I'm not sure your statement regarding the quality of my writing is true, but I'll accept the compliment anyway. As for the arcade machine thing... that was thought up a long time ago, when I was just starting this story.
Oh yeah, and I'm a few hours late; English coursework, the cartoon for the school magazine and Pokémon Black conspired to ensure this chapter wasn't entirely finished until five minutes ago.
Chapter Twenty-Six: A Promise Once Made
When I woke up, I was sprawled over the steering wheel, with the hard plastic digging painfully into my ribs. Dull aches throbbed steadily all over my body, and there was blood on the dashboard.
I groaned and eased myself up into a sitting position, falling back against the seat with some relief.
“What...?” I began, forcing my eyes fully open and looking around. I had no idea where I was, but it wasn’t Spectroscopic Fancy: in fact, it seemed to be a box made of steel, almost like the inside of the Master Ball. “Puck,” I said suddenly. “Puck.”
“What have you done?” I asked, in tones that revealed murder was not too far from my mind.
Saved our lives, that’s what. They scared the living daylights out of you, but you’re essentially unharmed.
“You rammed that... that thing in the cloud,” I said. “I didn’t even have a seatbelt on.”
It was us or him, Kester, us or him. That effectively gives us a licence to kill.
“Stop doing that,” I growled. “I’ve had enough.” I pointed out of the window. “Where are we?”
In a freight container down near Eastfield Airport, Puck informed me. You’ve no idea how hard it was to get here.
“A freight contai—? Wait! Where’s Sapphire?”
From what I saw as we drove off, I’m guessing that she’s on the way to the Magma HQ. Y’know, on account of being captured by them and all.
I sat bolt upright, felt pain flare white-hot in my abdomen and neck, and hurriedly slumped again.
“What?” I repeated, more quietly.
Oh, I knew you’d be like this, Puck said, sighing. You’re so... so human, Kester.
“What does that mean? You’re not concerned at all?”
Of course not! Puck protested. I’m a Rotom, and a noble one at that, maybe the freest there ever was. Humans are of no concern to me.
For the first time, I became aware of the gap between Puck’s mind and mine; we weren’t just different species, or even different animals, but entirely different orders of being: he was a strange thing born of plasma, and I was a mammal. However human Puck seemed to be at times, he couldn’t be further from my kind without being dead.
Besides, he pressed on, you don’t like her anyway. Just forget it, Kester. You fulfilled your obligations to her already – you found out about the goods. Well, you were unconscious by that time, but I heard it because I was in the car.
“You sounded so much more moral before,” I told him. My voice was low; there was something in me struggling to make itself heard, and I was suppressing it as best I could. “When you talked about religion yesterday, and when you told me to go comfort Sapphire.”
Because we had to! Puck said violently. To stay with her and maintain the cover!
“What cover?” I shouted back.
There was a long silence.
That’s none of your concern, the Rotom said at length. It’s entirely my own affair.
“Your affairs are my affairs,” I replied coldly. “My head, my rules, remember?”
It would put you in danger—
“And I’m not in danger already?” I cried. “Puck, I’m in a stolen car in a freight container in an airport warehouse, with Team Magma and Team Aqua after my head, as well as the Devon Corporation. I’ve been in danger since last Sunday!”
Fine. Puck’s voice was colder than anything I’d heard before; colder than Sapphire’s, colder than Felicity’s. It didn’t sound truly human, and I wondered if this was what thoughts were like: raw emotion, undiluted by words. Do you want the truth, Kester? Is that what will satisfy you? Well, here it is: I’m no friendly trickster Rotom who happened to land in your head and makes stupid jokes all day. I live in the real world – more real than yours, at any rate. I’m a professional thief, and I came to Hoenn to hide after a heist went wrong in Italy. As soon as I hit Lilycove, that Zero guy approached me to steal the Devon goods, and told me he’d turn me over to the authorities if I didn’t. I stole them, but like Felicity said, that guy has everything planned out beforehand: he knew I’d be chased into the P-L.O.T. Device and end up in your head. And that, Kester, Puck told me, that is your truth. Do with it what you will.
I sat there for a moment, head spinning, and aching with every revolution. I closed my eyes, and thought for a long, long moment.
“I’m going to find Sapphire,” I said quietly, and got out of the car.
What? No! cried Puck. Don’t do that!
“Why not?” I asked in a voice lacking tone, pushing open the door and stepping out of the container into bright sunlight. “After all, you only live twice.”
I stared at the computer screen for a moment, waiting for the little bar to fill up.
TM detected: TM57 (S) -- CHARGE BEAM.
Is this correct?
“Yes,” I said, and clicked it.
Point Tutor Unit at Pokémon and click 'Continue'.
I obeyed, with a small amount of contortion, and a few moments later I was walking out of the Pokémon Centre, Sapphire’s bag slung over one shoulder and a new move burning in my mind. I was refreshed in body, having used one of Sapphire’s Full Restores to fix up ribs that I thought were probably broken, but my mind remained stubbornly out of sorts.
Kester, for the last time, Puck said despairingly, don’t do this.
“Doesn’t matter to you, does it?” I replied, drawing odd looks from passers-by and not caring. “If I die, you go free.”
You’re the perfect cover, he told me. The way things are right now, I won’t be able to show my face anywhere for another six months. This is the only place no one can find me.
“So you lied about wanting to leave, as well?” I asked. I thought I should feel angry, but I didn’t. I felt empty, as if I’d been sick until there was nothing left within me. I didn’t know if I was worried about Sapphire or shocked or what, but I knew I wanted to get her back. The two Magmas who’d tried to apprehend me in Rustboro hadn’t been the best criminals in the world, but their Team hadn’t attained its power through being idiotic, and I was willing to bet that they had more threatening people on their side.
Yes, of course! Puck snapped. It doesn’t matter, does it? You humans lie continuously, why can’t I?
“Because it’s wrong,” I replied, turning a corner.
You don’t even know where Sapphire is, Puck said, changing the subject.
“You said she was on her way to the Magma HQ,” I said. “And everyone knows that that means Lavaridge.”
She could still be in the city, Puck reasoned. Then you’d never find her. So you have about as much chance of finding her as of finding Nemo. Though of course they did find him, in the end. Wait. Now is not the time for jokes.
“Make all the jokes you want,” I said. “No one laughed before, and no one’s laughing now. The Magma grunts will know where she is, so we’ll find them first. And I’ve got a feeling I know how to do that.”
I rounded another corner, and was immediately turned back by a policeman in a fluorescent jacket; behind him, a police barricade sealed off Zinfandel Avenue.
“What happened?” I asked him, looking past the barrier at the wreckage of the street. It was splattered with dabs of thick dark blood, from the giant Pokémon’s wounds, and the Angel van was still there, dented, battered and full of bullet-holes. Usher’s improbably large gun lay on its side a few metres away.
“Aquas and Magmas,” the policeman replied. I did a good show of looking surprised.
“Aquas?” I asked sharply. “Was there a girl about my age, very pretty, long white hair, in a Team Aqua uniform here?”
The man narrowed his eyes at me, crumpling his weather-beaten face into something that resembled a weathered piece of limestone. My heart rate soared; this was a gamble that would only pay off if someone had seen Felicity here...
“There was,” he said. “How did you know that?”
I held in a sigh of relief, and looked worried instead.
“She’s my girlfriend,” I told him. The cop looked surprised at this, then made the face of one about to impart unwelcome news.
“I’ll get a car to take you to the hospital,” he said, deciding not to tell me. “Come with me.”
Smooth operating, I have to admit, Puck said grudgingly. I didn’t expect you to get this far.
I was sitting on one of those hospital chairs that look comfortable but are, in actual fact, supremely ill-suited to sitting upon, looking at Felicity. She lay on a hospital bed, discoloured eyes shut and face paler than ever; it no longer had any colour in it at all, but was the pure white of fresh paper, or of clothes in washing powder adverts. A tube ran into a cannula in her arm, and its other end was connected to a bag of blood, since she appeared to be lacking a substantial amount of it. The ever-present grey headphone was on the bedside cabinet, the antenna neatly retracted and the whole switched off. If the situation hadn’t been so serious, I might have compared it to that nasty business that happened last year, because something along these lines had occurred as a result of it.
“How can you talk like that?” I asked him. “As if nothing had happened?”
Because that’s how we survive in this world, Puck replied. Live and let die.
“If that’s a joke, you already used that film.”
It wasn’t a joke. Call that a joke? This is a joke.
I waited, but no joke was forthcoming. Puck sighed.
That, he explained patiently, was the joke. Never mind.
“I don’t get it.”
I said never mind.
You never ask me to explain my jokes. I’m touched. I might not have got his jokes, but I picked up on the Rotom’s ironic tone immediately. I chose to do nothing about it, though, and let him explain. Look, there’s this film called Crocodile Dundee, yes? The eponymous hero is cornered at one point by a mugger with a knife, but he laughs and goes, ‘Call that a knife? This is a knife’ and pulls out a much, much bigger knife. It’s a classic film moment, like when the alien comes out of Kane’s chest.
I genuinely wished I hadn’t asked; put like that, it made Puck seem clever, when right now I wanted to be able to think he was stupid, and that he was advocating the wrong course of action.
The doctors had said they didn’t know what was wrong with Felicity; the only symptom she presented other than the discoloured eyes and skin was the fact that about a litre of her blood seemed to have been replaced with mineral water. They had told me this much earlier, in between asking me about her family; it seemed she didn’t carry an I.D. card, and I had told them she was an immigrant and that her family hadn’t come over with her.
“Kusou,” Felicity murmured, stirring. Immediately, I got up and went over to her.
“Felicity,” I said. “How are you?”
Her eyelids fluttered open, and the yellow-and-blue orbs behind them settled on me.
“Kusou,” she said again. “Of all the people... where am I?” She tried to sit up, but she was so weak I could hold her down just by resting one hand on her forehead.
“In hospital,” I told her. “You’ve run out of blood, it seems.”
Felicity’s eyes flicked over to the blood bag and back.
“I am glad,” she said simply. “I don’t want to turn to water.” She regarded me with distaste. “I don’t have to thank you, do I?”
“No,” I told her.
As I told Milton’s Paradise Lost, Puck said, get to the point already.
“I need to find those two Team Magma grunts who’ve been tailing me,” I said. “Do you know where they would be?”
“Why should I tell you anything?” Felicity asked calmly. Her eyes were full of winter.
“You can’t really refuse,” I pointed out mildly. “I mean, I could kill you right now.”
She uttered a hollow laugh.
“Even if you wanted to, you could not. Not while I am like this.”
I had no idea what she was getting at there. Did she mean I didn’t have the stomach to kill her? That was right, of course. I could no more kill her than myself.
“Just tell me,” I said. “Tell me and... and I’ll help you.”
Felicity’s eyes widened slightly.
“Promise me,” she said. “Then I’ll help you.”
Palkia’s claws, Puck said, don’t do that! You’re in enough trouble as it is.
That decided me. I’m slightly ashamed of it, but I did it purely to spite Puck: I held out a hand and she shook it weakly.
“Deal,” I said. Felicity managed half a smile.
“Fine,” she said. “I know exactly where they have gone. This is part of Zero’s plan, and he told me this much. They have caught Sapphire, haven’t they? She will go to Lavaridge, to the Magma base. They will figure out that you are captive to that Master Ball, and when you get there, they’re going to recall you with it. Then you’ll be theirs.”
I made a face.
“When does this train leave?” I asked.
“That’s easy enough to work out?”
“You know the train, don’t you?” I said. “Which train are they taking, Felicity?”
“The next express one,” she replied, as if it were obvious. “Which, if I am correct, leaves Crescelton at half past four.”
I looked at my watch, and realised it had broken in the crash; I glanced over at the clock above the door, swore, apologised, thanked Felicity and left at a sprint.
Behind me, the clock ticked, and the minute hand rolled over onto fourteen.
Fabien looked at the station clock; it read fourteen past four, and he sighed and tapped one foot.
“This’ll show Maxie,” he said, to cheer himself up. “Think of it, Blake! Courtney fails completely – and we capture the Aqua handler!”
“It’s good, ain’t it?” agreed Blake.
The two of them were standing on Platform 4 at Crescelton, a small station in the northeast of Mauville’s Bannine district; the only object of note on the premises was the wrought-iron lamppost in the centre of Platform 5, which Fabien had been staring at for a while and had been unable to divine the purpose of.
Goishi had found them cowering behind a dumpster after a protracted search that almost merits its own story. He had met with a homing Tranquill that had got seriously off-course and circled halfway around the globe looking for Castelia City; he had spoken with something that might have been the ghost of Solomon; he had fought off the unwanted attention of a harlot Zubat of low repute in a back alley; and he had even come close to crashing into a large man on a flying motorbike. It seemed to him that all the strange things in life had collected in the air above Mauville, but he hadn’t pondered the matter further. Life was too short – especially so in his case, since he was seven years old and due to die in another three. If he could evolve, he would easily make twenty at least – Crobat were significantly more long-lived than their blue pre-evolutions – but given his opinions of Fabien, he had long ago resigned himself to an early death.
Returning from that digression, he had found his two comrades behind a dumpster, and he had presented them with the Aqua girl; they had then congratulated him – for once – and divested her of her four Poké Balls. A quick search through her pockets had revealed her identity to be Sapphire Birch, daughter of Alan, which was surprising but of no real consequence.
They had made enquiries about the next express to Lavaridge, and proceeded to Crescelton Station with all possible speed, stopping only to purchase a large steamer trunk on the way. Hopefully, Fabien thought, the money used could be claimed as expenses from the Team, because it had been his credit card they used, and the trunk was rather on the dear side. Now, they were arrayed along the station, two men, a bat and a girl, in various attitudes: Blake was standing, Goishi was fluttering gently, Sapphire was curled up within the trunk, and Fabien, for reasons best known to himself, was striking such Anglo-Saxon attitudes as would have rendered the King’s Messenger himself green with envy.
“Whatcha doin’?” asked Blake, in some confusion; Fabien lowered his hands and was about to give a response when some primaeval instinct warned him that danger was behind him. Perhaps he caught a reflection of yellow light in the glass of the lamppost, perhaps he felt the static charge in the air, perhaps he was even experiencing the awakening of some latent criminal wisdom, but he flung himself flat on the floor just as a lemon-coloured beam of crackling energy blasted by overhead.
Blake rounded on this intruder, whipping his gun from its concealed holster; around them, the few other people waiting for the train suddenly found more important places to be.
“We had this discussion last time we met,” the Rotom-boy said, stepping out onto the platform from the station doorway. “Which is faster, lightning or bullets?”
Fabien climbed back to his feet indignantly, ramming his hat firmly back onto his head.
“Now, look here,” he began, but the Rotom-boy made a gun of his hand, extending thumb, index and middle fingers while clenching the others, and fired another noisy bolt over the Magma’s shoulder. He gulped and shut his mouth as his attacker glowed orange slightly.
“What was that?” he wondered aloud, then seemed to hear an answer from somewhere. “Oh, I see. It raised the power. Anyway,” he continued, returning his attention to the Magmas, “give me back my friend. Now. Or I’m going to have to shoot you.”
Fabien glanced at Blake, and Blake glanced at Fabien. Mental calculations were made, the answers multiplied by three and then tested to see if they conformed to the laws of propriety; the object of their rapid thoughts was simple: to see if the Rotom-kid would kill them or not. After a moment, Fabien had three reasons in mind why he, in fact, would.
Point one: their value. They were inordinately low in the Magma pecking order, and no one would mind particularly if they died.
Point two: this kid worked for the Aquas. They hated the Magmas, and didn’t baulk at killing them.
Point three: he was clearly a criminal genius. The way he had fooled them with his ‘identical actor’ stunt back on Route 110 was proof enough of that. Someone so hideously intelligent and amoral was certain to have to include murder in their plans at some point – and so it was likely that killing anyone would probably not cause the Rotom-kid to lose any sleep at night.
Fabien gulped again.
“Fine,” he sighed. “She’s in the trunk.” He gestured.
The Rotom-boy went over to it, and found it locked.
“Open it,” he ordered, and Fabien did so. Then he stepped back, and the Rotom-boy hauled out Sapphire’s sleeping body from within. “Her Poké Balls, please.”
Please. How pleasant the boy was, Fabien thought, as he gave them back. It was almost a pity that he now had both hands full, and so was unable to resist the attack he was about to order.
“Goishi!” cried Fabien. “Now!”
The bat looked startled, and the Rotom-boy dropped Sapphire Birch reflexively to zap him between the eyes with another line of yellow light. Goishi gave a cry halfway between a scream and a sizzle, flew backwards about five metres and came to an unhappy rest with his head rammed into a trash can.
“Thunderball,” grinned the Rotom-kid. “One point to me.”
Fabien stared at him. How had he ever hoped to outwit this guy? Not only had he swift reflexes and excellent forward planning skills, he was able to make referential jokes at the drop of a hat. Truly, he was a criminal to give Maxie himself a run for his money.
He was still staring when Blake waved a hand in front of his face, snapping him out of what appeared to have been some sort of trance state.
“Fabien, ’e’s gone,” the big man told him. “An’ ’e took Birch with ’im.”
Fabien looked from Blake to the trunk to his fainted Golbat, gave a despairing sigh and flung himself theatrically onto a bench. Once again, and without any apparent effort on their enemy’s part, they had been well and truly thwarted.
For the second time that day, I sat at the bedside of an unconscious girl. In different circumstances, I might have counted myself a lucky man, but unfortunately both girls hated me with what is generally known as a vengeance.
OK, that was less dangerous than I thought, Puck admitted. I thought she’d be at Lavaridge already.
“Shut up. I’m not talking to you.”
Shall I apologise? I’m sorry, Kester. There. I said it. Can we forget about this unpleasantness and go back to normal now?
“How can we? You’re a liar, a – a world-class thief!”
Amongst other things, he said modestly. I am quite good, if I do say so myself. Forget the Mona Lisa – I had my eyes on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Which was, in fact, the Italian job that went wrong.
“I can’t tell if that’s the truth or a joke,” I said dispiritedly. “That means there’s something wrong with you.”
It’s a joke. I stole it from somewhere else, but I’m not going to tell you where.
I looked over at Sapphire, who was stirring beneath the covers. Her eyes flickered open hazily, and focused blearily on me.
“Yo,” I said. “Knight in shining armour, at your service.”
“Kester?” She sat up slowly. “Where – what happened?”
“You got caught by the Magmas, I went and rescued you,” I said. All at once, my frustration seemed to melt away; I felt like a hero from a storybook, a fairy tale prince. Unfortunately, I seemed to have inadvertently rescued the fire-breathing dragon rather than the princess, but it was still an accomplishment.
“You... I remember,” Sapphire said. She looked around for something, and her eyes fell on the Poké Balls on her bedside cabinet. Taking up the Master Ball, she squeezed the two hemispheres that formed it and twisted; they fell apart and a surge of red light burst out, only to fade half a second later. “There,” she said, setting down the ruined Ball. “You’re free. Go home.”
I stared at her.
“You were right,” Sapphire said awkwardly. “It’s dangerous. You fulfilled your end of the bargain, anyway. And you saved me. So... this is my thank you.”
“I...” I was completely at a loss for words.
‘Thank you’ would be a start.
“Thanks,” I said. “Thanks, Sapphire. A lot.” Then I took a deep breath, and continued: “But I’m not going anywhere. Not yet.”
“What?” It was Sapphire’s turn to stare.
“I’m not done here,” I told her. “You can go on, if you like. But I’m in this too deep to back out now.” I was thinking of Felicity. “So I’m not going home yet.”
Oh, Giratina have mercy on us all, Puck said despairingly. The boy’s serious.
Sapphire gave me a long look.
“You’re not really a coward at all, are you?”
I shook my head sadly.
“I wish I was,” I admitted. “It would make it so much easier to give up and go back.”
“OK,” replied Sapphire slowly, her eyes still searching my face for something. “Then I’ll come with you.”
Sapphire gave me her lopsided grin.
“Come on, Kester,” she said. “You didn’t think you could leave me out of this, did you?”
I smiled at her, possibly the first time I’d done so sincerely.
“I guess not,” I said. “OK, here’s the deal. There’s this guy called Zero...”