Lance makes me fall apart.

I can't help but to stare at him—he makes me so bitter, so enraged, with that spiky monstrosity that puts red hair like mine to shame. He wears that cretinous cape in some meager attempt to look fashionable; he spouts some crap about how it's "tradition" for all dragon tamers to sport them. Always smiling, always kind, always trying to put his best foot forward for his friends and his teammates—he's so embarrassing to me. How can he not see how patently he humiliates himself, pretending to be strong? It's a disgrace to all trainers, the piteous but happy way he carries himself. I don't care that he's the Champion, that hardly a determined soul in Johto or Kanto can flatten him—I just don't understand him. He needs to stop making himself seem such an ideal trainer. To others, he might be the very epitome of strength.

Sometimes, I hate him. I hate him, I HATE him.

I hate him for being so good to me and to everyone.

Sometimes, I hate him for what he is.

But I love him… I love him for what he isn't.

*****

"Damn," Lance said to his half-naked reflection in the mirror, bags drooping beneath the golden eyes of his that had lost their shimmering luster from burnout. Running a finger along a cicatrix extending from his left shoulder to the light notch of the right side of his waist, stretching across his tawny skin like a sling. The scar was deep as a sluice, enough to carry water had he been laying flat on his back. His muscles trembled from the sensitive touch as the three identical marks reddened, discolored as blood rushed to his torso.

I was sitting on the toilet, fully dressed in my usual attire and was drying my hair with a fluffy white towel, an L embroidered professionally on one corner. Noticing his almost inaudible grunt, I brought the cloth down from my head and stared openly at him. We'd just finished showering together (and no, not like that) and I found a yawn hiding itself in my jowls, threatening to break at any moment. The day of training had been long and strenuous for me—but especially so for Lance, it seemed, for the circles beneath his tired gaze wrote his fatigue to me in a furtive letter. He'd battled a frustrating challenger who healed constantly, trying to strategically wear out Lance's Pokemon. Lance managed to take out the trash on her, but although he would never admit it, he was nearly dead with exhaustion. He'd nearly fallen asleep a time or two in the shower, so I had to stand on my tiptoes and wash his hair for him.

I didn't touch the rest of his body. I knew what would happen if I did, regardless of Lance's state. And after such an endless day, I wasn't ready for that.

Lance paused from fondling his scars, his fingers in suspended animation above the lesions. Out of the corner of his eye, I detected him peering at me. I busied myself with plucking my auburn hairs out of Lance's towel. (Not that it would matter much—Lance's spiked mane was close to identical in color with mine.) Glancing up without even craning my neck, I looked at Lance to evaluate his reaction. His hand remained where it had been, but a smirk colored his face, making him appear much more lively than he had been before.

"Were you checking me out?" He asked, delight trailing the tired edge in his voice.

I blushed and vigorously tugged at the towel, yanking out some white fibers while I was at it. "N-No, I was not," I snapped.

"Hey, don't ruin my towel," Lance laughed. "Those aren't exactly cheap, you know."

I sighed and let the towel slip from my hands, my crimson tendrils still wet and knotted from rubbing so energetically before. Biting my lip, I regarded Lance with not just my eyes, but also my soul. Why had he seemed so… forlorn? He had told me once that his scars were trophies, keepsakes to remind him that he'd seen harder times and grown stronger from them. But he certainly didn't seem to be celebrating them just now.

Lance absorbed my disconsolate expression with an unreadable one of his own. "What is it, Silver?" He sounded like he was trying to mollify me, like I was the one broken.
It was indeed odd. Since I'd met Lance—in spite of my unsolvable hatred and passion for him—I hadn't felt broken, as I had before.

I paid no heed to his tone. "What's the story with those scars?" I gestured toward the enormous collection he'd been stroking a moment ago. "I've heard anecdotes about the rest of them, but not… They look like they were made by dragon claws."

With a bit of a sorrowful smile, Lance traced the scars once more. This time, however, his skin did not twitch at the contact. "I don't really like to talk about these," he said. "They were bestowed upon me in a very sad situation."

"Tell me anyway," I demanded firmly. "You were the one who told me not to run away from my past."

To my surprise, Lance didn't hesitate, although a flash of gloom did flash in his irises. I guess even now, even around me, he felt the need to keep up the masquerade of uniform power and reassurance. Before I'd come to live and train as his student, I would have never pegged Lance as the type of having demons. He just seemed so… cool, collected. Together. Like he had every impending aspect of his life planned out, down to what he ate for breakfast in the morning. I suppose, not unlike the rest of his fans, I doubted that he contained any flaws—and for that fact, being an admirer of the Elite Four in general, I couldn't pinpoint a single defect on any of them. They were perfect. For that, I heavily disliked them all when I first arrived at the Indigo Plateau. I had been beaten, crushed, my heart and sentient obliterated under the boot heel of my father. These people looked like they had merely coasted through their childhoods without stumbling over any blocks.

I was a fool to think that any of them were even remotely strong.

A month after I came, I saw Will remove his mask in the corner of his battleground, assuming that he was sequestered away from any prying eyes. Yet he did not know at the time that mine were there—and they caught the fact that one eye was a milky blue instead of the vibrant, dancing brown of the other. When I confronted Will about his blindness, he became livid and banished me from his room. That was the first and only time I'd ever seen Will so apoplectic. He spoke to me in his normal, smiling, happy-go-lucky tone the next day. It was like I had never discovered his most mortifying secret.

The next week, Bruno told me how he and Chuck of the Cianwood City Gym had been abandoned by their parents and were left to fend for themselves in Goldenrod. It was together that they dedicated their adolescences to training Fighting-Type Pokemon.

Koga, I found out from eavesdropping, had a wife who died of bone marrow cancer not long after his daughter Janine was born. He spent most of his waking moments with Surge to fill the gaping hole left by the devastating death of his spouse.

Not but a few days ago, I chanced on Karen clutching to a visiting Clair, staining the Gym Leader's attire with hot tears and bawling about how the Masked Man had raped her a multitude of times when she was little—and not just with the obvious appendage. She described vegetables, fists, bottles, and even brush handles in such gory detail that I found myself becoming ill at the images. When Clair caught a glimpse of me, she wasn't angry—she only asked me not to tell anyone. I didn't, and probably never will.

I realized then that my sole sin to humanity was being so selfish and ignorant to believe that only I have ever suffered.

"It was a Salamence," Lance began.

I blinked, emerging from my remorseful reverie. A Salamence? I thought Lance had distaste for the Bagon line. He was so dedicated to his Dragonite that I would have expected it to be one of them. Weren't Salamences Drake's thing?

"Clair had found a baby Bagon when we were just kids," he continued, "huddled in the corner of the Dragon's Den. It was downtrodden and maltreated to the point that it could barely walk because of the excruciating pain. I remember Clair picking the beast up and carrying it carefully to the leader of our Clan in Blackthorn, disregarding the fact that her expensive clothing was becoming matted with mucus and blood from the Bagon's smashed face. That kind of threw me off balance—Clair is vain when it comes to her appearance, and yet here she was, trying to help this wounded Pokemon, undeterred by how she appeared to the other trainers in the Den."

I listened quietly, somewhat taken aback that Clair had been so valiant. She seemed like a boastful coward to me. Selflessness didn't really seem to be an outstanding part of her personality.

"She'd already obtained a Horsea by then," Lance said, "But she insisted to the Clan chief that she be able to keep the Bagon. She begged him to let her nurse it back to health and train it to be the dominant dragon of the Clan. At the time, she was competing with me to succeed the position of Clan head, but I found her rivalry rather fruitless, since I didn't want to have anything to do with Blackthorn City or the dragon clan by the time I turned eighteen."

Lance paused and sucked in a breath. "She adored that Pokemon. Every day for about five years, she would rise before dawn to get some battle practice in before the morning meal. That Bagon evolved quickly because she paid it so much attention—within a year, it was a Shelgon, and after two years, a Salamence. By then, I was about sixteen and had successfully reared a pair of Dragonite and a Gyarados, but Clair's Salamence could wipe me out before I even had the opportunity to blink. And it didn't fight purely because it was strong—that Salamence loved Clair. It lived with the notion that it had been placed on Earth to protect her. Clair regarded it as a big brother—she fed it human food, let it play with her other Pokemon, and always introduced it to other trainers as "my Salamence." I'll admit, I got jealous a few times." Lance chuckled.

I still refused to say a word.

Then Lance bowed his head, clenching his fists. "Turns out I wasn't the only one who was envious," he growled. "Team Rocket found out about that powerhouse of a Pokemon and descended not long before our eighteenth birthdays. They furtively placed a clandestine mind-control device into the snacks Clair had prepared for Salamence—and when it consumed the food, it became a slave to the organization. Salamence went on a rampage, bent on destroying everything and everyone it saw. Before I managed to restrain it, Clair's Salamence had reduced two buildings in Blackthorn to ashes and had slew five citizens. Of course, this scar is a remnant of that battle." He indicated to the slash marks on his chest.

"The Dragon Elders were able to purge Salamence of the device before Team Rocket closed in by slicing open its belly," Lance said. "But when it awoke after being stitched and cleaned from the surgery, it no longer trusted Clair. The Salamence was certain that it was she that had sabotaged his food—and that his mistress was the one who had wished him dead. Yet instead of liberating its anger in trying to kill Clair, Salamence simply stopped eating or drinking. It died about a week later from dehydration. Clair couldn't stop crying for days. We buried the Pokemon and tried to get on with our lives—but it took Clair seven years before she could even bring herself to speak to other people. Up until last year, Karen and I were the only two she would even utter a sound to. She even severed ties with my aunt and uncle." Lance pursed his lips. "I think that Salamence was her soulmate. And it pains me to see her endeavor at living as ordinarily as she possibly can. She'd never dare confess the truth to anyone, but I know it takes considerable spirit for her to get up in the morning."

Finally, as the story drew to a close, I exhaled, amazed at how long I was able to bate my breath in suspense. "But that Salamence," I said. "It loved her up until the end, didn't it? It never tried to murder her."

Lance did not answer. He instead stared at his reflection in the mirror, reliving his past—and not in a dearth of torment, either. I perceived the throes of affliction his stance, the scars once again throbbing at the tale's retelling.

"If it had felt that Clair had truly stabbed it in the back, wouldn't it have wanted her dead? But it didn't. It was trying to convince itself that she was still devoted to it. Which she was, but it couldn't have known that."

Lance was still silent.

"Maybe if Clair—"

"Let's go to bed, Silver." Lance did an about-face and trudged out of the bathroom into the darkened master bedroom, speaking over his shoulder as he went. His mahogany trousers dragged and sloshed sleepily on the wet tile. "Turn off the bathroom light when you're done."

He had disappeared into the shade when I murmured to him, only hoping that he would hear. "I love you, Lance."

No response. Not even a breath from Lance's and my quarters.

"I know I've said the opposite for ages, but I do love you."

Silence diced my speech into uncomfortable bite-sized pieces and made me reluctant to go on.

"I mean, I hate you… I hate you for being a nice guy. You're too warmhearted with everyone, whether or not they deserve your sympathy. You totally shouldn't care for everybody. Lots of people are… are assholes, you know? And…" I swallowed nervously. "… Thank you for telling me that story. I see you in a different light now. And that light… it makes me love you more."

Suddenly, the light in the bathroom clicked off. For a split second I presumed there had been a blackout or that a circuit had petered out, but Lance's lips covered mine and cleansed my rapid thoughts, turning them into blank slates of tenderness. He wrapped his arms around my slender waist, bending down to meet me halfway. Even before he pulled away and left me fully conscious once more, he'd stripped himself and me naked. I didn't know how
I could have conceivably missed that.

Lance touched my alabaster skin amorously, his eyes frolicking with renewed vitality as he rubbed my arm. He seemed to shine like ringlets of sunlight, even in the pitch darkness.

"Let's take another shower," he suggested.

We did.

And I touched him this time.