Part Three - Thaw
" . . . They found me a chair to sit on. Otherwise, the researchers at the institute ignored me. They flitted back and forth, talking in low murmurs. The snippets of conversation I caught were always incomprehensible to me.
I was placed by Mom's desk. She had forgotten about me too. Sometimes she'd absentmindedly run her hands through my hair. I hated that, but I couldn't say anything. It was as if I'd become mute. I watched the dance of the computer lights, stared at the flashing maps of Hoenn on the screens. Occasionally someone gave me coffee in a styrofoam cup or a protein bar that tasted like mud.
I don't know how long I sat like that. It was hard to tell if it was day or night. The lights never dimmed and the rain pounded on the roof in the same constant drumbeat. Maybe I was awake or maybe I was sleeping. It didn't matter either way.
I dreamed of the rain, only it had seeped into the institute, it was rising up the steps in a slow, inexorable progression. I tugged at Mom's sleeve, but she batted my hand away. She didn't see it. Even when the water was lapping at our feet, even when it rose up over my mouth, and I began to choke, she didn't turn around.
That was how the dream ended.
I woke up to the sound of heavy snuffling. It took me a few moments to figure out where the sound was coming from. Finally, I looked down. There was a torkoal on the floor. He was blinking up at me with big eyes.
I looked back at him curiously. No one else was paying us any attention. There were people all around, but it was like we were the only ones in the room.
'Hello,' I whispered, surprised to be speaking. My voice came out quiet and thin. The noise drowned it out.
'Koal,' he said, giving my legs a nudge.
'Do you need something?' I said, continuing to whisper. I liked the idea. I wanted to be able to help.
He let out a puff of smoke.
I took that as a yes. When he began to walk away with slow, heavy steps, I followed. No one tried to stop me. He led me to a bag in the storage room and nudged it. Then he stepped back and regarded me with hopeful eyes.
'You need something, in there?' I clumsily undid the pack. There were a few cans of pokefood and some tools. I even saw a firestone sparkling in one of the pockets. In a small burlap bag, I found a heap of coal. As I lifted one out, the torkoal began to snort excitedly.
'Is this what you need?' But that was a stupid question. Of course it was.
I placed a lump of coal on the floor. The torkoal began to munch on it at once. When he finished, I put down another piece. Then another. Smoke began to billow out from his back. He let out a satisfied rumbling, then rose on his hind legs and plowed into me. Surprised, I fell to the ground.
Searchingly, he shoved his face into mine and began to snuffle. I could smell the coal on his breath. The smell was oddly comforting, and his breath was hot and dry.
I began to run my hand along his shell. He must have liked that because he let out another content rumble.
I laughed, just a little, and then suddenly I couldn't stop. I was choking; water streamed down my face.
Through my tears, I could see that the torkoal looked worried. He picked up a piece of coal from the ground and tried to put it in my mouth. I shook my head. 'No, it doesn't work like that, you silly,' I tried to explain, ' – coal doesn't help me.'
Maybe it did help, though. My tears stopped, and was able to get up. The brightness of the institute seemed to hurt my eyes less. I wandered over to a window with the torkoal following me.
Outside, the rain sleeted down. 'It's not going to stop,' I said aloud, but I wasn't quite sure any more. I hugged Torkoal again, just to feel the reassuring warmth of his skin.
It was another two days until the rain stopped. Chester stayed with me the whole time."
When I finished the story, I realized that my eyes were wet. Articuno was still watching me. She hadn't moved the whole time I'd been speaking.
I didn't know what I had been expecting, but I felt different somehow – lighter. I'd never spoken about the rains before. I had never been able to find the words to explain that utter certainty and utter helplessness – that the world was going to drown, and there was nothing I could do to stop it.
The next morning, Chester began to sniffle. When I put my hand on his forehead, it was cool to the touch. Giving him extra coal didn't help. He munched it eagerly, as if he were famished, but no smoke billowed out from his back, and his temperature did not rise.
A pit began to form in my stomach. "I'm going to have Nurse Joy check you out, huh, Ches?" I told him. "She'll know how to deal with this nasty cold you've got."
Chester gave a little moan in response. He tried to release a puff of smoke, as he often did to signal his agreement, but nothing happened, and he lowered his head, looking even more miserable.
It was twenty minutes before Nurse Joy came out from the examination room. I didn't like the look on her face, or the careful way she paused before speaking.
"Your torkoal has a problem common to fire-types," Nurse Joy said slowly. "Internal heat loss. It usually occurs when a fire pokemon has been frozen in battle and not defrosted quickly enough. Once a fire-type's internal flame goes out, it is very difficult to restart it. Fire-type pokemon have a particular process of homeostasis that allows them to maintain a drastically higher temperature inside their body than is outside. However, this works against us when trying to raise a flagging internal temperature."
Nurse Joy began to speak more quickly as she expanded on the science behind Chester's cold forehead and smokeless puffs.
I cut her off sharply. "But what does this mean for Chester?"
Nurse Joy swallowed. "Yes, well. It's not a rare problem, but your torkoal's case is unusually severe. I've only seen something similar in pokemon that have been caught in heavy snow for many days and then thawed out. Has your torkoal been exposed to anything like that?"
"No," I said angrily. "We were in very cold weather last week, but we were careful and he was fine after it. And he hasn't battled at all since then."
Nurse Joy shook her head, frowning. Then she sighed. "Come into the back with me."
I followed her. My mind seemed frozen. I didn't want to arrive at the conclusion all Nurse Joy's body language hinted at.
We arrived at a small room with fogged-up windows.
"We put Chester in the sauna room as soon as we took his temperature," Nurse Joy said. "A high external temperature can sometimes help in these cases."
I put my hand up to the glass and cleared the precipitation away. I saw Chester inside, curled up in a corner. He lifted his head when he noticed me and walked haltingly to the door.
"Hey Ches," I said softly, though I knew he couldn't hear me through the door. I turned to Nurse Joy. "Please just tell me the truth. Is Chester going to be okay?"
Nurse Joy looked away. Then she swallowed and met my eyes firmly. "Ms Kendall, we'll do what we can, but I would advise you to prepare for the worst. I don't know how your torkoal could have gotten into this condition. Possibly this is a new strain of virus that targets the homeostasis system. In that case, a cure might be possible. There are a few other treatment options – fresh magma can sometimes help. But considering Chester's current internal temperature, I couldn't confidently say he has more than a week left, unless something radically changes."
A week. I pressed my face against the glass of the sauna room, feeling cold all over.
Nurse Joy was wrong. A virus hadn't caused this. I thought of Articuno's pokeball, back in my room, and the deadly cold it emanated. This was Articuno's little revenge.
Bile rose in my throat and it was all I could do not to throw up right there.
Then a thought struck me. If Articuno was the cause of all this, then all I needed to do was keep her away from Chester. Alana was arriving tonight to pick up Sorok. She could keep watch over Chester for me while I was gone.
It's fine. Chester's going to be fine.
I took a deep breath to calm the thudding of my heart.
"I can go inside and visit him, right?" I asked Nurse Joy. She nodded.
Inside the sauna, I crouched down by Chester's side and ran my hand over his back. He shivered, and I withdrew my hand quickly.
"I'm going to fix this," I whispered to him. I didn't know what else to say.
I left the room quickly.
Back in my room, I combed my hair and made sure my eyes didn't look red. Then I opened a video call to my mother.
Predictably, no one answered. I almost rung off, but at the last second I decided to leave a message. Mom had always liked Chester, in her own vague way. Whenever she went off to Mount Ember for a conference she remembered to pick up some fresh coal for him.
"Chester's sick," I told the camera. "It's a problem with his internal temperature. It's – bad. They don't think he has longer than a week." It was strange to hear the facts like that, laid out coldly in my own voice. "There's something I'm going to try. It might work." I stared at the screen a little longer. My thoughts were sluggish today. I wondered if there was anything more that I should say.
Nothing came to mind. I ended the call and began to pack my satchel. A bullet train ran out of town in an hour. By morning, Articuno and I would be miles away.
That would help. It had to.
I tried to sleep on the train, but I kept shivering myself awake. Half awake and half in sleep, I nevertheless dreamed – vague, frenzied dreams, where the water rose up around us and then froze. The view outside the weather institute transformed into a glistening white world. I turned to Chester, wanting someone to hold onto, but he was lying motionless, covered by a thin coating of frost. I ran to my mother, trying to tell her, but when I took her hand, it was cold.
It was so cold.
The next morning I called Alana to check in on torkoal. I'd forgotten about the time change – when she answered, her hair was all over the place and she was in her pajamas. I must have woken her up.
"Morning Katriona," she said, with a sidelong glance out the window of her room, where it was still dark.
"Sorry about the time," I said mechanically. It was hard to feel that sorry for her, when I'd had so little sleep myself.
"No it's fine. It's probably good that you called – I should go down and check on Chester again. I sat with him most of last night, on and off. It's hard to stay in that sauna room more than fifteen minutes, you know?"
I nodded automatically, but in truth I hadn't even noticed the heat of the room when I'd been sitting with Chester. "How is he doing?" I asked "Has there been any change?"
Alana grimaced, and slowly shook her head. "No, Nurse Joy says his temperature is falling at a steady rate that's um, 'consistent with the lack of an internal flame.'" Her face crumpled. "I'm so sorry, Katriona. I know Chester's been with you for a long time."
She was a good friend, I realized suddenly, looking at her puffy and sleep-deprived face. I'd never really thought about it before.
"Chester will get better," I said, amazed to find my voice steady. "In the next few days, just wait, he'll get better. And when he's better, we'll go to Alola together." Alana had always wanted to go to Alola.
Her eyes widened. "Yeah," she said softly. "We will."
I nodded, but couldn't think of anything else to say. All I really wanted to do was get back under my blankets.
"Uh, Katriona?" Alana's voice made me pause. "I knew you're really worried about Chester, but take care of yourself, too, okay? Maybe it's the light and all, but you look really pale and kind of blue-ish."
I forced a smile. "I've had a bit of a cold myself," I said. "But I'm fine."
"Okay," Alana said, though I wasn't sure she believed me. "I'll call you if there's any change."
I wrapped myself up in my blankets and lay in bed, shaking. Articuno's pokeball was in my bag, buried beneath layers of thermal clothing, but I couldn't shake the sense that she was watching me, drawing satisfaction from my every shiver.
The hours passed excruciatingly slowly. I developed a cough and felt too ill to leave bed for the cafeteria. The center's chansey stopped by with some hot tea for me, but it did nothing to melt icy pit in my chest. I spent the next few days holed up in my room, only getting out of bed to answer Alana's calls.
Chester wasn't getting any better. The only comfort, according to Nurse Joy, was that he wasn't getting drastically worse. But I didn't need Nurse Joy to tell me that a fire-type pokemon could live only so long without an internal flame.
"Katriona," Alana said quietly. She was talking to me on tip-toes now. "Nurse Joy doesn't think Chester has much time left, unless we can get his flame relit. I know you had an idea to help him, but maybe you should come back. If he d-dies in the next day, you'll want to be there, won't you?"
She'd actually said it. I'd been wondering if she had the guts to.
If Chester died. I imagined his breathing still and his body go cold, all without me.
Alana was right. I had to be there.
I had to go back.
It was getting hard to avoid my own thoughts. The fuzziness had lifted from me, and the world seemed brightly, startlingly clear. I blinked at the lights on the train, and shut my eyes tight against the glare.
Chester was dying, and it was Articuno's fault. It was my fault.
But there was still a chance. The hope flickered up in my heart like a tiny ember. Articuno had unleashed this cold on us. She could end it.
I needed Peesha to make my way from the train station to an empty field close to the pokemon center. Bracing myself against Peesha's reassuring bulk, I let out Articuno.
The cold grew more intense. My eyes watered and my face began to ache. It was hard to look Articuno in the eye, but I did.
"A bargain," I said. "You stop hurting Chester. When he gets better, I'll let you go."
She didn't move. I couldn't even tell if she'd understood me.
I wondered whether I'd ever seen anything in her eyes. Maybe it all had been my projection. Right now she seemed as emotionless and implacable as winter itself.
I knew suddenly that this silence was a refusal.
"Please," I said. "Chester – he never attacked you, he didn't help me when I captured you. He's innocent in this."
But when had the pokemon of legend ever cared about petty concepts like innocence or guilt?
What had Kyogre cared, when she almost drowned us all?
"What do you want from me?" I shouted at her.
It all seemed pointless suddenly – the dream that had led me to Yakuto's mountain. What had I been trying to do?
I'd captured a god to prove a point. I'd done it because I could.
None of that seemed to matter when I thought of Chester, growing cold in his little room.
I fell to my knees.
"Please," I said. I realized I was crying, though the tears froze on my face before they could travel down my face. I tossed Articuno's pokeball at her feet. "See? I've freed you. Help him."
Articuno slowly picked up the pokeball with one talon. She breathed on it, and ice began to spread across its surface. Then she clenched her talon, and the pokeball cracked.
Only then did she look at me. Her gaze pierced me like a blade of ice. The cold intensified into a loud red roar and the world began to spin.
Articuno rose into the air. The flash of the sun off her wings was the last thing I saw before my vision went black.
I woke to the sound of low humming.
"I think I saw her blink. Katriona? Katriona, are you awake?"
The voice was too loud. I grimaced and tried to put my hands over my ears, but they were curiously heavy.
I cracked open an eye and Alana's face swam into focus. Her face broke into a huge smile.
"What – " My voice sounded cracked and dry. It was hard to get out words. "What happened?"
"You had hypothermia. You must have passed out. Your mamoswine got you back to the pokemon center just in time, but you've been asleep the whole day." Alana frowned at me, her eyes bright with worry. "You could have told me you were so sick! I would have come and gotten you."
I heard the door open, but didn't have the energy to turn my head to see who had come in.
Alana looked up. "She's up, Ma'am!"
That's when I knew it must be a dream. My mom came into my field of vision. She was wearing her nicer sweater, and she'd gelled down her hair.
"Hi Honey," Mom said, patting my arm awkwardly.
I squinted up at her, trying to make sense of her presence. Then I realized I'd been forgetting something more important.
I shot up in my bed. "Chester! Is he okay, is he – alive?"
Alana beamed in response. "Chester's doing just fine! All thanks to Professor Kendell here. She arrived this morning, with this magma stone she'd gotten at Mount Ember – have you heard of magma stones before? They've got hot magma actually preserved inside. When Chester ate it, his flame re-lit, and his temperature's been going up since then. It's almost back to normal."
I sank back down in bed, staring from Alana's smiling face to Mom's accompanying nods.
"Can I – see him?" I managed to say.
Alana sprang to her feet. It occurred to me that she must have been sitting at my bedside a long time, and that Alana was someone better suited to motion than rest. "I'll get him! Nurse Joy said he's strong enough to leave the sauna for a little while." She looked from me to Mom, smiled, and raced out the door.
"She's a nice girl," Mom said, as the door swung shut. "You should have brought her by sometime."
"Brought her to the lab?" I said sharply.
Mom blinked owlishly at me.
I let out a long breath. My thoughts were still scattered and it was hard to think. "What are you even doing here?" I asked finally.
Mom ran a hand through her hair, looking surprised when it came back sticky. "Well, I got your message, Honey. And I'd just been having a fascinating conversation with a group of vulcanologists from Mt Ember about magma flow, so when you mentioned Chester's internal temperature problem, it occurred to me that a magma stone might do the trick. I was able to get up to the peak that afternoon, but it took me several days to actually secure a magma stone. The vulcanologists get a little possessive with them." Mom gave a small smile that reminded me how good she could be at getting the things she wanted. "Luckily, I wasn't too late with it."
I stared at her. She was unselfconsciously rubbing the gel off her hand onto her slacks. Somehow, it felt as if I was seeing her for the first time. Weather and rain and magma flows, I thought. That's what she knows how to deal with. Me, on the other hand . . . she doesn't have a clue, does she?
"Mom," I said.
"Hm?" Mom said, looking up.
"Later, we need to talk."
"We're talking now, Honey."
"That's not what I mean," I said tightly. She was always like this. No matter how much she looked in my direction, she never looked at me.
When the water rose, you should have held my hand. You should have taken me in your arms and told me it would be all right, even if you were lying.
I stare at her, lacking words for the feeling burning through me.
Before I could say anything more, the door flew open. Alana stood on the threshold with Chester in her arms. When Chester saw me, he lifted his head and began to squirm.
"Hold on now," she said, laughing, and deposited him right on top of my chest.
Chester was heavy, and his full weight made it hard for me to breath, but I didn't care. I wrapped my arms around him, and he let out a content puff of smoke.
The familiar smell tore at something in me. I pressed my face into his side, feeling tears start to run down my face.
"Chester," I said in a muffled voice, "I love you."
Pressed under him, it hit me that for the first time in a long time, I felt warm.