A reclusive musician pushes papers at the local guild branch, reluctant to plunge into missions—until a spirited vulpix sets his heart alight.
Lighthearted PMD friendship/romance oneshot featuring a unique fictional instrument.
I think it would be nice to improve at writing romantic chemistry, so feedback on that would be nice. I have a feeling I could have done better here.
A reclusive musician pushes papers at the local guild branch, reluctant to plunge into missions—until a spirited vulpix sets his heart alight.
Lighthearted PMD friendship/romance oneshot featuring a unique fictional instrument.
I think it would be nice to improve at writing romantic chemistry, so feedback on that would be nice. I have a feeling I could have done better here.
She always burned so brilliantly. Flame outlined her six tails; her paws blazed as she trotted in place. Blood rushed to Yasu’s stiff limbs, his aura sensors tingling as he watched from across the hall, ink-stained paw suspended over an oaken filing cabinet.
“You’ve got something,” she accused the guildmaster, a muscly mienshao. “The job boards were plastered every day last week, until you got rid of them.”
The guildmaster crossed his arms, sitting back in his chair. “We did away with the boards precisely because newbies like you keep taking jobs you’re not qualified for. As a guild, we hope to create fewer rescue missions than we finish.”
Fire flared from the vulpix’s nostrils as she tossed her head. “I don’t need your coddling. My record’s perfect so far, and I need money today. Show me what you’ve got.”
The guildmaster sneered. He drew a paper from his desk drawer and slammed it on the table. “Then try this. S-rank mission. 5500 poke to subdue the hydreigon at the end of Mochi Cliffs. You’ll have to ask Yasu to partner with you.” He glanced through the doorway behind her, into the archive room. “You showed up too late for anyone else.”
She whipped around and approached Yasu. Orange flecks burned like embers in her eyes. “Well, Yasu? Ready to kick some ass?”
This close, her aura suffocated him, like standing in front of a bonfire. It made him tremble and his heart thud like a drum in his ears. But it must have ignited something inside him, too, because he found himself smiling.
Yasu dodged between tree trunks and leaped over laurel bushes as swift as the coastal breeze, inhaling the scent of pine and hibiscus in gasping breaths, savoring the rush of the wind. His fear of ferals diminished each time his leader drove one off, spewing swathes of flame that dried his eyes and singed the ground and understory. He began to wonder why he hadn’t taken on a mission sooner.
But they were only halfway through the dungeon when he began to lag behind. The vulpix ran fast and relentlessly—even the camellias’ glossy foliage and crimson blooms, which had several times caught Yasu’s eye, failed to distract her. He was just beginning to fear she had forgotten him, that he might have to speak up, that she might glare at him and say she regretted dragging him along, when she finally glanced back and slowed. “How are you doing, Yasu?”
Yasu caught his breath. “A little tired.”
“I’ll slow down.”
And she did, though she walked with a sort of prancing gait, eager to burst into a run again. Yasu’s pulse mellowed. Birdsong became audible again, narcissus flycatchers’ cheery twitters and pygmy woodpeckers’ rattly squeaks. As he listened, Yasu noticed a fickleness in the wind and thick clouds gathering ahead.
“My name is Hotaru, by the way,” his partner said. “You did me a big favor tagging along. You don’t normally do missions, right?”
In fact, this was Yasu’s first, but he didn’t mention that. “No, but I’ve been meaning to get out more. This seemed like a good opportunity. I’m glad to have someone capable with me.”
“About time somebody recognized my competence.” She puffed up her tails momentarily, chin lifting. “But seriously, guild members always act like they have something to prove. You’re the first who’s let me lead, and I don’t think it’s because you’re the worst.”
She chuckled. “You’re a good runner, at least.”
Yasu felt a swell of pride despite himself, recalling his regular jogs along the beach. “Apparently not as good as you.”
Yasu would have asked what she meant by that had the phrase not been accompanied by a faint darkening of her voice and aura. “Fair enough. When will you swing by the guild again, do you think?”
For some reason, her aura darkened further. “I’ll look for you when I do. It’ll be whenever the mood strikes, so I can’t say when.”
Yasu frowned. He imagined only coming in to work when he felt like it and doing whatever job he wanted. The flame inside him, the one she had ignited, flared.
Deep in the dungeon, fallen trees littered the ground and splintered trunks slowed Yasu and Hotaru’s progress. Dread crept into Yasu’s heart, chilling it. He took out an All Power-up Orb from his bag, scanning the sky. The dark clouds threatened rain.
An earth-shattering roar erupted behind Yasu and Hotaru; Yasu jumped, crushing his Orb. Vermillion light enveloped him and Hotaru. Her aura flared, prickling his skin. They turned to face a hydreigon diving with heads outstretched. They had seconds before it reached them.
“Hope this lasts,” Hotaru muttered. “Forward!”
Yasu met the hydreigon’s charge with her, because leaving the sphere of her aura would have been like stepping naked into the cold.
The hydreigon spewed a sheet of purple energy from its mouth; Yasu froze, then flinched from the sudden heat beside him. Fire crashed against the hydreigon’s attack, halting it. In another context, Yasu might have laughed at the image—a tiny vulpix warding off a dragon, eyes bright with determination, flames burning needles off the trees.
The hydreigon was meters from ramming them. Yasu jolted. Act, dummy! Help her! He hurled a Sizebust Orb—his last item—then dove away. The hydreigon sailed past him and Hotaru—or, he thought it had passed her, but she wasn’t there when he glanced beside him. He turned, standing, and for a split second glimpsed her just above the treetops, clinging to the hydreigon’s back, jaws clamped around its center neck.
Then she burst into flame, swallowing the sky.
Smoke stung Yasu’s throat; fire branded his eyes; her aura set his heart beating like a rillaboom’s fist. He didn’t recall moving, but by the time he had regained his vision, he found himself poised between the hydreigon and a fallen Hotaru, snarling, stance wide, a Focus Blast forming between his paws.
The hydreigon roared and changed direction. Yasu glimpsed a black patch on its back as it retreated. He launched the Focus Blast; it went wide.
Yasu swayed, then fell to his knees, trembling. He took some shallow breaths—Wait, Hotaru! I need to see if she’s okay! He turned on all fours. To his relief, Hotaru was standing, though she trembled even more violently than he. “That’s exactly what I was trying to stop it from doing,” she grumbled. She began to turn toward Yasu but collapsed partway.
“Hotaru, are you okay?”
“Yeah,” she breathed. “Just warp us back to the guild. I think we’re done here.”
He nodded and reached for his bag.
A flash of blue light, and Yasu and Hotaru were greeted by the stone walls and neat beds of the guild infirmary. An audino sat up in her chair, scanning them. “Welcome back. Do either of you need care?”
Yasu glanced at the wobbly Hotaru. “I think she—”
“No,” Hotaru said, “I’ll rest at home. They charge you a leg and an eye to stay overnight here.”
Yasu’s brow furrowed with concern. He could feel her aura weakening even as she spoke. “How close is your home?”
“Like, fifteen minutes. Why?”
“You could stay with me—if you wanted. I live really close by. Not even five minutes.”
“Thanks, but… I can walk.” She staggered out the door.
This wasn’t fair, Yasu thought; he was still lightheaded, still reeling from everything that had just happened. He slapped himself, trying to think. “At least let me walk with you until we part ways.”
“I can’t stop you.” Her voice was barely audible.
The two walked slowly through the foyer, and Yasu opened the entryway’s double doors. They were greeted by the din of rain against rocky crags. Lightning flashed.
“On second thought,” Hotaru muttered, “I think I’ll stay with you.”
Yasu lived in a cave in the sea cliffs. Holes in the far wall served as windows, looking out to the water. Furnishings and scrap wood hid in the shadows to the left. Hotaru scanned the cave, spotted one of three mattresses near the front wall, and collapsed onto it.
“Do you need anything?” Yasu asked.
“No. I’m going to sleep. Do whatever you’d normally do.”
Yasu frowned. He tried to sense her emotions, but her aura was too weak. He lay on the mattress next to her, intending to sleep and process today’s events, but found himself anxiously listening for Hotaru’s breathing instead. She’d insisted she was fine and hadn’t seemed injured as they walked, but her fatigue unsettled him. Even from just a couple meters away, he couldn’t feel her warmth. It was hard to believe she was the same pokemon who had inspired him to undertake an S-rank mission, to face down a hydreigon…
He shook his head. God, had he really done that? It wasn’t just some self-aggrandizing fantasy? He resolved to ask her tomorrow, just to confirm.
At some point, his mind gave in to sleep.
It was raining again when Yasu woke up, or maybe it had never stopped. Hotaru was still sleeping. Yasu would have woken her if he thought she valued punctuality and if her aura weren’t still as weak as last afternoon.
The weather and the leadenness in Yasu’s legs deterred him from attempting another mission. Still, the day passed slowly. The musty scent of the archive room seemed suddenly foreign to his nose. He walked out six hours later, slapping his face. Shopping helped dispel his boredom—he could at least greet the merchants and examine the new Orbs on display. Back home, he put away his groceries—dried plums, persimmons, seeds—organizing them along the metal rack by the east wall.
Only when he was done did he turn and see Hotaru, standing on the mattress, head hung, breathing rushed.
“Hotaru?” Yasu rushed to her side and knelt. “Are you okay?”
She sat and carefully raised her head, as though it were a cup filled to the brim. Her eyes were unfocused. “Thought you’d be a little longer,” she exhaled. “Turns out I crashed pretty bad. Life’s a bitch, huh?”
Yasu wrung his paws. “What do you mean?”
She sighed. “I hate talking about this—not much choice. I’m always like this. It’s like a broken spigot. When I have energy, I have too much. Then this happens. Using overheat probably didn’t help.”
Yasu’s heart sank. “Oh, I wish I had known. I feel bad for leaving you alone all day. Have you talked to a healer about this?”
“Yeah. It’s a chronic thing. It’ll be easier to deal with the symptoms once I evolve.”
Yasu imagined an incandescent ninetales streaking along the coastal cliffs like a shooting star. Her aura would drive his heart into the ground and sear his eyes. He’d never be able to keep up. “You gonna evolve soon?” he asked, his voice tinged with apprehension.
“Soon as I can get my hands on a Fire Stone.”
“I see. That’ll be something.”
Hotaru lowered her head, eyes closing.
“Can I get you anything? How about food?”
She didn’t open her eyes. “No thank you. I, uh, don’t have much of an appetite when I get like this.”
Yasu frowned and walked to the metal rack behind him. He came back and set down an armful of jars and paper bags. “If you change your mind, I have some nuts, dried fruit, and kusaya.”
Her nose twitched and eye opened slightly at the mention of the latter. “Thanks, that’s very kind of you.”
Yasu smiled, probably wider than warranted. “You’re welcome.” Yasu grabbed a persimmon for himself and ate while leaning against a wall, gazing at the sea. Cormorants sunned their wings on the rocks below; streaked shearwaters bobbed atop ruddy blue waves or wheeled in low belts, laughing. Yasu imagined, as he often did, that his cave was a boat sailing across an infinite sea. Would that make Hotaru his crewmate?
A paper bag rustled behind him, but he refrained from looking back since he didn’t want to make Hotaru feel self-conscious. Instead, he hummed to himself—an uptempo melody to match the birds. He took a bite from the persimmon, licking up stray drops of juice before they could hit the ground. Hotaru chuckled quietly behind him. He glanced back, head cocked.
“You’re such a neat eater,” she said, a fish bone sticking out from between her teeth. “Like you’re standing on a silk mat. It’s cute.”
He scratched his head, smiling. “I, um, don’t know what to say to that.”
She closed her eyes, a smirk lingering on her lips. “Just an observation.”
Yasu thought to call her cute too, but if he was honest with himself, he found her more… scary? Was it possible for someone to be scary in a good way?
Hotaru seemed to have finished her food by the time Yasu had his. He plopped down on his bed, thinking.
“What would you normally do?” Hotaru asked. “Like, if I weren’t here. You should do that.”
Yasu’s heart thudded dizzyingly. “I guess I’d usually play music, but I don’t want to bother you…”
“Bother me? I’ve been lying here all day with nothing but my thoughts. I’m bored, dude. If you want to play some music, then play some music.” She looked around. “I didn’t see an instrument around here, though.”
“There is one, but it’s not common.” Anxiety singed Yasu’s heart like a candle held too close. He walked across the cave and grabbed a short wooden rack with wooden slats laid across it, Orbs resting side-by-side in their notches. He was careful to keep any from falling as he carried the rack to Hotaru.
“I-I call this the Orb Rack. You know how you can make sounds with Orbs?” He plucked a Rainy Orb from the rack—identifiable by frosted waterdrop patterns—and rubbed it. A plangent note, like a loon’s call, rang out.
Hotaru tilted her ear toward the noise. “I didn’t know that. But it’s very quiet.”
“Yeah, that’s where Orb chaining comes in—or that’s what I call it, at least. If you rub an Orb that’s touching another Orb, it modifies the sound. So if I take an All-Power Up Orb…” He removed a fiery red Orb and held it against the Rainy Orb. This time, when he rubbed the latter, the sound was louder with a faint crackling behind it. Hotaru jolted slightly.
“So that pretty much just amplifies it, but there are a lot of other effects. With the rack, I can arrange them in any way, and I can get some, uh, pretty interesting sounds.” He put the two Orbs back in their place and rubbed the Rainy Orb again. The loon’s call seemed unaltered at first, then grew muffled and overlapped itself in garbled swirls, a chorus heard from beneath the waves. He removed his paw—the sound persisted—and rubbed another Orb. Percussive beats, reminiscent of hail against water, ducked beneath the main chorus. Finally, Yasu rubbed a third Orb, and a clear melody threaded through the beats, gull-like. He kept it going for a few measures, occasionally rubbing again to reinvigorate each row. Then he began to swap the Orbs in the third row, improvising new melodies.
I shouldn’t make it look like I’m showing off, he thought.
A couple more measures to get the point across, then he grabbed a Silence Orb from a bin beside the rack. He inserted it into each row, cutting off the sound. He looked at Hotaru again, holding his breath, braced for her to proclaim this contraption a gross waste of money and time, or maybe she would be polite enough to feign interest and constrain her bafflement to her eyes.
“Yasu, what the fuck,” she said, the exhaustion suddenly gone from her voice, the flecks in her eyes glowing. “That’s cool as hell!”
Yasu grinned bashfully, chest alight. “O-oh, thanks, I—”
“What do Weather Orbs do? Have you tried Warp Orbs?” She stretched her nose toward a bin that had been beside the rack, which contained more Orbs.
“Well, Weather Orbs change the chain’s timbre, and Warp Orbs randomize the order of effects in a chain—I’ll grab some and show you.”
He demonstrated these effects to her, and many more. Though she rarely raised her head, her ears were perked throughout the impromptu lesson. Not content just to have concepts explained, she asked him to demonstrate scales and chords and different time signatures and tremolo and distortion. Unexpectedly, he found himself incorporating bright sounds reminiscent of the birdsong at Mochi Cliffs. He did not notice how far the sun had sunk until Hotaru looked out at the sky. “Time flies, huh,” she said.
“Yeah. You can sleep here again if you want.”
“Guess I might as well,” she said casually.
As he lay in bed, Yasu found himself looking forward to tomorrow.
When Yasu woke up, Hotaru was still asleep. He walked to the guild without her. This time he worked up the courage to ask someone to undertake a mission with him—nothing risky, just a C-rank. The awkwardness was harder to endure than the mission itself; where Hotaru had been focused and self-assured, his partner was hesitant and uncertain, too much like Yasu himself. He would ask Yasu what kind of pokemon lived in the dungeon, how large the floors were, what kind of item he’d found, and Yasu would grimace and admit he didn’t know—even though he had, technically, been with the guild for six months.
Once home, Yasu drowned out his embarrassment in a sea of clean, swirling tones—or, he tried to, but it lanced through as easily as the terns outside lanced through the water. Eventually he stopped, frowning. He might not have noticed Hotaru approaching had it not been for the powerful warmth of her aura. He looked up to see her bounding through the entrance tunnel.
“Hey, Yasu, sounds nice. I just got a burst of energy and went foraging, and I want to share some with you.” She opened her bag, and it was full of oran berries and mikan oranges.
Yasu gave her a smile. “Wow, thanks. Do you want to eat together?”
“No. I’ve got too much energy to burn right now.” She opened kobicha eyes wide and flicked her ears as though a familiar had whispered something into them. “I know, why don’t we spar? I’ve been needing a good partner.”
Yasu felt something like an ice burn in his heart. Sparring with Hotaru would be exciting, certainly, but possibly dangerous. He recalled the way she’d exploded a couple days ago. Besides that, she’d probably be disappointed when she realized he wasn’t a good fighter. He could already imagine her brow crinkling, her frustrated huff.
But if he turned her down, he’d disappoint her for sure. And if he wasn’t good enough, he might as well have it confirmed.
So he found himself following Hotaru down narrow switchbacks, rustling bay trees’ overreaching branches and flattening cushions of beach vitex. The leaves’ scent stuck to his feet, spicy and warm. Finally, he and Hotaru followed the path between two dunes, and the sea unfurled before them, speckled with sunset flame. Yasu approached the water, swinging his arms across his chest, then splashed his legs and torso to wet them.
“That’s cheating,” Hotaru teased, grinning, tails swishing. She waited for him to finish.
“Okay…” Yasu returned to the dry sand. “So, how far apart should we be? Is there any—”
“Just try and hit me, silly!”
He should have figured she’d say something like that.
Hotaru met his halfhearted charge with a blazing tackle. Air rushed from his mouth; he hit the sand with a soft thud. Hotaru stood over him, framed by the steam rising from his fur. “Come on, now, you don’t have to take it easy on me.”
She let him back up, and they separated a few paces. “Okay, you ready?”
This time he sidestepped her charge, but she spewed a cone of flame in passing. Just before it swallowed him whole, he leapt backward with a squeak, rising far above the fire—then his feet unexpectedly met stone, and he wobbled, but managed to steady himself in a crouch. He stared down at Hotaru from dozens of times his height. Somehow, he’d jumped all the way off the beach and onto the surrounding crags.
Hotaru burst into snorting, twittering laughter, rolling in the sand. The shearwaters laughed with her. Yasu might have been irritated had she not sounded so mirthful. “It’s not f—that funny!”
He jumped down, landing with a roll. “Did you hear the noise you made?” Hotaru said, wiping her eyes.
“Look, you’re just… really powerful,” Yasu mumbled. It seemed her aura’s ability to inspire his courage was not quite proportional to its ability to frighten him.
Hotaru stood. “You’re strong too, you know. You jumped all the way up there.” She gestured with her nose. “Maybe if you use your legs to advance rather than retreat, you can beat me.” Her smirk dared him to try.
“Okay, but you’re just going to breathe fire at me.”
“Eh, you might get singed a little. But fire takes time to deal damage—it has to heat you up. I think you can reach me before then.”
“You’re telling me to just… run through the flames?”
“Yup. As fast as possible.”
Yasu exhaled. “I don’t know.”
Hotaru walked a few paces away. “We can try it with a weak Flamethrower. Just run right through and tackle me. You ready?”
Yasu’s heart drummed in his ears. Despite his fear, he smiled at the ridiculous Hotaru-ishness of it all. The shearwaters’ calls morphed into spectators’ cheers as she beckoned with her tails. “Okay. Here goes nothing.”
The flames were only a little wider than he was, this time. Yasu came close on the first attempt, but jumped out a few meters away, where the fire was hottest. He re-wet his fur and repositioned. “You’ll get it this time for sure,” Hotaru encouraged, eyes brightening, tails swishing faster, and he decided he had to make her right, even if it meant burning off his fur and spending the rest of the week smearing rawst salve across his chest.
At the sight of the flames, Yasu sprang forward. He grit his teeth, eyes closed, reliant on aura to gauge distance. The steam from his wet fur suffocated him. Pain followed a half second later; his whole front half felt as though ignited. But he was just a few steps away. He only had to blank his mind and let his momentum carry him.
He plowed into Hotaru and sent the both of them tumbling. “Woo!” Hotaru cheered before she had even rolled to a stop. “That was perfect, Yasu! I knew you had it in you!”
And Yasu smiled and laughed on the ground beside her, fur only slightly singed, forced to admit that he did.
Of course, Flamethrower wasn’t the only move Hotaru knew. She showed him Flame Charge, Fire Blast, Fire spin… A lot of moves that started with “Fire” or “Flame.” They continued even into the night; Hotaru glowed all the brighter in the darkness.
“Oh, you actually have a sleep schedule, don’t you, Yasu?” Hotaru asked as he sat up from a Flame Charge, panting. “You shouldn’t ruin it on my account.”
“Yeah,” Yasu breathed, trying not to betray his relief. He brushed sand from his fur as he stiffly stood. “I should have said something. I guess I…” Didn’t want to disappoint you. “…was just having too much fun.”
She grinned. “We can spar again later. I’ll see you at the guild, I’m sure.”
Yasu offered to let her stay overnight again, but she declined. Said there was plenty of moonlight and the walk would do her good. Yasu wondered when she finally got to sleep.
Yasu didn’t see Hotaru the next day or the day after that. The wind was still as he walked to the guild; the fabric of the merchants’ tents did not flap or flutter. The chill of cobblestone beneath Yasu’s feet threatened to creep into the center of his chest.
He should say hello to Naoko, he thought, drifting toward the tents. That might make him feel better. Besides, he had some money to spend, if there was anything good in stock.
Naoko was still setting up, fishing items out of his backpack to put on display. Yasu inspected the wares already out as he waited for the kricketune to notice him. A white Orb with feathery frosted patterns caught his eye.
“Oh, hey, Yasu!” Naoko said as he turned around. “I didn’t hear you come up. Usually you’re whistling or humming or something.”
“Huh, I guess so. How are you doing?”
“A little tired, but good! Just got back from a scavenging trip to the Cuckoo Plains Dungeon. Found some nice stock, including that Orb you were just checking out.”
“Right. What kind of Orb is it?”
“Well, I’ll be damned. I thought you knew ’em all. That, my friend”—he leaned in, arm on the table—“is a Reviver Orb. It can heal any injury like it never happened. Elite teams reserve them for high-stakes missions. They even say Team Go-Getters used one to survive their legendary battle with Rayquaza.”
“Wow, that’s really co—hold on, did you just make that up?”
Naoko laughed—a melodious sound. “I see we’ve talked too much. I mean, hey, for all I know, it could be true. I heard it somewhere, I think.”
Yasu sighed. “Right… Anyway, would you mind if I rubbed it?”
He chittered. “Hm. Just for you, I’ll allow it. I’m sure you’ll be gentle.”
Few folks were out this early, but everyone in a ten meter radius turned their heads. The sound was like rubbing a massive wineglass—a full-bodied, ethereal timbre with hints of reverb even without an accompanying One-Room Orb. Yasu imagined using an All-Dodge Orb to bend the pitch into melodies, or a Slow Orb and Totter Orb to create a syrupy treble loop, or a Two-Edge Orb and Rebound Orb for overwhelming walls of sound. So many fresh possibilities!
“I get the sense you like it.”
Yasu blinked, realizing he’d zoned out. It was difficult to read a kricketune, but Yasu thought he detected bemusement in Naoko’s voice and in the way he tapped his arm against the table.
“Yeah. How much is it?”
“Unfortunately, since this is such a rare and powerful Orb, I can’t sell for less than 5000.”
“Really. And that’s if I’m being nice, which for you I would. If you ask Kishi, he’ll probably appraise it similarly.”
Yasu returned the Orb to its holder. “I definitely can’t buy it today, then. Maybe after a few more weeks saving up.”
“I’ll reserve it for you, then. Unless someone gives an exceptionally high bid, that is.” He shrugged. “You never know with this rare sort of stuff. Sometimes no one pays it any mind for a year, other times you can hardly set up before you’re getting offers.”
“I see. Well, thanks.” He glanced behind him, where a phanpy stood peering around him and tapping her foot. “For now, I guess I’d better leave you to your work.”
“I guess indeed. Take care, Yasu. I’ll tell you all about my dungeoneering exploits next time.”
The Reviver Orb’s sound reverberated in Yasu’s head as he walked, until a familiar aura drew his attention, accompanied by the clicking of claws against stone. Yasu looked to see Hotaru bounding toward him, fire streaking from her tails, swift as igniting flame—and then she stopped beside him, talking, and it were as though she had never been absent at all.
“Yasu, great timing. I made it in on time today, how about that? Anyway, you ready for a mission or what?”
“I…” Yasu blinked, his blood already warming. “Uh, a mission sounds great.”
“Then let’s get going!” She broke into a canter; Yasu ran after her. Within a minute, they reached the familiar hill, shaggy with hakone grass and sprigged with paper plant, upon which the guild headquarters building rested. It still felt a little strange not to see folks gathered around a job board, studying the postings and discussing logistics.
Hotaru burst through the swinging doors, making a good dozen guild members flinch. Some scattered members were checking supplies or scrutinizing maps, but most were lined up before a wide table manned by a sentret, emolga, and treecko with job postings spread before them. “We’re supposed to wait there? Ugh, that’ll take forever!” Hotaru complained, even though the line wasn’t more than four pokemon long.
“Well, you’re in luck.” The guildmaster emerged from the hallway to the left. Hotaru spun. “I’ve got a mission that’s perfect for a fire-type,” he continued. “Let’s discuss it in my office. I’ll make it quick—try to wrap things up before you light something on fire.” He looked Hotaru over, eyes lingering on the flames spurting from her ears and nose. His gaze wasn’t harsh, though; Yasu even detected a hint of amusement in his aura.
Yasu and Hotaru had to jog to keep up with the guildmaster’s walking pace. Once in his office, he leaned against his desk. “Before we talk about the mission—I recently sent Team Frostguard on the same mission you and Hotaru tried. They said they found scorch marks but no hydreigon. Was that because of you two?”
“Probably,” Hotaru said. “I did explode on its back.”
A smile flickered across the guildmaster’s face; for a moment, he seemed younger. “I see. I know the ad requested subdual, but repulsion might be close enough. I don’t think it’ll be back. I’ll talk to the requester about getting you two your reward.”
Hotaru literally jumped for joy, kicking up a plume of fire. “Alright, that’s what I’m talkin’ about! Yasu, high five!” Yasu tapped her proffered paw, then flinched from the heat. “Oh, sorry.”
“With that out of the way,” the guildmaster said, “let’s talk about your new mission. It’s from Project P. You ever heard of the Long Rock Mountains?”
Yasu nodded; Hotaru said no.
“Used to be a hotspot, full of mystery dungeons. Before that, it was home to a major trail network. Folks used to come from all over to hike across the range. Project P wants to enlist a couple guild members to restore the old trails.”
“Sounds easy enough. What’s the pay?”
“45 poke an hour. Project should take a good month or so, depending on your pace. The budget is 12,500, which gives you 278 hours to work with. I think you two can get it done in less than that.”
“Sounds good to me,” Hotaru chirped. “What do you think, Yasu?”
Yasu’s heart sped in his chest. With that much money, he could buy dozens of orbs—and besides that, he’d get to spend a month hiking with Hotaru. “Uh, sure. That sounds really good. What kind of wildlife would we be dealing with?”
“Most of it shouldn’t be a problem, but expect a few aggressors, mostly flying-type. Noctowl, murkrow, staraptor, trumbeak. Might find chikorita or snivy. Should be less aggressive than dungeon inhabitants, which isn’t to say they all won’t attack you, just that you can repel or pacify them easily. Blast Seed or Sleep Seed powder would work. Or just fight them. They’re not gonna be tougher than a hydreigon.”
“Okay. Then I guess all that remains is to find the trailheads…”
The guildmaster leaned over his desk to remove a map from the drawer. He handed it to Yasu. “They’re marked on this map. Color coded. The white trailhead is closest, so you can start with that. Remember to set your badges so you can warp back to where you left off.”
Yasu studied the map for a bit, angling it so Hotaru could see too.
“One more thing before I let you go. Do you two want to form a team?”
“Yes,” Yasu almost said, but instead he turned to Hotaru. “What do you think?”
“What do we get out of it? Is it a big commitment? Like, if you decided you’d rather partner with someone else…”
That stung unexpectedly.
“I only ask for your sake,” Hotaru assured Yasu. She must have noticed him flinch.
“The main benefit is getting ranked,” said the guildmaster, “which would automatically authorize you to take missions below a certain difficulty. You also get perks like access to item storage and equipment upgrades as your rank goes up. It doesn’t stop you from taking on missions with other members, though. You could even register multiple teams which share pokemon. Not that I suggest that.” He gave Yasu a knowing look. Yasu had spent a lot of time sorting out paperwork from pokemon who had registered superfluous teams, to the point where he had to wonder if there wasn’t some tax loophole he didn’t know about.
“Okay, we’ll be a team, then. Do I have to sign something?”
The guildmaster took out a form and fountain pen from his desk and laid them down. “Yasu can work you through the application.”
“Right,” Yasu said, picking up the pen. “What’s your given name, Hotaru?”
“Given name? Oh, right. I don’t have one.”
“Okay.” He put down “N/A.” “Can I see your badge?” She gave it to him, and he filled out her ID number. Next came her date of birth (which she could only estimate) and prefecture of origin (a name Yasu didn’t recognize). “Oh, and, uh, we’re going to need a team name.”
“Okay, just pick something cool.”
“Uh…” Yasu blinked. He had imagined naming his team to go something like: ambling along a sunlit path, rallying suggestions with his partner and laughing at the bad ones, until suddenly one of them gasped and said “Oh, I know!” as though struck with divine inspiration, and both would agree that it would be inconceivable not to name the team after whatever followed. He hadn’t imagined Hotaru eager to move on, pacing next to him as though the floor were hot basalt. “How about, uh, Team Lightningbug? Because it’s another word for Hotaru? But we don’t have a bug type, or an electric—”
“Just put it down, we can change it later.”
A few pen strokes later, and they were Team Lightningbug. Or, almost. Hotaru would have to come back when she wasn’t scorching hot to stamp her paw on the paper.
“Great,” Hotaru said. “Anything else?”
“That’s all from me,” said the guildmaster. “Talk to Tamaki about storage when you’re ready. Godspeed.”
“See ya!” Hotaru shot out the door, returned a moment later—“Thanks!”—then darted back into the hallway.
Yasu glanced at the guildmaster. He wasn’t sure he’d ever seen the mienshao smile this wide—he could even see his teeth. He gave Yasu a knowing look. “Good luck.”
Yasu felt as though he’d swallowed sand. The dryness in his throat made him cough, and he finally slowed to a stop, letting Hotaru streak ahead of him. She circled back to him while he quaffed the remaining water in his canteen. “You good, mate?”
Yasu nodded, hunched over and panting.
“Okay. I’m not trying to kill you, you know. We can slow down a little.” Her ears pricked and eyes widened. “Actually, why don’t you go in front? At least till we get to the trailhead. I trust you to do your best.”
“Oh, thanks.” He smiled. “I’ll try not to slow you down too much.”
“Seriously, just do your best and don’t die. I’m not gonna grade you.”
Yasu gradually worked himself back into a jog, Hotaru following in zig-zags. From the map, it wasn’t totally clear how much farther they had to travel, but the katsura and hornbeam trees had begun to squeeze the path, and the wildlife had grown shyer. Yasu rarely saw the black woodpeckers whose limpid cries rang from distant trees, and the yellow buntings occupying the understory whispered more than chirped. The Long Rock Mountains towered ahead. He had to imagine they’d make it to the trailhead in two days or even by late tomorrow.
Hours passed until Yasu ran out of water. The sun had already dipped below the treeline, and nightjars had begun to call. “How much longer did you want to keep going, Hotaru?”
“If I were alone, I’d keep going till I ran out of steam. But you, Yasu, are mortal.” She gave a prompting look.
“Right. I should probably get home and have dinner. You’re welcome to join if you’d like…”
“Would I?” She thought for a moment; the angle of her ears and head almost made it look as though she were listening for something. “Yeah, I’ve got some ingredients at home I can grab. Are there crabs by the shore near your house? I’ve been wanting to make Kani Nabe.”
“Yeah, there’s usually some. Let’s give it a shot.”
Yasu experimented with Reverb and Cleanse Orbs, trying to capture the feel of the woodpeckers’ calls from earlier, while the scent of dashi drifted down the entrance tunnel.
He silenced the Orbs and turned. Hotaru stood a few feet from the entrance tunnel. From the way she had called him, she had probably tried a few times to get his attention. “Yes?”
“Soup’s ready. Come on up.”
Yasu followed her outside, where a pot sat atop a wood-burning stove. He looked inside. Strips of crab, shungiku, and leeks, carrots, and mushrooms he’d help slice floated in a hazy broth.
“You’re looking at it funny. Is there something you don’t like?”
“Ah, no, the soup looks good, but I only just realized you didn’t use rice or tofu. Do you not like those?”
“Tofu…” Hotaru’s expression blanked for a moment. “Oh, that stuff. Yeah, that’d probably be good. I’m just not used to cooking with it.”
“Oh, huh.” Yasu was sure his expression showed his surprise. “Where are you from? If you don’t mind me asking.”
“I grew up in Akishita. That’s in Kitajima. Not as high tech as here.”
Yasu scratched his head. “Tofu is considered high tech?”
“For hunter-gatherers, yeah.”
Yasu’s eyes widened despite himself. “You were a hunter-gatherer?”
“Yeah.” She rolled her eyes. “Come on, it’s no big deal, it’s not like they’re extinct. I can tell you all about it, but get some soup first before it gets cold.”
Back inside, the two teammates sat across from one another at a chabudai so small that their bowls nearly touched. When Yasu had made it, he hadn’t considered he might want to share it with someone else. Hotaru didn’t seem to mind as she slurped her soup. Yasu sipped a spoonful, then recoiled; he’d forgotten that just because the food was cool enough for Hotaru, that didn’t mean it was cool enough for him. Hotaru smiled at his mistake; a drop of broth trailed down her cheek. She licked it away. “You sounded great on the Orb Rack. Have you ever performed for anyone else?”
“Oh gosh, Yasu. You’ve gotta have a concert or something. This is too good to keep to yourself.”
“Uh…” The image of dozens of expectant faces popped into his head. So did Hotaru’s disappointed frown—Aw, why not?. “I’m not sure how I’d go about that…”
“Just post on the events board in town square. Nab some paper and ink from the guild if you have to. I won’t tell.”
Yasu furrowed his brow. Was it strange he’d never even considered it? People posted similar impromptu things from time to time—cookouts, holiday celebrations, meetups. Nothing was stopping him, except himself.
“Just a thought,” Hotaru said. “Hell, if you don’t wanna do it, would you let me?”
Yasu’s eyes widened. “Really?”
“Sure. What are they gonna do, boo me? Worth a shot. Need some more practice first, though.”
Yasu blinked. “Okay. Well, hey, maybe we can play together.”
“Now we’re talking. Once we’re done with dinner, let’s practice.” She took another big slurp from her bowl. Yasu blew on his spoonful and carefully brought it to his mouth. Still hot, but edible. “What do you think?” Hotaru asked. “And be honest with me.”
It tasted simple and fresh, the flavors of abundant carrot and leeks having seeped into the dashi broth. She’d hardly used any soy sauce. “An unexpectedly gentle taste from such a passionate vulpix.”
She smirked. “Oh, just wait till I get my paws on some ghost peppers—you won’t call my cooking ‘gentle’ then.”
Yasu threw up his paws. “It’s not supposed to be a slight! Gentle is good!”
Her smirk relaxed into a smile. “I’m just teasing. Well, kind of. I do like hot peppers.”
“Of course you do.”
“In Kitajima, we had wild taka peppers that we’d dry out and use to season stuff. When we found a big cluster of them, my sisters and I would dare each other to eat them raw.”
“And were they as daring as you?”
“No, but they were smarter.”
“There’s a lot of other cool stuff in Kitajima, too. Since you seem curious…” Hotaru described the northern islands. They were mountainous like Pulutama, but with sprucier forests. Aleuritias, erigeron, and campanula flowers filled the nooks between rocks with bursts of purple. Hot springs wafted steam and sulfur scent. By the ocean, paddlings of harlequin ducks squeaked, and glasswort mottled long stretches of salt marsh, turning a stunning scarlet in autumn. “The glasswort was great for eating, too. We’d use it to add saltiness to soups and sautes. I’m still not used to using soy sauce.” She paused for a moment. “Not that we didn’t have soy farmers. You could see fields from high up. We just never visited any.”
“Any reason why not?”
“Parents were never fond of the whole ‘civilization’ thing. I think town life might be better for someone like me, though. Nobody expects me to do anything in particular. And I’m less likely to freeze or get attacked on a low-energy day. That’s one thing I don’t miss about Kitajima: the cold. A hot spring is kinda pointless when the water on your fur freezes as soon as you step out. And the snow. God, I fucking hate snow.” She gulped down the rest of her soup as though to ward off her memories with its warmth.
“We still get snow here sometimes. I’m sure it’s not as bad, though.”
“It’d better not be. Or else… Ugh. Cross that bridge when we get there.”
“I’ll be around to help if you need it. Or if you want firewood.”
“Thanks. I’ll trade you, uh, dried berries for it.” She glanced at the shelves behind her, already laden with orans and chesto. “…Or maybe something else.”
“No big deal.” He sipped a spoonful of soup.
“You seem to be doing well for yourself, by the way,” she said, looking around. “How’d you get such a nice place?”
“Inherited it. That’s the nice thing about civilization, I guess. Solve something like shelter once, and you’ve solved it for a long time.” He gazed out at the darkening skies, the wind-buffeted gulls, the foamy waves. “It’s true that some day, this place will crumble or erode into the sea. I think about that sometimes. But it won’t happen in my lifetime.”
When Yasu returned his gaze to Hotaru, her chin was lowered and gaze unfocused. He suppressed a chuckle. She didn’t look inherently funny, but the idea of a contemplative Hotaru amused him.
Yasu had watched the sun burn the morning dew off the hakone grass and plum trees, and he’d watched the flow of guild members in and out of the main building turn to a trickle, then finally stop. He was sure his fur smelled like the potted chrysanthemums beside him by now. He had told Hotaru to meet him here, right?
It took a moment for him to recognize the vulpix as she plodded up the main path, panting. He stood and met her halfway up the hill. “What goes up must come down,” she breathed.
“Are you going to be okay today? We made it pretty far yesterday, so we can take it easy.”
“I can walk. It’ll just be slow. It’s better than doing nothing. Unless you think you’d get bored.”
Yasu was still tired from yesterday—even waiting for Hotaru hadn’t been entirely unpleasant, if he was honest, because he’d had the chance to rest. Besides that, it was still better than clerical work. “I’m not worried about boredom. Just thought you might recover faster if you rested.”
“Yeah, helps sometimes. But not that much. Besides, I could bounce back in a few hours. You never know.”
“Okay. Ready to warp, then?”
With a couple taps of their badges, they were gone.
Heat shimmers spread along the side of the mountain, and the air thrummed with cicadas’ chirps. As noon approached, Yasu clung to the dappled shade at the end of the path, careful not to trample the encroaching peonies. Despite the heat, Hotaru’s condition didn’t appear to have improved; her tails touched the ground intermittently, and the sound of labored breaths kept tugging Yasu’s attention toward her. “You good?” he asked.
“Yeah. I’m used to this, trust me.”
“Must be a tough thing to get used to.”
Yasu assumed from her brief response that she wasn’t in the mood to talk, so he was surprised when, a few minutes later, she stopped to sit and address him. “Sorry, Yasu, did you want to find a substitute or something? At least for when I get like this.”
Yasu made a displeased noise. He recalled the last time he’d worked with someone else, the awkward uncertainty. “Perhaps. But it’s hard to predict. There’s always going to be an element of chance to whether things will work out, right?”
“Yeah, I guess it’ll complicate things more. I just don’t want to hold you back.”
The idea almost made him laugh. “Don’t worry about it. Some days will go fast and others will go slow. It averages out in the end, right?” That got a faint smile out of her. “Besides, we have plenty of time. As long as we finish by winter, it’s all good.” He put his paws behind his head and stretched to convey relaxation, and Hotaru smiled a little more.
“Okay,” she said. “But if you ever get sick of me, you’d better say so. I’m counting on you.”
Yasu shrugged. “If I must.”
Hotaru was tired on the third day, but not as tired. They found a dilapidated kiosk in the morning, its trail map still preserved behind glass. But the path beyond was well and truly lost, covered in low growing bamboo like the rest of the understory. “Going to be more of a re-creation than a restoration, huh.” Yasu removed and unsheathed a sickle from his bag.
Meanwhile, Hotaru entered the forest to his right. “I’m not gonna be much help with that today, so I’m gonna go forage. I’ll stay nearby, so yell if you need me.”
Yasu sliced through the understory, consulting his map periodically. Images of Hotaru unconscious and buried beneath the leaves nagged at him, but whenever he stopped to feel for her aura, he found it still present and moving. She returned about half an hour later with her bag stuffed full of razz berries and mushrooms and mouth stuffed with knotweed and chives. “Wow,” Yasu said, looking around. “How’d you even find all that? All I see is bamboo.”
She set down the stems. “I’m good. What can I say? There’s a nice place for a fire a little ways east. This stuff’ll taste better if we can cook it.”
Hotaru led Yasu to a glade created by a fallen jolcham oak. Pink lilies cupped the sunlight. Kumano butterflies flitted from flower to flower. Yasu and Hotaru took their time gathering sticks and tinder and finding a flat rock, until eventually the firepit was ready. Yasu took out his flint before Hotaru could offer to try to light it, in case she was about to do that. The sizzling sound and appetizing scents of roasting food soon filled the clearing. Yasu swore Hotaru ate her whole body weight before she finally collapsed. “You gonna be good?” he asked.
“I dunno,” she mumbled.
Yasu sat next to her. “You want to hang out here or go back?”
“What do you want to do?”
“I don’t know. To be honest, I’d like to hang out with you as long as I can. I don’t have anything else planned.”
“Well, I’m not gonna be much fun in this state. Unless social napping is your idea of fun.”
“I see. Well, I’d like to hang out here for a bit if that’s alright. Then we can head back.”
“Sure.” She closed her eyes.
Yasu picked leaves from his fur as he watched butterflies and listened to his surroundings. Woodpeckers drummed on the towering cedar trees; bush warblers’ songs burst intermittently from the surrounding bamboo; the leaves rustled with all manner of critters. He hoped he’d learn to identify each one before his work on the mountains was finished, and get to know what they sounded like.
Soon, a new sound joined those of the forest: Hotaru’s quiet snoring. It seemed they’d be here longer than expected. Yasu didn’t mind.
The next day, Hotaru was incandescent. The sickle stayed in Yasu’s bag; it was faster to have her burn a path. Hot ash occasionally singed Yasu’s feet, and he had pulled his scarf over his nose and mouth as protection from the lingering smoke. He monitored the burn, prepared to stomp out any stray flames or, if needed, break a Rainy Orb.
“Are we still on the right track?” Hotaru asked.
Yasu pulled out his map and checked the contours. They indicated that the land should rise steeply to their left and remain flat to their right, which it did. “Should be. We’ll get to the stream soon, and then we can see exactly how off we are. There should be a rest area there.”
They heard the trickling water maybe fifteen minutes before they saw it. Yasu squinted through the trees and spotted an all-wood pavilion about 35 meters upstream. “Look, Hotaru.” He gestured. “We were only a little off.”
“I see. Nothing we can’t correct.” She changed direction, plunging into another thicket of bamboo. A bit more smoldering and some careful navigation around overreaching hornbeam branches, and they found themselves at a small slat bridge. Two of the slats were snapped, and mushrooms had sprouted on the underside. Hotaru doffed her bag and stepped on. “Maybe I should go first,” Yasu said—right as the wood broke with a soft, wet snap. Hotaru dropped into the water with a brief sizzle.
“Hotaru!” Yasu dashed to the streambank just as she emerged, steam and bubbles surrounding her as she swam for the other bank, laughing. She tossed a glance back as she emerged. “Don’t worry about me! I can swim. Toss me my bag, will you? And yours.”
Yasu obeyed, though the shaking in his paws threw his aim off by a few feet. “Why did you do that?” he asked, voice cracking.
“Cheap thrills. Besides, today’s a good day for a swim, don’t you think?”
Yasu sighed. “I thought it was dangerous for fire types.”
“Well, if I’d been low-energy, then sure, it would have been a bad move. But everything in moderation. Anyway, I warmed it up for you, so start crossing!” Her toothy grin dispelled any irritation Yasu might have felt.
Rather than swim, Yasu simply leapt across, landing on a soft patch of moss.
“Oh yeah. I forgot how far you can jump.”
“And I don’t dry off as fast as you.” The thick plumes of steam curling from Hotaru’s fur had already dissipated into claw-sized wisps. Yasu walked to the pavilion and sat on the bench beneath it, which creaked slightly but held steady. Hotaru sat on the ground beside him and began to snack on the berries in her bag. Yasu took one of the Rainy Orbs from his and began to rub it, hoping to calm down from his brief scare.
“Oh!” Hotaru exclaimed, nearly spitting berry juice on Yasu’s fur. “That reminds me, are you free this evening to mess around with that Orb thing?”
He chuckled. “The Orb Rack?”
“Sure. And you don’t really need my permission. You could just stop by and play it whenever I’m not around.”
“You’d let me into your house alone? You’re not scared I’ll set something on fire? Steal something?” She smiled wryly.
“You’re allowed as long as you don’t do those things.”
Yasu shrugged. He and Hotaru ate for a bit, watching the robins flit in the treetops. A dark, glistening thrush above them gave sharp, reedy calls.
“Pretty sure it’s making alarm calls,” Hotaru said once she’d noticed him looking.
“You think it’s because of us? Or—”
Something colorful exploded from the canopy; Yasu dove, twisting so he wouldn’t land on his bag. Clawed wings whooshed past him.
“Rude!” Hotaru huffed. She exhaled a stream of purple fireballs, which encircled her and Yasu. “You okay?” she asked him.
Yasu got to his feet. “N-not hurt.” He looked back and saw the hawlucha soaring toward the canopy.
“Okay. Seems he doesn’t like us using his pavilion. Guess that’s what we get for taking a break, huh?”
Yasu took a deep breath and followed her up the path, warmed by her will-o-wisp. Had he been alone, he might have booked it back down the path, but Hotaru—head held high, eyes glinting amethyst, silently daring the hawlucha to dive again—she dispelled his fear.
“Something wrong, Yasu?”
He blinked. “Sorry. I should be looking at the threat.”
They proceeded silently for a few minutes. The cedar canopy was high and slightly thin—bad for an ambush, Yasu realized. The hawlucha glided away before long. “You handled that well,” Yasu told Hotaru.
She bowed. “You know you can count on me. Sometimes.”
The two walked until they found a good rock to rest on. No hawlucha interrupted them this time.
Once back home, Yasu and Hotaru began to practice their music, and he shortly discovered her affinity for harsh effects—the crackling distortions of Shocker Orbs, the angry buzz of Enemy Discord Orbs. She discovered that the Longtoss Orb’s sustaining effect enabled intense layering. It quickly became a mess.
“You can’t just use every Orb in one row,” Yasu said, smiling at her frustration. “But if you want more intensity, you can try adding another row. You can add Devolve and Evolve Orbs to change the pitch, and Slow Orbs or All-Mach Orbs to change the speed. Things won’t smudge together as much, you know?”
She frowned. “Hm. It’s beginning to hit me just how great the gap in our skill is.” She looked into the bin once more.
“Now you know how I felt sparring with you.”
“Don’t be silly; I’ve just got raw strength on my side, is all.” Her voice turned wispy, her initial smile fading. “That’s all I’ve ever had.”
“Well, courage too. Don’t forget that.”
“You might say that.”
“And hunter-gatherer wisdom.”
“If you want to call it that.”
“And, uh, stunning good looks.”
She snickered, shaking her head. “Now you’re just being silly. But you know what, I’ll take it. Can’t be getting mopey when there’s work to be done, minds to be blown by the beauty of our music.” She returned her attention to the Orbs.
When Hotaru woke, sunlight had already punched through the gaps in the wattle that enclosed the overhang. The birdsong felt surreal, still—recognizable as such, but different from that of her home. Her former home.
Five minutes later, she hadn’t moved. She realized it was going to be one of those days. She snorted—or meant to, but the act was so halfhearted she barely made a sound. If it weren’t for Yasu, she’d lie here longer, maybe all day, and the day would be all the better for it. But now she had someone to disappoint. She rubbed her head. Hadn’t she moved to Pulutama precisely to avoid that?
She forced herself to her feet. Even if she couldn’t get anything done today, she had to make it to the guild to let Yasu know. The three mile walk would feel like a marathon, but she’d done it before, and she’d do it again.
Someday she’d get that damn Fire Stone.
A passing carriage jolted Hotaru. She blinked, shielding her eyes from the sun—
The sun. It was on the wrong side of the sky. A quick rest on the way to the guild had turned into a wasted day.
She had to talk to Yasu. He deserved better.
Hotaru found Yasu on the way to the guild, humming to himself, eyes toward the sky. Though the main path was busy, he didn’t wave to anyone. He noticed Hotaru seconds before she reached him and clapped his paws, straightening up. “Hey, Hotaru. How are you feeling?” She listened for irritation in his voice but heard none.
“A little sluggish, still. Hey, sorry about yesterday. How long did you wait for me?”
“Uh… a while,” he mumbled, shuffling his feet. As though he were the one who’d done something wrong.
“We should do something about that. The guild has all these warp badges. There must be some way we can communicate long-distance.”
“Hm. I’m not aware of anything. I could look into it, I guess. Or, um”—he glanced away—“you don’t want to live with me, do you? Then it wouldn’t be an issue.”
“You wouldn’t mind me snoring at night and scorching the floor and going in and out at weird hours?”
“Well, we could just try it.”
Hotaru hadn’t imagined she’d be bumming off someone after moving to Pulutama, at least not so soon—but then, Yasu was bumming off his parents, depending on how one looked at it, so maybe that kind of thing was okay in civilized places. More importantly, if it was more convenient for Yasu, what reason did she have to object? “I’m game.”
He clapped his paws. “Great—”
“But you’d better let me know if I’m annoying you,” she said, leaning in. “Don’t even think about holding back just to be polite. It’ll just make things worse.”
His eyes widened as he took the tiniest step back. “Okay, I’ll keep that in mind.”
“Good. Now, onward.”
The trail steepened over the next few days. The cedar trees thinned, yielding to firs and blooming rhododendrons; golden eagles circled almost near enough to pounce on; rock ptarmigans croaked amidst the rocks, camouflaged. Even when he cheated with his aura sense, Yasu could barely spot them.
At home, Yasu and Hotaru would spar, rest, or practice music. Hotaru insisted they would be ready for a concert soon. She’d refined her technique, incorporating harsh effects with greater intention, and Yasu had learned to adapt. Their styles gradually blended into a soft, electric fuzz, thick with reverse reverb, and topped with bright, simple melodies. Yasu recalled the sounds he’d heard while trailblazing, the atmospheres of the woods and cliffs, and found ways to convey them.
The morning before the concert, Hotaru was too tired to go out. Yasu went on a mission anyway, hoping it would distract him from his fear. If he was honest with himself, it wasn’t like he hadn’t practiced enough. He shouldn’t be so worried. But the butterfree in his stomach didn’t know that.
At least he could look forward to the Reviver Orb, he thought, walking back home; the mission pay would leave him with just enough to buy it. Sure, he wouldn’t get enough practice between now and tomorrow to use it in the concert, but there was always the next one, right?
The thought dizzied Yasu like a totter seed to the face. Best not to think about that now. Ahead, past the third line of tents, beneath the white banner, he’d meet Naoko. He should ask if Naoko was coming to the concert. He’d be supportive, probably.
A faint trace of aura stopped Yasu not a stone’s throw away from the tent. Something warm. He changed direction, cutting through Cricket Park’s copse of cherry blossoms, past tents selling herbs and clothes and incense. The crowd began to thin. The aura continued to strengthen long after Yasu had expected to find its source; it felt like sunburn. He massaged his aura sensors.
Yasu stopped in front of a brocade tent. Shiny stones glinted atop a small table.
“Something catch your eye?” A whimsicott batted long eyelashes at Yasu. The ornaments in her mane bobbed as she moved her head.
Yasu pointed to a yellow stone with a burnt orange core. “By any chance, is that… a Fire Stone?”
“That’s right. A great gift for a fire type, and a must-have for any serious rock collector. And the warmth is lovely—try holding it.” She gestured vigorously.
Yasu did as suggested. It felt like the warm stone of his oven right after he’d cooked a meal. “How much is it?”
It wasn’t more expensive than the other evolution items Yasu knew of, but buying it would set him back for weeks, and by then the Reviver Orb could well be gone. More than that, it might mean the end of Team Lightningbug.
The image of an evolved Hotaru popped into Yasu’s head, her eyes like red phosphorus, her nine tails burning bright like a fan of flares. He imagined her smiling at him, her teeth backlit by the fire in her mouth. And he realized he’d already made up his mind.
Hotaru lay in the sun by the entrance to Yasu’s home, flat as a pancake. “H…llo,” she mumbled to Yasu.
“Hey. I’ve got something you might like.” He placed the Fire Stone before her paws.
Hotaru stared, squeezing the stone so hard that Yasu could see her pawpads squish. “Where did you get this?” Her voice suddenly sounded five meters closer.
“Uh, from a merchant.”
“Unless you got a discount, that must have cost, like, half the money you’ll get from Project P’s mission.”
Yasu’s ears drooped. He’d imagined her excited, jumping for joy like she had before the guildmaster, or at least just smiling. “Something like that, I guess. But don’t worry about me; I’ll be fine. You’ve seen how much I spend on Orbs.” He gestured down the entrance tunnel. “You’re a lot more important than an Orb.”
She relaxed a little. “I don’t sound as good, though.”
“Well, I haven’t tried rubbing you.”
“Pfft. You’d be disappointed.” She looked up, finally, and studied Yasu’s face. “Hey, I didn’t mean to bum you out. I’m real tired now, but this means a lot to me. You’re a good guy. I’ll think of a way to repay you.”
“How about, um, you could be my friend? Even if you decide you don’t want to be on the team anymore.”
She looked at him like he’d asked her what species she was. “Huh? Who said anything about leaving the team? And who said I wasn’t trying to be your friend already?”
Yasu looked away, paw on cheek. “Er, sorry, I just thought you’d want to move on to bigger things.”
“Hm. Maybe. But that doesn’t mean ditching you. You’re the best partner I’ve had.”
“Oh, gosh, really?” Yasu mumbled to the ground, thanking Arceus that Hotaru didn’t share his aura sense.
“And the cutest.” She rubbed her cheek against his flank.
“Are you trying to embarrass me?”
“A little, maybe.” She smirked.
Yasu thought to give her a swat on the head, but it turned out as more of a gentle pat, which transitioned into petting when he felt Hotaru push her head against his paw. “I think you’ve done more for me than you know,” he said, his voice coming out soft.
“That so? You’ll have to tell me all about it after the concert. I love a good ego boost.”
Yasu laughed. “Will do.”
Yasu had trouble focusing as they sorted out their Orbs for the concert, but this time it wasn’t because of nervousness. The image of Hotaru’s evolution—the flames, the look on her face, the luster of her fur—had burned it away. He mentally rehearsed his confessions until they felt as familiar as his songs. When he finally faced the audience, he found himself matching Hotaru’s grin.