Chapter XXIX: Interim
Our people are accustomed to pain. We lost our homes, our land, our future. Legions of our dead cry out for vengeance against the dark Presence that looms over this world.
But even as their steel ravens torched our cradle, we did not lose hope: for we knew by divine prophecy that one day, Vengeance would arrive to lead His people.
He is here, now.
Behind Him, we will march to Urbe's gate.
— Official communiqué sent to every domain of the Tribes of Daedalus.
Those screams wouldn't get out of his head.
"You demons! YOU'RE ALL BLOODY DEMONS—let go of me!"
And then that look Gaius had sent his way as he thrashed in his and Alice's hold. Those bloodshot, crazed, damp eyes…
"He killed them! He killed them, and you're with him, you fucking traitor!"
Flame stirred back to attention hearing the clang of his spoon drop back into the nearly-finished bowl. "Huh?"
"You spaced out for a time. Are you not hungry?"
"No—er, yes, I am."
Gulping down the last of the stew, Flame set down his bowl on the table with a hearty sigh. His body was tingling all over; his tail flame crackling louder and brighter than it perhaps ever had before.
Food! Warm, meaty, actual food!
When he looked up to Daedalus, who was sitting across from him, he saw the flames reflected even amidst his single eye's deep red glow.
"Thank you, Daedalus," Flame whispered simply.
"For the food. F-for the house, for… for caring." A warm, fuzzy smile grazed his cheeks. "No one's ever cared this much about me."
He supposed there was Alice, but it was different with her; she cared as a friend, whereas Daedalus…
In return, Daedalus gave him a somewhat amused look. "Believe me, this is the least I can do for you."
"But—but I…" Flame blurted out, but once again didn't know what to say.
Feeling the heat rising in his cheeks, and shifting uncomfortably in his chair, Flame decided to study the room he was in to distract himself.
Even though he'd barely seen inside Aesernia's houses—only once, if he recalled correctly, during the insula raid—this house nevertheless struck him as exotic.
Just as on the outside, the walls consisted of large, roughly-interlocked hunks of stone stacked atop one another. No one stone seemed the exact same shape, size or shade of grey as another, and there were few windows. Many of the floor planks looked uneven and worn, and even the wooden beams and pillars supporting the roof weren't entirely straight.
I'm… sure it's stable enough! Flame laughed breathlessly.
Besides, it had just occurred to him—he was living in a house. A house! An actual house, with solid walls and a comfortable bed!
So great was the excitement in his body, Flame almost felt like crying. Feeling his hands shake, he raised one to his chest, clutched.
I stayed up so many nights, wondering what it was like to sleep in a real bed… It wasn't long ago he was still sleeping in their old team tent, on damp hay, or on cold, hard ground in some mountain burrow. So much of their fantasising about a new life had been dedicated to having an actual house. And now, here they were.
All three of them.
Flame's smile shrivelled up as quickly as it had come.
With a sigh, he looked down to the table he was sitting at, at the last tiny drops of stew resting at the bottom of his bowl. Twiddling his claws under the table, he glanced up at Daedalus: he was now standing—or floating, he supposed—just beside his chair, staring out of the window.
Flame bit his lip. "Have, uh, Gaius and Alice gotten a portion as well?"
Daedalus turned his head to him. "Hm? But of course. You saw me bring it to their room, did you not?"
Flame looked down. "O-oh. Right. Good."
"… You are concerned about them."
"How could I not be?" Flame set his elbows on the table, holding his head with a sigh. "You saw what kind of state Gaius was in. His outburst, then during the flight here…"
His face etched into a grimace. The warm fuzziness, the excitement he had been feeling—gone completely. The memory of those pained screams came back to him, and he shivered.
"Gods," Flame muttered, "no wonder he despised the Teutonii so much. They—we ruined his life."
Daedalus hung his head. "I have asked Comrade Hydreigon to keep away from this house, for the time being. I figured it would… ease your friend's distress."
Flame nodded absentmindedly. "Will that Hydreigon be punished?"
"Perhaps. I… cannot promise, my child."
"What?! How could you not? He murdered them!"
Slowly, Daedalus floated towards the window and gazed out of it. "We cannot be sure of that. That is why you must first talk to your friend."
Flame felt something tighten in his chest. He sat back into his chair and raised his head to Daedalus. "What do you mean?"
"Comrade Hydreigon is among our longest-serving warriors and officers; he has fought in dozens of campaigns and hundreds of battles over the years. If he did kill your friend's parents, it is nearly impossible for him to remember." Daedalus floated there, hands clasped behind its back, looking solemn as always. "Your friend… Gaius, is the only one who can tell us what happened. Were his parents civilians? Or were they in the Imperial Army, fighting our warriors? How many years ago did the killings happen? Were they an accident?"
Flame could tell there were other considerations on the Dusknoir's mind—ones that superseded any answers to those questions.
However, he could also tell by his tone that Daedalus did not intend to discuss that topic any further.
"I'll… I'll think of how to approach him." Flame swallowed.
Daedalus glanced his way. "You sound unsure. Even in this state, is he not your friend?"
Flame bit his lip, turning away from the Dusknoir. "My friends… they didn't exactly agree to coming here." He shut his eyes. "I tricked them into it. And with how Gaius reacted to Hydreigon, he—he hates me now. He has to."
"I see. So that is why they asked for separate rooms." Daedalus said. "If nothing else, believe me when I say you did the right thing. I shudder to think what they, a dragon and a grass-type, could have done in the Tartarus winter storms. Whether or not they appreciate it, you saved their lives."
"I know I did the right thing." Flame steeled his expression. "I just… I wish circumstances were different."
Cold yet comforting hands enveloped both his shoulders; Flame looked up with wide eyes to find Daedalus towering over him, his lower body phasing through the table as he stared down lovingly with his glowing red eye.
"At ease. Even if your friend does hate you," Daedalus whispered, "it is worth trying. Talking to you is the only way he will ever achieve justice—help him understand that."
Though still uneasy, Flame smiled up at Daedalus. The contact drained a little bit of his tension.
"I'll try," he finally said.
Daedalus nodded in approval. "I expect no less from you. With time, I am certain that your friends will see reason."
"And if they do not," Daedalus pulled back, "know that I still care about you. Our people care about you."
"What?!" Flame meeped. "But—but they don't even know me!"
Daedalus merely smiled back. "You would be surprised by how much they know."
"Apparently more than I do," Flame muttered.
Images of the Teutonii bowing to him flashed through his head. Flame still wasn't sure how to feel about that. Flattered, for sure—embarrassed, even. But…
Why? Why treat me like this when I've done nothing for them? Blinking, he snuck a look up towards Daedalus, who was busy stacking together the various empty bowls and spoons on the table. Is it just because they think I'm his son?
Again, no answer came. Somewhat frustrated, Flame stood up from his chair.
He was about to walk through the wooden door before he noticed a most curious item hanging from the stone wall: a tattered Imperial banner, bright red in colour with its golden eagle in full view.
He looked below it. There, on a set of shelves and darkwood cabinets, laid more items which gave Flame déjà-vu: the fragment of an engraved marble plaque; a purple silken cloth, its edges laden in gems; even a vaguely draconic-looking skull, much to his queasiness.
At the centre of the cabinet-top, elevated on a slab, sat the large marble head of a Dragonite statue—a statue Flame recognised as Emperor Adrian's.
It didn't make any sense. Daedalus didn't strike him as the type to collect war trophies from his enemies, much less think he would somehow find them homely. Which could only mean…
"Who lived here?" Flame turned to Daedalus, concerned.
Daedalus took a moment to reply. "A half dozen of our comrades." He said, eyeing him for a reaction. "Most of them officers. Once they heard you were coming, this being the largest house in the village, they volunteered to vacate it for you."
"They what?!" Flame paled. He took a step back, shaking his head. "No. I can't use so many pokémon's home—it's not right. Tell them I can share!"
His blood ran cold. He suddenly felt himself shrink under his glare.
"You and your friends," Daedalus crossed his arms, "have just marched hundreds of kilometres in those cold valleys. What's more, you all nearly drowned back at the ambush. And that's on top of the previous malnutrition you all were facing!" Daedalus continued, audibly holding back anger. "What you need, above all, is an appropriate place to rest."
"I-I'm used to tight spaces," insisted Flame, quieter this time. "I'll be okay."
"And you believe your friends would agree? Would they appreciate having 'savages' milling in their house?"
"Oh. R-right. Didn't think about that part…" Flame's shoulders deflated. "Still, maybe we could, um—"
"I worry for you, my child." Daedalus said. "I am seeing a worrying trend: it is as though you believe your needs, if not your life to be worth less than other people's."
Flame scowled, his eyes wandering downwards. He was about ready to fight back, and yet… Why did it hit so hard when coming from him? "I just don't want to boot these pokémon out of their home…"
"Not just this occasion. You said something similar in Neuhoffnung. I could hear it in your voice when we spoke over the radio. Why, we need to have a talk about what you did back at the ambush!"
Flame braced himself with a grimace. He barely had the strength to keep eye contact with a glaring Daedalus. Oooh, here we go…
"Are you utterly mad? How could you possibly think of something as suicidal as jumping off that bridge?"
"As opposed to what?" Flame balled his fists. "Rush their lines and hope they'll let me past? That was your plan, if you remember."
"It had better chances than your reckless decision!" Daedalus floated closer, to which Flame instinctively shrunk. "Tell me, did you understand what you were doing? What could have happened if you'd hit a shallow spot in the water? What if you'd lost consciousness?"
Flame bit his lip. He didn't have the heart to tell him that last one had actually happened. He still shuddered at the memory of the cold; if it weren't for Alice grabbing him…
But even those memories weren't enough to douse his inner flame. While Daedalus was undeniably right, he regretted nothing.
Sucking in a breath, Flame squinted up at him. "I didn't want you all to die."
"They were ready to die for you!" Daedalus floated closer, squinting. "Can't you see? You're important to our people, Flame. You're important to me." He said that last part with a whisper that made Flame's heart pang. "How do you think I felt, watching you plummet from so high? And our comrades, too! "
There he went again, Flame thought, making him feel guilty just when he was trying to stay strong.
"I'm sorry," he whispered, eyes down to the ground. "I never wanted to hurt you."
"I don't seek your apology, child. I only want you to understand. If you keep sacrificing yourself for others, at some point…"
Flame stood there, square in the middle of the room, mulling those words over. He wasn't selfish. At least, he liked to think that he wasn't: life in Civil Protection first and as an outlaw later didn't allow for much selfishness.
Never would he dream of drinking his team's money away as Gaius once had. Or eat more than the other two had. And as for the bridge—Daedalus himself had been about to die back there! Daedalus, Brynn, a dozen of their comrades; he had saved them all. His chest swelled with warm, rejuvenating pride, and he knew then that he still regretted nothing.
So why, then, did Daedalus' words sting so much?
Flame clutched his chest as it grew tighter. Later—he would think about it later. Tonight.
"Look," he started, looking up and forcing himself to smile. "I can try to be more assertive going forward. To think about my own happiness. But if you want me to put my life above everyone else's… th-that's too far. You're going too far."
Daedalus produced something close to a sigh, yet the look in his eye… was that pride? "Very well. All I ask is that you show more regard for your own happiness."
Flame flushed. "I will."
Then, before he could dwell on all the questions he wanted to ask Daedalus, Flame heard soft, hurried footsteps and creaking wood echoing up the building's stairwell behind him.
He smiled a little. Could it be?
Brynn's ear tuft peeked from the doorway before her face did. The Braixen squealed upon realising that he was staring back; then, before he could react, she broke into a full-fledged dash.
Flame's eyes widened; he tried to brace but nevertheless wheezed as Brynn's entire weight crashed into his body, hugging him and sending him against the wall first and down on the floor after. That knocked all the breath out of him.
"Oh, Herr Flame!" Brynn hugged him tight, tears running down her cheeks and onto his neck. "You're alive! How can you still be alive?! When you jumped from that bridge I thought for sure that you'd… you'd…"
Her thin arms barely reached around to his back, yet she was squeezing tight enough to make him wheeze. The heat rising in his face, Flame decided not to resist it, and returned both the hug and the nuzzling. "H-hey, Brynn. I'm happy to see you too!"
The Braixen pulled back, grinning sheepishly at that. "Y-you are? Oh, I, I meant—I am too!" Her face tensed briefly. "Ancestors, I thought I'd never see you again. I cried so much, but, but I should have known you'd be okay!"
"I figured you would appreciate a familiar face," remarked a pleased-sounding Daedalus.
Pressed against the wall, Flame slowly recovered his breath. He gently pushed Brynn off his lap and sat straighter, still breathing as he gazed into Brynn's sparkling eyes.
"Thank you—both of you," Flame said softly. "But, Brynn, don't your parents live in… uh…"
"They do. What about them?"
"Is this… what you want? I don't want you to leave your family behind for my sake."
Somehow the excitement in her eyes seemed constant. "Nonsense! You and Lord Daedalus have done so much for our people. Being able to repay that somehow… it's the greatest honour I can think of."
Flame didn't know what to say to that. He merely sat there against the cold stone, twiddling his claws, and wondering just what he had done to deserve all this affection.
As awkward as her admiration for him felt, he could also feel she was a good pokémon at heart—and with his only two friends likely hating him, he didn't exactly mind the company.
Maybe, with time, he'd consider her a friend too.
"Thank you," he whispered, tail flame in hand. "Again. You don't know how much this means to me."
"Nonsense, we still have much to do. Like—" She gasped, covering her mouth. "Oh, we have to resume your memory therapy right away! Would you like that, Herr Flame?"
Faced with a massive grin—and a wagging tail—Flame couldn't help but return it. "Very much so."
The hard stone behind him and his stiff back beckoned him to stand up.
Curious, Flame he clambered over past Daedalus and Brynn to the closest window.
He grabbed the windowsill and leaned forward: the street below was paved with gravel and flanked by closely-packed stone houses with thatched roofs. There were few pokémon outside, trudging that sleepy road. And the sky was such a lovely shade of blue…
"Gods, this is all so… different." He said. "Not having to worry about my next meal. About where to go next…"
"With time, you will get accustomed to a normal life. It's the least you deserve," Daedalus said with a warm tone.
Brynn was practically bouncing on her toes. "Yes, and I'll help you learn our language! I, uh, haven't taught anyone before—but I can try!"
That's right. Flame looked out of the window again, at the pokémon below. I can't bring Brynn along as a translator forever. I live here now.
He stopped and warmed at the thought. I live here.
Daedalus glanced at both of them. "Why don't you two explore the town? I'm sure the inhabitants would be delighted to meet you, Flame."
Brynn gasped. "Oh, that's a great idea! Do you want to go, Herr Flame?"
Flame snorted, grinning to himself. "I'd like that. So long as they don't start carrying me on some mobile throne."
"Please, be patient with the exiles. They have only heard of you in stories before; it is natural that they will be excited."
"Are… are you not excluding the throne option, or…"
In response, Daedalus merely shrugged. "Perhaps."
Flame's eyes widened for a moment. Then Brynn started giggling into her hands, and Daedalus joined in, producing deeper, bellowing laughs in his head.
Flame produced a sigh, but then chuckled himself. It felt good to laugh. How long had it been?
Flame concluded that he had to have been exhausted on the flight here, purely because of how many astonishing things he'd missed.
The first was that his house dwarfed all others around it by a long shot. The second, looking around, was that this quaint little street was merely a small clearing surrounded by a massive pine forest! How tired did one have to be to miss those towering behemoths, the overwhelming dark green?
"You've only been in Neuhoffnung before, right?" Brynn continued excitedly as they marched on. "Oooh, you'll love Tromvik! It's, uh, hardly our people's largest settlements—but it's much bigger than Neuhoffnung. And it's on the sea! Do you like the sea, Herr Flame?"
"Hold it." Flame blinked. "The sea? We're in the middle of a forest, and you're telling me we're by the sea?"
Her sly smirk was the only reply he got.
The gravel path took them deeper into the forest. Even here, surrounded by thin, towering pine trees, he found more houses and huts standing wherever there was space—their stone exterior half-covered in moss.
Flame couldn't help stopping a moment to study them. He frowned. Do none of them have windows?
Glancing at successive houses, he verified his suspicion that none were paned; in one house, he could plainly see a Haxorus rocking a small Chikorita in its arms. Not even a piece of cloth to act as a curtain!
It's so strange. Do they not get much wind here? Flame pondered as he resumed marching, Brynn hurrying to catch up. And what if it rains? I need to ask Daedalus if they've discovered glassmaking…
The houses grew more numerous and closer together the further he walked, as did the pokémon walking about. It wasn't just houses, either! On every little hillside he saw wooden trapdoors that Brynn said led to burrows, even a small cavern with a side trail leading directly to it.
What truly captivated Flame, though, lay in the treetops above: makeshift wooden platforms, hundreds of them, some with small structures built on them! They rose on different levels on nearly every tree, all connected by a multi-layered system of rope bridges and ladders.
He stopped dead in his tracks, as did Brynn.
"Wow," was all he could muster.
"So?" Brynn clasped her hands together, fidgeting. "Do you like it here, Herr Flame? What do you think?"
He stood there and watched. Above his head he spotted an Altaria flying straight into one of the elevated huts, while two tiny Chimchar chased each other along a pontoon bridge.
Looking back to ground level, there were more familiar-shaped pokémon milling around wide-open doorways, chatting loudly in their rough-sounding tongue.
"I don't exactly remember much, but…" Flame smiled candidly. "I can tell I've never been in a place like this."
"O-oh. Is that good, or bad?"
"It feels right, somehow." He turned to her with a smirk. "What, are you worried I'll miss the Empire and want to go back?"
The moment he turned towards the street—late, far too late—he realised he'd been speaking out loud in what to the Teutonii was a foreign tongue.
By the time his eyes fully widened, an aloof-looking Swellow caught a glimpse of him and his beak gaped; Flame instinctively tensed a little.
"Der!" the Swellow pointed at him with a wing. "Unser Kaiser!"
In quick succession, both his Nidoran and Druddigon interlocutors turned with a gasp; then, the shouts gradually spread up the street.
"Han er her?!"
"Ja! Unser Kaiser!"
Ooooh, here we go…
Pokémon from further up the street promptly whirled around to see him; others still rushed to their doorways and windows and burrow hatches to get a good view, while flyers swooped down from their elevated homes to the thatched roofs and tree branches.
Flame's breath left him. Brynn held tightly onto his arm, frozen. Within seconds, the dozens-strong crowd of Teutonii that had just surrounded him—many, far too many to count—dropped onto their knees, all aimed straight at him!
Flame felt like his heart was about to explode. His claws shook. Blinking repeatedly, he slowly turned in place to process that this was happening again. Bipeds kept a hand crossed over their hearts; quadrupeds and those with wings merely bowed their heads as far as they could go. Those few children who didn't seem to understand received a forceful push and harsh whispers from their parents.
"No!" Flame blurted out suddenly. "No no no, stop! Up! Stand up."
Only then remembering they couldn't understand him, he motioned with his claws to rise.
In the span of a few seconds, the entire crowd rose nearly as one—something which only creeped Flame out further. Swallowing, he glanced around once more to study their faces.
He looked in the eyes of those around him: Medicham, Linoone, Goodra, Druddigon, Nidoran, and so many more species he still couldn't name. There were at least fifty at a glance. Some pokémon had a massive smile on their face, others looked almost afraid of him; all carried in their eyes a uniform sense of awe.
As if they were looking straight at something they'd only heard in legends.
Calm. Flame tried to stand as straight as physically possible. They're looking up to you. You… can't disappoint them already. You won't.
Despite feeling like he could have melted right then and there, Flame caught his breath, his face steeled and his feet planted firmly on the ground.
He smiled with as much confidence as he could force. "Th-thank you, everyone. I want to—" He elbowed Brynn. "Er, please translate."
Brynn snapped out of the daze she'd fallen in. "Ja—er, right!"
"I want to thank all of you for the hospitality. For the house, the food, and, and all the kindness you've been showing me. It means more than you can imagine." He raised a fist to his hammering heart. "My name is Flame."
Okay, they probably knew already—but for some reason it felt right to say it. Plus, the crowd seemed to hang off his every word! Even Brynn at his side was giving him an entranced look that put him off for a moment.
"I may be the son of Daedalus," he swept his eyes around to meet as many waiting eyes as possible, "k-kind of. But you don't have to treat me like I'm your king! So my first order for you all will be this: no more bowing."
Once Brynn repeated verbally in their language, the look in the crowd's eyes passed from surprise to hesitation. It was all too understandable. Seeing the reverence with which these pokémon saw him and Dedalus, it had to be a perplexing order.
Flame's smile grew. "Spread the word for me, okay?" He received a host of frantic nods after Brynn's translation.
That went… much better than I expected, he exhaled, swinging his tail to and fro to channel some of the tension. At least I haven't caused a diplomatic incident on my first day here. Wait—is it diplomatic if I'm also one of the… ah, forget it.
He glanced at Brynn. From the way she looked around at everyone and smirked, he got the sneaking impression she enjoyed being seen next to him.
He scoffed slightly at that, but broke into a huge smile again as he addressed the crowd again. "Great. Since that matter's cleared, I ask only that you give myself and my teammates some space as we settle in here." He felt himself becoming a little less tense. "I imagine you all have prejudices about our enemy, but I can assure you, they do not apply to Alice and Gaius. They are good pokémon at heart. All that's different about them is which place they were born in."
Another chorus of nods, more hesitant this time.
"And remember that they're both under my protection. As is Brynn here." He could almost feel the heat of Brynn's blush next to him.
After a moment Flame bit his lip; was that too aggressive? Did he sound like he didn't trust his own people? But the crowd didn't seem to mind—their childish awe was unchanged.
"Thank you all," Flame blurted out with a smile. "I'll—I'll… be going, now. Come, Brynn."
"J-ja, Herr Flame!" she said out loud, to a chorus of muffled gasps all around.
What? Is it because she called me by—ah, no matter.
Failing to see a way out of the crowd, he elected to simply walk forward. His stomach tightened for a few steps but then the pokémon ahead moved aside for him.
That actually worked? He chuckled to himself. Thank the gods. I thought I'd have to make them move…
Flame stopped. His heart began hammering again. Swallowing, he swept his gaze across the crowd but it didn't take very long: it had come from a towering, fierce-looking Tyranitar from the first row.
With tears in her eyes, she made a half-bow before going wide-eyed and shooting right back up, mumbling something Flame didn't quite catch.
Whatever it was, it caused the crowd to explode into cheers. Flame jumped a little, instinctively turning to a shimmery-eyed Brynn.
The Braixen merely turned to him and smiled. "She said: 'If you're here, it means we finally have the power to defeat the Presence. It is all as Lord Daedalus predicted, right?'."
Flame's heart sputtered. He stared blankly until he realised the crowd were all holding their breaths, as though expecting him to comment.
"O-of course we do," Flame hastily cobbled together a smile for the Tyranitar. "We, um… we… we have a plan to get their Imperial puppets on our side! To help them understand that they're being controlled." He put a fist over his heart. "Trust in us."
Once the Tyranitar looked starry-eyed enough at his reply, Flame turned about and hastily made his way through the gap in the cheering crowd, further up the street.
If he hadn't been in full view of everyone he probably would have sprinted away. He rounded the first possible side path, and allowed himself to breathe when he saw only berry bushes and more forest.
"Herr Flaaaaame!" Brynn's running footsteps pattered in the gravel behind him. "Du gjo—you did amazing back there!"
"... Better than expected."
"And the way you said 'trust in us'..." She clasped her hands together and squealed. "Ah, that was so confident of you!"
"Really?" He tried to smile. "That's good."
But I lied to them all. He bore a hole into a pine trunk. I don't know if we have a plan to win over the Empire. I don't know if we have any plans at all—I never even asked!
"Are you okay, Herr Flame?" Brynn reached for his shoulder, but hesitated. "I know that was stressful for you. But I swear, you did fantastic!"
"I'm fine. L-let's keep going, okay?"
He wasn't fine. Even now, as they walked down a forest slope, the sea of faces remained burnt into his memory. That gleam in everyone's eyes, that spark of hope… was it truly because of him?
He clutched his stomach. He wasn't sure whether to feel gleeful or queasy.
"Are you sure this way takes us to the sea?" he asked Brynn, hoping to think about something else.
"Hm? Yes, it shoul—" Brynn froze in her tracks, and he followed suit. She looked behind them, then forward again, back and forth.
"Wait," Flame raised his brow. "You don't know?"
"I-it's not that I don't know, I just thought we had to turn… th-the road should have been…"
A playful smile settled on Flame's snout. "Have you actually been here before?"
Brynn looked down and wranged her hands together. "I-I only arrived here yesterday evening, shortly after you, and I didn't have time—but, but our towns tend to be quite similar in design!"
"So what's the town called?" He crossed his arms in mock-offense, and tapped his foot.
"Tromvik. Fishing town. F-fifteen thousand inhabitants, I think. This used to be Imperial territory."
"Uh-huh. And that's aaaall my 'guide' knows about this place."
"What?!" Brynn's ears dropped and her face turned red. "No! I'm not exactly from here, but—but I can show you our stavkirke! And our communal eating area! Every village has one; trust me, it's so much bigger than Neuhoffnung's, and I've heard the cooks serve Clamperl meals that are out of this world! Please, I swear I know where I'm going!"
It shouldn't have felt this satisfying to watch her squirm in embarrassment, but it did.
"All right." Flame pretended to study her up and down, arms crossed. "I suppose you've passed the test—for now."
He motioned for Brynn to follow, which she did a little too eagerly.
"Oh, I just remembered! This region also has Sawsbuck stew as a delicacy, too!"
Smiling, Flame nevertheless felt himself tune out of his playful mood for a few seconds as they walked along that forest road. Patches of dappled sunlight surrounded them, and the crackling of dried pine needles accompanied their every step. He couldn't help but linger on that Tyranitar, those oh-so-warm words: that he would soon lead his people to victory.
It wasn't like they saw him as a symbol, either. No! They were looking at him like some kind of saviour in the flesh. As if he would leap into battle himself, fight legionary soldiers with his own claws! He glanced down and blushed, yet his body protested.
He couldn't do any of that. He was weak and frail; he knew only slash and flamethrower, and even that second one Alice had to teach him. How in the world was he, Flame, supposed to lead these people, let alone convince them that he had a plan for victory?
Hell, he could barely convince his own friends to choose this town over certain death.
It took a little bit more hiking before they reached the pine forest's end. When they did, Flame was treated to the view from the small hill he stood atop.
A tumultuous dark-blue sea, with grey islets poking out the mist far on the horizon. Much closer to him stood the main urban core of Tromvik: more buildings of wood and stone, spread out across both the mainland coast and between a half-forested islet not far from it, connected by a series of pontoon bridges.
Flame's first reaction, for some reason, was to laugh. "I haven't seen the ocean in… well, weeks—but that was only for a few hours."
He reached out with a hand to feel the salty breeze. It felt pleasant against the warmth of his scales.
Next to him, Brynn covered her mouth. "So this is what the great ocean looks like…"
"First time seeing it, o tour guide?" he asked with another wry look.
Brynn huffed but could not help looking bashful.
Oh, he was going to love teasing her like this—he could already tell.
They began walking down the hill path, toward the first dense streets of the mainland half of Tromvik.
"It's odd," Flame mused to himself. "Why does seeing the ocean put me in such a good mood?"
"Oh, I think I feel it too! " She wagged her tail merrily. "My friends always told me I'd hate the ocean."
Flame scoffed. "Come on, just because we're fire-types?"
The path took them onto the town's main road, packed with houses and rudimentary apartment buildings. He waved back to a few excited passersby.
"Speaking of, where are your friends right now? Neuho… y-your village?"
"A few. Most are spread out in other villages and towns. We're serving together in the war."
Flame's pupils widened. The war? You're saying that you've… fought?
He snuck a glance while she was focusing ahead. At that moment she looked so innocent, so carefree. How could those sweet eyes ever be near a battlefield? He would have been surprised to see her lash out at a fly.
She's younger than me, too. Maybe she's only gone through training…
Now that they'd entered the built-up urban area—passing by houses, taverns, eateries, market stalls, pokémon of all kinds—Flame felt the gaze of every single passerby homed in on his skull. Dozens and dozens of pokémon, both outside and from inside houses as more shouts of 'Unser Kaiser!' spread up the street.
While it made Flame feel that much more self-conscious, he still waved back sheepishly whenever he got the chance. At least they weren't crowding around him anymore.
He brushed her furry arm again.
"Oh. I'm so sorry! I didn't notice you were thinking. I was just curious about something, so, so pretend I didn't say anything and go back to—"
"Brynn." Flame sighed, then tried to smile at her. "I'm not your superior. You don't have to be nervous around me. Please."
At least you treat me normally.
"Right." She chuckled nervously. "Sorry. I was just saying: if your friends are here, why didn't we call them? We could have shown them around, too."
Flame looked away and swallowed. "I'm… not sure."
Brynn blinked, then cocked her head to the side. "But why? I thought you were happy they came here."
"It's… complicated. I didn't really give them a choice."
That gave her pause, but only briefly. "Well, you still saved their lives. I'm sure they'll understand soon, right?"
"I wish it were that simple." He smiled bitterly. "Why are you asking? I thought you said they're collaborators."
"I… don't know what to think," she said, quietly even in his head. "A part of me still thinks of them that way. But, if you say they're good pokémon… I want to trust you."
Flame blinked. His smile sweetened the more her words sunk in. "Thank you, Brynn. That means… more than you can imagine."
A Gardevoir just ahead was hanging bed sheets to dry; she dropped them with a gasp as soon as she saw him and shouted something. More pokémon ran to their house's windows and door frames to look.
Meanwhile, Flame's thoughts lingered on his teammates.
The last time he'd seen them was when they'd first landed in the town's outskirts, in the dead of night. He'd only seen their eyes at an angle—they'd refused to look at him directly that day—but what he saw, gleaning in the torchlight… He could only describe Gaius' reddened eyes as spectral.
Flame shuddered at the memory. But the truth remained that he would have to see them again at some point. If not for the small hope they didn't hate him, then for the fact that he had brought them here, and that he had promised them a choice.
"We're here, Herr Flame!"
Blinking, Flame realised they'd reached the town's harbour—little more than a beachfront with small boats resting on the sand, or tied to one of the long floating piers.
He stepped onto the beach, enjoying the graininess of the sand, then stopped to behold the sight: before them was a narrow strait of murky water, and just across lay the main island, half-forested and half-brimming with structures. He saw more treetop houses with their platforms, Wingulls nesting on seaside rocks, even a Seel poking its head out of the water! And not to mention the—
Flame froze. At first he had to squint to make sure he wasn't seeing things.
The rocks next to him formed a peninsula of sorts that jutted out into the sea. It was at the tip of it that he thought he saw something… blue…
"See the island? That's where all the interesting sights are!" Brynn hooked both her arms around his right one. "Come on!"
Flame felt her pulling gently, but he did not budge.
Coiled up on the farthest rock of the formation, facing the island and the cloudy horizon, was a Dragonair he knew all too well.
"Herr Flame? What's wrong?"
Flame stared past her. "Stay here," he said, then took a step forward. "Or—or go do something else. There's something I have to take care of."
Brynn's ears fell as he went past her. "What? Why? I-I thought you wanted to see the town centre with me…"
Before he could think about it he was already hopping from one large rock to the next, holding in the primordial fear of slipping and plunging into the seawater whose spray licked at his feet.
Once he got within a couple jumps' distance, he looked up again. There she was—coiled tightly on the farthest rock, looking away from him. He froze; his body protested.
Part of him wanted to turn away and leave, leave this conversation for some other time.
No. He shut his eyes. I brought them here. My choice, my fault. My responsibility.
With a deep breath, he jumped to the last rock—now he was right behind her, perhaps a few steps from her tail.
And yet Alice didn't stir. Had she not heard him? Perhaps she had, but didn't care enough to react.
Breathing as quietly as possible, Flame felt his heart hammering in his chest. Suddenly he felt strangely conscious of his posture, of the swishing of his tail; it dawned on him how creepy it must have looked to stand behind her like that. But he didn't even know what to sa—
"Flame." A whisper, as quiet as it was cold.
Flame's blood ran dry for a moment, then he took a shaky breath. "Alice."
Unsure how to continue, he listened to his instincts: he sat down right next to her, on the edge of that rock itself at the edge of the sea.
Silence reigned between them. Silence, and the soft rustle of the ocean. Little salty droplets sprayed at his feet and shins with each crashing wave.
And yet they sat in silence.
He glanced to his side; Alice was still ignoring him, and if anything seemed to have retreated further in her coils.
"A-are you okay?" he asked—then cringed.
How stupid could he be? Of course she wasn't okay! Pokémon who were okay didn't go watch the horizon from the most isolated place they could find!
"I suppose so," she replied flatly.
Flame frowned. "You don't look okay."
Silence. He supposed his assertion was pretty self-evident.
As Flame looked her over, it dawned on him that she wasn't wearing that crimson scarf he'd gifted her. Somehow that saddened him further.
"Talk to me, Alice." He hugged his knees . "I know you hate me right now—but I brought you here. I need to know that they're treating you well."
'Besides, we're still Team Phalanx, right?' he almost said. Almost.
Alice raised her gaze, if slightly. "Part of me wonders if I'm the first Imperial ever to get a glimpse beyond the enemy's front lines." She chuckled dryly. "Perhaps I should feel honoured. I could tell everyone that no, they don't all live in mud-holes. Nor do they fulfill their bodily needs in the street! Aesernia had a lot more of that. In fact, that temple—at least, I think it is one. Do you see it? On the island?"
Flame leaned forward to look across the strait. Yes, now that she pointed it out, he saw it was the tallest building in the whole town. Its walls were wooden—big surprise—but its exterior was sloped and built in multiple, rising sections, culminating in a tall tower near the centre that tapered into a spire. The corners were carved into decorative shapes too small to see from here.
"It's… beautiful," Flame remarked. "Strange, but beautiful."
"Indeed." Alice smiled distantly. "I never would have dreamed the Teutonii were capable of building such harmonious structures. To think they weren't supposed to have discovered the wheel!"
Flame smirked to himself. Those Imperial propagandists might have a point on glassmaking.
"And yet, something's bothering you," he said.
Alice let out a terse sigh. "What do you expect me to say?" She raised her neck and looked up. "My whole life, I've been taught to hate the Scum. To be afraid of them. They're the very army who has ravaged so much of the Empire. So many deaths, so many refugees, so much… suffering."
"They've suffered too," Flame countered in a whisper. "More than we could ever imagine."
"I believe you," Alice said. "But it doesn't override the tens of thousands of deaths they've caused. Including Gaius' parents."
There it was: the one topic he couldn't fight back on. Flame found himself looking away from her, toward the dark, turbid waters.
But he couldn't just stay silent. No, he had to stay strong.
"How is he?"
"Still won't leave his bed."
Flame nodded. He'd expected as much. Wringing his claws together, he scrambled for something to say. "Daedalus said he might punish that Hydreigon for what he did."
He looked down. "I just need to talk to Gaius first. Gather all the facts about what happened."
"Good luck with that. He hasn't said a word since we got here." Alice scoffed. "I can't say I blame him."
Flame shut his eyes and exhaled slowly, bracing himself for what was to come. The veiled animosity behind those words hadn't escaped him.
"Look," he turned to her, "I know this isn't how you wanted our journey to end. And I realise that it'll be difficult here—if, if you choose to stay, that is. But I still care about you." He smiled tentatively. "We're still Team Phalanx, right?"
"Are we?" She glared back at him. "Then why did you go behind our backs? Why, for such a monumental decision?"
Flame snorted. "I did it to protect you two—you know that."
"You could have asked what we thought."
Flame couldn't help it; he crossed his arms. "Alice—be honest. If I'd come up to you that same night and proposed this, would you have accepted?"
Alice's glare mellowed. Her eyes seemed to wander off elsewhere. "W-we could have found another way."
"Really? What way?"
"... Another one."
"Which one?" he hissed. "Do you mean your plan to slowly die of hypothermia on some mountain?"
Alice had no answer at that. She merely wound herself even tighter in her coils.
That's what I thought, he wanted to say, but held his tongue.
"I'm not pretending that what I did was ethical." He steeled his expression. "But I do know that it was the right choice."
"I'm not sorry for saving our lives. Even if it meant lying to you." He finally raised his gaze to the cloudy sky. "And… if you gave me the choice, I would do it again."
"Ah…" Alice rasped, and then she nodded. "I see."
From the corner of his eye, Flame noticed Alice staring towards him intensely.
Alice? He turned to meet her eyes—and though she averted them right away, for just a moment, he could have sworn there was something… dreamy about them.
"Is something the matter?" Flame furrowed his brow.
"Hm?" Alice's eyes glistened, even as she pretended to behold the horizon. "Yes. I mean—no. N-nothing."
Flame frowned, but chose not to press her further.
"It's just…" Alice began with a whisper. "Gods, was there that little trust between us?"
Flame snorted. "Do you really need to ask that? It's not like I was the first liar on this team."
That flash of pain on Alice's face was impossible to miss.
The guilt hit Flame like a punch in the stomach, but he couldn't back down. It was something they needed to confront eventually.
"Do you know what it's like," Flame sent her a glare, "to find out that the only pokémon you thought you could trust—the pokémon who've been with you since the very beginning—that they're lying to you? Do you know how much it hurts?"
"I wouldn't even have cared that you're a princess—that's the worst part. It was a bit shocking, sure, but at the end of the day… you're still Alice. You're still you."
"I know," she whispered even quieter.
"Why couldn't you tell me? Or, or just say 'sorry, I don't feel comfortable talking about that'?"
"I, I wasn't… I didn't think—"
Flame shook his head. "It wasn't even just Thermae Himerae; it was… before that, too." He frowned. "I tried to forget about that first time we met, but thinking about it now…"
"Please stop," Alice whimpered.
"You two told the guards I was a Scum and got me thrown into jail. What if they'd believed you? Gods, they would have hanged me in Victory Square like those others! I could have died."
Flame recoiled back at that, glancing worriedly at a nigh-shaking Alice.
"I'm s-so sorry," Alice sucked in a trembling breath, her head arched in, eyes pointed straight at the ground. "You're right. I don't deserve to be angry at you when I'm such… such a coward!"
At the sound of her sobs, the rest of Flame's pent-up anger evaporated. Even his glare disappeared, replaced by a sudden concern.
Alice brought her teary eyes up to meet his—a sight that pained Flame's heart. "Do you want to know why I lied to you? Because…" She let out a bitter laugh at that. "Because I was lying to myself, too."
Flame felt his eyes widen. "… What?"
"I d-didn't want to admit to myself that… that father hates me, and that I can never, ever be good enough in his eyes. So I tried to forget him. To create another Alice—one whose father isn't that monster on the throne, one who isn't so cowardly. And I pretended to be her." She choked on a sob. "Gods, I sound so pathetic right now…"
"Alice…" Flame frowned.
"This whole time," she rambled on, eyes squeezed shut, "I've done nothing but fail you. Th-that first day, when we failed our mission? I thought that Ariel would surely sack us both. I was utterly terrified, Flame. When Gaius suggested using you as scapegoat, I was… I was simply too scared to come up with anything else. Just like I was too scared to ever bring up his drinking. Or how he was treating you. Or, or to… to tell you the truth about me."
With that, Alice buried her face into her coils and muffled her sobs. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry…"
Flame, on the other hand, sat there motionless. He sat there next to her and ruminated over her words for some time.
He felt strange. Earlier he'd wanted nothing less than to give her a piece of his mind—to make her understand exactly how he'd felt. But now, hearing her commiserate like this… he simply couldn't help but pity her.
I always thought I'd been through a lot, Flame stared down at his lap, but Alice… Good gods.
In a way, it astonished him that she'd made it this far in the first place. She had been disowned, exiled; forced to aimlessly wander the fringes of the Empire for three years. Forced to endure hunger and dejection, and winter colds that her dragon physiology simply wasn't built to withstand. Oh, and that was just what Flame knew about—he had a certain feeling that what he didn't know was just as bad. And yet…
Yet you're still here.
The more he thought about it, the more that vengeful corner of his mind lost ground. How could he look into her eyes—those same eyes who he remembered staring boldly into a far-off portal storm that one night—and write her off as a coward?
"No," Flame clenched his fists. "You're wrong."
"E-excuse me?" Alice sniffled from her coils.
"You've been through a lot—more than anyone should. And… you're insecure, just like me." He turned to her, his eyes resolute. "But you're not a coward. A coward wouldn't have survived through half of what we did."
Alice stared with lowered ear-wings; in lack of a better response, she cracked a dry laugh. "Y-you don't have to lie to make me feel better."
"I'm not lying."
"But," her face fell, "but how could you say that? Ever since my exile, I've done nothing but fear my own shadow!"
Flame merely smiled at her, and shrugged. "All three of us were scared. I wasn't much better at the beginning."
"But you were in a markedly worse situation than me, with your amnesia!"
Flame cracked an uncomfortable laugh. "... I don't know about that."
"And yet look at how caring—how brave you've been for Team Phalanx, even though you owed us nothing!"
"Brave?" Flame flushed, eyes wide.
"Yes, brave!" Through her tears, Alice produced a fond smile. "You've already saved our lives twice. First in the ice dungeon, then at the ambush—no, three times if you count yesterday!"
A tingling feeling invaded Flame's chest. Suddenly he was out of breath. "Th-those were more impulsive than anything else! Especially back at the ambush." He glanced down at the crashing waves. "Daedalus was right: I could have gotten us all killed."
"And? Impulse still counts for something." Alice looked at him, but only with her snout buried in her coils and her head wings flattened. "You're so much braver than you're willing to admit, Flame…"
There was a strange orange reflection in the water below; it took Flame a second to realise it was his swelling tail fire chirping and crackling happily behind him.
"I-if—" Flame swallowed. Breathe. Why was it so hard to suppress a smile? "If we're going to play that game, I think you're also underestimating how brave you are."
Alice's scoff was muffled in her coils. "Please. I can't recall a single example."
"Well, for one… you're still here."
"I—I beg your pardon?"
"I don't know your past very well," Flame smiled sheepishly, "but from the sounds of it, you've been through utter hell for the past three years. Scratch that—even before your exile. And yet, you're still here. You're still fighting." He shrugged. "I'd say that counts for something."
Silence again. Only the crashing of the waves on the rocks, the distant bustle of Tromvik, and an overpowering marine scent.
"Plus," He looked up at the sky. "You stood by me when I was still new to this world."
Alice tried to speak, tried to protest, but came up short of words. Her head-wings flattened and perked up repeatedly.
New tears lingered in her eyes, but they didn't seem borne of sadness.
"Alice," Flame shut his eyes. "Listen. I don't think I'm ready to forgive you just yet."
"But I also know that you're a good pokémon at heart." Flame rubbed a forearm. "I… I don't really know why I ever doubted that. I felt hurt, sure, but we've known each other for so long that—ah, a-anyways! In the meantime… we can try to make things right between us."
"Be honest with me," he said. "You—you don't have to tell me your whole life story. Hell, you don't have to tell me anything you're not comfortable with. Just… please, no more lying."
With a sniffle, Alice stood up straight and wiped away a tear with her tail tip. "Yes. I—yes! Thank you. I must become stronger. I can't keep deceiving myself, much less those I hold dear."
Slowly, almost hesitantly, Flame made an incredulous smile. Right then a tremendous weight vanished from his shoulders.
Feeling strangely lighter, he fell down on his back and laughed breathlessly. "Thank you, Alice. I won't deceive you, either."
"Unless it's another life-or-death situation?"
That was true. He had made it a point not to apologise for what he'd done. And… that was how he still felt.
He bit his lip. "Well—I, I don't know if…"
"I'm jesting." She sent him a wry smile. "You… you were right. I confess, I don't quite know what came over me the other night, after we got kicked out. I suppose it must have been the shock, the—the sheer panic at thinking our journey was over." She ruffled her head wings. "Still, my plan… it was madness! Madness built on wishful thinking. P-perhaps I would have come to my senses as the journey got colder, but—"
"Alice. It's okay." Flame smiled and placed a hand on her middle. "That's why we're a team, isn't it? On our own, we'd all have choked on a glass of water long ago."
Was that a blush on her face? "Thank you, Flame. For everything. I've intended to tell you for some time, but you're… the first pokémon I've been able to call a friend."
A friend. Why did that word tingle in his chest?
"F-first?" Flame scratched his collarbone. "What—Gaius wasn't first?"
"Oh, hush. You know exactly why that isn't the case!" Alice laughed, and he laughed too.
"A-anyway…" Flame cleared his throat. "Thanks. I feel the same way."
Yes, the same way…
For a little while they sat there and stared at the coming and going of winged figures around the island. Flame was vaguely conscious that his hand was still on her middle. Was she closer to him, too?
"Since you brought up Gaius," Alice whispered, "I believe it is urgent that you talk to him."
Flame sighed, swinging his tail in irritation. "Yeah, I get that a lot."
"Or try to, at the very least. Show him he's not alone in his pain."
Flame snorted. "Maybe seeing me will just make him feel worse."
"Perhaps. I don't know."
Flame's gaze slowly drifted upwards, to that cloudy sky.
"I'll… come up with something."
Alice smiled at him, which crumbled as her eyes caught something behind him. "Ah! I believe someone's waiting for you."
He turned to find Brynn's ear tufts peeking over a rock; he heard her yip as she shot down into hiding.
Flame blinked, then burst into laughter. "I… I guess I've kept her waiting."
"I'll stay here a little longer." Alice set her head back on her coils. "There's still much I need to think about."
Flame nodded. He stood up from the rock feeling strangely lightweight. And warm.
"See you at the house, then," he told Alice as he turned towards the coast.
Gaius… He balled his fists and stood straighter. You were never really a friend, but… nobody deserves to suffer like you did. Ready or not, I'm coming.
"Oh, and… Flame?" Alice whispered behind him.
He blinked. "Hm?"
"Thank you. "
End of Chapter XXIX