Part I: Seeking Truth
Chapter I: What Remains
There's an old adage that history, if forgotten, will repeat itself.
We hear this all the time and only half-heartedly take it as a warning, and our attempts to fight it comprise laughably watered-down history lessons in our schools. Here, most school-aged children will leave home before they reach adolescence, so we cram as much knowledge about our nation into the first 10 years of their lives, but we end up brushing over the ugly truths of our past in order to paint an ideal image of our country.
I suppose the excuse would be that we don't want to "taint" the children before they reach puberty. I don't buy into it, though: The lessons don't really change with the age of students, so most adults don't even know the truth. The reality is, we do nothing to remove the blinders that limit our view of Unova's darker history—so we have forgotten.
I know we have forgotten, because I sat through those lessons, and I wore those blinders. I didn't know I had them until the war. I was embarrassed to figure out I had them actually, because I always thought I knew the truth better, and that's why I've decided to write this account now.
There is no personal gain—no reputation to save or build, no financial incentive—waiting for me in writing this story. I've made a habit of recording all the events in my life, the failures and the successes, so that I don't forget them. I want to make this account not only so I won't forget, but so that we will never forget again. I know I am one of the few who can record these events with the detail and accuracy they need, because I lived here, and I lived through the war, and I was a witness to the rise of Iris Ajagara, who was only 17 when the conflict broke and the repetition of history was set into motion.
Iris's bare feet fell lightly against the cold marble tiles as she paced slowly, thoughtfully, through an open space in the Opelucid City Gym's living quarters. Clutched in her hands was a fine linen sheet of paper, crisply creased with two even folds. The page was covered, neatly so, with personally inked words urgently and carefully written, and Iris had read them at least a dozen times over with the same urgency and care they demanded.
She stood alone; the silence, and the emptiness, of the room attested to that. Every slight crinkle her thumb made in the edge of her letter, every soft, deliberate step in her back-and-forth cantor across the room, was a static note that climbed the walls toward the ceiling. Abruptly, noisily, she folded the letter back up and stuffed it into its envelope, which she had delicately held between her index and middle finger.
Iris carried the letter back into her bedroom and laid it atop her half-packed backpack, which leaned against a misplaced dining chair. She clutched her head and ran her fingers through her hair with an exasperated though forlorn sigh. She glanced toward the clock on the wall. She was behind on time and knew she would be late if she didn't get ready soon. This in mind, she reached for the bottom folds of her yellow dress and pulled it over her head before carelessly tossing it onto her unmade bed.
Iris didn't have a particularly diverse closet. New clothes were not a high priority, and having barely grown in the past five years, most everything she wore when she was 12 could still fit her. She dug through the hangers showcasing apparel she hadn't touched in years, looking for a specific color. Black was not a typical part of her wardrobe; happier, brighter colors as warm as her autumn eyes were her preference, but social convention, a nuisance in Iris's mind, required something more morose for the day.
Eventually, Iris discovered the only black item she owned was a shawl. The next closest mournful piece of attire was a never-worn gray dress, the origin of which Iris couldn't remember. She resigned to a compromise, pulling the gray dress off its hanger and slipping into it before drawing the black shawl around her shoulders. She glanced at the full-length mirror and decided, in this, no one would pass a judgmental eye over her—except for one thing. She snatched a hair brush off the table and began to work through several of the many tangles in her long, dark hair.
A doleful whine from behind Iris captured her attention, and her eyes moved over her shoulder to see her Fraxure, his red eyes drooping with grief, slowly moving toward her in a crawl. Iris offered him a weak smile, and she kneeled beside him when he approached. He stretched his green, leathery neck toward her when she began to stroke his head comfortingly.
"I know," she said. "I'm sad, too."
Iris straightened up again and moved several feet toward her backpack, from which she pulled out Fraxure's Pokéball. Then, turning, she called him back into it, and when the red light disappeared, she pressed the colored top of the ball to her mouth.
"We won't be there for too long, I promise," she murmured.
Iris slipped the Pokéball into her pocket—the dress, thankfully, had pockets—and snapped up some black flats laying near the end of her bed and pulled them onto her feet. She then went to the door and, grasping the handle, cast one last glance toward the letter and her bag. She realized with a painful clutch on her heart there was not much left for her here. Soon, there would be nothing left for her here.
She shut the door tightly behind her, practice for what would come later.
The scent and warmth of summer, though still a way's off, was palpable in the wind that whipped Iris's hair in thin strands across her face and contoured to the modest curves of her small frame as she hastily strode down the street past people who shuffled by at an equally anxious and hurried pace. No one ever made eye contact. These, Iris would later realize, were the first signs. It wasn't always this way.
Iris passed by a newsstand and stopped long enough to observe the headlines of the day: "Three Lynched Outside Driftveil City, Perpetrators Under G-Men Investigation"; "Tensions Rise In Southern Unova With Rash Of Arsons"; "APC Withdraws Contest Hall Plans in Unova After Increases In Local Violence"; "Is A Unovan Civil War On The Way?"; "Long-Time Opelucid Gym Leader Drayden Pollock Dead After Car Accident."
Iris stared ruefully at that last one, until the salesman noticed her and leaned over the counter, sneering, "Hey, you gonna buy something or what?"
She directed her hard gaze toward the man but fell away with a frown, saying, "No, sorry. I was just looking."
The church was several further blocks away, and Iris went ahead without stopping. She knew she had arrived when she noticed the throng of black-adorned people moving into an austere, gray-brick building with a steeple that rose high into the pale blue sky. Drayden had only a handful of friends in his life, but he had drawn the respect of many, and his death was a sore impact upon what naïvety and blind optimism remained among them—at least, it would have been if everyone didn't believe he was dead because of a tragic accident and not darker means.
Iris eventually joined the crowd, hiking up the aged steps that led to the open, heavy wooden doors of the church. She recognized a number of faces the moment she entered: gym leaders and Elite Four members and other persons of interest, some from outside of Unova. Iris was unnoticeable in comparison, not that she minded. She didn't want to be noticed.
Her hopes were dashed when a hand fell upon her shoulder, and she stiffened. Yet, she managed to relax again when she recognized the voice that followed.
"Iris," he called her by name. Iris turned to face the man behind her slowly, letting his hand fall off of her. It had been a couple months since they had last seen each other in person.
"Cilan," she regarded him. "I didn't know you were going to be here."
He smiled with a strange, feeble reassurance. Unlike herself, Cilan had definitely grown since their days traveling across Unova with a mutual friend, Ash Ketchum. He was taller, leaner, though he carried himself with the same grace and spoke with the same eloquence—the same genteel tone that rose and fell with polite, measured emotion—that she remembered.
"My brothers and I thought someone ought to represent the Striaton Gym and pay respects to a fellow gym leader," he explained. He hesitated before adding, "But... I wanted to be here for you, too."
"Your brothers aren't here?" Iris asked, ignoring his addendum.
"No." Cilan shook his head. "It's just me. Traveling isn't as easy as it once was, and they were more nervous than I. Besides, someone needed to watch over the restaurant and gym."
"Yeah..." she mumbled, trailing off. Cilan frowned and inclined his head toward her.
"How are you doing?" he asked her gently.
"Fine, I guess," Iris answered with a half-hearted shrug.
"You and Drayden were pretty close," Cilan remarked.
"I don't know if you could say we were 'close.'" Iris kept her eyes averted from his as she readjusted her shawl. She suddenly ached for a change in subject and asked, "Do you know if Alder's here?"
"Alder?" Cilan blinked.
"If there was someone who was close with Drayden, it was Alder," she said plainly.
"I'm not sure," Cilan admitted. "I only recently arrived myself. I can't imagine he isn't, though."
Iris pursed her lips with discontent. She glanced behind Cilan and quickly scanned the area, but her cursory search yielded nothing. She then let out a tired sigh and folded her arms, raising her eyes toward Cilan's again.
"Well, I'm going to look for him," she decided. "We can catch up later."
"Okay," Cilan agreed with a nod, and he watched her for a moment as she brushed past him and disappeared into the crowd.
Iris easily sidled past the assembly of people that had congregated in separate groups of mourners. She read their grieved and apprehensive faces, waiting for the moment she would find the one she wanted. Yet, it was only when she reached upstream that she found him standing near the front of the church, beneath a stain-glass window that depicted a dragon—the unnamed aboriginal dragon who lived before the Great Unovan War split him into the famous Tao Trio, or so the legend said anyway—with grand silvery-gray wings and red eyes that glowed luminously with the sun's afternoon light. This was only one artistic representation. No one knew what the aboriginal dragon truly looked like; no one even knew his name.
Iris cautiously approached their nation's leader, who stood with the familiar Elesa of Nimbasa City and an unfamiliar young male trainer with wild hair and flaming red eyes. She was not intimidated of the Champion himself, but rather, the topic she wanted to broach, and she half-doubted he would openly speak about it with others standing so near. Still, if she said nothing now, then nothing would be said at all.
"Alder." The man perked up, immediately ending his conversation with Elesa, and looked toward Iris when she said his name aloud.
"Ah, hello Iris." He grinned at her, but the friendly expression and greeting couldn't hide the plaintive tone with which he spoke. The Dragon Master's death had undoubtedly taken a huge toll on the Unova Champion.
"I got a letter from Drayden, just this morning." Iris rose her head a little higher and looked Alder directly in the eyes as she spoke, as if to draw him into some secret plot they had both known all along. She watched him carefully, waiting for some change in his expression that would indicate he knew what she was talking about, but Alder's face didn't break. Neither did the red-eyed man's. Yet, Elesa's brow furrowed with sympathy.
"Iris, he's dead," she said slowly, carefully. "The car accident—"
"—It's from him," Iris insisted, cutting her off. The red-eyed man standing near Alder briefly narrowed his gaze, looking at Iris with interest. She continued, "I know his handwriting. Someone was waiting to send it to me."
Alder pressed his lips into a hard line.
"How interesting," he mused. He neither said nor inquired anything further of the subject, however, and instead gestured to the young man who had been watching Iris for the entire time she spoke and asked, "Have you met my grandson, Benga?"
Iris knew she should have expected this, but she was still alienated by the blatant evasion of her insinuations. Even Elesa cast the Champion a surprised look.
"I haven't," Iris said shortly.
"Aha." Alder offered her a second grin, this one even weaker than the last. "Well, I think an introduction is in order then. Benga, this is Iris Ajagara. She was Drayden's apprentice to the Opelucid Gym."
"It's nice to meet you." Benga stuck his hand out toward her, and it was then that the obvious resemblance between him and his grandfather struck Iris. The alike facial structures and hair colors were only a couple common traits shared between them. What truly seized Iris were their similar deep, husky voices; Benga's was undoubtedly more youthful, but if he were to suddenly age twenty years, she would hard-pressed to tell them apart. The greatest difference was their eyes. Alder's were a tired, sun-stained gray while Benga's were a feisty crimson, not too unlike the reddish brown that abutted Iris's own face.
"Same." Iris shook his hand.
"So I guess this means you're the new gym leader, huh?" Benga withdrew his arm, folding it into his other. He stood tall and proud, not with the intention of making Iris feel smaller than she was, but as a consequence of a perceptible, outgoing confidence in his air. Even in the somber atmosphere of the church, she could feel it.
"I guess so," Iris said impassively. It wasn't something she had dedicated a lot of time to thinking about. She didn't think she would be enjoying the full responsibilities of a gym leader for much longer anyway.
"Drayden would've been proud, Iris," Alder broke in. "He always knew you would do great things. I know you'll do great things."
Meanwhile, Elesa flicked over her wrist to check her watch.
"Alder, sir." Elesa gently touched his shoulder. "We should be starting soon."
"Right, right," Alder said, nodding. He looked back toward his grandson and Iris. "Well, I'll leave you to yourselves then."
They disappeared, and Iris and Benga stood in an uncomfortable silence. Her eyes rose to the stain-glass masterpiece above them, contemplating it, and so when he cleared his throat to speak, Iris looked at him blankly, almost as if she had forgotten he was there or had expected him to leave.
"Would you like to sit with me?" he offered.
"Thanks, but I'll pass." Iris looked away and wandered where her gaze carried her. The people were beginning to seat themselves, and Iris eventually found Cilan in one of the pews when he waved helpfully at her, and she was quick to join him.
"Did you find him?" Cilan asked her in a low voice when she slid into the open space beside him.
"Yeah," she answered. Her tone indicated she didn't want to talk about it, so Cilan didn't press the matter further.
A hush swept over the crowd when Alder stepped up to the podium near the front. Iris flicked her head back to remove a loose piece of her dark hair from her line of vision. Cilan briefly looked at her when she did this then turned his head forward again.
"My dear friends," Alder's powerful, deep voice—the voice of a leader—reverberated through the stony church passages, "we have gathered here today to honor the life of a great man: a man who was a teacher and an inspiration to many; a man who cared deeply for the welfare of his country; a man who would fight and die for the people and Pokémon he loved. Drayden Pollock was not just an adviser and a source of wisdom to me, he was a friend. He—"
Cilan was looking at Iris again, and this time, she noticed. A low growl emerged from the back of her throat as she jerked her head in the direction opposite to him.
"Stop it," she warned.
"Stop what?" he inquired.
"Stop looking at me like I'm something to pity," she said.
"I'm not—" Cilan's voice faded, and he drew into himself. Iris felt her eyes burn suddenly, but the sensation departed as quickly as it came. Alder's speech, passionate and pained, carried on.
Nearly an hour after the memorial service had ended, Iris had still not left the church. She knew it was breaking the promise she had made to her Fraxure, but after the memories and honors of her mentor were put to rest and the people who had gathered there began to leave, Iris had sunk onto the corner of a step outside the church, and she could not bear to move.
Some, recognizing she was the former student of Drayden and the successor to the Opelucid City Gym, stopped to ask if she was okay or offer their condolences. Yet, Iris had dismissed them all with the reassurance she was fine and that she merely needed some time to think. Cilan had overheard her dismissals, and so he waited inside the church, watching her from one of the back pews, giving her the space and time to think as she claimed she desired. He didn't notice, but he wasn't the only one.
When the sun began falling behind the horizon, Cilan decided he had waited long enough, and he rose from his seat to approach her. Yet, she felt his presence behind her before he said a word or even revealed himself to her, and she was the first to speak.
"Don't you find it suspicious there's not a body?" she asked him ponderously. Cilan drew back with surprise.
"Excuse me?" he asked, mildly appalled by the bold and morbid question.
"No body," Iris repeated, turning her head back toward him. "Isn't that strange?"
"I... hadn't thought much of it," Cilan admitted. He sat beside her on the steps. His knees rose awkwardly high into the air, and he shifted uncomfortably for a moment, attempting to better situate himself.
Iris looked at him, unimpressed.
"Mhm," she hummed after a short while. Cilan read her behavior as more conspiratorial than she intended, and he looked at her gravely, feeling obligated to set the truth straight in the face of whatever living tenets of hope to which she still clung.
"Iris... Drayden is dead," he said gently.
"I—" Iris stopped herself from snapping at him. She wasn't sure why everyone seemed so ready to believe she was in denial of his death, but it wasn't fair to lash out at Cilan, of all people, for it. "I know that. I'm not saying he isn't. I'm just saying—" She stopped again and pulled her fingers through her hair before letting her hand fall into her lap. "... I don't know. I just think if he died in a car accident, there would be a body. Besides, it's not like this is some tragic thing where he left me in the gym late at night to pick up groceries and was killed by a drunk driver."
"What do you mean?" Cilan asked.
"He left a month ago," Iris elaborated. "He said he had some extended business to take care of, and he left me in charge of the gym. And then, I found out he'd died. And then, I received—"
"Received what?" he pressed when she hesitated to finish.
"Nothing," Iris said quietly, shaking her head. "Never mind."
"Iris, you can talk to me," he half-pleaded with her. Her gaze connected with his, and she felt her chest swell with the words she'd intended to say, but she let them go with a sigh.
"It's really nothing." She rose to her feet, then asked, "Are you heading back to Striaton City?"
"I'm taking a cab to Lacunosa and catching a bus, yes." He stood, too. "Would you rather I stayed for a couple days? My brothers would understand."
"No, go," Iris said with a couple flippant waves of her hand.
"Just go," Iris insisted, looking away. "It's fine. I'll be fine." Cilan was silent, unsatisfied, and so Iris carefully cast a concerned glance at him over her shoulder. "Stay safe out there, okay?"
"Same to you," he eventually gave in. Iris nodded and trotted down the rest of the steps, sliding her hands into the pockets of her gray dress. She felt the smooth surface of Fraxure's unexpanded Pokéball with her thumb. Cilan, meanwhile, watched her leave with worry creased in expression, but he eventually decided there was nothing further he could do and started down the steps, too, heading in the opposite direction.
When Iris was halfway across the lawn, however, she realized with a sinking feeling in her gut that she didn't want to leave Cilan on this note. So, she spun on her heels, toward him.
"Hey!" she shouted at him, grabbing his attention. When she had his eyes, she added in a more measured, though still audible volume, "Thanks for talking to me."
He stared. Then, he cracked a small smile.
"Anytime," he said.
They parted with some type of mutual understanding, one that couldn't be defined, not even by themselves—at least, not at that time. Thus, Iris set off toward the home that would not be a home for much longer. She had honestly believed its role would end before the evening began, but her delay in leaving the church meant she had one last night to suffer the loneliness now haunting the gym.
She pricked up in alarm when she heard her name. She turned to see a newer face running to catch up with her, and she waited for him with tension pulling her shoulders taut.
"Benga, right?" she asked when he met her, giving him only a moment to regain his breath, and that was all he needed. He was definitely fit for his age, whatever his age was—Iris guessed he was older than her but younger than Cilan, who had celebrated his 20th birthday several months earlier, before any of this had really begun.
"Yeah, you got it," Benga said, straightening up.
"What are you talking to me for?"
"A straight-shooter, huh?" he half-grumbled, half-remarked amusedly.
"Sorry," Iris mumbled. "I'm just tired, and I have some important things to do."
"Well, I won't hold you long, then." Iris said nothing; she only looked at him expectantly, so he went on, "That letter you were talking about—from Drayden?—what you're thinking about, it's true."
Iris's breath caught.
"Did your grandfather send you to find me?" she asked with some renewed vim.
"No, I came on my own," Benga said coolly. "Still, why do you think he introduced you and me?"
"So do you know anything?" Iris pressed.
"Look, if you want the truth—" Benga raised his left index finger upward and emphatically tapped the surface of his nail with the middle of his right index, forming the shape of a capital "T," three times. "—just remember liberty. Because the truth will set you free."
Iris's expression fell listless again, and she looked at him with exasperation. Then she made an annoyed noise and sent her gaze away from his with a roll of her eyes.
"Oh geez," she sighed.
"What?" Benga glowered at her.
"Nothing. I just wouldn't have taken you for—well, whatever." Iris briefly rubbed her temple before dropping her hand to her side and saying in a slightly more amicable tone, "Thanks. I'll keep it in mind."
Benga was visibly unsure of what to make of her response, but he settled on a positive outlook and shared a grin that was akin to his own grandfather's.
"Hope to see you again soon, Iris," he said.
He left, and Iris watched him disappear around the corner. She stood there, uninspired, before sighing again and turning back toward the direction where she was originally headed. The streets, she noted, were now near-empty. Hardly anyone went out after dark.