Naturally, I ended up dateless after that incident. Alicia and I actively avoided each other out of embarrassment. Vaikuntha got a very short version of what had happened from Hanna and seemed sympathetic to my plight, but still. It sort of hurt. Thank you, karma—that was a new low, even for it.
Vaikuntha tried his best to help me. And him being Vaikuntha, he succeeded, though not on purpose. He offhandedly mentioned his own lack of a date and—I think he may have been joking—mentioned simply taking Oviya as one.
That was how we showed up in style, him with his Flygon and me with my Breloom. Because hey. She was female, we got along with each other, she didn't reject me on account of a surprise sexuality, and she was a dancer to boot.
That's not to say I didn't get asked out—it's just that I didn't feel like humoring Archie or making things even more complicated than they strictly had to be. "Incompatible orientations suck. We're not all lucky enough to have dancing Breloom, either."
"I would say ask me again when I can't smell the alcohol on your breath from here, but the answer would still be a no. I'm fine with Carlita." I wasn't too stupid to not notice the fact that he was genuinely trying to cheer me up, however. And I was thankful for that—I just didn't want to get too friendly with him when he was this drunk.
"I'm going to have to ask you to a dance then, sunshine."
"I think that would be potentially more embarrassing."
"That went over your head, huh?"
"What?" I asked, looking at him suspiciously.
He sighed wearily and leaned rather heavily on my shoulder. "Look. We can dance as friends, and you're lucky I'm not about to cart you off to be my date anyway. And if you and me can dance as friends, who's to say you and Alicia can't dance as friends?"
"I could ditch you on the dance floor and go for her instead, you realize this, right?" I inquired politely as I removed him from my body.
Archie grinned lopsidedly. "My hopes aren't high, but let's just say I'm carefully optimistic at this point. Plus you haven't seen my tux yet. I'll rock it pretty hard."
"I don't think I'll ask her though. I… I'll just be fine with Carlita. I don't want to pressure her into anything, and it's pretty uncomfortable, anyway. I don't want to make it worse for her."
"You're fine in the friend zone?" he asked in surprise. I shrugged; it wasn't as if I had a choice. "Wow. You're a noble little kid, aren't you? I bet you even feel guilty about asking her."
"I—I do!" I replied heatedly.
"Even though you had no idea?"
"Then why feel guilty? If you had no inkling, and she wasn't actively broadcasting the fact, it wasn't as if you could have done anything but ask her," he summarized with a beam.
I looked grumpily away. "I feel guilty because I could have avoided it. I put her in a bad situation."
"A noble hero with a guilt complex to boot. What a catch." He shook his head in disbelief. Archie finally detached himself from me and took another swig of his flask. "I bet you'd feel guilty about the Champion's tragedy if given the chance."
I died a little more inside and decided to shut myself in my room for the rest of the night.
The day of the dance, surprisingly, wasn't so bad. Hanna took Vaikuntha, myself, and our dates out for some clothes shopping—and staunchly refused to mention Alicia or the awkwardness what came from all that space—and dolled us up as easily as only she could. Carlita absolutely relished it, though it wasn't as if she got a dress or anything. Just a crimson ribbon that matched her claws (and that little thing on her hat thing) that covered her translator on her neck, but still, she loved it. Oviya handled the dressing up a little more grumpily, but more or less behaved.
If I was being honest with myself, I was equal parts uncomfortable and feeling rather dashing. A tuxedo was a difficult thing to wear without practice (or maybe I was just bad at it), but then again, I did look pretty cool in it. It wasn't as if I got to dress up all that much on my journey, so it was a pleasant change of pace.
Plus, somehow, I felt lighter. Without Alicia to impress, I could just go to the dance, smile at the press and remaining trainers, watch Carlita steal the limelight with her dance moves, and then go to bed. I wouldn't have to worry about an actual date to impress or dance with or flirt with. This could be easy.
"I feel pretty," Vaikuntha remarked, adjusting his cuffs. I snorted into my hand.
"Pretty is usually used to describe girls, Vai," Hanna said with a sigh. He shrugged in embarrassment but otherwise kept his pleased smile.
Hanna gave us our blessing once she was sure we were up to par, and then all at once, I was being ushered into the hotel's ballroom by Fantina with Carlita on my arm. Vaikuntha and I weren't the only ones with Pokemon dates, I noticed immediately—either there was too much animosity between the remaining Gym race trainers, or there simply wasn't enough interest. I had almost forgotten about the dinner beforehand, but fortunately, aside from reminding Carlita to use the silverware, we got through it unscathed.
The Gym leaders then formally introduced us each in turn to the members of the press there—there weren't that many, but I did recognize Sara Grace Kellner among the lot—and I realized halfway through that there weren't that many of us anymore. I couldn't get an exact number by counting, due to the fact that everyone was moving at that point, but we had to be in the teens. The low teens. When had that happened? …How had I lasted this long?
We were herded towards the dance floor, though I also noticed that several of us were picked off by reporters before we could make it. I hastily ducked my head and allowed Carlita to drag me out into the middle. "Trainer, take my claws. We are going to swing," she told me primly, extending her paw towards me. I cluelessly took it; what was swing? It was a style of dance, right? I couldn't place which one.
I soon found out, however. I couldn't help but laugh as she set a lively pace for us and we became the immediate center of attention. After awhile, other pairs began to mimic us (with varying degrees of success) and the band switched to a song that was more suitable for us. Carlita was having a blast, and I was a little surprised to find out that I was having just as much fun. It was a workout too, though, so while she pranced off to dance on her own, I made my way over to the punch bowl and tried to catch my breath.
"Having fun?" I looked up and found Maylene smiling brightly at me. She looked as feminine as I'd ever seen her in a baby blue dress. I couldn't help but stare, which she caught. "Oh, I know. Gardenia and Fantina made me wear a dress to this thing."
"It looks nice. I mean—you look nice."
"Thanks, that was heartfelt."
"Do you want me to make a big deal about it?" I asked sullenly.
She blushed and pouted. "Well, no, but still. Your date is the Breloom, right?"
"Yeah. Her name is Carlita."
"She's quite the dancer."
"To say the least," I agreed with a smile. "She's always been one, even before she evolved."
"Did you have her when you challenged me? I know you only used your Duskull, but still… A fighting battle would've been fun," Maylene said wistfully. "I don't get nearly enough of those. Instead, I just get a lot of birds and psychics my way."
"That must be rough. …Almost no one left is a specialized trainer like you guys. Just Archie and Lola, I think. What are you going to do about that?" It was a question I had been meaning to ask for quite awhile now, but had never gotten the chance. This seemed like as good a time as any.
"We're revamping the Gym system, actually. We'll officially let you guys in on this when we get down to magic number ten, but it's not like it's a secret, so here you get to be ahead of the curve. It's too easy to fight against a Gym leader when you know their type ahead of time and can easily beat it with one or two types. So we're bringing in you guys—who are actual trainers, and have balanced teams and whatnot. You're a lot closer to the real world of Sinnoh and what they're likely to battle along the way. I think there'll be a rule about knowing half of your team or something so it's not completely a shot in the dark, but still." She tilted her head back and thought about it, even going so far as to wrinkle her nose.
"What about you guys then?"
"We're sticking around for awhile longer. You can't get rid of us that easily," she replied with a smirk.
"You know what I mean."
"After we retire, we'll just pick a suitable candidate with a balanced team. We'll still be around to phase out the old system, but we'll be the last specialized Gym leaders in Sinnoh after this."
"What about the Elite Four, then?"
Maylene put her hands up and shook her head. "Hey, I'm just a lowly Gym leader. Don't be asking me about the higher-ups. You can try and get some answers out of Volkner if you want to bark up that tree, but otherwise, I think I've already said too much."
"Too much? That was hardly anything. Half of it could be guessed," I scoffed.
"Then why didn't you guess it?" she challenged.
"Excuse me." We both looked up to find a certain honey-haired reporter smiling down at us. Sara Grace Kellner. "I was wondering if I may borrow him for a dance."
"Knock yourself out." Maylene made a shooing motion, but just as I unwillingly passed her, she hissed, "Be careful."
I turned and stared at her, bewildered, as I was dragged away. I soon found out what she meant when the reporter pulled me into a slow dance and immediately announced, "So, tournament hero, a little Pidgey told me a couple interesting facts about you."
"A couple of interesting facts about this Gym race, too," she continued with a soft smile that wasn't fooling anyone. I looked around desperately for Carlita—or anyone, at that point—to excuse myself and dance with. "You're the second youngest competitor still in this. Does that make you nervous?"
"Not really." Okay, maybe this wouldn't be so bad, after all. I had to remind myself that the press knew nothing about the nightmares, nothing about me. She could only dig so far.
"Who do you think will win this?"
"Vai, Sela, and Lola have practically already won," I said with a roll of my eyes. "I can't say who the fourth one would be. I don't know how everyone's standing on beads."
"Do you think you stand a chance?" Sara Grace asked with a sharp smile. I looked away again, once more scanning the crowd for a viable getaway.
"I… guess. As much as anyone else, anyway." I wasn't sure why that felt like such a loaded question. I chalked it up to the fact that she was staring at me with those mismatched eyes of hers. What was that called? He-something, probably—but anyway, it was actually pretty creepy. It didn't help things that one of them was hazel, just a few shades darker than Nick's.
"What do you think of the state Sinnoh is in now? Do you believe you could handle the responsibility of becoming a Gym leader? What do you plan on doing about the issue of Nick Sayre?"
I flinched at the last question and drew away from her. She stared down at me in confusion, though there was a glint in her eyes that I didn't like. "Ma'am, with all due respect, you only asked me to dance, not play twenty questions with you. And now if you'll excuse me, I see a friend of mine who is in more need of a dance than you are right now."
And I darted off before my courage failed me and I ended up apologizing and sticking around. I had to get out of the dangerous waters before I drowned. I zigzagged through the crowd until I came upon the first familiar face, and immediately attached myself to her—though Lola really didn't seem impressed with my sudden appearance in her arms.
"Excuse me?" she deadpanned.
"Cover me in the name of trainer camaraderie?" I asked with a nervous smile. It had been instinct to dance with her, but now I was having second thoughts as my rational mind caught up with my body. I doubted I could have picked a worse target—okay, maybe Sela would've taken that award. But still. There was nothing between Lola and I beside vague and distant familiarity, a Gym race, and an Electabuzz.
Lola looked over my head at Sara Grace, then back down at me. "Only because I dislike that woman more than I dislike the prospect of dancing with a little boy."
"I take offense to that."
"Are you in any position to do so? I could throw you back out to the Sharpedo if you like," she replied dryly.
I sighed in defeat. "Fine, nevermind. So, uh… You look nice. You're not in complete black." I looked down at her for the first time, noting that while she was in a black dress, it had a red sash around the waist.
"Your tact is utterly awe-inspiring, truly."
"Are the reporters really so bad you came running to me?" she asked. For the first time, something like concern slipped into her voice. I frowned, aware of the fact that Lola herself was aware of how she came off to others.
"They're just… getting nosy," I mumbled.
"At least they haven't figured out the nightmares yet."
"Don't say that, you'll jinx us all."
"True. You do seem to have bad enough luck for all of us."
I grinned unhappily. "Yeah, and our close proximity might mean it rubs off on you enough to screw us all over."
She smiled thinly. "I have something I have been meaning to ask you for quite some time now."
"Oh?" I blinked up at her, surprised by the sudden change of topic.
Lola tilted her head to one side, her black hair falling over her shoulder as she did so. "You were friends with Nick Sayre, weren't you?"