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Chapter 1

Negrek

Rise Toward Descent
Staff
Hello and welcome to Salvage, my big fic project of many years! In the aftermath of Mewtwo's escape from the Cinnabar lab, Mew was lost, and another creature was born. Neither human nor pokémon but wielding Mew's powers, it's vowed to find its mother and free her from imprisonment, no matter what it takes. This is a dark fanfic, which I'd say would be rated "R" or "Mature." Specific content warnings are under the spoiler below.

Content warnings include a large amount of violence, blood, death, and body horror; discussion of suicide and suicidal ideation; depictions of physical and psychological abuse and torture; and a lot (a lot) of strong and at times bigoted language.

New chapters once a week on Friday! If you've read this story before, expect only minor edits up until chapter ~10. I don't expect super major restructuring after that (e.g. cutting out or merging entire chapters, changing what happens/how things happen), but some scenes will have substantial changes. I'll call out anything I think particularly important in the author's notes for each chapter.

This is an old but still-in-progress story, and I appreciate all feedback, whether it's criticism or a quick "I liked it!" All that said, I hope you enjoy the fic.

Chapter 1

In the conversation they can't have, the child would apologize for letting him die. "Sorry I can't help you, but this is how it has to happen," it would say. "This is how it's supposed to be. Don't worry. You can still be useful, even if you're dead. I'll take your name and I'll take your face and I'll take your pokémon"--the one that is mine, the one that was stolen from me--"and I'll go and make things right. That's what I'm doing, and you're helping me. It's not all bad."

The child can't say anything like that, of course. It can't say anything at all. Absol is very strict about interfering with Fate. She's beside the child now, breath misting white in the chill air of the cavern, watching the human. That's what she does: watches. She watches to be sure that Fate plays out how it's supposed to, and she doesn't interfere.

Usually the child doesn't mind. The dying people are foggy memories at best. It has nothing to say to them. But this one it thinks it remembers. "I know you," it might say. "You used to make little origami sculptures for your desk, didn't you? I always liked those, especially the pokémon ones. They were pretty." He must have been an intern, then. Not someone who was around for very long. He's uncommonly old to still be training, but perhaps he decided to take a break after Cinnabar. Maybe he decided science wasn't for him.

Because the child has other memories, too, memories from a different life, and they whisper, "I know you. I remember you. I remember your face as you wrote the numbers down and lined the needles up. I remember your fear, human, and your shame, but I remember too that it did not stay your hand."

There wouldn't be time to say all that anyway, not even most of it. In movies it seems like there's always time for last words, but here it's all over quickly: the human slips from the edge of the path, down here where everything is glitter-slick from the river's spray. He falls funny on one arm and doesn't even cry out as it snaps, just grabs for an icy rock with the other.

"You don't have to be scared," the child imagines itself telling him as he hangs there for a terrifying second, still thinking he might pull himself back up. "I died once. It wasn't so bad."

His fingers find no purchase on the ice, and the incline keeps him sliding. His hand goes next to the pokéballs on his belt, but it's too late, too late. The river grabs his legs, pulls him down and under, and in no time at all he's gone.

Absol goes forward, thick claws splayed wide to steady herself on the ice. She paces at the edge of the water. The child imagines the human being swept along by the rushing current, slammed against submerged boulders and carried over hidden waterfalls. The river will take him to the depths of the cave, where stories say Articuno's nest resides, delicate spires of ice and cast-off feathers among the rocks. The human will never see it, though. He'll be much too dead.

Absol stops her pacing, turns back to the child and nods. It scrambles out from behind the boulder and joins her at the water's edge, peering into the dark, racing flow. Its shadow stretches over the water, rippled and frayed on the turbulent surface. There are lights behind it, illuminating the slushy path where it's safe for trainers to walk. Where the child's going there will be no light at all and only the bravest humans tread.

The child sits perched on the edge a moment longer, readying scales and gills and webbing. "I will meet you later," says Absol, and the child nods, not really paying attention. Absol probably likes it down here, where it's deathly cold and the shadows lie close at hand. She might stay a while, vacationing, but the child still has work to do. It hesitates, watching how the water froths around the jag of a half-submerged rock, then throws itself in.

Even prepared for the shock, even insulated against the water's bite, the child still feels the cold like a hammer blow. Its gasp pulls in a mouthful of water, which goes sliding over the child's gills like a deep and icy breath. The child lets the current carry it along, clicking and squeaking to conjure a radar map of the riverbed. It makes a game of dodging rocks at the last possible moment, twisting away with lazy kicks of webbed feet. Then the riverbed drops away and it's falling, flailing at air and spray with a whoop of delight. It hits a couple rocks on the way down, jarred but not broken, and plunges back into the river with a thundering splash. It drifts down until the current grabs it again and pulls it along.

Down and down, around tight bends and through surging rapids, over more falls into the heart of the caverns. The child rolls and tumbles along until the current slows and another drop brings it to the final basin, where the river stops and water seeps out through hidden cracks and fissures. The child strokes downwards in the pitch dark, ignoring translucent swimming things, ghostly in its echo-sense, and a few pokémon, wary, staying out of its way. There at the bottom it finds the corpse.

The child grabs it and kicks back to the surface, eyes opening to stare at nothing in the deep-dark. There's a shelf of rock against one wall, it remembers, and it gropes its way over blind until it bumps up against the lip of rock.

There's barely enough room for it to perch out of the water, and it hunches on the edge like a gargoyle, snorting the last of the water out of its nose while its gills close up. The corpse lolls next to it, broken arm tangled in the straps of its backpack. The child ignores the bag for now, and the clothes, and even the pokéballs. Greedy with anticipation, it fishes the trainer's pokédex out of his pocket, working by feel. It flips the machine open and squints into sudden LED brilliance.

The child ignores cold and cramping muscles, scrolling through menus, flipping through page on page of data. It learns as much as it can about the trainer's life, then snaps the device shut and in the darkness changes. Crouching there in another's skin, the child tells itself the story of who it is now:

You are Nicholas Garrett. Around eight years ago you were interning at the lab on Cinnabar Island--maybe. Something to do with the lab, or you wouldn't be here now.

Four years ago you began your journey. You're a slow trainer, but a thorough one: four years, five badges. You have a charizard--your starter--nidoqueen, primeape, rhydon, and several others of little consequence.

Today you came to the Seafoam Islands. Why, you don't know--looking for a seel, maybe, or just out for an adventure, maybe seeking the legendary Articuno. Whatever you were seeking will have to go unfound.

Because you died down here, Nicholas Garrett, in the darkness and the deep. You were twenty-six years old.

What do you do now?
 
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qva

Pokémon Trainer
Location
florida
Pronouns
she/her
i’ve read through a bit of salvage once before, but i ran into the issue that i often run into with fics that aren’t hosted on thousand roads— i end up losing my momentum with the reading before very long at all. so i’m really glad you’ve finally brought it here! one chapter a week isn’t bad at all, so i think i’ll be able to keep up until i’m caught up, which is nice.

before i get into the review itself, i just want to say that again, this isn’t my first time with salvage, and it’s been a while, but just reading this first bit again reminds me how much i love your writing style. the prose is so smooth and evocative and just genuinely nice to read without being overly gratuitous with the description and whatnot. it feels like just the right amount of detail, and the tone and style of it all is wonderful. though i’m not caught up with salvage, it ranks in my top three as far as style goes for sure. really good stuff.

this chapter is a really strong and intriguing start overall. from the first line we’re thrust into a narrative that‘s unfamiliar, jarring, and abstract. it leaves you wondering what the hell is going on here, and you do a really good job at describing the situation bit by bit, inspiring new questions with each additional detail and keeping the reader wondering at all times. this is something i’ve really enjoyed about salvage in general so far. i feel like a lot of fic authors are excited to share their worldbuilding and whatnot, so they just get right into it, but part of what makes this such an interesting fic is that it’s not really clear what’s going on for quite awhile. it makes for a unique experience.

the descriptions of the child are really fun too, although goddamn it i can’t shake the association with baby yoda now and that’s really going to haunt me the whole time i’m reading this isn’t it. anyway, the hypothetical conversation that takes place throughout the chapter is unique and gives us some cool insight into the child as a character. i don’t think i’ve seen anything like it before. even that aside, the shapeshifting stuff is just really cool, and it’s described in a fun way. even little details like its little cry of delight as it falls down the waterfall give us a working idea of what the child is like even though its motivations remain unclear.

since i’ve read past this before, i can’t do too much speculation just yet, but again your writing is excellent and this is a very good fic as far in as i read it, so i’m really glad it’s here now and i intend to keep up with it as it progresses. not much in the way of constructive criticism either, alas— this is a super solid chapter and it’s polished as hell. looking forward to the next update!
 

kintsugi

golden scars
Pronouns
she/her/hers
Partner
silvally-grass
Man, I've heard so many good things about this fic and never managed to leave a review. Here goes.

Your prose is like butter. It's smooth and I can't really get enough of it, and it gets exactly where it needs to go; I was hooked from the beginning. This chapter is great in how you describe the cold, detached air of the child. You have some really great descriptors, but what really got me was the sentence structure and how you're able to employ that to get an amazing juxtaposition -- the bit with Articuno's nest // "he'll be much too dead" was particularly haunting.

You can still be useful, even if you're dead. I'll take your name and I'll take your face and I'll take your pokémon"--the one that is mine, the one that was stolen from me--"and I'll go and make things right.
This one line threw me a little, because it's the only bit that's in first person and the italicization of "mine" makes it feel really possesive, personal, but the rest of the narration is uniquely detached and aloof. Are these two supposed to be from the same narration?

Also, super interested to see which of Nicholas's pokemon are supposed to belong to the child, if that's what that sentence was implying.

I remember your fear, human, and your shame, but I remember too that it did not stay your hand.
I really loved this line. It's a bit dramatic, sure, but it comes at a great spot in the narration -- the way you've told this story, we're watching from the child's eyes and we're so removed from what's happening that it's hard to remember/process that we were just told that this man is about to die, but this just snaps us back in. There's a backstory here, some of which is in the summary and a lot of which is not, and I'm really excited to see where you end up taking this.

And I mean hey, you've tagged this #friendship #tragedy #pokemorph, so this is basically my bread and butter, and your style/tone here is gorgeous. Outside of that, I don't have much else to say -- I'm always garbage at commenting on first chapters, and this one in particular is really focused but not very long wordwise. Really looking forward to keeping up to speed with this one!
 
Chapter 2

Negrek

Rise Toward Descent
Staff
qva

I remember you saying you'd read some Salvage before! Do you remember how far you got in the old version? I'm just curious about whether you made it to the part where I think it picks up or not.

i feel like a lot of fic authors are excited to share their worldbuilding and whatnot, so they just get right into it, but part of what makes this such an interesting fic is that it’s not really clear what’s going on for quite awhile. it makes for a unique experience.
I'm glad you like it! tbh the beginning is a bit too mysterious for my tastes... My conception of what the fic would be changed radically after I got a few chapters in, and as such the earlier bits are rather different in terms of tone than the later ones. Unfortunately I haven't really been able to come up with a better way to start things off, so they stand as they are, but I always worry that the heavy mystery and confusing style choices in the earlier parts of the story turn a lot of people off. Now I can only hope that you won't dislike the rather different actual majority of the fic! :P

goddamn it i can’t shake the association with baby yoda now
Oh no I missed whatever this is and now I don't want to find out about it!

Heck yes for shapeshifting! If I was going to make one of those author bingo card things that would absolutely be the first square I put on there. I can guarantee that you'll see plenty more of that, at least, and it's great to hear that you enjoy the prose and the details! I try especially hard to find vivid details when I'm writing, so it's really flattering that you mention them, heh.

Thanks for coming back to take another look at this, and for dropping another nice review. Good luck keeping up!

kintsugi

Thanks for checking this one out! I try spend a lot of time polishing my prose, so I'm glad that it really works for you. The early chapters of this story have some of the most stylish moments, but I try to keep it interesting throughout.

This one line threw me a little, because it's the only bit that's in first person and the italicization of "mine" makes it feel really possesive, personal, but the rest of the narration is uniquely detached and aloof. Are these two supposed to be from the same narration?
Whoof, wow, I can't believe I missed that multiple times. You're right, that should be in third person... Probably the reason I glossed over it so many times is that it's hard to get such a punchy effect in third person and I don't envy myself trying. I'll see what I can do!

Also, super interested to see which of Nicholas's pokemon are supposed to belong to the child, if that's what that sentence was implying.
That is indeed what the sentence is implying. And we'll see this chapter. :)

I really loved this line.
I like that one, too! Although I think my personal favorite is the line that has "glitter-slick" in it because it's the most fun to say.

And I mean hey, you've tagged this #friendship #tragedy #pokemorph, so this is basically my bread and butter, and your style/tone here is gorgeous.
I have no idea how to make the eyes emoji but it definitely applies here. Those things are all my jam, so if you put a lot of them into your own stories, I need to get caught up posthaste!

Thanks again for stopping by and leaving a review. I hope you enjoy the rest of the story.

Author's Notes: Here's chapter two! Hope you enjoy.

Chapter 2

The first thing you do is stop home. A moment's concentration takes you from cold and dark to the warmth of your living room. Even the dim, leaf-edged light is too much for your eyes after the total darkness of the cave, and you open them slowly, blinking away tears.

That gives Rats enough time to hide whatever she was chewing on, so when you turn to her it looks like she's just relaxing in her nest, half burrowed under shredded pieces of newspaper and drifts of insulation. "Uh, hey, Boss. Back early, aren't you?"

"It was easier than I expected," you say. You were smart, this time. You were ready to die. "Come on. I need you to help me with Titan." There will be time to scold her about dismantling furniture later. "Is Absol back?"

"Dunno." Rats is out of her nest in a great rustling of detritus. "I haven't heard her, but you know how she is." Rats stands picking scraps of paper out of her fur while you head deeper into the house. You glance at the couch in passing, but Absol isn't there, just the impression in the cushions where she usually lies.

"So. Titan, huh?" Rats asks, waddling after you on her hind legs and grooming her whiskers as she goes.

"Yes." You toss her the pokéball and stop at your desk, grabbing your pokédex and flipping it over. You have the back hatch open in a practiced instant and exchange the data card inside for the one you've been clenching in your palm, warm now from the heat of your body. You left Nicholas Garret's pokédex in the cavern, as empty and cold as his corpse. Its soul is yours now, as is everything else that once belonged to him.

"Looks rounder than I remember," Rats says, examining the pokéball between her claws.

"That's just his pokéball, Rats," you say, giving her an incredulous look while the pokédex boots up. You relax when the screen comes to life with your information. It's best for things to be official, for your life to be somewhere it won't get lost, in case you need it. It can be hard to remember who you are, sometimes. You haven't been Nicholas Garret long enough to get the details right.

"Joke, Boss," Rats says with a sigh. "Looks like it's the same old pokéball, anyway. Talk about your years of service, huh?"

You dig around for her own ball, just in case, and add it to your belt. Nicholas Garret's pokéballs you pull off and dump in the bottom drawer, making a mental note to release them later.

"So, should I?" Rats asks, making as if to throw the ball.

"Not inside. Come on." You don't want anything flammable around, in case something goes wrong. Not that anything will go wrong. You've pored over your memories of Titan so many times they've grown dull and distorted, as much fantasy as fact. But there's no question that he was always the most loyal of your team. He swore with you, just like the others. He'll come around, and it won't be long before you can finally set out to fulfill your promise together.

You lead the way down to the beach, the jungle crowding at your back. Knot Island lies somewhere to the south, no more than a speck far off across the waves. You nod at Rats, and she lets the pokéball go. All of a sudden Titan's standing in front of you, stretching his wings up to the sky.

You forget everything you were going to say. You knew he evolved, of course, but somehow you were still thinking of him as that gawky, earnest charmander. Now he towers over you, arching his long neck and letting out a lazy streamer of smoke like he was never knee-high and afraid of his own shadow.

"I thought you said we were going to Cinnabar," the charizard says as he looks around, sniffing at the air. "Where are we?"

"Titan," you say, and his head snaps around, his eyes fixing on you.

"Who?"

"We are not going to Cinnabar, Titan."

"Why are you calling me that?" The charizard tucks his wings in close and stares at the beach around you like he's expecting someone else to be there. "I don't like that name."

"Why not? It is your name. You remember, do you not?"

The charizard snorts out a puff of smoke and returns his gaze to you, the whites starting to show around the edges of his eyes.

"You understood that? You can hear me? How do you know about that?"

"Calm down, Titan. I am your trainer, remember? I know this is confusing, but you do not have to be afraid."

It takes all your self control not to flinch when the charizard's head swings down, stopping inches from your face. He snuffles and sniffs at you, then draws back in confusion. "You smell like Nick. You look like him, too. But you don't sound like him at all. Who are you? What happened to Nick?"

"I am Nicholas Garret," you say. "I am your trainer."

"No you're not!" Titan rears up again, his tail flame leaping and dancing with his agitation. "Who are you? What happened to my trainer?"

"I just told you. I am your trainer," you snap. You are Nicholas Garret. You are Titan's trainer, twice over. "Listen, Titan. Calm down. I will explain everything if you just--"

"No! I'm not listening to anything you say until you tell me where my trainer is!"

"Here, Boss. Let me handle this," Rats mutters.

"Go ahead," you say with a scowl, crossing your arms. "Obviously Titan is not going to listen to me. He is completely overreacting."

Rats pushes past you and cautiously approaches the charizard. He watches her come, dark smoke wreathing his narrowed eyes. "Titan, this is Rats," you say. "I am sure you remember her."

"That's right," Rats says. "Been a long time, hasn't it, big g--whoah." Titan bends down so far his snout nearly presses up against Rats' face, staring at her in utmost suspicion. She starts backing up, then throws herself sideways as a gush of fire shoots from Titan's mouth.

"Hey. Hey! Is that any way to treat an old friend?" the raticate grumbles, taking off as another flamethrower rushes her way. "What, don't you remember me, you stupid lizard?"

"I don't know you," Titan says in a low, volcanic rumble, twisting around to keep the raticate in his line of sight. Rats dances from paw to paw, on guard for more fire. "You think I can tell the difference between all the raticate I've ever met? You all look the same, like big, hairy--big, hairy rats!"

"Ooh, so that's how it is, huh? Well, how about this, Titan, would just any raticate remember that time you got beat up by that magikar--oof!" Titan's tail snaps around, catching Rats off guard and knocking her onto her side. The charizard comes at her with teeth and claws and flame, and Rats shrieks disparaging comments about his parentage while struggling to defend herself.

Titan pins the raticate under one foot and stares down at her, smoke streaming warningly from his nostrils. "You say we're old friends?" he growls. "A real friend would tell me what happened to my trainer."

"Well," Rats wheezes, "that's actually a bit of a difficult question. Maybe if you could let a rat breathe a bit here, we could--" Her voice cuts off in a squeak as Titan leans down on her, and then she glows red. Titan's foot lands heavily in the sand, Rats pulled safely back to her pokéball. You frown down at it for a moment before clipping it back to your belt. Well, that was a big help. You need to get Rats back in battling shape before you start your journey; she's spent too long lazing around at home.

"Now tell me," Titan says, and you look up to find him standing with mouth agape, white-hot saliva dripping around his teeth and sizzling in the sand below. "This is your last chance. What happened to my trainer? What happened to Nick?"

You've had enough of this. One hand balls into a fist down at your side, fingernails digging into your palm, longing to shift into claws. "Nicholas Garret is dead," you snap. "He drowned in the Seafoam caverns. Now I am him, and that makes me your trainer. It is as simple as that."

Titan stares at you, the ominous black smoke pouring from his mouth cutting off to a pathetic wisp. "He's dead? What are you talking about? Why do you look like him?"

"I just told you. I look like him because I am him, now. He does not need his life anymore. Now it is mine. And now I am your trainer again."

The charizard sits back on his haunches, staring at you around with wide, white-rimmed eyes. "Again?" He starts to pant, whining slightly with each exhalation. "Again? You, again? You--"

"Titan. Titan, calm down," you say, taking a step forward with one hand raised. "You remember me, do you not? You remember the promise you made with us. Rats was there, too. And War and Thunderstorm. You know all of them."

"I don't, I don't--My trainer's dead!" the charizard says tearfully, his too-short arms reaching up like he wants to bury his face in his claws. "How? What happened? I don't understand."

"He drowned. He slipped and fell in the river and then he drowned. Now, as I was saying--"

"How do you know?" The charizard thrusts his face into yours, so close you can smell the sulfurous gases on his breath. "Where's your proof? He can't be dead! You're lying!"

"I am standing right here, am I not?" you snap. "I have your pokéball. I have Nicholas Garret's pokédex. Your trainer is dead, Titan. I was there to see it. And I am your trainer n--"

"You were there?" Titan's smoking again, breathing out dark, suffocating clouds. "You saw it all, is that it? You did it, didn't you? You killed him! Murderer!"

"I did not kill him," you say indignantly. "Why would I do that? It was his time to go. I did not have to do anything at all."

"But you were there!" the charizard roars. "You said you were there, but you didn't help him? You didn't even try?"

"I did not do anything. It was not my place to intervene."

Titan's roar splits the air, and with a jolt you remember Rats is injured. There's no one to defend you. "Titan," you say slowly. "You would not attack your trainer, Titan."

The charizard answers with flame rather than words, and you fall clear over backwards, a streamer of fire cutting through the air overhead. You grab for Titan's pokéball, then pull your hand back. No. Delaying this isn't going to help anything. He needs to learn to obey you, and the sooner the better.

"Come on, Titan, let us just talk about this."

"Talk? Talk?! My trainer's dead! And you were there! You know! Stop pretending!"

"I am your trainer! I am not dead!" Another flamethrower sizzles through the air, but this time it washes up against a wall of energy, fire spreading inches from your face before dissipating into thin air.

Titan lets out a snort of surprise as you get back to your feet. "Fine," you say, nursing a ball of blue energy in one hand, water droplets running between your fingers and pattering to the ground. "I wanted to settle this like a human. But if you will not listen to me, we can settle this like pokémon instead."

You toss the ball of energy upwards, and Titan's gaze follows it higher, higher, until it explodes in a burst of blue light. The beach turns dark and cool as sudden storm clouds block out the sun, and Titan flinches as one fat droplet splashes on his snout. Dark patches appear in the sand as more raindrops fall, and in seconds the island is gripped by a full-on rainstorm.

Titan tents his wings over his head and tucks his steaming tail flame tight against his chest. He peers at you with dark, suspicious eyes, but the rain's taken the edge off his fury. "What are you?"

"I told you. I am your trainer. That is all that matters now." You shift a little, taking a more solid stance. You're twitching with the old battle restlessness, sizing Titan up without even thinking about it. You like a fight as much as any pokémon, after all. "Now are you going to listen to me, or do you still want to fight?"

Titan lunges, claws rippling with blue dragon flames. The rain is making him sluggish, though, streaming off his scales and dampening his tail flame. His claws dig into your side, but you manage to catch him, wrapping your arms around his neck and pulling him to the ground.

"Why won't you listen to me?" you ask, trying to hang on despite his thrashing. "Why do you not want to help me? I am your trainer. Do you not want to help your trainer?"

"My trainer's dead!" he chokes, struggling to reach you with another dragon claw. "You said so! You're just someone who looks like him. You're not even a real person! What are you?"

"I am Nicholas Garret!" you insist, feeling hot blood from your wound mix with cooler rain as it rolls down the inside of your shirt. Ugh. You only just bought these clothes.

"You're not! You're not! Liar!" His voice is hoarse now, more rattle than sound. You might be hugging his throat a bit too tight. The thanks you get when you loosen your hold is a flamethrower that rushes past your head, setting your hair on fire and immolating the edge of your ear.

You let go with a hiss of pain, landing hard in the wet sand and putting a hand up to the side of your head. "I am not lying," you insist through gritted teeth, and you're not. You are Nicholas Garret now, or all that's left of him, anyway.

Titan staggers to his feet, head rearing back and stubby arms reaching for his bruised throat. He takes a couple of deep, panting breaths, then sucks in one great gasp of air and lowers his snout again, spitting a fireball straight at you.

You only have a second to bring your arms up, crossing them in front of your face with palms out towards the charizard. You scream as the fire blast explodes into a sheet of flame, your arms shaking as you try to keep them in place. Then Titan's the one screaming, his roars drowning you out as he tries to shield himself with a wing. A glittering barrier hangs in the air in front of you, brilliant streamers of light peeling away from its surface and arcing towards the charizard, searing his scales and flashing raindrops into steam.

Titan falls to the ground, hiding his face behind his claws as scalding energy roars around him, rippling the sand in molten waves and letting off a hideous stink. You hold the mirror coat in place for a few seconds more, but at last the sheet of light cracks, then crumbles away to nothing as your arms flop down by your sides.

After a couple of minutes you gather your strength and stagger over to where he Titan lies, falling to your knees in front of him. The charizard's breathing harsh and shallow, his eyes unfocused. His tail shudders in the hot muck, burning lower now, but not low enough to be dangerous.

You reach down and lift the charizard's head, and his arms shudder as he tries to raise his body with it. You bring his face to eye level, close enough that he could engulf your entire head in flame with just a breath. You'll have to watch his eyes closely to know when to pull away.

The charizard's scales are feverish to the touch; he's weak enough now that he can't control his inner fire, and it's starting to eat him up from the inside. He's powerful for the moment, but he won't be able to stand it for long. "What... are..." His voice is hardly more than a croak.

"What do I have to do for you to accept me as your trainer?"

"I don't... You're not my trainer. My trainer is dead."

"Enough!" He flinches, something wary in his expression. His gaze is trying to slip away from yours, but you wrench his head around to keep his eyes on you. "What do I have to do?"

"Can't... You can't make me."

"I don't need to 'make' you. I'm your trainer. Stop trying to deny it." You don't even bother trying to speak human now. If Titan notices, he doesn't react.

"But you're dead," he says, weak and plaintive.

"That's what you wish, isn't it? You wish I was dead!" You're screaming now, and Titan's wings flare open in shock, beating wildly as he tries to pull away from you. You see in the tensing of his muscles that the moment is now, and you push his head down even as fire starts to gush out around his teeth. The flamethrower is lost as you force the charizard's face into the sand, and he thrashes harder, gagging as a gasp of shock sucks grit into his mouth. You wrench Titan's head up again and stare into his tearing eyes.

"Stop pretending! I know you remember. You promised the same as the rest of us. Someone has to save Mew. We failed last time, but we can't give up. I'm your trainer, Titan. I say we're going after her. Are you with me?"

The charizard's eyes show white. "I can't."

You let his head drop back to the ground, and he just leaves it lying there, the rain washing tears off his muzzle. While the charizard tries to control his sobbing, you try to control your temper, digging clawed fingers deep into the sand. You're glad you're human right now. It's hard enough to keep your head when you've been fighting, but as a pokémon, it's even harder. "What do I need to do?" you ask at last, and it even comes out sounding calm.

"Please. I don't understand. Who are you?" You almost can't make him out for the hitching in his voice.

"I told you. I'm Nicholas Garret now. I used to be somebody else. I could be someone else tomorrow. But right now I'm Nicholas Garret. What doesn't change is that I'm your trainer, and I need you to help me. What will it take for you to accept that?"

Titan takes another one of those great breaths, but you don't bother preparing for an attack. He only chokes on it, turning it into a sob. "Please... You told me you would save her."

You punch him in the snout as hard as you can, hard enough to shatter teeth. "You idiot. I can't do that without you." You push yourself to your feet, woozy and lightheaded, and stagger off towards home. Titan keeps his eyes on the ground, blood leaking from his mouth. It might be a while before he realizes you've left.

It only takes a few seconds for the dragon claw wound to scab over and vanish, the hideous bubbling burns to fade, but you still feel gray and drained as you stumble up to the house. Too much excitement. Too much blood lost. Duskull emerges from under the porch as you trip up the steps, making grumbly noises of concern, but you wave him away. All you need now is sleep.

--​

Hours later, when the child's resting in bed, it hears the door bang open and something large blunder inside. It smiles and clutches the sheets tighter around itself. It knew Titan wasn't in any real danger, not with how short the rainstorm was, but it's glad he managed to find his way here, where he will be safe.

The kitchen table falls with an incredible crash, and the child imagines the soaked and muddy charizard slipping around on the tiles, searching for somewhere warm to curl up and dry off. That's fine. It doesn't mind the damage. It'll see the charizard in the morning, when it's feeling well enough to walk again. And then, at last, they can truly begin.
 
Last edited:

Namohysip

Dragon Enthusiast
Staff
Partner
charizard
(Chapter 1)

Alright, time to finally take a look at this! The first thing that comes to mind when reading the first chapter, which kind of feels like a prologue with how distant the prose feels, is that while the actual prose is really nice, I think the distance and intentional vagueness of “the child” left me feeling confused for the first half, and then in the second half, it was a little hard to get a first grasp of what was actually going on or the environment around the child.

Which I’m pretty sure is Mew, but had I not read the summary nor anything else related to your writings, I would have actually guessed it was a Zorua with high-tier illusory abilities. You know, since their ‘dex entries are all about taking the place of children and not being particularly talkative. The only line that would’ve clued me in otherwise was Mew claiming that all Pokémon belonged to her, which makes me think we might be following an anti-hero of sorts? Not really sure.

Either way, it was a nice introduction to the story! We have Mew’s “name” for the time being, and some vague idea about a goal that she… he? wants to achieve, but other than that, I’m not super sure what the story is actually going to be about. Hopefully within the next few chapters I’ll get an idea, because the nebulous beginning doesn’t give me any feeling one way or the other on what to actually expect.
 
Chapter 3

Negrek

Rise Toward Descent
Staff
Namohysip

Thanks for checking this one out, too! It's very interesting to get the perspective of someone who started reading Little God before this story, since for the majority of the time people have only had what's in these chapters to go off. You're definitely right that the early chapters are detached and confusing; the whole story isn't that way, so unfortunately they're a little at odds, tonally, with the rest of it. Figuring things out is supposed to be the majority of the fun, although I know it can be off-putting.

The only line that would’ve clued me in otherwise was Mew claiming that all Pokémon belonged to her, which makes me think we might be following an anti-hero of sorts? Not really sure.
Hold on to that thought, heh. For this story as well as Little God.

Glad to have you along, and I hope you enjoy the story.

And now, for everyone's reading pleasure... the next chapter!

Chapter 3

Today you are Jade Winstead, and you are no one. You have no family or friends, and your fingerprints are the fingerprints of a dead child. Your face is modeled on one of your favorite television stars, and people are always stopping you on the street, mistaking you for her. It's more attention than you'd like, but the face you built from scratch was worse.

This morning you're in one of your favorite paper-reading spots, by the window of the Fuchsia pokémon center with a cup of center coffee close to hand. It's terrible coffee, gritty and bitter as anything, but it's an essential part of the scene.

The scene is very important. It also includes Togetic, who sits on the table just beyond reach, humming stickily to herself as she devours a melty lemon slush-on-a-stick from one of the street vendors outside, and Titan, fidgeting with the gooey remnants of his cone and watching you from the corner of his eye. And there's the most important part of all, the newspaper spread open in front of you.

You're about halfway done reading it, and your mind is starting to wander. You already checked all the good bits--the funnies, the training section, and, of course, the obituaries. You even choked down most of the boring stuff, the news-news about people who do things other than train pokémon, like you have any reason to care about them.

Absol is very insistent that you read the whole paper, yes, the whole thing, regularly. It's important, she says, to understand what's going on in the world around you. You never know what you'll find out if you keep your eyes open.

You pointed out that she doesn't read the paper. "Pokémon and humans have different ways of learning things," she said without batting an eye. "I know what I need to know." You pointed out that you're just as much pokémon as you are human. "Yes. So you need to do both." What exactly she meant by that, she wouldn't explain.

Whatever her way of learning things is, you bet it's a whole lot more fun than newspapers. But newspapers have ads, at least, so it's not all bad.

So this is your scene: you have your coffee and your pokémon, your newspaper and your name, and you have the sunlight, too, pouring in through the window. You imagine it like you're a character in a movie, a real adult human living her life. And if you turn your head just a little and look outside, you can watch a parade of other normal humans going past out on the street.

You'd be safer if you took your paper at home, made like a pokémon and holed up in some secluded place, but there's some kind of herd instinct buried down deep in your body, and you like to be out here, where you can see and be seen by humans. You aren't one of them anymore, and you can't really belong to their circle of being, but you can sit at its edge and watch, and to some extent, pretend.

You watch the adults, striding along on unknown errands, ferrying children through the crowd: is that what you should be like now, settling into a life under your own power, caring about all those names in the newspaper, talking about money and jobs and sex the way they do on television? You watch the children: is that really how you used to be, wide-eyed at the sight of balloons and ice cream stalls, chasing after trainers and begging to see their pokémon?

You wonder. This is what you come to Fuchsia to do: read the paper, enjoy the tropical weather, and consider what might have been. That's enough for you. Sometimes the city gives you something more, though. Sometimes it offers you a surprise.

The center's doors slide open and two humans you recognize walk through. One is short, dumpy, tanned, the other tall but stooped, pale and sunken-eyed and uncomfortable in his rumpled suit. A porygon-Z drifts along behind, limbs and head in constant, subtle motion, never all pointing in the same direction at once. The humans are Officer Feldhorn, chief of the Fuchsia City police, and Leonard Kerrigan, systems administrator of the Kanto Pokémon League network.

They approach the desk, Leonard Kerrigan setting a slender laptop on the counter and discussing something with the nurse. Officer Feldhorn's gaze wanders the room while he sips from the thermos that accompanies him everywhere.

You rap on the table in front of you, and Duskull rises up out of the wood, just enough that his eye glows out at you. You nod towards the desk, and the red light swivels to look. Duskull gurgles quietly in acknowledgment, then sinks back out of view, off to spy on Leonard Kerrigan.

You don't expect much. Duskull finds human conversations hard to follow and dull besides. His reporting often leaves something to be desired, but you'll take what you can get.

Even with your less-than-reliable spy, you've come to understand Leonard Kerrigan quite well. He's a special case, someone you care about even though he was never a part of the lab. He's the human you know best, though you've never exactly been introduced. Above all, you know one thing.

Leonard Kerrigan has a mission, just like you. He never expected it, in the same way he hadn't expected his job, either. Back when he was an arrogant teenager they'd given him a choice: prison until he was old enough to be worry about his prostate, or a second chance defending the computer systems he'd spent most of his adolescence attacking. "Take it, kid," they'd said. "It's the best offer you're going to get, and who knows? Maybe you'll even make something of yourself."

He was fine with the job. It was frustrating sometimes, but interesting enough. He's still got it, but only because he needs it to pursue his mission. What joy there was in it has been forgotten. Once, he had a family: a wife and a son. Now both of them are gone, one given up and one taken away. Once, he had friends. Now he only has people who look on him with pity and whose phone calls he ignores. Soon, he will not have these either. But even then, he will still have his mission.

Leonard Kerrigan sits at the nerve center of the League's great digital brain, watching data flow in from all its sensory organs, the pokédexes every trainer must carry to be considered legal. The pokédex observes everything, records everything, surely knows more than the trainer herself about everything that has happened on her journey: every pokémon captured, every item purchased, every visit to a pokémon center. It's Leonard's job to guard the ever-widening river of information, to see that it flows freely in the wires, to make sure the system is never undermined.

That means he's caretaker, too, of all the League's lost souls, all the humans perished in pursuit of their dreams. Their records are marked deceased but not deleted, slumbering in perpetuity in some faceless storage array. Once, Leonard Kerrigan didn't think much of them. But then, one day, something happened. His son became one of the ghosts. And then, his son refused to stay dead. And then Leonard Kerrigan found he had a mission.

It was your mistake. You were young, careless; you had no idea what you were doing. Certainly you had no idea who Leonard Kerrigan was, or why he should matter to you at all. You screwed up, and now he's on to you, in his hopeless, blundering way. You don't know what he thinks is really going on, since he never speaks about it in public and there's not much you can glean from infrequent sightings. All you know is he can't possibly be right or, well, you'd have been found out already.

Because Leonard Kerrigan has a mission, and that mission is to find you. He will discover what happened to his son and, you have no doubt, he will make those responsible pay. He is no small man in Kanto, Leonard Kerrigan, and he is your enemy.

You watch him now, taking in the slump of his shoulders, the shuffle in his walk as he leaves the desk and selects one of the center PC's, one you used earlier when you were Nicholas Garret. You see gray in his hair and lines on his face. He's growing old, decaying, the way humans do, and you'll savor every moment of his demise. What would he do if he knew the one he chased was sitting not fifty feet away, watching his every move?

"Hello there, Jade! Returning to the scene of the crime, are we?"

You start at the sound of the voice, tearing your eyes away from Leonard Kerrigan and only just remembering not to bare your teeth. "No, Officer Feldhorn. I did not know there was a crime."

"Just a figure of speech," he says cheerfully, and you glower inwardly at the misunderstanding. "Seems like we're always running into each other when I'm checking something out at the Center."

You know from TV that there are only two kinds of cops: hard-bitten, driven servants of justice who will stop at nothing to put criminals behind bars and the ones whose greatest exertions are in pursuit of donuts. There's no doubt in your mind which camp Officer Feldhorn falls into. Under the sharp bitterness of the coffee in his thermos, you can smell custard and powdered sugar about his person. "It is a small world," you hazard.

"That it is," he says, and you relax. Maybe this conversation won't be a total loss after all. "How's life with you, then? I see your togetic's doing well."

Togetic chirps assent, then goes back to grooming herself. The popsicle stick lies abandoned on the table in front of her. "It is going well. I got my charizard back a couple of weeks ago. Another trainer had him for a while."

"Oh, so this one's yours, is he?" Officer Feldhorn looks up at Titan. "He's a big fella."

"Yes. He is very strong." You beam up at Titan, who flashes you a nervous smile before turning his attention back to the human.

That's enough small talk. What you really want to know is: "Is anything new in the city?"

"Oh, Fuchsia's Fuchsia, you know? It's pretty quiet. Last week some kids tried to break into the Safari Zone and bag a few dratini, but that's about it."

"Well. That is good. What brings you here today, then? You have that man with you, whatever his name was." You realize you're actually smiling over your own cunning and hastily rearrange your expression to something neutral. Subtlety.

Officer Feldhorn looks over at Leonard Kerrigan, who's going through his ritual at the computer station: a few mysterious incantations on the keyboard, then plug a cable from his laptop into the terminal. Keys, keys, keys, then out with the cable, pack everything away. You know he has underlings who could be doing this for him; you know he can probably retrieve everything he wants remotely. But, alas, he has a mission. He has to be sure. He has to be here, to do it himself.

"Oh, yes." Officer Feldhorn frowns, which makes him look like a morose granbull; it's all you can do not to laugh. "It's the same old story. Glitches in the computer system, Leo over there getting all worked up about them and insisting we go chasing off after the undead--you haven't seen the dead walking recently, have you?"

"I have seen a couple of ghost pokémon."

"Is that so? Well, you'd better keep an eye on them for me, then." Leonard Kerrigan's left the computer and is standing in the middle of the lobby, staring pointedly at the two of you. Officer Feldhorn half turns and catches sight of him, grimaces. "Ah, but it looks like I'm about to be called away. Good to see you, Jade."

"Later," you say, unable to resist showing off a little of your hip slang. You watch him go over and meet Leonard Kerrigan. They converse a bit, one man relaxed and jocular, the other tight as piano-wire, all indignation at not being taken seriously. Then they leave, and you can't help grinning to yourself as the center doors slide shut behind them.

You like Officer Feldhorn. It's nice to have someone human to chat with. It's good practice, talking with someone like him, someone harmless. It doesn't really matter if you slip up. You don't make so many mistakes anymore, though. These days, you're a downright sterling conversationalist.

Duskull returns and whispers what he heard. Leonard Kerrigan was talking about a computer upgrade, replacing the old PC stations. No real news, then. Still no progress learning his login information, either, and you can tell by Duskull's tone that he wasn't really trying. You let it go. You're feeling too cheerful to let a little thing like that spoil your mood.

Things are coming to a head now. Only two of your pokémon are left, and you know Leonard Kerrigan has one. Once you find the other, Absol can't object to you confronting him directly. She even said it: wait, and if it has not come back to you by the time you find the others, then do what you must do. You look forward to it. There's nothing and no one that can stand between you and your mission, and Leonard Kerrigan's been a thorn in your side for too long. You'll take pleasure in finally removing him.

You take a sip of your coffee, and your smug grin turns to a grimace. If it it's bad hot, it's unspeakable cold. Across the table from you, Togetic giggles at your expression, and Titan joins in once he sees you aren't mad. They're both done with their snacks, and Togetic's all cleaned up, too. You glance out the window, past the rows of houses and down the slope of the hill to the beach. The waves sparkle invitingly in the sunlight. You look down at your unfinished paper, then back out at the surf and sand.

Why not? Today is a good day. Everything is going right. What better time to celebrate?

Togetic takes to the air, trilling excitement as you start folding your paper and gathering your things. You still have plenty of Nicholas Garret's money left. You can go enjoy the beach a while, then head up to Celadon and do some shopping on Nicholas Garret's dime. Maybe you can find some proper hardwood for Rats to chew, pick up some treats for the rest while you're out. Ooh, and you could look for some of the limited-edition Transformozord sneakers you saw an ad for the other day...

You catch Titan staring as you shuffle the newspaper away. "What is it, Titan?"

His wings flare in surprise, then settle back in a defensive huddle around his body. The charizard picks at his claws and says, "Ummm, I thought you said you had to read the whole paper. Or Absol would get mad."

You grin. "Of course she would. But she does not have to know, does she? It can be our little secret."

The charizard looks scandalized, and you stifle a laugh. You lean across the table and say, in a hushed voice, "If you do not say anything, I will buy you another ice cream cone."

"Oh," he says, wings tipping up a little. "Oh, umm, okay." His smile is so uncertain that you have to laugh, and after a moment's surprise the charizard's laughing with you, joined by Togetic's chiming giggles. She wasn't paying attention to your conversation, probably has no idea what's so funny, but she never misses the opportunity to laugh. You sling your bag over your shoulder and lead your friends out into the hot summer sun, visions of spectacular purchases dancing in your head.

Absol hates it when you buy things. But no one ever has to tell her about today, not ever.
 

qva

Pokémon Trainer
Location
florida
Pronouns
she/her
(note: this review may or may not contain spoilers, i don't really know. but read at your own risk.)
chapter two
having just finished Little God myself, i'm interested to see how it paints my perception of this chapter over a second read. in her review, dragonfree posits that the child is some kind of fusion between mew and sara, which is very interesting... not sure if it's grounded in the story more than i realize seeing as i haven't read very far, but it's a very intriguing idea, and i'm definitely going into this looking through that lens from here.
"Come on. I need you to help me with Titan."
oh! well, that'll do it, won't it. lmfao
"Looks rounder than I remember," Rats says, examining the pokéball between her claws.

"That's just his pokéball, Rats," you say, giving her an incredulous look while the pokédex boots up.
i love this omfg
You forget everything you were going to say. You knew he evolved, of course, but somehow you were still thinking of him as that gawky, earnest charmander. Now he towers over you, arching his long neck and letting out a lazy streamer of smoke like he was never knee-high and afraid of his own shadow.
huh, so... assuming this is titan, something must have happened to sara before she got very far into her journey at all. it seems she had other pokémon too, which didn't seem to be true at the time of Little God, but if titan never evolved...

"We are not going to Cinnabar, Titan."

"Why are you calling me that?" The charizard tucks his wings in close and stares at the beach around you like he's expecting someone else to be there. "I don't like that name."
huh. i guess something traumatic must have happened. did sara become... evil... dang, i liked what i read the first time i made a dent in this fic, but this is much more engaging having read Little God. i feel like i'm much more curious about everything that's going on now that i have a better idea of the background.
"Go ahead," you say with a scowl, crossing your arms. "Obviously Titan is not going to listen to me. He is completely overreacting."
hahahaha, this really feels like a Mew Moment, though. butterfree's theory that the child is some kind of fusion of sara and mew feels just about right tbh...

i think you do a really good job at making titan feel big and dangerous. i think pokémon are often portrayed as scary, but i think it's less common that i get a feel for the mortal risk they pose, and the like... idk, the feeling of just these big giant fire-breathing dragons being exactly that rather than cartoon-scary ones. also, titan's reaction here seems pretty believable. confused, angry, scared, hurt... in Little God, we don't really hear any pokémon speak or get into their heads very much at all for that matter, so i'm not sure how intelligent i should expect charizard to be, but his reaction feels kind of like what you'd expect from a giant child with a flamethrower. not sure why, other than that i suppose the whole exchange feels a bit more light-hearted than it ought to, and like the actual mortal peril he's putting the child in isn't matched by his comparatively casual tone—"big, hairy rats!" i guess we'll get a better idea of just what intellectual level pokémon are at as we progress.

i am led to believe whether or not this is the real titan. he's not really responding to any of the child's insistence that he knows the name titan, that he remembers rats, etc. his lack of a response could either mean that he's too confused about it to comment at all, or that he just doesn't want to admit the truth. the fact that he doesn't like being called titan suggests the latter to me more strongly, though.
You toss the ball of energy upwards, and Titan's gaze follows it higher, higher, until it explodes in a burst of blue light. The beach turns dark and cool as sudden storm clouds block out the sun, and Titan flinches as one fat droplet splashes on his snout. Dark patches appear in the sand as more raindrops fall, and in seconds the island is gripped by a full-on rainstorm.
this is a pretty interesting way of handling weather moves. i feel like generally i just see, like, the pokémon glows and then it's extra sunny or something. that's always kind of bothered me, but i like this solution, though i'm curious how it would look as pertains to intense sunlight specifically, now that i think of it...
"Stop pretending! I know you remember. You promised the same as the rest of us. Someone has to save Mew. We failed last time, but we can't give up. I'm your trainer, Titan. I say we're going after her. Are you with me?"

The charizard's eyes show white. "I can't."
this definitely feels more sara than not, tbh. titan's response here suggests to me that he knows what the child is talking about... he goes right on to ask it again who it is, which is confusing, but maybe something happened between their separation and transformation into the child that titan wasn't privy to?

i think the first time i read this chapter i had a hard time feeling invested. i didn't understand the child's goals, or what it was doing, or how titan factored into it, and titan's confused flailing was basically impossible for me to interpret, but with this background knowledge under my belt, instead all these things are made into intriguing hooks by the nuggets of context i've received. you mentioned to namo that you're interested in how someone who's already read Little God will interpret this, the main fic—do you think having read Little God makes for a better read of Salvage, or do you think it impairs it by giving away some of the heavier plot points? i don't really know enough about what the heavier plot points are to say for myself, so i'm curious what you think about it. :p

anyway, solid chapter! we get a look at the child's motivations and surroundings here, however vaguely, and the ball on the plot seems to get rolling with the introduction of titan. their little scrap didn't feel much like a conventional pokémon battle (which makes sense, seeing as one of the characters is... human-adjacent?), but i think that made it all the more interesting to read. i will say that the very ending feels a bit cramped for some reason... not sure what i'd change about it, but given that most of the chapter has kind of a drawn out pace wherein developments are a bit further apart, it feels like a lot to have a location change, the mention of a new character, and titan's own actions all rolled into a few paragraphs. great stuff overall though, can't wait to get into the next chapter!
 

Negrek

Rise Toward Descent
Staff
Glad to see you back! I feel like I can't really say much about a fair amount of this because it's a lot of speculation about stuff that will naturally get cleared up naturally over the course of the next few chapters, for the most part. I'm glad you're enjoying trying to piece things together, though! Like all authors, I hella enjoy people puzzling out what they think might really be up in the story, but naturally I don't want to confirm or deny too much. :P

did sara become... evil... dang
I will say that this got a chuckle from me, though!

i think you do a really good job at making titan feel big and dangerous.
Titan is actually particularly big for a charizard! Although I already ignore the canon height for charizard (five-seven??? A tiny BABY????) and make them generally taller than the average human to begin with.

in Little God, we don't really hear any pokémon speak or get into their heads very much at all for that matter, so i'm not sure how intelligent i should expect charizard to be, but his reaction feels kind of like what you'd expect from a giant child with a flamethrower.
Titan is a literal child; although he's fully evolved, charizard live for hundreds of years and he's like. Fifteen. He's also not the sharpest knife in the drawer in general.

Pokémon are generally roughly on par with humans in terms of intelligence, although there is some variation between species and, obviously, individuals. Pokémon that have grown up living in close proximity to humans, especially ones raised by humans, often tend to seem "smarter" than more wild counterparts because they tend to better understand humans and in general get along better in a human environment.

i feel like generally i just see, like, the pokémon glows and then it's extra sunny or something. that's always kind of bothered me, but i like this solution, though i'm curious how it would look as pertains to intense sunlight specifically, now that i think of it...
Sunny day is a globe of fire energy that gets shot/tossed into the air and hangs out above the field. It basically forms a very hot, bright ball, a small "second sun," that radiates light and heat down on the arena.

I think sunny day gets used at least once in this story, so you should see it in action eventually.

do you think having read Little God makes for a better read of Salvage, or do you think it impairs it by giving away some of the heavier plot points?
I think it probably makes for a better experience, assuming that someone who read Little God will recognize some of the characters and therefore be more invested in figuring out what might have happened to them since the end of that story (which took place roughly a decade before Salvage). No major spoilers, Little God itself is just an expanded version of a scene in Chapter 11 that covers the same major points at lightning speed. Questions like "what/who is the child?" and "what happened to Sara?" will to some extent remain for most of the fic, but they aren't the point of the story.

Unfortunately when I wrote these earlier chapters that was, in fact, the point, and the story overall was going to be way shorter. So at the beginning it reads more like a mystery, but the story as a whole really isn't.

The end of the chapter is kind of a weird little coda, but I wanted to show how easily the protagonist shrugged off the fight and how very much it views the whole episode as a non-issue, heh. Lots of jumping around in the early parts of this story, we'll be going somewhere entirely different in Chapter 3. Anyhow, I'm glad you're finding the story a more engaging read this time around and having fun with the question of what might be going on with the protagonist. Thanks for the review!
 
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Chapter 4

Negrek

Rise Toward Descent
Staff
Chapter 4

Your friends rest exhausted in the pokéballs at your waist as you wander Cinnabar Island's hot, twisty streets, headed for the Pokémon Center. Not far away, perhaps, your water-bloated corpse rests at the bottom of Seafoam Caverns. That's not what's putting you on edge, though.

Maybe it's that this is where the child died--that's kind of hard to overlook. Or perhaps it's something more. There something off about this sunny little island, some kind of wrongness in the soil, maybe, something alien rolling on the waves. With everything that's happened in the last ten years, there's got to be some kind of curse on the place.

First there was the Mewtwo project, a perversion of nature that ended in flame and death as the slick research facility on the island's northwest corner went up in smoke. Then the riots, once the rest of the world found out what had really been going on, more fires, streets littered with abandoned cars and broken glass. And then, barely three years later, a quiet morning shattered by the volcano's explosive eruption, one no seismometer had seen coming.

The child was there, actually, that very day, playing in the shallows and digging aimlessly in the sand. It was the first time it saw Absol do her appearing act, not even stepping from shadow like she normally does but suddenly just there, grabbing its arm in her teeth and dragging it into darkness even as the sand underneath it began to tremble. Not many people were lucky enough to have such a friend. Gym Leader Blaine was one of the fortunate ones, and the press has long since learned not to ask him about it.

With a friend like Absol, it's hard not to be superstitious. Even if you weren't, you'd live with the knowledge that certain others are, and they take a personal interest in seeing karma's whims played out. And even if you didn't know anything about fate, you think you'd still be wary of spending a lot of time here on Cinnabar. The gym's back, reinstalled just above the volcano's fiery heart, and new resorts hog the shoreline. There's even a new lab. But so far, the people haven't followed; the streets are quiet, many of the storefronts up for lease, and the high-rises are draped in overly-exuberant banners advertising rooms still to be had.

You wander through the pokémon center's doors, lost in thought. You were a ball of nerves the first time you did this, standing paralyzed on the threshold with no idea what to do, but by now it's all routine. You hand over your pokéballs and idle by the desk, peering with interest at the center computers. They're new, all shiny smooth plastic that won't stay nice long under the tender care of eager young trainers. The new models appeared a few weeks ago, not long after you started training with Titan, and you haven't tried one out yet. Today, though, you need money, so you'll get to experience the wave of the future for yourself.

Once you get your pokémon back you choose a station and slide your pokédex into the slot. You don't even flinch when the machine razzes at you. You nearly had a heart attack the first time that happened, nearly blew your cover in the most dramatic way, but you're more experienced now. You lean closer to the screen, calm, unruffled, and read the error message. You're just Nicholas Garret, a no-name trainer who made a tiny mistake, of no interest to anyone.

But the message is not one you understand. "ERROR: Access Denied. This pokédex has been blacklisted. Please see the front desk for assistance." You'd expected it to tell you that you inserted the thing wrong. Annoyed, you press the "Pokédex Eject" button.

The machine buzzes again, and you almost jump in surprise. The same error message stares back at you, hateful and red. You press the button and grit your teeth as the machine lets out another loud, grating razz.

Your heart rate climbs and you leave sweaty fingerprints on the keypad as you jam the button over and over again, the terminal's buzz droning in your ears. Still the flashing error remains onscreen; still your pokédex stays locked in the depths of the machine. You growl and press down harder on the button, your eyes starting to blur with tears--

"Excuse me? Is something wrong?"

The nurse. The nurse. She flinches back when you spin around, staring at you with such shock that for a moment you fear you've lost control of your disguise. Your body's starting to shift in response to your emotions, straining away from the human mask you wear. You rub a hand over your face, wipe the tears out of your eyes and massage the muscles back into place. Then you take a deep, shuddering breath, try to drown the terror pounding inside you, and make an attempt at communication.

"Yes. The thing took--I do not know." You gesture helplessly at the computer, and the nurse makes a cautious approach, glancing over at you before peering down at the screen. You don't let yourself hope that she'll know what's going on, that she'll be able to get it back. That's not why you're leaning forward to watch, that's not why your breathing's picked up again.

"Oh," the nurse says, her forehead creasing in a frown. "It's these new models. They said something about a policy change, trying to crack down on pokédex theft, I think." She turns and gives you a reassuring smile. "I'm sure it's just a glitch or something. They're still getting the kinks worked out on these things. Somebody'll be over in a few minutes to look at it, and they'll be able to get it all sorted out for you. I'll call and make sure they have someone on the way."

You are not reassured. In fact, you feel like the nurse's words have frozen you over inside, ice water seeping into your guts. There is no glitch. This is not a mistake. They must have found your dead body, marked you down deceased in their eternal electronic records. This time, they are not content to let you walk the world of the living. They've taken your pokédex and now they're coming here to retrieve it, to retrieve you.

No. "They" aren't coming. Leonard Kerrigan is. This is his doing. He stole your pokédex. Now he's on his way here to confront you at last.

The nurse is still looking at you, frowning. "Are you all right?" she asks. "Would you like a glass of water?"

You turn away from her, shake your head. You rake your fingers through your hair, which is sweaty down at the roots, and try to focus. Try to concentrate. "I..." you start to say. "I am..." You are what? You are who? You are--Nicholas Garret, you went to visit the Seafoam Islands, you slipped, you fell, you died. You are--trapped inside the machine, all that's left of you, the little card, the little card that tells you who you are. Who are you without it? Who are you now? Who are you? "I am..."

You're distantly aware of the nurse saying something else, backing away from you. You're making a scene. You can't help it. Your hands are shaking. Your heart is racing. Thoughts are pounding so hard inside your skull that your temples are throbbing. He took your pokédex. He has no right! It's all you have! It's you!

You make a guttural noise, a choked scream, and shove the nurse out of the way so you can get at the terminal again. You plunge your arm straight through the screen, shattering the mocking words, ignoring the glass in your arm, the shards of plastic and spitting wires. Your heart flutters before you remember to toughen your skin against the electricity, and you reach ever deeper, tearing up the machine's insides, searching.

Your fingers brush against something smooth and metallic, a box jutting inwards from the computer's plastic skin. You seize it and wrench it free, hauling it out of the wreckage. It's the device reader, your pokédex still caught inside, but it's safe now, it's free, it's in your hands. You cradle it against your chest, ignoring the burns and cuts dripping blood all down your arm. The terminal's ruined, its screen caved in and smoke pouring from the hole, shorting wires popping inside.

You turn around, grinning. It's okay. You have it again. It's safe. And your eyes meet the horrified stares of every trainer in the place, most now on their feet. A couple are releasing pokémon.

Your smile only gets wider. Something seems to have come loose in your head. You can't think. But you feel you ought to say something into the stunned silence, something apt and witty. You flip through your mental notebook, looking for the right phrase.

And there it is. Still grinning, you say, "Don't worry, I can pay for that." Then you lean forward over the pokédex and charge for the doors.

--​

The child lies curled on the bed, sobbing and shaking in the dark and gripping the pokédex so tight it can feel the pulse beating in its fingertips. Duskull floats nearby, his single eye giving off a cold exit-sign glow. He's been around almost as long as the child can properly remember; some of its earliest memories of this life are nothing but damp and the cold and the light, the little red light, watching. The child cried a lot then, too.

It's not badly hurt, although it healed too quickly. Skin's closed over some of the glass, trapping it in the child's flesh. It'll need to be dug out later. More blood will have to flow, but for now, only tears. The child cries not because of the pain, but for the sheer wrongness of it. They tried to take the pokédex. They tried to take its identity. How could they? What gives anyone the right to steal its soul?

But the dirty feeling of someone pawing at its spirit lies atop the sour ache of shame. The child knows who's responsible for this. Leonard Kerrigan, with his cold sad eyes and tired face, he's the one who nearly brought it down. It thought it had the upper hand; it thought the man was no real threat. And it was wrong, oh, so very wrong. It sobs and sobs until its whole body aches, like its every muscle has been wrung dry. It holds the pokédex as tightly as it can and vows to never let it go.

Soon Absol appears. The child doesn't actually see her come in, but it hears the whisper of footsteps on carpet, and then she leaps onto the bed. Absol settles within easy reach and permits the child to throw its arms around her neck, endures being dripped on, overlooks the fact that her ruff is getting gummed with snot.

Once the downpour slacks off to intermittent showers, she speaks. "What happened?"

The child tells her, stopping now and again for fresh upwellings of tears. Absol listens quietly, then remains so for some time afterwards, thinking. The child waits. Finally, Absol says, "That is unfortunate. You will need to be more careful if you don't want the human to catch you."

"I don't want to be more careful. I have to get him back, Absol. I can't let Leonard Kerrigan do this to me. I need to get War back and not have to worry about him anymore."

"Seeking revenge is a sure way to make a mistake."

"I don't care. I don't care." The child turns its back on Absol, curling into a ball around the pokédex again. It can feel her eyes on it, always the same calm, incurious stare. "He tried to steal from me, Absol. He already stole from me, and now he's not just taking one pokémon, he's trying to take all of them. I have to make him pay. He shouldn't be able to do that."

"It is not yet his time. We have discussed this."

"That was different!" The child pounds a fist on the mattress. The other still holds the pokédex close. "I can't do it anymore, Absol. I don't want to wait. I'm not going to. If I ignore him, he's only going to get closer to the truth. It's more dangerous not to go after him now." It doesn't say it wants to see the look on the man's face when he realizes what's going on, realizes that he really has lost everything and there's nothing he can do about it. He will be powerless, and he will know it. And he will never again, never ever again, dare to try and stop the child.

Absol would disapprove. She already disapproves; the child can hear it in the long pause before she speaks. But she doesn't understand. An absol bears no grudges, names no enemies, holds none dear. The child knows this. Sometimes, it wishes it could be like Absol, eternally serene, eternally detached.

"You can't do anything until you've rested. That will give you time to think it over. I think you will come to see I'm right," she says.

The child doesn't care if she's right. She probably is--that's the irritating thing about Absol. It wants to answer the anger burning like acid in its chest, not sit around and listen. "It won't matter. He has to be punished, Absol. I can't let him do this to me."

Absol shifts over so her back is up against the child's, and the heat of her body soaks in through its shirt. "Rest," she says. "We can talk more later."

--​

"You said we could talk about this later," the child says with every ounce of accusation it can muster.

"'Can' is not the same as 'will.'" Absol circles the child, and it reads suspicion in the narrowing of her eyes.

"Well, I got Thunderstorm back, didn't I?" The child tries to thrust the pokéball under Absol's nose, can't keep hold of the slippery thing. Absol watches the ball clatter away, red splotches marking each bounce. "Oops." The child wipes its hands on its shirt, not caring about the smears it leaves behind, and chases after the pokéball, jabbering all the while. "We have to talk about what to do next, Absol. There's only one left, and--"

"Did you eat the human?"

The child cradles the pokéball close to its chest, its mind racing. "Why?"

Absol doesn't say anything, but her look somehow takes in all of the child, the red-soaked clothing hanging heavy off its frame, the blood smeared across its face, gumming its hair into unruly upwards spikes. "Maybe a little," it mumbles. "But Absol--wait, no--Absol!"

She stalks away, but the child hurries around to cut her off, pausing only a moment to flame the bottom of its feet so they stop sticking to the floor. It gets in front of Absol and spreads its arms wide, blocking the doorway. "It wasn't much! And I waited until she was dead anyway, I'm not bad."

Absol is unmoved.

"I was hungry! We were following her forever," the child says, drawing the last word out as long as it can. "And I had to stop the wild pokémon from getting her too. They would have taken every bit they could. I was tired and hurt and I didn't even have much. When they find the body and they'll be able to tell who it was, don't worry."

They always do find the bodies. Absol insists on this. The child insists that it's a waste of perfectly good food, and a huge pain besides. If she'd let the child hide them, it would take much longer for the humans to catch on, and it wouldn't have to keep getting new identities when the humans realize its current ones are dead.

But Absol won't budge. "Take whatever you wish from the dead; they can claim nothing as their own," she always says. "But the death itself has purpose. A death may serve as a warning, a spot of comfort, an inspiration, and to prevent its message from reaching its intended recipients, even to delay it, is to act against Fate. You may take the dead's lives for as long as you can, and if you are wise, you will ask for nothing more."

Absol believes in a lot of stupid rules.

She pushes past the child in that smooth, imperious way she has, and it's forced to hurry after. It knows Absol isn't trying to get away, not really; if she wanted to go, she'd be gone, vanished into shadow and halfway across the region in no time at all. Nothing much will hold a pokémon who can walk the dark ways.

Absol jumps up on the couch, settling in with paws hanging just over the edge. She looks down on the child with a bland expression, as though wondering why it's there. It stops and gives her a sour look right back. "Come on, Absol. You know we can't just wait around. The humans are figuring things out. We saw it on TV, remember?"

She'd better. She'd been lying on that very couch at the time. The child was sitting there, too, way over on the opposite end, huddled against the armrest. It could tell Absol was angry from the way her claws clutched at the cushion under her, from the tense lines of the muscles in her shoulder. But she wouldn't say anything, wouldn't even acknowledge the child at all; she just watched.

The TV had been turned to some twenty-four-hour news channel playing security footage of the child's tantrum at the pokémon center. Absol watched with statuesque calm, but the child shrank deeper into the cushions in cringing shame as it watched its mistake run over and over again. After all this time, it thought it had a better handle on its human act than that.

Meanwhile, commentators chattered over the silent tape. "Yeah, I see where they're coming from. I mean, the way he just stuck his whole arm in there like that, didn't even care about the glass and stuff, that's not natural, I mean--"

"But he's bleeding," another pointed out as the replay moved on to the brawl between Nicholas Garret and the other trainers in the center. "I mean, have you ever heard of a zombie that bleeds?"

Nicholas Garret escaped through the center's automatic doors, and the screen cut back to the newscasters. "What you saw there was footage of an incident that occurred earlier today at the Cinnabar Island Pokémon Center. A trainer identified as Nick Garret of Cerulean City had a breakdown and destroyed a computer terminal, then injured several other visitors who tried to prevent him from leaving. What makes this case interesting is that Nick was found dead in Seafoam Caverns just last week."

"It all started when the center's computer locked his pokédex because he'd been marked deceased in the League's records. In the past, trainers with suspicious pokédexes would be allowed to continue using them without penalty for a short period of time, but a recent change in policy has made revocation immediate. Shortly after the incident, the League held an official press conference to discuss the motivation for the change and its relation to today's events."

The screen cut to footage of a harassed-looking young man leaning on a podium emblazoned with the Indigo League seal. Michael Fitzwallace, according to the text at the bottom of the screen, an administrator of the Indigo League Trainer's Network. The child remembers being confused by that, wondering why Leonard Kerrigan didn't make an appearance. "Look," Michael Fitzwallace said, "we implemented the lockdown procedure in an attempt to curb the recent surge in pokédex theft by Team Rocket and other petty criminals. The grace period was long enough that thieves could do serious damage to the 'dex holder's account before flipping it. That's all. And because the system isn't perfect, sometimes an innocent trainer is going to get flagged and have their pokédex taken away; that's why we had a grace period in the first place, to allow time for spurious flags to be resolved."

"Whatever is going on with Nick Garret, it's a job for the police to figure out. It's got nothing to do with us. The League does not believe the dead are walking in Kanto, but we are not discriminating against undead trainers either. Questions?" He had a cocky grin for the camera, but it dissolved in the clamor that followed--obviously he'd expected his wit to go over better, but the reporters didn't go easy on him. The child had watched in bitter amusement, the same amusement that twists its lips in a tooth-bearing smile even now, thinking back on it. He deserved that, the liar. "Nothing to do with us." The smug, smug liar.

But it's what the news anchor said when the camera went back to her that's been on the child's mind. "Nick's family has been unavailable for comment, but the funeral home where his memorial service was held reports that there was nothing odd about the proceedings or the body, and that it was definitely in the casket when it was put in the ground. Nick's grave site appears intact, and plans to exhume the corpse for inspection are on hold until forensic evidence comes back that positively identifies the trainer on camera..."

That's where the child had stopped listening, frozen in dismay at the mention of "forensic evidence." Alongside the cold prickling in its gut was the open disapproval in Absol's gaze when she finally turned to look at it. It couldn't meet her eyes, head filled with images of white-coated lab techs mixing mysterious fluid, reading glowing lines that say who it really is, the person hiding in the blood that spilled from Nicholas Garret's body. It had been so angry it couldn't think. It hadn't been careful. How much blood would they find? Enough, it thought. How much did they even need? Only the tiniest drop...

The child looks down at itself, turning Thunderstorm's smeary pokéball around in its fingers. "They're trying to find me, Absol. With science. I can't just sit around and wait for that to happen."

"It was rash action that got you into this situation. It will not get you out of it."

"They took my pokédex, Absol. What was I supposed to do? I couldn't let them have it. What would happen then?"

"You lost your temper."

"I know. I'm sorry. But what was I supposed to do? What would you do if--I mean, I tried. I tried to be calm. But I can't be calm like you, Absol." It sets Thunder's pokéball aside and clenches its fists. "I know I screwed up. I'm sorry. I wasn't expecting anything unusual, and I panicked." It clenches its hands tighter, then changes its mind and buries them in its matted hair. Absol just watches. "What am I going to do now? What if they get my blood and figure out who I really am? What if they figure everything out, Absol? What am I going to do?"

"What do you think you should do?"

It doesn't know. But it knows what it wants to do.

"It's Leonard Kerrigan," the child says. "He's behind this. Whatever this new rule is, it's his fault somehow. It isn't safe to use the pokédex anymore, not like I used to. If they find out who I am, they might figure everything else out, too. What would I do then? If they find me and they stop me, Mew'll be all alone. I have to save her, Absol. You know I do." It stops for a moment, mouth working on nothing as the words catch in its throat. It grits its teeth again and forces the tears back, determined not to be pathetic.

Absol says nothing, but after a few seconds she gives the faintest of nods, inviting the child to continue. It works its mouth until it finally unsticks the words from its throat. "So I have to get him. I have to stop Leonard Kerrigan, Absol. I know you don't like it. But it's the only way. I have to get War back from him before he figures everything out."

Absol's eyes narrow the merest fraction; her claws dig into the cushions. The child keeps going, spilling out the words as fast as it can, getting it over with. "So I'm going to go and get War back from him and make sure he can't do anything to stop me. And once I have War, that's it, right? I can go and find Mew. It will all be over and I'll find her and everything will be okay."

"You are panicking," Absol says. "You are losing your temper. Haven't you already done enough damage? Waiting is the safest thing you can do."

"I can't wait forever, Absol! And Mew can't, either. It's been years. What if it's already too late? What if we wait and wait and while we do they, they--do something to her? They're hurting her, Absol. You know, when I dream her--she's scared. She's hurting. We can't just leave her there."

"It will do no good to rush in when the time is not right. You will only make things worse."

"But it's fate that we meet again anyway. Why does it matter if I speed it up some? Can you even prove that this isn't how things are supposed to go? Maybe I'm fated to get angry and go off and fight Leonard Kerrigan. Or maybe I was supposed to get War back the first time instead of messing up." They're old arguments, bickered on and off over months and years. The child drags them out one more time, lines them all up for Absol to consider. If she doesn't agree, then she doesn't agree. It'll just have to do it anyway. The thought of going against her puts a cold edge of unease alongside the flush of its anger.

"It's happening faster and faster now anyway. It was years before you found Rats, wasn't it? And then more for War, the first time. But it was only a couple for Titan, and then a few months for Thunder. Something's going to happen soon. It's got to. Obviously fate is speeding up. I'm supposed to get War back soon. I need to be ready."

"This is not Fate," Absol says icily. "This is vengeance. And those who practice vengeance will only see it visited on themselves. I cannot stop you if this is what you want to do. But neither will I be able to save you when Fate turns back on you for it. It is not my place to intervene."

"I know it's not. But maybe it's mine. Isn't that what humans do? Isn't that what you told me?" The child throws up its hands and tries to believe its own arguments. This isn't about vengeance. It isn't. It's what needs to be done.

"You are not human."

"I know! But I'm not a pokémon, either. So maybe I get to choose."

Absol cants her head to the side, just slightly, and for a moment the child could swear she's smiling at it. When she speaks again, her tone isn't quite as acid as before. "Perhaps. But I would choose wisely. I have told you of the danger. You could be throwing everything you have away." She jumps down from the couch and stands stretching a moment before turning back to the child. "No decision as important as this is properly made in haste. If you take a while to rest and reconsider, you will be much more likely to make the right choice."

The child scowls after her as she pads away, off towards the kitchen. The right choice. Of course she just means what she would choose. It turns on the TV and tries to concentrate on the screen, some rerun cartoon of a couple nidoran bashing each other with mallets. The noise and flashing colors wash over the child, but they can't distract it from the dark churning of its mind.

Of course Absol doesn't understand. The child could swear that icewater runs in her veins instead of blood. She doesn't understand how hard it is for the child, her and her perfect "Fate" and her detachment and her always being right. She doesn't understand why it has to do this.

It's not just because Leonard Kerrigan is making its life difficult. That's annoying, but nothing more. There's humiliation there, yes, the memories of how it failed. But it's more than that, now, so much more. He went and put his dirty hands all over the child's soul. He tried to take the pokédex, the only thing it really has left. And the child can't let someone do that to it. Not now, not ever. It can feel bile rising in its throat just thinking of it. Not now, not ever, never. It doesn't matter what Absol says. She doesn't understand.

She's right about one thing, though. The child needs to think this over. And it is thinking it over, very, very carefully. It's considering everything it knows about Matt Kerrigan, every piece of information it's gathered over the years, and what it's going to do with them. It won't make the same mistake it did last time. It's prepared, this time, to be Matt Kerrigan properly. Matt Kerrigan, the lost son. Matt Kerrigan, the suicide case.
 

qva

Pokémon Trainer
Location
florida
Pronouns
she/her
chapter 3
The scene is very important. It also includes Togetic, who sits on the table just beyond reach, humming stickily to herself as she devours a melty lemon slush-on-a-stick from one of the street vendors outside, and Titan, fidgeting with the gooey remnants of his cone and watching you from the corner of his eye.
i love this visual, especially after the way the previous chapter made titan feel so massive and intimidating. now here he is with a little ice cream cone, side-eyeing the little girl. precious.
You're about halfway done reading it, and your mind is starting to wander. You already checked all the good bits--the funnies, the training section, and, of course, the obituaries. You even choked down most of the boring stuff, the news-news about people who do things other than train pokémon, like you have any reason to care about them.

Absol is very insistent that you read the whole paper, yes, the whole thing, regularly. It's important, she says, to understand what's going on in the world around you. You never know what you'll find out if you keep your eyes open.

You pointed out that she doesn't read the paper. "Pokémon and humans have different ways of learning things," she said without batting an eye. "I know what I need to know." You pointed out that you're just as much pokémon as you are human. "Yes. So you need to do both." What exactly she meant by that, she wouldn't explain.
i really like this for two reasons. the first is that you take this assignment that the child's been given and sort of pour some of its personality into the way that task is performed—i giggled at the remark about the funnies and obituaries being the "good" bits. on the other hand, it gives us some insight into absol as a mentor/guardian figure to the child, and a fairly stern and cryptic one, too... kind of get mr miyagi vibes from this, in a weird way. anyway, it's just cool how illuminating this compact little piece is for both of those characters as well as their dynamic.
You watch the adults, striding along on unknown errands, ferrying children through the crowd: is that what you should be like now, settling into a life under your own power, caring about all those names in the newspaper, talking about money and jobs and sex the way they do on television? You watch the children: is that really how you used to be, wide-eyed at the sight of balloons and ice cream stalls, chasing after trainers and begging to see their pokémon?
aw, this is kind of sad... the child seems to take its reality and situation into stride most of the time, but this bit definitely imparts a sense of loss. also, the last bit is absolutely how sara used to be, isn't it.
The humans are Officer Feldhorn, chief of the Fuchsia City police, and Leonard Kerrigan, systems administrator of the Kanto Pokémon League network.
kerrigan! is the fact that he shares a name with mia a coincidence, or is one a nod to the other?
He was fine with the job. It was frustrating sometimes, but interesting enough. He's still got it, but only because he needs it to pursue his mission. What joy there was in it has been forgotten. Once, he had a family: a wife and a son. Now both of them are gone, one given up and one taken away. Once, he had friends. Now he only has people who look on him with pity and whose phone calls he ignores. Soon, he will not have these either. But even then, he will still have his mission.
this is a very evocative and powerful description, i think. not much to say about it specifically but it jumped out at me and i like it a lot.
You see gray in his hair and lines on his face. He's growing old, decaying, the way humans do, and you'll savor every moment of his demise. What would he do if he knew the one he chased was sitting not fifty feet away, watching his every move?
jeez, this seems pretty cruel/sadistic, even for the child. i guess it did just describe him as its enemy, but i'm still taken aback by the degree of malice it's displaying here.
"Later," you say, unable to resist showing off a little of your hip slang.
omfg.

unfortunate but i'm absolutely picturing officer feldhorn as chief wiggum. the comment about him looking like a morose granbull really painted an interesting picture in my head as a result of that. it's kind of interesting that he's willing to talk to "jade" so openly about leonard's mission—maybe it's just not as big of a deal, broadly-speaking, as it is to the child? still, it seems like the kind of thing you'd keep under wraps.
Things are coming to a head now. Only two of your pokémon are left, and you know Leonard Kerrigan has one.
huh, what's he doing with that? i guess if they were both situated at the lab, he might have taken her pokémon after... whatever happened to her happened? makes me wonder how nick garret ended up with titan, though...
Ooh, and you could look for some of the limited-edition Transformozord sneakers you saw an ad for the other day...
omg, it is truly a Child in the truest sense, isn't it.
The charizard looks scandalized, and you stifle a laugh. You lean across the table and say, in a hushed voice, "If you do not say anything, I will buy you another ice cream cone."

"Oh," he says, wings tipping up a little. "Oh, umm, okay."
i kind of wonder what happened to titan between this chapter and the last. he seems quite a lot more casual here, even timid... did he just stop denying that he knew what was going on, and come to terms with his trainer's death? seems like a pretty big attitude shift.

not much going on in this one, especially when compared to how action-packed the last chapter and even the one before it were, but there are still some good and enlightening bits in here. we get a better idea of what's going on in the child's world, and what it's pursuing, and exactly what's standing in the way of that, so i suppose in a sense it feels like this chapter does a good job at setting us up for what's to come. it introduces some characters, too, which is welcome. and we get to learn more about the duskull you mentioned last chapter. (i love duskull btw.) on the other hand, this chapter doesn't really start anything, so i'm not really sure to expect from the next one... it's a pretty short one, though, so that doesn't seem like a very big deal. i assume the next chapter will sort of pick up a bit now that we've had this chapter to set up a little, so i'm excited to see where that goes!
 
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Chapter 5

Negrek

Rise Toward Descent
Staff
i love this visual, especially after the way the previous chapter made titan feel so massive and intimidating. now here he is with a little ice cream cone, side-eyeing the little girl. precious.
Haha, thanks! Titan usually isn't very scary... This is how he is most of the time.

anyway, it's just cool how illuminating this compact little piece is for both of those characters as well as their dynamic.
Thank you! I had fun with this little bit.

kerrigan! is the fact that he shares a name with mia a coincidence, or is one a nod to the other?
Coincidence. If anything I was probably thinking of the StarCraft character.

this is a very evocative and powerful description, i think. not much to say about it specifically but it jumped out at me and i like it a lot.
Thank you! I got very enthusiastic about this particular little bit of writing for no apparent reason, and while I don't know if it really matches the tone of everything else well, I'm glad you like it. It's always fun when somebody picks up on a passage that you like in particular, heh.

jeez, this seems pretty cruel/sadistic, even for the child. i guess it did just describe him as its enemy, but i'm still taken aback by the degree of malice it's displaying here.
The child Does Not Like Leo.

unfortunate but i'm absolutely picturing officer feldhorn as chief wiggum. the comment about him looking like a morose granbull really painted an interesting picture in my head as a result of that. it's kind of interesting that he's willing to talk to "jade" so openly about leonard's mission—maybe it's just not as big of a deal, broadly-speaking, as it is to the child? still, it seems like the kind of thing you'd keep under wraps.
Getting comments on this chapter is really weird in the context of Chapter 40/41, which I just published/am about to publish, haha. In any case, Officer Feldhorn, like most people, thinks Leo's kind of nuts and doesn't take him very seriously.

omg, it is truly a Child in the truest sense, isn't it.
Oh, for sure. :P

i kind of wonder what happened to titan between this chapter and the last. he seems quite a lot more casual here, even timid... did he just stop denying that he knew what was going on, and come to terms with his trainer's death? seems like a pretty big attitude shift.
Yes, this chapter takes place a while after the last. One way or another, the child seems to have convinced him to come aboard.

This is definitely a quieter chapter and more character focused... And setup for things, but in some cases the payoff will be quite a ways in the future, haha. There will be more action in the next chapter, but personally I think where the story starts to pick up is Chapter Six, when things stop jumping around so much in time. Hope you enjoy the next couple of chapters! It's going to become a somewhat different fic after that...

Chapter 5

Only one light burns in the Kerrigan household tonight, up in the study at the rear of the second floor. You can't see into the room from here, but you can picture the scene well enough: Leonard hunched at a keyboard in the semidark, fingers flying, casting his incantations over the computer.

What you can see from here is your old room. The child sat in this very spot almost two years ago now, on the neighbors' roof with legs dangling over the edge and eyes trained on the bedroom window. That time you were the one in the room dying while another waited outside with Absol, nervous and fidgety and unsure what to do. The child had waited because Absol told it to wait and not interfere. There wasn't much to see, but somehow she knew when you stopped breathing and prodded that other one forward.

She won't be prodding you tonight. She watched while you prepared, staring into the mirror trying to get the color of your eyes just right, testing your voice, fussing with your hair. She didn't say anything, and she didn't follow you when you left. Now it's her turn to wait and practice the art of noninterference.

But you haven't acted yet, and why? Your old room is dark and cold and empty. You sharpened eyesight works even through the shadows, and you can see that everything's still exactly as it was that day, not even a bit dusty. You can't see it from this angle, but you wonder--is the empty bottle of pills still sitting on the nightstand?

Leonard isn't the only one in the house. Gruff, the family's aged growlithe, is sleeping somewhere on the first floor; if you concentrate, you can just taste the edges of his dreams as they run in confused little circles. He's no threat--you'll be surprised if he even wakes up to greet you. You run your fingers through your hair, on edge and not wanting to think about why, then grimace and tease it back into place. Honestly--after all the time you took getting it right.

This is stupid. You've established everything you need to: Leonard is home. He's defenseless. It's not like you're going to get a better opportunity. You draw your legs up onto the roof and push yourself to your feet, then forcefully think your way to the stoop.

You reach out and ring the doorbell before you can hesitate, before you can talk yourself out of it. Then there's nothing you can do but stand and wait, not fidgeting, definitely not fidgeting, as the seconds drag past. If only you didn't have to do this as a human. It would be easy to still the racing of your heart, to banish anxiety and anticipation alike, but changing enough to do that would make it very hard for you to act like Matt Kerrigan.

Finally, you hear movement inside the house. A light comes on in the foyer. The bolt turns, and the door opens a fraction. You find yourself looking into the face of Leonard Kerrigan, more haggard than usual, more disheveled. If he was planning to open the door further, he's forgotten. Instead, he's frozen staring out at you, the whites of his eyes huge and round.

You were afraid you'd forget all your preparations in the heat of the moment. The lines you rehearsed would fly out of your head, and you'd be left stammering. But you channel all your nervous energy into a kind of poised focus and are able to summon up the casual smile you practiced in the mirror, nail the voice as you begin, "Dad..."

The door is open in an instant. Leonard Kerrigan throws himself at you, and then it all goes to hell.

You barely resist the instinct to swat the man aside, the way you would any other creature that jumped at you, and that moment of hesitation leaves you no time to get out of his way. Leonard Kerrigan catches hold of you, wrapping his arms tight around your torso. You manage to get your own arms up and out of the way so they aren't pinned to your sides, but you're stuck there nonetheless, leaning away from the human and trying to make the minimum amount of contact while he clings to you like he thinks you'll evaporate if he doesn't.

Ah, wait. This is a hug, isn't it? You know how this works. Yes, definitely you do. You lean forward a bit and drape your arms over Leonard Kerrigan's shoulders and wait, hopefully, for further indication of what you should do.

Unfortunately, the human isn't giving you any cues. He's got his face buried in your chest while making the most horrific wailing noises. The longer you wait there, the more nervous you get--he's making a scene. Leonard Kerrigan's making a scene! What if someone comes to investigate the noise? What if someone sees you?

"Dad," you say. "We should go inside."

He keeps sobbing. You squirm around, starting to panic and not really caring if you're being rude. But Leonard Kerrigan won't let you go, and if you push him away too hard, you might hurt him. You wouldn't mind that, but it might be bad for your cover.

"Dad," you say again. "Inside. We should go inside. Listen."

You try walking forward, pushing him ahead of you, but that only threatens to get you even more tangled up. For a moment, exasperation replaces panic. You could pick the human up and carry him into the house if you needed to. He's lighter than you expected, actually, thinner than he looks under his sweater. But your head is going round and round with confusion, and you can't remember if you ought to be that strong or not.

You're standing there wrestling with the crying human and for one instant you feel the insane urge to burst out laughing. You look down at the back of Leonard's head, draggled and unwashed and graying, and make out words in his pathetic whimpering. "I always knew you weren't dead... Nobody believed me that I saw you, but I knew it, I knew what I saw, I knew you would never k-ki..." Then he descends into incoherence again, sobbing and coughing on his own tears, and you are almost--honestly. Why does being human have to be so confusing?

You take a quick glance around to make sure no one's watching--not that you could really do anything if they were--then half shove, half carry the man back into the house in what you hope would be called a firm, not rough, manner, and shut the door behind you. You set Leonard firmly aside, taking a moment to be sure he's not just going to jump at you again the moment you let go. His babbling's done and he's wiping tears from his eyes, which is good enough, you suppose. You take the moment of peace to have a look around.

It's dim in the foyer, only one light working in the chandelier. There's only one of everything here: one coat hanging on the hooks by the door, one umbrella in the holder. The smells of unwashed human and dishware overwhelm your sensitive nose; you can see the kitchen down the hall, stacks of plates piled in the sink and garbage overflowing from the can.

You surprise yourself in having to take a deep breath before you say the line, but say it you do. There's no going back now. "Dad. I am sorry, but I do not have much time. I am taking a great risk to be here in the first place. I need your help, Dad."

"Help? You need my help?" His voice is shaking, his hands are shaking as he cleans his tear-soaked glasses on the front of his sweater. He almost laughs, makes a horrible noise of inhaling mucus. "Of course, Matt. Anything. Anything you need. What do you want?"

"I need you to get my pokémon back for me."

"Your pokémon?" The glasses are back on his face and he squints through them. "But why..."

"They are in League holding. I cannot access them. But I need them back, and I know that you can get them released."

"Yes, yes, of course," he says, brushing aside what you've been agonizing over for years. He reaches out and puts a hand on your arm, and you fight down the urge to flinch away. "That's not what I meant. What is this all about, Matt? Where have you been?"

"I cannot tell you. The work I am doing is very dangerous, and if I told you, you would become a target." You find yourself warming to your story now that you've gotten going. Secret agents are cool, after all.

"Come on, Matt!" Leonard Kerrigan says, and you stare at him, confused by the heat in his words. "A target of what? What's going on? You can tell me! Why are you only coming back now? After all this time the least you could have done would have been to let us know somehow--I mean, everyone thought you were dead, and I--" He slides a hand under his glasses so he can rub at his eyes and the bridge of his nose. "At the very least, your mother..."

He isn't taking this as well as you'd hoped. Why can't he just be glad you're alive? You cut him off before he can work himself up even further. "I am sorry, Dad. No one was supposed to know I was alive. It was safer that way. I cannot tell you what I am doing, or where I have been. And no one else can know about it either. I did not want to involve you, but you locked me out of my account. I need my pokémon back, Dad."

He pauses with his hand still over one eye and laughs. "What, getting mad at me for doing my job? If you didn't fake your own death, you wouldn't have to worry about your storage account."

You honestly don't know how to deal with this. A glance around the miserable little room doesn't lend you any ideas. You decide to be direct. "I am sorry, Dad, but I cannot stay long. If you want to talk, we can do it while you get my pokémon out of storage."

He looks at you with an unreadable expression on his face, then sighs and removes his hand from your arm. "Up you go, then," he says, pointing towards the stairs. You remember the way to his study from the last time you were here and are only too happy to lead. You're less happy with what you find inside.

The area around the computer is cleaner than the rest of the house, but only barely. The machine itself is slick and new, of course, Leonard Kerrigan's Porygon-Z bobbing around as its screen saver. But the rest of the room is crammed with old newspapers, from respectable publications to the kind that announce Pikablu sightings and report on people who've seen the face of Arceus in their breakfast cereal. Those in particular have been going wild with the stories of Nicholas Garret's posthumous adventures, but even the Saffron Times was only marginally more restrained in its reporting.

Leonard Kerrigan found those stories, every one of them, and cut them out. There are others, too, reports of curious disappearances, unexplained thefts, that sort of thing. Some actually relate to you, most not. They're stacked in haphazard piles, tacked to the walls alongside computer printouts, and overflow onto the floor in a slurry of words.

The sight is like a hot knife twisting in your gut. Ah, of course. For a few minutes you actually forgot who you were dealing with. You do your best to keep the tightness out of your voice as you ask, "Dad. What is all this?"

"This?" he asks, stepping into the room behind you and gesturing languidly at all his incriminating papers. "I don't know, Matt. I was hoping you might be able to tell me."

"What? Why?"

"Well, Matt, you aren't the only trainer out there to fake their death recently." He sits down at the computer but stays turned towards you. "I was just wondering if whatever this thing is you've gotten involved with has something to do with them, too."

"I do not know anything about it," you say immediately, then curse yourself for panicking. "I mean, I do not think so. I have not been keeping up with the news. What is it about?" Leonard isn't typing anything, just sitting at the computer and watching you. You remind yourself to stay cool and alert and that after all you won't solve anything by killing the human right here and now, however easy it would be.

"Just what I said, Matt. Trainers who are supposed to be dead not staying dead. Showing up on the network when they're supposed to be in the ground." He's looking at you very closely, and you force yourself to focus on his face and not on the computer screen behind him, where War lies close, so close.

This isn't working. You take a deep breath and prepare to go off the rails. "I am sorry, Dad. You are right. I am not the only one involved in this. I cannot say more than that, but I promise you that if you help me get my pokémon back, I will return soon. I am almost done, and then I can be with you and Mom again. I did not want to leave. I did not want to be a part of this. But now I am. I need your help, Dad. That is all I am asking for."

Leonard Kerrigan sighs and rubs at his face again. "Of course, Matt. I don't understand, and I wish things could be different, but I'm glad you're alive. If you need your pokémon back, then I'll get them back for you. I just wish, though"--he stops rubbing and looks square at you--"there's really no way you can let anyone else know that you're alive? Not even your mother? If you came to see me--"

"Not even you should know," you say curtly. And how awfully true that is. If you hadn't been so careless back then, if he hadn't seen you, then you never would have had to do this.

He's still staring at you, and for a moment you're terribly close to doing something rash out of fear that he sees something wrong in your expression. Standing there surrounded by evidence of his scheming is fraying at the edges of your temper. But the human only shakes his head and says, "I see."

And then, mercifully, he turns to the computer and nudges the mouse, dismissing the bouncing Porygon. You watch hungrily as he starts typing, torn between wanting to edge closer and afraid that if you move you might somehow shatter this fragile, perfect moment when everything is going right.

A transporter on the desk spits a crackle of white light, then in one concentrated burst zaps a cluster of pokéballs into existence on the receiving platform. Leonard Kerrigan scoops them up and holds them in front of his face. He picks out one you don't recognize, old and scuffed with a blue top on it. "You remember your first pokémon, don't you, Matt?" he asks, glancing at you out of the corner of his eye.

You tense. He wants to play this game, then, does he? You've made a careful study of Matt Kerrigan and remember him as well as you think you can without ever having met him, but if Leonard Kerrigan begins to ask you serious questions about your past, you're going to be in trouble. This one is no problem, though. You nod and say, "Duke." Duke the persian, family pet for several years before joining Matt Kerrigan on his brief and ill-fated journey.

"That's right," Leonard says with a wan smile. "It's been a long time, hasn't it? Why don't we see if he still remembers you?"

Before you can protest, he tosses the pokéball to the carpet, and Duke takes shape in a flash of light. You have to step back, bumping into a leaning stack of magazines, as the appearance of a four-foot persian abruptly makes the small study even more cramped.

Duke blinks and snuffs at the air, his movements jerky and uncertain. He's been in storage for a long time, and you wonder whether anyone even bothered to explain to him what happened before putting him away. Your heart is hammering even though it's clear Duke isn't ready to fight. You weren't expecting this, not at all. You were prepared to deal with Leonard Kerrigan, but you've never met any of Matt's pokémon aside from War. If they realize what's going on, you don't know if you can fight them all.

You take a deep breath and kneel down in front of Duke. "Hello, Duke," you start. The persian turns deep brown eyes on you. "Remember me? It is good to see you again."

"What? Matt?" Duke rumbles. His gaze roves the cluttered study, passing across Leonard Kerrigan sitting by the computer without pause. You reach out your hand to pet him, but he shrinks away from your fingers, bumping clumsily against the desk. "What's going on here?" he asks, baring his teeth.

You hurriedly draw your hand back, make placating gestures, but it's too late. "I knew it," Leonard says, wearing a sickly smile. "You're not my son. But you are connected with the other dead trainers, aren't you? Who are you? And what"--the smile is gone, replaced by a grim expression that draws the skin tight over his cheekbones--"have you done with my son?"

"No, Dad--Duke--you don't understand. It really is me. I know I seem different. Some things... Some things have happened. I did not mean for it to be like this. Please, you have to believe me." Duke keeps looking back and forth between you and Leonard, fur starting to bristle.

"Is that so? Then just what is it that I should believe? Or is that something else you 'can't tell me?'"

"I cannot! I am not lying. It really is dangerous! Come on, Dad, what is it that you want me to say?"

Leonard Kerrigan shakes his head, and you know his mind is already made up. "No. Just listen to yourself. You sound nothing like him--you sound like some kind of fucking robot. Who are you?"

You take a breath to clear your head. You're about to make one more stab at diplomacy, but paper crinkles under your foot as you shift your weight; you glance around at the clippings plastering the walls. Leonard Kerrigan is your enemy. He trapped War in the computer; he forced you into skulking furtiveness for fear he might discover you; he stole--you almost choke on bile at the thought. What's the point of discretion? You didn't come here to make friends. You step back, skirting a stack of papers.

All you're trying to do is maneuver for extra space, but Leonard must think you mean to leave. "Duke, stop him!"

That's all the excuse you need. There is a ferocious crack as Duke leaps headlong into an invisible barrier, a protect shield thrown up in a heartbeat. The persian falls to the floor in a daze, and you leap over him in one impossibly fast motion, the room blurring for a second before slamming into focus again as you land directly in front of Leonard Kerrigan.

He jerks backward, and you grab his arm and wrestle the pokéballs out of his grasp. There's movement behind you as Duke leaps onto the desk, knocking a cascade of papers and old, coffee-crusted mugs to the floor. You brace yourself as he jumps for you again, then catch him in the chest with your elbow and slam him into the side of the desk.

You deliver a smashing brick break with your left hand to keep the struggling persian down, and with the other you try to juggle the pokéballs without dropping any, rolling them around until your fingers can find the blue-topped one.

Duke gets his legs back under him, badly bruised but now, at last, starting to realize that he really has to fight. You thumb the button on the front of the ball and call him back to captivity.

There's a moment of relative peace as a last couple paper shreds drift to the floor in front of the now-crooked desk. You stuff the pokéballs into your pocket and make for the door in earnest, then are jerked to a halt as Leonard Kerrigan grabs your arm from behind.

You turn to look back at him, surprised but not at all disappointed, because now the fool really is going to put himself in your way. If he's going to push you--well, who's to blame you if you push back? You look down into his desperate face, his teeth clenched, eyes tearing at the corners, as he tries to--what? Drag you back? Pull you down? What can he expect to do, after he saw you take care of the persian so easily? "Stop!" he yells. "Who are you? What have you done with my son?"

You smile, easily resisting his attempts to wrestle you down. You could kill him now, if you wanted. You have what you came for, and he's certainly provoking you. But it might not be wise. His death would bring an investigation, and for lack of any other motive, someone might begin to suspect that there was more to his rants about dead trainers than previously suspected. As it is, they think he's crazy, and if he tries to discuss your visit with anyone, they'll only grow more sure. Best just to leave him something to remember you by.

Your grin stretches wider and wider, splitting Matt Kerrigan's face ear to ear as jaws reconfigure to accommodate the new rows of teeth forcing their way out of your gums, gleaming sharp in the dim light. Fingers grow claws and irises bleed to red as you stare into Leonard Kerrigan's eyes.

Those eyes are widening, and the grip on your arm slackens as his anger gives way to horror. "What--just what the hell--" he starts.

"Your son is dead, you stupid old fool," you say in a voice that comes out mushy from a mouth no longer meant for human speech. Leonard Kerrigan is still trying to say something, or at least he's moving his mouth, but there's nothing there for you to hear. You lean in closer and add, "And if you continue to get in my way, you will be next."

The hopeless look on Leonard Kerrigan's face is exquisite, and you laugh as you press your free hand into his chest and shove him away, easily breaking his slack grip. You half hope he'll come at you, make some desperate final effort. But he just lies where he's fallen, cowering. You laugh again at his pathetic expression, flush with your victory, and leave. Out in the hall, well out of sight, you pause for a moment and clamp down on your elation just long enough to concentrate. With another thought, you're gone.

--​

Back at the house, the child spends a long time simply holding War's pokéball, bubbling with excitement but too exhausted to face the pokémon inside. The thrill of victory won't let it rest, and it lies awake on its bed until long after morning comes, thinking, exulting, remembering. Remembering Cinnabar.

It watched footage of the eruption on television, marveling at the disaster it had so narrowly avoided. At the time it didn't think of anything but how lucky it was to survive, to have Absol. But then, two days later, she came for the child. "Come. There is something you must see." And the place she took it was like the ruins of hell.

Cinnabar Island was wiped out, nothing left standing. Some buildings had been engulfed by lava flows, others flattened by the force of the blast itself or crushed beneath the boulders it had hurled. Choking ash buried everything meters-deep. Absol practically swam through it, and the child struggled to follow, floundering along with its shirt pulled over its face in a vain effort to block out the smoke and gritty dust, coughing miserably all the while. But it knew better than to complain. Absol, her usually immaculate coat soiled and dark, would not have brought it here for no reason.

She climbed a splintered beam jutting from the ash slurry, claws digging deep into the crumbling wood to hold herself steady. The child stopped below and waited, looking for some indication of why Absol had brought it there. But the slumping gray humps of ash obscured everything, and even if they'd been standing at the center of the town hall, the child would never have been able to tell.

"Listen," Absol said. "Look around you. This is Fate."

"Fate" isn't right. When Absol speaks of it, the child gets the impression that she means was something far larger and more complicated than such a simple human word, but "Fate" is the best translation it can make. It's grilled Absol about it more times than it can count, but they've only ever managed to frustrate each other. Absol gets annoyed by the child's stupidity--how can it fail to understand something so natural and obvious? And the child can never understand Absol's analogies--what was it supposed to do with explanations like "It is like the way shadows bend when they flow over blood?" So, Fate it is.

Absol continued. "Two years ago, a terrible crime happened here. It was a crime against both Mew and nature itself. It must not be allowed to happen again. Look around you. Those who were responsible have been punished." She tipped her head to the side, ever so slightly. "And those who were not responsible have also been punished. Such is the way of Fate."

The child looked again at the shattered remains of Cinnabar Island, then to the still-smoking volcano rising overhead, one side of its cone disintegrated by the explosion. Visions of white-furred shadows padding quietly through history teased at its brain. Sometimes it wasn't sure whether Absol thought Fate was something that was or something you did.

"There are many who abetted the creation of Mewtwo, and every last one of them will be punished. They will die. They will die unnaturally. They will die before the time set down for them."

Ah. A question. The child, most certainly, had so abetted. And it had to ask--did that mean that it, too...?

Absol gave it a long, steady look, and after a moment the child subsided, sheepish. Oh. Of course. It had already died.

Absol continued. "You recall that I have a mission."

It did. Defend the child.

"You recall that you have a mission as well. One that you did not undertake alone."

It did. Its heartbeat quickened as it began to suspect.

"After you died, humans took your pokémon and divided them. They have come to rest in the hands of others who were here on Cinnabar, others who have been marked by Fate. Each of these will perish, and when they do, I will know. When they do, you will be reunited with your friends. You will take what the humans had and use it to carry out your mission, so that in their death they may help rectify the wrongs they brought about in life. Such is the will of Fate." She fixed the child with a hard stare. "You have grown into your strength. You are ready to begin your mission in earnest. Are you prepared?"

Yes, of course. It said as much, wheezed it, gagging on the suffocating mouthful of ash-filled air it sucked down in its excitement. Absol was solemn in the face of its hacking affirmation. She nodded. "Then come." She leaped from the beam and dropped into the wreckage, the remains of some anonymous building blasted from its foundation. She dug industriously, hollowing out a crevice in the shifting ash and batting free a grime-covered pokéball, sending it rolling towards the child's feet. As it bent down to pick it up, she said, "This is the first. See to it that you do not forget its purpose, or your own."

Only later would the child wonder how Absol managed to find the pokéball buried in a pile of soot in some no-account corner of Cinnabar Island. At the time it was too overwhelmed by the reunion with its friend, with the treasure salvaged from the wreckage, with the fact that it suddenly had a real home, once the vacation house of some wealthy Cinnabar resident, now left empty and forgotten on a little island to the south.

When the child held that first pokéball--Rats' pokéball--it didn't understand what it meant, what it was embarking on. Now it holds this last pokéball, and the circle is complete. It has planned and waited and grown impatient and waited still more, and finally it is ready to set out on its journey. It's a journey long-deferred, dreamt of by a dead human child but never taken. It's a journey dreamt of once again by the person it's become, and today it will begin.

There are eight badges. There is a grand tournament held only once per year. It's only a little over a month away.

The child will win those badges. It will enter the tournament. And it will meet the trainer who holds the key to its future--its future, and that of its mother.

But first, someone else will have to die.
 
Chapter 6

Negrek

Rise Toward Descent
Staff
Author's Notes: This chapter is where the story really starts picking up. Hope you enjoy!

Chapter 6

Nearly a month later, you are Grovyle and you are hiding, perched high above the ground and deep in obscuring leaves. Grovyle isn't the pokémon you're best at, although of course your version is still pretty good; they're mostly lanky legs and leaves, and you have no problem with those. It's the head that's tricky, much too oval where it should be flat and lizardy, teeth snaggly and crammed together in jaws not long enough for them. Heads are always difficult for you, since you can't change your brain too much without running into problems, and that means they can't get too small or too big or too weird-shaped. Even if Rockets are dumb, you don't think they'd mistake you for a regular grovyle, at least not if they saw your face.

Team Rocket--another reason you don't want to be seen. You've had more than enough of them for two lifetimes. If you're looking for dead people, though, they have a habit of leaving corpses in their wake. Seeking them out was a great idea, but it makes you more than a little nervous that it was Duskull who came up with it, and even more so that he was able to suggest a group who was actually planning to go out and kill somebody. Your friends do what they like, but you hadn't realized that Rocket-watching was one of Duskull's hobbies, and the cheerful unconcern he's treating this whole thing with isn't making you feel more comfortable.

"Duskull, I told you to wait back in town. It's dangerous." The ghost scuds away from you, gurgling laughter. When you lunge at him, he sinks back into the tree trunk and vanishes from sight. "I mean it," you hiss, as loudly as you dare. "Stay here."

No response. You hunch your shoulders and turn away, looking down on the humans below. On the one hand, it feels wrong to tell Duskull to go away when he was the one who led you to them in the first place. On the other, it is dangerous. You nudge the felt bag hanging around your neck, done up to look like bright powder. It actually holds your friends' pokéballs, including Duskull's, shiny and new. You could use it to stop him cold, if you could coax him back out of the tree, but you don't know if he would ever forgive you.

You glower at where the ghost used to be, then start at the sound of leathery wings nearby. You throw yourself belly-down on the branch, making yourself as small as possible, and curse Duskull twice over for distracting you. You turn your head slowly, ever so slowly, until you spot the source of the noise.

A golbat weaves her way through the trees, staying low to the ground and keeping to the shadows. You follow her with your eyes, taking some comfort in the erratic, preoccupied way she's flying.

The golbat sweeps into the little clearing where the teenagers are gathered, smoking and making forced conversation. They stir to attention while she circles one of the girls. "Come on, come on, let's move it," the bat calls. "I can hardly fly straight in this damn sun!"

"Looks like we're on, ladies and gents," the girl says with a grin met by uneasy silence. "Let's get this over with already." She turns to leave, and the rest of the group follows at a shamble, flicking cigarettes into the grass and taking half-hearted swipes at the golbat, who harries the stragglers with a constant stream of high-pitched complaints.

"Yes, yes, good work, I'll make sure Mark gives you a treat or something later," the girl says when the bat swoops back in her direction. "Lead the way already."

The golbat doesn't stop grumbling, but she takes off into the trees, and the humans are forced into a lope to keep her in sight. You shoot a last warning glare at the tree behind you, then take off after them.

For a few glorious minutes you lose yourself in the chase, racing branch to branch, alighting on one only long enough to push off to the next. The wind blows your leaves out behind you like pennants, the tiny hairs on their undersides registering minute changes in direction and speed as you sail along.

The humans come to a halt, and you nearly go sailing on past, lost in the rhythm of impact and soaring, larger concerns drifting nebulous and half-forgotten around the edges of your thoughts. But some fragment of intent remains, and you come to a neat stop before you can go too far, using your momentum to flip yourself up and around a branch, grasping with fingers and toes alike.

You fold into a defensive crouch, ready to move at the first sign of trouble. Below, the humans are discussing something with a boy who was waiting for them, now the primary target of the Golbat's whining.

"--no problem. Bastard won't know what hit him," the newcomer is saying, sweaty and out of breath but grinning nonetheless.

"Yeah, that's right, no need to thank me for dragging this pack of idiots over here for you," the golbat says, hovering so close her wingbeats stir the boy's hair. He ignores her with practiced ease. "Feel free to express your undying gratitude later. Maybe at night, or at least somewhere dark?"

"How long?" the lead girl asks.

"Dunno. Ten minutes at the inside. Even the freaking champion couldn't handle a pack of mankey that big in less than that."

"If he can handle it at all," pipes up another girl, to nervous snickering.

"Oh, come on, Sasha. You don't want the monkeys to have all the fun, do you?" the leader drawls. Then, raising her voice: "Spread out! Don't get comfortable. If we're lucky, there won't be much left of Nate after the mankey have been at him, but if there is, you do not want to be the one who let him get away. Mark, have your golbat scout."

The supersonic cry of exasperation comes even before Mark repeats the order to his pokémon. You wince and dig your claws deeper into the branch, but the humans don't react--they probably can't even hear it.

For all her griping, the golbat is a-wing immediately, and you have to wonder what could inspire such loyalty in the face of the hated sun. You glare down at the boy as he takes his place at the edge of the large, grassy clearing. Nothing good, you think. Nothing good.

The teenagers spread out below, ranging in a half-circle around the clearing. You try to calm down, casting a look around for Duskull. It helps a little that you see no sign of him, that at least he's probably safe, but anger roils your stomach as you think about the golbat and anxiety worries at your fraying nerves.

You sink back into the grovyle's hunting trance, letting the trappings of your human mind fall away until the wood takes on new texture beneath your fingers and the rich, sappy smell of the leaves around you blossoms into your awareness. You can see every twitch in the clearing's grass, and you sit and watch them, idly marking the passage of cloud-shadows over the ground, and think no more of anything but what is there before you. You can't remember what you're waiting for, but have vague faith that you'll know it when you see it.

And indeed, you stiffen when faint squeaks and wingbeats reach your ears. Your eyes narrow in confusion as you try to recall what they mean. By the time the golbat comes into view, you've remembered.

"All right, all right, he's coming!" the golbat grumbles to her trainer, dancing around him in tight circles. "Done with me now? Because if you send me off on another stupid errand, I'm probably going to end up hitting a tree or something."

"Recall that thing!" hisses the leader. "Everyone on your guard!"

Barely a minute later you hear two people smashing through the undergrowth on the far side of the clearing. They're taking even less care than humans usually do, and though they must be in full flight, they aren't moving all that fast. You sit up straighter and crane your neck, straining for a first glimpse of who you'll be for the next few weeks.

The first into the clearing is a mightyena, thick coat matted with blood, favoring a forepaw as she bounds into the open. She stops immediately on sight of the humans, snarling with teeth bared and mane bristling. Her trainer stumbles out of the trees a second later, chest heaving as he gasps for breath, and you feel a twinge of disappointment as you look him over. You hadn't been expecting much, but you'd hoped anyone important enough to get a hit put out on them would be at least halfway competent. All you see here is a young man in muddied, shredded clothing, face bloodied from a deep cut running across the bridge of his nose. He leans heavily against the mightyena, gaze roving the people assembled before him.

"Wha--" he starts, then thinks better of it, takes a deep breath, and tries to draw himself up straighter. The other humans step forward, all eagerness now. "Just what the fuck do you think you're doing, Jenna? This your idea of a joke, setting a whole fucking truckload of mankey on me while I'm fucking working?"

"Aww, what's this, now? The great Nathaniel Morgan running scared from a few angry monkeys?" Jenna says. You can only see the back of her head from here, but the smirk rings clear in her voice. The mightyena's growling redoubles, saliva frothing from her jaws to the grass below.

"Fuck you and your asshole friends, Jenna. Now get the hell out of my way unless you want to end up the same as the fucking mankey."

He makes as if to start forward again, the mightyena stalking ahead, but they both stop when Jenna unclips a pokéball from her belt and tosses it to herself. "So terribly sorry to detain you, your lordship," she says, with a bobbing parody of a curtsy, "but we're here on orders from someone even higher and mightier than yourself, if you can imagine that. See," and the mocking tone drains from her voice, leaving it all steel and malice, "Aiden isn't very pleased with the quality of your 'work.' In fact, he's thinking it has something to do with how the police have been doing a mighty good job of busting our suppliers lately and how half the jobs you work on go all pear-shaped. Because if there's one thing Aiden can't stand--that any of us can't stand, Nate--it's traitors."

"I ain't no fucking traitor!" the great Nathaniel Morgan roars over mutters of agreement from the lurking teenagers. "That's bullshit! And I'll shove it up Aiden's ass myself the second I get back to base. Unlike certain people I know, I don't need to send six pissant grunts to take care of my own goddamn business. Now get the hell out of my way, Jenna! Last fucking warning!"

"The reason Aiden sent so many of us after you, Nate, is because he overestimated you," Jenna says in a mock-soothing tone while the rest of her group starts to fan out, moving to surround the great Nathaniel Morgan. You can see his eyes darting around as he looks for an opening. "I mean, nearly losing to a bunch of wild mankey? Talk about disappoin--"

A yell of "Mightyena!" cuts her off. The dark-type surges towards Jenna while her trainer takes off sideways, trying to outrun the closing cordon of Rockets.

Jenna's only startled for a moment, and the mightyena, injured as she is, can't reach her before she casts her pokéball to the ground. "Let's go, Ursaring!"

You shrink closer to the tree trunk as the hulking normal-type appears, catching Mightyena across the face with a slash attack even as she leaps for him, sparks of energy still dancing in his half-solid fur. The attack sends Mightyena sprawling, and she does not rise. A second later she disappears in a flash of red light.

Meanwhile, one of the other humans calls out a sandshrew to intercept her trainer. The ground-type has no trouble catching the limping human and brings him down with a blow to the back of his knees. The sandshrew's trainer starts to give another command, but Jenna steps in. "Hold. Ursaring, make sure he doesn't run off again."

The big bear doesn't hurry, and its kind aren't known for their speed, but even so the great Nathaniel Morgan only barely makes it to his feet by the time the ursaring reaches him. Pathetic. The Rocket should be grateful he'll have you to carry on his name after he dies--at least you'll be able to lend it some small measure of dignity.

Certainly if it were you staring down nearly six feet of stony-faced bear, you wouldn't sneer up at him and say, "All right, you stupid piece of shit, let's see what you--"

The ursaring doesn't wait for him to finish, just grabs him by the shoulder and hurls him one-armed into the side of a tree. The normal-type turns a blank expression on his trainer, awaiting further orders.

The teenagers gather around their injured target, laughing and jeering as the ursaring steadily dismantles him, getting in the occasional kick of their own. The bear operates without apparent interest, a bored expression on his face, and you can't blame him. The whole process is really very dull; it's not as though the great Nathaniel Morgan is able to put up any kind of fight.

You zone out for a while, the sounds of the beating fading from your awareness as you think of nothing at all, spreading your leaves and quietly photosynthesizing. It's only when the ursaring is recalled and the humans close in around their victim that you bother paying attention again.

And as soon as you realize what they're up to, you come out of your lethargy with a shock of alarm. They're taking the great Nathaniel Morgan's wallet, his pokémon... his pokédex! It vanishes into the back pocket of one of the Rockets even as you watch. You stifle a growl. Of course they wouldn't leave it to rot out in the wilderness with the great Nathaniel Morgan's corpse. It's nearly as valuable to them as it is to you, and if you don't get it, this whole tedious excursion will have been for nothing.

But you can't just run down and grab it. You don't like your odds against six trainers, even Rockets, especially not if they have more pokémon like that ursaring. So. You need a distraction.

The group saunters back in your direction, laughing and talking amongst themselves. They stop and look up as a shadow passes across the sun, a meteor hurtling low over the forest. It rockets into the trees on the far side of the clearing with a rending crack and an impact that knocks two of the humans off their feet and showers the rest in leaves, twigs, and a surprised squirrel.

While blue flames burn themselves out in the resulting crater, you let out the loudest roar you can manage from a reconfigured throat, then crouch low against your branch as the humans' heads snap around in your direction.

"What the fuck was that?"

"Sounded like a... salamence? Salamence, right?"

"What would a salamence be doing way out here?"

Lightning strikes a tree near where the Rockets huddle, and they scatter to avoid a shattered bough that tears down through the canopy. You leap away, putting some distance between yourself and your old perch, and let out another roar, pitched just slightly higher. Then you freeze, wait until their eyes pass indifferent over your new hiding spot, and call quietly on the power of storms.

"Two of them?" wonders the boy who'd identified the salamence cry earlier.

"What are they, fighting?"

"I don't care if they're having a motherfucking church revival up there. We're getting out of here before we find out," Jenna says as dark clouds boil into existence overhead and rain begins to fall. She rubs at her cheek, where a flying piece of debris has scored a long cut.

"I can't see anything up there," says another girl, and you petulantly send the next thunder attack her way, just for that.

"No more talking! Everybody move!" Jenna barks after she's picked herself up again. "Nicholson! Where's Nicholson?"

"There are two salamence out there, and you're just going to run away from them?" asks the golbat's trainer.

"Look, Mark, if you want to go off and capture those salamence for the glory of Team Rocket and your paycheck, be my guest," Jenna says as she hauls a dazed girl back to her feet. "If you make it back alive, I'll recommend you for a promotion myself. But we gave Morgan what he deserved, so as far as I'm concerned, we're done here. Let's go, people."

She takes off running in the direction of Fuchsia, and most of the others follow her lead. Mark lingers a moment, staring up into the trees, then turns and follows after.

You lash out with a burst of telekinesis and hook the pokédex out of the thief's pocket, and it tumbles into the leaf litter, unnoticed in the scramble to escape. Then you wait a few minutes more, sending an idle draco meteor after the group, just to drive home the point. When the snapping and crashing sounds of the humans' flight have died away and tentative forest noises are returning, you dismiss the storm with a wave of your hand.

One great jump sets you down next to the pokédex, and you struggle to pry its cover off with clumsy reptilian fingers, too impatient to shift them back towards human. Then it's open and on, its screen glowing, and you start flicking through menus and calling up statistics, drinking in all there is to know about the life that is now yours. You're so engrossed that you don't even notice Absol until she nudges your shoulder.

You choke and drop the pokédex, twisting left and right as you look for some sign of trouble, the leaves at your wrists flaring in alarm. "Absol! What is it?" Maybe your little show attracted unwanted attention. If so, you don't see it yet.

"No. No danger to you. But that human is dying." She tips her head sideways, pointing with her blade, and for a second you aren't sure what she's talking about. Your gaze travels out across the clearing to where the ruined corpse of the great Nathaniel Morgan lies.

"But he's already--"

"He is not dead. He will be, soon. And he should not be." Absol gets up off her haunches, turns a tight, agitated circle, then sits down again. "It's not right." Up, circle, sit.

You slowly spread your leaves again, unease prickling in your gut. She's anxious. Absol is actually anxious. You've never seen her show emotion like this before, not even when the volcano was about to annihilate your world--even then, it was efficient professionalism to the last.

"Absol, what's going on? Why do you care what happens to that Rocket?"

"His death is not right, but I cannot prevent it. You are the only one who can." A muscle in her shoulder starts twitching, like she's trying to shake a fly, and she turns her head to bite at it.

"No I can't! I don't know how to save him. What do you want me to do?"

Absol turns back to you, though the twitch is still going. "You can heal him."

"Healing attacks only work on pokémon, Absol."

"They work on you, and you are not a pokémon."

"But I'm not a human, either! I don't know what they'll do to a human. I've never tried it before. It might just make things worse!" You regret the stupid words the instant they leave your mouth.

Absol glares at you, so venomous you actually flinch away and half raise your hands to shield your face. "You are whining. At the least you can try. Quickly. Now!"

She lunges at you, and you take off in a stumbling run. Out of the trees, across the clearing--the scent of blood is thick in your nostrils as you come to a stop by the wreck of a human. Absol follows, her gaze stern, then stops and bends to scratch a sudden itch on her leg with her blade.

Dismay tightens your chest as your life-sense tells you that Absol is right. The Rocket isn't dead, but he will be, and soon. You glance at Absol, and she stares back, all twisty-sideways as she tries to deal with the itch at the same time. You look down at your patient, and the cold fear in your gut knots tighter. The ursaring was very thorough. You can only begin to guess at all the injuries the man's sustained. It would probably be easier to count the number of bones left intact than the ones that got broken.

Another pleading glance at Absol receives only a stony, meaningful look in response, so you do your best to quash your fear as you raise your hands in front of your face. Energy surges down your arms, pouring blinding white from your fingertips and gathering between your hands. As you force more energy into the attack, the mass grows, pushing your palms apart until it's roughly the size of a chicken egg.

You roll the soft-boiled into your left hand and give it a quick glance over, fighting the wave of exhaustion trying to drag you to your knees. The attack looks fine, faintly glowing through a thin, gelatinous shell. Fine, but also fleeting; if you don't get this into the Rocket in the next half-minute or so, it will collapse in on itself and fall inert.

You lean over the man and use your free hand to pull open what's left of his jaw. You drop the soft-boiled in his mouth and slam it shut again, not troubling to be gentle; a little extra damage won't make much difference at this point, and it would be far worse to let any of the soft-boiled's energy escape. Then you sit back on your haunches and watch the Rocket with Absol at your shoulder, waiting for your attack to do whatever it's going to do: heal the human, or burn through his veins and annihilate the last of his spark. Or maybe nothing at all.

It doesn't take long. After a few seconds you can see the soft-boiled working, some of the Rocket's minor cuts disappearing, deeper ones starting to clot and scab. All well and good, but his more serious injuries are barely touched, and you slump a little as you realize, half a moment before Absol says it aloud: "That is not enough."

It's no good arguing now that you've committed to the work. You flex your fingers, which prickle with faint, itching pain, then draw them up in one swift, determined motion, already sending energy racing down your arms. This time, you really do stagger, panting, as the soft-boiled takes shape, but your motions are quick and sure as you feed it to the great Nathaniel Morgan--after all the effort that's gone into making it, you can't afford to slip up and drop the thing.

With the soft-boiled secured, you release your focus and slump to the ground, gasping for air and digging your burning fingers deep into the cool dirt. And still it isn't enough. The human is like a black hole, sucking up all your energy and tossing it into the void. You meet Absol's stern gaze and force yourself upright to perform the attack a third time.

And that does it. The Rocket isn't restored, no; he still looks as though he's taken a beating, albeit a less severe one. But he is no longer dying, and at the moment you think that's the best Absol can ask for. You're not sure you could manage another soft-boiled even if you had to.

"Watch him," you say to Absol, too tired to keep the bite of anger out of your voice. "I'll do more later. Now I need to sleep."

Absol hesitates, then bows her head in a brief nod. "Thank you." You grunt and stagger a couple of steps away, then collapse into sudden, heavy slumber.

--​

You wake ravenous, arms and fingers aching to the bone. The rest of you is sore and weakish, stirring memories of flu from a whole lifetime ago. But mostly you're hungry, and the big lump of bloody human lying so nearby, faintly breathing, isn't helping.

Absol is stretched out next to the great Nathaniel Morgan, watching patiently as you gather yourself. You half want to slide back into a doze, but the hunger is too insistent. "The least you could do after all that is get me something to eat," you growl at Absol without lifting your head from the grass.

To your immense surprise, she doesn't reprimand you for being rude. She actually rises and says, "I suppose." Then she steps sideways into drifting leaf-shade and vanishes. You find yourself looking at nothing but empty air, deprived of anyone to gripe at. A few seconds later you let out a warbling yell of exasperation and roll onto all fours, sparing only a passing glance for the Rocket. He's not going anywhere.

You find the pokédex lying where you dropped it earlier, in that flash of panic when Absol started going crazy. You shake your head as you pick the machine up, brushing a bit of dirt off its cover. You shouldn't have given her the excuse to leave. She might have actually told you what was up if you'd been quick enough to ask, but by the time she gets back you're sure she'll have come up with some evasion or other.

Your spirits improve once you actually manage to concentrate on the pokédex's data. It comes loaded with six badges--six! Two more than you'd even dared hope for, and more still than you'd really expected to find. From what you've seen of the great Nathaniel Morgan's abilities, you never would have expected he'd had success on the gym circuit.

Your gaze slides back to the convalescent Rocket, and unease stirs in your chest. How long is it going to take him to heal? If you're going to be using his identity, you can't just let him wander around free. He might tell someone about your plans. On the other hand, you don't want to drag a half-dead human along on your journey, either. The inconvenience could easily outweigh the boon of badges you hadn't expected to have.

Before you can wallow too deeply in melancholy thoughts, Absol steps out of the shade with the food she promised, a rabbit dangling from her teeth. She sets it neatly on the ground in front of you, then watches without expression as you grab it up and toss your head back, swallowing it down in one quick motion. There's a funny sliding feeling as your jaw unhinges to let it pass through whole, and then it's sitting heavy in your stomach, awaking lizardy instincts to crawl off somewhere and digest.

You can only manage a "thank you" for Absol before you succumb to the urge to rest, scaling the nearest tree and seeking a sunny spot along a branch to settle yourself in. There you relax into a digestive stupor, leaves flared to catch the light and mind gone dozy and distant.

"Are you just going to go back to sleep?" You blink, shake your head, look down at Absol. She's up on her hind legs, paws braced against the tree trunk, and is staring up at you.

"What?"

"I don't understand why you are sitting around doing nothing. I thought you wanted to hurry."

You shake yourself again and try to gather your thoughts. They're none too charitable, now that your rest has been interrupted. "I did, Absol, but then you decided you wanted me to babysit some Team Rocket member I hoped was going to die. There's no point trying to hurry now. I can't go anywhere until he at least wakes up."

"You're being petulant." Absol lets go of her grip on the tree with a snick of claws, then starts to pace around its base. "If it means so much to you, you can go out and find another for your scheme. You have no reason to linger here."

"Absol, I don't have the time to get anybody else. It took weeks to find this one, Duskull got lucky in the end."

It had been much, much harder than you'd expected. Isn't training supposed to be dangerous? Trainers on TV face peril every day, and there's never any shortage of murders to fuel your favorite crime dramas. You thought there'd be plenty of lives for the taking if you were willing to do a little leg work--honestly, you'd been surprised you hadn't encountered any murders in what time you'd spent around humans already.

But no amount of following children into the wilderness yielded results, and you'd been forced to flee from a trainer's pokémon twice. Checking dumpsters for discarded bodies hadn't gone over any better. Weeks passed, and all you accomplished was to drive Absol to icy uncommunication with your nagging. "I cannot say when simply any human is going to die," she said--repeatedly, you have to admit. "If I could, then I would be on constant alert. I can only sense the fate of those whose lives are twined with mine--and the more distant the connection, the weaker my awareness."

It wasn't fair that she wouldn't help, especially because it was her own fault that you were scrounging for another body in the first place. Absol and her stupid rules.

None of your old souls were suitable. You needed someone new, someone no one, or at least no one connected with the League, knew was dead. Someone who'd perished in an out-of-the-way place and wouldn't be discovered for a couple of weeks. You hadn't thought that too much to ask. All you needed was for some human to walk into a convenient ravine and die--how unlikely could that be? In the end you'd found someone--well, Duskull had--and of course, Absol had come along to ruin that, too, babbling something about Fate like always.

"If you do not have time, then perhaps it would be better to abandon this nonsense. There is no reason for you to take another's life for your piece of folly. You can go to the Plateau as some imagined person, and I will see to it that you find your brother."

You already pointed out challengers need a valid license, and only challengers have access to the trainer's village where the Champion will be staying. And there's no point getting to the Plateau early, since there's nothing you can do until he arrives anyway. It only makes sense to spend your extra time to make getting to him easier.

But Absol's heard all this before, and you don't expect her to change her mind. The truth is, none of these is the real reason, and she knows it. "It's not nonsense, and I know I don't need to, Absol. I want to, and I want you to either tell me why you have a problem with it or stop getting in my way."

"I don't know what you're talking about. I see no reason to stop you from entering the tournament if you want. That does not mean I think it is a good idea. How am I getting in your way?"

"This... That. What's up with this guy?" You gesture to the great Nathaniel Morgan. "Absol, I've never seen you act like that before. You almost seemed... scared."

Absol turns her stare on the unconscious Rocket. "Him? He has nothing to do with anything. But we must always try to prevent the world turning aside from Fate, no matter how small the transgression." She pauses, then shakes her head, as if to drive away an insect.

"Absol, you're doing it again. Come on, I know it isn't nothing. You were acting all funny." A thought occurs to you. "Or is it not about this at all? Is it something else?" An icy certainty freezes your bones as you start to realize: "You--you're not sick or something, are you?"

Absol snorts and says, "Of course not. You are being foolish. There is nothing wrong."

Of course there isn't. Cold and shaky, you stammer out, "Absol, why won't you tell me what's going on? You're scaring me."

Absol tips her head to the side and stares at you, and you realize in a flash of exasperated relief that she's genuinely puzzled. Then she leans forward and gives you a quick nudge on the shoulder with her nose. "Well. I did not mean to frighten you. I'm sorry, but it really is nothing. Nothing you need to worry about."

"But you were worried about it. Why were you worried?"

Absol turns away from you, so quick you think she must have seen something out in the forest and jerk around to stare yourself. But she's just looking blankly at the trees, thinking. After a few seconds her claws tighten in a death-clutch on the earth, and she says slowly, distantly, "I cannot explain it to you. It was a shadow on the water's face. I saw it. I don't know how to explain it. That is what it was. A shadow on the water's face."

"And that's... bad."

"Yes." She turns back to you and gives you another bump on the shoulder. "But you stopped it, like I asked you to. So it is nothing to worry about. And thank you for helping."

You catch her before she can pull away again and hug her around the neck while she tries to wiggle out of your grip. "That's okay. I just wish you could tell me what was going on. Do you think another one of those water... face... darkness things is going to happen?"

She tops shaking out her mane and stares at you, then says slowly, "That depends on you." When all she receives in response is a perplexed look, she elaborates, "Because the water doesn't have a face unless you're looking into it."

"Absol, if you meant 'reflection,' you should have just said it."

She gets a faraway look and thinks again for a minute. "Would you have understood what I meant if I had?"

You have to admit it's still way too metaphorical. "No."

Absol nods briefly. "Better to call it what it is, then," she says. "Now, I must be going. Whatever you choose from here, you have done well." She turns aside.

"Absol, wait. I still need to sleep. I need you to stay here and watch--" But she steps into shadow and out of sight, and you're left talking to a shaft of sunlight falling between the leaves overhead.

You snort and turn away. Aches are creeping back into your joints, a fog settling over your mind as your body demands you rest. For you, it's a safe enough proposition; not so much for the human. You cast him a resentful glare. He's already attracting flies, and if something larger and hungrier arrives while you're distracted, all the effort you went to in saving his life will be wasted.

As a sludgy haze of lethargy descends over your mind, you decide it's an acceptable risk. It's not like you really want him to stay alive--just the opposite, actually. If Absol doesn't want something scavenging him, then she can show up to stop it herself.

Feeling sluggishly, vindictively satisfied with that, you make your heavy way back up the tree and out onto a branch, and let yourself slip into blissful uncaring for several hours more.

--​

You return to yourself in late evening, prodded back to alertness by insistent cramps and, again, the demands of your stomach. The sun is sunk behind the trees, their shade gone deep and cold, and the cloud tatters overhead are tinted a blushing pink. You close your eyes and stretch, luxuriating in the feeling of being returned to full strength.

Meanwhile, the Rocket's still unconscious, lying in exactly the same attitude as you left him. He isn't dead, you're disappointed to see. But he's acquired a new companion.

You jump down from your perch and rush across the clearing. "Duskull, Duskull!" The red glow of the ghost's eye rolls in your direction while the rest of his body bobs in place. "There you are. Where'd you go off to, then?"

The ghost grumbles something barely audible and drifts in your direction, eye roving back and forth in his skull. "Thank you for not following me earlier. I told you, Duskull, you shouldn't hang around near Team Rocket. It's dangerous. What if one of them saw you?"

Duskull grumbles and scoots away from you, waving his tendrils dismissively. You shake your head. It's an old argument, and not one you have the patience for right now. Instead you look down at the Rocket, considering.

"This is so stupid. He looks exactly the same as he did this morning." You know it takes longer for humans to heal than pokémon--much longer, even. But you think he should have at least woken up by now. Prodding him with a toe yields no response. Duskull watches as you select a finger you can tell is broken and lean your weight on it. Not even a twitch. If the Rocket is playing dead, he's an incredible actor. You let out a hiss of disgust and flop to the ground next to the man, staring at him through the frame of your knees. "What am I supposed to do with this?"

Duskull gurgles quietly. "Yes, this is the guy they were going to kill. But of course, they're Rockets, so they managed to screw it all up, and then Absol made me heal him for some stupid reason, and now he's just lying there." You spread your hands in exasperation.

Duskull watches the early night-insects investigating the great Nathaniel Morgan's wounds for a bit. Then his eye turns to you, and he mutters something half to himself.

"No, Duskull. I told you I don't want you hanging around those guys." The chirp of crickets fills your pause. "I mean, you don't know if... they have a hit out on anybody else right now?"

Duskull wags his body side to side. "Then no. It's too dangerous." For a while the two of you remain in silent contemplation of the human. Then you push back to your feet with a gusty sigh. "Look, you mind watching him for me? I don't think he'll go anywhere, but I don't want anything to come along and eat him, you know?"

Duskull's only response is to retreat most of the way into the tree trunk over the Rocket's head, only the red orb of his eye floating outside it, his skull mask nothing more than a suggestive whorl in the tree's bark. "Thanks," you say, then close your eyes in brief concentration, jumping back to the abandoned building where you hid your supplies.

From there another thought takes you back to the clearing, where you unroll the sleeping bag you packed more out of a sense of obligation than anything--you don't mind sleeping on the ground--and drape it over the great Nathaniel Morgan. You don't relish the idea of trying to get him inside it, so you decide he'll simply have to deal with being cold. If it bothers him so much, he can always wake up and climb in himself. After that, you seek out a couple birds to take the edge off your hunger, then become Charmeleon, the warmth of your fire sac and the flame burning on your tail driving back the chill of the late-summer night.

You take one last look at the great Nathaniel Morgan, Duskull's eye hanging over him like a ruddy night-light, and have to stifle a hot surge of irritation. If he doesn't wake by morning, you'll try one more soft-boiled on him. If that fails, he'll be on his own and you'll look to your other, dwindling options. With that resolved, you settle down in a nest of leaf litter, curled in around the flame on your tail, and sleep.
 
Chapter 7

Negrek

Rise Toward Descent
Staff
Author's Notes: I really need to get better about remembering to actually do these on Friday. (Or even before Friday and not last-minute, how novel!) In any case, from around this chapter it should be clear why I include strong language in the warnings for this story, heh.

Chapter 7

The stars are disappearing into the warm gray of a lightening sky, and the birds are trying to sing the sun up. For a few groggy seconds you think they're the ones that woke you. You're about to shut them up with a little song of your own when Duskull drops down in front of your face, eye pulsing slowly on and off. "Oh," you say, the smile sliding off your face.

You scramble to your feet and hurry towards the Rocket, Duskull drifting behind like a tiny storm cloud, then stop. You need to do this right. You need to be careful. You tickle your voice box low enough for human speech, tongue and teeth rearranging. The spitting flare of your tail flame sinks back to a faint glow as you school yourself to calm, and you hold it close behind you as you start walking again. From the Rocket's perspective, you should be nothing more than a silhouette. You expect this conversation will be difficult enough without him getting a good look at you.

You can hear him moving, tentatively, making faint noises of pain, but he stops as you get close. "I know you are awake," you say. "There is no point pretending."

He stays still and silent. You let out a smoky huff of irritation and swat him lightly on the side of the head. His eyes fly open as a gash reopens and spills sluggish blood into his ear.

"Gah! What the fuck was--" he starts, jerking away from you. The motion turns to a wince of pain, and he hisses a long string of curses between his teeth as, with delicate slowness, he settles back into a relaxed position.

"I do not have time to play games. I have a proposal for you, and I require your attention. Do you understand?"

"You're fucking insane," he croaks. You take a reflexive step back as you see his eye, no more than a slit in a receding shiner, glinting in the light of your tail flame. "What in the fuck is going on here? Who the hell are you?"

"What is going on is I am giving you the opportunity to save your worthless life. Pay attention."

"Fuck you and your 'opportunity.' I ain't doing nothing until somebody explains what the hell this is." He has to take a second to get his breath back before plunging on. "And you didn't answer the fucking question: who the fuck are you?"

You consider possible responses while he lifts himself ever so slightly and peers around the clearing, squinting in the half-light. "Hey! Where the fuck are you? Just gonna set your pokémon on me while you hide out somewhere, asshole?"

"No. I am standing right in front of you. Now, if we can go back to what I was trying to say--"

"You can go back all you like, but I ain't going with you until you tell me just who in the fuck you are." He stares hard at everything but you and Duskull, still searching for a lurking human.

"You will be quiet and listen to what I say or--"

"Or what? Bring it on, you cowardly little bitch, I ain't scared of--"

"I said be quiet or I will--"

"What, you'll get your pokémon to do your dirty work 'cause you're too much of a fucking pussy to--"

Irritation burns in your chest, flammable gases evolving, temperature rising. "Shut up!" you roar, and flames gush out with the words, setting the leaves at your feet alight. You realize your mistake as the great Nathaniel Morgan's eyes widen. You stand there silent and mortified, cringing at the dry-leaf rustle of Duskull's laughter.

"Christ," the great Nathaniel Morgan breathes, staring into the returning darkness. "That's no fucking charmeleon. Fuck who are you--what the fuck are you?"

"I am me. Not that it is important. What is important is that I want your help."

Through a long string of ginger movements the Rocket manages to get one hand up to clutch at his head, and he's muttering to himself, a breathless stream of words you have to turn up your hearing to make out. "...so fucked. Like thanks for the fucking head injuries asshole, I wasn't up shit creek already without fucking seeing things..."

"Pay attention!"

He closes his eyes and sighs.

"I said pay attention!" You're on him in a second, knocking his hand out of the way and ignoring his cry of pain as you jostle unknown wounds, putting your face so close to his that the heat of your breath blisters his skin. "Look at me!"

He cracks open desperately watering eyes, and you straighten up again, staring down into his face. "Now. I am not a hallucination. I am very real, and I do not like to be ignored. If you want to continue living, I suggest that you listen to what I am saying."

The Rocket twitches, like he's going to try and strike you, but can only subside with a choked noise of discomfort. You glare at him for a second, but he doesn't try anything else. "Now. Like I said, I want your help. I want to be you in order to take the gym challenge, and I need you to come with me while I do. If you agree to that, I will spare your life and let you go after I finish the Indigo League Tournament. What is your answer?"

He's quiet for so long you're about to press him again, but at last he takes a wheezing breath and says, even softer than before, "Look, I still don't even know what in the fuck is going on here. I'm hungry, I'm thirsty, I'm fucking cold, and I feel like a bunch of snorlax have been doing the fucking conga all over my body, okay? I'm having a little trouble concentrating on your fucking offer, get me?"

You let your breath hiss out between your teeth, hoping it will take some of your aggravation with it. "I have food. I have water. I will give them to you if you agree to my terms."

"How about no, food first, and then we fucking talk?"

"You are in no position to make demands. Will you come with me or not?"

He closes his eyes and leans his head back against the trunk. After a second he says, "Look, could I just get some fucking water? Fucking 'please,' all right? Then I'll listen to your bullshit offer or whatever, swear to God."

You bare your teeth at him and spit out another near-flaming breath, but when he doesn't react, you give up and stomp over to your pack. You can tell he's watching as you rummage out your water and storm back over, the tiniest slit of eyes showing under his lids, but he's not prepared when you upend the canteen over his face.

"Hey! What--" he splutters, then coughs and sits glaring at you for a second, licking moisture off split and swollen lips.

"There is your water. If you want more, you will listen to what I have to say."

"Yeah, yeah, I get it," the great Nathaniel Morgan growls. "Bastard. Fine. Let's just get this shit over with already."

"Yes. As I said. I need you to come with me on my journey. I am going to be you and use your pokédex to earn the last two badges. Then I will enter the Indigo League Tournament. Once it is over, I will give your pokédex back, and you will be free to go. All I ask for is your cooperation over the next three weeks."

"Whoah, whoah, whoah," he says. "Hold up. Badges? The fucking League finals?" His face twists into a hideous smirk, shattered teeth glinting bloody in the growing light. "What the fuck is this? Splice-boy wants to be a motherfucking pokémon master?"

"Splice-boy?"

"Oh, come the fuck on," he says, smirk growing wider. "You're obviously some kind of ugly mutant thing. I mean, whatever lab you escaped from"--his smile falters for a second, and his eyes widen. You wait in confusion as he groans, "Oh, fuck, that's it, ain't it? You're some escaped freak they were cooking up down in the labs, huh? And now you're free, you're going to get your revenge on Team Rocket or some shit, like liberate your mutie brothers and sisters and start a revolution, am I right? Well, forget about it, I got nothing to do with that shit..."

"I am not an experiment."

"...don't even like scientists, those nerds give me the fucking creeps. I mean, yeah, sure, I know some guys who were in on the whole Mewtwo thing, but who the fuck doesn't? Like--"

"Be quiet. I am not a mutant. I am not a Rocket experiment. I am me, and I am doing this for my own reasons."

"What, fucking with me? Because you want to be me? What, you think you can just walk into a gym or something, show my fucking pokédex, and they'll let you in?"

"They will if I look like you."

He stares at you for a moment, then bursts into actual laughter. It only lasts a second before it turns into coughing, wrenching noises that shake his whole body. He's gasping for air but trying hard not to breathe, curling in over smashed ribs and choking back the wracking noise. "Come the fuck on, Freak," he says as the fit subsides, barely above a whisper. "I might be ugly, but I ain't that fucking ugly. What are you, some kind of master of fucking disguise?"

"Yes."

He blinks up at you, then lets his head fall back against the tree trunk with a careful sigh. "Fine," he says. "You know what? That can be your fucking problem. I still don't know how the fuck you expect me to be going anywhere in time for the goddamned finals, hell, anywhere for like fucking weeks."

"Why not? If you have some other plans, you will have to cancel them. This is more important."

"What the fuck are you talking about, retard? Plans? Hell yeah I got plans, like, you know, lying around in a fucking hospital, high out of my mind on painkillers, until I can fucking walk again, shit like that."

"You mean you need more time to heal."

"Yes! Yes, that's what I'm fucking talking about. I can hardly fucking move over here, and everything hurts like a motherfucker. I ain't going nowhere, with you or nobody else."

You barely suppress a growl of frustration. Pathetic. "Fine. I will heal you, and then you will join me."

"Oh, right, heal me, you'll just fucking heal me, with your magic mutant fairy dust, is that it?"

"No. Soft-boiled."

"What, they drop you on your head when they were pulling you out of the fucking test tube, or what? That don't work on humans, dipshit."

"Mine does. That is what I used to heal you earlier."

"Heal me 'earlier?' Yeah, some fucking fantastic job you did of that, didn't you? I mean, fuck, I can't even move my fucking arm, here."

"I saved your life. You owe me your cooperation."

"I don't owe you shit, even if you are telling the truth." He takes a fortifying breath and starts again, a little stronger. "Look. You fuck off and leave me here, and I swear to God I'll forget I ever met you. Hell, I'm already trying to forget I ever met you. You can go on pretending to be me if you really think you can pull it off, fine, fucking peachy. Not like I can go around being myself anymore, anyway. Which is another thing. The whole reason we're having this fucking delightful conversation in the first place is Team Rocket decided they didn't like my fucking face and wanted to put me six fucking feet under. Guess they kinda fucked it up, but all that means is they're going to be on your ass if you're all looking like--"

"I know."

He breaks off in confusion. Then, "What the fuck are you talking about? You 'know?'"

"Yes. I was following the Rockets when they came to get you. How did you think I found you in the first place?"

"What? Hold the fuck up, you were just hanging out watching while those morons beat the shit out of me? And you didn't do jack about it?"

"Of course not. If I had interfered they would have started attacking me instead. Besides, you are a Rocket yourself. I am sure you deserved it."

His face twists into an awful smile that seems to sneer even though the shape is right, and his shoulders twitch with suppressed laughter. "My fucking hero. Well, whatever. What I was trying to say in the first place is we should go our separate fucking ways. I swear I won't ever tell nobody about you and your crazy fucking plan, and you can just go off and do whatever the fuck you want. Sound good?"

"No. You need to come with me. I do not trust you to keep quiet."

He starts what sounds like a growl, but it nearly turns into a cough, and he chokes it down, bottles it up inside. When he goes on, it's in a carefully neutral tone. "Why the hell do you care so much about that? What the fuck do you even think I'm going to do to you? I already fucking told you, I'm gonna be fucking hospitalized for longer than your stupid-ass little adventure is going to take." He doesn't quite manage to hold in another cough, and afterwards it takes him a while to pick up his train of thought. "God, you haven't got any meds on you, do ya?"

"No. And I cannot afford to leave any loose ends. You will come with me so I can watch you and be sure you do not betray me."

"Look, seriously, what the fuck are you even planning to do? Carry me?"

"If necessary."

"Are you--are you fucking--?" He shivers a little, like he wants to move but hurts too much. "For fuck's sake, who am I even going to 'betray' you to, anyway? You think I'm going to go to the fucking police or some shit? Who the hell would even believe me? They'd just lock me up in the goddamn psych ward, come on."

As well they might. Most people probably wouldn't believe his story. But there is one who would, one person whose ears it can never be allowed to reach.

"It could be anyone. Your Rocket friends, perhaps. I cannot risk it."

"Rocket friends? You mean the fuckers who just tried to kill me?" He glares at you. You stare back and wait. "Look, the answer is 'no,' got it? Drag me along with you or whatever, I guess, if you can fucking manage it. But first chance I get I'm screaming as loud as I can and at least when they come to take me away they'll get you too, you piece of shit."

"You will not."

"And why the fuck not?"

"Because if you try, I will kill you."

He grimaces and shifts his weight against the trunk. "Might as well save us both some time and bump me off right now, Freak."

You flex your claws and lash your tail, letting its flame leap higher, spitting and popping with your anger. But though Absol isn't here, you can imagine her displeasure well enough. "Stop being stupid," you snarl at the Rocket. "What does being stubborn get you? If you cooperate, we both benefit."

"Yeah? Funny, I still haven't heard how the fuck I benefit from letting some psycho freak bastard push me around."

"If you cooperate, I will make sure you live."

"Oh, right, after you've threatened to kill me like every two goddamn seconds. I believe the shit out of that one."

You stare him down for a few more seconds. Finally, gritting your teeth, you hiss out, "Fine. What do you want from me?"

"I want you to fuck off and find some other poor bastard to push around. I've got more important things to do than run around on your fucking stupid badge quest."

Your tail flame surges higher, its heat beating on the back of your neck. The smoke from your nostrils stings your eyes, and you tremble with the effort of not unleashing a flamethrower straight into the Rocket's ugly face. A few stray licks of flame spit from your mouth as you snarl, "Good. I will leave you here, and maybe if you are lucky you will manage to crawl back to Fuchsia before you starve or something eats you. Otherwise, good luck doing your 'more important things' when you are dead. At least Team Rocket will be happy that they got what they wanted in the end."

You whirl around and stomp away, feeling darkly pleased. The human's sure to die if you leave him on his own, and then you'll be able to use his face and his pokédex without fear of repercussion, at least from the law. As far as you're concerned, Team Rocket coming after you is a bonus. Then you won't have to waste time looking for them later.

And it's fair as fair can be. You gave him a chance to save himself--not even Absol could argue with that--and he threw it back in your face. Let her grumble about shadows and mirrors all she likes; if anybody is trying to thwart Fate here, it's obviously the stupid human himself.

You're brought up short by a stab of pain as your tail pulls taut. Without even thinking you spin around and lash out at whatever's caught you. The human yelps and lets go, staring at the gashes down the inside of his arm.

"Agh! What the fuck--"

"Don't touch me," you snarl, then pause to lick the blood off your claws. "We are done here. You did not accept my offer, so I have nothing more to say to you."

The Rocket tears his gaze away from the bright blood welling out of his new wounds. "Oh, we're done, are we? I don't fucking think so. Guess the fuck what, Freak? I changed my mind. You want to go on some fucking stupid master journey? What the fuck, I guess I'll come with you. Should be one hell of a laugh if nothing else."

You're snorting hot embers now and only just manage to grate out, "And why did you change your mind all of a sudden?"

He tries for a smirk, but some twinge of pain stops him, and he only manages a faint grimace. "Oh, I dunno, Freak. Call it a little fucking revenge. You want me to come along on your goddamn journey? Fine, you get your fucking wish, and I get to make your life hell the entire way."

You stand there for a few moments, concentrating on breathing while your anger sears the back of your throat. In the end you say only, "Good. You had better be ready to move in three hours."

"Are you fucking insane? Look at me, moron. How the hell do you expect me to go anywhere in three days? Three hours? You gotta be fucking kidding me."

Looking him over, you have to admit he has a point. What you can see of him is variously bruised, lacerated, smashed, or bleeding, sometimes multiple at once. His movements are slow and careful, and he has to stop periodically, whether from fatigue or pain you can't be sure. You're surprised he was able to move quick enough to grab you.

"Very well," you say tightly. You clench a fist and exert all your will to force healing energy through it, rather than the fire that so desperately wants to leap from your scales.

The great Nathaniel Morgan watches quietly, for once, as the soft-boiled takes shape in your palm, forcing your claws open as it grows. "What the fuck," he mutters. "How the hell does a charmeleon--wait, what are you doing? Oh, n-no, that's okay, I can do that myse--agghwhulp!"

There's no way you'd trust the Rocket to handle the soft-boiled, weak and clumsy as he is. What if he'd dropped it? That would be all your energy lost for nothing. So you hold his mouth shut to keep him from spitting the egg out and wait until his thrashing becomes noticeably stronger. He grabs your arm and tries to wrench it away.

You let go of him and easily twist out of his grasp while he sputters and gasps, "If you ever touch me again, Freak, I'll rip your balls off and shove them down your fucking throat, got it?"

You incline your head. "The same to you." But he isn't listening. Instead he's flexing his fingers in front of his face, wincing.

"Ugh, that stings like a motherfucker. Hey!" He shudders faintly and looks down at the sleeping bag covering his other arm, then shoves it aside. "Some shitty job of healing me. I still can't move my... Oh, shit."

You're barely paying attention, rolling your shoulders and flexing your claws to work the ache out of your muscles, but the Rocket's tone gives you pause. He goes on, a bit breathless. "Oh, shit. You didn't... You didn't splint my arm or nothing before you fixed it, did you?"

"Splint it? What are you talking about?"

"Shit," he says, so quiet you can hardly hear. "Oh, shit. I think it healed wrong."

"Healed wrong?" All your anger returns in a flash, setting tail and teeth blazing. "Heal wrong? What do you mean, 'heal wrong?' How could that possibly happen?"

He flinches away from you, naked fear in his eyes. You dig your claws into the earth and force yourself calm again, evaporating your fire into smoke while the Rocket babbles in the background like the fool he is. "I don't know! Do I look like a fucking doctor to you? All I know is my fucking arm should not be... like that, okay? No need to get all pissy about it."

You climb over him to get a better look, ignoring his groan as your weight settles on his chest. And it's true. His arm hasn't healed properly: it's still all crooked and jutting in the middle.

The worthless human can't do anything right. You curse Absol again for putting you in this situation. "Well, what do you want me to do about it?"

"Fix it, duh. You really are fucking stupid, ain't you?"

"What if I choose not to? You do not need this arm to travel. The other works."

"Are you fucking kidding me? God, you're such an asshole. Look, my arm isn't the only thing that's broken, okay? I'm pretty sure, at least. Let's just say I'm not going to be doing much fucking walking in the near future, you get me?"

Of course. You glare down at his ill-healed arm. To make matters worse, you think you do remember, vaguely, things humans wear on injured limbs, bulky casts or slings. Things to keep them from moving around too much, to hold bones in their proper place. Plot points. You hadn't expected to deal with that sort of nonsense yourself--but then, you hadn't expected to deal with many humans, either.

"Fine. I did it wrong the first time. But I will get it right now."

You brace your foot on his arm just above the knot of bone that holds it at its strange angle, and the Rocket starts to sputter. "Hey, what're you--no, no, don't--"

You jerk up on the free end of his arm, and the mishealed joint snaps again after only a moment of resistance. The Rocket's scream makes you jump, but it's cut mercifully short. You poke him with a claw and discover he's fainted.

That's a relief. Now you won't have to put up with his sniveling while you work. You search the human for more breaks, made thorough by your irritation. Once you've undone all the false reattachments and gotten the bones in line as best you can, you stuff another soft-boiled into the Rocket's face.

Shaky and nauseous, you're short with Duskull when he complains about being asked to watch the man again--it isn't really fair, and you could have someone else do the job, but you're too tired to explain the situation to your other pokémon. You drag yourself to the far side of the clearing and collapse, seething with resentment as you consider the work ahead of you. Honestly, this human is so useless he can't even die properly.

At least he's given you an excuse to go shopping. You'll need clothes for the both of you, more food, extra supplies. You packed for seven, not eight, and that means heading into the city for a while. And then perhaps the Rocket can provide you with a bit of entertainment.

After all, you only told Duskull to be sure nothing bothered the great Nathaniel Morgan, not to make sure he didn't run off. If you're lucky, maybe tomorrow you'll return to find the ghost waiting alone.
 
Chapter 8

Negrek

Rise Toward Descent
Staff
Author's Notes: Chapter eight is here! Way, way late on the upload; I've been super busy the past few days, and this chapter is both longer and needed more attention than the previous ones. Way back when, this was two chapters and included a trainer battle in the second half. I later decided the battle was unnecessary, but removing it left me with one normal-sized chapter and one nubby one, which I smooshed together to make this, Chapter 8. It remains longer than I'd like, even after a bit of trimming in this revision, but I'll dwell on it no more. There's a lot of fun stuff in this chapter, even if perhaps a bit too much, and as always, I hope you enjoy!

Chapter 8

It's late to be hunting, with the sun well up and all the day-life awake and alert, squirrels scolding as you pass, birds taking off in sudden storms of wingbeats. At first you were relieved when your quarry ignored even such obvious signs, but by now it's just annoying. Hunting isn't any fun without at least a little challenge, even the smallest chance your target might escape. It's obvious that won't happen here, no matter how incompetent you act. You go from trying not to make noise to being as loud as you can until, in the end, you practically yell, "Good morning!"

The great Nathaniel Morgan starts and looks around. It takes him a while to catch sight of you, even though you aren't trying to hide, just standing with a screen of trees between you. You haven't been trying to hide for nearly twenty minutes, and still he didn't notice you until you spoke up.

They call humans "the most dangerous game," don't they? What an exaggeration. It would be more fun to track slowpoke, and they're stupider than dirt. You shouldn't have hoped, of course. This human is a constant disappointment.

Even now he doesn't look like he'll put up a fight, staring at you with mouth half hanging open, eyes wide as he makes faint choking noises. "You are not very good at this. Did you think that I would let you just walk away? If you remember our agreement--"

He bolts. You watch him go for a second, considering. Judging by his horrible, teetering run, he's probably going to end up falling, injuring himself, and needing more fixing. Boring.

You overtake him in a matter of seconds, reaching out to grab him before he crashes into you. "I will not allow you to run away, either."

He tries to twist out of your hold, but you simply tighten your grip until he grits his teeth and stops struggling. You wait while he tries to gasp something out, taking the shallowest breaths possible and hunched over ribs that must still be sore. "What... What the fuck are you? Let... Let go of me, you fucking..."

"I told you before. I am me. Now, can I let you go, or are you going to try and escape again?"

He sags a bit, still panting and trying not to pant at the same time. "What, you're that... that fucking charmeleon thing? No fucking way... No fucking way..."

"I said I would look like you. Did you not believe me?"

"That's... not..." He suddenly throws himself backwards, but even caught off-guard you have no trouble bracing yourself against his struggles.

"If you keep being difficult, I will have to paralyze you. Calm down."

"Calm down? I'm barely alive over here and I'm getting fucking attacked by my fucking evil twin. How the fuck am I supposed to calm down?"

"I am not your evil twin. If we are twins, you are clearly the evil one because you are a member of Team Rocket."

"And you're some kind of bad-trip demon thing that keeps going on about how it wants to murder me, yeah, clearly I'm the evil one here."

"I am not interested in listening to you babble nonsense. You are evil." He starts to argue, but you cut him short with a quick shake. "I said I am not listening to you. Now, I am going to let you go. If you try to run off again, I will make it so you cannot run. Do you understand?"

A slow smile spreads over his face, a horrible one, too wide. "Sure, why not? Buddies for life, right, Evil Twin?" To your confused horror, he starts giggling, madly and convulsively.

You let go of him and watch in disgust as he doubles over, unable to stop his strangled laughter, chest heaving fitfully and tears streaming from his eyes. Even when the spell passes and he's able to stand straight again, that awful grin stays in place, strained and painful and somehow threatening.

In the end it falls to you to fill the uncomfortable silence. "Well. Good. I am glad we understand each other. Now, before we go any further, you need new clothing. What you are wearing now will attract too much attention."

"What? Can't you just magic it better? You know, like... woooo..." He waves a hand vaguely, then sinks into another painful laughing fit.

"What is wrong with you?" you snap while he's trying to recover. Did your healing abilities affect his brain somehow? How on Earth are you supposed to deal with this?

"Oh, I don't know," he chokes. "I'm just getting told off by some asshole mutant thing that looks like me and claims it saved my life so it can take the fucking League challenge and become a pokémon master. It's all just so fucking sane, I can't take it anymore!" You clench your hands into fists while he gags on his own mirth.

"Shut up! Shut up, shut up," you snarl, grabbing him by the collar of his shirt and hauling him upright. Scales spread down your arm and claws slide from your fingers, shredding fabric. That, at least, is enough to shut the human up. His grin vanishes as he stares down at your sudden talons.

"What... What the fuck?" He struggles against your grip, and you shove him away, letting him stumble to a shaky halt.

You're going about this all wrong, somehow. You tried to make this as straightforward as possible, but whether the human's stupid or misunderstanding you on purpose, he's not getting the picture. Concentrating mightily, you gather what few references you have for this sort of situation and line the words up in your head. Then, very slowly and carefully, you recite, "Listen, pal. You've made good friends with some bad people, but if we stick together, we'll get through this thing just fine. You scratch my back and I'll scratch yours, capiche? Whaddaya say? Partners?"

For a few seconds he stares at you, and then, to your horror, dissolves into another fit of hitching giggles. "Oh, God," he gasps out at last. "What the hell. Might as well enjoy the trip while it lasts, right? You want to go for a walk through the fucking magic woods or some shit? Fine. Lead on, Evil Twin, lead on."

You consider the human as he tries to recover. It's a "yes," anyway. That's probably the best you can hope for. "Good. I have no intention of hurting you, but if you continue to be a nuisance, I might have to. Now." You pull some clothes out of your pack and hand them to him. "Put these on. I have food and water for you--I am sure you are hungry. You can have them once you have changed."

You step away from him and watch as he blinks tears out of his eyes and, frowning, starts picking through the clothes. Slowly he says, "This is the same shit you're wearing, isn't it?"

"Yes." Pause. "Is that a problem?"

That horrible smirk of his is broad enough to show the angular stubs of teeth. "Oh, no," he says, and a spasm of suppressed laughter shivers through him. "No, there's nothing fucking weird about that. You're definitely not my fucking evil twin, huh?"

"Right. I am not."

You try and puzzle out what the great Nathaniel Morgan finds so funny while he finishes shuffling through the clothing. "Hey. A little fucking privacy, here?" he asks when he sees you looking.

"What do you mean?"

"Oh, so now you want to fucking watch me get naked too? Just what the fuck is your problem? Look, I don't know if this is all some kind of sick power trip to you, but--"

Oh, right. You forgot about humans and their taboo against nudity. You like dressing up, especially in bright colors, or clothes with your favorite cartoon characters on them. Unfortunately, this morning's shopping trip failed to turn up any Transformozords shirts in the great Nathaniel Morgan's size. But if you aren't going to wear something special, why bother?

"I have no interest in your body. I simply do not wish to turn my back on you."

"Oh, yeah, sure, I totally buy that one, you sick fuck. Tell me, you do this kind of thing often, or am I just so lucky to be the one who--"

"Fine. Fine. I will turn around, and you will change clothes, and if you try anything else, you will regret it." And you do turn, glaring off into the trees and keeping ears wide open for any sign of either attack or escape.

But the human only mutters, "Sure. Fucking whatever, then." There's the rustle of fabric and the occasional hiss of pain, and in your boredom you notice you haven't changed back the arm you transformed earlier, which glints teal and scaly in the sunlight. You massage it back to the right shape and rub your fingers together to drive out the last of the tingling. Finally the great Nathaniel Morgan announces, "There. Done. Now where's the goddamned food?"

You turn back around and give the Rocket a critical look over. The new clothes do help, and they cover most of his injuries. The unreasonable number of soft-boileds you stuffed down his throat left only a few fading bruises and scabby cuts behind, but he's still covered in blood and dirt, and the skin beneath is pale and loose-looking, like it's a size too big.

It's a start. At least the human doesn't look like he got run over by a tyranitar while out on a killing spree anymore. You unsling your pack and dig out a sandwich. "Catch."

He drops his old clothes to fumble the sandwich out of the air, and in a matter of seconds he's managed to tear the plastic open with his teeth and is devouring the contents in huge bites. You can't help but be impressed as you stand there with the rest of his lunch in your hands--just an apple, an energy bar, and a water bottle. You probably should have anticipated his appetite--using soft-boiled certainly left you hungry, and all things considered it was probably harder on him.

He walks up to you with one hand out, and you silently pass over the rest of the food. The great Nathaniel Morgan takes it without pausing in his destruction of the sandwich, and you leave him to it while you deal with his old clothes. You pick them gingerly out of the grass, trying to ignore the smell of blood, then set them alight with a wash of heat from your palms.

A choking noise makes you glance back at the great Nathaniel Morgan, who was gnawing at the apple with the good side of his jaw. He's caught in a fit of coughing, and you watch impassively as he splutters and chokes, once more contorted with pain. The fire burns itself out in the meantime, leaving you holding no more than a few smoldering tatters of fabric. You drop the ashy remains in the grass and stomp them out.

"How the fuck did you do that?" the great Nathaniel Morgan wheezes at last.

"You thought I was a charmeleon, remember? Would you be surprised if a charmeleon did that?"

"No, but you ain't no fucking charmeleon, duh. Where did the fucking fire even come from?"

You shrug. "From the same place as all fire attacks, I suppose. Now come on. I want to get to Fuchsia by this afternoon."

"Oh, nice. Real helpful, asshole. Do you get off on being a mysterious dickhead, or what?"

You ignore him and step forward, reaching out to catch his arm. He jerks away and snarls, "What the fuck are you doing? You want to walk, fine, whatever, I'll fucking walk. You don't have to motherfucking drag me or nothing."

"I am not going to drag you anywhere unless I have to. We are going to teleport. Anything else would be too slow." You can see him starting to object, but before he can get anything out, too fast for him to dodge, you lunge forward and grab him by the shoulder, then pull him along the trail of your memory to a spot a mile or so north of Route 18.

"And now we walk."

The great Nathaniel Morgan shrugs your hand away and blinks around at a new assortment of trees, a shift in light and shade. Then he turns to you and snarls, "If you can just fucking teleport wherever you want, why are we still in the middle of the goddamn woods? You're going to Cinnabar, right?"

"I do not want to risk anyone seeing me teleport. It could lead to awkward questions."

"Right, like having me walking around half fucking dead isn't going to get you any goddamn 'awkward questions,'" he grumbles, but fortunately that's the last of it. He's more concerned with eating than arguing. The great Nathaniel Morgan wanders after you when you start moving, struggling to get the energy bar's wrapper open as he goes. And, after the roughly fifteen seconds it takes to dispose of the snack, "Hey! Is that it?"

"Yes. You can have more at dinner."

"Oh, nice. Real fucking nice. Look, I'm so hungry I swear if I ran into that fucking ursaring again I'd up and eat it. I'm probably going to collapse of starvation or some shit."

"If you keep complaining about it, you will get nothing." But the question jogs your memory, and you scrounge up something you forgot to give him earlier. "For now you can have these."

"Fuck, why didn't you give me the drugs first, Freak?" the great Nathaniel Morgan grumbles, struggling for a few seconds with the childproof cap. He dumps a slurry of pills into his palm, considers them for a moment, then knocks the lot back with a swig from his water bottle. "Well, thanks, I guess. But I don't think what I've got going on here is really aspirin-level pain, you know?"

"I thought giving you medication might make you stop whining."

"Fat fucking chance, Freak. Fat fucking chance." He pockets the pill bottle and sighs.

For a time the two of you walk in silence, and you bask in the sense of being on your trainer's journey at last. The sun stabs little islands of warmth through the cool shade of the forest, and the air is full of the dampy-sweet smell of decaying leaves. There's no path out here, and you clamber over fallen logs and thrash through bushes, following the ups and downs of the land.

You keep hoping you'll be attacked by a wild pokémon--you're a trainer now, after all. You hear them from time to time, brief snatches of conversation in the distance, the odd yell of surprise or anger. Here and there are symbols scratched out on tree trunks, blasts of scent where someone's marked their territory.

But no one bothers you. Maybe it's because there are two of you humans. Maybe it's because you're still far from the route; pokémon who want to battle trainers usually hang around near humans, after all. Whatever the case, your walk is uneventful, if pleasant. But there is, inevitably, one glaring problem.

"Can you not go any faster?"

The great Nathaniel Morgan starts to reply, then nearly trips over a root. He stops for a moment, leaning against a tree trunk as he regains his balance. "Hell yes I can. Just not after I've been beaten practically to fucking death and then revived by some asshole who wants me to walk a thousand miles through difficult fucking terrain. We can't all be motherfucking nature spirits like you." He aims a petulant kick at a bush, which clings thornily to his leg. "I mean, come the fuck on, I should probably be sleeping fourteen hours a day for the next fucking week, here. And I'm hungry. And I'm thirsty. So you know what? Why don't we just take this opportunity for a nice fucking rest break?"

He moves as if to sit down, only to scramble upright again when you reach out to stop him. "No! No rest breaks! It has barely been half an hour! You can rest while we are surfing to Cinnabar."

"Wait, surfing? The fuck are you talking about?"

"How did you think we were getting to Cinnabar Island?"

"I don't know, the fucking ferry, like sane people. I mean, that'd be bad enough, but surfing..."

"Trainers do not take the ferry," you say with utmost disdain. What would even be the point? No wild pokémon to battle. No trainers, either; it's considered a safety hazard. Why go journeying if you're just going to take shortcuts? "We will surf on my pokémon, of course. Why are you so stupid?"

"Surf on your what? How in the hell do you have pokémon?"

"I caught them. Why are you surprised? How did you expect me to take the gym challenge without pokémon?"

"I thought you were using mine, dumbass."

"Your pokémon? I do not have them."

"You don't." His face sinks into an even deeper scowl than usual. "Then where in the hell are they?"

"Team Rocket took them, of course."

"Of course. Of fucking course," he mutters. "So how about you explain to me just how in the hell that works, huh? They somehow decide to take all my shit but my pokédex?"

"No. I took the pokédex myself."

"And you just left the fucking rest?"

"Yes. It would have been difficult to get it all without being noticed. The pokédex was all that I needed."

"All that you--" He bites the sentence off and slams the side of his fist into the tree, turning away from you for a second. Then he snarls, "And I guess it didn't occur to you that I might need some of that shit later, asshole?"

"I do not care what you need. You are a criminal. You got what you deserved."

A nasty smirk spreads across his face. "You got that fucking right, Freak. I am a goddamned criminal."

"Yes. So you should not be surprised if other people steal from you. It is only fair. Now. We need to get going. I had expected to get to Fuchsia by noon, but at this rate we will be another hour. I do not want any further delays."

"Oh, you don't, don't you?" the great Nathaniel Morgan sneers. "Funny, 'cause me, I was thinking I might just like to lie down and take a fucking nap right now."

"No. You are done resting."

He backs up a step as you start towards him, baring his teeth. "What, you think you're gonna haul me the rest of the way there? Face it, Freak, you can't make me walk if I don't want to."

"I can and I will if I have to. I do not think you will enjoy it. Last chance, now. Are you coming?"

He stares at you for a few seconds, then drops his gaze and sinks into a resentful slouch. "Yeah, sure. Why the fuck not? God, this is the shittiest trip ever."

You let that one go in favor of getting moving again, but despite all your exhortations and threats that you really will carry him if he will not walk, you achieve only a modest increase in speed. The great Nathaniel Morgan only gets slower and clumsier as time wears on. He's panting like he's run the whole way, sweating heavily into his new clothes. Pathetic. At least he doesn't have the energy left to complain, sunk into a dull, head-down doggedness, all his attention invested in staying upright and taking yet another step.

It gets him through the last of the forest and onto Route 18 proper, where the trees thin out and leaf litter fades to scruffy grass. The human doesn't speed up even when you reach the paved thoroughfare down the middle of the route, where foot traffic shares an uneasy peace with cyclists zipping down off Cycling Road.

"Hurry up," you hiss. "We are nearly there. The faster you walk, the sooner you can rest." The great Nathaniel Morgan gives you a blank look.

This is all his fault. If not for him, you'd be well on your way to Cinnabar. And you wouldn't be attracting so much attention, either--your dirty, staggering friend is drawing eyes. You meet curious stares with your broadest smile, and that, thankfully, has so far been enough to get onlookers hurrying on about their business.

Finally, when the great Nathaniel Morgan stumbles and nearly falls, tripping on nothing, you concede. "Fine," you growl at him. You grab him by the arm, haul him over to a bench by the side of the route, and practically throw him onto it. "If you insist on being so pathetic, you can stay here. I will bring food. Titan," the pokéball is in your hand without conscious thought, and you drop it next to the bench. "Watch my brother for me. He is not feeling well."

"Your brother?" Titan looks down at the great Nathaniel Morgan, brow furrowed. "Why does he look like a human?" He leans in close to snuff at the man, who does not react. "He smells like a human," Titan says, an accusation.

You wish there weren't anyone around so you could explain things properly. For now all you do is pat Titan on the shoulder and say, "That is right. He just needs a bit of time to rest, that is all. So you are going to watch him and make sure he does not move or make any noise, okay?"

Titan gives you a bewildered look, but after a second he nods, then turns to stare at the human again. You do the same. "And you understand as well?"

The great Nathaniel Morgan's eyes are closed and covered with a shaking hand, but he does nod, ever so slightly. "Good. I will be back soon."

It takes less than half an hour to find food, but you're still on the verge of running as you make your way back. Visions of the human escaping, of him somehow managing to overcome Titan and stealing away with the charizard, play endless loops in your head. You slow down as the bench comes into view, letting out a long breath of relief. They're exactly where you left them: the great Nathaniel Morgan asleep on the bench, Titan staring at him with single-minded diligence. At least you don't have a new crisis to add to this farce of a trip. Titan can smell both you and what you're carrying a ways off, and he turns towards you, wings stretching upward in anticipation.

"Thanks, Titan," you say. "Here. I brought you some food."

The charizard fidgets while you rearrange your burdens, his tail twitching back and forth in agitated little arcs. He snatches the bucket of chicken from your grasp as soon as you hold it out and rips the top off with his teeth, then sticks his whole head inside, gobbling and crunching with such reckless enthusiasm that you have to smile.

If only your other companion could be so easily pleased. Irritation lends a bit too much force to your kick, and you glance around nervously, hoping no one notices the dent you've put in the bench's metal leg.

The great Nathaniel Morgan wakes with a start, followed immediately by a wince and a growled curse. "Now is not the time for sleeping. You can do that on the ocean. For now, eat. Then we will walk the rest of the way."

"Yeah, because eating is the first fucking thing I want to do before getting on the goddamn seasickness express," he says, but he doesn't turn down the fast food bag you hand him--probably he would have snatched it like Titan if he could move properly.

He pushes himself to a more upright position and digs in, and you watch with mild interest while you get out your own food. If only the human walked as fast as he eats. After a couple of minutes, you're halfway through your cheeseburger, and the great Nathaniel Morgan is nearly done with his entire meal, chasing stray fries around the bottom of the bag. When he's actually done eating he immediately makes as if to go back to sleep, and you cram the rest of your burger into your mouth, annoyed. You'd like to spend more time eating, but not if the great Nathaniel Morgan's going to take it as an excuse to slack off. "Get up."

"Oh, fuck you. You keep pushing me, you're going to need to start dishing out the emergency heals real damn fast, because I am not in any fucking shape for this shit."

"It is only a twenty minute walk to the beach. You will make it if I have to carry you the entire way. Now get up."

"Oh, yeah, like that's not going to attract any fucking attention or nothing--"

"Get up!"

Titan pulls his head out of the bucket, looking nervously between the two of you. Grease shimmers on his muzzle, and he's managed to get clot of breading stuck to the base of one horn. You glance around, embarrassed, but though a couple of people looked around after your shout, no one seems particularly interested. The great Nathaniel Morgan opens his mouth to make some complaint or other, but before he can get anything out you grab him by the front of his shirt and haul him to his feet.

While he stands coughing, trying to get his breath back, you say, "There. You are up. Now we walk. Titan? Do you want to come with us? We are going to the beach."

"Oh? The beach? Um." The charizard licks at his snout as he thinks. "Sure, I'll come."

"Hey, Charizard, think you could do me a favor and set this asshole on fire or something? I don't want to go to no fucking beach."

"Titan. This is Titan."

Titan, who is looking anxious. "If he, um, says he doesn't want to come..."

"It is fine, Titan. Do not worry. And you." You shove the great Nathaniel Morgan so hard he staggers forward a step. "Walk. Do not make noise. If you do, I will make it so you cannot talk."

"Yeah, I bet you will, won't you, assh--" He wavers where he stands, clutching his head and gasping in breathless pain. "Fuck. Wh-what--?"

"That was only a weak confusion. A stronger one could make it so you can't talk. Now walk."

He walks. Slowly. Titan brings up the rear, cleaning his face with little bursts of flame. You close your eyes a moment and take a long, fortifying breath. The rest of the day should be easier, with War doing all the work.

Tourists clog Fuchsia's streets, milling around quaint little gift shops, and trainers are out in force, battling their pokémon under the brilliant sun. Normally you wouldn't mind taking your trip slow, stopping to buy ice cream like Titan strongly hints you should, enjoying the show. But you can't relax today, when you're sure every look you get is someone wondering who you are, what's wrong with the great Nathaniel Morgan, whether they ought to offer assistance or get help. Your pace feels plodding instead of leisurely, the crowds threatening rather than engulfing.

By the time you reach the beach proper you're so on edge that you're literally prodding the great Nathaniel Morgan along, for what little good it does. Titan wanders off, beckoned by open stretches of sand, but you drive the human straight down to the water's edge. He collapses as soon as you stop harrying him, and you ignore his wheezing and release War into the water. The tentacruel takes shape with his jagged beak buried in the sand, staring out at you from the shadow of his bell.

"We are going to Cinnabar Island, War," you say. "We will stop at the Seafoam Islands tonight. Will you carry us?"

"Both of you?" the tentacruel asks, looking down at the great Nathaniel Morgan, who's content to lie back in the sand and ignore you, eyes closed.

"Yes, him too. I am sorry. I know it will be a lot for you to carry two people. Do you think you can do it?"

"If that's what it takes," War says, waving a few tentacles dismissively. He's much more interested in the great Nathaniel Morgan, watching the human intently.

"Good. Thank you, War. Now." You prod the great Nathaniel Morgan in the side with your foot. He opens his eyes and glares mutely up at you. "This is War. He will be taking us to Cinnabar Island. War, this is, uh, my brother. The great Nathaniel Morgan."

The great Nathaniel Morgan raises his eyebrows at you, then addresses War without bothering to get up from his sprawl. "Yeah. Hi. Did you know your trainer's a total fucking douchebag?"

The tentacruel lets out a grating laugh that sets his whole bell quivering. Then he reaches out, and the great Nathaniel Morgan, finding himself confronted by dozens of bulb-tipped tentacles, scrambles backwards, nearly falling as he tries to get to his feet in the same motion. "Hey! What the fuck?"

"Oh. He wants to shake hands." You're not sure what War finds so fascinating about the human custom, your washed-out memories tell you of a child who once carried her tentacool around, annoying people who had very important jobs to do with requests to indulge his curiosity.

"Are you fucking kidding me? Shake hands with that thing? I don't even want to go near all those fucking tentacles."

"His name is War," you snap as the tentacruel's eyes narrow. "And yes. You will shake hands. It is polite."

The great Nathaniel Morgan stares at you, then at the tentacruel, the forest of tentacles still upraised. "Oh, fine," he snarls. "Fucking fine. I guess I should just give in now and accept that you're fucking insane."

He steps forward and reaches out, gingerly taking one of War's tentacles by the bulb and moving it ever so slightly up and down. "There's your fucking handsh--aagh! Fuck!" The Rocket pulls his hand away like he's been burned, hissing expletives between his teeth. "That bastard stung me! Shit!" he snarls, staring at the line of red welts down the middle of his palm. War is beside himself with mirth, slapping at the water with his tentacles while his laughter tumbles on and on, a pattering noise like churning pebbles.

"Yes. It was pretty funny. Keep your voice down." You glance around, but the only people nearby are a group of swimsuit-clad children gathered around Titan, watching the charizard wallow in the hot sand.

"Jesus fuck, are all your pokémon as sociopathic as you?" the great Nathaniel Morgan asks, cradling his injured hand against his chest.

You aren't sure what he means by that. "You deserved it. Now we are going. Get on."

"Are you fucking kidding me? I could be fucking dying over here, and you just want to sail off into the motherfucking sunset?"

"You are not dying. War did not really hurt you," you say, shooting the tentacruel a look that says, Right? War stares back at you, placid and inscrutable. "You have held me up enough already. Either get on, or I will drag you up there myself."

The Rocket looks from War to the ocean beyond, teeth bared in a grimace. "Look, if I have to be perfectly fucking honest here, I kind of really fucking hate water, okay? Like I can't swim for shit and I kind of don't trust your evil fucking tentacruel not to fucking drown me the first fucking opportunity it gets."

"That is unfortunate. Get on."

"I'm just saying, is all. If you don't want me throwing up all over you and your fucking pokémon, it would probably be safer to just take the ferry or something."

"I told you already. We are not taking the ferry. And you are not taking it alone, either," you add, when he starts to protest. "If it is really such a big problem for you, I will put you to sleep so that you do not realize where you are. That is my final offer. Make your decision before I make it for you."

"I don't even want to fucking know what you mean by 'put me to sleep,' do I?"

"I am not going to wait much longer."

You allow him a couple seconds of deliberation, then take a step forward, readying a spore attack. He recoils, snapping, "All right! Fuck, I'll do it. Stay the fuck away from me. You're probably just going to try and dump me overboard or some shit as soon as there are no witnesses, and I'm not going to make that any fucking easier for you." He skirts around you and approaches War, face set grimly.

The Tentacruel watches him come, forcing his beak deeper into the sand with a loud crunch and tipping his bell down towards the human. Even with the help, the great Nathaniel Morgan's left to jump and curse and shimmy awkwardly one-handed up the springy curve of the tentacruel's bell. After much swearing and the occasional exclamation of pain, he finally manages to drag himself up to the crest of War's bell and perch there, weary and slumped in defeat.

Then he lets out a stifled shriek and throws himself flat as War wrenches his beak out of the sand and raises himself to his full height in one sudden, swaying motion. You sigh in exasperation and say, "Stop messing with him, War. I do not want to have to listen to his whining all afternoon, and I do not think you do, either."

You're about to jump straight up next to the great Nathaniel Morgan, but remember where you are just in time and ask War to lift you up instead. The tentacruel deposits you next to your shivering, sweating companion, who clings to the tentacruel's bell for dear life. You ignore him and call, "Titan!"

The charizard's buried neck-deep, sending up little plumes of grit as he snuffs around under the sand. He lurches guiltily upright at the sound of his name, blowing sand out of his nostrils and looking around in wild disorientation. His audience is beside themselves with giggles. "Titan. We are leaving. Do you want to come with us now, or catch up later? We will be stopping at Seafoam tonight."

"Seafoam?" he roars back, and you realize your mistake as his expression hardens, his tail flame leaping higher.

"It is okay, Titan. I can take you in your pokéball. You do not have to go there if you do not want to."

"No," he says with unusual force. "No, I'll go. By myself."

Before you can object he stretches his neck up and spreads his wings, sending children scampering as they realize what's coming. The charizard takes off in a blast of wind and sand, flapping mightily in a rapid ascent. Below, the kids squeal and stumble around, laughing and blinking sand out of their eyes. A couple wave.

You do not. You watch Titan bank around and soar out over the ocean, anxiety tightening your chest.

Nothing to be done for it now. Best to get moving. You push your worries aside and pat War's bell, shouting down, "Okay, War. Let's get going." The tentacruel lurches around, clumsy in the shallows, and sets out into the sea.

--​

You expected the great Nathaniel Morgan to be the one making trouble this trip, but it's actually War who's annoying you the most. It was pretty funny the first few times the tentacruel pressed a stealthy, slimy tentacle against the back of the human's neck--you definitely wouldn't have expected he could shriek that loud--but he keeps freaking out so much he falls in the ocean, and then you're the one who has to save him.

"Come on, War. This is getting old." You haul the great Nathaniel Morgan back up while he makes a desperate one-handed grab for the tentacruel's bell. His other hand's swollen up a nasty shade of purple, and the human holds it out away from everything, letting out a bitten-off cry of pain whenever something bumps it. He lies half-curled on War's bell, eyes pressed tight shut as he breathes fast and shallow, shuddering convulsively. "He is just going to be sick again. Really, you ought to leave him alone."

War waggles an impudent tentacle at you, then lets it slide back into the water with the rest. "I mean it," you say. "No more of that."

That gets a sullen burble of assent, coming up distorted through the water. Even War's starting to get bored of playing pranks. He lashes out at a passing tentacool, forcing her to hasty retreat. A few minutes later he sinks another of his kin with a precise blast of water, and you have to smile. Your old friend has become quite the terror of the seas since you last saw him.

"Hey." You tap War's bell and point at a cluster of V-winged shapes circling nearby. "See those wingull? Think you can hit them from here?"

The tentacruel shudders beneath you, and you grab hold of his bell as it tilts back. War spits a dripping gobbet of sludge, which sails much farther than you expected but only grazes one of the seabirds. Most take off, shrieking curses back at you, but a few wheel your way instead, jeering angrily as they bear down on you and War.

"Go on, get them!" you say with a laugh, and War fires away, knocking a couple out of the sky. Then the rest are upon you, screeching and dive-bombing you and War and your unfortunate companion. You laugh and toss Thunderstorm's pokéball out over the ocean. The magneton appears in a shower of sparks, only to get soaked, a moment later, by a wingull's water gun.

It only takes a few seconds for Thunderstorm to roast the rest of the flock. You laugh, and War laughs with you, as the last of the birds topples out of the air. "Nice, Thunder! All right, come on. Keep your eyes out to see if there are any other good fights around."

"This shit again? Why don't you give it a fucking rest already?" the human croaks from behind you. He's sitting with his back to you now, head hanging and one eye slitted open just enough to give you an accusatory look. He swallows thickly and adds, "Whatever happened to your crazy goddamned hurry, anyway?"

"Thanks to you, I am already way beyond late. A little extra time will not hurt. Besides, this is what a trainer does."

A trainer usually battles other trainers, too, but you don't want people seeing the great Nathaniel Morgan and asking questions. He ruins everything, so the least he can do is shut up and let you get in what training you can. You pass the hours distracting War with fighting, sending Thunderstorm out to zap whatever he can't easily clean up. Even Rats gets a workout, despite complaining the entire time about how much she hates swimming. She throws herself at her opponents with extra ferocity, just so she can get back into her ball to sulk all the faster.

The battles peter out as shadows lengthen and your pokémon tire, and you let the team rest in their pokéballs while War strokes on south and west. The day bleeds out in sunset reds until the stars and sickle moon gleam off the low humps of the Seafoam Islands. Broken reef-spires show black against pale ocean spray and frame the weatherbeaten hills that mark the entrance to the caverns.

War glides on, skirting around the rocks and putting in near the middle of the island, a flat, pebbly expanse between the caves' twin entrances. The tentracruel has to lift himself to crawl forward on his tentacles as he enters shallow water, and his smooth forward motion turns jerky and rocking. Finally he plunges his beak into the ground with a shuddering grind, anchoring himself; then stillness.

You jump down and stand stretching and shaking the stiffness out of your limbs. War doesn't wait for the great Nathaniel Morgan to get moving and shrugs him off with a quick rolling motion. The Rocket lands with a groan of pain, lying half in and half out of the water, and War goes through his own stretches, massaging his bell with his tentacles, working the imprints of your rear ends out of it.

"Thanks, War," you say, running your hand along the edge of his bell as you contemplate your campsite. It's windswept and exposed, but it's the only solid ground for miles. There's a light near one of the cave entrances where Titan sits, staring into the dark opening. "Titan!" you call. He turns his head slightly but does not get up. "Come over here a minute, okay?" After a couple of seconds he slowly gets to his feet and starts in your direction, and you return your attention to nearer concerns.

The great Nathaniel Morgan is lying where he fell, shivering, and you prod him with a foot. "Get up."

For a moment you think he's going to ignore you, but then he starts moving, slowly, painfully. At this rate he'll be vertical in an hour, maybe. A sudden stab of irritation has you bend down and seize him by the arm, hauling him upright while he hisses in pain. "Do not be so pathetic."

"Just you wait, fucker," he says, swaying as you release him. "I'm gonna laugh like hell when you're on your fucking knees, begging me for mercy..."

"I look forward to you trying to get revenge. I bet it will be funny," you say, rummaging your pokéballs out of your pocket. "Come on out, everyone."

Titan stomps up just as the rest of your team takes shape. Rats, still sopping, gives herself a vigorous shake and settles down to busy grooming. You glance around, but all the shadows are empty. Absol already knows what's up anyway.

"Everybody," you say, "this is the great Nathaniel Morgan. I'm going to be him for a while, but Absol told me to not let him die, so he's coming with us for a bit." Your pokémon exchange sidelong glances, and a couple look ready to protest. You raise your hands and keep going. "It will be fine. Just ignore him and let me deal with things. I don't know what Absol was thinking, either, but don't worry about it. She knows what she's talking about."

Nobody can deny that, but there's still a lot of restless shifting. You plunge on, straight into the good news. "We're staying here tonight, and tomorrow we'll be on Cinnabar Island. We're going to train a bit, then face Blaine." Even Titan brightens at that, wings coming up out of their droop.

Rats leaves off preening to squint at the great Nathaniel Morgan. Her whiskers twitch, and she makes a "tsk" noise. "So just what makes him so great, huh? Looks kinda dumb to me. Why's he staring?"

You turn and find the great Nathaniel Morgan tensed to run, eyes wide in the starlight. After a moment you realize you've slipped into talking pokémon, and he hasn't been able to understand a word. "I was making introductions. These are my pokémon. Rats. Thunderstorm. You already met Titan. Togetic. Duskull." You indicate each in turn. "And War too, of course."

He barely glances at them. "Yeah, hi." And turns back to you. "What the fuck was that?"

"What?"

"Those... Those fucking noises you were making. I thought you were having some kind of fucking fit."

"I told you. I was introducing you."

"And just what in the fuck do you mean by that?"

"I speak pokémon. Obviously."

"What?" His laugh is shallow, breathless, without mirth. "Listen, Freak. Even the wackjobs who claim they can talk to pokémon don't stand there going all 'bark bark growl hiss' at them and shit. Come on."

"Humans do not have to speak the pokémon language to be understood. But I can. I like to."

"Oh, right. Uh huh. The fucking pokémon language." He shakes his head, snorting. "I already knew you were a fucking psycho, Freak, but that? Seriously fucking delusional. Seriously fucking insane. Fucking insane..." He falls into a silent laughing fit.

Titan stretches his wings high and beats them once, letting out a snort, and Thunderstorm drifts gently side to side, radiating boredom. You decide to let the human think what he wants; you don't care if he's too stupid to see the truth.

"I'm going to get some food ready. If you want to help, you can look for wood. That's all," you say to your friends. While the rest of them scatter, you ask War, "You want any?"

"No. I'll hunt." There's a crunch of sand and rock as he uproots himself, and then he's toddling back to deeper waters, starlight glinting wetly off the red sacs on his bell as he lurches out of sight.

You turn back around, then jump as you find Togetic hovering directly in front of your face.

"Yay camping!" she chirps, flying a quick loop around your head.

You smile. "That's right, Togetic."

"Where's the TV?"

Ah. "No TV tonight, Togetic. I'm a real trainer now, so we're staying out here. You can watch tomorrow when we're at a Pokémon Center, okay?"

"Mmmm." She bounces as she thinks, ricocheting around in midair. You watch with bated breath, hoping she doesn't start a tantrum. You don't want to deal with that with the great Nathaniel Morgan there, staring at you two like he's witnessing an alien landing. Not that you'd blame Togetic for her distress--you don't even want to think about all the shows you're missing out on.

After a few moments Togetic brightens. "Okay! No TV! Adventure!"

You laugh as she zooms in erratic circles. "That's right. Now, you want to help? Can you find me some wood?"

"Yeah!" She zips away, zigzagging low over the ground and humming a happy nonsense song to herself. The great Nathaniel Morgan follows her with his eyes, frowning.

"And you. Stay out of the way."

"With fucking pleasure," he grunts.

And he does until later, when he settles in by your fire, as far away from you as he can manage without being completely outside its light. You fuss with the spitting, flaring little thing, cobbled together from pieces of driftwood found bleaching on the rocks, then start rooting in your pack for food. There's nothing to catch around here but fish, and you don't feel like swimming in the black deep of the ocean tonight. It's human fare for you.

"Did you get something to eat earlier?" you ask Titan as he flops down behind you with a gusty sigh.

"Not hungry," he mutters, staring out at the ocean. You frown and scratch the base of his neck just above where the wings connect. He doesn't acknowledge you, and you don't know what to say. How can he be mourning that other trainer, the one who stole him from you? You're right here, alive; the two of you are together again. How can he be sad? But somehow, it seems, he is.

The matter is driven from your mind as Togetic comes zooming in, demanding food with high-pitched chirps. You gently fend her off while you dig a pack of fruit chews out of your bag, then dump a few into your palm and offer them up. She snatches them and takes off, dancing around the fire and showing off her prize to everyone, the great Nathaniel Morgan included. "Piss off!" he growls, taking a swipe at her as she darts past. She evades him easily, laughing, and rockets away, probably looking for Duskull, her favorite person to irritate.

The gummies should keep her occupied for a while, but you get out a tupperware full of honey and crushed insects to heat up for her actual dinner. And while you're thinking of it... "Thunder?"

"Wait. You had a motherfucking car battery in your bag this entire time?"

"Obviously," you say as you clip the black contact to one of the magneton's magnets, the red to another. Thunderstorm lets out a contented buzz as current starts to flow.

"That thing must weigh like thirty fucking pounds! How the hell were you lugging it around all day?"

"It is not really so heavy." You need some food for yourself and Rats. And the great Nathaniel Morgan too, you suppose. He's even more obnoxious when unfed. Soup?

"God. Why don't you use a charging station at a fucking Center?"

"Everyone else is eating. It would not be fair for Thunderstorm to be left out." Chicken noodle. Four cans, you think, to split between you. Plus crackers and energy bars and cookies... You smile as you set up your tripod and collapsible pot, then drag a sudden claw around the rim of a can and lever up the top.

The great Nathaniel Morgan watches, dubious. "You're fucking crazy."

Rats, now dry and fluffed, comes scrambling over as if summoned by the sound of soup hitting pot. She flops down by the fire and immediately tucks herself into a dozy curl, nose buried in the fur on her stomach and paws up over her head.

The great Nathaniel Morgan raises his eyebrows at her. "Your raticate's pretty lazy, huh?"

"He's can criticize after he spends an afternoon swimming around and beating the tar out of uppity starfish," Rats says into her stomach. Then, as if suddenly inspired, she lifts her head a little and addresses Titan. "Hey, that reminds me. You totally missed how I destroyed this lame staryu this afternoon. See, I don't really like swimming, but..."

You smile and shake your head. "You should save that for later, Rats. Titan is not feeling well right now."

The great Nathaniel Morgan frowns at you across the fire. "Oh, come the fuck on. You can't seriously expect me to believe you understood any of that shit."

"Of course I did. You may not believe that pokémon can talk, but I know better. You are stupid."

He rolls his eyes. "Oh, fuck off. I know pokémon can talk. I just think you understanding them is bullshit."

"Oh? I did not realize Rockets consider pokémon to be sentient."

Titan turns and actually looks at the human, and Rats opens one dark eye to regard him as well. "Rocket?" She flashes her teeth at him. "Maybe you shoulda just ignored Absol and let him die anyway."

The great Nathaniel Morgan frowns at Rats as she settles back into her doze, then turns his scowl on you. "Yeah, you got me, Freak. I like to spend my free time kicking baby eevee and repeating my mantra about how all pokémon exist for the glory of Team Rocket and shit."

You nod and set aside the empty soup can to eat later and heft a second one, considering. Is your pot big enough to hold all of them at once?

"Christ," the great Nathaniel Morgan mutters, and you glance up to find him looking at you with lips curled back to show a hint of teeth. "Look, maybe you missed the part where Team Rocket kicked me out because I ain't shitty enough for them. You know, while you were all busy doing fuckall and I was getting my ass kicked and all my shit stolen. I thought you wanted to be some kind of pokémon master like all the other trainer brats. Whatever happened to kicking Rocket ass like the morons in the movies?"

"There were too many of them, and I did not know how strong they were. I did not want to start a fight. And yes, I recall that they thought you had betrayed them. Which you denied. So either they were wrong and you are as bad as any of them, or you were lying, in which case you are a bad person anyway."

The great Nathaniel Morgan blinks. "Oh, shit. For a second there that almost made fucking sense. God, I'm really losing it." Then his expression hardens. "But oh, good one, 'Yeah, I could have done something about it, but I was just too fucking pussy.'"

You tighten your grip on the soup can in lieu of going for the Rocket's throat. "I told you before. Your pokémon are your responsibility. Do not blame me for failing to protect them. I would have if I could. And besides, I think they may have more luck with whatever trainer they go to now."

The great Nathaniel Morgan tilts his head and bares his teeth in a ragged, hole-riddled mockery of a smile. "Yeah. You know what? I think I'd be more pissed if you had up and snagged them. At least this way they're probably not going to get stuck with a murderous psycho piece of shit like you."

"I am a good trainer!" Does he want you to kill him? You could, you really could. You can feel the muscles shifting under your skin, bones thickening, talons threatening. How dare he? How could he even suggest? Your words come out husky and strained. "You are a member of Team Rocket. You are not a good person. I am."

"Ooh, nice comeback, jackass. That'll fucking show me."

"You are not listening. I am a good trainer. Me! Your opinion does not matter. You are a worthless, stupid Rocket!"

You're shaking, you notice distantly. Rats' voice comes to you, far-off and small. "Uh, Boss... Maybe you oughta, you know, kinda calm down?"

The Rocket sneers at you. "Yeah, go on and say it a little fucking louder. I didn't quite hear you the first eight thousand fucking times."

"Shut up! Shut up!" The soup can in your hand explodes, and you stop in shock as cold, slimy broth drips down your wrist and drizzles onto the rocks. Then you shake the can off, extricating your fingers from the holes punched through the metal, and leave it lying there in an expanding puddle.

In the silence that follows you realize everyone is watching you. Titan is half to his feet, crouched nervously in the shadows behind you. Somehow Rats made it to your side without your noticing, her paws up on your arm. You shake her off, gently, and sit and suck chicken juice off your fingers until you feel calm enough to talk again.

"If you keep annoying me, that will be your head," you say to the great Nathaniel Morgan, who watches tensely from across the fire. "You do not know anything, and I am tired of listening to your lies. If you have to speak at all, you had better speak the truth."

He gives you another toothy smirk and starts to cross his arms over his chest, but stops with a wince as he jars his injured hand. "Temper, temper," he hisses, so quiet you almost miss it. And that's the last you hear from him for the rest of the night.
 
Chapter 9

Negrek

Rise Toward Descent
Staff
Author's Notes: Another meaty chapter here, and not because I smooshed anything together this time. It's just always been this long! I suppose I need to finally embrace that I'm destined to write 7k-10k chapters no matter how I try to keep it concise. Now, at least this one has an excuse for being hefty--it's our first gym battle!

Chapter 9

The child wakes frantic from its mother's nightmares, looking up into a predawn sky framed by Titan's wing. It feels the rise and fall of the charizard's side beneath its head, listens to the counterpoint of Rats' snoring. The raticate is a solid warmth curled against its side, and Togetic roosts not far away, between Titan's shoulder blades. For a few minutes the child lies still, letting the presence of its friends calm it, but it can tell there's no point trying to go back to sleep. Instead it gently moves Rats aside, then gets up and stretches. The raticate grumbles dozily and wiggles closer to Titan, and only Duskull, ever watchful, sees the child leave.

The cold shock of the water brings it to full wakefulness, and for awhile it hunts with eyes closed, following the tickling of movement against its skin, feeling for the sparking of frantic muscles darting through the still-dark ocean. Only after it's sated its hunger and taken to lazy trolling for fish to bring back for the others does it have any thought for the day ahead. By the time it leaves the ocean, shedding gills and webbing as it goes, it's ready to take up its burdens for the day.

The sun is rising as the child shrugs into its new skin and the clothes that go with it. It sits a while with the pokédex, reciting its litany.

You are Nathaniel Morgan. You've been a trainer for almost six years now. And how long a member of Team Rocket? You neither know nor care. What matters is that when you were twenty-two years old, you--lived. Unfortunately.

In the end Rats' insistence drags you back into the moment, and you spit a few fish for her and bury them in the coals of last night's fire. Titan devours his share in eager, blazing gulps. Meanwhile, the other you is still out cold in his sleeping bag. You give his mind a light flick, but it rings hollow as an empty cistern; he's not dreaming at all.

You shove at his mind again, harder this time, and he wakes up choking, blinking around in confusion. "It is time for you to get up," you say, and skin one of the blackened fish with a quick movement of claws. "Here is your breakfast. We will be leaving soon."

Maybe he's disoriented, or maybe still uneasy after last night's conversation, but one way or another the human accepts the skewer without comment, moving slowly and gingerly. His hand is looking better this morning. The swelling's gone down, though the injury's still bruising up interesting greens and purples.

You forget about the great Nathaniel Morgan completely in the confusion of breaking camp, hands full with the usual tasks: get Togetic to stop teasing Duskull, put the ghost to work picking things up so he'll stop hanging around looking bored, sort out who's coming with you, who's staying in their pokéballs.

"I think I'll go on ahead," Titan says, stretching his wings and neck and looking out over the ocean. "It's been a while since I flew as far as I did yesterday. I liked it."

"Sure, Titan." You dig an item pouch out of your bag. "Here, I'll give you some money so you can get something to eat. We probably won't get there until the afternoon."

No sooner has the charizard slipped the pouch around his neck and hurled himself into the air than Togetic starts demanding your attention, saying she wants to stay out with you today. You wouldn't mind, but you doubt War will tolerate her for long. While you're dealing with that, Rats gets into an argument with the tentacruel, who is waiting for you at the water's edge, and they nearly come to blows before you notice and rush over to break them up. But in the end all is sorted, pokémon in pokéballs and supplies in pack. The Great Nathaniel Morgan, who dozed off sometime during the proceedings, is roused and prodded onto War's bell again.

The exercise gives him his voice back, but you cut him off before he can really get going. "It is not even far to Cinnabar from here. You will be fine, unless you continue to bother me with your nonsense."

"All I'm saying is, no more fucking stupid detour battles, okay? Give me a fucking break already."

"I will battle if I want to," you snap, mostly so he doesn't think he's getting his way. War sets a good pace, paddling along in a smooth, constant dance of tentacles, and truth be told you're looking forward to reaching Cinnabar yourself. You won't be able to challenge Blaine today, not with junior trainers to get through, but impatience drives you forward nonetheless.

So the journey passes unbroken either by fucking stupid detour battles or unwelcome comments from your guest, who looks every bit as queasy as yesterday and stays beautifully silent. It's not until you're both standing on Cinnabar's beach that he finds the strength for conversation.

"Hey. Where the fuck're you going?"

"The gym, of course. I will defeat the junior trainers and book a match for tomorrow if there is a spot open. Then I have preparations to make."

"Sounds fucking boring. Look, can I just hang out by my fucking self for a while? You don't want to put up with me, and I sure as hell don't want to deal with your shit, neither."

You open your mouth, ready to explain on no uncertain terms why he can't and that he'd better not whine about it, either, when an idea occurs to you. And that's how the human ends up shoved in a room at the pokémon center with Thunderstorm on guard under strict orders that the man shouldn't be allowed near the phone, window, or most especially, door.

You're grinning and refreshed from a day clear of the other great Nathaniel Morgan when you come barging back into the room to find Thunder hovering near its middle and the other you sleeping on the bed closer to the window. "And did he behave himself?" you ask the magneton.

Thunder throws off irritated sparks and says, "Yes. It was boring."

"Sorry, Thunder. I won't ask you to watch him again. Look, I brought you a present." You hold up the new pokéball, and Thunder goes cross-eyed trying to get a look at it.

"What's wrong with the old one?"

"It's registered to your old trainer's pokédex. I need to release you from the old pokéball and capture you again with this one so I can register you on mine." You tap the device in question.

The magenton hums to itself for a few seconds, then says, "Yes. I suppose that makes sense."

"You don't have to if you don't want to. You just won't be able to fight in the gyms. Or, I mean, you don't have to let me catch you again at all, but..."

"No, no." The words work their way around the periphery of the magneton's body in dazzling little arcs of light. "It's no problem. I was surprised, that's all."

"Okay, if you're sure." You bring the magneton's pokéball out and pop it open. Inside, mirrors gleam like the facets of an insect's eye.

Pokéballs, even cheap models like this, are built to last--but not against something like you. You seize the top of the ball in one hand and the bottom in the other and pull until the hinge gives way, then stab steel-reinforced claws through the protective shield inside each half, stirring metal and glass into a shredded tangle. Then you trap the remains between your palms, knit your fingers tight, and incinerate them with a sudden burst of heat. One of Thunderstorm's eyes spins around to watch the slaggy lump sail into the wastebasket, but it makes no comment, and when you hold the new pokéball out to it, it doesn't hesitate to bump one of its magnets against the button, disappearing in a flash of red light.

In a second it's floating there again while you scan the pokéball and add Thunder to the Great Nathaniel Morgan's account--your account. "Thanks, Thunder. You can take a break now if you want. We're not really going to be doing anything until tomorrow."

"Not that I'll be doing anything tomorrow, either," Thunderstorm muses in a low drone. "Unless you decide you really want to try your luck against Blaine." The magneton drifts towards the small desk at the far end of the room, where a charging station bristles with ports of all sizes and shapes.

"No, I guess not. But you'll get your turn against Blue, right?" you say as the magneton plugs the end of a magnet into one of the larger outlets.

"I hope." Its voice trails off into nonsense static as electricity starts to flow, and Thunderstorm slumps into half-conscious repose, all but one eye sliding shut.

It only gets a few seconds' peace and quiet; you release your other pokémon, and they fill the room right up, all chattering at one another, investigating the furniture, fiddling with the curtains.

"I liked my old pokéball," Titan says wistfully, looking down at the new one clutched between his claws. "I had it since I was hatched."

"Speak for yourself," Rats grumbles as she scrambles onto the free bed. "I was looking forward to getting out of that grubby old thing. Which is why I said I wanted my new digs to be a luxury ball, huh?" She shoots you a meaningful look. "Luxury. But look, that? That's pretty much the opposite of luxury." She swipes at Titan's new pokéball with her tail.

"I know, Rats." You reach out and take the ball from Titan. "But like I told you, I don't have enough money for one right now. I'll buy you one after we beat Blaine tomorrow. Then I'll have plenty of cash."

"Yeah, yeah, you're poor and crap. And whose fault is that? Hey, loser!" She launches herself onto the other bed and lands with a gleeful bounce that wakes the Great Nathaniel Morgan immediately.

"Oh come on, Rats. He was being quiet." The raticate sniggers and slides back to the floor, pursued by your glare as well as the human's.

"Ugh. It's like a fucking zoo in here," the Great Nathaniel Morgan grunts, rubbing his eyes and blinking. He must have bathed while you were gone, and without all the dirt it's much easier to see his remaining injuries, the cut across his nose standing out red and livid.

"Hey! Who's hungry?" Rats scurries past on her way to the door.

"Rats..."

"Food! Food! Yay!" Togetic is after her in a moment, twirling enthusiastic circles.

"I wouldn't mind something," Titan admits, offering you a sheepish grin. You sigh and dig out the remains of your petty cash. "All right, Titan. Here. That should be enough for all of you to get something," you say, handing him a few bills. It's a good thing real meals are free.

"Hey, come on, what's this?" Rats says as Titan crumples the money between his claws. "Where's the goods? Where's the dex?"

"I'm not paying for you to buy out the whole machine again, Rats."

"Ah, come on. You know it was awesome!" She snickers and shoots out the door with Togetic on her heels, yelling for Titan to keep up as he lumbers along in their wake. The door slams shut behind them, leaving you in abrupt silence. It can't last.

"Where the fuck is that lot going?"

"Vending machine." You shuffle morosely through the last few bills in your wallet. "I wanted to buy them something nicer to eat, but after paying for supplies I did not have enough left. Why did you have so little money?"

He'd been staring at the door, but now he turns to look at you, very slowly."Why did I have so little money? As in used to?"

"Yes. In your trainer account. Obviously Team Rocket took everything in your pockets, but--"

"Are you telling me that you've been fucking using my money to buy shit?"

"I was. Until it ran out."

"It--you--" You watch with interest as his face reddens, and he clutches helplessly at the air. Finally he manages to choke out, "You spent all my fucking dough? All of it? And now you have the fucking nerve to ask why I didn't have more for you to steal?"

"It was not stealing."

"Like hell it wasn't stealing! That's what you fucking call it when you take someone else's money without asking!" He actually stands up, good hand clenched into a fist, and you take a step forward, making yourself just the tiniest bit taller as you do. "Where the fuck do you get off?" he snarls. "Why the fuck would you--?"

"It was ill-gotten, was it not?" It takes him a second to register what you said. He frowns and leans back a bit, staring at you in confusion. "The money. You got it as the result of some illegal activity, am I right?"

"You--what? What the fuck does--well, yeah, but--"

"So you stole the money from somebody else in the first place. Stealing is bad, so you should not have gotten it at all. The right thing to do would be to give it back to whoever you took it from, but I do not know who they are and have no way to find them even if I did. But at the least you should not be allowed to benefit from it, so I used it instead. It was the right thing to do."

"What? What the fuck are you even talking about? That's the most fucking--" He breaks off with a shake of his head, then stares at you for a moment, teeth bared in a grimace. "So that's how the fuck it works, huh?" He snarls at last. "Let's see if I've got this all fucking sorted out. Your stupid little plan is to drag me around for however fucking long, leave me alone some place, without my pokémon, without any supplies, and without any fucking money?" He counts them off on his fingers as he goes, glaring at you all the while.

"Well, not 'some place,' Indigo Plateau, but--"

"Oh, right! Very fucking nice! So some tourist deathtrap in the middle of the fucking mountains, surrounded by the most fucking dangerous monsters in the entire goddamned region? That's your fucking idea of the right thing to do?"

You frown at him. "Yes. I do not know why you are getting angry at me about it. I am being generous by not turning you over to the police as soon as I can. This is your fault. If you had not decided to be a criminal, you could have avoided all this."

"Oh my God. How the fuck do you even fucking exist?" All the anger's gone out of him, and he winces a bit as he slumps back down on the bed. "Just fucking kill me now and save me the pain and humiliation, Jesus."

You frown down at him as he stares at the carpet, running one hand back and forth over his bare scalp. "Well?"

He gives you a tired look, then says, finally, "Well what?"

"So why did you have so little money?"

He clenches his fist again and turns away from you. "I dunno, maybe because being a Rocket grunt is only one step up from flipping burgers? The fuck did you think?"

"I thought stealing stuff would pay better. I thought that was the point."

"Yeah, you think a lot of stupid shit, don't you?"

"You are the stupid one."

He shakes his head and goes back to staring at the carpet, and in the quiet you can hear Duskull chuckling to himself as he bobs in circles overhead. Satisfied, you flop onto the free bed and scrabble the remote off the nightstand.

You flip on the TV and bring up the guide channel, watching hungrily as the listing scrolls up the screen. It's been two whole days since you've been able to watch anything--you've missed so much! Let's see, it's Wednesday, going on six... Too late for cartoons. There's always the news, of course, but oh, that channel is halfway through Castelia Summertimes. And meanwhile, the guide itself is playing a trailer for some kind of action movie...

"What the fuck are you doing?"

You blink, then turn a glare on the Great Nathaniel Morgan. You'd almost forgotten he was there. "I am watching television. Obviously."

"No you ain't. You're watching a bunch of fucking words go by."

"Fine. Then that is what I am doing."

The human's laid back down and dragged a pillow over his head, and his words come out half-muffled. "You've been sitting there for like five fucking minutes. Just pick something, for God's sake."

"Why do you care what I watch?" But any answer he might have is cut off as the door flies open and the room is filled with the jabber of your returning pokémon, Togetic at the fore. She shoots up in front of your face, waving a bag of fruit candies at you.

"Yes, very nice, Togetic," you say, but she's already on her way, whirling around Duskull in teasing arcs until the ghost drifts off to resentfully haunt the alarm clock.

"I got you some cookies," Titan says shyly, holding out a bag.

"Just lemme know if you don't want 'em. I'd be happy to take 'em off your hands." Rats must have already eaten whatever she purchased. She hops onto your bed and makes a beeline for the headboard, curling up amongst the pillows.

"Thanks, Titan," you say, and take the snack. "Thank you, Rats, but I'll be fine."

The charizard grins and trots around to the other bed, holding out another package of cookies for the Great Nathaniel Morgan. The Rocket just stares at him.

"He got you food. Take it." You can't keep the disapproval out of your voice, but Titan doesn't notice. He smiles when the Great Nathaniel Morgan takes the bag, then wanders off and starts in on his danish.

Togetic demands you let her watch something, and after a bit of surfing around you find a channel showing Tiara the Trainer reruns. "It's spelling!" Togetic chirps as though she can't even imagine a more exciting prospect. Most cartoons are too much for Togetic--she can't handle bad people, even the mild sorts of bullies seen on most children's programs--but she's more than happy to settle in, eat her candy, and learn how to spell "Silph Company" with Tiara.

"Human words are so funny!" Togetic says with her mouth full. "How come they keep working even when there's nobody around to say them?"

"I don't know, Togetic." It is a strange thing, but you're feeling too lazy to think about it right now. You half-watch the TV with Togetic as Tiara is replaced by some sort of science programming about research at the Oak Pokémon Laboratory. Titan leans in to watch this one too.

Lulled by boredom and cheerful fatigue, you pay less attention to Togetic than you should. You don't notice her fiddling with her empty wrapper, fidgeting and humming to herself. You jerk out of your stupor only when, during an innocuous commercial break, Togetic shoots into the air, squirming and bouncing with boisterous energy. "Why is everybody being so boring? Come on, let's play!"

"Togetic, I don't think now is a very good time--"

But it's too late. Togetic dives and drags the pillow next to Rats into the air, the normal-type herself raising her head sleepily. "Come on! Pillow fight!" Togetic chirps.

Titan, who is watching the proceedings with bald confusion, snorts and jerks his head back as the pillow hits him in the snout. Togetic is beside herself with cackling delight, and you can't help but smile despite your exasperation. "Not now, Togetic. We're trying to rest before the gym battle tomorrow. Why don't you--?"

Your perfectly reasonable suggestion is cut off when the pillow comes down squarely atop your head. Titan gives you a sheepish grin as he twists the squashy weapon between his claws. "Umm. Defend yourself?"

And of course there's no way you can turn down a challenge like that. "Hey. Hey! What are you doing?" Rats yelps as there is a sudden rush towards the headboard to claim a weapon. "No! Leggo!" She clings hard to the pillow she's been sleeping on as Togetic tries to fly off with it. Moments later she joins the fray herself, laying about with a bit more force than strictly necessary.

Blows are traded and battle cries yelled, and after a few minutes you're lying sprawled on your back, laughing uncontrollably, with Rats and Titan collapsed in giggling heaps nearby. Togetic perches on the headboard, wracked with laughter. A fine drift of feathers fills the air from a pillow that caught on one of Rats' incisors.

The moment stretches long as you float on a wave of exhilaration. Then, "Jesus fucking Christ. What the hell was that?"

You tip your head back until you can see the Great Nathaniel Morgan and grin at him upside-down. "What the fuck is wrong with you? How old are you, fucking five?" He's pulled himself into a sitting position, one hand braced against the headboard, like he wants to be ready to move on short notice.

"No. Eight." You roll onto your stomach and flop your arms over the edge of the bed. "Or twenty. It depends on how you count."

"God-fucking-dammit. It depends on how you count? Why the fuck can't you answer a goddamn question like a normal person?"

You're feeling too good to do more than laugh at his rudeness. "I used to be twelve. Then I died. And now I am eight. So. Eight or twenty."

He rolls his eyes. "Ugh. Forget I even fucking asked. Fine. We'll go with eight, because you sure as hell don't act twenty. Eight with fucking mental problems." He grimaces. "Whatever. But could you lay off the nutcase shit already? It's creepy as fuck seeing me bounce around like a fucking retard."

You stick your tongue out at him, and he glowers. "I cannot help it that grownups are boring. If you do not like it, do not watch."

"I can't fucking believe it. I'm getting pushed around by a fucking elementary school kid." His brows draw down together as he frowns. "That explains a lot, actually."

You sit up and investigate the torn pillow, which puffs more feathers into the air when you slap your palm onto it. You toss it at the Great Nathaniel Morgan out of lazy curiosity. He manages to get an arm up and swat it out of the air, but not without a wince of discomfort, his movements stiff and jerky.

"Fuck off already. God, I never thought I'd say it, but I think I prefer you when you're all pissed off and breathing fire and shit. Now you're just being fucking annoying."

You smile and bounce a little on the bed, eliciting a grumbled complaint from Rats. "You are just jealous because you are old and soon you are going to get all wrinkly and die."

He stares at you. "What the fuck. And you're not?"

"Nope!" Bounce, bounce. "At least Absol does not think so. Since I never get any bigger and my mother does not, either. And she's been around a long time. Longer than, than Professor Oak, even. And he's old!"

The Great Nathaniel Morgan doesn't act suitably impressed. In fact, he's not even looking at you as he mutters, "So, what? You're going to be like... that... forever?" He waves a hand vaguely in your direction.

"Yup!" He's so slow.

"Huh." To your annoyance, all he does after that is stare at his knees for a while.

"Jealous," you conclude. The pillow fight's ironed the last of the energy out of your team, everyone but Togetic, and even she settles down after a vigorous bout of tickling. Then you can put on an old kung-fu flick while she sleeps atop the television. But while everyone else drifts off you're up late, late, late, past the comedy shows you don't understand and into the realm of reruns and ads for sleeping pills and counseling. Your eyes ache and your head feels heavy and filled with sludge, but you can't calm down--not that you really want to.

After all, you have a gym battle tomorrow! You'll win your first badge, you'll get your prize money, and you'll be on your way to Viridian City. And you'll prove to the Great Nathaniel Morgan what a good trainer you are. If he's not jealous, he should be. Because you're awesome.

--​

And that next day, standing in Cinnabar Gym's main arena, you're not even tired. How could you be? You can hear your heart hammering even over the roar of the crowd as you stand in the glare of sunlight shining down through the gym's open roof. Once, challengers would have stared up at the walls of a caldera, stood suspended over a pool of lava pumped up from the volcano's heart. The new gym is at the foot of the mountain, and now Blaine only aspires to the illusion of fighting at its summit. Maybe even he has grown wary of the volcano's temper.

It's less impressive than you'd expected, as is the ardor of your fans. The stands are largely empty, holding just a scattered collection of family and friends of other trainers who will be battling today, maybe a couple hopefuls scouting Blaine's strategies. They didn't come here to see you, sure. But by the time they leave they'll know there's a hot new trainer to watch for at the Plateau, real champion material come out of nowhere. You grin up at your audience and shade your eyes with your hand.

At least a couple of people are interested in your battle. Togetic is beside herself with excitement, bouncing up and down on the bench, and when she catches your eye she waves so hard she nearly overbalances and falls off. The red glow of Duskull's attention is trained square on the arena, drifting neither left nor right, and Thunderstorm watches with all three of its eyes. The Great Nathaniel Morgan is sitting on the very far end of the same bench, leaning so far away from your pokémon that he looks like he's going to tip over sideways any second, but he, too, is watching.

You wave back to Togetic, then turn to your opponent. Blaine waits on the far side of the arena, leaning on his cane and grinning at you from the shade of his hat. "Well, then," he says. "How about we get started?"

There's a pokéball in his hand now and one in yours, too, and before you can even think about what's happening they're in the air, the pokémon taking shape on the field.

War balances on the jagged points of his beak, his tentacles taut with the effort of holding up his bell. He raises a couple of them, holding them at the ready as he stares down the rapidash Blaine's sent into the fray.

"Challenger moves first," says Blaine, and you start, realizing you've been staring and leaving the pokémon to wait.

"Use hydro pump."

"Agility, Rapidash." There's laughter in the gym leader's voice.

A second later a thick column of water gushes against the energy shield that separates Blaine from the arena. He would've been a goner without it, smashed against the far wall like a bug. But the shield's there, rippling with blue light as it dissipates the force of the attack. It's the rapidash that isn't, his hooves clattering a rapid-fire beat as he darts around the hydro pump and accelerates to be so fast even your eyes have trouble keeping up.

"Now double-edge. You know how this works," Blaine says. Before you can even open your mouth, War is sent skidding across the floor, tentacles flailing and slapping at the ground as he tries to stop himself. Rapidash canters away, waiting for his next order.

"Good. Now double team."

Rapidash flies around the arena, chased by flickering afterimages, while War labors to right himself, dragging his bell, heavy and sagging without any water to support it, off the ground.

"Just hit him with surf," you say. The rapidash can't dodge forever, and once War gets him with a couple good attacks he won't be so ridiculously fast. No reason to worry.

But even as War coils and twists his tentacles in complicated patterns, calling up water, Blaine says, "Not so fast. Give it a good bounce, Rapidash."

The fire-type's hindquarters bunch, and he hurls himself into the air just seconds before pipes under the arena burst open and a sheet of water comes jetting out of the floor. War sends the improvised tidal wave surging upwards, but it can't catch the Rapidash, who soars on, impossibly high, trailed by a herd of illusory comrades.

The surf attack crests, then comes crashing down over the arena, followed by Rapidash, who lands on War's bell hard enough to drive the tentacruel's beak a hand-span into the packed clay of the floor.

"Now, War! Quick, use--" The tentacruel isn't listening. The springiness of his bell sends the rapidash bouncing up again, but War strikes out with his tentacles, snaring limbs and pulling his opponent back down. The rapidash bucks and struggles and tears himself free, but the graceful arc of his leap is broken and his clones flicker and die, now that War's managed to find his real opponent. The tentacruel's tentacles have taken off long strips of skin, and lines of swelling mark the path of War's stinging touch. The rapidash stands out of War's reach for a moment, bleeding and catching his breath.

Meanwhile, War strains frantically with his tentacles, trying to wrench his beak out of the ground. "Great. Stay out of sight, Rapidash. Hit it with stomp until it goes down."

"Quit struggling, War! Just use surf." He can hit with that even if he can't see the rapidash.

The tentacruel begins gathering the attack, puddles left by the previous surf merging and flowing towards the center of the field, but Blaine says, "Bounce, then, Rapidash. Just stay out of the way."

Again War sends a tidal wave roaring up, the wall of water wrenching him free of the floor at last as it carries him high above the arena. And again the rapidash jumps, sailing clear over the reaching wave and leaving the surf attack to collapse across an empty field.

Rapidash is still rising, but any moment now he'll reach the top of his arc and start to plummet. "Quick! Grab it when it lands, like before. Wrap. Use wrap!"

"Overheat."

The rapidash falls, mane and tail streaming out behind and legs braced for impact. This time he lands in a nest of waiting, upraised tentacles that snap taut around his body even as his hooves drive War's beak into the floor a second time.

You can't even see the rapidash anymore, his body completely wrapped in War's tentacles. But even as you start to relax and consider how best to finish this, the tentacruel lets out a shrieking curse and starts unwinding his tentacles as fast as he can. Light streams between them, and the rapidash slowly reappears, glowing white-hot. He jumps down from atop War's bell and gives himself a contemptuous shake, sending off a final wave of heat that flashes the puddles beneath his hooves to steam.

War is cursing fluently now, slapping singed tentacles into puddles and trying to drag his beak free with angry strength. The rapidash lashes out backwards with a hoof, nearly knocking the tentacruel over on his face. At least the power of the attack snaps half War's beak free, and he pulls the other half out with a loud crack, rounding as fast as he can on clumsy tentacles and sending a water pulse at his opponent.

Rapidash sidesteps, not at all to your surprise, but his movements are sensitive now, ginger. His sides heave from exertion, and he sweats and shivers where he stands. War must have poisoned him earlier, and now at last the spring's gone out of his step.

"Come on, War. One more surf!"

"Get on top of it and stay there," Blaine counters. He's noticed too, then. No more bouncing.

The water on the arena floor ripples and trembles, then rises to War's call. The rapidash jumps onto the tentacruel's bell, and as the wave takes shape, buoying both pokémon up, War tries to lash a few tentacles around his opponent's legs.

The fire-type gives an angry whinny and kicks off, evading the tentacruel's attack as he soars into the air. This time, though, his jump isn't as powerful; it can't carry him high enough to escape the rising water. Rapidash sees what's going to happen a second before it does, and his cry of distress is cut off by a boom of water flashing into steam as the wave catches up with him, pulling him down with it as it crashes back to earth. The rapidash is nearly washed out of the arena as the wave spreads and drains away, coming to rest on his side with his mane and tail reduced to guttering flickers. Blaine recalls him without even waiting for the referee's verdict. "Good work, Rapidash. Now, Arcanine, finish it off."

You should be celebrating. You have the lead, after all. To win, you just need to hold it. But you'd expected War to carry you all the way through the battle, and he's barely upright, sagging and bruised. You will win, of course. Your pokémon are the best, and you're the best, but this is turning out more difficult than you'd expected.

"Arcanine, start with wild charge."

"Hydro pump," you say reflexively. There's no time to wonder if you should have made a different move; the arcanine is already charging forward, splashing heedlessly through puddles with sparks crackling in his thick fur. War's moving, too, raising his heavy bell and aligning himself with his opponent.

The hydro pump is a direct hit--but the arcanine charges right through as though it weren't there, slamming into War and toppling him over in a twitching heap.

The tentacruel tries to pull himself upright again, slapping at the floor with spasming tentacles, but after a few seconds he falls back, exhausted, and lies like a deflated balloon. The referee declares him out of the fight.

The arcanine turns and walks back towards Blaine, flicking water from his tail as he goes. You recall War and stand there at a loss for what to do next.

"You didn't really come in here thinking you could sweep me with a water-type, did you?" Blaine says with a laugh. A laugh. He's laughing at you, like you're some pathetic newbie trainer who doesn't even know their type chart. "What kind of gym leader would I be? You'll need to do better than that if you want a badge!"

What kind of gym leader would he be? Maybe not the kind who only beat War because he spent most of the battle running away.

Your face feels hot, and it's all you can do not to sprout talons and fangs and show the old man what he's really dealing with. Nobody laughs at you like that. Nobody.

But not here. You can't--not with people watching. All you have to do is win this battle. That'll show him. It will be enough. More than enough. You squeeze Rats' new pokéball extra hard to relieve some of your irritation, then cast it to the floor. "Come on, Rats. Let's go!"

The raticate shakes the last sparks of energy from her fur and glances around the arena. "Oh, so War's not getting all the fun, then?" she says. "Nice. Too bad he can't stick around to watch how it's done!"

The arcanine on Blaine's side of the field crouches in a ready stance, while Rats remains relaxed and unconcerned, looking around with casual interest. "Could ask for a bit of air conditioning or something, but hey, it's not so bad. No lava or open flames or nothing. Damper than I expected, too."

You watch the referee with hungry intensity, Rats chattering away just below your notice. The very instant the flags drop you're ready to blurt out, "Quick attack!"

"Extreme speed."

Rats blurs out into a long streak of motion, but an instant later the arcanine simply vanishes. Rats skids to a halt, glancing around an arena suddenly alive with furious splashes. Bursts of water leap from puddles on all sides, the arcanine moving so fast that he seems to be racing through all of them at once. Then the fire-type snaps back into view when he collides with Rats, slamming to a halt in a feat of impossible deceleration while Rats goes bouncing and rolling away across the arena.

"Keep her at a distance, Arcanine. Flamethrower."

The arcanine roars out a long cone of fire, and Rats rolls sideways to avoid it, then drops flat on her stomach to dodge another.

"Get in close and use bite, Rats," you say. The arcanine's flamethrowers are powerful, but Rats doesn't have any problem dodging them. She weaves ever closer, skipping easily around gushes of fire, until--"Extreme speed!"--Arcanine disappears, and Rats pounces on empty air. She spins around, spitting curses, but can't get her bearings before she's engulfed in flames, the attack coming even before the command, "Another flamethrower, Arcanine. Keep it up."

"Rats!" She rolls frantically on the ground, trying to put out the fire, but has to stop and leap away lest she get hit with even more fire. The air fills with the sour smell of burning fur. And you? You're starting to panic.

The arcanine is too fast. He's too fast and Rats can't even hit him without getting close. She's going to get tired of dodging before the arcanine runs out of fire. If she can't hit, she can't win, and if she doesn't win then all the rest is up to Titan. Titan is strong, but--no, you have to win. You aren't going to lose. Master trainers don't lose.

"A little help here, Boss?" Rats darts away from another burst of fire, but her movements are pained, her skin mottled red and white in patches of burnt-off fur. The twang of panic in her voice sets your heart racing. You open your mouth but can say nothing because the only words in your head are What if I can't win?

But wait. Wait, this is stupid. You close your eyes half a second, make a change you can't feel. When you open them again there is nothing but a raticate and an arcanine on the field in front of you, fighting. You look and struggle for a moment to remember, and then the way is obvious.

"Rats, use sucker punch." She's coming up out of another roll, and the moment her back paws hit the floor she's gone, no more than a flash of shadow as she tears across the arena. The arcanine tries to move, too, but he's already started to gather fire for another flamethrower, and he can't concentrate on an extreme speed at the same time. Rats is there even as his muscles start to tense, and the arcanine takes a punch to the gut that has him inhaling his nascent flamethrower, then hacking up smoke and little bursts of flame.

"Bite him and hold on."

The arcanine roars as four-inch fangs lock in his stomach, and he drops into a roll, trying to throw Rats off, trying to aim a flamethrower into his belly. "Overheat now, overheat!" Blaine says, and for a moment you're thrown by something in his voice, some emotion you don't recognize.

You shake it off. Whatever the gym leader's feeling, you don't care. "Super fang."

The air around the arcanine starts to ripple with heat, but Rats just closes her eyes and holds on tight. Her own fangs start to glow, red then yellow then white, and she bites down harder. The arcanine squeals and rolls over again, kicking madly at Rats. She's yelling while she chews, scissoring her teeth deeper and deeper into the arcanine's flesh even as the fire-type starts glowing himself, like an igniting star.

And then, suddenly, it's over. Rats tumbles free, screeching breathlessly with pain, and the arcanine curls in over his gushing wound, spitting fire blindly. Rats' fur is alight, up in flames just from contact with the blazing arcanine, but somehow she still feels his attacks, still tries to crawl away from them.

She can't. She collapses. The arena is loud with the arcanine's strangled panting.

Just like that, you're down against the gym leader. You don't think more on it, just recall Rats and pull Titan's pokéball off your belt.

The charizard takes shape, craning his neck around as he takes in the arena. Blaine speaks. "Oh ho ho! Fighting fire with fire, are we?" Your eyes flick away from the battlefield to the human standing just beyond. That noise he's making. Laughter? Why?

It doesn't matter. You look back to the battle.

Titan is standing poised with his wings half-spread, staring down the arcanine. The other fire-type has managed to pull himself into a sitting position, but the thin layer of water spreading from still-gushing pipes is dark with feathery tendrils of blood. Arcanine won't be doing any more running this match.

That doesn't mean he isn't dangerous, of course. You need Titan to finish this quickly, so he has as much strength left as possible for Blaine's magmar.

"Keep your distance, Titan. Use dragon rage."

"Dragon pulse."

Titan circles the arcanine, his tail flame dancing with streaks of turquoise while he spews wave after wave of blue-green fire at his immobilized opponent. But though the arcanine's face is contorted in pain and he turns slowly, barely able to keep up with Titan's steady movement, he does not hesitate to launch his own attacks. Titan is forced to duck around the arcanine's blue-glowing globes of energy, once needing an awkward hop and flutter of wings to get away in time.

Finally Titan slips up, and a dragon pulse catches him in the side, bursting with concussive force and knocking him backwards with a sharp "oof!" You frown. The arcanine's on his last legs, fur smoldering from the dragonfire and his movements ever slower and more pained. But dragon rage is simply taking too long to do its work, and Titan's getting tired out as well. You need to end this.

"Titan, get in close and finish him with slash."

"Got it!" The charizard ducks under a dragon pulse, then charges before the arcanine can launch another. Arcanine pokémon roars in pain as Titan lays open a long gash across his shoulder, but even as the charizard turns to deliver another blow, the arcanine sinks his teeth into Titan's side.

"Thunder fang!" Titan jerks back, and now it's his turn to roar as electricity snaps through his body, his muscles shivering out of control. But then he lashes out again, smacking his opponent across the face with his tail.

Arcanine rocks back from the force of the blow and teeters a moment, gasping for breath. Then finally he concedes, slumping to the floor in an exhausted heap. Titan straightens up and fusses with the wound on his side while Blaine recalls the arcanine, cauterizing it with delicate little bursts of flame.

"Good work, Titan." He flashes a grin at you over his shoulder, then turns at the sound of an opening pokéball. Blaine's magmar stands at the far side of the arena, inspecting Titan with a critical eye.

"Let's get this over with," she says in a bored tone, cracking her knuckles while she waits for her first command. Titan leans forward and lets out a deep growl, the flame on his tail leaping and dancing.

Charizard versus magmar. You hadn't expected it to come down to this, or not as far as you can remember. It's fitting, though. You know exactly what move to use here. You taught it to Titan yourself not long ago, while you raced each other through the sky above your island home. "Titan," you say, "seismic toss."

The charizard launches himself forward with a kick of his wings, angling up over a flamethrower from the magmar, then swoops down on her with claws spread wide. She tries to slip away, but Titan grabs her, pinning her arms behind her back and hauling her into the sky.

The open ceiling is working against Blaine now as Titan soars ever higher, to scattered applause from the audience. You keep your eyes trained on the battle while Titan does loop-the-loops far overhead, building momentum.

It's only when the charizard comes shooting down again, diving straight at the ground, that Blaine gives his command. "Magmar, use thunder punch."

Without your enhanced vision, it would have been too quick for you to see. Magmar wrenches her tail around, shoving it in Titan's face. The charizard jerks his head away, closing his eyes, and the clean line of his dive is broken. In his moment of surprise Magmar manages to get an arm free, then lands a thunder punch square in the charizard's stomach.

Titan lets go completely now, twisting in pain, and the magmar shoves her way free of him. She rolls as she lands and comes up in a crouch while Titan crashes to the ground behind her in a mess of flailing limbs. The applause is now much, much louder.

"Fan of Red, eh?" Blaine asks while Magmar straightens up. "Ever since he came through here I can't tell you how many people've tried to pull that stunt on us. Better luck next time! Magmar, confuse ray!"

Magmar snaps around to face Titan, who has only just sorted out his appendages and is getting to his feet. She spreads her hands, a flurry of golden lights dancing between them, and as Titan turns to look, she releases them in a humming cloud.

Titan raises his claws as the attack whirrs towards him, peering uncertainly at the little glowing specks. They circle his head in a nauseating swirl, dancing in an intricate pattern perhaps only Magmar can appreciate. And then, as one, they wink out. Titan wheezes and lurches to the side, shaking his head.

"Titan. Titan! Come on, snap out of it. Use slash." The charizard looks left and right as though wondering where your voice is coming from. His eyes are wide and unfocused, and when he tries to take a step forward he trips, hammering his wings to keep himself upright.

"Thunder punch." Magmar walks forward, unhurried, arms at her sides. She stops squarely in front of Titan while the charizard looks everywhere but at her, moving his head in short, jerky bursts and puffing out perplexed little clouds of smoke. The magmar stands there for a moment, watching, then lashes out with a punch that catches Titan square on the jaw.

"Come on, Titan. She is right there. Get her with slash." The charizard tips backward, wings flapping as he tries to right himself, and Magmar sends another punch into his exposed gut. Titan thrashes around in a lopsided circle, striking out at random and ignoring your every attempt to get his attention. A wing slaps Magmar across the face purely by chance, and she falls back, trying to stay out of the charizard's way, only darting in with a punch when she has a clear shot.

There's nothing you can do. It's only when a fortuitous punch jars something in Titan's head, knocks him far enough askew to turn him the right way round again, that he comes to his senses. The charizard lets out a roar of frustration and pain, but then his eyes focus, finally, on the magmar, and she takes a step back as she realizes it at the same time you do: the charizard's back in business.

Titan lunges at his opponent with an angry shriek. Magmar fights to get away as he tears into her with claws, teeth, wings, attacking in a mad flurry of blows. "Go on, Titan. Use rage." You doubt he's actually paying attention to you, but you might as well throw a command out there for the look of the thing.

"Another confuse ray." Magmar has her hands up over her head, trying to fend Titan off with one lightning-crackling fist while shielding herself with the other arm. The charizard's still forcing her back, shrugging off her punches. If anything, they're making his advance more furious. Now the magmar stops punching, splaying her claws and scattering golden lights.

Titan rears up, screaming outrage as the confuse ray engulfs his head. This time Magmar rushes to get away, not even looking for an opening to attack. She hovers at a safe distance, her expression neutral but her fists raised. Her flame-licked body shows little sign of injury, but you can see the droop in her tail and the tension in her muscles as she works to keep herself steady. She's not going to last much longer--but unfortunately, she's in better shape than Titan.

The charizard staggers to and fro, clawing and biting at nothing, roaring out angry bursts of fire. He doesn't notice his injuries, doesn't seem to care when he goes after his own wing with his claws or gets his tail tangled in his legs. Magmar follows his weaving progress, waiting for him to fall, maybe, or simply run out of steam so she can rush in and finish him off.

But the charizard's erratic movements are hard to predict, and a sudden lunge sends Magmar skipping back, then scrambling, then turning to flee when Titan doesn't stop coming in her direction, propelled by momentum, or blind luck, or some fragmented sense that he's found his opponent as last. He crashes into Magmar, and the two of them go down in a struggling heap. You and Blaine are both yelling commands, but it's no good; the pokémon are deaf in their panic.

Titan struggles simply to rise, though his reaching claws and flailing wings do plenty of damage to his trapped opponent. The magmar, crushed by his weight, doesn't have the leverage for a proper punch, but she's laying to with sparking claws and gouts of flame. Every time it looks like Titan's going to make it up, she manages to get under his feet or land an attack that knocks him off-balance, sending him crashing back to the floor.

The undignified tangle goes on until Titan comes to his senses again, and finally the pokémon extricate themselves, Magmar backing away in weary alertness while Titan stands where he is, huffing to regain his breath. His tail flame blazes high--too high. He's starting to lose control of his fire. It won't be long before the strain gets to be too much and he simply collapses.

Titan lets out another bellow and charges, bloodied jaws wide. "Seismic toss, Titan. Get her away from you."

Maybe he's actually listening to you. Maybe he just intended to do it anyway. Either way, he swats aside Magmar's punch and grabs her, hoisting her over his head. No fancy aerial stunts this time--there's no way he's getting airborne on his shredded wings. He simply throws Magmar as hard as he can, sending her skidding across the floor.

"Now fire blast. Don't let her get close." The magmar can respond with fire of her own, but she won't be able to match Titan's power, not while he's blazing up like this.

No sooner has Magmar gotten back to her feet than she's knocked down by a huge, five-pointed star of flame. "One last thunder punch, Magmar. You can do it," says Blaine.

Magmar rises to her knees and braces herself, head lowered, arms raised, letting another fire blast break against her and dissipate. Then she's up and running, rushing straight into another unfolding fire blast. She skirts around it at the last second, keeps coming.

"Stop her, Titan. Dragon rage." The magmar's close now, one fist alive with lightning, and she takes the burst of dragon-fire right in the face. She stops only a moment, shaking her head, but Titan is following in the dragon rage's wake and snatches her in his jaws. He lifts Magmar straight off the floor and shakes her, then throws her to the ground and goes at her with his claws. Then the magmar glows red, brilliant laser-red, and is gone. It's over.

The referee's announcement is drowned out by a furious roar from Titan. He flexes empty claws and glares around the arena, which is very definitely empty of magmar. His eyes settle on Blaine instead.

The charizard sets off in a stomping run, head low and neck extended, wings scooping at the air to give him extra speed. He roars a challenge at the puny creature standing so boldly in his way. A moment later, his pokéball's beam finds him. "Return, Titan."

"Now that's a fiery charizard you have there," Blaine says, with another of those absurd laughs. You're barely listening. The battle is over now. The least you can do is let yourself enjoy it.

You close your eyes in another too-long blink, then flinch, disoriented as the noise of the crowd hits your new awareness. Then it all comes back to you and your heartbeat surges as you realize what you've done, what you've finally accomplished. Now you raise your arms and laugh in delight, and Togetic, unable to contain herself, fairly rockets down out of the stands.

You forget to pay attention to Blaine's post-battle speech, lost in the ardor of victory. Togetic flies rings around you, babbling delight and pulling a sparkling contrail of joy dust behind her. The applause is scattered, polite, but it doesn't matter. You hear behind it the roar of filled stands, the fathomless capacity of Indigo Stadium. Soon, now. You're finally on your way. You'll find your brother. You'll save your mother. And you'll be standing in that victor's ring in Indigo Stadium, listening to the whole world cheer for you. It's only a matter of time.
 
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Chapter 10

Negrek

Rise Toward Descent
Staff
Author's Notes: A shorter chapter this time. Nice little breather before we sit down and really start to dig into some of the mysteries surrounding our protagonist.

Chapter 10

"All I'm saying is, that battle? Fucking sucked."

"I won. I do not see what your problem is."

"Yeah, you won. Because you got fucking lucky. You just told your charizard to all rampage and shit and figured it was on him to handle it." Titan turns in the great Nathaniel Morgan's direction, confused, licking ice cream off his snout.

"I told him to use rage, and he did. That is called strategy." Togetic whips past overhead, trailing a streamer of joy dust. You reach up to pass your hand through it, enjoying the tingle of the glowing flecks against your skin. You and the rest of the team are lounging in the sand, enjoying the spoils of victory--ice cream, mostly. The great Nathaniel Morgan sits alone at a nearby picnic table, contributing nothing but snide comments.

"Oh yeah, 'just keep doing that one attack, good luck,' that's some serious fucking strategy there. Wish I could come up with shit like that, you know? Teach me your secrets, oh motherfucking master trainer."

"I am not going to teach you anything. I want you to be quiet."

You toss Titan another tub of ice cream. He eagerly pries the top off and starts licking at the dessert within.

"Damn but I can't wait until you face Blue," the great Nathaniel Morgan goes on. "He's going to fucking wreck you, and he'll be a complete dick about it the entire time. It's going to be fucking great."

"It is not like you could do any better."

"What, in a battle? Freak, I could kick your ass--" He pauses as a gust of wind blows some of Togetic's joy dust in his face, then sneezes explosively. "Ow! Fuck! What the fuck is this--?" He sneezes again, then pulls his shirt up over his nose and glares at you with watering eyes. "What the hell is this shit?"

You're laughing too hard to answer, and Togetic comes drifting down to land on your shoulder, scattering another cloud of dust as she goes. Once you catch your breath, you say, "It is joy dust. Togetic makes it when she is happy. It makes you feel good."

"Oh, well that explains it," the great Nathaniel Morgan growls, slightly muffled through his shirt. "No wonder you're acting like a fucking moron over there, it's because you're literally high." Once Togetic's lost interest and floated away again, he pulls his shirt down and wipes his nose on his sleeve. "Anyway. Like I was saying. You think you can beat me in a battle? Fat fucking chance. I ain't no champion, but at least I don't suck."

Most days you'd be irritated by that, but nothing can put a dent in your good mood right now. "Oh, really? It is a pity you managed to lose your pokémon. I would enjoy showing you how wrong you are."

"Yeah? Then lend me one of yours, asshole. Don't matter to me."

"Really? You think you could win against me with one of my own pokémon?"

"Easy." He smirks as laughter overtakes you again. "Tell you what, let's make a bet out of it, huh? Some jackass took all my fucking cash, you might have heard, so why don't we say this: if you beat me, I'll be quiet the whole rest of this fucking stupid trip."

"You won't say anything?"

"Not one single fucking word. Sound good?"

Sounds suspicious. "And what do you get if you win?"

"You get off my ass and let me do what I want instead of being glued to your hip twenty-four-fucking-seven."

"No."

He rolls his eyes. "One day of freedom, then."

"No."

"Come the fuck on! I ain't gonna win anyway, remember? What the fuck're you afraid of?" You feign disinterest, picking up handfuls of sand and squeezing until the grains slip between your fingers. Finally the great Nathaniel Morgan makes a frustrated noise. "Come on! One fucking hour!"

You turn back to him and say, "Half an hour."

He growls to himself while he thinks, drumming his fingers on the table. "Oh, fuck me. Fine! Half an hour. We battle, and if you win, I shut the fuck up, and if I win, you let me out of your sight for half an hour. Deal?"

You take a few seconds to turn it over in your mind, checking for cracks. "Deal."

"Ha!" he gets up from the table, unfolding with pained slowness, and picks his way down the beach towards you. "I woulda done it for nothing, just to see the look on your stupid face. But I ain't gonna argue with a fucking perk, neither."

You stand up too and brush some sand off your pants. You glance around at your team, of which only Thunderstorm is paying any attention to the conversation. "Who do you want?"

"Don't care. I can kick your ass with any of 'em."

You hesitate, considering. Finally you decide: "Since you think I did such a bad job with him, you should take Titan and show me how it is done."

The charizard's sunning himself amidst a litter of empty ice cream cartons. He starts at the sound of his name and twists around to look at you over his shoulder.

"Titan, the human would like to use you in a battle against me. Would you mind listening to him for a little while?"

"Oh." Titan heaves himself to his feet, shaking himself until his wing-vanes rattle and sending up a great cloud of sand. "Sure. I'll do it."

"He is ready if you are," you say to the great Nathaniel Morgan, who is watching the charizard with a hint of a frown.

"Charizard, huh? Yeah, I can work with that. What about you?"

"Why should I tell you?"

He shrugs. "You know what I've got. But whatever, if you're so fucking scared of losing that--"

"Rats," you snap. "I am using Rats."

"Whuzzat?" The raticate rolls onto her back and squints up at you from sleep-fogged eyes.

"You are going to be battling Titan in a minute."

"Give me ten to get ready, and then we'll fight, okay?" the great Nathaniel Morgan says. He doesn't wait for you to reply, just motions for Titan to follow him and starts walking away from you. The charizard gives you a bewildered look.

"Why should you have time to prepare?" you ask. "It is not like you normally do before a battle." Rats scrambles up and starts stretching and combing sand out of her fur.

"You coming?" the great Nathaniel Morgan yells over his shoulder. Titan shoots you another confused glance, turns and stomps after the human.

"Hey!" you yell after them. "Wait! I am talking to you!"

If the great Nathaniel Morgan hears you, he gives no sign. Certainly he doesn't stop. He can hear you, can't he? You're being loud enough.

You waver on the brink of going over and demanding a battle immediately, but confusion holds you back. By your feet, Rats chuckles. "Smooth, Boss."

Titan stands by the great Nathaniel Morgan a little ways up the beach, out of earshot--or the earshot of a normal human anyway. You consider turning up your ears, decide against it.

So the great Nathaniel Morgan wants to have his secret conference? He thinks a few minutes of preparation will be enough to let him win? Fine, then. It doesn't matter. You're going to beat him no matter what. Like he said, you don't need any extra advantages.

So you just watch. You don't think even the great Nathaniel Morgan would be dumb enough to try anything with Titan there, but you aren't going to turn your back on him. As far you can tell the human's just talking fast, making little hand gestures, while Titan listens in an attitude of polite confusion.

"This is unwise," Thunderstorm says from beside you. "He would not have made that bet if he wasn't sure he could win."

"I know he thinks he can win. He's just wrong."

"You have no idea how good he is at battling. Don't be overconfident."

"Come on, Thunder. He's a Rocket. Everybody knows they suck." You cross your arms over your chest and frown, still watching the distant pantomime. "And he's stupid even for one of them."

"Yeah. And you know I can take that big lug one on one anyway," Rats says. She's prodding at the sand by her feet, bored. Thunderstorm floats down to her level, zooming in close.

"From what I saw, that 'big lug' had to clean up a mess you left in the gym battle earlier today."

"Well, maybe you saw wrong, three-eyes. Wouldn't surprise me if it was hard to make things out from where you were cooling your ass on the bench."

"Rats." She stops talking but flashes her teeth at Thunderstorm anyway. The magneton drifts off again, much to your relief. The rest of your wait passes peacefully enough, War growing bored and playing a complex drumbeat on the surface of the ocean. It's not long before you've done all the waiting you can stand.

"Hey!" you yell. Titan looks your way. "Enough. Let us battle, if you still insist on it."

"Oh hell yes," the great Nathaniel Morgan calls back, starting in your direction. "You got all that, big guy?" he asks Titan over his shoulder.

"I guess," the charizard says, ducking his head in a nervous nod.

"Go on, Rats." She takes up her place in front of you, a grim look on her face as she settles into a ready crouch. Her loss at the gym must have really stung. Well, she'll get to redeem herself here. "Hyper fang!"

"Fire spin!"

Rats takes off at an angle, ready to jink around Titan's attack. But it doesn't come. The whirlwind of fire you'd expected to bloom around Rats whips up with Titan at its center instead.

Rats skips to a halt just outside the wall of flame, peering at it. She stays constantly in motion, bouncing back and forth around the perimeter of the attack, looking for an opening. There isn't one, nor any way to see inside the fire spin--or for Titan to see out.

How does he expect hiding to help? You snicker to yourself and say, "Get ready with a hyper fang as soon as the fire goes out."

"Like I need telling," Rats mutters, keeping up her restless pace around the attack's edge. The very moment the flames start to dissipate she's on her way, lunging and sinking her teeth into Titan's side. He roars and turns to unleash a flamethrower at her. Rats lets go and scampers out of the way, skipping light-footed across the ring of molten sand left by the fire spin. She backs up even farther when Titan sends another flamethrower slashing her way.

"Go for the whiskers," the great Nathaniel Morgan says. Typical. It's what everyone thinks of first, battling a raticate. They're not even half as fast with their whiskers damaged.

"Another hyper fang when you see an opening, Rats," you say. She ducks under more fire, then starts forward again, teeth bared.

"Now! Get it!"

Titan hooks his foot-claws under the rim of the slaggy, half-crystallized ring of sand the fire spin left behind. He lifts. Rats stumbles, caught off-guard as the arena moves beneath her feet. "Slash!" the great Nathaniel Morgan yells.

Titan lunges, claws at the ready, and Rats spins away, protecting her face.

That's not what Titan's aiming for. He reaches with his jaws, clamping down on Rats' tail as it comes whipping into view. Then he rears upright, dragging the raticate backwards and into the air.

Both of you are too startled to react until it's too late. Rats' front paws scrabble across the ground for a moment, and then she's hanging upside-down, clutching at nothing.

"Hey! What the--?" She flails around a bit but only succeeds in rocking herself back and forth. Titan is standing with his neck stuck out awkwardly, Rats dangling where she can't reach any part of his body.

"You--you, you--put me down!" She tries to curl in on herself, reach up and claw at Titan's face, maybe, or pull her tail out of his mouth. But she can't reach and falls back in an exhausted flop, swinging like a pendulum.

"Rats." You still don't really understand how this happened. "Get out of there! Try--quick attack? Sucker punch. Something!"

"I swear, you stupid lizard, you're going to pay for--nrrrrrgh!" Rats transforms into a crazy ball of paddling limbs, twisting gently back and forth but making no progress towards freeing herself. You can see the muscles in Titan's neck straining to keep his head held out at such a strange angle, but he doesn't look tired.

"Good. Now go for the whiskers," the great Nathaniel Morgan says, and Titan brings his tail around and lines it up carefully under Rats. Then he starts to move it up, closer and closer to his helpless opponent. Rats, hanging in quiet exhaustion, sees it coming, her eyes widening.

"No--you--no! No no no nononononononononono!" The raticate throws herself into another fit of desperate struggling, to no avail. Titan's grip stays firm, and the flame keeps moving closer. In another couple seconds it's going to reach Rats' face.

The pokéball's recall beam reaches her first, and Titan's mouth snaps closed as her tail vanishes from between his teeth. He rocks back on his haunches in the sudden absence of her weight and blinks in consternation.

"Worked like a charm," the great Nathaniel Morgan says, a broad and hideous mockery of a smile spreading across his face. "Nice job, big guy." Titan lets out a snort of surprise and jerks his head around to look as the human pats him on the side in passing.

The great Nathaniel Morgan stands in front of the charizard with arms crossed over his chest, his horrid grin stretching even wider. "Ooh, yeah, I was right. That look is fucking priceless." But after a second his smirk fades. "Ugh. Actually, no, wipe that look off my face already. You're making me look like a total fucking moron."

"I won," Titan says, staring at the arena in front of him, the place where Rats isn't. Then his snout crinkles in a grin. "I won!"

He looks to you, hoping to share his excitement, but pauses on catching sight of your expression. His wings droop, and he knots his claws together, hunching his shoulders down. "Oh. Sorry."

"No, Titan." You're barely able to get the words out between gritted teeth. He glances up at you, nervously, then away again. "You did a good job. Nice work. But you!" You turn and glare at the great Nathaniel Morgan, who raises his eyebrows. "You cheated!"

"Oh, really? And how the fuck did I cheat?"

"That was not an actual attack! You cannot do that!"

"Not an actual attack? What, you've never heard of 'I win?' It's like feint attack except it's super effective against total dickheads."

"That is not even a real thing!" you howl.

The great Nathaniel Morgan shakes his head. "Honestly. What are they teaching you little monsters in school these days? Oh, wait." He smirks at you again. "Never went to school, did you? I bet they wouldn't take you 'cause you were too fucking ugly--"

"That battle does not count! You only won because you cheated. You cannot beat me in a fair fight!"

"It's not cheating, Freak. It's called fucking strategy. Maybe you oughta try it sometime. Starting with teaching your raticate some goddamned distance attacks already. If you don't, you're just going to end up getting fucked over when somebody with half a brain puts their pokémon out of reach. I mean, you didn't even teach it fucking hyper beam? I thought all the dumbass newbies loved hyper--"

"I do not want your stupid advice. I do not take advice from cheaters!"

"--is your strongest, but that doesn't mean you can just throw it at everything and expect it to be able to bite it to death or whatever--"

"Shut up. Shut up! That battle does not count. You will not get your stupid reward."

He shrugs and smirks at you again. "Huh. Not like I was really expecting you to keep your fucking word." He uncrosses his arms and wanders back to his spot at the table, followed by Titan's morose gaze. "But guess what, Freak? I already got my fucking reward. And it's that you're never. Ever. Going to live this one down."

--​

Indeed, the great Nathaniel Morgan's still going on about the battle at dinnertime. You'd hoped food would shut him up for a while, but he doesn't have a problem with talking while chewing. If anything, he's more expansive than he was before. "All I'm saying is, you want to actually win against somebody who knows what they're doing, you've got a long way to go," he says.

Your pokémon have already eaten and gone off on their own, leaving you to pick at your food and try to ignore your remaining dinner companion. He's already eaten two of the center's stiff, squashed burgers and shows no sign of slowing down.

"Like what the hell kind of trainer tells their charizard to rampage all over the fucking place? Sure it's kind of badass, but you can't just rage at shit and expect to win against anybody with half a fucking clue. Plus one of these days it's gonna come back and bite the two of you in the ass so hard you won't be able to sit down for fucking weeks, like that shit is dangerous, dumbfuck."

You grimace and pull your tray a little closer to you, just to be safe. For once you wish the great Nathaniel Morgan wouldn't curse so much. All those "f"s are dangerous when he's talking with his mouth full.

"Not that I blame you for having trouble with it," the great Nathaniel Morgan goes on, stickily. "I swear to God I've never met a dumber pokémon in all my fucking life. I could barely get it to understand even real fucking simple instructions."

"Shut up. Do not talk about Titan like that."

"Why the hell shouldn't I? Who's the one who just got fucking curbstomped? I know what I'm talking about, Freak. At least I know more than you."

You don't meet his eyes, prodding experimentally at your pudding. It looks a bit more appetizing than the rest of what's on your plate. "I told you. It does not matter that you won. You do not know anything. And I will not allow you to talk about my friends like that."

"Yeah, yeah, it doesn't count or some shit. That what you're telling yourself?" You wrinkle your nose as he spews spitty crumbs everywhere with a laugh. "Face it, Freak. You lost to the fucking Rocket scum. You're a shitty trainer, and no amount of bitching at me is going to change that."

"I do not have to face it because it is not true. You can keep saying the same things over and over again, but that will not change the fact that you are a weak, stupid human who cheats." You shove a spoonful of pudding in your mouth to shut yourself up. You shouldn't even be talking to him. But ignoring him doesn't help, either, and you're beyond tired of his sneering rants.

"That so? You want to talk weak and stupid, maybe you oughta take a look at that raticate of yours. Fucking pathetic, that's what it is."

"Shut up!" You bang the fist holding your spoon down on the table so hard some of the soda in your glass sloshes over the rim. "I told you not to talk about my friends like that, and I meant it. If you keep saying those kinds of things, I will--"

"You'll what?" He leans forward now, food forgotten, and lowers his voice so you have to strain to hear. "Set me on fire? Make my head explode? In front of everyone here?"

There's maybe a dozen other people in the cafeteria, humans and their pokémon. The two of you have a table to yourself, shoved up against the wall, but it's true--there are plenty of witnesses.

The great Nathaniel Morgan flicks a glance around the room, as if to drive his point home, then turns a smirk on you. "Yeah, that's right. So just what the fuck do you think you're going to do to me, huh? What would you do if I told you that lardass charizard of yours is the weakest, pussiest, ugliest excuse for a retarded lizard I ever--"

"I said shut up! Do not talk about him like that. I do not even care who is watching, I will--" realize with sudden cold certainty that the room has gone quiet and every single eye is on you. Find yourself standing up with your fist drawn back as if preparing to drive it through the great Nathaniel Morgan's smug, ugly face. Discover that your hand hurts for some reason.

You open your fist, and your spoon clatters unevenly to the table. It's a useless mess of metal now, bent and twisted back on itself from the force of your grip. After a moment of surprise, you realize that now everyone is staring at the spoon instead of you. You shuffle it hastily onto your tray under a litter of used napkins, then sit back down again and try to act like nothing's happened.

"This center silverware," the great Nathaniel Morgan says blithely. "Completely shitty, am I right?" He's gone back to eating.

You wince as a young girl bangs her fork experimentally against the edge of her table. You sit and stare down at the remains of the meal in front of you, not even seeing it. You force yourself to stillness and as close to calm as you can manage, waiting, meeting no one's eye. Gradually, conversation in the cafeteria starts to pick up again.

After a few minutes you realize that the fries the great Nathaniel Morgan's eating are yours and decide dinnertime's over. "You are going to pay for that," you hiss at him.

"Oh, I know. Totally fucking worth it, though." He stares right back at you, and there's not a trace of fear in his expression.

"Take your tray back to the kitchen," you say, gathering your own. "If you know what is good for you, you will not make a scene." From now on, he'll be getting his meals in your room, and let him complain as much as he likes. This was a disaster. And, you think as you dump your tray off into the garbage, to top it all off, you didn't even get to finish your pudding.

--​

You aren't surprised to find Rats back at the room, taking advantage of the quiet to get in a good nap. She's the only one there. The great Nathaniel Morgan lowers himself onto his own bed, favoring his injuries, and takes to staring at the ceiling.

You glare at him. "Do not even think you can ignore me. You are going to regret saying those things about my friends."

"Hey, Boss," Rats says on the tail end of a yawn, "could you maybe keep it down? Trying to sleep, here."

"I think you should leave, Rats," you say, running your thumb back and forth over the side of your fist. Iron spines are starting to grow out from your knuckles.

Rats raises her head and squints at you. "What do you mean? What are you going to--oh. Hey, whoah, hang on a second. What's going on?"

"Don't worry about it, Rats. Just get out of here."

She's on her feet already, as alert and attentive as if she'd never been napping. "Hold it. I don't like the looks of this. Why don't we just take a minute and--hey. Hey! I'm talking to you, here!" She makes a running jump when you start towards the human, catching your arm and clinging, like she's going to somehow hold you back.

"Look, you can't go around beating people up whenever they get on your nerves, all right? What the heck's your problem?" You try to twist your arm free, but she hangs on tighter, feet scrabbling for purchase against your side. You work to pry her off while you talk, your words coming out breathless and harsh.

"He made fun of Titan, Rats. He made fun of you. I told him to stop and he wouldn't stop, and I can't just let him get away with that, he can't keep saying things like that. It isn't right! Someone needs to punish him for being so mean."

"That so?" Rats' whiskers twitch, and she pauses for a moment. "Oh, well... Maybe if you just punched him once... No! No, kidding, kidding!" She tries to reach across and grab your other arm, too, while you do your best to shake her off without hurting her. The great Nathaniel Morgan watches the two of you struggling out of the corner of one eye, face expressionless.

"I'm serious! You need to chill out and think this over, okay? Hey--Absol! Absol, back me up, here."

"Back you up on what?"

"Absol?" You jerk around so fast that Rats digs her claws into your arm to keep from being thrown off. Absol's walking down the bed towards you, as casual as though she's been there all along. You sit down at the foot of the bed, gut twisting with nerves and embarrassment, and Rats lets go.

"Backup," she mutters to herself as she drops to the floor. "Gotta get backup. One second!" You barely notice the sound of the door opening and shutting behind her. Absol settles down next to you with her legs stuck out straight in front of her, calm as anything.

"Where the fuck did that thing come from?" The great Nathaniel Morgan's raised himself up on one elbow, giving Absol a narrow-eyed stare. And it's just too much.

"Stop it! Absol is not a thing, she is a person, just like you! Except better. And it is because of her that you are still alive, so you ought to show her some respect. Do not ever call my friends 'its' unless that is what they are. Do not call them 'things.' Call them by their names, and treat them like actual people, or you will not like what happens next."

Absol actually blinks, and for a moment the great Nathaniel Morgan is struck dumb. But he's never off-balance for long. "Wow. Jesus fucking Christ, I fucking get it already," he snarls. He nods at Absol, who barely glances in his direction. "Sorry, your royal motherfucking highness. There. You want me to curtsy, too? God."

Absol looks up at you. "Why are you so angry?"

"Absol, where have you been?" You run your fingers through her ruff, trying to calm down. "This stupid human is ruining everything. He's slow, and he always complains, and he said mean things about Titan and Rats, and about me, and we had a battle and he cheated so he won, and I hate him. Why do you keep protecting him?"

Absol's red eyes show no sign of emotion. "What makes you think I am protecting him?"

"Why can't I just kill him? Absol, he should have died in the first place. He deserves it. He's horrible."

Absol rolls onto her back and stretches her legs in the air, one at a time, and languidly flexes her claws. Without looking at you, she asks, "Do you think killing him will solve anything?"

"Yes. I wouldn't have to listen to him anymore. And he wouldn't be able to do more bad things."

"He would not be able to do more good things, either."

"He doesn't do good things, Absol. He's a bad guy." You reach out to scratch her stomach, but retreat when you receive an icy look. "If you don't want me to kill him, then just say so already," you say as Absol tucks her legs back in and starts licking at her ruff.

"You are free to make whatever choices are not dictated by Fate. I will not deny you that," she says without interest.

You make an exasperated noise. "I wish I could tell where that was."

Absol gives the faintest of smiles and rolls back onto her stomach. "I came to make sure this business wasn't causing any delay. Are you still expecting to reach the plateau within a week?"

"Yes, yes. I'll be there. I already beat the seventh gym. I got the badge today, see?" You show her the little pin you've stuck on your backpack, and she peers at it with polite interest.

"Congratulations. That's very nice," she says, and you grin and slide the bag to the floor again.

"So, are you going to stay for awhile?" you ask. Absol kneads the bedspread with her claws for a few seconds.

"For the night, I think." You smile and scratch around the base of her blade, and she is content to be fussed over for a bit.

"So? What the fuck?" the great Nathaniel Morgan says after a few minutes. You shoot him a glare, and Absol gives him a bland look when you stop petting her. "You got any more pokémon that are just gonna appear out of thin air, or what?"

"No."

"Well? What the fuck is up with that... with fucking Absol, then? You sure were having a real animal noise session over there."

"Absol came to see whether my journey is going all right. Which it is. Except for you."

He rolls his eyes. "Glad I could be of motherfucking service. What, so Absol's all about you being the best there ever was and shit? How the fuck does a freak like you even get a fucking fanclub?"

"She does not care about that, no," you say with a hint of reproach. Absol snorts. "She wants me to go to the plateau so I can find my brother. I need his help."

"What the fuck? You have a brother? There's more of you shits?" The great Nathaniel Morgan rubs at his face as if abruptly tired. "Oh dear God."

You frown at him, then watch as Absol leaps down from the bed and stretches. She ranges around the room, sniffing at corners, peering into the A/C unit. The great Nathaniel Morgan says, "So why the shitty badge quest, then? Just go to the fucking plateau and leave me the fuck out of it."

You don't need to be hearing this from him, too. "I need to be able to get close to the Champion. Only people fighting in the tournament are allowed in that part of the plateau."

"So, wait, the champion... Wait, the fuck? You're saying the champion is your brother?" He gives you a calculating look. "I thought Red was a fucking only child. Not that I can't see why they'd want to keep you quiet."

Absol grows bored of wandering and jumps back up on the bed, stretching out across its full width. "Do not be stupid. Of course my brother is not the Champion," you say. "My brother is Mewtwo."
 

OldschoolJohto

Never not editing
Pronouns
She/Her
Partner
solrock
Well shoot. I was going to write your Catnip review here instead of FFN... but I'm up to chapter 14! :D Maybe I'll double-dip a little. Some overall thoughts here, back to ch 14 on FFN.

Things I've been enjoying so far:

1) The mix of dark and light. Lots of upsetting things here, which make moments like Titan bringing you frozen lemonade such a shining delight.

2) The battles. They're so clean and easy to visualize, but fun! You make really good use of the quirks of each pokemon (from throwing Alakazam's spoons to the limits of what War can reach with his tentacles. A lot of the characterization comes through during the battles too, which is part of what makes them so good. The Blaine battle really stands out -- you/Sara/the child is ...ultimately still a child. Little to no strategy beyond brute force, sloppy, easily taunted. Blaine has finesse and strategy. You manage to show the child's incompetence without leaning on the old fic trope of Baby Trainer Forgets Type Matchups / Move Names. And the child isn't the only one to lose their cool in battle -- Rats and Titan are also rage fighters, for better and for worse. The pokemon in your world can really take a beating, which I appreciate -- it means we get to enjoy the battles for longer than we might in a truer-to-game setting. Some of the battles bordered on exhausting my brain because they are quite long. Chapter 13 stands out... but I also don't mind because I think that was intended to evoke the child's experience and headspace. You do always manage to pull it back in before it goes too long, so the balance has worked so far.

3) Nate and the child both have distinctive world views and for different reasons. It's fun to watch them clash, fail to understand each other, and refuse to budge.

4) You've got powerful characters who still manage to get dunked on through their own arrogance and poor choices. No one here is invulnerable, but we still get to play with large scale power and strength. Some of my favorite moments (even though they made me wince!) were when injuries healed wrong.

I know you've said before that the mystery aspect in the first ten chapters or so is a bit of a shortcoming since it's a result of a directional shift partway through the writing, and I don't disagree with that. I don't hate it, but I also wouldn't have been upset to get more hints about Sara sooner. That said, I've been enjoying it immensely all the same. The weirdness was compelling enough to drive me forward in spite of being initially bewildered.

Excited to dig back into ch 14!
 
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Negrek

Rise Toward Descent
Staff
Thank you so much for your lovely comment (and all your chapter-by-chapter reviews that I haven't replied to yet, too!).

I'm glad you enjoy the mix of light and dark! This story ended up coming out much more comedic than I'd initially expected, but I guess I just can't stay serious for all that long. Definitely one of the ways that the story's style and concept have evolved away from what I originally envisioned.

Battles are something I consider a specialty of mine, so I'm always extra-excited whenever someone says they enjoy them, heh. But, as a result, I can sometimes have trouble focusing on them too much, heh. I believe I've had the complaint that Chapter 13's battle goes on for quite a long while before; will probably try to trim it down a little once I'm there with my edits. But, yes, coming up with different off-the-wall strategies for characters to use and how they'll battle differently based on their personalities is the fun part for me! As is putting Nate and the child in a room together and shaking it until they fight, heh. I probably enjoy their bickering too much; there certainly is a lot of it.

Powerful characters who still get dunked on a lot was the original premise of the story, and one thing that hasn't changed (nor will it). But yeah, those beginning chapters... Well, I'm glad they weren't too discouraging. Definitely a big takeaway from this story is I need to write a full draft before posting, because both of my longer chapterfics have weird reversals and structural issues that could have been avoided if I weren't posting on the fly. Something to try for my next story, definitely. For this one, I'll just have to accept it the way it is and see in it the various other stories it's been at various points in its life.

It's always wonderful to hear that some of the things you like best about your story are what other people enjoy, too. Thanks so much for taking the time to read this, and for leaving so many wonderful reviews! I hope you continue to enjoy the story... At least it'll be a little less mysterious from here on out. :P
 

OldschoolJohto

Never not editing
Pronouns
She/Her
Partner
solrock
Definitely a big takeaway from this story is I need to write a full draft before posting, because both of my longer chapterfics have weird reversals and structural issues that could have been avoided if I weren't posting on the fly.
I relate to this. I don't think I have the self-control to wait until something is done to post it, and getting chapter-by-chapter feedback is such a cool opportunity. But, yeah, it leads to patching and patching and patching over chapters like they're old tires... Sigh. Thank goodness for editing but also... oh no, editing.
 
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SparklingEspeon

Insquisitabilitating
Pronouns
She/Her
~Review of Chapters 1 - 5~​

I've heard good word-of-mouth about this fic from several different people, but never had the time to sit down and read it until now. Reading it now, I agree with what I've heard in some areas, and disagree in others. Obviously, I plan to go in-depth below, but this review is written with only the context of the first five of the ten currently-posted chapters. I feel like that's a good breaking-off point, for reasons that I will also go into below :P

This is going to be an unusual review to write, because my biggest praise of this fic and my biggest criticism are both the same thing: The Child is a psychopath.

While reading Salvage, my first impression of this story is that it's a horror film told from the point of the monster. The Child is selfish, entitled, cunning, and ruthless, like many young children in real life can be when prompted. But the sheer amounts of power that the Child has been endowed with bring out its most negative qualities: It kills people for sometimes the pettiest reasons, has no qualms about murdering others and taking on their identities, and above all is concerned with itself. All this combined makes for a lot of interesting scenarios to put the Child in, and you use this as much as you possibly can in the first five chapters of this fic.

Just from the first few scenes it's very easy to tell that the Child is the villain of its own story, and that this story is most likely a tragedy. Born from the ashes of a failed experiment on Cinnabar Island, the Child has no sense of decency or morality. It kills recklessly and emotionlessly to fulfill the most menial of purposes, regards others as mere pawns on its own chessboard, and is selfish to extremes. Mother/friend figure Absol warns about how Fate will always come to take its toll upon those who abuse their lives, but when faced with a difficult situation, the Child doesn't hesitate to do the wrong thing. It reveals itself to Leonard Kerrigan arrogantly, and now its reckoning is surely on the way. Again it's very interesting set-up, and for the opening parts of the chapters this worked well. But it's not working as well now, and I believe that this setup alone isn't going to carry Salvage very well past its opening points (Which have now been passed, assuming that this fic follows conventional story structure, since the Child revealing itself to Leonard would be the Inciting Incident). And now I'll talk about the largest criticism I have for this fic: The Child is a psychopath.

At this point we've established that the Child is the villain, and potentially the protagonist at the same time. But because the Child is so selfish and ruthless, I have no reason in the world to root for it. That's not to say that there's no driving force behind these first five chapters - because there really is - but it IS to say that the driving force is more from a sense of mystery than it is from investment in the characters. I don't care about the ruthless, selfish Child at this point in the story - It can go dig itself a ditch and die for killing all those people - but I am curious about the Child. What is the Child? Who is Absol, and why is she so attached to it? What is the Child doing, and what does it need all those pokemon for? (You also set a moody atmosphere that's fun to read, but I'll get to that in a bit).

However, one-by-one, those layers of mystery are being removed. We don't know what the Child is yet, but it's probably safe to assume they had something to do with the Mewtwo Experiment in the Cinnabar Lab. We now know that the Child is on a mission to retrieve all the pokemon that were stolen from it, killing the humans responsible for its imprisonment in the process. And we know that Leonard Kerrigan is onto it. While some questions remain (What is the Child? Who is Absol?), one by one they are being removed, and slowly that morbid fascination is disappearing. And at this point, I don't feel that you can bank on readers empathizing with the Child to stay invested, because while the Child is easy to understand, it's not easy to empathize with.

I'll continue to the next step of this, where at the end of Chapter Five it's revealed (?) that everything we'd read up to this point had essentially been a large, roundabout prologue to a trainerfic. Obviously, I don't know if this is the case yet and you have put a cap on it by having the championships being hosted in a month, but a month is still a lot of time. Two other criticisms I have about this is that (A) the Child is mostly an interesting character when there are other characters for it to bounce off of. But a Trainerfic is likely going to include large swaths of time where the Child is on its own with nothing but the pokemon it spent so much time getting for company. And also (B), I feel like the Child going on a standard trainer journey sort of breaks away from what's happened these previous five chapters.

But again, this is a part of the story that I haven't read yet, and it seems daft to criticize it when I still don't even know what direction it's going in.

Something else I liked about Salvage is the atmospheric style you set with your prose. A particular example is this excerpt, which looks like it belongs in a Stephen King story:

Maybe it's that this is where the child died--that's kind of hard to overlook. Or perhaps it's something more. There something off about this sunny little island, some kind of wrongness in the soil, maybe, something alien rolling on the waves. With everything that's happened in the last ten years, there's got to be some kind of curse on the place.
For me, prose to a book is what music is to a movie, and this style of prose reminds me a cooler, more mysterious and atmospheric piece. Which hopefully makes as much sense on paper as it does in my head? Lol

I feel as though the comments about the Child 'dying' on Cinnabar Island could either be taken metaphorically, literally, or as a warped version of what actually happened from the Child's POV. I'm still waiting on more info on that before I draw any conclusions, though.

- Something I can't confirm but wonder about: if the Child reconstructed Matt Kerrigan from memory, then it's likely using Matt Kerrigan from when he ran away. Meaning that when the Child comes back posing as him, 'Matt' hasn't aged at all despite there being a large time gap between his disappearance and now. I feel like that would have been a pretty big tell right from the start.

But overall, these first five chapters were an interesting read! They're very gripping, if only out of morbid fascination as to what will happen next. I'm interested to see the continuation of the Leonard Kerrigan plotline as well. If the Child is the villain, than that makes Leonard the Hero (But obviously the Antagonist, from the Child's perspective), and I'm interested to see how that plays out. Not to mention that judging by what the Child has done so far, that trainer's journey could very well end up being more of a bloodbath than a journey...

Hopefully I'll be back to review the next five soon!

~SparklingEspeon

Listening to: Be Afraid - Segun Akinola
 
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