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o. end
  • kintsugi

    golden scars
    Location
    waiting for the fog to roll out
    Pronouns
    she/her
    Partners
    1. silvally-grass
    2. lapras
    3. golurk
    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 as it 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 splinters 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 Collapsed beside him is a carracosta in heavy-plated armor, his fins and head partially withdrawn into his shell.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 plumage is a feathery blur of brick red, leafy green, sky 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; 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 has a yang; at the center of each darkness is 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
    Location
    waiting for the fog to roll out
    Pronouns
    she/her
    Partners
    1. silvally-grass
    2. lapras
    3. golurk

    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. His hand doesn’t stray towards his belt; there’s no glint of anger in his gaze. 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 turn back.

    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 accepted his loss with quiet certainty. 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 aimed for victory. 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 were 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 his mask 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 slight chill 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
    Location
    waiting for the fog to roll out
    Pronouns
    she/her
    Partners
    1. silvally-grass
    2. lapras
    3. golurk
    cw: graphic violence, blood, character 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, lurching into a blur that’s barely more than flashes 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 … a lot of 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.”

    For a moment all you can pick up is the popping of coals, a handful of sparks skittering from the torn earth. And then: “Do you really think this is strength?”

    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 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. “I understand your frustration, but change takes time.”

    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 raise a shaking pokéball.

    The recall beam bounces off of a wall of black scales as the hydreigon snarls over his prey.

    “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? Is this some kind of sick joke?”

    “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 through the channels to find the shutoff, 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. 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.

    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 limply 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? How could anyone else in those fifteen matches have known either?”

    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 the air. 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. “Make no mistake. Pokémon do not care if I am Champion or not when they are suffering. They do not care if I meant to cause this. They are suffering.”

    [“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 his six wings and sends him 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 this is none other than Hilda Verdandi, one of Juniper’s sponsored trainers for this season! 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 twists into tight snarl as he barks, “Damocles!” Another ultra ball arcs 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 canters forward, hooves already wreathed in smoke. As the zebstrika careens closer, 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 handle 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:
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    Reactions: Pen
    iii. nuestro
  • kintsugi

    golden scars
    Location
    waiting for the fog to roll out
    Pronouns
    she/her
    Partners
    1. silvally-grass
    2. lapras
    3. golurk
    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 other people in the room. {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. Maybe? The babies might be shorter. 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 scalloped stones. 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 to look at a truly fascinating rock that glimmered with veins of stone and thunder, 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 blue one smooths his palms on the darker blue scales that border his legs.

    {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, firs the blue and then the green. {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. Most 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. Your last human had a strange, excitable turtle whose tongue had no translation that you could understand, but he was a strange one who preferred water over stone. Perhaps this wasn’t a mere quirk of his 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 tranquill, 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.

    He wants a gigalith, but 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 a 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. A big pause. A good pause. “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 has to get better, to prove himself to someone; even from here, the desperation is clear.

    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 also 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. With those same eyes, they will look at a scolipede’s venom, or at my claws, and tell themselves—yes, this means they must want to fight. 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
     
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    iv. nostrum
  • kintsugi

    golden scars
    Location
    waiting for the fog to roll out
    Pronouns
    she/her
    Partners
    1. silvally-grass
    2. lapras
    3. golurk
    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 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. Her hand idly twists around the fronds around Vaselva’s neck, picking at a loose scale here and there. But while she might’ve been rooted to Vaselva in that moment, you can see it in her eyes as she stares into the campfire: right now, she’s far, far away. Maybe she’s already on top of the tower.

    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 wavering 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 Mistralton, before 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’s huddled against herself, eyes held captive by the flames.

    You wish she knew what to do here instead. If you doubt, and if she doubts, and if all you have is Vaselva—

    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 coldly. {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 about you.’ 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 mother before you, fulfill the mandate of the dragons, over and over.

    Hilda has a good mind for a human. She might understand kafara if you could ever explain it to her. Strong men made this world, she’d told you once. But one day she’ll be strong enough to fix it.

    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.

    You were perfectly quiet this time, but for some reason Hilda looks up from the flames and seems to notice the two of you standing head to head, exchanging glares. A frown flashes across her face. Her hand tightens around the frills on Vaselva’s neck. “Are you guys okay?”

    You can hear the exhaustion in her voice. Day by day it’s creeped in, until she’s kept afloat by sheer willpower alone. First she just had to be good enough for Juniper, to maintain the sponsorship that paid for all of your gear and supplies on the road. Then she had to be good enough for the news and their flashing cameras, their prying questions. But now? Now, she has to be good enough to rival N, who seeks to undo the world.

    You limp over to them and fold yourself behind Vaselva, so that your head rests over the serperior’s body and up against Hilda’s shoulder. She’ll rise to this challenge. She always has. Hilda is like a baby purrloin, too young to leap for a branch but nonetheless clawing for the sun.

    But for the first time, that doesn’t reassure you. One day the purrloin becomes a predator. And then will it remember the ones who helped it climb?

    Hilda strokes the velvety ridge above your nostrils, with a hand, not a claw.

    “I’m sorry,” she says without looking at either of you. “We’re almost done.”

    ※​

    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’ve got to be as quiet as we can, 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.

    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, N is still standing. The klinklang is smoking. One set of gears is jammed together where the heat melted the teeth away.

    Crackling charge gathers around you, hissing from the air and sparking up your spine. They can’t stop you forever.

    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, 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 and almost lost her sponsorship for it; 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
    Location
    waiting for the fog to roll out
    Pronouns
    she/her
    Partners
    1. silvally-grass
    2. lapras
    3. golurk
    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 seismitoad, 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. Up until last week 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. Humans are fragile like that.

    “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?

    “The League will be dealing with the seismitoad.” A tight pause. “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 again, 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.

    Your rank would never take you back. Those are the rules. 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 rank, 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 rank. 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.

    They don’t know much about you, these humans who never asked. But they are correct in this thing, even if they call your rank a pack, even if they classify their right to own you through permits instead of respect—now that you are a Queen, you will be separate from your old rank for the rest of your life. Either until old age takes you or until they do.

    “Ma’am?”

    There’s a sticky silence.

    “I’m still here.” She sounds dejected.

    “Ma’am, my job is to help pokémon reintegrate into the wild. Legally, there is nothing I can do. 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 Nacrene Conkeldurr 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. Samson doesn’t hear any of it. His pokéball is carefully wrapped up in a padded box and sealed away.

    You don’t get to say goodbye.

    You think it’s better that way. You never got to talk him before Trainer got arrested. Will Samson hate you for what you’ve caused? Anri certainly will, for as long as he has left.

    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 Samson’s strange way of speaking—but they were your only friends while you were owned by Trainer. Now your rank 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 runs off into the woods alone. You run alongside him.

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

    You were trained for a life of battle. You didn’t always hate it. Not before Trainer made you hate it. In your rank you practiced vigorously. Territorial spats were a matter of life-and-death for all involved. If you encountered another rank, yours would slaughter them. If you lost pawns, you would capture enough to replace the fallen and kill the weakest. That was how things always were; that was how things had to be.

    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. He was never yours.

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

    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.

    ※​

    It hadn’t taken much.

    You were fighting Anri, over and over again. You had to get better, Trainer said. He couldn’t keep losing to Clay. Once was already bad enough. But three?

    Humans are nice. They let you rematch if you lose. Three losses in a rank is unheard of, simply because you would never survive them all. But instead you stood there, Trainer at your back, Anri before you. The board reset again and again.

    Humans are cruel. They make you rematch when you lose. Anri had been too slow as a palpitoad, too slow for Clay and too slow for you. Dodging his attacks was almost second nature; he telegraphed them so blatantly that even Trainer could see. And then it was your job to dash in and strike him, like Clay’s excadrill. Over and over again, until he learned.

    But Anri hadn’t just learned. He’d grown. When the white light faded and a seismitoad towered over you, you took a step back. As a tympole he’d warbled quietly to himself, a song unheard. The only time you could tell he was talking was when he was underwater, and the surface rippled as he sang. His palpitoad voice was deeper, but he used it sparingly. Most of the time he cried.

    {I’m tired of this,} Anri said simply, in a deep, rumbling voice. Then, with reddened eyes, he picked up a rock the size of your head and threw it at Trainer.

    The rock struck Trainer in the side of the head, and Trainer crumpled to the ground immediately. By then, Anri had closed the gap. He wasn’t used to his new size; his movements were overshot and clumsy. But the seismitoad still had enough coordination to smash his newly-formed webbed fists into the ground on either side of Trainer’s head. And then he screamed, loud enough that the earth seemed to liquefy.

    IS THIS WHAT YOU WANTED TO HEAR?

    So many months spent trying to get Trainer to listen, only for his words to fall on deaf ears again. Trainer had long since fallen unconscious, blood leaking from his temple and his shattered eardrums.

    He was soft after all. You’d always guessed it, but in that moment you knew.

    Trainer had looked so small on the ground, so helpless. A child, you remembered. Your life had been upended by a tiny human child.

    {Stop,} you rasped, and when he hadn’t heard you, you slammed the backside of your blade across his throat. {Stop!}

    The seismitoad looked up at you with wild eyes, and when he blinked, he was Anri again.

    {He was never going to stop,} Anri said quietly. {He was never going to let us go.}

    {He wasn’t.} You looked at Trainer on the ground. In that moment you saw it play out. You’d seen news reports; you knew what happened to pokémon who harmed humans.

    {We have to run,} Anri said, because he knew too.

    Trainer. On the ground. Samson trapped at his waist. Could anyone let him out again? The dark forest ahead. Would they find you?

    {He’s hurt,} you managed to say, because that was the thought that leaked through everything else. {He’ll die.}

    Anri took a step backwards. {If you stay, you’ll die.} He waited three seconds more, and then dropped to all fours and ran headlong into the trees.

    You watched him go longingly. Then you looked back.

    If that had been a rank match, Trainer would’ve been killed. Too weak to capture. Anyone else left on the board—you, Anri, Samson—would’ve been a far more obvious pick.

    But this wasn’t a rank match. This was you. You were Queen. You held the power.

    He was a bad player. He hurt you, hurt Anri. This was only a natural repercussion.

    Your kind was meant for war.

    In that moment, you made a choice.

    ※​

    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 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 rank 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 rank 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 rank, 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.

    But did you hate him?

    In that moment he’d looked so small, barely taller than a pawn. A child. Your entire life upended by a single child. 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 rank; 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.

    “Why did you do it?” You watch her watch the ground. She swallows. “He would’ve died if you’d left him there. Why did you bring him home?”

    Last night she’d watched with tight lips and a pale face as the television announced that officials had found the escaped seismitoad that had attacked its trainer. In the ensuing fight, it had been killed.

    They would’ve killed you too, you know. If Trainer had died he wouldn’t have been able to explain what had happened. They wouldn’t have checked his pokédex to correlate his story, wouldn’t have seen the full recording of every move, every hit you’d taken, every time he’d pushed you too far. There was even a grainy audio recording of the last forty-eight hours, Trainer’s abuse, Anri’s screams, your panicked shrieks. All the data of his transgressions had been there, dangling from his belt, if anyone had just thought to ask.

    They wouldn’t have asked you, though, just like they didn’t ask Anri. Humans have rank matches of their own. They kill when they think their own are threatened. Anri’s fate was sealed the moment he raised his voice. Anri knew, and you had as well—but is that why you did it? Fear? Obligation? Duty?

    Trainer was so soft in your arms when you’d held him. You had to angle your blades so he wouldn’t get hurt.

    {It’s what I wanted him to do for me,} you said quietly.

    Maybe she doesn’t understand you. But your words weren’t for her.

    “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.

    Anri doesn’t have the rest of his life. If you’d run with him, maybe you could’ve helped him hide. Maybe they would’ve caught you both.

    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.

    “All of the adoption agencies are telling me that pokémon from abusive trainers are difficult to rehome. Especially since … well.” She shakes her head. “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 something, 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
    Location
    waiting for the fog to roll out
    Pronouns
    she/her
    Partners
    1. silvally-grass
    2. lapras
    3. golurk

    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? When the humans label him as separate from themselves, they show their true intentions for the world to see: no human heart has a place for sympathy for the children of fire and thunder. Better to think that in his chest beats a different organ altogether.

    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 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 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 thousands, 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. If you’re so right, the hearts of pokémon everywhere must be black with rage, ready as they are to 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 to 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. There are some, but most pokémon … do not think the way you’ve described.” His mouth stays open like he’s about to say something else, but he can’t put it into words.

    Of course he doesn’t have the words. Ghetsis raised him much like a human would raise a pokémon, and it shows—even now, N holds himself with the air of someone who’s always been told who he’s supposed to be. But while he looked away from that destiny, and feared it, he never found it in him to denounce it. So of course he doesn’t know why pokémon can be unhappy with their place but never fight back. {So then you’re wrong, aren’t you?}

    You don’t mean him real 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 fight them 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 we need to fight them 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 humans go to work anyway and besides, 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 old before he was born. 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, barely able to meet your eyes. It’s like he’s afraid that 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 know how hard it is to find a pokémon that has consigned 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
     
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    vii. nonconformist
  • kintsugi

    golden scars
    Location
    waiting for the fog to roll out
    Pronouns
    she/her
    Partners
    1. silvally-grass
    2. lapras
    3. golurk
    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.”

    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.

    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.

    She’s not being aggressive, so 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. 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. I can’t have this on my record; Juniper will flay me alive and that’ll just be the start.” He trails off, but you can see the thoughts smoldering, stormclouds around his head.

    “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.” Cheren rolls his eyes again. “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?”

    “I don’t hurt them. The context is important. My pokémon enjoy battling. It’s what they want to do.”

    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, Juniper was calling the department furious that they were detaining one of her sponsored trainers. He must be a good kid, to have all these people vouching for him.

    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 mags 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. Twice 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 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
    Location
    waiting for the fog to roll out
    Pronouns
    she/her
    Partners
    1. silvally-grass
    2. lapras
    3. golurk

    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. Is he trying to subsume it? Horrifying. 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 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
    Location
    waiting for the fog to roll out
    Pronouns
    she/her
    Partners
    1. silvally-grass
    2. lapras
    3. golurk

    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 can’t pay attention to her. 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. How can they do that? There’s so much to see. There’s a distant hum of machinery behind the doors to the treatment rooms, accompanied by the vague sounds of pokémon behind them, receiving treatment.

    That’s the tricky part, you decide now that you’re no longer in the back room next to the venipede who hissed as an audino dabbed salve on his burnt thorax, now that you can’t hear the panicked shrieks of a simisage through the walls . 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 cries 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. Her next words are much softer, like she’s hissing a secret to him. “What are you doing here?”

    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 a bit more water sloshes out of the bucket and onto the carpet of the pokécenter. Ah. That’s why his coverings are wet. You can hear the nurse’s annoyed intake of breath from behind the counter.

    “Oh, hi, Reylin!” he exclaims, shifting the bucket slightly to one side so he can 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 pitches 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 what he was going to say. 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 never let yourself imagine.

    {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, I’m surprised he gets a word in edgewise.}

    {He’s a very good listener,} TR-62 says empathetically, which you can’t be sure of—by default anyone who listens to TR-62 for long enough becomes a listener. {And it’s because he listens so much that he knows so many interesting things to tell later! It’s quite clever. I’m sure you’re good at it too, Reylin! You listen all the time. Do you have any interesting stories?}

    You wish he’d talk more so you could listen more. Asking questions is a new thing for him, maybe something he’s learned from N. But now you have to answer. {Mostly about battling.}

    {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 man 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?

    {N,} 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 he admires Zaratan, and he’s right to, you know?} His voice speeds up. {Zaratan is very brave. I want to be like her. When the storm comes, I want all of us to be able to rise to meet it.}

    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.

    Zara’s story fills you with a strange kind of courage, one you’ve never felt before. If Zaratan and her human could be so brave, maybe you could as well.

    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? I’ve been wondering for a while}

    “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. {See? She won’t mind. 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, I’ll always listen to my pokémon. 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. You were wrong. You aren’t brave like Zaratan. You’ve done it again, bitten a scientist, started a fight you can’t finish.

    “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
     
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    x. nudum
  • kintsugi

    golden scars
    Location
    waiting for the fog to roll out
    Pronouns
    she/her
    Partners
    1. silvally-grass
    2. lapras
    3. golurk

    x. nudum

    ※​

    My dear sister, Kobo told you once, I have learned a terrible secret.

    Kobo broke your pack’s rules, and with that breach came a terrible price. There wasn’t punishment from the pack, for the truth he learned was a horrible one—the world had punished him enough. But it didn’t punish him swiftly, didn’t stop him from spreading his secret to you.

    As far as humans are concerned, zoroark and their children no longer live in Unova. At first it was a choice; in recent years it had become necessary. Your kind wasn’t meant for fighting, but that was all humans thought you would be good for. Companionship was such a scant reward for what they wanted to make you do—it was safer to never come down the mountain again, and let the memory of the skinchangers fade from their minds until they stopped seeking you. Your great-grandparents were the last of your kind to be close enough to a human to know one, but the stories persist. Humans are spiteful, horrible creatures, whose fragile bodies cannot even contain all the hate they hold within, so they must instead inflict it onto others.

    When Kobo returned, he told you the other version that the humans told themselves: long ago, a pokémon forswore herself to a human, and promised that she would always hear when that human called. And from that day on, pokémon would always appear when humans cried out.

    But one day, a young human, callow and foolish, fastened a sword, with which he smote many pokémon. He continued sundering with no remorse until finally, he searched far and wide for more pokémon to fight and found none. In that moment, a that pokémon appeared to him, and bowed low.

    “If you continue to strike down my siblings with your steel,” the pokémon warned, “from your kind with our fangs and claws we will extract our toll.” And in that moment, the pokémon transformed, opened her mouth, and bared her wicked fangs.

    The human, horrified, threw his sword into the sea, and pokémon once again agreed to live peacefully alongside humans so long as humans never again took up the sword.

    This, Kobo told you when he returned, is what the humans told themselves. You responded that it was a stupid story. If humans were so good that they could fight their own battles, why did they have the need to capture pokémon? You liked the part where they human tried to kill everything he could see, because that at least made sense, but what human had ever stopped because someone had asked him nicely? Who could be both helpless and all-powerful? What did it matter what your ancestors promised? What did it matter what theirs did?

    Kobo spent too much time with humans. The zoroark version of the legend goes a little differently.

    Mitama, the first zorua who was gifted with the ability to change face, ventured down to the human villages one day. She found in suffering a human boy, about her age, who cried for her aid. Touched, she offered him one of her tricks, and showed him the secret of how she could appear as one thing and be another.

    The boy took it eagerly, and honed it. He learned to craft her illusions into his words, and fashioned himself a pretty lie: that Mitama’s kindness bound pokémon to humans for the rest of time.

    Kobo’s secret is simple, but as soon as you hear it, you understand why it has remained a secret all this time—it simply makes no sense.

    Inari, the humans love us more when we serve their whims, but they have been loving us this whole time.

    It is a stupid lie. It has to be. But after you saw what they did to him, after you realized what learning their secrets had made him become, you couldn’t help but follow him down the slopes as well.

    You’ve heard the legends. Humans are full of hate. How else could they so effectively ensnare pokémon? If they ever doubted themselves, if they ever thought they were trying to be kind, surely they’d pull back from the cruelty they were inflicted. So they must know what drives them. Right?

    Mitama is a warning to those who would forget that zoroark are predators. Her lesson was passed down for the rest of time, so that all of you could understand where she erred. You do not pity a blitzle before you kill it, after all. You do not claim you love it.

    You know what lies at the heart of your illusions, even if you hide that heart from others. Zoroark can deceive each other, but they cannot deceive themselves. This is only logical, after all. You create the illusion. It does not create you. You have mastery over it, and you can choose when the illusion falls and your true self remains.

    If humans think what they do now is love … then they have crafted a very powerful illusion indeed.

    The boy who took Mitama’s gift never took her heart. He was never raised to understand what it means to change your skins; to have one face for prey, one for battle, one for family. Your face can never fool your own eyes, but spoken lies can reach your ears, and through there, your heart. This was Mitama’s revenge, although she did not know it at the time: humans crafted lies so strong that they fooled even themselves.

    You looked through Kobo when he told you that secret, and you stayed with him until the day turned to night.

    And in that moment you knew: you would have to find this out on your own. So you, too, crept alongside the sun down the mountainside to find what illusions the humans have woven in your centuries apart.

    ※​

    You aren’t quite sure what starts it, not from where you’re pressed in the throng of humans. But you’re halfway through twisting your way around a palpitoad’s legs when you hear a scream, and then a pop, and you turn just in time to see a gas cannister strike a scolipede in the thorax. The cylinder lodges between the chinks in its reddish armor, and then it begins seeping burning-hot gas while the scolipede shrieks in pain, bucking around wildly.

    The rest dissolves into chaos. A water bottle goes flying. Someone is trying to calm the scolipede, which is an impossible task in itself given that she’s five times the human’s size and receiving second degree burns. The air thickens to white haze. More shouting.

    You hiss, already scrambling to double back the way you came in, but now that the crowd’s twisting into motion, it’s a lot harder to push through unseen. Should you even try to break through the herd? Every hunter's instinct tells you no; the first one to run is the first one to be picked off.

    But this isn’t a hunt; this is humans, you have to remind yourself, and you are not prey. But you can look like one, if that’s what it takes.

    You drop to all fours and begin bounding out of the crowd, heedless of the way that the illusion of the human child is far too small and hairless to be responsible for the people you’re shoving away from you.

    A man in red clothes is reeling back, coughing into his elbow, and he almost trips over you but you dart left, just in time to avoid a sparking zebstrika, her stripes glimmering gold through the haze. Someone keeps launching more cannisters of gas into the crowd. Other people are shouting commands in great, artificially-booming voices, but you can’t hear them over the chaos, and even if you would, it’s not like you’d listen anyway.

    Away. You have to get away. There’s a watchog on the ground, lying limp and making no attempt to pull himself away from the feet that stray too close to crushing him. You stare after him for a moment before a beam of red light envelopes him and he’s gone, and then you’re on the run again, cursing yourself for wasting precious time.

    You’re almost out when the gas finally gets in your lungs, sends it festering and burning deep, deep in your chest. You pull up short, gagging, and in that moment your illusion shatters and the child is replaced with the predator.

    A roar erupts and you pull up short as the scaled neck of a hydreigon spirals out of the chaos, eyes bloody and wild. His words have no meaning to you; your people forgot the tongue of dragons long ago, but you feel all eyes turn to him. There’s another dragon by his side, her form easily dwarfed, and she lashes out with tusks each as long as your forearm.

    That’s all you need to see, you have to remind yourself. You know what happens to dragons. Everyone does. If this is where they choose to make their stand, then it will be their last. Your world will be none the brighter for it, but what are you going to do about it? You need to go; anyone left in the square in the next five minutes will be in a bloodbath. Your breath tries to sear its way out of your throat; the air is burning, burning

    Who is responsible for this? There’s a wall of humans in front of you staring back like they’ve been carved in place; there isn’t a shred of empathy that you can see as they fire and fire and fire—

    “Mistralton PD! This is unlawful assembly!” someone shouts into a metal cone. “Please return to your homes!” And it’s when you hear that please that you realize Kobo might be right after all, if they think this is what a request looks like. What else would they think, these humans who have forgotten how it feels to hunt another? You should’ve known better; of course humans would be the only people cruel enough to do this to themselves.

    More shouts. Cannisters spiraling through the air, dark spheres converging on the hydreigon and his companion—

    Behind you the crowd has scattered as well; some are charging at the line of black-bodied, uniformed humans in front of you; some are fleeing towards the back. You skirt around a pair of uniformed ones who pay you no heed and burst out from beneath the wrought iron entryway again. You don’t know the geography around here. Another mistake. But you’re out of the thickest part, and you’re sprinting through the streets, lungs burning, legs about to give out. With a glance back you toss the image of a herdier onto yourself, blue fur flaring out behind you into a cape as you dash headlong forward on all fours. The air is clearer here. You’re almost out.

    “Herdier, Halt!”

    The image stops, but you certainly don’t. You hobble forward, trying to keep the coughs from crawling up your throat, your claws from clicking on the cobblestones. The problem with illusions is that they can never cover up the noise.

    “Blue, is this one of ours?” the human voice says. You can’t see their face or who’s next to them; some of the excess haze is leaking out of the street behind them and cloaking them as well. “Hey, Herdier! Where’s your officer?” He’s fumbling at his shoulder for a black box.

    Too late, you realize your mistake when you recognize the pokémon at his side, blue and brown fur and hackles. You’ve dressed up as one of them.

    The herdier has his nose pointed straight at you, and you know you’re doomed. You can smell like a herdier if you want to, and with this much gas floating around you’re sure his nose is just as shot as yours is—but can you smell like his herdier? Lillipup packs rarely separate after birth, and even when they do, they will never forget the scent of a sibling.

    You inch back slowly, leaving the illusion staring patiently at the two of them, until cold bricks settle up against your hind legs and you’re pressed up against a wall.

    The herdier growls, and then the sound deepens into a bark.

    Can you scare him off? You know how this works. They have packs because they’re poor hunters alone. He’ll try to intimidate you; he might even trust his nose before his eyes, but as long as you stand your ground, he’ll be too afraid to close the distance; no power on earth would compel a lone herdier to lash out against cornered prey. You puff up the illusion’s fur and let a hissing growl of your own accompany it. {My kind has haunted yours since the beginning of time. Try me, mutt.}

    “It must be one of theirs. Retrieve, Blue.”

    The human. The human. You forgot about—

    The herdier leaps forward in a blur of brown, and you see now that he’s not aiming for the illusion. He has your scent.

    Could you outrun them? Probably not, and they can see through you now. Fight? You square your shoulders, claws at the ready for the incoming impact—

    “Stop! Hey! That’s my pokémon!”

    You’re in a daze, so time seems to skip ahead a few moments until there are shoes in front of your face, a human figure standing in front of you, arms outstretched. The purple silhouette of a liepard twines around her ankles. The herdier pulls up short as soon as it sees the girl, and his attack fizzles out immediately.

    “This is a restricted area! Get back!” the man is shouting. But he’s not commanding an attack point-blank, not yet, not with another human in the way.

    “Herdier,” the interloper says, trying and failing to sound stern. “Let’s go.”

    What is she talking about? Go where?

    But the liepard around his ankles fixes you with a flinty gaze. {This is your only chance. Can you stand?}

    There’s something in her voice that makes you believe them. You can stand. You’re already standing, one forepaw braced on the ground. But you push the image of the injured herdier to its feet.

    “Hypocrites, the lot of you,” says the uniformed human. His voice is muffled by his mask, so it’s hard to make out the specific words, but there’s no mistaking: “Fighting against owning pokémon and then using pokémon yourselves. Stop using them as an excuse just because you want to get ahead. Go home, kid.”

    You see the human who saved you stiffen, but she keeps her hands outstretched and keeps backing up. Doesn’t turn her back to either you or the uniformed one. “C’mon, Herdier,” she says pleadingly.

    What do you have to lose?

    Stop using them as an excuse just because you want to get ahead.

    The man doesn’t follow the three of you down the streets, but his words do. They ring in your ears as you follow the human and the liepard down a dash of side streets, the perfect image of a dog trotting obediently after her master. But the man’s words fester in your mind, bouncing around with Kobo’s.

    The humans aren’t using you. You were angry long before anyone told you that you were allowed to be.

    ※​

    {You can drop that now,} the liepard says lazily after the girl closes the door, and you find yourself in a dimly-lit room with grungy walls and short ceiling. Ahead of the two of you, the girl fumbles her way against the bed in the center of the room—she has poor night vision, you remember belatedly—before she manages to turn on one of the lamps on the bedside table.

    {Drop what?} you ask innocently.

    {Skinchanger, I have met no herdier that speaks the forest’s tongue like you do.}

    {We can’t all fawn around humans,} you smirk, and you watch as the hairs running down her spine stand on end in response. But you don’t drop your illusion, not around friends like these.

    Where are you? Where have you fled to? Where will you go next?

    While you ponder this, the girl fusses over every square inch of the liepard, murmuring under her breath. She’s produced strange-smelling white cloths that she rubs over the liepard’s fur until they turn yellow. Sometimes you’ll hear a hiss of pain, followed by a sharp, “Are you okay? Did that hurt?” You watch out of the corner of your eye and then busy yourself with grooming your own fur, patting the mats out as best as you can. Something stings the roof of your mouth when you lick your fur, and almost gag as the acrid scent of gas hits you again. None of that, then.

    But the liepard for the most part bears her inspection stoically, and when they’re done, the girl whispers something to the liepard.

    {She says you don’t look hurt, but she wants to know if she can check on you too.}

    {I’m fine,} you reply frostily. To have a human run her hands over your true body, over your heart—no. You would rather lick your fur until your tongue burned itself off.

    The liepard butts her head against her human, and the girl nods and moves off into the other room. You skulk in the corner, tucking yourself between a trash basket and a tall wooden box holding a black screen, while the liepard stares you down from the floral-patterned bedspread.

    {Tourmaline,} the liepard says levelly.

    It takes you a moment to parse that as a name. {Inari,} you say by way of response.

    {Why were you at the protest at all? Do you have somewhere you want to return to? Tonight it is likely unsafe to travel, even for you.} There’s a hint of guarded derision in her words, just a hair, but not enough to spur you to respond in kind. You are tired, and hurt, and besides. If they had wanted to cause you serious harm they would’ve tried by now, surely.

    {I am searching for a human. That is why I was lost in the crowd.}

    That catches Tourmaline’s attention. Her head pricks up; her eyes narrow to shards of amber, glittering from the dark fur around her face. {What business does a skinchanger have searching for a human?}

    You think of Kobo’s voice, the way it lilted in your ears when he shared his secret. He was always the quiet one of the two of you; he selected each of his words with pride. But before his time with the humans, he never once changed his face. He wore the skin of a zorua every day of his life, since the two of you left the womb together until the day he went down the mountain. With the others, you were used to recognizing their cadences, for you could not always see their faces—but with Kobo, you never had to, until the day he returned, with the same voice but a new face.

    His thorny secret was not the only thing he received from the humans.

    {I owe him a great debt.}

    {Oh?} Tourmaline rearranges herself to one side, lazily rubbing her back legs up against the bed’s fabric. Dark fur mixes against the faded pattern of flowers. {Quite unlike you, skinchanger, to have any doings with those of us down here, least of all to owe them something.}

    Does her kind scorn yours? Perhaps, depending on where she grew up. Liepard were given fangs and claws, muscles that could rend tree trunks and jaws that could crush skulls. The only thing zoroark had was Mitama’s gift, and she was foolish enough to share. If the blessed wanted to look down on you for not sharing their fate, let them. Why would you care?}

    {The human I seek is probably twenty suns old by now.} You scrunch your face up, trying to remember. Was it more? Kobo left long, long ago, when you were still a zorua and your claws were not yet grown. {Maybe more.} Another pause. {Maybe less.} You’re determined not to let her hear the hesitation in your voice. {He has hair the color of grass, and he knows the desert tongue. I followed him into your crowd.}

    More than that, you watched him speak in the thick of the crowd this morning. You watched him weave an illusion into the air with only his words. You watched him tell of a future where humans did not need to be full of hate. You watched him claim to love pokémon. You had almost reached him before it all broke.

    What a pretty story he told. No wonder this was the one who returned Mitama’s gift to Kobo.

    {I admire that you did not run,} Tourmaline says in a quiet voice. {You are brave for that.}

    You frown. What did she see? You bolted from the crowd and left them to their own squabbles. If she wanted to be like Mineta and put her lots in with humans who would attack even their own, then let her. Her kind chose to stay with the humans, and if it meant binding stones to her feet while the river took her, then she could do so and admire her handiwork the whole way down.

    Her respect seems genuine, though. You watch jealously as she licks at her paw and begins to groom the matted fur of her forelegs back into place. {Why are you fighting alongside them?}

    She pauses in her grooming and looks down at you from the bed. Behind her, her tail twitches, an erratic hop in the slow, methodical rhythm it’s been sweeping out this entire time. {Skinchanger, your kind has fled the cities for too long. I do not fight alongside her. Rhea fights alongside me.}

    {Why do you say that?}

    The liepard tilts her head towards the back room, where Rhea is silhouetted in harsh fluorescent light, pacing tight circles, bare feet on the tiles. The girl holds a box to her ear; alternates between whispering words into it and letting it babble back to her. Her face is pale, and with her free hand she twines a spiral of bright purple hair around her index finger. She’s bleeding from a scrape that runs down her forearm; it’s shallow but caked over in dirt and acid; you can see how she itches to touch it.

    Your kind strayed from the humans long ago, but you can recognize the panic of cornered prey when you see it.

    {She would be happier without any of this,} Tourmaline explains quietly. {She has no desire to fight; she dropped out of her gym circuit long ago.} You aren’t sure what the words mean, but you imagine a blitzle who has chosen to stop running, and to fall instead into slathering jaws. {But it hurts her to see us hurt, so she fights.}

    Humans that would defy their own, for their own reasons. Is this what Kobo meant by the ones that thought they knew love?

    “Are you hungry?” Rhea asks, her voice drifting into your conversation, and Tourmaline mewls lazily. It’s wordless, even in her own tongue, but you can sense the affirmation.

    There’s a pause, and the sound of someone rummaging through a box. “Blukberry?”

    The liepard takes a moment to consider, but says nothing.

    “It’s that or rawstberry, Tourm. We weren’t planning on staying in this motel long so I didn’t get us many options.”

    Tourmaline huffs and lowers her head onto her front paws. After a long silence, she mewls again.

    “Does our friend want some as well?”

    {It’s for eating. It is sweet and tastes good,} she says, staring at you. {If you don’t eat yours I would take it for you.}

    You’re not quite sure what to make of it. She would share her food with the intent to steal it back? Why even offer it in the first place? {I will try some.} You are ravenous, though. Unless it tastes like poison you will certainly eat yours, and hers if you can find it.

    Another yowl.

    The girl emerges from the back room, juggling a series of weirdly shaped plastic objects in her arms. She tosses something white to Tourmaline, and then a cylindrical lump lands in front of your herdier illusion. Scentless, too-white, weirdly smooth. What is this?

    {The top is weak,} Tourmaline explains before stabbing her claws in through the lid. When her paw emerges, it is covered in pale blue mud, which she languidly begins licking.

    What strange habits they have in these parts. You eye the container carefully, and when you look up, Tourmaline’s eyes are fixed on you as well, or at least where she thinks you are.

    Mentally, it is too much effort to eat and pretend that the herdier is doing the same. You know this. Very well. If they would share their food with you, you can at least do them the decency of showing them your face. You drop the illusion in front of Tourmaline’s curious eyes, and blink slowly back at her.

    {I did not ask for your drama, skinchanger,} she remarks, lazily hunting a fleck of yogurt that spilled onto the bedspread. {I was merely hoping that you were too stupid to open it, so I could have your share.}

    You huff and snatch your yogurt into your claws, eyeing it before retreating back under the desk in the corner of the cramped room. Is this supposed to be some sort of fruit? You stab your claws through the top like you saw Tourmaline do, and it gives way almost immediately.

    She is correct. It is sweet and tastes good. By the end of it you’ve shoved your snout into this strange, smooth fruit so that you can reach all of it, and you lick it clean.

    “That’s not a herdier,” Rhea says, quite astutely, when she gets back and you’re searching for the last bits of yogurt off of the lid.

    She is a lucky one. Few humans have seen a zoroark. Even fewer know they have.

    But she doesn’t seem to comprehend her blessing; instead, she looks back at Tourmaline, who mutters, {I wish I could explain.} Finally, Rhea shrugs and then flops onto the bed, where she begins unwrapping a meal of her own.

    “You okay down there?” she asks. “Hungry, thirsty? Anything? You wanna leave tonight?”

    Your head perks up when you realize she’s talking to you, and you hit your head on the underside of the motel’s desk. You bite back a hiss of pain and shake your head pointedly at her.

    “Okay, just let me or Tourm know,” Rhea says, and produces a pathetic sandwich from the wrapper, which she begins devouring. “I think everyone got away okay,” she says to Tourmaline between bites. A few crumbs hit the bedspread, which Tourmaline noses after. “I don’t know. But pretty much everyone’s checked in by now.”

    {You’re hurt,} Tourmaline responds, and begins licking at the scrape on Rhea’s arm.

    “It’s nothing.” She makes a move to push the liepard away. “Don’t lick. I washed it but it could still have gas in it. You’ll be hurt.”

    {I have licked my wounds before.}

    Rhea flops back, her half-eaten food sandwich forgotten in its wrapper beside her. The liepard shifts and lays her head on Rhea’s chest, and for a long while they are silent and motionless, save for the rise and fall of Tourmaline’s head on the girl’s stomach. In the silence you feel like you’re intruding on something precious.

    “That was horrible, Tourm,” she says at last, and it’s only when you hear the shaking of her voice that you realize how young she must be. “I … I didn’t think it’d turn out like that.”

    {If they escalate,} Tourmaline reminds her gently, {that means it’s working.}

    “Like, I’ve seen it on the news in some of the Hoenn protests, but I never thought they’d turn on us here.” One arm has flopped uselessly onto the bedspread; with the other, she traces over the golden circles on Tourmaline’s back. “I’m scared. Jackson says he doesn’t know what to do either. I’m supposed to get in touch with the Driftveil branch tomorrow so we can get a proper gameplan together; apparently they’ve had to deal with this a little longer than we have, but … gods, Tourm. What are we going to do? I’m not ready for this.”

    A slow purr slowly rumbles through Tourmaline’s body.

    “I know.” Idly, her hand resumes it slow, repetitive petting. “I know.”

    Neither of them say anything else. You watch them for a while—warily, at first; for all you know, this could be another human trick. And then, as Rhea’s hand slows and they both seem to drift off into slumber, your watch changes to one of distanced interest.

    This must be what Kobo meant, these humans who thought they were loving you this whole time. Are they even so wrong to believe that? Rhea, with her gentle hands; Tourmaline, with her firm convictions—this could be love. This could be a lie they’ve crafted between the two of them. Either way, you would believe it.

    {Skinchanger.}

    When you look up, Tourmaline’s eyes bore through you. You thought she’d fallen asleep long ago. {What?}

    {You reek of poison.}

    {And?}

    The liepard huffs. {Come close, and I will clean it for you, since you seem incapable of doing so yourself.}

    Surely the poison hurts her as well. You know how it tastes on your tongue. By tomorrow, it may dry and reach your skin, but for now, your fur is thick enough that it is harmless. {You needn’t worry.}

    {You reek from here, Skinchanger,} she says quietly. {And clearly you seek to prevent both of us from resting well with your discomfort.}

    The liepard is a clever one. You’ll give her that. Grudgingly, you climb up onto the bed beside them, careful to sheathe your claws to avoid snagging in the blanket, and let yourself be groomed like a kit.

    She is careful and methodical, rooting around in the thick tufts of your mane to find the tangles and clumps that you missed. You wait expectantly for her to gag, to give up as you did, but she remains persistent. It is both comforting and disquieting to feel someone else so close to you—you haven’t shared your space with another in so long—but you can slowly bring yourself to relax.

    You would have endured the acrid taste for Kobo, you tell yourself, or for anyone else in the clan. Just not for yourself.

    {The human you seek,} Tourmaline says when she’s finished with your mane and has moved down to your lower back, pausing between licks. Her tongue is larger than Kobo’s was, so she works more quickly. {I can direct you to him.}

    Your head pricks up. {Where?}

    {I need a favor first.}

    Carefully, you bite back a growl. You shouldn’t be surprised. You would’ve asked the same, surely. And this way you know that she isn’t just sending you into a trap; her instructions must be genuine if she is to request something in exchange. {What is your favor?}

    {There is a human I am interested in as well. She is familiar with the one you seek, if that reassures you.}

    {Is she a friend of yours?}

    The grooming stops again. {No.} And then: {Maybe she could’ve been.}

    Interesting. It isn’t like liepard to hold their sentimentality like that. {And you want me to find her?}

    {I want you to steal from her. She has a strange stone in her possession. It is perfectly round, and black. I want it.}

    Oh. Certainly not a friend. {Why?}

    {So that she cannot have it,} Tourmaline says simply.

    You mull it over. This was more what you expected from a pokémon that would permit herself to live alongside a human. Always scheming, always planning to exchange one thing for the next. It soothes you somehow, to know that this is how things are going to be. {Why would you not go yourself?}

    {Rhea needs me here. I am busy. And.} She adds the next part grudgingly, like it pains her to say: {She keeps the orb directly on her person. I would struggle to steal it. But you, with your gifts, would fare much better.}

    {Flattery will get you nowhere.}

    {No,} she responds lightly, {but I will tell you where your human friend is, and I find that to be much more compelling than flattery.}

    {Well met.} You pause, to mull over your options. You could find the changeling human yourself, you suppose. You almost had him before. But Tourmaline has been kind to you, and you will repay her favor in turn. That seems only fair. {I will do as you ask.}

    {Thank you, Inari.}

    She finishes cleaning you without another word, and you slowly drift off to sleep.

    ※​

    Mistralton is strange, even for a human city. It hums periodically, and then it whines, and then the sky is split apart by enormous metal creatures that don’t move as they fly overhead. None of the humans seem to care. You make your illusion flinch back at the first one, since that seems like the only truly logical response, but when you notice that the rest of the humans trickle about their day, you make your illusion pay it no mind either.

    Kobo sought out the humans to return one of their own, their strange laughing cub that they’d left to the elements. As you look at the quiet morning, creep around the rows and rows of shops, you see now that it was the perfect task for one someone who regarded the humans with curiosity rather than fear, but it was so ill-suited to one who had yet to learn how to hide his face. Kobo never learned how to hide his face properly, and could cast no illusions on his behalf. Without his skinchange, the deerling and the blitzle saw him as a predator. The liepard saw him as competition. So he went further down the slopes instead, but down here, surely at best he was just something rare and pretty to be put up behind a glass case and admired.

    You decide to wear the changeling’s face as you saw it in the crowd yesterday, to remind yourself what you’ve been looking for. Idly, you cast yourself in the illusion of a tall male human with a puff of green hair, a slight slouch, distracted fingers that fidget with the skin of his pants. It’s the details that matter. He had a quiet face, one that you don’t think anyone would take offense to or even approach. A slightly lilting way of walking, very careful and seemingly random at the same time. The voice doesn’t matter, but his words still ring in your ears.

    When asked about the nature of a pokémon’s plight, a human can never know the truth. How can we, if don’t listen? But when it comes to the nature of their own suffering, this much is clear: pokémon never tell lies. How can we possibly claim to know better than all that they know?

    The crowd you watched believed him. And, standing confidently on his makeshift stage and addressing a crowd that was about to shatter, he certainly seemed to believe himself. But they all would, of course. That’s what lies are for.

    “N?” someone calls. You prick your ears slightly. She sounds tentative, but certain. It’s possible you could change your face in time. You pull up short but don’t turn around, struggling to remember the details of a man you’d passed before. He was old and had golden hair. Hopefully she won’t notice that his face doesn’t match your stature. “N, what are you doing here? I … I saw what happened yesterday. Are you okay? I thought Skyla said you all had to leave town.”

    There are footsteps on the pavement, and you turn around with your new face just as she runs up to you. Her face falls when your eyes meet, and she stops short of touching you.

    “I’m so sorry,” she says. Her face reddens and she looks at her feet. “You just … you looked like someone I thought I knew. Sorry.” And before you can consider if grunting will make the illusion even more unbelievable than it is, she’s hurrying off, her face flushed bright red.

    You stare after her while you keep the illusion smiling peacefully at its feet. Thunderous eyes. A proud chin. Dark brown hair, poofy enough to hold many secrets. The description doesn’t quite fit the apologizing, embarrassed woman in front of you, but you’re sure this is the Hilda Tourmaline told you about.

    Right after she rounds the corner, you cloak yourself as a purrloin and pad after her.

    Hilda is very boring for a human. She walks around downtown for a bit while talking to her phone. She visits her injured zebstrika in the healer’s building—it’s injured just cut it loose—and now she’s just milling around downtown again, looking in all the shop’s windows and never once going in.

    By sunset she retrieves her supplies from the healer’s building and sets up a camp on the edge of town. A fire follows soon after.

    Your real issue will be the bird, Touraline warned you. She’ll usually make camp with all of her pokémon. Her psychic stargazer will be blind to you, not that it matters—his eyes are always on the constellations, cryptic whispers but never open ears. The grass snake will have her eyes on Hilda and Hilda alone. The zebstrika might’ve given you issues, but she’s spending the night at the healer’s building. The bird, though—always quiet, always watching. You were warned.

    She releases the three of them from their pokéballs, and you’re careful to keep your distance—now that the sun is set and her fire is coaxed into a warm, crackling roar, the shadows on the trees are harder to imitate. You’re good, but why take the risk?

    It goes just as Tourmaline said it would: the bird immediately takes to the trees, his overlarge feet finding purchase on a branch. Her grass snake stays close, and when you see her emerge you can see she’s too small to be a proper threat anyhow. The stargazer burbles something and floats off into the trees, and you’re happy to let him.

    Meanwhile, Hilda props a metal box up on a rock, and light surges across its surface until it forms the face of a smiling, blonde girl.

    “Hey, Bianca.”

    “Hi, Hilda! Oh, and hi, Vaselva!” the image, apparently named Bianca, says cheerfully, and then her face contorts into a frown. “Are you okay? I saw what happened on the news and I was so worried, gosh. I know you were in Mistralton …” She leaves the rest unspoken.

    Hilda was in the crowd. You know, because you saw her and her zebstrika, lancing cannisters down with spears of lightning. So you weren’t expecting it, but you aren’t shocked, when she says, “Don’t worry about it, I was nowhere near.”

    Bianca isn’t very good at detecting lies, so her sigh of relief is audible even from where you’re lurking. “Thank goodness. I remember you’d been interested in some of the Plasma, um, stuff, so when I heard …”

    She trails off again, and you idly wonder if this is a good distraction to steal the stone or if you should wait until they all drift off to sleep. Hilda’s voice doesn’t shake one bit when she says, “I mean, they have good ideas, but after what they did to you? I can’t just stand with people like that.”

    There’s a long pause. Bianca mumbles something like, “Actually, I was planning on—”

    {What are you doing?}

    You spin around to see the stargazer, his eyes glowing with a strange blue light.

    You don’t hesitate. Your claws sink through his shimmering green ectoplasm and up against his chest, and a pulse of dark energy knocks him out in an instant. You look up over your shoulder, worried that perhaps your cover has been blown, but the grass snake is just resting her head on Hilda’s knee, and Hilda’s enraptured with the screen in front of her.

    “—Bi, you can’t be serious. Can you even drop a fellowship like that?”

    “I’d do research; it’s fine,” Bianca replies calmly. “Juniper won’t mind as long as it’s for her, right?”

    “Yeah, but you can’t know—”

    “I do know,” Bianca says, with enough conviction that Hilda stops short. “Look. I thought a lot about what they told me after they gave Munny back, and … they’re right, you know? I’m not cut out for this. And honestly I don’t think any of my pokémon want it that badly; they all seemed happy when I broke the news to them. That stuff you told me, about how my pokémon get hurt if I’m not good enough to protect them? That’s what Plasma told me too. And even Iris. And … I think all three of you are right.”

    You tune them out a little, and instead set your focus back on her backpack. The stone’s in there. They’re probably distracted enough, and besides—you’ve only got until she tries to recall the stargazer before Hilda notices something’s up. You narrow your eyes at the lump of fabric. Would it be in one of the pockets? Tourmaline didn’t know, and you can’t be sure either.

    “That’s not what I meant,” Hilda’s saying while you calculate the angle of her backpack from here, trying to gauge the type of illusion that’ll cover enough of it while you go through the side pockets. “There’s a way to do this without being a bad person, you know? Good people can demonstrate good training.”

    “Is there such a thing? And what if bad people don’t listen?”

    The changeling’s words ring in your ears again. How can we possibly claim to know better than all that they know?

    “I don’t know, Bianca. I’ll make them listen. At some point you can get strong enough that people can’t ignore you, and when I do, I’ll change things.”

    The air ripples, and you tense. For a moment you’re afraid that the stargazer is back, but then you see everyone else has felt it too—both Hilda and her grass snake are staring at the bag.

    But Bianca, safely protected by the screen, doesn’t feel a thing, and blithely continues, “And I’ve always been really impressed with you for that, you know? But that’s not for me.”

    While they’re distracted, you creep closer to the bag, delicately undoing the side pockets as quietly as you can. You can feel something now, humming at the bottom, dormant and forgotten. You reach forward, and your claws clasp on something smooth and round.

    In that instant, it feels like lightning strikes you. Your fur stands on end, and there’s a clamoring roar in the back of your mind, inexorable as a waterfall, screaming for attention—

    You shriek and scramble back, your outstretched arm hanging useless and numb.

    “What’s that?” Hilda’s turning around; her grass snake is faster on the uptake, already funneling green energy around the leaves of her neck. You see Hilda’s gaze sweep across the campsite, across your shattered illusion, the stargazer’s limp body at the edge of the clearing.

    Before she can say anything else, you’re gone.

    ※​

    Tourmaline is kind. She holds up her end of the bargain, even if you only tried to hold up yours. {I didn’t know what I expected from you, skinchanger,} she says tightly, but you sense a tinge of concern in her words. {Truly, I thought you would’ve just run.}

    So you put on the illusion of Hilda—any human would do, really, but she’s the one whose face you remember the best—and Tourmaline she takes you to see the changeling human. Up close, you see the details you would’ve gotten wrong in his face the first time—his jawline is softer than you imagined; his smiles don’t quite reach his eyes.

    You remember the stilted, transitive conversation between you and her and Rhea, and you sigh. This might take a while. {Tell him I want to ask him a question.}

    {He knows,} she responds archly. When you turn around, the human is waiting patiently, his hands in his front pockets as he watches your conversation with polite but distanced interest.

    {How does he—}

    {He listens,} Tourmaline answers simply, and bounds away.

    “My name is N,” the human says in a carefully-controlled voice. “What’s yours?”

    {Inari.} You make the image of the girl’s mouth move alongside yours, twist the growls out of her lips, and you’re sure from his reaction that this is the most frightening illusion you’ve cast today. Have you messed up her face again? Humans are hard. Do they only have two fangs, or are they supposed to have more?

    Idly, you try shoving in more, so that the next time she smiles her mouth is just a mess of pointed teeth. Judging from his reaction, you went in the wrong direction.

    His jaw and eyes aren’t all you would’ve gotten wrong if you’d taken his face instead, though. This one has shapechanged quite a bit since you last saw him. Humans are weird—they change slowly, instead of all at once. But if he’s who you think he is, you haven’t seen him in almost a decade. {I wanted to talk to you. You’re the one who changed my brother.}

    He has trouble looking the illusion in the eye; he ends up looking somewhere at her midriff, which, coincidentally, leaves him staring blindly into your face. “What?”

    {We found you in the forest. Your parents were careless to have let you wander so far when you could barely walk.} Your voice is rising in excitement; you’re sure he doesn’t even understand everything that you’re saying, but you want him to know. {Some of us wanted to raise you. You babbled in the desert tongue. A good trick for a human, especially one so young. Some of us thought otherwise. Where one human wanders, a thousand more will follow. That has always been the rule of the wild. When you find a stray cub, best to throw it back before the rest follow the scent.}

    He doesn’t answer for a long moment. His brow goes slack. It’s like he’s staring off into the distance, into a time years in the past. “You aren’t the zorua who took me back, though. He sounded different, but … like you, as well.”

    You try not to sound stiff. {Kobo and I shared one womb.}

    “Is he …” He trails off.

    Kobo came back from his time with the humans with a horrible secret and a new face. Both were equally terrifying, and both drove you to seek out the changeling. The secret, for what it said. And the face, for what it didn’t. When Kobo left, he could cast no illusions. When he returned, he refused to show you his true face, or his false face, or any face at all. He was just a voice lingering in the wind, staying with you but never showing itself.

    He had learned something from the humans, you’d decided once he’d fallen silent and you could no longer find him. He’d finally learned how to lie even to himself, hidden his face so well that no one could coax him out of it.

    {He lives,} you say, which is both the truth and easier than explaining the truth. You narrow your eyes as you survey this human. He has a nice face. Could you peel it back with one claw to find out what he hides beneath? You aren’t sure what there would even be to hide. He is a poor illusionist. You see why Kobo pitied this one. All of the emotions are on the surface, plain for everyone to see.

    It must’ve taken a long time for this one to return Mitama’s gift. Kobo left with the changeling in the fall. Winter came, then spring, then summer, then fall again. Over and over again, until one day, Kobo came with the seedlings pushing their way through once-frozen soil. He came with a new face and a sad smile and a horrible secret.

    {After he returned you, did he stay?}

    “A bit,” he responds. “He was very kind.”

    {Why did he leave you?}

    The human swallows nervously, but he doesn’t try to lie, which is wise of him. “He learned—I should start from the beginning. I was led to understand that Kobo and the rest of your family live far away from humans,” he begins, which doesn’t answer your question at all. “Is it because you don’t wish to be bothered by them?”

    {Your family is arrogant, cruel, and blind,} you retort proudly. Let him fight you, like the human who tried to put pokémon to the sword. Let him try. {Me and mine have no desire to bow to your whims.}

    But he doesn’t seem surprised by your response. Instead, he blinks placidly, and continues: “My … brother thought much the same. And my father as well. Between them I was never permitted to look away from the atrocities of what humans have done to pokémon. Kobo was more optimistic.” He pauses here, and has to pick the rest of his words carefully. You imagine him carefully crafting his lies into words. “For a while. He firmly believed that it was just the evil humans doing the bad things, and once we rooted all of them out, we would fix things. For a while I believed him too.”

    There’s a cut on his cheek that gleams red in the streetlamp.

    “Kobo is a fast learner, faster than me. He realized you don’t need to hate someone to be cruel to them. If you ignore their pain, you can watch them suffer and still claim to love them. Many humans do that. When he learned that, he left us. He said among his clan there is no sympathy for those whose lies fool themselves, nor is there any for those whose lies cannot fool others.”

    {And what do you think now?} you ask carefully.

    “I’m not sure.”

    It’s when you look him in the eyes and see the dejected despair that you understand: your poor, sweet brother was right all along. You’d wanted to see the strange human who had returned to him Mitama’s gift, who let him hide so well, but you should’ve known—Mitama’s gift can only be given, not shared. If this human gave such a perfect version to Kobo, he could have kept none for himself.

    This one wants to fight for pokémon. You gathered this much from him and Rhea and Tourmaline. But he lacks the conviction still, lacks the ability to convince others to change. He used all of that power on your brother instead.

    {You gave my brother a great gift, although you may not know it. I do not understand how, but you taught him what we never could: you taught him how to change.} You shift your weight, your snout tilted defiantly up so it almost touches his chin. {But I see now you have forgotten how to teach that lesson.}

    You may as well have raked your claws across his face for the way he stiffens and then looks away. There’s a slouch in his shoulders, you notice. If he could hold himself upright, he’d be at least an inch taller. You want him to respond. He needs to say something. He needs to know.

    But instead he stands there, silently, doubting. What had he expected in that pretty speech on his grassy meadow? What did he think his words would get him? He certainly didn’t get it, and when he didn’t, he faltered.

    You owe someone deeply for what they tried to do for Kobo, but that someone is not the human in front of you. You are not like the pokémon in the human’s legends; you will not be forsworn because you gave your word to another.

    But—perhaps, if he can become that person again, your debt can be repaid to its original holder.

    {My brother owes a great debt to someone who taught him to change. I travelled far and believe that person to be dead. But if you find that human again, if you find him ready to show others how to change, then call to me, and I will hear. I will fight for that human until the end of the world, so that the kindness that was shown to my brother is repaid. Until then, you are a stranger, and I owe you nothing.}



    p | n
     
    Last edited:
    xi. necktie
  • kintsugi

    golden scars
    Location
    waiting for the fog to roll out
    Pronouns
    she/her
    Partners
    1. silvally-grass
    2. lapras
    3. golurk

    xi. necktie
    ※​

    Skyla holds herself like a wind vane—her head is constantly changing direction, her eyes surveying a new corner of the room with every breath, but no wind will knock her over. She shifts smoothly, stirring a splash of milk into her cup.

    “So you two have gotten a lot better.” Skyla smiles tightly. Her spoon makes a tight vortex as the liquid turns from dark to pale. “What’s next, Iris? Surely you’ll try for Champion.”

    Iris doesn’t like coffee. You know this. But Skyla likes people who like coffee, so Iris pretends. Her back is ramrod straight, and she exhales into her cup before taking a sip. The café chatters around her. “Probably not this year. Drayden doesn’t think I’m ready.”

    “You?” Skyla’s eyes widen almost comically. The flower on her beret flops over as she slams her cup into the table and dabs at a bit that splashes out. “Not ready? Your team is strong, girl. Me and Swanna didn’t stand a chance against Fraxure.”

    “Nonsense. You gave Sienna a run for her money; the two of us haven’t had a fight that close in weeks! Your Air Slash accuracy is really something.” Iris shrugs and takes another sip of coffee. To give herself time to think, you’re sure. It’s not like she enjoys it. “It’s not like Alder’s going anywhere anytime soon, you know? So if Drayden says I should wait, I’ll wait.”

    Her voice is breezy, to match the woman sitting across from her. But Skyla doesn’t get knocked over the by breezes. She rides them.

    “Your funeral,” she says with a shrug, and Iris laughs cheerfully back.

    But you know. You and Iris share one skin. She hides her disdain well, but you can feel it roaring within her, chafing at the leash Drayden has placed her on, raging at Alder’s untouchable crown, seething even at Skyla’s casual acceptance of it all. If it were just the two of you, you’d roar.

    Instead, Iris calmly stirs her coffee and exchanges pleasantries with the most influential woman in Western Unova. You are the dragon and she is the girl, after all; it would not do her any good to rampage here. These humans have silly constructs of power. You beat Skyla’s team in a fight without even trying, and yet Iris is still the one groveling; you’re still the one sitting primly by her side.

    “By the by, I heard there’s supposed to be a Plasma protest this afternoon in the square.” Skyla adds, her tone almost conspiratorial as she leans in.

    Iris remains stock-still, like a patrat under a winged shadow. But beneath the table, you wrap your tail around her ankle, and feel the tendon in it tense. The hand on her thigh clenches into a fist, and you imagine her channeling her frustration back into you, where it can be carefully stowed under your armor and unleashed later.

    “Oh?”

    “Mistralton PD will respond with necessary precautions.” Skyla’s looking teacup, swirling the dregs around the leaves. Before you can decipher if the threat of violence was intentional, she continues, “I will not have my town be made into a pedestal for fools.”

    A long silence. Iris weighs her options. Surely she must know the implied question, but you already know she’s going to make Skyla say it.

    “I’m sure you’ve got a friend of a friend who knows what’s what, with all the things you’re involved in.” Skyla’s smile is more strained than her tea. “Could you pass the message on for me, Iris?”

    There isn’t a correct answer to give. Skyla’s too far up in the clouds to know the difference; all she sees are people sending her petitions, blocking her streets, staking signs on her lawn. People in her way, to be intimidated or bribed or charmed into moving. If she listened to all of them she’d know that there was a difference, that whoever runs Plasma isn’t on Iris’s leash any more than Iris is on hers. But Skyla doesn’t know that difference, and somehow that makes her question even harder to answer. Does Iris have the time to delineate this? Would Skyla even care? You both know the answer.

    “I’ll see who Drayden can talk to.”

    “Wonderful!” Skyla’s laugh is just a touch too loud, you think. “Now, did you happen to catch the match between Burgh and Cilan last week? I only caught the second half and I thought it was one of the best I’ve seen all year!”

    Eventually, their conversation winds down and Skyla floats off to the rest of her weekend duties.

    Iris simmers in her seat, and you nuzzle up against her hand.

    {Why do you do this?} you growl. There are no other pokémon in the shop; no one else to listen. {You despise her.}

    “Not here,” she murmurs back. Perhaps she doesn’t understand the exact meaning of your words, but the intent is clear enough, and she knows you too well to be deaf. “When we get home.”

    She glances at her phone with one hand and idly scratches the ridge at the back of your head with the other. Weekdays are for duties—early morning training, fielding gym challenges for Drayden, a random assortment of logistical tasks involved in organizing the largest gym on the Unovan circuit, meetings with the League, the occasional interview. Saturdays are for the unofficial battles: meetings with the local interest groups, marches, action. And Sundays are usually for quiet training, relaxation, sometimes a few socially-weighted visits. Today is one of the Sundays that’s morphed into an endless train of commitments. Posturing, smiles.

    Skyla’s a tricky one. You’re reminded of the sawsbuck that change their coats with the seasons. She’s not venomous, but she isn’t completely innocent either—she’s whatever she needs to be. You don’t fully understand Unovan culture, but Skyla and Iris are similar in one regard: they’ve both been groomed into the roles they have now. From the outside there’s no telling if they truly enjoy who they pretend to be. From the inside, well. You know Iris better than any other person on this earth, and she knows you. She is yours and you are hers. You will guard her heart with your life.

    “Hilda, over here!” Iris calls, waving to a gangly, brown-haired teenager who’s milling in the doorway of the café, one hand clutching tightly at the strap of her backpack. Her head flicks over to the two of you and she begins weaving her way through the tables. Her heels never touch the ground.

    You look this Hilda over. Hmm. Practical garb. Good boots. Her daypack is new, hardly broken in. Must’ve been her first. Gleaming pokéballs—only four, this far in? Interesting. Her clothes are loose, comfortable, mostly plain. Looks like she doesn’t carry a city wardrobe; she’s probably not a big enough up-and-comer to warrant that quite yet.

    An interesting one. Juniper always picks the strangest candidates.

    “Do you want anything?” Iris asks. “They’ve got a really good artisanal tea blend.”

    “I’ll just have a water, thanks.” Hilda flashes a tight smile. “Gotta keep hydrated, you know?”

    Iris smiles politely back. “It’s on me—I remember the traveling life. No room in the budget for hand-bagged double-filtered brews, right?”

    You may have assessed wrong. The new backpack made you think new money, the kind that loves trendy joints like this. The Skylas of the world. But Iris has always had the better eye for strategy, so if she sees something that you don’t, it’s probably there. You try to reassess while Iris flags over a waiter and orders drinks for them both. Juniper’s sponsorship could’ve come with new gear. You look Hilda over again—if it’s all new, how did she manage to make it this far? The boots look like the only thing that’s older than her journey.

    “So, five badges already?” Iris asks after they’ve folded up the menus and the waiter whisks them away. “Skyla next? Your zebstrika just evolved, right?”

    Another tight smile. “I see Juniper’s already told you everything.”

    “Not everything. That’s what these chats are for.” Even though it’s empty, Iris cradles her coffee cup while it rests on the table. An old habit, one she’s never tried to break. Her natural tongue has her talking with her hands and her words. She learned to sing with her fingers before she could walk. But here, in a posh coffeeshop tucked away in the business district of Mistralton, flannel-clad hipsters and low-fi tunes trickling around you, her unspoken words would flag her as an outsider long before her spoken words would. The accent’s faded from her lips but it’ll never fade from her hands. “I like to check in with all the fellowship trainers by the third or fourth badge. Forgive me; I didn’t expect you to move so quickly.”

    Hilda’s voice is almost mechanical; the words come out like they’ve been memorized by rote. “My zebstrika’s just evolved. My servine is probably close to follow; I’d say she’ll evolve before the next badge. My duosion is probably a long way off from evolution. I’ve recently acquired an archen and we’re working on getting to know each other.”

    There’s a long pause. Iris drums her fingers against the edge of her mug and stares into it for a second. “You know, in my year, there were actually four fellowship trainers. A record high sponsorship rate. Those sound like rookie numbers to you now, I’m sure—Juniper has three this year alone, right?—but back then it was pretty much unheard of. Drayden had never floated a mentee into the ring, not since he started. And then Corrin, who used to run the Striaton Gym, went ahead and sponsored three kids at once. So suddenly there were four, and the strangest thing was that no one in Unova had heard of any of us.”

    Skyla was sponsored two years before Iris. You remember having a similar conversation, except Skyla was the one staring archly down across a cup of tea, her glittering pink eyeliner doing nothing to soften her gaze. You’d heard that her braviary could spot prey from two miles up, and in that moment you’d wondered if he taught that to her or if she’d taught it to him.

    But Skyla had been born in the league circuit, holding her grandfather’s hand in his interviews since she was four. It hadn’t been a question of who he’d pick to succeed him in his gym; just when, and how much he’d rig the proceedings in her favor.

    You and Iris and the triplets and their simians were the first to break the mold. You were all plucked out of obscurity and thrust into the spotlight. Iris—who still talked with her hands in interviews, whose tusked earrings accidentally sparked a short-lived line of costume jewelry, who had a strange green dragon that she refused to put in a pokéball at any time—was their favorite, of course. Unova loved the idea of a tough girl with a pretty face. She couldn’t be too tough, of course. But that’s what you were for, to give the fangs a different face from the flower.

    “You were the same year as Cilan, Cress, and Chili, right?” Hilda’s still guarded. You imagine her with a rapier in hand, poised to deflect the incoming blows. But Iris isn’t the one she should be afraid of.

    “They were Izan, Andrés, and Julian when I knew them, but yes.”

    The water returns with two cups of tea. Small. From the scent it looks worth less than the cup it’s in. Fascinating, the world you’ve left and what you traded it for.

    Iris swaps her mug for a teacup and cradles it tightly, despite the steam rippling off the surface. “Our year was a little different from yours, I think, but the roots are still there. There was an early interview with the triplets once. Izan mentioned that their mother used to cook empanadas, and she’d passed the recipe down to him. An offhanded comment, probably thirty seconds in an hour interview. The label stuck. Now they run a restaurant and have to dye their hair and use ridiculous imported pokémon to fill out their rosters. Izan didn’t realize it—and knowing him, if he’d known I’m sure he would’ve said nothing at all— but in that moment he created a brand.”

    Hilda frowns and blows into her tea.

    She’s still new to this, you think. You and Iris learned this together when you came here, when she learned to talk with her instead of her mouth, to leave her thoughts hidden with you. The flow of a battle is guided by targeted, direct strikes. Every attack has value and weight. The flow of a conversation is different. Precision doesn’t matter nearly as much as just getting it out there. You watched Iris learn this lesson the hard way. You can build a mountain with words and force people to climb up to get you.

    In a quiet, clear voice, Hilda finally says, “You said you meet with all the fellowship trainers at around this time. Bianca said you approached her in Castelia. But I don’t think you’ve talked to Cheren yet, have you?”

    There is, of course, a second approach to someone who builds a mountain with words: ignore it, and build one of your own.

    Iris smiles and stands up, kicking back her chair with the one of her knees as she does so. “I’m bored. Do you want to have a practice spar? There’s a park nearby.”

    Hilda frowns, one hand uselessly wrapped around her cup. “But the tea,” she manages.

    “Take it with you,” Iris says dismissively, tucking a fold of bills under her empty coffee mug and scooping up her teacup into one hand. “They’ll call me if they care. They know how to reach me.” She leaves the rest unspoken.

    Iris stopped talking with her hands, and hid her mother’s earrings, and changed her clothes to blend in with the rest. But there were some things, she explained to you, that you cannot yield on. They can be small; they can be big. Breaking the small rules reminds you that you have the strength to break the big ones. So she takes coffee cups. She refuses to put her dragon in a pokéball even where public areas don’t allow you. By making defiance part of her brand, she got Unova to commend what they would’ve condemned in anyone else.

    Iris sweeps out of the café, tossing a jaunty wave to the shopkeep with her free hand. Hilda hesitates for a moment, and then grabs the tea in her hands and follows.

    “It’s loud in there,” Iris explains as the door jangles shut and they step onto the street. You mentally translate her words—there are too many people who could listen.

    “You don’t think Cheren needs this talk,” Hilda says. She drifts slightly behind on the pavement; you don’t leave Iris’s side and the sidewalk isn’t big enough for three.

    “How does Cheren dress, Hilda?”

    Iris has mastered this way of talking and sweeping along, not looking back. Observing out of the corner of her eyes. It conflicts with your predator instincts; all your life the two of you only needed to look forward. But it’s good practice, and you can see Hilda’s brow furrow before she responds, “Um, three-quarters buttondown, blue windbreaker, jeans.”

    “Pants,” Iris corrects.

    “Pants?”

    “Jeans are casual. He wears pants, not denim.” Iris wears jeans, and she shoves her hands into her back pockets as she continues strolling down the avenue. Heads turn towards the three of you. You walk stiffly beside her, project her indifference for the world to see. “The difference is important. Anything else?”

    Hilda’s silent for a moment. “No?”

    “Red tie.” Iris doesn’t even look over her shoulder as she begins to cross the street. You glare at the cars for her.

    “The tie?” Hilda shouts over the honking. “Really? It’s a stupid thing that he picked up for the first photoshoot …” She trails off.

    “Tell me why.”

    “What?” Hilda finally manages to cross the street. Back when Iris did this in Castelia, the Bianca girl had to wait for the crosswalk. “What do you mean, why?”

    “Tell me why I didn’t schedule a conversation with him. Here’s good, by the way.”

    You stop on a grassy lawn, fenced in on three sides by an array of shops. The square is quiet at this time of day; most of the interesting practice battles will happen closer to the gym, where Skyla’s appraising eye could happen to land on them. You square your shoulders.

    Drayden wasn’t a very good mentor. It took you a while to put your finger on why. When you were young, his druddigon beat you up daily. Training practice. He didn’t ever talk during it. No pointers. In a way that was the best lesson he could’ve given you—you learned how to find your own weaknesses and overcome them. There’s a blind spot where the tusks can’t defend, close to the rear leg. Lure enemies in and then dispatch them with a fire attack. You learned to take your shorter stature into stride: you can’t fight like a fully-grown haxorus until you are one. Drayden didn’t actually want to teach you two, but he did a good job of it by accident. The lessons stuck when you had to find them on your own.

    Iris learned that the hard way, but she’ll pass it down. Both of you will.

    “The tie is his brand,” Hilda says slowly. A bit of a guess, but it’s the only obvious answer. She’ll have to figure out the rest on her own. “Elesa’s got her modelling, Clay’s got his mines, Burgh’s got his art.” Her brow knits together. She runs her hands over her belt. “But that’s the important part to you? The tie?”

    There’s a flash of red, and a lanky servine appears in front of you, all curls of green and golden leaves. The scales around her eyes narrow as she meets your gaze, and she tilts her neck to one side. You can tell from the arch of her tail that Hilda wasn’t exaggerating earlier; this one’s soon to evolve.

    “Lenora adores him. He’s your friend, Hilda. You’ll know him better than me.” Iris’s hands are jammed firmly in her pockets and she stares straight ahead, but you study her target for the two of you. “But I saw the headshots Juniper published when she announced her candidates. He changed up his look because he thought he needed to.”

    She leaves the rest unspoken, but you’ve seen Skyla around the two of you, and Izan and his brothers. You know what Hilda does not: the people who matter will never accept you. Iris could wear as many outfits as she wanted; the two of you would always just be simisage in dressup to them. But if that’s the path her friend has chosen, then that’s the one he’ll walk. When he reaches the end he’ll learn his lesson, one way or another. He wants to dress up like them; they’ll see his tie and drag him around by the neck.

    “You didn’t think it was worth having a talk with Cheren.”

    “I don’t think he needs to have that talk with me,” Iris responds smoothly. “He already knows what he’s after. For him the outcome is simple: either he’ll get it, or he won’t. But I admit I’m not quite sure what you want yet.”

    An airplane jets overhead. Iris stands on the edge of an empty sidewalk, cars blowing past her, her face a clay mask that betrays none of her pent up anger that’s been seething beneath your scales for eighteen years. Across the street, a pair of teens in hoodies stroll by in the opposite direction.

    Hilda is a mess of emotions and distrust, and who could blame her? She would have better luck taming dragons than taming Unova. But beneath that tangle, you see something familiar: the smoldering sort of rage that only comes from wanting something she’ll never get.

    “You two can go first,” Iris says after a long pause, gesturing to the lawn where her servine is casually rearranging the leaves of her tail to get more sunlight.

    Hilda balks. “Oh. Right.” A pause, and then: “Open with Slam.”

    The servine jerks out of her reverie and tenses, preparing to leap. Iris raises her eyebrows at you and then tilts her chin forward.

    “If you really think all of that,” Hilda begins, and peters off. At her side, her fist clenches. She straightens. “Just. Why are you doing this? Why don’t you do anything about it?”

    You catch the servine on your shoulder; she’s dangerously close to impaling herself on your right tusk and you have to tilt yourself out of the way to avoid causing any serious damage. Still, you tap her with the flat of it as she recoils away, and you catch the back of her head before she can manage to twist around for another attack.

    Iris raises one eyebrow. “Is that what you want? To be able to do something about it?”

    You expected Hilda to flinch. This isn’t a world for idealists, after all. You and Iris learned that lesson young. There are things you want, things you deserve, and things you are given. Fight as hard as you can for them to be the same, but never expect them to be.

    But instead, she squares her jaw. The rage is back. “Vaselva, Leaf Blade. Keep your head back.”

    An interesting response. Juniper really does pick the strangest candidates. Most of them don’t get anywhere, instead falling to the wayside after their first few badges and returning to do research for her—which was probably what Juniper wanted the whole time. But this one has the battle chops to do well in the League, and maybe the backbone as well.

    The servine coils around herself, a blur of emerald and beige scales, and you see the glow concentrating around at her tail, whispering with grassy energy.

    There’s an adage that battling is how trainers get to know each other. Some would say that that isn’t correct, as you can only really see the pokémon fight, that you’re the ones who are on the field, after all. But what you see in this servine is a reflection of her trainer’s grim determination. The grass-type didn’t seem particularly eager for the battle; she seemed far more happy when she was letting her leaves relax in the sun. But now that she’s in it, the hesitation is gone. She exhales sharply as she readies herself, and in that one breath you can sense all of her—exhaustion, grit, loyalty, pride.

    Human battles are all about conversations, posturing, and hiding yourself. And they certainly aren’t designed to be fair—Skyla left herself wide open, but it didn’t matter. The rules already said she got to win anyway. So is it really cruel to believe that some people have to fight in other ways instead?

    You parry the first attack, but the servine ducks low and aims for your knees.

    {You’re a fast learner,} you hiss approvingly in draconic as you catch the second swing on your scaly forearms.

    {I try,} she responds frostily.

    {Don’t wind up as much,} you add when her third jab easily goes wide over your shoulder, a crackling blur of green energy. {You don’t need it.}

    “And you think if you stand where I am, you’ll get it?” Iris hides her cynicism with a laugh; you vent her frustration into your next thrust, and open-palmed strike with your claws tucked safely out of the way.

    It isn’t her fault. You’re both looking at a firestarter who thinks that if she battles hard enough and believes in her pokémon, she’ll get whatever she wants. This is a land where opportunity can be pried from the earth for all those who dig deep enough, of course. What would stop you?

    The air is thick, though, and suddenly Hilda’s holding her rapier again, defending against attacks that aren’t aimed at her. “You’ve got a better shot than me.”

    “What would be the first thing you’d change?” This one isn’t a rhetorical question. Iris isn’t trying to coax her anywhere. This is a genuine query to the ones who follow in her footsteps—if I didn’t fight hard enough, what would you have done in my stead?

    You wrap your hand around the servine’s neck and slam her into the ground, a cage of dragonfire glimmering on the tips of your claws.

    Iris isn’t exactly subtle; that was never your style. Clay bribed an entire industry to support him; Drayden used his dragon-wielding protégé as a stand-in; Alder was a punching bag for anyone who wanted to pull his strings—but Iris’s only weapon was raising her voice. The problem was that people never listened for good, even if it was obvious, even if it demanded to be heard. Iris was the first female League Finalist of native descent. She was the point person for expanding the training sponsorship program to mandate funding for lower income families, and campaigned for the Unovan Endemic Species Protection Act, and chafed loud and hard against the rest of the archaic and outdated rules that had kept the League tilted toward the wealthy for years. And she was twenty-two, and had a long climb ahead of her, longer than setting up kids like Hilda for sponsorship, or making sure that hydreigon didn’t go the same way haxorus were.

    But what people hated to see was slow change, these baby steps up a mountain so massive. It reminded them that the battles that really mattered weren’t like the ones in the League, with the cameras and the glitz and the lights. It was slow, boring, and discouraging work. In fifteen years maybe the two of you will have enough power to start tackling the things that really matter. In twenty years maybe you’ll have the courage to look back towards your home. Twenty-five years, or maybe thirty, you’ll come to peace with what you had to lose to get yourselves here.

    A group of five—three humans, a liepard, a scolipede—goes past on the sidewalk across the street, their shouts muffled by the cars.

    In the time that those thoughts flare through your head, you’ve thrown the servine to the ground, and Hilda’s got an answer. “The League gives out battle-competitive starters to all children who want one at age ten.”

    “Oh, taking a page out of Kanto’s playbook?” Iris asks, a faint smile on her lips. “Do you think that fixed things for them?”

    “It was a start,” Hilda says firmly.

    “Are you concerned that this would open up the system to a higher percentage of pokémon abuse? Statistically there’s a higher incidence of accidents in younger and lower-income—”

    “The old and the rich are harder to prosecute.”

    Iris settles back, but the smile hasn’t faded. Hilda has good responses for her age. Iris always has a knack for finding firebrands, after all.

    “I’ve seen you involved in the Pokémon Liberation stuff,” Iris says lightly, but now her words are loaded and heavy. “Be careful which causes you support, Hilda. You won’t be allowed to get away with that forever.”

    Her servine trills in alarm, and Hilda finally looks down for the first time and sees that you’ve twisted the servine in a u-shaped messy knot, tangled her up in her own feet and pinned her to the ground. You see the horror flood into her face, and a pang of regret—and then there’s a flash of light, and the servine is gone. Hilda whispers something to the ball as she clips it back on her belt, but her eyes are still on Iris. “Get away with what?”

    “Contradiction,” Iris says shortly. She normally isn’t one for curt, mysterious statements—rather just say something glancing and polite—but even you know it’s too risk to elaborate here. Contradiction between Hilda’s ideals of equality for the kids like her? Contradiction by raising points against the League that brought her here? A bit of both.

    “Thanks for the advice,” Hilda says drily, and that’s when you know she’s not going to listen. Of course she isn’t. Five or ten years ago, just starting out, you would’ve been in the same boat, idealists and dreamers, believing if you can fight hard enough you can change the world overnight.

    But Iris is a bit more stubborn. “You’re a quarter native, right? Your mother’s father, or your father’s mother?”

    “Mother’s father,” Hilda answers without thinking, and then immediately after: “How—”

    Iris shrugs. “I’m a good guesser.”

    Her father’s father would’ve been permitted to keep no sons. Her mother’s mother would’ve passed down her dowry earrings.

    “Why does it matter?”

    “Because you of all people should know,” Iris replies stonily, “how it feels to have a pale man stroll into your life, rip off your tusks, and declare himself your king.”

    ※​

    This time she doesn’t bother with tea, or a battle. It’s not like she’d need to. The entire videocall lasts ninety seconds, and even that feels agonizingly long.

    “Is that all? Thank you for your time.”

    “Would you like me to say anything in response, Ghetsis?”

    “No. I will make no promises. We will respond with as much civility as we are given.”

    {You’re the gym leader’s fawn,} they hydreigon’s heads prick up, and he hisses over the human’s shoulder. Even in the grainy image of the x-transceiver, you can sense the judgment and disdain leaking from his eyes. {The last fraxure. I thought you’d be taller.}

    Perhaps Iris doesn’t speak the dialect of dragons in its entirety, but she’d have to be deaf not to hear the fury in his words; she’d have to be numb not to feel the responding rage that screams up inside of you.

    “Skyla intends to let the police handle this,” Iris says smoothly while you glower back at the hydreigon, and that’s as urgent of a warning as you’ve heard her give anyone.

    “Then let her. The time has come for Unova to witness what happens to those who stand idly by, and what happens to those who take action.” Pause. “If you have nothing further to say, I would hate to waste your time.”

    “Have a good evening.”

    He cuts the connection. Iris buries her head in her hands, and you place your chin in her lap. Idly, she begins to rub at the spot where your blade meets the jaw. “Do you think we succeeded?”

    {No. He wants what he wants, same as the rest.}

    She may not have an ear for your words, but she doesn’t need them. She never did, not for you. “I know. It was a longshot.”

    {It isn’t your job.}

    “No.” She sighs. “But it is my responsibility.”

    It isn’t your responsibility either, you want to tell her, but that’s the beauty of duty—it can be anyone’s. And it should be. Skyla should want to keep peace within Mistralton. Plasma should want to minimize violence. But everyone outsources the hard problems because they think problems should belong to someone else.

    There’s a certain terribleness of growing up as an other. You only belong until they decide they want you to be an other again. You’re an angry activist to Skyla, and a complacent gym leader to Hilda, and a Unovan puppet to Ghetsis. No matter that in someone else’s eyes, you could’ve been an ally.

    “It’s only going to get worse, this whole Plasma thing. You can sense it too, can’t you?”

    Yes. The blood of dragons courses through your veins, and it is stirring. Unova is on its breakpoint—but really, it’s been lumbering there for years. Only now, when it’s too late to turn back, are the symptoms finally clear enough for everyone to see. {Unova will not slumber forever, and neither will we.}

    “No,” she says grimly. “We can’t.”

    ※​

    N stands on top of a wooden crate. The megaphone in his hands amplifies his voice. You and Iris wormed through the crowd to get close to him; there’s easily two hundred people already, and the march hasn’t even begun. Behind him is a smattering of humans holding signs, a scolipede with a festive banner draped across her flank, a smiling leavanny with a brightly-colored poster. And then, further behind, you see Ghetsis and the hydreigon, both impassive among the exuberant crowd.

    You glance around at the mix of humans and pokémon around you, dread curdling in your stomach. It’s quiet for now—they’ll cheer intermittently, when N pauses for breath—but none of the humans look worried; none of their pokémon seem to hide their fear for them. They don’t realize that this calm is balanced on a razor’s edge.

    “When I look at battling I see the ultimate symbol of humans claiming to speak for pokémon, to know better they do what it means to fight, to suffer, and to be strong,” the megaphone says for N, twisting his calm voice into a shout and hurling it into the crowd. This must be the tail end of his speech; you can catch the intensity slipping into his voice from where you stand. The urgency speeds up his words. “We have fashioned our society around this for too long, to the point that we have deafened ourselves to the idea that pokémon could want more than violence. Can you consider that world with me? A world where pokémon are free to be their own people?”

    The crowd erupts into cheers while you and Iris watch stonily. As you watch N, you realize to him you must be one of the lucky ones. You and Iris are one life; not one without the other. She speaks for the two of you with her words, and you speak for the two of you with your actions. You listen to each other, and how could either of you not? You are one. And her gym matches are grueling and intense, and part of you would rather not fight them—but there are so many things you need to right first. You are the last free fraxure in Unova, but he thinks you are in chains because you choose to live among him.

    When the crowd quiets, N continues, “And you must understand!” “When asked about the nature of a pokémon’s plight, a human can never know the truth. How can we, if don’t listen? But when it comes to the nature of their own suffering, their own dreams, this much is clear: pokémon never tell lies. How can we possibly claim to know better than all that they know? How—”

    A rock hits him in the shoulder.

    N staggers back, almost tripping off of his makeshift platform.

    The frills around the hydreigon’s necks flare into three black stars when he roars.

    Your head flicks over, but the crowd has already burst into chaos. Another rock goes flying, and this one strikes the window of a storefront.

    “Get back!” someone is shouting at N, but the hydreigon’s three heads snap asynchronously, his body curled protectively around N’s even as the humans are trying to extract him.

    “Sienna,” Iris says in a low voice. While you were looking at the stage, she was studying the crowd, eyes darting back and forth across the faces. “Protect the stage. We need to stop this before it gets worse.”

    You hiss. You will not leave her side.

    “I’ll catch up. I need to find Skyla and get her to deescalate. Go. They need you.”

    You hiss again. {They could never need me more than you do.}

    “I know.” She kisses you gently on the forehead. “Go, Gaasyendietha. I will find you.”

    Snarling, you wrench yourself free and shoulder your way through the erupting crowd. Iris. Always trying to be a hero. Always inspiring you to be the same. How could you betray your heart? You turn back to catch a glimpse of her in the seething crowd, but it shattered alongside the storefront window. She’s gone.

    It’s hard; the panic hangs low and thick over the crowd, and you’re both too short to command their presence and too powerful not to. A human girl runs over your tail and almost stumbles into the ground. {Be calm!} you hiss, but she’s already mumbled a sorry and is sprinting off.

    Where are they—

    Look up.

    It isn’t just the crowd that makes you uneasy. The walls are close here; the grassy lawn is an open space, but the brick walls tower into the sky, more than fifty feet high. They blot out the sunlight around you. It’s a good place for a hunt, you can’t help but notice.

    The humans won’t listen. But there are one, maybe two people who will. You drop to all fours and push your way to the platform, where it looks like the hydreigon and N are in a tense disagreement about whether or not the human can survive going on dragonback.

    {You’ve trapped yourselves. You both need to get out,} you say tersely. {Immediately.}

    {We were just trying that, little fraxure. Run along. This is no place for you.}

    {I’m trying to help,} you respond stiffly. If Iris can make smalltalk with Skyla, you can be polite here, under these circumstances, where an old man tells you he’ll never recognize you as clan leader. No place for you. If only he knew.

    {You really think that?} A chuckle rumbles from one of the three heads; it’s hard to tell which and the sound is slips away into the panic of the crowd. {Little fawn, run back to your rules and your gym battles. They might care about who your human is, but they’ll never care about what your human wants.}

    N’s been staring at you, with his eyes narrowed. “Why did you come to warn us?” he asks softly.

    How do you put it into words? The walls, the square. Humans must have organized this, humans who couldn’t see that they’d all walked into a dead-end, and now—

    “This is Mistralton PD! Step away from the line!”

    {You’ve trapped yourselves,} you repeat hoarsely, eyes scanning the crowd. Where is Iris? She sent you away but she needs you, needs you desperately for what’s about to come next.

    By the time they fire the first tear gas cannister towards the hydreigon, you’ve already got a glimmering Protect shield raised, and it bounces harmlessly off. Not good enough. It hits the concrete just outside of your barrier with a soft clink—this is the part where Iris would rush forward and pour water on it, but—it erupts into a roiling cloud of white, heavy smoke.

    You feel the air spike in temperature behind you, and you slash wildly with your tusks, gouging into the hydreigon’s right arm. The fireball blooming in its throat hits you in the side of the cheek, and even through your scales you can feel the blistering heat.

    He snaps his teeth at you but doesn’t aim for your neck. {You—}

    {You can’t fight them!} you shout back.

    {You can’t stop me, little fawn,} the hydreigon snarls. {We already warned you. We will not stand idly by.} This time it’s the left mouth that blossoms into flame, and the blue light of dragonfire flickers across your vision. You struggle to project another Protect shield, the image of a haxorus suddenly in the back of your mind, one hand extended to stop a torrent, and in that moment you’re not just yourself but—

    His attack goes high, and lances another gas cannister out of the air. It explodes in midair, and you see another deadly cloud form before the blue fire consumes it.

    {You’re going to get someone killed!}

    {What would you rather we do, let them land on us?} he shoots back.

    “What are you saying we should do?” N asks.

    Iris normally is the one who says these words, but you feel a thrill of excitement. He understands your words, even if he doesn’t understand your plight. Perhaps there’s hope for him after all. {You can’t fight. Not here. They outnumber you and if you escalate, they’ll just hit back harder. You need to get out of here, regroup somewhere else. Maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but you can’t stay here. They’ll crush you.}

    You try to remember. How old is Plasma, really? Do they not know how this game works? It’s a war of attrition, not a pokémon fight. You can’t just beat someone down until you get what you want. The rules don’t work like that, not with humans—they beat you down until you prove that you’re strong enough to take it.

    The area of the crowd furthest from you has become a makeshift line—you see glints of Protect shields, a few Reflects, but not nearly enough. Even as you watch, two shields go down. Most of the crowd has fled already; this is just the stragglers. They didn’t come expecting a fight. But even though the barrier is so far away, they’re still concentrating their fire over the front line, focusing on …

    {They’re aiming at you,} you say quietly, almost inaudible over another hiss of fire that rockets a gas canister into a wall. {You can’t be here.}

    You wait for a witty retort, but he’s silent.

    You look over at N. {You can blend into the crowd. He can’t. You have to recall him and run.}

    “I can’t just—”

    {Now!}

    The one similarity this has to a battlefield is how quickly the tides can change. You look over your shoulder. The glimmering lights are gone; their front line is already shattered. There isn’t much time left before the police force their way through.

    “Will you come with us?”

    There’s a line between you and them, one that you’ve toed but never crossed.

    He must think you’re lucky, to have a partner like Iris rather than a trainer. But to you, he is the lucky one, blessed with the position to ignore you and Iris’ shared plight. What would this human boy who calls himself king know about being someone else’s tool? You and Iris spent this world watching warily for decrees that came from castles; he was born in one. Unova is cruel. Iris knows this and fights it, and if she needs you to fight as well to lend legitimacy to her words, then so be it. A world where pokémon are free to be their own people is a pretty thing indeed, if you can believe humans are fair to people now. That assumption alone speaks volumes for what he sees and what he refuses to.

    {I have my rules and my gym battles,} you say coldly, straightening your back. Even then you’re nowhere close to his height. And you might help them, but you would never flee with them, not while your heart is still with Iris, somewhere in the haze below. {I’ll be fine. Go.}

    N turns away. “Thank you,” he says softly.

    The hydreigon studies you for a long moment, three gazes spearing into you as one.

    {You’re small for a haxorus,} he says, before flicking his tall onto the recall button and vanishing in a flash of red.

    ※​

    What you hate most about people like them is how much they refuse to understand.

    Ten thousand years ago, a dragon shaped Unova from fire and thunder and ice. From that dragon, the Twin Gods were born.

    Two thousand years ago, the haxorus of the Dragonvalley entered into an accord with the humans who lived there. They would share these lands and protect the valley together. If nature willed it, their children would hatch at the same time, and the two would live in the image of the Twin Gods—not one without the other. For as long as there were twins to remind them why they were the same, the peoples of the Dragonvalley could live in harmony.

    Three hundred years ago, Unovan settlers discovered the Dragonvalley and routed the peoples who lived there into less fertile, less desirable pockets of land, where they could die without being seen. The haxorus who refused were put to the sword. The humans who refused were given necklaces of rope. The peoples of the Dragonvalley who fled wept bitter tears, which washed into an enormous river; once crossed, they would never return.

    Twenty-two years ago, a meteor streaked across a moonless black sky. That night, Tsis’swakeras was born to a loving human mother and father. On the same night, an axew hatched, and her proud mother named her Gaasyendietha, for the meteor of old that hatched into the Twin Gods, and for the new comet that proclaimed her birth. Although neither child knew it, the reservation rejoiced, and the children were joined as twins. Tsis’swakeras wasn’t a very vocal child, but her hands babbled. Gaasyendietha was large for an axew, and a voracious learner.

    Eighteen years ago, Unovans returned once more to the diasporic peoples of the Dragonvalley. They proclaimed that haxorus were an endangered species, that licenses and permits were required to raise them, and all hatchlings had to be surrendered to the League for safe rearing. They came for the human children as well, also for safe rearing, and to teach them things that could not be learned on the settlement. But Tsis’swakeras and Gaasyendietha were one life, one pain—not one without the other. So both were taken together, too young to understand why their parents wept and why it would not have been dishonor to do the same.

    Thirteen years ago, Drayden Kennsington wanted a haxorus, but saw no legal way to obtain one. What he saw instead was a young, malleable girl and the axew who slashed at all who came close, save her. The girl mattered little. The axew was the last unlicensed female in Unova, and therefore the only one from which he could breed a lineage. And so, for their tenth birthday, he extended to the twins a great and terrible gift.

    Twelve years ago, in her first interview on national television, Tsis’swakeras froze when asked to repeat her name. A sea of unfamiliar pale faces stared back at her. The foreign language heavy on her lips, her quivering hands screaming into white-knuckled fists, Drayden’s hands on her shoulders, she murmured my-name-is-tsis’swakeras, but what came out was a jumble, and then eh-ras, and then an overly-enthusiastic, “Let’s give it up for Iris!”

    Plasma claimed to want to give you back your freedom. What they fail to understand is that your soul has only ever known a leash. Unova has always held you both by the neck; there is no separating your struggles from hers. Not one without the other.

    You will be free the day she is, and not one day sooner.


    p | n
     
    Last edited:
    xii. noogenesis
  • kintsugi

    golden scars
    Location
    waiting for the fog to roll out
    Pronouns
    she/her
    Partners
    1. silvally-grass
    2. lapras
    3. golurk

    xii. noogenesis

    ※​

    Ten thousand years ago, a great flood washed over Unova, and wiped it clean of war and hatred.

    But before that, a clever human and his pokémon companion watched the stars, and foresaw the flood. So when the clouds rolled in, they had already built an enormous boat, which they used to save those they could. When the waters receded, the survivors began to rebuild. The lines they had drawn between themselves had been swept away by the storm; now, in the fertile and flooded earth, they could learn to love one another again.

    But the human and his pokémon could find no peace. While others tilled the fields, sowed new crops and reaped them, the two stood on a high place and stared out at the placid sea. They must fear a second flood, the survivors whispered among themselves, but this was not the case. The human and his pokemon could not forget the violence that had first caused the storms. The gods had cleaned the world once, but people are people—one day, the gods would purge it again.

    Or worse, they wouldn't.

    So the human and his pokémon returned to the dragon gods, and stole from them a single scale. Together, they fashioned it into a sail for their boat, and when the winds blew, their boat lifted into the starry river that stretched across the night sky. Thus prepared, the pair began an endless voyage amongst the stars for peace.

    Every thousand years, the sky cries and traces one tear across the horizon. Legend would tell you that it's the two companions, holding fast to one another during their journey into the void. Your denwatcher would tell you that it's a comet of ice and flame, orbiting your sun and only coming close enough to be seen for brief moments of its relatively huge galactic lifespan. But just because it's not visible doesn't mean it's not there.

    You were imparted on the day that the comet passed overhead. Your denwatcher, Venant, had watched the skies for centuries. Though their eyes had long grown rheumy, Venant knew their duty, and could hear the comet's call. From their arms split two children—from the right arm came you, Denebola; and from the left came Albieba. The den rejoiced, for children were rare, especially in these times. Albieba was a gifted child, with a burbling of two songs wrapped up in her one mind, like the binary star for which she was named. But you held Venant's pride, and their right side, and the expectations that had rested on their shoulders as watcher of the East. Many minds before, many right sides ago, Venant and their forebearers were soothsayers for kings and queens, and perhaps one day you would be as well.

    Twenty-two years after that wondrous night when Venant's consciousness faded and then flared to life in the mind of another, you allowed a human child to capture you. She called you first solosis, and then Jericho.

    When she walked past, the other solosis felt nothing. They lived in complete worlds, linked together in their minds. But for you, Venant lived again, and all the lives before them did too. Seven lifetimes ago you advised kings, and in that one frail moment, you felt the ancient weight upon your shoulders.

    So you leapt from the protected decks of the world you'd always known and fell with her like a comet, hurtling across the night sky towards her destiny.

    ※​

    Most people have hazy ideas of what they want the world to be. You can feel those potential futures, and they glow with the strength of the one who imagined them. That is the power of Venant's sight, the one who foresaw kings.

    In Amara's ideal world, she's a zebstrika, but also not a zebstrika. You don't understand the distinction between these two zebstrika but you sense a conviction at the very heart of the blitzle's being. This is different from a regular zebstrika. You'd asked her about it once, when the five of you were gathered around a crackling campfire.

    {The difference is kafara,} she'd said solemnly, and though her words were clear to you, their meaning was not.

    But from what you can gather in the flashes of her mind, of her one day standing tall and fierce, mane crackling with the storm she contains, it involves being a zebstrika.

    She evolves in your fight with Elesa. The plan was that first Amara would wear down Elesa's team, then you; Vaselva could handle the rest.

    You stayed on the sidelines longer than you'd expected: that day, Amara had something to prove. Perhaps it was in the way Elesa's zestrika cantered proudly onto the field, hooves sparking blue and against the mirrored floor, Elesa casually lounging sidesaddle on his back. Or maybe it had been when Elesa's zebstrika whinnied and fired a thin bolt of lightning into the air, cueing the pre-timed spotlights and a raucous cheer from the audience. Or maybe it had been when Elesa's zebstrika snorted in response after Elesa smoothly dismounted in six-inch stilettos and surveyed the four of you, one eyebrow raised, and remarked, "She looks feisty, Cavalli, wouldn't you agree?"

    Hard to say, really.

    Amara evolves after the first emolga goes down in a spiral of flame, and for a brief moment she's radiant. You've seen enough dreamers outside of your den to know what's coming, and you stare hungrily at that bright light, the pride, the culmination. She'd dreamt of being a zebstrika her entire life, and she'd finally made it.

    The radiance fades. A second emolga takes to the air with a teasing giggle. His air slash shreds the tile floor, and Amara's newly-mended flanks with it.

    ※​

    "I'm going to the carnival. Do you want to stay out, Jer?"

    Hilda's stony. Vaselva must've lost to the zebstrika after you fainted.

    That's a surprise. You wish you'd seen it. The servine calls the shots around here, as far as you can tell. She and Amara battle for Hilda's heart. That's fine with you. You only care about her mind.

    "One for yes, two for no, Jer," Hilda says when you don't respond. "Reylin said no. The others are staying at the pokécenter for now."

    Was Elesa's zebstrika really strong enough to hurt Vaselva that badly, or is she just sulking? You try to think back. The second emolga was simple—any contest that involves range was always yours to win. Hilda showed you quickly enough that the shimmering blue lights that the denwatchers used to communicate are somewhat explosive upon contact with an unprepared target. Most pokémon in battles on the circuit are unprepared targets.

    The zebstrika was not an unprepared target, and he also preferred to fight up close. Your battle to lose. The sensation was unpleasant, but for you at least it's easy enough to project your mind somewhere else, to a time where your body doesn't feel pain, while your ectoplasm knits itself back together. Hilda's ideal world, for example.

    It takes you a moment to retreat from it, rearrange your mind carefully back into your ectoplasm. There's no pain now.

    The carnival. You roll the word over in your mind. What is a carnival?

    You aren't sure, but you'd like to see it. You chirp once.

    It's a bit of a walk from the pokécenter, but even from a distance you can see this carnival—an enormous, shining collection of gemstones, twinkling against a purple sky. Nimbasa shimmers even at night. Even in the midst of Unova's jewel of a city, this thing is impossible to miss, with all its glamor and flashing lights. The sounds come next, a blur of laughter and mechanical screeching and canned music.

    But Hilda seems to shrivel up the closer you get, tucking her hands into her pockets and her elbows close to her side. You orbit her head, struggling to stay close in the throng of people.

    She seems bothered, but she chose to come here. Strange. You ponder that one for a while as the two of you make your way through the carnival. An apron-clad man hands ice cream cones out of a red-and-white striped cart to a group of giggling children. A tinny earworm of a song wafts through the air, twined with the sounds of elated screams as a roller coaster whooshes overhead.

    With this many people around, you can relax. Hilda was quick to learn this lesson: you do not do well in small groups of people. Their thoughts and their threads spin around your mind, each one screaming for its place. All of them seek things, and you can see where those desires end. Once, Hilda left you alone near Amara, and came back to find you had buried yourself in a pile of leaves to drown out the raging imperfection of her too-short, frayed thread—this one will be cut soon. She learned fast; now, you only come out when the entire group is out, when there's enough minds around to protect you from themselves.

    At home, in the dens, the reuniclus and the duosion and even the young solosis knew how to exist alongside one another without screaming their thoughts. You knew each other's minds and they were no more foreign than your own. No one spoke louder than the rest.

    Here, with this many people, it's almost the same. The thoughts become a seething mass, no single one louder than the rest, and you can tune them out as white noise. Does the girl passing you wish to evolve into a watchog one day? Is the palpitoad to your left upset that he lost that battle, or is it the human boy beside him? It doesn't matter. You float alongside Hilda, content to take in the sights and sounds, unimpeded by the sea of thoughts that swirls beneath them.

    Hilda's hard to pin down right now. If you open yourself up too much to her thoughts, you won't be able to tune out the flood. What you get is snippets:a girl crumbles pieces of of her sandwich for pidove in the schoolyard, her hands tremble as she dabs septic on a glimmering cut in Vaselva's scales, her fingertips close around the cool surface of a smooth, dark stone.

    "Ever been to one of these?" she asks as she wanders. You do not think she has any direction in mind.

    There are stalls where human children gather to throw red and white stones at a pyramid of bottles; the two of you pass a snaking line for some sort of enormous spinning disc. But nothing seems to catch her fancy.

    You chirp twice for no.

    "Me neither," she says in a low voice. "Never been to one growing up. I was curious."

    It's a good reason, same as yours.

    A short scream of frustration draws both of your attention—your heads whip over to see a boy's hand pinned to a table by an enormous robotic throh. Can you beat the legendary arm wrestler? the sign above their heads asks.

    You're not sure she understands what you mean when you chirp thrice, when she says, "Looks like I wasn't missing out on much. Just another place where the games are rigged for you to lose."

    In that moment her ideal world is plunged into darkness, and in that blackness you can see her as she sees herself.

    She fed the pidove and went to class hungry. She withdrew Vaselva and cried silently, flipped her pokédex over and over in her hands. She hid the stone from Lenora after she heard it call to her, because she didn't trust anyone else with it, because somewhere deep inside she had to know what it truly meant.

    "Then again, I'd probably have a better chance of winning here, don't you think?"

    Two chirps.

    Hilda brightens, just barely. "Thanks."

    The stalls thin out, and you see: perhaps unknowingly, she's wandered back to the spinning wheel. There's hardly a line now; seems like everyone would rather be elsewhere.

    "What do you think, Jer? Ever ridden a ferris wheel?"

    Two chirps.

    ※​

    In Reylin's ideal world, he doesn't have to fight.

    It took Hilda maybe fifteen minutes after meeting him to realize he hates it. She was faster on the uptake than Amara or Vaselva, stymied as they were by his strange tongue, but now everyone agrees. The archen sits and flinches during training; in battles, it's even worse. You fought Cheren last week, and Reylin clumsily flapped behind Hilda's boots, quaking as he peered out from behind her ankles, squawking incomprehensible words.

    You don't blame Reylin for hiding from this fight; Cheren's dewott was frightening. Newly evolved, proud of his power, and eager to show it—when the dewott lashed out with his shells, he left gouges in the pavement. Hilda waited until the pansage came out, and asked Reylin again. This time, he found the courage to fight. With his eyes squeezed shut as he stabbed blindly with his beak, he took out the pansage in one hit.

    Sometimes Hilda's mind wanders and she strays into that ideal world, where people like her wouldn't have to claw their way to the top, where people like him aren't caught up in it. None of you are that different, really—you all only have this one path out of the lives you were given; you all have no choice but to walk it. Reylin was a gift from Lenora. As you understand it, when pokémon are given as gifts, it becomes less about the pokémon than about the humans behind them. Was Lenora testing her when she gave Hilda that fossil? Or was it simply a genuine offer of support? Either way, Hilda's fresh-faced and inexperienced; training three pokémon this early is already difficult, but four—and a strange, skittering species at that—four is a clear challenge.

    Reylin's ideal world is very simple. It involves him, a turtle, and an endless sky.

    Hilda dreams of something different. Some of it is amorphous, vague, unshaped. When it comes to Reylin she's not sure what the rules would be, how you'd govern out this loophole where pokémon don't have to fight, but they don't have anything else they're allowed to be. But in this future, it's simple: you and Vaselva and Amara are powerful. Reylin can stay, or he can go—he simply doesn't have to fight any more, not now that Hilda's strong enough that she doesn't need a fourth. That's a similarity between the two of them—Hilda's not necessarily in Reylin's ideal world, either. She's not definitively absent from it, written out the same way that he erases battles and gyms from existence in his, but she doesn't have to be there, either. There's a dim corner where she could be; there from one angle and gone from the next.

    His world doesn't shine very brightly, because he doesn't have much faith that he'll ever get there.

    "I'm sorry," she tells Reyin after she calls your sparring match with him to a close. Now she's fussing over the dressing on his wing. They're always so delicate with his plumage. "Okay, so a physical build isn't working out. Maybe something ranged?"

    The archen tilts his head back and stares at her, blinking.

    "I know," Hilda says quietly. "But you're strong, okay? You just need to recognize it."

    He squawks something in an unknown language.

    "You are! I've seen you." She leans in and tickles under his chin, earning a weak trill. "You're getting so much better already! I saw you dodge that attack. That was so fast."

    She isn't lying, not quite. It's not impossible. She just doesn't think it's likely.

    Later that evening, when he had relaxed onto her lap and sunk into a twitchy sleep, you heard her murmur, "Even if I let you free, where could you go?"

    His ideal world is simple, dim, and empty. For one so unhappy, there's relatively little that he actually wants.

    ※​

    The wheel ticks up slowly. You can feel each creak emanating from the central hub, the way the motor strains. As the two of you inch higher and higher, Nimbasa shrinks below. The sky's turned almost black by now, but looking down you see the glimmering star of the gym.

    When you look over, Hilda's watching it too. Half of her face is reflected in the mirror of the carriage, and while she isn't facing you, her reflection stares back, washed-out and blurred.

    "Was that your first gym battle?"

    One chirp.

    "I wasn't sure."

    You tick higher.

    "I researched before I went into this battle. Elesa usually doesn't use her zebstrika for fourth badge fights."

    This concept of battling is new to you. It's lucky that you're good at it, but its intricacies are still foreign. You reach back to remember what the Venant before Venant knew about this. That Venant saw a war, and that Venant understood: you only use your full strength for an opponent you truly respect.

    Three chirps.

    The reflection's face darkens. "She didn't want us to win."

    You have to turn that idea over and over a few times. The denwatchers shared one mind. Even if a fight had ever taken place, there could be no loss. But the humans, you have learned, are not so closely linked.

    Wins and losses are also a strange concept. When you all share your thoughts, there's no such thing as being alone, being better, being worse. When you are linked with all the ones around you, why would you strive to defeat them?

    You ponder for a moment, and the answer to your own question surfaces in your mind: if you do not think of them as an ally, if you see them as someone separate from yourself, you will not care if they lose. The answer is simple: you have to become unlinked.

    One year ago a shadow slipped into the back of the den. It wore a face like yours, but when you reached for it, you found nothing. It was like you only in shape and image; beneath the surface, it was dark, empty, vapid. Intrigued by this strange reflection of yourselves, you and Albieba had warbled over to where it watched from the surface. And the shadow grew teeth; with a wicked smile it leapt forward and sank its fangs into Albieba.

    The den ripped into motion, but you dropped to the ground. The air was a thick haze of psychic energy; you could only watch, paralyzed, as Satevis, the watcher of the West, hovered forward, a storm brewing around their arms. They twisted, and gravity seemed to triple. You couldn't rise from the ground; with their hands, Satevis tore the world and a blinding bolt of thunder erupted.

    The shadow screamed and sprouted tufts of red and black fur. The scent of singed flesh rose in the heavy air. The watcher of the West fired again; blue lightning filled the den. When the light finally cleared, the shadow was gone.

    it took you a moment to understand what was strange. But when you did, the void was everywhere. {Albieba,} you'd gasped, when you were finally able to feel again.

    Satevis turned back to look at you. {Albieba,} they said solemnly. {Albieba is with you now.}

    Your split was only supposed to be temporary. The two of you came from Venant's arms; one day, you would create a mind in her image, and grow arms of your own. But you were never supposed to search for her—she would always be by your side.

    Venant's right could see the futures people desired. Venant's left could see which ones would come to be. In the moment that she went dark, Albieba took with her Venant's true sight.

    But that wasn't what you really lost. Your den, your siblings—without Albieba, they didn't feel fully yours any more. The denwatchers were kind, but you could sense their stifled shudders when your minds touched. They couldn't hide how they pulled back instinctively at you and your mismatch. You were one of them—and yet not.

    You think back to the look on Elesa's face, the lilting amusement when she'd called Hilda and Amara feisty—perhaps she hadn't been amused after all, just trying to cast out what she thought didn't belong. And all at once, you understand why Hilda is frowning, why her hands have curled into fists.

    The thick glass of the ferris wheel shudders, and the attendant opens the door. You blink, looking around. Nimbasa's no longer a tiny pinprick in the distance. You're at the bottom again.

    ※​

    In Vaselva's ideal world, she's with Hilda. Everything is the same, except for one small detail, that you scarcely notice at first. When Hilda calls Vaselva's name, she doesn't say Vaselva. But even though you can hear the word loud and clear in the vision, when you try say it aloud you find it's always out of reach.

    ※​

    There's someone waiting at the bottom of the ferris wheel.

    "You wanted to talk?" he asks quietly.

    "Hey, N," Hilda responds glumly, which you realize doesn't answer his question.

    Maybe she does want to talk. More than likely, she doesn't, because she doesn't say anything at all. Humans have to speak in order for their denmates to understand them, although sometimes it seems to you that they understand each other fine without speaking at all.

    They walk for a bit. Hilda keeps her eyes on her feet. Her hands are in her pockets, her lips tightly pursed. And N's much the same, but he's looking around at all the sights. His eyes linger on a booth where a man is painting liepard spots onto a young girl's face. His face flickers with a scowl as he passes a sign proclaiming SUPER SIMISAGE SAMANTHA in blocky letters above the image of a simisage on a unicycle, her hands pressed firmly to her lips.

    Finally, he looks at you. "Hi," he says uncertainly. "I don't think we've met. I'm N."

    {Jericho.}

    "Jericho." He sounds the syllables out carefully on his tongue. "Did I pronounce that right? Nice to meet you."

    Hilda finally looks up at the sound of your subdued conversation. "You really can talk to pokémon, can't you."

    It's not a question.

    "Since I was a child, yes."

    What a strange talent for a human. Unbidden, you think of Super Simisage Samantha and her unicycle. Would there be another tent for this one, where everyone else can marvel at him for his unique skills?

    "He's newish. Can you ask him if he's happy?"

    He looks expectantly at you.

    {Hilda will change our world. I want to see it.}

    N relays the message with a strained smile.

    "Him too?" Her laugh is strained as well, and for a moment you're sure she's going to end the conversation then and there. "I swear, all of you have the same ideas."

    She's uneasy, but that's okay. The fate-touched are never aware of what the world is calling them to do. That's why your kind watches the stars.

    The three of you walk a little further, until Hilda says, "Is that why you're with Team Plasma? Because you think you'll change the world?"

    "In a sense, yes." He rolls his shoulders and sighs.

    "I was on board before you …" She swallows her words alongside her anger. Each syllable is clipped short. "Did you know, N? Did you know that Team Plasma is stealing pokémon?"

    "Liberation isn't theft."

    Hilda's face hardens. "So you know."

    "I've always known." His voice sounds almost gentle, almost pleading, when he adds, "Liberating pokémon is why we founded Plasma."

    Hilda's jaw tightens, and you watch her shore up the gap between her eyebrows. "Plasma stole my friend's munna. Bi is a good trainer, N. Did you know they targeted her?"

    "I did. I was there." N's stiff now too. "Munny asked to go back to her human, so we helped her do that."

    For a moment you feel something leaking off of him, a wish, an ideal, some sort of regret. You lean forward, toward this strange black hole, and—

    Hilda's rage pulses stronger, and with it the image of a shattered Plasma. A future splinters off of her, one where having power didn't mean you could just go around doing whatever you wanted, taking what you wanted, hurting who you wanted.

    "You don't even know what you did to her, do you?" Hilda scoffs. "Do you know anything about her?"

    The answer the two of you get isn't one you expected: N smiles warmly. "No. I don't. What would you like me to know?"

    Hilda's a seething ball of anger; you can feel the thoughts lashing out around her even if you can't read them fully. She was never one to let something stand between her and where she needed to be, yet when someone doesn't try to fight her … what does she do?

    She doesn't say anything. So instead, you find yourself answering, {Did you know that training is the highest-income profession in Unova that does not require a high school degree?} There are words in that statement that are lost to you—but you'd heard Hilda explain this over and over to Bianca, back when she was begging Bianca not to quit.

    N's smile falters. Just a little. "I did know that," he says quietly.

    {For some people, it is the only choice they have.}

    "Wouldn't you rather they have more choices though, Jericho?"

    You can't help it: you reach out again. Surely a sentence like that, such a wondrous question—surely he would be able to see that world; surely he would be able to know what those choices even are.

    There's nothing. Nothing at all.

    {Wouldn't you?}

    "Is he … what is he saying?" Hilda looks between the two of you, her gaze guarded. Is she afraid she'll betray you like Elesa? You could never do that to her.

    "He respects your drive." N fiddles with the edge of his shirt. "And he would stay with you." There's another pause, and you see him twist the fold of his sleeve into a tight spiral. "Even if he had somewhere else to go."

    "So that settles it, doesn't it? You talked to Munny, and now Jericho." A pleading edge slips into Hilda's voice, and there's another world now—one where Plasma can be good, where they focus their efforts on the abusers and the cheaters and—

    "Tell me, Hilda. When you climb Unova. When you get to the top. What do you see?"

    Hilda swallows. "I understand why you don't like battling, N. I really, really do. You don't think it's fair that pokémon aren't free to be people." When she looks at him, her world shines with the brilliance of the sun. It's so bright that she can barely take it into her hands and form words, but when she does, she's unflinching. "But I don't think it's fair that people aren't free."

    In that moment, N begins to glow, and you see the thread forming between them, two minds that could touch and feel and share—

    "Is that … it is! Hilda Verdandi! Juniper's very own sponsored trainer, here in the flesh!" Someone's pushing through the various throngs of carnival-goers; you see a camera, a looming boom mic. "Hilda, I'm with Nimbasa Nightly. Do you have a second for an interview?"

    Reflexively, Hilda takes a step back from the fuzzy mic overhead, and then another one to avoid the one that was thrust up in her face. You see what he wants from this, a tangle of chatter and words across a page and you're trying to parse what he means by news when she answers—"Sure?"

    "Right. Jeremy, get in tighter." You focus on a man: thin-faced, brown hair, sharp jaw, fast talker. He leans in conspiratorially close to Hilda. "Hiya folks, here with Hilda Verdandi, Juniper's very own sponsored trainer! How's it going, Hilda?" He doesn't even wait for her to finish her pained nod before: "So, some of our viewers at home are wondering what happened! After your stunning defeat of Burgh, even with a bad type matchup for both of your pokémon—has Elesa made you lose your groove?"

    "What? No, I—"

    "Focusing on other things, perhaps?" He winks at the camera. "Other people, perhaps?" he adds, and you see Hilda's face lurch when the camera lurches over to point at N. "Folks, you saw it here first. The Nimbasa Carnival ranked in our top fifty good places for a first date, after all, and—" He trails off suddenly, staring at N's hair.

    "Battle me," Hilda says in a strangled voice.

    "What?" N looks surprised. Perhaps he doesn't realize what's happening, what everyone else is starting to piece together.

    Hilda knows the unwritten rules. In a conversation, humans only look at themselves. But in a battle, they'll only look at the pokémon. If he battles her now he'll be nothing more than a blur in the backdrop. If he loses, if he doesn't keep it close, no one will be able to see him afterward, either. Victory makes you shine in Unova. It lifts you into the light of the future.

    "Battle me," Hilda repeats without meeting his eyes.

    "Hilda—"

    "Jericho, you're up." Her voice is hard. She spears N with a flinty glare. Please, she mouths.

    Maybe he gets it. Maybe he just trusts her. Either way, he takes a step away.

    "You know the public battle rules. Thirty feet back."

    This time he backs up all the way, almost to the end of the promenade. The rest of the crowd has started to take note, and they're clearing out, giving you all space—but the camera's trained on you and Hilda. She stares forward with a level gaze.

    You see a flicker at the far end of the makeshift pitch, and what looks like a scraggy disentangles himself from the crowd when N calls. A few more follow suit—the low, flickering glow of a darumaka catches your attention; followed by some enormous, floating, rainbow bird that you've never seen before.

    There's a brief exchanging of words over on N's side of the field. The bird hums something in response, and then flutters forward.

    "Screens," Hilda says curtly. "Eighty percent to the sides."

    You pick up what she means by that almost immediately, and a prismatic wall glimmers up around you, scintillating green and blue. You've been practicing hard; by now, it's milky and translucent, almost like a wall of glass. Idly, you angle it between yourself and the cameraman, filling the lens with a stab of dazzling light. You hear him hiss in annoyance, but he doesn't move more than five feet from Hilda. You tab him in your mind as you hover closer to the bird, in case he tries to reposition.

    "Psyshock." Her voice is flat. There's no enjoyment in this. You can see from the way that the bird bobs up and down in a smooth, predictable arc that this is going to be a one-sided battle.

    You reach out with your mind, and an arc of blue light forms around you. The crowd gasps in shock as the light fans out, splitting off into a dozen glimmering spheres, and then with a single movement you send them all swatting down on the bird like falling stars.

    "Shields to front, and then Psyshock again," Hilda says, just before the bird lashes out with a wave of pink energy. You swivel the screen forward, and the wave breaks against it, sending shards of pink light onto the ground. A psychic attack of some sort? You don't risk probing the bird's head to check. It regards you silently. No battle cries, no shouts of pain, nothing, and you strike it down.

    N gives a muffled cry of warning, but he's too late, and another barrage of blue knocks the bird to the ground. "Withdraw, withdraw!" N's shouting frantically, and the scraggy runs up in the bird's place.

    "Hidden Power." You slam the scraggy with a ball of searing heat while he's still scooting forward.

    The scraggy falls down and stays there. N runs over and scoops him up in his arms. He's too far away for you to see the details on his face, but you sense a tinge of desperation.

    But he doesn't fight back. He doesn't ask Hilda to stop. Instead, he clutches the scraggy close to his chest, whispers something to the darumaka at his feet.

    {I will do what it takes,} says the darumaka in the dialect of sand.

    N screws his eyes shut when he hears the answer. "I'm sorry," he whispers—he's much too far away to hear, but he isn't too far to see.

    You look past him, not with your eyes but with your sight, as something impossibly bright leaks off of him.

    You can't place what makes it strange at first. It glows like all dreams do, perhaps a bit brighter. A glimmering hydreigon curls up alongside a human boy and a gently crackling fire. The hydreigon flicks his tail while the boy reads aloud from a book in his hands, and—

    The words on the page are razor sharp. The image is clear. There's no haze, no areas he's left unimagined, because he isn't imaging at all. This isn't a future. This is a past.

    You recoil in disgust.

    Every night the stars are a little different than the night before. Somewhere in the nightly expanse, they're hurtling away; from where you stand, they only shift a hair, in tiny, barely noticeable steps that must be watched across generations. When the stars wander, they do so in different directions, dancing over one another. But none of them double back the way they came. You cannot wish for that. It's simply not right.

    In that moment your mind splits into two. You are both Denebola, and you are both different, and you are both one. It comes in flashes at first, but then it's the brightest thing you've ever seen.

    Albieba? You reach out tentatively.

    She isn't there. But Hilda is.

    One mind sees: Hilda's battling. She's finally strong enough. Vaselva's a serperior; you're a reuniclus. There's a monster with green hair in front of her; she beats him down, down, down while everyone watches with breathless anticipation as she becomes a hero. The people in power get to make the rules, but if she's more powerful than anyone else? If she gets to make the rules now?

    Then she'll do what everyone up top kept failing to do, and she'll protect the ones beneath her. No matter the cost.

    "Jericho, Protect!"

    You raised a glimmering green against a wall of fire. Raising? Will raise? Where are you?

    Another mind sees: Hilda's battling. Your power flares to life. You've never used this technique before—but you sense in a language deeper than words that this is what must be done. A protective barrier appears just as the darumaka's flames are about to make impact; they splutter away and hit the ground with a sizzle of embers. You wheel back—for a moment it is a dozen feet tall and made of black scales and three bloody heads; the next instant, it's a sputtering darumaka barely taller than you are. Which one is it?

    Eyes glowing blue, you send a stab of psychic power through her forehead.

    Your arms are buckling from the strain, but wait—you don't have arms yet.

    "Jericho?" she's shouting from behind you.

    Where are you? All you can see is light, and the smudges of creatures who get too close. There's a sandile in front of you now, scuttling around, its mind curiously blank. You reach out and your probe slips smoothly off: it must be partially dark. There's nothing there, nothing for you to latch onto.

    The sandile burrows out from under the ground, his jaws snapping. In another world he's not aiming for you; his scales are red and his frame is enormous as he digs through the floor of the League, eyes hungrily fixed on something just out of reach.

    But the sandile in front of you is close enough. His fangs dig into your side, teeth digging furrows that blossom into pain, and it's in that moment you understand how someone like Hilda can make an ideal shine so brightly that no one else can see it: you create two minds.

    This must be what Venant learned when they ascended, what all reuniclus must face upon evolution. You must do as the human strategists do. With one mind you understand your enemy; with the other, you snuff them out. With one mind you accept that the world is broken; with the other, one that you keep far away, you swear to change it.

    Amara, fully grown, brays in pain from hundreds of moons away. One day she dies while you hold a shield up like this one; one day she is safe in her pokéball, unaware of the events that will fray her thread until it snaps.

    Which one is it? With one mind, you lash out, ripping up a concrete battle hall to rain stone on an oncoming dragon, cast him back, back, back. With one mind you look up, and the sandile is a tiny brown lump in the middle of a cratered stretch of pavement twenty feet across. N is running forward, his face twisted in horror. You bob forward as well, one of your minds reaching out with a twinge of sympathy only to find that the dark-type's mind is as shielded to you as ever; Hilda's raising her hand and—

    "That's the difference between me and a random trainer," Hilda explains to the camera. "Thank you for your time."

    ※​

    When Hilda walked past you, your combined lifetimes hit you at once, and you felt her calling to you to leap, leap into the starry river.

    There are some who walk this earth who pick out points of light where others would see only darkness. The truly bold can look into the void and trace out what they want to see. Like forming a crown from a constellation. Hilda is one of those minds. Venant another. But what made her shine to you wasn't the light that she saw. It was the future she dreamt of, that she held deep inside, so bright that it reflected around everything she touched.

    When you were born, you could look to the skies and see the Voyagers studded out, entwined in their constellation as they sank slowly into the sea each summer. There were hundreds of other constellations, each one with its own story mapping out how it came to watch over you, and the den could tell you one each night for an entire year before needing to repeat.

    You think about N's vision again, the way it screamed out to you, raw and wrong. When the human sailor and his companion fashioned their boat, it was because they knew the gods were wrong: flooding the world would only return things to how they were. It would not stop those things from happening again.

    There is beauty in constellations, stories hidden in the past. But even those shapes drift over time, and when they do, you must let them. It means it is time for a new story to begin.

    Venant knew this, and understood: there is one star that traces the same path across the years. It outshines all the rest, and it rises in the East.

    Hilda's destiny is cyclical, as is the destiny of all heroes. She will rise in the summer sky and sink into the starry river come autumn. It might take her weeks, or months, or years, but she will burn her way across Unova, with you by her side. Someone else will take her place. And you will all only move one way.

    The last part of the vision, of her ideal world, is the most visceral, one that almost has no words. Searing pain. Your shield and your body shattering. Behind you, the deepest black you have ever seen, but it is more than a mere absence of light.

    A god roars and acknowledges the one who will reshape Unova.

    ※​
     
    Last edited:
    xiii. nightmare
  • kintsugi

    golden scars
    Location
    waiting for the fog to roll out
    Pronouns
    she/her
    Partners
    1. silvally-grass
    2. lapras
    3. golurk
    so, bit of an awkward story here; the quality of this chapter + my uncertainty of some of the others that came before (after?) it is what inspired me to take a hiatus in the first place. It has not been changed since the first posting (yet), since I realized that there were actually bigger editing fish to fry in this story. sad. weekly updates were ambitious and past me clearly had no grasp of what it means to operate in the apocalypse.

    but! if you did read this chapter when it was first posted, wanted your EoE fix for the week, and understandably don't want to read a repost, I have instead been looking at those bigger editing fish to fry, and you can see that in the completely scrapped and rewritten chapter x. nudum for your entertainment, featuring pretty much none of the same content and hopefully none of the same issues. Silver linings?

    send help god please 2020 needs to calm tf down so I can just to back to writing fanfic in chronological order

    ---



    xiii. nightmare

    ※​

    That night her dreams are muddled. There’s a male human you’ve seen before, his figure big and hulking like Teppy after he evolved into an emboar. The human’s face is in shadow but his eyes blaze red, so bright it pierces through the murky dark, and he’s angry and he’s frustrated and it’s always something new. Will he yell this time, or will he explain how he feels in other ways? His fists were loud the last time you saw him.

    “Dad, please!” And she’s looking at him, her neck craning up as he towers over her like a mountain.

    You don’t wait to find out which way he wants to respond. Pink smoke swirls around him, twines up his angry fists, down the veins bulging out of his neck, pulls him into misty depths. He roars something inhuman, and then he vanishes into the black fog. It’s the scent of roses that remains.

    She turns over in her sleep, sighs a little. You can hear her outside of the pink haze, but you can’t see her.

    He’s with you now, trapped in your shared nightmares. All that matters is making sure he doesn’t reach her. He howls in anger. Fueled by her imagination, he seems to grow another thirty feet and charges towards you. You’re scared. But you can take it. You have to. For her.

    ※​

    Your name is Munny. You had a name at some point, but it isn’t one that your Bianca can pronounce, and besides, she was too busy to ask, and besides, at this point correcting her would be terribly rude and you don’t want to bother her.

    Your name is Munny. Four moons ago you met your trainer. You are her munna and she is your Bianca. You are partners, equals. This is the way of things.

    Right now, she’s sitting cross-legged on a bench in the pokécenter, sipping at a plastic cup half full of lemonade and paging through her pokédex with her free hand. “Look at this, Munny! It says right here that when you evolve, you’ll look like this!” Her finger jabs at the picture of the musharna on the screen. “Isn’t that amazing?”

    You squint at the screen and try to hide your disappointment when it’s just a picture you already recognize. You’ve seen a musharna before. Your mother was a musharna, and your father too. Before Bianca showed up, they and your littermates were the only beings in the entire world who had ever touched you, cuddled close to you. During the day, when you all rested, you would gather close and close your eyes and hum softly before sleep. You remember the feel of your father’s leathery skin as he curled protectively around you, wisps of your mother’s smoke tracing gently into your dreams.

    “Oh, it looks like you lose your flowers when you evolve. That’s sad. I like those.” She’s pinched the screen and flicked her fingers apart so you can both zoom in on the musharna’s half-and-half markings.

    Your mother told you a story, once. Once upon a time, long ago, musharna were pure purple, the color of a cloudless sky just after sunset. They were gifted by the spirit of the moon with the ability to slip into dreams, and many followed Her back and forth, between the lands of waking and dreaming. Over time, many musharna decided that the peaceful tranquility of the dreamlands was a welcome respite to the chaos of the waking world. They chose not to leave, and stayed slumbering, forgetting themselves and where they were, where they came from, where they were going.

    The waking musharna cried out to the Moon, asking for Her guidance, and She descended.

    {Be careful, my children,} warned the Moon. {Though, like me, you wax and wane through waking and dreaming, you must always remember who you were meant to be.}

    And She exhaled, coating all the musharna in pink. For half-day, and half-night. To mark all musharna as passengers to the dreamworld, but to remind them to return to Her on the other side.

    The split isn’t perfect, of course. Your father’s mother, he told you, had evolved almost two-thirds pink! It was truly an auspicious sign, to have one so touched by the Moon.

    You’re hopeful. Flowers are nice, but perhaps a new pattern will help you make sense of where you’re supposed to be.

    “Oh, and it says right here that dream mist is pink when you eat good dreams, and different colors when you eat bad dreams. That’s so neat!” Your Bianca has already scrolled past the page about musharna habitat and behavior. The light of the screen is reflected in the crescent of her eyes.

    Huh? That’s not true. Dream mist is pink no matter what. You would know. Who wrote this?

    “Oh, and black dream mist means a nightmare, or a sad dream. Okay. That’s good to know. I’ve never seen black dream mist from you before, Munny.”

    She hasn’t, and that’s true, but some of her dreams were truly terrifying.

    Maybe they don’t count as nightmares. But you were always told that the reason is that your mist is always pink, because it comes from the Moon, and is a reflection of Her.

    But … maybe your Bianca is right? And maybe the dreams she’s been having, the ones she’s asked you to help forget … maybe those don’t count as nightmares. There’s another pokémon, the one who tries to eat the Moon, and he’s pitch-black, right? So it would make sense if he sent bad dreams and made them out of black mist, yes. That’s very true. Your Bianca is very smart, and you’re not. She knows these things. You’re just not strong enough to know what a real nightmare is.

    “Hey, Bi, wanna do a quick spar? Maxis just evolved and I wanted to try out some new stuff.”

    You look up in alarm. Oh, good. Her Cheren wasn’t talking to you. You resume looking back at your paws.

    Your Bianca’s already on her feet. “Sure thing! We’re always down for a practice match. Isn’t that right, Munny?”

    Oh. Now she’s talking to you. Oh no. You obediently chirp in affirmation, but you weren’t quite listening to the question. Is she looking at you? It’s hard to tell; the lights here are quite bright and, really, your entire species was designed for being awake at night, so your vision isn’t—

    “Alright, Munny. Let’s show him how it’s done!”

    Her voice shakes. Often, your Bianca strokes your back and tells you how she feels. Her Hilda is a good friend, she says. But sometimes she’s worried about her Cheren. He’s so angry sometimes. He has so much that he wants to prove. Your Bianca’s face clouds when she talks about him, in ways that it never should. Her Cheren doesn’t like losing, she’d explained once in a solemn voice. So sometimes he’ll pick fights he knows he can win.

    You can think about your bad vision later. You follow your Bianca outside. This is good. If you’re close to a pokécenter, then it won’t matter so much if …

    “Maxis, you’re up.”

    Ah, yes, now that you’re outside in the harsh sunlight and you aren’t looking at pokédex articles that are directly in front of your face, this gets a little harder. You see the brown smudge of a trainer, and the shorter, greener smudge that’s probably his pokémon. His simisage? Is that what her Cheren had mentioned? You remember he had his pansage at some point.

    “Alright, start off with a Psybeam!”

    Okay, here goes. You contort your face, and then release a charge of psychic energy, as much as you safely think you can. The green smudge moves out of the way—you can hear him screech in pain just a little as the attack clips his tail—and you try to track him, but by now his trainer is already shouting, “Get in close for a Bite!”

    His simisage transitions to all four legs and starts scampering across the ground, growing bigger and bigger in your vision until it’s close enough for you to make out all the features and confirm that, yes, it certainly is his simisage—and then it’s sinking its teeth into the top of your back. Pain blooms across your body and you scream out in alarm, shaking back and forth, trying to dislodge it. You float up into the air, straining against the weight, and it finally gives up and drops back to the ground.

    You look back nervously. Your Bianca is too far away for you to see her face, but she probably isn’t happy with your showing on that one. You pant heavily; your back burns, something hot and wet is running down your skin—

    “Alright, Munny! We can still do this!” Right! You can! You have to. You puff up your body as big as it’ll go. His simisage doesn’t seem intimidated in the slightest, and is waiting patiently for its next command. You wish you could do that. Waiting patiently. But sometimes you’re anxious and doubtful, which is bad, because who could ever doubt your Bianca when she says—

    “They can’t hit us when they’re asleep! Use Hypnosis, Munny!”

    This strikes you as a particularly bad idea, because his simisage is quite agile, and it does seem like he’ll be able to dodge out of the way again. Hypnosis travels faster than Psybeam, and you haven’t quite done the math and you do trust your Bianca, of course, but—

    “Dodge with Acrobatics, and then use Seed Bomb,” says her Cheren calmly.

    You scrunch your eyes tight and begin generating pulses of mesmerizing, swirling energy, but his simisage is already jumping high into the air, and it’s around then that you process that Seed Bomb sounds like it might hurt a bit, and by that point the clusters of green energy that sprouted up around your feet are detonating.

    The last thing you remember is your Bianca crying out in dismay, and then a horrible banging sound blots out the rest of your hearing, and then your vision, and then everything else.

    ※​

    You have the strangest sensation, floating through the ether—a bolt of energy strikes you, and adrenaline surges through your veins. Once, the Elesa invited you to practice spar with her emolga, and he knew a move called Discharge, and for a split second before the pain sunk in you remember how it almost felt energizing, like waking up after a good night’s dream.

    You flinch, waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the electricity to come surging in, but … there’s nothing.

    “Hey there. That should do the trick.”

    There’s a flash of red light, and you drop out of your pokéball. The act is so surprising that you almost plummet to the ground before you remember to reassert your telekinesis; something is wrong here; this doesn’t feel right; what’s—

    You catch yourself a foot later and swivel around to see a blob of pink hair. Blue eyes, maybe? Green? You don’t want to be rude and hover closer to get a better look at her. The hair draws you in the most; it’s bright, fiery, poofs around her like a protective wreath of dream smoke.

    “Hey, hey there. Don’t worry. I won’t hurt you.” She’s tilting her head back and forth like an enormous pidove, but she doesn’t get any closer—scrutinizing you from a distance. You like that. “How are you feeling?”

    {Very good, thank you,} you chirp back politely. {Where am I?}

    She giggles a little, and says, “I’m glad! You were in pretty rough shape, but you’re safe now.”

    You wait expectantly, but she doesn’t say anything else. Where are you? Who is she?

    Oh. Oh no. {My trainer,} you say, floating closer to her now. She seems friendly enough. You get close enough that you can see the pattern of her own flower-spots on her cheeks, freckled bits of brown. {Is she okay?} No, you’re so stupid! Of course your Bianca is okay. She’s not weak and dumb like you are; she would never end up in this situation. {Where is she?}

    Her eyebrows bunch up. Blue. Her eyes are blue. They’re a nice color, like the sky—“Oh, don’t panic! Are you still hurt?” She starts rifling through her backpack, which hangs loosely off of one shoulder. “I used my last potions on a herdier already and we can’t really go to a pokécenter, but I have some berries that’ll do the trick.”

    You shake your head. {My trainer.} You vibrate up and down for emphasis, cycle a flash through all your flower for emphasis. {Trainer.}

    “I’m sorry,” the girl says. “I don’t know what you’re asking for. I, hmmm, one sec.” She reaches into her pocket and pulls out her x-transceiver. Good! She can call your Bianca, and then this whole mistake can be settled before anyone gets mad. She types something on the screen, and then puts the device away.

    {Call my Bianca,} you chirp.

    “I’m sorry,” she says, and it really sounds like she means it. “I don’t know what you’re saying. But I have a friend who can translate for us. He’ll call me back and then we can figure out what’s up.”

    You suppose that’s a start.

    “You want to rest? Go anywhere? We’ve got a little time, and I don’t want you to get bored or anything.”

    You? Oh. She’s talking to you. You look around nervously. Your Bianca’s done most of the sightseeing in Castelia—a lot of the places she wants to go aren’t pokéfriendly after all, not her fault—and besides, with your bad vision? What’s even the point? You chirp back something half-heartedly, hope she’ll read into it and pick something out for both of you to do.

    “Hmm. Okay. Do you want to go somewhere in the main city, or maybe by the docks?” The smudge of her face fiddles nervously with her hair. “Actually, scratch that. Do you want to go downtown? One chirp for yes, two chirps for no.”

    Oh, that’s actually really clever of her! You like this human. That’s a very smart idea. From what you’ve heard of downtown, it’s noisy and smells bad. Two chirps.

    “The docks?”

    What’s a dock? Um. No chirps. That’s a strange word. Dock. You know that audino sometimes work for humans called doctors, but you’re feeling quite fine—

    “Oh, sorry, the ocean. There’s a nice lookout of the ocean.”

    Ah. That does sound nice. One chirp.

    She beams. “That’s a great idea. I know a really nice spot where we can watch the ships come in; my mom used to take me there all the time as a kid.” She hoists her backpack up and swings it over her back with practiced ease. You can’t help but balk at how comically large it looks on her, the way it almost engulfs her shoulders like a tirtouga shell. What in the world does she have in there? Your Bianca’s bag is much smaller. The Rhea motions with her head. “Come on, follow me!”

    Unwittingly, your eyes flit over to the pokéball—she isn’t going to recall you? What if she walks too fast?—and then you hover after her.

    ※​

    You like the ocean. It’s big, wide, sparkling. The color is reassuring, almost like a night sky. You can’t pick out the details of the waves, but you almost don’t need to—when it all blurs together, the sun reflects off of the water and makes a thousand vanishing stars for you.

    “I grew up down the street from here,” the girl is saying. “My mom used to take me and my little brother here on the weekends all the time. Free entertainment, you know?”

    You don’t know, but you chirp politely.

    The girl looks up in alarm suddenly, and she’s quick to stand at attention. Her back is as straight as the lamppoles dotting the pier. “My Lord N!” Her voice is higher-pitched than before. Almost a squeak. You like her. “I didn’t mean for you to come out this way. I apologize for interrupting; I thought you were going to call.”

    He waves a hand. “Don’t worry about it, Rhea. I was in the area anyway. How are you?”

    Her voice is rapid-fire now. Official. Low, serious. “The extraction went fine. Tourmaline covered my tracks. Best to keep her out of the eastern boroughs for a few days, and obviously we’ll have to scramble the tags on the pokéball if we want to take her back to a center, but no trackers.”

    Something about her statement brings a smile to his face—at first you think it’s the strange words like boroughs or scramble or trackers but—“How’s Tourm doing? Is she happy?”

    Despite herself, the Rhea smiles. “Yeah. She’s a liepard now—that doesn’t help the fur problem much—but I think she likes the new form a lot.”

    “If both of you think you have some time, I’d love to say hello after this.”

    The Rhea chews her lip. Calculating something, you think, and then she says, “We should probably go north of here. I was planning to be out of here by sundown.”

    They’re talking in some strange code. Why do they have so many schedules? Your Bianca came and went as she pleased, and was much happier for it.

    “I understand. I’m heading north as well. Could you give us a moment?”

    “Of course, Lord N,” she says, and then strolls purposefully down the pier.

    That leaves, well, just you.

    “Hello,” the new human says. He’s a smudge of green and white on the horizon, and if not for the accessories he’s chosen to wear, you’d think he were a tree. He comes closer to you, but not too close, and then sits cross-legged on the wood of the dock with his chin in his hands, a full two feet away. These are a respectful bunch. “My name is N. Do you have a name?”

    Well that’s an interesting question to open up with. No one’s asked you that before. {Munny.}

    The features of his face flash and knit together for a moment, and then he says, “Ah, that’s a very nice name. Haven’t heard that for a munna before.” His teeth glimmer from beneath his smile, but it doesn’t seem like he fully means it. “Rhea over there tells me you’ve been very agitated. I wanted to ask you why. Are you hurt? Are you satisfied with how she’s taking care of you?”

    {No, I’m fine, actually.} You normally wouldn’t push confrontation, but luckily you actually are fine, so this is a good day for everyone. {Oh—I was wondering what she did to make me feel better?}

    “What she did?” he asks. “What do you mean?”

    {It’s just that normally only audino can heal pokémon,} you explain patiently for him. {Humans can’t heal pokémon. She must be very special. Touched by the Moon.}

    The N quickly shutters his eyes, and you aren’t quite sure what he means by that. He steeples his fingers across his nose and exhales sharply; you recoil in alarm as tendrils of his emotions suddenly flare out, big enough for you to see. You aren’t a good empath yet and you really can only sense things when humans are asleep, but he’s angry and he’s frustrated and it’s something you said and you want to shout sorry sorry sorry but won’t that just make it worse and—

    “Oh, hey.” His voice is quiet all of a sudden. “Hey, hey. I’m not angry at you. This isn’t your fault.” Is he talking to you? You nervously peak one eye open and uncurl a little, just a hair. He’s blurry, but he’s certainly looking at you. But if he’s not mad at you and it’s not your fault, whose fault is it? “Munny? Can you hear me?”

    Big silence. You’re a roiling sea of emotions and he’s the nightmare on the other side, lightning waiting to strike—

    “Do you mind if I sit a little closer? I think it’ll be easier for us to talk that way.”

    Oh. {Okay. If you’d like.}

    “Only if you’d like, Munny. I didn’t mean to scare you earlier, but that was my fault. I’m sorry. I’ll try not to let it happen again.”

    That’s very nice of him. You … didn’t really expect that. {Okay.}

    He inches a little closer. Still a solid foot away, very respectable distance. He doesn’t look like a munna, but he seems to understand proper spatial etiquette much better than most humans. They’re incredibly touchy creatures. Maybe he told the Rhea how to be polite as well. The ocean sparkles to your left.

    “I, uh, where were we?” He smiles nervously, a bit flustered. “Your question. Rhea is a normal human.”

    {She’s a very nice human!} you say defensively.

    “Oh, yes, she’s a very good human. Sorry.”

    He apologizes quite a bit to you. That’s normally your job. {It’s okay.}

    “Rhea is a very good, nice, human, but she doesn’t have magical healing powers,” the N corrects. “But humans have made inventions that can make pokémon feel better. They can use these inventions to heal pokémon, even if humans can’t heal pokémon themselves.” Big pause.

    Oh, that’s very nice of them. Why would they waste them on you, thought? Bianca had explained this once—they did sell Potions and Revives but they were very expensive, and to buy them you had to be good at battling, but to be good at battling your pokémon had to be healthy, but for your pokémon to be healthy you had to buy the items, so. It was a circle and the two of you were on the outside.

    “Anyway, I wanted to ask you about your trainer,” the N says.

    {Oh yes.} A pang of guilt. You feel bad for forgetting, but there’s just been so much to keep track of today. {I wanted to know. Where is my Bianca? Can I return to her?}

    “That’s,” N says, and sighs heavily, “what I wanted to ask you about.” He traces a pattern in the bench with his index finger, over and over again, and then all of a sudden he looks you squarely in the eyes. His eyes. They’re the color you see behind your eyelids right before you fall into slumber. “Rhea’s been watching your trainer for a while. She says that your trainer battles with you until you faint a lot.”

    Oh, that. Yes, it’s quite embarrassing. You don’t really know the numbers but you’re quite sure that, of Bianca’s team, you’re the one who’s knocked out the most. Even Mienny, who’s the newest and the youngest.

    You look up at N, but he’s fallen silent. Is he waiting for you to respond? That’s weird. You’re not used to that. It’s weird talking to someone who expects you to talk back. {I know,} you say glumly. {I’m trying to get stronger, really, I am! Then my Bianca can do better and I won’t faint as much.}

    The N sighs. You don’t think you gave the right answer. Oh no. Is he mad? No, he’s smiling now, a small one that doesn’t reach his eyes. “Do you think your trainer should be allowed to do that? It hurts you a lot.”

    {She heals me up right after!} Okay, not right after. Sometimes not for a while, and your bones ache and your mist is more of a wisp, but that’s not her fault either! She tries her best, and it’s not like you could do any better anyway. {And it makes her happy, so I’m happy as well.}

    He builds a mountain out of his fingers and rests them under his chin. He thinks for a long time. He’s not like you; you can tell that every word is weighed carefully in advance before it even has the time to approach his lips. “Rhea is in a group with me. Our goal is to make sure that pokémon don’t get hurt. If you want, we could put you somewhere else. Wherever you’d like. You wouldn’t have to battle any more.”

    Your flowers flash a bright pink before you can control yourself and tamp them back down. {I … I wouldn’t have to battle?}

    “Not unless you want to.”

    Oh, moon and stars. That would be such a relief. You wouldn’t have to think about how you’re too slow, or how your attacks aren’t strong enough, or how it hurts when you aren’t tough enough to tank a blow. You wouldn’t have to feel bad about letting everyone down, and—best of all, you wouldn’t have to feel guilty for when you did get stronger, and you made other pokémon hurt instead of you. Your flowers are practically glowing now, bright like the reflections of the sun on this ocean. {That’s … that would be lovely. Can I really?}

    The N nods. Doesn’t say anything else. He smiles. Seems happy you’re happy.

    And then.

    In a very small, very polite voice: {But will my Bianca be mad at me?}

    He fidgets with his fingers nervously. You’re suddenly struck by how long they are. He absently twirls a set of gold bracelets around and around on his wrist, where they make a gentle clacking sound. “You wouldn’t be returning to Bianca. You would go somewhere else.”

    {Somewhere else?} The lights stop flashing through your flowers, and suddenly you feel dim, deflated. That future of you not fighting suddenly vanishes until it’s nothing more than wisps of dream smoke. {Where?}

    “Wherever you’d like,” the N says quietly, still twirling the bracelets.

    {Can’t I go back to her?} This doesn’t seem fair.

    “If you do, you’ll probably have to battle again. She is a trainer, Munny. You are a pokémon. That’s part of what she does.”

    {Oh.} Yes, he’s quite right. You were stupid for thinking otherwise.

    “You don’t have to answer right away. I want you to think it over first.”

    This isn’t a very fun thought. You want to change the subject. Right now. {You look like someone who has interesting dreams.}

    There’s a big black-and-white hat on his head, so the shadow almost obscures his eyes, but you see him flinch back in surprise. Then, his lips crack into a smile. “You’re very observant, Munny.”

    {What kind of dreams do you have?}

    “I dream of the future.”

    {The future?}

    “Yes. It’s a place where pokémon are free to do what they want, and they live happily amongst one another.” His voice is quiet now, but it’s still low and fast, so it’s almost in perfect rhythm with the waves dashing against the pier. “A lot of the details are blurry, though. Sometimes it doesn’t even feel like it was even a dream I had to begin with.”

    {Oh. Home.} You actually know a lot about these. You’ve dreamed about your home as well. And those bits about forgetting a lot of the details … you know that as well. {The kind that goes away when you wake up?}

    Yes, he’s smiling, but it doesn’t look happy in the slightest. “Sort of. But I’ll get there again one day. It won’t be a dream forever.”

    {I hope so. Sad dreams are the worst.}

    You want to correct yourself, but you don’t want to waste his time. But as soon as you say it, you realize your mistake: sad dreams aren’t the worst. When you wake up from a nightmare, you open your eyes in a better world. When you wake up from a happy dream …

    You both sit in silence for some time. The waves wash in, and then they wash out.

    Finally, he shakes his head, almost like he’s flicking water out of his mane or something, and he clears his throat. “Whether you decide to go back to Bianca or not is entirely up to you,” the N says, but you can’t shake the feeling that he doesn’t think this is fine, that you’ve somehow made the wrong choice already. “You’re allowed to do whatever you’d like. You can stay with us and we can talk about where you’d like to go from here.” There’s a long pause. When you don’t say anything, he adds, “Or Rhea can escort you back to your trainer.”

    Oh thank goodness. Hopefully your Bianca won’t be mad at you. {Thank you. I’d like that.}

    There’s. Another long bit of silence. He seems upset somehow, and you don’t know what you did to cause it. “Before I leave, though, do you mind if I trouble you for one more question?”

    You wait expectantly, but he doesn’t ask the question. Oh. Right. {No, go ahead.}

    {Your trainer,} he says, and a little chill goes down your back as you realize he’s not speaking with a human tongue any more. There’s suddenly layers that the human tongue never has, the way trainer has the same cadence as friend. {She gives her dreams to you. Is it just her nightmares, or do you get to share the happy ones as well?}

    You’re so stunned at the sound of his human voice speaking your language that you don’t even know how to respond to him, let alone think over the words that he’s saying. You hover perfectly still, the munna equivalent of a blue screen, and by the time you can scrape together some words, the N is standing up; the Rhea is back.

    “Thank you, Rhea, for escorting her to her trainer,” the N says. “And thank you for your time, Munny.”

    You can’t tell properly from this distance, but the Rhea’s face is contorted in fire. “I can’t just take her back; she’s only going to get hurt again.”

    “It’s her choice, Rhea,” the N says quietly, casting a look over his shoulder towards you. He doesn’t sound convinced. Not like your Bianca, who always knew what was best. “We can’t force her to stay; that’d be just as bad.”

    “Just as bad as forcing her to faint again?”

    That shuts the N up for a second, and you can see him cycle through his open mouth and closed mouth positions without any words coming out. His head hangs so that his mane hides his face. “Could you please tell her, Munny? Tell her what you told me.”

    {She can’t understand me, can she?} You almost hope not. You’re not used to this many people asking your opinion, and your words aren’t nearly as good.

    “Not the actual words. But, it’s like you said. Rhea is a very nice human. She’ll understand the meaning behind it.”

    You float closer to Rhea, so close you can almost see the way the light reflects off of her eyes, far too close for a respectful munna but just close enough for a respectful human. {I love my Bianca! I do. She gave me everything I have. It’s not her fault that I’m not strong enough yet, and better yet, she’s going to help me become stronger! She’s a very busy human, and out of all of the munna in my dreamyard to join her team, she picked me, so of course I need to work hard and repay her! If I left now, she’d be really sad, and besides—}

    It takes all of your energy, the bits that the Rhea gave you and a little extra besides. You aren’t like a big musharna; you can’t control your smoke very carefully, but you have to try. So you gather it all up and scoop it into a rough approximation of your feelings, and that all takes the form of the day you first met your Bianca. She scooped you up into the air, her hands far, far too tight around you, and then she held you close, smiling, the way only your parents would, and she whispered a name for you. She became your whole world, your Moon, plucked you from a dark night and made herself into your light.

    {—if this is what it takes for her to love me like I am, then … that’s what I’ll do, don’t you think? I’ll get stronger, and then I can take it!}

    There’s a long silence.

    The smoke swirls tighter, condenses in the image of her clutching you to her stomach. In the mist, you’re completely pink, touched by the Moon. With her you know exactly who you are supposed to be.

    You look at both humans, nervous. {Did I do okay?}

    The Rhea is crying. The N’s mane and hat are in the way, but it looks like he might be as well.

    You wish they were asleep so you could take their bad dreams away, so they wouldn’t cry like this. But they aren’t. They’re awake, and you’re awake, and you can’t wake up.

    ※​

    Your Bianca sniffles, even thirty minutes after you’ve reunited with her and the trouble is all cleared up. You try to cheer her up, but it doesn’t work.

    “Oh, Munny,” she says, wiping her nose on the sleeve of her shirt. “The girl who found you said some horrible things. She said that I was a bad trainer for letting this happen to you, for letting you get hurt. She said if I really cared so much about learning about all of you, I should just do that instead. Imagine! Me, the researcher?” Another sniff. “I’m not a bad trainer! Right?”

    No! You nuzzle her fiercely. She is a good person. You know she won’t understand that, but you hope that, like the Rhea, she gets the meaning behind your words.

    She laughs weakly, but it’s more of a sob. “Oh, thank you, Munny.” She hugs you tight, so close it’s hard to breathe. “I know you can’t be mad at me, but everything she said just made me feel so bad, and …” She trails off. “Oh, I just feel so horrible.”

    You want to cry too. Your heart breaks for your dear Bianca, who doesn’t deserve to feel bad. After all, it wasn’t her fault that any of this happened, and you both know it! You chirp at her reassuringly, but it doesn’t seem to help. Her pain is important! So important. She doesn’t deserve to hurt like this, to have her flaws brought out under a magnifying glass, burned like leaves under the lens. The Rhea doesn’t have a potion to make your Bianca’s pain go away, and that doesn’t strike you as fair.

    Your Bianca needn’t worry. You’ll get stronger. You’ll think less about your parents, of your home at the dreamyard, of the Moon that’s outside of her orbit. You’ll stop losing so much. Then it won’t matter. If you don’t faint then no one can be mad at you for making them feel bad, right?

    That night, as you all settle in for sleep in the pokécenter, you think about what the N asked you, about the answer you never gave. Your Bianca asked you if you could eat her bad dreams for her, true. And you’d never dream of taking the good ones from her; that simply wouldn’t be fair. She worked hard for those. She gets to keep them.

    That night, she dreams again of her father, hulking and monstrous, and you take it from her. You take it all. Her dreams are dark and scattered, fragmented like shards of broken glass. They hurt to touch, but you lovingly scoop them all up anyway, just like every other time she’s asked you to protect her. In the morning she wakes up rosy-eyed and refreshed, and you curl a little closer in your cloud of pink smoke. Sad. For a moment you can’t shake the image of how the Rhea and the N cried for you on the docks. For a moment you have the feeling that you’re sleeping and you can’t wake up.

    But you have to wake up. It’s a new day, and your Bianca is waiting. The Moon is set.

    It’s not her fault. She gave you her nightmares, but she never asked you to give her your love.

    ※​
     
    Last edited:
    xiv. nocturne
  • kintsugi

    golden scars
    Location
    waiting for the fog to roll out
    Pronouns
    she/her
    Partners
    1. silvally-grass
    2. lapras
    3. golurk

    xiv. nocturne

    ※​

    You were born from the earth nine hundred and twelve thousand, eight hundred fifty-four nights ago. Human hands pulled you from deep, deep underground and gave you a body to contain your breath.

    Practiced hands gave you form. You were wet clay, shaped. Widespread wings to engulf the sky. Enormous eye to survey, to watch and guard.

    Careful hands gave you color. Gold you were, for the fields of wheat. Blue, for the endless sky. Green you were, for the towering trees. Black, for the glimmering night.

    Calloused hands gave you fire. From the kiln you received warmth, and from that warmth your skin grew strong enough to withstand any impact.

    But gentle were the hands that gave you life. An obsidian knife flashed across an open palm, calling blood to rise above skin. It was smeared on the tips of your wings, across the edges of your being, and in that moment the pact was complete: red you were, for the human that shared your life. From the moment that the blood touched your skin, you were one life, one pain.

    And so the two of you were one, human and pokémon. He gave you some of his red and in return you protected the red he kept within him, until, one day—the roar of dragons split open the skies, cleaving day and night. Lancing thunder struck down the towering forests. A raging inferno devoured the plains of wheat. Blue, black, green, and gold faded from you, and when the fighting eclipsed all else and reached your home, they took your red as well and cast him deep into the earth.

    The land and his flesh were blown away. Without the humans and their hands, the earth withered and rotted into the brown of the desert sands. But you remained, your skin a multicolored farce of what the land used to be. The events of that day were sad. But far worse was when the sun rose and fell around you, crafting a tragedy two thousand years in the making until only the dunes remained, dotted here and there with crumbling relics, a lone spire.

    Only the dunes remained, and you, to watch the sands dance.

    ※​

    You call upon the zen ones sometimes. The ancient darma stand guard over the remains, guarding the castle you once served even as it sinks further into the sands.

    When they were solidified into stone, they were given no eyes, no ears, no movement. Unlike you, they received no red when they were chiseled out of the earth’s loving embrace, and so they stand solemn guardian, unable to move or feel. Their burden is to witness, and to those who are worthy, speak.

    Where you were once two and now one, they were once five and always five, the last living things to remember your era. You return to the entrance of the ruins once each sun, to remember. They are five specks of green in the desert, like the forests you once knew.

    {Greetings,} you say, hovering over to them.

    {Greetings, loresinger,} says Four. {Were the sands kind to you?}

    You dip low, your own sort of nod of affirmation. {The sands were kind. I hope they were for you as well.}

    {They were, and we have known nothing else. Tell us something new, loresinger,} says Two. {Tell us what you have heard this year.}

    And there is so much, and yet at the same time there is so little. It feels like you are living in a halcyon period. You’ve seen it happen before. First the air settles, then the clouds roll in, and then the rain pours down. For a few serene hours, the maractus wander across the moonlit dunes, the spines of the desert greedily gathering all the moisture they will see for an untold number of moons.

    {Yes, loresinger,} says Five. {What news do you have of the world?}

    Tonight the winds are still, but one day soon they will pick up. With them will come a sandstorm so great that you fear this entire world will be consumed. You have seen it. And yet, despite that, the people are calm, unaware of what lies just beyond the horizon. And so you find yourself saying: {I have nothing new to share. The sands were quiet this year.}

    Three is unsatisfied with that. You sense that much. Even if they no longer have the movement to convey it, it lies in their voice. {Nothing new?} Three says scornfully. {Then give us something old, loresinger. You who have seen so much.}

    Something old. Unbidden, the memory springs to you, an echo of the sandstorm rising on the horizon. What you think of is more than old; it’s ancient, and yet it’s the same story that you’ve heard wander across a thousand nights. A story whispered into your clay as soft hands stretched your wings, gave you shape, gave you flight. There is beauty in what precedes the storm in these parts. You imagine the calm before the rain, the way the winds crescendo and then fall silent to listen for just an instant before the downpour begins. After all, you are the loresinger. What better tale to tell on a halcyon night than this one?

    {Very well,} you say, echoing words you have not heard aloud for two thousand years. {Listen carefully my friends, as I tell you of the gift of Stormdancer.}

    ※​

    This world was born into chaos. A great storm raged in the skies and battered the plains below. Harsh winters gave way to blazing summers. The earth froze, and it burned, and it shuddered. In the storm was only violence: ice, fire, and thunder roared in equal parts.

    Amidst that chaos, a great dragon was born. And she looked at the world, and she wept for it. In the flames, her tears seared off into the sun; in the cold, they froze; in the storms, they washed away. And even though she saw that it was futile, even though there was nothing she could do, she wept. From her tears rose a great ocean, which grew so vast that it absorbed the lightning, quenched the fire, halted the glaciers. The dragon then swallowed the ocean inside of herself, and the battle raged within her chest, so that through her, the land grew peaceful once more.

    For many suns, the great dragon roamed the earth she had tamed, alone. Where lesser beings may have only seen a barren wasteland, she saw an avenue for great beauty. With her wings she created the first wind; with her talons she scraped furrows that sprouted into forests; with her tail she swept mountains and valleys. Within her, a battle raged—the storm of ice, fire, and thunder that she had calmed could never truly be at peace—but without, the earth flourished.

    The land that she had watered gave way to life, and the dragon witnessed this with both awe and pride. Soon, her children crawled across every corner of the earth, and yet she feared they would not be strong enough to face the troubles ahead, should the land lapse into chaos again. For the Dragonmother sensed that one day her body would fail her, and the primordial storm would break free once more. She knew her children needed to be prepared.

    So to all living creatures, the Dragonmother gave out great gifts. To one she gave her ember; to another, her spark; to a third, her frost. She set some to be the guardians of the winds, others to be the guardians of earth. Piece by piece the Dragonmother gave out more and more, until she was diminished. From her rose hundreds of species of pokémon, who travelled far and wide across the lands.

    This the Dragonmother watched, and she smiled, and she prepared to rest.

    But as she folded her wings around herself and prepared to enter the eternal slumber, she heard a voice crying out. Unlike the rest of her children, who had grown mighty, this one was feeble and pitiful. When she had doled out her gifts, it had been forgotten, and so, like a seedling in the shadow of a red rock, it could not grow strong.

    With doleful, rheumy eyes, the Dragonmother turned to her youngest child. Human looked back at her, toothless and fangless, with no weapons to call its own. It begged her for help, even as the rest of its siblings raged around it with their newfound strength and the stormclouds gathered overhead. Weakly, Human called out again, a pathetic cry that was consumed by even the faint sounds of the Dragonmother’s labored breaths.

    Mother. Please.

    {My sweet child, I am so sorry. I am diminished,} said the Dragonmother sadly.

    And it was true. Her scales had lost their luster; her limbs had leeched off their strength. The battle of ice and fire and thunder had sapped her dry. But the Dragonmother could not bear to leave any of her children to suffer, and so in her last moments, she called close her oldest daughter.

    {Stormdancer,} she said quietly, her breath growing short even as her words became ever more urgent. {To your youngest sibling, I beg that you show compassion and mercy. Teach them your strength. Lend out your gift, so that they may be like you.}

    Stormdancer nodded solemnly, and with this final mandate, the Dragonmother gave up the last of her breath and turned to stone. The earth rumbled, and then unnaturally dark clouds gathered overhead, seething and more violent than any sky any living creature had ever seen. It was as the Dragonmother had feared: without her to contain it, the primordial storm was free once more.

    And so Stormdancer turned to Human, who sobbed and clutched tightly to their mother’s stony form.

    “Forgive me, dear sibling,” said Stormdancer, bowing low. “This is all I know how to give.”

    The starry river stretched above her in a silver ribbon; below, the clouds swirled and rumbled with the terrible storm that the Dragonmother had set free at last.

    But Stormdancer pirouetted once, and then wove her limbs into a twisting spiral, danced so gracefully and sang a melody so sweet and pure that the entire earth fell quiet to listen. The clouds themselves hushed. Stormdancer sang for Human and paid the oncoming storm no heed.

    Like their mother before them, Human witnessed. The beauty of her performance drove Human to weep bitter tears, which fell instead of the raindrops and darkened their stony mother below.

    When Stormdancer was done, Human was speechless for one day and one night, drenched in the downpour that finally came, that Human endured. Finally, Human said, “Your music was beautiful, Stormdancer. But how can I learn from this? I cannot move like you; my limbs will never be as graceful as yours. How can I learn your gift?”

    “My sweet sibling.” Stormdancer smiled. “Listen to yourself. You already have.”

    “What do you mean?”

    “Come back to me on this day each year, and I will sing for you my aria, and so share with you my gift of Voice. When I sing, the world has no choice but to stop and listen.” Stormdancer swept out one leg and curtsied deep. “The same holds true for you now, dear sibling. When you speak, all creatures in this world will listen. This is the gift we share.”

    ※​

    By the time you finish your story, the winds have fallen completely silent. A rarity for this deep in the desert.

    Four speaks up first. {Thank you, loresinger. That was a good offering.}

    {A good offering,} Two repeats solemnly.

    {It was only mine to share.} Unbidden, the words of the old traditions fall from you, like spare feathers. {May you pass it along.}

    “I always heard there was a different ending,” says a voice, and you and the zen ones all turn to see a human emerging across the moonlit dunes, casting a sharp shadow on the fuzziness of the sand.

    {A different ending?} Three asks.

    “Yes, one that a hydreigon told me.”

    {Aha, and my friend the King of Unova told me you’re full of shit,} says Five, which sends a few titters echoing amongst the zen ones. {A dragon, telling stories to a human. Imagine that.}

    But One isn’t so easily stirred to humor. {Besides, what would you know of these matters?} they scoff.

    “It was just a story I heard once,” repeats the voice, walking up to you and then folding himself so he sits cross-legged in the circle of the zen ones. “Forgive me, my friend. But your words do not fall on deaf ears. When you speak, I have no choice but to stop and listen.”

    {Oho!} Three chortles. {You are a feisty one indeed. Look at this human, my brethren. One gifted with a voice, deigning to speak to the voiceless. See how he claims to know the secrets of dragons and tells us a new ending to our own story. You humans are all the same, trying to put words into our mouths while claiming to listen. But we are of the sands, foolish boy, and we will not sit quietly while you reshape our history to us.} One laughs whole-heartedly alongside, and Five chuckles, but Two and Four are silent. Curious. Like you. He heard your story, but it’s more than that—he speaks like someone who understands what it means.

    “I apologize for intruding upon your sands,” says the human. Around his neck he wears a strange symbol: a black orb with rings of blue. It shimmers with the reflection of the milky stars stretching above. “If you want me to leave, tell me, and I will immediately go.”

    {Do so, paleskin!} shouts Three, gleeful. {We Darmanitan have guarded this place from your kind for centuries, and we shall do so for centuries more. Your soft words cannot delude us. You may have a human voice, but when you speak we will not listen.}

    You tense, expecting fire. The human carries no pocketspheres at his waist; he has no servants to whom to issue commands. He is gifted with voice but he has yet to use it to make others into his weapons. How will he fight them off?

    “I understand,” he says instead. “Thank you for your letting me share your company.” He unfolds once more, extending long, gangly legs like those of a zebstrika, and he bows low. “May the sands be kind.”

    {For you as well,} replies Three, almost without realizing, and before any of them can say anything else, the human pads away into the silent night.

    {May the sands be kind,} you say quickly to the zen ones, the words almost coming out in a jumbled mess, and even as the chorus of “for you as well” rings behind you, you’re already fluttering up behind the human, your shadow twining with his on the smooth dunes as he retraces his steps.

    From behind, you can see the corner of his lips tilt up into a smile. “Hello. It’s nice to meet you.”

    {You are not like other humans.}

    He exhales quietly, his breath cold in the desert night. “I get that a lot.”

    He keeps walking with a single-minded determination, one foot in front of the other. Around you, the sand is untouched, windswept, indented only by a single pair of footsteps trailing towards the desert ruins, and the half-trail that loops back the way it came.

    {Where are you going?}

    “Truly? I don’t know yet. Forward, I suppose.”

    There’s the soft whisper of his footsteps in the sand, and nothing more.

    {Are you angry that the zen ones dismissed you?} you ask at last.

    He squares his hands in the pockets of his pants, hunches his shoulders against the wind—but the night is calm. There’s nothing to guard against. “A little,” he admits. “But I don’t know if anger is the right word. It isn’t their fault. They aren’t wrong to scorn me.” He pauses. “Putting words into our mouths while claiming to listen.” And this time, there’s no mistaking the tinge of bitterness that colors his words. “Pokémon never tell lies. The darmanitan can see it, even if I no longer know myself.”

    This human reminds you of the stone carvings your old human once made of the Dragonmother, her chest a writhing mass, the edges of her body sharp and jagged from the chaos she can’t contain. {Can see what?}

    He doesn’t answer your question, not at first. Instead, he stops and whirls to look at you, takes in your entire form. He’s not angry, he’s not awed, he’s not greedy. Over the years a hundred humans have looked at you rising above the sands, but few of them ever saw you as an equal. The stars glisten in the shine of his eyes; there’s liquid there, enough for a reflection. “When I was a child, I heard the same legend as the one you just told now. He called it Meloetta and the Nocturne Lament, and it was a story of music so powerful that it had the ability to change hearts and minds alike. She was the true bridge between humans and pokémon, able to switch readily between her fighting and her words. When humans called to her, she gave them her voice, and turned to her dancing instead. But the dragon who told me this story had a different ending. Would you permit me to share it?”

    You bob up and down expectantly. But when he doesn’t take that as affirmation, you quickly chime in, {Of course.}

    He nods, and then, with a quiet storyteller’s voice, he speaks. “For years, the human returned to Meloetta on the longest night of the year, when winter was at its peak and the world was at its coldest. And on that night, Meloetta would perform her relic song, a final vestige of an older time.” He tilts his hand toward the silhouette of the ruins on the horizon, speckled with the five zen ones. “They named her venue the Relic Castle, for the gift of her song. Eventually, humanity prospered, and soon it wasn’t just one human, or two—an entire generation gathered for her. They were always silent when they watched her, and at the beginning of her performance they only greeted her with the sounds of their hands, but when she was finished, they could all Speak, and they sang their praises with their lips and shared her gift amongst themselves.

    “But one day, a war broke out between two nations. Seeking to hit his enemies where they would suffer the most, and wanting to end the war quickly before it would cause any more harm to his people, the king of one of the nations gathered his armies and found where Meloetta rested before the winter solstice. He sought to steal her gift for himself and his people, so that it could no longer be turned against him. And so he commanded his people to creep up on Meloetta as she slept, and they surrounded her, and they tore out her throat.

    “They made a fatal mistake, for they could not kill their sister so easily. But even as they clutched their prize in their hands, even as she lay bleeding in the dirt, Meloetta looked at the one who had gathered all the others to his side, and she chose not to strike them down where they stood. Instead, with the last of her strength, with her voice stolen from her, she rasped her final gift.” The human looks at you, and he looks past you, and he looks through you. And when he speaks again you can hear the power leave his voice. He’s quiet. Hesitant, almost, when he says, {Our mother gave out many gifts, but remember this, dear sibling: she gave gifts of strength, not power. You must never forget that. Strength allows you to endure pain. Power lets you inflict pain on others. Now that you have my gift of blood, you must learn the difference, or else lose yourself.}

    He falls silent.

    {You can speak like us,} you say at last. It’s the easier thing to address.

    The human stops walking for a second, and turns back to look at you. His hair blows in the wind. You haven’t seen many human smiles, but this is certainly sadness in the shape of one. {The dialect of sand is my native tongue.}

    The only sound is your wingbeats, and even that is dampened on the massive expanse of sand. It feels wrong to fill the moments after Stormdancer’s song with anything but silence.

    This is a strange human indeed. He has Stormdancer’s gift, but he speaks, and he listens. But what drove him this far into the desert? What does he seek?

    And what has he found?

    Strangers to the desert may not understand what makes it so strange, not at first glance. The sands shift with time. Imperfections are buried. If you do not know where to look, you will lose yourself.

    This human looks everywhere but forward.

    {Why does understanding our tongue make you sad?} you ask finally. If you must break the silence you may as well do it with a question. {It is a great gift. Many humans would be jealous.}

    {Do you think they would? I find that many humans already think they have this gift. They listen and think this precludes them from understanding.}

    You don’t quite know how to answer that.

    The human continues: {When I set out, everything seemed so simple, so black and white. But the more I speak to humans and pokémon, the more I realize they are both afraid to change. My voice cannot convince them. I wonder if a better human might be able to do more; or perhaps if a pokémon with the power of Voice might’ve been a better messenger than a human with the ability to listen.}

    {Messenger for what?}

    {Why do you live this deep in the desert?} he asks, and at first you cannot understand how his question answers your own.

    But—oh. {The ruins were my home. They bring me solace.}

    The human nods. {Do you fear what lies beyond the dunes? Do you know it?}

    {Many who cross these sands bring tales of the lands beyond.} All creatures fear the unknown. Even you, who had the fear tempered out of you thousands of suns ago. {But they are foreign to me, yes.}

    {Sigilyph haven’t been forged since before the Great War,} the human says, and it takes you a moment to realize he’s referring to you. {And … I don’t know entirely why your people fell, but I think it was in a great battle. Humans are asking pokémon to fight once more, and this time they’re asking all the pokémon.}

    You’ve heard of this story a few times. Humans created pocketspheres for this fight, you know. And throughout the centuries you’ve seen enough of these fights that they no longer seem surprising to you, even if each one feels uniquely tragic. {Is there another war?}

    {Of sorts.} The human looks distinctly uncomfortable when he adds, {But this time, it doesn’t look like a war. Humans don’t treat it like one.}

    {A war that you don’t treat like a war?} You struggle to puzzle through what he’s saying; there are gaps in his words, sentences he doesn’t realize he wants you to fill in. {But are you not …}

    {I am one who plays at having the gift of Voice, yes,} the human says. There is no mistaking the bitterness in his voice this time.

    You are, admittedly, curious. And no one who has crossed the sands has ever been able to answer this question for you. {This spectacle, this war that does not behave like a war. Why do they make us fight in it?}

    He exhales sharply through his nose. {I don’t know.}

    The negative response does not disappoint you. You have pondered this question for a hundred years, and you will likely do so for a hundred more. Even still, it takes you nearly a hundred steps to mull his response over.

    Perhaps, despite himself, he adds, {They think that is your purpose.}

    Your purpose.

    You were forged for a war. You know that much. They painted you with their colors, but they shaped you with their hands. And the shape they gave for you was one for violence. You had eyes, to take in the battle. Wings, to fly above. A great magic, sealed within you, to unleash in rippling waves on the unprepared.

    But the war came and went, and all those who started it went as well, but you stayed. Without the war, what purpose would your Red have given you?

    There is no knowing that answer. You could guess, perhaps. Your Red was a quiet type. He might’ve been content to stretch out in the sun, to share more stories with you, to unpick Stormdancer’s end.

    {I have heard your ending before,} you tell this human at last. {It was a sad one, then and now.}

    {As a child I thought it was a pokémon who sought to steal Meloetta’s gift,} he admits, sounding almost ashamed. {But as I grew older I realized it could have only been a human.}

    You were shaped with many purposes, but the one you wanted most of all was a mouth. They forced you for a purpose, but that purpose was not to speak.

    If you could steal his Voice, would you? Wouldn’t anyone?

    While you consider, his mind goes in a different direction. He blinks against the stinging wind. {Do you think she knew?} he asks quietly.

    {Knew?}

    {When she was the first to invoke the nocturne lament. Do you think she knew what it would come to mean?} The questions tumble out, all the ones you haven’t pondered since you first heard this story. This human is so young, and yet they spill from him with the force of having been pent-up for centuries. This strange one carries the sandstorm inside of him. {Stormdancer gave her greatest gift to help those who would never understand the true weight of her sacrifice, what it would one day cost her to share her Voice with those who envied her gift. And she helped a lot of people, yes, but do you think she knew how much it would hurt her?} You watch. He swallows nervously. Looks off into the distance. {And if she knew, do you think she would’ve done it anyway? Or would she have held her tongue, and simply watched the human suffer?}

    You can sense the second question buried beneath his words, archaic and imposing, a relic in the sands. He is one with the gift of voice. Should he share his words with those who would sooner tear out his throat than hear his wish?

    He is quiet for a long while. As are you.

    You feel rather than hear a tremor run through the sands, something stirring deep below, a rumbling so ancient and powerful that it could only have one source—

    What he asks is a pure ideal. If there is such thing as sacrifice, if a gift can be given with the understanding that nothing will come out of it. And it is in understanding this gift that you know what answer you can give him, even if you know it will take him time and more time to understand it.

    You know. Gentle hands shaped you, once. Gave you form. Drenched you in red. They gave you a great gift, and you gave them one in return. But neither of you ever asked or took, only gave.

    {We have our two endings to the story,} you tell him quietly. {In mine, Stormdancer sang for the humans, as she did in yours. But her ending was much the same. As she sang, her Voice poured out of her and into Human; the light faded, and her magic left her. On her final pirouette, she no longer had her voice; by the time Human asked its question of her, she could only dance. From that moment on, she was still Stormdancer, but a part of her was diminished, just like her mother. Without her Voice, she faded from our world and was swallowed by time.

    {But which is truth? I have seen two thousand years and I could not tell you which is which.} You look at him and his sad smile. {I prefer to think she knew, and gave of herself anyway. Stormdancer had two gifts, after all. From her the humans received their voice, and with it the power to be heard by all. But to pokémon she gave the nocturne lament, and with it the strength to see things through to their bitter end, to protect those who cannot protect themselves. Her words carry great power—across all of Unova, no matter what language we speak, every pokémon can recognize the nocturne lament, and we know what it calls us to do, and what will become of those who steel the courage to invoke it.}

    Your singular eye blinks once. You think of the day that you first heard the dragons roar. You survived. You stayed. You were forged for a war, but it wasn’t duty that held you there. You remained for your Red, and you remained every day after that.

    The human nods, but he doesn’t look convinced. {That was the mistake the king made. Stormdancer’s magic was not in her throat, but in her voice,} he replies softly.

    The tremor stills. Unaware, perhaps, the human does as well.

    Perhaps unintentionally, he has betrayed his thoughts. He cannot fathom a world in which Stormdancer would choose to give of herself; the only one he could believe in is the one in which her gift was taken from her.

    So you tell him what you learned then, what kept you going even after your red vanished into the desert sands. {When you love someone more than you love yourself, you give it power over you. Whether Stormandancer sang until her voice grew ragged and her gift flowed out of her, or whether the humans one day crept up and stole her song for themselves—I think she knew what her fate would be. The truth is she did not care what it would cost her, and not caring destroyed her. That was the price she paid for us to receive of her gifts.}

    The green-haired human goes completely motionless, and it is when he stands still that you sense it fully: a sandstorm rages within him, so great that he will consume the whole world, forge it anew. His hands are practiced, calloused, careful, gentle—he will shape this world, surely.

    He is young, though, and it will take him time. He is too wrapped up in questions of purpose, of being. If Stormdancer meant to do this. If you were meant for war. If he is meant for a destiny beyond his comprehension.

    There is a reassurance to be found in decisions made beyond your control. You know why he would prefer the ending where Stormdancer’s voice was stolen alongside her choice. It is simpler sometimes to imagine that the world that shaped you is stronger than you, that the form you are forged into must determine your life.

    After the war, you became the loresinger. You decided it for yourself, without your Red, because that was who you wanted to be.

    So you ask him a question to see which one he will offer in response, a tradition from long ago. {The dragon who told you of Stormdancer. What did he tell you happened to the Dragonmother when she rose from her stony slumber?}

    {She was sundered by a pair of selfish humans,} he answers immediately. {Two irreconcilable creatures arose from her stony form, and they have never touched since.}

    Ah. He does not understand the full weight of Stormdancer’s burden. So you say, {Like you, I have heard a different ending. Again, I do not know which is truth and which is imagination. Would you permit me to share it?}

    {Of course.}

    {The Dragonmother was lonely. When she next awoke, she saw that all of her children had grown away from her, and she walked the world without equal. The earth’s children love their mother, but she has strength that cannot be matched: where she wanted companions, they saw only a goddess. She chose to divide herself into two, so that there would always be one in the world to understand her. One became two so that two could be like one.}

    He looks at you for a very long moment, and when he speaks again, it is the question you wanted him to ask all this time, with his Voice: “Why are you telling me this?”

    There are some each generation who are destined to be torches, to light themselves on fire so that the rest of the world can see light. Your Red was one, and you sense that this one may be as well.

    But here is the beauty of a person who is born to be a torch: most pass light on to others, but there was first one that had to be dipped into the fire.

    You look at him, and imagine a voice pouring from the mouth no one saw fit to give you. {Because Stormdancer inherited more from our mother than just her Voice. She took our mother’s burden: to be understood by the world you must give it some of yourself. To shape the world you must accept its contradictions.}

    He blinks against the cold wind, and then says, “Do you think that’s why she did it?”

    Easier to answer his question with another. {I wonder which you think is most important. Does it matter why Stormdancer’s voice was lost? Or when, or how, or by whom? Or for her, does it merely matter that she no longer has it?} You have seen wars, and death, and time. They will shake you no longer; ever since your Red died, they ceased to hold power over you. Here in the desert, the sands of time became a blur. But you know, as this one is beginning to learn, that the most important questions, the ones that lived through the suns, were always the ones that began with why. These were the questions that became the lore. These were the questions that led you to sing.

    This time, he does shiver in the cold wind, in the storm that brews around him. He is strong enough to endure it, to change this land, and yet you know: it will change him as well. That is what the winds always do, even to the tallest rock. “It is a question with no answer,” he says slowly. “When the Dragonmother returned, she found that no matter how she saw herself, the world would revere her regardless.”

    He is close, but far.

    It was in thinking of the Dragonmother that you saw who you wanted to be. She was unsatisfied with herself, how she fit her purpose—so she changed. So you changed as well. Perhaps she was afraid, in that moment before she decided who she wanted to be. Perhaps she didn’t hesitate. You certainly did.

    {But did that stop her from doing what needed to be done?}

    This time, the question makes him flinch. “No.”

    {Stormdancer’s gift to pokémon,} you explain to him calmly, {has a specific power, even over us. I wonder—does it bind you as well?}

    A slight nod. “I have learned many tongues, but in none of them can I say her words.”

    You come to a halt in front of him. This child would wander for miles into a desert to find a better ending than the one he was told, but it never occurred to him to tell one of his own. He will find that such answers do not come easily. But if he gets nothing else out of this, he must understand this. {Then you are likewise bound.} When he does not respond to your unspoken question, you give it voice, gently prodding, { Until you understand her burden—and truly understand it—you will find that her words die on your lips. Do you know her burden?}

    “The world only changes through sacrifice,” he replies, but you see that in him the words are inert; they do not spark his torch into flame. “There was an imbalance that left humans weaker; in correcting it and offering mercy, Meloetta had to lose her own gift. And Meloetta knew that, or she discovered it, on the night that she gave humans Voice. And the Dragonmother saw that as well, in swallowing the storm to keep it from harming others. You must embrace the imperfections of the world if you want to shield others from them.”

    {You do not sound convinced,} you observe.

    This draws a tiny smile, strangely enough. Humans. You never know what brings them joy. “I’m not.”

    That is fair, you decide. There’s only so much to be learned from a single night of stories, only so much room for a mind to change. The two of you walk a bit further. The zen ones and their domain receded into the night long ago.

    “In our stories, Stormdancer and the Dragonmother both got to choose the nature of their sacrifice,” he says at last, refusing to look you in the eye. “And both of them chose to give of themselves. But … if the change I seek requires someone else to sacrifice in my stead—would you still call that sacrifice at all? Would that still be worth the change?”

    If you could’ve died in your Rred’s place, you would have, without question. But that choice was never offered, and instead your red chose to die for you, and leave you to endure the sands alone. {I suppose that sacrifice’s worth,} you say levelly, {depends on if you can believe in it.}

    Legends say that the Twin Gods draw strength from conviction—but you have always found it such a distinctly odd, distinctly mortal idea that this would be unique. All things draw strength from conviction; all things matter only as much as people think they do. Once you live enough suns and see what sinks, what stays, this simple fact becomes undoubtable.

    “You think belief is that powerful?”

    Without you noticing, the sands have shifted, and now he is the one asking you questions, and you the one giving words to the answers you hold within.

    {In her generosity, Stormdancer was swallowed by time. History is unkind to the voiceless. But across the sands I have heard many stories of Stormdancer and the Dragonmother, from many who wander.} He may be the first human in many suns to trade stories with you, but he is certainly not the first person. {For some, Stormdancer is a great ocean spirit, who at the change of the tides switches skins between a man and an enormous turtle and ferried many people away from the first flood. For others, she is the trickster, who took pity on a human child and taught them how to lie. For others still, she is the bravest of their clan, marked with the stripes of the storm to symbolize how they stand apart from the rest.}

    When your Red passed, for a while you had no purpose. Only he could command you to rest. Without him, what could you be instead?

    The desert winds revealed the answer to your own question of purpose, as they always did. Like a fossil slowly shaking free from layers of sandstone, you came to see the sun again. You are the loresinger. You know the stories, and you pass them to others, so that those who live on in you will live on in others as well.

    Stormdancer’s gift to you was a personal one, even if she didn’t know she was giving it: she reminds you that a word is only as important as those who will listen. You were not made to speak, but that does not mean you cannot find your voice on your own, that you cannot recount the voices of others.

    {For me, she is the muse,} you continue. {But which is more important: who she truly was, or who we believed she is?}

    You cross the desert sands with him, waiting for him to return your question with one of his own. Night turns to day, and still you receive no response.

    No matter. You have the time.

    ※​

     
    Last edited:
    xv. na-šāyad
  • kintsugi

    golden scars
    Location
    waiting for the fog to roll out
    Pronouns
    she/her
    Partners
    1. silvally-grass
    2. lapras
    3. golurk
    hi hi! this week has been a bit distracting! will respond to reviews + do some edits tomorrow/ish. thank you all for sticking with me so far!

    ---


    xv. na-šāyad

    ※​

    Your father told you this once—if you wanted to get strong enough to make something worth anything, you would need a human. That’s simply the way it is. You can stay in the forest a little while longer if you’d like, but every young timburr needs a human to work alongside. That was how he had achieved the form of conkeldurr, and so had his father, and his father’s father before him. Pokémon needed humans to unlock their true potential.

    You remember looking up at his fists, each one big enough to cup your entire head. Thick tendons twined around the well-used muscles of his arms. He had grown strong. His human had gotten him there. One day, you would too. And that day is today.

    So! Your father guides you to the shallower parts of the forest, and you watch the trainers go by.

    {This one would be nice,} he notes, pointing.

    Your nose crinkles. This human is old, hunched over. She has a piece of timber of her own, a tiny one, that she uses to guide her as she walks. It’s a respectable effort, you can’t help but think. There’s a weariness in her shoulders that reminds you of your own grandmother.

    But … if you wanted your grandmother, you could just ask her. You shake your head.

    Your father is silent while the two of you watch three more trainers go past. Finally, he rumbles, {This one looks kind.}

    This one has green hair, the tail of a purrloin fluttering down his neck like a bright ribbon. He and the purrloin seem engaged in a deep conversation.

    But he wanders slowly down the path. Far too slowly.

    {He looks lost,} you remark.

    Your father tilts his head; his knuckles shift on the surface of his beam. {That is a fair assessment.}

    By afternoon, you see the one you want. A young human boy—a timber of his own in his hand, which he uses to swat the grasses out of the way.

    {I want this one,} you tell your father.

    {That one?} He pauses and considers carefully. {He does not look kind. See how he hits the forest, because he does not believe it would hit him back.}

    You turn back. The human looks young, which you respect; he will understand what it means to want to prove himself.

    {I want this one,} you repeat.

    Your father nods. {Very well. I respect your choice.} Another pause. Then, he holds his hand up, and says in a low voice, {Return to me when you are this tall, and teach me what you have learned.}

    {I will,} you promise.

    You don’t look back. Instead, you run in front of him, and allow him to catch you without a fight. And just like that, you’ve made it. You finally got yourself a human partner. You hope you’ve got a good one.

    You blink as the red light fades from your eyes. This must be a human settlement. There are other humans milling around. Towards the back of a room, an audino and a human clothed in pink are hurrying back and forth between a strange machine and a counter. There’s another human standing at a table with an array of objects in front of him (her? it? you’re so bad at figuring out with the humans), shouting numbers.

    And! There’s your human in front of you! It’s finally your turn to prove yourself. You will help him do a great many things. When you watched him from afar you only got the details—he has black hair, and he’s shorter than you imagined humans would be, probably because of his age. Up close, his hands are uncalloused—they remind you of yours when you were younger, still too young to practice swinging a proper bough.

    You straighten your back. Chin up. You have to impress! {Hello! My name is Samson!}

    “I’m Tim,” says your new human. “Your name is Charlie.”

    That isn’t quite a pronunciation you’ve heard before. {Samson,} you repeat. A little slower, for emphasis.

    “I’m trying to beat Lenora,” Tim explains. He doesn’t quite talk as slowly as you’d like, so it’s a little hard to figure out what he’s saying. Who’s Lenora? “Her herdier is really tough. Pushed my tympole’s shit in last time. So you’re my secret weapon, got it?”

    You tilt your head a little. That one is a little hard to parse. Secret? Weapon? You glance down at the bough in your hands. It was the biggest one you could carry, and even so, you struggle with its weight. Your father could lift it with one hand. When you can do the same, you’ll be ready.

    But it’s not a secret. Never a secret. Your bough is a symbol for all the world to see. You hold it high, even though your limbs shake a little, and proclaim your agreement. {I will help you, with all the strength I have.}

    “Well, not secret. Maybe if I walk up with you she’ll just forfeit.” But he’s already turning away. “Come on, my gym match is scheduled in fifteen minutes. We gotta hurry. If Pinwheel Forest wasn’t such a damn maze I wouldn’t be late.”

    You hurry after him. The city is interesting. It’s your first time in a human city; your father always told you to stay away from this city until you were older. You take in every detail that you can so that you can explain it all back to him and tell him what you’ve learned. There are many more sights and sounds than you’ve seen in the forest. Mostly humans on the path, which is wider than any path you’ve ever seen. They’ve got a strange ground-covering here that’s simultaneously smooth and rough on your feet. The most amazing thing about this place are the sounds—people chattering everywhere. You can’t quite catch the human conversation passing by you (they speak quite fast), but there’s a pair of pidove overhead discussing the wind patterns, a purrloin calling out mockingly to a lillipup as she turns tail and climbs nimbly up a gutter.

    It’s a nice town that he lives in, you remark to him. Very good architecture. The craftsmen is impeccable, and—he’s already ahead of you. You hurry to catch up.

    The gym is the building that’s important to your human, you gather, and you approach it at his side. At first, you think that it’s just the strange designs on the sides of the building extending into the decorations on the ground, but as you get closer, you see that they aren’t decorations at all—they’re people! They seem to be lying on the ground, humans and pokémon alike, scattered all around the entrance to the gym. You can’t help but stare.

    “C’mon, Charlie,” Tim says. You’re too short for him to reach his hand, but he grabs the top of your beam and drags you forward.

    You almost stumble in shock—he doesn’t realize the disrespect, you have to tell yourself quickly. He doesn’t understand what’s being said when he lifts your load as if you aren’t strong enough to carry it yourself. {I’m strong enough,} you reassure him, and raise your bough out of his reach.

    In front of the one closest to you is a sign. Your father taught you how to read human when you were young, swapped his cement for a stick that was dwarfed by his enormous hands and carved each letter into the soft dirt after a spring rain washed over the forest. It was slow work, but deeply important, he’d said. If you ever wanted to work for a human, help them shape great things, you would have to understand their drawings as well as their voices.

    This was what your family did, he’d told you. You had big hands and strong arms to shape and build. He’d put together many a home for humans and pokémon alike, and finally, when the time had come—he and his human both put away their tools and put themselves towards raising families instead of buildings. His human still comes to visit sometimes, a burly man whose hair has turned grey.

    You struggle to remember the lessons your father gave you. It’s a little hard, but luckily the font on the sign is clear. You’re fortunate that it’s written in such big, blocky letters.

    THE EARTH’S CHILDREN SHARE ONE BODY,

    You almost forget that Tim’s there at all. You stop short again. Behind the sign, there’s a human sprawled out on the ground next to her venipede, who’s lying on his back, legs straight up in the air. If they were curled you would’ve thought he was dead for sure. You peer closer. The venipede is hard to tell, since the carapace is so still, but the human has a rise and fall in her chest.

    {Are you hurt?} you ask. {Do you need help?}

    “Charlie,” Tim says, a bit more sharply this time. “Ignore them. They’re faking to get attention. Plasma’s always up to no good.”

    Plasma?

    But you keep walking. Your first gym awaits. This is where you get to prove yourself! You will become stronger, so strong that you can carry the whole world on your shoulders. Like your father, and his father before him.

    The next sign almost catches you by surprise.

    FOR WE WERE ALL SHAPED FROM THE SAME CLAY.

    Oh! It’s a continuation of the first sentence. They’re all saying something together. That’s nice of them. This sign is in front of a boy, younger than Tim, who’s lying facedown with his limbs sprawled in a tangled heap around them. Beside him is a pidove, who isn’t doing quite as good of a job at acting as the venipede—you can definitely see her blink a few times.

    But it doesn’t answer your question. Why are they acting?

    Tim’s shouting at you, and you have to tear your eyes away from them again. Why are they all lying on the ground like this? You barely register what he’s saying, but you catch the last bit “—seriously, if you keep this up, I’ll recall you.”

    Oh, that’s no good. You want to be on your own two feet when you enter the gym. How weak would you be if you had to be carried into your own trial? You hurry after him, but you peer over your shoulder.

    WHEN THIS LIFE WE SHARE CAUSES WOUNDS TO ONE,

    Wounds? You ponder the wording absently. Strange choice of words. Perhaps the translation is different in human.

    Oh! Maybe it’s a performance of sorts. There were some in the forest who enjoyed playing pretend, but you were always interested in other things. You glance back at the pidove, who blinks as she stares at you with wide eyes. If it’s a performance, she’s not doing a really good job.

    You pass by the pokémon and human pair by the next sign, and the blocky letters make themselves clear to you before you can stop yourself. Tim wouldn’t want you to read. He’s certainly trying not to. His hood is up over his eyes and he’s got his head down, hands in his pockets, everything.

    THAT HURT ACROSS THE WHOLE BODY IS KNOWN.

    You’ll be quick about it, you decide. {What is this?}

    The pokémon by this sign is also a pidove. {It’s a faint-in,} she trills nervously.

    {A what?} At first you aren’t sure if you heard correctly.

    {A faint-in,} the pidove repeats again, which answers one of your questions but not the other. {It’s a protest against gyms.}

    Against gyms? You look at Tim nervously, and then at the timber in your own hands. Why protest? You have a million questions now, but you can’t let Tim see that you’re slowing down, or else he’ll yell again.

    Is that? Blood?

    No, you realize as you get closer. You can’t smell the iron, only chemicals. It’s just red paint, splattered around on the grass where the human is lying. Next to him is the small form of a herdier. You almost mistook it for something else; the red paint changed his coloration so much that you can barely see the navy and tan beneath.

    “Pretentious jackasses,” Tim mutters under his breath as you pass by the pidove and his owner. “Always sticking their noses everywhere.” He glares at the human nearest to him, who is lying on his side and curled in a fetal position, and calls in a louder voice, “It’s illegal to be out here, dipshit. I’ll call the cops.”

    “The grounds outside of a gym are public property, which are legal and protected grounds for protest,” the boy recites, without opening his eyes, and then falls silent again.

    Tim mutters something foul under his breath and makes a motion with his foot as if to kick, but seems to catch himself instead. He wrenches at your bough again. “Come on. They aren’t going to scare us with a little fake blood.”

    You’re still confused about that bit, actually. {Why is there fake blood?} you ask, but he doesn’t answer.

    There’s some at the next sign too, and this time both the human and the purrloin next to him have covered themselves in it.

    YOU, WHO CLOSES YOUR HEART TO YOUR BROTHER’S PAIN—

    You have to be quick about it now. But you’re ready this time! {Why are you protesting gyms?}

    The purrloin’s ears prick up. The rest of her does not move, but she whispers, {Because they make us hurt.}

    Hurt? That can’t be true. You think of your father and his human, how the human comes to visit and they sit and watch the river and the trees. Tim wouldn’t do that to you, not without good reason. You fumble over your next question, and it costs you precious time—you’re almost to the doors of the gym now. {The gyms make you hurt?} you manage to stammer out.

    The purrloin’s answer is quiet, but as steady as concrete. {The trainers do.}

    {Why? How do they make you hurt?}

    Tim wrenches open the door to the gym.

    Almost imperceptibly, the purrloin flicks her tail towards the last sign.

    YOU ARE UNWORTHY OF THE NAME OF MAN.

    The door slams shut behind you.

    ※​

    Lenora is taller than Tim.

    That’s the first thing you notice about her. What had Tim said about her? She was a book person. Not a traveler, not a builder. He’d said it disparagingly, but you weren’t sure what that meant or where the shame came from. Your father was all three—he had his books, his travel, and his building. But from his general disdain for her you’d expected someone weak, inexperienced—but she seems confident, imposing. You haven’t seen many humans before, but it looks like her forearms are more corded than Tim’s.

    This is good, you decide. You can’t prove yourself to an unworthy opponent.

    “Back so soon?” she asks, one hand on her hip. An easy smile is stretched across her face. She flicks her chin in your direction. “Hope you trained that timburr, kid. You aren’t the first to go to Pinwheel Forest and come back with the first fighting-type that showed up.”

    He doesn’t answer her taunts. Instead, he rolls his eyes and says, “One versus one?”

    She raises an eyebrow, and then snorts derisively. “Two versus two.”

    Something about the room changes. Lights seem to swivel down out of nowhere, and when you look down you realize that you’ve been standing with Tim in the middle of a large, perfectly rectangular patch of dirt. There’s a line across the middle, lines snaking down the sides. Tim moves back, and you turn to follow him, but he hisses, “Charlie, stay put.” Oh. Okay. So you do, and tilt your head around to look at the rest of the room. It has nice construction. The lighting hits it in all the right ways; the wooden beams in the ceiling lost their scent of pine long ago, but they stand strong.

    “Challenger Burr vs Gym Leader Lenora shall commence!” shouts a voice, and you squint up in surprise to see a third human standing nearly directly between you and Lenora, a strange silvery device held up to his face. “Both sides shall use two pokémon. Standard knockout rules apply. The challenger is to send first.”

    You glance back. Tim’s the challenger, and you’re the send. You know how this works. You’ll spar, and you’ve been practicing for this, and you’re strong enough! Soon they’ll all see.

    Tim’s got his hands folded across his chest, a smirk carved into his cheeks and the wrinkles between his eyes. “I’m ready. Your move, Lenora.”

    You spin back forward to look at Lenora. “Petra,” she says curtly, and tosses something into the air. You watch it arc into a blur of red and white, and a watchog emerges, tail flicking urgently like it’s keeping time. Her stripes glow yellow once, alongside her eyes, and then she falls perfectly still, ears cocked.

    {Hi, Petra,} you say nervously. {Nice to meet you.}

    The watchog tilts her head. Her fur is the same color as the paint the protestors were using outside. {First time?} she asks quietly.

    {How’d you know?}

    “Stop them in their tracks. Hypnosis, Petra!”

    Petra leaps into all fours and begins darting around you in tight circles. {What other pokémon does your trainer have?}

    You’re so surprised you answer on reflex. {Me. And a tympole. I think. But Tim says they’re not good at fighting. I haven’t met them.}

    {Oh, that one again. Back so soon,} says the watchog, her eyes fixed not on you but on Tim behind you. She almost sounds sad. {Listen. That tympole is terrified and you can’t take two of us alone. I’ll go easy on you. Mig and Lenora will not. Save your strength.} The yellow rings of fur around her body begin to glow again, and your eyes are inexplicably drawn to the way that the light chases down her body from stripe to stripe. {Look away. My attack will stop in five seconds. Look away, and then do whatever your trainer tells you. You’ll be okay. You can do this.}

    “Dodge it, Charlie, and then use Low Sweep!” Tim shouts.

    You don’t run forward right away. Instead, you stare at your branch and count to five. The translation of his command is something you’ve never heard before, but it’s easy enough to understand. You’ve just … never done it to an unarmed person before. This watchog is small. Her limbs could not carry a weapon. You’ve only ever sparred with those who carry boughs. She cannot deflect. What will she do instead?

    “Come on, Charlie!”

    When you look up, she’s done flashing. You walk up to her slowly. You’re supposed to attack now. It’s your turn.

    {Hurry,} Petra says urgently. {Lenora isn’t going to hold back. Neither should you. I’ll be fine. I can take it.} She’s standing still, front paws raised, stance wide and easy to disrupt. It’s inviting, almost.

    You swing your bough experimentally. You’re almost not used to hitting a living target; you haven’t sparred anyone but your father, and even then, you weren’t trying to hit very hard.

    She’s not your father. Her muscles have not grown rigid like stone. Instead, the air leaves her body in a whumph, and you feel something crack. She was lighter than you’d expected. Petra arcs through the air and hits the ground. There’s another crunch when she makes impact with the floor of the gym, and then it’s quiet.

    You can’t help it. You scream. {Someone help her!} You look up at Lenora, who’s still got her arms folded across her chest. You look over your shoulder. There’s Tim, who’s cheering you on. {She’s hurt!} You run over to Petra, who’s limp on the gym floor. {Hey! Are you okay?}

    “Lenora’s watchog is down. Eight, seven, six—”

    {Petra?!}

    There’s no blood, real or fake. Or maybe the fur covers up the color. She doesn’t answer.

    “Petra, come on! Get up!”

    “Charlie, finish it off!”

    You can’t you can’t you can’t

    “Three, two, one! Knockout!”

    You don’t have to. There’s a flash of red light, and she dematerializes.

    “Migaloo! Your turn! Hit ‘em hard with Retaliate!”

    Lenora holds out a pokéball in front of her, and her second pokémon emerges. You recognize her as a herdier. Like Petra before her, she’s perfectly still when she appears on the battlefield, but unlike Petra, you can see it already—beneath the tawny fur of her legs are tensed muscles; the navy fur running down her back bristles—she’s ready to fight. Uneasily, you plant your bough into the ground. Petra said she wouldn’t hesitate. But even though you know you’re supposed to be preparing, you can’t shake the image of her crumpled in a heap from your eyelids; it’s like it’s built there in wood and iron and stone. Dimly you hear Tim shouting at you, but you can’t make out the words. You square your shoulders, spread your feet a little further apart. It’s hard. The dirt here is firm, too solid for you to plant your bough. You won’t get a good—

    There isn’t another warning. You and Tim aren’t ready. Migaloo leaps into the air, each leap clearing five feet at a time, and in an instant she’s removed the space within you and slams into you head-on.

    You and your bough go flying back, but Migaloo was smart: she hit you in the head, not your feet, so your momentum sends you straight down instead of arcing up.

    There isn’t time. You hit the ground so hard your vision sparks black and white. There’s pain first in your back, and then in your head, and then all over as each part of your body hits the ground in turn. But what worries you most of all is the way that your bough tumbles out of your hands. No! You can’t let it fall, not here, not when you have to prove yourself.

    “Charlie! Get up!” Tim commands.

    You’re staring straight up at the fluorescent lights of the gym. They wash over your vision, but there’s patches in it; something really, really hurts in the back of your head, where neck and skull meet. Why does it hurt so badly?

    “Charlie!”

    Your father, standing strong above you. The corded muscles of his arms stretched taught like stone as he helps you pick out a bough that’s too heavy for you to carry, watches you with pride in his eyes as you struggle against it anyway. This is the way in your family. You have to get up.

    “We can’t lose here, Charlie! Come on!”

    You have to get up!

    “Take Down, Mig!”

    You blink. The world is cut in half. A second later you realize it’s because one eye is swollen shut from where you took the herdier’s impact head-on. You can’t see her running towards you, but you can hear her footsteps. You square your shoulders, and then roll to your feet just in time to get a half-split image of her bounding towards you, teeth bared.

    Plant your feet. Swing your bough. If you win, the pain won’t stop, but at least there won’t be more of it. Right?

    You bat the herdier out of the way. Migaloo goes flying, but you don’t make the same mistake twice. Tim doesn’t need to tell you to follow up quickly. You’re already running up towards where you know she’ll land. By the time she hits the ground with a bone-cracking thud, you’re swinging your bough down again and again and again—

    “And that’s a knockout!” says the man with his echoing voice. “Herdier is unable to battle!”

    You blink. Your breath comes to you slowly along with your senses. Migaloo’s sprawled out on the ground like the other herdier you saw outside. Still no blood on her, you notice absently, but then—you rub the back of your head from where she slammed you into the ground and it comes back wet, sticky.

    You hesitate. Your voice sticks in the back of your throat. You limp heavily on your bough and try to get closer. But not too close, in case it’s a trick. {Are you,} you begin, and then stop. The signs outside. What the purrloin told you. You feel pain all over, but how much of it is for you and how much of it is for her? {I’m sorry,} you say instead. But your words aren’t magic. They can’t heal her or bring her back to consciousness.

    Tim’s shouting behind you, exuberant. “Great job, Charlie! We did awesome.”

    You. There’s.

    You feel sick.

    {I don’t want this. I want to go home.} You try to keep your voice firm, but you can’t keep the tears out. You. You don’t want to do this any more. You want to go back to your father, the forest. You’ll get stronger a different way, find a different kind of strength—what this human wants to teach you isn’t what you want to learn.

    But he’s chattering something to Lenora, not even looking in your direction as he holds something red up and points it at you, and your world dissolves.

    The gym is gone. The people in front of it are gone. You’re grateful that you don’t have to see them on the way out. You think the purrloin would probably stare daggers at you and your bruises, at the real blood on your face that doesn’t look anything like the fake blood on hers.

    In this strange intermediary space, you don’t feel your own body, your own pain. You just float. It’s peaceful, in a way.

    You don’t feel your own pain, your hands have no form, but you can’t unfeel the sensation of the impacts—when Petra had crumpled under your bough, when Mig slammed into your head, when you smashed her into the ground in retaliation. Those feel as real as anything.

    ※​

    When you materialize again you’re screaming.

    {Hey, hey, calm down,} one of the audino is saying, a matrix of pink energy already fizzling in her hands. {Everyone gets hurt in battles from time to time. You’re going to be okay.}

    She presses her hands to the back of your head, and the pain tapers off and then numbs. You reach up to touch it—for a moment you’re convinced that she’s simply removed your neck entirely—but you feel the muscle and skin before she brushes your hand out of the way. {I’m almost done, sweetie,} she says gently, and leaves you to stare at the red crust on your fingertips.

    {Is Petra okay?}

    {Petra?} She’s dabbing something on the back of your neck now, and even through the numb you can feel the cold liquid dripping down your back. {Is she one of your teammates? I’m sure they’re all fine.}

    {No, Petra was …} You struggle to remember. Your mind is going in too many directions at once; like a splintered branch, most of it is going the right way, but there are too many details to keep track of. {She was with Lenora. She got hurt pretty badly. I hurt her pretty badly. I hit her with my bough and she wasn’t ready.}

    The audino pauses. {Oh, you’re asking about one of your opponents?} One of the curly feelers beneath her ears wraps around your right arm, and she places both of her hands on your shoulders and looks at you. {Was this your first battle?}

    You nod tearfully.

    She squeezes your shoulders tightly. {Petra’s going to be fine, just like you are, okay? There’s nothing to worry about.}

    {I hurt her,} you confess again, since she must’ve missed it the first time. What would your father say? And then the way that you hit Migaloo again and again, hoping that if you hit her hard enough she’d just do what you wanted and stop hitting you back—

    {Shhhhh, sweetie,} the audino says, and for a moment you can almost feel the manufactured calm radiating from her feelers before it’s washed away by your roiling panic. {You feel all better now, right? And I’m sure that they’ve taken Petra to get looked at and she’s feeling just fine too. It’s going to be okay. You’re both going to be fine.}

    You reach up to the back of your neck, and the skin there is unbroken, unbloodied. She must’ve wiped it away when you weren’t paying attention. You’re fine. You’re both going to be fine.

    {I can pass a message on so my human talks to your trainer,} she says in her soothing, reassuring voice. Has she always talked this slowly? {She’ll make sure he knows that you’re new to this, and ease you into things better. How does that sound?}

    That sounds like a good idea. You nod.

    {Okay, I’ll do that, and I’ll try to see if Petra’s here as well, okay? You’ll be okay, sweetie.} You can tell she’s distracted; her eyes are already darting around the room. Why? {I have some other patients I need to look at, but I’ll come back and check on you in a little bit, okay? Just sit tight for now.}

    Another nod. What else would you do anyway?

    And then she’s already sweeping away, muttering under her breath, just a child how could they possibly—

    The door swings shut behind her, and you’re left to hug your bough and scoot closer to the wall. The wall. You desperately look at it to distract yourself, does it have nice architecture, who do you think built it? But it’s white, and the paint is fresh and covers up any clue you possibly could’ve gleaned from it.

    {First battle?} a voice asks from behind you, and you turn around to see a small blitzle, roughly your height. The bright purple bandage around her front leg clashes brilliantly with her stripes.

    {How does everyone know that?}

    She shakes the white fur of her mane out in irritation. You can tell she’s itching to put weight on her injured foot by the way she rocks back and forth. {You act very new to this.}

    {Is there a different way I’m supposed to ask?}

    She snorts but doesn’t answer your question.

    {I’m Samson,} you say in a small voice.

    {I’m Amara, Thundersinger of the Plains.}

    The blitzle doesn’t seem to like to talk to strangers, but you want to know. Your father had never mentioned anything like this when he reminisced about his human. Was he just covering up the truth? {So you’ve battled before.}

    {Loads of times,} Amara says confidently. {I’m my trainer’s best battler. I’ve helped her win two badges already.}

    Wow. That sounds impressive, but you struggle to put into context what a badge even means. {Do … do battles always end up violent?}

    {Not if you’re good.}

    Her answers for you are short, curt, convinced. She says them with the same practiced air that your father used when he taught you, and there’s something vaguely reassuring in her enunciation—she surely knows these truths deep down if they surface so easily now.

    If she knows so much, maybe she can answer the question the purrloin from before didn’t have time to explain. {Why do they make us hurt each other?}

    {We’re fighting for them,} she says simply. {They are too fragile to do it alone, so we help. That’s our duty.}

    {We’re fighting for them,} she says simply. {They are too fragile to do it alone, so we help. That’s our duty. And that's what we all want, right? A duty.}

    That does make sense. Your father spoke with pride about how he learned to lift blocks of concrete, and enormous steal beams, how one day with enough practice you’d be the same way. A human could never do that alone, not without help from someone very strong. But you think of Petra sprawled out on the ground, and Migaloo, and all of the humans and pokémon sprawled out around the gym. {Do you … are you proud of your duty, then?}

    {To protect my trainer? My partner? Am I proud?} Amara bows her head, her mane sparking fiercely. {More than anything.}

    ※​

    Crack.

    The first thing you register is something warm and wet dripping out of your nose. The pain comes shortly after, and then lastly there’s Tim, your trainer, your partner, solidifying in your vision. He’s breathing heavily and the hand he used to strike you is clenched into a fist.

    “Embarrass me like that again,” he says coldly, “and losing will be the least of your problems.”

    ※​

    Chapter title + poem used in this chapter are roughly translated from "Bani Adam".
     
    Last edited:
    xvi. nepeta
  • kintsugi

    golden scars
    Location
    waiting for the fog to roll out
    Pronouns
    she/her
    Partners
    1. silvally-grass
    2. lapras
    3. golurk
    hiiiiii omg, so many reviews part 2, electric boogaloo. been mulling on a few of these and I definitely want to do them full justice--please do not think I have forgotten these! will be doing proper responses in the next week or so.


    note: this update's a bit of weird one--chapter 12 (jericho visits a ferris wheel) has been more or less completely rewritten. can provide summary if you don't want to read even more funky time loops in this already funky timelined story.

    ※​


    xvi. nepeta

    ※​

    You run up to the human. Lithe, powerful, graceful, nimble. You’re careful to show off all of your strengths.

    {Train me,} you command.

    You watched her from a distance. Left her gifts you thought she’d enjoy. A potion, for her weaker teammates. A pokéball, for you. You could tell just by looking at her that she needs all the help she can get, but if she gets it, she’ll go far. She’s a fighter, like you. Scrappy, like you. She wants the world, like you. It’s a good match. She just doesn’t know it yet.

    She probably doesn’t understand you, but the intent is clear enough. There’s a strange green pokémon with big eyes at her ankles. Smells like grass. Your nose crinkles. She’s got a smug look on her face, like she knows she’s better than you.

    (Like she is better than you.)

    The human has pulled out her pokédex and is pointing it at you. She’s not even looking at you; she let’s the machine do that for her. That’s fine. You’ll pose for it as well. “Purrloin, huh? Tricky to raise, average offensive prowess, and a few warnings for mischievousness. Oh, and if that’s not ironed out, that could manifest as extreme aggression after evolution. They will disobey trainers they do not respect. Yikes.” She looks down at the simpering, smug one by her feet. “Still, not a dealbreaker. What do you think, Vaselva?”

    Oh, she’s asking the plant for an opinion. Did you say simpering, smug? You meant supremely superior. Of course. {Please,} you say in the dialect of forests, even though the word tastes like birdshit on your tongue. {Tell her I want to train with you. She’ll listen to you. I’ll be the best companion.}

    You wait, your heart throbbing in your chest.

    The green one fluffs up her fronds, clearly annoyed. {Why.} It’s not a question.

    You don’t hesitate. {I want to be strong.}

    {This is my human. I protect her. You do not.}

    That’s fair. What the green one doesn’t know won’t hurt her. {I want to be strong for myself,} you say. And that’s not even a lie. You do mean it. {But being strong means having strength to spare.}

    The green one considers. Thoughtful. Yes, she would make a good partner on the field anyway. You’ve picked well. Finally, she shakes her head, and then tugs at her human’s pantleg with her scaled hands. Looks up. Nods.

    You’ve done it! You have a human! She will be yours! You will call her something witty, clever. Hummy, perhaps. Brownie? She has the hair for it.

    Wait, no. The human is shaking her head. She’s already put the red device away. Still isn’t looking at you. “Sorry, Vaselva. I think we’ll pass. Bianca says there are blitzle in the grass outside of town, and I think that’ll round out your flying weakness better. It’s not worth the risk, and, I mean … we can’t really afford to have extras right now.”

    No!

    No no no no no!

    They’re turning away. You dash around them on all fours, and then skid to a halt, blocking their path. {Train me,} you repeat. {I will be good. I will take care of the birds. I am exceptionally good at taking care of the birds. I will feed myself. No birds will bother your grassy one.}

    The snake’s face is carved like a statue. {She said no.}

    “Awww, aren’t you the cutest!” says the human. “Do you want a snack?” She’s reaching into her satchel now.

    No, you want a trainer; you do not want a—

    She pulls out a berry and you salivate immediately. You’re hungry. You’ve been hungry for days. You—

    Are eating ravenously.

    When you look up, they’re gone.

    ※​

    You’re more careful choosing the next one. The rejection stings. The human you’d chosen didn’t look particularly powerful; she certainly wasn’t that much stronger than you. So for her to say that you weren’t good enough? For her?

    She looks like she crawled out of a gutter. Your mother belonged to one of their elites. Her trainer was one of the best in Unova, and she taught all of her moves to you before old age took her. So what does this little human girl know about dealbreakers?

    Nothing. She knows nothing, you have to remind yourself. You don’t need that particular human to know you’re worth something. Your mother belonged to one of their elites, until he gambled away his fortune, and his fame couldn’t protect him. He sold the expendables. Her new life wasn’t so bad; the humans who bought her were wealthy and took good care of her. But when she grew out of her prime, they discarded her like an old toy. She scrounged for a new home, and her once-proud head bowed for scraps, which she ferried back to you.

    The anger festers, but the message is clear time after time: humans determine your worth in this world. If the little girl who rejected you doesn’t understand your worth yet, you will have to find someone who does. It’s that or go hungry.

    So you watch him watch them. He has a strange gait, you decide. He doesn’t walk like a human, all confident and loud. He pads around, always nervous, always gentle, always quietly, as if he knows he doesn’t belong and is trying to draw as little attention to his outsiderness as possible.

    He wouldn’t last a day as a purrloin, hunting them so obviously. Even as a kitten you learned how to hide from your prey. And your predators.

    But he certainly has the eyes of a hunter. He surveys the other humans with a quiet, withdrawn sort of precision. Even watching him carefully, you can’t quite tell if he’s looking at them or if he’s wistfully studying the trees. But he always times his entrances and exits flawlessly; always arrives just in time for the battles before melting seamlessly back into the crowd, as if he was never there to begin with.

    Yes. This one will be yours. He doesn’t know it yet, but he will soon.

    You leave the oran berry by his hand while he’s sitting on a park bench, even though holding it makes your mouth water, your stomach rumble. You place it where he’ll see it the second he turns around, and then you mold back into the grass behind him, eyes wide as you watch.

    It takes him a while. He’s observant, but he points his withering focus at one or two things at a time, and the rest slip out. When the human children withdraw their pokémon, one battered and the other no longer able to stand, he shifts his weight and almost crushes your offering. You watch as he turns, looks at the palm of his hand, and pulls the berry up closer to his face. He doesn’t smell it for ripeness, fool that he is, but he turns it over in his hands, runs one finger over the ring of bite marks from where you held it in your teeth.

    He bares his own teeth in amusement—the smile seems genuine. He looks around, almost guilty, almost amused, and, when he fails to notice you through your perfect stealth, he shrugs and deftly begins to peel it.

    Excellent. You are bonded for life now.

    When he gets up to leave, you linger, watching. You pad over to the spot on the bench he had occupied, which still is faint with his warmth, and as you leap onto the slats, you realize that he’s left precisely half of the oran.

    You are too hungry to hunt him down and question him for his disrespect, so you eat it instead.

    ※​

    You deposit the second gift while he’s alone.

    You sort of have to, you see. It’s not by choice. You’d much rather give it to him where he and everyone else with eyes can see what a good hunter you are, to bring him so many gifts. Then everyone will have no choice but to be amazed at your prowess, and they’ll all be jealous. Everyone wins.

    But. The bird is quite loud. It squawks periodically, and then falls silent, as if it’s forgotten that it wants to be obnoxious. And then it remembers, and it’s shrill calls echo again. So you’re stuck with the unsavory task of half-walking, half-dragging it through the streets until he’s alone, staring over the railing into the depths of the Forest of Pinwheels.

    What does he see out there? He still hasn’t fought, or battled, or done anything in this strange town except watch. You’re beginning to wonder if you made the wrong choice.

    No. You would never make the wrong choice.

    You deposit the broken-winged pidove on the steps behind him. You’ll leave him with the honor of finishing it off. He is a frail one. You are the better hunter. And now you can make good on your promise: no birds will bother him, or any of the others he seeks to protect. You curl up around the balcony railing and blend into the shadows.

    He turns around at the low coo of the pidove. His eyes rove across the observatory deck, at first too high, and then he sees the bird slumped in a pathetic pile of grey feathers. He gasps, and rushes towards it—

    Good! He’s seen your gift!

    —“What? Who hurt you like this? Oh, no, you poor thing.” He’s got his hands hovering a solid foot away from the pidove in either direction, seemingly torn on if he should try to move it or leave it be.

    Ugh. He pulls out a pokéball and catches the stupid thing, hopefully so he can eat it later. Is he really going to waste his time with one of those?

    He hurries off to the pokécenter, and you’re left following after him.

    ※​

    You look for the third gift while he’s standing in the midst of a crowd. Hunting, probably. He blends in with the rest of the humans if you don’t know where to look.

    He is the distracted type. You see him fiddling with the collars on his wrists constantly, twisting them in golden spirals up and down his forearms. Where does he go, when his eyes wander far away? He certainly isn’t seeing this world.

    There is a child with a fidget-cube. Her fingers are too chubby to manipulate it properly; she’s too young for it. That’s what you tell yourself, at least, when you approach her. All fluff and smiles, something big and purple and colorful to look at, and when she throws her arms around you, you endure it. One moment, maybe two.

    Yes, this is all part of your plan. She has to hug you for at least five seconds. Or ten. Yes, when she’s nuzzling her head into your neck, mixing strands of her hair with your fur. This is part of your devious plan as well. She has to get her guard fully down, this miniature human, or else you’ll never succeed. Absolutely.

    “Purr! Purr!” she says, an utter butchering of your name. Despicable. How can you stand her, the way she squeezes too tightly, lets her warmth and love bleed into yours? Thank goodness you’re so strong.

    “Riley!”

    Oh no. Big human.

    You look up guiltily. The big human has business clothes on; you recognize the flappy bit of fabric around his neck as plumage that only the adults have. On his face is carved a scowl, also the kind that only the adults have. “Riley! Get away from that!”

    No no no, you’re friendly, you aren’t going to—

    He swats you off with open fists, and then with gentle hands picks up the small one.

    You hiss, puff up your fur defensively at the smarting blow, but he’s already hoisting the mini human onto his hip. “See, Riley? You can’t play with strays. They’ll always show their true colors.”

    No! That’s … he … you didn’t start this! He did.

    The mini human dropped her toy when the big one picked her up. So you do the only sensible thing and steal it, and then run away, and then very gently deposit it at your future human’s feet.

    {Train me,} you yowl, and your persistence is rewarded when he turns around and looks at you with a warm smile.

    You wait for him to send out a pokémon, to attack you. Something, anything at all. You need to prove yourself. You won’t make the same mistakes as before. You’ll win this time. He’s already accepted your gifts, so he is caught deep, deep in your cunning traps.

    “Hello. My name is N. I’m travelling across Unova,” he says instead. Crouches down so that his eyes are on your level. You back up instinctively before you remember to be brave.

    {Train. Me.} You keep the words simple. Mewl alongside them for emphasis. Maybe he’ll hear the question in it.

    “Yes,” he says. “That too. Only if you want to.”

    What a silly, silly trainer he’ll make. Of course you want to fight. Why else would you seek out a human? {I will fight for you. Loyally, and without fail. I promise that.}

    “Oh?” He chuckles at that one.

    You arch your back. You aren’t to be laughed at. You are better than this. You huff, turn to leave. You’ll find another human, and then he’ll see. You’re three steps into your dramatic walk away when you realize he isn’t stopping you. {You’re just going to let me leave?} you mewl over your shoulder. {What, a purrloin isn’t good enough for you? Too common?}

    “No. I would be honored.” Long pause. “If that’s what you want.”

    He’s lying, even if he doesn’t know it. No human is honored like this for long. New pokémon are prizes to be won, interesting at first and then lackluster if they can’t prove their worth. You’ll lose his fascination and he’ll put you up on a shelf when you start losing. You know this. Your mother knew this, and taught you all too well—she was a trainer’s pokémon once, until she wasn’t.

    You won’t make the same mistakes. You won’t be useless.

    {Train me,} you repeat, and your heart almost bursts from pride when he extends his hand.

    ※​

    N talks to you more than you thought a trainer would. He has too many questions—where are you from? what’s your name? what interests you in battling? am I talking too fast?—and at first you think it’s part of a test, so you answer him honestly. Accumula. Tourmaline. Strength. Yes, absolutely, do you ever stop?

    (The last one you don’t say out loud.)

    Slowly he peters off, when he seems to pick up that you aren’t really into it. You aren’t here for the chitchat. You’re here for the magical part where humans make you stronger than you could’ve been on your own. And if he thinks this interrogation will help, you’ll give it a try, but otherwise … you can’t get distracted.

    You’re immediately distracted when you see her again.

    {That girl,} you say, tugging on the collar of his shirt. You’re curled around his neck like a purple scarf, tail fluttering down his back. {I want to fight her.}

    “You want to battle? I, um.” He stumbles over the words. “I don’t know how.”

    {What do you mean, you don’t know how? You’re a human. All humans know how to fight.} You alight from his shoulders and land smoothly on the ground. You yowl to the girl and her green one. {Hey. Fight me.}

    The green one looks up in alarm. {You again?}

    {I got my own human,} you say, gesturing smugly with your tail. {He will make me strong. I will fight you now.}

    {Hilda would’ve made you strong, too.}

    {Hilda,} you say, the new name stretching your mouth into impossible shapes, {didn’t want me.}

    {Don’t get mad that she was too busy training me. That’s not her fault.}

    “You guys want a battle?” her human says, and yours gives a sort of strained grunt.

    “Alright, Vaselva, let’s do this,” says the Hilda. She puts her hands on her hips like she’s analyzing the situation carefully. Silly. She should be more like your human, who isn’t staring at the opponent at all. “Vine Whip.”

    The snivy nods, and then extends two thorny fronds from her backside—where was she keeping those??—and launching them towards you. You narrowly twist out of the way of the first one, but the second one hems you in from the other side, smacking you upside the face before you can duck.

    The first impact doesn’t hurt that badly. But the vine hits you hard enough to throw you to the ground, and the ground is harder than the vine, and your eyes are full of stars for a moment when your head hits the concrete of the street. You whine in alarm before you can stop yourself. You can’t look bad on front of them.

    You’d watched humans watch these all the time. The pokémon there weren’t crying out in pain, although surely it must’ve hurt just as badly. Were they just stronger than you? Desensitized to it? Your mother said that when she was on the circuit, she’d just moved all the bits of her that she thought were soft and delicate and hidden them deep in her chest. {Which is where I hid you, Tourmaline, my love,} she’d whispered, nudging you with her nose. {So you wouldn’t be hurt.}

    Hide them away. It’s your turn now. You pull yourself up, feel N’s concerned gaze burning into your back. {I’m fine,} you hiss back, an answer to his unspoken question. If he thinks you’re weak he’ll throw you to the side. If she thinks you’re weak she’ll know she was right to. {Tell me what to do.}

    “I don’t know!” He sounds truly desperate.

    You file him out as background noise for the moment and study the snake. Her vines have a predictable attack pattern to them. Left, right, left. There’s an arc and a sway that they all share; she hasn’t yet had her human point that out to her and train her out of it. You duck under the first, and then start running headlong in. The vines chase you, but you’re moving fast—they don’t retract as quickly as they extend. You get in close, and you rake your claws across her face. She manages to close her eyes and shy away just in time to protect those big, ruby eyes from the worst of it, but drops of red start sneaking down her face. She screams. You go in again. And again. Your claws ache under the impact of her skin. She’s got scales, and they’re still soft, not yet battle-hardened, not meant for this, like your claws, but if you can rake fast enough, you’ll win. You have to. Your chest aches and your head throbs and your paws are weary but—

    “Vaselva, now! Vine Whip into Slam, like we practiced!”

    Her vines are back. You didn’t consider that. She wraps them around you and raises you five feet into the air, prepares to smash you into the cobblestones. And before you can stop yourself, a wordless scream rips from your mouth—

    “I forfeit!” shouts your human before she can complete the attack and send you into the ground, to match your shame. “Stop!”

    The snake freezes, almost guiltily.

    {What are you doing?} you snarl at him as she places you back on the ground. {I almost had her.}

    But he’s not looking at you. His breath is coming in short, uneven bursts. He’s reaching into his pocket, pulling out a wad of green paper, counting out a handful, shoving them towards Hilda. “Here. You win.”

    And then, in a softer voice, he looks at the snake. Sounds almost hurt. “You … you didn’t even hesitate. Why?”

    She looks up at N, one leaf on her tail torn. The fronds around her neck are in disarray, and she shakes them out disdainfully before answering. But she doesn’t meet his eyes. {She told me to. For her and her dreams, I would do anything.}

    “But … why?”

    Vaselva flicks her tattered tail dismissively, like it’s the most obvious thing in the world. {Because that’s what pokémon are for.}

    Your breath is coming in short gasps. Something in your ribcage feels bruised. Your fur is all ruffled. You grit your teeth. This is what you wanted. This is what you want.

    “Are you hurt?” he asks, crouching down to look at you. Hilda’s saying something to him, but he doesn’t seem to hear.

    {I’m fine.} He can’t know you lost this so badly. He’ll think you’re weak and then you’ll be back at square one.

    You picked a strange human, one who can understand pokémon. But he doesn’t listen, so he immediately sees the way you’re holding your chest, the gash in your leg from where you hit concrete.

    And that’s how you end up glaring at the stupid pidove again in the pokécenter, both of you bandaged up and neither of you in the mood to speak.

    ※​

    The pidove is still quailing in its roost at the pokécenter, but you won’t sit around quietly. You’ll be the most useful member on his team, and then he’ll see. But he doesn’t go near the trainers, even as you follow him resolutely through the streets, down the streets, across the streets. For a while, he’s silent, his hands shoved deeply in his pockets. You imagine a miniature thunderstorm brewing around his shoulders. A few blocks in, he stops and crouches, as if to tie his shoe; though it fills your heart with shame, you accept his offer and perch around his neck. There’s still a dull ache in your legs from the battle, and all this walking isn’t helping anyway.

    He must’ve been expecting it, because he doesn’t shoo you off. He doesn’t say anything else though, either.

    Accumula is a nice town from up here. This tall, and you can look down on the things that used to seem so big. There’s a street cart with wisps of smoke curling off of the grill, fencing off a man selling hotdogs. He waves when you and N approach. Down the road from him is a pair of humans hogging the sidewalk, but they shuffle to the right so that you and N can pass.

    This is what it means to have a human, you remind yourself. None of them would’ve given you the time of day if you’d been alone. This is what you wanted.

    “Are you busy this evening, Tourmaline?”

    It’s the first thing he’s said to you since you lost, so it must be important. But what a dumb question it is. You’re a pokémon. You’re a pokémon who is now owned by a human. What else would you be doing this evening? But you get the feeling he’ll be disappointed by that answer, so instead you just say, {No.}

    “I’m helping my friends try something out and I think you’d enjoy it,” he explains quietly as he pushes open a gate, steering the two of you off of the sidewalk and onto a garden path. “But it’s a little new. Do you like music?”

    {Do you?}

    He pauses for a moment, like he’s never considered that question. The gravel crunches beneath his feet. “Yes,” he says at last.

    So then that settles it. {Yes.}

    Something in your voice makes him pause. “Forgive me for asking. Are you just saying that—”

    {Yes.}

    There’s a long silence.

    {Do you want me to see this place or not?} you growl at last, when it’s clear that he isn’t going to be the one to say anything else.

    “Well, we’re here already,” N says with a weak smile, one where you can’t even feel the edges of it against your cheeks. “So you see it. But the real magic will happen in … soon. I need to help set up. But it’s a performance of sorts. Many of my friends will be there. Do you want to watch?”

    What a stupid answer for a stupid question. Perhaps you wasted your gift. No. Not in a million years. Your mother picked a bad human but you haven’t made the same mistake. {I will see this place with you tonight.}

    ‘This place’ is an empty garden just before sundown, with three humans and a watchog fiddling with some speakers. N’s bad at stealth, so when you and he slip in, all of them turn to wave at him when he enters. “The show will start in an hour,” he says in a quiet explanation that, like most of his statements, doesn’t seem to explain anything at all. He pauses. “If there’s anywhere else you’d like to be.”

    You’re a trainer’s pokémon now. Where else would you go? But you don’t have the energy to argue, so you alight from his shoulders and watch them archly from a stool in the corner of the garden, furthest from the stage, your tail flicking.

    Humans are strange. They rearrange all of the furniture into a grid shape, and you have to move twice (twice!) until they’ve gotten all the chairs in a layout they’re happy with. The joke is on them though; all of their furniture is so mismatched and slapped together—there’s no way to arrange two dozen chairs that look like they came from two dozen places nicely. At the center they put up a little makeshift stage, and N is fussing with some cords on the ground when the others start to trickle in.

    “Oh!” he says, too loudly, and immediately drops what he was holding to run over to the leavanny standing by the garden’s gate. “I’m so glad you could make it, Briselle.” They both fold one hand in front of their chests and bow. “Did you have any trouble finding us?”

    {No,} she answers very slowly in the dialect of forests. {Your directions were very good.}

    “Do you need any help setting up?”

    {No,} she repeats solemnly. {I have brought everything I need. Can I help you with anything?}

    “There’s some lights over in the corner I was hoping to hang up before everyone else showed up,” N says, pointing to a tangle of wires, and the leavanny delicately stalks over and begins unpicking them with her leaves.

    N and one of the other humans struggle with the lacing of a large banner, its paper crackling as they try to hang it over the stage. You watch with veiled interest; the lettering means nothing to you, but it must surely be important. The watchog scampers from chair to chair, laying a little piece of paper on each one.

    When she skips your stool, you hiss, {What are those?}

    {They’re for the humans,} she says, and when you look, you can see that they’re all crawling with the same illegible letters. {You can have one if you want,} the watchog adds.

    You snatch it from her waiting paws and frown at it, trying to trace over the symbols with your tail. Belatedly, you realize you should’ve asked, What are they for? but she’s out of hissing range and if you shout at her they’ll all see how stupid you are for not knowing. So you curl your tail tightly around your paws and trace over the strange symbols.

    “Oh, hey Hilda! Welcome!”

    Your head flicks over. No. What’s she doing here?

    She looks like she doesn’t know the answer either. One hand fiddles with her hair and she’s shifting her weight back and forth. But it’s the eyes that really give her away—her gaze flicks over every corner of the room, taking it in with rapid precision, analyzing the important bits and storing the information away. Her eyes slide right over you and back to N. “Hi. I hope I’m not too early?”

    “You’re right on time!” N says. “Could Vaselva make it?”

    Hilda blinks politely. “Pardon?”

    N flinches and seems to catch himself. “Oh, pokémon are welcome in this space. If Vaselva would like to join us, we’d love to see her.”

    Maybe he would, but—

    “And she’s already met Tourmaline, so perhaps they could catch up a bit!”

    Before you can interject, the snake is already out of her pokéball, blinking sleepily in the garden light. Your hackles raise immediately. Does he not realize that you don’t fraternize with enemies?

    {I’m not talking to her,} you yowl from your perch.

    Vaselva calmly shakes out her tail. {Scared?} she asks before N can respond.

    Your claws sink into the wood of the stool. {I’d be happy to entertain our guests,} you say frostily to N, and he flashes you a grateful smile.

    “Thank you,” he says. “Oh, and Tourmaline, could you save me a seat?”

    {Of course,} you promise, and then belatedly realize you’re not sure how to do that. A problem for later; the snake and her human settle in next to you, and of course, Hilda doesn’t sit between you. So you have to glare over the snake’s scaly head to watch Hilda shuffle into her seat and almost sit on the paper on her chair.

    But she does notice it, and she begins to read it. You strain to catch the words as she murmurs them under her breath, her forehead creased with a frown—“First performer, Tiallys of the Yarrow Clan, from Lostlorn. He wants to be an idol performer, like Roxie, to catch the attention of his family. Second performer, Brex, from Pinwheel Forest. He usually prefers singing underwater. Third performer, Briselle, also from Pinwheel Forest. When she’s not practicing her harp, she’s working on a leaf-inspired fashion line … what?” She looks around the room, her brow furrowed, but N’s off by the stage messing with a tall light.

    {Did N tell your human what this is for?} you ask the snake, while Hilda falls keeps scanning the strange paper, mouthing the words to herself.

    {Perhaps, but she didn’t tell me,} Vaselva replies.

    There’s a long silence.

    {Are you still mad that I won?} she asks.

    Not one to mince words, this one. You ignore her under the pretense of grooming at a particularly matted bit of fur under your ear while you search for the right words. {No.}

    She stares straight ahead. {You certainly act like it.}

    The snake wouldn’t understand. You’ve seen her type before. Bred for battle. It’s not like she ever had to struggle for what she wanted, blessed as she was by her birth to make her someone the humans wanted. Snivy are powerful, uncommon. She probably had everything she ever wanted given to her from the moment she hatched.

    {You fought well,} you say instead, your voice stony. {Perhaps we’ll fight again.}

    {Perhaps your trainer will be better when we do,} she says primly.

    Your mouth is open for a retort when you realize you don’t know what you want to say. It’s not about my trainer; it’s about me—but that’s not true, is it? Hilda was smart, so they won. You could’ve beaten the snake if Hilda hadn’t helped. But it’s not N’s fault that you lost. It’s yours.

    Before you can find an answer, more people begin filling in the seats behind and around you. There’s a commotion as some of the chairs have to get rearranged to make room for a venipede, and a human boy tries to take the seat you’re saving for N, so you have to yowl at him until he stops. By the time you turn away from that, Vaselva has nuzzled up against Hilda’s leg, her eyes half-closed as Hilda gently strokes the yellow scales beneath her chin.

    When you look at them, it isn’t anger that fills you. That could’ve been you. If you were—

    No. You have your own trainer. This is what you wanted.

    Someone flicks a light on by the stage, and then the rest of the room goes dark. The hushed chatter fizzles out, and everyone watches as N takes to the stage. You can’t help but lean forward. This is what he wanted you to see, right?

    “The—” he flinches back as the microphone in his hand screeches, and when he starts over again he’s careful to keep it further from his face. Which is a problem, because he speaks softly, and you feel the rest of the audience straining in to catch his words. “The performers will be introducing themselves, and there are also programs on your seats for the hard of hearing.” He clears his throat, and you watch his gaze dart nervously around the crowd. “Um, thank you all for coming. We’re really pleased with the turnout, and the Accumula chapter will be trying to host more events in the future.” Another pause. “That’s all.”

    He replaces the microphone and slinks off the stage to scattered applause. There’s a tiny, localized wave of disturbances as he picks his way through the tightly-packed seats—it looks like he struggles to see in the dimmed light, but you can watch him fumble around perfectly—and you trace the mantra of “pardon me, sorry, thank you” until he makes his way to the back row and takes the seat by your side.

    {Is that what you wanted me to see?} you whisper, but he just points at the stage.

    You’ve seen these a few times before, from when you greedily watched human television through their windows. But you’ve never seen one with—

    A minccino quietly totters up the steps, and scampers up the ascending boxes that have been arranged so he can be tall enough to reach the microphone. {Hello. My name is Tiallys,} he says quietly, in the dialect of forests. It would seem he learned from watching N; he’s careful not to get too close to the microphone, but his voice carries smoothly from the speakers. {I am from the Yarrow Clan of Lostlorn Forest. This is a song that my siblings and I used to sing in celebration of the Short Night. Traditionally—} He pauses.

    His tail twitches, and that’s when you see how dirty it is. Strange. Usually the rats clean one another; it’s the first thing they do when they meet. {Traditionally, it should be sung with at least five others, but the Yarrow Clan was separated when our part of the forest was clear-cut. Um. The melody is very simple, and you are welcome to join in on the chorus if you would like.}

    He pauses. The room is silent. Then he begins.

    When he sings, his voice resonates in a deep vibrato, one that you wouldn’t have believed could fit in his tiny body. The words are lost to you, but the melody settles around your shoulders like a heavy blanket, warm, comforting. It lilts in a strange way, with pauses that feel like they should be filled by another. But it happens all at once: he’s halfway through threading a lyric, some stupid rhyme about “my love” and “stars above”, when—

    You’re curled up against your mother, in the rare shared moments she had with you. Her humans couldn’t know about you, she’d explained. They’d make you fight. So she hid you carefully in the alleyways during the day while she fawned around her humans, and ran to you at night. {But I was thinking of you the entire time, my love,} she whispers with a soft laugh, her tongue rasping against the fur on the back of your neck. Her breath is warm, and you’re bundled tightly to her flank, and as you drift off to sleep, she begins to croon a lullaby—

    Short night, good night,

    Find your way in the moon’s soft sight.


    You blink back to reality. It’s a different song; a simple one, like Tiallys said; roughly half the pokémon in the room have joined the rat on the chorus. You want to focus on how they aren’t as good as he is, how they’re distracting from the real talent in the room, but you can’t. You can’t even bring yourself to join them; you just stare, stare at the stupid rat as he finishes his song with his eyes closed.

    Short night, good night,

    May we meet in the morn’s sweet light
    .

    Your heart feels like it’s sunk all the way to your paws, and there’s a heavy weight on your shoulders that forces your head down, your ears back. The snake’s got her tail curled tightly around herself, and she clutches it like it’s something precious.

    A tear traces down Hilda’s cheek. Does she even know why?

    The rest of the show is a blur.

    ※​

    After the show, people start to trickle out. A group of humans approach N; he answers their questions with a stutter and a fake smile. The pokémon performers are gathered on the stage, and you almost could go up and join them, thank them, but what would you say? So you sit quietly.

    Eventually, the crowd thins. Hilda walks up and clears her throat, and when he looks at her, she says, “Thanks for inviting me. This was … this was really nice. And different.”

    N practically beams. “I’m so glad.” He fumbles around until he finds the stack of flyers in the chair beside him and presses one into her stunned hands. “The Accumula branch of Plasma has chapter meetings every other Wednesday, and for travelling trainers there’s listserv that’ll go directly to your x-transceiver so you can see what’s going on when. There are chapters in all the major cities now.” His smile fades and he trails off. “You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to, of course! But if you were interested …”

    Hilda scrutinizes the flyer in her hand—what, does she think it’s going to answer for her? “I think I will.” She swallows. “I learned a lot tonight. And you had a good time too, didn’t you, Vaselva?”

    The snivy nods, and then adds quietly, {This was a very nice performance. Thank you.} She looks at both you and N when she says it.

    The enthusiasm is back in N’s voice. “I’m so glad! I think a lot of people—and trainers—could benefit from seeing things like this, if we just …” He frowns and picks his next words very carefully. “If we just helped them see a world where pokémon are free to be people.”

    Hilda’s face clouds in confusion. You see the question burning on her lips, but N doesn’t, and maybe she doesn’t either. She nods and waves before slipping out of the room, Vaselva at her heels.

    Most of the room empties until there’s just a core group of people left. As far as you can tell, no one says a word, but somehow they all know what to do, and they begin rearranging the chairs (again) into a large circle. A human and the watchog from earlier drag a heavy black bowl into the center. Someone turns on a set of string lights that almost seem to float overhead, twined in the branches of the oak tree above. The remaining half dozen or so people lounge in spots around the ring of chairs; someone passes glass bottles around them.

    That night is a quiet one. Somewhere deeper in the city, a fester of sewaddle are gathering, humming as their legs click together. Their music drifts gently through the leaves.

    N’s hunched over the black bowl, and with his own two hands he shakily manages to trap a flame. Oh. You remember those. You saw them in the city windows. Envied the ones who had their warmth.

    He’s careful. You watch him from atop your stool, entranced. You’ve never seen someone handle fire so delicately. Normally you’d expect him to be rough about it; it’s fire, after all. He should be afraid. But he’s not, as he gently pokes at the embers with a stick, blows a little into it, and coaxes it into a crackling hearth.

    You’ve always wanted a human. Maybe this isn’t what you meant, though. This one is strange. This one will not get you to where you want to go.

    But. Is that so bad?

    The fire crackles as he steps back, casting shadows up his face and neck. You watch him survey the ring of people, and then he comes and sits next to you.

    He leans back, but his back stays hunched, like he’s some sort of misproportioned sawk. He’s much too tall for the chair he picked, but he doesn’t seem bothered by it. You leap down from the stool and pick your way over to him, nuzzle yourself under his hand and curl up in his lap.

    “Did you have a good time, Tourmaline? I’m sorry if you were uncomfortable being alone.”

    You ignore his question. You can handle the snake and the girl, and he doesn’t need to know if you can’t. {Why didn’t you perform?} you ask instead.

    “It wasn’t my place. I wanted that to be somewhere for pokémon to be who they want to be.”

    When Brex sang, a human girl drummed the sides of his bucket. When the tympole dove underwater, the warbling effect from his voice echoed with the rhythmic rapping sound from the metal. It was a nice duet, you remember, but by that point your heart and your mind were far, far away. {There were some humans up there as well.}

    He smiles stiffly. “That’s true.” The smile fades. “But I’d much rather watch.”

    You think about how Hilda watched, frozen, the tear on her cheek glistening in the lights of the stage. When Tiallys finished his song, she’d wiped it away and clapped with all the rest, but you couldn’t help but wonder: did she know? Did she understand?

    Your mother could’ve taken you to the forests. It’d be easier to hunt there, and she wouldn’t have had to preen and posture for her humans to get enough scraps to feed the two of you. But the wilds were dangerous in their own ways. Too easy for humans to decide that your home, your family, was theirs now. Tiallys sang for his siblings. If they were dead, he would’ve started with that. There is no shame or sadness in losing one to the wild. But if they were taken, scattered across Unova—he could sing as loudly as he wanted, but he’d probably sing alone.

    Did she sense the magic in the room when the others joined in? Did she know who they were singing for?

    No. Surely not. She might’ve tried, but she’d never be able to understand, not when all she could do was watch.

    You certainly weren’t wrong in picking your human. You can see that much now. But—

    {You lost to that girl. I was humiliated.}

    “I’m sorry you were hurt, Tourmaline. That was my fault.”

    {I don’t want your apologies. I want to know how to get better.}

    N swallows nervously. He’s staring into the fire, so all you can see is the bottom of his chin, the way it throws different shadows alongside the flickering light. “I think you did a really good job. You tried your best.”

    {My best wasn’t good enough.} It’s your pride that stings more than the ache in your bones, now that you’ve been healed. You lost to the green one, and you won’t forget it. {You didn’t give me any commands.}

    “I’m sorry,” he says, and from the sounds of it, he’s not making that up. “I’m new to battling, honestly.”

    {New? But you’re so old.}

    “I waited a bit.”

    Ah.

    “It makes me uncomfortable to try to give pokémon commands. I didn’t think you’d prefer it. You know yourself so much better than I do.” Idly, he begins to scratch at the spot where your nose bridges into your forehead, and you close your eyes. The fire is warm on your fur; the crackling light sends patterns spiraling up the inside of your eyelids. “I hope that if you ever find a new trainer who gives you a command that you don’t want to obey, you don’t feel obligated to listen.”

    He’s certainly new to this, if he doesn’t realize what humans are. They’re meant to command. That’s their only purpose. Pokémon fight. Humans call the shots. That’s simply how things are. He’ll learn his place one day, as you’ve learned yours.

    {I will do what it takes,} you promise instead.

    “Do you think it’s fair that battles work like that?” he asks, almost casually. But you can sense the loaded intent in his words. If they had form they would be an adult liepard, rear legs bent taut and ready to pounce. “Is that what you want?”

    {What else would I want?} you respond testily.

    He doesn’t take your question as an answer, even if you wish he had. “I’m not sure. That’s why I like organizing events like this. It’s good for the trainers, but I hope that maybe the pokémon who attend can see if there’s something else they want instead.”

    {I’m not going to sing.} You think of the leavanny and her harp, who introduced herself tremulously and explained that she’d admired the lyre since she was a sewaddle. Is that what he wants from you? {And I’m not going to play a stupid instrument, either.}

    “You don’t have to.”

    {You didn’t sing either,} you say, in case he’s got any grand ideas about getting the two of you onstage in a duet. {You organized the whole thing, right? If you hadn’t spoken up at the beginning, they wouldn’t have even known you were there.}

    “No, they wouldn’t have.” He shifts his legs slightly, and you hiss in annoyance until he stills. “But I find that I hear quite enough of my own voice these days.”

    You aren’t sure how to answer that. He keeps petting you, but he goes silent.

    “That pidove you left me.” He pauses for a while, eyes distant into the open flame. “Why?”

    {You knew it was me?}

    The next long pause tells you all you need to know. “You were very stealthy,” he says, very carefully. He’s a very bad liar.

    {I wanted to show you I was strong.}

    “I believe you’re strong. You didn’t have to do it like that.”

    {Do what?}

    “The pidove almost—she was badly wounded.” His fingers stop on a snag in your fur, and he delicately begins pulling a small bramble out of it. Gentle. You haven’t had anyone groom you this way since your mother— “Did you intend to battle her for me?”

    {Not a battle. You seemed like a bad hunter.}

    “Ah.” The bramble’s tangled deep in there; had it come from the snake’s vines? You don’t remember. “Forgive me. I don’t actually know. Do you normally hunt pidove for food?”

    {No. Territorial spats, sometimes. I would wound them or chase them off. In times of great famine, perhaps. If there is no other choice. Otherwise, no. They are irritating and more trouble than they’re worth.} So loud. Your mother picked the loudest spot in the alleyway to hide you when you were younger, where the pidove screamed at all hours of the day.

    He’s got the bramble out. He inspects it in the firelight carefully, and then throws it aside. Resumes his petting in nice, slow strokes. “Would you hurt a human like that?”

    {No. Absolutely not. I would never.}

    “Why? Even for territorial spats? If one took your nest?”

    Your tail flicks idly. He speaks like one who has never had to hunt. That is okay. You will do the hunting for him. You weren’t a good hunter in the city, but when you grow older you’ll be good enough for both of you. {Pidove are stupid. If I attack one pidove, the flock leaves us to settle our grievances alone. Even if I’m weaker, and two or three of them could easily overwhelm me. If I attack one human, they will all come. I will lose.}

    That doesn’t seem like the answer he was expecting, but he smiles anyway. “Interesting.” Someone is getting up from the circle; N waves at them before they go. You don’t turn to watch. When he settles, he says, “You said you wanted to show me you were strong. What does that mean to you?”

    Mean? Why would he ask that? Humans are for making meaning. {I want to win. I want to be stronger.} Maybe if you repeat it, it’ll sink in.

    Maybe not. “What is stronger to you? The power to crush your foes? To have teeth and claws so sharp that none would dare challenge you?”

    You … you aren’t sure. But stronger is certainly the opposite of what you are now. Can you get there on your own? You don’t think so. Your mother always told you the humans were the ones with all the power. They were the strongest. So of course you’d have to learn from them.

    What would you learn from this human, though? How to call people together and help them sing? How not to battle? How to hang posters from trees?

    There could be good lessons in there, you suppose. Perhaps even strength. But would they be what you want?

    These are thick concepts. You’re reminded of trying to tear apart a backpack with your teeth to find the sweet prizes inside—it’s heavy work. The cloth is thick and must be wrestled with. You’re tired. Today started so long ago.

    “You don’t want to stay with me, do you,” he says at last. He’s not looking at you. He’s staring into the fire.

    Those words send a lurch of alarm through your paws. You stiffen. {What do you mean?}

    “I think we’re both realizing I can’t make you strong the way you want, Tourmaline. I apologize.” He’s still petting you, and with your eyes closed the world is reduced to just the warmth of the firelight, and the pressure of his hand on your back, and the softness of his voice. “But I respect your desire. If you wanted to train, I have a few friends who have more courage than I, who can stomach violence. I think you would like them. They could help you become strong. Or, if you’d like, you can seek out your own trainer until you found one who fit.”

    {Are you …} The anger crystallizes through the exhaustion. {Are you rejecting me?}

    “If that’s what you want,” he says quietly, staring straight ahead.

    You blink very slowly up at him. Fatigue is starting to slip in, enveloping your sore limbs, your confused mind. It’s a hard question. Maybe tomorrow you will leave him, find a trainer who will help you fight and become strong. Maybe you’ll stay. It could be that tomorrow you wrestle with what it is that you want from your humans, what it is you want with this world. It could be that the answers are easy once you look at them in the sunlight.

    Somehow you know they won’t be. They never are.

    Your mother wanted you to stay in the alleyway forever, even as the box she tucked you in grew smaller and smaller and you no longer fit. She wouldn’t have wanted you here, following her pawprints. But it’s what you wanted. She hadn’t been able to hide the glints of glamor in her voice, the way that all of Unova used to erupt into cheers, chanting her name like a magic spell when she fought.

    When the humans here applauded for Tiallys tonight, they were quiet, hesitant. Even though opening his heart up like that, finding all the soft and delicate bits that he’d hidden deep within his chest and sharing them with the world—that must’ve been harder than any battle. Your wounds from fighting Vaselva healed already, but there’s a pressure on the top of your head, the kind that feels like your mother’s breath on your fur. Tiallys had put that there without even touching you. It feels warm.

    That … that was some power indeed.

    Perhaps he could teach you this tomorrow, or N. Perhaps, tomorrow, one of N’s friends could teach you a different strength. If you could only find the one you wanted.

    But that is tomorrow. Tonight, you curl up with him by the fire, watch the stars above, shutter your eyelids as N softly sings a lullaby in a language whose words you do not recognize. Tonight you can be at peace.

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