It's autumn, and her Gogoat is feeling it. Most of the leaves on his mane have fallen, leaving crunchy twigs that break like tiny bones under her hands. She rides into Lumiose City with her bag and her roller skates slung behind her, and no one notices that the Champion has come back, not until a man sitting by a canal eating a croissant looks up, swallows, and tells her that Diantha is on the front page of the Lumiose paper again.
Serena nods, not sure whether he's talking to her. The items at her back weigh at her, and when the man looks at her and drops a few crumbs from his hands to the ground she nods, gives a smile that she knows makes her look younger than her twenty years, and continues on.
Gogoat's hooves click on the flagstones all the way to the base of the Prism Tower, the one that was dark the first time she saw it. She imagines power lines stretching across fields, dipping underground to roll through Pokemon-dug tunnels lined with insulation. Lumiose City is glowing quietly to itself and muttering about its darlings.
Sycamore waits at the base of the tower. Although he wasn't the one who called her this time, he is still punctual. He's lived a long life of not letting students find an empty meeting place, or of not having anything else to do. He looks at her with a puckish expression and fingers his collar almost nervously as she pulls back on Gogoat's horns.
She dismounts and the clasps of her bag tick against her belt. Heavier clothing now, so different from her scraped-knees skirt and sleeveless shirt - she takes wear and tear now, she'd take leather if it weren't taboo.
"Is the war still on?" Sycamore asks. "At least this isn't a quest I've sent you on again, eh?"
"The fighting has slowed down."
"Enough for you to come home for the cold season?"
She nods. They look each other up and down. When he walks a few paces away to look the tower she follows him, pointing at the ground so that the leaf-shedding Gogoat will stay.
He looks down into the collar of his coat, almost lips at it.
She asks, "What are you sad about?"
"Oh, nothing." He looks up. "I've cultivated it. Some women like men who are sad."
"That's true. Some women do that too."
"What are you sad about? The war?"
"Ylvetal." The word rolls out of his mouth and now he's got his manic energy back, pretense forgotten. He shakes his sleeves out and looks at her as if she's going to release the legendary bird right here. And maybe she is - it would be nice to have that weight off her back. She can almost feel it sinking through the bag, the fibers fraying. That was why she came back, didn't she - here to the one person who knew about the legendaries, or said he did.
"She's going to die," Serena says.
Sycamore opens his mouth, widens his eyes.
"I can tell. She's coming to the end of something."
"Ylvetal lives in one thousand year cycles," the professor says. "We don't know what the pattern is, when the cycle starts and ends."
"And when she dies..."
"How do you know that it's soon?"
"I can tell. She's unhappy. Fading. She won't fight."
(A creature that large, the great red neck curving, the claws at the end of the wings beating once, into the ground, before she stands and protests with a cry that sends the opponent shivering but not, never, backing away. Ylvetal will take hits until she faints, now.)
"This is..." he starts.
"Ylvetal didn't have a trainer before this. She didn't have people."
"Do you know what happens when Ylvetal is reborn? It steals the life energy of all living things around it."
"I thought it would only do that if Team Flare used their machine."
"That machine was only designed to accelerate the process," he said calmly. "It would happen anyway." He shakes his head. "This Ylvetal must be very far from home."
"You said that about me, when we first met," she said, struck by the memory suddenly. "You picked me because I had just moved in."
"Let's get Ylvetal to the lab. Unless you think it will happen soon?" For a moment he looks scared. She wonders why he hasn't asked to examine Ylvetal, why he doesn't give her more words of expertise.
If there is no cure, no pause, she'll have to go away. Out to some desert or ocean without life, and let Ylvetal loose, and run.
"I don't know." She glares at him, conveying: I thought you would.
"Lab," he says. "Lab lab lab." And slings an arm around her shoulder. Gogoat clomps a few steps as she shrugs out from underneath him and starts walking.
"What if..." She watches the edge of his coat flick against the back of his long legs. He outpaces her fast.
Lumiose City is the most populated place in Kalos.
"We need to help this creature," Sycamore says.
Take the monster in? Shelter the explosive force inside where it will be safe?
It's just what he does.
Two steps inside the lab she looks around and hears her footsteps echo away. Unlike many places from her childhood it feels larger, more populated, gilded, and pompous than she remembers it. Less like an office and more like a museum. Techs, assistants, whatever they are flock to take her pokeballs, and she hesitates to tip Ylvetal into someone else's hands.
Sycamore joins her at the glass partition between the atrium and the lab proper. They can see Ylvetal in there, floating in a glass case almost to small for her, red-and-black wings folded against her body into new overlapping patterns never seen when her wings are outstretched.
A scientist bustles out and tells them that Ylvetal will be all right. The energy within her is not expanding yet. She's getting broody, though, ready to sit at the center of a macabre nest, and Serena is not sure where or how to send her away.
"Protect," Sycamore says. Serena looks from still-curled Ylvetal to the professor and back. "You could use Protect."
"Would that work?"
"I'm not sure. We would have to test it."
"What happens if you shoot Infinity Beam at Protect?"
Under the organized guesswork ministrations of the scientists, Ylvetal becomes, temporarily, a firing squad as they test the strength of her attacks.
Mostly, Serena watches. There are calculations and alignments and natures to take into account which she does not understand. Ylvetal moves from the labs to the courtyard, where other creatures scatter from her wake. A Fennekin dashes into the lab through a crack in the door, nearly hopping. The professor scoops it up, holding the tiny keel of its chest in one hand.
"Do you want to go out there and help them?"
"It's not every day such an illustrious student comes back."
"I bet you say that to all the trainers."
"I'd rather not talk about it."
"Then tell me about something else. You must have stories."
"You do too," she says quietly, not making this a challenge. "Your sadness, then. What is it?"
"I told you before." He looks down at her. "Come with me. Have a drink."
The Fennekin only scrambles at his arms when they start walking up the stairs. He lets it free on the landing. It darts down the stairs and around the corner, and Serena sees a second yellow face peek around a shadowed corner.
In the office upstairs Sycamore pours a glass of amaranthine wine, dips his lips to the edge, and only then thinks of her. He snatches another glass, which tips back and forth between his long fingers. Instead of waiting she reaches out for his wineglass. The soft bottom blade of her hand rests on the top of his knuckles for a moment before he loosens and lets go. When she drinks she leaves a moon curve of lipstick on the glass.
There's nowhere to stay there - he doesn't stay there. He has an apartment not far away, so she gets a room at the hotel and returns to the lab the next morning after coffee. Sycamore emerges yawning, running a hand through his hair. When he sees her, his recovery looks practiced. A scientist comes inside with Ylvetal's pokeball and hands it down to Serena. "You should take it out somewhere in about a week, mademoiselle. Then use Protect and hide behind it."
There's more, about blast radiuses and precautions. She takes it in.
"Can we..." The scientist hesitates.
Sycamore nods. When Serena looks at him, he doesn't stop.
"Can we look at Ylvetal a bit more? It's not that we get a legendary Pokemon in here every day."
"Oui. How long do you need?"
"A few hours?"
Again, the pokeball rolls out of her hands and she is left with four full and one empty.
"I have a few hours," Serena tells the professor. "You look like you could use some coffee."
They walk. They buy two coffees and they walk in a city that soaks up the steam. He didn't give her words of expertise because he doesn't know any, she thinks. He failed to learn anything, from the Evolution Guru or from anyone else in his long history of charming himself through life. But Serena, who narrowed her wide eyes and made sure the roundness of her cheeks thinned out as she grew, even if she had to bat them with dirt instead of rouge, succeeded.
"You look like you had a long night."
He twirls one finger in the air, trying to be glib, but there are dark bruises beneath the thin skin under his eyes.
"Fennekin acting up?"
He shrugs. "I was worried about you."
She had hoped.
"Not all of my Champions have gone off to war with some other land."
"You got Ylvetal when you were ten and I expected you to be able to take care of that.."
"I could. I took care of Team Flare," she said.
"And that was partly my fault too. I should have foreseen."
"You said that before. Forseen? In Arceus's name, you're not a Pokemon." She scoffs. "It was my job. I was there. Stop taking my responsibility from me."
He blinks, and, despite him and despite herself, even that's cute.
"The guilt isn't working," She reaches up and holds the sides of his face, his hair feathery under her palms. She kisses his left cheek, and his breath pushes against her throat. "Any more than the sadness." She holds the sides of his jaw long enough that he reaches up and moves her hand away from his skin, pressuring her fingers, but she presses another kiss against the right side of his face anyway. They shift to an armspan apart, so that they could be any couple on the rue, except for how hard her fingers are pressing back.
"There is no war, Augustine. People are better than that."
His eyebrows rise; he smiles sidelong. "Does that mean you don't have to go?" He drops her hand with no great fuss, giving her an out.
"I still need to attend Ylvetal's rebirth, or whatever it is."
"That you do...You invented a war in order to stay away from me. Were many lives lost?"
"You could have read the papers."
"I had to check a lot of pokedexes."
He's a bit of an idiot, she thinks. But then, she knew that.
She says, "When I come back, maybe I'll tell you what I've been fighting."
He practically giggles. But when she demands Ylvetal back half experimented-on he makes an effort to look dignified and almost succeeds, hands rustling in the pockets of his coat and all.
Serena rides away on a quest to find a land already dead. Gogoat has shaken off the last crunchy red leaf of his mane, leaving the thick, curling brown for along his back exposed beneath the twigs.