The Enigma Chronicles - Echoes

Chapter 13: Coal Wars

The water of the pool was still, with only ripples made by the soft gusts of the balmy breeze. Like a piece of driftwood or a snoozing Pysduck, I floated daintily on my back, facing the dastardly sun and its bronze rays cast over the estate. I could feel the rise and fall of my chest as I breathed in fastened hitches, the ice water holding me in its covetous embrace. I didn't mind it. Unlike Cayman, or even Rock-Type Pokémon, I enjoyed water. I enjoyed how it offered a refreshing peace of both mind and body.

As I drifted, suspended somewhere between the world of light and shadows, my thoughts dwelled with the memory of a dream I'd had the night before. Oh, what an incubus it was, still cleaved to the front of my mind. I could still see those piercing ruby eyes of the rouge Pokémon glittering in total darkness, beckoning me like a lighthouse in the dead of night. Was it to remind me that my moment of triumph was drawing closer? Was is it assure me that nothing could possibly stand in my way?

I breathed deeply and let my head slip beneath the water, squeezing my eyes shut so that they not be stung by the chlorinated sparse. Under the water, I could hear the dull roar of blood in my veins and the faint ripple of my body moving and nothing else. And I was alone. Being alone was a treasure I could rarely savor nowadays, for it was rarer even than quiet, and at that moment, it was bliss.

My chest burned, and I realized that I'd been submerged for several minutes. I erupted through the surface of the water, gasping, my lungs cooled and relieved by the air that rushed to fill them. My PSI instincts were now replenished. I wiped the water from my eyes and opened them. Maria and Daken stood on the shallow edge of the pool, staring at me with bookish eyes.

Sporting a cleanhanded smile, I swam to the steps and climbed out of the water. I toweled myself off and looked over to the suspiciously quiet pair. I must have looked silly, standing before two gray flannel suits in only my swim trunks. But I didn't feel the need to be so flustered or ashamed. It was my day off, so why shouldn't I have been able to enjoy a few laps in the pool?

In an extensively weighty silence, however, Maria crossed her arms across her chest. That was never a good sign. And what came out of her mouth next was even more disarming. "Are you having an affair behind my back?", She demanded up front. Her eyes never looked so galled, yet so vulnerable. "Well?"

I instinctively tried to soften the tension with a joke. "I sure as heck can't have one IN FRONT OF YOU, now can I?"

To my right, Daken chuckled quietly in his throat, but quickly suppressed the noise when Maria whipped her head at him in alarm.

"Metsuma, this is no joke.", She pressed more firmly than before. "I want the truth this instant!"

I couldn't very well figure out what she wanted from me. Yes, I used women. Hell, I even used men! But neither for sex. I had another agenda for my comings-and-goings, though I could never break my vow to secrecy and share such sinful deeds with Maria in confidence. It was hard enough just keeping Cayman and Calypso in check, both of whom jeopardized my ambitions more than once.

Luckily, my good ol' father-in-law timely jumped to my aid, which wasn't so unusual of him. "Metsuma, I insisted her accusations were ludicrous! You know how women can be!", He belched out laughing, mocking his only daughter in favor of condemning my lovable self. Smiling, he placed a grubby hand on my shoulder and gave me a friendly little shake. "Why, you're the most trustworthy sport I know! You wouldn't do anything to upset my little girl, now would you?"

Maria whirled at her father, heartbroken. "Daddy, you're supposed to be defending me!"

Before Daken could utter anything, I smiled sheepishly and stepped in her view, "Maria, I think you're overreacting. Where is all of this coming from?"

She inhaled sharply, biting down on her lip as if annoyed I didn't already know the answer to my own question. "You're like a ghost in the night!", She exclaimed with what sounded like hurt in her throat. "I rarely ever see you anymore! You claim you're always away on business... but the only other people I see you mingling with are other women!"

I couldn't let someone as tame as her wear me down with mere allegations, so I simply laughed in her face. "Like who?"

"That cop friend of yours, for starters!", She answered, little to my surprise; I just knew she'd bring up Anna.

I shook my head composedly. "If I wanted to be with Anna, I'd have chosen her a long time ago. But I didn't!" I was telling the truth... mostly. "You're the only woman for me, Maria."

She arched a brow. "Oh? And what about that strange woman from the Elite Four you're always sneaking around with?"

"Sa'lu? Oh, that's nothing.", I waved off the notion, again imparting the truth... mostly. "I know her through Clint and Rita is all. She happens to be interested in the company."

Her stance seemed to relax, but not by much. Through her Aura, I could feel just how exposed and humiliated she felt. There was nothing left for her to use against me.

It was time to strengthen my performance. I caught her dismissive gaze and narrowed my eyes, muttering sadly, "Maria, I realize I haven't been as... available as you'd like me to be. And I apologize for that. But believe me when I tell you that I would never do anything to threaten our marriage! I love you-"

She froze, not paying much attention, then looked up at me and gasped, "Rita?"

I paled, as if I'd never heard the name.

Maria's brow rose once more, suspicion rousing within her yet again. "You said you know Sa'lu through Clint AND Rita.", She explained. Her bottom lip trembled as she puzzled the rest together. "How is that possible? You barely know Rita-" Her voice instantly caught in her throat and her hand flew to her mouth in astonishment. "Oh my god."

Beside her, Daken rolled his eyes and sighed, "Maria, dearest, you're jumping to conclusions-"

"It's Rita, isn't it!", She gasped in horror, jabbing a finger at my chest. "You've been fooling around with that awful woman!"

To some extent, she was right, but I couldn't let her know that. "Of course not-"

Maria cringed. "Don't give me that! I saw the way you coaxed her with your boyish charms at the dinner party!"

I was running out of tricks. Moving towards her, I grasped her right hand gently, sending a slow hum of power in a course throughout her body. "There's nothing going on between us, Maria!", I raised my voice, my patience wearing thin. "What do I have to do to make you realize how committed I am to this marriage?"

"Maybe I'll give Rita a call this afternoon.", She threatened in a hush whimper. It was far from intimidating, I could have burst out laughing right then and there.

"You do that.", I encouraged her. I wasn't about to back down now. "I'm not afraid."

She simply stared at me undecidedly. Whether she would hold me to that promise was still up in the air.

Daken, however, was more than convinced. "You see, Maria? He has nothing to hide! He's a good man! Always has been! Always will be!" With the issue seemingly resolved, he lugged his happy, whistling self back inside the manor, no longer bothering with his daughter's 'ramblings.' He'd humiliated her, disgraced her words as lunacy. It was a shame I didn't marry someone as gullible as he was.

I turned towards Maria once more, waiting for her to say anything. I was inwardly praying she'd apologize to me and revert back to her blissful ignorance.

After a long silence, she sighed submissively and finally spoke again. "Oh... I guess I am acting a bit foolish." She clung to me, sobbing into my chest, her clothes soaked against my body. "Metsuma, I'm sorry. I didn't mean to put you on the spot like that. It's just... you're never here for me anymore... and I don't know what else to think! I feel like you don't love me as I once thought you did." She crooked her head a notch and looked up into my eyes, searching for even the slightest scrap of sentiment. "Our anniversary is coming up in a few months... and I want to remember why that day was so important for us."

This whole 'love' charade was losing its appeal. I blamed myself though. I had married Maria to camouflage myself, never bothering to take it more seriously than that. And until now, I hadn't realized there was a price to pay for such negligence. The only way to keep my mask from slipping was to become a more attentive husband – or at least pretend to. Besides, if I could fake emotions, I could fake anything pertaining to them.

I wrapped my left arm around her abdomen to keep her still, cradled her head into my neck with my right hand. "You're absolutely right.", I whispered softly, hoping she'd let the matter drop. "I'll make it up to you somehow. I promise." I leaned back enough to bestow a gentle kiss upon her forehead.

She seemed thoroughly satisfied with the gesture and gave a relaxed nod. "Okay." She then stepped back a few paces to give me my space. "Just make yourself decent."

I watched her return to the house in silence, then finished toweling myself. My thoughts were now concentrated on exactly how I was going to win Maria back. Love was like a foreign language to me. I couldn't exactly fake something genuine unless I could find a way to make it seem genuine in her eyes. And when it came to values of sentiment and compassion, there was only one person I could think to go to for advice.

…...

DREAM

Cayman felt the gravity shatter as his body seized to his surroundings, trapped in a mirror world where colors and sounds flowed in reverse. He fell and found himself drifting through space with stars of glittering green. The dark between the burning balls of emerald hue shifted, amassing into a flight of meteors and fireballs streaking across the black heavens.

As the shooting stars enshrouded him, carrying him across the depths of the galaxy, the voices of angry gods and goddesses throttled his eardrums, screaming and howling and hissing, begging him for the "tree" and only the "tree"! He couldn't understand what they wanted, what they were asking of him. Who did these wrathful voices belong to?

The confines of the meteorites were burying him alive, muffling the otherworldly voices until only the whistle of his plummet to Earth could be heard.

REALITY

A gasp. A cry. Cayman suddenly shot upright in bed. His breath was ragged, his whole body was thrown in a fit of shakes and a cold sweat. His shimmering blue eyes flew open, pupils contracted and chest heaving viciously. His hands gripped the white silk sheets in a death grip, fingers twisted violently in the fabric. His face was flushed, sweat clamming his skin. He swallowed heavily, soft pants slipping past his lips as his panicked demeanor began to lessen.

It took all of ten seconds for the renegade trainer to find his composure, to realize where he was, and relinquish his unyielding grip on the sheets, and take a few slow, deep breaths. Sitting up slowly, he looked about the dimly lit room, faint sunlight filtering through the crack between the metal doors. He could feel the totter of ocean waves lapping at the hull of the ship, and immediately felt sick to his stomach. The smell of salt and seawater invaded the confined air.

A Nurse Joy emerged from the shadows and circled around his bed with a syringe and some bandages, careful not to alarm him. But he was too distracted to care. He couldn't peel his gaze from the far side of the musty brig, where the border between shadow and substance was diffused. There stood a young maiden in spring green, her fragile hand extended to the foot of the bed. He'd seen her somewhere before, no question, but he couldn't muster a name, not even a syllable.

Cayman blinked in repetition, to make certain he wasn't hallucinating. And just like that, the apparition was gone. In its place stood a Chansey garbed in a nurse's outfit. Its pinkish bulk shaded his eyes from the overhead light. The Pokémon offered a serene, blissful look as it extended its pudgy arms with a small plastic tray: on the tray sat a paper cup with water and another, smaller cup with a pill.

Cayman tossed his head from the Pokémon with a grunt, his attention span elsewhere. Sure, waking up in an unfamiliar place was always disconcerting at the least, but it had been that nightmare that really got to him. Cayman, finally calmed down, wiped the sheen of sweat from his forehead and continued to breathe regularly. His chest rose and then fell languidly as he tried to recall the nightmare. It had been calm at first, nothing strange or out of the ordinary, but then something had changed. But, as hard as he tried, he just couldn't place what had caused his listless sleep to morph into a vicious night terror.

He stirred slightly. It was so cold. He could feel a prevailing chill surround him, penetrating his skin and bones. His hand brushed past his leg. Something did not add up; his arms pressed against his bare chest and patted down his stomach and legs, feeling bruises and blemishes of every shade and shape. What had happened? Had he been wounded in some kind of battle? Or hit by a bus? Perhaps tromped by a stampede of Tauros?

He put his hands to his head: his brain felt as if it was throbbing, pulsating, pushing against his skull. It was no longer just the queasiness of being out at sea. It was much more. It was as if his mind were about to burst into ashes. He gave into the need for a good scream and turned his face into the pillow.

Standing at his unflanked bedside, Joy swallowed nervously, but took to her work the moment Cayman shifted to his side, giving her full access to the severe burn mark on his beaten back. She readied the tip of the syringe with the slight prick of her finger, then snuck up behind him quietly, resting a hand on his hip.

Suddenly, Cayman jerked with a growl. A searing, ice-cold pain ripped across his spinal chord, the very base of it, and for an instant, he saw a flash of white light and then the imperceptible scar that he bore there swelled: a cold, deadly, irrepressible swelling.

The pain was excruciating. He flinched and swung a fist, and she lurched back before she could be struck. He yelled for relief. "Agh! Easy!", He urged through gritted teeth, his face curled into a sneer. Nodding, she leaned in to apply the bandages, causing him to hiss out again, "Ugh... fuck... you trying to rip me open back there?"

"Oh, hush now! I'm trying to help you!", She bit back as she slowly pressed the gauze over his gash. "If you want this wound to heal properly, you'll just have to lay still!" She heaved a frustrated sigh and applied more pressure, much to Cayman's howling dismay. "I said lay still! Please! I know it's painful, but you'll just have to will through it!"

He bit back another cry of pain and laced a hand around his backside, but that didn't do any good. The agony only intensified and it took all of his powers combined to keep himself from turning inside out in reaction to it. His vertebrae felt as if someone had just impaled him with a fiery dagger and its heat was coiling around his insides.

He stiffened, holding back a gasp from the tremendous pain, and clenched his teeth together, determined not to let the nurse see his display of throes.

When Joy finally finished her work, she beckoned a finger to her assistant Pokémon. "Chansey, fetch the pain medication, won't you?"

"The hell with that!", Cayman sputtered, leaning forward with a cringe. "I live through pain. I learn from pain. I'll manage just fine without any pills." He tried to raise himself up on one elbow, but the position in which his casted leg was hung in, impeded any such movement. So he craned his neck to widen his view of the room.

Joy could only frown at his amour-propre. "It would be unwise to refuse your medication."

"Pst... what do you know?", He snorted with a dismissive wave of his flippant hand. "You're a fuckin' Pokémon nurse. Go wipe a Psyduck's ass or something."

Joy merely replied with a gruff exhale.

Viper's voice suddenly belted across the room. "Settle down, soldier." The junior officer himself stepped through the doors, a column of soldiers lined up behind him, neat and single-file. "She's all the medical care we have on board. Let her do her job."

"This is hardly my job.", Joy grumbled beneath her breath, not bothering to face Viper directly. "My sole commitment is to sick Pokémon."

Viper's eyes narrowed crossly. He raised a sagely finger at the smart-mouthed woman, talking down to her as if he was actually any older than seventeen. "But as long as you're our hostage, your sole commitment is to us; so unless you'd rather be swimming with the Sharpedo, you'll keep those pretty little lips of yours shut. Do I make myself clear?"

With no other options but to comply, Joy simply nodded her understanding. She steered clear of eye-contact, skulking her way to the sink to rinse her wares. She decided it best not to further upset the boy in uniform; there was something about Viper's strait-laced directness that unsettled her to a fault.

Cayman rolled his eyes as Joy and Chansey timidly took their leave to the corner of the room, then mumbled in Viper's direction, "Couldn't get someone more professional? What, did Metsuma cut our budget or something?"

"She's been with us since we first commandeered this ship.", Viper sighed, leaning against the other boy's bedpost. "She was one of the original passengers en route to the Hoenn Region."

Cayman chuckled weakly, "I thought psycho Difo unloaded all the passengers after he stole this vessel?"

Viper shrugged. "We kept a few for safe measure." He scanned Cayman's various blemishes, impressed that the other was holding up so well in such critical condition. "Besides, our crew is short of medical care. As far as I'm concerned, the others can spend the rest of their days stranded on Savile Island until they decide to wise up and join our cause."

Cayman reached for the tray at his bedside, dipping his hands in the bowl of fresh water. He leaned down, cupping his palms under the water, then splashing it onto his face a couple times before drying his soaked face with his sheets. "Man, I feel like shit.", He muttered in a muffled voice, continuing to towel off his face. "How long was I out for?"

Viper was careful in answering the other boy's questions. "I'd say almost a week."

Biting down on his bottom lip, Cayman shakily pushed the thin sheets off of him, swinging his legs over the bedside. "Man, my back stings like a bitch and I can't even remember why.", He groaned, pacing himself as in his movements. "I must have done something really bad to piss off the chief, eh?" His wondrous eyes traveled to the ceiling. "I remember... a poking iron-"

"Be grateful it wasn't worse.", Viper cut him down promptly, remembering Metsuma's orders.

"Worse?", A shrill but haughty voice chortled from the doorway. "Don't be silly! He should feel proud of his new mark."

Cayman shifted his gaze upward to meet Marcus Difo's. "What are you blabbering on about?"

Difo blanched for a moment, unbuttoning the first few buttons of his coat collar to reveal a 'T' shaped singe mark branded on his collarbone. "You're not the first to be coronated.", He spoke coarsely, a twinge in his tone. "This is what happens to those your father deems... exceptional."

Cayman paled, staring at the mark in wonder, then turned his head in shock to see Viper and his men unlacing their own collars to reveal the very same imprint. "I guess I'm not so special after all.", He quietly laughed to himself, smiling evilly.

"No more than the rest of us, you cussed twit.", Difo scowled menacingly, closing up the flaps of his collar. "From hereon, you'll stick to protocol! You've already been assigned a new mission, so you'd better not dash our luck like you nearly did last time-"

Viper's eyes widened. "Captain, say no more-"

Cayman looked at Difo in bafflement, then to Viper, "What the fuck is he talking about? I've never once fizzled a mission!" His head shot back to the older man in an instant. "I'm Metsuma's go-to-guy, in case you forgot!"

Before Difo could open his mouth again, Viper stepped in to answer to Cayman's outburst, using his words in prudence. "Then hopefully you'll have a freshened mind for our next excursion. The Boss wants you to keep tabs on Police Sergeant Anna Lafluer and any headway she makes in the Soul Robber Case."

"Anna... Lafluer?", Cayman choked out with a furrowed brow. "That's Metsuma's ex! She's a cop!"

"Yes?", Difo growled impatiently. "Your point?"

"The cops are the ones hunting me!", He reminded them, not to mention himself. "He's sending me into the belly of the beast!"

"What did you expect?", Viper replied frigidly. "He's testing your stealth. He wishes to see if you're anymore competent at doing your job than they are at theirs."

Difo waved a dismissive hand at the green-haired rebel, "I sincerely doubt he has what it takes. He's too impulsive. He'll blow our cover the minute he steps foot on Sinnoh Region soil. He's already done it once. If he was truly intelligent, he would have stayed there in the first place like he was ordered to."

Again, Viper's eyes lit up in alarm at Difo's ignorant slip-of-the-tongue.

Cayman, however, would hear none of it, and could only lash out at the stupid accusation. "What the fuck are you talking about! I've never even been to the Sinnoh Region!"

Difo rolled his eyes. "Oh, don't act cute-"

Knowing well enough to take control of the altercation, Viper nudged the scientist aside and spoke up at his expense, "The Captain is merely asserting that you may not be... qualified enough to undertake this task, what with your injuries and all."

It was a miraculous save, because Cayman blindly accepted it, not-so-astonishingly. "Sinnoh may not be my home turf, but I can take on whatever it has to throw at me!", He bellowed proudly, clenching his fists with renewed strength. "If Metsuma wants me to spy on his girl, I'll get the job done with flying colors!"

"There's that arrogant streak again.", Difo sniffed, jabbing a finger at the boy's wounded shoulder. "At this point, I'd much rather root against you! You're just a little-"

In that instant, Cayman sprung to life with power unknown, hurling Difo across the room with a swift and savage Aura Sphere.

The impact was fleet-footed. Difo hit the wall with a hiss, then flopped to the cold floor with a wrenched arm. As he crawled on one hand, he wailed in choler, "Y-You broke me arm!"

Viper flinched as his eyes shifted from Difo to Cayman, whom now looked to be in the pinnacle of his health. It didn't seem possible... but it was. Much to his wonder, the green-haired boy stood proudly balanced on both feet like a God among Gods, his teeth barred and his veins rippling with might. No longer did he appear worn and defeated.

Cayman ignored the fixed stares from all around the room and marched across the floor, his hulking shadow towering above the crippled scientist that lay trembling at his feet. "If you sass me one more time, I'll snap your neck like a twig.", He seethed through gritted teeth, smiling like his father. "You got it?"

With a derisive snort, Difo scrambled to his feet and bolted for the door, leaving Cayman in a fit of heckling laughter.

Nurse Joy, having now witnessed the penalty for insubordination, approached Cayman with a sudden change of attitude, "C-Can I get you anything before we make port, sir?", She whimpered nervously, forcing a smile. "A drink? A nice meal?"

Yielding that cocky grin of his, Cayman flopped back into bed with a benevolent sigh, resting his arms behind his head. "Now that's more like it." He waved Joy and Chansey off, then turned his sights to the officer backing into the shadows. "I don't know what it is, Viper, ... but I feel completely rejuvenated."

Viper's worrisome eyes glazed over Cayman's excessive display of pride and spunk, and with every doubt in his functioning mind, he couldn't help but mumble hushedly under his breath, "I hope Metsuma didn't overplay his cards on this one..."

As Cayman kicked back in bed like an unchallenged overlord, Viper led his troops into the corridor. He was immediately greeted by Lunatone and Solrock, the two of them hovering anxiously outside the door. "You can see him now.", He affirmed brutishly, stepping aside to allow them entrance. "But watch your step. He's unusually... barbaric. More so than usual."

"Heh! That's an understatement!" It was at that moment did Difo reappear, approaching on his tiptoes as to not alert Cayman to his presence. "He's a complete monster!"

Solrock nodded, then sighed huskily in its psychic echo, "Sadly, sir, that is all Kami knows now. Metsuma wiped his memory clean of his dearly-departed loved ones, thereby cleansing his conscience of any traitorous thoughts. Now he has only Metsuma's teachings to heed and obey. In consequence, Kami will behave through sheer belligerence."

Viper nodded in understanding. He kept his eyes leveled with the telepathic counterparts. "In that case, keep a close eye on him. There's no telling what trouble that bitter nerve of his will get him into once we disembark."

Solrock and Lunatone bowed slightly to avouch their orders, then quietly entered the room to reunite with their master.

"Insolent fool!", Difo snapped, holding his gnarled limb in one hand. "Had you told me he lost his memory, I could have been spared this sprained arm!"

The taller dignitary said this all very quickly and seemingly in one breath, so that Viper could only smile dazedly and nod in return. "Yes, well, now you know.", He retorted wittily, keeping a stern and fooling calm for his superior. "Will that be all, Captain? Am I dismissed?"

Difo raised a belligerent finger to the youth. His face swelled hotly, like a balloon ready to pop. "Don't play smart with me, child! I outrank you! You'd better start treating me with a little more respect!" His hostile gaze was suddenly drawn to Cayman's room, "The same goes for your friend in there!"

"Hmph." Unfazed, Viper shrugged, going so far as to threaten, "Perhaps you'd like to discuss your complaints with the Boss." A hint of smile tugged at the corners of his lips. "I'm sure he could settle this."

Difo was visibly shaken by the cold warning. It was no secret just how much he feared bereavement – how much he feared the Boss. Not giving the matter a second thought, he whipped his head away and strode to the engine room in silence. He wasn't about to lose his abounding military success in a quibble with a child.

Viper's triumphant afterthought was cut short as one of the crewmen approached he and his division, "Sir, we've sighted the mainland of the Sinnoh Region. The nearest port is in Canalave City."

"Tell whoever's driving this hunk of junk to keep their distance.", Viper replied after an inward consensus. "Now that the Global Police are scouring the seas for this ship, Cayman and I will just have to make do with swimming our way to the mainland. The two of us should be able to bypass the coastguard unnoticed." He glared, holding the naval officer at full-attention. "Prepare the scuba gear and a pair of Water Pokémon capable of subaquatic navigation."

Impressed with the young man's tactical morale, the older soldier nodded with a look of devilry mischief. "Sure thing, sir."

...

It wasn't in my nature to depend so heavily on others, but I figured as long as I had people at my disposal, it would be a waste not to exploit their expertise. And more importantly, it just made my life easier. If I could count on Cayman to carry out my personal vendettas, or convince Sa'lu to train a Legendary Pokémon, then who was to say I couldn't confide in Clint about something as meager as marriage squabbles?

Of course, going to Clint for romantic advice didn't seem rational at first, given that his own marriage obviously needed some groundwork – oh, and it also didn't help that I was flirting with his wife behind his back. But that didn't necessarily mean Clint wasn't a competent husband. If anything, he was the only reason their marriage was lasting. The man was just so full of life and energy; even as a child, the poor sap always had so much love to give, especially after our first friendship began to crumble.

I made my way swiftly and silently through the lush terrain of Indigo Stadium, my footfalls as soft and fleeting as a Vulpix's. I kept my eyes peeled for Clint. I sensed his Aura nearby, but couldn't spot him, not even beyond the hallow void of the stadium that frequently drew a large and bustling crowd.

I turned my head slightly to see a small clique of adolescents approaching. Teenage students clad in white and navy uniform milled around the center of the stadium, blocking me from crossing any further. Many were accompanied by Pokémon, big and small. I reasoned this was some kind of educational field trip to study up on the art of Professional Pokémon Battle. And out of curiosity, I decided to observe from the hind of the group. It would give me the chance to witness conservative brainwashing firsthand.

The students and their Pokémon stood quietly in a disorganized mob, led in front by Clint himself; I couldn't be sure, but it looked like he was giving a lecture to the class, waving his hands in ecstatic motions to emphasize his cheerful speaking voice. The children jotted his every spoken word into their notebooks, ever so studious in the presence of a Pokémon Master. I could only heckle at what garbage he was spouting – from the tainted tongue of the Pokémon League to the ears of impressionable children.

Quietly, I weaved my way closer to the front of the group until Clint's voice was distinct and audible; as it turned out, I was right to criticize him.

"Everyone, I end my words here today by imploring each one of you to consider the relationship between human and Pokémon!", He shared in his usual spirited mannerism, drawling on with his miserable philosophies, "It isn't just about battling, or the strife to to be victorious. No, it's something much more precious than that! Me? I could care less about my title as Pokémon Master, because the true winners are the ones that are genuinely committed to their Pokémon, not to themselves. Why? Because the most compassionate treasure that lies within all of us is the ability to put others before ourselves..."

I couldn't help but inwardly groan. He made it sound so easy, treating others with kindness – real kindness, not the fake kindness I routinely displayed to keep people on the rebound. Too bad that mask was starting to wear thin, enough so that Maria was beginning to see through my suspicious activities. Had she just stayed mirthfully oblivious, there'd be no need to sit in with a bunch children on Clint's pathetic excuse for a lecture.

"... most important, so you're all dismissed for the day.", Clint finally concluded. As his gaze washed over the departing clusters of students, his eye caught me in a glimmer. He smiled and singled me out with his pointer finger. "Oh, class, I'd like you to meet Metsuma Rocket, an old friend of mine!"

The class paused in my presence, looks of recognition surfacing on their faces, then proceeded to welcome we with a generously lengthy applause.

I waved them off with a bogus smile, inching closer to Clint. "You're instructing classes now?", I muttered to him in private, still amazed at what his life had become now. "Seriously, if you want these kids lectured on human and Pokémon relationships, you should have referred them to that Oak fellow in Pallet Town."

"Oh, they weren't here to learn about that.", He chuckled loftily as we strolled the border of the stadium together. "Didn't you know? That was the senior science class from the Viridian City Pokémon Academy."

His admission bit me in the hind, and I could only snarl, "Then all that 'compassion' mumbo jumbo was simply overkill, Clint."

Again, he broke out laughing. "You're a hoot, Metsuma! You really are!" He shot me a curious glance, baiting me to answer, but I kept my eyes to my treading feet. He immediately took the hint and sighed, "Metsuma, if you can't think like a compassionate person, at least think through a compassionate perspective."

I looked up at him, furrowing a brow. "That's... not a bad idea.", I managed generously, a solution to Maria's discontent finally unraveling before me. "In other words... think like you?"

He shrugged. "Why, what did you have in mind?"

"Oh, just trying to make amends with Maria.", I sighed nonchalantly. "We clashed this morning."

He stared, aghast. He was always one to be concerned. "Really? What about?"

"Oh... nothing important.", I replied casually, mostly relieved that Rita hadn't opened her big mouth to him yet. "I just need to find a way to make it up to Maria. And an act of genuine compassion may be the only way to show her I'm fully committed."

He laughed. "Marriage is a team effort, Metsuma! Like Pokémon Training!" His words had my stomach churning, and I paled in disgust, quite visibly. Nonetheless, he grinned wider and asked, "Didn't you hear anything I just said to those kids?"

My eyes rolled of their own volition. "Clint, be realistic. My Pokémon obey me because they fear me. If the same rules applied to my marriage, I'd be given a restraining order."

"Then put yourself in my shoes!" He cooed, and his eyes glinted briefly, flashing with some kind of emotion. "Consider what I would do in your position?"

"You do things from the heart.", I reasoned aloud. "I do things to keep people off my back." I took a second to ponder this reality, taking my usual methods into question. "Interesting. Perhaps lavishing Maria with meaningless gifts wasn't the way to go after all these years. Maybe I have to offer more."

He nodded repeatedly. "That's exactly how I've been trying to get through to Rita. She gives me purpose, she gives me a reason to want to bring out the best qualities in people. It's because she's so stubborn and, well, crude, that I want to help her. And until I met her, my purpose in life had always felt like... an unanswered question."

I chuckled to myself, thinking how much easier my fake life would have been had I just married Rita, someone who'd unquestioningly take my fake-love for money and jewelry any day.

"Every morning, when I wake up in bed, I'll turn over and tell Rita she's as a beautiful as a Swanna drifting on a crystal lake in the bloom of spring.", He breathed out dramatically, cutting off my thoughts. He held a hopeful smile, fooling himself rather than me. "She doesn't usually take the compliment with much aplomb... but I continuously tell her in the hopes that she'll one day see just how precious she is to me."

Internally, I felt a wave of amusement wash over me. It was official. He was human. Some kind of stupid breed of human, but human all the same. "And he's telling ME to approach MY wife differently?"

He looked up, having gotten himself under control. He was watching me again, and that emotion flashed through his eyes, more prominent the next instant. "By the way, it was awfully nice of you to come by. I'm glad we get to socialize like the old days. Before you know it, it will have already been two whole years since fate brought us back together. "

A heavy silence settled over us, tension filling the air between us, until I finally replied, "That's... an interesting way of putting it, but okay." Astoundingly, it had already been a little over a year since the two of us reunited; I'd only need a bit longer to fool him before the Night of the Black Moon.

He nodded. "Time sure zips by, doesn't it?"

I mirrored him to the punch. "It's been pleasant, yes."

"I just wish I could say the same for poor Anna.", He sighed, running a hand over his face. "She's been so buried in her work lately. That whole Soul Robber business has really taken a toll on her."

I raised an eyebrow, but, true to my nature, said little. "Yes, she has been rather... candid lately. She'd be better off just dropping the investigation."

Clint opened his mouth, but a look at my face stopped him and he motioned me to say something. Giving up on keeping a straight face, I settled for a smirk, nearly laughing when he scowled in displeasure. "She's a police officer, Metsuma – and a darn good one too!", He spoke in a voice so serious, as if it were no joking matter. "You really think she'd back away from the chance to catch a criminal?"

My smile had lost its serenity, replaced with a scary, sadistic grin. "Some criminals aren't meant to be caught.", I mused out loud, baiting his reaction.

"Is that so?", He chortled, shaking his head. "Name one."

I mused calmly, crossing my arms. "Me."

Just as I anticipated, he couldn't take me seriously. "Yeah, yeah, very funny!", He let out a bark of mocking laughter. "Trying to psyche me out with random words just like when we were kids, huh?"

I eyed him with pity, sniffed, and turned away with a sarcastic huff, "Yes, I'm a horrible liar."

Clint just shrugged his shoulders. "Well, at any rate, whoever this Landon Kace is, he's bad news. He's a murderer and deserves to be thrown behind bars. It might give him some time to repent for his actions."

I flinched in a show of anger and disbelief. "After everything he's done, you'd truly be willing to forgive him?"

He looked away from my intense look, fidgeting slightly as he worked up his reply, "Everyone deserves a second chance, Metsuma." He raised his sculpted chin to the clouds, smiling. "Unlike you, I like to look for the positives in people."

"I've noticed.", The words fell out of my mouth all at once. I let my head arch slightly to reach for his absent gaze, then continued, "But the Soul Robber is who he is... and nothing can change him, Clint." He didn't say anything, but I knew he could feel my eyes burning a hole in his head. "He's out to upset the establishment, not service a petty purpose."

Again, he looked away hushedly, this time trying to make sense of my words. "W-What makes you think that?"

I shrugged, and in my own little way, pinned my ruminations on him and his 'perspective' advice. "I'm simply putting myself in his shoes, just like you taught me." Evidently, that was the smartest thing I could have said: it paved the way for me to continue on unsuspected. "Landon Kace is an agent of chaos. He's killing Pokémon, stealing souls, and detonating cities because he likes it."

"Anna seems to think he's doing it for someone else.", He ground out.

I widened my smirk to a grin that was borderline psychotic – again, very fitting. "Then that makes two who want to watch the world burn; and very soon, many more will be drawn to the chaos, aching to play by the one rule humans and Pokémon were made to follow since the beginning of time itself."

His face softened, and he stared at me in wonder before coming to an abrupt halt, forcing me to do the same. "You seem awfully fascinated by it.", He mumbled anxiously, still curious as to how intuitively I was perceiving these things. "You once thought like that, didn't you? That rules were made to be broken? It's... what drove us apart."

I shrunk back in my shoulders a little, uncaring. I didn't quite know how to answer that. "You're the one who drove us apart, asshole.", I thought to myself.

His eyes were flat, but they sparked in anguish for a second before he looked away, locking his jaw. "Professor Wade... has been asking questions.", He said at last, his voice like a whisper in the wind. "He still thinks you're up to no good... and he's determined to prove it."

Though truthfully taken aback, I nodded in calm, realizing just how long my list of enemies was growing. Fortunately, most of them were just pests, not threats. And though I couldn't say I was intimidated by my father's sudden snooping, I had to hand it to Clint for keeping me well-informed. I hadn't expected him to betray Wade's trust so easily.

After watching the grass for a few moments, he switched his gaze to my face again. His expression was, to be explained simply, sorrow. "I just thought you should know.", He mumbled finally, hurt by his own confession. "I know I should have said something earlier... and I'm sorry."

I wasn't too concerned with that, and instead demanded, "What did you say to him when he came forth with his suspicions?"

"I told him he was being silly.", He murmured softly. "But no matter how many times I defended you, he wouldn't listen to anything I had to say." He looked more withdrawn than ever, and I imagined he was doing his best not to let anything affect him, but this whole situation was taking a heavy toll on his sensitivity.

I took a step closer to him, whispering, "He's pushing you away, just like he did to me."

His eyes flashed in astonishment. "I don't think-"

I shook my head lightly, focusing on what needed to be said. "Clint, do you trust me over my father?" It was unfair of me to put him on the spot like that, but since I didn't give a damn either way, no harm done.

To my pleasant surprise, he answered almost instantly, "Of course! You're... you're my best friend-"

"And will you always remain my friend, no matter the circumstances?", I pressed. "Will you always be by my side?"

He studied me for a moment, his eyes sad, before gently taking my wrists and squeezing them firmly. "To the end, my friend." The unusual huskiness of his voice emitted from his throat more than his mouth, and it struck me just how committed he was to our friendship. He wasn't about to let it go for anything, I knew this to be true.

I stirred in place, wrenching my arms from his hold and avoiding his eyes for the moment. It wasn't out of a enmity though. I simply wanted a moment for myself to think on what he'd just said, the power behind those five simple words so unexpected. I wondered quietly if I had underestimated him; maybe his loyalty was designed to be much more than a tool at my expense. In fact... perhaps there was still a chance for him to see the big picture differently, something I'd once wanted of him when I was but boy with only a single friend.

Faring through my thoughts, I spoke finally, "I just needed to be certain. As you know, I'm not exactly the most trusting person." I met his gaze again at last. "You said you liked to look for the positives in people... but I couldn't be sure that that in itself was a one-sided perspective. If you were to step into my... err... Landon's shoes, for example, would you see the world differently... and appreciate it?"

"What do you mean?", He queried, eyes searching mine for further meaning. He was obviously too blinded by the light to tap into my psyche.

I decided to let the matter drop for the time being; it was too soon to decide where he stood regarding my plans. "It... it doesn't matter, at least not right now." I looked down at my watch to gauge the time, then remembered I had to get back to Maria. "I should head home and put that advice of yours into action." Little to his knowledge, I already had something in mind.

Clint chipperly escorted me back to my limousine parked outside the stadium, just as my chauffeur was opening the car door for me.

As I made to climb inside, I threw a knowing glance back to Clint and asserted, "Oh, and if you want to please Rita, it might help to tap into MY thought process for a change. If she's a woman that likes to be showered with diamonds and jewels, give her what she wants and she'll be better off than any Swanna on a lake could ever hope to be. Trust me."

He smiled in good humor, then waved me adieu.

…...

The bus squealed to a stop at Route 206. Viper's eyes flew open, and he looked around, disoriented. He sat up straight, and looked around for his companion.

At the front of the empty aisle, the driver and Cayman were having it out in an brutal exchange of cursing and screaming.

With an unfavorable grimace, Viper stood in one supple movement. He stumbled as he found his feet. He rubbed his eyes, and then made his way to the front to break up the altercation.

"This ain't no joyride!", The paunchy female driver lectured both boys, waving a lard finger in their faces. "No Trainer's License? No transportation! Now beat it before I book the lot of you!"

"Calm the fuck down, lady!", Cayman heaved, turning his back to the her. "Man, what crawled up her ass?"

Viper sneered, gathered his things, then climbed off the vehicle. Cayman followed him silently, his cleats not making a sound. They hopped off the bus just in time. The driver had pressed the button to close the doors once they were outside. She gave them one last glare and drove off into the horizon.

Cayman inhaled the air and took in his surroundings, the cobalt mountains and rolling valleys ever so familiar to his wandering eyes. He couldn't remember the last time he'd seen such a vast spectacle, but he was sure it was there in his memory somewhere. Finally, he turned his back to the mounts and pikes, and found a lush terrain waiting for them, stretching into the distant boondocks. He wondered if he'd fine Metsuma's sweetheart there.

Both boys stood on the side of road without a clue, until Viper unwrinkled his map of Sinnoh and sighed. "Public transportation is so finicky nowadays, especially when the PLC bigshots that fund them are such damn sticklers for rules. We'll just have to finish our journey on foot." His eyes gleamed over the charts, "According to this outdated map you so cheaply bartered back in Canalave, Veilstone City should be just beyond this gorge. Do not fall behind."

Cayman sighed and obediently followed Viper down the trail of the hill, "Look, I get why Queen Snorlax back there kicked us off her precious bus, but do we really have to HIKE all the way to Veilstone? I mean, there's a reason I keep a Flygon strapped to my waist at all times!"

"I don't want to take any chances.", Viper replied adamantly, keeping his eyes sharpened ahead. "The police may have identified your Pokémon already."

Cayman let out a catty groan, almost stumbling the rest of the way, but quickly moved ahead of Viper's brisk pace. "You're such a wuss.", He groused. "Besides, I prefer a straight fight to all this sneaking around." His eyes rolled up to just barely glimpse the ashen wash of his once-jade-green locks. "Ugh! I dye my hair black for the last time!"

"You're jiving.", Snorted Viper. "Metsuma gave us strict orders to-"

Cayman waved off the notion with a chortle, "Ah, I'll make him proud. You just watch, man!" He turned his head slightly. "What could go wrong?"

Upon crossing the steep pass, Viper stopped cold in his tracks and looked up from the map to the barren destination splayed before them. "You really want me to answer that?" He looked to Cayman with a scowl and raised both arms forward to behold the gate of the ill-matched city, "Well try this on for size!"

Cayman stared blatantly at a domain that was both composed and surrounded solely by wilting mountains and gargantuan walls of speckled rock. "This... doesn't look like Veilstone City.", He muttered at last. "From how my dad described it, I thought it'd have a little more razzle-dazzle, you know? This place looks like a turd."

"That's because we're in Oreburgh City, not Veilstone!", Viper growled, crushing the map in his tightened fist. "You plucked the wrong map, you bonehead!"

"Take it easy, will ya?" He nudged Viper with a bony elbow, earning a slightly startled jump. "We'll just ask someone for directions!"

At Cayman's lead, they passed through the gate, encountering few civilians beyond. The town was littered with shoddy houses and cabins, convenience stores serving overpriced food and excavation tools, and headquarters for bigshot company men. It certainly wasn't a bustling foundation, yet the sounds of pick axes crushing ore and drills splitting earth echoed avidly off the city's towering walls of rock.

The midday sun was already shining down on the gray stones and dusty hills that surrounded the small mining town, ensconcing it in an amber warmth. Cayman basked in these surroundings, little to Viper's awareness. Earth in its most cohesive state was his pride and joy. He was surefooted and he liked rough terrain; it made him feel physically stronger... and it made him feel in command of his environment.

As they progressed eastward, taking in more sights, the city began to assume a more fallow shape, rocky hills and sterile grounds more predominant than before.

Spotting an excavation site on a nearby slope, Cayman pointed to a group of burly workers near the pit's edge, who were facing away from them and were apparently in deep conversation. "I bet those lugs down there could lend us a hand." Without waiting for Viper's approval, he sprung from his post and strode pompously into the camp. "Drop your shovels, ladies, and listen up! What's the quickest route to Veilstone City?" He glanced over his shoulder with a wretched smile. "My friend here got us lost with a faulty map."

Viper paled in anger, gnarling, "Why you little-"

Cayman waved off the unfinished outburst like the punk he was, again trying to gather the attention of the workers mustered before him. "Hey, what gives?", He pressed, realizing they hadn't so much as flinched yet. "Am I speaking Dewgong or something?

Suddenly, the workers vanished from the flesh, reverting to their true forms. It had been a crafty mind-trick from the start.

"Illusions.", Viper surmised as he and Cayman were suddenly greeted by a dozen Claydols. "They pooled their powers to distort our perception. Be on your guard, soldier!"

Provoked, Cayman braced his fists and lunged headfirst at the psychic foes! "Fuck that! No one toys with my head and gets away with it!"

Viper promptly chased after him. "No! You fool!"

As Cayman drew closer, the dozen Pokémon converged into one, like a blur.

Cayman halted upon seeing this shift in circumstances. "Huh? Double-Team, too?" As he moved to chance another step, the ground beneath him collapsed and he dropped straight into a deep-seated ditch. "Agh!"

In trying to reach to grab his falling companion, Viper took a faulty step of his own, falling through the ground after Cayman and hitting the rocky floor with a painful thud. "This whole yard is booby-trapped!" He cuddled his injured head and looked up to the light pouring through the pocket of earth which held him. "Thank you for getting us into this disaster!", He bitterly called out to his partner. "Do you ever think with your head?"

"Do you ever shut that trap of yours?", Cayman answered back from his own burrow. "Sheesh, you sound just like my-" The light filtering from above suddenly darkened, and he looked up to find a head poking through the hole, looking down on him. The stranger gave off an odd odor, a mix of stale bourbon and dirty clothes. He looked like he hadn't showered in weeks. His beard was unshaven, his eyes were dense, yet his build was impressive for a deadbeat vagrant. "You look like hell.", Cayman observed from below.

After peering briefly into the other pit, the gruff man shouted down to Cayman in an almost upset voice, "Hey, you boys ain't the labor inspectors! Just a couple o' chums!" Cackling wildly, he drew his head back and barked over his shoulder, "Yo, Culm, get ova' here!"

A swarm of hulking prospectors gathered round the hole, laughing and yapping amongst each other, throwing Cayman's mind into a tailspin. A small boy of about six or seven appeared to be the youngest in attendance, quietly minding his own business, while the rest of the howling gaggle comprised of grown, grizzled men in overalls and work clothes.

One of them appeared to be the leader, a tall and herculean brute in a rumpled brown suit and bowler hat with a wide rigid face. A chiseled chin held up a hardened mouth that might have never felt the curve of a smile. "Don't matter who they are, Clay", He belched back in a deep but rested voice. "They know too much. Haul em' outta there!"

Heeding orders, a pair of Graveler fed a rope down into each hole and pulled the boys up to safety, while the workers scattered to mark the surviving booby traps.

"Good thing I happened upon them, eh, Culm?", Clay chortled to himself, spitting chewing tobacco to the dirt and then smudging it with the heel of his boot. "At least we know them booby traps work fine!"

Overhearing Clay's outburst, Cayman gathered his bearings and turned to face the leader, "You set these traps?"

He nodded. "Name's Culm, son, and you just walked into the middle of a strike." Culm turned to the elder of his posse, snarling sarcastically, "Some mighty fine job that there Psychic Pokémon of yours did, Sifter: leading a couple O' innocent kids into a deadfall!" His eyes just barely glimpsed up at the Claydol cowering behind the old man. "And you wonder why we stick to pure brawn and boulder?"

"I ought'a smack you youngsters something fierce!", Old man Sifter bit back, clenching his pick ax in one hand, his cane in the other. For a geezer his age, he certainly had a tremendous temper to match his tremendous backbone. "Claydol and I been workin' on this here mine since you muscle-heads were still in diapers!"

Culm puffed out his sculpted chest and narrowed his gaze. His brawny, burnished hand gestured to Cayman and Viper, but his eyes honed in on Sifter. "That's just swell, ol' man. Then you got no issue boggin' down these two trespassers?"

"Heh! Not at all!" The feisty old hermit jabbed at the boys with his cane, directing them to the cavern up ahead. "Let's go, ya little punks!"

"Now look at the mess you've gotten us into!", Viper hissed to his left, his hands thrown up in surrender. "The apple falls very far from the tree, Cayman!"

Before Cayman could react in his usual violent manner, Culm stomped between the two boys, barring them with his shovel. "Y'all shut up now!", He snuffled, then shot a hardened glare at Sifter. "Get them to the cavern! Get a move on!"

Falling behind the group, the young boy clad in miner's garments skipped after Culm, "Who are they, pa?"

Culm hoisted the shovel over his shoulder and pulled the child against his gorilla-like waist, "Byron, stay close to me. No tellin' if they're dangerous." He led his boy safely ahead of the movement, while Clay and Old Man Sifter forced Cayman and Viper to pull their own weight inside the mining caves.

…...

Cayman forced himself to keep quiet as they followed the dirt trail into the underground. A few torches provided light for the prospectors digging and gouging in the darkness of the mines. Those coal miners underground were a scrawny lot. Even the Pokémon – from the humble Sandshrews to the colossal Golems – looked palled and depleted, many unable to carry on with the labor. Drums and crates lay toppled and littered all over the camps, unattended.

More pressing than the sickly social unrest of these underground camps was the godawful lack of ventilation. That putrid, moldy air; that foul stench that covered every wall like a second skin was unbearable. It heightened the smell of sulfur coming from the deep pits of the mines, turning it in to an acrid fume that thrived to prey on the lungs of unsuspecting workers.

"This is nauseating, even for me.", Cayman muttered at last, unable to hold his tongue any longer. He tilted his head to his captors, specifically Clay. "How does that Culm guy manage to stay in top shape and not decay like the rest of these sorry workers?"

Clay smiled deviously, shrugging his wiry shoulders. "Culm's one O' the most respected miners in camp – a fella who's braved cave-ins and other dangers of the depths his whole life! That's why folks call him the 'Underground Man'! He ain't afraid O' nothing!" He raised his chin to the unusually energetic toddler in front. "Even that there son of his is a chip off the ol' block!"

"Must run in the genes.", Viper whispered to Cayman. "They'd both make fine additions to the Nightfall Collective-"

Without warning, Cayman and Viper were shoved to the ground for all of the encampment to see. Miners and Pokémon alike flocked to the scene, surrounding the pair of outsiders. Some shied close to the shadows, sporting only cruel stares, while others were more vainly outspoken and wailed slews of profane curses at the boys.

At last, The Underground Man himself emerged from the rabble, engaging Cayman with a more proper introduction, "Welcome to the Oreburgh Mines, stranger." He stabbed his shovel into the gravel, thus silencing the noise of the mining mob, then arched a stolid brow to Cayman. "Got a name?"

Cayman rose to his knees and smiled, "You're coal miners, eh?"

"I asked you a question, son.", Culm urged more firmly. "Give us a name."

"Cayman.", He answered, then motioned a hand to his right. "This here's my buddy, Viper."

Viper rolled his eyes and mumbled quietly in response, "Don't get carried away."

"They're miners, so they like the Ground-Type!", Cayman whispered in return with a wily grin. "And I happen to be the toughest boulder around. Just watch me speak their language!" Clearing his throat, he climbed to his feet and took a daring step towards Culm. "Alright, let's get something straight, you bunch of-"

Without so much as hesitating, Culm reared his burly fist and punched Cayman square in the face, knocking him back to the cavern floor.

Cayman writhed and cursed out his pain. "Agh! Son of a bitch!"

Culm seemed unfazed, however. "Sit till you're told otherwise."

Cayman clutched his bleeding nose and glared up at Culm, getting up slowly to even the score, but Viper's immediate grasp held him crouched to the floor.

Culm folded his arms neatly and explained, "You two fellas blew our plan."

As soon as the words were said, more weapons were leveled at Cayman and Viper, shovels pulled back and primed to stab. "Them ditches y'all fell into weren't... well... weren't meant for ya!", A random miner spoke up. "We set them traps for the PLC gumshoes that oversee the labor here!"

Clay chipperly chimed in, "They ain't treatin' us right, and we ain't standin' for it another minute! We're coal miners, not slaves! Ain't that right, Culm?"

The handful of angry miners cheered, a heated and spirited sound that vibrated through the tunnel. Gravel and dust sprinkled from the ceiling and walls. Cayman wasn't sure what to make of their upheaval or why it concerned him, but he was sure Metsuma would spurn him if he got involved and put his assignment in jeopardy.

"Break it up!", A woman's huffy voice shuttered the commotion.

Slowly, the miners lowered their weapons and parted to make way for a woman with long, beaded blue and red hair and a flannel skirt slashed to the thigh. Her hip-jabbing style suggested she was the coal business' answer to men fighting for power everywhere. Her jutted lips were thinned to a frown and there was a manic look in her bespectacled eyes.

Clay, fearful that his outburst might have been heard throughout the mine, promptly tried to cover his tracks. "Miss Bitumen... we're mighty sorry-"

The woman ignored Clay's ramblings and looked with surprise to the newcomers crouched to the floor. "Who are these two? They're not part of the guild, are they?"

"N-No, mame!", Clay yammered on. His rough and tough demeanor seemed to have vanished. "Just a couple O' trespassers. Harmless as ever."

Culm had heard enough. "Aw, don't suck up to her, Clay!" He shoved Clay aside like a twig and took a threatening step at the woman. "She ain't got dirt on us!"

The woman turned her head dismissively, "Regardless of your petty strike, the foreman is still large and in charge of everything that goes on down in these mines!" She reeled, beckoning Cayman and Viper to their feet. "Get up. You'll be taken to the foreman directly." She then turned to Culm and his regents, "Culm. Clay. Sifter. You three will be coming as well. The rest of you get back to work! You can yammer all you want once your labor is finished!"

The mob scattered at once. Some returned to their pick axes, while other simply ignored orders. Culm and his team shoved past the woman and ushered Cayman and Viper deeper into the caverns, hardly sparing a word.

"Who is this broad?", Cayman finally demanded in quiet. "Who made her queen of the mines?"

Culm winced in repugnance, "She's the foreman's wife. She and her bo run the mining operations down here."

"Well they're doing a poor job!", Viper coughed, hacking on the humidity in the air. "I can barely breathe down here. How do you work like this?"

"We adapt.", Culm said with a shrug, Clay and Old Man Sifter nodding in agreement. "It ain't right, but we do it anyhow."

"It's all a cheap game of chicken, if ya ask me!" , Sifter whispered – a little too loudly for confidence. "They ain't gonna force me into retirement! I'm as limber as a Mankey!" He leaped for the ceiling to prove his point, only to conjure a crack in his ribs. "Ah, phooey! Think I broke my spleen again!"

"Settle down, Sifter.", Urged Culm as the five entered the foreman's campsite. "We're here."

A pudgy man with a friendly face stepped out from the nearby tent. And unlike the miners working to the bone in the upper levels, this fellow was well dressed considering his occupation, boasting a nice brown suit and a fine haircut. Fastened to his belt was a collection of Pokéballs; it left plenty to the imagination.

Cayman shifted to Culm's flank for a better look. "Is that him?"

Culm nodded. "Yep. That there's Spade Bitumen, the mining foreman. He spends most of his time at the Oreburg Gym, let's his wife handle things down here when he's off duty. Believe it or not, he's in charge of the 'Breaker Boys' movement. O'course, he ain't done much to contribute to the cause."

"'Breaker Boys'?", Cayman chuckled mockingly. "Is that what you call yourselves?"

Clay pushed between them, coming to Culm's aid, "Hey, don't you be makin' fun of us, wise guy!"

Meanwhile, Spade proceeded to pace in front of those lined up before him. Just as his wife entered the cavern, he let his gaze fall upon the newcomers. "What have we here, Tierra? New recruits?" He pumped Cayman and Viper's hands as he talked. His wit was as sharp as his fashion. "Welcome, boys. Call me Spade. I'm the-"

Cayman quickly snatched his hand away, "Yeah, listen, we know all about the gig you're running in these mines. But we came here looking for directions to Veilstone City, not to join your labor strike, so you'll have to count us out. "

Spade tilted his head in confusion. "Labor strike?"

"The whole surface of this mine is a fucking pitfall!", Cayman reiterated, brandishing his bruises from the fall. "Man, my limbs STILL feel like broken sprigs!"

Spade gasped, then shook his head in displeasure. His eyes searched the veteran trio's. "Culm, I thought we agreed that the best way to voice your demands is to earn it with a hard days work. Violence is never the answer."

"Even you said we had a right to go on strike!", Culm growled in the face of his superior! "There's only so far a man with a pick can go, Foreman! A hard day's work ain't gonna cut it!"

Spade considered this and tried to respond as rationally as possible. "Yes, but each of us were employed-"

"Hogwash!", Culm simmered again. "We're hardly paid at all! The work is long and tiresome, and the ore deposits are scant! We got men sick and dyin' in these here tunnels! There ain't no ventilation! No food! No water! No stable equipment! These conditions ain't sanitary, Foreman! You're supposed to be stickin' up for us!"

"Just give me more time, Culm.", Spade pleaded with a smile so unreal. He clearly didn't know the meaning of aggressive negotiations. "Besides running the Gym, you boys are my pride and joy!"

Culm shook his head in frustration. Too many people had died in defense of the working man's rights. If the striking miners didn't get help soon, the ranks of the dead would grow. "Take all the time ya need...", He invited in a throaty voice, letting his shovel drop to the gravel with an angry clatter. "Cus I ain't workin' no more."

As Culm stormed off, Clay followed the example and threw his pick ax to the floor. "I ain't workin' no more, neither!" He whirled and chased after the larger man, "Hey, wait up, Culm!"

Finally, Sifter took action. "To hell with you cheapskates! I quit too!" He tossed his ax aside and hobbled out of the campsite. "Heh! Now I don't have to collect unemployment!" As he made to leave, he leaned in close to Viper and snickered, "I sure showed them, eh sunny boy?"

"You reek of death.", Viper snorted. "Go away."

The old foggy shrugged, then returned to take his leave, leaving Spade distraught and frazzled.

Tierra shifted against her husband in a show of support. "Cheer up, hon. They'll come crawling back soon enough."

Spade shook his head, unwilling to believe such a claim so easily. "If Culm won't work, neither will the others. Not even the Pokémon. What am I to do?"

Cayman, having been silent long enough, opened his mouth, "You... could start by getting us the hell out of here."

The cheeky crass in Cayman's demands caught Spade off guard... and he looked up at the boy with a smile – a hopeful smile. "Say, you have that tough-guy attitude.", He educed after a brief scrutiny. "Yeah, you even got the look of a coal miner! Are you a Rock-Type specialist?"

"We're not interested.", Viper interjected, knowing exactly where this was headed.

"Tell you what!", Spade proposed anyhow. "I'll navigate you fellows to Veilstone if you'd be willing to grab a couple shovels and pitch in around here! It's the least you could do for trespassing. I mean... these mines aren't open to just anybody, you know?"

Cayman quickly tried to weasel his way out of said accusations, "Heh. That's because... we ARE miners!"

"Great!", Spade exclaimed jubilantly, tossing a pair of shovels in their direction. "Then you won't mind helping out! You can start above ground, then we'll see how you do from there. And remember, keep digging till you strike treasure!"

Cayman and Viper looked down at their digging tools, then to each other. Finally, in a jointed sigh, they nodded their heads and left without a word. They knew that, as trespassers, they couldn't cross Spade's demands without crossing law enforcement. And Cayman had no intention of selling his true identity... yet.

As they made their way back to the main encampment, they were immediately approached by Culm, his expression awry as soon as he spotted their shovels. "From trespasser to full-on traitors...", He knew right away, his narrowed eyes drawn primarily to Cayman. "I thought for certain there was more to you, son. But then you had to go and sell your soul to the devil."

Cayman twirled his shovel, shrugging off the ridicule. "You wusses just don't know how to get the job done right!"

"Phooey!", Old Man Sifter cut in, bitterly waving his cane. "You youngsters think you're better than us? You're just a couple O' flimsy tots!"

"I'm pure muscle!", Cayman lipped back, rolling up a sleeve and flexing his bicep. "Seriously, check out these guns! They're bigger than yours, grandpa!" He shoved aside the wrinkled prune without a care and started for the cavern exit, carrying his shovel over his shoulder. "I can lift, push, and pull everything you and your Breaker Boys haven't! You just watch!"

Viper followed in step behind his companion, careful not to provoke the other miners gathered, "Cayman, enough chatter. Let's put in our time so we can get out of here already. The stench in these barracks are killing me."

"That's the stench of a workin' man's sweat!", Culm's voice echoed behind them. "You two wouldn't know it if it hit ya over the head!"

Without looking back to return the insult, Cayman continued his march and muttered quietly beneath his breath, "Yeah, we'll see about that."

...

The manor usually belonged to the hired helped during work hours, but I had time to kill since I had the day off. It was time to put Clint's wisdom to the test. It was a bulletproof scheme: to make things right with Maria, all I had to do was step into Clint's shoes and think with my heart – or at least fake a heart with an honest effort. I'd have to dig deep into my past, find something of sentimental meaning, then pass it off as an apology gift.

I made for the parlor, assigning my gaze to the mantel above the fireplace, where a hutch of family keepsakes sat collecting dust. I reached up on top of the cupboard and pulled down my 'memory box'. I'd named it that ironically, for any memory from my early adolescence was a disgrace to look back on. I still wondered why I even kept the piece of junk around. Until now, it had never been of use to me.

Easing into a lax exhale, I ran my fingers across the box's soft grain of the wood; I'd memorized all the grooves left from my childhood. Where had the time gone? Well, it didn't matter. I needed something from this box – something from the heart – that could help me make amends with Maria. And, as it so happened, the only time I really possessed a heart was when I was but a clueless child.

I turned the key in the lock, the small clicking sound following soon after. The box slowly opened to reveal a glass case, accompanied by a sepia photograph of myself and Clint lounging against the oak tree in front of Wade's cottage. Gosh, was that long ago – back when I actually considered Clint a friend, my only friend.

I held the photo to the light, squinting to better perceive the burnished images. The decades old picture shed positively on the two of us and I could barely make out a smile on my young, boyish features. Had I faked that smile? Had I forced it? No, it must have been a real smile – a rarity for me, because I almost never smiled. It was odd to think there was once a time I was happy, for I could only remember the worst of the worst. Maybe Clint was responsible for the more lighthearted retentions – he'd always sought to nourish me to the light. Maybe it was time I return the favor. If he was truly as committed to our friendship as he so claimed, I could nourish him to the dark and open his eyes to the reality of the world.

I set the photo aside and glazed over the glass case nestled inside the box. I recognized it as my old badge case, back from when Clint and I competed together. It certainly explained the attached photograph. But the case itself was a cold reminder of my senseless efforts to make my father proud of me; I'd challenged the Gyms of the Indigo League to prove my worth to him, but it turned out to be a waste of time once Clint became the nutty professor's prodigal prize, leaving me in a lonely corner.

"This is it.", I knew right off the back, prying the badge case into my caressing hands, letting the memories of my feckless innocence seep through my fingers. "This represents everything I once was... and I'll give it to Maria."

…...

The mining yards spanned across a rocky incline of abandoned shovels and chisels. Since most of it had been left untouched by Culm and his mining crews, Cayman knew he had a lot of ground to cover, but didn't once stop for a rest. For countless hours, he and his Pokémon shoveled their way up the mount in their quest for treasure.

Viper languished behind, much to Cayman's amusement; even with all his brawn and bravado, he struggled to hack through solid rock. It was really no surprise. He'd been trained for military combat, not prospecting. And he was already resentful enough towards the whole situation.

Cayman, however, considered the task no obstacle. Unlike Viper, he was attune to the gravel beneath his feet, and it made it easier for him to detect loose objects buried deep in the ground. He kept his Cho'moken instincts on alert for signs of gold or silver or any other lustrous paragons. He intended to keep at least half of his findings for his troubles.

By late noon, the air was hot and thermal, threatening to consume the wasteland in a holy blaze, should it dare bare life of any kind. Wiping the back of his saturated neck with his discarded T shirt, Cayman rested a stiff, corded forearm along the handle of the shovel, rubbing a sore, chafed hand over his forehead. He looked back over his shoulder to find that Viper had given up entirely. He chuckled haughtily, "Too much for you, huh?"

Viper merely shot him a dirty look as he tried to catch his breath amidst the battering heatwave. His shovel lay abandoned beneath a booted foot.

Glancing up into the sunlight, Cayman squinted; impossibly long, dark lashes brushing the resulting salty tears across hot, reddening cheekbones. He blinked to clear his vision as he looked down once more into the exposed soil at his feet. "I'll show Culm...", He growled to himself, absorbing the earth's energies as he squeezed the hilt of his shovel.

At last, Lunatone and Solrock gathered their wits and countermanded their Psychic powers, letting both levitating pick axes clatter to the barren soil. Solrock, the more masculine of the extraterrestrial Pokémon, spoke firsthand. "With all due respect, Kami, this mining exploit will bring us no closer to Miss Anna Lafleur and her investigation."

Cayman paused for a moment, then sputtered, "Shut your telepathic trap and keep digging!" Another deep breath lifted his broad chest as he relished the brief respite, before reluctantly grasping the handle of the shovel and driving the blade into the hard earth with shoulder jarring force. "You all heard the foreman! We're not out of this mess until we strike treasure!"

Viper rolled his eyes at the comment. "We wouldn't have gotten into this mess in the first place if you had just stayed in your place.", He gnarled, loud enough for Cayman to hear. "I'm beginning to suspect Difo was right about your incompetence."

In a fit of rage, Cayman threw his shovel to the dirt and whirled on his heel, "Man, what is your deal? All you do is criticize me at every turn! I have everything under control!"

Viper maintained his stern composure and arched a brow. "Do you? Really?"

"I'll prove it to you.", Cayman said as he forced a witty smile. "I'll prove that I'm more than just a son to Metsuma. I'm his secret weapon." His anger replenished to a plotting smirk. "We'll be in Veilstone City in no time at all. "

"And you thought you'd shovel your way there, right?", Viper jeered, mockingly. "I bow before the master!"

Lunatone and Solrock broke into stoic laughter, the first imitation of emotion they'd ever truly made an effort at; even Flygon was chuckling quietly in its gentle dragon purr.

Cayman's hands balled into fists, but he kept his rage focused on Viper. "You're starting to piss me-"

Having overheard the whole scuffle, Culm emerged from behind a boulder, taking the pair by surprise. "Trouble in paradise, fellas?", He chortled deep in his throat, then gestured a taut hand to Cayman's discarded shovel. "No shame in quitin' now and fessin' up to what you can't undertake."

"Are you kidding me?" Cayman fleetly recovered his shovel and continued digging. "This mining shtick is easy as cake! I don't see what and your buddies are so worked up about." He looked up from his burrow and offered Culm a shrewd smile. "Hell, it's kind of fun! Who'd pass up the opportunity to muster up some treasure?"

Taking after their master, Lunatone and Solrock hoisted their pick axes back into thin air and began to chip away at the earth again, hoping to amends for their indiscretion.

Joining in on the team effort, Flygon dropped to all fours and clawed restlessly into the arid ground.

Culm nodded on to the laborious bunch, resting his cumbrous arms over his chest. "Well ain't that just dandy.", He belched back, matching Cayman's smile. "I'm sure the foreman will be kindly enough to split whatever riches ya'll manage to dig up."

Cayman was too distracted to heed Culm's patronage; to his shock, his shovel blade thudded against something at a steep depth. "Ha!", He yelped with a cocky grind in his throat. "I hit something!"

Viper rushed to Cayman's side. "Well don't just stand there! Scoop it out!"

Aching shoulders raised the shovel again, a heavy, dirt-caked workboot driving it down heavily into the firm ground with a breathy grunt; a brief hesitation before his sweat-slicked back arched into the strain of flinging the weighty load to join the growing mound of earth behind him. He swiveled around to see what he had dug up. "What is it?"

Solrock drew closer once Cayman picked up the roundish deposit, examining its weathered face. It looked much like a rock, but Solrock knew, as Cayman did, that it was something entirely different. "It appears to be the organic remains of some prehistoric specimen.", Ventured the sun-shaped Pokémon. "Is this what we were expected to find?"

Pushing past Culm and Viper, an ecstatic Spade made himself known, accompanied by his dearest wife. "At last, you struck treasure!" He raised his arms in esteem. "Fine job, boys!"

"This isn't a treasure.", Cayman muttered, squeezing the object's crunchy, mineral shell in the core of his palm. "This is just a stupid fossil!"

Spade nodded ecstatically, "And what better treasure is there than the relics of a prehistoric Pokémon!" He snatched the fossil from Cayman and examined its wondrous surface with a handy magnifying glass. "Yes, this will be a fine addition to the upcoming exhibit." He jerked his head back and turned over the fossil to his wife. "Get this to the vault at once."

"Of course, hon.", She complied lovingly.

But Cayman was still lost in the transit of his thoughts. He tilted his head in the expected ignorance, eyes drawn to Spade. "...Exhibit?"

Culm pulled Cayman and Viper aside before Spade could answer. "Ain't much fun no more, is it, boys?", He mumbled quietly to the both of them. "Ya'll didn't think we were hired to just prospect ore, now did ya? Fossils are the foreman's priority. He's in this business to help helm the new museum them PLC bigshots are building up north."

Viper blinked in repetition. For the first time since arriving in Oreburgh, he was actually taking an interest in the strike. "So... the unpaid labor, the rancid work conditions, the entire mining project – it's all for extinct Pokémon?"

At last, Cayman was putting facts together, opening his eyes to the big and ugly picture. "This is fucking bogus!", He snapped. "These PLC assholes make you work your day and night for a bunch of stinking Pokémon fossils? No wonder you guys are losing your steam!" He finally turned his fiery gaze on Spade. "This is unacceptable! Putting in your labor for Pokémon is the most degrading, disgusting thing imaginable! I'm not standing for it!"

"Violence is no way to go.", Spade attempted to smooth things over with his peacemaking charm – but to little avail. "We're better off just letting the matter resolve itself-"

Cayman couldn't help but openly laugh at Spade's petty suggestion. "How are you so fucking braindead!" He reached out and tore the fossil from Tierra's grasp. "Why are you so indebted to the Pokémon League that you have to work these poor people to death just to pocket a couple of pennies off these worthless pebbles!"

Culm and Viper applauded Cayman's gall with an outcry, drawing an even larger crowd from the cavern mines. Grime-covered prospectors and Pokémon alike crawled out of their caves to witness the action. The Breaker Boys movement was now coming full circle at the heart of Cayman's daring demands.

Soon enough, Spade and his wife were surrounded on all sides, collared by their own workers. They huddled against each other, terrified – and as Cayman began to crush the fossil in his bare hand, Spade gasped out, "No, be gentle with that! It's an antique! Our clients won't display it damaged!"

Cayman's cheeky expression suddenly darkened to shades of unseen wisdom – reminiscent to that of Metsuma. "Now I get it.", He breathed out, laughing to himself. "As Gym Leader, you follow your obligation to the PLC over your obligation to those who knuckle down under you with every fiber and bone in their tired bodies. And even as they strike, humble and willing to reason, you still won't hear their pleas." He stepped a foot closer to Spade, backing him into a boulder. "You're a fucking disgrace. A fucking Pokémon-loving disgrace!"

A roaring applause of a hundred angry men broke out in Cayman's favor, bringing the smile of his father to his face.

"That's... that's nonsense!", Spade objected, his voice muted beneath the uproar. "I love this job! I love these people! They're everything to me!"

"Yeah, Yeah, cut the bullshit.", Cayman waved him off dismissively. He straightened his posture, shrouding the slave-driving couple in the shadow of his tall, sturdy build. He then raised his right arm and gestured his shovel to the mob of miners. "These people deserve better. And if you're not man enough to stick up for them and put an end to this mess, then I am."

Another masculine wave of applause arose all around them, and Spade could shudder at the suddenness of it all.

"I challenge you for the title of foreman.", Cayman finally demanded. "Pokémon Battle. One on one. You and me."

Everyone went quiet, waiting for the foreman's answer.

Spade froze for a brief second, as if considering, then turned his head and sighed, "I don't need this."

While the miners shouted out their profane babble, Cayman merely taunted Spade, "What, are you afraid?" He shook his head in a show of disapproval. "Man, you're obviously in no position to play Gym Leader if you're gonna wuss out of a harmless little Pokémon Battle."

Again, Spade was put on the spot, caught in the endless outcry of the people he knew he had to win back somehow.

Cayman weaved his arms together, pending for a response. "Well, Spade, what's it gonna be?", He pried the foreman, showing off a biggety smirk. "You gonna face me like the tough guy you think you are, or are you gonna let the PLC's local bitch make you look like a punk in front of your hot wife?"

After a moment's silence, Tierra spun to her husband unexpectedly. "Well? Are you?"

Spade bit down on his bottom lip, considering. "I suppose I... accept your challenge." He swallowed a hard lump in his throat as he tried to regain his sense of authority. "But there's work to be done beforehand, so we'll settle this later at the Gym."

Cayman shook his head and cracked his knuckles. "We'll settle this where I say we'll settle this." He took another frightening step at the older man. "We're going to fight right here, right now. No excuses."

The bitter directness floored Spade. He snatched his wife's hand and backed away slowly. "Err... okay...", He whimpered, quietly disappearing into the crowd with his beloved. "I'll just... go fetch my Pokémon from the campsite."

The miners immediately pursued Spade into the caverns. They had to be on guard in case he tried to make a run for it.

Once the ruckus had simmered down, Culm approached Cayman with a change of heart. "Mighty bold talk, boy.", He commended, patting Cayman on the neck with his bulky hands, nearly sending the boy toppling to the dirt face-first. "You just might have what it takes to lead us Breaker Boys to a sure victory."

Cayman nodded with that hotshot smile of his. "Count on it, Culm."

Culm then chased after his group, leaving Cayman and Viper to prepare the battlefield.

"Kami, that was a truly inspiring display!", Lunatone congratulated its master in a spirited voice.

"Agreed.", Agreed Solrock, hovering close behind the human pair. "I was so riveted, I nearly forgot you were reprehending Pokémon throughout!"

Viper cleared his throat and nodded. "I must concur with your Pokémon, soldier.", He voiced his own approval, much to Cayman's genuine shock. "I... wasn't expecting any of that. You really know how to seize control of an unlikable situation, don't you?"

Cayman tossed his shovel aside and shrugged. "If there's one thing I picked up from Metsuma, it's divide and conquer. That's the only way to make an effective influence." His smile deepened to something sinister. "I'll squash Spade, take the title of foreman, and use the Breaker Boys to my advantage. There's going to be a hell of a lot of mischief coming, I can tell you that."

Viper sighed, "I take back what I said then about you being incompetent... for now." He then extended a hardened look to his colleague. "I just hope you can maintain the upper hand."

"Compared to Don Calypso or Odessa Fabula, this Spade guy is pretty much dead where he stands.", Cayman coolly retorted. "He's got nothing on me. Hell, even when I got in his face, I could just feel his Aura tremoring with terror." He stopped in his tracks and pivoted on his heel, facing Viper and the astral Pokémon. "I've got a handful of tricks up my sleeve, so just sit back and enjoy the show. Oh, and I wouldn't mind an encore either."

"Surely, Kami!", Solrock and Lunatone avouched simultaneously. "We will be rooting for you to the very end!"

Hearing this, Cayman rolled his eyes. "Heh. Nice try, lily livers, but you're battling too."

...

Every breath seemed to burn its way up my lungs as I burst into the boardroom. It wasn't so much that I flung the doors open and entered the room with determined fervor – no, I quite literally burst into the room, badge case in hand, greeted only by the silent stares of the company executives gathered round the table.

Daken was caught mid-sentence in his presentation as he leaned over the conference table, waiting for me to explain the intrusion.

I could only pause in the doorway and reach out to Maria with a mystifying gaze. She was dead still in her chair, unable to reciprocate. I knew I was making a scene, but it couldn't have mattered less. I needed witnesses anyhow, so that no one could ever say our love was a silly hoax – that truth best resided with me only.

At last, my deadpanned wife slowly rose from her seat, and I was sure her eyes could not have grown any wider that at that point. "Metsuma, what is it?"

"My purpose in life had always felt like... an unanswered question.", I fibbed, remembering Clint's advice, word for word. "Then I met you... and I realized I was the luckiest man on the planet." I lowered my head in shame. "I've been such a fool to forget just how lucky I am – to have you as my wife and best friend." I raised my eyebrow, "Maria, you're more precious to me than you'll ever realize. You're as beautiful as a Swanna drifting on a crystal lake in the bloom of spring."

For the moment, she looked genuinely crestfallen, but then that reassured smile spread itself across her lips as she began to choke back tears. This was a good sign.

The board members looked to each other warmly, obviously just as moved by my testament as Maria. Such brainless morons.

I moved closer to the end of the table, set down the badge case, then slid it to across the surface of the table to Maria. "You're even more special than the epitome of my... ancient innocence." Stepping deeper into Clint's shoes, I managed a heartfelt but quiet, "Maria, I want you to be the keeper of my soul."

Her ragged breathing began to even out as she slowly opened the case, fumbling with the lock in her anxiousness. Gazing upon the set of relic treasures, she tilted her chin to me, humbled. "Your childhood Gym Badges?", She managed faintly. Her heart seemed to be caught in her throat – another good sign. "I... I don't know what to-"

I swallowed, trying to clear my throat. I had to choose my words like some timeless romantic. "Every last badge is now yours for the keeping.", The words slipped out of my mouth like I had rehearsed them over and over. "Each one is a piece of who I am... and I want you to treasure them always." More importantly, I had no need for them, so why not?

Her face flushed to a smile I'd never seen on her before. She chuckled quietly to herself, seemingly touched by the gesture, as her gentle fingers grazed the row of badges. "Metsuma... you went to all this trouble-"

I nodded obediently, there really wasn't much else to reply with.

Her laughter died down quickly before she took in a deep breath and looked up at me again, her tearful eyes glittering with mirth. She set down the case and rose from her seat with both arms widespread and inviting. "Oh, just get over here and kiss me!"

I didn't need to be asked twice. I pulled myself across the room and into her arms. The tearful board members stood and applauded as we shared a passionate embrace, our lips meeting more fully than ever before. I hadn't felt her lips this eager since our honeymoon. And for once, I could relish in it – relish in the fact that I had saved this fake love from slipping through my fingers.

We were forced apart when Daken popped up beside us mid-kiss, a jubilant beam spreading across his wrinkled face. "Ha! Yes! That's my son in law! He came up with such a brilliant gesture, my son in law!" Turning to his underlings, he shooed them to the door, "Everyone, get out! All of you! Can't you see my son in law is trying to have a moment with my daughter!"

As Daken chased off the board members, Maria and I were left alone and deserted in the room, and I waited patiently for her to say something more. But to my wonderment, she said nothing and merely cradled the badge case in her hands as though it were some sacred trove; I'd have to let her have her delusions.

It wasn't much longer before she opened her mouth, "Metsuma, this is... the loveliest gift anyone has ever given me-" She paused abruptly, her gaze drawn suddenly to an empty chasm in the box, one I hadn't noticed earlier because I never actually opened the case to inspect the badges. "Oh?"

I tried to play dumb in the hopes that she'd overlook it. "Is something the matter?"

"Oh, well, it's nothing really-", She started, her finger hovering over the case's vacant slot. "It's just... there's only seven badges here." She arched her head just enough to meet my gaze. "What ever happened to your eighth?"

I shrugged, equally intrigued. "You know, I'm not so sure." I gave the case closer examination, pondering the absent badge's whereabouts. I certainly remembered winning eight badges total, so how could one have gone missing? I tried to recall abandoned memories to the front of my mind, but as much as I pondered back on my early Pokémon Training days, nothing came to mind. "How curious..."

Maria shrugged, unfazed. "Well, it doesn't matter. It's still lovely." She gave me a light peck on the cheek and then raced to the door, holding the case beneath the crook of her neck. "I'm going to go stow it somewhere safe right now!"

As soon as she was gone, I took in a relieved breath, then let it back out with a sigh. "One less pair of eyes for me to worry about.", I inwardly reasoned, smiling cleverly to myself. "I suppose I should thank Clint. He really saved my hind on this one."

My thoughts fell asunder as I detected another life force in the room. All of the sudden, I wasn't alone.

The chair across from me spun to reveal Kade Sorhagen, "My, that was a spectacular performance, Metsuma. You have such a stylish and eloquent way with words! And that bundle of badges could surely make any woman swoon!" He rose to his feet with an effeminate exhale, "Pity none of that will matter once Maria learns you and Rita have been going at it hot and heavy behind her back."

I arched a brow to my corporate nemesis. "How did you..."

This time, he gagged on his own hideous laughter, "Oh, you're simply too much! Rita tells me everything! There's no secrets between us!"

I straightened my shoulders and put on an impassive face. "Unessential.", I blatantly quipped back. "I'd like to know your ulterior motive for spilling the beans on this private matter."

He didn't falter to answer the question, and he seemed to take conceited pride in every word that bounced off his tongue. "You'll be ousted from the Briskomy family... and Daken will name me his successor.", He explained, grinning as manically as a Gengar. "You may have won the battle, sweetheart, but you've lost the war. If you want to keep me quiet, you'll just have to... oh, I don't know... promote me to your position?"

He played a villainous bargain, but I was hardly swayed by such ridiculous demands. "What makes you think I have that authority?"

He bit his lip as he watched me. His errant smirk was full blown now. "You're Daken's star dependent. I'm sure you can pull some strings. You said yourself you manage the board of directors, correct? Well play your cards right and I won't mutter a word about your... extramarital activities."

"You're blackmailing me.", I educed with a blank but inflexible expression.

Swatting off the accusation with a flippant hand, he giggled, "It's just business, baby."

"Ah, well, I will not be blackmailed by some ineffectual, privileged, effete, flamboyant débutante like yourself.", I warned through my teeth. "You want to start a street fight with me, bring it on. But you're going to be surprised by how ugly it gets. You have no clue what I'm capable of. I'm the fucking shadow king, the nightmare all nightmares fear."

He stiffened, totally overwhelmed by what I'd just bombarded him with. "I-Is that so?", He mumbled feebly as he tried to recuperate. "Alright... perhaps you have a better idea in mind?"

"Here's an idea, you sniveling little creep.", I growled, curling my fingers – I could hardly show any restraint. "How about we just let Rita decide? You wouldn't reveal something so disreputable without the approval of your best friend, now would you?" I raised a brow at him – I had hit him where it hurt. "She has just as much say in this verdict as either of us."

I could feel him resist a shudder, but he refused to let his guard down, retorting almost immediately, "Capital idea!" He raised both of his hands to the door, bidding silently, "May the better man win."

I shrugged, totally indifferent. "There is no better man, there is only the best instincts."

…...

"Hate to break it to you, but this terrain isn't quite fit for battle.", Viper observed the landscape, jagged rock formations jutting across the gradient. The sound of an enthusiastic audience quickly reeled his focus. He turned his head to Cayman as the coal miners flocked to the scene to witness the epic battle. "Your fan club has arrived."

Cayman lifted his head, gazing past the spectators. Spade and his wife stood several yards away, just as repulsed by the battlegrounds as Viper. It didn't concern him though. He had a way of twisting a situation to better suit his needs, just like Metsuma – and that didn't just pertain to figurative circumstances.

Widening his stance, Cayman closed his eyes and felt the earth pulse through his feet, through his Aura. The ground beneath his soles cracked, and within seconds, the obstructions of rock and boulder eroded to powdery dust, leaving a clean, flattened battlefield between Spade and himself.

The crowd went silent and looked on in awe, unable to fathom what they'd just witnessed.

When Cayman didn't care to respond, Spade opened his quivering mouth, "How did you-"

"Don't stall, Spade.", Cayman bit back with a dismissive arm gesture. "Show your Pokémon or hand over the tier willingly!"

Spade swallowed his tongue and moved into a battle stance. An Apricorn Pokéball rolled down his suit sleeve and into his ready palm.

As Cayman prepared his own Pokémon, Viper quietly stepped back into the audience, standing patiently amongst Culm and his gang.

A tense silence descended between the competitors. And as soon as Cayman and Spade locked eyes, Tierra took to the sidelines to ref the battle. "This is a match for the title of foreman!", She declared aloud, arms flagged upright. "Both combatants will use three Pokémon each! No time limit! Let the battle commence!"

"Lunatone, show em' who's boss!", Cayman ordered, his twirling Pokéball already airborne.

The capsule opened as a flash of blinding light gushed unto the battlefield, Lunatone emerging from its mystique. "As you command, Kami!"

A macho applause boomed from the miners as Lunatone made to charge the opposing side.

Spade, unsettled by Cayman's rapturous applause, quickly pitched his own Pokéball into combat, "Rhyhorn, use Stone Edge!"

The craggy Pokémon lifted its front legs, then slammed them down with a mighty impact, enough alone to sweep Lunatone off the map in a cloud of thick pelting rocks.

"Deflect it, Lunatone!", Cayman reacted. "Shove it back in his ugly face!"

"Executing Reflect screen, Kami!" Though under heavy fire, Lunatone quickly conjured its mystic barrier to counter the bombardment, sending each rock whisking back at double the speed and force.

"Agh!", Croaked Spade, dumbfounded. "It's Psychic!"

The return fire quickly caught Rhyhorn unguarded, backing the oversized beast to the edge of the battlefield as it tried to fence away from the counter-assault.

Cayman smiled victoriously. He knew just how to guarantee himself the upper hand, "Now, use Rock Slide!"

The barrier finally flickered away as Lunatone lifted its counteroffensive, moving in to execute a different attack.

Still dazed, Rhyhorn failed to react in time to notice a rich slab of earth dawning from the center of the battlefield and belting towards it, picking up unrivaled speed.

Spade ducked for cover as the enormous rock composite railroaded Rhyhorn full-force and hammered the Pokémon square into a bouldered wall!

The mining mob could only awe at the powerful spectacle, while Cayman and Lunatone stood waiting for their next challenger.

Spade shook his head with an unchecked exhale; he hadn't expected a loss so early in the match, but he couldn't give up his authority just yet. He returned his fallen beast to its Pokéball and looked across the terrain to Cayman, unable to contain his utter disarray. He just had to ask, "H-How can you possess so much power!"

Cayman shrugged off the question and reached for another Pokéball, "For my next trick, how about a little air superiority!"

Lunatone fleetly but respectfully cleared out from the battlefield to make way for Flygon. The desert dragon looked to be the image of health for any aerial Pokémon, buzzing and fluttering about with faultless spirit. More importantly, it wasn't often that Cayman called on it to battle. It was time to make its mark and set the bar for Lunatone, Solrock, and even Onix.

Tierra cringed at the very sight of the newcomer, then whipped her head to her husband, "Don't let him get to ya, hon!" She smiled assuredly, fluttering her lashes. "Your Gliscor is twice as strong as that bug-eyed creep!"

Spade perked up at the very mention of his prized disciple. "Yes, that's right!", He chirped, beaming back at Cayman. "Your Flygon isn't the only Pokémon with the power flight at its conveyance!" Another Apricorn rolled down his scrawny wrist and he hurled it at his opponent, "Gliscor, make me proud!"

Another flash of light cast over the crowd. Gliscor screeched like a bloody vampire as it was pitted face to face with the enemy, taunting Flygon with its large pincers.

The two Pokémon froze in each other's sights, but Cayman was too distracted to acknowledge their fated rivalry. He simply couldn't take his eyes away from the skeletal corpus of the spawned deformity, nor its scorpion-like tail or the scaly set of wings that hung around its fettle trim like a hideous cape. Even with all the Pokémon he'd left butchered and battered, he never once encountered a Pokémon this malformed.

As fate would have had it, Flygon and Gliscor attacked at the exact same moment. Cayman backed up a few paces as the two Pokémon blitzed into the sky, leaving a heavy dust cloud in their place. Amongst the clouds, the winged monsters twirled and tumbled, as if battling for control of the heavens themselves. Not even a thunderstorm could tear them from each other, the conflict was just too personal.

It didn't take long for Cayman to predict a stalemate between the two; neither seemed to be attaining the upper hand on their own and he knew to intervene. "Flygon!", He cried out to the clouds. "Use Sandstorm!"

The sky quickly darkened to a gust of sand, and those gathered below could barely spot a thing overhead.

Through the Aura, however, Cayman could gauge their movements. From what he could detect, the sandstorm had successfully suspended Gliscor to a midair halt, for the Pokémon could not navigate through such blistering conditions.

Flygon, however, was well on the move, riding the gusts inconspicuously in wait for the moment to jump out and take Gliscor by surprise.

Cayman was already one step ahead of his companion, "Now use Dragon Tail!"

The sandstorm subsided as Flygon lurched from its camouflage to strike Gliscor from behind! It whirled once close enough, then whipped its glowing tail at the toothy foe!

Alas, the caped devil had suspected as much and pivoted it time to snatch Flygon's tail in its pinching claws!

Below, Cayman hollered to the top of his lungs, "Mud Slap!"

Before Gliscor could drag its helpless prey deeper into the clouds, Flygon curled its claws and slammed Gliscor smack dab in the face with a fistful of mud, sending the winged arachnid plummeting to the battlefield below!

Gliscor hit the ground with thunderous force, eliciting a mutual gasp between Spade and his horror-stricken wife.

Pleased with these results, Cayman tilted his head back to the sky, "Now finish with Hyper Beam!"

Jaws dropped everywhere as a deafening blast of blinding energy lasered down from the clouds, roasting Gliscor where it lay, reducing the archfiend to little more than a fried crisp.

Seeing all that was left of his desecrated Pokémon brought humble Spade to his knees. "Impossible!" He bent his head in shame, then recalled his brittled comrade back to its Pokéball. "Gliscor, I've failed you..."

In the crowd, Culm and his gang voiced their thoughts amongst themselves, with Old Man Sifter obnoxiously spouting , "Gosh darn, he wiped the floor with that Gliscor!"

Culm nodded. "Well I'll be a Mankey's uncle!", He chuckled, visibly impressed with how neatly Cayman handled his Pokémon. "Ain't he something after all..."

To Culm's right, Clay was just as ecstatic – or perhaps more. "You said it, Culm!" He then turned to Viper with a wink, "That buddy O' yours is one tough feller!"

Looking back to the battlefield, Viper rubbed his chin in thought, "I'm starting to think the same, much to my own surprise." His mouth thinned to a balked frown. "All he needs is one more win."

Meanwhile, Cayman returned Flygon to its Pokéball, but savored in his own tough talk. "Man, I expected better from a Gym Leader!", He chuckled deep in his throat, loud enough for Spade to take notice. "All this winning is really wearing me down!"

The youth's vain words earned enough laughter from the miners to make Spade an uneasy, yet he refused to back down, "I haven't abandoned hope just yet."

Holding out hope for her lover, Tierra tossed a Pokéball his way. "Hon, use mine!"

Spade clumsily caught the gift in his hands, then looked down at it. He stiffened where he stood. "A-Are you sure, Tierra?"

A knowing grin took hold of her lips. "Cayman's a Rock-Type Trainer just like you, isn't he?"

He arched his head enough to meet her confident gaze. "Point well taken." Turning on his heel, he held his last resort weapon to his challenger. "I apologize for this, Cayman.", He sighed, letting the Apricorn slip from his lanky grasp. "You brought this on yourself!"

Cayman barely flinched when a Corsola spawned before his very eyes. He smiled wittily and shook his head, "Thought you could back me into a corner with a Water-Type, eh?"

"Ah, but Corsola is just as much a Rock-Type as it is a Water-Type!", Lectured Spade. "I haven't violated any rules."

Cayman merely shrugged his shoulders and unclipped another Pokéball from his waist. "You haven't given yourself an advantage either.", He sneered, hurling the capsule into the air. "Onix, I choose you!"

The summoned serpent towered over the puny Corsola mighty peak, yet even size would do Cayman no feasible good in a match with a Water-Type.

The crowd went hush, but only Viper was bold enough to voice his concern. "Cayman, you defeated his first two Pokémon with ease, but that's no reason to get cocky!", He whispered from his place amongst the spectators. "Even the slightest spout of water could decimate your Onix!"

Cayman took a deep, concentrated breath... then brushed off the disruption. "Back off, Viper.", He muttered, not even bothering to rotate his head. "I told you once and I'll tell you again: I know what I'm doing." He then looked up at his titan of a Pokémon, narrowing his eyes. "Onix... give yourself a nice metal polish. You'll need it to claim this match."

Spade wasn't in the least bit fazed when Onix took on a harmless, silver glow. "It's useless, Cayman.", He drawled wistfully. "Not even a simple defense-booster like Rock Polish can withstand a full-on Hydro Pump attack. Just watch!"

Heeding its cue, Corsola fired a ample blast of H2O across the battlefield, hitting the rock snake where it hurt!

"Steady, Onix.", Cayman hummed, perfectly still. "Don't lose your focus. Show me your stamina!"

Onix shuddered violently against the pressure of the water, but did not yield. It was a truly impossible sight.

"Son, make your move already!", Culm shouted from the crowd.

Cayman never took his eyes off Onix. "Steady..."

"Don't be a hero, youngster!", Sifter chimed in.

But Cayman's focus was simply unbreakable. "Steady..."

"Ah, this ain't no way to go out!", Clay's groggy voice yammered out next. "Nudge me when it's all over!"

At last, Cayman exhaled, just as Onix's sinewy body suddenly shimmered in a cocoon of heavenly light.

The audience gasped together as the glowing Pokémon took on a bulkier, more imposing shape, and Viper was the first put to the pieces together. "Onix's impossible endurance must have triggered a reaction from the metallic properties in its polish." His frown dissolved to a faithful smile. "Hmph. That Onix is properly trained."

A coat of a impenetrable steel now coated the colossus Pokémon, and Cayman was ready to show it all off. "Your Water Type attacks can't save you now, Spade!"

Spade was as still as a statue, his jaw hanging open. It wasn't till his wife jolted him back to his senses did he attempt to reengage Cayman. "T-Then I'll just have to stick to what I know!", He blurted out in a fit of panic. "Corsola, use Rock Throw!"

Corsola bucked forward, launching a foray of jagged boulders at the metallic monster!

"Use Rock Climb!", Cayman counted in the nick of time.

Much to Spade's speechlessness, Steelix surfed above the barrage with ease, then dived towards Corsola!

"Wha-", Spade barely murmured.

"End this now!", Hollered Cayman! "Bulldoze that shit!"

Steelix roared angrily and rammed into Corsola with its iron head, launching the coral Pokémon fleet across the battlefield!

The match was finished.

The mining crews suddenly erupted into triumphant cheers, mobbing Cayman and carrying him across the stadium!

Spade, meanwhile, crumpled beside his defeated Corsola, too humiliated to speak; Tierra lingered close behind him, no more humble than he.

Once Cayman finished celebrating with his newly acquired followers, he approached Spade in a slow but swaggering stride. "You're out of a job, Spade.", He gnarled in a chilling tone, kicking Corsola aside so he could kneel down and better look him in the eye. "Say goodbye to your faculty."

…...

Hours later, back in the mining caverns, Spade climbed out of his tent empty-handed to meet the rally of miners stomping about the campsite, demanding his immediate removal. He knew they expected him to keep to the bargain... but in quiet, he had no intention of abandoning his work. He had a duty to the Pokémon League, to devote his time and effort to the study and exposition of extinct Pokémon.

The strike soon doubled in size. Tierra promptly rushed to her husband's side as the laborers and their Pokémon grew violent, tipping carts full of coal and hurling crates into the walls.

Cayman emerged from the angry platoon to engage Spade personally, snarling, "You're welcome to join the Breaker Boys as soon as you ditch your precious fossils and grab a shovel.", He offered, flaunting an arrogant smirk – a smirk that symbolized the seizure of power. "I'm not usually a merciful kind of guy, but someone once told me second chances are important. Can't remember who... but the words just stuck with me."

Alas, Spade was resolved to reason with his usurper. "Cayman, this isn't ethical!", He pleaded, his feet planted firmly to the gravel, unmoving. He clearly wasn't going anywhere, but his tone seemed more undecided than his body language. "Look, I understand your desire to help these people-"

Cayman shook his head vigorously. "We had a deal! I'm foreman now!" With Viper and Culm flanking his sides, he took a threatening step at the immovable pair and whispered through a set of gritted teeth, "If you don't give up your authority, I'll take it from you by force." With those words spoken, he could hear a macho cheer applauding him from behind.

Sucking in an unshaken breath, Spade straightened his awkward posture and squared his shoulders. He lifted his chin and looked directly into Cayman's infuriated eyes, his expression stalwart. "I just can't allow it." His refusal was low and even, then he continued, "You were never permitted to be here to begin with, so consider us even." He looked beyond Cayman to regard the other miners, "Everyone, return to your work."

As Spade turned to retreat into his tent, Cayman sighed in a seemingly submissive tone of voice, "Ah, I see." Then, in one split-second, he beckoned his Aura Blade and shanked Spade from behind, piercing the foreman's chest in one swift but deadly motion, blood spilling everywhere. "Now we're even."

Everyone blanched in horror as Spade's gutted body quaked violently against Cayman's blade, his life-force spilling out from every possible orifice, leaving nothing but a flaccid husk behind. His limbs hollowed, his skin darkened. Leftover blood and body fluids quickly dissolved beneath the dirt.

At last, the empty shell of the departed honcho shriveled to the ground, and Tierra raced in to catch the deflated body, "No, my baby!" The widow dropped to her weakened knees and sobbed incessantly into the remains of her husband, little to Cayman's interest. "S-Spade! No! No! W-Why!"

The coal miners and Pokémon assembled behind Cayman were absolutely speechless, too afraid to even blink in the presence of... the supernatural.

Sensing the disarray of his people through the Aura, Cayman absorbed the murderous weapon back into his energy stream and slowly turned on his heel to confront the tongue-tied faces. "Maybe... it's time I come clean with you all.", He heckled, scratching the back of his neck as if nothing was wrong. "I'm not who you think I am."

Viper's eyes ampled considerably, fearful of Cayman's next move.

But the antihero took his chances regardless... and rubbed the inky dye from his hair, revealing its true color. "My name is Landon Kace."

Culm tilted his head slightly, "I... I reckon I've heard that name someplace before..."

Confused muttering broke out amongst the miners, but it was Clay who puzzled the rest together, crying out, "Great tarnation, he's that Soul Robber feller they been talkin' bout on the radio!" He backed away in panic, nearly tripping over a rock. "Just look at them magic swords he was usin'!"

Hearing this, Old Man Sifter quickly ducked for cover, "Watch out, he's gonna slice us up like all the other poor souls!"

Naturally, the other miners dropped to the floor like a flock of dead Pidgey, cowering before the might of the green-headed boy.

Cayman's eyes bulged in disbelief and a vein in his forehead began to twitch. "Shut up and listen, you lugs!", He belched out, serving only to startle them further. "None of you had the balls to do what I just did! Yeah, you were so tired of putting up with Spade's crap... but you were more afraid of taking your revolution too far, doing something inhuman. Tell me otherwise!"

They lifted their hands from their heads and looked up slowly, listening attentively.

"Well guess what?", Cayman growled in an ominous tone that sent chills down every spine present. "I'm not afraid of nothing! I erase those who impose themselves on others! I take out saps like Spade, who suck up to piss-poor moralities they're deluded into following! The Pokémon League is full of those saps... and I'm sick of their bullshit!" His expression gradually untwisted, calming. "I'm not the only one though. There are others willing to rise up to the cause. But are any of you ready to step up and challenge the status quo?"

Culm crossed his arms over his chest, speaking on behalf of the others, "We ain't murderers like you, son."

"I do what I have to, Culm.", Cayman sneered, pulling closer to the brute and looking him dead in the eye. "Everyone's too brainwashed to listen to an outspoken protester; they brush aside the rants of an everyman as weak and juvenile." The smile of his father crept to his face again, vile but somehow tempting. "But no one ignores murder. It isn't until they see a lifeless, mutilated Pokémon corpse do they begin to take an interest... and ask questions."

Culm was as silent as his fellow strikers. He stepped back a few paces, draping a sturdy arm over his boy, Byron.

"I stood up to the Pokémon League when no one else would.", Cayman continued. "Now I'm labeled a subversive criminal..."

Heads lowered in thought, even Culm's.

Prepared for such, Cayman pressed, "I killed Odessa Fabula because she imprisoned and starved my people to protect the worthless Pokémon of Tatto. Now I'm labeled a scum-bag murderer..."

No one spoke out. The words of the young rebel were genuine and sympathized. Murderer or not, he was no different then them – a castaway, misunderstood by the elitists of a fake and ugly society that glorified Pokémon over fellow humans.

Cayman's expression darkened. "I'm not evil.", He muttered gruffly. "Evil is just a label we slap on those who don't agree with us. We live in a world full of labels, because everyone loves labels. I fucking hate labels." He narrowed his eyes as they swept over his many listeners. "Now I'm hunted by the PLC. They're doing everything in their power to silence me. And that's why I need to get to Veilstone: to find out what they know. And... I need your help."

Culm blinked at Cayman for a few short seconds, then sighed, "It ain't right... but it ain't wrong neither."

"Then join me and we'll crush the Pokémon League.", Growled Cayman, his hand hoisted high, balling into a fist. "The Nightfall Collective can offer you everything you've ever dreamed of! For you and your son." Pulling his cards to the extreme, he arched a brow. "Do you really want to spend the rest of your life working in these filthy coal mines, digging for Pokémon fossils until the day you finally suffocate and drop dead?"

Culm shook his head and stepped forward again. "Hell, count me in.", He snorted, ruffling Byron's greasy mop of hair. "I ain't raisin' my son in a society that don't work right. Them higher ups in the PLC ought to learn a hard lesson in respect!"

As expected, Clay happily jumped to Culm's side, "If Culm's in, I'm in too!"

Old Man Sifter shrugged, then hobbled front and center. "I ain't dead yet, so why not!" He raised his cane in triumphant glory. "Let's stick it to them PLC bastards! We'll take em' to the cleaners!"

Within moments, every miner present was cheering and applauding, shovels and pickaxes raised for the cause!

Still drenched in tears, Tierra shot to her feet angrily, sobbing, "This is disgusting! I'm reporting you all to the police!"

Cayman turned to the source of the outburst, then motioned a hand to his family of coal miners, "First order of business, haul her whiny ass out of here!"

As ordered, a gaggle of prospectors and their Machop quickly swarmed the wailing widow, tying up her wrists and then towing her off the premises in a coal cart.

The other miners, meanwhile, humbled around Cayman in wait for his bidding.

He looked over them all excitedly and declared in a tremendous voice, "Tonight, we take Oreburgh by storm and leave nothing intact!" His words were met another macho ovation. He peeled his gaze away from the cheering gasbags, singling out their most respected unit, "Culm, if we're going to pull off a successful escape afterward, we've gotta jam the coastguard's communications."

"Hmm..." Culm raised his chiseled chin. "There's a power station that ain't far from here, deep in the mine shaft. It generates electricity for half of Sinnoh."

Cayman's lips twisted into a devilish smile. "That'll do."

"Ain't that sabotage?", Culm chuckled. "I like how you think, son."

Cayman returned the snicker, then motioned to the others, "Ready a team to take out that generator. I'll handle the surface offensive. It'll be dark soon, so we'll catch them off balance."

Culm nodded and ushered the other miners out of the campsite, leaving Cayman and Viper alone with nothing but the imploded, inanimate remnants of the late foreman.

Viper looked left and right to ensure no one else was around, then reeled to Cayman, "What of Anna Lafleur? Do you intend to use the Breaker Boys as a diversion to get to her?"

"More like bait.", Cayman teased.

Viper paled. "I don't follow."

The taller boy just laughed vainly, "You will soon, alright?" He tapped his own forehead twice, chuckling, "You may think there's nothing going on up here... but I've actually got it all worked out! I told you I'd have everything under control."

Viper paused, unable to doubt the son of Metsuma yet again. "I was wrong." He drew back as he mulled over Cayman's secretive plan – it demonstrated so much more brilliance than the usual scheming. "You really do take after your father. Ever since the coronation, you've been much more... meticulous."

The compliment was met with even more laughter. "Yeah? Well who knows?" Cayman shrugged, joking, "Maybe one day I'll overthrow my old man and take away his power too!"

As Cayman strode away laughing, Viper lingered behind, frozen by the other boy's joking words – or perhaps they were more? Had the supposed memory wipe fumbled after all? Or was Cayman simply a true-born conqueror...

...

Like some sort of well-heeled snob, I pulled up to the Ketchum mansion in a brand new, top of the line red corvette convertible, ready to play my best hand in schmoozing Rita over. I'd nabbed the car from one of Calypso's lots, no charge; for once, it payed off to have 'friends' in the Mafia. And all it took was to step into Rita's shoes and divine what she'd fancy most out of me. Clint's advice applied almost everywhere, as it turned out.

I twisted the rearview mirror to slick my hair back, honked the horn on the wheel, then climbed out of the convertible just as Rita came trotting out to greet me. Behind her, Zerelda Miyamoto stood watching, blocking little Giovanni in the doorway of the house. There was no sign of Clint, however, but this was to be expected – he was likely still out of town.

Rita pursed her painted lips, hands firm on her waist. She didn't know what to make of my unexpected arrival, but didn't seemed to question it either. She just stood there, too superficial to welcome me with a simple 'hello'.

Before I could sputter a word, another car pulled up to the gates of the estate, detracting Rita's focus. With a bitter snort, I spun to find Kade scrambling from his limousine, shouting Rita's name. Seeing this, I drew a breath, smiling to myself. I had a hunch he'd show up and try to foil my scheme. Now the fun could begin.

As Kade approached in an elegant but speedy stride, panting and heaving like he'd just braved a hailstorm, Rita's eyes flicked to him, and over him; taking in the details. She drew back, as if disgusted. "Kade, why in the world are you sweating so much?", She asked him, and I could just sit back with a grin and watch it all unfold. "You look awful!"

Kade dithered to a halt inches in front of Rita and buckled forward to catch his breath, raising an accusing finger towards me as he huffed, "He's... he's trying to... keep you silent about your... eh... you know... hanky-panky!"

His colorful vocabulary had my eyes rolling to the back of my head, and I sighed, "You certainly have a way with words, Sorhagen."

"Oh, you crafty brute!" His voice shook: coarse, rough around the edges and dreadfully shrill. He straightened his posture and held my gaze, though it was hard to take him serious without his usual pair of sunglasses to shadow the emotion in his eyes. "Don't pretend I don't know what we both know what you want her to know!" His head cocked to Rita, "Don't fall for his tricks! He's a madman!"

"I take that as a compliment.", I bit back, comfortable but still eying him carefully.

Kade's lips twisted into a wry, yet forced, smile. He took a daring step at me, his voice somewhat insecure, "Well you won't feel very complimented after your lovely bride divorces you and takes half your baggage – pride and dignity included!" He'd now lost control of his temper, and so his voice, and I could tell just how much he was struggling to reclaim his composure.

I acted natural, pretending to be the more complacent between us, "I sense a lot of tension here, Kade." I drew close enough to rest a hand on his shoulder, setting him totally off guard. "Maybe you need some time off.", I offered warmly. "I can arrange for it, if you'd like."

"Fabulous!", He clipped back, prying my hand away. "I'll use that time to clear out your office!"

I looked to the dumbstruck Rita and shrugged my shoulders innocently. "I've done no wrong. He's clearly delusional, Rita. We both now our relationship... is mutually appreciated, right?"

This time, she shrugged. "It's not like we've had sex."

Kade promptly stepped between us, as if cued to do so. He growled effeminately as he took Rita by the shoulders, gentle but disposed. "Maybe not! But what about all those outrageous travel expenses you quietly financed on his behalf!" He let go of her and whirled to face me again, "I know about your undercover voyage to Tatto. Don't think I'm an idiot, dear sir!"

I motioned a suggestive glance towards Rita. Tatto? She was in on it too.", I whispered happily, my voice sliding under his skin.

As expected, he stiffened visibly, probably shattered that there was at least one secret of Rita's he wasn't in on... and I was. "Trifles!", He cursed beneath his breath, then urgently turned to Rita once more, his eyes pleading with everything they had. "My dear, with your permission, I'd like to open up to the Briskomy family about your affair with Metsuma."

She switched glances between myself and Kade, then murmured, "...Why?"

"Because Daken will kick him to the curb and I'll be able to move up in the company!", He explained, batting his lashes. "Wouldn't you want the best for me, my dear? Hmm? We've always looked out for each other, haven't' we? I've always been there for you, whereas Metsuma only pops up when it's convenient for him!"

As my gaze met Rita's, my lips curved up into a fresh but more understated smile. "Exposing a matter as delicate and private as what we share would indeed be... inconvenient for me, Rita." There was an effort on my part to sound as heartrending as possible – because women melted for sensitive men, for whatever reason. "Please, Rita, you don't want to do this-"

Kade cut me down the first chance handed to him. "Too bad! Friends come first!" Twirling around in an about face, he treated Rita to a tender smile, continuing, "And being the considerate friend that I am, I just knew to come to you first about this. So what do you say, my dear?"

She blinked uncertainly for a moment, finger pressed beneath her chin. "Oh, I suppose-"

It was time to put my best foot forward. "Rita, what's a gorgeous woman like you doing home on a beautiful day like this?", I cut her off before she could give the word Kade wanted to hear. "You should be out on the town, enjoying yourself!"

Her already narrowed gaze sharpened further, but after a strained, elongated moment, she sighed, "Out of the question." She hung her head embarrassedly, "I... trashed Clint's car." Outwardly, she rolled her eyes, but her stance weakened as she tried to convince me. "It wasn't my fault! A stupid Rhyhorn stopped frozen in the middle of the street!"

Intrigued, Kade raised a brow to her. "...and then you swerved?"

She gave him a blank look and burbled, "When did I ever say anything about swerving?" Her inadvertent implication amused me, but she was quick to cover her tracks and get back on topic, "Look, the point is, I'm simply far too modest to repair the damn thing!" In other words, too cheap. Who was she fooling?

My crafty smile made its eventual entrance, my brow furrowed to Rita. "Is that so?" I rifled through my left pocket, then pulled out the keys to the convertible. "I guess it's a good thing you have me around then." I handed her the keys, which she took after much hesitance. "Besides, I thought you might like something big and flashy to show off."

She dangled the keys between her eyes, seemingly unimpressed. "You bought me jingle keys?", She asked dumbly, though I should have seen this ahead of time.

"What? Uh, no." I forced back the urge to slap her across the face and stepped aside to give her a better look at the corvette in all its shiny glory. "I bought you the convertible."

"Ooh! Even better!" She frolicked giddily towards the vehicle, giggling along the way, but froze in her tracks when she heard Kade clear his throat in a grating manner. It was then did she slowly turn on her heel, eyes sad in my direction – she was a pathetic slave to her obligations. "No, I'm sorry, Metsuma, but I could never trade up my closest friends for some silly car."

I wasn't concerned; I knew how to reel her back in. "I'll cover the insurance costs."

Her eyebrows jerked up, thoroughly startled, but quickly surrendered to a smile. "Does the car come in blue?"

I nodded, and she lurched inside the convertible, squealing in delight.

Kade, meanwhile, blew out a frustrated breath, pinching the bridge of his nose with his fingers; and I could spot Miyamoto mirroring his gesture in the distance. Neither of them seemed particularly surprised by Rita's choice, which made me wonder how good of friends they were that they had stick by a woman with the intellect of a Slowpoke. Well... at least it worked out for me.

Suddenly, there was a bang and a sickening crunch of metal. I whipped my head to the source of the noise to find that Rita had steered slam bang into Kade's limousine, butchering its fender and front tires. The convertible, however, was miraculously unscathed, and Rita pulled out of the wreckage in a clueless daze.

Miyamoto sprinted to the scene to see the damage. "Oh... my... goodness."

Beside me, Kade crumpled to his knees, mouth agape. "M-My limo!", He shrieked. "Rita, what have you done!"

Behind the wheel, Rita rolled her eyes. "Oh, don't be such a drama queen, Kade.", She bellowed back at him. "I'm sure we can buff out those scratches!" She pulled the vehicle into an empty spot and snapped her fingers, beckoning her Pokémon servants from the manor. "Slaves! Some assistance, please!"

Following Rita's hand gestures, a pair of Machop emerged from the mansion and moved in to straighten out the dents in Kade's limousine.

"See?", Rita chirped. "Good as new!"

But just as the Machop removed their sturdy hands from the vehicular gouges, the entire limousine disintegrated, and I couldn't help but choke out laughing.

Noticing the destruction, Rita poked her head out the window of the corvette, scolding her Pokémon with a shaking fist, "This is why you Pokémon are so unreliable nowadays!" Sighing to herself, she recoiled back into her seat and turned the keys in the ignition, letting the engines rumble. "Anyway, I'm off to cruise the town!"

Miyamoto inched towards the car, "Madame, what about Giovanni?"

"For crying out loud, you're the brat's godmother!", Rita hollered back. "You figure it out!" She then threw a glance in my direction, her expression suddenly gone soft – she obviously hadn't forgotten who'd bought her the car. "Metsuma, darling, would you like a ride back to HQ?"

"No need.", I negated the offer. "I've already sent for a chopper. But you go have fun!"

She nodded, waving goodbye, "Ta ta! I'm off to the salon!" After batting her lashes a few times, she stepped on the gas and sped off into the horizon.

Miyamoto quietly returned to the house to tend to the boy, leaving me alone with the speechless Sorhagen. Even as he rose to his feet, I dared not shift my weight. I felt proud and victorious and I wasn't afraid to sport it with my imperious posture. We both knew I'd won, he could no longer use Rita as a bargaining chip to get his way.

"You play dirty, Metsuma.", He admitted, speaking slowly, coming to the revelation in his own time and pace.

"Unlike your political career, right?", I commented sarcastically, adding, "I told you things would get ugly." He barely had time to respond before my company helicopter descended over us. "Ah, just in time!" I stepped back, allowing the chopper to land, then prodded Kade in a relatively relaxed voice, "Now, then, I trust you'll keep that lip of yours buttoned?"

The corners of his lip twitched as amusement lightened in his eyes. "You win this round.", He bid softly, then turned to take his leave.

I flicked my gaze back to the chopper. But rather than board it, I stood frozen in thought. I was coming to the realization that Clint's advice was my ticket to better reading the minds of those around me. It was also my solution to stepping up my game in a society full of emotions and groundless drama; by putting myself in another's shoes, I could see the world in a different light... and expand upon my camouflage.

My thoughts quickly settled in the knurl of my mind and I returned to reality. But just as I moved to climb aboard the aircraft, I spotted Kade in my peripheral vision, standing there awkwardly. I reeled my head and jeered, "What, still haven't had your fill of needless drama for the day?"

He gave an uncomfortable smirk and nudged his chin up, "Actually... my limousine is wrecked and I need a ride back to HQ." He arched the brow of shame, sucking up to me as he was always meant to do, "Mind if I tag along... buddy ol' pal?"

…...

Underground again. The sub-surface bunker below the mining caves accommodated Sinnoh's power station, striped with light that streamed in from above ground. A frame of iron and steel reached to the far corners of the room, holding at its center a perfectly round hunk of machinery. From what Viper could gather, it looked like the generator Culm had spoken of; without the generator, half of Sinnoh would lose electricity.

At Viper's cue, the miners accompanying him released their Pokémon and set them off against the generator. Golems and Gravelers alike wheeled themselves into the power plant with relentless blows, tearing the whole thing to scrap.

Lighting a match from his pocket, Viper stepped back with a smile, grumbling, "Lights out time."

The lamps above flickered twice, then switched off entirely once the station was in pieces.

...

The people of Oreburgh, though few, shared a startled cry as the city suddenly went black. The click, click, click of cleats hitting dirt echoed from the outskirts, disturbing the already deterred civilians. The footsteps quickened, quickened so fast that there was no separate click, but rather a single long, continuous sound, never stopping, never ending.

Then it came. A woman's shriek broke the unnatural stillness. A large section of roadway evaporated to dust as Droves of coal Miners, led by Culm, leapt from the shadows and split off into the city with their shovels and pick axes girded for havoc. Ash and smoke quickly clogged the air as the bouldered city was abruptly laid to waste.

Guided by the stars, Cayman rode his Steelix into town, bulldozing through buildings and razing through boulders. A second wave of Breaker Boys and earthen Pokémon charged in behind him.

Buildings toppled, locals scattered on sight. Earthquakes ripped through districts, leaving concrete buckled and broken, busted pipes spraying water and sewage into the streets. The last of the city's dying light flickered in an erratic beat. Both men and women scurried the streets in panic as the Breaker Boys and their Pokémon broke through a tide of law enforcement, entering the heart of Oreburgh, where the unfinished museum resided.

Spotting the exhibit, Cayman sprung from his Steelix and sprayed the fossil preserve with a shower of Aura Spheres, leaving little more than smoke and rubble in its place.

Culm tromped across the wreckage of the museum, brushing broken glass and fossil fragments from his jumpsuit. He stopped in front of Cayman, arms folded over his chest. "What now, son?", He questioned brusquely. The deep baritone was rough and plain in his throat. "I ain't takin' no more lives tonight. I reckon there's more to this plan of yours?"

Cayman's eyes roamed the rest of the raided city, then settled on Culm. "Simple.", He retorted as he recalled Steelix to its Pokéball. "Now we flee Sinnoh and rendezvous with the collective. Canalave's port security won't know we're coming, assuming their communications are still jammed from the blackout."

Culm nodded, "Then we better get a move on if we're gonna make it to the coast on foot."

"You guys go ahead, they'll be a getaway vessel waiting for you on the Canalave border." Reaching into his belt, Cayman pulled out a walkie-talkie, then handed it to the heftier man. "Take this and ask for a guy named Difo. He'll tell you what to do."

Again, Culm nodded. "Ain't a problem." He examined the radio in his palm, then looked up at Cayman once more. "Where you headed?"

In response, Cayman whipped out a Pokéball. "I've got a cop to stalk. With all the power outages and crap, I should be able to make it to Veilstone unseen."

Culm gave one last nod and started in the other direction. "I'll go fetch Viper, Byron, and the others." He waved adieu to the young foreman, bidding, "See ya on the tides, son."

Not really listening, Cayman released Flygon from its Pokéball and eagerly mounted the dragon for flight. He was determined to complete his assignment – Metsuma's orders. Despite the blackout, he was confident that more police officers from other parts of the region would eventually rally to Oreburgh to the help reimpose authority, Anna Lafleur included. And with Anna absent from Veilstone, he knew he could easily sneak into her department and find out what he needed to know.

"Cayman.", Culm's voice sounded behind him one last time, breaking his train of thought.

Snapping out of his daze, Cayman turned his head to look upon the humble miner.

Culm allowed a sad grin, then reached up and laid a hand on Cayman's shoulder. "I sure appreciate all the help, son."

"We can kiss ass later, Culm!", Cayman chuckled. "Right now, I've got business to take care of, alright?" Without another word, he gave Flygon's neck a light tug and then belted off towards the stars, bound for Veilstone.

...

After kissing Maria goodnight, I stepped outside for some air. I wandered the estate, then the streets, minding my own business as I took in the nightlife of the Fuchsia heights. The city lights danced overhead as my mind began to contemplate. Another day of needless drama had gone and passed; I'd been so caught up in my own affairs, I realized I had yet to touch base with Cayman and the others positioned in Sinnoh.

I turned into an alley to avoid drawing attention to myself, then snatched my radio transmitter out of my suit pocket. I hadn't switched it on in quite some time. "Marcus, I'd like a report.", I murmured into static as I held the device to the brim of my lips. "Give me the rundown. Have you left Sinnoh yet?"

"If only...", Difo wheezed back in that irksome voice of his. "We've experienced... technical difficulties."

Not particularly pleased with his answer, I pressed, "What's Cayman's status? I can't pick up his frequency."

"The little fool never showed up.", He grunted back. "Instead I'm expected to wait around for a bunch of coal miners to board the ship."

His answer baffled me, but I was more set off by the fact that he was still lying in wait of additional passengers while running risk of clashing with coastal patrol. "Are you insane?", I growled through my teeth. "You'll be spotted!"

Difo immediately dismissed my concerns, "Heh! Not a chance, sir. Half of Sinnoh is without power. Lighthouses are nonfunctional, as are the port's radar and communications. I could sit on these waters undetected all night if need be."

I furrowed a brow, not that he could see – it was more of a twinge. "What about Cayman?"

"I suspect he's headed to Veilstone as per instructions.", The voice shuttered back, nearly felled by another wave of static. "Apparently he and Viper were delayed-"

I rolled my eyes, muttering, "I should have known."

Unlike myself, however, Difo seemed a bit more optimistic. The static faded and his voice was clear again. "It'll be some time before the authorities reactivate Oreburgh's generator – and it's unlikely they'll pull that off in pitch darkness.", He educated, little to my assuredness. "By my estimation, it won't be till morning."

I squeezed the radio in my fist. "I won't dignify estimates, Marcus, nor will I chance them. Board the mining crews and return to base as soon as possible."

At these orders, his voice seemed to go up an octave, "And what of your precious son?"

I could feel my lips twist into an involuntary smile, for his question was a mystery yet to be unraveled. "Oh I'm sure he'll manage on his own.", I chuckled. I was slowly finding a sense of humor in all of this, because I knew Cayman's skills would truly be put to the test without a planned means of escape at his conveyance. "He wanted a challenge, didn't he?"

Funnily enough, I could almost feel Difo's own grimly smile through the transmitter. My suspicion proved correct when I was greeted to incessant, possibly psychotic cackling from the other end of the frequency. I wasn't too surprised, given that Difo despised Cayman even more than Sa'lu did; as for me, I was more personally invested in seeing how things would play out between Anna and Cayman – to see who'd outwit who in a game of cat and mouse.

I switched off the transmitter and stepped out from the alley. And as I began to stroll to sidewalk again, I was flabbergasted to spot the region's greatest Pokémon Trainer walking into a poorly bar across the street. "Clint?", I thought to myself, knowing how late in the evening it was. "What's he doing here? He's not one to drink at this hour. Hell, he's not one to drink at all."

After a couple of moments of contemplation, I made up my mind and followed him inside the pub, hoping to get my answers. He sat alone at the counter, not even bothering to make smalltalk with the bartender, which wasn't like him. Sure, Clint had never been as much of a chatterbox as Anna, but awkward silences were never his forte either. I figured something must have happened for him to even think to wander into a place like this.

I didn't waste a second and quickly took the empty barstool beside him, catching him off guard.

Clint drew back from his drink, looking me hard in the eye, "Metsuma, what are you-"

With a whimsical smile, I motioned a hand to the bartender, "I'll have what he's having." The fellow across the counter nodded and hurried off to fetch my drink, and I took it upon myself to extend Clint a friendly, though not quite honest, smirk. "Drinks are on me tonight."

Fidgeting in his chair, Clint swallowed a hard lump in his throat. "Metsuma, that's... really not necessary-"

"This is my city, Clint.", I insisted, chuckling. "Next time I drop by your turf, you'll pay the tab."

We shared a laugh long enough for the bartender to come whisking back with my mug of beer. I took a sip, pacing myself, and looked around the cheap excuse for a bar. There were a few deadbeats littered in the corner booths, but I tried not to notice them. It didn't depress me, it just irritated me. I never believed in drinking my problems away because that was for the weak.

Clint must have noticed me staring around the bar, because he cleared his throat and ventured in a dole tone, "You're probably wondering why I'm here."

I looked to him with a shrug, "No, not really." I never let my grin falter as I drawled, "Fuchsia never sleeps. And I'm always up at this hour."

His expression darkened to a frown. Looking down at his drink, he sighed and drummed his fingers on the counter, "Yeah... well I'm not."

My eyebrows knitted together and I stared at him blankly. And with more vivid observation, I could instantly tell just how woebegone he truly was. His shoulders were drooped, his face unshaven. His eyes looked like they hadn't slept in ages, puffy from crying. Was this really the same man I sought advice from?

At last, he swung his sorry head my way, muttering dryly, "Rita just filed for divorce."

I refused to flinch, though I was a bit... stunned. I tried to sound casual, however, as I reached to chug from my mug, "Tough break."

He lowered his voice so only I could hear. "I don't come here often.", He chortled quietly, wistfully. His eyes pooled into mine for another glimpsing second, something in them I'd never seen before. "But after tonight, I just needed to be somewhere... safe. I needed to be... near you." He looked away again, whispering, "Does that sound odd?"

I couldn't say I was flattered. Come to think of it, I could never understand why so many people were fascinated with me. Was my mask really that convincing? "You needed a friend."

He shrugged, taking a drink, "Yeah, I guess I do."

I bit down on my lip as my curiosity got the better of me. "What did Rita say exactly?"

He rolled his eyes – not at me, but the question itself. "She says there's someone else, someone who can give her more than I can."

My brow nearly arched off my forehead. "Is there?"

"She inexplicably got her paws on a brand new convertible.", He grumbled, leaning back on his barstool. "You do the math." His voice calmed and leveled again, but he never lifted his head from the counter. "You were right, Metsuma. She was just stringing me along, waiting around for the next best thing to sweep her off her feet with money and jewelry and... convertibles." To my surprise, he managed a slight chuckle, "I don't know about you, but corvettes don't meet my budget, not on my salary."

I couldn't help myself because the next thing I knew, I was laughing. How could I have been such a fool to draw wisdom from a man who couldn't even take his own advice? Perhaps Clint was just as flawed as the rest of humanity. And though part of me didn't want to give up hope on him, another just knew to stick to the original plan and play puppet master with him, not partner with him.

After a lengthy silence, he downed his drink, then declared in a scratchy, hoarse voice, "It doesn't matter anyway." He wiped his mouth with a napkin and set down the empty mug. "I can't love somebody who doesn't love me back, you know? I can't be with somebody who would only stick around for the luxuries. That's no marriage."

I gave a hard laugh. "There was never anything there to begin with, Clint.", I scoffed. "You're not flawed. Rita's not flawed. It's love that's flawed."

"That can't be true.", He dismissed, looking to me again – looking for some kind of good news, because God knows he needed it. "You and Maria are happy together, aren't you?"

I pushed my fingers through the curls of my hair, hating the topic of discussion. "Only as happy as she thinks we are.", I sighed back, though he seemed to take it as a joke as usual. "And I'm fine with that."

Remembering back to our exchange in the stadium, he asked, "Did you two ever bury the hatchet?"

At last, I was handed the opportunity to properly thank him for his advice... though I wasn't so sure I wanted to anymore. "Thanks to you, yes.", I yielded, putting a bigger smile on his face. "I gave her my old badge case."

His eyes lit up as if he were looking into a mirror. "Metsuma, that's... that's brilliant!" He then planted a firm hand on my shoulder, "I'm happy for you, bud!"

"I'm sure she'd have appreciated it more if it was a complete set.", I sulked with a straight face. "My eighth Gym Badge remains to be seen."

This revelation caused him to jolt up in his seat a little. "You mean... you don't remember what you did with it?"

I narrowed my eyes instinctively. He seemed like he knew something I didn't.

He smirked, then pulled down his shirt collar just enough to reveal my Earth Badge dangling around his neck like some sort of amulet. "It was after we defeated the last the Gym together, remember? The Gym Leader only had one badge left to give away... and you let me have it so that I could compete in the Indigo Plateau Conference."

A good deed? From me? Apparently wooing Maria wasn't the first time I'd tapped into Clint's mindset. Recounting such an act of compassion, however, was near impossible, so I just rolled my eyes and reasoned, "I gave that to you so you'd quit whining."

He blinked at me, the picture of foolish innocence. "You challenged the gyms to make Professor Wade proud of you.", He reminded me – a painful reminder. "There's no way you gave me your last badge just to shut me up." His knowing smile stretched wide across his face, his features glowing. "You cared more about our friendship than you did Wade's approval... and I can never forget that."

My fists curled at my sides. The next words to come out of my mouth should have probably been left bottled up, yet I couldn't resist... and I bit back in a bitter tongue, "Then how come when it was YOU who was given that same choice years later, you couldn't be bothered choose ME instead of Wade?"

His entire face paled – and he was suddenly a mess all over again. "B-Because I was an idiot!" He grasped my arm gently, eyebrows raised. "I should never have listened to Wade and carried on with his despicable experiments, especially after I promised you I wouldn't. It was a horrible thing I did and I can't tell you how sorry I am-" The pulse of my wrist beat faster beneath his palm, and when I tore my arm away uncomfortably, he reached for it once more, trying so damn hard to reassure me, "Metsuma, I... I'm never going to abandon you, okay? I will never hurt you again!" With his free hand, he clutched the badge looped around his neck. "I swear on this badge I won't! This badge that will forever link you and I together!"

I didn't know whether or not to trust his apology, much less believe it. I'd trusted him once, years ago, and he ended up shoving it back in my face. This man had betrayed me. This man had crushed me. This man had ruthlessly toyed with my delusions of friendship just to appease his civil duties. But the more I thought about it, was I any different now than he was back then? And if not, could I make the judgment call to make him see right about the world's primal nature instead of casting him aside like he did to me? Would he be willing to tap into my mindset for a change and open his eyes to the truth?

I looked to the badge after a long pause, watching it swing from his neck like a pendulum, wondering if he truly treasured it for the reasons he said. I whispered to him with a smile, "You really kept it after all these years?"

He nodded, biting down on his bottom lip with resolution. "It's... a symbol of the bond we share. The one we've always shared. This is the badge that inspired me to always look for the goodness in people, including Rita. I... I owe it all to you."

"That means... YOU were following MY example?" I diverted his gaze entirely, looking suddenly to my own empty mug as I mulled through this game-changing revelation of his. I realized in that moment that I had created him into what he was; if I had never given him that badge, he could have very well followed in my steps, compassionless and reclused. Did this mean it was too late to break the baseless shackles cast over him by Wade, The Pokémon League, and the rest of society?

Beside me, guilted Clint unlaced the badge from around his neck and handed it to me, "Here, complete Maria's gift.", He murmured, forcing a smile. "She'll love it. It's always belonged to you anyway. Just... never lose sight of it, okay?"

I knew if I took it, I could potentially undo my mistaken work... but if I didn't... he'd grow more trusting of my mask. "Keep it.", I blurted, turning down the offering, knowing what needed to be done. "You obviously need it more than I do." More importantly, the damage was already done, so taking back the badge wouldn't fix anything. It would only haunt me. And if I was to change Clint's ways, I'd have to repeat that haunting deed... but with a reverse effect.

Clint took the badge back, visibly moved, then looked up at me in awe. "Is it because you know how much it means to me?"

I nodded, for I hadn't just yet abandoned his wisdom – and I didn't intend to any time soon. I'd need it for camouflage. "Just putting myself in the shoes of a friend." It was all I could say, because come the Night of the Black Moon, he wouldn't need that badge anymore. He'd have to do the hard thing and let go... for the sake of creating a genuine partnership with me.

Squeezing the badge in his palm, Clint quickly returned the smile, then looked away again as we sat in perfect silence, drinking the night away.

…...

First thing next morning, after a long flight from Tatto, Special Agent Peer of the Global Police marched confidently into the Veilstone Police Precinct, answering with a mere wave of the hand the greetings of his colleagues. He jogged up the stairs and into Homicide, shuffling his way through countless cops in uniform.

Several officers, detectives, and special agents were planted at their desk, answering emergency reports regarding either the Soul Robber or the Tatto incident.

Detective Jordie, however, plopped in the seat across Anna's desk, wasting time, "I wonder what caused the power outage westward Coronet." He touched his finger to his pointed chin. "Rumor has it there was a generator malfunction."

Anna payed little mind, too caught up in sorting the files on her desk. "Not our jurisdiction, Jordie.", She sighed. "Let it be." When the room went silent, Anna looked up to find Peer approaching her desk. She quickly dismissed Jordie and practically jumped from her seat to get her superior's attention, "Agent Peer, you're back! Look, I've been coming up with some new theories about the Soul Robber-"

Peer seemed tired and distracted as he sat at her desk, rubbing his hands over his face.

She set down her files and arched a brow, "What, no luck in Tatto?"

"It was all a wild goose chase.", He said in a undeterred tone, shifting his eyeglass back into place. "I barely got a foot past the embassy before those Seers mobbed me."

She bit down on her lip to suppress her frustration. "Did... they say anything about the two Soul Robber victims found in the wreckage of Cosma Point?"

He shook his head, but upheld his professional composure. "Diddly squat." He smiled as if amused by his own lack of progress. "They assured me the victims were given a proper burial, but refused to show the bodies, saying it would violate their customs."

Anna pounded her fists to her desk. "You're the International Police, for Arceus' sakes! They have to listen to you! Screw their customs!" Realizing the temper in her tone, she quickly settled back into her seat and sighed. "Sorry, sir, it's just... ever since Pamela Kace's murder, I've been so attached to this investigation. I feel like I owe it to her to bring her son to justice before he can commit any more murders." She rolled her eyes, "Too bad the Agrarian Seers don't feel the same way."

"Not so fast." Peer smiled, sliding a new file across her desk. "They did give me a detailed description of the vessel Landon used to flee Cosma Point."

After taking a pause, Anna opened the report and lit up at its descriptive contents. "I knew it! It's the same vessel that was hijacked to the Sevii Islands!"

"Correct.", He affirmed with a nod. "But if he was last seen riding a Rayquaza, he may have already abandoned his ship somewhere."

Anna closed the folder and leaned back in her chair. She grinned thoughtfully for a moment, deciding whether or not to share her latest theories with Peer. The only way to truly convince him was to walk him to a mutual conclusion. "Think about it.", She began. "Landon left Tatto by sea the night of the Cosma Point fallout, then left Sinnoh by sky two days later."

Peer thought on it... but couldn't add up anything. "Why would he leave his vessel behind?"

"He was obviously in a hurry to silence his mother, right?", She proposed. "He probably figured Rayquaza was the fastest way to get to Kanto."

He shifted his monocle once more, something he typically did when he was deep in thought. "...so you're going off the assumption that Landon left his boat somewhere in Sinnoh?" He didn't give her a chance to refute. "Pardon my bluntness, Anna, but that's next to impossible. Someone would have reported it by now."

"That's exactly what I've been trying to tell you!", She exclaimed. Her knowing eyes flashed with a great deal of determination. "Landon is not alone in committing these crimes! I have suspicion to believe there are others covering his tracks! Accomplices!" She allowed him a moment to review her testimony, then continued to break it all down, "Landon Kace isn't the navigator of the getaway ferry we're hunting, he's just the passenger. The delivery boy."

He narrowed his eyes. "Are you sure?"

Anna bobbed her head up and down. She wasn't willing to let this theory slip through her fingers. There was simply too much about it to ignore. "The way he's able to cover his tracks so well, I doubt he's working solo. And from the interview she gave me, Pamela had her doubts too."

This time Peer's eyes lit up excitedly. "You may be on to something, Anna. Good work. I knew you were the right candidate for this task force." He gave her wide, wrinkled smile, then stood up from her desk. "For now, we keep this to ourselves. We can exchange other theories when I return."

She looked puzzled. "Are you off to a crime scene? Is it connected to the Soul Robber?"

He flushed, trying to evade the question. "Uh, actually, I have a, uh, social appointment." He glanced from left to right, then whispered in that dry but classy voice of his, "I had to put it off until after I got back from Tatto."

Anna giggled as she pretended to mind her own business. "Oh, you mean like a date?"

"Breakfast with an old colleague I know from around these parts.", He corrected stiffly.

She raised a suggestive brow. "Wow, look at you, Agent Peer. New in town and already hooking up."

He shrugged his squared shoulders innocently. "One needs to get out and have a little fun on occasion, you see." He leaned inward, treating her to a hardened expression, "It's something I highly recommend for you as well."

She offered a resistant smile and bit back, "I'm married."

Again, he shrugged. "Could have fooled me with the hours you're working."

"Can't help it.", She sighed, looking down at her work again. "I've got a kid to feed and another kid to arrest."

He didn't seem fazed. "Still, you should make time for social outings. I'm sure you'd fancy spending more time with that fellow in Kanto you keep telling me about."

"What, Metsuma?" She broke out laughing at the implication. "He's a complete recluse! He's too busy for everyone nowadays."

Peer chuckled. "Ah, then maybe you two are a match made in heaven." Before she could object to his witty remark, he turned to leave, bidding, "Have a nice day, Anna."

Heaving a tired breath, Anna shook her head humorously and returned to her work. She figured she'd have enough time to better flesh out her 'accomplice theory' before Peer returned.

But she barely made an ounce of progress before Lieutenant Ramsley emerged from his office and whistled for everyone's attention. "Alright, listen up, everyone! I just received an anonymous call requesting backup in Oreburgh City! Apparently there was a labor strike that went too far and there's not enough officers to contain the public panic!"

Everyone shared a dismissive groan, not bothering to ask questions.

"Count me out.", Anna was the first to voice her lack of concern. "I've got a case of my own to work."

Ramsley gave her a pressing glare, one more vexed than usual. "Sergeant, the caller reported that Landon Kace was supposedly spotted amidst the confusion, aiding the mining insurgence. One of the bodies found matched the Soul Robber's M.O." His words took her by shock, not to mention everyone else in the room, and he continued, "He and the miners have apparently fled town."

Anna shot to her feet in panic, "He's trying to escape! We can stop the getaway boat! Quick, contact the coast-"

"Don't bother.", Jordie interrupted. "The coastguard's communications are still down. If Landon escaped, it must have been hours ago. Sorry, Anna."

"It doesn't matter!", Anna raised her voice. "If Landon Kace did step foot in Oreburgh, then I need to be there!"

Ramsley nodded, then motioned everyone to the elevators. "Put together a task force! I want all available personnel on this! And put a priority status on all forensics related to this case!" He grabbed his jacket from his office and promptly followed Anna and the others to the exit. "Let's get moving, people! Ready your Pokémon! Get to your patrol cars!"

The station quickly emptied. And as one elevator containing Anna and her colleagues descended to the lobby, another containing Cayman ascended back up to Homicide. With the precinct abandoned, he could easily rifle through Anna's reports, unseen. His 'anonymous tip' had made it all possible.

The door to the elevators opened and Cayman stepped into the unoccupied lounge. Empty desks spanned across the room, piled with papers and folders. He quickly tracked down Anna's workspace and carefully began browsing through her things. Most of the folders contained irrelevant knowledge; what he needed was something incriminating, something that could potentially slow down the investigation if stolen.

After a long and extensive search, there was only one place left to check. Cayman peaked under Anna's desk and, to his surprise, spotted a cardboard box labeled 'evidence' sitting plain on the floor. "Looks like someone forgot to pack up." He smiled and snatched the box into his arms. "Yeah, this looks promising!"

...

Once outside the precinct, Cayman kept to the shadows and used the alleys to navigate across town. He needed to find a safe spot to contact Metsuma before leaving town, and his best bet was as far away from the police department as possible. It wasn't too tricky. It was still sunrise, so there were few pedestrians wandering the streets, save for a few early morning joggers and their accompanying Hitmonchans and Hitmonlees.

He eventually found refuge beneath an overpass and huddled against one of its supporting columns, reaching for the absent radio at his belt. "Huh?" He looked down to find that he was grabbing at nothing. Then it hit him, "Crap, I lent my talkie to Culm! Now how am I supposed to call for help?"

Before he could do anything else, he was flashed by a set of high beams, momentarily blinding him. A patrol car was wheeling down the dirt path descending beneath the bridge... and it was speeding in his direction.

Cayman shielded his eyes from the blinding lights, then spun on his heel to abandon the scene before the driver could identify him. He couldn't afford to be caught, not now! Not like this! Especially not with police evidence in his possession!

Alas, as he made to flee, an Absol and a Jolteon sprung from rustling bushes, blocking his only two escape routes. He was surrounded now.

Cayman moved into a fighting stance, still clutching the evidence box snug in his arm. He whirled to meet the identity of the driver stepping out from the patrol car parked only a yard away from him... but was stunned to instead find himself face to face with Anna Lafleur, her handgun already cocked and drawn.

She raised her weapon higher as she slowly moved in on him, growling, "Looking for me?"

Cayman said nothing. He couldn't believe this was happening. He'd been duped. He'd been caught. And he knew that at any minute she'd call for backup, if she hadn't done so already. Resistance was futile. There was no running now.

"Thought you could drag my ass all the way to Oreburgh so you could sneak into my place of work and tamper with evidence?", She clipped, flaunting a shrewd but knowing smile. "How stupid do you think I am? I mean, why in the world would some poor soul in Oreburgh send an anonymous plea to a police department situated all the way on the other side of Sinnoh?" She arched a brow mockingly, "Sounds pretty unlikely, don't you think?"

He swallowed, feeling stupid for having underestimated her cop instincts, but remained frozen where he stood. He made a noise in the back of his throat that sounded as close to a growl as a seasoned warrior could make.

Taking another step closer to him, Anna continued, "More pressingly, how could our police department receive any telephone calls from Oreburgh... if Oreburgh doesn't have any power?" She was taunting him now, borderline boasting her intelligence.

Cayman scowled, then threw his hands up in surrender. He just wanted to get this over with. The jig was up. He knew what would happen now: she'd haul him back to the station and win the thunderous ovation of her peers, leaving him nothing more than the lowlife instrument of her success.

But then the unfathomable happened. Anna lowered her gun. Though still intent on cuffing him, she whispered, "Don't panic just yet. No one else knows you're in Veilstone." She narrowed her eyes and decided upon a different approach, her tone more cautious as she uttered the words, "'Orphans never sleep.'"

Before Cayman could react, his world suddenly went black... and the evidence box dropped to his feet.

TO BE CONTINUED . . .

(Next Chapter: While Anna fumbles to close her investigation, Metsuma finds himself preoccupied with company affairs when he is unexpectedly paired with Kade on an unlikely assignment. Meanwhile, Viper attempts to rescue Cayman from law enforcement and contemplates telling him the truth about his coronation.)