"Well," said Cyrus as the hologram shut off. He flipped close the device and turned around. "Didn't that go well?"
N, bound and gagged, glared up at him. He struggled in response, but was met with kicks from both of the Galactic grunts beside him. He crumpled to the rocky ground with a muffled groan. Cyrus bent down and looked N in his half-closed eyes.
"You know, Natural," he said, voice low, "it currently hardly remains in your best interest to resist. After all, two people important to you are powerlessly in my control." He stood up. "Play your part well, and I will consider freeing them should such an option arise after the ceremony."
Cyrus looked down disdainfully at the dirty, battered boy. He turned away.
To the dozen or so Galactic followers, he narrowed his eyes and said, "We leave again in five minutes."
The hologram flickered off. The cyan-haired boy pocketed the device and looked to Drew, who was staring at a spot between May and Touko's unconscious bodies.
"I'm surprised you did it," said the sister, returning her Ivysaur. There was no chance of the two brunettes moving now. Constraints were unnecessary. "Almost makes you as bad as Ian and me."
Drew didn't answer. The slight narrowing of his eyes and the stiffness of his jaw told them to not jab him any further. The siblings exchanged looks.
"Don't push it, Ariana," said Ian. "First things first: get their Pokemon."
Atrocious was one of several words that came to Solidad's mind when they stumbled upon what they did. Disgusting. Inhumane. Savage, loathsome, infuriating were others.
They had been in the ventilation shafts and closely following the original plan down to every turn. But when Gary told them communication with May, Drew, and Touko had cut out, Ash stopped over a grille, stared, and refused to keep moving.
Kids. Pokemon. Adults. All chained and jailed and broken and dirty and hopeless and attached to flashing braces of one kind or another.
Many of them had openly defied Team Galactic during the pandemonium a few years ago—then they had all been quietly kidnapped. Some were there because one or more of their close friends or family members had opposed Team Galactic years ago, and they had been captured as blackmail, explained the middle-aged man as the three of them burned through the grille and dropped down.
Everybody's Pokemon got taken a long time ago, whimpered the tearing brunet boy who hugged her Slowbro after it shattered his cell bars and freed him. I only got here a few weeks ago, and I was able to give away all my Pokemon before they caught me...so at least I know they're not under Team Galactic's control, and that makes me happy enough.
Experiments. That's what the little blue-haired girl who couldn't have been older than thirteen called themselves. The scientists used them as lab rats for serums, potions, and equipment. Lucky if your hair changes color, she whispered as Solidad crouched down to try to pull apart her braces. Average if you sprout temporary Lake Being tails. Unlucky if you die.
"We'll get you out," said Solidad, blinking away the tears as she tried to not focus on the girl's half-healed scars and mosaic bruises. "I promise."
"That's what you think," said an unfamiliar voice above and behind her. She barely had enough time to flip around for a glimpse of her assailant before the black pole blocked out her vision and she felt a numbing shock on the back of her head.
Solidad didn't know what happened after that.
It wasn't difficult to locate the brunettes' PokeBalls—all of them were on their belts. Drew didn't move, so Ian and Ariana exchanged another look and took on the task of groping around the bodies for the Balls.
Roserade stared at the girls in a manner similar to Drew except she had the tenacity to actually look at them. After several moments, the Pokemon looked away and, as she stepped back to Drew's side, made a brief moment of eye contact with her trainer. She was remorseful and she hoped it showed in her expression. Seeing how quickly he looked away, she knew that somewhere, be it deep down or shallow up, he felt the same.
Ian and Ariana were pocketing the last of May and Touko's PokeBalls. As Drew moved out from behind Cyrus's desk, Ariana fumbled with a PokeBall that was a little caught in May's notch. Drew watched as the PokeBall arced up, seemed to hover for a second, then fell back down once, twice, three little times before it exploded into red and white light.
"Tor-chic!" the little Pokemon shouted, ready to respond to May's command. But when none came, it peeked curiously back at May and paled.
All of them merely watched as the Chick Pokemon gaze darted from each of their faces to every corner of the room. Each time it took in another detail, its body cowered more. Its legs began shaking and its pupils grew smaller and smaller. The siblings exchanged looks, and Drew suddenly made unbreaking eye contact with the terrified Pokemon.
There was a second of silence.
Then hell erupted.
Ash only noticed the Galactic grunts when he heard Solidad cry out, then watched with wide eyes as she was knocked out with a heavy-duty metallic pole that contacted her head with a sickening ring.
Then he heard a shuffle behind him. Harley was on the other side of the room, so who could it have been but anyone good? So he took a chance, clenched his hand, then swung around to squarely hit a grunt in the abdomen. He heard the "oof" before he felt a counterattack, so he swung up with an uppercut, sent the grunt flying a few feet, and hoped he broke his jaw.
"We gotta get out of here!" he called to Harley, who furrowed his brow and nodded. They didn't have time to break apart all the braces, but maybe… "Pikachu, start Thundershocking!"
"Cacturne, Needle Arm the prison cells!"
And it was quickly becoming chaos of bright lights, sparks of electricity, smoke, and crashes, but running footsteps a few dozen yards away told Ash it was about to get a lot messier fast if they didn't find an escape route soon.
"Hey, stop right there!" some grunt called. "Golbat, Air Cutter!"
Pikachu was busy freeing the prisoners. So, Ash thought as he enlarged the other PokeBall, if there was ever a time when he genuinely wanted to thank Gary, this was it.
"Go, Umbreon! Psychic!"
As the Ball arched up and exploded, Ash's eyes were drawn to the line of windows near the top of the walls.
And then he heard a signature shriek.
"Get down!" roared Ian as he pushed Ariana down, both of them narrowly missing another bout of Torchic's Flamethrower. The attack surged past them, bursting into flames another spot on the wall.
"Return that thing to its Ball!" shouted Ariana, her hair wild. She screamed and ducked as Torchic narrowed its eyes and shot another one at her. It missed, smashing into the ceiling.
"The Ball is behind it, there's no way we can get to it alive!" said Ian right as a ceiling beam crashed down behind him. The smoke was beginning to suffocate; the temperature was already surpassing a hundred degrees Fahrenheit. "We don't have any water Pokemon on us!"
"Then just get out!" shouted Ariana, clambering to her feet and stumbling towards the exit, dancing around the patches of fire and burning plaster. Ian followed after her, turning back when he was almost at the door. The fire was beginning to spread to the hallway.
Drew glanced at Torchic, still blindly wreaking havoc with something crazed in its eye. His eyebrows creased ever so slightly.
Was there something familiar it? Something about the way its feathers were yellower underneath its wings. How its head feathers were almost white at the end. How underneath its eye, there was the tiniest scar—
Suddenly, things fell into place. Why Torchic had been wary of Drew and only Drew since the beginning. Why it had reacted so strongly the moment it left its PokeBall here and properly smelled the air. Of course.
Drew closed his eyes and almost laughed at the way it turned out. So Torchic had hated him all along—and now, he was undoubtedly loathed by both Trainer and Pokemon.
"What about them?" shouted Ian, gesturing to May and Touko and breaking Drew out of his reverie. He made eye contact with the green-haired boy, as if accusing, They're your friends.
Drew clenched his fists. He looked at the two brunettes' unconscious bodies and felt bile rise halfway up his throat.
Pointedly looking away, he returned Roserade to her Ball without so much as a look at her. With his eyes focused on the hallway behind Ian, he crossed the room with passive face and smooth movement.
There were lights here, in front of her, and they were made warm and sweet and inviting by the people dancing and laughing underneath them. With hand over her full stomach, she smiled at the middle-aged couple who looked at each other as if no one else was around, the teenagers who talked excitedly about the next contest season and maybe attending a PokeStar Studios casting call in Unova, the parents who beamed proudly at their son.
But once she listened, there was the sound of small, fast explosions somewhere behind her, away off on the shore where there were no strings of lanterns or exuberant people. She looked over her shoulder to see lights, dim and flashing. She stood up.
The sand slipped underneath her shoes and the ocean breeze was stronger now that the walls of the festivities were no longer guarding her. The light from the afterparty was weakening, but by moonlight, she was able to see the figures before her. Words wafted over the ocean waves to her ears.
"You should have been able to dodge."
May glanced at Masquerain, the said Pokemon fallen on the ground. Roselia walked over, offering its blue rose to swing Masquerain back up into the air. The act of camaraderie filled May with a small warmth as she turned back to their trainer.
"Drew?" she said. He didn't turn to her, his eyes remaining fixated on his Pokemon. "What are you doing out here?"
He smirked. "Training, of course."
Her brow crinkled. "But—how come you're not at the party?" He deserved it, she almost said. Second place was worth at least a little celebration.
"Robert's off training, too." A man with long blond hair, magenta suits, Milotics, and Ribbon Cups. "That's why he's not at the party either."
She noticed the smugness on his face as he said it, as if there was a secret behind his words—maybe he had seen Robert, even gotten some pointers? Compliments? Either way, anything Robert said could no doubt light up Drew's face brighter than May ever could.
"Robert?" she echoed. "But he just won first place—"
"—That's right he did, and how do you suppose he got good enough to win? You always have to keep trying to get better," he said, and for the first time, looked her in the eye, "or else someone will pass you by."
(In the back of her mind, there was something—a memory, a fantasy, a premonition, a video playing of the incredible moment when the attack landed with a flash, and Drew's points slipped and the timer buzzed and Combusken was panting and the screen changed to May Maple, Winner, and she had finally, finally beaten Drew, fair and square, and she was confused and their eyes met across the battlefield and she couldn't hear the crowd, and he smiled and nodded and oh Jirachi she did it!)
She hid a smile. A fantasy. A goal. "I guess I never thought of that."
"I'm still determined to become the Top Coordinator someday," he said, clenching his fist, looking somewhere beyond her, and the excitement in his eyes was beautiful. "Hey, I'm already thinking of attacks I might use in next year's Festival." Confident. Unabashed. Forward. His fist relaxed, and he looked away from his dreams to her, smirking faintly—or was that a smile? "I'm expecting to be here with you next year, too."
That made her stumble. "Uh—"
But before she could say anything else, anything substantial, a tip or secret or confession or farewell, she was already staring at his retreating back.
"You were good," he said, raising a lazy hand, and it meant more to her than a ribbon or Cup or rank ever could. "Take care." —'til next time.
Because there was always a next time, of course, because they were always brought together again in a way almost too incredible for coincidences, but that was what she had to chalk it up as. Destiny was too frilly of a word to admit to herself, let alone him.
So she watched him go, because she'd see him next time. Goodness knew when, but that was what had been written in their history, so she would leave it to a higher power to keep plotting the future until chartreuse filled her vision again. Until then, she was content with memorizing his gait, the back of his hair—
—the slight wrinkles on his jacket, the shape of his pants—
"May, c'mon, please May, we gotta go!"
—the back of his hand, the nape of his neck—
A spiral of soft-serve ice cream was shoved before her face.
May woke with a start, immediately recognizing Brendan as the one hovering over her but when she tried to call his name, it came out as a gasp—which was a bad idea, because it made smoke and heat flood into her respiratory system.
"'en...n," she made out. He shook his head, brushing back a lock of her wet hair—oh, she realized, she was covered in sweat—and hugging her close, engulfing her in the scent of smoke, fabric softener, and familiarity of childhood.
"We thought we lost you," he whispered, and May closed her eyes and leaned into him. Do you know who we did lose? she wanted to say while clutching at and crying into his shirt. If he was ever even on our side?
Then she glanced down at her hips and felt something wrong. Something missing.
Oh my God, she realized. They took Glaceon and Beautifly.
More tears welled up and she was able to tell Brendan, but she didn't, because Gary shouted, "The room's collapsing! Get May and go!"
Brendan cursed. It finally sunk into May then that, oh God, the room was on fire and things were blackened, sparking, and aflame. She quickly scanned their surroundings and found only Gary and Touko a few yards away, the former physically coaxing the still unconscious latter onto his back.
"Can you stand up?" said Brendan urgently. May nodded, helped to her feet by the black-haired boy. She wondered why he hadn't just carried her out when she was unconscious, but then her hand was being grasped and pulled through a floor of burning wreckage, and the only thoughts left were of survival.
It was an incredible sight, even from their Pokemon Center room halfway across town. People pointed and marveled at what was left of the still smoking skyscraper, whispering how hadn't that building been abandoned after the Spear Pillar incident, do you remember that group Team Galaxy or Universe or something or another, and maybe it was one of those gangs from Hoenn making trouble again.
"So Drew's working for Team Galactic," said Gary, massaging his temple with clenched jaw. "He purposely lead us to the building to be ambushed."
"I just can't believe it," sighed Dawn, shaking her head and tearing her eyes away from the window. "He was with us the entire time, and...I just didn't see it coming."
"None of us did," said June. She looked over at May, who had been hugging a slumbering Torchic and her knees to her chest and staring blankly at the ground for a while now. "It's not anybody's fault."
"What's done is done," agreed Leaf. "The only question now should be: how do we move on?"
"We have to go to Mount Coronet, and face Cyrus," said Touko, narrowing her eyes. The effect of Sleep Powder had dissolved several hours ago, and the fire had returned to the brunette's eyes. "They took May's and my Pokemon. They're going to do something terrible. And they have answers. That's reason enough."
"We don't have a lot of time left. Whatever we decide is going to be the last thing we will do. We have to be careful," said Brendan, just as the door beeped. Once it swung open to reveal Ash, Brendan said, "How are Solidad and Harley doing?"
Ash shook his head as he closed the door behind him. "Solidad's asleep, but they think she might have either a concussion or mild brain damage. Harley's leg is fractured and they're setting it now."
"I feel terrible," whispered Dawn, burying her face in her hands. "This wouldn't have happened to them if it wasn't for us. They did enough for us already."
Ash nodded, moving over to a bed, his expression pained. "I thanked them and apologized. They can't come with us tomorrow, no matter what we choose."
"We'll say goodbye to them tomorrow before we leave," said Dawn.
"And then there were eight," sighed Leaf, looking around at each person in the room. "Seven who need to go home, and one who has business to finish."
"We're definitely going to Mount Coronet, then?" said Brendan.
Touko raised an eyebrow. "Why wouldn't we?"
"Well, for one, I don't think we'll make it in time. It looks like at least a couple of days' worth of climbing, not accounting for accidents or incidents."
"I can take us up as far as the snowy, grassy part in less than an hour," said Touko. "As long as none of you are afraid of riding and heights."
Brendan hesitated, and looked around at the others. "Okay. We'll leave you to it."
"So what else?"
"It could be a trap. Or Cyrus could have been bluffing and he isn't going to wait for us."
"No, he's too cocky for his own good," said Leaf, looking at Gary when she said it. Their eyes met, and they smiled slightly, as if sharing an inside joke before she continued, "He wants his revenge as showy as possible. He'll want spectators, and he knows Touko's motivations, so she'll come for sure. And she'll bring her friends."
"Okay, then," relented Brendan. "Last point: what if Team Galactic isn't related to us getting home, period? Or we get to Spear Pillar and there is nothing we can do to get home?"
Silence. That had been the threat looming ever since the beginning, and now, with each passing second, it was stepping forward to center stage. What if, despite every effort, there was no way home?
"It's a chance we'll have to take," murmured May, looking down at Torchic and speaking up for the first time, "because it's the only one we have."
They spent the rest of the night gathering supplies and readying for the trip up Mount Coronet. It didn't take long, mostly because it would be at most a few days' trip. Each person would only carry a few meals, basic safety equipment, clothing layers, and personal items.
For some, personal items constituted more than their fair share of backpack space, as in the case of Dawn. As May watched the girl bustle around the room packing away essentials and accessories, she absentmindedly fingered the barrette hanging around her neck while the other hand stabilized a snoozing Torchic in her lap. Ever since they had returned from the Galactic building, Torchic hadn't returned to its Ball once. Every time May looked at the Pokemon, she remembered the two that weren't there. The worry and guilt hurt more than a burn or a Flamethrower ever could.
They had been engrossed in a conversation that had included May, but the latter had grown distant and distracted. The other two girls eyed the glass clip and exchanged an uncomfortable look.
"Hello? Earth to May," said Dawn, smiling yet creasing her brow slightly, shocking May out of her reverie.
"Are you okay? You seem out of it," said June. Then she hastily added, "I mean, you know, not that that isn't understandable and totally normal, considering everything that's happened."
"Yeah," said May. "I'm fine."
The other two exchanged another look. Dawn blew out a breath. "Okay, come on, May. What's wrong?"
May stared at the blunette.
"Okay, you're right. Everything's wrong, who am I kidding?" Dawn groaned. "But we've hardly had a carefree conversation in such a long time, and you've barely said anything since you came back from Galactic Headquarters."
"You can talk to us, May. We're here for you," said June.
"I'm fine. Really." She added a small laugh. "I'm just shocked that Drew...wasn't who we thought he was."
"You can say that again," muttered Dawn. She sighed. "But we have to keep going, and catch our breath later."
May looked down. "Yeah."
"Just kidding," said Dawn, pointing a finger at May and skipping over to sit down beside the brunette. "That's not all, is it, May?"
May blinked. "What are you talking about?"
Dawn's expression softened. "Something happened on the way to Lake Acuity, didn't it?"
May laughed and suppressed the tears. "What makes you think that?"
"You can say you don't know what we're talking about, but your eyes won't stop telling us about it," said June, smiling softly as she brushed away a drop of saline from the corner of May's eyes.
More water welled up as May flicked back and forth between Dawn and June. Then, the first traitor escaped, and the rest soon followed.
"I-I mean," said May, swiping at her eyes with the back of her hand as her nose began to run. Her lips quivering, she paused, then chuckled. "It was silly of me, wasn't it?" She laughed again. "To think...that he could fall in love with someone like me."
June sighed. "Oh, honey…" she said, pulling May into her chest, where the latter began to sob. Dawn rubbed comforting circles on the brunette's back and glanced at June.
"We missed a lot, didn't we?" she said with a soft laugh, aimed towards May just as much as it was to June. "We were caught up with the myths and getting home."
"But not caught up enough that we didn't notice the way he looked at you," continued June, gently pushing May back by the shoulders so that they were making eye contact. "Trust me when I say this, May, that regardless of who he is or whom he's actually allied with, that boy felt something special when you were together at the afterparty. We could tell."
It was almost disorienting how long ago the event felt. Memories of the exhilaration of her first double battle, the scent of the sudden rain, the lingering guilt from urging Drew to confess to Solidad, the subsequent relief of being forgiven, the moment she realized she had helplessly fallen for him and saw no easy way to get back up, the words that had fallen from his lips—
May cried harder.
He had been trying to tell her since the beginning, and she missed it. Missed it, and now she was paying for it. They all were.
"He hinted it," she made out through hics and loud sniffs. Dawn wiped away a tear on the brunette's cheek as the latter continued, "At the afterparty. That he wasn't good for me. He wanted me to doubt him."
"What did he say?" said Dawn.
"He kept asking if I was sure I could trust him. Why I can assume the best in people." She stared at a blank spot on the wall as she tried to recall his body language. Had his eyebrows been creased? Had his smile been forced?
"What did you say?"
What did she say? Somehow, it was easier to remember his words than her own, his expressions instead of the color of her dress.
"I said...that I believed everybody is good deep down. That their bad actions are because of their environment," she said slowly. "And people are misjudged because you don't know everything about them."
"Well...maybe now is as good a time as any to put those ideals to work," said June, smiling slightly. "Maybe he tried to get you to doubt him because he was having a tough time lying to you. Maybe he's not all that bad."
"Maybe Cyrus has leverage over him. Maybe he's just a good actor. There's so much about him that we don't know. Maybe you don't, either."
Dawn put her hand over May's and smiled. "There's no need to worry, May. Drew doesn't seem like the type without his morals figured out."
May bit her lip. "But his eyes were so cold. When I was begging him, it didn't seem like he noticed me at all." She looked down. "Plus…"
She didn't need to finish her sentence. ...he left me for dead.
"There's Brendan," said June. May and Dawn stared at her. "You know, while we were on the topic of people who don't notice people."
"Brendan notices you all the time," said May, tipping her head to the side, her brow furrowing.
"And it completely flew over May's head," said Dawn, giggling.
"What are you talking about?" she demanded, a pout growing.
"Just trying to diffuse the tension," laughed June, ruffling May's bandanna. "I like a guy who doesn't notice me. A little like you."
May blinked. "You...like Brendan? Since when?"
"A little while ago," she said. "Dawn picked up on it right away, which was embarrassing."
"You made it obvious," teased the blunette, grinning and poking June, to which the latter responded with a shriek.
"I missed it," said May slowly, mouth slightly ajar. For the first time, a revelation sunk in: had she been neglecting her friends this entire time? Had she been so caught up with Drew and the Pokemon that she failed to pay attention to the ones that had been there since the very beginning?
And she had been moping around about a guy who she'd known for only a short time while they were nearing the end (of what exactly, which was a question just as large) and a friend had been having boy problems for weeks.
And compared to Dawn or May, June had never been the best at confronting her emotions, which, May realized, made her outburst a diversion. Here was a friend willing to sacrifice her own comfort and privacy to get May's mind out of dark dead ends.
Guilt suddenly gnawed at May. God knew what was going to happen after a day or two in Mount Coronet. Even if Drew wasn't readily accessible, there were other bonds to untangle and strengthen.
There was a thick tension in the air perpetuated by fear of the near future, and it would have drowned them if they didn't have each other as buoys. They couldn't redo the month, but there was still one more guaranteed night.
May fought back a wave of tears, grasped June's hands, and grinned.
"Tell me everything!"
Touko was walking back through the Pokemon Center's lobby when she noticed two somewhat familiar silhouettes huddled on one of the couches and talking intimately, one a female sitting crosslegged, the other a male with an arm resting across the neck of the sofa and fingering the girl's hair.
A few steps forward enabled her to see that they were in fact two from their party. What were their names? Shrub and Barry?
Just kidding, she thought as the male's head snapped up and made eye contact with her. They both immediately pulled away from each other and, despite the dim lighting, she could see that their ears were pinking. Leaf and Gary.
"Hey," said Gary, raising a lazy hand to wave her over. Touko strolled over, greeting them in the process. "What are you doing?"
"I was at the PC having some Pokemon transferred, since…" She trailed off, and Leaf and Gary got the message with apologetic expressions. Leaf opened her mouth, but Touko shook her head. She wasn't sure she could bear thinking about Serperior and the others in public without breaking down. "What are you still doing up?" she said. Then her gaze pointedly darted between the two, and she smirked. "You know, despite the obvious."
Leaf laughed and played with a strand of her hair while Gary grinned and said, "All we're doing is the obvious."
"Whatever that means," said Leaf, smiling, and she caught Gary's eye and he smiled, too, and Touko was suddenly reminded of shy ferris wheel rides and gray irises.
There was another beat—or perhaps it was the same one as before, just prolonged—of silence before Gary tore his gaze away. "Okay, well," he said, standing up, "I'm going to go to bed now." He looked at Touko. "I'll see you two tomorrow."
"Good night," said Touko, nodding in acknowledgment. Gary reciprocated the gesture and left.
Touko looked back to Leaf, followed the brunette's gaze until the object of her attention turned the corner, and smirked.
"I was thinking about trying to lose weight recently," she said, prompting Leaf to turn to her and blink. Touko sat down where Gary had been. "Guess that's out of the question now, given how much sweetness I've ingested being around you two just now."
Leaf chuckled. "Funny." She paused. "Are we really that bad?"
"No, you're so innocent it hurts. It almost seems like you're new enough at this to not really know what you're doing."
"You're a psychic," said Leaf, grinning. "We've had a long and complicated story behind us. What you saw is a pretty recent addition." She laughed. "I still get urges to bite his head off."
"Believe me," said Touko, smiling softly as memories of Accumula Town and getting angry at the words "Pokemon liberation" echoed in her mind. "I know."
"So that means you have someone, too?" said Leaf. Her voice was softer when she continued, "Is he related to the person you're trying to save?"
Touko paused. "The very one."
"Ooh," said Leaf, scooching closer and propping her face up in her hands with eyes wide like a child. "I'm listening."
"Well…" began Touko, looking up at the night stars outside the glass Center doors. "We had a rough beginning. And middle. And we haven't really had an end, so it's a weird relationship. Weirder still that he's supposed to be in prison, I guess."
Leaf blinked. "You sure know how to pick them."
"He's not a bad person, but he was used," said Touko. "By his stepfather."
"What did they do?"
"They were the heads of an organization. On the surface, it was dedicated to Pokemon liberation. Freeing them from trainers and PokeBalls. He'd only seen abused and injured Pokemon since he was little, so he truly believed in the cause. His stepfather, on the other hand, had different ideas—like forcing people's Pokemon away, and taking over the world." Smiling slightly, she leaned her head back and closed her eyes. "After they were defeated, they were arrested."
Compared to the rest of the night, she remembered those few seconds vividly. The Fusion Flares and explosive lights and glimpses of him on the other side of the battlefield were blurs, but she remembered clear as day the shock and heartbreak on his face when his last Pokemon fell, when Ghetsis betrayed him, when he was handcuffed, read his rights, and escorted out of the Palace.
Maybe she could have done something. Testified for him in court, negotiated his sentence, even flew him away before the League had him in custody and ran away together. But N hadn't been the only one reeling after the last battle; she had been terrified and confused into silence as well.
For her cowardice, she paid a price.
"That was over a year ago, and the last time I've seen him since."
Leaf was quiet. Touko wasn't surprised or offended. She sighed.
"And then I heard that he'd been kidnapped from prison. I asked around, but no one in Unova had a clue. A lot of people thought he'd planned his own escape, and I was starting to think so, too. But then out of the blue, I had a lead, and I followed it here. To Sinnoh."
Her fingers closed instinctively around her Xtransceiver as she talked. An unknown number ringing her awake in the middle of the night. A voice that was and wasn't familiar. N captured by Team Galactic of Sinnoh. An abrupt hangup before she even collected her thoughts enough to demand questions. Terrified, she had felt as if she were in a bad drama.
Then when she had heard the voice again in Acuity Cavern, she knew fate was playing games with her.
"So I'm going to save him. And then...I'll let him decide whether he wants to go back or not."
"You know, Touko...we're both pretty similar." Said brunette raised an eyebrow, so Leaf chuckled and continued. "For one, we've both run away from people. But we stopped."
"And we're both very good with respecting privacy," added Touko.
"You didn't ask his or the organization's name; I haven't asked the truth behind your entire little group—although I have a good guess."
"I suppose that's a compliment coming from the hero and Champion of Unova," laughed Leaf.
Touko grinned. "Oh, it is. And based on what I've observed about you, Leaf Green, you're also resourceful, focused, daring, and loving. All qualities that could have very well made you the hero or Champion of something or another, if opportunity had served."
"And then we'd just be a pair of brunette Champions hanging out on an old sofa in a far-off Pokemon Center." She tapped her chin. "There's something endearing about that."
"I mean it. You could have really been someone here."
Leaf smiled. "That means a lot, Touko. Thank you."
"It's nothing." She leaned back. "Now, the question is...what's your story?"
Leaf chuckled and scratched the back of her neck. "Oh, man. Well, I guess it starts with our parents…"
The following morning saw the group of eight turn in their room keys to Nurse Joy at 4am. They greeted each other with bleary eyes and half-genuine, half-shaky smiles, and agreed to see Harley and Solidad one last time before they left.
When they peered into their hospital rooms, however, it was apparent that both were sound asleep. With May and Dawn admitting they doubted their abilities of not breaking into sobs if they said goodbye to the two while conscious, all of them decided instead to leave two heartfelt letters, rose bouquets, and whispered farewells.
Afterwards, they headed out into the crisp morning air that the sun was just beginning to illuminate from behind Mount Coronet. They walked in small, inconspicuous groups to the other side of town, near where they had gone to infiltrate the Galactic building, but deliberately detouring so that the remains of the building and the route they had taken never came into view.
It was about half past six when they reached Route 211. From there, it was a few minutes' walk until they stood at the western entrance of Mount Coronet.
When May looked up, it startled her how small the sierra made her feel. From this angle, she could barely see the snowy upper part, let alone the peak, let alone the Spear Pillar.
But it was there. A summit of ruins and columns and shattered marble tiling was up there somewhere, and with it, Cyrus and Drew and answers. That alone was more petrifying yet inspirational than the strongest Stun Spore or biggest Ribbon Cup.
She almost forgot that she had already traversed half of Mount Coronet once.
"Alright, so what's your master plan for getting us up there?" said Gary, crossing his arms. Touko pulled out a PokeBall and tossed it into the air.
It seemed to take longer than most Balls to release. There was a flash of light brighter than usual lasting several seconds before the red materialized into a towering, black behemoth. It resembled an armored, futuristic dragon with claws, wings, and a humming, bright electric blue generator for a tail. It gazed down at them before resting its eyes on Touko.
"Hello, Zekrom," she murmured, stroking its muzzle. "It's been a while." She turned to the others. "Beheeyem can use Teleport, but it can only transport to places it already knows, and it also has a weight limit. Zekrom will take us up the first time, along with a few other people. Then I'll make trips back and forth with Beheeyem until all of us are up there. Is that okay?"
"Fine with me," said Ash, grinning up at the Deep Black Pokemon. "Man, that's a cool Pokemon."
"I can take two of you with me up the first time with Zekrom," said Touko. Her eyes fell on the two standing rightmost in the group. "How about you guys?"
May and Brendan exchanged looks before bursting out into grins.
"Riding on the coolest Pokemon I've ever seen? Heck, yeah," said Brendan, jogging over. Zekrom lowered itself for the three to climb on, and within the minute, all of them were situated.
"We'll be back soon," said Touko, and then they were off.
Zekrom was fast. In fact, fast was an understatement for the way the laws of gravity and air resistance didn't seem to apply to Zekrom, even as it flew nearly straight up. They held on for their lives—May to Touko and Brendan to May—while watching the surface of Mount Coronet fly by in a rocky, green blur.
After however many minutes—there was no way May was able to keep track—the slope began shifting from dark to light brown, and the green began thinning. Zekrom's aerodynamics prevented an onslaught of cutting wind, but that didn't stop the whipping currents from hurting even more as the temperature decreased the higher they ascended. By the time Touko called back to them, "Almost there," May's cheeks and hands were red and freezing.
When they landed, it was onto soft snow and hard rock. The air was slightly thin, and it took them a few minutes to adjust. However, when May looked back, the cons were worth it for the breathtaking view of bright blue sky, clouds, and Sinnoh in all its glory.
"Wow," she whispered, the sunlight in her eyes, the sprawling trees and towns underneath them. She felt Brendan walk up next to her.
"That's incredible," he said. She looked at him and smiled; he did the same. "I'm glad I saw this with you."
May nodded, and they heard the sound of a Pokemon being returned to its Ball behind them.
"Let's find an entrance," said Touko.
It took another fifteen minutes of crossing grass patches and rocky steps, but the three were able to eventually find a low hole hidden away on the northwestern side. Touko told them to stay, handed them Zekrom's PokeBall "in case you have to defend yourself", and then left.
It was cold, so May immediately took out and put on all the extra layers she brought. She considered calling out Torchic for its warmth, but thought against it due to its exhaustion and dislike of cold.
She sighed, pressed her back against the cave wall, and slid down onto the ground. "Take off your shirt," she said, reaching for her bag.
"Uh—" stammered Brendan, caught off guard. "What?"
"Your shoulder, right?" she said, looking up at him and smiling slightly.
He frowned and sat down beside her. "You noticed?"
"Mhm. I wondered why you tried to wake me up instead of throwing me over like Gary did to Touko."
He nodded and touched the back of his neck sheepishly. "Well, you're right. A piece of the ceiling fell on me right before I came into the room," he said as he unbuttoned his shirt and slipped out of one of the sleeves.
May frowned as she took in the angry, blistering patch around his left shoulder blade. "Nurse Joy gave me some burn tape when I asked. Can I put it on?"
He nodded. "Go ahead."
So she did. May held up the non-sticky, icy pre-tape up against the inflicted area, then used her mouth and remaining hand to apply the kinesio tape to keep it on. Brendan hissed and inadvertently flexed his back muscles when the cool burn touched his skin.
"I'm sorry!" she said. "It'll numb soon." Brendan nodded and kept shut.
As she ran her palms over the tape and gently massaged the area, May had to admit: he had a nice backside, tanned and honed from years of shirtless cross country. It was a contrast to when they were little when May applied his first aid all the time. For the first time, it registered that Brendan wasn't a boy anymore.
She mentally berated herself. She needed a distraction.
"How come didn't you say anything?"
"I didn't think anyone noticed," he said, "and I didn't want to be trouble. Not when we have bigger problems."
"You're never trouble," she said, then giggled. "Well, except for the times when you don't notice certain people."
He wasn't facing her, but she could practically hear his eyebrow raise. "What does that mean?"
"Specifically, a girl."
"Hey, I'm nice to girls! Even the weird ones I don't know that smell like Abercrombie and hang around my locker."
"Maybe, but sometimes, you overlook the ones really close to you."
"You mean...someone in our group?"
"Maybe," she lilted, and admired her handiwork before setting down her hands. "Done!"
He turned towards her, brow furrowed and mouth pulled down. "What are you trying to tell me?"
She smiled gently, her eyes playfully exasperated. "What do you think?"
"I…" he tried, but couldn't think of the next word when he found himself overwhelmed with subconsciously trying to identify the colors in her eyes. So there he was, his body inches away from hers, his heartbeat leaping as far as his throat.
And there she was, eager and innocent and was it too much to hope for or was she getting closer? How much of a far-off chance was it that her implications were about herself? Maybe Drew had done himself in betraying them. Maybe Brendan had been wrong about her and Drew.
(But what if he wasn't?)
"May," he said, and her name slipped off his tongue so easily, like a song he knew by heart, a song he had been singing since he was seven and too young to know music. A song that had been played varying shades of piano and poco a poco diminuendo until it almost ended a few weeks ago, but here it was now, growing into its final flourishes.
So screw it all and here, this was his grand finale. If their lives ended tomorrow, then he had no regrets.
May frowned. "Brendan, you're…"
"You're flickering," she whispered.
Brendan blinked and looked down. It was true—from what he could see, his arms, hands, and chest had become translucent. This was the third time now, and he supposed he had grown somewhat accustomed to it. It was by no means a comfortable state—in fact, the reminder of their impending doom really wasn't a welcome thing—but when May raised her hand and rested it where the surface of his cheek was outlined, even though he couldn't feel her, he thought he was going to fly through the roof of Mount Coronet right then and there.
Oh, he thought as he took in her expression. She's worried. He reached up and held his hand over where he thought hers was, and saw her mouth open slightly. He wondered if that was discomfort he saw in her eyes.
His gaze lowered to the ground. He swallowed. "May, I…" he began, and looked up, and stopped. "Hey, you're…"
The corner of her mouth pulled up. "Uh-huh, I can see."
He took in a breath. Two interruptions already. "It's really the end."
May nodded. "I'd be lying if I said I wasn't scared," she admitted. She was scared?
They must have been a sight, two translucent bodies, one a quarter naked and holding their hands to his cheek. He wished to heaven and back that they were solid for a moment so that he could reassuringly squeeze her hand.
Of course she was scared. They all were. Heck, he had been, too, but right now, he was terrified for a completely different reason.
Third time's the charm.
"May...about what you were saying earlier," he began. "I hope you were talking about yourself, because...then I could confidently say that no, there's no way I haven't been paying attention." His eyes flicked up. "And that's just because I like you, and I have for the better part of a decade now, and...I'd hoped I would have longer to one day have you feel the same, but…"
May stared. Her mouth had fallen open. "I'm...really sorry, Brendan."
"You misunderstood. I was talking about someone else..."
He misunderstood. Of course he had. As a part of him analyzed June or Dawn? the bigger half said it didn't matter. He had officially been rejected, and so ended his swan song of eight long years.
"Yeah." He looked away, and the outline of his hand fell. May pulled hers back as well. "It's fine."
She smiled. "But I'm thankful for your bravery and your feelings. I love you more than you know...and if we get back, there's nothing I'd like more than to take you for ice cream, if you want."
His heart clenched, and he wanted to shout and ask if it was Drew and maybe cry a little and beg for reconsideration, but he held it all in and grinned. It wasn't a date, but a hangout. Maybe in time, he'd be just fine with that.
"Yeah. I'd like that."
So she beamed and held open her arms. He copied the gesture and leaned towards her, and when he closed his arms around her body, he was surprised to touch solid matter. Maybe there was someone up there who cared, after all.
They hugged, long and warm, for several extended seconds. He closed his eyes.
Thank you, May.
"Hey, guys," called a voice from a few dozen yards away. They broke apart and looked over to see Ash, Leaf, and Gary waving and walking over, and ignored the looks Leaf and Gary were passing them.
"What happened here?" said Leaf, eyeing Brendan's naked shoulder as he hastily pulled his sleeve up, noting that although he was still solid, May was translucent again.
"Brendan was burned yesterday, so I helped him a little. That's all," said May, but when she caught Brendan's eye, she passed him a secret smile.
"Are you okay?" said Ash. Brendan nodded, suddenly noticing that Ash was flickering as well. They were as a group collectively getting worse, but, somehow, it was comforting knowing that at least they were in it together.
"Yeah," said Brendan, throwing May a glance and a grin. "I'm going to be just fine."
hey! soo.. if anybody still remembers this story... haha. :) some action, some tying up emotional ends. I have a little over a week of break left, so I'm glad to finally be done with this chapter, and I'm excited to get my butt working on Savoir Faire 29 and then bust out the final few chapters of this (there's four!).
Thank you for reading up until this point and staying with me for this crazy long journey. Reviewers and readers have come and go since the beginning, I'm sure, but I appreciate anyone who's ever given this tiny thing a chance. Just a little more to the end!
Thoughts and comments are much welcomed :)