5: The Dead
Don’t underestimate seeds.
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.
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.
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?"
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
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.
"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."
"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."
"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 ….