The rain roared hollowly against the roofs of buildings with signs too worn to read. Somehow the rain in this region seemed colder than the snow from whence Poppy came; it soaked her fur to her skin, burdened her. Her footfalls were heavy against the path, and the scent of young goldenrod underfoot mingled with scents of rotting wood and petrichor. The ground here had been a path, once, but now it was hardly distinguishable from the pale green foothills that encircled the valley.
A breloom chittered as it slinked between two buildings a few meters ahead. It's really just ferals here, now, Poppy thought. She walked up to the building to her right and peered through the rain-smeared window. It didn't look like anyone had bothered to move the furniture out, and nobody remained to right the toppled tables and chairs. The place looked like it might have been a bar or restaurant, but the only culinary items left were shredded grain sacks and scattered silverware. A mule deer was curled up in the far corner beside a shivering bulbasaur, under a table that looked like it had been made for some kind of ball game.
I thought civilized pokemon were smarter than this. I thought they could adapt. Poppy shook her head. I shouldn't have been so hard on Lavender. I'm as naive as she was.
Aw, don't get so down in the dumps, Poppy. Sometimes things get worse before they get better, you know?
Poppy watched the drops trail down the glass for a moment.
You know, they might still have some alcohol in there, Ann said. You wanna get smashed?
No. I've spent too long moping already. There's too much work to be done. After that... I'll think about what I want to do.
In that case, you should head to Sterlingtown. I think they'll need our help the most.
Ann said nothing.
It was the same thing for miles—heaps of slate-gray rock like old wreckage. The plants that gripped the flatter parts of the ground resembled overgrown club moss more than plants, patchy like balding hair. Rue wondered if his fur would get like that if he kept going without food. He glanced back, at his black stripes and puffy (though drooping) tail that were characteristic of a growlithe. He wasn't exactly balding yet, but there was a certain dullness in his coat like it had been washed out with soap and dried in the summer sun. He felt colder than he would have a month ago, and he thought maybe that had to do with it. Or it could have been his flagging metabolism.
"You alright, man?"
Rue glanced at his partner, Plumeria. The shaymin had slipped beside him without him noticing—he had been staring at the ground too much, apparently. Rue gave a weak nod in response to Plumeria's question.
Plumeria frowned. "I don't think you really are. You want to stop for a bit?"
Rue didn't have the strength to say no. He dropped his pouch on the ground and took a deep breath as he leaned against a nearby boulder.
"There you go." Plumeria walked up next to Rue and leaned against him.
"A hundred and fifteen fucking miles," Rue breathed, his head swimming.
"I know it's been hard, Rue, but we're almost at the end. You've really hung in there. I'm impressed by it—seriously."
Rue didn't try to stop his tears. He flung his forearms around Plumeria and squeezed him tight like a teddy bear. His companion's scent—fresh and grassy with hints of citrus and coconut—didn't belong in such a rugged place. If Rue closed his eyes, he could imagine himself on a tropical beach, basking in warm sun. A brief escape from the bleak chill of this northern climate, from winds that pierced his fur like a weavile's frozen claws. "Thank you, Plumeria," he gasped.
Only when he felt too tired to keep crying did Rue release his companion. He wiped his eyes as he took in Plumeria's expression—a painfully sympathetic one. He leaned in gently toward Plumeria, and the two of them closed their eyes as they touched noses.
Then an otherworldly bellow rang out across the mountains, shaking the ground beneath Rue and Plumeria's feet. It sounded like a herd of tortured cows.
Plumeria whipped his head around. "What was that?"
Stars filled Rue's vision as he rushed to grab his bag, nearly slipping on the loose stones below. "I'd bet money it's our client," he said. "And by the sound of it, he's not doing so hot. Let's go!"
The two rescuers hurried toward the noise. Running was painful for Rue in his current state, and if he had anything left in his stomach he might have vomited. If his legs hadn't been twice as long as Plumeria's, he'd have had no chance of keeping up.
Eventually, the crash site came into view. The raft's shattered logs were piled up like a haphazard dam, and mist sprayed into the air as water crashed against the wood. The river roared as though enraged by the foreign blockage.
Rue slowed, scanning the area as he approached the riverbank. "Aspen! Where are you?!" From the corner of his eye, he glimpsed taupe fur slinking behind a boulder. He glanced back at Plumeria. "Someone's over there."
"I saw. Let's check it out."
Rue and Plumeria approached, giving their target a wide berth. The first thing they noticed was the lycanroc, who, judging by his raised hackles and defensive stance, was not happy to see them.
"S-stay away!" the lycanroc growled, stepping back. His voice sounded young. "He's mine!"
Rue wasn't sure who the lycanroc was referring to—until he noticed the corpse beside him. A torso as thick as a tree trunk; fur of brown and cream; antlers wreathed in leaves, rusty red and withered along the edges. Flies buzzed around the sawsbuck's glassy eyes, eager to fill their bellies with carrion.
It couldn't have been a coincidence. It had to be Aspen.
Rue looked into the lycanroc's eyes; he shrank slightly. "Clearly you're no feral," Rue said. "Just what on earth happened here?"
"L-look, he was injured when I got to him—I thought he was just gonna die anyway, alright? I didn't realize a-a rescue team was gonna come for him..."
Rue glanced down at his pouch—the lycanroc must have noticed the badge pinned on the front.
"So you killed... our client..." Plumeria's gaze alternated between the lycanroc and the corpse.
"P-please don't arrest me! I'm just... I..." The lycanroc locked eyes with Rue. "Please, you're a carnivore! You have to understand! All of us are starving at home, and I came all the way out here just to find something to eat. None of us can afford to buy meat, so... so..." He looked away and shut his eyes, dropping his defensive posture.
Rue didn't want to believe the lycanroc, but further inspection seemed to support his claims. His ribs and spine were visible even from meters away, and his waistline had begun its gradual retreat into oblivion.
"Let me take a wild guess here," Rue said. "Did it have something to do with a leafeon?"
The lycanroc's eyes snapped open wide, and he nodded vigorously. "Y-yes! She threatened us, said we couldn't mine anymore! She... she was scary. Nobody could stand up to her..."
Rue nodded gravely. "Right. Same thing happened in our town. Trashed our whole economy..." He sighed. "Honestly, the only reason we took on this mission was because we were desperate. Something this long-range should have been left up to fliers. But we figured we might find some critters along the way that haven't already been hunted, and make at least some money..."
"B-but... How were you going to bring him back? Surely he's too heavy?"
"Yeah. This was supposed to be more of a... I guess, guarding mission than an escort. Aspen was stuck out here alone, and the only reason anyone knew was because he sent out a carrier pigeon. We weren't supposed to bring him back, just treat his injuries and keep him safe until they could gather up some proper fliers to carry him. Awful lot of trouble to go through, but apparently his friends were really invested."
The lycanroc winced.
"Sorry. Look, bottom line is: I get what you're dealing with. We're not going to arrest you. Even if we wanted to, we couldn't haul you all the way back to town. So just... Hm..." Rue sat down and considered his options.
"We can't... just let him go," Plumeria said. "He... he killed a pokemon..."
The lycanroc's wince deepened.
Rue shrugged. "What do you propose, then? We can't arrest him, and there's no point in charging a fine if he doesn't have any money. He's not even from our town. And Aspen's already dead."
Plumeria's horrified face gradually slackened, conveying sadness, then resignation. He sat down. "I... I guess you're right."
"But, with that said..." Rue looked at Aspen again and swallowed.
"Rue? What is it?"
Rue looked up to the heavens, to the dark swirling clouds above, and grit his teeth. "Well... Aspen's, uh, pretty big. I mean, it's not like... you could just... um... finish him in one go..."
The lycanroc furrowed his brow, and then a look of realization passed across his face. "Y-yeah, I mean, if you want to share..."
Rue glanced at Plumeria, but the shaymin was looking away.
"I-I'll just, um, search the crash site to see if we can salvage anything, then..." Plumeria took a ragged breath, as though he were sick. "Just go ahead and, uh, let me know when you're... done..."
Plumeria shuffled away toward the water, leaving Rue and the lycanroc alone. The two of them looked at each other with the same pained expression.
Then, out of nowhere, Rue felt something he hadn't felt in a long time. He shook his head, knowing it was too late to hide the smile on his face.
The lycanroc gave a quiet chuckle, and Rue responded in kind. It was the beginning of an absurd resonance, a mutual catharsis. The two pokemons' laughter slowly intensified until it became painful, and tears escaped their eyes. The sound was harsh, staccato, like a fragmented scream.
Though it made him dizzy to even pick up his head, Rue looked out the window at the familiar, dusty road and the crooked, slapdash buildings that looked like cardboard cutouts. Hardly anyone was in town anymore, and those that remained were mostly grass types who could photosynthesize. The few carnivores were emaciated and shambled along the road like living corpses.
Rue was hungry. Ever since Aspen, he had been having fantasies. He imagined bursting out the door and sinking his teeth into one of those servine's throats, feeling the warm blood fill his mouth. They would be easy to eat, he thought—he'd hardly have to worry about the arms or legs. Just tear it open and get right at the organs. Then he would peel away the flesh, rib by rib, and swallow it down like jerky. It would be better than that, even; raw meat was so much softer, so much more mellow to the tongue. After Aspen, Rue had felt a sense of glowing satisfaction, of vibrant pleasure... Maybe it was just because it had been his first proper meal in weeks, but either way, he wanted to feel that way again.
Other carnivores in town had already given in to the temptation and killed a few on the sly. If Rue was going to do it, it would have to be now, before he grew any weaker... The thought tortured him. He wanted to hold out for as long as he could, but if it meant condemning himself to an agonizing death...
It was probably too late, anyway, he thought. He couldn't walk around outside for more than a few minutes without fainting—he doubted he could kill someone now, even if they were a grass type.
Rue's thoughts were interrupted by the sound of Plumeria's hurried footsteps outside. He turned toward the door as Plumeria opened it. He knew he would never eat his partner, but that didn't stop him from salivating at the thought.
Plumeria approached and dropped off his catch—a single mouse—by Rue's bedside. "I'm sorry I don't have more," Plumeria said as he shrank back. "If I could figure out how to fly, I know I could hunt farther out. The traps just aren't effective, since there's so little game left... so... I'm gonna stay out as long as I can and see what I can do." He turned around to leave.
He stopped. "What is it?"
Rue took a breath. "Can you come here for a second?"
Plumeria approached timidly, like a child expecting punishment.
Rue looked into Plumeria's emerald eyes, which glinted with nascent tears. "Listen... This isn't working. It's the same thing for everyone." He paused to catch his breath—even talking made him dizzy now. "I'm going to die either way. It doesn't matter what we do. So I've been thinking... We may as well get it over with."
Plumeria recoiled. "Rue, what are you saying?! You can't just give up like that! I know it's difficult, but—"
"Plumeria. Please understand... It's just worse for everyone if there's more hunters, and I don't want to suffer anymore. Do you really think we have a chance of getting through this? Answer me honestly."
"I-I-I... If I just..."
Plumeria shut his eyes and shook his head. "I'm not giving up on you! I'll stay out and hunt all night if that's what I have to do. So just... just hang in there!" He turned around and rushed out the door, slamming it against its hinges. Rue didn't even have time to call out to him.
Rue curled up slowly, too exhausted to cry.
Hours passed with Rue in a dull haze, somewhere between wakefulness and sleep. When he saw a burst of light from beneath his eyelids, he wasn't sure if it was a dream or not.
An unfamiliar voice spoke, as soft and cold as falling snow. "Poor creature," it said. Not the worst words to hear before the end.
Plumeria kicked up loose stones as he galloped down the mountain path, heedless of the steep drop to his left. His fur glowed green as he neared his target. The leafeon turned her head just a moment before impact and froze, her eyes wide as though with shock. If Plumeria hadn't seen her kill a sneasel just a moment before, he might have thought he had the wrong pokemon.
Despite his smaller size, Plumeria struck Poppy hard enough to knock her down. He quickly sank his teeth into her neck—or tried to, but for some reason he couldn't quite pierce her skin.
Plumeria reeled his head back and cried out as flecks of green light gathered around him. The flecks formed into crescent-shaped leaves and slammed into Poppy. All shattered as soon as they made contact, shrouding the area in a green mist.
"You monster!" Panting with exertion, Plumeria feebly slammed his paws into Poppy's face. Her expression hadn't changed since he had first seen it.
Plumeria began to prepare another attack, but then Poppy brushed him aside like a blanket and stood up. She looked straight into Plumeria's eyes, not bothering to shake the dust off her fur.
"Where did you come from?" Her voice was strange—severe, but tremulous.
Plumeria stepped back. "What? Who cares! You killed Rue—and I'm not going to let you just get away with it!"
Plumeria charged again, but this time Poppy sidestepped. Plumeria stumbled as he regained his balance.
"There's nothing I can do to bring your friend back," Poppy said. "You're going to have to move on."
Plumeria turned to Poppy again and bared his teeth. "Are you crazy? Just move on and let you have your way? As if!" He let loose with razor leaf, and the projectile burst apart against Poppy's head like a wave crashing against stone.
There was a moment of silence while Plumeria tried to catch his breath.
"I..." Poppy started to say something, but then she looked away.
"What's wrong with you?!" Plumeria accused. "Have you nothing to say for yourself? Nothing to say after ruining so many lives?"
Poppy sighed, deflating. "You've seen it yourself... Desperate carnivores preying on other pokemon. Even the more... self-sufficient species, like you and I. It's not right."
"That's because of your actions!"
"I know. And I'm cleaning up my mess."
Plumeria charged Poppy once more, only to be sidestepped again.
"Please try to understand," Poppy said. "I'm trying to make the world a better place, and violence is the only tool I have. I'm sure Rue was a good—"
"Shut up! You know nothing about him!" Plumeria hastily wiped his eyes, smearing tears and dirt across his face. "He was a beautiful pokemon! He took me in when I had no one else. He risked his life for me... So many times! We rescued dozens of pokemon together, and he never complained when I messed up, never asked for—"
"Alright," Poppy said. "I get it. I understand."
"—for anything from anyone!" Plumeria stepped forward, stomping his paw. "He took requests for free! And when we found someone too hurt to take care of, he stayed by their side until the very end, just to keep them company, and—"
"I get it," Poppy said, grimacing. "Look, str—"
"—And he slept beside me when I had nightmares, even when he didn't want to!" Plumeria's voice was hoarse from shouting by now, but it didn't stop him. "He made fun of himself to make me laugh! And when he was bedridden and starving—"
"Alright!" Poppy laid down and put her paws over her ears. "Shut up! I get it!"
"—he wanted me to kill him, so there would be more food left for everyone else! That's the pokemon you—"
Plumeria didn't see the attack that sent him flying, falling upside-down off the side of the mountain. His mind and body froze. He watched the ridge above fade into the distance, eyes wide with terror, even as the sun burned its image into the back of his skull like some celestial cattle prod. Seconds passed as the mountainside sped past, rocks and shrubs and grasses blurring together. Surely he should have hit the ground already. It should be over. He didn't want to die, but anything would be better than this interminable wait...
Out of the corner of his eye, Plumeria saw something—a vine—extend toward him and wrap around his waist. He felt tension, and his descent began to slow. He couldn't see how far he was from the ground when he finally stopped falling, and he was too afraid to check. The vine gripped tightly as it raised him up, but even so, he was terrified to move lest he somehow break loose. He let himself breathe again when, after what seemed like minutes, Poppy finally deposited him back onto the mountain path.
Poppy slumped against a nearby rock, her eyes out of focus. She looked shell-shocked. "God... I thought you could fly..." She put a paw to her head.
Plumeria had forgotten about his mission, about vengeance. He gasped for breath in a trembling heap. Was he crying? He wasn't sure. He was a victim of his own body, his own racing heart and clenching muscles. All he could do was plead silently for them to calm down.
They did eventually, of course, but it was slow going. When Plumeria finally stood up, Poppy turned to face him again.
"Are you okay?" The sincerity in Poppy's voice was uncomfortable; Plumeria felt like his insides were squirming.
"I'm fine," he said as he stepped back.
"Good. I'm sorry about that. It's best I go." Poppy closed her eyes as her body began to glow.
"No you don't!" Plumeria charged Poppy once again, and this time he caught her off guard and brought her to the ground. Her glow faded away.
"For heaven's sake," Poppy said with a joyless laugh. "Just what exactly is it now?"
"I can't figure out how to stop you if I can't keep track of you. I can't just let you run away."
Poppy hesitated for a while, then gently brushed Plumeria off. She turned around and headed in the opposite direction as before.
"Huh?" Plumeria said as he began to follow. "Where are you going?"
"I know a place you might like."
Long stretches passed with Poppy seemingly lost in thought; she spoke up only to ask if Plumeria needed to stop for rest or water. Even the birdsong was hushed, as though afraid to disturb her deliberations. At first Plumeria didn't like the silence because it gave him time to think. But he slowly grew numb to it, and at times he forgot he was traveling beside the person who had killed Rue.
Days passed until the duo reached their destination. The terraces along the mountainside were wide and lush with unfamiliar vegetation, reminding Plumeria of just how far he was from home. He could see specks of movement near the bottom of the valley, where there seemed to be—of all things—a little meadow peppered with orchid-pink flowers and small straw huts. In the center was a small, clear pond.
"We're here," Poppy said. "Let's go say hi."
The two descended, until eventually Plumeria saw that the specks below were in fact shaymin like him, gliding about near the ground. One of them noticed the duo and flew swiftly toward them. He seemed interested in Poppy.
"Poppy!" he exclaimed, grinning. "You're back! And you brought a companion? Anyway, come on down—I'm going to go tell the others you're here." He turned and departed as fast as the wind.
"Poppy?" Plumeria said to her. "Is that your name?"
"Yes." Her voice was quiet.
When they reached the bottom of the valley, there were at least a dozen shaymin waiting for them, land and sky form both. They swarmed Poppy as soon as she was on level ground, nuzzling her, hugging her, all but inundating her with affection. A chorus of "How are you"s and "We missed you"s that lasted for minutes.
"I'm fine," Poppy said. She nuzzled one of the shaymin back gently, eyes closed. "It's good to see you all again."
Plumeria wanted to believe Poppy was being insincere—that she didn't really care about the shaymin here, or about anyone. But as a shaymin himself, he sensed her overflowing gratitude, as warm as the blood in his veins. Nor did he think she could feign the fragility in her voice as she thanked each of her companions for their effusive regards.
One of the unoccupied shaymin noticed him. "How are you doing?" he asked, a little concerned. "You look like you've seen a ghost."
Plumeria opened his mouth and found he didn't know what to say. "It's... It's been a long trip, I guess..." He couldn't take his eyes off Poppy. "Did she, uh, used to live here?"
The shaymin laughed. "She didn't tell you? She found us by accident a while ago, stayed a month or two, but she helped us tremendously with some pollution problems we were having at the time."
"But shaymin can cleanse pollution, can't th- can't we?"
The other shaymin nodded. "Well, sure, but this was something else—you wouldn't believe how bad it was. We had to-"
"Hey, Clover!" another shaymin interrupted. "Is that Poppy's friend?"
A group came up to introduce themselves, and before he knew it, Plumeria was too busy with small talk to worry about Poppy. The shaymin of this valley were apparently very curious, and their interest in him only seemed to grow when he explained that he had forgotten most of his past.
Then Poppy spoke up. Her eyes were wet when Plumeria turned to look at her. "Everyone, um, if I may, I would like to take a moment to talk to my acquaintance in private before we get settled in."
The shaymin who had not yet talked to Plumeria turned now to look at him. "Oh, who is this? Is he your boyfriend?" one asked teasingly.
Poppy's laughter was muted but deep, and it disturbed Plumeria because it sounded sincere. Like a real pokemon. "No," she said. "I was actually hoping he could live here for a while, if that's alright—but we'll have to talk about some things first." She gestured toward Plumeria. "Come on."
The shaymin made way for Plumeria, and he followed Poppy to a small cave on the other side of the meadow. The sounds of the villagers' cheery conversations grew muffled as they stepped into the shadows.
"Do they know that you're... killing pokemon?" Plumeria asked.
"They don't need to," Poppy said as she situated herself. "Though I can't stop you if you decide to tell them. Anyways, listen." She looked into his eyes. "I... like this place, so I'm going to be visiting from time to time. If you stay here, you'll see me again soon enough—you won't have to keep following me. You'll have all the time you need to think of a way to kill me or whatever, and you'll have a chance to make some friends in the meantime. The shaymin here are very kind." She exhaled. "It's the best solution I can think of for both of us. What do you say?"
"...I don't trust anything you've said."
"Well, you did just admit to lying to those shaymin..."
"Do you think I shouldn't have?"
The way she just... stared into his eyes was unnerving. "Uh... Yeah, I guess I do. You ought to be held accountable for your actions."
"If I tell them the truth, it benefits nobody." She shook her head—was that contempt in her voice? "But whatever. I know of nothing I could say that would change your mind." She walked past Plumeria. "I'll be staying the night," she said as she left the cave. "So you have until morning to decide whether or not you'd like to stay here."
For the first time in days, Plumeria was in no rush to follow Poppy. He thought for a while. Poppy was a bad pokemon, but she didn't hate him. The thought made him uncomfortable, but it occurred to him that to some degree, maybe he was being unfair to her.
Plumeria wished he could talk to Rue about this. He... Maybe he wouldn't know what to do, exactly, but at least it would give him something, some point of reference...
Plumeria heard footsteps and realized he had been lying in this cave for a while. He looked up to see a shaymin approaching.
"Ah, hello, Plumeria," the shaymin said cautiously. "Poppy said you might be upset, so I decided to come check up on you. Are you alright?"
"Oh, sorry if I worried everyone. I'll be okay. I need to think for a while."
"Okay—I can show you some good thinking spots that would be more comfortable, if you like."
If he wanted to, Plumeria could tell this shaymin all about Poppy right now. It was a tempting prospect, if only because it would free him from his deliberations. But something in the shaymin's face stopped him. "Thanks," he said. "Just anywhere quiet would be fine."
The next morning, Plumeria found Poppy gazing into a stream. She dipped her paw in and then watched it drip dry, as though fascinated by the look of the water.
She started, then turned around. "Oh, Plumeria. Have you made your decision?"
He gave a downcast sigh. "Yeah. I mean, I guess I never really thought I could stop you anyway. So I'll just stay here..."
"And you've decided not to tell them about me after all?"
He grimaced. "I know I really ought to. But..." He shook his head. "I don't know why I can't. I'm just a coward, I guess."
Poppy looked at him critically. "Don't say that. I don't think you're a coward."
Plumeria looked at Poppy with bewilderment. "Poppy, I just..." He frowned. "I don't know what you'll make of this, but I think there's a good pokemon inside you somewhere."
"I know that. That's why I'm changing the world."
Plumeria sighed. "Right. Of course. But..." He slumped onto the ground and put his paws over his head defeatedly.
"I think I had better go. The sooner you forget about me, the better."
Poppy's body began to glow, and this time Plumeria just watched her vanish. He felt like there were a dozen things he should have said, should have done, but he didn't know what they were.
Before long one of the shaymin called his name, which made him chuckle despite himself. Were they worried about him again?
Plumeria took a breath and stood up. "I'll be right there!" he called, and trotted toward the village.