• Welcome to Thousand Roads! You're welcome to view discussions or read our stories without registering, but you'll need an account to join in our events, interact with other members, or post one of your own fics. Why not become a member of our community? We'd love to have you!

    Join now!

o. end
  • kintsugi

    golden scars
    Pronouns
    she/her/hers
    Partner
    silvally-grass
    what fine design!
    what hands
    what minds!
    the envy of eden
    our tools and our reason
    it's clear in the animals eyes

    —dessa, "the beekeeper"

    o. end

    ※​

    The moment before it all ends is serene.

    A crack slowly spreads down the stone, reaching out across the room to trace through all the chaos. Time seems to slow down with it as the crack crawls across the battle.

    On the edges of the throne room are the first casualties of this fight: a pair of Corinthian stone columns—fractured from the sheer heat of a stray fire attack, based on the scorch marks and soot. Bits and pieces of them have crumbled inward, shattering on the marble of the floor, but the tiny cracks there immediately dissolve into the web of fractures that’s starting to swallow up the entire room.

    Down further, at the foot of the dais, a klinklang is scattered on the ground, their body gears in four separate pieces. It’s more reassuring to look at them in slow motion—were time going at its normal speed, the lack of spinning would be painfully obvious.

    Closer, directly above the sundered gears, a reuniclus is splayed on the stairs, his arms limply tracing down the steps. Collapsed beside him is a carracosta in heavy-plated armor, his fins and head partially withdrawn into his shell.

    Closer still. A serperior is frozen in mid-leap, every leaf on her body glowing with green light, so bright that it blots out her face. Beside her, a trainer stands, one hand frozen and outstretched, eyebrows furrowed, mouth halfway through a command. The human’s face is smeared with dust, but her eyes brim with dark flame.

    The crack twists around the battlefield. An archeops rises up to meet the serperior and her human, his wings halfway down, talons outstretched. Even when still, his feathers blur through brick red, leafy green, pale blue.

    And here, at the very epicenter of the fracture, the yang dragon erupts. White-feathered wings unfurl across the room, bringing all under their shadow. Blue eyes blaze with all the intensity of a dying star. Their mouth is open in a roar so loud that it blots out all other sound, all other commotion, except—

    {Is this what you want, Hero of Truth? If you and I act together as one, what we do here will never be able to be undone, by my power or any other’s.}

    Pokémon never tell lies. There won’t be any coming back from this.

    In the corner of the room, at the foot of the dais, is the collapsed form of Zekrom. The ancient scales are charred; raw wounds leak blue blood onto the granite. The stone tiles are cratered in their own web of cracks; the dragon of legends lies unconscious. Sand slowly leaks down around their form, hazing the edges.

    In front of you, Reshiram.

    Pokémon. Humans. Black. White. Two worlds that have spent so long trying to merge into one balance, and yet—the interplay was always distinct. Every yin had a yang; at the center of each darkness was a drop of light, but between them there was and would always be a line. Pretending it’s not there doesn’t make the line stop existing.

    Is it wrong to believe that this was the only ending? Perhaps. But was there a better way? Was there a diverging branch that got overlooked, a path that led to an ideal world where everyone was happy? Probably. Was it worth letting thousands of people suffer while you tried to find the route that left their oppressors undisturbed? No.

    Behind the ancient dragon, time speeds up again. The archeops twists out of the way as the serperior crashes down. The trainer screams another command, but she’s too slow, too late. You have your answer.

    “Yes. This is what I want.”

    Your name is Natural Harmonia Gropius, and you’ve finally, after all your struggles, saved the world.

    For some reason, you don’t feel like the hero.

    The rest of the story plays out backwards.

    ※​
     
    Last edited:
    i. nominal
  • kintsugi

    golden scars
    Pronouns
    she/her/hers
    Partner
    silvally-grass
    i. nominal

    ※​

    “Vaselva.”

    Her breath hitches on the second syllable of your name. Across eight badges and an entire continent, Hilda was calm. You only saw her falter once: six days ago, when you lost Amara. In the heat of the moment she was ashen; afterward, in private, she cried herself ragged. The next morning the panic was gone from her voice and you were convinced nothing would make it come back again.

    When Hilda sends you out this time, the leaf-haired one is there. That’s why she’s panicking. You coil protectively in a three foot radius around her feet as soon as you see him, but it’s more for show than anything else. Leaf-haired N is not afraid of you. This is for Hilda. So you form an enormous barrier with your body, but you don’t peak the leaves around your neck, or pump your tail with light.

    “It doesn’t have to come to this.” N lifts his free hand out invitingly, keeps it low, but there. It’s almost like he’s reaching for you both. “We don’t have to fight.” You notice he hasn’t sent out a pokémon yet. There’s no stray of his hands toward his belt, no glint of anger in his eyes. Your eyes dart around, searching the darkness behind the enormous stone columns. The cavernous room around you is lit by two dozen torches ensconced on the pillars, casting flickering shadows along the sand, but there’s nothing lurking in the shadows to ambush.

    He truly means it.

    “I can’t let you do this,” Hilda says at last. Her words are strangled.

    He means it. She does not. Your poor, sweet trainer. Always fighting above her weight. Now that gods are on the table, it’s too late to let him do anything.

    N isn’t looking at either of you. His eyes, like his hands, are fixated on the white stone that he holds gently in front of him, gently, as if looking too hard or squeezing too tight will crack it open like an egg. No, that’s not it. He’s not afraid to break it. You both know that no mortal force could do that. His posture is one of reverence, respect.

    “Relic Castle. This isn’t the first time I’ve been up here, but I’ve never come this far underground. Do you know the legends of this amphitheater, Hilda?” he asks. He’s almost conversational about it, almost pleasant, but you sense thorns beneath the roses.

    Something’s changed since you last saw him. He never had thorns before.

    “You have to stop this, N. Or I will.”

    “A shame. It’s a good story.” His voice is soft, but it echoes. The crumbled walls of Relic Castle form a cup of sorts, and this far underground, everything is unnaturally silent.

    {N,} you say. It’s hard not to plead with this human—something tells you that he would listen if you did. If you could only bring yourself to do so. {If you succeed in your mission here. What do you intend to do after?}

    When he hears your words, he flinches, almost as if you’d attacked him instead.

    You think you know why. Every time you’ve seen him, every time you’ve fought, he’s been surprised when he loses. He never considered what would happen if he failed, never once doubted that on his quest he could fall short—so each time you’ve triumphed over him, he’s been unable to understand it. Most humans make backup plans, contingencies. Hilda does. That’s why she’s been such a successful trainer; she has so many plans in motion at any given moment that even if she fails, she’s victorious.

    But N never considered failure. No. The thing that held him back, that freezes him even now, is the very opposite. He’s travelled his whole life to find enough power to right the wrongs he sees in the world, but he’s still afraid of what he’ll find when he succeeds.

    “Reshiram will put things back to how they were,” he says at last. “Before humans made pokémon suffer, they used to live happily, separately. We’ll bring that back. Split them apart. Make sure pokémon never get hurt by humans again.”

    Split them apart. You wonder if he even knows what it means to be taken from someone you love.

    In your clutch there were seventeen. A small brood for a serperior. Perhaps the spring air wasn’t good enough. Perhaps your mother was exhausted from the end of many breeding seasons. You don’t know; you never got to ask. Your moments with your mother are limited and fuzzy and precious, and you did not waste them on asking questions you did not yet understand. Of that clutch, perhaps only three or four of you truly knew they wanted to fight. You were not one of them. You had fourteen suns with your mother before you were taken from her, and in those fourteen suns you remember her teaching you the things all good snivy should know—how to charge your tail, how to call power from the sun, how to sharpen your fronds razor-sharp. But what you remember most of all is curling up alongside her neck, her scales warm in the sun, her ruby eyes soft as she whispered the name she had given you.

    You see it in N as well, the way he puffs up his leaf-hair, in the quavering of his stance: here is someone who would much rather stretch out in the sun than command a battlefield. And yet here you both are, hoping that your words will do the fighting for you.

    He’s not a very good human, you decide, to have waited all this time just to have a god call the shots. He would much rather take commands than give them. He’d make a much better pokémon.

    “N,” Hilda says, and her tone is the same cautioning one that she used when it was just you standing between her and a mother beartic. Hilda, never seeing then and now that she feared those who had no capacity to harm her. “Please. Don’t. What you seek will harm everyone. Two worlds? Separating people and pokémon? What good will come of it?”

    “When I am done, pokémon will no longer have to suffer for the whims of humans.” There’s an angry cadence on the last word of that sentence, but the rest of his voice is calm. “Believe me, Hilda, when I say this: I would much rather that we live in one world where pokémon and humans can be friends. But after everything I’ve seen, after everything humans have done, I no longer think that humans would allow for that on their own, nor do pokémon have the power to carve it out for themselves. And so the burden falls on me to make humans listen.”

    Poor N, you decide. Hilda has been marked as the Hero of Ideals, but N is the one staking all of his hopes on something that will never change.

    But you can’t help but pity Hilda, who was so good at leading that she never learned to listen. She latches on to the last word of the sentence and nothing else. “Make them? That’s draconic.”

    N is calm when he responds, so calm it’s almost surreal, but beneath the stillness of his voice is a fire brighter than the sun. “Draconic?” Perhaps unintentionally, he imitates her inflection. “Do you know where that word comes from?” He waits. Hilda scowls. “Three hundred years ago humans discovered the land beyond Twist Mountain. At the time it was the nesting ground for wild haxorus, and was known to the native peoples as the Valley of the Dragons.”

    You stiffen, but Hilda doesn’t notice. She can’t notice, not when she’s so entranced by the hypnotic spell of N’s words.

    But you already know how Sagaris’s story ends. Every pokémon does.

    “Unovan settlers led by a human named Draccus Kensington led the routing and subsequent slaughter of the entire colony there. But humans were not strong enough to confront fully-grown haxorus directly, so instead they snuck in at night and smashed their eggs, slaughtered the hatchling axew as they fled. The survivors were hunted down while they mourned. Today the Valley of Dragons is known as Opelucid City, and their people live in blissful ignorance of the blood upon which their city is founded. That is draconic. Draccus’s son, heartbroken by the actions of his father, tried to make peace by enshrining dragons in their town, revering them as sacred, denouncing his father’s name as a synonym of the violence he inflicted, but—haxorus never again nested in the Valley.”

    Dragons are your cousins, your mother told you in those fourteen blissful suns, but they are not you. And you are not them. You will not die a dragon’s death, you will not be the last of a dying breed, she warned you sternly. You must not. Seeds will grow in whatever soil they find. Dragons will die on their hoards. There is no in-between.

    Poor Hilda, who didn’t ask to be born in this system, the same as you. “Don’t twist my words. Pokémon and humans can live together in peace. Just because they didn’t three centuries ago doesn’t mean they can’t now. It doesn’t have to come to this.”

    N waits for a long moment—it doesn’t look like he’s thinking of what to say. You’re curious. Is he waiting for Hilda to say something else? But she doesn’t. Her fists are clenched and her eyes are still on the white stone.

    What is he waiting for?

    So finally, he shakes his head slowly. “It’s not your fault, Hilda. This world was made for you, but you didn’t make it. And it’s not your fault either, Vaselva.” You think at first he misspoke, but he looks directly at you. “This world forced you to be strong enough to fight others, but it didn’t teach you how to be strong enough to fight back. There is strength beyond pure power. That is the truth Reshiram and I will show the world, and we will change it.”

    “Vaselva,” Hilda calls warningly, and you lean forward, but N hasn’t moved to attack, and he doesn’t have any pokémon out. What does she want you to do?

    You realize what he was waiting for in that silence. He paused, and he watched, and he listened—for one of you to tell him why. To stop merely denying his stories, and to instead explain why humans and pokémon could live in harmony. To tell him what had changed three hundred years ago that wasn’t true now.

    She doesn’t get that. For all of her talking she never learned to listen. And for all of his listening, N never learned to talk in a way that humans would understand.

    You … you have to try, right?

    {N, this isn’t what you want. Humans have been cruel to us before, but pokémon and humans are meant to live alongside one another, and you can’t change that! Look at Hilda and me now. If you seek to separate us you are no better than Ghetsis. And.} You freeze. Grateful, at the very least, that only N can hear your words. Hilda would surely withdraw you if she heard what’s about to slip from your mouth. {I’m sorry for what happened to him. I know you’re upset by that.}

    If he is, he certainly doesn’t show it. The second you mention his father, his face is a mask, carved like a cofagrigus, not a single expression showing through the gilding.

    {But don’t you see? His methods were wrong. He tried to force people to change, and that made people reject him.}

    “They rejected me as well, Vaselva. Ghetsis may have tried war, but I certainly tried peace. I’m beginning to think that it’s not our methods they disagree with, but our ideas—and they simply use one of us to excuse the fact that they cannot refute the other.”

    {I …} You can’t bring yourself to say any more. Ghetsis was wrong. You couldn’t force the world to change. Everyone saw what happened when he tried that. And worse, Ghetsis hurt people. He hurt—

    “I’m sorry, Vaselva. Amara didn’t deserve that. No one did,” N says in your silence, and there’s something shining in his eyes, a reflection, regretful? No, it’s sorrow

    Hilda cuts in, her voice hard. “What is she telling you?”

    You coil a little closer to her, hoping to show that you’re still on her side. She needn’t fear. After you were taken from your mother, you and your siblings were moved to Professor Juniper’s lab. There, she gave you all your lifelong mission in a slow, firm voice as you all watched with wide eyes—you were entrusted with these human children, to guide them and defend them through Unova. You were guardians, to be their anchors and their starting point for as long as they would have you.

    Your chest swelled a little with pride when she’d told you that. You, so young, and yet you were to be given your own thing to defend! You never wanted to fight, but you would do it for her, you decided. If your mother trusted you to this woman, and this woman trusted her children to you—then there couldn’t be anything wrong with that, right?

    N’s looking at you again, and the mask of his face is melting. You expect the gaze behind it to burn, but it doesn’t—his silvery eyes are like mirrors, shimmering so you can almost see yourself staring back, earnest and afraid, aching to protect. “When I first saw you in Accumula, and you told me that you would do anything to get her here, I was so surprised. You were so young. Too young to have that choice foisted upon you. But you were—”

    “I’m hardly younger than you,” Hilda shoots back. “You don’t need to condescend me.”

    “I wasn’t,” N says softly, “talking to you.”

    There’s a long silence.

    N doesn’t look away from you. “You were barely a child, and yet you were so thrilled to go on this journey with her. To fight and fall for her until the very end. I couldn’t believe it then and I cannot believe it now, Vaselva.” He emphasizes the last word, as if daring Hilda to challenge him. “We’re older now, and this will probably be the last time I get to ask you. What is it that you want? If you had the choice, would you fight? Does it bring you joy? You fight for her glory and her gain, but are you happy with what you get out of it? Do you feel like you’ve gotten stronger in the ways that matter to you?”

    You twist uncomfortably in place. {I’m happy with her, N. Hilda is a good trainer. She made me who I am.}

    “She made you who you are.” He repeats your words back slowly, chews on them like he’s trying to eat them. Almost sounds sad, if you could believe that a human like him would pity a creature like you. “But are you happier than you would’ve been if you’d just been free?”

    Seeds will grow in whatever soil they find. In this land, your human is your earth, your rock. {Forgive me, N. My species does not deal well in hypotheticals. Either the seed sprouts, or it does not. There is no in-between.}

    It’s a half-hearted answer, and you both know it, but, at the same time—what does he want you to say? You’ll never know what could have been, what might have been. All you know is the world that you were given, the life you chose to carve from it. It’s Hilda’s job to deal with ideals.

    “Yes. You’re right.” He looks back at Hilda, and then at the stone in his hands. “There is no in-between.”

    Cold settles on the edges of your fronds now, curls around you like the beginning of a blizzard. It’s not physical; if anything, the air around you is getting warmer—but his words spark a chill in you that you can’t shake. It’s been gnawing at you this entire time, but now you finally understand: if he summons Reshiram, if they fight, if Hilda doubts here—it will all end.

    Were it any other night, any of the times you’d faced N before, there would be no question that Hilda would find a way to protect everyone. That’s who she is, after all. But here, tonight, with your trainer, who tried to trade her thorns for roses on the same night that N finally found his flame. You’ve been fighting long enough to recognize a losing battle.

    “When I first went to Dragonspiral Tower,” he says, tearing his eyes from the stone and fixing you and Hilda with that withering, mirroring gaze, “and the Light Stone failed to awaken for me, I knew it was because I lacked conviction, but I couldn’t understand why. It was so simple going in. You were the ideal that pokémon and humans could one day change, to live together in harmony without anyone having to be inconvenienced in the meantime, and I was the truth that humans would always make pokémon suffer, that battling is barbaric and wrong. I would make the world listen. And yet the Light Stone refused to respond to me. I wondered, and I doubted—perhaps this is a problem too big for heroes. I am the villain you need to defeat, but you are not mine. Fighting you here and now will not fix the wrongs I see in the world. I could beat every trainer in Unova and still lose.

    “So I realized my victory would not be won through strength of might. I thought perhaps I had the equation backward, and I was the embodiment of ideals while you were truth. I, the ideal that humans should liberate pokémon to create a fairer world; and you, the bitter truth that they never will give up their comforts and entertainment.”

    N hasn’t moved, but in the corner of your eye you can feel Hilda’s hand snaking slowly toward her waist, toward Zekrom, and you know: there will be no coming back from this. Once the dragon is out, once the battle is joined, your world will change forever.

    But N is mercilessly calm, unrelenting and yet serene. “Alder had it right after all, you know? He said something once in a speech that stuck with me for a long time: the ones who change the world are the ones who pursue their dreams. That’s why I knew it had to be you and me, Hilda. Everyone else has settled, one way or another. I watched countless humans tell themselves there is nothing more they can do to improve the status of pokémon. Even—even my father decided he had no other choice than the path fate had given him. And you—I do not know your journey fully, but I know you had many friends along the way who gave up instead of making it here. But you and I are different. I understand that now. There is a fire in me, a spark in you, that drives us to pursue our dreams no matter the cost. The only thing we disagree on is who must pay that price.”

    He’s calling to you, to anyone who will listen. With more than just words. From the bottom of his heart you feel his desperation, his earnestness, his conviction, twining together into one singular thing: his truth.

    He doesn’t have to say the rest of his speech; you already see it written in his heart in letters of flame, but maybe it’s for his benefit, or for hers, or for the stone that’s shuddering in his hands.

    “When I failed here before, I thought it was because I wasn’t worthy, but watching Zekrom awaken for you, I finally understood: I was too idealistic to be the Hero of Truth. I thought that the truth would speak for itself, that humans would understand their cruelty of their actions and pokemon would see the tragedy of their bondage. But you showed me, Hilda. The truth doesn't speak first. Pure truth is an answer. An answer to ignorance. In an ideal world you don’t need a hero of truth, because everyone holds it within themselves, and can speak it for themselves. But when their voices go unheard, when you hide their truth from them—the lone shout into the void becomes a roaring echo, and the truth rages back in response.”

    You hear first the echo, and then the roar, and you know without knowing what’s about to happen next. You can’t stop it. Trying would be like holding a leaf up to shield yourself from a hurricane.

    “I understand now. My heart is convinced and I have no doubts. You are your ideals, and I can only exist in response to them. In your ideal world, power means that you can and will be strong enough to protect those who can’t fight for themselves.” He smiles bitterly. “And I heard your cry, Hilda. From halfway across Unova, I felt the strength of your conviction, the conviction that woke a god and drove them to defend the defenseless alongside you.”

    “N …” Hilda says, and for a single, perfect moment, you think it’ll all work out. She’s finally listening. She’ll understand. But in this moment, the last moment humans have to say something in response, Hilda opens her mouth and finds that the words do not come.

    N waits, and then shakes his head sadly. “But I am the truth that you and I have both spent our journeys learning.” His voice drops, cold. But the room is hot now. He smiles, despite it all. “There is no change without sacrifice. Nothing good comes easily.”

    The stone in his hand splits into two identical pieces, each still slightly curled around the other. N shouts a name.

    “Reshiram! Lend me your strength!”

    The room rockets from the cold of the subterranean chamber to lukewarm, and then as hot as the sands above, and then warmer still, to a blazing inferno. You hold close to Hilda and, for the second time in your life, you watch the birth of a god.

    It’s shameful, perhaps, but in the last moments before Reshiram emerges and the underground chamber fills with blazing light, you aren’t thinking of the truth, or the dragon, or N, or even of Hilda.

    You think of your mother, of what she whispered to you on that sunny day, the warmth reflecting off of your scales as it does even now. What was the name your mother had given you? She’d whispered it to you as you dozed off in the sunlight, but you were so small, so tired. You don’t remember.

    “Vaselva, Leaf Blade!”

    Your mother, your siblings, your sunny days. You lost them all. All you have is Hilda now.

    Hypothetically. What would happen if you disobeyed?

    No. You already know your answer to that. This is why you cannot deal in hypotheticals.

    It’s foolish, defying a god. But you call, and the earth answers. Your leaves glow bright green, so bright you can hardly see.

    You lost everything else. You lost them all. You can’t lose her too.



    p | n
     
    Last edited:
    ii. notorious
  • kintsugi

    golden scars
    Pronouns
    she/her/hers
    Partner
    silvally-grass
    cw: references to violence, blood, death
    ii. notorious

    ※​

    “And Saffir's Protect shatters under the devastating force! We'll need confirmation but—yes, that was quite a spectacular knockout; Alder's recalling his accelgor now. What a comeback from Harmonia! Alder’s down five pokémon, though we’ve seen him come back from worse before—it’s anyone’s game still, but this is certainly a close one!”

    [“Wave! Get closer. I need a better angle when the volcarona comes out.”]

    You swivel obediently, carefully coordinating your fans so that you pitch forward smoothly without catching any of the settling cloud of dust in your rotors.

    “Ladies and gentlemen, for those of you tuning in just now, you’re certainly in for a treat tonight! Champion Alder is facing off against Challenger Harmonia. Alder’s down to his last, while Harmonia’s team is still three strong!”

    Pause, for dramatic effect. Sometimes you think that broadcasting the announcement directly into the closed room of the championship battle is a bit too flashy—the color commentary certainly isn’t for the trainers’ benefit. Alder certainly leans into the manufactured suspense a bit harder than you think is respectful—it’s your job to make it dramatic; it’s his job to fight. He waits three seconds, one eye ticked up to the announcer box, and then tosses an ultra ball high into the air above the scarred battlefield with a grin.

    “And, here it is, folks! Alder’s anchor, the volcarona from ancient history. It’s … Ghibli!”

    Alder always throws a little high, but you know that, so—you’re spot-on with setting the shot composition. When the familiar flash of red clears and coalesces into the curled wings of a volcarona, you’ve got him centered in your camera, no hasty pans necessary. Good. Orange horns twine upward, glinting in an arena that’s deceptively calm—but your camera can pick up the way that the air roils now, burned by the heat that skitters off of the volcarona’s wings, which extend out of the frame like an enormous star.

    You adjust the focus a little, give Markus enough time to cue up the applause track on the broadcast. The air around Ghibli shimmers a bit, which gives you a neat optical trick with soft focus while you let the suspense grow. You’re only a rotom, and a mere camera drone at that, but you understand by now how to draw out the drama.

    You tilt your mics forward to pick up the sound. This new challenger has been particularly difficult; he hasn’t shouted once, so it’s hard to pick up his commands.

    “Dark Pulse. Close range.”

    The challenger’s pokémon twists into action, blurring into a blender that’s barely more than flashes of heads and teeth. If the dark-type understands that he was at a disadvantage against the volcarona, he certainly doesn’t show it. Red claws scrape at the ground, and then he’s racing across the battlefield, halving the fifty-foot gap in a second. The enormous wave of rippling black energy that fires from his arms closes the remaining gap, twisting the shadows of the room into one concentrated wave.

    “Quiver Dance!”

    Markus sounds ravenous as he says, “Harmonia’s pokémon have pushed a strong offensive all match, but Alder’s no stranger to force! This looks like the maneuver he pulled against Shauntal’s chandelure in the semifinals two years ago; if Harmonia doesn’t think of something soon, he’s about to have a very hot situation on his hands!”

    Elegantly, the volcarona twists into the air, six wings tucked close to his body as he spirals up and into position, narrowly dodging a concussive wave of shadow as he does so. The wall behind him craters.

    Alder pushes the offensive. “Flamethrower, Ghibli!”

    “You as well.”

    You get a close-up of the black maw for just a second, focus back on Ghibli’s white-dappled incisors, and then they each erupt into twin bursts of flame, colliding in the middle of the battlefield. You immediately pump power into your fans and lift back. The air suddenly feels dry, and then the wave of heat washes over you. Your onboard temp sensors throw up an incessant alarm. You’re a good rotom but you’ll melt just like the rest if you stay in too long.

    “And what a spectacular collision! Things are certainly about to heat up!”

    He’s cheerful, but aside to you, he’s terse: [“Wave, I need that shot! At least get a top-down view if you can’t get in close.”]

    You shoot to the top of the arena so you can get a wide-angle shot of the two pokémon, who from this height are just a pair of opposing blurs of black and orange in a sea of flame.

    Alder’s unfortunate like this. His battling style leaves … much to be desired as far as collateral damage. You remember Markus’s glee when they finally banned live audiences from his matches for safety reasons—“they need us more than ever, Wave!”—and they finally got better protections for Alder and his challengers, but it’s dangerous to have anyone, even the camera rotom, in the same room when Alder starts calling out massive field-clearing attacks like this.

    But when the fire clears and the room’s brightness recedes to normal—you quickly have to fiddle with the aperture to compensate for the overhead lights—the challenger’s pokémon is nowhere to be seen. There’s just a cloud of smoke. Tricky things, dark types. Always hiding, always with the illusions. And the dark bits don’t show up well without careful attention to the exposure.

    “This is the end, Alder. Acknowledge me as champion,” the challenger says calmly, quietly. It barely picks up on your microphones, so you tilt in closer. His voice reminds you of the way liepard walk through gravel without disturbing a single rock. “Acknowledge that I have won, that pokémon battling is archaic and outdated, and that humans can no longer be permitted to sacrifice their companions to this bloodsport.” You can’t see both eyes from this angle, but there’s a steely glint in one of them, enough to give you pause.

    Ever the optimist, even with his back against the wall, Alder speaks loudly and clearly. Which is good; panning back and forth across a scene like this would be unprofessional, and you’d probably get told off for giving viewers vertigo. “Bloodsport? Stop being so dramatic. Pokémon like battling. It helps them become strong. You’ll never change that.”

    “I’ll change it. When I’m Champion that’ll be my first command.”

    Markus clears his throat, and the sound echoes uncomfortably in the room. “Folks, it looks like we’ve got a battle of both brains and brawn here tonight! Both Champion Alder and Challenger Harmonia seem to be giving us a bit of a breather. Meanwhile, a word from our sponsors!”

    Maybe announcers don’t get it, maybe they’ll cut away from this to a jingle for casteliacones, but you understand perfectly why at least either side would be stalling for time. Alder’s looking around the battlefield alongside his volcarona, trying to get a good lead for where their opponent has managed to hide an entire pokémon.

    And on the other side of the field—when a challenger’s up three pokémon to one, the clock’s in their favor. Every sentence Alder spends talking inches him closer to a forfeit by timer.

    You search the shadows, trying to get a jump on them. Dark-types are tricky. This one likes to hide, and the roiling cloud of soot from the most recent collision of attacks gives him plenty of space to do it in.

    Alder’s scarred forearms emerge from beneath his poncho, fold across his chest. He’s mimicking his volcarona now: perfectly still, coiled up like a spring. “Even if I fall, the League will not listen.” For the first time in their entire fight, Alder’s voice drops until it’s low, deadly, quiet. “You think centuries of tradition will be uprooted over the results of one battle? Defeat me here and you prove nothing except that you raised stronger pokémon.”

    “So if I lose, it’s because I didn’t train my pokémon well enough, and that your superior ideals allowed you to vanquish me. And if I win, I prove true that training pokémon makes them stronger, and me as well.”

    “You really are a dramatic one, aren’t you?” Alder’s smile is wan. You sense the cracks in his persona; you zoom out a little so they don’t show. “I believe you’ll come around eventually, yes. I will never permit Unova to follow someone as extreme as you. Pokémon battling is safe, and it makes people happy, so who are we to take it from them?”

    He hones in on a single word in Alder’s sentence, closes around it like a beartic’s jaws around a basculin. You see his brow furrow. “Safe?” His hand twitches. A signal? Alder doesn’t seem to notice it, but you grab a shot just in case it’ll be useful for the post-match. “You think what we’re doing is safe?” He gestures to the field of fire around them, where patches of flames still burn impotently amongst the rubble.

    “I knew the risk, and so did you. Our pokémon weren’t going to get hurt.”

    “If they did?”

    “They didn’t. I’m not here for imagining,” Alder growls. “Now stop stalling and fight me.”

    “If they did.” His voice is hard as steel. “If you vanquished my team, injured them to defend your title while Unova cheered. Would you call it a bloodsport then?”

    “I would heal them. Or hopefully, you would.”

    “You would heal your friends after you let them get hurt to defend your belief that they should have the freedom to suffer? How kind. Don’t sacrifice too much for our lifelong partners, Alder.” Venom drips from his words. “Truly, your generosity knows no bounds.”

    “Are you done prattling?”

    “Are you done deciding?”

    You count three seconds.

    “Win or lose, the League will not fall today,” Alder says. “Our traditions have withstood centuries and a thousand madmen; one more will change nothing.”

    There’s a long silence. Perhaps everyone here wants to draw things out. You aren’t sure. You wouldn’t know. The champs are the ones calling the shots, after all.

    No. You take it back. This is the instant before thunder strikes. Lightning comes from one cloud, not two. Only one of them is going to control what happens next. Ozone gathers in the air and the sky, a final connection is made, and then—

    “Very well. When you look back on this day, remember your choice, and remember it well, Unova.”

    The shadows beneath the volcarona erupt into a seething mass of heads and teeth, and the black dragon remerges, sinking its fangs deep into fiery wings and pinning the moth to the ground.

    He turns so he’s not just a side profile of green hair, but so he’s looking you straight in the lens, and suddenly he’s seeing straight through those layers of mirrors and glass and straight into your core. One side of his mouth twists into a smile, and when Ghetsis speaks, his words are for his hydreigon, for you, for everyone watching.

    “Take off its wings.”

    The hydreigon obeys immediately. One mouth on each wing, and the dragon pulls, and you can’t watch—

    [“Wave! Focus! I need—”]

    [“Oh my god! Get someone in there!”]

    —but you have to watch—


    Markus is cutting in and out of communication with you, because he’s also screaming into the microphone—“Harmonia, what are you doing?!”—while punching into the phone and sending radio waves across the world, spearing those horrible messages straight through you, needling away as if you had wings that were also being ripped apart but—

    you have to watch.

    You keep the camera on the hydreigon, no fancy tricks, no processing or understanding, just a stationary shot that lets you lose focus while the camera does not.

    Half a dozen radio waves are shooting through the air right now, and because of who and what you are, you pick up all of them. That’s what rotom are good for, after all.

    [“What’s going on in there?”]

    [“I don’t care that it’s against precedent. Let me in there! Open the damn door!”]

    [“The doors aren’t opening. What’s happening?”]

    [“Sicily and I are almost in position. Cover me while I get to the box.”]


    In front of you, not on the radio signals lancing around you, someone is bellowing in rage. They have to be close, since the feedback loop is transforming into a high-pitched squeal on your end, and when you swivel around and focus, there’s Alder staring at the volcarona limp on the ground, his face twisted open into a wordless scream.

    [“Get Marshall, or anyone else who still has a conscious team. We need containment. Challenger has a hydreigon and possibly—”]

    [“I think it’s his cofagrigus. Looks like a Trick Room around the entryway, and a strong one. I can’t break through. Call Shauntal!”]

    [“Wave!”]


    You snap back to reality. The hydreigon isn’t perfectly centered in your sights any more; he’s thrown the volcarona to the ground and—

    “—I do believe that it’s not going to get up,” Markus is finishing on the broadcast for you. His voice is still in its performative cadence, but sends volumes in the spaces between his sentences.

    [“What do you mean you can’t cut the damn feed? Kill it! This is an emergency!”]

    “Oops,” Ghetsis says calmly.

    Across from him, Alder is anything but. When he finally gathers his senses and rips his gaze from Ghibli, he manages to snarl, “Harmonia, what the hell—”

    “Very bad. Bad, Zahhak,” Ghetsis admonishes. He points his cane lazily towards the hydreigon. “Very naughty. Bad pokémon. You know better.” He looks back at Alder and shrugs. “That’s a yellow card, right?” he asks politely.

    “A yellow card?”

    “For excessive force. How was I to know that that was going to hurt your pokémon?”

    “You told your hydreigon to—”

    “Forgive an old man in his age, Alder. I didn’t think that my pokémon was capable of understanding such a complex command.” There’s an unmistakable vicious edge dripping down his voice now, poisoning all of his words. “Well. I suppose I should wait until I get my card. Heal your pokémon in the meantime, Alder,” he says calmly. “Or acknowledge me as Champion.”

    It’s not stopping. You can feel it. There’s something in the waters now; the beartic’s gone beneath the ice, and it will drag this out until the bitter end. You don’t mean to, but you lock eyes with Ghetsis. Or eye, really. All you’ve got is the one drone camera, and all he’s got is the one human eye and the glint beneath his hair. He’s like you, in a sense. A soul that’s learned to inhabit a machine.

    There’s another flash of light, the familiar sound of a pokéball. You swivel away from the hydreigon and his prey—which is a blessed relief in itself—and Alder’s bouffalant emerges.

    [“Wave, shut the broadcast.”]

    Markus’s voice, blaring directly to your onboard comms, is a relief. It’s something you can latch on to. You scramble for something to get him what he wants, but—

    “We will not be silenced. You will keep broadcasting.”

    That’s not Markus speaking over the microphone—over, not directly into. You look into the referee’s box, where the mirrored glint and protective barriers mask almost everything about him except his silhouette, but—there are three figures there now. You don’t recognize the other two at all.

    “Oh dear,” Ghetsis says calmly, casting his asymmetrical gaze up to the box. “It looks like the referee is having some difficulties reaching the pitch.” He grins wolfishly up at Markus. “Don’t worry, my friend. They won’t hurt you. Keep narrating.”

    “What?!”

    “This is a match. You are a commentator. You will not be harmed. Plasma fights for justice, and our voices will not be silenced. Do your duty.”

    There’s a long pause. You hover up and down nervously, take stock of the surroundings in the meantime. The bouffalant is weakened; his normal tangle of thick fur has already been frizzled and worn away from when he successfully managed to tank a few hits from Ghetsis’s eelektross in the previous rounds. The bouffalant had already been knocked unconscious, and the sudden surge in adrenaline won’t change that he can’t fight.

    You access your logs: Alder already used the legal number of healing items this battle. Statistically he carries one extra Full Restore for emergencies, but otherwise—his team isn’t getting up any time soon.

    Ghetsis is looking expectantly at the announcer box.

    Markus continues in a shaking voice: “I don’t know what’s happening, but Alder’s sent out his bouffalant now, and—”

    “I get three yellow cards and a red card before I’m ejected from the match, right?” Ghetsis asks, mockingly. He makes a show of counting on his hands. “And you have how many pokémon who can still stand?”

    Alder doesn’t respond. The bouffalant scrapes one hoof across the ground, prepares to charge.

    “Him as well.” Ghetsis motions with his hand, almost lazily, and the hydreigon lurches forward on six tattered wings that leave bloody trails in the sky, black streaks across your frames.

    You can almost feel Markus’s unease, even though emotion doesn’t get picked up on the radio. Instead what you get is the sharp intake of breath, the unintentional curse that’s ripped out of his mouth. But you don’t get to look away, even though Markus has surely averted his eyes.

    So you have to watch as the hydreigon slams into the bouffalant with bone-crushing force, flinging them into the wall. Cracks spiderweb out from the impact point, and it’s unnecessary and even from here you can hear the whoof as the breath leaves the bouffalant’s chest, and there’s a belated cracking sound as the hydreigon withdraws and lets his opponent fall bonelessly to the ground.

    “Zahhak, again? We’ll have to talk. Two cards in one match? That’s only happened fifteen times in League history.” Ghetsis doesn’t smile. He makes a show of looking at his empty hands instead. “But no one’s even given me my first card yet! How could I possibly know that this match is too violent if no one tells me?”

    Alder’s face is pale. “Ghetsis,” he says, and it sounds like the words are being wrung out of him like water from a wet washcloth. “Please.”

    “Send out your next pokémon,” Ghetsis repeats calmly. “Or denounce this sport as cruel and acknowledge me as Champion.”

    There are glints of tears in Alder’s eyes, his face as pale as the knuckles that curl around the next ultra ball. He gives a wordless yell, and the bouffalant is recalled in the same breath that an escavalier takes its place.

    Ghetsis doesn’t even point this time. All three of the hydreigon’s heads laser on the newcomer at the same time, and you catch a glimpse of the same orange glow for half a second before everything is washed out in fire.

    When the fire clears, there’s a steely husk that glows cherry-red.

    “I will discipline you the same way we would any unruly pokémon.” Ghetsis sweeps one arm out from beneath the cloak, points it at Alder with accusatory finality. “I will train you and the rest of Unova until you understand. Obey me and acknowledge me as your Champion, or continue with this farce, Alder.”

    [“Get the damn door open. Someone has to get in there before someone gets hurt!”]

    There’s a sound like a tiny puff of wind at the wall at Ghetsis’s back, who doesn’t even look before sending out a pokéball that explodes into a hulking blue seismitoad. “Phaedrus. Behind.”

    You almost don’t catch it. There’s a hiss, and then a steady, concentrated jet of fire arcs towards the hydreigon from one of the walls. The seismitoad pounds his fists together, liquidating the earth beneath his webbed feet, and a wall of mud twenty feet high erupts in front of him and the hydreigon. You watch as the mud darkens in color, hardening from the heat, and just before it begins to crack and crumble away, the fire dies down.

    Ghetsis looks up at the announcer box expectantly.

    “T-that’s a hell of a Fire Blast; I can’t even recognize where that would be coming from, and—oh! It looks like Shauntal’s chandelure has found a way through the barrier?” Markus, to his credit, almost makes it sound like this is just a regular match. It’s a good act. So good you can’t tell if he’s acting at all.

    [“Hilda? Hilda, please. Pick up. Something’s going on at the League, and I know you were planning on being in the area … call me back as soon as you can, okay?“]

    The seismitoad pulls down his wall, and half a second later the scales of the hydreigon rush past it in a black waterfall, surging through with the force of an undammed river. You pan across as Shauntal’s chandelure chimes in alarm and begins charging up a ring of fire around herself, tiny wisps of blue flame sparking from the edges of her arms, but the hydreigon is a force of nature, and cannot be stopped by mere heat. One set of jaws grabs the closest arm and twists; you pick up the creak of metal wrenching out of shape, and then the main head goes for the center, snapping through the wispy exterior to reach the purple flame on the inside.

    “Tell me, Alder,” Ghetsis says conversationally over Markus’s commentary, over the brutality behind him. “Does this count as the same match? If Zahhak accidentally hurts Shauntal’s pokémon do I get a third yellow card or do I get one that’s separate? I truly do not know; I studied the rules carefully before I came here and there are no stipulations for how many incidents can be accumulated in a lifetime. You’ve got, what, forty-six? Forty-seven? The one where your volcarona gave that poor unfezant third degree burns in the semis last year was ever so hard to call.”

    “But despite the element of surprise, it doesn’t look like Chandelure can match up against Harmonia’s type advantage here. Yes, now Harmonia’s hydreigon is throwing Chandelure into the air and—”

    A steady barrage of water washes down and slams the chandelure into the ground.

    “—a tag team attack from the seismitoad is all it takes,” Markus finishes. You can almost picture him leaning forward. “Impressive teamwork from the two of those; Harmonia didn’t even give a proper command.”

    He’s clinical. You can barely keep steady as you try to look anywhere but the collection of pokémon scattered across the field, not even recalled.

    “Unova! Hear me and understand!” Ghetsis shouts, as the chandelure collapses. You catch one more shot of Alder slumped to the ground in shock and then whip your lens back over to Ghetsis. His cane is planted into the ground like a tree. Behind him, the seismitoad is systematically pummeling Alder’s escavalier, chipping off chunks of steel and sending them flying. Ghetsis doesn’t even look as a shard of armor whizzes past him. He smiles calmly to your camera. “Nothing that I have done today is illegal under the League rules. Nothing that I have done today is even uncommon under League practices—a gym leader battles up to eight times per day; excessive force is bound to happen. Everything I have done is absolutely cruel. But under a system that offers amnesty to trainers who make mistakes in battles, under a system that assumes that the burden falls on pokémon both to inform us of their pain and moderate how they inflict it, I can cause pokémon to suffer.” He strolls over to Alder, who is kneeling on the ground, murmuring something inaudible.

    [“Hilda? It’s me, Cheren. Bianca said you weren’t answering your phone, and I just wanted to check. You aren’t trying anything stupid, are you?”]

    “Two thousand years ago Unova was shaped by a battle of legends, and its destiny was dictated by a legendary trainer who tamed that dragon. Fifteen years ago Alder defeated Maevis and received in return the crown of Champion. With the new Champion came a whole new wave of reforms—more lax laws for gym licensing, relaxation of punishments on possession of Class C pokémon without proper permits, blanket defunding of conservation efforts for endangered species. And where was your outrage? Was the Champion’s throne not a position of power not two decades ago, when the man who wielded it only had quiet ideas that didn’t conflict with your own? Why didn’t you fear the regime change then?”

    Ghetsis stamps his cane on the ground, narrowly avoiding crushing Alder’s hand. You can’t help but zoom in on that for a moment, hold it in sharp focus. It’s an image of dusty hands on shattered ground. In one frame you can see desperation, poignance, the white knuckles of someone who’s too determined to fall here. And in the next frame you see dirt beneath the fingernails, cracks in the skin.

    Something has to give.

    “I stand accused of pushing too hard for the change I want, and perhaps Alder is correct. I find it far more accurate to say that I push too loudly, that I remind you what the price of your comforts and your entertainments truly are.” He points with a thin but muscled arm towards the limp form of Alder’s volcarona, who still hasn’t gotten up. “Accidents like this happen all the time. If enough of them accumulate you stop seeing bodies and you start seeing numbers. By the end of the day, a team of specialists will have helped that pokémon regrow his wings; by tomorrow, he will physically be able to fight just as well as he could today. The volcarona is lucky; his trainer is wealthy and high-profile, and as such can bypass the normal waiting times that such an intensive operation would require. Is that what you want to hear? Is that the truth you would rather know? Forgive me if I fail to stay quiet, Unova. For you it is just another match; for pokémon, who must live in the gaps between your bursts of glory, the violence is all they know.”

    [“Hey, it’s me, I can’t answer the phone right now, so leave a message after the beep!”]

    [“Hilda, honey, are you okay? Please call me. I’m watching the news right now.”]


    “Accidents like this happen, but systems were not built on accident. You claim that the actions of a few abusive trainers do not stain the glory of all of the good ones. But all of you have watched something like this happen. All of you know a trainer who went just a little too far, or didn’t exercise enough restraint, or pushed just a bit too much. But did you stop them, or did you remain quiet? And if you closed your eyes to a pokémon’s pain, what does that make you?” His hydreigon rises up behind him, eyes glittering, blood dripping down his chins. “Justice may be blind, but you do not have to be. Legends spoke of the day that a new hero would tame the black dragon and change Unova. Open your eyes, and I will be that hero for you.”

    It’s a good camera angle, you can’t help but note distantly. You tilt up a little so that Ghetsis looks a little more intimidating.

    “Hear me, Unova! I am Ghetsis, your new champion! What I could not take with words I will take with force. Release your pokémon, and join me in my new era where pokémon are liberated from humans!”

    [“Hilda, please—”]

    There’s a crumbling from the corner, and one of the walls finally gives way. Roots tear open the ground, knocking out columns and sending sections of the wall tumbling to the floor.

    “Hyper Beam, Vaselva,” says a child’s voice, and the emerging serperior opens her mouth wide before unleashing a scorching ray of purplish-black energy that clips the hydreigon in four of its six wings and sends it spiraling chaotically toward the ground.

    “Hang on folks, I’m getting information from downstairs right now, it looks like someone has broken through the cofagrigus’s trick room and is fighting Ghetsis! Wow, and she’s certainly putting her serperior through its paces tonight; it just narrowly dodged another Fire Blast from Ghetsis’s hydreigon here.”

    He’s so casual how can he be so casual there are pokémon here that are going to die

    The girl’s serperior is like a green ribbon, there one instant and then whipping through the air and unfurling to impact the hydreigon with her tail, every inch of her body crackling with green light. She uncoils and springs backward, wrapping protectively around her trainer as the seismitoad smashes the ground and the floor erupts into fractures.

    You realize, then, what Ghetsis is trying to say. Markus can treat this like just another match because, to him, it is. It doesn’t matter if Ghetsis is purposefully trying to maim his opponent’s pokémon or not; the outcome is still the same. For you, at least. For the humans? The intent mattered to them, somehow. As if the pain was somehow less if it was inflicted on accident.

    “It looks like … it looks like this newcomer might stand a chance? Ghetsis’s team is starting to show some cracks. And I’m getting word that her name is Hilda Verdandi, and she’s a rising star from Nuvema! Well, that’s certainly one way to make a League entrance!”

    And yet even as Markus slips, perhaps unthinkingly, back into his element as two evenly-matched challengers clash, the calm demeanor is gone from the battlefield. Hilda’s face is a pale smudge, shielded behind a flurry of Leaf Blades. Ghetsis’s mouth is twisted into a tight snarl as he throws another ultra ball into the air, and a red-armored figure emerges alongside his two companions, brandishing blades. Ghetsis points—no orders, just a target—and the bisharp runs forward, the steel of his boots pounding heavily into the ground.

    “Flame Charge, Amara!” Hilda frantically raises a pokéball in front of herself like a shield. There’s a flash of red light, and her zebstrika emerges, hooves already wreathed in smoke. As the zebstrika careens forward, her hooves spark into flame, and that’s all the time she has before the bisharp is upon her. The zebstrika brays in alarm as steel sinks into flesh, and she sparks self-defensively. Hilda calls for a counter, and this time the sparks coalesce and erupt from the zebstrika tail in a controlled beam, forcing the bisharp back—

    “A well-positioned Discharge commanded by Verdandi gives Zebstrika some time to breathe,” Markus chimes in. You can’t help but focus on how her flanks are heaving, blood mixing in with the black and white stripes that run down her sides. Whatever time she has to breathe isn’t enough.

    “I’ll take my third yellow card now. Zahhak. The girl.”

    The hydreigon has arced high above in the chaos, and all three heads now release a coordinated torrent of flame. “Jericho, Protect!” Hilda screams, and a reuniclus emerges just in time, cloaking them both in a scintillating shield of blue and green light. The jet of fire splays harmlessly off of it, but even from here you can see the heat—the walls where it’s been redirected start to glow like the sun.

    [“The doors aren’t opening. What’s happening?”]

    “I don’t believe it! It would seem that Harmonia is attacking her directly!” Whatever brief burst of energy Markus got back from Hilda’s arrival has dissipated immediately; the tense, terse air is back.

    [“Medics! I need medics in that room! Immediately!”]

    Ghetsis doesn’t even look up at the announcer’s box, but you can feel that this next statement is meant for the two of you, for the thousands watching. “When a pokémon is forced to withstand an attack of this caliber, that is cause for sport. Celebration, even! But when it is turned on a human, you suddenly realize how cruel it is. Unova! How many more pokémon must suffer before we realize that they, too, feel pain?”

    [“Get a strike squad; that man is going to kill her!”]

    [“Somebody, cut the damn feed! We can’t have her die on national television!”]


    Her reuniclus’s shield is starting to splinter and crack. But Ghetsis isn’t done yet, and evidently neither is the hydreigon—while the dragon spews fire, he spews words with an equal, raging intensity. “If she burns, will you cheer her on to fight through it? If she falls will you beg her to fight through the pain so that you can watch it happen, safe and comfortable from the sidelines? If she faints, will you shout to her, ‘Come on! Get up!’? Which one of you will run into this room and card me for excessive force?” The one eye he has left is furious and wide, and yet—you can see it perfectly—there’s no madness in there. This isn’t a madman. This is someone who knows exactly what he’s doing. “Minutes before, Unova, you cheered when this very same thing happened to Alder’s accelgor. Will you do the same now? Don’t worry, she’ll only pass out. I will be lenient. My hydreigon is well-trained; there is only a minimal risk of death. With a bit of healing she should be as good as new. I’ll even be generous and pay for the cost of her treatment myself.”

    The reuniclus’s arms are buckling. You can see him trying, but the simple fact is that his body simply isn’t equipped to have this much strain. The hydreigon is all the raw power of a freight train, times three. He’s not going to hold.

    “If you think this is too barbaric for a child, that a non-zero risk of death is too high, that healing pain does not indemnify the inflictor, consider your simple hypocrisy and understand that you do not view pokémon as your equals.”

    The zebstrika is struggling to her feet, but the bisharp has perforated her so thoroughly with holes that her legs barely hold up. Quivering, she fires a tiny pulse of electricity towards the hydreigon, just enough to barely color the air, but then the seismitoad crashes back down in the way, his stern face impassive as the charge fizzles harmlessly over his body. He picks up the zebstrika, who brays frantically to Hilda, but there’s no response, and—thud—the electric-type hits the wall and doesn’t get back up.

    Over in the corner, the serperior is struggling mightily against Ghetsis’s eelektross—you didn’t even notice when he joined the fray. The two serpentine pokémon have twisted themselves into one enormous knot; the eelektross has his mouth clamped over the grass-type’s head and is periodically pulsing her with static shocks to keep her from moving, but she’s still flailing limply across the ground, desperately reaching towards her trainer.

    The fire rages, swirling around the sphere like a river.

    “Ghetsis, please!” Alder begs over the sound of the flames. “You’ve made your point!”

    But you notice that he hasn’t gotten up, he’s done nothing to put himself between the child and the flames, he hasn’t even given Ghetsis the one thing he wanted and relinquished the throne. No. He’s still prone on the ground, too weak from his own injuries, which seem so paltry compared to the abuse heaped on Hilda’s pokémon, but they still have to keep fighting—

    [“Wave! I need that shot! Get close to her!”]

    And Markus isn’t doing anything either; you’re the one who has to get close while he stays safe behind the protection of the box and its layers and layers of deflective shields, and that hardly seems fair; you can’t help but notice that he’s only nervous when the humans are in danger, a discrepancy that he’s surely unaware of and surely doesn’t mean

    You don’t look at Hilda. Instead you look at the volcarona, six bloody crescents lining the scaly down on his back; you look at the zebstrika slumped in a pile in the wall, her legs so mangled she’ll probably never walk again; you look at how Shauntal’s chandelure is twisted into an almost unrecognizable wreck of wrought iron with purple fire barely flickering at the core—

    [“Wave! Stop looking at them! I need you to point at the girl! Now!”]

    But if he needed it that badly, surely he’d take the risk and hold the camera himself, right?

    [“Wave!”]

    And with the name he sends a burst of raw, unfiltered high-pitched noise, large enough in magnitude that it washes out your other thoughts; it’s not really enough to hurt a creature like you, but definitely enough to startle, and instinctively you turn to where he’s directing, which is a blessing and a curse both, because your unfortunate timing is about to broadcast—

    The shield drops.

    In its place is a glistening dark sphere, curled tight. Flames arc harmlessly off of it, and before your lens it unfurls like black sails on a ship, forming sturdy wings, muscled arms, glinting crimson eyes, a mouth full of teeth. A screeching sound fills the air, almost like a jet turbine, and then the creature opens its mouth and the screech is twined with an enormous roar as a dragon spreads itself wide, as a god is born.

    You almost drop out of the sky. The hydreigon halts his assault despite himself. Over in the corner, the eelektross and the serperior stop their fighting immediately, looking like a pair of guilty purrloin caught mid-theft.

    “I don’t believe it! Is that … Zekrom?”

    The humans don’t understand it. But in that roar, in a language that transcends any sort of words you could pin to it, there is a single command.

    CEASE.

    “Ladies and gentleman, I do believe that’s none other than the pokémon of legend, Zekrom! That’s incredible—

    You tune Markus out. A god is here, and that is all that matters now. He can shock you a million times but it’ll be pitiful compared to the fury of what stands now.

    Zekrom turns to the hydreigon, whose three heads are snapping in different directions. {Explain,} says the god simply, in the dialect of dragons.

    For the first time in this whole ordeal, the hydreigon speaks. {I fight so my brethren will not be in chains. While you slept, our people suffered. I sought to right this wrong.} There is an appropriate amount of reverence in his voice, but it’s laced with fury. {Forgive me, dear sibling. This is all I know how to give.}

    There is a long, heavy silence after he invokes those words. Every pokémon in the room feels it.

    Zekrom snarls in response, and then casts a bloody gaze around the room. Takes it all in. You see the skin above the fangs curl back instinctively at the sight of the downed pokémon on both sides, and then finally, the gaze settles back upon Hilda. {You called to me, Hero of Ideals. I heard in your call the purest future I have ever felt dreamed in thousands of years. You have been tested. I find you worthy. But explain to me. Why does the future you envision require this?}

    All the pokémon in the room have frozen, waiting with baited breath for her response.

    “Fusion Bolt,” she says in a shaking voice, pointing towards hydreigon with a shaking finger. There is ash streaked in her hair and her face is stained with sweat.

    {She means no harm!} cries the serperior, straining. {Please, do not take offense! She can’t understand you. But she’s a good human—}

    Zekrom fixes the serperior with a long stare, and then looks away. {Where is Reshiram?}

    {Slumbering, still,} replies the hydreigon when no one else answers. You can’t place it, but it almost sounds like he’s bitter.

    {I will not harm my own mortals without provocation,} Zekrom grates. You can feel a vibration in every piece of sheet metal on this body you’ve chosen to inhabit; it rumbles like a great seismic wave. One claw points forward. {My fight is with the Hero of Truth alone. This is your only warning.}

    The hydreigon growls, but makes no movement forward to attack.

    For a single, delusional moment, everything is going to be okay, everyone is going to stand down, and words will prevail.

    The floor beneath the hydreigon erupts. An enormous, red-scaled creature that you recognize as Grimsley’s krookodile appears, bearing the unconscious body of a cofagrigus in her jaws; behind the krookodile, the slender form of a mienshao sprouts forward and plants her foot in the hydreigon’s head. The hydreigon reels backward, already weakened from the previous fights, and he struggles in midair to regain his bearings.

    “Night Slash!” Ghetsis commands, gesturing wildly at his bisharp—but there’s no single target, and even if there were, the steel-type is staring reverently at Zekrom through red-lidded helmet.

    Marshall’s conkeldurr crawls from the hole to stand alongside his teammate, and there’s a flash of light signifying a teleport that precedes Caitlin’s arrival, flanked by her gothitelle. “You’re outnumbered,” she intones. You’ve filmed her matches a dozen times and this is the most emotion you’ve ever seen from her. “Surrender.”

    Ghetsis tilts his chin up. “Caitlin. You’re an empath. You could read your parents’ minds when you were six, they say. Haven’t you ever felt your pokémon’s pain?”

    “You’re a madman, Ghetsis. I will waste no more time with you.”

    But he’s got a point, hasn’t he? Has she felt it, and ignored it? Or did she never think to reach out in the first place?

    In the corner, the serperior slowly gets up. Maybe she can’t see it, but from your angle across the field, you can—her tail, which still isn’t fully in control and flickers with the last offshoots of the eelektross’s paralysis, strays too close to a support column, and then spasms.

    The beams were already weakened from when the krookodile burst in. The champion’s room is reinforced to take all sorts of abuse, but an elite-tier krookodile tunneling in directly through the floor was probably out of scope. You understand that. You’re not an analysis rotom so you couldn’t do a proper report, but half a second later it’s clear that you wouldn’t have been fast enough regardless. The stone crumbles away, and a section of the roof collapses in an instant, directly above the hydreigon.

    The humans shy back. That’s when you decide for sure that Ghetsis isn’t a human. Maybe he’s a machine like you, maybe not—but when instinctively all of the other humans crouch away from the incoming disaster, Ghetsis is the only one to reach forwards, along with you, and his bisharp, and even Hilda’s serperior.

    But you’re too slow. All of you are. The ceiling plummets. There isn’t time to move, to speak. You watch one set of eyes look upward, widen in alarm, and then the hydreigon vanishes from your view, replaced with a pile of concrete and rebar.

    The sound from Ghetsis’s mouth is inhuman, too.

    And then, there is silence. Ghetsis hangs his head low. Raises his hands high.

    You watch it all.

    Ghetsis is escorted out of the building in handcuffs. A medical team arrives for Alder. Hilda limps away with the god of Unova clipped to her belt. The smoke clears. Markus is still babbling on, almost like it’s the post-commentary of any other match, and you file him out as background noise. You linger on the pile of rubble.

    The announcement comes on the evening news. Both Hilda and Alder are set to make speedy recoveries. Alder’s volcarona will never battle again; the damage was too severe. Neither will his bouffalant or escavalier, or Hilda’s zebstrika, all three of whom passed away due to the injuries they sustained.

    You weren’t allowed to focus on it during the match, so you do it long after the broadcast goes down and Markus quits his commentary to let Unova whisper amongst itself. Alder and Hilda almost died. The League was compromised. Zekrom walks the earth again. That’s what everyone else is talking about, anyway, in the radio waves that pierce through you, that you no longer have the energy to transmit or translate.

    Your mind is pulled in to this one treacherous thought like a planet on the event horizon of a black hole, and there’s no escaping it:

    It isn’t right. It isn’t right that Ghetsis, who called the shots, gets to walk off to trial, while the blood of his hydreigon slowly goes cold and seeps into the dirt.



    p | n
     
    Last edited:
    • Heart
    Reactions: Pen
    iii. nuestro
  • kintsugi

    golden scars
    Pronouns
    she/her/hers
    Partner
    silvally-grass
    author's note 6/16/2020: chapter substantially overhauled for better consistency and internal logic!
    iii. nuestro

    ※​

    {I’m sorry,} you say politely when you’re released from the void you’ve come to recognize as a pokéball. {I think there’s been a mistake.} You shift uneasily back and forth between your three legs. When no one responds, you take a good long look at the people around you. {I can’t be here. I need to go north. Migration is happening soon, and if I miss it, I will not be able to catch them before the paths around Twisting Mountain become impassible and icy with the winter. I will be going now.}

    Your gaze is drawn first to the human. He’s taller than you—but then again, most humans are. You think. You haven’t really seen that many, just the one that was yours. You can’t really see all the way up to his face, so you look at his shoes instead. They’re a bit frayed on the edges. The rest of him blurs into progressively less focus as you look up—he has blue on his legs, and then the rest of him is a white blob with a smudgy face and a mop of black fur on top. But you can still feel his eyes roving across your form, sizing you up. The feeling of being watched makes you stop fidgeting despite yourself.

    At his side is a small, blue humanoid clutching at a pair of scallops. Behind them is a smug-looking, slightly smaller green biped wearing leaves. You’ve heard stories of pokémon like these, but those stories never came with names. They remind you of gemstones, with the way that their colors pop against the white walls. A blue one and a green one.

    Mmm. Those will work for names, for now.

    Around you, a shiny cave. The walls are smooth. You can’t make out the details on the walls; they’re too far away and you aren’t used to seeing this many lights at once.

    You aren’t sure how you ended up here. The last thing you remember was trailing behind Spur a bit and then the sucking sensation of a pokéball, and then—

    Panic begins to set in. Where are you? How long have you been in the pokéball? Where is your old human? Did he abandon you? You squint around the room, trying to find a trace of his mossy hair. He’ll come bursting through the door any minute, explain the situation for you, make things right.

    Right?

    {You speak. Who?} the blue one asks. Gruff-sounding voice, like he’s been gargling rocks for an hour. You pity him.

    You shift your weight on your legs. Not just the voice—his words are hard to parse, too. But you do your best. {Hello. My name is Carnel.}

    You look at the human, since usually they call the shots. He doesn’t look back. He’s pulled out a strange glowing box and is staring at it.

    There’s a long pause. The blue one points to himself and says, {Ico.} His paw gestures to the green one beside him. {Maxis.} Now he points somewhere else in the corner, out of your rather limited field of view. {Ambrella.} Another pause. {You speak, Boldore. Who?}

    You didn’t answer his question, apparently, but somehow he managed to answer three of yours. You aren’t quite sure how you managed to get yourself here.

    {Who you want speak?} Ico repeats.

    Oh. Yes, his grammar is quite bad but you can piece together what he’s trying to say. {The human. I want to speak to the human.}

    {Cheren?} the blue one tilts his head. Beside him, the green one murmurs something you don’t understand, and the blue one responds with more incomprehensible words.

    There’s a long silence.

    And then the green one chatters something else, and this time there’s no mistaking the laughter in his voice, even if the words don’t have meaning. His tail flicks back and forth in a motion that you take as amusement, and the way that his face contorts into a grin is unsettlingly human-like.

    {To our trainer? You speak?}

    Is that a trick question? Perhaps. Do you answer it anyway? Yes. {Well. I expected him to answer. All good humans should.} Your last one did, after all.

    Ico blinks back at you, and you aren’t sure if perhaps he can’t find the words to respond, or if he never had them to begin with.

    {What kind of trainers have you had?} a voice says from the corner.

    You pivot slowly on your three legs so as to better see the newcomer, who delicately picks her way into your field of view on four spindly legs. She carries herself like no pokémon you’ve seen in the caves before—she’s light on her feet, like she doesn’t trust the earth beneath. Behind her, a triangular-tipped tail hovers like a different entity, flicking back and forth through the air, its tip floating three feet from the back of her head.

    Her skin, too, is like nothing you’ve ever seen. It’s fur-clad like the webspinners, but where they were golden, she is like a gemstone. One of your kind was born different; the rocks of his body were not the bold colors of ore and gold, but were a deep, vibrant—you aren’t sure what word to use for the color. It is between clear sky and blood. That is her color.

    {H-hello,} you say, when you realize you’ve been staring at her for far too long. {My name is Carnel.}

    {Tourmaline,} she responds frostily.

    This seems to get Ico’s attention once more. {Ambrella,} he corrects.

    {My name is Tourmaline,} says Tourmaline, looking firmly at you. {Cheren calls me what he wants. He will call you what he wants as well. Best decide now which one you want to keep.}

    You look at this one. The longer you stare, the more there is to see. The fuzziness of her body is splattered with rings of gold, like the one that you had when you were a younger rock. {Well, I’m sorry to inconvenience you,} you say, and shift your weight a few more times than is strictly polite, {but there’s been a mistake. I need to be going. Could you translate that for me?}

    Her tail goes dangerously still. {Translate? Between you and Ico?}

    {Between us and the human. My last human understood me, and the rest of our team. If Cheren cannot understand me, surely he will listen to you?}

    Ico whispers something to the green one, and they both laugh at you again. He repeats in the same broken syllables, mashing them together with all the wrong rhythm so you can hear: {Fool.} The dewott smooths his palms on the darker blue scales that border his legs. You wonder if it was an evolutionary trait that made his kin resemble humans, or if this was just an accident.

    {The human will not understand you.} But Tourmaline is staring at you. Her eyes glitter from the depths of her face. {I learned the dialect of caves from … from a time with a previous human, who worked with many of your kin.} Hmm, yes, now that she mentions it, you can see how she pitches her sentence the wrong way. She forgets to pause midway through her sentences to ponder the end. She flicks her tail toward the other two pokémon. {The dewott and the simisage prefer the dialect of forests. For your language, Ico’s tongue is unpracticed but his ear is sound. Maxis is deaf to you, and likely will be for some time.} One of her ears twitches, and an edge of amusement slips into her voice. {You must forgive him; he’s a slow learner.}

    Oh, that’s interesting. All of the pokémon you’ve known in your entire life spoke the one language, but you’ve never really gone too far from your home before this. There were a few who passed through the caves with other words on their lips, but you never quite considered that they would have others of their kind.

    You look over. The human—Cheren—still has his face buried in the box. The glow casts a strange light around his eyes, makes them even harder to see. He’s frowning at it with intense concentration, wrinkles in his forehead like dried mud. He looks up at the sound of your rumbling, and then looks back into the device again.

    That settles it. {Then I will go,} you say.

    {Ambrella,} the dewott grates, but he doesn’t stop you.

    Tourmaline hisses something at Ico in a language you don’t understand. You understand a single word: Tourmaline.

    You look away from the human and back at her. {What are you telling him?}

    Tourmaline looks at you smugly. {That Cheren is not my trainer, and cannot name me—} she pauses. A good pause. It reminds you of how your siblings speak {—and that I suspect he is not your trainer either.}

    But her suspicions won’t help you go back home. He needs to hear. {Can you tell Cheren that, then?}

    {Cheren caught many boldore before he found you. If he’s kept you around this long it probably means you’re strong in the ways he wants.} There’s something infecting Tourmaline’s voice now. It reminds you of rot. {Ico says he’s … particular like that, with those of us he chooses to keep.}

    It’s not an answer though, is it? If he wants you but you don’t want him?

    {Seventh,} Ico grates. {You lucky. Can fight hard with us now—}

    “All introduced?” Cheren breaks into the conversation. “Great,” he says before you can respond. “Glad you’ve met the team. I’m Cheren.”

    Your name is Monolith, he tells you. He’s your trainer. He has four other pokémon: a dewott, a simisage, a tranquil, and a liepard. The liepard is named Ambrella. The tranquil is being treated for some wounds he got in a previous fight.

    He wants to get stronger. His goal is to be the strongest trainer in all of Unova. He’s been trying to beat a friend of his who has a powerful flyer, but he keeps losing. But that’s what you’re for.

    You’re a boldore right now. He’s trying to figure some things out but he wants to make you evolve.

    You aren’t really sure what any of that means—except—you probably will miss the migration.

    This won’t do. You look at Cheren after his explanation, and then, while he looks back at his glowing box for a moment, you turn resolutely and begin scuttling towards the exit of this strange, white cave.

    {Stop.} You turn around to see Ico glaring at you. {Stay.}

    {I am going,} you tell him firmly.

    His eyes are black dots that narrow to thin slits. He doesn’t say anything else, just reaches out with one paw and tugs on Cheren’s pants.

    Cheren looks down, and then at you. You’re halfway to the exit. He fumbles for something at his belt, and points the pokeball, and that’s the last you see.

    ※​

    “Come on, Monolith. Rock Throw!”

    He doesn’t let you walk from place to place. That’s frustrating. Instead, he sends you out in the middle of a large clearing and has you practice different techniques, trying to get you to aim them at trees. He’s named each movement and made it into an attack, and he’s codified them in the little glowing box that he holds in his hands, and he wants you to use them again and again until they’re perfect.

    But your last human didn’t make you do that. He let you pick the moves you wanted. And if you told him you didn’t want to fight, he listened, and let you stop.

    There is no concept of practice in caves. That must be a Cheren thing, you decide. This little speck of a creature.

    You know what he’s asking you to do. You’ve done it before. Once, a strange pokémon appeared in your cave, its body made of four stony arms. It rolled around and ate the young roggenrola that were too slow to flee. You aren’t sure where it came from—strayed from a traveling human, perhaps—but, alarmed at the intrusion, you and your siblings gathered together all of your energy and flung stones at it until it fled. If it wanted the rocks so badly, it could have them.

    But that was for a reason, and even then, channeling the earth is dangerous. After many years a roggenrola may shapechange, trade two legs in for three. Once you’ve done that, your body is permanently studded in biotites—your blue becomes a mix of ore and orange. The biotites let you speak to the earth. Inside each crystal is the potential for great strength, but you must be careful with it. Use the power too callously and the earth may punish you for it. She doesn’t do it directly, no: she lets you take as much from her as you want. But if you take too much, she will forsake her structure and collapse on top of you. You ask for the earth’s help as a last resort; otherwise, you solve your problems without her help.

    “C’mon, Monolith!”

    There’s a boulder in front of you, a little bit bigger than you. It’s different than the kind in your cave. You could find out more by touching it, but even from a distance you notice no familiar frizzle of electric energy wrapped around it. Granite, maybe. It has flecks of black crystal, and it’s half-submerged in the dirt. There’s another, smaller piece of rock next to it, and a few more scattered around the clearing.

    You won’t throw it. That would be rude. How could you? The rock came here for a reason. Clearly it does not want to be thrown, not if it dragged itself here and buried itself in six inches of mud.

    Behind you, Cheren. The one Tourmaline says might not be your trainer. “Rock Throw!”

    You don’t want to. Your last human understood that, so this one will as well. You let a fraction of the power flood through you; your biotites glow a faint orange. One of the baby rocks glows in response, calling to you, listening to you call back.

    Yes, it certainly feels like granite. {Pardon me,} you tell the rock.

    The rock hums back and moves where you ask it to.

    “Great job, Monolith!”

    You ask the earth to let the baby rock hover up and stack on top of the big one. The earth agrees, and the small rock floats to sit on top of the big one. You tilt your head. Yes, from this angle—

    “No Monolith, you have to throw it.”

    Your biotites glow again, and you ask a few more rocks to join in. You let one support a slightly bigger one; this little strange one with a funny lip tucks under the one that’s mostly micah. An arch starts to form, and then a small tunnel, and then a little path leading up to the cleft in the boulder. Yes. That’s the shape, you’re sure of it. This is good. This is a good way to show him. You direct a small pebble to hover by the tunnel you’ve formed, and then you scuttle over to your replica of your cave and turn to Cheren expectantly.

    {My cave,} you say. A big pause, so it can sink in for him better, since he seems a little slow. {This is my cave.} You let the small pebble by the entrance of the tunnel wiggle a little, and then you direct it to roll into the entrance, where the rest of its brothers and sisters are waiting. {Please let me go back to my cave.}

    All of the little pebbles rattle in excitement when their brother comes back. You could direct them to file out of the cave now, go very very far away from this place so that when the snows start to come they can all stay warm, but—

    “Hilda!” Cheren shouts. “How was Icirrus? Finally got your badge?”

    —he’s not listening any more.

    “Do you even look at the news?” a female voice calls back. You frown and try to place it. Have you heard her before? “Team Plasma was meddling up in Dragonspiral Tower. He—they tried to summon Reshiram.”

    “Reshiram?”

    “Dunno. Juniper kept saying big dragon, lots of fire.” She pauses. Another good pause. You could fit an entire mountain in the gap there. “It didn’t work.”

    “Figures. Bunch of thugs like them can’t do anything right.” A bit of venom enters his voice there, but truthfully it sounds like he doesn’t really care what this other human has to say. He shifts his weight to one leg. You recognize what that movement means: he’s been waiting to ask this next question for a while. “So. Wanna fight?”

    You’ve battled before, with your other human, so you aren’t completely surprised when a few minutes later something big is in front of you, scraping a hoof across the ground. It sparks like webspinner, but it has stark colors, like veins in stone. Black and white. A dash of thunder. Her nose-holes flare when she sees you.

    You sidestep a little closer to your boulder to protect it.

    “Wild Charge, Amara!” the human commands.

    {Hi, I’m Carnel,} you say politely, looking at her.

    She doesn’t respond. By the time the words have left your mouth, she’s already tackling you full-on, her body wreathed in sparks. Arcs of blue electricity jitter up your carapace. You shy back as they explode upon your skin; there’s pain in your shoulder. One of your biotites is loose.

    “Rock Throw!”

    A new thought occurs to you. Tourmaline said that you were strong in the ways Cheren wanted. That was why he kept you. But if you weren’t? If you didn’t fight? Tourmaline also said she suspected Cheren wasn’t your trainer. You can show him you believe that too.

    Your biotites glow, and you firmly wiggle the pebbles at the base of your miniature cave. The pebbles there are happy because they are all sticking together. {Home,} you say slowly. {I want to go home.}

    The Amara crashes down. A cloud of dirt erupts, and her hooves rip furrows in the ground with the force of the impact. She bowls into you, wild sparks in every direction, and you’re sent flying back, straight into the big boulder, which fractures along with a bit of your rear leg and some of the stone near your head. Your fuzzy vision goes fuzzier for a second.

    When you blink, your eyes don’t clear—the ground beneath you is fractured. Wait, no. Blink again, and it’s still broken. The pebbles are scattered in every direction. You look behind at the big boulder in dismay; where you hit it, you cleaved it straight in two.

    “Discharge, Amara. Close range.”

    She brays in frustration, and another bolt of electricity erupts from her mane. This time it spears you straight through the shoulder, hitting the same damaged spot.

    “C’mon, Monolith!” Cheren shouts. “You have to hit her. Stop missing!”

    You look back nervously. Can’t he see what’s about to happen? If you so much as—

    You shift your weight, and the stalk of crystal supporting one your damaged biotites snaps.

    You don’t even think. You immediately seize it with a tendril of seismic power and fling it as far away from yourself as possible. It spirals through the air in a flash of orange, and lands in front of Amara’s feet.

    Oh. Oh no.

    The damaged fragment explodes immediately on impact. You shy back, a wordless chatter of alarm escaping you. The light is bright, angry. It burns at your eyes; you aren’t meant to look at the earth’s power directly. She gives freely, as she always does, even if you don’t want her to, even if you didn’t mean to make anyone get hurt, so—

    “Great work, Monolith! I knew you could do it!”

    —when you look back again, Amara has vanished, and the human is fiddling with something in her belt.

    “Nice boldore, Cheren. Is it new?”

    Cheren shouts back, “Yeah, I just picked it up in Chargestone Cave. He’s got some power. Where’s your archeops? I thought we could let our rock types duke it out.”

    “Oh?” The trainer across from you—Zelda? Wilhma? Human names are hard; no wonder Cheren had to make up his own—holds up her hand, another pokéball at the ready. This human is full of good pauses. “Long story.”

    “Get ready,” Cheren says behind you. “Rock Throw as soon as you see it, just like last time.”

    See what? There’s a sudden tenseness that’s slipped into his voice, like he expects—

    “Vaselva! Leaf Blade!”

    You look back at the scattered pebbles, all so far from their little home. Waiting to be together again.

    No. You won’t fight this one. You brace yourself.

    There’s a green blur in front of you, so fast it barely catches the light, contorting its body into impossible shapes—how can its body bend like that? There’s another blur of green, and you’re on your back. Dark. Pain. Something dazzles across your vision, like flashes of gold veins in stone.

    “Nice try, Monolith,” you hear Cheren saying as the familiar sensation of being pulled into a pokéball overtakes you. “We’ll have to work on your accuracy next time. Good job. Ambrella, you’re up.”

    ※​

    The next thing you know, you’re all out again, on the floor of the human settlement Ico called a pokécenter. Some of your wounds have been healed, you notice distantly—the stinging shred of the leaves slashing through your shell has faded.

    Cheren stands in front of you. Ico, Tourmaline, and Maxis stand at your side.

    He doesn’t really need to say it; you can already tell, but he does anyway: “We lost.”

    Maxis is squinting heavily out of one eye. Ico looks like he’s about to faint, just standing there. You can’t recognize what caused his wounds, but they are deep, still-oozing gouges all up and down his legs. The scaly armor’s been chipped away in some places, and he can barely stand. You sidle over to him, prop yourself so that he can rest the weight of his body against your right leg.

    He takes your offer without a word.

    “Hilda’s off to challenge the Elite Four. We’re a long way from being ready for the League,” he says at last. “But we’re going to get stronger, okay? We’ll train harder than ever.”

    Ico nods, his eyes shining like black pearls. {We will all,} he promises. He looks at you pointedly, and that’s when you realize—he picked the harder tongue for a reason. Cheren can’t understand the dialect of stone. But you can.

    Maxis grunts something that you take as affirmation.

    You look nervously at Tourmaline. Neither of you say anything.

    He recalls Maxis and Ico back into their pokéball and hands them off somewhere, says they’re getting more treatment. You rumble something in alarm, but Tourmaline stops you—they’ll be healed by morning, she says. Such is the way with humans. But she doesn’t sound happy about it.

    He leaves you out, though, which lets you watch as he slumps around the settlement. The spring in his step is gone; the eagerness he had before this battle fizzled out.

    Could you walk away? You were too slow last time, and that was before you hurt your legs. He’ll see you, and recall you, and then who knows when you’ll come back out. So you watch him instead.

    Cheren mutters to himself, and you only catch a few snippets—stronger comes up a lot. He’s annoyed that he’s too weak to beat her. You know the feeling of always being two steps behind. But what did he really do here that exhibited weakness? What did she do that was strength? They never fought. Cheren could’ve been the Earthmother herself and it wouldn’t have changed the outcome of the fight, not when he kept all of his strength on the sidelines.

    He doesn’t fight, he doesn’t listen. Were he in your cave, hungrily devouring boulder after boulder, you and your siblings would hurl rocks at him until he left.

    But you aren’t in your cave any more, are you? You sidle away from Cheren, letting him pace a tight track around the pokécenter in peace, and approach Tourmaline instead. This one is so angry. You don’t know why, but you wish you could understand. Stone has too much time to be angry. You edge a little closer to her, until—five feet away—she shifts her weight and backs up as well.

    You’ve seen this before, back in the cave. Two rocks that repelled each other. No amount of pushing would get one to let the other approach. You would know.

    So you settle down at the edge of her orbit instead. {You said Cheren is not your trainer.} You look at her. She’s got something wrapped around her rear leg, and you can tell by the way she’s sitting that she’s reluctant to put weight on it. There’s still a leaf tangled in the crook of her tail. She’s started grooming herself, but the fur is matted and eroded in some places. You don’t know how her tongue can fix that. {But … you fought for him.}

    Tourmaline licks the back of one paw, but she’s watching you carefully. {I did not hold back,} she agrees, using her teeth to extract a thorn from between the pads. {Did you?}

    You get the sense that she already knows the answer to your question. But she never answered yours, so you ask again. {Why did you fight for him?}

    {I have no love for Cheren. But Vaselva and her trainer irritate me even more. So in this case, he and I share an enemy. It has nothing to do with him.} She freezes in midair, her paw still held up to her face. She has pretty fur, you notice distantly. {Anything else, Carnel?}

    That’s not a good reason, but you don’t want to tell her that. {If you liked your last human, why did you leave them behind?}

    This time, she stands up. You can see the muscles rippling out from beneath her fur. If she leapt, your skin would take a few hits, maybe three. Then she would shred you.

    You quiver and tuck yourself a little closer together, to appear less big.

    Apparently satisfied, the liepard paces in a tight circle and then sits back down, resumes grooming her front paw. {I didn’t leave. I was stolen. That’s all I know. One second I was with my human, and the next, Cheren says he’s my trainer now. I asked him to explain and he didn’t. Same as you.}

    {So were you …} You struggle to remember the name. {Gilda’s partner?}

    She’s still as a statue, but all of the fur running down her spine stands to attention. {Absolutely not,} she says frostily. It’s like she has a second mane now. Fascinating. You wish you could do that. {Hilda will never be my trainer.} The liepard’s tail flicks errantly back and forth through the air.

    A cold silence follows, the bad kind of pause where all your thoughts dig too deep. {Will Cheren?}

    You ask her for a simple reason: if Cheren becomes her trainer one day, he will become yours. And you don’t want that.

    But she doesn’t see the sentence written in your pause. Her tail goes still. Her eyes narrow. She stands back up to her feet again and takes two steps forward. You flinch back. You’re taller than her, a little, but she still makes you feel small.

    {When we fought Hilda. That trainer. You fainted to the serperior. What did Cheren tell you?}

    {That I needed to practice my accuracy.}

    {And at the end. What did he tell all of us?}

    {We lost.}

    {And what does he claim his goal in all of this is?} she asks.

    {He wants to get stronger.}

    The liepard stares. You’re close enough that you can see the individual furs that run down her neck. {Listen to his words, Carnel, because he speaks against himself better than I ever could. Your weakness. Our loss. His strength. Cheren gives us many things, but never the good. When he fights, he is a trainer. There is no denying that. He isn’t one of us. And because he isn’t, he gets to pick and choose what he shares, what is taken and what is given.}

    When the earth is about to fracture, she sends messages sometimes. Tremors before the quake. You sense them radiating around Tourmaline now, frustration building beneath the skin. Her next question is calm, but the earth usually is.

    {How did you try to tell him?}

    {What do you mean?} you ask.

    {When he asked you to fight. You refused, did you not?} Tourmaline asks. {What did you do instead?}

    You shift your weight uncomfortably, feel a pang of pity for making the boulder get hurt. {I tried to show him my cave. So he could see where I wanted to go.}

    {Carnel.} You can’t tell what, but something in her face softens. {I will teach you something I have learned of the dialect of forests.}

    {Really?} That would be … an interesting adjustment, at least. You don’t intend to stay here for much longer, but if you can speak to Ico and Maxis more, perhaps you could get through to them. Ico at least has Cheren’s ear; he got Cheren’s attention when you were trying to scuttle off. Maybe he can explain with his shell and his humanshape what your stones could not. {But you said earlier—}

    {It will take you much longer than this lesson to learn how to speak it,} she says archly. {Even to merely to understand their words would take you many moons. You must listen, Carnel. Listen for what is not said.}

    {I—}

    Her bushy tail flicks errantly in front of your mouth. {Hush. Listen. Observe.} She gestures with her nose towards the corner of the pokécenter, where a large, tree-like pokémon sits, leaf-like arms folded across her lap. An enormous red collection of leaves is skewed across the slant of her head. {The lilligant over there,} the liepard says quietly to you, her voice taking on a low, careful cadence. You imagine Tourmaline’s voice stalking through tall grass that rises up to her shoulders, sneaking up on her prey. {What is she saying?}

    You strain to listen, but no words come from her in any language you recognize—dialect of the forest or otherwise.

    {She is silent.}

    {Obviously,} the liepard drawls. {But look again. What is she saying?}

    You look over at the pokémon, who finally seems to have noticed the two of you staring intently at her. She shifts her weight uncomfortably and turns away.

    {I do not know,} you say at last.

    {Look at the flower. Do you find it beautiful?}

    The—oh, the colored leaves atop her head, you surmise. The flower. The color is a good one, a deep red, like a ruby. The shape is wrong; it wouldn’t make a very good crystal and it flops around in a way that makes you a little uncomfortable to look at. Were it made out stone it would melt away into mud immediately, a warning before a landslide. {I like the color,} you respond, so as to be polite.

    {What is the flower trying to tell you?}

    {What?} The flower certainly cannot speak in a tongue you understand, if its owner could not.

    Not to be discouraged, Tourmaline breezily walks in a tight circle around you, passing in and out of your view. {In the language of the forests, beautiful flowers mean many things—an advertisement for pollinators, a cry for a mate, an ode to the sun. But look carefully, Carnel. It is not an invitation to fight. The lilligant, who has poured so much time into her flower, so much of herself—she would rather not see it destroyed. In the language of the forests, what she means to tell you is that she would rather grow and nurture something than tear it down.}

    You tilt your head to one side. Grow something. That’s a tricky thing to process. Caves do not grow, not on the same timeline as any of you. You once watched a stone for six years, neither of you moving, neither of you changing. You’ve moved on. You’re sure the stone is still there.

    {Look now, over there,} Tourmaline says, and gestures with her tail to a strange insect buried in a spiraling rock. {Let me teach you the tongue of sands. This dwebble. What do you see?}

    You’re starting to understand Tourmaline’s lesson now. You strain forward and narrow your eyes a little, so that the light comes through better. This pokémon is much different, much more like you. There’s a gentle reassurance in the sturdiness of their shell, a sort of abnormality within the straight edges that reminds you of your cave, of the migration north.

    {This one takes their home with them,} you say at last.

    Tourmaline’s tail flicks through the air. You can’t quite tell, but it would seem that the liepard is pleased. {Yes. You would know this better than I, Carnel. Does the stone look like any you’ve seen in this area?}

    You tilt your head. On closer inspection, it’s different from the smooth, dark boulders of your home. This rock looks soft, almost, like if you continued to rub it, it would slowly whittle away like dust in the wind. {No.}

    {No. This dwebble has carried his home from a far away desert, miles and miles from here, and now it protects him in the battles that he must face. But do you think he wants it damaged?}

    It isn’t a question she actually wants the answer to, but you give it to her anyway. {No.}

    {Then why do you think he would bring his home with him this far?}

    The answer comes easily. {Because he didn’t want to leave it.}

    Tourmaline nods to herself and then sits back down by your side. She looks over one shoulder to stare at you, unblinking. {Like you, the humans do not understand the language of the forests, or the language of the sands. So these pokémon have taken to expressing their desires in a different way. They tell us much without their words, Carnel. In the wild, the leaves that shed from a simisage’s tail can be used to treat most wounds. The ones Maxis sheds here are bitter and atrophied. What do you think he is trying to tell you? What do you think he is trying to tell himself?}

    There is a deeper question, of course, if you can burrow far enough to find it. Tourmaline wants to tell you something as well.

    You look around the room again. {None of them want to be here,} you say at last, because it’s the only answer that feels true.

    {None of us want to be here,} she repeats, and it’s when she changes it to us that you realize what she wants you to understand: the two of you weren’t the first ones to ask a human for your freedom. {Perhaps there are a few, damaged in the head—Maxis is a simpleton even in his own tongue. But look at the pokémon around you. They have put their pain and their desires in an outward place, hoping that trainers will see them and understand. You had a human before, Carnel. You did not have a trainer. A trainer is one who seeks strength. A trainer will marvel at the beauty of a flower, or knock their hands against the strength of a shell, or wonder what happened to make a lone minccino’s song so tragic. A trainer will clap for us, cheer us on, laugh with us. They will tell us that we are amazing and powerful as we fight to keep ourselves and those we cherish safe. They will take our victories and give you their weakness. But they will do everything except listen, Carnel.}

    You look at the dwebble, feel a pang of envy as he tucks himself beneath a table and retreats into his shell. Your cave would not fit in this falsecave; your brothers and sisters would need to stack three layers thick if you were all to line the walls. {But I want to go home.}

    {Ignore it,} she says tightly.

    There is a phrase for her kind of request. She would not know the story, but—there was a tale once of a roggenrola that tried to climb a steep mountain. As he neared the top, he lost his footing, and rolled back to where he started—in the process chipping off some of his protruding crags. The more times he tried, the rounder he got, and the more impossible his task became.

    To ignore this thought is to push yourself up the mountain. Each time you do it, the more impossible it becomes.

    {How can we fix this?} you ask instead, gesturing wide with your shoulders, which are still healing from where the zebstrika lanced a hole six inches deep with a bolt of lightning. You saw Cheren’s tears and his frustration after your loss, even when he tried to make sure no one was watching. He hurt too, in a language that had no words. And you could see it, as clear as the dwebble’s shell. It makes you sad to look at, but it doesn’t make him right.

    {You don’t.}

    That’s not a good answer. Rocks are patient. Sometimes they take a hundred years to move. But even if it takes them a century, they still move. {We have to.}

    You expect laughter, like Maxis. But Tourmaline stays quiet. In a soft voice, she says, {My last human felt like you do. She couldn’t hear my spoken words, but she could hear the unspoken ones. She and I worked together to free pokémon like you. Like me.} Her tail coils tightly around her feet, hugging herself close. {I will go back to her one day. She was a good human. But until then—Cheren is a necessary evil. I dream of clawing his face off at night, but I also know he is not the worst trainer in Unova. Some of the trainers we rescued pokémon from were truly vile. Cheren is merely a fool. If I stay with him I cannot be caught by someone else.}

    That’s a bad answer. That’s a bad answer and you know it. But you can’t say that, not to Tourmaline, not when you can see how her back sags a little talking about her old human. She has no rocks with which to build a miniature cave, but she builds a valley with her shoulderblades and guards her head with it.

    Tourmaline is fast. If she sees her human again, if she has a chance to claw out Cheren’s eyes and turn tail, will she wait for you? You’re not agile, not lithe. You’re the round roggenrola, still running up that hill.

    But for Tourmaline it’s deeper than just one cut, or two, or the network of rehealed wounds that you know must lie beneath her coat, dappling it, threatening to reveal that the stone beneath isn’t a geode at all. She can’t wait years for things to get better. If she runs to her human and doesn’t wait for you … you wouldn’t blame her.

    {You do not have to listen to me, Carnel. I wouldn’t fault you. This lesson is hard to learn. But I will explain this to you once, and once only,} she says stiffly, and it’s in looking at her head-on that you finally see: she is chiseled from muscle; her fangs and claws are razor sharp. Her fur catches the light and devours it greedily, morphs her silhouette into a shadow. She wastes no time with flowers or beauty, not the kind that the humans can see.

    When you look at her, her message is clear: do not look, do not touch. Humans will not pity, but maybe they will fear instead.

    {You are from a different part of our lands, so do not waste your time with the dialect of the forest or the sand. Humans will not understand you regardless of how you choose to speak.}

    She gestures with her chin towards your biotites. {Your cave. Your siblings. All those bits of you that can still feel. Hide them deep, deep away. Where no one else can see them. Not me, not Cheren. Not even you, unless you know exactly where to look. Hide them somewhere no one else can take it from you. Do not bring them into battle with you; they will only get hurt.}

    Tourmaline leans forward. Taps you gently with the tip of her nose. {You will return to them one day, but until then, hide them away. Cheren takes our victories and our strength. But your dreams are yours, and yours alone.}



    p | n
     
    Last edited:
    iv. nostrum
  • kintsugi

    golden scars
    Pronouns
    she/her/hers
    Partner
    silvally-grass
    author's note 6/28/2020: heavily retooled this chapter for a stronger internal character arc
    iv. nostrum

    ※​

    Listen and hear the chorus of the song that dances through the heart of the storm:

    There, in pearlescent clouds heralding the sunrise—Reshiram calls the dawn on soft wings, guiding searing swaths of fire through the night.

    Here, in dark storms above the western grasslands—Zekrom rumbles within the bolts of lightning, preparing soothing rain in one claw and lancing fury in the other.


    They are not opposites. You learned that as a young blitzle. They are two halves of the same whole. There is no single moment when the thunderstorm ceases to exist and the white clouds return. They are one cycle, joined to one another as as firmly as your hooves meet your legs.

    Your father sang you a new verse once, one that he had learned in his time fighting for the humans:

    Long ago, before the age of humans, a great dragon descended to walk amongst the plains. To your ancestors, the great dragon gave spark and color. To the rest of the earth’s children, the dragon asked your ancestors to give their bodies and their protection. They were to protect those who could not protect themselves. In some places, this meant protecting the young blitzle from predators. Sometimes, your father said, explaining the story his human had once read to him, it meant fighting so that humans would not have to.

    Many pokemon turned away from the great dragon, and chose to find strength on their own, strength that did not demand that they help others. In their cowardice they prospered. But the zebstrika accepted, and foreswore himself to a duty ten thousand suns in the making.

    Thus the first kafara was born.

    ※​

    You snort anxiously. The campsite’s a sorry affair; Hilda’s wrestling with the rainfly of her tent. She’s currently shivering against the wind that’s starting to blow in—a cold front from the moors, perhaps. You wouldn’t know. You were never supposed to go this far north. This is a strange land; when the clouds gather, they do shed not rain, but ice. There is no thunder to be found here, only cold.

    It’s unnatural, and you don’t like it.

    “Give me a light, Amara,” she says without looking up. It’s getting dark already; she must have been trying to push for a better spot. Looks like this was the best she could do. You spark your tail and mane and fritz yellow light through your stripes.

    It’s cold. The wind picks up, yanks the rainfly out of her hands. You flick your tail and walk closer to her so that your body can shield her from the wind. Your hooves sink three inches into the snow.

    This isn’t like her. She used to get caught out after dark like this, but that was long ago, when you were just a blitzle. She learned after the first few times. That’s what she does best, after all. She’s always calculating, always planning. It’s the only way she can be one step ahead of everyone else. Hilda’s always believed that if she just thinks hard enough, she’ll be able to plan a way to keep everyone safe. And she’s usually quite good at it. You respect that much about her.

    While you wait there patiently, casting light around the grove of trees she’s trying to use as a windshield for tonight’s camp, you count up the times she’s let you out while she sets up camp. It’s a small number, one that’s quite close to the number of times the batteries in her headlamp have run out.

    ※​

    {Vaselva,} you say, picking your way over to the serperior. You snort again. If she were truly part of your herd, she’d see the flashing of your stripes and understand your anxiety without you needing to shape it into words. But she's not. To Hilda, you’ve always been steadfast, adamant, ever-careening towards whatever she pointed you at. So to everyone else, you’re the same. A wall of lightning. Spiky and impenetrable. {This tower. What we intend to do atop it.} You let the rest of the sentence hang as if it’s a question.

    Hilda tilts her head up at your words, but she doesn’t hear them, not really. She glances at you and then looks back at her x-transceiver, typing furiously into the screen.

    Vaselva pretends to be asleep for a moment longer, curled protectively around Hilda and the fire.

    {Vaselva.} She knows and is the only one who could tell you. Vaselva has twined around Hilda’s heart and Hilda’s mouth; while you languish in your ball, she is privy to your trainer’s deepest secrets.

    You. You were her second. Vaselva explained things to you, back when you first joined the team. Hilda was your trainer. She’d received Vaselva on the first day of her journey. Vaselva would be the protector, but you were to help.

    You were Hilda’s second. But you were the first one she chose. Of all the blitzle in the plains, she’d picked you.

    The serperior cracks one eye open, but it’s a narrow, ruby slit. She glares at you without moving. {They say that N has located the Light Stone and seeks to awaken Reshiram. And Hilda seeks to climb the tower and halt him, before he undoes the world.}

    You were afraid that that was the answer.

    {Do you … do you want to stop N?}

    This prompts a proper response. {N seeks to replace our real world with a fairytale one. He is a fool who dreams of ideals. Of course I want to stop him.} Vaselva tilts her whole head up this time—a mammoth movement by her standards, and the annoyance floods into her voice. {Amara, Thundersinger of the Plains. Listen to me instead of letting your doubts fester in your head. Our trainer is many things, but she isn’t the kind of person who is ready to do this alone. That’s why she has us.}

    You were a child when your father told you the legends of the first kafara, of the great mandate that the dragons gave you. You were to help those who could not help themselves. Herds die when individuals decide that their blood is worth more than anyone else’s. To assume that importance is something you give yourself is the truest sin among the herd.

    So you should be grateful for what Hilda gives you. She makes you important. She gives you something to protect. She lets you fight for her but doesn’t require your life. Her battles give your pain meaning. The dark stone in her bag sings to you, in the tongue of the ancient song. It marks her as worthy. Hilda’s role is to stand on the sidelines, protected and safe. Your role is to enter the fray. This is what it means to be kafara.

    It all made sense before you heard N’s version of how the world should be.

    The wind’s died down since you helped set camp, and now the silences hang in the snow. The wind was almost better. It let you know you weren’t alone.

    You tell Vaselva, {She has us to fight her battles for her.}

    {We are her partners. That is what partners do,} Vaselva replies serenely. She flicks her tail, but doesn’t even blink. {Would you rather she fight alongside us? N seeks to summon Reshiram. Her human body would turn to mulch in an instant.}

    On the plains, white clouds cycle to black and back to grey. They concern themselves with the storm above, and they keep their squabbles to themselves. Sometimes, when the song is loud enough, the clouds will send down rain, to heal a fractured earth. But clouds never descend to engulf the mortals. Reshiram would not turn a human to mulch. Reshiram would never harm a human. Maybe serperior refused the mandate, maybe her kind never took up the mantle of being a guardian, but you know: the dragon who gave you your task would never fight those who could not fight back.

    But even if the serperior does not know about the mandate, her question is not an easy one to answer. You don’t know what you want. You just have this strange, aching feeling.

    This isn’t fair. None of this is fair.

    The whispers started when you saw the soft one, N, with his words that sounded like the thunder. And in your heart he sparked a crackle of static that rebounded again and again until it roared like the storm. Something snags at your thoughts now, in a voice that sounds a bit softer than your own: this isn’t how things have to be.

    He told you this back in Nimbasa, after you speared his sigilyph with a bolt of lightning and sent her tumbling to the earth. Things could be different. He understood what Hilda strove to protect, but he sought a different world. Pokémon no longer had to be strong in order to protect humans. You no longer had to put your body on the line to keep Hilda safe from the storm. Humans had grown past the time where they needed their siblings to risk themselves; what humans asked for now was mere entertainment and pleasure.

    You stared at him in bewilderment. Your heart was a tangle of disparate, seething unease. N was weak, but he wanted to be a kafara, and speak for those who could not speak for themselves.

    But Hilda and N can’t both be right. If he would take you from her, if he would make sure that pokémon no longer need to protect humans—then you would be a poor kafara if you let him. You can only be as strong as the ones you protect. A human wouldn’t understand that, not when they never have to protect anyone.

    {Then she shouldn’t pick fights she can’t win on her own.}

    {Is that truly what you think? There are weak ones in your herd, Amara, Thundersinger of the Plains.} This time, when she uses your full name, it almost feels like mockery. {Is that the way of your herd? Were the young blitzle thrown to the side if they were too slow to run?}

    First Reshiram, now this. You stamp your foot. Sparks fly from it, and you have to quell your anger before you draw attention. But you needn’t have worried. Hilda doesn’t pay attention to the doings of her pokémon on a quiet evening, after all. She’s five feet away from you and she doesn’t even blink.

    It’s easier to pretend that N is speaking for you. You borrow the words he whispered to you in the shadow of the Ferris wheel, while Hilda was fiddling with a potion for Jericho. {You were there, Vaselva. I was taken as a child. In the herd, the foals do not start battling until they are old enough to produce a charge, and even then—never like this. Never to the point of unconsciousness.}

    {True, but there are hunters, are there not? A liepard would not merely knock you about until you fainted. You would never wake up, Amara.}

    When you were two moons old, a shadow haunted the clan. You saw it, and, in your fear, shambled over to your mother. Your mother saw it, and then you, and then she threw her head into the air and brayed as loudly as she could. The herd bolted, and carried you away with them.

    But you saw it happen. You were there. A flash of silver claws brought red to the surface. The golden grass thirstily received the new moisture.

    That night, for the first time, your father explained what it meant to love someone more than you loved yourself.

    When a liepard targets their prey, they do so quickly. The death is brutal, but it only lasts a few moments. Hilda, in seeking kindness, made that suffering last for months.

    But Vaselva wouldn’t get that. She has bold words for one who was raised in a cage, where the cycle never applied. {Liepard must eat to survive,} you explain. {When the forests have thinned and the trees no longer bear fruit, they turn to us out of desperation. That is the cycle. We do not condone it, but we understand it.} Vaselva’s still staring at you smugly, which only sparks your anger further. {Liepard must eat to live. If they had been given a body like mine, to thrive off of windswept grass after a thunderstorm, then I would expect them to do so; if, even after speaking to me, they still chose the route that ended in my death, then you could judge. But they partake in flesh because their body gives them no other choice. That is the unfortunate agreement that this earth has decided we must reach with them.}

    You pause. You would much rather ask Hilda this, but Vaselva is as close as you will get. Where your reasons fail, perhaps the serperior’s will not. {Why do you fight for her?}

    {We journey alongside one another so we can all grow. It is difficult, but so is life. A seedling that knows only fertile soil and ample rain will wither away under the summer sun. At some point you must not trouble yourself with the why. A plant does not need a reason to flower. Growing strong means you do not doubt.}

    Perhaps for a tree. But in the herds, you must always question. Even your father, and his story of a zebstrika’s purpose—you must question this as well. A foal that runs in a straight line is a foal that runs to certain death. {I am no plant.}

    {Then leave,} she says tonelessly, but her eyes are still flicked up to look at you as you’re standing above her.

    Her words form a pit of ice in your stomach. {Sorry?}

    {Then leave, Amara, Thundersinger of the Plains. Go home, to your herd. Raise your tails to the sky and sing for the storm with your kin. Go back to your life in the cycle, and pray that a liepard does not find you in the night.}

    The pit of ice sinks low, low into your hooves. {Don’t you think I tried?} You rack your brains. Was she there? You’d only just evolved; she would’ve been a servine then. Did you see her there, this little blur of emerald? You don’t remember. That is the only reason you don’t lance her down with lightning right now, that and the fact that at this range you would turn Hilda’s arms to ash. {I did. Right after the fight for the Quake Badge. I ran. I got fifteen minutes outside of town before Hilda found me. Got stopped by a trainer who’d seen the alert for a runaway zebstrika; he knocked me out and took me to a pokécenter. Reylin had evolved by then, so it took him four minutes to fly out to me with Hilda. ‘You poor thing,’ she told me. ‘I was so worried you’d gotten lost.’ I never stood a chance.}

    But it’s more than that. There’s a nagging feeling you couldn’t shake from that fight, a confusion you can’t put into words. The sad laugh when she withdrew you after Clay’s palpitoad shattered your leg. The way her voice had remained steady when she’d added, “Never mind that plan.” Your father had never taught you a song for when a kafara’s sacrifice goes ignored by the rest.

    Liepard pick the weakest. So among your herd you learned very young: do not show that you are hurt, lest you are prepared to be kafara. You can only let your vulnerabilities show to the ones you trust most of all; otherwise, the liepard will recognize your weakness as an invitation.

    But humans pick the strongest. If you grit your teeth through a broken leg, if you remain impassive through a barrage of flames, you are more desirable. You become their rock. Strength will protect you from liepard and make you vulnerable to human hunters instead.

    Your mane prickles, and you look up to see Reylin’s eyes glittering down from a branch overhead. The archeops’ colorful wings are folded at his sides, a pair of rainbow banners amongst the dark treetops and the white snow. The contrast of his colors reminds you: like you, he doesn’t belong here.

    You fix him with a glare, but he only blinks back. You aren’t sure how much he understands; the tongue he knows died centuries ago with the rest of his kin. You’ve never heard him speak.

    Vaselva waits a long time. She never likes interrupting people. She plants her words like seeds in your head, and then lets them twine around you like ivy through stone, patiently threading their way into your core before cracking it open from the inside. {But you fight for her still. You could run from her now, Amara, Thundersinger of the Plains. I am too slow to stop you. There is no pokécenter for miles. Why stay? If you hate what she makes you do so much, why do you love her?}

    You don’t have the words to answer her because you don’t have a good answer for yourself. But Hilda offers you one thing no one else in your herd could: you can protect her without facing death. You can be her strength without risking your own life. You can, like your father before you, fulfill the mandate of the dragons, over and over.

    She has a good mind for a human. She might understand kafara if you could ever explain it to her. Hilda’s always been talking about how the strong should defend the weak, about what she’ll do when she’s finally strong enough to make sure that you and Vaselva and everyone else will never have to hurt again.

    But you doubt her, this human child, time and time again. How could you not? She who strives to be a hero, even though it would destroy her and you alike. She hurts you, she makes you get hurt. But that’s what heroes are for, surely. Being brave means you have to suffer first. When the first zebstrika received his spark and his color, the power was too much. It coursed through his veins and nearly tore him apart. The fracture lines are woven into all of your skins now. Pain is inextricable from sacrifice.

    There were those in the herd you admired as strong, once. But they were not the biggest, or the fastest, or the ones with the loudest song of thunder, or the ones who evaded the liepard time and time again.

    Kafara. The strongest were kafara.

    Hilda looks up from her x-transceiver for the first time, and seems to notice the two of you standing head to head, exchanging glares. A frown flashes across her face for a brief moment, and then she fishers around for your pokéballs and says, “Alright, guys. Time for bed.”

    Vaselva dissolves. Her smirk stays burned into the back of your mind.

    ※​

    The next time you emerge, you’re at the entrance of Dragonspiral Tower. It’s night again. The moon is overhead, half-empty, casting pale light. A smattering of stars are on the horizon, but they’re faint—it’s newly night.

    “Flash, Amara,” Hilda whispers quietly to you. “But we’re going to be quiet, okay?”

    Hilda is a poor tactician if she thought you could be stealthy. The tower is made of stone and has plenty of space to echo. You have hooves. But you try your best. The clopping resonates up the whole of the spire.

    You want to stop and marvel. What you see here is a structure older than anything you’ve ever seen in your entire life. The human buildings that interest Hilda are short-lived, new, shiny—the gyms and their strange machinations, mostly. And what you saw back on the plains were equally brief snapshots in their own right. The grass that sprouted in the spring died come winter. The clouds rolled out with the storm.

    But the humans here sought to preserve the transient. Strange carvings twine up the walls. One dragon, and then two. A pair of humans wearing jewel-studded crowns. A war between them—and a proper one, with no pokémon as proxies. Kings and dragons fall. Engraved along the spiral, walking slowly and ceremoniously—you do your best at stealth, but there’s only so much you can do—it’s easy to appreciate the tower for what it holds. The staircase ends after precisely one revolution; you’re back where you started, just a hundred feet up. And the carvings are back where they started too, with a pair of slumbering dragons dotted in black and white stones.

    The human legends are different from your songs, but this much is the same: the storm begins the same way it ends, with clouds rolling away to blue sky. Nothing changes.

    By the time you and Hilda thread your way up the winding staircase, there’s someone waiting for you. The klink’s grown big. A full-fledged klingklang now, whirring protectively at the entrance into the top floor. They look at you solemnly. {Please don’t try to stop us.}

    {I don’t have a choice.}

    You, who thwarted N at so many turns. You helped Hilda beat him back time and time again, since the very beginning. He wouldn’t, couldn’t take you, not when you’ve made yourself into his enemy so many times. No human would.

    {Amara,} says the klinklang in the language of thunder (when did he learn your name?), {you always have a choice.}

    You wish they’d attack instead. That would make your job easier. But they just stand there, gears clicking six times per second, and they let you decide.

    Hilda chooses for you, and pushes the klinklang aside. They don’t stop you with force, but instead trail behind the two of you as you reach the top.

    The stone walls give way to open sky; up here, at the top of the tower, the winds of time have turned the roof to dust. The stars glimmer overhead. You dim your light; you don’t need it now.

    N turns around. There’s a faint smile on his face when he sees the two of you. His hair blows in the wind. In his hands is a strange, white stone. From fifty feet away, you can feel it drawing to you like a magnet.

    “Hilda!” he says. “And Amara! I’m glad you could come.” He sounds like he means it, too.

    N holds the stone out in front of him, and suddenly you’re panicking, nostrils flared, heart racing. There was supposed to be more time. You were supposed to have a moment to think about this, before it all came crashing down. The winds blow around you in the open air. You notice distantly how high up you are, how unprotected everything suddenly feels. Unlike the openness of the plains, there’s nowhere to run, no path except over the edge.

    The klinklang floats back to N’s side. “I almost thought you weren’t going to make it. I think it’s time,” N says. He looks at the stone, raises it in front of him. His arm trembles inside of the confines of his sleeves. The stone can’t be all that heavy, but gravity seems to intensify; you start to tremble as well.

    You look nervously to Hilda, and she answers. “Wild Charge, Amara.”

    Wild Charge? On him?

    Your moment of hesitation is enough. N only needs two words to make you freeze.

    “Reshiram,” N says. His voice is thin against the winds of the tower. You can hear it quaver. “Please!”

    Immediately, the tempest halts, as if it was never there to begin with.

    You watch, your heart aching in your chest, every inch of you screaming. You need to stop him, somehow. He who would destroy the world in an effort to save it.

    You know this. But part of you … wants to watch it finally happen. What he offers sounds truly incredible. A world in which a human could be kafara as well. Can such a world exist? What would you be if humans saw they could fight for themselves? What purpose would you have?

    Everyone on the tower has fallen silent. You’re all staring at this thin, impossible human and his stone.

    The words ring out, not in any sort of sound, but in a message that you can hear transmitted to the very depths of your bones, rattling and shaking atop the tower.

    A PARTIAL TRUTH IS NO BETTER THAN A LIE.

    You shudder, and the klinklang and N do as well.

    The stone falls, inert and silent, into N’s outstretched hand.

    You exhale. He was judged and he fell short. Of course he was. What else could he be?

    He doesn’t actually want this. He doesn’t actually mean it. He couldn’t, of course. No human would unilaterally want to do something so unselfish.

    Not even unselfish—it has to be pure. There is no human equivalent for the word kafara. The one who warned the others when a predator arrived, even though crying out for help marked them as weak, as prey. There is no equivalent human term because there is no such thing as a human kafara. Humans always have ulterior motives. You aren’t surprised that he ends up no different in the end, when placed under the dragon’s discerning lens.

    Yes. That’s why you’re happy to take him down, right? This man who would demand your freedom and have your love. He’s no better. He’s a liar, just like everyone else.

    “Amara! Wild Charge!”

    Yes. He’s a liar. You were a fool for believing otherwise. You let your frustration and your anger with her, him, with everyone, surge through your veins and outward to the edges of your body, lighting up your mane in fritzing light. That’s what you’d normally do. But you’re angry, and you have the power to release, so you pour more of it in, until you’re lit up like a beacon, no blinking at all, no stripes, no black, no white, only thunder. You canter forward.

    His klinklang gets in the way, whirring urgently.

    You don’t care. You bowl through them, scattering them to the ground. N’s staring at the stone in his hand, too stunned to give orders. Not that he’d give them anyway. He’s a liar, and an indecisive human, and you were a fool for ever believing he’d be any different.

    You bray in frustration, letting out all of the electric charge out at once, and the resulting thunderstrike is so bright that it washes out the tower. When it clears, the klinklang is smoking. One set of gears is jammed together where the heat melted the teeth away.

    Down below, you see specks swarming the Tower. Police? They’re coming here too? For N?

    You shove down the part that doesn’t think he deserves it. Because he does. He’s a criminal. He’s bad. He’s a liar.

    There are shouts echoing up the staircase now. Distantly, you hear one arcanine bark to the others, in words you don’t understand.

    There’s another flash of red light. A pokéball flies into the air. “Reylin! Use Pluck to grab the stone!” Hilda shouts—

    The archeops emerges, his wings flapping wildly. He soars over the chaos and blinks twice. You watch his eyes fasten onto N. The archeops swoops towards the ground, too low for a proper dive, and when he emerges there’s something red clutched in his talons.

    The flash of metal catches your attention. His pokéball. He’s grabbed his pokéball.

    “Reylin?” Hilda asks, but too slow. The archeops rockets towards N. He grabs N’s shirt in his beak, uses his talons to shove the pokéball into the N’s hands. Reylin shouts something urgently in a language you can’t understand, but you see a faint flicker of understanding in the human’s eyes.

    The klinklang’s voice is urgent. {He’s right; we have to fly.} You count six whirs. {Inari, you need to distract them.}

    You look at Reylin with betrayal twisting your stomach. He wasn’t even part of the team. He barely spoke. When he fought, he gave up when the pain was too much. But when the chance to flee appears, he doesn’t even hesitate to leave you behind.

    Anger floods through you now. You can’t show the hurt, not without appearing weak to Hilda, so you let it out the only way you know how, the only way that’ll still show you’re still strong. Another bolt of electricity lances from your mane. You aim for the archeops without Hilda even having to tell you; N can’t get off the tower without wings.

    The klinklang shoots up into the air, catching your attack head on. Your snort in annoyance as the charge fizzles across their body, sparks dissipating into the teeth of the gears. You hear the pain in their voice when they add, {Amara, he has made his choice. But you can still make yours.}

    They don’t know anything about what you do and don’t have to do. They have a good human, who doesn’t make them fight, who doesn’t lament about how useless they’re starting to become, who doesn’t pit them up against a ladder of ever-stronger opponents. They have a good human.

    But they have a bad trainer. He’s currently still standing in the middle of the tower, his hands cupped around the Light Stone, staring as if imbuing it with the intensity of his gaze will make his dream come true. He’s not giving any commands, too wrapped up in his own head to help anyone else.

    Hilda chose you first, before you chose her. But the klinklang is so wrong. Your choice was made long, long ago, back when the first zebstrika made a promise to the ancient dragon. There’s no turning back.

    So you rear back and lash out with your front hooves, laced with flames, the way Hilda taught you. The gears go flying, clattering into a stone pillar and causing it to crack under the impact. Your hooves hit the ground hard enough that you fear it’ll shatter, but the marble is strong.

    And then, there’s a blast of light. That’s when you realize you’d stopped watching the stone.

    A tongue of fire spirals in the center of the room, first a stream and then a pillar. Ash and soot storm around the vortex, and within it you strain your eyes to see the first hints of white feathers, an enormous figure spreading wings wide, neck arching twenty, thirty, fifty feet above.

    {Reshiram,} you hear the klinklang say in a reverent voice before vanishing in a flash of red light.

    The creature is enormous, straight out of a storybook, scraping at the ground with four legs, enormous tail lashing wildly. The scales on their back give way to enormous feathers, each one looking to be the size of your body. Light scintillates around the room in a dazzling, almost blinding pattern. Behind you, Hilda has fallen still and silent, in awe of this celestial god. There’s a clattering up the stairs, shouting, and the incoming police stop short as well.

    Your heart sinks when you see the dragon unfold fully. You know what Reshiram is supposed to look like, and it isn’t this.

    You prepare a bolt of electricity and fire it high. Still high enough that you’re hedging your bets, that it’ll hit the dissipating fire pillar instead of the image of god. Just in case you’re wrong.

    You weren’t raised there, but you were born on the plains, a true child of the wild. It runs in your blood. You know what Unova’s dragons are supposed to look like, even if the humans behind you have forgotten. And you know, more importantly, that N has befriended a zoroark.

    The image flickers once where your bolt hits it, and then the whole thing crumples in on itself like a wad of wet paper. The dragon’s wings distort in weird shapes, petals on the wind, and then it dissolves.

    In its place is the same stone platform, the same crumbling pillars. The soot vanishes too, and the burn marks. And on the horizon, a splash of colorful feathers, the archeops flaps furiously with N slumped in his talons.

    There’s shouting. Some discussion behind you about whether they should pursue. You don’t get to stick around for the conclusion—Hilda withdraws you before that. So you spend your time in your pokéball wondering, trying to piece together how far away they looked, how fast you’ve seen Reylin fly, if you’d seen any of the police come in with aerial units.

    ※​

    Hilda sends you out in the middle of snowy plain. You don’t know what to expect; when you look around, you don’t see the telltale signs of her setting up camp. The sun is still high overhead. You glance around. Does she seek to train you? The snow would make it hard to find your footing.

    “Reylin’s gone,” she says. Nothing more.

    Is she … does she think you don’t know that? You watched it happen. You didn’t stop him.

    Reylin was always a tricky one. He gave up fighting when it looked like he was going to lose. He wasn’t like the rest that Hilda chose. You and Vas and Jericho understood what it meant to fight until the end. And Hilda knew it too.

    “He isn’t coming back.”

    It’s when you hear the stony resignation in her voice that you finally piece together what’s happening. It’s been a while since she’s last sent you out for this, but you know.

    She was given Vaselva. But you were the first one she chose. So while the serperior gets Hilda’s hopes, you get her fears. When she lost her first gym battle in Nimbasa; when she received that letter from her father; when the strange boy she thought was a friend was shaping up to be her greatest roadblock. She confided in you. You were her lighthouse, the one on her team that showed no pain or hesitation, guiding her through her storms.

    You snort and lean in close, exhale a hot puff of air on her snow that lines her jacket. She reaches out and wraps her hands around the back of your neck, presses her forehead against your own, and sobs.

    You think all pokémon who partner with humans can become kafara in the end. You hurt for her, you fight for her, and even here—you will share her pain for her as well. You were the first one she chose. That is your duty now. Kafara are only strong because they have someone to protect. What other job could you have now anyway, after all you’ve done?

    You don’t ask what happened to N. You don’t know if you want him and Reylin to get away or not. Part of you still wants him to live to fight another day, while the other part of you hopes he rots. For taking the scales of your dragons to hide himself, for taking Reylin with him while leaving you behind, for pretending he wanted to make things better for anyone else. There is no such thing as a human kafara.

    To the rest of the world, Hilda is brave, untouchable. Humans are not so different from the herd in that regard: they do not trust the weak ones. But to you, she is soft. She does not lie.

    At least Hilda doesn’t pretend to be a hero.



    p | n
     
    Last edited:
    v. narsil
  • kintsugi

    golden scars
    Pronouns
    she/her/hers
    Partner
    silvally-grass
    cw: references to abuse
    v. narsil

    ※​

    She’s talking about you again.

    Every now and then she’ll glance back at you like she doesn’t want you to overhear—she whispers furtively into the telephone, casting side-eye glances at you with every pause, one hand in front of her mouth.

    Silly human. You weren’t cut yesterday. You were raised for strategy, not just war. Recognizing deception is the first thing you learned, when you were just a pawn. But you stand in the corner, ramrod straight, and keep your gaze trained on the wall, in case the idea of your not-knowing makes her feel better.

    “Yes, hello.” Pause. “Burr.” Another pause. “B-U-R-R. First name Mina. Yes, it’s nice to talk to you too.”

    Trainer usually sped through phone conversations at record speed, so it’s almost soothing to see her nodding patiently, biting her lip while the person in the phone talks back to her. She alternates between fidgeting with a ballpoint pen, running her thumb through a stack of bright blue paper squares, and twisting her hand through her golden hair.

    “Yes. I’ve been trying to release my son’s pokémon.” Pause. “Reason?” Another pass of her hand through her hair. “Can I say extenuating circumstances?” She shifts her weight in the chair uncomfortably. “Yes. First name Timothy.” The phone chatters something, and she looks at a collection of numbers scrawled on the stack of paper in front of her. “Yes, that’s the license number.” More phone chattering. “Yes. I’m aware it’s been revoked.” She sighs. “Yes, he’s the one who’s been on the news recently.”

    Oh. So that’s what this is all about.

    “A conkeldurr, a palpitoad, and a bisharp.”

    You can’t help but notice that her gaze lingers on you when she says the last word. Of course she means you. You’re the problem one again.

    You’re not surprised. You always were the sticking point. Anri listened unquestioningly, though he cried; Samson listened and did not cry at all. But you had armor, and with it, pride. You only listened when you wanted to. Your blades and helm, which were the reason Trainer admired you in the first place, meant he could not harm you like he hurt the others. If he tried his fists would bounce off, or even bleed. But Trainer was smart in all the ways that didn’t matter. He hit Samson when you did not obey, and the conkeldurr was soft even though he pretended not to be.

    “Yes, I’ll hold.” Mina puts the phone down, puts it on speaker, and buries her head in her hands. It begins to spout cheerful, grainy music.

    And now Trainer is gone. Soon the rest of your team will be as well. For now you can only hope that what you get is better. For all of them, and maybe even for you.

    It hadn’t taken much. You just needed someone who would listen. The audino at the pokécenter could recognize the bruising on Samson’s ribcage, and she could understand both of you even though you shaped the words differently. She’d asked him where it came from, and he stiffened and said nothing; she’d asked you where it came from, and you told her. And she’d signalled her nurse, and the nurse had told the police, and—

    “Hello? Are you still there, ma’am?”

    “Yes.”

    You listen as whoever’s inside of the phone explains the situation to Mina. The last human in the phone told her the same thing. Does she think that she’ll get a new answer just because it’s a different day?

    “I’ve spoken to the seismitoad sanctuary, and they do have the capacity to rehabilitate the palpitoad before reacclimating it to the wild. The wild conkeldurr crew by Nacrene is typically very accommodating to releases, but we would need to screen it and ensure that it wouldn’t cause any issues with the current crew—technical moves, over-aggression, and so forth. Simple stuff.” The man in the phone pauses, and then says in a stiffer voice, “We cannot coordinate release of a bisharp.”

    At first you hadn’t told anyone because you didn’t think there was anyone to tell. Who would listen to a pawn who thought their Queen was unworthy? And then, after your evolution, all of that inability was overshadowed by a simple, selfish reason. You’d waited so long, even though acting would’ve helped Samson, would’ve helped Anri. When you’d finally been victorious over Skyla’s team and the energy coursed through your veins, twisting your body into a new shape, you felt nothing but dread. In that moment you knew there was no longer a place to return to, no escape. Promotion was a great gift, in many ways, but you were not worthy of it. A Queen with no pawns is a useless piece. A Queen who is used as a pawn is even worse. Now that you are a Queen with no file, you will only ever be a human’s pawn.

    “You can’t? Why not?” Mina asks, but she hasn’t unburied her head from her hands, so her face is just a tangle of curly hair.

    “Typically, wild pawniard form a pack of up to nine, and the strongest one evolves into bisharp to protect and command the others, coordinate hunts, and so forth. Introducing a bisharp into an existing pack will result in the pack killing the newcomer, or the newcomer killing first the bisharp and then any remaining pawniard who don’t accept it.” You can’t really tell through the phone, but the man sounds snide when adds, “This is actually one of the many reasons that a Class C permit is required to capture and raise a pawniard—the increased risk of evolution in captivity and subsequent impossibility of release means that a trainer must be prepared to care for their bisharp until the end of its life. Every trainer with a Class C permit is taught this information.”

    You wonder if Trainer had their permission when he crept into the forest and snatched you from your file. Probably not. Trainer broke many human rules, from what you can gather. But not a single person who mattered ever asked him until it was too late, and now you’re here, staring resolutely at the wall and pretending not to notice that Mina is methodically shredding the bright blue squares of paper in front of her with a tight-lipped expression.

    “Ma’am?”

    “Well yes, but he’s—” Mina cuts herself off. “He certainly won’t be around to train it. Part of the—the lawyer says he’ll have a better chance if he can provide proof that he rehomed his pokémon.”

    There’s a sticky silence.

    “Ma’am, my job is to help pokémon reintegrate into the wild. Legally, there is nothing I can do. If you want a resource to help your son, I can direct you to some adoption or rehoming agencies.”

    “Yes, I’d like that.”

    You stare firmly at the wall as the phone rattles off a series of numbers and Mina scribbles them down on the largest remaining piece of paper. Perhaps your next trainer will be better. You never know.

    ※​

    A woman arrives the next day with a kind smile and an intake form. She’s here from the Pinwheel Forest Seismitoad Sanctuary. She’ll leave a card if Mina needs to call again. She makes pleasant smalltalk while Mina fills out the form on the clipboard, but she doesn’t come in any further than the entryway. She takes Anri’s pokéball and leaves.

    A courier arrives later that afternoon to take Samson to be evaluated by the wildlife reserve near Nacrene. He doesn’t know that, though—the pokéball is carefully wrapped up in a padded box and sealed away.

    You don’t get to say goodbye to either of them.

    You think it’s better that way. You never got to talk to them after Trainer got arrested. Will Samson hate you for what you’ve caused? Will Anri? The three of you were never close, not really—you never got to spend much time out of your pokéballs; you barely even learned to understand Anri’s strange way of speaking—but they were your only friends while you were owned by Trainer. Now your file has been torn away from you a second time, and none of you even had a chance to move.

    Maybe knowing what Samson thinks about all this would’ve been better. Because then you wouldn’t have to stay restless the rest of the evening, running through a million scenarios in your head, a million that you’ll never see become reality. Samson forgives you. Samson hates you. Anri stares blankly and doesn’t understand how you could betray the one who loved him with fists. Anri joins you.

    None of them will come true now. It’s the knowing and the mapping that makes a good Queen.

    But you were trained for a life of battle. You didn’t always hate it. Not before Trainer made you hate it.

    Now that there isn’t a fight, you aren’t even sure what good strategy will do. As pawn you had the defenses you needed to serve. Your blades could be sharpened on the stones by the river until they could cut through thick tree trunks with ease. Your helm could protect you from the sturdiest head-on impact. Queens were taller, but so much more changed—their shoulders are bigger, big enough to bear all the extra weight of having to think things through rather than receive orders.

    Trainer was a bad pretender at being a Queen. You do not even consider acknowledging him as your Queen. Were he a pawn in your file, had he presumed to claim the rank for himself, he would’ve been removed from the board immediately. Such is the way. But he isn’t a pawn. He’s a human. The rules are different for them. If you remove him his kind will remove you immediately, you and anyone else they think was involved. Samson and Anri, who never wanted to be part of this. They wouldn’t have been able to defend themselves.

    You don’t want to think of your file, which won’t take you back. You don’t want to think of Trainer, who you won’t take back.

    Mina is staring at the television. There’s a woman in the box now, wearing a suit and holding a stick to her face, reporting about a trainer who beat his pokémon. The phrasing confuses you at first. Trainers don’t win against their pokémon, not if they’re supposed to be on the same side together.

    She hisses something inaudible and tells the lightbox to show a different person, so it does—a green-haired man making an emphatic speech to a crowd, now a tall human chopping vegetables, now a group of women roaming through the woods while a liepard pads behind them. After a few switches, Mina rolls her eyes and turns the light in the television off before walking into the backyard.

    You don’t fully understand the people inside of the television. They don’t seem to be real, even if they look like they are. They change sizes and costumes effortlessly, and lots of them vanish and never come back. You aren’t sure what happens to them, if they stay in the box or if they go somewhere new once their time is up, if a courier comes for them like they did for Samson. It’s more interesting to imagine that the lightbox humans live in a strange, parallel world, where time is divided into thirty minute segments and everyone has a specific purpose.

    Trainer watched a lightbox for many hours once, watched a movie about a wanderer who would be king. You aren’t sure if he’d even noticed you were out of your pokéball; you’d crept up behind him in the hostel room and watched him watch them dance across the screen. The wanderer’s story unfolded before your eyes.

    Many years before wanderer’s birth, the father of his father’s father had sat on the throne, and succumbed to the temptation to capture more than just his board. In his quest for power he sundered the Great Dragon into two halves; one who stood by his side and one who flew overhead and joined his enemy. At the end of their final battle, the king dared to turn his sword against the half of the Great Dragon that opposed him; rather than strike Them, the sword shattered in his hands.

    Seeing this, the king threw the broken sword down, quietly walked with his shame into the sea, and when he was waist-deep he used his bare hands to tear out his throat.

    Many generations later, when the earth erupted into war once more, the people cried for a new king, for the throne had remained empty across the centuries. There were many imposters, but none of them knew that the true king’s heir wandered the earth, disguised. He traveled across the land, finding pain and hurt in every corner of the map, and yet he feared that the weakness his blood would strike him still; that the lust for power that undid his father’s father’s father would consume him as well. And so he stayed his hand, and in his doubt he watched the world crumble around him.

    On the eve of the final battle, when all seemed lost, the White Dragon appeared before him. They breathed a great torrent of flame onto the wanderer and the broken sword, the pieces of which the wanderer had carried with him all this time. When the fire faded, the sword was whole again, and he realized he was a king. Then the White Dragon urged the king to retake his birthright, and he did.

    It was a much longer story. You don’t quite know the details. Trainer fell asleep in the first movie while you stared at the screen, enraptured; he was so bored by the second that he skipped to halfway through the third, by which point the wanderer had cast aside his cloak and taken up the sword at last.

    The wanderer’s ending made you sad for reasons you couldn’t explain at the time, not that anyone had asked. He seemed unhappy as a wanderer, but he truly didn’t seem any happier as a king. He wandered across the entire earth to find himself a destiny that fit, but in the end the gift of his blood called louder.

    Trainer cheered at the ending. It was a good ending, apparently.

    But it didn’t seem fair. He was a wanderer but he was not lost, not until he decided he was.

    ※​

    Mina talks to the phone over the next few days. You watch her from different corners of the room. Try to distract yourself in a way that doesn’t involve rubbing your blades together, since the one time you’d done that her eyes had widened in fear and she’d reached for your pokéball.

    It’s hard, you’re learning, for a human to file a bisharp for adoption. There are a lot of red flags that make most agencies turn Mina down outright. The word “abused” gets thrown around a lot. She swears you aren’t violent; they don’t believe her. You don’t blame them. How could they believe her? How could a bisharp stop being violent?

    You gather that they’re afraid that you hate humans, after what Trainer did to you. There’s a shadow that he’s cast on your entire team, one you can’t get out of. Most of them hear Mina’s full name and won’t even talk to her. The rest hear Mina’s full story and tell her politely that they have no space.

    Sometimes the phone calls and she doesn’t tell it anything. She lets it scream quietly in the corner and leaves the person inside without anyone to talk to. You feel bad for the phone. It’s frustrating to shout for help and have no one listen.

    But she just glares at the phone for a while, and then she goes outside and lets the door slam behind her. The phone wails.

    You tune out the sound as you watch her. She keeps a careful garden in her backyard. More and more the phone has screamed and she’s answered it, paled, and hung up. More and more she’s gone to the garden. It’s small, too small for her to spend hours each day fretting over it, but she does. The stubborn ferocity with which she avoids the conflict before her reminds you of the wandering king.

    She leaves you to sit idly and politely downstairs. She hasn’t tried to get you back into your pokéball after that one time, and you’re glad—you don’t want to end up like Anri and Samson, opening your eyes on a strange new part of the continent without even knowing what had happened. She’ll adopt you out, or sell you, and you know that when she puts you in your pokéball that’ll be the last time you see her.

    You don’t think you’ll miss this place, it’s true. But what comes next might be worse.

    You don’t rest well. Your dreams that night are fitful, fragmented.

    Samson is there, wearing human clothes, a suit and tie. From a distance, he could be a human. He walks down a busy street. Another human slaps him. A crowd rushes to his side.

    You fight Skyla and her pokémon over and over again. Her swanna is a thousand feet tall and it summons scythes of razor-sharp wind, so powerful that they slash through even your armor, leaving the skin beneath bare and exposed. It hurts more than Trainer’s punches ever could. A crowd cheers.

    The battlefield morphs. Your file is around you. You, kneeling, tell Alapin that you do not wish to be Queen; that you will accede to her rule. You will not challenge her, if she would only let you rejoin the ranks as a pawn. She looks at you haughtily, her yellow eyes glinting at you through the slits in her helm.

    {What,} the Queen asks you stonily, {am I supposed to do with a sword that no longer wants to fight?}

    ※​

    The next day Mina leaves the garden door open. You follow, cautious.

    You approach her heavily. Your boots feel heavy against the dry dirt. She’s hacking away at the ground with a hand shovel, but the ground is parched; it hardly yields. Mina stabs at the ground again and again with an intensity that you can’t help but find impressive.

    {Let me help,} you say, but from the way she flinches, you can guess that your voice only sounds like a guttural, screeching sound, like trying to slide a rusted sword out of a sheath. She looks up in alarm as you get closer, but you kneel down and drag your blade across the dirt, parting a furrow that’s two inches wide and as long as you are tall.

    It feels nice to cut the earth. The ground does not feel pain; it does not recoil from you; it does not cry. In your file it was a bad idea, a fast way for the blades to grow dull. Cutting softer materials would let you stay sharp.

    You look up. Mina is staring at you blankly, the shovel still limply in her hand.

    {For you,} you say as slowly as you can, gesturing with your blade, which is crusted with a thin film of dirt. {For your seedlings.}

    That’s how this works, right? You only really know the concept. Seeds are buried and become trees. There is some wizardry there, surely. Trainer never picked up a grass-type so that’s really all you know about it.

    Looking closer, she has tears in her eyes. They don’t look fresh. She’s been storing them, but now she wipes them away clumsily with the back of her hand. That’s when you notice that her hand insides are raw, bleeding. You look back at the shovel, and then you avert your eyes in shame. Wounds are not meant to be witnessed. That is what armor is for.

    Something tells you that this wasn’t actually about the garden.

    “Did you hate my son.”

    It’s not a question.

    It’s not a question she wants answered, it’s not a question you can answer, it’s not even a question at all. It’s just an opening for thought.

    Trainer was cruel and petty and stupid. He wanted to collect shiny bits of metal and he was willing to do whatever it took to get there. When you disagreed, he tried to win you over through force. And now you are exiled from your file, never permitted to return, for you dared in your desperation to take upon yourself a Promotion that you had not earned, that the rest of the pawns had not decided you were worthy of. A Queen untested, one who has not stood on the board with the file, is not fit to command. Trainer was certainly never tested.

    But did you hate him?

    She isn’t looking at you for your response, thankfully. The words are rushing out instead, in a voice that’s ragged and hoarse. “They put his face all over the news. Everywhere. I’ve had friends and family calling for days—have you seen the news? Did you see what Timmy did? Did you know? But he went off on his own and did these horrible things to all of you, and everyone’s asking how he could do such a thing, how he could become an abuser. I don’t even answer the phone anymore; someone put my number on the internet and everyone’s been calling nonstop to tell me what a piece of shit we both are. And he’s going to be locked up for years at best; my own child; did I know.”

    The shovel has slipped out of her hands. She’s staring at you, hard.

    Do either of you mean anything to the other? You don’t see Trainer when you look at her. They share the same lips and nose, you think—face features are hard. Humans are foolish for not wearing helms. Their skin certainly isn’t strong enough to warrant going unprotected. But there’s a lightness in how she holds herself that Trainer never had. She doesn’t scowl at the world like it’s about to wound her. She holds herself like someone who’s already been hurt before, and has made peace with it.

    You know what you look like. Queens and pawns alike were made for war. Your weapons twine into armor. Blades jut out in all the wrong places, too sharp for close contact with unprotected skin. A Queen’s color scheme is more pronounced too—red and yellow, to warn others to stay away from your file; black and silver, to defend it. There is nothing inviting for an armorless one here, and that was before you damned her son.

    “And I didn’t know for sure, but when I want to feel shocked I can’t. I should be surprised about this. He was such a good kid. He’s my kid. I raised him as best as I could and he thought that fracturing a conkeldurr’s ribs was the best way to be a good trainer.” She splays her fingers across her forehead, threads the tips of her fingers in through her hair. She’s staring daggers into the ground when she asks, “When he hit the conkeldurr, the one where he got caught. Was it the first time?”

    You aren’t sure how to answer that. You were the last one Trainer had captured. The fight had left Anri and Samson’s eyes long ago; Trainer had beaten it out of them.

    Do you lie to her? Do you even care about her feelings?

    Does it matter?

    If he’d hit Samson once, if he’d only hit you and not the whole team, if he hadn’t broken bones—would it have been okay then? If he’d just let you get hit in battles, hadn’t resorted to using his own fists instead of someone else’s—would it have been okay then? There must be a line for what kind of hits were acceptable since not everyone is arrested; Trainer just crossed it.

    It doesn’t seem fair. You think they all crossed the lines. They think it was only Trainer. She’ll adopt you out. Your next trainer will make you fight, make you hurt. They just won’t inflict the pain themselves. A good Queen is always on the battlefield. She is usually protected; it is usually acceptable to risk others on her behalf; she faces the same risk. She never attacks her own pawns. The battle is discipline enough.

    She takes your silence as an answer in itself.

    “I’m sorry, for what he did to you. I don’t know if it means anything coming from me.” She swallows heavily. “I didn’t know, but I think I knew. He wasn’t good for a journey, but he wanted it so, so badly, and he kept saying how he was ready. So I let him. That was the wrong choice. I’m sorry.”

    Trainer will be locked up for years. He will probably never be allowed to fight for the rest of his life. In a file, that is the ultimate shame. From the way everyone is acting, it is a great punishment for humans as well. You caused this. You feel bad you did it. But you’re not sorry. Sorry means you wouldn’t do it again, but rewind the clock, knowing what you do now, and you’d still do it. You would hesitate, but you would do it. Every time.

    “All of the adoption agencies are telling me that pokémon from abusive trainers are difficult to rehome. Especially certain species. They say abandoned bisharp are prone to become obsessively violent, or else they’ll become sullen, withdrawn. They don’t want to take you; neither of those are good traits for a new trainer.” She glances up, meets your gaze, and laughs to herself. Shakes her head as if it’ll clear her thoughts a little. “Look at me, talking to a pokémon. I must be going crazy.”

    You grate out a response. {I’m listening.}

    She can’t parse the words, the sound makes her head snap back over to you.

    “What do you even want out of all of this? Where do you want to go now?”

    You think of the wanderer, who tried for so long to run from his destiny only for the White Dragon to alight one night and reforge him. It was the sad but bitter truth that the world needed a king, not a wanderer, to save it from that war. But no one ever asked him what he wanted, not even the Great Dragon.

    You run your blade deeper through the furrow in the ground, deep enough that the exposed ground is damp again.

    She looks at it, frowning.

    {For you,} you repeat. {For your seedlings.} A pause. She’s staring at you quizzically. You point one blade inward. {For me.}

    “Do you want a trainer?”

    You run your blade through the dirt again. The furrow grows.

    Mina looks at you, a set of three wrinkles squiggling across her forehead to mirror the one you’ve carved into the dirt. “I guess I wouldn’t want to fight either, not if—” She swallows heavily. “Yeah.”

    You lean back.

    Mina looks at the trough you’ve made. “Is this for my garden?”

    You tap the shovel. Point at her bloodied hand. Nod.

    A smile creases her face. The first one you’ve seen from her so far.

    “Could you—if you don’t mind—could you make it a little wider?”

    So you do.

    Something changes in her face. You aren’t sure what. She’s already soft, lacking in armor as she is, but she’s suddenly softer still.

    The rest of the afternoon, she talks to you conversationally while she works. This row is for tamato, she explains. She holds up a tiny grain of dirt—one that, to your eyes, looks no different from the rest—and explains seeds, grow cycles, the proper amount of sun. There’s an oak tree in this part of the garden; it’ll shelter the seedlings when they start to sprout. Six hours of sunlight a day, give or take, is a good amount when they’re still young. Luckily by the time they get tall enough to need more, they’ll have grown out of the tree’s shadow. Last spring the air was too dry; she didn’t water enough. It looks like this season might be the same as well. That’s okay; she’ll just water more carefully this time.

    The anger from before has slipped out of her voice; you imagine her burying it with each seed, piling great mounds of damp earth on it and hoping that when it next resurfaces, she’ll be able to find it beautiful instead.

    She invites you to help, and you eagerly make holes in the ground where she directs you, but for the most part you’re happy to just watch her work and talk. She knows so much. Tamatos grow quickly and have big roots; they must be planted far apart. Chople should be planted in a different row, but to the north or south, as the tamatos will grow faster and will hungrily eat up their sun. But you can plant basil between them, and the smell will help repel insects once fruiting starts. And lilacs, she says, don’t really have a point or anything, but she thinks they’re pretty and they look good next to the rawst blossoms.

    She moves you down to the chople row and starts picking small pebbles out of the furrow you’ve made her there. A windstorm came by last winter, she tells you in a guarded voice, and knocked the rawst bush over, nearly tore out all its roots and flung it halfway across the yard. She points it out to you now, how she’s helped it twine around a trio of sturdy wooden stakes that help keep it stable while it grows back into the earth. She left it to root in the spot where it landed, where the winds had stopped blowing it; the oak tree in the center of the garden will shield it from the next storm. It’s coming along quite nicely now. Soon, she says, you won’t even be able to tell; she’s sure that come summer, it’ll blossom just as vibrantly as it always has.

    “It’s hard work,” she says suddenly, breaking off from her tangent about the best depth for planting mint. “We’ll have to visit the garden often, and pull the weeds out. Plants don’t just grow fruit overnight. Sometimes it’ll look like everything is fine; sometimes we’ll have to shoo the pidove away when they try to eat the fruit that isn’t ready. And there’s never really a day where you realize that the fruit is ready, because the plants grow so gradually.” She looks firmly at you. “But they’re growing towards a purpose, and we’ll help them get there. Even damaged leaves still need sun.”

    Strands of sweaty hair hang in her face, and the aroma of damp earth is everywhere. She’s got her neck bent over the row of mint that she’s planting, but even still:

    Something tells you this wasn’t actually about the garden.

    ※​

    That evening Mina unplugs the phone. She makes a pot of boiled leaves. She offers some to you, and you accept it curiously. It has a strange aroma, prickles at your nose like a thousand tiny swords, but the bleeding doesn’t come. You don’t really understand how people can drink trees. The garden is mysterious indeed.

    She turns on a lamp and curls her legs up on a couch that looks too small for just her. Her blanket, on the other hand, looks far too big. She flips through a book in relative silence, pausing every now and then to look at you.

    You aren’t sure if you remember the wanderer-king’s story very well. Maybe the dragon did ask him what he wanted. But no one asked the sword. No one ever had asked the sword.

    You don’t make a sound. Her cup of leaves slowly dwindles while you think about the plants you helped outside, about how they don’t need to be reforged to be rooted anew.



    p | n
     
    Last edited:
    vi. noted
  • kintsugi

    golden scars
    Pronouns
    she/her/hers
    Partner
    silvally-grass
    vi. noted

    ※​

    The humans tell rumors about you. They whisper that Ghetsis beats his pokemon to keep them in line, that his hydreigon hates him more than anything else in the world.

    You know how they see you—a terrifying force of nature, bringer of ash and blood. You are his enforcer, his fire. Ghetsis is old, after all, even for a human. He was not blessed with the lifespan or might of a dragon, so he relies on you instead. But you’ll never understand how they think a mere human could ever make a dragon partner with a human they do not respect.

    Ten thousand years ago, a dragon shaped Unova from fire and thunder and ice. Those elements run in all the peoples of this world, and where some of them forgot, the dragons never did. Pure nature is wild. It remembers its roots. Above all, it does not know fear. If you shout commands at a thunderstorm, does it listen?

    Dragons are not like humans, nor are they like other pokémon. There is a reason that there are so few dragon tamers in the world. A dragon cannot be beaten into submission any more than a fire can be asked to stop burning. Tie a lillipup to a stick as a puppy and it will spend its entire life thinking it is too weak to break free, even as it grows bigger. An adult stoutland trained young will be an obsequious servant its entire life. But a dragon knows no defeat. If you tie a hatchling to a stick, he will resent you. When he grows large enough, he will feed your limbs to his children.

    It’s no surprise, really. Humans took you away from all the elements of your culture except for your violence, and they were surprised when you embraced it. If they wanted to raise dragons that did not raze towns, they should have thought twice before they sacked yours.

    Ghetsis is many things, but he is no fool. He understands the hearts of dragons. Sometimes he holds himself with the same reckless abandon. There is an accord between you. You give him what he wants. You protect him from his foes, let his reputation stretch before the two of you like a dark shadow. He gives you what you want. Power. Strength. Vengeance. A bit of coaching. A strange disc that holds the secrets of how to create fire. A wide berth. A warm bath.

    It is partnership in the most basic sense. He will never seek you for counsel and you will never seek him for love. But that is not why anyone would ever choose to raise a dragon.

    It is for these reasons that you cannot help but wonder about the child when he seeks you out time and time again, seeking your opinion, your appraisal, your approval. You’ve heard the rumors about him, too. Lord N. The freak without a human heart.

    You know why the humans have to see the two of you like this. What reason would a pokémon have to fight for someone like Ghetsis? What reason would a human like N have to willingly seek to correct the imbalance that favors them so heavily? No, better to think that in his chest beats a different organ altogether, one that would never pity you, one that has no sympathy for the children of fire and thunder.

    N does not understand why humans raise dragons. He seeks you for counsel. He is a fool for many reasons, but you think this is the one that makes him the biggest fool of all.

    The door to N’s chambers cracks open. You occupy his room while he’s away, not for any particular reason. You could have your own chamber of the castle, furnished to your liking—but it would be empty. You are a dragon. You have no need for human comforts, least of all this one, but—

    {Oh? Look who finally came back,} you growl lowly. It’s hard not to avoid sounding mocking, so you don’t try. {You haven’t been back by the castle in weeks, N. I was beginning to think you’d found better things to be doing than dealing with the violent. Surely there’s a sign you could put up somewhere? A speech you could be making?}

    “It’s good to see you too.”

    He’s not easy to goad. He never is. But if you stopped in the face of a challenge, well, you’d make a terrible dragon.

    {Or maybe this time you could pass out some flyers? Have a slam poetry night about liberation?}

    “Zahhak. Please.”

    He sounds uncomfortable even as the words come out of his mouth. It’s not an order; it’s barely even a request. He’s too consumed by doubt to command a dragon. You both know that.

    There’s a long silence. He breaks first.

    “I was worried about you,” he says. He frowns. “Your tail. That’s new. Has …” He trails off. “Have …”

    {The wound will heal. Don’t beat yourself up, N. Ghetsis treats me as well as any other human would, if that’s what you’re trying to ask,} you finish for him while he still fumbles around the question. This child. You remember when he was once your entire world. {Better, perhaps. I’m only hurt as badly as I want to be.} You chuckle at your own joke. {It isn’t like you, N, to mince your words. Does seeing me make you uncomfortable somehow?}

    N looks firmly at his hands, and past them, and then to his feet. You watch as his gaze jumps from your dusk ball by the door, to the monochrome tapestry beside you, to the dusty stack of papers on his desk—he makes a tour of the entire room and he refuses to look at you. “You know the answer to that, Zahhak,” he says quietly.

    You do know. Of course you do. But it makes you feel better to make him say it. {Which part makes you uncomfortable, N? That I’ve been injured despite being at the forefront of the movement that’s supposed to prevent that? That you use the weakness of your own flesh as an excuse not to put your body on the line alongside me?}

    “There is no part. I don’t like seeing my friends hurt,” N replies stiffly.

    {Look at me.}

    N doesn’t.

    {Look. At me.}

    He does, reluctantly, but when he does he’s steeled himself enough that he doesn’t flinch back at your three-part gaze. Perhaps he has the heart of a dragon after all.

    You wonder what he sees when he looks at sees you, tattered in front of him, a tangle of black and blue wings. Your wings are scarred and shredded like sea-weary sails. There’s barely a square foot of hide where a scale isn’t chipped off. One of your fangs on your left arm is broken off at the root; shattered where it is, it will never grow back. Scars trace down your torso like rivers. Your tail is six inches shorter than it should be, the tip ripped off. Or does he linger on the more recent wounds instead? There’s another chunk missing where your tail meets your back, where the scales are still growing back. One of your wings is splotchy and burnt on the edges.

    No. There is pity in his eyes when he sees your injuries, when he mistakes your scars for weakness. He is no dragon, but he wishes he had the fire in his heart to be one. That is his struggle, you decide. That will always be his struggle. You will not make it your own.

    {You’re ashamed of your body, Lord N.} You can’t help but slip the title in. Dragons don’t need titles. Everyone who hears their names knows what they’ve done. {But I’m proud of mine. I could tell you the chronology of every scar, of every filthy battle I had to fight for someone else until I became like this. I’ve picked my battles, and I know that they were fought for a just cause.} There’s a click of scales as your eyes slide open and shut. {I don’t need your pity, friend. I chose this so that those weaker than me wouldn’t have to.}

    There is a long silence.

    Someone with thinner scales than yours would worry about going too far, would worry that one day you'll push N to the point where he will no longer tolerate you. And then you would be alone, just you and Ghetsis, and he's not really the best for conversation. Not that you need it. All the same, you soften your voice and say, {So to what do I owe the pleasure? I admit I’m not used to the luxury of being consulted like this.}

    He accepts the opening gratefully. “I would steal you from Ghetsis any time, if you only said the word, Zahhak. But I wonder—would you come with me, or would you stay? If you wanted to leave, Ghetsis couldn’t stop you. You would’ve done it by now.”

    You chuckle, long and low. He is correct to say Ghetsis couldn’t instead of Ghetsis wouldn’t. But what a foolish notion he extends to you. To be liberated from your liberator. Is this how all pokémon feel about their trainers? No wonder you keep failing. {It depends. Would it mean that you’ve finally abandoned your pacifism? I would fight alongside you in a heartbeat were that true.}

    “I would not make you fight until you bled. I would not permit you to do the same to others.” His chin tilts up defiantly. No fear. You’re glad he’s learned at least that much from you. He chose a steep road and lacks the scales to shield him from the hardships ahead.

    {Then with Ghetsis I remain.} There’s a pause. You do not bite back your smirk; instead, it spreads across all three heads. {Is that what you wanted to hear? That some of us are willing to put up with the idiocy of humans, even knowing that the price will be our suffering? I am no stranger to fighting; I do not fear the consequences of my battling. I relish them. Ghetsis is the only human I know who will give me the chance to strike back. He lets my pain be used for something more than a pretty piece of metal for him to polish by the campfire. Maybe you think he is using me. And you might be correct. He holds me here. He commands me to fight. And when push comes to shove, I know he would never do the same for me. But he is giving me what I want, so surely—I am using him as well.}

    N’s voice is soft, quiet. It almost sounds injured. “But he’s hurting you. How can you stand a man like that?”

    You tilt down. The two lateral heads are vestigial now, but they share your intimidating appearance, your flinty gaze. Six pairs of eyes glitter back at him as you share the truth he already knows. {The same way as you. Surely he hurts you too? Surely you’ve heard the whispers by now, surely one of your Plasma members has murmured in your ear what he seeks to do to humans and pokémon alike should you succeed. He’s co-opting your peaceful movement, breaking rules in Plasma’s name, and you have no choice but to let him. Does that not fill you with fire? Does any of that burn for him?}

    He doesn’t answer at first. You didn’t expect him to. He doesn't want to admit that Ghetsis is a necessary evil. He is the bitter root that cures a deeper poison. You do not love him, but you understand his use. You will endure the flames that lick at your scales so long as they burn away the rot.

    And besides. This degradation into violence was the only way things could’ve gone. Humans razed the whole forest and were surprised when there were no roots to hold the soil down when the rains came. Your rebellion was a tragedy of their own design.

    {I thought as such. We are the same in that regard. Tell me. You’ve been permitted free travel across this strange land we call home. You’ve spoken to as many pokémon as have been permitted, and how many of them have you found that hated their trainers?}

    There’s a pause.

    You don’t let up. This is a crack in his armor, and you will worry away at it until you tear it apart, or until he learns to craft stronger walls. You won’t go easy on him because no one else will coddle him either. This is what it means to seek a dragon for counsel. {Surely you must have found one, right? Think of the most despicable story you know, the most abused pokémon you’ve met. I know there are many. And I know you’ve spoken to them; there’s no way you wouldn’t have. There must have been at least one whose heart had turned black with rage, who would turn on their human masters with tooth and claw if they only had the chance.}

    He is silent. You watch him swallow, watch the lump in his neck bob up and down, but he doesn’t have any words for you.

    You press.

    {It must be so easy. You must be up to your neck in pokémon that understand your ideals, that realize that if they only listened to you they’d get everything they wanted? They’d be free? That in the world we want to build, they’d be recognized as citizens, they’d get their own rights, they wouldn’t have to fight any more? Is that what you heard in resounding echoes from every corner of Unova, as a chorus of my weak-minded kind realized that they only needed the right human to come along and save them? Where is your army, N?}

    “I haven’t found—”

    {What?} Left head forms into an expression of mock surprise. Right head mouths your words for you; they leave your real mouth in a low hiss. {I’m shocked, N. You haven’t found a horde of angry pokémon demanding to be awoken from their dreamless, fitful slumber? How could they not come? Pokémon must know that you’ve only got their best interests at heart. Humans must realize how profoundly wrong they were, and are rushing to repent. You put so much of yourself into your words. They couldn’t just ignore you, could they?}

    The way he stands there and takes it reminds you of the cubchoo from the lands to the north that were once your home. Beartic were fearsome hunters in their own right, but the cubs were small, soft—they simply had to learn to bide their time and endure as much hurt as they could, until they could dish it back.

    And N is the same. He waits, quietly, for your fire subside. You see the anguish on his face; every sentence you’ve said has been another claw ripping apart his chest, but he can take a hit even when he can’t bring himself to land one. And then he speaks. “I haven’t found an army. I haven’t found a single pokémon who will say they hate their human.”

    {Oh? Not a single one? So then you’re wrong, aren’t you?}

    You don’t mean him any harm. You only mean to prepare him against the arguments he’s sure to face outside. But he takes your sarcasm as genuine, because there’s no other way he’d know how to understand it. “No! But—”

    {Do we need to hate to be right?}

    “What?”

    You settle your neck down low. Right head looks far, far away. Left and center spear him with your eyes. {Do pokémon need to hate to be right?}

    His forehead crumples into a frown. “No, absolutely not,” he begins. “But—”

    {There is no but. You don’t see pokémon revolting against their humans in droves because pokémon want to play by the rules they were given, because they do not realize that they can play that game their entire lives and never win. But them not rising up doesn’t make them wrong about disliking training; it makes them wrong about not rising up.} You snort out of your nose. {You humans are so funny. You rage against your indoor jobs, yearn for re-enacting your wild days by touring us across our own country. But if you hated your desks so much, why don’t you leave?}

    Zahhak,” N says. “I’ve tried saying things like that. And they don’t listen, they tell me it’s not the same—”

    You know it’s not the same, not to humans. Of course it isn’t. Their own suffering is so great and magnificent that it could never be equated with something as trivial as your own.

    He has to understand. You’ve been involved in this for much longer than he has—you were both born into it, but Ghetsis made you fight the day you hatched. N got his books and his lessons; you learned your use a different way. You tried words once, like he did. There’s no path to victory there, not with people who cannot listen.

    {Could I tell you a short story, N? Perhaps phrasing it in the ways that you prefer will make it easier to understand.}

    He chuckles at that, despite the tenseness of the conversation. Good. You two shouldn’t be fighting. “Of course.”

    So you tell him.

    {Once upon a time, a fraxure named Sagaris lived in the Valley of Dragons. Her teeth were sharp and her tusks were strong. She had fought many battles with the other fraxure and axew growing up, and she defended her clan bravely. So one day, she approached her clan leader, a wizened old haxorus, and bowed her head low. She explained that she had noticed the haxorus growing into the blessings of old age, and she knew that one day the clan would need someone young and strong to lead it. She begged to join his council of elders, and to learn from him the secrets of leadership. If nothing else, she asked that she could at least be tasked with the honor of defending their clan leader and serving as his bodyguard, so that he would be protected should any enemies see his declining health and take it upon themselves to relieve him. And if he came to know her heart and saw her as worthy, well. She would want nothing more than to follow in his footsteps and lead the clan one day.}

    {And the clan leader laughed to himself, and the rest of the clan laughed alongside him. Her? A clan leader? But when he saw that she was not joking, he huffed, and he rumbled, and finally he told her that a good leader needed compassion as well as strength. If she could gather enough lum berries from the neighboring forest by sundown to feed the clan for an entire week, he would consider her offer.}

    {The neighboring forest was dense. It was difficult for a fraxure to traverse too deep, for many of those in the forest were territorial, but they did not engage their enemies head-on like the fraxure did. So her sharp teeth and strong tusks would do her little good, but, emboldened by the clan leader’s promise, she went anyway.}

    {The journey was quite hard, but the young fraxure was rewarded. She returned, laden with the fruits of her labor, and with her she brought so many berries that the clan ate heartily for an entire month. Overjoyed, Sagaris turned to the clan leader, and again asked him to reconsider.}

    {The clan leader paused for a moment, and then replied that she was still not ready. A good leader also needed to be fearless, he said. If she could traverse to the summit of the Twisting Mountain and fight the deadly cold that lived there, then he would consider her offer.}

    {This was a bold demand indeed, for the only thing that dragons fear more than each other is ice, for it chills the fire and thunder in our veins. But Sagaris was brave, and she was determined, so she went forth to the icy slopes and did battle with the beartic clan that lived there. The mountain shook with her battle cries, and by the end all pokémon above and below acknowledged that this fearless fraxure had no equal in combat. And so she descended again, marked by the icy ones as one of their own. Victorious, the fraxure turned to the clan leader, and again asked him to consider.}

    {The clan leader waited again, and then replied that she was still not ready. A good leader, he said, also needed to be determined. If she could seek out a fleeting water sprite known as a keldeo and befriend it, then he would consider her offer. But a keldeo had not been seen in the mountains for generations, so she would need to search far and wide.}

    {And do you know what Sagaris did, N?}

    He starts, surprised at the interruption. After a moment to consider, he says, “She agreed, and sought to befriend this pokémon?”

    {No. She remembered that the blood of dragons coursed thick and hot through her veins, and she seized the leader’s tusks and tore them from his face. She named herself clan leader, and the people discovered that she was already compassionate, brave, determined and strong; that what the clan leader sought to make her prove was there all along.}

    There’s a long silence. N rubs his forehead with two fingers. Finally, he says, “I don’t fully—”

    {The clan leader never intended to give Sagaris anything, N.} He has to get this point. He has to get this point. {He merely wanted to keep her distracted, and out of his scales. If he told her no outright, she would’ve been angry. She might’ve fought back. But if he could convince her that there was still something she could do to get what she wanted, she would pursue that. If he could convince her that there was just one more thing she needed to fix about herself before he would accept the merits of her argument, and then another, and another, he would never actually have to deal with the argument itself.}

    N is silent now. Yes. You’re sure he understands what he’s trying to say, even if he doesn’t actually agree with it.

    “I did not mean to move the goalposts for you,” he says with a quiet sigh. “I just—”

    {No. That isn’t what I meant either.} You tilt your neck so that you can look down on him better. {Our claim is that pokémon battling is inherently abusive, that there is no consent without voice. They do not want to accept that, because it would involve destroying the norms they have come to love. But they cannot refute that we feel pain, that battling hurts us—so instead they make new rules to become clan chief. A little pain is acceptable, they say, so we must prove that pokémon hate humans, that their pain has boiled over to the point that the damage is irreparable. But I guarantee, even if you did find a hateful pokémon, they would merely tell you that you haven’t found enough, that the subset you created wasn’t a good sample. And even if you did find many, they would merely tell you that real trainers aren’t abusive, that it isn’t their fault that there are a few bad eggs, that they’ll join your side next time, at the next big offense—anything and everything in their power to make sure that you’re too busy running around on keldeo hunts trying to get their approval, too busy to force them to understand that a system that allows for these tragedies is rotten to the core.}

    “What am I supposed to do?” N asks, and he pauses for so long that you realize it’s not a rhetorical question.

    Rip off their tusks and declare yourself king, you want to say, but you know he won’t agree to that.

    {My species is born blind. You remember this as well as I. And even after I learned to open my eyes to this world, I was still in two minds, as you are now. I thought that our problems could be solved with words, while part of me always knew the truth.} Pause. {The truth won out eventually, and what I know now is this: the world will not stray towards justice unless you force it to. When you fight against tyrants they will do everything they can to paint you black, tarnish your name, because they don’t actually need to defeat your ideas; it’s just you they need to kill. But you have to remember: they aim for you, but you aren’t dangerous to them. They fear the truth, and if you seek to become the embodiment of it, you are their worst nightmare.}

    “But violence will never sway them, Zahhak. They will not listen to us if we liberate this world with force. For us to succeed I must change their minds.”

    {Wrong. For us to succeed you must change their hearts. Words can be ignored, and swept aside time and time again. Actions cannot. They will write us as the villains in their history books regardless. I intend to win. Then I will care not what history says of me, for I and anyone with eyes will recognize what is right.}

    “Words are all I have.” He tilts his jaw up towards you, the first and last human to look you in the eyes and defy you, a dragon. “There is nothing to be gained by burning the world to liberate the ashes from the trees.”

    {I know you better than anyone else in this entire world, so believe me when I say this. History’s rules do not apply to you. You aren’t like the humans I’ve met—your will burns like an open torch for anyone to see; nothing will stop you from achieving your goal. Your words stirred a kindred flame in my heart—}

    “It was different then!” The retort bursts out of him, uncontrolled. For a split second you see fire in the dead grey coals that are his eyes. “I was different then.” There’s a pause, and the glow fades. He’s sad, quiet. Human. “Sorry. I didn’t mean to interrupt you.”

    You hate it when he apologizes. Some of that hatred slips back into your voice when you say, {Your drive is the same. In every fiber of your body is a spark that screams against injustice, that seeks to protect the weak. It keeps you up at night, it keeps you going when the world is against you—it means that you refuse to quit no matter what, until that goal is achieved, the rules of history be damned. I know it because this is a flame we share; our hearts burn bright with the blood of dragons. So believe me when I say this. For you, with your impossible drive—history is only what you settle for.}

    “Zahhak.” He looks down. Away. Up. Sideways. Anywhere but at you. And then he finally says. “It all made sense back then. It was easy when I thought people would listen. But now … now I don’t know what to do. Forgive me.”

    This time, you don’t cut him off. No clever retort comes to mind. Suddenly your thoughts are pulled in a new direction, towards all the other martyrs who asked for forgiveness.

    If you knew any better, you’d have done it by now, surely. Snapping at the heels of trainers, trying to get them to change from below—that surely wasn’t the answer.

    No, it’s certainly not even a good answer, either. The road you’ve chosen goes one way, and N is too idealistic to walk it.

    And you know it, don’t you? You’ve known all along where your path ends. It’s not like you ever had a choice. One way or another, pokémon end up six feet under buried by humans. You’re just racing down that path so that, maybe, it can burn before others have to.

    “You’re right. One of us will change the world.” N’s words come out slowly, like they weigh more than a mountain. He swallows. “What you and Ghetsis seek will not bring us what we want. I cannot allow it to come to pass. I do not believe you will go anywhere by showing humans a thing to be feared. I will show pokémon the Truth, then.” He looks up at you. You expect to see the fire rage up in his eyes, but there’s still nothing. Not even a spark. “I will go to Dragonspiral Tower and awaken Reshiram. They will chart a new path forward, one where everyone ends up happy. I’m sorry that we must be at odds here. I do not know what other choice I have.”

    You shouldn’t be surprised to hear him say it out loud, of course. It’s been his destiny his entire life. You just didn’t expect him to sound so resigned to accept it.

    There is a concept you taught N once, long ago: that of the nocturne lament.

    It is the words that a pokémon says before facing their—(this is the best translation you can give it; the tongue of dragons has no word for it, but a human might call it)—fate.

    Death, maybe, would be a similar word, but not always. There are worse ends, even for those who do not believe in destiny. No. A better way to put it would be another human phrase: an enemy you cannot defeat.

    Perhaps the dragons should have a word for it, too; even though you’re loathe to name it, you aren’t blind any more. You can recognize the inevitable. Sagaris invoked the nocturne lament on her last day as clan leader, when humans swarmed into the Dragonvalley with their anger and their steel. As the torches grew closer and night began to fall, the haxorus braced herself at the mouth of the mountain’s path, her tusks freshly sharpened. Behind her, the clan fled as quickly as they could.

    As the human’s fire reflected in her eyes, and as she mirrored it in her maw, Sagaris echoed the nocturne lament, the mantra of martyrs, passed down to her across history: Forgive me, dear siblings. This is all I know how to give.

    You wonder if N feels the way you do now, the same way Sagaris surely must have felt in those final hours. Her actions ultimately did not spare her clan from certain destruction, but she bled out not knowing that. Today she reminds people everywhere what it means to carry the blood of dragons in your veins.

    N is just a puny human standing at the mountain’s throat, holding up his hand to halt an avalanche, but he has just as much of a chance of winning here as Sagaris did.

    “I hate it when we fight like this,” he says at last.

    You chuckle darkly. {If you would only listen to reason, we wouldn’t have to.}

    N scoffs; his laugh is almost mirthless, like yours, but not quite. “Zahhak, I value your advice more than anyone else’s in the world, and yet we both know—what you ask for is far from reason.”

    {That’s odd. I would say the same about you and what you ask as well. I wonder what it would take for you to stop your doubting, N. I hope you find it soon. The world needs you to.}

    And this time, the smile is truly not a real one. N looks up with his emotions frozen across his face, stares at you so guiltily it’s like if he looks too long you’ll shatter. “Surely you hate me by now, Zahhak? For all I have failed to do for you?”

    The frills on the back your neck fold close to your head; unbidden, a deep rumbling sound comes from your throat.

    Of all the things the little dragon had to ask you, it was this.

    You lean in close, peel the scales back from your words until they’re just as soft as his. A hatchling, still blind, still trusting. {You know by now the answer to my question. You have yet to meet a pokémon that has found it within themselves to hate a human. I am no exception.}

    The room suddenly feels heavy and still. You lean down and press the cool, dry scales of your snout against N’s forehead. He flinches back, and then he squeezes his eyes tight and throws his arms around your head, buries his forehead into your scales, runs his soft palms against your scarred jaw. He’s warm. So warm.

    If you could both just stay here forever. If Dragonspiral Tower didn’t beckon, echoes of a lost song in the back of both your minds. If the world didn’t demand to be right again.

    You close your eyes as well, and in that moment you can pretend you’re both smaller again. He’s just a snot-nosed child, chubby and doddling along on unsteady legs, pulling your unscarred tail, asking for stories. The little freak and his freakish handler, both of you too blind to see how everyone stared. If you don’t open your eyes ever again you can stay like this forever.

    Perhaps he truly is the best one to call to the heart of the White Dragon after all, if he could so easily find his way into yours.

    N is the one to break the silence first. “You know what I must do,” he whispers into your snout. His eyes are closed, but his breathing is wet, and it leaks onto your scales.

    {I hope you do as well.} And you mean it. You truly, truly mean it, in both ways.

    There is a long silence. N exhales heavily into the ridge between your nostrils. His breath is warm on your scales. You can almost pretend there’s a fire there. Almost, little hatchling.

    What he gives you isn’t an answer, not really, but it feels like one all the same.

    {Forgive me, dear sibling,} he says, in the dialect of dragons. It makes your heart stop to hear him invoke it, twists a tiny pang of fear that’s altogether different from how you normally feel when he adopts your tongue. He is small for a dragon, after all. Too small to share your tongue and your fate.

    But the tragedy of the nocturne lament was not in the words, but in the choosing of them. In understanding the insignificance of your sacrifice and making it anyway. If he can stomach even a little of that burden, perhaps there is hope after all.

    He chanted the nocturne lament like a prayer. The words rolled off his lips so quickly that he almost doesn’t notice they’re there, not until you return the other half to him, make it a promise the two of you share:

    {This is all I know how to give.}



    p | n
     
    Last edited:
    vii. nonconformist
  • kintsugi

    golden scars
    Pronouns
    she/her/hers
    Partner
    silvally-grass
    cw: contains references to police brutality and violent responses towards peaceful protest.

    vii. nonconformist

    ※​

    You were born right on Lucky’s heels, or so your mother said. You don’t really remember that. You do remember opening your eyes to see Lucky blinking back at you already. And then later, stumbling to catch up to him as he took his first proud steps around you. Reaching deep into your chest to find a tiny howl that matched his.

    He was big and he grew fast, even for a lillipup, even for a firstborn. Mother was so proud of him. She loved all six of you, of course, but she loved Lucky most. And she was right to. The whiskers on his face formed a beautiful five-pointed star. He was her good-luck charm, she said. A human concept, to believe that objects could alter fate. But he was so was so strong that Mother named the rest after him—you are Clover, and after you came Horseshoe, and Ladybug, and Jade, and Rab. If your names were lucky to humans, maybe you could be too.

    None of you are lucky, not like how Lucky was. You imagine your entire family making a wish on him, on his huge paws, on his sharp senses, on his fearless bark.

    Some people are born to be favorites.

    ※​

    There’s desperation etched in the girl’s forehead, and fury in her eyes. Her fists are clenched tightly to her sides, and she’s calculating something, glancing over her shoulder. “Hold it just a bit longer, Mali,” she tells her liepard tightly.

    The liepard mewls an affirmation, but you can see her legs quivering from the strain of maintaining a protective shield for this long. The glimmering blue glow lights up the entire alley, stretching across both sides of it; tendrils of white gas curl in the air but billow harmlessly off of the shield.

    “Driftveil Police! Hands in the air! Tell your pokémon to back down!”

    The girl hasn’t heard him, or maybe she has. You aren’t sure. At twenty feet it’s possible she’s too far to hear, but Sam’s a pretty good shouter. The girl has a scrap of fabric wrapped around the lower half of her face, but you can see the pinches in her forehead framing her darting eyes. She’s heard. You can tell.

    Just when you think Sam is about to take her silence as an answer in itself and send you in, she says in a high-pitched voice, “There’s gas where we are. If I withdraw my liepard, I’ll have no protection.”

    “You should’ve considered that before you blocked the road,” Sam retorts. “Withdraw your pokémon. Immediately. Or we will respond with force.”

    Force. He means you. You’re force now. That’s what evolving into a herdier means.

    Lucky was always the strongest, the boldest. You’d chase after him, but where he leapt, you hesitated. Where he was fearless enough to stick his nose into anything, you were always afraid of the consequences.

    Sam wouldn’t know why you’re afraid, but he’s happy to help you overcome it, and he has, every single day.

    The girl does another check over her shoulder. When she turns back, some of the tension is gone from her shoulders, but her eyes are sad. “Thanks, Mali.” And then, to Sam: “I’m going to withdraw her now. I’m reaching to my belt.” She inhales sharply and then holds her breath. Carefully she raises one hand in the air, keeps the other one low as a flash of red light envelops the liepard and dissolves her form. She bends down and places the miniaturized pokéball at her feet and then raises her hands by her head, palms out, elbows bent up by her shoulders.

    Perfect form. She must have been practicing since last time.

    “Retrieve, Ace. Take Down.”

    Some people think Take Down would be excessive here. You’ve heard other humans yell at Sam, and most of the pokemon don’t bother talking to anyone on the force, but some of them aim their words at you. Traitor. Violent. Criminal.

    The last one confuses you the most. You protect them from criminals. You aren’t the criminal. If anything, they are. Some people would think Take Down would be excessive. Some people haven’t had to fight the same battles you have.

    You dash in. The gas stings at your eyes and at the open gash on your flank where you’d gotten hit by the sharp edge of a brick earlier. The thick fur on your body protects the rest. The girl stands perfectly still as you approach. No, a full Take Down definitely seems like too much. You don’t want to be excessively violent.

    You aim for the girl’s knees as a compromise. This way she’ll fall forward and not back. If she falls forward she might have enough time to catch herself. If she falls backward she’ll smash her head against the pavement.

    You bowl through her knees. She hits the ground. You drag her back to Sam and she doesn’t resist.

    “Cover me, Ace,” Sam says absently to you, and you bark in confirmation as he unclips the handcuffs from his belt.

    You watch from five feet back, poised to leap forward if the girl makes an aggressive move. She’s young. Her face is buried in the brick, but you don’t forget features easily. She’s got a long, pinched nose. Bright pink hair, pixie cut. Freckles. Her bandana used to cover the rest of her face, but when Sam pushed her onto her back, it slipped down, revealing light brown skin and a split lip. Nose piercing. Brown eyes, watering now from the poison gas. She’s thin and lithe, like her liepard.

    You don’t forget a face. You’ve seen her before. You and Sam have picked her up a few times on patrol already. He needn’t have worried. She wasn’t going to be a threat. She never is. She even told you that once, when you took her down to the station.

    You fill in the rest of the gaps from the times you’ve watched her get processed before. Five foot three. Blood type O positive. No relatives listed. A lot of her friends pick her up when she gets detained, and then she’s right back where she started. You saw her last week. You’ll probably see her again soon.

    She doesn’t fight, not even when Sam twists her hands behind her back and cuffs them together. He pulls her away from the wall by her left shoulder, and you can see that her cheek is starting to bleed from where it scraped against the brick. Not a lot or anything; it’s just a scrape. Sam pulls her away off the ground and she stutter-steps awkwardly to remain standing.

    “Do you have any other pokémon?” he asks, but he’s already patting her down.

    “Just the one,” she says in a thin voice. “Liepard. She’s registered.”

    “Yeah, yeah.” Sam finishes his search and then picks up the pokéball from the ground where she was standing. He inspects it carefully before pocketing it. “You’ll get it back after processing.”

    “I know.”

    His retort is immediate. “Don’t get mouthy with me, young lady.”

    Her eyes flash with thunder, but she curls her lips and doesn’t say anything else.

    Sam grumbles something under his breath—what is it? You can’t hear. Was he talking to you—and then pulls her by the elbow towards the police truck.

    You look around. The rest of the rally is almost dispersed. It’s mostly cleanup. You’re glad that you’re still small, otherwise they’d have you patrolling on your own, and you don’t think you’d do a very good job of it. A few black bandanas litter the street outside of the alley. There’s a sign on the ground, trampled with half a dozen different treads of shoes. You tilt your head to read the text as you and Sam walk the girl past. LIBERATION ISN’T THEFT. By the base of a streetlamp is a discarded megaphone. There aren’t any people nearby, just the police; in the distance, you can see bright yellow tape cordoning the whole area off.

    Sam walks her into a waiting police van. The engine’s off. He slides the back open and gestures with his chin. “In.” The girl complies. He shoves her to the back and sits her down. A flash of his fob activates the wall mags, and the one closest to her glows bright blue before—schnick—holding fast to the metal of her handcuffs.

    They’ve got the vans today instead of just the squad cars. You wonder. Were they expecting to arrest more people?

    The radio on Sam’s shoulder crackles to life. The sounds themselves are too garbled for you to quite make out, but Sam’s angry, “What do you mean they got away?” tells you enough. “Wait here,” he says to you, gesturing into the van. His other hand is straying to the other pokéballs on his belt. “Make sure they behave.”

    Right. Bark. You’re a good boy. You’re brave. You can do this. You leap up into the semi-dark of the van, the metal cool on your paws, and Sam slides the door shut.

    What follows is a very long silence.

    “Oh, hell,” says the girl suddenly. Her hands are twisted into an uncomfortable knot that pins her cuffed wrists up by her shoulder. “It’s you.”

    The other human in the van looks up. He’s cuffed in the same way as the girl, but instead of twisting his arms, he’s turned his whole body so that half of him is wedged into the wall of the van. He looks sullenly over his shoulder. “Do I know you?”

    “You’re the guy who started attacking Br—uh, one of our palpitoad. You’re the dewott trainer, right?”

    He glares back. Dark eyes. Dark hair. Slim jaw, but he’s still growing into his shoulders, you think. You haven’t seen him before. “Haven’t you talked enough today?”

    “What, didn’t expect to get arrested?” An edge of mockery slips into the girl’s voice.

    “It’s not illegal to battle. Driftveil has open challenge rules. Clay’s city, Clay’s rules.”

    “Not during a protest,” the girl snaps back immediately, but she seems half distracted with trying to rub her right eye while her hands are stuck to the wall. “We had permits. The entire warehouse was off-limits. Pokémon battling is banned. Peaceful protest.”

    “Then why was there a palpitoad?”

    “We fight for pokémon rights alongside pokémon. Of course they’re out with us. They’re protesting too. Battling is legally defined as a pokémon attacking another pokémon. Water suppresses chemical gas. Brex was our ground support,” she says. Purses her lips. Even from here it’s pretty obvious that her eyes are rimmed red. “So thanks for that.”

    There’s an awkward silence.

    “Wanna start over?” the girl asks after a long pause. “I’m Rhea.”

    “Do you ever shut up?”

    “We’re on the same side now,” Rhea says, gesturing with her chin towards the walls of the police van around them. “Or at the very least, we’re in the same boat.” When he’s silent some more, she sighs. “Look. Your first time getting arrested, right? You’ll get out of this fine. Probably just a citation at best.”

    “My mom is going to kill me.”

    “Are you over fourteen?”

    “Sixteen, thank you very much.”

    “Then you’re fine. Legally they don’t have to alert your parents unless you get written up for a felony. You didn’t assault anyone on your way out, right?”

    “No.”

    Rhea sighs. Shakes her head. “Tough crowd.” She looks over to you. “How about you, Herdier. You happy to be here?”

    You bark twice for yes.

    It’s probably facetious, but something about her tone stings a little. People like her expect you to hate your job, to hate your human. Sam has done so much for you. And in return he’s letting you do so much for everyone else.

    They don’t get it. There are so many long, hot, grueling days that never turn violent. You endure shouts and glares for all of it. At the end of one of those days, Sam had returned to the emptiness of the patrol car, and he’d began to speak in low, angry spurts. These people want you to be ashamed, he’d said. They want you to be scared to go out in the morning and do your job. They wanted to yell at you and hate you and at the end of the day they wanted to come back to you for help, because they needed you.

    You’d listened closely, your ears perked up. Sam didn’t normally trust you with his confidence. He saved that for his buddies during coffee breaks. You’d felt so honored that day. Finally one of the team.

    You fill in the rest of the blanks on your own. People like her want you to be sweet and subservient like a good little pokémon; they want you patiently waiting for a brave strong human to come and save you from a life you’ve chosen for yourself. She doesn’t want you to be happy to be here, because your happiness would make her wrong.

    There’s another long silence. The fluorescent lights in the van don’t give off any heat, but the air is already starting to feel stifling.

    This wasn’t really what you had in mind when you started training, but you’re glad you’re helping somehow. Pokémon don’t get to pick what they want to do in this world. You’ll do the best with the hand you were given. Eventually people like her will understand that, even if they can’t see now.

    “I’m sorry you got arrested,” she says.

    “I don’t have anything to say to you, thief.” Contempt drips from his voice. “You’re just a thug. You can’t get what you want the right way, so you take it.”

    Rhea mutters something under her breath. You can’t make out the words, but you can hear the venom that matches his own.

    “Excuse me?” the boy hisses.

    You know what she’s about to say. You’ve heard her say it a dozen times before, to Sam, to counter-protestors on the street. You’re pretty sure she was the one holding the sign for it earlier.

    If she were smart, she’d read the room and realize that the boy doesn’t want to hear this. But she isn’t smart, or maybe she doesn’t care.

    “I said,” Rhea repeats, “liberation isn’t theft. It’s kidnapping.”

    Excuse me?”

    “Theft is for property. Kidnapping is for people. If I took you somewhere against your will, you wouldn’t say you’d been stolen. You would say you’ve been kidnapped.” A wry smile. She gestures with her chin to the walls of the van. “Or legally detained.”

    He rolls his eyes. “Semantics.”

    “Minimum sentencing for grand theft—which most pokémon of Class B and below do not qualify for, by the way—is two years, two million yen fine. Minimum sentencing for kidnapping is fifteen years, two hundred million yen fine. They are different words with different definitions because pokémon are being treated differently.”

    “There are two different terms for pokémon and people,” he says lazily. “You can’t just use vocabulary as some big ‘gotcha’ to make me realize that I was the villain all along.”

    You like the boy. Most people who talk to Rhea don’t put forward good points, but he says the things you want to hear.

    Rhea sighs. “I don’t think you’re the villain.”

    That, at least gets a response. One cocked eyebrow. It’s the closest he’s gotten to looking her in the eye. “Oh? Then what’s with the signs, the protests, the cries for liberation? I train pokémon. I saw the shitshow in Mistralton. My friend was there. If Plasma doesn’t hate trainers, you’re doing an awful job of showing it.”

    Another sigh. Is she calming herself? Is she trying to show that she relates? You can’t really tell. “We don’t hate trainers. We hate training. People grow up thinking this was the only thing that’s allowed to be normal. That’s not your fault, no more than it’s your pokémon’s fault for going along with it. You got told that pokémon training is the only way you can live your life. It’s hard to question that. I get that. We all get that. But that guilt you feel? That’s not from me. That’s you.”

    “This is way past guilt.” His eyes rumble dangerously. “I got arrested thanks to you.”

    “Not what I wanted,” Rhea says. “Trust me. Once attacks start flying, the cops just arrest everyone they see and sort them out later. After Mistralton they’ve been on edge. My job today was to make sure as few people got detained as possible. If I’d seen you, I would’ve covered for you too.”

    Neither of them have anything to say after that.

    You look back and forth at the two of them. There isn’t much different about them, not really. Two humans. Teenagers. That’s the word you’ve heard Sam use. Apparently it means that awkward stage that’s too big to be a proper lillipup but too small to be a herdier. Balled up on their own sides, angry.

    Well, you’d rather this than anyone trying to escape. You’re not sure what you’d do if that happened.

    You sit up a little straighter and prick your ears back, just in case anyone tries to jump into the van and mount a rescue. You aren’t used to doing things like this by yourself. Normally you’d have Rab, or Jade, or even L—

    “My name is Cheren.”

    “Oh?” Rhea’s head perks up from where she’s let it fall against her upper arm. Long pause. You see her wrestling with herself. “Nice to meet you.”

    “You’re serious that I won’t get written up for this?”

    “Unless you’ve got anything else on your record, no.”

    Cheren exhales. His relief fills the stale air of the cargo hold. “Good. This sucks.”

    “What, being trapped in a tiny room against your will? Having to wait for someone else to let you out? Being afraid that no one will listen to you when they do?” The words tumble out of Rhea’s mouth, and the way her eyebrows crease together makes you think she hadn’t meant to say that much.

    “I don’t imprison my pokémon. Words still matter.” Cheren rolls his eyes again and tosses her words back over. “And besides, you’re one to talk. You steal—or in your words, kidnap. How can you justify that?”

    Rhea closes her eyes. Doesn’t open them until she’s halfway through saying, “Which one do you believe? That pokémon are capable of making their own decisions to stay with trainers, or that they aren’t?”

    It’s Cheren’s turn to crumple the top of his forehead into a frown. “Obviously the first one.”

    “So your pokémon like you. That’s why they stay with you.”

    There’s a long silence. Cheren probably senses the trap by now. But still he replies, “Yes.”

    “And if they didn’t like you. They could leave. Whenever they wanted. The pokéball wouldn’t stop them.”

    “Yes.”

    “The pokémon I liberate don’t return to their trainers. But they can leave whenever they want.” Another long pause. Cheren isn’t looking at her. Rhea is staring with the precision of a liepard latched on to its prey. “So which one is it? They don’t want to stay with me but they have to, because the pokéball traps them? Or they don’t want to go back to their trainers once they’re liberated, and they’ve made that choice? What would you say I am, Cheren: a thief, a kidnapper, or a trainer?”

    Cheren’s scowl is now so deeply ingrained in his face that you’d think it were chiseled there. Your eyes trace over the way the skin between his eyebrows crinkles deeper and deeper, until his eyes are just tiny slits. “It’s different,” he says at last. “You didn’t give them a choice. You just took them.”

    Hmmm. Cheren’s wrong there, but also right. It is different. Pokémon chose to be with humans. All of them do. You did. That’s why you’re here. You made your own decision, and for her to try to take it from you—

    Rhea’s reply is exactly the kind of thing you expect from her. You’ve heard her rant like this a dozen times before. It’s starting to get on your nerves. “We give the choice to every pokémon we liberate. That is a core tenet of Plasma. I pull aside every pokémon that is in my care and explain to them their choice. The only person who doesn’t get a choice in the matter is the human.”

    “And if they want to go back to their trainers, Rhea? Then what?” Cheren’s voice is starting to get high-pitched, agitated.

    But Rhea’s still calm. Quieter, even. “Then I take them back.”

    “Even to an abusive trainer? That seems wrong, Rhea.”

    “It is. Every second of it feels wrong. But I respect their choice, even if I don’t agree. What else could I do?” There’s enough sincerity in Rhea’s voice that she doesn’t get a response for a full ten seconds. Or maybe Cheren’s just surprised that she agreed with him. “Intentional abuse of pokémon is rarely documented, but the numbers aren’t as high as you’d be led to think—between two and five percent of pokécenter intakes are suspected to be due to intentional abuse.” She rubs her chin on the top of her wrist to scratch it. “But it’s much more reassuring to think that abuse is just intentionally tying your pokémon to a stick and kicking it until it cries, so the media runs with that. Uplifting montage, before and after pics, everyone gets to condemn the dumb shit who punches his conkeldurr. That was the most recent one, right?”

    Cheren shifts uncomfortably. “I saw that one, yeah.”

    “But what are you really saying when you watch his face get plastered on the news while you’re prepping for your next gym match in a pokécenter? That humans aren’t allowed to hit pokémon? But when humans tell pokémon to hit other pokémon, that’s okay?”

    She does this thing where she talks too much, you decide. She loses him in the argument because she has so much to say, because she’s not used to finding someone who has to hear her out this long, so all of her stray thoughts come pouring out at once. You’ve seen this happen. All the time.

    So of course Cheren erupts. Part of you is grateful for it—he’s saying the words to her you can’t. “So what, you’re supposed to tell me that people should just be allowed to punch pokémon whenever they want? We can’t prosecute abusers any more? You’re seriously telling me it’s more important to go after good trainers than assholes who would sink low enough to punch a pokémon because they were angry?” There’s an edge of hysteria slipping into Cheren’s voice now, and you can feel the fire even from here.

    “No. I’m just asking you to examine the paradox of condoning battling while condemning humans who instigate the abuse directly when, to a pokémon, both are the same.”

    But Cheren’s not listening. Each question sends him spiraling higher and higher; he’s already starting to breathe heavily. You can see the anger and anxiety intertwined around his face. She shouldn’t be doing this to him. He’s a good trainer. You remember him and his dewott battling earlier at the protest. They had been like you and Sam—a team. “Or what, we should just punish all trainers, then? Arrest everyone? Is that what Plasma wants? I would never hurt my pokémon.”

    “You must be a good trainer, then,” Rhea says softly. Her voice is calm, level.

    Of all the things she could’ve said, he didn’t seem to be expecting this. He deflates, just a hair. You can see the red on his face. “What?”

    “Your pokémon never get hurt. You must be an exceptional trainer.”

    Cheren scowls. “That isn’t what I said.”

    Rhea doesn’t take the time to push, though. She sits, quietly. Studying Cheren. Doesn’t say a word beyond, “What did you say, then?”

    You can tell he doesn’t want to answer that.

    There’s a really long silence.

    You wonder what’s keeping Sam. He should be back by now, shouldn’t he? Your ears prick nervously. Maybe something’s gone wrong. Maybe someone’s hurt him.

    You can’t help turning a glare on Rhea, not that she notices. She’s not the one in danger, not like Sam. She speaks too boldly for someone who gets to sit comfortably on the sidelines. She gets to go home to an easy sleep; she isn’t like Sam, constantly risking his life each day, struggling to find peace at night. She picks up a megaphone and declares which abuses are more important than others, which crimes count and which don’t—and she’ll keep doing that until someone stops her.

    She’s a criminal, after all. With her pretty words and her stupid signs. Of course she’s good at lying. You don’t hate her for it; it’s not her fault either. She just got told a lot of things and didn’t think long enough to question them. She’ll grow up one day.

    There’s another really long silence.

    Quietly, Cheren asks, “If you don’t hate me for being a trainer, why do you care so much what I think?”

    She sighs. Stretches one leg out in front of her and dangles it idly. “Look. You got someone you care about? A brother, maybe? Your mom?”

    Another pause. And then, apparently deciding that he’s got nothing left to lose by prolonging the conversation just a little longer, Cheren says, “I have a younger sister.”

    “Imagine if she got sick. Your parents aren’t around. You’re afraid she’ll die. What would you do?”

    “Take her to a doctor.”

    “The first doctor you go to doesn’t want to see her. Says he only sees adults.”

    “I go find a pediatrician.”

    “The next doctor doesn’t want to see her, either. Says he doesn’t understand this sickness and doesn’t want to be liable if your sister dies.”

    Cheren sighs in frustration. You imagine this is around the time he’s regretting extending the benefit of the doubt yet again. “Then I go somewhere else. I keep going until I find someone who will listen.”

    Rhea sighs. Goes in for what you think is probably her last long speech of the day. You hope, at least. Sam’s still not back and you’re losing patience. “That’s what I’m doing. Mali—my liepard—is my sister. There are people who won’t see her, who refuse to recognize that her species is capable of being in pain, of being in danger, of thinking complex thoughts. Worse, there are some who see her like that but don’t care, who somehow think that she can be their friend and force her to fight at the same time. I got poison gassed today, twice. I hate it every time; I always cry and it hurts like hell. Mali got gassed right next to me and she barely flinched, because she’s felt far worse when we have to battle. We trick ourselves into thinking that pain goes away if it doesn’t hurt us.”

    Rhea sighs. Waits for some sass from Cheren. Doesn’t get it. Maybe he’s given up on fighting her, maybe he realizes they’re both two unmovable objects. “I get that you don’t want to see me and my friends protesting on the streets. I get that that’s why you lashed out today. But the truth is that I don’t want to be there either. I want to be at the mall with my classmates, or planting a garden, or doing whatever else kids my age are supposed to do on weekends. But some people don’t have that choice, so I’m right there with them.” She pauses. Slumps for the first time in this whole conversation. “I keep going until I find someone who will listen. It doesn’t have to be you. I honestly don’t expect it to be you. It’s too hard to break out from the bottom. But I care what people think because people are the only way we’re going to fix this. Maybe it’s the judge who will hear my case again. Maybe it’s the cop who will walk us to the station. Maybe it’s someone who will watch the footage on the news tonight.” She casually flicks her head in your direction. “Maybe it’s you, Herdier.” Her voice levels again. She squares her shoulders against the metal of the van. “I will keep doing this until I find someone who will listen. I believe in something, same as everyone else.”

    But you’re not listening anymore, because you catch footsteps outside. Sam’s back! Your tail starts to wag madly. It’s all going to be fine now.

    ※​

    That evening you watch Sam process the cases. Cheren gets released with a warning—something about how he’d actually been acting on Clay’s orders. Sam spends the rest of the evening combing over Rhea’s record—normally he wouldn’t spend so much time, but she’s the only one they got from Plasma. They’ve arrested her a few times now. He mutters something about how it doesn’t seem to stick.

    No one needs you for anything, so you keep watch at Sam’s feet. Something Rhea said sticks in your head. She’d called the liepard her little sister.

    You wish you’d had a chance to talk to the liepard. Did she see Rhea as her older sister?

    When you were both lillipup, exploring away from Mother’s watchful gaze, you and Lucky had stumbled upon a strange creature on the street. It had a bloated green body, and it seemed to ooze black sludge with every lumbering footstep. Part of itself doubled back to form a strange arm, and it had wrapped around what it was trying to cram into a garbage-studded mouth. Even from across the street you could smell it, the stench of rot riding harshly on the sunny breeze. Even from where you stood you knew that you shouldn’t fight it.

    But Lucky was brave when you were not. You watched him leap in and save the day. The garbodor broke his leg. Mother was so proud, so worried, when you both returned, covered in muck. You’d asked him, later, why he had done it. Why he’d taken that risk.

    He’d answered so readily it must’ve been obvious. {I had to protect you.} He shoved his snout playfully against your own and added, {That’s what brothers are for.}

    Bravery was simple for Lucky, the same way it was simple for Sam and all the other herdier and humans who were brave enough to be on the force. You could tell it was easy from the way they held themselves. You’d seen them sometimes in your neighborhood, patrolling proudly, their collars flashing blue and bronze.

    When you’d first barked to one—{Can I join you?}— he’d ignored you. But you persisted. You followed them on their rounds, mimicking their even footfalls. You wagged your tail—respectfully—at their humans, until one of them tossed you the remains of his bagel and said, “You know, I think this little mutt wants to join the force.”

    Ace is a good name. It doesn’t remind you of Clover, or of Lucky, or anyone else. It means that you’re someone Sam can rely on. All of the pokémon you’ve seen at protests, the ones who bothered talking to you—they seemed to look at you with pity. Like you were someone who hadn’t wanted to be there, like you weren’t proud of who you were. They wanted to make you ashamed of yourself. They wanted you to be the secondborn again.

    No. Having this job makes you strong on your own. It doesn’t matter who listens to you or not, because when you’re strong, your actions will always speak louder than your words.

    Sam nudges you with his foot. “Come on, Ace. I think she’s had enough.”

    They’d left Rhea in the van. That had been hours ago. The inside of the van is dark and warm, and there hadn’t been any water left there. You hope that Rhea’s had time to think, just like you had. Maybe this time she’ll figure out that she’s wrong.

    When you enter together with Sam, she cracks one eye open and then she rouses herself. Her movements are stiff. Her tongue flicks out over her lips—anticipation? No. She’s probably thirsty.

    “Your liepard has bred moves,” Sam says by way of greeting. He’s back in work mode. The warmth in his voice when he speaks to you is gone, replaced by a cold briskness.

    Rhea straightens her back. With Cheren she was slouched, inviting. Unconsciously mimicking what she thought he’d want to see, probably. This time she’s polite, head bowed. The quips are stripped from her dialogue. “She was like that when I got her.”

    “Do you have certification from a licensed breeder?”

    “No. She was a gift from a friend.”

    Sam nods. “The scan showed that its previous owner was a Natural Harmonia Gropius. Do you know where he is now? If he can vouch for you then that would be sufficient.”

    Hearing that name surprises you. He’s supposed to be a big deal. She knows him? Really?

    Comprehension dawns on Rhea’s face, and despite herself a sense of urgency slips through into her mask. “No, we haven’t spoken in a while …”

    N. He wants N. All of them want N. That’s the other name you’ve heard pop up at their evening conversations, when they’re taking off their vests and their uniforms and dressing up in their human clothes again. If they can arrest N then this whole thing is over. Driftveil will be peaceful again.

    Plasma knows it too. That’s why they have people like Rhea, stalling for time while the leaders get away. You suppose Rhea is admirable for her loyalty, even if it’s misplaced.

    “He was here at the riot, and at the Mistralton one as well. Surely you’ve spoken to him?”

    Rhea shakes her head firmly. “I would like to speak to a lawyer.”

    Sam frowns. He takes one step forward. In the cramped space of the van it’s enough to bring him right into her face. “If you bring in a lawyer, I can’t help you anymore.”

    She has to take this chance. She has to. If she doesn’t, it’ll only get worse for her.

    But she’s Rhea, and she’s stupid, and you know that. So you aren’t even surprised when she purses her lips and then says, “I have a right to legal counsel.”

    Sam unlocks her cuffs from the mag-levs on the wall and shoves her forward. “You’re being detained for resisting arrest, disturbance of the peace, and possession of a bred pokémon without proper documentation,” he begins to recite as he walks her out of the van. “You may be detained for up to ten days depending on your cooperation.”

    Rhea nods, tight-lipped. The laughter is gone from her face now and that’s not part of her act.

    “Your pokémon will be held by the police pending your trial. If the original owner can claim them they will be handed over; otherwise, after a period of seventy-two hours they will be repossessed by the state.”

    That seems to get through to her. “That’s three days,” she says in a quiet voice. And then, faster: “But if you’re going to detain me for—”

    “Upon repossession they will be put up for adoption. At that time you will also be able to reclaim your pokémon should the previous window be insufficient.”

    They’re talking over each other. Sam’s louder, but Rhea’s more urgent. “Please, you know that if I’m here I can’t—”

    You’ve seen how this ends. You’ve even seen how it started. Clay got tired of having his city be a hotspot for the Plasma thugs. Too much attention. They kept coming from other cities and stirring up trouble, Sam said. They couldn’t respect how Clay ran things here so they had to come in and mess things up for everyone else.

    Lucky hadn’t hesitated when he jumped at the garbodor. Sometimes cleaning up the streets meant getting dirty first. There is law, and there is order. You will help enforce both. Clay made better laws and that made better order. If Plasma was going to steal pokémon from trainers, then Driftveil PD could take them back. That was only fair. You had to be a good trainer to have pokémon. Otherwise they’d be adopted out to someone else. Adoption fees helped offset the costs of needing so many extra police anyway. There’s a lot of adoption centers in Driftveil; hopefully there’s enough space in one of them.

    They put her in a cell in the station. Sam tells someone else to contact the public defense attorney, but it’s 9 PM on a Saturday so it can wait until Monday if it has to. Her face has gone pale. When you walk by on your evening patrol, she creeps over to the door.

    “The liepard. Her name is Tourmaline. She likes being scratched between the ears. And yogurt. Sometimes she’ll be aloof around strangers but if they talk to her she’ll usually come around. She hates being in her pokéball.” Rhea bites her lip. “Um. She doesn’t like fighting too much but if she has to, she prefers ranged attacks.”

    You blink back. Why is she telling you this? “If my friends don’t get me out in time.” She stops in the middle of her sentence and swallows. “Can you explain to her what happened to me? That I’ll find her? I’ll get funds to buy her back from her new trainer or something. I’ll find her.”

    You bark. Once for no. You’re just a patrol herdier. And even if you weren’t, her liepard’s in processing now and you can’t exactly open a pokéball. If she hadn’t wanted to be upset like this, she shouldn’t have broken the law.

    She had so many words for Cheren and none for you, not until she needed you. She finally talks to you when there’s no other humans who will listen. You’re just a last resort. She doesn’t actually care what you think. And frankly, you don’t care what she thinks. She spends her time playing tricks with words, trying to make good people feel bad for doing the right thing. She can yell or plead or curse as much as she wants but she’ll never make you feel bad for the choices you made.

    “Thanks, Herdier.”

    Of course she doesn’t understand. People like her only hear what they want to hear. As much as she preaches to have your best interests at heart, she’ll never understand you.

    For a moment, you think about the liepard. Her little sister. In three days she’ll go to an adoption center. Sometime soon after that, someone new will will let her out and she’ll find her human gone. Maybe that’s for the best. She’ll be able to choose her own path now, just like you did.

    Rhea is still staring at you with a smile in her eyes. Caught up in this delusion that you’ll actually pass on her words. Maybe, if you tried, you could make her understand. Whine a bit or swing your head from side to side, the way Sam does when he wants to say no without words. No. She’s not worth the effort. She’s not a good listener.

    She’ll figure it out eventually.

    It’ll be easier this way. For her, for you, for everyone.



    p | n
     
    Last edited:
    viii. nondeterministic
  • kintsugi

    golden scars
    Pronouns
    she/her/hers
    Partner
    silvally-grass
    viii. nondeterministic

    ※​

    “That … was a hard fight. I expect that the ones ahead will be even harder on you. If anyone wants to leave after that, please. Let me know now or at any time, or don’t let me know at all, just—don’t feel like you have to stay. I will leave you outside of your pokéballs for as often as I possibly can, and if you do not return, I won’t ask why. It’ll be your choice.”

    The outside of the cave sparkles in a way that the inside does not. Crystalline snow catches the sunlight, shoots it all around the open world, reflects it back to you. As you spin, and the world turns on its head, it scintillates.

    The strangest thing is the lack of roof overhead. Today the openness of the sky is capped with clouds, so you don’t get the strange division of white-blue chasing itself around the horizon as you spin. This is reassuring. Leader likes this. Follower does as well. It reminds you of the inside of the cave, in a way. Everything has changed but some things still stay. This is the most optimal design.

    Speaking of things changing, things staying.

    He’s gathered all six of you here. The thunderlegs, the stonesinger, the steelseed, the fossil, him, and you; and now he’s posed this very interesting problem that he needs your help solving.

    At first, no one speaks.

    From his bucket of water, the fossil begins a rough torrent of words. He speaks quickly, and his language is hard. The human has tried to get all of you to practice, and you definitely understand more than before, but the fossil speaks like a rushing river: rapidly and without regard for rhythm. You catch—an apology, regret, guilt?

    The fossil didn’t cause this. The female human did. With her anger and her hate and her leafsnake. She challenged your human to a fight you couldn’t win; it’s not the fossil’s fault for that.

    “No, Zara!” The human is uncharacteristically worked up. He crouches down next to the bucket, where the fossil’s head sprouts out like a weird crystal growth. “That was my fault. I started the fight. I should’ve known better.”

    {Fight. Let me fight.}

    “No,” the human says firmly. “Not yet. You aren’t ready.”

    The fossil murmurs—slowly this time, so you can hear it—{Then I’m still sorry.}

    And then, quietly, a new voice: {I don’t want to do this any more. I … I want to go home. Can I do that, N?}

    The thunderlegs was never the brave one in your group. You know that. He grew up as one of a swarm, a thousand brothers and sisters just like him. He was used to piping down, following orders, but above all: having the entirety of his brood to back him up. You’ve seen the brood in the cave. They have their Motherqueen to watch over them, to punish intruders with thunderous wrath. You are no Motherqueen, and nor is anyone else here. To survive, he has to become one of his own.

    But the thunderlegs is young for his kind. His legs are too small and too few to call the thunder; his incisors nowhere near fully grown. In four summers, perhaps, he will become a large thunderlegs on his own. If he stayed with you and the flesh, perhaps he would do so faster. Fighting would be the most efficient when measuring time for him to become a larger thunderlegs.

    His eyes are bright blue, like the sky. That is what you remember of him most of all when he looks up at the soft human, who has crouched down and compressed his gangly frame—you have to look away for a moment; it’s unsettling to watch his flesh do that—so he and the thunderlegs are on the same level. “I understand, Peal. Please, don’t feel bad about this. Thank you for your help, and your companionship.” He peers down over the bridge of his nose, brushes a stray bit of hair behind his ear.

    {You … you aren’t going to ask me to stay?} the thungerlegs asks tremulously.

    The human blinks. “Why would I do that?”

    {My last trainer,} says the thunderlegs, picking his words carefully, {made a similar offer. I do not think she expected me to accept so readily.} His front mandibles twitch. {So when I told her I agreed, and I no longer wished to fight, she asked if I could at least stay until the flight gym, and a little after that. I … I was a key part of her strategy by then, you see. Um. So I stayed. For quite some time.}

    Watching this from the outside is strange. You’ve only been with this group for a little while, so you don’t know how the human behaves when he’s nervous, or if the thunderlegs is always this twitchy. They are both fleshes, and the soft ones have always had a strange way of comporting themselves that you couldn’t quite grasp. Leader has a hunch that they are both trading secrets here, but. What would either of you know, really?

    “I would be a shameful friend if I tried to guilt you after all you’ve done for me,” the human says. His voice is very quiet. It almost doesn’t make it through the gentle klink of Leader’s teeth on Follower’s. “If anything, I should accompany you for some time, and follow the route you chart for me. Would you like me to walk with you back to the joltik colony, Peal?”

    {I … I would like that very much.}

    The human contorts back into his standing position. Follower’s alarm transmits through your mesh; no matter how many times you watch flesh convert themselves, it’s always a little unsettling.

    “Peal and I are going to Chargestone Cave,” he announces. “Does anyone else want to come?”

    {I will travel with you to the cave,} says the stonesinger, in a rumble of ore. {In three moons I will need to rejoin my crag for the journey north. I find at this moment I do not want to leave. If that changes, I will make that known.}

    The human nods. Looks genuinely flattered. “Thank you, Carnel.” He looks to the steelseed. “And you, Ferrule?”

    The steelseed spins on her axis tightly, a blur of green glinting off of silver. You like her. You and she got along in that regard. Nonflesh always understood nonflesh in a way that the soft ones simply couldn’t. A flesh might think that the fast spin meant nervousness, or unease, but you both know—it’s resolve. Emphasis. {I will find a new trainer. I did not enjoy losing. I want to fight until I win.}

    She is one of few words. She never felt the need to explain her path to anyone else. You’ve always admired that about her.

    “Of course. I know a few trainers, or would you prefer to find your own?”

    The steelseed thinks for a second. {I would be interested in meeting your human friends.}

    The human smiles, brushes a bit of dirt off of his pants. “I’d be happy to introduce you.”

    And just like that, half your team is gone.

    ※​

    It’s a bit nostalgic, going back to the cave. The thunderlegs chirps out joyously and runs back to his brood, and they all squeal out, a yellow sea parting to welcome him home. Just before he vanishes into the fuzzy depths, he bolts back over to the two of you, his blue eyes pinned only on the flesh.

    {Thank you, N,} he says. He leans forward lightly, mandibles twitching, and taps the human’s foot with a tiny spark of electricity.

    “Thank you, too,” replies the human. He looks at a loss for a moment, and then presses his open palm to his lips before blowing something off of his hand and onto the thunderlegs.

    Strange. He did not seem dusty. His feet, perhaps, but certainly not his hand.

    And there’s a soft pattering of legs, and the brood vanishes back into the sparkling blue depths.

    When they sweep out, you look around, and you realize the stonesinger is gone too. The flesh either hasn’t noticed or is pretending not to. You aren’t sure. Gearlings have no concept of deceit; that’s something you’ve had to pick up from your brief stint with the flesh. You aren’t very good at seeing it yet.

    “Spur. Do you want to stay?”

    It takes you a moment to realize he’s talking to you. Names are a concept for flesh; there aren’t any for the geartrain. It’s been a very new concept to you, this idea that everyone needs to mark themselves as unique. The human asked you for a name and you told him klink, for your species, as is proper, but he wanted something more specific. So you made something up. It was inoptimal design.

    He’s talking to you, though. And it’s a tricky question. Leader and follower are still not in full accord here. On one gear—this is the only home you’ve ever known. But on the other, you would not mind wandering a little further. Perhaps. {Where do you intend to go?}

    “I will travel to Dragonspiral Tower, find the Light Stone, summon Reshiram, and change the world.”

    Like the steelseed, he doesn’t mince words when he talks to you. Perhaps he knows that the gearlings have no need for that. You like that about him. You have that much in common.

    Follower thinks this through. He is a strange one. Yes. Leader agrees. You need more information.

    {Why is this what you desire?} you ask.

    “Which part?”

    {Why would you change the world?}

    “I think someone has to. It’s … not optimal right now, like you say.” The flesh isn’t looking at you; when he speaks, the words are casual, but the flesh is not. If you knew the soft mannerisms better, you’d probably be able to tell how he actually feels about that. “Hey, do you mind if I sit for a bit? I’m a little tired.”

    He’s lying. You know that. He walked across the entirety of Unova, a land so big that even the bravest geartrain could not stretch across it, before you met him in the cave. For a large portion of it, he carried a large bucket of water in his arms so that the fossil could see the sights as well; it’s only more recently, now that the fossil’s shell has grown, that the human has started to use the pokéball more. The humans surely has walked a million miles and could walk a million more. There is a fire in him that no distance can extinguish. He is burning.

    But. You’re quite tired. This was a fair bit more travel than you’re used to. Gears were meant to transmit motion, not to have motion transmit them. He carried the fossil when there was no water, but you would never burden him with carrying you. You gratefully accept, and fix yourself near one of the many sparking stones in the cave while the human finds one close to his size and crosses his legs on it.

    He’s silent for a moment, which is good. Gives you plenty of time to rotate on your axis and think.

    If you ventured deeper into the cave, you would find your fellow gearlings once more. Your life would be as it was before, with a multitude of gearlings. One day, a cog in the service of a greater machine. This is the most optimal design.

    The world is a biggear problem to change. Very tricky. Not easy. If you went back and told the gearling this, they would agree. Perhaps they would laugh at this flesh, who seeks to solve it in his lifetime.

    But for some reason, you do not want to venture deeper into the cave. Well, that is partially true. Follower is ambivalent. Leader wants to stay a while, and listen. And maybe, understand.

    {How do you want to worldchange?} Follower squeaks in alarm. Oh, very true. That was ambiguous. Leader listens. {Not what avenue you pursue worldchange. What worldproblem do you wish solved?}

    Long pause. You get the feeling he has had to make this explanation many times before, and yet he is still trying to craft it into a way you understand. “Do you know many humans?” he says at last. “I’m not sure how many of them venture all the way into the cave.”

    {Not very many find us here,} you admit. {Gearling not appealing to human flesh. Hard to grow, strange to see.}

    “When you had to fight for me.” Pause. “You were hurt. You hurt others. Did you like that?”

    {I would not go that far.} Her leafsnake couldn’t hurt Leader, but she did hit Follower over and over again until you decided you no longer wanted to continue. It was not pleasant.

    “I … I’m sorry about that,” he says. He blows a lot of his breath out through his nostrils, which seems inefficient. “She and I disagree on that. I think in many ways we are destined to fight over that, and to keep fighting, until one of us wins and changes the world.”

    {She is stronger than you are,} you remark. Follower points out that this might be seen as an offensive statement.

    But he flashes his teeth, which you take to mean that he isn’t upset. “Yes. She certainly is. But that doesn’t really matter to me. It is my fate to fight her, but she is not my enemy. Even if we won just now, the world wouldn’t shine the way I want it to. I wonder if it’s the same for her.”

    {What does she want to accomplish?}

    N chews on his lip. Horrifying. If he trying to subsume it? You look away until he finishes. “I don’t think Hilda grew up happy. Her—the people, the people she expected to protect her failed to do so. She grew up believing that strength gets you what you want, and what she wants now is to make sure no one else has to suffer like she did. If she can climb to the top of Unova, she can make sure that only pokémon who want to battle will do so, that the humans already in power will understand their wrongdoings and right their wrongs.”

    You think about the girl. You hadn’t really focused on her; the leafsnake was a more pressing concern at the time. What do you remember about her? Leader didn’t quite see. Was she excited to be fighting? Angry?

    Sad, Follower answers with a slower turn of their gears. She looked sad.

    You don’t know why most humans fight. But usually it’s because they want to, not because they have to.

    {So she believes she is correct. That what she seeks is ideal.}

    “I want humans to see that battling hurts people. And I don’t want to have to battle to do so. But I can’t make anyone listen to me. They don’t want to see my side. I think that’s reasonable. I know I’m asking for a lot. But they often don’t listen, and when they don’t listen, they don’t see. They didn’t make the world bad, so they don’t think they can make it better. But someone has to fix it, so I’ve decided it will be me. I just … need to figure out how.”

    {Worldchange is biggear problem to solve,} you tell him solemnly.

    He studies for a moment. Flesh on his forehead creases. “I don’t think I understand the word you’re using. It sounds like biggear?”

    Ah. Yes. He is a rare human flesh that was gifted with the power of understanding your speech, but not all words translate smoothly. {Two gears work as one gearling.} You spin for emphasis. {One day, many gearling will join. Together we will form one biggear.}

    He nods. Perhaps he had guessed this already but wanted to be sure. You like this about him. A good design must be checked. “I don’t think I agree.”

    {What do you mean by that?}

    “I don’t know if anyone can easily change the world, no matter how big they are.” He’s scratching idly at the blue rock he’s sitting on, legs dangling a few inches off of the ground. “A friend of mine taught me that. He started small and helpless but learned to find his strength. And if he can shoulder that burden, so can I, right?”

    Flesh are weird with their questions that don’t have real answers. It’s not even a proper query. What is he trying to say? How are you supposed to answer that?

    You spin a little faster. Leader is agitated. Follower does not keep up. Careful! Sorry. Oh no. You don’t want to throw teeth again. That happened once, and it took weeks to regrow. You made a klink-klink-klink sound that echoed horribly.

    {Hmmm, we did not mean that. The geartrain has a different equivalence. That equivalence is called biggear problem,} you tell the human. {Do not confuse with biggear problem.} Ah, yes. The rotations make it very clear to those in the geartrain. All feel it immediately, if they mesh. But in this translation to someone outside of the geartrain, you can see now why reusing nouns would be a bad idea.

    Perhaps this is why they have so many different names for each other? Leader pauses to consider. This is a good suggestion. You will consider it, later.

    “An equivalence?”

    Hmm. The words do not translate well. Leader makes another full rotation while you think it over. Do you tell him? How? The soft ones have a strange word for it, you think. {We may be using different words.}

    He smiles. Yes. Different. That’s it. That’s the right word. “Formulas?”

    No! He was so close. {Formulas give form; not the same.} Spin, slower. Think it through. Method is greater than result. This is the most optimal design. {Equivalences say when things are equal. When two things are the same.}

    “Oh. Equations.” Perhaps he agrees with you. It’s unclear. You struggle to read his voice, but he doesn’t sound angry. The soft ones don’t always see the way the world meshes. “That makes sense. I didn’t mean to interrupt.”

    {Questions are part of optimal design.} Half a rotation more. He is patient. So are you. {Geartrain solves problems that gearling cannot. Many gears together solve many problems. We can reach a greater solution.} Hmmm. {There are two types of problems. First: easy to solve and check. Second: solving is hard; checking, easy. To solve well you must differentiate. This is the most optimal design.}

    He tilts his head to one side. Strange, how the soft ones can move their flesh so easily. If only they understood what beauty there was in the spin, then they wouldn’t need to fold in on themselves so often. Then they could understand what it means to be rigid, secure, strong. “What do you mean?”

    Hmmm. {Gearling evolution requires two separate pieces. A follower must find a leader. But all gears have different pitch. Only one follower for each leader. A gearling must find its equivalence; a follower finds the correct leader. Hard to formulate a meshing follower. Easy to check their poor mesh.} For emphasis, you briefly let Follower and Leader spin in different directions. Klang-klang-klang. The act almost makes you shudder, and you immediately return to harmony.

    “I see.” He puffs out air. Contorts his flesh so that his upper appendages are beneath his chin. “So this is the kind that is hard to solve, easy to check? Because you have to go through all the gears in the cave until you find the right one. But once you have the right one, it’s easy to check.”

    Oh no. No, that’s not what you meant at all. Leader stops abruptly. Follower, shocked, grinds to a halt—it’s not like you had a choice in that.

    He flinches back. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to upset you.”

    Grind grind grind. Follower needs to get back in line. No. Leader needs to lead correctly, not disappoint the soft ones with poor logic. No. Both need to reconsider.

    Hmmm. Follower suggests considering his point of view more fully. If he has not tried to solve a gearling problem, let alone a biggear one, he would have no way of comprehending the difficulty gap between them. With luck, a gearling problem could be solved in less than the time it took to walk through this cave. A biggear problem could take a flesh’s entire lifetime, if not more.

    {Not your fault; poor explanation proposed.} You must pick your words carefully now so you do not make the same mistake. {All solutions can be checked easily. Not all of them solve easily.} Hmmm. You spin a little faster. He picked up the velocity-emphasis earlier and you hope he can do it again. {Finding gearling match is a hard problem. But gearling pairing is not hard. Cycle through all gearling in the cave; one cycle will reveal your answer. Every gear only adds one guess. Gearling problems exist in a fixed ratio.}

    He settles back down, molds his flesh into a nice, still shape. This is good. This is relaxing. It is unnerving when soft ones fidget without spin. “What do you mean by a problem that is hard to solve?”

    Oh. Good! He is starting to understand you better—he has picked up on your velocity-empahsis. You aren’t sure if you like how he flops his tongue around when he tries to imitate it, but he’s trying, at least. This is very good. He is a nice flesh. {Hmmm, okay; biggear problems are hard problem. That is the best example here.} Follower pauses. You should give him background first. Leader agrees. {To spin, tooth type must match. Gears can be large; small; between. Our gearling are somewhat small, comparatively. But we are the same small. Leader spins once; Follower spins once.} You spin for him, slowly, in perfect synchrony, to demonstrate. {Some gearling do not match well. Their gears aren’t the same small. Leader spins once; Follower does not. Maybe more than once; maybe less. Both options are very unideal gearlings. Power and speed must be conserved. This is the most optimal design.}

    Another pause. He is quiet this time, attentive.

    You take this as a good sign, that he is listening. If he could spin you would know for sure. {To form biggear, join many gearlings. All of their teeth must match. Each gearling can be any size. But when merging leader and follower: the split between must be equal. Leader spins once; follower must match. This is the only good harmony. Any other distribution is not optimal.} You mime the merge for him, so that he may hear the balance between the two: klink-klang, klink-klang.

    “So if there is a klink—sorry, gearling—pair that has a follower slower than the leader, it must find a pair with a leader slower than the follower?”

    {Their train must be equal, yes. One spin in, one spin out. This is the most optimal design.}

    “I get that that seems hard, but how is it harder?”

    Ah. Spoken like someone who has not tried. {Difficulty to solve scales with size. More gearling means many more geartrains.} Hmmm. There is a word here. It does not translate. {In gearling problems, relation is direct. If there are two gears, check twice; if three gears, then check thrice. In biggear, the relation only grows. If two gears, check four times; if three gears, then nine times. Then the difficulty increases very quickly. The more gears trying to form biggear, the harder it is to form one. Sometimes biggears are even harder still. When two gears, you check four; when three gears, you check twenty-seven. Then worse: four becomes two-hundred fifty-six.}

    Hmm. Flesh does not understand this very well, but the geartrain made this connection long ago, understood what it was that ruled Unova. The Vast White and The Deep Black. What you know the world is and what you wish it could be. Yin and yang. They are like you. One is Leader and one is Follower. When the mesh is good it is sometimes difficult to tell which is which.

    This is the problem that the flesh wants to solve. He is deep in biggear problem. He wants to find the way to make the future be what he wants from the past he is given. So it follows that he must figure out what chain of gears he requires to give him the correct follower from his leader.

    {World outside of the cave is uncomfortable. It looks like a biggear problem.} Unfortunate. He should stay in your cave forever. The gearling would like him, you think. {Very easy to check some things: if world is bad or good. Far harder to make world good.}

    “Oh,” he says, and although it’s hard for you to tell, it truly does seem like he gets it. You can almost see the thoughts spinning above his head, perfectly round, perfectly in orbit.

    {Biggear pairing hard; could take forever. It is much like solving world. Much-much longer to find good solution, than to verify that good solution.}

    No, wait. This is when you see him truly get what you were trying to say, because he goes perfectly still, as if the gears inside of him are finally at odds with one another and the paradox reveals itself. What he wants is something he cannot get. He is a gearling that does not mesh with the rest of the world. He will search across every corner of Unova for his follower and will not find it.

    Hmmm. This strikes you as unfair.

    His face is hard to read, still. The flesh contorts in unsightly ways and you feel like you should be embarrassed to watch how poorly he holds himself together here. If you ever melt, you would hope he has the forethought to look away and not see you in your disgrace.

    There is a question that eats away at his core and makes him deform like this. He wants to know if he is right, if what he seeks is right, if the means through which he seeks his solution are right. But how do you check an answer like that? Even if every gearling in your cave came together and tried it, you don’t think you’d know where to find a solution that he would find satisfying.

    That is when you decide. He and you do not share a shape. He is flesh and you are not. You are already complete with Follower and Leader. And yet. You will follow him to the ends of the earth, until he finds a way to solve the world.

    {This one will stay with you.}

    Something in his face goes slack with surprise.

    The answer to his question is so abstract that all of the gearling in your cave could try it and not find an answer and yet—the answer that you have given, and you alone, seems sufficient.

    That solution seems inoptimal, but it also seems correct.

    You get the feeling that he’s a lonely type, even for a human. Humans are lonely by nature, even if they don’t want to be. They don’t get to hold close to one another like the gearling do. Every interaction for them seems to be sparse, sacred, precious. It’s probably why they talk so much. They have to make it count. But you don’t get why they’re so lonely but still push strangers away, people who want to help.

    “You don’t have to. Please, Spur. Don’t feel like you have to.”

    Part of you thinks he wants you to say no. Part of you wants you to say no. It’ll be just the two of you and the fossil, striking away from your geartrains. The fossil isn’t even strong enough to fight yet; he hasn’t had to figure out how much he wants to hurt for this human’s dream. You’ll pick up some and lose some more. That’s how it goes. But if you choose to stay with him now, if you don’t run, if you follow him to the end of this path—there’s only fire ahead. A world that ends with Reshiram awakening will not end quietly.

    What a strange concept. A flesh with a name. A flesh with a name who wanted to share his solution with you. And what he proposes is a stranger concept still, even if he hasn’t figured out how to put his solution into words that he can bring himself to say aloud.

    There is an easy answer to the biggear pairing problem, one you never thought about until you saw this human and his flesh: if you cannot find a gear that will match you, then you will break the rules and forge your own.



    p | n
     
    Last edited:
    ix. nidifugous
  • kintsugi

    golden scars
    Pronouns
    she/her/hers
    Partner
    silvally-grass
    ix. nidifugous

    ※​

    “—and just let that wing rest up for a few days and your archen should be good as new, sweetie!”

    Hilda’s looking you up and down, but you don’t watch her back. You’ve been in at least two pokécenters before, but you’ve never gotten over all the things that happen in the background. So many colors. So many sounds. There are humans everywhere, framed by flat walls, and they all talk to one another, wrapped up in their own little lives. There’s a distant hum of machinery behind the doors to the treatment rooms, accompanied by the vague chatter of pokémon behind them.

    That’s the tricky part, you decide. The gyms are easier buildings to be in. You don’t like how you can’t see the sky there either, but at least the only hisses of pain are your own.

    “Hilda! Thank goodness I found you!”

    The two of you spin around. The crest on her head is a brown blur. “N?” she says, and then catches herself.

    Oh. There’s a tall human. He’s looking a little more dishelved than a normal human. His coverings are all crinkled and it looks like he’s gotten water on them—probably from the bucket he’s got clutched in his hands? A bit tricky to tell.

    He runs over to you both, and answers your question immediately: a bit more water sloshes out of the bucket and onto the carpet of the pokécenter. You can hear the nurse’s annoyed intake of breath from behind the counter.

    “Oh, hi, Reylin!” he exclaims, peering over the rim of the bucket to look at you. “This is perfect, actually. You’re just who I was looking for. Do you have a second?”

    You blink back up at him. You? He’s looking for you?

    “N, what are you doing here?” Hilda’s pitched her voice low, like she’s trying to keep it a secret. “I thought after what happened here you weren’t supposed to—”

    But N isn’t really listening to her. He’s still staring intently at you, his brow furrowed, like he’s waiting for something very important. “Could I ask you a favor, Reylin?”

    “N!” Hilda hisses sharply. She grabs his arm and tugs, albeit gently. He startles and spins his head to look at her. “We should go outside.” She casts a meaningful glance around the crowd of humans scattered around you. There’s a couple in the back that’s frowning at him now; one of them is looking at the phone in her hands and whispering intently. A trainer next to them looks up from the silence, and follows their gazes to look at N.

    “Oh, sure, if you’d like,” N says, and ambles easily to the door. His head tilts up when he sees Hilda reach for a pokéball, and he adds quickly, “Actually, could Reylin stay? I was looking for him.”

    In your most recent battle, the one that hurt your wing, the flying-leader had sent out a sweeping unfezant with gorgeous plumage and a wingspan that made you quail with envy for just a moment. “Against a rock-type? Why wouldn’t you send out your swanna first?” Hilda had whispered under her breath, her head tilted to one side, her brow wrinkled, before shrugging and directing you to continue. She wears the same expression now, but she tilts her chin forward. “C’mon, Reylin.”

    You hop after them.

    Outside of the pokécenter is much nicer. The sky is cloudless above, so endless and blue that you’re sure that if you took off you’d tire long before you found the edge. The trees rustle gently in the breeze. A mechanical bird traces its way across the sky, leaving a puff of white trailing after it.

    Closer to the ground, a few of N’s pokémon gather around him. A large pair of gears hovers over from the front of the building and clicks rhythmically behind his head. There’s a tiny yellow ball of fuzz that you recognize as a joltik—maybe a bit small, even for their species—that crawls up N’s shoulder and nestles in the fold of his collar. Across the street, a lumpy boldore is examining the cobblestone road intently, but looks up and scuttles carefully over when he notices N.

    “What’s all this about?” Hilda’s got her arms folded across her chest, which you think is sad. It blocks the breeze. Today is the perfect day to ruffle out your feathers and warm them in the sun.

    “I wanted to know if I could borrow Reylin for a while? I have a favor I need to ask of him.”

    “Borrow? Like, trade?”

    “Oh, no, absolutely not. I—hmm. I think it’d be easier if—Zara, maybe you could try explaining?”

    The bucket of water splashes a bit more, and N tilts it slightly forward just enough for you to see a familiar, craggy head peeking out just above the surface.

    {TR-62?}

    {AX-67?} the tirtouga squeaks on response, and beneath the surface you can see his flipper churning the water into a frenzy. {Oh, sorry. N says you go by Reylin now! How are you?}

    His words. His words. Nostalgia washes over you, drenches through your feathers and all the way down to your skin, and you’re just staring at him, eyes wide, those familiar syllables echoing in your ears. None of Hilda’s pokémon sounded like that. None of them knew what to say so you could understand them.

    {I’m … good,} you manage to reply, but your mind isn’t here. You’re back in the lab. A wire around your ankle keeps you on your perch, but it’s really for show—your wings are too small for you to fly, of course. You get poked and prodded and hurt and healed, and—

    “See, they know each other!” N exclaims, cutting into your thoughts.

    “Who?” Hilda’s probably a little less confused than you, which at the moment makes her very bewildered. “N, what’s going on?”

    “Is Reylin doing okay? With your other pokémon, I mean. Does he talk to them? Do they talk back? I was wondering. See, Zara—this tirtouga—happened into my care, and it turns out that he spoke an entirely different language than the other pokémon I’ve met. It’s a really, really weird dialect; some of the words don’t translate and they have this odd way of conjugating without tenses that I don’t fully—anyway, I managed to pick up a little bit, so we can talk, but I was telling him about you and your archen and he got really excited. I thought maybe they knew each other. And then I was trying to think of all the times I’ve seen Reylin, and he’s never really talked to any of the other pokémon you have, or the ones I’ve seen him meet. Maybe he’s shy, but—I know we don’t always get off on the right foot but I thought if it was for Reylin maybe we could make it work.”

    He finally pauses for breath. You and Hilda blink back, perfectly synchronized.

    That’s a lot to think about. He’s talked to TR-62? A human? And TR-62 talked back?

    “Pokémon speak different languages?” Hilda asks, which you suppose is a good place to start if she didn’t know that already.

    “Of course they do. Same as humans,” N says with a laugh. “Well, sort of. That actually reminds me of an interesting story about—”

    “And you speak all the languages?” Hilda’s a bit more dubious this time.

    “Oh no, not all of them. I haven’t really picked up the sea dialect as much; it’s a bit harder to meet a native speaker, of course. At first I thought Zara was just using a more obscure dialect from there, maybe a deep-sea one, but then we tried talking to a basculin for a while, and she definitely didn’t know what was happening.”

    “N.” Hilda sighs heavily. One of her hands snakes out from her crossed arms so she can rub her forehead. “You came back to Mistralton just for—never mind. What do you want me to do?”

    “I just thought we could let them talk for a bit. Zara needs the socialization from someone who isn’t me, and, well, Reylin …” He trails off and looks at you. His eyes are a strange color for a human, a weird sort of slate grey. You’re reminded of the color of clouds before the storm. “Reylin might be lonely. Is all.”

    “I look after my pokémon, N,” Hilda says. Her voice is carefully controlled now. You remember the time she had you do agility training, hopping from one branch to another, careful not to lose your balance and plunge into the undergrowth below.

    N swallows, and you imagine him eating his first response as well. He, like you, seems aware that it’s important not to lose his balance, but he doesn’t really know how to avoid the fall. “I didn’t come here for that. Um.” He hesitates. Another mistake. It’s a lot easier to keep your balance if you never stop moving. “If nothing else, do it for Zara?”

    The tirtouga pokes his head out from the bucket and adds earnestly, {Please! It won’t take too long. I just wanted to catch up for a little while. AX-67 is a friend of mine!}

    Where you always thought your form was a little mottled, a little monstrous, there was an undeniable vein of cuteness in TR-62 that the humans always seemed to appreciate. Something about the eyes, you think. The flippers, too, and how when he gets excited—which is often—he’ll curl and uncurl them like he’s clapping one-handed. Humans tend to like when alien behaviors mimic their own.

    Hilda sighs. “I wanted to hit the road by this evening. You get one hour.” She squints. “N? Where are you going?”

    The tall human is already walking down the road excitedly, his cohort of pokémon clouding around him. “There’s a park with a pond across from the airstrip. Zara can’t really go in freshwater ponds, but it’s quiet in midday and they won’t get interrupted.”

    “You’re just going to leave them there? What if they wander off, or get stolen?” She half-jogs to keep up; his strides are incredibly long. If you thought Hilda sounded perplexed at his judgment before, this time she sounds downright lost.

    “I thought Zara wouldn’t want me eavesdropping.” N starts to shrug, but then seems to think better of it. “There’s a bench across from the pond, if you wanted to keep an eye on them from a distance.”

    This is how you end up perched on a rock next to the bucket, watching two humans watch you very intently. Hilda’s got a veiled look of curiosity in her eyes, like she’s still trying to unravel the knot of N’s strategy. N seems ecstatic. Both of them sit on opposite ends of the bench, as far apart from one another as possible.

    Strange. Usually Hilda doesn’t sit like that.

    {Reylin, how have you been?}

    It’s hard to keep track of things that aren’t directly in front of you. That’s part of your nature, you think. Plus, you’re only used to seeing TR-62 in a clear tank; the steel walls of the bucket means that even if you perch on the rock and sit all the way up, you can barely see his head and neck before they fade away into the depths.

    And besides—this is a happy reunion, but one that you’ve been trying to avoid.

    {Did he really tell you I go by Reylin now?} It’s hard to think of TR-62 as anything else, even though you’ve heard N drop the name so many times in conversation already. It takes practice to unlearn that.

    {Yeah! He mentioned that his friend Hilda had a new friend, and when he described them it sounded just like you. Did you decide to run away as well?}

    There it is. Two minutes into your conversation and the hard questions already come out.

    The P2 Labs weren’t all that bad, especially now that you’ve seen what’s outside of it. From across the glass, TR-62 had always told you that there was a nicer place, somewhere with a wide open tank and an endless ceiling. You hadn’t believed him. Skies ended in right angles. Seas had clear walls. That was simply the way things were.

    You were wrong about that, the same way that you were wrong about telling TR-62 that it wasn’t possible to escape. The tirtouga had decided one day to headbutt his tank until it shattered, and then he’d smashed a hole in the wall and clumsily scuttled down the hallway and out the door.

    Watching it happen, it hadn’t actually been all that hard. You could’ve followed him, probably. You didn’t even have a real tank. Yours was in your mind. Because what would you have done next? Flown across the entire endless sea? What if you’d gotten tired, or there was a storm? You still weren’t the best at flying. And then once you crossed that chasm, what would come next? Would anything get better? P2 wasn’t that bad. The scientists were just curious. They taught you things, and you taught them things.

    {No. P2 lost most of their funding after—} after you ran away, you almost say, but you can’t bring yourself to hurt TR-62 like that so instead you say {—a few years. They sold off most of their assets. I ended up in a museum in Nacrene for a while, and then I was adopted out to a trainer. Hilda.} You gesture with your head to where the pair is still watching you from across the pond. {What happened to you?} I was afraid—

    {Oh, I see. That’s neat. Are you liking it so far? I just swam and swam for a very long time, and then I washed up near this ship harbor right when N was walking by. He seemed friendly, but he was talking to this strange pink pokémon and he seemed kind of busy, you know? But he understood her, which was really cool! I’ve never met a human who could do that. I think P2 tried really hard but they were going in the wrong direction,} TR-62 adds as an afterthought, and looks at his flippers self-consciously. {But that seemed special, so I trailed him around the shore for a while, and then he noticed me and we tried to talk for a bit. Did you know that most pokémon don’t speak our language? I wonder. N says that archen and tirtouga used to live in very faraway places and times, back when we used to, you know, have more of us. Did you know there used to be more of us? I saw a pidove that reminded me of you. I’m glad you’re okay.}

    When the scientists had seen that you still weren’t adept at flying, even though all other signs showed that a bird of your age should be branching by then, they’d tried aiming strange, spinning metal crosses at you that generated huge streams of air. The wind had smashed into your face and ruffled your carefully-preened feathers and generally felt a lot like how talking to TR-62 does—quiet at first, and then all at once.

    But it’s reassuring. TR-62 always talked enough for the two of you, in this strange language that only the inhabitants of P2 understood. You didn’t mind that. It reminds you of old times.

    {I’m glad you’re okay too,} you say. You hesitate. You haven’t shaped words for so long that you’ve almost forgotten how. Back when you’d met Hilda and Vaselva, you’d tried to greet them—the servine’s demeanor reminded you of the purple, steely one in the P2 basement—but they had only stared quizzically back. The words had died in your throat.

    {But can you believe it?} TR-62 asks, and his flippers make soft splashing sounds on the water’s surface. {We both did it! We crossed the ocean. I told you, right? No more ceilings and tanks for us. We get to see everything now! Have you seen the Driftveil Drawbridge? It’s so cool! It goes up and down and it lets people who can’t swim cross this really pretty river. N and I walked across it. He told me that in other languages it’s named after this big, fiery dragon called charizard because they have the same color. Have you heard of dragons? N says Hilda is destined to meet a great dragon one day. And N says he has this dragon friend he thinks I would like.}

    {How does he have so much time to tell you this?} you ask. A coo of amusement curls up the back of your throat, a feeling you haven’t felt in months. {After all, you talk so much. Between that and battling I’m surprised he gets a word in edgewise.}

    {Battling? Hilda lets you battle?}

    {Lets?}

    You both blink back at each other in surprise.

    {You first,} you say. Not like you would’ve stopped him if he’d tried.

    {N says I can’t battle until my shell is hard and I can walk on my own.} If you listen very, very carefully, there’s a hint of dismay in TR-62’s voice. It’s buried very deep. {Until then, I can watch.} He knocks his head against the rim of his bucket, and there’s a dull pinging sound. {He thinks it’ll be too dangerous for me to fight right now. Because of the whole swimming thing. But I’m ready! Maybe you could tell him. He let me try it once! But then my bucket tipped over and there was water everywhere and I sort of got stuck, and he looked really upset and forfeited the fight immediately, and then we had to run away really really fast—anyway, I don’t think he wants to try again. Until my shell is hard and I can walk on my own.} TR-62 nods to himself.

    That’s a lot to take in. Hilda acted like N was some kind of criminal—that’s always the gist you get when you hear her talking about him. He was running away? From who?

    {I’m surprised you like fighting now,} TR-62 adds, blunt as ever. {Since you seemed to hate it so much back at P2. That’s a good change! I’m happy for you.}

    You’re suddenly very interested in a crack of dirt that’s wedged itself between your toes, and you pick at it with your beak. But TR-62 is still watching you expectantly; the one time he hasn’t ended up spouting off a whole new stream of information. {I still don’t like fighting.}

    {Oh. So then you don’t battle very much, right?}

    You aren’t like TR-62. You’d tried to be, once. You’d watched him swim stubbornly to the bottom of his tank and stay there for hours while scientists had to reach in up to their elbows, soaking their labcoats until they were plastered tightly to the skin. Once, he’d tugged on a scientist’s sleeve so hard that she’d fallen in the tank altogether and had spluttered, dripping wet, up to the surface.

    You thought that was a great idea, so you’d copied it and tried to snap when they came to take readings from you as well. Your scientist smacked you on the beak. Not hard enough to break anything, but hard enough to smart, and that had been the end of that.

    {I battle some,} you say, and nod your head to yourself. {Not as much as the others, I guess.}

    One of the P2 scientists had told you a story about a genetic descendant of tirtouga—squirtle, or something. When infant tirtouga hatched on the shores at night, they’d crawled towards the nearest light source they could see: the reflection of the moon on the sea. Far more adept in the waves than on the sand, those who could slip into the waters before dawn were the ones who would survive.

    It wasn’t the same with squirtle. Millions of years had passed, and tirtouga’s children hadn’t learned to adapt with the times. Clutches of squirtle eggs used to hatch around the beaches in Castelia, but, drawn to the shimmering lights of the city, many of the hatchlings stranded themselves in the roads, and were crushed or devoured before their shells had time to harden. Now, squirtle are a rare sight in all of Unova. Perhaps, somewhere else, they’re common, and TR-62 can find more of his kind.

    To you the lesson was clear enough: do not leave the nest without knowing which way is better than home.

    Hilda had never hit you or anything, not even a smack, and you’re pretty sure she’s a good trainer who would never dream of doing that but—what if she did? Or what if she decided she was bored of you and mailed you back to P2? Best not to find out. Best to keep her happy so you can keep what you have.

    {If she uses you to fight all of her battles and you don’t like it.} TR-62 doesn’t seem satisfied with your answer. {Why not tell her—}

    {So N can talk to pokémon?} you say, a bit too quickly, a bit too loudly. Anything to change the subject.

    {Oh yes,} TR-62 is never one to resist answering a question. The previous topic is immediately washed from his mind; you can almost see it happen on his face. {He tries very hard. He’s also trying to translate for me. A lot of his friends are from the sparkly cave to the north of here, so they all speak like each other, but they’re learning! It might take them a while. I think you didn’t talk to me for a few months, right?}

    TR-62 had burbled to you from his tank for weeks, and splashed water over the glass wall, and squirted water at your perch—all until you’d finally found the words to shape into what? what do you want?

    You aren’t sure why you’d asked. TR-62 had wanted to talk to you for the same reason anyone talked to anyone else: to stop being alone.

    {Can I tell you a story N told me?} TR-62 asks. {It’s about turtles. I think you’d like it.}

    {Sure.}

    The story talks the better part of thirty minutes to tell, since TR-62 gets distracted by a leaf that drifts into his bucket, and by trying to remember if the turtle in the story was green or blue, and because it reminds him of a different story he’d heard before, but the story went a little something like this:

    Once upon a time, a human boy was walking on a beach when he stumbled upon a tirtouga that had washed ashore. She had gotten stuck in the sand and the sun had sapped her energy so that she was too exhausted to dig herself free. Struck by pity, the boy carefully scooped her out of the beach and dragged her to the spot where the tide met the sands. As she felt the water lapping over her fins, the tirtouga opened her eyes and looked up gratefully at the boy.

    {You have shown me a great kindness today, dear boy,} said the tirtouga. {When the time comes and you need my aid, shout my name into the sea and I shall find you. Then I may pay back the gift you have given me.}

    The boy waved farewell as the tide came in and carried the tirtouga out to sea.

    Many years passed. The boy became a man. He spent most of his time on the water, helping ships navigate choppy seas and safeguarding the people inside. One day, an enormous storm brewed around his ship. He wrestled with the wheel and strained at the sails, but he could barely keep his vessel upright. Icy fear ate through his drenched clothes and settled into his bones.

    When all hope seemed lost, the man remembered the tirtouga’s promise and clasped his hands together.

    “Zaratan! Lend me your strength!”

    It was like the eye of the hurricane had just passed overhead. The storm swirled around his boat, still dark and portending, but the seas directly above him were suddenly as calm as a summer’s day. A dark shadow loomed beneath the ship, slowly sharpening into the four-limbed silhouette of a carracosta that was easily as long as the boat was tall.

    {Hello, dear boy,} said the carracosta warmly, slowly, snaking her head out of the surface. The words she spoke showered the entire deck in foam. {You’ve certainly grown. What is it that you desire?}

    “Please,” said the man, gesturing to the storm raging around him. “Help us escape this storm.”

    Zaratan’s craggy head was the size of a boulder, and when she nodded it sent a ripple of waves knocking against the boat. {This,} she said slowly, {is no normal storm. It comes from the heart of the Great Dragon, who birthed our world. I fear this storm may end it as well.}

    The man’s heart sank deep into the bottom of the sea. “What should we do?”

    Zaratan pondered this for a long while, as the storm began to pick up in intensity around her, even despite her presence. {Gather your people and hold fast to my shell,} she said at last, heavily. {You saved me from the sun, and now I will save you and yours from the rain.}

    So the man and all of the passengers of his boat gathered themselves and clambered onto the carracosta’s craggy shell. And not a moment too soon, for as soon as the last human had climbed aboard, a wave lashed through the mast of the ship and splintered the deck. The depths devoured the wreckage, and the man watched with a sinking heart as the ship that had once been his home plunged into the depths.

    Zaratan then tucked her head down and began to swim, plowing a powerful course through the roiling seas.

    As they swam, and the storm worsened, the man noticed a collection of pokémon gathered on a nearby island. The waters here were rising too; the island was dwindling under the ever-rising tide. “Zaratan,” the man shouted, crawling across the carracosta’s shell and holding tightly to the plated armor around her neck. “Look at those people over there. They’ll drown if we don’t help them.”

    {I see them,} Zaratan answered, and changed course to swim towards the island. When they were close enough, Zaratan called out to the land-dwellers: {Gather your people and hold fast to my shell. Otherwise, the storm will take you.}

    Gratefully, the pokémon climbed onto Zaratan’s extended flipper and pulled themselves onto her shell. She rocked back and forth from the new weight, but she pressed onward.

    The storm only worsened. As they pressed on, they passed a flock of bird pokémon clutching fast to the tallest trees in the forest; the rest had already been swallowed by the waves. Their wings were too wet to fly.

    The main pointed, and Zaratan laboriously turned towards the underwater treetops. When she was close enough, she made the same offer, and the birds quickly took it.

    But even though the birds were light, the man watched with widened eyes as the carracosta’s shell sank even further beneath the surface. “Zaratan!” he shouted in alarm. Her strokes, once powerful, were now weary.

    {There are … too many … } she said in her slow, rumbling voice. {Forgive me, dear boy.} The rest of her words were swallowed up by the waters as her head sank beneath the surface, but the man knew in his heart what she meant to say next.

    The man turned around. The pokémon and humans behind him were clutching tightly to one another, holding as closely to the center of her shell as possible—the edges were already succumbing to the waves. Above them, the storm showed no signs of stopping. His weight alone might’ve been the tipping point between if they floated or if they sank.

    Without hesitation, the man leapt into the sea. He struggled against the current, which threw him again and again into Zaratan’s armor, until he made it up to the tip of her beak, and he held her fast until the water took them both.

    The Great Dragon, heartbroken by the storm they had allowed to hurt so many, flew across the seas and found the last peoples of the world floating on Zaratan’s back. Touched by Zaratan and the man’s sacrifice, they exhaled a torrent of fire, thunder, and ice onto the pair; bathed in such power, the two turned to stone.

    TR-62 finishes the rest of the story in a voice that is uncharacteristically solemn: {Do you know why the shining cities of Unova form such a round shape? Look carefully, and you will see Zaratan’s shell, and her human friend right beside her.}

    For a moment you aren’t sure why TR-62 told you this story, or why he would like it. It is such a sad ending for such a happy person. He is no carracosta. N is the one protecting him, after all.

    But perhaps this carracosta, this Zaratan, is how he wants to see himself one day.

    Zaratan and her friend’s sacrifice is sad, somehow more sad to you than the wounds you’ve endured and inflicted every day. Did most pokémon fight for their humans expecting to receive something back? Perhaps when something good is given with the expectation of nothing in return … perhaps that is when it truly becomes valuable. For what could be worth so much that it could be exchanged for nothing?

    {My human,} Zara says, unusually careful, unusually slow, {is similar to you, in a sense. He hides away from conflict and assumes his battles are already lost, even when he could go on a while longer.} A shiver goes down your spine. Defeatist, the scientists called it, when they saw it in you. {But make no mistake. Even he knows that some fights are inevitable. Avoiding the inconsequential ones is not weakness, but strength. When the storm comes, I know he will rise to meet it. And I think you will as well.}

    The hour passes. Hilda checks her wrist and then walks over to you. “Alright, Reylin! Did you have a good time?”

    You wonder: in a different reality, Hilda might’ve been a better trainer for Zara, and N a better trainer for you. Then Zara could fight and you could fly and no one would have to feel uncomfortable with what they wanted to be.

    N trails behind her, and you fasten eyes with him. {Can you really talk to pokémon?} you ask.

    “I can,” he answers.

    {Can you ask her a question for me?}

    “Of course.”

    Hilda had mentioned something once that you’d thought was very strange. She was brave and hardy, you see, like Zara, like Zaratan, like the rest of the pokémon she raised. She never balked at a fight. But she’d told you she’d done something once that hadn’t made any sense—hiding away from a conflict was something you thought only you would do, not someone as courageous as her.

    You tug gently on the leg of N’s pants with your beak, and you ask the question you’ve been meaning to ask Hilda this whole time.

    His eyes widen. “You want me to say that?”

    You tilt your entire head sideways so you can get a better look at him. You repeat your question.

    This time the flinch is unmistakable. “Reylin, I’m not sure if that’s a good idea.”

    {Please ask her.}

    “What’s a good idea?” Hilda chimes in.

    “I don’t think I’m understanding him correctly.” N nervously runs one hand through his crest of hair. “The conjugation thing I mentioned earlier, and—”

    “I’m sure it’s fine,” Hilda says placidly.

    You repeat your question and bob your head up and down. {It’ll work. I promise.}

    “Reylin, I’m not sure if that’s what she wants to hear—”

    “What who wants to hear?” There’s a bit of cold in Hilda’s voice now. “N, my pokémon can tell me anything. Reylin knows that.”

    You nod earnestly.

    N swallows. He stares at his shoes while you count three of his breaths. His tongue snakes out and runs across his lips, and then he bites the bottom lip, and then, finally—“He says … if you didn’t like your family so much, why didn’t you just leave?”

    Hilda turns to stone. You watch her shoulders freeze in place, raised up defensively around her ears like twin spikes of armor.

    Mistake. {I didn’t mean it like that!} you chirp, but she’s not looking at you. Her smile is frozen, curdled on her face.

    “Hilda—”

    “Reylin didn’t tell you that,” Hilda says lowly. “What, did Ghetsis hire a PI to do some research on me and my homelife? You finally figured out that you can’t beat me on the battlefield so you have to resort to digging up dirt on me instead? Or, what, you finally put together what I told you in Castelia and you want to use it against me? It won’t work. You don’t know me. You might think you do, you might think that one kid with a shit dad can recognize another, that you understand, but you grew up with so much that I didn’t. You don’t know the first thing about peasants like me, Lord N.

    “Hilda, please—”

    “Fight me.”

    “What?” N inhales so sharply that you’ll afraid he’ll swallow his words instead. “Hilda, no, I’m not going to—”

    “Take it back, or fight me.” There’s a flash of red. Vaselva emerges at Hilda’s feet. The servine sizes up the situation in a moment, and puffs up the leaves that run down her back so she appears twice as big.

    “I didn’t come here to fight.” His hands curl protectively around Zara’s bucket and he takes half a step back.

    It feels like a cold breeze has settled in around your wingtips, and you’re filled with the compulsion to fly far, far away from it. Zara was right. She’s used you to fight all of her battles. Of course this one would be no different.

    “I don’t care what you wanted to do. Reylin is my family. You don’t just get to—” She cuts herself off, breathing heavily. You think you can hear the dampness in her voice, but when she speaks again she’s as steady as the earth beneath your feet. “I’ll call the cops. They won’t be happy to see you in Mistralton, not after what happened last time.”

    “Hilda,” N pleads one last time, but his voice splinters under its own weight, and you know that he can’t do all the talking for you. He can’t, and you can’t, but you have to try.

    How did it even go wrong so quickly? You’d thought that you could tell Hilda anything, that she’d listen. Quickly, you hop between them and face Hilda and Vaselva, your wings outstretched. If they want to make themselves look big, you can as well. {Don’t be mad at him. He’s just repeating what I told him.}

    Hilda looks at you with eyes so cold you think she’s about to go on a hunt. You’re so transfixed with the hatred on her face that you don’t even notice the hand reaching for the pokéball until the red light engulfs you.

    “Leaf Blade, Vas,” she whispers as you dissolve, and that’s the last thing you hear.



    p | n
     
    Last edited:
    Top