Writing Mysteries of the Forgotten Island (Version Zero) (Chapter 11)

Discussion in 'Creative Works' started by PMJ, Feb 21, 2017.

  1. PMJ happy thoughts
    PMJ

    Articles Head Activities Staff Badges Staff Elite Member Advanced Member Member

    Sorry to break your heart, but it meant nothing, just a plot device to get Kyro to go to the next scene. We can pretend they talked about whatever you like, though :eek:
     


  2. GrandPanacea Thread Necromancer
    GrandPanacea

    Forum Super Mod Badges Staff Chat Room Staff Advanced Member Member

    Ahh! Gotcha. I was wondering if it was some set-up or somethin'. It was probably the battle that they talked about, given the circumstances.
     
  3. GrandPanacea Thread Necromancer
    GrandPanacea

    Forum Super Mod Badges Staff Chat Room Staff Advanced Member Member

    Also!

    With the edits you sent me, Mysteries of the Forgotten Island is now 299 pages long, with 133828 words!

     
  4. Reshiwott AOA deserve your love
    Reshiwott

    Member

    Hooray! PMJ nails Scarlet's character once again, and gives me more reaction quotes/images to use.
     
  5. PMJ happy thoughts
    PMJ

    Articles Head Activities Staff Badges Staff Elite Member Advanced Member Member

    Interlude 4 highlights:

    - it's not written in first person, or present tense, two things I am going to do at some point but just don't know where or how yet
    - Diamant tries to go to sleep
    - Helmi appears
    - two new characters are introduced
    - they, along with Helmi, will probably only appear in this interlude
    - it's friggin dope

    I finished the first draft of this the day after I posted chapter 8. I am really glad I didn't post it then because despite actually being inspired for once, I found I wasn't all that happy with the finished product. Over the past few days, I've made changes here and there, added some things, ended up increasing the overall word count by almost 2000. While the spirit of the first draft remains the same, a lot of things are more fleshed out, including the 'twins' referenced in the title.

    I'm starting to feel like I'm spending too much time with this interlude. I don't want to go into this elaborate side story for two minor characters (and once you read, you'll understand how I could want to do it), but I also don't want to just introduce them and let that be the end of it. Since I've given them both a bit of back story, I'm gonna leave it at that and post this so I can get started on chapter 9.

    Like/subscribe/review whatever none of you read this anyway on with the show

    Word count: 6290

    Interlude 4: Pearl's Twins


    The Isle of Tajna was a small island located, most would say, in the middle of nowhere. It was far enough away from any region's mainland that most of their governments didn't care to claim jurisdiction over it; they simply assumed that it belonged to someone else, and left it at that. The island itself wasn't that large, only about twenty or thirty square miles, the majority of it covered by forest before Diamant purchased the entire thing and built an enormous building complex on it. It was here that Diamant Industries carried out its secret research into what they termed as biological robots - biots - machines, created with human DNA, that made them appear and act more natural than any artificial intelligence ever could.

    Lucas Diamant was alone in his office, which was awfully small considering his status and wealth. While it wasn't large, it did have an amazing view of the ocean. It was slightly dulled by the fact that it was well past sundown right now, but the view was still pretty impressive nonetheless. He was tired, having spent the last few hours going over reports from Safiri. She was meticulous as usual, color-coding all the data he asked for, and even some things he didn't. There were charts and graphs and numbers representing everything from total attendance to how many gallons of each beverage was sold. He greatly appreciated the work she put in - all three of them, really - but he hadn't known that there would be so many numbers involved. He felt his eyes glazing over as he went from spreadsheet to spreadsheet, anxious to just be done with it already.

    That's not fair. Safiri worked hard on this. I need to give this the attention it deserves.

    He rubbed his eyes, forcing life back into them, and sat up a little straighter in his chair. He turned his desk lamp on at a low setting, illuminating the room and easing the strain on his eyes from having stared at a computer screen for so long. He started focusing on the report again, lasting only a few minutes before he felt himself nodding off again.

    This isn't working. I'll read the rest of this tomorrow.

    He leaned back in his chair, taking a minute to think of how Safiri was doing. This was the first major project she headed since he became president, and felt a surge of pride in his heart when he thought of how far she'd come. The robotic, nameless drone he'd inherited from President Whitemore was little more than a slave. It had taken him months just to break the conditioning that Whitemore instilled in her, to get her to really come out of her shell and be her own woman. Over the years, Safiri did eventually open up to him, and while she would never be as outgoing as Ruby or as flirty and sweet as Esmeralda, he loved her and was proud of her just the same.

    It was impossible for him not to be; from what he saw on television and heard directly from Safiri, the tournament was going to be a resounding financial success, putting Diamant Industries well into the black for years to come, even after the winner's payout.

    Diamant breathed a sigh of relief at this thought, running a hand through his hair and taking a moment to appreciate where he was. Ten years ago, he was just a guy with a lot of money, interested in unique projects to finance. When he heard of Chroma Corporation's biot program, he was intrigued. He was skeptical of the ethics involved in manufacturing people, but after then-President Whitemore assured him the new S1 biot was not human despite its looks, and convincing him of the good that selective DNA tampering could do, he agreed to help finance the project.

    As the first weeks passed, Diamant started suspecting the biot was more human than Whitemore let on. She smiled when he bade her good morning, for example, or laughed when he told her a joke. Whitemore dismissed these as programmed reactions, nothing more. One time, when she was orally delivering to him a report on the biot program, she got a paper cut when shuffling her papers around, which lead to an impromptu conversation where S1 revealed she not only bled like a human, but her overall makeup was 85% human in origin; only her skeleton was truly synthetic. In Diamant's mind, this gave Whitemore's argument no leg to stand on, and he was angry at her for deceiving him.

    Imagine his surprise when only five months later, a new, smarter biot had been created that had enhanced capabilities from the first. It wasn't until a few weeks after that did he learn the monstrous way with which the first biot was disposed of, and he used the power of his money to force President Whitemore to play by the rules... or so he thought. What he didn't know was that inside each successful biot, Whitemore had had suicide protocols embedded in their code. With the entry of a certain string of data, the affected biot would initiate the suicide protocol and it would end its life however it could find the means to. His face hardened as he remembered reading about each of their deaths, and it made his blood boil to think of the woman that caused it.

    Diamant's eyes glanced to the safe built into his personal desk. There were no buttons or switches anywhere on it, just a simple fingerprint scanner, and a small handle used to pull the door open. Inside the safe was a tiny remote control with a single button, labeled 'S7.' Safiri's suicide switch. Once it was discovered that the suicide orders were unable to be removed due to being code rather than a physical object, he ordered the safe built to house Safiri's switch. He didn't dare destroy it, for fear of activating any possible fail-safes built into it and accidentally killing Safiri. He refused to let his team even analyze the switch to determine if such a possibility existed; it was better, in his eyes, to simply lock it away, never to see the light of day.

    Under Diamant's watchful eye, the biot program flourished - in secret, of course. It was too risky to go public with this technology just yet - not until they had the perfect biot to show off. While they could make the biot look, sound, and act any way they wished, one thing they could not yet do was make it a Pokemon trainer. It wouldn't do to call the biot perfect if it wasn't also the perfect trainer, and in that regard, Diamant was stuck. No one in the company considered themselves a trainer by any measure - sure, a lot of them had Pokemon they kept as pets, but that was the extent of it. Everyone on the board had backgrounds in business and finance, not Pokemon battling. To Diamant's surprise, this was something that President Whitemore had been trying to achieve with the earlier Sapphire models, but she and her team of scientists didn't get very far. The best they could do was implant all the facts about battling they could and hope the biot filled in the gaps itself.

    To help R&D further improve the biots' battle intelligence, Diamant called in a favor to his little sister, Helmi. A biological engineer of many years, she was more than happy to help once Diamant filled her in on what she'd be doing. Soon, she started working on other aspects of the biot program, not just making them more proficient in battles, and Project Ruby started a few months later.

    A rapping was heard on the door to his office. This didn't startle him, as his biots didn't sleep often, and even with the Jewels gone, there still remained a couple in the facility. "Yes? It's open, come in."

    "Mr. Diamant!" a child's voice, bright and cheery, sang as the door opened. The owner of the voice was what appeared to be a human female of around twelve years old. She was short, with flawless creamy white skin and big round eyes. Her short curls were a rich and vibrant gold, sparkling in the low light of his office. They bounced to and fro, casting strange shadows on the walls and ceiling as the girl bounded into her boss's office. "You're still awake, sir?" She stared at him with those innocent doe eyes of hers, with irises as golden and shining as her hair.

    This energetic young girl was Aura, and she was intended to be Helmi's first biot.

    Shortly after Ruby was born, Diamant approached Helmi about concerns he had with her running the biot program; specifically, about why she hadn't hired anyone else to help. People, she'd said, made mistakes, and she was too prideful in her work to feel comfortable trusting it to anyone else. In response, Diamant built her a biot, one made from her DNA and, he explained, would have even better attention to detail than she did, because it was impossible for one person to bear the weight of such a massive project alone, even for someone as brilliant as she was. She objected, but when Diamant made it clear that it wasn't open to debate, she relented, and that was the end of that.

    Except, as Diamant would later be livid to find, it wasn't. Helmi read over the biot's proposed dimensions and balked at the idea of making her some eternally young and sexy-looking model. She'd be younger, smarter, and prettier than Helmi, and she couldn't stand the idea of being upstaged by a robot. She secretly changed the biot's age and looks, which wasn't difficult to hide since she was the only one working on the project. Knowing that Diamant wouldn't destroy the biot once it was created, and unwilling to risk the chance he'd force her to work with it anyway, she erased the part of her DNA that gave the biot Helmi's aptitude for bioengineering before going forward with the creation.

    The result of this was Aura, a cute little biot who now had no purpose. Upon finding out how Helmi intentionally sabotaged Aura's creation, he nearly fired her right then before realizing that he still needed her, and that getting rid of her would only endanger the project. He would end up with the last laugh, however. He marched Helmi to the laboratory, forced her to undo what she'd done to her DNA, and was about to have her change the rest back to his designs before he changed his mind and had her simply change the biot's hair color while keeping the same age and body type. He then supervised the creation of this second biot himself, equal parts angry at Helmi for ruining Aura's creation, and himself for not keeping a better eye on his sister. With vastly differing views regarding the humanity of the biots, Diamant felt like he should have seen this coming, and now he was stuck with a little girl, completely innocent but completely useless in the sense that her use had been robbed from her.

    He was up front with Aura about the circumstances surrounding her birth, and she was rightfully upset with Helmi for it, but she was more happy that Diamant still found a use for her as his secretary. She dove right into her work, thankful for the chance to make her new boss happy and prove herself worthy of his love.

    Diamant rubbed his eyes, checking the time on the computer. It was nearly midnight there, which meant in Kanto, the second tournament battle for the day was probably over by now. "Yes, Aura, but I'm about to turn in for the night," he answered amiably.

    "Good! I worry about you, you know?" Aura went behind Diamant's desk and hugged him in his chair, her golden hair tickling his nose and face and illuminating the surrounding area nearly as much as the lamp did.

    "I know, and I appreciate that," he replied with a smile, ruffling the young girl's hair. "You always look out for this old man. I'm very glad to have you on the team, Aura."

    Aura blushed prettily, reveling in the praise. She didn't always get a chance to get this close to Diamant, since Safiri would usually send her away, finding the intimate contact inappropriate. But now Safiri was gone, gone for a long time, and Aura liked that a lot. "Thank you, sir! I... I hope to continue making you proud of me. Goodnight!" she said, boldly giving Diamant a quick peck on the cheek before running out of his office.

    Diamant was touched by how much Aura was attached to him. She was a sweet girl, disowned by someone who thought she was a joke, and he couldn't bring himself to terminate her and simply write her off as a mistake.

    Speaking of mistakes...

    He wanted to check on how Helmi was doing, but knew very well how much she hated being disturbed while she was running tests. He pursed his lips as he picked up his phone to dial the extension for the laboratory, but hesitated. He knew it was wishful thinking that Helmi would actually pick up the phone - he'd had a better chance of sprouting wings. He put in a call to Helmi's assistant instead.

    "Yes, sir?" a quiet voice answered.

    "Argenta, it's Lucas. Do me a favor, will you? Tell Helmi to give it a rest for today, she's been at it all day. You can keep an eye on things while she sleeps."

    "Yes, sir."

    He let out a breath, relieved that the task of interrupting his sister was now the burden of someone else, but at the same time guilty that he was throwing Argenta to the wolves... again. "Thanks, you're an angel. I'm going to head to bed. I'll check in tomorrow morning."

    "...Okay."

    "Is something wrong?" Diamant asked, noting the pause she took.

    He couldn't see it, but Argenta was fidgeting, fighting with herself, trying desperately hard to summon the courage to speak out while simultaneously telling her that she should keep quiet. She took a deep breath before asking, "Can... can I speak freely, sir?"

    Memories of his conversation with Safiri came rushing back. He wondered how many others had opinions they were afraid to voice, and made a mental note to put out a memo tomorrow regarding that. "Of course, Argenta, anything," he said, and meant it. "What is it?"

    There was another moment of silence on the other end as Argenta's internal battle reached its conclusion. "Never mind, it's nothing," she finally replied.

    Diamant frowned at her unwillingness to talk, but he had to respect whatever reason kept her quiet. "If you say so, Argenta, but know my door is always open to you. If there's anything you need, or have any questions about anything at all, please don't hesitate to ask. Is that understood?"

    "Y-Yes, sir. I'll head to the laboratory now. Argenta out."

    Diamant turned his phone off, leaned back in his leather chair, and sighed heavily, weary from a long day and looking forward to sleep. He begun to pack up his things, offering Argenta silent apologies in advance for taking the brunt of his younger sister's inevitable wrath.

    * * * * * * * *

    In the laboratory was a middle-aged woman, working tirelessly. She was tall - she'd find she was a few inches taller than Thresher, if the two met - and very lean, in fine shape for someone her age. Her platinum blonde hair was bunched up haphazardly, held in place with a single giant black clip. She was hunched over, gazing into the large electron microscope that was the centerpiece of the enormous laboratory, and humming a nameless tune to herself as she chewed a piece of gum.

    It was quiet, save for the hum of the nearby machine and her impromptu song, which was something she preferred. Though Diamant had forced her to make a biot according to his specifications, Helmi quickly realized he couldn't make her use it; the majority of the time, Helmi had her biot off doing tasks that would keep her away for hours at a time, just so she could spend more time with her true love - science - without being bothered by a robot child.

    "All right, sweetie, talk to me," she cooed at the slide she was viewing.

    Helmi let out a breath, examining the strands of DNA carefully to see if there were any abnormalities which would yield further tweaking and retesting. Stepping briefly away from the microscope, she double checked the notes she was given on each competitor. The DNA she was currently looking at was a mixture of Cody's and Jethro's, but to her, they were just numbers - three and nine, respectively. She didn't dehumanize them this way because of any sort of malicious intent; it was simply easier for her to remember them this way.

    She was acutely aware of how much this bothered her brother, and the two had had frequent arguments on the subject before Diamant finally relented after she threatened to quit if he didn't lay off once and for all. The fact was, Helmi was the brains behind the entire biot program, and without her knowledge and expertise, the whole project would crumble. She knew this, and tried not to lord it over her big brother's head too much; it was because of him that she had the job of her dreams, after all.

    Helmi didn't understand why Diamant was so insistent on pretending the biots were human. In Helmi's eyes, it wasn't even up for debate; each and every one of them was created in that very laboratory, with the power of science and human ingenuity. They were objectively not human. Could humans hear at 50 kHz or scan a Pokemon's complete data with merely a thought? Could they slow down the march of time so much that they could be easily live for hundreds of years or more? Could they turn the human genome into their playground, altering anything and everything they wished, creating something as ridiculous as glowing hair, for no reason other than their whim?

    Actually, Helmi realized with a grin, they could do that last thing. But the rest of it was horse shit. Even the biots themselves knew that they weren't human. Who was Diamant trying to kid?

    A beep sounded alongside a green node on the machine to her left lighting up - another compatibility test complete. Excellent! She carefully removed the slide from the microscope and set it back in its proper location among the other test slides, then briskly walked to another huge machine, nearly twenty feet long and ten feet high. This massive construct was responsible for much of the work she did; not only was it used to combine DNA, but it was also used to build the finished biots, once they were ready. The beep and green light meant that the combination of DNA had been successful, and was ready for her to check manually. She opened a small door, carefully extracting the slide which held the combined DNA, and placed it under the microscope. She wrote in her notes that this was a combination of subjects ten and sixteen, then picked up two more slides, each with a different competitor's DNA. Placing them gently into the machine, she shut the door, hit a few buttons, and the machine was off with a low, satisfying hum - music to Helmi's ears.

    She didn't know how long she'd been at this. Hours, easily, but when she was deep in her work, time was irrelevant. The computers all had clocks with which she could have kept an eye on the time, but she paid them no mind. The important part was that her usual request - to be left alone - had largely been honored since she started splicing... who cares how long ago. A satisfied smile crept onto her face as she reminded herself that not only was her biot nowhere to be found, Safiri was thousands of miles away and wouldn't butt in with yet another request from someone, usually her brother. The thought of not having to deal with her for at least a week and a half put Helmi in high spirits, improving her already great mood. She took off her lab coat, tossing it over a nearby chair, revealing a dark pink blouse and matching pencil skirt. Her heels clicked as she practically sashayed to the microscope, ready for another examination. She referred to the competitor bios Diamant had supplied her with to learn more about subjects ten and sixteen. While their names weren't important in the grand scheme of things, learning what kind of people they were was actually vital to determining possible compatibility pairs. The more compatible two people were, the easier it would be for the machine to splice them together.

    "Quayle Vincent Meredith Valentine," she read. "Hell of a name..." She skipping over much of the other information, but one note in particular caught her attention. "Oh, a man of science, huh? I like you already... yeesh, never mind," she amended when she saw his picture. "Twenty years old?" Kid's old enough to be my son, she silently added, as though refraining from speaking it out loud made it less true. Though Helmi was in her forties, she looked to be much younger; someone meeting her for the first time could be forgiven for thinking she was in her early thirties, or even late twenties if she wore the right makeup. She continued skimming over Quayle's bio until she got to a note at the bottom that Diamant had added. "Violent. Do not use in preliminary compatibility testing. Keep DNA on file and await further instructions." She chuckled. "Way too late for that, Lukey," she remarked as she flipped to Windra's profile. "Let's see... EWW. Heh. Wonder if she got teased about that as a kid..." She frowned when she didn't find anything else that was too interesting. There was another page stuffed behind Windra's bio, a page she barely remembered shoving back there. "Oh yeah," she recalled, looking over the copy of Esmeralda's report. When her eyes came across the words 'punched subject 10 in the nose,' she raised her eyebrows in genuine surprise. "Damn, girl," Helmi said approvingly, studying Windra's photo. In it, she looked cute, flashing a bright smile with Tyeaf on her shoulder. Not exactly the kind of person Helmi would expect to hit anyone.

    She belatedly realized that the 'subject 10' Esmeralda's report was referring to was the same person whose DNA she'd just combined Windra's with, and she let out a short, amused laugh. With her 'research' finished, it was time to get to the real work. There was a small tink sound as her glasses hit the eyepiece lens of the microscope, and she began to examine the combined strands of DNA, hoping to find something fascinating.

    Just then, the doors to the laboratory opened, taking Helmi out of the zone she was in and killing her good mood. She didn't have to look up to know who it was; excluding herself, there were only two people on the entire island with the credentials required to simply waltz in the lab unannounced, and one of them wouldn't have left his cushy office chair to do it. To prove herself correct, Helmi looked up now, and she was indeed correct in her guess. The intruder timidly approached Helmi, trying uselessly to hide in her short curls, which glimmered in a bright, shining silver. She tried not to pay attention to the irritated look Helmi shot her as the lab doors closed behind her. "What is it, Argenta? I thought I made it clear I didn't want to be bothered."

    Please don't yell at me, please don't yell at me, please don't yell at me, I'm not here to fight...

    "Mr. Diamant wants you to give it a rest for today," her biot reported in her usual soft voice. "I can hold down the fort for a while."

    Simply hearing the word 'rest' ignited feelings of tiredness that Helmi had suppressed for hours now, and she removed her round thin frames to rub at her eyes sleepily. Helmi was more than a little jealous of the biots' ability to go so long without sleep, and wondered if she'd be able to change her own DNA to make that possible. Helmi replaced her glasses, giving Argenta an accusing stare. "Yeah, no chance, kid. You're still on my shit list for what happened last time I let you stay here unsupervised."

    "I told you, that was Aura's fault, not mine," Argenta protested, crossing her arms and pouting slightly. To an outsider, this display might have looked cute, but to Helmi, it was just annoying.

    Not in the mood to have this conversation, and more than anxious to get back to work, Helmi went to physically shoo Argenta out of the room. "Yeah, and she's on the shit list too, but it's still your ass because you should have been watching her. Out," she ordered, turning Argenta towards the door and physically pushing her towards the exit. "Tell Lukey I'll rest when I'm--"

    A red light lit up on the combination machine, and alarms began sounding. "What the hell?!" Helmi scrambled to her computer, typing in alarm shutdown codes and making a request for an error log as Argenta headed to the combination machine. "Damn it, get away from there! Don't touch anything!" Helmi barked, running as fast as her heels would allow over to the machine and inspecting it for herself. The alarms stopped, and the red light remained on as Helmi pushed some more buttons on a touch screen, which shut the red light off and sent everything back to normal. The error report was printed, and Helmi read it over, her face twisting in anger the more she read.

    "What's it say?" Argenta asked, curious, unable to see over the paper Helmi deliberately held at a height that made it impossible for her.

    "Is this your idea of a joke?!" Helmi suddenly snarled, snatching the paper away and shaking it in Argenta's face.

    "I, I don't understand, what is the problem? I haven't done anything wrong," Argenta softly replied, her face a mask of genuine confusion.

    "Bullshit!" Helmi screamed, grabbing Argenta by the wrist, causing her to cry out in fear as Helmi yanked her to a nearby table. With a sweeping motion of her other hand, she sent folders of papers crashing to the floor, their contents spilling out and immediately forgotten as Helmi slammed the error log down. "You screwed with my experiment! Is this supposed to be payback for not letting you and Aura treat my lab like some sort of playground?!"

    Argenta quickly scanned the document, finding the relevant error code, and knowing immediately what it was. "There were three DNA samples?"

    "There were three DNA samples?" Helmi repeated mockingly. "No shit, there were three DNA samples. Now Mother's pissed, and when Mother's pissed, I'm pissed. You set me back hours, you stupid, second-rate, thing. I hope it was worth it." Helmi's eyes were slits as she glared pure hatred at her confused and hurt biot. "Now get. Out," she seethed, pointing towards the door.

    "But ma'am, I swear I didn't--"

    "Now!!" Helmi screamed, raising her hand toward her assistant.

    Argenta flinched for fear of being struck, and fled before Helmi could make good on her unspoken threat. The second the doors closed behind her, she collapsed to the ground, taking slow, deep breaths in an attempt to calm herself down and wait for her heart to stop pounding nearly so hard.

    That was scary...

    As awful as she felt, she took a small bit of comfort in knowing that she hadn't cried this time. She hadn't cried in many months, not since... then. She knew the time. The one time Helmi wasn't content with scathing words or the occasional slap. Helmi asked Argenta to bring her some coffee; when she came back, she accidentally tripped and spilled it onto Helmi. The shock caused Helmi to drop a tray of cultures she was carrying, forcing her to restart the experiment she'd been working on for the past two weeks. Helmi responded by pinning Argenta down and beating the hell out of her, so badly she was knocked unconscious.

    A small, traitorous part of Argenta's mind wondered why Diamant would deliberately design her this way. She was made from Helmi's DNA, but Argenta lacked any of the flaming hot temperament that her source human did. Instead, she was meek, submissive, and subservient, never standing up for herself. She was every bit as smart as Helmi, but designed to kowtow to everyone around her without a second thought by a cowardly old man too afraid to confront his subordinates. Why else would he constantly send her to face his sister, knowing how she'd react? Why wasn't she confident like her sister? Diamant did say that Argenta and Aura were almost completely identical genetically - they looked exactly the same but for the color of their hair and eyes. Everyone even referred to them as 'the twins.'

    So why did she feel so different?

    She'd asked herself that many times, but never had a good answer. She very nearly asked Diamant about it on the phone earlier, but once again couldn't muster the courage required to ask.

    Probably would just lie to me anyway...

    Argenta clamped down on that line of thought, getting to her feet, feeling a little bit more like normal. She found herself curious about the things Helmi had said. Two DNA samples from one subject? How is that possible?

    That question was on Helmi's mind as well as she all but stomped her way over to her phone. If her stupid biot wasn't responsible for this, then there was only one other person who could explain things. She punched in the extension to reach her brother, impatiently waiting for him to pick up. It took him a few rings, but once he did, she let him have it:

    "Helmi? How are the tests--"

    "YOU RUINED MY SAMPLES!" she screamed, with no preamble.

    Diamant could hear his sister's heavy, angry breathing on the other side of the line, and the first thing he wondered was what Argenta could have possibly done to evoke this response from Helmi. "I'm sorry, Helmi, what?"

    "Don't play dumb! You sent that worthless 'assistant' of mine into the lab when I was asleep and combined two of the subjects' DNA without my knowledge!"

    There were a lot of things that Diamant tolerated from his sister. Calling him screaming when he was very nearly in bed was one of them. Accusing him of tampering with her work, while preposterous, was another. Disrespecting the biots, however, was not. "First of all, Argenta is not worthless, Helmi. She is made from your DNA and is every bit as capable a scientist as you are."

    "The hell she is!" Helmi shrieked into the phone. "I studied for years to get--"

    "Enough," Diamant said sternly, effectively ending that tangent there. "Now is not the time, Helmi, I'm very tired. Now, please explain, what is this about?"

    "I just told you," Helmi uttered through clenched teeth. "You, or your precious Argenta, or both of you for all I know, came into my laboratory and messed with my samples. I tried combining DNA that was already combined. Mother said there were three samples when there only should have been two."

    Diamant had no idea what she was going on about, but at least he understood a small part of her rant. 'Mother' was what Helmi called the DNA mixing machine; since it was also used to give life to the biots, it was, in a sense, their mother. It started off as something of a joke, but Helmi got such a kick out of it that she continued to refer to it as such, and eventually, the name stuck.

    "So now I have to throw out both samples and extract more. Who knows how long that could take?" A pause. "Hey, are you even listening to me?!"

    "Yes, Helmi, I am. I'm trying to think of ways that your samples could have been contaminated."

    The fury was back in Helmi's voice as she shouted, "I TOLD YOU, YOU GUYS CAME HERE AND--"

    "We did no such thing!" Diamant snapped back, shocking his sister into silence. Finally, after a few moments, he continued. "I don't know why you aren't nicer to Argenta, Helmi. Never mind the fact that she's your assistant whether you like it or not, she has your intellect, your attention to detail, your thirst for knowledge... she would be a fine partner, if only you would let her be one. I bet right now she's off doing research, trying to figure out what went wrong with the samples."

    Helmi was beyond done. "Good. I hope her brains leak out of her ears."

    Diamant ignored the comment, tired and wanting to get as much sleep as he could before he met with Safiri again. "I'll see what Safiri can do about securing a new sample for you. Give me the name of the competitor whose sample was corrupted and I'll relay it to Safiri."

    There was another pause as Helmi reluctantly checked the information on the offending slide. "Six," she said.

    Not this again. "Helmi. Please tell me their name, I would like to get to sleep."

    "Six," Helmi repeated. "Go to bed. I have work to do."

    "Please get some sleep," her brother pleaded. "You need to rest."

    "No, what I need to do is manually inspect all of these samples again to make sure no more of them are corrupted. That's going to take at least three hours. And if I so much as sniff Argenta or Aura poking their heads around here before I'm finished, there will be hell to pay. Am I clear?"

    "Perfectly," he replied evenly before continuing, "Now let me be clear. You are my sister, but you are also my employee. I expect you to treat your co-workers with respect, both human and biot alike. Sabotaging Aura's birth was disrespectful not only to me, but to her as well. When you put Argenta in the infirmary just for spilling some coffee on you, I could have - I should have - fired you on the spot." He sighed, worn from having to repeat this song and dance so often, like a parent scolding a child. "I want you in this company, Helmi, but I will not stand idly by while you continue to verbally and physically abuse the--"

    "Hey, I haven't hit her in a long time!" Helmi protesed.

    "Quiet!" Diamant roared. "Even once is one time too many! You are free to disagree with Argenta as much as you like. In fact, in doing so, I hope it drives home just how like us they are. But if I ever get wind that you've laid a finger on either Argenta or her sister again... you won't like what happens."

    Helmi held the phone in silence, unable to believe her brother was speaking to her in such a way.

    "Am I clear?" he finished.

    "Yes," she spit back.

    "Good. I'm going to sleep. Goodnight."

    Diamant clicked off his phone and sighed, his heart heavy with guilt over threatening his own sister. It wasn't the first time it happened, he noted grimly, and it surely wouldn't be the last. He'd hoped that having Argenta around, having someone to share the workload with who she could trust as well as she could trust herself, would have loosened his sister up, but it seemed to have the complete opposite effect. Thinking of Argenta, he turned his phone back on and dialed her extension. It rang several times before she finally answered it.

    "Yes, sir?"

    She sounded normal. That was good news. "Argenta, it's Lucas. I just spoke with Helmi. Are you all right?"

    "Yes, sir," she answered in a voice that was quiet, even for her.

    He didn't want to pressure her any more than that, and he was completely exhausted, so he left it at that. "Good. I know I can't apologize enough for what Helmi did to you, but I promise you that she won't lay a hand on either you or Aura anymore, okay?"

    "Yes, sir," Argenta repeated. Was she upset with him? He couldn't tell from her voice alone.

    "Very good. I'm going to bed." He caught himself as he thought of something. "Argenta, do you know who subject number six is?"

    "Not off the top of my head, sir, I don't," Argenta admitted.

    Diamant nodded in acceptance. It was a long shot anyway. "That's okay. I'll have Safiri find the information for me. Thank you again, Argenta. Goodnight."

    "Goodnight, sir," she replied courteously before hanging up the phone.

    Diamant made a note to bring up subject six with Safiri the next time she made her report and finally climbed into bed, glad that the day was finally over. He enjoyed what he did, but he hated days like these where he felt like a father in a house full of children instead of the president of a company.

    But, he conceded as he drifted off to sleep moments later, it was all worth it for the sake of the program. Version Zero was a success so far; if things continued on this path, Lucas Diamant was going to change the world.
     
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  6. PMJ happy thoughts
    PMJ

    Articles Head Activities Staff Badges Staff Elite Member Advanced Member Member

    >no one posted at all

    totodile.png

    Chapter 9 highlights:

    - Nye gets an idea
    - Safiri lets her hair down
    - Motfia happens (if you can call that dumpster fire a highlight)
    - who's Evelyn?
    - Eldan and Nye go for a walk
    - it's friggin dope

    This chapter ended up being larger than I thought it was going to be. It largely focuses on Eldan and Nye, since everyone else is busy playing Motfia.

    Chapter 10 is another filler chapter where I planned on having a small battle. I'm torn on whether or not I want to do it. There is another thing I wanna do that should end up taking up the rest of the chapter. Just a bit of character building is all, nothing too major.

    Chapter 11 is scheduled to be yet another filler chapter, but I honestly don't know what to put here. I might just scrap it and put whatever I plan for this chapter into chapter 10.

    Chapter 12 (or 11) marks the start of the quarterfinals with Rose vs. Thresher. I hope you're excite because I know I am.

    I am liking the pace I'm on. Assuming there are no more interludes, and each chapter takes a month, I should be done with this story by this time next year. Guess that's my goal, although with the way my life is right now I really don't know if I'll be able to finish this story. I'm gonna get as far as I can, though. Thanks for sticking with me.

    Like this post once you've read it. Post feedback too. I'm looking at you, literally everyone who isn't Firo or Skyleaf, E S P E C I A L L Y @bbninjas and the new guy who likes but doesn't post.

    Word count: 9415

    Chapter 9: Coming Clean

    "Okay, now move it up your body... just like that," Eldan instructed his Gardevoir. "Yeah, that's good. Can you breathe okay?"

    The floor of the training area was filled with a blue sparkling mist, a product from failed attempts at altering Misty Terrain. Gardevoir had used some psychic power to put a thin barrier around her body before filling it with some of the mist, encasing her completely. It looked promising, but it wouldn't mean anything if she couldn't actually make use of it. On the other hand, if this test was successful, it would allow Gardevoir a temporary immunity to status conditions without allowing the same benefit to her opponent.

    It didn't matter much to Eldan that his team didn't rely on status conditions all that much. An advantage was an advantage, and the watching the mist swirl around inside the barrier was interesting visually, and that was good enough for Eldan.

    (It tickles my throat, but I can put shields around my mouth and nose to stop myself from breathing it in. However, it's too thick to see through.)

    "What if you leave your eyes unguarded? Can you alter the barrier so only your eyes are exposed?"

    (Of course. One moment.) She closed her eyes and did so, and then she opened them, able to see perfectly fine. She inspected her body, seeing the effect herself for the first time. Eldan smiled, pleased with the results, and Gardevoir did the same, although he couldn't see it through the mist.

    "That looks great. Though I wonder if you can still be hit by status problems if they hit your eyes," Eldan noted.

    (They can hit, but they will do nothing. The rest of my body is surrounded by the mist, and that will eliminate any ill effects.)

    Eldan nodded approvingly. "Sounds good. All right, this'll be form beta. Drop your shields and..." he grinned as Nye opened the door to the training area, letting out some of the mist. "On second thought, take a break. We'll keep working in a minute."

    He jogged over to where Nye was standing to greet her properly. "Good morning, Nye. Always a pleasure to see you. You're looking very lovely today," he finished, bowing extravagantly.

    She was wearing a light blue sundress with a floral pattern, and her massive length of hair was tied into a single ponytail. She rolled her eyes a little at Eldan's display, but smiled at him nonetheless. "Good morning, Eldan. Practicing?" She looked past him, trying to see who his opponent was, but save for Gardevoir, he was alone in the huge arena. "Or..."

    "Just doing some style training. What brings you here? Did you want a battle?"

    Nye considered, but shook her head. "No. I didn't know you were here, but maybe there's something you can help me with."

    Eldan bit down on what would have been his immediate response to an easy line like that. Instead, he said, "How can I help you? I'll do whatever I can."

    She shifted in place a bit, clearly a little embarrassed. "I want to learn more about the way you battle. I've never seen anyone fight the way you do, and I would be very grateful if you would teach me how to do it before my quarterfinal match next week."

    A sly smile came across Eldan's face. Come back with me to my room and I'll teach you how to do it all night, baby!

    Nye's eyes narrowed at his obvious train of thought. "Really?"

    "Hey, I didn't say it, you did," Eldan countered. "And I kept my thoughts to myself, that counts for something!"

    "I suppose," Nye reluctantly agreed, rolling her eyes so hard Eldan thought they might roll out of her head. "Will you help me or not?"

    "Of course, of course! Come on, I'll show you the latest move we've been working on." He placed a hand on the small of her back and lead her to where Gardevoir was waiting patiently. "Gardevoir, you remember Nye, right?"

    (Of course. You're very skilled,) she telepathically told Nye. Unlike Rose's relatively young Gardevoir, Eldan's Gardevoir had no problems speaking to trainers who weren't her master. (You found a weakness in my defenses and exploited it, and it lead you to victory. Well done.)

    "Th-thank you," Nye replied aloud, not expecting to receive praise from the Pokemon she'd defeated. "You did well yourself. I was just talking to Eldan about his battle style and asked to learn how to do it."

    "That's right. And for all things stylish, you've come to the right place!" Eldan gestured openly with a hand. "For who better to teach you about alternative moves than I, the Sultan of Style, the Prince of Panache..."

    (She's leaving.)

    "...the Father of - hey wait!" He caught up to her, blocking her path so she couldn't leave.

    "I'm serious, Eldan," Nye said, clearly not in the mood for his games. "If you're not going to teach me, then I'll--"

    "All right! All right. I'm sorry," Eldan apologized, raising his hands in an effort to placate her. "I'll do what I can." He ushered her back to where Gardevoir was standing and took a breath. "As you know, I am the epitome of style and grace, and as such, it is only natural for my Pokemon to be the same. By teaching them different ways to use their attacks, it not only looks like something straight out of a Pokemon Contest, but gives them an edge in battle."

    "Is that why you cut your Gardevoir's dress?" Nye asked. "To look different from other Gardevoir?"

    (It gets in the way,) Gardevoir answered for him. (I can grow it back if need be, but it serves no beneficial purpose in battle. If an opponent manages to grab it, or if it gets caught on something, it would be disadvantageous to me. That's why we agreed to remove most of it.)

    "I see." Nye considered this, wondering if there was anything like that she could do with her Pokemon.

    "Pokemon use their attacks largely on instinct," Eldan explained. "When they learn a move, their brains already know exactly how to do it, even if it's the first time they've ever done it. You can have a row of Pokemon use the same attack, and it will look the same every time. I call those attacks 'form alpha.' It's the basic, bog standard version of an attack. When my Pokemon and I create a new version of an attack, I term it 'form beta' to differentiate it from the previous move. I haven't come up with variants on all my Pokemon's moves, and some attacks are easier to vary than others. Psyshock, for example, has two variants, one offensive and one defensive. Will-o-Wisp and Future Sight both have seven, the most I've ever come up with. Hydro Pump, on the other hand, doesn't have any variants. It's not really a move that can be used outside of its intended purpose, and that's fine; sometimes it helps to stick with the basics."

    "How long does it take to do? Could my Pokemon learn something like that in time for my match?"

    Eldan shrugged. "Maybe. It depends on how well your Pokemon take your instruction, exactly what kind of variant you're trying for, and what move it is you're varying. Like I said, some are easier than others. All my Future Sight variants do the same thing, but they look different. Different colors, different energy shapes, stuff like that. When you walked in, we'd been trying new versions of Misty Terrain." He turned to his Pokemon. "Think you can pull it off again?"

    (Of course.)

    "Then let's see Misty Terrain, form beta!"

    A spot underneath Gardevoir's feet glowed light blue, and the sparkling mist issued forth as Gardevoir put a small barrier around her body. With a touch of psychic energy, she brought some of the mist into the barrier, filling it completely. Another moment passed as Gardevoir created gaps in the barrier for her to see out of, and the attack was finished.

    "It's so pretty!" Nye exclaimed, watching the fairy energy swirl around Gardevoir's limbs. "You did this in one day?" she asked Eldan.

    "A couple hours, yeah. Gardevoir is a Psychic-type, though, so it's a lot easier for her. Also, don't forget, years of practice." He frowned at all the mist that was leftover after the attack. "Looks like we'll need more practice if we want to eliminate the field advantage for our opponent, but in time, she'll get it. That's very good after only doing it once before. Excellent work, Gardevoir."

    (Thank you, Eldan. I'm confident that I'll have it mastered by the time we go home.)

    Nye was in awe at the sight of Gardevoir using her psychic powers to use Misty Terrain like that. It wasn't something she ever would have thought of herself. Could Musharna do something like that? she wondered. She thought back to her battle against Eldan and tried remembering all the move variations that he did. There was a theme common to all of them, she realized - none of his variants were of physical attacks, only special attacks and status moves.

    That makes sense. None of his Pokemon are physically inclined.

    She frowned as she realized that two of her three Pokemon were. Did that mean that Musharna was her only option?

    "You all right?" Eldan asked, putting a hand on her shoulder.

    "Sorry, I was just thinking," Nye replied. "Is it possible to vary physical attacks? I noticed that you didn't use any during our battle."

    "It is, but due to the nature of physical attacks, it's harder to find ones that can be varied. Status moves are ripe for variation, though! Just because a Pokemon doesn't use special attacks doesn't mean they're entirely helpless. Now how about we get started, huh? Choose a Pokemon and Gardevoir and I will see what we can do."

    * * * * * * * *

    The weekend was a time of rest for the competitors that were still in the running for the grand prize, but Safiri was still hard at work - even if she was wearing dark blue silk pajamas. With no chance of any of the competitors seeing her - as they had no reason to enter the area where the Jewels rested, which was separate from the main dormitory wing - Safiri took this opportunity to clean her work outfits. The result was her current choice of attire. Doing work in her pajamas was something of a rarity for her, as she felt she had a better peace of mind when wearing the clothes she typically wore. It put her in a work mindset, and made concentrating on her task easier. Now all she could think about was how amazing the fabric felt against her skin, and why she couldn't get away with wearing this all the time.

    Her hair was down - another rarity - and fell loosely over her chair and back. She'd planned on pinning it up, of course, but her pajamas had put her in such a relaxed mood that it never happened. Eventually, she'd decided that she was wasting daylight and it was time to get started on the day's tasks, pins or no pins. Though they had permission from Diamant to take it easy today - he'd actually scheduled them time off - Safiri was not one to rest when there was work to be done.

    No point in putting it off until tomorrow...

    The room was silent but for the sound of Safiri's fingers typing at her laptop, and the occasional click of the mouse as she cross-referenced information she'd need. Eventually, Safiri fell into the familiar rhythms of work, and she continued writing, comfortable pajamas all but forgotten. So focused was she that she didn't even bat an eyelash when her phone and laptop both started to ring. Seeing who it was, she sent the call to her laptop, allowed the caller to send and receive video, and connected them. In a moment, Diamant's face filled half of her screen. "Good morning, sir," Safiri greeted him pleasantly. "I wasn't expecting to hear from you this early."

    "Ah, yes, it is pretty early there, isn't it?" Diamant rubbed his chin as if contemplating something. "Sorry, Safiri. Did I wake you?"

    "No, sir, I've been awake for a while now. I've accomplished quite a bit."

    "That's good to hear," Diamant replied. He wasn't offended by her insistence on working instead of relaxing, but he did worry that sometimes she was pushing herself too hard. "Though I can't say I remember the last time I saw you working in your pajamas."

    "In my - oh god!" Safiri blanched, mortified that she'd been caught dressed so casually. In a panic, she threw an arm over her chest to hide herself, despite the fact that her shirt was completely buttoned. Diamant watched with humor as she threw herself from her chair and off camera, spouting out apologies as she tried making her hair presentable. Finally, Safiri returned to her seat, hair hastily pinned, but still in her pajamas. "Forgive my outburst, sir, I was out of line."

    Diamant took it all in stride and merely smiled at his subordinate and friend. "No worries, Safiri. I was going to say, I was glad to see you taking it easy. You know I always appreciate your willingness to work hard for me, but don't forget to enjoy yourself. Finish your report and then take the rest of the day off. Is that clear?"

    "Y-yes sir," Safiri answered hesitantly. "I'm almost done with it."

    "Of course. Now, I suppose you're wondering why I'm calling."

    Safiri opened her mouth to reply, but realized that no, she hadn't wondered about the why part of it. Diamant was the boss; he could call whenever he wanted. But now that he mentioned it... "It is a little strange to hear from you at this time. Sir," she added.

    "There was an incident a couple nights ago in regards to the DNA testing. Helmi reported that one of the samples was contaminated."

    Safiri's eyebrows furrowed in confusion. "Contaminated? In what way?"

    "She claims that one of the subjects' DNA had two samples in it. Before it was mixed, I mean. Apparently, that's a very big problem. She worked herself to exhaustion trying to retest all the samples to make sure nothing else was contaminated."

    "Whose sample was contaminated?" Safiri asked, still slightly confused. She was so sure that she'd been careful when shipping the DNA back to headquarters; what could have gone wrong?

    "Helmi only told me their subject number - six. I was hoping you could find out who it is for me so we can secure another sample. Not that I have any doubts that you handled the DNA with anything but the utmost care," he quickly added, not wanting her to feel offended at his assumption, "But Helmi insisted on a second sample..."

    "Right, of course. The paper files are in my office, but I have copies of them on my computer. Just give me a moment... subject profiles... here we are. Number six is--" Safiri's breath caught as she saw Frisk staring back at her. She was smiling, but her eyes made it clear that it wasn't genuine. "Her name is Frisk Achra, sir... hm."

    "Is something wrong?" Diamant asked, legitimately concerned. It was not like Safiri to be unsure of herself.

    Safiri pursed her lips as she considered her answer. She was surely imagining things, but as long as she had him here, she'd get some real answers. "Sir, how many biots exist as of today?"

    This wasn't a question Diamant was expecting, and he didn't know why she was asking when she should have already known the answer, but he answered her anyway. "As of today, there are five - you, Ruby, Esmeralda, Argenta, and Aura. Project Krista was shelved when we diverted the funds into Version Zero. We still have the blueprints for her written up, but you know all this already. Why do you ask?"

    "This girl, Frisk... I disciplined her the other day for trying to go outside. When I looked at her, her eyes were red like fire. Like..."

    "Like the old Sapphire biots used to do," Diamant finished for her. His voice turned serious. "You think she's a biot?"

    "I don't know, sir, but you can understand why I ask. I didn't think anyone other than Diamant Industries even had the technology capable of creating biots," Safiri said, letting a little amazement slip into her voice.

    "They don't. Or, rather, they shouldn't. It's possible that the scientists who worked on the first few Sapphire models sold the information to another company, but that would get them in a world of legal trouble. Still, we can't overrule the possibility... If she is a biot, she's not one of ours."

    "It would explain the additional DNA," Safiri explained. "Creating a biot from only two sets of DNA, though? Isn't that inefficient?"

    Diamant nodded. "It is, but if the company that created her is working with outdated science, it's possible that they don't know how to blend the DNA as well as Helmi can. Maybe she's an early model - it supports your statement about her red eyes."

    "I'll get another sample from her, sir."

    "See that you do. How is she doing in the tournament?"

    A few clicks of the mouse, and, "She won her first match. Her next match is scheduled for Tuesday morning."

    "Did you notice anything unusual about the battle? Did she employ old battle intelligence?"

    "I wasn't watching the battle that closely, sir, forgive me," Safiri apologized. "You should ask Esmeralda."

    "Ah, of course. That makes perfect sense. I will make a note to do just that. Thank you for your help in this matter, Safiri. That's all I have at this time. Is there anything else you wish to report?"

    Safiri thought about the recent conversation she had with Ruby and Esmeralda. While Safiri didn't feel the need to bring up her feelings on her previous conversation with Diamant, Esmeralda's recent behavior was definitely concerning. Admitting that she had feelings for one of the competitors and throwing a battle just to make her feel better... though the latter was less important than the former, it was still unsettling.

    And Safiri couldn't forget about the threat Esmeralda made in her office...

    "If you walk out that door, I'll blow this whole operation!"

    She'd never heard anything like that come from Esmeralda, ever. She knew that Esmeralda got emotional sometimes, but even Esmeralda knew how important this project was to the company, and to Mr. Diamant. She wouldn't really have sabotaged the operation... right?

    Safiri let out a breath. She loved her sisters and would do anything to support them, but this project was bigger than any of them personally. Its success was paramount. Something had to be said. "Yes, sir. We need to talk about Esmeralda."

    * * * * * * * *

    A solid ninety minutes after they began, Eldan and Nye decided to call it quits after their stomachs decided that the two had trained long enough. Lunch was soon, and both competitors had worked up quite an appetite. Though Nye hadn't succeeded in teaching her Pokemon how to alter their attacks, she still felt it was a good learning experience, and she thanked him for trying.

    "Not bad for your first time," Eldan noted, playfully jabbing Nye in the side as he held the door open for her.

    "Come on, stop," came Nye's reply, gently pushing his arm away but making no other effort to stop him. She was well aware of the double meaning behind his statement, but was in such a good mood that she paid it no mind. "Do you really think it went well?"

    "Honestly? Yeah," Eldan answered, slowing to Nye's pace as they walked together. "If you want, we can try again later."

    He flashed a grin, not at all lecherous, and it was one Nye reciprocated. "I'd like that... thank you."

    The two continued their walk in silence, each of them leaving the other to their own thoughts.

    Eldan was on cloud nine; what was meant to be a simple training session turned out better than he could have hoped. He'd gotten to spend time with the object of his affection, instructed her on how to battle with style, and she hadn't hit him or yelled at him at all the entire time.

    There were a couple times she wanted to, though. Maybe I should tone it down just a bit?

    He considered this for a moment before chuckling to himself. Nah, it's fine. I didn't do it that much, right? She'd say something if it really bothered her.

    A part of his mind reminded him that she did, in fact, say something, and quite often - often enough that sometimes he wondered if that would finally be the last straw and she gave up on him forever. He frowned a bit as he thought of that possibility. While it was true that his mouth gained him Nye's ire more than it didn't, he didn't think it was very fair of her or anyone else to assume that he hadn't changed for the better. Surely he had, right? There were many, many opportunities for him to make crude remarks, which he passed up, even when Nye wasn't around. He even tolerated being around that loser Quayle, for Kyro's sake, and that had been an exercise in restraint.

    His frown intensified as he thought of how close Nye and Quayle were. What could she possibly see in him? It was mind-boggling to see them together, chatting like old friends, like he hadn't almost killed Rose's Gardevoir earlier this week, like he hadn't called Windra a stupid bitch as he went to strike her, like he hadn't started this whole 'new and improved' ruse only once it became clear that no one was going to take his shit anymore.

    Eldan clenched his fists, trying to calm himself down and to not let Nye see the anger on his face. He knew that Nye hated talking to him about Quayle because of how heated their talks became. How she could still defend him, still associate with him and call him her friend... it didn't make sense.

    "Give him another chance, like I gave you one! Don't make me regret that decision!"

    Nye's words rang in his head. He wanted to give Quayle another chance like he wanted a hole in the head, but he couldn't deny the irony of the situation he was in.

    I don't really have a choice, do I?

    He looked over at Nye. She noticed him looking out of the corner of her eye, and she looked back at him with those cool blue eyes. "This is you," she said, scrunching her face in a mockery of what she could make of his expression. The sight and silliness of it blew away his foul mood, and immediately, Eldan's frown was gone, replaced with his trademark smile, and Nye smiled with him. "That's better. Something on your mind?"

    "Mm," he replied, nodding. "Just thinking about stuff."

    "Stuff. How specific!" Nye teased. "I bet I can guess what kind of stuff you're thinking about..."

    "No, nothing like that, not this time," he corrected her.

    Nye stopped in her tracks, holding a hand to her chest in faux shock. "No!" she exclaimed, mouth agape. "You mean your mind isn't a den of sin and impropriety?" She placed the back of her other hand on his forehead. "Are you ill? No, that's not it. Who are you, and what have you done with the real Eldan?"

    Eldan laughed. "I know, I know, it's hard to believe, right?"

    The two stood there as the moment passed, and an awkward silence followed where neither of them said anything to the other. Eldan found himself getting lost in her dark blue eyes, and he froze as he saw Nye slowly reaching for his sunglasses.

    "Wh-what are you doing?" Eldan stammered, recoiling as her hand drew near.

    "I want to see you," Nye answered. "Are you hiding something? Are you horribly disfigured under there?" A thought occurred to her, and she giggled. "You're not wearing red contacts underneath there, are you?"

    "What? No, of course not. It's just part of the uniform. A very stylish part, I might add. These babies," he said, pointing to his shades, "are worth two grand. You can't just grab them, you'll smudge the lenses." He paused, considering. "Because it's you, I'll take them off for you, just this once. But don't go bragging that you got to see me out of uniform, all right? I won't be held responsible if you get harassed by my fans," he finished with a grin, carefully grabbing the rims of his glasses and delicately removing them from his face.

    For the first time, Nye was able to look into Eldan's eyes. They were somewhat narrow, well hidden by his sunglasses, with hazel-colored irises. It was a little strange seeing Eldan's full face, since she wasn't used to it, but she couldn't deny that she liked what she saw. "You have really pretty eyes," she complimented him.

    "They are nothing compared to yours," Eldan answered immediately, putting a hand on Nye's cheek. His heart stopped momentarily as his brain caught up to his body, and he belatedly realized that he was most likely a dead man. When brain and body were finally in sync again, and he realized that not only was he not dead, but Nye had not even made an effort to break away from him, he stepped a little closer.

    "You should see yourself. You look like you want to tell me something," Nye all but whispered to him, wrapping an arm around his waist, enjoying the rare sight of his eyes.

    Eldan nodded, very seriously, and he put his other hand around her. "Yes. I--"

    Suddenly, a loud scream was heard from the cafeteria. The sound startled the two of them, and they separated from each other as fast as they could. Eldan and Nye looked at each other, unsure of what the source could be, then rushed to the scene before anyone else left their room and saw them. Upon arriving, they found Tsomu, hands on his head in panic, pacing back and forth around what appeared to be the remains of a cake. Bae fluttered nearby, visibly upset by the scene.

    "Tsomu! What's wrong?" Eldan asked as the two made their way towards the troubled man.

    Tsomu was still panicking, not quite listening to what Eldan was saying. "Someone... someone ate it... what am I gonna do? There's no way I can get another one made in time..."

    Nye put her hands on Tsomu's shoulders, to get him to stop pacing, if nothing else. He was still visibly panicking, and breathing heavily. "What did someone eat? This cake?"

    "Yes!" he shouted into Nye's face, causing her to jump back. "Sorry! Sorry, I'm sorry, Nye, I just... ugh, this is a disaster! Someone... well, multiple someones from the looks of it... helped themselves to Windra's cake!"

    The three looked over what was left of the cake. A section of it remained untouched, and Eldan and Nye could piece together what the entire thing might have looked like. On the untouched section, the letters "AY WIN" could be read on the side, but the rest was illegible due to all the tampering.

    "Why did you bake Windra a cake?" Eldan asked, the curiosity getting the better of him.

    "Today's her birthday. Someone called us after watching Windra's battle and told us her birthday was coming in a few days, and asked us to make her a cake and deliver her a message. He said he'd make a donation to Diamant Industries if we accepted. We ran it by Safiri, she cleared it, and we started this morning on it. It was meant to be a surprise for her. It wasn't out here for that long! How could so many people get to it? Ugh, I'm so mad!"

    "I'm sorry, Tsomu," Nye consoled him. "It looks delicious."

    "Yeah, it does," Tsomu replied, looking to Bae. "Search her. While you're at it, search him, too," he said, nodding at Eldan.

    Ribombee flew all around Nye's person, carefully scenting her, checking for even the slightest trace of cake residue. After she was finished, she did the same to Eldan. Returning to her master's side, she shook her head, confirming neither were guilty.

    "Okay, you guys are clean," Tsomu said, glancing at the clock. "Stick around. I'm going to get to the bottom of this once and for all."

    With no matches scheduled for the day, Safiri, Ruby, and Esmeralda were free to join the competitors for lunch, but what was meant to be a normal lunch quickly devolved into a case of whodunit, with Detective Tsomu at the lead.

    "There are cake thieves in our midst," he said, deadly serious. "Dirty, stinking cake thieves, who couldn't wait their turn for a piece of Windra's birthday cake!"

    A few gasps were heard. Kiria, who was sitting at the same table as Windra, brought her in for a hug. "You didn't tell me it was your birthday! Happy birthday!"

    Windra was not amused. "Yeah, I know I didn't tell you. I didn't tell anyone. How the hell did you find out, Tsomu?"

    "That's not important," Tsomu said, dismissing her. "What matters is that some of you are dirty stinking cake thieves, and no one is leaving this room until I find out who."

    Alex, rising from his seat, objected. "You cannot be serious." He looked to Safiri for support. "Tell me this is his idea of a joke."

    "No, I'm afraid he's right," Safiri said, standing as well. "This cake was made at the request of an anonymous donor, in Windra's honor. It would reflect poorly on Diamant Industries if we reported that Windra was unable to enjoy her cake due to the misbehavior of others. As a show of faith, the three of us," she gestured towards Ruby and Esmeralda, "will also remain until the culprits are found, as we are all technically suspects."

    "I'm innocent," Cody said, crossing his arms. "I don't even like cake, yeah? Just tastes weird to me."

    "All the more reason you could be guilty!" Tsomu declared, pointing an accusatory finger at him. "Here's what we're going to do. Eldan, Nye, you're free to go."

    Complaints and dissent rang out through the crowd as the two wasted no time in leaving the cafeteria. "Quiet! Bae has already inspected them; they are clean. As for the rest of you, we'll put it to a vote. Majority rules. They'll step forward, Bae will inspect them. If you're clean, you can go. If you're guilty, no dessert for the remainder of the tournament!"

    More dissent. "Yeah, yeah, tell someone who cares! You should have thought of that before you ate Windra's cake!"

    "Is no one listening to me?!" Windra shouted. "How the hell did you know it was my birthday?! What donor? In my honor? I didn't even do anything! Will someone please tell me what's going on?!"

    Tsomu continued to ignore her. "It's the case of the eaten cake! I and the rest of the patient competitors will enjoy what's left of this cake, while you dirty stinking cake thieves get nothing! The game starts now. Now choose!"

    * * * * * * * *

    The complaints of everyone forced to stay behind and play Tsomu's game were clearly audible even though the doors to the cafeteria were shut tight. Nye was glad that Tsomu had let her go; sitting around and arguing over who did or didn't eat Windra's cake seemed very boring, if she was being honest.

    "Hey, wait up," Eldan called from behind her.

    A week ago, if someone had told Nye that she would not just tolerate, but enjoy being around Eldan, she wouldn't have believed it. And if they'd said that they would eventually end up in each other's arms in the hallway, dangerously close to crossing a line, she would have laughed in their face. But there they were.

    He is pretty cute without the glasses.

    She was impressed by the amount of restraint Eldan had shown since their battle. True to his word, Eldan had significantly dialed back his lecherous behavior, making only minor comments, and only to her. He didn't even flirt with the other girls (or guys, she remembered with a smile), let alone solicit them for sex, which Nye appreciated a lot. It was clear that he was taking his promise to her seriously, and this helped Nye see Eldan in a new way.

    She slowed down, but only a little, forcing him to walk quicker to keep up with her. Nye's room was closer to the cafeteria than Eldan's was, so it didn't take the two of them long to reach her room. She felt Eldan approach her from behind and wrap his arms around her; she allowed him a moment before turning around, twisting herself out of his loose grip. "I hope you aren't under the impression that I am going to invite you in or something along that line," she said, gently pushing him a step backwards.

    "Well, to be honest, yeah, I was kinda hoping we could spend some more time together," Eldan admitted. "I had fun earlier, and it seemed like you were into it a little bit ago, so..."

    Then invite me to do something! Do you have any idea how to court a lady?

    "So..." Nye trailed off, not helping him in the slightest.

    "So... can I come in?" He waggled his eyebrows.

    Oh lord.

    "What kind of lady do you think I am, Eldan?" Nye asked, equal parts curiosity and teasing in her voice. "Just because I was in your presence for a while and did not want to immediately bludgeon you with the nearest blunt object because of the filth that spews from your mouth on a regular basis does not mean I am going to invite you into my private quarters."

    Now Eldan rolled his eyes, but since he was wearing his sunglasses again, Nye couldn't see it. He bowed low, taking one of Nye's hands in his own. "Oh, a thousand pardons, Lady Nye, I didn't--"

    Nye suddenly snatched her hand away, causing Eldan to look up in confusion. "Don't call me that."

    "Huh?"

    Nye shooed an image of purple hair matted under a dark hood with a flowing black cape out of her mind. "Just call me Nye, okay?"

    Eldan wasn't sure what the big deal was, but he wasn't about to refuse her request. "Sure... sorry. So what will you do now?"

    "Excuse me?"

    "You don't want to hang out with me, so I was wondering what you'll do now," Eldan clarified.

    Giving up so easily? Nye thought of her suitor. Come on, use your imagination! ...On second thought, that's probably not a good idea. "Oh, I don't know. I may catch up on some reading, or take a nap," she answered, trying her best to sound terribly bored with either idea, hoping Eldan would take the hint.

    "Wow, real fun," he deadpanned. "You wanna go out with me? Outside, I mean. Everyone's in the cafeteria playing Smell the Cake Eater or whatever with Tsomu, so no one would bother us."

    "Hm, I suppose I could read later," Nye conceded, happy that this game was coming to an end. "Lead the way."

    The two of them headed upstairs into the main lobby of Indigo Plateau, which was completely empty, as Safiri promised. A warm breeze blew onto them as they exited the building into the stadium, which was void of life outside of the two friends. As Eldan surveyed the fifty thousand empty seats, Nye stood close by, waiting for him to take command of this date.

    It's not a date. Far from it. We just went outside, that's all.

    The thought seemed hollow, even to her. The two of them were alone, spending time together, enjoying each other's company and entertaining the idea of a relationship.

    If it looks like a Ducklett and quacks like a Ducklett...

    All right, fine, so maybe this is sort of like a date. Besides, it's not like he could take her out on a real date, not while they were both stuck here. So this would have to do.

    "...sit?"

    "What?" Nye asked, taken out of her thoughts. "I'm sorry, I wasn't listening."

    "I said, where do you wanna sit? Plenty of seats to choose from," Eldan joked.

    "Oh, could we walk and talk? I haven't been outside in days... I'd like to enjoy the sun a bit."

    "Sure thing."

    They stayed on the lowest level of the arena, walking in the area between the main stage and the lowest level of seating. At first, neither trainer said anything, simply enjoying the feeling of the sun. It was hot, but not humid, and although Nye enjoyed the fresh air and the warm weather, she found herself wishing she'd brought her hat to give her a little shade. She thought of the man next to her, immaculately dressed in his Team Flare uniform. It reminded her of their battle, when she imagined him "sweating with style," and she couldn't help but giggle at the absurdity of it, now that they were in less stressful circumstances.

    The sound of her voice prompted Eldan to respond. "Something funny?" he inquired. She explained her thoughts to him, and he let out a chuckle. "Our uniforms are made of a cotton/rayon blend, so they breathe very easily. I don't recall feeling overly uncomfortable during our fight, or right now, now that you mention it." He grinned. "I could have Aliana get your measurements, if you like. She's head of that department. You'd look stunning in a Team Flare uniform, although cutting and restyling your beautiful hair would be a crime. I could probably pull some strings, see if I can get them to allow you to keep those locks."

    Nye balked at the idea. "Absolutely not. No offense to you or Team Flare, but I wouldn't be caught dead in such a garish outfit."

    This didn't phase Eldan in the slightest. "None taken. To be honest, I thought the same thing when I first joined. I hadn't even worn a suit and tie before then."

    Nye pounced on the opportunity to learn more about the man behind the uniform. "How long have you been with them?"

    "Four years," he answered as they rounded a corner. "Officially, I'm still a Grunt, but I've been around longer than most people in the organization, so I'm respected more than your average lackey."

    "No room for advancement, huh?" she joked.

    "There really isn't. There are a few people with the admin rank in Team Flare, but it's mostly a formality. The admins run day-to-day things but each of them reports to one of Team Flare's lead scientists, who in turn reports to Lysandre. I've been around longer than most of the admins. I actually trained my commanding officer because I already knew how to do everything she needed to know."

    "If that's true, why didn't you just take the job yourself?"

    Eldan shrugged. "Didn't want it. Like I said, the admin title is pretty much in name only. The grunts in my division look up to and respect me, regardless of my official rank, and both Celosia - the head of my unit - and Lysandre have personally commended me for my loyalty and work for the team. That's the highest praise I can ask for."

    Nye nodded, although she wished she'd asked a better question. While it was interesting to learn about his life in Team Flare, she was more interested in his life out of it.

    "All right, it's my turn to ask you something," Eldan said suddenly. "Why don't you like being called 'Lady' Nye?"

    Nye bristled at the phrase, but she calmed herself down and reminded herself that there was no way Eldan could know, and he was just trying to learn about her. "You know Quayle and I are old friends, right?"

    Eldan let out a sound of disgust at hearing Quayle's name, but the glare Nye shot him in response shut him up. "Sorry. Go on."

    "We met about eleven or twelve years ago, when I relocated to Celestic Town." She smiled, recalling the sweet young boy she befriended. "He was a very quiet child, largely kept to himself... he was teased a lot, although I don't know if the teasing was because he never socialized with anyone or if he never socialized with anyone because he was teased.

    "I empathized with him. I... didn't really have any friends at that age, either. I approached him and introduced myself, and I remember he had the cutest expression on his face, like he was stunned that a pretty, older girl like me was talking to him. We became fast friends, two lonely souls finding solace in the other's company. One day, a few years later, we were talking about our pasts, and I mentioned to him that I was born into wealth. Quayle was impressed by this and started calling me 'Lady' Nye. At first I thought he was doing it to be silly, like you did, but... he started doing it all the time. He wouldn't address me as anything else. It was grating after a while. I left my home to escape all of that, not to be reminded of it at every turn."

    Eldan was struck silent, clearly not expecting this conversation to take such a serious turn. "What did you need escaping from?"

    "My parents," Nye replied, sighing heavily. "I don't think either of them were ready to become parents, thinking back on it. For all their money, neither of them had a clue what it meant to be responsible for a child, and rather than give me up for adoption, they chose to raise me. And by they, I mean my nanny Sheila, who I loved dearly." She chuckled humorlessly. "I was closer to her than my actual mother. She taught me how to read and write, made sure I was well fed, had proper clothes for cold weather... you know, things parents are supposed to do."

    Eldan could hear the bitterness in Nye's voice as she recounted her story and wondered if he should stop her, but she continued before he had a chance to interject. "I miss her terribly, but I'll always be grateful for the time we had, and for instilling in me a love of books and learning that I don't believe I would have had without her guidance."

    "Did something... happen to her? She sounds wonderful, but you still left home, so..."

    "When I was eight years old, while out on a walk with Sheila, I found a Munna sick and injured outside of town. I had barely heard of Pokemon, but knew some people kept them as pets. My parents had a strict policy against that, arguing that it was too much work and they didn't want to clean up after it. Sheila knew this, but after seeing how well Munna and I got along, Sheila captured it for me, and said that it was to be our little secret. We managed to keep it that way for almost two years.

    "One day, when I was feeding Munna, my mother barged into my room unannounced and, well, that was that. She asked me where I got it, and I told her, proudly, that Sheila captured it for me. My mother asked Sheila if this was true, and she admitted it, so my mother fired her on the spot and demanded she leave. I stood between Sheila and my mother, refusing to let it happen. My mother grabbed me and pushed me out of the way, then marched Sheila out of my room, out of my house, and out of my life. I watched her leave from my bedroom window, screaming and crying that my mother had taken away one of the only people who I believed cared about me. I lashed out at her, telling her that I loved Sheila more than I loved her, and that Sheila was a better mother to me than she was. My mother responded by taking Munna and locking me in my bedroom, saying she would deal with me once my father got home from work."

    Nye let out a breath. "I'm sorry. This isn't even what you asked about. I don't mean to be unloading all of this onto you. This was supposed to be a nice date."

    "It's more than fine, Nye," Eldan replied, hesitantly touching the fingers of her left hand with the fingers of his right, and he was pleased when she silently linked their hands together. "I want to know all about you that I can."

    Smiling sadly, she nodded, then continued. "There isn't much more to tell. Once my father came home, he and my mother argued for hours. Turns out he sided with me, saying that if I was able to care for a Pokemon for that long without them knowing, then obviously I could handle owning one. He finally came to see me late that night, and returned Munna to me. That night... was the beginning of the end, as far as their marriage was concerned. He and my mother fought constantly after that, arguing over what I was or wasn't ready for, how I should or should not be disciplined, where I should or should not go to school or become a trainer professionally. Things that they should have had a better handle on years ago.

    "A few months later, my father told me that he and my mother were getting a divorce, and explained what that would entail. I blamed myself for their ruined marriage, and ran away the same day. I packed a bag, grabbed Munna, and left without leaving a note. I took a boat to Sinnoh, not knowing or caring where I was going, as long as it wasn't Unova. I ended up in Celestic Town after some time seeing the region, and met Quayle a short time after that." She looked over to Eldan, who was listening intently to her story, and gently squeezed his hand. "What about you? What was your life like before you joined Team Flare?"

    Eldan laughed a little. "I used to joke that I have never had a life before Team Flare. My parents met at a Team Flare rally, years and years ago. They were interested in Team Flare's message, and though they didn't actually join, they supported them in other ways, volunteering, donating money... stuff like that. After I was born, they continued their work, dragging me along to various Team Flare functions whenever they would go. When I was fourteen, I saw a recruitment poster for Team Flare, so I decided to check it out. When they offered me a membership, I accepted it without asking my parents first. I wanted to stick it to them and show them that I was an adult and they could suck it if they didn't like it. Well, imagine my surprise when not only were they not mad, but they were actually happy to see me in the group. Go figure, right?"

    Nye looked at the ground, away from Eldan, so he couldn't see the look of disappointment on her face. From what Eldan was saying, it sounded like Team Flare was his entire life, and she didn't know what that said about his life goals, considering what he'd told her already. "Do you ever see yourself leaving them?"

    "Leaving Team Flare?" he asked, as though the very idea of it was impossible to fathom. "You know, yesterday Kiria asked me yesterday to leave Team Flare," he realized. He playfully jabbed her in the side with his elbow. "Heh, is there something you two know that I don't?"

    Nye shook her head. They were approaching the final corner surrounding the arena, and they would be back at the entrance in a few minutes' time. "No, I just wonder what your ambitions are. What do you want to do with yourself? You've been a part of Team Flare longer than most people, but you're still at the bottom of the ladder, by choice. Don't you want more?"

    "I have most of what I want already," Eldan countered. "Team Flare can't help me get the one thing I really want, though."

    "And that is?"

    Eldan squeezed her hand. "You, of course."

    Nye quickly looked away from him, feeling her face get hot. "Don't say such ridiculous things."

    "Why not? It's no secret how I feel about you. And I know you're starting to warm up to me, too. You wouldn't have called this a date otherwise." A satisfied grin exploded onto his face at Nye's stunned realization. "Yeah, just because I didn't derail your story right away doesn't mean I wasn't paying attention. Why are you surprised? Do you regret saying it?"

    Oh, how she wanted to say yes, deny her words, deny her feelings, deny everything, but she wasn't sure either of them would believe it at this point. There was no going back now. "No, I don't," she said softly. "I mean, this isn't a typical date, but... I have enjoyed myself. I wanted to learn more about you, but it seems as though I did most of the talking..."

    Eldan squeezed her hand again. "I'm not worried. We've got a whole week to... get to know each other."

    He brushed up against her as he said it, and that familiar feeling of revulsion came rushing back to her, and she was momentarily surprised at how long it had been since she felt it. She extracted her hand from his with a jerk, as though touching him was making her physically ill, and she increased her walking pace. "You truly are disgusting," she spat, sounding more annoyed than angry. "I cannot believe I thought you were changing."

    Eldan smiled despite Nye's actions. She'd already made her feelings clear, and he was confident he could safely crack a few jokes with her at this point. Her tone of voice as she chastised him wasn't lost on him, and it gave him confidence that soon, she'd be his. At the very least, she was still hilariously easy to fluster, so he would still have plenty of good-natured fun at her expense.

    Something in the back of his mind told him not to press his luck too much, though. She was already a willing passenger in his boat; no point in needlessly rocking it.

    Nye reached the doors leading inside a few steps ahead of Eldan, and she nearly ran into Frisk, who was on her way outside. "Hey, watch where you're going!"

    "Sorry, sweetie," Nye apologized, stepping out of her way and allowing Frisk to pass. Right behind her was the huge form of Taikyu, and he nodded to her in greeting as he passed by. As soon as he was out the door, Nye slipped behind him and disappeared into the building.

    * * * * * * * *

    Windra was feeling pretty good about herself. It hadn't taken Tsomu long to give up in his search for whoever had eaten her cake, which meant she'd gotten off scot free. It was unlikely anyone would have suspected her in the first place, which made her victory all the more sweeter. But there was still something that was bothering her, so she headed back into the cafeteria, where Tsomu was sitting at a table alone. His face and eyes were red, streaked with tears. Windra felt bad for him and almost - almost - considered confessing, but then she remembered that giving up was for chumps and kept her mouth shut about that.

    Seeing him so upset almost made her turn around and walk back out again. It wasn't like he was forthcoming earlier, and Windra didn't think he was going to be in a mood to talk right now either, but she wasn't about to give him a choice. The man knew something he shouldn't have, and she wasn't going to leave until she found out how.

    She approached his table. He looked up at her briefly, then quickly tried wiping his eyes in a failed attempt to disguise the fact he'd been crying. "What do you want?" he spat, not looking at her. "Come to make fun of me?"

    Windra sighed, hoping that he wasn't going to make this difficult for her. "You didn't answer me. How did you know it was my birthday, Tsomu? No one knew it was my birthday." A moment of realization as she remembered that that technically wasn't true. "Did Safiri tell you?"

    "No," he said simply. "We got a call from some guy after your match. He asked us to make you a cake since your birthday was coming up, and he thought you could use some cheering up. Oh yeah," he added, remembering, "Hold on. He left a message for you too." He rose from his seat and disappeared into the kitchen for a few moments before coming out with a piece of paper. "He said it was kind of a long one, so he had me write it down. It was weird. Here."

    Windra took the piece of paper, scanned its message.

    Dearest Evelyn,

    Sorry about your match. You did your best in the face of overwhelming odds, and that's all anyone can ask. I've asked these nice folks to make a cake for you, since your birthday is coming up and I'll be unable to do so myself. I'm sorry I couldn't be there in person, but just know that you are always on my mind and I can't wait to see you again. I'm in Hoenn now, so please look me up once the tournament is over.


    She moved a hand to her mouth in disbelief at the contents of the note. She was almost certain of who'd dictated it, but she was very hesitant to believe. "Tsomu, who sent this?" she asked, equal parts fear, hope, and anger in her voice.

    "I told you, some guy," Tsomu answered with a shrug. "He didn't give me a name. Once he finished talking and I read it back to him, he said that it was good. I told him there was no one here named Evelyn, but he assured me that I should give the note to you, and that you'd know what it meant. Then he thanked me and hung up." A pause. "Who's Evelyn?"

    "Bastard," she muttered, gripping the paper tightly in a fist. "Just who does he think he is?!" she screamed, beginning to pace back and forth, gesturing with the note as she rambled. "Does he think he can just pull this kind of shit and expect everything to be fine?!"

    "I... I don't know?" Tsomu offered, not having the slightest clue what Windra was going on about. "Who's Evelyn?" he asked again.

    She sighed in frustration. "Evelyn is my real first name. I just go by my middle name." She suddenly turned on Tsomu, approaching him and pointing in his face. "But don't go running your mouth about it, got it? If I hear anyone else call me Evelyn, I'm kicking your ass."

    "Okay, okay, chill out, Windra, geez. So you know who did this?"

    "Yeah, I have an idea. Some asshole who thought it would be funny to abandon me."

    Tsomu frowned. "Your dad?" he suggested.

    "No, not my dad. Daddy sometimes, but not my dad," she joked, but the humor was quickly replaced by the dull anger she felt whenever she thought about... him. "Anyway, thanks for letting me know about this." She pocketed the letter and went to leave again, but she was stopped by a loud noise coming from her stomach. "When the hell is lunch?" she asked the competitor chef. I am going to eat my weight in cheesy noodles."

    "It's, uh... actually been ready," Tsomu said sheepishly. "I had them keep it warm while I tried figuring out who ate your cake."

    "You what? What are you sitting here for then?! Get in there and start hauling it out here before I waste away!"
     
    Last edited: Jul 4, 2018
  7. Skyleaf2000 Resident UB Enthusiast
    Skyleaf2000

    Member

    My comments are mostly rubbish today, sorry about that. My edumacation has been killing me.
    oh man dont make me cry, i know something bad will happen
    also, a combination of Windra and Quayle? why would you ever want to create such a chaotic being of destruction??
    Ayyyyyyyy, Win!
    *Looker's theme plays*
    AHAHAHAHA! I didn't guess that!!
    if he shows up, destroy him, Win
     
    PMJ likes this.
  8. NinJamezor More Huntail Please!
    NinJamezor

    Member

    I liked this chapter. I especially like the relationship Eldan and Nye have. Cute and funny at the same time.
    This line is my 2nd favorite quote of this entire story so far, right after Eldan calling Quayle "His Royal Highness Edge Nightdoom".
     
  9. Blakers Holder of the Holy Diamond!
    Blakers

    Member

    So I haven’t posted anything in here since Chapter 4, god this is overdue.

    I do like the direction that Rose and her subplot with Scarlet went in. Rose being in a relationship with Gardevoir and Lucario definitely wasn’t something I saw coming, but it does add a unique aspect to her character. I liked that Kiria and Jethro tried to help Scarlet, and the way Alex set up the triangle even more with the notes was very well done. I’m also hoping that Rose’s Gardevoir ends up battling Eldan’s before Rose loses to Thresher, which seems to have been teased in both chapters 5 and 9.

    I’m really interested to see what kind of characters Eldan, Quayle, and Scarlet are by the end of the story. So far, they seem to be the ones that have been the most focused on character development. Who knows, maybe a potential Galactic attack could cause more development in more than one of them (and we’d maybe get to see the Jewels take a battle seriously).

    Speaking of the Jewels, I was really shocked at Safiri selling Esmeralda out and think it’s a good twist. I’m curious about what Diamant thinks his options are for handling it, though. Or he could choose to not take any actions at all. I’m very interested to see where it goes, and how Ruby will react if she finds out.

    I really liked the development you gave to Frisk and Chara’s relationship. Now that they’ve patched things up as siblings and Chara will supposedly he let out more often, I wonder if he’ll meet any of the other competitors?

    The whole Motfia thing is something that I’m actually speculating about. I know Windra probably won’t confess (I called it from the start of the game and will always take credit for it), but will the ones who weren’t caught confess to the crime? And I wonder how Windra’s going to handle the letter that I assume is from Damien? Who knows, maybe it could lead to development for her as well.

    I’m amazed at how much Eldan and Nye’s interactions have changed since the start of the story. They’re being heavily teased as a potential couple, and I don’t think Nye can keep fighting this war with herself over it for much longer. If they do turn into a couple, I’m excited to see how Quayle reacts to it.

    I’ve really enjoyed reading this story so far, and would love to see more! Thanks again for writing it!
     
  10. PMJ happy thoughts
    PMJ

    Articles Head Activities Staff Badges Staff Elite Member Advanced Member Member

    Hey cool you didn't bail

    I planned on it becoming more important later in the story, and the time for me to pull the trigger on it is getting closer. I'm just not sure when the best time is, or what exactly I'm going to do with it. I know what I want to happen, but not how to execute it.

    First of all, who said Rose was going to lose?

    Next, blocking a battle between two Gardevoir turned out to be harder than I thought. I don't want the battle to be boring, which is how I'm currently envisioning a battle like this, and it's making it hard to justify writing it. So I'm still on the fence about making it happen. Just need to get inspired somehow...

    Scarlet's role in this story as a main character is over, for the most part. Her subplot is resolved and she dominated the early chapters, so I want to give her a break. Notice that I didn't even mention her in chapter 9.

    I wish I could give you more details about the Galactic invasion, but I don't know anything other than it's a thing that will eventually happen.

    There is a scene planned in either chapter 10 or 11 that explores this very situation.

    I liked it as well, and I hope Jesi does too, when she finally reads it.

    The idea of Chara meeting the other competitors is a thread I've already started to tug, although you might not recognize it for what it is yet.

    If a scene requires it, sure, but otherwise, no. Taikyu did get found out, though, so Tsomu knows he did it.

    The inability to actually bring Damien into the story means this road is mostly a dead end. It existed mainly for Motfia's plot. That doesn't mean I won't try to work it into some development for Windra, though.

    I'm not. I told you guys this was a strong pairing.

    I'm sure his reaction to his childhood friend of many years whom he cares deeply for falling for a guy who he thinks is playing her will be level-headed and mature, and nothing bad will happen at all.

    Thank you for reading it. And that goes to all of you, even though I have to beg and plead for you guys to comment, I enjoy the fact that you guys are liking the garbage I put out on a monthly basis.

    I haven't written anything in chapter 10 yet. This is mainly due to it being an in-between period for the main battles and I'm still not convinced I don't want to just skip all of it and go straight into Rose vs Thresher. Cutting out the filler chapters would also cut down on the time it takes me to finish this story. I don't want this story to take six years to finish. Best case scenario is I finish a bit past the two-year mark, so I've got to get to steppin if I want to finish "on time."

    Everyone else should post their comments too :)
     
  11. PMJ happy thoughts
    PMJ

    Articles Head Activities Staff Badges Staff Elite Member Advanced Member Member

    Chapter 10 highlights:

    - story time with Jethro
    - Esmeralda confronts Safiri
    - Quayle makes another late-night visit to Nye
    - Windra goes for a swim
    - Rose's secret is revealed
    - Rose and Thresher have their match
    - it's friggin dope


    This should have been out months ago. I was on pace to finish on time and then I stopped to work on Mafia 53. Around the time that game finished, I fell into a massive depression that I am still dealing with. Things have gotten a little better, but it's a slow process. Since the battle was already blocked and the chapter leading up to the battle was already written, it made finding the will to actually finish it a little easier. So here, several months late, is this chapter.

    As for the future of this story, I don't know what's going to happen. I've talked to people in the MotFI Discord and told them I'm considering epilogue-ing this story, which would basically be a tl;dr of all upcoming chapters - think the highlights, but a little more fleshed out.

    Having time to write isn't much of a problem, it's finding the desire to. I just... don't... care, for lack of a better word. Honestly, if this chapter hadn't been as far along as it was, I might never have finished it. But here it is. It brings the word count of the entire story over 150,000.

    The chapter kinda ends on a mysterious note. Woo, spooky. Enjoy.

    Word count: 15,749

    Chapter 10: Revelations


    The rest of the weekend was uneventful, but still relaxing for everyone. With no battles to be had, the competitors spent most of the remaining weekend in each other's company, usually only retiring to their own rooms to sleep.

    Rose took an opportunity to learn more about the other competitors' legendary Pokemon. Tsomu was more than happy to let her meet Dialga, and while she was extremely hesitant to even be in the same room with Quayle's Deoxys, she eventually relented and the two had a brief conversation together where Quayle apologized (again) on behalf of him and his Pokemon, in full view of the others this time. For Shifter's part, it expressed grief over any lasting damage it may have caused, which Rose hesitantly accepted. It wasn't the sweeping acceptance that Quayle had hoped for, but he felt like the two were making progress towards patching things up. Nye thanked Quayle for his display, giving him a big hug and causing his cheeks to color.

    Frisk naturally spent most of her days off with Taikyu, where they told stories of their respective pasts, each intrigued by the wondrous tales of the other. Frisk made good on her promise to let Chara take control of her, allowing him all of Saturday and a good part of Sunday to spend with his new best friend. In turn, Chara mostly honored his vow to lay off the pranks, only needing to be brought in line by Taikyu once the entire time. The one time was all Chara needed; Taikyu may have been old, but he was no infirm. His voice carried an authority brought about and honed by decades of commanding spirits, even at seventy years old, and the one time Taikyu had trained that strong, confident voice on Chara, it had scared the hell out of him.

    Another meeting of the Close Calls Club was held; Windra was inducted as a member after she found herself unable to resist Kyro's boyish charm (and the shame she felt from the looks of disappointment from the other members when she started stammering out a refusal).

    What had started as Alex bragging about his victory two days prior had turned into a discussion of egg moves; whose Pokemon had them, difficulty of breeding said moves, etc. Lenny brought up Jethro's Luxray knowing Ice Fang, and Jethro had ended up dominating the conversation from that point onward.

    "I didn't catch her myself, y'see," he explained. "I ran into some rich-lookin' guy on some road, I don't recall which one just now. Had a big ol' box of baby Shinx, just yowlin' and cryin'. Heh. It was a pretty cute sight. They couldn't have been more than a few weeks old, a month, tops." Jethro paused, letting out a long breath. "He asked me if I wanted one."

    "Aww, he was trying to find homes for all the wittle babies!" Kiria chimed in.

    "Pah. Yeah right," Jethro scoffed. "His intentions were anything but noble. No, he said that he was a breeder and that none of the Shinx were what he 'needed', so he was off to release the lot of them into the wild to fend for themselves. I just happened to be passing by, so that's why he asked."

    Cody, who was also listening, frowned. "At that age? There's no way they could survive in the wild away from their mother!"

    "Exactly. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. The nerve of this guy, tossing away the lives of all those Pokemon...! Still makes my blood boil to this day. If I ever saw that guy again, I... well, I don't know what I'd do, but it wouldn't be pretty," Jethro mused. "Anyway, of course I accepted one. I wanted to take the whole box, but I didn't know how to take care of a bunch of baby Pokemon. And there were no shelters for miles, at least from what little I knew about Sinnoh. I had no choice but to let him go on his way with all of Ennis' brothers and sisters, never to be seen again.

    "I never understood what that man meant by 'needed', but listening to you guys, it's possible that he was talking about egg moves. I ain't never had to put Ennis up against a Pokemon she has so much of a disadvantage against that both Electric and Normal attacks don't work, so I guess I never had the chance to see what she could do. But it makes you think, what was it the guy 'needed' if not a Shinx that knows Ice Fang? Knowing she's got an ace like that up her sleeve makes me a hell of a lot more comfortable letting her fight against Ground-types. 'Course, I'd rather let Aisling handle those guys, but... y'know.

    "Anyway, I ain't complainin'. Ennis has grown to be one of my most powerful Pokemon and most trusted friends. I trust that girl with my life."

    The other competitors found themselves nodding at his statement; after all, they, too, had Pokemon they felt like they could trust with their lives.

    After dinner, Safiri gathered everyone in the cafeteria for an announcement.

    "Good evening, everyone. I hope you've all been enjoying yourselves. On behalf of myself, my sisters, and Mr. Diamant, we would like to thank each of you for accepting our invitation to participate in the tournament. To those of you who won your matches last week, congratulations, and best of luck during the quarterfinals. To the eight of you who lost, you will be pleased to know that Mr. Diamant was so impressed by the quality of battles displayed that he has agreed to award each of you a small consolation prize in the amount of $25,000."

    Cheers and applause rang out, and people near each other began commenting on it before Safiri cut them off. "I am also authorized to tell you that the losers of the quarterfinals matches will each receive one hundred thousand dollars; the losers of the semifinals will receive $500,000; and the loser of the final match will receive $5 million. A press release with this information has been sent out as well."

    Quayle found it hard to be excited. Twenty-five grand was a lot of money, but he was upset about something he thought was a little more important than money. He needed to talk to Nye, but... He looked over at another table, where Eldan and Nye were sitting by themselves. Though the two of them hadn't publicly stated they were an item, they'd spent more time together in the past two days than they had all week, and the others simply assumed it to be the case, especially given her previous attitude towards him. Quayle glared at the Team Flare officer as he put his arm around Nye's shoulder. She didn't even flinch. She made no effort to move closer to him, but at the same time, she was no longer outright rebuking his advances.

    He's got his hooks in you deep, doesn't he?

    His train of thought was derailed by Safiri. "Mr. Diamant regrets he could not be here personally to deliver this information, but he sends his regards and heartfelt thanks for making this tournament a success, and he wishes each of you all the best in your future endeavors. And with that, I'd like to direct your attention to the the television screen here." She removed a remote from her pocket and pressed a button, bringing the television to life. "Here are the pairings for the quarterfinals."

    [​IMG]

    "As you can see, and may have already figured out, we will open the matches tomorrow with a battle between Miss Bersalk and Mr. Fessco, followed by a match between Miss Gramarye and Miss Wright that afternoon. Tuesday will see battles between Miss Achra and Mr. Beckett, and Mr. Duffy and Mr. Croft. Both semifinals matches will happen on Wednesday, the finals will take place Thursday, and the closing ceremony will be that evening. Mr. Diamant is pleased to inform you that he will be there to personally congratulate the winner and award their prize of 100 million dollars. After the ceremony, you'll all return to pack your belongings. Indigo Plateau staff have generously granted us permission to stay through the night, and Friday morning you'll all be transported back to Viridian City, where we've scheduled flights home for each of you. Does anyone have any questions?"

    Esmeralda scoffed to herself. "Yeah, what's it feel like to be a traitor?" she muttered under her breath, knowing full well Safiri (but no one else) would be able to hear her. Ruby, who had been sitting with her, shot Esmeralda a look, then rolled her eyes, mouthing an apology to Safiri.

    Safiri wisely chose not to bring it up in front of the others. "If there's nothing else, you're all dismissed. Battles will begin at the normal time tomorrow. Good night, and good luck." She left the cafeteria without so much as glancing at Ruby and Esmeralda, and she could practically hear Esmeralda's look of indignation as she scrambled from her chair and chased after her. Fearing Esmeralda would make good on her threat to blow their cover in front of anyone passing by, she briskly walked towards the exit leading upstairs, hitting the door just as Esmeralda made it into the hallway.

    "Where do you think you're going?! Safiri, stop!" she yelled, but Safiri powered on, almost running up the steps, trying to escape before her sister could catch her. She made it up one flight before Esmeralda burst through the doors leading into the stairwell. "Get back here!"

    Yep, she's mad, Safiri thought as she continued to ignore Esmeralda. She barely made it into the lobby before Esmeralda tackled her, sending them both crashing to the ground. "Damn it, Safiri, stop!"

    "What has gotten into you?!" Safiri shouted, pushing her little sister off of her and scrambling to her feet. "Have you lost your mind?!"

    "I could ask you the same thing," Esmeralda spat back, staying on the ground. "You sold me out!"

    Fortunately, Safiri did not insult Esmeralda by pretending not to know what she was referring to. "Yes, I did. I had to say something, Esmeralda, I couldn't just--"

    "Just what?!" Esmeralda shouted up to her big sister. "Just keep your big mouth shut for once? Just let us have a secret between sisters? Just let me be happy and do something nice for someone I care about? Which is it, Safiri?"

    "Your 'secret' could have jeopardized the entire operation! Don't you get it? This is bigger than us, Esmeralda. We can't afford to let our personal feelings get in the way of the mission!"

    "Don't you think I know that?!" Esmeralda shrieked, startling Safiri. She got off the ground and got right into Safiri's face, her eyes red and stinging with tears. "I told you that I wasn't going to say anything, but you told Mr. Diamant anyway! How am I supposed to trust you after that?!"

    Safiri took a couple steps backwards, giving her some much-needed space. "Why are you getting so upset? Mr. Diamant didn't even care. He said he trusted you not to take any unnecessary risks."

    "And you didn't! Don't you get it? You didn't. Mr. Diamant is our boss, but you're my sister. Do you have any idea what it feels like to be betrayed by someone you love?"

    Safiri bit her tongue. She did, in fact, know that feeling, but that was neither here nor there.

    Esmeralda sniffled, the first wave of her tears finally drying up, but the terrible sadness she felt every time she looked at Safiri meant a fresh batch wasn't far behind. "I just can't believe you told him. I feel like I can't trust you anymore. Why should I bother telling you anything if you're just going to report it to Mr. Diamant the first chance you get?"

    "What choice did I have?" Safiri questioned her, letting a little fire slip into her voice. "You've been acting very strange lately, and it's concerning."

    "I have not been--"

    "You threatened to expose us to them!" Safiri fired back. "Or did you think I was going to let that comment slide?"

    Esmeralda frowned, hurt by Safiri's comment. "Come on, Safiri, you know I would never do anything to--"

    "Do I?" Safiri cut her off again, sensing weakness. She closed the gap between her and Esmeralda. "Before this tournament, I would have agreed with you, but now I'm not so sure. This project could change the world, Esmeralda. I can't have you falling for one of the test subjects and risking everything Mr. Diamant has worked so hard for! If you really believe in this project the way you say you do, then you can't get mad at me for bringing up your behavior to Mr. Diamant. You know what's at stake here."

    "You know they're more than just test subjects for our experiments, right? Maybe Helmi's been rubbing off on you..."

    "Don't you dare compare me to that... that woman," Safiri said venomously, opting not to vocalize some of the more colorful words she had to describe Diamant's sister. "Unlike her, at least I take the time to remember the subjects' names."

    "Oh yeah? Do you really think that means anything, to anyone? What else can you tell me about them? Any of them, besides their names and how they're doing in the tournament?"

    "This is silly. It's not my job to know these things," Safiri deflected.

    "Yes it is. You said so yourself; Mr. Diamant wants each of us to build a rapport with the subjects, remember? I've done it. So has Ruby. We've always been there for them, even before you asked us to. I can tell you loads of things about them." She started counting off on her fingers. "Scarlet is deathly afraid of spiders and nearly cried at the sight of Cody's Araquanid. Taikyu's favorite color is yellow; he says it reminds him of the sun. Kyro wanted to donate half the tournament winnings to research into fossil Pokemon. Jethro has a huge scar on his chest from when he was a kid. And just yesterday we all consoled Lenny after he revealed to us that he'd lost both his wife and newborn daughter in childbirth. That's five right there, and I didn't even mention Windra, who you're sooooo worried I'm going to ruin this project over. What have you done to learn more about them? A whole fat lot of nothing, that's what. Did you know they talk about you?"

    "What do you mean?" Safiri asked.

    "I mean they talk about you. They whisper things to each other, things they think we can't hear. They think you're a bitch because you won't socialize with them. Not can't... won't. They don't understand why you're never there at meals, or how Ruby and I can make time for them, but you don't. They think you don't care, and Ruby and I can only make up so many excuses before it starts getting old. You might not want to admit it, Safiri, but you really are just like Helmi."

    "I... am not... her," Safiri seethed through clenched teeth. "You think that just because Helmi and I prefer not to socialize openly with others, that we're the same? You have no idea what kind of a person Helmi is. Did you know that she kicked the shit out of Argenta?" The look of horror on Esmeralda's face was all Safiri needed to go in for the kill. "Of course you didn't. It happened before you were born. Argenta accidentally spilled some coffee on her and Helmi nearly killed her because of it. And here's another fun fact for you, Esmeralda. Aura was originally meant to be Helmi's assistant, but Helmi sabotaged her birth by making her an idiot and turning her into a kid. So Diamant forced her to make a second biot with the correct DNA, but he left her as a child as punishment to Helmi. That's why Argenta and Aura look the same. Mr. Diamant doesn't like talking about it, but that's the truth. He'll confirm it if you ask."

    Esmeralda was in tears now, not wanting to believe what Safiri was telling her, and feeling shame over not knowing the truth about the twins' existence. Safiri let her cry, making no attempt at consoling her. "Next time you want to compare me to someone, you should do a little research and make sure what you're saying is actually true."

    With that, Safiri turned around and left Esmeralda to quietly sob to herself in the hallway.

    * * * * * * *

    A little later, Quayle was on a mission. Nye was the only person he felt comfortable talking to about this, but he hadn't had a chance to speak with her privately all day; she and Eldan were practically joined at the hip. They spent a few hours training, then they had lunch together, then they went for another walk around the stadium, and then Safiri had called everyone back for her announcements. Dinner was after that, and of course they ate together. He clenched his fists, hating how cozy she and Eldan were getting, worried about when Eldan was going to let the other shoe drop and break Nye's heart.

    And if he did that...

    Well, he couldn't kill him, but there were other fun activities that could be had. His time in Team Galactic made him no stranger to some of their more inventive "interrogation techniques."

    He adjusted his glasses, pushing those dark thoughts from his head. Losing his temper would only serve to push Nye even further away. He couldn't protect Nye as the old Quayle.

    Another reason he needed to see her.

    He approached the door to Nye's room. He knew she was in there; from the cafeteria, he'd watched her and Eldan exchange goodbyes a few minutes earlier. As much as Eldan tried, Nye still wouldn't let him in her room, and for this Quayle was grateful. It meant he'd be able to speak to her without him butting his nose where it didn't belong. He knocked solidly a few times, then waited.

    Nye cracked open the door, peeking at her caller from inside the room. Seeing Quayle, she breathed a sigh of relief and opened the door fully. "Oh, hello, Quayle," she said cheerfully. "What brings you here?"

    "Uh. I, uh... wow," he answered, not expecting the sight before him. Nye was wearing a light pink silk nightie with black lace around the cups and skirt. It clung to her like a second skin, and Quayle quickly averted his eyes before they got him in trouble. "Sorry! I just wanted to talk to you, that's all!"

    "Oh? Sure, come on in," she said, turning away from him, not acknowledging his response at all.

    Quayle entered Nye's room, closing the door behind him. "Thanks. I won't be long, I just wanted to get a couple things off my chest... what's with the outfit?" he asked, his curious mind getting the best of him. "Ah, I mean, not that you don't look amazing in it, I've just... never seen you in it before..."

    "Probably because you've never seen me dressed for bed," she replied with a shrug. "I don't care if you see me in this, but if Eldan so much as caught a glimpse of me right now, I'd never hear the end of it. He'd burrow his way in here if he had to, just to sneak a peek."

    "Yeah, I bet." Even with an extra inch of fabric, the garment didn't even reach her knees; it was definitely the kind of thing Eldan would go crazy over.

    Nye sat on her bed and crossed one leg over the other, resting her hands on her lap. "Oh well. I'm glad it was just you. I don't have to worry when it's you," she said with a smile that warmed Quayle's heart. "What's on your mind?"

    Where do I start? he thought. There were three topics, each roughly the same importance in his mind, so he decided to go with the topic that first lead him to have this conversation. He sat next to Nye on her bed. "I called Candice yesterday."

    Nye's eyes widened. "Really! Tell me all the details," she said, touching his arm with her hand. What did she say?"

    "Well, she said she was a little less mad at me, but still disappointed."

    Nye nodded, considering this. "Yes, I suppose that's fair of her."

    "Right," Quayle continued. "She said she misses me, and she's glad to hear that I've changed, but..."

    "But?" Nye offered hesitantly.

    "But she's not interested in patching things up. She's moving on. It's... it's over," he finished.

    Nye wrapped her arms around him and hugged him tightly, and he leaned into it, looping one of his arms around her slim frame, delighted by the feeling of the fabric. "I'm sorry, Quayle," she said quietly. "Really. You two were good together." She extracted herself from him and was slightly surprised at the expression on his face. He wasn't overcome with grief, or on the verge of tears - he seemed... neutral, almost indifferent about the whole thing. "Forgive me for saying so, Quayle, but you don't seem all that upset about it."

    Quayle shook his head. "No, I was. I mean, at the time. I begged her over and over to reconsider. She wouldn't do it. She said she wouldn't be comfortable being with me, knowing what I was capable of. Like she feared I'd relapse and go back to the old me."

    "That's ridiculous!" Nye said confidently, getting up from the bed and picking her phone up from the table. "She doesn't know you like I know you, Quayle, I'll just call her and set the whole thing str--"

    "That isn't going to work," Quayle interrupted her. "She specifically said, 'And tell Nye not to call and try to change my mind.' Oh, and she also said for me to tell you good luck on your next match."

    Nye slumped her shoulders, pouting a little. "But... but she doesn't know what she's missing out on! Come on, you can't just give up!"

    Quayle sighed heavily, taking Nye by the hand and seating her next to him once more on the bed. He put his other hand on top of hers, and she put her other hand on top of his. "It's fine. Really. I've had a lot of time to think about this, and... I think this is for the best." He could feel himself tearing up; he pushed the words out before they spilled out and ruined everything. "I love her, there's no mistake about that, but even if I did manage to convince her to be with me, things would never be the same between us. She would never love me again, not the same way she did before last week." He took a deep breath, steadied his nerves for the next thing he was about to say. "And perhaps worst of all? I think she's afraid of me now. Imagine how betrayed she feels. Not only did I hide my life in Team Galactic from her, but I showed her - and the world - the kind of vile monster that lurks in the darkest shadows of my heart. I think she fears that one day I might turn that rage onto her. And Nye, I swear to every god above and below I would rather die a thousand painful, screaming deaths before I harmed even one hair on her head."

    "I know, sweetie, I know," Nye reassured him, squeezing his hands tightly. "I've always known. You did some terrible things, but you've spent the last week atoning for them, and showing everyone the real Quayle, the Quayle I grew up knowing, that I... had feelings for." She saw Quayle perk up at that, and she quickly continued before he could say anything. "Had," she stressed, looking sharply into his eyes as she said it. "Do you blame Candice for the way she feels?"

    "No, not at all," Quayle answered immediately. "This is all on me. I made my bed, now I have to lie in it."

    Nye's eyes saddened at his words. "Quayle..."

    Quayle looked into Nye's eyes and smiled, despite himself. She was so beautiful and kind, far better than someone like Eldan deserved. Seeing his smile caused Nye's own grin to come back, and that only made him smile wider. He'd never seen her smile like that when she was with Eldan. In his eyes, it was all the proof he needed, and it gave him the courage to talk about the second thing on his mind. "I will say this, though. Losing Candice hurt, but it's okay because... because recently, I've come to realize something else."

    "What's that...?" Nye asked cautiously, having a gut feeling she knew where this was leading.

    "You know how I feel about Eldan." It wasn't a question.

    "Yes..." her eyes narrowed questioningly for a moment before a sly smile danced across her face. "Ah, do you like him? Are you going to confess your feelings to him?"

    Quayle was floored by what he heard. "What?"

    Quayle stared dumbly at the cute girl in front of him, who giggled at his expression. "Oh, come now, you walked into that one. I couldn't resist!" But Quayle wasn't laughing, and one look at him was enough to kill the joy she'd brought herself. "Sorry," she apologized quietly, tearing her eyes away.

    "No, you've done nothing wrong, it's just... I'm surprised. You never used to make jokes like that before."

    "Hmm," Nye considered. "I suppose you're right. I imagine that having to rebuff Eldan so frequently has made me better at... what was the word he used?... ah. 'Zinging' people, he said. Oh, I forgot. Zing! I'm supposed to say that, apparently," she said with a chuckle. "Language certainly is interesting," she said, more to herself than to Quayle, and her mind began wandering before she reminded herself that she had a guest. "I'm sorry, Quayle, what about Eldan?"

    "I don't trust him. Guys like him? Team Galactic is full of them. They will say and do anything if it means they can get in your pants. I've seen it done, heard success story after success story from the grunts under my command. Even that prick Saturn did it." He released Nye's hands and put his hands tenderly on her shoulders. "Nye. Eldan is using you. Do you honestly believe that the Eldan you've been spending time with is the same one who wanted to make me disappear? This is just a game to him. You're a quest to be conquered and nothing more. He's playing the long con with you and it's clear as day to me. I don't want to see him hurt you or take advantage of you."

    "Is that what this is about?" she said coldly, shrugging Quayle's hands off of her. "Did you just come here to sob to me about Candice so I'd be in a more palatable mood for when you tried to get me to stop seeing Eldan?" She rose from the bed, went to the door, intent on seeing Quayle out. "Well, it won't work. I'll tell you the same thing I told him that day in the cafeteria - who I choose to associate with is none of your business. My friends are just that - my friends. I don't need you, or him, or anyone else telling me who I can and can't talk to like I'm some sort of child."

    "So you admit you're seeing him?"

    "What? I said nothing of the sort, I--"

    "No, you did, don't deny it. You said you were seeing him. You and him... you're actually dating?"

    "No," Nye said instantly, surety in her voice. "I don't know," she said immediately afterwards, in a voice which betrayed the confident answer she'd just given. "I know he wants to. We talked about it. But I'm not ready to say yes to him just yet."

    Quayle gulped. This was it - the last thing he'd wanted to talk to her about. "Then say yes to me."

    Now it was Nye's turn to be shocked. "Wh-What did you just say?"

    "Say yes to me," Quayle said with a little more confidence in his voice. "I can't stand seeing you with Eldan, knowing he's more than likely going to hurt you in the long run. You might not believe me, but I've heard too many stories for me to stay silent. And the thought of him breaking your heart made me realize how much I've grown to care for you. The lengths I would go to, in order to keep you happy." He got to his feet, went over to her, and took her hands in his own. "I... Nye, I think I--"

    "Don't say it," Nye sharply cut him off. "Quayle, just... just don't, okay?" She hugged him, simply letting the moment hang in the air. She relaxed with a contented sigh as Quayle hugged her back and let out a breath he didn't know he was holding. "You don't know what you're saying."

    "But I do," Quayle shot back, extracting himself and looking in her clear blue eyes. "Oh, Nye, I've never been more sure of anything in my life! I only wish it hadn't taken breaking Candice's heart for me to see, but... I see now. I want to be by your side forever. You can't tell me that there isn't something there, that you don't feel something for me."

    "I told you that I don't have those feelings anymore, Quayle," Nye said, remorse clear in her voice. "That was a long time ago."

    "Are you trying to convince me, or yourself?" he countered. "Because I think that part of the reason you haven't pulled the trigger on dating Eldan... is because you're waiting for me."

    "What," she uttered, staring blankly at him.

    "You heard me. That's why you put up with my shit for all those years. That's why, when I came to you, humbled and desperate, you forgave me and set me on the straight and narrow. That's why you don't care that you're standing here practically naked in front of me."

    "That's because we've been friends for years! I know the kind of person you are. I trust you not to make any lewd comments o-or stare at me like I'm a piece of meat, or--"

    "You trust me more than you do Eldan." It wasn't a question. "Remember? You said you'd been trying to avoid letting Eldan see you in something like that for fear of what he might do... You've put so much time and effort into our relationship, Nye. I'm finally seeing it for what it truly was. You were trying to tell me, in your own way, that you wanted to be with me. I just wasn't worthy of you yet."

    "Worthy... God, Quayle, listen to what you're saying," Nye pleaded. "You've always been worthy, I just--" she winced, realizing she'd fallen into his trap. "Okay, just hold on a minute here. You can't simply waltz into my bedroom and tell me you love me and expect me to just drop everything and... and..."

    "And accept that I'm right? That, yes, we have been friends for years, and maybe I know you a little better than you give me credit for? That maybe, just maybe, now that I'm becoming the man you've always wanted me to be, you're being forced to view me in a different light? But sure, Nye. I'll be fair about it. If you can look me in the eyes right now and tell me that you honestly have absolutely no, precisely zero romantic feelings for me... I'll drop it and I'll never bring it up again."

    Nye looked into Quayle's rich brown eyes, the ultimate denial hot on her tongue, but... she wavered. When she revealed to Quayle that she'd actually had feelings for him all those years ago, it had been in anger, to try and make him feel more terrible about what he had done, not drive him to all but confess his love and force her to question everything her heart had been telling her.

    But, Nye supposed, that was the point, wasn't it? Quayle may have had no fashion sense at all, and despite choosing a deep, lovely shade of purple for his hair... it was still purple... he definitely wasn't afraid to go after what he wanted. His methods were questionable at times, but Nye couldn't bring herself to hate him for his motives. After all, she'd lost friends and family in the attack on Celestic Town, the same as he had. It was only natural for him to want vengeance for those who had been slain.

    She disagreed with his thoughts on Eldan - that much she knew for certain. She didn't think Quayle was lying, but it was ridiculous to assume that all men were like the ones he knew in Team Galactic. From what Eldan had told her, Team Flare seemed like a harmless group of activists trying to preserve the Kalos region's natural beauty. It was a noble enough goal, but she wasn't sure where the obsession with red came into play. And while she accepted that Eldan was a pervert, he had never shown any indication that he was anything like the men Quayle talked about.

    Nye pursed her lips, realizing glumly that that was entirely Quayle's point.

    Still, she was sure that Quayle's fears were misguided and everything was fine. That didn't mean that she didn't or couldn't appreciate his concern for her well-being, though. She swallowed, thinking how close he'd come to actually saying the words, then nearly went ashen at the realization that'd she'd said them for him just minutes ago.

    And he didn't deny it... that confirms it, then... he really...

    She didn't want to say it, even in her head. She wasn't sure what to think. She couldn't accept Quayle's confession, but she accepted that a part of her didn't want to throw it away, either. Most of what he said was rooted in truth, hesitant as she was to admit it.

    "I can't," she finally said. "I can't tell you that I feel nothing. But you have to understand Quayle, it's been a long time since the thought even crossed my mind, and I wasn't going to try to come between you and Candice. I know what you want me to say to you, and... I can't. At least, not in the way you want me to. That's just going to have to be enough for now."

    Quayle nodded vigorously, clutching Nye's hands to his and kissing the back of her hands. "I'll take it. You won't have to worry about anything, if he tries anything at all I'll--"

    "Stop," she ordered, and Quayle obeyed immediately. "None of that. I'm not saying I want to be with you, Quayle. I have to be clear on that. I do care for you, but I don't want you to think that things are suddenly going to change between us. It's not like that at all. I'm not going to stop talking to Eldan, either." She noted the look of disappointment on his face, and her expression hardened. "I'm sorry that isn't what you want to hear, but I'm being honest with you, Quayle. The last thing I want is for you to think the situation is different than what it is."

    Quayle nodded. "I understand. You're right, it isn't what I want to hear, but I'll accept it. You already know how I feel about you, so I won't pester you about it. But promise me you'll tell me if something happens, okay?"

    Nye sighed before she could stop herself. It was nice that he cared, but she still couldn't shake the feeling that he was just paranoid about the whole thing. "Yes, I promise. Thank you, I suppose. For looking out for me. While I'm being honest, I do feel a little safer with you around. But just a little. Don't read too much into it."

    Quayle grinned. "Wouldn't dream of it."

    * * * * * * * *

    Windra lay in her bed, staring at the ceiling as she casually petted Tyeaf, unable to get her mind off the man who had thrust himself back into her life. Archeidon sat perched in his usual spot, fast asleep; Chomper was curled up at the end of her bed, snoozing away as well. Her initial anger at learning of Damien's return had dulled away by now, and was replaced with curiosity. Where had he been all this time? Why hadn't he told her where he was going? What was he doing in Hoenn now? Was she really always on his mind, like he said she was?

    Against her brain's will, her heart fluttered at the idea that he'd been thinking of her. Aside from her parents and Damien, Windra hadn't had any other meaningful relationships, so the concept of being missed was largely foreign to her. She missed her parents, of course, and they missed her, but that was a different feeling altogether.

    "I don't get it," she told Tyeaf. "Why now, of all times? Why couldn't he get ahold of me before now?"

    Tyeaf used one of her claws to tap out several patterns in Windra's skin. Windra had taught Morse code to her long ago, allowing Tyeaf to get her thoughts across more easily than simply chittering something unintelligible and making Windra guess. It wasn't perfect, but it was a great substitute for the signs she taught Chomper, what with her lack of hands or fingers.

    "Unable? You think he wanted to, but he couldn't? I guess that could make sense. But if he cared so much, why didn't he tell me where he was going? ... Yes, I know I left, but he never told me he was leaving. If he had, I would have come back and at least gotten to say goodbye."

    Tyeaf tapped out another phrase to her master.

    "Find him. Yeah, I probably should. I guess he doesn't have any reason to come here, since I'm out of the tournament... Hoenn is far as hell though. And I bet he didn't leave a number where I could reach him when he talked to Tsomu, either, so once again I'm left without any clues. Why is he making it so difficult for me to actually find him? ... 'Don't know.' Yeah, me neither."

    Windra was frustrated at Damien's seeming lack of willingness to make it easy to contact him, but at the same time, a part of her was glad. She hadn't seen him in a few years, and while she hadn't changed much in that time, she didn't know how she would react to seeing him again. Would he want things to go back to the way they were before? Would she want them to? What if he'd moved on, found someone else, and was only reaching out as a friend?

    But he said he thinks of me all the time. He wouldn't do that if he was with someone.

    Windra considered this. Though it was possible he was two-timing some poor girl, Windra didn't think it was likely. So maybe he really did want Windra back in his life. But that brought her back to her previous point - if he wanted to see her so badly, why didn't he tell her exactly where he was?

    She sighed. "Think anyone's using the training area?" she asked her Pokemon. "Probably not, this late at night, huh? Thought about going for a swim, clearing my head. What do you think? ... Helpful? Yeah, I think so, too. You wanna come? ... All right, suit yourself." She fetched her swimwear from her pack and changed into it, then grabbed a towel and her room key. "I'll be back in a bit. You're in charge until I get back, okay? If Chomper wakes up and tries sneaking out... I dunno, Spore him or something. Kai's pretty good about keeping him in line, though, so you shouldn't have anything to worry about."

    Tyeaf tapped out "ok" on her table, then nestled in the warm spot Windra left behind, eyes trained on the sleeping Pikachu. Windra put on a pair of sandals and left, making her way toward the training center. The first time she'd been in there was for her battle with Esmeralda, and she was impressed by the large pool in there. She made a note to come back and enjoy it when she could, and now seemed like as good a time as any. She'd be able to relax, gather her thoughts, and swim off some of her stress, a fine end to the weekend.

    But when she reached the door leading to the training area, she stopped cold. She could see one end of the pool from the doorway, and in the pool, leaning against the wall, was Rose, eyes closed, her head thrown back in obvious pleasure. Lucario was in front of her, his hands on the pool's edge on either side of her. His movement in the water allowed no question as to what he was doing.

    Windra stood silently as she watched, unable to tear her eyes away from the sight in front of her. She wanted to give Rose the benefit of the doubt; as obvious as it was, maybe, just maybe, it wasn't what it looked like. And then Lucario kissed Rose's neck, and Windra's remaining doubts were erased. Rose turned her head towards the door, eyes still shut tight. Lucario nipped her neck a little too forcefully, and Rose's eyes shot open in surprise.

    She locked eyes with Windra and froze. Sensing the sudden surge of terror over their bond, Lucario opened his eyes, then looked to see what had Rose so spooked.

    There was Windra, still outside, simply staring with increasing disgust at his trainer.

    (Shit. How long do you think she's been standing there?)

    Long enough, Lucario, look at her! What do we do?

    (That depends on her.)
    Lucario withdrew from her as subtly as he could; he didn't know how much Windra had seen, but he didn't want to give her any more ammunition than she already had. Rose had the same idea, sinking a few inches further into the water to discreetly readjust her swimsuit.

    Now that there was no point in hiding her presence any further, Windra entered the training hall and stormed her way over to the pool, where Rose got out to greet her. Lucario remained in the water, posted at the water's edge but prepared to pounce at any moment. This was a very dangerous situation his master was in, and if there was even a hint that it was going to end up badly for her, he'd ensure that it didn't.

    "What the hell?!" Windra screamed.

    "Calm down, Windra, it's not what it looks like," Rose placated, still preferring to go the denial route. No sense in admitting to anything when she wasn't sure of exactly what Windra knew.

    Windra scoffed. "That's your argument? You really sure you wanna go with that?" Windra put her fists in front of her chest and pointed both her index fingers outward. "Yeah. Nothing was happening, all right. And I'm sure the only reason your Lucario hasn't gotten out of the water yet is because he likes it in there. You're sick."

    Rose bit her lip, avoiding making eye contact with Windra. This was not how she envisioned this situation happening. Ideally, it wouldn't have happened at all, but she would have been foolish not to prepare for the occasion. She could only be glad that there was no one else around to witness this spectacle, but if Windra continued on in her loud voice, she would surely wake up some of the competitors who were sleeping in the nearby rooms. And if there was one thing Rose didn't need right now, it was a crowd.

    Now that it was clear that Windra knew what had happened, there was no point in trying to hide it any longer, but that was still the least of Rose's problems. It was plain to see that Windra did not approve of the situation. The question now was, what was Windra going to do about it?

    "You don't understand what we have," Rose began, going into her practiced damage control speech. Her goal now was not necessarily to get Windra to change her mind (although that would be preferable), but, more importantly, to keep her mouth shut about it; however, unlike Rose's parents, Windra had no inherent desire to see Rose safe. A rejection here could be catastrophic. "Our relationship is no different than any other human couple."

    "It's extremely different!" Windra yelled. "They're Pokemon!"

    "So what? They're intelligent, sentient creatures. They are more than capable of giving or withholding consent," Rose countered. "And, frankly, if they didn't want it, even some of the weakest Pokemon are more than powerful enough to fend off the advances of even the strongest human. What Lucario and I have is far beyond just physical, Windra. And it's not against the law, in any case."

    "It's an affront," Windra spat, glaring at Lucario, who hadn't moved since Windra's approach. "Just because it's not against the laws of man doesn't mean it's acceptable. Sleeping with your Pokemon is something you just don't do. I love sex and I've never thought about doing it with a Pokemon. You couldn't convince me even for all the money in the world. My standards are pretty low, but they aren't that low." She shuddered visibly at the thought. "At least I can rest easy knowing I'm not the biggest slut in this tournament anymore."

    Lucario tightened his grip on the pool's edge. (I'm not going to sit here and let her talk to you like this,) he growled through their bond, not taking his eyes off Windra for a second. (Say the word and I'll rip this bitch's throat out. It's obvious she's not going to accept us.)

    Stand down for now. If calling me names is what it takes for her to keep our secret to herself, I'll gladly take it.
    "I wish you could see things the way I do, Windra, but I can respect your opinion." She closed her eyes, and took a deep breath. She knew Lucario wouldn't actually harm Windra without her giving the order, and she didn't want to do that, but she had to steel herself and prepare for that possibility. Rose opened her eyes and asked the most important question. "My relationship harms no one. All we want is to be left in peace. I'm asking you, please, to keep this information to yourself. Will you please do that for me?"

    Windra grinned devilishly, seeing a grand opportunity here. This was a juicy piece of information she had; it would be a shame not to use it to blackmail the blasphemous whore and get whatever she could out of her. She assumed a cocky stance and placed her hands on her hips. "No."

    "Lucario."

    Before she even finished saying his name, Lucario vaulted from the pool and pushed Windra over with a burst of aura before she could even think about reacting. She flew backwards several feet, tumbling painfully across the ground, coming to rest on her back. Lucario was on her before she even stopped moving, and he thrust one of his paws to Windra's throat, fangs bared, raising his other aura-cloaked paw high and daring her to try something.

    Rose casually walked over to where Windra was laying, where she was struggling defiantly, albeit uselessly, against Lucario's grip. Rose leaned over the slim girl, shaking her head sadly. "I'm sorry I had to do that, Windra, but as you can see, I take this very seriously. If you won't cooperate willingly, I'm afraid I have no choice but to force you to comply."

    "You can't make me do shit, you stupid--hnng!" Lucario fired another blast of aura into Windra's stomach, leaving no visible mark but hurting the girl plenty. She winced as she teared up from the pain, but she was intent on not giving Rose the satisfaction of seeing her cry.

    "On the contrary," Rose said, a cold smile on her face, "I believe I can. Because if you don't, then I'll just have Lucario kill you right here."

    Windra's heart skipped a beat at Rose's statement, because with the look on Rose's face and the casual way with which she delivered it, she thought that Rose might actually make good on her threat. Unwilling to show any fear despite this, Windra let out a choked noise that almost could be described as a laugh. "You're bluffing, slut. You wouldn't kill me."

    Rose leaned in close to Windra's face. "Don't presume to know what I would or would not do to protect the ones I love," she warned. She nodded towards the pool. "Girl swimming alone at night sounds pretty dangerous. It would be a shame if you 'slipped' and 'hit your head', causing you to fall unconscious and drown. It would be such a tragedy. A terrible, unavoidable accident."

    Just then, Gardevoir teleported into the room. "Okay, I'm going crazy in there! One of you needs to come ffffuhhhhhmmmmmm. Oh dear."

    Gardevoir took in the display before her. Windra was on the ground, Lucario positioned to smash her face in. Rose was on her knees next to her, a look of cold determination on her face. Windra struggled to turn her head to see who the new voice belonged to, but Lucario wouldn't let her. Unfortunately, Windra could still move her eyes, and she caught a glimpse of Gardevoir. "She talks..."

    Rose pursed her lips, trying to think of a way this night could possibly get any worse. "Yes."

    "What's going on here?" she asked.

    "Your master is a bigger slut than me!" Windra exclaimed gleefully, laughing even as Lucario started to choke her. "Oh, god, you're so hilarious! Of course you're also screwing your Gardevoir. Of course you are. Haha! If she only knew the kind of person you were..."

    Gardevoir switched to telepathy. (She? Who? What happened?)

    (We've been compromised,) Lucario answered, and Gardevoir's face hardened.

    (What? How? Shouldn't you have sensed her coming?)

    (I was distracted, okay? That's not really important right now.)

    (Mm. So this girl knows Rose's secret, and I take it she doesn't like that.)

    (Yeah. But we're going to make her play nice, or she's f*cking dead.)
    He tightened his grip on Windra's throat, closing off her airway completely. Windra tried pushing Lucario's paw away, but her eyes widened in terror at the realization that he wasn't physically choking her.

    "Watch her vitals," Rose told Gardevoir. "If she starts fading out, give Lucario the signal. Let up once she does," she told him. "It'll be hard to explain if you kill her like this." She looked back down to Windra. "Seems like you're in a tough spot."

    Windra lashed out with her hands, trying to strike Rose, but Gardevoir held them down, leaving her completely at Rose's mercy. "I can't imagine you've got too much longer left, so I'll ask again. Will you keep this little incident to yourself?"

    (You're applying too much pressure. You'll break her neck if you keep going like that,) Gardevoir informed Lucario. (Ease up.)

    (Not until she answers,) Lucario replied, but loosened his grip a little all the same.

    Windra frantically nodded as hard as she could, gasping loudly and coughing as Lucario finally released his grip on her throat.

    "Get her to her feet," Rose commanded, and her two Pokemon did so. Gardevoir continued to restrain Windra as she caught her breath, and Rose paced slowly in front of her. "I'm sorry this had to happen, Windra," Rose began. "But you didn't think I was serious. These two are more than just my Pokemon. They are my friends, my saviors, my mates, my most treasured and cherished possessions. I love them both dearly, more than I can put into words. It would be wonderful if everyone saw things the way I did, but I know that's a foolish dream. Instead, all I want - all I have ever wanted - is to be accepted. To be able to live without fear of being persecuted for something as silly as falling in love. And until the world is ready to allow me that request, I will use whatever force is required to ensure that me and my Pokemon are safe. Deadly force, if necessary. Do you understand?"

    Windra responded by spitting in Rose's face. Lucario went to hit her again, but Rose stopped him with a hand. "Don't. It's fine. She's frustrated." She wiped her face, cleaned it off on her swimsuit. "Be frustrated, Windra. That's your right. But, and I'm sorry to say this, if you ever tell anyone about the events of this evening, then I really will kill you."

    "Good luck finding me when we all go home, you psycho bitch," Windra shot back.

    Rose simply smiled. "That won't be a problem. The Ranger Union is a worldwide organization, and I'm very good at getting information. I have no doubt that finding you will be easy, especially with your added fame from the tournament." She looked behind Windra at her Gardevoir. "I expect that you will also keep my Gardevoir's ability to speak a secret as well?"

    Windra huffed to herself, hating the situation she was in. She was the one who was supposed to make Rose do what she wanted, not the other way around. She thought of getting Archeidon to handle things, but didn't think he could handle both Gardevoir and Lucario if they decided to attack at the same time, to say nothing of Rose's third Pokemon. Windra couldn't remember what it was, but whatever it was, it would only make the situation worse.

    Rose took Windra's silence as tacit agreement. "Of course you will. So here's what's going to happen, Windra. My Pokemon and I are going to go back to my room. I've got an important battle tomorrow, and I want to be well-rested. I assume you're here to swim, so you are free to do that, if you wish. But you will make no move to harm me or my Pokemon once Gardevoir releases you. If you do, well..." she smiled at Windra again, that same bone-chilling smile Windra was starting to develop a healthy fear of. "You won't like what happens. Am I clear?"

    Windra scoffed. "You think you're so tough. What would you do if I told everyone at breakfast tomorrow? You honestly think that you could get past, what, four dozen of the toughest Pokemon in the world? All that Pokemon sex has made you delusional."

    "Most of the other competitors don't have their Pokemon on them at all times. Take yourself, for example."

    "They're sleeping, moron. Unlike you, I don't bang my Pokemon into all hours of the night."

    Rose frowned. "I think we're finished here. Gardevoir, let her go."

    Gardevoir hesitated. "Are you sure? I'm still sensing a lot of hostility in her."

    "You're gonna sense my foot in your ass if you don't let me go," Windra taunted, struggling to break free.

    Gardevoir simply rolled her eyes; she was more restrained than Lucario was. It would take more than that to get under her skin. "Very clever. Rose?"

    Rose nodded. "Yes, release her. She'll be good. Her life depends on it." Gardevoir acknowledged the command, and finally released her hold on Windra's wrists and ankles.

    Windra stumbled to get her balance, and glared at the Ranger and her two Pokemon. "You really think you're in control here? Don't forget, you're the one with something to hide. And if it's that important to you... I could keep your disgusting secret. For a price."

    All Rose's animosity vanished in an instant at the thought of not having to go through with her awful threats. "What is it?"

    "Two conditions. The first is easy: forfeit your match against Thresher tomorrow."

    "What?!" Rose all but shouted.

    "You heard me. I can't stand the thought of someone like you winning it all. Thresher is a really nice guy and he deserves a shot at it far more than you do. If you quit against Thresher, and agree to the second condition, you have my word I'll take your secret to the grave."

    Gardevoir stepped forward. "Big talk from someone who was flirting with death a couple minutes ago. Why should we trust you?"

    Windra crossed her arms. "Two reasons. One, because my word is my bond. I'm already keeping a certain black-haired girl's secret, one that I know you would be pretty interested in, but I can't tell you because I promised the dumb bitch I wouldn't. And two... because you don't have a choice. I mean, if you really wanna kill me, then--" she stopped as Lucario visibly powered up in front of her, his aura raging around him.

    "You should hear the things he's been saying," Rose chimed in. "The only reason he hasn't killed you yet is because I ordered him not to. Don't take my mercy as a sign of weakness. But... I'll consider your offer." Gardevoir whirled on her, clearly surprised by Rose's statement, but Rose held up a finger, silencing any protest. "But I can't just forfeit. As far as everyone else knows, I have no reason to. What if I threw the match instead?"

    Windra smirked. Finally, things were starting to go her way. "Doesn't matter to me. As long as it's not you going onto the semifinals, I'm happy."

    "All right. What's the second condition?"

    "We'll worry about that after your match. I'll be in my room, so come find me and we'll talk."

    "Very well," Rose said with a suspicious nod. "We'll take our leave now. Lucario, Gardevoir, let's go."

    Windra stood and waited as they made their way out of the training hall. Moments after the three were out of sight, Windra's facade of coolness finally broke, and she collapsed to the floor and cried harder than she ever had in her life. She pulled her legs into her chest and sobbed, the magnitude of what had just happened to her finally hitting her. She'd never been so afraid in her life; the feeling of Lucario choking her nearly to death was something she would remember forever. And Rose, that disgusting tramp. How dare she call herself a trainer - a human, even. People who did that with their Pokemon didn't deserve to be called human.

    Windra growled in frustration, tears streaming down her face. She crawled to the pool's edge, all of her limbs aching with a dull pain. She dunked her head into the water and screamed as loud as she could, releasing as much of the pent-up energy as she was able. She beat her fists uselessly on the water's surface, imagining that each strike was another blow to Rose's pretty face. Windra lifted her head out and caught her breath, feeling a little better. She would see a victory over the whore, one way or the other.

    * * * * * * * *

    Sixty-eight... sixty-nine... seventy...

    Thresher was up early the next morning. He was in the training center, unaware of the events that transpired during the previous night, taking the opportunity to get his usual morning workout in. There was more space in there, and he didn't have to worry about waking anyone with all the noise he made from jumping around. He'd also be able to get a good swim in. He didn't particularly like it - he didn't have to worry about swimming into a wall in the open seas east of Pacifidlog, and the distinct smell of chlorine in the air was stifling, nothing like the warm sea air he was used to back home. But, with a reminder to himself that beggars could not be choosers, he smiled and was thankful that there was water to swim in at all.

    Eighty-nine... ninety... ninety-one...

    As he closed in on his goal of one hundred push ups, his mind drifted towards the young woman he was set to battle in a few short hours. She was young, but very skilled, taking out a mythical Pokemon and a Mega Evolved Pokemon in her match against Quayle. Thresher had never even heard of Deoxys before that day, and he felt a little bit of relief in the knowledge that there would be no surprises like that in his battle against Rose.

    He took a few moments to rest after finishing his hundredth push up and tried to remember Rose's team. There was the Gardevoir, of course. Quayle had made her Rose's most popular Pokemon, but that didn't mean it was her ace. Psychic-types were always a pain to go up against; being able to move objects and other Pokemon with one's mind was such a powerful skill that at times it seemed a little too powerful. Prickles would likely be the best choice against her. There was no denying Gardevoir was fearsomely powerful, but Thresher bet she wouldn't last too long if Prickles got his thorns into her. If he could get Stealth Rock onto the field, his mobility would be increased tenfold, but if Rose saw what he did to Taikyu's Necrozma, Thresher knew there was no way she was going to let it happen. He chuckled to himself. If worse came to worst, Prickles could always just blow Gardevoir up.

    He jumped into the water. The water felt especially cold to his hot, sweat-drenched body, and it shocked him into alertness. He surfaced, shaking the water from his eyes, feeling loads better already.

    Well, what're ye waitin' for, an invitation? Get to it, ya lazy bones.

    He pushed off the wall, opting for a simple freestyle stroke to get started.

    Problems with Gardevoir aside, he liked his chances. He was practically giddy knowing that Talonflame would be at a disadvantage against two of his Pokemon, and Coral especially. What was her third Pokemon? He thought back to the battle. Talonflame had fought against Mega Absol, then Octillery hit him into the water. And then... oh, damn. Lucario.

    Thresher didn't like Lucario. They were unique in their ability to use 'aura' to buff both their attack and defense, and he'd heard rumors that high-level ones could even employ a bit of telekinesis with it. They were non-Psychics with psychic-like abilities, and knowing Rose had one was a little disheartening. Suddenly, Thresher felt a lot less sure about his prospects. Fighting-types were particularly dangerous to his team; Coral wouldn't stand a chance, the poor thing, and while Prickles would last longer in battle, Lucario's attacks would hurt like a son of a bitch. Would the aura protect Lucario from getting injured by Iron Barbs? What if he knew Focus Blast to circumvent the ability entirely? At least the attack was slow, and loud, so Prickles could probably dodge it, given Lucario was far enough away.

    As he finished his first lap, he tried to stay positive about the whole situation. It wasn't like him to be pessimistic about anything if he could help it. Even as his father's condition worsened and things were looking grim, Thresher didn't let that get him down as he spent day after day in search of Mirage Island. The fact that the key to his cure was nothing but a myth didn't faze him. Any hope was better than no hope at all.

    The loss of the Fessco family patriarch was a devastating blow to the morale of the citizens of Pacifidlog. A benevolent man and a fishing legend, even among some of the older folks, Don Phileas Fessco was a true gentleman, respected and loved by all. The entire village joined Thresher and his siblings in mourning the loss of this great man, but so too did they join them in a weeklong celebration of life, filled with music and laughter and stories, the way Don would have wanted. He had instilled his optimistic, never-say-die attitude in Thresher, and it was that attitude that told him that even though Rose had a significant advantage over him, he would honor the memory of his father and stay positive and smiling until the very end.

    He entertained the idea of what he would do if he won the grand prize. He would certainly be able to fund massive expeditions to search for Mirage Island with 100 million dollars. Even though he himself was unable to find it in time to try and save his father, simply finding the island could be considered a huge victory. The island in question was so named due to how it seemed to be there one moment, and gone the next. Thresher had heard the story of Mirage Island from his father, who claimed to have set foot there when he was a boy; the moment he set sail from the island, it vanished, and he never saw it again for the rest of his eighty-three years.

    Even if Thresher lost, learning he'd be walking away with 100 grand was an exciting prospect. He'd be able to afford new fishing gear for everyone in the village... fix up his father's ailing old boat... build new houses for the ever-growing population... probably all at the same time. It was almost too much money - far more than he'd ever had in his life. A lot of good could be done with that much cash.

    Lap number ten came and went, and he climbed out of the pool, his joints delightfully sore. He toweled off, headed back to his room, and took a quick shower, then headed to the cafeteria, where nearly everyone had gathered for breakfast. The one person missing, Thresher quickly noticed, was Rose.

    * * * * * * * *

    (Calm down, will you?)

    "I am calm!" Rose snapped back before resuming her pacing around the confines of her room, which seemed a lot smaller with both Lucario and Gardevoir taking up space in there. She ran her hands through her hair and let out a frustrated noise. "God, you guys, what did I do last night?"

    Gardevoir placed a comforting hand onto her master's shoulder, sending a soothing Heal Pulse into her. "You protected yourself," she said reassuringly, her soft voice a calming contrast to Rose's agitated rambling. "Now relax, my love. You're safe now."

    "We are not safe. How can you think we're safe? You were there! She heard you talk, and not only that, but the first thing out of your mouth was a request to get laid! We're not safe, we are completely screwed! Windra is probably on her way to the announcer's booth right now to tell fifty thousand people that Rose Bersalk has sex with her Pokemon!"

    (Should have let me kill her,) Lucario mused, earning him a glare from Gardevoir. (What? F*ck that skinny little bitch. She's lucky Rose let her off easy.)

    "You're not helping," she scolded him. "Threatening to kill her should not be our first response."

    (It wasn't,) Lucario fired back. (Rose asked her nicely not to tell, and she refused.)

    "Still, that doesn't mean we should threaten to murder everyone who says no. You can attract more flies with honey than with vinegar," she recited before turning back to a hyperventilating Rose. She sent another Heal Pulse in response in an attempt to calm her master's nerves. "We should wait until she does something drastic before we respond in kind. Do you really think Windra will keep your secret if you forfeit against Thresher?"

    "God, I don't know. She said she was already keeping someone else's secret. Someone with black hair."

    (She has black hair,) Lucario pointed out.

    "Yeah, but I don't think she was talking about herse--" her eyes slowly widened as her mind worked around a sudden realization. "Wait a sec. You know who else has black hair? Scarlet. Do you guys think the secret Windra is keeping is that she had sex with Scarlet? She said I'd be interested in hearing it, and if Scarlet talked to Windra about the notes being switched, then Windra would know that Scarlet likes me. So I guess she doesn't know that Scarlet already told me everything. Scarlet did say that they fought about it... maybe we can trust Windra," Rose finished, cautiously optimistic.

    (Don't tell me you're actually considering forfeiting,) Lucario complained.

    "Can you really blame me?" Rose countered, desperation clear in her voice. "I won't risk your lives over this. They'll have you both put down if we're caught, you know that."

    "They'll have to take us kicking and screaming, because I'll never allow them to take me from you," Gardevoir reassured her, taking one of Rose's hands in her own.

    (And that goes double for me,) Lucario agreed, taking the other. (We'll fight for you until our last breath. And besides, I think all three of us scared her pretty good. I could practically taste her fear. She was terrified.)

    Rose frowned. That had been the first time she'd ever threatened anyone. Even the worst criminals she faced were never treated this way. "I feel really bad. I should apologize to her."

    Lucario stared at his master in disbelief. (What? Are you serious? She threatened to expose us! You don't owe that bitch anything!)

    "Maybe not, but that's not the kind of person I am. I should have asked her how we can make things right, not jumped straight to violence at the first sign of trouble."

    (No, f*ck that,) Lucario growled. (You can't just let people walk all over you. Even if Windra does keep her word, one day you're gonna run into someone who doesn't, and they're either going to blackmail you for as long as they want or just turn you in outright. There's no shame in defending what's yours, especially in your situation.)

    "I can't believe I'm saying this, but I agree with Lucario," Gardevoir admitted, giving Rose's hand a gentle squeeze. "Don't let Windra get to you. Keep your head held high, as a Ranger and as a woman." She gave Rose a peck on the cheek. "Lead us into battle, and we'll proudly give our all for you, our mate, and you, our trainer."

    Rose sighed, still uncomfortable with the whole thing. "Yeah... yeah," she said again, a little more confidently this time. "I can't let a scrawny little thing like Windra push me around, right?"

    (Right!) both her Pokemon answered together.

    "Thank you, you two," she said, giving a hug and a quick kiss to each of them in turn. "For believing in me when I started not to. Now let's go. I'm starving, and there's not that much time left before our battle."

    * * * * * * * *

    Indigo Plateau was packed.

    Sixty-four thousand, eight hundred ninety-seven fans piled into the stadium to watch the upcoming battle, filling all but a small handful of seats in the massive arena. Safiri would later report that it was the largest turnout in the tournament's history, eclipsing attendance for the finals by nearly two thousand. Both Rose and Thresher had had a nail-biter of a win against their respective opponents, and everyone was excited to see how a battle with these two titans would play out. Rose was the odds-on favorite to win, with her battle against Quayle, and especially Gardevoir's near-death experience, making national headlines and biasing people's opinions of the battle. Many people felt sorry for Rose and wanted to see her advance for no reason other than that.

    "Good morning, ladies and gentlemen!" Ruby's voice boomed over the clamor of the immense crowd.

    This meant the battle was about to begin, and the cheers swelled to new heights. Both Rose and Thresher could feel the energy coming from the spectators, and it made each of them a little nervous, hoping they could live up to the crowd's expectations. The two of them had met briefly just before the battle and exchanged pleasantries, wishing the other luck and promising they'd do their best. Rose had felt those words sounded hollow once they'd left her mouth; despite the reassurances of her Pokemon, she was still deathly afraid of Windra revealing her secret, and potentially paying for her silence was still an appealing prospect.

    "I hope everyone had a great weekend! My name is Ruby Erthgrand and I'd like to welcome you to week two of our tournament of champions!" Another swell of cheers from the crowd told Ruby she wasn't going to have to work very hard to fire them up for this battle, but she'd do it anyway. "This is the first of our four quarterfinal matches, all of which I'm sure are going to keep you on the edge of your seats! I'm just as excited to get started as you are, so let's not wait any longer! Ladies and gentlemen, making her second trip to the west platform is a young Pokemon Ranger who just barely edged out a win over Quayle Valentine last week in a battle I'm sure you all remember. Will this be her last time battling on this great stage? Only time will tell! Give it up for Rose Bersalk!"

    As Rose emerged from the building and the crowd got their first view of her in a week, the cheers and the ocean of pink flags dotted with the occasional cluster of blue made it abundantly clear to Rose that she was the favorite. It calmed her somewhat, realizing that so many people believed in her. Even if they might hate her if they knew her secret, they were still her fans now, and Rose felt a sense of responsibility to them to give them a great battle. She remembered hearing the crowd's displeasure when Tsomu gave up at the end of his battle and did not want a repeat performance of that, especially at this stage of the tournament. She took her place at the same platform she'd fought at the previous week, ready to give Thresher the fight of his life. She'd worry about Windra later; right now, she had a match to win.

    "I can see Rose has a lot of fans here today, but don't worry, Thresher fans, I see you out there, too! Coming to the east platform is your favorite fisherman who faced Taikyu last week and emerged victorious with a stunning Mirror Coat finish that left me breathless. I still can't believe it happened, ladies and gentlemen! Will he catch himself a second win today, or will he be heading home empty-handed? Everyone please join me in welcoming back Thresher Fessco!"

    The crowd was still plenty loud for Thresher when he came out onto the field, and Rose was only a little surprised so see a fair number of pink flags replaced with blue. She supposed it made sense for some people to not pick a side and simply cheer for both players, only wanting to see great battles held on the most famous stage in the world.

    Esmeralda was introduced as the field wheel was spun, which revealed the two competitors would be duking it out on the ice field. Neither player was excited about this, as their Pokemon would have to take extra care not to slip and fall on the slick ice that now covered the field. A blast of cold air accompanied the field as it rose into view, and the temperature in the surrounding area dropped noticeably. A light snow fell from the sky above the arena. It was purely aesthetic (it would not affect weather-based moves or abilities, for example), and finalized the backdrop of this sure-to-be hot battle.

    The battlers were in place. The stage was set. Esmeralda stepped forward and said the words the crowd had been waiting a lifetime to hear. "Trainers, release your Pokemon!"

    "Coral, I choose you!"

    "Gardevoir, you're up!"

    The two Pokemon were released onto the ice, and each took a few moments to orient themselves on the slippery surface. (This is really slick,) Gardevoir relayed to her master. (I may have to stick to teleportation to avoid falling down, but if I miss the landing, I might end up on my ass anyway.)

    Rose nodded in agreement and went to reply, but Thresher wasn't having any of it. He was up against what was arguably Rose's strongest Pokemon first, and he needed to push whatever advantage he could. "Spike Cannon, sweet Coral! Just like we practiced!"

    Corsola let out a cry as she took aim at Rose's Gardevoir. Almost impossibly fast, an enormous barrage of spikes issued forth, so many that it would be impossible to dodge them all. But Gardevoir didn't have to dodge any of them; she simply held a hand in front of her and focused, stopping every needle Corsola was throwing.

    Thresher grinned widely. "Perfect, Coral! Keep up the pressure!" Corsola started firing the needles faster, tumbling in a wide circle around Gardevoir, forcing her to raise her other hand and extend more energy just to stop all the needles from connecting. Eventually, Corsola had Gardevoir surrounded on all sides by a massive spike prison; Gardevoir's hold on them was all that was separating her from a world of pain. "Now, Earth Power! Show me a big one!"

    Gardevoir looked down in horror as the one safe space she had left was starting to rumble beneath her feet. She had to teleport now; if that Earth Power connected and forced her to relinquish control on all those spikes, the damage from being hit with so many would be more than enough to wipe her out instantly.

    Rose was thinking the exact same thing. "Teleport behind Corsola!" she ordered, and Gardevoir obeyed with not a moment to spare. Her blinking out released the hold she had on the spikes, and the entire mass of them shot out towards the walls like a detonated shrapnel bomb. Gardevoir went to shield upon blinking back in, but the spikes were moving far too fast for her to block so soon. She was stung by several dozen of them at once, and she instantly fell to the ground with a wince, clutching herself and crying out in pain. A large mass of needles collided briefly in the center where Gardevoir had been standing seconds prior, only to be launched into the sky by Corsola's Earth Power. Dozens of needles mixed with bits of ice and earth rained down onto the field, forcing Gardevoir to finally get a shield up, ruining any hope of a counterattack.

    She could barely get back to her feet before Rose gave her another order. "Thunderbolt, quickly!"

    Gardevoir's eyes shot open as she saw Corsola preparing a Power Gem attack; Gardevoir's warning shot was enough to make Corsola abort her move, switching to Protect to keep herself safe. It was then that Gardevoir could see that Rose had made the correct call about teleporting behind Corsola; since most of the needles had come from this direction, there were fewer on this side. Needles covered the walls all around her, far more than she'd been hit with. If she'd teleported anywhere else, she would have taken more than twice the damage she did.

    Thresher assessed the field, impressed with Rose's quick thinking and Gardevoir's resilience. Coral looked fiercely determined, ready to bring her master victory. Gardevoir was slowly rising to her feet, her breathing noticeably more labored; continuously spending all that energy had taken its toll on her. Still, Thresher reminded himself, he would be foolish to count Rose out so quickly.

    He pressed his advantage before Rose could formulate a plan. "Surf, Coral!"

    Corsola rolled to the far end of the arena, summoning a massive wave of water beneath her. Gardevoir immediately clasped her hands together in preparation for a Wish, but she honestly didn't think it would help. Corsola pushed the wave forward, carrying all the dropped spikes with it, and slammed it down onto Gardevoir, driving her into the wall and pummeling her with a load of spikes.

    The crowd's cheers swelled to new heights as they watched Gardevoir slowly get to her feet. She was on her last legs for sure, but she wasn't ready to give up yet. Rose pumped her fist in the air, just as excited as the crowd. "Yes! That's my girl! Now let's turn this battle around. Grab Corsola with Psychic and toss her into the sky!"

    Being careful not to slip and fall, Gardevoir reached out with a hand, telekinetically grabbing Corsola with a pulse of light. She threw her hand up, and a wailing Corsola sailed high into the air with it.

    (I've got this,) Gardevoir reassured her master as she threw her other hand up to the sky, summoning dark clouds. As Corsola plummeted helplessly towards the ground, Gardevoir brought down a wicked Thunderbolt onto her, driving Corsola into the ground with a huge explosion. Gardevoir fell to her knees, completely exhausted. She threw out her senses, trying to gauge Corsola's energy, and she was pleased to find that she could hardly register it at all. Did that mean...? She looked to Esmeralda, who was watching Corsola's smoke-covered position. When the smoke finally cleared, Gardevoir was shocked to learn that Corsola was standing up, cloaked in a fiery red aura.

    "Ha! You sweet thing, well done!" Thresher exclaimed, clapping his hands together. "The best Endure I've ever seen, and ya did it all on yer own! Definitely gonna have ta thank Jethro for that one!" Knowing that his window of opportunity was rapidly closing, he gave his next order. "Now, Flail! Let's finish this battle, Coral!"

    Coral burst forward, tumbling on the ice, preparing to deplete the last bits of Gardevoir's energy. Gardevoir simply reached out, telekinetically grabbed Corsola, and flung her into the wall behind her; that was more than enough to wipe out Corsola's strength, and she fell to the ground, defeated.

    "Corsola is unable to battle!" Esmeralda declared. "The winner is Gardevoir!"

    The cheers from the crowd increased to new heights as Gardevoir's wish activated, shining on her like a spotlight as it restored a bit of her energy. She smiled and waved to her fans, thankful that Corsola hadn't been able to land that last blow which would have surely destroyed her.

    Thresher, for his part, acknowledged Gardevoir's skill, but he was starting to feel nervous. Gardevoir had just picked Coral up and tossed her aside, just as he'd feared would happen. He quickly brushed the pessimistic thoughts from his mind. After all, Coral had done a fantastic job of holding her own against a cheater--

    Now, now, don't say that.

    --against a skilled Pokemon like Gardevoir. All that meant was that Prickles would have an easy time cleaning her up, that's all. He recalled his fallen Pokemon, that familiar confidence quickly coming back to him. "Prickles, I choose you!"

    Ferrothorn materialized where Corsola fell, making a show of sticking his thorny tendrils solidly in the ice, securing his footing. Pick him up? Just let her try.

    "Stealth Rock!" Thresher ordered.

    "Don't let him get those rocks up, Gardevoir! Focus Blast!"

    Perfect, Thresher thought as Gardevoir began charging her attack. Prickles wouldn't have much time, but it would have to be enough. As the pillars started to rise, Gardevoir fired off her shot. Quick as a whip, Ferrothorn threw out a tendril and latched into one of them, slingshotting himself over Gardevoir's attack. Before she could react, he threw another one, taking Gardevoir by surprise and connecting solidly with her chest. Once she was hooked, Ferrothorn swung her over his body and hurled her screaming into the wall, where dozens of Corsola's spikes had been washed up. They dug into her body and once she fell silent, Esmeralda declared her defeated.

    Rose winced at the pain her mate was in. She quickly recalled Gardevoir in order to minimize the pain she felt, then took stock of the situation. Like Windra before her, none of Rose's Pokemon were able to do anything about Stealth Rock once it was up, which meant Talonflame was due for a hell of a beating when he came in. Still, she conceded, she couldn't ask for a better opponent in Ferrothorn - while being able to slingshot around the field increased his mobility by a great deal, Ferrothorn was still much slower than Talonflame, and Rose doubted he'd be able to reach Talonflame in the air. Lucario could easily shrug off Stealth Rock's damage, and his aura would provide some protection against Ferrothorn's Ability, but if he fell to Huntail, then Talonflame would be at a huge disadvantage.

    Talonflame it was, then. Rose cursed herself for not thinking her team composition a little more carefully as she released her bird into the fray. Immediately, the stones went to work, battering Talonflame and draining his HP. Rose pointed to one of the higher stones, one she was pretty sure Ferrothorn couldn't reach. "Get up there and Roost! He can't reach you up there!"

    Thresher grinned, a little thankful Rose didn't immediately go on the offensive. "No ya don't! Gravity, Prickles, knock him outta the sky!" Ferrothorn dug its tendrils into the ground and focused, covering the field in a purple hue. Talonflame, moments from alighting, suddenly plummeted face first into the stone pillar and tumbled hard to the ground. He barely managed to stand upright before he slipped on the ice and fell, and Thresher went in for the kill. "Use Rock Climb!"

    "That's perfect! We've got him now! Talonflame, don't move! When he gets close, use Flamethrower and burn him to a crisp!"

    Rose's bird voiced confirmation and replied with a steady stream of flame that would have torched Ferrothorn had he not thrown a tendril out and used it to carry him behind a nearby rock. Rose went wide-eyed at Ferrothorn's mobility, momentarily struck silent at how something so heavy could be so quick. Fortunately for her, Talonflame was still paying attention to his opponent, firing off jets of Flamethrower whenever Ferrothorn got anywhere near him.

    Seeing an opening, Ferrothorn threw a spiked tendril forward, intent on doing the same to Talonflame as he did to Gardevoir, but Talonflame was ready; Ferrothorn roared in pain as the flames took hold of him. He began to growl as dark storm clouds started forming overhead.

    "Ya beat me to it, Prickles! Cool those burns with Rain Dance, and I'm sure Predator will thank ya!"

    Wow, he's more resourceful than I thought, Rose thought as Talonflame looked considerably more worried. I won't even have to try very hard if I decide to throw the match...

    Rose frowned. The events of last night still weighed heavily on her mind, despite her pep talk earlier. There was no telling what was going to happen, now that Windra knew her secret. For all Rose knew, Windra could be blabbing to everyone right now. She'd finish her match and go back inside to find League police, her boss, and lord knew who else, come to confiscate her Pokemon and destroy her life.

    But what if Rose was right about the secret Windra was keeping? The more Rose thought about it, the more she was confident in her guess as to what Scarlet's secret was.

    That was three days ago. She's had more than ample opportunity to--

    Her inner monologue was cut off by a loud bang and a flash of light where Talonflame's wet and beaten body was tossed against the barrier. Esmeralda's voice ringing loud throughout the stadium. "Talonflame is unable to battle! Ferrothorn is the winner!"

    "What?! Shit!" Rose cursed as she was brought crashing back to reality. "Oh, damn it, Talonflame, I'm so sorry!" She quickly recalled her fallen Pokemon, trying not to look at the damage her inattentiveness caused. And everyone's watching, too... damn...

    "Rose, lass, are ya okay?" Thresher asked, full of concern. "This isn't like you at all."

    "I'm fine!" Rose lied. "Just spaced out for a second. You were right to attack! It's what I would have done."

    "If you say so, sweetness. If ya ever need an ear, I'm always available. Now whadaya say ye chin up and we finish this battle, eh?"

    "Right. Lucario, you're up!"

    No sooner had Lucario entered the fray did Thresher call out again to Rose and her Pokemon. "Ya know, I really was not lookin' forward ta fightin' your Lucario. And as luck would have it, turns out I don't have to!"

    "What are you talking about?" Rose inquired.

    "Yer down ta yer last Pokemon, and I've still got one in reserve," Thresher explained. "So if both our Pokemon were to faint..."

    "Then you'd win," Rose finished for him. "What's your point...? Wait, you wouldn't!"

    "I'm afraid so, Rose! Prickles, it's time ta end this battle! Use Explosion!"

    Ferrothorn dug into the ice and started the irreversible process of overloading his body with energy. Realizing that attacking was pointless now, Lucario instead stood his ground, closed his eyes, and focused. As he did, Ferrothorn exploded, and Lucario grit his teeth, bracing for impact - just in case. When the smoke cleared, Lucario was still standing, without a scratch on him. He opened his eyes, which were currently glowing in a light blue that faded after a few seconds, and the crowd went crazy.

    "Ha!" Thresher laughed. "Well, I shouldn't be surprised yer Lucario knows Detect. Probably shoulda tested the waters a bit before jumpin' right in, but it is what it is. Looks like we'll be havin' a right proper finale after all, won't we?" He took his final Poke Ball in hand. "Predator, I choose you!"

    "Close Combat!" Rose commanded once Huntail had materalized on the ice.

    "Stay alert, Predator! Use Waterfall and meet Lucario head on!"

    Both battlers dashed forward with their respective attacks, but after only a few steps into his, Lucario slipped and faceplanted into the ice, allowing Huntail to execute Thresher's command literally; Huntail bashed himself into Lucario's face, sending him flying back at an astonishing speed.

    What power! How in the... oh wait, it's still raining, Rose remembered. "Lucario! Are you okay?"

    (Ow, son of a... yeah, I'm fine,) Lucario groaned through their bond, getting to his feet. (This ice is really slick, though.)

    "Extreme Speed, Lucario!"

    (You got it!)

    Careful not to fall again, Lucario again dashed forward faster than Huntail or Thresher could track. He nearly slipped again but was able to regain his footing long enough to deliver a sound blow to Huntail as the rain finally started to let up and the sky cleared.

    "Keep the pressure on, Lucario, Close Combat again!"

    With his speed advantage gone, Thresher was back on defense, but he was by no means out. "Sound that Screech, Predator! Make him regret coming in!"

    As Lucario drew closer, Huntail let out a horrible screech that forced Lucario to abort his attack and cover his ears to block out the damaging sound. He shut his eyes tight and winced as the screech's effect took hold of him, distracting him long enough to miss Thresher's next order.

    Luckily, Rose was able to communicate with her Pokemon through less audible means. Lucario, he's coming for you! Jump out of the way!

    Lucario threw his senses out and spotted Huntail headed straight for him, Aqua Tail charged. Without opening his eyes, he jumped to the side, narrowly avoiding Huntail's attack, and fell down immediately as he landed. He scrambled to his feet and opened his eyes, on guard in case Huntail was pursuing him, but he wasn't.

    (That was close. Look, hon, this ice is making it too hard to get close. Might have to long range him.)

    Yeah, I think you're right. How you holding up?

    (I've got some steam left in me. That first attack hurt, but it'll take more than that to put me down.)


    "Great," she said aloud. "Dragon Pulse!"

    (You got i-- wait, huh? Really?)

    Trust me?

    (Always.)
    Lucario held his hands out in front of him, summoning a turquoise ball of energy. He fired it at Huntail, who dived underneath it, sliding several feet forward on the ice.

    "That's our opening! Waterfall, Predator!"

    Huntail zoomed forward using the momentum gained from the ice and brought his head up just under Lucario's chin and sending him sailing several feet into the air. Rose gasped as she felt her bond with Lucario sever as quickly as if it were unplugged from an outlet; Huntail's attack had jolted Lucario's brain, short-circuiting it and knocking him out cold.

    Esmeralda, with her ability to see a Pokemon's energy, picked up on this too, as she halted the battle before Lucario had even hit the ground; with impressive speed and footwork, she rushed to Lucario's position and caught him in her arms as he fell. "Lucario is unable to battle. The winner is Huntail, and advancing to the next round is Thresher Fessco!"

    The moment the barrier went down, Rose was on the field in tears, rushing to where Esmeralda and Lucario were. After nearly losing Gardevoir in her first battle, she was assuming the worst.

    "Lucario!" Rose shouted, slipping several times as she made her way towards her injured Pokemon. Esmeralda walked over to Rose and set Lucario down on the ground in front of her. She fell to her knees, cradling her Pokemon in her arms. "Is... is he..."

    Esmeralda kneeled down next to the defeated trainer. "Don't worry, he's alive," she confirmed after a quick scan of Lucario's vitals. "His brain just took a shock, that's all. You'll want to get him to the Pokemon Center right away."

    "Oh, thank goodness," Rose breathed in relief, hugging Lucario tight to her. "I thought I'd lost you, my love," she said quietly to him, unheard over the roar over the crowd or Thresher's approach and shouts of concern, but not to Esmeralda...
     
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  12. PMJ happy thoughts
    PMJ

    Articles Head Activities Staff Badges Staff Elite Member Advanced Member Member

    Hello. It's been a while since I've posted anything on this forum - I've mainly been lurking, and doing work as an article editor behind the scenes. But rest assured, I have always been around.

    I was going to wait until chapter 11 was finished to post again, but I figured that I might as well make a post to bring this story up from the depths to get it fresh in people's minds. If I'm lucky, I might pique the interest of a couple newcomers.

    To those of you who are new to this thread, I started working on this story a little over two years ago. My original plan for this story has gone up in smoke, so my current plan is to end the story sometime soon, if I can just put the words on the page already.

    I often get stuck when writing and frequently lose focus, which is part of the reason why it's been almost, what, nine months? without an update. With that said, I have been writing quite a bit; as of this writing, chapter 11 is sitting at about 11,000 words. I've been jumping from place to place in the chapter to write things down elsewhere so that if I lose focus in one spot I can try to at least direct my attention to another part of the chapter.

    If you're new here, I invite you to go back to the first post, where I have each chapter linked for your convenience. I enjoy hearing from my readers, so do not hesitate to tell me how off the rails this story's gotten and also your favorite ship.

    I also have a Discord server where I have conned invited suckers people to chat with me directly. You're welcome to lurk there if you like.

    If you aren't new to this thread and you aren't caught up... catch up. :>

    Tagging @PikaMasterJesi because I really want her to read up past interlude 3. Everyone else'll get a tag once the chapter is done.
     
  13. PMJ happy thoughts
    PMJ

    Articles Head Activities Staff Badges Staff Elite Member Advanced Member Member

    Chapter 11 highlights:

    - Windra has a chat with Kiria and Rose
    - The Close Calls Club has a meeting
    - Eldan and Quayle continue to fight over Nye
    - Esmeralda spends some quality time with Windra
    - Kiria and Nye have their match
    - it's friggin dope

    There's a part of me that wants to say that this won't be the last chapter, but in all honesty it probably is. I'll probably whip up something resembling an epilogue sometime within the next nine months (lol). It's kind of a shame because after this chapter ends you will definitely want to know what comes next. And you'll get it. In the epilogue. ;)

    I promise to do a tl;dr of the things that happen in the next couple chapters, so this story will still have something resembling an ending.

    If you've stumbled on this thread by accident, hey. Give the ol' girl a read, I spent a lot of time on her. Lemme know what you think.


    Word count: 14,096

    Chapter 11: Shattered Dreams


    Windra sat on her bed, legs crossed and a satisfied smile on her face. She and nearly fifty thousand others had just finished watching Rose take a loss to Thresher. Whether Rose threw the match or was simply outplayed by Thresher, Windra didn't know nor care. The important thing was the disgusting tramp was out of the running for the grand prize.

    She took a bit of a devilish thrill in watching Rose's Lucario get knocked unconscious, a just and proper punishment for crossing the line with his trainer.

    Should have just let him fall, Windra thought, remembering how quickly Esmeralda had moved to catch Lucario. Might have landed on his neck and broke it.

    Windra grumbled as she remembered Rose collapsed next to her fallen Pokemon, worried her precious sex toy was damaged.

    They wouldn't be cheering for her if they knew her secret.

    She turned off the TV, sighing. How badly she wanted to tell everyone else what Rose had done. But, she reminded herself, she made a deal, one that she was slowly starting to regret making. It was almost worth it to tell Rose that she'd changed her mind and report her to Safiri, League officials, or anyone who would listen. While Rose was right that what she was doing wasn't illegal per se, Windra didn't doubt that Rose would be found guilty in the court of public opinion. Even if she wasn't thrown in jail... Windra knew there were far worse things that could be done. And it was possibly because of that reason that Windra was willing to keep her mouth shut. That, and her second condition, which she felt Rose would be more than willing to agree to.

    A knock sounded at Windra's bedroom door. Right on time, she thought as she stood in her doorway, arms crossed and chest puffed out, trying to look intimidating for the whore who'd embarrassed her. "Enter, slut," she ordered.

    The door handle turned, and the person outside poked her head in. "That's not a very nice thing to say," she said, pouting.

    "Mom! Geez, sorry, I wasn't expecting it to be you," Windra apologized, rushing to the door to let Kiria in. "Come on in." Windra closed the door behind her and let out a breath. "Sorry again. I didn't mean it."

    "I know," was Kiria's simple reply, not put off by Windra's remark. She pulled a chair to the edge of Windra's bed, sat in it, and motioned for the young girl to sit next to her. Windra plopped onto her bed, facing the ceiling with her hands behind her head. "I'm here to talk to you about what happened between you and Scarlet."

    Windra scoffed, rolling her eyes. With all the drama involving Rose, Windra had forgotten all about her dealings with Scarlet. "What about it?" she asked, not looking at her guest.

    "I think you know 'what about it,' Windra."

    "Tch. Guess that means she blabbed to you about what we did... What else did she tell you?" Windra asked, propping herself on her elbows.

    Kiria crossed her legs and rested her hands on them. "Everything."

    Windra rolled her eyes again, turning away from Kiria this time. "Yeah, I doubt that. Probably made me out to be some evil bitch."

    "That's why I'm here. I want to hear your side of things."

    Windra turned back to Kiria, sneering. "I thought she told you everything?"

    "I thought you said she didn't?" Kiria countered, just this side of annoyed now. "I want to hear it from you." She decided to dispense with the pleasantries and cut right to the heart of the matter. "Why'd you hit her?"

    "Because she had it coming. She's lucky slapping her is all I did."

    "That was wrong, and you know it," Kiria scolded. "I'm not excusing what she said, but violence is never the answer. Were you really that offended by what she said?"

    "Yes!" Windra shouted, sitting bolt upright and staring at Kiria in disbelief. "Don't tell me you're taking her side!"

    "No, just getting the facts," Kiria calmly explained. "But I do think you acted rashly."

    Windra stood up and pointed an accusatory finger at the older woman. "You are taking her side! I can't believe this!" she fumed, pacing around the small area of her room.

    "I'm not taking her side, Windra, calm down--"

    Windra whirled on her in an instant. "Yes you are! It's all, 'oh, Scarlet was hurt!' and 'she didn't deserve that!' Well, what about my feelings, huh?!" She cursed herself as she felt angry tears coming to the surface, but she powered on regardless. "How do you think I felt having to stand there and listen to her tell me that everything she felt for me was a lie?"

    "I didn't know you liked her," Kiria said softly.

    "I don't!" Windra shouted, throwing her hands up in defeat. "I mean, I, I thought she was cool, but I didn't want anything serious with her! Then I found her dumb note and I was so excited that she changed her mind and I showed up and... wow." She rubbed the tears from her eyes before they got too out of control. "Just... wow, Mom, that's the only way I can describe it."

    Kiria raised her eyebrows in mildly impressed respect. "That good, huh?"

    "Yeah. And then I find out the next day, 'oops, I don't like you after all, it was for Rose the whole time!'" She took a breath, feeling old anger creep into her voice. "And then she has the audacity to judge me and say that I'm the one who's dishonest?" Windra shook her head in disapproval, subconsciously balling her hands into fists. "I don't care that she likes Rose. I care that she was dishonest about where she and I stand. Now, I'm no saint. I've had plenty of flings. But I've always, always been up front about it. No feelings. No expectations after we're done. That way shit like this doesn't happen." Windra sat down on the edge of her bed, looking at her hands in her lap.

    Kiria moved to Windra's side on her bed and wrapped her arms around Windra in a gentle hug. "Here's what I think. Both of you messed up here." When Windra started to object, Kiria simply held onto her tighter and shushed her. "Listen. Scarlet is awful about telling people how she feels. She absolutely should have said something to you when you came onto her - which, by the way, was wrong, regardless of what some note said."

    Windra grumbled to show Kiria what she thought of that.

    "I told Scarlet she needs to apologize for offending you. You need to apologize for hitting her. I'm not saying you have to be best friends, but apologizing is the absolute least you two can do for each other."

    A knock was heard on Windra's door, and Windra quickly wiped her eyes, unwilling to let anyone else see her get so emotional. "Who's there?" she called out.

    "It's Rose. I'm here to talk."

    The two women looked at each other, and Kiria reluctantly let Windra go. "I'll leave the two of you alone. I'm guessing she's the one you were expecting earlier?" At Windra's eye roll and nod, Kiria sighed. "I don't know what she did to piss you off, and I really don't want to know. Just keep your hands to yourself, okay? I'm gonna go make sure my Pokemon are ready for my match later. I'll see you at lunch."

    Kiria opened the door to leave, confusing the young lady outside Windra's room. "Oh, hi, Kiria," Rose greeted her, discreetly checking the sign on the door to make sure she had the right room.

    "Hi, Rose," Kiria greeted her cheerfully. "Windra and I were just having a talk. I was on my way out. How's Lucario?"

    "Better, now that he's getting some help," Rose replied, being careful not to look at Windra.

    "I'm glad to hear it. You two have fun, now," Kiria said, excusing herself and leaving the two younger ladies alone.

    "Sit," Windra ordered, pointing to Kiria's chair, and she was pleased to see that Rose complied without complaint. She would not be humiliated here, of all places. "Tough break today," she said with a smirk.

    "Cut the crap," Rose shot back, clearly in no mood for small talk. "I lost. What's your second condition?"

    "I want your winnings," Windra answered simply. "Every last dollar."

    "Done."

    This gave Windra pause, and confusion crept over her face. "Wait, really?"

    Rose nodded, very seriously. "Yes, Windra, really. Do you really think I care about the money?" She considered how much she was losing, and sighed. "I'll admit, a hundred thousand dollars is... a lot of money. I could do a lot for the Ranger Union with it. But I would gladly give it up for you to keep my secret safe. I know you don't agree with my lifestyle, Windra, but I love him. Both of them. I don't care about winning, or being famous, or the money. At the end of the day, I just want us to be safe. If the price tag on my safety is a hundred grand, I will pay it without hesitation."

    Windra couldn't help but chuckle, despite her desire to look intimidating. Had she known it was going to be this easy, she would have milked this whore for all she was worth. It was tempting to try to get more out of her, but a deal was a deal, and since Windra had already showed her hand, the jig was up. "Tch. You're lucky I'm so nice, or I'd have asked for more," she said, crossing her arms in front of her.

    Immediately, Rose was on her feet, startling Windra and causing her to fall onto her bed. "If you were so nice, you wouldn't be blackmailing me out of my winnings," Rose shot back. "I told you not to mistake my mercy for weakness. I value the safety of myself and my mates higher than some tournament prize. I'll cut you a check for the 100k, Windra, but don't think for one second that I won't hunt you down if these details ever surface." She closed her eyes, taking a calming breath. "I don't think I'm going to have to do that, though. You say your word is your bond. I believe you."

    For a moment, neither girl said anything. Windra didn't want to admit that she was still afraid of Rose, or appear friendly to someone she'd just successfully blackmailed. Rose simply let Windra think about what she'd said, while at the same time hoping that she wouldn't have to go through on her threat. Finally, Rose spoke up. "I think that takes care of everything. Give me your contact information and I'll send you your money after the tournament is over."

    Windra wordlessly stood up from her bed and took a small notepad and pen from her bag and scribbled something on it, then handed it to Rose. "Here," she said, thrusting a slender arm in Rose's face.

    Rose took the paper, holding it out from her face so she could read it. "Who's this?"

    "My parents," Windra said, sighing heavily. "That's their address in Village Bridge in Unova. Make the check out to them and mail it there."

    Rose's mouth opened slightly as she realized the implication of the request. And though she was angry at the girl who was blackmailing her, knowing what she was going to do with the money dulled her anger just a little. "I will. You have my word."

    "And you have mine," Windra replied with disappointment clear in her voice. "Your disgusting secret is safe with me."

    "Thank you," Rose answered, ignoring the jab and exiting Windra's room.

    Once Rose was gone, Windra closed her eyes and took a deep breath before slowly letting it out. When she opened her eyes, she was smiling.

    * * *

    "The Close Calls Club is now in session!"

    Kyro stood at the circular table in the cafeteria, smiling as he surveyed the members of his club. Quayle, Windra, Taikyu, Scarlet, Eldan, and Rose were all seated at the table with him. He was overjoyed that his club had been such a success so far, with more and more members added every day. Quayle and Eldan were sitting across from one another, with Quayle finding it more and more difficult to uphold their agreement to keep club meetings civil. Neither Windra nor Rose betrayed anything about the conversation they had a couple hours prior, chatting with those near them, but not to each other. Scarlet, not wanting to look at either Windra or Rose, remained quiet, fidgeting with her fingers at the table. And Taikyu, in the middle of everyone, could tell that something was off with the young group. The aura around the group wasn't visible the way Chara's had been with Frisk, but it was obvious to the elderly sage that the energy around the table was decidedly negative.

    Kyro had no such abilities, however; to him, all appeared well. "Today, we'll be discussing Miss Rose's match against Mr. Thresher from this morning." He turned to Rose, who was seated next to him on his right. "Welcome to the club, Miss Rose! Sorry about your match."

    Rose smiled at the young man. "Thank you for having me," she said, rising to her feet. "I'm a little sad that I lost, but I'm very pleased with how I did in the tournament."

    "But at least you'll be leaving with a ton of money!" Kyro exclaimed as Rose took her seat. "That's so cool!"

    "Yes, that is very cool," Rose said without missing a beat, smile planted firmly on her face. She could feel Windra's eyes boring into her, but she wasn't about to give Windra the satisfaction of seeing her crack. She changed the subject. "Anyway, I think the turning point of the battle was when Ferrothorn used Rain Dance. It gave Huntail a major advantage against me. I think if I'd KOed Ferrothorn quicker, I might have won."

    "If I could offer a differing point of view?" Quayle spoke up to Kyro. After being acknowledged, he turned to Rose. "I think you could have utilized Lucario's strengths better. They are skilled fighters at long range, so it might have been smarter to try and attack via that avenue, especially since you were fighting on the ice. How is he doing, by the way? That last attack was brutal."

    The others now all turned to look at Rose, having had similar thoughts but no one wanting to broach the subject. "He's fine, thanks," Rose replied, not taking her eyes off Quayle. "He should be better by tonight, but he may stay in the center overnight, just to be safe."

    "You know, the lord of the night has a point," Windra chimed in. "Doesn't your Lucario know Aura Sphere?"

    This time, Rose did look at Windra, wondering what she was getting at. It was a miracle Windra was even at the table; in the past week, she'd hit both Quayle and Scarlet and managed to blackmail Rose, although the others at the table had only known about her punching Quayle. Windra had flat out refused to sit next to Scarlet, and Eldan and Quayle sat as far from each other as they could. As the newest inductee, Rose's spot at the table was next to Kyro, leaving no place for Windra except next to the one person she possibly hated more than Rose. It was no secret that Windra was no fan of Quayle, and Rose knew how Windra felt about her, so what was the point of all this small talk? "Yes, he does," she finally answered.

    "It's his signature attack, right? Really strong, locks onto the opponent's energy signature so it can't miss, right? Why wouldn't you use a powerful tool like that? I don't remember you using it once..."

    "Hey, yeah! Great idea, Miss Windra!" Kyro excitedly turned to Rose. "Do you think that could have changed anything?"

    Rose barely heard him; she hadn't taken her eyes off of Windra, who was smiling very smugly at her. "Well, anything's possible, right?"

    "For sure!" Kyro answered, blissfully oblivious to any of the drama of the other competitors. He turned to Scarlet, who was doing her best to avoid the conversation. "What do you think, Miss Scarlet?" he asked her, having noticed her silence and wanting to include her in the meeting.

    "Huh? Oh, uh, yeah, what they said," she replied, shrinking into her chair.

    "Are you okay? You look sad."

    "A ha, do I?" she replied nervously. "Sorry, it's nothing, just thinking about stuff. Got a lot on my mind."

    Thinking she was referring to her loss, Kyro's face exploded into a grin once again. "Well, just because Miss Rose's match is our focus for today doesn't mean that we can't go over your match again! There's always room for improvement, right, Mr. Quayle?"

    Quayle smiled back at the young lad. "Yes, exactly."

    "No, no, it's not that," Scarlet deflected. "Personal stuff. Not worth talking about."

    "Oh, sure it is," Windra responded cheerily, earning her glares from both Rose and Scarlet that went unnoticed by everyone except Taikyu. "Why don't you tell everyone what's on your mind?"

    "Didn't you hear her? It's personal," Rose shot back before Scarlet could stammer out a reply.

    "And a lady's choice should always be respected," Eldan said directly to Quayle.

    "Yeah, that's right!" Scarlet agreed, giving Windra a dirty look.

    "What are you looking at me like that for?" she asked innocently.

    "Oh, no reason, I just thought that what Eldan said makes a lot of sense," Scarlet answered.

    "You got something you want to say to me?" Quayle shot back to Eldan, eager for a chance to put him in his place.

    Just then, Taikyu calmly rose from the table. All eyes immediately shot to him, and he smiled down at the young trainers. "Why don't we change the subject for now, hm?" The others, not wanting to further embarrass themselves in front of the old man, or each other, all agreed. A short distance away, the cafeteria doors swung open, revealing Kiria and Nye. "Ah, perfect timing. Good afternoon, young ladies," he greeted them.

    "Hello, Taikyu," Nye replied warmly. "Everyone. What's going on? Ah, another club meeting?"

    Kyro nodded, his general enthusiasm dulled somewhat by the arguing of the others. "Yeah, but it's not really going well."

    Before Nye could start asking questions, Quayle stood and placed a hand on the young boy's shoulder. "Nye's match is starting soon. Perhaps we should adjourn for now."

    The excitement of another battle coming was enough to get the boy smiling again, and he nodded in agreement. "Yeah, you're right. Thanks for coming, everyone. And good luck, Miss Nye, Miss Kiria!"

    "Thank you, little one," Nye answered, giving the boy a hug. "I feel like I'm going to need it."

    Kiria scoffed at this. "Don't sell yourself short. I saw what your Pokemon are capable of. I'm gonna try my ass off to give you a good battle."

    "Oh, I don't think that will be a problem," Nye said, looking around the room. She lowered her voice slightly. "No offense to Tsomu, but you destroyed him."

    "Okay, we get it, you're both good," Windra complained with a roll of her eyes.

    "It's true," Eldan chimed in. "I mean, of course I've got money on Nye, but if I weren't biased, I could see myself betting on Kiria. Even Alex thinks you've got this, but I told him there was no way I was betting against you," he said to Nye. "I have no doubt that it's going to be a fantastic battle. Good luck to you both," he finished, flashing a perfect grin.

    "Thank you, Eldan," Nye said, smiling. "And thank you for practicing with me. I hope to be able to put what we've learned to good use."

    Safiri's voice came over the loudspeaker requesting that Nye and Kiria report to the stadium. The other competitors wished them luck one last time, and the two ladies made for the exit. "Nye, wait a second," Quayle blurted, causing Nye to spin around in place.

    "What is it, Quayle? I'm going to be late," she said impatiently.

    With steely resolve, Quayle moved to the other side of Kyro and quickly brought Nye in for a hug before either she could object or he chickened out. He made sure he was making eye contact with Eldan as he said, "Good luck."

    To his relief, she returned his hug, albeit quickly - though she was oblivious to the smirk Eldan was giving Quayle behind her back. "Thanks," she said, extracting herself from him and heading for the door. "Gotta go."

    "Uh, before you leave, I got something for you," Eldan said as he stepped into her path and reached into his jacket. "A good luck charm. Hold out your hand."

    With an exasperated sigh, Nye did as he asked. "Hurry it up, I seriously have to g--"

    In one deft movement, Eldan pulled nothing from his jacket and instead took Nye's hand in his. Gasps were heard from the other competitors as Eldan pulled Nye in for a kiss before she even realized it was happening. Had they been in private, it might have taken longer for her to react, but with everyone watching - including Kiria, who'd returned after noticing Nye hadn't followed her out - and the pressing issue of her match, it took all of half a second for her to push him off of her. "Are you out of your mind?!" she shouted.

    "Not at all," Eldan said, thoroughly enjoying the sight of Quayle's quickly reddening face. It was clear that he was absolutely livid. Good, Eldan thought. Quayle wanted to play this game? Then game on.

    "Not at all?!" Nye repeated. "Does nothing we talked about mean anything to you?! Damn it, Eldan, I - Quayle, calm down," Nye said as she turned to notice Quayle's furious expression and clenched fists. She threw her hands down, closing her eyes tight and taking a calming breath. "I don't have time for this. You and I will have words later," she spit to Eldan, fire in her voice. "Goodbye," she finished, and she marched out of the cafeteria, leaving a room full of shocked people, and Kiria to hurriedly chase after her.

    Scarlet, Windra, and Rose were all sitting at their table, mouths agape at the sight that just happened. They could all see the dirty looks that Quayle and Eldan were giving each other, and the three of them quickly left the cafeteria, headed for the sanctity and quiet of their own rooms to watch the battle. Old man Taikyu remained to defuse the situation, hoping that the two young men would be too embarrassed to fight in front of an old man since he would be virtually powerless to stop them if they did.

    "I see right through you, you know," Quayle said, almost conversationally, to Eldan. He moved back to his spot at the table, wanting to put some distance between him and the man in red.

    Seeing this as a sign of fear, Eldan casually followed him, closing the gap between them. "Oh yeah? And tell me, o wise and knowledgeable relationship god, what is it that you are seeing?"

    "I see you for who you really are," Quayle answered. "I know that you don't care about Nye. Not really. I know plenty of guys, served with plenty of guys, who are just like you. You see a nice girl, wanna take her home for the night, so you say and do just the right things to get them on your side. And maybe it works and maybe it doesn't," he continued with a shrug. "But that's all part of the game, isn't it? If she doesn't go along with you, why, that just means you need to switch up the game plan! Get to know her well enough to know what she's into so you can pretend to have an interest in them so she changes her mind about you. And then, once she finally relents and warms your bed, it's mission accomplished and you throw her to the curb so you can brag about it to your buddies." Quayle clenched one of his fists in frustration, desperately wanting to hit the smug young man in front of him but knowing that he would probably lose if he and Eldan actually came to blows. "You stay away from Nye," Quayle warned, his voice low and dangerous. "She might not see the truth, but I do. And when - not if, when - I find out that you hurt her... you're going to wish you'd never met me."

    At this, Eldan laughed openly. "Dude, I already wish I'd never met you. You know, you've got a lot of nerve trying to lecture me on how to treat a lady. Didn't your mom tell you never to hit a woman? You're lucky that Thresher stopped you because if he hadn't, and you'd actually hit Windra that day, you'd have gotten the beating of your life from me. Lenny and I both agreed that you would have deserved it. You disgust me. And it's sooooo sweet watching you lose your mind at the thought of Nye being interested in me, because I know she will never in a thousand years go for a loser like you. I know you know that, deep down, and you are pulling out all the stops to make sure she doesn't end up with someone you hate. Because that wouldn't play out in that little fantasy you've got swirling around in that head of yours, would it?" He chuckled to himself. "If this is a game, then I've already won. It's over. Your precious Nye is putty in my hands and there is not a single thing you can do about it. If you don't believe me, ask her what she meant when she asked me if nothing we talked about meant anything to her. When you were off probably sulking at your miserable life, I was spending time getting to know my future wife. ...Damn, that rhymed, that was pretty cool," he said to himself. "Anyway. I asked when she was going to let me kiss her. I was this close to doing it a couple days ago, but Tsomu and his dumb cake shit ruined the mood."

    "I'll have to thank him," Quayle chimed in, not wanting Eldan to dominate the conversation.

    Eldan ignored him. "During our training, I brought it up again. She said, and I quote, 'Not today, but soon.' I said I would be happy to wait, and that was the end of it. I do regret that I ended up not waiting because I would have liked our first kiss to be more special, but I'll take her being angry with me for a little while if it puts you in your place and shows you just how futile your efforts to stop me are. Face it, Your Highness. You've lost." He capped his monologue with a grin that Quayle desperately wished he had the physical strength needed to wipe it off his face.

    "You really think you have a monopoly on Nye's feelings, do you?" Quayle replied. "I may have been a terrible person in my past, but unlike you, Nye knows that my motives for such actions were noble."

    "Drowning Rose's Gardevoir is not noble, you idiot!" Eldan shouted back. "What noble motives made you do that, huh? Or punching a girl in the face, yeah, that's real noble. Yeah, I can see you balling those fists, little man. You gonna hit me too? Because I guarantee you it'll be the worst mistake of your life. I'll whoop your unstylish ass in front of Taikyu and look damn fine doing it. Hit me, you little weasel," he said, jutting his chin out in front of Quayle, mere inches from his face. "Right here. I dare you. I double dare you."

    Quayle could almost feel Eldan's breath on his face, and he started to wind back for a swing, but closed his eyes tightly and put his hands down. He took a deep breath, and then opened his eyes. "No."

    "I knew you wouldn't do it," Eldan replied with a smile. "And that right there is why Nye wants me and not you. You're too afraid to go after what you want, and I'm not. She might put on a front in public, but in private? Nye eats that shit up. She's a bold woman and she wants a bold man who sees something, decides he wants it, and goes and gets it. Even and especially if it's her."

    "That's a tremendously ignorant thing to say, even for you," Quayle said, shaking his head. "I spent most of my life doing exactly what you said. After Team Galactic destroyed my town, I joined them with the intent of destroying them from the inside. I was commander for several months, leading their research and development team and spearheading several important projects. And my desire for more power, that drive to go and 'get' anything I wanted without regard for others almost got me killed. It lost me my fiancée. And it nearly lost me Nye. She knows the kind of person I was and she's been trying to get me to be that person again because I believe she wants to be with me. She just needs to see that I'm capable of returning to the sweet young Quayle she once knew."

    "Real riveting tale, buddy," Eldan said with a stretch, trying to appear bored. "But you're kidding yourself if you think anyone but you truly believes you're changed. At least I'm still the same sexy, stylish guy I've always been. Yeah, I can be crude sometimes, but at least I'm honest about it. I rein it in with Nye because as much as it bugs the hell out of you, I do care about her and she cares about me. So you're just gonna have to deal with it," he finished, poking Quayle in the chest. "Now then, if you both will excuse me, I'm headed to my room to watch the battle. It should be starting any minute now, and I don't want to miss any of it."

    With that, Eldan turned and left without waiting for a response. Quayle stood there and watched him go, then took a deep breath, relieved and more than a little proud of himself that for once he hadn't taken the low road. Surely that would count for something? He smiled and he grabbed the remote to the cafeteria television and flipped it on. "Were you going to watch something out here?" the scientist asked Taikyu, still seated at the table.

    "Just the battle. I imagine you were going to do the same," the monk replied. "If you don't mind, I'll watch it with you. Saves me the trouble of heading back to my room."

    "No, not at all," Quayle said, sitting next to him at the table. Ruby hadn't even started her pre-battle spiel yet - he hadn't missed anything. "Can I ask your opinion on something, Taikyu?" he asked suddenly.

    Taikyu smiled, always pleased to provide guidance when asked. "Of course. What is it?"

    "What do you think of Eldan?"

    "I think he is a fine young man," was Taikyu's simple answer.

    This took Quayle by surprise. "What? Really? How come? You heard all the things I've seen guys like him do. You've seen the way he acts towards Nye and the other girls. I can't stand to even look at him. None of that bothers you?"

    "I will admit that it did, at first," Taikyu began. "I am ashamed to say that I acted similarly when I was his age. But I grew out of it after I came to realize that people deserved to be treated the same way I wished to be treated. A simple lesson, but one that took me far longer to learn than you or Eldan. I didn't have the support of friends and comrades the way you two do. What I wouldn't give to be able to make amends with all those I've wronged in my foolish youth," he said forlornly. "So when Eldan says he's being sincere, I believe him."

    "How do you know he's not going to hurt her?"

    "I don't," he said simply. "You could be completely right about him."

    Quayle nearly burst out of his chair. "So then why do--"

    Taikyu held up a hand, silencing the young man. "You asked what I thought of him. And what I think is that while he is by no means perfect, I don't believe he is the kind of person who would do the things you describe. Those with those kind of ulterior motives are rarely so open about their intentions. I also think you're not being very fair to Nye here. She seems like an intelligent and capable young lady. It's obvious you care a great deal for her well-being, but she may grow to resent your help if you try forcing her to see your point of view without considering hers. Would you stop being her friend if she and Eldan started a relationship?"

    "No," Quayle replied immediately.

    "Then trust her judgment," Taikyu said, putting his arm on Quayle's shoulder. "It can be hard to watch our loved ones make the decisions we feel are wrong for them, but until they see the error of their ways for themselves, our hands are tied. What's important is making sure that she understands that you support her, as a friend, and that you will respect her choices - even if they are not ones you agree with."

    As the cameras zoomed in on Nye approaching the platform, Quayle sighed. "Easier said than done."

    Taikyu chuckled to himself. "Isn't it always?"

    * * * * * * * *

    "Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen! My name is Ruby Earthgrand, reporting live from Indigo Plateau! Welcome to the second of our quarterfinal matches of the first Kanto League Invitational! Earlier today, we were treated to quite a battle, and I'm confident that every battle from now point will be even hotter! Let's start by bringing out our competitors! Coming to the west platform is a woman who advanced after her opponent sadly forfeited, and she's anxious for another chance to show the world what her Pokemon can do! Let's hear it once again for Kiria Gramarye!"

    As Kiria approached, she tried pushing thoughts of Nye out of her head. She couldn't help but feel sorry for the young woman - Quayle and Eldan fighting over her was the last thing she needed before an important battle. She didn't think Nye was the type of person to give up when things got tough... she certainly didn't against Eldan... but a distraction was a distraction. She hoped it wouldn't affect her too much, but Kiria wasn't foolish enough not to press any advantage she had. If Nye faltered even a little bit, Kiria would make sure she regretted it.

    She'd gotten a reminder of Nye's Pokemon from Safiri and didn't like her options. Each of Nye's Pokemon was extremely threatening to her team depending on the matchup, and the last thing she wanted to do was give any of them a free turn to boost their stats or heal in the event she guessed wrong and needed to switch.

    She's going to want to get Beedrill Mega Evolved as soon as she can, Kiria reasoned. Hope I'm right on that, because it's going to be bad news if I'm not...

    "And returning to the east platform is a young lady who I'm sure you'll all remember defeated Eldan Faradel last week with a nail-biter of a finish that very nearly ended in a draw... it just goes to show that even the speed queen has her work cut out for her on this honored stage! Here's hoping she can give her opponent, and you all, a great battle! Keep that applause going for Nye Wright!"

    If Nye was worried about what had happened earlier, Kiria decided she wasn't showing it very well. Nye was all smiles as she waved to the crowd, making her way to the same place she'd been a week prior. She waved to Kiria, who waved back.

    Wow, she seems fine. Guess she's more in control of her emotions than I gave her credit for.

    The crowd's cheers swelled as Esmeralda came onto the field and revealed that the two ladies would be battling on the grass field. Kiria wasn't getting any immediate ideas about how to use the terrain to her advantage. The tree in the arena's center was thick and sturdy, and the leaves would make for decent cover, but she didn't plan on any of her Pokemon getting caught up there. Fortunately, she didn't expect any of Nye's Pokemon to hide up there either, so all in all, it was a fairly neutral battling ground.

    It was time to begin. After Esmeralda verified each battler was ready, she gave the starting command: "Trainers, release your Pokemon!"

    "Eleonora, come on out!"

    "Musharna, it's up to you!"

    Kiria cursed internally as Nye's first Pokemon proved she'd guessed wrong, and now she was up against a debilitating weakness. Musharna's body glowed white momentarily, and Kiria knew that Nye had been made aware of Arbok's strongest attack. While this in itself wasn't a huge deal, it still made Kiria feel a little more exposed.

    Did she predict my lead? Or did she predict that I'd predict she'd use Beedrill first, and then predict I'd go for Eleonora?

    She shook that idea out of her head. Ask why later. Focus on now.

    At least Eleonora is faster. I'll have to use that to my advantage, but...

    Rose's Gardevoir simply tossing Thresher's Corsola into the wall was fresh in Kiria's mind, and she hated the position she was in.

    I'm going to have to trust in Eleonora, though, Kiria realized. I can't afford to get Maiko's disguise broken this early, and while Barry might be able to hold his own if Musharna tries boosting her stats, if I guess wrong or she gets a lucky hit, it's all over. I'll need to drop those defenses in the event Eleonora goes down.

    With this new plan, Kiria confidently gave the first move. "Acid Spray, Eleonora!"

    "Hypnosis! Let's end this quickly!" Nye countered as Arbok flew towards Musharna's position, venom dripping from her mouth. Musharna gripped Arbok telekinetically immediately after the command was given but was slow firing the move, allowing Arbok enough time to belch a large blob of the poison at Musharna. The thick spray coated a great deal of Musharna's body as the Hypnosis took effect, and Arbok fell to the ground, fast asleep. "Dream Eater!" Nye ordered, not giving Kiria any time to respond. The energy-sucking beam connected, but the moment it did, Arbok's body glowed white; Arbok burst forth a moment later, wide awake and leaving behind the glowing outline of her body, which dissipated into nothing a moment later. A surprised Musharna barely had time to back off as Arbok lunged at her in a counterattack.

    "Ha! Talk about a lucky break!" Kiria exclaimed at her good fortune. "You've got her on the run, use Sludge Bomb!"

    Arbok reared back, taking aim at Nye's Pokemon, but Nye was quick to give her next command. "Float out of Eleonora's reach and use Trick Room! We won't be taken by surprise again!" Arbok fired shot after shot at Musharna as she floated straight up into the sky, settling above the highest part of the tree and barely out of Arbok's reach.

    Shoot, Kiria thought as the battlefield's dimensions were twisted. Musharna descended at an alarming speed, prepared to turn things around.

    What to do, gotta stall, gotta stall--

    "Glare!" she blurted, and Arbok obeyed, leveling a fearsome glare at Musharna. It took effect easily, paralyzing Musharna and causing her to move even faster.

    "Thanks, Kiria!" a thrilled Nye called from across the field. "You've just sealed your own fate! Musharna, use Psychic!"

    Musharna was on Arbok in an instant, enveloping the snake in psychic energy. She lifted Arbok off the ground and prepared to toss her when Musharna's nerves suddenly seized up, causing her to abort the move and harmlessly drop Arbok to the ground.

    "Just what I was looking for!" Kiria shouted, pumping a fist in the air. "Try that Sludge Bomb one more time!"

    Burst after burst of filthy poison issued from Arbok's mouth, easily pelting Musharna who was still reeling from paralysis. The attack battered her into the very tree she'd plan on throwing Arbok into; Musharna was only able to escape by Arbok running out of energy for the attack. Though moderately damaged, she was by no means defeated.

    "Psyshock!" Nye commanded, and Musharna formed a massive blob of energy at an alarming speed. The attack was hurled at Arbok, who under the effects of Trick Room was just too slow to evade, and it dealt a large amount of damage to her. Seeing her opening, Nye continued her assault. "Hypnosis again!"

    Musharna linked her and her opponent's bodies together once more, and after a flash, Arbok fell to the ground, put to sleep for the second time this battle. This time, much to Kiria's horror, Arbok didn't wake up, and she was at Nye's mercy. Nye sighed audibly, relieved things were finally starting to go her way. "Heal Bell!"

    With Arbok snoozing, Musharna was free to sound the healing chime to rid her of paralysis, though she was still covered in poisonous gunk. At Nye's next order, Musharna began healing with Moonlight as Kiria frantically shouted for her Pokemon to wake up. Musharna had nearly restored all of her energy when Arbok finally did wake up, just as the dimensions returned to normal. Kiria saw her chance to bring the battle back in her favor and went for it before Nye could do something horrible. "Crunch!" she commanded, and Arbok dashed, too quickly for Musharna to evade. With poisonous fangs bared, Arbok lunged, managing to snatch Musharna out of the air and send them both to the ground. Arbok wasted no time in wrapping her length around Musharna's body and delivering another vicious bite attack to her opponent as she squeezed, attempting to secure a win.

    Musharna choked out a cry as Arbok's poison started coursing through her system, and Nye pounded a fist on the platform. "Damn," she cursed quietly before her eyes went wide. "No, wait! Oh my gosh, this is perfect! Musharna, use Psyshock, form beta!"

    Musharna lit her whole body in psychic energy, damaging Arbok and forcing her to release Musharna and slink away in pain. Nye screamed in amazement as she watched her efforts pay off. "Get her, Musharna! Just like we practiced!" Still cloaked in the psychic energy, Musharna dashed forward, crashing herself into Arbok and sending her toppling backwards. Kiria could do nothing but stare slack-jawed as Musharna battered Arbok with her own body before rising high and dropping her full weight onto the snake, decisively knocking her out. The crowd voiced their pleasure at this surprise development with screams and cheers. Esmeralda made Musharna's win official, and Ruby could hardly contain herself as she tried giving the play-by-play of what just happened.

    Wow, was all Kiria could say as she recalled her defeated Pokemon. These kids today, I swear... Okay, so Eleonora still managed to get a few good hits in, and even though Musharna healed a lot, she's still going to be worn out from fighting this whole time. I could use Maiko here to hopefully get an easy knock out, but if she goes down before Beedrill does... gosh, I hate her team. Still, she smiled to herself, thankful that she'd already gotten a better battle than she did against Tsomu.

    "Barry, come on out!"

    Kiria's Slowpoke took the field, his deceptively dopey gaze betraying nothing about the speed at which his mind was working. Though slow by nature, Slowpoke was still a Psychic-type, and though Kiria didn't think Nye wouldn't respect the powers that entailed, Kiria was secretly hoping she would - an easy victory here would mean less work for Mimikyu.

    Fortunately, Kiria considered, I can attack with powerful Water-type attacks, giving Barry an advantage. I just take down Musharna, use Trick Room on anything she brings out after that, and then go from there.

    "Barry, use Surf!"

    "Stop him, Musharna! Put him to sleep with Hypnosis!"

    Kiria groaned as Musharna did as Nye asked. Though both Pokemon were hugely slow movers, Slowpoke was just barely too slow to launch the attack; as such, he was put down by Musharna's move.

    Well, that went awesomely, Kiria groused. Well, I guess since Musharna's a pure Psychic-type then there's nothing she can really do to--

    "Now use Nightmare!"

    Kiria sighed. ...I just had to open my big fat mouth.

    A dark black smoke began to issue forth from Musharna's body, surrounding the sleeping Slowpoke. The nightmares took hold of him and he thrashed about, unable to wake up or shake their effects.

    "Excellent. Now, Calm Mind!" Nye called to her Pokemon, a knowing grin spreading on her face. Kiria shouted to her Pokemon in an attempt to wake him up, but her calls fell on deaf ears. The sight of Musharna boosting her strength combined with Slowpoke's energy rapidly draining from the nightmare was almost too much for Kiria to bear. She quickly understood how Tsomu felt during his battle with her - she couldn't switch, she couldn't attack, she couldn't defend. All she could do was pray that her Pokemon would wake up before Nye's Musharna laid waste to the remainder of her team.

    Come on... come on... you gotta get up, she silently pleaded. She didn't mind losing, but to do so without being able to defend herself? That would be extremely disappointing. She didn't want to give up, but--

    Kiria's patience was finally rewarded as Slowpoke finally woke up, breaking off the nightmares after they had taken a significant portion of his energy. "Slack Off!" she cried, and Slowpoke didn't appear to obey, simply sitting there and giving Nye pause.

    She realized that Slowpoke was, in fact, healing off all the damage he took, and quickly moved to end Slowpoke's life. "Shadow Ball, hurry up!"

    "No you don't! Psych Up, Barry!" Slowpoke linked up his energy to his opponent's, copying all the boosts that Musharna had accumulated and putting them on even ground once again. Kiria breathed a sigh of relief, but she knew she wasn't out of the woods yet.

    "You and Barry are quite tenacious," Nye admitted. "But I can keep this up as long as I need to! Musharna, Hypnosis again!"

    The attack shot forth quickly and with precision, hitting Slowpoke dead on, but it took no effect. Seeing a chance to pull ahead, Kiria commanded, "Disable it!"

    Slowpoke glowed in a blue aura, linking his energy once again with Musharna's and stopping her in her tracks, telling both trainers that the attack was successful. Nye paused, her lips pursed in frustration. After a few tense moments, Nye recalled her Pokemon, and Kiria visibly relaxed, letting out a breath. She tried to disguise her excitement, but she didn't do a very good job of it.

    I can't believe she switched! This is my chance! I'm in a good spot, but I can't get complacent...

    Nye threw out her next Pokemon with hardly a pause. "Dragonite, it's up to you!"

    "Sl--" Kiria caught herself, willing herself to take a moment so she wouldn't jump headfirst into any possible trap Nye was setting by making this switch.

    Unfortunately, Nye didn't give her any opportunity to think through a new plan, as she quickly commanded her Dragonite, "Use Outrage!"

    "Blizzard!" Kiria blurted as Dragonite rushed forward in a fierce blue aura. Slowpoke summoned the ice and snow from behind him and blew it towards Dragonite. He was severely damaged by the chilling wind and snow, but it didn't stop him on his path towards Slowpoke. Once he reached his target, Dragonite grabbed Slowpoke by the tail and hurled him hard into the tree; Slowpoke barely had time to tumble to the ground before Dragonite was on him again, punching and slashing at the poor Pokemon until Esmeralda stopped the battle.

    "Slowpoke is unable to battle! Dragonite is the winner!"

    Wait, what? That definitely should have knocked him out... gosh, that was awful. Oh, shoot, I've got to hurry up before Dragonite's confusion wears off!

    Kiria quickly recalled her Pokemon, intent on stealing the advantage back from Nye. "Maiko, come on out! Hone Claws!" Kiria watched Dragonite carefully as he rushed straight for Mimikyu. Dragonite swiped blindly at her, his attack passing harmlessly through her and nullifying his attack. "Okay, use Play Rough!"

    If Dragonite hadn't already been severely weakened by Slowpoke's Blizzard, he would have stood a better chance at taking the powerful attack from a fresh opponent. As it was, Mimikyu descended on him in a flash, enveloping him in a sight-obscuring cloud of dust and battering him with her stick. When the attack was complete, Mimikyu leaped off her defeated opponent and landed with a flourish. Dragonite didn't even try to get up. Nye brought her Pokemon back, replacing him with Musharna just as quickly. Musharna glowed white, revealing Mimikyu's strongest attack to Nye. This didn't worry Kiria in the slightest, as she had no plans to use the move against either of Nye's remaining Pokemon.

    "Use Trick Room!" Nye commanded, and Kiria was quick to respond.

    "Shadow Claw, Maiko! Don't let her pull that off!" Mimikyu made a mad dash towards Musharna, a sickly black phantom claw extended as far as it could go. Musharna was slashed just as the attack was completed, and the dimensions were twisted once again. Realizing that Musharna had not only survived the attack, but succeeded in pulling off the Trick Room, Kiria blurted out another order. "Shadow Sneak!"

    Mimikyu vanished immediately, leaping from shadow to shadow on the ground as she moved with impressive speed towards Musharna. Once she was close, she reappeared and bashed Musharna hard with her stick, sending the wounded Pokemon crashing into the wall. She fell to the ground, finally defeated. Nye brought her Pokemon back after Esmeralda declared a win for Mimikyu, and Kiria breathed a sigh of relief. Mimikyu still had her disguise intact, and Nye was down to her last Pokemon. Beedrill took the field as the crowd cheered their support for both players, and Nye surprised Kiria by not opting to Mega Evolve right away.

    "Poison Jab!" Nye commanded, and Beedrill flew towards his target.

    Realizing a few moments too late that Beedrill would have the speed advantage under Trick Room while in his normal form, Kiria did her best to adapt before Beedrill closed in for the kill. "Move, Maiko! Use Will-o-Wisp to cover your escape!"

    Mimikyu shot an impressive stream of blue fire from underneath her cloak, trying to spread it around as wide an area as she could and force Beedrill to retreat, but to Kiria's horror, Beedrill wasn't having any of it; he powered on through the flames, taking the burn and delivering a harsh blow to Mimikyu and sending the frail thing reeling. Nye joined the crowd in a cheer as her plan went off without a hitch.

    Damn... quite the little gambit there... hopefully she doesn't try anything like that again, or it's off to the Close Calls Club with me!

    Kiria winced as Mimikyu struggled to get to her feet. As if to add insult to injury, she'd been poisoned by Beedrill's attack. Mimikyu growled angrily as she tried in vain to keep her body's head upright, which had been snapped cleanly at the neck. She extended two phantom claws and screamed, rushing Beedrill without Kiria's order. Beedrill floated high above the arena, far out of Mimikyu's reach, and this time, Nye reached for the barrette in her hair. With both Pokemon's health slowly being sapped from status effects, the time for being passive was over. It was clear Mimikyu felt the same way; she tossed wave after wave of Dark Pulse at her opponent, but Beedrill was too far away for them to hit.

    Nye held the barrette close to her, feeling her energy pouring into it. "Swords Dance!" she commanded as Beedrill began his battle evolution.

    "Hone Claws, Maiko! This battle's as good as won!" Kiria ordered. Both Pokemon increased their stats as Mega Beedrill was revealed once again.

    Kiria swallowed as she realized a very important detail. Trick Room is still up! Maiko should have no problem outspeeding Mega Beedrill now! Just need him to get close enough to hit...

    As if reading Kiria's mind, Nye quickly gave her next command. "Stay high, Beedrill! Rain down Pin Missile and don't let up!"

    "No you don't! Maiko, Double Team, then Shadow Ball him out of the sky!"

    Beedrill aimed his stingers downward, using his superior aerial position to spray needles in nearly every direction. Sure enough, when Mimikyu exploded into a dozen copies, they were dissipated almost immediately. The real Mimikyu had taken cover under the tree, the thick leaves and branches briefly hiding her from Beedrill's view. Immediately realizing the only possible place for his opponent to have gone, Beedrill swooped down near the tree's trunk. He deftly circled around the tree and made a wild swing with a venom-tipped stinger, hoping to find Mimikyu hiding just out of his view, but he only hit bark. The powerful hit shook the tree's branches, and Mimikyu tumbled down from above, having lost her footing. She hit Beedrill on the way to the ground, stunning him for a moment. That moment was all Mimikyu needed as she let loose a Shadow Ball from point blank range.

    Beedrill was rocketed backwards by the force of the blow, but was able to recover in midair. He could feel his energy fading fast, but he knew Mimikyu was no better off; the damn thing was tricky, but only a fraction as resilient as Eldan's Milotic. All he needed was to land one hit and--

    "Poison Jab!" he heard his trainer command, and he was all too happy to obey. He fearlessly flew towards the weakened Mimikyu, intent on claiming a victory or forcing a draw - he would not stop, no matter what Kiria did.

    Kiria knew this was it. Beedrill was coming whether she liked it or not. There was one tactic Kiria hadn't yet utilized in her battle - something she never had the need, or desire, to use against Tsomu - and she was hesitant to use it now. Despite her reassurance she would press any advantage she had, she still had her doubts. There was, in her opinion, a pretty damn good reason she didn't use this particular tactic. Pokemon subjected to it... didn't always recover. Sure, the physical attack's damage would get healed, but the lasting psychological damage that often accompanied the technique was something that you couldn't just undo with a trip to the Pokemon Center.

    Nye's Pokemon were pretty strong, though. Beedrill definitely had to have a strong will, to put himself at a massive disadvantage if it meant securing the win. He could handle it... right?

    She was out of time. It was now or never. She shut her eyes tight and hoped for the best. "Terror Claw!" she shouted, just as Beedrill raised his stinger to deliver the killing blow.

    Immediately, Mimikyu's shroud was up, obscuring the immediate area around the two Pokemon. When Mimikyu cloaked itself again a moment later, Beedrill was standing stock still, having flinched from bearing witness to some unspeakable horror. He did not respond at all to Nye's pleading, and Mimikyu wasted no time in revealing a massive black claw from under her cloak. One massive swipe with that eldritch hand was all it took to wipe the remainder of Beedrill's energy. He soundlessly fell to the ground, decisively defeated.

    "Beedrill is unable to battle!" Esmeralda declared, stunned herself at the last-minute finish. "Mimikyu is the winner, which means Kiria Gramarye advances to the semifinals!"

    It was only now that Kiria opened her eyes, just in time to see Nye recall her Pokemon, struck dumb at what she'd witnessed. Mimikyu limped her way over to her trainer and nuzzled against her leg. She climbed up Kiria's body, perching herself on Kiria's shoulder, and made a questioning noise when Kiria didn't seem to share her enthusiasm over winning.

    Kiria felt lower than she had in a long time. She felt like Quayle ordering his Deoxys to drown Rose's Gardevoir.

    I didn't have to do that. Maiko could have done something else. Even if she didn't, look how close that match was! A loss would have been fine. Even a draw would have been preferable to f*cking up her Pokemon's mind. For what, for money? God, I'm as bad as Quayle.

    Nye made her way over to Kiria's platform, all smiles. "Congratulations, Kiria, and you too, Maiko!" she began, giving the wounded ghost a little tickle. "I must say, I am impressed. Whatever that last attack was took both me and Beedrill by surprise. Terror Claw, was it? I don't believe I'm familiar with it. What exactly does it do?"

    Kiria recalled her Pokemon and walked with Nye towards the main building. "It's a combination move I invented. When I first caught Maiko, one of my younger Pokemon made the mistake of sneaking up on her while she slept and looked underneath her cloak to see what she really looked like under there. Whatever it was scared the hell out of him; he just stood there, his mind broken. It was a full twenty minutes before he'd even moved from that spot, and another day before he started eating again. I came to realize I could use this to my advantage in battle, and so I did.

    "Whenever things were getting desperate, I'd command Maiko to use Terror Claw and the battle would irreversibly turn to my favor. How could it not? Her opponents shut down, unable to even comprehend whatever it is they just saw. It wasn't until a few months later that I learned that some Pokemon hit by Terror Claw suffered permanent psychological damage as a result of the attack. I... I got desperate, Nye, and I'm sorry. I only did it because I thought if Beedrill was strong in mind enough to willingly take a Will-o-Wisp to the face just to break Maiko's disguise, then he'd probably be able to recover from Terror Claw."

    "I see," Nye said, considering this as she opened the door for Kiria. "How often has a Pokemon suffered lasting damage?"

    "Only three times," Kiria answered immediately. "I've only had Maiko for about two years, and I've had dozens if not hundreds of battles since then. Still, you should get Beedrill checked out right away."

    Nye was all smiles, seeming like she and Kiria were discussing topics as mundane as the weather. "I'll do that. Thank you for your concern, and thank you for being up front with me. I'll let you know how he is later."

    Despite Nye's reassurances, Kiria was still worried for the well-being of her opponent's Pokemon long after they'd gotten their Pokemon to the Center to be healed.

    * * * * * * * *

    Esmeralda made her way downstairs from her room, having just completed her share of the daily report to Diamant. Dinner would be soon, and that meant spending more time with the competitors she'd come to grow quite fond of over the past week. She loved listening to them talk about their lives and families back home; though she was quite happy in Diamant's employ, she found herself a little envious of the simplicity of civilian life.

    She was all smiles as she strode though the doors leading into the VIP area. As she turned towards the cafeteria, she heard a voice from behind her call her name.

    "Hi, Rose!" Esmeralda greeted her cheerfully. "What's up?"

    "Hey. Just coming from checking on Lucario again," Rose explained. "He's doing much better, but I'm still leaving him in the center overnight just so they can monitor him better."

    Esmeralda nodded. "I'm glad to hear it. That was a pretty nasty hit he took."

    "Yeah... Listen, I also wanted to thank you for what you did out there. If you hadn't caught him, his injuries might have been far worse."

    Esmeralda immediately wrapped her arms around the Ranger, squeezing her tight. "You're welcome. I was lucky to be close by when it happened..." She let Rose go, looked around to see if anyone else was nearby, and lowered her voice. "Can I ask you a personal question?"

    "Sure, I guess," Rose answered hesitantly.

    "What's it like having a Pokemon as a mate?"

    "What?" Rose said immediately as hear heart plummeted into her stomach. "Who said anything about that?"

    "You did," Esmeralda pointed out. "At the end of your battle, I heard you call Lucario 'my love.'"

    Rose's breathing quickened as her worst fears started replaying in her head. First Windra, and now Esmeralda... her hand instinctively reached for her belt and she cursed herself for leaving Gardevoir in her room. "How could you have possibly heard that...?" she asked.

    "Oh, I have very good hearing," Esmeralda answered cheerfully, although she did notice the look of stark terror on the young girl's face. "I only ask out of curiosity. I've never dated anyone, and Safiri's exes are both human. Just wondering what it was like to be with a Pokemon, that's all."

    Rose's heart nearly stopped at Esmeralda's response. It sounded like she was almost... tolerant of the whole idea. But still, she needed to be careful. "You're not disgusted by the idea?"

    Unknown to Rose, Esmeralda had no knowledge of the taboo associated with Pokemon/human relationships, so when Esmeralda gave her a puzzled look and replied, "No... should I be?" Rose nearly cried.

    "Come with me," she ordered, dragging Esmeralda to her room before she actually did start crying. Once they were safely behind closed doors, Rose took a few minutes to compose herself before asking, "Why don't you feel disgusted?"

    "Why should I?" Esmeralda asked again, confused now. "I don't see any reason to worry about your choice of mate."

    "A lot of people do," Rose said, a little confused herself at having to explain this. "If anyone found out about us... anyone who wouldn't keep it to themselves, anyway... I'd be in a lot of trouble."

    "So you admit he's your mate? Boyfriend? What do you call him?"

    Rose sighed. "Yes. Please don't tell anyone."

    "Oh, honey, of course not," Esmeralda said, hugging Rose tightly again. "You can trust Safiri and Ruby too. We all feel the same way about this sort of thing. You should be free to love whoever you want, right?"

    Esmeralda found herself getting squeezed as a tearful Rose hugged her back. "You have no idea how much it means for me to hear you say that. Thank you so much."

    The two ladies spent some time talking amongst themselves after that. Once it was obvious that it was safe, she'd let Gardevoir out to sit and chat with them. Rose told Esmeralda the story that brought her and her Pokemon together, though she left out the naughty bits at the end. Esmeralda had a bit of fun at her expense by guessing at some of their activities, causing Rose to start turning as red as her name.

    Esmeralda felt herself tearing up as Gardevoir leaned over to gently kiss Rose on the cheek. "Just look at you two together," she said, clasping her hands together in front of her. "How could anyone be against such a lovely thing?"

    "I wish I knew," Rose answered, taking one of Gardevoir's slim hands into her own. She breathed another sigh of relief at the fact that she did have allies in this world. "If I could shout our love from the rooftops without being judged for it, I would. I hate having to keep it a secret, but knowing I have someone I can come to means everything to me."

    (Huh,) Gardevoir mused, staring at Esmeralda.

    What's up?

    Gardevoir shook her head, clearing her thought before Esmeralda realized she was staring. (It's nothing, love.)

    Esmeralda smiled at the two lovers, unaware of the details of the conversation taking place but aware enough that one was happening that she would never be privy to. "I am so envious of the bond you share. My Xatu isn't much of a talker and he's even less affectionate... My Lilligant loves to cuddle, but our conversations are pretty one-sided, as you can imagine." She glanced at the clock. "It's just about dinner time. It was nice meeting you, Gardevoir," Esmeralda said, shaking Gardevoir's free hand as she stood.

    "She says the feeling is mutual," Rose replied, getting to her feet as well. "I wish I could bring her along. But even if I might be able to get away with it once or twice, it wouldn't be smart to push my luck. The less people think, the better. Although I guess I'll have to be extra careful from now on if you could hear what I said earlier..."

    "My hearing is better than most," Esmeralda said, putting a reassuring hand on the young woman's shoulder. "I don't think anyone else could have possibly heard you." As if on cue, Rose's stomach growled audibly, eliciting a giggle from the green-haired Jewel. "But I'm pretty sure everyone in Indigo Plateau heard that! Come on, let's eat!"

    * * * * * * * *

    At dinner, conversation involving what had happened before the battle was kept to a minimum. Quayle and Eldan were openly hostile to one another, sitting at separate tables as far from each other as they could; Nye, still angry at Eldan and unwilling to stir the pot by sitting with Quayle, chose to eat with Ruby, Esmeralda, and Windra instead. Eventually, the tables were cleared and the other competitors began to turn in for the evening. Before long, it was just Windra and Esmeralda left, with Esmeralda listening intently as Windra told her stories about her travels to different countries and what life on the road was like.

    Esmeralda enjoyed every minute of it, and wished it would never end - and then Windra let out a humongous yawn. "Oh my. It is getting kind of late," Esmeralda pointed out.

    "Maybe, but I'm not that tired. Don't let the... yawn fool you," she said, pausing to yawn hugely a second time. "Talking to you hasn't been totally awful. This whole week has been stressful, what with stuff going on at home, and my birthday, and the tournament. You seem pretty chill, Esmy," she finished, recalling the name Ruby had used.

    "Only Ruby has ever called me that," Esmeralda said, eyes widened in slight surprise. "But I wouldn't mind if you did, too."

    Windra shrugged. "Whatever you want. I totally respect if you want to be called something other than your given name. You want me to call you Esmy, then you're Esmy from now on," she finished with a smile, one that Esmeralda returned tenfold.

    "Good, good. Would you... like to accompany me outside?" Esmeralda asked.

    "I thought we weren't allowed to go outside," Windra noted, a devious glint in her eye.

    Esmeralda leaned in closer to Windra. "You're not. But there's no one here at this time of night. It'll just be us. And besides... what Safiri doesn't know won't hurt her." There was a bit of hurt in her words as she thought of going behind Safiri's back, and the fit she'd throw if she knew what Esmeralda was doing, and with whom she was doing it, but she was still a little sore at Safiri for not trusting her.

    "Well, all right then," Windra said, rising from her chair. "Lead the way, Esmy."

    The two quietly slipped out of the cafeteria and headed upstairs to Indigo Plateau's main level. Sure enough, they were the only ones around. Esmeralda turned the lock on the doors leading outside and lead Windra out to the main steps. Esmeralda took a deep breath of the crisp night air as she sat at the top of the steps and motioned for Windra to sit with her. "You said you were stressed. Sometimes I come out here late at night to gather my thoughts and de-stress."

    "De-stress? How?" Windra inquired.

    "Close your eyes and listen."

    Windra did as she was told, but after a few moments opened them again. "I don't hear anything."

    "Exactly. It's so peaceful at night. There aren't any wild Pokemon in the immediate area, so it's very quiet. My job is really hectic and I'm a very emotional person, so it's important for me to find outlets to let out all the day's stress. Back home, I sit and listen to the ocean, watch the waves roll onto the shore, maybe catch a glimpse of some aquatic Pokemon. Around here, there's none of that, but it's still very calming."

    "Huh." Windra considered this. For someone who had been on the road for her entire adult life, she had never thought of the outdoors as a place specifically to relax, though she could appreciate how serene it could be at times.

    Esmeralda closed her eyes again, letting the sound of the wind blowing through the trees relax her.

    And you were worried that Windra and I together would be a disaster. Everything is fine.

    She reached up with one hand and removed the pins from her hair, allowing it to fall freely down her back, coming to rest on the pavement on which they sat. She frowned a little when she realized that she couldn't tell Safiri about this. It would be the perfect example to prove to Safiri that her fears were unwarranted, but if she did, then Safiri would never let her hear the end of it. She would report her to Mr. Diamant for sure, and even though Esmeralda had his blessing, it wasn't the same as having Safiri's. Esmeralda's frown deepened when she remembered the argument she and Safiri had earlier. She knew how poorly Safiri and Helmi got along, knew how comparing Safiri to her would get under her skin, and she did it out of anger as payback for selling her out.

    Everything was going great! Why did Safiri have to go and run her mouth to Mr. Diamant? If she'd just kept her big fat mouth shut and let her do something nice for someone special for once then everything would be--

    "You all right?" Windra asked. "You, uh, don't look very relaxed."

    Esmeralda's eyes shot open as her facial muscles relaxed from frowning so hard. She sighed. "Have you ever had to keep a secret from someone you care about?"

    "Yeah," Windra answered simply.

    "Did they ever find out about it?" Esmeralda went on.

    "Hell no. And that's how it's gonna stay," Windra said.

    "I feel the same way sometimes," Esmeralda said, standing up and going down the steps to the clearing at the bottom.

    Windra waited a few moments for Esmeralda to continue, but she didn't, merely staring up at the stars. "I, uh..." Windra trailed off. "I won't pry if it's personal."

    "Thanks, but I do want to talk about it," Esmeralda said, smiling back at her. "Just let me ramble, okay? It'll come out."

    "Okay. Hope you don't mind if I get up and stretch." Windra joined Esmeralda at the bottom of the stairs, taking a few moments to work the kinks out of her body for sitting so long.

    "I love Safiri," Esmeralda began, slowly pacing around Windra as she spoke. "Really, I do. But she makes me so angry sometimes. She and Ruby both treat me like a child."

    "Wait, really?" Windra interrupted her. "Aren't you all the same age?"

    Esmeralda shook her head. "Ruby is a year older than me, and Safiri is four years older."

    "Wow," Windra said, impressed. "How old are you?"

    Esmeralda kicked herself for leaving an opening for Windra to ask this question. She hadn't been given a fake age by Mr. Diamant, and even if she told Windra she was barely a year old, she doubted Windra would believe her. "Um... How old do you think I am?"

    Windra let out a breath as she considered. "I dunno, twenty-five?"

    We'll go with that!

    "Hey, good guess, you got it."

    Windra nodded to herself, taking a small bit of pride in getting it on the first try. "Damn. I thought you guys were triplets or something."

    "Nope! We just look similar, that's all. Can I confide something in you?" Esmeralda asked, desperate to change the subject.

    Windra met her eyes warily. "Yeah, I guess... what's up?"

    Esmeralda clasped her hands together, feeling terribly nervous all of a sudden but unsure why. It's not like saying that would spoil the big secret, right? Besides, Esmeralda still felt like she had something to prove, and so she timidly began, "I like you. A lot. I've never had a relationship before... and I want you to be my first."

    Windra rolled her eyes, turning away from the older girl. "That's not a good idea," she said, shaking her head dismissively. "I'm not worth it." She managed to take a few steps towards the building when Esmeralda reached out and stopped her, one bold hand on her shoulder.

    "You are to me," she said.

    Windra sighed and wondered how she'd managed to get herself tied up in all this relationship nonsense. If she'd known that it was going to be this much of a hassle, she never would have signed up for that dumb tournament. Still, she did like that Esmeralda actually came right out and made her feelings known, unlike a certain dimwit who shall remain nameless. She turned back towards Esmeralda, whose usual infectious smile was plastered on her face. "So is that the big secret?"

    Esmeralda shook her head. "Mmm. That's part of it, though. Safiri said she doesn't want me having feelings for you because it'll mess up the plan."

    "Plan? What plan?" Windra asked.

    "I can't tell you," Esmeralda replied. "Admitting my feelings for you was bad enough - if Safiri ever found out, she'd lose her mind."

    Windra shrugged. "It's just a crush. I'm pretty sure the fate of the universe isn't hanging in the balance."

    "Maybe not," Esmeralda continued, sitting on the steps again. "But even though Safiri doesn't trust me, I have to prove her wrong. I have to prove that even though I'm more emotional than the two of them that I'm still capable of keeping a secret."

    "So there is something weird going on behind the scenes... you just can't tell us what it is?"

    The look of muted horror on Esmeralda's face told Windra all she needed to know. "That's a yes!" she crowed, a triumphant glint in her eye.

    Esmeralda rose to her feet again, panic setting in. Maybe Safiri was right? She dismissed that thought outright. "It's not bad, I promise!"

    "Then why can't you tell me what it is?"

    "It's something that's never been done before. If everything goes according to plan, it could change the world. Just promise you'll keep it to yourself?"

    "I guess," Windra said with another shrug. "Long as I get my prize money, and whatever you guys are doing isn't hurting anyone, I'm okay with it."

    "Thanks," Esmeralda said, glad that went easier than she'd expected it to. "I really wish I could tell you everything. Someday, once the project is done, I'll take you out on a big date and I'll explain everything. Umm, that is, if you want."

    "Yeah, I guess I could get in on that," Windra replied with a smile. "As for right now, though, I think I'm gonna take things slow. There's this guy, and... it's probably nothing, but I gotta see it through to the end." She put an arm around Esmeralda's waist after seeing her become visibly upset at this rejection. "It's not no. Just not right now. I can't in good conscience say yes without being sure you're not just filling a bastard-shaped hole in my heart, especially if you've never dated before. We still cool?" she asked, presenting her fist to Esmeralda.

    The green-haired Jewel stared curiously at the gesture, putting up her own fist in the hopes she was doing something right. It seemed to do the job, as Windra quickly bumped her fist to Esmeralda's, and Esmeralda smiled. "Yes, of course. I'll wait for you as long as it takes..."

    "Uh. I mean, there's no need for all that," Windra began, a little uncomfortably. "Don't sweat it. If you find someone else before I'm ready, go nuts, you know?"

    Esmeralda nodded, but didn't say anything. She would wait - she had all the time in the world.

    Windra yawned again, and this time she didn't fight the exhaustion begging her to get some sleep. "Sure is getting late."

    Esmeralda made a show of stretching her limbs so Windra would think that she, too, was tired. "Yes, I suppose it is, isn't it?" The two of them stood in silence for a few moments, with Windra trying to find a polite way to excuse herself without offending Esmeralda, and Esmeralda simply enjoying the time with Windra. "Thank you for talking with me. It's kind of nice to have company. It gets kind of lonely all by myself."

    "Yeah, no problem," Windra said, angling herself towards the building. "I guess it was nice talking with you, too. Like I said before - super chill. Heh, not to mention really easy on the eyes," she added, admiring the feminine curves she'd never have. When Esmeralda just smiled at her, Windra decided that she was too tired to try and come up with a subtle to way to excuse herself, so she sighed and blurted out, "All right, I'm gonna go pass out. You coming?"

    "No thanks. I'm going to relax out here a little longer," Esmeralda replied, bringing Windra in for a hug before she could escape. "You are worth so much, Windra. Whatever happened to you, I'm sorry," she said quietly. "I'm here whenever you need me, okay?"

    Windra tiredly hugged Esmeralda back, appreciative of the gesture but wanting desperately to go to sleep before Esmeralda started prying further. "Yeah, thanks. I'll see you in the morning, Esmy."

    Esmeralda's face lit up like the sun at Windra's use of her nickname. The object of her affection gave one last wave and entered the building, leaving the Jewel of Tajna alone with her thoughts.

    She hugged herself tightly, giggling to herself at the overwhelming joy she was feeling.

    Is this what love feels like? Goodness, I'm so excited!

    She skipped and danced around the entrance, humming contentedly with thoughts of spending more time with Windra. Once she was finished, she took a deep breath in an attempt to calm herself before sitting on the steps leading into Indigo Plateau proper.

    Things went so well tonight. Better than I ever could have imagined. Safiri has absolutely nothing to worry about.

    She started thinking of ways to broach the subject with her sister. Even the fear of Safiri's reaction wasn't enough to dim the brightness Esmeralda was feeling in her heart, and she had to stop herself from marching inside right this instant, waking Safiri up--Yeah right, Miss Tight-Ass probably doesn't know the meaning of the word rest, Esmeralda snorted--and proclaiming her feelings to her.

    A part of her mind reminded her that she didn't need Safiri's blessing since she already had Diamant's, and it was a small victory, but she still longed to have the green light from her sister. Ruby was cautiously okay with the idea, warning her not to endanger the project for her own desires. And she hadn't done that, had she? Okay, she might have let a little bit of information slip, but nothing too bad, right? She trusted Windra to stay silent. No one was being harmed - Mr. Diamant would never allow such a thing to happen. Their gathering of the competitors' DNA by discreetly collecting the silverware they ate with might have been ethically dubious, but it didn't hurt anyone. Mr. Diamant wouldn't give permission to create a biot from the pilfered DNA without his direct supervision, so there was no chance of any repeats of the Aura incident, either.

    He would be here in a few short days. Esmeralda vowed she'd bring Windra up when Diamant inevitably met with the three of them to discuss their future plans. Safiri wouldn't have any choice but to hear her out then, and she wouldn't dare go against Mr. Diamant's wishes. It was a little devious, and Esmeralda was a little surprised at the realization of the lengths she would go to for Windra.

    No, that wasn't right. This was something Esmeralda had to do for herself, to prove to Safiri that she wasn't the weak little pushover Safiri and Ruby thought she was. She would force Safiri to respect her, or... or...

    Esmeralda shook her head ruefully at that line of thought.

    One day at a time, Esmeralda.

    By now, the night wind was starting to chill her, so she stood up to go inside. Just as she did, a man rushed into the clearing, holding a Pokemon in his arms. It cried out in pain, and Esmeralda's heart broke for the poor thing.

    "Excuse me! Young lady, wait a moment, please! My name is Damien. My Pokemon here is very hurt." He opened his arms to reveal a Weavile clutching its stomach, its face contorted in a grimace. "Is there any way you could take me to the Center here? The closest one is miles away in Viridian City, and I'm not sure he'll make it in time. It's my fault he's like this, I'm scheduled to fight the Viridian Gym Leader tomorrow and I forced him to stay awake to train and I knew I shouldn't have done it but I pushed him and now he's going to die if I don't get him to a Pokemon Center right away!"

    "Oh no, that's awful," Esmeralda said, stroking the crying Pokemon's fur. "There, there, little one, everything's going to be--"

    Esmeralda suddenly stopped petting the Pokemon as a chilling realization came over her. As a gauge to see how serious the Weavile's injuries were, she'd scanned the creature, and was terrified to learn that the Pokemon was in perfect health. The Weavile made his move, leaping from Damien's arms and slashing one of his claws across Esmeralda's throat.

    Esmeralda stumbled backwards, blood pouring from where she'd been hit. She tore a length of fabric from the shirt she was wearing and tied it around her wound to try and stop the blood flow, but Weavile slashed her again, across her legs, tearing the flesh and sending her tumbling in a bloody mess to the ground.

    "I saw you talking to Windra," Damien said conversationally as he approached the wounded woman. "Did you know that she and I... well, I don't think you'll have time to hear the whole story." He chuckled as Esmeralda stared silently at him, her breathing becoming more and more labored. He was impressed that she was still alive - that hit to the throat should have killed her. It was no matter, though. It was clear that she didn't have long. "Shame we had to meet this way. You're sexy as hell. Three of us coulda had a lot of fun... ah well." He stood up, nodded at his Weavile when he found the door to Indigo Plateau was unlocked. He took a radio from his pocket, switched it on. "Target eliminated. We're in."
     
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