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One Last Game

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A loud crack! punctuated the gentle afternoon breeze that washed over the grasslands. Seconds later, a Riolu went spinning and bouncing across the ground, stopping only when his crumpled body reached the bottom of a steady incline. “Ugh.” He came to a full stop, landing on his back.

The other Riolu, still standing, leaned forward with a paw over her mouth. “Whoops!” She sprinted over to her brother. “Kamon! You—I didn’t hit you too hard, did I?” She knew that he was a bit of a lightweight, but she didn’t expect a mere Force Palm to send him flying.

“Aria… You’ve got two heads.” His eyes uncrossed after a few blinks.

“Your eyes’ll get stuck like that if you stare for too long.” Aria reached forward, offering a paw. Kamon gladly took it, standing up with an uneasy wobble. He fell forward in seconds, caught in Aria’s arms. “You’re hopeless.”

“I can’t feel my face.”

“Yeah, sorry about that.”

She helped to dust Kamon off, picking a few bits of grass that got caught in his fur. Her brother brushed his paw on her head a bit roughly. “What, do I have some stuff in mine, too?”

“No, I’m just messing up your grooming.”

“Pft.” Aria shoved Kamon back; he staggered, narrowly restoring his balance. “C’mon, let’s—”

“Kamon! Aria!”

A great, red creature flew high above them. Despite having feathers, he had no wings—but that didn’t stop his great ascend into the sky, performing several somersaults in the air. The Blaziken landed right in front of the two Riolu siblings, a wide grin at the edges of his beak. He reached down, massive talons picking up both of them with ease. “And how are my two Blast Seeds doing?”

Kamon and Aria struggled against him, grunting and groaning—Aria louder than Kamon—until he finally let them down. “We’re just fine, Gramps,” Aria said, though despite her annoyed tone, she was grinning. “What’re you doing here, anyway?”

Gramps chuckled, holding up a talon casually. “Well, I wanted to send you off. Can’t stay long, but I just wanted to send a little good-luck gift back home, that’s all. Nothing too special, but I think you deserve it, Aria. But I need to head right back home. Missus will have my tailfeathers if I spend all afternoon here.”

Aria beamed—so even Gramps came all this way just to send her off. Granny wasn’t quite as strong as she used to be; the trip must have been too much of a strain, but Aria knew that the same well-wishes were coming from her, too. She turned to Kamon, expecting a similar grin, but his head was down. Her smile faltered, but when their eyes met, he flashed an unconvincing grin. Somehow, that made it worse.

Gramps had his back to them, taking in a deep breath. “Looks like the evening winds are already coming. You should go before it gets too chilly. We don’t want anybody catching a cold, now, do we? Still. I have to get going—but promise me, you’ll at least use that gift.”

“I promise, Gramps.” Aria glanced at Kamon again, but his eyes were back on the ground.

<><><> 

It was a scarf.

It wasn’t a particularly rare one—a Pecha Scarf, something to ward off common poisons and toxins. She supposed that would be useful when traversing through forests on the way to Malachite, but the trek wasn’t really going to be that difficult, especially for her. Aria breathed out through her nostrils, glancing behind her.

The hardest part was leaving in the first place.

The Riolu sat atop her nest of leaves stuffed in a large cloth, evening light streaming through the window on her right. Little trinkets sat atop shelves—things that she wouldn’t really need to bring with her. Perhaps, one day, she’d return, but she had told her parents to make use of her room however they wanted. She didn’t plan to come back to move in again; she was going to the Guild. What team would she join? Would she form an alliance with someone along the way? Or would she just get paired off with someone once she got there? Questions, questions, but none of them would be answered if she never left in the first place.

She thought Kamon would be happy. He’d been happy yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that. So why did he feel so down, now? Aria grunted, rubbing at her still-underdeveloped aura feelers. Perhaps if she had already evolved, she would have a better idea of what Kamon was feeling, somehow. Find some way to make it easier on him.

Aria brought her paws back, feeling her bed, and noticed an odd, angular lump beneath some of the leaves. She fished around inside and pulled out a little tablet, about as big as her paw, with an Unown-K rune on it. She remembered that little rune; they had gone on an adventure together in the forest—just a simple thing—and found an Unown collapsed and confused. Must have gotten separated from the hive. They had brought the little thing all the way back to some ruins, and then the other Unown had gifted him one after asking for his name.

They’d gone on a lot of adventures like that. All those little trinkets… Aria wrapped her paws around the little rune. She set it aside for Kamon to find later. All those memories… she couldn’t bring them all with her.

What kind of big sister was she, anyway? Maybe she should have played with him for a little longer instead of focusing on packing all those nights. More adventures, more moments that they could have shared. She’d have more trinkets to bring, and more to leave behind for him. Would she have ever had enough?

Tap tap tap

“H-huh?” Aria spun back, greeted by a Gallade. “Oh, Dad.”

Dad smiled, giving a little nod. While still firm, his voice was more delicate than usual. “Dinner’s almost ready. Almost through with packing?”  

“Just about. I need to find space for Gramps’ gift, though.” She tugged at the scarf she’d tied around her neck.

“I think right there’s just fine, you know.” He slipped out of the room. “Made your favorite.”

<><><> 

Four sat in a circle over a tree stump in the middle of their little home of hardened clay. To Aria’s left was Kamon; to her right, Dad. And across the table was her mother, finally finished serving out portions of Tamato stew to everyone. She always had the largest appetite, followed by Aria. Ironically, Dad didn’t eat quite as much, and Kamon, perhaps taking after his father, had less of an appetite.

Though Kamon’s appetite seemed even worse tonight. That, in turn, only made Aria stare at her portion for a bit longer. Aria lifted her bowl, tilting a few chunks of berry, broth, and potatoes down with her first gulp. The spice made her briefly forget about everyone else—it was her favorite, after all—and she took a second, and then third gulp, stopping only so she had time to actually savor the taste.

With the bowl half-empty, Aria set it down, feeling bits of the spicy stew stick to the fur on her chin. Kamon’s bowl was barely touched, conservative sips barely bringing the stew level down.

“It’s not too spicy, is it?” Aria forced the question.

“No, it’s fine,” Kamon said, lifting the bowl for his first true, halfhearted gulp.

She knew that Kamon wasn’t the biggest fan of spicy, but he could deal with it. Mom always cut his portion with a bit of extra Oran to dilute the taste. The real struggle was watching Dad eat; the spice was never something he could handle. Two bowls of water accompanied his portion, carefully balanced with his blades with practiced ease.

And of course, there was her mother. The Lucario had a similar appetite for spicy foods, and despite having a larger portion, it, too, was halfway finished.

“Er, honey,” Dad said, tapping a blade to his chin.

“Mm?” Mom placed a digit below her chin, pulling away to see a bit of the red broth stuck to it. “Oh, I’ll just deal with it later,” she said, cleaning her paw pad with a lick.

Aria chuckled, taking another gulp, though one eye trailed over to Kamon again. His eyes, downcast; his stew, nearly full. At this rate it would get too cold.

Right before she could say something, Kamon reached out and took another forced gulp, catching a potato chunk between his jaws. He always loved doing that, and briefly Aria thought he was starting to get some of that cheer back. But his eyes were empty. Without any sense of playfulness, he snapped the chunk in with the rest, downing it.

Mom and Dad shifted uneasily, too; dinner was too quiet. Usually, there was chatter about something that Dad had seen while he was out foraging, or something Mom saw by the river. At the very least, Kamon would have talked about something he’d learned that day. Even Aria had forgotten to mention how well-practiced her Blaze Kick had become.

“Thanks,” Kamon said, standing.

“Oh, done already?” Mom looked at Kamon’s bowl, which had only been emptied halfway. “Are you sure?”

“Guess I’m still full from lunch.”

“Hrm, well, okay.”

Kamon eyed the darkening field beyond their home. “Looks like a cool night,” he said. “I’m gonna go out.”

“Don’t go too far, Kamon,” Dad said.

“I won’t.” The Riolu slipped outside, not even looking back. Sluggish movements, no real dedication on where he wanted to go. Aria knew that mood all too well.

She glanced at her bowl, hastily finishing the last of it off and setting the empty bowl on the table with a hollow tok. “I’m gonna go out, too.”

“You don’t want seconds?” Mom asked. “You always—”

“Maybe when I get back.”

She was already out the door.

<><><> 

She figured he’d be there. It was one of his favorite spots, after all. While their home was near the outskirts of the eastern forests, there was a hill nearby that they had always done their fighting on, though for safety purposes, they often fought at the bottom. But tonight, Kamon was at the top of the gentle slopes, lit only by the moon and the stars. The way the light reflected off of him, he almost looked like a Lucario, though his small stature always ruined the illusion once she got too close.

She made her steps a bit heavy, brushing her paws against the grass to make her approach obvious. He didn’t react, but the way his ear twitched, he heard her.

She sat down and overlooked the distant treetops with him. Dots of Luminous Orbs from their home, as well as many other homes deeper in the forest, littered their vision, though they weren’t nearly bright enough to wash out the seemingly infinite lights that decorated the cloudless sky. Another chilly, spring breeze rustled the grass in waves.

Kamon shivered, clutching at his sides and curling inward. Aria smiled sadly, focusing on her right leg; suddenly, it burst into a weak, warm glow.

Her little brother flinched, staring at her feet in awe. “How’d…?”

“Told you I’m getting better at controlling Blaze Kick.”

The lightweight Riolu stared for a little while longer, but then slumped over, sheltered by her warmth. He leaned his head against her shoulder, shuddering when another breeze tormented him. She brought a paw around, pulling him a bit closer.

It slowly dawned on her that this would be the last time she got to do that.

In that brief silence, interrupted only by the wind, Kamon finally spoke again. “You’re leaving in the morning?”

And more silence followed afterward. She knew that’s what he was thinking—and she knew her parents knew, too. It was an open secret. What else would it have been?

“Oh, Kamon,” Aria finally said, leaning her cheek against the top of his head. Despite how turbulent he was probably feeling, he was strong. He didn’t shake or shiver for anything but the cold. No whimpers or whines or cries, only silent acceptance. He didn’t want her to leave, but he just had to say it. He knew that it couldn’t happen; Aria knew that he had accepted that long ago. Seasons ago, when she had finally decided to join the Guild. And, one day, Kamon would, too—but he was still too young.

The wind died down, so Aria put out her glow. “I’m sorry that I spent all that time packing. I guess I didn’t expect it to take up so much of the last few days, or I would’ve trained with you more. But Mom and Dad were good enough, right?”

“They always hold back.” Kamon bumped his head against Aria. “You actually know how to train me.”

“Oh, don’t say that.” Aria tapped the solid part of her wrist against his knee. “Those two are too strong to go all-out and you know it.”

Kamon snorted, though he smiled. It felt like the first smile he’d given all night. “I guess.”

Far ahead, two Pidgey flew out of the treetops, followed by a Pidgeot. They landed a few treetops down. Some large creature yawned loudly from deeper in the forest. Then, the sudden clatter of empty bowls echoed from Aria and Kamon’s home.

“Whoops!” Dad’s voice sounded. “Oh, perfect. Not again.”

“You should really leave the cleaning to me, Hilm” Mom said.

“Carita, I have to help a little…”

Kamon laughed weakly, shaking his head. He raised his arms, stiffening his paws, and made helpless chopping motions, mimicking Dad’s arms. Aria kept a paw on her mouth to stifle a laugh.

She was going to miss them. But she could always write letters, and there was nothing stopping her from making the occasional visit. Sure, it was a long trip, but perhaps every spring? She figured Kamon knew this, too.

The very last glows of sunlight left the horizon. Aria rubbed the top of Kamon’s head. “Think we should start heading back?”

Kamon’s smile faltered again, the smallest hint of desperation in his eyes. He opened his mouth, closed it, and then opened it again, but no words came. He lifted his paws, as if that would help pump the words out, but the well was empty.

Aria stood up and Kamon followed, though his feet remained planted on the hilltop.

“Something the matter?” Aria asked, a cold breeze making their aura feelers sway in the wind.

Kamon shuddered again, but he shook his head. Aria wasn’t sure at first if that was because of the cold of because of what she said at first. Silent seconds later, he gave her a more determined look. His eyes shined in the night, reflecting the moon’s glow. Aria was expecting to see a bit of tears, or perhaps redness in his eyes, but there was nothing of the sort. In fact, despite that meek frame and his aversion to spice, she saw a bit of Gramps’ fire in his stare.

“One more—one… one last time,” he said, shifting his stance. “Please—one more game.”

A flash of pleading desperation crossed his vision, but it faded to more fire an instant later. Aria’s heart pumped in anticipation for the fight, but also the redoubled realization that, indeed, this would be their last game. It wasn’t ever going to be the same after she left; she’d perhaps be a year older, and Kamon a year stronger.

“Alright,” she said. “One last game.”

She mirrored his stance and crouched a bit lower to match his height. Then, without warning, she rushed forward, her surroundings looking like a blur. Kamon’s once-planted feet threw him into the air, flipping over Aria to dodge her Quick Attack easily. She expected as much; it was a classic opener, and he knew exactly how to dodge it by now. What he always struggled with was what came after.

Aria spun her leg, wreathed in flames, and kicked at Kamon in the air, but he brought his arms forward and blocked her with the solids of his wrists. He pushed against her leg and gained some distance, landing a bit lower on the hill with a stumble.

A stumble for Kamon was an opening for Aria. She smirked sadly, knowing that this would be the end of their little game, and she dashed toward him for her final win. Her paws gathered a white energy, collecting in a circle between them before she passed it to her right paw. She brought it forward, ready to expel her Force Palm right to Kamon’s chest, as usual.

Kamon feinted to the left; Aria easily redirected, but then he swung right. She didn’t redirect in time; the blast made a snap! through the air, harmlessly swaying a clump of tall grass. She turned her head only to see Kamon’s paw touch her chest.

She already knew it was too late.

The shockwave sent her a few inches backward, but that was all. Her insides rumbled, the wind knocked out of her, but Kamon’s guard was completely open. His eyes were wide with surprise—both that he’d managed to land a hit, and that Aria was still standing.

It was a good try, but Kamon still couldn’t beat her.

Aria slammed her left paw on Kamon’s core next, blasting him with a weak Force Palm of the same variety. He cried out and went tumbling down the hill, rolling until he was on his back near the bottom. Aria held her knees, panting until the wind got back to her. She strode down the hill in time to see Kamon sitting up, rubbing his forehead.

“You actually got me that time,” Aria said, holding out a paw to pick him up.

Kamon stifled a laugh, staring at the paw, but then leaned back. To Aria’s surprise, he pushed himself up, dusted off his thighs, and gave her a wide grin. He seemed just a bit taller, but then he said, “I’m cold.”

<><><> 

It must have rained the night before, or it was particularly humid, because dewdrops made the hillside sparkle that morning. Aria, with a backpack that weighed almost as much as she did, looked back at her family. Mom stood beside Dad, and Kamon stood in front of them both, between the two of them.

“And you’re sure you didn’t overpack?” Dad crossed his blades, tilting his head inquisitively.

“Yeah, I’ll be fine,” Aria said, adjusting it. “I’ve carried you before, so this is nothing.”

Dad’s left eye twitched. “That was just a sprain, nothing to—"

“Oh, I remember that!” Kamon laughed, covering his mouth. “You need better night vision!”

“I—if I remember right, I was fighting off a horde of Combee that you angered!”

“Didn’t you give them the idea?” Mom remarked, bumping his shoulder.

“As a joke!”

Mom just giggled, earning a smile from Dad. She then turned, giving a more serious, yet encouraging nod to Aria. “Good luck. And if you ever get lost, just find the nearest river and follow it to a town. They’ll point you in the right direction.”

“I will.” Aria then looked to her father. “I’ll make sure I write to you guys, so don’t think I’m just cutting you guys off completely, alright?”

“We know,” Dad said, but that didn’t keep his blades from knocking against one another. “…How often do you suppose you’ll be writing?”

Aria sighed. “If I have something interesting to say. Or maybe nothing interesting at all, y’know? I’ll find time.”

Then, she looked at Kamon. Oh, Kamon. At least he was smiling this time, but she could still sense that longing sadness. He was trying to keep a strong face for her, but she knew that it wasn’t going to be easy. She was a big part of his world, after all—but… somehow, she knew that he’d be okay. “Keep training, you got it?”

“Like I’ll ever stop. I’m joining the Guild just like you one day, alright? Maybe even the same one!”

Aria sighed, shaking her head. “That’s the spirit.”

She lingered for longer than she would’ve liked, wondering if leaving now would make things less painful for everyone. If she lingered too long, she feared she would stop all her plans, how longing Kamon seemed just then. Oh, she couldn’t just leave him like that. She held out her arms. “Alright, Kamon. C’mer—agh!”

Kamon barreled into her, burying his face in her chest. She was still too strong for him to topple over, even then. Aria wrapped her arms around his back, sighing. “Yeah, yeah.” She rubbed his back, but something puzzled her. Her chest didn’t feel wet.

Kamon beamed up at her. “You better do your best for me, or I’m gonna show you up.”

Aria blinked, stunned, but Kamon’s smile didn’t waver. And that, above all, gave her enough peace to pat him on the head and step away. This time, he let her go.

Something knocked dully in her bag. Giving Kamon a suspicious look, she pulled it to the front and noticed one of the pockets loosely open. She immediately checked Kamon’s paws, expecting to see something he’d stolen to get a chase from her, but they were empty. Instead, she found the Unown-K rune in her bag. Kamon’s smile grew and he gave her a small nod. In reply, Aria’s shoulders slackened, and she gave him a bittersweet nod.

 “Well,” she said, paused, and then started her long walk down the forest’s outskirt roads. “See you.”

Little goodbyes came from behind her, but that was all she could make out. Kamon’s voice didn’t crack; instead, it was Dad’s that did, for once. Mom was silent, but she felt her gaze even as she got further away. Her chest swelled with that inevitable, brief conflict, but she was already so many steps away, and there were still so many more steps to take.

But just one last glance wouldn’t hurt. Struggling with her bag, she turned her head.

There they were, waving, Dad’s blade shining against the sun, Mom’s arm above them all, and most of all, Kamon, running a few steps to make his tiny body easier to see. He waved and jumped, using both arms to send her off when he realized she was looking, until he finally settled down to a simple, cordial sendoff. Aria laughed, though nobody but her would hear it. She returned the wave as well as she could, turned ahead, and marched.

The Riolu disappeared into the horizon’s rising sun.