Aurora slept late that morning, and was grateful for the rest. Between what had happened the day before and what she expected to happen today, she was amazed that she was not plagued by nightmares, but if she had any they were forgotten as soon as they passed. When she awoke, it was to the sight of sunlight spilling through her window, the sound of Pidgeys and Spearows chattering outside her window, and the scent of something cooking. She dressed and washed quickly, and hurried downstairs to see what breakfast was like at the Mahogany City Gym.
She entered the kitchen to find that the rest of the group was already up and sitting around a massive wooden table, devouring stacks of flapjacks and sausages. It was interesting to see Ember seated across from any Gym Leader, especially one as stern and tough as Pryce, but they didn't seem to find anything odd about the situation. They chatted with each other about the best tactics for dealing with Ground-type Pokemon while Ember politely passed the butter dish to Yukiko and Miyuki. Laine was sitting across from the twins, shoveling down pancakes with one hand while the other scratched busily in her notebook as she quizzed them on Ice-type Pokemon. Auora found a free seat and squeezed into place.
"There you are," Laine said. "We thought maybe you were gonna sleep all mornin'."
"I'd like to see you deal with an angry Articuno and still feel like anything the next day," Aurora retorted. "My head still aches from talking to him."
"You had better hope you get over it before we get to Blackthorn," Ember commented. "You're going to need to be sharp if you're planning on messing with Clair."
"Well, aren't you encouraging?" said Aurora.
"Don't listen to him," said Laine. "Have a pancake; they're even better than the ones Dad used to make."
"When you've been making them as long as I have, they'd better be good," said Pryce.
Aurora nearly dropped the pancake she'd been reaching for. "You cooked these?"
He raised one of his bushy eyebrows. "Who did you think cooked them? The Swinub?" He pointed to a small, furry thing sitting on a chair, which Aurora had first taken to be a throw pillow. It whuffled at her, and Laine fed it a bite of pancake. Aurora started to say something, changed her mind, and turned her attention to eating breakfast. The company might have been a bit odd, but Laine was right - the food was good.
After the humans had eaten all they wanted, and the Pokemon had pecked and gobbled the last of the crumbs, Miyuki and Yukiko gathered up the breakfast things and swept off to wash the dishes. Laine followed after Pryce, the two of them discussing various aspects of her father's research. Aurora found herself with nothing to do, and some of the nervousness she'd been fighting to prevent started to rise up.
"Are you all right?"
Aurora jumped. She'd seen Ember leave the table, but she hadn't heard him come up behind her.
"Don't sneak up on me like that," she scolded.
He gave her a half-smile. "My apologies. The habit of moving quietly, once instilled, is very hard to break."
"Oh," she said. "I guess it's okay... Did you want something?"
"Not really. I just thought you might be feeling a bit nervous this morning," he said. "I thought I might break a personal rule and be sociable a while. Would you like to walk around outside a bit?"
"Um," she said, surprised. "I... guess that would be okay."
They went out into the cool morning, with Scar hopping a few paces behind as a determined chaperone. Aurora thought privately that any good this idea was doing was negotiable; some activity might help her get her mind off the coming battle, but walking through an empty pine forest with Ember brought its own form of nervousness. She liked Ember well enough, but she was not always sure where she stood with him or what he was going to do next. She remained silent as they strolled idly around the perimeters of the Gym.
"I am not very talented at conversation," he said, "but if there's something on your mind, I can listen."
"I don't really know how to say it," she replied.
"Are you afraid?"
"Not exactly," she said. "I mean... I know this is what I have to do, so I know there's just no getting out of it. Even if it's dangerous, I can't turn around and go home now. I even think I can win." She ran her fingers over the black PokeBall, the one that held the Articuno. "It's just... there's a part of me... that doesn't want to."
Ember gave her a quizzical look. "You can't tell me you actually want to lose a battle."
She shook her head. "I just don't want this to be happening. Win or lose, nothing is going to be the way I thought it would..."
"You're disappointed in Clair."
"Yes," she said. "I thought she was everything... Why did she have to turn out like this? Why did she have to - to lie to me, to pretend to be so great when she knew she wasn't?"
"She might not have known," said Ember with a shrug. "Some people don't. Someone tells them one too many times that they're perfect, and they start to believe it."
Aurora made a face. "It's not right."
"You'll get over it," said Ember with a shrug. "It's called 'disillusionment.' It's what happens when you wake up and find out that things aren't what you thought they were. That's a good thing - you can't fight what you don't believe in."
"You talk like you have some experience."
"Do you think I was always at odds with my uncle? When he first brought me into the fold, I thought he was the greatest leader ever born." Ember grimaced. "He told me so himself."
"Well, you're different," she said.
"Different from what?"
"From - from me. Your situation is different. You'll be a good leader someday. But me..."
"What's wrong with you? I should think you'd be a paragon of respectability next to me."
"But I'm not a leader," she said. "And people seem to think I am, or will be - Falkner and Morty, and... I don't know. They say they're teaching me, sizing me up to see what kind of Gym Leader I'm going to make someday. It's like they think once they get Clair out of the way, they want me to take her place, and I just can't. I'm too new. I have too much to learn. I've seen the Gym Leaders, and they're all strong or smart or talented... I'm not good enough to be one of them."
Ember was quiet a moment, considering.
"You're not, hm?" he said casually. He was quiet for a while, and she waited, sensing he was building up to something. He bided his time, watching the clouds drift lazily across the sky. Finally, he turned to her and said, "Where do you get Gym Badges? Generally speaking."
"You get them by beating Gym Leaders," answered Aurora.
"And you've got seven of them. That means you've proven your worth to seven Gym Leaders. You must be very weak indeed, don't you think?"
Aurora scowled. "I didn't win them all properly. Half of them were just given to me..."
"Were they? Let me see."
She stepped forward, and he gravely inspected the Badges that glittered at the hem of your shirt.
"Seven Badges," he murmured. "One for beating a full-fledged Gym Leader on your first full day of training - your first ever battle. One for stopping a raging forest fire. One earned while trying to protect a friendship. One for honor and fair play. One for valuing other people's happiness above your own. One for upholding justice. One for taming a legend." He looked up at her again. "And all this you've accomplished in a matter of days. Are you sure you don't deserve these?"
"Well, maybe... But nobody just gave things to Clair. She won them by fighting."
"Yes, she did."
There was silence again. Aurora felt uncomfortable. She had the sense that Ember was trying to communicate something to her, but she couldn't quite grasp what it was. Scar seemed annoyed at her; he squawked impatiently. She frowned, trying to think.
"I think I have it," she said slowly. "You're saying that Clair just got her Badges by fighting, not by doing anything really good..."
"Just like she always does," said Ember. "Walking all over people and Pokemon like they're only there to be her stepping stones."
"Right. She destroys people," Aurora agreed. "And... you think I'd do better?"
"You've proven you have. You never once took advantage of power or advantages that were offered to you. You could have accepted Morty's offer; you could have taken Jasmine's Badge without fighting... you could have joined the Rockets," he added with a half-smile. "You also know how to lose gracefully, and when it is better to step down from a fight. That's something Clair never learned, or she wouldn't be where she is now. Oh, and one other thing..."
"Talk to your Pokemon. Ask them how they feel about fighting Clair. Then think about it. I'm going back inside."
He turned to walk away. Impulsively, Aurora hugged him.
"You try to be evil, but you're not," she told him.
"Don't be ridiculous. I'm a Rocket," he said, flushing almost as red as his hair. "I just have a stake in this thing. It's a disgrace, letting any Gym Leader make deals with Rockets. I want to see Clair put in her place, and it'll do me good to see her stomped out by a little girl. Now, let me go."
He stalked off, and Aurora let him. She'd probably embarrassed him enough for one day, she thought... but his advice was worth thinking about. It wouldn't hurt to let her Pokemon out for a romp, either, or to ask their opinions on matters. She certainly wasn't going to send them against the most powerful Trainer on the continent if they didn't feel ready. One by one, she released her companions into the sunlight.
"Better loosen up," she told them. "We have a big fight today... that is, if you want to have one."
Moondancer leaned against Aurora's leg like a cat, twining her fluffy tail between her ankles. She wanted to know why Aurora thought she wouldn't like to fight. She always liked to fight. It was fun! She wanted a new challenge, the sooner the better. Aurora smiled and reached down to rub her ears.
"What about the rest of you?" she asked. "It's going to be tough, tougher than anything else we've done together. There's a chance you'll get hurt. I won't make you fight if you don't want to."
We've been hurt before, Rusty said. I joined you of my own free will, because you helped me. When I made that agreement, I knew I would be fighting battles for you. I am ready.
Frightful the Crobat perched upside down on her arm, chattering reassuringly. He would have died if Aurora hadn't been brave enough to save him. She'd been willing to be hurt by Rockets for his sake; he was ready to fight for her now.
Blabberbeak fluttered in the shadows of the trees, chattering his beak. Wherever Murkrows went, they were hated and feared, yet she'd taken him in. He was more than ready to give back some of the punishment he'd taken from the Rockets!
Scar gave a loud squawk and flared his wings. Scarred for life through the cruelty of his first trainer, he had come into her hands believing all humans to be selfish. Now he knew differently. Thanks to Aurora, he was proud and strong again, and he wasn't about to forget it. He knew Aurora would do anything for him - even give him his freedom. That was why he stayed by her.
Do you see? Rusty inquired. Perhaps some trainers hold their Pokemon captive with PokeBalls. You hold us with something stronger.
"Thank you," she said. "I know you won't lose for me."
"Get lost!" Blabberbeak said.
She laughed and ruffled his crest feathers. "You crazy thing."
As she reached for her PokeBalls so she could put her friends back in their places, she noticed her PokeGear still strapped to her wrist. She didn't think she had anything special stored in it, but it couldn't hurt to look - perhaps she'd find something useful. Not hoping very much, she skimmed through its contents, and her eye was caught by the Sharp Beak amulet. Falkner had given it to her some time ago, and she had gotten so distracted by subsequent meetings with Blabberbeak, Team Rocket, and Morty that its presence had been forgotten entirely. Now she wondered whether or not she should give it to someone. It might give her some kind of advantage in the coming fight, and she was willing to grasp at any one of those that she could.
All right, then, who would be the lucky one to receive it? She looked over the assembled company and considered. Her first thought was to give it to Articuno - after all, he was supposed to be carrying a large part of this battle. Ice was one of the few weaknesses Dragons had, after all; she needed him to be at his best if she wanted to win. Then again, Articuno seemed to be powerful enough as it was, and his power rested primarily with ice. Sharp Beak only enhanced the powers of Flying types. Besides, a part of her balked at giving gifts like that to such a lofty stranger. She wanted Falkner's gift to go to someone she cared about, someone who would still be with her when Articuno had gone back to his ageless sleep. She looked at Scar again. Lowly, unlovely, unevolved Scar had been with her from the first, and unlike the others, he had no other special abilities besides Flying. He could use the boost.
"Here you go," she told him, slipping the golden chain over his head. "This will help."
Scar hopped sideways a few paces and tilted his head in amazement. No one had ever given him a present before.
"Don't act so surprised," she told him. "You're my best friend, aren't you? You deserve it."
Scar preened her hair and fluttered off, strutting and prancing to see the amulet twinkle in the sunlight.
A few minutes later, Laine arrived, looking annoyed.
"What're you doin', lurkin' out here like this?" she demanded. "You tryin' to get eaten by an Ursaring or somethin'? Because if you are, this is a good place to do it."
"Sorry," said Aurora. "I was just getting ready for the fight."
"Oh," Laine said. "Anyway, the rest of us were wonderin' where you'd got to, and Ember said you'd gone for a walk, and we didn' know whether to believe him or not. I'll hafta go home and tell the Bobsey Twins not to dredge the lake for ya."
"They wouldn't really, would they?" asked Aurora, collecting her Pokemon.
"I dunno," said Laine. "They're funny kids. They say all kinds of stuff with the same smile on their faces, and I can't tell if they're serious or joking."
"They seem nice enough," Aurora commented, falling into step with Laine. "A bit formal, but nice."
"Yeah. I dunno why Pryce rags on 'em the way he does. Whaddaya think of Pryce? Is he a character or what?"
"I like him," said Aurora. "He reminds me of Scar."
They regrouped in front of the Mahogany Town Gym, where Pryce was waiting and ranting to anyone who would listen about irresponsible kids who went places without saying where they were going. After he had delivered this speech to Aurora and had heard a sufficient number of apologies in reply, the group held a consultation about how they would make their journey to Blackthorn.
"The long way," said Yukiko, "would be to take the tunnels through the mountain. That would be most impractical if you are in a hurry."
"It would be shorter if one had a Pokemon who could Surf," Miyuki said. "There are a few short ponds one must navigate, but-"
"How did I ever wind up with such a couple of nitwits for apprentices?" Pryce snapped. "The lady you're talking to is a birdkeeper! The quickest way is to fly!"
Yukiko gave him a serene smile. "We were merely suggesting possibilities."
Laine snickered. Pryce glared at her, and she assumed an expression of angelic innocence. Aurora fought the urge to laugh.
"Will the other young lady and gentleman be flying as well?" asked Miyuki. "I was not aware that they trained birds."
"I travel with Rora," said Laine. "One of her birds will give me a lift."
"I have my own ways of flying," Ember said. He flourished a PokeBall, and his Charizard burst out. It flourished its tail, making the twins jump backwards.
"Back off," Pryce scolded. "You may have the type advantage, but I'll still find a way to cool your jets if you get nasty. A lot of Ice-types are Water-types too, you know."
Charizard huffed smoke at him. Pryce didn't look impressed.
"All right, you three," he said. "I won't say what you've got in mind is smart, but I wish you good luck. Here." He reached into a pocket and took out three sparkling Badges. "A promise is a promise. Here are your Glacier Badges. Now, go put that Clair on ice! I never liked her - uppity woman. You show her who's boss."
"We will," said Aurora. "So long, Pryce! Thanks for everything!"
She opened a Pokeball and released Rusty, and within moments, she and her friends were nothing more than specks floating on the breeze. Pryce stood and watched them until they vanished into the sky.
"Brave girl," he commented. "Got more guts than your usual birdkeeper. Who knows but she may actually have a chance."
Aurora had thought that her first impression of Blackthorn had only been so dim because she had arrived near dusk, and because of her nervousness. Her hope was that the city would seem less forbidding in full daylight. She was wrong. The town she and her friends glimpsed from the air was the same one Aurora had entered on foot that first time. From above, all she could see was a spatter of black roofs against the dark stone of the mountains and the green-black of the pine trees. It was a quiet and somber place, emanating a feel of oldness and power that touched her even in the bright sky.
"Take us down easy," she told Scar. "The last thing we need is to draw attention."
Scar gave a soft croak of agreement and banked slightly, beginning a gentle spiral towards the earth, and Rusty followed his lead. Ember, flying a short distance behind the girls, decided to be more direct and simply had his Charizard make a straight dive downward. He seemed to be ashamed that he was bending Rocket protocol enough to actually travel with a pair of honest trainers, and was compensating by being as unsociable as possible. After the girls had landed amid a thick stand of trees, they stood and waited for him to come and catch up.
"Going in on foot?" he commented. "I'd have thought you'd go for a dramatic entrance."
"I'd rather avoid attention as long as I can," Aurora replied. "I don't need to give her a chance to jump out and surprise me."
Ember gave a brittle laugh. "You think you can avoid detection? You forget - Team Rocket is watching you. If her spies are still doing their job, she knew about you an hour ago, and she's sitting in her lair sharpening her claws for you right now."
Aurora gave a deep sigh. "This is going to be harder than I thought."
"Don' worry," said Laine. "You brought backup, remember? Wonder Boy and I can handle them Rockets so you can go after the big fish."
"Are you referring to me?" asked Ember with a raised eyebrow. "Coming from you, I am not entirely sure that is complimentary. But you are right. I should think between the two of us, we can keep my uncle's watchdogs off of you for however long it takes to finish your battle."
"You'd better hope you're right," said Laine.
They went in, quietly, with Ember leading the way. He did not take them directly into the city, but slipped through the shadows of the forests and down the side streets. He himself moved with all the silence of a cat, a grace that the girls couldn't hope to emulate. Still, they were quiet enough that no one who wasn't actively listening for people walking around could hear them.
Someone was. Someone did. A man in black espied them from his perch in a tall tree, and he scurried into town to give warning.
Unknowing, Ember continued guiding his followers around the outskirts of the town. Their pace had slowed, now - they had reached the edge of the forest and were coming into a rocky area that pressed closely against the buildings. Further up the mountains, it was steep and impossible to climb, forcing them to move nearer the city than they would have liked. They picked their cover with care, moving through the shadows of large boulders and doing what they could not to dislodge any stones. Scar seemed to understand the need for secrecy; he hopped along behind them instead of flying.
"What I intend to do," said Ember to Aurora as they huddled behind a stone, "is to sneak around to the Dragon Temple and come up through the back of the town. Since the Gym is directly in front of the Temple, anyway, we won't have to pass through areas where people are likely to be, so we'll be less likely to be noticed."
"Are you sure?" asked Aurora nervously.
Ember glared at her. "I'm good, Winter-hair, but I can't make you invisible. There will be guards in front of the Dragon Temple, but they're not supposed to move unless someone tries to force entrance. Other than that, there usually aren't too many people around. It's the best I can do."
They moved on. Now Aurora could actually see the Gym, and the Temple, barricaded by a small pool of water, it's dark entrance flanked by a pair of guards in solemn black uniforms. They seemed to notice the movement in the hills; Aurora could almost feel their gazes resting on her.
"Be casual," Ember whispered. "Try to look like you belong here."
The girls nodded and followed as he strolled across the grass, trying to copy his attitude. He ambled along as if he was in no particular hurry, glancing around as if mildly interested in the scenery. Aurora wasn't sure she could manage to look so calm, but she did what she could. Laine managed nicely; she had always been good at acting like nothing bothered her. As they drew nearer the Gym, Aurora dared to think they might just make it without any incidents.
"Well," said a voice, "why does this not surprise me?"
Aurora jumped. Laine glared at her. Ember kept his eyes fixed in the direction of the speaker. A man was standing in the shadows of the Gym, nearly invisible against the darkness.
"You should know me well enough by now, I would think," Ember answered calmly. "Though I admit to thinking you had better sense to be here in broad daylight, Uncle."
"Half credit, Ember," he said. "I had been intending to leave, but I heard you were coming this way, so I thought I'd intercept you."
"Why? I thought I'd been disinherited."
"You have," answered Giovanni. "That has no bearing on whether or not I'll allow you to interfere in my business. You have been causing an inordinate amount of trouble since you left the fold. I am beginning to think it is time to bring you home, whether you like it or not. I'm going back to Viridian City, and you are coming with me."
"What, giving up on your dear Dragon Master?" Ember taunted.
Giovanni's visage clouded a bit. "I confess to being disappointed in her. She has proven fatally flawed. I know when to cut my losses, even if she doesn't."
"So you're going to leave her to take the blame while you leave town, hm?" said Ember. "Typical, letting someone else take the brunt of your own punishment."
"That's enough of that. I am not going to take that rebellious attitude any longer," said Givanni. "It's about time I taught you a lesson."
"No," said Ember. "It's about time you learned something from me."
Giovanni gave him a tolerant smile. "What could you possibly know that I don't?"
"That your days as Team Rocket's leader are over," answered Ember quietly. "I'm claiming my birthright. You are not going to run away today - you are going to stay here and harvest what you've sown, and I am going to assume what's rightfully mine. By all the laws that even you uphold, I challenge you to a Pokemon battle, for the leadership of Team Rocket."
"You think you can defeat me?" asked Giovanni, laughing mirthlessly. "Very well. I accept your challenge. And just to make things interesting..."
He snapped his fingers. From hidden shadows and crevices, his followers came to circle the group of children. Ember's eyes widened in outrage.
"That's cheating!" he blurted.
Giovanni laughed. "You expected less from me?"
"Don' worry," said Laine to Ember. "I'll deal with the goons - you deal with your uncle."
"Fine," he replied. More loudly, he said, "All right, then - begin!"
There was instant chaos as the Rockets released their Pokemon in an immense burst of eye-searing light. Laine sent out her own small army, ringing Ember with his own line of defense. Ember shot a look at Aurora.
"Don't just stand there!" he ordered. "Go find Clair!"
Aurora nodded and ran. A nearby Rocket tried to grab her, but she ducked out of his way, and nearly ran into another. This one was quicker; he grabbed her wrist, but she kicked him in the shins and twisted away. A woman Rocket grabbed one of her long ponytails, only to have Scar throw himself at the woman's face, raking at her with his sharp claws.
"Forget the girl!" Giovanni shouted at them. "Clair can have her, if she wants her so much."
Aurora continued to run, dodging a few last half-hearted grabs until Laine's Snorlax placed itself firmly between her and the battle, sealing off most of the street. Panting a little and trying not to be worried about the fight-sounds going on behind her, Aurora climbed the steps of the Blackthorn City Gym and went inside.
For a moment, she was blinded, as she stepped from the brilliance of a sunny afternoon into the gloom of the Gym. There were no windows, no lights, only dark stone walls and the red- orange glow of the lava boiling below the gym floor. On the far side of the room, seated on her throne and flanked by two Dragonite statues, Clair rested, watching. She seemed almost like a statue herself, perfectly cool and unruffled, unaffected by whatever chaos was going on outside. Aurora walked slowly towards her, stopping a few yards away, just close enough that she could match her stare for stare.
"I've come back," she said quietly.
"So I see," was the response. "Still dragging around that scruffy Spearow, no less... I suppose you think I ought to be impressed by your Badges?"
"I don't expect you to be impressed by anything."
"Indeed. Perhaps you've learned something on your journey, after all. So, you've seen the light and realized that you are not worthy to train with me, have you?"
"That's true. I don't deserve you as a trainer."
Clair's eyes glittered. "I'm glad to see you've figured that out. Perhaps after a few more years of training..."
"I don't deserve you as a trainer," Aurora repeated. "I deserve a lot better than you."
Clair went rigid. She narrowed her eyes and glared. "What did you say?"
"You heard me," said Aurora. "I don't need you to train me. There's nothing you can teach me that I'd want to know. All you know how to do is to force your Pokemon to obey you out of pain and fear, and how to rub out anyone you think will be competition for you. I could learn that from Team Rocket, if that's what I wanted. No, forget that - I know Rockets who are better trainers than you."
"How dare you!" Clair gasped. "You insolent little...! I am the greatest trainer on this island! There is no one who has mastered Pokemon as I have!"
"Good thing, too," said Aurora. "The last thing the world needs is more trainers like you - if you can be called a trainer. You're a slave driver, is what you are, and I'm going to put a stop to it. I'm going to rub you our, Clair. Your days as Gym Leader are over. In the name of all those trainers who lost their dreams because of you, I challenge you to a Pokemon battle."
Clair smiled. It was a smile not even the heat of the boiling lava could have warmed.
Outside the gym, the street was in total chaos, as Rockets and Pokemon ran rampant. Laine thought she had picked out a full half-dozen Rockets milling around, though they moved so much that it was hard to keep track of them all. She didn't care. She still had a score to settle, and she was more than a match for all of them. Her Espeon was currently involved with launching Confusion attacks at a collection of Koffings and Grimers, who were reeling away from the psychic barrage. Slowpoke was showing an unusual amount of energy as he squared off with a lone Magmar. Spook the Gastly floated over the battlefield, putting enemies to sleep, paralyzing them, and laughing at them as they tried in vain to land attacks on him. Snorlax didn't go for such subtlety; he simply jumped into the air and flattened anything that happened to be underneath him when he fell, Rockets and Pokemon alike.
"That's for what you Rockets did to my dad!" Laine shouted. "That's for cutting off my Slowpoke's tail! That's for kidnaping me and my friend! Maybe this'll teach you not to cause so much trouble!"
Her taunts might not have had any particular effect - it was unlikely that any of the Rockets even heard her over the battle noise - but her Pokemon's attacks were working. None of the Rockets' Pokemon were managing to get anywhere near Ember and Giovanni. They stood calmly in the middle of the chaos, facing each other with identical glares.
"Well," said Giovanni softly, "it seems I must give you some credit for choosing powerful friends."
"Not only powerful, but loyal," Ember replied. "The three of us owe each other our lives. Even if I lose this battle, I'll still be able to rely on them long after your empire has fallen."
"It is good to know I'll leave you with some consolation," said Giovanni. "Enough of this talk. Let's finish this quickly."
With a flourish, he produced a PokeBall from inside a coat pocket and lobbed it at Ember. It opened, revealing a formidable-looking Dugtrio. Ember eyed it critically. It seemed his uncle really did want to end this battle quickly; the mole-Pokemon could easily drop his own partners down a Fissure if he gave it a chance... so of course, he wouldn't. Ember reached for a Ball of his own and released his Aerodactyl.
"Flying types are immune to Ground moves," he said casually. "I suppose you regret giving me this thing now, don't you?"
"Type advantages are no substitute for experience," Giovanni answered, but he didn't sound like he meant it.
"Very well - experience this!"
Aerodactyl dove at the Dugtrio, which dropped straight into the ground. The stone bird hovered, confused, until the mole reappeared and slashed at it with rows of sharp claws. Aerodactyl shrieked, but he was more angered than hurt. He attacked again, pecking and clawing until he'd beaten the mole into submission, forcing Giovanni to withdraw.
"How does it feel to be losing to a young upstart?" Ember taunted.
"If I were you, I wouldn't be counting my Exeggcutes until they hatch," Giovanni retorted.
In a flash, he produced a towering Nidoking, which whirled in place and kicked the Aerodactyl with its powerful hind legs, and Ember winced as his Aerodactyl hit the ground. He quickly weighed his options and came up with the realization that he had no Pokemon with an advantage against Poison-types of any sort, that his uncle's Pokemon was an extremely powerful and well-trained Poison-type, and that this was not going to be as easy as he'd hoped.
Clair slid from her throne in a sinuous movement that put Aurora in mind of a snake, and smiled thinly.
"I'm sure you felt just terribly important making your little speech," she said. "I just want you to know how unimpressed I am. As a matter of fact, I think I'm going to enjoy this. Perhaps it's even better this way. Yes, I had meant to have the Rockets remove you for me, but now I think it will be more enjoyable if I rub you out myself."
Aurora felt a chill run down her back, despite the heat of the room, as she realized what Clair was saying. If she lost this match, the forfeit was likely to be her life. Clair could pitch her into that bubbling lava, and there wouldn't even be a body to prove murder...
"You can still back down, you know," said Clair.
"Why? So you can have fun chasing me around Johto some more?" said Aurora. "So you can kill me without having to get your hands dirty in a real fight? Or are you so afraid of losing now that you won't even get into fights anymore?"
"I would never be afraid of a little girl without even a month of training behind her!"
"Very well." Clair's eyes narrowed. "It's time to teach you a lesson. Begin."
With a graceful flick of her wrist, she conjured up a Dragonair, a long, lithe beast with sky-blue scales... but even in the dim light, Aurora could see the paler tracks of old scars. For a moment, she felt almost guilty about hurting the creature again, but she consoled herself with the thought that she would be far fairer to it than Clair had ever been - she would at least give it a chance to defend itself.
"Take it, Scar!" she ordered.
Scar shrieked and made a dive at the Dragonair, pecking furiously at it. The dragon attempted to defend itself, but it didn't even have arms or legs, and for the first few moments, it had to settle for backing away. In the end, it managed to lash its tail around and catch Scar in a strangle-hold. Even so, Scar continued to peck and struggle until his strength was spent. A blast of bright light hit him, and Aurora remembered belatedly that Dragonairs knew Thunder Wave. Shocked into paralysis, Scar slumped onto the ground.
"Sorry, Scar!" Aurora shouted.
She tried to get near enough to him to administer the Paralysis Heal, but the Dragonair put himself between her and her partner.
"Even if you revive him, he has no strength left to fight," said Clair. "He's down. Next Pokemon."
Tears pricking at her eyes over the unfairness of it, Aurora nevertheless managed to choose a new Pokemon. Frightful fluttered into action. He was perhaps not the strongest Pokemon she had, but Scar's valiant efforts had weakened the Dragonair considerably. All it took was a few bites from Frightful's sharp teeth to send it slumping into unconsciousness... only to be replaced by a new Dragonair. This one was larger and somewhat more healthy-looking than the last one. It took one look at the bat and blasted it with a burst of dragon-fire. Frightful gave a squeak and fell, and Aurora was only just able to recall him before he fell into the lava pools.
"Two to one," said Clair complacently. "I seem to be winning."
"I'm not done yet," Aurora retorted, but inside, she was beginning to worry. Two out of six Pokemon down... how many did Clair have up her sleeves? Three, it looked like, and at two Pokemon to one of hers, it was going to be an uphill battle.
Perhaps it was pure annoyance at Clair that made her choose her most insulting Pokemon next. Blabberbeak took one look at Clair and rattled off a series of jeers and jibes that Aurora hadn't even known he was capable of, all of them highly offensive and some of them rather vulgar. Clair gave him a look that should have frozen water and shouted an order at the Dragonair. Instantly, a small tornado sprang up, snatching the bird out of the air and slamming him against the walkway, forcing him to scramble frantically to avoid falling. He vanished and reappeared next to the dragon, attacking with all his strength while the dragon responded with bursts of flame and lashes from its strong tail. Finally, the Murkrow could take no more, and he fell in a faint. Aurora recalled him.
"Not good, not good," she muttered, skimming over her PokeBalls. Only two of her close partners left. Should she go ahead and release Articuno now, before they got hurt? No, she was saving him for an ace in the hole. She did not, could not trust his powers unless she had tried every other option first. Well, she would use the most powerful thing she had handy, then. "Rusty, you're up!"
It's about time, Rusty commented as he materialized. Is that the woman you want me to battle? She looks no stronger than any other human woman. Weaker, in fact. She's trying to hide it, but she's seen better days. I think she knows it, too.
"What is he saying?" asked Clair. She could not fully understand Rusty's thought-transfer, but she still had the distinct feeling she was being insulted.
"You don't really want to know!" Aurora replied. "Okay, Rusty, show her what you're made of!"
I am made of steel! If she can't see that, she's more nearsighted than I think she is, Rusty replied, but he nevertheless dove to batter at the dragon with his powerful steel wings. It was only a matter of time before it was forced to relent, and it dropped to the ground, looking like a wrung-out cloth.
"You think you're special," Clair muttered, "because you've tamed a Skarmory. I'll teach you! Try this on for size!"
The final PokeBall was opened. Aurora stared.
"A Kingdra?" she said. "Ember has one of those. His is a lot better looking than yours, too."
"You leave that would-be Rocket out of this," Clair snarled. "Go, Kingdra! Punish this girl for her insults!"
The Kingdra gave a screech, but before it could aim an attack, Rusty dove at him and began his attack. The water-dragon was not about to sit by and let itself be beaten, though - it fought back with everything it had, and for a moment, everything seemed to be obscured by flashing wings and fins. Suddenly, there was a burst of bubbling water, and Rusty, soaking wet, was pitched against a wall. He hit the platform like a pile of pots and pans being dumped on a sidewalk and lay there with as much energy. The Kingdra remained upright, scratched and battered but still just barely conscious. Clair laughed.
"There? You see?" she boasted. "None can stand up to the power of the Dragons!"
At that moment, something small and dark leaped out of the shadows. It bit the Kingdra in the back. With a final screech, it dropped to the platform in a faint. Proudly, Moondancer trotted up the walkway to sit proudly in front of Aurora.
"There's a lot to be said for a little subtlety," said Aurora. Despite the victory, she felt strangely calm. It was as if she were just dreaming all this, just watching herself as she went through the motions of a dream-battle. "It's over, Clair. You've lost."
"No," said Clair. "I have not lost. I never lose, not today or any other day. Behold!"
She touched a device on her belt, and the statues beside her throne swung aside, revealing a pair of dark doorways. Two Dragonites stepped into the room, their dark eyes narrow and vicious.
"Meet my pets," said Clair. "They're very useful for cleaning up the mess that's left after battles. Boys, get rid of that little furry pest."
The Dragonites roared and flared their wings, and suddenly Moondancer was hit from both sides by a blast of white energy. She gave a heart-wrenching shriek and fell, her fluffy fur nearly burnt off by the force of the attack. Aurora stared from her fallen partner to Clair, eyes wide with shock.
"That - that's cheating!" she blurted.
Clair gave an ugly laugh. "Who cares? The most powerful trainer should win, regardless of rules."
"You think so?" said Aurora quietly. She felt very cold, cold but angry, like a midwinter storm. "You want power, then? I'll show you the power of legends!"
Clair began to laugh again, amused at the girl's bravado. Then she abruptly stopped laughing. The room had suddenly gotten very cold, and there was a weird blue light in the air. She turned and stared at the gleaming bird of ice that had materialized in the middle of her gym, watching as a rime of frost crept across the floor and up the walls, freezing the pools of lava into cold black rock.
"What is it?" she whispered.
"Articuno," Aurora answered. "The elemental of ice. Your mortal enemy."
Wheels clicked in Clair's brain. The elemental of ice... she had dreamed of this icy bird destroying her... but no, it couldn't happen. If she destroyed him, would it undermine the powers of Ice as well? The Dragon-type's only real weakness was Ice; if she could cut it off at its source...
"Kill him!" she barked at the dragons. "Destroy that bird!"
The dragons flew into action, blasting at the bird with bolts of white light. Articuno fought back with bursts of ice, but he could not be in two places at once, and every time he managed to injure one of the dragons, the other would hit him with a Hyper Beam or something equally uncomfortable. Aurora held her breath, wondering how long even an elemental bird could stand up to such a beating. She got her answer a few minutes later, as Articuno hit one of the Dragonites with an icy blast, knocking it out of the air. At the same time, the remaining dragon struck him from behind. He shrieked with a voice that seemed to make the whole building shake, and Aurora clapped her hands to her ears. There was an eye-searing flash of blue-white light, and Articuno disappeared.
*I have done all I can,* she heard a whisper of his voice say in her mind. *I return to my eternal sleep. Farewell.*
"No!" Aurora wailed. It was not supposed to end like this - it couldn't... but it had. With a moan of defeat, she fell to her knees next to her fallen Pokemon. She should have known it was going to end like this. Hadn't she been told in her dreams that not even the power of legends could defeat Clair? She should have heeded the warnings. Now she was going to die for not listening.
"That's right - kneel before me," said Clair, striding proudly over to her gloat. "I want you to know your place before you go."
"You're a monster," said Aurora defiantly, glaring up at Clair. Hot tears spilled unchecked down her face. "How can you do this?"
"I am a goddess," Clair replied. "I will not be held back by the rules of common people."
Aurora stared up at her, thinking, *This woman is insane. She should be put down, like a mad Houndoom.*
Clair hooked a hand under Aurora's chin, hauling her to her feet so they could look into each other's eyes. The other hand moved to tighten around the girl's throat; she could feel Clair's nails digging into her skin. It wouldn't take much more pressure before it would start obstructing her breathing. At her back, she could feel a rising heat; without the Articuno's power to cool it, the lava had started boiling again. Aurora wondered giddily if she would be thrown in before or after she suffocated.
"You are going to die now," Clair told her softly. "Thus go all who dare to oppose me."
Aurora didn't have the breath to argue, and couldn't have thought clearly enough to make an answer even if she had been capable of speech. This close to her, she could see the small details of Clair's face. What had looked flawless from afar was now clearly visible as an artful mask of makeup, not completely disguising the fine lines around her eyes and mouth. Glints of silver showed at the roots of Clair's dark hair.
*She's really trying to make herself last forever,* thought Aurora. *As if she really does want to be a goddess...* Something about the idea made her feel sick to her stomach.
"You have been an interesting opponent," said Clair. "It is seldom anyone makes it this close to me these days. Consider yourself lucky to have had the honor of dying by my hand. Goodbye."
She took a step forward, moving to drop the girl into the lava pit. However, before she could make another movement, something in the corner of the room began to glow. She turned her head, startled, and loosened her grip just enough that Aurora was able to twist free.
"What? What's going on?" demanded Clair indignantly.
"It's Scar!" Aurora cried joyfully. "The paralysis wore off!"
It was true. Even as she spoke, Scar raised his head and flared his wings... but there was something else going on. Light continued to shine around him as his wings spread and his neck stretched. Suddenly, he was no longer a scruffy Spearow, but a graceful bird with long wings, a flowing tail, a slender neck, and a swordlike beak. He still had a scar over one eye.
"He's evolved!" exclaimed Clair in consternation. "That Spearow evolved to a Fearow!"
Aurora could only stare. This was the final vision her dream had showed her, the bird she had not quite been able to make out before she awoke. She thought she'd never seen anything so beautiful.
"Fearow!" Scar trumpeted, propelling himself into the sky. He zeroed in on Clair with malice in his eye.
"Stop him!" shouted Clair at her Dragonite. "Stop that mangy bird!"
The Dragonite did what it could, but it had already lost most of its strength. After the battle with the elemental bird, it was hardly a match for a hatchling, let alone a full-evolved Pokemon. It made a few feeble swipes that seemed to do more to tire it than to hurt its opponent. Scar made a single well-placed peck, and the Dragonite fell back with a groan. The Fearow crowed his battle cry. Aurora dashed forward, throwing her arms around him and hugging him.
"Scar, you were wonderful!" she exclaimed, burying her face against his feathers. "I knew you wouldn't let me down!"
Of course I wouldn't, said a gruff but familiar voice in her mind. I love you.
Aurora looked up in surprise. Just as she opened her eyes, she saw a movement, and she managed to dive out of the way just in time to see Clair, shrieking with rage, make a crazy dive at the place where the girl had been standing a split second earlier. Scar batted her with one of his wings, and she tripped, falling dangerously close to the edge of the walk. She scrambled for a handhold and huddled fearfully on the floor. Scar hopped over to her and glared down at her menacingly. Aurora joined him.
"That was a very bad thing to do," she said. "It's over now, though. Completely over. Falkner's already left to get Lance and tell him all about what you've been up to, and they'll be coming back any time now to put you away. Face it, Clair - your days of being a Gym Leader are over. Your days of being anyone are over."
Clair opened her mouth, perhaps to threaten or plead, but was cut off by a different sound. There appeared to be a commotion going on outside - what kind, it was hard to tell. Abruptly, Aurora remembered Ember's battle with Giovanni. Had something happened out there?
"I'll be back in a minute," she said to Scar as she ran out the door. "Keep an eye on this creature, and if she moves, peck her eyes out!"
Scar squawked his agreement and fixed Clair with an appraising stare, as if wondering which eye he ought to take out first. Clair looked up into his merciless gaze and shivered.
Out of character as it was for him, there was a brief moment when Ember had wished he could turn around and leave, go back home to Viridian City and his parents and forget all about doing anything as potentially dangerous as picking fights with the leader of Team Rocket. That moment had occurred at approximately the same time he had seen his Aerodactyl fall, and had alleviated in the moment he'd realized that his Charizard was a match for a Nidoking - a close match, but definitely a match. It had taken some doing to get the Nidoking to finally give up the fight, but in the end, Charizard had been triumphant. He'd been taken out shortly afterwards by Giovanni's Kangaskhan, which was in turn canceled out by Ember's Kingdra. By that point, Ember had even been daring to think he had a chance at winning. By the time Kingdra had finished off Giovanni's Persian (who had always been more for show than actual fighting, anyway) his confidence was fully restored.
That was about the time Giovanni had released a Machamp, and things got ugly.
"I am impressed," said Giovanni mildly, as Kingdra gave a final squeak and collapsed. You've learned a good deal more on your little sojourn than I'd expected. Perhaps in a few years, you really will be ready to face me properly."
"I'm ready now," said Ember stubbornly. "You haven't beaten me yet."
"It is a foregone conclusion," Giovanni told him. "How many Pokemon have you got left? Only one? I have three. At the rate you've been going, I don't think you have a chance."
"Oh, I always have hope," said Ember casually.
"Indeed? Your optimism is impressive. Foolish, but impressive."
"I don't think so."
Ember opened his final PokeBall. A gleaming blue Gyarados appeared, thrashing her fins and showing off her sharp teeth. Ember stroked her nose affectionately.
"Okay, Hope," he said. "Sic 'em."
Hope gave a roar and charged at the Machamp, catching it off-guard. It staggered backwards and fell, and Hope snatched it up in her sharp teeth and chomped it soundly. It bellowed and struggled, but its attacks had only minimal effect on a part-Flying, and it was finally forced to give up the effort as futile.
Giovanni frowned as he began to process similar equations. As the former keeper of the Earth Badge, he still preferred to work mainly with Ground-types, and his final two Pokemon were both evidence of that fact. His Sandslash and Marowak were both powerful in and of themselves, but against something that would resist half their attacks and then douse them with their enemy, Water...
"So," he said quietly, "all this time you were holding back..."
"Just saving the best for last," said Ember casually. "Now, what is it you were saying about this battle being a foregone conclusion?"
"I admit to being surprised," Giovanni answered, "but you have not won yet."
"So you want to stand here and force your Pokemon lose a battle for no good reason? Admit it, the fight's already over and I have won."
Giovanni glared at his nephew, but he was saved from replying as a shadow fell over the battlefield. Instantly, everyone turned and stared at the sky, shouting and pointing, as a pair of swift-moving shapes sailed by. One was a handsome Pidgeotto, and the other...
Ember was so caught up in staring that he did not realize Aurora was standing next to him until she started tugging on his sleeve.
"What's going on?" she whispered. "I heard all this commotion, and..."
Ember silently pointed, and Aurora, too, became quiet.
Landing in front of the Dragon Temple was... a dragon, of course, a gleaming orange-gold Dragonite with flashing green wings and a proud mein. Why shouldn't he be proud? Perched regally on his back was a tall, regal man dressed in a dark uniform and a long cloak. His hair was graying at the temples and his face somewhat lined, but despite that, he did not show any hint of being old or weak. Those details only complemented his air of power with a hint of wisdom. Aurora wouldn't have had to see the dragon to know that this was Lance, Leader of the Elite Four, perhaps the most powerful man in the world.
She didn't realize she had been staring blatantly until Falkner came over and shook her out of her daze.
"Aurora, what are you doing here?" he demanded. "I thought I told you to stay with Pryce!"
"I was going to," Aurora answered, but... things got complicated."
"They always seem to," answered Falkner with a wry smile, looking around at the battered Rockets and the scowling Giovanni. "All right, what happened here? And where is Clair?"
"It's going to take some time to explain, but... I fought with Clair and I won. She's back there in the Gym. Scar's guarding her."
"I can't think of a better guard," said Falkner. "I think I can deal with her from here, though. With your permission, Master Lance...?"
"Go ahead," said Lance with a nod. "I think I can handle things here."
Falkner gave a small bow and headed for the Gym. Lance turned his attention to the matter closest at hand.
"Good morning, Giovanni," he said politely. "I was wondering if I might run into you here."
"Hello, Lance," Giovanni replied. "It has been an interesting morning, certainly, though I can't say I would call it good."
There was a hint of a sparkle in the Dragon Master's eye. "You being what you are, I think you'd avoid it like the plague if it was good. Would you care to save me some trouble and explain to me what's going on here? My friend Falkner tells me you've been causing trouble again."
"The same as usual," said Giovanni with a resigned sigh.
Much to Aurora's surprise, he began explaining to Lance the details of what had been going on with Team Rocket for the last few months, while Lance listened with something that looked like polite interest. He even laughed quietly, once or twice, as if he was hearing the plot of a good book rather than the details of a plan that could have overturned the whole continent.
*If I didn't know better,* she'd thought, *I'd think they were friends... or good rivals.*
Within a few minutes, Falkner returned with Scar and Clair. It was easy to see what had taken him so long; despite the fact that Falkner was taller and stronger than Clair, and that Scar was still lending his convincing presence, Clair was still putting up a terrific struggle. She fought and scratched like a cornered Persian, screaming in fury. As she drew closer to the assembled company - or rather, was forcefully dragged - her gaze fell on Giovanni, and her expression went from outraged to positively livid.
"You!" she shouted. "You set me up for this! Giovanni, make them let me go! You can't let them do this to me! Don't leave me here like this!"
Giovanni studied her thoughtfully, and for a moment, Aurora would have sworn he felt sorry for her. Then he sighed and looked away.
"Sorry, Clair," he said. "Team Rocket doesn't deal in losing propositions."
Desperate, she turned to Lance.
"You won't let them take me, will you?" she begged. "I was your student... You were going to make me your heir..."
"You have disgraced the name of the Pokemon League," he told her sternly. "By your actions, you've forfeited any privileges you once had. I hereby strip you of them. You are no longer my heir, my student, or a Gym Leader."
Clair let out a heartbroken wail. Lance's expression remained as stone.
"Take her away," he ordered the Dragonite. "She will be judged by the Elite Four and myself at the Indigo Plateau, once the details of the case are fully clear. Until then, let her be confined in a cell in the Silver Mountains until we have time to deal with her."
The Draginite nodded and scooped her up, looping her with his tail and flapping off into the sky. Lance sighed.
"I had such high hopes for her," he said.
"As did I," said Giovanni, shaking his head. "Perhaps my judgement is not what it once was, after all..."
"Excuse me," said a voice.
Aurora jumped. Once again, it seemed Ember had managed to slip off without being noticed. Now he was walking back from the Dragon Temple, carrying an indistinct blue bundle in his arms. It was only as he came to stand next to the Dragon Master that she could see it was a Dratini. It was very young and small, and covered from end to end with signs of whiplashes.
"Master Lance, sir?" he said uncertainly. He looked a little overwhelmed at having finally met his idol. "Can you help her? I found her near the mouth of the cave... She says her name is Skystar."
"Does she, now? Hm," said Lance, carefully taking the dragon. "Well, thank you for bringing her to me. I think I can take care of her."
He reached under a fold of his cloak and took out a potion, which he carefully administered to the little Dratini. As it drank, its strength returned, and it chittered with happiness as it finished off the last drops.
"There," said Lance. "Almost as good as new. I'm afraid there's nothing that can be done for the scars, but at least she's healthy now. With any luck, she'll stay that way now that Clair is gone."
"Are you going to keep her?" asked Ember.
"I don't think so," Lance replied. "I can't keep every dragon there is, even if I am a Master. Besides, she likes you."
The Dratini chirped and nodded her head vigorously. She wiggled out of Lance's arms and twined up Ember's arm, wrapping herself around his neck like a scarf. Ember smiled a little as he stroked her nose. Aurora could hear muttering in the background and tried to surpress a giggle; it seemed Laine was annoyed with the fact that someone else got to play with the rare Pokemon.
"I think she has a good home," said Lance. "Is this the nephew I've heard so much about? He seems an admirable character. I will look forward to working with him in the future... He is your chosen heir, is he not?"
Giovanni appeared to be making some serious mental calculations. Then he smiled slightly and set a hand on Ember's shoulder. "Yes. That he is."
Ember stared at him, startled. Then some of the ramifications of the situation dawned on him, and he smiled and went back to admiring his new dragon.
Lance turned his attention away from the Rockets, and Aurora froze as his dark gaze landed on her. She might not idolize him as Ember did, but she had to admit that Lance had a commanding presence.
"You must be Aurora," he said. "Falkner has told me a lot about you."
"I hope most of it was good," she answered, feeling somewhat embarrassed.
Lance laughed. "Quite good. Indeed, our fine feathered friend speaks quite highly of you. But even without his reports, I would be impressed. It isn't often that a trainer as young as yourself has been able to win against Clair... even before she sunk to cheating to help her win."
"I had help," said Aurora.
"Has anyone ever won a Pokemon battle alone? No, we all win with the help of our friends, family... and our Pokemon, of course. Those who try to win by their own power alone end up like Clair," said Lance. "Speaking of which, there now seems to be a vacancy in the Gym hierarchy. We need a new Dragon Master. Your friend Falkner speaks highly of your ability and integrity, and he tells me your dream is to become a Gym Leader. As one who has defeated Clair, you have the right to take her place."
"Thank you very much," she said, "but I don't think I can accept."
"No?" Lance looked faintly puzzled. "May I ask why not?"
"Because... it's just not for me. I don't have the ability."
"If it is a matter of ways and means, you will be provided with dragons of your own to train... and as the reigning Dragon Master, I will be willing to assist you in your training."
Aurora shook her head. "It's not like that. I'm just not cut out for being a Dragon Master. I love my own Pokemon. I wouldn't replace them with anything. Anyway, I don't think I'd want to stay in the Gym where Clair was. I wouldn't feel right living in the same place as the woman who tried to kill me. I don't think I'd make a very good Dragon Master... but I know someone who would."
"Oh?" asked Lance, looking curious. "And who might that be?"
"A Dragon Master ought to be someone who knows how to handle power - someone just a little bit dark and dangerous, but not enough that they'd abuse their position," said Aurora slowly. "I think you should make Ember the next Dragon Master."
There was silence. Everyone stared at Ember.
"Me?" he said. "But I'm..."
"A Rocket?" Lance suggested. "So is your uncle, and he held the highest Gym in Kanto for years. It is not an insurmountable obstacle, provided certain restraints are followed."
"You'll be good at it," said Laine, nodding in agreement. "Rora's got it right. Just look at your Pokemon! You've got a Dragon affinity."
"I do?" he said blankly.
"Charizard, Aerodactyl, Gyarados, Kingdra... and now a Dratini," said Aurora. "That's got dragons written all over it."
"A dragon affinity is very rare," said Lance thoughtfully. "I'd thought I was the only one alive today who had one."
The Dratini chittered at Ember. He listened to it intently for a moment, then shrugged.
"If it's all right with you, I suppose I can't object," he said to Lance. "What do you think, Uncle? Should there be another Gym Leader in the family?"
"Don't ask me. You've been telling me all this time you're going to do everything your own way no matter what I tell you," Giovanni replied, but he didn't sound too terribly displeased.
"Fine," said Ember. "I accept."
"Wonderful," said Lance. "We'll get everything arranged as soon as possible. As for the young lady..." He turned back to Aurora. "...perhaps you will accept this instead. I believe I am still licensed to bestow it."
He handed Aurora a glittering bit of metal.
"I hereby bestow upon you the Rising Badge, mark of mastery over all Pokemon," he said. "By this Badge, you will now be recognized as a Pokemon Master."
She bowed and murmured her thanks, momentarily overcome by emotion. Somewhere in the dim reaches of her mind, she was thinking that being a Pokemon Master didn't feel any different than being a regular trainer. She was still a little confused by everything that was going on, and wishing she could take off by herself for a while to consider what she was going to do next.
"Now that the ceremony has been dealt with," said Giovanni, "could we please wrap up the more urgent matters? I don't have all day to hang around, you know."
"Very well," said Lance. "This is a rather unusual situation. Come along, Ember. It's time to figure out what to do with you."
He clapped a hand on Ember's shoulder, and a highly bemused boy was led off between the leader of the Rockets and the Dragon Master.
It was time to say goodbye. Most of the afternoon had been taken up hammering out negotiations between Giovanni and Lance about what the conditions for a future Rocket Leader becoming a Gym Leader and Lance's heir apparent should be, and yet more hours were used up getting him officially installed in his new post. Aurora spent the time wandering aimlessly around town. In a way, she envied Ember. At least he had someone to tell him what he should do next.
"What are you going to do now?" she asked Laine.
Laine shrugged. "Keep on goin', I guess. I still haven' seen all I wanted to see of Johto, and Kanto's still out there, and other islands over the sea... I've got a lotta travelin' to do. Maybe I'll pick up some more of these Badges, while I'm at it. Might be fun to have the whole set."
"Like maybe the Storm Badge?" asked Aurora with a small smile.
Laine grinned. "Yeah. Come to think of it, I might go for that one first. Be nice to see how ol' Bruce is doin', now that he's a Gym Leader an' all. Think he'll remember me?"
"Of course he will! You're unforgettable."
"Thanks - I think," said Laine. "So, what are you goin' to do next? Hang around Blackthorn a while?"
"I don't know what I'm going to do," said Aurora. "All this time, I thought I was going to stay here... now it's like I don't have a place anymore."
"You could come with me," Laine suggested.
Aurora dredged up a smile. "Thanks, but... I don't think I'd make much of a researcher. I will miss you, though."
"Hey, it ain't like we'll never see each other again," said Laine. "Though come to think of it, I am kinda gonna miss havin' you around gettin' me in trouble. You're a good friend."
"So are you. Probably the best I've ever had."
"Fear, fear, fearow!"
Aurora laughed. "Next to you, Scar."
Finally, near sunset, Ember was allowed to come out of the Gym and get a breath of fresh air. Seeing him coming from a distance, Aurora noted that someone had dredged him up a new uniform, something that was neither his Rocket suit nor his trainer disguise, but something similar to Lance's costume, though plainer.
"I'm glad that's over," he said as he came within speaking distance. "You have no idea how tedious those kinds of meetings can be. Perhaps I'll outlaw them someday."
"Did you get everything all settled?" asked Aurora.
"For the most part," Ember replied. "There are still a few small details to work through, but the basic agreement is that I can still run the Rockets and my Gym as long as I keep the jobs separate - no using my position as a Leader to help keep the Rockets out of trouble or anything like that. On the upside, Lance is going to stay in Blackthorn for a few weeks to help train me. I think I'll learn a lot from him."
Ember smiled a little. "It's going to be a change from my old life, that's for sure. No doubt, I'll be ready to get away from it all in a month or two and wishing I could go back to roaming again... but I thank you anyway. All in all, I might just enjoy being the Dragon Master."
"I knew you would," said Aurora. "You'll be much better at it than I ever would."
"Even so, you'll have to come back to Blackthorn once in a while," said Ember.
She blinked in confusion. "I will?"
"Of course. If I'm going to have any success at being the most powerful trainer on the continent, I'll need my rival to keep me sharp." He took her hands in his. "So you'll have to come back soon."
"I will," she promised.
"All right, all right, break it up, you two," said Falkner, striding over to join them. "Ember, your uncle's looking for you - something about dealing with those Rockets he brought with him. And Aurora... I was about to head back to Violet City, and I thought you might like to come with me a ways."
"Thank you," she said. The idea of leaving Blackthorn alone left her depressed, especially since she didn't know where she was going.
"Come along, then. I want to at least set out before nightfall."
"All right," Aurora replied. "Goodbye, Ember. Bye, Laine. As soon as I get wherever I'm going, I'll send you both a Pidgey."
Her friends called back goodbyes. It would have been very hard to walk away from them if she hadn't had Falkner leading her. She fell into step beside him as they walked toward the southern cliffs. For a moment, she was quiet, and Falkner was kind enough to leave her to her thoughts.
"I guess you're disappointed in me," she said at last.
"Disappointed?" he repeated. "Why would I ever be disappointed in you? You've helped to stop a Rocket plot, defeated a powerful Gym Leader, and become a Pokemon Master. What is there for me to be disappointed in?"
"Because... you and Morty, you were trying to train me to be a Gym Leader, and I gave it up," she said. "I'm sorry."
"Nothing to be sorry for. You've chosen your own path. It is not my place to decide what is best for you. I'm pleased to see you have the wisdom to know on your own."
"Not really," she said. "I don't know what I'm going to do now that I have all the Badges."
"Well, you have a few options," he said. "If you wished, you could continue to travel with your friend Laine - I'm sure she would be glad to have you along. You could travel to the Indigo Plateau to challenge the Elite Four for Championship, or you could collect the Badges of Kanto. You could become a collector and search for rare Pokemon. You could even go back home. But if none of those options appeal to you..."
"You could look for a different Gym Leader who needs an apprentice."
Aurora gave him a considering look. "Have you got an apprentice?"
Falkner smiled a little. "I have one in mind. She's a young lady about your age and height, with long silver hair and a particular affinity for birds. She is also possessed of considerable talent, courage, and integrity. Of course, I haven't asked her yet. Do you think she would like the job?"
"Wait a minute," said Aurora. "Are you telling me that all this time, you were training me to be your apprentice? That the Gym you were teaching me to lead was... yours?"
"Why not?" Falkner replied. "It's been a long time since I've met someone with my affinity for Flying-types. It's a rare gift... so is the talent for earning the love of Pokemon instead of simply capturing them." He nodded in Scar's direction, and the Fearow trumpeted his agreement with Falkner's assessment. "I've known since the day I met you that I wanted you to be the one to follow in my footsteps. Still, it's your choice in the end. What do you say? Are you interested?"
"Of course I'm interested!" she said. "I'd love to be your apprentice."
"Wonderful. I thought you might," he answered with a teasing smile. "Come on. Let's get you back to Violet City so we can get the papers drawn up."
They reached the edge of the town and found themselves looking over the steep side of a mountain. In the west, the sun was sinking, turning the sky orange and gold. To the south, invisible beyond the trees, was Violet City. Aurora tried thinking of it as home and found it a good fit.
"I'm right behind you," she said.
She let Scar settle on her shoulders and lift her into the air, and they swooped into the air. They rose high above the earth, with her hair flashing like fire in the setting sun, streaming out behind her like a cloak...