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"Okay. Sure!"

The words slipped out of Ethan's mouth before he'd even had time to think about it. The man in front of him (Black Belt sprite, Generation IV) gaped and stared at Ethan like he'd suddenly sprouted wings and called himself Celebi, Guardian of the Forest.

"Uh…um…wait, what?" For a long moment, Black Belt falters, glancing at the boy (School Kid sprite, Generation IV) sitting on a purple poof across the small space of the one room hut. The boy, his apprentice, had dispensed with all of his previous sappy adoration for Ethan and is instead staring at the pair of them with a scrutiny unmatched behind his blank glasses.

"Um…I'm not sure you can actually…do that…" Black Belt finally muttered out of the corner of his mouth. He shifted his weight uneasily from leg to leg and wished that he could take back the fateful words he'd let casually slip. Of course, some said it was a script built into your programming, and that you couldn't actually stop yourself from saying anything, but those people were currently twirling around their own axis wishing that people would bring them Shards in exchange for Berries that may or may not even help the Trainer in question.

Ethan frowned, brushing back the insistent snout of his Quilava against the back of his knees. "Stay still, Archer," he muttered, and the creamy echidna sat quietly on his haunches. He focused his attention again on Black Belt. "Anyway, why not? I think it would be nice to train with you for a while. I really like this town, and picking up a new skill is useful! Who knows if when I give the Charcoal to Archer that I might need to make more? It sounds like fun. And I'm on this quest to have an adventure, right?"

Black Belt shifted his weight uneasily from side to side again. Desperately, he wondered how to dissuade The Ethan from the current thought that he himself had put in the other's mind. He finally made up his mind to change his position. "Actually, I've got all the help I need with my assistant; so, sorry, you'll have to leave."

Ethan grinned as he drank in the lie. "Alright, if you're sure…why don't we sleep on the decision, tonight, though? It's getting late, and I'd hoped to set out through the Ilex Forest tomorrow morning."

Black Belt conceded grudgingly. "Fine. One night only. Then you have to continue on your journey."

The next four months passed without incident for Black Belt (who Ethan dubbed Master) and Ethan. He slaved away at the forge and had learned the art of Charcoal making faster than the School Kid ever would. In fact, School Kid had left unexpectedly one morning, departing back to his hometown in Goldenrod considering that his apprenticeship had been usurped. Ethan set out daily in the forest to collect the necessary wood for the job, and Black Belt—Master—commanded the Farfetch'd with ease. Even though Master felt it was understandably wrong, at the very core of his nature, he couldn't help but smile as Ethan's face lit up when he'd learned enough to finally complete his training. They had their simple supper of the day, and Master bade Ethan to sleep in preparation for the next day. Ethan had nothing more to learn from him; the time had come for him to move on.

"Oh well," Master mused to the night sky, "better late than never, I suppose."

Ethan awoke the next morning to the sound of tapping on the door to the hut. Looking over from his cot to his Master's, he decided to answer the door himself. He slipped on his clothes—his old traveling clothes; he hadn't worn them in months—and answered the door with a quiet hello.

"Are you Ethan?"

A woman stood there, a pale woman with dark eyes and hair redder than the forge when it was running at full steam for making Charcoal. Ethan stared for a moment, taking in the woman's long-sleeved white dress, emblazoned with a large red "R" right over her heart. She shifted impatiently from foot to foot in her patent white leather boots.

"Well, are you, or aren't you?" she snapped. "Come on, kid, I haven't got all day."

"It's me, I mean-yes. I'm Ethan." He finally replied. His tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth and he swallowed his spit in a hasty attempt to clear his throat.

The woman rolled her eyes and snapped her fingers together. "And where have you been, you little brat?" the woman asked in a very harsh and accusing tone. "We've been waiting for the storyline to advance for nearly five months at this point; how long are you going to piss around in this town? What the hell have you been doing all this time?"

"I've just been learning how to make Charcoal, lady," Ethan responded icily and sleepily, "and today's the last day of my training. Then I figured I'd move on past the forest; I don't know what's there yet. I haven't beaten Bugsy and gotten Cut yet."

"Haven't beaten Bugsy…?" the woman repeated in a soft whisper. "…Ho-oh preserve us, boy. Let's take a walk."

Her tone of voice didn't leave much for discussion, so Ethan shrugged, pulled on his shoes and carefully shut the door behind him. The woman stood a few paces off and clasped her hands behind her back as they began ambling down the slope to the Slowpoke Well. The trees grew thick around the Well, but Ethan in his many months of living here had found that many spaces were clear around the well and perfect for sitting and listening to the forest. When the woman found a suitable clearing with a campfire, leftover from a pair of Picnickers that had come through Azalea earlier, she motioned for Ethan to sit on one of the logs and chose a hefty stump for herself. When they were settled, she fixed him with a hard gaze.

"Ethan, my name is Ariana, and I'm one of Team Rocket's Executives."

"Team Rocket?" Ethan turned the unfamiliar words in his mouth. "Oh, wait, you're with that guy who was in the Well? Chopping off the Slowpoke tails? That's not very nice, you know."

Ariana smiled wistfully. "Yes, it's not one of our better schemes, but we've got bigger things planned. That was Proton's job. Word reached us he'd fulfilled his spot in the game early on, so he's probably gone off on a journey somewhere. Or to see the world or something; who really knows? And then, Ethan, you disappeared."

"Disappeared?" Ethan repeated.

"Yes." Ariana nodded. "After Proton reported in, we thought that the news that you'd gotten to Goldenrod City; that you had gotten to the Lake of Rage; that you had been to Mahogany Town and started what you're supposed to be doing would come soon afterwards. That is, we've been waiting for you, Ethan." She added quietly.

Ethan sat for a moment in silence on the log and waited for her to speak again, but she didn't for a while. Ariana's eyes darted around, looking at the forest and listening to the sounds of the woods around them.

"You'll have to forgive me," she explained, "I've been cooped up in the Rocket Hideout for so long that I'd nearly forgotten what the woods sound like."

"Where are you from?" Ethan asked just as quietly.

"Believe it or not, I'm from a farm outside of Route 27."

"Oh," Ethan replied, his mouth forming a perfect circle. They lapsed into an easy silence again and listened to the chatter of the Pokémon in the wood. Every so often, Ethan would see a Pineco or a Beedrill fall from the moderately sized trees around them. He smiled as they surveyed the two each time, obviously wary of the humans, and when they posed no threat, began again on their own missives. As Ethan listened, he thought he heard a strange lilting cry from the entrance to Union Cave behind them, but the call wasn't repeated and Ethan turned his attention again to Ariana.

"Ethan?" Ariana's voice was suddenly smooth and tender, and sincere. "Ethan, why haven't you gone off on your journey yet?"

Ethan knew the answer without even thinking about it. "Ariana, I've been apprehensive about all of this. You know, you're a relatively minor character in all of this; I know after I beat you, you're free to go about your own business."

"You're absolutely right, Ethan." Ariana agreed.

"You don't have an idea of what it's like," he continued, "I don't have that luxury. I'm stuck after that. I complete the journey, and what's next? I don't have anywhere to go. I can't go home anymore; I'm on my own. I won't buy a house; I'll be camping outdoors forever. I don't want to have to run through the region and get to the Championship so fast that I don't remember what happened along the way. Isn't it about the journey, anyway? I've been taking it slow because I want to appreciate everyone and everything along the way. And I don't have time to do that when I feel like I have to stick to a schedule and rush, rush, rush. And when I'm done, what happens? I don't know. Crystal didn't even get to come back for the second time around. What if this is the only journey I get? I'm really scared."

He stopped. The words had gushed out of his mouth before he had really thought about it. He'd just met the woman, and eventually they would be on opposite sides of the battlefield, but he felt he could trust her. She'd taken the time to come and fetch him; or at the very least, had at least bothered to check up on him.

Ariana sighed and crossed her legs. She reached out to touch him on the shoulder but then stopped with her hand in the air and eventually withdrew it. "Look, Ethan, I get it. Jimmy chose not to return; that's why they hired you. Crystal wasn't asked…I don't know what happened there. You know, I'm new, too. I wasn't even named last time. We both got brand-new character designs. It's scary. You don't know what's coming next. But isn't that part of the excitement? When the Rival steps out when you least expect it. Meeting the Gym Leaders and knowing all their quirks. And Team Rocket…we've got big plans, Ethan, just waiting for you. We've all been waiting for you, from Team Rocket on up to the Champion. They have their own scripts to follow, you know! And there's so much more in this game to explore than you think."

"But what happens when I'm done?" Ethan asked, his voice wavering. "What happens? I'm stuck."

Ariana smiled wryly. "It's the truth. You've got a big responsibility as the Player. But you know, Ethan, you can do it your way. It's your game. It's your journey. In the end, you do control your own destiny. If you want to take it slow, that's fine! Just…send us a wire. That's all you gotta do. We'll be waiting for you when you're ready, but not a moment before then."

She stood up as Ethan nodded quickly, drinking in what she had said. She brushed off the seat of her dress and reached out a slender hand to him.

"Thanks, Ariana," Ethan said quietly. His mind was now at ease.

She smiled. "Just promise me, one day, that you'll come visit me on my farm?"

"I promise!" he pledged.

They began walking back towards Azalea Town, arm in arm. Ariana couldn't help but smile at his easy demeanor, but in the end, she knew that her part to play was not nearly as rosy as Ethan thought now. She would be ready, but at his discretion.

Team Rocket would always be ready.