I do not own Pokémon or Zero no Tsukaima, nor do I own the songs; they are the work of Nintendo, J.C. Staff, Hirokazu Tanaka, ICHIKO, and Sbanhatti. A thanks to Hymn of Ragnarok for his beta work.

Episode VIII: Balltime Blues

It was yet another day at Tristain Academy. Classes were over for the day, but the students were still hard at work. Most were busy due to the homework assigned by the teachers, but still had the time to chat, nap, and enjoy all the recreational leisure granted to nobility. Busy? Those fools had no idea of what real work entailed.

So thought Louise as she struggled to hoist herself over a wall. Her fingers desperately sought out a handhold, but she had to be careful, lest the hastily-placed bricks fall apart. For most nobles, "work" was a small pinprick that they could claim was a wound, but Louise was becoming well-acquainted with true drudgery 'thanks' in part to her addled familiars. Today they had decided to send her through an 'obstacle course.' Ha! More like a warzone, with their inability to comprehend danger. By this point she was dead exhausted from surviving- barely- the numerous challenges in place.

What were they again? Let's see, there was the set of pitfalls she kept stumbling into; eventually she just got sick of them and simply decided to tunnel between them- worked out fine until she reached the subsequent minefield. Oh, and how could she forget that flamethrower they set up- especially when it ended up setting the entire area ablaze? It was a wonder she wasn't worse off, though her clothes begged to differ. Mud dripped between rips in the torn and singed uniform to blacken her skin. Even her bright pink hair was only visible in small tufts, the rest having been darkened by dirt and fire. Thank the Founder they had set up the training outside the Academy, so she wouldn't have to listen to her classmates' jeers at her scampering around like a commoner.

She wasn't able to hold onto those thoughts long though, as a brick unexpectedly slipped from the wall as she grappled with it. Soon, many more began to fall to the ground. Louise leaped from piece to piece, refusing to let her familiars' stupidity kill her this time. Her socks bounced off the highest piece of rubble- she'd left her shoes behind at the last trap- and propelled her through the air. Just barely, she managed to land atop the bridge platform. She took a couple of breaths to recover, and then raised her head when she heard shouting. At the far end of the long walkway she could see her familiars sitting in bleachers.

Although, it was difficult to see them fully, given what lay between them and her. Pendulums swung back and forth between gaps in the floor; they were moving fast, but she could still make out their razor-sharp edges. Certain parts of the platform seemed…off, as if they could collapse at any minute. The few parts of the bridge that seemed to be actually stable covered with a continual assault of arrows, as the programmed "Bowyer Barrel" cannons continued their steady fire. And then, to make everything perfect, Louise heard something beeping behind her. She whipped around to see a small cylinder, with symbols slowly changing on the screen. Louise was starting to understand her familiars' script, but even without that she would have known what was coming. Explosions. Again.

"You're doing great, Boss!" Meowth cheered from the sidelines.

"Just a little more," Jessie said, "and you'll be done."

Just a little more. It was aggravating how they could say that so casually, as if they hadn't spent the last hour trying to kill her. She was tempted to just end it all now. One explosion, given her increasing power, would enough to turn the entire obstacle course to ashes, making the session moot. Yet, she knew, begrudgingly, that without the increased power she'd built up in the exercises, her explosion would not be strong enough to destroy the whole thing- if anything, it would make her straits even worse when the traps collapsed around and on her. Somehow, no matter how crazy her familiars' training projects were, they worked in their own way. Plus, their faces were so happy, so proud of her. It gave her a special feeling she hardly felt elsewhere. No, she was not going to let her team- familiars- down.

And so, she did not yell at them, but instead closed her eyes and stood in place like a serene statue. As the seconds ticked down though, her right eye opened up just a tad. "Any time now, Derflinger," Louise said.

She felt a metal rodent weigh down on her shoulder. "Heh," the living weapon said, "you know me. What's life without a few odds to fight?"

"Just don't fall behind now," Louise said. "I originally got you as a sword, so you'd better work as one."

"Sure, sure," Derf said. "Always blame the sword when something goes wrong. Never the wielder. Good thing I have someone like you, even if your chest is too low."

What was it about her friends- servants- that made her want to hug and kill them simultaneously? At least she knew the true point of Derf's quip: trust. "On the count of ten," Louise said, "we'll go for a Scyther-Marowak combo. Ten."

"Partner," Derflinger said uneasily, "you do know that the countdown only has five."

"Seven," Louise continued. She shut out Derflinger for the moment, knowing that he'd do his job when the time was right. At six, she stomped her right foot hard into the floor board directly behind her. The shabby construction failing to hold the board in place, it snapped up in an arc that passed over her head. As Louise reached five, the beeping was replaced by the roar of an explosion. Louise suddenly opened her eyes and leaped upward. Her feet caught onto the spinning board and held firm as it landed on the ground, only to be pushed forward by the rapidly expanding explosion. The force propelled the board forward with Louise riding on it. As they flew across the first jump, arrows shot at Louise from both sides.

"Zero!" she shouted. On cue, Derflinger transformed back into a massive sword that was caught by Louise. Once, the weight would have made her fall over, but now she held it as deftly as a wand. Slashing left and right in a frantic yet precise fashion, she cut the arrows into kindling before they could reach her.

However, Louise's mind paused for a brief moment, as she pictured herself in the white dress under the moons' light. By the time she remembered to return her vision to the setting around her, it was almost too late. Several arrows had grazed her arm; she'd have to fix it up before the next night.

It would have been worse, but Derflinger had changed into his Pikachu mode and was working to keep them at bay. Doing so destabilized the board though, and Louise had to lean hard to the left to avoid careening into one of the trap doors. "Watch it, Partner!" he said. "The people who get their heads in the clouds only keep them there when their bodies are chopped off."

"I've got it, I've got it," she said. With a little work she managed to get her ride back on course, heading straight for the last gap and the massive pendulum swinging between it. Louise had already come up with a plan to get past it. She would leap up over the entire contraption and land at the finish line. She'd have to sacrifice the surfboard, but its use was almost up anyways.

However, Louise was feeling especially excited that day. On whim, she did not bend her knees for springing up, but instead braced them as she hurtled headlong for the obstacle. "Partner, did you finally flip?" Derflinger asked. "This is crazy even for me."

"Just sit tight," Louise said calmly. Somehow, even the thought of getting crushed again did not seem to trouble her. "We're going to go straight through it. With our determination, we'll surely get to the other side."

"That's the way to go!" Derflinger said, regaining his energy. "Give it all you've got!" As the riders reached the jump, the pendulum had just descended to directly in front of them. With the metal only inches from her, Louise punched forward while putting her explosive magic into it. The strike pierced a hole through the trap, just wide enough for Louise and Derflinger to skid through. The board slid to a stop at the checkpoint, and the rest of the team came down from the bleachers.

"Great job, kiddo!" Meowth said.

"You're really getting the hang of it," James said.

"Anyways," Jessie said, "that's enough for today, Boss. We'd better head to dinner now."

"Okay," Louise said, a smile almost permanently plastered to her face.

The team had cringed in preparation for the usual reaction, and face faulted at the unexpected acceptance. "Boss, are you feeling alright?" James asked in concern. His face was hanging in shock. "You seem very chipper today."

"I'm just in a good mood," Louise said, "and nothing you blockhead familiars do today will be able to bother me."

"That's good," Meowth said, "because we'll be doing a special move session tonight." Despite her excitement, Louise could barely hold back her worry at Meowth's statement. The general sessions were tough enough, but the worst always came when they tried to teach her specific attacks. Sometimes they were just humiliating, like having to dress up like a monkey and paint with the tail to learn "Sketch", while others were also dangerous, like being stuffed in a barrel and rolled down a hill to learn "Rollout". Therefore, the thought of special lessons always brought dread to her chest.

Not tonight though; she had received the package this morning, and nothing would spoil her night tomorrow. "So what will it be?" she asked, almost in a jovial mood. "Drop a boulder on me? Toss me into a well with an anchor tied to me? Have me run from a swarm of manticores?"

"Nothing that extreme yet," James said. "Actually, I think you might enjoy this one."

"Really?" Louise said. "What is it?"

It was approximately 1 in the morning at Tristain Academy. Usually there would be nothing to report at that late-night hour; everyone of sense would be fast asleep. Not tonight though. Everyone of sense was in bed, to be sure, but they weren't asleep. Instead, they were cramming pillows and everything they could find over their heads, trying to drown out the blaring noise that echoed through the halls nonstop. Unfortunately, there was little they could do. The professors' chambers magically warded out sound, allowing the teachers to rest after a long day, blissfully ignorant to the cacophony outside.

And the students could not even attempt to inform the faculty, as the intensity of the noise prevented them from stepping a foot out the door. If they were able to venture out though, they would have observed that the sound was coming from a single room in the Fire Tower. If they had made in to the door in question without shattering their eardrums, they may have even made out the faint lyrics of a song.

"You teach me, and I'll teach you. Pokémon! Gotta catch 'em all, gotta catch 'em all. Pokémon!" Louise had to admit, her familiars had finally done something right for a change. She had never really sung before, but doing it now made her burst with energy, like she could conquer any challenge.

Louise finished her solo to the eager claps of her familiars. "Dat was terrific, Boss!" Meowth said, seated behind a set of drums.

"You're really getting the hang of it," James said, setting down his guitar.

"I'll say," Derflinger's voice spoke from the microphone, which suspiciously resembled a sword blade. They had decided that this modification would be more convenient for music, as Derflinger could add in a masculine voice to the vocals when needed. "Your voice is really something, Partner. Sounds like a Mantid-Siren, calling out to her mate with promises of joy and serenity; of course, she tears him to shreds afterwards, but that's beside the point."

Louise ignored Derf's fascinating comment and asked, "Was I really that good?"

"A pop star prodigy," Jessie said assertively. "Good thing too; you'll need it for our big debut tomorrow."

"Debut? Tomorrow?" Louise said, worry beginning to set in.

"Of course," Jessie said, her eyes dazzling passionately and therefore remaining oblivious to Louise's tense eyes. "There's an important dance tomorrow night. Has something to do with eating figs, I think."

"The Ball of Frigg," Louise said slowly. The Ball of Frigg was an annual event for the Academy. It was a time for the young nobles to forget their troubles with food and dancing- well, at least for her. More than that, it provided even the weakest noble the opportunity to shine like a princess. The ball was supposed to occur on the day following the Day of the Void. However, the extensive damage that Fouquet (and Team Zero) had dealt to the Academy had delayed the festivities. Louise had been overjoyed when she heard that the ball had been rescheduled for next night. Now though, she was worried.

"Yes, that's it," James said.

"Anyways," Meowth continued, bulging out his chest proudly, "we got us a big gig that night."

"Gig?" Louise asked nervously.

"You're gonna be really proud of us," Meowth boasted. "Tomorrow night, we're going to be playing for the whole school."

"What about dancing?" Louise asked.

"Oh, we won't have any time for dancing," Jessie said, "not if we want to play a full concert. Now let's go over the next song…"


"What?" They stared at Louise in shock.

"I said no," Louise repeated, slipping into bed. "It's late. I'm going to sleep. As for you, I want all my laundry redone."

"But…we need to be ready for the performance," James protested.

"Good night!" Louise shouted as she covered herself with a blanket.

Sighing forlornly, the three walked off to do their chores. "Was it something we said?" Meowth asked.

"Don't worry," Jessie said halfheartedly, "I'm sure she's just tired; that's all."

As Team Rocket headed off, they could not hear the quiet sobs from within Louise's room. "What's the matter, Partner?" Derflinger asked in concern. He tried to crawl up to her face, but was swatted away with a pillow. "Don't want me to speak?" he asked in annoyance and indignation. "Why not?"

"Just leave me alone," she groaned. "Get out of here before I turn you back to scrap metal!"

"Fine," Derflinger said with a tint of hurt in his voice, "but I won't forgive my Partner for giving me a cold shoulder. Partners are supposed to share their feelings with each other. Seeing you like this makes me want to tear apart a forest in rage and depression!" He then leaped out the window, leaving Louise to wallow in her misery. Could things go right in her life, just once?

The following morning was filled with excitement as students prepared for the upcoming dance. Most of the excitement was positive in anticipation of the night, but a more negative sense of dread haunted others, in particular Team Rocket.

"Where is she?" Jessie snapped. Her tense fist crushed the fragile teapot in her hand. "And leave that food alone!" she yelled at James. "First dibs are the property of the Boss!"

The blue-haired man guiltily withdrew his hand from the plate of scrumptious meat. "Breakfast is almost over," he said defensively. He eyed the pastries with an almost desperate expression "If she doesn't come, the food will go to waste unless we do our part."

"She will come," Jessie countered. "And when she beats you to the ground, don't go looking for me to step in." Even so, Jessie stared regretfully at the vacant seat where their master normally sat. "It doesn't make sense," she muttered.

"She has learned to conserve her energy," James pointed out, "so maybe she's decided just to skip breakfast this time. If so, she'd probably be happy to give us the food in reward for training her." His mouth watered as he gazed upon the loaded dishes.

"Stop trying to invent excuses," Jessie said. Even so, it was a tempting possibility. Involuntarily, her hand pulled itself towards one of the fresh hors d'oeuvres. Surely the Boss wouldn't miss one small morsel…

"Hey, I'm back," Meowth called from behind her.

Jessie froze mid-grab; never willing to admit her own faults, she quickly turned around to draw the fire on the one who interrupted her. "What took you so long? You'd better not have stopped for a catnap."

James smiled sympathetically from behind Jessie, used to the woman's way of shifting the burden on her unfortunate teammates. "So, any luck finding the Boss?" James said.

"No sign of her," Meowth said.

"If she's still in her room," Jessie said, "you just have to get her out by force. No lock can keep a door blocked if you break down the door first."

"You don't think I tried that?" Meowth said. "I managed to jimmy the lock with my claws- what do you expect with a cat burglar? - but when I got in there the room was empty. The window was hanging open, so I'm guessing that she slipped out that way."

"Wow," James said. "She really is learning a lot from our training."

"Now's not the time to be thinking about that," Jessie reprimanded him. Although, that did make her wonder.

"Anyways," Meowth continued, "I was hoping that maybe she stopped by here. Guess not though."

James shook his head in agreement. "Jessie," he said, automatically deferring to the leader of the trio in the Boss' absence, "now what do we do?"

"Come on," Jessie said. She stood up from her seat and began to rapidly stuff the food into a bag. "Class starts in ten minutes, and she's got to be at least there. We'll settle this whole matter out after class."

Jessie's guess turned out to be correct, as the team spotted Louise approaching the classroom door as they turned the corner. "There y'are, Boss!" Meowth said in relief. "We've been looking all over for you. What happened? Did the singing get your throat sore or something?"

Louise's only response to their call was to shoot a quick glare at them and swiftly slip into the room. Team Rocket followed, only to find that Louise had walled herself up behind rest of the students. The team tried to push through the crowd, but within a minute the teacher had entered, forcing them to settle down at a seat far from their master. "Aw, c'mon," Meowth griped. "Of all the timing. Couldn't be worse if she tried to avoid us on purpose."

James didn't reply to Meowth, looking at Jessie instead. She was staring pensively at Louise, hands on chin in deep thought. A grin slowly formed on her face. "Jessie?" he asked hesitantly.

"Maybe she is," Jessie said. "She's doing this on purpose." The apparent ill mood of the comment was sharply contrasted with Jessie's widening smile, causing her companions to do a double take. "I always knew she had it in her."

"What do you mean?" James said.

"Yeah," Meowth said, "fill us in."

"It makes perfect sense when you think about it," Jessie said. "I can't believe we missed it earlier."

Jessie was about to explain further, but the beginning of the lecture forced her to stop for the moment. Of course, that normally wouldn't keep the team from whispering to each other, but Jessie remained silent and quickly shushed her teammates when before they could open their mouths. They could not afford to get a detention today, not if they wanted to stay on the Boss' trail. She was still annoyed at the Boss for ditching them, but thought she understood now. And she had to admire the cunning that their pink-haired master was displaying.

Now, what would be her next move? Assuming the team kept out of trouble- and they could mimic model citizens when a bigger prize awaited- they had the girl cornered. As soon as she got up they would be on her tail, and if she got detention they could set up watch by the exit. But the Boss wasn't the Boss for nothing, and Jessie was on guard for the next trick worthy of a top criminal mastermind. Louise gave no visible sign of trouble though; other than a few irate glances, she remained focused on her schoolwork.

As the teacher turned around toward the board though, Louise quietly let something fall from her pocket. Because the teacher's distraction was a cue for students in general to try to cause trouble, Louise's calm action was largely ignored; in the end, no one would be able to be certain just who had dropped the item in the first place. The marble bounced down the steps until it rolled to a stop by a couple of familiars. The Octillery-like skua curiously extended a tentacle and suctioned onto the marble. After holding it in front of its head as if inspecting it, it chirped in pleasure, having found its shiny surface to be very attractive.

Its euphoria was cut short when it felt a scaly snout push against its tentacle. The skua glared at the lizard eyeing its treasure with primal hunger. With a flick, the tentacle was pulled back, causing the basilisk to snap its watering jaws shut in frustration. Basilisks were earth-oriented monsters, and found metals to be a delicacy. Skua ate algae, but had a fondness for collecting shiny objects, and guarded them with jealous zeal. Their contrasting desires merged on the seemingly insignificant marble and set the ground for conflict. The basilisk snarled at the skua menacingly and then charged forward. The skua tripped the basilisk on a tentacle, sending it crashing onto a manticore's tail. The manticore roared in pain and turned its body towards the interlopers, bringing a third party into the escalating feud.

Jessie smirked as the Boss' plan became clear. The wonderful girl was going to cause a riot! Of course, she couldn't implicate herself, lest she receive a detention, hence why she had used the marble as the catalyst; the blame would rest on the familiars and their masters, with Louise not having to lift a finger. It was a clever strategy, but it wouldn't be enough. The familiars weren't enough to get the entire class involved. The teacher continued his lesson undaunted, ignoring the minor brawl for all purposes besides a couple of meaningful looks at the masters to control their pets. Besides, the Boss was creating the riot too early. There were still a few minutes left of class, and the confusion would have died down or be tolerated by the time they were all dismissed. If she wanted to make a diversion, she should have held out until the last minute.

Although, there was something unsettling about Louise's posture. She was subtly smirking at the unfolding events, but her triumphant expression seemed incomplete, as if she was still waiting for something. But what? She'd already made her move, and it wasn't like that marble could do anything except glow…

Wait. Jessie leaned forward to look closer at the item. The marble's shine wasn't just polish. It was glowing. Jessie's eyes narrowed and shifted to Louise. Her right hand continued to write furiously, but her left slid into her pocket, where the gilded wood of a wand could be seen poking out. Jessie had wondered what their little Boss could do, as she couldn't risk using magic in class. But that assumed that she had to build up a spell. With the bomb all set, all it required was one little shock of magic to spark it off.

Jessie tried to signal to her teammates, only to discover that the clowns had fallen asleep. She subtly nudged them with increasing vigor, trying to combine a need for discretion with growing desperation. Could those idiots have picked a worse time for a nap? Class was almost over, and the teacher was wrapping up his lecture.

Louise stretched casually, but let another marble fall as she did so. It too bounced on a preset course towards the struggling familiars, but not with the same glow. Louise's eyes remained centered on the tiny orb, and Jessie did as well, knowing that everything was about to come together, like fire in a dynamite factory. A couple of familiars looked up at the approaching object, but the skua and basilisk remained focused on their tug-of-war. The ball hurtled towards the center of the looming danger…

"…Class is now dismissed." As soon as the word "dismissed" had finished, a powerful boom resounded across the room, turning the atmosphere from order to chaos in an instant. Even as panic spread in the far corners of the classroom, tension exploded with chaotic frenzy at the epicenter of the disaster. The gathered familiars reacted to the sudden destruction of their treasure with a combination of two primal instincts: fight and flight. Most of the familiars opted for the latter approach, scattering in all directions and knocking over anything in their path. The basilisk and skua, on the other hand, each blamed the other for the sudden attack and lashed out in counter. The skua bashed the basilisk against the wall like a hammer, while the grappled lizard in turn bit hard into the tentacles. Students tried to restrain their familiars, but their progress was impeded by dissension in their ranks; many were too afraid to do anything, and those with enough will to fight turned on their peers, blaming them for the trouble their familiars caused. Jessie yanked her partners to the ground.

Finally waking up, they tried to rise and see what the commotion was, only to be held down by Jessie. "Jess, what's going on?" Meowth said.

"The Boss is trying to build a cover for her escape," Jessie said.

"Should we try to break through?" James suggested. He reached down to his belt to summon Victreebel.

Jessie shook her head. "Let's wait this out," she said. "There's only one door out of this room, and the Boss will have to pass through this way. Plus, this entire hubbub that's keeping us from her is doing the same for her. It was a nice try making a riot to slow us down, but we still need to keep training…"

She abruptly cursed as Meowth jumped straight on her face, his claws tangling in her delicate hair. "Stop whining," Jessie said. She pulled him off and glared at him. "There's no need to start acting like the Twerps are after us."

"Sorry," Meowth said. "Someone's throwing a marble around like a crazy ping pong match, and I didn't want to be the target.

"Marble?" Jessie said. She dropped Meowth like a rock and peeked out from under the desk to gaze at the carnage, or rather beyond it. Sure enough, a small round object was bouncing across the room like a bullet. The first marble had blown up, Jessie knew, but the second one had never been set up to explode. Jessie had assumed that it had been destroyed with the other, but what if it had ridden the shockwave? After all, given the position…

Jessie narrowed her eyes further. Yes, everything just so happened to be in place to ensure that the second marble ricocheted, and there had been very few true coincidences that day. No, the Boss must have planned this all along. But for what? Jessie struggled to track the projectile's progress as it went back and forth around the battlefield. Suddenly, her eyes widened as the next contact point revealed itself, one that would prove to be the last. The marble whizzed past Louise and shot straight into the window, turning the fragile glass to shards. Her school work already stuffed in her backpack, Louise calmly strode to the window, ignoring the chaos around her, and jumped out, not even sparing a glance for her dumbfounded team.

Jessie was as shocked as her teammates but quickly rallied herself, knowing that they needed to move now if they wanted to catch up with the Boss. The Boss was expecting a challenge, and Jessie did not intend to let her down. "Arbok, go!" she said. She bounced the ball on the floor, releasing the purple cobra. "Grab on," she said to James and Meowth. "We've got a mage to catch."

"But Jessie," James said, "how are we going to catch her? She just jumped out the window." "You forget," Jessie said, "what comes up must come down. And I plan to be at the bottom first." Catching its master's drift, Arbok used Dig on the granite floor, dragging its protesting riders with it. The academy's consisted of several large towers corresponding to the standard elements. As a result, instead of burrowing through the ground like Dig usually did, Arbok crashed down into classroom below and kept going.

"Wha!" Meowth said as he hung on for dear life. He tried to arch his back to yell at Jessie better, but barely retracted his body before a chandelier passed by- or rather the opposite- and nearly singed his hair. "Are you trying to get us killed? We're hole fanatics, but even we have enough sense not to jump into our pitfalls on purpose!"

"Just a little more," Jessie said. She ignored Meowth and kept her eyes forward as they shot floor after floor, quickly approaching the bottom. "When we reach the ground," Jessie instructed Arbok, "tunnel to the left about thirty feet, then pop up. Get ready. We're almost to the bottom…"

The team finally met solid resistance when they at last reached the ground level. The team vibrated at the sudden impact, but Arbok endured the pain and continued to dig through the earth as ordered. When it felt that it was in about the right spot, it returned to the surface, plopping the trio out of the hole like sacks.

Jessie struggled to hoist herself out of the pile and take command of the situation. "Stop, in the name of Team…ack!" A pink blur slammed into her like a bowling bowl, or rather a grenade into the fray. When the dust finally settled, the neatly-dug hole had been replaced with a massive crater, and at the center lay Jessie, James, Meowth, and Louise.

"Ow," Meowth said. "Ain't it enough for us to have Twerps and luck killing us instead of each other?"

"Well," James said, "at least we succeeded in our mission. Even if it did entail capturing our own Boss."

"Let me go!" Louise writhed her way out of the heap. Her angry glare could burn down a wall. "Do you see what you did to my hair? Stupid familiars, always dragging me into their messes."

"Hey," Meowth said, "we just wanted to know what was going on with you. You just drive us away and hide without letting us know what's wrong."

"If something is troubling you," James said, "we can help."

"Ask you for help?" Louise said. "Be serious. The only thing you three do is make more trouble. Why…"

"Take it easy, Boss," Jessie interrupted her. "You don't have to hide. We know what's troubling you."

Louise remained unconvinced, but her face lightened and her hand dropped back to her side. "Really?"

"Of course," Jessie said. "We know exactly what is wrong with you."

"We do?" James said in a baffled tone.

"Dat's news to me," Meowth said.

"Hah," Jessie said boisterously. "You insensitive fools simply do not have the right mindset to see what drives a woman's heart."

"And you do?" Meowth said sarcastically.

Thankfully for him, Jessie was too caught up in the moment to pay him heed, and continued her speech undaunted. "It's all so obvious when you put all the clues together." Turning her head towards Louise with a friendly smile, she said, "I knew the problem from the very start. Don't think I missed your little sigh when we explained what the training entailed."

Louise lowered her guard and began to brighten up slightly. "You did?" she said. "I thought you didn't care."

"Don't be ridiculous," Meowth said. "It's a team's duty to keep their head honcho happy."

"My point exactly," Jessie said. "Training is all good, but you have to be careful with it, lest an unbalanced program reduce the benefits you're working for."

"I know," Louise said. "Look, I'm sorry to throw this at you- after all, it was my idea in the first place, even if you guys took it and ran down a mountain- but sometimes enough is enough. There's only so much that you can put up with before exploding."

"We understand clearly," Jessie said. "And don't worry. Now that we know the root of the issue, we can modify the training regimen to better suit your desires." "

Exactly what is the issue though?" James said.

"Dat's what I want to know, Meowth said. "So come on, give us the scoop already."

"The Boss," Jessie said dramatically, "has training fever."


"Could you please elaborate?" James said in confusion.

"All right," Jessie said, "I'll try to make it plain to you buffoons." The two huddled around Jessie curiously. None of the three paid any attention to the subject of the discussion, who had fallen to the ground in shock at hearing Jessie's conclusion. However, she slowly pulled herself up with increasingly taut fists.

"Here's the thing," Jessie said. "The Boss is one of those people who takes a challenge and goes the extra mile with it. A true inspiration for us all! We may have gotten her started on this training, but she has succeeded in every obstacle we place before her. The problem is, as she gains power the training becomes easier for her."

"But that's good, right?" James said. "It does that the training is having an effect," Jessie agreed. "However, that also means that the challenges that once forced out her true power no longer work. The old tricks are not enough anymore, and it's starting to trouble her."

"So," James said, "when we tried to help her relax with the Sing training…"

"She got bored with the pace and tried to kick it up a notch," Meowth said.

"Now do you understand?" Jessie said rhetorically. "While we were wasting our time on trivial things, the Boss became impatient and melancholic that she was pushed far enough to where she wants to be.

"But that's going to change!" She slowly began to turn back to Louise. "So as you can see, mistress, you can rest easy knowing that your team is there to watch your back. There's no way to cancel our booking at this hour, but Derflinger can fill in as a singer while you work on your training. It will have to be on your own, of course, but your latest performance has convinced me you're up for it.

"In fact…" Jessie was now facing Louise, but her sudden inspiration had caused her to raise her head up to the joy, a new plan coming to her. "I think I know the perfect challenge for you. That Kirche mentioned how her Charmeleon came from some Fire Mountains at the border of Tristain. Your mission will be to run up there and find some special flower that apparently helps the lizards' scales. I know you're rivals with that Zerbst, but don't let that keep your from testing yourself." Not to mention, Jessie darkly noted, that female version of the Rock Twerp's been trying to convince James to escort her there lately. Don't think I didn't notice how the route passes right by where her family estates are supposed to be. Whoever said that kindness couldn't be evil?

"That sounds like a feasible plan," James said.

"Plus," Meowth added, "I'm sure we can let you sing the closing number assuming you get back on time. With the right motivation, you can do anything."

"So how does it sound, Boss?" Jessie said. She lowered her head to beam at Louise. "With a little work, I'm positive that…"

She abruptly broke off, seeing Louise for the first time. Team Zero had difficulty at times adjusting to their leader's volatile nature, but had quickly honed onto the warning signs of potential trouble. All of them were present now. Louise was twitching like an addled Primeape, but her eyes themselves remained firm and solid with pure anger. The only reason her wand hadn't been crushed was the reinforcements that had been built into it as her strength grew. Most of all was the aura that surrounded her, the type that promised the most unforgiving explosions.

"Boss?" Jessie said tentatively. "Are you alright?"

"Maybe the training flu's more serious than we thought," Meowth piped up. James tried to shush him, but it was too late. The cat's remark was the last straw, and Louise finally snapped.

"Training sick?" she spat out. "Training Sick? Oh, I'm sick all right. Sick of all this stupid pain you force on me! Day after day, torture after torture. And just when I think you guys are showing a little compassion for my feelings, you…you….I hate you! Why do I ever trust you guys? You bring up my hopes and then crush them to nothing!"

"But…you like the training," Meowth said in a stunned and hurt voice. Louise's words had cut through him in particular, as he took pride in being her trainer, a distinct position for a Pokémon. "You were the one who asked us to help you get stronger."

"Well," Louise said, "I take it all back! Ever since you've forced your way into my life, I've suffered headache after headache, humiliation after humiliation. You've tried to kill me more times than I can count, and for what? What good has it done me?"

"What good has it done?" Jessie said indignantly. "What about catching Fouquet? You wouldn't have gotten her without those tricks we taught you. You were the hero of the hour- okay, I know that isn't the best start for a budding crook, but it's still something."

"Oh, sure," Louise said, "it made me something less than a Zero for a few hours. But then what? I'm back to being nothing again. No, worse- a freak! Fouquet didn't help me at all; if anything, my involvement just gave me a bigger mark. Or did you forget about why the Ball was postponed. Something else I have to put at your feet. 'Great job'. Every 'accomplishment' you drag me into just makes me more and more strange like you all are. I just want to be normal…is that too much to ask?"

"If you ask me," Meowth said, "'normal' is for suckers who don't know what they're missing."

"Are you sure you want to be normal instead?" James said. "I would have thought that you'd want the opposite. At least that's how it appears."

"Why would you even think I'd ever want to be like you?"

"Well," James said, "it just seems that, for all you complain about your training, you use it a lot."

Louise froze in her tracks.

"That's right," Meowth said. "If you wanted to stop, you could have quit anytime. But the only reason you kept away from us this long is thanks to all the work that you- and us, don't forget- put into your training. Doesn't make sense to hate something like crazy and then use it for support whenever you can."

"And you were so happy last night singing," James said. "Why would you hate it? If anything, I'd say you love it."

"N….no," Louise protested. "That's…impossible. I…can't be…like that."

"Why not?" Meowth said. "You can't please everyone in life, Boss, so you might as well get praise for what you're good at and happy about."

"No," Louise said- to the team or to herself. "I just want to belong."

"To who?" James said. "Those who mock you or those who care for you? You just have to cope with the rejection with those beside you; that is what gives teams solidarity."

"That's right," Jessie said firmly. "Don't listen to what they say. All you need is a good and loyal team to get you through the night. And you're perfect to guide a team to victory, I know it beyond a doubt. I mean, that plan you came up with was so brilliant and devious…"

"Stop giving me compliments I don't want!" Louise yelled. Her voice was wrathful and desperate, trying to produce enough anger to cloud the ever-slight tug she felt in her heart.

"If you don't want us to praise ya," Meowth said, "then stop giving us reason to."

Louise opened her mouth to say more, but froze up, gaping like a tragic statue. "Just leave me alone," Louise groaned, tears streaming down her face. She turned away from them and ran away from the academy. This time, no one had the heart to pursue her.

"So now what do we do?" James asked.

"…She'll calm down," Jessie said halfheartedly. "She just needs some time to herself." Trying to get her mind off the heartbreak, she said, "Let's focus on the bigger problem right now. The concert's tonight. Like I said, even without the Boss we might still be able to pull through. James can take over the guitar while I do the singing."

"Actually," James said tentatively, "I think I might go to the dance also."

"What?" Meowth exclaimed.

"You see," James admitted sheepishly, "a couple of people have asked if I could attend the ball with them."

"Let me guess," Jessie said, grinding her teeth, "a black-haired girl and a red-haired girl."

James nodded. "Yes," he said. "Kirche said that she'd dance with me eventually, and Siesta and the staff are looking for extra help with the serving."

"Fine," Meowth said, "do what you want. Me and Jess will…"

"On second thought," Jessie interrupted, glaring at James, "maybe I'll attend the ball too." She'd show those girls not to interfere with a true beauty queen. "Later." She dashed off to get ready in time, leaving a cloud of dust in her wake.

When Meowth turned around, James too was gone, leaving the feline on his own.. "Oh man," he said, "so much for team spirit. Maybe Derf can help find her, assuming I find him. Sometimes I regret giving that sword a body. Figures that something's always got to give. And I was even thinking about starting a gym. Just wish I knew what's troubling her. I still think dat Jessie was on to something with that training fever theory."

Servants sped to the side as the student Montmorency made her way through the courtyard. Her frustrated glare was enough to make all duck out of sight. However, she grabbed a maid by the hand before she could escape. "Have you seen Guiche de Gramont?" she asked imperiously. "I wish to have a word with him."

"Sir…Guiche is in the decommissioned Wind classroom," the raven haired girl answered.

Montmorency let the maid go, turning to leave. However, she stopped as she felt the absence of a bottle. Turning around, she saw the impertinent commoner sitting on the ground, the Montmorency perfume sprawled beside her. "You there," she called indignantly, "halt! What do you think you're doing, muddying a noble's prize with your unclean hands?"

She kept her face in the expression of superiority her family had taught her, but winced slightly as the commoner burst into tears. "I…just didn't want it to be like last time," the maid moaned desperately. "The last time I picked up a noble's bottle, he got my friends in trouble because he was trying to get rid of it. I wasn't even going to use it; I was going to bury it so it wouldn't cause any trouble."

Montmorency frowned, her eyes narrowing in recollection. "You were with those familiars when they found my perfume bottle, weren't you?"

"Y…yes!" the maid said hurriedly, bowing submissively. "I'm really sorry about all this." Montmorency considered what to do. She really didn't want to push any farther; besides, in an ironic fashion she owed the maid for alerting her to Guiche's two-timing ways. Still, she had to maintain her reputation.

"Be sorry that you were going to waste my potion," she said contemptuously, shoving the item back into the maid's hands. "It's already been dirtied by you, so you may as well keep it. Be thankful that your earlier information has made up for your transgression."

"Thank you," the maid said gratefully, turning to go.

Once the commoner's back was turned, Montmorency slumped in exhaustion at her performance. As a noble, you could never make yourself appear weak to others; the only way to counter weakness was to force weakness on others. That was what she had learned at a young age in the house. Most of the time, she had no trouble with creating the false personality, even believing it at times. Occasionally though, she had a feeling of regret pulse through her. At least she had hid her turmoil this time…

"Um…" She whipped around to see that the maid was still standing there.

"What?" she demanded, replacing her vulnerability with bile as quickly as possible.

"My…name is Siesta," the maid said in fear before dashing off.

"Siesta," Montmorency mused quietly. An interesting name. A pity it was stuck with a commoner. She would never call a servant by name, but now she would remember the name internally.

Leaving those thoughts behind, she returned to her original mission: finding Guiche. She made ready to burst into the abandoned room and let out all her pent-up frustration at searching for him all day, but found her feet glued to the ground. Now that she was finally here, she had lost her nerve. This was ridiculous! If she wanted this relationship to work, she had to take charge; with Guiche at the helm, she'd end up lost while he chatted up some other girl.

Although, she hadn't seen him with as many girls of late. He sometimes cast lecherous eyes on passing damsels, and he continued to produce extravagant and boisterous praise of the opposite sex, but he hadn't been actively chasing them. Perhaps he had finally found some other, less perverted hobby to pass the time. That change had been enough for her to place Guiche back into her good graces. Unfortunately, his lack of romantic pursuits seemed to include her; the boy remained as clueless as ever. Therefore, if she wanted to go to the ball with him, she would have to ask him. Assuming she had the strength to. Thank the Founder her mother wasn't here, or her aunts. What would they say? She, a Montmorency, quivering in fear like a coward?

After taking a deep breath, she slowly opened the door. She might as well check to see if anyone was in the room, given that it was technically unused. The room was unlit, but she could make out Guiche hunched down by one of the desks. So he was here after all. Now she just had to take another breath and…

Her heart stopped as another figure rose up beside Guiche. She could not see the person properly at this distance, but she recognized the femininity. All of her anxiety evaporated, rage taking over. "You need to be more careful," Guiche chided his friend. "Work on having the right balance…oh!" he exclaimed, spotting Montmorency out of his eye's corner. "I…"

"Guiche de Gramont," she yelled, drawing forth a wave of water, "go to hell!" Huffing indignantly at ever trusting him, she marched off, never seeing Guiche worriedly cradling his companion.

Far away from the bustling anticipation at the Academy, deep in the heart of the nearby forest, all was calm and serene, with only the faint trickle of a stream and the chirping of birds generating any lull in the quiet. Perfect. Casting one last wary glance behind her, Louise dropped down from the branch she had been standing on.

Well, if she had come all this way, she might as well get started with her business here. After letting out a heavy sigh, Louise slowly began to take off her uniform. Still keeping a sense of modesty as befitting a noble, she refused to disrobe out in the open, regardless of the lack of viewers. Instead, she scrunched herself inside a hole on an oak tree and slowly began to change. It was a little tight, but she did not want to give the viewers fan service, or bump the rat…. Founder! Louise cursed. How was it that she could not get them out of her mind? It was crazy! They were stupid, annoying, always causing trouble at the worst time, but… Everything, even defying them, always led back to them in the end.

Louise shook herself of that melancholy, however ineffectively, and tried to focus her mind on a more immediate task. She sleekly squeezed her way out of the tree hollow and carefully slid down to the ground. Another benefit she had to grudgingly attribute to her familiars, no matter how much she tried to ignore it. She dusted off her outfit, vainly trying to wipe off the grime that had accumulated while in the tree. Still, it retained the grandeur it was designed to capture.

She bent down towards the pond to stare at the mirrored surface. A pink-haired angel stared back at her. Its normally short hair had been gathered into a flowing ponytail adorned with glittering gems. A shining white gown surrounded the rest of its body, giving it an almost otherworldly beauty. It. Not her. Never. She placed her equally white gloves on her cheeks and sighed. Somehow, Louise could not connect the image she saw with herself. She tried to tell herself that it was just her shyness emerging again; she knew that she did not think highly of herself, as was to be expected with her small figure and miniscule power, and knew it to be justified. Yet that should not have been troubling her now. She took pride in being a noble by birth and never gave up an opportunity to flaunt her true grace that nobility deserved.

Then why did that nobility seem so foreign and hurtful to her now? The doppelganger she was staring at seemed like another person to her, one that she didn't want to be. There was a faint trace of dirt on the front of the dress, but Louise did not have the heart to take it off. That brown spot was the one part of the picture that she found to actually like. Just how much had her familiars changed her? And why did the change seem disturbingly…fun?

"I…look pretty," she said aloud, as if trying to convince her of the reality she saw. "I'm…beautiful."

"You sure are," a voice spoke from behind her. "Just don't forget your other qualities too; they're just as important."

Louise flushed in a mixture of embarrassment, rage, and fear. She whirled around and frantically scanned the tree line around her. "Who's there?" It had better not be her familiars, not now of all times.

"What?" the voice said in a faux-hurt voice. "Don't you have pity for a lost mouse?" Derflinger scurried down the tree and landed in front of Louise.

"How did you find me?" Louise asked. "Or even catch up with me, for the matter." She found Derflinger unsettling at times. She wasn't used to a weapon having a mind- and body- of its own, and the sword kept finding new ways to catch her off guard.

"Hey," Derflinger said indignantly, "just because I'm new at this whole body thing doesn't mean I didn't pick up a few tricks from my teachers."

"You'd better not have seen me changing," Louise said. She raised her wand threateningly.

"And so what if you did? I know you know that your mood isn't from that." Louise turned beet red but then slumped.

"Look," Derflinger said consolingly, "let's just sit down and talk this over."

"Oh, no," Louise said, getting her anger back. "I'm tired of people trying to help me. I hate the training, and the madness! Why won't you all leave me alone?"

"Maybe we could help better," Derflinger said, "if you didn't skirt from the real problem yourself. The real problem is with you, and what you want to do tonight."

"You know?" Louise mumbled. "Really this time?"

Derflinger nodded. "Your familiars have the common sense of trolls. I'm not the best myself, I admit- fighting is what I'm born for, after all- but I've had enough experience to see what's wrong with you. You're not sick, or have stage fright, or any of the other theories they've come up with- you want to attend the ball, don't you?"

Louise sighed and nodded her head slowly. "Yes," she admitted. "It's just…for once, I wanted to fit in. Every day, I try to be a model mage, only to end up humiliating myself. Tonight though, I can really shine. I can be the noble I'm supposed to be."

"And then what?" Derflinger asked.

"Then what?" Louise repeated in confusion. "What are you talking about?"

"Just that," Derf said. "So you blend into the crowd of students. Then what do you do?"

"I…" Louise paused, unable to answer his simple question. She should have been able to respond easily. Despite her reputation as a failure, it was purely due to her magic; that aside, she was an excellent student, and knew the proper conduct for young nobles at affairs like the ball. But, none of those activities really interested her. She could dance or chat with her peers, of course. Yet the idea was a little discomforting. She knew that the next day the taunts would be back, and so would they. Could she really enjoy something that she knew was fake?

"What's your point?" she asked sourly, crossing her arms.

"The point," Derflinger said, "is that you need to understand why you're doing what you are, and if you actually want it in the first place. The worst kind of fighter is the one who doesn't have a clue why he fights. Sure, there are good reasons and bad reasons, but in the end what matters is having a true purpose for your hard work. You can fight for anything from saving your chickens to protecting a kingdom, but what matters is that you believe in what you fight for. Now, let me ask you: do you?"

"Yo, Derf!" Louise froze in horror as Meowth's voice rang loud and clear across the glen. To her relief though, she realized that the voice was coming from Derflinger; that was right, they'd built a communicator into his body, even if they usually forgot to use it. Even so, she was not in clear.

She began to sigh in relief only to stiffen when Meowth said, "What was dat?"

As Louise quickly zipped her mouth shut, Derflinger hurriedly replied, "Some kind of songbird, I think. The wild pink-tufted tsundere, yeah, that's the name. Haven't seen one in centuries. But anyways," he continued, seeing Louise turn red with embarrassment- even if she didn't know exactly what he was alluding to, she doubted it was positive- "how are things going on your end. Found my Partner yet?"

"…No," Meowth said morosely. "And if that ain't bad enough, my buddies have followed the Boss' example and deserted. I hope I can at least count on you to show up for the concert."

"Wouldn't miss it for the world," Derflinger assured him. As he spoke, he craned his neck to glance at Louise. Somehow, the second-long look of hurt was enough to drop Louise's gut again. "Should be a blast!"

"Yeah," Meowth said. His tone sounded hardly convinced. "With our lead star on the run, we don't stand a chance. Are you sure you haven't turned up any clues?"

Derflinger took a long stare at Louise. Her gut turned cold in fear and…something else. She was worried what his answer would be. Yet, that was not the true cause of her insecurity. No, there was something about his look, even with him being a sword, that made her feel like she had disappointed him gravely, as if she had just kicked a sad puppy. He then turned away again and said, "Sorry. No luck. Guess we're on our own then."

"Figures," Meowth groaned. "Just get back here as soon as you can; we're gonna need all the practice we can get. Over and out."

"Will do," Derflinger said. A brief beep followed and died off, signaling the end of the transmission.

"So now what?" Louise asked tensely. If he sounded the alarm for her familiars, then…

"Me?" Derf said. "I'm going to finish up my exercise and then check on how Siesta's doing with the food for tonight. It's not me, or even your familiars you should be thinking about, Partner. You should be thinking about you, and what you really want to do. Just remember this: there's a reason that swords need people, and people need swords. When you throw away something close to you, you throw away part of yourself too. What matters is finding something precious to share that bond with. It's more important than you think. The choice of partners is what determines whether you win or lose- and if you win what you truly want."

He turned to go, but turned back one last time. His metallic body seemed to quaver in nostalgic melancholy. "In the end though, it's up to you to make the choice. You're a good hero, Louise; don't let me down like my old master did." He leaped up into the trees, leaving only a faint rustles of leaves in his wake before disappearing.

Louise sat on the ground, not caring about her appearance, and sighed. Derflinger was right: she needed to make a choice. But what would she choose?

It was evening, and the Alviss spirits were fluttering through the dining hall. Ordinarily, they would emerge only after the school was asleep, but tonight they needed not worry. No humans would stumble upon them tonight. They were far too occupied with other activities, as evidenced by noises from the hall's ceiling. In the spacious room above, the Ball of Frigg was in full swing. Most of the nobles were dancing, their sparkled garb dazzling under the moons' light. Still others were crowded around the many tables, helping themselves to food and drink. That was where James found himself, carrying a platter of delicacies.

"All this food," he sighed, "and I can't even eat it." Truth be told, he wasn't sullen about it; in Team Rocket, one got used to a low-calorie diet of starvation. His melancholy came from being alone. He didn't feel welcome among the nobles, so he kept quietly to the sidelines as a waiter. Although Siesta and Kirche had both enticed him to the ball, neither was with him. Siesta had found that her duties had been switched at the last minute to tending the gardens. Not that it bothered her; she said that it would be nicer out in the open air rather than crammed in with a bunch of nobles. She had asked James to join her, but he had already volunteered for waiting service.

Kirche had escorted him to the ball, but had vanished once the party began. He could see her now, talking and laughing with a number of enamored young men. She had promised to dance with him eventually, but it looked like it would be a while before it was his turn. He felt a slight pang at seeing Kirche with the other males, but wasn't that jealous. On the contrary, he was relieved. Kirche was turning out to be someone that was fun to hang around with. She had a very vibrant and strong personality without Jessie and Louise's tendency for abuse. His worst fear was that the bond would be replaced by a chain, dooming him forever. It seemed so unlikely now, but he had never let his guard down since Jessibelle. Still, it was a bit lonely being around so many people with nobody to talk to.

"Hello, handsome." James turned around to see Jessie dressed in a spectacular gown. It looked as fine as silk, with many rare gems adorning the rim. However, the dull glimmer of the "stones" and their strange texture betrayed the dress' secrets.

"Had a rough night too?" James asked sympathetically.

At that, Jessie drooped. "I strode in here expecting to be praised as a fashion diva," Jessie moaned, "but nobody paid attention to me."

"They must have poor taste," James said. "After all, those are pure plastic, aren't they?"

"They sure are," Jessie said triumphantly. "No clay or molds for this dress, no sir! Team Rocket only uses the most advanced counterfeiting. But," she sighed, "guess it didn't fool them long enough."

"Well," James said, "at least we haven't been kicked out yet. That should count for something."

"Don't count on it," Jessie said. "I just stopped over by Meowth's booth."

"He's still at it?" James asked, amazed.

"He sure is," Jessie said. "but he won't be for long the way the crowd is looking. A few more off-key songs and they'll drive him off on a rail."

"I feel bad for him," James said. "Maybe we should be up there with him."

"And risk getting lynched ourselves?" Jessie countered. "That's the way it is with teams: if one person deserts, the rest suffer. And speak of the Absol," she noted as the guards announced the latest arrival to the ball, "there's our little deserter right now. Figures that she can enjoy herself while we suffer."

The sight of the evening, everyone had to agree, was Miss Louise Valliere. Any day of the week, the only looks she would have received would have been ones of contempt, sneering at the pathetic Zero. Even so, Louise was a noble, and it was in social events like this where she could shine, displaying the delicate grace that most forgot with her explosions. However, Louise was not as happy as she expected to be. Certainly, her attire had worked wonders, and dozens of boys were staring at her in awe with lustful thoughts. Still, she felt something was missing. This should have been her big debut, the time that people would realize, at least for one night, that she was more than a Zero.

But she could not quench the melancholy from her heart. It wasn't that the ball wasn't fancy enough for her taste; it was peaceful and serene, as befitting nobility. That was the problem, actually: it was just too peaceful. Louise kept tensing in anticipation for some round of chaos to strike, but always ended up bowing her head in disappointment. As much as she hated to admit it, her familiars' antics gave color to her daily life. Now what she was alone once more, she was realizing this for the first time. Sighing, she closed her eyes to take in the tempo of the music. Instead though, she heard jeers. Heading over to the concert section, she saw an increasingly hostile mob congregating. In the center stood Meowth, who was vainly trying to play all the instruments at once.

"Meowth's party!" Derflinger sang off key. "Blasting out of sight!"

"If you're gonna mess up the song," Meowth said, "at least get the lyrics right. Do you know how much work I put into dat?"

"If you know it so well," Derflinger countered, "then you can sing it."

"I can't!" Meowth moaned. "Someone needs to play all these instruments. Looks like it's the end of the line for…"

"Out of the way!" Before she knew what she was doing, Louise pushed through the crowd and marched onto the stage.

"Boss!" he exclaimed. "What're you doing here?"

"Saving your pitiful behinds," she said. "I can't just sit back while my familiars make fools of themselves. If we're going to be humiliated, do it right at least. Play 'Team Zero's Zooming.'"

"Are you sure?" Meowth asked nervously. A modified version of their theme song, it was one of Louise's least favorite, given its emphasis on the "Zero".

"Do it," she demanded, eyes blaring dangerously, "or I'll blow you to bits!"

"Yes, Boss," Meowth said, starting the instrumental background.

"Team Zero's zoomin'!" Louise sang into the microphone, her voice spreading across the hall.

"Prepare for trouble!"

"Make it Zero!"

"Big trouble's gonna follow you!" the quartet sang out loud.

"How'd you get here so fast?" Louise asked after seeing how they suddenly appeared when it was their cue to sing. "Don't tell me," she continued, "another convention or something?"

"Key on," Meowth replied, nodding.

Now her familiars' insanity seemed to be leaking into her. Funny though, that seemed trivial at the moment. "Now that we're all here," she said, "Let's do this!" She raised the microphone to her mouth and began to sing again, the crowd's fervor turning from outrage to awe.

In a different corner of the hall, Montmorency sulked at the sideline of the dancers. At least that raucous music had shifted to something somewhat coherent. She still found Zero's wild singing to be outrageous, but that didn't stop the dancers from picking up the pace to the frantic beat. What was it about that Zero, that she could perform crazy stunts like this and get away with it- not only get away, but be praised! After the Fouquet debacle, a lot of people had started whispering quietly to themselves- but no quiet enough to slip by her- that Louise may not have won the contest but had done greater by capturing Fouquet. Did those idiots forget that the mad Valliere's rampage was the reason the festivities had been postponed?

Though she did not want to admit it, her discomfort, deep down, was from envy, jealousy that they and even Louise could enjoy themselves tonight and not her. However much it galled her to have no partner for the night, she need to be here to keep up appearances. Though, she seemed to be the only one really concerned at this point, with some nobles actually singing along with 'Team Zero'. She could see some snickering in contempt, but even they were lightly humming the tune when they thought the coast was clear.

She couldn't be too hard on them though. The Ball of Frigg was intended to symbolize peace for mages, and by rule one was supposed to give courtesy to all present no matter their rank or reputation. Nobles had to build up walls around themselves to maintain their rightful strength, even the children. By having these rare moments when the social expectations were lowered, the hope was that the youth could let themselves open up and be themselves. The problem was, she was so used to keeping her inner self locked away that she couldn't find the nerve to let it out now, or even remember what it was. She cursed her family that forced the overwhelming expectations on her, but, when she took the time to think, she realized that it was all she had left, having thrown the rest aside as ordered. But her upbringing was not that unusual for nobility, yet the other students were able to flourish in this chaotic environment.

Perhaps it was time for her to step out and enjoy life too. Yet what could she do? She supposed that she could sidle beside a male loner and take him for a round; her prized blonde hair and sense of elegance made her the envy of most girls. If only she could get her mind off that stupid Gramont! Why was she even interested in him? He was a boisterous idiot filled with more pride than skill. Maybe it was because sometimes, just occasionally, he showed a side of nobility and kindness, even if it was clouded in his foolishness. And he had changed a lot recently, seemingly losing most of his two-sided pompous nature. At least, she had thought so, until that hussy stepped in.

And speak of the elf, she thought as she noticed a rose out of the corner of her eye. Guiche passed by her, leading a lady friend to another part of the room. It figured that he was having the time of his life, that bastard. She was too filled with envy to note the subtle jeers and stares from the other students. Hesitantly and then firmly, she moved into the crowd, slowly making her way in his general direction. The process was easier said than done, as amorous boys stopped her every five feet for requests; fortunately, her glare made them duck out fast. She finally pushed through a gap in the dancers and emerged in Guiche's section. Not wanting to be seen, she tried to duck subtly into the sidelines and observe.

However, she then froze as she began to comprehend the setting, which was different than she imagined. Instead of being in the center of the attention like the playboy usually was, Guiche was in a small corner of the room, trying to dissuade the attention he had attracted earlier. Despite the isolated location though, some people were still watching him and muttering to each other. But why? In a dance like this, where elegance and style won acclaim, a self-professed "artist" like him should have flourished. She followed their eyes, noticing that they were centered on his dance partner. Did he invite a commoner or something? If Guiche was going to dump her, he'd better have had at least some taste.

For the first time though, she looked directly at the girl, and gaped at what she had been missing the whole time. The bronze-reflected light blazed into her eyes as they widened in revelation. "Guiche," she said, pulling up the nerve to step forward, "what are you doing?"

"Oh, hey Monmon," he acknowledged her, too tired to put any boasts into it. "I thought you might stay back tonight."

"Not if I need to save you from becoming a fool," she said, hands at hips. "I thought you had a real date, not some clump of metal."

Guiche frowned slightly, but just sighed. "Well," he said, "I really haven't checked out any other girls of late, and you made your case clear.

"Besides," he added, cradling one arm of the Valkyrie as it limped from rusted legs, "I do owe her a dance after everything that's happened."

"Wait," Montmorency said as she put the pieces together, "that is what you were dancing with before? I'm surprised it's still in one piece."

"I've been working on improving my golems' endurance," he replied, "among other things."

"Couldn't you have just summoned another golem though?" she asked in puzzlement. "The damage to the ligaments would be gone."

"Except that I've already taught this one some steps," Guiche said, smiling at the golem. "I don't want all that new knowledge to go to waste." Montmorency had no idea what Guiche meant with his rant; golems were mindless constructs of Earth magic, bent to the will of their master. Perhaps Guiche hadn't lost all his pride after all, instead funneling it into a new outlet.

Even so, Montmorency couldn't stand him being gawked at for a moment longer. "Why don't I watch it while you get some food?" she suggested. She had managed to keep her own reputation relatively high that night, so she could afford to lose a little face if it saved Guiche from humiliating himself. Besides, everyone knew that Montmorency was a water mage, not an earth one. However bad it was to dance with a mage's construct, it was just creepy to dance with your own; about as bizarre as dancing with your shadow or reflection.

"Oh, thank you," Guiche said gratefully, relinquishing the golem to her. "I don't know what I'd do without you." He then walked off to the tables, leaving Montmorency behind with his golem.

Well, this wasn't what she had been hoping for with the dance, but it was better than moping about. Still, she was not going to switch Guiche's humiliation to herself by dancing with the puppet in front of everyone. "Come on, Guiche," Montmorency said. She grabbed the golem and began to drag it away from the crowd. The golem struggled in confusion, its wound expanding slightly from the tugging. Montmorency winced at the reminder of her misunderstanding and lightened her grip; nevertheless, she continued to gently lead the golem away from the ball, although now holding her undamaged arm. "This party is rather tiring after a while," she said. "I could use some fresh air."

The couple walked out a door onto a balcony overlooking the darkened courtyard. This was what she had really been hoping for with the ball, to have time with her love. Too bad that Guiche wouldn't be able to share it with her. Although there was still hope. "This is a beautiful night, isn't it?" Montmorency said. She leaned carefully against the railing. The rail slid between her garment and skin, allowing just a tease of her chest to expose itself. "It is a miracle of the Founder that even with the delay we are still blessed with two full moons to watch over us. A romantic night, wouldn't you say?"

The golem did not reply, gazing beyond Montmorency at the starry sky. She withdrew from the railing and sighed in defeat. Even with his increased manners, Guiche still wouldn't have been able to resist the sensual allure. She had been hoping that Guiche was keeping a closer eye on his golem, but it must have been working automatically while he was occupied.

"Well," she said to the statue, "I guess it's just you and me then." Really, it was just her, since the golem was nothing more than a lump of metal fused with magic. But she was tired of being alone that night. She'd take any companionship she could, even if it was just a statue.

"It's nice to get free of the hubbub of nobility once in a while," she said. "It's our birthright and duty, of course. It's just…it gets tiring after a while. Always keeping up the façade of grace up, never letting your true feelings out. When I was young, I just wanted to help everyone. That was kicked out of me quickly. There are countless threads of politics in the system of nobility, and you can't afford to besmirch your reputation. What matters, I guess, is finding what happiness you can within the rules." If that was possible. But what choice did she have? Still, she remained hopeful that she would find some sort of fulfillment in her life. Perhaps Guiche was the answer.

"Anyways," she said, turning to the Valkyrie, "thank you for listening to me. It…really helped." The golem did not say anything, but it shifted ever so slightly.

Montmorency's eyes suddenly narrowed as a thought came to her. "Hold still," she instructed. She took some multicolored powders out of a pocket hidden in her dress and sprinkled them lightly on the golem's shoulder. She then drew out her wand and produced a tiny drop of water. When the water mixed with the chemicals, the catalyst hardened into shining new metal.

"There," she said. "However much my responsibilities as a noble weigh me down, I would not give up the power it gives me for the world." After all, she thought, it was the same sense of responsibility, when helping those below her, which gave her energy and purpose. "You'll find that the jade won't break as easy as bronze, not when it is blessed with magic. With the right ingredients, you can create a potion to solve any crisis. It's a complex art, but one that I've come to treasure."

She did not expect any thanks from the mindless entity, but was surprised to hear it slowly utter the words, "…Thank…you…Montmorency."

Montmorency smiled wryly. So you were here all the time, weren't you Guiche? Normally she'd be embarrassed and upset at the invasion of privacy, but right now she was just happy that he was here with her. Though, she had to admit that he was more effeminate than she thought; the voice almost sounded like a girl's. Guiche was full of so many surprises. Maybe that was why she loved him.

"You're very welcome," Montmorency told the Valkyrie. She bent down and lightly pecked a bronze cheek. "If you really want to make it up to me," she said jokingly, "try to do something productive with your time. Like potions. Who knows? You might save someone with one someday." Though she knew it was impossible, for a moment she felt that the Valkyrie's hollow eye slits glowed with a new life.

Louise grinned wildly as the now-large audience applauded the team. She may have burned her chance to improve her standings as a noble tonight, but it was worth it. Once the team got going, the rest of the concert had went smoothly. Some of the songs were a little bizarre to the Halkeginians, such as Victory Road March and Goldenrod Two-Step, but the emotion that Louise and her familiars put into them made the crowd go wild. The dances picked up their beat to go with the songs, with the revelers becoming wilder and wilder.

Now, it was finally time for the closing song. Louise turned to the last page of the note sheet, but was shocked to find no song there. All that was there was a little note. Dear Boss, it read, This is the final test for the Sing training. You've done great singing other people's songs, so now it's time to sing one of your own. Just let it come to you.

Louise set down the note and turned to the waiting audience. "The…first…" she said nervously trying to piece together the words, "…Kiss?" Slowly though, she began to form the rhythm of a song. "Went and started it all," she spoke with increasing confidence: "Our quest and its beautiful history." By the time she reached the next line of the song, her tempo was flowing with emotion. "It's as if you cast a spell on my fate, when you decided to appear suddenly!"

Smiling at Louise's joy, the Rockets stepped in to fill the next verse. "In this world with two moons," Meowth began, "Glittering in the sky…"

"They never fade away," Jessie said, stretching out her hand dramatically toward the moons shining out the balcony, "It can't be right!"

"It's the very first time I've ever felt like this," James said, thinking to his unexpected friendships in the new world. "But with every day that passes, I feel much more at ease."

"Even if you fall," the three continued in unison, "If you feel nothing ever goes right…" They looked at Louise in awe. They had never felt this way about a Boss in the past, not even for Giovanni. It was a strange feeling, being so close to one's leader, but it also made them feel stronger than ever before. "We'll always hold you, never let go, and we'll always remain by your side!" Louise knew that, despite her familiars' incompetency, they meant every word. With them by her side, she never felt alone or powerless.

Louise closed her eyes briefly as the music played, and then opened them to sing the final verse. "The sweet kiss kept me warm and happy, the beautiful start of our story. And as soon as you cast that spell on me, I knew I'd stay true to my destiny." However much she was driven to madness at times, there was no way she would ever return to the way things were before. If she woke back up at the day of the ceremony, she would still kiss them, come what may. She just had to keep moving forward, with companions alongside her.

"The first kiss went and started it all, our quest and its beautiful history! It's as if you cast a spell on my fate, when you decided to appear suddenly!"

The crowd went wild with cheers as the music died down. However, her teammates drooped. "Sorry, Boss."

"What for?" she asked, turning around to her familiars.

"Sing's supposed to make the targets fall asleep," Meowth explained, "so it looks like this training was a bust. Anyways, we're sorry we had to make you put up with this…"

"Forget it," Louise said. "As far as I'm concerned, this has been one of the most successful training sessions yet!"

"Wonder what's with her?" Meowth pondered as she bounded off happily. "Sure seems to be in a good mood."

"Would now be a good time to tell her about the cost of the equipment?" James asked.

"Only if you want to be beaten," Jessie said. "I say let sleeping Ursaring lie. Besides, this is a night to celebrate; we'll think about the consequences later."

"Unbelievable!" Derflinger spoke from Louise's belt as she walked out onto the balcony. "That voice…I've never seen a mage sing like that. And beside her familiars, to boot!"

"I don't think anyone has before," Louise said. She hoisted herself onto the railing and sat there, not caring about the risk or impropriety.

"If we're the first ones," Derf said, "then that means we're legends now. No matter what, we've left our mark on the world, and it's one that we wanted to make in the first place. Good to see that you're back in it, Partner."

"Thanks," she said. "I was really nervous, but in the end everything turned out okay." Her peers had enjoyed the music, given the way they started dancing once the beat got going. She knew that it wouldn't last the next day, but at least she'd done something she wanted to do. And who knew? As she was leaving the ball, she could hear some students lightly humming her tune.

If she worked hard enough, she could stand out in this world. Maybe that was it. Before, she had been trying to fit in, not stand out. Now…she didn't know which way she was going. No matter though; she'd just go where her heart led. If it matched the path of the world, so be it; if it did not, who cared? "The funny thing," she said, "is I didn't really care whether or not they liked it. I just wanted to have fun, and look where it got me."

"That's fate," Derflinger said, "and I don't mean that 'bound to destiny' junk some people throw around. But when you do something because your heart says so and the world goes along it, you know that fate's smiling on you. And I think it's always smiling on your team, in its own amazing way."

"It is amazing," Louise said quietly, gazing up at the light of the two moons. "It's moments like this that make me think, despite all the chaos and madness, I can find my true path."