Chapter 6

"Duskull, I told you to wait back in town. It's dangerous." The ghost scuds away from you, gurgling laughter. When you lunge at him, he sinks back into the tree trunk and vanishes from sight. "I mean it," you hiss, as loudly as you dare. "Stay here."

No response. You hunch your shoulders and turn away, looking down on the humans below. On the one hand, it feels wrong to tell Duskull to go away when he was the one who led you to them in the first place. On the other, it is dangerous. You nudge the felt bag hanging around your neck, done up to look like brightpowder. It actually holds your friends' pokéballs, including Duskull's, shiny and new. You could use it to stop him cold, if you could coax him back out of the tree, but you don't know if he would ever forgive you.

You glower at where the ghost used to be, then start at the sound of leathery wings nearby. You throw yourself belly-down on the branch, making yourself as small as possible, and curse Duskull twice over for distracting you. You turn your head slowly, ever so slowly, until you spot the source of the noise.

A golbat weaves her way through the trees, staying low to the ground and keeping to the shadows. You follow her with your eyes, taking some comfort in the erratic, preoccupied way she's flying.

The golbat sweeps into the little clearing where the teenagers are gathered, smoking and making forced conversation. They stir to attention as she starts circling one of the girls. "Come on, come on, let's move it," the bat calls. "I can hardly fly straight in this damn sun!"

"Looks like we're on, ladies and gents," the girl says with a grin met by uneasy silence. "Let's get this over with already." She turns to leave, and the rest of the group follows at a shamble, flicking cigarettes into the grass and taking half-hearted swipes at the golbat, who harries the stragglers with a constant stream of high-pitched complaints.

"Yes, yes, good work, I'll make sure Mark gives you a treat or something later," the girl says when the bat swoops back in her direction. "Lead the way already."

The golbat doesn't stop grumbling, but she takes off into the trees, and the humans are forced into a lope to keep her in sight. You shoot a last warning glare at the tree behind you, then take off after them.

For a few glorious minutes you lose yourself in the chase, racing branch to branch, alighting on one only long enough to push off to the next. The wind blows your leaves out behind you like pennants, the tiny hairs on their undersides registering minute changes in direction and speed as you sail along.

The humans come to a halt, and you nearly go sailing on past, lost in the rhythm of impact and soaring, larger concerns drifting nebulous and half-forgotten around the edges of your thoughts. But some fragment of intent remains, and you come to a neat stop before you can go too far, using your momentum to flip yourself up and around a branch, grasping with fingers and toes to gain your perch.

You fold into a defensive crouch, ready to move at the first sign of trouble. Below, the humans are discussing something with a boy who was waiting for them, now the primary target of the Golbat's whining.

"—no problem. Bastard won't know what hit him," the newcomer is saying, sweaty and out of breath but grinning nonetheless.

"Yeah, that's right, no need to thank me for dragging this pack of idiots over here for you," the golbat says, hovering so close her wingbeats stir the boy's hair. He ignores her with practiced ease. "Feel free to express your undying gratitude later, after you recall me. Maybe at night, or at least somewhere dark?"

"How long?" the lead girl asks.

"Dunno. Ten minutes at the inside. Even the freaking champion couldn't handle a pack of mankey that big in less than that."

"If he can handle it at all," pipes up another girl, to nervous snickering.

"Oh, come on, Sasha. You don't want the monkeys to have all the fun, do you?" the leader drawls. Then, raising her voice: "Spread out! Don't get comfortable. If we're lucky, there won't be much left of Nate after the mankey have been at him, but if there is, you do not want to be the one who let him get away. Mark, have your golbat scout."

The supersonic cry of exasperation comes even before Mark repeats the order to his pokémon. You wince and dig your claws deeper into the branch, but the humans don't react—they probably can't even hear it.

For all her griping, the golbat is a-wing immediately, and you have to wonder what could inspire such loyalty in the face of the hated sun. You glare down at the boy as he takes his place at the edge of the large, grassy clearing. Nothing good, you think. Nothing good.

The teenagers spread out below, ranging in a half-circle around the clearing. You try to calm down, casting a look around for Duskull. It helps a little that you see no sign of him, that at least he's probably safe, but anger roils your stomach as you think about the golbat and anxiety worries at your fraying nerves.

You sink back into the grovyle's hunting trance, letting the trappings of your human mind fall away until the wood takes on new texture under your fingers and the rich, sappy smell of the leaves around you blossoms into your awareness. You can see every twitch in the clearing's grass, and you sit and watch them, idly marking the passage of cloud-shadows over the ground, and think no more of anything but what is there before you. You can't remember what you're waiting for, but have vague faith that you'll know it when you see it.

And indeed, you stiffen when faint squeaks and wingbeats reach your ears. Your eyes narrow in confusion as you try to recall what they mean. By the time the golbat comes into view, you know what to expect.

"All right, all right, he's coming!" the golbat grumbles to her trainer, dancing around him in tight circles. "Done with me now? Because if you send me off on another stupid errand, I'm probably going to end up hitting a tree or something."

"Recall that thing!" hisses the leader. "Everyone on your guard!"

Barely a minute later you hear two people smashing through the undergrowth on the far side of the clearing. They're taking even less care than humans usually do, and though they must be in full flight, they aren't moving all that fast. You sit up straighter and crane your neck, straining for a first glimpse of who you'll be for the next few weeks.

The first into the clearing is a mightyena, thick coat matted with blood, favoring a forepaw as she bounds into the open. She stops immediately on sight of the humans, snarling with teeth bared and mane bristling. Her trainer stumbles out of the trees a second later, chest heaving as he gasps for breath, and you feel a twinge of disappointment as you look him over. You hadn't been expecting much, but you'd hoped anyone important enough to get a hit put out on them would be at least halfway competent. All you see here is a young man in muddied, shredded clothing, face bloodied from a deep cut running across the bridge of his nose. He leans heavily against the mightyena, gaze roving the people assembled before him.

"Wha—" he starts, then thinks better of it, takes a deep breath, and tries to draw himself up straighter. The other humans step forward, all eagerness now. "Just what the fuck do you think you're doing, Jenna? This your idea of a joke, setting a whole fucking truckload of mankey on me while I'm fucking working?"

"Aww, what's this, now? The great Nathaniel Morgan running scared from a few angry monkeys?" Jenna says. You can only see the back of her head from here, but the smirk rings clear in her voice. The mightyena's growling redoubles, saliva frothing from her jaws to the grass below.

"Fuck you and your asshole friends, Jenna. Now get the hell out of my way unless you want to end up the same as the fucking mankey."

He makes as if to start forward again, the mightyena stalking ahead, but they both stop when Jenna unclips a pokéball from her belt and tosses it to herself. "So terribly sorry to detain you, your lordship," she says, with a bobbing parody of a curtsy, "but we're here on orders from someone even higher and mightier than yourself, if you can imagine that. See," and the mocking tone drains from her voice, leaving it all steel and malice, "Aiden isn't very pleased with the quality of your 'work.' In fact, he's thinking it has something to do with how the police have been doing a mighty good job of busting our suppliers lately and how half the jobs you work on go all pear-shaped. Because if there's one thing Aiden can't stand—that any of us can't stand, Nate—it's traitors."

"I ain't no fucking traitor!" the great Nathaniel Morgan roars over mutters of agreement from the lurking teenagers. "That's bullshit! And I'll shove it up Aiden's ass myself the second I get back to base. Unlike certain people I know, I don't need to send six pissant grunts to take care of my own goddamn business. Now get the hell out of my way, Jenna! Last fucking warning!"

"The reason Aiden sent so many of us after you, Nate, is because he overestimated you," Jenna says in a mock-soothing tone while the rest of her group starts to fan out, moving to surround the great Nathaniel Morgan. You can see his eyes darting around as he looks for an opening. "I mean, nearly losing to a bunch of wild mankey? Talk about disappoin—"

A yell of "Mightyena!" cuts her off. The dark-type surges towards Jenna while her trainer takes off sideways, trying to outrun the closing cordon of Rockets.

Jenna's only startled for a moment, and the mightyena, injured as she is, can't reach her before she casts her pokéball to the ground. "Let's go, Ursaring!"

You shrink closer to the tree trunk as the hulking normal-type appears, catching Mightyena across the face with a slash attack even as she leaps for him, sparks of energy still dancing in his half-solid fur. The attack sends Mightyena sprawling, and she does not rise.

Meanwhile, one of the other humans calls out a sandshrew to intercept her trainer. The ground-type has no trouble catching the limping human and brings him down with a blow to the back of his knees. The sandshrew's trainer starts to give another command, but Jenna steps in. "Hold. Ursaring, make sure he doesn't run off again."

The big bear doesn't hurry, and its kind aren't known for their speed, but even so the great Nathaniel Morgan only barely makes it to his feet by the time the ursaring reaches him, recalling his mightyena in a flash of red light. Pathetic. The Rocket should be grateful he'll have you to carry on his name after he dies—at least you'll be able to lend it some small measure of dignity.

Certainly if it were you staring down nearly six feet of stony-faced bear, you wouldn't sneer up at him and say, "All right, you stupid piece of shit, let's see what you—"

The ursaring doesn't wait for him to finish, just grabs him by the shoulder and hurls him one-armed into the side of a tree. The normal-type turns a blank expression on his trainer, awaiting further orders.

The teenagers gather around their injured target, laughing and jeering as the ursaring steadily dismantles him, getting in the occasional kick of their own. The bear operates without apparent interest, a bored expression on his face, and you can't blame him. The whole process is really very dull; it's not as though the great Nathaniel Morgan is able to put up any kind of fight.

You zone out for a while, the sounds of the beating fading from your awareness as you think of nothing at all, spreading your leaves and quietly photosynthesizing. It's only when the ursaring is recalled and the humans close in around their victim that you bother paying attention again.

And as soon as you realize what they're up to, you come out of your lethargy with a shock of alarm. They're taking the great Nathaniel Morgan's wallet, his pokémon... his pokédex! It vanishes into the back pocket of one of the Rockets even as you watch. You stifle a growl. Of course they wouldn't leave it to rot out in the wilderness with the great Nathaniel Morgan's corpse. It's nearly as valuable to them as it is to you, and if you don't get it, this whole tedious excursion will have been for nothing.

But you can't just run down and grab it. You don't like your odds against six trainers, Rockets or not, especially not if they have more pokémon like that ursaring. So. You need a distraction.

The group saunters back in your direction, laughing and talking amongst themselves. They stop and look up as a shadow passes across the sun, a meteor hurtling low over the forest. It rockets into the trees on the far side of the clearing with a rending crack and an impact that knocks two of the humans off their feet and showers the rest in leaves, twigs, and a surprised squirrel.

While blue flames burn themselves out in the resulting crater, you let out the loudest roar you can manage from a reconfigured throat, then crouch low against your branch as the humans' heads snap around in your direction.

"What the fuck was that?"

"Sounded like a... salamence? Salamence, right?"

"What would a salamence be doing way out here?"

Lightning strikes a tree near where the Rockets huddle, and they scatter to avoid a shattered bough that tears down through the canopy. You leap away, putting some distance between yourself and your old perch, and let out another roar, pitched just slightly differently. Then you freeze, wait until their eyes pass indifferent over your new hiding spot, and call quietly on the power of storms.

"Two of them?" wonders the boy who'd identified the salamence cry earlier.

"What are they, fighting?"

"I don't care if they're having a motherfucking church revival up there. We're getting out of here before we find out," Jenna says as dark clouds boil into existence overhead and rain begins to fall. She rubs at her cheek, where a flying piece of debris has scored a long cut.

"I can't see anything up there," says another girl, and you petulantly send the next thunder attack her way, just for that.

"No more talking! Everybody move!" Jenna barks after she's picked herself up again. "Nicholson! Where's Nicholson?"

"There are two salamence out there, and you're just going to run away from them?" asks the golbat's trainer.

"Look, Mark, if you want to go off and capture those salamence for the glory of Team Rocket and your paycheck, be my guest," Jenna says as she hauls a dazed girl back to her feet. "If you make it back alive, I'll recommend you for a promotion myself. But we gave Morgan what he deserved, so as far as I'm concerned, we're done here. Let's go, people."

She takes off running in the direction of Fuchsia, and most of the others follow her lead. Mark lingers a moment, staring up into the trees, then turns and follows after.

You lash out with a burst of telekinetic force and hook the pokédex out of the thief's pocket, and it tumbles into the leaf litter, unnoticed in the scramble to escape. Then you wait a few minutes more, sending an idle draco meteor after the group, just to drive home the point. When the snapping and crashing sounds of the humans' flight have died away and tentative forest noises are returning, you dismiss the storm with a wave of your hand.

One great jump sets you down next to the pokédex, and you struggle to pry its cover off with clumsy reptilian fingers, too impatient to shift them back towards human. Then it's open and on, its screen glowing, and you start flicking through menus and calling up statistics, drinking in all there is to know about the life that is now yours. You're so engrossed that you don't even notice Absol until she nudges your shoulder.

You choke and drop the pokédex, twisting left and right as you look for some sign of trouble, the leaves at your wrists flaring in alarm. "Absol! What is it? Is there danger?" Maybe your little show attracted unwanted attention. If so, you don't see it yet.

"No. No danger to you. But that human is dying." She tips her head sideways, pointing with her blade, and for a second you aren't sure what she's talking about. Your gaze travels out across the clearing to where the ruined corpse of the great Nathaniel Morgan lies.

"But he's already—"

"He is not dead. He will be, soon. And he should not be." Absol gets up off her haunches, turns a tight, agitated circle, then sits down again. "It's not right." Up, circle, sit.

You slowly spread your leaves again, unease prickling at your gut. She's anxious. Absol is actually anxious. You've never seen her show emotion like this before, not even when the volcano was about to annihilate your world—even then, it was efficient professionalism to the last.

"Absol, what's going on? Why do you care what happens to that Rocket?"

"His death is not right, but I cannot prevent it. You are the only one who can." A muscle in her shoulder starts twitching, like she's trying to shake a fly, and she turns her head to bite at it.

"No I can't! I don't know how to save him. What do you want me to do?"

Absol turns back to you, though the twitch is still going. "You can heal him with your attacks."

"Healing attacks only work on pokémon, Absol."

"They work on you, and you are not a pokémon."

"But I'm not a human, either! I don't know what they'll do to a human. I've never tried it before. It might just make things worse!" You regret the stupid words the instant they leave your mouth.

Absol glares at you, so venomous you actually flinch away and half raise your hands to shield your face. "You are whining. At the least you can try. Quickly. Now!"

She lunges at you, and you take off in a stumbling run. You're out of the trees and across the clearing in a matter of seconds, pulling up next to the wreck of a human. Absol follows, her gaze stern, then stops and bends to scratch a sudden itch on her leg with her blade.

Dismay tightens your chest as your life-sense tells you that Absol is right. The Rocket isn't dead, but he will be, and soon. You glance at Absol, and she stares back, all twisty-sideways as she tries to deal with the itch at the same time. You look down at your patient, and the cold fear in your gut knots tighter. The ursaring was very thorough. You can only begin to guess at all the injuries the man's sustained. It would probably be easier to count the number of bones left intact than the ones that got broken.

Another pleading glance at Absol receives only a stony, meaningful look in response, so you do your best to quash your fear as you raise your hands in front of your face. Energy surges down your arms, pouring blinding white from your fingertips and gathering between your hands. As you force more of your life energy into the attack, the mass grows, forcing your palms apart until it's roughly the size of a chicken egg.

You roll the softboiled into your left hand and give it a quick glance over, fighting the wave of exhaustion trying to drag you to your knees. The attack looks fine, faintly glowing through a thin, gelatinous shell that can barely hold back the raw energy within. Fine, but also fleeting; if you don't get this into the Rocket in the next half-minute or so, it will collapse in on itself and fall inert.

You lean over the man and use your free hand to pull open what's left of his jaw. You drop the softboiled in his mouth and slam it shut again, not troubling to be gentle; a little extra damage from an overzealous push won't make much difference at this point, and it would be far worse to let any of the softboiled's energy escape. Then you sit back on your haunches and watch the Rocket with Absol at your shoulder, waiting for your attack to do whatever it's going to do: heal the human, or burn through his veins and annihilate the last of his spark. Or maybe nothing at all.

It doesn't take long. After a few seconds you can see the softboiled working, some of the Rocket's minor cuts disappearing, deeper ones starting to clot and scab. All well and good, but his more serious injuries are barely touched, and you slump a little as you realize, half a moment before Absol says it aloud: "That is not enough."

It's no good arguing now that you've committed to the work, and stopping to think will only make it worse. You flex your fingers, which prickle with faint, itching pain, then draw them up in one swift, determined motion, already sending energy racing down your arms. This time, you really do stagger, panting, as the softboiled takes shape, but your motions are quick and sure as you feed it to the great Nathaniel Morgan—after all the effort that's gone into making it, you can't afford to slip up and drop the thing.

With the softboiled secured, you release your focus and slump to the ground, gasping for air and digging your burning fingers deep into the cool dirt. And still it isn't enough. The human is like a black hole, sucking up all your energy and tossing it into the void. You meet Absol's stern gaze and force yourself upright to perform the attack a third time.

And that does it. The Rocket isn't restored, no; he still looks as though he's taken a beating, albeit a less severe one. But he is no longer dying, and at the moment you think that's the best Absol can ask for. You're not sure you could manage another softboiled even if you had to, anyway.

"Watch him," you say to Absol, much too tired to keep the bite of anger out of your voice. "I'll do more later. Now I need to sleep."

Absol hesitates only a moment, then bows her head in a brief nod. "Thank you." You grunt and stagger a couple of steps away, then collapse into sudden, heavy slumber.

You wake ravenous, arms and fingers aching to the bone. The rest of you is sore and weakish, stirring memories of the flu from a whole lifetime ago. But mostly you're hungry, and the big lump of bloody human lying so nearby, faintly breathing, isn't helping.

Absol is stretched out next to him, watching patiently as you gather yourself. You half want to slide back into a doze, but the hunger is too insistent. "The least you could do after all that is get me something to eat," you growl at Absol without lifting your head from the grass.

To your immense surprise, she doesn't reprimand you for being rude. She actually rises and says, "I suppose." Then she steps sideways into drifting leaf-shade and vanishes. You find yourself looking at nothing but empty air, deprived of anyone to gripe at. A few seconds later you let out a warbling yell of exasperation and roll onto all fours, sparing only a passing glance for the Rocket. It's clear he's not going anywhere.

You find the pokédex lying where you dropped it earlier, in that flash of panic when Absol started going crazy. You shake your head as you pick the machine up, brushing a bit of dirt off its cover. You shouldn't have given her the excuse to leave. She might have actually told you what was up if you'd been quick enough to ask, but by the time she gets back you're sure she'll have come up with some evasion or other.

Your spirits improve once you actually manage to concentrate on the pokédex's data. It comes loaded with six badges—six! Two more than you'd even dared hope for, and more still than you'd really expected to find. Somewhat at odds with what you've witnessed of the great Nathaniel Morgan's abilities, too.

Your gaze slides back to the convalescent Rocket, and unease stirs in your chest. How long is it going to take him to heal? If you're going to be using his identity, you can't just let him wander around free. He might tell someone about your plans. On the other hand, you don't want to drag a half-dead human along on your journey, either. The inconvenience could easily outweigh the boon of badges you hadn't expected to have.

Before you can wallow too deeply in melancholy thoughts, Absol steps out of the shade with the food she promised, a rabbit dangling from her teeth. She sets it neatly on the ground in front of you, then watches without expression as you grab it up and toss your head back, swallowing it down in one quick motion. There's a funny sliding feeling as your jaw unhinges to let it pass through whole, and then it's sitting heavy in your stomach, awaking lizardy instincts to crawl off somewhere and digest.

You can only manage a "thank you" for Absol before you succumb to the urge to rest, scaling the nearest tree and seeking a sunny spot along a branch to settle yourself in. There you relax into a digestive stupor, leaves flared to catch the light and mind gone dozy and distant.

"Are you just going to go back to sleep?" You blink, shake your head, look down at Absol. She's up on her hind legs, paws braced against the tree trunk, and is staring up at you.


"I don't understand why you are sitting around doing nothing. I thought you wanted to hurry."

You shake yourself again and try to gather your thoughts. They're none too charitable, now that your rest has been interrupted. "I did, Absol, but then you decided you wanted me to babysit some Team Rocket member I hoped was going to die. There's no point trying to hurry now. I can't go anywhere until he at least wakes up."

"You're being petulant." Absol lets go of her grip on the tree with a snick of claws over bark, then starts to pace around its base. "If it means so much to you, you can go out and find another for your scheme. You have no reason to linger here."

"Absol, I don't have the time to get anybody else. It took me over two weeks to find this one, and that was only because Duskull got lucky."

It had been much, much harder than you'd expected. Isn't training supposed to be dangerous? Trainers on TV face peril every day, and there's never any shortage of murders to fuel your favorite crime dramas. You thought there'd be plenty of lives for the taking if you were willing to do a little leg work—honestly, you'd been surprised you hadn't encountered any murders in what time you'd spent around humans already.

But no amount of following children into the wilderness yielded results, and you'd been forced to flee from a trainer's pokémon twice. Checking dumpsters for discarded bodies hadn't gone over any better. Weeks passed, and all you accomplished was to drive Absol to icy uncommunication with your nagging. "I cannot say when simply any human is going to die," she said—repeatedly, you did have to admit. "If I could, then I would be on constant alert. I can only sense the fate of those whose lives are twined with mine—and the more distant the connection, the weaker my awareness."

It wasn't fair that she wouldn't help, especially because it was her own fault that you were scrounging for another body in the first place. Absol and her stupid rules.

None of your old souls were suitable. You needed someone new, someone no one, or at least no one connected with the League, knew was dead. Someone who'd perished in an out-of-the-way place and wouldn't be discovered for a couple of weeks. You hadn't thought that too much to ask. All you needed was for some human to walk into a convenient ravine and die—how unlikely could that be? In the end you'd found someone—well, Duskull had—and of course, Absol had come along to ruin that, too, babbling something about Fate like always.

"If you do not have time, then perhaps it would be better to abandon this nonsense. There is no reason for you to take another's life for your piece of folly. You can go to the Plateau as some imagined person, and I will see to it you find your brother."

You already pointed out challengers need a valid license, and only challengers have access to the trainer's village where the Champion will be staying. And there's no point getting to the Plateau early, since there's nothing you can do until he arrives anyway. It only makes sense to spend your extra time on making getting to him easier.

But Absol's heard all this before, and you don't expect her to change her mind. The truth is, none of these is the real reason, and she knows it. "It's not nonsense, and I know I don't need to, Absol. I want to, and I want you to either tell me why you have a problem with it or stop getting in my way."

"I don't know what you're talking about. I see no reason to stop you from entering the tournament if you want. That does not mean I think it is a good idea. How am I getting in your way?"

"This... That. What's up with this guy?" You gesture to the great Nathaniel Morgan. "Absol, I've never seen you act like that before. You almost seemed... scared."

Absol turns her stare on the unconscious Rocket. "Him? He has nothing to do with anything. But we must always try to prevent the world turning aside from Fate, no matter how small the transgression." She pauses, then shakes her head, as if to drive away an insect.

"Absol, you're doing it again. Come on, I know it isn't nothing. You're acting all funny." A thought occurs to you. "Or is it not about this at all? Is it something else?" An icy certainty freezes your bones as you start to realize: "You—you're not sick or something, are you?"

Absol snorts and says, "Of course not. You are being foolish. There is nothing wrong."

You still feel cold and shaky, and you want to crush down your feelings, make them all go away, but you can't concentrate on that or anything else right now. You find yourself stammering out the truth instead, voice small and quivering. "Absol, why won't you tell me what's going on? You're scaring me."

Absol tips her head to the side and stares at you, and you realize in a flash of exasperated relief that she's genuinely puzzled. Then she leans forward and gives you a quick nudge on the shoulder with her nose. "Well. I did not mean to frighten you. I'm sorry, but it really is nothing. Nothing you need to worry about."

"But you were worried about it. Why were you worried?"

Absol turns away from you, so quick you think she must have seen something out in the forest and jerk around to stare yourself. But she's just looking blankly at the trees, thinking. After a few seconds her claws tighten in a death-clutch on the earth, and she says slowly, distantly, "I cannot explain it to you. It was a shadow on the water's face. I saw it. I don't know how to explain it. That is what it was. A shadow on the water's face."

"And that's... bad."

"Yes." She turns back to you and gives you another bump on the shoulder. "But you stopped it, like I asked you to. So it is nothing to worry about. And thank you for helping."

You catch her before she can pull away again and hug her around the neck while she tries to wiggle out of your grip. "That's okay. I just wish you could tell me what was going on. Do you think another one of those water... face... darkness things is going to happen again?"

She tops shaking out her mane and stares at you, then says slowly, "That depends on you." When all she receives in response is a perplexed look, she elaborates, "Because the water doesn't have a face unless you're looking into it."

"Absol, if you meant 'reflection,' you should have just said it."

She gets a faraway look and thinks again for a minute. "Would you have understood what I meant if I had?"

You have to admit it's still frustratingly metaphorical. "No."

Absol nods briefly. "Better to call it what it is, then," she says. "Now, I must be going. Whatever you choose from here, you have done well." She turns aside.

"Absol, wait. I still need to sleep. I need you to stay here and watch—" But she steps into shadow and out of sight, and you're left talking to a shaft of sunlight falling between the leaves overhead.

You snort and turn away. Aches are creeping back into your joints, a fog settling over your mind as your body demands you rest. For you, it's a safe enough proposition; not so much for the human. You cast him a resentful glare. He's already attracting flies, and if something larger and hungrier arrives while you're distracted, all the effort you went to in saving his life will be wasted.

As a sludgy haze of lethargy descends over your mind, you decide it's an acceptable risk. It's not like you really want him to stay alive—just the opposite, actually. If Absol doesn't want something scavenging him, then she can show up to stop it herself.

Feeling sluggishly, vindictively satisfied with that, you make your heavy way back up the tree and out onto a branch, and let yourself slip into blissful uncaring for several hours more.

You return to yourself in late evening, prodded back to alertness by insistent cramps and, again, the demands of your stomach. The sun is sunk behind the trees, their shade gone deep and cold, and the cloud tatters overhead are tinted a blushing pink. You close your eyes and stretch, luxuriating in the feeling of being returned to full strength.

Meanwhile, the Rocket's still unconscious, lying in exactly the same attitude as you left him. He isn't dead, you're disappointed to see. But he's acquired a new companion.

You jump down from your perch and rush across the clearing. "Duskull, Duskull!" The red glow of the ghost's eye rolls in your direction while the rest of his body bobs in place. "There you are. Where'd you go off to, then?"

The ghost grumbles something barely audible and drifts in your direction, eye roving back and forth in his skull. "Thank you for not following me earlier. I told you, Duskull, you shouldn't hang around near Team Rocket. It's dangerous. What if one of them saw you?"

Duskull grumbles and scoots away from you, waving his tendrils dismissively. You shake your head. It's an old argument, and not one you have the patience for right now. Instead you look down at the Rocket, considering.

"This is so stupid. He looks exactly the same as he did this morning." You know it takes longer for humans to heal than pokémon—much longer, even. But you think he should have at least woken up by now. Prodding him with a toe yields no response. Duskull watches as you select a finger you can tell is broken and lean your weight on it. Not even a twitch. If the Rocket is playing dead, he's an incredible actor. You let out a hiss of disgust and flop to the ground next to the man, staring at him through the frame of your knees. "What am I supposed to do with this?"

Duskull gurgles quietly. "Yes, this is the guy they were going to kill. But of course, they're Rockets, so they managed to screw it all up, and then Absol made me heal him for some stupid reason, and now he's just lying there." You spread your hands in exasperation.

Duskull watches the early night-insects investigating the great Nathaniel Morgan's wounds for a bit. Then his eye turns to you, and he mutters something half to himself.

"No, Duskull. I told you I don't want you hanging around those guys." The chirp of crickets fills your pause. "I mean, you don't know if... they have a hit out on anybody else right now?"

Duskull wags his body side to side. "Then no. It's too dangerous." For a while the two of you remain in silent contemplation of the human. Then you push back to your feet with a gusty sigh. "Look, you mind watching him for me? I don't think he'll go anywhere, but I don't want anything to come along and eat him, you know?"

Duskull's only response is to retreat most of the way into the tree trunk over the Rocket's head, only the red orb of his eye floating outside it, his skull mask nothing more than a suggestive whorl in the tree's bark. "Thanks," you say, then close your eyes in brief concentration, jumping back to the abandoned building not far from the forest's edge where you hid your supplies.

Back in the clearing, you unroll the sleeping bag you packed more out of a sense of obligation than anything—you don't mind sleeping on the ground—and drape it over the great Nathaniel Morgan. You don't relish the idea of trying to get him inside it, so you decide he'll simply have to deal with being cold. If it bothers him so much, he can always wake up and climb in himself. After that, you seek out a couple birds to take the edge off your hunger, then become Charmeleon, the warmth of your fire sac and the flame burning on your tail driving back the chill of the late-summer night.

You take one last look at the great Nathaniel Morgan, Duskull's eye hanging over him like a ruddy night-light, and have to stifle a hot surge of irritation. If he doesn't wake by morning, you'll try one more softboiled on him. If that fails, he'll be on his own and you'll look to your other, dwindling options. With that resolved, you settle down in a nest of leaf litter, curled in around the flame on your tail, and sleep.