Alyssa opened her eyes at the soft knock on her door. “Who is it?” she asked.
“Ian,” he replied. “Can I come in?”
She laid there for a few moments, considering. “No,” she decided finally, and turned over on her side. Ziggy, who had been pressed against her side, shifted and made a disgruntled noise.
“I’m coming in anyway.”
Alyssa didn’t move as she heard the door to her apartment open and Ian stroll through the front room. She didn’t even twitch as he opened the door to her bedroom and let himself inside. “Alyssa, get up.”
“We need to report to Chairperson Erma. She was nice enough to be satisfied that we knew it was tied to Team Galactic for a day; we need to go give our full report now.”
“Can’t you do it?”
Ian was silent for a moment. She hadn’t heard Prinplup come in with him; was he waiting outside? Ziggy shifted, his dark brown fur moving in front of her face.
Suddenly, she felt a hand clamp down on her shoulder and wrench her to lay on her back. She came face-to-face with the angriest Ian she had ever seen. “The world doesn’t just stop when you see something you don’t like,” he snapped. “You’re a Ranger now. You’re going to see tough things. You’re just going to have to deal with it. Crime and evil don’t stop just because you hide in your room, and you can do something about it, or you can quit your job and hide away. But right now, as a Ranger, you can change things. And you have a duty to your superior officer—and to me, your partner. You would really push all the burden on me like that? I was sympathetic with you yesterday. What we saw was tough. I won’t say that I didn’t have nightmares—if I did, I would be a liar. And it’s okay to be sad, even horrified. But Alyssa, be sad on your own damn time, because we have a job to do.” He released her shoulder and turned away from the bed; she stared up at the ceiling, eyes wide and mouth open.
“I’ll be waiting for you in the hallway,” Ian said, and slammed her bedroom door shut. She heard his swift footsteps cross the front room before he slammed her front door as well. It only took a few more seconds of shock; and then Alyssa was up, pulling on her uniform and fastening her Styler to her wrist.
Outside in the hallway, a chastised Alyssa slipped out of her front door and stood before Ian, eyes cast down at her shoes. Her hair was unwashed, so she had thrown it up in her usual sloppy ponytail and hoped for the best. She hadn’t attempted to brush Ziggy’s fur. His head looked ragged poking over her shoulder. Her usually pristine jacket was wrinkled, and the black thigh-high tights she wore were uneven; though she looked a mess, she had tried.
Ian didn’t wait for her to say anything. He just started off down the hall at a brisk stride, letting her drift along behind, fidgeting with the wrist-strap of her Fine Styler (the kind used by Top Rangers) and keeping her eyes down. The tiled floor passed by her vision, and she glanced up to see different Top Rangers moving around and trailed by Partner Pokémon. Many of them had stylized versions of the uniform. Alyssa briefly wondered when you were allowed to change your uniform—Ian already had. It was a subtle change—the usual short-sleeved jacket was long-sleeved for him—but it was there.
Ian glanced over his shoulder and caught her looking at him, and she quickly snapped her gaze back down to the floor. She saw Prinplup looking at her, and he seemed to feel sorry for her. They descended a flight of stairs (in the Ranger Union HQ, “elevators” were but a dream) and rounded a corner to arrive at the briefing room.
“I don’t expect to do all the talking,” Ian said, his voice cold. He stood in front of her, not turning his head or anything to look back at her. “I’ll handle the files on the computer, but I don’t expect to tell the whole thing myself. Understood?”
“Yes,” she said faintly.
“What?” he asked.
“Yes,” she repeated, a little louder.
“Get a grip on yourself. Don’t let Erma see that this is bothering you. She’ll wonder if your promotion was a mistake.” With that, he pushed open the door, holding it open for her briefly.
They stepped into the briefing room, and the familiar darkness of a room that was essentially a giant computer enveloped them. Erma was already there, surveying screenshots from some old movie with people dancing. When they walked in, she spoke the command to send the shots into her folder.
“Well, I’m very eager to hear your entire report,” she said as Alyssa let the door fall shut behind her.
“We’re very eager to tell you,” Ian replied. “The images we have are…quite graphic.”
Erma sighed. “Oh dear. Well, I’ve certainly seen some things in my day, so I’m well prepared.”
And so the report started. At first, Alyssa eyed the walls warily, but Ian withheld the pictures and let her explain the first part of their mission. She actually enjoyed explaining every detail of their exploits to Erma, and soon she was guiding the entire storyline along.
Soon, though, she said the sentence, “And that door led to the factory.” With that, she glanced at Ian, who nodded.
“Computer, open folder Walton, Ian.”
The image of a folder appeared on the screen; it opened, revealing smaller folders. “Open Factory Pictures.”
And there they were, just as horrible in digital form as they were in real life. She glanced away, her eyes landing on Erma’s face.
Erma looked distraught. Her eyes were open wide, and the nearest picture cast a white ethereal glow on her features. Right now, she looked as though she had lived for centuries; her grip tightened on the Sandslash cane, and she heaved a deep sigh. “My goodness,” she said softly. “And those are pictures of the rafters?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Ian replied. “As you can see, several Team Galactic members are patrolling.”
“Why here?” she said wearily, and she seemed to sag. “I thought some young Trainer had broken them up in Sinnoh a few years ago. Why here? Why now?”
“I suppose that’s for the Rangers to figure out,” Alyssa replied. She walked over to Erma’s side and laid a hand on her shoulder. “We’ll figure it out, Erma. We will.”
There was a pause as Erma looked over at her, their eyes locking. The old woman’s eyes, at least, were still young—probably unchanged from when she was seventeen years old. They were brown, flecked with black and gold, and a fire so tangible burned in them that Alyssa thought she could feel its heat. The eyes narrowed and then pulled away from Alyssa’s. “Well, we’ll have to dispatch a team of Rangers to put a stop to their operations. First, though, we’ll need more information.”
Alyssa glanced at Ian. He finally looked at her, and his face showed understanding—he knew that she might not be able to take that place again.
“Don’t worry, dear, it won’t be you two. No, we’ll have to send in some Rangers specially trained in espionage…I might have to call Everett in from Fiore.”
“Everett?” Alyssa mumbled. The name clicked in her mind. Everett was the name of Casey’s father…and last she had heard, he was in Fiore. “Everett Rayman?”
“You know him?”
“I roomed with his daughter in Ranger School,” Alyssa replied. She thought back to the last time she had seen Casey—her father had miraculously made it to graduation, and she had been standing in front of him, beaming and looking the happiest Alyssa had seen her in years. And then she realized that it sounded incredibly childish of her to say something like that.
“Ah. Yes, I believe she’s stationed in Pueltown.”
Alyssa nodded. She hadn’t seen her at the base, but Operators work in shifts.
“Computer, transfer pictures to Erma’s folder.” Erma sighed as the pictures zoomed away. “You two—”—her glance lingered on Alyssa—“probably need some rest. Take today and tomorrow off; I don’t care where you go as long as it’s not out of Almia.”
“We will. Thank you,” Ian said.
“Thank you,” Alyssa echoed.
They turned and left; once outside the door, Ian looked at her. “Grab a change of clothes. I’ll capture us a Staraptor and we’ll fly somewhere.”
“You’ll see. Meet you out front in twenty minutes.”
As it turned out, it was Chicole Village in which Ian landed the Staraptor. The sun was just beginning to set; he cut quite a dashing figure, sitting atop a Staraptor, wind blowing gently in his hair, a fiery haze around his outline.
“Is there any way I could stay for dinner? We’ll go where I wanted when it gets dark,” Ian added.
Alyssa nodded; Ian quietly asked the Staraptor to stay for a while as she went inside.
“Honey, it’s good to see you home!” Diana came rushing toward her, grabbing her up in a hug. “Oh, and Ziggy!” she added, scooping the Zigzagoon up and hugging it. “Who’s that man outside?”
“Um—Ian. He’s my…friend. Can he stay for dinner? He’s taking me somewhere after it gets dark.”
“Um…” Diana bit her lip.
Just then, Warren Thompson, Alyssa’s father, came around the corner. His short-trimmed hair was much darker than Alyssa’s or Diana’s, and he had the muscles of a man who worked in the fields. He wore dirty overalls and a stained T-shirt. Dirt smudged his face. “Mm. Little daisy.”
Alyssa’s stomach lurched and she paused in her way across the kitchen. Four-armed, muscular, green, with a large, smiling mouth, Machamp came around the corner. He, too, was smudged with dirt. His face lit up when he saw Alyssa, and he threw all four of his arms open for a hug.
Ian stepped into the doorway and hovered uncertainly, keeping his eyes on Alyssa. She looked up at the big Pokémon and felt…happy. It was nice to see a good, wholesome Machamp. She rushed forward and threw her arms around its waist; he folded all four of his own arms onto her gingerly, careful not to squeeze too hard.
Warren glanced at Alyssa, then at Ian, who was smiling slightly as he watched this display. “Little daisy’s changed,” he muttered to Diana, coming around the corner to kiss her cheek.
“No she hasn’t,” Diana replied. “She’s still our little Alyssa. Honey, of course your friend can stay—I’ll throw in some more food—”
Warren looked over at Ian, who was still watching Alyssa. He grunted slightly. “Goin’ upstairs to wash up.”
Dinner was a long affair. Diana did most of the talking; Alyssa shoveled in home-cooked food gratefully, and Ian tried to politely answer Diana’s rapid-fire questions before she could set off another.
At one point, as Alyssa was reaching for her glass of tea, she looked up at Warren, her father. He was looking at her, that stoic expression he usually wore covering his face. He was a quiet man, and he had been ever since she could remember; even before her brother—Alyssa didn’t want to think about her brother. But somehow, she could tell that her brother had just crossed Warren’s mind as well; their eyes met, and Warren allowed a small smile to pull at his lips, and she knew they were both remembering him.
Finally, at dinner’s end, Alyssa stood with her plate. “Let me get that,” she said to Ian, scooping his empty plate up.
“It’s okay, I’ll—”
“You’re a guest,” Alyssa told him simply, and she walked away to get Warren’s dishes as well.
“I’m not a guest,” Warren said in his deep voice.
“I missed you,” Alyssa replied. She kissed him on the side of the head.
“I’ll get the dishes,” Diana said, taking Alyssa’s stack of plates. “You two go do whatever it was you were going to do. Warren, come help!”
Warren grunted as he scooted his chair back from the table, and Ian turned to Alyssa. “Do you wanna change clothes?”
She glanced down at herself in her uniform, then shook her head. “Nah.” They stepped out into the night air. “It sure is getting dark earlier.”
“How long of a walk is it to Vientown?”
“Um, about twenty minutes.”
“That’s not so bad. Come with me.”
Ziggy, once it realized that Vientown was not their final stop, leapt up onto Alyssa’s shoulder to ride the rest of the way. Prinplup waddled along behind them.
Ian refused to answer Alyssa’s questions about where they were going, but it soon became apparent that they were headed towards the Ranger School. She frowned as they came to the six-foot wall and even taller gate. “We can’t go in there. The gate’s locked.”
“Yeah, I know.” Ian pulled her past the gate to a place where the wall made a ninety-degree angle; Alyssa knew that this was where Ascension Square was. And then it clicked in her head—that one night when she had snuck out in her nightgown, and Ian had found her sitting with her feet dangling over the edge of the small cliff. He led her to another corner. Vines had grown over this particular spot in the wall. “See, trees hang over this part of the wall, so it’s hard to see someone moving here.”
“Um…” Alyssa glanced up at the vine-covered wall.
“No thanks,” Alyssa replied. “You go first.”
“You have to promise you’ll come up after me.”
She nodded as he grabbed hold of the vines and clambered up skillfully. Once on the top of the wall, he crouched there and smiled down at her. “Hand up Prinplup, will ya? Zigoon can probably make it on his own.”
“His name is Ziggy,” Alyssa murmured, grabbing Prinplup and hoisting him up. She grunted as Ian took him gently from her arms.
“I used to have to carry him,” Ian said. The Pokémon looked as though he were trying to grab onto Ian’s shoulders with his flippers. “Yeah, yeah, buddy, I know.”
Soon, Alyssa was up after him, and then they descended the other side even quicker. Ian glanced around before leading her to the water and sitting. It was a lot colder than it had been that night, so Alyssa tugged her jacket around her and looked up at the stars. She suddenly wished she, too, had Ian’s long-sleeved jacket.
“I can see how this would help you,” Alyssa murmured. The stars winked down at her, and the waves washed gently against the side of the cliff. Everything was so big and open; it felt like her thoughts could go anywhere. But everything was familiar, also, making her calm and almost happy. Memories of playing near the large Pledge Stone came flooding back. And, of course, there had been Outdoor Day—a day when class had been held outside, and a Ranger had come to teach them. She remembered the excitement she had felt upon seeing that man—she didn’t even know who it was—with his red jacket and partner Ursaring.
“I’m sorry I talked to you so roughly,” Ian said softly, sitting down close beside her.
“I deserved it,” she replied. “You’re right. I chose to be a Ranger because I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to help people and Pokémon. Of course, it’s harder than I imagined, but it still makes me feel good to know that soon, because of information I helped to get, that factory will be shut down.” She looked down at her legs, still in black thigh-highs. “I shouldn’t forget that I’m a Ranger.”
“And a damn good one, at that.” She looked up to see Ian smiling at her, and she returned it easily. “This is my way of coping,” he added. “Or, was. When things got too scary, I would come here. It helps to remember the beginning. Oh, are you cold?”
Alyssa had wrapped her arms around herself and was shivering. A chill was seeping through her bodysuit from the ground, and a breeze was blowing. “Yeah.”
“Let me help.”
Alyssa thought back to that night, when Ian had removed his jacket and given it to her. She expected the same would happen now—but it didn’t. Instead, he leaned toward her and wrapped his arms around her, pulling her close against his chest. She rested her cheek against his shoulder and stared, wide-eyed, at his neck. Warmth flooded through her, but she suspected that a lot of it came from inside.
“Better?” His voice was soft, right in her ear.
“Yes.” She tentatively put a hand on his chest, and he placed his own over top of it. She felt him lay his head on hers. “A-are you comfortable?”
“Very.” He pulled her a bit closer; the hand he had over hers he removed and put the now-free arm around her waist.
Comfortable, Alyssa closed her eyes. She felt his heart beating under her hand, as well as his chest rising and falling with the breath blowing gently on her hair. I love you, she thought easily.
Her eyes flew open. What? What had she just thought? I love you, the thought spoke again, and she pondered it for a moment. A huge barrage of Butterfree and Beautifly swarmed inside her stomach, and her heart pounded and fluttered at the same time. These feelings, as well as the added warmth from inside every time she thought the words, made her realize…it was true. She loved him. She loved him with every fiber of her being, every muscle inside her body. She loved each and every part of him; his hair, his face, his eyes, his laugh, his hands, his warmth. “I love you,” she whispered, ever so softly, against his neck.
“What?” he asked absentmindedly.
“Nothing,” she replied, but a huge smile broke out on her face as she closed her eyes again. He didn’t have to know just yet. In fact, nobody did. It just felt good to say it, whether he heard her or not.
Alyssa loved Ian.
To: [email protected]
From: [email protected]
Subject: Happy day!
Don’t worry about me going all Belle on you!
The thing that happened to me…it just seems like it’s something I need to talk to you about in person. Don’t worry about it for right now; I’ll have plenty of stories to tell you later.
I had a good day today. Erma gave me and Ian today and tomorrow off, so we’ll be hanging out and stuff. I’m spending the night at home right now. It’s really nice to see Mom and Dad, and even Machamp and Ambipom.
KAREN CAN TALK TO POKÉMON??? OMGWTFBBQ??? That is…really cool, actually. I’d LOVE to be able to do that. Actually, I think Professor Hastings (he’s the guy who invented the Styler) is working on a device that translates Pokémon’s cries into speech, but it’s gonna take a while. He’s always being distracted by perfecting the Styler.
That’s a really good idea, sending an email to Miss Terra. Tell me what she says!!! Anyway, I’m really tired, so I’m gonna go to bed.
Love you much,