Straw

They don't show the pain in cartoons, he thought bitterly, a patch of moisture beginning to coalesce below his eyelid. They don't show the falling, and the hours we spend bandaging each other up afterwards, and if they did they'd make it look humourous, like we get a bandage caught on a branch as we're running and get sent spinning as the whole thing unravels.

Electrocution, for chrissake. In normal societies, they reserved that for rapists and serial murderers. For this life, apparently, it was daily routine. Gritting his teeth at the sickening twitches and tingles, he extended his arm. It stopped halfway; somewhere in the branches of the pine tree he had evidently smacked the elbow, and it had swollen again. He tried to force it to unbend, and gave up abruptly, gasping involuntarily at the disgusting wrenching sensation. Slowly, morosely, he pushed the broken branch off his chest with his good left arm, and struggled to his feet.

The diorama of broken wood and half-dead pine needles extended about two metres in front of his feet, then there was an obstruction in the form of a thick tree trunk. His eyes moved slowly up it, coming to rest about half a meter above his eyeline. Caught in the tight angle of an extending branch was a vicious tangle of more branches and needles, mingled with cloth, blood and scattered red hair. It groaned, and he groaned as if in reply. With a sigh of resignation, he tensed and leapt, his knees complaining shrilly, and caught the branch next to the tangled one. His fingers scrabbled for a hold, and he swung up his legs. Next came the impotent struggle to transfer his weight to the top of the branch, instead of hanging beneath it sloth-fashion.

Cursing the horrible sticky pine-sap and the flaky bark insinuating itself under his fingernails, he clambered clumsily into a crouching position, one foot on each branch. He rummaged in the mess until he found a shoulder, and tapped it. From somewhere below and to the side came a faintly discernable swear-word.

"I know, Jesse," he replied quietly. "Hold on. I'll try and get you untangled."

Detaching a semi-conscious, impact-twisted human body from a tree-crotch is not an easy task . It took an unpleasant couple of minutes to unravel the figure of his team-mate into a recognisable posture, and carefully lower her to the ground below. He was hampered by his own injuries, and by the sad truth that if he touched her breasts or something, however inadvertently, she would probably murder him when she was well enough to stand.

At last, they were both hunched miserably on the needle-carpeted ground, gazing up pointlessly at the towering pines all around. The sky was darkening, glowing orange through the shaggy trees. A little, long-forgotten voice somewhere in James' cerebrum said forlornly that it was probably nice scenery, but he knew that his facility to appreciate such things was long gone. When you spend most of your working life having your body painfully spread all over the scenery, however pretty, it tends to pall on you a little.

"Fuckers," said Jesse quietly and viciously. James kept his mouth in a thin, sad line. No matter how much he agreed, she was in the mood to yell at him whatever he said.

"Stupid, worthless, incompetent fuckers."

She grabbed up a thin length of broken branch and snapped it in half.

"You know who I'm talking about, James?"

He chanced a nod and a faltering attempt at speech. "The kids… the twer-…"

Jesse didn't yell, but she did raise an imperious hand to silence him. He silenced with instant obedience; his head was still ringing enough as it was.

"Us, James. We're not kidding anyone. We play this bullshit like we were told, and get used as a running joke and a fucking punching bag, or we quit and stop hurting all the time."

He stared. He was used to her swearing; she did it all the time when they weren't around the twerps and under the strictures of villain etiquette. What shocked him was her low voice, her averted eyes, her complete lack of the arrogant self-confidence that would normally lead her to place the blame on anyone else. Even him… well, especially him.

"I'm tired. I'm fucking human, I bleed. They blow us up faster than my immune system can take, I've got open cuts all the way down my back and half of them are probably infected. And don't give me that bloody puppy-dog look, I know you've had a cracked rib since we lost the submarine. What are we getting out of this, James?"

She did sound tired. She sounded old, and defeated. Twenty minutes ago she had been an energetic adolescent, never caring, never stopping, and whacking him over the head with a mallet every time he did something stupid, which was often.

"The shit they give us. Gio-fucking-vanni sends us out with a joke-shop collection of factory-surplus condoms or something like that, so we can spend six weeks doing a job that he could do himself in ten minutes with a dart rifle. We're their entertainment, James, their fucking entertainment."

That sounded more like her; she was pissed off; the fire was returning. Just as he was beginning to feel reassured, the force left her voice again. He watched her rather numbly as she slipped forward, holding herself up with her arms on the ground, her head drooping.

"You... reckon we're making anything out of life, James?"

He couldn't watch. Her eyes were widened and brimming. The moisture was collecting at the corners. It was a lump… a droplet… a ball… it was almost over the edge of her lashes. If that tear fell, Jesse would vanish, the Jesse who giggled at disasters, who could and would kick anything out of her way, who told him what to do… His only little focus or application in life – being ordered around – would slip away. This wasn't Jesse, this couldn't be, this was someone exhausted and sad who he'd never met before, never expected to meet, never knew existed.

Swallowing all sense of self-preservation, he moved across to her and put an arm around her shoulder, and by the simple fact that she didn't rip out his throat and use it for toilet paper, he knew the worst. Jesse was cracking.

By now, Meowth had struggled his way through the hostile undergrowth to reach them, and for the first time in his life since he was gifted with speech, he was wise enough not to say anything.

"I don't know if it was the branch to the head, James, but I've been having fucking epiphanies all over the place," sobbed Jesse, her back leaping jerkily with her breath. "I want to get out of this. I don't want to be a bloody torture victim and a clown at the same time…"

James knew damn well that he wasn't going to be articulate enough for days to agree with her verbally, so his hands would have to suffice. He patted and rubbed her head soothingly, avoiding the throbbing lump left by the branch, and kept his other arm tight around her shoulders as she slowly calmed down.

Meowth nodded to James commiseratingly, and sat down beside them to lick his paws absently.

James had never been in this situation before, but instinct told him the obvious phrase, which is the only phrase that is universally any use when trying to comfort a crying girl in your arms. "It'll be okay." He half-whispered it, reinforcing it with a tightening of his hold, knowing that he had no real conviction to back it up with, but that that wasn't the important thing right now.

Jesse continued to murmur her grievances, muttering disjointed snatches of invective as they occurred to her. Rubber tanks… bubble launchers… a submarine disguised as a giant fish… flying-foxes with painful trees at the end… a hot air balloon for transport… every needless technological humiliation that Fate and Giovanni had brought upon them.

It was very dark by the time Jesse had cried herself to sleep. James carefully unfolded her from the pine-needles and wreckage for the second time that evening, placed her on a clear patch of ground and laid his jacket over her. Vulnerable-Jesse was disconcertingly different to the usual model, but he was well aware that on some level, he preffered it.

Meowth, still silent, helped him pile the dry broken branches together, and after a little frustrating match-work, they set light to it. The fire crackled and spat, spreading itself blanket-like over the heap, and soon the little space among the trees was yellow with flickering radiance.

Meowth lay down mater-of-factly, curled into a ball, and was soon emitting faint purring-snoring sounds. James sat still, wrestling with his bewildered brain. He looked across the fire for confirmation of each thought, his eyes lingering on the huddle of red hair beneath his crumpled jacket. She seemed to be shivering violently, but he realised with relief that it was just the heat-haze.

At length, he stood up and walked slowly around the fire, which was dying into thick beds of embers. He could hear her breathing evenly. He slowly looked up at the sky, his eye leaping from star to star.

Finally he staked out a respectable spot of ground without too many pointy bits, lay down and soon drifted into an uneasy sleep.

*

Fists were raised high in the air for another triumph, another champion. He smiled widely, waving madly with his free arm as he held the squirming yellow creature with the other. What a buzz, just wicked, another win, another cheering crowd.

Another drooping opponent, slinking away below the applause's radar… Wish this one was televised, I must call Mom when we reach the next town, she'll be really pleased, I'm making a real name for myself out here.

He trained for so much longer than you did. Damn, if Pikachu can get things sorted, I… we might make the League eliminations again this year. It's a matter of… speed, agility, I guess, we need to run more.

That would be all well and good if it just ever even entered your head. Stay in your shadow, don't block your light, so you can shine divine, golden boyyyyy… lala lalala laaaa… golden boy…I wish Misty would stop whinging. When she's got into the League semi-finals, then she can start talking down to me. I want some blinking food, what time is it? I about earned it. Pikachu too. I'll get him a pizza, once he's patched up.

You're a fucking little shit. I wonder when those idiots will jump us again… I'm kind of missing blowing them into the distance… is that a sign up there?… wicked! Pizza time for me.

*

Jesse half-woke, her teeth clenched, blinking in the darkness. A soft hand patted her forehead and nudged her back to sleep. She wasn't even sure if it was James' hand or her own.

*

They awoke, awkwardly and stiffly, a little after dawn. Various bird-Pokemon were chattering in and out of the trees. The sky was bleak and overcast, with no wind. Together they sat, silent and cold, around the remains of the fire. James rummaged in his tattered backpack and produced a split packet of rather rubbery pre-cooked sausages, which they warmed to an acceptable temperature in the embers. They sat munching the pallid objects, staring fixedly into the reddish glow.

"We should get them," muttered Jesse at last. Her voice was that of a sulky child.

James raised an eyebrow for elucidation.

"You know, revenge. On them. The twerps, Butch and Cassidy, Giovanni, all of them."

Her eyes were taking on an ugly light, and she clenched and unclenched her hands. James watched, and felt anger stirring in him again too, clean, honest, unfettered anger.

"We so should. But what are we going to do?"

Jesse turned to look at him. "Oh, I don't know, James." She looked tired and exasperated again, but a bitter venom was still creeping up her face. "I want us to get them," she whispered. "I wanna kill them."

It was a simple phrase of exaggeration, as used in many an everyday conversation, seldom with actually fatal results. But the phrase lay there wriggling before them, something slim and obscene and strangely captivating. They both slowly lifted their heads, caught one another's eyes and looked quickly away.

There was a strange, oppressive silence, a silence in which things moved and rustled threateningly, before James spoke hoarsely, and put the seal on the reality of what they were thinking. "We'd never get away with it."

"Why?" Jesse said the word almost involuntarily, her gaze fixed glassily on nothing in particular.

James forced himself to accept what he was saying, in order to argue against it. "It's just not right… that's not how things work in this life…" He realised he was spouting meaningless clichés, and turned his brain painfully to more practical considerations. "The police… we're just a couple of petty crooks attached to a crime syndicate… small fry… if we killed somebody, they'd be sending helicopters after us. They'd send us to the chair."

"The chair? They still use that?"

"Or whatever the hell," he muttered defiantly.

There was no avoiding it now. They sat motionless, looking one another in the eye, unable to break away, feeling something sick and misshapen growing in the air between them. He knew she was thinking it, she knew he was thinking it, and they could feel that thing growing, all the bitter and pointless disgust they both felt for life, annihilating their better instincts.

Better instincts? came the immediate protest. When life was this fucking miserable, better instincts were completely arbitrary.

The one-sided argument with the inner self was easy to follow. Killing was wrong. Wrong because it was… wrong to end another's life. Wrong to curtail their enjoyment of existence. We have none of that anyway, why shouldn't they experience the loss too? The question of pain. Same principle. We shouldn't turn to wrongs so fast. Why not? We tried being good, we were dealt to poorly just the same. If there's no sweetness in life, all we can do is bend our taste to the sour, and go out with a bang. Go to hell and go with pride. Do it our way. We owe the world some bad karma. The same argument that forever goes on in the minds of the formerly kind and good treated unkindly and badly, until death release them.

A yawning chasm seemed to open in their minds, and they knew exactly what they were doing, and how terrible it felt, how much more terrible it should feel. They could go back, they could vow never to return to the chasm, but they were too hurt and too angry and the anger was the loose stones under their feet, sending them slipping closer and closer to the drop, and the speed was exhilarating.

James almost wished that the scene was a movie. Menacing background music rising in pitch, a shaky camera or eerily shifting lighting would make this feel a lot more normal. But there were no movies to comfort him, just two fucked-up teenagers sitting on dirt and pine-needles. This is what it looks like, he thought: prosaic. He realised, fleetingly, just how enormous and bizarre the real-life decision to kill someone really was.

But they were there anyway, and so were the pine-needles, and Death, and they sat together for a while, as the light dimmed and brightened with the passing clouds, until everyone nodded imperceptibly.

As reality settled back into place, colder and even more alien than before, they felt old and dirtied somehow by their decision, and knew that each knew the other had decided the same thing. Small they sat among the uninterested trees, outwardly unremarkable, and somewhere inside them, there was a little cold splinter that was going to take human life away.

Meowth sat gazing into the trees, humming to himself. The whole concept seemed a little over his head, and he instinctively felt quite relieved by that fact.

*

Feeling somehow vented, at least temporarily, they spent the day struggling through the low-hanging branches, searching onward for open ground. They were tired, and hungry, but not yet devoid of strength, and they talked and laughed and even sang as they batted away a steady rain of twigs, needles and mosquitoes. And it seemed unnaturally natural to them that when Jesse stumbled, James would catch her and set her upright, and that when James took a load of falling litter full in the face, Jesse would coo sympathetically and brush it out of his hair and collar, and that whenever Meowth cracked a bad joke, Jesse and James would find it as funny as he did.

By noon they reached the thinning edge of the pine forest, and found themselves in a rough jungle of thickets, where the going was tough but there were many blackberries for idle hands to pick. A little dark and sticky about the mouth and fingers, they sat and rested for a while on the trunk of an old dead oak that the creepers had long ago strangled and dragged down.

The evil mood had long since left them, before the dawn cloud cover had thinned into sunshine, and none of them made any mention of what could be preying on their minds. And nothing was preying on their minds. This was the first day they hadn't felt preyed on in a long time.

The sunlight had taken on a distinct slant by the time they struggled up the incline of a great grassy hill, and found themselves overlooking the peaceful panorama of a city below, and a highway sign far below them. This, when scrutinised through their last surviving set of binoculars ("The only part of our field kit that ever works", said Jesse, much to her surprise smiling as she spoke) identified the outstretched streets and buildings as Goldenrod City. To the west, far ahead of them, was the thin black spire of the radio broadcasting tower, clustered around by many towering office blocks and apartments.

"Well, we made it out," said James, jerking his thumb at the belts of vegetation receding behind them. Again, it seemed normal enough that he and Jesse should embrace triumphantly, and remain thus in close proximity without violence for over five seconds.

*

By evening light, they were disguised once more ("We may be only petty crooks, but we're still petty crooks," Jesse had remarked rather obliquely, pronouncing the phrase with distaste) and walking calmly down a side street under blue mercury lights. James now sported a bandana and slicked-back hairstyle, a neutral shirt open at the neck and slightly baggy jeans. Jesse wore her hair in a bun, walked sedately in high heels and a rather dull cotton dress, and surveyed the shadowy street through severe black-rimmed spectacles. Meowth's tail protruded rather carelessly from the cylindrical sports bag that James carried over one shoulder.

They reached an intersection, cars waiting and honking at the lights, and stepped placidly across in front of the stationary vehicles. A traffic cop on point duty on the opposite street corner regarded them with complete disinterest. James' eyes flicked around the area, noting the walls, the cars and the doorways and alleys, and settling on the traffic cop again. They reached the kerb, and walked on down the sidewalk, the horns still honking behind them.

A block away, on the other side of the road, a faulty neon sign exposed a motel. They made for it, quickening their pace at the promise of food and bed.

*

The clerk, a jowly, morose man with a tobacco-stained shirt, eyed them with disfavour.

"Sixty a night for a double… I got one left, two floors up," he admitted at length, crinkling the edge of the register absently with his fingertips.

James, not even needing to pat his pockets to note the complete impossibility of taking the offer, thought quickly. Assuming a louder, deeper, more confident voice, he turned to Jesse. "I haven't got that much on me, honey," he said cheerfully, all the while winking and mouthing desperately between words. "We'd better drive over to the bank. Have you got your card?"

"Yeah," said Jesse, hiding her puzzlement.

They headed for the door.

"Ya want the room or not?" called the clerk.

"Yeah," replied James. "Back in a sec."

*

Waving away requests for explanation, James bustled Jesse past the front of the motel, down a dark side-alley and out onto another dingy street. Meowth, too, was now poking his head out of the bag and wanting to know what the hell was going on.

"Did the cops spot us? Or did you two just want some time alone?"

"Shhhhhhh!"

James peered ahead into the circles of light from the street lamps. He stiffened, yanked Jesse back into the alley, and put a hand over her mouth before she could exclaim.

"Don't make any noise," he whispered.

They waited for ten seconds or so before the approaching footfalls became audible. As they drew near to the mouth of the alley, James stepped swiftly out onto the footpath. There was a muffled clunk of flesh and bone, and he stepped back, staggering under the weight of a portly, limp figure in a pinstripe suit.

"The hell?" gasped Jesse, as James laid the apparition down on the ground. "Who is that? What is that?"

"A bank," whispered James, his face contorted with mirth. "With legs."

They crouched vampire-like over the unconscious man. He was middle-aged, balding, a little paunchy, dressed tidily, but with a distinct smell of alcohol.

"There's a bar up the road, he must have been walking back to his car," continued James softly. "I saw the suit and thought, fat wallet, gimme."

"What did you do to him?" asked Jesse, accepting that through some strange reversal of mentalities, James was now the boss of the situation and she the sidekick.

"Left hook to the jaw. With all that booze in him, he went out like a candle. Now, let's frisk him."

Having been searched by police countless times, they were quite proficient in the routine themselves. They patted the man down expertly, and Jesse was soon reaching into an inside pocket and withdrawing a bulky wallet, which she waved in James' face.

"I got it! I got it!"

"Go on, open it!"

Scrabbling at the clasps like children opening Christmas presents, they pulled the wallet open and leafed through the contents. Drivers' licence, Visa card, several receipts and bills, business cards, and finally, six lovely crinkly banknotes, a fifty, a twenty and four tens. Jesse seized them, with an evil cackle that would not have disgraced the Wicked Witch of the East. James shook the wallet upside down to check for lingering valuables. Out fell a few coins, which he grabbed, although they came to less than two dollars. Meowth, with his species' fascination with shiny metal, clamoured for them, and he handed them over with a grin.

"Aren't we gonna take his licence and credit card?" asked Jesse hopefully.

"Why?" asked James, in surprise. "We don't have his car, and the card's no good without his PIN number."

"I didn't realise," murmured Jesse. "I've never had a credit card in my life."

"I had one once," replied James ruefully, slipping the extraneous items back into the wallet and folding it shut, "but I wasn't allowed to work it, my parents did that for me." He tucked the wallet back inside the jacket of the pinstripe suit.

He stood up. "Come on. Let's go."

"What about him?"

"He'll come round eventually. He didn't see my face. Leave him."

They half-ran-half-tiptoed back down the alley, and hurried back to the entrance of the hotel.

*

The room was a little small, and more than a little dingy, but in the middle was a large, squashy bed, which was the important thing. They flopped haphazardly onto it, glad to stop standing for a while. Meowth dragged a pillow off the bed and placed it in a corner, where he curled up and went straight to sleep.

"I'm bloody hungry," groaned Jesse, burying her face in the sheet.

"Want the last of those sausages?" asked James, struggling back to a sitting position and bending over the edge of the bed to rummage in the bag.

"Oh, god, no."

"Would you like me to run out and get some food?" he suggested quietly, patting her shoulder.

"Please."

"Okay. I'll go to that pub that the suit guy was coming back from, it's only a few blocks away."

He walked to the door, opened it and vanished. Jesse rolled over and stared at the grubby ceiling, her brain slowly chewing over the day's events.

Where had this self-confident, capable James suddenly materialised from? What had become of the bumbling submissive who infuriated her with his whiny inefficiency? And where along the way had she become tired, meek and eager to let someone else do the hard work for a while?

With a twist of her mouth, she realised that it was the very monstrosity of what had gone through their minds that morning. Each aware of the other's worst aspect, they had been thrown into a kind of equality, almost intimacy. It was harder to be defensive with someone who had seen that part of you, and harder to be superior. And without her superiority to force James down and feed his clumsiness, his assertive side was taking command of their problems. Well, someone had to.

Her stomach rumbled, distracting her from worldly pondering. She tossed and turned uncomfortably, finally settling into a sideways position from which she could gaze out the window. Little broken strings of streetlights meandered here and there between bulky multi-storey buildings, spotted with lighted windows.

Her thoughts turned back, unrelentingly, to the faces of three smiling youths, and she imagined how they would look in death, blank and uncaring, eyes frozen wide and mouths hanging slightly open, perhaps with thin lines of blood flowing from the corners. Again, she felt alien, and ancient, but also powerful. The trickling coldness, its sick violating ache a kind of triumph in itself, was welling inside her, setting its boundaries, staking out what part of her it could call its own.

She forced the thoughts back, shaking a little, concentrating her mind on biting into a crisp, juicy slice of apple, sucking out the juice, crushing the flesh between her teeth until the taste had gone. Damn, she was hungry. She lay fretting for what seemed a very long time, wishing James would return with the food before she started gnawing the blanket.

An awful lot of cars had passed in the street below before she heard footsteps coming up the corridor. The door clicked open, and James stepped in, a plastic bag slung over one arm. She yelped with delight, and sat upright expectantly.

"What did you get?"

He put the bag on the floor, knelt and rummaged through it. "Chicken. There was a little fried chicken joint just around the corner from the bar." He pulled out a large cardboard carton, ripped off the lid, and handed it to her. She breathed in the smell greedily, and yanked out a drumstick for devouring purposes.

"You were… mmmulp… an awful long time, I was worried," she admonished him between bites.

"Ummmm… yeah…" He grinned, blushing, scratching behind his ear and averting his eyes. "I… ahh… jacked the bar."

"Come again?" she asked, stopping in mid-bite.

"Well, I was in the mood, you know, and the bartender was the only guy in there, and so I just walked up and sort of tapped him on the side of the head…" Jesse began to giggle uncontrollably through her mouthful. "…and I just hopped over the bar and opened the till, then emptied it and stashed the bartender under the bar, then left quietly…" He rummaged again in the bottom of the plastic bag, and brought up a handful of banknotes. "He even had his back turned when I came in, so he won't even be able to give the cops a description. So, yeah, we have plenty of money for the next week or so."

Jesse dropped her chicken, bounded off the bed and hugged him violently. He laughed, hugged her firmly in return and lifted her back onto the bed. "Eat up. You must be ravenous."

"What about you?"

"You can have first pick, I've already had a snack."

"Hm?"

He began to grin again. "Well, the bartender was halfway through a packet of sandwiches when I slugged him, and it seemed a pity to waste them…"

She grabbed up a pillow. "Tell me you left the building before you ate the sandwiches. Or I'll clobber you."

He blushed, shook his head, and fended off the blow.

"Oh, praise de Lawd and Hide de Silver," muttered Jesse, attacking the chicken afresh. James, grinning from ear to ear and most of the way around the back as well, selected a piece for himself and began to gnaw at it placidly.

They spoke little, both too ravenous to stop eating any longer, and worked their way through the box of chicken. On common consensus, they left a piece for Meowth, should he wake later in the night and require sustenance.

After they had sat motionless for some time, patting their stomachs occasionally, Jesse finally spoke.

"So we're still going through with this?"

James remained immobile for a long time, then slowly nodded. "It's about all we have left now."

Jesse felt that somehow this was innacurate, but felt too sleepy and content to argue the point.

"How are we going to go about it?"

He shifted uncomfortably. "Well, we'll need a knife or a gun or something, and we'll need to decoy them out into the middle of nowhere where they won't be able to get help…"

"And where they won't be… found… for a while afterwards," completed Jesse in a small voice.

He nodded again. The nod gradually slowed and stopped.

"I think I know an easy way to get a gun," he continued at last, "but we'll work all that out tomorrow. A gun would be best."

Jesse slowly picked up the chicken remains and the box, and transferred them to the floor.

"Jesse?" asked James, the old plaintive note creeping back into his voice.

"Yeah?"

"Are we bad people now?"

The childlike question hung unanswered, and Jesse finally decided to put it out of its misery. "I don't know, James. I don't know shit about that. Why?"

James shrugged. "I just keep thinking about Adam and Eve, and the apple thing, and how 'their sleep was grosser' or whatever."

Jesse gave a catlike smile. "What's this? You quoting Paradise Lost?"

He turned to her with a grin. "And what's this? You recognising it when I quote it?"

Jesse grimaced. "Ugh. I hated eighth grade. I'm still not altogether sorry we flunked that year."

"I think the party night before the exams well and truly made up for our consequential lack of success," he replied. "I'll never forget you throwing that snotty girl with the pearls and the cover-girl makeup out the window once you'd had a few."

"She never forgot it either," giggled Jesse. "Serve the bitch right. I wish she'd actually broken something."

They both snorted reminiscently, and gazed a while out of the dirty, misted-up window.

A loud snore from Meowth reminded them how late it was. They made for their respective halves of the bed.

"I guess I should be thinking about Cain more than Adam and Eve," said James meditatively. "There's so much less detail on him. It's like we're all still ashamed of him."

"Maybe we are," said Jesse quietly. "And I don't know much about 'fouler sleep' or whatever the hell, but if you snore too, I'm gonna pound you," she promised.

They clambered under the covers. The bed was rather lumpy, and the blankets were thin, but overall a better ensemble than dirt and pine needles.

"Rats," said James, making to lay his head back and drawing it up again. "Meowth had to nick my pillow."

Jesse looked at him quickly and dropped her gaze. "We could… share one," she said haltingly.

He looked steadfastly at her for some moments, then drew her close to him. She slipped her arms around his neck and buried her face in his shoulder. She was shivering violently, clutching at him tightly, and her breathing was staccato and uneven. He stroked her back until her shaking began to subside, whispering soothing nothing-in-particulars, and she lay against him softly and warmly, each of them, in a sense, clothes that the other had finally grown into.

Slotted together like drowsy human origami, they drifted off to a sleep more secure and comfortable than the lumpy bed would have previously allowed.

*

Meowth opened a gleaming golden eye, and cast a surreptitious glance sideways at the single bulge in the blankets of the bed, which contrary to fierce agreement was beginning to emit a double snore already.

"Mission accomplished," he muttered, patting the pillow beneath him. "Dat's one less fing to worry about."

*

A little before midday, the metal clasp of the duffel-bag by the window was reflecting the sun's image into James' eye with concentrated fury. He woke at the glare, blinked, swore, reached under the blankets, plucked a quarter out of his pocket and hurled it at the clasp, knocking its light up to the ceiling. Mad hand-to-eye skills, he thought. Going properly bad has its benefits.

He lifted his head and examined Jesse's sleeping form. She was curled tightly against his chest, her hair and shirt rumpled by sleep. He gently swept the strands of hair away from her face and gazed happily at her placid eyelids and button nose. Benefits indeed.

An over-dramatic yawn, accentuated with the clicking of joints, signalled the waking of Meowth. James looked round sleepily, to see him sharpening his claws on the corner carpet.

"Mornin' there."

"Mmnnnyerk."

"Ya sound whacked."

James shook his head, cleared his throat with an effort, and grinned. "What's the time?"

"Eleven-forty."

"Did you find the chicken we left you?"

"You betcha."

He turned back to Jesse, who was stirring.

"What we doing today?" continued Meowth.

"Ummm, mugging a traffic cop, but than can wait till after breakfast."

Meowth nodded sagely. "I get it. You figure dey're de easiest picking when it comes to scoring firearms."

"Mm. We decoy one, slug him, hide him." He stroked Jesse's hair as she began to mutter and blink.

"Mmmmfwhat time is it, James?"

"Good morning to you too. Meowth says it's quarter to twelve."

She shut her eyes again and nestled more firmly against him. "Don't wanna get up."

"Well, you don't have to, damn, Jesse, we're criminals, we get up when we wanna get up."

Meowth chuckled. "So, dis joint got room soivice?"

James jerked his head indicatively. "There's a phone there, so probably, but I wouldn't expect the service to be that amazing."

"Yes, but any food you don't have to get up to fetch is good food," murmured a muffled voice from his shirt-front.

James gestured rapper-style to Meowth. "Ringgg it, mah brotha."

Meowth retired to his corner with the phone.

"So, tell me all about this 'mug a traffic cop' idea," said Jesse eagerly, snuggling up to him again.

"Oh, you heard me?" asked James, slipping his hands around her waist and pulling her into a sitting position. "Well, yeah, it's simple enough. Now, you'll be the decoy, because a female cry for help from a dark alley is so much more enticing than a male one."

"And if the traffic cop's gay? Or female?"

"Then I'll just have to chance slugging the poor devil in broad daylight."

"This is more fun than the movies," exclaimed Jesse, rubbing her face against his.

"That's why they make movies about it," he rejoined.

"And you need a shave," she scolded.

"Food first, beauty later. Meowth, how's the doohickeys going?"

"Dey're sending someone up now."

"Right. I'd better tidy up all the suspicious bags of money."

He clicked his knuckles and levered himself out of bed. The fried-chicken bag was still lying on the floor, banknotes scattered all around it. He bundled them back into the bag, scrunched it up and tucked it into the duffel bag by the window.

He peered out through the streaky glass. The day was bright and sunny, with a little low cloud over the edges of the city.

There was a knock at the door, and he strode across and opened it. It wasn't the jowly clerk, but a chubby maid in a surprisingly tidy uniform, who handed him a tray with two steaming plates of bacon, eggs and toast. He took them, closed the door and placed the tray on the bed, where Jesse began to assault it with gusto.

"Eat up, we'll have a fair bit of work to do soon."

*

The traffic cop on duty at the corner that day was heavily built, and when he charged down the alley to remove the rogue Arbok that was menacing the red-haired woman, and James stepped matter-of-factly out of a doorway and injected a fist's-worth of kinetic energy into his jaw, he only stumbled, still conscious. Scrambling furiously to his feet, he lowered his shoulders and charged the lanky, stocking-masked youth.

James sidestepped under the blow and hammered the base of his hand into the officer's windpipe. There was a choking sound, and the heavy figure staggered back again. He lined up a careful shot, put his whole body behind it, and struck for the chin again. This time, there was a dizzy click and the traffic cop went down for the count.

"Arbok, return," said Jesse quietly, sucking the mighty snake back into its ball in a flare of red light. "James, if you've laddered my stocking, I'm gonna steal all your boxers and cut holes in them."

Giggling, they quickly stripped the man of his effects, and forced his uniform piece by piece down the grill of the nearest stormwater drain, sending his badge after it. Sure enough, there on his bulky belt was a neat black holster, and when opened, it did indeed contain a delicate little automatic. James checked the safety catch and pocketed it swiftly, and they hefted the uncaring guard into a handy dumpster bin, where he would hopefully not regain consciousness too quickly or be discovered for a while.

They left and zigzagged through the alleys back to the hotel.

*

The gun was a curious instrument. It lay on the bed between them, shiny and spotless, the clip of bullets beside it where James had placed it after checking each cartridge for defects. It seemed to belong to another world. The day's euphoria palled distinctly every time they looked at it.

Finally James spoke directly to the gun. "Enough. You're the tool, not the workman. Don't forget your place. I'm putting you away for now." He slotted the clip into the handgrip, pulled back the slide, set the safety and placed the gun in the duffel bag.

He turned back to Jesse, and they sat together in silence, holding hands as the room got dark again, doing their best not to focus their eyes on anything.

*

The sun was still setting on the southern hills.

"We'll take the walking track up over those hills there to the north, and come down to the Park by that way, if you're that anxious to do the contest there," said Misty, surveying the skyline beyond Goldenrod's rooftops. "The track will be much nicer than trudging along by the road, if tomorrow's as hot as today was. If we start now, we'll be there well before morning, and have time for a rest."

Ash nodded impatiently, flipping through his map brochure.

"We'll be taking the bridge over the granite canyon at Beckfoot," added Brock. "Unless it's been wrecked by all the heavy weather recently, in which case we'll have to take the side-track down to the ford, which takes a bit longer, but it ends up joining on again."

"Okay," said Ash, a familiar gleam coming into his eyes. "I'm hanging out to get into that contest. They have some pretty rare species in the park, and if you're allowed to catch them…"

"Which you are…"

"…then we're going. Come on. Let's catch the tram across the city. We'd better stop for some supplies, too."

*

They had dressed quietly and unhurriedly, in unremarkable clothes, securely packed all their belongings into the duffel bag, and stuffed Meowth in after them. They had taken the elevator down to the check-in desk, payed the bill to the jowly night clerk, and returned their key. Now, shivering a little in the twilight breeze that was picking up from the sea-shore, they were perched on the guard-rail of the open-sided tram, huddled together and taking it in turns to gaze behind through the binoculars.

Ordinarily, this might have attracted some suspicion, as it was too late in the evening for avid sightseers, but they had the tram-car virtually to themselves, the other occupants being elderly or asleep, and no-one behind them was paying any attention.

"They're still sitting together," whispered James, in Jesse's ear. "Misty is reading a map, Ash is staring into space, and I think Brock's fallen asleep."

"They'll all be falling asleep soon," she murmured in reply. "I can't wait to get this over with."

"Which one are you most looking forward to?"

"Out of them? Misty."

He chuckled. "You never forgave her for winning that doll thing, did you?"

Jesse sniffed. "Don't laugh, James, please. I didn't. That was more important to me than beating some brat, that was the last chance to cling to part of my childhood."

He kissed her forehead lightly. "I won't laugh anymore."

She asked at length: "Which one will you look forward to, then?"

"Ash, of course."

"Why?"

"You have to ask? He's everything I never was and never had, he takes it for granted, and he's a spoilt, spotlight-hungry little prat. And Pikachu is his, after all."

"You reckon?… yeah, I know… Brock seems a bit of a bystander, doesn't he? Should we let him off?"

James shook his head. "No. Witness. Not practical. And I can find plenty of things to hate him for. He's just a dog, slavering and stupid, barking after anything with tits, and trying to be an adult."

Jesse smiled widely. "Hate makes you feel nice and cosy, doesn't it?"

"You know, I think it does."

His mind wandered back. They had loitered around the main tram terminus at the city perimeter for barely ten minutes before they had sighted the three familiar figures. They had boarded the tram further up the platform from them, and now they had been travelling for perhaps fifteen minutes, with occasional stops. It was obvious that they had remained unnoticed by their erstwhile foe.

"What will we do after this?" Jesse asked him, turning again to look back.

He shrugged. "Whatever we want. Go after Giovanni and hand him his ass on a plate, if we feel the need."

She nodded fervently. "I want to. I hate all of them. I don't want to be part of a team any more."

"No teams? What about me and you?" he asked softly.

"That's different," she smiled, tilting her face up to be kissed.

"Hey, shall we ceremonially burn our uniforms?" asked James, a short interlude later.

"Oooh, let's!" She clapped her hands with childish glee. "After we kill them." She suddenly became solemn again, her face downcast. "There, I said it again, James, and it doesn't sound so bad any more. Is that good or bad? That I don't care as much about it?"

"Good and bad," said James firmly, taking her shoulders and rocking her lightly back and forward, "are for other people now."

*

The moon was showing, starting to crawl up over the horizon, pale and menacing.

They pushed on along the rough track, ducking branches and creepers, avoiding patches of gravel where their footsteps would be more audible. Whenever they looked back, the flickers of flashlights were clearly visible between the trees further down the hill.

"They're a good two minutes behind us," whispered James in the oppressively still air. "We'll try and widen the gap a bit more before the bridge."

The going was a little heavy; the hillside was steep and the path only roughly formed, and they were encumbered by the duffle bag. At least Meowth was proceeding under his own steam, hopping from mound to mound alongside the path, rustling in and out of the grass.

Panting and sweaty, they eventually came up over the brow of the hill. Ahead was a great stretching expanse of blackness, and far in the distance, a cluster of lights that marked the next city. By the rising moon, they could make out the tops of trees sloping down below them, and the opaque black scar of the granite canyon.

The wind was picking up a little, and it whispered in and out of the clumps of grass that hemmed in the path on either side.

They turned to one another, whispered "I'm scared" almost simultaneously, and embraced, stifling laughter. Hand in hand, they ran on down the sloping path, stumbling on rocks, swinging the duffle bag. The path twisted and turned, in and out of trees, shrubs and boulders, carrying them lower with every step.

It was quite a distance to the place where the path forked and headed for the bridge, but downhill it seemed like very little. They did their best to muffle their footfalls, although it was not easy at the speed they were going. But soon the noise of the river that ran through the canyon grew louder, and they were confident that it would mask them.

A minute later they were at the fork. The grass was low here, and the paths were clearly trodden. The thicker branch widened off to the left, and plunged down between great vertical walls of rock. It was signposted "Canyon Bridge, 1 min." The thinner trail curved up to the right, around another outpost of trees; the bare rock was visible in the moonlight, and they could see the line of the path sweep down the hill into a more gently sloping part of the canyon wall. The signpost read "River ford, 7 min."

Across the bridge path, ten meters from them, sat a tripod stand, holding the bold yellow diamond of a warning sign.

"Bridge out," repeated James quietly. He strolled calmly over to the sign, picked it up, and carried it off the path, concealing it in a thicket.

"Can you see it from where you are?" he said softly, just loud enough to be audible.

Jesse shook her head.

"Good."

He walked back to her, relieved her of the duffel bag, and placed it on the ground.

"They're never going to just walk over the edge," whispered Jesse urgently, "just because we took the sign. They have torches. They'll see. And it's not that high a drop, anyway…"

He placed a finger on her lips. "No, but it provides us with a made-to-order cul-de-sac," he replied. "The bridge is the quicker route, by the map we picked up. They'll go down there, come to the dead end, they'll be trapped between the cliffs around the path, we just stroll down after them. The only place they can go is over the edge, and if they do, they'll be crippled by the fall and we can pick them off."

Jesse nodded eagerly. Her face shone in the moonlight, her eyes big and glistening.

"This is really happening?"

"Yeah."

She shuddered, smiled and cuddled up to him. "How are we gonna do it?"

"With the gun. We'll take it in turns."

"But there's three of them."

"We'll work something out."

They kissed for a full half-minute, then hastily broke contact as Meowth coughed quietly, and glanced up the hill. Near the top, the flashlights were flickering on the bare rock and grass. They could even make out the tiny figures. The victims were

descending to meet with them.

"Now's where we make for cover," said James as quietly as he could. His breath was speeding up and his voice came out rather jerkily. "Behind the thicket there where we hid the sign. We can peer through without giving ourselves away. If they take the other path for some reason, we'll just have to chase them down."

Trying hard to scramble quietly, they rustled through the tangled thicket, eventually crouching down a meter away from the sign, which was lying on its side.

Jammed together, shivering, breathing synchronously, they watched for what felt like hours, as the flickers of light moved slowly down the hill. Meowth crouched behind them, his tail twitching.

"Slow fuckheads," whispered Jesse, panting to steady her heartbeat. "Why can't they just run it like we did… oh, I hate waiting. Please cuddle me."

"I am."

"Tighter then. I don't care if you pop my lungs."

"Well, the noise will probably give us away," he admonished smilingly, clasping her tighter.

The flashlights were in the trees now. They watched ceaselessly, their eyes straining, not daring to move a muscle, not so much in fear of discovery but of breaking the fearful, exhilarating spell that had them in its grip. They were beginning to catch snatches of speech from among the trees, also. Voice range. They had only a minute or two to wait now.

Tense and stiff all over, they watched at last as three floating blobs of light emerged from the trees and meandered down the path, and as the angle of the lights flickered here and there, they could make out the three dark figures that held them, and a tiny figure beside them, which was undoubtedly Pikachu.

Soon the figures were at the fork. There they stood, fifteen meters away, real and absolute, their flashlights all directed onto the wooden signposts. Their conversation was loud and easily intelligible over the rushing water.

"Fork's right here on the map. I told you, the bridge is quicker."

"How much quicker?"

"Twenty minutes or so, this reckons. There must be a lot of looping around after the ford on the other side."

"You reckon the bridge is okay?"

"Says here that a warden comes out every afternoon to check it, and if it's out they put up a warning sign. See one anywhere?"

"Nope. Come on, let's go, I'm getting bored of walking. We'll take the bridge."

They began to walk down the left fork.

As soon as their flashlights were heading down between the towering rock walls, Jesse felt James' hand reach past her into the duffel bag. She shuddered and tensed herself. Yes, his hand came stealthily back up with the gun, with a terrible snakelike deliberation. She held tight to his other hand and stroked it, drowning her momentary terror.

They stood up. Slowly, both quivering and shaking unashamedly now, they stepped out of the thicket and began to walk. One step, two step, three step… Now they were back on the path. Now they were past the signposts. Now they were past the place where the warning sign had stood. James fiddled with the automatic, and the safety catch slid open with a faint metallic click.

James stopped still. "Meowth," he said quietly, "I want you to wait here."

Meowth looked him in the eye. "Don't try dat one on me. I was in dis with you guys from de start, we go down to hell like family."

They both knelt and hugged him, then stood again and trudged silently down the path, as he padded softly after them, his eyes blinking nervously in the moonlight.

*

They rounded the corner.

There they were – Ash standing in the middle of the wooden stump of bridge that jutted out over the cliff, gazing ahead, Misty crouched behind him, furiously flipping through the map-brochure, Pikachu crouching too, his ears flattened down, and Brock off to the side, whistling and shivering in the wind, his hands wedged deep into his pockets.

The bridge was a simple affair of beams and planks. It was wide, but light and frail, and the middle section had obviously been torn away by heavy winds- it was far too high above the river for water to touch it, no matter how severe a flood was in progress.

Jesse and James had stepped right out of the shadow of the rocks, into the moonlight, before their presence was noted. Brock saw the silent figures three meters away and yelped. James leapt at him, hammering the side of his face with the heavy little pistol. He gasped with pain and fell backwards.

In a millisecond, the three were all facing them, blank shock on their faces. James recovered swiftly from his lunge, and stood before them, his right hand aiming the pistol at Ash's face. Jesse stepped up behind him and stood close to him.

James spoke softly.

"If the rat tries to use its lightning, or you release any other Pokemon, I'll blow your face open."

All his accent and petulant intonation had vanished on the dark hillside, and his voice was cold and humourless. Ash's eyes were wide and vacuous. He muttered frantically to Pikachu, who cowered behind his leg.

"Put him in a Pokeball."

"But he hates…" gasped Ash, barely able to articulate.

"He'll hate having no head even worse. Get a fucking move on."

Ash rummaged for a spare Pokeball on his belt, and sucked Pikachu into it.

"All three of you, throw your Pokeball belts to Jesse. No bullshit."

They obeyed, despair and terror chasing back and forth over their faces. Jesse caught the belts and placed them at her feet.

"You still haven't given up, you idiots," yelled Ash, losing his self-control. "When have you ever managed to steal a Pokemon? You don't learn!"

James stepped swiftly forward and slammed his fist into Ash's nose. He staggered back, almost over the edge, fell to his knees, and scrabbled away from the edge in panic, blood trickling from his nostrils.

"We don't give a shit about your Pokemon," said Jesse harshly. "We're only going to leave them here when we've finished."

"Finished?" gasped Misty, too shocked to even help Ash up.

"Finished you," completed Jesse, her mouth curling in a perfect smile.

Misty's knees crumpled.

James lowered the gun level with her face again, and clicked the hammer back with his thumb.

Brock lost it. With a yell of terror, he jumped sideways, recovering and leaping for the gap between Jesse and the rock wall.

The sudden movement was all James needed. He spun and fired twice, almost automatically. The first shot only clipped Brock's shoulder, but the second took him clean through the middle of the spine. His lungs and heart popped out in front of him in a dark triangular spray, spattering the planks and the rock black in the moonlight. He hung motionless, seemingly forever, then fell to his knees, his head lolling forward, and faceplanted heavily on the rough wood, a dark pool beginning to spread around him.

Misty vomited. Ash stared as if in rigor mortis, as Brock's body convulsed once, twice, three times and finally lay still.

Jesse seemed almost as shocked as Ash, but James took her hand and squeezed it, and she came alive again with a start.

"That paranoid traffic cop," she muttered, stepping over to stand over Brock's corpse. "Look at the size of that hole. He loaded with softnoses. We could so report him for that." She giggled, a little hysterically, and recovered. She stepped back to James, slipped her right hand around his, and took the gun.

Two strides carried her to Misty, who knelt limp and semi-catatonic, liquid vomit soaking into the front of her shirt. She grasped her hair firmly and yanked her to her feet.

"My turn," she said, her voice flat and bitter.

She lifted the gun, and Misty began to scream, at an astounding pitch and volume, making the canyon shiver with distaste. She screamed and screamed until the gun cracked sharply, and stiffened, her mouth hanging open, the gaping hole in her throat emitting a horrible choking, gurgling sound as the blood began to fill up her lungs. Her chest went into weak spasms. Jesse held her upright by the ponytail for perhaps ten seconds, but she continued to twitch and gurgle.

Taking a deep breath, changing her grip on the gun and grasping it by the barrel, Jesse drew back her arm and hit Misty's temple as hard as she could with the weighted butt. There was a sickly crunching noise, and Misty went completely limp, startling Jesse and disgusting her.

"Like a bloody straw-stuffed scarecrow," she muttered, forcing the corpse away from her and stepping back. Misty flopped bonelessly backward, her head lolling over the splintered edge of the broken planks, her eyes wide open and witless.

Ash was gasping as though he, too, had just been bereft of his windpipe. He was writhing before them, face fish-white and eyes blank and maddened.

"You have a mother who loves you, Ash," said James quietly, kneeling beside him. "But she's just going to have to work through this. And, yeah, she'll know to teach her next child some manners." He eyed the twitching youth with disfavour, and suddenly felt compelled to explain himself to his erstwhile victim. "Look, I... well, I guess, being honest, you're not important enough for everything we suffered to have been your fault. But you're one of the ones we're choosing to take out our shit on. Because we're sick of being good, Ash." His voice caught, but he regained his level tone swiftly. "We're so fucking sick of being good."

He looked Ash in the eyes, a futile exercise, as his eyes were rolling all over the place in animal panic. "We saved your life once, Ash. You know, we saved the world, we were prepared to lay down our lives for something that never gave us anything back, and you climbed a fucking flight of stairs and suddenly, foom, you're a hero… And you're not listening to a fucking word I'm saying, are you, because you're too busy freaking out."

He spat in Ash's general direction and stood up. He turned to Jesse, who stood slumped and haggard beside him.

"What do you reckon?"

A little of her old smile flickered. "Equal share of guilt, James."

"Well, I've had one and you've had one, and there's only one left? What do we do? Get Meowth to shoot him?"

Meowth, who had been standing in the shadow of the rock, looking away as best he could, stepped out into the light, shaking his head vehemently. "Please no, you guys, I'll pass."

"It's okay, Meowth. I wasn't serious." James patted Meowth on the back. "We really won't mind if you wait back up the path for us, okay? You're a Pokemon, you should, well, stay at least partially innocent of human evil."

Meowth nodded, his eyes shut, and walked slowly back the way they had come.

Jesse looked down at Ash. "I'd say both shoot him, of course, but we've only the one gun."

"Pull the trigger between us?"

"Too clumsy," she whispered, sinking down beside him and burying her face in his shirt. "And when we hold hands I do not want to have a gun in the way, James."

He hugged her gently. She was shuddering horribly. Her eyes were glazed and sad. Whatever strength was sustaining her through what they were doing here, she was running low. They sat silent, unless you counted Ash's yelps and gasps, for nearly a minute.

As she began to breathe normally again, she stared hard at Ash. Suddenly she laughed, a clear sound, bright and unexpected.

"I've got it, James! I've got it!"

He nodded. "Enlighten me."

"One of us, it doesn't matter which, you or me… that one shoots him in a spot where he'd die from it if we left him long enough, so it would still be clear murder, and then the other one shoots him through the head. He'd die whichever of us did what, so we're even."

James grinned. "I should be worried that you take to this so logically. You're damn right. I want the finisher, so you do the honours." He jerked his thumb towards the area of Ash's torso.

Jesse gulped, lifted the gun again, angled her shot, closed her eyes and blew away half of Ash's stomach. His yelping swung up in pitch with a rattling wheeze. They surveyed the tangle of exposed and ruptured intestines, and watched the blood pour out for a moment to determine its rate of flow.

"Perfect," decided Jesse with a shudder, handing over the gun. "Now put one in his head before he does die from it."

They clambered stiffly and unsteadily to their feet. Walking slowly around Ash's misshapen, jerking figure, James slowly aimed the gun at his forehead.

"I hope you come back as a dung beetle," he said softly, and pulled the trigger.

The report echoed mockingly back and forth across the chasm. The headless corpse of Ash Ketchum shuddered once, long and hard, and lay still.

*

They fell to their knees in the moonlight, blood-spattered and cold. Holding each other tightly, they sobbed and swore for perhaps a minute, hiding their faces from themselves and one another. The inhumanity that had been granted them was spent for now.

James was the first to open his eyes again.

"Let's get out of this fucking place," he gulped, struggling once more to his feet. "Please, Jesse. Come away. Stand up."

She was hunched miserably, but at last she rose, and they ran, back up the track between the towering rocks, two little children afraid of the dark. The path seemed to stretch forever, black and hostile, its surface invisible, making them stumble and hurt their ankles at every step.

At the top was a moonlit area of flat ground, there were the signposts, and they almost fainted in horror at the sight of a pool of yellow light, but it was their own flashlight, and Meowth with it, waiting by the thicket.

*

They spent several horrid minutes in the thicket, changing their blood-spattered clothes, wiping traces off their skin, shoving the guilty clothes into a plastic rubbish bag. They moved with the speed born of panic, bundling the garments away and forcing the plastic bag back into the duffel bag hastily and clumsily. Meowth stood by, numb and silent, assisting as best he could.

"We've got to just go," sobbed Jesse. "They're lying down there… just around the corner…"

"Nearly, nearly," whispered James, his eyes wild as they flickered over the contents of the duffel bag. Had they left anything? Almost satisfied, he finally leapt to his feet, grabbed up the warning sign, rushed to the path with it, and placed it roughly where it had stood before.

He ran back to Jesse. Even in the seven seconds he had been away from her, she had hunched low again, and she grabbed for him frantically as soon as he was within arms' length. Desperately whispering calming-down phrases to one another, they staggered out of the thicket, their eyes fixed on the dark patch where the path joined the trees. Meowth walked swiftly in front of them, guiding them with the torch, which had a sheath of cardboard taped around the end so that the light went only where it was directed and was less easily visible from afar.

For nearly half an hour they climbed the steep path back up the hillside, keeping close to the trees, ready to hide at the first sign of life, however unlikely. Every shadow seemed ready to disgorge a black-balacava'd SWAT officer or shotgun-wielding hunter. Merely having the torch on made them feel visible and panicky, and if they could have climbed the track without it, they would have done so. Whenever Meowth raised the beam too high, or shone it too far ahead, they flinched involuntarily. Creepers and low branches plucked malevolently at their hair, and leaf-litter rustled and crunched sharply. It was a long walk.

Nearly at the summit once more, they came out of the trees. Meowth switched off the torch, and they gasped with relief. They left the path, as the terrain was gentle here anyway, the same tufty grass and bare ground they remembered from the way down.

*

Exhausted, breathless, tear-stained and half-raving, they stumbled at last over the top of the hill, and the gentle grassy slope lay before them, stretching all the way back down to the lights of Goldenrod.

While the climb had been a frantic, unceasing nightmare, the walk down the slope seemed a pleasantly hazy daydream. The grass was soft and made a motherly shushing sound with each step.

They stopped to rest twice, lying on the grass with as much gratitude as if it were a feather bed. The second time the rested, a helicopter passed over, flying low and heading for the city. They both went into fits of terror, and were very grateful to Meowth, who scolded them loudly. "Don't be fucking stoopid, dey couldn't see you even if dey was looking." After that, they felt distinctly more human.

They crossed a freight railway line, scrabbling uncertainly down a massive concrete embankment, hopping over the dull metal of the tracks and hurrying past a small oupost of signal boxes.

By the time they reached the loop of the overpass that bordered the city, Jesse had remembered she was wearing a watch. She pressed the light and looked at the display; it was only ten-thirty PM. She showed James, who nodded and managed a small smile.

On a side-street overlooked by empty warehouses, they levered up a manhole cover with James' pocket-knife, withdrew the crumpled rubbish-sack of evidence from the duffel bag, and dropped it unceremoniously into the city's deep, dark sewer system.

*

And by the time they had walked into the brightly lit foyer of the Hotel Cavalier, renowned for its immaculate rooms and service, and explained to the neatly-uniformed night clerk that they had missed a train and did not have a reservation, and been told that there were several rooms available, they could see the first patters of the rain storm beating the tarmac outside the great glass double doors. The clerk furnished them with a key, led them to an elevator and left. They ascended steadily to the tenth floor, slumped limply against the walls, made their way slowly and sleepily out of the elevator and down the corridor to their room, and managed to unlock the door, get in, and lock it again. Meowth once again found a corner and went straight to sleep. Footsore, shivering, they collapsed in a roughly bedward direction.

They lay, unmoving, half-unconscious, on the double bed. By eleven-thirty, the rain storm was thundering and lashing the windows, soothing them with its impartial rumble. By quarter to twelve, they had recovered enough to turn the lights on, undress, and slide under the blankets.

By midnight, they were fast asleep in a tight embrace, warmer than they ever dreamed possible, and far away on the splintered stump of a wooden footbridge, the wind ripped three limp bodies away like scarecrows, to be lost in the rocks and water below, and the torrential rain washed away the dark stains that had seeped into the planks in a futile accusation.

fin.

.