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Nuzlocke: Eternal Enmity

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{Reshin 15th, 10:58}

{Nuvema Town}

 

...our next story, a riot nearly broke out at Mistralton Airstrip this morning. Police and Mistralton Leader Skyla Huuro had to break up fights that broke out at Mistralton Commercial Airport today between anti-Fairlan protesters and a Plasma Foundation delegation and their supporters. Both groups had arrived at the airport for the arrival of the Fairlan Head of State, Champion Saylee Pryce, and her family. Champion Pryce has arrived for an extended diplomatic tour of Unova after a confrontation between the Fairlan and Unovan ambassadors at the UN over the issue of--

 

“They’re not supposed to leave the Sar title out of her name, it’s the same as Sar Weaves,” Cheren commented as he wandered into Carlotta and Warren’s room with a couple of sodas that he’d gotten out of their fridge. He tossed one to Carlotta, who caught it without looking up from her spot at the window.

 

“You know what U-News is like, it’s a miracle they’re pronouncin’ her name right,” Carlotta said absentmindedly, wrapping her hands around the cold soda.

 

“Where’s War?” Cheren asked, unlocking Carlotta’s e-reader and making a face as he sat down on one of the cushions strewn across the floor and browsed through her comics. “You still buy New Guardians of the Galaxy? It’s garbage.”

 

Carlotta didn’t look over at Cheren as she opened her soda, though she did snort. “You just don’t know art when you see it,” she remarked. “He’s still at Professor Juniper’s gettin’ the stuff.”

 

“Then he’s late,” Cheren commented, checking his C-gear.

 

“Calm down, Cher, he’ll get ‘em,” Carlotta insisted, rolling her eyes. “’Sides, we’ve got plenty of time. It’ll be fine.”

 

“Says the one who won’t stop staring out of the window,” Cheren pointed out.

 

Carlotta took a calm sip of her soda. “I ain’t lookin’ for Warren.”

 

“Then why are you staring out of the window like that?”

 

“’Cause there’s ninjas on top of the Hoenn Embassy,” Carlotta said, nodding at whatever she was looking at, then tucking her pink baseball cap slightly lower over her face and hiding behind her soda.

 

“Excuse me?” Cheren said, setting aside the reader and his own soda as he hopped to his feet to join her at the window. He stared, straightened his glasses, and stared some more. “My goodness. You meant that literally.”

 

“Literal ninjas,” Carlotta agreed, watching the tall figure in dark purple who was pacing back and forth along the edge of the embassy’s roof. Another one was standing by the front gate.

 

“You know, I always assumed that ninja were the kind of Fairlan stereotype that only ever appeared in movies,” Cheren commented. “I never believed that they were real, certainly not in this day and age. Why are they there?”

 

For an answer, Carlotta pointed at the TV, which was showing footage of the arguing between protesters and Plasma Foundation members that had turned into battling. Skyla Huuro was easily visible as she waded in with her huge bird Pokemon, while in the background of the shot a number of dark figures were making the Fairlan Champion and her family impossible to see. “The Fairlan Champion has ninja bodyguards, how cool is that?”

 

Cheren looked pained. “That’s another thing they’re getting wrong,” he grumbled. “She’s the head of state of the Tohjo Union, consisting of the countries Kanto and Johto, not the whole Fairlands, which consists of the Tohojo Union, the Sevii Islands, and the countries of Hoenn and Sinnoh, all with separate--”

 

“Alright, see, I knew it was weird that she was hangin’ around the Hoenn embassy,” Carlotta agreed.

 

Cheren frowned, pushing his glasses up his nose as he peered at the building. “That… is odd,” he agreed. “She’s coming here to learn more in detail about Pokemon in Unovan society, isn’t she? I would think that she could deal with any business pertaining to Hoenn at home, when she’s not on a diplomatic tour…”

 

“Yeah, but she definitely went in there,” Carlotta said, gesturing with her soda can, “and them ninjas followed. One of ‘em grappled ‘cross the rooftops. With an actual grapple. It was awesome. I thought ‘bout tryin’ to film it, but I’d probably get assassinated…”

 

“Look, there they are now!” Cheren said, pointing and then quickly withdrawing his finger when the ninja on the roof paused and turned to look in their direction. Then the bodyguard dropped down next to the people exiting the building, stepping off of the roof as if they were simply walking down stairs.

 

The two teenagers recognized the Hoenn ambassador, Sar Key Weaves, although she was new, only having moved in with her family three months prior. She was definitely noticeable, often dressed in the most vividly colourful spectrum of skirtsuits that anybody in Nuvema Town had ever seen, her bright blonde hair usually bundled up in a large decorated clip. She seemed to have a hundred of them, all shaped like different Pokemon from Hoenn. Possibly they were Pokemon she’d trained before, as she was supposed to be a champion of the Hoenn Pokemon League, which over there was as much politics as sport. She was chattering animatedly to a much shorter woman with darker hair who was walking alongside her, a far less colourful figure in white dress trousers and a sleeveless red blouse.

 

“That’s her, ain’t it?” Carlotta asked Cheren. “The Champion? The little one?”

 

“There’s a Fairlan saying that means ‘dangerous things come in small packages’,” Cheren commented. “I guess the kid with the dark hair must be hers—Sar Weaves only has the twins, right?”

 

Carlotta nodded. “The kid don’t really take after their mom,” she noted, watching the tiny brunette who was taller than both of Sar Weaves’ hyperactive bright-blonde twins. All three kids were being held tightly in the grip of the two men following Sar Weaves and the Champion, who were trailed by a skinny, dark-haired teenager. “Y’know, I don’t rightly know which one’s Mr Weaves… you ever seen ‘im? Dad says he manages a bunch of charities but don’t do public stuff ever for some reason he ain’t talkin’ about.”

 

“I think he’s the taller one,” Cheren said, nodding at the taller and darker of the two men who were bringing up the rear of the group, talking to another ninja. Nuvema Town was a secure community that largely housed Unova’s foreign embassies and people who worked at those embassies, so the two families were able to walk down the street without the attention of the horde of reporters that had met Sar Saylee Pryce off the flight from Kanto and was probably lying in wait to stalk her tour of the country.

 

“They must be buddies,” Carlotta theorized, watching the two families walk up the road. “I mean, they must just be visitin’ friends, not doin’ political stuff, y’know?”

 

“I wonder where they’re going,” Cheren said, narrowing his eyes. “The Tohjo Embassy’s the other way.”

 

“I dunno, maybe they got other friends in embassies here?” Carlotta suggested, watching the group walk past the Sinnoh embassy. “I hope they ain’t goin’ to Professor Juniper’s…”

 

Cheren checked his C-gear gain with an irritated sigh. “He’d better get the Pokémon in time,” he grumbled. “We can’t change the time of the escape plan…”

 

 

{Reshin 15th, 11:07}

{Nuvema Town}

 

“Thanks again for doin’ this,” Warren said, looking over and pocketing the three license cards.

 

“You, Carly and Cheren are all over sixteen,” Professor Juniper said with a smile. “It is absolutely your right to have and train Pokémon if you wish. What you--or any other sixteen-or-over trainer you happen to spend time with--do with these Pokémon is entirely up to you.” She gave him a significant look before returning to cleaning her computer screen.

 

Warren grinned. When Cheren had first approached Professor Juniper about the legalities of acquiring and exchanging Pokémon, she’d asked him to make sure that they all knew what ‘plausible deniability’ meant. “Thanks again,” he said, picking up the box of pokéballs.

 

“Clear out,” she ordered, not looking up. “The Tohjo Champion’s coming to visit the lab, so her security team will be here any minute to sweep it. Go! Explore! Get into danger! Discover new things! Have fun! And,” she added in a softer tone, “look after each other, okay?”

 

“Yes, ma’am,” Warren said, saluting and walking out of the lab and almost directly into a ninja. “Whoa!”

 

The man, tall with silver hair and sharp Fairlan features, gripped Warren’s arm and said something in Fairlan.

 

“Uh, sorry, man, I don’t speak Fairlan,” Warren said with a shrug.

 

The ninja turned and looked back as somebody behind him had a rapid conversation in Fairlan, then Sar Key Weaves, the Hoenn Ambassador, stepped up with a smile. “You are Mr and Mrs Arathos’ boy, yes?” she said in Unovan. “I am sorry. One moment, please, to explain to the security why you are here?”

 

“Just pickin’ up some Pokemon,” Warren said, opening the box to show the three pokéballs inside. Sar Weaves rattled a Fairlan translation off to the ninja, who let go of Warren’s arm picked up the box, opening it and examining it thoroughly before nodding and returning it to Warren.

 

“Thank you,” Sar Weaves said with a smile. “You all have fun!”

 

“Thanks!” Warren said, stepping out of the way as two of the ninjas—a security team of ninjas? Carly’s gonna love this—stepped into the lab. Warren hurried out of the lab, glancing curiously at the Tohjo Champion.

 

She was much shorter than he expected, a petite woman in a red-and-white semi-formal outfit who nevertheless was probably the most threatening-looking head of state that he’d ever seen thanks to all the scars. There was something very deliberate about the way that her sleeveless blouse bared a huge swathe of pale pink burn scars across her right shoulder, more burns down her bicep, and a plethora of other scars, slashes and bites cross-crossing both arms. An unsettling set of darker scars around her neck looked like somebody had tried to decapitate her at least once, among other things. Entirely at odds with this was the delicate little snowflake necklace around her neck and the friendly smile she gave Warren.

 

Ain’t they got dermatological surgery where she’s from? he wondered as she looked down and said something to a little girl with long brown hair, who looked like her but also like the man holding her hand, presumably the Champion’s husband. He had the same skinny, short build that she did—he was shorter than Warren, though nowhere near as tiny as his wife—and his black shirt and brown shorts also showed up a number of scars on his arms and legs, the most notable being three parallel scars on the left side of his face that cut into his nose and perilously close to his left eye.

 

Warren had never seen Mr Weaves up close, so it was hard to be sure, but he was reasonably confident that Mr Weaves was probably the larger, muscular man with dark hair and skin, a thick beard and moustache, a weird cross-shaped scar across the middle of his face and a giggling blond twin under each arm. He definitely wasn’t the lanky, dark-haired teenage boy who was as tall as Sar Pryce and already staring with wide-eyed curiosity into Professor Juniper’s lab.

 

Since Nuvema Town was slightly more than half made up of embassies, other political institutions and their staff, Warren was used to suspicious security personnel; one of his earliest memories was, at four years old, being questioned about his intentions and the contents of his juicebox after squeezing through a hedge and running into a very twitchy new guard for the Kalosian ambassador. As such, he waited until he was well out of sight of the Fairlan group before dialling his sister on his C-gear, banking on the perpetually punctual Cheren already being at their house.

 

“I got the stuff,” he announced. “Operation ‘Rescue The Princess’ is go. Did you see that the Tohjo Champ’s got freakin’ ninjas for bodyguards?!”

 

 

{Reshin 15th, 11:12}

{Nuvema Town}

 

“I don’t think we should touch any of ‘em yet,” Warren said, holding the box of pokéballs out of the reach of his inquisitive sister. “I think we should let Bianca pick first.”

 

“But what if somethin’ goes wrong with the plan and we need to fight our way out?” Carlotta insisted.

 

“We are not going to attack Bianca’s parents with Pokémon, you terrorist,” Cheren said sternly. “The Bigot Bomb will be sufficient.”

 

“’Sides, you know if we start a Pokémon battle ‘round here, we’ll have us a whole UN of security teams on our asses,” Warren said, snapping the box shut almost on his sister’s fingers. “Now includin’, need I remind you, ninjas.”

 

“In the embassy directly across the road from Bianca’s house,” Cheren added.

 

“Well, ‘less they’re actually stayin’ in the Hoenn embassy,” Carlotta added, nodding at her open bedroom window, which was letting in a cool breeze and the sounds of three children playing with a yapping Lillipup and yelling in loud Fairlan across the road. “Are the ninjas still on that roof?”

 

“The ninjas are on the roof,” Warren confirmed, leaning up to peer out of the window. “What a weird-ass sentence. Anyways, I swear that Tohjo Champ is scarier than any of her bodyguards. She looks like what ain’t killed ‘er shoulda tried harder, y’know?”

 

“Well, the Fairlands do still value prowess in battle very highly in their politicians,” Cheren said, eyeing up the box of pokeballs covetously, “and with all the terrorist problems they’ve had, it’s no wonder. She was the chief of police before becoming Champion, I believe.”

 

“Yeah, but ain’t they got any sorta skincare there?” Warren asked, moving the box out of Cheren’s line of sight. “She and her husband both look more scar’n skin.”

 

“Perhaps they’re still recovering from that brutal civil war they had thirty years ago,” Cheren suggested, leaning around to peer at the box. “I understand that many aspects of their health system and justice system are still rather crude.”

 

“I love how you know everythin’,” Warren said, grinning at Cheren and kissing his boyfriend’s cheek before leaning over his shoulder to throw a pillow at Carlotta as she tried to steal the box again.

 

 

{Reshin 15th, 22:17}

{Nuvema Town}

 

Not all of Nuvema was made up of political buildings; several blocks were owned by members of tight-knit religious groups who could afford the secure, relatively private area as their own little gated community.

 

The Romrams were one of the most insular, their children homeschooled and rarely leaving the two blocks of houses owned by members of the sect. Bianca’s house, on the corner across from the Tohjo Embassy, had always been easy to sneak in and out of. Carlotta, Warren and Cheren had been doing it since they were kids to visit the little blonde girl who got adorably overexcited about reading anything about Pokémon or playing with any toys that weren’t pink, red or orange.

 

Carlotta headed around the side of the building, following their latest, as-yet-undiscovered entry route under the far hedge while Warren and Cheren rang the doorbell and braced themselves for an onslaught of religious quotations about the horrible fates awaiting perverts, blasphemers and other bad influences on Mr D’Artagnan’s little girl.

 

Carlotta made it to Bianca’s window just as the shouting started, which handily covered the noise of Bianca opening her parents’ bedroom window and throwing her bag out. Carlotta ran over to grab it and yelped as it was yanked out of her arms by a ninja. “What in the—?!”

 

The ninja said something in Fairlan which, after a moment, was translated by a device clipped to her shirt, projecting holographic Unovan words just in front of Carlotta’s face. You are breaking into this house?

 

“No I ain’t! Sssh!” Carlotta hissed, glancing nervously at the front of the house, where from the sounds of it Mr D’Artagnan had gotten onto the topic of an eternity spent burning in fire and lightning. “I’m helpin’ my friend break out!” The ninja stared steadily at Carlotta as the device translated her words to Fairlan, the strange characters hovering in the air between them.

 

“Carly?” Bianca’s voice hissed from above.

 

“I’m here!” Carlotta hissed back, raising her arms. “I gotcha! If you get in the way and I drop her,” she added to the ninja, who was watching the translation of her words materialize, “ninja or not, I’ll kick your ass.”

 

The ninja showed no perceptible response to the translation of this threat, but merely watched as Bianca jumped out of the window and Carlotta caught her, staggering somewhat as her best friend’s weight hit her arms but, to her pride, not falling over. “My hero!” Bianca giggled overdramatically, hugging Carlotta as the brunette set her on her feet. “Uh… who’s that?”

 

“Please, please, please don’t tell Mr D’Artagnan that we’re goin’!” Carlotta begged the ninja. “They’re Romrams!”

 

After the translator was done turning Carlotta’s words to Fairlan, the ninja barked a sharp question, which turned out to be what?, though it was almost drowned out by a wordless scream of pure fury from the front of the house, suggesting that Warren and Cheren had dropped the Bigot Bomb by asking if the D’Artagnans’ hatred of their relationship meant that they were acknowledging Cheren was male.

 

“My parents are in a church that says that humans and Pokémon ain’t supposed to mingle,” Bianca explained quickly. “They think that Pokémon trainin’ is degenerate. But I wanna travel with Pokémon so much! Please let us go!”

 

After a moment of listening to the translation, the ninja nodded and vanished. Carlotta handed Bianca’s bag to her. “Run!” she hissed as the front door slammed loudly.

 

 

{Reshin 15th, 22:22}

{Nuvema Town}

 

“Janine says the girl claims not to be breaking in,” Koga said, one hand to his ear as he listened to his comm, “but to be breaking her friend out of some sort of religious household…”

 

“Oh, that part of town’s all Romrams,” Key said, making a face. “They’re an extremist Taotri sect, pretty insular. If a kid wants to break out of that, then fair play to them. It’s not really our problem.”

 

“Even if they were robbing that house, it’s still not really our problem,” Blue pointed out, looking down at the small figure that was lying on a guest bed, with Scarlet sitting on her mother’s lap and holding their hand. According to Archie, their name was Meloetta, and was usually a slim black-and-white Pokemon, but they were so covered with bruises and wounds that they were nearly unrecognizable. “I don’t think petty housebreakers did this.”

 

“Who would do something like this?” Saylee asked, looking up at Key and Archie.

 

“My best guess would be some kind of collector, maybe, or a gang of poachers looking to cash in,” Archie sighed, rubbing the back of his neck. His eyes blazed a little deeper blue for a moment, with red streaks shooting through them. “They’re not the most powerful one out here, but they’d still be worth a lot of money.”

 

“But somebody hurt them,” Scarlet whined in distress.

 

Saylee squeezed her daughter, kissing the top of her head. “Well, we’ll make sure they don’t get hurt any more,” she promised.

 

She glanced up at Red, who took the signal to pick Scarlet up. “I know you’re worried about Meloetta, but they’ve gotta sleep and so do you,” he said, hefting his niece onto his back to carry her through to her bedroom. “C’mon, say goodnight.”

 

“After all, Ray and Amy are already in bed,” Key said loudly and threateningly, inciting the sound of small feet running in the hall outside. “You can all come see how they’re doing in the morning.”

 

“But ‘m not sleepy,” Scarlet complained, betraying herself with a big yawn. “...G’night, Auntie Key. G’night, Uncle Archie. G’night, Mister Koga, and say g’night to Miss Janine, ‘kay?”

 

“I will do so,” Koga promised seriously.

 

“G’night, Mummy, G’night Daddy,” Scarlet added, waving to her mother, who was tucking in the small black-and-white figure on the guest bed, and her father, who winked at her. “G’night, Meloetta,” Scarlet added in a whisper. “Get well soon…”

Chapter Text

{Reshin 15th, 23:02}

{Route 1}

 

“To the success of Operation Rescue The Princess!” Warren sang, passing around bottles of soda as the four of them sat out under the stars. The summer night was so warm and clear that while all of them save Bianca had been camping plenty of times before, none of them were particularly fussed about putting up their tents. Eating packaged dinners under the stars had the right celebratory atmosphere.

 

“I just hope that ninja don’t tell my folks ‘bout us runnin’ away…” Bianca said, twisting her hands nervously around her bottle.

 

“They’re gonna notice when you ain’t in your room in the mornin’, Bianca,” Carlotta said, rolling her eyes. “I’m just grateful she didn’t sound the alarm or stab me or anythin’.”

 

“Once they confirmed that the situation was neither a break-in nor a kidnapping, they likely decided that it was none of their business,” Cheren said with a shrug. “Their business is, specifically, anyone or anything that may be a threat to Sar Saylee Pryce or her family. We are not in that category.”

 

“Well, unless you believe Bianca’s folks that we corrupt the very air we breathe,” Warren said, patting Cheren’s shoulder with a grin.

 

“To corrupting the purity of evenly divided and partitioned existence,” Cheren said, clinking his can against Warren’s and then kissing his boyfriend instead of drinking the toast. Bianca pilfered both of their cookies while they were distracted.

 

I think we should celebrate by pickin’ our Pokémon,” Carlotta suggested, grabbing Warren’s bag to get the box out, which proved to be enough to get her brother and his boyfriend to come up for air to intercept her.

 

“Remember, we agreed that Bianca gets to pick first,” Warren pointed out.

 

“I know!” Carlotta opened the box with a flourish and presented it to Bianca. “Here! We got a Snivy, an Oshawott and a Tepig, an’ you get first pick. Whichever one you want!”

 

“Snivy is a grass-type that evolves into Servine and then Serperior,” Cheren rattled off. “Oshawott is a water-type and evolves into Dewott and Samurott. Tepig is a fire-type that also becomes part fighting when it evolves into Pignite and Emboar. Their best-known attacks are Leaf Tornado, Razor Shell and Flame Charge, respectively. It can be difficult to earn a Snivy’s respect, but they are famously intelligent and protective of their trainers once they’ve bonded. Oshawott are known for being affectionate and fiercely loyal. Tepig are the most headstrong but also very friendly. When they evolve, the--”

 

“Thank you kindly, Cheren,” Bianca giggled, cutting off Encyclopedia Mode. She stared at the pokeballs for a long moment, biting her lip. “I… I think… I think I want Tepig,” she said finally, reaching out a tentative hand for the pokeball with the fire decal.

 

“Yesss! I get Oshawott!” Carlotta hooted, snatching up the pokeball that was emblazoned with a water droplet almost before Bianca had gotten a grip around her own choice.

 

Cheren sighed, but smiled. “I wanted to take on the challenge of raising a Snivy anyway,” he declared, taking the last pokeball, which had a small green leaf emblem on it. “I suppose that if we’re traveling together, we can trade at any time if we are unsatisfied with our choices.”

 

“I actually have a Pokemon,” Bianca said, hugging the pokeball in rapture. “I could never be unsatisfied with this baby!”

 

“So release ‘em and meet ‘em,” Warren suggested, peering curiously at the pokeballs. “And then one of y’all owes me an Audino.”

 

“I’ll catch you one!” Bianca promised, holding out the pokeball containing her new Tepig. Her hand shook slightly as she did so. “Do… do you think it’ll like me?” she asked, her excitement at having a Pokemon of her own suddenly overtaken by nerves and fear.

 

“Tepig are about as friendly as they come,” Cheren assured her. “And so are you, so I am certain that the pair of you will be fast friends.”

 

“Okay…” Bianca said, taking a deep breath and opening the pokeball.

 

The little orange-and-black Tepig that appeared shook its head as it materialized, as if waking from a long sleep, and then immediately flattened its ears at the happy squeal from its new owner. It stared up at her, wide-eyed.

 

“The way you’re squeakin’, I think it thinks you’re tryin’ to talk to it!” Warren laughed.

 

“I can’t help it! It’s so cute!” Bianca squealed, holding out her hands to the small fire-type. It sniffed her hands with its large snout, squeaking interrogatively before looking up at Bianca. When she smiled, it smiled back and hopped into her hands, allowing itself to be picked up and cuddled. “I love you, Tepig!” Bianca sang.

 

“My pokedex says he’s a boy,” Warren said, scanning up and down his device. “It also says ‘unregistered’--your fingerprints opened the pokeball so it’ll only open for you, but we definitely need to go get you a trainer card in the mornin’. Congrats!”

 

“What are you gonna call ‘im?” Carlotta asked, reaching out a finger to tickle the little Tepig. He tucked his head shyly under Bianca’s arm, squeaking.

 

“Hmmm… Tiberius,” Bianca declared, stroking her new Pokemon’s ears. “He looks like a Tiberius, don’t ‘e?”

 

“If you say so,” Warren said with a shrug.

 

“My turn!” Carlotta hopped to her feet and threw her new pokeball exuberantly into the air.

 

“Hey, what makes it your--oh, never mind,” Cheren sighed as Carlotta’s new Oshawott leapt out, squeaking enthusiastically and brandishing its scallop proudly. It spun on its heel, taking them all in, chirped and waved to Tiberius, then spotted its pokeball in Carlotta’s hand and bowed to her.

 

“Nice,” Carlotta said with a grin, reaching out to pet her Oshawott’s head.

 

“He’s a boy, and… yep, now registered to your trainer card,” Warren affirmed, glancing down at his pokedex. “What’s this li’l guy’s name gonna be?”

 

“Well, clearly he’s a mighty hero, so I’m gonna call ‘im Owain!” Carlotta declared, pointing at her new Oshawott. Owain pointed at himself and squeaked. Tiberius snorted at him, sending the little water-type into a high-pitched tirade, waving his scallop about. “Hey, no more of that,” Carlotta decided, pulling Owain into her lap. “Bianca’s my friend, so that makes Tiberius your friend too, got it?”

 

“Well, you guys should probably all have practice battles once Cheren’s met his Snivy,” Warren said pointedly.

 

“Ooooh, yes, let’s meet ‘im!” Bianca squealed, pointing at the leaf-decorated pokeball in Cheren’s hand.

 

“About time, too,” Cheren said in a mock huff. He clicked the pokeball open, releasing a small green-and-white lizard onto the ground. Owain and Tiberius immediately set up a chorus of what were presumably “hello”s, and Owain started brandishing his scallop again. The Snivy just blinked slowly at the pair of them, then turned up its nose.

 

“Snooty little jerk,” Warren chuckled. “Also a boy, by the way, and securely registered. What are you gonna call ‘im?”

 

“I don’t know… what?” Cheren asked as Warren grinned broadly.

 

“Yeah, you do,” Warren prodded. “Go on. You know you wanna.”

 

“I was joking!” Cheren complained, throwing up his hands.

 

“Jokin’ ‘bout what?” Bianca asked curiously.

 

“You joked about it a lot,” Warren pointed out. “C’mon, it ain’t geekier than Carly namin’ her Oshawott after a video game character. Bianca’s gone for a freakin’ Scriptural name. You are not the biggest--well, not the only dork in the field,” he corrected himself with an unrepentant grin.

 

“Fine,” Cheren declared with a sigh, reaching a hand out to his Snivy. “Forgive me, but your name is now Sherlock.”

 

“Aww, c’mon, that’s perfect!” Bianca said brightly. “I mean, he looks real smart--or real snobby, anyway… that’s the same thing, right?”

 

“Perfect match for Cheren,” Carlotta sniggered. Sherlock looked from her and Owain, to Bianca and Tiberius, and then at Cheren, who rolled his eyes. Sherlock smirked and scurried up Cheren’s arm to curl up on his shoulder.

 

“Aww, I think they’re goin’ to sleep,” Bianca giggled, rubbing her eyes. “Maybe we should practice battle in the mornin’?”

 

“Well, if we want to move at first light, that gives us five hours,” Warren said, looking at his watch. “Hope you all had your naps earlier…” He gave Carlotta a stink-eye. “And if not, you’re gonna just have to deal with it tomorrow.”

 

“Yes, sir,” Carlotta declared, saluting her twin as she flopped over backwards, tugging her bag under her head as a pillow. Owain curled up against her shoulder. “Night, y’all.”

 

“Good night,” Bianca yawned, curling up on her side with Tiberius cuddled close. “And… thanks, y’all. Really. I can’t tell all y’all how much this means to me…”

 

“It’s our pleasure,” Warren told her, wrapping an arm around Cheren’s shoulder as they lay down, tugging his hat over his eyes and sticking a thumbs-up in the air. “All for one, an’ all that junk.”

 

{Reshin 16th, 06:13}

{Route 1}

 

“Round one: Carly vs Bianca!” Warren called, flipping pancakes over the small portable grill while Cheren fed berries to Sherlock. “Aaaand go!”

 

“Tackle, Owain!” Carlotta ordered. The Oshawott immediately barrelled headfirst into his opponent.

 

“Tiberius!” Bianca cried as her Tepig tumbled backwards. “Ummm… Tail Whip!” Tiberius turned, hitting Owain with his springy tail, making the Oshawott squeak unhappily.

 

“Tackle ‘im again, Owain!” Carlotta called. Owain hit Tiberius again, knocking him to the ground.

 

“Oh, no… umm… Tackle!” Bianca shouted. Tiberius was looking the worse for wear now, but he got to his trotters and hit Owain full-force, knocking him down. Owain whimpered as he staggered back to his feet.

 

“That’s it! I know you’ve got it in you! One more Tackle!” Carlotta hollered. Before Bianca could respond, Owain knocked Tiberius down, and this time the Tepig collapsed with his eyes closed and didn’t get up.

 

“Match!” Warren called. “The winner’s Carly! Bianca, bring ‘im here so I can check on ‘im, okay?”

 

“Sure,” Bianca said, hurrying to scoop up her Tepig. “You did a great job,” she whispered. “And so did you, Owain! Wow, Carly! You’re really tough!”

 

“Woo-HOO! That was an awesome first match!” Carlotta said, leaning down to rub Owain’s head. He smiled up at her, waving a little weakly. “Hey, War, you got some healin’ juice for Owain?”

 

“Let me give Tiberius his Potion first,” Warren said, spraying a bottle over the Tepig’s wounds. “Cher, can you get the pancakes?”

 

“Got ‘em,” Cheren said, quickly tipping a slightly burning pancake out of the pan and onto a napkin. “Help yourself, Bianca. You put up a pretty smart fight, weakening Owain’s defenses like that. They’re just too young to do much of anything tactical. Carly, are you up for the next fight against me?”

 

“Bring it,” Carlotta said, catching the potion that her brother tossed to her and kneeling down to spray it over Owain’s wounds. “How you feelin’, big guy? Ready to fight again?” Owain waved his scallop, chittering proudly.

 

“Come on, Sherlock,” Cheren said, standing up and allowing Bianca to take his vacant seat with a plate of pancakes. “You’ve got the advantage here.” Sherlock uncurled from Cheren’s shoulder, tail briefly flickering out and tasting the air as he looked at Owain.

 

“If he knew any grass moves yet,” Carlotta pointed out with a grin. “Owain’s gonna wreck your delicate li’l leaf.”

 

“He’s not as delicate as he looks,” Cheren promised.

 

“Just fight already!” Warren yelled, pouring more pancakes.

 

“Leer!” Cheren ordered immediately. Owain flinched as Sherlock leapt off of Cheren’s shoulder and glared at him.

 

“Don’t be scared of that twig!” Carlotta ordered. “Tackle!”

 

“Don’t you have any other strategies?” Cheren asked with a frown. “Tackle, Sherlock!” Owain was knocked down by Sherlock’s full-bodied strike, but easily rolled back to his feet.

 

“Hey, this early, we’re gonna go with what works,” Carlotta responded. “Tackle ‘im again, Owain!”

 

Sherlock screeched as Owain slammed into him, crumpling on the ground.

 

“That’s the match!” Warren called. “That looked like a critical hit! Cheren, bring ‘im here, lemme see ‘im…”

 

“Good match,” Cheren said, fistbumping Carlotta as they both went to pick up their Pokemon and he hurried his unconscious Snivy into his boyfriend’s care.

 

“Yeahhhh! Two for two!” Carlotta whooped, hoisting Owain up in the air. “Well done, little guy! You’re a badass!”

 

Owain cheered and spat a jet of water into the air.

 

“A badass who just learned Water Gun, from the looks of it,” Cheren mused, smiling at Sherlock as the Snivy blinked awake. “Bianca, shall we have the next match?”

 

“We’re game, right, Tiberius?” Bianca said, feeding her Tepig a last berry before getting up. Tiberius squeaked, shaking his ears out before running onto the field to face Sherlock.

 

 

{Reshin 16th, 07:31}

{Nuvema Town}

 

“Mummy, look!” Scarlet called, running into the dining room. “We’re twinsies! Like Amy and Ray!”

 

“What do—oh,” Saylee said in surprise, staring at the exact clone of her daughter that was following Scarlet into the room. “What’s…?”

 

“Meloetta,” Janine said, gesturing to the second girl as she walked into the room. “If you listen closely, you can hear them humming. They’re using the humming to project some form of glamour. It’s kind of amazing.”

 

“They look exactly like you, Lettie!” Amber said, peering closely at Meloetta. “Cool!”

 

“Hey, can you transform into other stuff, too?” Raphael asked excitedly. “Like… like dinosaurs! Or an alien!”

 

“Nuh-uh! They’ve gotta look like a human so the people who hurt ‘em can’t find ‘em, dummy!” Scarlet argued.

 

“Hey, play nice,” Blue said, stepping in between his daughter and the twins, ostensibly to crouch down in front of Meloetta. “Don’t call people ‘dummy’, it’s mean. Are you doing this because you want to come with us?” he asked Meloetta.

 

Meloetta nodded tentatively, their glamour dissolving when their humming stopped. “If you are willing, I would be grateful,” they said melodically. “I ask for little but to hide among you. I do not wish to endanger you.”

 

“We’ll protect you! My mummy and daddy are the best trainers in all Kanto an’ Johto,” Scarlet declared proudly.

 

“An’ our mummy’s the best trainer in all Hoenn!” Amber added.

 

“They can beat up anybody!” Raphael put in. “Hey, can you turn into me?” All three children shrieked with laughter as Meloetta smiled and promptly did so.

 

“Which doesn’t make much difference if we don’t have any Pokemon for diplomatic reasons,” Key muttered sourly. “WMDs my ass…”

 

“Which is why I brought the greatest human warriors in the Fairlands as my security detail,” Saylee said soothingly, pointing to Janine in a vague gesture that also encompassed the rest of the building and wherever Koga, Linda and Alice might be lurking.

 

“Fuchsia ninja train in hand-to-hand combat against both Pokemon and humans,” Janine assured Key, “not to mention that all four of us survived Kanto’s seventeen years of isolation. We can protect you and Meloetta from whatever poachers attacked them--”

 

“Not poachers,” Meloetta interrupted, their glamour dissolving again when they stopped humming to speak. “A Hydreigon, one of the rarest and most fell creatures in Unova. This was not a wild one, either, but one trained specifically to hunt rare ones like myself…” They trailed off, frowning in concern. “I must at least go to Castelia with you. I… have a friend there whose safety I must see to. You are kind people, with Kyogre themself among you…” They gestured to Archie, who nodded vaguely, frowning in a way that suggested some internal debate was going on. “…But please forgive me for not saying more,” Meloetta concluded. “It is a matter of safety. You understand.”

 

“Fair enough, really,” Saylee said with a nod. “We are going to Castelia for the party Caitlin’s throwing.”

 

“Until then, what are we gonna do, tell people we secretly had twins this whole time?” Blue asked, ruffling Scarlet’s hair. “We’ve got hotels and appearances booked, public stuff like that where everybody involved knows we have one kid. The general public probably doesn’t know the difference, but all it takes is one person to get off their ass and check either of our official profiles, right?”

 

“Easiest would be for Meloetta to masquerade as part of the security detail,” Janine suggested. “We all keep our faces hidden in public, nobody’s paying as much attention to who we are as who you are, and even if they are, part of our formation requires that nobody be able to see all of us at once. Preferably, only half of us should be visible at a time, at most. So if Meloetta remains as one of the visible ones, nobody knows how many are hidden out of sight…” She chuckled. “And if we are needed, it’ll be a nice extra element of surprise if somebody who is paying enough attention to know that you have four guards doesn’t see the fifth coming!”

 

“How about it, Meloetta?” Saylee asked, gesturing to Janine, who pulled her hood and mask up to conceal her features. Meloetta looked up up and down, then began to hum again, their form shifting up to be a duplicate of Janine, as indistinguishable as she was from Linda and Alice and even Koga if you weren’t paying attention to how they moved. “I think I should take that as a yes.”

 

“Why can’t Daddy come with us?” Raphael said with a pout. “He could beat anybody!”

 

Archie smiled tightly as he sat down next to his kids, putting his arms around their shoulders. “Daddy’s special rules, you know that,” he said gently. “I can’t travel with you. It’s not allowed.”

 

“Well it’s not special rules, ‘cause Uncle Silver comes to Kanto all the time,” Scarlet pouted. “How come you got extra special house rules?”

 

“Send me lots of cool pictures, okay?” Archie said, ignoring the question and squeezing the twins until they began to giggle and flail to escape, “Especially if you find any weird Unovan water Pokemon!”

 

“I’ll bring Dad, Linda and Alice up to speed,” Janine said, pulling her hood back down and reaching up to her comm.

 

“I know we can trust their discretion,” Saylee said, glancing at Meloetta.

 

“You wouldn’t have brought us as your guards if you couldn’t,” Janine said. “Meloetta, while you’re disguised as part of the security detail, you’re playing a junior member, okay? That means obeying any order that the rest of us give you. That isn’t a trainer-Pokemon thing, it’s just a hierarchy thing--Linda, Alice and I all obey any orders Dad gives, Linda and Alice have to obey any orders I give, and so on. Okay?” Meloetta nodded silently without dropping their glamour.

 

“And we need to get packed to go to Striaton,” Saylee said, checking an alert that came up on her pokegear. “Lettie, Amy, Ray--you understand, right?” she said, crouching down to be at the kids’ eye level. “Meloetta isn’t quite like Archie or Uncle Silver, but they are somebody that you can’t tell anybody about, okay? It’s just as important to keep Meloetta a secret as to keep Archie and Silver secret.”

 

“Duh!” Scarlet proclaimed, putting her hands on her hips and nodding at the younger twins. “We won’t tell anybody we ever saw Meloetta, right?”

 

“Nope! Not ever!” Amber swore.

 

“We’re not gonna let anybody hurt you, even if you are a ninja now,” Raphael promised, looking up at Meloetta. “Hey, can you turn into a pirate?”

Chapter Text

{Reshin 16th, 07:32}

{Accumula Town}

 

“I’m so sorry, Tiberius,” Bianca said dejectedly as she handed her Tepig’s pokeball and her ID over to the Pokemon Centre nurse.

 

“They’re barely trained,” Cheren promised her, hanging on to Sherlock’s pokeball and his ID while he waited for his turn. “At this stage, it’s honestly as much luck and random chance as anything else whether we win or lose.”

 

“Guess that makes me the luckiest bitch here,” Carlotta said proudly.

 

“Be polite or the nurse ain’t gonna heal Owain,” Warren pointed out as the nurse gave them a Look over Bianca’s head while giving her back her pokeball and ID. “And then how are you gonna catch me my Audino?”

 

“I’ll catch one for you,” Cheren promised, handing over his ID and Sherlock’s pokeball to the nurse. “We’ll need to go buy some pokeballs and supplies…”

 

“I’m afraid that our Centre store has closed for lunch early,” the nurse said apologetically as she ran Sherlock’s pokeball through the healing machine. “Most of the staff would rather be out of the way of the Plasma rally that’s about to start outside.”

 

“Plasma? The Pokemon Rights Foundation?” Cheren asked with interest.

 

The nurse gave him a cold look as she handed back Sherlock’s pokeball and Cheren’s ID. “Well, that’s what they call themselves,” she said archly.

 

“You ain’t a fan?” Carlotta asked, handing over Owain’s pokeball and her ID.

 

“A fan? They ain’t a band or a sports team,” the nurse snorted as she healed Owain. “They’re an activist group, and an extremist one at that. I’d recommend that you kids keep away from them.” She took a deep breath and resumed her professional smile. “Can I help you with anything else today?” she said brightly.

 

“No, thank you very much,” Warren said, immediately towing the other three away from the counter.

 

“Shall we have a look at the Plasma rally before we go catch more Pokemon?” Cheren suggested.

 

“What are Plasma?” Bianca asked in confusion. “Why don’t she like Plasma?”

 

“You know, I’m not even surprised that you’ve never heard of them in your household,” Cheren commented. “They’re a Pokemon Rights movement. They argue that Pokemon, as intelligent creatures, should not be kept in pokeballs or bought, sold and owned as property. They’re rather extreme in making their points, but I do believe that they’re right that Unovan law pays too little heed to the needs of Pokemon, and a lot of the competitive breeding industry is excessively cruel…”

 

Extreme is right,” Warren snorted. “The reason that nurse don’t like Plasma is probably ‘cause of their more aggressive publicity stunts, like attackin’ a breedin’ centre to release the Pokemon inside.”

 

“Did they hurt folks?” Bianca asked with a frown.

 

“The breedin’ centre employees, yeah, and they released a loada newborn baby Chatot in the middle of nowhere in the dead of winter,” Warren sighed. “The Plasma attackers set the breedin’ centre on fire to keep the breeders from recapturin’ the Chatot, but that just meant that half of ‘em burned to death tryin’ to stay near the fire for warmth, and the rest froze to death.”

 

“Some members of the movement are real jackasses,” Carlotta put in. “I mean, didn’t one of ‘em throw acid in a trainer’s face? Like, didn’t start a fight or anythin’, just walked up to ‘em outside of a Pokemon Centre and threw gondamned acid at ‘em.”

 

“Dangerous stunts like that really undermine the movement,” Cheren said with a scowl, gesturing to the group of people in blue tabards and hoods who were hoisting pennants around the stage. “Some people are only in it to cause trouble. But the leaders really care about Pokemon, like… oh, wow, is that Ghetsis?”

 

Moving up to front and centre of the stage was an older man in a long, shapeless blue-and-yellow robe. He had pale skin, faded green hair and a large red-and-white eyepatch over his right eye. He smiled benevolently at the crowd as they started to quiet down as they noticed him waiting on the stage.

 

“Hello, people of Accumula!” he called, causing those who were still talking to fall silent. “My name is Ghetsis! I am here representing the Plasma Foundation!”

 

His associates all cheered and raised their banners at the mention of the name. A few crowd members cheered, too, while others clutched closer Pokemon that they were holding.

 

“Today, ladies and gentlemen, I would like to talk to you about Pokémon liberation,” Ghetsis continued. “I’m sure most of you believe that we humans and Pokémon are partners that have come to live together because we want and need each other. However… is that really the truth?” He was speaking sadly, like a parent very regretfully telling a child that no, they can’t grow up to be a Braviary. “Have you ever considered that perhaps we humans… only assume that is the truth? Pokémon are subject to the selfish commands of trainers… They get pushed around when they are our ‘partners’ at work… Can anyone say with confidence that there is no truth in what I’m saying?”

 

Bianca clutched Tiberius’ pokeball, wide-eyed and horror-struck. Carlotta put an arm around her shoulders, giving her a comforting squeeze.

 

“Now, ladies and gentlemen, Pokémon are different from humans,” Ghetsis continued. “They are living beings that contain unknown potential. They are living beings from whom we humans have much to learn. Tell me, what is our responsibility toward these wonderful beings called Pokémon?” There was a lot of muttering from the crowd until someone shouted a single word.

 

“LIBERATION!”

 

“That’s right!” Ghetsis responded, shouting more powerfully now. “We must liberate the Pokémon! Then, and only then, will humans and Pokémon truly be equals. Everyone, I end my words here today by imploring you to consider the relationship between people and Pokémon… and the correct way to proceed.” He bowed his head, returning to a more normal volume. “We sincerely appreciate your attention.”

 

Some people clapped, but most people started muttering nervously to each other, or to their Pokemon.

 

“Is that true?” Bianca said, looking stricken. “Are we hurtin’ our Pokemon by…?” She held out Tiberius’ pokeball.

 

“Hey, you’re okay, they’ve proved that Pokeballs don’t hurt Pokemon ‘less they’ve got an allergy only electric-types can get,” Warren assured her. “Tiberius is fine. You’ve been carin’ for ‘im well since the moment you got ‘im, lettin’ ‘im rest outside his pokeball and feedin’ ‘im well and everythin’.”

 

“But I let ‘im get hurt fightin’ Carly and Cheren…” Bianca said, crestfallen.

 

“You didn’t push ‘im any more in that fight than the kinda fights Pokemon get into in the wild,” Carlotta reassured her. “Be careful trainin’ ‘im and don’t push ‘im too far, and he’ll be fine.”

 

“The problem is that due to the League’s lack of interest in pushing any real regulations, others will not be so cautious,” Cheren pointed out. “Trainers are perfectly free to gamble with their Pokemon’s lives with no repercussions from the League. The competitive breeding industry is worth a fortune, and that’s more important to the lawmakers of this country than the lives of Pokemon. Issues like that are what is currently causing such strife between Unova and the Fairlands--but even in the Fairlands, where Pokemon have all the rights of humans, they still fight competitively.”

 

“All of which you are absolutely right about, as usual,” Warren said, patting Cheren on the shoulder, “but save the lectures for the gym leaders, okay?”

 

“You’re scarin’ Bianca!” Carlotta warned him, hugging her best friend protectively. “Don’t worry. We can protect each other, and once we get Warren his Audino, he’ll be able to heal anythin’.”

 

“On that note… back to Route 1 for catchin’?” Warren suggested pointedly.

 

 

{Reshin 16th, 08:09}

{Route 1}

 

“G-Go on, Tiberius! Tackle!” Bianca called nervously, clutching an empty pokeball as her Tepig knocked the wild Lillipup to the ground. It got back to its paws, panting with exertion. “Ummm… Tail Whip!”

 

The wild Lillipup flinched as Tiberius hit it with his tail, but tackled him again anyway. The attack was so weak that it barely shifted Tiberius’ footing, though its own tail was wagging fit to bust. Bianca took the chance and flung a pokeball at the tiny brown Pokemon.

 

“C’mon, c’mon, c’mon…” she mumbled, crossing her fingers as she watched the ball rock back and forth. “C’mon, c’mon… YES!” she squealed as the ball locked. “You’re the BEST, Tiberius!”

 

Bianca scooped up the pokeball, cuddling it happily. Tiberius hopped up into her lap with a proud squeak.

 

“Oh, you’re hurt!” Bianca gasped, realizing that the little fire-type was covered in bruises. “C’mon, let’s go find War and get you all healed up, alright?” Scooping up the Tepig under one arm and continuing to clutch her new pokeball in the other, she hurried off across the fields of Route 1, heading to the meeting point that Warren had offered to wait at while she, Carlotta and Cheren spread out to make their first captures. She couldn’t help looking over her shoulder every few feet, nervously expecting to see her parents or her priest on the horizon.

 

“They can’t make me go back,” she told Tiberius quietly. “I’m gonna be with you and my friends. I ain’t goin’ back, and they can’t make me. I’m sixteen, they really can’t, it’s the law. The League can’t give ‘em my info without my say-so, they don’t know where my card’s checked in, and they’ll be lookin’ at gyms first, right?”

 

Tiberius squeaked in confusion, then leaned up to nuzzle her chin.

 

“Sorry,” Bianca said, hugging him. “Guess you don’t understand much of what I’m sayin’, do you? It’s alright. Thanks for tryin’ to help me feel better. I know I can count on you an’ my friends to stand with me if they find me, anyway, right?”

 

Tiberius continued to look confused, but he gave her another nuzzle on the chin to comfort her.

 

 

{Reshin 16th, 08:21}

{Route 1}

 

“Aw, of course you had to beat me to it,” Carlotta complained, jogging up to her brother and his boyfriend with Owain tucked under one arm and her new Lillipup’s pokeball in the other hand. “Bet you rushed it just so you could have some alone time with W--oh.”

 

She stopped short when she got close enough to see that Cheren and Warren were bent over an unmoving Patrat. “Sorry, Cher,” Warren said, shaking his head. “You hit the poor thing a bit too hard.”

 

Cheren sighed, reaching up to pet his Snivy. “It’s not your fault, Sherlock,” he said quietly. “I wasn’t…” Warren leaned over to put an arm around Cheren’s shoulders, resting his forehead against his boyfriend’s.

 

Carlotta sat down next to her brother, trying not to look at the sad, limp form of the dead Patrat. “What happened?” she asked softly.

 

“I was… training Sherlock up a bit,” Cheren said with a deep sigh. “I wanted to make him a little stronger before I caught anything else… went a little too far…”

 

“It was just an accident, Cher,” Warren said. “C’mon. Let’s bury ‘im.”

 

“Too bad none of these guys know Dig,” Carlotta sighed, kneeling down and setting down Owain and her Lillipup’s pokeball so her hands were free to dig into the soft summer earth. Owain peered at what she was doing for a minute, then used his scallop shell as a little shovel to help her dig.

 

“Heh… clever little guy, ain’t he?” Warren said, helping his sister dig.

 

Cheren petted Sherlock’s head again as the Snivy slinked down his arm and up to Owain, softly hissing to the Oshawott, who responded with a quiet purr. The two continued to chitter to each other as the humans covered up the Patrat again and made for the river to wash their hands.

 

“I wonder what they’re talking about,” Cheren mused, rolling up his sleeves and dipping his hands in the clear, running water.

 

“Your Pokemon… just now, it was saying…”

 

All three of them looked up sharply at the sound of an unfamiliar voice. It was issuing from a tall young man who was walking up to them, hands in his pockets, cap pulled so low that his face was hard to see even from a low angle but with a massive mess of light-green hair spilling out the ponytail loop in the back. A small purple Purrloin was curling about his heels as he trailed off into rapid mumbling.

 

“Slow down, you talk too fast,” Cheren said, standing up and pulling out a handkerchief to dry his hands on. Cheren had always been taller than Carlotta, Warren and Bianca, but even he was noticeably shorter than the lanky newcomer. “What was that about Pokemon… talking? What an odd thing to you say. Are you one of those Fairlans who believe they can talk to Pokemon?”

 

“Yes, they’re talking,” the stranger affirmed with a nod, pointing to Owain and Sherlock.

 

“I mean, sure, they’re communicatin’, but it ain’t really speech, is it?” Carlotta said, nonplussed. She wiped her hands on her shorts as she stood up, absentmindedly tugging at her own ponytail.

 

The young man scowled. “Oh, then you can’t hear it… how sad,” he said softly, condescension dripping off of his tone.

 

“Excuse me, but who exactly are you?” Warren asked sharply.

 

The stranger straightened up, pulling his hands out of his pockets and pressing his right hand over his heart. “My name is N,” he said formally. He glanced over them--very much over them, appearing to be looking at the tops of their heads instead of making eye contact.

 

Carlotta exchanged a is this guy for real? look with her brother while Cheren, a little nonplussed by the sudden formality, replied, “my name is Cheren Athos, and this is Warren and Carlotta Arathos. We are new trainers who are intending to travel Unova. Carlotta and I are both planning on taking the League challenge… but I, of course, will be Champion,” he added, forcing Carlotta to playfully punch him in the arm.

 

“The League, right?” N mused. “So… you’re going to confine many, many Pokemon in pokeballs for that, then.” He gestured to the pokeball sitting next to Owain, who looked down at it and then back up at N. “I’m a trainer, too,” N continued, stooping to pet the ears of the Purrloin at his ankles, “but I can’t help wondering… are Pokemon really happy that way?”

 

Owain suddenly stood up, squeaking loudly. “Ssssh, Owain,” Carlotta hissed, picking up her suddenly unruly Oshawott’s pokeball.

 

“No, don’t… Carlotta, was it?” N asked, suddenly crouching down very close to her.

 

Carlotta fell over backwards with a surprised yelp. “Alright, man, you invade my personal space like that again, and you ain’t gonna like what happens next,” she threatened, rolling back into a crouch with fists up.

 

N glanced quickly at her in confusion, before turning his focus back to Owain. “Let me hear your Pokemon’s voice again.”

 

Owain started squeaking again, waving his arms as he chattered to N. “You alright?” Warren asked, offering his sister a hand up and glaring at N.

 

“Yeah, he just spooked me… I didn’t even see ‘im move,” Carlotta said, staring down at N, who was stock-still aside from nodding occasionally as he listened to Owain. “Do you think he’s really…?”

 

“He can’t be,” Cheren said, shaking his head. “Fairlan culture claims that humans can speak to Pokemon, but that can’t be possible--almost every species of Pokemon has its own form of communication, and none of them are developed enough to be termed ‘language’...”

 

“I never expected to hear Pokemon say such things,” N said abruptly, petting Owain on the head before standing up. “But as long as Pokemon are confined in pokeballs, they will never become perfect beings.” He turned back to face the humans, hands shoved in his pockets. “I have to change the world for Pokemon,” he announced, “because they’re my friends.”

 

With that, he turned on his heel and quickly strode off, the Purrloin still following him closely.

 

“Was that a thing that just happened right there?” Warren wanted to know. “What was wrong with that guy?”

 

“I think I saw him in the crowd at the rally,” Cheren commented, pushing his glasses up his nose. “He must be a Plasma supporter. I hope he isn’t one of the extreme ones. I like my face without acid burns.”

 

“So do I,” Warren said, kissing him on the nose, “so let’s find me an Audino so we can afford to avoid Pokemon Centres for a while, alright?”

 

“Well, on that note… I said only that I had not caught myself a new Pokemon,” Cheren said, going on one knee and presenting a pokeball. “Warren Arathos… would you like this Audino?”

 

“Ohmigod, yes!” Warren screeched, scooping up the pokeball. “I’m gonna swoon,” he crooned like an old-timey romance movie character.”Catch me, my love!”

 

“They’re dorks,” Carlotta explained to Owain and Sherlock, who were staring somewhat as Warren hugged Cheren excitedly. “I know y’all can pick up battle commands if you hear ‘em often enough… wonder if y’all can pick up the word ‘dorks’ the same way.”

 

“Carly!” Bianca called, hurrying down the dirt path towards them, Tiberius and a pokeball cuddled in her arms. “Awww… am I the last one?”

 

 

{Reshin 16th, 21:09}

{Striaton City}

 

Key abruptly shoved a hand over her mouth to stifle a sharp burst of laughter, frantically scrambling to pause the broadcast.

 

“Sooo… what’s the joke and can you keep it below dying wailmer noises before you wake the kids up?” Blue asked, jerking a thumb over his shoulder at the kids’ hotel room.

 

“Y-yeah,” Key wheezed. “It’s just… oooh, it’s not even a joke, it’s not funny, it’s not. Well, it is a little. I mean, the way he said it…”

 

“He doesn’t look like a joking kinda guy, despite the outfit,” Saylee said, gesturing to Ghetsis’ still image. “So what did he say? C’mon, the subtitles on this thing are really slow.”

 

“He just announced, with all the gravity of a man revealing a game-changing scientific discovery,” Key explained, giggling, “that humans and Pokemon are different.”

 

“Do you think he figured that out all by himself,” Red laughed as Key broke down in muffled laughter, “or did he need help?”

 

“Good grief,” Sayle sighed, propping her head up on her hand as she stared at what she could see of the crowd who had watched the rally live earlier that day. “The crowd’s certainly taking him seriously.”

 

“Well, he’s a charismatic speaker,” Blue said with a shrug. “Which probably means he’s an asshole.”

 

“Takes one to know one,” Red chuckled, just laughing harder when Blue gave him a look that implied a middle finger that he was not going to actually give to a thirteen-year-old.

 

“I’m just wondering why this guy’s speeches are so popular when he has so little of worth to say,” Saylee said, shaking her head. “He’s prone to overgeneralization, and I personally don’t think somebody has the right to speak for Pokemon without speaking to Pokemon. I mean, you know what’s the easiest way to find out what Pokemon want and need? Ask them!”

 

“For what it’s worth,” Janine said, opening the door from the balcony where she was sitting her watch, “Plasma are actually on our watchlist. They’re not connected to any major incidents, but they do have a tendency towards extremist demonstrations. Setting a building on fire, throwing acid at trainers trying to go in and out of Pokemon Centres--no human deaths, but some members are doing time for violent crimes.”

 

“I don’t like it,” Saylee said, rubbing her forehead.

 

“Okay, Red, that makes it time for you to head for bed,” Blue said, shooing the teenager away. Red rolled his eyes, but went without a word of protest, eyes glued to the screen of his pokegear with clear intent to be on it for at least two more hours. “And you,” Blue continued, pressing his hands to Saylee’s head and miming pulling something out of her skull. “You are not getting one of your bad feelings. I refuse. We’re on a diplomacy holiday. Moreover, this is not our country and these are not our problems.”

 

“When has that ever made a difference?” Saylee murmured, glancing up at the roof where she knew that Koga was keeping watch with a minor god.

 

“You’ve got meetings pretty early tomorrow, so how about we catch some real news and then some sleep?” Key suggested, grabbing the remote to change channels. “If I have to look at that evil snuggie for a minute longer, I’m gonna go blind.”

Chapter Text

{Reshin 16th, 22:12}

{Route 2}

 

“Loyal,” Carlotta decided, watching her Lillipup playfully tackle Bianca’s to the ground. “That’s what I’m gonna call ‘im.”

 

“I like Lilith for mine,” Bianca said. “Lilith! Lilith, c’mere girl!” Her Lillipup looked up, perking up her ears. “See? She likes it, too!”

 

“She’s responding to her trainer’s voice, not the name,” Cheren pointed out. “Also… another Scriptural name? I thought you were trying to escape all that?”

 

“I still believe in the Dragons,” Bianca insisted. “I ain’t givin’ up my faith, I just don’t think two immortal an’ almighty dragons really care what colour of clothes we’re wearin’. They’ve gotta have more important stuff on their minds. I mean, if they didn’t, we’d all be ash by now, right?”

 

“I can respect that,” Carlotta decided, beckoning for Loyal to come closer so she could scratch his ears and feed him some berries. Owain, Sherlock and Tiberius had already had theirs, and were all starting to doze off in their trainers’ laps. Angus, Warren’s new Audino, was humming contentedly to himself as he watched over the other Pokemon.

 

“Looks like we’re gonna reach Striaton by lunchtime tomorrow,” Warren said, reading his map on his C-gear. “Just in time to get lunch at the famous Striaton Gym!”

 

“As in, the restaurant that is extremely expensive unless we’re there for a gym battle?” Cheren pointed out. “It’s as well that we can’t afford to stay in hotels. Camping off the track makes us harder to find.”

 

“I’m sorry y’all’ve gotta hide out like this ‘cause of me,” Bianca said, hunching down a little. Lilith licked her trainer’s hand supportively.

 

“C’mon, Bianca, we’re more’n happy to,” Warren pointed out. “Like Cheren said, it ain’t like we could afford to stay in hotels anyways. And it’s nice campin’ weather.”

 

“And we’d rather be out here with you than in some snobby hotel without you,” Carlotta said, giving Bianca a one-armed hug.

 

Carlotta and Warren’s C-Gears suddenly rang. “Hey, Mom’s callin’,” Warren said, checking his and picking up the call. “Hi Mom!”

 

“Hi, Mom,” Carlotta said, joining in the call.

 

“Hi, Auntie Steph,” Cheren put in, leaning in to see Warren’s screen instead of joining on his own C-Gear.

 

“Hi, Mrs Arathos,” Bianca said meekly to Carlotta’s.

 

Hi, kids! Nice to see the four of you are still runnin’ free! You caught many Pokemon yet?” Stephanie Arathos asked, smiling.

 

“Bianca and I got Lillipups, and Cheren caught Warren his beloved Audino,” Carlotta reported.

 

That’s wonderful! I’m so proud of you all,” her mother replied, pressing a hand to her chest. “Goodness… when did my babies become grown-up trainers?

 

“Mooom,” Warren complained.

 

Stephanie chuckled. “Well, I wanted to let my grown-up trainers know that I bought y’all some new shoes, in case your old ones wear out when you’re on the run! I’ve emailed you the deposit item link. Oh, and speakin’ of bein’ on the run… well, I understand why you couldn’t, but I almost wish y’all could’ve been here to see the awful scene Bianca’s folks have been makin’.

 

“Oh, no,” Bianca said, putting her face in her hands. “They ain’t been botherin’ you, have they?”

 

Honey, they’ve been botherin’ me for years,” Stephanie said, rolling her eyes. “They did come knockin’ on my door--I was having Natsuko and Li Yong over for lunch at the time, actually, so they got to yell at all of us at once about our degenerate queer children kidnappin’ their daughter.

 

Bianca somehow managed to press her face even deeper into her hands. Cheren made a face. “I’d wager my parents were not entirely impressed with that display,” he muttered, pushing his glasses up his nose.

 

No, your mama beat me to the punch, quite literally,” Stephanie said cheerfully. “They tried lodgin’ complaint with your folks’ employer, but I guess Lady Caitlin didn’t like whatever she saw inside the D’Artagnan’s heads, ‘cause she dismissed the accusation and just asked Natsuko not to do it again, or at least not while she’s on the clock.

 

“She gets a little… protective,” Cheren said, trying not to smile.

 

Oh, I know, your folks are perfect professionals to people who ain’t insultin’ their baby boy. I just don’t know how they have the patience for it,” Stephanie sighed. “Anyway, Bianca, your folks are lookin’ for you, but I suggested that the Opelucid Gym was a common first stop for new trainers, so they should be lookin’ on the other side of the country right now.

 

Carlotta choked. “That gym’s infamous for always being people’s eighth choice because nobody wants to fight Drayden!” she laughed. “Mom, did I ever tell you you’re my idol?”

 

Of course I am, dear,” Stephanie said, starting to tie her hair up. “I’d better go--I’m on the night shift tonight. Be careful and look after each other, okay? I love y’all kids--you know that, Cheren, but that extends to you, too, Bianca. Y’all’re always in my heart and thoughts.

 

“Love you too, Mom,” Warren and Carlotta chorused. Stephanie blew them a kiss and hung up.

 

“Y’all’s mama’s so sweet,” Bianca sighed, picking up and cuddling Lilith, who sniffed at her trainer and licked her cheek.

 

“I always forget how scary your folks can be,” Warren said to Cheren. “They’ve always got that complete diplomatic chill.”

 

“And yet, if you break Cheren’s heart, they will cut you down,” Carlotta said brightly, reaching over to scratch Loyal’s belly. “You are too gondamn cute to send into a fight,” she said accusingly. “We’ve gotta train and toughen you up.”

 

“The Dreamyard just outside Striaton is said to be good for that,” Cheren said, checking the time on his C-Gear. “We should have plenty of time to train tomorrow.”

 

“And that, children, means it’s time for bed,” Warren declared, reaching over to turn off the porta-stove that they were using for a fire. “I love bein’ able to sleep under the stars in summer,” he said softly as, from the sound of it, he let himself fall over backwards.

 

“Goodnight, everybody,” Cheren said, his glasses clicking as he took them off and folded them up to be safely stowed away.

 

“Night,” Bianca said softly. Carlotta just curled up on her side, tucking her bag under her head and watching the dark shapes of their Lillipup as they settled down.

 

Lilith and Loyal wuffed and growled at each other for a while, with Angus occasionally cooing at them, but no matter how hard she listened, Carlotta couldn’t understand any of it.

 

 

{Reshin 17th, 11:07}

{Striaton City}

 

“Guys, hold up!” Bianca yelled, hurrying after her friends as they made for Striaton City’’s Pokemon Centre. “I’m tryin’ to have a look at the cool buildin’s!”

 

“Cool…? Well, damn the dragons! I just realized!” Carlotta gasped, slapping the side of her head. “Bianca, ain’t you been to Striaton before?”

 

“You kiddin’ me? Aside from pilgrimages, which don’t go through here, I ain’t ever left Nuvema,” Bianca pointed out.

 

“Somehow, I already forgot what a terrifyingly deprived child you are,” Warren sighed, pulling off his baseball cap and using it to fan himself as he looked at the buildings around them. The days were getting hotter and hotter, and he’d already stripped off his hoodie and unzipped the calf parts of his trousers. “I mean, this is where we go to school, this place is borin’ as hell to us. Cheren, you know everythin’, why don’t you give her the tour?”

 

“How come the buildin’s all look... I mean, they look pretty much the same as each other, but all that red brick and all the railin’s are so pretty!” Bianca asked, pointing at the buildings.

 

“These buildings actually date back to the Industrial Revolution, when most buildings in Unova were built in this style,” Cheren explained as Warren shooed them all on towards the Pokemon Centre. “This city was originally built for factory workers to live in. There are a few modern buildings, but most of this city is actually a World Heritage Site and any sort of modifications to the buildings need a lot of approval. When the factory industry started to collapse after energy-to-matter creation became a profitable industry…”

 

“Y’know,” Carlotta laughed, watching a couple of younger kids come out of a cafe ahead of them with lunches in hand and schoolbags over their shoulders, “it’s kinda cool to be walkin’ around Striaton without bein’ here for class or summer camp…”

 

“I know, right?” Warren agreed, straightening his bag. “I’m gonna enjoy bein’ here without settin’ foot in the school buildin’.”

 

“It is right next to the Pokemon Centre, though,” Carlotta pointed out with a grin. “Are you scaaaaaared…?”

 

“Petrified,” Warren said sincerely. “Can we go literally anywhere else?”

 

“Ta-daaa,” Cheren said, waving his hands as they walked into the Pokemon Centre. “So, when the League was first formed, battles were held in the town square, but then in the nineteenth century due to public safety concern they started to be held out by the factories, now the Dreamyard, and then--”

 

“You get the cutest dopey look when he’s bein’ a gondamned encyclopedia,” Carlotta teased, nudging her brother.

 

“You’re the… cutest… dopey… somethin’,” Warren grumbled, joining the queue at the counter. “Shut up and get your Pokemon ready to hand over.”

 

Carlotta picked Owain and Loyal’s pokeballs off of her belt, running her thumbs over the plain red surfaces. “Still don’t feel real,” she murmured with a grin. “We have Pokemon, War!”

 

“I noticed,” he said, rolling his eyes but still wearing a grin as he cradled Angus’ pokeball. Ahead of them, Cheren was holding the pokeballs of Sherlock and the Purrloin that he’d caught on Route 2 while Bianca handed over Tiberius, Lilith and the Patrat she’d caught just before they reached Striaton.

 

“You’ve got good timing,” the nurse said, swiping Bianca’s trainer card. “In about fifteen minutes, we’re going to start getting the lunchtime rush from the gym. Have you booked your battles yet?”

 

“Not yet,” Cheren said. “How long is the waitlist, usually?”

 

“It can be a few weeks, I’m afraid, but they have a drawing for a couple of same-day tables every morning at six, so if you’re willing to get up early you might get lucky,” the nurse said with a smile, handing back Bianca’s Pokemon and taking Cheren’s.

 

“Nice,” Warren said, grinning. “We can hit the Dreamyard to train today and then get up in the mornin’ to join the drawin’, how ‘bout it?”

 

“I feel like we should book gym battles anyway,” Cheren suggested, “just in case we never get lucky on the drawing.”

 

“Luckiest bitch around, remember?” Carlotta said, gesturing to herself and ignoring the nurse’s frown.

 

“The drawing’ll be mobbed tomorrow,” the nurse warned, returning Cheren’s Pokemon and accepting Carlotta’s. “The Tohjo Champion’s eating at the gym tomorrow. Not battling, just having dinner with the Hoenn Ambassador’s family and getting her first up-close look at an Unovan gym battle. They’re all supposed to be quite exceptional trainers, so I’m sure lots of people will be wanting to show off what Unovan trainers can do!”

 

Cheren smiled and thanked her for the information, but as he walked away from the counter he leaned over to Warren and muttered, “I’m not sure the Champions of two Leagues are going to be particularly impressed by scraps between Lillipup.”

 

“Then how ‘bout we go to the Dreamyard and find us somethin’ cooler?” Warren suggested with a grin.

 

 

{Reshin 17th, 11:58}

{Striaton City}

 

“This place is creepy,” Bianca muttered, huddling close to Carlotta as they walked through the gates of the Dreamyard after showing their trainer IDs to the security guard. The difference between the lovingly cared-for historical buildings of the city and the rot of the Dreamyard was stark. The warehouses and factory buildings that loomed up over them were just as old as the red brick houses of the city, but they had been neither protected nor restored, and were instead crumbling husks with weeds and overlong grass bursting from every crack.

 

“Is everybody up to date on their shots?” Warren said, wrinkling his nose as he looked around. Then he looked back at Bianca. “Wait, remind me. Are your folks some of the ones who think vaccines make the body ‘impure’?”

 

“Nah, I’m good,” Bianca promised, flexing her arm and patting the spot where vaccines were usually injected. “I mean, there are some folks who think that way, but it ain’t doctrine. ‘Sides, y’know it’s actually illegal to miss your vaccines ‘less you’re allergic to ‘em? Child services threatened to take away a kid from our church ‘til his parents caved an’ got ‘im some shots. They’re free anyways. Don’t see the fuss.”

 

“Despite its state, this place is actually very closely monitored by the Trainers’ Association,” Cheren assured them. “They occasionally come knock down walls or floors that have become too structurally unsound--as long as trainers don’t do it first, anyway. It’s already a ruin, so they don’t care what Pokemon do to it while training.”

 

“It’s been a ruin for a long damn time, though,” Carlotta pointed out. “When does a thing get old enough that UNESCO steps in and starts protectin’ it?”

 

“They protect sites of historical and cultural importance, not just old places,” Cheren pointed out. “This area was just one part of a long belt of factories that were, when all’s said and done, not that important. There’s a series of preserved factories-through-the-ages near Nacrene, but the rest of it’s not of value to anybody.”

 

“A worthless old dump… of course they left it for trainers,” Warren muttered, kicking a bit of stone.

 

“Ain’t there anywhere nice ta train?” Bianca muttered, huddling even closer to Carlotta as they passed a couple of people fighting with Watchogs. The tall rodent Pokemon were snarling terribly at each other as they fought.

 

“Not ‘round here,” Carlotta said, shaking her head and patting Bianca’s arm. “Not for trainers at our level, anyway. You have to get quite a buncha badges to be seen as a professional ‘stead of somebody avoidin’ a real job.”

 

“Being a trainer isn’t considered a real job, not one you can make a living from,” Cheren grumbled. “The Striaton Triplets aren’t just running a restaurant for fun--even as Gym Leaders, the League only covers expenses, it doesn’t pay much. I suppose their restaurant does benefit from the public exposure of being Leaders…”

 

“Worry ‘bout it when you become the president, Cheren,” Carlotta said, clapping her hands. “Enough! We’re here to train, we’re here to get us some new Pokemon, and we’re here to have fun! Let’s do this! What kinda wild Pokemon do they have ‘round here anyways?”

 

“Patrat and Purrloin, mostly, but you can get a Munna if you’re very lucky,” Cheren rattled off. “Do we want to train first, or go find new catches?”

 

“Maybe we should train first?” Bianca suggested shyly. “‘Cause, y’know, we wanna make sure we’re strong enough to protect ourselves from the wild Pokemon ‘round here, right?”

 

“I’ll protect you, Bianca,” Carlotta promised, patting her best friend’s cheek, “but you’re right. Fight me, Cheren!”

 

“Bring it on,” Cheren said, pointing to the front of one of the warehouses. “Let’s see if there’s space to fight in there where we won’t get mixed up in anybody else’s fight.”

 

“Before we walk in there, I wanna make a group pact that if we hear any noises, we don’t go investigate and we do not split up, we leave that horror movie immediately,” Warren insisted as they cautiously pushed open the warehouse door.

 

 

{Reshin 17th, 17:31}

{Striaton City}

 

“Opponents are chosen by the three leaders themselves,” Warren read aloud from the latest edition of So You Want To Be A Trainer. “For those with fewer than four badges, they aim to give the challenger an advantage to promote a positive experience in a young trainer’s early gyms. Due to its proximity to the region’s premier Trainers’ School, many aspirin’ champions’ first gym is Striaton.”

 

He, Cheren and Carlotta had already learned all the gyms backwards and forwards, but Bianca’s knowledge of the League was still often patchy, so a bit of revision wasn’t a bad idea. “So it’ll be easy?” Bianca said hopefully, checking Packard’s teeth. He snapped at her fingers, causing her to draw her fingers back quickly.

 

“Not easy, nah,” Carlotta said, glancing up from Priscilla and Owain, who were growling at each other, awaiting further commands from their trainers. She grabbed Bianca’s hand, checking to see if Packard had bit her. “I don’t think he got your fingers, I don’t see any bite marks. Anyways, you’ll have an advantage, so long as you remember your type strengths and weaknesses.” She pointed at Tiberius. Owain looked around, then took a stance facing Tiberius, while Priscilla yawned and curled up. “So, he’s a fire type, right? What’s he strong against?”

 

“Oooh, ooh, I know this! Okay… grass…” Bianca said, counting on her fingers. “…Bugs… steel… and, um… there’s one more, right…?”

 

“Ice,” Cheren offered after a moment. “Three out of four’s good, and you won’t see ice-types around here anyway. The Striaton leaders use fire, grass, and water. So, if you’re to have the advantage, which will you be facing?”

 

“Grass, right?” Bianca said hopefully.

 

“Bingo! None of us have badges, so you’ll get Cilan,” Carlotta said, high-fiving Bianca proudly. “Oh, hey, Owain, tackle Priscilla!” Owain looked around in surprise, then charged Priscilla.

 

“Their first-timer teams are always a Lillipup and a Pan-somethin’,” Warren continued. “Now, for Lillipup…” He gestured to Loyal and Lilith, play-fighting in a yipping heap. “What’s good on them?”

 

“Errr… fightin’-types, and… ummm…” Bianca said, frowning thoughtfully at the two Lillipup.

 

“That’s all, actually,” Cheren said. “Well done. Priscilla, use Fury Swipes! Now, we don’t have any fighting-types, so our best bet may be to simply brute-force our way through.”

 

“You think he’s close to evolvin’?” Carlotta mused as Owain knocked Priscilla through a door that was hanging off of its hinges, sending the rusted metal crashing to the ground. The Purrloin yowled unhappily as she lay in a heap on the wrecked door. To Cheren’s frustration, Priscilla was not an enthusiastic fighter, tending towards weak attacks and giving up quickly when injured. So did Lilith--though she was enthusiastic at first, she never attacked very hard and would back out quickly if she got hurt. Loyal, Packard and Owain were all more aggressive fighters, as were Sherlock and Tiberius, though Tiberius clearly preferred cuddles, jumping into Bianca’s arms as soon as he’d won a battle.

 

“If anybody’s evolvin’ first, it’s definitely Owain,” Warren said, releasing his Audino. “Heal Pulse, Angus,” he ordered, pointing at Priscilla.

 

Angus glowed, sending a soft beam of light at the collapsed Purrloin that made her bruises disappear and her eyes flicker open as she slowly stood up. Then Angus stopped abruptly, stepping through the now-empty doorway and looking around with his ears fluttering and a frown on his face. He chirruped something and Priscilla mewled a reply, sniffing the air, her ears and whiskers twitching.

 

“Somethin’ up?” Warren asked in concern. Angus looked at him, then looked around, calling out loudly. Packard looked sharply in the direction that Angus was looking, chittering frantically. Loyal and Lilith paused and perked their ears up at the sound of Angus’ call. The two sniffed the air, then took off, barking loudly.

 

“Lilith! Lilith, come back!” Bianca yelled, running after her Lillipup with Tiberius clutched in her arms.

 

“Bianca! Loyal! Dammit, Loyal, live up to your name!” Carlotta yelled, scooping up Owain and running after them.

 

“Guys, this is exactly what we swore not to do!” Warren yelled, returning Angus and chasing after them, further into the dilapidated factory that they’d moved to after an over-aggressive trainer with an overpowered Braviary, likely on his sixth or seventh badge, had knocked in a wall of the warehouse they’d started in.

 

Loyal and Lilith’s barking abruptly increased in volume, joined by a chorus of yowling from Priscilla. Sherlock, Owain and Tiberius all looked up sharply, and Sherlock started hissing, pointing his nose directly in the direction that their Pokemon had gone.

 

“They seem… unhappy,” Bianca said, cuddling Tiberius as he squeaked frantically, his nose twitching, nearly falling out of her arms as he leaned in the direction that he wanted her to go. Owain actually managed to get out of Carlotta’s arms, running at full speed ahead of the humans.

 

“There,” Warren said, spotting the Pokemon crowded around the remains of a rotted old cupboard.

 

“Do you hear that?” Cheren said as they approached the cupboard. “What’s that sound?”

 

“More Pokemon?” Carlotta said curiously, leaning over to open the dangling cupboard door a little more to get a look inside.

 

Inside was a cardboard box, and inside were three small, weakly chirping Pokemon, one blue, one red, one green. They were immediately recognizable to Carlotta, Warren and Cheren, who’d seen the species before. The Striaton leaders came to the Trainers’ School a few times a year for workshops or lessons on the Unova League, always bringing their signature Pokemon. “A Pansage, Panpour and Pansear!” Cheren said in surprise, starting to crouch down and reach out to the tiny, colourful Pokemon. Lilith and Loyal both growled, their hackles rising, Packard snapped, and even Priscilla hissed at her trainer, her fur rising and her back arching. “Okay then,” Cheren said, quickly withdrawing his hand.

 

“Hey! Don’t bark at Cheren!” Bianca admonished Lilith with a frown. “Maybe we should return ‘em if they’re gonna misbehave…”

 

“I think they’re just tryin’ to protect these little guys,” Warren said, watching Angus use a Heal Pulse on the three small Pokemon in the box. “They’re injured… I guess they’ve been abandoned.”

 

“We should probably take ‘em to the Pokemon Centre, then,” Carlotta suggested, reaching towards the box again, bringing up another round of snarling and hissing. “Okay, look, I’m not gonna hurt ‘em, so you’ve gotta let me pick up the box,” she said, putting her hands on her hips and scowling at the Pokemon. The three in the box just whimpered, huddling close together as if trying to hide beneath each other.

 

“These Pokemon were probably hurt by the trainers or breeders that abandoned them--they can’t understand that we have good intentions,” Cheren pointed out, returning Sherlock and Priscilla. “We’ll need to return our Pokemon to move them.”

 

“Don’t worry, guys, they’re gonna be okay,” Carlotta promised, returning Owain and Loyal while Bianca returned Tiberius, Packard and Lilith.

 

Warren returned Angus, then reached out to pick up the box. The Pansear screeched in fright and spat embers at him, burning his hand. “Ow!” Warren yelped, yanking his hand back and cradling it against his chest.

 

“Warren!” Cheren gasped, hurrying over to check Warren’s hand. “You’re going to have to get that checked out at the hospital,” he said, examining the burn.

 

“It’s only first-degree,” Warren assured him, “it just hurts like a bitch.”

 

“Hey! We’re tryin’ to help you!” Carlotta yelled at the box. The three Pokemon inside just shrank back more.

 

“Carly, they’re just scared!” Bianca insisted, stepping between her best friend and the box. “We gotta figure out a way to move ‘em without scarin’ ‘em anymore!”

 

“We could catch them,” Cheren suggested, setting down his backpack and pulling out three pokeballs. “Then we can move them to the Pokemon Centre and they won’t even be aware of it.”

 

“Best plan we’ve got,” Carlotta agreed, watching Cheren capture the three Pokemon. “Y’all take those to the Pokemon Centre, I’ll take Warren to the hospital to get that hand looked at.”

 

 

{Reshin 17th, 18:35}

{Striaton City}

 

“Success?” Blue asked, straightening up as Koga let Key and Saylee into the hotel suite. “Or at least, a reasonably minimal level of obnoxiousness?”

 

“There wasn’t a lot of obnoxiousness, no, but passive-aggressiveness was off the charts,” Saylee sighed, setting her bag down on the floor by the door, unclipping her necklace and pokegear to set on the table, and carefully toeing off her shoes before calmly walking over and collapsing face-first on the couch next to Red, who sighed and patted her back without looking up from whatever he was reading on his Poketch.

 

Key didn’t even bother with carefully removing her jewelery or coat, simply walked over and sat down on the floor next to where the three younger children were teaching Meloetta how to play Snap. Amber leaned over and patted her mother’s ankle. “Are the Unovans being silly again, Mommy?” she said sagely.

 

“Yes, sweetie,” Key sighed, leaning over and kissing her daughter’s head, then her son’s. “Did you have a nice dinner?”

 

“Uncle Blue got us hamburgers!” Raphael said excitedly.

 

“This is a very fancy hotel,” Blue said, walking away from the younger kids to sit on the floor next to Saylee and stroke her hair. “The hamburgers have sprigs of parsley on top. So, on a scale from Wallace to Clair, what shade of annoying is the Governor?”

 

“She’s not a fan,” Saylee said bluntly, turning her head so she could speak without being muffled by a pillow. “She made some implications about what can be inferred about people in Kanto based on ‘a mere Pokemon’ beating them to public office. I did not appreciate those implications, and told her so. She did not appreciate me not appreciating those implications. Ad infinatum.”

 

“Rude,” Red commented, scowling at his Poketch.

 

“That sounds confusing and mean,” Scarlet commented. “Do you want a hamburger, Mummy?”

 

“It’s okay, honey, I already ate,” Saylee said, smiling tiredly at her daughter, “but thank you. How did you like the gardens?”

 

“We got lost in the maze!” Raphael said excitedly. “Then we talked to some Pidove an’ they told us all about the forest, but the guide lady didn’t like us talkin’ to Pokemon so she showed us some bushes that look like Pokemon instead. They didn’t talk.”

 

“Well, except for that mushroom that turned out to be a Pokemon,” Red added.

 

“We drew pictures!” Amber cried, hopping to her feet and running over to the coffee table across the room, between another couch and a television, to fetch a mass of crayon drawings.

 

“By the way, Janine,” Saylee said as the kids tried to arrange whose drawings were whose and Meloetta examined the artwork of a king on one of the playing cards, “where did you go while we were arguing about a Pokemon’s capability to do the governor's job? You vanished a little more than usual…”

 

“I left Linda keeping watch,” Janine said. “I had to have a look around. There was somebody following us… somebody well-trained in stealth.”

 

“They eluded you,” Koga said, narrowing his eyes.

 

Janine bowed her head. “Forgive me,” she said, looking ashamed. “I don’t know how they managed to vanish, but they did. I searched for them, but I could find no trace. But they were there, watching us, of that I am certain.”

 

“I trust your instincts, Janine,” Saylee said with a nod. “Whoever it is, I’m sure they’ll be back. You’ll get them next time.”

 

“Thank you for your faith in me,” Janine said formally, bowing, before straightening up with a smile. “I refuse to be out-ninja’d by an Unovan.”

 

“Uh-oh,” Blue said with a grin. “Somebody’s thrown down a challenge they’re going to regret. Hey, you’ve gotta check out the one of the red flowers,” he added as Scarlet approached with her drawings. “Remember what they were called, Lettie?”

 

“Scarlet Carsons! They’re my flower!” Scarlet said delightedly, climbing into her mother’s lap with a sheaf of drawings.

Chapter Text

{Reshin 18th, 05:58}

{Striaton City}

 

“That looks painful,” Warren said sympathetically as he and Carlotta rejoined the line, both clutching coffee, just in time to see Cheren give them a jaw-cracking yawn.

 

“Wow, Gulpin are super rare ‘round here… anybody got a Great Ball?” Carlotta joked, giving Bianca her coffee.

 

Cheren mumbled something incomprehensible as he clutched the coffee that Warren handed him, leaning against his boyfriend’s arm as he drank deeply.

 

“It’s garbage coffee, but it’s hot, cheap an’ here,” Warren said, sipping his drink and checking the time on his C-Gear. “Damn… just in time.”

 

“They’re openin’ the door!” Bianca gasped, pointing and bouncing on the spot as three young men in waiters’ uniforms stepped out. They weren’t the distinctive triplet Leaders, merely restaurant employees, but they were the focus of hundreds of rapt gazes as they set up a lottery table. A bucket was sitting on the table, its contents indiscernible, and one of the waiters started walking down the line while the other two remained and the table and started inviting trainers forwards.

 

“Normally we take everybody’s trainer ID numbers and draw from those, but we clearly have too many entering the lottery today,” he explained as he walked down the line. “We are drawing for nine battles. Please take one plastic egg from the basket and open it to see if you have a winning ticket. Once we have drawn all nine, the lottery will close. Thank you for your understanding.”

 

“Oh, no… there’s so many,” Bianca whispered, clutching her coffee nervously.

 

“Yeah, but we’re close to the front thanks to our team campin’ strategy,” Warren said, high-fiving his sister.

 

“‘Scuse me,” Carlotta said, flagging down the passing waiter. “Three of us are here for battles together--can we draw once for three battles?”

 

“You’ll have to ask Maxwell--he’s the head waiter, the one sitting behind the table,” the waiter explained. “I don’t see why not, but he’ll probably only let you draw once.”

 

“Luckiest bitch,” Carlotta promised her friends with a grin.

 

“I’m not sure that it gives us better odds, but it does ensure that if we win, we’ll all get to fight on the same day,” Cheren allowed, visibly looking more alive the more coffee he drank.

 

“We’ve gotta fight together,” Bianca agreed. “Oooh, what if we win? We’ll be fightin’ in front of the Governor, and… and…” Bianca abruptly paled. “Do you… do you think reporters’ll be there?” she whispered.

 

“Maybe,” Warren allowed, “but don’t worry. Your folks can’t do anythin’ even if they do find you, and we’ll be here to support you if they do.”

 

“Most of the reporters’ll probably be from the League networks, so your folks won’t see anythin’ unless they decide to get sports channels,” Carlotta added comfortingly.

 

“Besides, I’m not sure there’s going to be that much focus on who’s fighting in front of Sar Pryce,” Cheren commented, pressing some buttons on his C-Gear. “Apparently her meeting with the Governor yesterday… did not go well, at least going by the ‘press statement’ Governor Christie ranted afterwards.”

 

“Oh, damn, what shit’s she on now?” Warren said, peering at Cheren’s C-Gear screen. “Blah, blah… ‘primitive, superstitious nation’, wow, rude… okay, makin’ a Pokemon a governor or whatever they call it there is weird, but…”

 

“Wait, for real? A governor Pokemon?” Carlotta asked curiously.

 

“It’s a purely symbolic position over a grave town with almost no living population,” Cheren said, rolling his eyes. “Like that Purrloin who’s a ‘stationmaster’ in Nimbasa. There must be some religious significance to it, since from the looks of it Sar Pryce released a statement about ten minutes later expressing how unhappy she is with the Governor mocking the whole thing. Well, that diplomatic tour’s starting out well.”

 

“Honestly, I could probably go dig up a Stunfisk that could write better school reform than Governor Christie,” Carlotta said thoughtfully. “We sure graduated just in time.”

 

“The governor’s been speakin’ out a lot ‘gainst the Plasma Foundation, and a Pokemon as a politician is exactly the kinda wild shit Plasma Foundation would suggest,” Warren opined.

 

“Yeah, but if it’s a religious thing, not a joke, the governor oughta be more respectful,” Bianca said with a frown.

 

“The problem with the Fairlands is that their religious beliefs heavily influence their government,” Cheren sighed. “They’re right up there with Alola in pushing embargoes on countries that don’t sign the UN Convention on Pokemon Rights, even though the UN itself isn’t even doing that yet. All because they believe in communicating with Pokemon as if they’re human.”

 

“Basically, they’re a whole… a bunch of whole countries of weirdoes like that N guy?” Carlotta asked. “I mean, I always put Lady Caitlin bein’ pretty weird down to her bein’ psychic, but you’re sayin’ they’re all like that?”

 

“Yeah, but… wouldn’t it be nice to be able to talk to Pokemon?” Bianca sighed. “We’d be able to tell those Pokemon that we weren’t gonna hurt ‘em…” They’d taken the Panpour, Pansage and Pansear that they’d found to the Pokemon Centre for healing, and had gotten directions to a Plasma Foundation-funded shelter for abused Pokemon that they could take the three obviously abused Pokemon to once it opened later in the morning. The three had had to be kept in their pokeballs the whole time, panicking violently when they were let out.

 

“Pokemon ain’t exactly people, but they can be pretty smart,” Warren said, leaning up on his toes to peer over the heads of those in the line ahead of them. “We’re close… we’re definitely gonna get to draw, at least. Are we just gonna let Carly do it?”

 

“Luck isn’t actually a real concept so it won’t matter anyway,” Cheren pointed out.

 

“Have faith, Cher,” Carlotta said, patting him on the shoulder. “And get pumped, ‘cause by the end of the day we’re gonna have our first badges!”

 

“Ooooh… I can’t wait!” Bianca squeaked, starting to bounce on her toes again as she clutched Carlotta’s arm. “I hope they let us draw soon… I can’t handle this!”

 

“Next!” the waiter standing in front of the table called, gesturing them forwards. “You’re all together?”

 

“Only three of us are drawing for a battle,” Cheren explained, looking from him to the head water behind the table. “Are we allowed to draw once for all three of us? We’re good friends and we’d like to have our battles together, if we could.”

 

“Hmmm… well, we do usually allow trainers the opportunity to fight alongside their friends, but these battles are in high demand,” he said, nodding at the line behind them. “You get one draw, understand?”

 

“Go, Carly, go!” Bianca chanted as Carlotta mimed rolling up her sleeves--”You’re wearing a tank top,” Cheren muttered--and rubbed her hands together.

 

“Here we go,” she said, plunging her hand into the bowl up to the elbow and yanking out an egg in a single motion. “C’mon… c’mon… c’mon…” she muttered as she twisted the egg open, inhaling sharply as a small gold slip fell out.

 

“And that’s a winner!” the head waiter declared, to a mixture of cheering and swearing from the trainers queued behind them. Bianca screamed wordlessly and hugged Carlotta in delight while Warren punched the air, hugging Cheren with his other arm.

 

“Luckiest. Bitch. In. UNOVA!” Carlotta declared, picking up Bianca and swinging her around.

 

“Should I put that down as your name, or do you have trainer cards?” the head waiter said dryly, prompting Carlotta, Cheren and Bianca to sheepishly dig for their ID cards. “You’re in the 7:00pm slot. Please arrive no later than 5:30pm so we can show you to your table, get you through security--it’ll be quite stringent tonight, of course--and give you time to order. Do not move from the table unless you require the restroom, which you will be guided to by a staff member, or it’s time for your battle. You’ll have time for your entree before your battles, which will take place between the entrees and first course. Please do not attempt to approach Governor Christie or Sar Pryce’s tables--”

 

“Not eating together anymore, eh?” Cheren commented.

 

The waiter’s face remained professionally impassive. “They will both be eating with their families, and again, I must stress, do not approach their tables,” he said. “Remain at your own until called. I see from your trainer cards that this is your first badge for each of you. Are you aware of the rules for gym battling?”

 

“We are all well aware,” Cheren promised.

 

“Then best of luck,” the waiter said, handing back their cards. “Next!”

 

“So are we going back to bed, or are we trainin’?” Warren asked as they moved out of the way of the next trainer in line.

 

“You can go back to bed, but we are--” Cheren checked his watch. “--twelve and a half hours away from our first gym battles, and we need to be back here in eleven hours. We are training.”

 

“Train, come in to visit the shelter when it opens at nine, then train some more,” Carlotta decided. “C’mon, it’s ass o’clock in the mornin’, the Dreamyard’ll be practically empty!”

 

 

 

{Reshin 18th, 06:47}

{The Dreamyard}

 

The Dreamyard wasn’t empty--it was open 24 hours, and there were already quite a few trainers around, either people who’d been ahead of them in the line for the drawing or had decided not to try it.

 

“Hey, were you at the drawing?” an athletic-looking guy with messy black hair called, waving at them.

 

“We won! We’re battlin’ at seven!” Carlotta said proudly. “Were you?”

 

“I’m battling at nine, but I booked my battle months ago, so I didn’t go to the drawing,” the guy said with a smirk. “Congratulations, though! Care to train? They could do with somebody new to battle against.”

 

“Is… that a Garchomp?” Cheren said, gesturing to the tall, pointy, purple Pokemon that was grappling with a skinny red one that had huge claws. “And a Scizor? None of us have any badges yet, I’m afraid. You may be somewhat above our level.”

 

“For now,” Carlotta said threateningly. “I’ll catch up and kick your ass someday, dude. Carlotta Arathos. Remember the name. And Cheren and Bianca too, if you want,” she added, gesturing to her friends.

 

“Drake Zychsbane, and this will be my sixth, so… yeah, that’s a mismatch. Shame,” he said, shaking his head. “Best of luck, Carlotta Arathos and friends. Did you just get here today, or were you particularly hoping to battle in front of Pryce-dono?”

 

“We just started yesterday, but--sorry, are you from there?” Cheren asked. “Was that Fairlan you just spoke?”

 

“Eh, I was born in Sinnoh. Haven’t seen the place since I was a baby, but you know how parents are about learning the language,” Drake said. Cheren nodded. Drake yelled something in Fairlan at his Pokemon, causing the Scizor to fly up in the air while the Garchomp spat balls of blue fire at it. “Pryce-dono was probably the strongest trainer in the whole Fairlands at her peak, and her husband’s still one of the strongest Leaders to fight. Might take that challenge one day, after I’ve beat the Unova League. It’s a lot harsher, I hear. Even if it’s just your first badge, put up a good fight, okay? And hey,” he added, “don’t let anybody tell you that being harsh on your Pokemon makes them stronger. You get more out of ‘em if you treat ‘em well.” He gestured to his Garchomp. “Take it from me.”

 

“Thank you for the advice,” Cheren said with a nod. “Come on--we’d better stake out a good training spot.”

 

“Haven’t seen anybody head into the warehouse yard this morning,” Drake said, pointing at the hulking warehouses. “The one that’s completely collapsed is a good open space, if that’s what you’re after.”

 

“Thank you very much!” Bianca said brightly. “I hope the Dragons smile on your battle!”

 

“Good luck, and thanks,” Warren said. Drake waved, but didn’t look away from the intent watch he was keeping on his Scizor as it dodged blue fire in midair.

 

As Drake had promised, the rotting warehouses were empty and quiet, with no other trainers in sight. “You know, as small and young as our Pokemon are, I am not sure that we need much space…” Cheren began.

 

“No, but let’s take it anyway, ‘cause we can,” Carlotta insisted, grabbing him and Bianca each by the wrist and tugging them towards the collapsed building at the end.

 

“Actually, I think somebody’s already there…” Warren said as the sound of voices drifted towards them, accompanied by a high shriek of pain.

 

“Sounds like they might need healin’,” Bianca said nervously. “Warren, you an’ Angus oughta go help!”

 

“Good idea,” Warren said, running on ahead. “Hey!” he called. “‘Scuse me, are you… okay…?”

 

“War? What’s wrong?” Cheren shouted, also breaking into a run as Warren trailed off, staring wide-eyed. Carlotta and Bianca took off after him, rounding the last intact warehouse to get a look at what was going on.

 

Warren was frozen, staring at two people, a man and a woman, both in head-to-toe Team Plasma uniforms. The man was resting his boot on a small, round, pink Pokemon that was lying in a whimpering heap on the ground.

 

“…Hey, fellas?” Carlotta said with a frown. “A Pokemon battle involves two Pokemon.”

 

“It looks really hurt,” Bianca added. “I think it’s done fightin’. Shouldn’t you heal it?”

 

“My friends both have good points, but I would also like to ask: Team Plasma make a great deal of noise about being against Pokemon battling, and indeed any form of cruelty to Pokemon,” Cheren added, “so… I am trying to find a way to phrase this…”

 

“The question you’re lookin’ for is what the fuck,” Carlotta suggested.

 

“None of your business, kids,” the woman snapped. “We’ll be done in a minute, anyway, so go away and leave us alone, got it?”

 

“Just hurry up and give us the dream smoke,” the man muttered, kicking the little Pokemon again, making it cry out in pain.

 

“Hey! Stop it!” Bianca screamed. “You’re hurtin’ it really badly! We’ve gotta stop ‘em!” she begged, tugging Carlotta’s arm.

 

“I agree,” Cheren said, releasing Sherlock. “Munna are endangered. Leave it alone, now.”

 

“What part of back off don’t you kids get?” the man demanded, releasing a Patrat. The woman released a Purrloin.

 

“Oh, c’mon, two on one ain’t fair at all!” Carlotta argued, releasing Owain. “Water Gun, Owain!”

 

The tiny Oshawott bounced enthusiastically in place before shooting off a jet of water that knocked the Patrat backwards. It snarled as it crouched in place, eyes glowing.

 

“It’s using Bide! Ignore the Purrloin and take it out!” Cheren shouted. “Leaf Tornado!”

 

“Scratch!” the woman shouted. Sherlock winced but kept his focus on firing a whirlwind of leaves at the Patrat.

 

“Tackle, Owain!” Carlotta ordered. The Oshawott slammed into the Patrat, which collapsed, unconscious. Owain stumbled as the Purrloin scratched at him, knocking him over the exhausted Patrat.

 

“Wrap, Sherlock!” Cheren shouted. The Snivy wrapped his long body around the Purrloin, making it spit and hiss as it fought to move.

 

“Finish it with another Water Gun!” Carlotta ordered, pointing at the entrapped Purrloin. The water attack splashed off of Sherlock’s leaves harmlessly, but slammed into the Purrloin which, not being knocked back, had to endure the full force of the blast. With a pitiful mewl, it slumped in Sherlock’s embrace.

 

“Now, then,” Carlotta said, stomping towards the two Plasma members. “Y’all wanna fight somebody yourselves, how ‘bout you pick on somebody your own size?”

 

“Okay, little girl, you asked for it--” the man began, reaching down towards his belt.

 

The two Plasma members froze as pink mist descended on them, pained expressions overtaking their faces. They slammed their hands over their ears and dropped to their knees, screaming in agony.

 

“I didn’t touch ‘em!” Carlotta cried, jumping backwards with her hands in the air. The two Plasma members scrambled backwards, starting to babble.

 

“--didn’t tell them anything, My Lord, would never--”

 

“--please don’t, please, I’ll do better, I swear I will--”

 

“--just one more chance, please--”

 

“--please, I’m begging you--”

 

“--don’t, please don’t--”

 

“--please--!”

 

Screaming, the two scrambled to their feet and fled, leaving their defeated Pokemon behind.

 

“Cher?” Warren said, staring. “You know everythin’. What in the hell just happened?”

 

“I think it was that,” Cheren said, pointing up to the remains of the upper level. They all looked up to see a shape like a great pink-and-purple balloon slowly descending towards them.

 

“Oh, it’s so pretty,” Bianca cooed softly.

 

“Musharna,” Cheren muttered. “Mature form of Munna. It can devour people’s dreams, and give dreams using its smoke. Perhaps… it fed them a nightmare.”

 

“Defending its young?” Warren suggested as the Musharna floated down to the Munna, uncurling from its large, globular shape to envelop the smaller Pokemon and float away again.

 

“Gondammit!” Carlotta realized, throwing up her hands. “We had a shot at gettin’ us some real rare Pokemon there!”

 

“C’mon, Carly, the baby was real hurt,” Bianca said with a frown. “‘Least its mama’ll take good care of it now.”

 

“It was hurt pretty darn bad, though,” Warren mused. “Might’ve done better if we took it to a Pokemon Centre, but ‘less we wanna track it down, ain’t much we can do ‘bout it now.”

 

“I wonder what on earth those Plasma members wanted with that poor thing,” Cheren sighed. “I have to admit, I’m not altogether comfortable with taking those abused Pokemon that we found to a Plasma shelter now. What if those reprobates are working there?”

 

“Well, can’t we tell the cops ‘bout ‘em?” Bianca asked.

 

“If fightin’ wild Pokemon was a crime, we’d all go to jail,” Carlotta pointed out.

 

“Killin’ an endangered species is a crime, sure, but we don’t have that Munna, dead or alive,” Warren groaned, looking up to where the Musharna had vanished, then going to check on the Patrat and Purrloin that the two Plasma members had abandoned.

 

“I suppose we could just keep them Pans…” Carlotta mused. “If we could get ‘em comfortable with us, they’d be real handy in the gym battles tonight, wouldn’t they?”

 

“It’s not that easy to befriend abused Pokemon,” Cheren sighed.

 

“We should at least take these ones to the Pokemon Centre,” Warren said, standing up with the Patrat and Purrloin in his arms. “Maybe they can tell us about somewhere other than the Plasma shelter to take them.”

 

 

 

{Reshin 18th, 17:15}

{Striaton City}

 

 

“Have you seen an Unovan gym battle before?” Saylee asked.

 

“Try to talk without moving your face,” Key said, wielding the mascara brush very carefully. “And not live. They broadcast them sometimes, if the trainer or their guardian has consented to it, and I have watched a few, but I don’t think what you can see on TV is a great sample, honestly. They broadcast uncontroversial fights, the sort without any disputed rulings or severe injuries.” She barely got her brush out of the way before Saylee’s eyes flashed open.

 

“I know Pokemon don’t have proper rights here,” she said, “but is it true that they commonly maim or even kill--?”

 

“Eyes closed until I say so,” Key ordered. “I know it happens. I don’t know how common it is. The Pokemon League here’s a private sporting organization, not a governmental body, so it’s pretty hard for me to get many details. But this gym often works with the schools nearby, they do extracurricular training classes for aspiring Pokemon trainers. They’re most people’s first gym battle, I can’t imagine they’re that dangerous. Okay, now you can move,” she added, sitting back. “Get your sparkles on and let’s get going, shall we?”

 

“You are good at that,” Saylee said, checking her hair and makeup in the mirror and then digging out her snowflake necklace. “Okay. Enjoy the fancy dinner, watch the battles, don’t look in Governor Christie’s direction.”

 

“I think they’re seating you so you face away from each other,” Key said, putting in her earrings and picking out a hairclip. It looked a little like a Stantler, but one with bright bunches of leaves around its horns--pink, green, orange and white. “It’s a Sawsbuck,” Key said, sliding it into her hair. “Native to Unova, isn’t it lovely?” She tapped the glittering piece with a smirk. “The pin’s sharp enough to stab right through a human hand, too. If you ever grew your hair long enough, I’d get you one.”

 

“Not quite my style, but good to know,” Saylee said, standing up. “Okay, let’s go help Blue and Red with the kids so we can get going.”

 

“If they need more help, won’t Janine or one of the others help them?” Key asked.

 

“One: Janine’s a bodyguard, not a nanny,” Saylee said, pulling her jacket on and opening the door. “And two, she thinks the twins are hilarious.”

 

“Well, she’s not wrong,” Key sniggered, following Saylee out. “Ray? Amy? How close are we to being ready to go, huh?”

Chapter Text

{Reshin 18th, 17:58}

{Striaton City}

 

“I ain’t dressed fancy enough to be in here,” Bianca muttered, fidgeting nervously with her skirt. She was wearing a frilly white blouse and yellow skirt, the dressiest things she had, while Cheren, Warren and Carlotta were all wearing white dress shirts and black slacks.

 

“The dress code doesn’t apply to trainers who are here to fight,” Cheren assured her. “None of us have the money to go shopping for new formal clothes. You look lovely, Bianca.”

 

“You got any idea what you wanna eat, or do you want me to pick somethin’ for you?” Carlotta asked, frowning at her menu. “That one, the pommes frites, that’s the fancy fries, right?”

 

“Yes, it is,” Cheren said. “Bianca, you like soup, don’t you? Try that one.” He pointed at an item on her menu.

 

“Ain’t this food expensive?” Bianca asked.

 

“This menu’s free to trainers,” Warren promised. “Oop, here comes our waiter. Evenin’,” he said as the young lady approached their table with a smile. Her nametag said her name was Tia. “Can I get that salad, please?”

 

“Pommes frites, s’il vous plait,” Carlotta said with a grin.

 

“Tres bien!” Tia laughed. “And you, miss?”

 

“Ummm… soup, I guess,” Bianca mused, pointing at the one Cheren had suggested. “Please.”

 

“I’ll have the kebab, please,” Cheren said, collecting everybody’s menus and handing them to the waitress. “Thank you.”

 

“Of course!” Tia said, bobbing a curtsey and heading off with the menus.

 

“Bianca, seriously, you look darlin’,” Carlotta said, dragging Bianca’s hand away as she started self-consciously patting at her hair.

 

“I know, but… they look so nice,” Bianca said wistfully, nodding to the table next to Cress’ stage where the Tohjo Champion and her husband were eating dinner with the Hoenn ambassador. Even all the kids were dressed up nice, all of them in bright, traditional-Fairlan style clothes. Three ninja were visibly hovering around the table. They were wearing more conventional black suits and ties instead of their ninja getups, but were still wearing black masks over their mouths and noses and sunglasses over their eyes, making them difficult to tell apart.

 

“I think it’s just gondamn hilarious how they put her table as far as they damn could from Governor Christie’s table,” Warren said, pointing to the governor’s table, which was on the opposite end of the room, next to Chili’s stage. “I don’t think they could be any further apart without puttin’ one of ‘em out in the front garden!”

 

“Ohmygoodness, what’s happenin’?!” Bianca squeaked as the lights dimmed.

 

“They’re gettin’ started, sssh,” Carlotta said, patting Bianca’s shoulder and pointing to the centre stage, where, with a burst of music, the stage lights came up on the Striaton Triplets.

 

“Good evening, honoured customers!” a pale man in a waiter’s uniform announced. He ran a hand through his short green hair. “My name is Cilan, and these are my brothers--”

 

“Cress,” a man with long blue hair announced, waving and bowing to the applauding crowd.

 

“And Chili!” a man with spiky red hair shouted, pumping one fist in the air. “Woo!”

 

“Thank you all for joining us this evening,” Cilan continued, “and I would particularly like to thank our esteemed guests, Sar Saylee Pryce, Sir Blue Oak, Sar Keyanu Weaves, and their beautiful families! Domo arigatou, Pryce-sama, to Oak-sama, to Weaves-sama!” he called, he and his brothers bowing deeply to the far table. “Thank you also to Governor Christie and her fine husband for joining us tonight,” he added, bowing again to the opposite table.

 

“Please enjoy your appetizers as our first three challengers join us,” Cress announced. “Could Brutus Soyinka please go to Chili’s stage, Phileas McLeen here to Cilan’s, and Conner Leone follow me to my stage?”

 

The three stages were decorated in green, red and blue drapes, making it easy to tell which was which. Their table was quite close to the blue stage, Cress’, so they got a look at Conner Leone as he passed them, a tall, pudgy man with unkempt black hair and dark bags under his eyes. He looked like he hadn’t slept the night before, possibly training for the gym battle, or maybe the early morning to draw in the raffle had taken its toll on him.

 

“See, Bianca? He’s here in a gondamn hoodie,” Carlotta whispered. Bianca slammed her hands over her mouth to stifle her giggles. Conner didn’t seem to hear them, but looked unhappy anyway, slouching onto the stage and into the marked-out spot across from Cress. Cress bowed with an unaffected smile, in perfect unison with his brothers. Cilan’s opponent was staggeringly tall with long blonde hair in a ponytail and a scruffy beard, and while he was wearing a dress shirt and nice slacks, he had the sleeves rolled up and was wearing boots. Chili’s opponent was tall, though not quite so much as Phileas McLeen, and more serious-looking, his shoulder-length black hair tied back out of his face and his white dress shirt neatly tucked into his black jeans.

 

The drapes at the back of the stages drew back to reveal display screens that showed photographs of the challengers, and the information that all three were challenging for their fourth badges. Bianca fidgeted with her napkin as the servers returned with their drinks and entrees, listening intently as the referees announced the rules, even though her friends had already taken her through them earlier in the day. She couldn’t help the fear that she’d mess something up, do something wrong, somehow…

 

This was her chance to be with Pokemon. She had to get this right.

 

“Holy shit,” Carlotta whispered as Cheren whistled appreciatively when the three challengers released their first Pokemon to face the triplet leaders’ Stoutlands. Conner and Phileas both had Pignite, but Brutus had something humanoid and green-and-white that Bianca had never seen before.

 

“Is that a Gallade?” Cheren murmured, eyes fixed on the battle against Chili. “You don’t see many of them around here…”

 

“Lookin’ forward to evolvin’ Tiberius into that?” Carlotta asked, nudging Bianca and nodding to Conner’s Pignite, which was enthusiastically flinging Cilan’s Stoutland around the stage.

 

“Won’t be able to carry ‘im anymore if I do,” Bianca giggled nervously. She started sipping at her soup. The battles on the stages were intense. Chili had already switched to a red Pokemon that looked like a bigger version of the ones they’d found abandoned. Simisear, she remembered from what her friends had taught her. Cress has a… Simipour, and Cilan has a Simisage… but they don’t use ‘em on just first badge fights, right? They use littler ones…

 

Brutus was the first to finish, his Gallade winning both battles in under five minutes. Bianca joined in the clapping as he and his Gallade both bowed elegantly, before he returned his Gallade and was presented with his badge. Phileas finished not long after, switching to a brown Pokemon with long, bouncy legs and big eyes set into its chest after Cress brought out his Simipour. Cheren quietly identified it as a Hitmonlee, another rare, foreign Pokemon, and it didn’t take long to kick Cress’ Simipour off the stage, drawing some laughter as well as clapping. Conner was the last to finish--waiters were starting to deliver main courses to the other tables by the time he won. His Pignite didn’t struggle to defeat either the Stoutland or the Simisage, but Conner himself seemed bored by the entire business, giving his orders slowly while his energetic Pignite dodged around the stage. Even he, however, finally won his badge, waved vaguely to the room and slouched back to his seat.

 

“Congratulations to Brutus Soyinka, Phileas McLean and Conner Leone on your wins!” Cilan announced. “Now, battling for their first badges--please welcome Carlotta Arathos to Chili’s stage, Cheren Athos to Cress’ and Bianca D’Artagnan to mine!”

 

Bianca felt like she’d sweat through her clothes as she walked on wobbly legs up the steps to Cilan’s stage, barely hearing the clapping. There probably weren’t even fifty people in the room, and it turned out that all the cameras were being kept outside, a horde of paparazzi who had been completely uninterested in anybody except Governor Christie and the Fairlan delegation. And there were three stages, so probably the whole room wasn’t even looking at her. Probably they were looking at Cheren, striding confidently onto the stage, or Carlotta, who was much more beautiful than Bianca and waving cheerily to the whole room, smiling her proud, dazzling smile.

 

Even if nobody was looking at Bianca, though, she still felt watched, and she’d always hated that feeling. Her parents had assured her, every day since before she could remember, that the dragons were watching every single thing she did and said and thought. This had never felt as comforting as it was probably supposed to.

 

This was worse than choir. At least she’d never had to sing alone.

 

Focus on what you’re doin’, she reminded herself. You love what you’re doin’, you just hate folks seein’ you do it. Ignore ‘em.

 

“Are you ready, Miss D’artagnan?” Cilan said, releasing his Lillipup.

 

Bianca took a deep breath. “I’m ready,” she said, releasing her own Lillipup. Lilith yipped excitedly when she spotted the other Lillipup, bouncing on the spot. Cilan’s Lillipup just huffed.

 

“Excited little thing, yours, isn’t she?” Cilan chuckled. “Okay, Sauvignon, Work Up!” The little Pokemon snarled and bristled, causing Lilith to take a hesitant step back as her opponent started barking aggressively.

 

“Don’t let ‘im scare you, Lil!” Bianca cried. “Bite!” Lilith leapt forwards, catching one of her enemy’s ears in her teeth and worrying at it. “Lilith! Harder’n that! We ain’t playin’!”

 

“Bite, Sauvignon!” Cilan ordered. Sauvignon bit back, much more aggressively, tearing into Lilith’s shoulder. Lilith wailed in pain.

 

“C’mon, Lil! Bite ‘im!” Bianca cried. “Or, ummm… Take Down!”

 

Lilith slammed into Sauvignon, sending him flying backwards across the stage. Bianca heard a cheer from somewhere off the stage, but fought the urge to look. “That’s great, Lilith!” she cried. “Take Down again!”

 

Lilith charged Sauvignon again and, again, Sauvignon was knocked backwards. Lilith looked tired from using the difficult attack, panting and shaking, but Sauvignon was also looking battered and weak. He coughed a little blood onto the stage.

 

Blood? Do we keep fightin’ if there’s blood? Bianca wondered, looking to the referee, but he just smiled and gave her a thumbs-up.

 

“Once more!” Cilan ordered. “Bite!”

 

Sauvignon lunged and Lilith, exhausted, didn’t dodge far enough.

 

Sauvignon’s teeth ripped into her neck, and this time there was a lot of blood. When Lilith, with a pitiful, choked whine, slumped, it was into a puddle that was already big enough to splash.

 

“LILITH!!” Bianca screamed, running towards her Lillipup. She screamed again when Sauvignon growled at her, the fur of his face messy with blood, but Cilan whistled and he backed away.

 

“Miss D’artagnan, stay off of the field! Battling Pokemon are dangerous!” the referee said sharply, holding her back. “I’ll check on her. Step back or you’ll be disqualified.”

 

As Bianca hugged herself, starting to cry, she became aware of Warren shouting. “--my friend, she’s never seen a Pokemon die before, you have to let me up there--”

 

“Dead,” the referee announced. “Do you wish to choose another Pokemon, Miss D’Artagnan?”

 

“Wh-what? No!” Bianca cried. Cilan returned Sauvignon and she ran across the now-lifeless battlefield, slumping next to Lilith’s corpse as she descended into full-fledged sobbing. She barely registered the referee announcing her forfeit, or the anger breaking out at the tables at the back of the room, or the blood soaking into her skirt. At some point, Warren reached her, hugging her tight, and she she was grateful to have somebody to cling to as she cried.

 

 

{Reshin 18th, 19:29pm}

{Striaton City}

 

Bianca was far too upset to sit back down and eat, let alone watch other battles, so Warren took her out to the foyer and sat with her while they waited for Carlotta and Cheren. A waitress led them out to where they could sit down and brought Bianca a glass of water and some tissues.

 

“Alright, hon, I’m sure you don’t wanna talk about this just now, but I’ve just got a coupla things I need to ask you,” she said, tapping at her C-gear. “First up, we’ve put your poor Lillipup’s body away safe for now, but we need your call on what to do with her. You want her cremated, we can point you at a place nearby that does that real cheap, ‘less you wanna splurge of a fancy urn or craft for her ashes. You wanna have her transferred somewhere for traditional burial, that’s a bit more pricey.”

 

“Don’t! Don’t… don’t burn her!” Bianca cried frantically. “She didn’t do nothin’ wrong!”

 

“Okay, hon, okay,” the waitress said, raising her hands placatingly. “That’s a ‘no’ on the crematin’, got it. You got somewhere special you want her buried?”

 

“I… I dunno,” Bianca croaked. “My… my folks always said Pokemon don’t got souls, so it ain’t right ta try an’ bury ‘em proper… I dunno about…”

 

“Celestial Tower,” Warren said firmly. “It’s a little pricey, but we’ll all chip in, okay? They’ll take real good care of Lilith.”

 

“Alright, hon, we’ll send you an invoice later,” the waitress said. “Sure you don’t wanna come back in for some food?”

 

Bianca just shook her head, pressing her hands to her mouth as she started to cry.

 

“Thanks, but we’ll just wait here for our friends and then go,” Warren told her.

 

“Alright, then,” the waitress said, heading back towards the restaurant. She was nearly steamrollered by Carlotta as she charged out, pokeball in one hand and new badge in the other.

 

“Bianca, I’m so sorry, I was so into the battle, I didn’t notice a thing until I’d finished and then I couldn’t see you or Warren and I saw Sar Pryce was arguing with Cilan and that Phileas guy told me that…” She trailed off as she sat down down on Bianca’s other side and snaked an arm around her. Bianca just turned around and started sobbing on Carlotta’s shoulder. “Oh, Biana… I’m sorry. That was absolute roshit.”

 

“It’s all my fault!” Bianca sobbed. “Should’ve had ‘er use a different move… or… Shoulda used Tiberius from the start, them other two’s Pignites did just fine… It’s all my fault! I got ‘er killed!”

 

“Hey, c’mon, it ain’t your fault,” Warren said, patting her back. “These things happen sometimes.”

 

“Mostly only higher up, though,” Carlotta added. “No first-badge battle should’ve gotten that intense. If anythin’, it’s Cilan’s fault.”

 

“Good grief,” Cheren panted, running through the door. “I barely got to finish my battle. There’s a diplomatic incident happening in there. I think we’d better leave.”

 

“Oh, shit, did the Governor and the Fairlan Champ start a fight again?” Carlotta said, looking far too excited at the prospect.

 

“No, and they never--well, they are hardly in combat, but it looks like the Fairlan delegation were already furious about Lilith’s death, especially in front of their children,” Cheren said. “I think I heard one of them crying… I was finishing my battle so I didn’t quite hear what happened, but the Champion just about exploded--”

 

“Sar Saylee is suffering some difficulty with the notion that Unovan laws are not the same as Fairlan ones, that’s all,” Cilan said, striding calmly through the door. Following him was a man who, having pulled down his mask, was instantly recognizable as the ninja that had accosted Warren at Professor Juniper’s lab. His already deep-etched scowl was diamond-hard now as he watched Cilan. “Miss D’Artagnan, I am here to apologize personally. As a professional, it was my job to ensure that our battle did not get out of hand, especially where a brand-new trainer such as yourself was concerned, and I failed in that. Therefore, as a gesture of goodwill, I would like to offer to cover the costs of your Lillipup’s burial, and, if you’d like a new one, I can introduce you to the breeder who my brothers and I always buy from. She’s the best of the best, I can promise you that.”

 

“Th-thank you, but… I don’t wanna replace Lilith,” Bianca sniffed, wiping at her eyes.

 

“Let me know if you change your mind,” Cilan said with a friendly smile. “Would you like to book a rematch now?”

 

“N-no,” Bianca choked out, struggling not to cry again.

 

“Thank you for your help, but right now, we’d just like to leave,” Cheren said, standing between Bianca and Cilan.

 

Cilan, taking a hint, nodded and stepped away. “Best of luck on your League challenges,” he said with a bow, backing through the doors to the restaurant.

 

Datanya-sama?” the ninja sad. “Matte kudasai” He started fidgeting with what looked like a translator button on his lapel.

 

Sumimasen?” Cheren interjected, a little haltingly. “Ferango o hanashimasu.

 

Honto ni?” the ninja said in surprise. “Ferango wa jyouzu desu ne!

 

Sonna koto nai desu

 

“What’s goin’ on?” Carlotta whispered.

 

“How should I know?” Warren whispered back. “I don’t speak Fairlan!”

 

“You spend half your time with a nerd who does!” Carlotta argued quietly, gesturing to Cheren.

 

“You spend almost as much time with Cheren as I do,” Warren shot back, “and when we’re alone, it’s not for Fairlan lessons!”

 

“Didn’t know…” Bianca hiccuped between quiet sobs. “…Cheren… spoke… ‘nother language…?”

 

“Eh, both his parents’ families are from the Fairlands, like, eight generations back,” Warren said, rolling his eyes. “But his mum’s is one of those families that holds on super hard to their roots, so they’ve always raised their kids speaking Unovan and Fairlan. They want him to go on a year of work study in Sinnoh, too. Damn, maybe we should be filming this, his parents’ll die of pride to see him speaking real Fairlan to a real--aw shit,” Warren muttered as the word ‘die’ caused Bianca to start sobbing again. Carlotta, scowling, leaned over and punched her brother in the arm.

 

Cheren was ignoring them in favour of focusing intently on his conversation, looking increasingly floored by whatever the ninja was saying to him. Then there was a lot of bowing both ways and some “Arigatou gozaimasu”s, one phrase that Warren did actually know.

 

Then the ninja bowed to Bianca, said “Go shuushou sama desu,” and walked back into the restaurant.

 

“Cher? You okay? What happened?” Warren asked, leaning over and taking his pale-faced boyfriend’s hand and rubbing his thumb over Cheren’s knuckles.

 

“Well… as I understand it, Sar Saylee is indeed incensed that there are no actual legal consequences for killing a Pokemon in battle, even if it was an accident, and, um…” He looked down at Warren, Bianca and Carlotta. “Well, she offered condolences as if you’d lost a child instead of a Pokemon and then, because she believes you shouldn’t have to worry about food or shelter while dealing with a loss and knowing that traveling trainers don’t have much money, has offered to cover rooms for the four of us at the Trio Grande hotel, including room service.”

 

“The Tri--the big-ass fancy hotel by the Botanic Gardens?!” Warren yelped. “Seriously?”

 

“Apparently, we just need to go into the desk and check in as Bianca D’Artagnan and her plus three,” Cheren said, looking a little dazed.

 

“Sweeeeeeeeet,” Carlotta breathed, putting her hands on Bianca’s shoulders. “Okay, so we’re gonna go check into this fancy hotel, and--Bianca, how do you feel about bubble baths?”

 

“I… could really use one right now,” Bianca sniffed weakly.

 

“Then we’re checkin’ in, you’re gettin’ in a bubble bath for as long as you gondamn want, I’m gonna find you my favourite pep-up playlists of 100% happy music, and then we’re gonna order fancy room service and eat it while wearing hotel dressing gowns, which are really nice even when it’s not the fanciest hotel in a hundred miles so these must be next level, and we’re gonna watch the best movies you were never allowed to, okay?”

 

“After Bianca’s first ever professional battle ended so disastrously, I think that sounds ideal,” Cheren said, gripping Warren’s hand and pulling him to his feet. “We aren’t far. I think we should head there directly. The paparazzi are still outside, but they aren’t expecting anybody to come out yet and don’t care about some no-name rookie trainers coming out of a gym, whereas if we arrive at the hotel after they’ve followed Sar Saylee’s entourage there, they will most certainly be interested in the no-name rookie trainers staying in an expensive hotel.”

 

“Sounds like a plan to me,” Warren said, taking one of Bianca’s hands as Carlotta took the other, pulling her to her feet so she could walk semi-hidden between the taller twins with her friends holding her hands. “Hmmm… You know what I loved as a kid? Toy Story. You ever see it?” Bianca shook her head, sniffing. “Well, it’s great. All these toys come alive, like a Mr Petaya Head--you must’ve had one of those--and a Slinky Stoutland and a Grumpig bank and stuff, but mainly there’s this rancher, right, and…”

 

 

{Reshin 18th, 20:01}

{Striaton City}

 

Saylee was still seething by the time they got back to the hotel. “Kids, go start getting changed into your PJs, okay?” Key said gently, ushering her uncharacteristically quiet twins into their room. “Mommy’ll be through in just a moment.”

 

“Go on, Lettie, you too,” Blue encouraged her. “Red, keep an eye on ‘em, willya?” he added.

 

“Sure… c’mon, then,” Red said, leading Scarlet by the hand after the twins. He glanced nervously over his shoulder before closing the door behind them.

 

“Gods, I knew it wasn’t actually illegal to kill your opponents’ Pokemon here,” Saylee moaned, putting a hand over her eyes, “but you said it was rare, Key, and you never said they--”

 

“It’s… not as rare as it should be,” Key admitted. “And I had no idea they’d just…”

 

“Scoop the body off in a fucking shovel and then continue as if nothing happened?” Blue supplied sharply.

 

“…but I just gave them another ‘Fairlan Champion makes a scene’ headline, didn’t I?” Saylee groaned, dragging her hand down her face. “Gods… I won’t apologize for demanding that they treat the poor thing with a little dignity, but I’m gonna have to make some sort of statement clarifying my position and apologizing gracefully for my conduct, aren’t I?”

 

“I’ll help you out with that later, if you want, but for now, I’ve really gotta go speak to my kids,” Key said quietly. “They know what death is, but they’ve never seen a Pokemon die before.”

 

“They’ve never seen… shit,” Saylee sighed, rubbing her eyes again. “I’d better talk to Scarlet, too. She’s been to some of her great-grandparents’ funerals and she saw Grace die when there was that assassination attempt, but still, this was awful… I want to know how Red’s doing, too.”

 

None of the kids were in their pyjamas yet by the time they’d collected themselves enough to go talk, something nobody felt inclined to tell them off for. Key gently sat down next to her kids and they immediately latched onto her, burying their heads in her side. Amber was sobbing; Raphael was yelling.

 

Why’d he hurt the other one so BAD, didn’t he know biting somebody there’d KILL them, why’d he DO that, Mommy, why’d his trainer LET him, didn’t his trainer TELL him you can kill somebody biting ‘em there, Mommy, Grandpa always tells HIS Pokemon to be real careful not to hurt anybody TOO bad, how come he’s a Leader if he doesn’t TELL his Pokemon to be careful, Mommy, how COME…”

 

Scarlet hugged her dad, just crying. “Th-they j-j-just… s-s-s-s-s-scoo-oo-ooped h-her up… d-d-dragged her aw-way… l-l-l-like n-nothing’s wrong…” she gasped between sobs.

 

“I know, kiddo,” Blue said, rubbing her back. “Koga says they’re taking her away for a nice funeral, okay?”

 

“Hey,” Saylee said, putting a hand on Red’s shoulder. “You okay?”

 

“…Never seen a Pokemon die before,” he mumbled. It was just… one second it was okay, then it was just… gone, in a puddle of blood.”

 

Saylee took a deep, deep breath as a lump dropped heavily into her stomach. “That’s… how it happens, sometimes,” she said carefully. “And… it’s unfair, and it’s cruel, and it shouldn’t. That’s part of why we’re here--trying to talk to Unovan people, get them interested in how we do things, in a better way of treating Pokemon…”

 

Red gave her a tortured look. “Why can’t they already see how cruel that is?” he asked, his voice breaking.

 

Saylee put an arm around him, letting him lean his head on her shoulder while tears slipped down his cheeks. “I don’t know,” she said quietly, staring out of the window at the highly-advertised view of the Botanical Gardens, all of the magnificent hedge sculptures lit up for the night with dramatic spotlights. It all looked so beautiful.

 

I ’m sorry, Red. You were never supposed to rediscover that kind of cruelty. You were lucky enough forget, to get a life where you could believe in a world that isn’t cruel and cold. You and Scarlet were never supposed to see it at all…

Chapter Text

{Reshin 18th, 21:12}

{Striaton City}

 

Having been assigned two rooms, they let Bianca settle alone in one to run herself a bubble bath in the big, luxurious bathroom, which did include fancy bubble bath among the free toiletries. There was more than enough room in the second twin for Carlotta, Cheren and Warren to poke around the fancy desk, minibar and cupboards before flopping down on the luxurious beds to decide what to do while they waited to find out how long Bianca’s ideal bath was.

 

“We could try makin’ friends with those three abandoned Pokemon,” Warren suggested. “If we’re not gonna give ‘em to the Plasma Foundation, we might look into keepin’ ‘em. If we could get ‘em comfy with us, we wouldn’t have to just abandon ‘em in a computer box forever, right?”

 

“That’s a good idea,” Cheren said, opening a web browser. “Do you know much about interacting with scared, hurt Pokemon, Warren?”

 

“Ehhh… I’ve read a couple things, but I ain’t a doctor yet,” Warren admitted, ruffling a hand through his own hair. “But stayin’ calm and givin’ ‘em space to calm down is important, I’m pretty sure.”

 

“Here’s an accredited guide,” Cheren said, throwing up a holodisplay from his c-gear screen. “It says that if you’re dealing with multiple scared Pokemon, only let them out one at a time or they’ll panic each other. Which one first?”

 

“The grass one,” Carlotta said. “If it panics, it ain’t gonna set the room on fire or flood it. I mean, we ain’t payin’ for this place, but that don’t mean we can trash it. I’m guessin’, if we get it calm, it can calm down the others, right?”

 

“Right,” Warren said, carefully pressing the front buttons on the pokeballs to get information displays until he found the Pansage, clicking hard to release the the little green Pokemon into the middle of the carpet. He looked much better without the blood and bruises, but as soon as he saw the three humans, he whimpered and shot off under one of the beds.

 

“Do we just let ‘im do that?” Carlotta said, leaning down to peer under the bed.

 

“Yeah, I think we do,” Warren said, pulling her back. “We shouldn’t touch or approach it ‘til it lets us, right?”

 

“That’s what it says here,” Cheren agreed. “We should stay very still, keep as quiet as possible, and not react to anything it does--in fact, try not to even look at it. It might take a long time, but when it realizes it isn’t being hurt, it’ll come to investigate us, and when we don’t hurt it for that, it’ll get more comfortable.”

 

“Wait, we’ve gotta sit still and quiet for hours?!” Carlotta said in dismay.

 

“That might actually kill you,” Warren observed.

 

“No shit,” Carlotta grumbled. “Look, I’ll go back to the other room and work out until Bianca gets outta her bath. You guys can stay here alone so long as you don’t tell our folks I left y’all unchaperoned and you don’t get up to nothin’, or at least keep it quiet if you do, okay?”

 

“Please go away, now, please,” Cheren sighed, pulling his glasses off and rubbing his eyes as Warren shoved his cackling sister through the adjoining door between the rooms.

 

“So… Grass Vs Ghosts?” Warren suggested, holding up his c-gear.

 

“I’ll set up a local game,” Cheren agreed with a cough. They loaded up the game and settled down on the floor, backs to the couch so they could see if the Pansage came out from under the bed.

 

It was a little eerie at first, playing in silence aside from the occasional hiss of frustration, but steadily Warren got absorbed into the game. Around ten, a “BlazingSoul96” joined their game, and Cheren murmured something about bored rich kids before they got back into the flow of the game. Warren got so sucked in that he couldn’t help jumping and yelping when something unexpectedly touched his foot.

 

The Pansage gave a little wail and took off under the bed again.

 

“Well, shit,” Warren muttered. “Did I just flush an hour and a half down the pan?”

 

“Did you make that pun consciously?” Cheren said. Warren groaned. “And you didn’t hurt it, you just startled it. It won’t take so long to come back again. Hmmm…” He pulled his pokeballs out of his pocket. “Maybe I’ll let Sherlock out. He’s very well-behaved, and it might help settle the poor thing to see another Pokemon.”

 

“Good idea,” Warren said, picking up his c-gear again. “Aw, shit, we left Blazin’ Soul holdin’ the fort alone! He’s gettin’ swamped!”

 

“So help him quietly,” Cheren said, keeping his voice deliberately soft as he released Sherlock, then picked up his own C-gear to rejoin the game. Sherlock stared at the humans for a while, as if waiting for a command, before hissing a bit when nothing happened. “We’re not fighting, Sherlock,” Cheren whispered, pointing to the bed that the Pansage was hiding under. “Remember that Pansage? Go say hello!”

 

Sherlock stared at the bed, then flicked out his tongue a few more times, eyes widening. He crept under the bed. Warren turned his full attention to the undead invasion floating across the screen.

 

After a while, the quiet in the room was tinted by soft hissing and chittering.

 

 

 

{Reshin 18th, 22:55}

{Striaton City}

 

“Oh,” Bianca said, coming out of the bathroom in a fluffy dressing gown to see Carlotta lying on her back, bench-pressing a toddler-sized blue Pokemon with long whiskers, who was giggling as he went up and down. “Uh… is that Owain? Did he evolve?”

 

“Oh, yeah,” Carlotta grunted, setting down her starter. “After the gym battle. Wasn’t really worth mentionin’ at the time. How are you doin’?”

 

“Better,” Bianca said, sitting down on the bed. “Sorry for takin’ so long.”

 

“Awww, don’t you worry your head about it,” Carlotta said, patting Bianca’s shoulder. “I’m gonna get a shower. Be five minutes. Don’t go next door ‘less you wanna sit silent, they’re tryin’ ta get them abused Pokemon used to ‘em. When I’m done, we’ll get room service, awright? The menu’s in plain Unovan, so have yourself a peek an’ pick what you want.” She returned Owain, handed a tablet to Bianca and headed for the bathroom.

 

Bianca stared at the menu listlessly, then, biting her lip, scrolled to the dessert menu. They won’t judge me for gettin’ a milkshake, right? Even if it’s a big one? I could even get… gondamn, does that say double chocolate fudge brownie?!

 

Carlotta wasn’t even five minutes, coming out with her long brown hair wrapped up in a towel and stroking the sleeves of her dressing gown. “Damn, this shit’s soft. Alright, Bianca, what’re you gonna have?”

 

“I… could do with a milkshake,” Bianca admitted, pointing to the picture in the menu.

 

“Ooooh, good idea!” Carlotta said, grinning. “Lemme see… yeah, sounds like a good idea! Ooooh, double chocolate fudge brownie? My favourite!

 

“I want that, too,” Bianca said, nearly melting with relief, the feeling of a threat avoided. Which is silly. Carlotta’s my friend. She ain’t a threat.

 

“Nice,” Carlotta said, double-tapping the flavour option and ordering two. “Right… well, let’s see what movies this place has got, huh?”

 

“Carly?” Bianca asked, fidgeting with her sleeves. “Ummm… Lilith. Dyin’. Have you… seen stuff like that before?”

 

“Well… I ain’t actually seen it happen before,” Carlotta admitted. “They don’t tend to broadcast that. Restrictions. People an’ Pokemon can fake die in movies plenty, though I think we’ll avoid that. But sometimes, y’know, you see dead wild Pokemon around… maybe they got killed fightin’ other wild Pokemon, or by a trainer who didn’t bury ‘em and just left ‘em. I ain’t sayin’ it’s a good thing, but it happens. High-level battles often lead to somethin’ dyin’ ‘cause the Pokemon involved are so dang strong.”

 

“Is it silly of me to be this upset?” Bianca asked quietly, wrapping her arms around herself. “She was just… so little… it looked like it hurt…”

 

“Hey, Bianca, no, you ain’t silly,” Carlotta said, reaching out and hugging her tight. “Hells, maybe we oughta be more upset. It is pretty messed up that that happened in front of all them kids, too. You’d really think Cilan woulda been more careful. The rest of us are just… more used to it, that’s all. It happens.”

 

“I… I guess I gotta get used to it too,” Bianca said, wiping her eyes.

 

“You don’t have to do nothin’ but feel better in your own time, Bianca,” Carlotta said, squeezing her tight. “Sorry it ain’t all sunshine and rainbows out here.”

 

“It’s still better,” Bianca said, hugging her back. “Believe me. It’s better.”

 

 

 

{Reshin 19th, 08:30}

{Striaton City}

 

 

“Oh my goodness,” Bianca gasped, clasping her hands to her chest and smiling broadly. “You did it!”

 

The Pansear and Pansage both eeped at the sudden sound and hid behind the Panpour who, though he was trembling, puffed up his chest and leveled the fiercest glare he could muster.

 

“Hey, no, it’s okay,” Warren said, pointing to Bianca and Carlotta and smiling. “Look, they’re safe, they’re friends, okay? Kneel down, hold out a hand, don’t move,” he added to Carlotta and Bianca. They did so, watching as the three little Pokemon slowly edged closer, occasionally glancing at Sherlock, who leaned down from his trainer’s shoulder and hissed.

 

“And try not to smile with teeth, these species see it as a challenge,” Cheren added. Bianca quickly adjusted her grin. The Pansage looked up at her, then at her outstretched hand, tentatively tapping it with a paw.

 

“Hey there, cutie,” Bianca cooed softly as the Pansage patted and sniffed his way up her arm. “I’m a friend, I promise.” She reached out another hand, tentatively, to pet the little green Pokemon. He flinched away, trembling, before slowly opening his eyes and staring in awe as all she did was stroke his ears gently.

 

“See? Friendly!” Carlotta said, waggling her own fingers. The Pansear sniffed at her, then nipped her finger. “Ow!” she yelped, pulling her hand back. The Pansear fled again. “What was that for?!”

 

“He’s just testin’ you to see if you’re just actin’ nice,” Warren advised, over the sound of Sherlock hissing at the Pans. “Don’t do anything.”

 

Sherlock was pushing the Pansear back towards Carlotta. Grumbling, she held out her hand again. The Pansear stared, wide-eyed, then licked her wound. “Is that sanitary?” she asked Warren.

 

“Fire-types don’t carry anythin’ that can infect humans, their body temperatures are too dang high,” Warren promised her. “Guess you’ll be carryin’ him, then, ‘til we can find somewhere safe to take ‘em?”

 

“Sure,” Carlotta said, holding out her hand for the pokeball so she could return the Pansear. Bianca recalled the Pansage, and Cheren the Panpour. “Right. Speakin’ of…”

 

“A guy we were gaming with last night mentioned over text chat that there’s a nursery nearby that also takes in abandoned Pokemon,” Cheren explained. “I looked up the address. It’s on the way to Nacrene City, anyway, so shall we?”

 

They checked out, giggling conspiratorially as the concierge told them that their bill was nothing whatsoever and wished them luck on their journey. Following Cheren’s c-gear map route, they wandered the streets of north-west Striaton, which were so thick with ornamental trees that it was actually a while before they realized that the buildings were gone and they were outside of the city. They spotted the first brightly-coloured sign for the nursery at the same time that the sound of children shrieking with laughter reached them.

 

“I think that’s it,” Carlotta said, pointing to a big, old-fashioned log cabin that was semi-concealed by the trees around it.

 

“Umm… guys?” Bianca said nervously. “I… I know it looks real nice… but are we sure they’re gonna treat the Pokemon right?”

 

“Blazing Soul said that the place allows you to visit and play with adoptable Pokemon,” Cheren explained. “They let some play with the children at the nursery, but others adults can visit. We can have a look at the place before we leave those Pokemon here, okay?”

 

“Thanks,” Bianca sighed in relief. Carlotta patted her arm and pressed the doorbell, which played the chirpy theme song of an old cartoon.

 

“Oh… hi!” a young woman in a bright apron said, looking startled as she opened the door. “Um… can I help you?”

 

“Hi,” Warren said. “We heard we could visit adoptable Pokemon here?”

 

“You were… oh! Right! You’re visitors! Yes!” the young woman said, opening the door further. “Sorry, we’re expecting visitors. Different ones. Sorry, can I see your IDs, please? I’ll check you in. It’s not them!” she called over her shoulder as three more members of nursery staff came hurrying into the entrance hall. They all had their names embroidered on their aprons, revealing that the woman at the door’s name was Autumn and she wasn’t just wearing a mismatched seasonal apron. “It’s some trainers,” Autumn explained, causing her coworkers to sigh in momentary relief before one went to look anxiously out of the front window.

 

“Sorry, should we have made an appointment or called ahead?” Cheren asked as Autumn led them over to the front desk.

 

“No, no, don’t worry about it,” Autumn insisted, taking and scanning their IDs. “Are you here looking to adopt or just visit?”

 

“We ain’t really lookin’ to adopt, we just wanna spend some time with the Pokemon,” Carlotta explained.

 

Autumn nodded. “We actually welcome that, because we have a few who aren’t completely safe to socialize with children, so older visitors are very welcome to spend some time with them,” she said with a smile as she handed back their IDs. “Most of the Pokemon are out in the yard with the children just now…”

 

“You really let the kids play with the Pokemon? Every day?” Bianca breathed in awe.

 

“Bianca’s wonderin’ if she’s too old to go to nursery,” Warren said in amusement.

 

“You’re too old to enroll, I’m afraid, but not too old to play with Pokemon,” Cheren said encouragingly. “Are we allowed to release our own Pokemon here?” he asked Autumn.

 

“We’d rather you didn’t,” Autumn said apologetically, walking back out from around the desk and gesturing for them to follow her down the hall. “Not all of our Pokemon are comfortable around stranger Pokemon. Also, we do have some guests coming by appointment soon, so please don’t go wandering off around the building unsupervised.”

 

“Gotcha,” Carlotta said. “So, what’ve you got?”

 

Autumn stopped by a doorway with a deposit box set into the wall next to it. She tapped the screen above, scrolling through the pictures of some Pokemon. “Well, here, you folks have a look. Any of the ones with red tags, they aren’t comfortable around ANY other Pokemon at all, so you’d have to go to a room on your own with them. Yellow tags are fine together but not with stranger Pokemon. We have quite a few that really aren’t happy around men and one or two who don’t like women, so please check their information carefully.”

 

Warren swiped past a Lillipup extremely quickly. “Hey, look, it’s a Munna!” he said, pointing at the round, pink Pokemon. “Says here you ain’t lettin’ it out with the kids ‘cause she panics at loud noises?”

 

“And small children are nothing if not noisy,” Autumn giggled.

 

“Aww, it’s snuggly! I’ll snuggle ‘er!” Bianca volunteered immediately. Autumn smiled, entering her passcode to withdraw the Munna’s pokeball and handing it to Bianca. Cheren, Carlotta and Warren selected a couple of Pidove and a Purrloin, and went into the empty gym hall to play.

 

“Keep in mind all the same stuff from lookin’ after those pans,” Warren said softly, stroking the Purrloin he’d selected, who curled up on his lap and purred. “Voices soft, no sudden movements, don’t do anythin’ if they get nervous an’ scratch or bite, right?”

 

“Right,” cooed Carlotta, giggling as the Pidove she’d picked chirped at her and hopped up and down her arm. It was missing a leg, but didn’t seem willing to let that slow it down. “Goddamn, up close, these things are cute. Always thought they were just messy li’l assholes.”

 

“Surprisingly soft,” Cheren mused, lying on his back and letting his Pidove sit on his stomach and chirp as he stroked its head with a finger. They all lapsed into silence, focused on gently petting or cuddling the Pokemon they’d chosen. It was soothing, after all the chaos of the day before.

 

After about twenty minutes, Autumn came back. “Just showing a couple of our foreign visitors around!” she said brightly, opening the door and speaking softly, a digital translator clipped to her apron displaying her words in the air in front of her.

 

The Fairlan man and woman who walked in were dressed like tourists, down to the woman having pulled her high purple ponytail through a Zebstriker baseball cap, but one look at their strikingly familiar faces suggested that they were anything but daytrippers.

 

“Holy shit, you’re the ninjas!” Warren blurted out.

 

“I feel like people not yelling that is crucial to being a ninja,” Cheren said, slamming a hand over his boyfriend’s mouth.

 

The two ninja stared at the four of them in surprise, then the man pointed at them and said, “Warren Arathos, to Carlotta Arathos, to Cheren Athos, to Bianca D’artagnan, hai?”

 

“That’s us,” Carlotta said, raising her hand. “Do we gotta leave now? ‘Less your boss ain’t comin’ to visit and this is just you on your day off…” Cheren rattled off a translation for her.

 

There was some muttered conference between the ninja and some anxious looks from Autumn before the woman started talking, reaching for her translator button for a moment before changing her mind, nodding to Cheren. “They said it’s fine for us to stay because they know who we are,” he said.

 

As Autumn ushered the pair back out, Carlotta said, “third random encounter--does that make this a pattern?”

 

“I don’t believe the second time counts, since we chose to do our gym battles on a day when we knew the Fairlan Champion would be there,” Cheren opined.

 

Should we be here?” Bianca said nervously. “Ya think members of the public ain’t supposed to be here?”

 

“That would explain why the staff were so startled to see us, but no, I don’t imagine we’re banned from being here, per se,” Cheren explained, looking around for his Pidove, who had startled when Warren yelled. “I’m sure they would have turned us away at the door if that was the case.”

 

“They wouldn’t do that, though, ‘case we started askin’ around why the place is mysteriously closed to visitors today,” Warren added. “The Champion’s probably plannin’ to visit quite a few places and they won’t be makin’ all of ‘em known to the public--”

 

“--especially if she’s bringin’ her kid, which she might, since this is, like, a place for kids to play with Pokemon,” Carlotta added. “I mean, places like this, all people-’n’-Pokemon together, are the kindsa places they gotta love. But they’re not gonna post an itinerary or anythin’.”

 

Warren nodded. “It’s a security hazard. But they ain’t gonna close places to the public with no explanation, either, since that’s a pretty obvious flag to anybody hopin’ to figure out where she’s gonna be today. Those ninja came in disguise to scope the place out, make sure it’s secure ‘fore the Champion gets here. If we were strangers, one of them probably woulda stayed to keep an eye on us until the Champion left.”

 

“Whoa… that’s a lot,” Bianca said with a shudder. “They gotta go through all that anytime they go anywhere?”

 

“That’s security,” Carlotta said with a shrug, gently rocking her Pidove in her hands. “It’s good procedure. I’m guessin’ we’re gonna hafta stay here ‘til they’re gone.”

 

“I can do that,” Bianca said, rocking her Munna gently.

Chapter Text

{Reshin 19th, 09:45}

{Striaton Co-operative Nursery}

 

“You know, quite a few of these Pokemon are fine, just… abandoned for whatever reason,” Cheren mused, flicking through the viewscreen set in next to the door. Visitors couldn’t withdraw Pokemon, but they could view all adoptable Pokemon. “Look, there’s Roggenrola from the cave nearby who were brought here for recovery from injuries and considered to have imprinted too hard on humans to be returned to the wild. They’ll be quite resistant to Lenora’s Pokemon and very strong against Burgh’s bugs…”

 

“You think they’re ever gonna let us out so you can shop?” Carlotta said idly, catching Pijon as he came flying back to her hand. Beyond bored, she’d absentmindedly starting swinging the sleeping Pidove around and then, probably on pure muscle memory, had actually thrown him. Warren and Bianca’s horrified yells had trailed off when the bird had woken up in midair and, apparently enjoying the assistance in getting airborne, flown back to Carlotta’s hand and chirped insistently until she threw him again.

 

“I don’t know…” Cheren said, biting his lip as he looked at the close door.

 

“I’m gonna have me a li’l look-see,” Bianca said, trotting over to the door and pushing it open, ignoring Cheren’s protestations. “Hello?” she called.

 

There was a thump and a crash from down the lobby that made her jump with an eep.

 

“What on earth--?” Cheren said, following her to stick his head out of the door. There was a scream down the hallway. “What in the hells is goin’ on?!”

 

“C’mon, Owain, we’re gonna check that out,” Carlotta said, setting Pijon down on the floor and releasing her Dewott. The one-legged Pidove fluttered up and sat on her shoulder. “Fine, Pijon, you can come too.”

 

“Maybe we should leave that to the Champion’s security team to handle it…?” Warren said uneasily. There was another, larger crash and more screaming, this time distinctly a child’s.

 

“We’re the good guys, they’ll be fine with it!” Carlotta shouted, running down the hall.

 

“That’s not remotely--Carlotta!” Cheren shouted, running after her and releasing Sherlock onto his shoulder as he did so. “War, Bianca, close the door and stay safe in there!”

 

“Wait--!” Bianca shouted, but they had already run into the lobby and the fighting overwhelmed whatever Bianca was arguing.

 

One figure in black threw the second over the lobby desk, only for the second to grab it, flip back upright and throw a handful of small knives that the first only barely dodged. Next to their all-black clothes, their shock of purple hair looked bright, and was the only way to really distinguish them from the one who’d thrown them across the desk, who was themself sporting long white hair. Another shriek forcefully dragged Carlotta’s attention away from the actual ninja fight happening before her to see, outside, somebody dressed in the uniform of the daycare centre running away while struggling to hold onto a furiously screaming and thrashing child.

 

“Cheren! C’mon!” she yelled, grabbing his arm and dragging him after her out the door in pursuit. They both had to dive to the ground to avoid two more ninjas, who fell off of the roof, still fighting. Owain yapped, brandishing his shell at the perceived threat, until Carlotta picked him up bodily and took off after the escaping kidnapper.

 

“Carlotta, wait!” Cheren shouted, from the sounds of it already falling behind her. He’d never been much of a runner, but Carlotta couldn’t afford to slow down to let him keep up.

 

“Can’t!” she shouted back. “He’s kidnappin’ a damn kid!

 

She could just catch Cheren swearing as she accelerated after the sound of screaming.

 

 

{Reshin 19th, 09:47}

{Striaton Co-operative Nursery}

 

“Bianca, c’mon, they’re right,” Warren said urgently, trying to drag her back into the room by the arm. “I don’t have no combat Pokemon, we’ve got us a handful a’ traumatized non-combat Pokemon out here, and you--I mean, you ain’t--”

 

“I don’t wanna fight, but if they’re hurtin’ kids, I’m gonna!” Bianca insisted, wrenching her arm out of his grip and releasing Tiberius. “C’mon, Tibs, folks need our help!”

 

Tiberius squeaked nervously as he hopped into her arms and she took off running, following where Carlotta and Cheren had gone. She was bowled over when somebody dressed all in black was thrown at her, knocking her to the ground hard. Tiberius squealed as he went rolling across the floor, then angrily huffed and spat fire at the person who’d hit Bianca, who had already rolled back to their feet, flipping their long white hair over their shoulder and brandishing a knife. They stepped back, hissing in pain as they were burned, and were then sent flying backwards again as somebody else in black with spiky purple hair hit them in the chest with a flying kick. Bianca could hear bones cracking.

 

“Carly? Cheren?!” Bianca screamed, ignoring the bruising pain blooming up her back and shoulders as she struggled to her feet. She scooped up Tiberius and fled out of the door, where two more black-clad people were fighting, one narrowly avoiding a knife stabbed so ferociously that it sank deep into the wall. She ran past them and down the path into the forest. “Carly? CHEREN? WHERE ARE YOU?!”

 

Tiberius squealed shrilly again, suddenly hopping out of her arms and running away through the trees. “Tibs, wait!” Bianca yelled, running after him. “C’mon, don’t make me chase you too!”

 

Tiberius ignored her, shooting off so fast that only his bright orange colour allowed her to keep track of him, especially as the trees started to get bigger and denser. She squeezed sideways through some particularly tightly-packed trees and stumbled as she came out in some kind of open, grassy clearing.

 

Tiberius ran back up to her, squeaking frantically and tugging at her skirt. “I’m comin’, I’m comin’, are Carly an’ Cheren here?” she said, quickly scrambling to her feet and looking around. The clearing was empty, however, aside from a bundle of bloodstained blue fluff on the ground, which was twitching and whimpering.

 

“Oh, hey, sweetie,” Bianca cooed softly, running over to it and scooping it up into her arms. In addition to all the blue fluff, it also had two limp, black, leathery wings, and a round pink nose with a black patch in the shape of a heart on it. “Oh goodness, ain’t you the cutest thing? Hang on, sweetie, I got potions…”

 

As she was digging in her bag, she heard a faint growl. Tiberius suddenly darted in front of her, shaking but spitting embers warningly.

 

Bianca looked up and made eye contact with a Liepard.

 

She’d seen its picture, when Cheren was showing her what Priscilla would evolve into, but the numbers and stats beneath the picture hadn’t meant anything to her. What meant something to her now was the way that, while she was kneeling, the Liepard was taller than her, and baring large, sharp fangs as it stalked towards her, apparently ignoring Tiberius, its eyes instead fixed on the Pokemon in her arms.

 

“Hey! No! You leave us alone!” Bianca shouted, cuddling the smaller Pokemon to her chest and scooting backwards on her knees. She didn’t want to break eye contact with the Liepard. Somehow, she knew that was when it would pounce. “Tiberius, Ember!”

 

Tiberius spat several small balls of fire at the Liepard. It hissed, stepping backwards with a paw raised, but didn’t seem to be more than singed. It suddenly swung its upraised paw, claws extended, and knocked Tiberius aside.

 

“TIBS!” Bianca cried in fear when she saw blood on the Liepard’s claws. She backed up further, curling tighter around the injured Pokemon. “Go AWAY! Just GO! CHEREN! CARLY! HELP!”

 

There was a loud squeal, and Tiberius, now surrounded by fire, suddenly slammed into the Liepard’s side, knocking it over. It rolled over, hissing and spitting angrily, while Tiberius squealed threateningly, not noticing the lightly bleeding cut in his side. The Liepard leapt to its feet, clearly ready to go again, but then something else leapt over Tiberius, something much larger, which headbutted the Liepard so hard that it vanished into the trees.

 

“Oh,” Bianca whispered, looking up at the new Pokemon. It had to be a Pokemon--it had four long, strong-looking legs and its whole body was pearly white, save for a light blue tail and a big mass off blue and red fur around its head. When it turned to look at her, she saw that it had a short horn on its forehead, and what oddly struck her as a friendly expression. She didn’t feel scared at all as it slowly walked towards her, leaning down to lick the small set of claw marks in Tiberius’ side. Tiberius whined something, staring up at the new Pokemon in awe.

 

“Hey, Tibs, we’re okay now,” Bianca said soothingly, leaning over to pet him and then looking up at the new Pokemon. “Um… thank you?”

 

“No problem,” the Pokemon said. “That bully had it coming. Hey, is that Woobat doing okay?”

 

 

{Reshin 19th, 09:51}

{Route 3}

 

Carlotta heard the kid’s cries echoing before she saw the cave, a crack in the steep face of the mountain starting to rise ahead. She dove inside, stumbling on the rough terrain before she thought to turn on the flashlight in her c-gear.

 

The light glinted off of water to her left and outlined the fairly small space. There was only one path to follow and she followed it, quickly catching up to the kidnapper, who was facing two people in Plasma’s uniform, carrying lanterns.

 

“--looks like a child, but I’m sure she’s--” the kidnapper was saying, before being cut off by one of the Plasmas spotting Carlotta.

 

“Holy shit, it’s you! The Munna-kickers from the Dreamyard!” Carlotta yelled as she got a look at their faces. “Kickin’ a defenceless li’l Pokemon ain’t enough for you, huh?! Why not try fightin’ somebody your own size for once?!” She opened her arms and Owain leapt out, waving his shell and crying out furiously. The child the kidnapper was holding stopped screaming, leaning over his shoulder to stare at Owain, then started yelling again, reaching for the Pokemon.

 

“Back off, kid,” one of the Plasmas snapped, stepping forwards. “The Munna wasn’t important, but this thing is.” Her partner also stepped forwards, the two of them releasing three Patrat between them. “This is your last warning, or else we will take you down, for the sake of the greater cause!”

 

“What are kidnappers doing, acting so self-righteous?” Cheren panted, running up behind Carlotta.

 

“Thought I’d lost you, Cher,” Carlotta said, smirking as Sherlock jumped down to stand by Owain’s side, hissing at the trio of Patrat.

 

“You couldn’t lose me if you wanted to,” Cheren said, rolling his eyes as he straightened up, catching his breath. “We’ve been friends our whole lives. We’ve got each others’ backs when it counts, right?”

 

“You know it,” Carlotta said, high fiving him. “Owain, Razor Shell!”

 

“Enough of this! Bite!” one of the Plasmas yelled, causing all three to leap.

 

“Sherlock, Wrap!” Cheren ordered. Long vines extended from Sherlock’s sides, catching a leaping Patrat in midair and slamming it into a second. Owain took down the third. “Good! Throw them again!”

 

“Make sure it stays down, Owain!” Carlotta yelled. “Razor Shell again!”

 

Sherlock seemed to grow before their very eyes as he produced more vines so he could properly grab two Patrat at once and knock them into each other until they went limp. Owain Razor shelled the third so hard it flew into the water with a splash.

 

“Dammit! Where the hell are the--” one of the Plasmas shouted.

 

“Think fast!” Carlotta yelled, grabbing Pijon off of her shoulder and flinging him at the Plasma’s face. Pijon shrieked and clawed at the screaming Plasma as he impacted. “You thought this fight was over just ‘cause we knocked down your Pokemon, fuckers?! You kidnapped a damn kid!”

 

“You wanna fight, kid?!” snarled the Plasma member who wasn’t currently being savaged by Pijon’s remaining claw, starting to draw her sword. It was only halfway out of her scabbard by the time Carlotta had crossed the distance and thrown a full-on punch into the woman’s face, sending her crashing to the ground and the sword flying.

 

The kidnapped kid actually laughed and clapped.

 

“Sherlock, Wrap them!” Cheren ordered, pointing at the two Plasmas. Sherlock looked confused, staring from the two humans to his trainer and chirping. “Sherlock! Wrap! Now!” Cheren snapped, pointing again. Finally seeming to get it, Sherlock wrapped the two humans in thick vines, pinning them to the ground.

 

The kidnapper snatched up the dropped sword, holding it up with a snarl. “Back OFF!” he yelled. “This is none of your damn business! This kid isn’t even human!”

 

“Hey, that’s racist!” Carlotta exclaimed. “Look, hand her over now and you ain’t gonna get punched, promise--whoa whoa whoa!” she yelled frantically as the kidnapper swung the sword up, holding the blade to the kid, who froze, staring wide-eyed at the sword. “Hey, ain’t no need for that!”

 

“Return your Pokemon, now,” the kidnapper ordered.

 

“Carly, we have to do it,” Cheren urged, returning Sherlock. The two Plasmas didn’t get up, settling for curling up and clutching their faces, groaning in pain. “This person’s deluded, he might actually hurt the kid!”

 

“Good,” the kidnapper said, grinning as Carlotta returned Owain and, lacking a pokeball for Pijon, snatched him up and tucked him into her pocket. “Now, just back away down the tunnel there, and we can go our separate ways.”

 

“What’re you gonna do to that kid?” Carlotta demanded.

 

“Calm down, I told you, this isn’t really a kid,” the kidnapper snapped. “It’s just duplicating a kid to hide. It’s only keeping up appearances to fool you into rescuing it. So just back away and--”

 

“MAMA!” the kid suddenly screamed. “MAAAMAAAAAAAAAA!”

 

Carlotta turned, the light of her flashlight picking out Sar Saylee emerging from the darkness with a fierce scowl. She was a short woman, but she cast a long shadow, and she was simmering with barely-contained fury.

 

“Stop,” she demanded, pointing at the kidnapper. “Let. Her. Go.”

 

“Sar, you may have promised to protect this one, but you don’t understand,” the kidnapper began. “What our leader can achieve with Meloetta’s power--”

 

“Stop,” Sar Saylee said, waving a hand in frustration. “Too fast. Don’t understand. Don’t care. Let her go.”

 

“Maaaaamaaaaaaaaaaaa,” the kid whimpered, trying to reach for her mother and leaning perilously close to the sword blade. Sar Saylee held out a hand, speaking in sharp, rapid Fairlan as she walked past Carlotta and Cheren, towards her daughter.

 

“I said BACK OFF!” the kidnapper yelled, swinging his sword at Sar Kanto, who ducked the swing, though she was so much shorter than the kidnapper she barely needed to move to avoid his wild swing. She tried to run up and grab her daughter while the kidnapper’s swing was wide open, trying to tug her down and out of the kidnapper’s arms. The kidnapper brought the sword back in, trying to cut at Sar Saylee’s head, but she brought a hand up and caught the blade in it. She winced, and in the flickering lamplight Carlotta could see a dark line run down the sword from her hand and where it cut into her shoulder, but she didn’t move, just snapping something as she reached for her daughter with her free hand. Cheren barked out a laugh.

 

“Cher, what the fuck?” Carlotta whispered.

 

“She told him his sword’s shit, not even properly sharpened,” Cheren muttered. “Though how she noticed that in this light is--holy shit!”

 

The kidnapper was knocked to the ground as a dark figure dropped on his head. Sar Saylee backed away, struggling to hold up her daughter with one arm and then stooping to set the girl on the ground, hugging the kid while she broke into sobs and clutched her mother. The kidnapper was disarmed by the ninja who’d jumped him, who took his sword, spun on her heel and kicked him hard in the chest, causing him to collapse with a gasp.

 

“Sherlock,” Cheren said, releasing his Pokemon again, “Wrap.” Sherlock seemed to get the picture quicker this time, wrapping the groaning Plasmas and the semiconscious kidnapper in strong green vines.

 

“Um… Sar?” Carlotta said, releasing Owain again. “We’ll keep an eye on them until the cops show up, you should probably… Cheren? Help me out here?”

 

Cheren spoke quickly with the Champion. Sar Saylee nodded at the ninja, holding out her hand and taking the sword in her unhurt hand, gesturing for the ninja to pick up and carry the still-crying kid.

 

Domo arigatou gozaimasu… Thank you very much,” Sar Kanto said, bowing her head and walking out of the cave, followed by the ninja, who was rocking the kid and gently humming.

 

 

{Reshin 19th, 09:56}

{Route 3}

 

“Bianca!” Warren yelled, spotting the blonde stumbling out of the trees, holding Tiberius in one arm and a bundle of blue and black in the other. “Oh thank goodness. You’re alright! Where are Cheren an’ Carly?”

 

“I dunno, I lost ‘em… what happened at the nursery?” Bianca said, looking disoriented.

 

“The evil ninjas ran away all of a sudden,” Warren said, “and much as I love gettin’ to say that sentence, that ain’t important. What happened? Where did you go? What’s that you got there?”

 

“I found her… her name’s Wilhelmina,” Bianca mumbled, looking down. “She got hurt, but I healed her with them potions you gave me, and… I saw another Pokemon…” She bit her lip, then looked up at Warren. “Warren… ya ever met a talkin’ Pokemon?”

 

“What? What’re you--hey!” he cried, his train of enquiry completely derailed by the sight of Sar Saylee, carrying a bloodied sword and trailed by a ninja carrying a child. “‘Scuse me! Uh, sumimasen! Have you seen Carlotta and Cheren--holy shit, are you okay?!”

 

Sar Saylee looked at her left hand, which was twitching and dripping blood, then waved it dismissively and pointed her sword back down the path that she and the ninja had come up. “Your friends,” she said, pointing the sword more insistently down the path.

 

“Thank you,” Warren said, tugging Bianca’s wrist. “C’mon, let’s go get ‘em.”

 

“Thanks!” Bianca called, waving as they ran past. Sar Saylee did a double-take, staring at Bianca as they went past, but it didn’t register to Warren, too focused on finding his sister and boyfriend.

 

It didn’t take them long. The path led directly to a cave, and Carlotta and Cheren weren’t far inside, idly chatting as Carlotta tossed and caught a delightedly squawking Pijon repeatedly.

 

“You ain’t gonna believe what we saw,” Carlotta said when she spotted Warren and Bianca.

 

“Wanna bet?” Bianca giggled nervously.

 

 

{Reshin 19th, 13:04}

{Striaton City Police HQ}

 

“They’re still interrogating them, but it looks like the nursery aide has been a member of the Plasma Foundation the whole time,” Saylee sighed, resting her forehead on her good hand, both out of need for support and to stop herself from picking at the stitches and gel on her left hand. “He’s been regularly processing fake adoptions to give abandoned Pokemon to Plasma for three years, and they called on him to kidnap Lettie… they thought she was Meloetta.”

 

Who got hurt this time?” Silver demanded, so urgently that Saylee dialed down the volume on her pokegear a couple of notches. She was currently alone in the break room, the police giving her a respectful but awkward berth, and none of them could speak Fairlan, but still.

 

“I have a little cut, it’s nothing, it’s already being treated,” Saylee inisted, raising her left hand. “They must just have those swords for intimidation or something, they’re not sharp at all. Probably going to have a scar, but hey, matched set. Lettie’s uninjured, just terrified…” She sighed again, rubbing her eyes. “Scared the wits out of all of us.”

 

Ninjas in Unova“ Silver mused. Saylee hadn’t mentioned ninjas yet, but didn’t ask how he knew that. He and Red texted daily, and even if they hadn’t exchanged any messages—unlikely, since Silver had probably tried to call their brother as soon as Red got upset to see what had happened—sometimes he just knew things that Red knew without being told. “What are you going to do?

 

“Cut out some of our visits to places with less security, negotiate to transfer over some of the security team’s Pokemon, or even some of mine or Blue’s,” Saylee said grimly. “And try to find out something about Plasma Foundation. There’s clearly more going on here than just rescuing abandoned Pokemon and giving speeches…”

 

I’m already suspicious of the speeches.

 

I give speeches,” Saylee pointed out.

 

No, you give press statements and the occasional official address, and you look horribly uncomfortable in all of them,” Silver responded. “People who like giving big, dramatic speeches and aren’t in cheesy movies are suspicious assholes. If, like, the kidnapping thing wasn’t obvious enough.

 

“True,” Saylee said, rolling her eyes. “And there’s more… more than Meloetta around. I haven’t gotten to ask her yet. But I saw a girl today… not ascended yet, but an Avatar. But I also saw her yesterday, and she wasn’t. She’s been chosen between yesterday and today… Something divine is going on here, something’s changing. Silver… do you know about any gods native to Unova?”

 

Most of them aren’t native to anywhere,” Silver pointed out. “There’s some that mostly live in Unova, though, like those dragons, and the last time Ho-oh heard anything from the weather triad, they were in Unova… I dunno, I’ll check it out. Do you want me to send somebody for a little extra protection? Suicune can be there in, like, a day.

 

“I’m already defended, and Meloetta said there are god-hunters about,” Saylee pointed out. “If they spot Suicune, that might just draw more attention that we don’t want. I can’t end the tour at this point and I really don’t want to be separated from Scarlet, especially not right after what happened, but damned if I don’t just want to jet home right now…”

 

I wouldn’t blame you, but I guess the Unovans might,” Silver sighed. “I’ll hold off for now but the next time something happens I’m sending Suicune, alright? What the hell kind of god is Meloetta, anyway, letting kids get kidnapped right under their nose? That’s the perfect time to smite! Moments like that are made for smiting!

 

“I don’t know if you’re physiologically capable of this, but please chill,” Saylee said, shaking her head. “You and Ho-oh both, if this is some kind of long-running divine issue. They don’t seem to be all that powerful in a combat sense. Their strengths are… something else.”

 

Unless their divine energies tend towards preventing my damn niece from getting kidnapped, I don’t care,” Silver said stubbornly. Saylee smiled. “I’ll see what I can find out about these Plasma fucks, too. Especially the speech guy--what did you say his name was? Gaycheese?

 

“Ghetsis,” Saylee corrected him, “and please do. Thank you, Silver.”

 

It’s nothing,” Silver mumbled. It was only a voice call, but she could imagine the way he’d duck his head to avoid eye contact when suddenly experiencing Emotions. “Just do your job and try to effect political change in Unova, right?

 

“Right,” Saylee promised, blowing a kiss at the mic. “Love you.”

 

Yeah, yeah, love you too,” Silver said, hanging up.

 

Saylee smiled at the pokegear a moment longer, then sighed heavily, stood up, stretched, and headed back to the observation room where she could watch the interrogations of the people who’d kidnapped her daughter.

 

You have one working fist right now, don ’t put the other one through a camera. One working fist, don’t put the other through a camera. One working fist, don’t put the other one through a camera…

Chapter Text

{Reshin 19th, 18:17pm}

{Route 3}

 

“Was this it?” Cheren said, showing the image on his screen to Bianca. “Zebstrika?”

 

“No,” Bianca said, shaking her head. “I told you, it was all white an’ red an’ blue. And it talked.”

 

“Maybe there was a Chatot nearby?” Carlotta suggested. “Or a trainer you couldn’t see?”

 

“No!” Bianca argued in frustration. “I’m tellin’ y’all, I really saw a real weird Pokemon that spoke to me! An’ he… or she… or somethin’, I dunno… they told me Mina’s name, an’…” The Woobat perked up at the word “Mina”, clearly recognizing her name. She was sitting by the fire with Tiberius, squeaking with her new, and only, teammate.

 

“Y’know, I don’t get why you kept her when you were insistin’ so hard on leavin’ Pine an’ Packard at the nursery,” Carlotta said, resting her chin on her hands with a sigh. “You coulda had a good team goin’.”

 

“I don’t get why y’all kept your two,” Bianca murmured. “They were abused. Just ‘cause they get along with y’all now don’t mean they wanna fight. But Mina said she liked me an’ Tibby wanted to stay, so I’m keepin’ ‘em. You sure them Pokemon you adopted wanna fight? I mean, your Purrloin sure don’t...”

 

“Those two Roggenrola weren’t allowed near the kids because they fight so much, and the Pidove we picked up were also left by trainers,” Cheren pointed out. “In fact, once we’ve finished dinner, I recommend some training matches so we can get a better feel for their abilities.”

 

“While I am going to nap,” Warren groaned, flopping backwards onto the grass. “It felt like we were in that police station forever.”

 

“Six hours,” Cheren corrected him.

 

“So many statements,” Warren mumbled into the arm he’d flung over his face.

 

“Hey, at least we ain’t gonna be on the news,” Carlotta said, patting Bianca’s shoulder. “I mean, they’re doin’ their best to keep it quiet ‘cause they don’t wanna admit foreign dignitaries are gettin’ their kids kidnapped ‘round here, so your folks won’t see nothin’ about us, probably.”

 

“We’re media minors, they couldn’t put us on the news anyway without parental consent, which they will not get without us directing them to our parents,” Cheren said, standing up and releasing Sherlock, Priscilla, Poncho the Panpour, and his new acquisitions, Peabean the Pidove and Rocky the Roggenrola.

 

“Bring it on,” Carlotta hooted, releasing Owain, Loyal, Paden the Pansear, Pijon the Pidove and Roland the Roggenrola. “I’m thinkin’ I can get an evolution outta Loyal an’ maybe Pijon by the end of the night!”

 

“You don’t have to join them if you don’t want to, Bianca,” Warren said, patting Bianca’s shoulder as she watched Tiberius and Mina. “But it might be a good idea to evolve Tiberius before taking on the next gym.”

 

“Yeah… maybe,” Bianca said, resting her chin on her knees. “Warren? You don’t think I’m crazy or nothin’, do you?”

 

“I don’t,” Warren assured her immediately. “I think… you saw something you don’t fully understand, but none of us can say what because we didn’t see it. Who knows? Maybe you’ll see it again.”

 

“I sure hope so,” Bianca said softly. “They promised.”

 

 

{Reshin 20th, 11:24}

{Nacrene City}

 

“Oh my goodness,” Bianca gasped, clasping her hands to her chest. “It’s amazin!”

 

“It really is,” Cheren agreed. “I haven’t been here in person myself. Pictures don’t quite capture it, do they? It wasn’t originally a residential area, you know.”

 

“Here we go,” Carlotta said with a grin.

 

“Hush up an’ let ‘im nerd,” Warren hissed. Bianca was already enraptured.

 

“Originally, this area was part of was miles and miles of warehouses and factories that had been built during the industrial boom, then begun lying empty during the bust.” Cheren explained. “The many drifting, homeless unemployed had moved in, and many had taken to decorating their new homes. Though there were a few clearouts, once the place got an artistic reputation, it didn’t take long for famous artists to start considering it trendy and buying up property there, converting the warehouses into lofts and workshops. For a while, the city was priced far out of the range of the squatters who’d originally given it its reputation, but the work of a few philanthropists and the sands of time have now given the city real variety. People from all layers of society live here now, with one unifying trait—they’re almost all highly creative sorts. Painters, sculptors, musicians… I believe Burgh, the Castelia City Leader, originally comes from here.”

 

“It’s beautiful,” Bianca cooed, gazing up at a mural of Reshiram and Zekrom took up the entire, vast side of one warehouse building.

 

“Well, lucky for you, Carly an’ me’ve been here once before, an’ we know where the good souvenir shoppin’ is,” Warren said, leading them through the buzz of summer tourists. They drifted in and out of the clouds of music created by buskers, just far apart that they never seemed to clash, occasionally accompanied by dancers or jugglers or other performers. Bianca was enraptured, wanting to stay and watch every one, and Warren knew his boyfriend well enough to know that Cheren was also fascinated by the performers but was happier to hide behind the excuse of doing what made Bianca happy.

 

It took them over an hour to get to the first shop that Warren remembered from their trip to Nacrene, a beautiful handicrafts shop that took up a good-sized space on the bottom floor of one warehouse, though part of it was also the workshop, where customers could actually see the artists who sold their wares working.

 

“Oh, ain’t these lovely?” Bianca said, examining some rugs. “These are all, like… Native Unovan styled, right?”

 

“That would be because all of us who own and sell in this shop are Native Unovan,” the woman weaving at a loom next to the rugs said without looking up.

 

“Huh?” Bianca said, staring at the woman in confusion. “You’re Native Unovan?”

 

“Well, yeah,” the woman said, looking up and crooking an eyebrow. She had the long, black hair, copper-toned skin and strong nose classically associated with Native Unovans, so Warren could understand her mild confusion at Bianca’s surprise.

 

“It’s just… I thought y’all got wiped out, like, a thousand years ago,” Bianca said, still looking confused. “I thought y’all didn’t exist anymore ‘cause of civilization movin’ in.”

 

“Oh. My gods. Did you even have history class?” Cheren groaned, putting one hand over his eyes and steering Bianca away with the other. “Ma’am, I am very sorry about this.”

 

“She just escaped a very religious household,” Carlotta explained.

 

“It’s fine,” the woman said, in a way that suggested that it wasn’t, really, but it was too much trouble to get into with these customers. “If you’ll excuse me, I have to finish this rug.”

 

“Bianca, the Native Unovans were never wiped out, despite the ancient colonial governments’ best attempts,” Cheren sighed as they quickly hurried away, “but it could be said to be a touchy subject and somewhat disrespectful to bring up to a complete stranger.”

 

“Oh, no,” Bianca gasped, clasping a hand over her mouth. “I gotta go apologize!”

 

“You weren’t to know, Bianca,” Carlotta said, putting an arm around her shoulders and giving her a little hug. “They’d probably prefer if you didn’t blow it up into a whole thing. Just move on, and now you know better for the future, huh?”

 

“I’ve gotta buy somethin’ nice,” Bianca decided, digging into her purse to see how nice she could afford.

 

“I think the least we can do is spend some money here,” Cheren agreed, looking at a selection of small sculptures. “These look to be in our price range. They’re mostly mythological Pokemon, or Pokemon that were once thought to be gods--”

 

“Oh!” Bianca gasped, running after him and pointing at one of the figures on the shelf. “That’s it! That’s the Pokemon I saw!”

 

“Wait, what?” Carlotta asked, leaning over her shoulder to look. Warren also came to have a closer look.

 

The figurine was about three inches tall, carved out of wood and unpainted, but polished to make the detail clear. It looked like a Rapidash with the mane of an Arcanine, but with rounder, stockier features.

 

“Hmmm,” Cheren said, peering at the figure, then picking it up carefully and looking at the base for an inscription. “I… don’t believe I recognize this one. Are you certain?”

 

“Yeah! It was all white, with all this--” Bianca ran a finger over the mane-- “all red an’ blue!”

 

“All the artists work in here, let’s find the carver an’ ask ‘im,” Carlotta suggested, walking to the end of the shelf and peering around it. “‘Scuse me, sir, all these carvin’s your work?”

 

“Yes, they are,” a deep voice on the other side said. They walked around the shelf to see a surprisingly small and delicate man for what a deep voice he had, whittling nonstop at a block of wood while he talked to Carlotta.

 

“Sorry to interrupt your work, but could you tell us which Pokemon this is, please?” Cheren asked, holding out the figure. “I’m afraid I don’t recognize it at all.”

 

“Most don’t,” the man said, glancing at the figure with a smile. “We don’t know their name, but we call them The Little One. You know of the the Three Warriors--the ones your people call the Swords of Justice?”

 

“Cobalion, Terrakion and Virizion,” Cheren immediately rattled off. “Fabled defenders of Pokemon.”

 

“Those three are famous, but a legend less known these days is that with every battle they lose, they gain a new soldier,” the carver explained, still whittling. “Once there was one, then two, then three… now there are four, but the balance has not fallen far enough to call their wrath down on us, so The Little One’s powers and name are as yet unknown. But they’re seen around, every so often. My sister saw them, as a child, even spoke to them, briefly.”

 

“See!” Bianca exclaimed. “I told you it spoke to me!”

 

“Bianca, it’s a myth--” Cheren began.

 

“Now, hang on, young lady,” the whittler said, finally setting down his wood and staring intently at Bianca. “You say that you saw The Little One? Even spoke to them?” He looked at the pokeballs on her belt. “I would never expect one of The Warriors to favour a trainer…”

 

“Well… I was healin’ a hurt wild Pokemon I found,” Bianca explained. “An’ then this other wild Pokemon attacked us, an’ I tried to protect it, then, um… The Little One came an’ protected me. An’ they spoke to me. They said…” She bit her lip. “Um. It’s a secret. Sorry.”

 

“My sister would never speak of what The Little One said to her, either,” the whittler mused. “Ain’t that something.”

 

“What is happening?” Warren whispered to Carlotta.

 

“I have no idea,” Carlotta whispered back as Bianca started digging out money to buy the statuette, “but Bianca knew that thing even when Cheren’s never seen it before.”

 

“You think she really might’ve…?” Warren said, nodding at the statuette.

 

“I don’t think it’s really what that guy thinks it is,” Carlotta murmured, “but Bianca definitely saw somethin not normal…”

 

 

{Reshin 20th, 17:36}

{Nacrene City}

 

 

“I think we took a wrong turn somewhere,” Cheren said, pulling up a map again on his c-gear. They’d definitely wandered off the beaten path--there wasn’t anybody else walking down the road they were on. “You know, they really ought to use the murals on the buildings as landmarks.”

 

“Nah, they change ‘em every so often,” Warren said, shaking his head. “Some of ‘em ain’t murals so much as super-fancy graffiti.”

 

“Tourism could hire a guy to keep the maps updated, though,” Carlotta pointed out. “I’d do it. Sounds like a sweet job.”

 

“That don’t exist,” Warren pointed out.

 

“I think I hear a voice,” Cheren said, glancing up at the nearest building and then at the sculpture garden in front of it. “Excuse me?” he called.

 

“Hello?” a little voice called from behind a sculpture.

 

“Excuse me, but we’re lost,” Cheren said, walking around the sculpture. “Are your parents… around…?”

 

“What’s--oh,” Bianca said, following Cheren and pausing when she saw what made him trail off. The kid on the other side was in a wheelchair, but not the regular sort for just going about your life in. It was a huge mass of monitors, tanks and tubes that the little girl it was all connected to was almost lost in all the equipment. The kid herself was skeletally skinny.

 

In front of her sat a little Petilil, playing with some leaves it had picked up, using its powers to make them dance. It dropped the leaves at the sight of the new humans.

 

“My mom’s working late, but I bet one of the nurses can help you,” the girl said, ducking her head shyly from their gazes. She pressed a button on the arm of her wheelchair. “One’ll be out in a minute.”

 

“Thanks very much,” Warren said, smiling. “Real kind of you. Hey, little thing,” he added, waving at the Petilil.

 

“Hey, are y’all trainers?” the little girl asked, pointing to Angus’ pokeball, which Warren had strapped to the shoulderpad of his bag.

 

“Sure are!” Carlotta said, showing off her own pokeballs.

 

“Coooooool,” the girl breathed, her eyes lighting up. “I really wanna be a trainer an’ travel with Lilli an’ see the world, but…” She trailed off, having to take a mask to breathe into for a minute, the excited rush of words too much for her. “I’m not gonna get to travel,” she said in a tiny voice.

 

“You wanna meet our Pokemon?” Bianca suggested, releasing Mina and Tiberius. “They’re real friendly!”

 

“Hi,” the girl said, giggling as Mina gave her a heart-shaped kiss on the cheek. “They’re real sweet!”

 

“They sure are,” Warren said, releasing Angus and glancing at Cheren and Carlotta. “Do y’all have any Pokemon that are gentle enough to be around this kid?” he hissed.

 

“Um… no,” Carlotta said, running a hand over her pokeballs.

 

“I think I have one, actually,” Cheren said, releasing Priscilla. The Purrloin immediately leapt up and curled up on the little girl’s lap for a nap. “Priscilla, careful! She’s not hurting you, is she?”

 

“No! She’s real light… and real warm,” the girl said happily, gently stroking Priscilla’s fur. “I get chills a lot. I’d love to have a real furry one like her.” Priscilla purred loudly as the girl kept petting her.

 

“Well… why don’t you keep her?” Cheren suggested with a sigh. “To be honest, I’ve never been able to make a fighter of her. Looks like lap-warmer is her life’s dream.”

 

“Really?!” the little girl said excitedly. “You’d just… give her to me? Just like that?”

 

“What’s all the commotion about?” a nurse said, walking across the lawn towards them. “Denise, do you know these people?”

 

“This trainer said I can have his Purrloin!” Denise squeaked, getting so excited her breathing started to get laboured and she had to reach for her mask again.

 

“Breathe in and out, hon, it’s real excitin’, I know, but you’ve gotta relax,” the nurse said soothingly, glancing at Cheren. “You know her?”

 

“No, we were passing by and just asked for directions,” Cheren said. “But really, all that Purrloin does is sleep. I think she’d be happier with Denise here, and Denise certainly seems happy.”

 

“Well… we do have a station for processing gift Pokemon, and we will have to look her over before letting Denise spend too much time around her,” the nurse said, softening a little at how wide Denise was grinning. “But I think, with her mother’s permission, we can do that. Come on inside and we can process that, okay? Is it a trade or just a gift?”

 

“Just a gift--” Cheren began.

 

“No, we should trade!” Denise insisted. “Trainers trade so their Pokemon can have all sorts of new experiences, right? I want you to take Lilli with you!” The little Petilil perked up at the sound of her name. “You’re goin’ to all sorts of cool places, right? You’ve gotta, to take the gyms, right?”

 

“That’s right!” Carlotta said, showing off her Striaton gym badge. “We’ve got a lot of traveling ahead of us.”

 

“So… take Lilli with you!” Denise insisted. “Just… take her all the places I can’t, okay?”

 

“…I’d be happy to trade with you,” Cheren offered, “on the condition that you let me send you pictures of Lilli in all of the cool places we go, okay?”

 

“You will definitely need her mother’s permission for that,” the nurse said, leaning down so he could pick up Lilli and start wheeling Denise inside, “but I think it sounds lovely.”

 

“You softie,” Warren said, kissing Cheren on the cheek.

 

 

{Reshin 20th, 18:43pm}

{Nacrene City}

 

“Seriously, Cheren, that was the sweetest,” Bianca was still gushing as they walked into the Pokemon Centre, having finally been directed on their way by Denise’s delighted mother, who had offered them her instagram account to send pictures to in lieu of giving strangers a direct line to her eight-year-old.

 

“Well, last night you pointed out that Priscilla simply isn’t a fighter,” Cheren said with a shrug. “Now she gets to sleep all she wants and that girl gets a reliable therapy Pokemon.”

 

“And you gotta carry around a Pokemon that you gotta be careful about ever usin’ to fight ‘cause if she gets hurt you gotta tell that to a terminally ill little girl,” Carlotta said teasingly.

 

“I can manage just fine with a team of five,” Cheren said loftily.

 

“Bianca D’Artagnan?”

 

“Yeah?” Bianca said, turning around.

 

“Don’t answer that--damn,” Carlotta muttered, immediately moving between Bianca and the dark-haired man in a brown longcoat who’d approached her. “What do you want, pal?”

 

“Well, I just wanted to know if she was really Bianca D’artagnan,” the man said, reaching into his pocket and pulling out a card that declared him a private detective. “The name’s Perivale. Ace Perivale. I’ve been hired by your parents to find you, Miss D’artagnan.”

 

Warren and Cheren immediately joined Carlotta in forming a protective human wall. “You cannot force Bianca to go anywhere,” Cheren pointed out. “She is legally independent.”

 

“Technically, you also legally can’t stop me from calling her parents right now,” Ace said, though he showed no motion towards making a call. “I would, however, like to hear your side of the story, why you left and why your parents are so protective.”

 

“Um, because they’re Romrams?” Warren said scathingly. “Don’t that say it all? They’re homophobic, transphobic, racist, ableist…. Everythin’ bad, really.”

 

“I gathered,” Ace deadpanned.

 

“An’ they were startin’ to set up marriage meetin’s,” Bianca mumbled. “I don’t wanna marry any of them boys from the church.”

 

“They can’t legally compel you to get married, Miss D’Artagnan,” Ace pointed out.

 

“No, but they’ll drag me to the meetin’s anyway and ignore me sayin’ I ain’t interested an’ send out invites and start plannin’ and it’ll be the goddamn day and they’ll be guilt-trippin’ an’ harrassin’ me ta get into the dress ‘cause they already did all that work an’ their ears went an’ erased every time I said I didn’t wanna do it, and ain’t I such a horrible, selfish daughter!” Bianca burst out. “I ain’t goin’! You call ‘em, an’ all I’ll do is run away again!”

 

“I understand,” Ace said, holding up a hand. His blue eyes were sparkling with what looked like… amusement? “They came off as a real pair of pricks when I first met them, AND on their daily calls demanding updates, but I was really hoping that was just out of worry.”

 

“Nope, that’s how they are,” Carlotta said, folding her arms and tensing her muscles. She had been slacking off a little on her own training in favour of training her new Pokemon, but she was still pretty confident that she could break the guy’s neck with a flex and she wanted to make damn sure he knew it.

 

“We know you have a job to do, Mr Perivale--”

 

“Sir, actually,” Ace said with a grin, flashing a necklace with some kind of heavy pendant on it, like that was supposed to mean anything, though of course Cheren seemed to recognize it.

 

“…Well, Sir, we know you have a job to do,” Cheren said, raising an eyebrow. “But if you agree that trying to reunite Bianca with her parents would be awful…”

 

“Now, young man, I am a professional, and the D’Artagnans are paying me extremely well to find their little girl,” Ace said, shaking his head. “They are paying me, by the day, very, very well, and they’d have to be absolutely awful for me to not feel unconscionable about continuing to take their money without giving them any updates… so, thanks for that.” He tucked his necklace away again. “They’re essentially funding another investigation of mine that I personally rank as more important. Just be forewarned that they might hire somebody else if they get tired of my lack of progress, Miss D’Artagnan. Enjoy your time in Nacrene.”

 

“Hey, how’d you find us, anyway?” Carlotta demanded.

 

“Oh, I’ve spent a couple days just jumping around between Pokemon Centres, keeping an eye out,” Ace said with a shrug. “Runaway teenagers, I figured it was that or I’d have to start scouring for campers. And truth be told, when you walked in you all caught my eye. You have a very distinct aura, Miss D’Artagnan.”

 

“Um… thank you?” Bianca said in confusion. Ace just waved and walked off.

 

“…Well, at least we know he’s not a Romram,” Warren said, sounding nonplussed. “He’s one of them aura hippies.”

 

“So… should we be runnin’ away to another city or what?” Bianca said, wiping frightened tears out of her eyes.

 

“I… think we go find a camping spot by the train tracks, just in case,” Carlotta suggested. “Even if that guy’s not gonna sell you to your parents, he’s gondamn weird.”

Chapter Text

{Reshin 20th, 20:29}

{Nacrene City}

 

“This place kinda reminds me of that movie,” Carlotta said, patiently performing crunches. “Y’know, the one where that guy was trainin’ by pullin’ a train?”

 

“Carly, that is so many superhero movies, you’re gonna hafta be more specific than that,” Warren pointed out, side-eying the ancient, rusted metal that barely peeked through the grass. “Is it weird that, even though a train obviously ain’t run here for hundreds of years, I’m kinda anxious ‘bout sleepin’ here?”

 

“You’re a worrywart, Warren,” Cheren said fondly, checking the time on his pokegear. “Now sssshhhh. Save the World is on.” He projected a screen up from his C-gear and settled back, his arms folded behind his head and his C-gear sitting on his stomach to display the slightly transparent image.

 

“Ooh, what’s that?” Bianca whispered, lying on her stomach in the grass to get an angle where she could see the screen too.

 

“Nerd show,” Warren said, lying down next to Cheren.

 

“They debunk pseudoscience, interview experts in various fields and investigate groundbreaking new research,” Cheren murmured, “and this week they are interviewing the Professor Oak, so sssshhhh.”

 

“Hey, that’s Professor Juniper!” Carlotta gasped, pointing at the screen and immediately getting shushed by the other three. “Well, it is!”

 

Professor Juniper was sitting around a table with a brown-haired Fairlan woman and an older man with silver hair and a bow tie. “—Because tonight, we’re looking at some research that could potentially blow everything that we know about Pokemon out of the water—if it can be proven!” the older man was saying. “I’m here tonight with Unova’s own Professor Aurea Juniper, who’s a little skeptical, and the originator of Energy Field Theory, Professor Daisy Oak. Now, may be a surprise to those of you who know that these ladies are on opposite sides of this debate, but you studied together, didn’t you?

 

Well, we didn’t exactly go to school together,” Professor Juniper laughed.

 

I did most of my studies over the internet,” Professor Oak said, the Unovan translation from a translator patch on her jacket overlaying her Fairlan words after a moment. “Aurea was often on fieldwork with her father, so attended many of the same digital classes I did. We disagreed often then, too!

 

I do want to go into this saying that, for all that, and despite some sensationalizing gossip, I’ve never thought of Daisy as an enemy,” Professor Juniper said, holding up a hand. “Sometimes I’ve been wrong, and would’ve been too assured of my own cleverness to admit it without her calling me out so well—and sometimes, she’s been wrong, but to prove it, I had to learn to prove my point better.

 

Oh, I think you were wrong a little more often, but who’s keeping count?” Professor Oak said with a mischievous smile.

 

It’s only 51 to 50, Oak, and I might get to even the score tonight,” Professor Juniper laughed.

 

51 to 49. ‘I bet I can pick up this Crustle without getting pinched’ doesn’t count as a debate, Juniper.

 

Ladies,” the host laughed. “Professor Oak, care to give us an overview of your Energy Field hypothesis? You’ll note, attentive viewers, we’ve switched up our usual running order and gone for an interview first,” he added, looking to the audience, “given how the nature of this theory is that it’s… difficult to prove.

 

But not impossible,” Professor Oak said firmly. “I’m not finished experimenting yet. But Pokemon have been mysteries since time immemorial. We’ve slowly begun to unravel the odd way that Pokemon grow and mature, controlled by stimuli rather than time, and have many working hypotheses on how they can generate quantities of, say, water that far exceed their own mass, but by and large when it comes to Pokemon we tend to only know what works and not why. But I think that may be because we’ve fundamentally misunderstood what Pokemon are, by assuming that they are purely organic beings, the same as humans.

 

“Well, what does any of that mean?” Bianca whispered.

 

“Means we don’t actually know that much ‘bout Pokemon, even after all this time,” Warren whispered. “One of the reasons I got into studyin’ Pokemon medicine. Just studyin’ Pokemon biology is weird and super interestin’.”

 

“Sssh, question time after,” Cheren muttered.

 

“—hypothesis is that there exists an energy field that humans are not part of, but Pokemon are,” Professor Oak was saying. “Converting that energy into matter is something they can do naturally, rather than relying on technology as we do. They can do it to heal injuries in extremis, or add to their own mass with rushed evolutions, or convert it to fire, water, leaves, and so forth.

 

Which, if true, does neatly tie up a great many mysteries about Pokemon biology,” Professor Juniper agreed. “And I’m definitely interested in experimenting to find some way to detect this energy—” The image froze, silent and flickering.

 

“Gondamn signal,” Cheren muttered, waving his C-gear up in the air. “Can’t stream video worth a damn.”

 

“You can download and watch it next time we’re in a Pokemon Centre,” Warren reminded him.

 

“I’m sorry… we coulda stayed in one tonight if I didn’t speak to that guy,” Bianca said guiltily.

 

“Sssshhh, no takin’ the blame for nonsense ain’t your fault,” Carlotta ordered, putting a finger to Bianca’s lips. “Hell, new rule: you ain’t allowed to take the blame for anythin’, ever. Nothin’ is your fault. Official. Understood?”

 

Bianca opened her mouth, then froze, staring wide-eyed over Carlotta’s shoulder. “What is it?” Cheren said, sitting up and looking past Carlotta, scanning the overgrown debris strewn around the old trainyard. It was difficult to see much at night, even with the flashlights, just a vague sense of the way the lumpy shadows around them textured the darkness.

 

Then, in the bushes, the lights of a flashlight glinted off of two small eyes.

 

“What is that?” Carlotta asked, zeroing in her flashlight and releasing Owain, who brandished his scallop defensively at the source of the eyes, which just blinked slowly at him.

 

“It’s a Banette?” Cheren said in surprise, opening his pokedex. “It’s a ghost, quite a rare one…”

 

“A ghost, huh? Now that’d be somethin’ for a champion’s team!” Carlotta said excitedly. “Owain, don’t hit it too hard! Razor Shell!”

 

Owain leapt forwards with a mighty squeak, slashing at the shadowy Pokemon. The Banette vanished, with a rustle, into the bushes.

 

“Hey!” Carlotta yelled, chasing after it with Owain.

 

“Carly!” Warren yelled, chasing his sister. “Don’t go chasin’ after a ghost in the dark!”

 

Cheren caught Bianca’s eye and sighed. “Come on, then,” he said, scooping up his bag. “We might as well go after them.”

 

They didn’t have to go far. The Banette had scuttled behind the bushes and into an old rail car that was turned on its side and almost completely overgrown with bushes and turf. There was something melancholy about the fallen machine, like it was a great skeleton slumped on the ground, wishing to be left to sleep rather than be disturbed.

 

“There you are!” Carlotta cried, tackling the Banette herself and actually grabbing it in her arms, where it flailed and squeaked frantically.

 

“Carlotta, don’t grab a wild Pokemon!” Cheren said in exasperation.

 

There was a faint sob, and it didn’t sound like a Pokemon. Something about the sob cut straight to the heart. “Hey, guys?” Bianca said, looking around, clutching her chest as she abruptly felt horribly, terribly afraid.

 

“I heard it too,” Warren said with a frown, shining a light into the train car. Inside, a small figure ducked under their large hat.

 

“Oh, hey, honey,” Bianca said, crouching down. “It’s okay. Carly, can you let that Pokemon go? I think it belongs to her…”

 

“Huh? Oh, shi—sugar,” Carlotta said, leaning down with the Banette in her arms. The kid sobbed and moved further back. “Hey, darlin’, we ain’t gonna hurt you…”

 

A little green-and-white Pokemon jumped in front of the little girl, spreading its tiny arms and chirping angrily.

 

“Sssshhh… hey, I’m just gonna sit down here, okay, honey?” Bianca offered, sitting down in the grass. The air was thick with the kid’s fear. “Nobody’s gonna come any closer. Carly, let that poor li’l thing go!”

 

“Sure thing,” Carlotta said, opening her arms. The Banette hopped out, scurrying over to the little girl, hopping into her arms. As soon as it did, the green-and-white Pokemon chirped again and the three vanished in a flash of energy.

 

“I think that second Pokemon was a Ralts,” Cheren said after a moment. “It must have used Teleport.”

 

“Damn, I feel bad,” Carlotta said, crouching down and petting Owain, who also drooped. “I think we really scared that kid…”

 

“You didn’t know it wasn’t wild,” Cheren said consolingly.

 

“Hey, guys?” Bianca said, leaning into the train car and picking something up. “I think she dropped this…”

 

“A sketchbook?” Warren said, peering at it. “Let me have a look…”

 

“We shouldn’t be spyin’ on her stuff,” Bianca said with a frown, clutching the sketchbook close.

 

“I just wanna see if she put her name or anythin’ in it, see if we can return it,” Warren assured her, holding his hands out. She handed over the sketchbook after a moment to let him flip open the cover.

 

“What does it say?” Cheren said, holding up the flashlight.

 

“Property of Kara, age 12… that kid was twelve? She was tiny!” Warren said in surprise.

 

“Maybe we oughta go lookin’ for her back at that hospital,” Carlotta said, returning Owain.

 

“Nah, says here… if lost, give to Marsha at Nacrene Museum,” Warren said, pointing at the bottom. “Different handwritin’. Maybe it’s her mom?”

 

“Well, we’re going there in the morning to book battles, anyway,” Cheren said, standing up and stretching. “Shall we get in some more training, sleep, and head out there early?”

 

 

 

{Reshin 21st, 09:12}

{Nacrene City}

 

The whole way to Nacrene Museum, Bianca couldn’t stop looking over her shoulder. Even with the detective’s assurances that he wasn’t going to tell her parents, she kept jumping whenever she saw a man as tall as her father or a woman with her mother’s hair colour, her mind briefly painting on the faces she was most afraid to see…

 

“Here we are,” Cheren said, gesturing to a big stone building that didn’t look like a warehouse or factory. “This place was purpose-built six hundred years ago with money left to the city by—oof!”

 

“Hey, watch where you’re—oh, it’s you,” Warren said with a frown when he got a good look at the guy who’d shot out of the museum doors and into Cheren at top speed. He maintained eye contact and the dirty look while helping Cheren up, the low angle actually letting him get under N’s perpetually tipped baseball cap.

 

“I remember you,” N mumbled, apparently unphased by the collision. In one arm he was holding a small, round, blue-and-brown Pokemon with a smiling face and a big blue tail. “The trainers who keep Pokemon in pokeballs.”

 

“Most trainers do that,” Carlotta pointed out. “Ain’t nothin’ special ‘bout us doin’ that.”

 

“Hmmm… no, they don’t have it here,” N said, apparently to the Pokemon in his arms, which was humming and buzzing. “We’ll have to look somewhere else.”

 

“For what?” Bianca said in confusion.

 

“I… want to see things no-one can see,” N said, glancing up briefly at her before returning his focus to the little Pokemon he was holding. “The truths of Pokemon inside Pokeballs. The ideals of how trainers should be. And a future where Pokemon have become perfect… Do you feel the same?”

 

“Uhhhh…” Carlotta and Warren exchanged a look. “I mean, we’ve all got ideals ‘bout the trainers we wanna be…”

 

“…I cannot see the future yet. The world is still to be determined…” N mumbled. He started to brush past. “Right now, my friends aren’t strong enough to save all Pokemon. Maybe I can’t solve the equation that will change the world. So, I need power… Power enough to make anyone agree with me…”

 

“Excuse me, but forcing people to agree with you doesn’t make you right,” Cheren snapped, grabbing the taller man’s arm.

 

N tensed up, staring at Cheren’s hand on his arm. “It always has,” he said bluntly. “I know what power I need. I need Reshiram, the legendary Pokemon that, along with its hero, made Unova what it is that day.” He smiled, suddenly, as he pulled away. “I will become that hero,” he declared proudly, “and when I do, you and I will be friends!”

 

“Don’t think I could see that even if I could see the future,” Carlotta snorted, folding her arms with a scowl. N just smiled at her, then strode off, a little spring in his step. “What is with that guy?”

 

“He isn’t wrong that, historically speaking, might has made right, but… good grief,” Cheren said, shaking his head. “What century does he think this is?”

 

“Maybe he thinks he’s in Kanto or somethin’?” Carlotta theorized. “Don’t they still pick leaders ‘cause of who’s the best battler? I think I remember you sayin’ somethin’ like that…”

 

“It isn’t exclusively about battle prowess, though I suppose you could be forgiven for the mistake,” Cheren sighed. “Never mind him. Let’s find Marsha, shall we?”

 

“Whoa,” Bianca breathed as they stepped into the museum, staring around the cavernous main exhibit hall, odd encounters entirely forgotten as she took in the huge, peaceful space. It gave off the impression of being vast and still and yet, at the same time, jam-packed with so many things that her eyes couldn’t take them all in at once, and instead they seemed to fade into view like the pictures in a magic eye puzzle as she processed them. Skeletons of flying creatures, tablets of stone and tapestries all hung from the high ceiling, while the walls were practically papered with paintings and signs directing them to various exhibits, and each open doorway seemed full to bursting with more. “Wow.”

 

“Your catchphrase,” Carlotta joked. “See that big one in the middle? That there’s a Dragonite. A real powerful one, goin’ by the size!”

 

“Been here before, huh, hon?” the man sitting behind the ticket desk said in amusement.

 

“Sure, a buncha times, but this is her first time here!” Carlotta said excitedly, clutching Bianca’s arm. “Y’all got anythin’ new lately?”

 

“Well, there’s the Relic Castle Excavations,” the man said thoughtfully. “Y’all got our app? It’s in the east wing right now.”

 

“Sure!” Carlotta said, opening up the app on her pokegear and zooming around the digital floorplan. “I see it, thanks!” she chirped, putting down a marker.

 

“Before that,” Cheren said, holding up a hand, “is there a Marsha here?”

 

“Why do you wanna know?” the man behind the counter asked, raising an eyebrow.

 

“Well, we found this last night,” Warren said, pulling the sketchbook out of his bag. “It said, if found, return to Marsha at the Nacrene Museum?”

 

“Oh!” the receptionist said, his face lighting up. “I’ve seen that before! Her new li’l girl likes to sketch. I’ve seen her in here with it. Hang on, Marsha’s on ‘er lunch break, but I’m sure she’s gonna be delighted to see somebody found it!” He pressed a button on his counter. “That’ll buzz ‘er out. Give ‘er a minute.”

 

“Thank you,” Cheren said politely. “So, what did they find in the Relic Castle?”

 

“Rocks, really, but if you’re into geology or somethin’, then…”

 

They made small talk for a couple of minutes until a tall, dark-skinned woman with her hair piled up in a wrap the same colour as the museum’s uniform came out. “You buzzed, Petey?” she called.

 

“These folks found Kara’s notebook!” Petey called, waving her over.

 

Marsha’s face split into an excited grin and she all but sprinted across the hall towards them, hugging the notebook in delight. “Oh, thank y’all!” she gushed. “Kara was so dang upset when she realized she’d lost it after goin’ out drawin’, but she’d had a real fright and didn’t wanna go lookin’ for it…”

 

“That was us,” Carlotta admitted sheepishly. “We thought her Banette was a wild Pokemon, and, uh… I’m real sorry…”

 

“Oh, damn,” Marsha sighed. “I know she don’t like havin’ other humans around, even me, but… don’t worry ‘bout it, honey,” she said reassuringly. “You did her a real kindness bringin’ her notebook back—” She yelped as somebody shoved past her, nearly knocking her over. “WHAT THE HELL?!” she yelled after them.

 

“STOP THEM!” another voice yelled—a more familiar voice. Sir Ace Perivale came running up to them. “Maybe if the lot of you weren’t just standing around gossiping, you’d have noticed those damn thieves!”

 

“Those what?” Cheren said, looking up and gasping.

 

The skull of the giant Dragonite, the head that had been sitting so sturdily high above the ground just a few minutes before, was gone.

 

“Oh, shit!” Petey yelled, grabbing a phone. “I’m callin’ the police!”

 

“I’m going after them now!” Ace shouted, shooting off.

 

“C’mon! Let’s get ‘em!” Carlotta yelled, following after him.

 

“Carlotta, we’re not—stop doing this!” Warren cried as he, Cheren and Bianca chased after his sister.

 

The streets of Nacrene were crowded in the morning, so it was all Bianca could do to keep up with Cheren and Warren, never mind see who it was that they were chasing. She ended up grabbing onto Cheren’s hand just to make sure she could keep track of him, and was relieved when he gripped her hand tightly and towed her forwards.

 

She fidgeted nervously with Wilhelmina and Tiberius’ pokeballs as they ran. She didn’t want to put them at risk or lose another Pokemon fighting thieves…

 

But who wants to steal a skull, and why?

 

 

 

{Reshin 21st, 09:29}

{Pinwheel Forest}

 

“Gondammit! Where in the hells are we?!” Carlotta groused as Ace slowed down in front of a bridge. The dappled, flickering light filtering down through the tall trees played tricks on the eye and made it difficult to make out the dimensions of the bridge, or what lay on the other end.

 

“Pinwheel Forest,” Ace said, looking down a dry gully that ran between two heaps of boulders just before the bridge. “I think they went down there, trying to disappear into the forest. Sucks to be them. That gully’s deep and there’s only one path, no way to climb up the rocks. It’ll bring them back around to the other side of the bridge.”

 

“So we just gotta wait for ‘em on the other side of the bridge?” Carlotta said as Cheren, Warren and Bianca caught up, gasping.

 

“Better if we can pin them in the gully,” Ace said, frowning at a young couple with a baby who were strolling across the bridge. “This is a public path. Look, if you kids want to help, go into the gully and chase after them. Stick together and be careful, don’t rush.” He released a blue-and-black canine Pokemon that was almost as tall as him. “Qui-Gon and I will go into the other end of the gully and we’ll catch them between us, got it?”

 

“Got it,” Carlotta said, saluting and then releasing Owain, who immediately looked around for somebody to fight, and Pijon, who tried to sit on her shoulder before realizing that, having evolved into a Tranquill the previous night, he was now too big. He settled for perching on one of the bridge’s handrails. “You comin’, Cheren?”

 

“Of course,” Cheren said, releasing Sherlock and Peabean, who had also evolved. Pijon immediately began preening his new, brightly coloured facial crest. “Bianca, Warren, you should--”

 

“I’m comin’ too,” Bianca said firmly, releasing Wilhelmina, who hovered around her trainer’s head, sniffing the air. “I wanna help!”

 

“Then I might as well join in this time,” Warren said, patting his pokeball. “One of you is definitely gonna get yourselves hurt doin’ this nonsense…”

 

“See you in there,” Ace said, tipping his hat and runnin off with Qui-Gon at his heels.

 

“I’m guessin’ you ain’t been hikin’ before, Bianca,” Carlotta said, heading off across the rocks. “Watch your footin’, okay?”

 

“Got it,” Bianca said, hitching up her skirt and stepping cautiously across the stones, wishing she’d gotten up the courage to go buy her own trousers already. The fear of committing such a sin causing her parents to physically manifest in the store in front of her was about equaled by the awkwardness of peering at a clothing stand and realizing she had no clue what any of the numbers meant.

 

“The detective said we didn’t need to rush, since he’ll be coming at them from the other side,” Cheren said, gripping Warren’s arm as they headed down into the gully, “so do be careful. I did not wear hiking shoes today.”

 

“Can’t be that bad, or they’d’ve blocked it off,” Carlotta said reassuringly.

 

“Unless the thieves destroyed whatever was in the way to stop folks from gettin’ in,” Warren pointed out.

 

“It’s a trainer path, there’ll be rangers down there,” Cheren said, stumbling. Sherlock immediately extended several vines, catching his trainer and keeping him upright. “Ah… thank you, Sherlock.”

 

“Two left feet,” Warren said, shaking his head fondly.

 

“Hey, down there!” Carlotta said, sliding down a moss-covered tree trunk instead of climbing down the rough rock face. Somebody dressed in red was collapsed on the ground. “Hey, y’all okay?!”

 

“Gondamn cheaters,” the woman grunted. She was hunched over, clutching a leg that was horribly bent at a spot too low to be her knee. “You kids head back,” she ordered. “Some thieves are runnin’ loose—”

 

“We know, we’re chasin’ ‘em,” Carlotta said authoritatively. “We’re with a detective, Ace Perivale. Did you see the thieves? What did they look like?”

 

“Look like? They were dressed in that damn fool Plasma costume!” the ranger spat. “Y’all get after ‘em. I already called for help an’ I can dress this thing myself.” She gritted her teeth and pushed the leg straight with a horrible crack before letting loose a litany under her breath that sounded liable to start a forest fire.

 

“If you’re sure you’re okay…” Cheren said uneasily. The ranger nodded, opening her bag and keying in a password before withdrawing a splint.

 

“She’s got this,” Warren assured him, tugging Cheren along as they headed deeper into the gully. Wilhelmina flew ahead, giving echoing cries. “What’s she doin’?”

 

“Is she trying to echolocate them?” Cheren said with interest. “That’s very clever. How did you teach her to do that?”

 

“Uh, she just started doin’ it,” Bianca said, brushing a tree branch out of her face. “She’s real smart, ain’t she?”

 

Wilhelmina squeaked loudly, diving suddenly. Pijon and Peabean dived after her. “Do they see somethin’?” Carlotta called, speeding up as she vaulted over a fallen log and took off between the scattered trees.

 

“Carlottaaaa!” Warren yelled in exasperation as they went after her. They spotted Wilhelmina and the two Tranquill further down in the gully, all gathered around two much smaller Pokemon. They were grey and bipedal, with heavy pink markings on their bodies. One was carrying a large chunk of wood over its shoulder.

 

The other was lying on the ground in a pool of blood.

 

“Aw, gondammit… too late,” Warren said, grimacing as he crouched next to it. “Nothin’ Angus or I can do for it. It’s gone.”

 

“Oh… I’m sorry, li’l guy,” Bianca sniffed, reaching to pet the other one. It smacked her hand away with a small paw, squeaking angrily. Wilhelmina squeaked right back. Then Pijon and Peabean both trilled loudly, spreading their broad wings, Pijon’s crest standing on end.

 

“That’s an aggression display,” Cheren said, reaching for Peabean’s pokeball. “We don’t need to waste time fighting wild—”

 

With an angry cry, the surviving Timburr ran off, with Wilhelmina and the two Tranquill flying after it. “C’mon!” Carlotta yelled, running after them. Warren just sighed heavily this time before taking off in pursuit, tugging Cheren along by one hand.

 

The gully grew denser and greener around them as they ran. It was probably beautiful, but impossible to make out as any more than a green blur at the corners of their eyes as they focused on chasing after the Pokemon without catching their ankles in tree roots or rocks hidden in the grass.

 

“There!” Carlotta cried suddenly. A flash of powder blue was distantly visible whipping around a boulder. “HEY!” She yelled, pointing at where the figure had been. The wild Timburr screamed in rage and swung the chunk of wood over its head as it ran around the boulder, while Peabean and Pijon simply swooped up and dived over with a shriek.

 

“You have nowhere to run!” Cheren shouted as they ran around the boulder to see one Plasma on the ground, yelling as the Timburr beat at him with its hunk of wood. Several more were clustered behind him, carrying a huge package wrapped in black cloth between them, which they were carefully setting on the ground so they could get their pokeballs. Behind them was a tunnel—or, on closer inspection, not a tunnel but a gigantic fallen tree, a dead titan rotted through the core, leaving a musty-smelling hollow that one could drive a truck through. Two of them stumbled back with a cry as Pijon and Peabean divebombed them.

 

“The detectives are comin’ the other way!” Warren shouted, pointing at the fallen tree. “Give up an’ surrender the skull!”

 

“Plasma will never surrender!” one of the Plasmas yelled, releasing a Patrat. All of them had Patrat, but large, strong-looking ones, probably not far off of evolution. “Attack!”

 

“Leaf Tornado, Sherlock! Peabean, Air Cutter!” Cheren ordered, pointing at two of the Patrat.

 

“Yeah! Air Cutter, Pijon! Razor Shell, Owain!” Carlotta cried. The four Pokemon dove into battle. The Plasma on the ground had managed to released a Purrloin, but the wild Timburr knocked it aside with a furious cry.

 

“Mina! Ya gotta make ‘em sleep before it kills ‘im!” Bianca cried. “Um… Confusion, ain’t it?”

 

Wilhelmina swooped towards the pair on the ground, glowing pink. Both human and Pokemon groaned, clutching their heads, then collapsed, unconscious. “Good job, Bianca!” Warren said, throwing a pokeball to catch the wild Timburr. “Should stop it wakin’ up an’ gettin’ outta control again…”

 

Carlotta and Cheren had already swept aside all of the Patrat. A couple more Plasmas had Purrloin, and a couple had low, brown Pokemon with large jaws full of sharp teeth. “They’re Sandile! Use Pijon!” Cheren ordered. “Peabean, Air Cutter that one!”

 

Peabean, as ordered, struck the Sandile hard, slamming it flat into the ground. Behind it, one of the collapsed Patrat staggered to its feet, eyes glowing.

 

“CHEREN, LOOK OUT!” Bianca screamed, pointing. Too late, Cheren turned and saw the Patrat just as it leapt into Peabean, tearing into her belly with a horrifying screech and a spray of blood.

 

“We know how to bide our time in Plasma,” one of the grunts joked.

 

“Shut the fuck up!” Carlotta snarled, scooping up a stone and spinning to fling it. The Plasma woman screamed and collapsed as it struck her in the knee with a crack. “Warren, get your ass over here!”

 

“Already on it!” Warren yelled, releasing Angus. “Doubleslap!”

 

Angus slapped the Patrat away from Peabean. His attacks weren’t very powerful, but they were enough to take down the barely-conscious Patrat. “Good. Now Heal Pulse, Angus!” Warren ordered. Instead of glowing with charging power, Angus prodded at Peabean, making a distressed noise. “Fuck. Cheren…” Warren said, gripping his boyfriend’s hand.

 

“I know,” Cheren said tightly. “SURRENDER!” he barked angrily at the Plasmas as they looked over their various downed Pokemon and a couple of downed partners. “Y’all got nowhere to run!” Cheren repeated, anger fraying his usually precise diction. “Give it up, NOW!”

 

“Never!” one of the Plasmas spat, drawing his sword. He was immediately bowled over as what looked like a ball of pure light smacked into his back.

 

“Careful, those things are sharp,” Ace called, running down the inside of the log with Qui-Gon. The last two Plasmas still on their feet exchanged glances, then held their hands up in the air. “Wow, you kids caught up with ‘em fast. Did you save any for me?”

 

“I wish,” Warren sighed as Pijon fluttered down next to Peabean, nudging her with his beak and chirping. Angus put a small paw on Pijon’s back and crooned in a soft, sad voice. Owain, Sherlock and Wilhelmina all gathered around the Tranquill as he threw his head back and gave a haunting wail of despair.

 

“I think they’re cryin’,” Bianca said, tears thick in her own voice. “They know she’s dead…?”

 

“Well, they sure know she ain’t gettin’ up,” Warren said, putting an arm around Cheren. “I just… didn’t know Pokemon mourned.”

 

“Yeah,” Ace said, looking down at the dead Tranquill with a sad sigh. “They sure do. Look, if you kids wanna… I dunno, bury ‘er out here, we can handle these guys.” He released a fully-evolved Samurott, along with a humanoid orange Pokemon that looked a bit like a large Pansear except with its head actually on fire, and a tall Pokemon that was mostly hidden under what looked like a hooded green cloak except for a protruding beak. “My team and I can handle taking this lot away.” He nodded at the various Plasmas and the flaming orange Pokemon immediately picked two up and, ignoring their protestations, flung one over each shoulder.

 

“He’s right,” Carlotta said as Ace and his Pokemon walked away with their prisoners, the Samurott carrying the stolen skull on its back. “We oughta bury ‘er…” She reached for Owain and Pijon’s pokeballs, but Bianca put out a hand to stop her.

 

“We should… let ‘em say goodbye too,” she sniffed. “An’ that poor li’l thing back there… we oughta bury him too. He was just here, an’ they killed ‘im…”

 

“I did catch that other one… here,” Warren said, handing the pokeball to his sister. “I don’t need a fighter, but you could probably do somethin’ with ‘er. Who knows, maybe it’ll make ‘er like us if she sees us buryin’ ‘er friend, right?”

 

“Good idea,” Carlotta sighed. “Owain, c’mon, let’s go get that dead Timburr… y’all find some soil we can dig in, okay?”

 

They found some at the far end of the tree trunk, where some of its roots were still sunken into the ground, the rest reaching up into the sky like a wall of broken spires. It seemed a suitably solemn place to inter Peabean and the dead Timburr, with Pijon’s sad wailing serving as the funeral dirge.

 

The wild Timburr didn’t cry aloud when Carlotta released her and she saw them putting the dead one’s body in a hole and covering him with earth. She just dropped her chunk of wood on the ground, sat on it, and cried silently without ever looking away from her friend’s body until he was completely covered with earth.

Chapter Text

{Reshin 21st, 10:32}

{Pinwheel Forest}

 

 

“Hey, guys?” Warren said, stopping in the middle of the bridge and looking at his C-Gear. “Maybe we oughtn’t go back to Nacrene right now…”

 

“Why—oh,” Cheren said, looking at Warren’s screen and wincing. “Of course. Should have known. The press are all over the museum,” he clarified to Carlotta and Bianca.

 

“It too much to hope your folks don’t watch news?” Carlotta asked Bianca, who’d gone deathly pale.

 

“Um… is Mono News reportin’ on it?” Bianca asked anxiously.

 

“Hold on, this app only shows real new stations… aw, shit, they’re showin’ it too,” Warren sighed.

 

“We’ll come back an’ fight Nacrene Gym later on,” Carlotta decided. “An’ don’t you start,” she added immediately, turning to Bianca, who shut her mouth. “We can fight ‘em in any order, port back any time we like, this ain’t a problem or setback for nobody.” She put a hand on Bianca’s shoulder and gentled her tone of voice. “Just remindin’ you you ain’t done nothin’ wrong an’ have nothin’ to apologize for, got it?”

 

“Yes, ma’am,” Bianca said with a shy smile. “Okay! Campin’ again! I’m lookin’ forward to it! This forest’s real pretty!”

 

“I believe there is a popular trainer campsite by the lake,” Cheren added, turning and leading them back across the bridge, deeper into the forest. “It ought to be an ideal place to train, maybe with other trainers to have practice battles with.”

 

“Hey, here’s a plan—we challenge some other folks, wreck their Pokemon, an’ charge ‘em for Angus’ Heal Pulse,” Carlotta cackled.

 

“Says the police are at the museum, too,” Warren mumbled, still looking at his c-gear screen. “Think they’re gonna wanna talk to us?”

 

“They probably aren’t in a rush, seeing as none of the thieves escaped and they have plenty of witnesses,” Cheren mused. “Has that detective made a statement?”

 

“Oh, yeah, here ‘e is,” Warren said, turning on a video. The screen was too small for the others to see, but they could hear the report just fine over the rustling leaves and smooth, quiet flow of the river below.

 

“…with the aid of some traveling trainers,” the detective was saying. “But as they were minors, I’m not going to give their details out on the air. I’ll leave it to the discretion of themselves and their guardians to visit the police to offer statements.

 

“I like this guy,” Carlotta mused. “I like ‘im a lot.

 

“What a solid dude,” Warren agreed.

 

“Is that ranger lady okay?” Bianca asked, peering at Warren’s c-gear.

 

“Uhhhh… oh, yeah, says here Ranger Irene Cooper was hospitalized with a broken leg, but thanks to her own quick first aid she should make a full recovery,” Warren reported. “She’s gonna be fine, don’t you worry.”

 

“Good,” Bianca sighed in relief. “I’m glad they got that skull back safe, too. Been a real shame for that poor thing not havin’ ‘is head no more…”

 

“He’s been dead for over three thousand years, Bianca, I don’t imagine much bothers him,” Cheren said, looking up at the signs standing over the path ahead. “Ah. Campsite this way. There we go.”

 

The campsite wasn’t directly off the main path leading to the bridges, but instead down a winding trail between the trees. It was a pleasant day, with the sun filtering down through the trees casting everything in a warm, dappled light. It was peaceful, beautiful, quiet, and all in all worlds away from the morning’s violence. It was only a few minutes’ walk before they first got a glimpse of glittering water through the trees, and not long afterwards until they found themselves in a field of short, scrubby grass before a lake. It was mostly empty, aside from a couple of tents dotted amongst the stone-ringed firepits. The lake itself was the sort that was too large to be a pond, but the far shore was close enough that individual trees could be made out, and they could practically see Carlotta estimating how long it would take her to swim it. At the water’s edge, where the grass gave way to a small strip of damp sand, a couple of trainers were fighting—though on closer inspection, it clearly wasn’t an actual fight, as such.

 

The two trainers were standing on opposite sides of the rough outline of a battlefield drawn in the sand, as if having a real match, but there was no way the Pokemon in the middle were really battling. One, a gigantic mass of red-and-blue stone with something like a big nose and moustache on front, wasn’t even moving, just grunting as a little orange thing with a burning tail spat tiny spurts of flame that washed harmlessly off of the bigger Pokemon’s hide. One trainer, a tall, pale man with dark blue hair to his shoulders, was cheering on “Giro”, while the other, an equally tall dark-skinned trainer with very long, straight red hair, was just watching with a smile.

 

“Awww, are they helpin’ the baby train? That’s real sweet!” Bianca gushed.

 

“Hi!” Carlotta called, waving. “Mister with the li’l guy! If you’re needin’ a proper fight, I figure we’re more on your level! How many badges you got?”

 

“Hi!” the man called, waving. “Gearing up to get my first. I’m thinking Burgh, it’ll be easiest on my team. How about you?”

 

“We’ve got our first badges,” Cheren said, pulling out his badge case as they approached the battlefield.

 

“And you couldn’t resist showin’ it off,” Warren ribbed his boyfriend, nudging him. “Competitive trainers. Can’t take y’all anywhere. Since we skipped over the whole introductions part, my name’s Warren, this is my boyfriend Cheren, my sister Carlotta, an’ our best friend Bianca.”

 

“Oh, yeah, hi,” the guy said with a nod. “I’m Marco. I’m from Accumula. Are you from around here? Giro, come back!” he added, shouting over his shoulder at his little orange Pokemon, who immediately scurried over and clung to his ankle.

 

“We’re all from Nuvema,” Carlotta confirmed. “How ‘bout you?” she asked the other trainer, who just returned their huge Pokemon and they strode over with their hands shoved into the pockets of their black jacket.

 

“I’m Fern,” they said. “I’m from Sinnoh!”

 

“Wow, your Unovan’s real good!” Bianca gasped.

 

“My girlfriend is from Undella, she taught me!” Fern said proudly. “I’m here to visit her, but also I want to see… what is the word… the god places?”

 

“God places?” Carlotta said, looking around with an eyebrow raised at the campsite. “I’m not sure that’s the word you want…”

 

“Not here,” Fern said, pointing at the ground before gesturing all around, “but in this forest, there are god places.”

 

“Yeah, we were talking about this before… I always heard that this is Virizion’s forest,” Marco said, stooping to scoop up Giro in his arms. “Haven’t you guys heard? Nuvema’s not far from here, right?”

 

“Honestly, most I know ‘bout Virizion begins an’ ends at the cartoons,” Carlotta admitted with a shrug.

 

“What is this li’l cutie?” Bianca cooed, waggling her fingers at Giro, who waved a little claw back at her.

 

“He’s a Charmander… not surprised you haven’t heard of them, they’re very rare,” Marco explained. “You were saying you’ve got one badge each already… would you be willing to give us a proper fight?”

 

“Oh, well… it’s Carly an’ Cheren got badges,” Bianca admitted, shying away, with her eyes downcast.

 

“If you don’t wanna fight just now, Bianca, how ‘bout we set up our campsite while they fight?” Warren suggested, tugging her away by the hand. “I ain’t a battler, either,” he added.

 

“Tch, it is morning,” Fern said, waving their hand dismissively. “You want to camp and see the famous sunrise, yeah? If you do not want to fight, come explore the forest with me! I can protect you from wild Pokemon, and maybe we will find a god place!”

 

“Bianca does have some interest in gods,” Cheren said. “Alright, Carlotta, which one of us will fight Marco first?”

 

“We’re deciding this like warriors, Cher,” Carlotta declared, raising one fist in the air. “Rock, paper, scissors, three, two, one—!”

 

“I don’t actually know anythin’ ‘bout Virizion, either,” Bianca clarified as she and Warren hurried to keep up with Fern’s long stride. “We didn’t get to watch cartoons, an’ my folks said anythin’ but the Dragons are false gods.”

 

“The Dragons you mean are Zekrom and Reshiram, yeah?” Fern said. “But there are many, many, many, many other gods!”

 

“Yeah, Bianca’s folks’re pretty intense,” Warren said. “Virizion… he was always the pretty one. Always flirtin’ with somebody, had to have all his attacks real pretty. Uh, in the cartoons an’ movies, anyways,” he added with a cough when Fern looked curiously at him. “Don’t know much ‘bout the god except that its thing is grass, an’ it hangs around with Terrakion an’ Cobalion.”

 

“Yes! The three are battle gods, who travel to fight on behalf of Pokemon in need!” Fern exclaimed. “Virizion is the most beautiful, they say, and the most gentle. And, yes, grass. That is why they live in this forest, maybe. Hello,” they said to a Pidove that was pecking at the path ahead of them. The tiny grey Pokemon looked up, staring quizzically at them. “In Sinnoh we have Starly. Not so cute, I think. Do you have? I know these ones are very common here.”

 

“No, but ain’t she adorable?” Bianca cooed, crouching down and carefully holding out a hand to the Pidove, who chirped and nuzzled it.

 

“Awww, kawaii desu ne she thinks that you are very cute also,” Fern informed Bianca. “If you want to have a Pidove, I think she will let you catch her. Do you have pokeballs?”

 

“What? Y-yeah,” Bianca said in surprise, digging in her bag. “Really?”

 

“Pokemon don’t just let you catch ‘em,” Warren pointed out.

 

“Well, do you ask before you take? No!” Fern scoffed. They looked down at the Pidove, firing off a question in rapid Fairlan. The Pidove looked up and chirped. “Miss Penny says, I want to see far-away places, and to meet different Pokemon. That is why she is looking for a trainer.”

 

“Got it!” Bianca said, pulling an empty pokeball out of her bag. “You sure she’s really gonna just… let me catch ‘er?”

 

“I asked, and she answered! I am sure that miss Penny is a good bird who would not lie,” Fern said firmly.

 

“Well, here goes…” Bianca said, holding out her pokeball and tapping it gently to the Pidove’s head. The little Pokemon vanished immediately in a burst of light, and the ball didn’t even rock before locking.

 

“…wow,” Warren said in amazement. “That was easy.”

 

“I told you, I spoke to her, and she agreed!” Fern insisted. “Are you an Unovan who thinks that it is not true, that we speak to Pokemon?”

 

“W-well… it don’t sound very… sensible, do it?” Warren said, backing up a little as Fern loomed over them, hands on their hips and a scowl on their face. “I mean, Pokemon don’t all communicate in the same way, first off…”

 

“Pah! Sense! If it makes sense, does not matter,” Fern said flippantly. “It is true, whether it makes sense or not. Many clever people are studying it, and maybe one day they will make sense. But until then, it is still true.”

 

“Then you don’t gotta be so bossy ‘bout it, do ya?” Bianca said, standing up with her hands on her own impressive hips as she put herself between Warren and Fern, glaring up at the much taller person.

 

“It is okay, okay?” Fern chuckled, hands raised. “You, much more tough than you look. Protect your Pokemon as well as your friend, yeah?”

 

“Uh… okay,” Bianca said, looking down at the pokeball in her hand. “I’ll do my best.”

 

“Good! Now, where might a god place be?” Fern mused, looking at their wrist, where they wore something like a C-gear, though chunkier. They started fidgeting with the map function, which looked to be covered in custom pins.

 

“Damn, B,” Warren said, patting his friend on her shoulder. “You could be that intense more often.”

 

“Well… they were bein’ rude to you, and there weren’t no call for it,” Bianca mumbled, going red. She drooped a little more, hunching in on herself. “Why couldn’t I never talk to them like that?” she almost whispered.

 

“Your folks?” Warren guessed. Bianca nodded. “Well, that’s different. They’re your folks. This is just some person we just met. An’ hey, thanks for gettin’ tough on my account,” he added, squeezing her shoulder, “what with Carly not bein’ here to do it!”

 

“‘Sokay,” Bianca said, smiling shyly as she went even redder. “You’re my friend.”

 

“You are all very sweet,” Fern noted, causing them to jump and hurry to catch up with them on the forest path. “Are you old friends?”

 

“Known each other since we were… what, four, five?” Warren said. “All four of us.”

 

Osana najimi! It is a very important, very strong bond,” Fern explained. “All four of you? Very rare, very strong. But it is difficult. We change friends many times when we grow up because we become many different people on the way. To still be friends means to work, to understand, and to love. I hope you will do that,” they said with a smile, making an “OK” sign with one hand.

 

“I hope so too,” Warren said, imitating the signal back. Then he frowned, looking back over his shoulder.

 

“What’s up?” Bianca asked, following his look back. They had moved onto a path-off-the-path, where the trees were denser and darker, and the ground underfoot thicker and more coated with leaves and roots.

 

“Nothin’, just… felt like we were being watched for a moment,” Warren said, shaking his head. “Nothin’ there, though.”

 

“If you see any strong Pokemon, then Gatsby and I will keep you safe,” Fern offered, releasing a tall, green-and-white Pokemon that looked a little like a beautiful woman. “He is a Gardevoir! He is very brave!”

 

The Gardevoir looked them up and down, humming. It was a pleasant sound, but if he was speaking, neither of them could understand it.

 

 

{Reshin 21st, 11:19}

{Pinwheel Forest}

 

“You two are not on my level,” Marco grumbled, returning his last Pokemon, a little blue water-type called a Piplup.

 

“Have I told you I love this girl?” Carlotta boasted, watching a newly-evolved Thamina flex her new muscles. Carlotta flexed back. “‘Cause I love this girl.”

 

“She’s a Gurdurr now,” Cheren explained, looking at his pokedex, “and she’ll start gathering anything metal to create a new club with, so keep an eye on your things.”

 

“Nice,” Carlotta said, returning Thamina. “She trains real hard. No wonder she evolved so darn fast.”

 

“I need to get stronger, fast, as well,” Marco said, digging potions out of his bag. “What’s your secret?”

 

“Daily trainin’ an’ a consistent regimen, pal,” Carlotta declared. “No skippin’ out! It all adds up!”

 

“Are you talking about you or your Pokemon?” Marco asked, pointing at Carlotta, who was still flexing.

 

“Both!” Carlotta said proudly.

 

“She isn’t joking,” Cheren sighed. “Daily training is key, though, and taking on a few strong opponents does you more good than many weak ones, though it’s riskier. We travel together, so we can train together several times a day.”

 

“Hmmm…” Marco loaded potions into his pokeballs thoughtfully. “I prefer my Pokemon.”

 

“Well, if you want to fight Burgh first, I’m sure your Charmander could handle a first-badge Bug battle alone,” Cheren said encouragingly. “Where did you get one, anyway? They’re extremely rare, aren’t they?”

 

“My parents are Fairlan, and they both have Charmeleon that they’ve had since they were children,” Marco explained. “They’re Giro’s parents. Yes, they’re very rare, though I hear Sar Kanto sponsors a program in Kanto that’s building the population back up.”

 

The question so, do you really believe in all that talking-to-Pokemon stuff hovered on Cheren’s tongue, but he bit it back. He was curious about it every time the topic of the Fairlands came up—as it seemed to daily, lately—but if there was one thing he’d learned online, it wasn’t just to pick your battles, but the time and place for them, too. The issue of talking to Pokemon was a touchy one, and there was nothing for anybody to gain if it sparked an argument between two passersby at the same campsite.

 

Instead, he asked, “you said you needed to get stronger fast. Are you taking the League challenge?”

 

“Only as a means to get stronger,” Marco said, leaning back on his hands. “I want to be able to protect Pokemon from people who are cruel to them. It’s so damn easy to get away with hurting Pokemon in this damn country. If the law won’t protect them, I will.”

 

Well. That also sounded like a touchy subject, but… “You know… the most effective way to protect them would be to lobby to change the laws concerning Pokemon rights,” he pointed out. “Just attacking people will only get you arrested, and it won’t really help the Pokemon. It certainly hasn’t garnered the Plasma Foundation any sympathy.”

 

“Plasma…” Marco snorted, his expression darkening. “I’m not planning to run around dispensing vigilante justice, but if I see them again, I want to know I can protect my Pokemon and any other Pokemon they have their filthy, murdering eyes on.”

 

“Murderin’?” Carlotta said in surprise. “I ain’t heard ‘bout them killin’ nobody, that lady they threw acid at lived last I heard…”

 

“Not a human, a Pokemon,” Marco said, shaking his head. “I saw them kill a Kangaskhan to take her baby. If I’d been a trainer at the time, if I’d had Pokemon, maybe I could’ve done something…”

 

“Damn… human or Pokemon, that’s fucked up,” Carlotta muttered. “Didn’t we see somethin’ like that at the Dreamyard?”

 

“They were beating up that Munna, yes… I can’t think what they plan to gain from it, though,” Cheren said, frowning.

 

“I don’t know or care what they plan to gain from it,” Marco spat. “They’re not getting away with that shit again. Not on my watch.”

 

“I can respect that,” Carlotta said, putting Thamina’s pokeball back on her belt. “Think yours are all healed up and ready for another fight? Y’all gotta work hard to get tough!”

 

“Sounds good to me,” Marco said, jumping to his feet. “Just not the Gurdurr. Please.”

 

 

 

{Reshin 21st, 17:14}

{Castelia City}

 

Saylee leaned back against the arm of the sofa, one arm tight around Scarlet while she held up her tablet in her uninjured hand, watching through a playlist of cartoons that her cousin Lucy had sent her. She’d skipped out some kind of charity dinner, and felt a little bad about it, but she knew she wasn’t going to be able to cope with having Scarlet out of her sight for a little while. Besides, the host, a local gallery owner, had been very gracious about her giving a generous donation instead of attending, and she figured that anybody she’d meet at that dinner, she was also going to meet at the gala in a couple of days. It was worth it for a peaceful evening, watching Scarlet giggle at the cartoons while Blue and Red continued their reversi rivalry on a board they’d found in a stack of board games under the television. The noises of the cartoon, Scarlet’s giggles and the click of Blue and Red placing and flipping pieces all seemed woven together harmoniously by Meloetta’s humming. The small Pokemon was sitting at the foot of the couch, eyes closed as they hummed in tune with the small sounds of the room, sometimes singing wordlessly, turning every random sound into part of the melody.

 

The view of the sprawl of Castelia City was famously impressive, especially from the penthouse she was in, but she’d drawn the curtains. Koga’s team hadn’t lost to any of the three strange ninja who’d attacked them, but none of them had really won, either. She’d never met anyone who could go toe-to-toe with anyone from Fuchsia in hand-to-hand combat, and she didn’t like knowing that they were still out there.

 

There was a soft knock on the door and Key stuck her head around. “Hey, put down the fragiles,” she announced. “There’s news from the interrogations and you’re not gonna like it.”

 

“I’ll hold the cartoons, Mummy,” Scarlet said, reaching up for the tablet. “Can I keep watching?”

 

“Yes, but only if you promise not to press any of the buttons, okay?” Saylee said, gently shifting her daughter onto the couch. “I have important things on here. Cartoons only, or no more cartoons, okay?”

 

“Okay!” Scarlet said immediately. “I’ll tell you what happened when you get back!”

 

“Awww, thanks, honey,” Saylee said, kissing her on the forehead and getting up. Blue and Red also stood up. “Red, stay here and keep an eye on her, okay?”

 

“This isn’t us fobbing you off because you’re a kid,” Blue said quietly when Red opened his mouth, possibly quietly enough that Saylee wasn’t supposed to hear it. “We all had a real scare, okay? We just… even if it’s just stepping into the hall outside, just keep an eye out for us, okay?”

 

“…Sure,” Red said, moving over and sitting down on the couch next to Scarlet. “So, who’re they?” he asked, pointing at the characters on the screen.

 

Saylee stepped out into the entryway of the apartment-style hotel room, though she kept a foot in the door so she could still hear Scarlet’s voice as she and Red chatted and keep the pair of them in the corner of her eye. “Okay, so what’s happened?”

 

“The kidnappers confessed, but claimed that they only wore Plasma outfits to distract the police to make them harder to track down once they escaped,” Key said quickly. “Plasma themselves declared that none of these people were ever members, and since they haven’t claimed to be members, the police have no grounds to search their records. Which… unfortunately, they don’t. Plasma regularly gives their outfits to short-term volunteers at their shelters and don’t require that they be returned, so they could’ve gotten those uniforms without being members or doing anything for Plasma.”

 

Blue pressed a hand to his mouth and whispered, “ffffffffffffffffuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuuck them. Fuck ‘em. Fuckers.”

 

“They’re loyal, I’ll give them that,” Linda, the guard by the door, commented. “No doubt they’ve been incentivized to lie to protect Plasma, but proving it will be difficult. A good prosecutor could maybe do it, but it’ll take them months.”

 

“So why did they try to take Scarlet?!” Saylee hissed.

 

“They claim to be independently anti-Fairlan,” Key sighed, “putting it politely. They each went off on separate crackpot rants about getting you to confess to being a dictator or something, that they’ve been stalking your evil ways, yadda yadda. None of them brought up your, y’know, paternity, which tells me they don’t actually know a thing about you and were put up to this by somebody else, but again, that’s not really quick or easy to prove. The Nacrene Museum thieves this morning did claim to be part of Plasma but not acting on the organization’s behalf. They just said they stole the skull because their hearts broke for the poor dead Dragonite, having its remains so desecrated.”

 

“I am so goddamn angry that I agree about that, although I’m sure they’re lying through their teeth,” Saylee groaned, dragging a hand over her eyes. “Wait, if they admitted to being Plasma Foundation members, the police do have a right to demand access to Plasma’s records, don’t they?”

 

“Under Unovan law, no, not unless they claim to be acting on Plasma’s behalf, and they weren’t,” Key sighed. “Or at least, they say they weren’t. I’m sorry, Lee, this headache isn’t going away anytime soon…”

 

“Maybe I should take Lettie and Red and head out,” Blue said, putting a hand on Saylee’s arm. “That’d be diplomatic, sorta, right? And a bit of a fuck you to anybody trying to drive you out of the country with this shit.”

 

Saylee glanced over at the couch, where Scarlet and Red were engrossed in something loud and smashy happening on the tablet screen. “You probably should,” she said reluctantly. “Gods, Lettie was so excited about this trip, and we’ve never been apart for more than a schoolday before…”

 

“She’s a bright kid, she’ll understand,” Blue promised, pulling her closer to lean his head against hers and give her a one-armed hug. “I guess if we hang around until the gala, we can let Caitlin know in person that we want to head back to the embassy and out of the country as discreetly as possible…”

 

“Yeah, you don’t wanna advertise it,” Key agreed. “And, well… I’m gonna send Ray and Amy home tomorrow. It won’t be as fun for them to travel without their friend, and…” She tucked some hair behind her ear, casting a glance at Saylee. “I’m standing with you, whatever shit’s coming our way, obviously. I just don’t want my kids mixed up in it, y’know?”

 

“Hey, I don’t want my kid mixed up in it either,” Saylee said, raising her hands. “Linda, can you ask Koga to come talk to me to make a plan? Caitlin might have a security detail that can look after them, but if a breakaway detail is an option…”

 

“We’re honoured, as ever, by your absolute trust in us, Sar,” Linda said seriously, “and we won’t fail you again. I’ll ask him to talk to you after the kids’ bedtimes?”

 

“Please,” Saylee said gratefully, putting an arm around Blue and hugging him back. “I’ll miss you too, jerk. Facing this kind of thing always seems easier when you’ve got my back. But it feels good to know you’ve got Lettie’s.”

 

“Of course,” Blue promised. “I’ll get on that ‘good prosecutor’ thing, too. I think we know a guy who might know a guy. And I wanna know why the hell, if Plasma is ordering these crimes and then incentivizing their people to lie about it… why wear the Plasma costumes at all? They’re doing this shit in broad daylight, in recognizable costumes. Why? Were jeans and t-shirts outlawed?”

 

“Harder to wear a decorative sword with, maybe,” Saylee said, glancing at the bandages on her shoulder. “If they were making good life choices, they wouldn’t be kidnappers and thieves.”

 

“Point.”

Chapter Text

{Reshin 22nd, 05:06}

{Pinwheel Forest}

 

“Guys, guys, guys, hold on,” Carlotta said, grabbing Warren and Cheren’s arms as they started to climb the slope up to the viewing plateau. “We don’t gotta rush. Bianca ain’t seen this before, remember?”

 

“Oh, then we’ve gotta give ‘er the full show,” Warren said, grabbing Bianca’s hat and pulling it down over her eyes. “No peekin’ ‘til we say so, got it?”

 

“Alright,” Bianca giggled, clutching her hat with one hand and letting Cheren lead her by the other with Carlotta steering her by the shoulders. The group shuffled up the slope carefully, taking care not to trip in the dark. “Good view up here, huh?”

 

“Nothing in the world like it,” Cheren promised. “Now, be careful, there are roots underfoot…”

 

She could hear people murmuring all around, some in languages she’d never heard before. The only other sounds were the occasional hum of a car passing somewhere nearby and the steadily increasing splash of small waves. There was a lot of weaving back and forth before she found her free hand guided to a cool metal railing.

 

“Okay, you can look!” Carlotta declared, patting Bianca’s shoulder.

 

Bianca pulled up her hat, then blinked in confusion at the all-encompassing darkness. “Are we at a river?” Bianca asked, gripping the railing and leaning over. There was a feeling of space below, but no light at all to see anything by.

 

“I think it’s technically an inlet,” Cheren suggested. “Never mind. They turn off the lights for a while before dawn. That’s not the view down there.” With her eyes starting to adjust to the faint grey predawn light, Bianca could make him out leaning against the railing next to her with Warren and Carlotta.

 

“Morning, folks,” a young women said, approaching them with something wide in her arms. Soft LEDs in her hat illuminated the logo of a coffee chain, and when she got close enough Bianca could see a similarly illuminated menu on the tray she was carrying. “You need somethin’ to wake you up?”

 

“Coffee, no sugar, as much cream as you can add before the system throws an error,” Cheren yawned.

 

The woman chuckled, tapping in the options on her tray. “Pay here, please,” she said, pointing to a circle in a corner of the tray. Cheren put his cashcard on it, and after a moment the tray beeped and glowed. There was an increased humming, enough to identify the barista’s satchel as a portable generator connected to her tray, which constructed a fresh cup of coffee. “Here you are! Enjoy!

 

“Thank you,” Cheren said, taking the drink and holding it close. As an afterthought, he grabbed and pocketed his cashcard.

 

“Um… what kinda tea you got?” Bianca asked, peering at the tray as the menu reappeared.

 

The server dragged her finger across the tray, scrolling down the menu. “Chamomile, leppa, breakfast, chai, matcha, oran…”

 

“Does that say fruit explosion?” Bianca said, pointing at one.

 

“Treat! Your! Self!” Carlotta chanted, Warren picking it up on the second round. “Treat! Your! Self! Treat! Your! Self!” Cheren didn’t remove himself from his coffee, but punched the air in sleepy solidarity.

 

“Okay,” Bianca giggled. “With sugar, please!”

 

“Coming right up,” the server said, gesturing to the payment circle.

 

Bianca’s face fell as she pulled her cashcard out of her pocket, staring at the empty balance. “Oh, right…” she mumbled.

 

“I gotcha,” Carlotta said, sticking her card on the tray. “I’m treatin’ you and you can’t stop me.”

 

“Thank you,” Bianca mumbled, going red. “I’ll pay you back soon as I can, okay?”

 

“It’s tea, B, don’t worry ‘bout it,” Carlotta said, giving her a one-armed hug and pressing the tea into her hands as soon as it was generated. “Blame my own mornin’ brain for forgettin’ you ain’t won no prize money yet. And while I’m here, I’ll have me a Power Smoothie,” she added. The server smiled, generating a second drink in an unholy orange colour. Carlotta let Bianca go to pick up both the smoothie and the card.

 

“Anything for you?” the server asked, turning to Warren. A small clock in one corner of the tray beeped and flashed. “Oop, choose quick, that’s one minute to sunup right there!”

 

“I’ll have me a chai latte,” Warren said, nodding at the tray and snatching the cashcard off of Carlotta. “Mom gave this to both of us, remember?” Carlotta stuck a bright orange tongue out at him.

 

“Here you go,” the server said, processing the transaction and handing over the resulting drink. “Enjoy the show!”

 

“Show?” Bianca asked. “We’re watchin’ a show?”

 

“Greatest show on earth,” Carlotta said, leaning against the railing and nodding at where the steadily lightening sky was slowly starting to pick out the outlines of tall buildings. Very tall buildings.

 

Bianca was distracted by craning her neck back to look up at the highest buildings, so she was completely blindsided by how low the brilliant orange light started. It was the barest slit of sunrise between two buildings that shot across the water, setting a streak the colour of fire across the river, before spilling over some lower buildings, then up, and up, like climbing steps, throwing blocks of light and colour towards them. The city seemed to have been laid out with building heights in mind, shorter buildings rising up to taller ones, then down and up again, like a manmade mountain range. The whole city was painted deep orange as the sun crept up into the sky, the light turning the gently rolling river golden.

 

“There’s a lotta beautiful places to watch the sunrise from,” Warren mused. “Lotta natural places that are gondamn gorgeous. But I think this is pretty cool in a different way. It’s so damn big, so damn pretty, an’ it’s all built by folks. People did that.”

 

“It’s beautiful,” Bianca said, wrapping her hands around her cup, only tearing her eyes away from the honey-coloured buildings when she noticed that the light was starting to roll over her fingers.

 

Carlotta leaned forwards, trailing her free arm over the railing as if to dip it in the river, instead soaking it in the dawn light that made her skin glow.

 

“Worth it,” Cheren mumbled sleepily, fumbling for one of the pokeballs on his belt. “War, can you take a photo of us for me?”

 

“Of—oh, shit, sure!” Warren said, pulling up his photo app as Cheren released Lilli the Petilil, handing his coffee to Carlotta so he could hold the tiny grass-type up in the sunlight. As soon as the sun touched her leaves, she immediately began to trill happily, extending her little limbs and her crest as far as she could to soak up more fresh sunlight. “Step left a little, there’s too much dang glare,” Warren ordered, flapping a hand. “Left, lllleeee… there! Right… Lilli! Hi! Over here!” The little Petilil looked around as her name was called, and Warren took the opportunity to snap a few pictures.

 

“We all oughta get us some snaps long as the light’s good,” Carlotta said, looking around. “’Scuse me, mister?” she called, flagging down a dark-skinned young man who was with two girls who looked like they were probably his sisters. “I’ll take a photo of the three of you if you take some of the four of us!”

 

“You got a deal, girl,” the guy said, fist-bumping her and handing his device over. Carlotta gave Cheren his coffee back so she could start playing photographer.

 

“I hope that kid likes these,” Warren said, showing the photos to Cheren. “Lilli sure seems to like it!”

 

“Photosynthesis looks like fun,” Cheren yawned, holding up Lilli so she could see too. “We all have our own ways of getting energy.” He tipped his head back, chugging the rest of his coffee in one, and promptly choking on it as Carlotta grabbed him to drag him into photography range.

 

 

 

{Reshin 22nd, 06:12}

{Castelia City}

 

Castelia City was a lot.

 

Bianca openly gaped as she clung to Carlotta’s bag strap, Cheren hanging onto her bag with one hand and Warren with the other. The four of them were making a human chain in the wake of Carlotta ploughing confidently through the streets, which even at such an early hour were thronging with tourists, joggers and early commuters. Every street corner was piled with signs pointing to various tourist attractions—galleries, cinemas, historic buildings, parks, clubs—as well as police stations, hospitals, and their target, the Pokemon Centre. It was visible from blocks away, thanks to the iconic screaming red extending over the bottom three of what transpired to be thirty stories of shops, medical units, and facilities for trainers. Cheren booked them into a four-bed dorm room while Carlotta dragged Warren and Bianca down the counter, scanning QR codes with her C-gear the whole way.

 

“We are here for fun,” she declared firmly, dismissing the digital flyers for several museums before Cheren could see them. “I’m thinkin’ the pier first—check it out!” she gasped, expanding and scrolling down an advert for prize matches on Thumb Pier.

 

“Of course you’re lookin’ at battles first,” Warren muttered, scanning the flyers for the museums Carlotta abandoned. The flyer he picked to expand, though, was a menu. “Casteliacones first. We’re early in the day, lines ain’t gonna be long.”

 

“Oooh, yeah! Says right here the line’s only twenty minutes long right now!” Carlotta agreed excitedly. “CHER! HURRY IT UP! CASTELIACONES!”

 

“What’re they?” Bianca asked, peering at the menu.

 

“Best damn ice cream in the world,” Warren explained, “an’ the recipe’s such a big gondamn secret they won’t record it for generatin’, an’ they ONLY tell family ‘bout it, so they can’t make it super fast. The line’s always out the damn door.”

 

“We’ve gone lookin’ for it every time we’ve ever visited Castelia,” Carlotta added, “but we’ve had it, what, twice?”

 

“I’ve only had it once, and we had to wait an hour,” Cheren said, speed-walking directly past them towards the door. “That wait won’t be twenty minutes for long. Let’s move!”

 

Sunlight was creeping down the sides of the skyscrapers by the time they found the Casteliacone Cafe. It was two stories, the upper being a sit-down cafe with “RESERVATIONS ONLY” in multiple languages scrolling along the bottom of the windows, and a stall selling ice cream distantly visible at the back of the lower level behind the winding queue that was already several layers deep. Most of the lower level seemed to consist of the roped-off queue route, with a sign at the front reporting the current wait time to be thirty minutes.

 

“Oh dragons,” Bianca gasped, clutching her chest as the pathway moved under their feet a little after they stepped through the doors. “It’s a movin’ pathway?”

 

“Folks can be waitin’ a long time,” Warren said, nodding to the elderly couple in front of them, who were sitting on folding stools they’d brought. “They don’t want folks messin’ up their legs waitin’, and it stops folks pushin’ too much.”

 

“Alright, since we’re gonna be here a while, quiz me on Burgh,” Carlotta demanded, turning to Cheren.

 

“I’m not a trivia machine,” Cheren said, rolling his eyes before looking from her to Bianca and asking, “alright. One badge. What will his primary team be?”

 

“Any two of Shelmet, Karrablast, Dwebble, or, uhhhh… Whirlipede,” Carlotta counted off on her fingers, “plus his signature Leavanny.” She folded her arms, looking smug about her quick answer.

 

“And your best counters will be…?” Cheren pressed.

 

“Oh, gotta be Paden, with Pijon for backup,” Carlotta said, tapping her fingers along the pokeballs on her belt. “But if he uses the Dwebble, I oughta use Thamina. Rock-type’s a bitch. What the hell are you gonna use?”

 

“Poncho for everything save the Leavanny,” Cheren mused. “It’s liable to have a grass attack, but it will definitely have a bug attack that could seriously harm Sherlock, so though it’s risky, Rocky is my best option. Hopefully, his strong defenses will protect him long enough for his high attack to crush the enemy.”

 

“Y’all better win some nice prizes at the pier to sell for potion money if you wanna tough it out,” Warren warned. “Angus an’ I can jump in all you want when you’re trainin’, but not in a gym battle.”

 

Bianca thought over the Pokemon in her mind. Bugs, huh? So“You think Tibby could handle ‘em all himself?” she asked.

 

“Ready for this, Bianca?” Carlotta asked, grinning brilliantly when Bianca drew herself up and nodded. “Cool! Yep, fire’s your friend here, but Penny’s gonna be good backup.”

 

“Mina, too—she knows Gust, right?” Cheren asked. “She might be ready for Air Cutter soon. Dwebble isn’t part of Burgh’s zero-badge lineup, so you won’t have much to worry about…”

 

They whiled away their time in the queue discussing battle strategies, grateful for their early start as the queue behind them began to spill outside the shop, beyond the moving floor and the store’s air conditioning. By the time they got to the counter and bought their cones, the sun was fully up and the air was buzzing with heat, making the chill of the ice cream as welcome as the delicious flavour as they meandered down to Thumb Pier. Bianca kept slowing down to gape at shop windows as they passed, and her friends were more than happy to join in the window-shopping, especially whenever she lingered at a clothing store.

 

“We’re takin’ you clothes shoppin’ soon as you win your first badge an’ land that prize money,” Carlotta promised.

 

“You might like the Elesa line,” Cheren added. “All of their clothing designs are gender-neutral and very colourful.”

 

“Ain’t the Elesa brand real expensive, though?” Warren pointed out.

 

“The higher-end stores, certainly, but they do have a line aimed mostly at teenagers and young adults that’s purposefully kept low-cost,” Cheren said, stifling a yawn in his hand. “I’ve got my eye on a few things myself, if we’re going clothes shopping after Burgh’s gym…”

 

“Maybe we oughta get you a nap instead,” Carlotta laughed. “Early mornin’ catchin’ up to you?”

 

“I’ve run out of ice cream, I have no more sugar to sustain me,” Cheren said, tossing his empty cup into a trash can as they passed. “Let’s get to these prize matches. I think a battle ought to wake me up.”

 

Once upon a time, when Castelia had been much smaller but growing rapidly due to being a bustling cargo port, its many piers had been constantly full of dockhands loading and unloading cargo at all hours, and many had entertained themselves by sneaking off among the huge piles of crates and sacks and barrels and betting on small Pokemon battles. The many crates and barrels sitting stacked around Thumb Pier were likely purely decorative to invoke the historical flavour of the prize matches, as the pier itself was clearly no longer hosting any ship heavier than the handful of small pleasure yachts that were tied up along its length. Several of them were close to the banner-festooned rings of the prize matches, with the yachts’ owners and their friends watching and cheering from the decks of their boats.

 

“Yeah, yeah, some of us ain’t too good to walk,” Carlotta muttered, giving the yachts a truly ferocious stink-eye. “Right, I see where we sign up!”

 

“It tiers by badges… interesting,” Cheren commented, reading the banners. “Here’s hoping we don’t wind up fighting some Kalosian tourist who’s been a society captain for a decade before coming to try the Unovan challenge…”

 

“Bring it,” Carlotta insisted, straightening her baseball cap and throwing back her shoulders before making a beeline for the sign-up stall.

 

“Good luck,” Warren said, squeezing Bianca’s arm and giving Cheren a kiss for luck before heading off to find a spot around the ring where he could watch.

 

 

{Reshin 22nd, 12:03}

{Castelia City}

 

“Yeah, yeah, laugh it up,” Carlotta grumbled as she and Cheren approached the prize stall.

 

“I will, thank you,” Cheren said smugly, brandishing his winner’s ticket. “Excuse me, but would those happen to be evolutionary stones?”

 

“Good eye! We got water, fire and leaf today,” the guy behind the counter said, gesturing to the prize sheet. “Come back tomorrow and we might have different ones, though!”

 

“Guess what!” Warren called, pulling a giddy-looking Bianca by the hand as he ran up to the stand. “Guess who I just watched own her battle!”

 

“Holy shit! Congrats, B!” Carlotta whooped, spotting the winner’s ticket in Bianca’s hand.

 

“You abandoned us to watch Bianca’s match instead?” Cheren gasped, staggering for a moment, before shrugging. “…Fair. Congratulations, Bianca!”

 

“If I wanna see you two fight, I just gotta ask which is the best Swoobatgirl an’ get outta the line of fire,” Warren pointed out. “Bianca an’ Tiberius gondamn nailed it. Who won yours, anyway? Ah,” he said, laughing as Carlotta pointed at Cheren with a grumpy expression. “Good job, Cher!”

 

“And I think I’ll take a water stone,” Cheren said, handing over his winner’s ticket. “Poncho needs it to evolve.”

 

“Maybe I oughta go sign up to fight again to get a fire stone for Paden,” Carlotta mumbled, looking covetously at the stones.

 

“Once a day, miss, but you’re welcome to come back tomorrow!” the stallholder said chirpily, handing over a translucent blue stone to Cheren in exchange for his winner’s ticket. “Better luck next time!”

 

“Oh! Is a fire stone what y’all need for Paden?” Bianca said, pointing out the stone on the sign. “You don’t gotta wait! I’ll get it!”

 

“Hey, hang on! You don’t gotta do that, Bianca,” Carlotta protested. “You oughta get somethin’ you want!”

 

“I wanna get somethin’ for you,” Bianca said, turning red but holding out her winner’s ticket anyway. “Consider it me startin’ to pay y’all back for… everythin’. Or a gift, if that’ll make ya take it, ‘cause it’s real darn rude to turn down a gift…”

 

“Yeah, mom’ll manifest right here an’ now to kick my ass if I do somethin’ that rude,” Carlotta agreed, before squealing and tacklehugging Bianca. “Thank you!”

 

“Y-you’re welcome,” Bianca stuttered, inventing whole new shades of red while the stallkeeper, shaking with the effort not to burst out laughing, exchanged her ticket for a translucent orange stone.

 

“Enjoy your prizes,” he managed, through a heroic effort of customer service professionalism, “and come back soon!”

 

“Let’s find somewhere a little quieter to let ‘em out,” Warren suggested. They headed down the pier, away from the fighting rings, until they found a docking spot that was, while marked as reserved, presently unoccupied, the yacht that should be docked there presumably carrying its occupants off on a daytrip to a nearby island or marina.

 

“Okay, Poncho,” Cheren said, releasing his Panpour. Despite having moved away from the busiest parts of the pier, the little blue Pokemon looked nervous around so many humans, chittering frantically and starting to hunch down himself, so Warren released Angus. The Audino cooed gently, and Poncho scampered behind him, hiding his head in Angus’ back.

 

“Here,” Cheren said, crouching low and holding out the stone. Pocho eyed it warily. “I wish I could make him understand how much stronger it’ll make him. He’s still so nervous all the time.”

 

“He’ll evolve when he touches it, right?” Warren pointed out. “Just let ‘im get comfortable enough to—look, he’s gettin’ curious now!”

 

Poncho was indeed edging slowly towards the stone, sniffing at it cautiously. He wouldn’t move far from Angus, though, instead leaning out farther and farther until the Audino discreetly started shuffling closer, encouraging Poncho to lean close enough to poke at the stone with a paw.

 

As soon as he touched the stone, change began rushing up his arm. His large paw began to split into fingers, which was bloodless but apparently either painful or frightening, because Poncho shrieked and started waving his arm frantically. His arm grew longer and stronger as he did so, the fringe of blue fur around his neck beginning to grow rapidly, quickly covering his whole torso. His legs and tail grew longer and stronger as the transformation finally reached his other arm and head, where the curly blue hair on the crown of his head shot out long enough to bounce on his shoulders. It took only a few seconds, but the whole time, he shrieked and flailed in distress.

 

“It’s hurtin’ him!” Bianca gasped, pressing her hands to her mouth.

 

“No, it’s not, all the books say evolution isn’t painful,” Cheren assured her. “He’s just frightened because he doesn’t understand what’s happening. He’ll calm down in a moment when he realizes.”

 

Angus was rubbing the whimpering Simipour’s back, cooing quietly to him. “Angus has ‘im,” Carlotta said, releasing Paden. “Hey, Paden, check out Poncho! Ain’t he lookin’ tough now?”

 

Paden looked confused at the sight of the new Simipour until Poncho, who was now more than a foot taller, chittered weakly, sparking a frantic series of shrieks from Paden. “Think they recognize each other?” Bianca asked.

 

“Sure they do, they can smell each other,” Warren said. Paden was indeed sniffing at Poncho, then chittering rapidly at the bigger Pokemon. “Show ‘im that Fire Stone, Carly!”

 

“Hey, Paden, check it out!” Carlotta said, imitating Cheren’s low crouch and holding out the semi-clear orange stone. “Got one for you, too! Wanna evolve?”

 

Paden looked from the stone to Poncho. The now-bigger Pokemon whimpered something, then chittered a little more loudly. The two chattered back and forth for a minute before Paden closed his eyes and reached for the Fire Stone.

 

The change spread from the point of contact as it had with Poncho, splitting his thick paw into fingers, causing red fur to spread and grow long, his thin tail suddenly exploding with plumes of curly red fur and a thick white ruff poofing out around his neck. The one plume of flamelike fur on top of his head split into multiple plumes, which were the first things he started patting interrogatively at before slowly opening his eyes.

 

“How come it didn’t look like that when none of the others evolved?” Bianca asked. “Not all… in bits like that?”

 

“The other evolutions you’ve seen are ones that happen as a result of a Pokemon building up sufficient quantities of a unique development hormone not present in humans,” Cheren explained.

 

“A buncha different hormones, actually, dependin’ on the species,” Warren put in. Cheren bowed to gesture Warren forwards to take over the explanation. “Sorry, I’m buttin’ in.”

 

“You’re the one studying to be a Pokemon physician,” Cheren pointed out. “Have at it.”

 

“Anyway, most species have a buncha small developments ‘fore one big one that’s the sorta official transition point, like from bein’ a Pidove to a Tranquill,” Warren explained. “In that case, it’s growin’ the crest that shows maturity, but you notice ‘em steadily gettin’ bigger before that. But some Pokemon evolve ‘cause of gettin’ exposed to certain kindsa radiation. You don’t hafta rub the stone all over their body or anythin’, it’s just contact with a li’l bit flips the body’s response an’ it spreads cell to cell, like… cancer, I guess, except a good thing. It ain’t hurtin’ ‘em, it ain’t makin’ ‘em sick…”

 

“Even though it’s radiation?” Bianca said, eying the stones nervously.

 

“Don’t do nothin’ to humans,” Warren promised her, “and don’t do nothin’ bad to Pokemon. Don’t do nothin’ to most species, just a few, and I don’t know why it gets the ones it does. Ain’t studied it that deep yet. But see? They’re doin’ fine!”

 

Paden and Poncho were poking at each other’s new fur and longer limbs curiously, while Angus smiled and clapped. “Think we can compete again?” Carlotta said, eying the fighting rings with a grin.

 

“First, we’re feedin’ those two, ‘cause they need a lot of energy an’ they ain’t gonna feel quite right if we just throw ‘em in a healin’ machine,” Warren said. “Then… we did your thing. Somebody else’s thing next, got it?”

 

“Hmmm… well, I know this sort of thing isn’t for everybody,” Cheren said, opening up some of the flyers he’d downloaded on his c-gear, “but there is a big art exhibit up in the Castle Gallery. Specifically, the focus is Myths of Unova,” he added, looking at Bianca. “Artwork focusing on various gods and legendary beings. It’s cheap entry for students, and it’s supposed to be quite an impressive exhibit.”

 

“Ooooh, sounds real cool!” Bianca said excitedly. “Y’all up for that?”

 

“If it’s a gallery, it oughta be quieter than the rest of this dang city, which is the part I like,” Warren said, returning Angus. “Carly? You gonna behave yourself?”

 

“Hey, Burgh’s showin’ some stuff there too, right?” she said, returning Paden as Cheren returned Poncho. “Might be able to impress him inta bookin’ us in for matches personally!”

 

“…Sure, why not,” Cheren sighed, clicking the map on the flyer to show them the route. “Let’s keep our eyes out for places we can buy Pokemon food on the way.”

 

 

 

{Reshin 22nd, 12:32}

{Castelia City}

 

The Castle Gallery didn’t look like much from the outside, just another tall construction of steel and glass, but on the inside the lobby was warmly decorated, with wood paneling beneath replica tapestries depicting ancient knights battling alongside and against armour-clad Pokemon.

 

“Good afternoon! Konnichiwa! Buenos tardes! Xiàwǔ hǎo! Guten tag!” the girl behind the desk rattled off in a sing-song tone.

 

“Good afternoon! Four for the exhibition, please,” Cheren said, digging in his pockets as he approached the counter. “We’re high school students.”

 

“Do you have student IDs or trainer cards?” the girl asked. They all handed their trainer cards over. “Thank you! Okay, there’s your total,” she said, gesturing to a payment patch on the counter. As soon as Carlotta paid, a QR code showed up on the counter. “There’s a map of the exhibition, and details about each of the pieces! Please enjoy yourselves!”

 

“Thank you,” Cheren said politely, scanning the code. “I’ll pay you back later,” he promised Carlotta, who just shrugged.

 

“Thank you very much!” Bianca said, taking off her hat and bobbing a quick curtsy to the clerk on the way past.

 

The main hall was large, perhaps three stories tall, with angled glass windows high above filling the quiet space with light. The walls were painted in stripes of black and white to contrast with the paintings displayed on them, and the floor was also black and white in large squares, like a chessboard.

 

“The whole room’s dedicated to Reshiram and Zekrom, shockingly enough,” Cheren said, checking the guidebook he’d downloaded on his c-gear. “The freestanding statues and statuettes—” he gestured to an apparently haphazard set of statues standing out on the floor—”are laid out like chess pieces. They’re all kings, queens or generals associated with the Tao Wars, positioned according to notable traits or strengths of theirs, with the kings being Eduard and Dilwyn, naturally.”

 

“What’re the other rooms?” Bianca asked, glancing around. “This one feels too much like bein’ in church…”

 

“Fair,” Warren allowed. “How ‘bout the Swords of Justice? There a room ‘bout them?”

 

“Of course,” Cheren said, leading the way. “The whole room’s a triptych of Cobalion, Terrakion and Virizion, laid out in a representation of the Battle of White Forest, where the White King’s forces ultimately prevailed despite the Swords of Justice inflicting terrible casualties on both sides. Cobalion is in the centre, representing the position King Dilwyn led from, Virizion on the right to represent the way the forest was on his right flank, where the Swords of Justice attacked from, and Terrakion on the left, representing the left flank attack that enveloped King Eduard’s forces…”

 

“Oh, ain’t this one gorgeous,” Bianca cooed, gravitating to a small painting on the end of the Virizion section.

 

“Nineteenth century… the flowers around the bottom of the picture aren’t painted, they’re real pressed and preserved flowers. That’s why the painting seems so chunky,” Cheren explained.

 

Cheren continued to provide commentary from the guidemap he’d downloaded as they wandered around the paintings. The rooms were mostly laid out aesthetically rather than by artist or time period, arranged around some titanic centrepiece painting or statue at least ten feet tall. Many of the older paintings had climate-controlled protective cases around them, but there were newer pieces too, more than a few by Burgh himself.

 

“Hey, that’s it!” Carlotta said excitedly, pointing out a painting with patches of colour so vivid that they overwhelmed the eyes too much to notice the darkness of the rest of the painting. It looked black at first, but on closer inspection, several areas that were different colours, all so dark that they looked black next to the eye-searing blues, oranges, greens and purples of the bright areas. “Burgh got real famous for that one, ‘fore he was a leader.”

 

“What is it?” Bianca asked, tilting her head and squinting. “What’re all those shapes?”

 

“Well, they’re real abstract, you, uh—I guess you kinda gotta know what they are already to recognize ‘em,” Carlotta said, sticking her hands in her pockets and looking up at the painting. “He’s usually got it hangin’ in a protective case in ‘is gym, so I’ve seen it on TV plenty, just never in person before. It’s these three native weather gods—can’t remember the names, but they’re wind, thunder an’ earthquakes. That one up there, it’s sorta humanoid but also lotsa real thin, sharp strands, like lightnin’, right? And that one’s real big but blurry ‘round all the edges like it’s shakin’, like an earthquake?”

 

“Oh, I get it, that one, all them brush strokes look like the wind!” Bianca said excitedly. “Wow, Carly, you didn’t need the guidebook or nothin’!”

 

“She ain’t an art buff, it’s just this one paintin’,” Warren ribbed his sister, who elbowed him affectionately.

 

“Even so, your passion for this painting is very evident, young lady. If you don’t mind my saying, it’s very impressive.”

 

“Uh, thanks,” Carlotta said in surprise as they all turned to the patron who was standing a few feet behind them. She was a startlingly tall, striking woman wearing a ribbon-festooned dress in an eye-searing shade of pink under a black corset. She smiled at them, blinking slowly. Her eyes were odd, almost a little too large for her face, and she must have been wearing some kind of colour contacts that blew up her pupils and grey irises until her eyes were dark from edge to edge. She either had abnormally long legs, too, or more likely was wearing very high platform shoes under her floor-brushing pink skirt. “Sorry, was I gettin’ loud there? I get too loud for libraries an’ museums an’ stuff sometimes.”

 

“Not at all, I just happened to be approaching this painting myself in time to hear your description,” she woman said. She spoke Unovan with a trace of an accent, though it was unidentifiable. “To be so interested in Burgh and his work, and this piece specifically… are you trainers?”

 

“Guilty as charged,” Cheren said. “Are you?”

 

“Oh, yes,” the woman said with a smile. “I do enjoy Burgh’s work. He paints in a very modern style, but takes his inspiration from older sources that many modern artists forget, which is why I believe his art has its place amongst the many ancient works here. Young lady who knows this painting so well, I assume you also know why much of the painting is dark and formless?”

 

“Oh, yeah… well, you see them three weather gods?” Carlotta said, looking back up at the painting. “So, there used to be twelve of ‘em, way back when ‘fore colonization. One for each of the Twelve Great Tribes, tha’s a whole thing we’re gonna hafta bring you up to speed on while fixin’ how badly your Taotri school fucked up your history… pardon my Kalosian, ma’am,” she added, a little embarrassed, to the stranger.

 

“Consider it pardoned,” the woman chuckled, covering her mouth with her long sleeves as she laughed. “The historical context is very important.”

 

“Anyways…” Carlotta coughed. “Twelve tribes, each had a different weather god that was theirs.‘Cept then, y’know, the settlers happened, an’ the civil war, an’, uh, a lotta stuff… Anyways, seven of them twelve tribes still exist, but only three of the gods. All the rest of them dark shapes are all them dead gods.”

 

“Their gods… can die?” Bianca whispered in shock. “Didn’t know gods could do that.”

 

“Nah, didn’t figure your folks would be big on that kinda idea,” Warren said, shrugging. “There’s lotsa faiths where gods can or have died, though it don’t always stick. But in this case, it’s a real big deal. Do we even know names of them dead gods?” he asked Cheren. “I think I remember somethin’ about it bein’ a real private thing…”

 

“A few of their names were completely lost when the tribe they were patron of was wiped out,” Cheren explained. “Some of the remaining tribes have also lost a lot of information about their gods, because colonization caused massive cultural disruption, preventing stories and traditions from being passed down. All of them have many epithets, but traditionally their true names were known only by a tribe’s wise man or woman, the only one who would have any direct communication with the god in question, and to this day, the surviving tribes keep whatever they’ve managed to preserve or recover on the subject of these twelve very private.”

 

“Hey, it’s their faith, up to them what they do with it, though I gotta admit to bein’ pretty damn curious about them dead gods,” Carlotta mused. “We about on the money, ma’am?” she asked the stranger, who started clapping.

 

“And they say children today don’t care for the arts or history,” she laughed. “You cannot blame the original peoples of Unova for taking care with their surviving gods. Do you know what it is that killed them?”

 

“Well, the cultural imperialism of—” Cheren began, but the woman held up a hand.

 

“Not what wiped out people’s knowledge of them,” she clarified. “Do you know what it was that slaughtered the gods themselves in combat?”

 

“Uhhhhh… y’mean, literally killed ‘em?” Warren asked uncertainly. “’Cause I never heard stories ‘bout that…”

 

“I am sure you have heard stories, but they do tend to warp over time,” the woman said, looking sadly up at the painting. “And of course, people looking from the outside in are always looking for the allegory, the pattern, not the unsettling reality that death is cold and meaningless more often than not, even for gods.” She blinked slowly when she saw their expressions, then bowed her head. “Forgive me. I have a great interest in mythology myself, but my interests do tend towards the macabre.”

 

“They, uh… sure do,” Carlotta said. “Though, damn, I really wanna know more ‘bout whatever it was killin’ gods, now. Must’ve been a hell of a fight.”

 

“Hell is a good descriptor for a true war,” the woman said quietly. “I am going to move on to view the exhibits for Cobalion, Terrakion and Virizion. Thank you for allowing me to intrude on your visit for this long.” She bowed formally. “Do enjoy the remainder of your visit.”

 

“Oh! Wait, ma’am, you said you’re real into mythology, right?” Bianca said, digging into her bag and withdrawing the small sculpture she’d purchased in Nuvema. “Do you know much ‘bout this one?”

 

“Ahhh… quite rare for anybody to know of this one,” the woman said, her long fingers ghosting around the figurine without ever quite touching it. “Where did you come by it? Or did you just buy the statue because you find it cute?”

 

“I mean, it is real cute, but, uh… well, I saw it,” Bianca said insistently. “I mean it, I saw it! That actual Pokemon, real life!”

 

“I believe you, young lady, and I envy your good fortune,” the woman said with a smile. “This one is something of a modern myth, an urban legend, perhaps. Little is known of this one, not even their name. There are only theories, if you are interested.”

 

“Yes, I’m interested!” Bianca said excitedly. “What do you think it is?”

 

“Do you know why Cobalion is the leader of their kin?” the woman asked, holding up three fingers. “Because Cobalion was born first. Then, later, Terrakion joined Cobalion to fight at their side, and later still came Virizion. I see no reason why a fourth could not come along, in due time, when needed, do you?”

 

“Huh… I guess it do kinda look like ‘em,” Warren said thoughtfully. “I mean, same kinda general shape, y’know?”

 

“It’s true that there is a large stagger between myths of Cobalion, Terrakion and Virizion first appearing,” Cheren commented. “But adding a new god to old stories would be… weird.”

 

“They are not gods, merely immortal divine warriors,” the woman said, smoothing her skirt. “Let us hope they are simply passing through, rather than massing for battle. Good fortune in your gym challenges, children.” With that, she turned and walked off into the triptych room, a ruffly split in her skirt revealing that, yes, she really was wearing extremely high platform shoes.

 

“See, this is why I don’t go to art galleries,” Carlotta said to Cheren once she was out of the room. “Art folks are nice but gondamn weird.”

 

“You don’t go to galleries ‘cause they throw you out for bein’ loud,” Warren said, glancing anxiously in the direction the woman had gone in case she’d heard them and then dragging Carlotta away. “Let’s go see them Victini figures, get y’all some luck for fightin’ Burgh, how ‘bout that?”

Chapter Text

{Reshin 22nd, 20:43pm}

{Castelia City}

 

“Too many folks in this city,” Carlotta grumbled. They were finally making their way back to the Pokemon Centre after hours of exploring Castelia City, but even as the sun was just setting, the streets were no less busy. “Scuse me! ‘Scuse—hey!”

 

“Hey, careful!” Bianca gasped as somebody jostled her hard as they rushed past. She would’ve fallen if it weren’t for Carlotta and Warren’s grip on her arms.

 

“We gotcha, B,” Carlotta promised, glaring at the two in hoodies who’d pushed her as the pair shouldered their way through the complaining foot traffic.

 

Cheren suddenly started pushing ahead, shouting, “HEY! HEY!”

 

Warren reached after his boyfriend, sighing, “Leave it, Cher, they’re just—”

 

“THEY TOOK HER BAG!” Cheren shouted, vanishing as he ducked and weaved through the crowd in pursuit.

 

“What? Oh, no!” Bianca gasped, pawing at her shoulders and then looking around at the ground in desperation. Her bright green bag was nowhere to be seen.

 

“MOTHERFUCKERS!” Carlotta bellowed, shoving the crowds aside as she took off in pursuit.

 

“C’mon,” Warren said, pulling Bianca by the arm to follow in Carlotta’s wake. “’Scuse me, folks, sorry ‘bout her, chasin’ a thief, sorry, sorry, sorry ‘bout this—”

 

Bianca had no idea where they were. She tried to keep track of landmarks, buildings that she recognized near the Pokemon Centre, but it was hard enough just to keep up with Warren and keep track of Carlotta as the angry brunette forged on ahead. She had to hope that Carlotta could keep track of Cheren, and that he, in turn, could keep track of the bag thieves.

 

Everything I got in the world’s in that bag! My clothes, my trainer card, my Pokemon--

 

They finally started gaining some ground as they headed down a quieter side street, just in time to see Carlotta barreling through a doorway on the other side. The sign above it stated that the building was a clinic for abused and abandoned Pokemon, and that it was already closed for the day.

 

“Cher! Carly!” Warren shouted, running through the door. Cheren had already released Sherlock and was facing down a horde of small, low, black-and-brown Pokemon with long jaws full of sharp teeth. Carlotta released Thamina to join him, the hulking Gurdurr immediately wading in without waiting for directions when she saw that two of the enemy Pokemon had clamped down on Sherlock’s long green tail.

 

“Drop the bag now, and I won’t kick your ass once Thamina an’ Sherlock’ve whipped your Sandile!” Carlotta yelled, punching a fist into her palm threateningly. “Thamina, Low Kick!”

 

“I’m callin’ the cops,” Warren gasped, leaning with his hands on his knees for a moment while he caught his breath before dialing on his c-gear. “Hello? Police, please, there’s been a robbery…”

 

As soon as Thamina had beat the brown toothy Pokemon back, Cheren yelled, “Sherlock, Leaf Tornado!”. Now with some space, Sherlock spun, shedding leaves that he flicked up into a whirlwind that shot across the room, sending the Sandile flying and even nicking at the humans in hoodies cowering by the door.

 

One of them curled around Bianca’s bag protectively. “We’re not giving you back these Pokemon so you can abuse them!” she yelled.

 

“I ain’t abusin’ ‘em! They’re my Pokemon!” Bianca gasped, feeling her heart clench. “I love ‘em so much… please, don’t take ‘em…”

 

“Don’t worry, B, they ain’t gonna,” Carlotta promised, stalking menacingly towards the thieves as Thamina and Sherlock finished off knocking out the struggling enemy Pokemon. “Hammer throw under-18s regional champion, here, folks, hittin’ the nationals next year. I can an’ will punch you so hard you’ll shit your own teeth out. So you handin’ that bag over easy, or am I pickin’ it up off the floor after puttin’ you down?”

 

“What do we do?” one of the thieves whispered.

 

“We can’t give them back! Look what they’ve done to our Sandile!” the other one whispered, looking stricken. “Are you really going to beat us up to steal these Pokemon?!”

 

“We can’t steal what isn’t yours,” Cheren pointed out.

 

“An’ the cops are on their way,” Warren added, looking from Carlotta to the thieves in concern, like he couldn’t decide whether or not to hold her back. “If y’all had anywhere to run, I figure you woulda run there already.”

 

“It’s locked,” the thief holding Bianca’s bag muttered, jiggling the handle of the only door behind them. “Why is it locked?! Rood said—”

 

“Less muttering, more handing!” Carlotta yelled, shoving one thief aside and grabbing the slashed strap of Bianca’s bag from the other.

 

“Carly, WATCH OUT!” Warren yelled as the thief she’d shoved aside pulled a knife out of his pocket, grabbing Carlotta’s shoulder from behind.

 

“Sherlock, Vine—!” Cheren began, but didn’t get to finish before there was a green blur and the thief with the knife was pinned to the wall by a green, spindly Pokemon nearly as tall as he was. Everybody froze, including Thamina, who had already begun swinging her metal club and was now looking from the club to the skinny green Pokemon with a confused expression.

 

What is all this, and why on earth is it happening across from my gym?” a voice called as a tall man with wavy brown hair strode into the room. He looked around the room, tapping a long, pale finger against his chin thoughtfully. “Well, well… if I guess correctly, and pay attention to my police scanner, I’d say there’s been a theft, and you’re fighting it out between yourselves instead of waiting on the police. Well, that’s what trainers do. Care to share details, kids?”

 

“Oh! Th-they stole my bag! My Pokemon are inside!” Bianca gasped, since Cheren, Carlotta and Warren just seemed to be gaping. “When we chased ‘em down to get it back, they attacked us! Cheren an’ Carly were just defendin’ us! I just want my Pokemon back…” She wiped angry tears out of her eyes.

 

“That true, folks?” the man asked, looking around the room.

 

“Y-yessir!” Carlotta said, snapping to attention and even saluting. “We told ‘em to hand ‘em over, but since they didn’t—”

 

“We won’t return these Pokemon to abusive trainers!” the woman clutching the bag yelled again, not one to let go of a favourite argument even if it did also count as a confession to theft.

 

“Abusive trainers? Let’s see…” the man walked over to Sherlock, holding a hand out to the Servine. Sherlock looked to Cheren, who nodded, then allowed the man to run a hand down his back. “Good healthy coat on this one, clearly getting plenty of water. Doesn’t flinch when approached by the hand of a stranger, and even trusts in his trainer’s judgment of strangers. Does that sound like abuse to you? Assuming you’ve had any training. Or did you run into an abuse shelter at random?” He turned to Thamina, who looked warier, but lowered her club when Sherlock chittered something at her. “Hmmm. More guarded, but still capable of bonds of trust. And she’s healthy, from what I know of fighting-types. Afraid I can’t check over all these poor Sandile…” He carefully stepped over one of the unconscious Pokemon with a sigh. “Now, you were definitely leveraging a knife at this young lady when Lilac and I came in here, and you appear to be clutching a bag with a strap that’s been cut, and you’re both wearing such tacky but feature-concealing hoodies…”

 

“They’re trainers,” the woman clutching the bag whined. “Pokemon training is abuse!”

 

“And you are…?” the man asked, looking over the unconscious Pokemon with a raised eyebrow as he picked his way over to the woman. “Well, I am a gym leader, so I’m sure you’ll hate me, but more relevant is that if I see any more knives, I do have five more of my very best waiting to veritably leap into the fray…” He rolled another pokeball over his fingers. “So. Return the young lady’s Pokemon, and I’ll put a good word with the police for you, hmmm?”

 

“…This isn’t right,” the woman mumbled, slumping. “We’re liberating Pokemon…”

 

Carlotta yanked the bag out of her hands. “Stealin’,” she corrected, turning back to the gym leader. “Wow, Burgh… it’s, uh, a real honour…”

 

“Charmed,” Burgh promised, returning her salute from before with a wink. “Not that I disrespect your passionate defense of your friend, dear, but you really should let the police handle this sort of thing once self-defense is out of the way. They wear such lovely stab-resistant jackets, you see.” Carlotta turned red, this time out of embarrassment. “Now, miss, can you just give this a little check to make sure everything’s inside?” he continued, walking over to Bianca and handing the bag over.

 

Bianca unzipped the side pocket with her pokeballs in it first, releasing Tiberius, Wilhelmina and Penny. “You’re okay!” she cried in relief, scooping up Tiberius and peppering his warm snout with kisses, then reaching out an arm to snuggle Mina too. The Woobat immediately gave her a big nose-kiss to the cheek, while Tiberius looked around, squeaking in a confused way. Penny tilted her head back and forth, before pecking curiously at one of the unconscious Sandile.

 

“Better return ‘em, there’s the police,” Warren said warningly as red and blue lights flashed through the window. “That… ain’t a good reaction time…”

 

“It is for this city,” Burgh mused. “It’s those busy streets, you know, awful to get through. It’s why I try to keep an ear out myself for what’s happening in the area. Your friend’s right, you ought to return your Pokemon. Are any of you injured?”

 

“No, sir,” Cheren said, returning Sherlock. Carlotta and Bianca also returned their Pokemon, though Carlotta kept one hand on the arm of the woman she’d grabbed, who couldn’t take her eyes anxiously off of her partner, still pinned to the wall by Burgh’s Pokemon. “You were listening to a police scanner? Is that legal?”

 

“Well, it’s not exactly illegal until you commit a crime with it,” Burgh said with a wink as a couple of police officers ran through the door. “Evening, officers!”

 

 

 

{Reshin 22nd, 23:38}

{Castelia City}

 

“Sleep, now,” Cheren ordered as soon as they stepped into their four-bed dorm room. “Just shuck off your shoes and get into bed now, fitting in adequate sleep before our battles in the morning is more important than pyjamas.”

 

“Maybe we ought not’ve accepted,” Bianca fretted, twisting her hat in her hands as she sat down on one of the lower bunks and toed her shoes off. “I mean, winnin’ that battle today felt real good, but I don’t know if I’m really—”

 

“You’re ready for your first badge, B,” Carlotta promised, gently but firmly taking Bianca’s hat as she hauled herself up the bunk ladder, pausing at the top to kick her own trainers haphazardly to the floor before hanging both hers and Bianca’s hats off the top of the bunkbed. “Cher’s right. Stop worryin’ and sleep. Big day today, big day tomorrow!”

 

Giving their statements had taken time. The officers who’d escorted them and the two thieves to the police station had promised that it would be quick, as the case seemed fairly open-and-shut, until Cheren had recalled one of the thieves mentioning that they’d expected the door to be unlocked on the promise of someone called Rood. That had caused a flurry of activity, a re-taking of statements with emphasis on what they recalled the thieves saying, and an extended amount of time waiting around while the thieves were being interrogated, until Burgh was released from his own interrogation.

 

“A Mr Carmine Rood is the manager of that particular abuse shelter, you see,” the leader had explained. “As well as the General Manager of several others… and a member of the Plasma Foundation. Somewhat suspicious if such thieves are in the Plasma Foundation’s employ, ‘rescuing’ abused Pokemon by stealing them from trainers… Now, you’re all here to challenge my gym, I understand?”

 

“Yes, of course,” Cheren had replied. “When can we book matches?”

 

“Well, usually there’s quite a waiting list, as my gym is the first stop for an awful lot of tourists and locals,” Burgh had said thoughtfully, “but I have some things I can cancel in the morning to fit you in. These two might be responsible for quite a number of bag thefts of late, so I do believe every trainer around here owes you a debt of gratitude if they’re captured because of you.”

 

“Thank you, sir!” Carlotta had said excitedly. “We’ll be there the minute your doors open!”

 

“Nine o’clock, then! I shall see you there,” Burgh had said with a smile. “And don’t plan anything afterwards. There’s something I’d like to talk to you four about… but only after we battle!”

 

Despite Cheren’s insistence on sleep, Bianca’s brain was buzzing too much to let her rest. She rolled back and forth restlessly, repeatedly catching herself staring at her bag in the darkness. Tepig, Woobat, Pidove—maybe Tranquill if we get up early enough for a mornin’ trainin’ session. I can do it. I got advantages, I got the best shot outta all of us. But it’s too soon—what if I ain’t ready? I thought I was ready for the gym in Striation, and

 

She curled up at that, the memory of Lilith falling limp on the ground hitting her like a physical blow, tears pricking at her eyes and spilling over as fear turned the image of Lilith’s limp corpse into Penny, into Mina, into Tiberius…

 

By the time Cheren’s alarm went off, she hadn’t had any sleep at all, but all the anxiety thrumming in her veins had her too wired to feel it as they all got up and started digging out hair brushes and clean socks.

 

 

 

{Reshin 23rd, 09:00}

{Castelia City}

 

“Hey, Cheren, you know everythin’,” Carlotta said, folding her arms and tipping her head as she looked at what was in front of them. “What the fuck am I lookin’ at?”

 

Burgh’s gym was situated in an art gallery that he owned and operated, and the lobby looked broadly similar to the lobby of the Castle Gallery—though in green and cream instead of black and white—but as soon as they stepped into the gallery proper, they were faced with an odd sight. To their left and right were a sampling of paintings of various bug-type Pokemon on flowers, but directly in front was some kind of yellow, seeping wall.

 

“Errrr… I don’t know,” Cheren said, for once at a loss for words. He poked uncertainly at the wobbling mass of gold. “It smells like honey, but the consistency is… I don’t know what.”

 

“Maybe there’s another door for the gym?” Bianca suggested, sniffing the wall of honey.

 

“Naw, Burgh makes a real big deal ‘bout expectin’ trainers to get a li’l art in ‘em ‘fore havin’ a battle…” Carlotta said, checking her c-gear. “Oh, here it is… other folks sayin’ it ain’t really honey an’ you can walk through it. It’s some kinda performance art piece ‘bout the struggles of bein’ a trainer…”

 

“’How sweet the struggle’,” Cheren groaned, reading a placard on the wall. “Wasn’t that an old song?”

 

“Probably,” Warren said, pushing at the honey wall. “It’s… some kinda gel? Whoa!” he yelped as he abruptly fell through, vanishing on the other side.

 

“Warren!” Carlotta and Cheren yelled at the same time. Carlotta moved first, pushing through the honey and vanishing after her brother. “We’re okay!” she called a moment later, muffled by the honey. “Not even damp! Warren’s right, it’s some kinda weird gel!”

 

“Well, then, let’s go,” Cheren said, bowing and offering to let Bianca go first.

 

“Okaaaayyyy…” Bianca said uncertainly, pushing into the dripping gold. It felt cold and damp, but didn’t leave her hands wet, and though it was extremely hard to push through at first, suddenly it became so easy that she fell forwards, and would have landed on her face if Carlotta hadn’t caught her.

 

“Gotcha!” Carlotta cheered. “Cheren, c’mon through!”

 

“I’m… here,” Cheren grunted, stumbling and clinging to Warren as his boyfriend caught him. “Right. Now that we’re through that nonsense…”

 

“Sorry to say that it looks like we ain’t,” Carlotta said, gesturing down the corridor ahead of them that was lined with paintings. At the far end, another wall of wobbling gold could be seen.

 

Cheren cursed under his breath. “Let’s get this over with,” he muttered, straightening up and striding towards the honey.

 

A few minutes and two more honey walls later and they found themselves in a large, airy space that had battlefield markings on the floor but also generous splatterings of paint, clay and silk. Burgh himself had his sleeves rolled up and was intently detailing the shadows on a leaf in the upper corner of an otherwise empty canvas, only looking up with a bright smile when Carlotta whistled.

 

“Ah, you found your way through!” the gym leader said, sliding down the ladder he was standing on and setting his palette and brush on a side bench. “I thought about leaving a note at the front desk, but you know, for traveling trainers, curiosity and the the courage to charge right in are valuable traits, so I decided to leave you to it! Don’t you all smell delightful!”

 

“Sir?” Warren said, raising a hand. “I gotta ask… what the sugar honey iced tea?”

 

Burgh sighed. “Alas, nobody appreciates performance art these days. Never mind, I didn’t invite you here to workshop my next exhibition! You’re here for badges!”

 

“We are!” Carlotta said exuberantly. “B, you ready to go first?”

 

“What?! M-me?” Bianca said anxiously. “I-I ain’t sure—”

 

“You are ready, Bianca,” Cheren assured her, putting a hand on her shoulder, “and the longer you wait, the more you will work yourself up with anxiety. Better to go first and prove to yourself that you can do it—and you can, this morning’s training showed that. With your team, you have the best chance of the three of us.”

 

“That’s the way!” Burgh said brightly, pressing a button on his c-gear. “One of my students will be here momentarily to referee our grand match! Would you care to share your name and number of badges?”

 

“I…” Bianca looked from Warren to Carlotta to Cheren, all of whom smiled and nodded at her, Cheren patting her shoulder before dropping his hand. “…I’m Bianca D’Artagnan, and this is my… my first badge.”

 

“Very well! First badge team it is!” Burgh said, pulling two pokeballs out of a drawer on his workbench as a young man in a paint-splattered apron appeared and began pulling a sheet over the canvas Burgh had been working on to protect it. “Ah, Rick! Referee, won’t you? Miss D’Artagnan’s here for her first badge!”

 

“Sure,” the young man said, rubbing his eyes sleepily before cracking his shoulders and making his way to the referee box where it was barely visible under a spill of bright blue paint. “Is the Leader ready?”

 

“All present and correct!” Burgh sang, bouncing over to his designated box.

 

“Is the challenger ready?” Rick called, looking at Bianca, who tried not to tremble or stumble as she stepped into her own box.

 

“R-ready!” she squeaked, gripping Tiberius’ pokeball.

 

“The Leader has two Pokemon and may not switch; the challenger may use up to six and switch at any time,” Rick announced. “A Pokemon is out when it is no longer able to battle, and when that is is at my discretion. This gym operates a no-kill policy, so any deliberate fatal strikes on the part of either the challenger or the Leader will end the battle and result in a forfeit on the part of the offender, understood?”

 

“Understood!” Burgh called.

 

“R-really?” Bianca said excitedly, her anxiety lifting somewhat. “Sure! I mean, understood!”

 

“Then begin!” Rick called.

 

“Go, Vinca!” Burgh sang, releasing a squat red-and-green armoured-looking bug. “It’s his first battle, too,” he added with a wink to Bianca.

 

“Okay… go, Tiberius!” Bianca shouted, throwing out her Tepig’s pokeball. “A-and use Flame Charge!”

 

“Ooooohhhh dear… Protect, Vinca!” Burgh commanded. The armoured bug rolled up tight and as Tiberius charged him, wreathed in flames, he bounced off some kind of invisible shield before even hitting the armour.

 

“You’re okay, Bianca! It’s just Protect, remember?” Cheren shouted.

 

“No intervention from observers!” Rick called, rolling his eyes.

 

Just Protect… it don’t work too good if used more’n once, Bianca remembered. Cheren had spent the morning’s training drilling them on strategies that the Leader was likely to use, and she remembered him going on for a while about the success rate of Protect. She didn’t remember most of that, but she remembered that the more Protect was used, the less it worked. “It’s okay, Tibby! Keep goin’! Use Flame Charge again!” she shouted.

 

Tiberius rolled back onto his trotters, shook himself off, and charged again, more flames springing up around his body as he barreled into the enemy again.

 

“Protect again!” Burgh shouted. His Pokemon curled up again, but this time the invisible shield never materialized, and Tiberius hit him like a tiny fireball, slamming him back across the field in his own ball of fire to finally uncurl in a smoking heap at Burgh’s feet.

 

“Unconscious, poor bug,” Burgh sighed. “That can’t have been fun for a first battle…”

 

“Burgh’s Venipede is unable to battle!” Rick called. “Please choose your second Pokemon!”

 

“You got this, B!” Carlotta hooted.

 

“Well done!” Warren called. “You’re halfway there!”

 

“Good job, Tibby!” Bianca cheered. Tiberius turned around, squeaking and wiggling his snout happily when he saw Bianca clapping and smiling.

 

“Go, Sage!” Burgh called, releasing his second Pokemon. It looked something like the slim green creature he’d had with him the night before, but curled up in a small, green, ball of huff. It frowned and grumbled when it saw Tiberius. “String Shot, Sage!”

 

“Flame Charge, Tibby!” Bianca commanded. Tiberius started to charge, but before he could build up much speed or fire, he was almost drowned in a spray of sticky white string from the grumpy bug sitting in front of Burgh. “C’mon, Tibby! Break out!” Bianca called frantically as the little orange Pokemon desperately flailed, attempting to pull his trotters free.

 

“Now, Tackle!” Burgh called. Surprisingly fast, Sage rolled up into a green ball and barreled into Tiberius, somehow avoiding sticking to any of the messy white string that was pinning Tiberius down. Tiberius yelled in pain as he was bowled over on his side, then started squealing in distress as he was unable to get back up again.

 

Ohhhh, nooo… nononononono! Bianca clasped her hands to her mouth, trying not to panic. He ain’t gettin’ out… what do I do, what do I do?!

 

“Bianca! Breathe!” Warren shouted. “You got this! You an’ your team got this!”

 

My team… my team! “Ummm… th-the challenger can change Pokemon, right?” Bianca called, waving at Rick.

 

“The challenger is permitted to make substitutions!” Rick called back with a nod.

 

Bianca scrambled for Tiberius’ pokeball. “Return, Tibby!” she called, clicking the button and breathing a sigh of relief as Tiberius vanished from under the string. “Ummm… okay, go, Penny!” she called, throwing out her Tranquill. “Stay up in the air!” she yelled, pointing up.

 

“String Shot! Bring it down, Sage!” Burgh commanded. Sage sprayed string up into the air, but Penny deftly wove and dodged around the shots, staying aloft and untagged.

 

“Okay, Gust!” Bianca shouted. Penny dove around another String Shot and then flicked her wings forwards, sending a blast of air that bowled Sage back. “Great! Now Quick Attack!” she yelled excitedly.

 

“Razor Leaf!” Burgh shouted, but before Sage could release any attacks, Penny slammed into the bug, sending him rolling backwards again. By the time he got back upright, he looked grumpier than ever, and the leaves he shot out missed by a mile.

 

“Gust!” Bianca called again. Penny flicked her wings, this time producing a strong enough blast of wind to knock Sage into the air. Burgh didn’t wait for Rick to call it, returning his bug before he hit the ground.

 

“The Leader has recalled his Swadloon!” Rick called. “The winner is the challenger, Bianca D’artagnan!”

 

“I won?” Bianca gasped.

 

“YOU WON!” Carlotta yelled, tacklehugging Bianca from behind and swinging her off her feet in a circle. “Knew you could do it, B! You got yourself a badge!”

 

“Congratulations!” Warren laughed. “And congrats to you too, Penny!” he called, waving up at that Tranquill, who was flying in circles around the high ceiling of the room, watching events below curiously.

 

“Congratulations, Miss D’artagnan!” Burgh said, giving her a big thumbs-up. “Would you like your badge now, or would you like to wait and see how your friends do?”

 

“Oh, I’ll wait! Y’all better win so we can all get our badges together!” Bianca said, pointing a finger at Cheren and clutching at Carlotta’s amazingly solid arms with her other hand.

 

“You’d better return your Tranquill so the next challenger can step up, Miss D’Artagnan,” Rick called. “Who’s up next?”

 

“Alright, Cher, let’s do this,” Carlotta said, setting Bianca down so the blonde could return her Tranquill and holding out a fist. Cheren sighed, holding out his own fist. “Rock, paper, scissors, one, two, THREE!”

Chapter Text

{Reshin 23rd, 10:01}

{Castelia City}

 

The Leavanny crashed to the ground amidst a chorus of cheers from what Rick had started addressing as ‘the gondamn chorus’. “Two down, one to go, Carly!” Warren called.

 

“Well done, Miss Arathos!” Burgh said, returning his unconscious Pokemon and picking up his last pokeball. “Now, shall we see what your final challenge may be?”

 

Cheren sighed as Warren and Bianca turned expectantly to him, but also quirked a little smile. “Taking on two second-badge matches one right after the other, it’s likely he’ll use different Pokemon,” he said, starting to count on his fingers. “Leavanny is a fixture, but I faced Venipede and Karrablast, and she already defeated Shelmet, so…” He winced as Burgh released a small, squat rock with orange claws. “Dwebble. This will be difficult, but it’s not as strong as the Leavanny.”

 

“Alright, Paden, have yourself a break! Great job!” Carlotta called, returning her Pansear. “C’mon, Pijon, you got this!”

 

Cheren hissed in frustration as the Tranquil attacked the Dwebble, knocking it back but not out. “Carlotta, don’t get overconfident, Roland could handle this!”

 

“She’ll be fine,” Warren promised quietly, patting Cheren on the arm and shushing him as Rick threw a warning glance their way. The poor guy had started to visibly lose patience with Carlotta’s overenthusiastic yelling about halfway through Cheren’s match, and just got even more frustrated as Cheren kept blurting out strategy advice all through Carlotta’s.

 

“Smack Down!” Burgh called. His Dwebble started flinging stones at Pijon as the Tranquil ducked and wove around the projectiles, landing an Air Cutter attack that sent the little bug rolling backwards across the arena. It got a claw out and rammed it into the ground just in time to stop itself from being knocked out of bounds, ripping up the ground to make new projectiles to throw.

 

“Alright, Pijon, Quick Attack’ll finish it!” Carlotta shouted. Pijon swooped in for another attack, diving in hard and fast and hitting a rock head-on just as the Dwebble flung it full-force.

 

There was an unusually loud crack, then Pijon hit the floor with a sudden, abrupt stillness, like a puppet with its strings cut.

 

Bianca felt her heart stop.

 

“Hold!” Rick called, running across the field, suddenly alert. Burgh ran around the outside of the field, crouching down by his Dwebble and putting a hand on his shell, muttering under his breath while shooting anxious looks at the completely limp Tranquill.

 

“Oh no, oh gondammit, oh shit…” Carlotta muttered, reaching up and gripping at her cap, tugging it down hard against her head. Warren put an arm around his twin’s shoulders, biting his lip as Rick looked Pijon over.

 

Bianca nearly jumped out of her skin at the feeling of a hand on her arm. “Breathe, Bianca,” Cheren said softly.

 

“Th-this… he’s… he said this gym’s got a no-kill rule,” Bianca croaked. Her throat felt dry.

 

“Accidents still happen,” Cheren said quietly. “It’s sad, but they do. It’s just…” he trailed off as Rick stood up, shaking his head.

 

“I’m sorry, Miss Arathos, but your Tranquill is dead,” Rick said solemnly. “In accordance with the gym’s no-kill policy, a Pokemon death results in the immediate end of the match and the forfeiture of the offending party.”

 

“Which means that you are eligible for your badge, if you wish to claim it at the same time as your friends,” Burgh said, returning his Dwebble and standing up before putting a hand to his heart and giving a deep bow. “I am deeply sorry for your loss and that I was the cause of it, Miss Arathos. I assure you, it was not intended.”

 

“No, I know that, it was just… hit that fuckin’ rock real fast, an’… gondamn it,” Carlotta said, pulling her hat off and digging for a handkerchief as tears started to run down her cheeks. “Fuck. Gondamn it!”

 

“It ain’t your fault, Carly,” Warren assured her, handing over his handkerchief and looking patiently unruffled as she blew her nose loudly on it.

 

“I know, I know…” Carlotta sighed, wiping her nose. “And I know this kinda thing happens in upper level battles, just… gondamn it. Y’know?”

 

Bianca’s stomach rolled. “Is it… really that common?” she asked weakly.

 

“Not common, but not rare, either,” Cheren sighed, putting a hand on her arm and squeezing gently. “As Carlotta said, the higher the level, the more likely that battles will end in a death. It’s not a good thing, but—”

 

“No, it ain’t!” Bianca sobbed. “It’s not—this ain’t—it ain’t fair! All I wanted was to be a trainer an’ be with Pokemon, not watch ‘em die!”

 

“You know, you don’t have to battle competitively to be with Pokemon,” Burgh said, tapping a finger against his chin thoughtfully. “Your license permits you to own and train Pokemon, but there’s no requirement to battle. If you love Pokemon and want to work with them, there’s no need to harden your heart to their deaths.”

 

“I got the same license as y’all, but it’s so I can work in Pokemon medicine,” Warren added. ”Bein’ a trainer’s a good way to make yourself some cash just now, but you ain’t gotta do it forever if you don’t wanna.”

 

Bianca wiped her eyes, even as more tears fell immediately. “It just ain’t fair, though,” she whispered. “It shouldn’t be happenin’.”

 

“Well, I promise I’ll fix that when I either become President or Champion of the Pokemon League, whichever comes first,” Cheren assured her.

 

“Oh, a young man with big ambitions! I love that!” Burgh laughed. “Change the world, kids. And until then, be kind. Do not let the world make you otherwise.”

 

“…Sure,” Carlotta agreed. “For now, I guess, uh… do y’all do funerary stuff? So I can, y’know… send Pijon off right?”

 

Burgh turned to her, his smile becoming sad. “Of course. Since your Tranquill’s death was my responsibility, there’s no charge. Do you have a preference for what is done with your Pokemon’s remains and where they’re stored?”

 

“Not really,” Carlotta sighed. “The National Cemetery, I guess?”

 

“Then we’ll have him cremated and sent there,” Burgh promised her.

 

“Are we gonna say goodbye to ‘im first?” Bianca asked tentatively. “I mean, not just us, like… our Pokemon?”

 

“You want to let out your Pokemon to see the cremation?” Burgh asked, tilting his head. “Unusual request, but by all means, if you wish…”

 

“It don’t even have to be the cremation, just… to see ‘im an’ say goodbye, I guess,” Bianca said, twisting her hands anxiously in her skirt. “Y’all remember when Peabean died? Pijon was so sad. I just think… they oughta get a chance to say goodbye, right?”

 

“They don’t necessarily understand death on a complex level, but… well, it’s up to Carlotta, really,” Cheren said quickly as Warren elbowed him. “What do you think, Carly?”

 

“Sure,” Carlotta said, hugging Bianca again. “Sounds like a real sweet idea, B. We’ll let ‘em out for a funeral. Might as well get our badges first,” she added to Burgh.

 

“Well, of course,” the Leader said, plucking three badges off of the underside of his scarf. “Cheren Athos, Carlotta Arathos, Bianca D’Artagnan…you have earned your Insect Badges!”

 

“Congratulations? Feel like I should cheer an’ shouldn’t,” Warren said, clapping anyway. “Especially you, Bianca! First badge!”

 

“Thanks,” Bianca sniffed, smiling as she wiped her eyes and peered at the badge. “Wow… it’s real pretty!”

 

“Why, thank you! Many are quite offput by the insect design,” Burgh sighed. “No respect for art. Now, before we get to the somber arrangements, I do have one more gift for all of you. It had to be sure, but you are the young ones who rescued Lenora’s Dragonite skull and Sar Kanto’s daughter, aren’t you?”

 

“Wh—yeah, but how’d you know that?” Carlotta yelped, nearly dropping her badge.

 

“Oh, descriptions have made the rounds in certain circles, though actual names have of course been protected,” Burgh promised. “But Lenora did ask the other Leaders to let her know if we saw you, since you never went back to her gym. Avoiding media attention, I assume?”

 

“Yeah,” Warren said as Bianca flinched. “We don’t really wanna be super famous right now.”

 

“We’ll go back to her gym later, since we have to get all eight badges,” Cheren added.

 

“Of course, but she did wish for me to convey her thanks for rescuing one of the most valuable pieces in the whole museum,” Burgh said, giving them a flourishing old-fashioned bow. “And in that spirit, I do have something for you… invitations!” He tapped a few buttons on his c-gear, projecting up an email and a series of small boxes.

 

“A party?” Warren said, peering at the screen. His eyes widened. “Holy shit. That ain’t any old party…!”

 

“No, it is not, Mr Arathos!” Burgh agreed. “This specifically is a cultural affair being thrown to show off the very best Unova has to offer in the arts to various foreign dignitaries—the most prominent, of course, being the visiting Champion of the Indigo Union!”

 

“What in the hell? Ain’t no way we have any way to dress for somethin’ like that!” Carlotta yelped.

 

“Darling, you just leave that to me, if you’re interested in going,” Burgh insisted. “If you’re interested. Are you?”

 

“Yes,” Cheren said immediately. “Of course. We are not turning this down!”

 

“Don’t you gotta security screen everybody attendin’ somethin’ like that well in advance?” Warren asked, elbowing Cheren.

 

“Well, yes, that is why I need your names and the opportunity to take photos, retinal scans and fingerprints now, so that you can be screened and cleared before this evening,” Burgh explained. “If cleared, you’ll be picked up by a teleportation courier to be ported into the secure gala location. If you aren’t cleared, well, you’ll have some nice new outfits. There are invitations for all four of you. Just touch here, please…” He laughed as Cheren immediately pressed his finger to the c-gear screen. One of the boxes in the projected screen lit up with Cheren’s fingerprint. “That’s one definite Yes, so how about the rest?”

 

“I guess we’re goin’,” Warren laughed, watching as Cheren tipped down his glasses to let the tablet’s camera scan his eyes. “Alright, make it two.”

 

“Three, then,” Carlotta added, nudging Bianca forwards. “Four, to celebrate you gettin’ your first badge?”

 

“Sure!” Bianca agreed, wiping her hands on her skirt before offering her fingerprint, and her eyes before doing the retinal scan. “What do you mean about sortin’ out dresses…?”

 

“Dresses, suits, whatever your preference is for a formal affair!” Burgh declared. “I told Lenora I’d invite you to the party if you came to my gym before it happened and she told me to send the bill to her, in lieu of reward. I happen to know the head tailor at the nearest Elesa store, so she’ll see to it that you’re well attired!”

 

“Tailored Elesa clothes?” Cheren said faintly. Warren reached out to grab him, laughing at his boyfriend nearly swooning. “We have to get suits. I need a tailored Elesa suit.”

 

“Matchin’ suits,” Carlotta declared, offering her fingerprint. “We’re all gettin’ us matchin’ suits. Hey, Bianca, it can be your real fancy introduction to the world of pants!”

 

“We can get you a dress if you really want,” Warren assured Bianca, “but it would be fun if all of us have matchin’ suits, right?”

 

“A suit?” Bianca said, looking down at herself. “Ain’t it gonna, I don’t know… look weird?”

 

“It’ll be professionally tailored, Bianca, it will look stunning,” Cheren promised.

 

“Do a fitting, Miss D’Artagnan, and if you’re uncomfortable, you can change to a dress,” Burgh promised her. “You’ll have time, the tailors at Elesa are marvels. But if I may say so, I think the four of you will look absolutely charming in matching suits. Now…” He smiled and nodded as Warren’s retinal scan finished. “I’ll send word to the tailor that you’re all on your way.” His smile faded. “This way to where we’ll handle the cremation…”

 

 

{Reshin 23rd, 18:32}

{Castelia City}

 

“This is… weird,” Bianca called tentatively from the bathroom.

 

“You gotta practice walkin’ in it, B,” Warren said, tying Cheren’s azure-blue tie for him. “It’ll settle comfy once you do. That tailor sure knew what she was doin’, huh?”

 

“Burgh introduced us to the head tailor at Castelia’s Elesa superstore,” Cheren breathed, clearly still starstruck. “Of course she knew what she was doing. She’s a genius.”

 

“Good thing too,” Carlotta muttered, taking a deep breath. “This is way too fancy for us. This is a gondamn gala for their gondamn president.”

 

“Who you’ve already met,” Warren pointed out.

 

“That whole thing in the cave don’t even feel real,” Carlotta said, fidgeting with her hair, scraping it up into a high ponytail and scrutinizing it in the mirror before dropping it around her shoulders. “Does that feel like a real thing that happened to you, Cher? And that just kinda happened. Adrenaline an’ all that shit. This is knowin’ly walkin’ into a party full of powerful folks like that!”

 

“Champion Alder might be there,” Cheren breathed, clutching Warren’s arm. “War, please don’t let me babble on and say something ridiculous. Please.”

 

“I’ll do my best,” Warren promised, patting his arm. “Come on, B!”

 

“Comin’, comin!” Bianca shouted. “Just buildin’ up courage… ready… okay!” The door was flung open as Bianca ran out with her eyes closed.

 

“Whoa, B!” Carlotta whistled, clapping. “That tailor was right, that embroidery’s doin it for you!”

 

“I dunno how to do the tie,” Bianca mumbled in embarrassment, tugging at the honey-gold tie that matched the embroidery curling all over her waistcoat. The four of them had matching pinstriped black trousers and white dress shirts with three-quarter-length sleeves, but each of their ties were a different colour, matching the embroidery on their waistcoats. The waistcoats were all slightly different cuts, too, but it was most noticeable on Bianca, who as it transpired was a lot curvier than suggested by the lumpy cardigans and heavy skirts her parents mandated all her life. Warren was gay, not blind, and made a mental note to keep an eye out, because if any of the diplomats or artists had brought teenage kids with them to the gala, Bianca was definitely gonna draw attention she had no idea what to do with.

 

An’ if she draws any adult attention… I’m gonna let Carly off the chain. Don’t care how powerful everybody there is.

 

“War’s the only one who’s any good these damn things,” Carlotta said, holding up her own candy apple-red tie. She was definitely the loudest of the four of them, but that was how she liked it. She was also the only one who was wearing elbow-length sleeves instead of wrist-length, since she’d been very adamant about the tailor not completely covering up her best feature. “I can never remember this shit an’ Cheren always manages to fuck it up and ain’t nobody knows how, least of all him. How’re you doin’ with your first pair of pants?”

 

“Weird,” Bianca said, tugging at the waistline of her trousers. “Feels real tight.”

 

“It’s supposed to,” Carlotta said, shimmying her hips. Warren made another note to ask her not to do that again, because Bianca had turned the same odd shade of pink she kept turning around Carlotta a lot lately. He had no idea what to do about that impending situation, really, but he was probably gonna have to have a talk with Carlotta about it soon. “You just gotta get used to it!”

 

“Here, be distracted while I tie your tie,” Warren said, putting his c-gear on one of the beds and his news app to play video, plenty of which had queued up in the past hour. Bianca was fidgeting nervously, and he was never gonna get her tie on straight if she didn’t stop jittering.

 

“…sources indicate, however, that he was removed from the Pryce family records fifteen years ago,” said a news anchor Warren recognized but couldn’t necessarily put a name to. “We go now to our discussion panel. Jessica, what do you make of this?

 

Honestly, I thought it was a smear campaign when the story broke,” the middle-aged blonde leading the discussion panel said, looking around at the other panelists for their nods of agreement. “There aren’t many Fairlans that are well known in Unova. So claiming she’s related to one of the maybe two criminals people have likely heard of, just because the scale of what he pulled was so absurd—”

 

She was talked over by a grumpy-looking older man. “It’s not a ‘claim’, though, is it?” he interrupted. “Our own research team confirmed it with the Indigo Registry Office! The Pryce family disowned Giovanni, but that disowning is still on public record! If she thinks she can hide—”

 

They don’t exactly ask you to declare wanted relatives at Customs,” a younger guy said, rolling his eyes.

 

“Hey, what the fuck?” Carlotta asked, staring at the screen before diving for her own C-Gear and starting to scroll news articles. “They talkin’ ‘bout Giovanni Giovanni?”

 

“Damn, I think so,” Warren said, waving his hands in a “ta-daaaa” motion as he stepped back from Bianca and reached for his sister’s tie.

 

“Who?” Bianca asked with a frown, stepping over to the mirror on the bathroom door that Carlotta had abandoned, looking herself and her alien apparel up and down cautiously.

 

“I don’t suppose he’s very famous in Unova, but if anybody’s heard of a Fairlan criminal, it’s either him or Maximilian Hyland,” Cheren said, straightening his cuffs. “We’ve all seen his wanted posters in the embassies since… forever. He’s still missing. But when Kanto was isolated from the rest of the world, he ruled a sizeable portion of it as his own personal, extremely violent fiefdom for fifteen years. He became something of a meme for how much he sounded like a Crobatman villain, really.”

 

“Oh,” Bianca said, sounding like she understood none of that. She looked back at the screen. “So who’re the Pryce family?”

 

“Sar Saylee Pryce,” Carlotta said, eyes wide as she stared at an article on her pokegear screen. “Holy fuck. The cartoon supervillain was her dad!”

 

“Excuse me—?!” Cheren yelped, grabbing his own pokegear. “I assumed from that discussion panel that he was some sort of distant relative, some Fairlan families track quite distant family branches, but her father—”

 

“No wonder the news is all over this,” Warren whistled, rapidly tying his own emerald-green tie and reaching to turn off the video playing on his pokegear. “It sure don’t look good for—GAAH!”

 

“Good evening,” the purple-haired young man who’d appeared in their midst said, giving a formal bow. The chunky little green Pokemon hovering over his shoulder beeped and glowed briefly. “My Elgyem and I are your teleport courier service, here to deliver you to the gala tonight, at Burgh Arti’s invitation. Please confirm your identities.” He held out a touchpad. “Are you ready to go?”

 

“Hang on!” Carlotta said, running back to the mirror and snatching up her hairbrush to drag it frantically through her hair one last time. “What do y’all think, hair up or down?”

 

“Leave it down, you never do that, makes it kinda fancy,” Warren suggested, pressing his finger to the touchpad until it beeped in confirmation.

 

“Um, it looks real good either way,” Bianca said, missing the touchpad on her first attempt to present her fingerprint.

 

“War’s right, it looks good when it’s down and seems fancy because it’s unusual for you,” Cheren said dryly, giving his fingerprint. She stuck her tongue out at him. “If she does that at the gala,” he asked the grinning teleport courier, “can you promise me she’ll be immediately evicted?”

 

“Depends on who she does it to,” the courier said diplomatically. Carlotta stuck her tongue out at him, too, while giving her fingerprint. “Thank you very much. Are we ready to go?”

 

“Oh, wait!” Bianca cried. “Makeup! Shouldn’t we put on some makeup? That’s what folks do for parties, right? Wear makeup?”

 

“I don’t think I own none,” Carlotta said, looking at Warren and Cheren. “Either of y’all own makeup?”

 

“Uhhh… I think I have glitter?” Warren said, going into his bag. “It’s leftover costume glitter… is glitter appropriate for this party?” he asked the courier, who politely hid a laugh behind a cough.

 

“As you are attending at the invitation of Burgh Arti, I doubt anybody will be in any way surprised or unsettled if you wish to wear glitter,” he said. “Dinner will not be served until eight, so while celebrities have started to arrive, you yourselves are not on a pressing deadline, and my instructions are simply to ensure your identities and bring you along when you are ready.”

 

“Glitter it is!” Carlotta declared. “Hit me, bro.”

 

Warren fell into a mock fighting stance, pulling a ridiculous face, before saying, “oh, you meant with the glitter. Just lemme find the dang stuff…”

 

“How are you feeling in the suit now?” Cheren asked Bianca while Warren scrolled through his bag menu.

 

“Oh! I… think I’m gettin’ the hang of it?” Bianca said, holding her arms up and looking down curiously. “The colours are real pretty. Do I look good in it?”

 

“You look wonderful, Bianca,” Cheren assured her. “And objectively speaking, as a gay man who gets nothing out of this, it makes your figure look fantastic.”

 

Bianca blushed almost as red as she did whenever Carlotta hugged her. “Umm, th-thanks?” she squeaked. “Th-that’s a good thing, right?”

 

“If you are comfortable with it, yes,” Cheren said. “It’s worth feeling like you look good for yourself and nobody else. You deserve it. And I have to say, I still very fondly remember the first time I put on a suit and saw the way it looked on me,” he added, gesturing down at his own outfit and then pulling out his c-gear, scrolling through to a picture from a couple of years previously, with him and Warren both wearing suits and posing under a banner with their school’s name and the name of the dance on it. The suits were definitely nowhere near as expensive, but Cheren was positively beaming with delight. “That’s not to say you have to like wearing suits, but…”

 

“I… dunno,” Bianca said thoughtfully. “I think I like it. I guess… it’s new, and it’s excitin’,” she giggled. She jumped with a yelp as Warren patted her cheeks from behind. “Ahhh!”

 

“Aww, where’d that nice smile you were wearin’ go?” Warren asked, holding up a glittery hand. “You gotta smile, B, it’ll make the glitter catch the light! Here you go, Cher,” he added, gently dusting his boyfriend’s cheeks with bright powder.

 

“Gondamn, we make this look good,” Carlotta said smugly, putting an arm around Bianca’s shoulders. “Alright, I think that’s all I got. Let’s do this! You ready, B?”

 

“Ready,” Bianca said, straightening her back and smiling, making light dance across her cheeks.

 

 

{Reshin 23rd, 19:45pm}

{Castelia City}

 

“The timing cannot be a coincidence,” Caitlin said sourly. “Whoever contacted the registry office had to have been sitting on this information to release it at the most publicly inconvenient time.”

 

“Inconve—somebody with a translator shoved a mic in my face to ask if I knew I’d married the daughter of a supervillain!” Blue grumbled, methodically frustration-eating his way through a whole tray of hors d’oeuvres. “I was expecting a lot of shit on the red carpet here, but that—”

 

“What did they mean by hiding my relationship, anyway?” Saylee asked. “It’s on public record. That’s how they found it.”

 

“They don’t use family registries in Unova,” Caitlin explained. “Disowning somebody in Unova is not a legal process. You simply refuse all contact or connection with them. So to them, the fact that he was legally removed from your family registry, plus your mother’s adoption, looks like some kind of elaborate cover-up—”

 

“My grandparents publicly disowned him,” Saylee muttered, throwing her head back to drain another glass of bubbly, more than a little frustrated that the stuff was synth and therefore impossible to get drunk from, as bad an idea as she knew that would be at a public event like this. “And they adopted Mum because she doesn’t have any known parents and to keep Silver, Red and I in the family registry!”

 

“Because they don’t have family registries, they also don’t have adult adoption,” Caitlin pointed out. “Unovans don’t understand how these things work. And I sincerely doubt that most of the news outlets reporting this story have bothered to learn before spreading the word as far and wide as possible. Make no mistake, this was deliberate.” There was an unnatural glint in the powerful psychic’s eyes as she scowled. “Possibly related to the attempted abduction of your daughter. I will keep investigating, I promise you that.”

 

“Speaking of, isn’t that them?” Blue said, tugging on the sleeve of Saylee’s kimono. She rarely busted out the uncomfortable thing, because she felt like it made her look too much like one of the Geisha from Ecruteak, but with the gala being an international cultural event, it was recommended. Ambassadors and cultural emissaries from all over the world were present in their own traditional dress, and among them she caught sight of four teenagers looking adorable in matching embroidered suits, gaping a little as Lauro Alder clapped one of them one the shoulder with a jovial laugh. Saylee immediately recognized the black-haired boy with glasses and the girl with the long brown hair as the ones who’d run down Scarlet’s kidnappers, their blonde friend as the one tinted with the faint sense of being god-touched, and another brown-haired boy…

 

Saylee rubbed her forehead with a groan. “Two of them,” she muttered. “Caitlin, you have to send me some real information about gods in Unova, because some of the bastards have their eyes on two of those kids. Related gods, I think…”

 

“All the more reason we gotta go say hi,” Blue encouraged, offering her his arm as they started to slowly migrate towards the kids, not wanting to interrupt their conversation with Alder. From the looks on the faces of the two from the cave, they were having a religious experience.

 

Athos Cheren, Saylee recalled from the police reports, and Arathos Carlotta. Which makes the other boy Arathos Warren, Carlotta’s twin brother, and the girl D’Artagnan Bianca…

 

“They’re only sixteen,” she muttered to Blue.

 

“When did we get old enough for that to look too young for this shit?” Blue grumbled.

 

“We weren’t anywhere near that young at that age.”

 

“True.”

 

Alder was hailed by the Orren ambassador and waved to the kids before heading off in a flurry of fringes and feathers, leaving four very starstruck teenagers in his wake.

 

Dammit, where did Key go? Saylee thought as she fumbled for her translator, not confident enough in her own shaky Unovan to say what she needed to say. The currents of the gala had dragged Key off elsewhere early on, and Saylee had only managed to catch a distant glimpse of her friend. She had faith that Key would be setting the record straight with anybody who brought up the news to her, but right now Saylee could really use her best friend’s prowess with languages.

 

Warren noticed her first, frantically patting Carlotta and Cheren’s shoulders to pull them out of their Alder-induced stupor as he spotted Saylee and Blue approaching.

 

Saylee smiled, consciously focusing on stamping down the murderous mood she was in to keep it from showing up in her eyes. It was aimed at the media, after all, not these kids. “Hello,” she said, switching on her translator. “It is you, isn’t it? From the cave?”

 

“Y-yes, Sar Kanto… Sir Viridian,” Cheren said in his best Fairlan, giving a proper formal bow, which his friends imitated. “Good evening. How is your daughter?”

 

“Very well, thanks to you,” Saylee said, as she and Blue gave them a much lower bow back. “You saved her life. Thank you!”

 

“We were glad to help,” Carlotta insisted, grinning nervously. “Really. We, uh. Weren’t really thinkin’ ‘bout it. We just saw a man runnin’ off with a kid and, uh…” The translator stumbled a little over her mumbled Unovan, but the gist was clear.

 

“You didn’t have to think to do the right thing,” Blue said, nudging Saylee with a smirk. “You just jumped right in without thinking at all, huh?”

 

“You have good hearts,” Saylee assured them, hoping the translator wasn’t communicating that Blue was gently making fun of them. They didn’t know him well enough to know he was doing it in a positive way.

 

“You’re very, very welcome,” Cheren assured her.

 

“I can tell you two are good kids as well,” Saylee added, gesturing to Warren and Bianca, who both looked startled to be addressed. “Even if you didn’t fight yourselves.”

 

“Th-thank you!” Bianca squeaked. “I-I mean, I wanted to help, but, ummm…” she looked aside. “I got lost. In the forest. Sorry…”

 

“But you saw something in the forest, didn’t you?” Saylee asked, dropping her voice. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see Blue scanning the people nearest them, but he didn’t look concerned by anything so she continued, “something you can’t quite explain?”

 

Bianca gasped, clasping her hands to her mouth. Cheren edged a little in front of his friend, asking, “forgive me, Sar, but how could you possibly know that?”

 

“The same way I know that you’ve seen something too,” Saylee said, nodding to Warren, and fighting back a reflexive frown as her pokegear buzzed in her sleeve. I though I put that thing on silent “Not at the same time, but a little later?”

 

“No…” Warren began, but Bianca shook his arm.

 

“In Pinwheel Forest! You kept sayin’ somethin was watchin’ us, but that other trainer and I didn’t see or hear nothin’!” she reminded him. “But they said there were magic things in that forest, right?”

 

“You didn’t see anything, but it sounds like something saw you,” Blue commented. “And you’re gonna see it again.”

 

“It was just a funny feelin’,” Warren protested. “I’m sure it wasn’t anythin’…”

 

“Listen,” Saylee said urgently. She was going to have to step aside to politely set her pokegear back on silent, and it was important that she got to talk to them about this first. “I can tell… you kids are going to see things you don’t believe. And when you do, for your own safety… you need to have an open mind. You need to remember that whether or not you believe something doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s not true. And you have good hearts, and they’ll lead you to jump into things without thinking, for the sake of doing the right thing… but please remember to be careful with yourselves.” She bit her lip in worry. “Be safe. Doing the safe thing sometimes feels like not doing the right thing, but it’s not the wrong thing. If something happens that you really can’t understand, and you need help…” She held out a hand. “Give me one of your phones and I’ll give you a number to call, but only in emergencies, okay?”

 

“You, uh… what?” Carlotta said in surprise as Cheren and Bianca openly gaped. Warren was the first to get his head together and hand over his c-gear. “You’re just gonna… just like that? Give us your phone number?”

 

“Not my number,” Saylee said, typing the number in. “Just a number, for me.”

 

“If you go spreading this number around or sell it to a news outlet, one of them will find you,” Blue said, gesturing to Janine. She and a couple other members of the security team were skulking nearby in dark suits. Saylee was pretty sure they’d drawn lots for who had to put on suits to come down to the party and who got to stay up in the hotel part of the building with Koga, watching the kids. Janine, at least, seemed determined to extract some fun from the evening, lowering her dark glasses and making very slow, deliberate eye contact with each of the kids in turn until they flinched, then put her sunglasses back with a nod of satisfaction.

 

Saylee handed back Warren’s c-gear, frowning as her pokegear went off in her sleeve again. She glanced down at her sleeve, as if she could glare the device back into silent mode, and as she did she noticed Blue fidgeting with the sleeve of his formal haori, up which he’d stashed his own pokegear. Okay, how are they getting through to both of us?

 

“Th-thank you, Sar,” Cheren stuttered in his decent Fairlan, his friends doing their variable best to imitate him.

 

“Just be safe,” Saylee asked him. “And thank you, again. Excuse me…” She took Blue’s arm as they stepped away, smiling a little as the excited whisper-screaming broke out behind her.

 

“If that little shit’s blowing up my phone because of that news story…” Blue muttered, looking at his pokegear. Saylee pulled out her own, frowning as news and email notifications flowed by in a silent, steady stream, then—

 

New text from :rainbow::fire:

ALREADY SENT SUICUNE PICK THE FUCK UP

 

“He’s sending Suicune?” Saylee whispered, unease trickling down her spine. Exceptions! I can’t believe I forgot! Silent mode has goddamn exceptions, and Silver is one!

 

“He’s what?” Blue muttered back. “Alright, let’s find a corner where you can call him back…”

 

“This way,” Janine said, closing in on Saylee’s other side. “Form up,” she muttered sharply at the other two with her. Saylee was reasonably sure one was Meloetta, but she wasn’t sure about the other—both were made up to look identical to Janine, as if a black-suited trio of triplets were shadowing Saylee and Blue around the gala.

 

Once they’d borrowed a corridor for the catering staff, who cut them a respectful and/or frightened berth, Saylee called Silver back. As the screen flashed past, she noted that she’d already missed eight calls, all placed within a five-minute window.

 

Silver picked up immediately, not bothering with a greeting or giving Saylee time for one. “Red’s hurt,” he said tersely. “Really bad. He’s not responding to me.

 

“Janine, check in with Koga, now,” Saylee ordered quietly. “When you say not responding…” she whispered uneasily to Silver, not sure what, exactly, it was that she wanted to ask her brother. They’d never properly talked about the odd bond that Silver shared with Red ever since the former had brought the latter back from the dead, though given that Red had been brought back as a baby with no memory of his former life it was perhaps more accurate to call it direct reincarnation. The last time Ho-oh’s restorative powers had been used to that extreme, the result had been three dead but otherwise normal Eevee becoming Entei, Raikou and Suicune. There was no way, really, that Red was a normal kid, but…

 

If she never asked, if nobody asked, if Silver never did anything with whatever was there beyond display uncanny timing for inviting Red to play video games with him when the kid was feeling down… they could all pretend that Red was normal. That one of them would get to live a normal life, finally.

 

Look, I dunno how much we can communicate, I’ve never pushed it before,” Silver sighed. “No experimenting, not when it could fuck with his head. But I know how he’s feeling, even when I’m not really trying, and I got whammied with fear and anger and pain and now… this fuzzy kinda, I dunno, not exactly nothing, pretty sure he’s not dead, I feel like I’d know that. I think he’s unconscious. So what the fuck?

 

Saylee looked up at Janine. “No response,” the ninja muttered, gesturing to her comm. “Melody, stay here with Sar Kanto and Sir Viridian. You remember the evacuation signal, right?” One of the other two, humming gently, nodded. “Linda, alert hotel security and get them up to the suite. We have a situation.” The other nodded and ran off down the corridor, dodging around a waiter with a tray full of empty champagne glasses. Janine just nodded to Saylee before vanishing herself.

 

Blue put an arm around Saylee, leaning his head close to hear Saylee talking to Silver over the pokegear. “Janine’s going to check it out,” Saylee murmured. “She’ll let us know what’s happening.”

 

She’s checking it out? No response on the comms? From Koga?”

 

“We’ll call you back when we know,” Blue said, hanging up the call for Saylee. He hugged her tightly, leaning his head on her shoulder. “Could just be shitty equipment,” he muttered. “Koga’s still up there. He’s as good as it gets with unarmed combat short of actually being a fucking Pokemon.”

 

They’re fine, he didn’t say. They’re fine. They’re fine. They’re fine…

 

 

{Reshin 23rd, 19:55}

{Castelia City}

 

Never go in alone.

 

Janine had been drilled in that from birth, when their home was a poison swamp full of angry wild Pokemon. Never go anywhere alone. Your partner may not be able to save you, but at least they can give your family the closure of knowing where you died.

 

The other side of the equation was the first rule of rescue—don’t become another victim. Which meant that, once she got up there, she had to assess the situation fast, and if she didn’t immediately get some assurance all was well…

 

She’d known Blue and Saylee long enough to know that the odds of that were low, but dammit, she had to hope. There were children involved these days.

 

Her earpiece was picking up nothing but static, and her pokegear blanked out once she was a floor below the suite. She was climbing up the elevator shaft, because it was a point of pride for her clan that they did not use stairs, and if anybody was in the hallway, it wouldn’t do to give them the warning of seeing an elevator approaching the floor.

 

Jamming, she thought, checking the blank screen. Dammit. There goes the hope that the earpieces were just failing

 

The hallway was empty of movement or breathing. The hall security measures were in place, the suite door locked.

 

But as soon as she opened it, she smelled blood.

 

She couldn’t see anything past the entryway—the suite was designed that way, to protect its occupants’ privacy. Back away. Don’t become another victim.

 

“…’nine?”

 

“Dad?” she called back, recognizing the voice, even hoarse and faint. Security checks. Dad’s been drilling this into you since you learned to talk. Any fool could steal a set password, but exchanging personal information… “My daughter was born on Kyonua fifteenth,” she called through, “but she was due eight days before that.” Plenty of people knew her daughter’s birthday, but only a handful knew her original due date at the time and likely very few of them remembered. It wasn’t the sort of information anybody in Unova could easily get.

 

“In the hosp’al… doc was worried…” There was a bubbling sound. Blood in his throat. Janine forced herself, with training and practice, to remain calm, to not move until she had the all-clear, because if she did either a hidden enemy would kill her or her father would for risking her life by breaching training. “But I said… this one… waitin’ for the… right time… just like… you…”

 

“Clear?” Janine asked hoarsely.

 

“Clear… aid… needed…”

 

I know, Janine thought, heart in her throat as she rounded the corner to the suite’s main room and stopped de—came to a complete standstill.

 

Alice was dead, her corpse draped over one of the overturned couches, empty eyes gazing blankly at Janine. Not now. You’ve known each other since you were three. Not now. Find Dad. Find the kids!

 

Koga’s legs, one bent wrong, were protruding from the doorway to the kids’ room, the endpoint of a trail of blood smudged into the carpet. “Dad, don’t move,” Janine told him as she ran to him, pushing the door further open so she could crouch at his side, assessing wounds. “Linda’s bringing backup, hang on…”

 

“I’ll… live,” Koga mumbled as she turned him on his side to ease his breathing. He was pale, bleeding from several places but most worryingly his neck. When his hand slipped away briefly, though, the blood only seeped sluggishly from the wound rather than spurting, so thankfully the artery had been missed. He probably would live, with emergency services arriving imminently. “Help… Red…”

 

Janine looked up, realizing that her father had been trying to reach Saylee’s teenage brother. The boy was curled on the ground in a terrifyingly large puddle of blood, clutching his stomach and unmoving.

 

No, no, god no, please no, Janine thought frantically, moving to Red’s side, trying to assess his conditions clearly. He’s a kid, he’s just a kid, there’ll be fucking war over this, if Saylee loses this one too, and Silver, fuck, he could and just might literally burn this country to the ground

 

“…!” Red gasped, his eyes flickering open briefly when Janine touched his arm, then sliding closed again. His breathing was shallow but steady. Janine carefully moved his arms aside and tugged his shirt up, breathing a sigh of relief when she saw that, despite all the blood, it wasn’t deep. Maybe he was one of those people that just bled a lot, even for a papercut, and the shock had caused him to black out, or he’d been knocked unconscious. He would live, that was what mattered.

 

“Scarlet?” she called, looking around the room for the younger child. It was trashed, just like the main room, with the door entirely torn off of the closet.

 

Her scope of the room brought her gaze back to her father, and the sight of absolute, agonizing failure in his eyes nearly knocked her flat.

 

Alice was dead. Red and her father were seriously wounded. And Scarlet was gone.

 

I am going to find whoever was responsible for us being banned from bringing Pokemon, and I am going to fucking kill them.

 

not least so Saylee and Blue don’t cause an international incident by doing it themselves…

Chapter Text

{Reshin 24th, 5:48am}

{Castelia City}

 

“Wake me when the bus gets here,” Carlotta mumbled, slumping on the bus station bench and pulling her baseball cap over her eyes. Bianca sat down next to her but didn’t close her eyes, instead releasing Tiberius and hugging him like a soft toy while the Tepig snuffled inquisitively at his trainer’s red-rimmed eyes.

 

Warren sat next to his sister, leaning back to let her flop her head onto his shoulder for a more comfortable sleep. Cheren did the same thing on his other side, falling asleep almost immediately. Despite the heavy-eyed feeling of exhaustion—the police hadn’t started letting people go until past three in the morning, and they’d only gone back to the Pokemon Centre long enough to shower, change and check out—Warren couldn’t bring himself to sleep.

 

He got out his c-gear, automatically opening the news app to scroll and then almost immediately closing it. He couldn’t look at the endless repetition of articles headed by the sole photo the press had been given of Scarlet Oak-Pryce, aged six. Missing. Kidnapped.

 

He opened his contacts instead, finding the new number, labeled only “Help”. He hesitated for a moment, then selected the messaging app and typed a quick text.

 

I ’m so sorry about your daughter.

 

Does that sound too much like she’s dead? He thought fuzzily, staring at the message, then deleting it and trying again.

 

Do you have any idea who took

 

No, what was he, a cop? And that kind of thing was probably classified information anyway.

 

Can we help?

 

Short. The answer was probably no. But he was too sleep-deprived to think of anything better, and it was the most honest message he could think to send.

 

He sent it, then tried opening a game, figuring that all of his social media notifications would be overflowing with chatter about the kidnapping, too. At least it had pushed whatever that thing was about Sar Saylee having a supervillain dad out of the news.

 

But if it were me, I guess I ’d rather have the news about my dad than a missin’ kid…

 

He nearly jumped when he almost immediately received a reply, auto-translate kicking in beneath the Fairlan characters.

 

Be careful.

 

Well, I guess she ain’t sleepin’ either, Warren thought, staring at the brief message. Of course she ain’t. Her daughter’s missin’.

 

Having a head of state or supervillain’s daughter in his phonebook made his head spin. He could just about process knowing a mother whose child was missing, even if that thought hurt. He’d never known a missing kid before. He was aware that it was a thing that happened in the world, sometimes, but not to people you knew.

 

Was everybody’s first trip away from home this… much?

 

He opened his mother’s contact page. She takes night shifts sometimes, he recalled. She’s probably workin’ right now, ain’t supposed to have her personal phone on while she’s got her security guard hat on…

 

He wanted to talk to someone. Carlotta and Cheren were dozing and he didn’t want to wake them, and Bianca already looked upset enough that he didn’t want to ask her to make him feel better.

 

That was the problem with being the guy who was good at making others feel better.

 

And on top of all of that, something was watching him again.

 

He kept finding himself drawn to looking out the bus station windows. There was nothing to see out there except the bus lot, currently empty except for one idling bus getting checked over by its driver. The driver wasn’t looking their way, but nevertheless Warren felt a prickling feeling that something out there had its eyes fixed very solidly on him. He wanted to tell himself he was imagining it, but he kept hearing Sar Saylee’s warning in his head, her certainty that something strange would find him again.

 

“Hello?” he whispered, with no idea why he was doing it. Nothing out there would hear him, and he was probably imagining—

 

Something definitely moved behind the decorative trees on the far side of the bus lot.

 

Bianca gasped sharply. Warren looked over and saw her staring at the same trees he’d been staring at. Tiberius was looking that way, too, unusually still, his ears sticking up straight and snout pointed directly at the trees.

 

“B?” Warren whispered.

 

“Y’all saw that, right?” Bianca whispered intently. “Don’t go tellin’ me I was seein’ stuff, War, y’all saw—!”

 

“Saw what, B?” Warren asked her. Bianca bit her lip, but didn’t answer. “I dunno ‘bout you, but I’m too damn tired to go worryin’ about somethin’ in the trees, so unless it’s a gondamn ninja—”

 

There was a loud yell from outside as the bus driver went tumbling away from the bus he’d been cleaning the side of. Both Carlotta and Cheren jerked awake, nearly knocking Warren off his chair as they stumbled to their feet.

 

“Whazzup? ‘Zit ninjas ‘gain?” Carlotta muttered, rubbing at her eyes. The bus driver was running back towards the depot.

 

“What’s he yellin’ ‘bout?” Cheren mumbled sleepily, straightening his glasses as he squinted after the running man.

 

“Dunno, but we ain’t gotta go check—alright, guess we do,” Warren sighed as Carlotta strode outside, releasing Thamina and Owain, since the Dewott and Gurdurr were her two heaviest hitters.

 

“…It’s probably not ninjas at the bus station,” Cheren mumbled, following after her and releasing Sherlock, Poncho and Rocky on the way.

 

“What in the—that’s what he was so darn scared of?!” Carlotta yelled incredulously as she rounded the bus.

 

“Well, guess it definitely ain’t ninjas,” Bianca giggled weakly, running out to see what the fuss was. With a sigh, Warren gave in and followed, throwing a last suspicious glance at the trees as he crossed the bus lot in the grey light of barely-dawn.

 

Rounding the bus, he saw Carlotta, Cheren, Bianca and their Pokemon encircling and staring quizzically at trio of thug toddlers.

 

“They’re a Pokemon called Scraggy,” Cheren sighed, rubbing his eyes as he looked up from his pokedex screen. “They like to wander around in groups and headbutt anybody who makes eye contact. They probably got into the undercarriage of the bus for warmth overnight and the bus driver spotted them while cleaning.”

 

“So why ain’t they attackin’ now?” Bianca asked, starting to back up before Cheren grabbed her arm to stop her.

 

“They act tough in a group, but they get easily intimidated by larger numbers,” he advised. “Don’t back down. Perhaps we ought to catch them. They are tough fighters, trained right, and I’m not sure what this depot’s policy is for getting rid of invasive wild Pokemon. They’re classed as dark and fighting types.”

 

“Heh, so Penny an’ Pijon’ll be best to—” Carlotta began, reaching for her pokeballs and freezing halfway there, face falling as she remembered. “Oh. Yeah. I, uh… shit.”

 

“The Pokemon we have now are more than enough to handle these three, I think,” Cheren said quickly. “Sherlock, Vine Whip that one in the middle!”

 

All three Scraggy squealed as Sherlock whapped the middle one between the eyes almost gently, sending it rolling backwards into its friends, who caught it and started yelling.

 

“Try Flame Charge, Tibby!” Bianca suggested, crouching to let her Tepig hop out of her arms. Wreathed in flames, the little Pokemon knocked one of the three Scraggy away from its fellows.

 

Carlotta handed Bianca an empty pokeball with a grin. “Good plan, separatin’ ‘em!” she said. “Thamina, Wake-Up Slap that one!”

 

Cheren yawned. “Sounds good,” he said, throwing a pokeball at the middle one as soon as Thamina had used her club to sweep the other two apart. Bianca and Carlotta followed suit, and all three Scraggy were captured, pokeballs locking as a new bus driver came running back across the parking lot with a security guard in tow.

 

“Did you kids catch the Scraggy?” the security guard called.

 

“Sure did!” Carlotta said, picking up her new Pokemon.

 

“Hey, thanks for that,” the new bus driver sighed. “I wouldn’t wanna handle the damn things myself, not with Dave resting off a bit of a concussion in there… you kids got tickets?”

 

“Yes, ma’am,” Warren said, showing the passes they’d been given in the depot.

 

“It’s early, but you kids head in and pick your spot,” the bus driver encouraged them. “You’ve earned it with your good deed for the day. We should be leaving about seven and get to the Desert Resort about eleven, alright?”

 

“Thanks, ma’am,” Carlotta said, giving her a salute and returning the rest of her Pokemon before climbing into the bus.

 

“Oooh, this is so much comfier than the depot!” Bianca cooed as she sank into the soft plush bus seat. “I’m kinda excited. I ain’t never been on a bus before!”

 

“Gondamn, B, I know I’ve known you forever an’ all, an’ I know how gondamn sheltered you’ve been,” Carlotta sighed, flopping into the seat next to her, “but sometimes, y’all still manage to say stuff that really fucks me up.”

 

“Sorry, that’s weird, ain’t it?” Bianca mumbled, excitement visibly draining as she sank further down into her seat and tried to hide under her hat.

 

“Good goin’, Carly,” Warren muttered, giving his sister a light shove on the arm as he sat down in the aisle seat across from her, next to Cheren.

 

“Aw fuck, I didn’t—B, ain’t nothin’ wrong with bein’ excited about your first bus ride, I promise!” Carlotta exclaimed, giving Bianca a one-armed side-hug. “I’m excited for ya! I just wanna fight your folks, is all.”

 

“Didn’t you already wanna do that?” Bianca asked, emerging from her hat with a little giggle.

 

“Well, yeah, but even more now,” Carlotta insisted, hugging her tight.

 

Cheren put his head back down on Warren’s shoulder and they all fell silent as they drifted back off to sleep, jerking awake half an hour later when the bus started to fill with the rest of the early-morning tourists. Some were sleepily chatting in a variety of languages, while others made a direct line for an empty seat to fall asleep in. The bus was full to bursting by the time it left at seven, but mostly quiet due to people either sleeping or talking in hushed tones.

 

Warren stayed awake, staring out of the window over his boyfriend’s head as Cheren slept on his shoulder again. The suburbs gave way to an old industrial area, and then to the deserts that were such a draw to the tourists. He saw Pokemon flying overhead, or scurrying into the sand away from the roar of the bus’ engine, but nothing felt like it was watching him anymore. Before long, he was sure he’d imagined it.

 

“I don’t get it,” Bianca mumbled after a couple of hours, when more people were starting to wake up properly.

 

“What’s up, B?” Carlotta asked, jerking out of a doze.

 

“The news before the party was all ‘bout how some evil guy was Sar Saylee’s dad, right?” Bianca said, pointing at the article she was reading on Carlotta’s C-Gear. Apparently, she hadn’t been sleeping either. “But at the party, she was real nice to us, an’ she got us that hotel after Lilith died, too. Seems like she really cares. It don’t match.”

 

“Your parents are a coupla pieces of shit, but you ain’t,” Carlotta pointed out. “It don’t have to mean nothin’.”

 

“She wasn’t even raised by him,” Cheren added, yawning as he woke up and started scrolling through his messages, finding whatever conversation he’d been having between police interviews. “I got my mother to send me the details, since I’m not sure any media outlet did enough research before hopping on the outrage-wagon. Sar Saylee herself, reportedly, never knew she was related to Giovanni until nearly two years after he was last seen. She saw an old photograph of him with her mother and DNA testing later confirmed her relationship to the Pryce family and her younger half-brother, but Giovanni himself has never resurfaced. Also, he was disowned by the Pryce family, which is apparently a major legal process in the Fairlands and a sign of great shame. It means they no longer consider him related to them at all.”

 

“And… it don’t mean nothin’ to her that he’s her dad?” Bianca asked tentatively.

 

“I can’t imagine it means nothing, but since they were already enemies I doubt it endears him to her,” Cheren said, rolling his eyes.

 

“You don’t gotta love folks just ‘cause they’re your folks,” Warren said gently.

 

Don’t you, though?” Bianca said uncertainly. “Y’all love your folks, right?”

 

“I love my folks ‘cause they’re fuckin’ awesome,” Carlotta declared. “They’re boss-ass security guards, they’re funny, they’ve always supported me an’ War doin’ what we wanna do…”

 

“I love my parents because I like and respect them as people, in addition to them being my parents,” Cheren added. “But I don’t judge Sar Saylee at all for not loving a parent who didn’t raise her and who she only ever knew as an enemy.”

 

“You alright, B?” Warren asked gently. “Y’know, however you feel about your folks is—”

 

“I miss ‘em,” Bianca said, her voice cracking. “What’s wrong with me? I was scared of ‘em all the time an’ they told me every day how everythin’ I liked or wanted or felt made me evil b-but I… they’re my mom an’ dad an’ I love ‘em an’—wh-what’s wrong with me?”

 

She buried her face in her hands as she burst into full-on sobs.

 

Carlotta looked helplessly at Warren and Cheren as she put an arm around Bianca. “Aw, fuck, B,I… I don’t know?” she said. “I mean, you ain’t evil, duh.”

 

“But… am I supposed to hate ‘em for treatin’ me like that?” Bianca wept. “Or am I supposed to love ‘em ‘case they’re my folks? I don’t know!”

 

“Fuck how you’re s’posed to feel,” Carlotta said stubbornly. “Don’t go worryin’ ‘bout that nonsense. How you feel’s up to you, got it?”

 

“It’s not easy, but please don’t tie yourself up in knots worrying about how you should feel,” Cheren added. “Just… focus on how you do feel. That’s what matters.”

 

“I… I dunno,” Bianca hiccuped, burying her face in Carlotta’s shoulder. “I dunno…”

 

“Well, shit,” Carlotta muttered, rubbing her back. “Wish I knew how to help, B, but this is some complicated emotional shit you’re layin’ down here…”

 

“I ain’t sure there’s anythin’ we can do about you missin’ your folks,” Warren said, scratching his head. “I mean, we can’t go see ‘em without ‘em tryin’ to take you back and makin’ it harder to get away again… and we ain’t gonna let that happen to ya, B. But… I dunno, do ya think if our folks came out fer a visit while we’re in Nimbasa, it might help? Mom’ll sure mom your ass if we ask ‘er to.”

 

“Oh man, she’s waitin’ by the dang phone for us to call ‘er in to mom your ass,” Carlotta cackled. “Dad’s got so many jokes you ain’t heard a million times before, he’ll love it!”

 

“They don’t have to come all the way out for me,” Bianca sniffed. “They’re… I’m sure they’re busy, an’ I ain’t even their kid…”

 

“I mean…” Carlotta exchanged a look with Warren. “Shit, B, we… we did tell you how they said they’re happy for you to come live with us when you’re ready, right?”

 

“Yeah, but—” Bianca began.

 

Warren held up a hand. “B, that ain’t just bein’ polite, that’s our whole family offerin’ you our home ‘cause we want you there,” he interrupted. “Bein’ so near your folks might be a problem a bit, but we’re willin’ to do that, okay?”

 

“You don’t have to love the family you were born to just because you were born to them,” Cheren added, “but you can love family you weren’t born to, as well.”

 

Bianca burst into tears all over again.

 

“Next time I see her folks, I’m gonna fight ‘em,” Carlotta whispered loudly at Warren over Bianca’s head, making her giggle.

 

“No, don’t, you can’t, oh noooooo,” Warren droned in a flat, blatantly insincere tone.

 

 

{Reshin 24th, 12.36pm}

{Desert Resort Museum}

 

Whoa,” Bianca whispered, wide-eyed as she walked around the miniature model of the former glory of the Relic Castle, complete with tiny holographic animations of servants, guards, lords and ladies going about their day. “It’s like somethin’ outta fairy tales!”

 

“Naturally, as it’s based on the construction of Kalosian castles,” Cheren said, nodding. “But the Kalosian colonists only ever built one castle here, one seat of power as a clear extension of the Kalosian throne…”

 

“Y’all!” Carlotta yelled excitedly as she ran across the museum floor, slaloming among the displays of priceless antiques and drifting groups or pairs of tourists. “We’re trainers!”

 

Cheren looked at Bianca, then at Carlotta, then pulled his pokeballs out of his pocket and squinted at them. “My goodness,” he drawled, “I hadn’t noticed.”

 

“Hush,” Carlotta said, flapping a hand. “We got trainer’s licenses. That means we can go on the trail out to the real castle!”

 

Cheren’s eyes widened, nearly dropping his pokeballs when he realized what she was getting at. “What?”

 

“We can go to a real castle?!” Bianca squealed.

 

“It ain’t gonna look too fairytale,” Warren warned her as they set off across the museum floor. It was more crowded than he would’ve expected, but then again, most of the tourists were likely coming down form Nimbasa City, which was much closer, rather than taking the scenic desert bus up from Castelia. And it was a beautiful day, the tinted windows protecting their eyes while giving them an incredible view of the rolling dunes and the sheets of sand blowing smoothly across them in the apparently endless winds. More than a few people were simply sitting on benches, watching the moving sand, either lost in meditation on the unspeakable beauty of the natural world, or getting a moment of exhausted peace amongst a hectic traveling holiday.

 

“Yeah, it’s kinda sinkin’ into the sand and it’s lousy with wild Pokemon, that bein’ the reason they only let folks with trained fightin’ Pokemon hike out to it,” Carlotta said, pointing to a pair of lean, tanned, toned men in ranger uniforms standing by the entrance desk. Both had shoulder-length black hair, but one’s ended in curls that bounced on his shoulders, while the other’s was straight with purple and silver tips. “These two rangers are workin’ here today. They’ll give our Pokemon a look-see an’ decide if they can let us out or not.”

 

“Afternoon, kids,” one of the rangers said, nodding to them. “I’m Beathan, and this is Desi. We’re the rangers on duty around this area today. So you want to head out to the old castle, huh?”

 

“See the real thing up close? Hell yeah!” Carlotta exclaimed, going for her pokeballs. “See, I’m thinkin’—I got me a Boldore an’ a Gurdurr, an’ they’ll be fine for the sandstorm, won’t they?”

 

“Let’s see ‘em,” Desi asked, pointing at the pokeballs. He started examining Thamina and Roland as soon as they appeared, running his hands over Thamina’s club and Roland’s stone hide while murmuring quietly to the Pokemon. Whatever he was saying looked like it startled Thamina, who almost dropped her club on her own foot.

 

“And the rest of you?” Beathan asked quickly.

 

“I also have a Boldore,” Cheren said, releasing Rocky, “and Carlotta and I both have water-type Pokemon, so we can stay hydrated.”

 

“I ain’t a battler, but I ain’t goin’ far from my friends anyhow,” Warren assured the rangers. “And I got me an Audino, so we oughta be able to keep anybody gettin’ hurt too bad.”

 

“Well, that’s fair,” Beathan agreed, smiling fondly at Desi as the other man began giving Rocky the same gentle examination. “And you, miss?”

 

“M-me? Um… all I got now’s Mina an’ Tibby… oh, a Woobat an’ a Tepig,” she explained, twisting her bag straps nervously in her hands. “And them Scraggy we caught this mornin’, I guess… are they anythin’?”

 

Beathan frowned, looking up thoughtfully. “I would say keep your Tepig safe from the sandstorm, and the winds will cause your Woobat difficulty, so only get her out if somebody gets lost and you think her psychic powers might help find them,” he said after a moment. “And don’t use brand-new Pokemon to try and do something like this. Stick close to your friends instead.”

 

“Thamina here looks good and strong, so she should be able to defend you pretty well from most of the Pokemon you’d encounter out there in the desert,” Desi said, standing up. “Both of your Boldore should love it out there—by the way, why not evolve them?”

 

“You mean, trade them away?” Cheren said in surprise.

 

“I mean trade them to each other,” Desi said, patting both rocky Pokemon on their heads. “Just for a while. It’s the variety in experience that helps some Pokemon evolve, and it shouldn’t make too much difference to them so long as you stick together.”

 

“And you must stick close together,” Beathan emphasized. “Return your Pokemon and follow us through here to the dressing room and we’ll get you set up…”

 

“We’re goin’ to the Castle!” Bianca squealed excitedly as Carlotta and Cheren returned their Pokemon and the four of them followed Beathan and Desi through a side door of the reception desk.

 

The dressing room had another big window with a view of the road down to the canyon, bright sun reflecting off the ever-shifting sands. “Right, let’s get you all sized…” Desi murmured, beginning to dig through a closet full of jackets.

 

“We’re gonna have to ask all of you to swipe your trainer IDs in here,” Beathan said, pointing to a swipe reader on the wall. “All the protective gear we’re gonna give you is museum property, so we will want it back and you’re liable for any damages that aren’t incurred in the form of the gear protecting you from unforeseeable danger. Meaning that if the boots get chewed up a bit protecting you from a real pissy Sandile, that’s fine, we’re not gonna charge you for that. If the goggles get cracked because you decided to try parkouring around the cliff edge, we’re gonna charge you for that. Clear?”

 

“I don’t wanna play on the cliff edge,” Bianca said anxiously.

 

“Crystal clear,” Carlotta promised, accepting a jacket from Desi and trying it on. “Gondamn, you got a good eye. Ain’t this a li’l heavy for that desert?”

 

“The material will protect you from heatstroke,” Desi explained, showing the inside of another jacket before passing it to Warren, “and if you plan to camp out, it’s got heating elements in it too.”

 

“Deserts get cold at night,” Cheren said with a nod. “I’ve heard that. Do people often camp out?”

 

“Sometimes,” Beathan said, passing out pairs of boots. “It’s a long way out, and some folks want to take their time exploring the castle. Some folks want to explore the desert a little more, too, and it’s better to do that when the sun’s down, it’s cooler and most of the wild Pokemon are sleeping. I won’t say don’t explore—we’re sending you into the canyon, so there’s only so far you can go before hitting a cliff wall, it’s unlikely that you’ll get incredibly lost. But just in case, all of your gear has two things in it; a tracker, and an emergency button.”

 

Desi showed them a tiny red switch on the side of each pair of goggles. “Press this and we’ll come find you. Press it just for shits and giggles and we will find you. But if somebody’s injured, or you see something suspicious, or you’re getting overrun by wild Pokemon, or you’re just plain lost and scared, don’t hesitate to call us in. It’s what we’re here for.”

 

“I’ve got a Conkeldurr of my own and a Gliscor for tracking you down,” Beathan said, tapping the pokeballs on his belt, “and Desi’s got a damn Garchomp. We can take pretty much anything you’ll encounter in there. In all likelihood, though, you won’t run foul of more than a few pissy Sandile and maybe a territorial Darumaka. Okay?”

 

“Plus, your Gurdurr’s just raring to attack anything threatening her friends,” Desi laughed. “I think you’ll be fine.”

 

“And the Castle?” Cheren asked. “I heard it’s sinking into the sand…”

 

“It is, but Historic Unova spends a LOT of money on energy shielding for that place,” Beathan assured him. “They’re checked up on regularly. You won’t be able to physically access any dangerous areas. Feel free to explore as much as you like, but again, common sense warning that still has to be said: do not try to breach the energy barriers. They’re there for your protection. Understood?”

 

“Loud and clear,” Warren said in a muffled voice as he pulled his scarf up over his mouth.

 

“Last thing,” Desi said, fastening something to a clip on Carlotta’s jacket and then unwinding it to reveal some kind of thick cable that he attached to each of them in turn. “You won’t be able to go more than ten feet from each other, but when you get into the wind and sands, you won’t want to. You can unclip the rope yourselves, but I advise not doing that until you’re at Relic Castle.”

 

“And on that note…” Beathan opened the door next to the window, letting in the noise of howling wind and more than a bit of sand. “Have fun stormin’ the castle!”

 

 

{Reshin 24th, 1.51pm}

{Relic Castle}

 

“Ta-daaaa!” Carlotta gasped as they stumbled through the doorway, out of the sand and into the shelter of the ruins. “Welcome to the greatest castle in Unova!”

 

“The only true castle in Unova,” Cheren added. “All others are technically only forts, as they were not residences of the royal family. As Unova was colonozied after the invention of plumbing, only one royal castle was ever constructed, as opposed to the multiple castles used by the royal families of Galar or Kalos.”

 

Bianca pulled off her hat and hood, peering around the cavernous space that they’d wandered into. She could hear the wind blowing sand around outside, and a steady trickle of the pale grit was drifting down through holes in ceiling and through the doorway. The floor was buried under drifts of sand, though it was possible to kick away enough to find the cracked flagstones beneath. She wandered over to a wall, brown with age but in faded tones that suggested there had once been colourful frescoes. When she reached out a hand, though, she met resistance, glowing blue in the air briefly.

 

“There’s them energy fields them rangers mentioned, keepin’ folks from damagin’ any of it,” Warren explained, “and to keep folks from gettin’ hurt if any other bits fall off, I guess.”

 

“Is it gonna keep fallin’ apart?” Bianca asked, looking up nervously at the distant ceiling.

 

“It’s safe, B, don’t worry!” Carlotta assured her. “C’mon, I’ve watched documentaries an’ stuff ‘bout this place before, but I ain’t never been here for real! Let’s explore! I wanna find the dungeons!”

 

“I think the dungeons are buried, Carly,” Warren pointed out as Carlotta led them off down a side corridor, dark except for the light from an occasional lamp set against the wall, tall enough to keep it out of the drifts of sand blowing in through the empty windows. They all pulled their hoods back up over their faces to keep the sand off as they walked down the hall, peering through empty doorways into sand-buried rooms.

 

Cheren tapped Carlotta’s shoulder and pointed at a branching corridor. “Down this way to the royal chambers, I think,” he said, his voice muffled by his hood. “It’s more concealed, so they actually have some reproduction furniture in there.”

 

Aside from the grinding wind and their own muffled footsteps, the castle was empty and silent as they walked down the bare corridors. It made Bianca shiver, a little. It seemed wrong for such a big place to be so empty. “How come this place got abandoned?” she asked.

 

“It was used into the Civil War,” Cheren explained. “Interestingly, neither Eduard nor Dilwyn ever constructed their own castle, they simply fought over this one and it changed hands multiple times; ownership of this castle was key both symbolically and strategically. Eduard himself died here, and while the castle was still used for some years thereafter, it gained a reputation as being terribly haunted by him, Dilwyn, or both. About thirty years after the deaths of the twin princes, it was completely abandoned, though the Civil War continued on for several generations from other power bases.”

 

“Oooh! I know ‘bout Prince Eduard an’ Prince Dilwyn!” Bianca gasped. “They were born together an’ died on the very same night, way I heard it…”

 

“Same minute, some say, though no knowin’ that for sure,” Warren said with a nod. “Ain’t nobody quite sure what happened to this day, but rumour is they had each other assassinated.”

 

“Ain’t that some twin shit, givin’ up on honourable war an’ hirin’ assassins at the same damn time?” Carlotta laughed.

 

“I dunno… I think it’s kinda sad,” Bianca said mournfully. “I mean, they were brothers, an’ they wanted to kill each other…”

 

“It’s been said that Eduard and Dilwyn were the truest example of people hating each other because they were too alike,” Cheren said, glancing through doorways as they passed. Some of the rooms had small placards with codes on them on the wall, to be checked in a tour guide app on the C-gear. “They had different ruling philosophies, but ultimately many of the same goals and desires. They both inspired mass loyalty in their followers, and such similar styles of rules that a great portion of the populace in all likelihood could not have told you who was ruling them at any one time. They also both had…” He grimaced. “Let’s say unfriendly attitudes to the concept of sharing land with the Native Unovans. Or not doing so. I sincerely doubt they knew or cared about the different sides of the Civil War. Ah, here we are…”

 

At the end of the hall was the first door that Bianca had seen in the whole castle. Cheren pushed it open, causing an effect much like falling back in time.

 

There was glass in the tall windows, sealing the room off from the sandstorm outside. The floor was clean of sand, the tiles faded but uncracked, covered in a plush rug. The room was hung with elaborate woven banners depicting black and white dragons, all centred around a huge, soft canopy bed. On one side of the bed was a wide fireplace, and next to it a high wingback chair in front of a low table. Against a window stood a writing desk, with some blank parchment and a quill pen lying on it.

 

“Gondamn, this is fancy,” Carlotta whistled, reaching out to run a hand down the carved posts of the bed. “Reproductions, y’all were sayin’?”

 

“Not the original furniture, naturally, but sturdy imitations,” Cheren said with a nod. “And there wouldn’t have been banners of both Zekrom and Reshiram at the same time, of course, it would’ve changed depending on which king was in residence…”

 

“They even slept in the same room?” Bianca asked quietly. “They were all that alike an’ they couldn’t even… I dunno, rule together?”

 

“Generations of war just ‘cause their mama ain’t never teach ‘em to share,” Warren sighed, peering up at one of the banners. “I mean, bein’ fair, if we got in a war Carly’d definitely kill me ten minutes in an’ rule the world.”

 

“Except I wouldn’t, ‘cause we wouldn’t go to war,” Carlotta said stubbornly, clamping her brother in an arm-pinning hug that lifted him off his feet with a squawk. “We got different strengths. I’m good at punchin’ folk. You’re good at lookin’ after ‘em. Rule together, apply different strengths, problem solved!”

 

“Yes, but bear in mind they were devout Taotri,” Cheren said, sitting down at the writing desk and running a hand over the parchment. “All of the colonists were. Their faith in their Grand Dragon was absolute, and the Grand Dragon only ever chose one heir. When the Grand Dragon split into Reshiram and Zekrom, that was seen as an indicator that both princes were worthy of being king, but it was inconceivable that there should be two. Their faith meant they had to fight, regardless of how they felt about each other…”

 

“Fucks me up every time,” Carlotta muttered. “Alright, never mind all that shit. If the dungeons are buried, what the hell else is there to see around here?”

 

Is the castle haunted?” Bianca said nervously as Cheren loaded up the tour guide app and led them back out into the hall.

 

“I mean, probably,” Carlotta said with a shrug. “There were a whole loada battles here. Probably a buncha ghost Pokemon around somewhere. But hey, them Scraggy we caught oughta have Dark attacks, right?”

 

Cheren nodded, tapping his newest pokeball thoughtfully. “But those rangers were right—we should probably avoid using them until we’ve had a chance to train with them,” he reminded her. “Alright, these rooms were the King’s private rooms…”

 

There were a few other rooms that had been sealed off and decorated with reproduction furniture, making them at least bright and colourful again, if still as creepily empty as the rest of the castle. The sheer age of the place was staggering, as were the number of stories about battles fought on the grounds, in the halls, spies caught and fought and killed, criminals and servants and slaves punished or executed in the castle grounds…

 

All because their faith said that they couldn’t have two kings. All because their faith said they had to have a king at all.

 

That really what their gods wanted for ‘em?

 

They wound up back in the Great Hall, though from a different entrance. A few steps into the room, Carlotta stopped dead in her tracks, stiffening and looking around. “HEY!” she yelled sharply. “WHO’S THERE?!”

 

“Carly? What is it?” Warren asked, turning and looking around, edging closer to his sister as he did so. “Somebody there?”

 

“I can’t see anybody,” Cheren said cautiously, also growing closer to his friends.

 

“No, I didn’t see nobody, but…” Carlotta rubbed her head. “Argh. Y’all ever get a feelin’ where you’re really, really damn sure you’re bein’ watched, even though theres no accountin’ for it?”

 

“Yeah… I know what you mean,” Warren said, frowning thoughtfully.

 

“Weren’t you sure somethin’ was followin’ us in the forest, too, War?” Bianca asked nervously. “What if it’s the same thing?” A sharp fear struck her. “What if it’s one of them ninjas?” she asked quietly, clinging to Carlotta’s arm.

 

Cheren looked at Bianca, took a deep breath and released Sherlock. “They’ll regret it if they attack us,” he declared firmly, even as he surreptitiously gripped Warren’s hand so tightly that his boyfriend could feel his rushing pulse in his palm.

 

“They didn’t even seem to have any Pokemon,” Warren added, contributing to the brave front and squeezing Cheren’s hand tightly. “They probably attacked Sar Saylee’s bodyguards ‘cause they knew they wouldn’t have no Pokemon neither.”

 

“We can take ‘em,” Carlotta said, releasing Owain and Thamina, all three of them flexing fiercely.

 

“Should we call in them rangers?” Bianca asked, reaching up for the goggles hanging around her neck.

 

“Deep breaths,” Cheren said, taking one himself. “We aren’t the only tourists in the area. We’ve gotten ourselves worked up over some other historical enthusiast, or some minor wild Pokemon. Look, down this way we can visit the old kitchens…”

 

“Sounds good,” Bianca said anxiously, hurrying off down the enclosed corridor, even though it didn’t seem to have lights up like the others—

 

Suddenly, Bianca was falling.

 

The world was a confusing mess of sharp, tearing sand and darkness and light and falling and then she wasn’t falling but rolling down a pile of scratching, tearing sand and then hitting flagstones with an elbow-jarring crash.

 

Her ears were ringing and her head spinning so much that she wasn’t sure how much time passed before she became aware of Carlotta desperately screaming her name.

 

“Carly…?” she called weakly, wincing at the pain in her skinned arms and hands as she pushed herself to her feet. Carlotta kept yelling. “Guys! I’m okay!” Bianca shouted, looking up at the faint light filtering down through the hole down which sand and rubble was falling in a steady trickle.

 

“B! Bianca!” Carlotta shouted. “Stay where you are, ‘kay? Cher’s hit the emergency button! Them rangers’ll be on their way!”

 

“’Kay!” Bianca shouted, reaching her hands out to find her way, in the dim light, over to a wall. She leaned against it, shivering as she ran her hands up and down her arms, feeling all the scrapes and tears in the protective jacket she’d been given. At least it didn’t feel like she’d broken—

 

Something snarled in the dark, and that was all the warning she got before jaws snapped around her wrist.

 

She screamed, swinging her arm and whatever heavy, sharp-toothed thing was attached to it against the wall until it let go with a grunt. Bianca staggered away from where she heard it fall, but she could hear something else snarling in the darkness, and she was alone.

 

But I don’t gotta be, right? I got Pokemon!

 

She fumbled in her bag for her pokeballs, grabbing and opening the first two she could find. In the flash of light from the pokeballs opening, she recognized Penny’s silhouette taking shape, but she didn’t recognize the toddler-sized figure that appeared on the floor.

 

That ain ’t Mina or Tibby—wait, didn’t we catch them Pokemon at the bus station this mornin’? I ain’t even trained that one!

 

“Penny? Uh… new Pokemon?” she called. “There’s somethin’ out there in the dark, watch out!”

 

There were more snarls, snaps, screeches and crashes as the Pokemon fought in the dim hallway. Bianca backed up against the wall, fighting tears. I can’t even see! Ain’t I supposed to be their trainer? Ain’t I supposed to tell ‘em how to fight? What’m I gonna do?

 

In the darkness, something gave an awful scream.

 

 

{Reshin 24th, 2.22pm}

{Relic Castle}

 

Warren had to lunge forwards and grab his sister around the waist to haul her away from jumping into the hole in the floor. Her infuriated yelling mixed with Bianca’s frightened screaming.

 

“LEMME GO, WAR!” she bellowed. “Can’t be that far to fall, B’s alone down there, we gotta—!”

 

“You’re gonna break your gondamn neck, jumpin’ in there blind!” Cheren yelled frantically, his own composure slipping at the sound of Bianca screaming. “Just hang on and wait for the rangers—”

 

“Somethin’s attackin’ her NOW!” Carlotta bellowed. Thamina suddenly yelled, poking Carlotta with her club to get her attention before turning and running away down a side corridor.

 

“Thamina—where are you goin’? Not now!” Carlotta yelled, elbowing Warren in the ribs and taking off after her Pokemon when he gasped and dropped her.

 

“Carly! CARLOTTA!” Warren yelled, but Carlotta didn’t look back, focused on trying to chase down her Gurdurr, who kept glancing over her shoulder and then squeaking when she saw her trainer following, leading her around a corner and down a stone staircase slick with sand. Carlotta slipped when running down them, but her forward momentum kept her going and she grabbed the crumbling walls to steady herself, following Thamina down to a darkened corridor—

 

It was dark, but she could still somehow see something standing at the far end of the corridor, some dark bulk that vanished through a side door.

 

“HEY!” Carlotta yelled, chasing after it. “Are you watchin’ us—?!”

 

Thamina yelled, now the one chasing after her trainer. As she reached the door she’d seen whatever it was vanish through, Carlotta heard Bianca crying, and Thamina shot off past her in the direction of the sound.

 

“B! Bianca! I’m comin’!” Carlotta yelled, all mysterious figures forgotten as she followed her Pokemon’s lead and the sound of Bianca sobbing. She turned on the flashlight in her c-gear—gondammit, we gotta get B one of these!to light up the pitch-dark corridor.

 

Bianca was crouched over, clutching a limp, unmoving bundle of grey feathers in her arms as she cried. In front of her were two small Pokemon, standing between her and a group of snarling Sandile, half of them already unconscious. One of the Scraggy they’d captured this morning let out a blood-curdling battle cry as she leapt forwards and smacked a Sandile in the snout so hard that it cracked off the floor.

 

The other, Carlotta didn’t recognize; it was like a wisp of black with huge red eyes, clutching something round that glinted dull yellow in the light from Carlotta’s c-gear. This one moved between Bianca and Carlotta protectively, making Thamina skid to a stop and chitter nervously as the sight of the ghost.

 

“Bianca!” Carlotta yelled. Bianca looked around, shielding her eyes from the flashlight and wiping tears on her cheeks.

 

“C-Carly…” she sobbed, holding Penny’s body tightly. “I-I-I couldn’t see… I-I couldn’t h-h-help her… I… I…”

 

“Shit, B,” Carlotta said, brushing past the ghost and crouching down to hug Bianca. The Scraggy cried out as one of the Sandile bit her, and Thamina jumped in with a furious cry, sweeping three of them aside at once with her club. “I’m so gondamn sorry.”

 

The little ghost floated over to croon over Penny’s body, huge red tears rolling down its cheeks.

 

 

{Reshin 24th, 8.00pm}

{Nuvema Town —Tohjo Embassy}

 

Blue glanced down at his pokegear as it buzzed, then wordlessly walked into Red’s room to hand it over, glancing out the window. They’d left all the curtains open, on instructions, so that whoever was outside could see Saylee answer her pokegear.

 

Blue looked down at Red, sleeping with a slight frown. They’d opted to bring him back from the hospital because his injuries had already been barely there by the time the surgeons saw him, leaving them nonplussed as to how exactly he wound up unconscious. The teenager was sleeping deeply as he healed, but nevertheless he had healed, already completely unmarked as if he hadn’t nearly bled out on the hotel floor.

 

There was a tap on his shoulder as his pokegear was handed back. “Thanks,” he said, watching the screen until he saw a text from Saylee.

 

They don ’t want Meloetta. They said they’ll call again when they have need of us, so long as I stay in the embassy. They bought it.

 

Be careful, he texted back, turning around to look at Meloetta. “Thank you,” he said sincerely. “It’s working.”

 

Meloetta nodded, but didn’t cease the humming causing her to appear as an exact duplicate of Saylee.

 

 

{Reshin 24th, 8.00pm}

{South of Nimbasa}

 

Saylee put down her pokegear with a stormy expression.

 

“What do they want?” Key asked in a grim tone. She was leaning against Suicune’s side, and though her face was impossible to see in the dark, Saylee could well imagine the concerned frown.

 

“They… let me hear her voice for a moment so I could hear she’s alright,” Saylee said shakily, sinking to the ground. Key put an arm around her, giving her a warm hug, and Suicune brought their head around to gently lick Saylee’s cheek. “She said she wants to go home and then they took the phone away—” She took a deep breath, steeling herself. “And then they said they believe me that I don’t know where Meloetta is, but they’re going to need something from me later, so to stay in the embassy until called. They commended me for following instructions so far,” she spat poisonously.

 

“At least that means they believe that Meloetta is you,” Janine commented. “Get some sleep. I’ll keep watch.”

 

“Two and a half hour shifts,” Saylee said firmly. “Wake me in two and a half hours.”

 

“I’ll be fine all—” Janine began, but Saylee shook her head.

 

“Ninja training or no, you need sleep,” she said sharply. “When we find my daughter, I want all of us at our peak, not making sloppy mistakes because we’re too exhausted to think properly. Okay?”

 

“You can all sleep and I’ll keep watch,” Suicune offered, shaking their head so their soft purple mane draped over Saylee and Key like a blanket. “I genuinely, biologically don’t need sleep.”

 

“I’ve seen you sleep,” Saylee pointed out.

 

“Naps are recreational. I’ve gone hundreds of years at a time without shutting my eyes. I think I slept when I was dead.”

 

Janine closed her eyes and grimaced at the word dead. They’d left Koga in critical condition, with no updates yet from Blue. “Then we’ll all get six hours and get back to searching in the morning,” she said roughly. “I’ve got a pouch of Sleep Powder and I’m not afraid to use it.”

 

“We’ll find her,” Key promised, putting her glasses in her pocket. Saylee put her own glasses in a pocket of her dark coat. Despite the warm weather, she was wearing long sleeves and a hood to hide her scars, which stuck out all the more in Unova, where people never kept scars.

 

“We will,” Saylee whispered back. She felt familiar feelings—rage, determination…

 

And fear. So much fear.

 

She closed her eyes, fighting not to see Red’s body behind them.

 

We have to find her. Because… I can’t imagine living through that loss. I just can’t.

Chapter Text

{Reshin 24th, 20.00}
{Desert Resort}

“Sorry, kids, but visiting hours are over,” a nurse said as she stepped into Bianca’s room. “We’re just keeping her for observation, so you can come pick her up in the morning.”

“Wait, I gotta stay here alone?” Bianca said anxiously, hands fisting in her sheets as she sat bolt upright.

“It’ll be okay, B,” Warren said gently, putting a hand on her shoulder. “They gotta keep an eye on you, case you bumped your head, but ain’t nobody but nurses gettin’ in and outta your room ‘til we pick you up in the mornin’, okay?”

“On that note, if anybody asks after her, claiming to be her parents, please don’t tell them she’s here,” Cheren asked the nurse. “She absolutely does not want her parents finding or contacting her.”

“I’ll make a note, hon,” the nurse promised, picking up Bianca’s clipboard, “but I’m afraid you’ve all gotta go now. We’ll give you a little something to help you sleep,” she promised Bianca, “so they’ll be back in no time at all, I promise.”

“We’ll be back first thing in the morning,” Carlotta promised, hugging Bianca fiercely before stepping back to let Warren and Cheren each have a hug. “Soon as they discharge you, we’ll be here, got it?”

“Got it,” Bianca sniffed, lying back in bed and wiping her eyes after Cheren let her go. “I’ll… see y’all in the mornin’, then.”

“Eleven o’clock, on the dot!” Cheren promised as the nurse chivvied them all out of the room. “It is eleven, right?”

“Discharge’ll take a while longer, but that’s when visiting hours open, yes,” the nurse promised. “Now, I have to tell you that I can’t guarantee she’ll be discharged, but so far it just looks like a little twist in the ankle, a lot of bumps and a bad fright. Head on down to the hostel and don’t you worry, okay?”

“Sure,” Carlotta mumbled as they walked out of the medical centre attached to the ranger station. Bianca hadn’t been deemed to be suffering from any injuries serious enough to warrant a transfer to a major hospital, but given the chance she’d hit her head, the on-call doctor had ordered her kept for observation. “Don’t worry ‘bout Bianca bein’ there on her own. Gonna stop breathin’ while we’re about it?”

“She’ll be fine, Carly,” Warren assured her. “C’mon, we gotta go get some dinner ‘fore we sleep.”

“The hostel might have food,” Cheren said, raising his hand to cover his mouth and nose as the wind kicked up a brief flurry of sand. The ranger outpost was a little bubble of light that just made the desert around it seem utterly endless by comparison.

“Y’all wanna go see the stars?” Carlotta said abruptly, turning on her heel and heading off for one of the gaps between the buildings, out towards the open desert.

“Whoa, Carly, hang on, that ain’t—” Warren called, running after her.

“Ain’t goin’ far, War, just far enough to get out from the lights,” Carlotta insisted, not slowing down. “’Sides, we’re trainers, ain’t we? We got Pokemon. Owain an’ Thamina’ll get anythin’ out here.”

“I’ve heard it said that the desert is the best place to see the stars,” Cheren agreed, exchanging a worried look with Warren. “We don’t need to go too far, so long as our backs are to the ranger outpost…”

“Yeah,” Carlotta said, scrambling up a small sand dune. It was incredibly difficult; the sand was loose and silky and slid into their shoes, making every step heavy. Warren made it further up, then reached down and hauled Cheren up after him, the two almost collapsing over the top of the dune to sit next to Carlotta on the other side.

It took a few moments, especially with black dots dancing in Warren’s sight, but with the lights of the ranger outpost blocked by the dune, his eyes slowly adjusted to the dark and the light of the stars.

They sat in silence as the night sky bloomed overhead.

“Hey, War?” Carlotta said quietly after a while.

“What?”

“B said somethin’ was watchin’ you in the forest before. What’d it feel like?”

“Like I was imaginin’ things—”

“No you weren’t,” Carlotta said, leaning back further so that she was fully lying down on the sand, her hands folded over her stomach and an unusually pensive expression on her face. “Somethin’ was watchin’ us in that castle, too, but you didn’t feel it, right?”

“Perhaps it was that Yamask—” Cheren began, but Carlotta waved a hand in the air to cut him off.

“I knew it was watchin’ us, and it weren’t that li’l thing,” she insisted. “Was that what it was, War? You didn’t see nothin’, but you knew it was lookin’?”

“…Yeah,” Warren admitted. “It, uh… didn’t feel friendly.”

“Nah… felt pretty judgy,” Carlotta said, in a tone of voice clearly indicating that she was wrinkling her nose even though the starlight wasn’t enough to pick it out. “But… I was followin’ it, an’ that’s how I heard B. I think it mighta helped me find her. You think that was what Sar Kanto was talkin’ ‘bout?”

“Sar Kanto? Sar Saylee Kanto?”

“Ranger Beathan!” Cheren said in surprise as the ranger popped up at the top of the dune. “Yes, we were talking about… sorry, should we not be out here?”

“Well, it can get dangerous to wander too far from the outpost, so I thought I’d better check you hadn’t gone far,” the ranger said. “Mind if I join you?”

“Pull up a dune,” Carlotta offered, sitting up and making a face as she brushed sand out of her hair. “We, uh… got lucky, got to go to a party Sar Kanto was attendin’ in Castelia. You know her?”

“Do I know… no, of course not,” Beathan said, rolling his eyes. “But I know of her. She was famous a long time before she became the Tohjo Champion, at least around the Fairlands.”

“You’re Fairlan?” Cheren asked in surprise.

“From Hoenn, originally,” Bethan said, looking out over the dunes with a distant expression. “Grew up in a town called Pacifidlog until I was nine.”

“How come you moved out to Unova?” Carlotta asked curiously.

“You kids ever heard of the Hoenn Calamity?” Beathan asked simply. “Pacifidlog sank. It’s long gone. We got lucky, we lived, a lot of people… anyway, even after it was over, none of us could bear to live on or near the sea anymore. So we moved to Unova and went as far inland as we could get.” He gestured out at the desert. “At the time, Sar Kanto was… some kinda ranger, or something, in Kanto, but she tried to prevent the Calamity, and loads of folks saw her evacuating people trapped in Sootopolis City and even going up against Groudon and Kyogre along with Sar Weaves.” He snorted. “Whoever took her kid is punching way above their weight class.”

“Groudon and Kyogre—they’re real? You saw them?” Cheren said intently, sitting bolt upright.

“Not with my own two eyes, but plenty of folks did,” Beathan said simply. “And I saw the sea that day. I lived on the sea all my life up until then, I saw the sea in every kind of storm, and that wasn’t any of them. That was something even more powerful. Do you believe in that?” he asked, glancing sidelong at the three teenagers. “Most folks in Unova don’t.”

“The evidence is mostly anec—” Cheren began, then cut himself off sharply. “I’m sorry. That’s inappropriate. I just don’t personally believe in…” He trailed off awkwardly.

“The idea of god-Pokemon?” Beathan asked, looking up at the stars. “It’s not about believe, not in Hoenn anymore. They’re there, whether you believe in ‘em or not, and they’re dangerous. Is that what Sar Kanto was talking to you about?”

“She was just… talkin’ about weird stuff,” Warren hedged. “She mighta been warnin’ us that there’s somethin’ about, but… I don’t really understand it.”

Beathan looked concerned. “Sure as shit hope not,” he said, standing up again. “But that being the case, we’d better head back to the outpost. Oh, yeah… one other reason I came looking for you. I spoke to the conservation team. They’re offering deepest apologies to you and especially your friend for what happened. There should’ve been an energy barrier in place to keep you all from accidentally wandering into anywhere where the floor was that unstable. They’re looking into it now.”

“I should hope so,” Cheren said stiffly as he got up to follow Beathan back to the outpost.

“What ‘bout her Tranquill?” Carlotta asked. “What should we do with her?”

“We got a li’l morgue for when worst comes to worst, we’ll keep her there until your friend’s up and about in the morning,” Beathan reassured her. “Hey, can I ask? You being Unovans… do you care?”

“About Bianca’s Tranquill dyin’?” Warren asked, looking a little startled.

“Yeah, I guess I could’ve worded that better, but…” Beathan shrugged. “You just gonna replace her or what?”

“I don’t think B’s gonna wanna replace Penny,” Carlotta said, shaking her head. “And it is sad, ‘cause she’s dead an’ all…”

“Well, you’re better than most around here,” Beathan sighed. “The number of people who’ll just ditch the body, then go out and buy another one…” He shook his head with a snort, shoving his hands in his pockets as he stomped down the dune.

“Sorry if this is gonna be a weird question, but how do you feel if one of your Pokemon dies?” Warren asked awkwardly. “Is it like losin’ a family member to you, or…?”

“…if you lose one you grew up with? Yeah,” Beathan said quietly. “I mean… in Pacifidlog, we lived together with the ocean Pokemon. Not everybody does. Like, they have their territories, we have ours, you know? But the Corsola and us… we were all the village together. And as many Corsola as humans died, even though they could’ve just headed off into the ocean on their own and probably been fine. But humans can’t breathe underwater, so they stayed, trying to help and protect us, and…” He took a deep breath. “I’m not gonna say Pokemon are the same as humans. They’re obviously not. They see the world differently. But different doesn’t mean less. The loss of a Pokemon is the loss of someone irreplaceable, no matter how much cloning the breeding companies do.” He looked sidelong at the three of them. “Keep that in mind when training them, huh?”

“…Of course,” Cheren said quietly. “Thank you for speaking to us.” He stopped dead, his eyes widening. “Oh, dammit!”

“Cher? What is it?” Warren said in concern.

“Speaking of irreplaceable… I forgot to take a photograph with Lilli at the castle,” Cheren groaned, picking up the Petlil’s pokeball.

“You can always take one with her on the dunes tomorrow,” Warren reassured him. “Traded his Purrloin that weren’t into fightin’ to a li’l girl in hospital for her Petlil. We owe her some cool pics.”

“Now that’s just sweet,” Beathan said with a smile, then reached for a pokeball on his belt. “You think she wants to see some foreign Pokemon?”


{Reshin 25th, 11.25}
{Desert Resort}

“Wow, it’s hot!” Bianca complained, fanning herself with her hat as soon as she stepped out under the sunlight.

“Yeah, we’re thinkin’ we’re just gonna ‘port into Nimbasa,” Carlotta said, pointing to the travel centre. “But first, we gotta stop in next door so you can sign off on ‘em sendin’ Penny off for burial.”

“Oh… yeah,” Bianca said, slumping. “I’m… glad they took her outta there. Wouldn’t wanna leave her down in the dark…”

Desi was waiting for them inside of the ranger station, which was really just an office unit plugged in next to the small medical centre. “Morning, kids,” he said, waving them over to a desk that was covered in rocks. “Glad to see you got discharged fine. How do you feel?”

“Ankle’s a li’l sore, but the doctor says it ain’t hurt bad so it’s better to just try my best to walk on it normal,” Bianca said, tapping her foot against the floor. “Penny… where are you gonna send her?”

“Well, your friends said you’re not in favour of cremation, so we’re thinking Celestial Tower,” Desi said, sitting down behind the desk and pulling out a card reader. “If you’re okay with that, let’s just see your trainer ID…”

“Okay,” Bianca said, handing over her trainer card to be scanned.

“Hey, Beathan?” Desi called over his shoulder as he scanned it. “They’re here!”

“Hey! Good morning,” Beathan called, poking his head around a door at the back of the room. “I’ve got somebody to introduce you kids to…” He walked out into the main office with the little black ghost trailing after him, clutching a round golden disk with, on closer inspection, a face on it.

“Oh… you were down in the castle, weren’t you?” Bianca asked. “Were you… tryin’ to help?”

“She says she was drawn to you, and she’s sorry she couldn’t help save your Tranquill,” Beathan explained. “Now, she can’t remember her name, so she’s happy for you to give you one if you want, because she wants to travel with you. She’s looking for something, and she hears traveling with humans might be a good way to find it.”

“…uh,” Bianca said, looking nonplussed. “Sure? What’s she lookin’ for?”

“She can’t remember that, either,” Beathan said ruefully, patting the sad-eyed little ghost on her head. “I thinks she’s been dead an awfully long time.”

“She’s… already dead?” Bianca said, crouching in front of the little ghost. “Ghost-types are for real dead?”

“They’re, uh… kind of a special category, but yeah,” Beathan said, looking sadly down at the ghost. “And they tend to be pretty sensitive to emotions. Even if she can’t understand your words, she’ll know how you feel. Maybe that’s why she likes you?”

“Well, what do you wanna name her?” Carlotta asked as Bianca reached out to try wiping some of the bright red tears from the ghost’s cheeks. The red drifted away and dissipated like smoke when touched by a living hand rather than smearing away, but she seemed to recognize the gesture anyway, closing her eyes and resting her head against Bianca’s hand.

“I kinda like Cleo,” Bianca suggested. “And it ain’t scriptural, it’s from a history book I read once… I think…”

“Sounds nice,” Warren said. “What kinda Pokemon is she, anyways?”

“That’s a Yamask,” Cheren supplied. “They’re… rare. And that gold circle it’s carrying…” He gestured to the pal gold face that Cleo was clutching. “…it’s moulded on the face of a dead body. The ghost is crying for… whoever that was.”

“That’s the most common theory, but let’s say not the only one,” Beathan said quietly. “I’ve never gotten to talk to one before, but she’s been dead so long she doesn’t even remember what she was before. Be kind to her, okay?”

“Sure,” Bianca promised, fumbling in her bag for an empty pokeball then holding it out. “So, you wanna come with us, Cleo?”

“You like the name Cleo?” Beathan asked the ghost. She opened her eyes, looking from Beathan to Bianca, then nodded, crooning something quietly. “Then just tap the front of that little ball in her hand…”

Cleo reached out with her mask, pressing the button at the front of the pokeball, then vanished into light.

“You were really talkin’ to her there, huh?” Carlotta said, staring at the pokeball clicked shut. “Gondamn, you really…”

“How does that even work, though?” Cheren asked, absolutely befuddled. “Is it a psychic link, or—”

“Maybe? Don’t think they figured it out,” Beathan said with a shrug. “Don’t know how to explain it, I just do it.”

“But there’s no way to—” Cheren began in frustration.

“Cheren, leave it,” Warren said, gripping Cheren’s arm. “Thanks for all your help,” he said politely to Beathan and Desi. “We’re gonna port out to Nimbasa. Think we’re all pretty much done with the desert.”

“Take care, kids,” Desi said, giving them a little smile and wave as they headed out. Warren glanced back as they left to see that Desi had also taken Beathan’s arm and was speaking quietly to the frustrated-looking man.


{Reshin 25th, 12.01}
{Nimbasa City}

Nimbasa City was a lot, but not like Castelia City. Castelia was crowded and near-claustrophobic, the streets jam-packed with people and tall buildings looming overhead. Nimbasa was nowhere near as tall, but the streets were just as busy, and even in the middle of the day they were a riot of colour and sound.

“Nimbasa’s got everythin’ for a good time to get our minds off everythin’,” Carlotta declared. “They got sports, they got music, they got theatre, but most of all they got Nimbasa Park, an’ I’m thinkin’ we’ve earned ourselves a day out there.”

“We’re going to go book rooms at the Pokemon Centre first,” Cheren insisted. “Nimbasa Park is good fun, but it’s exhausting, and I’d rather get our room sorted now than have to do it at the end of the day.”

“Good idea,” Warren agreed. “You doin’ alright, B?”

“Yeah…” Bianca said, staring around at all the flashing advertisements depicting musicals, football games and the funfair. “My folks always said Nimbasa’s a den of sin. Always wanted to see it…”

“Of course it’s a den of sin,” Carlotta said, rolling her eyes. “It’s fun! Nimbasa Park’s the best damn park in the whole country, you wait an’ see…”

Unfortunately but unsurprisingly, the Pokemon Centre was booked solid, as were every other hostel and affordable hotel in the area. “It’s the tournament season at the stadiums,” the clerk said apologetically. “But if you’re trainers, there’s a campground up… here.” She pointed out an area to the northeast of the city on a map set into the counter. She tapped it a couple times and smiled brightly when some numbers came up. “It looks like they’ve got spaces! It’s free to stay in, you just need to present your trainer ID at the gate and they’ll give you a camping space!”

“Thank you very much,” Cheren said, downloading a city map and setting up a route.

“Thank you!” Warren, Bianca and Carlotta chorused as they headed back out of the Centre and into the sun.

“Right, book us a campin’ ground, then Nimbasa Park,” Carlotta declared. “You gotta try the cotton candy, B! It’ll take your mind right off of… everythin’.” She trailed off awkwardly as her eyes flickered down to her pokeballs and back.

“…Sure,” Bianca said, smiling after a moment. “Sounds real fun. I can’t wait!”

“Hey, Carly? Can I ask you somethin’?” Warren said, grabbing his sister’s arm to get her to drift back as Cheren led the way to the campground. Cheren caught Warren’s eye, then caught Bianca’s attention by starting to tell her about how Nimbasa came to be known at the pleasure city of Unova.

“What’s up?” Carlotta asked.

“You an’ Bianca gotta talk, Carly,” Warren said quietly.

“’Bout what?” Carlotta asked, not meeting his eyes.

“You know damn well ‘bout what,” Warren whispered. “Look, where Bianca comes from, comin’ out ain’t gonna be easy for her, but she’s safe now, she can do it! But the more time she spends scared she’s gonna ruin everythin’ by tellin’ you she likes you—”

“I know she does, War, I just don’t know what to do ‘bout it,” Carlotta whispered, throwing an anxious look at the blonde in question. “She’s my friend! I don’t wanna break her heart! I just…” She looked down uncomfortably. “I don’t like girls. So what’m I s’posed to do?”

“Tell her you know, an’ she’s still your friend,” Warren assured her. “She knows you don’t like girls, Carly, we all know that. She knows you ain’t gonna be her girlfriend. But she’s scared you ain’t gonna be her friend, and you gotta sort that out. After everythin’ that’s been happenin’, losin’ Pokemon… weird shit…” He sighed, tugging on his cap. “Y’all can sort out this worry, anyway. An’ sooner’s better’n later, you know?”

“I know, it just… ain’t gonna be fun,” Carlotta mumbled.

“Way less fun for her,” Warren pointed out. “Do it for B, Carly. Alright?”

Carlotta took a deep breath. “Right. Do it for B. I can do that…”


{Reshin 25th, 12.01}
{???}

The blocks wobbled under her feet. Scarlet tried to lean forward more to make them stop, but instead they just fell. She screamed as she tumbled down the block tower and onto the floor. It didn’t hurt much, because it was thick and soft, but it was scary. She slammed her hands over her mouth, hoping nobody had heard the scream, but the lady with pink hair came running in, looking worried. She crouched next to Scarlet, saying something in Unovan as her hands fluttered down Scarlet’s arms and legs.

“I’m fine,” Scarlet insisted, scooting away. It felt like she’d bumped her elbow, but that was nothing. “Leave me alone! Let me out! I want mummy an’ daddy! Lemme OUT!”

The woman was trying to make soothing noises, but Scarlet ignored her. The noises meant that the answer was no.

Somebody else came in, a man in a long white coat like a doctor, and talked to the pink lady. Scarlet didn’t like the way he looked at her over his glasses. “Go away,” she told him. “I don’t like any of you! Leave me ALONE! I WANT MY MUMMY AND DADDY!” She kicked a spare football at him, upset that her attempt to climb to the ceiling had failed. “I WANT MY MUMMY AND DADDY! I WANT MY MUMMY AND DADDY! I WANT—”

“Shut up,” the man said bluntly. Scarlet was so surprised to hear Fairlan that she did. “You will see your parents again when we say you will. Until then, behave, or else.”

“Or else what?” Scarlet asked, folding her arms stubbornly and sticking her tongue out at him.

Then it hurt, and she was on the ground, and he was standing over her with his hand in the air. He’d hit her. But they weren’t training, and even in training people weren’t supposed to hit you like that, not really hard, when Mummy was showing how she always hit the pads, grownups weren’t supposed to hit kids—

“Behave,” the man ordered her coldly, then turned and stalked out of the room. The pink lady ran over, reaching for Scarlet’s hit cheek. She was crying, saying what sounded like the Unovan for “I’m sorry”.

Scarlet burst into loud, screaming tears. It was the only thing to do.

Chapter Text

{Reshin 25th, 14.24}

{Nimbasa Park, Nimbasa City}

 

“I think I’m gonna be sick,” Bianca giggled, lying down on the grass near the exit from the rollercoaster. Given the number of other people who’d also found a patch of grass to collapse on after staggering off of the ride, it had probably been planted for that reason. “Oooooh… that was great!”

 

“Told you,” Carlotta laughed, sitting down next to her. “We oughta go get cotton candy, once your head’s stopped spinnin’.”

 

“Feel too woozy to eat…” Bianca groaned, rubbing her stomach.

 

“It’ll settle down soon,” Warren promised her. “And it’s better to eat after you’ve been on all the real wild rides.”

 

“I feel perfectly fine,” Cheren said, glancing from Carlotta to Warren with a significant look. “Warren, would you like to try the boat racing?”

 

“Y’know what? Yeah,” Warren decided, standing up. “I think you’n me’ll crush it. Carly, you wanna stay here an’ look after B?”

 

He gave her a look which her twintuition clearly communicated as talk to Bianca. Deal with it!

 

Carlotta tried to give him pleading eyes back, but his Look just intensified. It wasn’t often in their sibling relationship that Warren put his foot down, but that just meant that when he did, it was kind of scary.

 

“…Yeah, yeah, I got ‘er,” Carlotta grumbled, breaking eye contact. “You two Luvdiscs go an’ enjoy yourselves. We’ll find you later.”

 

“Have fun!” Bianca called, sitting up and waving as the boys departed. “I am feelin’ a bit better just now,” she said, stretching her arms over her head.

 

“Try standin’ up careful,” Carlotta warned her, offering Bianca a hand up to steady herself and not missing how Bianca blushed when she took it. Shit. War’s right. Gotta deal with this… “C’mon,” she said, letting go of Bianca’s hand. “I think I saw a stall over here sellin’ cotton candy…”

 

She didn’t miss Bianca’s brief look of sadness when Carlotta let go of her hand, either.

 

Shit. How do I do this?

 

They located and bought candyfloss in a steadily mounting awkward silence. “Here you go,” Carlotta said, handing one bucket to Bianca—a stick would get awkwardly messy to deal with, and she could tell things were already going to be awkward and messy.

 

“Thanks,” Bianca said softly, clutching the bucket to her chest and staring a bit too intently into it. “Umm, Carly…”

 

“You wanna go find somewhere to sit and eat this?” Carlotta said abruptly, holding up her bucket. “I wanna, uh… talk ‘bout somethin’.”

 

“Sure,” Bianca said, glancing up briefly before going back to staring into the bucket of sugar. She looked just as nervous as Carlotta felt. “I… wanna talk to you ‘bout somethin’ too.”

 

Scratch that. She looked a million times more nervous. That’s why I gotta do this, Carlotta reminded herself. Rip off the bandaid. Spare B the pain. Right.

 

The fear was choking. She didn’t want to hurt Bianca. She wanted to protect her. She wanted to be her friend, and support her, and have fun with her and Warren and Cheren.

 

More than anything, she wanted for this conversation to already be over.

 

“’Kay, so…” Carlotta said, plopping down on the grass and starting to pick at the candyfloss. “Look, you know you ain’t an outsider or nothin’, right, B? You got yourself a shitty family an’ you got isolated from a lotta stuff, but that don’t mean you ain’t really one of us, or just a… a pity project or nothin’, okay? War an’ Cher an’ I, we’re doin’ what we do for you ‘cause you’re one of us, an’ we love you. No matter what. I just wanna have that out there, first of all, ‘kay?”

 

“’Kay,” Bianca sniffed, rubbing at her eyes. “Aw, shit, I’m cryin’ already, I just…”

 

Carlotta reached out a hand, then for possibly the first time in her life, hesitated. “I’ve just… been goin’ over this in my head over an’ over, an’ I can’t figure out a way you don’t get hurt,” she said wretchedly. “I mean. I’m sayin’. Fuck. Last thing I wanna do is cause you any more pain, B…”

 

“I know,” Bianca whispered, letting the tears run down her cheeks. “I just… I wanna have this conversation an’ be done with it, Carly. I…” she took a deep breath. “I think I love you. Not just in a friend way. In a romantic way.”

 

“Nothin’ just ‘bout friend love,” Carlotta said, starting to tear grass out of the ground. Looking at the grass was easier than looking at Bianca cry. Gondamn it, she beat me to it. She’s so fucking brave. Woman the fuck up, Carlotta! “But. Fuck. I’m sorry, B, not that I wouldn’t be a damn lucky girl if I swung that way, but I don’t, an’ I can’t imagine how hard this has gotta be, comin’ out like this, what with your folks an’ your church an’ all, but I can’t pretend like, I mean, you’re my friend, I love you so much in a friend way, wouldn’t be right, I mean…”

 

“I know,” Bianca sniffed, fighting hard not to sob with every word. Listening to her cry hurt, and so did feeling like it was Carlotta’s fault and there was nothing she could do about it. “I know, I just… darn crush won’t stop, an’ I just, I don’t wanna make things weird, an’ I know you don’t think I’m weird or gross or nothin’ ‘cause you know Warren an’ Cheren ain’t, but I’m still so scared…”

 

“Can I hug you, same as ever, or is that gonna make the crush worse? Fuck it, doin’ it anyway,” Carlotta decided, wrapping her arms around Bianca and pulling her close. “B. War an’ Cher are both very weird people, an’ definitely very gross ‘cause they’re teenage boys, but you know I ain’t sayin’ that the way folks like your folks say it. I mean, you’re still one of my best friends, an’ you mean the gondamn world to me, an’ I…” She gave a heavy, stuttering sigh as she started to cry too. “I wish I knew what to do…”

 

“I dunno,” Bianca sobbed, hugging her back. “I dunno what to do ‘bout this…”

 

“Well, we’ll… we’ll figure it out, okay?” Carlotta said in between shuddering gasps. “I promise. I’ll help you figure out what to do… unless you think it would be easier if I, dunno, kept my distance?” She leaned back uncertainly as fear gripped her. If she asks, I’ll do it, she resolved. I can do fine on my own for a while. She’ll need War an’ Cher lookin’ after her…

 

Bianca pulled her back into the hug. “No, no, no, no, nonononono,” she insisted. “I just… we’ve talked ‘bout it, now, so maybe if we just keep… behavin’ like best friends, bein’ best friends, it’ll just… go away eventually?” The hopeful desperation in her tone made Carlotta hug her back as hard as she could. “We talked ‘bout it, we both know, an’ we just agree that it don’t hafta be anythin’ an’ that, that’ll just hafta be fine, ‘cause I dunno what to do but you’re my best friend, Carly, an’-an’-an’ I’ll promise not to make it weird if you promise, deal?”

 

“Deal,” Carlotta said with a choked laugh. “It’s good to just, y’know, get it out there… an’ hey, speakin’ of out, that’s you! Out! Congrats! I’m prouda you!” She pulled away again, this time not awkwardly but so that Bianca could see her huge grin as she offered a high-five. She could feel tension drain as Bianca sniffed, smiled, and tentatively high-fived her. “That’s gotta be one of the scariest ways to come out! Cher an’ War had it easy, you’re officially tougher’n both of ‘em.”

 

“Thanks,” Bianca giggled deliriously. “I did! I came out! I’m… I’m gay!”

 

“Good for you, sweetheart!” an older woman walking past said, giving her a thumbs-up, as did the other woman she was holding hands with.

 

“Say it loud an’ proud, B!” Carlotta cheered, pumping her fists in the air.

 

“I’m GAY!” Bianca squealed, breaking down into giggles when a group sitting on picnic blankets all cheered. “Hi!” she shouted. “I just came out! I’m gay!”

 

“Congrats!” somebody in the group yelled.

 

“I’m gay!” Bianca yelled up at the near-cloudless sky. “Look at that, Carly! I came out an’ the world didn’t end!”

 

“Wait, y’all can bring ‘bout the end times now?” Carlotta laughed, wiping her nose on her arm, then making a face and wiping her arm with some paper tissues. “Shit, I might convert for that.”

 

“Oooh, don’t get my hopes up,” Bianca laughed, wiping at her eyes, though her smile got a little awkward. Inwardly, Carlotta kicked herself for making that joke. “Just… what do we do now?”

 

“Well, ya gotta formally come out to War an’ Cher, y’know, get some more practice sayin’ it, then we… get back to doin’ what we were doin’, I guess?” Carlotta suggested, shrugging hopefully. “I dunno… weren’t a big deal, when it was Warren. He didn’t never come out. We weren’t brought up like that, thinkin’ there was a right or wrong way to get a crush. We got into arguments ‘bout which actor from a superhero movie was hotter, an’ that was that. I can’t imagine how scary this has gotta be.”

 

“It was silly, bein’ so scared,” Bianca mumbled, waving at the group who’d cheered for her. “You ain’t my folks. I knew you weren’t gonna hate me or nothin’, obviously you weren’t, I just…”

 

“Your folks can fuck you up,” Carlotta said, digging back into her candyfloss. “I dunno, I guess they probably think they’re teachin’ you to be a good person or some shit, but…”

 

“All this time they always talked ‘bout… ‘bout how normal people do or don’t feel,” Bianca said, picking out a piece of candyfloss, “how normal girls like normal boys, but not too much… an’ then you an’ War, whoever you like, that’s just normal to you. I mean… what’s normal even mean, anyway?”

 

“Weak to fightin’?” Carlotta suggested.

 

“Nooooo,” Bianca laughed, clutching the bucket of candyfloss as she laughed so hard she started crying again. “Gosh, I feel dizzy…”

 

“Cryin’s real dehydratin’, I remember War tellin’ me that,” Carlotta sniffed, pushing herself to her feet. “We cried all over the damn cotton candy already. C’mon, let’s go get drinks, ‘kay?” She offered Bianca a hand up, then half-started to pull it back.

 

“’Kay,” Bianca said, reaching up and grabbing her hand. “An’ Carly? Thanks.” She squeezed Carlotta’s hand, then dropped it so she could rub her eyes. “All of this has been scary, but you an’ War an’ Cher… you been there. Just like you promised.” She smiled in a watery way. “An’ you ain’t never asked me to be anythin’ but me. An’ you make me feel like bein’ me is just fine. Even now…” She sniffed, then set her shoulders, looking determined. “It’s scary, sure. It’s painful. But it’s worth it, ‘kay? Y’all are worth it.”

 

“So are you, B,” Carlotta promised. “An’ someday, some lucky girl’s gonna know that every damn day.”

 

 

{Reshin 25th, 14.45}

{Nimbasa Park, Nimbasa City}

 

 

“Stop fretting, Warren,” Cheren said, rubbing his boyfriend’s arm soothingly. “They’ll be fine. It will be difficult, but they need to talk about it to move on.”

 

“I know,” Warren sighed. “I know I put on a stern face to make Carly do it, but gondamn it… I wish it didn’t have to be this way.”

 

“I wish it didn’t, either,” Cheren said gently. “Why don’t we visit the petting zoo? Cheer ourselves up and keep you from fretting yourself into oblivion?”

 

“Sure,” Warren said, letting Cheren lead him into the field that was cordoned off for meeting soft, fluffy, pettable Pokemon. Right inside the gate, two little girls were petting the fuzziest-looking Pikachu he’d ever seen in his life, while nearby an older boy was grooming a Furfrou with a placid, almost meditative smile on his face. Several Purrloin were prowling around, hopping and out of people’s laps and purring happily in a way that was very reminiscent of Priscilla, while Rockruff and Lillipup and Poochyena gamboled around people’s ankles. There was a round of giggling as several girls who were stroking the soft, bouncy wool of a Mareep all suddenly found their hair standing on end in static. Several Cottonee were floating in the air, occasionally cooing as they were caught in a very soft-looking hug. At the far end of the field, a couple of people were actually sleeping, wrapped up in the long, furry bodies of Furret.

 

“Well, hello,” Cheren said softly as an unattended Pokemon rolled up to them. It looked like a Mareep, but pure white instead of slightly yellow and perfectly spherical. “You are new, aren’t you? Let me see… oh, it’s from Galar, look,” he said as he snapped open his pokedex and showed Warren the details of the Pokemon.

 

“Hello, Wooloo,” Warren said, reading the name off of the screen and then leaning down to card his fingers through the impossibly soft wool. Wooloo cooed when he scratched it behind the ears. “I think mom’s got a Wooloo sweater. Gondamn, y’all are real soft…”

 

Cheren joined him, sitting down next to the Wooloo, who started eating some of the grass and bleating happily as it was petted. They sat in silence for a while, basking in the soft sounds of giggles and happy Pokemon that somehow managed to drown out the delighted screaming from the rides nearby. A zookeeper even encouraged them to lie against the Wooloo’s side, showing them how the wool was so thick and strong that the Pokemon in the middle wouldn’t even feel the weight.

 

“What’s eatin’ you?” Warren asked after a while, unable to resist nuzzling his face against the soft fleece.

 

“We came here so you could take a break from worrying about everybody else,” Cheren said, smoothing the Wooloo’s ears.

 

“I am one hundred percent unable to do that and you darn well know it,” Warren countered. “C’mon. Is it that ranger?”

 

“It just… makes no sense whatsoever,” Cheren said, looking intensely at the Wooloo. “You can’t understand me, can you?” he asked it. The round Pokemon blinked at him, then went back to eating grass. “Pokemon can learn to understand battle commands, of course, but that takes lots of training…”

 

“Might be a psychic thing,” Warren suggested. “Some Pokemon can talk to folks in their minds.”

 

“They can, but they’re not… intelligent, in that they don’t…” Cheren threw up his hands in frustration. “It just doesn’t make sense.”

 

“I always thought the ambassadors an’ all them claimed to take it real serious ‘cause they’re representin’ their culture,” Warren mused, “but all them trainers we’ve met travellin’, they also…” He trailed off thoughtfully. “That trainer B an’ I met in the forest, Fern… they seemed like they were havin’ a real conversation with Penny. An’ then she tapped that pokeball, neat as anythin’…”

 

“Colours inverted,” Cheren declared abruptly.

 

“What… that thing we did in Poli-Sci?” Warren asked in confusion. “What ‘bout it?”

 

“Do you remember what the term means?” Cheren asked, smoothing out some curls in the Wooloo’s wool.

 

“Oh damn, it’s that history thing…” Warren sighed, leaning back even more and pushing his cap up as he tried to remember the class in question. “Back in Kalos, when folks didn’t have lawyers or anythin’, if you got accused of a crime, that was it, but sometimes somebody’d speak up for you, an’, um…”

 

“If a member of the local magistrates, or the watch, or somesuch, thought an accused person was actually innocent of their crime, they would turn their tunics inside-out, inverting their colours, to represent the fact that they were standing against their usual allegiance,” Cheren reminded him. “It’s where the Unovan concept of defense law originated. Somebody standing up for the accused. The phrase ‘to wear your colours inverted’ has shifted somewhat, to refer to defending a point that is not commonly agreed with, or that you yourself may not…”

 

“Yeah, I know that,” Warren said. “Like… invertin’ my colours for a minute here, but what if Plasma ain’t a bunch of thievin’ bastards? Anyways, what’re you thinkin’ ‘bout invertin’ your colours on?”

 

“The idea of speaking to Pokemon,” Cheren said. “As a thought experiment. I don’t believe in it. But I want to try my hardest to argue for it, just to try and figure out what the best arguments could be.”

 

“Sounds like a good idea,” Warren agreed. “I never realized how many foreign trainers came to do the Unovan League challenge. We can’t keep writin’ ‘em all off as religious fanatics or whatever. We gotta have some better conversations, right?”

 

“Right,” Cheren agreed, sitting up and scratching the Wooloo under the chin. “Now… how could one speak to Pokemon? My first thought would be psychically. Telepaths are often able to communicate with people who speak a different first language to themselves by sensing on the intentions of what a person says rather than the words themselves, which incidentally makes them excellent lie detectors. So a telepath could presumably communicate with Pokemon in a similar fashion, and many psychic trainers do.”

 

“Yeah, but… whole countries of people? How would that happen?” Warren said, standing up and making a pompous expression and putting on a TV-anchor accent as he faced Cheren. “Statistically, psychics of any sort make up only 0.3% of the population, an’ telepaths only a fraction of that. So the chances of whole solid nations bein’ entirely populated by telepaths…”

 

“Well, it’s unlikely to be one hundred percent, of course—when they say ‘everybody speaks to Pokemon’, it’s likely an exaggeration,” Cheren insisted. “But compared to other nations, the Fairlands have a lower immigration and emigration rate, so a higher genetic predisposition to telepathy could conceivably not travel far outside of the nations—”

 

“It’s been over a thousand years since any country in the world was insular enough to keep a gene in their borders like that,” Warren countered. “I remember that much from World History. Even allowin’ for Kanto’s isolation period, the rest of the Fairlands ain’t been isolated, and even Kanto wasn’t isolated for long enough for a gene like that to wind up in everybody. Makin’ a gene ubiquitous takes a long damn time.”

 

“Ah, but psychic powers are not purely gene-based,” Cheren pointed out. “They can be developed from exposure to significant enough levels of psi energy. Some who train psychic Pokemon despite not being psychic themselves find, after a decade or so, that they too have developed some form of power.”

 

“And brain tumours, Cher, that kinda developed psychic power comes with brain tumours down the line,” Warren insisted. Cheren started tapping at his c-gear thoughtfully. “Psychics in general are real high risk for tumours and aneurysms—”

 

“…both of which are abnormally uncommon in the Fairlands,” Cheren said slowly, rapidly reading the World Health Organization reports he’d pulled up. “They prioritize international science agreements into neuroscience, and specifically neurobiochemical medicine and surgery. Sinnoh does, at least, but I believe all five nations are of an accord.”

 

“But how are you gonna dose multiple countries, even ones that are close together, with brain-alterin’ levels of psi energy?” Warren said, throwing his hands up. “For that matter, DNA-alterin’? Some folks claimed they inherited the ability!”

 

“One reason some heads of state distrust Sar Kanto, not well-known but significant, is that she’s thoroughly sealed all records on Kanto’s government projects immediately pre-isolation and has not set a date at which point those records can be unsealed,” Cheren mused. “There are a great many facilities whose purpose is, to this day, unknown to the world at large—”

 

“Cher, dial it back, you’re gettin’ into conspiracy theory territory,” Warren warned his boyfriend. “Even if all that was true, how’s it even work? Communicatin’ with Pokemon psychically’s one thing, but havin’ a conversation—”

 

“I suppose that leads us into a different question, from whether or not speaking to Pokemon is possible to what that would actually mean,” Cheren said, watching the Wooloo eat calmly. “Would you have anything to say that wasn’t about grass?” he asked it.

 

“It could lead to folk seein’ Pokemon as more intelligent than they really are,” Warren suggested. “More empathy. Humans do that—we even talk to computers’ an’ cars an’ suchlike, treat ‘em like they got thoughts an’ feelin’s, when they don’t.”

 

“Pokemon are living beings, but do they recognize themselves as such?” Cheren asked, looking around at all the Pokemon in the petting zoo. “Are they aware of their purpose here? Are they aware of the concept of freedom? Do they desire things beyond base needs? Investigating such ideas would be easier, certainly, if you could speak to them…”

 

“I think we’ve wound up wanderin’ back to different sides of this,” Warren mused. “What I’m startin’ to wonder, I guess, is… does it matter? If Pokemon ain’t smart enough to know or care if they or another Pokemon dies in a fight… does that make it right? I dunno, maybe how we treat Pokemon says more ‘bout us than it does about them an’ what they want or need.” He rolled over, tangling his fingers in the soft wool. “Been thinkin’ bout it a lot, lately. They say bein’ sad ‘bout a dead Pokemon’s a waste of tears, ‘cause you can replace a good fightin’ Pokemon, an’ they don’t know or care when folks die. But we’ve seen Pokemon mourn, Cher. Even if they don’t fully understand what death is, does it matter if they can still feel sad that their friend ain’t movin’ no more? Is it right to make ‘em fight without givin’ ‘em a choice, even if they wouldn’t understand that choice if we did?”

 

“…Gods, War, those are heavy questions,” Cheren groaned, leaning forwards and burying his face in Wooloo’s wool. “Pokemon with trainers are luckier, though, aren’t they? They don’t have to fight for their food, and rates of death in battle are still lower than death in the wild. They’re fed and groomed and cared for and made stronger, so even if they don’t know better it’s still for their own go—” He sat bolt upright, looking sick. “Wait. Forget I said that. It’s not the same thing.”

 

“Yeah, it’s been on my mind since that Unovan History unit too,” Warren said quietly. “There were times in history that some humans thought other humans weren’t really smart enough to know better, remember?”

 

“Pokemon aren’t human, though,” Cheren said, still looking sick. “We’re different.”

 

“What if we ain’t, Cher?” Warren asked, closing his eyes as he leaned back. He didn’t want to keep seeing the expression on Cheren’s face. “What would it mean if we ain’t?”

 

“Then it would mean that Pokemon training—that our whole society is no better than—” Cheren went abruptly quiet. Warren heard a rustle of grass and opened his eyes to see that Cheren had stood up and was walking away. “Cher?” he called, scrambling to his feet and running after him.

 

“Sorry,” Cheren said quietly. “Bad form, to just walk away like that. But I was getting angry at you, when I’m not mad at you, I just…” He sighed, then reached over and gripped Warren’s hand. “It’s different,” he said firmly. “It has to be.”

 

Warren squeezed his hand back. “C’mon,” he said, “let’s go find Carly an’ B. See if they’ve had their rough talk. And then eat so much popcorn we get sick. How ‘bout that?”

 

Cheren took a deep breath, then brought up a smile. “Sounds good,” he agreed, looking away from a Cottonee that was drifting gently by.

 

 

 

{Reshin 25th, 20.23pm}

{Nimbasa Park, Nimbasa City}

 

 

As soon as they found Cheren and Warren, Carlotta went into full-on distraction mode. They all ate popcorn. They watched a parade. They rode a log flume. They bought Bianca a celebratory set of tacky rainbow beads and a slightly more tasteful colourful bracelet. The puffy redness slowly faded from her eyes, and Bianca was soon feeling better, but there was still an uncomfortable awkwardness between her and Carlotta.

 

“Y’know what might help?” Warren suggested, pointing up. They all looked up to the huge ferris wheel, just lighting up for the night.

 

“Looks like it might be a nice view, yeah,” Bianca said, smiling at the colourful lights. “Bet this city’s real pretty at—”

 

“The view isn’t why he’s suggesting the ferris wheel,” Cheren said, frowning at his boyfriend. “Warren, a rebound won’t help!”

 

“I ain’t suggestin’ a rebound relationship!” Warren argued. “C’mon, y’all know the fun of the ferris wheel matchmaker’s that there ain’t no obligations to it! Lotsa folks go just to meet somebody an’ have a nice li’l chat or whatever for half an hour, nothin’ serious! She ain’t never dated before, so ain’t somethin’ just for fun perfect for it?”

 

“Wait, datin?!” Bianca yelped. “I ain’t—ain’t ready for—”

 

“Well, the ferris wheel matchmakin’ famously ain’t about datin,” Carlotta interjected. “You don’t even hafta go lookin’ for anythin’ romantic—you can pick ‘platonic’ if you want. It’s basically a speed-datin’ service. The thing takes thirty minutes to go ‘round, but there’s a button you can hit if you’re uncomfortable in any way, activates a portpad that gets you out. Meantime, you can just hang out an’ chat with whoever you get matched with. Some folks exchange numbers after, make plans to meet again, but lots just say ‘nice to meet you’ an’ head off on their merry way. An’ we don’t hafta go if you don’t wanna!” she said firmly, “but it could be fun, an’ it might be nice for you to meet another girl, y’know? Just to talk ‘bout, y’know…” She waved a hand vaguely in the air. “Fancyin’ girls, whatever that means.”

 

“We ain’t got much to offer there, sorry,” Warren added.

 

“Yes, I’m afraid that’s one aspect of the life that we can’t help you on,” Cheren mused. “And as Carlotta mentioned, you can ask to meet somebody platonically. Just to make a friend, perhaps? Socializing outside of a close circle can be difficult, I know, but necessary.”

 

“…I guess so,” Bianca admitted, chewing on her lip. I got three friends already, but… maybe I oughta make more, too? I can, now, right? “…You can leave anytime, right? Any time at all?”

 

“Sure can,” Carlotta promised. “I think these two are plannin’ some date-time on the wheel,” she continued, pointing a thumb at Cheren and Warren, “so how’s ‘bout you an’ I both sign up for that speed-datin’ deal, see what we get, tell each other all ‘bout it after?”

 

“Well…” Bianca took a deep breath. “Okay. Okay! Let’s do it! Just for fun, right?”

 

“Just for fun,” Carlotta promised, hopping to her feet with a grin. “Alright, let’s do this! C’mon, ‘fore we change our minds!”

 

“You doin’ okay?” Warren asked Bianca quietly as they stood up. “I know when you decide to do somethin’, you do it, and I respect the hell out of you for it, but you really don’t gotta rush through a heartbreak…”

 

“I dunno, I… I’m hurtin’, but I was hurtin’ anyway,” Bianca admitted quietly. “An’ I still… I still got all you. We decided. Bein’ friends is more important than anythin’ else. So let’s… let’s have some fun, okay?” She took a deep breath. “Nobody’s done nothin’ wrong, an’ I don’t wanna just sit around bein’ sad. So let’s have fun!” She looked thoughtfully at Warren. “You ever had a heartbreak before?”

 

“No… spent a shitton of time scared of it, though,” Warren admitted. “’Fore Carly tricked Cher an’ me into goin’ out. I was gondamn terrified of not even bein’ able to be friends with Cher anymore…” He smiled softly at Cheren, who was showing a park map to Carlotta on his c-gear. “Worked out fine for us. Sorry it didn’t for you.”

 

“Like I said… nobody’s fault,” Bianca said, clutching her stomach a little, swallowing down an acid wash of envy. Ain’t Warren or Cheren’s fault either! she chastised herself. “I’m happy it worked out for you two. You never know, maybe I’ll meet the real love of my life on that ferris wheel!”

 

“Here’s hopin’,” Warren laughed.

 

The ferris wheel was intimidatingly large,a looming behemoth of eye-searing rainbow lights and cheesy romantic music. It completely dwarfed the sickeningly cutesy matchmaker hut beneath it. “You two go get in line, we’ll see you after!” Carlotta said, waving Cheren and Warren off and grabbing Bianca by the hand to tug her into the matchmaker hut. Bianca focused on keeping her heart rate stable, paying attention to anything but Carlotta’s hand. She wanted everything to be normal, after all, and Carlotta conspicuously not touching her sounded so much worse than casual touches making her heart flutter.

 

Inside, everything was pastel shades, mostly pink. There was a wide counter full of flashy touchscreens, and sitting behind it was a perky girl who’d done her hair up in the shape of a heart. “Hiya!” Carlotta said brightly. “Two for the matchmakin’ service, please! I promised I’d go if she did!”

 

“Mutually assured destruction, huh?” the girl said with a wink. “C’mon an’ sign up, we’ve got a couple folks waitin’ in back! Maybe your match is back there!” She waved her hand at a door labeled “Waiting Room” is curly, elaborate font.

 

“Okay, here,” Carlotta said, pointing Bianca to the counter. “Just enter your name… or, y’know, a nickname you’re willin’ to share with folks… your age, your gender, who you’re lookin’ to meet, an’ romantic or platonic…”

 

“You done this before?” Bianca asked, filling in the form on the touchpad set into the counter.

 

“Sure… we been comin’ to Nimbasa Park every year since we were toddlers, an’ you can sign up for a platonic hangout any age from eight up, romantic from thirteen,” Carlotta said, watching her fill it in. “They got age ranges they’ll match you in if you’re under twenty-five, so you don’t wind up hangin’ with somebody too young or too old. Warren dared me… think he wanted some space, to be honest. Guess I was kinda clingy as a kid.” She smiled and high-fived Bianca when Bianca submitted her details. “Nice job! Now let’s hope you get a real cutie!”

 

“Oooh, you’ve got a match!” the girl behind the counter said brightly. “Lucky you! Sixteen, girl lookin’ to meet girls… come on through, Aurora!”

 

The waiting room door opened and a petite, round-faced brunette girl with short bobbed hair and a cute, frilly dress in a pastel goth style came through. “Hi,” she said softly. “Um, I’m Aurora…”

 

“Hi, Aurora! This is Bianca,” Carlotta said, gesturing with a bow to her friend. “Damn, Bianca, you got a cutie!”

 

Both Bianca and Aurora turned red. “Umm, hi, Aurora,” Bianca said. “I’m Bianca.”

 

“Hi, Bianca,” Aurora said shyly. “Ummm, should we go, umm…?”

 

“Yeah! Uh, yeah, let’s go,” Bianca said, fidgeting with her bag strap and looking around. “Umm…”

 

“Through there, you two,” the girl behind the counter giggled, pointing to a door. Bianca rushed over and held it open for Aurora who hurried through, blushing and stuttering thanks. Bianca gave Carlotta a last nervous glance, relaxing when Carlotta gave her a thumbs-up and a wink.

 

“So, umm…” Bianca said as they joined the queue. Several pairs down the line, she could see Cheren and Warren getting into a cart together, holding hands and laughing. “You, uh… you from Nimbasa?”

 

“Oh! Y-yes,” Aurora said, fidgeting with her dress. “N-never been on this before, but my mom… thinks I need to meet people…” She trailed off, mumbling in almost painful embarrassment.

 

“Meetin’ folks is scary,” Bianca agreed. Weirdly, she felt almost less scared seeing just how anxious the other girl was. Her own anxiety was sinking under the need to help. “Your dress is super cute!” she offered, as much as she felt like she was going to spontaneously combust from saying it.

 

“Oh, thank you!” Aurora said brightly, almost glowing with delight at the compliment. Bianca felt a little weight off her shoulders, too.

 

What ’s so evil ‘bout this?

 

 

 

{Reshin 25th, 20.30pm}

{Nimbasa Park, Nimbasa City}

 

 

“What a pair, huh?” the receptionist laughed, watching Bianca and Aurora depart. “If they can work themselves up to holdin’ hands by the time they come out, I am gonna die from the sweetness. Now, how ‘bout you, miss? Who’re you lookin’ for?”

 

“Eh… well, I did make a pact to go on the wheel, but I didn’t say I was lookin’ for a romantic evening,” Carlotta said, selecting ‘platonic’. “Don’t really wanna deal with that right now, but I don’t mind just hangin’ out for a bit with somebody cool.” She picked ‘surprise me’ under ‘Looking For’. “Alright, hit me!”

 

“Well, we do have a guy waitin’, as a matter of fact,” the receptionist said, checking a second screen behind the counter. “We’re not swamped tonight, he’s been waitin’ a little while. Li’l bit of an oddball, I get the vibe he ain’t social much and came here to practice. Nineteen. You up for that?”

 

“Sure, why the hell not,” Carlotta said with a shrug. “I’m good at socializin’ the shy ones. The trick is givin’ ‘em a good, solid safety line before throwin’ ‘em in at the deep end.”

 

The receptionist laughed. “Okay, he’s a real shy one, only gave a nickname, but what the hell… N, come on through!” she announced into the mic.

 

“N?” Carlotta said, nearly jumping out of her skin in surprise at the sight of the tall young man with wild green hair who came through. “Gondamn, it’s you?!

 

“Oh,” N said in surprise. “You’re Owain’s trainer.”

 

“You two’ve met?” the receptionist asked, looking from Carlotta to N with a carefully neutral expression. “You wanna go on together, or wait for a couple more matches?”

 

“I would like to talk to you, in fact,” N said quickly. “Are you willing to go on this… thing… with me?”

 

Hell no was Carlotta’s first response. This guy is weird, runnin’ around sayin’ he talks to… hang on.

 

“…what the hell, I got questions for you too,” Carlotta said after a moment. “No funny stuff, though. They got cameras and teleporters, an’ I got fists.”

 

“…well, I’ll be keeping an eye on you two,” the receptionist said, arching an eyebrow. “Have… fun…?”

 

“Honestly, I got the feelin’ you weren’t too keen on human interaction,” Carlotta said as she and N went through the door to the queue for the ferris wheel. As the receptionist had said, it wasn’t a busy evening; Bianca and Aurora were evidently already aboard, and there was only one couple ahead of them, giggling and whispering in each others’ ears as they were ushered into one of the slow-moving cars. “So what the hell are you doin here?”

 

“Well… my father would say it’s a waste of time, so it’s a secret that I’m here,” N said, watching the next car roll in. “My sisters said I should do this. Meet people. I don’t mind riding the ferris wheel. I love ferris wheels. The circular motion… the mechanics… they’re like collections of elegant formulas.”

 

“You like math, huh?” Carlotta asked, nodding to the attendant as he held out a hand to gesture to them to wait until the next car was in position.

 

“It’s straightforward,” N said, nodding and smiling. “Unchanging. Predictable.”

 

Spoken like a guy who don’t spend much time talkin’ to folks, Carlotta thought, but didn’t say, because despite all allegations she was tactful when she cared to be. “Sorry folks ain’t that easy,” she offered.

 

“No… but Pokemon aren’t as simple as I thought, either,” N said, looking more downcast. “Thank you,” he added politely as the attendant as the man held the door of the car open for them.

 

“C’mon in,” the attendant said as they climbed in and sat down. “Any problems, you just slap one of them big red alert buttons on the windowsills. Enjoy the view, folks!”

 

“Thanks!” Carlotta said with a wave as he closed the door. “Right,” she said, sitting back and looking at N, who was perched in his seat uncomfortably, legs crossed ankle over knee and his hands folded on the wide knee, looking out of the window. “Tell you what, you go first. What did you wanna ask me?”

 

There was a pause, long enough that she was starting to wonder if he hadn’t heard her, before N gave a deep sigh. “First, I must tell you… I am the king of the Plasma Foundation,” he announced gravely.

 

“…what?” Carlotta asked, staring at him in expectation of an explanation, but he was still staring out of the window and didn’t seem to notice her reaction. “Okay, um… sorry, but what in the hell is that s’posed to mean?”

 

“Ghetsis asked me to work with him to save Pokemon,” N said, in a tone suggesting that this qualified as an explanation. “I wonder how many Pokemon exist in this world…”

 

Carlotta decided to move swiftly past any question that could be answered by thirty seconds with an internet connection. “So you’re… what, gonna be the new face of Plasma Foundation?” Carlotta said, screwing up her nose. “PR for a kidnappin’ buncha—”

 

“You disagree with Plasma’s aims,” N interrupted. “Of course you do. You’re a trainer. You want to keep using your Pokemon. But Pokemon are better off without humans.”

 

“Look, dude, even if you believe that, attackin’ folks to steal their Pokemon ain’t right,” Carlotta argued, pointing at N. “Me an’ my friends, we’ve been violently attacked by folks tryin’ to steal our Pokemon. An’ don’t you gimme that shit ‘bout them bein’ outliers or not representin’ the aims of Plasma as a whole or whatever. We’ve run into…” She counted on her fingers. “…four? Four times now we got mixed up in Plasma folks doin’ violent shit to folks. Kidnappin’ kids, stealin’ stuff, hurtin’ Pokemon… an’ some of our Pokemon been killed ‘cause of them. Is killin’ trainer’s Pokemon helpin’ ‘em?”

 

“…No,” N said, looking so openly heartbroken that Carlotta almost felt sorry for him. “They shouldn’t have done that. They’ve betrayed the vows they made to Plasma.” His expression darkened palpably, what she could make out of it with his head tilted down and his cap covering half of his face. “I do not intend to tolerate such behaviour. All Pokemon must be rescued and protected. It’s difficult to do, because trainers will fight back violently against the idea of having their Pokemon taken away, but that is why I must become a Hero.”

 

First a king, now a hero…? Somebody’s been watchin’ too much anime, Carlotta figured. “You’ve been tellin’ me all this shit without actually askin’ me anythin’,” she pointed out. “Do you have questions, or can I ask you somethin’ now?”

 

“I guess I just wanted to know…” N sighed. “Owain liked you very much. You’re upset and angry about your Pokemon being killed. You do care about your Pokemon, despite being a trainer. I’d like to know… why? If you care about them being killed… why fight with them at all?”

 

“Well… guess that ain’t a bad question…” Carlotta admitted, leaning back and tugging at the brim of her own cap. “I mean, fightin’ Pokemon, I do think it should be better regulated an’ all, so Pokemon don’t get killed, but even in the wild, Pokemon fight all the time, y’know? They don’t grow like we do, just over time, they gotta fight to get grown up. It’s part of ‘em. So I figure it’s better to do that in, like, a controlled an’ regulated environment rather than just scrappin’ for your life out in a bush. Plus, trained Pokemon get free food, safe place to sleep, get to see the world an’ stuff, which, well, it’s gotta be better than diggin’ up food in a bush, right?”

 

“But you don’t give them the choice,” N argued, actually looking directly at her for the first time in the conversation. “You take them from their homes, their friends, their families, and you don’t let them decide if it’s better or not.”

 

“Well, they’re… they ain’t human, they ain’t smart enough to understand that kinda thing!” Carlotta insisted.

 

“Of course they do,” N said, looking surprised. “They’ve told me so.”

 

“I mean… yeah, I’ve seen Pokemon grieve,” Carlotta admitted. Thamina was so mad, an’ Pijon… “But it ain’t the same thing! It ain’t like they’re people!”

 

“You keep saying that,” N said quietly. “You’re wrong. But I can’t change your mind by talking. That’s why I have to be king, you see. To make people who are wrong do the right thing.”

 

“Oh man, no wonder you rubbed Cheren the wrong way so hard,” Carlotta sighed, sitting back in her seat. “Look, yeah, a lot of people are wrong about some really gondamn obvious stuff, and you wanna just smack their head ‘gainst the wall ‘til some sense turns up…”

 

“Well, hopefully that much violence will not be necessary, but you do understand that some people will not be reasoned with,” N said, brightening up.

 

“But that don’t mean you can just go an’ beat folks into doin’ what you want!” Carlotta argued. “Look, believe me, I tried that when I was a kid, an’ it only ever causes more problems in the end!”

 

“You really think that he victims of violence are wrong to fight back?” N challenged her.

 

“No, but… aw, fuck, where’s Cheren when I need ‘im? He explains this shit better,” Carlotta groaned, looking out of the window. “You can’t just say ‘you’re wrong’ an’ attack folks, I know that much. An’ attackin’ folks first ain’t self-defence! Even if you’re right, if, stealin’ Pokemon from their trainers… it’s still bad! It ain’t like all your Plasma buddies are askin’ the Pokemon ‘fore they do that, are they?”

 

“…No,” N admitted. “Only my sisters and I can speak to Pokemon. That is why, instead of leaving the task of saving Unova to others, I should do it myself.” He smiled. “Thank you! You’ve made things much clearer for me!”

 

“…I ain’t too sure I have,” Carlotta said, glaring out at the lights of Nimbasa city. It was a beautiful sight, but she’d seen it before and was starting to feel too grumpy to appreciate it now.

 

“What is your question?” N asked.

 

“Huh?” Carlotta grunted, not looking up.

 

“You said you had a question for me,” N prodded. “You said you’d let me go first. I’ve gone. What is your question?”

 

“Oh, yeah… well, I was wonderin’, why Plasma?” Carlotta asked. “If you’re so into the idea of speakin’ to Pokemon, why not go to Johto or somethin’? Places like that, they’re all ‘bout talkin’ to Pokemon. An’ they got all sortsa Pokemon rights we don’t—maybe you oughta go find out what they did?”

 

“Johto?” N said, looking confused. “Where is that?”

 

“Shit, I ain’t big on geography, but I know it’s one of the Fairlands,” Carlotta said, waving a hand vaguely in the direction she estimated west to be, based on where she thought she’d seen the sunset go. “All them folks say they talk to Pokemon, an’ they got all sortsa laws based on treatin’ Pokemon like humans. I don’t get how it works, but they seem to make it work.”

 

“Wait, there are whole countries where they speak to Pokemon?!” N gasped, leaning forwards. “But… how is that possible? Only the Hero of Legend and those destined to stand by him can hear the voices of Pokemon!”

 

“Who the hell sold you that one?” Carlotta snorted. “Look, I still don’t buy that anybody can do it, ‘cause it don’t make sense—there ain’t one ‘Pokemon language’, there’s cheepin’ an’ yappin’ an’ hissin’ an’ whatever in the hell it is that Boldore do—but whatever it is you’re doin’, or think you’re doin’, folks there do it too. Maybe you wanna at least have a holiday there or somethin’, see how they do it, ‘fore you go decidin’ that Plasma Foundation an’ their shitty way a’ doin’ things is the way to go?”

 

“It isn’t about language, but hearing the voices of their hearts,” N said, leaning back and folding his arms, looking thoughtful. “I would… like to meet some people from this Fairlands. I have never heard of them before.”

 

“Were you at some kinda Romram school, like Bianca?” Carlotta asked suspiciously. “’Cause it sounds like your geography classes weren’t worth shit. Also, you gotta pick up a newsfeed sometime, man.” She flicked the screen of her c-gear to open it to the news app. “It’s all ‘bout that Tohjo Champion right now. Hell, I bet it was some of your folks kidnapped her kid! They tried it once before! You oughta at least know who she is an’ what her people are about!”

 

“I… will have to look into this,” N conceded. “Thank you. You have given me much to think about.”

 

“Well… that’s good, I guess,” Carlotta agreed, sitting back in her seat. N looked out of the window, gazing out over the city with a wide-eyed expression of interest. “…You said your sisters told you to go do this. Never been up here before, huh?”

 

“I have never come to Nimbasa before,” N said. “The lights are very nice, but…” His expression grew sad. “The exploitation of electric Pokemon takes away some of the beauty.”

 

“Ehhh… I think most places only keep electric-types for emergency power,” Carlotta said with a shrug. “All this is probably them solar panels out in the desert. You don’t have to feel guilty ‘bout likin’ it.”

 

“Really?” N said, perking up. “Yes, solar panels would be more efficient. I’m glad.”

 

“For real, though, you a Romram?” Carlotta asked. “’Cause I’m just sayin’… B just left a household like that. It ain’t easy. But it’s easier with help.”

 

“I… know of Zekrom and Reshiram,” N said, fidgeting with the cube thing hanging off of his belt. “Do you not believe in them?”

 

“Oh, no I ain’t even touchin’ that one,” Carlotta said, throwing her hands up. “I’m just sayin’… if you ever want out, it’s easier with help.”

 

“Okay?” N said, blinking at her with a befuddled explanation, and Carlotta decided she might have to speak more plain.

 

“I mean I feel bad for you, ‘cause I know what Romram parents are like,” she clarified, “an’ I’m sayin’ that, weird as you are, if you ever want help gettin’ away from your folks, I’d help you.”

 

N’s eyes widened. “Is that true?” he said in surprise. “I thought you didn’t like me.”

 

“We don’t see eye to eye on a lot, but I think you might not be all bad,” Carlotta said frankly. “And when it comes to helpin’ folks get away from their shitty folks, I don’t think it should matter if you like ‘em or not. If you can help folks out of a situation like that, do it, y’know?”

 

“I think… you might not be all bad either,” N said, ducking his head so his cap was covering his face again. “For a trainer.”

 

“Thanks,” Carlotta said wryly, taking a deep breath. “’Cause… I wanna ask you somethin’ else.”

 

N checked his watch. “We have plenty of time left,” he said. “Ask away.”

 

Carlotta picked a pokeball off her belt. “If… if… you can talk to Pokemon,” she said, “would you… help me say somethin’ to Owain?”

 

“I thought you didn’t believe I can do it,” N said, sounding earnestly confused rather than like he was mocking her.

 

“I’m open to experimentin’,” Carlotta said, still holding up the pokeball. “How ‘bout it?”

 

“If you are open to learning, then I am happy to help,” N said. Carlotta nodded, releasing Owain, who appeared on the bench next to her. “Hello, Owain,” N said, as plainly as if he was speaking to another person. “Do you remember me? I am N.”

 

Owain chirped and waved in response. Carlotta watched him closely. Does he understand the name, or is he just respondin’ to bein’ talked to? “Hi, Owain,” she said. Owain looked up at her, his nose twitching, but he didn’t chirp or wave. He kept watching her intently, like he was waiting.

 

“This isn’t a battle, Owain, and she isn’t going to give you any commands,” N said. Owain looked away, twitched his ears, and chirped again. “She wants me to tell you something, since you can understand me. What would you like me to tell him?” he asked Carlotta.

 

“Well… I had a Tranquill,” Carlotta said, hand ghosting over the empty spot on her belt. “Pijon. Trained ‘em together sometimes, they’ve met. But I wanna know if he knows… if he understands that Pijon died in an accident. If he understands…” she trailed off uncertainly. “If he’s okay,” she finally said.

 

“Oh,” N said sadly. “She was just telling me about the death of your friend Pijon, the Tranquill,” N explained to Owain.

 

Owain’s ears and whiskers immediately drooped.

 

“Are you okay?” N asked. “Do you miss him?”

 

Owain pawed at his own ears, quietly chirping something, then puffed up his chest and perked up his ears, giving some sort of loud squeak.

 

“He says that he was sad to see that his friend had died, but that… he is proud of him for dying in combat,” N said, sounding incredibly saddened, “and that he will fight on even harder in his memory. You don’t have to fight, you know,” he said to Owain. “It isn’t needed for you to die.”

 

Owain scrunched up his nose, chirping at N, who just looked sadder.

 

“What… uh, what’d he say?” Carlotta said quietly.

 

“He… doesn’t understand,” N said. “He doesn’t feel that he has a choice. He will fight for you because that’s what he exists for. It’s heartbreaking that Pokemon are being raised to believe that…”

 

“Can you tell him somethin’? From me?” Carlotta asked, starting to feel choked. When N nodded, she continued, “please tell ‘im… I’m gonna do everythin’ I can to keep him or anybody else from dyin’, okay? He ain’t gotta die for me or anybody. I don’t even care if he loses a fight, so long as he don’t die. Can you tell ‘im that? And ask ‘im to tell the other Pokemon when we get ‘em out for training tomorrow?”

 

“Of course,” N said. “Owain, your trainer is promising that she will do what she can to keep you and the rest of your friends alive,” he relayed, “and that she wants you to stay alive, even if it means losing or running away from a battle. She wants you to tell the other Pokemon. Can you do that?”

 

Owain looked up at Carlotta, eyes wide and ears standing straight up, then leapt up onto her lap and waving his scallop shell, chattering insistently.

 

“He, uh… says that he will never flee battle,” N said, looking a little nonplussed, “and that he will always defend you weak, helpless humans from any danger.”

 

Weak?! Why you little—” Carlotta grabbed Owain and hugged him. “You’re completely banned from dyin’, you li’l shit,” she mumbled, scratching behind his ears and feeling him melt, cooing happily. “Even if all this talkin’ stuff is roshit. I’m not lettin’ you die, got it?”

 

N smiled. “If only more trainers were like you,” he murmured softly, looking back out of the window as the constellation of Nimbasa spread out beneath them.

Chapter Text

{Reshin 25th, 21.14}
{Nimbasa City}


Bianca had felt like walking on air after getting off of the ferris wheel. Aurora had been super nice, and turned out to be full of funny stories about people she’d met working her summer job as a waitress, and she’d given Bianca her c-gear number so that when Bianca got her own c-gear, she could call and talk to her again. She’d done it. She’d made a friend, who was a girl just like her, who was funny and sweet and completely normal, and Cheren and Warren had cheered for her when she’d gotten off the ride, and they were back in good moods themselves, and everything was going great—

And Carlotta had been oddly quiet ever since she’d gotten off the ferris wheel. She’d just winked at the guys and told them that she and Bianca were going to have private girl talk about how things went later, but she seemed worried about something. When she suggested that she and Bianca hunt down takeout food while Warren and Cheren went ahead to set up their tents, she finally told Bianca what was up.

N. The weird green-haired guy who claimed to speak to Pokemon, to be the king of Plasma, to be some kind of hero. Who’d spoken to Owain.

“I dunno what to tell the guys,” Carlotta said dejectedly as she and Bianca waited in line at a popular Fairlan food joint, which was probably pretty authentic going by the line of homesick tourists they were waiting in. “Folk talkin’ to Pokemon… it’s gondamn wild. But there was somethin’ happenin’ there that it ain’t in my power to explain. Warren might believe it, but Cher? No way.”

“I mean… maybe he wouldn’t buy it comin’ from strangers, but maybe comin’ from us?” Bianca suggested.

“Not if he knew it came from talkin’ to that N guy,” Carlotta said, scrunching up her nose. “He talked some more ‘bout becomin’ a king, forcin’ folks to see things his way. Cher hates that shit, y’know? Like, he’s super serious about bein’ president when he grows up, but he’ll tell you forever ‘bout how democracy’s great ‘cause folks have a choice, and that forces the leaders they gotta choose between to be better…” She shrugged. “In theory. Don’t think it always shakes out that way. But it’s better’n somebody gettin’ picked ‘cause they were born, right?”

“Yeah, but…” Bianca frowned in confusion. “What’s any of that got to do with whether he can talk to Pokemon or not?”

Carlotta opened her mouth, shut it, and played with her ponytail. “…Good point,” she said. “He could be wrong about all that other shit an’ still right about talkin’ to Pokemon. And y’know what? I think he’s got family like yours,” she continued. “Religious, y’know. I think they got him messed up on some weird stuff, so it ain’t even all his fault.” She shrugged again. “I dunno. I just… can’t remember ever disagreein’ with Cheren about somethin’ before. He’s always right. Feels weird sayin’ he might be wrong, y’know?”

“Yeah, but… I think N probably can talk to Pokemon,” Bianca said, feeling nervous but saying it anyway. “I think folks can do that. And Cheren ain’t like… well, he’s our friend, right? He’ll listen to us.”

“You’re right, I guess, it’s just…” Carlotta made a face again. “It’ll be a weird conversation, and I ain’t in no rush to have another stressful conversation with a friend. Think we can keep this from the guys, just for a li’l bit?”

“Just for a li’l bit,” Bianca agreed, though agreeing to any amount of duplicity made her anxious. Warren an’ Cheren are our friends. They’d believe us, wouldn’t they?

All thoughts flew out of her head when she caught sight of a head of dark brown hair flecked with silver in a way that reminded her so much of her father that she felt her heart stutter in her chest.

Then she saw that there was a woman next to him, her blonde hair piled high exactly the way her mother wore it.

They were the same height as her parents.

Then the man turned, and she saw her father’s face before he saw her. She saw the moment he saw her, when frustration turned to rage.

“Fuck,” Carlotta hissed, and then she was between Bianca and her oncoming father as Bianca’s legs turned to jelly and her breath stuck in her throat

“BIANCA!” her father roared, storming towards them. “Get out of my way,” he snapped at Carlotta, reaching out as if to push her aside.

“Just you fuckin’ try it,” Carlotta snarled, putting her hands on her hips in a way that flexed the muscles in her arms.

“This is none of you or your degenerate brother’s business,” he snapped, trying to pace around her, but Carlotta just stepped around Bianca to keep her out of her father’s line of sight. Bianca clung to Carlotta’s bag strap, hating the fear that was swamping her. “You, young lady, are in more trouble than you’ve ever been in your life—”

I’m sixteen! I’m a trainer! I’ve got Pokemon! They can’t make me do anything!

She couldn’t speak. She couldn’t even breathe.

She caught sight of the other people in the line watching the furious rant her father was working up about degenerates corrupting his good little girl. The absolute disgust on their face steeled something in Bianca.

Their normal ain’t normal.

“—not enough for you to nearly ruin her future,” her father was spitting, “dragging her away at such an important time for her, dragging her into this—”

“They didn’t drag me anywhere,” Bianca croaked, peering around Carlotta’s arm. The words didn’t find their way properly out of her suddenly dry throat, though, or maybe he just ignored them.

As soon as she was visible, her mother stepped towards her, a hand held out placatingly. “We can sweep all this aside, hon, we can forgive it,” she said soothingly. “Just come home right now, forget about all this silliness—we’ve even gotten started gettin’ your marriage arranged, the Chambers’ boy Philip’s a good boy, good grades, willin’ to overlook all this—”

“NO!” Bianca screamed, lurching back as absolute panic jolted through her. “I ain’t goin’ back, I ain’t marryin’ no boy from the church, an’ you can’t make me!”

“You literally can’t, that shit’s illegal,” Carlotta added helpfully.

“You stay out of this, you little slut,” her mother snarled, to some gasps from the now multiple people watching in disgust. Bianca could see at least one person recording with their c-gear, and a couple of people were starting to hover, as if unsure whether or not to step in, since Carlotta was still walling off Bianca from her parents. She also saw the way her mother jerked back her hand, the gentle palm turning into an angry claw for a moment before she folded her arms and squared her shoulders. “Haven’t you already done enough damage?”

“I’ll do a hell of a lot more damage if you don’t leave Bianca alone, startin’ now,” Carlotta snapped, clenching her fists. “If you’re still here in the next thirty seconds, one of two things is comin’ outta your mouth: an apology, or your teeth. What’s it gonna be?”

“How dare you threaten me, you disgusting little dyke—”

“Stop callin’ her stuff like that!” Bianca yelled, feeling her eyes well up at the horrible, twisted expression on her father’s face, the awful insults her mother was slinging at Carlotta. The words meant for her. “She ain’t a dyke, anyway! I am!”

Her father recoiled as if Carlotta had actually punched him. Her mother stiffened, eyes widening. “What?” he hissed, glaring at Carlotta. “What ideas are you and your band of perverts putting into—”

“Stop it! Just stop it!” Bianca shrieked, now pushing past Carlotta so she was at the front, so her parents could see just how angry she was now. “Stop tryin’ to take me back home! Go back an’ tell folks whatever lies you gotta to make yourselves look good an hide the fact that you gotta gondamn LESBIAN for a daughter!” She took a vicarious joy in the way they flinched back from that word, at being able to make them back off. “Tell ‘em I’m dead if that’s what makes you feel better! But I don’t wanna go back, and I ain’t goin’, an’ I know damn well you don’t wanna daughter like me anymore than I want parents like you!”

“You—faithless, ungrateful, sinful—” her father sputtered.

“Man, if all the guys in your church are this smooth, no wonder you’re gay,” Carlotta commented. There were a number of gasps and murmurs behind her.

“Say what you gotta say,” Bianca sobbed. Her father’s words were hurting, but it was… less, somehow. There was so much twisted, ugly hatred on his face that she could barely believe that this man had been a father who had loved her, or an idea of her, once. “Just… go away. Go away an’ leave me alone!”

Her mother took a deep breath, white-faced with anger, but forced out a calm tone to say, “this is your last chance, Bianca. If you come home, we can fix you—”

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, as my father likes to say.”

“Holy shit,” Carlotta whispered. Bianca looked around and realized that the outbreak of gasping and muttering behind them hadn’t just been in response to the scene she and her father were making. It was in response to the person who’d just walked out of the Fairlan takeaway shop.

It looked like they might’ve been trying to go incognito, clutching a baseball cap and sunglasses in the same hand as the takeaway bag they were holding, but with the hat and glasses off the full force of their glare was visible as they stalked towards Bianca’s father with the height and imposition of a predator. Even with their hair tied back and a nondescript t-shirt and jeans on, though, Bianca recognized the model, designer and professional trainer Elesa. She knew them better from the photos Cheren had showed her than the distant glimpse she’d gotten at the gala in Castelia of a slim figure utterly swallowed by a massive golden dress, but even without a glamorous, eye-catching outfit, she could recognize them all the same.

“This is none of your business—none of any of your business!” her father snapped, waving a hand at the rest of the rubbernecking and filming crowd. “My daughter is sixteen, she’s a child, she’s naive and helpless, and she’s been swept away by—”

“With all those pokeballs on her bag, she certainly doesn’t look helpless,” Elesa noted coolly, extracting a pokeball of their own from their belt. “And it sounds like the naive one is you, thinking you can just storm up to her, throw a tantrum and get your own way. I’ve met parents like you before, and this isn’t your living room, sir.” They nodded at the people filming. “The world watches out here. And from the sounds of it, if this young lady wished to push for full legal emancipation, she’d win it easily. Do you want that dragged out in public? Court proceedings to process her emancipation, yet another case of teenagers fleeing Romram families—I don’t mean to presume, are they Romram?” they asked Bianca. “The rhetoric sounds familiar.”

“Um, yeah,” Bianca sniffed, scrubbing at her eyes. Even dressed casually, with trainers on instead of heels and their hair in a messy bun, Elesa was so damn beautiful. “I don’t want to take ‘em to court or nothin’. I just want ‘em to leave me alone. And to stop sayin’ awful stuff ‘bout my friends,” she added sharply. “I’ve been hearin’ it for years, and I’m not listenin’ anymore.”

“You heard ‘er,” Carlotta said, flipping a middle finger at Bianca’s parents. “Fuck off.”

“You—!” her father began, looking inches from combusting in sheer rage, but then his wife put a hand on his arm.

“Let it go, dear,” she said, suddenly eerily calm, looking at Bianca one more time before looking away. “This has all been a misunderstanding. We don’t have a daughter.”

Bianca gasped as if slapped. Her mother’s eyes rested icily on her for a second, before looking away.

“Anna, what’re—” her father snarled, but Mrs D’Artagnan cut him off.

“We’re goin’ home, honey,” she said coldly. “Back among decent folks. I need a shower after this long in this heathen city. Come along.”

With a last furious glare back, Mr D’Artagnan spat at the ground and followed his wife away from the angrily muttering crowd.

Bianca’s knees gave out, but Carlotta caught her. There were other voices, a stranger asking if she was okay, and then Elesa’s voice saying “give the poor kid a little space, folks, her friend has her, it’ll be alright—if you took any video, can you leave your number with me? People like that, there can be future incidents—”

It all faded out as Bianca started to cry. She lost track of everything but Carlotta hugging her and murmuring, “you did it, B, they’re gone, you’re gonna be okay, I know that was scary, I know that was rough, but you did it, I gotcha, you’re gonna be okay…”

It was so hard. It hurt so much.

But it was done.


{Reshin 25th, 21.35}
{Nimbasa City}

“Carly?” Warren said in surprise, hanging up his attempt to call his sister as she got out of a really nice car in front of the gates to the campground. “What in the… B!”

Carlotta helped a red-eyed, sniffling Bianca out of the car. “Thanks, for real,” he said to whoever was inside. “We got ‘er.”

Warren called Cheren. “Carly an’ Bianca are back, found ‘em,” he said quickly, hanging up again almost immediately and hurrying over to join the two girls. “What happened?”

“Be safe, girls,” whoever was inside the car said, handing out a take-out bag. Carlotta nodded and closed the door so the car could drive off.

“H-Hi War,” Bianca said, almost collapsing into his arms. “My… my… my folks…”

Oh, shit. Warren hugged her as tight as he could. “You saw your folks?”

“An’ they saw her,” Carlotta growled angrily. “It got real ugly. But, uh…” She glanced after the car that sped off behind her. “Well, let’s talk ‘bout it in the tent, but I figure they ain’t gonna bother her no more. Where are we?”

“This way,” Warren said, leading them through the forest of trainers’ tents. Even at this hour, the place was busy. Patches of tents alternated with energy-shielded fields where people were training or fighting, with others watching and cheering them on as they ate dinner or relaxed.

Cheren was hovering outside their tent anxiously, and took over hugging Bianca as soon as he saw her. “Ran into her folks,” Warren explained. “Let’s sit us down inside the tent, eat some dinner and y’all can tell us what happened.”

“Oh, we didn’t get…” Bianca gasped, but Carlotta interrupted her by waving a takeout bag in front of her. “They gave us their takeout?”

“They said their cousin eats like a Gulpin so there should be plenty, an’ they’ll just cook for ‘im instead,” Carlotta explained. “We’re real lucky they were there. They’re fuckin’ awesome, for real.”

“Who was?” Cheren asked. Carlotta motioned them all into the tent and they piled inside. It was a decent-sized tent, with room for four bedrolls squished together. It wasn’t high enough to stand in, but comfortable enough to crawl around and sit in, and they weren’t intending to do anything inside of it but sleep and eat dinner, anyway. Once they were all seated, Warren started unpacking a large sealed bowl accompanied by many smaller bowls and boxes. “Oh, my, I think that’s an Oden set. Those can be expensive.”

“Fits,” Carlotta mumbled. “B, you wanna tell it or you want me to handle it?”

“I… you can handle it,” Bianca croaked. “My throat hurts an’ I just wanna eat.”

“I gotcha,” Carlotta promised, patting her on the back. “We were queuein’ for takeout when her folks turned up. Started yellin’ all sortsa shit, tried gettin’ past me to grab her.” She folded her arms pointedly. “Didn’t happen. But they were makin’ a real damn scene. A few other folks were lookin’ to get involved if they tried grabbin’ anybody an’ I saw some others filmin’ so we probably weren’t in danger or nothin’, but…” She looked sadly at Bianca, who was very focused on rummaging around in her bag for her bowl and cutlery.

“Did somebody call the police?” Cheren asked.

“No, but if they turn up again we can report ‘em for stalkin’ an’ harassment,” Carlotta explained. “Somebody did step in who was pickin’ up takeout, an’, uh… Cheren, don’t freak.” She dug around in her pocket and pulled out one of the napkins from the takeout joint, unfolding it to show the flowery autograph on it.

“…This is Elesa’s autograph,” Cheren said faintly, taking the napkin from her. “This is Elesa’s autograph.” He unfolded the napkin a little more, pulling out several more sheets of paper. “Well, that confirms it. Elesa’s an activist, and they sponsor a foundation that helps kids escaping religious families.” He handed the pieces of paper to Bianca. “These are vouchers that subsidize things like getting you a c-gear and some new clothes.” Bianca took the vouchers, staring at them wide-eyed.

“That was Elesa dropped y’all off?!” Warren yelped in surprise.

“Hush! That’s why we wanted to tell y’all in private,” Carlotta hissed. “We promised we wouldn’t go spreadin’ around that the were here, but yeah. They were pickin’ up Fairlan takeout for a cousin they got visitin’, they saw what was goin’ down an’ stepped in. Laid out all the legal consequences, real classy-like, if B’s folks didn’t fuck off. B was real brave, though,” she insisted. “She came out to her folks!”

“I was cryin’,” Bianca mumbled, fidgeting with her fork. “I just… I dunno… I wanted to shut ‘em up, I guess.”

“An’ you sure did!” Carlotta said, patting her on the back. “They, uh… kinda disowned her, though. Her mom did, anyway. So we probably ain’t gonna see ‘em anytime soon, but it’s still rough.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, B,” Warren said, hugging her. “Our mom’s comin’ to visit tomorrow. She’ll mom your ass good an’ proper, I promise.”

“Yeah?” Bianca giggled, sniffling. “Thanks, War. I’m lookin’ forward to it. An’ this FOOD!”

“Itadakimasu,” Cheren said, starting to dole out delicious-smelling stew from the largest bowl. “And it might be late, but after we’ve eaten, Carly, we need to do some trading and training.”

“Rocky an’ Roland?” Carlotta asked, adding tofu blocks to hers.

“And Thamina, too,” Cheren said. He looked at Bianca. “Don’t underestimate how brave it was to come out to your parents, even if it’s left you crying,” he told her. “It’s sure got me inspired by your bravery to get to training!”

“Awww, thanks, Cheren,” Bianca giggled, looking at the circle of Oden bowls with a nervous grin. “So, you know everythin’—what is all of this?”

 

{Reshin 26th, 11.42}
{Route 16}

“Mina? You see her?” Bianca called, following her Woobat through the trees. Carlotta had wandered away from the campgrounds to see what the local wild Pokemon were like while Cheren and Bianca trained together.

Training with Cheren could be a lot, but for once, Bianca really enjoyed it. She hadn’t slept well and everything felt a little unreal after facing her parents the previous day, so letting Cheren take charge of how they trained things much easier. And it did feel good to watch Roland and Thamina grow and evolve, and to feel like her own Pokemon had gotten stronger, even if none of them had evolved yet. Tiberius was worrying her a little, but he seemed happy enough to still fit in her arms and be carried everywhere she went, and she was happy enough to carry the little warm bundle of happy squeaks.

It made her feel safer, too. Even if it was silly. Her parents weren’t going to turn up and attack her. But still…

Wilhelmina suddenly squealed and swooped into the trees and Bianca ran after her, grinning in relief when she heard Carlotta talking. “Hey there, Mina! Kisses for you too, beautiful!”

“Hey Carly!” Bianca called, running towards her and giggling at the sight of the bit heart mark on her friend’s cheek. She wanted to kiss the mark, and sternly banished that thought. Not because it makes you dirty or creepy, she reminded herself. She just don’t feel the same way, that’s all, an’ that’s fine. It’s fine. “Guess what! Roland an’ Thamina evolved!”

“Hot damn, really?” Carlotta said excitedly. “I got Rocky evolved too, an’ Loyal, an’ check out this li’l lady I caught!” She held up the bundle of green she had in her arms. A grumpy little face peered out from amongst green leaves. “I’m replacin’ that Scraggy with her. Scraggy’s a real fine Pokemon, gonna do great for you an’ Cheren, but I already got Thamina.”

“Ain’t that… a Swadloon? Like Burgh had?” Bianca asked.

Carlotta nodded, face going a little tight before she forcibly smoothed it out and hugged the bug-type. “I ain’t gonna be mad at Burgh,” she insisted quietly. “I kinda am. ‘Bout losin’ Pijon. An’ I’m mad at me, too. An’ this whole world, for bein’ the kinda place where Pokemon die. But it ain’t fair on Burgh, or this li’l lady, who I’m namin’ Saria. C’mon, say hi to Mina!” she added, holding up the Swadloon in her hands.

Saria just grumbled, trying to hide her face under her leaves, but Wilhelmina swooped down and gave the bug a big kiss with her nose. The big pink heart shape painted Saria’s face pink, and for a moment it looked like she was going to freak out, before she seemed to be blushing. The blush made her whole body glow until the leaves unfolded showing long arms and legs and a smiling face and Carlotta had to quickly set down the bug as she grew to a four-foot-tall Leavanny.

“Hey! She evolved!” Carlotta said happily. “Thanks, Mina!” The Woobat just giggled, flying in circles around Saria as her own body suddenly grew and elongated out of the small puff that had been her whole body. Soon she had a big, blue, smiling face of her own.

“Mina too!” Bianca said happily. Mina fluttered around Saria, stretching her newly-extended wings, and Saria smiled and sang happily at her. “Awww, you think it’s love at first sight?”

“I’m thinkin’ so,” Carlotta laughed. “Gondamn, they’re adorable…” She wiped at the heart mark on her own cheek. “How you doin’, B?”

“I’ll be okay,” Bianca said, keeping her eyes on Mina and Saria. She crouched down to let Tiberius out of her arms so he could run over to inspect the two, and Saria scooped him up, cooing gently at the smaller Pokemon. “I’m… scared of my folks right now. An’…” She shrugged, then made herself smile. “I’m gonna be okay,” she promised. “Just keep bein’ you, Carly. You an’ Warren an’ Cheren. I know I’m gonna be okay if I got y’all, so that’s all you gotta do, okay?”

“Okay,” Carlotta said. “And it ain’t just us. You got that nice girl from the ferris wheel, an’ our folks, an’—”

“Oh, yeah! That’s why I came to find you!” Bianca gasped, jumping back to her feet. “Your mom called Warren. Her train’s gettin’ in soon. C’mon!”

“Oh, shit! Alright, Saria, let’s get goin’,” Carlotta said, returning her Leavanny as soon as Bianca had returned Tiberius. She left Mina out as the two of them ran back towards the city, following the street signs to the train station where Warren and Cheren were waiting for them and for Stephanie Arathos.

Carlotta and Warren’s mother was already there and excitedly chattering to the boys, and turned on her heel with a big smile when Carlotta called out to her.

It wasn’t scary to see Mrs Arathos run up to them. Carlotta had probably never flinched in her life to see her mother approaching. Bianca was a little startled by being swung into a big hug at the same time as Carlotta, but it was nice. It was so nice.

If Mrs Arathos thought Bianca hugged her too tightly or for too long, she didn’t say anything about it.

“Y’all been through a lot since you left, huh?” she said sympathetically when Bianca finally let her go. “Well, guess what I got for y’all to brighten up the day?”

“You’re gonna love it, B,” Warren said with a big grin. “I know you ain’t never been before!”

“What is it?” Bianca asked.

Mrs Arathos pulled up a screen on her c-gear with a proud grin. “I’m takin’ you kids to the ball game!”

“Gondamn, those are good seats!” Carlotta said excitedly. Her grin turned sharp. “Awww, you signed us up for the seventh innin’ showcase too? Nice! Ain’t she just the best?” she asked Bianca.

“She is,” Bianca agreed wholeheartedly. “What’s the seventh innin’ showcase?”

“Take a guess,” Carlotta said, holding up Owain’s pokeball with a big grin. “Can’t wait to show y’all how my trainin’s been goin’!”

“Likewise,” Cheren said with a smirk. “Shall we get going so we have time to get snacks?”

“It’s all on me today, kids,” Mrs Arathos promised, looping her arms through Bianca and Carlotta’s as they started to walk in the direction of the sports stadiums. “Go wild!”


{Reshin 26th, 14.30}
{Nimbasa Big Stadium}

Bianca had played catch and stickball with Carlotta, Warren and Cheren on a few rare occasions as a child, but by and large her upbringing had been devoid of any physical activity except dancing. Sports were for boys, and watching sports games was a social activity for men. She didn’t even know the rules of baseball.

As it turned out, she didn’t need to in order to have the time of her life.

She didn’t need to know why people started running when they did to be excited by watching somebody slide to safety just before getting tagged out. She didn’t have to know who was batting to be in awe of a hit that sent the ball flying off of the field. The competition was exciting, and every moment, tens of thousands of people were sharing the excitement with her, whole swathes of the crowd cheering and yelling and screaming as one, amplifying her own emotions by sharing them.

By the seventh inning, she was practically vibrating in her seat from the adrenaline of just watching the game.

“Carly, Cher, y’all better git to the counter for the showcase matches!” Mrs Arathos said, shooing at them as the players left the field and the connection with the crowd broke, everybody scattering into a chaos of chatter.

“Good luck!” Bianca cheered, high-fiving each of them as they shuffled past.

“Luckiest girl in Unova,” Carlotta promised.

“I’m gonna go see a man ‘bout a ‘mon, then I’m gonna get more snacks,” Warren said, also standing. “Mom, B, y’all want anythin’?”

“Them sausages are real good,” Bianca said as she helped Warren gather up their accumulated trash.

“Load us up on them cheesy fries too, willya, sweetheart?” Mrs Arathos said, kissing Warren on the cheek and pressing her cashcard on him. “Hurry back!”

“Sure thing,” Warren said, running off to ditch the trash and find the bathroom. Mrs Arathos sat down, smiling fondly as she watched him go.

“Thanks so much for bringin’ us here, Mrs Arathos,” Bianca giggled. “It’s real fun!”

“Oh, honey, it’s my pleasure,” Mrs Arathos insisted, “and please, call me Steph. I’m sure your folks taught you it ain’t proper, but I’ll be honest, I don’t give a damn what they think’s proper, or anythin’ they think at all. Carly messaged me what happened yesterday. How’re you doin’?”

Bianca sagged as the heavy weight in her chest, forgotten in the rush of the game, sank back into place. “Still gettin’ used to the idea that it really happened,” she mumbled. “I told ‘em, an’ they… well, I knew it was gonna happen, and I probably wasn’t goin’ home after, but it’s still sinkin’ in that I don’t have a home no more…”

“Bianca, honey, those kids of mine did tell you you’ve got a home with us, didn’t they?” Mrs Arathos said, looking startled.

Bianca nodded. “Yeah, and it’s real kind of you to let me stay with y’all, Mrs Ara—S-Steph,” she stuttered. She had been taught that it wasn’t proper for kids to address adults by their first name, and doing it made her feel like she was summoning her parents to appear in a towering temper and punish her or her insolence. “I promise I’ll earn my keep, I can take over cookin’ dinner an’ such, I know you an’ your husband work real hard—”

“No… no… Bianca… honey… no,” Mrs Arathos said, waving her off. “I gotta state this clearer. I ain’t offerin’ to take you in as a boarder. I’m sayin’ you’re part of our family now. Those two got chores when they’re home, sure, but they don’t gotta earn the right to live in their home, and neither do you, honeybunch, alright?”

Bianca stared at her. “…Y-You’re real kind…” she began weakly.

“No, Bianca, I’m doin’ what any decent parent oughta do for their kids,” Mrs Arathos said, putting her hands on Bianca’s shoulders now. “That’s what you are now, no gettin’ outta it. Legally, too, soon enough. I ain’t told Carly or Warren this yet, but after that girl of mine messaged me, I got in touch with a representative of that model she said helped y’all out, got them videos an’ testimonies they collected, an’ went to social services. The mister ain’t here today because he’s gettin’ things sorted with ‘em for us to be your legal guardians, long as you want or need us.”

Bianca was starting to feel lightheaded. “Y’all don’t gotta go to all that trouble… I mean it’s, it’s expensive, ain’t it, that kinda thing, there’s legal stuff, ain’t there, I mean, just for me—”

“Bianca? Look me in the eyes, kiddo,” Mrs Arathos said, waiting until Bianca did before she unblinkingly stated, “you’re worth it. If it was all the trouble in the world, you’d be worth it. Alright? And as it happens it ain’t much expense or trouble ‘cause there ain’t no custody battle to fight.” She sighed sadly. “The social worker who went to talk to ‘em about the case came back with their signatures on the transfer of custody in less’n an hour. I’m sorry, Bianca. I mean, I’m happy they did, ‘cause they’re awful parents an’ you deserve better, and I promise I’m gonna do my best on that front, but it can’t be easy to hear that they didn’t even fight for you. Damn church probably told ‘em to keep things smooth so they don’t end up on the news again…”

It wasn’t easy. It hurt. It was a relief. She was free. They’d abandoned her. But she wasn’t falling because Carlotta and Warren’s family had already caught her.

She couldn’t think of anything better to do than hug Mrs Arathos and burst into tears.

“Let it out, honey,” Mrs Arathos said, hugging her back. Great, big, warm, gentle hugs, just like Carly an’ War. “You’re gonna be alright. Might take a little while. But we got you, alright? For long as you need, we got you.”

“Thank you,” Bianca sobbed into her shoulder. “Th-thank you…”

Warren made his way back to them a few minutes later, holding a tray of food and drinks. “Everythin’ alright?” he asked, looking from his mother to Bianca.

“Just doin’ some motherin’,” Steph told him, patting Bianca’s back before letting go of the hug so she and Bianca could lean back and let Warren back to his seat. “You’re just in time, PA just announced the matchup.”

“Yeah, I heard,” Warren said, sitting down and handing his mother a soda. “Rehydratin’ time, B,” he offered, passing Bianca a bottle of water. “You doin’ okay?”

“Gonna be just fine,” Bianca promised, smiling at him and his mother. Family. They’re my family too, if I want ‘em, and ‘course I do! “I didn’t hear the PA, what’d they say?”

“Cheren an’ Carly are gonna double battle some locals,” Steph said, pointing at one of the huge screens floating over the crowd, broadcasting from the tiny camera drones flying about the field. One screen showed Carlotta and Cheren walking onto the field together, grinning confidently at the crowd. Another person showed a tall, round-faced person with brown hair, dressed in all black, walking in from the far end of the field. They were deep in discussion with a shorter person dressed mostly in white and grey, except for their purple scarf and hair.

“Alright, folks, are you ready?” the PA called. “Today we got a couple of Nimbasa stars in the stadium—Malin and the Battle Subway’s own Sophia! And our challengers are a couple of traveling gym trainers gearing up for Elesa—Cheren and Carlotta! Let’s give ‘em a big Nimbasa welcome!”

The crowd cheered, and somewhere a chant of “MA-LIN FOR THE WIN! MA-LIN FOR THE WIN!” started up. Malin waved confidently to the crowd, while Sophia smiled politely but seemed more focused on poring over her pokeballs.

“Four contestants, two Pokemon each!” the PA called. “The winning team is the one that can take out all four of the opposing team’s Pokemon! Play fair, folks, we’re here for some fun! PLAY BALL!”

The trainers didn’t have microphones, but Bianca could see that Carlotta had released her new Leavanny, Saria, while Cheren had decided to see what Rocky could do now that they were a Gigalith. The trainers’ names and Pokemon species were displayed on the screens, though not the Pokemon’s names, so she could see that Malin had released a bright yellow Pokemon called a Galvantula while Sophia had a Serperior.

“Oh hey, that’s what Sherlock’s gonna evolve into soon, see?” Warren said, pointing at the long green Pokemon. “Man, that one’s big. She must be real tough, huh?”

“Are Cher an’ Carly gonna be alright?” Bianca fretted, watching the long, strong-looking Pokemon uncurl and loom over Rocky and Saria.

It was Saria who moved first, however, getting directly into the Serperior’s face and clawing at it with all of her limbs. “Ooh, that’s a tough Struggle Bug from the speedy Leavanny!” the announcer called, barely getting the words out before Saria was knocked down by a glowing beam of light fired by the Galvantula. “But that’s a tough Signal Beam at short range from Galvantula, and that frees up Serperior for—there it is! Giga Drain!” The Serperior struck at Rocky, glowing green.

“HANG IN THERE, ROCKY!” Warren bellowed through his cupped hands. Rocky hung in there, firing several rocks at the Galvantula.

“Tthat’s a nasty Rock Blast right there—oh, and is Galvantula down? It is! What a blast!” the announcer cried. There was a mix of cheers and boos from the crowd as the Galvantula collapsed under the onslaught, and Malin quickly returned their unconscious bug. Another screen flared up, with a scoreboard showing “HOME-0, AWAY-1”. “But next up, there she is… Malin’s Volcarona!”

A huge cheer went up as Malin replaced their Galvantula with a much bigger bug. It had a fuzzy white-and-grey body and a vast wingspan of fiery orange and red.

“Looks like Serperior’s got a nasty Bug Bite!” the announcer called as Saria got back into the Serperior’s face, chomping down on its nose. The Serperior shrieked, then its tail lashed around, wrapping around Saria and yanking her away. “And Serperior’s using Coil in retaliation, but—oh no, watch out Serperior! Volcarona’s working up a Fiery Dance!”

The Volcarona chirped melodiously as it fluttered its wings, the elegant, complex movements looking very much like a beautiful dance until the moment when the fiery wings became a flowing wave of actual fire that washed over Rocky, Saria and Serperior.

All three of the other Pokemon were immediately returned, and one of the cameras caught Sophia and Malin arguing. “Come on, home team, hang in there!” the announcer called as the scoreboard changed to “HOME-2, AWAY-2”. “We’re neck and neck with all four trainers down to their last Pokemon already! Looks like that worn-down Gigalith couldn’t stand up to the fire! What have we got to stand up to Malin’s famous Volcarona, folks?”

Sophia responded with a Chandelure, a floating Pokemon of purple smoke and elaborate black details. Cheren went for Poncho, and Carlotta for Owain. “Oooh, a Simipour and a Dewott! The away team’s got the type advantage, but will that last against the home team’s sheer power?”

The Volcarona fluttered its wings, emitting a high-pitched buzz that made humans and Pokemon alike wince and cover their ears. Owain shook it off first, jumping in with a Razor Shell that sent the Volcarona crashing to the ground, and as soon as it was down there Poncho hit it with a wave of scalding hot water. Malin returned their Pokemon, giving Cheren and Carlotta a thumbs-up. “Well, would you look at that! Malin’s bowing out out of respect for the teamwork! Well, Away team, how about that Chandelure?”

The Chandelure seemed unmoved by the carnage until a ball of black light fired from it, smashing Poncho into the ground. Owain jumped in, slashing at it with Razor Shell again, but the Chandelure gave no visible response besides shuddering, this time surrounding Owain with blue fire. Owain yelped as he was burned, and then got smashed back by another ball of black light.

“Oooh, those Shadow Balls are nothing to sneeze at!” the announcer cried. “Looks like little Dewott’s down for the count—and where’s Simipour? Did its trainer return it already? Wow, what a close-run match, folks, what a show from the—huh?”

On the screen, Bianca could see Cheren shaking his head and smirking. Carlotta sighed as she returned Owain, but she was also watching the Chandelure with an expectant smirk.

Sophia seemed to realize what was going to happen just before it did, but if she tried to shout a warning, she was too late. Poncho shot out from the ground beneath the Chandelure, slamming into it and sending it spiraling across the field until it collapsed, keening and giving off black smoke.

“WOW! What a sneaky Dig!” the announcer cried. “With Chandelure down, that makes Panpour the last ‘mon standing! The winners are the away team, CHEREN AND CARLOTTA! Let’s give ‘em a big hand, folks!”

Bianca leapt to her feet, clapping and cheering at the top of her lungs. “GOOD GOIN’, GUYS!” she screamed. On the field, Carlotta gave Poncho a hug before Cheren returned him, and then hugged Cheren.

“Gondamn, that’s some fine teamwork those two got goin’!” Steph said proudly. “Y’all see how Carly had Owain distract that candlestick so it wouldn’t notice Poncho headin’ underground? Real fine work!”

“They’re a real good team,” Bianca said happily. “They’re gonna do great at the gym!”

“How ‘bout you, B?” Warren asked as the crowd settled down into chattering. Cheren and Carlotta were standing by the edge of the field, talking to Malin and Sophia, while a team of fluttering little Petilil repaired the turf. “You gonna take the next gym?”

“…Yeah,” Bianca decided, watching her friends. “I’m feelin’ more confident after trainin’ with Cheren. An’ I do wanna get stronger.” She smiled at Warren and Steph. “I wanna be able to protect people, the way y’all been protectin’ me,” she said. “So I gotta get stronger an’ braver.”

“You’re real brave already, B,” Warren said, hugging her. “But glad to hear you’re back in the fight!”

“’Sides, Elesa was real nice,” Bianca said. “I’m sure they’re gonna be careful in their battles!”


{Reshin 26th, 19.44}
{Nuvema Town}

Red crept towards the bedroom door on soft, socked feet, moving absolutely silently as he carefully turned the handle and opened the door without a sound.

“What part of ‘keep your ass in bed’ was I not perfectly clear on?” Blue said. He was standing in the hallway with his arms folded and a scowl on his face. “Please, give me some feedback, I need to know where I went wrong.”

“I’m fine, though,” Red argued, closing the bedroom door behind him and glaring Blue down. “I don’t need to stay in bed. Were you waiting out here for me?”

“Yeah, because I knew you were gonna try some shit and I’ve got nothing better to do,” Blue growled, reopening the bedroom door and pointing at the bed. “We’re being watched, Red, and if they see you up and walking about through a window that might make you a target, understand?”

“Why would they think I’m not able to get up and walk about?” Red argued. “Wow, do you think it could be the way one of them fucking gutted me?!” Blue flinched. “I remember what happened, Blue! One of them sliced me up like a fucking cake so they could take Lettie from me! I know they did!” He pulled his shirt up, pointing at his completely unscarred stomach, right where he’d felt the knife and the pain oh god so much pain as everything ripped and spilled— “So what the hell is this, Blue?! What happened?! People don’t heal like this!”

“For the love of…” Blue grabbed Red’s arm, dragging him back into his room and slamming the bedroom door behind him. “Why is this happening when I’m the only one here?” he asked the air. “This is something Silver’s supposed to talk to you about. When you’re older. Not after getting murdered, just… Fuck! I can’t explain this shit!”

“Silver? What does my brother have to do with any of this?” Red asked, thrown by the apparent topic switch.

Blue pointed at the bed. “Get back in bed and pretend to be recovering from a terrible wound,” he snapped. “This is all about some shit that divine bastard pulled thirteen years ago and it’s on him to explain it, okay? What the hell were you gonna do, anyway? Go get stabbed again?”

Red flinched, then steeled himself. “I just… I can’t stay in bed while Lettie’s missing!”

“Learn to deal, kid,” Blue said, sitting down on the end of Red’s bed. “She’s my daughter. You think I like sitting around here?”

“So why are you?” Red demanded.

Blue gave him a sharp look. “You’re smarter than that, kid, don’t play that fucking dumb,” he snapped. “Meloetta’s doubling for Saylee and Linda’s running herself ragged making it look like both her and Janine are still on guard here. The Meloetta part of the con only works if I’m here to help hold it up. If the con falters, what do you think’s gonna happen to Lettie, huh? What happens to hostages when the kidnapper’s demands aren’t met?”

Red noticed that Blue’s hands were shaking slightly, and was startled to realize that he was scared. It wasn’t something he was used to seeing on his ever-cocky brother-in-law.

Red sagged, sitting down next to him. “I want to help,” he muttered. “I feel useless lying here…”

“Yeah, but us holding down the fort here means that Saylee, Key and Janine can be out there,” Blue told quietly. “And as long as I remind myself that those three are running loose out there, I feel like everything’s gonna be alright.”

“…Yeah,” Red sighed, slumping against Blue’s side. He didn’t want to admit how much it felt like he needed the hug that Blue gave him, so he told himself that he was hugging Blue because he clearly needed it.

“Promise me you’ll stay here, Red,” Blue said softly. “Stay safe, okay? We’re scared for Lettie right now. Don’t make us worry about what’s happening to you, too.”

I’m not him, Red wanted to say. I’m not gonna run off alone and die. Even thinking of the other Red, though—his namesake, the older Red, the dead Red, died alone and lost years before he was born—made him feel hollow and cold, so he said nothing. …I was just gonna run off alone and… do what? What can I do?

Blue let go of him, getting his pokegear out of his pocket and checking the time, then mumbling about having to find Meloetta before the kidnappers called to check in. Red slowly tucked himself into bed as Blue left, staring blankly at the ceiling.

All he could do was pray.

Chapter Text

{Reshin 27th, 09:12}

{Nimbasa City}

 

Stephanie Arathos visited a friend of hers overnight rather than joining the campsite, but had arrived bright and early to take them all out to breakfast. Everywhere was crowded, but eventually they found a small diner that was a bit more off the beaten path and only had a five-minute wait for a table. They ordered and received their food almost worryingly fast.

 

“Y’know, social services actually recommended this foundation to us when we were explainin’ your situation, Bianca,” Stephanie said as she leafed through the vouchers that Bianca had gotten from Elesa. “So that model y’all like is one of their sponsors? Good on ‘em. With all these, we can take you shoppin’ to get some important stuff this mornin’. Like your own c-gear!”

 

“And some new clothes, including your first pair of jeans!” Carlotta said excitedly. “Or, hell, a pair of shorts if you’re feelin’ darin’, it is the middle of summer…” She took a long drink of her iced tea, nodding at the blazing sunlight outside of the diner they were in.

 

“Most of the vouchers are specifically for Elesa line clothes, since they’re a sponsor, but they have a wide variety of clothing to choose from,” Cheren commented. “And we are in the same city as the biggest Elesa store in the country…”

 

“You gonna take down Elesa’s gym wearin’ their clothes?” Warren asked with a grin. “Damn, Cher, rub it in their face!”

 

“Maybe,” Cheren coughed. “After going shopping with Bianca, perhaps we should train more before—”

 

“Nah, y’know what? Between Rocky an’ Roland, you an’ me are gonna do just fine in Elesa’s gym,” Carlotta insisted. “Since we’re goin’ for our third badges, her team’s gonna be mostly Emolga. You think a Gigalith’s gonna have problems with an Emolga?”

 

“Y’all are gonna be fine, but B said she’s gonna try this one too,” Warren added. “What’re you thinkin’, B?”

 

“Well… I ain’t gonna use Mina, ‘cause of all that electricity, an’ I don’t think I should use Sgain, ‘cause she’s a fightin’ type and Emolga are them cute li’l flyers, right?” she asked. Cheren nodded. “So I’m actually thinkin’… well, Tibby. What do you think?”

 

“He still hasn’t evolved, which is odd, but he’s surprisingly sturdy,” Cheren said thoughtfully. “And he does know a Rock-type move… is that your plan? To overpower Elesa?”

 

Bianca blushed. “Um. Yeah?”

 

“YEAH!” Carlotta hooted, punching the air. “Thatta girl! B’s gonna kick some ass!”

 

“No ass-kickin’ at breakfast, little madam, that’s an afternoon activity,” her mother said, poking her in the cheek. “Inside voices so you don’t startle all the nice tourists with your yellin’.”

 

“Sorry, Mom,” Carlotta said sheepishly. “But hell, we can take this gym! We’ve been gettin’ stronger real fast!”

 

“We have,” Cheren said quietly, staring at his pancakes with a frown as he counted dates in his head.

 

“Cher? Y’alright?” Warren asked, nudging him in the arm.

 

“Hm? Just thinking…” He looked at Stephanie. “Auntie Steph, it hasn’t even been two weeks since we left, has it?”

 

“Y’all been through a lot in that time,” she sighed, shaking her head. “Feels like a million years.”

 

“Yes, but… we figured that with daily training and hard work, we could maybe get six badges in three months, and get the last two for the League season next year,” Cheren said quietly. “Most trainers who decide on the League challenge either take a gap year to do it, or go for gyms over the summer seasons for two to three years. Bianca lost a Pokemon in Striaton Gym and Carlotta lost one in Castelia, but both of those were instances of bad luck, not being overpowered.

 

“What are you thinkin’, Cheren?” Warren asked quietly.

 

“I spoke to those trainers we beat at the seventh inning showcase,” Cheren continued. “Malin’s been fighting competitively for cash full-time for two years. They have a Volcarona. Do you have any idea how powerful Volcarona are? Even with a type advantage and strategy, we should not have been able to take it down.”

 

“Yeah, but—” Carlotta began.

 

“And Sophia has all eight Unova badges,Cheren continued. “She hasn’t been interested in taking the League challenge, but she has eight badges. How the hell did we beat her?”

 

“Startin’ to sound like that match was pretty rigged in favour of the home team trainers, and y’all knocked it outta the park anyway,” Stephanie said, but she frowned thoughtfully. “…But that is goin’ on a little strange. Best I can figure is it’s due to all that Plasma nonsense y’all been mixed up in.”

 

“Plasma?” Bianca said in surprise.

 

“War, you’ve been studyin’, right?” Stephanie asked him. “What’s the name of that, y’know, when Pokemon fight an’ they get stronger?”

 

“The… you mean the Innes Effect, right?” Warren asked. “The cocktail of growth and development hormones released by training and combat?”

 

“Well, when I was trainin’ to do my job, my old boss warned me to keep an eye on my Pokemon after any real fights,” Stephanie explained. “League battles… Pokemon do die, sure, but mostly they ain’t fightin’ for their lives, or at least, they don’t think they are. It’s competitive scrappin’. Fightin’ more seriously, with lives on the line… that effect’s a lot more pronounced, he said. So if we ever got in a real scrap with terrorists, for example, our Pokemon might suddenly seem a lot stronger. Trainers from Orre don’t come up here much on account of not likin’ our snooty Unovan asses much, but when they do? They’re wild strong. ‘Cause mostly, Orre bein’ like it is, they do end up fightin’ for their lives, at least once. Same for any Kanto trainer who lived through that civil war of theirs, includin’ that Tohjo Champion, I hear…” She sighed sadly. “Poor woman. Hear she’s just pacin’ holes in the Tohjo Embassy floors, ain’t speakin’ a word, just waitin’ for news…”

 

The more intense the fight, the more pronounced the Innes Effect, Cheren thought, flicking open his pokedex and reading over the details of his Pokemon. But is that pronounced enough to explain it?

 

“Is there… anythin’ else that can affect it?” Bianca asked quietly. “Anythin’… strange?”

 

“Strange? Stranger’n Plasma’s foolishness?” Stephanie asked.

 

“Y’know what? We’ll tell you all ‘bout that later, somewhere less public,” Carlotta decided, standing up. “I’m done eatin’. We’re takin’ B shoppin’, we’re gettin’ glammed up, an’ then we’re hittin’ the gym!”

 

 

 

{Reshin 27th, 10:44}

{Nimbasa City}

 

“Ain’t you kids gotta sign up somewhere?” Stephanie asked as they strode on into the gym.

 

“Not for Elesa’s gym,” Carlotta said, tugging at her hat to shield her eyes from the sudden blare of neo lights once they stepped inside. “You gotta earn your spot. See them rollercoasters?”

 

“Track 1-2, 3-4, 5-6, 7-8, and Master… you gotta ride a rollercoaster to earn the right to fight this one?” her mother laughed.

 

“Yes, but you also have to defend your right to a battle from other trainers of the same skill level,” Cheren added. “The coaster will occasionally stop to let you battle another trainer of your badge level. If you win, you stay on the coaster; if you lose, you heal your Pokemon and wait there until the coaster comes around again, closing time, or you give up and leave. If you’re lucky enough to be in the coaster when Elesa gets around to fighting your skill level, you get your gym battle! I think there are special exceptions by appointment for people with severe motion sickness or sensory disorders, though.”

 

“Which means since B’s here for her second badge, you’re on the yellow track over there,” Carlotta said nudging Bianca to the coaster in question. “Cher and I are on the blue track here. Mom, War, y’all gonna watch from the gallery up top?”

 

“Of course,” Warren said, giving her a fistbump and Bianca a high-five. “Good luck,” he said, kissing Cheren on the cheek.

 

“Aww, I’ll give all y’all good luck kisses!” his mother said, giving Carlotta, Bianca and Cheren each a hair-ruffle and kiss on the forehead.

 

“Thanks, S-Steph,” Bianca giggled anxiously. She fidgeted with her new c-gear on her wrist—orange and blue, matching the blue capris and orange t-shirt she’d gotten. “See y’all at the other end!”

 

“C’mon, let’s get us a seat,” Warren’s mother said as they headed for the elevator up to the viewing galleries. “They sell snacks here?”

 

“I think they have vending machines…”

 

The elevator ride was startlingly fast for how high up they climbed. The tracks below were an intricate pattern of coloured lights, too far down to really see the people waiting at the various platforms, but overarching screens showed who was in each car at any given moment. Currently, nobody was challenging for their seventh or eighth badge, or challenging off of eight or more recognized foreign badges, so two of the cars were empty, but it looked like Elesa was pretty hot competition in the 3-4 and 5-6 badge levels.

 

The viewing gallery, however, wasn’t too packed, and it was pretty easy for Warren to find a corner with nobody else sitting nearby, the few people in the same gallery as them fixed on watching the screen depicting Elesa’s current match. Warren thought he vaguely recognized the grumpy-looking guy and his overenthusiastic Emboar from Striaton Gym.

 

How fast has this guy racked up badges? If Carly an’ Cher win today, that’s three in under two weeks…

 

“Alright, what’s eatin’ you?” his mother asked as she sat down next to him, giving him a concerned look.

 

“We’ve been seein’ weird stuff,” he said bluntly.

 

“Weird how?”

 

Warren told her what Bianca said she’d seen, what he’d felt in Pinwheel Forest, how Carlotta had experienced the same thing in Relic Castle, and then, in near-whispers, the strange conversation they’d had with Sar Saylee in Castelia.

 

She listened patiently, nodding occasionally, without interrupting or saying a word until Warren was done. It was one of his favourite things about her. “Y’know, honey, I wanna say ain’t none of that can be real, or that all y’all are overexcitin’ yourselves over somethin’ normal,” she mused, “but that ain’t you, Warren. Your sister can get real overexcited sometimes, but you wouldn’t be tellin’ me all this unless you were real serious about it.”

 

“I can’t explain it,” Warren sighed. “But somethin’ real weird’s goin’ on, Mom, and I’m wonderin’ if that ain’t somethin’ to do with how fast our Pokemon are gettin’ strong… hells, it’s even affectin’ Angus!” He tapped his Audino’s pokeball. “I hardly fight with ‘im, but he picked up Heal Pulse in no time… I looked that up and ain’t no way he was near learnin’ it, not when Cheren was able to catch ‘im with a brand-new baby Snivy!”

 

His mother gave him a long, studying look. “Do y’all wanna come home?” she asked.

 

“What?”

 

“Somethin’s happenin’ that I can’t explain any better’n you, hon, an’ I’m worried about all four of y’all.” She gestured down at the coasters; Bianca was in hers, and had actually been called up to Elesa’s platform, while Cheren was currently holding the 3-4 coaster. “’Tween Plasma an’ all this… somethin’ followin y’all… If y’all wanna come home, ‘stead of travellin’, train at home, just ‘port out for badge battles… well, I sure ain’t gonna complain ‘bout havin’ my babies home!”

 

Just… give up an’ run home? Like li’l kids? Was Warren’s first response. He didn’t normally say his first response; usually, Carlotta responded first, giving him time to think his over.

 

Down on the stage, Bianca started her battle out strong. Tiberius was still small but packed a lot of power into his tiny frame, as his Rollout attested when it knocked Elesa’s Emolga out of the air.

 

Be safe. That was what Sar Saylee had asked of them. Doing the safe thing sometimes feels like not doing the right thing, but it’s not the wrong thing. Going home, training there, in a highly secure community surrounded by highly trained security forces, probably including whatever ninjas Sar Saylee had left back at her embassy, then teleporting out for gym battles… that… made sense. It would be the sensible thing to do. The safe thing to do.

 

Elesa apparently didn’t inflict their infamous Volt Switch strategy on a second-badge challenger. The Emolga’s Aerial Ace was fast and looked like it hit hard, but Tiberius was still rolling, hitting back harder and bringing the Emolga down again. Elesa returned it, replacing it with a Zebstrika. Bianca kept Tiberius in. He was still rolling.

 

If we go home, the … whatever Carly an’ B an’ I’ve been seein’… probably won’t be able to find us there, right? Didn’t start findin’ us ‘til we left home…

 

The Zebstrika knew Spark. It looked like it hurt. But Tiberius’ Rollout had built up enough momentum to take the lightning steed’s legs out from under it.

 

Bianca had actually seen something, even spoken to it. Warren couldn’t deny that he wanted to, as well. He’d only caught a distant glimpse. What Bianca had seen hadn’t hurt her. I… wanna see somethin’ too. More’n just a glimpse. It feels… important.

 

The next Spark missed. Tiberius was moving too fast, striking the Zebstrika to hard. It was knocked cold. Elesa only used two Pokemon for a second-badge match. Warren’s whole train of thought derailed in excitement when he saw the WINNER notification flash up onscreen over Bianca’s trainer ID photo.

 

“YYYEAAAAHHHHHH! GO BIANCA!” he shouted, hopping up and cheering.

 

“GOOD JOB, HONEY!” his mother yelled, clapping as hard as she could. The stage was probably too far away for Bianca to hear them, but the screen let them see Bianca bouncing on the spot as she hugged Tiberius, as well as the smile on Elesa’s face as they handed over Bianca’s badge and said something that made Bianca stop bouncing and start fidgeting nervously. Probably a compliment on how good her new clothes looked. “We oughta message her on ‘er brand new C-gear to get on up here an’ join us to see Carly and Cheren’s matches!”

 

“Looks like Cheren’s up next, actually,” Warren said, pointing to the screens depicting the occupants of the coasters. Cheren has successfully defended his against all comers, and was being called up as Elesa healed their Pokemon for a tier 3-4 match.

 

“You were thinkin’ pretty hard all through that match, hon,” his mother said as she typed out a text to Bianca. “What’re you thinkin’?”

 

“It’s silly to think of goin’ home as givin’ up or runnin’ away,” Warren said. “All this stuff with Plasma ain’t the kinda stuff we oughta be dealin’ with. We ain’t rangers or cops. An’ whatever Carly an’ B an’ I’ve been seein’… we don’t know it’s dangerous, but we don’t know it ain’t. So it’d probably be the safe thing, the smart thing, to retreat an’ hole up.”

 

Cheren had, as planned, chosen Rocky, and the Gigalith had already brought Elesa’s first Emolga down before they could switch it.

 

“But?” his mother prompted.

 

Rocky took out the second Emolga with equal ease.

 

“…Just don’t feel right,” Warren admitted. “Ain’t more’n my gut feelin’, but it don’t feel right at all. And I think I oughta speak to Carly, Cher an’ B before decidin’ somethin’ like that.”

 

Elesa’s Zebstrika made a game attempt at using Flame Charge, but Rocky didn’t seem to notice the attack.

 

“Whatever you kids wanna do, honey, your father and I are here for you, whenever you need us,” his mother said, giving him a hug. “And we’re no slouches, y’know! We got these security guard jobs for a reason! Cheren’s folks are here for y’all too, of course, and they’re plenty scary in their own special ways.”

 

Warren laughed. “I know,” he said. “Thanks, Mom. Love you.”

 

“Love you too, honey.” She straightened up and waved, grinning. “Bianca! Just in time to catch the end of Cheren’s match! C’mere an’ show us that shiny new badge of yours, honey!”

 

“Did y’all see me win?” Bianca squealed, running over with Tiberius still under one arm and the Bolt Badge held aloft. “Tibby did it all by himself!”

 

 

{Reshin 27th, 11:50}

{Route 5}

 

“Now, I can see every transaction on that cashcard, so no goin’ wild, got it?”

 

“Yes, Ma’am.”

 

“But Bianca, hon, don’t go worryin’ that you’re causin’ me trouble if you see somethin’ you want or need, alright? Y’all, make sure this girl treats herself, got it?”

 

“Oh, that’s alright, you don’t—”

 

“The correct answer is ‘Yes, Ma’am’ when she’s doin’ that voice, B.”

 

“And Warren’s the medic here, so y’all listen to him when he tells you not to do somethin’, got it?”

 

“Yes, Ma’am.”

 

“That includes you, Cheren.”

 

“Yes, Ma’am.”

 

“Y’all call the minute, I mean the minute, anythin’ happens, understood?”

 

“Yes, Ma’am.”

 

“Right away, Ma’am.”

 

“Oh, you kids…” Stephanie Arathos somehow managed to get her arms around all four teenagers at once, though the result was more of an awkward squish than a full hug, it was the feelings that counted. “No more gondamn calls from the police station, alright? You’re takin’ years off my life, I swear.”

 

“Hey, it could be worse,” Carlotta insisted. “It ain’t like they’re callin’ you ‘cause we’re committin’ crimes.”

 

“We are, in fact, model teenagers who are stopping crimes,” Cheren suggested.

 

“Y’all security guards are bad influences,” Warren mock-chastised his mother.

 

Decades off my gondamn life, I’m tellin’ you,” she complained. “Alright, y’all get on the road! Enjoy Driftveil! Get your dad somethin’ tacky as a souvenir, alright?”

 

“We will,” Carlotta promised. “Let’s try an’ hit the bridge by lunch, there’s a food cart we gotta try to celebrate gettin’ our Bolt Badges!”

 

“Sounds like a plan,” Cheren agreed. “Thank you for treating us, Auntie Steph.”

 

“We’ll call and let you know how the Driftveil Gym went,” Warren promised.

 

Bianca bounced nervously on the spot for a second, then dived in to hug Stephanie one more time. “Thank you,” she mumbled into the woman’s shoulder. “For… everythin’.”

 

“You don’t gotta thank me, honey, but you are very welcome,” Stephanie promised, hugging her tightly. “Look after each other!”

 

“We will!” they chorused, waving and heading off into the trees of Route 5. The road was, it was commonly agreed, not what real trainers took.

 

“Since we’re outside of city limits now, we should let our Pokemon out,” Cheren suggested. “For protection from wilds, and also just to give them some exercise. I’m pretty sure Sherlock’s close to evolving again, and Sandy might not be far behind…”

 

“Yeah, Owain’s gotta be evolvin’ soon too,” Carlotta said, releasing her team. Paden immediately climbed up Roland’s back, whooping excitedly at the view from the top of the Gigalith’s head. “Bianca, ain’t Tiberius ever gonna evolve?”

 

“I dunno… maybe he just likes bein’ this size,” Bianca said, releasing her own Pokemon and giggling as Tiberius immediately hopped up to be held. Sgain and Sandy, once Cheren had released his own team, climbed up on top of Rocky’s head, hooting some kind of challenge or boast at Paden, who ignored them and just called to Poncho until the Simipour joined him on top of Roland. Neither Gigalith seemed to notice or care about their passengers, solidly stomping along next to the humans with the rest of their Pokemon circling around the two huge rock-types. Mina fluttered around Saria the second she was released, which was just too darn cute.

 

“Do you think I ought to ask for permission to evolve Lilli?” Cheren asked, nodded to the little Petilil who’d taken a seat on Loyal’s back and seemed to be chittering to Sherlock, who was walking alongside them and listening intently. “Not that I need two grass-types on my team, but I am a little concerned that if something happens and it’s all hands on deck… well, the stronger she is, the less likely she’ll be killed, right?”

 

“True,” Carlotta said. “An’ Lilligant are real pretty, I bet that li’l girl’ll be real excited to see ‘er bloom. Hey, you gotta take a picture of her on Driftveil Drawbridge, right? Ask ‘em then!”

 

“She’s gotta be the very last choice, though, Cher,” Warren cautioned, releasing Angus to join the rest. The plump, cheerful Audino drifted away from the group to where Cleo had been floating, the Yamask solitary and staring at her mask. “She ain’t really yours to lose, after all.”

 

“I know,” Cheren said, looking around. “And we ought to make the rest of our Pokemon stronger, first. Who wants to deal with that Liepard that’s stalking us?”

 

Wild Pokemon weren’t too plentiful along the route, though maybe they were just avoiding the large party. By the time they reached Driftveil Bridge, all of the Pokemon were full of beans from the fresh air.

 

I guess we don’t have ‘em all out like this much ‘cept for trainin’, Bianca mused, watched Owain and Thamina run around, investigating behind every tree for new foes to vanquish. Thamina was close to as tall as Bianca now, and seemed plodding, but the moment one of the other Pokemon looked like they were in over their heads, she was startlingly fast to get in the way and give something a solid thwack with her new concrete clubs. Where’d she even get those, anyway?

 

And then she knew she was being watched, a moment before all of the Pokemon abruptly fell silent, perking up and looking around.

 

“Somethin’ up?” Warren said, also looking around.

 

“Do y’all feel that?” Bianca asked quietly.

 

“Oh, no,” Cheren said, shaking his head. “We are not doing this again. Bianca—”

 

“I’m tellin’ you, Cheren, it’s real, an’ it’s here!” Bianca insisted, looking around. Mina started flying into the trees, leaving Saria’s side for the first time since she’d been released. “Mina!”

 

“Bianca, wait!” Carlotta yelled as Bianca ran off into the trees after Swoobat. Carly’s faster’n me, she’ll catch up, Bianca thought vaguely, focused on following Mina as she flew back and forth between the increasingly dense maze of green—

 

There it was. The Little One, tall and white and red and blue and faintly glowing and nuzzling Mina with a smile on their face. “Hey, look at you!” they said happily. “Congrats on evolving! What’s it like?”

 

“You’re real,” Bianca blurted out, gasping a little as she fought to get her breath back from running so hard. “I knew it!”

 

“Yeah? You met me,” The Little One said, sounding confused. “Have your friends met mine yet? I told them about all of you but they’re not super fond of humans, so it might take them a while to—”

 

“Bianca! You gotta—holycrap,” Carlotta yelped as she caught up, Owain, Loyal and Thamina bursting through the trees with her. “Holy shit! Ain’t that—”

 

“Please don’t run away!” Bianca blurted out, but it was too late. In a blur, The Little One was gone. “Carly!” Bianca exclaimed in frustration. “They were tryin’ to tell me somethin’!”

 

“Gondamn, I—I’m sorry, B,” Carlotta said, staring at where The Little One had been. “That… that really was it, huh? It was talkin!”

 

“What was?” Cheren panted as he caught up, Warren and the rest of their Pokemon close behind.

 

“I saw it! What Bianca saw!” Carlotta exclaimed excitedly. “That carver called it The Little One! Like that statue she bought! I saw it! I heard it talkin’!”

 

“Holy crap,” Warren gasped, eyes wide. “For real?!”

 

Cheren ran his hands through his hair. “No way,” he said, sounding distressed. “That’s not—that ain’t—”

 

“It is, Cher!” Carlotta exclaimed, throwing her hands up. “Can’t you just accept that it is?”

 

“Because if we’re being stalked by the real, actual Cobalion, Terrakion, Virizion, and… whatever that is… I can’t figure out what the hell that means, but it can’t be good!” Cheren yelled. “They hate humans, Carly! That’s the one pretty gondamn consistent thing about them across every myth! They hate humans, and if they’re stalking us—”

 

“Ummm…” Bianca raised her hand tentatively. “The one I talked to, he… she? They? I dunno, but they said they told their friends ‘bout us. An’ they did say their friends don’t like humans, but… well, then Carly turned up, an’ they ran away.”

 

Carlotta winced. “I’m sorry,” she said mournfully. “But why would they tell ‘em ‘bout us?”

 

“I don’t know,” Cheren sighed, slumping. “I don’t like not knowing what all this is about… but I think we should go back to the road after all. Running off alone to talk to… whatever that is… it’s dangerous, Bianca. We don’t know what’s out here.”

 

“Well… ain’t this the kinda thing we were s’posed to call Sar Saylee about if we had to?” Bianca asked, biting her lip nervously. “She said we were seein’ weird things, an’ we’d see it again…”

 

“Yeah…” Carlotta tugged on her hat, looking uncharacteristically anxious. “I mean, she did tell us to call if we saw somethin’ again, but that was before her daughter got kidnapped, so I dunno…”

 

“I think Cher’s right an’ we should go back to the road for now,” Warren suggested. “We’re better talkin’ ‘bout this later, not when we’re standing way off the road in a weird forest, alright?”

 

“…Yeah,” Bianca agreed, glancing over her shoulder to where The Little One had been.

 

All of their Pokemon were still looking the same way.

 

 

{Reshin 27th, 13:37}

{Nimbasa City}

 

By the time they were at Driftveil Drawbridge, Sherlock and Owain had both grown and evolved into Serperior and Samurott, and Cleo had startled all of them by evolving into a Cofagrigus. She constructed a sarcophagus-like body mostly out of dark brown dirt, her mask gleaming at the top of it, four long black arms made of shadows waving wispily around.

 

“I see li’l kids hangin’ out by the food truck,” Carlotta said, peering ahead. “I’m thinkin’ we return most of these guys. Angus is probably fine around kids, but the rest?”

 

“Saria should be fine, Leavanny tend towards the motherly,” Cheren said, “and Tiberius and Wilhelmina are friendly enough, and I’ll keep Lilli out for a few photos, but you’re right, we should return the rest.”

 

They paused for a moment to do so, the mass flashes of light from the returning Pokemon catching the attention of the gaggle of preschoolers playing in the waiting area in front of the drawbridge, who laughed and shrieked excitedly at the sight of trainers with Pokemon approaching. “Mr Alder, look!” one of the kids yelled, running over to the group of adults watching the kids.

 

“Mr—oh gods,” Cheren gasped as he recognized that, amongst the preschool teachers, also wearing a nondescript t-shirt/jeans/apron combo and with his fiery hair tucked back under a scarf, was the Champion himself. “Hello, sir!”

 

“You’re the kids from the gala, aren’t you?” Alder said, smiling at them. “Now, let me see if I recall… Cheren, Carlotta, Warren and Bianca, yes? The ones who helped out Lenora and Burgh with their little theft problems, and…” His smile faltered a little, before coming back in fully, sunny force. “Well, you’re good kids to have around in a crisis, I hear!”

 

“Thank you, sir!” Carlotta said, ripping off a salute. “Bad kids to have around if you wanna hang onto your Championship title, though!”

 

Alder burst out laughing. “Confidence! That’s what I like to see in young trainers!” he said brightly. “Hey, here’s an idea—how about a couple of you have a battle? To keep the kids entertained ‘til the bridge goes down? There’s some problem with a ship coming through,” he added, lowering his voice, “and honestly, you’d be doing me a real favour keeping these kids entertained for a while.”

 

“We’ll buy you lunch,” another one of the teachers offered, nodding towards the food cart.

 

“Sold,” Carlotta said immediately. “Bring it, Cher.”

 

“Alright, everybody, come sit down!” one of the other teachers called, clapping her hands loudly to get the kids’ attention. “These nice trainers are going to show us a battle!”

 

There was a round of cheering as the kids ran over to sit where directed, many of them doing their best to sit up and straight and look attentive, others bouncing excitedly on the spot. Warren and Bianca sat down next to them with Angus and Tiberius. Mina gave Saria a big heart-print kiss before flying over to join Bianca, while the Leavanny stood attentively at Carlotta’s side as she and Cheren squared off.

 

“I’d watch out for that if you’re ever battling your friend there, even for fun,” Alder commented, nodding to Mina. “When Pokemon get close like that, they can wind up ignoring you, no matter how loyal they are.”

 

“Because they don’t wanna fight each other?” Warren asked. Alder nodded. “Makes sense, I guess, but I ain’t never heard of anythin’ like that before.”

 

“A lot of trainers get more focused on being annoyed that their Pokemon are disobeying them than wondering about why,” Alder sighed, smiling at the sight of Carlotta and Cheren simultaneously releasing Sherlock and Owain and squaring off. “Now, I wouldn’t go so far as to say they’re as intelligent as humans, but I do think they’re smarter than we tend to give them credit for.”

 

“Can’t argue with that,” Bianca said, scratching Tiberius’ ears. The Tepig squeaked excitedly as Owain used his seashell blades to protect himself from the Leaf Tornado that Sherlock unleashed. The kids screamed and cheered excitedly at the impressive attack. “Mr Alder? I ain’t never heard you worked at a nursery…”

 

“With good reason! I’m a cover teacher, for one thing, so I work at different nurseries all the time, and I don’t want them mobbed with challengers who want to take their shot outside of League season,” Alder sighed, scratching his chin. He frowned as Owain used Slash. “Hmmm. Going for overwhelming force isn’t a bad idea against most grass-types, but Serperior is hardier than that… anyway, I have it on good authority that you kids can keep a secret,” he added with a wink.

 

“Of course,” Warren promised. He watched Sherlock try to corner Owain with another Leaf Tornado, then looked back up at Alder. “Sir? I heard you had native heritage. Can I ask something?”

 

“Gotta admit, young man, when you start like that, it’s gonna depend on what the question is,” Alder said with a shrug, “but give it a shot.”

 

Bianca looked up sharply when Warren asked, “have you heard of The Little One?”

 

Alder looked just as startled as Bianca to hear that question. “Now where on earth did you hear about that?” he said in surprise. “It’s a bit of an urban legend, truth be told—a rumour that’s cropped up in the last thirty years or so that there’s a new Warrior, and that means… well, whatever the person you’re talking to wants it to mean. But do I believe it? No.” He sighed. “I think if there were ever gods in Unova, they died a long time ago.”

 

“Hate to break it to you, kid, but the mighty Champion’s an awful gloomy gus where myths and legends are involved,” one of the other teachers teased, poking his frowning cheek.

 

Alder grinned back at her, then started clapping as Sherlock finally brought Owain down. “Good show, kids!” he hollered. “Wasn’t that a cool fight?” he asked the nursery students, who all clapped and cheered.

 

Carlotta returned Owain, gave the kids an elaborate show-off bow, and then walked back over to Warren and Bianca with Saria at her side. Cheren also gave a bow, which Sherlock imitated, causing the kids to go absolutely wild with excitement.

 

“You think the kids wanna play with our Pokemon?” Carlotta asked as Cheren returned Sherlock and took Lilli off of her perch on his shoulder.

 

“I think they’d love it,” Alder laughed, offering her a high-five, which she accepted, looking like she was ascending directly to Heaven by doing so. “That was a good fight. No need to feel bad you lost when you made ‘im work that hard for it!”

 

“Thank you, sir!” Carlotta said brightly. “Alright, that battle made me hungry. Who was it that offered to buy us lunch?”

 

 

{Reshin 27th, 19:55}

{Route 5}

 

Whatever the problem with the ships was, it wasn’t fixed quickly enough for the nursery to get in whatever day-trip they’d had planned, though the kids seemed happy enough to play with Pokemon and tired themselves out enough that they didn’t put up a fuss when the teachers told them it was hometime. Carlotta, Cheren and Bianca got back to training in the otherwise-empty waiting area, and before long Sgain and Sandy had evolved into a pair of tall, intimidating-looking Scrafty.

 

“What in the hells?!” Warren yelped, waking up from the nap he’d been taking at the sound of a siren.

 

“The bridge is comin’ down! ‘Bout damn time!” Carlotta yelped excitedly, returning her Pokemon. “Cher, get Lilli ready for picture-takin’, ‘cause I’m bettin’ the sunset off this thing’s gonna be real darn pretty!”

 

“Good idea,” Cheren said, returning all of his Pokemon but Lilli. “Bianca, look up. As the bridge lowers, we should be able to see them.”

 

“See what?” Bianca asked, returning her Pokemon and craning her neck back to watch the huge bridge slowly lower back into place. “Oh!”

 

The light of the sunset painted the two huge, winged statues on the far end of the bridge a brilliant orange.

 

“Oh damn, this is perfect timin’,” Carlotta said, holding up her C-gear to snap a picture. “That there’s also known as Charizard Bridge, B.”

 

“Is that what they are?” Bianca asked, pointing at the statues. The way the shadows shifted as the sun set, it almost looked like they were looking down at her. “Charizard?”

 

“They’re extremely rare, and nearly went extinct during the Kanto Civil War,” Cheren explained, walking up to the barrier to the bridge. “The bridge was nicknamed Charizard Bridge when it was built because of its size and power and the way that raising and lowering it was said to look like the snap of a Charizard’s jaws. The statues were added later, after the name became famous.”

 

“It’s real amazin’,” Bianca cooed, fumbling for her own new C-gear to take a picture. “What kinda Pokemon’s a Charizard?”

 

“Fire and flying,” Cheren said, holding up Lilli so Carlotta and Bianca could get photos of the little grass-type soaking in the light of the sunset with the two Charizard behind her. “Quite strong, but not much use with a rock-type about. But they’re said to be related to dragons.”

 

Woooowwwww.

 

Once the bridge was down, they took their time crossing it. The view of the sunset over the mountains ahead and across the water was too gorgeous not to linger over, and there were plenty more pictures of Lilli to be taken with the river sparkling behind her. They were about halfway across when Cheren’s C-gear rang with a voice call. “Hello?” Cheren asked when he picked up the unknown number. “Who is this?”

 

Hey, are you the guy who gave his Purrloin to my sister?

 

“I am,” Cheren said. “You’re Denise’s brother? How is she?”

 

She’s got spinal cancer, what do you think?” the boy said bluntly. Then there was a heavy sigh. “Sorry. Things suck. But that Purrloin’s making her really happy, so… thanks.

 

“I’m glad to hear that Priscilla can help her,” Cheren said. “Is there a reason you called?”

 

Yeah, Mom gave me her gear so I could show Denise the pictures you sent, and I saw you ask if you can evolve Lilli?

 

“Only if Denise is okay with it.”

 

She’s absolutely thrilled, she thinks Lilligant are the prettiest things in the world. Why do you want to evolve her? You aren’t gonna battle with her, are you?”

 

“I have no intention of doing that,” Cheren assured him.

 

Doesn’t mean you won’t.

 

“This kid’s gonna cut himself on that edge,” Carlotta commented, leaning closer to Cheren’s c-gear. “Look, kid, it’s dangerous out here, alright? Lilli’s the last of…” She counted on her fingers for a second. “…fifteen choices, but if things go sideways somehow, she’s less likely to get hurt if she’s evolved, right?”

 

“…Good point, the kid conceded. “Go for it. But don’t let her get hurt. Don’t you dare do that to Denise, got it?

 

“We won’t,” Cheren promised. The kid just grunted and hung up. “Charming boy.”

 

“Eh… I guess I’d give ‘im a pass for bein’ a little shit,” Carlotta sighed. “That kid sister of his is REAL sick, y’know?”

 

“Yeah, spinal cancer is… well, these days most forms of cancer are pretty survivable, but spinal cancer ain’t one of ‘em,” Warren said with a wince.

 

“Poor kid,” Bianca said dejectedly. “I wish there was somethin’ more we could do…”

 

“Keeping her spirits up can make a huge difference,” Cheren assured her. “And I’m sure some beautiful photos of Lilli as a Lilligant will help a lot once I pick up a Sun Stone for her…”

Chapter Text

{Reshin 28th, 10:13}

{Driftveil City}

 

Driftveil was a vast modern city, with skyscrapers looming overhead just like Castelia. However, the more touristy areas, like Driftveil Market, were done up like something out of an old west movie. The main market street looked like the main street of a dusty old town, all of the shops only two stories tall with old-looking wood fronts and advertising with big, colourful painted signs in old-timey fonts. A Zebstrika was tied up in front of one of the shops, a saddle on its back, drinking from a trough of water. It was completely ignoring the steady stream of tourists stopping to take a photo with it.

Cheren made his way to a gift shop promising “TREASURES OF THE GOLD RUSH!!!” and was out a few minutes later clutching a shining Sun Stone.

“Oooh, ain’t this excitin’?” Bianca said as Cheren released Lilli. The tiny green Pokemon looked unhappy about all the dust in the street, constantly kicked up by the roving groups of tourists, but perked up when Cheren held out the Sun Stone. “Hey, you think she might know what it is?”

“Maybe,” Warren said, watching Lilli bounce on the spot, chirping fit to bust. “She sure seems excited about it, huh?”

“I’m gonna film it for Denise to see,” Carlotta said, holding up her C-gear with the camera facing Lilli. “Go for it, Cheren!”

Cheren crouched down, holding out the Sun Stone where the tiny Petilil could reach it. “Alright, Lilli, here you are—whoa,” he laughed as Lilli immediately jumped on the stone, giving it possibly the world’s cutest headbutt. As soon as she landed, she started to bloom.

It was kind of amazing to watch the way leaves grew and unfolded, revealing new leaves and petals that unfolded to reveal more new leaves and petals in turn. She gained a full two feet in height as she grew, grew, and grew.

“She’s so pretty! Bianca cooed, watching Lilli shake out her new petals. The sentiment was echoed by more than a few passing tourists.

“Hey, let’s put ‘er on the back of that Zebstrika, get a pic of ‘er lookin’ like a froboy!” Carlotta said, closing her c-gear camera and scooping up Lilli in both arms.

“Carly, you don’t gotta run, it’s a hell of a queue!” Warren yelled as she took off.

“C’mon,” Bianca giggled, starting after Carlotta and Lilli.

Cheren glanced up as a rhythm started to rise up amongst the noise of tourists milling about. “Is there a parade or something coming?”

“I dunno,” Warren said, slowing down and craning his neck to try and get his eyes on what was coming down the street, with tourists starting to spread out and clear the way, many of them taking photos.

As people moved out of the way, it was increasingly clear that what was coming wasn’t a parade, but a protest. The front line carrying a huge banner together were obviously Plasma Foundation members, clad head to toe in powder-blue, and several more were visible in the crowd, but they seemed to have picked up quite a lot of regular trainers, many of who were marching with their Pokemon.

“SAVE LIVES! CLOSE THE GYMS!” the crowd was chanting over and over. The same slogan was on the huge banner the front line were carrying, and a number of the signs that were being waved. Others were insulting the local gym leader, Clay Yakon, other members of the League

“What in the hells?” Warren muttered. “Don’t they close off the street when there’s gonna be a damn protest?”

“I don’t think this is a legal protest,” Cheren said, pointing to several police officers that were arguing with the front line. He slammed his hands over his ears with a wince as a megaphone screeched.

“PLEASE CLEAR THE STREET!” a police officer at the end of the street behind them called. Several officers next to him, each with their own megaphone, presumably repeated the order in various languages. They repeated this several times, and a number of other officers started urging the gathered tourists into shops or otherwise away from the protest.

“Clear the area, kids,” an officer called, approaching Cheren, Warren and Bianca.

“Hang on, where’d Carly go?” Warren said, looking around. “Officer, my sister—”

“Is probably being moved on by another officer,” the police officer insisted. “Now, I seriously recommend you move on before things get ugly.”

“Are they violent?” Cheren said, frowning at the procession, who looked pretty angry as they marched and chanted but weren’t actually touching any of the onlookers.

“This protest didn’t go through official channels and we have orders to disperse,” the officer said shortly, heading to usher off a family who were stepping out of a store before they could ask anymore question.

“What’s that mean?” Bianca asked nervously.

Cheren grabbed her and Warren by the arms to tug them off the street. “It means the police are selective about when they know how to de-escalate a situation,” he growled, dragging them down a side-street as more police officers flooded down one end of the main road.

“What?”

There were several bangs and smoke started erupting amongst the procession. People started screaming, and some started running, only to be grabbed as the police surged in.

“That,” Cheren muttered, dragging Warren and Bianca further down the street and out of the way. “Where in the hells is Carly?!”

“C’mon, pick up,” Warren muttered, trying to ring his sister on his c-gear. “C’mon, Carly, c’mooooon… Carly?!” he shouted when she picked up. “Carly, where are—”

One o’ them Plasma sons of bitches snatched Lilli!”

“WHAT?!” Cheren yelled.

Didn’t see where the fuck he went, everybody’s runnin’ an’ screamin’ an’—FUCK!” Carlotta’s yells were punctuated by several more bangs and an uptick in screaming from the main street.

“Carly! CARLY!” Warren yelled into his c-gear.

“Oh, no,” Bianca mumbled, pressing her hands to her mouth in horror. “Lilli… we can’t let Lilli get stolen!”

“Well, I certainly don’t wanna have to tell a terminally ill li’l girl we lost her Pokemon,” Cheren said, sounding frayed as he ran his hands through his hair, “but it’s way too dangerous to get in between the cops and that protest, and I don’t know what in the hells we can—”

“I’m sorry, what got stolen?”

They glanced up at a brown-haired man with his face half-hidden under a green scarf. “Who in the hells are you?” Warren asked, eying him uneasily. “Were you in that protest?”

“Yeah, but—son of a bitch,” the guy muttered, looking around before stepping under a shop awning to tug down his scarf and pull his walled out of his pocket. He unfolded a hidden panel to show an Interpol ID. “I’ve been undercover. Haven’t gotten deep into Plasma, though. Not enough to know this protest was being planned or what it’s covering for, and believe me, when Plasma’s doing some big public shit like this, it’s covering for something else they’re up to. But I do know that if things go bad, the rendezvous is supposed to be in a warehouse the Foundation is renting in the Cold Storage facility. If whoever took your friend’s Pokemon slips the cops, that’s where they’ll go.”

“He’s legit,” Warren said, closely examining the ID. Oliver Burelli. “You hear that, Carly?” he said into his c-gear. “Interpol says they’re headed to the Cold Storage…”

Great! Where the fuck is that?

“You kids trainers? Got fighting Pokemon?” Oliver said. They nodded. “Then follow me. I’ll show you the way.”

“Gondamn it, we promised Mom we were gonna stay outta trouble,” Warren groaned. “And, y’know, we promised… y’know… that we’d stay safe…”

“I know,” Bianca said quietly. “We just… we can’t let ‘em take Lilli!”

“We can’t,” Warren sighed. “Terminal illness takes a lotta willpower just to keep goin’ day to day. Tellin’ that kid her Pokemon’s been stolen could literally kill her. If there’s anythin’ at all we can do to find Lilli…”

“…Then we’re going to do it,” Cheren said, starting off after Oliver. “And goodness knows the police are plenty busy right now.”

“Carly, I’m gonna turn on my location so you can follow me,” Warren said, fidgeting with his pokegear.

Already runnin’. Those bastards aren’t gettin’ away with this!”

“Let’s go,” Bianca said firmly as she and Warren ran after Cheren and Oliver. “We’re gonna get Lilli back!”

 

 

{Reshin 28th, 10:36}

{Cold Storage}

 

“Pssst! Carly! Over here!”

Carlotta slipped between two shipping containers to join her friends, who were making a spirited attempt to lurk in the shadows. They were accompanied by a stranger who was much better at lurking. “I didn’t see the guy who took Lilli,” she growled. “Have you seen anybody?”

“Not yet,” Cheren said quietly. “Agent Burelli here is from Interpol. He’s been a mole in Plasma for a while.”

“And I need to be for a while longer,” Burelli said, nodding for them to follow him between the shipping containers. “So I can’t blow my cover helping you kids retrieve one of your Pokemon. I can say that the rendezvous is in a container in bay 17-B, which is going to be loaded into a ship that’ll sail out with whoever made the rendezvous in…” He checked his watch. “nine minutes. Your friends said they just snatched your Lilligant out of your arms, out of her pokeball, so if she’s there, she should be easy to spot and snatch back. Promise me that’s all you’re gonna do,” he said, narrowing his eyes on them. “Snatch and run, alright? Snatch. And. Run.

“We will,” Warren said, looking pointedly at his sister. “Right?”

“We just wanna get Lilli back,” Carlotta promised. “Thank you, agent. You ain’t just savin’ a Pokemon here—”

“Yeah, I heard. Terminally ill kid.” Burelli sighed, shaking his head. “Look, I really cannot blow my cover yet. Big picture, alright? And I should not be letting you go in there. So do me a favour and don’t get yourselves hurt.”

“With respect, we’ve confronted Plasma before,” Cheren said, “and we’ve always won.”

“Your arrogance is changing my mind, kid,” Burelli growled, pointing a finger at Cheren. “Cockiness gets people killed when dealing with these cult types.”

“I’m not gonna let ‘em get cocky, sir,” Warren promised.

“Shouldn’t we go? Ain’t they leavin’ soon?” Bianca said, fidgeting nervously with Mina’s pokeball.

Carlotta nodded, pointing at an open bay door that two people in hoods were ducking in to. “We’re goin’ before secret agent man here changes his mind,” she said. “17-B, let’s go!”

“Thank you for your help,” Cheren said, following Carlotta as she ran off, Warren and Bianca close on his heels.

Carlotta had seen the name COLD STORAGE printed on the walls surrounding the lot as she ran through an open gate, but somehow that hadn’t quite filtered down through her brain to prepare her for the frigid atmosphere inside of the warehouse. The floor and the shipping containers were all coated with frost, and an employee she could see counting containers was heavily bundled up in a thick blue coat and yellow hat.

“Look,” Cheren hissed, pointing upwards. LED light panels were hanging from the ceiling, each with a different number. “Looks like 17 is down this way.”

Carlotta took off, skidding and sliding on the frosty floor but counting on sheer momentum to keep her moving forwards. She didn’t bother checking to see if her friends were keeping up; they’d catch up if they weren’t. They’d have her back.

They’d even discussed it before going in this time and everything.

“…longer we’re here, the more likely the police will follow somebody in!”

She slowed down at the end of row 17, staring in surprise. She could have guessed that container B would be the second one down, but thanks to the raised voices echoing out of the open-ended container, she didn’t have to.

“The crew are working as fast as they can, Lord Zinzolin.”

“They should have fixed the problem properly the first time!”

“They did, Lord Zinzolin. They say it’s not the boiler this time…”

“This is unacceptable. We’re sitting here in the freezing cold, waiting for the police to stumble on us any minute, while a brand new ship falls to pieces!”

Carlotta peered around the opening of the shipping container, rubbing her arms and trying not to let her teeth chatter. A large group of people were huddled together in the middle of the container, some in hoodies and other street clothes, others in the full head-to-toe Plasma uniform. At the middle of the group was an old man with bushy white hair who was hunkering down under a huge, heavily padded purple jacket.

Behind them was a number of open crates with piles of pokeballs inside, and a handful of wire cages. Inside of one of the cages was Lilli, drooping and shivering in the cold.

Well, shit. Just had to be all the way at the back, didn’t you? she thought in frustration. Don’t worry, Lil, we’re gettin’ you back no matter what.

“How many?” Cheren whispered, tapping her elbow. His breath hung visibly in the air, and Carlotta backed up a step to stop their breath drifting across the entryway to the container.

“’Bout a dozen,” Carlotta whispered back, taking a moment to breathe warm air on her hands. “I see Lilli. But she’s behind all of ‘em.”

“Doesn’t sound like they’re movin’ any time soon, though,” Warren whispered. He threw his jacket at Carlotta’s face and she took it, since he was wearing longer trousers than her, so even in a t-shirt he was probably still warmer. “Somethin’s wrong with their ship?”

“We can’t bet on that holdin’ ‘em back for too long,” Carlotta whispered back. “We gotta get Lilli!” She clenched her fist. “I gotta get Lilli. They snatched her outta my gondamn hands!”

“So you grab ‘er back,” Bianca whispered. “We just gotta beat ‘em off long enough to grab Lilli an’ run, right?”

“If you’re ready, then Bianca and I will take charge of fighting them off while you grab Lilli,” Cheren offered. “You’re the fastest, Carlotta, you can make it in and out fastest.”

“Once we start a fight in there, ain’t gonna be a matter of speed, it’s gonna be a matter of beatin’ ‘em back so hard they can’t block the way,” Carlotta objected. “War, you gotta get ‘er an’ run, we’ll all three of us fight ‘em off.”

“What the—hey! You’re those kids from the Dreamyard!”

They spun around to see two more people slipping and sliding towards container 17-B. They were wearing different, more nondescript clothes, but their faces were vaguely familiar.

“Were y’all the ones beatin’ up on that poor li’l Munna?” Bianca said quietly.

The man sneered as they both released Watchogs. “And you’re the interfering kids who said we should pick on somebody our own size. Bite!”

“Thamina!” Carlotta yelled, releasing her huge Conkeldurr, directly in the faces of the lunging Watchog, who hit her like a brick wall. “Give ‘em a Wake-Up Slap!”

Both Watchogs and trainers blanched as Thamina raised her huge concrete clubs.

“There’s no need to play fair against these people!” Cheren shouted, releasing Sherlock, Rocky, Poncho and Sandy into the shipping container to the sounds of frantic screaming.

“Right!” Bianca agreed, releasing Tiberius, Mina, Sgain and Cleo. “Carly, I-I’ll take care of these two! I can do it! Cheren needs you backin’ him up against the big group in there!”

“You got it?” Carlotta said, putting a hand on Bianca’s shoulder and looking her closely in the eyes. She was relieved to see that the close contact didn’t seem to fluster or unsettle Bianca. Instead, the shorter girl’s gaze was steady and angry, and Carlotta was outright proud of her. “You got this,” she agreed.

Bianca grinned, then turned to glare at the Plasma members from the Dreamyard. “Tibby, Flame Charge! Mina, Aerial Ace!” She pointed at the two humans. “Sgain, Cleo, grab ‘em!”

The Dreamyard pair started screaming again as Cleo’s long, shadowy arms reached for them.

“Thamina, this way!” Carlotta shouted, rounding into the shipping container where Cheren’s team was barely fending off a hoard of Liepard, Sandile, Scraggy and Watchog. She released the rest of her team to join the fray, trying to direct them to push the fight to one side of the container and leave space for Warren to run past and grab Lilli. “C’mon,” she whispered, grabbing his wrist and starting to edge alongside the container with him, prepared to throw hands herself with anybody who so much as looked funny at her brother.

“Watch your Pokemon, I’ll get Lilli!” Warren hissed, pointing at where Loyal was being cornered alone by a pair of Liepard.

“Owain!” Carlotta yelled, pointing at Loyal. Her Samurott roared as he brandished his swords to knock one of the attackers aside, giving Loyal space to get his teeth into the other. She relaxed slightly as her Stoutland got the upper hand—or paw—but she still felt tense and buzzing at the same time as the adrenaline really kicked in. She no longer felt the cold, but felt hyper-aware, almost hyperactive, as she tried to watch and direct Owain, Loyal, Thamina, Paden, Roland and Saria all at once, while still keeping an eye on Warren creeping unobtrusively towards Lilli’s cage. The Lilligant was starting to cry and reach through the bars towards him—

“Carly! SARIA!” Cheren yelled. Carlotta turned in time to see a particularly large Sandile gets its jaws around the Leavanny’s thin midsection. Saria screamed in agony as it ripped though her.

“Shit—THAMINA!” Carlotta yelled, pointing at Saria and counting on her Conkeldurr’s vengeful streak. Thamina roared in fury, but before the bulky fighting-type could make a move in the small space, there was another cry of rage that rang throughout the shipping container.

Mina flew in almost too fast to see, her broad black wings slicing at the Sandile that killed Saria viciously enough to draw blood. The Swoobat screeched again and the sound echoed in the container, making everything in it with ears hit the ground, clutching their heads in pain. The screeching just seemed to increase in pitch and volume—though maybe it was Carlotta’s own screaming ripping out of her skull, or the agonized screaming of every other human and Pokemon in the container—

The pain stopped, abruptly, and Carlotta looked up to see Bianca on her knees, holding up Wilhelmina’s pokeball in one shaking hand. The Swoobat was gone, safely returned, and everybody else was on the ground.

“War,” Carlotta croaked, looking around. He was on the floor like everyone else, clutching Lilli’s cage. “Cheren!” she called, louder, pointing at the caged Lilligant. “Lilli!”

Cheren couldn’t seem to get to his feet, but he managed to reach out, finally close enough to return Lilli to her pokeball.

Then there was more shouting, and more people, some in the heavy coats of the storage workers and others in what were unmistakably security uniforms, and all of the adrenaline was draining from Carlotta, leaving her with shaking hands smeared with her own blood, trying to reach for Saria lying limp on the frozen floor.

 

 

 

{Reshin 28th, 10:55}

{South of Cold Storage}

 

The Cold Storage facility was actually on an island south of Driftveil, though there were so many bridges connecting one to the other that it was hard to tell. There were plenty of other, smaller islands further out into the water, too small to build on and difficult to boat out to between the large ships passing by.

Difficult to boat to, but not impossible to access. Not if you could run on water so swiftly that those on the ships wouldn’t even see you.

As soon as Suicune’s paws touched down on the ground, Saylee, Key and Janine hopped down from their back. Suicune then jumped behind one of the boulders that was pretty much all there was to see on the tiny islet for what cover it offered, while Saylee sat down on another stone, stuffed her sleeve in her mouth, and screamed angrily.

“I mean, it’s not like we achieved nothing,” Key consoled her. “All those kidnapped Pokemon… they won’t be able to move them out now.”

“All those kidnapped Pokemon… but no kidnapped child,” Janine sighed. “Ye gods, I’ve never seen such a complicated engine room in my life…”

“It’s good that we delayed the ship long enough that they couldn’t move all those stolen Pokemon,” Saylee said to the air, sounding more like she needed to convince herself than anybody else. “So damn many… they must’ve been bringing them here from all over to move them…”

“The police should get them back home, once they’re done with that damn great distraction going down in the shopping centre,” Key said, scowling at the screen of her pokenav. “The fighting’s still ongoing. Did they really need that much force for a demonstration?”

“Show of force,” Saylee mumbled. “Got to look even stronger when somebody’s gotten one over on you. But it’s not useful. It hasn’t gotten us any damn closer to finding Lettie!”

“We’ll have to wait and see what the police turn up now,” Janine said, “since you didn’t want us to interrogate anybody ourselves—”

“We can’t risk anybody seeing me,” Saylee said quietly. “Those were the terms of Lettie’s safety. I’m supposed to be in the embassy…”

“I could’ve seen to it that they wouldn’t be saying much afterwards.”

Key openly gaped at Janine, then looked at Saylee. “Is she saying what I think she’s saying?” she asked.

Saylee sighed. “We’re not killing anybody at this time, Janine,” she said.

At this time?!” Key squawked.

“They’ve got my daughter, Key.” Saylee took a deep breath. “Okay. That ship didn’t have anything, and it’ll be a while before the police will be able to find out where it was going to go. We’re burning daylight. Where in Unova could a ship that size dock?”

“We don’t know that it was going to dock in Unova… right,” Janine said at Saylee’s look. “It’s a place to start. It was a large, heavy ship. Anywhere it can dock won’t be easy to hide. We’ll head up the coast and keep an eye out. Does that sound good to you, Suicune?”

“Of course,” Suicune said, peering over the boulder. “But can I make another suggestion first?”

“Of course,” Saylee said, looking up. “Have you felt something?”

Suicune nodded. “Up on the mountain,” they said, pointing their nose at the mountain looming over Driftveil City. “Something’s heading up there, something that was watching what’s been happening down here. Someone special. I’m surprised you didn’t feel it.”

Saylee narrowed her eyes on the mountain, trying to focus. It was harder to do, ever since… Castelia, but when she really tried, she could feel it.

Something was up there, not the most powerful something she’d ever felt, but unmistakably divine.

“You’re right,” she said, pushing herself to her feet. “Let’s go see who’s been watching from on high.”

Chapter Text

{Reshin 28th, 20:21}

{Driftveil City}

 

“We ain’t givin’ up!”

“We ain’t askin’ you to! But y’all left home to take on gyms, not get mixed up gondamn counterterrorism—”

“We ain’t tryin to fight terrorists—”

“Yet I take my eyes off y’all for not even twenty-four hours and here I am gettin’ calls to pick y’all up from Driftveil Police Station—”

Warren gently pried Bianca’s hands out of the anxious fists she’d made in her skirt. “C’mon, let’s step outside an’ leave ‘em to it,” he suggested, tugging her to her feet. “They’re gonna be goin’ at it for a while.”

“But…” Bianca mumbled, staring at at the argument going on between Carlotta and her mother. It was somewhat awkward circumstances under which to be seeing Mr Arathos since the first time he and his wife had gone up to legal bat for her—in fact, she’d almost never seen him, seeing as for the last few years he’d been on a late shift starting at midnight and was usually fast asleep in the afternoons and evenings that were when Bianca could normally sneak out, back when she lived with her parents.

He looked like he was nodding off on one hand, but he still caught her eye, nodded, and said, “you two keep by the pool out there where I can keep an eye on y’all.” He pointed at the hotel pool visible out of the window of the room, and then made a “watching you” gesture paired with an unsettlingly sharp look for how deep the bags under his eyes were.

“You heard the man,” Warren said, heading out of the room, the whole exchange going unnoticed by the arguing Mrs and Ms Arathos. “Don’t worry. When the two of ‘em get goin’ there’s no budgin’ either of ‘em ‘til they’ve worn themselves out a bit, then we can all have us a real conversation. Ain’t nobody gonna get hurt or punished for it, promise,” he added, squeezing Bianca’s hand. “Mom likes us havin’ strong opinions, even if it gets kinda frustratin’ when Carly’s don’t agree with hers!”

“What do you think, Warren?” Bianca said, glancing at the door of the room Cheren’s parents had booked. It didn’t sound like a shouting match was going on in there, but Cheren and his parents had gotten into a quiet but no less intense argument about Cheren risking a police record that had gone on all through finding and booking hotel rooms and getting up to their rooms. “You think we should… go back, train at home, an’ Carly an’ Cheren can just port out for gyms from Nuvema?”

“Gotta be honest, that sounds like the best way to avoid gettin’ mixed up in all this Plasma nonsense anymore,” Warren sighed, pressing the button to call the elevator at the end of the hall. “An’ Cheren’s folks ain’t wrong that what we did, runnin’ off after Plasma ourselves to get Lilli back, that’s vigilantism. That’s illegal, for damn good reason—look at what happened to Saria…” The elevator arrived, and he let go of Bianca’s hand to swipe his room key to get them access to the pool level, which was actually below the hotel on another plateau lower on the cliffside that the hotel sat on. He leaned against the elevator wall, shoving his hands into his pockets with a sigh. “We got real lucky that Interpol believed us ‘bout Agent Burelli…”

“We really coulda gotten arrested for gettin’ Lilli back?” Bianca asked in shock.

“Ain’t so much for takin’ Lilli as startin’ that fight… police Pokemon are trained differently from gym Pokemon,” Warren explained. “Status-class stuff only like paralysis an’ sleep moves so they don’t kill nobody. Good thing too, givin’ how heavy the cops’ve been goin’ in lately… Anyways, yesterday—Mina coulda killed ‘em, y’know? If she’d been doin’ what she was doin’ much longer, she woulda started givin’ folks brain damage. And as her trainer, you woulda been liable for that.”

Bianca hugged herself tightly, starting to shake. “That… that cop I was speakin’ to said that, but I thought she was just, y’know, sayin’ somethin’ extreme to scare me outta doin’ stuff like that again,” she croaked. “You mean she really coulda…?”

“But she didn’t, ‘cause you returned ‘er in time,” Warren said, linking his arm through hers as the elevators stopped and the doors opened. “She was tryin’ to scare you, Bianca, but she wasn’t makin’ stuff up. Goin’ in there like we did, it’s a miracle nobody got killed. So stayin’ out of that? Yeah, it seems like a real good idea…”

“It does,” Bianca admitted, following him out to the pool area. Neither of them had brought swimsuits, but at this time of night nobody was swimming anyway except a couple of older ladies doing laps. They sat down on a couple of deckchairs near the pool, looking up to check that they were in view of where their room was. “But…” Bianca said after a long silence.

“But,” Warren agreed. “I dunno. I feel like… goin’ in the wrong direction, don’t it?”

“It does,” Bianca agreed, “an’… d’you think it’s to do with the Li’l One? An’ what you an’ Carly felt before?”

Warren rubbed his head. “It’s somethin I can’t rightly pin down, so there ain’t no way I can argue with it, it’s just… well, y’all know I ain’t out here to be a Pokemon trainer, right? I know what I wanna do. I wanna be a beluarian—I wanna heal Pokemon. An’ I got Angus now, I don’t gotta travel, I could stay home an’ study. But you an’ Carly an’ Cheren are my best friends, an’ I wanna be where y’all are, so if y’all wanna go back to Nuvema, I’ll go with y’all, but if y’all wanna keep travellin’…”

“Do you wanna keep travellin’ and find… I dunno, whatever it is?” Bianca asked.

Warren shrugged. “I don’t know if I wanna so much as I feel like I gotta,” he said ruefully. “Like gettin’ shots or doin’ homework. It’s somethin’ I feel like I gotta do, an’ whether I wanna do it don’t come into it. How ‘bout you, B? Do you wanna see the Li’l One again?”

“I do,” Bianca said unhesitatingly. “I wanna know why I keep seein’ it. And I wanna know the truth ‘bout Pokemon… I feel like everybody’s been lyin’. Not just Plasma, but gym leaders, even good folks like your folks… I ain’t sayin’ nothin’ wrong against ‘em, they’re wonderful folks an’ they’re too kind for words for helpin’ me out an’—”

“I won’t tell,” Warren promised with a wink. “What do you mean by lyin’?”

“I just mean… sometimes folks think they know the truth, but what they know’s a lie,” Bianca said, staring into the gently waving pool water distantly. “Like… they think it’s the truth, ‘cause it’s what they grew up gettin’ told was the truth. They got told it by folks they trusted, like their parents an’ their grandparents an’ their pastor an’… I mean, I figure that’s how the Romrams work, right?” She tugged at her skirt a little bit. “Like, when I think ‘bout it, it seems real silly to think the gods are gonna get real mad if I wear pants, but it’s what I got told growin’ up by almost everybody I was s’posed to look up to an’ believe, so it still don’t feel safe. ‘Don’t wear pants’ is lodged in a whole different bit of my brain than ‘thinkin’ ‘bout it, pants are fine’ an’… well, anyways, that’s how they work, but I’m thinkin’ it can be the same for other stuff, too. Like how folks think about Pokemon. Y’all think Pokemon don’t think or feel much ‘cause that’s what you grew up hearin’ from your folks an’ teachers an’ TV, an’ your folks an’ teachers say it ‘cause that’s what they grew up hearin’ from everyone they trusted. But couldn’t that be wrong, too?”

“…Lots of folks would say that’s different, ‘cause we’re talkin’ ‘bout science, but not me,” Warren said, looking up. “That’s ‘cause what I wanna do is medical science. An’ every kinda science is always findin’ new things and changin’ what we know ‘bout the world, but I think medical science is the most obvious ‘bout it. ‘Cause even once you finish your medical degree, they say you can never, ever stop studyin’ ‘cause you gotta keep on top of changes. If you don’t, your patients die.”

“That’s… a lotta work, War,” Bianca said. “You really wanna do all that?”

“Sure,” Warren said with a smile. “’Cause if you do it right, your patients live, an’ that just sounds better’n anythin’ in the world to me. What ‘bout you, Bianca? Do you know what you wanna do, if it ain’t bein’ a trainer?”

“I… It’s probably silly, but…” Bianca blushed. “I was thinkin’… maybe bein’ a Pokemon scientist, like Professor Juniper, or that lady she was debatin’ on Cheren’s show. The one who was sayin’ stuff that’d change everythin we think we know ‘bout Pokemon. Findin’ the truth like that… but I ain’t had the right kinda schoolin’ to do that kinda thing, have I? You gotta go to university, an’ I ain’t smart enough for…”

“Who says you ain’t smart enough?” Warren scoffed. “Never mind, I know. Anyways, sure, your Romram ‘schoolin’ won’t be accepted by most colleges, but there’s catchup course you can do, y’know? An’ it’s two more years ‘til Carly an’ Cheren an’ me graduate—you could easily be all caught up by then!”

“I could?” Bianca said, perking up. “Y’think it’d be enough?”

“If you’re willin’ to work hard? Sure it is!” Warren said with a big grin. “If you’re goin’ into Pokemon studies, we could go to the same place since we’d probably be sharin’ a lotta classes our first couple years, too! Cool or what?”

“That’d be great!” Bianca squealed, bouncing excitedly in her seat. “What ‘bout Carly an’ Cheren? Do they know where they’re gonna go for college?” She looked up at the room. “Is Carly goin’ to college? She wants to go to the Olympics an’ all…”

“Yeah, but that ain’t somethin’ you make a career outta,” Warren chuckled. “Every four years an’ all that, an’ her Hammer Throw ain’t exactly got many regular competitions, ‘less she moves to Alba or somethin’. Think she’s hopin’ she can make cash between times as a professional Pokemon trainer, but we’re gonna have to see how that goes. She figures she’s got time to think ‘bout college in senior year. Cheren’s already got his college, major an’ minor picked out—law an’ political science at Castelia National University. Ain’t a good school for bioscience, so I’m thinkin’ Opelucid myself, but hey, that’s what portpads are for, right?”

“Law an’ political science to get ‘im on track to bein’ president?” Bianca asked. Warren nodded. “That’s why his parents were real mad about him gettin’ a police record, but what’d they mean about him riskin’ it by bein’ a trainer, too?”

“Aw, that ol’ Chesto!” Warren sighed, rolling his eyes. “They’ve been goin’ over that for years. Cheren does want to go into politics, it ain’t just his folks pushin’ him or anythin’, but he’s also wanted to be a trainer since he knew what Pokemon were. But you gotta give up your trainer’s license to be a lawyer or hold political office, an’ I think his folks are worried he’ll get too into trainin’ an’ won’t be willin’ to give it up.”

“Why’s he gotta give up his license?” Bianca asked. She smiled and waved at the elderly ladies as they got out of the pool and headed for the changing rooms, prompting them to wave back and twitter about how nice it is to see a young lady with manners these days.

“Oh, damn, y’all never studied the gondamn Constitution in your Romram school?” Warren sighed. “Alright, yeah, can’t assume your history teachers taught you a gondamn thing, so here’s a rundown. The original Twin Kings both died in the fifteenth century, but war kept goin’ on, on an’ off, for over five hundred years after—five hundred an’ sixteen, to be exact. They’d both had kids before dyin’, their lines continued, even though the dragons disappeared when Eduard an’ Dilwyn died. It actually ended with the last heirs gettin’ married—they weren’t exactly cousins anymore, not that that woulda stopped royals back in the old days. Problem was, the war’d spread to other countries, includin’ Kalos, where the royal family had relatives, an’ then… well, guess folks in Kalos got real sick of all the killin’, plus one o’ their kings set off some kinda weapon that wiped out a whole battlefield, both sides, all at once. They had themselves a revolution, killed every member of the royal family they could find, an’ every other aristocrat an’ general, an’, uh, then… then a whole lotta other people. Really went on. But folks in Unova got real inspired by that attitude, I guess, but even more tired of all the killin’, ‘cause the revolutionary movement stormed the castle an’ then told the royal family to get the hell out or die. They got stripped of all their jewels an’ stuff but they did move out, ended up gettin’ swallowed into the aristocracy ‘round Erebe, who kept windin’ up on the end of a buncha other revolutions, so didn’t exactly help ‘em much… anyways, the kingdom got split up, one of the resultin’ countries was Unova, an’ the revolutionaries writin’ a new Constitution decided, fuck it, we’ve had too much fightin’ comin’ from havin’ leaders claimin’ divine rights from havin’ powerful Pokemon. No more Pokemon in politics. In the military, sure, but not in law an’ not in politics.”

“So Cheren can’t have Pokemon while bein’ in politics so he can’t start a war?” Bianca summarized.

“Pretty much,” Warren agreed. “He ain’t gonna do that, ‘course. Probably gonna give his Pokemon to Carly, when the time comes.”

“What do you think they’re gonna decide?” Bianca said quietly, looking up again. “Go back to Nuvema, or keep travellin’?”

“Oh, I think Cheren would be down for goin’ back to Nuvema,” Warren said with a shrug, “but Carly’ll want to keep goin’. She don’t like backin’ down from anythin’, an’ I mean anythin, an’ she… she felt somethin’ too, at the Relic Castle. She’s gonna wanna find out what that is, same as I wanna find out what I felt in the forest, same as you wanna meet the Li’l One…”

“You would be best to return home and not seek them out.”

Warren and Bianca looked up sharply. Something was standing on the pool water, pale blue and white with an elegant flowing mane of purple. Beneath its paws, a blue glow was spreading across the pool water, but its sharp red eyes were squarely fixed on Bianca and Warren.

“They will only lead you into a fight that you are too young for,” the strange Pokemon said. “I was asked to warn you. Go home, and stay safe.” With that, it turned, and in a rush of wind had disappeared.

“B?” Warren said, his voice cracking. “Did you just see that?”

“I saw it,” Bianca gasped. “Sure glad you saw it too…”

A door opened and a staff member stepped out to the pool area. “Hey, you kids see anything get into the pool?” she called. “Our pool filter alerts are throwing some kinda fit!”

 

 

{Reshin 28th, 20:43}

{Driftveil City}

 

Cheren was earnestly relieved to hear the hotel room phone ring. Something had to end the circles they were arguing around, and possibly Carlotta was being a bad influence because he just felt more stubborn every time they came around.

There was nowhere the argument could go, anyway. He wasn’t going to take up his mother’s opinion on training, and she wasn’t going to take up his. And it was increasingly frustrating him that he couldn’t tell them what else was worrying him, because there was absolutely zero chance that they were going to understand.

“I’ll get it,” his father said, getting up to go to the phone. “But this discussion is not finished, Cheren.”

“I’m well aware,” Cheren said dryly, sitting back and pinching his nose, abruptly dropping his hand when he saw his mother doing the exact same thing out of the corner of his eye.

“Hello? Yes, we are…” Cheren’s father glanced his way. “Yes, he is. …Perhaps. Hmm. …Is that so? …I see.” He gave a short laugh. “Ah, yes, they’re in, they just wouldn’t have heard… we’ll tell them. Thank you very much. Give our thanks to Mr Yakon for us. Thank you.” He hung up.

“Mr Yakon? Of Yakon Industrial?” Cheren’s mother asked.

“Mr Clay Yakon?” Cheren pressed. “President of Yakon Industrial and Dirftveil Gym Leader?”

“Yes, yes, yes and yes,” his father said, raising an eyebrow. “Apparently, Mr Yakon would like to express his gratitude and appreciation for the young trainers responsible for breaking up a major smuggling ring that has been plaguing trainers and tourism in the area for months. He’s cleared his schedule on Thursday, should you want to challenge him, and has sent a gift that should have arrived in the lobby’s mailbox by now. He also asked us to pass on his well-wishes to Carlotta, Cheren and Bianca—apparently the counter tried to call the Arathos’ room but they didn’t pick up.”

“Stephanie and Carlotta are likely still going at it,” Cheren’s mother sighed. “Shall we go break them up and go down to the desk together?”

“Sounds good to me,” Cheren agreed, just glad that they weren’t picking the discussion up again immediately.

His mother put a hand on his arm as he stood up. “We’re proud of you, Cheren,” she said. “I feel I must emphasize that. You did a wonderful thing, saving that little girl’s Lilligant and stopping those thieves. But we’re frightened for you, too. Not just about your job prospects. You could have been killed, tangling with such dangerous people. You know that, don’t you?”

“I know,” Cheren sighed, hugging her.

He did know. He just couldn’t think of anything else that he could have brought himself to do in that moment.

When they walked into the Arathos’ room, Carlotta and her mother already seemed to be winding down, and quietened down with an air of ruffled feathers settling. “Where are Warren and Bianca?” Cheren asked, looking around the room and only spotting Mr Arathos apparently having napped by the window all through the argument. Despite his eyes being closed and having his head back against the cushions, he raised an arm and pointed out the window at the sound of Cheren’s question.

“Huh,” Carlotta said, going to look out the window. “They’re out by the pool talkin’ to a staff member. When’d they go out there?”

“Y’all know I love ladies with passion, but maybe y’all gonna wanna refine your debate techniques ‘round Bianca if we’re keepin’ her ‘round,” Mr Arathos yawned. “She was lookin’ a touch unsettled by all the volume, so War stepped out with ‘er.”

“Gondamn it,” Mrs Arathos sighed, knocking herself on the forehead. “That poor girl ain’t used to adults you can talk back to.”

“That you concedin’ you’re wrong ‘bout us goin’ home?” Carlotta teased.

“Don’t you start again’, missy,” her mother said threateningly. “Goin’ back home to train’s been the safer option for a while now. Y’all promised me in Nimbasa that that weren’t necessary, that y’all were gonna be able to keep your necks outta trouble an’ have a normal—”

“Ladies, this ain’t the time for round two,” Mr Arathos interrupted. “Natsu, Li, what can we do for you folks?”

“We got a call from the front desk that Mr Clay Yakon had a package messengered over for the kids, to thank them for their involvement in stopping the smuggling going out of Driftveil,” Cheren’s mother explained. “They said they called your room, but nobody picked up.”

“Whoops,” Mrs Arathos muttered, glancing at the desk phone. “Alright, then, let’s go fetch Warren an’ Bianca an’ see what’s what.”

“So what’s the verdict?” Carlotta muttered to Cheren as the pair of them drifted behind their parents on the way to the elevators.

“They want me to drop the League entirely,” Cheren said quietly.

“Mom’s thinkin’ we ought go back to Nuvema, train in our own back yards, an’ port out to the gyms we wanna fight,” Carlotta sighed. “An’… dammit, Cher. Is that what we’re gonna have to do?”

“I don’t know,” Cheren muttered. “I don’t really know what we should do right now.”

They dropped the conversation as they got into the elevator with their parents, headed down to the pool level in a terse silence. At the bottom, they met Warren and Bianca waiting to get on the elevator, both looking somewhat shellshocked.

“Is everything alright?” Cheren’s mother asked, taking in their expressions.

“Mom… remember how I talked ‘bout seein’ weird stuff?” Warren said weakly. “It happened again…”

 

 

{Reshin 28th, 22:54}

{Driftveil City}

 

The hotel bar wasn’t exactly rowdy, though a group of girls in the corner who were going with strong cocktails for their first round threatened to become so later. It was easy enough to get a quiet booth to get a couple of drinks and talk.

“I still find it very hard to believe,” Li Yong muttered. “All of these fairy tales…”

“I could imagine Carlotta coming up with wild stories, but Warren? He’s always been such a serious boy,” Natsuko exclaimed.

Stephanie nodded. “That’s exactly what’s gettin’ me,” she sighed, “but even if it was just Carly, I don’t think any of ‘em are makin’ this up. Cheren didn’t say he saw anythin’, but he sure wasn’t shoutin’ the others down, was he?”

“That… did strike me as odd,” Natsuko admitted. “Cheren’s been relatively quiet since we left the police station, in fact. It can’t just be that he doesn’t want to argue with his friends, since that’s never stopped them when something happens in one of their comic books…”

“I cannot understand why he would take this seriously, about strange unknown Pokemon appearing from nowhere to talk,” Li Yong complained. “Why are they all so insistent that these wild stories are true?”

“C’mon, Li, you know all our kids better’n that,” Tim sighed, looking more awake now that it was approaching an hour that he was usually up and getting ready for work. “If they’re so insistent that it’s true, that’s ‘cause it is.”

“But how do you explain—”

“I ain’t fixin’ to explain it,” Tim said with a shrug. “I ain’t sayin’ I know what they said, or what it means, just that they ain’t lyin’ ‘bout what they saw.”

“You’d really credit talking Pokemon coming out of the woods and walking over the pool?” Natsuko asked.

“I’d credit it happenin’ over my kids lyin’ ‘bout somethin’ that seems to be freakin’ ‘em out this bad,” Tim said flatly. “This ain’t funny for ‘em. They’ve been seein’ stuff they can’t rightly explain an’ it’s worryin’ ‘em somethin’ fierce, can’t you see it?”

“I know something’s worrying Cheren that he won’t talk about,” Natsuko said with a frown. She looked at her husband. “Do you think he’s afraid to tell us he believes all this?”

“…I can’t see our Cheren believing in something he can’t explain,” Li Yong mused, “unless he saw it with his own eyes.”

“So I guess I’m sayin’, who says they ain’t?” Stephanie said. “Guess I’m more concerned that, if they are seein’ weird stuff, are they safe? Warren and Bianca did say the one they saw at the pool warned them to stay away from the others…”

“Points in favour of bringin’ ‘em home, I say,” Tim insisted. “Whatever’s started followin’ ‘em around never showed up in Nuvema before. If they do…” He cracked his knuckles.

“I think they might be goin’ for it this time,” Stephanie mused. “They’re all real rattled by what happened today, an’ honestly, after what went down with her parents, I really think Bianca oughta come home with us, get some real home cookin’ an’ good parentin’.”

“It really is too good of you to take that poor girl in,” Natsuko sighed. “How is everything going with the lawyers?”

“Just fine, thanks for signin’ them character statements,” Stephanie said, clinking her glass against her friend’s. “Them gondamn Romrams want this done an’ over with so’s they can put some distance ‘tween them an’ another kid runnin’ away as soon as they can.”

Natsuko muttered a string of insults in what sounded like at least four languages. “It’s good that Bianca is out of it,” Li Yong declared. “But… Bianca is one of Cheren’s best friends and she’s a wonderful, sweet girl and I do not want to say a word against her, but she did just escape a very repressive religious household… is it possible that she’s… that she’s seeing things, caught up in some kind of religious frenzy, and the others are going along with it…?”

“I thought it for a second, but it don’t fit,” Stephanie said, shaking her head. “You ever heard them Romrams talk ‘bout a damn thing weren’t one of their dragons? They sure don’t share Native Unovan folklore. If she was talkin’ ‘bout seein’ Reshiram or Zekrom, I’d be worryin’ ‘bout her seein’ stuff, but the thought I keep comin’ back to is: they’re tellin’ the truth, they don’t understand it any better’n any of us, an’ it’s freakin’ ‘em out.”

“Let’s say it is true,” Natsuko said. “Will bringing them back to Nuvema be enough to protect them?”

“Y’all got any better ideas?” Tim asked with a shrug.

 

 

{Reshin 29th, 05:33}

{Route 6}

 

It was too early to be alive, but at least the forest was pretty.

Cheren found a fallen log to sit on with the coffee he’d gotten from the breakfast bar in the hotel, trying to focus on the natural beauty around him. Gossamer morning light was dripping through the trees and dappling the mossy forest floor, glinting off of a gently murmuring stream that was passing nearby. None of it was stopping his skull from buzzing.

He was inclined to blame Wilhelmina’s psychic attack, but he knew it wasn’t her power that was messing with his head. It wasn’t what was making the Thought continue to expand until it was taking up every corner of his mind.

He took a few breaths, counting them while fixating on the stream. Organize my thoughts. Strip out the speculation and what-ifs. Focus on the facts.

Fact: Mina was enraged with grief over Saria’s death.

No. Not a fact. Not something he could objectively confirm.

Fact: After Saria died, Mina used an abnormally strong psychic attack indiscriminately and did not cease until returned to her pokeball.

Fact: Mina ignored Bianca’s instructions to cease her attack.

Fact: Mina is usually highly attentive to her trainer, friendly, and good-natured, and has never been observed over-using her power since she came to Bianca.

Adding these facts together led Cheren back to the Thought, so he tried to dismantle that path a little more.

Fact: Native-born Fairlans—people born in the nations of Kanto, Johto, Hoenn, Sinnoh and the Sevii Islands—consistently claim to be able to speak to and understand Pokemon.

Fact: Based on this understanding, Native-born Fairlans also consistently insist that Pokemon are fully intelligent beings who understand morality, experience complex emotions and have personal relationships, goals, and dreams.

Cheren hadn’t been able to sleep all night, and he’d wound up spending the night on his C-gear, looking up the research on the topic. There was… not a lot in Unovan, he’d found, or at least, not much that wasn’t from a think tank that Cheren felt was profoundly undeserving of the title. The ones that weren’t were still skeptical, though, and there were more studies attempting to determine why Fairlans believed what they did.

“One reason why very intelligent people can hold unintelligent beliefs,” one researcher had stated, “is that they are skilled at intelligently defending beliefs that they came to for unintelligent reasons.”

The line had been placed as a slapdown against those who spoke to Pokemon, but for whatever reason, at that moment, to Cheren it had felt more like looking in a mirror.

He’d looked up Fairlan research, of which there was far more—a truly incredible amount over the last thirty-four years. He’d needed a translator app to deal with some of the more difficult characters, but he’d managed to get by a number of key papers from Hearthome University, the premier higher education institute in the whole Fairlands. Then he’d gotten directed to a swathe of studies from Island Eight, Sevii’s world-renowned think tank and scientific institute, which often had its studies translated into Unovan. He’d even found himself reading papers from the Re-Established University of Viridian, which at less than ten years old didn’t have much prestige, but was the home institution of Professor Daisy Oak, who did carry some of her grandfather’s prestige as well as making waves internationally with revolutionary theories in her own right.

The studies were good. They were clearly established, their parameters were kept to rigorously, they were replicable, and indeed many institutions had replicated the studies, not just other research institutes and Universities in the Fairlands. Nations as far away as Alola and Alba and as close as Osage had replicated studies, often publishing the results in Unovan as well as their own languages.

It was all… there. As soon as he chose to look for it.

And that was what had caused the Thought to expand to such overwhelming size.

The thought that Pokemon training, as it existed in Unova, was inexcusably cruel.

The thought that by capturing wild Pokemon without the slightest attempt at communication, he was kidnapping intelligent beings and forcing them to fight regardless of their own wishes.

The thought that all the excuses made for Pokemon dying in gym battles were not enough.

The thought that there was no excusing the system he was taking part in, a system of modern slavery.

The thought that, as soon as he accepted that, he could not take part in it for a second longer.

He dropped the paper coffee cup on the ground, scrambling in his bag for his pokeballs, looking over the stickers he’d stuck on the top. Sherlock, Poncho, Rocky, Sandy, Lilli. Dee, the Swanna he’d gotten as a present from Mr Yakon. Any child could make stickers to put on the pokeballs of their dream team at a corner-store sticker booth, and almost every child did. Who didn’t see a League Championship on TV for the first time as a child, see the trainers confidently commanding majestic creatures with incredible powers, and want, with their whole heart, to be that? Then children get older, and many find other dreams, more long-term, sustainable dreams, safer dreams, but Cheren had clung onto this one, knowing it wouldn’t be his whole life and fully intending to set it aside once he was done with it, like it was a toy that was new and shiny for now but he knew he’d outgrow. And, save the detours of helping Bianca run away from home, he’d followed the same path as everybody else—adopt a specially-bred “starter” Pokemon from a reputable source, catch wild Pokemon, travel and train on these designated paths, fight these gyms, and when Pokemon get hurt or die—well, that’s what happens in the wild, anyway. That’s just how it is. Accept that, don’t question it. Don’t step off the path, don’t even look. Do these things as you are told to do them, don’t look for another way of doing things. Don’t look at what you are doing. Don’t look. Close your eyes.

Cheren opened all six pokeballs, dropping them on the ground once they were empty and six Pokemon stood in front of him. Cheren looked at them, looked, really tried to discern what they might be feeling, what they might be thinking. Was that confusion? Dee, the Swanna, was a beautiful specimen, tall and strong and long-necked, not a feather out of place—was she nervous around all these strange Pokemon? Was the way she was fluffing up anxiety, or an arrogant display of dominance? Or was she angry, to be surrounded by strangers without being told a thing?

“I… know y’all can’t understand me,” Cheren started, his tongue feeling thick in his mouth. Where did all his oratory practice go, when it really mattered? “My folks get real up in arms ‘bout our heritage, but at the end of the day, I ain’t Fairlan. I can’t understand y’all any more than y’all can understand me. I’m Unovan. But I can still say, if there’s even a chance that y’all could understand what it means… I’m sorry. ‘Bout all of this. That’s gotta count for somethin’, right? I just… I can’t do this anymore. I can’t. If there’s the slightest chance that…” He shook his head. “It’s more’n the slightest chance. And that bein’ the case… I can’t be a part of this anymore.”

Placing one foot over the empty pokeballs, he stood up. There was a susurrus of little noises from his Pokemon at the sound of the crunch. Were they shock? Confusion? Excitement?

He raised his foot and stomped down again. And again. And again. He stared fixedly down at the pokeballs as he methodically stomped all six to dust. Only then did he look up at his—at the six Pokemon again.

Lilli was twittering to Sherlock, who was staring most intently at the destroyed pokeballs. Rocky was impassive, but nevertheless Poncho appeared to be whispering in their ear. Sandy was staring at the others with her arms folded, one hand rubbing her chin. Only Dee was actually moving towards him, her long neck slowly extending.

It was dawning on Cheren that these were six powerful Pokemon that might well all harbour ill feelings towards him, and he had no way to contain them or defend himself.

He backed up a little as Dee got closer, starting to raise her wings in what was definitely a threatening gesture. Sherlock hissed, and Dee squawked sharply back.

“That is enough.”

All of the Pokemon immediately backed up, lowering their heads, though Cheren could see eyes flickering up to something over his shoulder. Very slowly, he turned, not wanting to put his back to Dee but suddenly knowing, with his whole heart, that he had to see what was behind him.

Cobalion, tall and imposing and shining, steely blue, was more magnificent than Cheren could ever have imagined.

Sharp gold eyes beneath even sharper golden horns looked down a short blue snout at Cheren, who could only think to straighten his spine, set his shoulders, and stare back. For a long moment, there was silence.

“You broke the pokeballs,” Cobalion spoke at last. “Interesting. You are alone out here, and that is what you chose to do. Did you not think that any of them could now kill you if they so chose?”

“N-not really,” Cheren managed. “I just… couldn’t take it from ‘em anymore. Their choice.”

“I see.” The tall blue Pokemon stepped past Cheren, gaze now fixated on the Pokemon.

“You’re Cobalion,” Cheren couldn’t help blurting out.

“I am,” the god affirmed. “And you, human, are… useful, perhaps. What say all of you?” they continued, looking to the Pokemon.

Cheren stood silently and watched, eyes wide open.

Dee screeched, squawked, flapped her wings.

“That may be so,” Cobalion said, “in which case, you are free to leave.”

She spread her wings, and without a look back, she was into the air and gone.

Sherlock hissed, gaze flickering from Cheren to Cobalion, occasionally to one of the other Pokemon.

“I am sorry to hear that,” Cobalion said, “but if that is what you wish, I am sure he will oblige.”

Poncho chittered from behind Rocky at first, before stepping out when Cobalion asked, “then what do you intend?”, chest puffing, paws fisting, chatter becoming a full-blooded howl.

“I see,” said Cobalion. “You have a noble spirit.”

Rocky rumbled slowly, deeply, like rock grinding over earth. Cobalion and the other Pokemon listened intently, as did Cheren, desperately wondering how to discern a Gigalith’s tone. Was Rocky’s speech slow, or did they have a lot to say?

“Hmmm,” hummed Cobalion, thoughtfully. “That is indeed complicated. But I can tell you that power like yours is exactly what is needed to win this war.”

“War?” Cheren croaked. If any of them heard him, none responded.

Sandy was yelling up a storm, continually hitching her skin, folding her arms then unfolding them to gesture wildly, to pound her chest, to point at the other Pokemon or Cheren or herself or even Cobalion. The other Pokemon all chipped in at one point, surrounded Sandy and hissing or chirping or grumbling.

“We shall have to ask what became of them,” said Cobalion, “but I think your new ‘crew’ have made their opinions very clear.”

Lilli’s voice was soft, an almost indiscernible twittering, but all the others fell silent to listen attentively to her.

“I can tell that this has been weighing greatly on you,” Cobalion said with surprising gentleness, “and I will ask immediately.” They turned to Cheren, eyes and tone fierce again. “This one was the companion of a young human before you. Where is her grave?”

“Her—excuse me?” Cheren said, a little startled to be addressed.

“She was the companion of another human before you,” Cobalion repeated sternly, “a very young one whose health was failing. As she no longer sees that human and has instead been under the ownership—” They spat the word like it burned their tongue on the way out— “of you and your human companions. She has therefore deduced that her previous companion died, and has been grieving for her. You will contact whoever passed her to you in order to find that human’s grave so that she may visit.”

“Oh—oh gods, no, she ain’t dead!” Cheren said quickly, looking from Cobalion to Lilli. “She—she traded you to me.” Cobalion repeated this to Lilli, who perked up, fluttering in what seemed very much to be relief. “Not… not because she didn’t want or love you,” Cheren felt compelled to add. “She loves you very much. But she wanted to travel and take you all over Unova, and… she can’t. So… I traded her my Purrloin, who likes to cuddle and nap and will keep her warm, and in return I promised to take you all over the country and send photos of where we go to her. We didn’t just fight Plasma to rescue you because you… you belong to me or anything. We just… couldn’t break her heart by losing you. If… if you want to go back to her, I can see to that. Or if you just want to leave, be free… that’s… that’s fine. I think telling her that you’re living happily in a beautiful forest like this will go down easier than telling her you were kidnapped by terrorists, don’t you?”

Once he decided to see Pokemon as intelligent, it was so easy to speak to them like another person, even if they couldn’t understand his words and Cobalion had to repeat back everything he said. It was so easy to see the way she perked up, the joy when Cobalion told her that Denise was still alive and still loved her. It was as clear as day to anyone with working eyes.

“The people who kidnapped her before,” Cobalion said, turning back to Cheren. “You had a Tranquill before, and they killed him. Yesterday, they killed a Leavanny of your acquaintance. Yes?”

“I’m sorry,” Cheren said quietly. “I wasn’t paying attention well enough. I was present at both battles and couldn’t keep them alive.”

“No,” Cobalion said, turning back to the Pokemon, “you couldn’t.” They spoke too quietly to Lilli for Cheren to hear, and though he could hear Lilli twittering back, he still couldn’t understand.

“You will do better,” Cobalion said, turning abruptly back to Cheren. “She is delighted to hear that her young human friend lives, and would like to visit and show her new glory in time, but now that she feels stronger, she wants to know what will be done about the ones who killed her friend, the Leavanny, and if she can in some way provide aid. Plasma…” Cobalion snorted derisively. “This one, the Panpour, also wishes to face Plasma again. They used and abused him and his siblings when they were too young to defend themselves. He wishes to save other young Pokemon from that fate. He is a noble soul, to turn his suffering into conviction thus, is he not?”

“Plasma—Plasma are the ones that abandoned y’all in that box?!” Cheren gasped. “Oh, gods… we even saw Plasma members in the Dreamyard, attacking that Munna… gondammit!

“Cher? That you?”

Cheren looked around at the sound of Warren’s voice in the distance. “My friends are looking for me,” he said.

“Let them come,” Cobalion said calmly. “I find myself facing a dilemma, human, and perhaps speaking to your companions and the Pokemon they hold will help enlighten me. I suspect I know the answer, but I will still asky, human. What was your intention in taking all of these Pokemon?”

“Nothin’… nothing that matters now,” Cheren said, forcing himself to steady his voice. “The Pokemon League… if it’s built on… on slavery, then I don’t want or need it.”

“It is… a start, certainly,” Cobalion sighed. “You have abandoned your dream for their welfare. Yes, that is a start, but that is not all it is to make amends. What of their goals?”

Cheren stared at the Pokemon for a long moment. “You… said Poncho wants to fight Plasma, right?” he said. “And… and Lilli does too? What about the others? I can’t speak to them. Could you tell me what they want? Please?”

“Such manners!” Cobalion laughed. “Well, since you asked so nicely…”

“Cheren!”

Cheren didn’t want to take his eyes off of Cobalion, but couldn’t help looking around as Carlotta came running up to him. “Cher—holy shit,” she gasped, skidding to a halt.

Cheren looked back, and Cobalion was… still there, staring impassively at the two humans. “You’re one of the others, aren’t you?” Cobalion said. “And what about you? Will you be a part of this?”

“A part of… what’s goin’ on, Cher?” Carlotta asked, looking from Cobalion to Cheren. “Your folks came knockin’ to wake us up ‘cause they were all worried that you were missin’ from the room… what’re you doin’ out here with your Pokemon, and, uh…” She waved a hand.

Cheren wordlessly shifted his foot, making some of the broken pokeball shards clatter together. Carlotta stared down at the pieces, then at Cheren’s Pokemon, then at Cheren.

“Cher, what’d you do?” she said softly.

“I can’t keep ignorin’ it, Carly,” he sighed. “Pokemon trainin’… it ain’t what we thought it was, is it? And that bein’ the case… I can’t do it. Not anymore.”

“This has got you real shook, ain’t it?” Carlotta observed. “Oh, Cher… you never do anythin’ halfway, huh?”

Cheren shrugged helplessly.

“Still,” Carlotta continued, pulling her own pokeballs out of her bag, “seein’ this sure makes me feel a lot better ‘bout doin’ this!”

She released her Pokemon with a flourish, dropping the empty pokeballs to the ground as soon as her Pokemon were out and jumping up and down on the devices.

“Car—Carly!” Cheren sputtered out, nearly bursting out laughing. “You—what are you doing?!”

“Look, I’ve been thinkin’ for a while that this just ain’t right,” Carlotta said conversationally, jumping up and down on her empty pokeballs. “It don’t seem to square with a lot I know ‘bout Pokemon trainin’. Ain’t really known how to think about it. But I’m bettin’ you’ve been turnin’ this over an’ over in your mind, an’ if this is what you came to? Hey, ain’t gonna question it when your thinkin’ lines up with my instincts!” She stood with her hands on her hips, looking down at the broken pokeballs with a smile, then up at her Pokemon. “Alright… so, can the big fella here help us talk to our ‘mons, figure out what’s next?” she asked.

“…Unhesitating,” Cobalion noted. “Summon your two companions. I can sense that they are near. I feel we may perhaps have something to talk about…” They looked around Cheren and Carlotta’s Pokemon, who were having a very animated conversation. “All of us.”

Chapter Text

My name, as I understand it, is Sherlock.

I did not have a name before. Nobody called me by anything.

I hatched. I was given food. I was given more food for behaving in certain ways, and shut away with nothing for behaving in others. This is how I learned what was expected of me.

I do not fully understand humans. Their sounds seem so without meaning, the way other Pokemon are. But I did not meet other Pokemon at that time. I saw and spoke to a few others, later, in the second lab, and that was how I learned to converse. There, also, I practiced fighting, and understood that that is what I am for.

The first gentle touch I ever received was from My Human. I have seem many different places and met many different kinds of Pokemon, some of whom have become my friends, because of him. I have felt leaves and grass and sunlight on my skin. How can I regret any of that?

I do not know if there are others like me—there are? Truly? I would love to meet them. You can speak to My Human. Will you ask him if he will take me to meet them?

I don’t know how to get there without him.

 

~X~X~

 

Look. Humans are weak. I figure that’s why we only fought other Pokemon in the lab. Humans are just too weak to fight! That’s why we gotta protect them.

If I could choose? I’m not sure that’s how this works. Everybody’s born for something, right? I heard you were made to protect Pokemon. Me? I’m here to protect humans, and I’m damn good at it, and it’s fun!

…Except when friends die. That… that sucks. My Human should let me out more. I could protect ‘em, if I was out.

Like me? I dunno. Didn’t know there were others like me. That’s pretty cool. Are they all warriors? Do they protect people? That’s what I want, really. I wanna protect My Human, and my friends, and… whoever I can, I guess.

Could I fight alongside you? You’re in charge of protecting all Pokemon, after all. That sounds really, really cool.

 

~X~X~

 

I-I don’t like fighting. I know it’s what I’m supposed to do, but I don’t like it. I like being carried by My Human, and being close to her, and feeling her warmth. She’s so warm, and she makes me feel very safe when she holds me, even though I know humans are not good at fighting.

If there are others like me, are they warm? Will they welcome My Human? She’s mine. I want to stay close to her, even if I have to fight to protect her.

…I hope I don’t have to fight, though.

 

~X~X~

 

My Human calls me Angus. Do we need such things, between us? You know who I am. In a crowd of a hundred, you’d know us all apart. A human wouldn’t.

I don’t like humans. They always come to hurt us. We make others healthy and strong, that’s what we are, that’s why other Pokemon come to us with their injured and sickly and weak. But humans make their captive Pokemon fight so savagely. They don’t care if they leave us too broken to heal, or even dead.

Am I grateful they didn’t kill me? What kind of question is that? Must I thank everybody I meet for not killing me on the spot? I’d rather have been left at home, with my friends and family, than dragged all over the country to heal Pokemon that are being taught to fight like savages.

…We have become friends, I feel, nevertheless. I care about the welfare of my comrades, especially the young ones, the ones who have already been so hurt. Of course I do. If I left them, I’m afraid they’d die without me to heal them, and I cannot bear that.

I know some of them want to fight on, for greater causes than human whims. I’ll stay for them, to help and protect them as much as I’m able, but at the end of it, I’ll go home and not miss any of this.

 

~X~X~

 

Well… these humans make me fight. I don’t really like that. But they don’t hurt me, like the other womans did back when I was too little to fight even a human. I was so, so scared of humans then. I still am.

My Human now, he… has frightened me. I did not understand evolution until the healer explained it to me, so I was scared that he had done something strange to me, with the strange stone that had drawn me in… even knowing that he didn’t harm me, or ever intend to, that he made me stronger, I still get scared. I never know if he will do something like that, that I can’t understand. Sometimes he sends me to fight, and I’m getting good at it now, good enough that it’s hard for others to hurt me… and he’s never hurt me. He’s not that kind of human. I guess there are different kinds.

I know he’s fought the kind of humans that hurt me and my brothers before. I helped fight against them. If I fight them, can I stop them from hurting others?

I would gladly fight in your army, Great Cobalion. If they are the enemy, then, please, let me fight for you. I can understand you, at least.

 

~X~X~

 

Hell yeah, I wanna fight! Those bastards wanna kick around a little baby Pan who can’t fight back, huh? Just try it now, you fuckers! Fucking try it! Try fighting somebody your own size!

Look, I’m not a fan of humans, you’re getting that, right? But if you’ll vouch for them, Great Cobalion, then sure. I’ll fight alongside ‘em. But I see a hand raised to me, or my buddies, or a little Pokemon that can’t fight back, that hand gets burned off, got it?

 

~X~X~

 

I just lost somebody who mattered very much to me. I don’t want to lose anybody else.

Yes, these humans matter to me too. Especially My Human. She’s sweet, just like Great Keldeo promised. That’s what I want, you know. To help build bridges between humans and Pokemon. How can we do that if we aren’t friends?

They’re not all sweet, of course. Humans are as varied in nature as Pokemon, even if a lot of them are just weird. But there are cruel ones too. And they are enemies of other humans, just as they are enemies of Pokemon.

I want to continue befriending kind humans. But I want to get stronger, too, to fight evil. I will not lose anybody else.

 

~X~X~

 

Look, I don’t know these humans, and I don’t care to. What I want is to go back to my flock. If nobody’s gonna stop me, then I’m outta here.

 

~X~X~

 

Earth is earth, wherever on it I may be.

I was more comfortable in my cave, yet I enjoy the company of those I have met out here in the blinding sunlight.

I am not fond of battle, but I know I am mighty. I know I can shield my friends and destroy any who stand against me.

I would not seek a fight, but if it comes to me, I will win it.

I could be happy, to remain in this forest. I could be happy to return home. I could be happy to continue traveling with my friends.

So I suppose, if I have no preference, I should consider which is right.

You say war is coming. I know there are those I consider friends who wish to fight in it. They are more likely to live, and succeed, if I fight for them. They are more likely to die if I leave them to remain here or go home.

So it seems to me that the most righteous action is to remain with my friends and to fight. If that includes fighting alongside humans, so be it.

Please, tell the human one thing. I do not like the light, and would much prefer to remain with the earth beneath and around me.

 

~X~X~

 

Hah! Is that what they call me? Loyal? As if they can just give me that name and that’s it, that’s what I am now? Pah! Humans!

If war is coming, Great Cobalion, call on me then. I’ll give the humans this, they made me strong. If I go home now, I can protect my pack. I can lead the strongest among them into war as soon as you call.

But not the little ones. I’d never take the pups to fight. I’ll never forgive the humans for that, for taking me and that little puppy girl from our homes and getting her killed. You wouldn’t do that, either, would you? Force children to fight? Of course not. You’re no human.

I’ll find my own way home. I have a good nose.

 

~X~X~

 

I, um… I-I don’t really know these humans. A-a-are they nice?

Oh. F-fighting? I-I-I’m sorry, Great Cobalion, I-I’m not so… it’s j-j-just all very…

Y… You’re very kind, Lord Cobalion. I, um… I’ll just go.

Yes, I-I’ll be more careful next time, so I don’t get captured, I-I promise.

 

~X~X~

 

Listen, your crew is your crew, however you find ‘em, right? I’m still with half my crew, anyways, and I got myself a new crew. Bigger, badder, boss as shit! We’ll fuck anybody up, damn right!

Look, Great Cobalion, I’m sure your cause is super noble and shit, I respect that. But I gotta be honest, I don’t really care? Hope that doesn’t sound too shitty. I go where my crew goes, I fight where my crew fights, and that’s that on that.

Sure, it can include the humans, I guess, but we’re gonna have to talk hierarchy, ‘cause I don’t see why they get to call the shots when they couldn’t fight off a sick Patrat. What’s with that shit?

Oh, and hey, if you can talk to em—I was with two of my crew, but I only ever see one these days. What’s with that? Did they leave a bro behind? Because that shit’s not cool. Make sure they know that.

 

~X~X~

 

I have faith, Great Cobalion. I told myself that there must be a reason that I was taken from my cave and into the light, and have waited patiently to find out what it is. I think I know now.

Capture has made me powerful. Now you appear before me, when I am strong, and tell me that you must fight humans. Humans who will not only capture Pokemon and make them fight, but will waken ancient evils that may destroy all we know.

This is the purpose of my capture, my travel, and my strength. At last, I know what it has all been for.

Show me these humans, Great Cobalion, and I will show them the wrath of earth itself.

 

~X~X~

 

You heard my bro. I roll with my crew, and if we’re gettin’ into a war? Ain’t no fight can top that! Let’s do this! I’m all in! Fuck those assholes running home scared! We got the real ones right here, ready to roll! Bring it on!

 

~X~X~

 

Oh, I’m still just so happy the poor little thing is alive! Oh, the poor child. If my traveling will make her happy, of course I’ll do it! She’s so young, after all, she’s suffering so much…

…That’s why… even though I’m so beautiful now, so much stronger… I don’t want to die. I know you’re a warrior, Great Cobalion, but can you understand? I don’t want to die for anybody. I want to live for those I can make smile.

I’d like to continue travelling. Seeing the world is wonderful. But please, tell the humans to keep me safe in my pokeball when it comes to a fight.

I’m sorry. Maybe it’s cowardly. Perhaps I could protect others but fighting. But I’d hurt others so much more by dying. I just can’t risk it.

 

~X~X~

 

I am out here to get tough for one reason and one reason only.

FUCK those blue humans. They killed my brother and left him on the ground like garbage.

These ones are alright. They buried my brother, and they’re fighting the blue humans too.

So just tell ‘em that all they have to do is find blue humans for me, then stay out of my way.

 

~X~X~

 

I’m sorry that I failed to protect it.

No, I… I don’t even really remember what it is. But I know I died to protect it. So it must be important, mustn’t it?

…oh. I see. No wonder I died to protect that.

I’m so sorry, Great Cobalion, so sorry that I failed. But I’m becoming stronger, you see? I will find it, I promise you. I won’t fail you again.

One more thing, if you please. Do you… did you… know my name? I’m afraid I’ve forgotten.

I see. There’s no reason you would, I suppose. It is no matter.

I don’t need my name to protect the Sealed One.

 

~X~X~

 

Look. I’ve lived near that place all my life. It’s nice and cold all year round, and the humans there don’t bother us so long as we don’t bother them. It’s a good gig.

But for nearly a year, they’ve been taking those poor, kidnapped, beaten-down Pokemon through there. I can hear ‘em crying but my Dad always insisted that if we mess with humans, it’ll bring trouble down on all of us. There was never a damn thing I could do about it, and I hate it.

So if these humans stopped those humans? They’re alright. And if these humans can help me get tough enough to fight more of those humans, then yeah, I guess I’ll stick around.

 

~X~X~

 

Was it Cobalion you warned us about at the party?

 

Sorry. We talked to them. You said staying safe isn ’t the wrong thing to do, but it sure as hell feels like it. And it turns out everything we ever knew about Pokemon might’ve been wrong, too, and it’s… it’s a lot. Too much to do nothing about.

 

Also, if you can tell us more about what the gondamn hell is going on? That ’d be great.

 

Thanks.

Chapter Text

{Reshin 29th, 06:09}

{Spiral Mountain}

 

Fuck,” Saylee muttered quietly but emphatically.

“Lee?” Key yawned, wiping her eyes. “Please tell me you slept…”

“A bit,” Saylee said, handing over her pokegear, then helping Key find her glasses to read it.

“Is this from those kids?” Key asked, wiping the sleep out of her eyes and then straightening her glasses to peer at the screen. “Oh,” she said after a minute, and then, “fuck.”

“What’s happening?” Janine asked, going from apparently asleep to wide awake in an instant.

“Cobalion made contact with the kids,” Saylee groaned.

Suicune snorted. “And just yesterday they were all high and mighty and ‘humans are weak and untrustworthy’,” they said. “What changed their mind?”

“They want to do the right thing,” Key sighed. “They must really want it, to have swayed Cobalion.” She started typing.

“What are you sending them?” Saylee asked, leaning over to look at the screen. “We need to catch those kids, we need to talk to them—I should have gone last night, after speaking to Cobalion, I should have—”

“No, you shouldn’t,” Key said, still typing. “You’re right that somebody’s gotta talk to them about avatars, but somebody doesn’t always have to be you, you know that, right, Lee? We have to focus on finding Lettie…” She hit send with a flourish and handed the pokegear over to Saylee so she could see the message. “You’re not the only person in Unova who can tell them about avatars, remember.”

“…Good point,” Saylee said, reading the message. “Their parents are just going to love that…”

 

 

{Reshin 29th, 06:01}

{Route 6}

 

Under the deluge of new information—who their Pokemon really were, what they wanted, the sheer hatred Loyal bore over Lilith’s death, how Owain’s own devotion suddenly sounded so upsetting with the revelation of what competitive battler breeding was like from the perspective of the Pokemon—Carlotta could only grasp one question that she felt was going unanswered.

“What do y’all need us for?” she asked. “Couldn’t y’all just… take off? Fight Plasma yourselves?”

“Ironically, it is your own gestures of goodwill that have now placed all of them in danger,” Cobalion said, disdainfully crunching another fragment of pokeball under their hoof. The forest floor was now littered with them—Carlotta’s, Cheren’s, Bianca’s, and even Warren’s single pokeball for Angus. “The invention of these machines, able to contain any Pokemon at a human’s whim, have been nothing but detrimental, and they grow ever more powerful. And for these Pokemon, there really is only one reliable defence…”

“Pokeballs,” Cheren noted. “They had to put Lilli in a cage when they stole her because they couldn’t put her in a pokeball. The technology now is a somewhat more refined and painless version of the old practice of implanting microchips. A pokeball won’t connect with a Pokemon that has a different pokeball’s signal, but the ‘chip’ goes inert if the pokeball breaks…”

“So… should we not have done that?” Bianca said, looking in confusion at the pokeball shards at her feet. “I… I guess I figured most of ‘em would want to go home…”

“And those who wish to do so, have,” Cobalion said. “The rest are assured of your goodwill, and if they must be subjected to confinement again, this will be done willingly and on more equitable terms. More is required of you than simply keeping safe the pokeballs that these Pokemon require. Those very machines will allow you to bring Pokemon, unobtrusively, into places for humans…” Cobalion looked up at the sky. “We have learned our lesson about throwing armies at the Broken Dragons, as so much water against a rock. It is a waste of noble lives. But a brave few, in the right place, behind enemy lines, may do more than all the armies of the world, with far less waste.”

“You… y’all want us as a strike force?!” Carlotta said incredulously, staring at the Pokemon. They were mostly watching Cobalion, who was holding the only half of the conversation that they could understand.

“What you’re askin’ would involve us breakin’ a whole lotta laws,” Warren pointed out slowly. “Because I figure the ‘places for humans’ y’all want into ain’t exactly the local library.”

Cobalion probably couldn’t help but look down their nose at the shorter humans, but nevertheless they were very pointed about doing so. “Human laws are of no concern to us. Preventing the return of the Broken Dragons is.”

“And… if we don’t want to… engage in this extremely vague enterprise?” Cheren asked cautiously.

Cobalion snorted. “Did you not wish to make amends to your Pokemon?” they asked haughtily. “To all Pokemon?”

“I think this is what Sar Saylee was talkin’ about,” Warren muttered.

Cobalion rolled their head, snorting again. “That woman… she knows more than most humans, true, but just because those mongrels of Ho-oh’s favour her does not mean that she can dictate terms here.”

“Um… guys? Y’all gettin’ the increasin’ly worried an’ angry texts?” Bianca said, holding up her c-gear and displaying a series of messages from Stephanie Arathos, along with numerous missed calls.

“Aw, shit,” Carlotta muttered, looking at her own c-gear. “They’re out lookin’ for us…”

Warren looked at his own C-gear, did a double-take, and closed it. “Can we have us a li’l time to think?” he said. “We gotta… we gotta talk to our folks, we gotta figure out how to do what you’re askin’ for us, we just… can we have a li’l bit of time?”

“They wish for time to make their decision,” Cobalion relayed to the Pokemon, who began muttering amongst themselves. It was Rocky who spoke up, in a manner of speaking, first, groaning and rumbling like an avalanche.

“This one is of the opinion that such a commitment is not to be taken lightly, and they would not trust your nerve were you to rush into things,” Cobalion said. “There are others who will not wait long, however. Take your time to think, but know that I will be expecting your answer soon.”

“Understood,” Cheren said shortly, meeting Cobalion’s glare much more directly than Carlotta thought she might have nerve to. She was pretty confident in her ability to take most humans and some smaller Pokemon, but she didn’t fancy her chances against seven feet of shining blue steel.

“We’d better go,” Warren said, tugging her arm and reaching out to grab Cheren’s, “but we’ll be back, okay?” he added, looking over in the direction of the Pokemon, trying to make eye contact with as many as he could as the four humans awkwardly backed away through the forest.

“Y’all think your folks are gonna let us do this?” Bianca said nervously as they found the path and started making their way back to the hotel.

“Dunno, but I ain’t sure it’s them we should talk to ‘bout all this first,” Warren said, holding out his c-gear. “I got another message, and y’all might wanna see this…”

“From who?” Cheren asked, peering at the pokegear.

 

Come to the Hoenn embassy.

There ’s an expert on humans in your situation.

There are things you need to know before things go any further.

Keyanu Weaves

 

“She said a number that’ll reach her, not her number,” Carlotta recalled. “Might be Mrs Weaves’, huh?”

“Mom an’ Dad said Mrs Weaves was lookin’ after her, what with the kidnapped daughter an’ all,” Warren agreed. “But sounds like she’s got someone on her staff who might be able to tell us more…”

“We should go,” Cheren said, “but… maybe we shouldn’t bring our parents into this. They don’t understand what’s going on, and explaining…” He ran his hand through his hair with a sigh. “I’m not sure it would sound believable without seeing what we’ve been seeing. And I have no idea what Cobalion thinks is an acceptable waiting period, but I suspect we don’t have much time to waste.”

 

 

{Reshin 29th, 19:39}

{Nuvema Town}

 

The couches in the waiting room of the Hoenn Embassy were more than a little incongruous against the rest of the very traditional Fairland decor, but Carlotta figured they were essential in an embassy in Unova, where people had much stronger opinions about sitting off of the floor. Even she could appreciate that the furniture was awful pretty, a dark blue that went well with the dark wood and false windows inset with screens that showed gently rolling waves, quite probably a feed from an actual beach in Hoenn.

They all had similarly shell-shocked expressions, and Carlotta would bet money that she wasn’t the only one who’d agreed to Cheren’s suggestion to keep the whole conversation with Cobalion secret from their parents because she couldn’t begin to think of how to explain everything that had happened that morning. She wasn’t sure that she understood it all herself, but maybe whoever Mrs Weaves wanted them to meet would.

The fugue state had contributed to her following along with Cheren’s story about struggling to sleep and hoping a walk in the forest would help, as well as agreeing to their parents’ suggestion that they all went home at least for a few days to think their options over. Walking back through her front door had felt surreal, like she’d just come home from a busy day at school instead of the two most hectic weeks of her life. They’d all gone home for lunch and a nap to catch up on the sleep they hadn’t gotten the night before, Bianca finding her name on a sign dangling on what used to be the guest bedroom and bursting into a brief fit of happy tears.

After dinner, they’d made arrangements to go train together, leaving their bags but taking handfuls of empty pokeballs and promising their parents that they’d go no further than Route 1.

An awkward, silent walk to the Hoenn embassy and a brief stare-down with the very scary secretary later, they were sitting in the waiting room, staring at the decor and wondering who they were even here to see.

“Hey,” Warren asked after a long period of awkward silence, “how is Mrs Weaves?”

“She’s been stayin’ over at the Tohjo Embassy, keeping Sar Kanto company,” the guard on duty said with a sad sigh. The guy seemed vaguely familiar; he was probably friends with her and Warren’s parents, one of the other security guards they regularly have around for TV night, where they’d all have a drink, eat some snacks and rag on this season’s hottest crime drama. There were a lot more guards on active duty around the Hoenn embassy than usual, but with politicians’ children going missing it would make sense for the security to have been upped for the sake of the twins. “Mr Weaves is always here, though.”

“Always?” Cheren asked.

The guard frowned for a moment, then consciously smoothed his expression. “What can I say?” he said nonchalantly. “He’s real private.”

There was a beep, and the door at the back of the room swung open. Mr Weaves was a big man, and filled up most of the doorway as he stepped into the room, but he greeted them all with a polite smile. “Thanks, Jeff,” he said, which got him a terse nod from the security guard. “I’ve been expecting them. Come on in, you four,” he added, gesturing to the door.

You’ve been expecting us?” Warren asked as they filed through. Up close, Mr Weaves was somehow even bigger, the scar across his face much more prominent against his darker skin. He seemed perfectly friendly, smile juuust visible under his busy moustache and beard but something about him had Carlotta feeling tense, threatened.

“My wife called,” Mr Weaves said, waving off the security guard and closing the door. “She told me… well, she couldn’t say it clearly over the phone, but she made sure I knew what you’re here about. Come on through and have a seat.” He pointed down the hall to an open archway connecting the hallway to a well-lit room.

Carlotta tried not to snoop as they headed down the hall, but she couldn’t help glancing at the pictures hanging on the walls. Most of them were of the twins, and were pretty familiar at that—she was sure hers and Warren’s parents had just as many baby pictures of the two of them in adorable matching outfits, though those had been moved off of the walls long ago, thankfully. The Weaves kids weren’t old enough for their first “first day of school!” pictures yet, however, so there were as many darling baby and toddler pictures as there were of the preschoolers at the beach, which seemed to be a popular theme. There were a couple of pictures of Key Weaves with Saylee Pryce, too, but, oddly, none of Key Weaves with her husband.

The living room was very bright, with lots of wide windows and more comfy, plush sofas. There were also several pieces of art depicting islands or the sea.

“Y’all a little homesick?” Warren observed, looking at a painting of a cresting wave.

Mr Weaves sighed ruefully. “A little,” he said, “but the move out here was for the best. Have a seat, please. This conversation might take a while.”

Carlotta sat down on the end of one couch, closest to the single armchair Mr Weaves seemed to be making for. Warren sat next to her, with Cheren and Bianca on the other couch. From her position, Carlotta was between the man and her friends.

Hopefully, the conversation would also include an explanation of the weirdness she could feel radiating off the guy.

“Might I say, Mr Weaves,” Cheren said once they’d all settled, “that your Unovan is flawless? I’m surprised. Have you lived in Unova before?”

Mr Weaves looked surprised, then shook his head. “No, I’ve never lived here before,” he said. “Well, Key told me why you’re here, but if you don’t mind, I’d like you to tell me why you’re here. How much do you know, or understand?”

“We don’t know or understand anything, that’s the whole problem,” Cheren said in exasperation. “We’re being followed by at least two mythical Pokemon—well, Cobalion, who’s a genuine myth, and something we only know as a relatively recent urban legend. They’ve appeared in front of us, talked to us, and just yesterday they told us they need us to help them do something, but they won’t tell us what, or why they need us!”

Mr Weaves took exhaled at length. “Well, I can’t tell you what,” he said, “but I might be able to tell you why you.” He scratched his beard thoughtfully. “Since you’ve met Cobalion, I suppose we can safely say that you believe in the idea of gods?”

“I’ve met Cobalion, but that doesn’t mean I’ll be going to church this weekend,” Cheren said, rolling his eyes. “Not that I begrudge anybody their faith,” he added quickly, glancing at Bianca.

“Well, I ain’t exactly church-goin’ anymores either,” Bianca said with a shrug. “I still believe in Zekrom an’ Reshiram, an’ I think they represent some real good values—truth an’ ideals are good things to live by, y’know? I just think they ain’t too hot ‘n’ bothered over whether or not I’m wearin’ a skirt.”

Mr Weaves laughed. “Well, that’s the first thing I can confirm for you!” he chuckled. “I’m hardly familiar with Reshiram and Zekrom, but I’m pretty damn sure that no gods care about human fashion choices. I’m not sure all of them are aware of clothes, come to that.” He sat back, smiling in amusement. “So, when I say gods, I mean… not something that requires you to pray to them, but let’s say, unusual Pokemon—unique Pokemon. Immortal, too, so as any Pokemon can keep growing stronger the longer they live, some of them are more powerful than we can really comprehend, especially since a lot of them have very unique powers. And another way in that they’re just like any other Pokemon is their ability to bond with humans. Even though you can’t speak to Pokemon, you might have experienced the way that, sometimes, a human and a Pokemon just click with each other?”

Carlotta thought of Owain, how it felt to get to talk to him through N and Cobalion, the way he always seemed to really get what she wanted from him in a battle even though surely he could barely understand her. “I sorta know what you mean,” she said. “You’re sayin’ some folk click with gods?”

“It’s more than just clicking, but essentially, yes,” Mr Weaves said with a nod. “I’m sure you’ve heard of a few. Plenty of them get remembered to history as heroes of one sort or another—doesn’t Unova have a couple of kings that were famous for being connected to Reshiram and Zekrom?”

“Eduard an’ Dilwyn!” Warren said, snapping his fingers. “So you’re sayin’ that weren’t just… I dunno, old-timey propaganda? That they really flew into battles with Reshiram an’ Zekrom?”

“Well, I wasn’t there, and I don’t know those gods myself, so I couldn’t say for certain, but I am saying that that kind of thing has really happened,” Mr Weaves said with a nod. “And it continues to happen. There are people today that gods form bonds with, except these days the bonds can run deeper than going into battle alongside each other.”

“Are you saying that… that Cobalion has some kind of connection to us?” Cheren asked, gesturing to the group of them. “It wants to fight with us?”

“Again, I don’t know Cobalion well, so I can’t say what they want, but…”

“Well, ‘scuse me, mister, but what can you tell us?” Bianca exclaimed. “You keep hemmin’ an’ hawin’ ‘bout things you can’t say for certain, but we’re lookin’ for answers ‘bout what’s goin’ on!”

Mr Weaves rubbed his beard, sighing. “Then let me tell you a story that I do know for sure,” he said. “At the beginning of the world, two gods were made—well, among many others. The two we’re concerned with are called Groudon and Kyogre. They are the masters of land and sea, respectively, and charged with the powers to create and control each, in order to give all creatures places to live.”

“That’s an old legend,” Cheren said. “But now we know—”

“We know a lot of science we did in the past, true, but I know the sequel to that old legend, so if you’ll let me continue?” Mr Weaves said pointedly. “Anyway… the problem with Groudon and Kyogre is that they could never agree on whose domain was more important. A solid fifty-fifty split never seemed to be an agreeable option for them. Their disagreements turned to fighting, their squabbling into soul-deep hatred. And their battles cause tremendous cataclysms that cost untold lives. Finally, another god was brought in—Rayquaza, whose domain was controlling and protecting the air and atmosphere of the planet, a job which didn’t bring them into much conflict with Groudon and Kyogre. They were given power over Groudon and Kyogre, and used that power to, basically, make them shut up and go have a nap until they were ready to play nicely.”

Carlotta snorted. “How well’d that work out?” she asked.

“Pretty well, actually,” Mr Weaves said casually. “They slept, they didn’t cause any horrible disasters, and the more natural forces of weather and tides and erosion and so on took over shaping the seas and continents, if much more slowly. Groudon and Kyogre even continued to resonate with some humans while sleeping, though those humans were never aware of more than feeling drawn to the sea or mountains. There are plenty of people who feel passionately about where they live, so it’s not something that would really stick out to anybody. Then, about eighteen years ago, Rayquaza chose an avatar.”

“Avatar… as in, the classical concept of a human possessed by a Pokemon?” Cheren asked sharply.

“Now, I don’t think any of those classical stories are true,” Mr Weaves said, holding up a hand. “Simply because taking avatars is only something gods have started doing in about the past twenty years. Also, if I remember my classical stories right, they involved the god completely taking over the human they possessed, and that’s not really the case with avatars now. Rayquaza’s avatar is still himself, and is still the pilot of his own body, but now he has Rayquaza in his mind too, and over time his body’s been able to adjust to Rayquaza’s powers and give him more and more control over them. Unfortunately, when he first became an avatar, he was very weak, and that’s when…” He looked down, grimacing, then got up and went over to the window, staring out at the clear sky with a sad frown.

“Y’all alright?” Bianca asked in concern.

“I guess I was pretty much in the same place as you,” he said distantly. “I felt drawn to Kyogre, and I didn’t fully understand why. I did mean to find them, and even to awaken them, but later, safely, not… but I didn’t know that I was resonating with Kyogre, and I didn’t know that my presence alone could be enough to wake them up, and I really didn’t do enough research to know that the artifact I’d brought to them wasn’t only not the correct artifact to control them, but actually one that would completely enrage them…” He rubbed his beard again. “You’ve probably heard of the Calamity of Hoenn. You’ve probably heard various explanations of what it was. Here’s what it was: I awakened Kyogre, and Maximillian Hyland awakened Groudon. We didn’t mean to, we didn’t know, and that doesn’t matter because we’re still responsible for the fact that they fought, and thousands died.”

Cheren sat up straight. “You’re Archie Irving!” he said sharply. “You took on your wife’s name when you married and moved all the way here—I vaguely remember, my parents were talking about the controversy about your parole! A lot of people said you should never be released—”

“I don’t blame them,” Mr Weaves—Archie—sighed, tugging up one trouser leg to show a beeping ankle bracelet. “All that business in Sinnoh before I got arrested helped, and I’ve worked consistently to try and help people instead of hurting them, but… I might be on house arrest for the rest of my life, and if that makes people feel safe, after what I did?” He shrugged. “It’ll never make up for what I caused, but I’m happy to do whatever it takes to make people feel safe from Kyogre again.”

Are people safe from Kyogre?” Warren asked, eying the man cautiously.

Archie folded his arms, looking up. “It’s a pretty unique relationship, in every case, this avatar thing,” he said softly. “Rayquaza and their avatar are like… partners. The human host gives Rayquaza a perspective that was long since lost in aeons spent up in the sky, living on a timespan counted in millions of years, having little to no contact with anything else. He’s able to put Rayquaza’s power into practice in ways that really help people—that clean the air, that keep the planet safe… whereas me? I’m more of a restraining bolt than anything else. I have Kyogre’s power so I don’t use it.”

Bianca stood up, her hands fisted in her skirt. “You… you gotta prove this,” she said shakily. “You can’t go ‘round sayin’ you’re a god ‘less you can prove it. I ain’t listenin’ to another word until you prove it!”

Archie held up his hands with a sigh. “Alright, but… just a moment.” He went over to the window and pressed an intercom button next to it. “It’s a nice day out, and the kids want to open a window,” he said. “Permission?”

Granted,” a voice said over the intercom. The top panel of the window slid down, giving them a slightly clearer view of the cloudless blue sky outside.

“You ain’t able to open any doors or windows without security clearance,” Warren noted.

“We only managed to get my sentence commuted to house arrest because it’s a government building,” Archie sighed, “but I can’t even leave the apartments without permission. Anyway, proof…” He held out a hand to the open section of the window, taking slow, deep breaths.

“What’re you doin’?” Carlotta said guardedly.

Archie didn’t reply, just continued to stare fixedly out of their window. Carlotta couldn’t help following his gaze, gasping as she saw the way dark clouds were rolling across the sky, unnaturally fast, like a time-lapse video of a storm.

With a rumble, the heavens opened. In less than a minute, a cloudless sky turned into a torrential rainstorm.

“Are… are you saying you just did that?” Cheren asked quietly. Bianca had pressed her hands to her mouth, eyes wide, while Warren’s jaw had just dropped. Carlotta felt like her eyes were about to pop out of her head. “That Kyogre can do that?”

“Much more than that, but a little rain will do for our purposes,” Archie murmured, twisting his wrist. Some of the rain flowed through the open window and into his hand, where he rolled and stretched it by a stress ball. “That should do,” he sighed, the rain ceasing as abruptly as it had begun and the clouds dissipating as he exhaled, as if he was blowing them away. Perhaps he was.

When he turned back to look directly at them, his eyes were glowing deep blue, with streaks of red across his sclerae that bled across his cheeks. Carlotta would’ve taken it for blood if it wasn’t glowing so brightly.

That’s why I’ve been feelin’ somethin’ weird off you,” she said guardedly. “You’re sayin’ you’re some kinda hella dangerous god?”

“If you could feel that before, you’re already resonating very strongly with some kind of god of your own,” Archie said, frowning, the orb of water still hovering over the palm of his hand. “Maybe Cobalion, maybe something else. Humans can’t feel it, but you’re linked to something not human. And first off, the really, really important thing I want you to know is: you can say no.”

“No to… what?” Warren said in confusion.

“To… this,” Archie said, holding out his other hand and floating the ball of water from one to the other. “You have to agree to it, to anything to do with gods,” he explained. “The god you’re linked to can draw you in, make you feel fascinated by them. Kyogre overwhelmed me, once, when I didn’t know what I was dealing with. But you’re humans, and at the end of the day, your mind is your own. If you really make up your mind that you don’t want any part of whatever Cobalion wants to bring you into, if you firmly say no, then they can’t force the issue. You can say no and walk away.”

“If we say no… then what?” Bianca asked, biting her lip. “Do they… choose someone else?”

“Well… that’s the complicated part,” Archie sighed, splitting the ball of water into four smaller ones and starting to juggle them thoughtfully. “I know of one person who said no and walked away, but she came back to the god at a time of her choosing, and it was still her. As far as I know, if they’ve chosen you, if they’ve formed a bond with you, that’s it. They can’t bond with a new human until you die. Now, from their perspective, that’s generally not a big deal, being immortal and all,” he added quickly.

“But Cobalion spoke of needing our assistance to deal with what Plasma are up to,” Cheren pointed out. “A group like Plasma could do quite a lot of damage in a mortal lifetime, couldn’t they?”

Archie grimaced, nodding. “And I’m sure as hell not going to ask any of you to take yourselves out of the running any sooner,” he said darkly. “But not knowing Cobalion, I can’t say how essential your help is. You don’t have to do it. I want you to understand that. The option is right there to walk away.”

Carlotta looked wordlessly from her brother, to Bianca, to Cheren. Cheren looked back, tilting his head a little in a question. Carlotta nodded, and she could see Bianca and Warren nodding along with her.

“And what, might I ask, is behind door number two?” Cheren said, looking to Archie.

The man sighed deeply. “Yeah, I thought that might be it,” he muttered, tossing the water back out of the window and pinching the bridge of his nose. The glow in and around his eyes disappeared. “Key and Saylee are not gonna be happy, but who the hell are they to talk? Alright,” he said firmly, looking back at them. “Door number two is becoming avatars. In general, it’s gonna mean that you and an extremely powerful Pokemon are gonna become one being, once you both agree to it. It’s gonna hurt like hell, and you’re gonna be sick and weakened for a while after, and a lot of weird shit’s gonna happen to you. Once you heal up, you are gonna be a lot tougher than a normal human—stronger, faster, harder to hurt, faster to heal, so on. And you’ll be able to talk to Pokemon, though it’s not quite the Gab. You’ll be able to talk to everybody. I’m speaking Fairlan right now, but you’re hearing Unovan, right?”

“Wait, you’re doin’ some kinda freaky god magic? That’s why your Unovan’s so good?!” Carlotta yelped.

“I mean, it’s not something I do deliberately,” Archie said with a selfconscious laugh. “But… well, one reason for avatars is that we’re to be bridges between humans and Pokemon, so I guess being able to speak to everybody is an important part of that. Now, whatever Cobalion wants from you right now might not be to be an avatar. Again, I really don’t know these guys, and they’re not in Kyogre’s memories either. But if they need a human for something, they’ll go to the human they resonate with the most first.”

“It’s something to do with Plasma,” Cheren recalled. “They want to stop their abuse of Pokemon and… something else.”

“Cobalion said somethin’ about… evil dragons, or somethin’?” Bianca added. “I… I think. They said a lotta stuff.”

“No, I remember that too,” Carlotta agreed. “Broken Dragons, I think. That mean anythin’ to you, Mister Monsoon?”

“Hmmm…” Archie tilted his head, his eyes glowing again for a moment. “No. Can’t say that it does. But before you have anything else to do with Cobalion, I’d recommend finding out. I’m not going to tell you whether or not to get involved with all this, it has to be your choice, but I strongly advise that you know what the hell you’re dealing with before you get any closer. Don’t make my mistakes,” he said softly. “Know what you’re doing. And don’t count on Cobalion to tell you everything.”

“They’ve been pretty vague so far,” Cheren grumbled. “I suppose we need to look into the Swords of Justice more—the genuine mythology, not the cartoon lore…”

“Ummm… y’all said there’s still Native Unovan folks livin’ in Unova after all, right?” Bianca said, raising a hand. “Y’think they’d tell us anythin’? That carver an’ Mr Alder knew some stuff ‘bout The Little One that y’all ain’t heard of before. An’ they were here first an’ all, so maybe they got some stories that could tell us somethin’?”

“B, you’re a genius,” Warren said, high-fiving her upraised hand. “Mistralton City—there’s a large Native population there, a couple of museums, and even a council hall—like, a tribe council hall. If there’s anywhere we could learn something’, it’ll be there, right?”

“Yeah! Sounds like a plan!” Carlotta agreed, punching her fist into her palm. “We’ll go see what we can learn ‘bout the Swords—well, they called ‘em the Warriors, right? Maybe hear some of them urban legends ‘bout The Little One!” She gave a thumbs-up to Bianca, who smiled back.

“Human stories might not be accurate, either, but it’s a good place to start,” Archie agreed. “Don’t rush into anything without knowing what you’re getting into, got it?”

Carlotta,” Warren, Cheren and even Bianca all said pointedly in perfect unison. Carlotta groaned, flopping backwards across the couch and pulling her hat down over her eyes.

Chapter Text

{Reshin 30th, 08:30}

{Nuvema Town}

 

“KIIIIDS! FRONT HALL!”

“C’mon, must be important,” Warren said, nudging Bianca out of her seat at the breakfast table.

They hadn’t really had a chance to discuss how they were going to get to Mistralton with no Pokemon and without telling their parents what they were thinking of getting into. Yesterday evening had been all about getting Bianca properly settled in, distracting her from trying to help Mr Arathos cook dinner before he headed out for his night shift, and negotiating the order of showers in the morning before turning in. Bianca had meant to turn on the messaging app on her new c-gear after they’d turned in, but by the time she’d gotten changed into her new pyjamas, she’d been so overwhelmed and worn out that she’d fallen asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow. She’d slept solidly until she was woken up by the sound of Carlotta getting the first shower in the morning.

Bianca wasn’t entirely happy about keeping secrets from Mrs and Mr Ara-from Stephanie and Tim, but she knew Carlotta was right. The Arathos and Athos parents had brought the four of them back to Nuvema after getting into a couple of fights with Plasma—they’d never just stand back and let their kids get into more danger at Cobalion’s behest.

She’d gotten used to keeping secrets from her parents, of course, but this was different. Stephanie and Tim cared about their kids, and Bianca and Cheren too. They’d brought them back to Nuvema to keep them safe, not to control them. But despite what Sar Saylee had said, doing the safe thing did feel like doing the wrong thing. At least, it felt like sitting back and doing nothing while the wrong thing happened.

And Bianca was done with not getting to do the right thing because other people thought they knew what was best for her.

In the front hall, Stephanie was standing by the door with Professor Juniper, who had a laptop case in one hand. “Hi, you three!” the Professor said with a wave. “Bianca! How are you settling in here?”

“Everybody’s just too kind for words,” Bianca said bashfully, feeling another pang of guilt about keeping secrets from Stephanie and Tim. “How’s your research goin’, Professor?”

“Well, that’s what I was coming to talk about!” Professor Juniper said, her eyes sparkling. “I hear you kids didn’t get to explore much when you were in Driftveil, what with everything that happened, so I figure you kids didn’t get to visit the Seasons Lab?”

“Never heard of it,” Warren admitted. “But I’m guessin’ they study… seasons?”

“Bingo! And Pokemon that’re affected by ‘em,” Professor Juniper said with a wink. “They’ve been doing some amazing research on Deerling. I’ve been invited to come have a look at what they’re doing and I thought since you kids are back in town, you might want to join me?”

“Well, they just got back…” Stephanie said reluctantly.

“Yeah, but we said we’re gonna ‘port in and outta town for gyms, right?” Carlotta offered. “We can ‘port out an’ back for a daytrip, right?”

“We’ll come right back,” Warren promised, “and we’ll stick with Professor Juniper, so she can keep us all outta trouble, right?”

“I’ll do my best, Steph,” Professor Juniper laughed. “Just a little daytrip, why not? It’ll be educational!”

“Oh, please, Mrs—Stephanie, can we?” Bianca pleaded.

Stephanie sighed, then smiled. “Alright, then. But you’re gonna be back for dinner, or else,” she said, mock-threateningly. “And I ain’t gonna butter up Cheren’s folks for y’all—it’s up to them if he’s goin’ with y’all or not. Alright?”

“Thanks, Mom!” Carlotta cheered, kissing her on the cheek and shooting off up the stairs to get her bag. Warren was close on her heels, kiss and all.

Bianca launched herself into a hug. “Thanks, Stephanie,” she mumbled, enjoying the warm hug she got back.

“We ain’t gonna lock y’all up,” Stephanie said gently. “Just… be smart, alright?”

“We will,” Bianca promised, running up to her new room to grab her bag, inwardly praying that she was keeping that promise.

 

 

{Reshin 30th, 09:00}

{Route 6}

 

There seemed to be no more than a low wooden fence keeping the two Deerling in the patch of grass behind the building, but when Mina sent a brief, invisible lash of power out to test it, they could all see the invisible shield ripple in the air.

“That proves it,” Sherlock muttered. “It’s a lab, isn’t it?”

“You think those Pokemon were born there?” Owain wondered. “Like us?”

“It, um, looks much nicer than the lab I remember…” Tiberius muttered uncertainly.

“It might be a prettier lab, but it’s still a lab,” Angus said coldly. “Whether they were born there or brought there, those Pokemon are prisoners. Probably being experimented on.”

Poncho flinched, clutching Paden’s arm. “You think they’re hurting them?” he muttered.

“If they are, I’m burning that fucking lab down,” Paden growled.

“Oi, you lot! Big C says why the lag?” Sgain called, swaggering back to the trailing handful of Pokemon.

Sherlock nodded towards the building. “There are Pokemon in that lab,” he said seriously.

Sgain gave him an odd look. “Uh, yeah?” she said. “Labs like that always got Pokemon locked up in ‘em, but there ain’t no breakin’ into places like that, y’know?”

“Yeah, but we’re with Great Cobalion now, right?” Owain cried, brandishing his shell-swords. “We can bust in there now and—”

“No. We will not.”

Cobalion moved deceptively quietly for their size and presence.

Sherlock reared up a little in order to be closer to the same height as Cobalion, though respectfully remained a couple of inches shorter. “Great Cobalion, is rescuing Pokemon from exploitative humans not what we are following you to do?” he implored.

“It is indeed, but there is a greater threat looming than such labs as these,” Cobalion said sternly. “Make no mistake, had we your humans with us, this would in fact be an ideal proving ground for your partnership, as they would be able to bring you into the heart of the lab without drawing attention until it was too late to stop you. As things stand, however, we must continue to move further away from human settlements until…” They trailed off, narrowing their eyes down on the lab.

“Guys! Guys! I can hear Bianca!” Mina squeaked excitedly, flying towards them. “I think they’re coming back!”

“They are here,” Cobalion said, nodding at the lab, “but they are not here to see us…”

Down in the clearing amongst the trees, four familiar humans were following a taller one into the lab.

 

 

{Reshin 30th, 09:00}

{Route 6}

 

Warren nudged Cheren, who was staring absentmindedly into the trees around the lab. “You alright?” he asked quietly.

“They’re out there,” Cheren responded, also keeping his voice low so that Professor Juniper couldn’t hear him. “Cobalion. I… just know they’re out there.”

“I get it,” Warren assured him. “You think they’re waitin’ for our answer?”

“Do we have one yet?” Cheren sighed, overwriting it with a polite smile when the lab door opened and the lady inside greeted Professor Juniper with visible excitement.

“Your lectures about the incredible transformative abilities of Pokemon helped me choose my PhD topic!” the woman was gushing as she led them through the lobby. Gushing was perhaps too strong a word for it, as both researchers gave off an air of too much dignity for that, but Warren really couldn’t think of another way to describe it. It was kind of nice, actually, seeing an adult doing something as serious as a PhD being so excited about something. “I hope your students know how lucky they are!” she added, smiling at the four teenagers.

“Oh, w-we ain’t college students, ma’am,” Bianca said, blushing. “We’re just neighbours.”

“But you are here because you’re interested in learning something, so pay attention, kids!” Professor Juniper told them. “So, soon-to-be-doctor, which Pokemon are the seasonal lab currently studying?”

“We actually just finished a rotation of Deerling and Sawsbuck!” the woman said, after a moment of nigh-giggly glee about how Professor Juniper addressed her. “They were all lab-bred, so we were advised not to just release them into the wild—we’re still trying to find somewhere else that will take the last pair, and then we’re going to be receiving something very exciting, though I’m afraid I can’t say what right yet…”

Warren caught the way Bianca flinched at the mention of lab-bred Pokemon. He was feeling a little queasy himself at the thought—he’d heard of lab-bred Pokemon before, of course, the Pokemon that Professor Juniper had given them were all lab-bred, but thinking about them, for the first time, as intelligent beings who had been born purely to be experimented on…

The sterility of the lab itself didn’t help. The desks were almost entirely empty aside from a number of powered-off computers, speaking to the laboratory’s lull between projects. There were four large windows into four climate-controlled paddocks, each apparently outside but clearly inside some kind of controlled biome going by the trees inside of them. One contained apparently dead trees with snow on the ground around them, a sight that was more than slightly unsettling in the middle of summer. The trees in a second were brown and shedding leaves, while the third were covered with white flower blossoms. The fourth was the only paddock that still seemed to be in use, the viewing window surrounded by active computer displays and the two Pokemon inside grazing underneath lush green trees. The Pokemon themselves were almost exactly the same deep brown and green colours as the trees, with the taller Pokemon sporting a large bush of leaves from its antlers.

“Daniel and Darla here are currently in their summer form, as you can probably deduce,” almost-doctor said with a laugh. “Which should make it easy for them to acclimatize to whatever new location they end up in, so long as it’s in the northern hemisphere…”

Warren nodded politely along to the woman’s explanation of the research they’d been doing and what it revealed about how the seasons affected the base physiology of Deerling and Sawsbuck, but he kept his eyes on the Pokemon themselves. The larger Pokemon, the Sawsbuck called Daniel, seemed to be pretty territorial, and was pacing back and forth in what was visibly frustration if you were looking for it, tossing his head and grunting. The little Deerling, Darla, was doing her level best to stay on the far side of the enclosure from him—and, indeed, out of his line of sight where possible.

“Are they doin’ alright?” Bianca asked, gesturing anxiously at the two Pokemon in the enclosure.

“Don’t worry, we’re keeping a very close eye on their aggression levels,” almost-doctor assured her. “One of the discoveries of the study was how much Sawsbuck’s aggression levels rise during the summer. Deerling’s don’t, interestingly enough, which hasn’t been a lot of fun for poor Darla, but of course, removing her would force us to start the study over from the beginning!”

“Of course,” Cheren said, in a tone you had to know him very well to recognize as sarcasm.

“Man, y’all aren’t kiddin’ ‘bout the big guy gettin’ real aggressive, huh?” Carlotta commented, nodding at the Sawsbuck. “Looks like he’s ready for a fight!”

“Yeah, but they ain’t fightin’ Pokemon, Carly,” Warren said, giving his sister a what in the hells are you doin’? look.

It did not make him feel much better to get an I have a plan, alright? look back. Carly knew what she was doing. He just wished he did.

“Well, I suppose any Pokemon could be a fighting Pokemon,” Professor Juniper said thoughtfully. “You took the Oshawott for your starter, didn’t you, Carlotta? Do you have a good grass-type on your team at the moment?”

“No, an’ neither does B,” Carlotta announced, taking Bianca’s arm. To Warren’s relief, this didn’t seem to affect Bianca beyond making her blush a little. The blonde kept an intent gaze on the little Deerling as she skittered unhappily around the pen, which was when Warren got it.

They didn’t know where these two Pokemon were going next, but if they could convince the lab to let Carlotta and Bianca adopt them, they could find somewhere where the two Pokemon could be safe. They would at least try.

“They’re so dang cute,” Bianca cooed as the Deerling skittered closer to the viewing window, staring with wide-eyed curiosity at the new humans.

“Well, what do you think?” Professor Juniper asked the almost-doctor. “You said you were having a hard time finding homes for them—do they need to go to another lab, or could a couple of helpful trainers take them in?”

“Oh, that’d be wonderful!” almost-doctor said excitedly. “That’d solve our problem right away! Hang on, just let me get their pokeballs…”

“Thanks, Professor!” Carlotta said jubilantly. “Gotta even out that team, y’know?”

“No problem, Carlotta,” Professor Juniper said warmly. “Just take good care of them, okay? Now, I know she can’t tell us what they’re getting next, but can any of you guess what it might be? What Pokemon alter depending on the seasons?”

“Primarily grass-types, due to their relationship with plant life,” Cheren said, pushing his glasses up his nose. “It’s more common for Pokemon to be affected by the weather, though some weather conditions are, of course, seasonal…”

 

 

{Reshin 30th, 10:01}

{Route 6}

 

It was a while before the two researchers got sucked deeply enough into a discussion of some theoretical concept that Bianca, Carlotta, Warren and Cheren were able to sneak out without notice. Bianca wanted to stay and listen to the research Professor Juniper was suggesting, since it sounded really interesting, but she could feel it. The Little One was outside now, too.

Once they stepped out of the lab, she knew where to go, and from the purposeful way Cheren set off towards the trees, so did he. Carlotta and Warren followed them without question.

She thought of what Mr Weaves had said, about feeling drawn to Kyogre without knowing why. Bianca wanted to know more about who and what the Warriors were, but as much as that, she wanted to know why.

Why us? Out of all the folks in Unova, an’ all over the world… why us?

They didn’t have far to go before Mina flew out of the trees, swooping towards Bianca with a happy squeal. “Hey, Mina,” Bianca giggled as she caught the Swoobat in a hug. “I missed y’all too, sweetheart!”

“Are we gonna hafta give ‘em an answer now, y’think?” Carlotta muttered.

“I ain’t sure,” Warren sighed, “but I think Mr Weaves was right—we don’t know enough to tell ‘em proper.”

“And if they do not wish to wait for us to be ready to decide,” Cheren said firmly, “then too bad for them.”

They ended up having to double back a little to find a path up the ridge that their feelings led them towards, but at the top, they indeed found Cobalion and The Little One with the rest of their former Pokemon, looking down at the seasonal lab.

“I knew you’d come back!” The Little One said excitedly, bouncing on the spot. “I told Cobalion, some humans are good, some will help! I knew you would!”

“Hi,” Bianca said, clutching Mina tightly out of anxiety. “Look, I… I don’t wanna let y’all down, but, um… we ain’t sure if we’re ready to help y’all yet.”

“We would like to know more about you before getting involved with you,” Cheren added. “For example… who is this one, and why have we never heard of them before?” He held out a hand to The Little One, who blinked curiously at him.

“Oh, me? I’m Keldeo! Hi!” they said brightly.

“Keldeo is new,” Cobalion said, looking down their nose at the humans again. “They joined us thirty years ago, after a war went badly. If you are only here to ask impertinent questions—”

“C’mon, Cobalion, they’re allowed to ask! Humans don’t know anything! I think it’s good that they want to!” Keldeo insisted. “Sorry,” they sighed, bowing their head briefly to Bianca, “none of them ever want to talk about avatars, but I think you’ll be super helpful!”

“We ain’t just here to ask questions,” Carlotta said, holding out the pokeball she’d just gotten. “We got these folks from the lab down there. Lab Pokemon. You can talk to ‘em an’ help ‘em out, right?”

“…We can,” Cobalion allowed. “You rescued Pokemon from that lab?”

“We just asked for ‘em,” Carlotta said with a shrug. “Saw a chance, took it. I figure Plasma could stand to try some peaceful shit like this instead of burnin’ places down…” She released the Sawsbuck, and Bianca released the Deerling, the two of them dropping and crushing the pokeballs as soon as the Pokemon were clear.

“We ain’t tryin’ to get a favour off you or nothin’,” Warren added. “Like Carly said, we just saw a chance an’ took it. If you don’t want us askin’ you questions, that’s fine, but we’re still gonna go look some stuff up, if it’s all the same to you.”

“If you insist,” Cobalion said, turning to talk to the Sawsbuck and Deerling who were staring at the assembled Pokemon, the former defensively and the latter in confusion. Sherlock, Owain and Tiberius were approaching them, Owain already chattering away, though Sherlock and Tiberius both looked wary of the visibly simmering Sawsbuck.

“We’d better head back down before the Professor notices we’re gone,” Cheren pointed out softly.

“Sure thing… just one minute,” Bianca said, reaching out a hand to Keldeo. “I just wanna ask, Keldeo… why us? Why not Sar Saylee or Ambassador Weaves or, I dunno…”

Keldeo tilted their head thoughtfully. “I could tell when I met you that you were different from other humans,” they mused. “You seemed like you were ready to listen. Humans can hear us talking, but that doesn’t mean that all of them are ready to listen, y’know? And I could just tell that you have companions, just like me!” They nodded to Carlotta, Cheren and Warren with a big smile. “The four of you are something real special, you know that? You don’t let anything come between you, and I just know you’re gonna have each other’s backs, no matter what. Cobalion might seem kinda mean to you, ‘cause they don’t like humans much, but I know I can trust them with my life in a fight, and I trust them to lead us right. You’d trust each other like that, wouldn’t you?”

Bianca didn’t even have to think about it. “Of course,” she said. “Are you sayin’… you chose us ‘cause we’re friends?”

“I guess,” Keldeo chuckled. “I’ve met humans who were willing to listen before, but they never had friends like you four. I don’t wanna be separated from my friends, any more than you guys wanna be apart, I bet.” They pawed the ground nervously a little, looking at Bianca. “I dunno if we’ll find anybody else like you in time,” they said softly. “I think I’m the only one looking. If you still need time to think, that’s fine, I guess, just… come back soon? Please?”

“We will,” Bianca promised, letting Mina go and daring to reach out and pet Keldeo’s nose. They made a happy little sound, then ran off to talk to the shy Deerling, who a few more Pokemon were approaching.

“C’mon, let’s get,” Warren said, pulling Bianca away. “Did I hear all that right? Keldeo pulled all us together, even though their buddies don’t like humans, ‘cause we’re friends?”

“Well, they ain’t wrong, are they? We’ve had each others’ backs so far,” Carlotta said. “And I’d trust all y’all with my life, easy. Or even my comics. But not my chips, Warren.”

“You left ‘em in my room!”

“In truth, even if we could question them, I am not sure how much of what they would tell us would be useful,” Cheren sighed. “Their perspective is… so very different from ours. Then again, Keldeo reminded me of one thing that I can believe in.”

“Three things, y’mean?” Bianca suggested with a grin.

Cheren smiled back. “Three people,” he agreed. “I don’t know if I can trust anything I’ve ever been told about Pokemon, and I don’t know if I can believe everything Mr Weaves told us, and I really don’t know if I trust Cobalion, but… I know War and Carly already know us, and I wanna make sure you know it too, Bianca. Y’all are my friends, and I trust you.”

Bianca looped her arm through his, squeezing it like a mini-hug. “Makes four of us, I figure,” she said.

 

 

{Reshin 30th, 10:25}

{Route 6}

 

“Oh, there you kids are!” Professor Juniper said, wandering into the lab’s entryway. “Did we bore you? Lost track of time a bit, I’m afraid!”

“Not at all,” Cheren said politely.

“We just did a li’l bit of training outside,” Carlotta offered. “Sorry, all the stuff y’all were gettin’ into was goin’ over my head…”

“But I bet it’s super interesting!” Bianca added.

Professor Juniper laughed. “You kids are sweet,” she said, “but remember, I promised your folks I wouldn’t let you out of my sight, no more running off, okay?”

“Yes, Ma’am,” the teenagers chorused. “Are we gonna see some more of the lab?” Warren asked.

“Not today, kids! Time to see another miracle of science!” Professor Juniper said, ushering them out of the door. “Have you kids heard of Chargestone Cave?”

Everybody turned to look at Bianca. “Nope,” she said, turning red. “I, uh… what’s Chargestone Cave?”

“We ain’t judgin’, B, just checkin’,” Carlotta assured her. “It’s a real wild place. The rocks fly there! They ain’t Pokemon, either, just rocks that fly!”

“Well, it’s more of a hover, really,” Cheren interjected. “There’s a very unusual electro-magnetic field in those caves that hyper-magnetizes the metal ores in the earth and stones, and when magnetic field repel each other…”

The explanation continued all the way along the road up to the cave, including, upsettlingly, Cheren and Juniper having to patiently re-explain some basic scientific concepts that Bianca’s faith school had apparently misrepresented to stay in line with religious teachings.

After a brief explanation of how the magnetic fields could cause some Pokemon to evolve, Warren drifted back with Carlotta, letting Juniper lead the way while she and Cheren discussed electromagnetism with a fascinated Bianca. “What’re you worryin’ about?” Warren muttered to Carlotta.

“There’s wild Pokemon in Chargestone Cave, ain’t there?” she said. “What’re we gonna do if they get territorial?”

“We’re probably just goin’ down the tourist path,” Warren suggested. “Wild Pokemon know to stay away from there.”

“An’ if they don’t?” Carlotta bit her lip. “I dunno if Professor Juniper trains fighters. She might be countin’ on us to protect her. What if we can’t ‘cause she don’t know we don’t have Pokemon?”

“Let’s only worry ‘bout that if we gotta, okay?” Warren said firmly. “C’mon, we’re just gonna take a li’l look in the cave so Bianca can see an’ that’s gonna be it. Okay?”

“…Okay,” Carlotta sighed. Ahead of them, Professor Juniper was just ushering Bianca into Chargestone Cave, so there wasn’t any time left to worry about it.

Just inside, the view was breathtaking enough to drive all worry out of her head, anyway.

There were no artificial lights in Chargestone Cave, which made it appear dark at first, but the eyes quickly adjusted to the pale blue glow of the magnetically charged ores and stones. It was a beautiful sight, the soft light ever moving like the way light moved underwater, the stones gently drifting in the push and pull of magnetic fields.

Wow,” Bianca breathed, staring out at the balletic movement of the stones. “That’s magical.”

“Isn’t it?” Professor Juniper said happily. “I don’t think it’s any less magical just because you know how and why it happens. It just means you can do a little magic of your own at home if you have a powerful enough electromagnet. Isn’t that great?”

“It is,” Bianca agreed, reaching out to tap a stone gingerly and giggling when it went drifting away through the air. “So wait, how’d the charge get in here in the first place?”

“Well, geologists think…”

“Uh-oh,” Warren chuckled, tugging at Carlotta’s hair for a moment. “Look out! A dangerous wild Pokemon!”

“Wha-aaaaaaaaaaawwwwwwwwwwwwwwww,” Carlotta squealed as Warren dropped the tiny yellow Pokemon into the palm of her hand. “Hello, cutie! What’re you doin’ in my hair, huh?”

“What is it?” Bianca asked, hurrying over to look and then clutching her chest with a gasp. “Ohhhhhhit’s so little!”

“It’s a Joltik,” Cheren said, unable to help a little giggle as they crowded around the thumbnail-sized Pokemon fussing around on Carlotta’s hand. “An electric bug. Some of the smallest Pokemon in the world. You’d better go let it go somewhere safe, Carly. If it gets nervous, it’ll zap you.”

“Got it,” Carlotta said, stepping away and heading towards one of the larger boulders, trying to reach out her hand to allow the little Joltik to walk off of her hand and onto the stone.

As soon as she reached out a hand, however, a dark hand suddenly reached down, grabbing her wrist with sudden speed and strength and yanking her off of her feet, more hands grabbing her arms and shoulders and hauling her away as her friends shouted behind her.

“HEY! LET ME GO! she screamed, kicking out and struggling to free her hands, but the two people who’d grabbed her from either side held her tightly locked between them while the third grabbed her legs, holding her in a steely grip that she just couldn’t break. The three moved quickly and with a creepy silence through patches of shadow and faint blue light.

After what might have only been a couple minutes, but was definitely five minutes too long, they let go of her just as quickly, dropping her to the rough stone floor. She swore under her breath, curling up to rub her jarred elbows and knees.

“Are you okay?”

Carlotta scrambled to her feet, rage driving her to try and punch N in the face. One of the dark figures re-materialized, grabbing her wrist and yanking it behind her back painfully before disappearing again.

“Please don’t start a fight,” N said, crouching in front of her and offering a hand up, which she ignored as she got back to her feet, fuming. “I’m sorry about the Shadow Triad. Ghetsis sent them to protect me.”

“Shadow Triad?! What the hell kinda anime-ass name is that?!” Carlotta sputtered, rubbing her injured wrist. She looked over her hands, panicking for a moment at the thought she might have inadvertently squished the Joltik, but the tiny Pokemon was nowhere to be seen. “Why’d they grab me like that?! What in the hell’s wrong with just walkin’ up and sayin’ hello?!”

“I am sorry,” N sighed. “I said I wished to speak with you privately, and… well, now we are talking privately.”

“What do you gotta say that you couldn’t say to my friends?” Carlotta said suspiciously.

N opened and closed his mouth a few times, raising and lowering his hands. “I… practised something, but…” He got up, walking over to one of the stones and pushing it gently, seeming to settle as he watched it drift away. “I like this place,” he murmured. “Formulas express electricity and its connection to Pokemon… If people did not exist, this would be an ideal place.”

“I dunno, I think it’s real cool even with folks existin’,” Carlotta said. “Y’know, we came in with a lady called Professor Juniper. She’s a scientist. Bet she’d love talkin’ formulas an’ electromagnetism with you. C’mon over an’ say hi, alright? C’mon an’ meet some real people.”

She couldn’t see or hear her friends, but what was creeping her out much worse was that she couldn’t see or hear the Shadow Triad, no matter where she looked. The ninjas at the nursery that were fightin’ Sar Saylee’s ninjas, she recalled. And somebody managed to kill one of them genuine Fairlan ninjas when they kidnapped that li’l girl…

“Maybe I will meet them later,” N said distantly. “Right now, I want to talk to you. You have been chosen, you know,” he said abruptly. “Does it surprise you I said that?”

“Uh, yeah,” Carlotta said, staring at him. “I know that. How in the hells do you know that?”

“My friends told me,” N said, petting another stone which, after a moment, Carlotta recognized as a Boldore. “They say that you’ve met Great Cobalion himself! That’s a great honour, do you know?”

“We all met ‘em,” Carlotta said. “The li’l guy, Keldeo… he said we’re all chosen. Me, War, Cher an’ B.”

“You even set your Pokemon free!” N beamed happily at Carlotta. “You understand now, don’t you? We have to save Pokemon from humans! Ghetsis asked us to look in to you, since we’re allies now—”

“Now hold on just one gondamn second,” Carlotta snapped. “I ain’t decided if I want anythin’ to do with Cobalion’s crusade yet, but I know I don’t want nothin’ to do with Plasma’s. They’ve been hurtin’ an’ killin’ humans and Pokemon, an’ you’re tellin’ me it’s to save Pokemon?! My ass it is!”

N looked startled. “But you released your Pokemon when Great Cobalion—” he began.

“Cobalion didn’t have nothin’ to do with it!” Carlotta argued. “We did it ‘cause we looked at the evidence, an’ we thought about it, an’ we decided it was the right thing to do! I ain’t doin’ nothin’ ‘cause Great Cobalion or anythin’ callin’ itself a god tells me to, I ain’t doin’ nothin’ ‘cause Ghetsis or anybody else in Plasma tells me to do—hell, ask my folks, I don’t do nothin’ just ‘cause they tell me to either! Not unless I’ve thought about it in my own damn brain and decided I think it’s the right thing to do!” She took a deep breath. “You can do it to, y’know,” she made herself say, swallowing the frustration. N looked so horribly confused. “You don’t gotta do stuff just ‘cause Ghetsis tells you to. You’re a smart guy, all about science, right? You gotta think about stuff. You gotta test stuff. I let you talk to Owain to see with my own eyes if that looked for real. You wanted to talk to him, too, right? To hear for yourself what he thought ‘bout me?”

“Yes,” N said, nodding. “A hypothesis must be tested. But… I still don’t understand what you said, or what Owain said. It’s so different from what the friends I grew up with said. Humans only hurt Pokemon by forcing ourselves on them, don’t we?”

“Most folks don’t only do one thing or another,” Carlotta said, shaking her head. “Some folks are pretty shit to Pokemon. But I figure some folks are pretty good to ‘em, too. There’s places where everybody’s like you, remember? Where everybody can talk to Pokemon, they treat ‘em real different.”

“No… no, no,” N muttered, tugging his hat over his eyes. “It’s all so unclear. Many different values mix together, and the world becomes gray… it doesn’t make sense! I will separate Pokemon and people, and black and white will be clearly distinct!”

“Okay, that’s wrong as hell!” Carlotta. “People ain’t that simple! You can’t force ‘em to be just ‘cause you don’t understand ‘em!”

“No! I will help Pokemon become perfect beings!” N argued. “That is the dream I must fulfill! Don’t you have a dream of your own?”

“I DON’T KNOW!” Carlotta yelled. “I don’t got a big plan for my life, alright?! Cher does, Warren does, sounds like you do, but I don’t! I know what I’m good at an’ what I like doin’, but I don’t have a big, grand plan!”

“Don’t you want one?” N asked, bewildered.

“Maybe! But it don’t mean I’m desperate enough to grab any plan anybody’s gonna offer without thinkin’ ‘bout it!” Carlotta shot back. “Think for yourself, gondamn it!”

“I don’t understand you!” N moaned, grabbing at his hat again. “You wander through life with no plan, no dream, no ideals? I can’t understand that at all…” He took a deep breath, slowly lowering his hands. “This… this is meaningless, isn’t it? I thought, because you were chosen like me, you could understand, but you can’t, can you…”

“Wait, what are you sayin’? You’re chosen too?” Carlotta asked in surprise. “Is this somethin’ to do with all that King of Team Plasma stuff?”

“I am the King because I was chosen by the legendary dragon,” N said firmly. “You seem to think I should just allow people to think whatever they want and treat Pokemon however they want, no matter whether the Pokemon suffer. No. I refuse to tolerate the existence of a world like that!”

He snapped his fingers, and Carlotta felt hand folding over her upper arms again.

“FUCK OFF!” she yelled, swinging and lashing out. A leg hit the backs of her calves, sweeping her legs out from under her, and she went down hard, all the wind knocked out of her as her back struck the stone. She saw a glint of metal above—

There was a rumbling roar, and the person standing over her was knocked aside by a distinctly non-glowing rock. Carlotta scrambled to her feet, staring at the hulking Pokemon that was flinging rocks at three dark, swiftly-moving figures.

“…Roland?” she realized. “That you? What’re you doin’ here?”

Roland made one of the rumbling noises that was probably speech. She didn’t know what he was saying, exactly, but she felt like she got the drift.

“Thanks, buddy,” she said, patting his side. “I’ll forgive you for stalkin’ me—”

There were several cracking noises as rocks suddenly stopped and split in mid-air, and before Carlotta could get a hand on what was happening, two small figures had struck at Roland with a sickening shattering noise.

One second, Roland was standing over her protectively, huge and proud and strong, and the next, he was falling to pieces on the ground.

“NO!” Carlotta screamed, lunging at the small figures, fists-first. One of the Shadow Triad dropped down in front of her, grabbing her wrist and bending it backwards painfully.

“Lord N does not wish you harmed,” they said in a whispering, grating voice. “But Lord Ghetsis does not wish Lord N harmed. Cease resisting, or else—”

There was a bright flash and a crackle that made the hairs on Carlotta’s arm stand up, and the shadowy figure fell back with a cry of pain. By the time Carlotta had blinked the spots out of her eyes, they were all gone.

Fuck,” Carlotta hissed, crouching next to Roland and holding out a hand. “Fuck, fuck, fuck! Those murdering pieces of—” She clenched her fists and something squeaked. “Oh, shit! Sorry, li’l guy,” she sighed, unclenching her hand and letting the little Joltik crawl to a safer perch on her elbow. “Hey, little guy,” she murmured, petting the tiny Pokemon’s back gently with her pinky finger. “Was that you tazin’ that guy? Thanks. He was a murderin’ bastard…” She reached out a hand, touching one of the pieces of Roland, and gasped as it crumbled into sand. “Fuck,” she whispered, pressing a hand over her mouth. It felt like she was going to cry, which wasn’t something she generally did. She generally got angry instead.

But the Shadow Triad had made her feel so powerless. She hadn’t been stronger than them, and she hadn’t had stronger Pokemon than them, and trying to protect her had gotten Roland killed.

Just like it had gotten Saria killed. Just like protecting a human had gotten Penny and Peabean killed. And Pijon and Lilith had died for even less than that.

“It just ain’t right,” she muttered to the Joltik. “N’s got one thing right. The world can’t work like this. It just ain’t right.” She petted the Joltik a little more thoughtfully. “What Mr Weaves did with the rain… like a mutant or a superhero or some shit. That’d be great, wouldn’t it? Havin’ the power to fly in an’ have the strength to make everythin’ right.” A thought struck her. “Than again, I think that’s what N thinks he’s doin’ too. He said he’s gonna make people be right. But, like… he just wants to control folks who disagree with him. I guess I don’t mind folks disagreein’ with me, I just want to stop them hurtin’ other folks. So that’s the difference, right?”

The Joltik chirped a few times, then nipped her hand.

“You’re real easy to talk to, you know that?” Carlotta said, standing up and wiping her eyes and nose. “ Alright. Let’s go back an’ let War, Cher an’ B know I ain’t dead…” She looked down at the sand on the ground with a wince, then, wiping her eyes one more time, started looking for the path back to the entrance.

 

 

{Reshin 30th, 10:01}

{Route 6}

 

“What’s that sound?” Saylee said, tapping Suicune’s shoulder to get them to slow down.

They came to a halt, cocking their head. “I’m… not sure,” they said thoughtfully.

“What sound?” Janine asked.

Key held up a shushing finger as the sound echoed around the mountains again. It was a deep, shuddering sound that seemed to make the heart skip a little in time with it.

“There,” Suicune said, taking off after the source of the sound. When riding on Suicune’s back, it was best to hang on tight and tuck your face into their mane so you couldn’t see the landscape blurring past. The fact that sitting on their back was an inexplicably smooth ride meant that you could almost pretend you weren’t moving if you closed your eyes, but if you looked up, the nausea hit really fast.

A second later, Suicune skidded to a halt, their fine fur standing on end. “You okay?” Saylee said, stroking the back of their head.

“It’s a dead place,” Suicune said quietly. “Not a fan.”

“A dead place?” Key asked. “Oh, like… Mt Pyre?”

Suicune nodded. “Or Lavender Town, or the peak of Coronet, these days,” they said quietly. “Makes me remember dying.”

“I’m sorry,” Saylee said, stroking their ears again. She leaned over their shoulder, looking down at the dead place.

It was one of the more pleasant ones she’d seen. She could sort of feel it if she focused, the same feeling she got from Lavender Tower, but much, much calmer. There was a tower built into a cliff face, like Lavender, but this one was much more well-maintained, with flowers growing out of many windows and gentle murals across the curved walls. Somebody was sitting in a harness hanging from a Braviary while he touched up the purple paint on a mural near the top floor. On the roof was the biggest bell she’d ever seen, even bigger than the traditional-style one in Bell Tower. They probably could’ve given Suicune a bath in it, if the beautiful Pokemon ever got dirty. It was dark gold, clean but clearly long past shining, and a tiny speck of a person could be seen pulling a rope that made it ring out, echoing through the mountains.

“Huh,” Key said, looking up. “Did it sound different that time?”

“I think so,” Saylee agreed. “That’s… weird and spooky.”

“I… would love to pay that place a visit,” Janine said quietly. “It seems like a good place to pray for Alice’s spirit… but there’s no sign of Plasma. We should move on.”

Saylee nodded. “Thank you, Janine,” she said softly. “We’ll come back later, I promise.”

Janine put a hand on Saylee’s arm. “Make sure the living are safe before mourning the dead,” she reminded her. “Can we keep heading north, Suicune?”

The great Pokemon nodded. “Hold on tight,” they said, giving the humans on their back a moment to get a grip before taking off across the mountains again.

Chapter Text

{Reshin 30th, 11:56}

{Route 6}

 

“Seriously, Professor, I’m fine,” Carlotta insisted for what felt like the millionth time since they’d found her wandering along a side-path through the cave. The way she kept glancing nervously at shadows suggested otherwise, to Cheren’s mind, but he also understood quite clearly that whatever had yanked her into the dark, she wasn’t going to talk about it in front of Professor Juniper.

It was hard to see in the pale electromagnetic glow, but it looked like there were bruises up and down her arms. That was unnerving. Carlotta didn’t tend to lose fights.

“Alright, I give up,” Professor Juniper sighed, raising her hands. “But if you do want to let me know what happened after you ‘fell’, I’m ready to listen. I won’t even tell your parents what happened, if that helps.”

“Aren’t you supposed to tell them if something happened?” Cheren asked skeptically.

“And admit I screwed up my promise to keep you kids safe?” Professor Juniper said wryly. “I would if Carlotta was hurt, but she isn’t, and if she doesn’t want to tell us what happened yet, I don’t figure I’ll get anything out of her by bothering you. Besides, I think following any dream worth its while will always involve a little danger. Daisy Oak didn’t become one of the greatest minds in modern science because she lived in a palace, after all!”

“’Bout Professor Oak,” Bianca said, “I’ve been wonderin’. She says she can talk to Pokemon, right? You said she’s a friend of yours on TV, but you don’t believe her ‘bout that?”

Professor Juniper took a deep breath, looking up thoughtfully. “I have nothing but the greatest respect for Daisy,” she said after a moment. “And I think the suggestion that Pokemon are much more intelligent than we assume, and that with the right brain mutation we could speak with them as easily as I’m speaking to you now, is much more probable than many in Unova would like. That, however is the whole problem.” She smiled sadly. “Being able to scientifically prove something is, unfortunately, not enough to have it accepted as true sometimes. She’s not good at the politics of getting her research published, I’m afraid. Most Kantons in particular aren’t.” She shook her head with a sigh. “They don’t play politics in Kanto much. I suppose it’s a leftover from the isolation period, no patience for playing about. The bluntness is quite refreshing, actually, but it’s not going to be enough to change the way Pokemon are treated in other countries, especially not here. I keep challenging Daisy not because I don’t believe her, but because I need her to come up with more powerful arguments.”

“…Does she know that’s what you’re doing?” Cheren asked, looking fascinated.

“She’s one of the greatest minds in the world, you know!” Professor Juniper said with a wink. “I think it frustrates her that it’s necessary, but what can you do?” She suddenly frowned, slapping her forehead. “I can stop letting you kids distract me from the topic at hand, is what I can do! Carlotta—”

“Oh look, the exit!” Carlotta yelled, darting towards the sunlight.

Warren patted Professor Juniper on the shoulder. “Tell you what,” he offered, “I’ll get what happened offa her, and then I’ll decide if you wanna know, since I’m the level-headed twin and all. Sound fair?”

“You are the level-headed twin, but your sister sets a low bar,” Professor Juniper acknowledged. “Go grab her before she runs off the wrong way, I got us some lunch plans once we get out the other side.”

Three Cheren thought to himself with a smile as Bianca stepped out of the western exit to Chargestone Cave, blinking in the bright sunlight. Two… one…

Woooooow,” Bianca gasped as her vision cleared and she took in the hilltop view of Mistralton City. The most immediate feature was the huge old-fashioned airstrip, and it certainly helped that a cargo plane was taking off just as they walked out of the tunnel, swooping majestically into the sky with a roar. The mountains around them were a riot of colourful buildings, and a faint, pretty tinkling noise floated up to them on the breeze.

“Huh, usually they just fly tourist planes in and out of here,” Professor Juniper commented, shading her eyes. “With ‘port technology getting better every year, there aren’t many materials you can’t teleport anymore, but I suppose there are still things that need moved the old-fashioned way, huh?”

“Whoa… oh, look at the buildings!” Bianca cooed. “They’re beautiful! I ain’t never seen a style like that before!”

“Mistralton was a reservation until Osage formed, after which people who didn’t move there steadily integrated more with Unova,” Cheren explained. “The majority of the population is still of Native Unovan heritage, though, hence the longhouse-based architecture—you see the huge one there with the Sawsbuck mural? That should be the council building…”

“You can do a little touristing in the city this afternoon,” Professor Juniper promised, “but first things first, Dad invited us for lunch and we’re not going to keep him waiting, are we?”

The careful analysis of what Cheren knew about Mistralton and the tribes that lived there and what Bianca would likely need to learn before she could understand other things all screeched to a halt in Cheren’s brain. “Wait, we’re having lunch with your father?” he gasped. “Doctor Cedric Juniper?”

“The guy who does all them documentaries?” Carlotta said excitedly. “Where he travels ‘round talkin’ ‘bout why Pokemon live where they do? Gondamn, Professor, you put together a hell of a field trip!”

“I didn’t bring nothin’ for him to autograph—it’s not weird to ask for autographs when he’s havin’ us for lunch, right?” Warren said, patting down his pockets. “I mean, if it’s weird I won’t ask, it’s just, Doc Juniper…”

Professor Juniper giggled. “Don’t worry, he loves hearing folks talk about stuff they learned from his documentaries, especially kids,” she assured them. “Actually, he’s probably gonna bury you in a million stories about interesting things that happened that he couldn’t fit into the show, given the chance, so sit back and enjoy your lunch!”

They didn’t have to go into the city proper to get to Doctor Juniper’s house, instead turning off down a small dirt path that took them around the mountainside and through a gate to a cute, blue-roofed little house. It was tucked away amongst some trees, keeping it from being easily spotted, but had its own gorgeous view of Mistralton and the mountains.

Doctor Cedric Juniper himself was sitting on the porch waiting for them, a large jug of iced lemonade and a heaping plate of sandwiches on a table next to him. “Rea! Starting to worry about you, kiddo!” he called, standing up and waving as they walked up the path. “Come on up and grab a bite, kids!”

“Honour to meetcha, sir,” Carlotta said, shaking his hand enthusiastically. “I gotta say, sir… your series on water Pokemon livin’ on beaches an’ in shallow pools an’ stuff, compared to how they grow out in the open ocean, that one really stuck with me, an’ all that poetic sh—stuff ‘bout how the versatility of water-types reflects water itself… well, it probably went a long way towards me choosin’ a water Pokemon for my very first, I’m just sayin’.”

“I’m glad to hear it!” Doctor Juniper said warmly. “Hearing that one of my documentaries not only educated someone, but inspired them, makes all the sand in my pants worthwhile. What’s your name, young lady?”

“I’m Carlotta Arathos, an’ this is my brother Warren,” she said, letting go of his hand so Warren could have a shake. “He’s a big fan, too.”

“I’ve been rewatchin’ your series on regional variants while doin’ my homework,” Warren said, shaking the doctor’s hand as enthusiastically as his sister. “It’s a real honour, sir.”

“I’m Cheren Athos,” Cheren put in when Doctor Juniper turned to him. “Likewise honoured and a little starstruck, though you must get that a lot.”

“Yep, but it’s fun every time,” Doctor Juniper said with a wink. “And you, miss?”

“U-umm, I’m Bianca D’Artagnan,” Bianca said, shaking his hand, “and, sir, I gotta admit, I ain’t seen your show before, but I really owe a lot to Professor Juniper an’ how she helped me get a Pokemon an’ leave home, so, uh… thank you for raisin’ her to be so nice, I guess!”

Professor Juniper went a little red as her father burst out laughing. “Young lady, that may just be the best thing anybody has ever said to me,” he chuckled. “C’mon and grab a seat, kids!”

As they all sat down, the doctor went to turn off a small radio that had been playing quietly, but Cheren caught a few words before he did. More importantly, he recognized the voice.

“Isn’t that Ghetsis Harmonia?” he commented, nodding to the radio. “Is he making excuses for what happened in Driftveil?”

“’Few bad leppas’ and the like,” Doctor Juniper said, rolling his eyes. “Seems to be forgetting what a few bad leppas do to the bunch… he’s also railing against the police for their violent response to the protest march, probably hoping folks will forget about the Pokemon theft ring if he harps on enough about that…”

“These are actually the kids who broke up the smuggling ring, Dad,” Professor Juniper put in.

“Really? You kids did that?” Doctor Juniper said in amazement, looking around the four of them. “Well, damn! Now that’s me honoured to meet all of you!”

“We were just tryin’ to do the right thing,” Carlotta murmured, looking fixedly at her sandwich. “We don’t like Plasma much.”

“Good heads on your shoulders,” Doctor Juniper opined. “Plasma’s gonna turn out to be a cult, you mark my words.”

“Oh, here you kids go, you’re getting the cult theory,” Professor Juniper said, sipping her lemonade with a grin.

“I oughta do a show about that,” Doctor Juniper grumbled. “Not exactly my usual field of study, but hells, nobody else is doing it!”

“What are you talkin’ about?” Bianca asked, biting her lip. “Plasma… are they Romrams or somethin’?”

“Legally, no, but if you’re familiar with Romrams, doesn’t Ghetsis remind you of anybody?” Doctor Juniper asked.

“Well…” Bianca fidgeted selfconciously with her capris. “The way he gives speeches… I guess it kinda sounds like our preacher.”

Doctor Juniper nodded. “Exactly! And that’s because he was a Romram preacher. He started getting real famous back before Rea here was born, though, this was a long time ago. Well, I should say he started as a Romram preacher. I’m sure you kids known how Taotrism can be. Must be built in at some core level to a religion based on two dragons who split off from one—they’ll split off into a new sect at the drop of a sermon. He got popular fast because he was charismatic and passionate, all fire-and-lightning and blood on the tongue. He split off on his own pretty quick and took his congregation with him, and his congregation was growing fast.”

“I do remember seeing him on the TV when I was little,” Professor Juniper commented. “Mainly because you and Mom were yelling at him…”

“You’ll be remembering when he got arrested,” Doctor Juniper snorted. “That was when he really hit the news. We sure as hell weren’t paying a subscription to watch his channel!”

“He got arrested?” Cheren said in fascination. “What for? Why haven’t we heard about this before?”

“Second question first: I imagine he’s pulled some strings to have that thirty-year-old scandal buried,” Doctor Juniper sighed. “I imagine he learned some things from when he went down before, and he took steps to anticipate folks digging through his background before he showed up in public again.”

“You’d think it woulda come up by now, Plasma bein’ so controversial and all,” Warren mused. “That lady, Sar Saylee, she weren’t here long ‘fore somebody was digging up dirt on her folks!”

“Now, that one was just plain nonsense,” Professor Juniper grumbled. “I talked to Daisy Oak about it at the time—Sar Kanto’s her sister-in-law, did you know? Dragging her through the mud for somebody else’s actions, and somebody who was never a part of her life to boot, is just dirty. Somebody had an agenda there, mark my words.”

“I don’t doubt it,” Cheren commented. “But back to the first question… what was he arrested for?”

“Well, y’know, the whole thing started as an investigation into tax evasion,” Doctor Juniper chuckled. “Do you kids know much about the Cult Prevention Act?”

“I know my old preacher said it was an attack on religion an’ an invasion of the government into our homes,” Bianca said, making a face. “If he hated it that much, I figure it ain’t a bad thing.”

Doctor Juniper laughed. “Well, you’re not wrong! It requires religious institutions to keep and report accurate records of various things so various safety agencies can make sure that people, especially children, aren’t being trapped in a group that doesn’t allow them to leave, physically or financially. The financial records are where it started. When Ghetsis was building himself a damn great megachurch, an accountant receiving his sect’s financial records—mainly kept to make sure that collections and tithes from the congregation are going to things like building and maintaining churches, social programs, paying church staff, things like that and not, say, a superyacht—well, this guy noticed some discrepancies, and reported a suspicion that Ghetsis was siphoning off cash for himself from his followers. So there was an investigation, and that was when one of the investigators poking around his church found the underground tunnels.”

Carlotta choked on her sandwich. “Found the what now?!” she coughed. “The guy was buildin’ a secret base?”

“A bunker network, actually!” Doctor Juniper said, topping up her glass of lemonade and pushing it towards her. “Between the church and the houses of several followers. Well, that’d be bad enough, since there weren’t exactly any plans on file with the city office for these secret bunkers, but that pulled in a much bigger investigation, and a headcount turned up something like a dozen kids that with no birth certificates—they’d had the kids at home and hid that they even existed!”

Bianca gasped aloud. “They take kids away from their folks for that!”

“I’m betting those children weren’t vaccinated or receiving a proper education, either,” Cheren said dryly.

“Oldest was six, I think, but yeah, and a couple of ‘em were real sick but weren’t getting proper medical attention, the way I heard it,” Doctor Juniper sighed. “Some folks like to spin horror stories about the government tracking your every move, but honestly, I figure that credits the government with a lot more manpower and, hell, a lot more competency than I’ve ever seen ‘em display. All that happens when you register your child’s birth is that somebody in Child Safety Services knows they exist. They don’t get vaccinated against diseases that could kill ‘em, somebody’ll come ask why. Those kids never turn up at a school to get a proper, accredited education, somebody’s gonna ask why. Funnily enough, the folks who don’t want the government knowing their kids exist never seem to be just private people who otherwise treat their kids right. Every damn time, there’s something wrong about how they’re treating those kids they’re so determined to keep secret.”

“Gondamn,” Warren muttered. “They take those kids away?”

“Yep, and several arrests were made, mainly of the parents but also of Ghetsis himself.” Doctor Juniper looked a little sour. “He was convicted of cult-building but after cutting deals and for good behaviour inside, he only did three years’ jail time. That might be what you recall your mother and I expressing some colourful language about, Rea.”

“And now he’s runnin’ a… Pokemon-stealin’ Pokemon rights charity?” Warren said, brow furrowed.

Doctor Juniper sighed. “Thing is, since he was convicted of building a cult, he can go to church if he wants but he cannot legally be responsible for so much as the collection box at the winter fair. But businesses and charities are covered under different laws, so long as the charity isn’t being run by or on behalf of a religion. Now, I strongly suspect that if you got a real close look at their rotas, you’d see a whole lot of staff who were once in his congregation, or some Romram church, but I hear they use a whole lotta volunteers, who don’t show up on payroll. Officially.”

“I don’t deny Plasma are pretty darn shady, I just think you’re getting into conspiracy theories here, Dad,” Professor Juniper said with a little smile. “I don’t doubt the man’s skimming cash, but I figure getting his old congregation aboard is because they’re willing patsies. I mean, these things are always about the money, aren’t they?”

Carlotta suddenly looked worried. “Hey, Doctor Juniper?” she asked. “Did you ever see any of Ghetsis’ preachin’ back in the day? Did he ever talk about dragons… I mean, more’n Romrams already do, or sayin’ different stuff, or anythin’?”

“Well, as it happens, yes,” Doctor Juniper said, looking curiously at her. “A lot of Romrams talk about the twin dragons, Reshiram and Zekrom, having ascended from this sinful world to judge us all relentlessly and spend eternity burning sinners in fire and lightning. But Ghetsis’ pitch was that they are still sleeping in this world, and will return to ‘cure’ the world of its sins if a ‘pure hero’ appears. He was very insistent that such a hero would be born in his cult, and that that’s why so many children born to his cultists went unregistered, to prevent the ‘sinful world’ corrupting them, blah blah blah. Is he preaching that stuff again?”

“No, just… I got to talk to somebody I think’s in Plasma a while ago,” Carlotta said quietly. “Sure sounded like he’d never been to school… an’ he was talkin’ ‘bout dragons, chosen ones, true kings, stuff like that.”

Doctor Juniper sat back, folding his arms and looking worried. “Yeah, that sounds like his kinda nonsense,” he said. “You run into that guy again, I’d get him some help.”

“Wait, who’re you talkin’ about?” Warren asked, staring at his sister. “Who was talkin’ ‘bout true kings?”

“That guy N,” Carlotta said. “Ran into him in Nimbasa, just… didn’t get ‘round to tellin’ y’all yet. He’d never even heard of the Fairlands, y’know? Didn’t seem to know anythin ‘bout the world.”

“You’re not wrong that that guy clearly needs help,” Cheren muttered, rubbing his forehead. When did Carly—oh, hells, tell me it weren’t on the Ferris Wheel! Carly wouldn’t be fool enough to let herself get locked up alone with… Hells, what am I sayin’, it’s Carly… “He says his name is N. Just the letter N. I thought it was a pseudonym…”

“It’s not like it’s illegal to just initial a kid, but it is weird,” Doctor Juniper said with a frown. “You see that guy again, you really gotta get him some help, okay? Call the cops and tell them you’re worried about him, if you gotta.”

“Yes, sir,” Carlotta said. Cheren caught Warren giving her a Look that clearly said: we’re gonna talk about this later.

Carlotta, Warren and Bianca all grabbed at their hats as a sharp wind blew through. “Gondam!” Carlotta yelped. “Is it always like that ‘round here?!”

“It’s only to be expected,” Doctor Juniper chuckled. “We’re quite high up in the mountains here. No wonder the first people that lived here revered the wind spirit, eh?”

“Remember that paintin’ we saw in Castelia, B?” Carlotta asked. “’Bout the twelve gods? Guess the one ‘round here must be wind!”

“Ah, you know a little about the twelve Federation tribes?” Doctor Juniper asked. “If you want to know more, we could go visit the cultural centre in Mistralton—I believe the experts there could explain such things far better than I could!”

“I would love to learn more from an actual member of the tribe,” Cheren agreed. And they might be able to tell us something about Cobalion, Terrakion, Virizion and Keldeo… something the Swords of Justice themselves wouldn’t tell us.

He didn’t need to look at his friends to know they were thinking the same thing.

 

 

 

{Reshin 30th, 13:12}

{Mistralton City}

 

Once they got into the city, the sound of windchimes was everywhere.

They didn’t quite look like what Carlotta usually thought of as windchimes, like the little thing of metal tubes her mother had by the back door that somehow made a delicate, tinkly noise; the windchimes in Mistralton were all beads and coloured glass, and no house seemed to have less than three hanging outside, chiming against each other as much as themselves.

“They’re so pretty,” Bianca cooed.

“Neighbour told me about ‘em a while ago,” Doctor Juniper said. “A Clan Mother’ll make one for a newborn baby, and then you keep adding onto it as you go through life, on birthdays, coming of age, cultural events, so on… makes sure the winds know who you are, more or less. That they’re aware of you. Pretty important up here, eh?”

“No kiddin’,” Carlotta said, clutching her hat as another wind blew through. Wind… if I remember that paintin’ of Burgh’s right, wind’s one of the three that survived. Wonder if it’s really real, an’ some flighty bastard’s really flyin’ about here, same as the Swords of Justice…

There were dozens of bridges connecting different levels of the hills to each other. The one they crossed was decorated in a distinctly Native Unovan art style, depicting a bright flock of Pidove, Tranquill and Unfezant flying into a vividly-coloured sunrise, flying amongst elegant trails of wind.

Pokemon seem to know all ‘bout the Swords of Justice already. Do they know these elemental guys, too? Penny, Pijon, Peabean… would you’ve gone off after this guy, if you were still alive now? If we’d gotten you here? Would you’ve wanted to?

She didn’t know. She probably never would. They’d ask if the birds were here now, but they hadn’t known to ask then. It wasn’t fair

The cultural centre had windchimes hanging off all of the eaves. A lot of them looked old, and were so worn that the colours had faded, but they still jingled in the wind as Doctor Juniper opened the door and gave a silly, flourishing bow to gesture them inside.

The longhouse was, as suggested by the name, long; there were no dividing walls between any part of the building, just a welcome table at the front and then rows and rows of wood or wood-patterned racks from which paintings, cloths or other artifacts hung. A couple of older ladies were further back in the building, carefully re-hanging some kind of traditional coat, while one was sitting at the front desk, chatting to a tall, younger woman with long, rust-red hair—

“Leader Skyla!” Carlotta gasped. “This day just keeps gettin’ better!” Scary ninjas aside

“You didn’t plan this, too, didja, Professor?” Warren asked, somewhere between impressed and suspicious.

“Even I’m not that good…”

“Maybe the wind blew us all together,” Skyla laughed, giving them the famous salute she was always giving on League posters. “You kids here on your League challenge?”

“We aren’t quite ready to challenge your gym yet, Leader Skyla,” Cheren said quickly. “We’re all quite interested in Legendary Pokemon, too, and since none of us know many Native Unovan stories, we thought we’d come learn some.”

“Good attitude,” Skyla said, hands on her hips. “The Clan Mothers are a little busy with restoration work today—” She nodded at the older woman behind the table, who smiled at them but quickly returned her focus to the beaded blanket that she was carefully re-stringing. “—but I’ve got some free time to share stories to curious challengers! Anyone in particular you’re interested in?”

“Do y’all really worship a wind god?” Bianca blurted out. “’Cause my folks told me Native Unovans worshipped all these bloodthirsty heathen gods, but the wind don’t seem very, I mean, I think my folks ain’t exactly a good source anyways…” She trailed off, turning bright red as all of the older women stared at her.

One of them muttered something in a language that Carlotta didn’t recognize, but made one of the other women laugh and the third shake her head. “They’re agreeing that your parents probably aren’t a good source,” Skyla said diplomatically, patting Bianca’s arm. “And anyway, you’re here to learn! So, first up… We don’t have gods the way I think you’re thinking of them. There are spirits—up here, we revere the First Wind. Revere, not worship the way I’m gonna guess your folks worship their Twin Dragons.” Bianca, still red, nodded. “Spirits don’t demand worship of humans. They don’t really care all that much about us, honestly, unless we give ‘em reason to notice us. But for all the wind does—for pushing storms past us, for spreading pollen on our fields, for generating our electricity, for drying our clothes, for lifting the wings of our planes and Pokemon, for cooling a hot summer’s day… isn’t it right to say thank you?”

“So the wind does help you?” Warren asked.

Skyla shook her head. “The wind’s just doing what it’s going to do, and we can benefit from it, that’s all. But if the wind didn’t do what it does, we couldn’t get all those benefits. So, gratitude. And speaking to the winds when they pass by, and hanging our wind-chimes so they can talk to us…”

“An’… when it brings in a storm, or blows someone off a cliff?” Carlotta asked pointedly.

Skyla gave her a patient smile. “The wind doesn’t anger. It doesn’t do these things out of hate. These things, too, the wind does because that’s what it is. You can’t hate it simply for existing as it is… but you can ask it not to do it again, and if you think you have committed some crime against the world that might have upset the spirits, you can apologize.”

“Unless it was you who went off the cliff,” the old lady behind the table cackled. “Spirits don’t tell humans apart well, so they don’t target revenge… but they can get lucky, same as us.”

“Shame none of ‘em blow Plasma off a cliff,” Carlotta muttered.

“Hah! Yeah, talk about upsetting the balance of nature? Wrenching humans and Pokemon apart would do it,” Skyla said, sunny expression briefly turning into a dark scowl. The smile was back again a moment later as she gestured them over to one of the beaded blankets. “We both exist in this world. Forcing ourselves apart isn’t balanced. We’re still learning how to live together, and we’ve majorly screwed up along the way because we’re not keyed into nature the way Pokemon are… but we need to figure out how to live together to be balanced. Have a look at this one.” She gestured to the blanket, which was mostly grey but with patterns of white beads linking together several squares. “You see the beads? They’re carved from the shells Dewott use as weapons. When they cast them aside to evolve, they can be collected and carved… this is describing our tribe, thousands of years ago, forming a peace agreement with another tribe, which reveres Mother Earth above all, and different tribes of Pokemon.” Her fingers hovered over the lines, not touching the ancient beads. “We couldn’t share words, but we sang together.”

“The beads are the story?” Cheren asked, peering as close as he dared get to the artifact.

“If you’ve learned how to read it, yes,” Skyla said, stepping back. “These are our historical records. It’s just a shame the songs sung at that meeting have been lost…”

Wow,” Bianca sighed, looking around at all the records, some only a few strings of beads wide, some as wide as a bedsheet. “They’re beautiful!”

“Thank you! I’m sure you’ve seen the windchimes outside,” Skyla added, waving a hand at the roof. “Mostly the windchimes of Clan Mothers who’ve died, so even after they’re gone, the winds know we’re their people.”

“Going back to people and Pokemon,” Cheren asked, “do you have stories about the Warriors?”

“Oh, yeah! We heard there’s a new one!” Carlotta said. “Y’all know much about them?”

Skyla raised an eyebrow. “Well, my little sister says she’s seen a fourth one that doesn’t look like the three we know,” she said. “The Leader, the Roots, and the Boulder… you call them Cobalion, Virizion and Terrakion, right?”

“The Swords of Justice,” Warren agreed. “Cobalion is The Leader?”

“The first one to be born,” Skyla said with a nod. “Given the power to unite and lead Pokemon against human destruction during the Unovan Civil War. Then, centuries later, Virizion, The Roots, joined—”

“Hang on just one second! All three of the Swords of Justice were in the Civil War, weren’t they? We got songs an’ stuff about it!” Carlotta protested.

Skyla put her hands on her hips, tilting her head and smirking a little. “All the artwork and stories depicting The Leader, The Roots and The Boulder acting together date from after the war,” she said. “There are a lot of sources from during the war that describe different elemental powers answering The Leader’s call, but just because The Leader called for a rockslide doesn’t mean The Boulder was there. Just that The Leader was leading rock or ground Pokemon that day. Your historians started ascribing war actions to The Boulder and The Roots after their existence became known, but they weren’t there. Just The Leader. Our records are very clear on that.” She led them to another one of the beaded records, this one in white and purple. “Looking at other events in the rest of the world, it seems like the biggest event to coincide with the first appearances of The Roots was the end of the Kalos Civil War, where tens of thousands of humans and Pokemon were wiped out on the same battlefield. And The Boulder is relatively modern, since we first saw them after the Orre Civil War. Do you see a pattern in my words?”

“They started appearing after times of great conflict between humans and Pokemon,” Cheren said quietly, “or at least, times of conflict between humans so great that there was a huge loss of life amongst Pokemon. Is that right?”

Skyla gave him another salute. “Right. And folks started talking about seeing a fourth one about thirty years ago.”

“The Little One,” Bianca said to herself. “Keldeo. What happened thirty years ago?”

“The Kanto Civil War,” Cheren said grimly. “It wasn’t as bad as Orre, but it was close. Orre was turned into a desert by what they did to wipe out their wild Pokemon… The Boulder, of course. In Kanto, they poisoned the water…

“Kel-what?” Skyla said curiously. “Do you have a name for it? I didn’t realize—”

The windchimes outside rattled loudly, a second before the doors banged open, blowing a girl in. She looked like a middle schooler, short but stocky like Skyla, and in fact looking much like her except for the long brown hair. “Sis!” she yelled. “Plasma! At Celestial Tower! Belle says they’re upsetting the dead!”

“Oh, that’s never good,” Skyla muttered, all her cheer disappearing as if the wind had swept it off her face, leaving a menacing scowl in place. “Stay here where it’s safe, Rosie, I’ll handle them. You folks better stay here, too,” she added, giving them one more salute before running off.

“We should help, we’ve handled Plasma before—” Cheren began.

“No you will not,” Professor Juniper said, standing between them and the door with her arms outflung. “Look, kids, I don’t know what happened in Chargestone Cave, but I am not going to just stand back and let you run off again—”

“Carly?” Bianca whispered, tugging at Carlotta’s arm. “That girl… there’s somethin’ weird about her…”

Carlotta looked over at Skyla’s sister, still hovering by the door, staring oddly at them. The door was hanging open, so the wind was still blowing in, and…

It was like a magic eye puzzle. She couldn’t see it if she looked too hard. But if she let her eyes unfocus, it was like she could see the wind, and it was around the younger girl.

And she was getting a weird feeling prickling down the back of her neck, the same as she did when she looked at Archie Irving in the Hoenn Embassy.

The girl leaned over to the older lady behind the table, whispering something in their language without taking her eyes off of Carlotta.

“No, you don’t understand,” Cheren insisted, looking away from the Junipers and making pointed eye contact with Warren, Carlotta and Bianca in turn. “We have to help.”

Carlotta was starting to recognize that look in his eye. Cobalion’s here. Which means our Pokemon will be here too, if it comes to a fight…

There was a weird rustle in her hair, and then the tiny Joltik was scurrying down her arm, chirping fit to bust.

“I am takin’ cues from the weirdest shit these days, but what the hells,” Carlotta muttered. “Sorry, Prof, we gotta go!” She ducked under the Professor’s outstretched arm and took off, knowing without looking that Cheren, Warren and Bianca were all charging after her, moving faster than the Professor could catch them in her heels.

Sorry, Professor. But I think I got somethin ’ here that’s real important.

I know why the Swords of Justice chose us now.