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The next day

"Well, did you tell him that bugged you?"

"You're a stupid cunt, Jasmine. Why would I do that?"

"Because he might actually listen for once?"

I scoffed. Yeah, Flint, listening. And Digletts could fly up my ass. "Jas, has Flint ever sat down and had a decent two-way conversation with you in the entire time that you've been friends? Give me an honest answer here."

Leaning back in her chair, Jasmine tipped back dangerously on the back legs and wobbled there, keeping her balance as she crossed her arms over her chest and collected her wits with a sigh. Internally, I cringed. That hapless action was a very Flint-esque one—Jasmine was normally ladylike in the presence of others, but around me and Afro Boy, she was generally lax and did a lot of farting. Jasmine was currently the Gym Leader of Olivine City, a rousing port city in Johto, but she'd grown up as a classmate in Sunyshore with me and Flint. Although Flint and I were the capital pair, Jasmine was the occasional third wheel, coming over with me after school to Flint's house to play video games and smoke weed as we got into high school. On the outside, Jasmine was thin, petite, pasty white with stringy brown hair hanging past just past her shoulder blades, tied up in two minute pigtails that resembled the wings of a gay butterfly. With her round, mousy eyes and her meek exterior, people believed that she was sweet and mild-mannered—and usually she was, but getting her alone with me and/or Flint revealed her true colors. Once a rebel, always a rebel.

"I guess you're right," she relented. "Listening skills are certainly not Flint's most redeeming qualities. But he's a good guy when he tries."

"Yeah, but that doesn't mean he'll hear me out," I argued. "Flint was infatuated. To be honest, I've never seen him go so ga-ga over another person—another dude, no less. I mean, I should be happy about this, but—"

"He's not going crazy over you." God, I loved Jasmine, but she had the most annoying, high-pitched tone of a whine. She definitely fit the vocal bill for "supreme bitch." "That's what you're saying."

I shot her a glare. "Would you shut your yap for five minutes and let me vent?" My voice dropped an octave or two in a rebuffing gesture. "And pipe down, Jas. We're not exactly alone right now."

As Jasmine glanced sheepishly around the room that we were conversing in, I saw the corners of her taut lips curve downward in disappointment. Indeed, we were far from isolation in our private little chat—in fact, truth be told, we were currently surrounded with every Gym Leader and Elite Four member from here to Unova, and a tidbit of gossip went a long way in the League. It was roughly ten in the morning, post-mediocre breakfast that was catered by this three-and-a-half star hotel, and the enormous crowd that had picked at that meager excuse for a meal was now pouring in at an accelerated rate. The first part of the three-day forum was being held in the type of conference room that was uniform in hotels like these—sporting long, yawning windows that gave a clean view of the street below and a tidy mint-green carpet that matched the wallpaper and was probably vacuumed three times per day. Jasmine and I were sitting at one of the wide tables in uncomfortable metal folding chairs, shifting our asses to try and settle ourselves impossibly and vapidly watching people spill in from the outside. Even though we were conversing at a rather excessive volume, none of the entering and exiting people seemed to take too much notice.

Still, Jasmine was putting my neck on a chopping block by talking about my crush on Flint in public. For one, Jasmine was an infamous gossip—the type to sit around in her panties at all-girl sleepovers and talk about secrets like mine after the lesbian sex was over. Okay, yeah, Jasmine was a good friend of mine and probably wouldn't spill any of my beans, but I could never be too careful. And rumors were the herpes of the Pokemon League—tell one Gym Leader, and soon enough, everyone from Janine in Kanto to her dead mother knew. I loved my friendship with Jasmine, but I wasn't too sure if she loved a juicy scandal more than me.

Jasmine rolled her grey eyes, a pragmatic reflection of her specialization in the Steel type. Yet another reminder of a further advantage she had—my Electric Pokemons' weakness to hers. "Whatever. No one is listening. Plus, it's not like anyone would be shocked if you came out or anything. You've had a boner for Flint before you were born, Volkner. It's so obvious that hiding it would make you look even gayer."

"What? I'm sorry, I didn't expect my fetus to be so advanced," I shot back. "You weren't already a bitch in the womb?"

"I forgot, a few months away from you and I forget what a douche you can be." Jasmine sniffed and cracked her knuckles. "So Flint got the hots for Roark. Who cares? It's not like the emotions will last. Flint is as detached and numb as a wet noodle. And he doesn't exactly fit in the 'bangable' stigma. I highly doubt that Roark, being as meek and new as he is, even finds Flint remotely attractive. Believe me, I met the guy last week while he was in Kanto visiting Brock. I happened to be in Pewter City, so I dropped by. He's a weird kid." She slid me a staid glance. "In fact, I'm pretty sure you're the only one who thinks Flint is sexy. He seems to be the type that brags about being really good in bed, but in reality has no consideration for getting the other person off. Also, he has that afro. I would not sleep with him just because of the afro. It, like, has a mind of its own."

"Flint is notsexy," I said. "I've known him for too long for me to find him sexy. Flint is… I don't know. I'm in love with him. What can I say?"

"You want his dick."

"No, I do not want his dick!"

"Yes, you do," Jasmine pressed. "The basis of all romantic attachment is sex. Duh. You do want his dick. You want it so badly, even though it's probably really small and shriveled. And…" Leaning forward, I caught a conspiratorial glint in Jasmine's expression. "… you'll get a mouthful of his red pubes."

My hand ended up on my face, rubbing across my gritty skin in repetition. I'd been so wrapped up over Flint last night that I hadn't taken a shower when we'd arrived at our room. "That's disgusting," I groaned. "Just stop it. Go antagonize someone else."

"Impossible," Jasmine said. "Flint isn't here yet, so I can't bother him. And I'm not friends with anyone else that's milling about." Flickering her eyes about to the sole two early birds aside from us—Koga, Janine's father and the second Elite Four member in Johto, and Candice, who was a Gym Leader from Snowpoint City in Sinnoh—Jasmine frowned. "By the way, where is he? I thought you two were rooming together. Why didn't he come down with you to eat breakfast?"

From my hand, my face plummeted to hit the table, squishing my nose against the shimmering wood surface and depriving me of air—something I didn't care too much about, because after the agitated way Flint and I had interacted last night when we got to our room, I wouldn't mind dying. Once we'd checked in and gotten our room keys—an action done in unsettling silence, for Flint had done nothing but stare at the passing walls as we made our way down the wide halls of the Celadon Hotel—Flint had shoved into our cramped space, dropped down on the double bed closest to the window, and buried his body under the seafoam covers. He'd abandoned his duffel bag by the door, and I kicked it in a disgruntled manner, less annoyed by his lack of cleanliness and more bothered by his reticence.

"What's the matter with you?"I'd inquired as I headed toward the dresser to unpack my belongings.

Flint hadn't answered, his only source of contact with the space outside the bed being his afro, which was sticking out brightly in the dark from his shelter.

"At least take a shower, man," I'd prompted. "You have to make an effort to look nice tomorrow, you know."

"Go eat a dick,"Flint had moaned, his voice muffled.

"Don't be so pissy," I'd instructed. "You'll see Roark again tomorrow. You can apologize to him then. Quit whining like a little girl who's just lost her first love."

"You don't get it," Flint had murmured, "because you've never had feelings for anyone."

His words had slapped me in the face, the retaliation like a bee sting as a harsh, bitter blush covered my cheeks, luckily unseen in the pitch blackness of our hotel room. Why would he say something like that? This emerging thought was quickly trounced by another: Why wouldn't he? He absolutely no knowledge of my deeply-set emotions toward him, feelings that had gone unanswered and obstructed in private for years. Flint was the only person I'd ever loved, and my strict concealing of this secret coupled with my lack of social relationships during our time together led him to believe that I was simply an asexual prick that refused romantic interactions or opportunities to score. In all actuality, I didwant someone to hold and kiss, to touch and love—it was just that the only person that happened to pique my interest in that area happened to be Flint.

Right then, as I stood over Flint's lumpy form in the bed, I considered telling him how I'd always felt—getting it over with and off my chest, so that the skeleton in the closet I'd kept hidden could finally come to life. And yet somehow, I'd stopped myself and trudged pitifully off to the bathroom so I could clean up from the long train ride instead of facing the fears that had become rote to me. The words I so desperately wanted to say were eternally caught in my throat, a bird that could never fly free. I hated the lie that I lived, but what could I do to extricate myself from it? Flint was my best friend and, frankly, all I had. If I told him and he rejected me, I'd be alone, and I refused to be forlorn again, as I was before I met him. The rage that suffused me as a child was a constant reminder to my adult memories to cling to the people around me and never let them go. Here I was, faced with the imbroglio to choose between my best friend and the sentiment that ate me from the inside out. I was frantic to speak and finally be free.

But I could not. I was doomed to stay immobile, bound by chains that never rusted.

"We… had an argument," I confessed to Jasmine, who was waiting patiently through my rumination to answer her previous question. "He was asleep when I woke up, so I came to breakfast without him."

There was an odd silence between Jasmine and I as we sat there, oblivious to the people trickling in with the animosity of a peaceful stream, the only palpable disruption in the room being the air surround me. I felt tainted, disturbed, and somewhat dead. I'd been coping so well up until now, but why had Roark's appearance shaken me so? Flint was moved by the boy, but so was I—and certainly in the opposite manner.

"Volkner," Jasmine said after a slow measure of hesitation. "If you were anyone else, I would tell you to move on, you know. But knowing you, if you had to give up Flint, you couldn't break even. You'd go through withdrawal or something and die, and where would that leave you?"

"Dead?" I tried, a shoddy attempt at humor.

Playfully, Jasmine smirked and punched me on the shoulder. She did so a bit too hard, and I was briefly reminiscent of her tough left hook from childhood as I rubbed my sore arm in repetition. "What I'm trying to say is this," Jasmine continued. "You have to get your priorities straight. Flint is your lifelong companion, and I understand that you don't want to ruin that precious friendship, but you have to ask yourself what's more important in the long run. Yeah, losing Flint might be rough, but how do you expect to bottle up your feelings successfully? One day, you're going to lose it, and Flint will find out sooner or later. Ask yourself something for me: what will hurt less in the end? No Flint or Flint bearing a nonstop grudge with you for not being honest?"

I did not have enough time to ponder Jasmine's salient advice, for just as I opened my mouth to respond to her, the door to the conference room burst open suddenly, as the Gym Leaders had ceased milling about and had now taken their places at the table, with the exception of a few late stragglers—Flint and Roark being among them, I noticed with a twinge of sorrow. Even Byron, Roark's father and the leader of the Canalave City gym, was presently sitting to the left of Crasher Wake and laughing heartily at some lecherous joke that they were sharing between each other. His shovel was propped against the large window of the ten-story hotel that overlooked the city streets below, presumably scratching its surface to the aggravation of the maid staff. Curiously, everyone's eyes went to the noisy intruder, including Byron's, who seemed annoyed that his conversation had been interrupted.

To my lax relief, Flint Oba himself was standing at the threshold, his yellow shirt frumpy and one red suspender over his right shoulder, the other casually hanging out of his pocket as it usually did. Flint looked as if he'd woken up seconds ago, his expression limp and droopy with sleepiness. He'd apparently made an effort to try and brush his hair before he'd come down, because a sky blue comb was receding in the tide of his massive hairstyle. He scanned the room frenetically, searching for someone, before his brown eyes came to rest on me. When my presence was noted, I saw a characteristic fire spring up in Flint's gaze; whether it was out of anger or recognition, I wasn't sure. Still, it made my heart leap nevertheless—whenever Flint was determined, his face glowed with the intensity of his expert type. He truly had fire in his soul.

"Hey, Flint," Jasmine greeted. "I haven't seen you in forever." She pointed to the comb in Flint's afro. "Why is that there? Are you trying that ghetto 90's look?"

Reaching up, Flint pulled at the brush, snagging a few of his locks in the process. "Where's Roark?" He inquired, not even acknowledging that I was in the room. That was a blow, but I bit my tongue to prevent from saying something I'd regret.

"I don't know," Jasmine shrugged. "He hasn't been in here yet. We saved you a seat. Come on, sit down." She pointed to the seat to her other side. "Unless you'd like to sit next to Volkner?"

No, Jasmine. You are not my wingman.

Instead of taking her offer, Flint glared openly at me, snorted, and turned around before taking off away from the entrance and presumably down the hall. As if I had springs stuck to my ass—or maybe I was propelled by some deep desire not to make a fool of myself—I stood and proceeded to the door to follow him. If Flint was going to act like this, then by Arceus, I'd hunt him down and strangle him with my bare hands. I couldn't catch him earlier, so I decided that now was a better time to reconcile than ever. Flint never held ill will toward me for longer than twenty-four hours, but I still had to clear my record.
And wherever Roark was and wherever Flint was going to find him, I was going to get there first.

"Where are you going?" Jasmine asked, moments before I was about to leave the conference room and the gaping faces of Gym Leaders and Elite Four members from all five regions, either shocked at Flint's brash appearance or his hairdo—I could never be quite sure when people seemed surprised to see him.

"To find Flint and drag him back here," I said without looking back.

"The forum's about to start," Jasmine protested. "Let him get here on his own."

"No," I replied, resolute. "I have to apologize. I'll be back soon."

As I exited, I could feel someone watching me go. Someone with dangerous, calculating eyes, sizing me up from the way that I walked and the lilt of my voice when addressing Jasmine. I wasn't sure if they studied me in a method that one would use to better understand a potential opponent—or otherwise, as a chill crept under my skin, a dull warning bell thudding hollowly in my skull. The stranger sensed something about me that interested them, perhaps between Flint and I, and perhaps not. I wasn't sure, as I didn't turn to see who was looking at me so intently. With their eyes ablaze, boring me in the back, I departed, one thought swirling about in my mind, far above even my disorganized contemplations.

That wasn't Jasmine.