice. On his shoulder, Toku, unscathed but unamused, whined her displeasure. A full winter sun was shining down and somehow it was all too funny. Wataru burst out laughing, his chest heaving up and down as he lay belly-up on the ice. Afterwards, there had been hot mulled wine and freshly-made rolls. He'd eaten his fill and gone to sleep with a full stomach and a fuller heart.

    Remembering that as he sat alone on his cot, staring at the dirty gray wall of the opposite building, Wataru had felt so miserable that he'd crawled back into bed, even though it was only noon.

    Plonk!

    A droplet fell squarely into Wataru's left eye, making him blink furiously. Surrounded by newly budding trees washed by the rain, those dark winter days already seemed far away. Wataru craned his head around the route. The rain must have kept travelers inside: there wasn't another person in sight. Coming to a decision, Wataru released Toku's pokeball. She let out a delighted trill when the water hit her back. She gave Wataru a quick, affectionate nuzzle and then took off through the air, the water sleeking her scales. Some hakuryu were rain-callers, Wataru recalled. They'd have to try it some time, see if Toku had the knack.

    The sight of Toku gamboling though the fresh spring air loosened something in Wataru's chest. They'd survived their first winter away from home. From here, everything was possible.

    ~*~​

    Wataru looked down at the city map he'd picked up at the Celadon Pokemon Center and back up at the building in front of him. According to the map he was in the right place, but according to his eyes he was standing in front of a gigantic perfume emporium, a glass structure in the shape of a blooming flower. His nose was assaulted by upswell of floral scents when he stepped through the sliding doors.

    Wataru ambled through the wide, glittering lobby, avoiding the eyes of the perfume-wielding salespeople, until he spotted a sign at the very back that read "Pokemon Gym."

    The corridor led into a small waiting room. A few other kids were sprawled out on the red cushioned seats. One had a tattered jacket, a bored expression as she flipped through a magazine, and a nidorino dozing at her feet.

    "Hello, trainer!" chirped the man at the desk. He wore a forest-green kimono and cheery smile. "And welcome to the Celadon City Gym! Are you looking to schedule a gym battle with Leader Erika?"

    "Schedule?" Wataru echoed in confusion.

    "That's right! Her next opening is in just over a month, at 11:30 am on April 27th. Shall I put you down for that, or would you prefer a different date or time?"

    "A month?" Wataru said, unsure if he'd heard correctly. "Just to have a battle?"

    The man's smile grew slightly fixed. "Leader Erika's a very busy woman, I'm afraid. Running a world-famous multinational corporation takes a bit of time, as you may be able to imagine, but Leader Erika still honors her commitment to battle every challenger who wishes to face her. Now . . . the appointment?"

    "Next one's fine," Wataru mumbled. If this gym leader was so busy selling her perfume, why didn't she let someone else run the gym?

    "Excellent! I'll just need your trainer's card and your badges, please. Now," he continued once he'd typed the information down, "if you're really itching for an earlier fight, take a look at the calendar on the wall. It's updated weekly with the scheduled matches. You're welcome to come here on those days and join the on-call list. If the scheduled challenger is more than five minutes late, the first person on the list gets their spot."

    The bored-looking girl and her nidorino suddenly made a lot more sense. But what a way to waste a day, Wataru thought. Anyway, if everyone had to wait months for their battle, he doubted many of them would be late.

    "Enjoy the sights of Celadon!" the attendant called out as he left. "And do try our world-famous perfume!"

    As he counted down the days until his gym battle, Wataru got to know Celadon, a city of rolling hills and gardens. Ginko trees lined the red-bricked streets, their small buds beginning to uncurl into wide green fans. Everywhere Wataru wandered he saw slender maples, some with dark red leaves, others a calm pale yellow, still others a bright green blushing with pink at the edges. Off of the main circle, the roads were winding and didn't always connect. Some dead-ended into houses clustered together like buds off a short stem. Wataru saw shabbier houses, their bright paint more worn and the brickwork in worse repair, but there was no neighborhood where the flowers didn't grow densely. The city air was fresh and fragrant, without a trace of Saffron's foul-smelling smokes, and the skies buzzed thick with beedrill.

    The city was beautiful, but in a different way than the Ryu's Gift. The trees and flowers of the five valleys sprang up wild, and the Dragon's Clan left them to themselves. In Celadon Wataru glimpsed gardeners constantly at work, pruning, tending, planting. The beauty here was cultivated, as if the city itself were one giant garden.

    A vigorous river ran through Celadon's central park, decorated by bridges curved like wrist bangles. Watching the river run, Wataru hit upon an idea. The park was much too crowded for training—small children ran everywhere and picnickers blanketed the slopes. But after a week of wandering the city's perimeter, Toku found the spot where the central river flowed in from the hills. Up the tumbling slopes, the river grew wider and more rapid. At last, they came to a broad spot where the river passed under a cave. It made for a quiet place to train, and Wataru could leave Ibuki there in the evenings to sleep, hidden beneath the shadowed rock.

    The city at night was pleasant too—venomoths gathered around the yellow street-lamps, clustered so closely their purple wings overlapped like a living, humming cascade of wisteria. As Wataru came down the main boulevard, in sight of the Pokemon Center, he stopped to watch a street performer raise a torch, the flame blazing hugely. Kana let out a startled hiss as the man brought the flame to his mouth and swallowed it in a single gulp. The performer closed his eyes, silver cape catching in the streetlights, and then his face slackened; his lips parted to let out a puff of smoke. The crowd burst into riotous applause. Wataru joined them, grinning against the glow of the street-lamps, warm and buzzing and marvelously content.

    ~*~​

    There was one building Wataru hadn't yet entered, though he had noticed it often enough in passing. Styled in an eye-catching check pattern of black and red brick, the building occupied nearly a whole block by itself. The entryway was grand—white marble steps that passed under a golden archway. On a particularly warm bright day, when the streets were packed so close that walking was a chore, Wataru climbed the marble steps.

    "No loose pokemon inside," rumbled the broad-chested man at the door. When Kana hissed, the machamp at the man's side stared down at her, arm muscles flexing slightly. Wataru recalled Kana hastily before she could start a fight.

    He entered the building alone; instantly he was enveloped by cool air. At first Wataru saw only darkness, as if he'd just stepped into a giant cavern where thick rock blocked out the sun. As his eyes changed, Wataru found he was inside a massive space, high-walled and windowless. The ceiling was all silver, mirrored panels overlayed like scales, which gleamed with faint reflected light. It was impossible, standing in this calm, dark place, to believe that outside, only a stone's throw away, the sun blazed and the beedrill hummed.

    The hall that stretched out before Wataru was arrayed with strange machines. Light came from every part of them, glowing screens, flashing dials, and currents that shot around the tops and down the sides, the color of their light shifting from second to second, so that glancing from machine to machine the eye made a rainbow. Each machine had a leather stool before it. Some were occupied by people, who stared slack-faced into the glowing displays. They were very still, as if in trance, but suddenly a hand would shoot forward to press down on a button, setting the screens spinning and lights flashing. Past the rows of machines were large tables, some with huge rolling wheels, others flat but strewn with black and red backs of cards. The people there were similarly intent, speaking in cryptic bursts as they drew cards and lay them down. Wataru climbed the wide staircase that curved upwards from the center of the hall and leaned out over the banister. From up here, the lights of the machines all ran together, like stars in the same constellation.

    Turning left from the stairway, down another dark corridor, Wataru came upon a sign whose glowing letters read, Welcome to the Dragon's Lair. Pillars rose on either side of the entrance, etched with scenes of gyarados and kairyu in fierce battle. Wataru walked forward, past red-tinted waterfalls that crashed down from nowhere, into another room, also dark, also glittering with machines. But Wataru didn't pay these much attention. At the center of the room, a giant glass tank rose from the floor. Pink stones sparkled at its base and the leaves of translucent green plants swayed in the dark blue water. Hanging lethargically above the stones and the plants was a small miniryu.

    Wataru tried to make sense of what he was seeing.

    Spin and Win the Jackpot, blared red and gold letters emblazoned above the tank. Ultra-Rare Dragon Dratini!

    As if caught in a trance, Wataru stepped closer, until his nose was almost touching the glass. The miniryu's scales, which should have been the cool blue of a cloudless sky, were a muddied grey. The miniryu's eyes were dull and glassy, apathetic as he floated motionless, without so much as a twitch of the tail. He didn't react at all when Wataru rapped the glass walls of the tank. But just when Wataru began to fear he was staring at a corpse, the miniryu dove down slightly and resumed its motionless suspension next to a curling frond. The miniryu's skin, Wataru noticed suddenly, was flaking off. One scale, dislodged by the motion, floated down to settle on the pink rocks. Wataru had seen this once before, in a miniryu too sick to move. If a miniryu couldn't shed properly, the outer skin would eventually deteriorate, coming off in ragged strips and flakes. The miniryu clearly needed to shed, but looking at the tank, the problem was obvious. No miniryu, however determined, could shed underwater. Dry air was needed, and rocks.

    How had a miniryu come to be here? Why had they trapped him in this cylinder of unnaturally blue water? Was he—was he not allowed to leave the tank? The idea was almost inconceivable. Miniryu could breathe underwater and hid there in times of danger, but they needed air as well as water, warm rocks and sunlight. Wataru glanced up at the silver ceiling shimmering overhead and wondered in horror how long it had been since this miniryu had seen the sun.

    "No touching, kid." A strong hand clamped down on Wataru's shoulder. "Admire from a distance, okay?"

    The man standing over Wataru was large, fit into a dark gray suit and red striped tie, a machoke at his back.

    Too dazed to argue, Wataru took a stumbling step backwards. "Does he stay in there all the time?" Wataru asked in a strained whisper.

    The man looked up at the tank and shrugged. "Sure."

    "But miniryu need land, not just water."

    "Doesn't seem to be drowning," the man said. His eyes narrowed as they locked onto something over Wataru's head. "Remember, no touching."

    He moved away without another word.

    Wataru stared up at the still tank, the motionless miniryu. Everything about this picture was wrong. For a moment, an image of Toku trapped in a tall glass cylinder captured his mind, and bile rose in his throat. This was too cruel. It was unacceptable. The anger washed over him like a boiling wave, making his fingers tingle and his face burn.

    "I'll get you out of there," Wataru whispered, trembling. "I swear it, by the kairyu, by fire and ash."

    For a moment, the miniryu seemed to study Wataru with dark glassy eyes. Then his head drooped once more and he settled down on the pink rocks, curling into a tight ball.

    Blinking the sudden wetness from his eyes, Wataru turned away from the tank and stumbled downstairs. By the time he reached the front of the long line at the desks, his eyes had cleared and his breathing was coming more steady.

    "Are you staying with us tonight, young man?" the desk attendant asked, the slight frown on her face betraying skepticism. She wore a pink kimono, patterned with butterfree.

    "You're hurting the dratini," Wataru said, making sure to use the foreign name.

    "Oh, uh . . ." the woman stammered. "The prize dratini?"

    "He's not healthy," Wataru said firmly. "Have you seen his scales?"

    She shook her head. "I-I don't know anything about that. Hold on a moment, I'll call the floor manager for you, all right?"

    But it was a full half-hour before the manager came, a serious-faced woman in a purple pinstripe suit.

    "What's all this about the dratini?" she asked, when the desk attendant had pointed her over to Wataru.

    Wataru forced himself to speak calmly. This was too important to mess up. "That dratini isn't healthy. He needs to shed, first of all. You can see that by looking at his scales. Also, dratini shouldn't stay in water that long. They need time on dry land, too. Also he's lonely." Wataru hadn't meant to say that last part, but it slipped out anyway.

    "You some dratini expert?"

    "Yes," Wataru said, raising his chin.

    The woman laughed. A small smile lit her face and she glanced distractedly down at the silver watch on her wrist. "Listen, kid. You read something in a fairytale? Heard Professor Okido spout some haiku? Dratini are rarer than five-leaf clovers. Anyone who claims to know what's best for them is talking out of their ass."

    But I do know, Wataru thought, frustration making his teeth clench. His hand itched to release Toku then and there. No one who saw the hakuryu's beautiful scales could think that this miniryu's condition was anything close to normal.

    But caution restrained him. He remembered the words on the miniryu's tank—"ultra-rare", "jackpot." The people here thought of miniryu as nothing more or less than currency, like the coins and bills they traded in the market. What would they do if they saw Toku? If a miniryu was valuable, what was a hakuryu?

    The image rose again in his mind of Toku trapped inside the glass tank, her scales greying and her eyes going dull.

    No, Wataru couldn't risk that.

    "You're a little young for this place anyway," the woman muttered to herself. "But hey, if you've got all these big ideas, you could always try and win it for yourself."

    She let out another chuckle, gave Wataru a friendly pat on the shoulders, and disappeared back into the rows of glittering machines. Wataru looked from the machines to the false silver sky, feeling small and lost and terribly alone.

    By the kairyu. By fire and ash. What was he supposed to do now?

    ~*~​

    The Pokemon Center attendant frowned when he explained the problem. "If it's a business that owns the pokemon, not a trainer, that's not our jurisdiction," she said. "You can always try the police, if you're really that concerned."

    Police was a word that Wataru connected vaguely to blaring lights and ear-splitting sirens in Saffron, and growlithe that sniffed intrusively at passerby. He found them in a busy brick building. It was several hours in the dimly lit waiting room before Wataru was led into a small office.

    "You have a complaint to make about a mistreated pokemon?" the officer there said, his tone polite and noncommittal.

    "A dratini. At the big casino. They're—"

    "At the Grand Royale Casino?" The officer straightened slightly and his voice grew cold. "The casino has a permit for Class X pokemon."

    "But they're not letting him shed!" Wataru realized with a faltering heart that those words meant nothing to the officer, who met his gaze blankly. "Miniryu need to—I mean, dratini—"

    "I don't know who put you up to this, kid, but it's a crime to waste police time. The Grand Royale has a permit. Don't go around trying to stir up trouble."

    His tone made it clear the conversation was over. Wataru got stiffly to his feet and left the station without even a shallow bow.

    ~*~​

    The professor answered on the fourth ring. His eyes went wide.

    "Wataru! What a pleasant surprise! I got your letter—so my little char's evolved, has she? Let me see her and offer my congratulations."

    Kana spent the next minute posturing while the professor complimented her tail flame—"very vigorous"—and her skin—"what a bright, healthy orange hue"—until Wataru couldn't stand it any longer and blurted out, "Professor, I need your help."

    At once, the professor's face grew soft with concern. "What is it, my boy? Speak, speak!"

    So, his words tripping over themselves, Wataru told him all about the miniryu trapped in the glass tank. The professor's face grew grimmer as he listened and at last he let out a long sigh.

    "I see. So the Celadon casino keeps a dratini, do they? I wonder where they managed to obtain one from. And it seems the permitting is all in order, too. A pity, that. I could try and kick up the fuss, but the plain truth of it is, I have no claim on being a dratini expert. If you were willing to make public how it is you've come by your own dratini and your expertise—"

    The professor left his sentence hanging.

    Make public? So that every single ryu in the Ryu's Gift could be taken and placed in a glass tank of their own? Wataru swung his head rapidly from side to side, his fingers shaking.

    "I thought not." The professor fell into thought for a moment, then let out another sigh. "Very unfortunate, this whole business. I'll write them a letter, at least. What do you advise, now?"

    "He needs dry air and large rocks to shed. And time in the sun. And real water, that runs, not that fake blue water. But it's not just that, he needs company! Ryu aren't meant to live on their own. It's not right." Wataru found his voice going thick. The water was back in his eyes.

    "I'm sorry, my boy," the professor said after a moment. "The world can be very cruel sometimes, very cruel. But let's talk about something cheerier. You've won your third gym battle, you wrote?"

    Wataru stared at the professor in disbelief. He wanted to talk about stupid bits of metal when a miniryu was suffering even as they spoke?

    "Yes," he said finally, when Kana nudged him.

    "And you'll be challenging Erika next?"

    "Yes."

    "Well, your charmeleon should be a big help there. But do watch out for her spore attacks! They can be debilitating."

    "I should go," Wataru said, when the silence stretched. He turned off the picture screen without waiting for the professor's response and then sank into a crouch on the floor.

    "Char-me?" Kana's yelp was concerned.

    "They're hurting a miniryu, just like Toku, and no one will help," Wataru whispered.

    With effort, he got to his feet and stepped back outside. The air was just as fragrant as ever. The late afternoon sun fell golden on the five-fingered leaves of maple, the dense clusters of purple-faced mallow and pansies that ringed the pokemon center. But all that beauty suddenly struck Wataru as utterly deceptive and false. This city was like a poisonous flower, whose wide-petals and sweet scent concealed its rotten core.

    How could the professor talk like Wataru was supposed to just accept it? He couldn't. He'd made an oath.

    Could he sneak in during the night and spirit the miniryu safely away? For a moment, Wataru's mind was filled with a vision of breaking the glass tank, the blue water gushing out and leaving the miniryu free. Only—Wataru remembered hearing that the casino stayed open all through the night. He remembered the men who paced the floor with their machokes. To fight his way out, Wataru would need Toku, and if they saw Toku—the two of them wouldn't be safe anywhere they went, even if they did get away. Toku wasn't a kairyu yet. She couldn't fly them safely back across the sea.

    As Wataru stood there, his back hot from the afternoon sun, the floor manager's words suddenly rang through his mind. You could always try and win it for yourself.

    Slowly, Wataru lifted his head. Past the other buildings, in the distance, he could glimpse a hint of red and black checked brick. If no one would help him, then Wataru would save the miniryu the way he'd always done everything else—all by himself.

    ~*~​

    In the so-called Dragon's Lair, Wataru found a slot machine styled in the shape of a towering kairyu, all orange plastic and red eyes. When he pressed the red button on the center of the board, the kairyu's eyes flashed and a thunderous roar emitted from the machine.

    The glowing display had five spinning columns, which each showed three images. To win the "jackpot," every single image of the fifteen had to come up with the face of a miniryu. On Wataru's first spin, he didn't see a single miniryu. He only had enough money for one more, but here the kairyu machine brought Wataru luck. A row of kairyu lit up on the screen and the number at the bottom rose almost faster than he could register. There's nothing to this at all, Wataru marveled, reaching for the red button again.

    But the kairyu's luck didn't hold. By the fifth spin his new money was halved, so Wataru moved on to a different machine, which depicted a koiking coughing up an endless shower of gold. The koiking had no gold for Wataru, though, and no miniryu either. Frustrated, Wataru spun again. Each spin made the screen dissolve into a dizzying whirl of images and lights. The screen showed golden coins falling in the background, even as the number that tracked Wataru's own money diminished. It was hard to keep count of the time or of his spins, but when Wataru finally stumbled outside, the sun was low in the sky and he had only a very few coins left.

    The rest of the week, Wataru observed instead of gambling. In the evenings, especially weekends, the place was packed, with few seats free at the slots. Families flooded the buffet and groups of friends clustered around the roulette and poker tables, cheering each other on. In the mornings and on mid-day, the people at the machines were more grim-faced and more alone. The only sounds were the buzz and roar of the machines and the quiet murmurs of the servers, as they offered drinks.

    A group of old men, with loose jackets and curved wood canes, always gathered around eleven in the morning at the poker table farthest to the back. They dealt several games, then broke for lunch, then returned, playing until three in the afternoon, when they sighed and pushed their chairs back. When the men noticed Wataru watching, one of them gestured him over and that day Wataru received an education in poker. But he didn't much like the game. It was too dependent on holding your face still and thinking hard about other people's cards. More to Wataru's liking was roulette—it was thrilling to watch the ball go round and round and see the winnings pile up high on the tables.

    But to save the miniryu, Wataru needed to play at the slots, and to play at the slots he needed more money. That evening he hiked up to the river cave and explained the situation to his pokemon. Toku and Ibuki were adamant that there was no choice: the miniryu had to be rescued, whatever the cost. But Kana disliked the idea of putting a halt to their training. The charmeleon hissed and whined and when she saw that she was overruled, stomped off into the forest.

    For a while, there was silence, except for the faint flapping of zubat in the cave and the distant rattling of metapods in their shells. Wataru dipped his feet into the river and stared up at the starry sky. He wasn't much fonder of the idea than the charmeleon was. But what else was there to do? He imagined carrying the miniryu from the casino to this place. The miniryu could shed his old, flaking skin against the rocky shore here and then swim freely down the running stream.

    The thought strengthened Wataru's resolve. He got to his feet and followed the trace of orange light, until he caught up with Kana. The charmeleon had found the edge of a paras colony. The tips of pink and yellow mushrooms were visible by the moonlight slanting in through the tree trunks.

    "Listen," Wataru said. "I swore an oath by the kairyu. And you know, it's not enough to be strong yourself. The ryu have always given their help when it's needed. Maybe you should think about that. You can split rocks like a kairyu, and one day you'll be able to fly like a kairyu too. But you wouldn't be worthy to go among the kairyu if all you think about is yourself."

    At that, Kana turned, a hard look in her dark eyes. Her tail swished back and forth in challenge. Wataru met her gaze calmly and didn't flinch, even when a hot burst of embers shot past his ears. The stand-off stretched on, but Wataru didn't say another word. He'd made the only point he had to make. At length, he turned back to the river.

    It was very late when Kana finally returned, her eyes downcast. Their journey back was tense and still, and the city seemed deserted when they at last reached the Pokemon Center. Even the venomoth had gone to bed.

    ~*~​

    Wataru's new job ran from five to eleven at night, washing dishes in the back of a bustling restaurant. The owner paid weekly in cash and didn't care about Wataru's visa, unlike other places he'd tried, which had waved him off, muttering about training visas as opposed to work visas. The dish-washing left his hands red and swollen from the hot water. The work was dull and somehow exhausting, and Wataru found himself waking late and irritable most days. Sometimes he forced himself out of bed and took Kana out to battle, but most days he went straight to the casino.

    He tried not to hang around the miniryu's tank too much, but when the bouncers were busy elsewhere, he slipped over to the cage. The miniryu never seemed to pay him much attention, but Wataru spoke to him anyway, describing life back at the Ryu's Gift in a quiet voice.

    By now most of the staff knew him by face. One of the servers had taken to him, and brought him sweet pecha juice from time to time even when he wasn't gambling. Aki was just a few years older than Wataru, with a short bob of dark brown hair and baby fat still puffing her cheeks. Wataru was lurking at the edge of the roulette when he caught her voice from across the room, strung tight with tension.

    "I'm sorry, Sir, I have to cut you off."

    Turning from the game, Wataru found Aki across the room, dwarfed by a man in a long tan trench coat, his face twisted into a dark scowl.

    "Didn't you hear me, girl? I asked you for another shot. You got cotton in your ears, or something?"

    With those words, the man reached out and shook Aki roughly from the wrist. Wataru looked around the room in alarm, but he didn't see a machoke or dark-suited bouncer nearby. Aki's face was pale and the man was flushed high on his cheeks.

    "Maybe there's cotton in your ears," Wataru called out, cutting across the room to them. "Because Aki said you're cut off and that means no more drinks." He drew in a breath. "So leave her alone."

    The man turned to face Wataru with a grin stretched across his face, but his eyes were humorless. "Didn't realize they let kids in here."

    "I'm not a kid!" Wataru spat. His eyes fell on the pokeballs ringing the man's belt. "Fight me and I'll show you."

    "Nah, I don't battle kids."

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

    The man raised an eyebrow. "Well, I don't make a habit of taking candy from babies, but if you're offering—"

    "I am."

    The casino had a few battling halls, where trainers could battle for stakes. Wataru hadn't been allowed inside—if you couldn't show four badges, the deposit to enter was higher than Wataru could pay. He couldn't see how many badges were in the case the man flashed quickly, but the doors slid open for them.

    "Stake is two thousand yen. The match will be one on one. No need to drag it out," the man told the attendant as he stepped into the battling hall. Wataru handed over his money, his stomach starting to flutter. He trusted Kana . . . but it had been weeks since their last real fight.

    The electabuzz the man released stood four feet tall. Energy crackled between its antenna. Kana took the battlefield with an excited cry, lifting her tail high. The pokemon held each other's gazes in silence for a moment. Then the electabuzz dove forward with a powerful thunderpunch, Kana with a metal fist. But the impact sent Kana hurtling backwards with a hiss.

    "Ember!" Wataru called out, but the man laughed and murmured something to his electabuzz, who erected a golden barrier with a wave of its hand. Kana's flames dispersed quickly against the shimmering surface. Before Wataru could call another attack, the electabuzz took the offensive with a barrage of sharp-edged stars. As Kana struggled to block each one with metal-fisted claws, the electabuzz undercut her with a kick that sent her tumbling to the ground.

    The man laughed.

    Wataru clenched his fists and Kana leapt to her feet, her eyes flashing. A pillar of flame rushed from her mouth—not embers, Wataru saw with sudden excitement, but a full-throated flamethrower attack.

    But the electabuzz broke the flames with a thunder punch and immediately sent off another barrage of stars.

    They were outmatched, Wataru realized. If he'd been training Kana like she wanted instead of wasting time washing dishes—

    Kana had abandoned all caution or restraint. Flames poured out from her mouth, wild and undirected. The electabuzz dodged them easily, or broke the spray of fire with another golden shield. Its sharp-edged stars caught Kana from the sides, knocking her to the ground. She sprang back to her feet and let loose another flamethrower, though it seemed weaker this time.

    Wataru's opponent wasn't bothering with commands. He leaned against the back wall, a smile on his flushed face as he watched Kana sputter and flame. They might be outmatched, but they could still win if they took advantage of his distraction, Wataru thought.

    "Block with metal claw," he shouted as another barrage rushed Kana's way, but instead a column of flame roared out of her mouth. The flame consumed the sharp-edged stars, but left Kana panting furiously.

    Wataru put his fingers to his lips. His whistle rang sharply through the battle-hall, making Kana whirl around. Her eyes were dark with fury and her tail-flame burned erratically, dwindling low and then swelling up untenably high.

    "Kana," Wataru said softly, hearing his own heart pound. "We can win if you listen to me."

    Her harsh pants cut the air. They only had a moment: the electabuzz was gathering energy for a thunderpunch. They were back in the forest, gazes locked, every breath coming tight. But this time, something shifted in Kana's eyes. Her tail flame steadied.

    "Dodge and use ember!" Wataru called out as the electabuzz sprang forward. "Just ember," he repeated in his firmest voice, holding his breath as Kana swung to the side, drew herself up—and sent a spray of hot embers racing towards the electabuzz.

    Almost casually, the electabuzz raised its golden shield. But that was what Wataru had been waiting for.

    "Jump behind it!" he shouted.

    There was a single instant when everything stood still. The man lifted his head from the wall, lips shaping around a command—but Kana had already sprung up, over the electabuzz and its shield, lashing out from behind with a metal-fisted strike. The electabuzz fell to its knees.

    "Now use flamethrower."

    For a moment, Wataru feared the charmeleon was out of fire at last. But at the sight of her downed enemy, Kana's tail flame swelled up. Flames gushed out from her mouth like a pounding waterfall. The high shriek of the electabuzz cut the air as the flames engulfed it. Kana continued the attack until her fire trailed off into hot spurts. She bore down on her charred opponent with a last metal claw attack that knocked it back several feet on the ground, where it didn't stir.

    A buzzer rang.

    "The electabuzz is unable to battle," the attendant's voice crackled through the speakers. "The winner is Fusube Wataru. The payout is 2,000 yen. You have five minutes to set stakes for another battle. Otherwise, please vacate the battle room."

    The man in the tan trench coat recalled his electabuzz in silence. His cheeks were still flushed but his eyes were ugly. He strode from the room without another word.

    Kana let out a loud yip of triumph. She turned back to Wataru, a grin on her face.

    "I want to keep fighting with you, Kana," he said to her quietly. "But I have to save that miniryu. If you can't wait—"

    But Kana shook her head, eyes bright. The battle had steadied something inside her. She met Wataru's gaze calmly and then raised a claw to clasp his arm. Wataru put his other hand over her claw, feeling the heat of her smooth skin. They stayed that way for a moment and Wataru felt something unclench in his own chest. Maybe the battle had done him some good too.

    "Thanks, Kana," he murmured, casting his eyes down.

    When they stepped out together into the hallway, Wataru realized their battle hadn't passed unobserved. Aki was there watching, and next to her, the floor manager in her pinstripe suit, her arms crossed.

    Had he broken some rule? Wataru wondered, sudden apprehension mounting in his chest. If he got banned from the casino—

    "Impressive charmeleon," the floor manager called out. "You come here a lot, don't you? Well, how would the two of you like a job?"

    A job? Wataru stared at her. Aki flashed him a smile and nodded encouragingly. But Wataru dropped his gaze to Kana, silently asking her permission.

    Only when the charmeleon gave a short nod did Wataru lift his head and say, "Okay. What kind of job?"

    ~*~​

    They gave Wataru a shiny red vest, as well as matching bowties for him and Kana. No matter what he did, Wataru's bow-tie hung askew. Aki tried to steady it for him the next day in the break-room, and for a moment, Wataru flashed back to Ibuki, adjusting his headband with irritated patience. Had Ibuki's miniryu evolved too? If only he had some way of telling her! If only Ibuki were here . . . They might listen then, about the miniryu; everyone at home had always listened to Ibuki.

    "I didn't thank you yet," Aki said, giving up on the bow-tie and moving towards the mirror to check her kimono. "For yesterday. I can handle it most of the time, but people can turn so vicious so quickly . . ."

    Wataru scuffed his new, shiny shoes against the carpet. "Well, I had to thank you too. For the juice."

    A small smile broke out on Aki's face. She turned back from the mirror.

    "You have a strange accent. What part of Kanto are you from?"

    "Johto."

    Her mouth formed a small oh. "You ran away really far."

    When Wataru jerked up his head to stare at her, Aki flushed slightly. "Sorry! I didn't mean to assume. I just thought—"

    "I didn't want to leave home." Wataru spoke louder than he'd intended. "I had to. Did—did you run away from home?"

    Aki nodded, smoothing down her kimono as she sat down next to him. "My parents both died in the mines when I was little. I don't remember them at all. So I grew up in the Pewter orphanage. It wasn't so bad there, but you grow up knowing—I mean, nobody says it, but everyone knows—we were all supposed to work the mines when we grew up. I didn't want to. I don't remember my parents, but I always had dreams about the rocks falling and suffocating me, burying me in with them. Almost like their ghosts were calling out to take me back . . ."

    As she spoke, her face went pale and her hands fell limply to her lap.

    "I don't remember my parents either," Wataru offered. "All they'd ever tell me was that my mom was a gaijin. It's because of her that they sent me away," he added, and then faltered, surprised at himself. It felt strange to say that out loud. He'd thought it sometimes, in the long dark winter of Saffron. Uncle had denied it, but Wataru hadn't believed him.

    "Did she die too?" Aki asked. The paleness had lifted a bit from her face. "Your mom?"

    "I don't know," Wataru said. She wasn't part of the Dragon's Clan and for twelve years that had been as good as being dead. But Wataru was outside the Ryu's Gift too now. The thought unsettled him. Was he as good as dead to Ibuki now? When he returned with Toku a kairyu, would she look at him like he was a ghost?

    "Do you like it here?" he asked Aki, not wanting to dwell on that thought. "Better than you liked Pewter?"

    Her nod was energetic. "It's so much greener here! And there aren't rock-slides. Though . . . back in Pewter, I'd sneak out sometimes to watch the clefairy dance on the full moon. That's the only part I really miss."

    Kana stuck her head around the door and let out a yelp.

    "Break's over, I think," Aki said. They stepped together back into the clamoring room. Aki made for the bar, Wataru trailing behind. Kana headed in the opposite direction, over to the bouncers, and took up position next to a muscled machoke. The charmeleon seemed to enjoy the work, which mostly consisted of grinning menacingly and swishing her tail at passerby. Wataru was less fond of his job bringing people their meals. He couldn't forget that upstairs the miniryu floated listless and lonely in his glass cage. He'd thought the job might give him an opportunity to sneak the miniryu out, but the floor manager's kadabra had quashed that hope. The pokemon meditated with closed eyes at the center of the casino. It could sense bad intentions and teleport at the slightest hint of trouble. There was nothing for Wataru to do but grab another plate and wade back into the casino's glittering sea.

    ~*~​

    Wataru's first full night at the casino kept him until midnight. The second night stretched even longer. At breakfast the next morning, Wataru was bleary-eyed as he handed over his meal token, tuning out the cashier's friendly words, until—

    "Good luck?" Wataru repeated, squinting up at her in confusion.

    "On your battle," she said brightly. "The gym syncs the appointments with our system. You're due to fight Erika in two hours!"

    The gym battle. In the haze of the past few weeks, Wataru had completely forgotten about it. But two hours—Toku and Ibuki were up at the river! There was no time to retrieve them.

    Wataru wanted to meet the gym leader, though. He remembered how Hamako had spoken so passionately about the kairyu. He didn't think she would have let anything like the caged miniryu stand.

    "Are you up to fighting all on your own?' Wataru asked Kana. He wasn't really surprised when the charmeleon answered with a confident yip.

    At the gym, the attendant took his trainer card and then led Wataru down a long corridor, up an elevator, and onto a platform that jutted out over a grassy battlefield. Erika was a distant figure on the other platform. All Wataru could make out was the pink and green of her kimono.

    "Good morning, challenger!" she said in a smooth voice, magnified by some hidden device. "I'm sure you've prepared long and hard for this battle. Impress me with your elegance and skill!"

    Kana did win in the end, but the victory wasn't anything close to elegant. As Wataru slumped on the railing of the platform, still exhausted from the long night, Kana burned her way through a weepinbell, a tangela, and a gloom, keeping a wide distance from their noxious sprays.

    From what Wataru could see, Erika was just as detached from the battle as he was. She gave a few commands, but mostly she stood there, and Wataru was sure that at one point she'd taken a quick phone call. When Kana stood triumphant over her last pokemon, and the field was a mess of sputtering flames and ash, Erika called out brightly, "Congratulations, challenger! Your skilled pokemon has won you the Rainbow Badge of Celadon City. I wish you the best of luck in your aspirations going forward!"

    And that was it. Before Wataru could even try to make his voice reach the distant platform, he was led firmly away by the attendant, back down the corridor. A badge and a complementary perfume sample were pressed into his hand. Standing outside the gym, Wataru felt anger spark up through his fist, so intense that he almost cast the badge down a gutter. The perfume bottle he broke against the ground.

    Kana let out a short whine. She lacked her usual post-battling cheer—perhaps because, like Wataru, she guessed that the gym leader hadn't fought them with anything close to her true strength.

    "Let's get to the casino," Wataru said finally. The smell of jasmine chased them down the street.

    ~*~​

    Wataru was weaving his way between the slot machines, when Aki grabbed him by the arm, beaming.

    "The dratini—" she began.

    Wataru's whole body tensed. Had someone won him? Had they—

    "I talked to the manager and she told me that they're changing its water tomorrow, early in the morning, and she said if you still have ideas about how to deal with that nasty flaking, you can try. Some professor sent a letter about it, or something."

    Wataru stared at her for a moment, open-mouthed. His fixation on the miniryu was an open secret among the staff. But this was—

    "Aki, thank you so much," Wataru said fervently, giving her a deep bow. When he finally got off shift, he raced off towards the river. It took hours for him and Kana to cart down the two largest stones they could carry, but at last the stones were safely stowed inside the casino. Wataru collapsed onto the break-room couch and slept, until a prod woke him.

    The manager's kadabra jerked a finger, and Wataru followed it up to the Dragon's Lair, which was now roped off with a maintenance sign. The tank was connected to a large machine and the water was slowly draining. When Wataru had lugged over the rocks, the kadabra lifted the miniryu with a lazy wave of its spoon out of the tank.

    For several minutes, the miniryu didn't move. He held himself completely still on the rocks, as if petrified. Wataru watched, holding his breath without meaning to, unsure how the kadabra would respond if he knelt down and gave the miniryu some comfort. Then the miniryu's tongue flicked out, once, twice, tasting the air. He bent down and licked the rock considerately. At last the miniryu began to wriggle and twist. Dead scales flaked away in massive strips. The blue of the scales underneath was still muddied with gray, but the scales were brighter and layered tightly.

    "Hello," Wataru whispered, when the miniryu had finished his shedding and lay stretched out on the rock. "My name's Wataru. Toku, my best friend, was a miniryu like you. But she's a hakuryu now. She's so big." Tears were starting to poke at Wataru's eyes. "One day you'll be a hakuryu too. And we'll get you out of here, and you and Toku can be friends."

    He didn't think the miniryu had heard him at first. But at last the small ryu lifted her head and examined Wataru with dull eyes.

    "I promise," Wataru whispered. He reached out a hand to stroke her scales, but the kadabra let out a warning rumble. While he'd been watching the miniryu shed, the tank had been emptied and filled. The kadabra waved its spoon, and the same blue light covered the miniryu.

    But this time, the miniryu resisted, his small body clinging to the river stone, struggling against the telekinesis with a thin, tormented whine. It was the first sound Wataru had heard from the miniryu and it pierced his heart. By the time the miniryu was again submerged, Wataru's face was wet.

    That evening he stayed by the river, on the cold dirt bank. Toku wound herself around his chest and her trills lulled him to sleep.

    ~*~​

    Spring became late summer, though Wataru didn't see much of the sun. He was mostly a nocturnal creature now. His moods followed the spin of the slots.

    One afternoon, Wataru pressed mechanically down on the red button—the kairyu roared; the lines spun. A column of miniryu, and another, and another, until the very last column jerked into place, its final slot taken by a grinning gold magikarp. Wataru stared blankly up at the screen, counting.

    Fourteen. But fourteen wasn't enough. It wasn't enough!

    Wataru punched his hand against the plastic belly of the kairyu, pain flaring in his knuckles. He stumbled outside, where the sun beat down on his back. The streets were busy and no one noticed him sink his head into his knees and sob until his shoulders shook.

    That night, he had work. Wataru paced the game floor, angry and restless, aggrieved by every shout of pleasure or victory. As he turned, he caught sight of a stranger heading with purposeful steps down a small corridor. Everything down that hallway was restricted—only the managers went there. Tensing, Wataru whistled for Kana and followed the man at a run, catching him just as he approached the door.

    "Hold it!" Wataru shouted. The man didn't turn immediately. But when he did turn, the motion was sudden, like the spring of an arbok. He was a tall man, dressed in dark clothes, with a cap pulled tightly over his face. Wataru could only make out a sharp chin, severe cheeks, and eyes that gleamed in the dim light. "That door's restricted," Wataru said. "Restricted to staff."

    When the man spoke, his voice was soft and cool with incredulity. "I am staff."

    His expression reminded Wataru of a kairyu he'd once seen, challenged by a miniryu over a juicy berry. The kairyu had stared down, arrogance mingling with disbelief at the miniryu's impudence. His wings had flared out; he'd raised his head and his chest had swelled. I am bigger than you, the posture said, I am stronger than you. I am your elder and your better and I know secrets you do not. So don't try me.

    But Wataru was not a small, helpless miniryu. He tilted up his chin and said through clenched teeth, "I don't know you. So please show me an ID, or I'll escort you from the premises."

    Still, the man stared. "Perhaps you don't know me because I'm well above your pay-grade," he suggested, dark amusement slithering through his voice.

    He took a step forward and Wataru noticed the five pokeballs on his belt—not ordinary pokeballs, but the black and yellow ones only advanced trainers wore. Kana moved forward, a growl building in her throat.

    "Executive Archer!" The floor manager and her kadabra had materialized in the hallway. "Forgive the wait, sir, I was only just informed of your arrival."

    "Apparently, I am not permitted entry," the man said, his cold gaze not moving from Wataru's face.

    The floor manager blanched as she looked between the man, Wataru, and Kana. It was the most extreme reaction Wataru had ever seen from her. She bowed. "Please accept my sincerest apologies for any rudeness you have experienced. This boy is new and doesn't know any better."

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

    When his eyes finally moved from Wataru's face, Wataru let out a breath.

    "My time here is limited. We'll speak briefly," the man—Executive Archer—said to the floor manager, who nodded and stepped past Wataru to hold open the door.

    But the man paused a moment before stepping through. His gaze moved from Kana, whose tail-flame was still burning hot in anticipation of a fight, to Wataru's still-clenched fist.

    "We will speak again," he said mildly. The door shut behind them with a metallic clunk.

    ~*~​

    A few weeks later, Wataru stepped out to leaves as red and orange as kairyu dancers. As the crisp air broke brightly against his face, a wild impulse seized him to race down the bricked streets of Celadon, climb the tumbling hills, and never return. He was tired of smoke and darkness, long nights and losing, the gray gloom that pressed down heavily with every new day.

    When Wataru looked up, he found the red and black checked face of the casino staring back at him, impassive and all the same mocking. Because Wataru couldn't leave. He couldn't run away.

    I swore it, Wataru reminded himself. He could still hear the miniryu's tormented whine as he was forced back into the tank. I swore it by the kairyu.

    So once more Wataru climbed the marble steps. The darkness closed around him like a maw.
     
    Last edited:
    Ch 5: The Recruit, Part One
  • Pen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    "The thrill of the spin?"

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

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

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

    The question struck Wataru like a hammer.

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

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

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

    What kind of question was that?

    Wataru held his mouth shut, his eyes burning.

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

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

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

    "Experienced how?"

    "More experienced than you—"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    ~*~​

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

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

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

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

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

    Archer. He enunciated the strange name crisply.

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

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

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

    "The dragonair, please."

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

    "Ready, Toku?"

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

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

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

    "Aqua tail, quick!"

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

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

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

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

    "Dragon rage!"

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

    "Feint—"

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

    Archer smirked. "Crunch."

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

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

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

    "Thunder fang."

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

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

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

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

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

    Ibuki's howl jolted Wataru back into the moment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Wataru shook his head.

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

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

    Wataru shivered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

    "An elite team of trainers?"

    The firelight caught off of Wataru's widened eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    I won't let the miniryu down.

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

    ~*~​

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

    "You may look," Archer said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

    ~*~​

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    ~*~​

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    The miniryu depended on it.

    ~*~​

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    "Thank you, Lance."

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

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

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

    ~*~​

    "Time."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    No. He couldn't fail. Lance was ready for this, even if Wataru wasn't. He hoisted up his pack and cut decisively into the snow-covered wood.
     
    Last edited:
    Ch 5: the Recruit, Part Two
  • Pen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    "Sleep powder," a low voice commanded.

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

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

    ~*~​

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Poisoned. What were they going to do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Clouds, he thought absurdly, but heavy.

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

    "Twister!"

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

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

    "Get them, Toku."

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    "No. How's the bridge?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    "Good luck," Delphin said.

    "You too."

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

    ~*~​

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

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

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

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

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

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

    "A gyarados attacked you?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    ~*~​

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    "Burn a path."

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

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

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

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

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

    "How many tokens did you manage to get?"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Wordlessly, Lance shook his head.

    "So be it," said Hunter.

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

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

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

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

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

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

    "Flamethrower—"

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    "Ibuki's pokeball," Lance said.

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

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

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

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

    ~*~​

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    "I know," Lance reminded her.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

    Lance swallowed. "Are you all right?"

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

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

    Her short, bitter laugh made him flinch.

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

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

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

    "Hunter—" he began, stepping forward.

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

    Lance hesitated, his gaze stuck on Hunter.

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

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

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

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

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

    "Is that—"

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

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

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

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

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

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

    ~*~​



    Art is by the amazing Plebis! Check out their twitter @plebisian or attack them on Art Fight (~plebis)
     
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    Ch 6: The Agent
  • Pen

    the cat is mightier than the pen
    Staff
    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 claw. 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's claw 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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