Thank you all for your kind reviews. I have taken on board your criticisms, fixed several little things you pointed out, and, in response to your views on Sapphire, moved the important part concerning her forwards slightly in the story. Hopefully, it should come up in a few chapters, and we ought to see a positive improvement from then on.
I'm now going to post today's chapter before I completely ruin the story for everyone.
Chapter Twenty-two: Blintzkrieg
Of all the bars in all the world, why’d you have to walk into a pancake restaurant? Puck complained. How are pancakes romantic? Come to think of it, how can you even have a restaurant based entirely around pancakes?
Quiet, you, I thought back. Be a silent observer for once.
Neither Felicity nor I had known any of Mauville’s eateries, and we had basically wandered around until stumbling across one that wasn’t too expensive and seemed nice. Blintzkrieg, despite the alarming name, was a light, airy café on a street corner; the day was a warm one, and it would have been nice to sit outside and eat, but the rain during the night had wet the chairs, and so we were forced to take up a table on the inside, near the window for the sun.
“This is odd,” said Felicity. “I didn’t know restaurants like this existed.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “Weird. Well, it’ll be an experience, if nothing else.”
That’s it, lure her in with small-talk, Puck whispered. With this sort of attitude, you’ll soon be mati—
This is not a date! I hissed back furiously. Shut up!
“Can I get you any drinks?” asked a rather smiley waitress, coming over with a notebook and pen.
Felicity scanned the menu for a moment.
“Green tea, please,” she said.
“OK, one green tea” – here, the waitress made a scribble on her pad in the alphabet that only restaurant staff can read – “and for you, sir?”
“Er, Coke please,” I replied.
“OK. Are you ready to order or...?”
“Can you give us a few more minutes?”
“Certainly.” The waitress smiled broadly and left.
By the many hands of Arceus, said Puck floridly, that was the most forced smile I’ve ever seen. Does she have drawing pins in her shoes or something?
“What do you want?” I asked Felicity. I was trying hard not to stare at her, but it was proving difficult. She was a powerful eye-magnet, drawing my gaze with her damnable excess of beauty.
You say this isn’t a date, Puck said, but your thoughts seem to suggest otherwise.
Stop looking at those!
If you don’t like me listening in, you should think quieter.
“This is a pancake restaurant,” Felicity said, interrupting our silent quarrel, “so I think we should have the Blintzkrieg.”
I looked at the menu. The Blintzkrieg was a platter of fifty-seven different types of pancake, and the dish from which the restaurant drew its name; it was available in sizes that two, four or eight could share, or, if you were greedy, there was a slightly smaller version of it for the lone diner. It was also the most expensive thing on the menu, at $15,000 for the two-person version.
“Um... yeah, I suppose,” I said, attempting an enthusiastic tone.
Oh, come on, Puck said. How gloomy do you sound? It’s not even your money. Besides, this is how a date works: you treat the girl. Or the sexless cloud of plasma that identifies as female, if you’re a Rotom, but it’s the same principle.
“What was it you wanted to talk about?” I asked Felicity, putting down the menu and leaning on the table. I was trying to convey a businesslike attitude, but I got the distinct feeling I was failing. She opened her mouth to reply, but just then the waitress returned with our drinks; we ordered the Blintzkrieg, and she left to go and see about its creation.
“I – I’m not sure where to start,” Felicity said, once she’d gone. A faintly puzzled expression flitted across her face. I remember noticing at that point that she still hadn’t removed her ever-present grey earpiece; in fact, I could, if I listened hard, hear a faint, fast-paced drumbeat coming from it. “Let me think a moment...” She took a draught of her tea, and I noticed her hands were shaking slightly.
She’s afraid, said Puck, suddenly serious. Someone will find out and punish her for this, or at least she fears so. Not the Aquas; she’s clearly not just an Aqua girl. Something’s up here, Kester, and believe me, it’s bigger than any Y-38P SuperBlast Module.
“Um... There’s a man,” Felicity began.
“Go on,” I encouraged.
“Please don’t interrupt.”
“Just stop talking.” Felicity took off her sunglasses, and I flinched slightly. She looked ill – beautiful, but very, very ill. The whites of her eyes were severely jaundiced, and her eyes themselves were a shade of blue that didn’t look natural. Dark circles ringed each eye, but they weren’t the bags of tiredness you might ordinarily see; they were actual bands of discoloured purplish flesh.
“Oh my God,” I whispered, putting one hand to my mouth. “Um – sorry.” I took it away again hurriedly.
“It’s all right,” Felicity replied. “I know it’s horrible.”
“But... how did this happen?” I asked. “You looked fine when you, er, tried to kill us at Birch’s lab.”
Felicity looked faintly sheepish, and the surreality of the situation hit home: here I was, having lunch with a girl who less than a week ago had attempted to kill me, and who had tried to kidnap me yesterday.
“That’s true,” she said. “Like I said, there’s a man. I don’t know his name, but he calls himself Zero.”
Zero? Anyone else smell melodrama?
“Zero?” I asked.
“Yes. Zero. He... actually, I don’t know what he’s trying to do.” Felicity looked frustrated. “But he has some plan laid out, something that involves both Team Aqua and Team Magma, and you as well.”
“Me?” I indicated myself in the way you do when people unexpectedly mention you, just in case they’re mistaken.
“Yes, you.” Felicity’s words were spilling quickly out of her mouth now, uncontrollably; it was as if some dam within her had burst, and there was no stopping the wave that followed. “I don’t know how, but I know that somehow he organised the insertion of that Rotom into your head. I know that Zero has planned this out in more detail than you could ever imagine – and that everything he plans happens exactly as he intended it. It’s like chess, where the grandmasters can think several moves ahead. He’s doing the same thing, only with real life. Whatever he’s trying to do, he’s incredibly good at it. I’m his mole within Team Aqua, and I’m certain you were meant to go to Team Magma. That was the only mistake he made. Somehow, you ended up on your own.”
“Wait, slow down,” I said, head starting to spin. “This is all his fault? All of this conflict over the goods and everything?”
“Yes. All of it,” confirmed Felicity.
Whew. This is too heavy for a first date. Maybe you ought to save this for another time.
Puck, shut up!
“Zero is setting the Magmas and the Aquas against each other,” Felicity continued. “I know that much. But I don’t know why, or exactly how he’s manipulating the Magmas right now.”
“And this guy planned to put Puck in my head?” Whoever this Zero was, I wanted to give him a piece of my mind. The Rotom had been the catalyst for the whole series of unfortunate events that had consumed my life over the last week.
It’s six days, actually, Puck corrected, sounding offended, and these events aren’t that unfortunate, really. We could be orphans being pursued by an evil acting troupe. Now that would lead to a series of unfortunate events.
“Yes,” Felicity replied. “He planned all of this. The only thing that he got wrong was that Team Magma failed to capture you. But his plan has recovered, and I don’t think he needs you with him.”
“Why are you telling me this?” I asked abruptly. “You’re working with him, aren’t you?”
Felicity pointed to her eyes.
“I’m working for him,” she told me. “Not with him. I have no choice.”
“He did that?”
“He... poisoned me,” Felicity said hesitantly. Her yellow eyes were shiny, as if she were on the verge of tears. “I’ll die unless he chooses to heal me,” she said, and the words sounded like they were forced through one of those lumps of clotted emotion that sometimes congests the throat. “He said he would – he said he would do that if I helped him.”
I stared, not knowing what to say. Team Magma, Team Aqua, Sapphire, Devon; I’d sampled many flavours of evil over the last week, but nothing to rival this one. I couldn’t quite grasp that this was real life; it felt like a scene from a film, or a play. This did not really happen – it could not really happen. People like Zero, who enslaved people and took their own lives hostage, just couldn’t exist.
A tear traced a silver line down Felicity’s cheek.
Kester, said Puck despairingly. There’s something seriously wrong with your dating technique if you make the girl cry.
Can’t you ever be serious? I thought angrily, at the same time as asking Felicity the question that only idiots ask of those who need consolation: “Are you all right?”
“Fine,” she said hurriedly, wiping it away and forcing her voice back to normal. “I’m fine.” She glanced over one shoulder, saw the waitress returning and put her sunglasses back on.
The Blintzkrieg was truly vast. When the waitress put it down, she gave a sigh of relief, and I swear the table groaned slightly beneath its weight. Fifty-seven types of pancake is a lot however you look at it, and when they’re all on one plate it’s the sort of sight that makes your jaw drop and your brain explode.
That is a lot of pancake, Puck said in tones of awe. How very fattening, and how singularly unromantic. Mind you, I hate human food anyway. Give me a nice car battery to suck on, that’s what I say.
“Wow,” said Felicity, staring at the plate. “I... fifty-seven pancakes is a lot more than I thought.” She smiled self-consciously, admitting her mistake in ordering it, and I tried and failed not to laugh; soon, she was laughing too, and it almost seemed like a date after all.
How very romantic comedy, Puck yawned. Please stop it. I’m more of a Tarantino man myself. He chuckled. Hey, you know what they’d call this dish of pancakes in Holland? A Royale dish of pancakes.
Our good humours restored, we made as much of an inroad into the Blintzkrieg as we could. I recall sampling jeon, pannekoeken, laobing, galettes, funkaso, okonomiyaki, bannocks and, of course, blintzes, amongst many others that I can no longer remember; it took us nearly two hours to work through the lot, with frequent breaks to recover, but I enjoyed it. Just five minutes into the feast I decided that, when she wasn’t trying to kill or kidnap me, Felicity was a very nice person to be around. And she was beautiful, which was a bonus.
Actually, I don’t think she’s especially nice. It’s probably got more to do with the fact that everyone else is horrible to you. But still, if you’re looking for a potential mate, then there’s no doubt—
I refused to listen to any more, and plunged into a chapatti instead.
While we tackled the Blintzkrieg, our conversation veered away from Zero, and moved instead to more mundane things. I ended up telling Felicity all about myself and my life before Puck; however, as I would realise later, she in fact told me nothing about herself. Whether this was intentional or whether I just talked a lot I don’t know, but knowing what I do now, it’s hard to imagine that she would have revealed her identity then without a fight.
When at last the plate was cleared, and the Blintzkrieg no more than a fond and rather fattening memory, Felicity and I sat back and resumed the topic – reluctantly, because we were enjoying ourselves – of Zero and his mysterious plan.
“What else do you know about this Zero guy?” I asked. “Would he be able to get Puck out of my head?”
Am I ruining your date that much?
“I think so,” Felicity replied. “He can do anything he wants. But he wouldn’t do it, though. Not unless you agreed to work for him.”
“I’d rather not.”
Felicity shook her head.
“You definitely wouldn’t. Kester, I told you all of this because you have a right to know – you’ve been screwed over by Zero almost as much as I have. I didn’t tell you because I wanted you to go after him. That would get you killed.”
“That’s it? You told me all of this just because I have a ‘right to know’?” I felt oddly cheated, though I couldn’t say exactly why. “You must expect me to do something, surely?”
Felicity took off her sunglasses and looked at me for a long moment.
“I expect you to be careful,” she said at last. “You have a deal with Sapphire Birch, didn’t you say? To help her find out the secret of those goods?” When I nodded, she continued. “When that deal ends, ditch her, or she’s going to end up dead. This mess isn’t going to end then – the Devon goods must be the tip of the iceberg; there’s got to be more to Zero’s plan than just them. Once you’ve done that, come and find me.”
“Why?” My heart rate had suddenly soared; I knew what she wanted me to do, and it sounded even more dangerous than what I was currently doing with Sapphire.
“Because Zero has to be stopped,” she said simply, “and I can’t do it on my own.”
I could see how much it hurt her to have to ask for help; there was a strange sort of pain in her eyes that I hadn’t seen anywhere before, and I somehow knew instinctively what it meant. It was the easiest decision I had ever made.
“When this is over,” I said, “I’m going home. Zero’s not my problem.”
Felicity stared at me in mingled shock and horror.
“No,” she said, shaking her head, “no, you can’t – you can’t do that!” She slammed one fist hard into the table, making the remainder of her tea leap out of its cup and plunging the restaurant into silence. She looked around at the staring faces, then stood up sharply. “You’ll come to see it eventually,” she said in a low, cold voice. In her anger, her foreign accent came through stronger than ever. “He is your problem. If you think going home will solve anything, you’re a fool. I always thought you were, but I gave you a chance today. I guess I was right after all.”
With that, Felicity stormed out, and I became aware that every pair of eyes in the room was staring at me. I sighed deeply, and asked for the bill.
Well, Puck said. You sure do know how to make a lady feel special, Kester.
Darren Goodwin sat on a bench and stared at the wet grass. What, he wondered, was he supposed to do now?
He had made enquiries at all of the central Mauville Pokémon Centres – the ones you would stay in if you wanted to be within spitting distance of the Spectroscopic Fancy Company building, where he presumed the kids would go – but had found no trace of his quarry. He had even made enquiries at the Spectroscopic Fancy building itself, but the receptionist had just told him that lots of kids had been in to ask about the SuperBlast Module, and he couldn’t be expected to remember them all. Dispirited, he had retired to an inner-city park that seemed to have taken a heavier load of rain than the rest of the city last night, and sat down to ponder his next move.
Beside him, the Raiders bobbed and swayed, swapping positions in their everlasting magnetic dance; one of them suddenly span around in circles and, in collaboration with its companions, emitted that indescribable electronic sound again. Darren looked up sharply, and saw a flash of blue and white moving swiftly down the street on the other side of the park’s border fence. It took a moment for him to recognise her out of uniform, but then he got it: it was the Aqua girl with the freakish powers.
There was as good a start as any, he reasoned, and he leaped up to cross the grass, vaulting the iron railings and running up the wet pavement to catch her.
“Hey!” he cried, when he was a few steps behind her. “You!”
She turned, and though he could not see her eyes behind her blue Aqua glasses, the Goodwin thought he detected a hint of fear. He reached out to grab her, but she suddenly put on a burst of speed, and glided away as if on wheels.
Darren frowned, slowed and stopped, watching her vanish around a corner and knowing he couldn’t catch her. How did she do that? How could she move so fast, and how had she come back to kill him mere seconds after being shot and bludgeoned in the head?
He sighed, frustrated, and rammed his hands deep into his pockets.
“There’s something I’m not seeing here, Raiders,” he said aloud. “What is it?”
The Raiders made no reply, merely spinning around a little instead. Darren sighed again, and wished he was at home.
“Come on,” he said. “I need a coffee.”
Off they went, man and Pokémon, down the street at a disconsolate trudge.
“I didn’t expect her to be on time.”
Half an hour late?
It was half past seven, and I was shivering in the cool twilight air outside the Gym’s locked gate.
“She did say seven, right? Not half-seven?”
I know what she said, and she said she would meet us at seven.
“Do you think something’s happened to her?”
Like getting killed in a Training accident? That would be inconvenient – she’s still got our Master Ball.
“How nice you are.”
Yeah, I’m just the best.
Since I had no idea whether that was self-deprecating irony or not, I struggled to come up with a response; thankfully, I was spared the effort by the sudden appearance of Sapphire and Shawn the guitarist on the other side of the gate.
“Hey,” I said. “You’re late.”
“It took longer than I thought,” Sapphire replied as Shawn unlocked the gate. “It’s good, though. I haven’t really done proper Gym training before.” The gate swung shut behind her and she waved goodbye to Shawn. “Most of the people there are much stronger than me, but I’ve managed to raise Toro to about Level 17, and Rono to three levels higher than that.”
Good going, said Puck approvingly. I like it. It’ll take strategy more than levels to beat Wattson, though. Even if he’s a lunatic, he’s going to be a wily old customer.
We started to walk, Sapphire leading.
“Where are we going?” I asked.
“The nearest Pokémon Centre,” she replied. “What did you do today?”
Somewhat surprised that she was taking an interest, I had to think about what I would say in reply. I had already decided not to tell her about my meeting with Felicity; it didn’t have to concern her, after all. We would go our separate ways after finding out about the Module.
“Um... nothing much. Just wandered around, got some lunch, bought all of your Trainer stuff.” I held up the bag.
“Oh, thanks. Shall I carry that?” I handed it over before she changed her mind, but gave her a strange look. She seemed far too happy and nice to be the real Sapphire, and briefly I wondered if the pod people had landed.
They make emotionless clones, not happy ones, Puck pointed out.
“Why’re you so nice?” I asked suspiciously. “What’s going on?”
“I’m just... happy,” she replied sunnily, smiling and swinging the plastic bag around with such wild abandon that she almost broke my leg. “I’ve had so much fun. And done so much.”
I give this mood... four hours to evaporate, Puck estimated. Or until something happens to irritate her.
“Hey!” cried a voice from behind us, accompanied by the sound of rapid footsteps on tarmac. “You two!”
We turned to see a young man, probably my age or a little older, running down the pavement towards us. The first thing that struck me about him was that he didn’t seem real; he looked almost like a lonely artist’s drawing of a vampire, with longish black hair, pale skin and impossibly vivid green eyes. He was dressed in slim black jeans and a black jacket, giving further weight to his hailing from the ranks of the undead, and his black sneakers had a logo with a star and English words on them. I raised my eyebrows; he had to be either ridiculously widely-travelled or foreign.
“You two,” he repeated, stopping a few feet away and leaning on his knees while he got his breath back. “You’re Trainers?”
“I am,” Sapphire said. “Why?”
“There’s something different about you,” he said. “Unless I got the wrong person... no, I’m sure I’m right.”
“What do you want?” Sapphire asked, ready to leave. The stranger straightened up, and I was surprised to see he was only as tall as Sapphire. I had been under the impression that vampires were taller than normal people.
He may not actually be a vampire, cautioned Puck. I’d be careful before I go around accusing people of being soulless haemivorous corpses. Mind you, that’s quite similar to being a Ghost, and that can only be a good thing. Still a bit fleshy for my liking, but...
I tuned his ramble out and returned my attention to the conversation.
“A battle?” Sapphire was saying. “Now?”
“Yes,” the man in black replied. “I mean, I know I’ll win, but there’s something odd about you two.”
“I don’t know,” the stranger said. “But I want to battle you.” He brushed a hunk of hair from his right eye so as to be able to give us an earnest look, but it flopped back again straight away. “Please?”
“Sorry, no,” Sapphire said. “We don’t have time. Do we?” She looked at me pointedly.
“Er, no,” I said hurriedly. “We’re... really busy.”
We turned and walked away, but the man in black caught up and grabbed Sapphire’s arm.
“Wait,” he said. “Come on. It won’t take a moment.”
“I said no,” snapped Sapphire, rounding on him, “and I meant no. Now get lost!”
His strange eyes flashed with something dangerous that I had never seen in human eyes before, and the stranger turned on his heel, stalking away without another world.
“What was that about?” I wondered. “He was really weird.”
“I don’t know. A crazy guy. Doesn’t matter.” Sapphire’s good mood didn’t seem to have sustained any lasting damage from the man in black’s intrusion, and the remainder of our walk to the Pokémon Centre was, oddly enough, quite pleasant.
“They wouldn’t fight me,” the boy with jade eyes said, looking out of the aeroplane window. “Can you believe it, Scott? Trainers who wouldn’t fight?”
Scott agreed that it was indeed unusual.
“There was definitely something odd about them,” the boy went on darkly. “I’m willing to bet that if you meet up with them, you’ll want them for the competition.”
Now Scott was interested.
“Oh yes? They’re good, are they?”
The boy with jade eyes threw up his hands.
“I don’t know. They’re different, or one of them is at least. I didn’t get to fight them.”
“So you don’t know if they’d be good for the contest or not?”
“Trust me, Scott.” The jade eyes whirled away from the window and locked onto Scott’s sunglasses. They seemed to burn through the black plastic and deep into the skull behind, like a pair of green blowtorches. “They’d be good.”
“W-well, they’re gone now,” Scott said, flinching away from the sizzling impact of his look. “We’ll probably never see them again.”
“No,” replied the boy, returning his attention to the clouds again. “No, we’ll cross paths again. I’m not sure when, but I know we will.”
Scott restrained himself from asking how the boy with jade eyes knew all the things that he did, and went back to the in-flight movie with a sigh. The kid was good, but he’d be glad to get away from him when they got there.