Chapter 22: Trainer Guilt

Angela looked up, her eyes red and puffy from crying. Victoria's eyes were closed, her head resting on her arms, while Mackenzie's face was blank and pale as he stared off into space.

They looked haggard and exhausted, hair mussed and unwashed, with dark half-moons under their eyes.

Moriko doubted her group looked much better. She felt like she hadn't slept in days, and Matt was near nervous collapse. Russell had gone on, uncomplaining as always, but she could tell he was exhausted as well.

Why would they look tired, anyway, with all their comforts at their fingertips? What could they possibly—?

"Dave?" said Russell.

Angela nodded, her eyes filling with tears.

x.x.x.x.x

"Do you want to talk about it?"

Angela blew her nose, shrugged.

"Dave didn't come for dinner… I went looking for him, and… well, he was training his pokémon a little ways away, he almost lost in Porphyry. I sent Phoebus to try to find him first, and then I went… and…" she trailed off, reaching up to cover her quivering mouth.

"Ophelia attacked Dave," said Kenzie, dully.

"Oh my gods," Russell whispered. "Are you three all right?"

"Let's just say it's been a horrible few days," said Victoria.

x.x.x.x.x

Like most settlements that developed near or because of their hot springs, Russet Town was milking the phenomenon for all it was worth. The town had the added bonus of Gaiien's frontier mystique, which guaranteed a not inconsiderable influx of visitors all year. Traveling to a hot spring to enjoy its purported curative properties was considered fashionable, and the further away you could afford to travel, the more fashionable you were.

Moriko regarded it with a certain amount of disdain. The town used the geothermal energy to generate electricity and heat water, but a distinct rotten-egg smell tended to pervade every space, making her wonder if it was worth it. She supposed everyone here had gotten used to the stench.

The 'center, like most of the town, had decided on stone architecture with that hewn-from-the-living-rock look. There was an unlit fireplace at one end of the lounge, a collection of chairs and couches around a television set, and plush rugs overlaying the stone floor. A couple of other trainers had commandeered the remote and were watching an extraordinarily dull pokémon contest.

Moriko half-dozed in her chair. Matt was stretched out in his stocking feet on a couch, sleep finally caught up with him. Something had happened to David, as far as she could gather, but she wasn't terribly concerned. Russell was too nice for his own good, really. Not her problem.

x.x.x.x.x

"We were paralyzed, really," said Kenzie. "One person going to get help was dangerous, but so was leaving one behind with Dave. A pokémon by itself might not be understood, or might even get captured or hurt by some overzealous trainer."

"I ended up going," said Victoria. "Cavall flew me to the nearest place we could find, this tiny little logging town… Blackwood-on-the-Mere. They got a message up to Russet Town and, well, here we are." She smiled weakly.

"I don't know what we would've done if she'd had to go further," said Angela. "They said it was… very bad, when the paramedics came with a jumpship to get him."

Russell took her hand. "I'm sure you did your absolute best. He probably wouldn't have made it if you hadn't been taking care of him."

Angela nodded wordlessly, dabbing at her eyes with a tissue.

"They're saying he's doing better," said Kenzie. "Stable condition. Not much to look at though."

"They're talking about putting Ophelia down," said Victoria.

Russell felt a black void open up inside him. It wasn't… surprising, but at the same time, could you imagine anything worse?

Even if you loved your pokémon, if they turned on you without provocation...

Even if they were sorry. Even if they knew they'd done wrong.

Who was to say it wouldn't happen again? To you? To someone else?

Journal articles he'd read scythed through his mind. Borfang aggression, borfang behavior, starter designation under review…

What about Sylvia?

"I'm sure we'll find out the whole story after Dave wakes up," Russell said, even as dark wings fluttered past his heart.

"I-I just can't get over it," said Angela, voice breaking. "She kept saying…"

x.x.x.x.x

Ophelia alternately whined and growled, flapping her wings with a spasmodic anger before crumpling to the ground, crying pitifully.

Phoebus stood near Dave's prone form, legs rigid and every hair on his body standing straight out while Selene whimpered, licking gently at her trainer's face. The yellow rings on her body glowed fitfully as Angela approached. Dimly, she heard Branwyn's distressed honking as the goose pokémon flew above the clearing.

Her heart seemed to stop as she saw what had been done to him. She took off her shirt, first aid courses coming back to her, but what could she do? Did he need a compress? A tourniquet? His face and chest had been torn to ribbons.

Out of the corner of her eye, she saw the borfang approaching, her movements jerky.

"Stop!" she said, whirling. "Did you do this?"

Ophelia flattened herself on the ground, her wings astray and her tail tucked under her body.

"Nonononono, bad dog, bad dog," she whimpered. In an instant her expression grew wild and she snarled before starting to chew on her own leg, which was already running red with blood. "Bad, bad, bad," she seemed to mutter.

"I think it was an accident," said Selene, her voice mouse-small.

Angela glanced at the umbreon, turned back to Ophelia.

"Ophelia, look at me," she said firmly. "What happened?"

"I didn't—I didn't—bad dog! Bad dog! No biting! No, no, nonono—"

The borfang froze, eyes staring into space.

"Ophelia—" she ventured, before the borfang uttered a terrifying howl.

Angela stared, hugging herself, as the wolf pokémon spread her wings and launched herself into the night, her pitiful cries echoing off the treetops.

x.x.x.x.x

"…It was just… it was misery, pure misery, when she howled. That's what it seemed like."

"Wow." Russell watched her, resting his head on one hand. "I… that is weird." He almost wanted to go talk to Dave now, to try to get some kind of explanation for Ophelia's utterly bizarre behavior.

And if there was none forthcoming?

Well, then it was an unprovoked attack, and the law was very clear on what should happen next.

"And in the morning," Angela was saying, "we found her nearby, but… she'd been gnawing her legs again, and… it looked like… I don't even know what she was doing, but she had scratches all over, like… maybe she was rolling on some rocks or something, who knows…"

"Her wings were torn up, too," supplied Kenzie.

Russell slumped in his chair. "This is just too bizarre. You guys have no idea…?"

They shook their heads. "None," said Victoria.

"I honestly can't imagine," said Mackenzie.

x.x.x.x.x

She'd wanted to visit the gym as soon as possible, but Russell said he was too worried about David to concentrate properly, and even Matt admitted to being tired still.

Moriko explored the town while she waited. Many of the shops catered to the wealthy, traveling here from overseas, or making the quick jaunt from Porphyry or Port Littoral: handmade clothing, semi-precious stones and fossils unearthed in the many mining towns of the region, rustic art, and of course, breeders selling local pokémon.

Others sold supplies and gear for trainers, which she browsed, trying to remember which ones had the better deals. They'd live off the pokémon center for now, but they'd need a lot of food for their next part of the journey. Crossing the desert wouldn't be fun, to put it mildly.

She battled a few trainers for sport, having little enough money to bet, but one win followed by two losses only deepened her gloom.

Finally, Moriko ended up heading to one of the cheaper hot spring baths, hoping that she could soak some of her troubles away. According to rumour, the spring on the top of the mountain had cured cancer in a number of unverifiable cases. This rough concrete pool smelling of sulphur and foot odour was probably good enough for mild depression, but she wasn't optimistic.

It was a cool day; the nearly-scalding water would probably have been intolerable if it weren't for the shade and intermittent breezes. This would probably be amazing to do during the winter, to dart through the freezing air and then sink into a pool like an all-over blanket.

There were a couple of other girls at the other end of the bath, chatting animatedly; they had their pokémon out, a couple in the water and a few on the deck. Moriko wasn't completely sure if that was allowed, but there wasn't anyone to tell them otherwise, so she retrieved her pokéballs as well.

Tarahn had splashed into the water immediately and now seemed to be in heaven, as far as she could read his expression; she had to resist the urge several times to nudge him to make sure he wasn't dead as he floated limply in the pool. Liona dipped her paws in to show willing, but she wasn't very interested and eventually went off to preen her wings instead. Rufus she actually managed to talk into going into the hot water for a few moments, but he still complained of it being a little chilly and found a sunny spot on the grass to steam off in. She'd heard about pokémon centers and spas in Kanto and Johto with magma baths that fire-types enjoyed, so she supposed it wasn't too surprising that he didn't care for the hot springs.

The mooskeg she still hadn't made up with, and she was getting anxious about that. Every time she'd let her out, the moose pokémon had resumed trying to maim and trample her, steadfastly refusing to listen to any kind of persuasion or cajoling. Matt had said that she needed to play on the mooskeg's fears: starvation, sickness, old age, attack by predators… of course, if the one thing she wanted was her freedom, above all promises for a better life, there was nothing she could do.

Moriko hoped she could find some kind of leverage over the pokémon, because if she was forced to release her, well, there went her type advantage over the fire-type gym in town.

She wasn't sure what she'd do if she lost again.

She watched the other girls' pokémon, to try to get her mind off her misery. One of them had a shining warhare by the look of it, with purple and green patterns on its fur instead of the normal blue and red. The sparkling dustmotes that floated off of it like shiny dandruff were a definite clue as well. She felt a pang of jealousy as she noticed the ice-type wintris lounging in the shade in its olive-and-red summer coat; individuals of the wolflike pokémon species spent most of their time rather further north during the summer, and she found herself wondering where the other trainer had picked one up. They'd had someone passing out starters wherever they were from, too; a suiline surfaced from underwater, steaming, and a borfang lay in the sun, wings outstretched.

It was funny how everything she'd heard and read about Gaiien had given her the impression that it was this enormous, empty land with few people and fewer towns, when the truth was that there were plenty of people. It wouldn't work if there weren't. Pokémon training was a multi-billion-yen industry, but not everyone's lives revolved around it. Mining, forestry, farming, fishing, trapping… all were much bigger than pokémon training in this region, but they were hard to glamorize.

Still, Gaiien was a big place; trainers congregated in the cities and towns to test their strength and purchase supplies, but with few real paths and roads, it was unlikely that they'd meet any outside of the various settlements.

She'd been looking at the region through Kanto-tinted glasses, she supposed. Kanto and Johto, where pokémon training was enormous and fourth and fifth-grade classes were often empty of ten-year-olds as they took their year off to go pokémon training as an excuse to get out of school. Where there were so many kids clamoring to fight gym leaders that they had to employ multiple lieutenants to try to reduce the volume looking for a match with the actual leader—but even then, the waiting lists were pretty long. And it wasn't as if you were limited to the same eight gyms, either.

Kanto, where you could ride a bus between cities, never spend a night out in the open if you didn't want to, and never had to worry about some monster stalking you through the woods and tearing out your heart.

Human monsters, maybe, she thought, and almost shivered at the morbidity of it.

Spots danced in front of her eyes as she got up to sit on the edge and cool down, so she decided she'd probably had enough of the hot water. It couldn't be good for Tarahn either, so limp and soft that he looked like he was close to melting; in a moment, certainly, runnels of yellow and purple would be running across the surface of the water.

Moriko smiled a bit and shook her head, before going to bug Liona and Rufus first, giving the raigar a few more minutes.

x.x.x.x.x

Her first thought was that Matt was sitting on the grass outside of the pokémon center beside a pile of burning tires, but as she got closer she realized it was the pokémon he'd caught back in the woods, the svarog.

She was hard to see clearly, being surrounded by a cloud of dark smoke that streamed away gently in the breeze; flames flickered along the ridge of her neck and back, and her eyes were a pair of half-hidden glowing coals. Only the lines of her snout and hooves were obvious.

Grass- and fire-type, she remembered from the pokédex entry. She supposed that was the result of the two opposing types: a pokémon that, itself, was burning.

Pigs were omnivorous, so the churned-up mess she was eating out of a basin was probably fine for her, but the mix of smells made Moriko's stomach turn over.

"What is she eating?"

Matt smiled, still tired even after a long sleep. "I'm not sure; there's meat in there, rats and fish and mealworms, and tubers and rice and leaves and fruit…" He laughed at Moriko's expression. "Well, she likes it, so it's probably all right."

The svarog took that moment to bite down on some kind of rodent; the crackle of little bones made Moriko's knees twinge.

"Urgh. I forgot why I don't watch Tarahn eat, he likes to eat mice like that, too. So, are you feeling better?" she said to the svarog, who grunted and kept eating.

Matt laughed. "She's just grumpy. She remembers her bruises, if not much about what happened."

"Is she annoyed about being captured?"

"A little, but it's more about the principle of the thing. She says she can't go back, anyway. Arboar hate the smell of smoke, even if she was careful not to burn anything." He sighed, rubbing one eye. "Any luck with the mooskeg?"

She shook her head. "I haven't tried since the last time."

"Well, y'know, if you haven't got it, you haven't got it… kidding," he added, seeing the look on her face.

She rolled her eyes. "Russell still at the pity party?" she said, changing the subject.

Matt raised his eyebrows. "That's pretty flippant. You don't care that someone's been horribly scarred and a pokémon is probably headed for the axe?"

"I care about his borfang, I think there was obviously something messed up there. Even if they sometimes, rarely, get a little crazy, I wouldn't put it past David to have been doing something. Pokémon have to do something for a reason, and if she went crazy then that happened for a reason."

Further eyebrow rise. "He's not your friend?"

Moriko made a face. "None of that group are. They were so shitty to me in middle school, sometimes I almost… well, Mackenzie I didn't know until later, but he's just like the rest. They tried to be nicer to me when we started in high school, but it was obviously because they watched some educational video on bullying and wanted to assuage their guilt. I can't stand them." She reddened a little, sensing that the amount of bile she'd just oozed forth was perhaps a little excessive, however deep the justification.

Matthew had an odd smile on his face. "I see I missed a lot of drama by being homeschooled. Probably for the best."

x.x.x.x.x

"A celestiule egg, huh?" Angela said, as she watched Russell's stantler play with the gray foal.

"I even got to ask Professor Alder about it. Apparently, it's weird but normal."

"You met Professor Alder?" said Victoria, snapping to attention.

"Yeah, back in Porphyry."

"Get out." Victoria stared at him in amazement. "That's awesome! He's, like, the authority on everything! What else did you ask him about?"

Russell grinned. "That's right, I remember how you wanted to be a pokémon professor, Vic. The visit was probably a little wasted on us."

She rolled her eyes. "Completely and utterly wasted. But seriously, did he say anything interesting? What was he working on?"

"Matt asked him about demon pokémon, and Moriko got the story of why professors all have tree names out of him."

"Oh whatever, you could have just asked me about that one," said Vic dismissively. "The tree names thing is nearly common knowledge, same as the bird names for pokémon doctors. Tell me you asked what he was working on?"

"Okay okay, don't hurt the messenger," said Russell, waving his hands in an attempt to placate. "He said he was living there temporarily while he was waiting for a jumpship to some old ruins in the desert, apparently a bunch of professors were all being dragged out there in a hurry. Maple and Holly were there already when I talked to him, and he said Linden and Dogwood would be coming over soon. That was a while ago, so it's probably a big party by now."

Victoria put her head down on her folded arms. "Typical… they probably brought a cadre of students along with them, each one. Why didn't I enroll right away? Whyyyy…?" she groaned into the table.

"Aww Vic, it's probably nothing interesting," said Russell. "They always get excited and make everyone drop everything and come over, but it always ends up being some broken pots and a stretch of wall."

She sniffed. "I appreciate your attempts to sour-grapes me, but my heart is broken," she said, mock-dignified.

"So what's the celestiule like?" asked Angela. "I've never had an egg pokémon—Phoebus was from the breeder's in Verdure, but he'd been out of the egg for a while."

"She can be a bit strange at times, but apparently that's expected—they get a dose of racial memory or their parents' memory or something like that. One of those big mysteries. I take her out every day, even on the road, to socialize and now she's nearly normal."

Angela's mouth quirked a little. "Nearly normal?"

"Well, she still comes out with odd things once in a while, but she was frankly creepy before. When she had just hatched, she looked around the room and said 'how dull'. I mean, she was in an egg!" Russell said, laughing. "How could anything be less dull than that?"

x.x.x.x.x

Everyone had their pokémon out in the exercise yard, it looked like, although she noticed that Russell's dirfox, still unevolved, was crouched underneath his chair. The poor thing had been nervous enough to begin with, but after his horrible experience in Porphyry, Conall seemed to be a mass of tics and twitches. The nurses at the pokémon center had recommended a break from battling, and hopefully time would help him get better, as it had after he was first captured.

She found an empty spot on the far side of the yard and let out Rufus and Tarahn before tossing the mooskeg's pokémon a safe distance ahead of her.

The moose pokémon had been hurt to begin with, never giving Moriko a chance to heal her in the field, and she'd been difficult enough to deal with then.

She'd been in her ball most of the time, but the repeated failed negotiations each evening between her and Moriko had slowly tired her out.

It was probably cruelty, but Moriko had refrained from giving her a session in a healing machine once she got into the city, and the result was that, for once, the mooskeg was too tired and hungry to swear and lunge at her.

She sat down, exhausted, but kept one eye on Moriko.

"Thought up anything else to try to say to me?"

Moriko sighed. "Just… give me a chance. You might find that you like battling. There's little danger in it—if anything goes wrong, you'll be fixed up in a second."

"Toil away at violent combat to make you look good? You know where you can put that," the mooskeg grunted.

"You'll never be in danger of starving, and you won't have to worry about becoming food for a predator."

"See these antlers? See these hooves? Pitiful bird-eaters like raigar and wintris hold no fear for me," she said proudly. "Anything else?"

"I managed to weaken you with two pokémon working in tandem," said Moriko. "Who's to say a pack of wintris couldn't do the same?"

"It's rare to see one wintris, let alone many, that far south," she sneered. "I'd take my chances over being a prisoner."

"Ursaring?"

"I'd take my chances."

Moriko sighed, rubbing her eyes. This was going nowhere. Even desperate and hungry, the mooskeg was too proud to submit.

"Look, I… I need you, okay? For this next battle. He uses fire pokémon, and you know water attacks. Just help me for this one battle. Help me win, and I'll let you go afterwards."

"And I to find my own way back, of course, after spending days blind and deaf in one of your void-prisons," she said scornfully. "What is the promise of an honorless whelp to me?"

"I swear I'll let you go. Just fight and cooperate with me for this one battle. Please."

The mooskeg was silent for some moments, pride battling with pragmatism. Eventually she sighed. "I suppose this can't get any worse. Very well. One fight, and then you release me fully healed and fed. Attempt to keep me, and I will fight to escape until I die."

Moriko nodded. "Agreed. I give you my word."

The moose pokémon sniffed, considering elaborating on precisely how much stock she put in a human's word, but instead rose shakily to her feet.

"Let's get you healed, then. Return," said Moriko.

x.x.x.x.x

"He says he doesn't know," said Angela.

All six of them were gathered around the rickety table in the pokémon center, even Moriko; the mystery was just too bizarre to pass on.

"He seemed pretty lucid, but he is on a lot of painkillers at the same time, so… Well, he said he couldn't remember. He remembers going out to train, and he was doing an exercise with Selene, and he thinks he remembers going to check on Ophelia and Branwyn…" Angela paused to blow her nose again. "He says everything after that is just a blur, flashes of waiting with us and then being on the jumpship, being in the hospital…" She sighed. "Who knows?"

"Ophelia and Branwyn were sparring?" asked Matt.

Angela nodded. "Mm-hmm, they can both fly—Branwyn is a brantmere—and they're both part grass, so he had them practice on each other a lot."

"Will he remember more later, do you think?" said Victoria, fiddling with a piece of paper.

"It was so traumatic," said Russell. "I doubt it. I think we'd need a psychic-type to try to sift through his memories."

"I… have a theory about what happened," said Matt.

They all looked at him. Moriko couldn't help feeling a twinge of annoyance. Matt, the know-it-all, holder of knowledge, would now dispense a grain of thought to the masses.

"I don't know you guys very well, of course—we've only met briefly a couple of times—but there're a few things I noticed about this whole thing, and I think I can try to explain it.

"First, I noticed that Dave is a fairly physical guy, touching shoulders, pats on the back…" he waved a hand vaguely, looking at them for confirmation.

"Yeah," said Mackenzie. "Yeah, he is like that. I remember I thought it was kinda weird when I first met him."

Angela nodded, her expression searching. "He always liked to hold hands and all that when we were going out."

Matt nodded. "Okay. The second thing is something I've observed over time—pokémon have a mode that they go into when they're battling. Heart rate increases, their senses sharpen—fairly obvious fight-or-flight responses, but I've noticed that sometimes their entire personality can change. A gregarious pokémon can turn snarling and vicious. They revert back to normal after the battle's over—usually.

"So, you said that the borfang was sparring right before it happened. So what if she was in that battle mindset, and Dave struck her—not violently, but like he was patting her on the back? What if she struck him and… got carried away?"

They were silent, watching him, while the bustle of the 'center went on in the background.

Hesitantly Angela nodded. "It was an accident, that's what Selene said. And Ophelia…"

"It broke her mind," Matthew said flatly. "She'd done the worst wrong she could imagine, and yet she wanted to go on attacking."

A few heartbeats passed in silence, and then:

"What's going to happen to Ophelia?" Mackenzie asked.

"The law's pretty clear," said Angela dully. "I don't know what she's like right now, she's had a go in the healing machine but she hasn't been out of her ball. But if she's a danger to others, then…"

"I would almost recommend it," said Matt quietly. "If her mind is damaged, then it would be a mercy more than anything else."

Angela nodded, dabbing at her eyes again. "Dave will decide when he's ready." She sighed. "He's going to have to go home after this, back to Port Littoral. And I think I'm going to go too."

Victoria patted her on the arm. "Are you sure, Ange?"

Angela smiled weakly. "I just… need a break. It's been so overwhelming. And maybe I'm a little superstitious, but I don't think this is a good summer. I mean, those kids getting killed on the road, those women in Porphyry…" She sighed again. "Yeah, I think I want to go home. I'm not even sure if I can focus enough to get the badge here."

"Three badges is pretty good for one summer," said Kenzie. "Even kids in Johto and Kanto are lucky to do that, and they don't have to go through what we do. I'm sure it'd be easy to pick up the thread."

Moriko took the opportunity to wander away, now that they were talking about Angela.

Just an accident, huh? she thought, walking out of the 'center. The sun was setting, the sky banded green and orange and red.

Just a little misunderstanding, and a life was broken, sundered. David was probably going to need plastic surgery for the damage to his face, but he'd got off lucky.

What kind of game were they playing out here that the stakes were so high?

We go around abducting animals and forcing them to fight for us, came a thought. Are we, torn faces and missing hearts, getting what we deserve?

She tried to treat them as friends, as partners. Honest. It was worth it. Glory was worth it. Was she a slaver, at the end of the road? Should she expect fire or poison or a razor beak, striking with the power she'd help them develop? Would she have to account for her sins?

She didn't know. She didn't know.

The sun set, the first stars appearing to shine in the velvety darkness; moths fluttered against the outdoor lights of the pokémon center.

Eventually she went back inside. There were some things she couldn't deal with. Not yet.

x.x.x.x.x

My WoW subscription expired not four days and I've already got a chapter to show for it. O:) How telling. Typed this up while procrastinating on various lab assignments, of course. Low reviewer turnout for the last chapter (cries self to sleep), but then I've got stories I've been procrastinating on reading for months so I probably shouldn't talk. n.n; Much love for all your attention and the reviewer response is in the forums as always. Squee!