Capture the Heart
Author's note: This story is a continuation based on the Pokemon: Diamond & Pearl anime, starting from after the episode "The Battle Finale of Legend!".
Disclaimer: Pokemon is not my idea and I don't own it or any of the characters, obviously.
"You slackers! Why're you slowing down? Pick up the pace! Move it!"
The undercover Pokemon Ranger Solana and her two fellow recruits for Pokemon Hunter J's crew, each of them lugging around a large box that weighed no less than 100 lbs., had long ago started feeling the ill effects of their grueling initiation. Some of the items they were carrying really did need to be moved, but others were unnecessarily added on just for the sake of making their task more difficult.
"If you want to be a part of this crew, you'd better show me more energy than that!" one of the established crewmen berated them.
Her arms wrapped tightly around a box full of machine parts, Solana pressed on despite feeling like her legs were about to give out on her. The recruits had all worked late into the night on their first day. They could have used a full night of rest afterward, but J's crewmen awoke the trio after only allowing them one hour of sleep, and they then put them right back to work. The afternoon hours were now approaching and the three were sore and exhausted, but none of their wills were broken yet. The two men were driven by thoughts of the generous income. Their female comrade had other motivations keeping her going.
While the rookies trudged along down the corridor, another of J's regular crew members wandered into the area and spotted his associate dishing out orders. "Hey!" he grabbed the other man's attention. "Have you seen the Commander around? We can't seem to find her."
"That's because Commander J left earlier," the other man replied, giving the recruits a brief reprieve from his barking.
"Again? She's been going off on her own a lot lately, don't you think?"
"She wouldn't be leaving if there wasn't a reason for it. She also said to be ready for that Bronzong job by the time she gets back, so if I were you I'd be focused on that and not what Commander J does with her time."
Even though they'd noticed that their boss was leaving the base by herself more often than usual, the crew had never been given any reason to believe that she wasn't being productive in some way. The majority of them didn't care what their Commander was doing so long as they were still getting paid, and that was precisely the type of attitude that made them a good fit for J's crew.
"Buizel, use Sonic Boom!"
"Happiny, dodge and use Pound!"
Outside the Pokemon Center his group had stayed at last night, Ash was taking advantage of some extra time he and the others had by using a practice battle to get some training in for his Buizel against Brock's Happiny. The Pokemon and their trainers were certainly putting forth effort, but the atmosphere remained relaxed as the battle was only for the sake of experience. There was one spot that relaxed atmosphere didn't extend to, however, that being the bench alongside the practice field where a lone girl and her Piplup sat.
Restless and anxious, Dawn's right leg bobbed up and down uncontrollably as she checked the digital clock on her Poketch for what felt like the hundredth time today. It was 10:57 in the morning.
The young Pokemon coordinator leaned back and looked up at the azure sky above, taking a deep breath to try to calm her nerves. Ever since Pokemon Hunter J had contacted her last night, the ensuing conversation was all Dawn could think about. It was on her mind when she fell asleep, and it was just as bothersome when she woke up for breakfast. J had asked to meet her at 11 o' clock this morning. That time was quickly approaching.
Dawn peeked down at her Poketch again. It read 10:58.
"Oh, come on, Dawn. Pull it together," the girl silently told herself. "She said it was up to me, and I'm not going to see a Pokemon poacher if I don't have to. She can wait there for the rest of her life for all I care!"
Such was what Dawn had been trying to convince herself of ever since her eyes had fluttered open hours earlier. Why she would ever want to associate with someone like J was beyond her. It was one thing when J kept coming to find her as had been the case each of the last three times they'd met, but for Dawn to willingly go to her? The very idea was ridiculous.
Yet, despite all of that, there was one countering thought that continuously popped up in Dawn's mind: J had saved her life two days ago. Not only that, she had also rescued Piplup and the rest of Dawn's Pokemon from Team Rocket. Thus, Dawn couldn't help wondering, did that obligate her to agree to J's request?
Dawn let her eyes wander down to the device on her wrist once more. The time was now 10:59.
"Good! Now use Ice Punch, Buizel!"
"Get ready for it, Happiny!"
Dawn shook her head, the ongoing practice battle registering as nothing more than background noise. "Just forget about it already!" she pleaded with herself. "It doesn't matter anymore. I'd just be late if I went to meet her now. She'll probably have left by the time I got there anyway. And besides, I'm going to the Grand Festival today! The Grand Festival! I need to focus!"
The question was, would Dawn be able to focus if she ignored J's invitation? Would she be able to keep herself from thinking about why the normally cold, callous woman asked to meet her today in the first place? Or if J would come looking for her again, upset that she didn't show up? Or if hours later J was still out there waiting for her?
Slowly, Dawn raised her Poketch up to eye level. She could feel the rate of her heartbeat start to rise as she read the current time. Finally, it was 11 o' clock.
Both Buizel and Happiny were breathing heavily when their trainers decided they'd had enough.
Ash was all smiles as he walked up behind his Pokemon and placed a hand on its shoulder. "Hey, that was great, Buizel!"
"Bui bui!" the water-type Pokemon pounded its chest proudly.
"You too, Happiny. Great job," Brock said to the small, pink Pokemon. "You're not used to battling for that long, but you sure handled it well."
"Happiny!" the Pokemon jumped up and down, appreciative of the compliment.
Over on the bench, Piplup was ready to hop down to the ground now that the battle was over. It wouldn't get the chance, though, as its trainer wrapped her hands around it and picked it up while she got to her feet. "Pip?"
"Hey, you guys!" Dawn came rushing over to her friends.
"Yeah? What's up, Dawn?" Ash asked, surprised by her sudden outburst.
"Listen, I...umm...I need to go do something for a bit! By myself!" Dawn informed them.
"O-...kay," Brock gave her a curious stare. "Is it something we can help with?"
"No! No, I-I need to do it alone," Dawn flashed the boys a nervous smile. "So I'll be back a little later, okay?"
Brock turned to Ash to see if his friend had any thoughts on the matter, but the trainer simply shrugged his shoulders. "Well, if you need to be by yourself, I understand," Brock gave Dawn his blessing. "Just make sure you're back in time for us to head to Lake Valor while it's still light outside."
"Got it!" Dawn nodded, and with that she took off running to the north. "See you guys in a bit!"
While he watched his traveling companion take her abrupt leave, Brock remained mystified as to what Dawn had to go do in such a hurry. "That was sure strange," he said, turning to Ash again. "Did she mention anything about it to you?"
"Nah, but it's pretty obvious what she's up to," Ash grinned.
"It is?" Brock raised an eyebrow.
"Sure! Don't you get it, Brock?" Ash inquired, surprised that his old buddy didn't understand what was going on. "She's definitely going to practice a new move to use at the Grand Festival! And she wants us to be surprised when she uses it, so she went off to practice where we couldn't see her!"
Brock almost had to laugh at his friend's take on things. Actually, Ash's theory even seemed plausible. "You think so, huh?"
Confident in his analysis of the situation, Ash gave Brock a thumbs up. "No doubt about it!"
Meanwhile, after having a quick change of heart that she already believed she would regret later, Dawn was dashing at full speed through a patch of thick grass with Piplup clutched to her chest. What in the world had gotten into her, even she had no idea.
"I could have just relaxed with the guys or gotten in some practice of my own, but no! I'm going to meet up with a Pokemon hunter!" Dawn thought, frustrated with herself. "I can't believe I'm doing this. Piplup is going to flip out if J's there!"
Last night, J had said that she would be waiting by a statue of Palkia half a mile north of the Pokemon Center, which by Dawn's calculations should have been coming into view any minute. Up ahead, she could see a line of trees where the tall grass appeared to end. The statue, she figured, may well lie within them.
In the midst of the run, Piplup started to put up a fuss as Dawn had tightened her grip on it without noticing. "Piplup piplup pipluuuup!"
"Oops! Sorry, Piplup," Dawn quickly apologized. "We're almost there, I promise."
Once she finally emerged from the patch of grass, Dawn found a road waiting at the end just before the line of trees began. "Okay, now let's see..." she mumbled, scouring the trees for some idea of where to go. To her left there was nothing out of the ordinary, but to the right there was something that stood out very clearly. It was a cobblestone path several feet wide that appeared to lead deeper into the wooded area.
"That might just be the way to the statue," Dawn told herself.
Resuming her run, Dawn got on the stone pathway and began following it. There were some low hanging branches from the trees blocking the view up ahead, but Dawn was almost certain that she could see a statue of some sort through them. With a few more steps she was able to confirm that it was, indeed, a statue, and its details were starting to become clear. It was a bronze likeness of a massive Pokemon with wings, standing nearly three times as tall as she was. With plates on its shoulders, a long tail, and a crest atop its head, there was no mistaking that the Pokemon depicted by the statue was Palkia. There was a circular area of stone on the ground surrounding the statue that came into full view as Dawn found herself standing before it at the end of her journey.
"This has to be it," Dawn said while trying to catch her breath. She hadn't seen anyone around while approaching this spot, however, and now that she was here, she could plainly see that J was nowhere to be found. "She's...she's not here..."
Feeling like a great burden had been lifted from her shoulders, Dawn let out a huge sigh of relief. Whether she'd left already or hadn't shown up at all, J wasn't here, and there was nothing Dawn could do about that. Now she might be able to put this all behind her and focus on her upcoming contest, she figured. Admittedly, though, there was also a hint of disappointment in her heart. She really did want to know the reason why J had asked to meet her here today, but it appeared as though it was just going to end up as one of those mysteries she never got the answer to.
"You really came," a voice suddenly spoke out.
Dawn immediately raised her head, her heart nearly jumping out of her chest. She knew that voice she'd just heard. Panning around the area for its source, Dawn's eyes widened as she watched a woman step out from behind the right leg of the Palkia statue. "J!"
Pokemon Hunter J wasn't dressed any differently than the other times Dawn had seen her in recent weeks, but today she was noticeably without a headset, allowing Dawn to see her light blue eyes for the first time since the night she'd found her injured near Lake Valor.
As J stepped closer, a terrified Piplup began flailing around until its trainer finally let go of it. The small Pokemon hid behind Dawn's leg in a panic, trembling in fear of the renowned hunter. "Pipipipipipiplup!"
"Piplup, it's okay! She won't hurt us...I don't think," Dawn tried to put her Pokemon at ease, although she herself wasn't even sure of just how safe they were.
J closed the distance until a space of only a couple of feet stood between she and the girl. "If I wanted to hurt you, I could have done it without going to this much trouble."
"Okay, then why did you ask me to come here?" Dawn questioned her.
"That...I'll tell you soon enough," J replied. Reaching into her coat, she pulled out a pokeball and tossed it into the air. "Salamence, come out!"
The appearance of J's large, dragon-type Pokemon made Dawn take a step back. Salamence let out a loud roar as it touched down on the ground, and its presence only caused more of a panic for Piplup, who was still far from convinced that they weren't in any danger.
Salamence hadn't been brought out for the sake of a fight, though. Instead, J hopped up onto the intimidating Pokemon's back and took a seated position. Then, once settled in, she held out her hand as an invitation to Dawn. "Come on. We'll continue this elsewhere."
"Else-...where?" Dawn blinked, understandably hesitant about the idea. "Where are we going?"
"I can't tell you just yet," J said to her. "You'll have to trust me."
To ask for Dawn's trust was practically asking for the impossible given J's profession of choice. Dawn was willing to consider it, though. Despite J's checkered past, Dawn was of the impression that the woman harbored no ill intentions at the moment. As J had said earlier, after all, if she were looking to cause any harm, she would have done so already. What exactly J's intentions were was unknown, but this was Dawn's chance to find that out, and she would have to decide whether or not it was worth the risk.
Dawn took all the time she needed to think things through. Then, after finally coming to a decision, she picked up her still apprehensive Piplup and narrowed her eyes at J. "Just so you understand, I'm only doing this to pay you back for saving me the other day," she let the woman know.
Piplup was mortified, its beak hanging open in shock that its trainer was actually going through with this.
True to her typically stoic character, J appeared unfazed by the girl's statement. "I'm not concerned with your reasons. Just take my hand."
Though she showed some nervousness, Dawn put one foot forward and began advancing toward Salamence. It may not have been in her best interest to go, but she felt as though J was being genuine with her and she wanted to know where the woman was going with this. No, she needed to know.
Her eyes locked on those of the Pokemon hunter, Dawn reached out and felt J's gloved hand wrap around her own. With one strong tug, J pulled Dawn up onto Salamence's back and had the girl and her Piplup sit in front of her.
"Ready?" J asked.
"Y-yeah," Dawn replied, as ready as she'd ever be.
"Good. Salamence, let's go!"
Hearing the order from its trainer, Salamence lifted off and took to the sky, heading toward the destination only itself and J knew.
"Pii piplup piplup pip! Piplup piipiplup!"
"I know, Piplup. I know."
Dawn was getting an earful from her Pokemon as they soared through the air aboard Salamence. She wasn't exactly thrilled with herself at the moment either, but Piplup was easily the more upset of the two. Being a Pokemon itself, J's transgressions were much more personal to it than they were to its trainer. To see Dawn associating with the notoriously cruel hunter like this was absolutely baffling for Piplup.
Seated directly behind them, J had her hands placed around Dawn's waist to help keep the girl stable since her arms were too occupied with Piplup to hold onto Salamence. "How is it? Does being up here still make you nervous?" J asked her.
"Huh? O-oh, I hadn't even thought about it," Dawn admitted. There were so many other things running through her mind right now that she hadn't had the time to worry about being this far off the ground like she had two days earlier during the Team Rocket incident. "I guess it does a little, but it's not as bad this time."
Having J so close to her was a peculiar sensation for Dawn. The feeling of the woman's hands gripping her hips and keeping her balanced was actually very reassuring, and that may have been why she wasn't so concerned about falling. She felt oddly safe at the moment considering who she was with.
"Not surprising. The second ride is always easier," J said to her. "It takes a while to be completely comfortable up here, though. I couldn't begin to tell you how much I practiced riding Salamence after it first evolved."
Having seen how perfectly J could keep her balance while standing atop Salamence, it was tough for Dawn to picture her having difficulty with it. It actually piqued her interest regarding the history between the two. "Umm...have you had Salamence for a long time?" she asked, unsure what kind of answer she might get, if any.
J paused to consider her response before speaking. "Yes, it was my first Pokemon. Even before it evolved and grew its wings, we were always together. Through good times...and bad."
Legitimately surprised by the reply, Dawn peeked back over her shoulder at the woman.
"What is it?" J inquired, her tone oddly defensive.
"Oh, n-nothing. It's just...you act so cold all the time, I didn't think you'd open up like that," Dawn told her, turning away again.
J had wondered if Dawn might make fun of her for speaking of the bond between she and Salamence, but that hadn't been the case at all. "I see. I hope I won't be the only one to open up."
Dawn batted her eyelids, curious as to what J meant by that last statement. She wouldn't get much time to think about it, though, as they were now approaching the planned destination.
"We're here," J announced. "Salamence, head down by the gate."
Salamence began a rapid descent toward the ground, causing a feeling of butterflies to arise in Dawn's gut. She tried to get a look at what awaited down below, but it was too difficult with Salamence's head in the way. There was no one else in sight on the ground as Salamence flapped its wings a few times, slowing its downward speed and allowing it to land gently on the grass. J was the first to dismount from her Pokemon. Dawn planned on doing the same, but needed a moment to gather herself as the quick drop through the air had her heart racing.
"Too fast?" J asked, extending a hand out toward the girl.
Dawn grabbed hold of it and allowed J to help her down. "Maybe...a little."
Leaving Piplup sitting on Salamence's back for the time being, Dawn was finally able to get a good look at the structure they'd landed in front of. It had cobblestone walls fifteen feet high all around, and the tips of two white domes stuck out from above them on opposite sides of the enclosure. Two opened gates stood as the entrance, and stretching over top of them was a steel arch with the establishment's name welded into it.
"Balladia Garden," Dawn read it aloud. As the name sunk in, her face lit up with surprise. "Balladia Garden? The Balladia Garden?"
The expression Dawn now wore was a good assurance to J that she'd picked a perfect place to bring the girl. "You recognize it?" the Pokemon hunter asked.
"Yes! I've read about it a few times, and Mom told me about it, too," Dawn gushed. "It's supposed to be just beautiful inside. I've always wanted to come here!"
Dawn's excitement led J's lips to curve upward into a small smile. "Glad to hear it. Well, then," J spoke, turning to her Pokemon, "...Salamence, I want you to play nice with that Piplup. Go on over to your spot."
Salamence gave its trainer a growl of acknowledgment, and Piplup, still sitting atop its back, started to panic as Salamence spread its wings and lifted up into the air again, carrying its passenger away from Dawn.
"Pipluuuup! Pii piplup pipluuuup!" the smaller Pokemon cried out.
"H-hey! Wait a-!" Dawn protested, but J held out an arm to stop her. "What are you doing?"
"I brought you here so that I could spend time with you, not your Piplup," J bluntly told her. "Don't worry, Salamence will take care of it."
"That isn't the point! Couldn't you have just asked?"
"Sorry, but I like to act first and ask questions later."
It was clear to Dawn that there wasn't any remorse in J for deciding on her own to send Piplup away, but that didn't come as a great shock to the girl. It was probably just the first of several personality conflicts they'd have today, she figured.
With Piplup now out of the way, J gestured toward the garden's gate with her open hand. "Shall we?"
Though she was still peeved about Piplup, Dawn was willing to put it aside for now. It certainly wasn't the worst thing J had ever done, after all, and Dawn did badly want to go inside the garden and take a look around. "Okay, let's go," she relented without a fight.
Side by side, Dawn and J walked past the open gates and entered Balladia Garden. Once they were inside, the younger of the two was awestruck by the sight that awaited her.
As Dawn had heard about this place, everything she saw before her was crafted of glass. The area she and J had just stepped into was lined entirely by sculptures of trees with large, trumpet-shaped flowers hanging down from their branches. Lights embedded in the walls and the floor gave the flowers colors that varied from yellow to pink, even different shades of blue. Green lights shone from under the glass floor to give the impression of grass, and in the middle of it all stood the most impressive piece the room had to offer. Its base surrounded by a circular pool of water one foot deep, a painted glass statue of Uxie, one of Sinnoh's legendary lake guardians, towered over sculptures and guests alike and had a spotlight shining down upon it from the ceiling.
"Wow!" Dawn exclaimed, taking in every last detail of the works the room had to offer. "Is that Uxie? It looks amazing. The colors are just perfect! And the flowers on the trees are so pretty! I've never seen anything like these before."
"The designer based the sculptures on trees that aren't native to the Sinnoh region," J explained.
"Hmm, that's probably why. How did you know that?" Dawn asked her.
J walked up to the base of the statue and took a look at her reflection in the small pool. "I knew the person who built this garden."
"You're kidding! Really?"
"It was a long time ago, but yes. This is the garden's southern entrance. The northern entrance is similar, only it has a statue of Mesprit rather than Uxie. They're both parts of the outside ring of different features that surround the garden's core."
Taking a closer look around the room they were in, Dawn saw pathways leading both east and west, as well as another leading north. What lay beyond the northern path, however, was blocked by a giant wall of green.
"What is that?" Dawn asked, pointing to the obstructed path.
"A hedge maze, and it's not made of glass," J replied. "No matter where you enter the garden from, you have to navigate your way through that maze to get to the deepest part."
"Oh, wow. It sounds fun. The center must really be something if you have to do some work to get to it."
"Well, you can see for yourself later. I want to show you another room first, though."
"Sure, that's okay. Now that I'm finally here, I want to see as much as I can!"
Though she hadn't forgotten about her disdain for J's profession or the fact that she needed to return to the Pokemon Center by a certain time, Dawn's excitement over getting to see the rest of Balladia Garden had pushed any such thoughts to the back of her mind. She reminded herself to check the time on her Poketch in a bit, but for now she followed J down the western path of the garden, which was gradually curving to the north.
Glass that was sculpted and colored to represent a landscape at sunset had been placed all across the walls of the corridor that the pair followed.
"It's so cool!" Dawn marveled at the work. The mostly orange and red-tinted glass was a beautiful sight, and as Dawn and J went further along, more complex designs began to appear that represented buildings and what looked to be mines. "I wonder what this is supposed to be..."
"There are four corridors like this connecting the different areas of the garden. Each one is a tribute to certain parts of the Sinnoh region," J said, walking up to one of the mines depicted on the wall. "If you've been there before, it shouldn't be tough to figure out what city this represents."
Dawn took a couple of steps back to get a more complete view of the carved glass. The key, she thought, would probably be the mines since only certain areas of Sinnoh would have them. Knowing that, she soon put two and two together. "Oh! It's Oreburgh City, isn't it?"
"Very good," J complimented her, pointing to one of the buildings displayed near the mines. "This represents the Oreburgh Mining Museum, and the Oreburgh Gym is directly behind you on the other wall. It's a very thorough piece of work."
"It sure is. It must have taken them forever to do all this."
"Many, many years. Come, there's more to see."
As Dawn and J continued along the path, the orange and red colors shining on the glass began to darken. The colors of the sunset were replaced by the colors of night, and a new area was depicted in an evening setting. Pale green and blue lights illuminated the glass to give a feel of trees and buildings enveloped in the moonlight. One building in particular, which stood out amongst the others with two familiar statues outside its entrance, was the only hint Dawn needed to figure out which part of the Sinnoh region was being represented this time.
"Hey, that's the Eterna City Museum! This must all be Eterna City, then," Dawn surmised.
J gently brushed her fingers against the sculpture of the museum, the lights behind it shining a pale blue glow onto her face. "He used to say that no city was more lovely at night than Eterna City. That's why he gave it this evening color scheme."
"Yeah, it really is pretty at night. The person that did all this, was he...a friend of yours?"
"A friend? No. Just an old man I would sit around and listen to when I had nowhere else to go. Anyway, let's keep going. I have a feeling you'll like the next spot we're heading to."
"Oh. Okay," Dawn replied softly, not very satisfied with the response she got. J's vague references to her past left a lot to be desired as far as details were concerned, giving Dawn the impression that the woman wasn't eager to disclose anything more.
As they moved onward, the two of them soon came upon a doorway that was covered by a thick, black curtain. There was a sound of running water beyond this point that only added to the intrigue any first time visitor might feel.
Thinking it would be better for Dawn to lead the way, J stepped to the side and gestured with her hand toward the curtain. "This is the garden's western block. Go ahead," she said.
"Me first? 'Kay," Dawn smiled. Eager to see what this new area had to offer, she moved the curtain out of the way and stepped inside.
From the moment she laid eyes on the room, Dawn's breath was taken away. Along the eastern wall, glass statues of six water-type Pokemon—Whiscash, Floatzel, Crawdaunt, Clamperl, Phione and Mantyke, all immersed in blue and purple lighting—had streams of water pouring down from their mouths into a collective pool below. Along the western wall, glass vines of varying sizes stretched down from above, some of them sporting red or pink lit flowers. Thousands of glass stars also shined on the ceiling of the domed room with varying hues of blue and purple light, completing a scene that could be described as a nighttime land of fantasy.
"I'll assume by that expression of yours that you approve of this one," J poked fun at Dawn's speechlessness.
"It's just...it's amazing," Dawn finally managed to talk. "The colors, the sculptures...just...incredible!"
While the surrounding work was impressive, Dawn's attention was now brought to the centerpiece of the room. With a thick, glass bridge arching above it, a small, darkened pond sat directly in the middle of the area. Glass rocks and blades of grass bordered the pond, while small lights on the bridge lit the way for visitors to cross over it safely.
"Let's go on the bridge," J insisted.
"Is it safe?" Dawn asked.
"It wouldn't be here if it weren't. Come on."
Taking Dawn's hand in her own, J led the girl onto the dimly lit bridge. A strange glow beneath the surface of the water soon had Dawn peeking over the rail out of curiosity.
"Hey, I think I just saw something down there. It looked like it was moving," Dawn blinked. She followed J to the middle of the bridge, where she saw the odd glow in the water once more. "There it is again! What is it?"
Giving Dawn a gentle nudge, J pointed to a bowl built into the bridge's rail that was filled with dried flakes of food. "Try sprinkling some of that onto the water's surface."
Dawn dipped her hand into the bowl and brought some of the flakes up by her face for a closer inspection. "What is this?"
"Dried Rindo Berry. Go on, feed them some."
Unsure of what J was referring to, Dawn did as she was instructed and sprinkled some of the flakes down into the water. The glow she'd seen earlier appeared again, only this time it was larger. Whatever was its source was coming closer to the surface.
"Oh, that's...!" Dawn gasped. She felt a little silly for not figuring it out sooner. A Lumineon, its fins glowing a light blue color, had risen up to the water's surface and started nibbling on some of the berry flakes. "Lumineon! I had no idea they had a Pokemon here."
"And not just one," J clarified, sprinkling some of the food over the rail herself. It wasn't long before a second and third Lumineon appeared from the depths and joined their fellow water-type Pokemon for the meal.
"Wow, three of them! I just love that glow their fins give off. Wait...you're not here to steal these Lumineon, are you?" Dawn gave J an accusing look.
Though it was an unpleasant question to hear after she and Dawn been getting along thus far, J couldn't blame her for the skepticism. "Relax, I'm not here on business."
"You're not, huh?" Dawn muttered, narrowing her eyes at the woman. "Would you steal them if someone paid you to do it?"
J allowed a light sigh to escape from her mouth as the verbal prodding persisted. "I do what I need to do."
"That's what I thought," Dawn snorted, turning away in disgust.
"But," J continued, drawing Dawn's eyes back to her, "...even I have certain things I would rather not do unless it was absolutely vital to my survival. To take anything away from this garden...I don't foresee any circumstance where I would need to do that. In fact, I can practically guarantee you that I won't."
Dawn leaned back over the bridge's rail and watched the Lumineon finish off their meal. It was comforting to know that J had some limits as to how far she would go, no matter how few in number they may be. Still, the fact that J wouldn't completely rule out taking something away from here remained bothersome. "Well, that's good, I guess," Dawn halfheartedly conceded. "This place is so neat, I'd hate for anything to happen to it. Especially this room."
"I agree. This is probably my favorite part of the entire garden," J admitted. "I'd bet it would be a popular romantic hotspot if it weren't out in the middle of nowhere."
"Now that you mention it, I was wondering why we haven't seen anyone else here. Is it really that far from people?"
"It certainly isn't close to any big cities. The closest area with a large population would be Veilstone City, and that's a couple of hours away by car. Most people aren't willing to put forth that much effort to come out here regularly."
"Then...why is it here?"
"Because that old man had his heart set on building it at this spot. I don't think he was ever concerned about how popular it was. All he cared about was that everything was just how he wanted it to be."
After giving it some thought, Dawn began to smile. To create something as amazing as this without caring about how popular it would be must have been difficult, she imagined. It was admirable.
"How about we head to the garden's core?" J suggested, breaking the silence. "After that, we can look around some more."
"Yeah, sure," Dawn agreed.
The two of them stepped off the bridge and over to the east exit between the statues of Crawdaunt and Clamperl. Just like the last one, this doorway was also covered by a black curtain to keep the natural light out of the room. Once that was pushed aside, J and Dawn found themselves standing before one of the starting points of the sunlit hedge maze.
After having been inside the darkened room for so long, Dawn had to shield her eyes from the brightness. "Whoa, I wasn't expecting that. There isn't a roof over this area?"
"No. The center of the garden is entirely outdoors, though there is a retractable roof they activate when bad weather is near," J explained. "This hedge maze can be tedious if you don't know where you're going. In the interest of time, would you mind if I led the way?"
The word "time" put a bit of panic into Dawn. She'd gotten so caught up in enjoying the sights of the garden that she'd completely forgotten about checking the time.
"Problem?" J asked, noticing the girl's change in demeanor.
"N-no! Everything's fine! You can lead the way!" Dawn let out a nervous laugh.
J sensed that Dawn wasn't being entirely honest with her, but she opted to remain quiet about it for now. "I see. Let's go then."
While J led Dawn through the labyrinth of bushes, the young coordinator took the chance to glance down at her Poketch. As it turned out, she still had time to spare. "Whew, that's a relief," she thought to herself, able to breathe a little easier now that she knew she wasn't in immediate danger of being late for her rendezvous with the guys. "Time sure has flown by, though. Staying here for much longer might be a problem. I don't really want to tell J that we need to leave, but I guess I'll have to."
Dawn's last admission was enough to make her eyes widen with surprise. "I...really don't want to tell J that I need to go, do I?" she realized, staring up at the woman's profile from behind. "It's weird, but...I'm really having fun right now. Still, she hunts Pokemon for a living. Is it wrong for me to be here with her, having fun like this?"
J turned down a path to the right and Dawn followed, the latter of the two now hanging her head and looking down at the ground as she walked. "It probably is wrong. Ignoring her when she asked to meet me today would have been the right thing to do," Dawn thought. "But I still chose to meet with her, and then I chose to come with her all the way out here. I don't get it. Why did I do it?"
As Dawn raised her head, she noticed J staring back at her.
"It isn't much further," J notified the girl.
Dawn felt more comfortable looking into J's eyes right now than she believed she should. "It's been like this ever since she saved me from falling that day. I want to know why she invited me out here, and why she kept coming to see me before, too," she reminded herself. "Once I get those answers from her...maybe then I'll be able to find my own answers."
"We're here," J suddenly announced.
Startled, Dawn came to an abrupt halt just before she would have walked right into J's back. "We're at the center already?" she asked.
"The maze doesn't take long at all if you're familiar with it," J said, stepping aside to clear the way for the girl. "After you."
Though her mind was still riddled with questions, Dawn's excitement got the best of her again as she got ready to see what lay within the center of Balladia Garden. Sparing a moment to breathe and mentally prepare, she then stepped forward into what wound up being one of the most amazing places she'd ever seen. "Oh...my...gosh!"
The garden's core had a staggeringly different atmosphere from the darkened one that Dawn and J had just left, yet it was just as beautiful, if not more so. Six large glass statues of Pokemon—three on each side—were surrounded by thick and wildly varying patches of painted glass flowers. Hundreds of different colors were used to make the flower garden look like something out of a fairy tale. The flowers were also spread out behind a curved wooden bench that stretched from the furthest statue on the north side to the furthest on the south side.
The only sight more stunning may have been the centerpiece of this area, and of the entire garden. It was the largest glass statue the complex had within it, a light and dark blue painted sculpture of Azelf that towered well above any visitors. Three separate streams of water spouted from its mouth into the air, each of them pouring down into a circular pool at the statue's base. There was even a 16-foot diameter area around the statue where a clear glass floor, lit with a radiant array of colored lights, showed the excess water from the pool rushing away from the statue on a slightly downward slope. Combined with the pleasant weather that Mother Nature had provided, this spot immediately won Dawn over.
"I suppose it's ironic that the biggest statues I brought you here to see represent the same group of Pokemon that destroyed my ship," J remarked, speaking of the Azelf sculpture and the Uxie one they'd seen earlier. "Impressed?"
"Of course, I am! This is incredible!" Dawn's eyes sparkled. "Hey...is that Piplup?"
Shifting over to where her view wasn't obstructed by the Azelf statue, Dawn confirmed that it was, indeed, her Piplup that she spotted in front of one of the smaller sculptures. J's Salamence was seated beside it.
"Piplup!" Dawn ran over to where her Pokemon sat. "Piplup, thank goodness! I was worried when you got carried off like that before. You're not hurt, are you?"
Seemingly unfazed by the separation from its trainer, Piplup waved its flipper at Dawn to show that it was fine. "Piplup pip."
To Dawn's surprise, Piplup then turned back around and rejoined Salamence in staring up at the statue. "Err...you sure look like you're getting along with Salamence. That's...a little weird," Dawn blinked.
Upon examining the smaller statue, Dawn could see that it was actually modeled after a Salamence. Statues of a Lopunny and a Mismagius stood beside it on the southern side of the core, while statues of an Abomasnow, a Mime Jr., and a Monferno stood along the northern side.
"Wondering about those statues?" J asked as she stepped up next to the girl.
"Yeah. Is there some meaning behind these six Pokemon?" Dawn asked.
"There is. These six made up the team of Pokemon that won the Sinnoh League for the old man long ago."
"The Sinnoh League? Wait, you mean the person that did all of this won the Sinnoh League, too?"
J moved up beside her Salamence, placing a hand upon its head. "We never got to meet his Pokemon, but, before it evolved, Salamence and I used to come here every now and then to look at the work the old man had finished. This one was Salamence's favorite, of course," she said of the statue featuring her Pokemon's likeness. "Before they reach their final evolutionary form, they always yearn to grow wings and fly. Salamence used this statue as motivation. Isn't that right?"
Salamence nuzzled its head against J's hand, letting out a light growl of acknowledgement.
"Wow, that's some story. You must have been so happy when you finally evolved," Dawn giggled, drawing a nod from Salamence.
"You have no idea. We flew around for two days straight afterward," J told her.
"It was quite the adventure. Salamence didn't want to land, so we just kept going and going until we didn't have the energy to go any further. We ended up falling asleep in some field in the middle of nowhere and waking up the next day starving."
Hearing that tale from J brought a warm look to Dawn's face. "Sounds like a really great memory."
Dawn's kind words regarding the story gave J a feeling similar to what she'd felt that night when the girl had cleaned the blood away from her face near Lake Valor. It was a good reminder of why she had brought Dawn here in the first place, and also of what she hoped to accomplish by doing so.
"You're right, it is a fine memory," J confirmed, starting to walk toward the curved bench that sat by the eastern wall. "Dawn, leave them be and come have a seat."
"Huh? Oh, sure," Dawn agreed.
While on the way over to the bench, it struck Dawn that she'd forgotten about the time again. "Oh, no! It hasn't gotten too late, has it?" she silently fretted, checking her Poketch. Thankfully, it still wasn't yet late enough to warrant concern. "Phew, I can still make it. I can't spend much longer here, though. I need to tell J really soon."
Trying to compose herself, Dawn took a seat next to the Pokemon hunter. The entire central area of the garden was visible from where they sat, though the bench was mainly facing the massive statue of Azelf.
"So, Dawn," J spoke, grabbing the girl's attention, "...where are you from?"
Dawn, wondering if she'd heard the woman right, gave her an odd look. "Wh-where am I from? Umm...why would you want to know?"
J looked away in an effort to hide her embarrassment. This was definitely breaching her comfort zone. "I want to...know more about you," she hesitantly came clean.
"You WHAT?" Dawn shrieked, jumping up off the bench. "Okay, that's it!"
J was taken aback by the outburst, only her tough exterior didn't show it. "Something wrong?" she asked.
"Yes, there is something VERY wrong with this!" Dawn raised her voice again. "You're a criminal that hunts Pokemon for a living! I love Pokemon from the bottom of my heart! We couldn't be any more different!"
There wasn't much of a reaction to Dawn's tirade on J's end. The woman merely cocked her head and batted her eyelids as she heard the girl out.
"But you come find me and drag me away from my tent to talk to you. Then you save me from falling from Team Rocket's balloon. Then you leave me one of your headsets. And now this?" an exasperated Dawn continued. "Just tell me why! You never give me an answer and it's driving me crazy! Why do you keep doing these things?"
As J stared deep into Dawn's intensely focused eyes, she crossed one leg of hers over the other, then exhaled. "You want an answer?" she asked.
"Yes!" Dawn emphatically responded. Her confusion about this whole situation had finally reached its boiling point.
Willing to adhere to the girl's request, J leaned back against the bench as she stared ahead at the statue of Azelf. "Ever since that night you found me injured, something about you has been bothering me."
"Something about me...bothered her?" Dawn wondered to herself.
"I just couldn't seem to brush it off on my own," J explained. "I went to talk to you that one night thinking I might be able to put it to rest, and I thought I'd succeeded. Everything was fine for the next two weeks. Then I'm out on a job one day, and who would I happen to see dangling from a giant Meowth balloon but you. I tried to ignore you, but obviously I wasn't able to. And then...while we were riding aboard Salamence together, I realized something. Seeing you again...it made me feel...good."
To hear such an admission come from J's mouth was absolutely stunning to Dawn. "I can't believe she just said that," she silently thought. "I mean...I was glad to see her, too, but that was just because she saved me. Wasn't it?"
J set her gaze on Dawn again, bringing a blush to the cheeks of the young coordinator. "I'm a very instinctual woman, Dawn, and right now my instincts are telling me to stay away from you. I don't want to, though. I want to be near you. I want to know more about you. All these things I've never felt before...I want to see what path they lead me down."
Dawn was completely frozen in place. She didn't have the faintest clue what to make of everything she'd just been hit with. J wanted to be near her? She wanted to know more about her? Just what was she trying to say?
"Was that enough of an answer for you?" J asked her.
At a loss for words, Dawn began to stutter. "I-I...umm..."
"If you don't want to tell me about yourself, I suppose I can understand," J added with a disappointed look. "I just didn't think it would be much to ask considering I saved your life."
J had strategically utilized her guilt card, and judging by the look that appeared on Dawn's face, it was undoubtedly effective. Dawn had gotten her answer, now it was time to repay her debt. Sitting herself back down, she placed her hands in her lap and looked back at the silver-haired hunter. "I'm from Twinleaf Town."
"Oh?" J smirked, glad that she'd gotten a proper response to her earlier question. "I don't believe I've ever been there, but it's very close to Lake Verity, isn't it?"
"Yeah, it's really close by. The town isn't very big, but I've always liked it there. The weather's nice and everyone's really friendly. And...what about you?"
"Where am I from, you mean? I was raised in Veilstone City."
"Really? That's weird, my mom said she grew up there, too. I guess that's how you knew about this place, since it was so close and all."
"More or less. Anyway, you seem to be traveling around quite a bit. Is there a reason for it?"
Dawn had never mentioned her travels to J, but given the different areas around the region where they'd encountered each other before and the fact that J had either seen her camping out or knew she was in a Pokemon Center on separate occasions, Dawn figured it probably wasn't a difficult thing to discern. "I guess it was pretty obvious, huh? I'm actually a Pokemon coordinator, so I've been entering Pokemon contests all around Sinnoh to collect ribbons."
"A coordinator, eh? I've known a couple coordinators in the past. They really seemed to enjoy what they did," J recalled.
"Of course! It's so much fun putting on a show for a big crowd. My Pokemon and I just love it!" Dawn said excitedly. "Did you ever do Pokemon contests or anything?"
There was a brief twitch in J's eye as Dawn posed that question. "No. When I was very young, I thought of entering the Sinnoh League one day. Life doesn't always cooperate with one's goals, though," she answered. Dawn wanted to know more about what J meant by that, but the woman was quick to move the conversation along. "That Piplup you're always with, was it your first Pokemon?"
"Oh, yeah, it was. How did you know?" Dawn inquired.
"You just seem very attached to it, that's all."
"Haha, that's true. Piplup and I have grown really close since we started our journey. I actually got Piplup the same day I met Ash and Brock."
A sour look crossed J's face at the mention of Dawn's two friends. "Those two...you started traveling with them right after you met them?"
"Well...yeah," Dawn laughed. The way J put it did make it sound bad, but that was without taking the circumstances into account. "We were going the same direction and Professor Rowan seemed to like them, so it just sort of turned out that way. Honestly, I was a little worried about how well I would do taking care of myself on the road and that it might get lonely by myself, but being with the guys made it a lot easier. Brock knows a lot about taking care of Pokemon and cooking, and Ash...he...ummm...he's pretty smart when it comes to Pokemon battles, I guess. He doesn't convey it in words very well, but you can learn a lot watching him battle others."
Interested in some more specific information on that topic, J gave the girl a serious look. "This Ash...do you like him?"
"Do I like him? Well, I sure wouldn't be traveling with him if I hated him."
"That isn't what I meant. I mean do you like him in that way?"
Now understanding what J was getting at, Dawn's cheeks turned a bright shade of red. "What? No! No, no, no! I've never thought of Ash that way. We're just friends!"
Dawn was starting to find this conversation exhausting. "She's even asking me stuff like that..." she thought, wishing the subject of romance had never been brought up.
"Then, I have one last question for now," J said to her.
"O-okay. What is it?" Dawn asked.
J casually uncrossed her legs and turned her body towards the girl. "Where is it that you need to be, and when do you need to be there?"
Initially surprised by the question, Dawn was slow to answer. "Wh-what do you-?"
"You've checked the time on your Poketch more than once since we arrived," J was quick to point out. "Did you think I hadn't noticed?"
"She sees everything, doesn't she?" Dawn thought, a grimace appearing on her face. Whether she wanted to or not, it was time to tell the truth. "Umm...actually...the Sinnoh Grand Festival starts tomorrow, so the guys and I are heading over to Lake Valor today."
Given Dawn's situation, J could see why she'd been anxious about what time it was. "The Grand Festival...I take it that means you've won five contest ribbons?"
"Mhmm," Dawn nodded. Slipping the pink backpack away from her shoulders, she reached into the pack's special compartment and pulled out her ribbon case, opening it up for J to see. "It was a lot of work, but I'm really proud of everything my Pokemon and I have been through to get these. The thing is, the guys and I want to travel while it's still light outside, and with how long it took us to fly here-"
"You don't have any further time to spare," J finished the girl's point for her.
"I'm sorry, I should have told you earlier," Dawn apologized. "I just didn't want you to think that I wasn't having fun, because I was! I really didn't think I would, but...anyway, I really do need to go."
J didn't seem all that upset at the news as she lightly shook her head. "Silly girl, you've got no reason to apologize. When you put that much hard work into something, it should be your top priority," she assured Dawn. "We'll leave off here for today. There's much more of the garden to see, but...maybe I could bring you once again after the Grand Festival has ended?"
Dawn didn't fully understand why, but she actually felt happy that J was inviting her to come back to this place again. The decision of whether to accept or not, strangely, was an easy one for her to make. "Sure, I'd like that."
Although one wouldn't know it just by looking at her, J was relieved and glad to hear those words from Dawn. It would give her something to look forward to down the road. For now, though, J stood up to go fetch Salamence so that they could return Dawn to the Palkia statue where they'd met up earlier. Only a few steps from the bench, J would abruptly come to a stop, however, as the sound of other voices suddenly caught her attention.
"That's...is someone else here?" Dawn looked to the Pokemon hunter.
"It appears so," J replied.
The voices sounded like they were coming from the hedge maze. This was a bit unexpected for J, but definitely not something she had ruled out happening. The garden was open to the public, after all. The important thing was going to be identifying whether those who emerged from the green labyrinth would be a problem or not. J may have been enjoying the place today like anyone else, but she was still a wanted criminal. If someone recognized her, there could potentially be trouble.
"Are you sure this was the right way?"
"I think it was..."
"Alright, but I'm taking the lead if we end up back where we started again."
"Oh, stop that. It only happened once."
The voices were growing louder now—a sign that those who they belonged to were closing in on the entrance to the garden's core. Soon enough, with her eyes locked on that single entry point, J watched closely as two women emerged from the maze.
"See, I told you this was the right way," one of them smiled.
"Okay, okay. Two tries isn't bad, I suppose," the other laughed.
J didn't immediately recognize either woman.
Dawn, on the other hand, did, and as soon as she saw them, she jumped off the bench and to her feet. "It can't be!" she stared at the pair in disbelief. "Mom? And...Lila?"
The two former Pokemon coordinators were just as surprised by Dawn's presence as she was by theirs.
"Well, look who it is!" Lila, the old rival of Johanna, waved to the girl.
"Dawn? What on earth are you doing here? I thought you would be at the Grand Festival," Johanna asked her daughter as she and Lila made their way over to her.
"That's...your mother?" J glanced down at the girl next to her. Johanna was close enough now that J had a better view of her, and, slowly, J herself began to recall Johanna's face. The normally fearless Pokemon hunter felt her heart skip a beat as she finally realized who the woman was.
Upon noticing Johanna's arrival, Piplup wandered over to greet her. "Piplup piplup!"
"Hello there, Piplup!" Johanna bent down and patted the Pokemon's head.
"I never imagined we'd see you here, Dawn," Lila said, remembering well the girl that had defeated her in the Celestic Town Pokemon contest.
While she was always happy to see her mother and Lila, those two and J being here at the same time had Dawn feeling incredibly uneasy right now. If they knew who J was, there was going to be a lot of explaining to do. "Y-yeah, how weird! What are you guys doing here?"
"I planned a day off for myself a while back and told your mother we should do something together, so here we are," Lila explained. She then turned her attention to the taller woman next to Dawn. "And who is this? A friend?"
J, trying to avoid eye contact with everyone, could feel a curious look being placed upon her by Johanna. "This is bad. I need to get out of here," she decided. She started to walk away, thinking it far better to let Dawn handle this situation on her own, but her escape would be impeded as Johanna stepped out in front of her all of a sudden.
The Pokemon hunter pulled back, inexplicably frightened by the stare of Dawn's mother. Neither Lila nor Dawn knew what Johanna was thinking, but it appeared that she and J were no strangers to one another.
"Je-...Jeanne?" Johanna softly uttered.
Immensely confused at the name that had just been spoken, Dawn repeatedly looked back and forth between her mother and J. "Jeanne? Who's Jeanne?" she asked.
J clenched her teeth and her brows furrowed, her discomfort becoming painfully obvious to everyone, including Johanna.
"Ah...I'm sorry if I did something to upset you," Johanna quickly apologized. "I just...I haven't seen you since-"
"DAWN!" J abruptly shouted, both cutting off and startling Johanna in the process. "I'll be waiting with Salamence when you're ready to leave!"
With that declaration, J stormed away from the others in a hurry, no longer able to remain in Johanna's presence.
"Jeanne..." Johanna watched with a pained look in her eyes as J took her leave.
"Well, that was rude. I don't think she likes you, Johanna," Lila stood with her hands on her hips. "She seems to like your daughter here just fine, though."
"Yeah, umm...it's a long story," Dawn said with a nervous laugh. She was glad that nobody recognized J to be a wanted Pokemon poacher, but the apparent familiarity between her mother and J was another bizarre issue altogether. "Mom, do you know her?"
"Yes...or at least I used to," Johanna replied, still unsure what she'd done to upset the silver-haired woman. "Back before I retired from being a Pokemon coordinator, I used to visit schools in Veilstone City to speak with students and answer questions for them. Jeanne was one of those students. She was very young, but incredibly smart for her age, and energetic, too. I remember she had a Bagon, and the two of them together were quite a team."
Captivated by this unexpected development, Dawn listened to her mother's every word.
"She used to speak to me as much as any child did. We even had a couple of practice battles together. She was so happy back then," Johanna continued on. "Then, one day, I visited her school and she wasn't in class. I asked about her afterward, and that's when I heard the awful news. Her parents had both passed away in an accident. Jeanne was sent to live with some relatives in another town after that, and I never once saw her again."
With pity in her eyes, Dawn looked toward the Salamence statue where J stood with her back to everyone. "That's terrible. I never knew."
"Yes, that poor girl. She seems so different now," Johanna sighed. "I would love to speak to her, but I think it would only upset her more. How did you end up meeting her, Dawn?"
Dawn knew that answering her mother's question honestly wouldn't be the wisest of moves. Thankfully, she had an excuse ready to get her out of this situation. "I'll tell you some other time, Mom, I promise! But right now I really need to get back to the guys so we can head to Lake Valor. I don't want to be late for the Grand Festival!"
"No, you certainly don't," Johanna chuckled, her mood brightening up thanks to her daughter. "You give it all you've got, okay?"
"Yeah! No need to worry, I'm ready for it," Dawn said with confidence. "Are you going to come watch me?"
"Mmm, I'm afraid I have some other responsibilities at home over the next couple of days, so I'll only be watching you on TV. But...I do happen to be free on the day of the final match. If you make it that far, I'll definitely be there. How does that sound?"
"Sounds good to me!"
"Hey, I'll be watching you from wherever I am as well, Dawn," Lila chimed in. "You'd better be holding that big cup over your head when it's all over!"
"Thanks! It's my first Grand Festival, so I don't know if I'll win or not, but I'll sure try!" Dawn smiled, taking Piplup into her arms. "Okay, I'm off then. I'll see you later, Mom! Lila!"
"Oh, Dawn," Johanna spoke, her expression becoming more serious, "...please look after Jeanne, would you? I don't know what happened, but I have a feeling she could use a friend."
Dawn glanced over her shoulder at the brooding Pokemon hunter. Looking at her now, she got the very same feeling. "Yeah, I'll do my best. Bye, Mom!"
As Johanna and Lila waved goodbye, Dawn hurried over to where J had been waiting. "Okay, I'm ready to go," she said.
Without a word, J hopped up onto Salamence's back. Dawn again took her seat in front of the woman, and the two of them embarked on their return trip in complete silence.
Things remained quiet during the first half of the venture back to the statue of Palkia. The sour demeanor J was displaying had Dawn feeling on edge about speaking to her, but there was so much she was eager to learn about now. Was J really the Jeanne that her mother remembered? And if so, how did she change so drastically? Dawn had already learned why J kept appearing before her. Now, she wanted to know more. "Umm..."
"What is it?" J asked, already sounding irritated.
Apprehensive, but still willing to press forward, Dawn finished what she was going to say. "Well...your name-"
"My name is J and nothing else," the Pokemon hunter stopped her from going any further. "Whatever your mother told you, just forget about it. It was a different time and it doesn't matter anymore."
Dawn could see that J was far from comfortable when it came to the topic of her name. "Oh. Alright," she relented. "I-...I'm sorry about your parents. I had no idea."
J's head hung slightly. "Like I said, it was a different time. I've gotten over that," she claimed, though a hint of shakiness in her voice suggested otherwise. "Honestly, I can't believe you were Johanna's daughter, of all people."
"Yeah, I was really surprised that you two knew each other," Dawn chuckled, hoping she could lighten the atmosphere a little. "She seemed really worried about you, J. Where did you go after you moved away from Veilstone City back then?"
"Didn't I say to forget about it?"
"Maybe, but you wanted me to tell you about myself earlier, right? Well, I'd like to know a little about you, too."
"It's one thing to say where you're from, but it's quite another to speak of a time in your past that you would prefer to forget. I've never spoken of such things to anyone, and I intend to keep it that way. Let it go."
Though not getting an answer was a letdown, Dawn could understand J's reluctance to speak. No doubt some things had happened at that time in J's life that she didn't want to think about again. Pokemon hunter or not, Dawn knew that pressuring the woman any further wasn't the right thing to do.
"Okay, J. I won't ask about it anymore," Dawn assured her. "But, if you ever feel like talking about it, I'll be there to listen."
As Dawn's offer sunk in, J bit down on her lower lip. "This girl," she thought to herself. "Johanna, your child is just as frustrating as you were."
For the remainder of the journey, neither Dawn nor J spoke to one another. They reached the statue of Palkia in good enough time that Dawn wasn't at all concerned about making it to Lake Valor before sunset. The more difficult part, she figured, would be trying to explain to the boys where she'd been all this time.
Once they had landed, Dawn dismounted from Salamence, and Piplup appeared to bid farewell to J's dragon-type Pokemon. "Piplup pii piplup pip."
Salamence growled back at Piplup in response, its own way of saying goodbye.
"And here you were so scared of Salamence before," Dawn giggled at her Pokemon.
Piplup folded its flippers over its chest and shook its head in denial, but the act fooled no one.
Now that she no longer had an extra passenger to look after, J stood up atop Salamence's back as she usually did when flying solo. Her mind was a mess after she'd come in contact with Johanna, and knowing what Johanna had likely told Dawn only made it worse. Seldom before had she been so eager as she was now to get back to her base and get her head straight.
"I'm leaving, then," J declared, facing away from Dawn. "Good luck at the Grand Festival."
"W-Wait!" Dawn suddenly implored her. As J looked back, Dawn shyly began twiddling her fingers. "Umm...the opening round is tomorrow. It's only the appeal round, so there won't be battling or anything, but...would you...like to come watch?"
The invitation wasn't something that J had expected. "You're asking me to come watch you perform?" she asked.
"Well, I mean...you did say you wanted to know more about me. So, if you've got nothing else to do..." Dawn averted her eyes, a bit embarrassed.
Due to the short notice, J had to give the request some thought before replying. It wasn't as if she didn't want to go, because, truthfully, she did. There were, however, other complications. "I'll...be busy tomorrow, I believe."
Dawn looked down toward the ground, the disappointment evident in her body language. "Oh."
"But," J went on, bringing some hope to the younger girl, "...I may be able to make it. We'll see."
Satisfied with that much, Dawn raised her head. "Okay. I hope you can," she smiled. "Bye, J."
"I'll see you again, Dawn," J offered her parting words.
Their goodbyes spoken, J and Salamence took to the sky, quickly disappearing behind the trees that bordered the statue of Palkia.
"Wow, what a day," Dawn, finally alone again, exhaled deeply. "Did I really just invite J to come to the Grand Festival?"
"Piplup pip," her Pokemon nodded its head in confirmation.
Dawn almost couldn't believe it herself. It was amazing how much things had changed between she and J since the day began. Just how much they would continue to change, that was something she would have to wait to find out.
With the Grand Festival less than a day away, Dawn gazed up into the sky one last time before she started back toward the Pokemon Center. "I wonder if she'll really come..."
End of Chapter 6