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Prologue: The Successor
  • WildBoots

    Don’t underestimate seeds.
    1. custom/moka-mark
    2. solrock
    Prologue: The Successor

    Prologue: The Successor

    Jasmine didn't immediately recognize the young trainer. He'd arrived early for his scheduled challenge, the first morning slot. Not typical for the fall, but not unheard of either. The Olivine gym slowed down this time of year—most new trainers came at the end of spring, after graduation, and the middling trainers always tried to cram their challenges in before the winter conference.

    This kid was definitely fresh out of Trainer Ed—his clothes were still too new, the single pokeball on his belt too shiny. She knew without having to ask that he only had one badge, if he had any yet. If it had been the busy season, she might've encouraged him to start in Violet or Azalea instead—straightforward gyms and wilderness between here and there, which offered the opportunity to train and build his team. But it was fall. No one was in a rush.

    She preferred a battle that made her think, but she could still give him a fair challenge.

    It'll have to be Gimbal, she decided. From the tray set into the wall, she selected the ball that held the small, peevish magnemite she'd caught the other week.

    The young trainer stood stiffly, like he was afraid to scuff the floors. He tipped back his head to gaze up at the domed ceiling until she called to him, "Welcome to Olivine Gym. Um. Thanks for being so punctual."

    An odd look flickered across his face, so quickly she almost missed it.

    She smiled through it. "I'm Jasmine, the gym leader. What's your name, challenger?"

    He swallowed and stood a little straighter. "I'm Chris. Nakano."

    Jasmine tried to keep the surprise from her face. After all, she'd known to expect this when she took the job. Hiro Nakano had three kids, she remembered. Odds were high at least one of them would try pokemon training. This must be his eldest, finally eighteen. She should've noticed the resemblance sooner—if he grew a beard, and if not for the blue eyes, he'd look exactly like the former gym leader.

    She remembered being startled to see Hiro's face looking back at her from a Pewter City newsstand. The peculiarity made her pause, and homesickness made her buy a copy. On her lunch break, Jasmine settled under the beech tree behind the gym and finally saw the photos of the Olivine gym. Roof half-collapsed. Chunks of rubble the size of a human head and larger. She and Muno stayed after the gym closed to spar—rock smashing against rock until she couldn't tell if she felt sturdier with such creatures at her side … or only terribly human and soft. Walking home, she still felt echoes of the vibrations coursing through her legs.

    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.

    When she had come home to fill the gym vacancy, she'd brought the Nakano family a fruit basket. Didn't want to come empty-handed, didn't know what else to bring. And now she had welcomed him to the gym where he had probably grown up playing. Maybe better not to say anything else.

    Chris wore the same expression as any other gym challenger: a little fierce, a little nervous. If he bore her any special resentment, it didn't show. She wouldn't blame him if he did—grief wasn't linear or rational.

    "Well," said Jasmine. "I see you have one pokeball, so we'll make this one-on-one."

    He nodded, then squinted. "I don't expect any special treatment."

    She managed a smile. "Of course not."

    They shook and moved to opposite sides of the room, footsteps echoing. Jasmine raised her arm to throw her pokeball and then stopped short. "I'm sorry—one second," she said and then turned back for Radican's ball. A gym leader's kid would've trained some already, officially or not. He could handle a magneton.

    If there had been any doubt who he was, it vanished when he called out his pokemon. "Hero, let's go!"

    A cyndaquil. Family tradition, clearly. And, oh no, the name—

    Jasmine sent out Radican and let the young trainer have a moment to size them up. Then the League referee blew her whistle and Jasmine ordered, "Thunder wave."

    The first few blasts missed—the cyndaquil was quick on its feet. And then it wasn't. In minutes, the cyndaquil was down.

    Jasmine watched Chris crouch to check on his pokemon. He spoke to it in low tones, but she didn't catch the words from where she stood.

    "Most trainers, um, don't manage it on the first try," she offered. And she'd overshot it.

    The magneton circled her head, gleeful at their victory.

    Chris nodded. "I know." Gathering the cyndaquil into his arms, the young trainer started to turn away. He paused and looked back at her. "Thank you," he said, and then he left.

    Jasmine watched him go, picking at her hangnails. Nothing she could do for him, not without giving special treatment. She decided to go for a walk before the next challenger arrived.

    Jasmine had expected Chris to return to the gym, but she hadn't expected to see him again after only two days.

    He had a sandshrew with him this time—a good idea. The second battle lasted longer than the first. But Radican left the sandshrew dizzy and clutching its head, and the result was much the same as their first battle.

    Chris sucked in his cheek, then recalled his pokemon. "Thank you for your time," he said again.

    "I guess I'll see you around," she said, flashing an uncertain smile.

    "I guess so."

    The third time Chris Nakano challenged the Olivine gym his mother came too, a little after the battle started. Jasmine saw her creep in and take a seat in the empty bleachers, still wearing her hospital scrubs.

    Over the years, Jasmine had hosted Indigo League Elites in her gym. Celebrity researchers. Foreign dignitaries. Even once, unknowingly, a mob boss. Being watched by Hiro's widow made her more nervous than any of them.

    Jasmine stammered her commands to Radican. She won anyway.

    Before Chris Nakano's fourth challenge, Jasmine hesitated, passing Radican's pokeball back and forth between her hands. "Chris," she finally said, "you know the gym will be here, right? There's nothing wrong with, um, coming back later." After a moment, she added, "Um. There will always be a spot in the schedule for you."

    His face was grim. "I need this badge. I have—I want to start things right."

    She nodded. "Well. Then. Go ahead and choose your pokemon."

    At the end of Chris Nakano's fifth challenge, Radican hit the tiles with a resounding clang, and their buzzing finally fell quiet. Chris let out a sigh of relief before he grinned and ran to hug his sandshrew.

    Jasmine sighed and smiled too.

    In the bleachers, his mother jumped up with her hands clasped over her heart. But she stood back to let her son have his moment.

    When Chris recalled his pokemon and stood up, Jasmine walked to meet him, holding out a badge. "Fair and square."

    "Only took me five tries." He flashed a smile, a dimple in his left cheek but not the right.

    "It pays for trainers to be a little stubborn."

    But then his smile faded. He took the badge and turned away to pin it carefully to the first slot in his worn leather case.

    That was all right. Her job was to test trainers and give out badges, not to be their friend. She had almost ten years on him—she didn't need him to accept her.

    All the same, she said, "You'll have to give me a rematch when you come back, um, after you've gotten all your badges." Jasmine chewed over the next part for a long moment, but Chris waited patiently. "You've done a lot in a few weeks. You could go far if you keep working this hard."

    He narrowed his eyes—ah there it was, that anger or hurt she'd expected—but then he relaxed. "Yeah. I think I'd like that. I … I'm sorry. Thanks for taking good care of …." Chris waved a hand to indicate the gym, or maybe even Olivine more broadly. Then he shrugged, smiled, and pocketed the badge case.

    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."

    Last edited:
    1: Green
  • WildBoots

    Don’t underestimate seeds.
    1. custom/moka-mark
    2. solrock

    Part One: Kore the Maiden

    1: Green

    a snowy forest (watercolor)

    Two years later.

    On the first day in the ravine, a carol of delibirds bombarded Chris.

    At first, there was only one, gliding from tree to tree a few feet behind him. Then a second one landed on a tree up the path with a coo and a thump of snow dropping to the ground. Then a third appeared. As he walked on, they took flight and followed. He continued down the path for perhaps a quarter mile or so, watching the number of delibirds in the trees nearby growing steadily. Their coos grew louder and louder and more insistent—

    Until they dove on him in a rush of wings.

    The first one's talons grazed his shoulder as it passed, tearing the fabric. He batted it away, only to be struck sidelong by a second. Two more slammed onto his backpack, jostling for purchase. Before he could shake them off or grab a pokeball, several more landed on his shoulder and pack. The combined weight pulled him backward. With a crash and a yelp, he hit the ground and slid partway down the hill through crusted-over mud.

    He skidded to a stop against a tree, and even more delibirds came to land on his chest and raised knees. Some of the delibirds scattered at impact but immediately returned with thrusting beaks, squawking. More were landing in the tree above or flapping towards them down the hill. Chris covered his face in his arms.

    However, after a moment he realized that their focus was an outside pocket of his backpack. He released the sternum and waist buckles of his pack and slid free of the straps. The backpack rolled down the hill without him, and the heaving, squawking mass of birds chased after it.

    Moments later Chris sent out his jolteon, Sonic, who whisked down the hill in a spray of snow and sparks.

    The delibirds split like bowling pins as Sonic leapt into their midst. He lunged after their trailing tails with obvious glee, yipping and firing arcs of light into the air for good measure. When all the delibirds had retreated to a safe distance, the jolteon stood panting among fallen feathers.

    Chris trotted down the slope, chuckling. "Good work, Sonic."

    Crouching, Chris withdrew the Ziplock bag from the outside pocket of his backpack—and immediately heard a collective rustle of feathers. The surrounding trees shivered.

    He stood with care, looking from side to side. Then he held the bag above his head and gave it a shake. The dry food blocks inside rattled together, but the sound was lost to the upsurge of squawking and flapping. Only Sonic at his feet, sending off ribbons of electricity, kept the whole lot from dive-bombing him.

    Chris grinned. He shook the bag again and then launched it as far as he could into the bushes.

    As one, the delibirds plunged from their branches and disappeared, crashing through the underbrush.

    Dusting himself off, Chris said to Sonic, "That's the last time I accept free pokemon food from a stranger."

    But, later, the delibirds came back.

    Chris hiked for several hours with Sonic at his side, but delibird coos and rustling wings were never quite out of earshot. He stopped, turned, and shouted, "I don't have anything!"

    A hundred owlish eyes blinked.

    "Go away!" He tossed a snowball, and the delibirds flapped away.

    He continued on his way … and a few moments later he heard them follow.

    That night, as he set up camp, the delibirds settled around him in a circle just out of reach of Sonic's attacks. They came no closer, but he felt their eyes on him.

    While he sat eating his simple meal of reconstituted chili, idly petting Sonic, something bounced off his shoe. A black coat button. To the left, he heard that distinctive coo and turned in time to watch a delibird reach into a hidden flap of skin among its feathers, use its beak to nudge free a piece of trash, and drop it into the clearing. Another coo, and the crowd drew ever so slightly closer.

    Sonic growled.

    Bird treasures rained at his feet, one or two landing in his bowl: coins, water bottle lids, gum wrappers, a pen cap. The bright plastics were a shock in the monochromatic landscape.

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

    "Thanks, guys, but I still don't have anything to give you!" Chris laughed.

    A prescription pill jar rolled and hit his foot, the one remaining pill rattling inside.

    He picked up the bottle and read: Penelope L. Tait. Had the jar rolled away from her one morning as she was packing up? Or was she one more careless trainer who never made it home alive? Chris was no longer afraid of wild pokemon or the wilderness itself … but he also knew it was the cocky trainers who misstepped. For the first time in months, he had to wonder … what evidence of his journey would be left on this mountain for someone else to find if he took a bad fall? He felt a chill that had nothing to do with the snow.

    "Okay, that's it."

    Recalling Sonic, he pulled a can of pokemon repellent from an outer backpack pocket and sprayed liberally. The delibirds shuffled back, fanning their wings. One took to the air, then five more, and then the entire carol took flight with a flurry of snow and feathers. Then Chris was finally alone.

    He pulled his shirt over his mouth and nose against the cloying acid-sweet smell and retreated into his tent. The tent was cold and barren without a pokemon sleeping beside him for the first time in over a year, but at least he slept undisturbed.

    In the morning, fallen feathers and a pile of other trainers' junk marked where he had camped.

    Late on the second day in the ravine, Chris passed a tree scarred by claw marks—impossible to miss because Sonic bounded over to sniff. Chris paused to finger the grooves, stretching above his head to reach. His fingers came away sap sticky, and he bent to clean them with snow before slipping his glove on again. Tipping his head back, he stood beneath the tree for a moment and chewed his lip. At last, he shifted his backpack forward by tugging on the shoulders straps, and then he continued up the slope.

    Not much further up the trail was a second scarred tree. The patches where bark had been rubbed off were visible even from a distance, a surprising orange against gray-brown bark. As Chris drew closer, he saw also the clumps of dark fur caught in the bark that remained.

    Beside the tree, he slid out of his pack and pulled his pokedex from the outside pocket. It was an older model, one of the big, heavy-duty ones that looked like a graphing calculator. The old pokedex ran on newer software, which made it slow. Before he was able to successfully scan the clump of hair, Chris had to turn it off and on and wipe the camera lens with the bottom edge of his shirt. Eventually, the pokedex vibrated once, and then the data for ursaring appeared on-screen.

    His stomach sank. "Yeah, that's what I thought …."

    The ursaring's unmistakable, pungent musk clung to the tree.

    He removed a glove to touchscreen-swipe past the sections that listed height and weight relative to humans. Then came common battle strategies and pop culture notes. Then finally, the screen lagging with each swipe, Chris found the habitat description and map. They most commonly inhabit mountainous forests, the screen read, rarely living at elevations higher than 1,200 feet. In winter months, they dig dens for hibernation, often favoring hillsides.

    And winter was over. Snow still crusted the mountain slopes, but mud flowed underneath. The branches were bare but tipped in buds almost ready to burst. In July, spring had finally come to the Ice Pass. The burst of warmth would only last until October or so, and the wildlife had to make the most of it.

    Shutting his pokedex, Chris turned to glance back at his footprints winding away through the ravine. High limestone cliffs framed the ice-capped peaks known to locals as the Dragon's Spine. Breaks in the cliffs were cluttered with scrub brush and anemic-looking trees, mostly evergreens but some still-skeletal deciduous ones as well. Small alcoves and cave entrances were visible along the wall, and supposedly there were more all throughout the half-frozen earth below. The view ahead was more of the same. A sliver of sun peeked over the cliff wall, but within the hour it would sink and cast the canyon into shadows. It would take a day of hiking in either direction to pass through the ravine to open ground … assuming the best conditions.

    The only way out is through, he imagined his dad saying.

    Looking back just once more, he shouldered his pack and continued deeper into the canyon.

    Biting the inside of his cheek, he recalled Sonic. He didn't want to provoke a territorial ursaring. Without Sonic's panting, paw scrabbling, and occasional yips that meant all clear … the canyon was quiet. Chris strained his ears for sounds of wild pokemon, and his own thoughts grew loud.

    Shadows deepened and swam across the canyon floor as if being poured. Ice crunched with Chris's every step. Mud did too, though as recently as that morning he'd been sliding and sticking in it. The temperature was dropping. Not long after the sun sank behind the ridge, a light snow began to fall and the canyon became quieter still.

    Chris alternated between watching his feet and gazing up the slope through frosted lashes into the copse of twisted pines ahead. Old snow was scribbled over by fallen pine needles here, disappearing once more under the fresh snow. With any luck, the storm would fizzle to nothing—he had already seen how the pokemon of the area stirred up flurries throughout the day, often ending as suddenly as they began. But he knew better than to count on it. He tugged his hood further forward and kept moving.

    He raised his eyes again in time to see a green light pulse between the branches and fade. With a thud, snow dropped from all of the trees at once. Then Chris heard a hum and registered a flicker of movement to the left before all fell silent.

    Chris stopped at the bottom of the slope, staring up into the trees, and listened. Wind whistled over the canyon walls. He heard his own breath and heartbeat. In the distance, one delibird called to another. Nothing moved but the tips of the tree branches bobbing on an occasional gust of air. Snowflakes tumbled down. He touched a pokeball on his belt before continuing into the trees, much more slowly than before.

    Though he kept a watchful eye on his surroundings, he relaxed with each step up the hill. Even the snowfall seemed to be letting up. He was making good time.

    As Chris neared the top of the slope, he spotted a blue lump on the ground ahead. One moment it was nothing, a shadow on the snow or a fallen branch. The next, peering around tree trunks, he realized— Fabric. Sleeve. Arm.

    His heartbeat stuttered. He tried to speak, found his tongue stuck dry to the roof of his mouth, swallowed, and tried again. "Are you okay?" Boots sliding, he scrambled up the slope.

    The rest of the body came into view. What Chris had taken for a shadow was a woolen cloak with a hood. The cloak fell partly open to reveal something part-gown and part-robe, with flowing sleeves patterned in blue and white diamonds. The robe's edges were silk brocaded in smaller diamonds. A blue sash cinched her waist, doubly secured with a tasseled red cord. The robe spread wide across the snow, but her bare wrist and leg protruding from the layers of fabric were thin, so pale the veins were visible. She wore sandals, each made from a single piece of leather wrapped around the sides of the foot and laced shut across the top, leaving toes and ankles bare. Her exposed toes, fingers, and cheeks were red with cold. Her golden curls lay loose on the ground, glittering with freshly fallen snow.

    Chris had seen more than one woefully under-prepared trainer on his travels, but this went well beyond that. He took a few long moments to at last shut his mouth and shake his head clear.

    "Hey! Can you hear me?" He dropped his backpack, leaving it where it landed, and squatted at the girl's side. He rocked her shoulder. "Hey. Come on. Wake up."

    Her head lolled to one side from his shaking and then fell still.

    Stomach lurching, he sucked in a breath. He fumbled with a glove, dropped it in the snow, and felt for her neck. Her skin was still warm. He pressed his first two fingers against the place he was almost sure was an artery, holding his breath … and finally detected a slow pulse.

    Pulling away, he sat back on his heels and chewed the inside of his cheek. He pinched her sleeve and found it damp, as he knew it would be. "Oh man," he said, breath ghosting in front of him. He stared up through the skeletal branches and snowflakes. The daylight was dimming. He removed his other glove, rubbed his face, and returned his gaze to the girl. "Oh man."

    He unclasped the gold brooch pinning the cloak at the neck, allowing the outer layer to fall completely open over the robe. Then, swallowing, he reached towards the sash holding the robe together—but stopped mid-air and clamped his hands around his ankles instead, drumming his fingers on the tops of his boots.

    After a moment, he stood, pocketed his gloves, and at last released his typhlosion, Hero, from his pokeball.

    Hero raised his bearlike face and sniffed the air. He stretched as he materialized, raking his claws across the frozen ground. Fully solidified, on all fours, his head was at the right height to nudge Chris's hand for a scratch.

    "Hey, buddy." Chris pulled away. "I need you over here."

    Sensing the tone in Chris's voice, Hero perked his ears and became serious, ready for orders. Ready to become dangerous.

    Chris patted the ground next to the girl. "Come here. Lie down."

    Hero lumbered between Chris and the girl, pausing to sniff the girl's hair. Then he shuffled at the snow and groaned.

    "I know you don't like snow. I can't help it. Could you lie down, please?"

    With a hand motion from Chris, Hero gave a moaning growl, tongue flopping, stretched once more, and then settled onto the muddy snow.

    Chris nudged him with a knee. "Over." Even with his flames retracted, the heat of Hero's fur was enough to instantly melt the snowflakes off Chris's pants.

    Snorting a puff of steam, Hero shifted and rolled until he lay beside the girl—not as if she were something precious to be shielded but as if she were a pile of rocks.

    Nonetheless, Chris bent to rub the tips of Hero's ears. "Thank you."

    Turning his back to them both, Chris grabbed his backpack and knelt to paw through it. At the very top was the first aid kit. He began to set it aside but stopped to take out his last two chemical hand warmers from the zippered pouch. These he tucked into his pockets before placing the rest on the ground beside him. Next were the various piece of his mess kit, which he stacked atop his first aid kit. Beneath the extra set of clothes and the repair kit, he finally uncovered his tent.

    The stakes, poles, and the body of the tent itself he leaned against a nearby tree. After stamping down a reasonably flat space next to the girl, he laid the rain fly down on the snow. On top of it he placed the thin foam sleeping pad, then the sleeping bag, which he laid open.

    Hero watched with mild curiosity.

    Chris looked at the girl and paused. He was familiar with emergency first aid, both from the classes required to get his license and from growing up with a nurse for a mom. But this was a real person, not a practice dummy. He wiped his brow and tugged the rain fly a fraction of an inch closer. Then, finally, he reached his hands beneath the girl and rolled her onto the sleeping bag. A smooth transition.

    He let out a long breath. Noting the darkening sky, he swept his gaze over the clearing, his stacked supplies, and then finally allowed his eyes to fall upon the girl. "Okay," he said to the air, as if the word could calm his fluttering stomach. She was shivering, and he was wasting time. Even as he reached towards her, he felt his face redden. But he pushed through it and began to pull at the knotted cord that held her robe together. "I'm sorry. I promise I'm not trying to be gross. I just don't want you to freeze to death in this."

    Finally, he worked the knot loose. He fought the urge to avert his eye, but—he heaved a sigh of relief—she wore silk slip under the robe, dry enough to leave alone. After that, pulling his dry shirt over her head was easier. As he fumbled to get her limp arm through the sleeve, he noticed the one other thing she wore: an iridescent gold feather the size of his hand hung on a string around her neck. He didn't pause to wonder about it. When he bent to remove her sandals, her feet felt like ice. He started to rub one of her feet between his palms, then gave up and worked faster to get her into his sweatpants and then tucked into the sleeping bag.

    The moment before he pulled away, her eyes fluttered open. Her gaze was unfocused for a moment before locking onto Chris, freezing him to the spot.

    The hair rose on his arms.

    "Cold," she said, so quiet he almost didn't hear.

    "It's going to be alright. I'm going to get you help." He eased one arm free and reached over her body for the sleeping bag zipper pull.

    Her hand brushed his shoulder.

    As he pulled away, he saw that she held a downy red delibird feather between two fingers. It must have been stuck to his coat. "Rainbow wings," she mumbled.

    "You're going to be alright," he repeated, turning her onto her side.

    Her eyes closed.

    Chris withdrew the hand warmers from his pocket. Crushing them to activate the heat, he shoved them down towards her feet. He pulled the sleeping bag around her face, wet hair and all. Then he tucked in her exposed arm.

    Her hand closed around his fingers, and he felt the feather she still held in her grip.

    She was very pretty, he realized. What was she doing here?

    After a long moment, he spoke in a voice hardly above a whisper, surprising himself, "What's your name?"

    She didn't respond with so much as a sigh.

    He watched her without speaking, snow soaking through the knees of his pants, until his free arm began to ache from supporting all his weight. He gently disengaged his hand. Knees creaking, he climbed to his feet and dusted the remaining delibird feathers off his coat. His heart was still pounding, but the air was still. He asked Hero to lie beside the girl again.

    He set up the tent and, with some effort, moved the girl inside using the rain fly as a sling. Then he reinstalled Hero at her side and zipped them in together.

    There was one thing left to do.

    He glanced at his Bitflex, but of course, it still displayed only no signal. Not even as much as a roaming signal. No radio, no GPS, no email, and definitely no phone service. The mountains had reduced it to nothing but a blocky, waterproof wristwatch. With a sigh, he went to his backpack.

    The PLB—personal locator beacon—hung from an outside strap on his pack. It resembled a small, squat flashlight without a bulb, heavy for its size. The switch at the bottom was difficult to move on purpose. He had never had to flip that switch before. Not in Union Cave, seized by panic that he'd never find his way back up to daylight. Not after wandering Ilex Forest for days, unsure whether he was walking in circles. He had never planned to use it, but this time there was no other option.

    He briefly indulged in the idea of loading the girl onto Sammus, his skarmory. But he knew that Sammus wasn't quite big enough to carry the two of them and that, clever as she was, she couldn't get back to Mahogany without guidance. He also didn't think it would be good to have takeoff and turbulence jostling the girl's head.

    "Suck it up," he scolded himself. Chris flicked the switch with an audible snap.

    Nothing happened. Or, at least, nothing immediately obvious. The signal beaming SOS out to orbital satellites, the screaming alarms at the local receptor station on the ground, orders being barked, the emergency team donning their suits, the computer technician reading the output and tracking the location of the metal cylinder clutched in Chris's hand—this all had to be imagined.

    In the meantime, there was nothing for Chris to do but wait.

    He turned a circle, snow crunching beneath his feet. Gray skies over gray cliffs peeked between the dark trees. The sun sank lower, minute by minute. Shadows washed over him. And the snow kept coming down with no sign of stopping. Even with Hero sitting feet away, Chris had never felt so alone in the canyon. Perhaps never in all the months he'd been training.

    He paced around the clearing but dared not go far. He craned his head back to search for a helicopter he knew could not have arrived yet. Not so much as a delibird crossed the sky. After his second lap, he began to pick through the snow for fallen branches, but unsurprisingly the wood he found was too green and too wet to burn.

    Fingers aching and red, Chris rubbed his hands together and returned to sit on the tent floor beside his pokemon. He pressed his hands to the warmth of Hero's back until they no longer stung from the cold. Hero sighed contentedly and lay his head on Chris's knee. The heat radiating from his fur, even when at rest, was so intense that Chris unzipped his coat partway. However, the ground beneath them was still cold through the tent floor.

    After checking the girl's pulse again (unchanged, as far as he could tell), he hopped to his feet and strode to his pack. He re-sorted his piles, stuffing a few things inside his backpack again, until he could access his mess kit. He took out what he needed to heat water for tea.

    Chris brought the ziplock bag of loose leaf tea to his nose and breathed deep. It was a blend of green teas and herbs from the Olivine area, toasted on the camp stove. The standard in Olivine was to add sugar and milk, but Chris took his tea New Bark-style, like his dad. When Mom worked the night shift, Dad was the one who roused the three of them for school and got breakfast into them. If Chris woke up a little early, his reward was a cup of tea and a few quiet moments in the kitchen with Dad—without Keiko's surliness and Kaden finger-drumming on the table. Mom taught him how to ride a bike, but Dad taught him how to make breakfast: omelet, natto, miso soup. And a proper cup of tea. After a moment, Chris resealed the bag and pocketed it. He listened to the hiss of his camp stove, staring at nothing…

    He shook his head and turned to look at the girl's cloak and outer robe where they still lay on the ground, and then got up for a better look. Up close, holding one of the sleeves, he saw that the diamond pattern wasn't made of solid color blocks at all, but many fine blue and white stitches that revealed intricate scenes: cherry blossoms, stantler, a river lined with trees, lotus flowers, feathers, fruit, temples. He had never seen a piece of clothing designed with such care and detail.

    Chris stood and peeled the blue and white robe up from the wet cloak beneath, shaking it out. He draped it between two sturdy tree branches. The lack of direct sun would prevent it from drying much, but at least it was off the ground.

    After rubbing the sleek fabric between his fingers one more time, he turned his attention to the cloak. For the first time, he noticed the shape of the brooch pinned to the hood: a bird pokemon, its wings spread, feathers suggested by a chevron pattern. He thought he recognized it, but he wasn't sure from where. It was blockier than the Johto 'Geottos logo. In fact, it was designed to look handmade and old, with hammer marks visible all over the surface and edges ragged in some places.

    He picked up the cloak as well, brushing snow from the folds. As he scouted around for a suitable place to hang it, the cloak being much heavier than the robe, something green in the corner of his eye caused him to glance down. He nearly dropped the cloak in shock.

    Where the girl had lain was a patch of perfect storybook green, lush grass and clover dotted with tiny flowers. He hadn't seen anything that green anywhere in the canyon. He prodded at the surrounding snow with the toe of his boot and revealed nothing beneath but black earth and pine needles. No grass there. On a whim, he ruffled the grass with his hand and found it wet but warm.

    Chewing the inside of his cheek, he hung the cloak in the trees, its weight bowing branches, and returned to sit on a rock beside his camp stove and windshield. Over and over, his eyes returned to that patch of grass shaped like a human body.

    Inside the tent, Hero grumbled and sighed in his sleep every so often.

    Chris sipped his tea in silence, watching the grass (still there) and the sky (still empty). He checked his Bitflex again, though he didn't need a time readout to know it was getting darker out. And colder. The next time he checked her pulse, the girl was shivering. Zipping his own coat higher, he rose to gather up snow to melt for another cup of tea. He rubbed his hands together and then warmed them on Hero's flank.

    And waited.

    He was drinking his third cup of tea when he heard the helicopter in the distance. Heart hammering, Chris leapt to his feet. He paused only to snatch the purple cloak from the branch where it hung and ran toward the sound of the approaching helicopter. He half-sprinted and half-slid downhill, jumping over exposed roots and fallen logs. The noise grew louder and louder until it throbbed in his ears. Just as he broke through the trees, he watched the red and white helicopter glide into view over the canyon wall.

    "Over here!" Chris shouted, but he could hardly hear himself. With two hands he waved the cloak overhead, droplets spattering his arm with each snap. The wet cloth was heavy, and his arms quickly began to tire.

    The helicopter banked left and began to descend. Surrounding trees shivered, shedding pine needles and snow.

    He let his arms fall to his sides, out of breath.

    The racket became louder yet, forcing Chris to cover his ears. His hood ripped back from his face. The wind battered him, tossing ice flecks in his face and slapping the cloak against him. He hid his face in his shoulder.

    A few feet above the ground, the chopper halted and hovered in place. A side door marked with a red plus sign slid open, and a woman wearing a helmet, a blue jumpsuit, and a reflective neon vest jumped down. She flashed the pilot a thumbs up, and the helicopter wheeled up and away to circle overhead.

    The paramedic jogged to meet Chris. "Are you injured?" she shouted over the noise. When she stood close enough to be heard, Chris noticed that among other tools clipped to her belt was a full set of six masterballs. He had never seen them carried by anyone other than a police officer. That was one way to subdue an attacking pokemon, he supposed.

    "I'm fine," Chris yelled back, "but there's a girl over there in the trees. I left her with my pokemon but she needs help. She's unconscious."

    She scrunched her shoulder to speak into the short-range radio clipped onto her jumpsuit. It crackled in response, but Chris couldn't hear over the helicopter rotors. Then she shouted to Chris, "How far is it?"

    "Not far. Maybe a hundred feet up the hill."

    The paramedic relayed this information via radio. The helicopter lowered once more, and she jogged back to meet it. Someone fed a stretcher with raised sides and straps through the door, and she caught the end. A second paramedic hopped down from the helicopter, supporting the other end of the stretcher. An espeon in a matching Tyvek vest hopped out behind him, landing daintily. As they approached Chris, the helicopter roared into the air.

    "Show us the way!"

    With the paramedics and their espeon following closely behind, Chris picked his way through the trees once again. He unzipped the tent door and recalled Hero to make room for the two paramedics. Before he finished clipping Hero's pokeball back onto his belt, the paramedics were already kneeling on either side of the girl. One was unrolling space blankets from inside the stretcher, the synthetic fabric crinkling, while she updated the helicopter crew via radio. The other asked questions about the girl and what had happened, many of which Chris couldn't answer. The espeon crouched beside the girl's head, its eyes wide and somber.

    Finally, one paramedic announced, "Let's get her into the helicopter."

    They bundled the girl up in space blankets, the shiny material reflecting streaks of light around the clearing. The helicopter rotors clattered louder, softer, and louder again as it wheeled overhead. Red and white flashed occasionally through the trees. Then, "On three. One, two, three—" they moved her into the stretcher and strapped her in.

    Chris watched.

    One of the paramedics radioed the helicopter. The other motioned the espeon forward. Within minutes, the rotors grew louder and the helicopter came into view overhead. The espeon's handler said something to it, inaudible over the helicopter, and its eyes began to glow. Red light haloed the stretcher. Another round of back and forth radio static, and then the stretcher began its slow rise to the helicopter's waiting doors.

    Chris craned his neck back to follow her gleaming, silver-wrapped body rising through the treetops. His stomach felt leaden, but not until the paramedic spoke did he finally look away.

    "We'll fly her to the nearest hospital in Mahogany Town. You saved her life."

    "Yeah…" Chris skimmed his eyes over his scattered camp gear, the robe still hanging in the tree. Lastly, he turned to look up at the Dragon's Spine peaks overhead, visible only as silhouettes now.

    Perhaps his final gym badge could wait a few more days.

    He spun to face the two paramedics. "Can I come with you?"

    Last edited:
    2: The Volunteer
  • WildBoots

    Don’t underestimate seeds.
    1. custom/moka-mark
    2. solrock
    2: The Volunteer

    Chris remembered little of the journey back to Mahogany. He must have slept. He stretched his arms—because that was all the room he had to move, hunched in the corner with his backpack—and watched the dull orange streetlights below draw nearer. The helicopter made a low arc, and the medical center came into view below.

    He hardly had time to digest the fact of landing before the door slid open and the paramedics were gone, moving the stretcher towards the hospital doors. He tottered to his feet, nearly hitting his head, shouldered his pack, and followed them out. Moments later, he was squinting against the fluorescent lobby lights. A cluster of hospital staff in pale green scrubs converged on the stretcher. Together with one of the paramedics, they wheeled the girl away down the hall in a flash of silver space blanket.

    The other paramedic stayed behind, leaning one arm against the front counter while he gave a radio update.

    When he was through, the gray-haired woman at the desk asked, "Another trainer?"

    "No, I don't think so," the paramedic replied.

    Chris approached, moving as if waterlogged. "When will we know if she's alright?"

    The paramedic turned and said, "Only time will tell for sure, but she's getting the best possible care now. I don't think there's cause for real worry at this point." He clapped Chris on the shoulder with startling strength. "You did the right thing, you know. It's nice to see a trainer with some practical sense."

    Chris forced a smile. "Uh, thanks. I was worried she might not …." He trailed off. "I just wanted to make sure she was going to be okay."

    The woman at the front desk piped up, "You're welcome to take a seat and wait a little while in case there are any updates. Your pokemon doing okay? You can heal them down the hall while you wait." At the surprised look on his face, she added, "It's the same building. We've just got the one here."

    "Yeah, that's a good idea."

    Chris dropped off his belt in the other wing of the building and came back. As he walked, he realized he did in fact recognize the beige tile and the waiting room chairs that looked like they had last been upholstered in the '70s. He chose the seat that looked the least worn, propped his feet up on his backpack, and tried to make some progress on his paperback. The book was an easy read, nothing of real substance, but he struggled to concentrate on it. Each time someone went in or out of the door he snapped to attention, but it was always a nurse bringing out paperwork or fresh coffee for his coworker. Chris kept catching himself staring into space. Finally, he stood to buy peanut M&M's from the nearby vending machine—something to occupy his hands.

    He'd been sitting for over an hour already—did that mean something had gone wrong? There was no way for him to know how long she'd been lying there before he stumbled upon her. He thought again of her fingers and toes red with cold, how easily he could have taken another path up the hill and missed her entirely. What then?

    Stop it, Chris scolded himself, and then he forced himself to return to his book.

    The next thing he knew, someone was shaking him awake. "You don't have to stay here all night." The woman from the front desk

    "Have you heard anything?" he said, voice thick with sleep.

    "Sometimes no news is good news. Why don't you come back in the morning, after you've both had a chance to rest. You can get your sleeping bag back then, too. You need help finding a place to stay?"

    "No, that's okay. I'll get out of your hair."

    "It's no trouble."

    "I can manage." He collected his pokemon and then set out into the night.

    The phone line rang and rang at Chris's wrist as he walked. It was much warmer on this side of the mountain, and Chris had to stop and stuff his coat into his pack. Humidity nullified all other sounds but the crickets. Fireflies hovered over puddles, and the sky was thick with crisp stars so unlike the flat purplish wash of light pollution above home. Here, the line between town and wilderness was tricky to distinguish.

    Though the street lights were dim, the trainer hostel was not difficult to find. It was as he remembered: one block north of the gym, a narrow, a two-story cabin with a wooden sign hanging crookedly above the front door, across from a small grocery market (closed at this hour). Like most other buildings in town, The Indigo Chateau was built from blocks of blue-gray stone, but it was the only one besides the gym taller than a single story. Only one of the downstairs lights was lit.

    As he rounded the corner and The Chateau came into view, a tinny voice at his wrist called out, "Hullo, Indigo Chateau. Hello?"

    Chris brought the Bitflex watch closer to his mouth. "Hi. Sorry to be calling so late—"

    "Believe me, that's not exactly out of the norm." The hostel manager didn't have his video feed turned on—or, more likely, didn't have one—but the scowl was clear from his voice.

    "This is sort of an emergency. Do you have any beds available for tonight?"

    A creak, a shuffling of paper. "There is one." The light in the front room downstairs came on. "That you walking up? I'll meetcha at the front in a second."

    A click, then silence.

    Chris tried the front door and found it locked, but within he heard footfalls approaching. The manager lived on the bottom level in a back room, he remembered. He had seen the little cot and the potbelly stove through the open doorway behind the front desk, a sight that had made him feel inexplicably sad. Chris must have woken the old man up.

    The door opened.

    The old man wore a cable-knit sweater, even in this heat. He squinted at Chris. "I remember you," he said. "You left just a coupla days ago."

    Chris shrugged and smiled. "I beat Pryce."

    "Had a little trouble in the mountains though, eh?" He barked a laugh that made Chris jump in surprise. "Emergency services brought you right back, I see."

    "Not exactly," Chris said, reddening.

    The old man wheezed another laugh. "You're hardly the first this year, don't you worry." He turned and padded into the cool dark, waving for Chris to follow.

    By the light spilling in from the back room, the old manager found the light switch. The lobby remained dim, however, partly on account of the single bulb in the old fashioned light fixture and partly because of the dark-colored furniture. Against one wall stood a longcase clock, atop which perched a horrifying taxidermy hoothoot that looked centuries old.

    "Now …." The manager lowered himself painstakingly into the chair. He unlocked a desk drawer, pulled out the ledger book, and cracked it open. Licking the pad of his thumb and flipping to a blank page, he said, "You know the drill. First you pay, then you get your bed."

    "Right." Chris clicked a button to open the hollow compartment in his belt buckle and slid out his Trainer OneCard.

    "I hope you didn't wake me up for nothing. You know how this works." He hooked his thumb at the sign on the wall behind him: Cash only!

    "Sorry, I forgot." Chris pinched the roll of bills from his belt buckle compartment. "How much is it again?"

    "How many nights you need?"

    "Just one, I'm pretty sure."

    "Sure or just pretty sure? We've had more trainers through here lately than you can shake a stick at. Come morning, you might find you can't get a bed if you want one. I can't guarantee you anything you don't pay for here and now."

    "I'll be okay with just one night."

    The old man grunted and shrugged. "That's thirty dollars then. Towel rental is two."

    "It was less last time."

    "It's almost the end of League eligibility. Demand goes up, the price goes up."

    Chris peeled three tens off the roll of bills, biting his cheek. "I don't need a towel." Thirty dollars for a few hours on a musty mattress. With that money, he could buy two decent bowls of hot stew and rice, a weeks' worth of meals in dry goods and fresh produce, repairs for his boots and tent … His stack was thinning. But because the only other option was hiking to the marshland outside the city and pitching his tent on a mud puddle in the dark, he handed his money to the hostel manager.

    The old man licked his fingers again to count the bills. Then he began to fill out the ledger in spidery scrawl. "I'll take that card now."

    Chris set it on the desk. He watched the old manager copy down his information for a moment and then asked, "Hey, how did you know about the emergency services anyway?"

    The old man wheezed a laugh. "Son, when one of those helicopters goes out, the whole town hears it."


    The manager finished writing, tore off the carbon copy for Chris, and snapped the ledger shut. "Bunk 4A, up the stairs on the right. You remember where the bathrooms are? Kitchen, lockers?"

    "I think I got it." Chris hoisted his backpack off the floor. "Thank you. Have a good night."

    Up the creaky claustrophobic stairs, down a hallway lit by night lights, Chris found the room. Someone was asleep in 4A—an unidentifiable heap of body amid blankets. Below that was 4B, occupied by a white guy with dreadlocks whose limbs dangled over the sides of the cot. Atop 4C, a girl read a tattered paperback by headlamp. A vulpix was curled in her arms, in spite of signs posted all throughout the hostel that warned, All pokemon must remain inside pokeballs AT ALL TIMES! She didn't so much as look up to acknowledge Chris when he dropped his pack on the empty 4D bunk below her.

    The moment he laid down, Chris fell asleep, still on top of the blankets.

    He dreamed of snow … and woke sweating.

    Chris set no alarm but rose with the sun, as he did every morning. The girl with the vulpix was already gone. The other two were still asleep, though Dreadlocks' head now lay where his feet had been during the night. One of them was snoring quietly.

    Keeping quiet to avoid disturbing the sleepers, Chris pulled everything damp from his pack and laid it across the now-empty bunk above his to air out. He locked his pack in the footlocker under the bunk and then headed out into the crisp morning.

    It was six a.m.—too early to call home and too early for a hospital visit. He turned north towards the lake instead. He walked slowly, having no particular plan or needs. However, as there was little of the sleepy town to see, he still passed through quickly.

    Between the irregularly spaced houses, The Lake of Rage shone through, dark and glittering. A grassy slope gave Chris a lookout point into the bowl carved by the lake's high and low years. Around the docks, the men of the town clustered, baiting and casting fishing lines. On the western lip of the lake, a pair of trainers battled. Fortunately for the fishermen, the battle was driving the magikarp towards them. To the east, the gradual curve of highlands cut up sharply into the Dragon's Spine Mountains.

    He'd be halfway to Blackthorn by now if he'd stayed.

    Chris gazed at the mountains with his hands in the pockets. The distance tore at him. There were only a few weeks left for him to reach Blackthorn City on the other side of those mountains, challenge Clair, claim a badge, and travel all the way to the Indigo Plateau in time to register for the annual conference. Coming back here was flirting with failure. He didn't want to wait another year.

    But he wanted to know the girl was alright. His thoughts snagged on unanswerable questions: how did she end up in the middle of nowhere? Who was she?

    The aroma of fried food finally pulled his attention downhill towards the lake. Across the road from the docks was a tiny food cart pulled by a bike. As Chris made his way down the slope, he watched the vendor unhook his bike, collapse it, and hang it on the back of the cart. Chris arrived just as the vendor unshuttered the front window.

    Chris ordered a magikarp-shaped pancake filled with red bean. It heated his hands through the tinfoil wrapping. He paid the small sum and then, balancing the pancake in the crook of an elbow, he retreated to a distance to count the remainder of his cash more carefully. He had a little over two hundred dollars in hand and not much more than that on his OneCard. With a sigh, he returned the money to his belt buckle compartment.

    He had also burned his tongue.

    Chewing as he walked, he meandered towards the piers. The water grew clearer and brighter with each moment, revealing green muck at the bottom and flashes of red and gold fins. His lapras would enjoy the lake. But he also knew the fishermen would be upset if he let her out here, and so he left her on his belt. They spoke little and in low voices, but not so low that Chris couldn't hear the punchline to a dirty joke.

    From the across the water came the occasional shout or splash. One trainer's houndoom shuffled out of the lake shallows and shook itself off, head hanging. Chris saw the opponent's reflection on the water first, then tracked it upward. The pidgeot made to dive-bomb again, and the houndoom lunged to meet it—and then splashed down with a howl that echoed across the water. But the pidgeot pulled out of its dive with blood spreading across its breast feathers.

    Chris could tell the pidgeot was going to win, but he found himself rooting for the houndoom anyway. His dad had trained one named Oji.

    When Chris was fourteen, Dad had once invited him to command Oji in a sparring match against one of the gym trainers. "Go on." Then he folded his arms and stepped back.

    Of course, Chris knew all of his dad's command words. Still, it came as a delicious surprise when Oji complied and sprang forward with shadow licking out from between his teeth. Probably the houndoom had only obeyed because his trainer was standing there watching, but it still felt good.

    "I heard your father is having you do his job," Mom said when they came home that evening, her tone teasing but her fingers drumming on the table.

    "It's perfectly safe as long as I'm there," Hiro answered with a shrug and a smile.

    "I know." She said it like it pained her.

    Chris had ducked his head and tried to squeeze past, but she'd caught him and pulled him into a hug.

    "I just don't want you to grow up too fast."

    For a moment Chris closed his eyes and let himself miss them.

    The houndoom dragged itself ashore, ducking the pidgeot's talon swipes. It snapped after the pidgeot's tail, huffing out flame with the effort—but it missed. Oji would've put this houndoom to shame.

    The fishermen clicked their tongues and shook their heads. Among them, Chris spotted one familiar face: he wore an oversized shirt printed with tropical flowers and smoked an old-fashioned pipe. He was the only one without a fishing pole.

    "Hey!" Chris stood and walked over. "Aren't you the guy who gave me that bag of pokemon food?"

    The man turned and paled. "Who me? You got me confused with someone else."

    "But I recognize your shirt."

    Chris took a step closer, and the man leapt to his feet. All the fishermen were staring at them now. "I don't want it back!" the man announced.

    "I don't even have it anymore, I just—"

    But it was too late. The strange man swept down the pier and disappeared over the hill, shirttails fluttering behind him. The smell of his strange bitter smoke lingered. Tobacco and rawst leaf.

    Chris shrugged at the surrounding fishermen. "What's his problem?"

    "Oh, that's just Saji. He's an odd one. Don't pay him no mind."

    "You're scaring away all the magikarp! Shaddup, would ya?"

    Chris shook his head and walked away.

    Across the water, the two battling pokemon tangled so tightly they looked like one creature. Now and again a wing might emerge. A tail. A horn. Their trainers' shouts grew louder and more plaintive, but it seemed to matter little at this point. Soon there would be an obvious loser, and then the other would collapse too.

    He made his way towards them.

    The houndoom's trainer was handing the other trainer a few bills. Chris was close enough to see his scowl. The pidgeot perched atop the fallen houndoom, holding one bloodied wing away from its body but keeping its head high. Its trainer recalled it and she looked up to see Chris approaching.

    "That's an impressive pidgeot."


    "I'd really like to battle you, if that's alright. Do you have any pokemon left?"

    "So polite." She looked Chris up and down. "I have three."

    The other trainer folded his arms.

    "What would you say to one hundred for best two out of three and an extra fifty for a complete knockout?"

    She squinted. "How many badges do you have?"

    "Seven. For now."

    She grinned and reached to shake his hand. "I'd love to double my earnings."

    "Release on three?"

    "Let's go."

    To her credit, she didn't underestimate him. In the first round, her steelix literally drove Pocky, his girafarig, into the ground. Chris felt it too, an echo of pain shooting through his head when his mental connection with Pocky broke.

    Round two was a surprise for them both when Chris released his jolteon and she a raichu. Their preliminary stabs of electricity fazed neither pokemon—shows of dominance if not force—but left Chris's hair standing on end. His opponent tried to leverage the raichu's weight to push Sonic into the lake and pin him underwater. She came close, but Chris hadn't named him Sonic for nothing. The jolteon ran circles around the raichu, getting in a quick bite or pin missile before darting out of reach. Finally, the raichu was too worn down to fight the jolteon off its chest when he pounced.

    For the final round, Chris sent out Sammus, his skarmory, and she a gengar. At the look on her face, Chris knew he had secured his payout. Sammus tore through the gengar's smoggy veil—Chris and his opponent pulled their t-shirts over their mouths—and made quick work of it with a few swipes of her wing blades.

    The houndoom trainer smoked a cigarette beneath a tree and watched the gengar sink in on itself and fall.

    "Wow," said the girl, recalling her fallen pokemon. "I hope that's not a preview of how the Indigo Conference will go for me." But she smiled as she shook his hand.

    "Good match," Chris said.

    The other trainer fiddled with her necklace. "What's your TN handle? I'll tag you."

    "My what?"

    "Your Trainer Network profile?"

    "Oh, I don't really use it." He hadn't realized she'd been filming the fight, but now he saw the glint of a camera lens in the necklace charm she wore. He wished she would've warned him or asked. "It's … not really my thing."

    "To each his own, I guess. You can make decent money as a brand-promoter though, you know. Takes some of the pressure off."

    "I'll keep that in mind," he said, already starting to edge away. He snuck a glance at his Bitflex—surely the hospital's visiting hours were open by now. "I gotta go take care of a few things. Thanks again for the battle."

    Even in daylight, the fluorescent light hurt his eyes. He went to the desk where the gray-haired woman from the night before either still sat or sat again. "Hi, I'm here to visit the girl who came in last night."

    "Of course. You think I'd forget your face that fast?" She typed something and squinted at her screen. "It looks like visitors are allowed, but you'll have to check your belt and pokeballs here. We'll send them across the hall to the pokemon center for you if you like. Don't worry, you'll get them back when you leave."

    "What? Why?"

    "That's the policy for all mental ward patients."

    Chris chewed the inside of his cheek, but he unbuckled his belt and signed the visitor registry. She directed him towards the girl's room. A few moments later, he found the door and tapped on it before he could supply himself with reasons not to.

    "Come in."

    He found the girl sitting up in the hospital cot, frowning at a Reader's Digest. Her hair was a wild cloud of yellow curls, but her face had color again. The golden feather still hung around her neck—Chris wondered if there was a story behind it.

    She looked up at him with bright eyes. "Hello."

    "Hi." He took a few steps. "I uh … I wanted to see how you were doing, make sure you're okay."

    She frowned and tucked a loose curl behind her ear. "I feel healthy. They say I will be allowed to leave soon. But things have been … confusing." Then she smiled up at Chris. "But I would not be here at all if not for you. Will you tell me your name?"

    "I'm Chris."

    "Chris. You saved my life."

    "Oh no, I'm just the guy who called the paramedics. They did the real work."

    She locked eyes with him. "I am in your debt," she said and folded her hands over her heart. "Thank you, truly."

    Chris looked away first. "Anyone would've done the same," he said, ears reddening. He cleared his throat. "Um. What's your name?"

    She paled. "I … do not know."

    He stopped short. "What do you mean you don't know?"

    The girl smiled again, but it was a sad smile. "I fear I cannot remember much from before you found me. They say it is shock. Most likely my memory will return before long. For now, they call me Jane."

    Jane Doe.

    Shock probably explained some of the way she spoke. She didn't have an accent exactly, but there was something strange about it.

    "It must be scary not being able to remember things."

    Jane let out a sigh. "Yes."

    "So you don't know how you got there?"

    She shook her head.

    "Not at all?"

    "The doctor believes I have what he calls teleportation sickness. It would appear I was spirited there, so to speak."

    Chris had never been teleported by a pokemon, but he'd heard that it could be disorienting and even sickening, especially the first few times. "So, it was an accident." He paused. "Or … maybe not an accident."

    Jane shrugged but smiled. "Who can say."

    Someone rapped on the open door frame, and they turned to see a doctor poke his head in. Beneath his lab coat, he wore a shabby sweater—patches on patches. "Hi, Jane. Mind if I come in?"


    "I'm Dr. Stratus, and you must be the kind traveler everyone has been talking about."

    Chris introduced himself and shook the doctor's hand.

    "I was just coming to let Jane know that the emergency services team was able to lend us one of their interns to escort you. So as long as everything is still looking good in the next few hours … we'll have you on your way back to Ecruteak first thing in the morning."

    "Ecruteak?" Chris said.

    "Yes," said Jane. "That much I remember well. I am not sure how I ended away home, I have been told we are not far from there."

    "Not far at all," agreed the doctor.

    "Oh!" Chris set down his backpack and unhooked Jane's rolled up robe and cloak from the top. "I almost forgot. These are yours."

    "Oh, thank you!" Jane accepted the roll and set it on her lap, fiddling with the edge of a sleeve. She looked equally happy and puzzled to have it.

    Dr. Stratus leaned forward. "May I?" He took the robe from Jane and unrolled it partway. "Well if this isn't an emblem of Ecruteak, I don't know what else would be. It's beautiful craftsmanship. Maybe you're involved in historical reenactments, Jane."

    She frowned. "Perhaps."

    "Well." Dr. Stratus refolded the robe and stood straighter. "Having you back where you're meant to be is going to be the best thing for your health, I'd say. You'll be feeling more like yourself very soon, don't worry."

    "Thank you," said Jane.

    Chris said, "I'm glad it sounds like … everything is working out." He smiled, but something still tickled the back of his mind.

    "How would you like to meet him?" said Dr. Stratus.

    Jane started. "What?"

    "Your escort! I thought you might like to touch base before we send you off into the wilderness with him. And I think a bit of fresh air will do you some good. Why don't you get dressed and then we can go outside and say hello. Though, of course, let us know if you feel dizzy or lightheaded at all." He placed a bag on the end of the bed. "One of our nurses gathered these for you. Hopefully the fit is close enough. Meet me in the hallway when you're ready."

    With that, Dr. Stratus ushered Chris into the hall with him and closed the door behind them.

    "So the memory loss," Chris began. "That's not permanent, is it?"

    "The human body is full of surprises … but no, I don't think so. Typically, amnesia and other symptoms of teleportation sickness go away after a few days, especially if the patient is able to return to somewhere familiar. You ever wake up in an unfamiliar place and forget where you are for a second? It's a little like that."

    Chris nodded and tightened his backpack straps. "Well … I guess this will be a good moment to say goodbye. It's a long way to Blackthorn." He would set out from here.

    Dr. Stratus smiled. "I think you've already done more than the average trainer would've. We don't see too many trainers here who don't have a broken arm or yellow fever or what have you, and even then we have to fight to get some of them to slow down long enough to submit to some doctoring."

    "Ha, I can imagine."

    "It's kind of you to stop by. She seems to appreciate it."

    Moments later, Jane stepped into the hall wearing clothes left behind by trainers over the years, a pair of leggings and a long sweater. She could be almost anyone now, except …. There was still something strange about her, maybe the look in her eyes, maybe the way she carried herself. Chris wondered again who she really was.

    "How do you feel? Lightheaded? Any tingling or numbness?"

    "No. None at all."

    "Wonderful! Then follow me."

    Dr. Stratus led them out a side door that led into an outdoor seating area partially enclosed by trees. Chris was surprised to see the trainer from earlier sitting on one of the stone benches practicing sleight of hand tricks with a pokeball, a cigarette tucked behind one ear. His houndoom sat at his side, looking sullen but healthy. The trainer looked up and waved as the group came through the door.

    "Jane, this is Benny, and he—What's the matter?"

    She had gasped loudly, and when Chris turned to look he saw her face had gone white. She pointed a shaking finger. "Why is that beast here?"

    Benny laughed. "Hotshot? He's not gonna hurt you." Seeing the look on the doctor's face, he recalled his pokemon.

    But Jane kept backing away until she was against the wall.

    "What is it, Jane? I know you don't know him yet, but Benny is very responsible. He's escorted people between here and Ecruteak lots of times."

    She shook her head. "I cannot go with him. Forgive me, but I cannot."

    "I have other pokemon," Benny chimed in. "You could meet my furret if you want."

    "No, no, no." Jane spoke to the doctor, not the trainer. "Please, I cannot. Not with him."

    A nurse arrived to check out the commotion, and Dr. Stratus asked her to escort Jane back to the room. "I'm sorry, Benny," he said with a sigh. "Thank you for your time."

    "I don't even get what I did." He rolled a pokeball between his palms.

    "You probably didn't do anything. We don't know what kind of trauma she might have experienced before she came to us—she doesn't remember, so she can't tell us. Anything could be a trigger for her."

    Benny shrugged. "Alright, well let me know if she changes her mind, I guess."

    "We will, thank you."

    With that, he slipped out between the trees.

    Dr. Stratus pinched the bridge of his nose. "That complicates things."

    "Wait," said Chris. "Does that mean she's stuck here?"

    With a wry smile, Dr. Stratus said, "This time of year … it's possible." He motioned for Chris to follow him down the hall. "It's great that the rangers let us borrow their interns for things like this. They have enough of the training, they're available, and they're looking for odd jobs like this. But it's obviously not a perfect system. It's too bad, but it looks like our Jane Doe will have to wait things out here for a while. Maybe she'll remember a relative who might be able to hire a local trainer to come from Ecruteak.

    "Anyway. I imagine you wanted to say your goodbyes and head out, right? I'll pop in and see if she feels up for it."

    Chris chewed his cheek for a minute. "You know … it wouldn't be hard for me to get to Ecruteak from here. I train a lapras, so it would just be a matter of cutting across the lakes."

    Dr. Stratus gave him a long look. "It's not something we would normally allow, but considering the circumstances …. We can't pay you, you know. We're not going through official channels here."

    "Oh, I don't need money. I just hate to see her stuck in a place she wasn't supposed to be …."

    The doctor raised an eyebrow. "Are you sure? Aren't you trying to get to Blackthorn on a deadline?"

    Chris forced the thought away and put on a smile. "It is a little out of my way, but I don't think it would take long. It's the right thing to do." His ears turned red again. "I mean, if she even wants me to take her."

    The doctor smiled knowingly. "Why don't I ask."

    As Dr. Stratus had promised, they left first thing in the morning.

    Last edited:
    3: Bygone
  • WildBoots

    Don’t underestimate seeds.
    1. custom/moka-mark
    2. solrock
    3: Bygone

    "We might be able to see Ecruteak from the top of this hill," Chris called over his shoulder. He paused to flash a smile at Jane Doe.

    Wiping sweat from her brow, she returned the smile, though it was strained. She wore her curls tied back with a scarf and, in spite of Chris's cautioning, she'd also selected a long skirt from the hospital lost and found. To Chris's great surprise, she didn't seem to have trouble with it catching underfoot or snagging on things—the skirt was a natural extension of her body. She also hadn't complained or asked for a break once all morning. All the same, Chris repeatedly checked himself and slowed his pace, and he was going to insist on a break at the top of the hill.

    Bringing up the rear was his sandslash, Tikal. Normally she hiked at Chris's side—she was the first pokemon he had caught in the wild—but she had taken up the defensive position without being asked. Occasionally she paused to investigate an ekans burrow or sharpen her claws on a boulder, but Chris watched her immediately return to Jane's heels again and again with maternal vigilance.

    "Good girl, Tiki," he said under his breath.

    At the top of the rise, Chris unloaded his backpack and stretched while he waited for Jane and Tikal to catch up. He'd guessed right: the Ecruteak City skyline glittered beyond the trees. Bell Tower's tiers were visible even from here. There were few other tall buildings to confuse with it, and even the tallest could hardly be called skyscrapers—Ecruteak was defensive of its traditions. Below them were Lake Mortar and scattered ponds. The water was low from the lack of rain, but they'd still be spending the afternoon with Chris's lapras.

    Behind him, Jane crested the hill with a sigh of either relief or appreciation for the natural beauty. Maybe a bit of both. She drank deeply from her water bottle, the only thing she carried.

    When she finished, Chris pointed and said, "There it is. See it? We'll be in Ecruteak by dinner time."

    Jane frowned. "It looks … strange from here."

    "Yeah, I mean … I guess there's a little bit of a heat mirage. But you'll see it up close soon enough."

    "Yes, I am eager to be home." She tightened the knot in her scarf. "Shall we?"

    "Why don't you sit down for a minute. We should eat something." Chris bent to look through his backpack. "Here—want some jerky?"

    Jane took what Chris handed her and smelled it. She watched, frowning, as Chris tore off a piece for himself and stuffed it into his mouth. "What is it?"

    "Um …." He chewed. "Stantler, I think. You don't usually see tauros in this part of the country."

    She looked aghast. "I cannot eat the flesh of another creature. I know it is disrespectful to reject a gift, but …. What if it were my sister?"

    Chris paused mid-chew. "What do you mean?"

    "Have you not heard it said that the dead return to us in new forms? To guide us, to protect us?"

    "Like reincarnation?"


    "I'm so sorry. I didn't know you … I hope you're not… I have some dried fruit instead?" He took the jerky back from Jane and searched his bag again, red-faced.

    Jane lowered her head as she accepted the bag of trail mix from him. "No, no. Thank you for the offer. I do not wish to be a burden."

    "You're not! I'm sorry I didn't ask."

    "It is no offense. I appreciate you sharing your food."

    They lapsed into silence.

    Nearby, Tikal cleaned between her scales with her long tongue, paying the two of them no mind.

    Chris rubbed a thumb over Hero's pokeball. "It's nice to imagine pokemon as spirits of the dead watching over us. I like that."

    "I am surprised you did not know. I thought it was common knowledge."

    "Maybe it's a thing in Ecruteak—I wouldn't really know," Chris said with a smile. He met her eyes. "You're an interesting person."

    She smiled and looked away. Then she sighed. "I hardly know what sort of person I am at the moment …."

    "Hey, we just learned you're a vegetarian. That's something!"

    "I suppose that is true."

    "So you're remembering some things. Probably, seeing familiar places will jog more memories, like the doctor said."

    "I hope so."

    He gazed down at the distant Bell Tower. "There are a few familiar places I wouldn't mind visiting again, actually. Ecruteak is a nice city. I can see why you're in a hurry to be back."

    "You have been before?"

    "Oh yeah, a few times. It's not far from home. Stayed there for about a month at the beginning of my journey." He turned to flash her a smile. "There was this cafe I used to go to for breakfast. Medialuna Cafe, I think. You know that one?"

    She sat up straight, wide-eyed. "That is my name!"

    He scrambled to find a name in what he'd said. Finally he tried, "Medialuna?" He thought of it as the name of a pastry, but—was she somehow associated with the cafe? Wait, no—"Or, Luna?"

    "No, Una." A slow smile spread across her face, and he could see her posture relax. "My name is Una."

    Oh. That's pretty too, he thought.

    Chris smiled. "Nice to officially meet you, Una."

    Chris held up a hand for Una to stop and he pointed. A wild spearow perched in a nearby tree, close enough that they could see the gold of its eyes. It watched them. After a beat, it took off—Una gasped in delight—and disappeared in pursuit of some prey invisible to them.

    "They're scruffy and mean," Chris said with a grin, "but they're beautiful sometimes too."

    "It is a good omen," she said.

    As they continued down the path, the breeze brought them the smells of the lake: wet earth, algae, and leaf mold. The trees thinned until the travelers came to the rocky lakeshore. To the left, the rocky heights of Mount Mortar cut through the lake at an angle. Water ebbed in and out of cavernous rifts in the rock face, and the echoes of water rushing deep within were audible even from the shore. Straight ahead, Ecruteak City stood out in ever brighter detail. Behind, Chris could barely see the snow-capped peaks of the Dragon's Spine in the hazy distance. He squared himself against the Ecruteak skyline.

    Chris returned Tikal to her pokeball—"See you in a while, Tiki,"—and with no hesitation over which pokeball was which, he released his lapras into the lake. She hadn't fully materialized before she trumpeted joyfully and dove beneath the water. Moments later, the lapras resurfaced, spraying Chris and Una.

    They cried out, and Chris laughed.

    "Alright, alright! Hi to you too," he said."Una, meet Kelsey."

    With some coaxing, Kelsey flipper-crawled partway onto the shore and lowered her head for a pat between the horns.

    Chris removed his hiking boots, strung them from his pack, rolled up his pants, and waded into the shallows. "Come on up," he said extending a hand to Una.

    She stared across the water towards Ecruteak, brow furrowed.

    "You okay?"

    Una flashed a smile. "Yes, fine." Then she eyeballed the lapras towering over them, water lapping at its sides. "We are going to ride her? Is that …?"

    Chris chuckled. "Kelsey doesn't care. She does it all the time, huh, you big ol' dinosaur."

    Kelsey keened and snorted more water at them. Her eyes were beady but sparkled with intelligence.

    "Well … how should I …?"

    "I'll give you a leg up. Here. Put your foot in my hands. You're not gonna hurt me—go ahead. Okay. On the count of three, push up with this foot and grab onto her shell. One … two … three!"

    Una squeaked as Chris boosted her up, but managed to scramble onto Kelsey's back. Once she was settled with a leg on either side of the lapras's muscular neck, Chris found himself some handholds and swung himself up and over to sit sidesaddle between two horns.

    "Alright, Kels, let's go!"

    Kelsey made a cheerful noise that wasn't heard so much as felt all through their bodies. They lurched and wobbled as the lapras clambered out of the sand and rock. Then they were gliding through open water.

    "That wasn't so bad, right? Mostly dry?" Chris leaned back on his pack, letting the sun warm his face. "The very first time I tried to catch a ride on Kelsey, she rolled me. We're on the same page now though."

    Breaking in was how the online articles had recommended Chris handle his newly-caught lapras. But the phrase caught inside him. From their first meeting, he'd noticed the cleverness in her gaze. Shamed though he'd been when she dunked him, he still recognized it as both a challenge and an invitation to play. Those weren't things he had any desire to break. What he offered her instead was quiet, patient companionship, sitting on the bank for hours without saying a word, hair dripping. A love of silence turned out to be the first of many things they shared in common.

    Una turned to face him, a little awkwardly, grabbing a horn for stability. "Thank you again for helping me get home. I am so grateful for all of this."

    "I'm happy to help. It's been nice to have company. Besides, I couldn't just leave you there."

    "I would not have liked to have been there much longer," she agreed. "Everyone was very kind, but … it did not feel right for me. Mahogany Town was much more advanced than I had expected."

    The glib comment took him by surprise. What had she expected, he wondered, mud huts and witch doctors? But, seeing the sincerity in Una's face he said instead, "Well, you mostly saw the hospital."

    "I suppose so. All the same, I feel much more myself since departing. I am sure everything will make sense again once I am home."

    As they floated along they fell into a sleepy daze, lulled by the heat and the lapras's gentle rocking motion. The only sounds were birdsong and the slosh of Kelsey's fins churning the water. Una leaned forward and wrapped her arms around Kelsey's neck, resting her cheek against the scales. Chris sat with one knee tucked to his chest and the other foot trailing in the cool water. He alternated between watching the reflected light rippling on the cliff face and staring up at the clouds. He saw a few that looked like pokemon: a suggestion of a paw, a horn, and—oh, maybe a houndoom.

    His dad's houndoom, Oji, had horns that curled back so far they made almost a perfect circle. Chris and his sister used to hook household objects onto Oji's horns—clothes hangers, coffee mugs, colanders—competing to pile on the weirdest and largest items before Dad noticed and made them stop. Oji bore it with astonishing calm, showing his annoyance only with an occasional eye roll.

    Chris stole a glance at Una and remembered her horrified expression the day before when faced with a houndoom. He'd seen that sort of reaction before—people who had never met a dark-type in person sometimes had misgivings—but never quite like that.

    "Can I ask," Chris finally said to Una, "what was going on with you and that houndoom? Do you remember?"

    Una sat up slowly. "A little. I remember a man telling it to attack. It opened its mouth, and I saw all the teeth and the fire in the back of its throat, and …. Then nothing." She shivered.

    "Not in Mahogany Town?" Chris's first impression of another trainer had been wrong before, but he struggled to imagine the guy with the houndoom going as far as actually attacking someone. You could lose your license for less.

    "I am not certain." Una thought for a moment. "Perhaps not. I remember trees. I must have been in the woods."

    Odd, how easily she said it. Even though he'd first encountered among the trees, Chris had a hard time imagining her in the woods. Not on purpose, anyway. He shook his head.

    He said, "A different houndoom then."

    "Yes, I suppose so."

    "Huh. So you don't remember how you got away?"

    She shook her head.

    "You think that had something to do with how you ended up in the Ice Pass?"

    "It is possible."

    He felt a chill. "Una … do you think you'll be in danger when you get home?"

    "I … I do not know." Without her seeming to notice, her hand flew to the feather that still hung around her neck. "But I hope I will understand more."

    Chris wanted to pledge himself to remain in Ecruteak for a few extra days to keep an eye on things, but he held his tongue. That was a promise he couldn't keep if he still wanted to keep the promises he'd already made to himself. Already he'd lost almost three full days of travel. "I hope so too," he said.

    "Whatever I find in Ecruteak, it is my home. It is where I need to be." She turned to gaze at the skyline, growing closer by the moment. "I have the feeling that there is something important I was meant to be doing there, but I cannot remember what it was …."

    "Don't push yourself. I bet you'll remember with time."

    She smiled, but it was a distant smile. "You are most likely correct." And she turned away to lean against Kelsey's neck again.

    Chris's heart sank. He had been talking to her all day, but he knew scarcely more about her now than when he first saw her in the snow. After today he would likely never see her again, and her mysteries would only be her own-if she even got answers herself. Knowing he had done the right thing would have to be enough.

    They passed the remainder of the journey saying little. Chris didn't want to bother her with more questions, and he was accustomed to solitude and silence anyway. For her part, Una seemed content to be left to her thoughts. Several times they dismounted from Kelsey, recalled her, hiked a little way, and then clambered onto her shell again to cross another pond. The path was rocky but not steep, and they reached Ecruteak's eastern gate without incident.

    Una beamed and made an oh of longing at the sight of it.

    The gate was a simple wooden archway painted a faded orange with two crosspieces. Beyond the archway, a few houses in the traditional style were visible along the tree-lined path. The gate was flanked on either side by fruiting shrubs and a stone statue of a bird, the details blurred and made unrecognizable by centuries of weather and wars. "These are in poor condition …. Strange," Una said. Then, "Oh no. Where is the sage?"


    "Of course," she said, impatience creeping into her voice. "There should be a basket of sage smudges and striking flints hanging from the crossbar so we may purify ourselves before we enter the city."

    "I don't remember seeing anything like that any of the times I came through here." Chris bit his lip.

    "Well, we cannot simply …." Una looked from side to side, fidgeting with her hands.

    "I don't have sage, but …." Chris set down his backpack to procure a pack of matches. "Better than nothing, right?"

    She looked at the matches, frowning. "I …."

    "Right, I guess a lot of folks don't use matches anymore. Here." He took back the pack, struck a match, and carefully passed it back to her.

    Una frowned. "I suppose this will do." She blew out the match and made an X over each of their heads in smoke—"North, south, east, west. Cleanse me with fire. North, south, east, west. Cleanse him with fire."

    The hair on the back of Chris's neck stood on end.

    She folded her hands together over the extinguished match and closed her eyes.

    He waited a long moment and then said, "You ready to head in?"

    She looked up and forced a smile. "Yes. Yes, I suppose we should."

    They crossed the threshold and followed the path among the houses. Una squinted at the mailboxes and gardens they passed.

    "Anything looking familiar?"

    She bit her lip and shook her head. "Not yet …."

    "Why don't we cut through the park? That should bring us closer to the dance hall and the main downtown areas. That should help, right?"

    "Yes, that is a good idea," she said, not looking sure.

    He led the way as they cut towards a park on the left. They crossed a stone footbridge over a creek. Small lanterns hung from the trees, but they hadn't been lit yet. They passed an old woman seated on a bench with an eevee beside her. She laughed at something on her tablet screen, and the gibbering of young children chimed from the speakers. Chris dipped his head to her in greeting, and she returned the gesture.

    Una lagged behind, staring and frowning deeply.

    Chris paused for Una to catch up. "Is something wrong?"

    "I am … uncertain."

    "What do you want to do? Do you want to keep going?"

    After a moment, Una stood straighter and said, "I wish to see the center square."

    "Okay." Chris looked into Una's face for a long moment before turning and continuing on.

    She trailed after.

    They passed a picnicking family, people taking pet pokemon for walks, and a band of teenagers on bicycles—Una squeaked as they flew past. "Do you hear that?" she said.

    He stopped and cocked his head. "I think it's just traffic."

    Glimpses of concrete and buildings began to show between the trees. The dirt path disappeared, replaced by sidewalk. Chris led them to the edge of the park where it met a narrow street buzzing with cars and bikes. Across the way, lights glittered from the shingled awnings above shops and vending machines. From here the elaborately carved roof of the dance theater was visible, but it was many blocks ahead. Turning one way, Chris caught the scent of meat on a charcoal grill. Turning the other, he smelled gardenias and the chlorine in the sprinkler system. He turned to ask Una which way she wanted to go, but he stopped when he saw the look on her face.

    "This is all wrong," she said, hugging herself. She flinched as a car passed. "This is not Ecruteak."

    Chris laughed nervously. "Yes, it is. Look, you can see Bell Tower from here." He pointed northwest to the distant pagoda tiers.

    Una furrowed her brow and shook her head. Then her eyes suddenly went wide. "What happened to the other one?"


    She shot him an earnest, pained look. "Chris, something terrible must have happened. Where is Brass Tower?"

    Goosebumps broke out along Chris's arms. "There is no other tower. Or I guess there was, but it burned down hundreds of years ago. More than once, I think."

    "Burned down?" She started to pace and wring her hands. "How could it have burned down? That makes no sense!"

    Passersby shot them odd looks as her voice grew louder. "Maybe we should sit down?" He steered her to a stone bench under the shade of a tree. He said softly, "I think maybe your memory is still mixed up."

    Her eyes blazed. "No. I know I remember two towers." She closed her eyes and breathed deeply. "I helped polish the floors. It was always warm inside, even in winter … I know I remember it. We have to go there and find out what happened."

    Chris bit his cheek. "There's a historical marker and a museum where the tower used to be …. Do you want to see that?"

    She snapped to attention. "Yes. Please, let us go there."

    "It's kind of far from here. We'd have to take a bus."

    "Show me."

    Stomach knotted with dread, Chris used his Bitflex to navigate to the nearest bus stop, coaxing Una along. She clamped onto his backpack with a white-knuckled grip, gawking at the cars and lights. A fire engine screamed past and Una froze in the middle of the crosswalk to cover her ears until Chris pulled her forward.

    At last, he herded her onto the bus—she covered her nose and mouth at the diesel smell—and swiped his OneCard for the both of them.

    Once seated, she squeezed her eyes shut, one hand to the feather around her neck and chanted under her breath, "As the sun rises in the east, as the sun sets in the sea. As the sun rises in the east, as the sun sets in the sea …." Both hands flew out to brace her each time the bus braked or made a sudden turn.

    Chris watched the streets whiz past as they made their way to the northeast corner of the city. His shirt was damp with sweat. He didn't know what the next step should be—he wasn't good at this kind of thing. Bringing her here by himself was a mistake.

    When they finally disembarked, she staggered to a nearby wall and sighed as she leaned into it.

    "Was that your first time riding a bus?"

    She nodded miserably.

    "Well … we're almost there."

    This part of town was quieter: less foot traffic, fewer shops, no cars. Flowering trees lined the cobblestone streets. Chris chewed at the inside of his cheek and glanced nervously at Una as they crossed the few blocks in between and approached the ruins site.

    Ahead was the Ecruteak History Museum, minimalist and gray. Beyond that were the ruins. Four pillars stood alone beside a man-made pond studded with lotuses. The water's surface reflected the roofs and windows of the houses that looked down from the surrounding hills. Between the pillars, a block of tempered glass was set into the earth, displaying an arrangement of blackened tiles.

    Una froze and stared for a moment before rushing ahead. She knelt and put her hands to the glass. "No, no, no, no …."

    Chris hung back. He shrugged off his backpack beside a plaque and bent to look closer. There was a labeled illustration of the original tower design paired against a black and white photo of the half-crumbling, fire damaged tower.

    The Brass Tower was built during the Itun period (1300 A.D.) to honor a mythical bird pokemon. It burned down mysteriously in 1519, possibly due to a lightning strike. The tower was later reconstructed but burned down a second time during the Third Wave Tohjo wars (1589-1599). In 1950, the tower was set on fire for a third time by an unknown arsonist, and it was never rebuilt. The ruins were demolished in 1983 during the development of the Grand Hyatt Ecruteak Hotel. Remaining tiles and replicas of the original pillars were relocated to this historic monument site in 1985.

    He glanced up to see Una circling one of the pillars, tracing the carvings. When she caught his gaze, he shuddered involuntarily. He moved to join her, hands in his pockets.

    "I do not understand," she said with mournful eyes. "This is Brass Tower, but … I was here mere days ago. I was given robes in this room."

    "What if …." Chris tried to swallow but his mouth was dry. He spoke in a voice barely above a whisper. "Una, do you think it's possible that you lived here … five hundred years ago?"

    It sounded impossible. But it felt true.

    She clutched the feather around her neck. "How could that be?"

    "I don't know. It sounds crazy, but maybe it's not. I mean, that would be more than just teleportation. Then again, pokemon can do lots of things we barely understand …."

    "Five hundred years …." She put a hand on the pillar to steady herself. Her voice trembled. "But that would mean … my parents. The priests. My friends… Everyone is gone."

    Chris bit his lip.

    Una closed her eyes and was silent for a long moment. "This is entirely wrong."

    "I'm sorry."

    She covered her face with one hand. "Give me a moment. Please."

    Chris cleared his throat. "Sure." He turned to gather up his backpack and glanced over his shoulder. Una leaned against the pillar, face buried in the crook of her arm, shoulders shaking soundlessly. He walked quickly around the corner.

    A few blocks away, he found a QuickMart. He passed the displays of key chains and postcards and found the self-serve coffee station. He started for a small cup but changed his mind and opted for a large one. He gathered up a few more snacks—no jerky—before slowly making his way back to the burned tower memorial site.

    He found Una sitting on a bench facing away from the site, knees drawn to her chest. Her face was splotchy red. "The gods have gone," she said. "They could not possibly linger in this place. This is not my home."

    Chris hesitated a moment and then sat beside her, offering her the styrofoam cup.

    She shook her head.

    They sat without speaking. Chris alternated between sipping coffee and breaking off pieces of the wooden stirring stick until he was left with a handful of splinters.

    Finally Una said, "Where will you go now?"

    Chris let the splinters fall to the grass. "I was on my way to Blackthorn City," he said, staring into the distance. He couldn't see the mountains from here. "Then, if I can get there in time, I'll go to the Indigo Plateau in Kanto. I'm not sure if I'll be able to make it, but I gotta try."

    "Can I come with you?"

    He snapped his head around to look at her and made several sounds that were not words. After a moment he managed to choke out, "It's dangerous where I'm going!"

    She said nothing.

    "For one thing, you'd have to buy all new gear. A good coat alone is gonna be—gods—at least one fifty, probably more. A backpack is probably—what am I saying. There's no point. It's not possible." He sighed and raked a hand through his hair. "Maybe … you could stay and work with the museum? Or maybe the dance hall? I bet I could get you a place to stay with one of them …."


    He looked down to avoid her gaze.

    "Please, I cannot bear to stay here. Everything here is so loud and strange. I do not know where to go or how to navigate these streets. And I cannot suffer another …bus. Let me come with you, at least until I can sort out—" Her breath caught. "Until I can sort out …."

    Chris grimaced but still said nothing.

    "I will find a way to be helpful to you."

    "Listen, I'm sorry, but the bottom line is I can't afford to take you with me. I'm out of time, and neither of us has the money it would take to prepare you for this kind of journey. I wish I could—really—but I don't have more help to offer you. I'm sorry."

    She was quiet for a moment. "What if we had more money?"

    "I dunno, Una. It would take a lot more than I have. I don't even know where we could find that type of money in a short amount of time. And I'm already behind schedule."

    "Where are my robes?"

    Chris had bundled them up in his pack for her. He handed her the roll of fabric.

    "How could I have forgotten?" She unrolled the cloth and spread it across her lap, running a finger along the embroidered patterns. She spoke slowly, as if remembering as she went. "This was to be my bridal gown, so to speak. My family could not afford a traditional dowry, especially after Suki fell ill with fever. So my father planned to apprentice a village boy, and I was to serve under the priests and be a bride to the gods instead."

    Chris could only listen, dumbfounded.

    "You see—here is the tower surrounded by trees in bloom. And here, on the other side, is Tin Tower. Two towers, two gods. One for sunrise, one for sunset. One for sun, one for rain. One to nurture all that gives us life and one to destroy our enemies. All the rest represents their gifts to us.

    "I was meant to offer my own gifts to them …. Of all the colors in the rainbow, the priests said they saw blue in me. Blue for water, blue for peaceful skies." She smiled wryly. "Perhaps blue because I cry so easily.

    "I went to the woods—my bridal chamber—to fast, pray, and wait for a sign that I was ready for the vocation. But then I was attacked, and …." She sighed. "I cannot remember what happened next. But I know all this to be true." She looked up and searched his face like a drowning girl looking for a hand to grab onto.

    There was no mistaking the conviction in her voice, growing stronger with each word—she wasn't inventing things, and she didn't sound crazy. Even though it absolutely was crazy.

    "I believe you," said Chris.

    "This is some of the finest embroidery Sister Talia has done." She closed her eyes. "If what you say is true and these robes are from another time … from five hundred years ago … then perhaps they will be valuable to someone else now."

    Chris stammered, "Are you sure? Don't you want to keep it?"

    She frowned and squeezed the fabric in her hands. "The gods have gone from here," she said again. Una folded the robe and cloak into a neat stack. "If this is what must be done, then so be it. But I cannot stay here."

    "I wouldn't even know where to begin to try to sell something like this." His gaze slid to the long, concrete building ahead of them. "I guess we could see if someone at the museum has ideas …. There's no guarantee we'll find anything helpful, though. It might not be worth anything."

    "We have to try."

    Chris didn't have any other ideas, so he shouldered his bag, poured out the rest of the coffee, and then they headed into the museum. Inside was all sharp lines and soft light. Chris was immediately aware of the dirt on his boots. Even as he approached the admissions kiosk, he felt his face redden.

    For her part, the greeter either genuinely was not bothered by his appearance or did a good job hiding it. "Good afternoon and welcome to the Ecruteak History Museum. Is this your first visit with us?"

    "It is …."

    "Wonderful. So will that be two tickets?"

    "Uh actually …. I'm sorry, I know this is a weird request, but I was actually hoping I might be able to show these items to someone. If it's convenient. They're, um, antique."

    The receptionist squinted. "I can see if Dr. Lamia is available. What kind of items did you want her to look at?"

    "It's an embroidered robe. A bridal gown. Possibly."

    He saw the doubt in her face. "Let me go find out." She rose and went to a wall phone. Chris watched her but couldn't hear what was said from where he stood. Moments later she returned and said, "You're in luck. Normally our curators don't take drop-ins, but she has a free moment. She'll be right out if you wanted to take a seat while you wait."

    They settled into a corner near the entrance.

    Shortly after, they were approached by a woman wearing a cardigan and latex gloves. She pulled one off to shake their hands. "I'm Dr. Ann Lamia. You have a costume—a garment— you wanted to show me? Let's see it."

    Una's head hung down as she passed the folded stack of cloth to Chris, quiet as a ghost.

    He unrolled the robe, careful not to let it touch the floor.

    Dr. Lamia sucked in a breath. She pulled a small black light from a pocket and swept it over the robe as she fingered the decorations, turning a sleeve over in her gloved hand. "The details in this piece are definitely intriguing."

    Chris felt a swelling in his heart in spite of himself. That was a better reaction than he'd dare to hope for.

    "This is a good replica. Looks like there are some grass stains …. Is there a story behind how this robe came to you?"

    Una spoke up then. "Replica?"

    "Uh …." Chris shot a warning look at Una, who gave him a stern look in return. "Una found it … in her family's attic. Family heirloom."

    Una's mouth was a hard, flat line.

    "Was there another piece?"

    Chris opened the cloak, and they repeated the process.

    After a few moments of fussing and humming in fascination, Dr. Lamia stood straighter. She looked like she was resisting a smile. "The robe is definitely an interesting piece. I'd love to take some photos and have you leave your contact information with Marybeth in case we decide your garments fit into our board's acquisition plan."

    His heart sank. "Oh. Well, you see …. I'm a trainer, and I …." He stole another glance at Una, heart deflating further. "We were hoping to leave for Blackthorn City tonight. Or, I guess, maybe tomorrow."

    Dr. Lamia frowned. "That's too bad …. This isn't official yet, but—" a conspiratorial smile crept across her face and she leaned forward to speak in low tones, "—we're planning for an exhibit on folk religion, and these pieces could pair well with a few costumes from our permanent collection that we're considering …. Darn it." She laced her fingers together and brought them up to her mouth.

    Chris waited.

    "You know what." Dr. Lamia brightened, reaching into her pocket. "I probably shouldn't, but I really like these pieces for the spring exhibit. If you're in a time crunch I've got … two hundred in cash."

    Chris couldn't help wincing as he and Una exchanged glances. He opened his mouth to speak, but Una beat him to it.

    "That is not much, is it," Una said quietly. She saw the answer in his face and turned to address Dr. Lamia ina low, dangerous voice. "The woman who made this is dead. I wonder if there is anyone left alive who remembers her. Perhaps these few stitches are all that remains of her legacy."

    "Una." Chris had the sensation of standing on a narrow ledge over an abyss. He felt powerless to stop her from stepping over the edge of it.

    She ignored him. "I should be excommunicated for even considering selling this robe to you—and indeed, I may as well have been! Yet you want to take it for almost nothing."

    Dr. Lamia looked alarmed. She looked back and forth between Chris and Una as if seeing them for the first time.

    Chris blurted, "I'm sorry, she's—" But there was no way to finish that sentence. He knew she wasn't crazy.

    He saw Dr. Lamia's expression shift into something softer, pained, perhaps guessing at what he was going to say.

    Beside him, Una's head drooped, all the fire gone out of her at once.

    Chris bit his cheek, then started again. "You said you had other pieces. Would it be possible just to check? To, uh, compare it to what you already have?" He felt himself scrabbling. "I'm so sorry to impose. It's just … We thought—we were told it was a valuable item and …." He glanced at Una, the heartbreak so clear in her face. "It has a lot of sentimental value. It would mean a lot to us."

    "Ma'am?" The three of them turned to look at the desk attendant. "Do you want me to call …?"

    Dr. Lamia took a deep breath. "No, no, it's alright, Marybeth." She put on a smile, and it was full of pity. "I can see that it's important to you. I suppose I …. Well, it's not often I get the chance to show off some of these pieces, right? Do you have a little time to visit the archives with me?"

    "Um. Sure."

    "Well then. Let's take a look."

    She led them past glass cases of arrowheads, painted vases, brush and ink drawings, and a wall of masks. Along one wall was a door marked "Employees Only." Glancing around guiltily, she unlocked it and ushered them through. They found themselves in a dimly lit corridor. As Chris's eyes adjusted he saw shelves stacked with boxes all along the walls on each side. He caught snatches of a few of the labels as they passed: coat (winter, embroidered), coat (farmer), dusting cloths, futon cover (hemp), mosquito netting.

    "Here," said Dr. Lamia, pulling a coffin-sized box from the shelf and setting it on a nearby table. She lifted the lid and parted a layer of tissue paper to reveal the faded red bell sleeve of a robe, and in the layer below another in gold.

    Una gasped. She reached to touch but caught herself and held back.

    Chris was tempted to feel that ancient fabric too. There was no doubt in his mind now, looking at those red and gold robes, each matching the one Una had worn.

    Like Una's, both robes in the storage box were decorated in a brocade of diamonds filled with intricate scenes, though the threads on these were frayed and some places had been worn bare. "These remind me of your costume, though yours is in astonishingly good shape, especially the color. Indigo infamously fades over the years. Though the stitch work is impressive. It's actually very similar to what we see in pieces from earlier centuries …. Very unusual."

    "Inside the left-hand sleeve," said Una.

    "Excuse me?"

    "Sister Talia's signature. She always stitched a maple leaf inside the left sleeve."

    For a moment Dr. Lamia only stared. Then, begrudgingly, she turned out the sleeve of Una's robe. Just as Una said, there was a maple leaf done in perfect blue stitches, invisible from the outside. Chris held his breath as she reached to check the red robe.

    The lines were faded and missing stitches … but it was there. Same leaf, same place.

    Dr. Lamia was visibly shaken. She looked at Una as if seeing a ghost. With quivering hands, she searched the yellow robes and found the same maple leaf in the left sleeve. "Where did you really get this?" she finally said.

    "Does it matter?" Chris cut in, not trusting what Una might say. "That means something, doesn't it?"

    "Oh, I wish I hadn't lent Gregory my xatu …." Dr. Lamia patted her waist for a pokeball that wasn't there and let out a moan. "Crates would know for sure …."

    Chris looked to Una as Dr. Lamia whispered curses to herself under her breath.

    Finally, Dr. Lamia burst out, "Fine, fine. I'll handle the fallout later. Or I'll call it a donation from my personal collection and write it off for tax purposes. Whatever. What do you want for it?

    "Oh!" Chris hurriedly calculated: coat, sleeping bag, boots, backpack—"We were hoping for about a thousand. If that seems possible."

    He sensed her making calculations of her own. "I can commit to eight hundred if you'll take credit on your OneCard." She cleared her throat and collected herself. "That's the best I can do."

    Chris let out a breath. "Okay." Then he turned to Una. Her face was still, but she held the edge of the blue robe, running a thumb over the stitches. He addressed her softly. "Are you sure this is what you want? It's your choice."

    She squeezed the fabric … then let go. "Yes."

    Later, outside the museum, they returned to the bench.

    "So. Is it enough?"

    Chris took a deep breath. "Yeah, this could maybe do it, but …. I don't know that you'd like the kind of traveling I'm doing. You could still use this money to get yourself set up in an apartment until you can find a job … something for now, at least? This could be an opportunity to start over."

    "I cannot stay here."

    Chris nodded. That was the answer he had expected. "It's gonna be hard. It won't be like this morning's hike."

    "I am not as unfamiliar with wilderness as you may think." She flashed a small smile, but a smile nevertheless. "I think you will find me capable enough. I will not be a burden."

    Chris bit his lip. "This is a huge risk …." Internally, he counted off ways one or both of them could be hurt, ways he could be set back even further. In normal circumstances, she would've started training for the Ice Pass weeks ago.

    But he looked into her face, and something in him crumbled. "Alright. Let's go spend some money before I start thinking about what a bad idea this is."

    Last edited:
    4: Visitations
  • WildBoots

    Don’t underestimate seeds.
    1. custom/moka-mark
    2. solrock
    4: Visitations

    That evening, Chris found a budget spaghetti joint where they could eat in relative quiet while he figured out their next step. Despite the new credits loaded on his OneCard, he was reluctant to pay for a hostel. As summer festivals and the Indigo Conference drew closer, any bunk would be pricey, and they'd need every cent to provision Una for the road. Making camp in the dark was also not appealing, especially when she didn't have any gear yet. Finally, Chris accepted there was no other choice but to call the one friend he made during his three weeks stay in Ecruteak all those months ago, and to hope they were still friends.

    Miki's apartment was small and simple but it was also in the middle of Old City with a view of the dance hall, as well as a sofa for Una to sleep on and room on the floor for Chris to lay out his sleeping bag. "I wish I knew how to repay you for your generosity, Miki," he said.

    "Don't be ridiculous. It's the least I can do." Somehow elegant even in her jeans and house slippers, she set a tea tray on the coffee table.

    Una smiled at the sight of the clay tea bowls. "I have been longing for a proper cup of tea. I had begun to fear the traditional ways were gone completely."

    "Goodness no. This tea set belonged to my grandmother and her grandmother before that." She knelt on a floor cushion beside Chris. "Is this your first time in Ecruteak, Una?"

    She looked down, tucking her curls behind her ears. "Yes."

    Miki said, "Oh you'll love it here if you're interested in history and tradition. Chris, you'll have to bring her by the dance hall tomorrow. I'll be working, but I can make sure someone will be around to let you in and show you the original tea room and some of the ink paintings, at least."

    "Thank you, Miki," he said, "but we're only in town for tonight. I'm racing the clock to get to the Indigo Plateau, unfortunately."

    "Hm." Miki smiled wryly, leaning her chin in her hand. Her girlish bob and speaking style made it difficult to judge her age. Some moments she seemed just this side of adulthood and others, like now, she seemed much older. "You never stand still."

    Chris smiled nervously. "I guess not."

    "So tell me," Miki said, saving him from having to figure out how to change the subject, "do you still have that eevee I gave you?"

    Miki's small talk was an art form. She flitted from one topic to another, guiding them past awkward silences and heaviness as if it were easy to do. Why had Chris expected anything less from her? After all, she was trained not just for grace on stage but also in conversation. All the same, he knew her well enough to be aware of the way she evaded his gaze, her careful posture, her questioning glances at Una.

    When she retired to her bedroom at last, Chris was relieved.

    Even as he nestled into his sleeping bag and arranged a few floor cushions under his head, Chris knew he was going to have a hard time falling asleep, and not only because of the sounds of traffic outside. Incense, floor polish, and something delicate and floral permeated the apartment, smells Chris had associated with the dance hall but now realized were the smells of Miki's life more generally. Those smells brought him back to the hours he'd spent standing outside her dressing room with his pokemon at his feet, trying to look tough as he glanced anxiously up and down the hallway, one arm in a sling. Dancers he didn't know giggling at him from behind their fans. Knowing he looked young and foolish to them and still so eager to prove himself.

    In the dark, he heard Una rustling and knew she was having trouble sleeping too. The knowledge made him feel both less and more alone.

    A bus passed on the street below, and Una said softly, "So much has changed. So many strange sounds. At least a few familiar things remain. It was kind of Miki to give us a place to stay."

    Chris made a noise of agreement.

    "I like her."

    "Yeah, she's nice."

    He heard her roll over. "How do you know each other?"

    Chris folded his hands under his head and stared up at the ceiling. "I helped her out once. There was this guy …." A self-described fan, Miki had explained after. The man had been writing her letters for months, but his increasingly desperate ramblings had gotten lost in the tides of dance hall fan mail. Finally, he had decided to take action one night when she was walking home from a show. "I didn't know what I was doing—I'd only been away from home for a couple weeks—but I stepped in."

    "What did you do?"

    Chris blushed, glad for the cover of darkness. "I dunno. I tackled him. Stupid."

    Una propped herself up on one elbow and gazed down at him. "How so?"

    "Well, not stupid, I guess." After all, what else was he supposed to do, let it happen? "Reckless. The gym here has trap doors—ghost-types—and I had a rough time of it the first run through. Sprained my wrist and dislocated my shoulder. Tackling that guy made it worse. I couldn't train or even travel for three weeks after. So Miki paid me for a while to walk her home from the dance hall, keep an eye on the door, that kind of thing. Honestly, she was a better trainer than I was at the time, but I think she felt bad."

    Miki's eyes on him under the streetlight. Maybe I like your company.

    "You were brave."

    "I guess so."

    But he wasn't. He knew why she invited him out for ramen with her after practices and performances, though he pretended not to know. Technically, there was nothing wrong with sharing a meal with a friend. But each time she asked, each time he said yes, it was harder to imagine telling her no. He hadn't known what to say—still didn't.

    Una's voice cut into his thoughts, "She seemed a little sad."

    "Yeah." He sighed. "Hey … I'm starting to drift off."

    "Of course." The sofa creaked as she settled back onto the cushions. "Goodnight, Chris."


    After a while, he heard Una's breath deepen and slow, and still he lay looking up at the ceiling.

    Early the next morning, they left a thank you note on the coffee table and made their way to a secondhand trainer supply shop in a part of town with palm readers and tattoo parlors on nearly every block.

    Chris led Una to the women's clothing racks. "I'm gonna look for a sleeping bag. Why don't you find a couple shirts and a good pair of pants. You want merino wool, not cotton or synthetic, if you can help it." She threw him a panicked look, and he took a step back. "I'll be right back. Just see what you can find."

    Passing between cities had given Chris plenty of experience trading in his out-of-season equipment and digging through bargain bins for other trainers' discards. As often as not, he'd found almost new equipment sold off by former trainers who'd realized early in their journeys they didn't have what it takes to make it on the road. Most trainers ended their careers that way.

    With little searching, Chris found a zero degree sleeping bag. The shop didn't carry any liners, but he hoped that the down bag would make up the difference—it was nicer than his own sleeping bag. The coat and the backpack were more troublesome. Even secondhand, there was nothing inexpensive of acceptable quality. Combined, the coat and the backpack took up half the money from the museum. The boots were nearly another quarter of it. But there was nothing to do about it. They were important.

    He tracked down Una again and had her try the coat, boots, and pack on for size.

    "It feels correct," she said, looking less than certain.

    Chris remembered her stubborn stoicism on the hike into Ecruteak and realized she wouldn't admit it if the fit was wrong. "Where does it feel like the weight is hitting?"

    He had her try another. After some tugging and adjusting of straps, Chris decided he was as satisfied with it as he'd ever be.

    Then he glanced down and saw Una had several skirts draped over her arm. "Um. I don't think you'll need those. For the kind of hike we have coming up, you really need something more like these." He pulled a pair of ski pants off the rack.

    She flinched. "But that is men's clothing."

    He took a breath and said as kindly as he could, "Not anymore. Look at her." He pointed her towards a girl in rolled-up pants who was reordering a clothing rack nearby. When Una still looked unconvinced, he added, "I'm sorry, but it's about health and safety. If you want to go where I'm going, this is how it needs to be."

    Una furrowed her brow but accepted the hanger from him. "I will trust you."

    He steered her towards a dressing room. As she walked away, Chris rubbed his face and let out a long breath. "You agreed to this," he said under his breath. "You're responsible now."

    It took longer than he would've liked, but they finally gathered up their haul and paid. They came away with the sleeping bag, a sleeping pad, the boots, the backpack, the coat, two FlashDry shirts, and the pants. To his surprise, the idea of wearing the same clothes over and over didn't seem to faze Una in the least—then again, maybe that was what she was used to. He couldn't imagine what life must've been like five hundred years ago.

    After stocking up on a few other small supplies, the museum money was done.

    For their RediMeal rations (veggie and soy protein for Una), they had to dip into Chris's existing funds. He chewed on the inside of his cheek as he handed over his OneCard, but tried to reassure himself that he would've spent the money on food eventually anyway.

    But there was still the problem of the tent.

    The secondhand store had several in stock, but each was more than what they could afford. He had hoped to at least trade in his two-person tent for a three-person—normally Hero slept next to him, six feet and several inches of energy-efficient heating—but he simply didn't have enough for the upgrade, let alone to buy Una her own tent. He hoped Hero wouldn't be too put out.

    When he broke the news to Una, he felt a grim satisfaction at the way she blanched and glanced around to see if anyone else in the shop had overheard. "But that would be… Would it not be considered improper?"

    Chris thought of the brief period he'd traveled with a group of high school friends, including one girl named Tara who'd thought nothing of air-drying her bras and underwear in camp or skinny dipping in the river. The others had made fun of him for blushing over it. To Una he said, "Most people wouldn't make a big deal about it."

    After a long moment, she said, "I suppose the ideas of a woman's virtue and modesty have gone the way of women's dress." She seemed to collect herself and then said, "I will do whatever you say is best, Chris. There may yet be answers somewhere out there for what has happened to me and to my home, and if there are I would like to find them. Whatever else happens, I cannot stay here."

    And that was that.

    The hike out of Ecruteak was harder than the hike in, both because Una was carrying weight now and because they were slowly but surely climbing uphill. Not long after they crossed the first lake, she started to lag behind, and Chris stopped to wait for her and Tikal the sandslash to catch up. He didn't have to badger her into resting this time. She still didn't utter a single complaint, but she leaned against a tree trunk, breathing hard. Tikal butted her head against her leg—encouragement, Chris decided.

    "I apologize for my slowness," she said after a moment, fidgeting with her shoulder straps.

    "No, Una, it's okay." He sighed. "Here, let me take a look at your pack and see if I can take on a bit more weight for you."

    She stood and tugged the backpack higher onto her shoulders. "No, I will carry it. You are already carrying so much more than I am." It was true—Chris had not only the tent but also an assortment of pokemon food, medicines, and other training gear. "I will strive to keep up."

    "I don't want you to strain yourself either. I'm used to carrying all of this."

    There came a piercing trill from behind them.

    Tikal rose up on her hind legs and froze.

    Chris swiveled until he found the yellow eyes of a massive noctowl staring down at them from a nearby tree. The branch bent under her weight. She preened, but her eyes never left them.

    "What a big noctowl. I have never seen one during the day." She shot Chris a worried look. "Do you think it is an omen?"

    He smiled and said, "It's just another trainer." He pointed out the tie-dyed band around one of her legs.

    Moments later they heard the trainer's footsteps approaching downhill, and then he appeared from around the bend, lanky with long hair and a bandana. "What did you find, M.J.?" he called to his pokemon. Then he caught sight of Chris and Una and sauntered over. "Hey, strangers! How are you enjoying this beautiful afternoon?"

    "Hey. Coming from Mahogany?" This time of year, few trainers traveled west from Mahogany Town unless they were circumnavigating the Ice Pass, taking the longer but safer route up the foothills outside Violet City. (Chris himself was an exception, he supposed.)

    "Yup. Making a quick trip home before I head to Olivine. I'm working on my cousin's farm to earn a little extra cash through League season."

    "I grew up in Olivine. Who's your cousin?" Chris asked, and immediately regretted it.

    "Right on. You know Josh Bloom?"

    "Oh. No, I don't." Chris shooed away his sandslash, who had crouched between him and the trainer, spines angled in the noctowl's direction. Tikal slunk away, still glaring at the noctowl, and moved to guard Una instead. "So, no Indigo Conference for you, huh?"

    "Nah, I'm not gonna try to force it this late in the season. Maybe next year. For now, I might as well enjoy myself, right, M.J.?" His noctowl had closed its eyes and seemed to be napping. "You're not still going for it, are you?"

    "Yeah. I am." Chris squared his shoulders.

    "Good for you. Best of luck, man." The noctowl trainer's smile had a touch of pity in it. "Guess you don't have time for a quick battle then, huh?"

    Chris stole a quick glance at Una, who paused rubbing Tikal's ears and blinked at him in good-humored puzzlement. He slid out of his backpack. "Actually, I think a quick battle is exactly what I need right now. Let's take a break, Una."

    "Cool," said the trainer, recalling his noctowl. "One on one, or …?"

    "Sounds great."

    "How much do you want to put on it?"

    His mind still on this morning's shopping excursion, Chris didn't have to think long. "Is fifty okay?"


    Chris recalled Tikal. Then he and the other trainer shook hands, eyes locked, searching each other for clues to weaknesses. The hair on the back of Chris's neck prickled, and he smiled.

    Una trailed behind as Chris retreated a few yards. "What are we doing?"

    "With a little luck, winning back some of that backpack money." He chose a pokeball from his belt and watched the other trainer do the same. "On three?" he called.

    The trainer nodded.

    "One … two … three—"

    "Let's go, Magic!"

    "Come on, Hero!"

    The typhlosion burst out with a fiery display and a roar. Across the way, the other trainer's parasect clacked its claws. Hero glanced over his shoulder and flashed Chris a lazy smile.

    Chris grinned back."Give it some heat, Hero!"

    The other trainer smirked. "Dust it."

    The parasect shook itself from side to side, layers of its mushroom shell jiggling. Black dust showered from its sides, and there was a chemical odor. A spurt of flames hit the parasect head-on, and it squealed, momentarily stunned. But black particles already filled the air.

    Hero inhaled to prepare another fireball—but choked. He coughed sparks and dropped to all fours.

    "Chris," Una said behind him.

    "I know," he said. "Push through, Hero. Flame charge it!"

    The typhlosion growled and coughed but flared the flames around its neck. The parasect tried to scuttle out of the way, but it was much too slow. When they collided, the smell of burnt plastic filled the air.


    "Again, Hero! You got this!"

    "Hang on, Magic! Leech seed."

    As Hero swung its head, trying to roll the parasect onto its back, white tendrils shot out from the shadowy underside of the mushroom cap and lassoed Hero's legs. The two tangled together and fell, stirring up more black dust. Hero growled, and smoke filled the air.

    Suddenly, Una was pulling Chris's arm, the shock of it unbalancing him. "Chris, stop! Why are you doing this?"

    "What are you talking about?" He yanked free and turned back to the battle to see Hero also trying to free himself.

    The other trainer, taking no heed of the spat on the opposite side of the field, called, "Slash! Go for the throat!"

    "They are hurting each other!"

    "I know, Una!"

    Hero bellowed. The parasect's claws scrabbled in the dirt.

    "And Hero's going to get hurt more if you don't let me concentrate—"

    "Then call Hero back!" Una grabbed his arm again and spun him to look at her. "End this. Please."

    "Let go!"



    Chris recalled Hero into his pokeball, leaving the parasect to thud to the ground, and turned his back towards Una.

    The other trainer blurted, "That's it? You quit?"

    "Yeah. I quit," Chris said. "Sorry."

    "Too bad." The trainer recalled his parasect with a nervous laugh. "I thought I was about to see Magic beat a fire-type."

    Chris closed the distance between them. "Here's your winnings," he said, holding out a few bills. When the other trainer didn't take it, he insisted, "I yielded, so you won. Take it."

    "Cool. Thanks for being cool, man. I hope you make it to the Indigo Plateau and all."


    "Well … good luck!" The trainer put his backpack on again and cast Chris and Una one last nervous smile before waving and continuing down the path out of sight.

    Chris took a deep breath. "So what was that?"

    "I thought you were a good person," said Una. She looked away, hand over her mouth.

    "I don't understand what you're upset about."

    She spun on him, eyes ablaze. "They are sacred!" She was shaking, fists at her sides. "They are the voices of the wind and the water and the trees and the earth itself, our guardians and protectors, the souls of our ancestors—and you use them for sport!"

    He held up his hands. "I promise, Hero's fine. Pokemon heal faster than we do. It's not as serious as you're making it out to be."

    "You cannot treat the spirits like playthings!"

    Chris clenched his jaw. "I don't think of them as playthings. They're … partners. They like the competition as much as I do. They listen to me because they trust me."

    "And if Hero wished to stop fighting, would he be free to do so?"

    A snappy answer didn't come to Chris fast enough.

    "I need to be alone," Una said. She turned and slipped between the trees, leaving Chris standing alone on the trail with his mouth open.

    After a moment, Chris dragged his backpack to a nearby boulder, took a seat, and began unpacking his pokemon medicine kit. Once he had laid everything he needed out on a flat surface, he let Hero back out of his pokeball.

    Hero came out swinging and snarling and coughing smoke.

    "Hey, hey, easy. The fight's over, buddy."

    The typhlosion focused his gaze on Chris and slowly lowered his flames. Then he let out a long groan and flopped over on his side.

    "Oh, don't be dramatic. Come on."

    The hard part was dosing Hero with the antitoxin, which had to be sprayed under the tongue or into the cheek pouch. Hero wasn't hurt badly, which meant that medicating him became a wrestling match. Chris came away with one sleeve singed and the other wet with slobber, but moments later the anti-fungal began to take effect and Hero's breathing eased. Then Chris checked Hero over with gentle hands, bandaging lacerations and applying an ointment to bruises. He spoke in low tones to his pokemon while he worked.

    "You did good earlier. I'm sorry I had to pull you out. It wasn't your fault." He paused and met Hero's eyes—red with a suggestion of flame deep within. In a quiet voice, he asked, "You don't mind battles, do you?"

    Hero yawned.

    Chris sighed and continued patching up the typhlosion. "We're in a tough spot, Hero. I want to do the right thing, but I'm not sure what that is. I feel like the more I try to help, the weirder things get. I probably should've let her stay in Mahogany, huh? Well, thanks a lot for not saying something sooner."

    When Chris's hands finally fell still, Hero dropped his head into his trainer's lap and rumbled contentedly. It should've made Chris feel better, but it didn't.

    "We're not gonna make it to The Indigo Plateau in time, are we?"

    He was cut short by a scream.

    "Una!" Chris jumped to his feet, and ahead Hero plunged off the path. Chris ducked between the trees, not caring that he slid on loose rocks and gravel as he bounded downhill. "Una!" he called again. "Where are you?"


    Moments later he spotted her yellow hair shining through the foliage. He found her with her back against a large tree trunk, clutching in both hands the feather that hung around her neck.

    Hero sniffed her, rose onto his hind legs to sniff the air. After a moment he dropped back to all fours and shot Chris a look as if to say, Was that all? Then, with a grumble, he sat.

    Chris panted, "Are you okay?"

    Una stood straight, tucking her hair behind her ears. "Yes. I apologize if I gave you a fright. Something startled me, that is all. I am unharmed."

    "What was it?"

    "I have no idea, in all honesty. Something … green? It fled when you approached, and it disappeared before I could identify it."

    "Glad it was just a false alarm." Chris checked the time on his Bitflex. "Look … it's getting late. Let's find a place to set up camp and call it a day."

    They made camp near one of the lakes. Chris pitched the tent and tasked Una with collecting firewood. They ate in uneasy silence, Una looking at the ground and Chris craning his neck to watch the sinking sun turn the Dragon's Spine mountains red and then blue.

    At last, Chris stood and cleared his throat. "I'm going to run drills with my pokemon for a while. I've got a book and a headlamp if you want."

    Una paused massaging her calves to shake her head. "I am content to sit with my thoughts."

    Chris went almost to the water's edge, keeping his back to the campsite and gathering small pieces of wood as he walked. He took up a pokeball, breathed deep, and listened to the water lapping at the shore.

    Then he sent out Sonic, letting the jolteon run in circles until he tired himself out somewhat. Chris couldn't even touch him when he was like this—too much static. You're ridiculous, Chris thought, all that full-body wiggling energy. But despite everything, he couldn't help but smile watching Sonic chase the sparks that shot out from his own fur.

    When Sonic had calmed enough, they began their routine. One by one, Chris tossed the pieces of wood into the air, sometimes calling for Sonic to catch them and other times to blast them down. Sonic didn't miss one. Sparks danced over the darkening water.

    He didn't hear Una approach until she was almost right next to him. He froze mid-throw. "Oh, hi."


    Chris let the stick drop and kicked it away. "Alright, Sonic. Come on back." Not until the jolteon vanished in a flash of red light did Chris realize how dark it had become.

    "You are free to continue if you wish."

    "It's okay. I was about done anyway." He put his hands in his pockets, biting his cheek. "So, what do you want to do? Do you want to stay in Mahogany Town, or …?"

    "I do not know."

    "I don't know either."

    Una unlaced her boots and waded into the shallows, carrying her new boots by the laces.

    Chris followed suit. "I have a hard time believing there were no pokemon trainers five hundred years ago. Didn't you call on them to defend from invaders and things like that?"

    "It was not like what you do here. Now." She steadied herself with a breath. "Even that word is new, pokemon. We do not trap spirits in our pockets. They come and go freely, and we thank them for their help with food and offerings. It requires an uncommon person to tame a forest spirit."

    "It's pretty common now. Growing up, most everybody I knew wanted to be a trainer someday." He bent to pick out a smooth, flat stone and flicked it out over the water. "I can only imagine what it looks like through your eyes, and I don't know what to tell you to make you feel differently about it. But this is who I am. This is the only way I get to be out in the wilderness like this, getting to be close to pokemon every day. All I can tell you is this is where I feel right."

    Una made no response but to skip a stone too. It went out further than Chris's had. Then the stone sank and the water was still.

    Until it wasn't. Ripples spread toward them from somewhere else.

    Chris swept his gaze across the water and in the middle-distance he saw a hazy figure, shimmering faintly in the sunset's last rays. Beside him, Una gasped, and he knew she saw it too. It was moving towards them, quickly. As it sped over the water, the haze resolved into a four-legged shape with horns and a long mane fluttering behind.

    The creature stopped at the center of the lake, suspended on top of the water. For what felt like a long, long time, it stood unmoving save for the breeze in its mane. No one and nothing made a sound. It was still too far away to make out details in the dim light, but somehow Chris could feel it staring at him.

    Chris didn't dare break the silence to invoke the creature's name aloud, but he did know its name. Of course he knew its name.

    Slowly, with intent, it walked across the water to them. It was an exquisite impossibility.

    Una dropped to her knees in the water.

    One step at a time, it drew closer, becoming both more unreal and also truer with each step, until finally, Suicune stood only a few feet away, towering over them. Its diamond horns forked into the sky, and it regarded him with unblinking red eyes.

    You. Without words and without speaking, she spoke—Chris couldn't help but think of that voice as female. It was a voice made of brambles, quicksilver, and water over stone, neither kind nor unkind. I never searched for you, she said. I knew one day we would meet. And so we have, after all this time.

    Chris held his breath. His heart thundered.

    I owe you a debt, Chris Nakano. Suicune dipped her head, so low her muzzle nearly touched the water, and then raised it again. It will be repaid.

    He felt lightheaded. "I don't understand."

    Suicune tossed her mane, and Chris thought he heard the echo of an echo of a laugh. We are all scrabbling at the shadow of understanding. I have lived long enough to watch forests die and rise again and for rivers to carve new paths, and still there is little I understand in this world. It matters not. You will believe what you will, and I will do as I will. One has no bearing on the other.

    "But … a debt? Why?"

    She cocked her head to one side. After a long moment she said, Once, you gave help when no other would have. And, once, you let me go free. Small acts, perhaps, but what is life but an unending chain of small moments between small creatures.

    Chris shook his head. He finally choked out, "I-I'm sorry. I think you must have me confused with someone else."

    I remember you. Her gaze was unyielding. Chris couldn't meet those red eyes. Then, You are foolish but kind. Many have tried to snare me and bend me to their will. All have failed. You have not even thought to try, and would not even if you had.

    "No. I wouldn't." The very idea was unfathomable, sickening. Besides, he had seen how fast she was. It would be a waste of a pokeball, on top of everything else.

    You are good, she said. This is what I know. And should you ever find yourself in dire need, call and I will come.

    She swiveled to look down on Una. And you. It gains you nothing to kneel.

    Chris watched the color drain from Una's face.

    Do whatever you like. There is nothing I can offer you. You are already ash on the wind.

    With that, she darted away, spattering them with water. She didn't look back.

    Chris stared until long after her ribbon tails had faded from sight. Finally, he turned and helped Una to her feet. "What do you think that means?"

    She shook her head. "Who was that?"

    Chris's mouth flew open, but he checked himself. "I guess that story isn't as old as I thought. They perform a dance about it in Ecruteak every fall—Miki has been in it a few times." While they fumbled to pull their boots onto wet feet and made their way back to their campsite, Chris explained the legend of the three unnamed pokemon who died as Brass Tower burned and what they became.

    Una clutched her golden feather. "Not all the gods are dead after all," she said.

    Last edited:
    5: The Dead
  • WildBoots

    Don’t underestimate seeds.
    1. custom/moka-mark
    2. 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?"


    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.

    , 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 ….

    Last edited:
    6: Backbone
  • WildBoots

    Don’t underestimate seeds.
    1. custom/moka-mark
    2. solrock
    6: Backbone

    This chapter contains a scene with a pokemon battle involving blood. It's not terribly graphic, but it is an uptick from previous chapters. If you are very sensitive to blood, I'd been happy to send you a version of the chapter without blood in it. DM me.
    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.



    "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?"


    "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?"



    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.


    "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.


    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.



    "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
  • WildBoots

    Don’t underestimate seeds.
    1. custom/moka-mark
    2. 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.

    Last edited:
    • Heart
    Reactions: Pen
    8: The Threshold
  • WildBoots

    Don’t underestimate seeds.
    1. custom/moka-mark
    2. solrock

    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.



    "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?"


    "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.


    "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.

    Last edited:
    9: Pantheon
  • WildBoots

    Don’t underestimate seeds.
    1. custom/moka-mark
    2. 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.


    "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.

    Last edited:
    10: The Fluke
  • WildBoots

    Don’t underestimate seeds.
    1. custom/moka-mark
    2. 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?

    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.

    Last edited:
    Interlude: Compass
  • WildBoots

    Don’t underestimate seeds.
    1. custom/moka-mark
    2. solrock
    Notes: Just reposting because I changed the order of this chapter and I wanted it to appear in the right place for anyone who's just scrolling through.

    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?

    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😭

    Last edited:
    11: The Mirror
  • WildBoots

    Don’t underestimate seeds.
    1. custom/moka-mark
    2. solrock

    11: The Mirror

    In the morning, Chris and Una shared their usual breakfast of oatmeal, dried fruit, and nuts. The quiet hung heavy between them: there was both too little and too much to say.

    After, Chris cleaned the cookware so Una could pack it. He wouldn't mind having less cleanup during his stay on the plateau and he liked the cafeteria food well enough, but he had to admit he'd miss preparing his own meals over the camp stove. Una preoccupied herself with gathering her things. At his insistence, she packed up the remaining RediMeals too. Then she loaded the camp stove and collapsible bowls into her pack and swung it onto her shoulders, letting out a quiet oof at the new weight.

    He noticed then that she was wearing the long skirt from the Mahogany hospital lost and found again. She'd been carrying it around the entire time. Chris wasn't sure whether to shake his head or smile.

    Instead he asked, "Is it too heavy?"

    She straightened and smiled—a little forced, he thought. "Not so different from before. I will be used to it soon."

    "Yeah. I bet you will." He took a deep breath. "So … I guess this is it."

    She took a long time to pull her hair back from her face and knot it with her scarf. Finally, she met his eyes. "You have been a true friend, Chris."

    His smile wobbled. "You too. I'm sorry to see you go."

    "I wish I were more …." Una shook her head. Instead of finishing the thought, she solemnly turned up her palms and held her hands out to him. His heart bending like paper, Chris took her fingers in his. Then she closed her eyes and intoned, "As the sun rises in the East, as it sets in the sea, may we meet again someday."

    They stood like that for a long moment. The calls of spearows and pidgeys rose and fell beneath the chatter of passing campers—but those sounds felt far away, somehow muffled by Una's quiet. She was praying, Chris realized, but his mind remained a blank. He focused on the warmth of her hands and held on.

    Una let go first.

    He jammed his hands into his pockets. "I'll walk with you until the path splits. Sound good?" He was slated for a ten a.m. battle in the North Arena, and the path towards the aerial lift station was on the way.

    "Of course."

    As they walked, Chris's mind bubbled with questions. Do you know where you'll go? he wanted to ask, and are you sure about this? Even as he thought the words, he recognized the pleading and bargaining, reaching for ways to hold her here a moment or two longer. He had no right to try to make her stay. So he bit his questions back.

    But when they came to the fork in the path, he blurted, "Why don't I go with you all the way to the station? Might as well see you off."

    She gave him a quizzical look. "I would not want you to arrive late for your—"

    "I have time."

    Una flashed a little smile. "Then certainly. If you like."

    The lift station turned out to be crowded, the space made more cramped by the voices echoing off the metal walls. Chris and Una squeezed their way into a corner, but there wasn't actually space to stand apart from the crowd. He had to raise his voice to hear himself. "Looks like you'll have a full cable car going down ..."

    "I must admit I am surprised. I would have thought that, after coming all this way, they would stay for ..." The battles, she meant.

    "Looks like a tour group. They're coming back up later."

    "I see."

    He felt like he should say something, but his thoughts circled endlessly back on themselves. It didn't help that the woman next to him kept bumping him with her oversized purse. So he and Una stood without speaking—as if she were already gone, even though she was standing right there—until the cable car lurched into view.

    As the crowd pushed ahead, Chris and Una exchanged a final look. He cleared his throat. "Be safe, Una."

    "Do not worry on my behalf." For a moment she looked like she wanted to say more. To ask him to leave with her, maybe? She had never asked, just like he had never asked her to stay. He couldn't leave, he knew, but he found himself wanting her to ask all the same.

    The lift operator called, "There's still room—last call! Otherwise you'll have to wait for the next one."

    Una smiled joylessly. "Good luck, Chris. And goodbye."

    He was struck by the urge to hug her, but he faltered. Then she was already turning away, and Chris only managed to give her backpack a clumsy pat.

    "You're not coming?" the operator called to Chris, who shook his head. "Alright. Suit yourself." Then, motioning to Una, he said, "Cozy on in, then! We're all pals in here."

    While she shrugged out of her pack and wedged herself between two of the tourists, Chris stood and watched. She caught his eye and offered a little wave. He waved back until the door closed over her face. Then, whirring and clanking, the lift sank out of sight once more, taking with it the sounds of muffled laughter and conversation. In the quiet that followed, Chris breathed heavily.

    After a moment, he unhooked Hero's pokeball. He didn't want to walk to the stadium alone. As Hero began to materialize, stretching and yawning, Chris reached to lay a hand on the typhlosion's back and draw strength from the heat of his fur. "Nice to see you."

    Hero rubbed his head against Chris's leg, rumbling. Then raised his head and met Chris's eyes as if to ask, Are you okay?

    Chris crumpled. He knelt to press his cheek to the typhlosion's neck the way he'd done countless times since he was a child. Hero's fur was so hot it bordered on uncomfortable, but Chris didn't pull away for a long time.

    Finally, he stood, patting the side of his typhlosion's neck. "Alright, Hero. Let's do what we came for."

    When Chris took his seat in the locker room, he still hadn't decided between Hero and Ryoga for the upcoming battle. He hadn't had the heart to concentrate on that question—still didn't, actually.

    Under the miasma of cleaning fluid, the smell of feet still pervaded the locker room. The gym had been more or less the same way, now that Chris thought about it, only not so quiet. He had always loved the sounds of steam hissing on the rocks and the gym trainers ribbing one another. Dad sometimes pointed out observations about the challengers. See how he keeps his hands in his pockets? He's unsure of himself, scared to command his own pokemon. You watch—he won't even make it past Lee. From the dais, Dad looked down on the battles with his arms folded coolly, but he greeted each trainer with a warm smile.

    Chris reminded himself he should be thinking about the trainer he'd actually be facing. He couldn't even remember his opponent's name—he might as well be preparing to face a cardboard cutout. The wall-mounted TV talked to itself, a litany of trainers separated by applause. He glanced at another trainer waiting nearby, who winked at her phone and snapped a selfie. A feeling of unreality swept through him like vertigo. Was that how he was supposed to feel?

    For the first time, Chris wondered whether there was anything underneath Dad's steady self-assurance. He'd returned to the gym each day to fight the same kinds of trainers again and again, losing almost as often as he won because that was his job. Was it what he'd imagined it would be? Did he ever get bored? If the life of a gym leader wore him down, Hiro Nakano had never shown it. Chris wished he'd thought to ask back then.

    But he knew what Dad would tell him because he'd said it many times before: A strong pokemon can bring you the ladder, Chris, but you still have to climb. All Chris could think about was the dark, gaping expanse between where he sat and how far he had yet to go.

    Maybe things felt different looking down from the top.

    That thought cut short when someone dropped onto the other end of the bench. The trainer didn't so much as glance at Chris, instead watching the battle on-screen with obvious amusement. Even with his face turned away, it was impossible not to recognize two-time tournament winner Gary Oak.

    At the thought of staring down Gary Oak across the field, Chris's stomach liquefied. But, of course, he wouldn't have to—they were sharing the same ready room. They weren't even in the same round-robin pool. Someone would have to face him today though, and Chris pitied the trainer who had to start the conference that way.

    Chris had already checked out Gary's first round lineup: a venusaur, a charizard, and a blastoise. Odd that he'd stuck to the classics despite being known for his sizable collection. It was a risky set: every trainer fighting in the conference had to have already seen those pokemon in dozens of matches. Strategy guides for combatting each of them were readily available online. But, thinking of his own pokemon—Hero the offspring of Dad's own fearsome typhlosion and his lapras named as a nod to Mom—Chris thought he understood Gary's choices. It was impossible to see the trio and not think of Kanto, of Pallet Town, of Samuel Oak.

    And Gary wasn't exactly fresh off the Kanto circuit. He knew what he was doing.

    In their battle videos, Gary's charizard was little more than a blur of flame whipping across the arena. Chris's dad had also trained a charizard, and he'd been fast enough … but not like that. Taiyou had been older, battle-scarred with wrinkles gathered at the base of his tail, but Chris didn't think he'd been that quick on his feet, ever. It wasn't how he was built. But Taiyou made up for it with bitter tenacity and scales like roofing slate. The old charizard hadn't turned up among the rubble of the Olivine gym, and Chris chose to imagine him somewhere in the wilderness, scorning and scorching anything that tried to touch him.

    With thoughts of the gym burning inside him, Chris felt a sudden need to lay a claim to his own history with a charizard. To prove he came to climb the ladder, too. What came out of his mouth was, "Your charizard is really fast." Great. Earth-shattering. "Impressive, I mean."

    Gary raised an eyebrow at Chris. Then he slid into an easy grin. "Yeah, Akuma's hard to catch. She's a beast."

    "Right. They're not always easy to handle. My dad trained a pretty mean one ..."

    Chris trailed off, unsure whether he should say more. If anyone knew about growing up in the shadow of someone else's legacy, it was Gary Oak, maybe better than Chris did. After all, Professor Oak was the host of the world's most listened-to radio show, a battle veteran, and the authority on pokemon research. Bringing up his own parentage seemed tacky next to all that.

    Seeming not to notice Chris's uncertainty, Gary dismissively waved a hand and chuckled. "Mean is great on the field! Besides, even a complete murderous bastard will melt in your hand with the right training."

    Everything from his tousled hair to his slouch seemed to say how little Gary Oak cared. But he had to care quite a lot—no one became champion of the Indigo League by accident. Especially not twice. How did he manage such effortlessness? Dad had been like that, too.

    Chris must've made a face, because Gary laughed and said, "Nervous, huh?"

    He'd all but forgotten about the upcoming battle. And he still hadn't decided which pokemon to use—he should be nervous.

    "The first few times are hard, but it gets easier."

    Gary's attention was wandering. The smile still hung on his face, but his head was tipped to listen to the color commentators.

    Chris wanted to keep the conversation going, but nothing came to him that was worth saying. He was sitting next to Gary Oak, of all people—actually talking to him—and likely never would again. And he was wasting his chance to …. To what, exactly?

    He took a deep breath. "I bet people ask you all the time, but ..."

    Gary's head jerked up. He snorted. "Yeah, they sure do. But I gotcha. It's not a big deal." To Chris's surprise, Gary reached into his pocket. He came up holding a pokeball, an empty one, shown by the inactive center button. Chris still didn't understand until Gary asked, "Who should I make it out to?"

    "Oh, uh ..." He'd wanted advice.

    Was it rude to turn down an autograph? Probably. He could maybe sell it, he supposed. Or maybe his brother would want it.

    A flicker of annoyance crossed Gary's face, but he kept smiling.

    Chris was about to tell him to sign it for Kaden, his brother, when the League staffer entered the room. "Chris Nakano? You're up."

    He jumped to his feet, as if caught in the act of something unsavory. "Thanks anyway."

    With a shrug, Gary scrawled a quick signature on the white half of the pokeball, and held it out. "Here. Still something."

    Chris made himself smile and take it, pocketing it to avoid mixing it up with his real pokeballs. "It was nice meeting you."

    With one last smile, Gary turned back toward the television. "Sure. Good luck, kid."


    He'd chosen wrong again.

    Hero was still on his feet, but each of his breaths came ragged and smoky. The flames around his neck burned a low red. All the same, he dropped into a partial crouch and touched one forepaw to the ground, poised to either draw energy up from the grass or sprint out of the way, waiting for the next command.

    Chris had expected to face the gengar or maybe the yanmega. Both would be tricky to keep track of and trickier to hit, but especially for Ryoga. So he'd chosen Hero.

    But across the field, his opponent's rhydon roared with such force the earth trembled. Hero had landed several hits already, zinging balls of green light, but hardly a scratch showed on the rhydon's craggy armor.

    "Again!" the other trainer cried gleefully. "Earth power!"

    The field began to ripple and buck, cracks opening where the strain was too great, and Hero took off running on all fours. Chris could easily see that the typhlosion wouldn't be able to outrun the heaving, crumbling hillock sweeping towards him. The real question was whether Hero could weather the attack long enough to hit back.

    He thought of Sonic recovering at the pokecenter. He thought of the three battles still ahead of him in the first round—and dreaded facing them with only Ryoga. He thought of his dad … and he hung his head in a silent apology.

    A split second before the wave of dirt and rock crashed down, Chris recalled Hero.

    "Trainer Chris Nakano forfeits! The match goes to Julia Moon!"

    Numbed by the screaming of the crowd, he made his way back to the center line. His opponent was slower, flashing a double thumbs up to one side of the bleachers and then the other. Chris tried to steady himself with a deep breath and instead choked on the dust in the air. He was still coughing when he shook her hand.


    Chris wanted nothing more than to sleep—a hard reset—but knew the tent would be too hot inside to rest comfortably until the shadows moved and evening brought a cool breeze across the plateau. Instead, he meandered down the quiet trails bordering the ledge, looking for a shaded patch of grass where no one would bother him for a couple hours.

    Eventually, he found himself alone on the flag-lined path near the registration office. This time of day, with the preliminary round well underway, there was little reason for trainers and tourists to come to this part of the plateau. A line of trees separated the building from the campgrounds, promising relief from both the sun and prying eyes.

    He stepped off the path, making his way for the trees—but when he came around the corner of the building, he stopped short. Two girls already sat in the grass with their backs to him, each with long blonde hair that gleamed bright among the green shadows. One of them wore a black, wide-brimmed hat that he thought he might've seen that morning in the aerial lift station, and the other had curls. They seemed to be relacing the curly-haired girl's boots.

    He thought of Una, wondering how far she'd gotten by now. Part of him was waiting for the girl with the curls to turn and flash him a familiar smile. Until she turned, removing all doubt, he could still believe it might be her. He knew it was ridiculous, but for a moment he was frozen in place, nursing the ache in his chest and waiting for her to turn.

    He should've asked her to stay.

    She even had the same kind of backpack that he'd found for Una in the secondhand shop: moss green, LeyLine brand. Huh—and the same long blue skirt spreading over the grass.


    When Chris noticed the slowpoke tail curling out from behind the girl's backpack, his breath caught in his throat. "Una?" He took a half step forward.

    Not until he heard the growl did Chris notice the third figure, who knelt in the building's shadow a short distance away. It was human-sized, but the sound it made was not human. The pokemon was nearly the same color as the shadows, and not until it moved into the light could Chris parse what he was seeing: a lucario. He'd never seen one in person before. Who in the world had brought one to the Indigo Plateau?

    The lucario regarded him with reproachful eyes, and Chris remembered that they were supposed to be able to see auras, though he wasn't entirely sure what that meant. How must he look through its eyes? Could it see his earlier loss radiating out from him? Would it recognize him as Hiro Nakano's son, or would it see all the glaring differences? He didn't like the idea that, with a casual glance, the lucario could map parts of him that Chris couldn't even see.

    Perhaps sensing his unease, the lucario growled again, louder this time. It moved in front of him as if to block him from the two girls sitting in the grass. The air around the pokémon shimmered like a heat haze, and Chris felt the telltale prickle of an impending psychic attack. He didn't think any trainer would let their pokemon actually attack someone in the middle of the Indigo Plateau, but he stepped back all the same.

    "I don't mean your trainer any harm," he said, hands up to show they were empty.


    She turned to look at him, a boot in her hand and a surprised look on her face—Una. He smiled at the sight of her, but she had already turned away to say something to the girl next her.

    The other girl's face was shadowed by her hat and impossible to read at the distance. But her voice rang out clearly, "It's alright, Ishtar. You can let him by."

    With a grumble, the lucario lowered its head and stepped aside.

    "Thanks." The lucario didn't stop glaring, but Chris continued into the shade of the trees, where Una sat looking up at him expectantly. Suddenly almost cheerful, he called to her across the distance, "I thought you left."

    "I did. Only I ... did not travel very far."

    Chris was close enough then to see that her eyes were red as if from crying. He slowed. "Are you okay? Did something happen?"

    Una made a sound that could've been a laugh or a sniffle. "I suppose something did, yes. A conversation." The girl in the black hat offered her a handkerchief embroidered half-and-half with red and blue roses; Una thanked her but shook her head. Sitting up straighter, she gestured towards him. "This is Chris, with whom I traveled from Ecruteak City. And this is Cynthia, whom I have had the fortune to encounter on my path today."

    The woman at Una's side tipped her head back to smile at Chris, and he finally saw her face. He gave a start. Somehow, even her name and the presence of the lucario hadn't been quite enough for him to make the connection to the Cynthia Lachlan, champion of the Sinnoh League. He'd seen her on TV a few times but didn't follow her matches closely—Sinnoh was a long ways away, after all. What was she doing here?

    "You're not battling in the conference, are you?" he blurted before he could stop himself. "I mean—I didn't see your name in the brackets."

    She was kind enough to smile. "No, but I'm on the brochure. A Conversation with Lance and Special Guests."

    "Oh. That makes sense."

    Cynthia paused, as if waiting for him to get any other stupid questions out of his system, and then put out a hand to shake. "Any friend of Una's is a friend of mine. It's a pleasure."

    "Uh, definitely! You too."

    He glanced at Una. Her smile seemed to sit on the surface of other feelings, like a skin on scalded milk, but he couldn't pinpoint what lay beneath. Did she know she was sitting alongside one of the world's most famous and formidable battlers? Unlikely, though it could be cause for her to be upset all by itself if she did. What had they even talked about?

    That surreal feeling washed over him again.

    "Sorry to interrupt." He paused, uncertain what exactly he'd interrupted. "I was just surprised to see you again so soon."

    Una ignored the apology. "Would you like to sit?"

    "Um, okay."

    As he lowered himself into the grass, she turned to Cynthia. "Should I begin again?"

    "If you want to. It's for you." Then to Chris, Cynthia added, "We've been talking about ways to honor home and homesickness. A little self-care ritual. You can do one too, if you want."

    "What were the words again?" Una asked.

    Cynthia spoke in a singsong, slowly so Una could clumsily follow along with her:

    Home is the name
    That you tuck in your shoe
    Keep my name close
    And I'll still be with you

    Wherever life takes you
    No matter how far
    My love will go with you
    Wherever you are

    Then she told Chris in a conspiratorial tone, "My nana taught me that when I left home for the first time. The idea is to keep a slip of paper marked with a friend or family member's name in your shoe so they go with you no matter how far you travel."

    "Does that ... work?"

    Cynthia shrugged. "It's meaningful if you decide it is." She passed him a notebook. A strip had already been torn from the page that faced up. "Here. I've got a pen, too."

    Even as he accepted the notebook and pen, he knew he wouldn't be putting any paper in his shoe. It was too silly, too ... insubstantial. If traveling with a typhlosion named Hero didn't bring Hiro Nakano closer to him, he didn't think a piece of paper would.

    It wasn't silly for Una though. She touched her folded square of paper to her lips, holding it there for a long moment. She looked near tears again, and Chris averted his eyes. Then Una pressed the paper flat into her insole and bent to pull the boot back on.

    Cynthia broke the silence with gentle words. "We never really leave our past behind, you know. It's who we are."

    Chris wasn't sure if she meant it to be encouraging or chiding, but Una nodded.

    "Thank you."

    She and Cynthia shared a smile that made Chris wonder again what had passed between them. If he'd didn't know better, he would've guessed they were sisters, not strangers.

    An electronic chime sounded from inside Cynthia's bag, making all three of them jump. Checking her phone, she groaned. "Is that really the time?"

    "I hope I have not caused you trouble," said Una.

    "Absolutely not. Meeting you might've been the highlight of my trip so far! But ... I'm supposed to have tea with Agatha before my meeting with the professor." She said it distractedly, as if it wasn't a big deal. To her maybe it wasn't.

    She motioned to the notebook still in Chris's hand. "Can I have that back?"

    He handed it over, glad for the excuse not to write anything.

    To Una, she said, "And you're still planning to leave?"

    Chris tried to catch Una's gaze, but she stared into the distance. "Before sundown, yes."

    "That's too bad," said Cynthia. "I had a story for you."

    "A story?"

    Chris saw his own surprise mirrored on Una's face.

    Cynthia grinned. "I told you, I collect stories. You told yours, so it's only fair to share one of mine ... but I can't now." She glanced at her phone again. "I could ask Agatha to postpone, but ... I don't think she'd take it well."

    "I should not take more of your time. You have already missed your tour."

    "The cave will be there. This was better. I should be thanking you for your time!" She searched Una's face. "Would you be willing to stay just one more night? You won't be disappointed."

    Una tucked her hair behind her ears, and Chris knew her answer a moment before she spoke. "I will hear what you have to say."

    His heart twisted, caught between relief and jealousy. Would she have stayed if he had asked?

    Cynthia clasped Una's hands, hair beads clacking as she leaned forward. "That's great! I really think a story could help with ... what we talked about. But I do have to go now."

    She continued talking as she gathered her things and stood. "Let's meet by the cable car after dinner. And if you want—I'm sorry, what was your name again?"

    "Chris," he said sheepishly.

    "Right, Chris. You can come too—if it's alright with Una. It's a story for you, so you get to decide."

    Something in her tone made him wonder what Una might've said about him. Maybe she'd mentioned the opening ceremony—remembering her anger, he winced. He half-expected a disapproving look from Una, but instead he saw only the smile he knew so well. Maybe he was imagining animosity in Cynthia that wasn't there.

    "I would be happy for you to join us, Chris. Unless you already have other plans."

    "No, no, I'm not busy. I mean, I'd like that. Thanks."

    Cynthia said, "Then it's settled. Chris, why don't you take my number in case the two of you need to get in touch before we meet up again."

    "Sure." The surrealness of the situation left him feeling unexpectedly calm. Numb, maybe.

    When Cynthia has finished reciting her number for him she said, "Alright, I'll see you both soon! I'm looking forward to it." With that, she turned and started away briskly, hair beads clinking. Chris caught a glimpse of paper poking out of her sandal before her lucario fell into step with her, and then the two of them disappeared around the corner of the registration office.

    Chris shook his head. "I can't believe you made friends with Cynthia Lachlan."

    Una paused lacing her other boot, a thoughtful look on her face. "How do you know of her?"


    "I see," she said, meaning she didn't.

    He hesitated before asking the next question, but curiosity won out. "How did you meet her?"

    She wrapped her arms around her knees. "I was walking behind the group from the cable car. I saw her ahead of me, and from behind—" Again, Una made a sound somewhere between laughter and crying. "—I mistook her for my sister. Her hair, mostly. She did not much resemble Suki once I saw her face. Of course, I knew that it could not possibly be her. Suki has been gone for a long time. But it set me to weeping all the same." She reached to touch Suki the slowpoke, who licked her hand.

    "I'm sorry, Una."

    She smiled faintly. "She was very kind. The others continued on, but she sat with me, listened to my ramblings, and wrapped an arm around me. In fairness, Suki would have done the same. She used to sing for me when I felt sad or afraid. So I told Cynthia about her and how much I miss home."

    The last few words came out heavily, and Chris's heart broke imagining her crying those words to a stranger.

    She continued, "Cynthia told me that it is natural to miss one's home and family, and she told me about her home. She has come from so far away—I cannot imagine it. And yet … from what I can tell, we are very much alike. In her village, they still respect the old ways. She understood. So … I told her everything."

    Chris gawked. "You mean—?"

    Una gazed back unblinkingly.

    "She believed you."


    "Well ... that's good, then."

    Again, Una smiled sadly. "It was good to talk of home. I had almost begun to choke on the words and memories I had built up inside."

    Chris bit his lip. "I … I didn't know. I should've asked."

    "Oh, Chris. I know you intend all the best. I do not blame you for any of this."

    Her voice held a touch of condescension, which he couldn't blame her for. She was right: he had no idea what he was doing. He had never been the right person for this, only the one who was there. But he was still gratified to see her smile and to be sitting at her side again. For one more night.

    "Do you …" he fumbled, "do you have anything you want to talk about now? I'm happy to listen if you want to get stuff off your chest."

    She smiled. "No. I think … I need to think."

    "I walked out this way planning to nap in the grass," he said, "but I understand if you want to be alone."

    "No, stay. Rest. Perhaps I will as well."

    So he tucked his hands behind his head and dropped into the cool grass. For a few moments, he watched a few lonely clouds wander across the sky. Then he rolled his head to one side and caught sight of Una working something green between her hands. He watched her knot under and over, hypnotized by the endless motion until, at last, he drifted off.


    Cynthia arrived in front of the cable car as the sun was setting, as promised. Chris had returned to camp for his hoodie, but the Sinnohan champion still wore only the same sleeveless blouse and loose linen pants against the evening chill. He supposed she was used to a much colder climate.

    Una presented the daisy crown she'd made for Cynthia, who immediately fitted it over the top of her hat.

    "Shall we?"

    "I didn't know the lift ran this late," Chris said as they stepped through the doors.

    "It doesn't," said Cynthia.

    Chris shot a glance at Una, but Cynthia strode ahead before either of them could react.

    "I really appreciate you being here tonight," she said to the car operator. "Do you like apple cake? I brought coffee, too."

    The operator accepted the styrofoam cup and a plastic-wrapped loaf from her, but insisted, "It's really no trouble, Miss Lachlan. Happy to help."

    Their descent was quiet enough to hear the whirr of the machinery. The fading sun bled neon pink and orange across the windows—they couldn't have asked for a better view. Una leaned against the handrail, one hand pressed to the glass.

    When the car came to a stop, Cynthia told the operator, "I promise we won't keep you too long."

    She waved Cynthia's words away. "Take as long as you need. It's a nice night, and I've got my book. And don't think I don't appreciate the cake."

    Outside, they could still hear distant music, but the crickets and the wind in the bushes were louder.

    Cynthia reached to her belt, and Chris stopped to watch her release a pokemon that trilled and glided a wide arc around the three of them. A togekiss. Chris wasn't sure what to make of that. It was certainly big and he didn't doubt that it could sweep through an opponent, but the overall impression was softness, so unlike the sharp angles and brutal strikes of her signature garchomp. The togekiss fluttered in place while Cynthia spoke to it in gentle tones, reaching up to run her fingers over its downy chest. Tiny lights appeared one by one, first in a cloud around the togekiss and then drifting to gather in Cynthia's hair.

    "There's a nice spot this way." Cynthia motioned for them to follow, fairy lights floating in her wake. “You don't mind a little walk, do you?"

    "Is there a reason we're doing this here?" Chris asked. "If you don't mind me asking, I mean."

    "Any story is better with a campfire, don't you think? Besides, we don't need a bunch of lookie-loos crowding around …."

    Chris thought of the hat that hid her face and her lucario guardian. Gods, he couldn't imagine needing to go to such lengths for personal space. He could hardly stand to be in a crowd now, and he was nobody special.

    But she said it with a playful smile and then turned to lead their way with quick, light steps. She was dressed the way he'd expect of a public figure, clean and stylish, but she moved like a trainer, lithe and surefooted.

    Bringing up the rear, Chris released Tikal, his sandslash. She accepted a few head scratches and then trotted to greet Una. Traitor, he thought, but smiled anyway.

    The distant sounds of the plateau faded behind them.

    After a short hike guided by fairy lights, they came to a site that had clearly been favored before by trainers coming and going from the Indigo Plateau. Boulders and logs had been arranged around a blackened fire pit. Cynthia set her bag down beside one of the boulders and then, by the last of the fading light, the three of them began to comb the area for kindling. The togekiss settled onto a boulder and watched, cooing to itself.

    "What are you writing?" Chris heard Una ask.

    "A prayer," said Cynthia, resting her notebook on one knee. "Every time I make a fire, I like to thank Uxie for the illumination that it brings, Mesprit for its joy and warmth, and Azelf for the fire that burns in all living things."

    Chris had stopped to listen without meaning to, arrested by the rhythm and strength of her voice.

    Cynthia tore the page from her notebook, crumpled it into a ball, and began to arrange kindling around it. "They're far from here, hidden on the mirage islands of Sinnoh's three great lakes. But the wind will carry the ashes far and wide and release my prayer into the world."

    Reaching for her feather necklace, Una said, "We thank Ho-oh. She lights the fires of our souls, and She relights every fire that goes dark. And it is her fire that clears the underbrush from the forest, cleanses sickness, and makes way for new life."

    Nodding, Cynthia handed Una the notebook. "Then maybe you should write a prayer, too."

    Una made four quick penstrokes, the cardinal directions, and recited the familiar words: "North, south, east, west—may these flames burn bright forever." She wadded up the page and added it to the pile.

    By then, the kindling was stacked high enough that it wouldn't immediately burn itself out when lit, anchored by a few mid-weight branches. Cynthia dug in her bag, presumably looking for a lighter.

    With one hand already on his belt, Chris began to offer, "Do you want me to light it? My typhlosion—"

    Cynthia silenced him simply by holding up one hand. "Where I come from," she said, "fire-types are rare. We have to be a bit more clever to light our campfires."

    Chris felt his face redden.

    She looked through her bag as she spoke. "Matches are fine if you can keep them dry—easier said than done in Sinnoh. A lighter works too, but only if it has fuel. Personally, I've always liked ... aha." She held up a small leather package and slid from it a silver disc the size of her palm. "A mirror."

    He squinted, unconvinced.

    Una said, "But the sun has set."

    Cynthia grinned. "That's true. Devi?"

    Her togekiss raised its head.

    "Sun, please."

    The togekiss ruffled its feathers, and more of those tiny lights floated into the clearing—they seemed to come from between its feathers. The lights swirled tighter and tighter until they became a single bright ball too bright to look at directly, like a miniature sun.

    Cynthia crouched beside the fire pit, tilting the mirror from side to side until the glint of it struck the paper kindling. She focused the reflected light to a pinprick that quickly began to smoke and glow red. Then, all at once, the fire caught and swept its way up the kindling pile. Only then did Chris settle himself onto a boulder, feeling foolish for doubting, and leave Cynthia to tend the fire.

    When she was satisfied with the fire, she returned the mirror to her bag and withdrew instead a thermos and a sleeve of styrofoam cups. "Hot chocolate?"

    She actually was a lot like Una, Chris thought. Scrounging up offerings of food.

    "It's the powdered kind," she said apologetically, "not the good stuff from Alola, the big round slabs. But I'll take it. I'm kind of a baby about my hot cocoa, ever since my traveling days. Makes anywhere feel like home for me."

    Thinking of his green tea stash, Chris said, "I know what you mean." He accepted the cup gratefully.

    "Thank you for sharing." Una sipped hers and made a thoughtful face.

    Tikal had settled by the fire, where she could easily see both Chris and Una. For a moment, the only sounds were the crackling fire and the togekiss's snores.

    Then Cynthia spoke up. "Do you know the pokemon bronzor?"

    Chris started to answer, but she wasn't talking to him.

    Una shook her head, so Cynthia drew the shape in the dirt. It reminded Chris of a badge.

    "I didn't think so. That's alright. They're not very common back home either or well-understood.

    "A few years ago, there was a local study on their body composition and the patterns on their backs—or an attemptedstudy. Every single scan came back blank. When I mentioned it to my nana, she laughed. All their theory and principles, she said, and they can't understand that a mirror will always reflect light.

    "Because that's what they are: mirrors. You wouldn't know it now to look at one. Over the centuries, they've lost their shine. Or maybe it's only that we've forgotten how to see ourselves in them. They haven't forgotten how to see us, though. You can still find them around old ruin sites, as if they're waiting for the ways of the past to return. I believe we can learn a lot from them, if you know how to look at things from the right perspective."

    Chris hadn't noticed when Cynthia had slipped out of her everyday speaking style and into something that felt … bigger. She didn't exaggerate her voice or put on a character, but something about the way she spoke made other sounds quiet down. Sitting across the fire from him, Una was transfixed as much as he was.

    "This is the story Nana told me when I said I wanted to leave home and become a trainer.

    "In the time before my great grandmother's great-grandmother, it was not as common as it is now for a young person to leave home and travel the world. There were many responsibilities at home: tending the family farm, looking after elderly relatives, raising younger siblings. Trainers still existed, of course, though not like the trainers of today.

    "When a young person wanted to strike out to learn about herself by learning about the world, she first had to venture into the wilds alone and befriend a pokemon. That was the first test.

    "Far away from here, in a village far from anywhere, there was once a shy girl who lived alone with her mother. It was a quiet life, but both were happy, until one day the mother fell ill and died. With nothing else to keep her in the village, the girl packed a bag and ventured out to the mountain to see what she could learn of the world.

    "On the first day, she passed a murkrow in a tree and called out to him: Hello, brother Murkrow. I am journeying to seek my purpose in life. Pray, will you join me so I will not be alone?

    "The murkrow laughed. Why should I care about the purpose of a little ground-dweller? he said. With that, he flew away, and the girl was left alone again.

    "She walked for a long time before she encountered a buizel in a stream. As before, the girl called out: Hello, sister Buizel. I am journeying to seek my purpose in life. Pray, will you join me so I will not be alone?

    Just like the murkrow, the buizel laughed. My purpose is the river, she told the girl, and I need no other. With that, she swam away. Once again, the girl was alone on the mountain.

    "The girl crossed forests, rivers, and ravines, but no one she encountered would join her. A wind began to blow, so cold that it seemed to cut to the bone, and it made the girl lonelier.

    "At last she came to a little town, not so different from the place she'd come from. She smiled to see it, imagining human company and a warm meal. However, she quickly discovered that the town had been abandoned and there wasn't a soul in sight, human or pokemon. She found a place to take shelter from the wind, and there she began to cry."

    "Then, as if from nowhere, she heard a quiet voice call out to her: Why are you crying?

    "Because I'm all alone, she answered.

    "You're not alone, said the voice. I'm here, too.

    "The girl suddenly became frightened. Who are you? she demanded. Show yourself!

    "And then a face floated towards her From out of the shadows. It was, of course, her own reflection. However, she had never seen a mirror before—or a bronzor—and she had no idea how she had grown and changed on her journey. So she mistook it for the beautiful face of her mother."

    Chris's arms prickled with goosebumps.

    "She might have been afraid if it hadn't spoken to her so gently. I have been alone for a long time, the bronzor told her. But now that you're here … maybe we can be alone together.

    "So the girl and the bronzor continued traveling together, each looking after and protecting the other. Each time the girl looked upon the bronzor, she saw her reflection, and thoughts of her mother comforted her.

    "One day, the girl turned to her companion and said, I have journeyed all this way to seek my purpose, but even after all this time I have no idea what that could be. Please, tell me what I should do.

    "She turned to her companion. This time, when she saw her reflection, she had a new realization. Her purpose was to live in such a way that would make her mother smile upon her with pride. And, indeed, she smiled as she had this thought, and the image of her mother reflected on the bronzor's face smiled back."

    Chris felt as if a bucket of ice water had been dumped over his head. It sounded so pure and simple. He wondered … had Cynthia somehow known? He tried to catch her eye—but she was turned away from him. Through the fire, he watched Una's face, which was very still. Would she call it an omen? Or was she thinking about something entirely different?

    "She could not know that the reflection she saw and strove to emulate was what she already carried inside her all along. But with the help of a bronzor, she was finally able to see her own inner beauty … on the outside."

    With that, Cynthia finally sat back, sipping her hot chocolate. For a long moment, no one spoke.

    "I feel sad for her," Una said at last.

    Cynthia smiled. "Oh? Why?"

    "She believes she has been reunited with her mother … but it is only a reflection."

    "Does the moon cast light?" The ease with which she spoke suggested she'd had this conversation many times before.

    "Yes …."

    "But isn't it only a reflection?" Cynthia grinned and, before Una could protest, she began, "No two people will interpret a story the same way, and that's alright. But here's what I think: I think each of us is a mirror. We reflect our own histories, the histories of our ancestors, the places we've been … and even who we could become. All of those reflections cast new light onto the world. Do you know what you want to reflect into the world, Una?"

    She looked shaky and near tears again.

    Chris tried, "Maybe you should let her—"

    Cynthia ignored him. "You are the last person alive who can reflect the light of a world that no longer exists."

    Una swiped at a trickle of tears with the heel of her hand, but she managed a laugh.

    In a low voice, Chris said, "Una, do you want to leave?"

    She shook her head, but he couldn't tell if it was for him or Cynthia. "What does it matter? My home is gone, and telling stories will not bring it back." This time she accepted the handkerchief when Cynthia offered it to her.

    "I think our stories can change the world."

    "The world changes regardless."

    "I mean it," Cynthia said. "If you stay and record stories with me for a little while, you can save them from being forgotten. I'll make sure the right people hear them. I can pay you, too." She paused. "The higher purpose you're looking for out in the wilderness will still be there after."

    Una shook her head again. "I do not want my home to be remembered as stories. It was real. Our gods were real, and now they are gone."

    "Listen." Cynthia's voice went so quiet, Chris strained to hear from where he sat. "I don't think of stories as made-up entertainment for children. They're sacred."

    At that, Una jerked her head up to meet Cynthia's gaze. Chris imagined he could feel the connection between them pulled taut like a string.

    Cynthia continued, "Your gods might not be the same as mine, but that doesn't matter. Arceus has had as many names and forms across the ages as They have arms. Two things that seem to be opposites can be part of the same whole. I believe in everything. "

    A log in the fire let out a loud crack, and the log pile slid. He thought he smelled something strange in the air—incense, maybe—but it was gone as quickly as it came.

    Cynthia and Una didn't look away from each other. Slowly, Una released her breath. "I will tell you my stories."

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    Notes: I changed the order of the interlude chapter, but the content has not changed.

    Cynthia's story was inspired by the Matsuyama mirror folktale.
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