Notes: The following takes place some three years after my series, "Dragon Master." The purpose of this chapter is primarily to reintroduce all the characters and concepts I used last time, and to lay the groundwork for what is to come. If you're new to the story, don't worry, it will all be explained. If you're not a newcomer, be patient because the plot is coming up.
The afternoon sun beamed down on Violet City. Its light played off the silver-white hair of a young girl, a trainer by her garb, who was busy looking after some small bird Pokemon. She was clearly not your run-of-the-mill trainer; she wore a sky-blue uniform that indicated she held some rank in the Gyms, and the point was emphasized by a row of sparkling silver badges that were proudly displayed along the hem of her jacket. Otherwise, she seemed a fairly ordinary young girl, fourteen years old, rather tall for her age, with a slender build. Her dramatic hair was bound in a sensible braid, and she wore long leather gloves and shoulder pads to protect herself from the birds she was dealing with.
"Come on, Berry," she addressed one of the birds. "You can do it! Look, your brothers and sisters are already flying."
"Nat, nat, natu!" the bird complained.
"No, I will not believe you're afraid of heights," she told him sternly.
"Natu! Nat, natu!"
"No, I don't believe that, either. Come on. Just as high as my hand. If you do, I'll give you a berry."
"Natu!" he chirped happily. He fluttered his short wings frantically, and with a great effort, raised himself into the air to perch on the girl's glove.
"There! See, I knew you could do it," she said. She fished in a pouch and handed him one of his namesake fruits, which he gobbled happily. Immediately, four more Natus descended on her, all chattering favoritism and demanding to get some of whatever their brother was getting.
The chaos was broken up by the arrival of a junior trainer, one of the ones who hung around the Gym battling the arriving hopefuls and seeking the local Gym Leader's instruction. He peered out into the garden, caught sight of the girl, and gave a small sigh of relief.
"Aurora! There you are!" he said. "I've been looking for you all over the place! I thought you were supposed to be in the aviary this time of day."
"Sorry, Merlin," she said. "Falkner asked me to give these little guys some special training. Did you need me for something?"
The boy called Merlin shook his head. "No, but Falkner told me to find you. There's something he wants to talk to you about."
"I'll be right there," Aurora replied. "Here. Put these away for me, would you, please?"
She handed him the round green bird. He looked at it in surprise. It chirped at him.
"What am I supposed to do with this?" he asked.
"Put them in the aviary. Just give them some berries - they'll follow you."
At the sound of the word "berries," all the Natus began to chatter happily. Looking resigned to his fate, Merlin led a procession of chirping baby birds off to the aviary, while Aurora hurried back inside the Gym.
Three years ago, Aurora had been living in Goldenrod City, looking after her parents' shop and dreaming of becoming a Gym Leader. Now she had chosen by Falkner the Birdkeeper to be his apprentice, future Leader of the Violet City Gym, and she loved her new life. Her new home was a cozy little room on the upper floors of the Gym, down the hall and around the corner from Falkner's own apartment and with easy access to the aviary. Her duties consisted of taking Falkner's instructions on Pokemon training and battling, helping him manage his correspondence, competing with the other trainers, and helping to care for the Birdkeeper's impressive bird collection. It helped that she had a natural affinity for Flying-type Pokemon and could understand their language. She also idolized Falkner and was thrilled to be sharing his work. Now she hurriedly tidied herself up (baby birds were not the cleanest creatures in the world) and went to see what her teacher wanted.
Falkner was in his office, a comfortably breezy room with a large double-paneled window, through which messenger birds flew every hour of the day. There were tall shelves filled with reams of information on everything that was going on in the world, and a desk with dozens of pigeonholes where the most pertinent notices were kept. Even with Aurora helping him, Falkner had a full-time job keeping up with it all, for he was the Elite Four's official information gatherer, what Gym Leader Morty sometimes liked to call the spymaster. Even now, Falkner was shuffling through his papers, frowning a bit at whatever the latest news was. Then he looked up at Aurora and managed a smile.
"Ah, there you are," he said. "I was hoping you hadn't wandered off too far."
"Did you need me for something?" she asked.
"As a matter of fact, I was hoping you could run a little errand for me," he replied. "Have a seat, and I'll see if I can explain. Have you been keeping up with the news from Kanto, lately?"
"Not really," she said, blushing. "That is, I haven't heard anything that really caught my attention..."
"Well, they haven't really been playing it up," said Falkner. "Quite the opposite - they've been keeping it as quiet as they can, by order of the Elite Four themselves. I just thought you might have come across something while you were doing my correspondence."
"Is something bad happening?"
"Bad enough to have Lance worried. There's been a spate of disappearances in Kanto - young trainers going out and never coming back alive. Some of them have vanished entirely. Others have their bodies turn up in unlikely places. Not unlikely as in the middle of nowhere - unlikely as in places you wouldn't think they could get without being noticed, as if someone wants them to be found. There's been a marked increase in the rate of Pokemon theft and abandonment. At least a dozen have been found in the last week alone, wandering the countryside, looking for their trainers."
"That sounds like..." Aurora began, and stopped herself. The habit of long years was hard to break, and hearing of that kind of trouble made her think automatically of Team Rocket, despite the fact that their activity had been curtailed almost to the point of nonexistence for the last few years.
"That's what a lot of people think," said Falkner, guessing her thoughts. "That's where you come in. If you don't mind, I'd like you to go and talk to Ember, and ask him what he knows about all this."
"Why me?" asked Aurora. "Wouldn't someone else be better? I mean, Lance is his teacher, isn't he? Can't he ask him?"
"Lance has tried. Ember takes his commitment to impartiality very seriously; he does everything in his power to keep Rocket business from mixing with Gym business. Every time Lance tries to ask him what he's doing with the Rockets, he shuts up like a Cloyster. That's why we're asking you to try."
"I don't know," said Aurora, frowning. "Ember likes being hard to figure out, I think. Even if I am his friend, he still doesn't tell me a lot."
"Still, you're the most likely candidate," said Falkner. "If he turns you down, we'll just have to blunder along without him, but I like knowing I've tried every avenue I could. So, what will it be, Fledgling? Will you help?"
He had said the magic word. "Fledgling" was his private pet name for her. He only used it when he was particularly proud of her, particularly worried about her, or had something he wanted to convince her to do, and every time he used it, she melted.
"I'll go," she said.
He smiled. "Wonderful. I knew I could count on you. Here." He handed her a stack of papers. "This is what I've been able to gather so far about the case. Look it over while you're traveling."
Aurora thanked him and set off, determined to get her job done quickly and well. It wasn't just out of her eagerness to please her teacher that she hurried. Ember, the Dragon Master of Blackthorn City, was an old friend of hers, one she had seen only seldom in recent months, as they both became more involved with their own work. After all, Ember was a busy young man; when he wasn't leading his Gym, he was leading Team Rocket. He was the nephew and heir of the infamous Giovanni, and now that the great gangster had taken his retirement, it rested on Ember's shoulders to keep the team in line.
Outside Falkner's office, Aurora hurried up the hall and down a spiral staircase to the main floor of the Gym. She did not, however, head for the stadium, but instead turned her footsteps toward an ornate green door. Flinging it open, she found herself standing at the entrance to a huge greenhouse, fully two stories high with a walkway around the second storey. Trees grew there, both domestic and tropical, and a man-made stream splashed from one end of the structure to the other, spilling down a miniature waterfall to end up in a pool at the at the far side, where the water was drained and pumped through again. A wall of rock rose up against the building, providing nests and caves for rock-dwellers. Flying Pokemon of every variety lived here, from flocks of Pidgeys that Falkner used as messenger birds to rare and exotic beasts like Xatus and Dodrios. The Gym Leader and his apprentice shared a belief that Pokemon, when not being used for active training, were happier left outside their Pokeballs, so they were released to this aviary until they were needed.
Seeing the girl's arrival, one bird in particular swooped down from his perch to greet her. It was a Fearow, a proud and fierce specimen who still bore the marks of old battles. He answered, if one was polite enough and if he felt like answering, to the name of Scar. Now he came forward eagerly to greet his trainer.
"Hi, Scar! Miss me?" Aurora asked.
"Sorry. It's been a busy week - I've been buried in paperwork," she told him. "I've got a job for you now, though, if you want to get out for a while."
"Great! We're going to go to Blackthorn City."
"Fear, fear, fearow?"
"Well, of course we're going to see Ember. Who else is there?"
"Now, that's just plain silly. Falkner's right when he says Ember's about as sociable as a Cloyster. I can think of better people to talk to than him," answered Aurora. "Unfortunately, I have to. So, what do you say? You want to take a trip?"
Scar considered the matter, ruffling his feathers. Then he flipped his wings in an avian shrug, which Aurora interpreted as, "Well, since I have nothing better to do..."
"Good," she said. "Let's go."
She climbed the stairs to the upper floor, where there was a window opening to the outside world, with a small balcony outside. It was a good place to stand and observe the countryside, and an equally good takeoff point for a trainer wishing to Fly somewhere. Aurora allowed the bird to take a comfortable grip on her shoulders, and the two of them lifted off into the sky. She grinned. Flying always gave her a rush of elation that few other things could, a feeling of being exactly where she belonged. The only other time she felt that way was during a Pokemon battle. For now, though, she was perfectly happy to be up in the air, watching her home city spreading out below her feet. Once, she had been offered the position of Leader of the Blackthorn City Gym; now she was glad she had refused the offer. There was nothing about her life in Violet City that made her feel anything but thankful to be right where she was.
It was, however, undeniably true that the thought of going back to Blackthorn gave her a certain tingle of excitement...
Aurora walked quickly through the streets of the city, feeling oddly as if she were in a place she didn't belong. Blackthorn had always given her that feeling, ever since the day she had first viewed it in the bloody light of a setting sun, and repeated visits had not done much to alleviate the sensation. There was an air of oldness there, as if there was some other force lurking beneath its surface, something that was only just barely tolerating the presence of the humans who had settled there. She privately thought it was no wonder its last Gym Leader had gone wrong, having to live under this oppressiveness each day. The most she could say was that it didn't seem to have had that effect on its current Leader... at least, not yet.
She arrived at the front door of the Gym and was met by a young man in a uniform. She checked him briefly and identified him as only a Junior Trainer, a rank below her as far as Johto's loose pecking order was concerned. He also had only five Badges. Knowing that, she was able to approach him with a show of confidence she would not ordinarily have felt. It was amazing what a uniform could do for a person; most trainers would listen to her with some degree of respect, even if she was only the apprentice of the lowest-ranked Leader on the island.
"Do you have business here?" asked the Junior Trainer.
"I'm here on an errand from Gym Leader Falkner," answered Aurora. "I need to speak with the Dragon Master."
The Junior Trainer narrowed his eyes. "About what?"
"That's between him, me, and Leader Falkner."
"What makes you so sure the Dragon Master will talk to you?"
She smiled a little. "Just tell him it's Winter-hair here to see him."
The Junior Trainer looked a bit mystified, but he went into the Gym to deliver the message. Aurora waited confidently. Within a few minutes, the trainer returned.
"Leader Ember will see you now."
The doors of the Gym were opened, and she stepped inside, following the trainer. She was pleased to note that Ember had renovated the Gym, removing the lava pools that had dominated it when Clair had been in charge. Now there was a smooth battlefield where trainers could face the Dragon Master fairly, if not successfully. However, it was not into the main part of the Gym that she was led, but up a narrow flight of stairs to the third level. There they found a broad corridor lined with pretentious-looking doors. The trainer rapped on the most ostentatious of the group.
"Send her in," answered a quiet voice.
The trainer turned the latch and pushed the door open, giving Aurora a look that said, "You're on your own now." She ignored him, and, with Scar hopping at her side, stepped into the room.
She found herself in what might have been a parlor of some sort, a comfortably furnished room, dimly lit with candles. The golden light outlines the shapes of elegant furniture and glinted on the gilt stenciling of books. The carpet shone blood-red where the light struck it, but most of the room was simply red-tinged shadows. In the darkest part of the room, a pair of eyes glittered.
"You always did like to be dramatic," Aurora commented, settling into a nearby chair.
"I'm a Dragon Master," answered Ember. "Drama is part of what I'm about."
As the girl's eyes adjusted to the darkness, she could finally get a clear look at her old rival. There had been a brief time when they had been almost close, or at least constantly getting under each other's feet, saving each other from the messes that seemed to come with being a trainer. Then he had stepped into the double burden of Dragon Master and Rocket Leader, and the combined strain had left him too busy to keep up with his acquaintances. They had seldom had time to speak to each other in the last couple of years. She had to admit, he'd grown up well. He'd always been good-looking, and his new uniform agreed with him. He was dressed in something form-fitting and completely matte black, with a sweeping dark cloak. The dark color emphasized the brilliance of his red hair and blue eyes.
"You were dramatic even before you were a Dragon Master," she answered, "but it's still good to see you again."
He waved a hand negligently. "Cut the small talk. I know you didn't just come to chat. You have business with me, isn't that right?"
There was a sharpness behind his words that made Aurora feel stung. "I still came to see you."
"Only as Falkner's messenger bird," he replied. "Very well, then. Deliver your message. I'll bet I can guess what this is all about, anyway."
"I did come with a question," she admitted. "I've heard there are... bad things going on in Kanto. Falkner thought you might know something about it."
"What you are not saying is that the Gym Leaders would like to know if this is Team Rocket's doing," answered Ember. "I thought you, of all people, would know better."
"I do know better," she answered. "I'm not making any accusations. It's just that... you always seem to know everything that's going on, and more about it than anyone else. Even if you don't know, you've got ways of finding out. We need your help."
Ember looked somewhat mollified. "Ah. Then I apologize. I am forgetting, you're the sort who would never think badly of anyone, would you? That being the case, I'll tell you what I know. I can, at least, assure you that Team Rocket is not behind the troubles in Kanto. They may be across the sea from me, but I can still keep a tight rein on my members. I do not permit such senseless killing; it is punished harshly enough that I doubt anyone is foolish enough to quarrel with me on that count. Nor will I allow the abandonment of Pokemon. If it happens that one of ours is injured or otherwise unfit to continue working, good homes are found for them out of the fighting circuit. There's a man in Lavender town, and a young woman in Cerulean City... But these are perfectly strong, healthy Pokemon that have been abandoned. No Rocket would ever have discarded them like that, even when my uncle was in charge."
Aurora nodded. "I didn't think you would put up with that kind of thing. So, if the Rockets aren't to blame, who are?"
"I don't know," answered Ember. "That's what worries me."
"What do you mean?"
"Not everyone trusts me like you do. There are quite a few trainers, even Gym Leaders, who believe I never should have been allowed to take this position. Only their respect for Lance's judgement gives me any stability here. If an enemy appears in a place where Team Rocket has been the major threat to peace and harmony for years, and I can't prove that it isn't one of us that's causing the trouble..."
"They'll blame you," Aurora finished.
"Exactly. And I can't fight what I can't see. I have been searching diligently, through my gang's spies, but so far, we have minimal information. This enemy moves in no particular pattern. As far as we can tell, they attack trainers in out-of-the-way places and leave the remains where they're sure they'll be seen. They do not distinguish the talented from the untalented, the young from the old, male from female... no distinctions at all, as far as I can tell. They do not steal anything but the Pokemon, who are released in the wild."
"There's no sense in it," said Aurora.
"Oh, there's always sense in the criminal mind," answered Ember. "It makes sense to them, otherwise they wouldn't do it. Only the idiotic and the insane move without purpose, and this person or group is too slippery to be either. They have an intelligence network that puts yours and mine to shame, to avoid detection so well."
"So you really can't tell us anything?"
Ember gave her a sad smile. "No, I can't wave a magic wand and make everything all better. You haven't grown up a bit, Aurora - still the eternal idealist."
"Maybe I just have a lot of faith in you."
He laughed. "You're the only one. Well, perhaps a few others, but you... you're a special case."
"I really have missed you, Ember."
"Of course. That's why you came to visit so often."
She didn't respond to the barb at first. Instead, she considered it seriously for a moment.
"I guess you missed me too, then."
"I like people to keep their promises, that's all," he replied. "Well, you have what you came for now. Go on back to your teacher and tell him what you've learned."
"I will," she told him, "but don't be surprised if I come back."
He smirked. "I won't hold my breath."
Aurora got up and left the room, with Scar trailing behind her. She wondered why he hadn't said anything; normally, Scar was a vocal bird who never hesitated to put his two cents in.
"What did you think of all that?" she asked.
"Fear, fearow, fearow."
"I'm not even going to answer that," she replied.
When she left Blackthorn, dusk had fallen, and the city was lit with golden lights. As she and Scar flew away into the night, neither of them saw a single figure standing at a window on the third floor of the Gym, watching them as they vanished into darkness.
The call went out a few days later: the Gym Leaders were to come together in a meeting, the likes of which had not been held for years. A representative from every town and metropolis in Johto was to be sent, as well as similar delegates from Kanto's cities. Aurora heard the news from one of Falkner's messenger birds, and she immediately sought him out to hear what he had to say on the subject.
"Ah, just the girl I wanted to see," he said as she came into his office. "I was just about to send for you."
"Chatter told me what was going on," she replied, referring to the talkative Pidgey. "Are you going to the meeting?"
"Unfortunately, I can't," Falkner replied. "I am, after all, the local spymaster. They need me here to keep an eye on things. I won't be as useful sitting in a meeting as I will working on monitoring the situation."
"So who's going, then?" she asked.
"Well, I was told in the summons that if for some reason, the local Gym Leader can't attend, it would be best to send a substitute in the form of their apprentice..."
Aurora gave a whoop of excitement, and Falkner laughed.
"Eager to go, I see! Well, then, that saves me the bother of trying to convince you."
"Who's going to do my job while I'm gone?" she wanted to know.
"I'll get one of the Junior Trainers to look after things," Falkner replied. "Merlin, perhaps. He doesn't have your abilities with birds, but he's reliable in most other ways."
Aurora nodded. "I've sparred with him a few times. He'll do all right for a few days... How long is this going to take?"
Falkner shrugged. "Who knows? Maybe a day, maybe a week. I've never been in this exact situation, so I wouldn't know."
"I almost hope it takes a while," said Aurora. "I've never been to Kanto before. I wouldn't mind looking around a little."
"Well, that case, I suppose I could spare you for a little while," Falkner replied. "You won't see much sitting in a board room, though. I'll tell you what, why don't you take a short vacation? I don't think you've had one since you came here. You could probably use the break."
"Oh, no, I've been so happy! I haven't minded being here at all..."
"Even so, you're still a young trainer - you deserve to have a few adventures before you have to settle down and be responsible. Besides, you can pick up some Gym Badges while you're there. Have some fun while you're out there."
She beamed. "Thanks, Falkner, you're the best!"
"Don't forget to bring all your Pokemon along," he said. "And while you're at it, why don't you bring one of the Natus along? It will be good training for them."
"Can I really?"
"Of course. They'll like it, and it will be one less worry for poor Merlin while you're gone."
"Thank you! I'll take good care of it," Aurora said. "I'll start getting ready right now!"
"No hurry! The ship doesn't leave until tomorrow!"
"Tomorrow?" she squeaked. "Great Lugia, I've got to pack! Bye, Falkner! I'll see you later!"
She scampered off to the aviary in search of the Natu babies. They had become her responsibility a few weeks ago, when Falkner's Xatu had surprised everyone by producing a clutch of eggs. They had never been quite certain who the father was, as none of the other birds had owned up to it, but the fact remained that there were now five baby Pokemon who needed training, and as apprentice Gym Leader, Aurora was the logical choice for the job. She had to admit, they were rather endearing little things, and it hadn't been long before she'd gotten attached to them. She had even named them all. It had started when she'd noticed one of them growing with a tendency towards being a bit longer and flatter than the others. That shape, coupled with his bright green feathers, had prompted her to call him Lime. His rounder, fatter brother became Berry, and the other male she had named Kiwi. The girls became Papaya and Mango. They were apt names; all of them seemed to be in a constant state of near-starvation and chattered ceaselessly for food.
"Now, which one of you should I bring?" she questioned her little flock.
The birds cheeped loudly. She stared at them.
"I can't take all of you, you know."
"Nat! Natu! Natu, natu!"
She covered her ears against the noise; baby birds were very vocal. When she felt brave enough to look down again, she saw that one of them was sitting on her foot.
"What is it, Berry?" she asked.
"Natu, nat, natu, natu."
"Natu, natu, nat, natu."
"You won't starve, I promise! Merlin's going to be looking after you - he'll make sure all of you are fed."
"Nat, nat, natu."
"He'll train you, too! Don't worry."
"Natu, natu, natu, natu."
She looked down at the little bird. It appeared that anything she told him was not going to convince him he would be safe without her.
"How would you like to come to Kanto with me, Berry?" she asked.
"I'll take that as a yet. Okay, boy - hop in!"
She unclipped a PokeBall from her belt and opened it, allowing Berry to flutter clumsily inside. The Ball shut with a satisfying snap.
"So much for traveling companions," she said. "All right, where are the rest of you guys? I know you're out there! Come on out - we're hitting the road again."
At the sound of her voice, there was a rustling in the shrubbery, and five more Pokemon came out to greet their trainer. In the lead came the Umbreon, Moondancer. She was one of a rare group of experimental female Eevee pups, a gift from the famous Pokemon collector, Bill. Despite her Dark nature, she was a fun-loving creature who liked nothing better than an adventure, and was now twining around Aurora's ankles, purring her excitement.
From the top of the rocky peaks came a metallic clatter, and a gleaming Skarmory flew down. He had first met Aurora after she had saved him from a Rocket poacher who had trapped him in a rainstorm. The resulting damage to his feathers had prompted Aurora to give him the name Rusty. These days, though, he was clean and shiny, thanks to her vigilant care. He was a noble soul who prized his honor, and followed Aurora out of his gratitude for protecting and caring for him.
Out of a dark crevice, a swift fluttering shape flew out to circle his trainer a few times before coming to hang upside-down from her arm. That was Frightful, a Crobat. He had been the victim of Rocket experiments, left to die once he'd reached the end of his usefulness. Before Aurora had met him, she had been terrified of bats, but she'd been able to overcome her fear enough to save him from the Rockets and carry him to a Pokemon Center, saving his life.
A raucous squawk announced the arrival of Blabberbeak the Murkrow. He'd formerly been trained by Rockets, and his demeanor proved it. He had the ability to parrot human speech - the extent to which he knew what he was saying was uncertain, but Aurora got the feeling he always knew exactly what he was talking about. The greater part of his vocabulary consisted of insults, but Aurora tolerated him, and he served her well in return.
Last but not least was Scar, taking pride of place as Aurora's lead Pokemon. He had been her first, a birthday gift from her family on the day she'd started her training. He'd been abused and abandoned by his original trainer, and was still inclined to be disagreeable with strangers, but there was no doubting that he and his trainer adored each other. She ruffled his feathers affectionately, and he ran his long beak through her hair in greeting.
"Hope you guys are ready for a few battles," she told them. "We're going to train in Kanto for a few days."
The answer was a unanimous yes, and Aurora smiled. Falkner was right, as usual - it was time they had a new adventure.
It was a sunny day over Olivine City as the trainers boarded their private ship. They would be traveling aboard the S.S. Ultramarine, a small boat that had been reserved strictly for those who would be attending the great Gym Leader's convention, to be held secretly at Professor Oak's lab in Pallet Town. Aurora approached the docks with a feeling of excitement; she'd never ridden a boat before, and this one was a beauty. It's deep blue-green trim glittered like the sea itself. Scar caught her looking dreamily at it and squawked at her.
"What's your problem?" she asked.
"Don't be so unsociable. If we flew, we couldn't talk to anybody on the way. Besides, what would be the point of getting there before anyone else? We'd just have to hang around and wait."
"I hope you get seasick," she said.
They stepped up to the walkway and were met by a young man in a uniform.
"May I see your ticket, ma'am?" he asked courteously.
"Um. I have it here somewhere," she said. She rummaged through her belongings - spare Pokeballs, potions, assorted power-ups, and the rest of her battle paraphernalia before finally coming up with the scrap of paper. She handed it over to the ticket-taker.
"Aurora Cummings, representing Gym Leader Falkner and Violet City. Yes, everything is in order. Welcome aboard the S.S. Ultramarine. You can leave your Pokemon in the recreation area on the first level. Everyone else is upstairs in the dining hall."
Aurora followed the ticket-taker's directions and found the recreation room at the end of a long hallway. She was expecting to find something like a Gym room inside, so she was surprised at what she actually encountered. There was a broad swimming pool at one end where assorted Water-Pokemon splashed, fading into ice floes on one end and soft sand on the other. One wall was taken up with artificial cliffs and caves, and plant life filled another corner. She smiled - Pokemon of any sort would find a comfortable nook here. She released her partners and let them seek out their preferred resting spots.
"Don't get into trouble," she cautioned. "Don't pick any fights with strange Pokemon."
"Get lost!" Blabberbeak scolded her.
She laughed. "All right, then. At least don't get into any fights you can't get out of again."
The bird flirted his tailfeathers at her and flapped off. She closed the door and left her Pokemon friends to their play. Then she headed for the staircase and set out in search of the dining hall and the rest of the trainers.
Finding them wasn't hard; even from a distance, she could make out the chatter of many voices, and servers were dashing in and out the doors carrying trays. Aurora followed the action and found herself in a large room full of people. She noted that everyone else seemed to have arrived ahead of her, and mentally began ticking off the guest list.
Representing New Bark Town was Professor Elm, the renowned researcher, together with his friend Mr. Pokemon from Cherry Blossom town and the well-known researcher, Bill. Then came the Gym Leaders and their helpers. In one corner, she could see Bugsy and Whitney deep in conversation - Aurora guessed from the look on her face that Bugsy was boring her silly with his research into insect Pokemon.
Also present was a dark-haired and dark-eyed boy, dressed completely in black. He was talking to no one, but that was just his way. His name was Nicholas, called (though never to his face) Necromancy Nick, for he was the apprentice of Morty the Ghost Master. Like his master, he seemed to prefer the company of ghosts to human beings.
Representing Mahogany Town's Gym came a duo, Yukiko and Miyuki, the twin trainers of Ice Pokemon. Aurora had met them before and found them to be nice enough people, an odd contrast to their crotchety master. They had eternally bland manners and vague smiles, and Aurora was never quite sure how much of it was genuine and how much was just an act to put people off their guard. Aurora waved to them before moving on.
In the center of the room, she found three young people standing in a sociable cluster. One was a blue-haired and blue-eyed girl from Olivine City, Jasmine's apprentice Lapis Lazuli. She was chatting with a muscular young man with grey eyes and sandy hair, Cianwood City's Leader, Bruce. It was the third member of the group, though, that made Aurora stare. It was a girl of her own age with short dark hair and rosy cheeks. She was dominating the conversation, showing off a yellow pad full of notes to Lapis while Bruce hung on to every word.
"Laine!" Aurora shouted, coming up to join her. "What are you doing here?"
The girl turned around. "Rora! I was wonderin' when you'd show up!"
Laine grabbed her friend in an enthusiastic hug; Aurora was sure she felt a few ribs pop. Nevertheless, she was smiling when she was released. Laine, otherwise known as Elaine Harvester, was her very good friend and former traveling companion. The two of them had crossed the whole of Johto together on Aurora's Gym journey, and during that time they had become fast friends. Laine was an up-and-coming researcher carrying on the work of her deceased father. With her outgoing ways and practical mind-set, she had been a good helper for the more idealistic Aurora.
"Man, I haven't seen you in forever," Laine was saying. "How's your training comin'? Still havin' fun in Violet City?"
"Tons," answered Aurora. "How about you? What are you doing here, anyway? You're not a Gym Leader - or you weren't the last time I heard."
"Nah," said Laine. "I couldn' deal with all that fightin' stuff day in an' day out. I'm still busy with my research. I thought this would be fun, though, seein' all the Gym Leaders gettin' together, so I asked to come. Brucie here got me a ticket."
"She talked me into it," said Bruce, nodding. "She's a fast talker."
"I've noticed," Aurora replied.
"My old dad wanted to come along himself," Bruce continued, "but Mom talked him out of it. He's minding the Gym for me while I'm gone. He grumbled a lot about all the extra work, but ever since he retired, he's been grumbling about not having enough to do."
"His dad grumbles about everything," said Laine, with an expressive roll of her eyes. "If nothin' was goin' wrong he'd grumble about bein' bored. I'm glad Brucie takes after his mom. She's sweet."
"Sounds like you're pretty well settled on Cianwood," said Aurora.
"Sometimes," said Laine. "You know me - can't stand stayin' in one place for too long. I've been runnin' around a lot - pokin' around at Mt. Mortar, lookin' for wild Tauros outside of Ecruteak... but yeah, Cianwood's where I go when I wanna put my feet down."
Aurora nodded knowingly. When Laine had met Bruce, the two had formed an instant rapport... and why not? Though Laine preferred not to battle unless she had to, she was still a skilled trainer in her own right with an affinity for Fighting-types. That affinity seemed to extend to the trainers of Fighting Pokemon as well. Aurora couldn't really blame her. Bruce was an attractive young man, nearly as muscular as the Pokemon he trained. More than that, though, he was possessed of a kind and friendly nature, and he seemed rather in awe of Laine's intelligence.
"I hear you've been doing good work in Violet City," Lapis said. "Even Pryce speaks highly of you, and he never has anything good to say about anyone."
"I like Pryce," said Aurora. "He and I always got along."
"I'm glad someone does," said Bruce. "He never forgave me for coming through and clobbering his favorite Piloswine."
"Who cares if she gets along with Pryce?" asked Laine. "It's Falkner she's training with. How is he?"
"Busy," Aurora replied. "Even with a couple of Junior Trainers helping, we're still drowning in work. A lot of the stuff we deal with is classified information, so we can't let just anyone deal with it. I hate to think of everything I'm going to have to do to catch up when I get home."
"Trusts you a lot, huh?" asked Laine, her expression turning calculating.
"Well, yeah. I mean, I am his apprentice."
"You really lucked out when you got him as a mentor," said Lapis. "He doesn't get half the respect he deserves. He's very talented, and nice, too. He's probably one of the most easygoing Gym Leaders there is... next to Jasmine, of course."
"He's cute, too," Laine added slyly.
"Yeah," said Aurora, blushing a bit. Hurriedly, she added, "He is really nice. He hardly ever scolds me. Sometimes we even just hang around talking and playing games."
"Games?" Laine repeated, raising an eyebrow.
"He's teaching me to play mahjong," Aurora explained. "The game of the four winds, you know. I'm not very good at it yet, though."
Lapis was listening to Aurora and Laine with a puzzled expression. "I'm sensing there's something more to this conversation than I'm getting."
"It's nothing," said Aurora, still blushing slightly. "Laine's just goofing around."
"Aurora has a crush on Falkner," said Laine.
"I do not!"
"You're blushing, Rora."
"Because you're teasing me!"
Laine laughed. "You just don' wanna admit it. What's Ember gonna do now that you've got yourself a new boyfriend?"
"Where is Ember, anyway?" asked Aurora, latching gratefully onto a possible change of subject.
Bruce shrugged. "No idea. I haven't seen him the whole time I've been here."
"I know where he is," said Lapis. "I saw him when he got here. He went straight up to his cabin and hasn't come out since."
"I wonder what he's doing in there?" Aurora mused.
"Oh, you know him," said Laine. "He's always gotta be mysterious."
A paranoid notion crossed Aurora's mind that he might be avoiding her. He had sounded irritate with her the last time they'd talked, though she was not entirely sure why. Could he really be that angry with her for not visiting him in so long? If so, she thought hiding from her was a silly way to deal with it. No, it was more likely that Laine was right; Ember was simply being his unsociable self.
The journey passed pleasantly. The ship's food was very good - a notch above what Aurora got at home, she was forced to admit - and the company was enjoyable. She circulated through the crowd, chatting with Bill about how her Eevee had grown, asking the twins how Pryce was doing, and even exchanging a few words with Nicholas. She and Morty had never been particularly close, but he was a good friend of Falkner's, and she admired his talent even if she wasn't overfond of his company. By the time Mr. Pokemon had managed to corner her and ask her to recount for him the story of how she'd met the Articuno, the ship had pulled into its harbor, and she had an excuse to cut her story short and go to retrieve her partners.
Just as she was leaving the recreation room, she was surprised to run into Ember. He didn't see her at first; his eyes seemed a bit glazed, and Aurora thought he looked very strained.
"Ember!" she exclaimed. "Where have you been? Are you okay?"
He turned and glared at her.
"Oh, it's you," he said. "If you absolutely must know, I've been in my cabin."
"I knew that, but what for?"
"Because," he said bitterly, "boats make me seasick."
Aurora looked surprised. "They do? But... you've traveled on your Gyarados through the oceans lots of times, and it never bothered you."
"That was different," he said. "Hope is a steady swimmer. She doesn't do all that bobbing up and down and back and forth and..." His expression suddenly turned a few degrees paler, and he hurried off without a goodbye.
"Oh, dear," she said, stifling an urge to giggle. "I know I should feel sorry for him, but..."
Scar squawked loudly; he didn't have an particular compunctions about laughing at the unsociable Gym Leader's plight.
Leaving the boat, she was met at the dock by a smiling, dark-haired girl.
"Hi!" she said. "I'm looking for, let me see... Lapis Lazuli, Aurora Cummings, Miyuki Moriyama, Gym Leader Whitney, and Elaine Harvester. I'm guessing you're one of them?"
"That's right. I'm Aurora, and this is Scar. Who are you?"
"My name is Daisy," the girl replied. "I'm going to be your hostess while you're here. Most of the female trainers are boarding with me. The guys are camping out next door. There sure are a lot of girls in this batch, aren't there? I'm glad to see a rise in female Gym Leaders; Johto has only had Whitney and Jasmine since that Clair person got the boot. You had something to do with that, didn't you?"
Aurora nodded, but didn't comment. She didn't need to; Daisy had already picked up another topic of conversation and was babbling away. She was contagiously excited, making all her guests feel as if they were all her long-lost sisters. They were escorted to a comfortable two-storey house in a forested corner of town, just across the street and across the block from the lab.
"Professor Oak is my grandfather," Daisy explained brightly. "I really wanted to come and see the meeting, but he wouldn't let me. He's being really secretive about it. I don't quite understand it - I mean, everybody knows there's going to be a meeting - you can't keep something like that quiet in a place this small - but nobody knows what it's about."
"We're not allowed to talk about it," said Aurora. "Lance's orders."
"Ooh!" said Daisy, intrigued. "Not even a hint?"
"It would be most improper to disobey the Champion's orders," said Miyuki.
"She prob'ly doesn' even know," Laine confided to Aurora. "I know Brucie doesn' know. He jus' got an order to come, so he came. I don' think I coulda gotten in except that Bill put in a good word for me."
Aurora felt a twinge of surprise; she hadn't realized she was party to privileged information. How hard had the Elite Four been working to keep this quiet? To cover up the silence, she said, "I know I wouldn't want to have Lance mad at me. I met him once, and he seemed nice enough, but he didn't look like the kind of person you make upset without a good reason."
"You met Lance?" asked Daisy, eyes going wide. "Wow! You're going to have to tell me about that!"
"You should write a book," Laine commented, as they followed Daisy up to their rooms. "Then you wouldn' have to tell the same story over an' over so much. Neither would I, come to think of it."
"I'll keep it in mind," Aurora replied.
At the top of the stairs, the little group was distributed among the available sleeping spaces. Whitney and Lapis agreed to share the guest bedroom, while Daisy offered to let Miyuki stay the night in her own room. Aurora and Laine were stationed together in a small room that appeared to have been someone else's at some point; there was a clutter of odds and ends, small knickknacks that no one had ever bothered to remove. However, an effort had been made to make it comfortable. The bed was neatly made, and there was a sleeping bag spread out in a spare patch of floor.
"That used to be my brother's room," Daisy explained. "He moved out when they made him a Gym Leader, and he never took all his junk out of the closet. Sorry about that. It'll be okay for a couple of days, though, right?"
"This will be fine," said Aurora politely.
"Cool, we get to room together," said Laine. "Just like old times, huh, Rora? I got dibs on the bed."
"Whatever," Aurora replied.
"Hey, much time as I spend on the road, sleepin' outdoors, I deserve a real bed for once! You've got your own room in the Gym, so you can't complain!"
Daisy left the girls to get unpacked and settled in. They were left to their own devices for no more than half an hour, however, before Daisy came to knock on their door again, telling them that they were needed in the lab.
"Finally, somthin' happens!" said Laine.
The lab itself was as imposing, in its way, as any Gym, tall and noble, with white walls and glittering windows. Despite Laine's insistence that Pokemon were best studied in their natural habitat, something in her expression told Aurora that if she had to work in a lab, she'd have liked to work in this one. However, they didn't get nearly enough time to look around before they were hustled through a door and down a creaky flight of stairs.
At the bottom of the staircase was a large empty room - empty, that is, except for a number of folding tables and chairs, and seated at these tables were a great number of people. Someone seemed to have jury-rigged a stage at one end of the room, just enough to make sure anyone standing there could be easily seen and heard by all, and sound equipment was spread across it with more interest in functionality than in aesthetic pleasantry. Otherwise, the room was bare, cold, and slightly dusty. Aurora had the feeling that none of what she was seeing had been there yesterday. She took her attention away from looking at the furnishings and started looking at the people.
She had never met any of the Gym Leaders of Kanto, but she had seen enough pictures that she could recognize them when she saw them. None of them had bothered with sending apprentices; apparently they either didn't have any to send, or thought that Pallet Town was close enough to home that they could get there themselves conveniently. Aurora silently began ticking them off. That woman with the long dark hair and flashing eyes was Sabrina the Psychic. The quiet-looking girl in the formal dress was Erika, Mistress of Grass Pokemon. The redheaded girl, who was looking rather bored at having to wait, could only be Misty of Cerulean City, which made the girl sitting next to her Janine the ninja, master of Poison-types. Privately, Aurora thought Daisy had been right when she'd hinted that Johto was lacking in female Leaders. However, Kanto had its share of men, too - severe-looking Lt. Surge, Brock the Rock Master, and Gary, Leader of the Earth Gym, were all in evidence. Looking around, Aurora spotted other notables, including Professor Oak himself, the director of Sylph Co., and Mr. Fuji of Lavender town. The Elite four - Will, Karen, Bruno, and Koga, along with their Champion Lance - had a table to themselves. And off in a corner, conversing earnestly with Gary and another boy, was...
"Look, look, look!" Laine hissed in Aurora's ear. "It's him!"
"Are you sure?" asked Aurora, staring into the shadows.
"Of course it's him! I've seen his picture in the papers a zillion times!" Laine replied. "Ash Ketchum!"
"I'm impressed," said Aurora. "I've heard he's gotten rather reclusive since he earned his Championship. I wonder how they pried him out of hiding?"
"He probably just knew he couldn't hang on to his Championship for very long," said an imperious voice. "I heard our Champion from Johto tracked him to the Silver Mountains and squashed him flat in a Pokemon battle."
"Hello, Ember," Aurora said. "Over your seasickness so soon?"
"Seasickness?" asked Laine. "I didn' know you got seasick, Ember."
Ember rolled his eyes in exasperation. "Anyway, that's our Champion, Hiro, that he's talking to, if you're interested. If you're going to drool over Champions, you might as well distribute your attentions equally."
"We aren't drooling," said Aurora. "We just have a proper amount of respect for a legendary trainer."
"Giovanni was a legend in his time," said Ember, looking somewhat put out.
"He's just jealous that we don't pay any attention to him," said Laine.
"Me? Jealous? No, thank you," said Ember. "I've heard enough of this conversation. I hope you either have the sense to talk intelligently at this convention, or keep your mouths shut."
He turned on his heel and stalked off, his cloak swirling dramatically behind him. The image was marred slightly by the fact that there was a young Dratini draped over his shoulder, which stared back at the girls with puzzlement in its eyes.
"Well!" said Laine, raising her eyebrows. "If he didn' wanna talk to us, what the heck did he start a conversation for?"
"No idea," Aurora replied. "Come on, let's go see if we can get some good seats."
They hurried toward the tables, where they did not manage to get the best seats, but they still could see the stage well enough. Aurora sat with Laine on her left side and Yukiko on her right, which suited her well enough - Yukiko wasn't disagreeable company, and was better than, say, Nicholas. Ember took his place as far from everyone as possible and glared down the table at everyone in general.
After a time, Lance got up and walked up to the stage. He tapped the microphone a few times, was reassured that it was working properly, and addressed the crowd.
"Thank you for coming," he said graciously. "Has everyone arrived?"
There was a moment of muttering as the crowd counted its members.
"Blaine hasn't arrived yet," said Brock.
"Does anyone have any idea where he might be?" Lance asked.
"The Seafoam islands are a difficult journey from here, and his Fire Pokemon would not be able to carry him," Erika offered. "It may be that his journey has been obstructed."
"He's been in a snit ever since his Gym got blown up," said Misty. "Maybe he decided he'd rather stay there and work than come out here."
"Well, we don't have the leisure to wait for him," said Lance. "We'll have to start without him. I'm assuming you all know, by now, why we are here?"
There was another murmur from the crowd.
"I see you do," answered Lance. "Very good, that will save some explaining on my part. Explanations will accomplish little. What we need now is a plan of action. Has anyone a proposal for what we should do?"
"We need some reconnaissance," Lt. Surge grunted. "Instead of having meetings, why don't we send someone out to find who's causing this trouble so we can go and stamp it out?"
"Even as we speak my best reconnaissance agents are giving the project their full attention," said Lance. He spoke blandly, but there was a flash in his eyes at the implied criticism. Lt. Surge shrunk back into his chair. "Unfortunately, as of yet, they have uncovered no substantial evidence. Whoever our enemy is, they move quickly and work secretly. They also work with no pattern. They attack anyone, anywhere, at any time. Without a way of predicting where they might strike next, we are searching blindly."
"It is true," said Sabrina, in her quiet, authoritative voice. "I myself have attempted to peer into the ethereal realms in search of clues, but they elude me. I have had only two visions I believe have any relevance to the case. One was an image of a tall gray mountain, and from its peak there shone a bright light... yet even as I watched, the light turned to darkness and plunged the entire mountain into night. The other showed me only a man in white gloves, but I could not see his face."
There was another murmur at this. Sabrina was well-known for her psychic powers, but even she was known to make errors and misinterpret the signs. It seemed not everyone in the audience believed her pronunciation.
"So what's really being said," Gary commented, "is that we really have no idea where to even begin looking for this guy."
"Guy," said Ash, "or girl, or Pokemon."
"You think it could be a Pokemon?" asked Bruce.
Hiro shrugged. "It's possible. A powerful Psychic Pokemon, for example, could do it."
"So not only do we not know who is causing the problem, we don't even know what," said Koga, sounding grumpy.
"So what do we do?" asked Lapis. "I mean, looking for the problem is one thing, but while we're doing that, what do we do about the trainers who are on the road right now? Any one of them could be in danger. One could be dying right now, for all we know. What are we going to do about it?"
"The young lady has a point," said Professor Oak. "We should make an effort to protect the young trainers while we're seeking the culprit."
"How do we do that?" asked Bruno. "We can't, not without telling them what's going on and scaring half the continent to death."
"We may have to tell them anyway," said Lance. "If it comes to a choice between death and fear, I think most would rather suffer a few worries and stay alive."
"I don't think we'd have to do anything drastic," said Aurora, surprising herself with her boldness. "From what Falkner's been able to gather, most of the trainers who have died, did so in really out-of-the-way places. Whoever this person is, they're a coward - they only pick off the people who can't possibly get any help, out in places where no one can see what's happened. If you want to keep people safe, keep them close to the cities and major roads."
"That would drastically limit travel around the continent," said Bugsy. "All the caves, the tracts of water between islands, the forests... it would make taking the Gym Challenge nearly impossible, wouldn't it?"
"We can suspend Gym activities temporarily if need be," said Lance.
"That may not be necessary."
All eyes turned to Ember. When he saw that he had everyone's full attention, he sat up straighter and stared back at them with defiance in his eyes.
"I know you all don't care greatly for me," he said, "but this is an area where I can help you. Everyone knows that I am the Dragon Master of Blackthorn City, and that gives me a certain amount of authority. What all of you may not know is that I am also the leader of Team Rocket."
He paused a moment as the few non-Leaders in the room made startled noises.
"Don't look so scandalized," he said. "The institution isn't what it was three years ago. Ever since I came into power, I've been restructuring the entire outfit. Killing is strictly forbidden. No lives are to be taken, whether they're human or Pokemon. What Pokemon we keep are treated properly - no more abusing or abandoning them. All members who refused to follow my law are dismissed; most of them find their way to the authorities sooner or later. All I have left are a handful of the most loyal, the ones who are willing to follow my principles. I myself do not mix Gym business with Rocket work. Lance knows this; it is why I am allowed to remain in power. Team Rocket is not what it was, neither as cruel... or as strong.
"This is my proposition. I have at my disposal the greatest group of spies and criminals in the world today. They can go where you cannot, into the darkest parts of your countries. They can learn things that you cannot. I am offering them to you now."
His proposal was met with skeptical stares. Finally, Lt. Surge said, "And what's the catch?"
"I prefer not to think of it as a catch. I'd rather think of it as payment for services rendered," said Ember. "If my Rockets can find this maniac you're looking for, I want a guarantee that they'll be rewarded for their work. I'm not asking for anything great, really. All I want is what's fair. For three years, Team Rocket was nearly nonexistent in Kanto. Then their hold was broken in Johto as well. Three years after that, I took over and cut what was left to less than half. There is almost nothing left compared to what we were. It seems fair that three years should belong to us, to rebuild what we've lost."
Lance looked at him critically. "What precisely are you asking?"
"For the next three years, I want official blindness to anything Team Rocket does. I want time to collect fresh followers and recoup our losses. After that, if you can catch us, so be it, but until then..."
"Why should we agree with this?" asked Erika.
"If you don't, we probably won't survive," Ember replied.
"And what would be wrong with that?" asked Whitney, looking angry. "Team Rocket is evil, dangerous! We should be glad to be rid of it!"
"You're wrong," said Aurora "Team Rocket isn't evil. People are. Team Rocket is just a place to keep the criminals together, so we can keep an eye on them. If Team Rocket breaks, there won't be any controlling them at all. They'd all be like the person who's causing all the trouble now, running around doing whatever they felt like. At least when they're in the team, they follow some rules."
There was some mutinous muttering. Many people started staring at Aurora the same way they had been staring at Ember a moment ago, and she forced herself to sit straight and ignore them. Ember himself looked at her with a strange, startled expression, as if he really hadn't expected her to take his part so vocally. As the muttering became louder and angrier, Lance began calling for order.
"I can see there is some disagreement here," he said. "If you please, we will discuss it in an orderly manner. For my own part, I am inclined to trust Ember. Whatever else he may be, he is a man of absolute integrity. His rules may not be our rules, but he can be trusted nonetheless. With your agreement, I am willing to grant his favor."
There was another muttering, which Lance quickly cut off with a sharp look. Everyone looked to him expectantly.
"A show of hands, then. Ember will abstain from voting. All those in favor of accepting Ember's bargain, please raise your hands," he said, raising his own hand in example.
Hands went up all around the room. Lance made a quick count. So did Aurora. She herself had raised her hand immediately, as did Laine, Bruce, the twins, and a few others. Sabrina and Will, the two Psychics, gave him a considering stare before raising their hands as well. A few others joined in more hesitantly. Lance gave them a few more minutes to think about it before nodding.
"All right. All those opposed..."
More hands went up. Again, Lance counted.
"The votes stand thus," he said at last. "Those in favor number fourteen. Those opposed number fifteen. The proposal is denied."
There was an angry buzzing as half the people present began arguing with the other half. Their assorted Pokemon hissed and squalled at each other under the tables. Ember stood up, shoving his chair away angrily, his eyes burning in the shadows.
"Fine," he snapped. "I thought you all were elected as leaders because of your wisdom, but it is clear you prejudice outweighs your intelligence. I want no more part of this mockery of justice. I'm leaving. If you want me, I'll be out catching this killer while you all sit around and have your meetings. Goodbye."
He stormed out of the room and slammed the door behind him. There was a ringing silence.
"Who does he think he is, walking out on us like that?" barked Lt. Surge.
"He thinks he is the Dragon Master," answered Nicholas quietly, "and the leader of Team Rocket, and a fine trainer in his own right. In his own way, he is every bit as powerful as our own Lance."
"You be quiet," said Whitney. "You and your master both just like to make trouble!"
"Morty does not make trouble," answered Lapis stiffly. "He simply doesn't judge by appearances. Jasmine says he's one of the best trainers there is, and I trust her judgement."
"Jasmine's objectivity is clouded where Morty is concerned," said Erika.
"Jasmine's personal life is of no concern to anyone," said Sabrina. "As for Morty, he shares with the Psychics an ability to judge people's characters. I myself believe Ember is trustworthy."
Will nodded. "I foresee a future in which we will all be very grateful for Ember's presence. The aura of greatness surrounds him; he is destined for great things. It would be better that we cooperate with him."
"Drop all that psychic nonsense," Janine said acidly. "Just look at him! Anyone can see he's a shady character, and dangerous."
"We have had dealings with Ember in the past," said Yukiko. "He is a brave young man, and absolutely loyal to his friends. I cannot suspect him of duplicity."
"But... he's a Rocket," said the Sylph Co. director in a quavering voice. "Surely you understand..."
"What I understand," said Aurora, "is that Ember is a good person. He's saved my life before. He helped put Clair behind bars. He freed a bunch of Pokemon who would have been killed by the Rockets otherwise. He's trying to help you people, and you won't let him!"
"Yes, but you heard what he wants!" said Koga. "We couldn't possibly allow-"
"Quiet!" Lance bellowed.
There was instant silence. Everyone stared at him, feeling like rowdy schoolchildren being caught by the principal.
"That's better," said Lance. "Frankly, I was hoping for more from you all. With your agreement, we will table the matter for tonight. It is getting late, and we are all tired. Perhaps with time to rest and consider, you will be able to converse sensibly in the morning. Meeting adjourned."
The group broke up with sighs of relief and rebellious muttering. Aurora could hear a few whispers hissing around her as people quietly carried on the debate as they went out the door. She felt a lump of anger building in her stomach; why couldn't people realize that there was nothing wrong with Ember? However, before she could pursue that thought too long, a heavy hand came down on her shoulder. She looked up and saw Bruce.
"Hey," he said. "You sounded pretty good out there, you know?"
"Not good enough, though," she answered with a sigh.
"Well, anyway, you stood up and said your piece. You ought to be proud of yourself. You're acting like a real Gym Leader."
"Thanks," she said, smiling a little. "How come you didn't say anything?"
"Aw, I dunno. I'm not much good at talking in front of people. You said everything better than I could, and they still didn't listen."
"Hey, you," said Laine, coming up beside Aurora. "You quit monopolizing my boyfriend, you hear?"
"I'm not monopolizing him," said Aurora, "and you just called him your boyfriend."
Laine blushed, but Bruce just laughed.
"Come on, let's get out of this gloomy place," he said. "I'll walk you both home. How's that?"
The girls agreed quickly. After all, Aurora reasoned, there was still something malevolent lurking out there, and you never could be too careful.
Despite a difficult night's sleep, Aurora was still in a much improved mood by the next morning. Perhaps, she thought, Lance was right when he said that they all needed a long time-out. Her normal idealistic nature was reasserting itself by the time she had finished her breakfast. It was hard to believe anything was going wrong when sunlight was streaming through the kitchen windows and Daisy was flitting about, chattering non-stop. Whitney seemed to have forgotten that she had ever disagreed with anyone about anything, and everyone was in high spirits. They laughed as their Pokemon played around the table legs, stealing blueberry muffins when they thought no one was looking.
When the dishes had been put away and no one had summoned them back to the lab, Miyuki suggested they spend some time outdoors, exploring the town. The suggestion was met with unanimous agreement, and the girls set out into the bright morning sun. As was usual, Laine wound up tagging behind Aurora.
"That was some meeting we had last night, huh?" said Laine. "If it keeps going like that, we're never gonna get anything done."
"Oh, don't talk like that," Aurora replied. "Not now. I don't want to think about it right now. Let's talk about something cheerful."
"Okay. Like what?"
"Pokemon. Have you caught anything new recently?"
Laine grinned. "A few. After all, that's the best way to study them, havin' them right there with you. I've got myself a nice Ampharos... and Brucie gave me a Tyrogue for my birthday. I can't make up my mind whether I want him to be a Hitmonlee, a Hitmonchan, or a Hitmontop. What do you think?"
"I don't know. You're the one with the Fighting affinity. I'll stick to Flying-types, thanks."
"So, have you got anything new?"
"Just Berry. He's a Natu. He's a little behind his brothers and sisters, so I brought him along for some extra training."
"He's not gonna get much training goin' to meetings," Laine pointed out.
"Well, Falkner gave me permission to stay here for a while and explore Kanto. He suggested I try out some of the Gyms here and collect a few Badges."
Laine whistled. "Hey, sounds like fun! Maybe I should hang out with you for a while. I haven't been around Kanto since I was a little kid."
"Won't Bruce mind you staying here?"
"I dunno. Let's go ask him."
They wandered over to the other side of town, where the boys were rooming. Predictably, Bruce was also outside enjoying the weather, sparring with a Hitmonlee."
"No, no, no," he was saying. "Look, you're aiming too high. Try it again."
"I know, but you could still stand some improvement."
"Hit, hitmon! Hitmonlee, hitmon."
"You tell 'im," Laine chimed in.
"What did he say?" Aurora asked.
"He says Brucie can criticize when he's the one on the Gym floor takin' hits."
"And he's not the one Dad chews out when I lose a match," said Bruce. "Hi, you two. What are you doing up here? I guess you heard the news, huh?"
"News?" Laine repeated. "I didn't hear any news."
"Me, neither," said Aurora, feeling miffed. As Falkner's apprentice, she was used to knowing everything as it happened.
"Oh. I guess it hasn't quite made it over to your side of town yet," said Bruce. "There are a lot of nasty rumors buzzing around this morning."
Aurora sighed. "It figures. And I was hoping this could all be wrapped up peacefully... Okay, what are the rumors?"
"Well, the first thing is true," said Bruce. "Blaine never showed up."
"Never?" Laine repeated.
Bruce shook his head. "Uh-uh. Lance sent an inquiry; it seems Blaine left Cinnabar Island, but he vanished somewhere between there and here."
"Oh, boy," said Laine. "That's bad. What else are they saying?"
"Ember's gone, too," Bruce replied.
"Well, we know that," said Aurora. "He said he was leaving, didn't he? That's just like him - if nobody will let him do what he wants, he walks off and does it anyway."
"Maybe," said Bruce, "but after that scene he put on last night, it doesn't look good."
"What do you mean?" Aurora asked.
"Well, it's like this," Bruce replied. "We know Ember wants Team Rocket reinstated, and he was using this whole thing as an opportunity to try to achieve his own goals. It didn't work, so now he's disappeared - walked out. Some people are hinting he's left the League for good."
"He'll be back," said Aurora. "He said he was coming back, so he'll come back."
"Yeah, well, he'd better," said Bruce.
"Why d'you say that?" Laine asked.
"Because," Bruce replied, "the word around town is that the person causing all the trainers' disappearances is Ember."