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Story Summary:


Desperate to escape the lawless region of Orre, a young ex-criminal named Wes attempts to leave both the desert and his past behind for good. Not all goes to plan, however, and soon he is caught in the middle of a dark and sinister plan that stirs quietly from the shadows.

Whispers of savage Pokemon, ruthless warlords, and a terrifying organization known as Cipher are rising from the sands, and Wes soon finds himself fighting to save the very region he was trying to forsake.

But demons from the past are cruel, and fighting corruption comes at a heavy price that not all are willing to pay.



Author’s Note:

Hey, hi, hello! Thanks for swinging by, and welcome to my first fanfic!

I decided to write about one of my favorite Pokémon games of all time, Pokemon Colosseum. I hope you'll enjoy taking this ride with me as I retell this fantastic story. As this is my first attempt at any kind of novelization, helpful feedback and critiques are more than welcome!

This story will be cross posted on RoyalRoad.com



Now, without further ado, let's jump into the land of Orre!
 
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Chapter 1: Escape

Some would say that "barren" and "Orre" were the same thing.

It would only take any newcomer a brief view of the landscape to see why. The desert Region sprawled for miles, seemingly without end, with little to no life in sight. The sun blazed down mercilessly on the copper sands as the winds whistled aimlessly across them. The only sign of life was the occasional tumbleweed that rolled lazily on by.

There was one thing that disrupted the flat expanse: a series of cliffs, tucked away from the sands, which formed a narrow canyon. At this canyon's mouth sat a large building - or, at least, something that almost qualified as one. The structure, though massive, almost looked more like a pile of poorly assembled pipes and scrap metal than an actual building. Like its surroundings, this, too, was a quiet and still place, with only the howling canyon winds to break the silence.

It wouldn't be quiet for long.

BOOOOM!

An earth-rendering explosion shattered the stillness as flames burst from a section of the dilapidated building. The scene suddenly sprung to life with shouts and screams as people in dark uniforms emerged from the destruction, sprinting back and forth in panic and confusion. Among the chaos, no one seemed to notice one person in particular sprinting from the building, with two Pokemon sprinting at his side.

"Go, go, GO!" The young man shouted at his companions as he ran straight for a massive hunk of metal that vaguely resembled a motorcycle. He sprang nimbly onto the seat and glanced into the sidecar to where his two partners should have closely followed. But instead of two, there was only one, his Umbreon, watching him tensely for further commands.

He glanced over his shoulder and found his Espeon a few yards away, yipping loudly at the people fleeing the burning building, tail waving triumphantly in the air. He didn't speak Pokemon, but the young runaway figured if he did, he would be hearing a choice selection of colorful insults.

"Neo, you idiot-"

"Espi-esp, esp, esp! Es-SPI!?"
The Espeon's barks cut short in a yip of surprise as his Trainer hauled him off off his feet and shoved him under one arm. He sprinted back to the motorcycle and dumped the creature rather unceremoniously into the sidecar next to his brother, ignoring the Pokémon's cries of indignation.

"LEO! I'LL KILL YOU, BOY!"

A terrifying roar of rage sounded from behind the trio, and the Trainer turned his head to see his least favorite person in the world: a massive, hulking man with no hair (though he made up for that with impressive eyebrows and facial hair), charging straight toward them, his face red and contorted with unfathomable fury.

Anger and bitter satisfaction alike swelled inside his chest. He faced his now-former boss with a growl.

"If you're going to threaten me," he said, "call me by my real name." He sneered. "It's Wes, by the way. In case you forgot."

The man roared again, this time too incensed to form any words. He barreled toward the Trainer and his Pokémon with a murderous expression.

It was time to go.

The motorcycle engine started with a roar, and in one smooth motion, the young man swept astride the motorcycle. He raised his left arm high above his head, sunlight glinting off a strange metal contraption that encased it. Holding a small remote in his hand, he looked his former boss dead in the eye, smirked, and pressed the button.

KA-BOOOM!

The second explosion was, if possible, even more impressive than the first, and nearly knocked every bystander off their feet. The giant man's screams of rage continued, but they were drowned out by a monstrous roar as the motorcycle kicked into gear. Its rider slammed on the gas and he and his Pokémon sped away, leaving the scene of wreckage behind in a cloud of dust.



The sun was sinking below the horizon and the temperatures had started to drop by the time their destination came into view: an old, rusty, seemingly abandoned train car. A wooden sign hung from a post near the door and was swinging lazily in the desert breeze. On its face, it read: OUTSKIRT STAND. The crusty thing had been converted into a diner, and though it wasn't much to look at, it was a place the man was familiar with. Most importantly, it was a place where they would be safe for the night.

He hoped.

The motorcycle puttered to a halt as its driver pulled up to the establishment. Dim lights shone through the train car windows as old Western music hummed from an outdoor speaker. Wes stood and stretched his limbs - speeding through the desert for hours did his joints no favors - as his Pokemon followed suit, leaping nimbly from the vehicle and stretching their lithe bodies.

"All right, who's hungry?" He pushed his mirrored goggles off his face and into his sandy hair, revealing a pair of golden colored eyes, and grinned at the two Eons. His Umbreon gave a yip of hearty affirmation. His Espeon, on the other hand, squinted at him, then sniffed airily and turned his head away from his Trainer.

"Spi."

A weary sigh escaped Wes' throat. He crouched down in front of his Espeon to be eye level with him despite the fact that the Pokémon was pointedly avoiding his gaze. "Neo. Is this about me manhandling you back there?"

The Pokemon, Neo, irritably flicked his tail in response.

Another sigh. "Look, I'm sorry. But there's a time and a place for gloating over a victory, and doing so while escaping from an exploding building is not it."

Neo flicked his ears back and looked at the ground, looking slightly abashed. "Esp." He then looked back up at his Trainer with a small glare. "Espi-esp!"

"I know, I shouldn't have been so rough. I'm sorry, bud, really. How can I make it up to you?" He glanced at the Outskirt Stand, then back at his Pokemon with a sly grin. "How about I get you a whole plate of bacon and we call it even. Truce?"

Neo's eyes grew wide and he leaped to his feet. "Es-PI!" He waved his tail excitedly in the air, all injuries to his pride forgotten.

"Bri!" There was a reproachful bark from the Umbreon.

Wes rolled his eyes, but was still grinning despite himself. "Fine, fine, bacon for everybody. Don't get used to it though, you hear? This is a one-time deal."

He wasn't sure if they heard the last line, as they were already bounding excitedly to the entrance of the train car. He snorted in exasperated amusement, then followed his companions into the warmth of the diner.

—-

Muffled cries, the screams of Pokémon, a child sobbing quietly in a corner - images and sounds flickered and blurred together, one coming right after the other as if in a disorganized photo reel.

A flicker, and there was a dark room, in which a child was sobbing over the limp form of a Pokémon's body. He looked up, tear-stained face twisted with anger. "This is YOUR FAULT!" He screamed.

The scene dissolved into darkness, and a man's husky, menacing voice spoke in a snarl. "It's time you learned this lesson, boy."

Another shift, another dark room littered with Pokemon laying ominously still, and there was another voice, a kinder voice, accompanied with a sad, tired smile.

"Do good, kid."


He sat bolt upright with a gasp, drenched in sweat and shivering. Breathing heavily, he glanced around the room. It took a moment to remember where he was: Outskirt Stand. The diner cellar. Payment for a night's stay in the musty place, where he and his Pokemon would be hidden from prying eyes.

Safe.

"Dammit-"
He buried his face in his trembling hands. Again, he thought shakily. Again. When in Arceus' name will they stop?

He felt a gentle nudge at his arm, and raised his head to see his Umbreon looking up at him with wide, concerned eyes. "Umbri?" The markings on his coat glowed softly, gently illuminating the dark, dusty cellar.

He forced a feeble smile and placed a hand on the sleek black head. "I'm okay, Novo. Just some more bad dreams, is all." Beside him, Neo stirred and stretched out his legs before relaxing back into sleep with a gentle purr.

Novo, unconvinced, bunted into his arm again with his head. He placed a paw on his Trainer's lap, giving him a stern stare.

"I know it'll help, bud, but I've got to be able to sleep on my own sometime." Wes closed his eyes briefly. He was exhausted, and yet returning to sleep would undoubtedly mean more nightmares, more voices, more things he'd rather forget...he opened his eyes again and looked at his Umbreon. "All right...just one more night," he said wearily.

Novo purred in response and brushed his face against the Trainer's shoulder. The traveler laid back down in his sleeping bag and closed his eyes as his Umbreon touched his nose to his forehead and purred gently, using Hypnosis.

Just before drifting off to a dreamless sleep, he had one last coherent thought.

The sooner we leave this Region, the better.
 
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pacman000

Well-Known Member
Interesting beginning, tho I dislike even minor cussing. I liked the way you characterized the two Pokemon.

Are you going for a Mad Max after-the-end feel?
 
Interesting beginning, tho I dislike even minor cussing. I liked the way you characterized the two Pokemon.

Are you going for a Mad Max after-the-end feel?
Hey there! Thank you for reading!

I wouldn’t say that I’m officially going for that feel, but Orre does seem to channel that energy all on its own with or without me going for it
 
Chapter 2: Interference

He was awakened the following morning by the sound of footsteps and chatter from the diner overhead. He was slowly gathering his bearings as he sat up, stretched, and yawned, when a familiar smell wafted to his nose...

Bacon.

He groaned. "Aw, hell-"

"ESPI!"


He was pushed flat on his back as his Espeon leaped at him, eyes wide, tail wiggling in excitement. "Espi! Epsi, espi, espi, espi, espi!"

"No
, Neo," Wes shoved the Pokemon off of him with a grumble. "I gave you and Novo plenty of bacon last night. One time deal, remember?"

At the sound of his name and "bacon" being used in the same sentence, the Umbreon lifted his head and yawned. "Umbri?" He pricked his ears forward gave his Trainer a hopeful look.

"I said no, guys." He donned a teal trench coat that fell past his knees and began to pack up his belongings, pausing only to give them a stern look. "Last night was a special treat, but today we have to get on the road as quick as possible, which means nothing fancy for breakfast. And that's final."

Naturally, not ten minutes later, he found himself sitting sitting across from his Pokemon in the diner, watching them each chow down a fresh plate of bacon.

Despite all his griping, he did relish the opportunity to spoil his partners a little. Bacon - or any decent food, for that matter - was hard to come by, and therefore was practically a delicacy. Under normal circumstances, he would have had to resort to swiping table scraps for all three of them, but thanks to the cash he'd snatched from the hideout, he could afford to dote on his Pokémon just a little. After yesterday, he figured they deserved it anyways.

The diner was just as shabby on the inside as it was on the outside. Still, there was a homey feel about the place, peeling wallpaper and rusty metal windows notwithstanding. The smells of various breakfast foods drifted through the air while the signature Western music played quietly in the background. On the wall across from where they sat was a flatscreen TV, arguably the most modern thing about the place. It was showing some old, obscure cartoon that nobody seemed to be watching.

Through the grimy window next to their booth, he could see two men laughing and talking amongst themselves, seemingly rejuvenated after a hearty meal. They continued laughing as they entered their vehicle - an old hover truck of some sort. Neo paused from his feast to watch them intently, his ears pricked forward, eyes trained on a large burlap sack that rested in the truck bed. His gaze remained steadfastly fixed on them, and he only returned his attention to his plate after they drove away and out of sight.

Wes had turned his attention elsewhere. He ate his breakfast quietly while discreetly scanning the occupants of the place. It was relatively empty, with only a middle-aged woman seated up front, dozing quietly in her booth, and a gruff-looking man stretched out at his own booth in the back, face obscured by his cowboy hat. The diner owner could be heard whistling from the kitchen behind the counter at the very front of the train car. No signs of immediate danger, it seemed. Still, the young man was anxious for them to be on their way.

"Here's the plan," he muttered quietly to his Pokemon. They both looked up at him from empty plates, licking the last remnants of bacon grease from their muzzles. "We'll head to Phenac to stock up on supplies, and head straight to Gateon from there. It'll take us a handful of days, but if we only stop for occasional breaks, we should make it in good time. And then, if all goes well, I can get a passport there and we'll be out of Orre. For good." Those last two words felt like a breath of fresh air to him. They were so close now, he could almost taste it. Soon, very soon, they would be rid of this Arceus-forsaken desert, and they would be free.

Neo chirped softly in agreement while his brother nodded, looking resolute. Wes couldn't help but smile softly and give them each a rub behind the ear. He'd never been much for people, but his partners more than made up for that. As far as he was concerned, there was no need for human company when his Pokémon were far and away better than any humans he'd bothered with.

"We bring this breaking news to you live from Eclo Canyon-" a female reporter's voice blared suddenly from the TV and interrupted his thoughts. He turned his head and felt his chest freeze; raw footage was being displayed on the screen, footage of a familiar metal building, now reduced to shambles and and a pile of smoking debris. The diner owner poked his head from the kitchen and, upon seeing the report, grabbed a remote from the counter and cranked up the volume. The woman up front snorted awake at the noise, and soon everyone present was watching intently.

"Reports of an explosion yesterday have lead investigators and authorities to this building, which has now officially been confirmed as the home base for Team Snagem. The scene was already abandoned by the time authorities arrived, and no casualties have been confirmed. The cause of the explosion remains unknown.

"Team Snagem is infamous for its involvement in theft, property destruction and Pokemon trafficking. Authorities have been unsuccessful in shutting down the organization..."


"Hah!" Wes gave a start as the gruff man from the back barked out a laugh. "Serves 'em right, the rotten thieves! Shoulda blown the whole lot of 'em away!" He rose to his feet and stretched.

"Aye, I'll level with ya there." The owner nodded approvingly as he he spoke, and the woman up front gave a disdainful sniff.

"I don't understand how authorities haven't at least made some progress," she said. "Whoever bombed that shack has done more than they have in thirty years!"

The Trainer turned back to his plate and inhaled deeply, willing his heart to stop racing so fast. He glanced uneasily at the metal sleeve that covered his left arm from his shoulder to his wrist. The existence of Snag Machines was not public knowledge, and his identity was safe for now. All he needed to do was get moving as quick as possible -

"Howdy, stranger!" A hand clapped on his shoulder, and he found himself jumping again. Inwardly cursing, he turned his head to see the man from the back now standing beside him, grinning down at him. "Those are some mighty fine Pokemon ya got there!"

Wes shrugged off the man's hand and eyed him darkly. "Can I help you?" He growled.

The man chuckled and removed his hat, revealing a surprisingly young looking face and a head of pink hair - pink hair? He offered a hand to the young Trainer. "Name's Willie. Yours?"

He did not shake his hand. "Wes," he answered curtly.

Willie withdrew his hand, though he didn't seem to take any offense from Wes' rudeness. "Mighty fine name. Say, you look like a tough Trainer. Would ya like a battle?"

It was the very last thing Wes wanted. "No," he said, "we're about to leave-"

"Aw, don't be like that! We can keep it short. My Pokemon could really use the training, see."

Wes could feel his annoyance festering inside of him. However, he could also feel the eyes of both the woman and the diner owner on him, and he had no desire to cause a scene. "Fine", he grumbled.

Willie beamed as though Wes had accepted his challenge with friendly enthusiasm. "Excellent! I'll be waiting outside when you're ready, partner!" He strode to the exit, paying for his meal at the front counter before departing.

Wes soon followed suit, Neo and Novo trotting excitedly at his heels. He supposed it had been a while since they'd had a chance to battle - properly, anyway. He figured battling while on the job for Snagem hadn't really counted, considering the main goal had been thievery and not victory.

Willie was standing leisurely in the desert sun, hands in his pockets. The sunlight made his bright pink hair even more shocking to look at, and Wes quietly snorted to himself in disbelief. Pink hair. Unbelievable. Not that he had much of a right to mock strange hair color - his own was such a light, sandy blonde, it was often mistaken for silvery white. Still, at least he could blame genetics instead of poor decisions.

He noticed Willie eyeing the metal contraption on his arm, but if the stranger thought anything of it, he said nothing. After all, eccentric fashion choices weren't unusual in Orre.

The man did, however, squint his eyes a little as he observed the tattoo on Wes' face; a thin white line that went across the bridge of his nose from one cheekbone to the other. Wes was not unused to strange looks at his face, and while stares in general made him uneasy, he'd learned to shrug it off. Still, he sighed a little at the man's scrutinizing look. Speaking of bad decisions...but no, it was better this way. Tattoo or no, he would have been stared at anyway; his choices had been either a nasty scar or this tattoo to cover it up, and he'd chosen the latter.

Willie met Wes' gaze and grinned. "Ready?" Wes gave a curt nod, and the Trainer released his two Pokemon out onto the sand.

Wes eyed the two Zigzagoon that stood in front of their trainer, and inwardly sighed. So much for a challenge for his Pokémon. This would be a quick battle, indeed.

It was over before it had even begun. Wes called for Neo to use Confusion and Novo to use Bite, and before either of their opponents could launch a solid attack, they were both lying motionless in the sand.

Willie sheepishly rubbed the back of his head as he recalled his Zigzagoon. "Well, I didn't think I'd win, but I'd hoped to give you at least somewhat of a challenge...hey, you leavin' already?" He exclaimed as Wes started for his motorcycle.

"Yes." Wes hopped on his vehicle and turned to face the man as his Eons followed behind. He noticed Neo walking with a particular swagger after his breezy victory before sauntering into the sidecar. Show off. Novo remained calm and stoic as ever, faithfully watching his Trainer for any commands as he settled next to his brother with a dignified air. "Do you know the fastest route to Phenac from here?" Wes asked Willie.

"Phenac, eh? You gonna take on the Pre-Gym there? You're certainly tough enough." When Wes didn't reply, he shrugged and pointed the way. "Head that direction and you'll be there by early afternoon. It's mostly a straight shot."

Wes nodded his thanks. He was about to start his motorcycle when a thought occurred to him, and he turned back to the other Trainer. "Hey."

"Yeah?" Willie grinned at him again. Such open friendliness from a total stranger. He was far too naive for this place.

"You should be more careful about who you challenge to battle. Your Pokémon are easy targets, and there are still plenty of Snaggers out there." He pulled his goggles over his eyes and gripped the handlebars tightly with gloved hands. "Don't pick fights you have no chance of winning." With that, the motorcycle roared to life and he drove off, leaving a bemused Trainer in his wake.



Phenac city was often referred to as "the jewel of the desert", and it was easy to see why. Laid out in a circular pattern, with the tallest buildings at the northernmost top of the circle, the city gleamed with white stone and crystalline waterfalls flowing along the streets. The desert sun reflected off the sparkling water and white structures, making it blindingly bright to look at.

To Wes, it was a literal eyesore.

Perhaps he simply wasn't used to such pristine buildings and clean streets. His life had consisted of dirt, sweat, and rust, and none of those things seemed to belong in such a seemingly perfect place as Phenac. Plus, there seemed to be an air of false grandeur about the place that repulsed him. He'd preferred to avoid it on his previous missions if he could help it, but today's errands deemed it a necessary destination.

We won't be here for long, Wes told himself as he and his partners walked to city gate. Just head to the market, grab supplies, and get back on the road. In and out. Simple.

The desert winds billowed the tails of his blue trench coat behind him as he, Neo and Novo approached the city gate. Neo swatted playfully at the swaying fabric before bounding ahead to be at the front of the group, where he usually preferred to be.

They had just stepped through the city entrance and started their way to the center of town when Wes saw the Espeon stop dead in his tracks. He didn't think much of it and continued walking; random things caught Neo's attention all the time. He did stop, however, when he heard a soft, alarmed chirp behind him. "Spi!"

Wes glanced over his shoulder to see his Espeon standing stiffly, fur on end. He was facing away from his Trainer, ears forward, eyes focused on two men in the shadows near the city wall. They were hefting a large burlap sack between them, and were muttering under their breath, glancing about warily.

"Neo?" Wes asked quietly. He approached his Pokémon and knelt beside him, Novo close behind. "What's wrong?"

"Espi," Neo looked at Wes with wide eyes, then back at the men in the shadows. "Esp!"

Wes observed the pair with narrowed eyes. He vaguely recognized the truck parked against the wall and remembered seeing it briefly at the Outskirt Stand. He gave Neo a questioning look. The Espeon continued to stare forward, body rigid, and growled softly.

Perhaps it was obvious, or maybe Wes' personal history had taught him the signs; either way, it was clear to him that these men were not up to anything wholesome, and everything about their demeanor screamed, "shady business". He got to his feet with a sigh and turned away. "Not our business, bud. We're here to get away from those kinds of people, remember?"

"Es-piiii!" He felt teeth tugging at the hem of his pants and saw Neo gripping the black fabric in his mouth, looking up at him with a pleading expression.

"What's the matter with you?" Wes asked irritably. Since when had his Espeon developed such a strong moral compass? "We can't stop every shady person in town. Leave that to authorities or something. Let's go."

"Bri, umbri," this time Novo chimed in, looking up at his Trainer with urgency.

"Both of you now?" Exasperated, Wes turned one last look at the suspicious men. They had set down the sack and now appeared to be quietly arguing with one another - but they weren't the ones who held his attention this time.

The burlap sack was moving.

"Oh, for Arceus' sake." He ran a hand through his sandy hair and looked down at Neo and Novo. "What, they have a Pokémon or something?" Neo's tail lashed, and Novo flattened his ears against his head. He frowned at them. "Not a Pokemon? Then what...?"

Oh.

He looked at the sack again. Whatever - no, whoever - was in the sack was struggling fiercely, and this prompted a bark and a kick from one of the men.

Merciful Arceus, he thought. Kidnappers? In broad daylight? In Phenac City, no less? Even for Orre's standards, it was rather bold. He glanced back at his distressed Pokémon and sighed. They had come here for a pit stop, nothing more. They had a long road ahead, a city to get to, an unforgiving Region to leave behind forever. He had absolutely no obligation to interfere in what was clearly a messy situation, especially considering they were in enough hot water as it was.

Let someone else handle it, he thought. Preferably someone who didn't have an entire gang of thugs out for their blood.

"Not our business," Wes said again, and turned away. "Let's go."

He only made it two steps before Neo sprang in front of him, fur bristling, giving his Trainer a hard, burning stare. Novo stood cautiously at Wes' side; Wes knew the Umbreon would go along with whatever plan his Trainer thought best, especially if it was the safer route. Neo, however, seemed to have his own agenda at the moment.

"Move."

"Esp."

The two glared each other down for a moment, Novo glancing between them. Wes had all but made up his mind to return Neo to his Pokeball when his brother stepped forward, cautiously moving between them, and looked intently into Wes' eyes.

"Oh, for the love of -" Wes turned on his heel and made his way towards the old hover truck, swearing under his breath. "Fine." His every instinct screamed at him to walk away and to never think about those men again, and as much as he wanted to listen, he couldn't bring himself to say no to the pleading stares of his Pokémon. "This is the only time, got it? Don't make me pretend to be some hero." Neo and Novo chirped and strode eagerly at his heels.

"Wha' do you mean, take a rest? We're almost there!" Wes could head their conversation as he approached.

"I'm tired, man. An' shouldn't we bunker down till nightfall anyhow? This lil scrap ain't making it easy for us, and I don't want to cause no scene." The second man glared down at the wriggling sack.

"I'll cause a scene!" The first man snarled. His eyes were shielded by his own pair of sunglasses, and some blonde hair could be seen poking out from under his dark beanie. "We're gonna cash in on this haul today, an' I don't care how tired you are! I ain't keeping this extra baggage longer than I have to!"

"Pipe down, Trudly!" his partner hissed. "We can't go around shoutin' our business, someone might hear us -"

"Someone like me, for instance?"

The pair whipped around to find Wes standing a few yards away, arms folded, his Eons at his side. The first man, Trudly, addressed him in a low growl.

"Listen, kid, I dunno what you heard, but you best keep to your own business if you know what's good for you."

Wes raised an eyebrow. "Very scary. Consider me intimidated."

Trudly snarled and took a step forward, but his partner reached out an arm and stopped him. "Ain't nothin to see here, stranger. We're just delivery men doin' our route. Now get gone." He glared at Wes through a pair of orange goggles that matched the absurd color of his hair.

"Funny, I don't recall people being a common delivery item," Wes remarked. Both of the men paled. "Would your 'route' happen to include some sort of human trafficking ring?"

The sack wriggled again, and this time muffled shouts could be heard coming from inside. The second man swore vehemently and gave the bag another kick, producing a yelp from their captive. "Damn it all," he spat at Wes, "You just had to stick your nose where it don't belong! We'll make you sorry, boy!"

He stepped forward and summoned his Pokémon in a flash of white light. Two Whismur hopped forward, tensed for battle. Despite their readiness to fight, it was hard to find the pink, rotund things menacing. Wes snorted. "Is that all you got?"

"You cocky little - " The Whismur trainer's lip curled, and he bellowed at his Whismur. "UPROAR!"

"Neo, Novo, charge up!" Wes barely had time to give the command before the opposing Pokémon launched their assault. The Eons responded immediately to the veiled phrase, having executed it hundreds of times before.

Neo's forehead jewel gleamed, and a silvery Protect shield formed around him, blocking the Whismurs' attacks completely. Novo, however, braced himself and took the hit - he tumbled backwards, then scrambled back to his feet and howled. Neo's fur bristled and his eyes gleamed as he gained strength from his brother's Helping Hand.

"Neo, Confusion! Novo, Bite!"

They lunged forward. The opposing Trainer bellowed commands, and both Whismur hurled themselves at the empowered Espeon. Novo intercepted a Headbutt from one, staggered briefly, then returned a fierce Bite, fangs tearing into the pink Pokémon. The Whismur's battle cries turned to shrieks as the Umbreon flung his opponent and sent it rolling through the dirt. The second Whismur failed to reach Neo before it, too, was sent flying from his Confusion attack.

"Switch!" Wes' voice sounded from behind.

In a synchronized motion, Neo and Novo gracefully moved across the white stones, each one targeting the others' former opponents. The Whismur struggled to their feet as their Trainer called for another Uproar. The resulting attack screamed through the air, piercing their foes' ears, but it hardly mattered - the Espeon and Umbreon were already upon them. With a final Bite and Confusion, the Eons sent their foes tumbling backwards. The Whismur rolled to a stop at their Trainer's feet, and this time they didn't get back up.

"HAH?!" Trudly roared in fury at his partner, who stood frozen in shock. "Was that the best you could do against some scrap off the street? You're an embarrassment!"

"You're no better," replied Wes dryly. Neo and Novo trotted triumphantly back to him, and he crouched down to rub their ears. Trudly spat a colorful insult at him in response.

"What do we do, Trudly?" The orange-haired man's eyes were wide with fear as he returned his Pokémon and addressed his partner. "M-maybe we should run-"

"Shut your trap, Folly! Don't throw around my name here! We can't have everybody knowin' who we are!"

"...but you just said my name!"

Trudly blanched. "Aw, hell-"

"What in Arceus' name is going on here?" A female voice drew everyone's attention. A middle-aged woman stood a cautious distance away, watching the scene with frightened eyes. A young man in jogging gear walked up beside her, frowning. "I'd like to know that myself!" he said.

Wes stood, staring Trudly and Folly in the eyes as he responded to the people behind him. "These guys are kidnappers," he said simply. "And thought they could get away with it."

"What?" The woman cried. "Do you mean - are you sure - oh!" She gasped in horror at the sight of the still wriggling sack.

Folly swore loudly and grabbed Trudly by the arm, hauling him towards the hover truck. "Time to bail, man!" He glowered at Wes, who returned his gaze nonchalantly. "I'll remember you, kid!"

Wes smirked. "Aw, how cute."

The men broke into a sprint and hopped into their truck. The young athlete yelled and started forward, but he only made it a few steps before the truck roared alive and hauled away, plowing recklessly to the city entrance. He turned to Wes in frustration. "We-we have to stop them!"

Wes shook his head. "They'll be long gone by the time we can give chase. No point in that."

"Can you boys help me with this knot?" The woman had rushed to the sack and was frantically pulling at the rope tied around its mouth. The young man sprinted over to help, but Wes hesitated. He had half a mind to walk away right then and there - he'd done his duty, after all - but then decided, more out of curiosity than anything else, that he might as well stay to make sure the victim was all right.

The knot was, in fact, relentlessly tight. Even with two people working at it, it refused to give way. Wes brushed them aside and called for Novo, who stepped forward and gnawed at the rope. Within seconds, the rope was severed, and the woman swooped in to open the sack.

Much to Wes' surprise, a girl burst out of the sack, gasping great gulps of air. Most of her red hair was pulled up into two pigtails, and the rest of it was drenched in sweat and plastered to her face. In fact, she was almost entirely drenched in sweat - not surprising, as Wes couldn't imagine how hot it must have been inside the stifling burlap.

"Oh, you poor dear!" The woman reached out and pulled the girl's blue and pink jacket from her shoulders in an attempt to cool her off. "Those monsters, how could they do this to you?"

The girl looked around, taking in her surroundings. She seemed incredibly disoriented. "Wh-where -?" She broke off in a coughing fit. The Phenac woman placed an arm around her shoulders and tutted with concern.

"You poor, poor thing - do either of you have water?" She asked Wes and the boy beside him.

Wes shook his head, but the athlete promptly answered, "I do!" He procured a water bottle from his pack, crouched beside them, and handed it over. The girl, still gasping for air, gave him a weak smile and took it from him. She opened it with shaky hands and raised it to her lips.

"You need to take small sips." Wes surprised himself by speaking. What did he care? Why had he bothered to stick around this long? Why hadn't he left already? "You're probably really dehydrated, so don't drink it all at once or you'll make yourself sick."

The girl gave him a shaky nod and did as he advised, sipping carefully from the bottle. Her hands were trembling so badly that the woman beside her reached out and helped keep them steady. "To answer your question, you're in Phenac City, dear," she said kindly. "Would you mind telling us who you are? Perhaps there's someone we can call for you?"

The girl lowered the water bottle and wiped her mouth with the back of her hand. "My name is Rui," she said, her voice now steadying. "Rui Everlin." She looked between the woman and the boy beside her and smiled at them - a surprisingly genuine one, Wes thought, considering what she had just been through and how badly shaken she was. "Thank you much for saving me...I don't know how to repay you!"

"Well, we didn't do much," admitted the athlete as he rubbed the back of his head. He gestured to Wes. "He's the one who did all the work and chased those thugs off. It was real impressive, too, you should have seen it!" He gave Wes a look of shining admiration, which made him feel rather uncomfortable.

The girl named Rui looked up at him with shocking, bright blue eyes. She beamed at him with radiant gratitude, as if she hadn't just been a kidnapping victim that was shoved into a suffocating sack. "Thank you - thank you so much! And you are?"

Wes paused. Giving out his name to perfect strangers was not on his list of things he wanted to do today - but then again, rescuing a kidnapping victim hadn't made it on that list, either. "Wes", he said shortly. He didn't offer his full name, and was grateful when she didn't ask for one.

"I'm Dash," said the young man. He and the woman helped the girl to her feet.

"And you can call me Marla, dear," said the lady kindly. "But enough about that - we need to get you taken care of. Who can we call for you? Perhaps we can help you get back to wherever you're from? Oh, we ought to get you to a hospital!"

"No, no, I don't need a hospital, really!" Rui said. "If - if I can get to a Pokémon Center, I can - wait!" She stopped abruptly and her eyes widened as if she'd just remembered something. She turned to Wes with an urgent expression on her face. "Those men you battled - did they have an unusual Pokémon?"

Wes eyed her warily. Unusual Pokémon? Perhaps the heat had disoriented her? "No." He shook his head.

Dash frowned and nodded. "They looked like ordinary Whismur to me..."

"You didn't see a Makuhita?" She looked between the three of them. Wes shook his head again. "Oh..." the girl's face fell and she looked deeply troubled.

"Oh, you don't have to worry about those - those - thugs any longer, dear," Marla fussed. "Let's get you taken to a Pokemon Center and -"

"No, wait!" The girl's face was urgent. "I need...I need to speak with the Mayor!"

"The Mayor?" asked Dash. He gave her a baffled look. "Why the Mayor?"

"Those men grabbed me because I saw something," said Rui. "They had a Makuhita and there was something really...really wrong with it. I need to report this to the Mayor so somebody knows about it!"

Marla frowned at her. "I'm not sure what the Mayor can do if those people have left town already..."

"They were heading here for something!" Rui said emphatically. Her eyes were wide and pleading. "I think they might come back, and I'm really worried about what they plan to do with that Pokemon!"

Mew above, she's sure passionate, thought Wes. She was awfully fired up and upset, all for a Pokemon she didn't even know. What is wrong with this girl?

"The Center is close to the mayor's house," offered Dash. "We can take you there after we take you to the Mayor, I guess...?"

"Oh, would you? I don't know this city well, so that would be really helpful!" Rui beamed at the athlete.

"But you ought to take this young man with you!" Marla gestured to Wes. "If those criminals are coming back, you ought to have someone with strong Pokemon."

"No," Wes said shortly. "I have places to be." He'd taken far too many detours today already.

Marla gave him a pleading look. "Oh, but if those men come back for her...I don't have my own Pokemon, you see, or I would take her..."

Dash rubbed the back of his head. "W-well, I do have my Castform," he said. "He's not a battler, exactly, but...maybe..."

They all looked at him hopefully. Even Neo was looking up at his Trainer with pleading eyes. Traitor, thought Wes sourly. Do you want to get to Gateon or not?

A low, harsh, eerily familiar voice rang inside Wes' head. Sticking your neck out for people is what gets you killed, it snarled. Don't be a fool, boy.

Right. He didn't have time for this.

But then he noticed Novo, practical though he was, shift uncomfortably and look up at him. Never once had his Pokemon led him astray. For all the survival instincts Wes' upbringing had drilled into him, he would always trust his Pokemon, his family, more than anything else.

Wes was done in. He pinched the bridge of his nose and let out a long-suffering sigh. "Fine."

Neo chirrupped happily and Marla beamed at him approvingly. "You're such a kind gentleman!"

I'm definitely not.

"Oh, thank you, thank you so much!" Rui bounded up to him, and for one terrifying second he thought she might hug him. Don't touch me. He was immensely relieved that she didn't.

"That's really generous of you, man," said Dash. He looked relieved. "Maybe we can all go together -"

"No." Arceus forbid Wes get saddled with more unnecessary distractions today. He quickly thought of an excuse. "You two should go to the Town Hall and report this incident. Make sure authorities know about what happened." Not that it will do much, he thought to himself. The only "authorities" in Phenac City were the staff at the Town Hall, and they could do little more than raise awareness and alert the citizens.

Dash nodded. "Alright, good plan."

He and Marla said their goodbyes. Dash left his water bottle with Rui, claiming she needed it more than he did and that he had plenty more where it came from. Rui thanked him and Marla generously for their help, and the two set off in the direction of Town Hall.

Rui turned to Wes with a bright smile. "I'll let you lead the way, then!"

Her bubbly demeanor absolutely baffled him. What kind of person could smile so easily after being kidnapped, for crying out loud? Wes shook his head slightly and sighed again - he'd been doing that an awful lot today, it seemed. "It's this way. Let's go." He didn't even wait for her to respond before setting off in the direction of the Mayor's house, Neo and Novo trotting faithfully in tow.

It was already looking to be a long day.
 
Last edited:

pacman000

Well-Known Member
Two chapters in one day? Nice. Fairly quick read, which is a good thing.

Did you write this awhile back & only recently decide to share it?
 
Two chapters in one day? Nice. Fairly quick read, which is a good thing.

Did you write this awhile back & only recently decide to share it?
I have the first seven chapters written! I’ve been posting on FFN and Ao3 for a while, and only just joined the forums here and in Thousand Roads, so I’ll be posting over the next few days in both places until Chapter 5 (that’s what I have posted on all my other platforms so far; I try to stay a few chapters ahead of schedule.) After that, I will be posting weekly on Saturdays :)
 
Chapter 3: Change of Plans



Sunlight streamed down on the whitewashed streets and sparkling fountains, and there was no respite from the blinding brightness as Wes and his Pokémon walked with Rui to the Mayor’s home. The girl noticed this, as she commented for what must have been the fourth time on how beautiful the city was.



“I haven’t been to Phenac in a long time, but it’s even more beautiful than I remember!” she said in awe. “It’s so lovely!”



Wes shot her a look. “So you have been here before.”



“Not for years,” she said. She still wore a small smile on her face as she talked. “I was just a kid the last time I was here.” Her attention shifted to the Eons striding at Wes’ side. “What are their names?” she asked lightly.



“The Espeon is Neo, and the Umbreon is Novo,” he said. She already knew his own name, so the names of his Pokemon were inconsequential information to give out at this point.



“They’re beautiful Pokemon!” Rui exclaimed, admiring Novo’s sleek black coat. Neo looked over his shoulder and chirped happily at the compliment. He was always pleased to be acknowledged. Rui giggled and looked back up at Wes. “So...Wes, was it? Where are you from?”



“Nowhere, really.”



“Oh? Did you move around a lot?”



“...yeah.”



“That’s so fascinating! I’ve only ever lived in the same town my whole life, so I haven’t been to many places.”



Obviously, Wes thought dryly.



“So was there a reason for you moving so much? Was it for your parents’ work?” Those blue eyes sparkled excitedly as she talked to him.



Too many questions. Nervousness flitted about in his chest. She was entirely too curious, and every question was making him feel more and more threatened.



The familiar, growly voice rang in his head again. The best lies are half-truths, boy.



“I sort of...grew up on the streets, actually,” he answered hesitantly.



Rui’s eyes widened and the brightness vanished from her eyes. “Oh.” She dropped her gaze to the ground. “Oh. I’m...I’m so sorry. I had no idea.”



An awkward pause. Taking advantage of the silence to divert the attention away from himself, Wes curtly asked, “And you?”



“Oh, I’m from Agate Village!” She looked up at him again, appearing relieved to be talking about something else. “It’s absolutely beautiful there - have you ever been?”



“No.”



“Well, you should definitely visit sometime. It’s completely different from anywhere else in Orre!”



How would you know?



He was momentarily saved from the agonizing small talk as they rounded a corner and the marketplace came into view. Open-air shops under white canopies lined both sides of the street and offered a wide variety of products that could be found nowhere else in Orre; fresh fruit, imported goods, and a wide variety of fabrics, amongst other things. Vendors, citizens and tourists alike bustled from one booth to the next, and the air was buzzing with snippets of conversation here and there.



“Aguav berries! Hondew berries! Come and get your exotic berries here!”



“How much for this bag?”



Forty Poké? That’s entirely too much, I won’t go above thirty!”



“..Wow,” Rui breathed in amazement. She quietly soaked in the scene for a moment as they walked, and Wes huffed a sigh of gratitude for the reprieve. It didn’t last long, however, because soon she was tugging on Wes’ sleeve. “Hey, do you think they’ll have Pokeballs here?”



Wes raised an eyebrow at her. Pokeballs? This girl was just getting weirder and weirder by the minute. “Phenac doesn’t sell Pokeballs anywhere.”



Rui sighed in disappointment. “They didn’t have them in Pyrite, either...”



“Pyrite?” Wes asked in disbelief. He glanced at her outfit; she wore a frilly pink and blue jacket over a dark purple tank top, a white pencil skirt, and pink rubber boots. He had a hard time picturing this girl, neatly dressed and put together as she was, wandering the ragged streets of Pyrite. Not to mention that her bubbly disposition would have stuck out like a sore thumb.



“Yeah.” Rui clasped her hands behind her back and kicked idly at a pebble as they walked. “That’s where I was when those two thugs...” She trailed off, a troubled expression overtaking her face.



“That’s where you got kidnapped,” finished Wes bluntly. That didn’t surprise him in the least. Pyrite was not known for its upstanding citizens, after all.



Rui nodded, her gaze still fixed on the sidewalk.



“So, let me get this straight. You’re not a Trainer. Yet you left your hometown and wandered to Pyrite Town, of all places, to look for Pokeballs...in a region that doesn’t have wild Pokemon.”



Rui gave a weak laugh and looked at Wes with a wan smile. “Well, when you put it like that, it sounds pretty dumb. But that’s the truth, I promise.”



“Well, what in Mew’s name do you need Pokeballs for?”



“It’s for my grandpa,” she said. “He’s a former Ace Trainer, and he’s been teaching some of the kids in our village about becoming Trainers.”



“Pokeballs are useless if there aren’t Pokemon to catch them with,” said Wes dryly.



“Well, you see, Papi - my grandpa - he’s hopeful!” Some of the brightness had returned to Rui’s eyes. “There have been rumors of wild Pokemon sightings around the area up north, so he thinks they might be migrating back into the region!”



“But those are just rumors,” he said. “There’s no way they’re true.”



Rui smirked at him. “Quite an optimist, aren’t you?” she asked wryly.



Wes was saved from having to answer that as the mayor’s home finally came into view. “We’re here,” he said flatly, and proceeded to walk up the steps. He could hear Rui giggling behind him at his dodging her remark, and he chose to ignore it.



True to the atmosphere of Phenac City, the mayor’s house held nothing back in terms of extravagance. While not incredibly large in terms of height, it made up for that by sprawling impressively in either direction, showcasing large, gleaming windows and ornate carvings all over the exterior. The front steps led to a wide porch lined with bright white pillars, and the blue double-doors were a sight to behold. Even if Wes hadn’t known this to be the mayor’s home, it would have been easy to guess.



Of course, the bright banner that stretched across the pillars and read “MAYOR ES-CADE WELCOMES YOU!” was also a slight giveaway.



Rui looked the building up and down with awe. “Are you sure we can just...knock?” she asked in almost a whisper. Wes merely shrugged. He’d never bothered to visit this place himself.



Rui seemed to take this as a yes, as she stepped forward and knocked boldly on the metal doors. Apparently, being kidnapped hadn’t done much to diminish her enthusiasm.



After a brief pause, the doors creaked open and a tall, crisply dressed man with fiery red hair stood before them. He looked down at them with a penetrating gaze. “What is your business?”



“We wish to speak to the mayor, please,” said Rui. She met his eyes evenly despite the man’s intimidating presence. “It’s urgent.”



Wes half expected them to be turned away, but the man simply nodded. He eyed the Umbreon and Espeon at Wes’ feet. “No Pokemon indoors here. Security policy.” Wes begrudgingly returned the Eons to their Pokeballs, and they were escorted through the doors.



The cool air inside was a welcome relief from the relentless desert heat. A sparkling crystal chandelier greeted them from overhead, sending multicolored glints of light off the pristine marble walls. A massive flatscreen TV was mounted above a fireplace to their left, and to their right was a handful of plush couches. Straight ahead was a sleek wooden desk, at which sat the Mayor of Phenac.



Wes had never seen the mayor personally before, and quickly surmised that he hadn’t missed out on much. The man was short - very short - and, like his house, made up for it in terms of width. He was as round as a Jigglypuff, with a puffy mustache and bushy eyebrows to match. His head, though mostly bald, sported two large tufts of gray hair on each side.



“Welcome, welcome!” boomed the Mayor. He beamed at them through beady eyes that seemed as though they were stuck in a perpetual squint.



Rui stepped forward and gave a small, polite bow. “It’s an honor to meet you, Mr. Mayor.”



“Oh, please, call me Es-Cade, my dear!” The man chortled. He rose from his seat and walked around to the front of his desk, gesturing them to the couches. “Please, sit! I insist.”



Rui did as requested and took a seat. Wes would have much preferred to stand, but upon seeing the Mayor’s inquisitive look, he sat with a quiet sigh.



“Eldes, would you please fetch our guests some tea?” Es-Cade pleasantly addressed the red-haired man that stood stoically by the front doors. The man gave a curt nod and strode through an exit at the back of the room.



“Now, what do they call you, my dear?” The portly man turned back to Rui.



“I’m Rui, sir. Rui Everlin.”



“I see!” Es-Cade said. He looked at Wes. “And you, my good man?”



“Wes.” The Mayor continued to look at him, as if expecting more, so he sighed. “Wesley Lycas.”



“Excellent!” He beamed again. “And to what do I owe the pleasure of meeting you both?”



Rui hesitated. Wes gave her a pointed look. This was your idea, not mine. She cleared her throat. “Well, you see, Mr...Es-Cade, it’s not exactly good news.”



Es-Cade’s smile faded to a concerned frown. His bushy eyebrows knotted together. “Oh?”



Rui shifted nervously before continuing. “You see, sir, I’m here to report an incident. I was brought to this city because...because I was kidnapped.”



“Good heavens!” The Mayor’s eyes widened as far as his beady face would allow. “Are you quite alright?”



“Yes, I am, thanks to Wes,” Rui gave the rogue Trainer a grateful smile before turning back to Es-Cade. “But...that’s not the whole reason I’m here.”



She paused and looked at the floor, as if trying to find the words to continue. “You see, sir, I know this will sound strange and you might not believe me, but...I was born with a gift. That gift allows me to see the auras of people and Pokemon.”



Es-Cade’s eyebrows shot up an inch or two, and Wes didn’t even bother to mask his disbelief as he stared at her. Auras? That did it. Not only had he happened to rescue the most clueless girl in all of Orre, she was also certifiably insane.



“Well, I won’t pretend that this isn’t...very hard to believe, my dear,” said the Mayor after a pregnant pause. “Are you certain about this...this gift of yours?”



Rui nodded, her face resolute. “I’ve had this gift for as long as I can remember, sir. I’ve always been able to see aura.”



“Very well,” he mused. He raised a meaty hand and rubbed his chin. “Go on.”



“Well, I was traveling through Pyrite when I saw these two men. One of them had a Makuhita and was battling another Trainer. I don’t know how to explain it, but...there was something wrong with that Pokemon. It’s aura was...dark. I’d even say it was evil.” She shivered. Her face was solemn and fearful as she recalled the memory.



“And you’ve never seen this, erm, aura before?” Es-Cade asked.



Rui shook her head. “No, sir, never. I’ve seen auras of many different kinds, but not like that.”



“Could it be, perhaps, that you’ve never encountered an aggressive Pokemon?”



“With all due respect, Mr. Mayor, I’ve seen aggressive Pokemon before.” Rui’s voice took on a stern tone as she raised her head and looked Es-Cade in the eyes. “This Makuhita was something completely different. And the way it battled was...horrible. It really looked like it wanted to kill the other Pokemon.”



Wes sat back in his seat, absorbing all this new information. This girl was clearly sheltered - that had been obvious from the beginning. He, unfortunately, had seen Pokemon kill on command more than once. It was certainly not unheard of, and something that was all too common in Orre’s crime rings.



He wondered if the Mayor was thinking the same thing, as the man had a skeptical expression on his face as he listened to Rui’s story. “You do know that Pokemon can and do sometimes kill other Pokemon, my dear?” he asked gently.



“I know that!” Rui said in frustration. “I do! But they only do so if commanded, right? Well, this Makuhita was on a rampage and was acting of its own accord - its Trainer couldn’t even stop it!”



“I see, I see,” Es-Cade backed down slightly upon seeing her frustration. “That is very concerning, Miss Everlin. I can assure you that I will assign some of my staff to look into the matter - although, if this Pokemon is in Pyrite, there’s only so much I can do.”



“I...I understand,” Rui sighed. She relaxed a little and slumped back in her seat.



Es-Cade seemed to notice her disappointment. “Do you perhaps have a description of the criminals?” he asked kindly. “I can also try to put out a search for them, and see what we can come up with - ah!” His eyes brightened as the doorman reentered the room with a tray of tea. “Perfect timing, my good man! Thank you kindly!”



The man said nothing, only depositing the tray on the coffee table in front of them before resuming his post by the doors.



Wes didn’t trust drinks from strangers, so he quietly declined his tea. Rui and Es-Cade sipped theirs as she gave him a description of the two men. Wes only spoke up to give their names and a description of their other Pokemon he’d seen. He noticed the Mayor raise his eyebrows as he spoke of the two Whismur; the odd fact that Wes hadn’t seen a Makuhita was not lost on him, apparently, and it likely contributed to his doubt. The man said nothing of it, however.



Once Rui had given all the information they knew, the Mayor kindly thanked them for their visit and personally showed them out the door with a smile, promising her that he would look into the case at once.



As the doors shut behind them, Wes couldn’t help but feel that they had just wasted a massive amount of time. Rui must have sensed this, too, because he noticed she was staring at the ground with slumped shoulders as they walked to the Pokemon Center.



He released Neo and and Novo from their Pokeballs. They both stretched and gleefully bounced around Wes’ feet, happy to be outside again.



Rui brightened a little at the sight of the Pokemon. She giggled as Neo brushed playfully up against her legs, then looked up at Wes with a sheepish expression. “You probably think I’m crazy, huh?”



Wes shrugged. “Maybe a little.” No point in sugar coating things.



“Well, you don’t have to believe me, but I promise I’m telling the truth.” Rui glanced at the Eons walking ahead of them. “For example, I can tell by your Pokemons’ auras that they are happy and well cared for. They really love and trust you...and it’s part of the reason I knew I’d be safe walking with you.” She grinned at him.



Wes decided it wasn’t worth pointing out that she could have deduced this from Neo and Novo’s evolutions - Espeon and Umbreon only got their evolutions from bonding with their Trainer, after all. Instead, he shrugged again and said, “It makes no difference to me. You saw something and reported it, and now you can move on.”



Rui bit her lip, but said nothing. Whatever she’d seen in Pyrite - or whatever she’d thought she’d seen - was obviously weighing heavily on her, and their fruitless meeting with the mayor had done little to help with that.



Not my problem, Wes told himself. He’d done more than enough for this random girl today, and wasn’t about to take it upon himself to cheer her up. He wouldn’t even know where to start, anyway.



Wes was about to head in the direction of the Center when he noticed Rui stop short. What now? He followed her alarmed gaze to what she was staring at and suddenly he, too, stopped walking.



Someone was heading their way. Whoever this person was, they were massively tall, dwarfing every other passerby on the street. Wes saw the long, flowing silver hair and initially thought it was a woman, but as the stranger came closer it was apparent by the square jaw and bulging, muscular figure that it was a man. But the hair was not what kept his attention.



There was something visibly wrong with the man.



He exuded an air of cold, crisp, precise cruelty as he walked. Wes had seen his share of men drunk with power who thought they had it all - but this man knew he was in charge, and was keenly aware of his own authority.



The stranger passed them on the sidewalk, but not before turning his head to glance at them. Wes met the man’s eyes for just a second, and felt a chill trickle down his spine.



His eyes were red as blood.



A cruel smirk played across the stranger’s lips before he turned away and breezed past them in the direction they came from, head held high, eyes straight ahead.



Wes felt Rui step close to him. He noticed she was shivering. “He was...scary,” she whispered.



Wes couldn’t help but nod in agreement. He was immensely grateful that such a person was only a stranger and nothing more. He had a feeling he would never want to tangle with that man.



He shook his head and rolled the uneasiness from his shoulders. “Center’s just up ahead,” he said to Rui. “Let’s get inside.” She nodded nervously, and the two set off for the wide white steps leading to their destination.



The Phenac Pokemon Center was an impressive sight, even to Wes. He had only been here a handful of times, and he was always just as amazed each time as he was upon his first visit. His negative impression of Phenac and it’s population aside, he had to admit: they knew how to treat their Pokemon.



The building was a large dome with white gleaming walls and a sparkling glass ceiling. At the back of the room, straight ahead from the entrance, was a marble counter in front of a healing machine and a crisply dressed nurse who chimed a cheerful greeting as they walked through the doors.



To the right, a luxurious lounge for Trainers held a TV, plush couches, a small snack bar, and ornate bookshelves adorned with all kinds of literature. A row of video-call booths lined the wall near the shelves.



To the left was an enclosed, glass-walled play area for Pokemon. Wes knew from previous visits that the play area extended through a door in the wall to a larger, fenced in outdoor area. He’d never used it himself, though - the thought of leaving his Pokemon in someone else’s hands was mortifying to him.



“Welcome!” The nurse smiled at them from her place behind the counter. “How may I help you today?”



Rui stepped forward, hands clasped behind her back as she addressed the nurse. “Y-yes, um, could I use your video phones?”



“Absolutely! Right this way, I’ll get you started...”



The nurse escorted Rui to the phones and Wes wandered over to the couches to sit and wait. Novo followed, looking around with great interest; he, too, always appeared to be impressed with the place whenever they visited.



Espi!” Neo pawed at Wes’ knee and pointed his snout over to the play area, where an Aipom had its face pressed against the glass, wiggling its tail playfully at the Espeon.



Wes shook his head. “Sorry, bud,” he said quietly. “We don’t have time today.”



Neo sat on the tiled floor with a sigh.



“Tell you what,” Wes lowered his voice even further as he reached down to rub Neo’s ears. “When we get to Johto, you can play with tons of wild Pokemon every day. How does that sound?” Neo pricked up his ears and kneaded the floor in excitement. “Spi!



Johto. Wes had only heard stories of it, but it sounded like a beautiful place, so entirely different from the sandy Orre Region. He’d heard about green forests that stretched as far as the eye could see, of giant shining lakes, of mountains that stretched so high you couldn’t see their peaks. He’d dreamed of seeing it from the moment he first learned of its existence.



He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. Soon. Very soon. Just be patient.



Novo hopped into his lap and he idly stroked the Umbreon’s head, lost in thought, until Rui returned and sank onto the couch a short distance away from him with a sigh. Novo growled softly at her abrupt appearance, a quiet rumble that only Wes could hear.



“Well, my grandparents are happy to know I’m safe, but that didn’t save me a tongue lashing from Nan.” She turned to him. “They’re so grateful to you, by the way. I’m sure they’d love to meet you if you’d like to visit!”



“Sorry, I have other places to be,” Wes muttered. There would be absolutely no more detours until they reached Gateon.



“Oh, I...I figured as much,” replied Rui. There was a note of disappointment in her voice. “Well, you’re always welcome if you-”



She broke off suddenly, her eyes fixed on something over Wes’ shoulder. He turned his head to see what had grabbed her attention, and saw footage of a burning building on the TV. The words MYSTERIOUS EXPLOSION REVEALS SNAGEM HIDEOUT flashed across the screen.



“What - when did this happen?” She breathed in disbelief.



“You’re just now finding this out?” Wes blurted. Surely, sheltered though this girl was, she’d have heard something about it already. He was certain that news of the incident had traveled across every corner of the Region by now. Uncovering Snagem’s hideout would be earth-shattering news.



Rui surprised him by throwing him a withering look. “Yes, I’m hearing about it just now,” she said scathingly. “It’s not like I’ve spent the last twenty-four hours in a sack or anything!”



“...oh.” Wes suddenly felt incredibly stupid. “Right...sorry.”



Rui returned her gaze to the TV. “I can’t believe...” she trailed off and didn’t bother to finish her sentence. Wes left her to her thoughts and continued stroking Novo’s fur, watching his yellow rings pulse with light.



“They deserve it.”



He looked up in surprise at those words. Rui was still watching the screen, but a dark expression had taken over her features. It was a jarring change from her usually smiling face.



“You think so?” Wes asked.



She turned her eyes to his, and he was shocked at the amount of pure hatred he saw there. “Yes,” she said quietly. “I hate Pokemon thieves. Snagem had this coming, and they deserve a whole lot worse.”



Wes looked at her for a moment before answering. “I agree,” he said quietly.



Umbriiiiii,” Novo’s whine broke the tense moment. Wes heard the Umbreon’s stomach growl, and suddenly realized how hungry he was, too. He rubbed Novo’s ear. “I guess it’s time we go, then.”



Novo leapt off Wes’ lap as he stood. He turned to Rui. “The nurses can help you arrange a ride with someone from here. You should be able to make it back to Agate that way.”



Rui stood, too, and bowed her head to him gratefully, hands clasped behind her back once again. “Thank you for everything you’ve done for me, Wes. Really. I don’t have any way to repay you for it, but...I really am gratef-”



Her stomach suddenly rumbled loudly, and she flushed a little in embarrassment. “Sorry!”



Wes narrowed his eyes at her. “Did you say you were in that sack for a whole day?”



She shifted a little. “Well, I don’t know exactly how long it was, but it was a long time...”



Wes took a closer look at her. For all her smiles and cheerfulness, he noticed for the first time that she was still a little pale, and her fingers were shaky as she fidgeted with her necklace. “You haven’t eaten.”



Rui gave him another smile, but this time he was paying enough attention to see how forced it was. “It’s fine! You’ve done more than enough for me today, I can...figure something out...” she trailed off, not looking very convinced at her own words.



She could figure it out, Wes mused to himself. And yet...he had gone long stretches without food before. He knew firsthand how unpleasant it was, and he was certain that this girl had no means of getting food for herself. There was no way she still had any money on her after being kidnapped.



The low voice came into his head again. Remember this, boy. Don’t stick your neck out for nobody.



Anger burned in his chest at the intrusive voice. You don’t get to tell me what to do. Not anymore.



“Alright,” he sighed, turning to leave. “Come on.” He gestured for her to follow him.



“What? Where-?”



“We were going to find a place to eat, anyway. You might as well come with us.” He looked at her over his shoulder. “But after this, you’ll really be on your own. Got it?”



“I - what do you - I don’t - are you sure?” Rui spluttered.



“If you don’t hurry up, I’ll change my mind.”



Rui blinked at him, and for a moment Wes thought he saw tears in her eyes. He turned his head away and hoped to Arceus he was mistaken. He had no idea what to do with people when they cried...



Rui bounced up to his side. “Where to, then?” she asked brightly. Any indication that she’d been teary had quickly vanished.



“I’ve got a place in mind,” he said. And with that, they strode through the Center doors back into the sunlight.



———————————————————-



Wes couldn’t help but feel mildly impressed at the speed with which Rui was devouring her burger. It made him wonder just how hungry she must have been this whole time.



His restaurant of choice was closer to the edge of town; a small, dingy, hole-in-the-wall kind of place that he’d always preferred thanks to their low prices and low profile. By Phenac standards, it was “seedy”, but compared to the Outskirt Stand, it may as well have been fine dining. The blue painted walls and tiled floor, though scuffed in many places, certainly made it feel a lot cleaner than the dusty old train car.



His Pokemon were happily eating their kibble from bowls on the floor. It was no plate of bacon, but it was better than nothing, and far better than what they had been accustomed to at Snagem.



A waiter stopped by to offer drinks, which Wes declined. He’d need to be fully alert for their journey ahead - though after the long events of the day, alcohol did seem tempting.



The waiter turned to Rui, but she also shook her head. “Not today, thank you.”



The waiter left, and Wes narrowed his eyes at her. “Are you even old enough to drink?”



Rui nearly choked on her fries. “Wha-excuse me?” she asked indignantly as soon as she could speak, “I’ll have you know, I’m well over eighteen!”



He raised an eyebrow. “By what, a few months?”



Rui huffed at him. “I’m twenty-one, Wes.”



Oh. He was genuinely surprised at that. She was much closer to his age than he’d originally thought, only a year younger than himself. “Sorry. You just look younger.”



“I get that a lot, actually,” she said dejectedly. She picked at what remained of her food.



“It’s the pigtails. Probably.”



Rui looked up at him with a sly grin. “Well what about you, Mr. Tough Guy? You don’t look much older than seventeen.”



Wes, who had been taking a sip of water at this exact moment, suddenly choked and spluttered on his drink. “I - what - seven-?” He stopped short when he saw that Rui had burst into a fit of laughter.



He scowled at her. “That’s not funny.”



For some reason, this only made her laugh even harder. She gripped the table for support, tears leaking out of her eyes. Neo and Novo looked up at her in alarm from their meal and Wes began to feel uncomfortable as heads turned in their direction. Why was this girl so loud?



“S-sorry,” she gasped as her laughter subsided. “I honestly didn’t think I’d get a reaction out of you, with you being so stoic and all, but that was funny.”



Wes grumbled darkly under his breath. Rui snorted and bit her lip in an effort to keep herself from laughing further. Her face held a lot more color now that she’d eaten, and she was, if possible, even more lively than before.



Having finished their meal, Wes stood. “Let’s go.” Rui and his Pokemon followed him as he paid for the meal at the counter up front and stepped outside.



The sun was horrifyingly low in the sky, and Wes inwardly groaned at the sight. They were behind schedule, but no matter - they’d be on the road soon enough, and all their troubles with Phenac (girl included) would be left behind.



“Briiiii!” Novo yawned and stretched happily in the sunlight, his yellow markings glowing contentedly. Neo padded up between Wes and Rui and let out a soft burp. He blinked sleepily up at his Trainer with a lazy purr.



The corners of Wes’ mouth twitched into a smile upon seeing them so content and peaceful. For the first time since escaping the Hideout, he allowed himself to relax a little. All that was left to do was stock up on some supplies and hit the road now. It should be smooth sailing from here, he thought.



And then he heard a voice that turned his blood to ice.



“Keep your wits about you, ya hear? He’s in this blasted city somewhere.”



Wes swore under his breath and grabbed Rui by the arm, pulling her around the building into a side alley. She squawked in protest. “Wes, what’re you-hey!”



He ignored her and listened closely. He heard the rough cadence of three all too familiar voices across the street, causing his heart to race.



How to get out of this without raising suspicion? He looked at the redhead. If she found out who she was...he remembered her face in the Center as she spoke about Snagem. The anger in her eyes, the righteous fury. There was no way she would let him off if she knew. Not a chance.



“Are we sure he’s still here?” another voice drawled from where the first one had come from, just across the street. Wes turned his head to listen.



“Shut your trap and quit whining!” the first voice barked. “The faster we get moving, the sooner we’ll find the damned rat.”



There was no mistaking that gravelly voice. Wes had heard it all too many times before, usually before facing an unpleasant punishment. Wakin, Gonzap’s second-in-command, had always loved to dole out the punishments himself whenever he could. Wes glanced nervously at the metal sleeve on his arm.



If Wakin found Wes now, he was a dead man.



Wes’ mind raced. He scrambled to think of a way to get out of this city without setting off Rui’s suspicions. A crazy, half-baked idea occurred to him, and he tightened his grip on Rui’s arm as he looked back at her again. She was apparently oblivious to the conversation taking place across the street. She seemed much more concerned with Wes’ odd behavior and his grip on her arm. He decided to take a chance on her naivety.



“Hey. You said you needed Pokeballs, right?”



“Y-yeah?” Rui attempted to tug her arm out of his grip. She looked frightened. “Wes, can you let go of me?”



“Sorry,” he said quickly. He released her and took a step back. Breathe. You need to stay calm. He met her blue gaze evenly. “I know a place where we can get you some. I just thought of it.”



Rui frowned at him. “You do?”



“Yeah, but it’s...not here. It’s a bit of a drive. But I can take you there.” The words tumbled out of his mouth before he even had time to think them through.



“That...that would be really helpful! But I don’t have any money-”



“Don’t worry about it.” Damn, he was panicking. Stay calm. Don’t show fear. “I’ll cover for you. But we need to get going now if we want to make it there at a decent hour.”



“Are-are you sure? You’ve done so much for me today already-”



“I’m sure, let’s go.” He almost grabbed her by the arm again to drag her with him, but remembered the fearful look she’d given him and decided against it. “Come on, I’ll show you to my bike.”



He stepped cautiously out of the alleyway, looking around for any sign of Wakin and his grunts. Rui stood a few paces behind him, mumbling in confusion. “Bike...?”



“Neo. Novo.” Wes kept his voice to barely more than a whisper. They pricked their ears and stood at attention. “Keep a lookout.”



He motioned for Rui to follow him, and they stepped out into the open.



Wes was sure that Rui would hear his heart trying to escape from his chest. He hated having to walk in the open, hated that he couldn’t move any faster than a brisk walk, but he knew that darting through the shadows would only raise her suspicions. He could not afford to be caught. Not now. Not like this.



He was grateful that they had at least made it to the edge of the city already for their lunch. They were able to reach the city entrance relatively quickly, and made it to his bike shortly after that.



Rui looked at his monstrosity of a vehicle with wide eyes. “Okay, when you said ‘bike’, I had a very different image in my head,” she said as she took in the massive engine and rusty exterior.



Wes didn’t bother to reply to this remark. He’d crouched down to his Pokemon and was muttering a hurried apology. “Sorry guys, but there isn’t room for all of you in the sidecar. You’re gonna have to go in your balls for now.”



Neither Neo or Novo were very pleased with this arrangement, but he didn’t have time to reason with them before returning them to their Pokeballs. They would get over it. What mattered now was getting as far away from this city as possible.



Wes gestured for Rui to get in the sidecar as he slid into the driver’s seat. She climbed in awkwardly and nearly fell over in the process.



The engine bellowed as he brought it to life. He thought he heard Rui trying to say something, but couldn’t be sure. Rather than wait to find out, he slammed on the gas and the motorbike lurched forward, kicking up a cloud of dust as they flew out of sight and left the blinding white city behind.
 
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Chapter 4: Questions


Rui wasn’t entirely sure this wasn’t all just some sort of fever dream.



In the span of just over a day, she’d seen a crazed Pokémon, been kidnapped, had nearly suffocated in a sack, was rescued by someone who acted for all the world as though he’d rather have left her there, and was now flying across the desert in a crazy death trap of metal with said stranger.



It had been a weird day, to say the least.



Wes didn’t speak at all as they sailed across the sands. Rui was actually quite all right with this, as most of her concentration was spent shielding her face from the sandy winds and trying not to panic at the absolutely terrifyingspeed at which Wes was driving.



Rui peeked at the driver underneath her hands covering her face. Despite his gruff demeanor and the begrudging manner in which he’d helped her, Rui did sense that Wes was a kind person under all the rough edges. His aura, a pleasant blue color, seemed to indicate so, at least. And he didn’t have to escort her all over Phenac and treat her to a meal, least of all take her somewhere to find Pokeballs. His actions seemed very contradictory to his attitude, and she had to admit she found it a little amusing.



She pulled her gaze away from Wes to glance at her surroundings; at one point, she thought she saw some town ruins in the distance, and despite the desert heat, she shivered. Wes would probably scoff at her for it, but she hated even thinking of Noctis ruins. They were a bad omen.



The hours ticked by in silence as the sun slinked lower and lower in the sky. Rui’s ears gradually adjusted to the dull roar of the engine, and she found that if she ducked her head at just the right angle, she could keep most of the sand from her face. She still found herself wishing for some goggles like the ones Wes had, though.



After what felt like ages, the bike started to slow. She looked up, hopeful to see their destination - and saw nothing but more desert and an old abandoned train car. What?



Wes rolled the bike to a stop. Bewildered, Rui glanced around again, thinking that maybe she missed something, but the scenery remained desolate and unchanged. She started to feel a little uneasy. Surely Wes hadn’t dragged her out here with ill intentions...?



“Are you coming?” His voice made her jump. He’d already started for the old, worn down building and was impatiently looking at her over his shoulder. His Umbreon and Espeon had been released from their Pokeballs and were already waiting outside the car’s entrance.



“Um...where are we, exactly?” Rui asked nervously.



Wes didn’t answer, but jerked his head to the train car. It was only then that she noticed there were lights on inside the thing, and the dim strains of Western music reached her ears. So it wasn’t entirely abandoned, after all.



Rui clambered awkwardly out of the sidecar, once again nearly face-planting into the sand as she did so, and followed Wes as they headed into the...whatever this place was.



It was a diner, apparently.



Rui blinked in the dim lighting as she surveyed the dusty interior. This place was very different from home, but it was also very different from Phenac. Most of the places she’d seen had tried to flourish despite the lifeless desert, as if trying to fight against their surroundings and prove to be something more. This place embraced the empty sands, the lawlessness of the desert, and made it a home - a creaky, grimy, dilapidated one, but a home, nonetheless.



Wes approached the sleepy-eyed man behind the counter, who could only be the owner of the place. He rubbed the back of his head as he addressed him. “Hey, Grogan. Got any Pokeballs in stock?”



The man, Grogan, gave Wes a bleary-eyed stare. “Pokeballs?” he grunted. “The hell do you need those for?”



“They’re not for me, they’re for her.” Wes nodded at Rui.



Grogan looked her up and down. He raised an eyebrow at Wes. “Who’s this, your mail-order girlfriend?”



Rui felt a wave of indignation at the snide remark. She was about to offer a stinging reply when Wes answered. “She’s just a lost traveler. I’m doing her a favor.”



“Awful long way to come for a favor.”



“We’re looking for Pokeballs, do you have them or not?” An edge crept into Wes’ voice.



Grogan waved a dismissive hand. “Sure, sure, I got the old things somewhere.” He turned and headed into the kitchen. Rui noticed a somewhat startled expression on Wes’ face.



“You look pretty surprised he has Pokeballs,” Rui observed. “I thought you knew he had them?”



Wes turned to look at her, his surprised expression melting into a smooth, unfazed one. “Well, yeah. This is the only place I’ve known in Orre to ever sell them, so he doesn’t always have them in stock.”



That makes sense, Rui thought. She began to feel slightly ashamed of herself for doubting the Rogue Trainer. So what if he was a little guarded? He’d saved her life in more than one way today, and she ought to be grateful.



Grogan returned to the counter with a bag in hand. “Got ‘em here,” he grunted, and then unceremoniously dumped out the bag’s contents onto the countertop.



Rui blinked at the little balls rolling across the dingy surface. There was a much greater variety than she’d expected; red, blue, yellow. She stared at them all and realized she didn’t have the slightest clue what the difference was between them. “Uh.”



Wes heaved a weary sigh beside her. “Just all of the regular ones,” he said. “And maybe a few Great Balls.”



Grogan obliged and packed about half a dozen red Pokeballs and about four blue ones. “Will that be enough?” Wes asked Rui.



“Yeah, those should be fine,” Rui mumbled. She dropped her gaze to the floor and shuffled awkwardly, feeling acutely embarrassed at her complete lack of knowledge. She’d expected this to be a relatively simple errand, but clearly she had been utterly unprepared for it. No wonder Papi was hesitant to let me go. I have no idea what I’m doing...



To make matters worse, Rui quickly realized that neither she nor Wes had a bag to carry the Pokeballs. Grogan merely waved a hand and let her keep the old canvas tote he’d brought the balls out in. “I’ve got plenty of space for the rest of these old things, and that bag was just collectin’ dust anyway.”



Rui thanked him profusely and stuffed the balls into her new bag, feeling even more abashed than before. She heard Wes saying something more to the diner owner, but she wasn’t paying much attention anymore. She leaned against a wall with a sigh, and felt something brush her hand.



She jumped, and then looked down to see Neo nosing at her fingers. He blinked up at her with dark, inquisitive eyes. Rui couldn’t help but smile. He’d done this same thing just hours before, when they were at the restaurant, and he was just so darned cute she couldn’t possibly resist showering him with affection.



Rui crouched down to his level and the Espeon allowed her to stroke his fur with a purr. “You’re a glutton for attention, aren’t you?”



Neo shamelessly purred louder in response.



She noticed Novo watching from a safer distance. He sat primly at Wes’ feet, crimson eyes narrowed distrustfully as he observed her. She’d attempted to pet him, too, at the restaurant, and his only response had been to snarl at her. “Novo, was it?” Rui asked softly.



The Umbreon answered with a growl.



This caught Wes’ attention. He looked over his shoulder and glanced between Rui and Novo. “What are you doing?”



Rui smiled up at him sheepishly. “Just trying to make friends.”



The Trainer raised an eyebrow at her, but said nothing. Rui was sure he thought she was crazy - although, given the day’s events, she couldn’t entirely blame him. She sighed and stood, despite Neo’s soft protest for more attention. “I guess your Umbreon doesn’t like strangers...sorry about that.”



Wes merely shrugged. He nodded to Grogan and made for the door. “Let’s go,” he said.



Rui blinked. “Go...where?”



“It’s too late to go anywhere else, so I booked us a place for the night.” He didn’t wait for her reply before pushing his way out the door, so Rui quickly followed him before giving a hurried thanks to the diner owner. She stepped out into the desert air and was surprised by how cool it already was - the temperatures were rapidly dropping now that the sun was almost below the horizon.



“S-sorry, but I’m just confused,” she said as she tried to match Wes’ brisk pace. “Where exactly are we staying? This place doesn’t look like it has any rooms...”



Once again, instead of answering, Wes simply kept walking until they reached the back end of the train car. He kicked away a layer of sand to reveal what looked like some kind of cellar door, then wrenched it open and, to Rui’s disbelief, gestured for her to step inside.



This is exactly how you die in horror movies, Rui.



Still, Wes hadn’t given any indication that he planned to hurt her in any way, and she felt a little better upon seeing his Pokémon dart down the creaky steps as if they’d been here before. She took a deep breath before glancing briefly at Wes.



She couldn’t help but notice that the golden rays of the setting sun matched his eyes. Rui balked at this sudden thought. What is wrong with you? she asked herself sternly. She shook her head slightly and then ducked into the cellar.



It was pleasantly cool in the place, if a little dank and musty. The only source of light was a tiny window right near the ceiling and an old, dim lightbulb that hung so low she nearly hit her head on it. The walls were covered with shelves of stored food, and the only thing on the floor was a small mattress and quilt.



The cellar door slammed shut and Wes stepped into the room behind her. “It’s really not much,” he said, “but it’s the best option available out here.” He must have noticed her eyeing the tiny mattress, because he then added, “You can take that. I’ll sleep on the floor.”



“Are-are you sure?” Rui turned to him uncertainly. She felt as though she’d been asking that question a lot today.



“I prefer the floor anyway.”



The weirdest thing about that statement was, he seemed to mean it. This baffled her a little. What kind of person liked to sleep on the floor?



She sighed and flopped onto the mattress, only to cough and gag as a cloud of dust puffed up into her face.



Wes grimaced a little. “Sorry. Should have warned you about that.”



Rui, still coughing, just shook her head and indicated it was fine with a wave of her hand.



The Trainer gestured to some water bottles sitting near the steps on a crate. “Some water, if you need any,” he mumbled, then he went about setting up his space.



Wes removed his blue coat, revealing a black tank top underneath. Rui couldn’t help but notice a variety of faint scars across his arms and shoulders; her overwhelming curiosity made her want to ask about them, but she’d gotten the distinct impression that the man hated questions, so instead she held them back.



But then she saw Wes push a large crate up against the wall under the small window, and she couldn’t help herself. “What’s that for?”



“It’s for Novo,” he answered simply. “He likes to watch at night.”



As if on cue, the Umbreon hopped up onto the crate and peeked at the steadily darkening world through the grimy window. He turned to his Trainer and bunted him happily with his head. A tiny smile tugged at the corners of Wes’ mouth as he rubbed Novo’s chin.



Rui couldn’t help but smile a little herself. Gruff though he may be, this odd stranger was certainly soft on his Pokémon.



Wes waited for Rui to get settled on her mattress before turning out the light. The dim lights from the train car overhead filtered through the tiny window, but they were left in almost complete darkness save for Novo’s gently pulsing rings.



“Um, goodnight, I guess,” Rui said awkwardly. What did one say in a situation like this?



There was a pause, and for a moment she thought he wouldn’t answer her. Then he heard his mumble from his place across the small cellar. “Night.”



Rui settled down onto the mattress. She’d never stayed in a place like this, and wondered if she would ever be able to fall asleep. But then the events of the day caught up to her, and her exhaustion pulled her under.



——————————————————-



She couldn’t be sure what time it was when she woke.



It was still dark outside as Rui sat up. She promptly stifled another cough as more dust swirled up from the mattress at her movements. So much dust everywhere...The first thing she was going to do when she got home was shower.



A soft glow caught her attention. She spotted Novo sitting on his crate by the window, ears pricked, eyes alert as he watched the world outside. Rui couldn’t help but wonder if there even was anything to see out there.



All the same, the Dark-type Pokemon brought back pleasant memories of her childhood. Her mother’s starter had been a Dark-type, and Rui had always had a soft spot for them.



Her mouth felt dry and sticky, and she realized what it was that caused her to wake. She slowly rose from her mattress to grab one of the water bottles that Wes mentioned earlier.



The Trainer in question was, indeed, on the floor. He’d apparently rolled up his coat to serve as a pillow, and Neo was curled up against his Trainer’s chest. One arm was loosely draped over the Espeon, and the two were fast asleep. Rui smiled a little at the sight. There had been a time when she thought she would be traveling around, with a Pokemon to sleep beside at night...



She shook these thoughts from her mind and was making her way past the sleeping pair to the crate near the door when a low growl met her ears.



Rui glanced over her shoulder to see Novo watching her every move with narrowed crimson eyes. His body was stiff, hairs on the back of his neck raised. She noticed him glance between her and his Trainer.



“It’s...it’s okay, Novo,” she whispered slowly. “I’m just getting some water. I won’t hurt your Trainer, promise.”



Novo continued to stare, but his growls subsided at her words.



Rui moved cautiously to the crate, grabbed a water bottle, and tiptoed past Wes and Neo back to her mattress. Novo again growled softly as she stepped past his Trainer a second time, but remained where he was.



She settled back on her mattress with a quiet sigh. She gave the Umbreon a tired smile. “See? I’m harmless, I promise.”



Novo gave her a hard look that plainly said I doubt that very much before returning to gaze out his window.



Rui downed the water greedily and was just about to get back to sleep when she heard another sound.



She lifted her head off the pillow. Through the dim light of Novo’s glow, she could see Wes twitching in his sleep. His breathing became labored, and he started to mumble something in distress.



“No...please...no-”



Rui paused. Should I wake him? She wondered anxiously. She was pondering what to do when Novo, without a sound, slipped from his perch atop his crate down to the floor below, and stepped up to his Trainer.



The room brightened a little as his rings filled with light. He bowed his head, touching his muzzle to Wes’ forehead, and a soft hum filled the room. After a brief moment, the sound faded, the lights dimmed, and Wes fell back into peaceful slumber with a quiet sigh.



Novo silently stalked back to his crate without sparing Rui so much as a passing glance. She could only stare at him in wonder. What was that? Was this a common occurrence? She’d never seen a Pokemon use Hypnosis on their Trainer before...



Rui rested her head back on her pillow. It seemed the more time she spent with this unusual trio, the more questions she had. She was pondering these many questions when she finally drifted back to sleep.



———————————————————



Wes could not believe that, a full day later, he was right back where he had started.



Not only that, but instead of his Pokemon sitting across from him in their usual diner booth, it was this girl.



He’d figured they could all do with some breakfast before returning to Phenac, so here they were, morning sunlight filtering through the dirty windows, waiting for their food to be ready as Neo and Novo downed their kibble at Wes’ feet.



He put his head into his gloved hands and sighed. It’s like Arceus himself doesn’t want me to leave this place.



Es-piiiii?” Neo peeked at him from under the table with wide, sparkling eyes.



“Neo, you’re getting regular Pokemon food today, and I swear to Arceus if you whine to me about it, I’ll put you in your ball for the rest of the day,” Wes growled.



Neo looked thoroughly mortified at this answer, but he knew defeat when he saw it. He slunk back to his place under the table with a pout.



Rui giggled at the sight. “He must love human food, huh?”



“Mostly just bacon,” Wes muttered. A small part of him regretted the day he’d let the two brothers try some. What a pair of monsters he’d created.



Rui placed her elbows on the table and leaned in a little. “So we’re going back to Phenac today, yeah?”



“That’s the plan.”



“Do you have a P*DA or something? I’d really like to find a way to contact you and pay you back when I can...”



“I don’t give out my number to people I don’t know. Sorry.”



“Oh?” She cocked her head at him, a smile dancing across her face. “You don’t give out your number to strangers, but you’ll rescue them from kidnappers, escort them around the city, and give them food and a place to stay for the night?”



Wes felt a small tinge of warmth in his face. “That’s...different.”



“It’s very different from just giving out your number, I agree.” She smirked.



“Look, I didn’t - I don’t-“



Rui laughed, and the sound filled the small diner. Wes was grateful that there weren’t any other customers to give them weird looks this time. “I’m teasing, Wes. You don’t have to give me your number if you aren’t comfortable. I just want to pay you back, that’s all.”



“Well...don’t worry about it,” Wes mumbled in response. He’d much rather send this girl on her way and never have to contact her again. It was simpler that way.



The call for their order came, and he was grateful for the chance to end the conversation, if only briefly. He knew she would likely pepper him with more questions once he returned with their food - and, lo and behold, he was right.



“So, where are you heading?” Rui asked him around a mouthful of omelette.



“Pyrite, actually.” Wes had pondered a few false answers to give her, so as to prepare for the onslaught of questions.



Rui’s eyes widened in shock. She hastily swallowed her bite of food. “Pyrite? But...why?



Wes shrugged. “Thought I might take on the Colosseum challenge there.”



“Ohhhh!” Rui suddenly leaned forward in excitement, putting her face far too close to Wes’ for his comfort. “That’s so cool! Agate doesn’t have a Colosseum, so I’ve never seen Colosseum matches before!”



“Um, yeah.” Wes leaned away from her to regain some breathing room. Not for the first time, he wondered what in Mew’s name was wrong with this girl. Had she never heard of personal space?



Thankfully, Rui sat back in her seat with a resigned sigh. “If this trip has taught me anything, it’s that I really haven’t seen enough of Orre. So much of it is so different from what I’m used to.”



It’s about time you realized.



“You could always change that, you know,” said Wes as he picked at his plate. “You shouldn’t wait too long to leave a place.” Like me, he thought ruefully.



“I would, but...I probably shouldn’t go alone.” Rui gave a slightly bitter laugh. “I mean, we both know how that went when I tried it.”



“Then go with someone.”



“I don’t really have anyone to go with.”



“What, you don’t have Trainer friends?”



She dropped her gaze to the table. “No, actually,” she said hesitantly. “I mean, Agate is mostly full of old, retired Ace Trainers and maybe a few young families that are related to them. There wasn’t anybody my age growing up, so...I didn’t really have any friends.” She grinned at him sheepishly. “Sounds kind of pathetic, huh?”



No, Wes thought, It sounds...lonely. For once, he thought he could relate to her, if only just a little. “Well, get yourself some Pokémon, then. Be a Trainer. You’re probably safest that way, anyway.”



Rui laughed again. “Come on. You and I both know Pokémon aren’t easy to come by. They haven’t been since the Kantonian War.” The smile faded from her face a little. “I...I don’t do Pokémon, anyway.”



Wes frowned at her. “Why not?” She certainly seemed to like them enough.



“I just...don’t.”



It was the first vague answer she’d given. Wes took the hint and didn’t press the issue further. They finished their meal soon after and headed out to Wes’ motorbike.



Neo had warmed up to Rui quite a bit over the last twenty-four hours. Wes had a suspicion that it had to do with the fact that she was always showering him with attention and praise whenever the Espeon so much as looked at her. He narrowed his eyes as he watched Neo rub up against her legs with a hopeful mewl.



“Oh my gosh, you’re so adorable!” Rui giggled as Neo brushed against her. He answered with a happy chirp. She grinned over her shoulder at Wes. “I think he really likes me!”



“He likes everybody,” Wes replied dryly, although he knew that wasn’t exactly true.



Rui didn’t seem to hear his remark and walked ahead to the motorcycle with a spring in her step. Wes glared down at his Espeon. “Stop sucking up to her. She’s not staying.”



Neo’s only response was to blink smugly at his Trainer before sauntering ahead, tail held high.



Brat.



He once again had to return Neo and Novo to their Pokeballs to make room for Rui in the sidecar. Neo was more willing to go along with it this time, but Novo seemed more sour about it than ever. Wes sighed quietly to himself and wondered how long his Umbreon would hold this against him.



Once they were both seated, he heard Rui speak up from beside him. “To Phenac, then?”



Wes nodded and gripped the handlebars. “To Phenac.” And then, finally, to Gateon. And beyond.



He roared up the engine, and they were off into the desert once more.



———————————————————



Neo liked the new girl.



He had decided so almost immediately upon seeing her emerge from that stuffy brown sack. Even though he’d sensed anxiety and fear rolling off her in waves, he also sensed something else: kindness. Gentleness. Sincerity.



He liked that. It reminded him of his Trainer.



Her vivaciousness made itself known as they walked around town, and he liked her even more. Her bright spirit added a new dynamic to the trio that Neo had not seen before, and it was fun. Novo was always serious and alert, and Wes always made an effort to remain composed and impassive. Neo loved them, but Mew above, being the only energetic one of the group sometimes got downright boring.



Her energetic enthusiasm, while thrilling to him, only seemed to agitate his Trainer. She peppered him with questions, laughed a lot, and walked with a bounce in her step all while irritation quietly emanated from Wes in spades.



Neo found this highly entertaining to watch.



But aside from her odd red hair, her loud laughter, and her bubbly personality, there was one reason above all others why he liked the girl so much.



She was a total pushover.



He’d discovered this as they sat at their booth in the Phenac restaurant. While his Trainer spoke with the girl, Neo had cautiously leaned forward to sniff her hands from his place at Wes’ feet. Her scent was pleasant yet unfamiliar, and it stoked his curiosity. She must have felt his whiskers, because suddenly her attention was on him and she was stroking his head and cooing at him all the while, telling him how handsome and beautiful he was.



Well, she clearly had good taste.



He tested this a few more times, and sure enough, each time he brushed against her, he was showered with her affection. She seemed absolutely thrilled every time he paid attention to her, and she was more than willing to return the favor.



They were at the Outskirt Stand when Neo decided to test this even further. He was pouting under the table after he’d given Wes the Begging Eyes and was told a hard no. The smell of bacon wafted tantalizingly in the air, and Neo chuffed and gloomily laid his head on his paws. He couldn’t believe his Trainer sometimes. Who could possibly deny him, Neo the Great (and Handsome, according to the redhead) Espeon, when he put on the charm? Apparently his stone-cold Trainer could. Hmphf.



His eyes rested on the pink pair of boots across from him, and he had an idea.



He waited until near the end of their meal when Wes briefly left the table to pay for their food, then slunk over to the girl and rested his head in her lap. He let his ears and tail droop, then looked her straight in the eyes and blasted her with Irresistible Cuteness, utilizing his Begging Eyes to the max.



It was a sight to behold. Her face crumbled, her resolve wilted, and she glanced quickly about before discreetly slipping him a piece of bacon under the table.



“Don’t tell Wes,” she whispered.



Neo devoured the meat with gusto. He could feel his brother’s stare of disbelief on the back of his head and could practically hear him asking where his dignity went. Neo chose to ignore this, and instead licked the last remnants of bacon from his muzzle and settled down smugly at Wes’ feet when he returned. Score one for the Espeon.



Yes. Neo liked the new girl very much.



———————————————————



Novo was very unsure about current events.



True, he did help his brother pressure Wes into stepping in to rescue the girl, but he hadn’t expected her to stay. The longer she stayed with them, the greater the anxiety was that he could sense from his Trainer. And Novo disliked anyone who set his Trainer on edge.



Which was basically everyone that wasn’t him and Neo, but that was beside the point.



This girl. She was naive. And boisterous. And loud. Her laugh grated on Novo’s ears, and he thought her voice was loud enough to draw attention from two streets over. Hadn’t the plan been to blend in and go as unnoticed as possible? In fact, wasn’t the plan to be well on their way to Gateon by now?



Novo sensed from Wes’ quiet tension and frustration that he was having the same thoughts as the Umbreon. The mounting anxiety to be on the road almost made him regret begging his trainer to save the girl. Almost. Much as he disliked her, he was sure that sack had not been a comfortable place to be, and kicking those men and their Whismur to the curb had been fun. Still, her bubbly demeanor rubbed his fur the wrong way.



His opinion of the girl lessened even further when, at the restaurant, she tried to pet him. She’d stretched out a cautious hand, as if to touch his head, and he snarled at her. Sure, she didn’t seem like a threat - far from it - but if Wes didn’t want her to get close, then Novo wouldn’t let her get close to himself, either. It was that simple.



Nonetheless, he suffered through their annoyingly long stay at Phenac City. Once the girl was set, she would be on her way, and they would be on theirs. No more invasive questions or weirdly bright smiles.



But for some reason, she followed them as they finally made their way back to the motorbike. Wes had picked up the pace considerably, and Novo felt joyous at the prospect of moving ahead as planned. Yet...the girl was still here. Did she not understand? Was she that naive? Surely - surely - Wes wasn’t planning on bringing her along?



Imagine Novo’s shock when Wes crouched down to level with him and told him he would have to go in his Pokeball.



What?



His Trainer seemed displeased at the idea, too, as he mumbled an apology to him, but Novo’s shock only deepened further when he saw the redhead make for the sidecar.



What?



Not only was he being forced back into his Pokeball for the second time today, he was being booted out of the sidecar? His spot? The spot where he loved to watch the scenery fly by and feel the wind in his fur? All for this -this girl? This girl, of all people?



The feeling of betrayal was palpable. He made certain his Trainer knew this by cramming every fiber of his wounded pride into a piercing glare before he was sucked into his Pokeball.



This girl.



Novo did not like this girl.
 
Last edited:
Chapter 5: Stirring Shadows



Wes couldn’t help but grumble a little once Phenac City came into view.



Yesterday he had hoped to never have to lay eyes on this city again, and yet here he was, shielding his eyes from its brightness even with his shaded goggles on.



He parked in his usual place outside the city wall, released Neo and Novo immediately, and stalked back through the city entrance with Rui close behind. He’d alerted the two Eons to keep close and stay watchful; he didn’t think Wakin’s impatience would have kept him in the city for very long, but he couldn’t afford to be careless. Especially not since he still had the Snag Machine...he spared a glance at the metal sleeve.



“Wes! Rui!”



Someone was shouting their names. Wes cursed quietly under his breath; having someone shouting his name in a busy city was not an idea he was fond of. He looked for the source, but Rui spotted them first - Dash and Marla, running towards them from across the street.



“Oh my goodness!” Marla panted once they’d reached them. She was looking at Rui with dismay. “You...I can’t believe you’re still here! You should have left by now, dear!”



“W-well, we technically did leave, but-” Rui began.



“That’s not important now!” said Dash. He looked panicked. “Rui, those men that took you - they’re back! They’re here, and they were headed to the Mayor’s house!”



Rui’s face drained of color. “Are...are you sure it was them?”



Dash nodded solemnly. “I’m sure. Positive. It was definitely them.” He looked between her and Wes with worry. “I-I’m really worried for the Mayor! You told him about them yesterday, right? What if they found out and...and...” he trailed off and gave Wes a pleading look.



Wes was rubbing his temples in frustration. Another distraction. Another. Damned. Thing. He sighed yet again. Rather than fight it this time, he figured if they could power through the issue quickly, then he could still be heading to Gateon by the end of the day.



He raised his head and fixed Dash and Marla with narrowed eyes. “All right, here’s the deal. We’ll go check on the Mayor and make sure everything is fine. Maybe we can even report that you two saw those men back in the city. And then we’ll get going, because we really need to be on our way.”



He could have sworn Marla had watery eyes as she thanked them. “Such incredible young people you are!” she sniffed. She and Dash said they would continue to look for the suspects before they parted ways.



“Do-do you think the Mayor’s okay?” Rui’s face was taut with worry as they made for his home. “What if they didfind out and they’re here to do something to him?”



“He’ll be fine,” said Wes shortly. “First of all, those two thugs had less than one brain cell to share between them, and second of all, we’re talking about the Mayor. He’ll have security with him. Remember that doorman?”



“Yeah...yeah, you’re right,” Rui said. She relaxed a little. “He should be fine - but I am glad you offered to check on him. I’ll be glad to know for sure.” She smiled at him. “You’re a really good person, Wes.”



No, I’m not, Wes thought with annoyance. He felt ready to sock the next person who needed a favor in the jaw. He wanted to get. Out. Of. Here.



They made it to the Mayor’s house in good time, largely due to Wes walking so fast and Rui almost needing to jog to keep up. The massive estate looked very much unchanged from the day before. Wes snorted and shook his head. Such a waste of time.



Still, they marched up the steps. Rui bounded forward to knock on the door with her usual enthusiasm -



And the door creaked open.



She let out a gasp, and even Wes felt an unpleasant sinking feeling in his stomach. Certainly there was an explanation. The doorman had just forgotten to shut the door tight and lock it...right?



Rui hesitated, then pushed her way inside.



“What - Rui!”



But the girl had already stepped through the doorway. Wes could see that the lights were out inside, and he uttered a few more curses under his breath. Did this girl have a death wish?



He hastily followed her inside with Neo and Novo at his heels. She had only ventured in a few steps and was now looking about the room. Wes grabbed her by the arm with a growl.



“Are you stupid?” He hissed. “What do you think you’re doing?”



Rui turned to look at him with horror in her eyes. “Wes...” she whispered. He could feel her trembling in his grip.



Wes noticed their surroundings, and he immediately understood her fear.



The office was unrecognizable from the day before. Not only were the lights out, but the room was destroyed; papers were scattered all over the floor, the fireplace was shattered, furniture was upended everywhere. Wes noticed the tea set that had been used to serve them yesterday was smashed into pieces on the floor.



“Rui,” he said slowly, “we need to get out of here. Now.”



He was just about to drag her back outside when the door at the other end of the room burst open.



At first, he wasn’t sure what he was looking at. For half a crazed second, as he saw massive ball of red and white, he thought he might be looking at a bizarre Pokemon. And then he realized it wasn’t what he was looking at, but whom.



The man that stood before them was tall, lanky, and dressed in some kind of ridiculous bright yellow track suit. His face was covered with gaudy shades, and he was adorned with flashy jewelry. But most noticeable of all was his hair; a massive afro that, for all intents and purposes, looked as though it defied the laws of physics just by how big it was. But the absurdity didn’t stop there - the hair was dyed two colors and split evenly down the middle, one side white, the other a fiery red.



Wes briefly wondered if this wasn’t just a hallucination. What did he have for breakfast, again...?



Afro Hair was apparently talking to someone else as he entered. His high, nasally voice carried a lilting accent that was almost as obnoxious as the fluff on his head.

“Now, now, darling, ain’t no need to get your hair worked up in a frizz. Why, that lil’ gal can’t have gone far, can - oh!” He squawked in surprise upon noticing Wes and Rui in the room. “Boys, I think we have company!”



Two more men stepped into the room from behind him, and Rui gasped in terror. She grabbed Wes by the arm and stood close to him. “Those - they - they’re-”



“I know,” Wes replied. He looked Folly and Trudly up and down with disgust. So these men had the nerve to come back to this place?



Neo and Novo stepped forward and faced the three men with bristling fur and low growls.



“Gah!” Trudly barked in alarm and pointed an accusing finger at Wes. “That’s - that’s him, boss! He’s the one who ran us out of town yesterday! An’ that’s the girl, there!”



The “boss” placed a hand on his hip and cocked his head to the side as he surveyed the newcomers. He scoffed and turned his head back to Trudly. “Are you boys tellin’ me you lost to this lil’ scrap?”



Trudly shuffled awkwardly. “Uh, Folly battled him, sir,” he said quickly.



“What’re you throwin’ me under the bus for?” Folly snapped. “You’da lost, too!”



Wes had started to inch toward the door, pulling Rui along with him. If they could just make a break for it while they were arguing amongst themselves -



The strange man’s gaze suddenly snapped back to Wes in his escape attempt. “Oh, I don’t think so, sonny boy!” he said. “Trudly, care to prove to me you’re not a pathetic lil’ sap like our dear Folly over here?” Folly made a noise of indignation, looking highly affronted.



“Sure thing, Boss!” Trudly barked. He whipped two Pokeballs from his belt and hurled them onto the floor.



Two beams of light faded to reveal a Duskull and a Spinarak. Wes almost shook his head at the pitiful Pokemon. Did these thugs really think they stood a chance against Neo and Novo?



But still, getting into another messy situation was not on today’s agenda. He took another step closer to the door -



A web shot from the Spinarak’s mouth and stuck to the door over Wes’ shoulder. With a fierce tug, it was slammed shut.



“Oh-ho!” the odd man cackled. “Tryin’ to run away, now? And here I thought you was some gentleman lookin’ out for this girl!” His eyes rested on the redhead as he mentioned her. Rui shivered and took another step closer to Wes.



“Here’s the deal, sonny! You hand that girl back over to us, nice an’ easy, and we let you go free! How do that sound?”



“What do you want with me?” Rui snapped. She was quivering, but her eyes were fierce.



“Well, lil’ gal, we was hopin’ you could tell us.” A sneer slid its way across the man’s face. “What are you doin, goin’ around and seein’ things you’re not supposed to see?”



Rui’s eyes widened in horror. “So you did do something to that Makuhita!”



A sudden ringing interrupted the exchange. The man gave a start and giggled. “Whoops-a-daisy! Pardon me, boys and girls!” He pulled his P*DA out of his pocket and answered. “Hellooooo?”



There was an incredibly awkward silence as he listened to the other side of the phone call. Nobody else in the room dared to speak. Folly was seething with anger near the opposite doorway, and Trudly was growling at Wes, clearly itching for a battle. Neo and Novo stood planted firm, growling at the men and now Trudly’s Pokémon. The Spinarak and Duskull were shifting in front of them, eyeing their opponents warily.



“W-Wes...” Rui’s frightened whisper reached his ears. “I’m so sorry - we shouldn’t have come here - I shouldn’t have barged in-”



“You think?” he growled at her. Rui ducked her head. Wes could still feel her trembling. Despite his annoyance, he felt a small tug of sympathy for her.



“I won’t turn you over, if that’s what you’re worried about,” he mumbled back to her. Rui kept her gaze on the floor, but she tightened her grip and nodded.



“You...think we can get out of here?” she whispered.



Wes snorted. “Please. Neo and Novo will take care of this.”



But even if we escape, what happens to the Mayor? he wondered. There was no indication of where the Mayor might be. Maybe, just maybe, he wasn’t actually home and they hadn’t come for him after all, but something else...?



It was a small thing to hope for, but he did anyway.



“Ah, just lovely! Goodbye, darling!” The man with the afro ended his phone call with a flourish of his hand before returning the P*DA to his pocket. He turned to the grunts behind him. “Well, boys, I’m off to Pyrite now! Ta-ta!”



“Wh-what?” Trudly spluttered. “You’re just gonna leave us to deal with this alone?”



“Yes indeed, darling,” his boss drawled with a wink. “I have frightfully important business to attend to, so I’ll be on my way. But I do trust you’ll have the girl with you the next time we meet.” His last sentence, though still drawled in his light, lilting voice, suddenly contained a cold and dangerous edge to it.



Trudly paled in fear and nodded. “I-I‘ll do it, boss!” he stammered.



“See that you do.” The man glanced back over his shoulder at Wes and Rui and winked. “Was lovely meeting you, darlings!” He sauntered off through the back door and was gone.



“Was he for real?” Wes mumbled dazedly. Rui gave a nervous laugh.



“All right, boy,” Trudly snarled. His face was twisted with fierce hostility, but there was something akin to desperation in his eyes. “You heard the boss! He needs the girl back. Pronto. Hand her over and nobody gets hurt.”



“No, thanks,” Wes said cooly.



Folly glanced between the two of them nervously. He sidled towards the door.



“You wanna do this the hard way, then?” Trudly roared. “FINE! Hard way it is!” He addressed his Pokemon. “String Shot and Shadow Ball!”



“Neo, Confusion on that Spinarak!” Wes barked. “Novo, keep that Duskull away from him and Bite whenever possible!”



The Eeveelutions acknowledged their orders with a bark. Novo was immediately tied up in a String Shot, but he gnawed his way through the sticky webs with Bite; Neo dodged the Shadow Ball and plowed into the Spinarak with Confusion. The spider screeched as it was thrown into the opposite wall and fell motionless to the floor in one hit.



The Duskull fired another Shadow Ball, and this time it struck Neo’s shoulder with enough force to send him tumbling. The Espeon yowled in pain, but before the Duskull could launch another attack, he was yanked out of the air by Novo’s jaws. The Umbreon had leaped onto the desk to reach his foe, and now hurled him down to the ground with a fierce tug. The Duskull wailed and shot another Shadow Ball at the Pokemon; the attack rolled off Novo’s shoulders with no effect whatsoever. He lunged and ended the scuffle with a swift Bite.



Trudly roared and raged. “You - you PATHETIC LITTLE-” he swore vehemently and returned his fallen Pokemon to their balls before turning on Wes. “I’M NOT FINISHED YET!”



Rui’s eyes widened. “Wes-”



“Not now, Rui.” Wes focused intently on his opponent.



“But - Wes-”



She didn’t get to finish her thought. Another beam of light filled the room as Trudly unleashed his third and final Pokemon.



A Makuhita.



Rui choked a cry from behind Wes. “That’s the one, Wes!” she cried. “There’s something wrong with that Pokémon!”



Wes looked the Makuhita up and down; it didn’t seem like there was anything wrong with it. Sure, its tense posture and fierce growls were aggressive, but he didn’t see how -



Without a command, the Makuhita hurled itself at Novo with terrifying speed. Novo scrambled to get out of the way, but he’d been caught off guard. The Makuhita slammed a fist into the Umbreon’s side and sent him flying into the lounge area, crashing into a knocked over couch.



Wes hissed through clenched teeth. This Makuhita was fast. No matter; it was still outnumbered, with a type disadvantage to boot. “Neo! Confusion!”



The Espeon was back on his feet and ready to rumble. He blasted a wave of Psychic energy at the Makuhita. Wes could hear Rui shouting in alarm, but he didn’t listen. What was she so worried about? This battle would end quickly soon enough, they were fine -



The Makuhita barreled straight through Neo’s Confusion. Wes blinked. That was new.



Neo let out another howl as his foe tossed him effortlessly to the side and kept gunning forward - straight at Wes.



Oh.



He barely had time to react. He ducked and dove to the side, but he wasn’t quite fast enough to dodge the entire blow. The Makuhita’s fist glanced off his right shoulder, and Wes felt something pop, followed by a thrill of pain shooting down his arm as he crashed to the floor.



Rui’s screams filled his ears. The Makuhita lunged for her next, but Novo rammed it out of the way with a Return. The Pokémon tumbled across the floor, then scrabbled to its feet with another snarl, and Wes got a good look at its eyes.



He felt a shiver go down his spine; he’d never seen such empty, such soulless eyes in a Pokemon before. He’d seen more than his fair share of abused and neglected Pokémon during his time in Snagem, but none of them had been quite like this. This Makuhita was filled with nothing, nothing at all, except pure, unfiltered hatred.



“Rui - Rui!” Wes shouted, sitting up and trying to put some distance between him and the Makuhita. “The bag! Give me the bag!”



“Wh-what?”



“Just give it to me!”



She did as told, and the canvas bag was tossed into his lap.



The crazed Pokemon lunged at Wes again; Neo blocked it this time with a Protect, then another Confusion. Though the Espeon’s Psychic-type attacks should have greatly weakened the Fighting-type, it seemed hardly fazed at all. If anything, it was even angrier than before. Both Neo and Novo lunged at their foe, only to be thrown aside yet again.



The Makuhita locked eyes with Wes, and launched at him a third time.



Wes’ instincts kicked into overdrive.



He was hardly aware that he had dug into the bag and was now holding a Pokeball in his hand. The machine on his arm came to life, soft orange lines glowing as they ran all the way down to his fingertips. The Pokeball in his hand glowed and hummed as the machine did its work.



The Makuhita bore down on him, and Wes threw the ball.



The Pokemon vanished in a beam of light. The ball fell to the floor with a light thunk, then shook once...twice...three times.



And then clicked.



A stunned silence filled the room, only to be broken by Trudly’s scream.



“WHAT?!”



The ball flew from its place on the floor to Wes’ open hand - the one with the machine. He stared at it numbly, unsure of what to think or feel.



“WHAT DID - HOW DID YOU - THAT’S MY POKEMON!”



Trudly was practically foaming at the mouth. Wes looked up into the man’s eyes.



“Not anymore,” he said bluntly.



Trudly took a step forward, looking about ready for murder, when Neo and Novo limped out from under the wreckage of the battle. Neo’s forehead jewel gleamed menacingly, and Novo’s rings pulsed with anger.



“Doesn’t look like your friend is here to back you up, either,” Wes added.



Folly was indeed nowhere to be seen. Trudly balked, glancing at the advancing Pokemon and where his friend should have been. He screamed a volley of insults at Wes before retreating hastily through the door.



Wes’ shoulders slumped in relief, and he stared at the Pokeball in his hand. Never, not once, had he seen a Pokemon behave in such a way before...



A shuffle from near the door caught his attention. He turned his head to see Rui backing away from him, her face white with shock. “You...how...how did-”



Wes staggered to his feet and sucked in a sharp breath at the pain that laced through his shoulder. Something was definitely wrong with it. He grimaced at Rui. “I’ll explain later, okay?”



Rui continued to stare at him. “You...you just...you just stole-”



Wes didn’t have time for this. He grabbed Rui by the arm and made for the door. “I’ll explain later. But for now we need to get out of-”



“I’m not going ANYWHERE with you!” Rui’s voice was shrill as she wrenched her arm away from him. “Not until you explain to me what just happened! Right now!”



Wes clenched his jaw and took a long look at the girl. If he told her the truth, would she understand? Would she allow him to continue on his way without turning him in? Or would she give him away to the authorities in a fit of rage?



He thought of her face in the Pokémon Center when she spoke of Team Snagem, and he knew the answer.



He heaved a long, weary sigh. “Okay. Okay. I’ll explain. But can we please go somewhere else? I don’t want to be here when authorities get here. It won’t look good for either of us.”



Rui seemed to accept this answer, as she tersely nodded her head after a moment’s pause. “Fine.”



They took the back exit to avoid being seen, and Neo and Novo were returned to their Pokeballs until they could be taken to the Center for their injuries. Wes made an effort not to let his own injury show, partly out of attempts to avoid suspicion from curious onlookers, but mostly out of habit. He led Rui to a bench that was tucked away next to a few artificial waterfalls; their conversation would be safe here, with the rushing water to discourage potential eavesdroppers.



Rui sat far away from him, on the opposite side of the bench. Though she’d been clinging to his arm just moments earlier, now she wanted nothing to do with him, and was putting as much space between them as possible. She fixed him with a burning glare. “Well?”



Wes took a deep breath. He would have to be careful, very careful, on how he approached this. The low voice spoke in his mind once again, repeating words from yesterday: The best lies are half-truths, boy.



And as much as Wes hated that voice, he listened to it.



“I...I told you I grew up on the streets, right?” He started slowly. Rui narrowed her eyes at him and nodded. “Well...I associated with all kinds of people. Living that life, you have to make connections to survive. I had...had some close friends who got caught up with Team Snagem.”



Rui’s hands curled into fists as they rested atop her knees. She said nothing, so Wes continued.



“I didn’t like what Team Snagem did. I never liked it. But these friends of mine...they did what they thought they had to do to survive. So they stayed with Snagem for a long time, until something happened.” He paused and stared hard at the ground. “They...killed one of my good friends and his team.”



Rui’s expression remained unchanged, but she pursed her lips at this revelation. “Why?” she asked.



“Because he broke one of their rules...I don’t know all the details.” Wes ran a hand through his hair. “I just know that they killed his team and made him watch before they killed him.” Anger started to rise in his chest. Horrifying images, ones that plagued his nightmares, began to flicker across his mind. He shook his head and pushed them back as he took another deep breath.



Not now. Keep it together.



“So,” he pressed on, “I got together with a couple of friends and we decided to do something about it. We rigged up some explosives and infiltrated the base. That explosion that happened a few days ago? That was me.”



Rui’s reaction was clearer this time. Her eyes widened and her mouth dropped open. “That...was you?”



“Yeah.” Wes gave her a bitter smile. “Best damn thing I ever did.”



She stared at him in shock for a moment, then her eyes went to the machine still on Wes’ arm. “That doesn’t explain that, though.”



“I stole it before I - we - blew up the base. Snagem had a whole bunch of machines made to convert Pokeballs for stealing, so we set the bombs off in all the rooms that held them. We destroyed them all...except this one.” He looked down at the metal contraption. Sunlight glinted off its many curved surfaces. “This was the only portable one they had. I stole it because...well, I’m actually not sure. Part of me wanted to use it against them, I guess. Somehow.”



“Then how did you automatically know how to use it?” Rui’s voice hardened a little with suspicion.



“I had a general idea of how they worked from what my friends told me. Plus, it’s pretty straightforward. You just throw a Pokeball with that arm.” He raised head back up to meet Rui’s eyes. “That’s the story.”



Rui scanned his face as if looking for any traces of falsehood. “So...you were never part of Team Snagem yourself?”



“No,” Wes said firmly. “Never.”



“You’ve never stolen a Pokemon?”



“Today was the first.”



She sat still for a long time, staring hard at him, fists still clenched. Wes tried to calm the pounding in his chest as he met her gaze evenly. Please let her believe me. Please.



“Okay.” Her voice was quiet. “I believe you.”



Wes allowed himself to breathe a tiny sigh of relief. Thank. Arceus.



“But...what does this all mean?” Rui leaned back with a sigh. “That Makuhita...I don’t know what they did to it, but it’s badly scarred, and dangerous. You saw for yourself.”



Wes nodded.



“And I’m apparently the only person who can see them...that I know of, at least.” She tipped her head back to look at the sky. “I’ve never met anyone else who can see aura...but then I just happened to meet you, and you just happen to have a machine that lets you steal Pokemon...” she trailed off and gave him a pointed look.



Wes stared blankly at her. “What are you getting at?”



“Well, isn’t it all so...convenient?” Rui sat up on the bench, angling to face him. “It’s all so circumstantial. Doesn’t it seem like we were meant to meet and maybe...I dunno, join forces?”



“Join forces for what?”



“To save those Pokemon!” Rui waved a hand exasperatedly, as though she couldn’t believe Wes wasn’t getting it. “Whoever those people in the Mayor’s house were, they’re part of something. A gang, maybe, or an organization. And I know there are more corrupted Pokemon out there from what I overheard while I was in that sack. Whatever they’re doing to those Pokemon, it’s wrong, and it’s horrible, and-” she broke off, her voice quivering with emotion. “I want to save them, Wes,” she finished. Her eyes were pleading as she looked at him.



Wes sighed and pinched the bridge of his nose. Of course. Of course this girl, with no knowledge of how the world worked, would want to go charging in to challenge some underground crime ring without evidence, on the off chance they might save some random Pokemon she didn’t even know. Really, why did he expect anything different?



His arm twinged painfully, and he held back a wince.



“Look.” He raised his head again. “That’s a nice idea and all, but you have no actual evidence. You don’t have any leads. And you’re not even slightly qualified to lead any sort of investigation. It’s best to tell authorities everything you know, and let them take it from there.”



“But what can they do?” Rui huffed. “They haven’t accomplished anything in years when it comes to Orre’s crime rings! I mean, you did more to expose Snagem than they have ever done, and you’re just one person!”



Wes had to admit she had a point there. Orre’s pitiful excuse for a police force was precisely why crime was so high. Few criminals were successfully caught, and even fewer were ever punished.



He shook his head. “I’ve done my part, all right? I did what I could to destroy and expose Snagem, I hit them where it hurt the most, and now I’m a dead man walking if any of them catch me. I’m also pretty sure that blowing up buildings is still a crime, whether it belongs to a gang or not. So there’s that. I’m not in any position to...to play hero, or whatever. And I don’t think I want to. I just want to lay low and live the rest of my life in peace.”



That’s your answer?” Rui asked in disbelief. “You saw that Pokémon! You saw what those men did - and are doing! And you’re just going to ignore it?”



“I never said I was going to ignore it, I’m just going to leave it to the police.”



Rui scoffed. “Which is basically the same thing.”



“Well, we cant all be a hero, all right?” Wes snapped. Another pang shuddered through his shoulder and down his arm, and he hissed in frustration. Why, why, why couldn’t he have just ignored his Pokemon yesterday and let someone else rescue this crazy redhead? He rose to his feet. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to heal my Pokemon and get my shoulder looked at, and then I’m leaving this place. You should find yourself some transportation to Agate, and then I think it’s for the best if we never see each other again.”



Rui had also risen to her feet and was frowning at him. For a moment Wes wondered if she’d even heard what he said. “You...hurt your shoulder?” She looked concerned.



“A crazy Pokemon tried to kill me, in case you didn’t notice.”



“I-I didn’t realize you were hit! I’m sorry-”



“Doesn’t matter.” Wes turned away on one heel. “I’m going now.” He marched off in the direction of the hospital.



“Wait!” Rui rushed up beside him. “At least let me go with you to the hospital!”



“What the hell for?” he spat. “I don’t need you. Go away.”



“No! You got into this mess because of me, and the least I can do is make sure you’re okay!”



“I’m fine, and I’d be even better if you’d leave me alone.”



“At least let me go with you. Okay? Then I’ll leave and I’ll be out of your hair, I promise.”



Her face was so sincere as she looked at him. Wes found it so damned infuriating. How in Mew’s name could this girl possibly have the energy to care so much about absolutely everything? Didn’t she ever get tired? Like a normal person?


Wes grumbled in defeat. “Fine.” And with that, he made for the hospital with Rui in tow.
 
Chapter 6: Lockdown



This is definitely not how I thought today would go.



Rui said these words to herself as she sat beside a grumbling Wes in the Phenac clinic. Their visit had taken roughly two hours from start to finish, much to the Trainer’s chagrin.



He was in quite a sour mood, although Rui couldn’t exactly blame him, given the day’s events. She glanced at the sling on his right arm; she couldn’t believe he’d had a dislocated shoulder ever since leaving the Mayor’s house. He’d hardly shown any pain at all, and even after the nurse set it back in place, he was prepared to leave and skip receiving pain medication altogether.



Rui had, with some considerable effort, convinced him to stay for just a little longer. Good as he was at masking it, there was no way he wasn’t in pain. She shook her head to herself. What kind of person brushed off a dislocated shoulder like it was nothing?



As a peace offering and in an effort to temper his mood, she’d taken his Pokemon to the Center, healed them, and brought them back while he waited. This seemed to ease his stress a little.



Rui looked around the room. She couldn’t help but notice there was a tense atmosphere in the clinic. Nurses and doctors were muttering to each other in worried, hushed tones, and clients were whispering to one another. News about the break in at the Mayor’s estate must have been reported and was spreading around the city. Rui just hoped the Mayor would be found safe and sound...she sighed and slumped in her seat. She found herself wishing she could do more, so much more.



At long last, the nurse emerged with the medication and they were able to get on their way. Rui bit her lip hesitantly as they walked out the door. She knew she’d told Wes that she would go her own way after this, but she couldn’t help but wonder if those men, Trudly and Folly, were still in the city. They were still after her, and the thought of being left alone was terrifying...but she couldn’t possibly ask more of him. He’d made it clear that he had his own plans, and he’d sacrificed so much for her already...



She blinked in the sunlight as they stepped outside. The hospital was near the upper elevations of the city, so they had a clear view over the sloping buildings and cascading waterfalls. The sun was getting low in the sky, tinging the light blue with gold and glowing off the city below. Rui basked in the breathtaking sight; bad memories of Phenac aside, it still managed impress her.



She shot Wes a sideways look. “I...guess this is it, huh?”



“Yeah.” He wasn’t looking at her. Rui wondered if he was having the same thoughts as her about Trudly and Folly, but if he was, he said nothing. Instead, he sent Neo and Novo out of their Pokeballs. “All right, guys. Time to say goodbye.”



Novo cast her a sideways glance, chuffed, then turned his head away to look out over the city. Rui smiled wryly; she’d been expecting as much from him.



Neo’s eyes widened in dismay as he looked from his Trainer to Rui. “Esp? Spiiiii?”



“It’s time for us to go, bud, and she needs to get home. Say goodbye, okay?”



Neo’s ears drooped in disappointment. Rui crouched down, and he wandered over to place his head on her knee with a loud sigh.



Wes rolled his eyes. “Such a drama queen.”



Rui giggled at the Espeon. “I’ll miss you too, Neo,” she said as she stroked his head. “It was fun to get to know each other, wasn’t it?”



Neo rubbed his chin against her knee. “Spi.”



She got back to her feet. “So, um...thanks.” She looked down at her feet and clasped her hands behind her back.



“...yeah.” Wes mumbled and shifted awkwardly. “Well, uh, see you, I guess-”



“Umbri!” A bark from Novo made them both jump. The Umbreon was on his feet, looking at something in the distance. He turned to his Trainer with an anxious growl. “Bri!”



Wes raised a hand to his face and let out a growl. He looked as though he might throw something. “For Arceus’ sake,” he said weakly, “What now?”



As if in answer to his question, a loud, booming voice echoed through the streets, making them both jump. Rui glanced around for the source of the sound and found it was coming from speakers all throughout the city.



This is a public announcement to all citizens of Phenac!” Rui perked up - that was the Mayor’s voice!



All citizens are to return to their homes immediately. All visitors are to take shelter in the Pokemon Center. We ask that every individual remain indoors until further notice. There will be no exiting or entering the city at this time. We thank you for your cooperation.”



She heard Wes groan beside her. “Well. Fantastic. We chose a great day to come back here.” His voice was dripping with annoyance.



“What do you think is happening?” She turned to face him, fear creeping into her chest.



“Probably trying to chase down whoever broke into the Mayor’s house...which doesn’t put us in the best position,” Wes replied grimly.



“Why not?”



“Because we were there. If anybody saw us going in or out and reported it, we could be suspects.”



“We can just tell them the truth, right? And I bet if we could find Dash or Marla, they would vouch for us!”



“You’re forgetting that I stole a Pokémon while we were there. If that gets found out...”



“...oh. Right...” Rui bit her lip. “Then...what do we do?”



Wes didn’t answer immediately; he seemed to be wondering this himself. Then he turned and looked at her. “We’re getting out of here.”



Rui blinked. “‘We’?”



“You’re welcome to stay here for hours and possibly get arrested, but personally, I have other things I’d rather be doing.”



“O-okay, but how are we getting out? The Mayor just said-”



“Forget what the Mayor said. We can at least check out the entrance and see if we can sneak out somehow. It’s not like they have a police force to guard the exits.”



Rui frowned at him. “All right...but if we can’t find a reasonable way to get out, I think we should go to the Center and wait things out.”



Wes scowled. He clearly didn’t like her counteroffer, but rather than argue, he simply sighed. “Fine. Deal.”



They headed towards the southern entrance. Rui had to admit that, her rising anxiety and pounding heart aside, she was grateful they hadn’t parted ways just yet. It was nice not to be alone, and, gruff though he was, she was starting to enjoy Wes’ company. She watched Neo and Novo weave around their Trainer as they walked, and she felt a little more at peace in their presence.



They eventually rounded a corner and the south gate came into view. Four men stood in front of it, forming a human blockade of sorts. One man in a white and gold uniform stood in front of the other three and was repeating directions into a microphone.



“All citizens please return to your homes! There will be no leaving or entering this city until further notice! I repeat, all citizens return to your homes immediately...”



There weren’t many people in the small square, but those who remained were quickly hurrying about in varying directions to their homes. Rui caught a glimpse of a few faces as they bustled by; each one looked tense, worried, and fearful.



She then got a closer look at the men standing in front of the entrance. They each wore distinctly colored uniforms and carried an air of authority in their posture.



“Are those...officers?” Rui asked uncertainly.



“The guy in front is some kind of Town Hall member,” Wes answered as he surveyed the scene, “but I don’t recognize the ones behind him...they can’t be officers, I know Phenac doesn’t have...” he trailed off with a frown.



Rui then made a prompt decision and approached the man with the megaphone. She heard Wes hiss her name behind her, but she ignored him. She hadn’t been with the Trainer that long, but knew him well enough that he would probably come up with something brash and reckless to get them out of here. Rui, however, had a little faith in the power of negotiation.



“Excuse me!” Rui raised her voice in an attempt to be heard over the megaphone. “Can you tell us what’s going on?”



The man lowered the megaphone and threw her a thoroughly disgruntled look. “Look, lady, I can only repeat myself through this damn cone and be ignored so many times. Now get gone. Go home.”



“Please, sir...” Rui put on her best pleading face. “I’m just a tourist, you see, and I don’t live here-”



“Bah!” He waved a hand in frustration. “Then go to the Center or something!”



“Care to tell us why we can’t leave the city?” Wes surprised Rui by stepping up beside her and addressing the man sharply. She held back a sigh; she’d been going for the sweet and innocent angle, but Wes’ glare would quickly ruin that.



Out of the corner of her eye, Rui saw one of the three men nudge his neighbor and whisper in his ear.



The Town Hall member turned to scowl at him, but then quailed slightly under Wes’ fierce gaze. He huffed and shook his head. “Look, I’m not at liberty to share details, but I have it on good authority that there’s an armed and dangerous criminal in this city, and nobody’s going anywhere until we find the culprit.” His face darkened. “You’ve heard the orders from the Mayor and myself, so stop wasting my time and get inside somewhere!”



“Excuse me.” One of the uniformed men stepped up. His face was obscured under a helmet with a dark visor. He wore a scarf around his neck, a crisply fitted button-up uniform, and thick gloves. Every piece of clothing, from his visor to his boots, was a solid oceanic blue. His two companions behind him wore identical uniforms, except that one was in all red, the other all green.



He seemed to be glancing between Wes and Rui - she couldn’t see his eyes, so it was hard to tell for certain. He then clapped a hand on the Town Hall member’s shoulder. “You can go on home now, sir. We’ll take it from here.”



The man balked. “But-as a Town Hall official-”



“No need to worry, this area’s been cleared of civilians save these two. You’ve done your duty.”



The staff member sighed in relief. He pushed past Wes and Rui further into the city, and she thought she heard him grumble as he passed, “Don’t get paid enough for this.”



The man in blue turned his head to Wes. “You, sir. I’m going to need to see your Trainer I.D.”



Wes narrowed his eyes. “What?”



“No worry, it’s only a precaution. We’ve got a Pokémon thief running somewhere through this city, so we need to be sure no Trainers are carrying unregistered Pokémon.”



Rui’s heart raced in her chest. Wes had tucked the Makuhita’s Pokeball onto his belt, next to the other two...



“My Pokémon are right here,” Wes said cooly, and gestured to the Umbreon and Espeon that stood loyally his feet.



“I’m sorry, but I still need to see your I.D.”



Wes raised an eyebrow at him. “And who are you, exactly? I don’t remember Phenac having officers.”



“We are volunteer transfers from Pyrite who have offered their services to keep Phenac safe.” An edge crept into the man’s tone. “Now, for the last time, show me your I.D., or things will get difficult.”



Rui glanced nervously at Wes. What do we do? What do we do? But the Trainer merely sighed and shrugged his shoulders. His face was perfectly calm as he reached into his coat and handed his Trainer card to the...officer? Supposedly?Rui still wasn’t exactly sure what to call these men. She’d never heard of authorities transferring from Pyrite before - but then again, she supposed she didn’t know much about a lot of things.



The man in blue pulled out his P*DA and scanned the card. After a moment’s pause, he read aloud, “Wesley Lycas, twenty-two, native Orre citizen, three registered Pokemon. An Espeon, an Umbreon, and a Makuhita.” He pocketed his device and handed the card back to Wes. “Looks like everything is in order. You’re all clear, but we still can’t allow anyone in or out of this city until we do a thorough search.”



Wes heaved another sigh of exasperation. Rui could tell from his clenched jaw that he was trying very hard to maintain his patience. “Look, we really need to be on our way. Can you just let us go?”



“Sorry, sir. No exiting or entering until the lockdown is lifted.”



Wes looked ready to argue, so Rui quickly stepped in. “Thank you,” she said, “we’ll be on our way now!” She grabbed her companion by the arm and pulled him away.



“I can’t believe this-“ he mumbled under his breath as they turned to go. “We are never getting out of here...”



But we aren’t arrested, either, she thought. She looked up at him and was about to ask what sort of stunt he’d pulled when she heard a series of distinct sounds from behind them:



Several Pokémon being unleashed at once.



Wes stiffened. “Oh, hell-”



Rui was suddenly wrenched to the side as he dove, pulling her down with him. She didn’t even have time to shout before she heard Wes call to his Pokémon. “PROTECT!”



And everything around them exploded.



A maelstrom of Pokémon attacks engulfed them. Rui heard herself scream as she saw flames, leaves, water, psychic energy - but none of them reached her or Wes.



Neo and Novo flanked the two of them on either side. Novo’s rings flared as Neo’s jewel gleamed, a white silvery shield forming around them. The attacks subsided, and the shield evaporated like mist.



The dust settled. The three uniformed men stood with empty Pokeballs in their hands. Five growling, rumbling and snarling Pokemon loomed right in front of them -



Rui choked out a cry.



Dark. Angry. Black.



It was Pyrite all over again - but worse. Much worse. Rui trembled as she took in the sickly sight of purple-black flames engulfing the aura of - not one, not two, but three of the five Pokemon before them.



A Quilava twitched and clawed at the ground erratically as though trying to get at an itch it could not scratch; a Bayleef breathed heavily with raging hatred in its eyes; a Croconaw snapped its jaws and looked horrifyingly eager to tear something in two. A Spoink and a Grimer flanked the three creatures on either side, and although their auras were clean, they were tense and ready to fight.



These men were certainly no officers.



There’s more of them, she realized as she took in the corrupted Pokemon with growing horror. Lots more. Then she realized something else.



We are so, so dead.



“So this is how you want to play?!” Wes was back on his feet and roaring at his opponents. “Just who the hell do you think you are!”



The man in blue smirked at him. “Play dangerous games, win dangerous prizes, my friend.” Wes snarled a curse at him.



Rui rose shakily to her feet. “W-Wes-”



“What!” He snapped his gaze to hers, and Rui flinched a little; he looked thoroughly pissed.



“Those - those - those Pokemon are like that Makuhita!”



He stared at her in disbelief. “You’re joking.”



The - the-” Fear made her words were jumble together. “Quilava-Croconaw-Bayleef!” She hoped to Arceus she made some sort of sense in her panic.



“Briii!” Novo stalked forward with a growl, utterly undaunted by the number of foes. One of the Pokemon, a Spoink, squealed a challenge back at him.



A volley of cries reached Rui’s ears as each of the men hollered commands at their Pokemon. Rui ducked, Wes shouted for another Protect, and this time the shield barely held against the vicious barrage.



She was not convinced it would hold a third time.



“Novo, Dark Pulse on that Spoink! Neo - Confusion on the Grimer!” The Eons lunged into the fray at the command, and chaos ensued. Wes ripped the third Pokeball from his belt and unleashed the Makuhita.



The Pokémon’s aura was no different from before. The darkness shifted around it eerily, unnaturally, like a sickly specter. The Makuhita blinked as he took in his surroundings. The dark flames of aura burned higher as he noticed the fighting.



“Makuhita, Vital Throw!” Wes called from behind. The Makuhita turned to give him a blank stare.



“Does...does he know you’re his Trainer now?” Rui asked nervously. The sounds of the battle raged in front of them, and she heard Neo shriek in pain.



Wes must have heard this, too, because his jaw clenched. “Dammit, we don’t have time for this -“ he stepped up to the Makuhita. “Look, I’m your Trainer now. Long story. I need you to fight for me now or we are all dead.”



The Makuhita seemed to understand this. He blinked and nodded his head slowly.



“Right, then - Vital throw!”



The Makuhita continued to stare.



Wes growled in frustration. “For the love of - you know what, I don’t care what you do, just get in there and throw down, and don’t hit the Espeon or Umbreon. Go!”



The Pokémon didn’t need to be told twice. As if a switch had been flipped, the Makuhita went from a blank, lifeless slate to a raging machine. His head snapped to the battle and he lunged into the chaos with a terrifying bellow. “Ma-KU!”



Things were not going well for Neo and Novo. The Espeon was panting heavily as he clashed with the Bayleef, Quilava and Grimer all at once. He finally landed a solid Confusion on the Grimer, launching it several feet and taking it out of commission, only to be buried beneath the attacks of his other two foes. He wailed as the Bayleef battered at him with its vines - and then said Bayleef was blasted off its feet as Makuhita slammed into his side with terrifying force.



Novo was snapping his jaws at the Spoink with the Croconaw hot on his heels. He finally landed a Bite on its tail, and while the Pokémon shrieked, he knocked it out with a Dark Pulse before flinging it away from the battle. The Croconaw was upon him immediately, and the two engaged in a whirlwind of fangs and claws.



Shouts rang across the battlefield as one command after another was called. Rui heard one of the men, the one in green, laugh smugly. They knew who would win this fight; they had made sure of that before the battle had even begun.



The playing field was even now, but Wes’ starters had taken a beating. Neo’s fur was charred from the Quilava’s flames, Novo was limping badly, and both of their attacks were rapidly weakening. They would not last much longer.



The Makuhita, on the other hand, was thriving.



He slammed the Bayleef off its feet once more. The grass Pokémon let out a cry that was cut short by another brutal blow - then another, and another. The Bayleef’s cries transitioned from ones of frustration to screams of pain.



Rui noticed this with horror. “Wes, stop him!” She shrieked.



Wes had left Makuhita to his devices as he called commands to the struggling Eons. At Rui’s cry, he followed her gaze and swore at the sight.



He had a Pokeball in his hand with lighting speed; Rui caught a gleam of light as the machine on his arm lit up and emitted an orange glow along its seams and edges. With a fluid motion, the Trainer lunged forward and hurled the ball at the Bayleef, and the Pokémon vanished in a beam of light.



She heard one of the men scream in fury.



The Makuhita barely seemed to notice that his foe had vanished. He immediately hurled himself at the Croconaw with a roar, and Rui saw his aura bursting with aggression.



Rui didn’t hear the ball click in all the chaos, but she saw it fly back to Wes’ hand. No sooner did he tuck it away than he hurled another one, this time at the Quilava. The fire Pokémon had barely disappeared into the ball before he chucked another at the Croconaw.



The Trainer in red roared; his companions balked in fear and confusion at the sudden turn of the tides. He lunged forward - and the Makuhita, fresh out of opponents, charged at him.



“Holy-” Wes choked as he fumbled for his Pokeball, but he wasn’t quick enough. There was a loud thud and a scream as the fighting Pokémon landed his blow and threw the man back ten feet. He landed hard on the white stones and moaned in pain as his companions backed away with shouts of terror.



He’s out of control, Rui thought as she watched in horror. And Wes just caught another one like him! Merciful Arceus -



The Makuhita bore down on him again, black aura billowing about him, but Wes managed to return him just before he could slam his mighty fists down on the man’s chest.



“That Pokémon,” he said shakily to a pale Rui as he tucked away the ball, “is insane.”



“You know,” she replied weakly, “you’re not wrong.”



Crack!



The ominous sound rang out like a gunshot. The Quilava reappeared in a burst of white light, snarling with dark fury. The flames roaring from its neck and tail contrasted starkly with the black cloud of aura around it.



It fastened its eyes on Rui and lunged.



She stumbled backward with a yelp. A black and yellow blur shot from the side and rammed the fire Pokémon, sending it rolling across the stones. The Quilava staggered to its feet and faced Novo with a bellow of rage.



Rui felt a hand on her arm tug her back and away from the fight. She heard Wes’ voice beside her. “Dark Pulse!”



A wall of dark energy flowed from Novo’s pelt as he charged at his foe. The Quilava belched flames at him; Novo darted under them, and his Dark Pulse knocked the Quilava onto its side.



Another crack; the Croconaw burst from its Pokeball and immediately lunged at a weakened, barely standing Neo.



“Novo, Bite! Neo, Return!”



Es-PIIII!” Neo yowled as he launched his assault on the rapidly approaching Croconaw. His pelt gleamed with white energy, then blasted from his forehead jewel into the other Pokémon’s chest. The Croconaw bellowed as it was sent sprawling across the white stones.



The trainer in blue screamed at the Croconaw as it struggled to rise to its feet. “You pathetic little - SHADOW RUSH!”



“Shadow Rush?” Wes scoffed. “The hell kind of move is-”



Rui wasn’t listening. The moment its Trainer gave the command, she watched in horror as the Croconaw rose unsteadily to its feet. It’s aura pulsed brighter, stronger, bigger...



And then consumed the Pokémon.



For a moment, it felt as though time had slowed. Rui saw the sickly flames flickering around the Croconaw as it rushed at its opponent. Dark, black tendrils snaked about its body, as though binding it, suffocating it. Her chest ached.



Wrong. Wrong. Whatever had been done to this poor creature, it was wrong.



The Croconaw slammed into Neo. Rui heard him screech in pain as he was sent flying through the air, then landed with a gut-wrenching thud.



Wes moved past her in a blue blur as he launched another ball at the Croconaw. It disappeared once again into the ball, and this time, after several shakes, it did not reappear.



The ball had barely flown back to Wes’ hand before he launched another at the Quilava. Novo staggered away as his foe was sucked into the Pokeball, his fur singed.



Click.



The third and final ball landed in Wes’ hand. He shoved them both into the bag with a furious mutter.



A roar rang out. “YOU!” The Trainer in blue screamed at Wes. “HOW DARE YOU!”



Wes gazed back at him in cold fury. “Play dangerous games, win dangerous prizes, I suppose,” he spat.



The blue Trainer looked ready to lunge at Wes when a moan came from his companion lying on the ground. He spat at him before turning away to help his fallen comrade.



“Es...pi...” A weak mew reached Rui’s ears. She and Wes turned to see Neo limping to his Trainer. He looked up at him with dull eyes before collapsing to the ground.



A quiet, frightening rage appeared in Wes’ eyes. “Alright,” he hissed as he returned his Espeon and Umbreon, “That. Is. It.”



The tails of his coat streamed behind him as he turned and, without a word, stalked for the front gate.



“W-Wes?” Rui followed him cautiously. His anger scared her a little.



“Come on,” he said crisply. “We’re leaving this damned city.”



They strode past their attackers; the two men were busy helping their wounded colleague to his feet. Rui turned her head away from them and continued after Wes.



He didn’t say anything as they walked to where his bike was parked. Rui hesitated as they approached it. What was the plan now? Where would they go?



“Let’s go.” Wes’ voice made her jump. He was already on the bike, pulling his mirrored visors over his eyes. She noticed he’d already ditched his sling, and she vaguely wondered when that had happened.



Rui took a shaky breath. “Where are we going?”



“Anywhere that isn’t here.”



It was a good enough answer, for now. Rui climbed into the sidecar once again, still only just managing not to trip, and once she was settled in, they were off across the sands once more.
 
Chapter 7: Noctis Mortem

The crumbling old house left much to be desired in terms of comfort, but Wes supposed it was better than nothing.

They'd made it to the ruins of a tiny old town about two hours northwest of Phenac. Night had officially settled over the desert, and the winds brought a sharp chill in the cooler temperatures.

Rui had major hesitations at first, when she saw where they were headed. Wes didn't entirely blame her; staying in an abandoned town at night, with its decaying buildings and creaking houses, would make any regular person nervous.

But for Orre natives, it was even more ominous, as they all knew what had reduced so many towns like this one to ruins; as a result, most citizens avoided these places out of fear and superstition.

Wes was not "most citizens", however.

"It's perfectly safe, trust me," he'd said to her as she planted her boots firmly in the sand and refused to move closer.

"How do you know that?" Rui looked at him with fearful eyes, the dying light of the sunset fading behind her. "How do we know there aren't still traces of - of the-"

"I know because I've stayed here before. Several times. Do I look dead or sick to you?" he asked curtly.

Rui pursed her lips. "O-Okay..." she said nervously.

Now they sat in what appeared to be an old inn of sorts; they'd settled in a room with two small beds for the night. The desert breeze rattled a rickety window across the room, and the house groaned quietly. It was one of the few buildings left that had a more or less intact roof overhead, and it was the only one Wes trusted not to cave in on them in the night.

He patted as much dust out of his mattress as he could as he set up his space, then noticed Rui glancing at her own with a wary eye.

He sighed. "Look, you're not going to get sick by staying here. Noctis never worked that way."

"I-I know." She slowly sat on her mattress. "It's just...this place is so creepy. To think it used to be a place full of people and families not that long ago, and now it's...like a graveyard."

"They're just empty buildings now. Don't get too worked up over it."

She didn't answer, and instead curled up into the mattress as if trying to retreat into herself. Wes held back another sigh. He supposed he ought not to be too judgmental; places like this had been routine for him as he traveled for his Snagem missions, but he was well aware he was an exception. It was part of why he'd resorted to staying in these towns in the first place - they kept unwanted visitors away, and guaranteed he would have privacy.

He sat on his mattress and pulled out the canvas tote, ignoring the painful throbbing in his shoulder. That battle had not done his injury any favors, and he would look at it later, but his Pokémon were his first priority.

Wes was grateful that he'd kept a small store of healing items tucked away in his bike, as he'd never had the chance to get supplies in Phenac.

And that was the only reason I went there in the first place, he thought sourly.

Neo was first. Placing a flashlight on the floor for light, Wes revived and healed up the Espeon and was relieved that, while he'd been thrown around quite a bit, none of his injuries were serious. Neo curled up beside his Trainer with a tired sigh and promptly fell asleep as Wes rubbed his ears. "You did great today, bud," he said quietly.

Next was Novo. Wes hadn't got a good look at the Umbreon before returning him, so he wasn't sure what to expect - and he certainly wasn't prepared to see blood dribbling down his foreleg. Novo looked up into Wes' eyes with a weak mew. "Bri."

"Oh, Arceus - " Wes fumbled through his bag until he found a roll of bandages, another thing he made sure to always have on hand. He sprayed Novo down with more Potions, then pulled him into his lap as he gingerly bandaged the Umbreon's leg.

"I'm so sorry, Nov," he said with a grimace. He clenched his teeth. Damn those guys, attacking them with five Pokémon at once...

Novo blinked up at him and rubbed his chin against Wes' shoulder (thankfully, his uninjured one). "Umb." He gave a tired, throaty purr.

Wes finished bandaging Novo's leg and let him curl up next to his brother. He wouldn't be watching out of any windows tonight; he was far too exhausted from their earlier battle. It was more like an ambush than a real battle,Wes growled to himself.

"You take really good care of them." Rui's voice jolted him out of his thoughts; she'd been so quiet, for once, he'd almost forgotten she was still there. She was curled up on the mattress with her back against the wall, watching him tend to his Pokémon with a small smile.

Wes shrugged - and immediately regretted the action when his shoulder gave another painful throb. "Of course I do. They're my..."

He paused. He glanced back at his sleeping Pokémon and finished, a little more quietly, "They're my family."

"Family, huh?" The smile faded from her face a little. "Do...do you have other family, or parents...?"

"No."

"...oh." Sadness flickered in her eyes. "I'm...really sorry."

Wes almost shrugged again, but he knew better this time. "It's fine. I don't really remember them."

Truth be told, at times he wished he could remember more - and other times he was glad he didn't. He thought he might have vague memories of his father's face or his mother's laugh. A part of him thought he could remember that she liked to sing...but he couldn't be sure about any of it. Perhaps he'd only dreamed such things.

"Were you really young?" Rui was looking at him intently.

"I was five."

"Oh, Arceus - " her eyes widened, her face appalled. "That - that's so young - and you've been on your own ever since?"

"...more or less."

There was a brief silence. Rui shivered a little and pulled her jacket more tightly around her.

"Noctis?" she asked quietly.

Wes gave a bitter snort. "What else?"

She dropped her gaze to her boots and fell silent.

Noctis. He'd been so young when the mysterious illness swept through Orre and devastated its population, but he'd heard the stories plenty of times from older adults at Snagem. They spoke of its effects, how it turned one's skin as white as a sheet and blackened their eyes and veins until they looked like a corpse, how the seizures and screams of agony would last for hours, sometimes days, before death took them.

He'd heard other stories, too - about families, neighborhoods, and entire towns like this one that went from active, healthy and thriving communities to desolate, corpse-ridden ghost towns in a matter of days.

Noctis Mortem. Night Death. It was appropriately named.

Even before the illness, Orre was a rather hopeless excuse for a Region. The nuclear war with Kanto seventy years earlier had already ensured that the area wouldn't be suitable for wild Pokémon for many years - if ever again - and many people speculated that the nuclear after effects on the population were a big factor in the massive Noctis death toll.

Wes didn't care to know all the facts and details. They didn't matter to him anyway, not now when everything was said and done. Nothing would change the fact that his parents were dead, or that he lived on the streets for a year after that, or that he was picked up by Snagem and subjected to daily horrors for the rest of his life after that.

All of that was supposed to change, he thought bitterly. He was supposed to be on his way out of Orre for good, heading to a better, brighter place with his Pokémon beside him, catching his first opportunity for real happiness...

As if to spite him in his thoughts, his shoulder throbbed again. He clenched his teeth. Of course that had all been too good to be true. It seemed he'd been doomed to perpetual misfortune from an early age.

"How's your shoulder?" Rui spooked him out of his wallowing thoughts. She was looking at him with concern.

"It's fine," Wes lied.

She raised an eyebrow at him, then dug into her jacket pocket and pulled out the meds he'd been given at the hospital. She tossed them to him, the bottle rattling as it flew. "Here. You should take some."

"I don't need-"

"I don't care who you are, Wesley Lycas, nobody dislocates their shoulder and then walks it off." Rui huffed and folded her arms. "So take the stupid pills already."

Wes stared at her. "Did you just...scold me with my full name like a parent?"

"Yes, and if you keep acting like a child, I'll keep parenting you!" she snapped.

Wes shook his head and popped the bottle open with a grumble. "You're unbelievable."

"Thank you."

"That wasn't a compliment."

"I'm aware."

He swallowed the pills with a shudder; he'd always hated taking the things. Medicine wasn't too common a commodity at Snagem, and to be caught taking it was to be made a target. Any sign of weakness or injury made one easy prey for the other kids who were desperate to prove themselves.

You're not at Snagem anymore, he told himself. You don't need to hide. She's not a threat. Not a threat.

Still, he didn't look at her as he shoved the meds back into the canvas tote. There was a moment of silence.

"I lost my father to it, too."

Her voice was so quiet he almost didn't hear her. Wes glanced at her and saw that she'd pulled her knees up to her chest and wrapped her arms around her legs, staring blankly as though lost in memory.

"Noctis?" he asked. She nodded.

"He was a scientist, actually. When the Noctis hit, he was working in the labs for days on end trying to find a cure. He eventually caught it from one of the patients. I was almost two."

Wes wondered why she was sharing this. "I'm sorry," he said quietly.

She gave him a wan smile. "It's all right...I don't remember anything about him, I was so young." She brightened just a little. "But even so, I'm proud to be his daughter. He was fighting to save lives, and that makes him a hero in my book."

Wes didn't know what to say to that, so he remained silent for a moment. He vaguely wondered about her mother, but he thought he could see a faintly haunted look in her eyes as she returned to her thoughts. He decided not to ask.

After a moment, she seemed to come back to the present. She blinked and looked up at him, then gave a nervous laugh and sheepishly fiddled with her hair. "Sorry, I don't know why I got into that. You're probably tired of hearing me talk all the time..."

Wes shook his head and waved a dismissive hand. "I don't mind."

He was surprised to learn he actually meant it - well, sort of. Mostly. He still wasn't used to so much conversation with another person, but he supposed it wasn't all bad.

Rui gave him a more genuine smile this time, and somewhere in the back of his mind he realized that, for all her obnoxious optimism, smiles quite suited her.

He cleared his throat. "We should probably get some sleep. We have a long ways to go tomorrow."

She cocked her head to the side. "Where are we going?"

"Pyrite. It's the closest town, and I know a few people there that can get you to Agate."

"I see." Rui relaxed her shoulders with a sigh. Her eyes rested on the canvas tote beside Wes. "What are you going to do with...them?"

Wes followed her gaze to the bag, inside of which the four Pokeballs rested. "No idea."

He wouldn't ever admit it to her, but the thought of those Pokeballs made him extremely uncomfortable. He'd gone out of his way to leave Snagem and all its ways forever, and yet, just two days later, he'd Snagged not one, but four Pokémon.

Granted, he supposed he could justify it as self defense, but the way he so naturally and quickly reverted to his Snagger instincts was not lost on him, and it disturbed him greatly.

And...why had he bothered to take the Snag Machine? Why hadn't he destroyed it with all the others? On the surface, Wes had told himself it was a backup plan, a last resort; if he couldn't scrape up the funds for a passport in Gateon, then he could have sold the thing in the right part of town for a solid price.

But a tiny part of him whispered that maybe, just maybe, he'd been afraid to leave behind something that had been so integral to his identity for so many years.

He hated that thought almost as much as he hated Snagem itself.

Rui spoke again, and her interruption was so sudden he nearly jumped. Arceus. How many more times was she going to do that?

"We really should see if there's a way to help them," she said. "Those poor Pokémon are really suffering, Wes. I could see it."

Her use of "we" grated on Wes' ears, as though she thought of them as a team or something.

"Those 'poor Pokémon' would have killed me or you in a heartbeat," he answered dryly.

"Yes, but I don't think they want to." She raised her eyes to his again with an urgent expression. "They weren't born like this, it's too...unnatural. Someone made them this way. Which means there's got to be a way to fix them."

Ever the optimist.

Wes shook his head and sighed, moving the bag from his mattress to the floor and gathering up the flashlight. "We can talk about it later," he said, although he wasn't sure he had any intention of doing so. He didn't like to think about it. "For now, let's get some sleep."

He fully expected her to argue, but instead she just nodded her head wearily and laid back on her mattress. "Yeah...okay." Her voice finally betrayed her tiredness. "Goodnight, Wes."

"...yeah. Night." He found he was very unused to having someone - a human someone - say goodnight to him. Was it always this weird to be around people all the time?

Wes was about to lay back on his mattress when he caught sight of Novo curled up beside his brother, rings pulsing gently in the dark. He hesitated, wondering if he needed Novo's Hypnosis again...but no. It had been a far too long and eventful day, he was worn out, and the pain in his shoulder was subsiding now, thanks to the meds. He would be fine.

Probably.

He settled down, and he didn't even have time to reconsider before sleep overtook him.

He was crouched behind a cluster of sagebrush, scoping out the targets ahead as the sun beat down mercilessly on his dark clothing.

Two young teens, a boy and girl, strode hand in hand to their parked hover car outside the walls of Phenac. A Poochyena and a Shroomish darted happily about their feet, squealing and yapping, utterly oblivious to the predatory eyes upon them.

He swallowed past the panic rising in his throat and tried not to show his reservations.

"Your move." A voice growled over his shoulder and he could practically feel Wakin's cold eyes boring into the back of his head. "You got about twenty seconds before they reach the vehicle."

He nodded, took a deep breath, but his feet refused to move.

"The hell are you waiting for?" Wakin snapped. The boy turned his head to look at him.
I can't do this, he thought. I'm not cut out for this.

Then a cruel sneer curled across the man's face. "You scared, Leo?" he taunted.

And the boy knew what that meant. He had hesitated, had made a costly mistake. Hesitation meant fear. Fear meant weakness.

And weakness meant death.

Without a word, he darted forward. He might die someday in this Arceus-forsaken desert in this Arceus-forsaken region, but it wouldn't be today. Not today.

He barely made it in time; the young couple noticed him just as they were almost to their vehicle. The girl saw him first and pointed with a gasp of surprise as he came closer.

The male teen eyed him warily, but not without a hint of concern. "You, uh...you lost, kid? You need some help?"

"Y-yeah, I'm lost," he replied. He tried to put on his most innocent face - not that he really needed to. The torn clothing, the dirty smudges all over his face and arms told his false story well enough. "Could you...help me into the city?"

They exchanged a nervous glance. "Well...yeah, sure," the older boy replied after a pause. "But where are your parents? Do you need us to call them for you? And you're probably dehydrated, we should take you to a hospital, yeah?"

He tried and failed to quash the guilt screaming at him from inside. These people were too innocent, too kind, too trusting...why hadn't they learned by now? Didn't they know better?

"Don't move."

The harsh growl sounded from behind them. Over their shoulder, he caught a glimpse of Wakin's snarling face, the viciously triumphant eyes, the gun in his hand.

The girl let out a shriek and the boy moved protectively in front of her with a cry as their two Pokémon sprang in front, growling. But no amount of screaming would save them here; they were too far from the city wall, and Wakin always made sure never to pull a heist like this where strangers could intervene.

"Give me your Pokémon and I'll let you go free."

"P-please, we're just travelers!" the girl cried. "We've never done anything wrong, just let us go! Please!"

Wakin growled. "I don't give a damn who you are. Now return them and hand them over, or I shoot the girl first."

There was a pause, and then they shakily returned their Pokémon. The girl broke down into sobs as they tossed the Pokeballs at Wakin's feet. The boy held her close.


"There, you got what you wanted! Happy?" The boy seemed like he was trying to look brave and defiant, but the tremor in his voice gave him away.

Wakin sneered. "Almost." His eyes shot to the young boy behind them. "Leo!"

He was already one step ahead of his boss. The boy raised a hand with three more minimized Pokeballs inside it. Pickpocketing was easy when the targets were more concerned about the gun pointed at their heads.

The girl's wails and the boy's cries pierced him like a dagger. He ignored them.

The rest was a blur; Wakin said something to them before letting them go. They sped off through the desert, and he thought he might have heard some words thrown over the boy's shoulder, but he didn't catch them.

He did, however, catch the gleam of hatred in his eyes.

Wakin stepped up beside him. It was a job well done, he thought. He started to feel hopeful about a reward; maybe he'd get to have a decent meal, for once -


Wham.

He was not prepared for the unexpected blow. He staggered as blinding pain shot through his head. He raised a hand to the wound, and when he pulled it back, found it covered in red.

"Your little dramatic pause nearly cost us the whole mission, you brat!" Wakin roared at him, but he refused to cower under the man's terrifying fury. No fear. No weakness.

"I'm willing to let it slide this time, only because Gonzap seems to have a special interest in you," the man snarled, "but I'm warning you, boy. You pull another stunt like that, and I won't hesitate to pull this trigger. Got it?" He articulated this threat by spitting into the sand at the boy's feet.

He nodded, which made his head hurt more, but he refused to let it show. He hastily blinked the tears away; pain was weakness. Weakness was death. "Yes, sir."

"Good." Wakin turned on one heel and marched in the direction of their hidden motorcycle. He didn't wait for the boy to follow him.

But he followed, nonetheless.

The scene changed. Desert shrubs and sands blurred together and were replaced with a dark, blood spattered room. The lifeless bodies of several Pokémon were strewn across the room, and one man was slumped on the floor against the wall, his breaths rattling painfully in his chest.


"No!" The scream tore from his own lips as he struggled to reach the dying man, but his captor held him fast. "No - please - NO!"

"It's time you learn this lesson, boy." A low, gravelly voice rumbled from the shadows across the room. A hand raised, and a large, steel-feathered bird stepped out from beside him, wings spread from its side like swords.

The injured man coughed, resulting in blood cascading from his mouth and down his front. He looked at the boy with a weak smile. Those eyes, though dull and fading, still held fondness.

The only pair of eyes that had ever regarded him with kindness.

"Do good, kid."

The command was given, the bird lunged with wings spread, and the sickening sound of impact was masked by the boy's screams -


"Wes - hey - Wes! Wake up!"

Someone was shaking him. He shot upward with a strangled gasp, nearly slamming his head into Rui's as he did so. He coughed and gagged, trying to rid the smell and taste of blood from his senses -

Then something soft and warm leaned against him, and Novo's worried trill met his ears.

Dust. Moonlight. An old inn. He remembered where he was.

He buried his face in his shaking hands, breathing heavily. Neo came up on his other side with a concerned, "Espi?" His Eons leaned against him, comforting him with their warmth, their presence.

A timid hand brushed his shoulder. He flinched at her touch and shoved her away with a snarl. "Go. Away."

The mattress across from him creaked as she sat back down on it. "Do...do you want to talk about it?" she asked quietly.

He didn't answer her and instead swore shakily under his breath. Like hell he wanted to talk about it...

Rui seemed to take this as an answer, as she said nothing more.

He laid back down, his Pokémon curling tightly around him. Novo was nosing his arm urgently. "Bri, briii, umbri..."

Wes pulled the Umbreon close to him and closed his eyes. He didn't know if Novo would take that as permission to use Hypnosis or not, and he didn't care. He just needed to feel his Pokémon close to him, and maybe his heart would stop pounding so hard...

A lump formed in his throat and he immediately swallowed it. He crushed the broken feeling rising in his chest. He would not cry, dammit, he would not. Not now, not ever, and especially not in front of this girl, this stranger.

To cry was to be vulnerable, and to be vulnerable was to be weak, and weakness was -

A familiar humming met his ears. He felt Novo touch his muzzle to his forehead. He thought he heard Rui murmur something, but before he could catch the words, he was plunged into darkness once more.

Author's Notes

*slaps roof of chapter 7* This bad boy can fit so much backstory in it!

I'm going to start responding to questions/comments/reviews in my notes at the end of each chapter! I want to engage with you guys a little more, and I'd rather not clutter up your inbox haha. So feel free to leave any feedback or questions and I'll respond to you!

See you next week for chapter 8: "City of Rust" ;)
 
Chapter 8: City of Rust


"D-do you always drive that fast?"

It was the first thing she'd said to him all morning - well, afternoon, by this point. They were several hours into their trek to Pyrite, and they still had a ways to go; Wes had only stopped for a brief moment to allow them to stretch their legs and to let Neo and Novo out of their Pokeballs.

He quirked an eyebrow at her. "Yeah. Why?"

Rui spluttered a little in disbelief. Her hair was a mess from their high-speed drive, with wispy strands sticking out at all angles. "'Why?' Do you realize how fast that is?"

For all her obnoxious nagging, Wes had to admit he was grateful she'd finally decided to start speaking again. The tension from last night's...episode had carried over into the morning, and for perhaps the first time in his life, he'd found the silence downright uncomfortable. Her inane chatter was at least better than the gaping awkwardness.

Barely, anyway.

He leaned back against the motorbike and watched Neo and Novo chase one another around a nearby cactus. He noticed that Novo, though still limping slightly, was back to his usual self and his wound was already well on its way to being fully mended. Pokémon never ceased to impress him with their insanely fast ability to heal, and the still-present ache in his shoulder made him a little envious of that fact.

He turned his attention back to Rui with a deadpan tone. "So?"

"So," Rui pressed, "don't you think it's a bit reckless?"

"Considering you practically waltzed into a broken-in home yesterday, I don't think you get to lecture me on recklessness."

She didn't seem to have a comeback to that, so she dropped her gaze to the ground and rubbed her boot into the sand with a small scowl. Wes couldn't help but feel a little satisfied at that, considering she was usually the one leaving him without a response.

Still, the silence threatened to return, so he made a little effort to keep the conversation running. "We should make it to Pyrite in a few hours. We're fairly close now."

Rui looked back up at him with a tiny grin. "I guess making good time is one perk of your crazy driving."

"See, you're already seeing the light," Wes replied nonchalantly. He turned back to the bike. "Anyway, let's get going."

Rui sauntered around the bike to slide (well, fall, really) into the sidecar. "Don't get in your head that I like it. I still think it's dangerous," she sniffed stubbornly.

It was hard to take her seriously most of the time, but especially now when she was so unceremoniously wriggling into her seat. Wes snorted and called his Eons back to him before returning them.

And then, partially out of habit, but largely out of smug pettiness, he hit the gas and launched the bike out into the sands. Wes thought he heard Rui yelp over the bellow of the engine, and he couldn't help but smirk just a little.

Of course driving like this was dangerous. That was what made it fun. It wasn't his fault the bossy redhead was too uptight to see that.

Unlike Phenac, Pyrite was actually easy to miss if you weren't paying careful attention. While Phenac was a shining beacon of white stone and reflected sunlight, Pyrite almost exclusively consisted of rust, dust, and old scrap metal buildings, and if it weren't for the rocky red plateaus encircling it, the town would have blended into the desert altogether.

As they approached the city entrance (or what could loosely be considered as such, as it was little more than an old, creaky boardwalk), the dull strains of music could be heard carrying through the air. It was some variation of bluesy jazz, though Wes couldn't be entirely sure. It was a unique style of music that he'd only ever heard in Pyrite.

He felt Rui step close to him as they entered the city. At least this time, she had the good sense to be cautious and on her guard - not that she was likely to be kidnapped again, not with Wes and his Pokémon around.

Rusted buildings and loosely hanging storefront signs creaked and groaned in the desert breeze. Wes made the very conscious decision to stick to the main roads so as to avoid predatory eyes; all the same, he still caught the occasional passerby leering at the redhead beside him. Pyrite natives knew easy prey when they saw them, and no doubt Rui would have been targeted already had she been alone.

"So, where are we going?" Rui asked apprehensively as she glanced around the place.

"Town square," Wes answered. He kept his eyes forward and walked with a purposeful stride; hesitation and nervousness only attracted unwanted attention in a place such as Pyrite. "I know a few people who hang around there that might be willing to give you a lift home."

Rui looked up at him. "Are they your friends who helped you against Team Snagem?"

"Wh-?" Wes nearly asked her what in Mew's name she was talking about when he remembered what he'd told her in Phenac. "...oh. Uh, no. They're not here."

Rui didn't question this answer, for which he was grateful. He hadn't given much thought into explaining about his non-existent "friends".

He almost snorted at the thought. Friends. Right. As if he would ever care to be friends with other human beings. His experience over the years very convincingly solidified his belief that they were all either rotten to their core - or incredibly stupid. Neo and Novo had proven to be the only source of friendship worth investing in.

"Is that the Colosseum?" Rui raised her eyes to a massive wooden dome in the distance that peeked over the red plateaus.

"Yeah, it is. We aren't going there today, though," he added in case Rui decided she wanted to see it. "You're going home."

Surprisingly, she didn't protest this, and merely nodded. Wes figured she was probably quite ready to be home after the insanity of the last few days.

"Well, well, well, look what the Meowth dragged in!"

An all too familiar voice called out and made them stop. Wes clenched his teeth and suppressed a groan.

A young man slouched from the shadows of a nearby building with a greasy smirk slathered across his face. His torn, baggy, dust-coated clothing perfectly matched the rugged buildings around him, and he would have blended in almost flawlessly were it not for his obnoxiously green, shaggy hair.

He stopped a few paces in front of Wes and tipped his head back, hands tucked in his pockets. "Been a while since I've seen you around here, Lycas."

Wes knew exactly what the rogue Trainer wanted. "Not now, Cail," he grumbled. He moved to sweep past him.

Cail stepped in front of him, blocking his path with another grin. "Why not? You in a hurry?" Wes caught a whiff of the alcohol on his breath.

"Yes," Wes snapped. "Now let us-"

"Oooh!" Cail's eyes lit up as he finally noticed Rui, who had stepped cautiously behind Wes as soon as he'd appeared. Cail's grin widened as he looked back at Wes. "Who's this?"

Rui pressed a little closer to Wes and fixed the green-haired Trainer with narrowed eyes.

"Nobody," Wes said flatly. "Just finding her a ride home. Don't suppose you know anybody off the top of your head that would be willing?"

"Hmmm," the Trainer cocked his head to the side. "I really can't think of anyone...but a battle might jog my memory."

Wes rolled his eyes. Cail prided himself on being something of a gatekeeper of Pyrite, always challenging every visitor to a battle before letting them get too far into the city. He'd never been any trouble for Wes in a battle, but that didn't stop the rogue from challenging him every time he visited.

"We'll battle later. Now if you're not going to be helpful, get out of my way."

Cail raised his hands in submission. "Fine, fine." He smirked at Rui. "I gotta ask though, what's a cute thing like you doing here? You don't look much like his type."

Before Wes could respond, Rui spoke up sharply. "That's none of your business," she said.

Cail raised an eyebrow, then leered at Wes. "Feisty one, isn't she? Is that why you're giving her a shot?"

"We are not a couple!" Rui snapped.

"Oh-ho." Cail leaned into her face with a gleam in his eyes, his smirk spreading wider across his face. "If that's the case...how about a drink with me, then?"

"Back off!" she spat.

The Trainer withdrew with a laugh. "Easy there, Carrot Top. I was only joking."

"What did you just call me?"

Wes sighed and pulled Rui along as they marched past Cail. The Trainer's laughs followed them down the street. "Let me know if you change your mind, sweetheart!"

Rui snarled over her shoulder. "That greasy, slimy little-"

"Look." Wes pulled her around to face him. "You already look like you don't belong here, so people are going to target you and try to get under your skin. Don't fight back or you'll just escalate things."

"He started it by getting in my face!"

Sweet baby Arceus. No wonder she'd gotten herself kidnapped the first time she was here. She was far too spicy for her own good.

Wes sighed again. "Just lay low, alright? We won't be here for much longer."

Rui scowled down at the ground with a grumble. Wes took this as a good enough answer and continued leading her down the street until, finally, the town square came into view.

In all honesty, it wasn't much to look at; in fact, it wasn't even a square. There were no benches or fountains like there were in Phenac. The area was completely open, ringed with a yellow circle painted roughly over the dirty, scuffed pavement. In the center, two Trainers were sparring against one another with their teams; more Trainers lounged around the edges, some sitting with their Pokémon, others lazily observing the battle in the yellow circle.

It was much less a town square, and more of a makeshift battle arena.

Rui's eyes lit up. "This is where I saw Trudly and Folly!"

That wasn't surprising. Battles spontaneously erupted all around town, but if one wanted to show off a powerful Pokémon, this was the place to be.

Wes scanned the area for any familiar faces. Plenty of missions in Pyrite allowed him to get familiar with most of the local Trainers, though they were little more than acquaintances to him. Yet, he'd won enough battles in the area to earn their respect, and he figured he could find someone to take Rui home if he offered enough money.

He inwardly grumbled at that thought. The money he'd snatched from Snagem had been meant for supplies and travel, and yet he'd already forked out much more of it than he would have liked. Still, it was worth it to get this girl home and off of his tail.

Rui suddenly seized his arm in a painfully tight grip. She was staring at the battle square in horror. "Wes..."

Wes looked from her to the battle square, completely bewildered. "What?"

She looked up at him in fear. "There's more of them, Wes!"

He immediately knew what she meant, and he wished he didn't.

Wes glanced back at the battle; one Trainer was commanding a Flaaffy and a Shroomish, the other a Noctowl and Ledyba. At first glance, it seemed like a normal battle - until the Noctowl Trainer shouted out a specific command.

"Shadow Rush!" he bellowed.

The Noctowl dove at the Flaaffy with far more ferocity than was warranted for a mere battle. It tore into the Pokémon with flashing talons and a blood-curdling screech, and the Flaaffy screamed as red spattered the ground.

"HEY!" shrieked the Flaaffy's Trainer. She was spitting with rage. "Control your Pokémon!"

The other Trainer smirked at her. "What, scared you'll lose?"

"You think you're so special with that fancy move?!" She shouted at her Flaaffy. "Thundershock that Noctowl!"

Flaaffy was trembling from head to foot, whimpering in pain, as it tried to get back on its feet. It let out a piercing cry as it launched a small shower of bolts at its foe. The Noctowl let out another screech, tried and failed to dodge the bolts - then, in a rage of feathers and flurry of talons, lunged at the Flaaffy again without a command.

"OY!" The Trainer roared at his Noctowl, but the bird blatantly ignored him and continued to rip at the Flaaffy. The Electric Pokémon, in turn, changed its cries from bleats of pain to snarls of anger, and launched one bolt of electricity after another in retaliation.

Several Trainers around the battle yelled and dove for cover as lightning bolts and psychic blasts shot from the ring and into surrounding buildings. Fluff and feathers flew; the two Trainers shouted helplessly at their raging Pokémon, but both of them were now beyond reason. The Ledyba and Shroomish, temporarily forgotten, exchanged a glance and cautiously edged away from the scuffle.

The girl finally returned her Flaaffy and whirled on her opponent. "What is WRONG with you?" she yelled. "Forfeit this match right now!"

"What?" he shouted back. "Your Pokémon was even worse!"

"YOU started it!"

Wes grabbed Rui by the arm. "Let's get out of here." He made to pull her away before things came to blows - or worse, the police showed up.

She hesitated. "Wait, but those Pokémon-"

"What do you want me to do, Snag them in front of everyone?" he growled.

Rui bit her lip, but resignedly followed him as he led them into a side alley. Wes walked briskly, making sure Rui was close behind, until they reached another secluded alleyway that was a safe distance from the ruckus. He sagged against a dusty wall with a sigh.

"What do we do?" Rui looked at him with wide eyes.

"I...don't know," Wes said. Truth be told, he'd much rather stay out of the whole mess, but he knew Rui wouldn't take that for an answer. He ran a hand through his hair. "We could...report those Pokémon to the police. Yeah. Let's do that."

He knew from the look on Rui's face that she disliked the plan, but she didn't say anything to protest it. She leaned against the opposite wall and faced him. "What about the ones you already have?"

"I can turn them in to the police, too." Wes hadn't thought of this before, but now that he was saying it, it seemed like the most viable option. He couldn't take them with him, and he couldn't in good conscience leave them in the hands of an unsuspecting Trainer, either. "I'm sure that they're more qualified to deal with this stuff than we are."

Maybe. Probably not.

Rui folded her arms and looked down at the ground. "You're right," she grumbled after a moment. "I don't like the idea, but...I can't think of what else we can do..."

It was perhaps the most practical thing Wes had ever heard her say. He shot her a look. "What do you have against the police, anyway? I know they're next to useless, but it's like you've got a personal issue with them or something."

"That's because I do have a personal issue with them." Rui raised her eyes to meet his, and there was a cold anger in both her face and her tone. "They didn't lift a finger when my starter got stolen from me."

Wes stared in shock, utterly speechless for a moment.

"You...had a Pokémon?" He finally asked. He'd never in a million years have pegged Rui as a Trainer.

"A long time ago," Rui said. "But that doesn't matter...she's gone now." She glared back down at her boots.

Suddenly Rui's intense hatred for Pokémon thieves, her disdain for the police, and her obnoxious sense of justice made much more sense to him. "I'm sorry," he said quietly.

Rui shrugged, but didn't say anything. Wes began to wonder if she wasn't entirely the blissfully naive girl he'd assumed she was.

He cleared his throat. "Well...come on. Let's go to the station. Maybe we'll have a better shot at finding you a ride there, anyway."

She nodded, then looked back up at him with a small, if somewhat forced, smile. "Yeah. Let's go."

Wes decided now was as good a time as any to let Neo and Novo out of their Pokeballs. Normally, he didn't like to walk around Pyrite with them out in the open; Snagem may have been the most notorious gang for Pokémon trafficking, but they were not the only ones, and Pyrite was a trafficking hotspot. However, after seeing the mess in the square, he decided some cover would be a good idea.

Once Neo and Novo had a brief moment to stretch, they all set off for the station.

He only knew where the police station was due to years of carefully avoiding it. Even though his Trainer name and record were clean, he had no intention of letting them catch on to his Snagger identity. Every instinct of his shrieked protests at him as he led Rui deeper into town towards the station; he should be staying away from such a place, not waltzing right up to it, for Arceus' sake.

Do you never learn? That familiar snarl was in his ear again. You're a damned fool, boy.

Wes clenched his teeth. I know. He would never be rid of that voice at this rate...

The Pyrite police station came into view all too soon. Like the rest of the town, it wasn't much to look at; other than the large front door and the symbol of the Pyrite police above it, it was barely distinguishable from any other building in the area.

Rui, true to her usual fashion, was the one to step forward through the door first. Wes was more than happy to let her; the closer he could be to the exit, the better.

The inside of the station was just as unremarkable as the outside. There was a reception desk straight ahead with a very bored looking officer slouched behind it, and to the right was a metal door that was shut and locked securely; Wes knew from conversations with other Pyrite citizens and Snagem associates that it led to a hallway of prison cells.

Wes glanced warily about the place, scanning for any other potential exits - just in case. The only option he saw was another door behind the reception counter and a window on the wall to their left. He decided to only take a few steps in and stay as close to the front door as possible. Neo and Novo, faithful as always, remained close to him on either side.

The officer behind the desk was staring out the window, balancing a pencil on his puckered lips and apparently completely oblivious to their presence. After a pause, Rui cleared her throat and he jumped, sending the pencil flying with a clatter. He blinked sheepishly at his visitors and sat up a little straighter in his seat with a cough. "Erm, hello, what can I do ya for?"

Rui gave him her usual polite smile. "Hello! We need to speak with...uh, whoever's in charge."

He quirked an eyebrow. "On what business?"

Rui glanced at Wes, who merely shrugged. She turned back to the officer. "We wanted to report some dangerous Pokémon."

The officer snorted. "No need for that, miss. We've been getting reports and calls about dangerous Pokémon several times a day."

Rui's eyes widened in surprise. "You - you have?"

"Yes'm. I assure you our force is already working on the case."

"...oh." Rui clearly hadn't been expecting that answer. "Well, we also have some Pokémon that we would, uh...like to turn in."

The officer frowned. "Turn in?"

"Yes, sir. We believe them to be dangerous."

"And where did you get these Pokémon?"

Rui paused, and Wes braced himself. He could always try to step in with a lie and hope it would be convincing...

"They were actually given to us, sir." Wes blinked in surprise as Rui plowed forward without so much as a stutter. "We won a couple of them in a contest, and the other two were given to us by some concerned citizens in Phenac. They didn't know what to do with their Pokémon, so we offered to bring them here."

It was a stretch, but her face was shockingly earnest for such a bald-faced lie.

"Phenac, you say?" The officer leaned back in his chair and folded his arms with a furrowed brow. "That's news to us...how many Pokémon did you say you had?"

"Four, sir."

He nodded, still frowning. "Right. Will you just wait here a moment?" Rui nodded, and he rose and exited through the door behind him.

Wes shot Rui a sideways glance. She threw him a mischievous grin. He would have to ask her later where she'd learned to lie like that.

The officer returned through the door, and this time he had someone with him: an older gentleman with gray hair and a mustache to match. Wes felt an uncomfortable lurch in his stomach; he'd never personally interacted with this man, but he knew exactly who he was.

The Pyrite Chief of Police walked with a serious and dignified air. The lines on his face and bags under his eyes were a testament to his many years on the force. His crisp navy uniform highlighted his sharp eyes, which immediately rested on Wes.

Wes met his gaze evenly and forced himself to remain calm and collected. This man knew nothing, had nothing on him. He would be fine as long as he was careful.

Still, he couldn't help but notice the Chief's eyes briefly flicker to the Snag Machine on his arm.

"Chief, these two have some things to share that I think you might be interested to hear," said the officer.

The Chief nodded to him. "Thank you, Lenin." He gave Wes and Rui a small, polite smile. "And to whom do I have the pleasure of speaking with?"

"Rui Everlin, sir," Rui said with a small bow.

Wes gave the Chief a nod. "Wesley Lycas."

"A pleasure to meet you both. I am Timothy Sherles, Chief of Pyrite Police. My officer here tells me you have some unusual Pokémon you would like to turn in?"

"Yes, sir," said Rui.

Sherles glanced at the Eons gathered at Wes' feet. "I take it you're the Trainer, son?"

Wes gave another curt nod.

"Very well. If you please, I'd like to speak with you in my office about this matter."

He hesitated. You've got to be kidding me. Stepping into the Pyrite Chief's office was the last thing Wes wanted to do, but he couldn't very well refuse without raising suspicion...

To make matters worse, as he and Rui both stepped forward to follow him, Sherles glanced at the redhead and said kindly, "No need, my dear. I only need to speak with Mr. Lycas. You may wait out here."

Rui blinked. "I...oh. Okay, then." She gave Wes a small smile as she sat in a chair near the door, but he noticed a tiny glint of confusion in her eyes.

Wes followed Sherles into his office with his Eons beside him. Everything is fine, he told himself firmly. Just tell him Rui's story, hand over the Pokeballs, and be done with it. He knows nothing about me.

Sherles' office was a rather small and humble one, quite different from the mayor's in Phenac. There were no windows, making the room feel cramped, and the desk was a beat up old thing, its top covered in a variety of papers.

Rather than take a seat behind his desk, however, Sherles stood in front of it and looked Wes up and down with an unreadable expression. He glanced at Wes' companions again. "Those are some fine Pokémon you've got there, son."

"Thank you."

"Now, then. Tell me how you came across these dangerous Pokémon."

Wes chose his words carefully while making sure to maintain eye contact. "As Rui said, I won two of them in a contest at the...Pre Gym in Phenac. And the other two we offered to take from a pair of Trainers that didn't know what to do with them. We all figured out pretty quickly that they're dangerous."

Sherles nodded, keeping his sharp gaze steady. "And how would you describe their behavior?"

"Unpredictable." Wes reflected on the Makuhita's blank stare, on the hatred in its eyes when battling. "They don't seem to know some commands, and they don't always listen. They lose control easily and fight too harshly...and they attack people." The dull ache in his shoulder, though significantly better than the day before, was still a solid reminder of that last part.

Sherles nodded again. "Well. That sounds about right with the reports we've been receiving here in Pyrite. However..." he leaned forward slightly, fixing Wes with that impenetrable stare of his. "I'd like you to tell me how you got those Pokémon."

Wes blinked. "I...already did."

"Oh, yes, you did," replied the Chief cooly. "Now this time, I'd like you to tell me the truth."

Wes narrowed his eyes. The Chief was toying with him, that was all. This man had no real information on him; his intimidation was merely a bluff. "That's the truth. Sir."

"Is it, Mr. Lycas?"

Sherles straightened and leaned against his desk, then tipped his head back and regarded Wes with a critical eye. When he spoke again, his calm voice contained a threatening edge, and Wes felt the blood in his veins freeze over.

"Or should I call you Snagger Leo?"
 
Chapter 9: The Deal

Wes froze.

Panic flared inside his chest at the mention of his Snagger name. No one, no one outside of Snagem knew him as Leo. So how...?

He willed himself to stay calm, to not let his shock show, but his mind was racing.

How did this man know? How did he know?

"Surprised?" Sherles asked breezily.

There was a light touch of smugness in his voice, and it was enough to pull Wes back to his senses. He folded his arms and regarded the Chief with a cool gaze. "I have no idea what you're talking about."

"Don't get cute with me, son. I know exactly who you are - and I know what that is, too." He jerked his head at the metal sleeve on Wes' arm.

How? How? How did he know?

"I'm sorry, but you must be mistaken. I have no idea what you're getting at." Wes maintained his icy stare.

Sherles sighed. "Very well, then." He pushed himself off the wall and pulled an envelope from a stack of papers on his cluttered desk. He pulled a single photograph from it and handed it to Wes. "Perhaps this will convince you."

Wes stared at the picture. The metal building in the background was unmistakable; it was team Snagem's hideout, as it used to be before Wes destroyed it. And, walking in the foreground with Neo and Novo at his side, was Wes himself.

Questions, so many questions, were bursting through his mind. How did he get this picture? And who took it? And how did he know where to find the hideout in the first place? How?

Wes slowly looked back up at Sherles. "How did you-"

"I have my resources, Snagger," said Sherles smoothly as he retrieved the photo from Wes' hand and slid it back into its envelope.

Damn. Damn. Damn.

He was trapped. Utterly trapped. The only way out of this building was back through the door behind him, past the officer, past Rui. But maybe, just maybe...he had Neo and Novo...

As if they'd read his mind, his Pokémon tensed at his feet. A low growl rumbled from Novo's throat, and Neo's forehead jewel gleamed.

"I wouldn't think about running, if I were you." Sherles eyed the two Eons. "That photo is one thing, but trust me when I say I have more than enough evidence to incriminate you here and now. You walk out that door, and I'll have that rather recognizable face of yours posted everywhere from here to Gateon."

The jig was up. Wes dropped the act with a snarl. "And who's to say you'll catch me?"

"Oh, I may or may not be able to hunt you down, but if my information is correct - and I believe it is - I won't be the only organization looking for you, now, would I?"

Wes didn't answer.

Sherles smirked a little. "I thought so." He tipped his head back again. "Now, if you don't mind, I have a few questions for you. Care to tell me why you blew up the Snagem hideout?"

"That's none of your business."

"Considering you're a prime suspect in my office, I'd say it is my business, Lycas."

"Well if you're going to arrest me anyway, what's the point in telling you anything?" Wes snapped.

Sherles raised an eyebrow. "Arrest you? Who said I was going to arrest you, son?"

"That's why you have me here, isn't it?"

"No, as a matter of fact, it isn't."

Wes stared at him. "What?"

"I'm not here to arrest you," Sherles repeated. He rested back against his desk once more. "I'm here to cut you a deal."

There was a brief pause. Wes narrowed his eyes at the Chief. What was he playing at?

"For the last eighteen months, savage Pokémon attacks and sightings have been increasing around the city. I have reason to believe someone - or a gang, more likely - is responsible for this, though we have little evidence to test that theory or make any headway. That's where you come in, son."

Wes leaned against the wall behind him and glared at the man as he folded his arms. "I don't follow."

"My sources indicate that you spent quite a lot of time here in town on your Snagging missions, and are quite familiar with the locals - particularly the Trainers," Sherles said. "You're likely more integrated into that crowd than any of my officers...which is why I'd like you to go undercover for me."

Another pause.

At length, Wes said slowly, "Are you joking?"

"Do I look like I'm joking, son?"

He most certainly did not. That icy stare of his was as serious as ever. Wes snorted in disbelief. "And why would I help you?"

"Well, for starters, there's the fact that I have everything I need to arrest you where you stand, if I need to," said Sherles idly. "For another, if you lend us your cooperation...I'll make it worth your while."

"Prove it."

"I'll reduce your sentence - and, depending on how helpful you are, I might even be willing to waive all charges. I will see to it that you have a place to stay and operate from while you are here, and I'll make sure your Pokémon are taken care of."

Wes mulled this over in his mind. He hated being backed into a corner like this, and yet it didn't actually sound...all that terrible. "What would I do?"

"Mostly gather information. Tell us everything you know about Snagem - and that lovely little accessory of yours -" Sherles nodded again at the Snag Machine, "and report any sightings of savage Pokémon to us. Try to find out where they are coming from, and why. That sort of thing."

Well. That didn't sound too difficult at all. Wes leveled a wary gaze at Sherles. "How do I know this isn't a trap of some sort?"

"You mean, more than it already is?" Sherles asked wryly. "What more do I have to gain from you? I already have you where I want you."

He was absolutely right, and Wes hated him for it.

He continued to fix the Chief with a hard stare. "How did you know I'd be here?"

"As a matter of fact, I didn't. My informant has been tracking you for some time, but lost your trail at Phenac." He actually chuckled a little. "Having you resurface on my very doorstep was the last thing I expected - although, I didn't expect you to blow up that hideout, either. You're full of surprises, son."

Wes had latched onto the first part of Sherles' statement. "Who's your informant?"

"That's classified information."

Well, he didn't expect he'd get an answer, but it had been worth a shot. He went for his next question. "Why me?"

"Now that's a good question." Sherles straightened a little, regarding the Snagger with critical eyes. "Why would I want you, of all people? I certainly didn't intend to involve you originally - but then you went and pulled that stunt in Eclo Canyon, and it had me wondering what you knew. And where your loyalties lie. If I'm not mistaken, you were no ordinary Snagem grunt. You were the best they had, a top-tier worker, were you not?"

Wes steadily looked at him and refused to answer.

That gaze was so persistent. Unflinching. Sherles continued. "Not only are you a valuable source of information for me, you're also an important link, as I believe Snagem is behind these incidents with savage Pokémon."

"They're not," Wes said curtly.

"Oh? You know this for certain?"

Well...no, he didn't know for certain. But he did know one thing with absolute surety. "Snagem doesn't redistribute Pokémon. They only take and sell for a profit."

"And do you know where all the Pokémon go?"

"...No. I don't."

"Hm." Sherles grunted. "Then I'm maintaining my theory for now. But in the meantime, you still haven't given me your answer."

Wes paused. He glanced down at his Pokémon; they were both still on high alert, but had backed down and were crouched warily at their Trainer's feet, keeping Sherles under a watchful eye.

If he got arrested, Neo and Novo would be taken away...

He had no choice. They were the entire reason he'd left Snagem in the first place, and he was not about to lose his family. Not after everything they'd gone through.

He looked back up at the Chief. "I'll do it."

Sherles smiled and gave an approving nod. "A wise decision, I think."

"But," Wes said harshly, "I have my conditions."

Sherles' eyebrows shot up an inch or two. "Do you, now?"

"Yes." Wes knew he was in no position whatsoever to bargain, but he was going for it anyway. "One: I do this job for you, and not only do you waive my charges, you provide me with a passport."

"So it seems I was correct in assuming you would make for Gateon," Sherles grunted. "You dislike Orre that much, hm?"

"This region hasn't done me any favors."

"Interesting. I'm sure it could say the exact same thing about you."

Wes ignored this comment; he was well aware of what he'd "contributed" to the world so far. He wasn't proud of it, yet he couldn't help but venomously wonder: where was the rest of Orre, when he was just a child on the streets? Where were the police and the authorities then?

Nowhere. The one time - the one time - the police were actually competent at their job, it worked against him and not for him.

Of course.

"I have another condition," he said. "Nobody gets to know who I am. That information stays between you and me. I don't need to make it any easier for Snagem to find me."

The Chief narrowed his eyes. "And what about that rather innocent-looking girl you have with you? What's her role in all of this?"

"Nothing. We just happened to meet. I'm helping her find her way back home."

"You? Escorting a stranger? Forgive me if I find that very hard to believe, son."

"It's the truth," Wes said testily. "You can ask her yourself."

"Does she know who you are?"

"She knows about the Snag Machine but...no. Not me. And I intend to keep it that way." The less people knew who he was, the better...for multiple reasons. "In fact, she needs to get back to Agate, and you can help with that, right?"

Sherles nodded. "I don't see why not." He scrutinized him for a moment longer, as if digesting Wes' proposed conditions. "Is that all?"

"Yes."

He paused. "Very well, then," he said at length. "I agree to your demands, Lycas."

Wes was genuinely surprised to hear this. For what it was worth, the Chief really did seem to want his full cooperation.

"However," Sherles continued, "I will need to disclose your identity to one other person who is working closely with me on this case." At these words, he pulled a P*DA from the front pocket on his uniform and began typing a message.

Wes eyed him warily. "And who might that be?"

"Oh, I'm sure you know of him," Sherles said lightly. He slipped his device back in his pocket. "In fact, why don't we meet with him now?"

Perfectly on cue, the door beside Wes creaked open. He nearly jumped at the sudden entrance, but managed to just barely hide his surprise. Novo tensed and growled as the newcomer stepped into the room, and Neo leaned against his Trainer with a soft, concerned chirp.

If the office felt small before, it was certainly crowded now. The man that slipped inside and shut the door behind him was much, much larger than the average human; he was almost big enough to make Wes wonder if he was human - but then again, he'd lived most of his life under the figurative and literal shadow of his massively oversized boss, so the man's size wasn't entirely new to him.

The visitor folded his giant, muscular arms and stepped back against the right-hand wall so as to get a good view of both Wes and Sherles. Wes didn't recognize this man immediately; he thought the auburn hair and mustache somewhat rang a bell, but his face was not overly familiar to him.

"Duking," Sherles greeted the impressively sized man with a nod. "I'd like to introduce you to our new recruit." He gestured to Wes.

The man called Duking shot a sideways glance at the Chief. "Is this him? The Snagger?" His voice was deep and impressive, like rumbling thunder.

"Yes."

Duking narrowed his eyes as he scanned Wes from head to foot. His eyes rested for a moment on the machine on Wes' arm. He then met Wes' gaze with an unimpressed expression.

"So," he said curtly, "you're a Pokémon thief."

"Former Pokémon thief," Wes growled. He matched Duking's glare with his.

"Ah, yes. Very reassuring." The reply was dripping with sarcasm. Duking turned to the Chief. "Sherles, just what are you tryin' to pull?"

"Nothing," said Sherles evenly. "He's agreed to work with us, and he's our best shot at making any progress on this case."

Duking grunted. "I know we said we'd have to get outside our comfort zones to get to the bottom of this..." He fixed his gaze back onto Wes. "...but I'm still not sure about throwing in with his lot."

Those last two words grated in Wes' ears. Anger bubbled in his chest. "Don't lump me in with the rest of them," he said quietly.

"Oh, so you're above them, are you?" Duking scoffed. "Think you're better than the rest of your peers because you were the best at the dirty work?"

Wes was about to offer a scathing retort when Sherles stepped in. "What matters, Duking, is that he's giving us his cooperation, and we need it," he said sternly. "Additionally, he needs a place to stay while here in Pyrite, and your place is a good as any."

"If you think I'm housing a criminal under the same roof as my kids, Sherles, you've got another think coming." Duking's voice was little more than a low growl.

Wes scoffed at this. "What would I have to gain by harming your family? You think I actually want to be here?"

"Listen, kid, I don't need another reason to have a target on my back. I've got enough on my plate tryin' to run this city and get to the bottom of these Pokémon attacks, and I don't need to be sheltering the likes of you."

A realization dawned on Wes at that last statement. "You're the mayor." He snorted and tipped his head back, folding his arms again. "I should have known."

The Pyrite man snarled at him. "And what's that supposed to mean?"

"I mean it's obvious. Hiring other people to do all the dirty work for you while treating them as less-than? Sounds like every other authority figure to me."

"Don't get snarky with me, kid. I've been serving Pyrite since before you were born, and I don't need my name associated with criminals."

"Spoken like a true politician."

Duking's eyes flashed; he stepped forward menacingly, his massive form filling the room as he did so. Neo and Novo sprang in front of their Trainer, their snarls filling the small space -

"Enough!" Sherles barked. He stepped in between Wes and Duking, warding the mayor off with one arm and glaring at them in turn. "Both of you - sit back and shut the hell up. None of us are getting anywhere until you can figure out how to be civil and work on this case together. Duking, you will house this young man and I will personally see to it that he behaves while he is here. And you -" he shot daggers at Wes - "watch that smart mouth of yours. This man has done more for this town than you've done for anything in your entire life, and he deserves your respect."

Respect. Wes hated that word. It was the word of authoritarians and tyrants and men drunk with power. It was the word that was shoved down his throat daily in Snagem, one that forced him to keep his head down and eyes low if he didn't want an unprovoked beating. It was one that nearly took his Pokémon, his family, his everything, away from him.

Respect. It was a dirty word , one that left a bitter taste in his mouth whenever he heard it.

Still, he said nothing and only gave a curt nod to the Chief in response, though he kept his eyes focused on Duking. The large man glared back at him for a minute longer, then backed down, grumbling under his breath. Sherles narrowed his eyes at Wes' growling Pokémon. "And while we're at it, return them both. We don't need things getting ugly in here."

Wes clenched his teeth in frustration, but he did as told. Neo and Novo vanished into their Pokeballs.

Sherles relaxed a little and adjusted his uniform with a small cough. "Right then," he said. "Before we continue, Mr. Lycas has a few conditions upon agreeing to work with us." He listed off Wes' demands to Duking, who listened with an increasingly sour expression.

You mean work for you. As if he'd ever willingly volunteer for such a ridiculous project himself.

Still, if this deal really was as good as Sherles made it out to be - though he didn't give much weight to the man's word just yet - then it would mean a much easier time of getting out of Orre. A slower method, but a cleaner one...a safer one.

"Very well," Duking's rumbling voice pulled Wes from his thoughts. "I don't like this setup, Chief...but I'll put my faith in you."

"Thank you, Duking," said Sherles. "I do think we can count on him." He nodded towards Wes as he spoke.

Duking turned his attention back to the Snagger. "I'm warning you now, kid," he said darkly, "you make even one indication that you plan to harm my family, and I will personally see to it that you are locked away for the rest of your life."

Wes glowered up at him. He disliked this man more and more with every word that came out of his mouth.

"Don't call me 'kid'," he said softly.

"I'll call you whatever the hell I want."

A snarl rose in Wes' throat, but before he could say anything more, Sherles interrupted once again. "Let's get to business, shall we?" he said briskly. "Lycas, I believe you said you had some dangerous Pokémon to turn in. We'll take a look at these Pokémon tomorrow, but first, let's get your...ah, friend on her way home."

She's not my friend, Wes said silently. He decided not to bother with semantics, however.

"Hold on, are you talking about that girl out there?" Duking asked Sherles with a frown. "She's with him?"

"Yes," Wes spoke up sharply before Sherles could say anything, "I'm just helping her get home. Nothing more."

The Pyrite mayor's gaze burned into him. "How do we know you're not taking advantage of her somehow?"

Fury seethed inside him. Sure, men like Gonzap and Wakin were not above taking advantage of women at any given opportunity, but Wes was not Gonzap, he was not Wakin, and how dare this man accuse him of such a thing, how dare he -

"I'm confident he's telling the truth," said Sherles. "But we can always confirm with the young lady herself and make sure the stories line up." He nodded to Wes. "I believe we're done here, for now. Let's get things situated."

He crossed the room and opened the door, gesturing Wes to leave first. Wes exchanged one more scathing look with Duking before stepping back out into the lobby.

The officer outside, he noted, was no longer trying to balance a pencil on his lip; seeing the mayor step in likely had a hand in that. Sherles did, however, quickly dismiss him from the lobby as he emerged.

Rui, still seated in her chair near the front door, perked up at the sight of Wes emerging from the office. "Wes! That...um, took a while..." her smile faltered at the sight of Duking and Sherles behind him, her face a mask of confusion. She shot him a sideways glance. "I, uh, saw the mayor step in...what's going on?"

Before Wes could answer, Sherles clapped a hand on his shoulder, and the sudden touch nearly made him jump out of his skin. Arceus. Why were people so touchy all the time? Between all the contact with strangers, and Rui clinging to him over the last few days, he'd had more than enough of it and was at his limit.

"Miss Everlin." Sherles beamed at her kindly. "Your friend is a volunteer helping us with our investigation here in Pyrite, so he'll be in town for a while. But don't you worry, we'll arrange transportation for you to get back home."

A whirlwind of expressions flickered across Rui's face all at once like a photo reel: joy, shock, confusion, and then...doubt. Her eyes flicked between Wes and the Chief. "...Really?"

Sherles didn't answer this immediately, so Wes assumed that was his cue to speak up. "Um. Yes. We talked about the case, and the Pokémon we...we got..." Damn. He was usually better prepared for these things, but at the moment he felt so put on the spot. He consciously resisted the urge to rub the back of his head in a nervous fidget.

"No need to be modest, son," Sherles said cheerfully. "Why, this case is why you're here in the first place! I respect your desire to keep things confidential, but I'm sure this young lady is trustworthy with some of the details."

Rui looked more confused than ever. "What?"

Wes was even more bewildered than she was, though he made sure not to show it. What was Sherles getting at?

The Chief threw Wes an incredulous look. "Does she not know why you have the Snag Machine?"

Wes met his expression. Just play along. "Well...not the whole reason, no."

Sherles barked out a laugh. "Look at you, being so modest!" He turned to Rui with a grin. "This young man has been with us for some time, Miss Everlin - not too long, mind you, but he's worked with us to expose the Snagem hideout and steal the Snag Machine to help us in our investigation. Truly, we'd be at quite a loss without him."

Rui's eyes widened in shock. She stared at Wes, utterly dumbfounded. "Is...is this true?"

He merely gave a curt nod.

She jumped to her feet and grabbed him by the shoulders, her face far too close to his. Mew have mercy, his bubble was being violated so many times today. "Wes! That's amazing! I didn't - I had no idea - I understand now! Why you have that machine, why you caught those Pokémon...this all makes sense!"

It does? he thought numbly. His mind was still spinning with the turn of events. What was happening? How did he end up here - in Pyrite, in the middle of a police investigation, when all he'd meant to do was flee to Gateon?

Rui paused for a moment. "Hold on, is that even your real name? Should I call you Wes?"

He gingerly pried her off of him and pushed her back until she was at an acceptable distance. "Yes, that's my name. You can keep calling me that."

She grinned at him; she was taking this all remarkably well, he thought. "I can't believe - I was spouting off to you about helping those Pokémon, but you've been on top of it all along! You're incredible!"

Oh, no. No.

Wes was fine with lying; he'd done it often enough, had developed the skill for it, but this was a whole new level. He was not comfortable with pretending to be some...undercover hero. He was the furthest thing from that.

Still, he had to roll with it, at least for now. He didn't have much of a choice.

"Well, we should get you home," he said. "I'm sure your family is worried about you-"

"Wait!" Rui's face lit up. "I - I want to join the investigation!"

Oh, for the love of Arceus -

Sherles looked taken aback. Duking spoke up from behind Wes. "I'm sorry, I don't believe I got your name, Miss...?"

"Rui Everlin, sir," she said with her usual slight bow. Her eyes were vibrant with excitement. "And I think - no, I know I'd be a really valuable addition to the case, and I'd really like to volunteer if you'll have me!"

"And...what makes you say that, Miss Everlin?" Duking asked politely.

Rui shot Wes a look. "You didn't tell them?"

"...No."

She frowned at him before turning to Sherles. "You see, Chief, I can see the auras of Pokémon...and I can detect which ones are dangerous by their aura."

Sherles cocked an eyebrow and threw Wes a sideways glance.

"It's true," he muttered. "That's how we got the Pokémon in Phenac."

"Well..." Sherles trailed off with a contemplative expression. "That does sound useful, Miss Everlin. But...are you certain about this? This is a dangerous mission, and you must be eager to get home, not to mention your family-"

"That's alright!" Wes had never seen Rui so excited - which was saying something, he noted. "I can explain everything to them, they'll understand - if you'll have me, that is..."

"Hm. What do you think, Lycas?" Sherles looked at him; neither of them had been prepared for Rui's enthusiastic offer. Wes could say no...but the blazing passion in Rui's eyes would not be easily dissuaded, and he was sure she would fight fiercely for her cause.

"That's...fine, I suppose," he said tersely.

Rui beamed, and before Wes could react, she threw herself at him in a tight embrace. "Thank you, Wes! Thank you!"

Sweet merciful Arceus above
get off me.

"It's - it's fine, really," he said stiffly. He moved to pry her off of him a second time, but to his immense relief, she pulled away of her own accord.

He was so glad to be free of her grip he almost didn't notice the frown on her face. "Why didn't you tell them I can see aura?"

"I...didn't want you to get involved." It was technically the truth, but in the current context, it sounded...so much nobler than it actually was.

He hated it.

Rui's face softened and her smile returned. "You worry too much."

Apparently not enough, if he'd gotten himself into this mess.

Sherles turned to Duking. "Well, this is a bit of a last minute adjustment...Duking, I don't suppose you'd have room for her as well...?"

Wes saw him wave his hand nonchalantly in his peripheral vision. "Not to worry. We have plenty of space."

"Oh-" Rui looked at him with concern. "I didn't think about - I'm sorry - I won't be a bother, will I?"

Duking chuckled - a warm and genuine one, from what Wes could tell. "No need to fret, miss. We'll be happy to have you. In fact, my daughter will be thrilled to have another lady in the house. I think she feels a bit outnumbered these days."

Rui grinned at him. "Thank you so much, Mr. Mayor."

"Please. Call me Duking."

Wes resisted the urge to give a derisive snort. Such a different response from what he'd been given...although, Rui had no criminal activity to her name, and her very existence screamed "wholesome and trustworthy" so loudly she might as well have plastered it on her forehead.

He supposed he didn't have any of that going for him.

"Well, then, that settles it," Sherles said brightly. "I have more work to attend to in my office, but Duking will help you get settled in and we can get started in the morning." His eyes rested briefly on Wes as he spoke, and though his face was cheerful, there was a warning glint in his gaze: don't you dare try anything.

Wes briefly glanced at Duking; he wouldn't be able to try anything no matter how much he wanted to. He knew that much.

Duking ushered them out the door and led the way to his home as Rui struck up a conversation with him. Wes could only follow in a daze as the early evening sun warmed them from behind with golden light, with one thought running through his mind in a constant loop:

How, how, how did his simple plan to get to Gateon go so absurdly wrong?

Author's Notes:

WE FINALLY. MADE IT. TO THIS CHAPTER.

I've been waiting SO long to get to this point! From here onwards is where the main plot rolls forward. It took some time getting here, but the setup was important and worth the payoff, I think.

See you all next week, and Happy Halloween!
 
Chapter 10: Victims and Warriors

Wes had been in a plethora of uncomfortable situations within the last few days, but this one might have been the worst of them all.

Duking had introduced him and Rui to his two children just outside his home before sending the kids back inside with Wes in tow. The mayor remained with Rui outside the back door to the kitchen as he caught her up to speed on their investigation plans.

Wes would not quickly forget the burning stare from Duking as his son and daughter happily led the Snagger inside. The mayor said nothing to him, but he didn't need to; that look said everything Wes needed to know.

Try anything and I'll kill you.

So here he sat in the modest kitchen, trying not to fidget as he took in the yellow painted walls around him and attempted to ignore the girl's penetrating stare; she sat at the kitchen table across from him, looking him up and down as though silently critiquing every detail. For all he knew, she probably was.

Marcia (or Marci, as she had very adamantly insisted she be called) was the younger of Duking's two children. Her brother, Secc, had given a quiet but polite hello before retreating back into his book where he sat at the other end of the table.

Whatever her brother lacked in sociability, Marci more than made up for it with hers. She was loud, energetic, talked way too fast, and reminded Wes far too much of a certain redhead - a fact that was not helped by her auburn colored hair.

And, as luck would have it, Marci was particularly interested in Wes; she studied him from across the table as though he were a textbook and she was preparing for a test.

He was just about to ask her what in Mew's name she wanted when she finally spoke up.

"Dad says you're a Pokemon Trainer."

Wes blinked. "...Yeah. I am."

The girl frowned at him. She looked him up and down once more.

"But you don't look like a Trainer," she blurted.

Wes had absolutely no clue how to respond to that. What was that even supposed to mean?

"Because Trainers dress different!" Marci continued, apparently not expecting a response to her previous statement. "They wear cool shirts and shorts and they have cool bags for all their stuff - oh, and they wear hats, too!" She leaned forward as she spoke, eyes sparkling, as if she were imagining herself in those clothes.

She sat back and scrutinized Wes' face once more. "They don't have weird stripes on their faces, though," she remarked matter-of-factly.

Wes stared at her. What did this girl want from him?

He forced an air of patience into his tone. "Well...I'm still a Trainer-"

"Yeah, but you don't look like one."

Good lord. This girl was pushing buttons Wes didn't even know he had.

She gave him a toothy grin. "Your coat is cool, though!"

"...thanks."

"So...um..." Marci trailed off for a moment, shifting a little in her seat. Then she leaned forward again, face eager, and asked, "Can...can I see your Pokémon?"

Out of the corner of his eye, Wes saw Secc peek over the top of his book.

He could not possibly have been more grateful for the opportunity to turn the attention away from himself. "Sure." He pulled the Pokeballs from his belt.

Neo and Novo stretched happily as they emerged from the beams of light. They blinked and sniffed the air, taking in their surroundings. Neo waved his tail excitedly and Novo turned to his Trainer with a questioning look. "Umbri?"

Marci gasped so loudly that she might as well have sucked all the oxygen out of the room. Secc lowered his book and craned his neck to get a look at the Pokémon from his end of the table.

"Oh my gosh!" Marci squealed so high Wes was sure she would summon a flock of Zubat. "Secc! Secc, look, they're Eeeveelutions!"

Secc abandoned all pretenses of remaining aloof. His eyes widened in awe as he approached their end of the table and he got a better look at Neo and Novo.

"Wow...wow," he whispered. He looked at Wes, his eyes shining almost as bright as his sister's. "Did you raise them yourself?"

Wes nodded.

Secc crouched down in front of Novo in utter amazement. "Wow..." he said again.

Neo was reveling in all the attention; he purred loudly and rubbed up against Marci's legs with a happy chirp. She squealed again and immediately sat on the floor to pet him, a gesture that the Espeon greeted with enthusiasm.

Novo twitched his ears nervously and sat closer to his Trainer. Secc cautiously reached out to pet him, and Wes noticed the hairs rise on the back of Novo's neck. He placed a hand on the Umbreon's head.

"It's okay, Novo," he said. "They're..." What? Safe? Not a threat? (Though a threat to his pride, maybe.) They certainly weren't close enough to be called friends, not when they'd just met.

"They're okay," he finished.

Novo blinked at his Trainer. In an act of trust in Wes' judgement, he relaxed his shoulders and allowed the boy to stroke his pelt.

"He's so soft!" Secc exclaimed with a grin.

Marci was giggling hysterically as Neo pranced about her, begging for more attention. He rubbed his face against her shoulder, flicked his tail across her face, then flopped onto his back in front of her in an appeal for belly rubs.

He was quite possibly the most shameless Pokémon Wes had ever seen.

The door rattled from the other end of the kitchen as Duking and Rui came in from the house's side entrance, accompanied by another young man that Wes didn't recognize; he had spiky, dusty brown hair and a Plusle perched comfortably on his shoulder.

Rui blinked in surprise at the scene before them, a warm smile spreading slowly across her face.

"Dad, Dad, look!" Marci cried happily from her seat on the kitchen floor. "He has the coolest Pokemon!"

The Plusle on the newcomer's shoulder let out a reproachful chirp. "Plu!"

The young man laughed and patted the tiny Pokémon's head. "I'm sure she didn't mean anything personal, Plu."

Duking's eyes flickered over the sight before landing on Wes. He couldn't be certain, but Wes thought he saw Duking's eyes narrow just a little. The man didn't seem to appreciate the fact that his children were already associating so closely with the Snagger.

"Right," he said evenly. His eyes remained trained on Wes as he spoke. "That's nice, Mar. But it's time for both of you to get on your homework."

There was brief spell of groaning and protesting from both kids, but a stern look from their father caused them to sigh in defeat. Marci kissed the top of Neo's head before hopping up, and Secc gave Novo one last chin scratch before standing and returning to his books at the table.

As Wes rose from his seat, the mayor gestured to the young man beside him. "This is Silva, by the way. He helps me manage the Colosseum and is a close family friend of ours. He'll be helping us with the investigation." Silva greeted Wes with a wave and a friendly grin; Wes merely responded with a nod.

"Can we help with the investigation too, Dad?" Marci piped up from her spot at the table; she hadn't even bothered to open her textbooks yet.

"No, Mar. Please don't ask again."

Marci sat back in her seat with a defeated sigh, and Silva reached out and ruffled her hair with a laugh. "Don't worry, Marci, it's real boring stuff anyway. Lots of paperwork and long meetings." He lifted Plusle from his shoulder and let the Pokémon hop onto the table in front of Marci, who greeted him with a giggle.

"You always get to help out with stuff, though." Secc was the one who spoke up this time, though he kept his eyes on his book as he mumbled.

"That's because I'm a grown-up, and grown-ups get to do boring things. Take my advice and don't become one."

"More boring than math?" Marci wrinkled her nose at the still unopened book that rested in front of her.

"Marci, stop your complaining and get on your homework." Duking shot his daughter a stern look. "You should both count yourselves lucky that you even have the chance to get an education. Most kids in Pyrite aren't so lucky."

Most kids in Pyrite don't even have parents, Wes thought dryly.

"Does Pyrite have a school?" Rui asked in mild surprise.

Marci chipped in before her dad could reply. "No. Dad's making us do online school through some lady in Johto." She scowled. "We're the only kids in Pyrite who have to do homework."

Secc snorted and rolled his eyes. "Gee, how terrible."

Marci glared at him. "Just because you're some nerd who actually likes it, doesn't mean the rest of us do!"

Secc clearly had a scathing retort at the ready, but Duking cut in before he could deliver it. "Enough. Marci, if I hear one more complaint out of you, you're going to your room."

Marci slumped in defeat and looked down at her book with a wistful sigh.

"I can help you out later, if you'd like!" Rui flashed the girl a warm smile. "I was pretty good at math when I was in school."

"Really?" Marci looked up at her, eyes shining with admiration.

"Really!"

"That's a nice offer, Miss Everlin, thank you," Duking said as he gave Rui an appreciative look. "But for now, Mar will have to manage on her own. We need to get you both settled in."

He gestured for them to follow him as he made his way through the open doorway that led into the living room. Rui and Silva made friendly conversation with one another as they followed suit.

Wes fell in line behind them with a quiet sigh; he was sure they'd be put in some stuffy guest bedroom, and he wasn't looking forward to it. Not only did the idea of staying in someone else's house make him uncomfortable to the highest degree, it was a house filled with several people. As if dealing with Rui for the last few days hadn't exhausted him enough already...

But of all the things he'd been expecting, a secret cavern was not one of them.

He stared in surprise at the room Duking had led them to; the entrance to the cave itself had been hidden behind a bookshelf in Duking's office, which was just off from their living room. "Stuffy" was certainly not the appropriate description here; the cave was impressively sized, large enough to fit a table in the center of the floor and several mismatched chairs around it, a handful of bookshelves lining the walls, and, next to a door on the back wall, a waterfall that trickled down the stone into a tidy pool on the floor. The pool must have had an outlet to drain somewhere, as it didn't spread or flood across the floor.

"Wow...wow!" Rui breathed in awe. She'd been speechless for the last minute or so, mouth gaping as she took in their unexpected surroundings. She turned to Duking with an expression of pure, unadulterated excitement. "Did you build this?"

Duking chuckled a little at her amazement. "Silva and I built this place some years back out of the cliffside behind the house. It started out as a fun idea for the kids, and then...I guess we got a little carried away with it."

Silva grinned. "Well, it helps that Duking has a couple Rock types on his team. It was fun for all of us."

"This is so cool!" Rui turned to Wes with a beaming smile. He held back a snort; she looked for all the world like a five year old child on their birthday.

"We have two bedrooms just through the door there." Duking nodded to the other door on the back wall. "They...well, they're not much. Kind of small and nothing to write home about, but I hope they're comfortable enough for you."

"Are you kidding?" Rui laughed. "We get to stay in a secret cave! This is the coolest thing that's ever happened to me!"

Not that your standards are very high, Wes thought to himself. He didn't know much about Rui's hometown, but clearly the girl hadn't seen much. Though he had to admit - this hideout was impressive.

"Well, I'll give you both some time to settle in," Duking said. "We should have dinner ready in an hour or so, and you're - ah - welcome to join us." Wes noticed his gaze darken ever so slightly as the mayor glanced at him; hospitality aside, this man was certainly not happy to have Wes at his dinner table.

I don't want to be here, either, you know.

Neither Silva nor Rui seemed to pick up on this, as Silva cheerfully bade them farewell and followed Duking back out of the cave and into his office, and Rui bounded over to the doorway from across the room.

She threw Wes yet another child-like grin over her shoulder. "Feels like we're real spies or something, doesn't it? Working undercover and staying in a secret base?"

Wes was about to scoff at her and tell her how stupid that sounded, that they were not actually spies, when he caught sight of the unbridled joy on her face. Arceus above, he'd never seen such a pure expression before.

He decided to let her have this one. "Sure."

The bedrooms were indeed small and nothing extraordinary. Aside from a bed, lamp, and small dresser in each one, they were completely bare. Much as he disliked staying in someone else's home, Wes had to admit he preferred this over a more typical bedroom; he could almost pretend he was in a small shelter on a Snagging mission, which felt much more natural to him.

"You know," Rui's voice sounded from her room across the narrow hallway, "we ought to let those Pokémon out of their balls and get to know them a bit."

"What, the crazy ones?" Wes asked in disbelief. He closed the door to his room and frowned at her as she emerged from hers.

"They're not crazy, Wes, they're just...damaged," Rui said. "They're not going to get any better by sitting in their balls all the time, and you are their Trainer now."

"I'm not their Trainer."

"You are for now," Rui said stubbornly. "Besides, they've been in their Pokeballs since yesterday. We should at least let them eat something."

She had a point there, though the thought of confronting any one of the savage Pokémon made Wes feel uneasy. "Fine," he said, "but we're not doing it inside. I don't think Duking would thank us if his house got destroyed."

Rui smiled wryly. "You sure like to think of the worst case scenarios, don't you?"

Wes snorted and hefted the bag onto his shoulder. "Call it a talent."

He made his way back through the cave and made a point to ignore Rui's giggle behind him.

The rays of the setting sun bathed the town in dusty gold. Wes was grateful there was still plenty of light out; Pyrite was not a place to be wandering the streets after dark.

For the sake of privacy and to avoid prying eyes, he'd found an abandoned lot out near the edge of town. He'd only ever seen a few groups of street kids loitering around the area before, and with evening closing in, they would either be finding a place to hunker down for the night, or they'd be scoping out potential thieving opportunities. His instincts proved to be correct when they found the lot empty.

He decided to send out Makuhita first, though he wasn't sure why; perhaps he felt that fists would be easier to dodge than a jet of flame or a stream of water or a flurry of leaves. Not that he felt any more at ease about it.

Makuhita blinked and slowly looked around; it didn't seem to be too fazed at the drastic change of scenery, though it was hard to tell anything from the blank expression.

Wes glanced at Rui. "Does it still have that weird aura? Or something?"

Rui nodded, looking Makuhita up and down with a concerned gaze. Wes noticed she wasn't just looking at the Pokémon; her eyes seemed to be taking in the space around it as well, taking in sights only she could see.

She turned back to him. "It's still there. His aura is just...off. But he doesn't seem to be as aggressive as before."

Makuhita looked up at them both, apparently noticing them for the first time since looking at his surroundings. "Ma."

Something about Rui's statement had stood out to Wes. "'He'?"

Rui nodded again and returned her attention to Makuhita. "Yeah. I can tell a Pokémon's gender by their aura. Females and males have certain patterns about them...the Bayleef is also a male, by the way. Quilava and Croconaw are female."

Wes had no response to that, and could only shake his head slightly. Mew have mercy, this girl was weird, and her ability to see aura was still unsettling to him.

"Ma."

Wes jumped as he felt a tug at the hem of his coat. He looked down and, to his surprise, found Makuhita tugging at the blue fabric.

"Um. Can I help you?"

Makuhita stared up at him; Wes resisted the urge to flinch. Docile though he seemed to be, those eyes were still so hollow, so soulless, so...empty.

Rui crouched down to level with Makuhita, and pulled something from her jacket pocket. "Here, this is for you. I think you'll like it."

Makuhita turned to look at her, and gave a few slow blinks before taking the treat, a small biscuit, from her outstretched hand. "Ma-ku."

Wes shot her a look. "Where did you get that?"

Rui grinned up at him. "I grabbed a few from the Phenac Center yesterday. They had a whole jar for Trainers to take some, and...I mean, I'm not a Trainer, but I thought I could give some to Neo and Novo at some point." She looked back at Makuhita with a gentle smile. "I think this guy needs it more, though."

"Ku." Makuhita nibbled away at the treat. He sounded somewhat pleased, though his expression remained as blank as ever.

He didn't seem all that different, Wes thought. His insane rage in battle aside, Makuhita was behaving like an ordinary, mild-mannered Pokémon. As he watched the fighter finish his treat, Wes thought he looked...almost normal.

Then Makuhita looked up at him again with those eyes and that blank, lifeless stare.

Almost.

"You should name him," Rui said suddenly.

"I-what?"

"Every Pokémon should have a name, shouldn't they?" Rui got back to her feet. "I doubt those thugs had a proper name for him, so you should give him one."

"Rui, he's not my-"

She shot him a sharp look. "Wesley Lycas, he's your Pokémon until we can get him better, so you should treat him like it," she said.

Arceus, you're bossy as hell.

Wes sighed in defeat and looked down at the Pokémon. Fine. It wasn't like naming him was a big deal, anyway...right?

Wes stared at the Makuhita. The Makuhita stared back.

A name...it had been so long since he'd named another Pokémon. He couldn't even remember how he came up with ones for Neo and Novo; they had simply come to him.

And just like that, a name for Makuhita popped in his mind.

"Maku," he said.

He heard a light sputter and looked over to find Rui giggling at him. He frowned at her. "What?"

"M-Maku?" she asked with an amused grin.

"Yeah, what of it? It suits him."

"That wouldn't, I don't know, have to do with the fact that he's a Makuhita?"

"Shut it. It's a good name. Right?" Wes addressed the Pokémon. Makuhita cocked his head to the side, then nodded. "Ma."

"See? He likes it."

"Well, what are you gonna name him when he evolves?" Rui's grin spread wider. "Harry?"

Wes scoffed. "Don't be ridiculous." He paused, then added nonchalantly, "I'd call him Yama."

At this, Rui let out a real guffaw of laughter. "Did-did-did you just make a joke?" she choked.

He shot her a sideways glance. "Would that be so hard to believe?"

"Well-yeah!" She spluttered. "I don't think I've seen you laugh at...at...anything!"

"Not my fault if most people have a terrible sense of humor."

"Oh, really?" Rui folded her arms and cocked her head to the side, still grinning. "So yours is better than everyone else's?"

"Exactly."

"How humble of you."

"I try."

Rui's eyes lit up with an idea. "Tell you what." She clasped her hands behind her back. "If I can make you laugh by the end of this mission, you buy me a Pokepop."

Wes stared at her. "That's stupid."

"It's a bet! So if I lose, you get something out of it."

He snorted and folded his arms. "And what would that be?"

"Hmm..." Rui squinted up at the sky for a moment, lost in thought. "How about...I buy treats for your whole team?"

That...actually was somewhat tempting. Still -

"You have no money," Wes deadpanned.

"Only because of current circumstances!" Rui said. "Once I get a new P*DA, I'll have access to my account again - and yes, I do have my own money, in case you doubted that," she added dryly.

Wes looked at her expression and realized she was actually serious. He shook his head in disbelief. "Fine, I'll play along, but only because it means free treats for my team."

"Oh, you think so?" Rui leaned forward with a mischievous smile. "I have plenty of jokes up my sleeve!"

He rolled his eyes. "And they're probably all terrible."

"Ha! Just you wait, Lycas. I'll get you."

"I'm sure."

"Ma?" Maku's voice caught Wes by surprise; he'd almost forgotten the quiet Pokémon was still standing right in front of them. Maku was looking between him and Rui with a somewhat hopeful gaze.

"Sorry, bud, I don't actually have any treats on me," Wes said wistfully. He threw Rui a sideways smirk. "I'm sure we'll get some soon, though."

She stuck her tongue out at him.

"Ma. Ma-ku." Maku gestured to Rui with his fist.

She blinked at the Pokémon in surprise. "Oh, you mean my treats!" Maku nodded, and her face fell a little. "Um, sorry, Maku, I don't have that many, and was saving them for the others..."

Maku blinked. "...ku." He looked down in disappointment.

Well, great. Now Wes felt sorry for him. Neo and Novo's begging tactics were one thing; he'd caved in to them from time to time, and they'd lived their lives knowing and trusting in his affection. But this poor Pokémon...he acted for all the world like Rui was the first human to ever show him kindness.

"It won't hurt to give him another one," he said to Rui.

She raised an eyebrow at him, then grinned. "If you say so." Instead of offering the biscuit to Maku, however, she dug one out of her jacket pocket and held it out to Wes. "You give it to him. You're the Trainer, after all."

Wes paused, then took it from her hand, knelt down, and held out the offering.

Maku blinked and slowly took the treat from Wes' hand. He nibbled at it - then took a larger bite, and then a larger one, until he shoved it all into his mouth. He looked at Wes and mumbled through a mouthful. "Ma."

"You're welcome. I think." It was a bit difficult to read Maku compared to Neo and Novo; Wes was used to relying on twitching ears and waving tails to tell him what they were feeling, and Maku's expressionless gaze didn't help things, either.

He suddenly noticed the sun was sinking lower in the sky; they would need to get a move on if they wanted to address the other Pokémon. After explaining to Maku that he would need to go back in his ball for now, he returned him.

"So, Wes, what are you going to name the other ones?" Rui was smirking at him. "Let me guess - you'll name the Quilava, 'Quilly'?"

"Shut up, Rui."

"Oh! How about 'Bay' for the Bayleef?"

Wes rolled his eyes. "You know what, if you're so good at names, then you should name them."

"Wait-are you serious? Do you mean that?" Her eyes widened in surprise.

He thought for a second, then shrugged. "If you want to, then...sure. Why not."

Rui beamed at him. "I'd love to!"

"Knock yourself out, then. But make sure they're at least decent ones."

"No promises. Maybe I'll name one of them 'Princess'."

"...You know what, I take it back. I'm keeping the naming privileges."

"No, wait, I was kidding! Let me name at least one!"

"Fine."

And with that, Wes tossed out the next Pokeball.



She blinked and took in her new surroundings as the light from the Pokeball faded.

She didn't recognize this place - not that that was new, per se. She hadn't recognized the last city she was in, either; all she could reliably remember of her life before that was white walls and bright lights and cold metal tables...

And pain. Lots and lots of pain.

She twitched at the memory, the flames of her mane and tail sputtering in response. The dark monster in her chest stirred.

A voice met her hears, and she snapped her head around to see...two humans. One with hair as red as the flames of her tail, and the other in a blue...something. It was somewhat like the coats the humans wore within those white walls. Somewhat.

The first one, the red one, looked at her with a smile. She felt her skin crawl at her flank and lunged at her side with her teeth, gnawing away at the sensation. Then she scratched behind her ear, and raised a hind leg to scratch her other side, and -

Itch. Itch. Itch.

It had been a long time since she'd actually been itchy; ever since leaving the white walls behind, the sensation never returned. But she'd grown so used to it, that constant prickling sensation under her fur, that it felt unnatural, wrong even, to be without it. So she had itched and scratched and twitched and clawed herself bloody in various places in an effort to keep calm.

But these humans made her nervous, and nervousness made her want to twitch, scratch, bite, and that blackness in her heart stirred even more, threatening to rear its ugly head -

"It's okay."

A voice made her raise her head. The red one was looking at her and cautiously approaching her, but it wasn't the outstretched hand that was frightening, oh no; it was that smile on her face.

She didn't like that. When the white-coated humans would smile at her, with sharp and pointy things in their hands, it was a sure sign of more pain to come.

The blue one muttered something under his breath that she didn't quite catch, and the red one laughed. She shuddered; her flames flickered as she twitched and spasmed anxiously.

If a smile was a hint of pain to come, then laughter was a guarantee.

Yet there was something...different about the red one's face. She didn't know quite what, but that face seemed...gentle? Mild?

She didn't know humans could look like that. It unsettled her.

She caught sight of the blue one's face and found something else: wary cautiousness. Distrust.

Ah. That was an expression she recognized.

Another spasm took her left shoulder, and the red one was coming ever closer. She tried to hold still, but the harder she tried, the more she twitched. That imaginary itching sensation was tingling, prickling, crawling under her skin and it was everywhere, all over, everywhere -

Fingers brushed the top of her head.

"Qu-qu-QUI!"

She didn't mean to, she really didn't, but it was so unexpected, her body was twitching so much, and that blackness was clawing at her, telling her to hurt, destroy, tear - and oh no, oh no, she didn't mean to, she was sorry, sorry, so sorry -

The blue one yanked the girl out of the way as flames belched over their heads. She heard a shout, saw them both staring at her in alarm.

Oh. Oh no. The humans hated it when she did that.

She would be punished for this, she knew. And punishment always hurt. And after the punishment, they would come at her with more sharp things poking under her skin, the itching would be back tenfold and it would make her wish she could crawl out of her own pelt like it always did and that monster inside of her would take over and please she didn't mean to, she didn't mean to, she didn't mean -

A strange smell hit her nostrils. She slowly raised her head and only then realized she'd curled into a ball in an attempt to hide from the world.

A gloved hand was cautiously extended in front of her, holding...food? She blinked and raised her head a little higher to meet the blue one's eyes. That wariness was still there, but there was something else, too...more softness? She wasn't sure.

"Here." His voice was quiet. "Take it."

Slowly, very slowly, she craned her neck forward to take the morsel from his hand. She delicately clutched it in her teeth, then immediately snapped her head away before he could have a chance to do - something. Hit her, or stab her with something sharp, or yank her by the ear.

One of those things, certainly. Humans always did those things.

He continued to speak to her, but she didn't catch the words; she was busy gulping down the food. Who knew when her next bite of food would come? Best to eat it all before he could take it away.

"May I?"

The girl's voice again. She shot a wary glance upwards to see her reaching out a cautious hand.

The blue one growled. "Rui-"

"It's okay, Wes. She's just scared."

What was wrong with this human? Her eyes were so kind, her voice so gentle, she was so different from the white ones...

She licked the last of the crumbs from her muzzle as she stared at this strange human...then reluctantly bowed her head. If this girl wanted to touch her, she would make it happen one way or another, anyway. Humans always got what they wanted in the end.

The hand brushed her head again, and even though her entire body quivered with phantom itchiness, she was prepared this time. It would hurt, but if she didn't struggle, it wouldn't be too unbearable -

Soft.

The girl's touch was light. Fingers gently brushed through her fur, stroked the top of her head, scratched behind her ears. She felt her muscles relax ever so slightly at the sensation. It felt...nice.

"Kohna."

She blinked up into the girl's eyes. So warm. The girl spoke again.

"Kohna. Can we call you that? Do you like that name?"

A...name? She twitched her ears. She'd had a name, back in the cold white rooms, but she could never remember it very well. SD00245...something. It was long and strange, and never felt like much of a name.

Kohna. It wasn't bad. She even...kind of liked it.

She slowly nodded her head.

The girl smiled again - Kohna's flames sputtered nervously at the sight. The blue one spoke to her. "We'd keep you out for a little longer, but we need to meet with the other Pokémon, too, so you'll have to go back in your ball for now." He grimaced a little. "Sorry."

Sorry? Sorry? Did this human just apologize to her? A Pokémon?

She mulled these things over and over in her mind as the light from the Pokeball sucked her back inside. Food. Gentle touches. A new name.

These humans were very strange, indeed.

Even before she could take in her surroundings, she was ready.

Her Trainer only ever let her out of her ball for two things: meals and battles. But she learned very quickly to always assume she was being unleashed for the latter. Taking too long to gather in her surroundings had earned her some painful blows from advancing foes in the past, so now she knew better. Always be ready. Always be prepared to attack, to fight, to win.

Some Pokémon took little pleasure in battling, but she was not one of them. She relished the opportunity to tear at her opponents, to send them sprawling in the dirt, to make them bleed, make them hurt. It was a welcome outlet for the rage that constantly simmered in her chest.

And yet, as she tensed her muscles and lashed her tail and snapped her powerful jaws...there was no attack, no hailstorm of fire or lightning or whatever else aiming straight for her head. She blinked and looked up at the two humans standing in front of her - two unfamiliar humans.

It took her all of five seconds to size them up. She came to a single conclusion with a derisive snort.

Pathetic.

They were all alike, humans. Thought they were so mighty just because they could suck her back into a Pokeball if she behaved too wildly, just because they could strap her down to a table and muzzle her jaws shut while they inflicted all sorts of misery, just because she knew that if she didn't obey their every whim, she would have hell to pay.

But humans could posture all they liked. She knew the strength in her scales, the deadly force of her fangs; she had the real power.

She glared up at the two strangers, unflinching, undaunted. Her willfulness would surely not go unpunished, but she didn't care. She'd had worse, and she would endure worse in the future. Pain only made her stronger, so she welcomed it.

"Oh, Wes, look at all of her scars..."

The girl cautiously stooped down to her level and looked her squarely in the eye with...was that pity?

She lashed her tail again, kicking up a cloud of dust behind her as she did so. She, a mighty Croconaw, was not to be pitied. She was raw muscle and strength and ferocity; she was a fighting machine, designed to destroy, to obliterate, to win at any cost.

Pity was not for her, no; it was for the weaker Pokémon she encountered in those cold, tiled rooms, the ones that wailed and struggled and sobbed even as the light faded from their eyes and the life ebbed from their limbs. They were the fragile ones, the ones that cried with every stab or blow or stroke of pain.

She'd never cried; she was made of stronger stuff than they.

A low growl rumbled in her throat as she leered at this pitiful little human in front of her. She would make sure this girl knew the truth: She was a warrior, not a victim.

She was not to be pitied. She was to be feared.

But before she could make her move, the other human stepped forward and placed a hand on the girl's shoulder. He murmured a word of caution, made her stand and take a few steps back.

She growled again, and he locked eyes with her.

Those eyes did not contain the same aggravating sympathy as the girl's did - but there was no fear in them, either. They held caution...and something else. A quiet, burning defiance, almost as if he were daring her to test him.

She was not sure whether she despised this or respected it.

"Um, hello." The girl took a step forward again, ignoring the glare from her companion. "It's nice to officially meet you. I'm Rui, and this is Wes, your new Trainer." She gestured to the man beside her with a smile. "It's probably confusing to take all of this in at once, but don't worry, we'll take good care of you."

Another lash of the tail, another mocking snort. As if she needed reassurance. She needed nothing, never did, never would.

"If...if it's all right with you, we'd like to give you a name," the girl continued. "How does Nani sound?"

She looked at the girl with a cold, deadpan stare. Names were of no importance to her, least of all names given from humans. She'd never acknowledged the name given to her by the white-coated ones, and she certainly wouldn't adhere to anything these ones had to -

"It means 'mighty wave' in Alolan."

The use of the word "mighty" gave her pause. Hm. Perhaps - perhaps - she would consider it. She supposed a warrior did need a worthy name...

"We'll give you time to think about it, if you'd like." The man spoke this time. He was still looking at her with that fiery gaze of his. "You'll need to go back in your ball for now, but we'll have food for you later. You can mull it over in the meantime."

It was odd, the way these two were speaking to her. From her experience, humans only addressed her to bark orders, yet these ones were just...talking. As if trying to have a conversation.

She glared at them both. She had no response for them.

They exchanged a look. The man simply shrugged and held up her Pokeball. She looked at him one last time and thought she caught a glimpse of something softer in his eyes.

"We'll see you later, okay?"

The beam of light engulfed her, and as darkness swallowed her up, she snarled to herself.

No matter if these two were somewhat different. Humans were all the same, in the end.

"Right. Okay. We'll deal with him later."

Wes shakily got back to his feet and shoved Bayleef's ball back into the bag as he huffed this statement.

The second Bayleef had been released from his ball, the Pokémon bellowed in rage and launched a flurry of leaves straight for their heads; Wes had only narrowly managed to shove Rui down and duck under the slicing green blades before returning him.

Rui was slower to get to her feet. "His-his-his aura..." Her voice betrayed the fact that she was trembling slightly.

"Yeah, I know it's messed up, that's the point-"

"No, I mean-it was worse!" Rui exclaimed. She turned to Wes, face distraught. "It was like...like it was consuming him or something!"

Wes frowned at her. "Maybe some are worse than others?"

"I...I don't know...maybe?" She bit her lip and glanced at where the Bayleef had been standing just a moment before. She looked back at Wes, her eyes pools of worry, and asked the question that had been festering in the back of his mind.

"Wes...how are we going to fix these Pokémon?"

"I don't know." And for all his frustration at being in this situation, for all his annoyance at being kept from his destination at every turn, Wes found himself genuinely wishing he knew the answer.

The terror in Quilava's eyes, the scars lacing Corconaw's body, the emptiness in Maku's eyes...

Whoever was responsible for this was a monster.

"We'll figure it out," he said. He looked Rui squarely in the eyes. "We just need some time. And starting tomorrow, maybe we'll get some answers."

She nodded, and her anxiety seemed to ease a little. She glanced at the fading sunset. "Well...we should probably go back, right? I'm sure they'll be waiting for us."

Wes sighed a little. Right. The day wasn't over yet; he still had to deal with people before he could retire peacefully for the day. "Yeah. Let's go."

And with that, they left the empty lot behind.
 
I’m gonna be real with you, dear reader...this week has been hell for me. I’ve been dealing with heaps of emotional abuse at my job, and this last week has especially been miserable for me. Writing this fic has been a bright spot in my otherwise dark time, and if you’re here reading this, it means so, so much to me. Every response has really lifted my sports. So...thank you. You’re the best.
 
Chapter 11: Defeated

Wes stared at the scene before him, at an utter loss for words.

The kitchen had transformed from the previous night; the table had been scooted to the very center of the floor, with a second, foldable one set up and pushed against one end to make a single long, mismatched dining table. The air was buzzing with chatter, and the smells of a variety of breakfast foods wafted about the busy, cramped space.

"Mar? Where'd you put the bacon?" Secc's voice sounded from where he stood near the stove, scrambling eggs in a large pan.

"I put the plate over there, on the counter." Marci was busy flipping pancakes next to her father and made a vague gesture to the other end of the kitchen; Wes did a double take at the sight of the massive mayor in a flowery apron and wondered for half a second if he was in a bizarre dream.

"Where?"

"Over there."

"I don't see it-"

"That's because you're blind."

Before Secc could snark a reply, the side entrance to the kitchen swung open, and in walked Silva, Rui, and two dark haired children Wes did not recognize. The kids waved excited greetings to Duking and his kids as Silva and Rui brought in what looked to be grocery bags.

Rui caught sight of Wes and grinned. "Good morning!" Plusle, who sat sat atop her head, mimicked her greeting with a chirp.

Wes blinked in surprise; Rui looked entirely different today, and it took him a moment to realize why. Her usual pigtails had been let down and pulled back into a half ponytail, allowing the rest of her red hair to cascade down to her shoulders, and her skirt and jacket had been replaced with a plain, light blue T shirt and blue jeans. She suddenly looked much older than before.

"Morning," he said slowly.

The two unfamiliar children stepped into the kitchen to greet Secc and Marci, and Wes met Duking's eyes with a bewildered look.

"I thought you only had two kids," Wes said.

Duking raised an eyebrow at him. "I do," he said cooly. He gestured to the pair. "This is Nett and Megg, Secc and Marci's friends. They come here often and take online classes with my kids."

"Hello!" Nett chirped in response. Megg grinned and gave a shy wave as the two carried a stack of plates to the table.

Wes responded with his typical nod, but the kids still looked at him hopefully, as if expecting more. "Um, hello," he mumbled awkwardly.

Megg set her last plate on the table before fully turning to him. "Are you the Trainer helping Duking?" she asked eagerly.

"...Yes."

Marci chipped in from her end of the kitchen. "And he has the coolest Pokémon, Megg!"

"Really?" Megg glanced between Wes and Marci as her eyes lit up with excitement. "Can I see them?"

Wes shrugged. "Sure, you-" he broke off with a frown as he looked about the kitchen and found his Espeon and Umbreon were nowhere in sight. Where had they gone? They'd only just entered the kitchen with him -

"Umbri?" Novo poked his head out from under the table and looked up at his Trainer.

"What are you under there for?" Wes mumbled. He gestured for Novo to step out, and the Umbreon happily trotted to his side. Neo, apparently also under the table with his brother, followed suit with a chirp, though Wes noticed he moved a little sluggishly. He frowned at him, but Neo merely blinked up at him contentedly.

"Oh, wow!" It was the boy, Nett, who spoke up this time; he'd already taken a seat at the table, and Megg sat down beside him. "An Espeon and an Umbreon! They're really rare, aren't they?"

Wes felt a prickle of unease. He was not keen on where this conversation could be heading, and he preferred to avoid questions about where he got Neo and Novo if he could help it. He decided to vaguely answer this question with a noncommittal shrug.

Nett looked like he had more questions to ask, but before he could continue, Duking broke into the conversation as he brought a plate full of waffles to the table. "Alright, everybody, let's settle in and eat, shall we?"

Wes was still digesting the sight of him in that obnoxiously frilly apron. Rui surprised him by nudging him in the ribs - how long had she been standing next to him? - and the two took a seat.

Everyone settled in around the table - the now very crowded table, Wes realized. He found himself needing to take deep breaths. There were so many people, it was so loud, and there was so much food -

Wait.

He'd been so busy taking in the busy scene, he hadn't noticed just how much food there was sprawled atop the tablecloth. Wes stared in disbelief; he'd never seen so much food all in one place, being offered to him for free. Unless he included snatching food from the open-air markets in Phenac, but he had a sneaking suspicion that didn't count.

"This looks amazing!" Silva exclaimed from his place at Rui's other side. "Looks like you guys worked hard this morning!"

"It'd be better if Marci hadn't lost the bacon," Secc muttered.

Marci swelled with indignation. "I didn't lose it, I left it on the counter right where I said it was!"

"Well, it's not there anymore!"

"Probably because you moved it somewhere and forgot about it!"

"Why on earth would I-?"

"Secc. Mar," Duking sighed. "Drop it."

The two siblings exchanged glares and fell silent.

"Now, then!" Duking beamed at them all (well, everybody aside from Wes), his massive form towering over everyone else at the table. "Dig in!"

The chatter multiplied as everyone dished up their plates. Marci, Secc, Nett and Megg all conversed about school - Wes only knew this because Marci's voice was so loud it carried easily from their end of the table - and Silva was saying something that made Rui laugh and Duking chuckle. He quietly dished some food onto his plate, and when nobody was looking, stashed some biscuits in his pocket, just in case; rule number one of his upbringing had been to never pass up an opportunity for a meal, whether current or future.

He may have been likely to stay here for a while and receive regular meals in the process, but nothing in life was certain. That was another thing his childhood had taught him.

"So, how do you two know each other, again?" Rui's voice tugged him from his memories, and he decided to focus on it, if only to attempt to drown out the rest of the noise in the small kitchen.

"Oh, I'm just a family friend-" Silva began.

Duking barked out a laugh. "I may have introduced you as such, but that's a bit misleading." He clapped Silva on the shoulder and grinned at Rui. "Silva here is family to us. Been with us since he was a kid, and he's one of the best people I know."

Silva shrugged off Duking's grip on his shoulder, looking a little embarrassed at the praise. "You make me sound so noble, Duke." He then addressed Rui. "Duking's the one who deserves all the praise, though. He and Dahlia took me in when I was really young - I lost my parents to Noctis, see. I was wandering the streets when they found me. Practically raised me as their own." He flashed the mayor a grateful smile. "I owe everything I have to him. Who knows where I'd be now if he hadn't found me."

Wes held in a bitter snort. He had a pretty good idea of where Noctis orphans usually ended up: either on the streets, in a gang, or dead. More often than not, the first two options led to the third one fairly quickly.

"Oh, that's so sweet!" Rui beamed at them both. "I take it Dahlia's your wife, then?" she asked Duking.

A small shadow passed over Duking's face, and he gave her a pained smile. "Yes...she was. I lost her a few years back. To Noctis."

"...Oh." Rui's face fell. "I-I'm so sorry, I didn't-"

"Not to worry, Miss Everlin." Duking waved a dismissive hand. "You couldn't have known. The last several years haven't been easy on us, but we've been able to manage."

Rui murmured something in response, but Wes' attention was directed elsewhere when Secc spoke up from his end of the table. "Um. Wes? What's wrong with your Espeon?"

What? Wes frowned and glanced over his shoulder to where Secc was pointing; Neo was slouched on his haunches in the doorway to the kitchen, head bowed and panting slightly.

"Neo?" Wes asked, concern flickering in his chest. "What's wrong?"

Neo blinked up at him with a somewhat dazed expression. He staggered to his feet and took a wobbly step towards his Trainer...then another...

...And then vomited a massive heap of undigested bacon all over the floor.

Silva, who was closest to the mess, hastily scooted his chair away with a squawk of disgust; Marci's mouth dropped open, and there were a few seconds of stunned silence.

Wes slowly bowed his head and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Oh, for the love of Arceus."

Rui erupted into a fit of laughter, breaking the tension and sending the kids into a fit of giggles. Silva chuckled weakly, still edging his chair as far away from the puddle as possible.

"Well. S'pose that explains where all the bacon went," Duking grunted. He fixed Wes with a deadpan stare. "You're cleaning that up, kid."

Rui leaned over her plate, laughing so hard that tears were leaking from her eyes. Wes heard a loud burp; he snapped his head around to see Novo sitting contentedly near the kids' end of the table, licking his muzzle.

Wes couldn't help but feel a little betrayed. "You too?"

Novo blinked, then ducked his head, paws shifting guiltily.

The laughter multiplied, and this time even Duking joined in with a light chuckle. Cursing under his breath, Wes rose from his chair to take care of the nightmare on the floor.

So much for having an appetite.

Rui insisted they give the other Pokémon breakfast before heading to meet with Sherles. Wes agreed on the condition they do so outside once again; he didn't trust one of them not to snap and go berserk, and he was already on rocky enough terms with the mayor without being responsible for the destruction of his house.

Duking took notice when Wes set Bayleef's Pokeball aside on the table and frowned. "Why aren't you taking that one?"

"He's too aggressive," Wes answered curtly. "I figured I'll deal with him when I have the time and space."

"Hm." The mayor eyed the Pokeball thoughtfully. "Silva and I have some work to do in the Colosseum today. I could let him out with my team and see if I can wrangle him."

"That would be great!" Rui chirped, but Wes threw him a wary look.

"Maybe. He's pretty wild and attacks on sight," he said.

Duking narrowed his eyes. "I think I can handle it," he answered coldly.

Wes held back a scoff and finished packing his bag before heading out the door with Rui. It's your funeral.

Duking had been generous enough to provide Wes' team with Pokémon food from his own supply. It was low-grade quality, but Wes hadn't expected anything much (it was Pyrite town, after all), and Neo and Novo had lived their whole lives living off odd meals of questionable quality and had turned out healthy enough. High quality Pokémon food was a luxury that most Trainers simply couldn't afford.

The Espeon and Umbreon, however, were in no need of breakfast after their display in the kitchen. After a thorough scolding ("Just because it's bacon doesn't mean it's yours!"), they were promptly returned to their balls for a time-out. Wes was certain they would both sulk and pout afterwards, but he would have to deal with that later.

"Do you think it's a good idea to let them all out at once?" Rui asked as she eyed the three Pokeballs in Wes' hand.

"They'll have to get to know each other sooner or later," he said. "Might as well introduce them now." He shot her a sideways glance. "Let me know if any of them show signs of getting out of hand, though."

Rui knotted her eyebrows together and nodded.

The three Pokémon blinked in the sunlight and shifted as they took in their surroundings. Maku sat passively, taking in the scenery with no expression whatsoever; Kohna snorted and twitched, pawing at the ground anxiously, and Nani (Maybe? Had she accepted that name?) immediately crouched into a battle stance, snapping her jaws ferociously at the other two in turn.

Wes had no way of interpreting her fierce growls, but the message was clear, nonetheless: "Which one of you do I get to tear apart first?"

Kohna squeaked and recoiled, flames sputtering as she twitched and spasmed with more intensity. Maku met the Croconaw's gaze head on, and Wes thought he could hear a low growl rumble from within.

"Easy."

All three heads snapped to him, noticing him for the first time. Wes kept a cautious distance, crouching down in an attempt to look as non-threatening as possible.

"You're not here to fight, all right? I'm your Trainer now, which makes all of you teammates. I figured we could get to know one another."

Kohna relaxed a little, though she stil raised a hind leg to scratch obsessively behind her ear. Maku simply stared, while Croconaw huffed and leered at him.

Wes met her eyes. "Nani, right? Is that what we can call you?"

She snorted at him. Wes had no idea how to respond to that.

"I'm...going to take that as a yes." She glared at him, but didn't protest, so Wes assumed his guess was correct and continued. "Right. Nani, meet Maku and Kohna." He gestured to the other two.

All three exchanged wary glances with one another. Nobody seemed eager to break the ice.

He sighed. Well. So much for that.

"Let Neo and Novo out." Rui's hand rested lightly on Wes' shoulder as she spoke, and he only barely managed to hide his flinch. Her touch wasn't unpleasant, per se, and was much less threatening than most, but it was far too foreign of a sensation for him to be comfortable with it.

He glanced at her over his shoulder and saw that she was closely observing the Pokémon before them. "You think that's a good idea?" he asked.

She nodded and shifted her gaze to his. "I do. They're the only...ordinary Pokémon here, and maybe some interaction with them will do the others some good. Besides, they're teammates, too."

Wes was aware of that, though he knew he would look like a pushover for letting them out of their time-out so early. Other issues were more pressing, though, so he gave a nod of agreement and rose to his feet before turning back to the three before him.

"You have two other teammates I'm going to introduce you guys to. Their names are Neo and Novo, and they are not-" he broke off to give Nani a hard stare, as he saw her tensing into battle position once again, "to be attacked. We don't attack teammates. Ever. Got it?"

Nani lashed her tail in frustration and reluctantly relaxed her shoulders. Kohna and Maku listened quietly.

They all flinched a little at the bright bursts of light; it seemed they were highly sensitive to sudden sounds and movements. Novo stretched luxuriously in the sunlight, and Neo immediately set to bounding about playfully at Wes' feet. "Spi, spi, spi!"

Novo pricked his ears forward, his attention fastened on the three Pokémon eyeing him warily. The hairs rose on the back of his neck in apprehension.

"Neo, Novo." Wes stepped closer to his Umbreon in an effort to calm his nerves. He gestured to Nani, Maku and Kohna. "Meet your...new teammates."

Novo relaxed a little, but stayed where he was, craning his neck forward and sniffing the air so as to smell them from a cautious distance. Neo, however, cocked his head, then pranced right up to them with a cheerful greeting, tail waving in the air. "Spiiiiii!"

Kohna flinched back. Nani growled, curling her lip to show her impressive fangs. Maku simply stared.

Neo paused, looking at each of them in turn before rubbing up against Maku with a friendly purr. "Esp!"

For the first time, the fighter showed something other than rage or dull acceptance. He blinked and took a step back, and Wes saw utter confusion overtake his face. "...Ma?"

Rui giggled from beside Wes. "This is so cute!"

It's cute until it isn't. Wes was still keeping a close eye on Nani. She growled whenever any of the Pokémon came too close, and stiffened as Novo cautiously approached the group, but so far she was behaving herself. Still, he didn't think it wouldn't take much for her to snap her jaws at any one of them.

Once greetings had more or less been exchanged, Rui helped Wes break out the food and sat beside him as the team ate. He took extra care to keep everyone apart as they are, just in case one of them had any food aggression; Novo, though now much calmer, had been a nightmare to deal with when he was a young Eevee, and Wes was not about to risk unpleasant exchanges with the newcomers.

While they waited, Rui pulled out Wes' P*DA. She'd asked to borrow it the night before, and ever since, she'd been obsessively searching all over the internet for any possible information on the Pokémons' afflictions, but so far her search had come up empty. Wes wasn't surprised at this, and even told her she was unlikely to find anything, but she insisted on searching nonetheless.

Once they were all set and returned to their Pokeballs, they rose to their feet. Rui slipped Wes' P*DA into their bag and hefted it onto her shoulder, and Wes spared the old thing a disdainful glance. Much as he disliked the idea of spending more money, he would probably need to get a new one. The old tote from Grogan was not at all suited for Training.

Rui was practically chomping at the bit to be on their way to the police station, so they quickly made their way into town. "Today's our first official day on the job! Isn't that so exciting?"

Wes grumbled. "Sure."

She scoffed. "Gee, Wes. I'm gonna have to ask you to turn down your enthusiasm a little."

He shot her a look. "Well, why are you so excited? I thought you hated the police, yet here you are, helping them out."

"That's exactly why I'm excited!" Rui beamed at him. Wes vaguely wondered if her face ever hurt from smiling so much. "You don't understand, Wes - I've had this gift of seeing aura all my life, and was always treated differently because of it. And now I've found a real use for it, a way that I can not only help Pokémon, but people, too." She turned her head back to the road in front of them. "And if I can help with this investigation...maybe I can prevent other Trainers from experiencing what I did. Maybe I can actually do something."

"So it sounds like you still don't have much confidence in the police's ability to get anything done," Wes remarked dryly.

Rui shrugged. "Well, to be honest, they don't seem confident, either. Why else would they be looking for volunteers? Still, at least they're trying to do something. It's more than what I expect-"

THUD.

She wasn't able to finish her thought, as at that exact moment, a blur rushed at them from a side alley and collided straight into her. Wes jumped, someone yelped, and Rui tumbled to the ground with a cry; when the dust settled, both she and a young boy on roller skates were sprawled in the dirt.

"What the hell-" Wes helped Rui to her feet and snapped at the boy, who was clumsily picking himself up off the pavement. "Watch where you're-"

"I-I'm so sorry!" Rui gasped. She brushed past Wes and approached the stranger. "Are you okay?"

...You're welcome, I guess.

"Y-yeah, I'm okay!" the boy grinned sheepishly at her. "Uh, real sorry miss, I guess I wasn't paying attention-"

Wes narrowed his eyes at him.

"No, no, it's alright, I'm not hurt or anything," Rui said kindly. "But you should be more careful, you might not be so lucky next time."

"Yeah, sure thing, miss! Uh, I gotta go, but thank you!" he flashed her another charming grin, then made to breeze past them both.

Wham.

Wes seized the boy by the collar and pinned him up against the wall near the alley.

Rui squawked in dismay. "Wes! What are you-"

"Give it back," Wes snarled.

The boy's eyes widened in fear. "I - I dunno what you're-"

"I wasn't born yesterday, kid. Give it back. Now."

A fire sparked in the boy's eyes. "You're crazy!" he spat.

"Wes, stop!" Rui shouted. She pulled hard at the back of his coat. "What is wrong with you?"

"You've got five seconds to hand it over before I make things difficult."

"I - I ain't -" The boy struggled weakly against Wes' grip, but was quickly realizing his efforts were futile. "Fine!" he snapped. "Just lemme go, okay?"

Wes released him, but remained tense and ready in case the boy tried to bolt. With a hateful scowl, the boy slipped Wes' P*DA from his pocket and thrust it out to him. "Here. Happy?"

Rui's eyes widened in shock. "What - how did-?"

"I'll let you go this time, but don't push your luck. Others won't let you get off so easily." Wes fixed the boy with a cold stare.

"Fine, then!" the boy bit back. "I didn't want your stupid P*DA, anyway!"

He straightened out his rumpled shirt, and Wes noticed his trembling fingers, the barely restrained tears in his eyes. The ripped and smudged clothes, the greasy hair, and the boy's thin frame were all a dead giveaway to his life on the streets.

The boy glared bravely up at him, and Wes heaved a small sigh.

Damn those sad, frightened eyes.

"Here." He thrust a handful of bills out to the boy. "It's not much, but it'll fetch you a good meal. And for Arceus' sake, don't target anybody you can't run from."

The boy stared in disbelief for a second before cautiously taking the money from Wes' hand. He glanced at it, then shot Wes a hateful look and spat out an obscene insult that made Rui gasp in horror. Before either of them could respond, he shot off like a rocket and disappeared around a corner.

Rui gaped after him, utterly speechless for a moment. "That was...something else," she said feebly.

Wes gave a resigned shrug. He took Rui by the arm and continued forward to their destination before answering.

"That's Pyrite for you."

Duking was already inside the station with Sherles when they arrived. Rui greeted him with a warm hello, which he returned. He did not acknowledge Wes, and Wes was perfectly fine with that.

"All settled in, I take it?" Sherles asked brightly. He briefly glanced at Wes with the tiniest hint of surprise in his expression. Wes wondered if he'd expected him to attempt to cut and run already.

"Oh, yes!" said Rui. "Duking's home and family are wonderful, aren't they, Wes?" She faced him with a smile. He noticed both Sherles and Duking glance at him.

"...It's nice," he said curtly.

Rui shot him a look, as if to ask, that's all you have to say? He ignored it.

"Well, that's good to hear," said Sherles as he straightened his uniform, "Now, let's get to business, then. If you'll follow me-"

"Oy, Chief!"

Wes heard the door burst open behind him with a shout only a split-second before something rammed into his back. He stumbled forward in surprise, then whipped around with a snarl. "The hell?"

He was face to face with a young, ginger-haired officer that looked to be close to his age. The officer stood tall in his navy uniform before saluting the Chief and continuing loudly, "Chief Sherles, sir! I'm here to give my report of this morning's-"

He broke off as he finally noticed Wes for the first time. He blinked, then greeted him with a bright smile. "Oh, hello! Who're you?"

"Johnson." Sherles narrowed his eyes as he addressed the officer. "You're late."

"Yes, sir, sorry, sir. Got held up by those kids again on my way here, they wanted to say hello to Frego and -"

"Johnson, if you're going to let those kids pet your damn Arcanine every morning, then leave earlier. No more excuses."

Johnson straightened and grinned wider. "Yes, boss!"

"Don't call me 'boss'. I'm your Chief."

"Sorry, boss."

Sherles sighed. Duking chortled in amusement.

Wes couldn't help but stare at the young officer in disbelief. Is this guy for real? The lopsided grin on his face reminded him of a dopey, idiotically happy Growlithe with their tongue lolling out of their mouth.

"Right, then. Johnson, this is Wesley Lycas and Rui Everlin, the volunteers for our savage Pokémon case I briefed you about yesterday evening."

"So you're our brave volunteers, then!" Johnson chirped cheerfully. He smiled at both Wes and Rui in turn. "A pleasure to meet you both!"

"You too, Officer Johnson!" Rui said warmly. When Wes didn't reply, she jabbed him in the ribs with her elbow.

He sighed. "Yes. A pleasure."

Mother of Arceus, I have to deal with too many damn people.

They filed into Sherles' office, and for the second time that morning, Wes forced himself to take a few deep breaths. The room was entirely too small for so many people, and the fact that Duking was large enough to fill the space for three individuals didn't help matters.

Sherles had pulled a few mismatched chairs into the room for everyone to take a seat; Wes made a point to choose the chair closest to the door. Rui pulled one back to sit beside him, to his mild annoyance.

"Well, no point in beating around the bush," Sherles said as soon as he'd taken his seat behind his desk. "We need to formulate a plan on how to go about this investigation."

"I thought you already had a plan, boss?" Johnson asked lightly. "That's why we got these two, right? Speaking of which," he grinned at Wes and gestured to the metal sleeve on his arm. "Is it really true that's a Snag Machine? And that you stole it?"

Wes eyed him warily. How much, he wondered, did this officer know? Did he know who he was, or had he been told the same cover story as Rui?

"Yeah, it's true," he said tersely.

That dopey smile spread wider across Johnson's face. "I guess you could say you snagged the Snag Machine, then. Heh. Snagged, get it?"

Wes stared at him. Sherles heaved a long-suffering sigh while Rui at least gave him a weak chuckle.

...Yeah, he has no idea.

Duking shook his head at Johnson, though he had a small hint of a smile showing under his mustache. "It's no wonder you and Silva get along so well."

Sherles cleared his throat, drawing everyone's attention back to him. "As I was saying," he said pointedly, "we have a plan, but the specific details have yet to be worked out. Namely, the details of how we intend to get these savage Pokémon away from their Trainers."

"But - I mean - don't you have the authority to seize Pokémon if you have proof of abuse or criminal conduct?" Rui asked with a frown.

"Oh, believe me, we've tried that route a handful of times," said Sherles. "Unfortunately, it has only served to slow us down. The moment an officer shows up with their badge, all suspects scatter and go into hiding for weeks, sometimes months. We haven't been able to get anywhere with that."

"Oh…" Rui looked down at her lap, brow furrowed in thought.

"Which is why we've come to this," Duking said. He shot a wary glance at the machine on Wes' arm. "We need to make progress on this case, and the only way to do so at this point is through...less orthodox means."

"Which is where you come in, right?" Johnson asked brightly as he turned to Wes.

Wes looked Sherles steadily in the eye as he answered. "Yes," he said slowly, "but we haven't gone over the details of how I'm supposed to Snag these Pokémon."

Johnson glanced between Wes and Sherles in confusion. "Well...with that thing, right?" He pointed at the Snag Machine.

Sherles rolled his eyes. "He means how we plan to get away with it. Which, to be frank, is the reason I've called you all here. I can't imagine any one of these Trainers will take kindly to having their Pokémon stolen from them, and it certainly wouldn't take long for word about your snagging to get around to the others."

"And then none of them will want to come within fifty feet of me," Wes remarked dryly.

Unless they're trying to kill me, which...wouldn't be unlikely.

"Precisely. Which begs the question: how we plan to move forward." Sherles looked at each of them, but nobody said anything for a moment.

"So we have to find a way to take these Pokémon from their Trainers without them noticing…" Johnson frowned at the Chief. "I don't think that's even possible, boss. No Trainer is going to just not notice someone's missing from their team."

"Oh, they'll notice eventually," Duking said as he rubbed his chin. "But if we can at least make sure they don't notice right away, and don't make any connections between that and Lycas…hmm."

Nobody spoke for a moment as everyone pondered the situation. Wes folded his arms and sat back in his seat, unsure of how they would find an answer.

I really wish they'd thought this through before blackmailing me, he thought bitterly. This might have all been for nothing.

He shot a glare at Sherles, but the Chief was looking down at his desk as he rubbed his temples. He spoke and acted like he was perpetually tired with a headache - which, if he was constantly having to work with the likes of Johnson, was probably true.

Wes glanced about the room as he rifled through his thoughts in search of a solution. Both Rui and Duking had focused expressions, evidently lost in thought. Johnson appeared focused as he looked at the bulletin board over Sherles' shoulder - wait, no. He was just distracted and looking at the wanted posters. Wes sighed and returned to his thoughts.

Stealing something without anybody noticing right away…

Wait.


"Pickpocket."

Everybody turned to Rui as she spoke. She was suddenly grinning widely, a gleam of mischief in her eyes. She turned to Wes, and he knew she was thinking the exact same thing he was.

"With all due respect, Miss Everlin, I don't think anybody here has the qualifications for that - except maybe you." Duking narrowed his eyes accusingly at Wes. "And you're too well known among those Trainers to get away with it."

"I am, but she's not talking about me." Wes looked at Rui, and before he even realized it, he was returning her mischievous grin with his own. He turned back to the others.

"We might know a kid…"

The late afternoon sun relentlessly showered its rays over the city of Pyrite. The old metal buildings absorbed and then amplified the heat, sending ripples through the air. It felt for all the world like the town was a dry, dusty oven.

Not that Wes was complaining; he'd grown used to the heat long ago. He did notice, however, that Rui was panting and frequently wiping sweat from her brow, even as they stood in the shade of a building next to the town square and observed the battles taking place.

She noticed him looking at her and shifted a little defensively. "Agate doesn't get this hot, okay?"

"I didn't say anything."

"Honestly, though, how are you not dying?" She threw a disbelieving look at Wes' coat. "That thing doesn't look light at all."

He shrugged. "It's common knowledge to keep yourself covered in the desert to protect from sunburn."

"Yeah, but is a heavy coat really necessary?"

"I'm used to it."

Rui shook her head at him. "You're crazy."

"Thanks, I'm flattered."

She snorted and turned her attention back to the square where two Trainers were preparing to start a battle. Wes folded his arms and leaned back against the wall. He had his reasons for never parting with the old, worn out coat, but he was not eager to share any details.

Light flashed from the square as the Trainers summoned their Pokémon; he threw Rui a sideways glance. "Anything?"

She shook her head and sighed. "Nothing. They're all normal." She slumped back against the wall dejectedly. "After seeing two at once yesterday, I thought there'd be a lot more."

"If Sherles' reports are accurate, then there's quite a few of them around here," said Wes. "We just have to figure out where they are."

He'd made a point to keep his Pokémon in their balls as they watched. Having a Pokémon by one's side was a common enough occurrence in Phenac, but in Pyrite, it was only an invitation for unwanted attention; at best, a Trainer wanting a battle, and at worst, Pokémon traffickers looking for new targets.

"What happens when we do find one?" Rui asked.

"Well, until we can find that kid again, we'll just make a note of who the Trainer is. Try to catch their name. But nothing much is going to happen until we can find our pickpocket."

"I barely even remember what he looks like," she said. "It all happened so fast."

"I remember. We'll find him." Wes heard Rui snort, and glanced at her to see her frowning at him.

"Yeah, I'm sure you got a good look when you pinned him against a wall and threatened him," she said dryly.

Wes scoffed at her in disbelief. "Are you seriously guilt tripping me right now? Over not letting him steal from us?"

"I'm just saying, you could have been a little gentler with the poor kid," Rui shot back. "You didn't have to put the fear of Arceus into him!"

"Yes, I did," Wes snapped. "All it takes is one failed attempt to get you killed around here. I was teaching him a lesson."

She looked at him with narrowed eyes for a moment before relaxing slightly. "All right, I'll take it. But for Mew's sake, Wes, you don't have to be so rough with people. Not everybody is out to get you."

He snorted and turned his head away. Of course she would believe that. She had yet to learn what he had as a small child: everyone was out to get something.

You know nothing about how the world works.

In a small, strange way, he almost envied her for that.

They sat in silence for a while as they watched the battle unfold. Wes had to admit he shared a little bit of Rui's sentiment; they'd been out here for hours, hoping to at least spot another strange Pokémon, but had had no such luck. He'd been under the impression that they were everywhere, but perhaps the other Trainers were more careful than the two they'd seen yesterday.

"Look who's back in town, hmmm?"

A silky feminine voice sounded from the street and broke through his thoughts. Wes turned to its source - and only barely managed to hold back a groan.

She sauntered up to him like a prowling Persian, hips and hair swaying from side to side as she moved. Her tight clothing accentuated her curves in all the right places, and her boots clicked against the dusty pavement with each step.

"Emok," Wes said flatly, "what do you want."

She came to a stop several inches too close for his liking and smirked at him, one hand on her hip. "Is that any way to greet me? I've missed seeing that handsome face of yours, you know."

"What do you want, Emok."

Emok laughed softly. "Oh, there's a number of things I'd want from you, darling." She reached out to his chest and traced the clasp of his coat with an idle finger. "But maybe a battle would do...for now."

She gave him a sultry, half-lidded look that nauseated him.

"Wes?" Rui spoke up uncertainly, frowning between the two of them. "Who is this?"

Emok raised an eyebrow at the redhead, apparently noticing Rui for the first time. She snorted and grinned back at the Snagger. "What are you doing around town with this wallflower?"

"Wallfl - EXCUSE me?" Rui spluttered angrily. "Just where do you get off calling me a wallflower?"

Emok tossed her a simpering smile. "Don't get too bent out of shape, sweetie." She stepped closer to Wes, bringing her face uncomfortably close to his as she addressed him again. "Surely you don't intend to keep this...little thing around for company?"

Wes scowled at her, but Rui broke in before he could reply.

"What, like you're better?" she spat. "He's far too good for you!"

Emok snapped her attention back to the redhead with a gleam in her eyes.

Mew help us all. Wes needed to do damage control, and fast, before things got too heated.

"Rui." He fixed her with a burning look. "Shut it."

Emok barked out a laugh. "'Rui'? Arceus, even your name sounds prissy."

"Oh, that's rich, coming from you!" Rui bit right back, blatantly ignoring Wes altogether. "What were you named for, the sound of a Meowth coughing up a hairball?"

Emok's eyes flashed; she stepped toward Rui with a snarl, hand reaching for a Pokeball on her belt.

Wes shoved Rui back and stepped between them. "Enough." Arceus above. Between Emok and Cail, it was like the redhead was trying to pick a fight with every stranger on the street. He glared at the Trainer in front of him. "Emok, I'll let you have your battle, but afterwards, you get to answer some questions for me."

There was still fire in her eyes, but she met Wes' gaze with a flirtatious grin nonetheless. "I'm flattered, sweetheart, but if you want to know more about me, buying me a drink will do just fine."

Rui snorted loudly from behind Wes' shoulder. He shot her a scathing look.

"Next battle, then," he said to Emok. The one in the square was winding down, its victor already apparent.

"Glad to hear it," she said smoothly. Her eyes flickered to the Pokeballs on his belt. "Oh, and don't think I didn't notice you've got some new additions. I'm excited to see them in action."

Oh. He hadn't thought about that. "They're too new," he said quickly. "I'm still getting them used to the team, so I don't plan on-"

"Are you holding out on me?" Emok narrowed her eyes and folded her arms. "You know how I hate the idea of someone going easy on me."

"That's not-"

"Don't patronize me, Lycas. If you want answers to your questions, then I want to see what you've got."

Rui snarled from behind him. "You little-!"

Wes threw an arm out in front of her to stop her from approaching Emok. He matched the Trainer's fiery gaze with his own. "Fine."

A sly smile curled over her lips. "Good," she purred. She jerked her head to the now empty battle square. "Shall we?"

Wes nodded, and she turned and strode over to her side of the ring. Rui spoke up in a hesitant murmur.

"Are you sure about this?" Her eyes flickered with worry. "You've seen how they can get in battle…"

"I'll call them off if it gets too heated," Wes replied as they walked to the yellow circle. "Worst case scenario, I'll have to forfeit and we still get to see what she knows."

"That's not the worst case scenario and you know it."

She had a point, and Wes didn't have a response to that. They'll be fine. This is worth the risk...hopefully.

Rui took her place outside of the ring, several paces away, but remained where Wes could see her out of the corner of his eye. If Emok had an unusual Pokémon, Rui would signal to him.

He locked eyes with Emok, two Pokeballs in hand. She gave him a curt nod, and they simultaneously sent out their Pokémon.

A Zubat and a Gulpin materialized across the ring. Novo shook hismself as he emerged, then pricked his ears forward at his opponents; Kohna glanced about, then pawed at the ground nervously when she caught sight of the other Pokémon.

Wes crouched and called them to him as Emok did the same with her team; it was a common practice to fill in one's team on what was happening before throwing them into battle without warning - though not every Trainer gave their Pokemon such courtesy.

Novo trotted up to Wes and affectionately bunted into his arm, which Wes returned with a chuckle and rub behind his ears. Kohna was slower to follow, continuously glancing over her shoulder at the opposing team.

"Kohna." The Quilava turned to Wes as he addressed her. "As you can tell, we're about to have a battle. I know this is your first time with me, but I promise if you just listen to what I tell you, you'll be okay. Alright?"

She fidgeted a little, her back leg twitched, but she nodded her head. "Qu-qu-qui…"

"Novo here will watch your back, and you should watch his, too. Work together and this will be easy." He glanced at the Zubat and Gulpin before returning to look at his Pokémon with a grin. "Too easy."

Novo kneaded the ground in excitement and let out a bark. "Umb!" Kohna sat up a little straighter.

He rose to his feet and found Emok and her team waiting for him. She placed a hand on her hip and tossed him her usual, seductive smirk. "Ready, sweetheart?"

"Don't call me that."

She laughed. "Ooh, you are fun to tease." A glint entered her eyes, and she shouted her first command. "Zazo, Supersonic that Quilava!"

"Novo!" Wes barked.

The Umbreon sprang into action and leaped in front of Kohna before launching his Swift attack. The starry rays smacked into Zubat and sent him tumbling through the air, knocking his Supersonic waves askew.

Another shout from across the arena, and Gulpin lurched forward, poisonous fluid bubbling from his mouth. Wes called to Kohna.

"Kohna, stop that Gulpin! Ember!"

Kohna looked back at Wes with wide eyes. "Quiii?"

He frowned at her. "You don't...know that move?"

She shook her head.

Novo yelped as Gulpin's Sludge grazed his side; he bravely held his own as he fought off both foes at once.

Wes clenched his teeth. They didn't have time for this. He'd never heard of a half-grown Fire Pokémon not knowing Ember; weren't half of them born knowing that?

"Right, ah, how about Scratch?"

Zubat dove for her. She scrambled out of his reach, just barely avoiding his Bite, before looking back at her Trainer in fear.

Not even Scratch? He threw out his last guess. "Tackle?" Surely even she would know -

"Qui…" Kohna whined and hunched low as she shook her head, flames sputtering sporadically, legs twitching.

Her terrified eyes looked up at him, and Wes realized she was not afraid of the attacking Pokémon - she was afraid of him.

"It's - it's alright, it's okay-" Except it wasn't okay; Novo was taking hit after hit from the Zubat as he targeted Gulpin, and even though the attacks were weak, he would surely be worn down soon enough.

Emok cackled from across the arena. "You weren't joking! Are you telling me your Quilava doesn't even know how to battle?"

But she did know how to battle, Wes had seen it. Back in Phenac, she'd been on a rampage, her Trainer letting her run wild. The only command he could remember hearing from them in that battle was -

He looked at Kohna again. "Shadow Rush?"

A spark entered her eyes. Her flames roared to life as her fur bristled, a snarl escaping her throat. At the very mention of the move, Kohna's entire demeanor transformed.

He had no idea what that meant, but he would take it for now. "Right - Shadow Rush Gulpin!"

She moved before he even finished his words. She lunged for the little green Pokémon, teeth and fangs flashing, then slammed into him with reckless, brutal force. Gulpin was sent rolling across the ring, but wasn't out of commission just yet.

Finally! Wes called for her to keep it up before shifting his attention to Novo, who was snapping in frustration at Zubat. The little bat's sporadic flying pattern was making him a difficult target to nail down.

"Dark Swift, Novo!"

"Briii!" Novo let out an enraged snarl before launching a Swift and Dark Pulse in rapid succession. Zubat flitted about to avoid the wave of blackness, but was unable to avoid the starry rays infused with Dark energy. He tumbled through the air again with an ear-splitting shriek.

A beam of light caught Wes' eye; Emok was returning her now unconscious Gulpin, muttering curses under her breath.

"Zazo! Supersonic Quilava!"

The Zubat dove for Kohna, narrowly avoiding Novo's jaws as he lunged for a Bite. Wes was about to give another command when Rui's voice broke through his focus.

"Wes! Kohna - call her off!"

"What?" he barked at her. "What are you-"

"Wes, there's something wrong with-!"

A bellow of rage cut her off, and Wes snapped his attention back to the battlefield.

Kohna was thrashing furiously in the dirt, kicking up a cloud of dust with each movement. Zubat flew at her, but Novo intervened and knocked him back with another Swift. Kohna staggered to her feet and raised her head.

Wes did not recognize her.

An unearthly rage gleamed in the Quilava's eyes; every muscle was taught, her flames raging higher than ever, her lips curling in a vicious snarl, revealing pointed fangs.

He made an effort to call out to her. "Kohna-"

She spat a massive ball of fire at the fluttering Zubat, striking him directly and ramming him into the dirt where he lay still.

So you do know fire moves.

But Kohna wasn't finished.

She breathed another jet of fire towards the motionless Zubat. Emok shouted and reached for her belt to return her Pokémon; Novo sprang forward and barely managed to deflect the flames with a Protect, giving her enough time get Zubat safely inside his Pokeball.

"Kohna!" Wes could hardly believe this transformation. This was not the terrified, timid Quilava of just a few moments ago.

He stepped into the ring to approach her, and heard Rui shriek behind him. "Wes, NO!"

Kohna was oblivious to Wes' presence, however. Instead, she turned to Novo -

And blasted him with fire.

Novo yelped shrilly as the force of the attack sent him rolling, his pelt badly singed. Wes swore vehemently. "Kohna, STOP!"

She didn't seem to hear him; she advanced on Novo as he struggled to his feet, breathed in to launch yet another assault -

"KOHNA!"

She froze.

In an instant, her demeanor changed yet again. Kohna blinked, her flames dying down as the muscles in her body relaxed. She looked about with apparent confusion - saw Novo, saw Wes running towards them. "Qui...Qui?"

Wes knelt beside his Umbreon to assess the damage. He let out a breath of relief upon seeing that it was nothing too serious; he would need a trip to healing machine and a Burn Heal on top of that, but he would be fine.

Novo leaned into his Trainer's arms, and Wes could feel him trembling. He clenched his jaw and returned him to his ball.

He rose to his feet and glanced over at Kohna, who cowered under his angry stare. "Kohna, what the hell was that!" Wes spat.

"Qu-qu-qu-"

"I'd like to know, too!" Emok stomped up to Wes, her face twisted with fury. "You trying to kill Zazo or something? Huh?!"

"I didn't tell her to do that, Emok-"

"She's your Pokémon!"

"And I told you she was new!" Wes bit back. "I didn't want to use her, if you remember!"

"Wes." Rui's hand on his arm startled him. He shot her a glare, but her eyes were on Kohna, who was now whimpering and curled into a ball.

Rui looked up at him with a saddened expression. "Return her," she said softly.

Despite his anger and Kohna's dangerous behavior, he couldn't help but feel a pang of pity for her. He nodded and quietly returned her. They would have to sort things out with her later.

"I'm not paying you!" Emok snarled. "You played dirty!"

"What?" Rui's voice sharpened. "He won fair and square before any of that stuff happened!"

"'That stuff'? Zazo was almost-!"

"Stop." The two fell silent as Wes pinched the bridge of his nose. "Look, Emok, I won't ask you to pay me. But I do need you to answer some questions for me." He raised his head and met her eyes. "Either you pay me and walk away, or you don't and you answer my questions."

She narrowed her eyes at him. Wes was acutely aware of the fact that she could walk away without giving him anything at all, and nothing short of threats would stop her.

"I'm sorry about Kohna," he said. "I really am."

Her face softened a little. She sighed. "I guess I did sort of force you into using her, but - I dunno what you're doing with a Pokémon like that, Lycas."

I don't know, either.

Emok folded her arms. "Here's the deal. I'll answer three questions for you, and then I'm out of here. Good enough?"

Rui looked like she wanted to argue, but Wes silenced her with a sharp glance. "Yes. Good enough," he said. He jerked his head to a nearby alleyway. "Let's talk somewhere less crowded."

Emok raised an eyebrow at that, but she didn't protest. "You lead the way, then."

He did just that, with Rui beside him. She said nothing, but the worried expression on her face mirrored his thoughts. His mind went back to her question from the previous evening.

How are we going to fix these Pokémon?

And though he hated to admit it, the question left him feeling utterly defeated.

I don't know.

Author's Notes:

Me: *promises that the plot will finally start picking up*

Also me: *publishes like 3 more slow chapters of introducing and establishing characters and plot*

Me: *sweats nervously*

Okay I'm sorry guys, I grossly underestimated how long it would take me to set up all of these new characters.
BUT! It is time well spent, and I do not regret it!

I do apologize if these last couple chapters have been a snooze fest for you, though. This story DOES have lots of action in store, so just hang in there and fasten your seatbelts!

Now for the semi-unfortunate news: I will be moving to a bi-weekly update schedule for now. I'm sorry to have to do this, but I feel that it's necessary. Since I'm behind, I don't want to feel rushed or pressured and risk losing the love and joy that I have for this story. Rather than risk burnout and crank out rushed chapters, I'm going to slow down my updates for now. Hopefully this will give me enough time to get ahead in the story so that I can return to weekly updates!

Aight, this A/N is getting stupid long, so I'm stopping things here. See you in two weeks! Stay safe, and for my fellow Americans, Happy Thanksgiving!
 
TW: This chapter contains depictions of child abuse that may be upsetting for some readers. Reader discretion is advised.

Chapter 12: Belonging


It hurt to breathe.

Not that Leo wasn't used to it; ugly bruises, bloody scrapes, and deep cuts had become a regular part of his daily life since he'd been recruited to the team. Most Snagem adults needed an "outlet" for their stress - or so they claimed, at least - and his small size had made him an easy target.

But today was different; today, he'd been targeted by none other than Gonzap himself.

It had all happened so fast; Gonzap was publicly berating him in front of several crew members over something minor - something that wasn't all that uncommon in and of itself. But then, without thinking, a snide comment had slipped from Leo's mouth the second his boss had turned his back.

He came to regret that decision very quickly.

He wasn't even sure how he'd managed to escape afterwards to his favorite hiding spot, a small crevice in the canyon wall a short distance behind the base. All he knew was that if he stayed in that building, beaten and weakened as he was, he would not survive much longer. Weakness was eagerly exploited by other Snagem kids who were desperate to rise through the ranks and ensure their own survival.

The second he staggered through the narrow opening into a wider, cave-like niche, he crumpled to the floor and his senses left him.

Had he been here for minutes or hours? He couldn't be sure. Time was nothing more than an agonizing blur as he drifted in and out of consciousness. Perhaps it wouldn't matter whether he'd stayed at the base or not; maybe he was going to die here anyway, alone in this miserable corner of the desert...

He tried to sit up, but the pain in his ribs was too great. He collapsed back to the ground and blacked out once more...

Water.

The next thing he knew, a bottle was being pressed against his parched lips, water trickling into his mouth. Leo gulped it down greedily, the cool liquid providing welcome relief to his dry and scratchy throat. How strange...where was this water coming from?

He forced open his eyes. Though his vision was hazy, he could just make out a figure of a dark-haired man hovering over him. With a jolt of terror, he recognized the Snagem uniform the stranger was wearing under his blue coat.

He shoved the water bottle away and tried to scramble out of the man's arms. Leo heard him yelp in surprise. "Woah!"

He didn't get far; after trying and failing to rise to his feet, he collapsed onto the sand once more, gasping through the white-hot pain in his chest. A hand rested on his shoulder, and Leo tried to flinch away from the touch.


"Easy there, kid." The man's voice was gentle. "I'm not here to hurt you, okay? Take it easy..."

The boy raised his head to glare weakly at the stranger. He then noticed a Sandslash sitting beside the man, and his panic rose even more.


"S-stay away!" he gasped.

"I'm trying to help you, kid," the man sighed. "I won't do nothin' to hurt you, swear to Arceus. Here." He held out the water bottle to the boy. "You're dehydrated. You need to drink."

Leo scowled at the bottle and pushed it away. "I don't...don't need...your
help-"

"Yes, you do. I don't blame you for wanting nothin' to do with me, but you won't make it out here if you don't let me help you. Please, kid."

His entire body was pulsing with pain, his mind felt fuzzy and unfocused, and he no longer had the strength to hold his head up. Leo slumped in defeat. "F-fine," he mumbled faintly.

The man gave a brief nod and a relieved smile. "Good...I know somewhere we can go that's safe, but I'll have to carry you. Just hang in there, alright?"

His voice sounded distant, as though it were fading away. Leo barely managed an incoherent murmur in response. He was dimly aware of being lifted up and hefted into the man's arms, and the resulting wave of pain plunged him into blackness.


"Just who the hell do you think you are?"

Gonzap's roars of rage haunted Leo's dreams. Every word was enunciated with another blow from his mighty fists.


"I'm going to tell you something, boy, and I'm only gonna say it once, so listen good."

His massive hand closed around the boy's throat and hauled him up into the air until his feet were off the floor. Gonzap leaned in, lips curled in a snarl, and the feeling of his breath in Leo's ear sent shivers down his spine even as he gasped for air.

"You always have been, and always will be, a worthless little scrap. You are nothing, you hear me? Nothing. Don't you ever forget it, Leo."

And he, Leo, never would.


"So, what's your name, kid?"

Leo narrowed his eyes at the man as he sat across from him and slowly worked alway at the sandwich he'd brought. He moved carefully so as not to aggravate his injuries; even several days later, sudden movements still caused his chest and head to flare up in pain. He was propped up in a sleeping bag against a rock near the cave wall, and had scarcely left his spot since being carried to the small, secluded cave.

The man watched him intently, waiting for an answer. Leo shifted a little uncomfortably, his many bandages crinkling as he moved. "M-my name's Leo-"


"No, kid. I mean your real name."

Leo stared. "But...that
is my real name."

"Is it?" His companion leaned back against the opposite cavern wall, folding his arms with a scowl. "Or is it the name Gonzap assigned you when he dragged you onto this Arceus-forsaken team?"

Leo had no idea how to answer that. Sure, Gonzap had given him his name on the day they'd picked him up off the streets of Pyrite, but he hadn't thought much of it. Every kid was given a new name once recruited to Snagem; that was just the way things were.

Rather than try to come up with a response, he frowned and shot back, "Well, what's
your name? You never told me."

The man chuckled. "You never asked." He held out a hand with a grin. "Name's Alden. At your service."

Leo slowly shook his hand in bewilderment. This man was so strange, so...
different from all the other grown-ups at the base, from the way he spoke to the manner in which he carried himself. He was kind, yet held an air of weary authority, as if he was both fully aware and tired of his own self.

Leo jumped a little at the sound of Alden's P*DA pinging. With a sigh, Alden pulled it from his pocket to check the message, then rose to his feet.


"Duty calls. I'll be back later tonight. I'll leave Flick here with you, so for the time being, just get some rest." At the mention of his Sandslash, he unleashed her from her Pokeball and she promptly curled up beside the boy.

"Can I go back yet?"

"Not just yet. Give it a few more days. And remember, nobody can know I helped you get back on your feet. Gonzap or Wakin will have my hide for being soft on you."

Leo blinked up at him. "But why?"

Alden looked away from him at that question. "Because...in their opinion, anybody who isn't strong enough to survive on their own has no place in Snagem. And people don't just
leave Snagem." He shot Leo a firm look. "Don't let that discourage you, though. You're a tough kid, I can see it. You'll make it far here, you just need a fair shot."

Alden glanced through the narrow cave opening to the darkening sky outside, then back at the boy. He then removed his coat and tossed it to him. "Here. That sleeping bag will keep you warm, but take this, too, just in case."

He slung his bag over his shoulder and made to leave. Leo situated himself into the warm fabric of the coat, then spoke up again. "Um, Alden?"

Alden glanced at him over his shoulder. "Yeah?"


"...Thanks."

Alden grinned at him. "No problem, kid." And with that, he left.

Leo glanced at Flick and reached out to stroke her fur, being careful to avoid the sharp spines along her back. Flick raised her head and chirped at him, then rested her head in his lap, which brought a smile to his face. He rubbed her ears and pondered the question he'd meant to ask Alden before he left.


Why help me, then?

Another morning, another breakfast filled with inane chatter, too many voices, and too many people. Even after several days in Duking's household, Wes remained just as uncomfortable as he'd been the first night they'd arrived.

I will never get used to this.

Not that that sentiment bothered him. The busy, messy kitchen that was always full of food, the cozy living room that held odd messes of homework papers and kids' games, the constant sound of laughter and conversation that could be heard from anywhere in the house...all of these signs practically screamed the same message to him, over and over: You don't belong here.

Wes was all too aware of this. After the stunt he'd pulled at Snagem, he didn't belong anywhere - which was just fine with him, he adamantly told himself.

He briefly glanced over his shoulder through the kitchen doorway and into the living room beyond, where his team was eating their breakfast. After a few days, Rui had convinced him to allow the new Pokémon out and about in the house as long as they were kept under a watchful eye. She claimed that their auras seemed calmer when spending down time outside of the Pokeballs, and insisted that having more time around people and other Pokémon would do them some good.

They were behaving well enough so far, though on more than one occasion he'd caught Nani eyeing the family Plusle, Plu, as though trying to determine if he was an appropriate snack size. Rui said he was just being paranoid, but Wes trusted the Croconaw about as far as he could throw her - in other words, not at all, considering she'd bite his arms off first.

Silva and Duking were absent this morning on account of managing something at the Colosseum. Rui was gone, too, saying something about an errand she needed to run with Johnson's wife, Lyvia. The two girls had only met a few days ago when Johnson and Lyvia came over for dinner, and they had wasted no time at all in forging a new friendship.

Not that any of that mattered to Wes; to him, she was simply another person he was forced to deal with on the regular. He was beginning to think the madness of constant socializing was never going to end.

Despite his relief at having less people at the table this time around, however, he was acutely aware of Rui's absence this morning. She often chatted enough for the both of them, and Wes hadn't realized how much he'd relied on her being somewhat of a buffer between him and unwanted conversation.

"Hey, Wes, tell us about Neo and Novo's evolution stories!" Megg said. She, Marci, Secc, and Nett were gathered at their usual place at the end of the table.

"Oh, this should be fun!" Johnson, who sat directly across from him, chimed in with a wide grin, looking just as excited as the kids did. Wes looked at that childlike expression and heaved a quiet sigh.

Why are you here, again?

He shrugged and returned his attention to his scrambled eggs. "There's not much to tell, honestly."

"Aw, come on!" Wes didn't need to look up from his plate to know Marci was giving him her best pouting face. "There's gotta be something. How did Neo evolve?"

Wes took a bite and replied in a deadpan tone. "He fell out of a tree."

Johnson barked out a laugh as the kids burst into giggles. "Now that's a story. What happened?"

"That's it, that's what happened. He ran up a tree, fell out, and evolved."

"But was that all?" Nett asked with a small frown. "I thought there was usually a trigger that made Pokémon evolve."

Wes merely shrugged again. "Probably got a rush from falling down, I suppose. That's all that happened."

Secc was the one to speak up this time. "What about Novo?"

Wes paused and shot another glance at his team over his shoulder; Novo had finished his meal already and was now playfully tussling with Neo while Kohna and Nani watched with varying expressions, Kohna looking faintly terrified and Nani looking disdainful. Maku was perched atop the living room couch and gazing out the large front window, something Wes caught him doing rather frequently.

He watched the Umbreon wrestle with his brother for a moment before turning back to the table. The circumstances behind the Novo's evolution had been...less than pleasant.

"He evolved in a fight," he said carefully.

"Ooh, a mid-battle evolution!" Johnson exclaimed. "Always wanted to see one of those."

I didn't say it was a battle. Wes didn't bother to correct him, however. It would be easier to let them go along with that.

Marci bobbed up and down in her seat. "Tell us about the battle!"

...Great.

Mercifully, Wes was saved from having to invent a story on the spot by the sound of the kitchen entry door bursting open.

"Good morning, everyone!" Lyvia said cheerfully as she entered the room with Rui in tow. She smiled at the kids as they returned her greeting, then moved to take a seat beside her husband.

Wes was still trying to wrap his mind around the fact that a man as clueless as Johnson was able to find someone to romance, let alone marry. He'd wondered if Lyvia was just as odd and naive as the officer was - but she, remarkably, was quite normal, and even good-looking, to boot. Her short, curly black hair framed her kind, round face, her smile was remarkably warm and genuine, and she greeted everyone with a friendly wave, not unlike Rui.

...Perhaps she was a little naive, then, Wes thought. Anybody who could be so carelessly friendly to random strangers on the street had to be, to some extent.

Lyvia scooted awkwardly through the crowded kitchen; it was already difficult for a regular person to get around in such a small space with so many people, let alone someone as pregnant as she was. After a few mumbled apologies and Megg and Secc scooting their chairs in as close as possible, she was able to settle in beside Johnson with a weary laugh.

"I tell you, some days I think this baby can't come soon enough!" she breathed.

"Well, tell her to wait a little longer, it's not time yet," Johnson replied with a wide grin before greeting her with a kiss.

Rui stepped further into the kitchen and threw Wes a particularly bright grin, which immediately raised his suspicions.

"What?" he asked.

"We have a surprise for you!" she said. She and Lyvia exchanged a knowing look before she pulled something from her shopping bag and tossed it to him across the table. "Ta-da!"

Wes stared at the object in his hands. It was a Training bag - and a nice one, at that. The sleek black and white design was one thing, but he could tell from the material that this was not just an ordinary bag; it was specifically created with capsule technology, a highly sought-after feature that allowed items to be stored in massive quantities.

"Oooh, is that a Trainer bag?" Marci gasped from her end of the table. All the kids leaned in for a closer look, eyes wide.

He looked up at Rui in shock. "Where did you get this?" More importantly, how did you afford this?

"Pyrite's got some good wares if you know where to look!" said Lyvia brightly. She must have read the expression on Wes' face, as she quickly added, "And don't worry about the cost. It's mine and Johnson's treat."

Wes stared at them both, faintly mortified. "What?"

"It was Johnson's idea," Rui said. "He noticed the bag we've been using wasn't...well...made for Training, and he insisted on getting you a new one."

Wes looked between her and the officer, hoping that at least one of them was joking.

"I can't accept this."

Johnson laughed and waved a hand. "Of course you can! Consider it a thank you for volunteering for this mission. No average person would be so willing to do that for us."

But I'm not a volunteer, I didn't sign up for this, I'm not…I don't...

Something incredibly heavy and unpleasant weighed in Wes' chest, making him feel as though he might sink through the floor. It pulled at him from the inside like a dull, persistent ache, twisting his stomach into knots, and felt remarkably like…

Guilt.

"I can't take this. Really. I don't deserve it."

Rui laughed. "Stop being so modest and just accept the gift already!" She sat in the empty seat beside him and began dishing her plate. "Besides, you need it. That old tote was ready to fall to pieces if someone so much as looked at it the wrong way."

She did have a point there, but it didn't serve to make Wes any less uncomfortable. "I - I don't-" he looked back up at Johnson and Lyvia. "Are you sure about this?"

"Absolutely! With your help, we actually have a chance of getting somewhere in this investigation." Johnson grinned wider. "You could say we'll...have it in the bag."

Secc snorted into his hashbrowns. Megg and Marci giggled while Nett slowly shook his head. Lyvia rolled her eyes and addressed her husband with a sigh, though her face still held a small smile. "Are you telling me that the entire reason you wanted to give the bag to Wes was so you could make that joke?"

He smiled at her. "Might have been part of the reason."

An agitated bark from the living room interrupted the conversation; Neo was bouncing playfully around Nani as she snapped at him in a rage, his paws just barely dancing out of reach of her furious jaws. Novo yapped at him in distress, glancing from his brother to Wes in a plea for intervention.

Despite the sigh that escaped him as he quickly rose from the table, Wes was grateful for the excuse to leave. Once again, the thought that played through his brain in a constant loop was brought to the forefront of his mind.

I don't belong here.

"I did good, didn't I?"

Rui grinned at Wes as they made their way through town to continue their search for their pickpocket, Neo weaving between them and Novo trotting faithfully beside his Trainer.

Even after several days of searching, they'd been unable to find much of anything in terms of the boy or strange Pokémon. Their only stroke of luck had occurred a few days prior, when Rui managed to spot the Flaaffy's Trainer in another part of town - but without a means to steal her Pokémon, Wes found no point in challenging the Trainer.

Wes glanced at Rui, caught off guard by her sudden remark. "Did good on what?"

"On the bag! I picked it out, you know. I may not know much about Training, but I know capsule technology when I see it."

Wes tried to ignore the knot in his stomach at the mention of the bag; he hated to even look at the thing, but he couldn't very well refuse to use it without looking ungrateful or raising suspicion. Instead, he attempted to divert the conversation away from it.

"I'm surprised that you do, considering you couldn't even tell the difference between Pokeballs back at the Outskirt Stand," he said dryly.

She scowled at him. "Hey, I'm not a Trainer, okay? Besides, it's not like I had a reason to know the difference between Pokeballs. That was the first time Papi has needed any for a long time."

"I'm surprised he needed any at all," Wes said. He suppressed a grumble at the mention of Rui's grandfather; this whole mess could be boiled down to the fact that he'd sent his granddaughter on an errand for some stupid Pokeballs, and for what reason? "You said he was teaching the village kids how to catch Pokémon?"

"Yes!" Rui said brightly. "Oh, and when I spoke to him the other day, he said they actually spotted some Oddish in the forest! So the rumors were true! Wild Pokémon are coming back to Orre!"

Wes looked at her in amazement. He hadn't expected to hear that, but his attention was primarily focused on another part of her statement.

"Forest?"

"Mm-hmm." Rui nodded and clasped her hands behind her back, her boots kicking up small clouds of dust off the pavement as she walked. "My village is right at the edge of Agate Forest. It's a beautiful place."

"There are forests in Orre?"

Rui shot him a look of mild surprise, and Wes realized just how much shock he'd been displaying in his tone - but he couldn't help it. He'd scarcely seen any trees in Orre, let alone a whole forest. He'd thought he would only ever get the privilege of seeing such a thing once (well, if) he ever made it to Johto.

"As far as I know, there's just the one that I grew up in," Rui said. "But it's pretty sizable! Are you telling me you've never seen a forest? Ever?"

Wes shook his head.

She beamed at him. "Well, that settles it, then! You have to come visit my hometown. I can show you all of my favorite places, and take you to the best waterfalls!"

"Waterfalls?" Wes' mind was positively bursting now. Since when did Orre have any of these things?

He was pulled out of his bewilderment by the sound of Rui laughing. He blinked at her, utterly nonplussed. What was so funny?

"S-sorry!" Rui giggled, shaking her head. "I've just never seen someone so amazed at the idea of trees and waterfalls!" She smirked at him. "It's rather adorable."

Adorable? Adorable? Wes stared at her. "I didn't - I don't - what's that supposed to-?"

Rui laughed again, even harder this time. "Merciful Arceus, you are so easy to tease!"

Wes broke into a scowl. "Stop it."

Rui raised a hand to her mouth in an effort to stop laughing, but only managed to snort instead.

"Alright, I'm leaving you behind." Damn it. Why did his face feel so warm?

"Wa-wait! Don't be like that!" Rui jogged to keep up with him as he significantly increased his pace, and grabbed his sleeve, still failing to stifle her laughter. "I'll lay off, okay? I was just messing with you, you Grumpig."

"I am not a-" Wes broke off with a huff. "Whatever."

In the corner of his eye, he saw Rui bite her lip to hold in her laughter.

You're lucky I didn't leave you in that damn sack in Phenac.

He refocused his attention on the alleyways they passed by, scanning for any sight of the boy. They'd visited the places Emok had suggested several times already, but Rui insisted on checking again at different times of the day, just in case.

Wes reflected on what precious little information Emok had given them regarding savage Pokemon several days ago.

"Well, they're definitely being distributed, but I couldn't begin to tell you where from or who's responsible," Emok had said as she folded her arms and leaned against the alley wall across from him.

"Then how do you know they're being distributed?" he asked.

"A hunch. But a solid one." She idly looked at her painted nails as she spoke. "I've asked a few Trainers here and there, as I wouldn't mind getting one for myself, but not one of them would give me a straight answer. Whoever is giving out those Pokémon is taking solid measures to make sure nothing gets traced back to them." Emok looked back up at Wes with a smirk. "That's two questions, by the way. You've only got one more."

"I'm aware," Wes said coldly.

"Funny you should be asking me about these Pokémon when you seem to have one yourself. Where'd you get that psycho Quilava, again?"

"I'm the one asking the questions."

"Alright, easy." Emok raised her hands in a gesture of submission. "No need to get testy, sweetheart."

Rui gave a snort of disgust from beside him. She threw Wes a sideways glance, and he knew they were both thinking the same thing: they weren't going to get much more from her.

"Right, then." He turned back to her. "Last question, do you know a blonde kid on roller skates that lurks around here? Had a bandana in his hair."

She folded her arms and raised an eyebrow. "Are you really asking me if I know one scraggly brat from another around here? They all look the same to me. And I don't exactly spend my time on street scraps." She slipped him a sultry wink. "I've got bigger fish to fry."

"You're really despicable, you know that?" Rui took a step forward, bristling, but Wes threw an a out in front of her to keep her at bay.

"Any idea where a kid like him might hang out, at least?" he said briskly.

Emok shrugged. "Could always check some of the abandoned lots at the edge of town. I see groups of em there sometimes...oh, and that creepy lady's place - what was her name? She's the one that thinks she's some sorta witch or something. Fortune seeing and all that crap."

Wes frowned at her. "Fateen?"

"Yeah, that's the one. I see kids hanging around her hut at odd times. Don't ask me why, though. She's a crazy old Golbat if I've ever seen one."

That was odd, he thought. As far as he knew, Fateen was the town's self proclaimed Psychic, and frequently offered readings and other odd services to Trainers as they passed by her door. Wes had never bothered to learn more about her, and often steered clear of her hut whenever possible - he, like many others, found the old woman's presence rather off-putting.

"Right. Thanks for your help." He nodded to Rui, and the two made to leave.

"Wes?" Emok called from behind him. He paused to glance back at her, and was mildly surprised to find that she didn't have her usual mocking or flirtatious expression; instead, she wore a small frown.

"I don't know what you're doing asking these questions, and quite frankly, I don't want to know. Just...be careful, alright? Anybody who can keep that many Trainers quiet has got to have some real power under their belt."

She had a point there - not that Wes hadn't considered this himself. He simply gave her a curt nod and tried to ignore the foreboding prickle that traveled down his spine. "Thanks."

And with that, they had left.

"Hey, Wes, look!" Rui's quiet gasp pulled him back to the present, and she raised an arm to point at the oddly colored hut down the street.

He followed her gaze and spotted a small cluster of kids milling around the back of Fateen's multi-colored hut. Their heads were ducked low, and they appeared to be speaking to one another in whispers, glancing about furtively as though afraid of being discovered.

"Emok was right," he said in surprise. He hadn't actually expected her tips to be of any help.

"What are they doing?" Rui murmured as she squinted at the scene.

That was a good question. On closer inspection, he realized the kids were actually standing in a line of some sort. They were ducking in and out of the tent, and once one reappeared, they quietly slipped behind a nearby building and out of sight. Fateen herself was nowhere to be seen.

"Think she might be smuggling something to them?" Rui asked with a frown.

"It sure looks like it." But what, exactly, was she peddling off to them? Not more unhinged Pokémon, surely? He glanced at Rui. "Only one way to find out."

They carefully made their way across the street towards the hut. As they came close, Wes addressed Rui again in a low voice.

"Alright, we have to be discreet about this. If we're too direct or raise their suspicions, they'll scatter and-"

Rui, however, wasn't listening. She stepped up to the group with a smile and a friendly wave. "Hello!"

Dammit, Rui -

The kids froze, all eyes on her, then exchanged nervous glances before one of them in the center stood up and spoke. "What do you-?"

He froze as he recognized her, eyes wide. "Aw, hell!"

"Oh, it's you!" Rui exclaimed.

Wes stepped forward before she could damage things further and addressed the boy. "Look, kid, we don't want any troub-"

The boy bolted into the tent.

Wes bit out a curse and tore after him, Neo hot on his heels; he shouted for Novo to stay with Rui as the rest of the kids yelled and scattered and he heard Rui shout his name behind him, but his sole focus was on the boy scrambling through the inside of the hut.

The tent itself was full to the brim with colorful fabrics draping across every surface and shelves adorned with a wide variety of strange and colorful objects, from crystals to sparkling beads to jars of herbs. The boy nearly slammed into a tiny woman stocking the shelves, causing her to squawk and topple over in fright; Wes saw him fixate on one overstocked shelf near the front exit.

Oh, don't you dare -

He dared.

A deafening CRASH rang in Wes' ears as the boy ripped the shelf from the wall and sent it careening to the floor behind him. The woman behind Wes yowled a stream of profanities as Wes attempted to plow through the wreckage and slipped on a smattering of beads. He tried and failed to catch himself and slammed to the floor instead, glass shards slicing at his palms through his gloves.

"Dammit-" he snarled. "Neo!"

"Esp!"

Neo pulled ahead and sailed over the debris in a single, graceful bound. He landed deftly in the sunlight just beyond the tent's opening, then darted out of sight in the direction the boy had fled.

Wes pushed himself up off the floor and burst through the opening flap, then pelted after his Espeon, the woman's shouts continuing from within the hut.

He caught a glimpse of Neo's tail whipping out of sight around a corner and down a narrow alleyway; Wes sprinted past it and down the next alley, calculating where the boy would go next. The kid obviously had experience running from danger and was well aware of which routes to take - but two could play at this game, and Wes was no novice himself.

Having a Psychic Pokémon certainly didn't hurt matters, either.

He blew past a cluster of dusty Trainers hunched low in the shadows; they yelped and leaped back as he ran past, but Wes paid them no mind. He skidded around another corner and caught a flash of blond hair disappearing behind a nearby building.

Perfect.

Wes slowed his pace, allowing himself time to catch his breath, then made his way behind the building. Even before the empty lot came into view, he could hear the boy's angry shouts.

He was suspended in the air, encased in a blue bubble of Psychic energy, thrashing and snarling as Neo yapped and bounced around beneath him in a springy sort of victory dance. "Esp! Esp! Esp!"

Wes gave a breathless grin as he walked up to the chaotic scene. Neo caught sight of his Trainer and barked triumphantly, tail waving proudly in the air. The Espeon trotted up to him and was rewarded with a rub behind the ears.

"Good job, buddy," he breathed.

"Put me down!" the boy howled. "Put me down NOW!"

Wes looked up at him. "Look, kid, I'm not here to hurt you-"

"I DON'T CARE!"

He was frantic, struggling desperately despite how futile his escape attempts were. Wes heaved a sigh.

"Swear to me you won't run and I'll let you down."

"I do! I swear!"

"Alright, then." Wes nodded to Neo, and the Espeon's eyes glowed. The boy was lowered to the ground and the blue bubble vanished.

There was a brief pause in which he glared daggers at both Wes and Neo. He opened his mouth as though to say something - and then made a break for it.

"Spi!"

The bubble was back around him in an instant. The boy flailed and snarled in fury, spitting one obscenity after another.

"What did I just say about running?" Wes snapped.

"I'M SORRY, OKAY?" the kid bellowed. "If this is about the other day, then I'm sorry! And I didn't take nothin' else, I swear!"

"That's not what-"

"If ya want money, I don't got none!"

"I'm not here for-"

"Wes!"

Rui staggered into view, clutching her chest and gasping for air, Novo padding beside her; unlike Rui, the Umbreon appeared rather bored with the whole affair, and showcased this by sitting idly at Wes' feet and stretching his jaws into a wide yawn.

Rui leaned forward with her hands on her knees for a moment to catch her breath before straightening up. An expression of horror filled her face as she took in the scene.

"What are you doing?!"

"He ran. I stopped him," Wes said curtly.

"For Mew's sake, Wes! Put him down!"

"Not until he hears us out."

"Shut up! I don't care what you want, I ain't helping you!" the kid spat.

Wes snapped his attention back to him with a growl, but before he could respond, Rui shoved herself between them and addressed his hostage in a gentle tone.

"I'm sorry about this, I really am. We just wanted to talk to you, I promise."

"I got nothin' to say to you, lady!"

Rui sighed and shot Wes a glare. "Put him down."

He scoffed at her. "He's just going to-"

"Now."

They glared at each other for a moment, then Wes relented with a venomous grumble. "Fine."

He signaled to Neo, and the bubble burst once again - this time dropping the boy to the ground with a yelp and a hard thud.

"Wes!"

"What?"

Rui looked as though she wanted nothing more than to throttle him. Instead, she settled for throwing Wes a murderous scowl before turning back to the boy and offering her hand. "Here. Let me help you."

He jerked away from her. "Don't touch me!"

She retracted her hand and knelt in front of him, undeterred by his rudeness. "We're not going to hurt you, I promise. Can you tell us your name?"

"Like hell I'm gonna tell you!"

Wes massaged his temples in frustration; this was going nowhere. He stepped up beside Rui, pulled a few bills from his pocket, and thrust them out to the boy. "Just hear us out. Alright?"

The kid eyed him warily, glancing between him and Rui, then reached out to take the money, but Wes jerked his hand back at the last second. "You can have this after you listen."

His face melted into a scowl. "Fine."

Rui offered again to help him to his feet, but he ignored her outstretched hand and pushed himself up, dusting the dirt from his clothes - not that it did much. His baggy shirt and shorts were so ragged, dirty, and torn, Wes was convinced not even a wash would make much of a difference.

"Right. Tell us your name, kid."

He took a moment to answer, as though holding out in a small attempt to spite him. He finally bit out a reply. "Lon."

Rui gave him another kind smile. "That's a nice name. I'm Rui, and this guy here-" she jerked her head to her companion with a note of annoyance, "is Wes. Sorry he's such a jerk."

Wes shot her a withering look. He was about to remind her that this whole fiasco was her fault for not listening to him, but if Rui caught his glare, she ignored it and continued.

"We've been looking for you because we want your help," Rui said. She clasped her hands behind her back and maintained her friendly smile, and Wes witnessed Lon's tense features relax slightly. If he weren't so frustrated with her at the moment, Wes might have been a little impressed at her ability to disarm the kid. Maybe.

Lon folded his arms and frowned at them both. "Help? With what? And what's in it for me?"

Wes chose to answer this one. "A place to stay and three square meals a day for your pickpocketing services."

Lon's eyes widened in disbelief for half a second - then he snorted and shook his head. "Nawww. You ain't serious."

"We are serious." Wes shifted his stance a little, and the movement was enough to make the boy flinch. He paused at the sight, and forced a softer air into his tone. "What we need is someone with your skills for a long term operation. If you cooperate with us, we'll make sure you have a roof over your head, a bed to sleep in, and food to eat. You have our word on that."

The boy fixed him with a flat stare. "How am I supposed to know you ain't lyin'?"

"Look, we won't force you if you don't want to." Wes returned Lon's steady gaze. "The way I see it, you have nothing to lose, here. Either you don't come with us and you go back to your life on the streets, or you come with us and have a safe place to stay."

That statement finally seemed to get through to him. Lon blinked, then furrowed his brow as he looked between Wes and Rui once again.

"...My team, too?" he asked quietly.

Wes frowned at him. "You have a team?" He hadn't noticed a belt or any Pokeballs on the boy.

Lon shifted a little and shoved his hands in his pockets. "Yeah. I got three. An' I ain't goin anywhere without 'em."

Wes found himself glancing downward at Neo and Novo, both of whom had placed themselves loyally at his feet on either side. He hadn't expected the kid to have Pokémon of his own, but he was certain that Duking would be able to help out with that. In any case, the boy wouldn't be accepting their offer if his Pokémon weren't included, and Wes could hardly blame him.

He looked back up at him. "Yes. Your team, too."

Lon chewed his lip for a moment as he thought it over. "Okay," he said slowly. "I'm in. I think."

Rui beamed at him. "I'm so glad! I promise we'll take good care of you!"

Lon looked at Wes expectantly; he handed the money over and a small grin took over the boy's face. "Are y'all really for real?"

Rui laughed. "Yes. Really for real."

The tiny flicker of joy in Lon's eyes was not lost on Wes. Despite his annoyance at the kid's stubbornness, he couldn't help but feel a tiny prickle of warmth. He may have had his issues with Duking and some of the man's methods, but there was no doubt that the kid and his team would be in good hands under his roof.

Lon looked at the bills in his hands with an expression of awe and disbelief. When he looked back up at them again, his face was positively shining with excitement.

"So, whaddya want me to do?"

It seemed that, after several days of fruitless searching, their luck had taken a sharp turn for the better all in one day.

Lon stared up at Wes, eyes wide in horror. "You're kiddin' me."

They stood at the outer edges of the Battle Square, observing the battles taking place. They hadn't been there long before Rui pointed out a semi-familiar face watching the scene from the other side of the street: the Noctowl's Trainer from their first day in Pyrite.

Wes glanced at the boy. "Time to put your skills to the test, kid."

"Are you serious? You want me to - to-" he glanced around warily before lowering his voice. "Steal his Pokémon?"

"Not just any of his Pokémon. He's got a Noctowl we're after, so pay attention to which ball it's in. When the battle's over, I need you to snatch it from him."

Lon glanced between him and Rui, positively thunderstruck.

"Who the hell are you people?"

...That's a good question.

Rui gave a weak laugh. "I know how it looks, but I promise we have a good reason for this. We'll explain everything later, okay?"

Lon gave her a long, studious stare before relaxing his shoulders a little. "Okay," he said slowly, "if you say so…"

Wes glanced briefly at Rui, and for the second time today, he found himself mildly impressed by her ability to charm wary strangers. Had she not been so naive and pure, such a talent would be a dangerous weapon.

"So…" Lon turned back to Wes. "You gonna battle him, then?"

"Sure am."

Lon didn't respond right away, but Wes caught the gleam of excitement in his eyes all the same. He couldn't help but feel a little eager himself; battling gave him a thrill that he could find scarcely anywhere else…

Aside from Snagging.

No!
He shoved that thought away with a bolt of anger. You're not a Snagger. You are not one of them. Not anymore -

That low, gravelly snarl whispered in his ear again. Are you sure about that?

Wes clenched his teeth. Screw you! Get out of my head!

Once a thief, always a thief, boy,
the voice hissed. That's all you ever will be, and that's all anybody will ever see.

Snarling under his breath, Wes pushed himself off the wall behind him and marched across the street towards his selected opponent. Neo and Novo followed suit, and a concerned chirp from his Umbreon met his hears. "Bri? Umbri?"

The Noctowl's Trainer looked up as Wes approached. His eyes flickered over the Eeveelutions trotting at Wes' side, then back up at him. He raised an eyebrow.

"I take it you wanna battle?" he asked in a slow, drawling voice.

"I do," Wes said curtly.

The man smirked. Wes took a brief moment to take in his appearance in case Lon should fail in his thieving attempt; he had short, spiky brown hair and impressive sideburns curling down his face. His leather boots and jacket were coated in a thin layer of dust, a sign of how much time he spent in the outdoors and on the streets of Pyrite. His stony facial features made him look older at first glance, though on closer inspection he didn't look much older than thirty or so.

"You so cocky you had to show off your Pokémon before we even started?" he asked.

"Yeah. Sure." Wes wasn't interested in conversation; the sooner they could start this battle, the sooner he could more easily ignore that voice inside his head.

The man barked out a laugh and extended his hand. "Name's Nover. I'll take ya up on that challenge. Next battle, then?"

He shook the man's hand. "Wes. And yes."

Several minutes later, he stood in the ring across from Nover, having recalled Novo to his ball. Wes knew he was taking a risk by using one of the newer additions to his team, but after coaching them through several training sessions in the abandoned lot at the edge of town, he was feeling more confident. At the very least, he'd managed to avoid outbursts like Kohna had had in their battle against Emok, which had to count for something - although, oddly, none of them seemed to know any moves beyond Shadow Rush, which he and Rui had both found a little concerning.

As Wes called Neo close and prepared to send out his second Pokémon, he caught a glimpse of Lon retreating to the shadows in the corner of his eye; he had instructed the kid to keep his distance from him and Rui whenever possible, to prevent himself from being associated with Wes' battles, and to keep a low profile as much as he could. Not that he needed instruction on the last bit; any street kid knew all about trying to go as unnoticed as possible.

Wes sent out Nani as Nover unleashed his two Pokémon: a Ledyba and a Wingull. The two Trainers crouched to address their Pokémon.

"Right, Nani, this is your first official battle with me, so be sure to listen carefully, alright?"

The Croconaw leered at him, and Wes began to wonder if he hadn't made a huge mistake in choosing her. Of all his Pokémon, Nani was far and away the most difficult for him to manage; while Maku was compliant and Kohna was eager to please, Nani had made it clear that she would rather call her own shots, thank you very much. Wes had usually managed to coax her into cooperating with him, but only just by the skin of his teeth, and he had a suspicion her cooperation was more out of boredom than it was out of respect.

"Nani, Neo's got a disadvantage against the Ledyba, so focus all of your attention on them. Neo will take care of Wingull, and then together you can work on his Noctowl. Sound good?"

Neo chirped. "Esp!" Nani narrowed her eyes and merely snorted at him.

...I really hope that was a yes.

Wes stood, and the two took their place inside the ring. Nani's eyes lit up at the sight of her opponents, and she snapped her jaws at them with a ferocious snarl, tail lashing in the dirt.

Nover shouted the first command. "Silver wind! Wing attack!"

"Psybeam, Neo! Shadow Rush!"

Neo leaped gracefully to side and avoided the Ledyba's silvery gust with ease; he spat a colorful ray of Psychic energy at the Wingull, but missed as the bird dodged at the last second. Her wings flapped furiously as she dove from the air to ram Neo with a Wing Attack - only to be bowled over by a bellowing, raging Nani.

Wingull let out a squawk as Nani's Shadow Rush forced her to the ground. She struggled to rise, only to be rammed again with another Shadow Rush.

"Wh - Nani!" Wes barked. "The Ledyba!"

Too late. Neo, distracted and confused by Nani's sudden change of plans, was not prepared for the Ledyba's next attack.

Wham!

The Espeon's shrill yelp of pain pierced the air as he took a Comet Punch to the side and was blasted off his paws.

Wes cursed under his breath. "Neo, Confusion! Nani, lay off the Wingull-"

But there was no need; Nani had already hammered the poor thing senseless. She stood proudly over her fallen victim, tipping her head back and snapping her jaws in the air in a show of victory. Nover hastily returned his Pokémon with a grumble, frowning at the Croconaw's antics.

Neo staggered to his paws and attempted to launch a Confusion at his rapidly advancing foe, but only managed a weak hit before the Bug Pokémon buried him in a Silver Wind.

"Shadow Rush!"

Nani seemed to have very suddenly and conveniently regained her hearing. Instead of rushing to Neo's aid, however, she took her time in swaggering over to her teammate, chest puffed outwards in some sort of display of bravado. Neo deflected another attack with a Protect, then finally managed to nail Ledyba with a powerful Psybeam, sending him tumbling through the air in a daze. The Espeon took advantage of the brief reprieve to shake the dirt from his pelt and regain his bearings.

At long last, Nani seized her opportunity. She sprang upward and managed to latch her claws onto one of Ledyba's feet, then hurled him into the ground much like she did with her previous opponent. She sprang forward to ram him with a Shadow Rush -

A flurry of brown feathers and an ear-splitting screech; Nani was thrown backwards as Nover's Noctowl came into play. She bellowed in rage and was back on her feet in an instant, lunging at the massive bird with a murderous snarl.

Damn. Wes had been so busy assessing Neo's condition after his beating, he hadn't noticed Nover summoning his Noctowl until it was too late to call out a warning.

"Nani! Focus on Ledyba!"

If Nani heard him, she certainly showed no sign of it. Nover called a command and Noctowl dove at her again, but this time she was ready, and met the blow head on with her own Shadow Rush; the collision sent both of them tumbling backwards through the dirt.

Meanwhile, Neo engaged with Ledyba once more, struggling through another Silver Wind to strike the bug with Confusion.

"Dammit all!" Wes spat. "Nani!"

She finally seemed to hear him. While Noctowl staggered upright and attempted to take flight once more, Nani turned to face her Trainer.

She looked Wes dead in the eyes, snorted, then tossed her head back over her shoulder and lashed her tail, kicking up a cloud of dirt squarely in his direction.

Did she just-?

Neo let out a weary yowl of triumph; Ledyba was downed at last, done in by a well-aimed Psybeam that had thrown him to the ground followed by a Return. Wes wasted no time in sending him after Noctowl, who was now tearing ferociously at Nani and looked more than ready to draw blood.

A vicious snarl tore from Nani's throat; with every blow Noctowl dealt, she struck back harder, and the attacks were increasing in intensity from both sides. She lunged in at the nearest opening and snapped her jaws shut around the bird's leg with horrifying force.

The resulting scream of pain from the other Pokémon made Wes' blood run cold. Such a scream should never be heard in a casual battle setting, not ever, and yet - Noctowl's Trainer looked largely unconcerned.

"You're fine!" he snapped. "Shadow Rush!"

"Nani, stop!"

Neither Pokémon seemed to be hearing their Trainers anymore; the two were little more than a whirlwind of feathers and scales as they tore at one another, their cries twisted with rage. Nani released her hold on her opponent's leg and snapped her jaws in an attempt to shred Noctowl's wing -

BAM.

On Wes' command, Neo rammed into Nani with a simultaneous Return and Confusion, ripping her and her foe apart and sending her flying across the ring. Despite the brutal force of the blow, Nani was back on her feet and whirled on him in a matter of seconds, fangs bared, ready to rip into Neo with savage pleasure -

She vanished in a beam of light just before she could make contact. Wes shoved the ball back onto his belt with a shaky curse. He should have known, he should have known this was a terrible idea -

Noctowl rammed Neo with terrifying power, sending him rolling through the dirt. Wes heard him snarl even as he struggled mightily to rise back to his paws.

"Protect!"

Neo managed to summon the silvery shield just in time; Noctowl bounced off of it with a solid thunk. Wes took advantage of the opening to send out Novo, then promptly recalled Neo. The Espeon had done more than enough, and there was no need to keep him on the field any longer.

The final moments of the battle were mercifully short; Novo made quick work of the already weakened and badly injured Noctowl, and Wes couldn't help but breathe a sigh of relief to see her returned to her Pokeball. Her leg was stained red, having sent small droplets of blood around the ring in her frenzy to keep fighting.

Wes returned Novo and looked up at the other Trainer from across the ring; Nover scowled sourly at Noctowl's ball before clipping it back onto his belt, then strode across the field to Wes.

"Well," he grunted, "couldn't be helped, I suppose."

He was remarkably unfazed by the violent turn of events mid-battle. Wes fixed him with a burning stare.

"Sorry about that. You probably want to get your Noctowl's leg looked at."

Nover snorted and waved a dismissive hand. "Naw. She'll suck it up."

Wes clenched his teeth and bit back a scathing response. Instead, he kept his words to a minimum as Nover paid him and thanked him for the battle, then watched him turn and walk away in the direction of the Colosseum.

"Wes?" Rui's voice made him jump. She was looking at him with mild concern. "You alright?"

He heaved a weary sigh and ran his hand through his hair. "It happened again, didn't it? She lost all control like Kohna did."

"...Yes." Rui's reply was quiet. "They both did. Her and the Noctowl." She shook her head. "What was he thinking? Pokémon aren't meant to battle like that, but he didn't care at all…"

Wes didn't reply. He knew exactly what Nover had been thinking; he'd met too many Trainers in Snagem with the same methods, the same mindset. The only thing that ever mattered to them was results, rules and Pokémon's welfare be damned.

He glanced around and noticed Lon was missing. "Where's the kid?"

"Already on it. I think." Rui frowned a little. "I didn't even see him disappear, but I figured he was just being discreet...you think he'll come back?"

"Only one way to find out. Let's see if he turns up."

They headed to their previously appointed rendezvous point, an old lot outside a warehouse near the Pyrite Drop. The Battle Square was much too public of a place, and for Lon to be seen with them after every battle would raise suspicion all too quickly.

As luck would have it, Lon was already there waiting for them, a wide grin on his face and a Pokeball in hand. An Igglybuff was perched comfortably on his shoulder - a rather cutesy Pokémon for such a rough kid, Wes thought. "That was too easy."

Wes held out a hand, and Lon gave him the Pokeball. "You sure this is the right one?"

"Duh. I wouldn't make a dumb mistake like that." The smile faltered from his face a little. "That Noctowl...there's something wrong with her, isn't there?"

Wes nodded and carefully slipped the ball into his bag; he would have to officially Snag her later to overwrite her Trainer's I.D. associated with the ball, but first he and Duking would have to try to look over her injuries. "Yeah. There's something wrong with her. And we're going to...try to fix it."

Arceus knows how.

"And...and your Croconaw, too?"

Wes sighed and nodded again. "Yes."

Lon dropped his gaze to the ground and nudged at a pebble with his foot. When he raised his head again, he wore an apprehensive expression. "Do...do you know what's wrong with them?"

"Not yet." Rui spoke up gently. "But we'll figure it out, I'm sure. The first thing is getting these Pokémon away from where they can hurt other people."

Lon chewed on his lip, evidently lost in thought.

"Let's get back to Duking's, shall we?" Wes suggested. He didn't want to admit it, but the events of the day had left him exhausted, and the more he thought about this hopeless mission with these damaged Pokémon, the more tired it made him.

"Yes, let's," Rui said in agreement. Wes caught her looking at him with concern in the corner of his eye; he brushed past her and ignored it, and led the way back to Duking's home.

He didn't know how long they'd been walking, himself lost in thought while Rui chatted with Lon and got acquainted with his Igglybuff (who was apparently named Ozzy). He gave a small start of surprise when he felt Rui's hand on his arm and found himself looking into her blue eyes, which were shadowed with worry.

"We'll figure this out, Wes," she said fervently. She kept her voice low, supposedly to keep Lon from overhearing, though there was little need; the boy was animatedly filling in his Pokémon about the day's events and on where they were heading, and was entirely oblivious to their conversation.

Wes blinked at her. "I never said we wouldn't."

"No, but you seem...overwhelmed." Rui gave him a small smile. "I do think they're getting better - slowly, but surely. And I know there's a way to help them recover. I just know it."

And even though her baseless optimism usually annoyed him, even though her persistent positivity often wearied him...Wes found himself starting to believe her, though he had no idea why.

He said nothing to her, and she didn't press him for a response, but as Duking's house came into view, he couldn't help but feel just a little lighter than before.
 
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