Disclaimer: If I owned the Pokemon series, we'd have had the opportunity to join the Rocket grunt on the bridge north of Cerulean City, rather than having to imagine for ourselves what it would have been like.

Notes: Falls after "Cages," "Lucky," and "Kindling" in my fic-verse. This one has been in the works for awhile; I do love the interplay between these two characters. This is far more dialogue-driven than my usual work, and I'd be interested in feedback on how that worked.

Affiliation

Renn Ireigh

When the dust settled, Sabrina turned to Koga with an eyebrow raised. "Fifty-five and seven-tenths of a second," he said.

"Not good enough," she replied. "Again."

Instead of picking up his kusarigama again, he left the sickles down, their chains coiled on the floor. "We've been at it for three hours, Sabrina," he said. "It is nearly ten o'clock."

"Perfection does not look at the clock."

"I do," he retorted. "And I have a family to get back to."

Sabrina looked at him levelly- his lean shinobi grace, his athlete's body, on display as his shirt lay neatly folded on the floor. His skin shone with sweat from the exertion of battling her mental shields. Lithe like a young man, but she could see the gray at the roots of his hair. "You would leave without having made measurable progress?"

"Progress is important," he agreed. "But some things are more important."

"It cannot wait?" She let a tinge of her irritation creep into her voice. "You have come very close. It would be a pity to have to delay things until tomorrow."

"If I thought you were capable of pity, I might agree," Koga said, sliding into his shirt and picking up the kusarigama. "Fortunately for the Team, you have no pity; unfortunately for yourself, you also have no patience. It is ten o'clock at night, Sabrina, and I am going home to be with my family."

Your problem is that you have too much patience, Sabrina thought to herself, acknowledging her sudden rush of tension. "Fortunately for myself, I have nothing to distract me from the discipline of improving my mind."

"Such obvious digs are beneath you. Try for some subtlety next time."

"You are avoiding the topic at hand."

"Do you ever sleep, Sabrina?" he asked suddenly.

Caught off guard momentarily, she replied frankly. "Seven hours per night. Why is it relevant?"

"Well, I hardly see you eat and you certainly don't go out in search of fun. I was wondering if you make any attempt to care for your physical self or if you do in fact defer all your attention to your mind."

"Such obvious digs are beneath you," she drawled.

"Your behavior begs the question. It was an honest question."

"You do not think that this is… fun… for me? Practicing? Chasing perfection?"

"What fun can it be when you never catch it?" He leaned against the wall, studying his nails. "It's an exercise in frustration. But of course you cannot allow yourself to be frustrated."

"Emotions weaken the mind."

"Oh, stow that old mantra of yours for someone who actually believes you when you say it as though you believe it."

"You think I do not?"

"Maybe you used to, but you don't anymore. You've actually started to seem somewhat human these past months. Maybe it was the accident. Shook your brain. Oh, don't give me that glare, it's good for you."

"In what way?" Again she felt that tension in her shoulders, bubbling up her throat.

"Emotions are the sensations of the mind. Pain is a useful teacher, a good motivator; emotions are the same. Deny them and they don't go away, they fester. Accept them and learn from them."

"Is that what they taught you?"

"It is what I have learned in my experience," Koga said. "It is what I teach."

Sabrina practically snorted. "Teach whom, the dunderheads we get in this Fleet? They would hardly understand the metaphor."

"Teach my daughter," he said. "Which is what I am going to go do now, as it is ten o'clock."

"You say that as though the time has special significance."

"It is the time I promised my family I would be home."

She thought back, flipping from family member to family member, searching for a corollary. Face after face flashed in her mind but she found no parallels. "I see."

"We are often unable to have dinner as a family due to Erika's schedule- and mine, what with my duty to the Team and to my gym. So we have a late tea. Every night. Ten-thirty, before Janine goes to bed."

"It gives you quite a curfew."

"Some things are important. I don't expect you to understand. Don't argue, you never have understood, why would you start now."

"You sound bitter."

"It embitters me that my friend does not want to understand my commitment to the people I hold in highest esteem. It's a shame, Sabrina."

"I see no shame in it."

"I pity you for living in your work. Between the Gym and the Team you allow yourself no down-time to revel in the beauty of simple pleasures. Perhaps you'll get over it one day."

That stung. "Certainly. The simple pleasure of being able to go home at the end of a day and talk to my significant other about the details, the mundane little happenings, of my day."

"That," he agreed. "That's one."

"I know how much you love to talk to Erika about your job. I know how much you share." It came out more sarcastically than she had intended.

"It is useful to compare notes on challengers at our Gyms. It allows us to prepare ourselves better." He smirked. "And sometimes, to shake our heads at the folly of youth. Demonstrating to children the dangers of lack of forethought, what a pity it's our job. You are such a cynic, you would probably appreciate having some sort of someone to talk to about it."

"I never suspected you to be as much of a hopeless romantic as your wife," Sabrina said, leaving aside the fact that he'd not addressed the real question she'd hidden.

"It is possible to have relationships with other humans that are not romantic, although your preoccupation with romance gives great insight into your psyche- considering the amount of time you spend putting down the concept."

"Considering that you broached the topic of relationships with other humans-" her voice was more mocking than she would normally have allowed- "-in the midst of a comment on your wife, the comment was justified." She thought of what he had said. "Besides, I have relationships with other humans."

"Name three," said Koga.

"You, for one."

"Noted."

"My siblings. Who make three in themselves."

"Whom you see… how often again?"

"I had forgotten that the amount of time I spend with someone necessarily dictates whether or not I might count them as figures in my personal life."

"The fact that you're turning into a cactus about this means that I've won the argument," Koga said. "Think about it, won't you? But now I am going home to my daughter and my wife, and we are going to talk about our days, and Janine's school, and Erika's and my work, and we are going to enjoy it, because we don't believe in denying our own humanity for the sake of some mantra beaten into our heads by family figures well known for their madness- and not rejected because of some madness of our own." He turned to leave, knowing he'd have nettled her just enough to make her fume.

"So what does Erika know about your other job?" Sabrina shot back. "The one that keeps you from dinner? You close your gym at five-thirty. What does Janine tell her friends that her father does, why he never picks her up from school or buys her ice cream?" She ignored Koga's stricken look. "What does Erika think, I wonder, when you come home late and slip into bed quietly, hoping your ninja grace will keep her from noticing she hasn't fallen asleep next to you? Where does she think you've been, or should I say, with wh-"

She teleported to the left as he came at her with a kick that had been aimed straight at her gut, then moved behind him. "You see," she said quietly. "It makes you ache inside. I cannot afford those complications."

"You don't want to feel is what you mean," Koga said, and in a man with less control it would have come out as a snarl. "You're afraid it might crack you. You're afraid."

"I feel nothing of the sort. There is nothing to fear."

"If there is nothing to fear then there is nothing to reject, no complications."

"Don't twist my words, Koga."

"For all your logic and all your dedication to improving your mind, it wouldn't hurt you to think!" Koga thundered, and for a minute Sabrina just stopped dead and stared at him. Next to Giovanni, Koga's discipline was the closest to her own; she had never heard him shout. "You lock yourself up and twist what's beautiful into something poisoned so you can't feel bad about not having it!"

She was quiet for a long moment before replying. "I have my mind, I have my work; I have all that I need."

Koga looked at her levelly for a long moment, then at the wall It was some time before he replied. "I see," he said. "Yes, I think I do see. You've so much love in that half-gram heart of yours tied up in the Team, you can't apply it elsewhere. You don't need a relationship. You're in love with Team Rocket. As you will, Sabrina. I give up."

Sabrina thought for a moment as he stalked away- thought of the scarlet letter on her shirt, thought of an enormous, cracked test tube, thought of dark hair and a widow's peak and a voice saying "We were lucky," thought of the way her power felt in her knuckles before she opened her hand to let it out.

.

She went back to her rooms. She showered, taking her customary five minutes. She went to bed and slept for seven hours. In the morning she reported to Giovanni for duty, then scared gray hairs into two junior members of the Fleet whom she caught listening at the keyhole. She ate plain rice for lunch, spent fifteen minutes in meditation, heard the reports of a returning pair of officers who had been on duty, and returned to her training rooms after her duty to the Team had been discharged for the day. As always, to begin her evening's work, she sank into lotus in the middle of the floor and breathed out. The air in her training room tasted stuffy and foul. She took a moment to wonder why.