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5: The Dead

OldschoolJohto

Never not editing
Pronouns
She/Her
Partner
solrock
5: The Dead


To his surprise, Chris woke alone in the tent. Una's sleeping bag was neatly folded beside him—she must not have known to stuff it in its bag. He unzipped the door on his side of the tent and leaned out.

Una sat beside the campfire, stirring something in Chris's little fold-up saucepan.

"Oh. Hi," he said.

"Good morning."

Chris zipped himself back inside the tent to change into his hiking clothes. His belt snagged as he pulled it through the loops. He yanked—and cursed when he felt something snap.

"Are you unwell?" Una called.

"I just did something dumb." He emerged from the tent, pulling taut the torn belt loop to show where it had come unattached. "Only two left." There was a trainer joke that you could tell the number of badges someone had by the number of belt loops they'd ripped. Maybe joke wasn't the right word. Chris had known for some time that his backpack was chafing the ones along the back and there was wear from the wide and weighty belt itself, but he'd hoped to be able to hold out a little longer before having to go in for repairs.

He couldn't help being hard on his clothes. Across all the miles, carrying bulky cold-weather layers and gear for all his pokemon and a tent and cookware—he didn't pack much extra. He'd been wearing the same pair of pants when he first left Olivine and had already had them repaired multiple times. One patch was from the time he scraped his knee running from a wild tauros. One was from the time he washed them in a run-down hostel washing machine only to find them full of holes when the cycle finished. Repairs weren't cheap. The material was tricky to work with, so said the tailor, but Chris suspected they upcharged trainers because they knew they could. A person who only owns one pair of pants is often in the position of making desperate decisions.

Una said, "If you have a needle and thread, I could easily repair it."

He shook his head. "I don't. But thanks."

Una watched him zip the tent flap behind him. "Is it not possible to purchase another pair?"

If he had fifty extra dollars in his pocket from the battle yesterday, it would be easy.

"It's okay. I'll figure it out." He joined Una by the fire, threading his belt through the remaining loops. "Looks like you got the hang of the matches."

She smiled, blushing. "I expended several in the attempt. I apologize."

"That's okay. Hero usually lights the fires anyway." He took in the sugary smell rising off the pot. "Did you make breakfast?"

The previous evening, Una had been flummoxed by the magic trick of turning a packet of RediMeal powder into curry by adding water. Apparently, she adapted quickly.

"And tea." She pointed out the cup at his feet.

"Wow," he said, holding the cup close and inhaling the steam. "No one has made me breakfast since before I left home. Thanks."

Una shrugged and served them each a portion of instant oatmeal from the pot. "I was awake."

Chris stirred. "Are there … strawberries in here? Where did these come from?"

"Growing beside the path. You did not notice them yesterday?"

"No, I didn't. I'm glad you did though."

Birdsong and the smell of pine filled the air. The sky was clear. In the light of day, the lake looked flat as paper.

"Last night," he said, "the lake …. It feels like a dream."

Una laughed sharply. "Everything I have seen in the past several days has been like a dream."

Chris bit the inside of his cheek and said nothing. He wondered, yet again, what he was doing running in circles with a near stranger. But where else was he supposed to tell her to go?

"I do not know what to feel," she said as if reading his mind. Brow furrowed, she stared across the lake. "Never have I seen a god in the flesh before—and never did I dream that I might. It was not … what I imagined."

"I didn't even think they were real."

Like all children of Olivine, Chris grew up in the shadow of the nameless, unimaginable Whirl Islands monster. If he dared swim out too far, his aunt told him one summer, he might encounter a terrible sea monster who would mistake him for its child and drag him into the depths. The version repeated on the playground was simpler and more brutal: it could swallow a grown man whole. Questions of whether the monster could travel the Olivine sewer system kept him up at night. When Chris repeated these stories to his parents, sobbing in terror of the family beach outing, his dad smiled but corrected firmly: riptides. Hiro Nakano taught Chris and his sister how to spot rip currents, what to do if they were ever caught in a rip, and what types of weather bring tentacool to shore. Chris wasn't afraid of sea monsters anymore after that.

And it wasn't only the large-scale, intimidating gods and other myths his family ignored. He had never been taught to expect money under his pillow when he lost a tooth. Easter was something other families did, though he might convince his mom to add marshmallow pikas to their shopping cart. They celebrated Christmas, loosely, but they never left cookies for Santa or carrots for his stantler. The first time he'd heard about the ritual from a classmate, Chris had been baffled. He was good at keeping his skepticism to himself though, unlike his sister, who made herself the pariah of the first grade one week for arguing Santa logistics. Stantler don't fly, stupid.

If Una was offended by Chris's admission of faithlessness, she didn't show it.

She fingered the feather she wore around her neck. "In Ecruteak—before, I should say—belief came easily, but faith was harder. How could I doubt in the existence of Ho-oh —" she dropped her voice to a reverent near-whisper when she spoke the name "—when I can hold one of Her feathers? Some priests spend the entirety of their vocation interpreting the remains of the burnt offerings atop Brass Tower. But to believe She cares for our petty concerns …. That is harder to prove.

"And yet …." Una flashed a wry smile. "Now, when I am the furthest I have ever been from the gods who have always guarded my home, when they have vanished—now is when the gods choose to speak directly. And they have even given you a personal blessing." There was a bitter edge to her voice. She wanted it to have been her.

Chris fidgeted. "Some blessing …. Kinda scary. Like that ashes on the wind stuff. And it—she—knew my name."

"Sometimes the gifts of the gods are fearsome."

Burnt offering she'd said. Chris started to wonder of what, but decided he didn't actually want to know. His skin prickled.

After a moment Una spoke again. "I have been considering what you said yesterday, how this is where you feel right, out here in the wild. I think I feel that way as well. All my life, Ecruteak and its two towers were the center of meaning, but the gods reside there no longer. They are here." She made a sweeping arm gesture, then shrugged and tucked her hands in her lap.

Chris spoke slowly. "So you don't want to stay in Mahogany."

"No." She laughed humorlessly. "If all cities are like what I saw of Ecruteak and Mahogany, then I am suited for none of them. This is not my world anymore. But the trees are yet unchanged. The mountains are unchanged. I understand those things."

Chris carefully set down his bowl and leaned forward, elbows on knees. "You know, the battle yesterday—that's not a one-time thing."

And that wasn't even a bad one, he added silently.

She looked at her feet but nodded.

"I can't keep throwing battles because they upset you. For one thing, I need to pay for supplies." He toyed with a loose-hanging belt loop. "And even if I didn't ... this is what I'm out here for."

"I understand. Or, rather … I do not and cannot understand, but …." Una met his gaze. "I know what we witnessed here last night. If you have the blessing of the gods…there must be something I am not seeing. Perhaps there is something I am meant to learn from you."

He looked away. Her gaze was heavy.

At the same time, his heart twisted remembering how at the ruins of the burnt tower she'd hugged that carved pillar like a dying loved one. He tried to imagine waking up one morning to learn that everyone he knew—his mom, his siblings, his high school friends, the grocery store clerk—was gone. That every pokecenter computer and his Bitflex and pokeballs were all defunct relics. He couldn't.

What would Dad do?

Una was looking at him, waiting.

Chris managed half a smile. "I guess you could teach me how to find wild strawberries."

She laughed, a real laugh this time. "Verily, I can."

His smile brightened seeing her grin. "No one else would believe me if I told them what we saw."

"And I would be called a heretic." Una became wistful, but only for the briefest moment before dissolving into the desperate giggling of the overwhelmed. It caught hold of Chris too.

Finally, Chris steadied himself with a deep breath and said, "We should get going. I'll show you how to pack up the tent."

Maybe, Chris hoped, they would run into another trainer on the path and he could try again.

They didn't.

However, they did see lots of plants. Chris hadn't paid them much notice before, thinking of them only as part of the backdrop or something to push through, but Una knew a use for nearly every specimen they saw. She showed him plantago (good for bug bites and scrapes), yarrow (wound care and indigestion), and jewelweed (an antidote for poison ivy).

After she pointed out the first strawberry plant, Chris easily spotted another. And another. They ate the wild berries almost hand-over-hand as they walked. Tikal didn't need them to point out berry plants to her, but all the same, the sandslash happily accepted strawberries from their hands, sweeping her long tongue over their red-stained palms.

Though Chris had walked Johto Route 42 three times now, he felt as if he were truly seeing it for the first time.

When they crested the hill and saw Mahogany Town laid out below them in the mossy shadows between Mt. Mortar and the Dragon's Spine, close enough to pick out individual buildings, Chris let out a sigh of relief. They were making good time.

They walked without speaking until they had nearly come to the first buildings. "Last chance," he said with a nervous smile, knowing what her answer would be.

She shook her head but smiled. "I am content to continue."

"Just making sure."

How different she seemed already from who she'd been when they'd set out together from Mahogany Town. She left as a blank slate, a girl without a name. Now she had an air of resolve. Her gaze was sharper, her head higher.

Chris and Una walked side by side down the wide main road, soon passing the gym and The Indigo Chateau. The streets were quiet. They saw a few children playing kick the can, a pair of women carrying baskets of freshly washed clothes back from the lakeshore, and an old man smoking a pipe on his front steps. Chris slowed as they passed the repair shop.

"Will you seek a seamstress?"

He chewed his cheek and imagined sitting around the repair shop in his sleeping clothes and waiting to get his pants back. Reading his book, he supposed, or writing a letter home, while outside the daylight slowly waned. Directly ahead, the mountains loomed green and sharp. They were so close now.

"I'll do it in Blackthorn," he said.

"Then what comes next?"

Chris took a deep breath. He pushed down thoughts of money and lost time and all the miles left to go, touching Hero's pokeball for luck. "We're gonna climb the Ice Pass. And then I'm going to meet Clair and show her what I can do."

She tied back her long curls and wiped the sweat from the back of her neck. "Lead the way."



Una noticed the delibirds first. Leaning together against a boulder, she and Chris each ate an apple and passed back and forth a bag of trail mix. Then she grabbed Chris's arm and pointed, smiling mischievously.

Chris counted three of them in the tree across the way. Four. Now six. He made a noise of exasperation. "Yeah, the pokemon up here aren't afraid of people at all. Persistent too." He reached for his jolteon's pokeball.

"Oh please—" said Una, but she was too slow.

Shooting sparks with each joyful bark, Sonic chased the delibirds out of the tree and into the sky.

"Don't worry," Chris said, brushing a fallen feather off his sleeve. "They won't go far."

Sure enough, the sound of delibird hoots and trills remained constant as they packed up their lunch and continued up the canyon. Alone, Chris would've been annoyed by them. But it was hard to begrudge Una her wide-eyed delight. "I guess you haven't seen a delibird before, huh?"

"Never."

Chris felt a pang thinking of how much of the world, or even the Johto region, she'd never had a chance to learn anything about. He had grown up watching sailors on the docks—the Unovans with their gurdurrs and simipour, the floatzel and gastrodon from Sinnoh—and all manner of trainers and pokemon came through the gym. What he couldn't see in Olivine he could easily search for in the pokedex, or there might be a Discovery Channel special after school. He got the impression that Una's Ecruteak must have been very isolated.

Then again, if she was able to find joy in a delibird when he couldn't, maybe she was one who should feel sorry for him.

"They give humans little presents sometimes," he told her. "You know, berries, rocks … trash."

"They are messengers," she said. "We should leave them something too."

Chris didn't reply, glad she was walking behind him and couldn't see his face. The last thing he wanted was to encourage them.

They steadily climbed, single-file. Sonic zipped from the head of the line and back, even darting between Chris's feet once or twice, chasing any delibird that came too close. They hadn't reached the snow line yet—probably wouldn't until tomorrow at their current rate—but they hiked past hummocks hanging with muddy icicles, and the leafy trees phased out in favor of pines and woody shrubs dotted with red berries.

After a while, Chris piped up, "What are you humming?"

"Oh!" He heard her stumble in surprise. "I apologize. I had not realized that I was."

"It's okay. I thought it was nice." He glanced over his shoulder and they exchanged shy smiles.

"Only a silly little song," she said.

"You can keep going. I mean, if you want to."

For a few moments, there was only the sound of their footsteps and the rustling of branches. Then Una began to sing in a thin but pretty voice.

Little bird, little bird
Fly for me high above
And carry, oh carry
This letter to my love

Little bird, little bird
O'er the many miles you sing
Do not tarry, oh tarry
You fly on borrowed wings

Little bird, little bird
Oh how far you have flown
Do not worry, oh worry
The gods will take you home

When she finished she added, "I believe there is more, but I do not recall the words. Suki, my sister, had a much better memory for songs and suchlike."

"I like that. It's sweet," said Chris. "There's something almost sad about it too."

"It comes from an old story," she said. They were each getting better at masking their shock at what the other didn't know. "A young girl wins the friendship of a pidgey and the promise of a favor. Out of love for her, it agrees to carry a message to her lover on the opposite side of a treacherous mountain. The little bird delivers the letter, only to die of exhaustion shortly after."

"Oof." Unbidden, the image of the prescription pill jar brought to him by a delibird came to his mind again. "That's a lot for a little bird to carry."

"So it goes." He could hear the sad smile in her voice. "But in honor of its loyalty and fortitude, it is guided home to live among the gods."

"I guess that's something."

Nearby a delibird honked in protest as Sonic rushed at it. Scree and sticks clattered down the hill as they walked.

Chris said, "I like the song though."

Una hesitated for only a moment. "I know a few others. If you like."

"Yeah, sure. I'd like to hear them."

They hiked more slowly than Chris would've alone, but the time seemed to pass more quickly all the same.



The next day, another of Chris's belt loops tore free as they walked. He felt it go, only just managing to catch the sagging end of the belt before his pokeballs went tumbling. There wasn't enough support left for it to hold up.

Una looked back to see him frozen in the middle of the path. "What happened?"

"It broke," he said, unbuckling his belt.

After taking a moment to stare down at his belt in his hands and feel sorry for himself, Chris slid out of his backpack. He clipped Sonic's pokeball to the carabiner on his shoulder strap and the rest he zipped in an outside pocket. He hated tying his team down to his backpack. He felt naked without his belt. The only positive, he supposed, was that in the mountains there were few if any other trainers who might try to get into his backpack to steal … everything.

He took a breath, shouldered his pack, and lifted his head up. "Let's keep going."

The only way out is through.

Chris made a point to turn his Bitflex to the underside of his wrist so he couldn't see the date and time so easily.

He pushed past a branch that snagged on his hood. There was a smack and then a cry of surprise as it struck Una behind him. He turned to see her holding a gloved hand to her cheek. "I'm sorry! Are you okay? I'm not used to having to watch out for someone behind me. Sorry."

"I am not harmed. All is forgiven."

They spent the morning hiking in the shadow of the canyon, with a brief interlude in the sunlight around lunchtime before the sun dropped behind the high limestone walls again. It began to snow.

"So this is where you found me?" Una asked, a mix of awe and horror in her voice.

"Yeah, more or less. I don't know if it was here exactly, but … somewhere near here."

He snuck a glance back in time to see her shiver. "I wonder if I will ever know how I came to be here."

A massive fallen log cut across the path. Chris found a foothold and hoisted himself over. He leaned one arm against the stump where a branch had broken off long ago and he watched Una approach the log and falter. She was out of breath. Chris didn't want to, but they would have to stop and rest soon.

"Who would have thought," Una said, panting, "that I would return here so soon."

Chris dusted the snow from his gloves and reached down to offer her a hand up.

She flashed a smile, straining with forced cheer, and fumbled for a handhold on the log. But she accepted his hand and let him pull her up and over, her boots slipping. She leaned against the log next to him and sighed.

He felt a surge of pride looking at her, face red with cold, a few stray curls poking out from under the hood of her coat and the knit cap. This wasn't easy for her. But she was stubborn, and he had to admire that. He still had yet to hear her complain once.

"A couple of days ago, I wouldn't have been able to believe you'd do so well out here. Most people … wouldn't. You must really want to be here."

Una answered in a breathless laugh, "This is the first thing in my life I have chosen freely and fully."

Chris didn't know what else to say so he smiled. "Let's take a break at the top of this hill. I'm feeling kinda tired." He slowed to Una's pace and they wound their way up the hill side by side.

They were nearly at the top of the hill when they heard a shrill bark, a different sound than the one Sonic made when he was chasing a delibird. "Sonic, come here!" There was a resounding stillness. He hadn't noticed until now how even the delibirds had quieted. "Sonic?"

At the top of the hill, the path leveled out for a stretch. Sonic's paw prints were easy to pick out in the snow, the shape warped by his SmartResin paw protectors. The tracks meandered to the right, and then vanished under a long, muddy skid mark—Chris's blood froze. In the same instant, he spotted both the jolteon laying among the trees, a muddy yellow lump—and also, hunched above it, all shoulder and chest and rippling fur, the ursaring. He heard a small guttural sound and tracked it further into the thicket. Two golden-faced tediursa cubs peered down from a tree.

Chris tried to motion for Una to stay back, but she was already right behind him. He heard her breath catch.

The ursaring sniffed the air and spun around, locking her beady eyes on Chris. She snorted a puff of steam and then bellowed.

Pokemon bolted from the nearby bushes in a crunching of leaves.

Chris slowly took a step back. In a low, gentle tone he said, "Hey, easy. We're not gonna hurt your cubs."

Hero was large enough to put the ursaring in check. He slid his backpack off one shoulder.

That was a mistake.

The ursaring snapped her head around and snarled. Faster than he would've believed, the ursaring dropped to all fours and rushed towards them. She stirred up snow in her wake and shouldered through the bushes.

If he was fast—

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Una lace her hands behind her head and drop to her knees.

"What are—?"

"Chris, get down."

He hesitated for a fraction of a second, and that was all it took. Suddenly the ursaring was only a yard away.

His mind went utterly blank, like a candle blowing out. He surrendered and put his hands behind his head. Beside him, Una lay face down in the snow, and he followed suit, closing his eyes.

Overhead, the ursaring slewed into a stop less than a foot from Chris's head and roared, spraying him with snow and spittle. For a moment she only swayed over him, but he could feel the weight and power of her even with his eyes closed. She roared again.

Chris's ears rang. He held as still as he could, but his trembling was beyond his control.

The ursaring swiped at him once, twice, knocking his pack aside with a thud. He heard fabric rip and flinched. But no more blows came. Her breath was hot on the back of his neck. And then he heard heavy footfalls in the snow, and the towering shadow receded.

He waited as long as he could stand it before slowly lifting his head.

Several yards away, the ursaring stopped and huffed at them, breath steaming. She growled again, softer this time. At last, she turned away.

Without her eyes ever leaving Chris and Una, she shambled to the tree where her cubs perched. She coughed, growled, and the cubs began to clamber down one at a time. They fell over themselves cartoonishly as they hit the bottom and then gamboled in a circle around her, all under her watchful glare. With a rumble, she herded them across the path towards the opposite slope. She paused one last time in the middle of the path to glower at them, and then the three bear pokemon lumbered into the trees.

Chris and Una lay there for a long time, listening to the wind in the branches and distant pokemon calls, before they dared rise to kneel on the cold, wet ground. Chris's heart was still pounding. He turned to look at Una. Pine needles and snow clung to her hair. "How did you know that would work?"

"There are many things I do not know or understand." She stood and offered a hand to Chris, smiling. "Fortunately, I do know some things about making peace with wild creatures."



That night by the fire, after they'd cleared away their dishes, Chris rubbed an aspear and yache berry salve into the pads of Sonic's feet. Then he used duct tape to patch over the claw marks on his backpack and the back of his coat, a holdover until they reached Blackthorn. The line of repairs was starting to seem endless. Hero, his coat freshly brushed, rested his chin on the fire ring and watched with half-lidded eyes. Chris wondered what he was thinking about.

The sky was pearlescent with clouds, though every so often a snatch of starry oblivion peeked through. He couldn't pick out any of the familiar constellations, nor the new ones Una had pointed out to him.

At the previous night's campfire, Chris had fulfilled his half of their unofficial song exchange by showing Una the few tracks stored on his Bitflex. Mostly '80s rock ballads. Campy stuff. He only kept them because they made him think of hanging around the gym, wheedling for the gym trainers to teach him drills to run with his then-cyndaquil. The music reminded him of reaching for something. But Una had never heard of an mp3. Those tracks were only as ridiculous to her as anything else, so why not play them for her?

Tonight, though, he was quiet.

"What thoughts are on your mind, Chris?"

He leaned back and let Sonic nestle into his half-unzipped coat. "For a while now, for most of my journey really, I've only had myself to rely on. I'm proud of that. But … if it had only been me and my pokemon today, I would've been in trouble.

"It's funny. People think training is about giving commands and planning out strategies, but that's not all of it. I was thinking today about the Ecruteak Gym—you know, with the trap doors." He had done his best to explain the Indigo League and the eight gym system while they walked, but it wasn't easy when she was missing so much context, and then he realized he didn't actually know some of the history either. Their pool of shared knowledge was still developing. "Hero was trying to let me know to stop, but I second-guessed him. So I fell through. If I would've listened, that wouldn't have happened.

"I almost had another one of those moments back there with the ursaring." Even with the heat of the fire on his face, he could feel his face grow hotter still. "I'm glad I listened to you. I'm glad you're here."

Una tipped her head to one side. "You have chosen such a dangerous journey. Why do you continue, even knowing its risks?"

He let out a long sigh. "That's a big question. I mean, it's a lot of things, right?" He watched the flames, rubbing Sonic's ear, but he could still feel Una watching him. "I probably haven't been doing a good job lately of showing it, but it's fun too. I get to hang out with pokemon and hike all day and win battles. And … and I guess, probably it's because of my dad."

She waited.

"He used to be the Olivine gym leader—I don't know if I already told you that. So I've been around pokemon all my life. Hero was bred from one of his pokemon, actually."

In a flash, he thought of his dad scolding him for feeding his cyndaquil scraps under the table, as he was in the habit of doing with his friends' pets. At the time Chris hadn't realized yet that Hero had been given as a pet in name only, for legal reasons—he was always intended to be a fighter. His starter.

"I guess," said Chris, "I want to do things that would've made him proud. I want everyone to be able to see ... that I'm his kid."

"Oh. I see," said Una. "Did he ...?"

"Yeah." He cleared his throat. "But it was five years ago." Chris shifted in his seat, and Sonic made a sudden leap off his lap, shaking himself off and then tucking himself against Hero's side instead. Suddenly cold without his pokemon pressed against him, Chris zipped his coat to his chin. He craned his head back to gaze up at the clouds and continued, "You learn to get used to it. I think it was harder for my mom and my brother. He was pretty little."

"I understand. I felt much the same after Suki passed. Many in Ecruteak fell ill that season, and there was too much work to be done to spend much time in mourning."

Chris stole a glance at her. She sat with her arms wrapped around her knees, her hair partly obscuring her face.

"I'm sorry for your loss."

"As you said, one adjusts." She cracked a crooked smile. "Besides, it happened over five hundred years ago."

"Still. That's hard. You're allowed to be upset about things like that. I mean, I almost didn't become a trainer because of what happened."

She tucked her hair behind her ears. "What do you mean?"

"Well, he was killed by a pokemon."

Una reached up reflexively to touch her feather necklace with one hand and the other flew to her lips. "One that he was ... training?"

"No," he said, more defensively than he'd meant. "Definitely not. It was a challenger, at the gym. An accident."

"An accident?"

"It was this young guy who didn't really know what he was doing." He might've been younger than Chris was now, just someone trying to make a name for himself the only way he knew. Chris swallowed.

"We could discuss something else. I do not wish to upset you."

"It's fine. I don't mind it."

She wrapped her arms around herself again, leaning her chin on her knees, and waited.

Chris stared into the sky and spoke with a matter-of-fact tone. "The other trainer brought out a rhydon—newly caught, and he wasn't ready to handle it."

When Chris made the decision to take on the Indigo League, he had looked up the footage. He should watch it, he thought, because he wanted to be sure he would never be that trainer. The rhydon had been monstrous, its back crusted with lichen and moss, a creature no one ever should have tried to remove from the wild.

At first it wouldn't fight, hunkered down taking and taking hits. Then, suddenly, it started attacking everything—pokemon, onlookers, even smashing its head against the walls. "It freaked out. Pokemon do that sometimes their first time in a gym—it's the confined space. The lights. The crowd. The guy had no control over it, but he let it rampage anyway because he thought he might win that way. The rhydon finally burst through the wall to escape, and half the ceiling collapsed."

Three other trainers and an off-duty cop finally brought the rhydon down, but it had done its damage. Although most people had been evacuated from the gym, many were wounded and four were killed. When paramedics eventually found Hiro Nakano in the rubble, there were signs his pokemon had tried to protect him … but had failed.

"We like to think that just because you have a pokemon, nothing can touch you, but …." Chris wished he didn't know that his dad's typhlosion and houndoom had been crushed beside him beneath the falling travertine, but he did. Several of his pokeballs had also broken apart in the collapse, and it took the local sheriff's office two days to recapture his loose pokemon. His charizard was never found.

Eventually, the city rebuilt the gym and found a new gym leader. She'd liked the exposed steel beams when she visited during the construction, and so it stayed that way. They added black tile flooring that reflected your own face back at you and, most importantly, a heavily reinforced steel ceiling dome.

"And yet," said Una, "here you are."

"Here I am."

"You are fulfilling your father's wishes."

"Yeah. I think so." He felt Una's eyes steady on him, but he kept his gaze on the fire.

"And your mother? What does she want you for you?"

Chris prickled at what he took for accusation under the surface of that question. But when he turned to look at Una again, he only saw curiosity in her face. And confusion. Her parents had decided her life for her, he reminded himself. She hadn't gotten to choose. Not what came before, and not even coming here, to this time. Trainer culture was the least of the gaps in understanding between the two of them.

He thought for a minute. "Mom was angry at first when I told her I'd decided to train, but she wouldn't say so. I mean, she's supportive, but she doesn't really understand it. Sometimes I don't either, honestly. It's just something I have to do."

Chelsea Lange had never taken her husband's name and never learned to love his profession. Hiro used to tease her. You must be the only nurse in the entire world who covers her eyes at the sight of blood.

Listen
, she would say, poking him in the shoulder or the ribs or whatever she could reach, it's not all blood. Just because I can take a blood sample doesn't mean I like watching two pokemon knock the stuffing out of each other.

But she went to his matches anyway, all the important ones. (Chris sat in the audience next to her, and his job was to tell her when it was safe to look again if it took an ugly turn.) And Chris had known from day one that she would come to his matches too.

She'd already done a lot for him in that department. Studying for his licensing exam wasn't bad—-the test was mostly common sense questions, and by then he was only doing enough in his regular classes to coast through to graduation. But it was easier with his mom's help. She sat across the kitchen table from him and quizzed him on the first aid questions the test would cover, plus some extra she thought he should know. Probably she was as responsible for saving Una's life as Chris was, if indirectly.

The week before he left home for real, he spent a couple nights on a familiar trail just outside of Olivine as a test run of his new tent and gear. His mom invited herself along, tasking his aunt with watching Keiko and Kaden.

"Last chance to make sure you'll miss me."

"Mom. Of course I'll miss you." He was surprised both that she wanted to come and that he wanted her to. His dad had taken him camping many times, but his mom had joined only once that he could remember, when he was in elementary school.

He'd expected her to nag him about sunscreen and drinking enough water, but she didn't. She let him lead, content to watch him fumble his way through cooking on the camp stove and repacking the tent on his own. Maybe she'd wanted to see for herself whether he really would be okay out there by himself. A look of concern crossed her face from time to time, but she bit her lip and kept it to herself. She was like Chris, quiet. His sister and their dad were the talkers in the family.

On the last night of the trip, Chris said to her, "I guess you're probably disappointed."

"Disappointed? Honey, I'm always proud of you."

"Yeah, but you don't want me to leave."

"Oh, it's my job to worry." She put an arm around his shoulder and squeezed. "But I've been mentally preparing. I always knew you'd go out and train."

"You did?" He hadn't been sure.

"Yup. And I know you're going to be amazing."

"I got those good genes."

"You've got you. And you're a pretty good one." She gave him another squeeze. "Just don't get yourself killed. I'll be so mad."

"Yeah, that's not in the plan, don't worry."

He should call her—it was overdue. But he couldn't until they got to Blackthorn. No cell service out here.

To Una he finally said, "I think she just wants me to come home in one piece." The fire had gone to coals. Chris prodded them with a stick and said, "Anyway. Thanks for listening. I don't usually talk about this stuff."

Una's expression was difficult to read. "It is good to remember our loved ones. Even if we cannot see or touch them, we can feel them still."

He waited, half-expecting Una might volunteer something about her own family. But she didn't.

Later, curled towards the tent wall, Chris asked, "Do you really think that's true, what you said the other day about people who've died coming back as pokemon?"

She was quiet for so long he thought maybe she had fallen asleep. "It is what I choose to believe."



Una began breaking down the tent the next morning while he warmed up with a cup of tea. Already, this had become their routine. Chris hadn't asked her to do it, but if he told her she didn't have to he knew she would anyway.

He walked while he sipped, stretching his legs and checking for any equipment or trash they might have overlooked. A dot of red among yesterday's gray snow caught his eye. Tucked under an overhang, someone had arranged ten or so flat rocks into a tower, and on top was an apple cut into beak-sized chunks.

Chris shook his head, smiling, and started to turn back to their camp, but something made him pause.

Kneeling beside the stone pile, he dug into his pocket for a granola bar. He unwrapped it and broke it into small pieces. Not until he was walking away did he notice himself humming little bird, little bird ….
 
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Namohysip

Dragon Enthusiast
Staff
Partner
charizard
Heya! Time for a look at this one, eh? So, I took a look at the prologue and first chapter, and while it was a bit of a slow start, I found myself invested pretty quickly at the start!

As someone from the PMD side of things, it's a little odd to have such little focus on the Pokemon the trainers have, particularly in the prologue, but every setting is different. This one has them more like animal companions than anything.

What was she supposed to say now? Three years was too late to say sorry for your loss, even though she was. Hiro had been the Olivine gym leader when she was growing up too.
It makes sense in hindsight, but the beginning of this prologue had me feeling really lost. I don't really know how to describe it other than it kinda meandered around the central point, but I guess that's still fair. I got the point eventually on the context of it all, I think. If I have this correct, she was the successor to the Gym, and this trainer was the late, old Leader's son. Some kind of accident happened, the building had collapsed? and he died in it.

Then the League referee blew her whistle
Kinda came out of nowhere. Was she just there listening to that awkward exchange the whole time? I feel like that could've been a tinge of dark humor.

She took a deep breath and made her final peace offering. "I've got big shoes to fill."

For a long, quiet moment they simply stood and shared the space.

"Yeah. Me too."
Now that's a good ending to a prologue.

--

The delibirds stared with wide eyes. One shuffled nearer, nosing its plastic treasure towards him.

"Thanks guys, but I still don't have anything to give you!" Chris laughed.
I find it an odd image for a bipedal delibird with its proportions to nose anything forward. Also, this was an interesting take on wild interactions with animals that seem to be intelligent, but not quite. Wonder how humans coexist in a world like this.

impossible to miss because Sonic bounded over to sniff. He paused to finger the grooves, stretching above his head to reach.
The way these sentences were strung together, I at first thought Sonic was fingering at the claw marks, which in turn made me think that was an odd phrase since, you know, Jolteon.

He stared up through the skeletal branches and snowflakes.
Nice word choice considering the situation.

Disgusting.

He spun to face the two paramedics. "Can I come with you?"
"No."

--

Anyway, very nice opening chapter! For the first half, I wasn't really sure what you were going for. Very meandering. One thing about the second half, once that initial conflict was given, was that I really appreciated the way you make use of narrative time. If he's waiting around, you don't just say he's waiting, but you actually take some time to just have him meandering about, so in a way, we're waiting with him. It's not often that I get to read something that actually makes use of this technique--it was a real treat. Thanks for the read!
 

OldschoolJohto

Never not editing
Pronouns
She/Her
Partner
solrock
while it was a bit of a slow start,
It’s a slow, quiet story through & through. That’s just how this one rolls.

it's a little odd to have such little focus on the Pokemon the trainers have, particularly in the prologue, but every setting is different. This one has them more like animal companions than anything.
Yup, for better and for worse my stories tend to be terribly trainer-focused. There are a few moments where a pokémon’s charm shines through, but none of them are main characters. There is one that becomes quite important later on, but even she takes a back seat.

It makes sense in hindsight, but the beginning of this prologue had me feeling really lost.
Hm noted! The prologue is new—used to have a completely different one—so I’m still getting a sense for how it hits new readers. I definitely want it to be a reveal. After all, Jasmine isn’t sitting there thinking about Dead Dad all day, so why would her mind go there first? But I’ll definitely take another look and reevaluate.

Was she just there listening to that awkward exchange the whole time? I feel like that could've been a tinge of dark humor.
Oh fair, especially because I did make good comedic use of a referee in a later chapter. I’ll try to see a spot where it might fit.

Now that's a good ending to a prologue.
❤

I find it an odd image for a bipedal delibird with its proportions to nose anything forward. Also, this was an interesting take on wild interactions with animals that seem to be intelligent, but not quite. Wonder how humans coexist in a world like this.
Re: proportions—this is definitely another style thing. Because I treat them like animals, I also assume less macrocephaly (just to name one example) than the Sugimori style. You might be right about nosing though—real-life penguins use their feet a lot, and that might be a better fit. I’ll go watch some penguins on YouTube.

But YES, the question of how humans coexist is very, very important to one character in particular throughout this story.

The way these sentences were strung together, I at first thought Sonic was fingering at the claw marks,
dhsvjjhhfdbkjfd
You’re right. Missed one. Luckily, I’m planning a big editing session of chapters 1-3 after I finish something else. Planning to gut #2 and recombine it with #3—major edits!

Disgusting
B L A S P H E M Y :wink: (More for meeee.)
No, it’s objectively a gross sticky mess, for sure. But I crave it and I miss it. My usual spot isn’t carrying it, probably because, you know, pandemic, and probably because that grocery store mostly caters to Chinese families. ☹ Things I miss about the west coast.

Very meandering.
YUP, so much I even put it in the description. Spring knows where it’s going, but it cannot be rushed on its way to get there lol. It wanders around, takes detours, and doubles back. It stops to pick flowers and make soup.

I’m glad it sounds like the mystery caught your interest, even though the slow start threw you off.
🌼🌸☘

Thanks for giving it your time!
 
6: Backbone

OldschoolJohto

Never not editing
Pronouns
She/Her
Partner
solrock
6: Backbone


After several days snaking along the Dragon's Spine, waiting to glimpse buildings among the morning fog, Chris and Una descended into Blackthorn City. He devoured the city with his eyes, and his stomach churned.

The very structure of the city seemed to scorn attempts to understand it: walking in a straight line was impossible. Roads might run over a hill or skirt around with little indication of what lay around the bend. Interspersed among the black pines and cottonwoods, buildings flowed up and down the hillsides— sometimes the closest neighbor was shouting distance across a narrow valley. Some hills were cut into terraced beds, others were broken by narrow staircases, and others were nearly bare aside from a scattering of dragon-headed stone monoliths. He spotted the gym atop a rocky knoll, bookended by flowering dogwoods. Over the edge of the horizon, between two hillocks, they could make out the spray of foam where the river that divided the city plunged down Route 45. The entire city felt like a creature crouched in waiting.

"Where shall we go?" asked Una.

"Not sure yet," Chris said with a hard-edged grin. "Coffee, for a start."

They found it at GroundType, a cramped cafe painted a flaking green, where Chris and Una dumped first their packs and then themselves into mismatched chairs. Chris ordered them two coffees that came in chipped mugs. Each was topped with a generous pat of what turned out to be salted piloswine butter. The fat moistened Chris's chapped lips, but he found it too rich and too strange to finish. Una only sipped at hers. All the same, Chris was bolstered by the warmth and the view out the window.

He took a moment to check his Bitflex, and his insides seized—twenty new messages, everything he'd been unable to receive on the mountain. Most were from Kaden, his little brother, play-by-play updates and screenshots of a video game he'd been playing all summer. Keiko, his sister, had sent him a photo of her cyndaquil sleeping in her lap. Then she'd asked, News from the road?

For a moment Chris considered giving her a response that would send her into a frenzy: I met a girl. Technically true, but …. He wasn't actually ready to try to explain that one, let alone to answer the questions that would inevitably follow. Instead, he keyed in a brief update about his whereabouts, planning to give a better response later.

The rest came from friends back home, wanting to know his plans for the Indigo Conference. He considered for a moment ... and then backed out of that screen.

"Chris?"

"Hm?"

"I asked how you are feeling."

"Oh, sorry. I'm just … distracted."

The barista recommended a trainer hostel a few streets away, The Keep. Chris gritted his teeth but paid for two beds—he wanted to sleep on a real mattress before taking on the gym. The hostel was nearly empty, both a prickly reminder of how close they were to the end of Indigo Conference eligibility … and also a respite. Chris wasn't in the mood to exchange travel stories with strangers or fight for a shower. He and Una took their choice of six empty bunks in their assigned room.

Una sat on the end of one bed and ran a hand over the bedding, brow furrowed.

"Are you alright here for a couple hours while I train?" He had already buckled his belt across his chest and stood in the doorway with a pocketful of treats, drumming his fingers on his leg.

She folded her hands in her lap. "You should do whatever it is you need. Perhaps I shall explore as well."

Chris hesitated. "You know how to find your way back, right? You saw how the keypad works?"

"I can manage."

He had that particular smile enough times that he went back to his backpack for a scrap of paper and a pen. "I'm gonna give you my number. If you get lost or anything like that, ask someone to help you make a phone call."

Una pocketed the scrap of paper without looking at the string of numbers. "Chris, I know there are many things I do not understand well, but I am no child. We have come here for your purposes and you should attend to them. I do not wish to be a burden."

Perhaps too quickly Chris answered, "Okay, great. I'll see you when I get back."



In any city, there were always trainers hanging around waiting to challenge the gym

or hobbyists who battled passers-through after work hours. There was always an abandoned lot or gravel pit or warehouse where they went to test each other. The girl at the front desk of The Keep pointed Chris towards Regency Park, across the river from the gym. He found a quiet area at the river's side, away from joggers and picnickers, and gathered his team around him.

Hero the typhlosion, resting his head on folded paws like he couldn't be bothered to care but watching Chris with eyes that burned.

Sonic the jolteon, waiting for commands with his best patient face, but betrayed but his butt wiggling as if of its own volition.

Tikal the sandslash, at Chris's side, bristling back turned towards the onlookers across the river.

Kelsey the lapras, head high, front fins pulling her half out of the water.

Pocky the girafarig, bright-eyed and swiveling her ears, her tail gnashing its teeth.

Sammus the skarmory, looking down on the rest from her perch atop the streetlight.

Everyone except his heracross, the only obvious bad choice for this gym with his vulnerability to flying types.

They each looked to Chris with trusting, expectant eyes, and his heart felt full to bursting with love. He had brought them together. He'd brought them here. And they'd brought him here.

"We're fighting dragons tomorrow, guys. It's gonna be a tough one … but we're tough too."

He was never sure how much his pokemon understood the specifics of human speech, how much was a response to the emotion in his voice or the smell of the endorphins in his sweat, but he knew they knew all the same. They recognized the league-standard gym building across the river. They recognized his stance. They recognized the word fight, and they were ready.

"Let's see what we've got."

For several hours, he ran them through sprints, arranged both standing and moving targets for them, and coached them through rounds of light sparring one pair at a time. Where possible he directed them to aim their attacks towards the water, though the grass already bore some scorch marks from previous battlers.

Most of all, he set Sammus, his skarmory swooping down upon the others, over and over. He hadn't encountered many dragons in person, but he had watched The Indigo Conference on TV every summer since he was six, and he remembered seeing one of Lance's famous dragonites blast through one opponent after another without ever touching the ground. In the heat of a battle, Chris could see things his pokemon couldn't and he could present strategy, but nothing could teach them to sense a descending shadow like experience. He could give no verbal command that was as quick as instinct. He had to hope it would be enough to make a difference.

Finally, he had to accept there was no more to be done for lack of daylight and for fear of straining his team. He dropped off his belt at the pokecenter and made his way back to The Keep.

Una animatedly recounted her adventures, revelations about modern plumbing and cooking over a propane burner, but he struggled to pay attention. Eventually, she shrank into silence and left him to brood over his food while she browsed the books left behind by other travelers.

He slept restlessly.



Chris stretched and then shaved with the straight razor his mom gave him on his sixteenth birthday, monogrammed with his dad's initials. He remembered performing the same ritual almost two years ago, before his first attempt at the Olivine gym, how his hands had shaken and he'd nicked himself. This time he managed a clean shave. That much, at least, he had grown.

He should call his mom. After the gym, he promised himself. He didn't want to call her while he was in limbo, unsure of the next battle's outcome.

Una watched him lace his boot. "Today you challenge the gym?"

"Yup. It shouldn't take that long if you wanna wait here."

"You would prefer that." It wasn't a question.

He paused, one shoe on and one foot bare. "I didn't think you'd want to come."

"I would like to join you, yes."

For a moment Chris smiled despite himself, but he turned it into a stern stare. "You can come if you want, but … you cannot, cannot interrupt. Do you think you can do that?"

"I know this is important to you," she said quietly. "I will not interrupt. But … I am curious. I would like to understand this."

"Okay." He put his other shoe on. "Then let's go."



The staircase cut into the hill was flanked by sculptures of leering dragons. It was a steep hike. The domed roof was painted violet-blue and over the door was a sculpture of a dragon with many spindly arms and a swooping head crest, seeming to watch his approach with its red glass eyes. Chris didn't recognize it. He paused before the doors.

Una touched his arm and he jumped. "I wish you success in your attempt."

"Thanks." He took several slow breaths, adjusted his belt across his chest, and stepped forward.

The automatic doors parted for them, and they were struck by a blast of hot, sulfurous air. The second thing that struck Chris was the odd quiet. In fact, the huge room was empty.

A clanking and scraping drew his eye upward. On the catwalk above, a haxorus and a fencer shuffled back and forth, épée ringing out against metallic scales. Clair. A handful of other trainers leaned against the railing with varying degrees of attentiveness, one even dangling his legs over the catwalk ledge.

Chris didn't have the guts to interrupt. Instead he watched.

Clair didn't hold back—Chris watched her stab right for her pokemon's eyes once, twice. But the haxorus was too fast. It turned away her hits with its wicked jaw blades and its plated tail. The catwalk rattled with each lunge and parry. The haxorus charged her in return, but the intent seemed to be to drive her back and not to injure. Chris shuddered to imagine what those blades could do to flesh if it really wanted.

Above them, the mural inside the ceiling dome depicted ten mythical dragons knotted together, each biting the tail of another as they wrestled and writhed.

At last, Clair called, "Isis—hold!" and the haxorus sank back on its haunches, breathing hard.

Clair pulled off her helmet, her sweaty hair spilling out in all directions. Before she even reached for it, one of the gym trainers leapt to foist a water bottle into her hand. She took a long pull and said, "Her left hook is looking better now, right?"

The gym trainers broke out in a chorus of agreement and praise.

"Better isn't going to be enough for Lance though …." She started to drink again—but stopped short. Her gaze fixed on Chris. "How did you get in?"

"Uh, the door was open."

Clair made an exasperated noise and rolled her eyes. "I don't have time for this. Petra, will you see them out? And make sure those doors lock."

Chris put on a brave face and stepped forward. "I came to challenge you."

"We're closed for the season."

Chris's stomach sank. "You—what?"

Clair rolled her shoulders one way and then the other, not looking at him as she continued, "If you wanted a badge you should've gotten here earlier like everyone else. I'm busy, and I don't condone sloppiness in my gym."

He stared.

The haxorus snorted.

She took another long drink and then put her helmet back on.

Chris opened his mouth to speak, but his mouth was dry.

After a moment, one of the gym trainers began to clamber down the ladder from the catwalk.

That's it. It's over. Sagging, he turned towards the exit.

Una stepped in front of him. "Are you so easily refused? After all you have done to come here?"

The gym trainer stood a few yards away, arms crossed, and waited to see if they'd leave on their own.

"She's the gym leader. She can do whatever she wants." He felt his throat catch and shrugged instead of trying to say more.

For a moment, Una looked at him, clutching her feather necklace. Then she furrowed her brow and pushed past him.

She called up to the catwalk, "I have been told your duty is to test those who come before you."

Clair turned toward them. Her face was hidden behind the mask, but her voice sizzled. "Only those that deserve it. You haven't earned it yet. Come back in the fall and leave me to train."

"It's okay, Una," he said in a low voice. "Let's just go."

But he was paralyzed where he stood, watching with equal parts awe and horror as Una raised her chin and pushed her shoulders back. A look crossed her face that Chris hadn't seen since the day she accused him of treating his pokemon like toys: righteous fury. She balled up her fists.

"You call him undeserving, yet you lack the decency to address him face to face."

Snatching off her helmet, Clair snarled, "Do you know who you're talking to?"

"Do you? Are you so afraid to find out?"

Clair glared down at them for a moment. Then she recalled the haxorus and shoved her épée into another trainer's hands. She slammed down the ladder, still holding the haxorus's pokeball, and the other trainer at the bottom scrambled to get out of the way. Her footsteps echoing in the nearly empty gym, Clair marched towards them until she stood inches from Chris's face, hand on her hip. She was the same height as him. "Does she always fight your battles for you?"

"N-no."

"Tell me why I should give you more of my time than I already have."

Chris took a deep breath and stood straighter. "Because it'll be a good fight."

She looked him over, squinting.

"And this would be your eighth badge?"

"Yes."

"Hm."

Chris imagined she could see in his face and posture a record of every mistake he had ever made. The moment she made her decision, it flashed across her eyes like a curtain coming down.

At last, she turned and called over her shoulder, "Who has my belt? Did Ted go home? Someone go get him. And you—" she jabbed a finger at Chris "—meet me over there." She strode away, stripping off gorget, jacket, breastplate, and gloves.

Chris shot Una a bewildered look that melted into a hesitant smile. He felt lightheaded but went where Clair had directed him, the dividing line at center court.

Una stayed by the door.

Moments later, Clair reappeared wearing a wetsuit and a choker necklace made of dragon teeth. She took her place opposite Chris and tightened her ponytail.

The gym trainers gathered along the walls, all raised eyebrows and smirks.

"We're just waiting on—there he is."

An Indigo League referee burst through the doors, his uniform shirt inside out, and took his place on the sidelines. "Here, ma'am!" He looked down in surprise at the TV remote he still held in his hand and shoved it into a back pocket.

Clair waited for him to catch his breath. "Four, Ted." Her anger had burned off, leaving behind coolness and control.

"Right. Young man—" Chris jumped "—what is your name?"

"Chris Nakano, sir."

Ted took a breath and then boomed in a performer's voice, "We will now commence the battle between Blackthorn City Gym Leader Clair Ibuki and challenger Chris Nakano. This will be a four on four knockout—the trainer of the last pokemon standing will be the winner. A pokemon will be considered unable to fight if it is on the ground unmoving or out of bounds for a count of ten. Each side may switch out pokemon no more than twice. Are there any questions?"

Chris shook his head. He relaxed at the familiar speech. He had done this seven times before. He was ready to do it one last time.

He flashed a smile over his shoulder at Una.

"Then shake."

Clair had an iron grip. "Make it count," she said. "There won't be a rematch this season."

She stepped back onto her side of the center line, and the floor began to move. Chris staggered but quickly righted himself. The two floor panels slid apart with a mechanized whir and a cloud of steam, revealing a murky green pool beneath. The sulfur smell intensified. Chris could feel the heat of the pool, and already sweat dripped down his forehead. When at last Chris and Clair stood at opposite sides of the gym separated by an Olympic-sized pool, the panels locked into place and the whirring stopped.

There was a long quiet moment.

The referee shouted, "You may begin!"

"I choose Persephone." Clair flicked a pokeball into the air and released a dragonair. It coiled on the pool edge and watched him with an intelligent stare.

Chris thought for a beat. Why not a dragonite, he wondered. He knew she had one. "Let's go, Kelsey!"

Steam rose from his lapras as she slid into the water, but she looked unbothered.

"Go!" commanded Clair.

"Ice beam!"

Kelsey narrowed her eyes and her horn glowed as she prepared the attack. But it came too slowly. The dragonair ducked under the beam and into the pool, disappearing into the greenish murk.

"Go down after it."

The lapras submerged. For several long, minutes Chris and Clair watched the pool surface for clues to what was happening below. Clair folded her arms. Finally, Kelsey resurfaced in a spray of hot water, but there was still no sign of the dragonair—

Until it popped up on Chris's end of the pool, only its eyes and feathered ears visible.

"Kelsey—here!"

"Fry it."

As Kelsey swiveled around, the dragonair showered her with blue sparks. Then it slipped under the surface again. The lapras's ice beam hit the water where the dragonair had just been, leaving behind chunks of ice that quickly melted to nothing.

Her pokemon was faster in the water than he'd expected. Faster than a dragonite would be—no wings, no drag.

After a beat, the dragonair resurfaced again at Kelsey's flank. Chris was ready this time. "Ice beam and turn, now!"

With sparks peppering her side, Kelsey swept a broad semi-circle with the ice beam until it connected with the dragonair. The blue beam and sparks collided, spraying flecks of ice into the air, until finally Kelsey's attack overtook the dragonair and knocked it back. With a screech, the dragon dove again.

The lapras circled the pool, huffing. Dark welts broke out along her chest and neck where the sparks had hit.

Chris lifted his eyes to watch Clair watching him, smirking.

She thinks I'm not as smart as her.

"Easy, Kels. Come this way—left, left, left." He guided her towards one wall, and they waited.

When at last the dragonair reemerged, Chris shouted, "Make a wave! Pull it to the wall!"

Clair cried, "Persephone—get out of there!

Too late. As the dragonair dove, the water swelled higher. With a toss of her head and a grunt, Kelsey flung the wave against the side of the pool and the dragonair along with it. Before the dragonair could get away, the lapras reared up and brought her full weight down, crushing the serpent against the wall.

"Again! Knock it out of the water!"

"Dive!" Clair shouted as Kelsey circled back to gain momentum. But her dragonair swayed and seemed not to hear the command.

With a keening cry, Kelsey surged forward and sent up a great wave ahead of her, sloshing up and over the pool edge. When the water receded, the dragonair was left behind in a puddle, slowly raising its head.

"Come on, Persephone! Electrify it! Give it everything you've got!"

"Ice beam! Hold it down!"

As Kelsey charged her attack, the dragonair snapped its head around and exhaled another lighting ball. Kelsey bore down under the hit and, with a toss of her head, lashed the dragonair with a blue bolt. For a moment, it vanished behind a cloud of steam and ice flakes. When the air cleared, the dragonair lay like a statue, scales and eyelashes dusted with frost. It didn't stir.

The referee began the countdown from ten, but Kelsey was already trumpeting a victory call and swimming a lap.

Chris grinned across the water at Clair, but the look on her face stopped him short.

"Dragonair is out. Point to challenger. Leader Clair has three remaining pokemon."

Clair recalled her dragonair and whipped out a second pokemon without pause or ceremony.

"Acheron—bite!"

The gyarados was still materializing as it fell upon Kelsey, holographic jaws gnashing until it became solid enough to sink its teeth into her neck. She shrieked and tried to wrench free, but the gyarados hung on tight, winding itself closer. Blood poured down the lapras's neck.

"I'm switching out," Chris called, scrambling for Kelsey's pokeball with sweating hands. He recalled her, leaving the gyarados to audibly clank its teeth together as she dissolved into red light and vanished out from under it. The gustados shook its head and slashed its tail.

The referee nodded to Chris, and he selected a new pokeball. With surprise, he realized he was shaking with the adrenaline. "Get it, Sonic!"

No sooner than his jolteon materialized on the edge of the pool, the gyarados make a swipe with its tail, forcing Sonic to leap out of the way.

"Again, Archeron!"

"Charge up for a lightning blast, Sonic!"

Sonic neatly side-stepped another tail swing, and as he landed his fur began to bristle with static. He took aim. The humidity in the room thickened, and Chris's ears popped as the pressure dropped—

"Now!" cried Clair.

The gyarados smashed headfirst towards Sonic, and this time it struck true. Electricity cracked as they collided, but the blast lacked the intensity it could've had.

The jolteon flew several feet, trailing ribbons of electricity as he skidded across the tile. He stood and shook himself off as Clair gave her next command. "Twister!"

Her gyarados roared, and a wind picked up.

Chris's stomach sank. Sonic had nowhere to run or take cover from that. There was no choice but to switch out again—the last time he'd be allowed—or to hope Sonic could take the hit. "Zap it, quick!"

Sonic fired off a quick, small lightning bolt that vanished into the green-black clouds gyrating around the screaming gyarados. The cloud funnel lifted off the surface of the pool and swept out and away from the gyarados. Chris was forced to shield his face in his elbow against the stinging wind. Sonic ran anxious circles, but there was nothing to be done. The twister swept him up, spun him furiously, and hurled him against the far wall. He lay still, and the gyarados let out another roar.

"The challenger's jolteon is out of bounds. Ten, nine …."

"Come on, Sonic!"

The jolteon rose, shaking his head.

"Five …."

"Go after it! Let's go!"

Fur sparking, Sonic bounded towards the poolside.

"Acheron—twister, again."

Chris blurted, "Jump! Get onto its back!"

Sonic didn't hesitate. He leapt into the wind and landed with all four feet on blue scales. The gyarados's body was an archipelago of coils alternately rising and sinking below the water. Even as the gyarados snarled and swiveled its head to knock Sonic loose, the jolteon was already bounding out of the way to land on the gyarados's tail, and then leaping away again, always moving to keep from falling into the pool. The gyarados whirled and snapped its tail, frantic to shake Sonic off. The wind died down.

"Acheron, dive!"

"Sonic, thunder!"

As the gyarados began to disappear into the green water coil by coil, Sonic leapfrogged to the dome of its huge plated head. From yards away, the hair on Chris's arms rose as the jolteon gathered electricity around himself and let loose a blinding burst. Lightning zigzagged from pool to ceiling, crackling across the catwalk railings. In a single leap, Sonic landed again at the edge of the pool, leaving the gyarados to sink.

The referee counted down from ten, but the gyarados did not resurface.

Grumbling, Clair returned her pokemon. She seemed to think about her next choice longer this time. Then she sneered. "Let's see how you like Delphi."

Chris only glimpsed the kingdra—huge with disdainful eyes and fins tattered from years of battles—before Clair called out, "Smokescreen!" It breathed out thick dark smoke that hung over the pool's surface.

"Zap it, Sonic!"

The kingdra didn't even try to avoid the hit. Sonic fired again but, unbothered, the kingdra continued exhaling smoke until its side of the pool was covered. The smoke cloud lit up from within as the lightning shot across the water, revealing the kingdra's silhouette, and then the dragon disappeared in the evil-smelling cloud. Smoke filled the room. Chris squinted to see the edges of the pool.

Fine. He didn't need to see. "Light up the pool, Sonic! It can't escape."

The joteon charged and released over and over, sheeting the pool with lightning until the gym smelled burnt and metallic and Chris's entire body prickled with static. Finally Sonic stopped, panting.

There was a moment of quiet. Then purple fire lanced through the smoke. Sonic leapt aside and narrowly avoided it. From another direction came a second fiery missile. Sonic tried to jump out of the way, but fell short and let out a pitiful yelp. Through the haze, Chris could see him favoring a hind leg.

"Keep moving, Sonic! Don't let it hit you!"

But the joleon had become slow and uncertain. He zigzagged, unable to guess where the next attack would come from. Chris could do nothing but watch and hope for a clue to the kingra's whereabouts. The kindgra's next shot knocked the jolteon down, and he remained where he lay.

"Jolteon is out. Point to Leader Clair. Challenger Chris has three pokemon remaining."

Chris chewed his cheek. He needed to clear the air. "Sammus, let's go!"

With a screech and a gust of cold, his skarmory shot into the air. Chris's heart surged at the sight of her circling overhead, steel feathers glinting through the smoke. "Break up that smoke, Sammus! Get a wind going!"

With several strong wing beats, Sammus split the sulfurous cloud apart—revealing the kingdra already spitting dragonfire. The skarmory banked left, out of the way of the blast, but Chris winced at her slowness. She wouldn't last long trying to dodge fire.

He shouted, "Get in close! Dive!" Sammus tucked her wings and launched herself like a spear.

But Clair commanded, "Push it back! Water whip!"

A wave rose between the two pokemon, shielding the kindgra. Plate armor shrieking in protest, Sammus pulled back, and the wave barely missed her as it fell. "Again!" Another wave geysered towards the skarmory, driving her up and away from the pool's surface. As she pulled up, dragonfire clipped her wing. She veered dangerously toward the water.

Chris cursed and recalled Sammus.

"The challenger has used his last switch-out. He has three pokemon remaining."

Across the water, Clair flashed him a wicked smile before she and her pokemon were once again obscured by smoke. She wasn't trying to test him, Chris realized. She was trying to bury him. Punish him.

How was he supposed to beat something he couldn't see and couldn't get close to?

He needed to be smarter. Chris took a deep breath. To his surprise, Una's words sprang to his mind: Even if we cannot see or touch them, we can feel them still.

"The challenger has ten seconds to choose his next pokemon or forfeit."

"Pocky," he said, throwing his girafarig's pokeball, "let's take it down."

As the red light hardened into his girafarig, Chris felt the soft touch of her animal consciousness brush the edges of his. Nameless feelings, impulses. He willed her to be clever and fierce.

"Fire, Delphi!"

The girafarig's toothy tail twitched, and she sidestepped the firey bolt. "Find it," Chris said. "Feel it out." He sensed Pocky reach out with her powerful mind, and for a flash he saw what she saw: a heat map of the gym, the clear shape of the kingdra moving through the water and smoke. He shook his head, dizzy, and pushed the girafarig out of his head. "Hit it!"

The attack was invisible, but Chris could feel the waves of it rippling out. Across the pool, enshrouded in smoke, the kingdra cried out in pain.

"Come on, Delphi. Let's finish this. Dragon breath!"

As the blast flew towards the girafarig, Chris commanded, "Bounce it back!" All four of Pocky's eyes glowed, and the smoke in front of her turned glassy. There was a glint of light, and then purple fire arced back into the smoky shadows from which it had come. They heard a keening cry and a splash, and after a moment the smoke began to clear.

"Kingdra is down. Point to challenger. Leader Clair has one remaining pokemon."

Clair let out a wordless cry of frustration. "Alright, Achilles, end this!"

Her pokemon erupted from its ball with a cry that rattled the catwalk. It beat its wings to clear the lingering smoke, revealing a salamence the size of a pickup truck, pot-bellied but muscular. It flapped in place near Clair until she cried, "Go!" and it swooped.

"Pocky, attack!"

The girafarig steadied her stance, and her eyes flashed. The salamence flinched in mid-air but didn't pull out of the dive. With a snarl, it barreled Pocky into the pool along with it.

Moments later, the salamence rose from the green water, clutching Chris's girafarig in its talons. Her tail thrashed, nacreous eyes rolling. The salamence quavered under another invisible psychic attack but rose higher still. When its back was nearly touching the ceiling, it flung the girafarig to the ground with a horrible crack. Chris felt her consciousness go quiet even before the League referee made the call.

"Point to Leader Clair. The challenger has two remaining pokemon."

"This is your chance, Sammus!"

His skarmory took to the air again, making smaller circles below the enormous salamence. The feathers of her right wing were blackened and misshapen. She flew crookedly.

"Go for its belly!" Chris shouted.

The skarmory stabbed up at the salamence and drew a line of blood before the dragon kicked her away.

As the skarmory reeled, trying to right herself, Clair cried out, "Fire breath!"

"Go right!" Chris shouted, but Sammus was still spinning helplessly when the column of fire roared towards her. For a moment, she was a silhouette within the flames. Then skarmory dropped, hitting the water with a splash.

"Point to Leader Clair. The challenger has one remaining pokemon."

Chris's palms sweated as he released his lapras one last time. Kelsey's injuries looked worse than he remembered, her body a patchwork of burns and torn-off scales, blood still streaking from her neck. He bit the inside of his cheek, but there was nothing else to be done.

"Come on, Kels! Ice beam! Knock it down!"

"Get in close, Achilles!"

The salamence dove under her attack and swooped for her face with teeth bared, forcing the lapras to dive underwater. With a roar, the salamence wheeled around the gym's dome and prepared to strike again.

Kelsey surfaced and let out a quiet, plaintive sound. If Clair kept her salamance in his lapras's face like that, it would be almost impossible to land an ice beam.

Chris's heart felt leaden. He couldn't prevent his lapras from being hit sooner than later, and she too would go down. He hadn't felt this helpless since—

He remembered putting his hands behind his head and hitting his knees in the snow, the heat of the ursaring's breath on his neck. He'd survived not by brute force but by letting the blows come. Maybe letting Kelsey get hit was the right move.

"Okay, Kels. Get ready." He waited for Clair to order her pokemon to dive again and then, "Use ice beam on the water!"

The air temperature dropped as the lapras fired blue light across the pool until the surface filmed over with ice.

"Keep going!"

Too deep in the dive to pull out, the salamence smacked into the lapras and both went under the icy green slush. A moment later, the salamence exploded from the pool, water streaming from its wings. As it rose, a layer of ice hardened around its wings, icicles trailing down. The dragon made a painfully slow circle around the gym, straining.

But still Chris's lapras did not rise from the water.

"Seven," called the referee. "Six …."

"Come on, Kelsey …."

Clair began to smile.

The water bubbled. In a shower of green ice, Kelsey rose.

"Yes!"

"No!"

"Kelsey, ice beam! Now!"

The blue beam of ice cut through the air. The salamence leaned hard—Chris heard the ice encasing its wings creak and crack—but it was too slow, too heavy. The ice beam speared the dragon's side. The salamence crumpled and tumbled, ice shattering across the gym floor.

"Achilles, get up! No!"

The League referee spoke over her, "Leader Clair Ibuki is out of usable pokemon. The match goes to challenger Chris Nakano!"

For a moment, Chris stood with his heart still pounding and let joy and relief wash over him. "Kelsey, you did it!" She trumpeted weakly, and he recalled her.

Clair slowly shook her head, but Chris saw she was smiling too. With a wave of her hand, the pool cover began to close again. She reached into a pocket and tossed something to him across the shrinking gap between them. He narrowly caught it, almost falling into the water himself. He uncurled his fingers to reveal the face of a dragon in black enamel with red for the eyes.

"Wasn't sure you'd catch it," Clair said with a smirk. "I hereby award you with The Rising Badge, the last one of the season."

"Thank you." He stumbled one last time as the pool cover locked back into place.

Clair folded her arms. "You weren't wrong—that was a good battle. You've got some grit after all. I hope you're not afraid to show your teeth at The Indigo Conference." For just a moment, her smile softened into something almost … maternal? Then it was gone. "Now get. I have to prepare for my battle with my cousin."

She called to the referee as she walked away, "Ted, would you please transfer the payout to his card? I'll sign off on it later." With that she disappeared through a door, calling for gym staff to fetch her fencing equipment and medicines.

Chris turned to hold up the badge for Una to see, but she had already gone. He was alone. Grin faltering and then fading, he pinned the badge to the last slot in his case and then pocketed it.

He understood why Una had left. He didn't want her to watch and feel upset. All the same, he was disappointed—it surprised him how much. He wanted her to see what it was like, what he and his team could do.

"May I have your OneCard?"

"Oh, right. Sure. Thanks."

He watched the numbers on the card reader tick upward and felt mostly better.
 
Last edited:
7: Shouganai

OldschoolJohto

Never not editing
Pronouns
She/Her
Partner
solrock
7: Shouganai


Una wasn't at The Keep when Chris returned. Her backpack was gone too, though she had pulled out a few of the heavier items and left them on the bed. He squeezed them into his footlocker, just in case—he'd experienced enough theft in trainer hostels to make him cautious, even if they were the only two people staying there.

Checking his Bitflex, he was startled to see it was nearly noon. He thought about buying a celebratory lunch—and then, with a pang, he thought about Una wandering around the city without any money whatsoever. He wondered again where she'd gone. The woman at the front desk said she hadn't seen her since they left together that morning. He looked at the time again and decided, If I don't hear from her in the next hour or so, I'll go look for her.

He thought he remembered seeing a noodle house on a nearby hill and started in that direction. On the way, he made a wrong turn, or perhaps had simply misremembered where he'd seen the restaurant. Instead, he saw signs for a public bathhouse and made a change of plans.

Under the water, he felt as if he were scrubbing away more than just the sweat and sulfur smell from the last battle, imagining the dirt from all the miles he had traveled swirling down the drain. He settled into an unoccupied pool and closed his eyes for a moment. After taking another look around to be sure he wouldn't be in anyone's way, he pulled away from the edge of the pool and floated. No weight on his body. No weight on his mind.

But he had to leave eventually.

Not until he was coming back down the hill did Chris realize how mentally and physically exhausted he was. He opted to bring his pad thai back to the hostel—a double order with tofu, in case Una wanted to share. He'd go out and see if he could find her as soon as he had something to eat, he told himself. Then, I'll only close my eyes for a minute.

Four hours later, he snapped awake cuddling the unopened takeout box. He looked at the time, cursed, and sat up.

Behind him he heard, "You must have been tired." Una leaned back on her bed with a book.

"You're back. I was worried about you."

She splayed the book beside her and sat up. "When I saw blood … I had to leave."

Chris bit the inside of his cheek and nodded. "That's okay."

"Were you able to win?"

"Yeah … I did." He patted the pocket where he'd tucked his badge case and beamed. "I did."

She nodded—grimly, he thought. Then she put on a smile and said, "I have brought you something."

"You what?"

"It is not a large sum, but …." She reached into a pocket, pulled out a wad of bills, and held it out at him. "I can start to repay you now."

He let out a nervous laugh. "Una, what—where did you get this?"

"Yesterday I passed an apothecary, and the shop keeper said she would buy any herbs I brought in if they were of good quality. So I gathered some." She pressed the money into his hand. "I have more still, in my backpack. Yarrow, ginseng … bone-knit. I thought you might have use for them … after a battle."

She'd gone out to the foothills of the mountain, back into the wilderness, alone. Although Una seemed unconcerned, the thought squeezed Chris's insides. "You didn't have to do that, Una."

Her smile was wistful. "Yes, I did."

He spluttered, "But most of the money for your gear came from your robes. It was already yours!"

"And now that is yours. You can finally have your trousers repaired, or purchase a new pair. And perhaps a needle and thread as well."

Chris opened his mouth to argue but sighed and smiled again. "Yeah, okay … I guess I'd better do that before we leave."

"Yes, you should," she said, smiling back. "And to where are we headed next?"

Right. Everything he had done so far—even the battle with Clair—had been the easy part. Now for the rest. Chris wished he could stop time for a week, do nothing but eat and sleep, maybe lose himself in a video game. But he couldn't afford to think that way now.

"The Indigo Plateau. If I can make it in time …."

"Via Route 45, to the south?"

He glanced up in surprise. "Yeah. You looked it up?"

"I have been reading." She gestured, and for the first time Chris noticed the title of her book: The Trainer's Definitive Guide to Johto. Left behind by a traveler from another region, no doubt.

"You're a regular tourist now," he chuckled.

Her smile dampened. "I wanted to learn… what has changed."

"Oh. Yeah, that makes sense." He cleared his throat. "Anyway, we'll head out tomorrow. So … want some room temperature pad thai?"



While Chris was in the pokecenter, Una waited outside, rearranging items in her bag. He returned with an extra pokeball and a bashful smile.

"Listen," he said, "I've been thinking and I want you to have this." Seeing her frown, he added, "You don't have to fight with her, but you really shouldn't go out collecting plants by yourself. She can look out for you … though she probably needs a little training. Eventually you'll be able to go anywhere with her. If you wanted that, I mean."

She thought a moment and said, "This is your livelihood. It is not my place."

"Honestly, she's been sitting in the box for a while. I caught her back in Azalea and never used her—Kelsey's more my speed. It's no loss to me."

Una shook her head.

"Come on. You'd be doing a favor for everyone involved. Her especially."

For a moment she looked on the edge of tears. "But I will never be able to repay you, Chris!"

"Then don't!" He took a deep breath. "Okay …. Okay. What if we call this a loan? Or … maybe a trade? You help me train her, and in return you can use her any time you want. Come on. Please."

With a sigh, Una accepted the pokeball and weighed it in her hands. "I can see my reflection." She looked up. "It still does not feel right to me to imprison them this way."

Chris shrugged. "She wouldn't be able to keep up with us on foot. Plus, most places have laws about it. This is just how it is." Una looked unconvinced, but he pushed ahead. "Don't you want to know what's inside?" He showed her the release mechanism, and moments later the slowpoke materialized at her feet.

Una gasped. "A rain-caller!" She kneeled and spoke gently. "Hello, little one. I am Una."

The slowpoke held her gaze unblinkingly and then yawned.

"I, uh, didn't get a chance to name her. So you can call her whatever you want."

He wished he had a more charismatic pokemon to offer her, but the only others he had on hand were a mean spearow he'd caught entirely out of self-defense, a flaaffy that he didn't think would obey commands from someone other than him, and an aipom that was more likely to climb your shoulder to escape a fight than to defend you. And he didn't want to wait until he caught something new to get her a bit of protection of her own.

But Una was beginning to smile. She said to the slowpoke, "When I awoke in the hospital I could not remember my own name, and so they called me Jane until I remembered myself. Perhaps someday you will be able to tell me what I should call you. Until, then I shall call you Suki, for someone I loved dearly." The slowpoke blinked. Holding her feather necklace, Una intoned, "As the sun rises in the East, as it sets in the sea, I will do my best to ensure we live well together."

The only indication the slowpoke gave that it even heard her was to tilt its head first to one side and then the other, very slowly. But Una seemed satisfied with the exchange.

He showed her how to recall her new pokemon and clip the pokeball to her belt, which she did with a frown and a sigh. "Well, I'm hoping to cover a lot of ground today. You ready?" Then they shouldered their packs and were on their way.



The journey down the mountain was much easier than the hike up. Shedding cold-weather layers, they let the sun warm their arms. Chris's the sandslash clambered up and down the cliffs with them once again. She was best-suited to the terrain, and she especially seemed to like Una. They followed first an old cattle trail and then, as the rocky cliffs yielded to gentler hills, the river. It would lead them all the way to Newbark Town and the Eostra Sea. And then northeast, all those miles to the Indigo Plateau ….

Chris had forgotten to call his mom before they left Blackthorn, and now it felt like it was too late. And the longer they walked, the worse the cell service would get until it dropped off entirely. Regardless, he didn't think he could handle her reassuring him about the battles to come. She was supposed to be on his side—it didn't count.

He'd awoken sick with anxiety, but being on the move helped keep his mind off the distance ahead. So too did Una's occasional questions about modern life. By the time they stopped to make camp, they'd gone over the school system, microwaves, and comic books. That night around the fire, Chris struggled to explain television and almost regretted mentioning it in passing.

"I still do not understand," said Una. Beside her, Suki the slowpoke lolled on the grass, munching dandelions. "If one wished to know the weather, why consult a box of lights? Why not simply study the clouds? Or perhaps consult a pokemon?"

"We still do that too, but the weather channel is more accurate and goes further ahead."

"I see."

"And there's lots of other stuff to watch. Like, if I was home right now," Chris said, "I'd probably be watching the League preseason with my family. This time of year they always play highlights from last year's matches, some color commentary about what to expect this season …." He wondered how many other trainers had already registered, and he sighed. "Anyway. It's fun. My sister and I used to make bets. Mom mostly liked the commercials. But it was always something we did together."

Una considered that while she ate. "I imagine I would understand … teevee … better if I witnessed it for myself. Perhaps one day you can show me."

Chris felt a burst of affection—she tried so hard. He flashed her a smile, but she stared into the distance and failed to see it.

"If I were home now … I would be bringing the paori in to feed." At the blank look on Chris's face, she continued, "They roamed as they wished during the day, but after dark, we sheltered them from predators in a hut near our home. They knew to come in for grain when I rang the bell. In return they allowed us to gather some of their eggs and showed us the best places to forage wild onions. The young ones follow behind, all in a line. It is sweet to see."

"What are paori?"

Una lit up. "Aha! At last, I know about something that you do not! It is a type of spirit—a pokemon, I mean." She described it ro him.

"Huh. That almost sounds like …. Gimme a sec." Chris brought out his pokedex, waited for it to load, and pulled up the page for farfetch'd.

She scooted closer to see the small screen. "Oh. Yes, that is what they look like …. How interesting. Why do you call them that?"

He smiled wryly. "Because it's so far-fetched to see one in the wild—has been for a long time. They've almost been eaten into extinction." Wild farfetch'd hadn't made a comeback like the carefully rehabilitated kangashkan and chansey populations. They were still appreciated more on the plate than in the stadium. Chris couldn't imagine seeing a flock of them all in one place—and eating their eggs!

"I see." As the information sank in, Una drooped and fell quiet.

"Oh no. I didn't mean to make you feel bad."

"It does not matter. Truly. My old life is five hundred years gone. Even in my Ecruteak, nothing stayed the same. After all, I was soon to be wedded to the Brass Tower and leave behind life as my father's daughter. I was meant to say goodbye to many things in all cases."

"I guess so."

She pushed aside the remains of her meal and gazed into the night. After a moment, Suki stretched and waddled over to plop her head in Una's lap.

After a beat, Chris offered, "I could show you some more stuff on the pokedex. Or you can just click around, if you want. Read up on Suki, maybe?"

"No. But thank you." Gently, she pushed the slowpoke off her lap and stood. "May I take your bowl? I shall wash the dishes. I believe some time by the riverside will do me good."

He handed it over. "Take Suki with you."

"Yes. I will."



A scream jolted Chris awake in the night. He bolted upright with this jolteon's pokeball in one hand and his headlamp in the other.

He heard crickets and the wind in the trees. Beside him, Una was breathing hard.

"Una?" he whispered. "What's wrong?"

"Only a dream." She took a shuddering breath. "Only a dream. I apologize. Let us go back to sleep." She settled back in her sleeping bag and, after a moment, Chris did the same.

Still, he couldn't help but hear her ragged breathing. He turned over. As his eyes readjusted to the dark, he made out the outline of her shoulders shaking, her back curled towards him. He silently weighed saying something … but hesitated. Maybe it would be better to spare her dignity and pretend not to have noticed her crying.

Before he could make up his mind, Una fell still. Once again there was only the sound of rustling leaves and, in the distance, the river. Finally, he too slept.

In the morning, kneeling to roll up their sleeping bags, Una spoke up. "Last night …. I apologize if I frightened you."

Chris looked up from packing the cookware. "It's okay. Bad dreams?"

"Yes." Una tucked her hair behind her ears, frowning deeply. "I dreamed of Brass Tower burning."

He winced.

"No matter how I ran, I could not reach it. My mother told me I would need to ride on a bus. Then a priest stopped me and told me to turn back for proper robes or he could not allow me into the tower …. He did not seem to care that it was still ablaze." Una seemed about to say more, then shook her head instead. She shuddered and wrapped her arms around herself. "I miss home."

"I'm sorry, Una."

She sighed and then, after a moment, returned to breaking down the tent poles. "You should not feel badly. You have been nothing but generous and accommodating. I do not wish to weigh upon your thoughts when you already have troubles of your own. I should not complain." She paused and added, almost pleading, "And I have been enjoying seeing the countryside with you."

"Maybe … we'll find a way to get you home."

Una smiled sadly at him.

"If there's any way I can help you get back home, I will." Then he laughed wryly and said, "That would've been a good question for Suicune if we would've thought of it then."

Una snapped up at that. "No. Better not to. The gods should not be troubled with small concerns."

Suicune had offered to help. But he thought better of saying it out loud—it sounded petulant, even in his own head. And Una's words rang true. Chris remembered Suicune's cold, alien eyes: unnervingly human, and also unnervingly beyond-human.

Instead, because he was genuinely curious, he said, "Isn't that what prayer is?"

"Perhaps for some. I was taught to consider how I might care for the gods, not the other way around. It is not a gift if it is asked for." She palmed Suki's pokeball and brought it to her chest to touch the golden feather hanging there.

That silenced him.

"At any rate, it cannot be helped now. Come. Let us prepare for the day. We still have far to travel, do we not?"

After the tent was packed away, they made their final pass over their campsite to pick up wayward food wrappers and make sure the campfire was dead. Chris looked up from pouring dirt over the coals and saw Una crouching to stack flat stones in the shelter of two boulders. He dropped down next to her.

She ducked her head sheepishly but didn't pause her efforts. "This will only take a moment."

"Here." He handed her a rock he'd grabbed from the edge of the fire pit and, for the offering, the bag of trail mix.

She beamed, and it somewhat loosened the anxious knot in his gut.

They walked without speaking much the rest of the morning, lost in their separate thoughts. Chris tried not to watch the hours roll across the face of his Bitflex. They were making progress, at least.

The hills rolled endlessly ahead, and they teemed with pokemon enjoying the warmth of the day. A pidgeotto screeched outrage when they strayed too near its nest, and Chris sent out his girafarig to guard their backs as they swerved out of range of its attacks. Later they stumbled across a graveler that was as surprised and upset to see them as they were to see it. Chris, nearly tripping over it, faltered. To his shock, Una managed to release her pokemon first. Without being told and with unexpected enthusiasm, Suki blasted the graveler with water until it rolled away into the brush, grumbling.

By afternoon, they were at the threshold of Newbark Town, little more than a gathering of clapboard houses in the shade of a forested hill dotted wind turbines. And straight ahead was the Kanto border—though it didn't look like much from where they stood, just a streak of darker blue against the horizon.

"My dad grew up here," Chris said. As they passed each house, he couldn't help but wonder if it might have been the one where his dad's family once lived. But then, it wouldn't matter. Some other family lived there by now. "I've never been here before though."

"You have come far. I imagine he would be proud."

Chris's throat tightened at that, but he smiled at her.

When they reached the edge of town they could see the water frothing against a rocky shore. It smelled different from the ocean of his childhood in Olivine, sharp and piny. Chris allowed himself a moment to turn and look back, remembering the mountains and rivers and plains he'd crossed that year, all so far behind him now. "So long, Johto."

On select days, a ferry went between Newbark and Pallet Town, with a stop at Route 27 for trainers on their way to the plateau. Chris and Una, however, had to cross the choppy water on the back of Kelsey the lapras. She moved slower than normal, her neck still raw even after the pokecenter visit. The wound was still healing. Chris made a mental note to give her an extra big treat at the end of it. Suki sat with them between two of the knobs on Kelsey's shell, her tail dragging through the water. The gulf ran parallel to the high cliffs. As they passed, Chris and Una craned their necks to stare up at the twin waterfalls rushing down the cliff face.

"Welcome to Kanto!" Chris shouted over the roaring water.

When the rushing of the falls died down, Una said, "Is that all it takes?"

"I think crossing the border used to be more … complicated. But since the Indigo League started, they actually encourage people to cross back and forth, for tourism and all that. Nobody's gonna check for documentation or anything in this day and age."

"I never imagined I might set foot in Kanto, of all places. We were at war, you know."

He stole a glance at her face, wary of her matter-of-fact tone. "Yeah, I vaguely remember studying it in history class," he said. "I mean, not that it means I get what it was like. I'm sure that was a hard thing to live with."

Una leaned her cheek against Kelsey with one arm around the lapras's neck, taking care to avoid the tender spots. "Some changes are good."

When they finally disembarked on the opposite shore, Chris glanced over his shoulder one last time. Already, the familiar mountains were fading into the blue distance.

Following his gaze, Una said quietly, "This is the farthest I have ever been from home."

"Me too, if that makes you feel any better."

She smiled. "It is better not to be alone in a strange place."

"Yeah," Chris said returning the smile, "it is."

They crossed a series of bridges and boardwalks, the sea to the right and cliffs scattered with spearow nests to the left. Ahead was Mount Silver and somewhere below it, still out of sight, was the plateau. They walked towards it all day, but it never seemed any closer.

That evening he made the call to set up camp with a bitter heart.

By the dying light, Chris drilled Tikal, tossing stones for her to either dodge or swipe aside, while Una sat with Suki and read a book from the hostel. He didn't have the heart to train as hard as he probably should, knowing he might not even arrive in time to qualify for the conference. After one particularly uninspired stone toss, the sandslash hissed and swiped at him instead. The blow didn't connect—she hadn't meant it to—but it did startle him out of his stupor.

"Okay, you're right! I'm sorry." He spent a few more minutes working with her on aiming her own rock throws before he waved her away with a sigh and left her to forage.

Instead, he oiled his skarmory's feathers. She nipped his fingers—lovingly, though it was still painful—while he worked. He warily noted the progress of the new feathers growing in to replace the burnt ones, and then returned Sammus to her pokeball to rest. In Blackthorn, Una had shown him how to make a yarrow compress for his lapras's neck, and he did that too. It couldn't hurt. Then, with a sigh, he sat and stared into the fire.

"You should not worry so much." Una's voice made him jump. "You have time yet."

He forced a smile. "I know."

Una closed her book. "Forgive me for prying, but … I have to wonder why this competition is so important to you. Surely you have proven yourself amply by now. And surely other opportunities will present themselves." He stayed quiet, and so she added in a rush, "Or perhaps I simply lack the context. I apologize—I did not mean to offend."

"No, I'm just thinking." After a pause, he said, "I know it's dumb, but it doesn't feel like I'm a real trainer until I do this."

"Why not?"

He felt anxiety rise up in him as he struggled to put it to words. No one had asked him before why he wanted to go to The Indigo Plateau—people took one look at his belt and assumed it was what he would do. "I don't know. I just—You have to understand, it's what I grew up with."

"I see."

There was another piece he'd never had to admit aloud before, and even testing the words in his head made him nervous. It felt too much like a vow, and buried in it was the admission he could fall short. It would feel worse to fail if he said it out loud. Finally he said, "I kinda have this idea that, if I do well in the conference, I can convince Jasmine—the new leader back in Olivine—to take me on as one of her gym trainers. I only have the one steel-type so far, but it's a start."

"Your father's gym."

"Yeah." As he spoke he used a stick to doodle in the dirt. The drawing became his dad's Cinder Badge. "I mean, it would still be her gym, but ... it would be nice to have my foot in the door again."

Gym leaders were appointed by the League based on a variety of factors—community involvement, politics, likability—but almost all of them had also ranked highly in at least one Indigo Conference. They also needed the endorsement of an existing gym leader, which was one reason it was so common for gyms to pass between family members, whether for better or for worse. Chris no longer had that advantage. Jasmine was young for a gym leader, so she was unlikely to pass the Olivine Gym to him anytime soon ... but there were others.

Eventually. Maybe.

Una gave him a long look. "I have misunderstood you. I thought your life afforded you so much freedom to choose your own path. Yet you are bound by duty as much I have always been."

Chris couldn't keep the defensiveness from his voice. "It is my choice. This is what I want."

She rubbed the ends of her hair between her fingers and nodded slowly.

He repeated, "This is what I've always wanted."

Una stopped fidgeting with her hair and directed a sharp look at him. "Then you must continue to pursue it."



They had a quiet breakfast. Without discussion, Chris and Una disassembled the tent and then, together, collected flat stones for a shrine.

The boardwalk gave way to solid ground when they reached the peninsula, but the ocean remained a constant companion throughout the day. At times the path climbed until they looked down on the thrashing waves far below, only to wind towards sea level again. Chris was grateful that he and Una had become comfortable traveling in amicable silence. The afterglow of his victory in Blackthorn was fast-fading, and all he could think was only three days left.

He frowned into his lunch until Una called his attention to the sky. "Oh, that's an airlander," he said. The dirigible passed overhead soundlessly. He imagined how beautiful the landscape must look from up high and how he would be invisible to the passengers, less than a speck. He started to explain about fuel efficiency and vertical takeoff until he saw the look on Una's face. "Anyway, that's how most spectators get to the Indigo Plateau, especially from the Johto side. I've heard it's pretty nice inside. People who can't afford it might hire someone to take them on a pokemon, but it's not as comfortable."

Even some trainers, he knew, saved up months in advance for airlander tickets. The last leg of their journey would be a treat rather than one last challenge. And Chris had made his own choices. A quick check on the ticketing website before they'd left Blackthorn had confirmed it was out of the question now, even with his gym earnings. Months out he might've been able to afford one ticket, but not this close to the tournament date, and not two tickets. Not even worth fantasizing about.

"Are there many people who make that journey?"

"Thousands every year." And most of them would arrive at the plateau to check into their hotel suites before evening fell that night. He wouldn't, no matter how fast they moved. Chris stuffed the rest of his sandwich into his mouth and nodded his head towards the path.

He hardly slept that night. He stared at the tent ceiling, listening to Una breathe and calculating the maximum number of miles they would be able to cover in the morning.

It felt like he'd already failed.



On the second-to-last day before Indigo Conference registration ended, they breakfasted on trail mix and fruit while they walked. No waiting to boil water for tea. As usual, Una accepted his plan of action without complaint and worked to keep up. Chris was normally quiet, but now silence gathered around him like clouds before a thunderstorm. The plateau was in sight now—and indeed it looked indigo through the haze—but it was still so far away.

When they stopped for lunch at last, Una said, "You can go ahead if it might help. I do not wish to impede you, and I have Suki with me."

At that, he deflated. "No … it's okay. I don't think it matters now. We'll just have to do the best we can at this point."

The distant plateau taunted him.

As twilight fell, Una spoke up again. "Chris, we cannot continue much farther tonight. We should stop and make camp."

"Let's go a little more."

She frowned, but when he turned and continued down the path she followed.

They hiked for half an hour by the light of headlamps and Hero's flames. Eventually, he stumbled on a tree root and nearly fell flat on his face.

"Are you hurt?"

"I'm okay."

She spoke gently. "This is senseless. It is time to stop for the night."

Chris stopped, clenched his fists, and breathed out.

She touched his sleeve. "There is tomorrow yet."

He put down his pack with a sigh. "I guess so."



In the morning, Una found him sitting on the rocks at the edge of the water with his knees tucked to his chest and a mug of tea in hand.

"Good morning."

"Oh, hey."

"Do you not wish to leave promptly this morning?"

He sighed. "I'm trying to decide what to do."

Una claimed another rock beside him and sat. "I thought you were certain of what you wanted."

Chris swirled the dregs of his tea. "Registration closes at four today. I don't know that what I want is still possible."

"Then what now?"

He shrugged jerkily. "I dunno. I guess we could go anyway just to watch the matches up close. That's gotta be better than watching it on TV, right?"

But he thought how it would feel to be so close to the action and yet apart from it, and it curdled inside of him. Maybe it would be worse than watching it on a screen.

"Or I could start working on my Kanto badges since we're here now. All the gyms will be closed until the conference is over, but …." They'd have to double back to get onto the trail into Viridian. "I guess I could explore Viridian Forest, do some training there … or something …."

He sucked in a breath through his teeth. "I'm definitely not just going home, that's for sure."

Together they watched the waves in silence for a while. After a moment, Chris said, "This is embarrassing. I'm being pathetic. Most people don't make it into the conference until their third year at least. Lots of people never even get enough badges to qualify. I shouldn't be so upset. It just … sucks."

"You are allowed to feel disappointed." She paused. "I wish there were some help I could offer …. I can collect herbs for tea, but that seems to be the limit of my use."

He pulled up the corner of his mouth. "Thanks anyway."

Una was quiet for a moment. "I should not have troubled you to take me with you."

"No, Una, it's not your fault." He cleared his throat. "I was already cutting it close, even before … all of this. If not for you I probably would've been eaten by an ursaring anyway. And if not the ursaring, I still wouldn't have been able to convince Clair to let me battle for my last badge."

"I think you would have found a way." They exchanged half-hearted smiles.

"Well." Chris poured the rest of his tea out on the rocks. "Either way. It is what it is."

Una folded her hands in her lap and looked at him expectantly.

After a moment, Chris realized she'd said all she was going to say. She'd made it clear she didn't like what he was doing, but she seemed to approve of his reasons for doing it. Whether he decided to forge ahead or turn and head the opposite direction, Una would follow without judgment. She was waiting to see what he would do.

Even with Una sitting beside him, he was alone in this.

He tried to imagine what his dad would tell him, but couldn't think of anything that fit the situation. Or that chipped away at his despair. No one was going to tell him how to proceed.

At last Chris said, "I guess I'd rather see the view from the top of the plateau than not. After coming all this way." He unbuckled his Bitflex, exposing a pale stripe on his wrist where it had been, and held it out to her. "Can you hold this for me today? I don't even want to look at it."

"That I can do."

He stood and dusted himself off. To himself as much as to her he said, "We'll get there when we get there, and I'll deal with it then. It's not like the plateau is going anywhere."

The silence between the two of them was different after that. For the first time in months, Chris walked without that deadline pressing invisibly down on him, squeezing. He let his mind wander, focusing on the feeling of moving his body, the strength he'd built in his back and legs. The firm earth under his boots. The smell of the woods. It was a beautiful day. Hero walked at his side, solid and reassuring.

From beside him, Una piped up, "You seem more yourself."

"Getting there," he agreed. He thought about asking her for the time but pushed the thought out of his mind. "Hey, that's yarrow over there, isn't it?"

She smiled. "No. That is wild carrot. Yarrow has more branching stems."

"Ah, well. I tried."

"You did. I will show you if I find more yarrow."

The sun was low in the sky when they were close enough to see the hotel towers, the stadiums, and the sprawling vendor stalls peeking over the top of the plateau. Then they were in its shadow. At the plateau's base was an aerial lift station. Chris craned his neck to follow the cables up the cliffside to the car slowly making its way back down from the top. He was surprised to see someone still manning the controls at the station, leaning on his elbows to watch a tiny portable television.

As they drew closer, the man stepped outside to greet them. "Evening! The car will be back down in just a minute."

"That's good." Chris was still sure he wanted to go up, but he wasn't sure he'd want to stay long.

"Is this your first Indigo Conference?"

Chris bit his cheek. "Yeah."

"Excellent, excellent. And congratulations! When you get to the top, the registration office will be the building to your right with the flags out front. Don't panic, of course. As long as you're in line before the office closes you'll be fine. But don't drag your feet. You'll want to get your badges ready."

"What? But I didn't—" Chris felt lightheaded. "Una, what time is it?"

While she dug in her pockets for his Bitflex, the aerial lift operator checked his own watch. "Six o'clock on the dot."

Chris spluttered, "But registration closes at four."

"No, no, it runs until seven on the last day, to give everyone the best possible chance to get here. You might very well be the last one of the season though! Things were hectic a couple hours ago, but it's been pretty slow since then. Lucky you—there shouldn't be much of a line."

Chris could barely digest the words. Dizzily he turned to Una, who smiled and handed his Bitflex back to him. He said, "I thought I was done." He finally let loose a real smile then, his full-force grin with the dimple in one cheek and not the other, and she smiled back like she had known things would work out all along.

Now it was time to really start.

END OF PART ONE
 
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Interlude: Compass

OldschoolJohto

Never not editing
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She/Her
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solrock
Interlude: Compass



The fisherwoman lived alone in a cabin on the northern edge of Cianwood, and Suicune liked her instinctively. She liked her quietude.

For a time there was also a man, then there was only the woman and the growlithe. Every morning she put on her wide hat and her oilskin coat, rowed out past breakers, and sat for hours with her line in the water and a pipe in her mouth. The growlithe either curled in the front of the boat or put its paws up on the edge to watch the mantines. When it rained, the growlithe stayed in the cabin.

Suicune watched her the way one might watch an ant trail, with both interest and distance. Without regularity. There was nothing she wanted from the woman, and she offered nothing in return.

And all at once, the woman was old and then gone. That was the way it was with humans.

What Suicune felt was not quite sadness. Things died and then other things lived. But she breathed the door open and entered the salt-worn cabin for the first and only time. The growlithe cowered in a corner, and she ignored it. She bent her head over the body and, like the gods that came before, she ate of what was offered. She left the door swinging open when she left.

She suspected but did not know with certainty that someday she too would die in a way that lasted.

I could find out for you. Celebi, appearing from nowhere, from elsewhen.

Suicune paused on the lake in the clearing, twitching her tails. Then she continued towards the tree line. If you like, she answered.

Celebi's giggle was a sound like summer sky—and wasn't a sound at all. I'll be right back! With a whir of wings and a mid-air somersault, they tore through the air itself as easily as a child might tear through a spider web, and they vanished.

She did not wait, trusting that Celebi had already gotten bored or forgotten. Or perhaps they had already told Suicune the answer long ago without her realizing.

Any encounter with Celebi was a losing game of tag. They cheated. The only possible approach was to let them come and go as they pleased, because that was what they would do regardless.

Suicune also came and went as she pleased. The miles melted under her.

Once, she chased the sun to find out whether she could outrun its setting. She could. But then she lost interest in the chase and let it fall away ahead of her.

Sometimes she felt called to a particular place without knowing why. Something on the wind. Or perhaps something else.

There was a great deal of smoke this time, leaving little doubt about what had called her toward the village of Azalea. She felt what had happened as much as she saw it: there was no water here. No rain for months. This season the humans had cut too many trees for building their homes and burning for charcoal, and there was too little left to hold moisture in the ground. All that was needed was a spark from a charcoal kiln. Or another source.

She scrabbled up the slopes to observe from afar, and she found him already there.

They do not respect the forest, Entei said, an explanation and a judgment.

Fire swept down the hill, licking the edges of the houses, swallowing them up. Suicune heard the roar and crackle of the flames, the sounds of Entei's rage. And then the faraway screams. All the futile little lost things.

Some do, she said.

He turned and regarded her, flame reflected in those golden eyes. How strange that face, even to her, so unlike anything that had been before or would likely ever be again. You love them too much, you and Raikou both.

Raikou loved men with ideas. Their kites and their keys, and then later their tiny lights against the darkness. And she ….

She thought of the boy. She wondered if what she loved were the things that needed healing.

Perhaps, she said. She felt a wash of distant heat. Does it not remind you of the tower?

Yes.
Entei rumbled so low and deep that Suicune felt and did not hear it. They make war against everything they encounter. Even themselves. They do not respect life.

Perhaps, said Suicune again.

Entei turned away from her and cleaned one paw with his rasping tongue. Will you save them then?

Below, humans ran back and forth with buckets, and a handful of slowpoke sprayed water on the buildings. Much would still burn.

Suicune could call down the rain. She had done it many times before.

She had also walked atop the waves when the water shimmered wrong colors and all the creatures below choked on it and died. She had seen wars of many kinds. She wondered if, miles to the north, there was anyone left who still struck flint on rock and prayed, "North, south, east, west—cleanse us with fire."

No, she said, and she left Entei to his own devices.

There was no real animosity between the three of them, but neither was there love. Three beasts of no home, each the only of their kind.

Now and again Suicune returned to the scabbed-over tower ruins, and always the other two were also there, answering the same wordless call. They shared no words. They attempted neither to restore nor destroy. They bore witness to the new kinds of ivy and fungal blooms that grew along the support beams. The people that built it again. The people that burned it down again.

South of Ecruteak, in the woods where they had first met, where they would meet time and time again, Celebi tugged on a hank of Suicune's mane. Found you!

She rolled her head slowly to one side. Were you looking for me?

They drifted upside-down. Oh, maybe I wasn't yet. I'm not sure. Then, with a burst of laughter, flew circles around Suicune.

She ambled down the creek bed, leaving Celebi to follow or not. Behind her, the water flowed clear. Ahead, dark.

Celebi settled itself on her back, two hands in her mane. I think I misplaced something.

Most likely
, said Suicune.

I forget when I will have put it.

Suicune had nothing to say, so she did not answer.

Celebi slept as Suicune picked her way over rock and between trees. When, finally, they let go of Suicune and slipped sideways into another place and time, they left her mane a tangle of tiny, sporadic braids.

She ran for a time, letting the world unfold under her. She ran, and in the wind the knots eventually came undone.


Digital painting by @kintsugi ❤ 😭
 
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8: The Threshold

OldschoolJohto

Never not editing
Pronouns
She/Her
Partner
solrock
PART TWO: THE GIFT OF POMEG BERRIES



8: The Threshold


"You can smile, you know. This isn't a mugshot."

"Right, sorry," Chris said, forcing a smile. The initial rush of joy had turned to jitters, and staring down a camera didn't help.

The registration office clerk laughed. "You don't have to be sorry—it's for you! This is your chance to represent yourself how you want." Then, almost scolding, "This photo will be up on the jumbotron and TV screens all over the world at least three or four times in the next few days, guaranteed. Or who knows, maybe more. You don't want them looking at a sour face."

"Yeah, no pressure."

The clerk turned away from the screen to flash him a sympathetic look. She had to be younger than his mom but looked like someone who might play a mother on TV, with glasses and a cardigan over her uniform. The buttons were shaped like flowers. "Now, I know you've seen worse stuff, probably even on the way here. Think of something you're proud of and hold onto that."

Chris tried to picture how his dad would react to seeing him there, on the cusp of greatness. But the image slipped from his grasp like so much smoke and brought up too many other thoughts besides. He reached for a memory that still had some flavor to it, some immediacy. Blackthorn. He remembered the look on Clair's face morphing from shock to rage and then respect. That was nice.

Then he thought of Una calling up the catwalk, wound tight with righteous anger and bewilderment both. He cut his eyes to the side to sneak a peek at Una now. She sat in a chair against the wall with Suki sprawled across her lap, pink legs kicking out into empty air, and she watched the registration clerk's various screens with unabashed fascination. You haven't even seen the best stuff yet, he thought. He wondered what she'd think of funnel cake and kettle corn, and then he smiled for real. He was grateful he hadn't come alone.

"Got it!" the clerk announced. "Do you want to take a look and make sure you like it?"

"I'm sure it's fine." Chris hopped out of the chair and moved to stand by her desk. He'd been sitting too long already, filling out forms and waiting for league staff to finish examining his team for signs of steroids, pokerus, or kennel cough.

"Great. Then we're almost done."

He flashed Una a reassuring smile, even though she already looked content where she sat. He was the one who was fidgeting and eager to get back into open air.

"Do you have a slogan or a quote you'd like?"

Chris snapped his head back up. "Huh?"

"For your profile. It'll be on the online roster and might show up onscreen sometimes too. Between matches, things like that."

"Oh." He hadn't thought about it, though he should've after years of watching the Indigo Conference every summer. Keiko, his sister, used to save her favorite quotes in a floral patterned notebook, even though many of them were just truisms or recycled movie lines. He had a strong memory of lying on the living room carpet at age ten or eleven and watching a trainer lose his match terribly. His slogan had been WHO'S YOUR DADDY. Chris and Keiko volleyed the slogan back and forth at each other in different voices and intonations, and she laughed until she peed herself.

Chris said, "I don't think I have one."

The clerk raised an eyebrow. "You sure?"

"Yeah, it's fine."

"Message for your parents? Trainer network profile? Favorite song lyrics?"

He shook his head.

The clerk shrugged. "Okay …." He watched her key in simply Pokemon Trainer. "Then the last thing is to lock in your team. You can choose three for the preliminaries."

This part Chris had given some thought to.

The preliminaries were one-on-one battles, and half of the challenge would be guessing which of his opponent's three pokemon he'd face. There was no telling what kinds of teams he would encounter. Most trainers who competed in the Indigo League came from Kanto or Johto, but some came from Alola or even farther out—the Indigo Conference was still the most-watched tournament in the world. As long as a trainer had at least eight Indigo League badges and a full team, any pokemon was fair game. He couldn't do much to prepare against all those possibilities except try to make smart choices now.

"Definitely my typhlosion and my jolteon." Hero and Sonic both felt like obvious choices. The third slot was trickier.

He wanted to pick Kelsey—her typing offered badly needed coverage against ground-types, and he liked having a bulky option. However, he had no guarantee he'd be fighting in an arena with a water feature, and she couldn't maneuver well on land. An opponent would find it easy to whittle her down from a distance. And there was still her neck injury.

Sammus was out for similar reasons. She was mostly better, but Chris wanted to err on the side of caution and give her wing as much time to heal as possible.

That left Tikal the sandslash, Pocky the girafarig, and Ryoga the heracross. He moved his hand across his belt and touched each pokeball in turn. Tikal would normally be his next choice, but that created a problem with water-types. He was already vulnerable to ground-types on two fronts—no reason to stack the odds against himself. Pocky was always a solid choice, easy to communicate with. Ryoga would be better if he needed to break through a physical wall, which neither Sonic nor Hero were well-equipped for. But Chris hadn't used him much lately and worried he might be slow to react. Whichever Chris chose, he knew there would moments where he'd wish he had the other instead.

"Take your time," said the clerk.

"I'm ready," Chris said. "I'm going with my heracross."

The clerk entered his selections but paused before hitting the last button. "Okay, I have typhlosion, jolteon, and heracross. Are you sure you're happy with that team? After this, you won't be able to change it until the next round."

Chris thought for only a moment. "I'm sure."

"Great." A couple mouse clicks and then she said, "Okay! I just have to print your tournament pass, and then you're on your way."

While the printer whirred to life, the clerk handed him two white plastic wrist bands and a brochure. "These are your friend and family stadium passes. They're good for any Zone C seats, all tournament long. Your guests are welcome to pay the difference to upgrade to priority seats, but they should do it soon, before those sell out.

"Your ID badge will get you into any stadium to watch as many matches as you want, and a discount at the Indigo Cafe too. Make sure it's visible at all times, either on a lanyard or clipped to your jacket.

"The opening ceremony is at nine tomorrow morning in the main stadium, and there will be overflow seating in the other four. The pools will be drafted then, and we'll be sending out the brackets right after. So keep an eye on your phone. The first matches will be in the afternoon."

Everything was happening so fast already.

By then, Chris's Indigo Conference competitor badge had finished printing, and she handed it to him still warm.

Una craned over his shoulder to look. "It is your face exactly," she said under her breath in amazement.

In the photo, he was looking off to one side but smiling enough that his dimple showed. Did he look like someone who had made his way across all of Johto? He looked like someone who needed a haircut.

The clerk's voice jolted him out of his thoughts. "I'm sure you get this question all the time with your last name, but I have to ask. You're not related to Hiro Nakano by any chance, are you?"

Chris clipped the badge to the front pocket of his hoodie. "Yeah, he's my dad."

"I knew it! You look just like him."

"That's what they tell me." Though, in his opinion, people only thought so because they expected to. Chris was leaner and longer in the face, and his eyes were blue like his mom's. There was a lot of the Lange side of the family in his face, especially around the mouth. People kept saying it anyway.

The clerk said, "I'm sorry. It's just—I was a big fan of his. The year I started in this position, he battled Koga and Agatha in the opening ceremony. It was incredible."

"I bet." Chris put his hands in his pockets. "He was really good."

"He was. Wow." The clerk seemed to remember herself and leaned back in her seat. "Well, I'm about to start closing the office down, but do you have any questions?"

"Um." He turned the brochure one way and then the other without taking in any information. "What are the rules about where I can set up camp?"

"There are signs when you exit this office. It's also on the map, on the back of your pamphlet."

"Great. Thank you." He started to pull on his backpack, prompting Una to recall Suki and do the same.

As he started for the door, the clerk called after him, "I hope the tournament goes well for you."

"Thanks. Me too."



The designated camping area wasn't difficult to find. Even from a distance, they could hear laughter, music, and even bottles clinking. A rainbow of tents spread from the path almost to the cliff edge.

Una gawked. "There are so many. Are they all trainers?"

"No, not all of them," Chris said. The tents ranged from compact ultralight models like his to unwieldy multi-section models that could fit a family or two. Some campers had even laid out lawn chairs, rugs, and barbecue grills. Sleeping would be difficult with so many people nearby. He didn't want to think about what the line for the showers was going to be like. "Let's try to find a quiet spot."

"I agree."

As they walked, Chris scanned for familiar sights. The last time he'd been here, he'd been ... twelve? Thirteen? When he was younger, his family had made the trip every year. He remembered those summers as a blur: sleeping on the airlander. Bickering with Keiko over funnel cake. Playing tag in the grass. Peeling sunburns. Of course, they hadn't been camping then—gym leaders and their families always stayed at one of the hotels—but Chris couldn't help feeling like the past was close all the same.

The Nakano family had stopped coming to the Indigo Plateau for a few years when Kaden was born. Dad had gone alone instead and returned with plushies, bags of kettle corn, and autographed pokeballs. They'd also had to take off the year Kaden broke his arm, the year Mom couldn't find anyone to cover her shifts, the year Aunt April had pneumonia …. And then the accident at the gym happened, and their family stopped coming entirely.

But now Chris had made his way back by the strength of his determination. He remembered how tall and fierce the trainers and their pokemon had seemed when he was younger—unapproachable—but he wasn't a kid or a tourist anymore. This belonged to him too now.

They skirted around the thickest patch of tents. Along the edges, the campers were spaced out more widely and more subdued. Some sat with their pokemon, brushing their coats or doing small exercises. A girl knelt beside her leafeon to whisper urgent words of encouragement, pointedly turning her back towards Chris and Una as they passed. Quiet camp zone, the signage admonished.

This is probably as good as it gets, he decided. Chris set his backpack down under a tree. Someone else was camped on the other side of it, but if the tent was turned the right way it would be almost like being alone. To the left was a sheer drop barricaded with a rope fence—a reminder for caution but not a safeguard. And ahead was the carefully landscaped path that led into the heart of Indigo Village, all the food carts, gift shops, and restaurants. And of course, the five stadiums, curved and pale like the eggs of a monstrous bird. He could still hardly believe he'd made it here, that he was part of this now.

Pausing to check the signal on his Bitflex, he said to Una, "I'm gonna call my mom real quick. You can start setting up camp without me if you want, or you can wait up and I'll help. I won't be too long."

He ducked under the rope and, with care, sat down on the ledge. Down the way, a few others had done the same. The drop was sickening, but he got a thrill from the way it made his stomach swoop. On the far end of the horizon, the sun was beginning to sink behind The Dragon's Spine. Only a few days ago he'd been among those mountains, that far away. And all the way on the other side—that could only be Mount Moon. Chris felt like the entire region, Kanto and Johto both, were spinning on an axis and he was at the center watching it all go by.

This view was worth the trip.

It was getting late. He hoped his mom wasn't working the night shift but had no way to know except to try—he hadn't been able to keep track of her schedule even when they lived in the same house, and now she might as well be on another planet.

She picked up on the second ring. The video lagged, and for a few moments all he saw was black.

"Hello?"

"Hi."

"Hey, there you are! I was starting to worry about you!"

Very little fit on the small screen—Chris felt a little bad that he hadn't waited to use a proper vidphone at one of the Indigo Village pokecenters, but he wasn't sorry to have skipped the inevitable line. All the same, he could see that Chelsea was wearing her green scrubs. "Are you at work?"

"It's fine. Davinica will cover for me." He could see from the shelves behind her that she was in a supply closet. "This is important."

"Hey, when was the last time you had a day off?"

"Honey, it's fine. I want to hear about you. Did you make it to Blackthorn? Did you get caught in those storms around Cherrygrove? Catch anything new? I don't know anything. I haven't heard from you in weeks!"

"I'm sorry. Things have been nonstop. And I wanted to wait until I had good news."

"You know, confirmation that you're alive and healthy is always good news."

He winced. She was smiling, but he could hear the edge to it.

"Okay, then I've got good news." Chris grinned then. "Guess where I'm calling from." He tried to angle his screen to catch some of the buildings behind him.

"Well tomorrow is August first and you don't look upset, so …."

"Yeah." He was impressed she'd kept track of the conference date. Maybe Keiko had reminded her. "I barely made it in time though. I thought I'd missed my chance."

"I never doubted you. Your dad would be so proud."

"I know." His stomach twisted the way it always did when she talked about his dad, even after all these years. He smiled through it. "Hey, I'm really sorry I made you worry. I'll be better about calling."

"You'd think I'd get used to it …." She steadied herself with a breath and smiled brightly. "So? How are you feeling? Are you excited?"

"Yeah … I'm excited …. And nervous. And tired." Chris breathed out. "It hasn't really hit me yet."

"Try to have fun—don't overthink it."

"I know."

"I think you get that from me."

He glanced at the nearby encampment, the tents lighting up one by one. "There are a lot of people here."

"Well, in a few days there won't be as many."

He made a noise in the back of his throat. "Yeah, probably including me."

"Oh, Chris, I wish you had half the faith I have in you."

He tried not to roll his eyes. "Thanks, Mom. I think it's gonna take a little more than that though."

"I know, honey. You know what I mean. Hey, remind me when the second round starts?"

"Not sure." Chris's arm was beginning to tire from holding his Bitflex to his face. "We get the schedule tomorrow. Probably the tenth or so."

"I thought so!" A wicked smile crossed Mom's face. "Listen, I was thinking we could fly out and see you. Cakes and Kaden don't start school again until September, and I have some time I can take off, just not until next week. I'll have to ask around and see if I can get some of my shifts covered."

"Mom, you don't have to do that." Airlander, boat—either way, the tickets would be obscenely priced. "You don't even like battles."

"Kaden has been asking about it all summer."

"I might not even make it to round two."

"So what?"

"I don't want you guys to come all the way out here for nothing."

"We'll get to spend time as a family. That's not for nothing."

"Then I'll help pay for the tickets." Chris stopped himself from mentally tallying his current funds.

"Oh, stop."

On his mom's end, the supply room door opened and someone's called her name. "Just a second!" she said. Then, "Break's over."

"Did you actually take your break?"

"I gotta go, but let's talk soon."

He let out an exasperated sigh, but he was smiling.

"Call me. Doesn't matter what time."

"Alright, I will."

"And don't leave me hanging for weeks this time. I mean it."

"Mom, okay."

"I love you."

"Love you too, Mom."

She hung up, and he sat looking at the blank screen for a moment. In its reflection, he saw the stadium lights.

When he crossed back over the rope fence, Una had already pitched the tent and was beginning to pull out their cookware. Relief and gratitude washed over him. He didn't feel ready to brave the cafeteria yet, all those overeager trainers and fans. They still had a few RediMeals apiece to eat through, and he was glad for the routine of settling into camp. He smiled and called out, "That was quick."

"I have had practice."

Something in her face made him pause. "Are you okay?"

"I was thinking. That is all." She smiled, but he wasn't totally convinced.

Before Chris could say more, he heard his name. He swiveled his head like a startled pokemon until he saw the three young trainers waving and walking their way. It took him a moment to register who he was seeing. "Oh, hey! I didn't know you guys would be here."

"You didn't ask!" Tara, her arms sun-bronzed and piled with friendship bracelets.

At her side, Elias sported a still-raw tattoo of a pidgeot on his triceps. "It's good to see you, man."

Chris let himself be hugged. "You too. Sorry I've been so bad about keeping in touch."

Grant trailed behind, walking backward to snap a few photos before jogging to join the group. "Hey!" He looked over Chris and Una's backpacks, camp gear strewn about. "You just get here?"

"Yeah, almost didn't make it. But I'm here."

Una rose up from her knees and eyed the trio warily.

Tara pivoted towards her and put out a hand. "I'm Tara."

Una startled backward, and Tara made a face like Una had hit her.

Chris stepped in. "These are some of my friends from home. Grant, Elias, Tara." He motioned to each of them in turn. "We traveled together for a while. Guys, this is Una." He reached for a simple explanation for how they had come to travel together. Fumbled. "She …. We were going the same direction. So. Yeah."

Una made a half-bow. "A pleasure to make your acquaintance."

Tara snerked and flicked her eyes to Elias. "Okay."

Elias said, "We were about to head to the canteen."

Chris turned to Una, eyes searching her face. "What do you think?"

She smiled in a way that said she would go if he wanted to.

"Alright …" Chris squeezed out. "Then let's go. Just give us a second to grab our stuff."

Tara watched them gather the cookware. "Just leave it here. No one's gonna mess with it."

"I'd rather have it with me, just in case."

She rolled her eyes. "Same old Chris."

He smiled in spite of himself. "Yeah, yeah. I'll be the one laughing when someone walks off with everything you own."

"They can have my trash. I wouldn't mind having less to carry."

The paths here were wider and more straightforward than Chris was used to—they were new, designed with tourists in mind. Any direction he looked there were families, groups of trainers, and pokemon with their ears pricked up. Buntings hung between the streetlights, silver and gold for Johto, primary colors for Kanto.

Elias said to no one, "Man, I want mac 'n' cheese."

Chris could tell by the way his friends hardly glanced at the shops that the three of them had already been this way several times. "When did you guys get here?"

Grant answered, "Thursday. It's been cool watching people trickle in. Feels like the first week of school."

Una hung behind, twisting a curl around her finger, and took in the sights without comment. She put on a reassuring smile when she caught Chris looking her way.

Tara sidled up next to him. "I'm hype to see how your team is shaping up! How's Hero?"

"He's good."

She smirked. "Maybe after dinner we can find out just how good, fight fire with fire. Azula's never been better, you know." Her ninetales.

"I can't." Chris squinted at her. "We've gotta be fresh for the tournament."

Tara's eyes went wide. "Wait, you're actually doing it?"

"You guys aren't?" He glanced at Elias and Grant, and he saw Tara's surprise and excitement mirrored in their faces.

Tara snorted. "I don't think we even have eight badges between the three of us."

Chris should have expected as much. Left to their own devices, the three of them would sleep in until ten or later. Once they were up and moving, they meandered towards anything that caught their interest—if something else didn't distract them first. And they made so much noise at camp they scared away the wild pokemon. So he'd gone ahead by himself. Still, he was amazed how little it seemed to bother them to be so behind when he'd been losing sleep worrying about dates and deadlines.

"Wow, man. Congrats." Elias thumped him on the shoulder. "You nervous?"

Tara said, "Do you have to ask?"

The Indigo Cafe reminded Chris of his high school cafeteria, only bigger and full of trainers. He'd seen plenty of other trainers in hostels and on the road, but he'd never seen so many in one place. The younger trainers stood out, dressed in bright colors and talking loudly in groups. Posturing. The more established trainers sat in stern silence or flashed a wily grin at young hopefuls gathered around them, but they each had the look of someone who had seen things. Each trainer, no matter their age, eyed each other wolfishly—the air prickled with it. A girl with a scar through her lip and a missing incisor winked at their group as they passed.

They joined the buffet line. Chris let Una learn what she was supposed to do by watching him, pausing only to point out to her the leaf decal that denoted a vegetarian dish.

Chris hadn't eaten like this in months: fried drumsticks and wings, pasta salad, pizza, brownies, slabs of frosted white cake, mashed potatoes, twice-baked potatoes, fries, salad with croutons and six dressing options, magikarp cooked three ways, two kinds of soup …. He took too much food, but it was cheap. With the discount, both his and Una's plates together came out to less than one typical restaurant meal.

Tara led the way to a table, pausing to wave to people she recognized. "So." She turned to Una the instant their trays touched the table. "Where are you from?"

"Ecruteak."

"How funny. That's not far from us at all. I love Ecruteak."

Una smiled uncertainly.

"Have you guys been traveling together long?"

It felt like a long time, but Chris supposed it hadn't actually been much time at all. He said, "A couple weeks." Already he had almost forgotten what it was like to travel alone. He was used to Una now.

Tara leaned forward, grinning. "Do you ever get more than five words at a time out of him?"

"Of course." Una frowned, glancing at Chris for guidance. "We talk a great deal."

"Ooh, watch out—he's gotta be running low by now."

"Very funny," he said.

There was a momentary lull while Tara jammed in a bite of food. Then she started up again, "So, are you a trainer too?"

Una darted a hand to her feather necklace. "No. Suki and I do not fight."

"Huh. Okay."

Chris watched their exchange uneasily until he noticed Grant pointing the camera at him. He paused with his fork in the air and tried to smile despite his full mouth.

"It's candid," said Grant. "Ignore me."

Elias said, "Dude. Do you really need pictures of us eating?"

"It's family togetherness. You'll thank me later."

"Just eat your dinner like a normal person, man."

Out of the corner of his eye, Chris saw Una stand up. "Excuse me," she said, dipping her head. "I need to find a washroom."

When Una was out of earshot, Tara clicked her tongue and said, "She's an odd duck, isn't she? Where did you find her?"

Chris set down his fork. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"Yeah," Elias cut in, elbowing her, "you're one to talk."

Tara shoved him away. "I mean … the way she talks. She sounds like an English teacher."

"She's just had different life experiences."

Tara shrugged. "She seems a little off to me is all."

"Leave her alone, alright?"

Grant raised an eyebrow, and Elias burst out with a laugh. "The new Chris is not here for your garbage, Tara!"

Chris tried to dial it back. "I'm just—"

Tara held up her hands. "Just making conversation."



The moment the trio was out of sight, Chris felt his neck and shoulders loosen. He let out a long breath. "Sorry about those guys," he said to Una. "They can be … intense."

He'd told his friends he needed to train, so he released Ryoga the heracross from his pokeball and started rigging up targets around their campsite. Ryoga fanned his wings and explored nearby, antenna twitching in furious excitement. Chris felt a twinge of guilt for making him go so long between excursions.

"They were quite friendly."

At the sound of Una's voice, Ryoga turned away from investigating the campsite and bounded up to her. He raised a hand. When she backed away, nervousness showing on her face, he buzzed and shuffled closer.

"Stop that, Rio. She doesn't want a high five." Chris reached between them and high fived the heracross's outstretched mitt. Ryoga made a huffing noise that Chris knew to mean he was pleased, and then he slammed his trainer's hand repeatedly until Chris's arm was numb to the elbow. Shaking out his hand, Chris said to Una, "Sorry—that's how he greets people."

Una giggled. "Then I should say hello." She raised a tentative hand. Ryoga huffed and slammed her hand with high fives, alternating claws, and although Una winced, she didn't pull away.

"Hey, hey, hey, that's plenty. You okay, Una? Anyway. What was I saying?"

"Your friends."

"Right. Yeah, they're nice … in small doses. Hanging out with them reminds me why I decided to travel alone." He knelt to finish setting up the targets, nudging Ryoga out of the way.

"I suppose you have not had much time to yourself since we met. Perhaps I should go and walk with Suki awhile."

He looked up. "If you want to. But I don't mind you being here. You're easy to talk to." And she was comfortable with silences too—that was rare.

"And you as well." Una smiled. "But I do think I will take a walk. It is a pleasant evening, and I feel better when I am moving my feet."

Chris knew that feeling. "I'll be here," he said, gesturing toward his pokemon.

Ryoga took the opportunity to slap Chris's palm, nearly knocking him off balance.

Una laughed again, and Chris couldn't help smiling in return. He was relieved she seemed to be in a better mood.

He and Ryoga worked on footwork, striking targets in order, and sprints. There wasn't space for much else. And every time someone walked by, Ryoga paused to flare his wings and flex at them.

"Yeah, yeah, we know you're tough, big guy. Can you stop showing off and focus, please?" But Chris didn't blame him. He was also distracted by trainers and tourists chattering as they passed. Both he and the heracross had been more accustomed to the quiet of the woods for a long time now.

"There's a weight room, you know," a passing trainer remarked, startling Chris. "Over by the stadiums. Anyone can use it."

That meant it would be crowded, Chris knew. "Good to know," he said, folding his arms.

Ryoga turned, one arm cocked back for a high five. His best effort to show dominance and strength the way humans did, Chris suspected.

"No, Rio."

Noting Chris's tone, Ryoga instead slipped into a fighting stance. Quiet and listening for orders.

"Sorry," Chris said to the trainer. "He's just overstimulated."

Chris expected the other trainer to leave then, but he didn't. "It's cool. Heracross, huh?" the trainer said. "You must be from Johto." He looked vaguely familiar, maybe a competitor from previous years, but Chris couldn't quite place him. Until the quarter-finals, all the trainers ran together.

"Yup."

"Seems like there's gonna be a lot of fighting-types in the preliminaries."

Chris made a non-committal noise. Was that supposed to be advice? If so, it wasn't much use now. He wondered how long the other trainer had been watching him and his pokemon. And whether anyone else had been watching them. Making a show of it, he turned away to dig through his bag for the jar of wax for his heracross's shell.

"Well … good luck."

"Yeah, you too."

He was still buffing out the scrapes on Ryoga's shell when Una came back from her walk. At her approach, Ryoga flicked his wings in greeting, and Chris jumped.

"Did I startle you?" She carried a handful of unfamiliar leaves and flowers. Of course, even here she'd manage to find plants to gather.

"I thought you were …. Never mind. So—Rio, you already got a high five. Alright, time for a break. Thanks, buddy." After a final high five, he recalled Ryoga and sat cross-legged in the grass.

"I saw several towers, almost like home," Una reported. "But they were very plain."

"They're hotels." He ached at the thought of a private room, but he also knew those were the most expensive hotels in the entire region. The conference would last several weeks, and in the meantime he and Una still had to eat.

"So many people," said Una. "Few stars, however."

"Light pollution." He missed the stars too.

Chris's Bitflex vibrated, and he cursed in surprise. He so rarely received text messages, especially the last few weeks in the mountains, he'd almost forgotten he could. Usually his messages poured in all at once when he arrived in town. His mom always waited for him to call.

"What is it?" Una asked.

"Just Elias. I dunno why I'm so jumpy." He shook his head. "There's a party or something." Judging by the music drifting towards them from the other side of the tent city, there were several.

"Will you go?"

"I dunno …."

"Ah. Are you still training tonight?"

"No, not really …." He couldn't shake the feeling of being watched, studied. The alternative was to pretend to read his book while running through strategies in his mind—useless while he was laying down. And sleep would not come easily tonight no matter what he did.

"You deserve to celebrate."

"Maybe. I guess it would be fine if I don't stay too late …. You'll come too, right?"

"If you like," she answered, smiling.

Trainers and fans alike flowed from one space to another in a continuous chain of festivities that spanned much of the encampment, making it hard to tell where one party stopped and another started. Chris and Una spotted the trio again near a tree that had been decorated with glow sticks. There was a campfire, and someone had stuck a battery-powered radio to a magneton. It did improve the volume, but the radio had locked to an oldies station and no one had figured out yet how to change it again. Fireflies quivered over the grass.

A small crowd gathered in a circle between the tents. As they approached, Chris caught wind of the conversation and groaned. "Bragging contest," he said under his breath to Una. "It's inevitable when you put too many trainers in one place."

He listened for a while anyway. As long as Chris was content to be an audience member, no one made demands of him or expected him to talk. One trainer told a story about almost catching an albino rattata. Another trainer claimed to have fought a Rocket in a Goldenrod alleyway, showing his scarred knuckles as proof. A couple kids too young to be trainers sat around the fire and listened, enraptured. He must've been that easy to impress when he was younger too.

The magneton floated by, all a-ajangle with tinny music and filched padlock keys that had been stuck to it. Probably not good for it, Chris thought.

He wondered if any of these trainers were actually in the tournament.

Someone threw an arm over his shoulder. Grant. "Hey, man, I love you. I've missed you."

"Yeah … you too, buddy."

His friends chattered at him a while, but he had trouble hearing them over the music and his own thoughts. He couldn't stop puzzling through which of his team would be the best counter for all those fighting-types he'd supposedly be seeing in the preliminaries. Would Hero be too obvious and predictable?

He caught himself biting the inside of his cheek and forced himself to stop. What was wrong with him? This was supposed to be fun.

Someone brought out a beach ball, and it bobbed above the crowd until someone hit it too hard and sent it flying over the edge of the plateau. Someone managed to pry the radio loose from the magneton and tuned it to a pop channel, the music softer now. Someone brought out a guitar and started singing along with the radio.

Chris glanced around and realized he didn't know where Una had gone.

He found her leaning against the tree, listening politely as a girl showed off her badges. He and Una exchanged smiles. Chris joined Una under the tree, and they let the girl talk into the air until she realized she'd misplaced her phone and wandered off.

"Are we having fun yet?" he asked.

Una held up an aluminum can, frowning. "Someone gave this to me."

He checked the label before he opened it for her, taking a quick swig himself before passing it over. Why not?

She took a tentative drink and then laughed. "Oh, beer." She laughed again. "It is not very good, is it?"

"It's the cheap kind," he agreed, unable to resist smiling back at her. His smile faltered as he dropped his voice and wondered aloud, "Is a bride to the gods supposed to have beer?"

"Of course. Why ever not?"

"I dunno." He shrugged. "There's a lot I don't know."

"A tower acolyte may drink beer," she said and took another drink. "And an exile may do as she pleases."

Was that how she thought of herself?

Una was still smiling though. She handed the can back to him and slipped through the crowd to the semi-open area where a few people were dancing. He was glad she seemed to be enjoying herself at least.

Chris sipped at the beer, but he didn't really want it either. He remembered the time Tara, Elias, and Grant had convinced him to go out with them after he'd won his Plain Badge. It had been his first and last tequila experience. Even thinking about it made him momentarily queasy. He gave up and set the nearly full can down somewhere he hoped it wouldn't be kicked over.

He checked the time and counted the hours until the opening ceremony.
 
9: Pantheon New

OldschoolJohto

Never not editing
Pronouns
She/Her
Partner
solrock
9: Pantheon

Chris watched Una stack stones into a tower. This time he focused on packing away their camp instead of helping her gather stones—the only pokemon her offering was likely to attract here were rattata and spearow, which their fellow campers wouldn't exactly celebrate. He'd seen a spearow swipe someone's breakfast right off their lap earlier that morning. But he didn't tell Una that. Let her do it if it made her happy. Urban pests aside, he still liked watching the tower grow from scattered rocks to something with purpose.

Then they made their way towards the stadium with Sonic the jolteon leading the way, pausing to sniff every few feet. The campground buzzed with activity, but in a quieter way than the previous day. Trainers swung coffee thermoses over their shoulders and joked with each other in low voices. Sleepy-eyed children shuffled alongside parents herding them towards bathrooms or breakfast.

At the sight of all the families, Chris felt a wash of homesickness. This was the first year he wouldn't be watching the opening ceremony wedged between his mom and his little brother while his sister perched on the back of the couch, all of them in pajamas and eating breakfast burritos wrapped in foil. On the rug, Hero curled around Keiko's cyndaquil like Usu, Dad's typhlosion, had once curled around him. The family cheered each time a trainer from Olivine came onscreen, even Jasmine. With each cheer, Hero twitched and snorted sparks.

Chris remembered Keiko nudging him with her leg. "That'll be you soon." He allowed himself a smile, imagining the three of them together on the couch, cheering for him from across the distance.

"You are in high spirits this morning," Una observed, smiling.

He flashed her a grin. "This part is always fun. The League goes all out for this. A couple years ago Sweet Saffron opened for the conference …." He trailed off, realizing too late she was probably the only person on the Tohjo peninsula who wouldn't recognize the pop band. "Anyway. You're gonna like it."

Her smile was polite. "And what of your friends from home?"

That elicited a frown. Ahead, Chris could already see the line of spectators waiting to enter the stadium. He wondered if it would even be possible to find five seats together in general admission. "Supposedly they're on their way. I'll text them again."

When Chris looked up, Una was watching with a furrowed brow. "How exactly does it work? Your …?" She pointed.

Chris supplied, "Bitflex."

"Yes. Can you use it to speak to … anyone?"

He heard the pause, but it was the look on her face that made him remember how withdrawn she had been after the call with his mom. Suddenly he felt guilty for his homesickness. After all, he would see his family in little more than a week. But Una …. He spoke gently. "Well, they have to have a phone or a smartwatch. Or a computer. But then … yeah, pretty much."

Una only nodded.

By then Chris and Una had arrived at the end of the line of fans, trainers, and pokemon pressed against the stanchions, all waiting for seats. Moments later, Chris and Una were sandwiched between two chattering groups as more filed in. "Stick close, Sonic." Chris checked the time—League staff would begin letting spectators into the stadium any minute.

After another quick glance around for signs of his friends, Chris put on a smile for Una and said, too fast and too brightly, "Of course, all the technology in the world only means so much if the people on the other end of the line never look at their messages. So don't be too impressed." He held up his arm with the Bitflex. "We spend a lot of money on little pieces of plastic. Silly, when you think about it."

"Chris," said Una, "I do not expect you to be able to fix every problem. You are not at fault."

Chastened, he lowered his hands to his pockets. But she smiled, so he smiled back and said, "Okay."

He and Una watched the crowd for a few moments without speaking. Fluttering overhead all down the line, he saw flags for regions and individual cities. Some groups wore matching t-shirts, neon and decorated with puff paint, or more elaborate costumes. Some dressed to match their pokemon. Still no sign of Tara, Elias, or Grant yet though. A trickle of fans with blue wristbands passed on one side of the stanchions, circumventing the line.

Chris watched Una watch a trio of girls on their phones, standing together without looking at each other. "Are they all sending messages to someone?"

"Probably. Or … reading." He didn't have the heart to explain the specifics of social media and internet culture right then. Una, he suspected, would care about it as little as he did.

Her expression was caught between a frown and amusement. "Why not speak to the person beside them?"

He let out a single laugh. "Good question."

Thank gods for Una.

As the line began to creep forward at last, Chris heard his name. He spotted Tara first—half of her face was painted in Johto silver and gold, metallic beads draped around her neck. Grant was behind her with the camera around his neck, as usual, looking unspeakably tired. And Elias—

"Is your hat … a lighthouse?" A light flashed on and off inside of it.

"Olivine pride, baby!"

Sonic was already up and bounding to greet them as the trio pushed in next to Chris and Una, ignoring the grumbling of the group behind them. "Thanks, man!" As the line shuffled forward, Elias grinned and said, "Just in time."

Tara leaned in. "Sorry to make you wait. I know it stresses you out."

"It's okay." And it was, once she'd acknowledged it. "You guys … are ridiculous." But Chris's smile came easily this time. It wouldn't be right to watch the opening ceremony without a group. In that moment, he loved their ridiculousness.

"You can borrow my hat if you're jealous."

"Wouldn't look as good on me."

"True facts."

From off to one side came a flurry of girlish noises. "Oh my gosh, is that Bill?"

Chris turned in time to see the back of a curly head of hair, the flash of a red wristband, and little else. Then gone. But the surrounding onlookers continued craning their necks and rising up on tiptoes trying to get another peek.

Tara's elbow found Chris's side. "Isn't this exciting?" Silver and gold paint flecked her hair where it had touched her face.

He didn't care about celebrity sightings, but he smiled anyway. It was exciting. They pressed forward into the stadium's cool shadow, and Chris's heartbeat quickened.

As the line inched forward, a new sound filtered through the animated chatter. A chant? Chris struggled to make it out, and then he saw the protesters gathered under the trees facing the stadium entrance. There were less than twenty of them, a crowd of mostly young women with pokemon winding between their legs. Nearby, a woman in a League polo flanked by a machamp and a hypno kept the protesters at a distance without seeming overly interested. The crowd largely ignored them too. But Chris couldn't help sweeping his gaze across their handmade signs —Pokeballs pollute, and Ethical trainers for apricorns—and then he turned to look at Una.

She furrowed her brow, either from not understanding or from understanding too well.

Chris's excitement dimmed, a little.

"Wristbands, wristbands—let's see those hands in the air," a League staff member called to them.

Grateful for the distraction, Chris nudged Una to show her arm and held up his competitor badge.

Then they squeezed into the stadium's air-conditioned belly. League staff waved them up a staircase—"Elevators are to the right. Sir, do you have a wrist band for the magmar?" Concrete floors. Ribbons on the stair rails. Guide lights pulsed at each landing, urging them upward.

And then, finally, they broke into the sunlight again. Above, a slice of sky crackled with gold and red sparks—the light screens of a pokemon team in the control room, in case of inclement weather. Bleachers stretched to all sides, abuzz with families and trainers and fans waving flags. The air was alive with the sound of the crowd. Smells of popcorn, sun-heated plastic, and grass.

And below, the arena: a disc of flawless green that looked small enough to fit in his palm, but somehow took up so much space inside of Chris that it left him nearly breathless. Seams ran through the turf where he imagined the floor would open to reveal pools like in the Blackthorn gym. Rocks and sand around the edges. In the center, a stage. His dad and countless others had battled on the field, and he most likely would too.

Tara charged ahead, and Chris was happy not to have to watch where they were headed, free to stare down into the pit of green. Una stared too, open-mouthed, but her eyes were on the crowd pouring into the bleachers from doorways all around the stadium rim.

"Crazy, isn't it?"

She shook her head wonderingly. "Never have I seen so many people in one place."

They settled onto the bleachers beside a family whose lickitung wore a foam finger. To his left, Una turned to listen to Grant narrate as he flickered through his camera's library. Chris knew by the way Una tucked her hair behind her ears—and then again, even though her hair was already out of the way—that she was working at full speed to take in the information. Someone in the row behind them scolded Elias until he took off his tall hat. To his right, Tara swept her phone from side to side, recording video, for posterity.

Chris rubbed Sonic's ears and watched the telescreen, where the competing trainers and icons of their preliminary round pokemon cycled past. By lunchtime, he would know which teams he'd be facing. The rest was noise.

At this point, there wasn't much he could do but hope his team was ready. He'd assembled them for a talk, as always. But it felt different than it had before a gym battle, and they knew it too. Keyed up with nowhere in particular to direct it. Pocky was especially reactive to the energy in the air, firing his own anxiety back at him until he gave her a mental shove. Chris didn't know what to tell them to prepare for this time. But they were still in it together with him, and that was the best he could ask for. He squeezed Sonic to him until his hair stood on end, savoring the warmth and the slightly burnt smell of his fur.

All at once, the stadium lights dimmed, even the sky brought to artificial darkness with the help of the stadium pokemon, and the telescreen went black. As the crowd quieted, Chris tensed in delight.

Una whispered, "Now what?"

"You'll see."

"Ladies and gentlemen, Pokecola and Silph Co would like to welcome you to the 30th annual Indigo League Conference!"

And then fireworks exploded up from the field, and the crowd broke out in cheers. Una jumped, but by the furious orange light, Chris could see her smile.

As the first round of fireworks died, the telescreen kicked back on, showing the Indigo League logo. Over the stadium speakers, first a blast of music. Then voices, one after another: This is my first year actually competing. We've competed every year since oh nine. I'm the first in my family to enter the Indigo Conference.

Quickfire videos flashed on screen, a series of trainers with the five stadiums showing behind them. I just want to find out how far we can go, push our limits. I want to make my grandmother proud. I came to win this time.

Jump cuts came faster and faster. I grew up outside of Goldenrod City. Vermillion City. Cheers and shouts punctuated each clip as spectators recognized their own hometowns. Pacifidlog. Motostoke. Made it here all the way from Melemele Island! Saffron. Violet. I'm from good ol' Palette Town. At the sight of returning conference winner Gary Oak onscreen, screams rang out all over the stadium, carrying over through several audio clips.

The Indigo League theme music gradually drowned out the interviews, and the giant screens filled instead with a grid of trainer profile photos. Someone in a nearby seat whooped at the sight of a familiar face. As the music swelled, the grid shrank to fit more and more photos on the screen. Tara rattled Chris by the shoulder—"There's our boy!" But he hadn't seen it. Then the images were too small to pick out any individual faces, zooming out and out until the photo grid resolved itself into the Indigo League logo once again, this time made of a patchwork of flesh-colored squares. The music quieted to allow a single voice to ring out: It's about being together.

Applause shook the stadium as spotlights came back up on the field far below.

Under the cover of darkness, Taiko drums had been moved onto the field, including one the size of a car. The drummers rumbled a stormy preamble. Then the drumbeats shifted into a relentless, slow rhythm, like an external heartbeat Chris felt through the stands even at the distance.

In time with the beat, three figures minced onto the eastern half of the stage. Their movement down on the ground was difficult to see from their seats, but the telescreen caught the details: the flowing uchikake in blue, then yellow, and red bringing up the rear, the fabric patterned with cloud and flame and snowflakes and dark zigzags. Each dancer wore a bird mask pinned to the side of her hair with long feathers swooping from the crown.

Chris watched Una's reaction from the corner of his eye. Was this anything like the way they had danced in Ecruteak five hundred years ago? She sat up ramrod straight, one hand over her feather necklace.

With a sudden pause in the music, the dancers froze, masks tilted skyward and long sleeves dangling. Then tok, tok, tok—each dancer snapped out a fan with colored silk trailing from the end. They spun and swirled their fans in formation as the music picked up speed. Something about the shadows and the graceful way the dancers dipped their heads made it easy to suspend disbelief and see them as birds. They half-sang and half-shrieked sharp notes that raised goosebumps along Chris's arms.

At another break in the drumbeats there came instead yipping and howling from offstage. The bird dancers knelt, arms airplaned out, as three new dancers prowled onto the western half of the stage. They wore men's haori and salwaar pants—yellow, then red, and finally blue. Each wore headdresses, neither feline nor canine but all beast, with upper jaw and fangs resting along the forehead, veils of tulle and woolen fiber spraying out behind.

Here Chris and Una exchanged a look. The costumes were beautiful, but unlike the birds, they were impossible to imagine as the real thing. The truth of the human under the mask was a distraction.

"There's Miki." Chris leaned close and still had to shout to be heard over the music. "She always dances as Entei."

The beast dancers moved more erratically, all stomps and lunging high kicks, and the drumbeats too picked up speed and ferocity, drummers lifting their arms high and cracking down. With a tik-a-tong, the three dancers whipped out ribbon wands and lashed the stage with pretend lightning, fire, and rain.

Then, in a throbbing cacophony of drumbeats and howls and shrieks, the bird dancers rose to meet the beasts. Ribbons slashed against silk as the dancers chased each other across one side of the stage and the other. Even though he knew it was a dance, Chris couldn't help wondering with bated breath which side would win.

Fabric whorled. Roman candles burst from the stage edges. The taiko drums reached an almost intolerable crescendo—

All at once, the birds and the beasts spun apart and retreated to their respective sides of the stage in two neat lines: water facing water, fire facing fire, lightning facing lightning. As one, the dancers made a half turn and swept an arm towards the center of the stage where dry ice fog welled up from below.

The drums gave way to a synth-pop hook. "No matter where I roam, however far from home…" The stadium roared in recognition of the familiar melody. From below the stage rose Riri Smalls, Kantoan chart-topper and celebrated coordinator, wearing some kind of crystalline jumpsuit.

Chris sat back again—he hadn't realized he'd been sitting on the edge of his seat—suddenly more aware of the crowd than the performance below. To his right, Tara waved her cellphone light overhead and sang along, her voice lost among the others. A quick glance around showed a thousand little lights all over the stands.

"We're climbing higher and higher—together!" Riri's backup dancers surged the stage. In a wave of red, the Ecruteak dancers each released a pokemon: two vaporeons, two flareons, and two jolteons. Then the dancers swayed to the pop track's rhythms, each of their pokemon dipping their heads and raising one paw on beat.

Chris caught Una's eyes, and her grin lit up his insides. She leaned over and said something, but it was lost to the surging music.

"What?" he shouted back.

She tried again, her hair against his face, but it was no use. Chris shook his head and shrugged, and instead they exchanged helpless smiles.

The taiko drummers drove the beat on. The bird dancers swung their sleeves, and the beast dancers leapt, and Riri sang and posed and glittered. Her famous pidgeotto, Bigs, circled above her head, a light-up baton in its beak. As Riri slammed out the final notes—"Until the battle is won!"—a final barrage of fireworks scattered into the air.

All around, spectators leapt to their feet in uproarious applause as Riri and the dancers waved and bowed. Chris stood half a moment too late, Sonic wriggling in his arms.

Then Riri and the dancers scurried off the stage again, Bigs the pigeotto swooping overhead, as the announcer boomed, "We now present the Indigo League gym leaders!"

Tok-tong. The gym leaders walked onto the stage in two solemn lines, one from the eastern side and one from the west, and then stopped to face each other. They wore formal attire in rainbow colors, ranging from kimonos and sarees to tuxedos and sleek gowns. As the crowd applauded, the camera turned its loving eye to each gym leader and their accompanying pokemon in turn. People watching at home would be hearing commentary on who designed each leader's dress and so on, information Chris wasn't sorry to be missing out on.

Chris could feel Una looking at him, so he pointed out Jasmine for her. She wore a silver dress with glittering black detailing that reminded him of her steelix's armor. He imagined his dad standing on that stage in her place and his heart squeezed like a fist, like he could protect the image by holding it tight.

Unsure whether she cared or if she could even hear him, Chris continued naming the gym leaders for Una. When he came to Sabrina of Saffron City he paused. The thought came on sudden and electrifying: if anyone among the thousands of people here would know anything useful about pokemon and teleportation—maybe even time travel—it would be her. He had no idea how he could possibly get an audience with her. The gym leaders would be staying somewhere quiet with limited public access, and probably for good reason. Still, he filed that thought away for later.

To his surprise, he counted only fifteen gym leaders. Notably missing was the Viridian gym leader—still. Surely they should've replaced him by now. He supposed the League wanted to choose its next appointee more carefully after the international scandal Giovanni had caused. This year's Kantoan trainers must have had to cross into Johto for their eighth badges. The thought was oddly satisfying. After all, Chris had crossed a border for the conference too.

There wasn't long to ponder the absence. "And now presenting the elite trainers of the Indigo League!" With a cymbal crash, the eight trainers walked down the center of the stage, once again in two lines.

On the Kanto side: Bruno the brute, dressed with unusual modesty for the formal occasion. Agatha the crone, hobbling but lifting her head high. Lorelei the ice queen, wearing a hairpiece of what looked like ice but was probably only glass. Koga, Kanto's last true ninja, with a ceremonial sword on his back.

On the Johto side: Will the magician in his usual doublet, ruffled collar, and eye mask. Clio, formerly of Ecruteak's Thousand-Year City Dancer's, mother of the famous programmer Bill, wearing an elaborate autumnal kimono. Karen, mistress of the night, with tall black boots and a leather corset over her dress. Walker, the Violet City Kingfisher, dressed in an almost exact copy of the kimono worn by his son, Falkner.

Not so long ago, they had been called the Elite Four, and almost all of them had been Kantoan. Everyone knew they were figureheads, responsible for making appearances at League events, battling, and little else. But they had been chosen, and the favoritism still stung. It was nice to see progress.

Tok-tok.

"And finally, ladies and gentlemen … the reigning Indigo League champion of champions, Lance the dragon master!"

He swooped into the arena from above, his dragonite a yellow blur with the darker gold of Lance's cape streaming behind. The stadium shook with applause, and this time Chris didn't hesitate to shift Sonic onto the bench and jump to his feet. The flight had to be choreographed because the spotlight easily followed the dragonite as it barrel-rolled and then began a lap around the stadium. As they passed, Lance leaned and stretched out one hand to high five audience members—not close enough for Chris to reach, but close enough to watch the ripple of hands straining towards the champion, to see the dragonite's individual scales.

This was the leanest and speediest of Lance's four dragonites, Chris guessed, the one that was best at evading hits until the opponent was tired out and then striking from above again and again. The others were a blunt-faced brawler, one that specialized in long-range fire and lightning attacks, and one that specialized in water and tricky barriers. Chris thought he could tell them apart after hours of rewatching tournament footage … but you never could be sure which you were facing until it made an attack.

The telescreen caught Lance's grin as he drew away from the spectators and leaned into another corkscrew turn, and Chris felt a pang of jealousy. Lance made it look effortless. Sammus was large and powerful enough to carry Chris, he knew, but he hadn't yet mustered the guts to chance it. The skarmory followed commands well in a battle, but he wouldn't know for sure how she'd react to him climbing onto her back until he tried it. Getting dumped into the water by his lapras was one thing, but …. He winced. And besides, he also wasn't ready to start carrying special heavy-duty gloves and pants for the luxury of a free ride on a bird made of knives. Too much bulk in his pack.

The dragonite landed neatly in the center of the stage. After a moment of fussing with the harness, Lance hopped down and, to great applause, took a bow. Then he raised his arms like a ringleader and boomed out, "Trainers!" With his wind-tousled hair dyed maraschino red, the diva mic hooked over his ear, and the light glinting off his cape with each movement—Lance looked every bit as much like the lead singer of a band as Riri Smalls. "Fans! Viewers at home! What a pleasure to have all of you watching today! There are as many reasons to journey to the Indigo Plateau as there are people in this stadium. Whatever your reasons, thank you for joining us and welcome."

He waited for the applause to die back down. "The journey to the Indigo Plateau is not an easy one. Some of you may have traveled only a few miles from home, and others have crossed an ocean. Some of you didn't make it here on your first attempt—but you kept trying. Some of you made great sacrifices to be here. And some of us are here today on behalf of someone who couldn't be or for someone who is no longer with us." Astonishing, the stillness that was possible in that stadium. "The Indigo League would like to honor all of those who join us in spirit. Please join me in a moment of silence for all the trainers, pokemon, friends, and family who could not be here with us today."

Lance closed his eyes and lowered his head. Complete quiet fell over the crowd.

Chris bowed his head but couldn't bring himself to close his eyes. He didn't want to be that alone with himself. Dad, I …. But even in his own head, he couldn't complete the thought. He had nothing else to promise or ask for, and he didn't believe his dad had gone to a place where he could hear promises. Touching Hero's pokeball, Chris thought instead of Una's words. Have you not heard it said that the dead return to us in new forms? To guide us, to protect us? It is what I choose to believe.

He stole a glance at her. Head bent, hair falling partway across her face, golden feather tight in her grasp, mouthing the words that had become familiar to him now: North, south, east, west …. He wished that he had something like that to believe in.

Then she looked up. Something in his face must've given him away because she reached over and squeezed his arm. No words needed. He laid his hand on top of hers and finally did close his eyes for a moment. And then Una pulled away.

Gradually, the artificial darkness began to lift. Chris had almost forgotten it was still morning. Light spread out from the center of the stage and rolled across the audience row by row.

On stage, Lance raised his head, cape a-shimmer. "The Indigo Conference is more than a competition. It's a time to honor the history of pokemon and humans working together and to demonstrate the powerful bonds that connect all life." Chris felt goosebumps on his arms at those words, even though he'd heard them countless times before. "In the pursuit of excellence and mutual respect, let us continue ever onward and upward—as individuals, as teams, as nations, and as global citizens!"

When the cheers subsided, Lance continued, "This conference would not be possible without the passion and generosity of our thousands of volunteers—thank you all. And, of course, there could be no tournament without the more than two-hundred-and-fifty hard-working trainers who registered this year, and their pokemon—let's give them another round of applause!

"And now …." The crowd stirred, knowing what was coming. "What better way to celebrate life and partnership than a battle? Throughout the past year, the venerated trainers on this stage have tested the next generation of up and coming battlers. Now it's time to see what they're really made of."

Once again the crowd burst into applause as he cast off his cape with one graceful motion. With a grand gesture, he called out to the gathered gym leaders and elites, "You are among the best and brightest of the Indigo League. But which of you has what it takes to challenge me?"

Even knowing the exchange was scripted—the gym leaders and elites drew straws at the end of each winter conference—Chris watched eagerly.

Lance turned to the east and, right on cue, Sabrina and her Alakazam stepped forward. "Gax and I will." Sabrina was elegant with her dark, sleek hair and a cocktail dress. Chris imagined it would be hard to move in that outfit — but then she didn't have to, not during this event.

The crowd burbled with scattered groans and cheers. Bets had been placed not only on whether Kanto or Johto would win but on which gym leaders would be chosen.

Clair and her haxorus stepped up before Lance had even finished turning to face her side of the stage. "Isis and I have been training all year for this, cousin." She wore a tuxedo and collar pins of pearl and dragon teeth.

"Oh man," said Tara. "I bet a lot of Johto trainers are rooting for the other team today. I heard she's awful."

With a charming smile of feigned surprise, Lance ran a hand through his hair. "Then I guess we'll have to find out which of you can rise to the challenge! The first match of the 30th Indigo Conference will be between Sabrina Rider-Waite of Saffron City and Clair Ibuki of Blackthorn City!"

Sabrina and Clair met in the center of the stage to shake hands. As the crowd roared in approval, the trainers on the stage scattered: Sabrina and Clair turned to stride towards opposite ends of the field. Lance climbed aboard his dragonite again and took to the air. The remaining gym leaders and elites split off and disappeared into the stadium's inner rooms, just as a group of machokes and helmeted workers rushed out past them to dismantle the stage. By the time Clair and Sabrina spun to face each other once more, the field in between was clear.

Now the telescreen display was split in two, one half cutting between Sabrina and her pokemon, the other half for Clair. If Chris squinted he could just make out the camera drones zipping up and down the field, weaving around the League referees.

The haxorus puffed itself up and gave its head a few experimental swings from side to side.

Across the way, the alakazam floated cross-legged a few inches off the ground and raised one eyebrow.

Interesting match-up. Chris wasn't terribly familiar with either pokemon, the haxorus line too hard to come by in Tohjo and the alakazam line too … strange. Too intimate. Too unstable. He'd heard more than one story of trainers who had gone insane from letting their kadabra or alakazam too far into their fragile human minds.

For her part, Sabrina looked equally as stoic as her pokemon. He had never seen her fight in person, but he remembered Clair's battling style clearly. If she tried to bulldoze that alakazam the way she'd done in his battle, she'd only tire out her pokemon. Then again, Clair probably wouldn't underestimate Sabrina the way she had him—

"Oh." Una's voice was quiet. "Chris …." If he hadn't known her voice so well by then, he wouldn't have noticed.

Chris tore his gaze away from the screen.

Una clutched her feather necklace again and sat rigidly, as if she'd been electrocuted. Her face was pale. "You did not mention—"

Oh no. "I'm so sorry, Una. I didn't even think of it."

Lance's voice rang out, "Let the battle begin!"

Clair and Sabrina shouted their orders, but the words were lost to the roar of the crowd.

Una dug her fingers into Chris's arm.

Chris had once found it hard to imagine that anyone could dislike watching pokemon battles more than his mom. She never watched them on her own and she almost always ended up covering her eyes at some point. And yet. She'd watched his attempts for the Olivine gym, even when it meant coming straight from a shift at the hospital. He hadn't asked her to—she did it anyway.

She was the one who'd suggested after one failed attempt, "I don't think you'll be able to outspeed that magneton. I wonder if there's a way for you to keep your pokemon out of the way of those supersonic waves though." And she was right. He taught Tikal, then a sandshrew, a timed burrowing attack formation and that had finally been the end of it.

To Una he said, "You don't have to stay." The crowd quieted to listen for the gym leaders' next commands. When the haxorus's battle roar rang out, Chris had to force himself not to turn to see what was happening. Instead he scanned for the nearest exit. Rows and rows of people in between. "You can—I'll walk you out, alright?"

She nodded wordlessly.

Recalling Sonic, Chris stood and pulled Una up with him, reminded forcefully of leading her to the bus stop in Ecruteak. He snatched a glance at the screen— the alakazam vanished and, blink, reappeared behind the haxorus—

"Seriously? Out of the way!" shouted someone in the row behind them, adding a flourish of creative curses.

"Sorry! We're going! Una—that way. Towards Elias."

"Yo, where's the fire?"

"You're leaving now?"

"I'll be right back!"

Head ducked as if it would help, apologizing ceaselessly, he squeezed clumsily past his friends and then a line of strangers.

In the arena below, a blow connected with a nasty crack. The crowd exploded with cheers and sounds of disapproval. Una flinched.

Up the stairs to the emergency exit. And then they were behind the inner wall, near the bathrooms and the elevators.

"—looks like that haxorus is faster than Sabrina gave it credit for!" Mounted on the wall, an LED screen. Spectators returning from the concession stand paused to watch, oblivious to Chris and Una.

She was shivering.

"We'll go outside." Chris tried to lead her out of earshot of the battle commentary with a hand on her shoulder.

Una yanked away from his touch. "Thank you. I can manage on my own from here. I will … take a walk." She spoke to the floor. "You should return to your friends." But she didn't protest when Chris went alongside her down the stairs.

The emptiness of the stairways was eerie.

As they walked, he couldn't stop himself from rambling. "I should've warned you. I'm so sorry. I was so excited for you to see the performances … I wasn't thinking about the battles, stupid as that sounds. Completely my fault."

By then, they had come to the shaded area outside the stadium where the anti-pokeball protesters had been before—no sign of them now. "I didn't mean to upset you," Chris continued. And then finally he didn't know what else to say, so he put his hands in his pockets and watched Una's face. He bit his cheek.

She stood at a distance with her arms wrapped around herself and was quiet for a long time. Finally she said, "I wonder if you even recognize all of this for what it is. I ought to have realized sooner."

Chris waited. He didn't trust himself to speak.

"The war between Kanto and Johto never ended, after all this time. All that has changed is that now you fight for entertainment." There was a subtle growl in her words that he'd never heard before—it was anger making her tremble like that. Her face contorted with disgust. "But it is the same war. All those people …. That is somehow the worst of it. Before I had not grasped the scale …."

The crowd roared, distant but ever-present.

Frustration bubbled up and up in his chest, threatening to overflow. She had wanted to come. Chris had tried to warn her she might not like it, and she had pleaded and negotiated to join him anyway.

What was he supposed to do?

He tried to push the anger down, but couldn't keep his words from coming out strained. "I guess you must think… I don't want you to think I'm a bad person. But I… Well, I'm sorry. I guess that's all I can say."

"You have a kind heart, Chris, but..." She shook her head. "I cannot blame you for trying to honor your father's memory, but I cannot help wishing you could choose a better path."

He'd been naive to think he and Una had laid this problem to rest simply because they had stopped talking about it. Clearly, none of it was resolved.

Chris tried to take a deep breath, but his chest felt too hot and too tight. "It's not—I wish I could make you understand." He reached for the right words but couldn't think of anything he hadn't said already. Or that wouldn't make things worse. All the same, he spluttered, "Look at Lance. Do you really think you could make a dragonite do something it didn't want to?"

Una bit her lip. "I suppose not."

"And he has four of them. It's not an accident."

He left her a moment to say more, but she offered nothing else.

"You might not believe this, but pokemon actually live longer when they're with a trainer—sometimes decades longer than they would in the wild." The pokeball cryostasis was part of it, admittedly, but he'd read that the numbers were similar even for pets, working pokemon, and others that spent very little time inside a pokeball.

"I am sure that is true."

Neither spoke or looked at each other for a long stretch. Only the distant cheers cut through their silence.

Being angry at Una felt wrong.

Chris sighed and began, "Well, there won't be lines for anything right now …." Everyone was in the stadium except them. He had resigned himself to watching the match between Clair and Sabrina later on his Bitflex. "We could …."

But he trailed off. Chris hadn't expected Una to want to watch the battles, but until now he hadn't given much thought to how she would spend her time during the conference. There was a movie theater and mini-golf, and he was pretty sure there was a bowling alley. Too much to explain. Arcade games? No. And she probably wouldn't want to go souvenir shopping. Anything he could think to suggest sounded ridiculous.

At last he offered weakly, "You're not hungry, are you?"

Una shook her head. Not surprising—they'd just eaten.

"Yeah. Me neither."

She spoke up suddenly. "Do you think it would be possible to descend the plateau the way we came up?"

"I think the cable car runs for most of the day. I don't know how late, but—" He reached for the conference brochure he'd shoved into his pocket, but Una had already turned away.

"Then I will see you this evening at camp," she said.

Chris opened his mouth to protest … and shut it again. Fine. Let her go. "See you."

Frowning, he watched her go and then, out of habit, checked his Bitflex.

One alert from the Trainer Network News, already: Kickoff Match Hints at Good Fortune for Johto Competitors, but Clair Fails to Best Champion. The battles had gone quicker than he'd thought.

Two messages from Tara. I can't believe you missed that! And, They're drafting the pools! Want me to tell you which one you end up in? The liberal application of emoticons was meant to show she was kidding, but he could also hear the too-earnest edge to it. She didn't like being left out of the loop. Well, he didn't want to try to explain to her what happened with Una, nor did he want to spend an hour watching Lance and the elites draw numbered pokeballs from a bingo roller.

Instead, he looked down at the conference brochure because it was already in his hands. One line in the schedule jumped out at him, something he'd ignored before: Gym Leader Autograph Signing, eleven to one, North Arena. It was the sort of thing he'd normally avoid … but Sabrina would probably be there.

He checked his Bitflex again. If he went now, he'd still be early. He might be the first person in line. In and out.

The North Arena was almost comically small compared to the stadium he'd just left, but it was still larger than any gym he'd visited. The terrain was all grass, still unmarked by the battles to come—the prettiest arena for taking photos with gym leaders. A velvet rope stretched between the tables where the gym leaders would sit and the couple hundred fans already waiting in line. Half the people here must've skipped the main stadium entirely to be sure of getting an autograph.

Chris's heart sank. But—he glanced at his Bitflex again—there was nowhere else he needed to be until the battle schedule was announced. It didn't matter whether he was at camp or waiting in line when he watched the match he'd missed. And he'd promised Una he'd help her get home if he could.

Then the gym leaders walked out to applause—Sabrina and Clair among them, both sour-faced—and took their seats.

He made up his mind. This might be his only chance to try to talk to Sabrina. So the line slowly shifted forward and he watched the battle on his Bitflex without the sound on, a welcome distraction from worrying about Una or his upcoming matches.

Clair had been more tricksy than he'd expected. She let her haxorus appear sloppy and hasty to lure Sabrina's alakazam into what had looked like a blind spot but turned out to be exactly where Clair wanted it. One swing of the haxorus's tail and the alakazam was on the ground, stunned, and unable to fight off the slashing jaw blades. The alakazam's power was obvious from the way the cameras went fuzzy when they strayed too close, but it wasn't prepared to take that kind of hit.

But Lance wasn't so easily manipulated. Clair first tried to hide her charizard behind a smokescreen, but Lance responded by walling his dragonite behind a shimmering barrier and directing it to attack from a distance with lightning. Not the speedy one after all. She was forced to send her charizard to grapple with the dragonite in close quarters. The two dragons wrestled above the crowd briefly and then crash-landed, a tangle of swinging tails and claws. Then the dragonite swiftly bludgeoned the charizard into submission with a water-sheathed tail.

Lance had let Clair trick herself. Chris would try to remember that.

The line to meet Sabrina still stretched on, so after the battle videos were done, Chris swiped through Trainer Network posts predicting which trainers would do well in the conference. He quickly lost his appetite for it. Then there was nothing to do but replay the conversation with Una in his head and try to decide how to word his question for Sabrina.

Finally, Sabrina finished signing a purple jersey—a new Galar-inspired trend, even though none of the Tohjo gym leaders wore jerseys—and then waved Chris forward.

"Hi. Thanks for coming out," she said. Autopilot.

"Good battle earlier," he said to be polite.

"Thanks," she answered flatly. Her hand was poised over a stack of photos. "Did you want one of these, or did you bring something else for me to sign?"

"Um. I actually had a question. If that's alright."

She shot him a bored look, eyes shadowed by her bangs.

Chris pushed ahead. "I was wondering … is there a limit to how big a distance a pokemon can teleport?"

"That depends on a lot of factors." She counted off on her fingers. "Mental strength. Age. How many others the pokemon is taking with it. The presence of other psychic-types—or dark-types. Familiarity with the destination."

"Could someone—Have you ever heard of a pokemon that could, uh, teleport to another time?" She squinted, and he felt his face go red. "I guess that sounds …."

"I don't think there's anything you could catch that would be capable of time travel."

Chris wasn't sure if he was imagining her emphasis on you. "Not even if, uh, you had … I dunno, a whole bunch of them?"

"No. That's a good way to fry your brains and end up in a wheelchair—or worse. Don't try it." She slid a photo from the stack and raised her pen. "So who should I make this out to?"

His shoulders sagged. "Oh, I … It's okay. Thank you."

"Alright then. Come on, next. Yes, you."

He was meant to continue down the line collecting signatures from the other gym leaders, but instead he backed away empty-handed and made for the exit. Craning his neck, he looked up into the empty stands and then past them to the blank telescreen hanging from the ceiling. Waiting to be filled by someone like him.

Sorry, Una.
 
10: The Fluke New

OldschoolJohto

Never not editing
Pronouns
She/Her
Partner
solrock
10: The Fluke



Chris and Hero's first real battle together took place when Chris was eleven. They'd faced off against a wild pidgey, but their real opponent had been Hiro Nakano.

"Come on, don't let it get away," Dad said.

"Right. Hero, ah ..."

Chris felt silly calling out orders to his cyndaquil with his dad standing right there. Technically, their names were different. Hiro, he knew, meant generous. Hero was how some gym challengers mispronounced it—that hard R and the sagging vowels—but a hero was also someone to be admired. The word had sounded brave, powerful. Now he was regretting it a little.

Hero the cyndaquil cast an expectant look over his shoulder at Chris—and turned back towards the pidgey in time to receive a faceful of sand. While Hero pawed at his eyes, the pidgey hopped forward to peck his ear. Hero threw himself blindly after it, but the pidgey had already flapped out of the way. With a huff, the cyndaquil swept his flames in a wide circle. Spread over that distance they hardly amounted to more than a handful of sparks.

"Don't just watch—help him out."

"Uh, Hero, on your left! I mean right!"

But Hero was already diving left. He hit empty air and stumbled.

Chris winced. He had never fumbled commands like that when they were tackling targets in the back yard, but it was hard to focus with Dad's gaze drilling into his back.

Spotting its opportunity, the pidgey darted forward and rapped Hero on the other ear. Then the little bird kicked off. Sand scattered in its wake as it flew away, leaving Chris and Hero both wiping at their eyes.

Chris scooped the cyndaquil up. "You okay, little guy?"

"He's all right. Pokemon are pretty tough." Dad gave him a moment to cuddle with Hero before he added, "That could've gone better, huh?"

"Yeah. Sorry."

"Don't be sorry," Dad said, thumping Chris on the back. He smiled but his voice was firm. "You'll do it right next time. Ready?"



In the tree-shaded campground of Indigo Plateau, Hero the typhlosion paused eating long enough to glare at a pidgey perched on the branch above. That was all the time Sonic needed to duck under Hero's leg and steal a few quick bites from his bowl. Chris shook his head at the sight—the jolteon still had plenty of kibble left in his own dish. Before Chris could chide Sonic, Hero harumphed and let out a threatening puff of smoke. Without breaking stride, Sonic returned to his own bowl, butt waggling and a satisfied look in his dark eyes.

Chris sat in the grass nearby with an apple, alternating between checking his Bitflex for updates and keeping an eye on Sonic. Real fights rarely broke out among them now, but it never hurt to be extra cautious during mealtimes. His sandslash in particular could be food-aggressive—his skarmory too, when she was out instead of at the pokecenter. If one of them became upset, his girafarig might bolt, and then his heracross might launch himself into the mix for the joy of trading blows ...

Actually, Chris hadn't had a meal this uneventful since Una joined him. Even when neither of them spoke, there was always the possibility of conversation.

"Nice to see you all getting along at least," he said to his team.

Sensing his melancholy, Pocky, sent him a psychic nudge—an impression of her nosing his hand, even though she stood several feet away, still grazing.

He flashed her a smile. "It's okay."

Ryoga the heracross sat next to him, legs splayed. Chris watched him tear a berry into sections and then drop each between his mandibles: the repetitive action was comforting. When Rio held out a clawed mitt for another fruit, Chris obliged with a chuckle.

As he raised his arm to take another bite of his apple, he noticed his Bitflex was glowing. His heart rate kicked into high gear. The battle rosters. They'd been released. Apple forgotten on the grass, he scrolled until he found his name—scheduled at the West Arena in an hour and a half.

Already? Was it lucky to be among the first battles of the conference, or terribly unlucky? Lucky, he decided. Right now, he craved a problem with a resolution, and that was a battle. After all, he'd spent more than two years training for this officially ... and most of his life training for it unofficially. He knew how to handle this.

He swiped until he found the three animated icons of his opponent's team: slowbro, lanturn, and quagsire. Chris felt his stomach twist. He hadn't given it much thought—hadn't allowed himself to—but of course other trainers had signed up for the conference hoping to impress a gym leader. At least he wasn't competing for the same niche. Clearly, his opponent was aiming for a spot at the Cerulean gym. But someone else must have their eye on Olivine like Chris did. He should've taken more care to keep his skarmory from getting injured in Blackthorn so he could've featured her in his team this round ... If he'd tried harder for the scyther at Flax National Park, he could have a scizor by now too. Something that showed he belonged in Olivine.

Doesn't matter now.

He did the math. Hero was out—no path to a win there. Sonic could take the slowbro, but he'd have trouble with the other two. He'd only face one of them, but the odds were not in the jolteon's favor. So it would have to be—

Before Chris had finished the thought, his thumb slipped and sent him back to his opponent's main page. He started to flip back—but paused. Grayson Douglass. The name meant nothing to him, but he recognized the trainer's face: they'd spoken the night before.

Seems like there's gonna be a lot of fighting-types in the preliminaries, he'd said. And a slowbro was perfect for clearing early-round fighting-types. Had it been a taunt? No—how could it have been? There was no way to predict they'd be paired against each other. Maybe Grayson Douglass would consider using his slowbro too obvious after making a comment like that. He had to know that Chris was expecting it now. But Douglass had already seen Chris' heracross in action. How long was he watching us? Chris wondered again.

Belatedly, it occurred to him: did Douglass even remember that brief conversation?

Worst case scenario, he reminded himself with a deep breath, one loss wouldn't necessarily cost him the conference. The preliminaries were round-robins—each trainer would battle against the five or six others in their pool and would receive a score based on their record. He only had to place second in the pool to move forward.

But he wanted to start things right.

With a sigh, Chris turned to the Trainer Network to see whether Douglass had uploaded any videos of his previous battles.



"Let's see ... Nakano. Yup, I have you for the two-thirty slot. You can go in on that side." The League staffer pointed him towards one of two locker rooms. Grayson Douglass was probably already waiting on the other side. "They'll call you up when it's time."

"Thank you."

"Good luck."

Inside, one trainer was already seated on the bench, watching the wall-mounted screen. He looked at least as nervous as Chris felt. Another trainer watched her electabuzz work a punching bag.

Chris was early, partly because he was always early and partly because the League email had recommended it. Especially in the preliminaries, when varying levels of trainer skill all but guaranteed mismatches, a battle might run shorter than expected. Or, rarer but not impossible, a trainer might oversleep and miss their match. Either way, it didn't hurt to be ready in case the schedule shifted forward.

No sooner than Chris had taken a seat on the bench, a trainer strode in from the field, grinning as all eyes fell on her. When she reached the lockers, she drank greedily from her water bottle, the chugging sound loud in the cramped space.

Moments later, a woman in League polo entered and called out, "Kevin Park?"

The nervous trainer on the other end of the bench gulped and stood. The rest of them watched as he followed the woman into the long hallway.

The TV monitor showed a slow-motion replay of the last battle, and the trainer by the lockers lingered to watch herself onscreen. Two color commentators spoke over the video—Chris recognized them as Sylvie Oro and Ricky Crystal, voices of his childhood.

"And you can see that marowak beginning to slip on the wet grass—there. And Franklin sees it too, because that's when she orders the low kick."

"That's absolutely right—the timing is make or break. And then here's a beautiful seismic toss from Franklin's hitmontop to bring it home. She'll be one to watch throughout this round."


Then they fell silent for the announcement of the next battle. Onscreen, the nervous trainer shook hands with his opponent in real-time—first a close-up shot, then a jump to a wide shot.

A pool took up much of this arena, channels webbing out from it and slicing the field into tiny green islands. Douglass couldn't have asked for a better setup.

Another trainer entered the locker room and took a seat. The nervous one returned, head hanging, and the electabuzz girl went out. Rubbing a thumb over Rio's pokeball, Chris waited, watched the pokemon onscreen bat each other around, and waited some more.

Finally, he heard his name. As he rose from the bench, he felt the other trainers turn to look at him. He fixed his eyes straight ahead and followed the League staffer out.

They stopped when they came to a door. "When you go out, you can give the crowd a little wave, but keep it moving, alright?" she said. "Then you'll walk to the center and shake. When the ref says to take your places, you'll be on the left."

Muffled through the walls, the announcer boomed, "Next up, from Vermillion City, Kanto—Grayson Douglass!" The crowd broke into a muted roar.

Unable to speak, Chris nodded and focused on breathing.

"Okay, your turn."

As the door opened, the noise of the crowd rushed in, full volume. Chris paused—

"Yup, go ahead. Knock em dead."

—and then started towards the field, a square of glaring green at the end of the tunnel. He was abuzz down to the soles of his feet, and he wasn't sure if it was vibrations from the bleachers or just adrenaline.

As he broke into the light, squinting, the speakers rang out, "And his opponent, Chris Nakano from Olivine City, Johto!"

The West Arena wasn't as crowded as the main stadium had been that morning, but it was still the largest audience to one of Chris's matches, by far. He raised one arm in a stiff wave but wasn't sure where to direct it. The first camera he spotted was across the way, but then another zipped overhead with a motorized whirr. As he stepped forward, he saw others cruising up and down the sidelines. Of course, he was aware that his gym battles had been recorded—he'd watched hours of gym footage both to prepare for matches and to watch his dad in action again—but seeing so many cameras openly following him was unsettling.

Heart in his throat, he crossed the floating platforms to center field. A referee waited beside Grayson Douglass, who stood with one hand to his belt and the other in his pocket. At Chris's approach, Douglass gave him a nod of acknowledgement. So then he did remember. Chris took one look at Douglass' cool half-smile and knew there was no way he could send out Ryoga.

The referee began to enumerate the familiar rules, and Chris's breathing slowed. He tuned out the chattering spectators and the cameras until only his opponent remained in focus. Douglass' shoes were too clean—he hadn't been on the road in a while, maybe. And he was tapping one foot as the ref spoke. Not as calm as he was trying to appear.

"You may shake."

"Good luck."

"Yeah, you too."

"Trainers, take your places!"

As Chris walked to the far end of the stadium, he could hear the whirr of a camera moving down the sidelines behind him. By the time he reached the chalk line, the crowd had fallen still. He had a moment to gaze down the length of the arena—take in the light glinting off the water, the muddy furrows dug by the feet of other pokemon—before the referee shouted, "Trainers, get ready to release your pokemon on the whistle."

Chris unclipped Sonic's pokeball. "Alright, little guy," he said in a low voice. "I'm counting on you."

When the whistle blow came, he jumped even though he was expecting it. "You got this, Sonic!" he called, and he sent his jolteon onto the field.

The light from Douglass' pokeball arced into the artificial lake. As the pokemon began to take shape, Chris chewed his lip. A sloping head lifted out of the water, and then he saw the lopsided antennae—it was the lanturn.

No thunderbolts then. Sonic wasn't quite hobbled, but their options were suddenly limited. Chris clenched his hands but reminded himself, The only way out is through.

Noise washed over him—it didn't even sound like human voices. Sonic swiveled his head, fur standing on end. He wasn't used to big crowds any more than Chris was. The recording of the rhydon at the Olivine Gym flashed through Chris' mind. A spectator had shouted in excitement just before the creature whipped its monstrous head around—Chris froze, his eyes fixed on Sonic.

He didn't hear Douglass' command from across the field, only the slap of fins on water and then a rush of white. By instinct or luck, the jolteon leaped into the air and avoided the blast by a fraction of an inch. Chris didn't even know what the attack had been until he saw the crust of ice on the grass where Sonic had been standing.

Not wasting any time, he thought. But Douglass was standing with his arms folded and his lanturn watched Sonic from the middle of the pool, motionless except for its swaying tail. It had been a test shot.

Sonic started forward of his own volition, bristling. Chris took it as an opportunity. "Pin missile!"

The jolteon broke into a run, cutting towards the pool. The lanturn fired off another ice beam, but Sonic zigzagged out of the way, springing over the water-filled channels without slowing his pace. Static gathered in his fur until first sparks and then needle-hairs flew off him. Chris grinned at the sight. Shedding golden light, the jolteon almost looked like a comet.

The lanturn keened as a few of Sonic's pin missiles found their mark, the sound swallowed by the roar of the crowd. Douglass cupped his hands around his mouth. Chris couldn't catch the command, but when a light beamed from the lanturn's antenna, firming into a shield that hung glassy and golden in the air, Chris recognized the defensive maneuver. Sonic's needle-hairs clattered off harmlessly.

Still firing pin missiles in the lanturn's direction, Sonic rushed forward. Soon he'd be out of earshot ... and closer to the lake edge than Chris liked. Douglass would already be looking for ways to force Sonic into the water, and Chris didn't want to make it easy.

Chris took off down the sidelines, shouting, "Sonic, pull back!"

Across the way, Douglass came running down his own side of the field, and Chris could hear him now: "Dive, Hal!"

Sonic skidded to a stop just as the lanturn slipped below the water. It shot down one of the canals that ran the length of the arena. But the water was clear, and Chris easily followed the light of its antennae. Following meant less room for Sonic to maneuver between the watery channels. But the channels were narrow, leaving less space for the lanturn to move too.

He pointed. "Go after it. Get ready to blast it."

The lanturn was slower than Clair's dragonair had been and much slower than Sonic. By the time it began to resurface, Sonic was already at the water's edge, waiting.

"Hit it with a light blast!" Chris called.

Sonic dug in his heels and opened his mouth, a white ball of light gathering in his throat.

Douglass' shout came a second later. "Hose it down—full blast!"

The canal surged and the lanturn rose with it.

The light-ball burst, glittering darts like stars flying out in all directions. They skipped across the water, fizzling and popping. Ignoring the stars pelting its face the lanturn pulled a column of water up from the channel—

"Left, Sonic!" Chris called, too late.

—and smashed it into the jolteon. Sonic flew backward and tumbled into a canal like a leaf down the storm drain.

The applause drowned out Chris' cry of dismay. The sound pressed down on him. Countless times, he'd cheered watching battles just like this one. But now that the noise was turned onto him, he felt sick.

There wasn't anything to be done but wait and see if Sonic could pull himself out of it. A referee stood poised with a whistle at her mouth, squinting into the water. The lanturn wheeled lazily towards the place Sonic had fallen into the canal.

When Sonic broke the surface, Chris let out a breath. The jolteon paddled to the edge, snarling as he hefted himself back onto the turf. But even after reaching dry ground, Sonic continued to shake his head as if to clear water from his ears. With his fur plastered to his sides, he suddenly looked so small. The attack had hit him much harder than Chris had expected. Harder than they'd hit the lanturn. The lanturn, who was picking up speed, coming in Sonic's direction.

The jolteon caught sight of his opponent's glowing antennae and whirled around. His fur sizzled and steamed. Chris felt the telltale prickle of static down his arms. "Sonic, don't—!"

But as the lanturn came around the bend where one canal abutted the next, the jolteon let loose. Electricity lashed the air—and then changed directions as if caught and yanked. The thunderbolt bent back to swirl harmlessly into the lanturn's antennae.

The cheers blocked out Douglass' next command. But the lanturn heard, and its antennae flashed even brighter. What, was it going to fire Sonic's own thunderbolt back? Good, do it.

Instead, the lanturn sprayed sparks into the canal until the water began to bubble. Then it swung its tail and cast the boiling water across the channel. Sonic's squeal of pain reached Chris through the cheers. He was already backing away as the lanturn smacked its tail on the water a second time, but he held his front paw gingerly in the air.

Chris deflated. If Sonic was slowed, then he couldn't avoid attacks, and this was the beginning of the end. In normal circumstances, he would call for Sonic to plant his paws and fire off a final lightning bolt. Go out with a bang. But faced with a lanturn ... Chris was at a loss.

Before he could decide what to do, he heard Douglass call out, "Make it rain, Hal!"

As Sonic limped away from the water's edge, shooting stars from his mouth, the lanturn rose partway out of the water and aimed a ball of blue light into the air. With a crack of thunder, the light ball split. Vapor scattered and then thickened into bruise-dark clouds. They hung low and oppressive under the stadium dome.

Was this an abundance of caution, wanting to be certain the next hit would take Sonic out? Or reckless showboating? Chris watched Douglass' face but couldn't decide.

As the first drops began to fall, the crowd went strangely quiet. Confused, Chris glanced up towards the stands. Iridescent light screens had lowered over the crowd, shielding them from the rain and also muffling their cheers.

Chris looked back towards the battle. Sonic's ears lay flat as he blasted round after round of star-shaped light towards the lanturn. But with a dismissive tail flip, the lanturn slipped under the water, out of reach. The rain began to pelt down, and Sonic hunched under it, squinting. The water in the canals began to rise. The drops misted where they struck the light screens covering the crowd. Already, Chris's hair dripped and his t-shirt stuck fast to him. The turf felt soft and unsteady under his boots. Across the field, Douglass skidded as he ran along the sidelines, calling inaudible orders to his pokemon. He left a muddy streak in his wake.

And Chris had one last idea.

"Sonic!" Cupping his hands around his mouth, he shouted as loudly as he could to be heard over the rain. He still wasn't sure Sonic would be able to hear him. But the jolteon twitched an ear and half-turned to look. Ready, listening. No, he wasn't done yet.

"The mud! Kick mud into its eyes!"

The lanturn broke the water's surface behind Sonic, antennae haloed through the rain, and the jolteon spun to face it. Chris didn't know if Sonic had heard the command or understood what he wanted. He set his jaw. He'd just have to wait and trust Sonic.

In the canal, a wave swelled, larger and more easily than before. The lanturn loomed on the wave's crest. Reflections of its antennae danced on the dark water. As the wave neared its peak, Sonic turned his back to the lanturn. He kicked madly at the wettened ground until clumps of grass and mud flew out and splattered across the lanturn's face. The lanturn tossed its head, and the wave bucked.

Chris's heart fluttered hopefully. "Go, Sonic! Move!"

The jolteon hopped along haltingly, but it didn't matter. With a trill, the lanturn brought its wave down to the side of where Sonic had been standing, missing widely. As it sank down in the canal again, the lanturn swung its head from side to side, warbling.

Douglass ordered the lanturn back under the water. Trying to clear the mud from its eyes. Sonic fired stars at the hump of its back as it dove down.

"Do it again!" Chris called out. "Keep wearing it down!"

Sonic hobbled along the channel, watching the lanturn. When it resurfaced, he was already in position. The lanturn flinched at the mud slopping into its face, but managed to send a wave sloshing towards Sonic. This time it caught his hind leg and knocked the jolteon off his feet, but the water didn't carry him far. In a moment, he was back up and showering the lanturn with stars again—specks of brightness in an arena gone gray with driving rain—and then turning to kick mud into its face once more for good measure.

The lanturn thrashed and keened in frustration. Douglass shouted for his lanturn to submerge again, and it shot under the surface.

Chris's eyes cut back and forth between the lanturn's glowing antennae and his limping jolteon. "Get ready Sonic," he said, because there wasn't much else for him to say.

The lanturn circled, and the crowd quieted in anticipation. "Try another ice beam!" Douglass called out. For a moment, there was only the sound of the rain.

Sonic gave a false start, diving forward where it looked like the lanturn was about to surface. But it didn't. The lanturn wheeled around the bend again, and Sonic swiveled his head to watch.

After a moment, Douglass tried again. "Ice beam, Hal!"

But the lanturn only made another lap through the canals. The rain began to lighten, and the audience's murmuring picked up. For a moment, Chris wondered if the lanturn was unable to hear from underwater. But after the lanturn started its fourth loop around the arena, Chris stopped wondering.

It had decided it had enough. Somehow, that was harder to see than a nasty injury. He felt not excitement but hollowness. A thought crept up on him: This is exactly what Una hates.

Sonic sat, tongue lolling. Douglass' shoulders sagged, but he waited for the whistle blow before he reached for his pokeball.

"Lanturn is unable to fight! The match goes to Chris Nakano!" A red flag swished on Douglass' side of the field, green on his.

The lanturn vanished in a beam of red light, prompting Chris to fumble for his own pokeball. "Good work, Sonic!" There'd be time for more words back at camp.

The referees directed Chris and Douglass to rejoin and shake hands again. And then they were shuttled back to their respective locker rooms. Chris moved in a daze. Too late he realized he was probably supposed to wave to the crowd or strike a victory pose.

He reentered the locker room, his wet boots squelching with each step. On his way to the door, he passed the wall-mounted TV screen. He normally avoided watching himself on camera, but this time he couldn't help pausing to listen.

"Now, did we see Douglass with a lanturn last year, or is that a new addition?"

"I believe the lanturn is a new capture, or at least new to his tournament team. It does afford him some interesting opportunities, as we just saw."


Ricky Crystal spoke over an instant replay: in slow motion, Sonic let loose a thunderbolt, and again the lanturn grabbed it out of the air. The camera caught every electrical flickering. When they cut to the lanturn tossing scalding water at his jolteon, Chris flinched. It looked worse from this angle. But he couldn't tear himself away from the screen.

Crystal continued, "But it doesn't look like it paid off this time."

"You hate to see it."

"Yessiree, it's a disappointing start for Douglass. But I think we can still expect to see great things from him throughout the conference, if last year's battles are anything to go by."

"Lucky win for Nakano."


Chris's face reddened.

"No, he's not too likely to catch another break like that one."

"Though it does make you wonder …. The last Nakano from Olivine we saw here at the Indigo Plateau was the late gym leader Hiro Nakano—"


He should've expected to hear his dad's name, yet he still jerked his head back as if receiving a physical blow. Chris stood, caught by two powerful and contradictory urges: to hear and not to hear from these commentators how he measured up to Hiro Nakano.

But the next battlers were called out and the discussion cut off. Chris glanced down and realized he was dripping on the tile. These were his only pair of shoes. He turned away and went squelching towards camp.



Una wasn't waiting at the tent. Her absence came as something of a relief—Chris wasn't in the mood to be judged. But hearing about her latest adventure or revelation would've cheered him up.

Chris peeled off his wet clothes and changed into the clothes he normally slept in. He would hardly be the only trainer walking around the plateau in sweatpants.

He spent the next half hour barefoot in the grass with Sonic, scratching behind his ears and trying to get a look at his injured leg. Chris could see now that it was raw and swollen—burned. The jolteon was his usual wiggly self, if a little subdued, but wouldn't let Chris near his front paw. Chris got a mild shock for his efforts when he tried to apply ointment to the burn.

"Alright, be that way. We'll let the nurse handle it. It's not like we have another match until ..." He checked the schedule on his Bitflex and cursed. "Tomorrow."

He stood to leave and noticed Una's tower of stones had slid sideways. A passing camper must've bumped it. He bent to stack them neatly again before continuing on his way.

When he dropped Sonic off at the pokecenter, he got an update on Kelsey and Sammus: all good news. They'd both be fit for the second round of the competition ... provided he made it that far. After, he ran his sopping bundle of clothes through one of the coin-operated dryers by the showers. He couldn't do much for his hiking boots other than to let them dry in the sun, so he bought a pair of flip-flops from a souvenir stand. As he flopped through the crowd, it hit Chris that there was nowhere he had to be. When was the last time that had happened?

A few messages from Tara and Elias pinged his Bitflex, congratulating him on his first win and inviting him to join them at the main stadium to watch the rest of the day's matches. Chris couldn't help wincing. No, he didn't have the energy for them right now. Instead, he let his feet lead him to the South Arena, a bare field of rock and sand. At the uppermost level of the stands, he found an empty section where he could sit with his feet propped on the bench in front of him.

He should be paying better attention to the competition, he knew: taking note of pokemon he was less familiar with, watching for the trainers' tells, and learning from their mistakes. But instead he let himself be lulled by the call and response between trainer and pokemon and between announcer and audience. He half-watched the battles and messaged back and forth with his sister.

You didn't see that match, did you?

Lanturn?
she answered. That was a yes.

Yeah. That was rough.

Who cares? You won!


Chris smiled, but …. Easy for you to say, he started to type. People aren't constantly comparing you to—He deleted it and asked instead how Mom and Kaden were doing.

He sat through a match between a vileplume and a fearow that ended predictably, another between a machamp and a starmie that didn't, and a surprise face-off between two magmar. Finally, his empty stomach made him wonder how long he'd been sitting, and he realized it was late.

Joints cracking, he stood and checked his Bitflex for a message from Una, before realizing it was pointless. She'd be okay wherever she was, he knew, but ... Chris sighed. Well. He could check the campsite one last time before he headed to the cafeteria.

Una was heating something on the little camp stove when he arrived. Suki sat beside her, a crown of wildflowers sitting crookedly on the slowpoke's head. Chris's heart lifted.

"Hi, Una." He approached with his head ducked down, as if he were intruding.

She glanced up long enough to flash a smile. "Good evening." Several moments later, Suki too raised her head and noticed him.

He took Una's smile as encouragement and sat across the stove from her. "Smells good." Chris didn't need to ask to know she was cooking plants she'd foraged—no RediMeal smelled that way. Aromatic. Green. Wild.

"It was something to do." A frown swept across Una's face, but then her posture softened. "I am accustomed to cooking. It has been strange to have so few opportunities to do so now. This reminds me of home."

Chris swallowed. "That's good. Right?"

Una stirred the saucepan and smiled wanly.

They lapsed into silence. Part of Chris stayed wound tight, watching for signs that she was either still angry or that she'd forgiven him. Another part of him was comforted by the familiarity of shared silence. He watched curls of steam disappear into the hair falling across her face. She tore a handful of leaves into pungent confetti, which she dropped into the pot.

Finally she said, "Are you hungry?"

He smiled. "I could eat."

She poured each of them a bowl of thin broth afloat with greens and colorful slices of root vegetables. He remembered her pointing out wild carrot along their path to the plateau and smiled wider, shaking his head. Amazing.

"It's good!" he said. "Sorry, I don't mean to sound surprised. I just meant ... it's impressive how you know how to do all this."

Una set a selection of loosely chopped greens and roots in front of the slowpoke, who butted her head against Una's hand with an unchanging, vacant expression. "This is a good time of year to collect all manner of herbs and roots."

"Only if you're smart enough."

Una smiled but didn't reply. She tipped her bowl to her lips and turned to watch the pink-tinged clouds in the western sky. "I have been wondering whether Ho-oh flew to meet the rising sun when She left. Ecruteak is hardly the easternmost point of the world."

Chris felt slow. "What do you mean?"

"When the tower burned. She must have gone somewhere."

He grimaced. "Oh. I mean, there's only so far east you can go before it becomes west again anyway, right? Since we're on a ..." Did Una know the world was a sphere? The last thing he wanted was to start another fight over something small. And, gods, why had he said anything at all? Why couldn't he just let her talk? "Sorry. That probably doesn't help."

She didn't look bothered by his interjection. In fact, her face was very calm. "I have been thinking about it much of the day ..."

Una bent her head to carefully smooth the vanes of the golden feather she wore around her neck. In the light of the dying sun, Chris noticed for the first time how the feather's surface shimmered with unexpected colors—greens, purples, and reds. He thought of the Ecruteak museum and was glad the curator hadn't taken notice of that feather. Probably, it was worth millions of dollars, but it was more precious than that. Chris sat within arms reach of half a dozen mementos his dad had left behind, but Una only had that single feather to remind her of where she had come from.

For what felt like a long time, she didn't turn to look at him.

"You're still upset."

"Oh, not exactly. I ..." She breathed heavily. Finally, she met his gaze. "Chris, I do not wish to seem unappreciative of all you have done. But I think perhaps the time has come for me to leave."

"You mean ... by yourself?"

"Well, I imagine you will want to stay here."

"The conference only lasts a few weeks ..." But even as he spoke, he saw by her face that she wouldn't wait that long. Stomach bottoming out, he looked down. "I really messed up this morning. I guess I can't blame you."

Shaking her head, she said, "It would not change how I feel if the morning had passed differently. As I said before, I feel more at home in the wilderness." She allowed that to sink in for a moment. "There is no purpose for me here."

It wasn't hard to picture her navigating the woods alone, pockets bulging with leaves and flowers. In all honesty, she was probably more prepared than most young trainers leaving home for the first time. If she needed money, she could find a shop to sell foraged herbs again. And what would she really need money for if she mostly ate wild food and avoided towns anyway? All the same, Chris couldn't help biting the inside of his cheek as he thought about it.

"I don't want you to leave." Not until he said it did he realize how true it was. He had promised he'd help her get home if he could, but it had seemed so out of reach that he hadn't considered how it might actually feel to part ways with her.

Chris liked sharing a quiet campfire with her. He liked thinking up things to make her laugh and the way she tucked her hair behind her ears and squinted when she was thinking. No matter how long or far he traveled, he would never meet another person like her.

"But." He cleared his throat. "If that's really what you want ... I'll help you prepare for it."

Her smile was sad yet full of warmth. "Thank you."

He stirred the contents of his bowl for a while. "You should probably take the camp stove. I don't need to cook while I'm on the plateau." Before she could protest, he added, "No, really. It wasn't expensive. This is my excuse to finally upgrade."

She gave a little laugh. "I never seem to win these sorts of arguments."

That drew a smile out of him. Then his face became serious again and he said, "My only real concern is the tent. Have you thought much about that part?"

"That is easy. I have spent nights in the woods with a great deal less than we have here. The nights are warm still. I shall be very comfortable."

She spoke easily, but with a kind of finality. That was that.

"So when are you leaving?"

"I suppose tomorrow."

Chris made his mouth a flat line but nodded. "Okay then."

They finished eating without speaking and watched the sun vanish behind the edge of the cliff. Suki's flower crown had fallen into the grass and she had begun to eat it, one flower at a time.

"You know," he said suddenly, "there's one last thing I'd like to show you before you leave. If you feel up for it. Only good surprises this time, I promise."

She considered him a moment and then smiled. "I would like that."

The flower-lined trails between the campground and Indigo Village were quieter after dark but still far from abandoned. The battles would continue into the night—Chris had once stayed up from sunrise of one day to the afternoon of the next watching from the living room couch, hopping between the five League channels. Anxious-looking trainers speed-walked towards the stadiums. Children ran past with sparklers held high.

Chris and Una smiled shyly at each other as they walked, as if they were strangers again. Down one fork of the path, muffled music and a long line of people signaled a live concert. He steered them the other way, following his nose towards a funnel cake stand. Una stood to the side while he waited in line. When he approached her with a plate in hand, grinning, she smiled too.

In a grassy patch overlooking the cliff edge, they sat with the greasy plate between them. He tore into the fried dough and then watched her reaction as she put the first piece in her mouth. Her thoughtful expression melted into a smile as she chewed, and then she broke off into giggles when she realized he was watching.

"You like it?"

She laughed again. "I do."

Chris grinned. "I used to make a fuss about having to share with my brother and sister. But there's no way I could finish this by myself now. Better shared."

"It is very sweet," she agreed. Then, licking her fingers, she added. "But good."

Powdered sugar scattered over the grass around them, and Chris was reminded of the first time he saw her, dusted with snow.

"Tastes like summer." He sighed and closed his eyes, heart both heavy and full. This one small thing, at least, had gone as intended. For tonight, that had to be enough.
 

kintsugi

golden scars
Pronouns
she/her/hers
Partner
silvally-grass
I apparently never reviewed this chapter despite memeing about it constantly. WHOOPS.

Chris felt silly calling out orders to his cyndaquil with his dad standing right there.
This is a fun development! I thought that maybe the cyndaquil came along after dad died, hence the name, but this makes sense. This flashback was fun, I think -- gave an appropriate sense of melancholy while also giving a realistic hint of what's to come ("dodge left" / don't hesitate / you'll do it next time -- interesting that Chris tbh only really took "dodge left" out of that memory, lol).

His sandslash in particular could be food-aggressive—his skarmory too, when she was out instead of at the pokecenter. If one of them became upset, his girafarig might bolt, and then his heracross might launch himself into the mix for the joy of trading blows ...
Very fun worldbuilding details. I like how Chris strategizes through what they'd do even when they aren't in battle.

Sensing his melancholy, Pocky, sent him a psychic nudge
extra comma here I think?

Belatedly, it occurred to him: did Douglass even remember that brief conversation?
This was a really fun through-line! I liked how you portrayed the extra level of strategy of trying to guess a matchup; in a 1v1 that's especially critical and it makes Chris's fretting seem a lot more realistic. Plus! It's really unclear if he actually does remember this conversation, if he's playing 6D chess ahead of Chris, or if he really did just forget lol.

Chris was early, partly because he was always early and partly because the League email had recommended it.
yeah tbt to when he was early for registering for this very tournament!!

The applause drowned out Chris' cry of dismay. The sound pressed down on him. Countless times, he'd cheered watching battles just like this one. But now that the noise was turned onto him, he felt sick.
I really like how you play with the environment like this, and how what's fun on the outside isn't as fun when it's suddenly turned on you. It's really interesting to see how Chris is super empathetic in some ways and a little slower in others!

It had decided it had enough. Somehow, that was harder to see than a nasty injury. He felt not excitement but hollowness. A thought crept up on him: This is exactly what Una hates.
!! very powerful. Is the lanturn swimming in a specific pattern to show Douglass that they want to go back to the ocean??
No but actually I like how you portray the pokemon agency in this -- Chris trusts Sonic to make a lot of his own choices for a fair bit of the back half, Douglass is pretty removed by virtue of the sound/space between them. The human involvement/proximity to the battle is a really nice touch as well, since it both keeps us close to the action and gives the sensation that trainers have at least some need beyond standing in the sidelines.

The jolteon was his usual wiggly self, if a little subdued, but wouldn't let Chris near his front paw. Chris got a mild shock for his efforts when he tried to apply ointment to the burn.
Sonic wigglebutt is the new cheek biting i think.

A passing camper must've bumped it. He bent to stack them neatly again before continuing on his way.
ahh lil boy trying to fix the small things while the big things continue to fall to pieces

Chris couldn't help biting the inside of his cheek as he thought about it.
c h e e k

Suki's flower crown had fallen into the grass and she had begun to eat it, one flower at a time.
an excellent detail

Powdered sugar scattered over the grass around them, and Chris was reminded of the first time he saw her, dusted with snow.
Bookends! I like the melancholy of this; it feels like this has been a thing that's been building for a while, but personally I'm mostly excited to see Una interact with some non-Chris people for a bit.

I like the theme of choice through this chapter, of people making choices that aren't what others want of them. Lanturn does it in the battle and Una does it here; there's a nice sense of parallelism, but at the end of the day maybe they're all just swimming in circles. Chris continuing to express emotions by feeding is a mood.
 

Adamhuarts

Junior Trainer
Pronouns
He/Him
Partner
mew
Read chapter 3 a few days ago but completely forgot to leave a review. Pardon me for that.

Anyway this chapter was pretty interesting as I absolutely didn't see that twist about Una being from the past coming. I thought she just belonged to some old fashioned hidden cult of some sort in Ecruteak and would get pounced up by a buncha ninjas once they drop into the city. Good thing none of my predictions came true ^^;

It was a bit heart breaking seeing Una able to recognize the dresses that museum lady showed them, as well as the people who wove them. I feel bad for her that basically everyone she's ever known is now dead. I may have been spoiled about the fact that Suicune is going to be involved in this story along the lines, which is a bit of a bummer, but I do look forward to what's going to happen next in this story.
 

OldschoolJohto

Never not editing
Pronouns
She/Her
Partner
solrock
@Adamhuarts Just now seeing your review--thank you! Ahahaha, oh man, ninja AU. Someday. That's a fun prediction even though it turned out not to be true! If you want ninjas, Pen is working on-and-off on a lighthearted story of pokemon and ninjas that's a lot of fun.
 
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