Steven said he'd send someone to pick me up, Ren recalled as he scanned the throngs of people packing the bustling station. But who . . . ? There was nobody he recognised, so he shrugged and continued to wend his way through the crowd. Maybe there'll be somebody outside? he reasoned.
Hopefully, he scanned the line of bored-looking drivers standing by the door, checking to see if any of their placards had his name on it. Nothing. Just as he was about to make his way out of the station's grand entrance, he felt a tap on his shoulder and turned, somewhat taken aback, to see a somewhat irate-looking teenage girl in a grey school uniform, her brown hair drawn back, in two bunches, with a large pink ribbon into a pair of ponytails.
“D-didn't you hear me?” she said crossly. “I was calling you the whole time!”
“Ah,” said Ren. “Roxanne. It's been a while.”
“Three years since you won the Stone Badge,” she said, smiling. “You've hardly come by the Gym since.”
“Ah . . . sorry about that,” Ren said, scratching his head. “What, did you miss me?”
“I-I just thought I should battle you again sometime,” Roxanne said. “But come on, we're blocking the path.” She was right, Ren realised as he hurriedly followed the Gym Leader out of the station and down a wide flight of stairs towards a large, fancy-looking black car parked on the road below.
“This us?” Ren asked, gesturing to the car. Roxanne nodded. “After you, then,” he said, opening the door and gallantly waving her inside. Roxanne went a little pink, but climbed in anyway. Ren chuckled and helped Natasha up into the car before following them.
Inside, the car was remarkably spacious. Roxanne was already seated with her back to the driver, leaving Ren and Natasha to sit opposite her. Once Ren had closed the door behind him, Roxanne pressed a small red button on the armrest and spoke into a small microphone embedded into the side of the car: “To the Devon Corporation, if you please.” Without further discussion, the engine of the car purred into life, and Ren felt the slightest lurch as it pulled out into traffic.
“Nice ride,” he commented. “Being a Gym Leader paying well, then?”
“No, ah . . . this car belongs to Mr. Stone. He asked me to come and fetch you from the station, but I think a vehicle of this, uh . . . scale is somewhat unnecessary.”
“I see. That makes sense, I guess,” Ren said, quietly trying to dissuade Natasha from opening the minibar she had just discovered under her seat. The Gym Leader smiled at the younger girl.
“Hello, there,” she said in a friendly manner. “My name is Roxanne. What's yours?”
Natasha tilted her head slightly, sizing Roxanne up. “I'm 'Tash,” she said eventually. “Are you cousin Ren's girlfriend?”
“Wha-” Ren started, taken aback, but he was overriden immediately.
“Absolutely not! That's preposterous!” Roxanne said insistently.
“Then why are you all pink?” Natasha challenged her. She had a point, Ren admitted. At Natasha's comment, Roxanne's face had gone a deep shade of rose that put her hair-ribbon to shame.
“Speaking of pink,” Ren said quickly, trying to defuse the suddenly awkward situation, “why are you still wearing those pink stockings? I mean, it's none of my business, but they're really quite . . . out there, aren't they?”
“What? These? Um, I . . . maybe,” Roxanne said distractedly, refusing to meet Ren's eyes. “But never mind that. I wanted to congratulate you personally for defeating Steven.”
“Ah, thanks,” said Ren.
“I . . . knew, you know,” Roxanne said hesitantly. “Back when you came to the Rustboro Gym three years ago, I could tell that you were going to go a long way.”
“Really?” Ren asked, surprised. “But I only had three Gym badges by then.”
“Still,” Roxanne said, “I could see it. I think it was your eyes.”
“My . . . eyes?” Ren said, confused. “What about my eyes?”
“Well, I think . . . As soon I met you, I saw something in your eyes. I didn't know quite what it was at the time, and I still can't be sure, but whatever it was . . . it told me you were going to keep going. All the way to the top. And look at you now! I'm going to have to start calling you 'boss' soon.”
Ren laughed uncomfortably. “Boy, that'd feel weird,” he said. “But that reminds me . . . exactly how much control . . . no, that's not what I want to ask. What I mean is – how much responsibility does the Champion have?”
“What do you mean by that?” Roxanne asked, frowning.
“Well, all my life, the Champion's just been . . . there. Sitting up there at the top of the heap, unassailable and distant, and . . . well, there was a lot of secrecy. I know very little about what the Champion is actually expected to do, other than, you know, take challengers.”
“That's . . .” Roxanne stared out of the tinted window as if looking for answers in the stone facades of the city. “That's something . . . that Steven will tell you about today, I think. How much did he tell you when he called?”
“Nothing,” Ren grumbled, leaning back and staring at the ceiling. Something nagged at him, but he couldn't be sure what it was. Something wasn't right. “He told me nothing.”
“That's Steven for you,” Roxanne said, “although I probably shouldn't be so flippant. However mysterious he might be, he's still Steven Stone, even before he's the Champion.”
“I met his father when I was here last,” Ren noted. “He seemed like an . . . interesting man.”
“Yes, that sounds about right,” said Roxanne. “Mr. Stone is, of course, still the CEO of the Devon Corporation. He's one of the most respected businessmen in the world, and I think he plans to have Steven take over from him in a few years.”
“He's going to retire?” Ren asked, arching an eyebrow. “But he's only, what, sixty?”
“Sixty-seven,” Roxanne corrected him. “Still, he's in perfect health, from what I've seen, and personally . . . personally, I don't think Steven's going to want to take over any time soon.”
“What makes you say that?” asked Ren, frowning. “It's not like he has nothing to do, or anything, but I still imagine he'll have a lot of time on his hands now that he's stepping down as Champion.”
“When I . . . last talked to Steven,” Roxanne said slowly, looking Ren directly in the eye for the first time, “he seemed . . . restless. I don't know if I should be telling you this, but . . . I don't think he's the sort to just settle down peacefully. Did he ever tell you about his hobby?”
“What, collecting rocks? Yeah, I ran into him a few times in Granite Cave when I was training there,” Ren recalled.
“Collecting rocks? Well, not exactly, though you've essentially got the right idea. Steven has a great interest in the rare minerals and gemstones that can be found all over the Hoenn region. Hoenn has a remarkable geological makeup, and the bedrock varies wildly from one place to another. Because of this, and the huge number of natural and artificial caves that can be found here, I don't think Steven will ever be satisfied with the results of his research. He is a remarkable man, but he appears to have inherited his father's fortitude. I'm not sure if that's a good thing, frankly.”
Ren remained silent for a moment, considering. “I don't know. Is Mr. Stone really looking to retire so soon?”
“Probably in the next few years. It would seem he's quite happy to have Steven available again. At least, that is the impression I get. It makes sense, don't you think?”
“True,” Ren said. “But I can't imagine Steven actually going directly against his father if it came down to it. You know, if he actually directly said 'I want you to take over Devon Corp.' He couldn't turn that down.”
“I suppose you're right,” Roxanne admitted, “but it's still worth keeping an eye on. I don't think that's what Steven wants to discuss with you, anyway.”
“Do you know what he wants?” Ren asked. “Because it seems I'm somewhat in the dark here.”
“No,” Roxanne said, then paused – for a little longer than necessary, Ren thought. “No, I have no idea at all. All I know is that it's something to do with your new role as Champion, but I imagine you will have worked that out already.”
“I'd figured as much,” Ren said, nodding.
“Are you gonna go to a meeting, Ren?” Natasha piped up, reminding Ren of her presence. She'd been so unusually quiet, he had almost forgotten she was there.
“Yeah, pretty much,” he said.
“Can I come with you?” she asked. “Daddy never lets me go to his meetings!”
“Well, ah . . . I guess we'll have to see,” Ren said. “It depends on what Steven thinks, I guess. If it's too secret, you're going to have to wait outside, I suppose.”
“Here we are!” said Roxanne suddenly, as the car came to a gentle halt and fell silent. After a few seconds, the door opened from the outside, and she slipped out gracefully. Ren followed her, nodding his thanks to the driver as he made sure Natasha was with him.
“Wow . . .” Ren breathed. “I see this every time I come to Rustboro, but it's still pretty impressive.” The headquarters of Devon Corporation was a large, brown-stone building that managed to look both ancient and solid at the same time. The facade was intricately carved and set with large, fearsome gargoyles that jutted out into the street. Standing on the cobbled footpath and looking up, the building loomed impossibly high, even though it was relatively small compared to those around it.
“Isn't it just?” Roxanne agreed. “Come on. Steven wanted to see you as soon as possible.” Shrugging, Ren followed her into the building, taking time to admire the classical stone arch as he passed through it.
Roxanne crossed the empty foyer quickly, her buckled shoes clacking briskly on the tile floor. Ren looked around – he had only been inside Devon Corp once or twice. Quite suddenly, everything was modern. They passed through a revolving door into the building proper, and Ren had to rescue Natasha, who wanted to keep going round and round.
“Honestly,” he muttered. “You're twelve years old now, but you still act like a little kid! Would it kill you to grow up just a little bit?”
“But it's so much fun!” Natasha protested, giggling. “I'm not important or famous like cousin Ren, so I can do what I want to and it doesn't matter!”
Ren frowned, but before he could think too hard on it, he was distracted by Roxanne practically dragging him onward. “Will you get a move on?” she said.
“Whoa, whoa! Why the big hurry all of a sudden?” Ren asked, walking faster to catch up.
“Steven told you it was urgent, did he not?”
“Well, yes, but-”
“Then come on,” Roxanne said, chivvying him past the receptionist, who nodded respectfully to the pair of them. Ren followed along as quickly as he could, Natasha trotting happily in his wake. Did I do something to piss her off? he wondered. Nothing came to mind, so he left it.
Roxanne led them into a lift and pressed the button for the top floor. With barely a lurch, the carriage began to ascend, its three occupants standing in awkward silence for the duration. With a soft ding, the doors opened, and Ren stepped out. Roxanne didn't move.
“Are you . . . coming?” he asked, uncertain. Roxanne shook her head. She opened her mouth slightly as if to speak, but then closed it again as if thinking better of it.
“Good luck,” was all she said, after a lengthy pause. Ren nodded and beckoned to Natasha, who followed him out of the lift.
“See you around,” he said, still slightly bemused. Roxanne nodded silently as the lift doors closed and she disappeared from sight. “Well, that was strange,” Ren said aloud.
“She got all worried when we came into the building,” observed Natasha. “Why's that, Ren?”
“She did?” Ren arched his eyebrows. He had noticed something strange about Roxanne, but hadn't been able to put his finger on it. Was it worry he had glimpsed in her face? He didn't really think so, but . . . “Girls are so hard to figure out,” he muttered under his breath.
“They are indeed,” said Steven from behind him. Ren jumped and spun round to face the former Champion.
“Don't – don't do that!” he squeaked. A flicker of amusement passed across Steven's smooth face.
“Come with me, Champion,” he said, turning and walking away. They were in a hallway, Ren noticed as he followed Steven's shock of silver hair. An ostentatious one, at that. The floor was covered with plush red carpet that seemed to swallow Ren's feet as he walked, and the walls were painted in a similar shade, with gold trim glinting on all sides. Ornate golden chandeliers hung from the ceiling at intervals, glittering with droplets of diamond.
“Nice place,” Ren said quietly.
“Quite. Actually, this floor is the Stone family's personal residence in Rustboro. My father lives here most of the time, as he never likes to be too far from his work. It is a little extravagant for my tastes, but then, I have no real say in the matter as I spend so little time here.”
“So, will you tell me why I'm here yet?” Ren queried, hurrying to catch up to Steven. Steven glanced across at him briefly.
“I will,” he said. “But first, may I suggest that your . . .” He tailed off, seemingly uncertain.
“Cousin,” Ren supplied, seeing where Steven was looking.
“May I suggest, then, that we find some way for your cousin to entertain herself for an hour or two. I apologise for the seeming lack of trust, but what we have to discuss is for your ears only.”
“How exactly do you expect a twelve-year-old to entertain herself in a place like this?” Ren asked, gesturing around at the ornate furnishings.
“I have some idea,” Steven said, before leaning over slightly to address Natasha directly. “Do you like books?” he asked.
Natasha nodded solemnly, which surprised Ren slightly. His cousin had never shown much interest in literature of any kind, from what he could remember. “Yes,” she said. “I like reading.”
“Well,” said Steven, drawing to a halt before a dark wooden door, “would you like to see my library?” Without waiting for an answer, he pushed the door open and gestured her inside.
Ren peeked over Steven's shoulder into the room beyond, and his eyes grew wide. A huge, warmly-lit room stretched out from the door, lined with enormous, floor-to-ceiling shelves packed with books of all shapes and sizes. “Wow,” he breathed. “How many books do you have?”
“Thousands,” Steven said – a touch smugly, Ren thought. “Katrina!” he said sharply, raising his voice a little.
There was a scuffling sound, and a girl poked her head out from behind a bookshelf several metres away. She had mousy brown hair and a small pair of square glasses resting on her nose. She looked to be a few years older than Ren. “Yes?” she said. “Oh, hello, Steven! Did you need me for something?”
“This is our Champion's cousin,” Steven explained, indicating Natasha, who had wandered towards the nearest bookshelf and was scanning it eagerly. “Could you look after her for a little while for us? Ren and I have some business to discuss.”
Katrina smiled. “Sure thing. I'll keep an eye on her – both, if I can spare them.”
“Thank you,” Steven said, smiling back. “We'll be back in an hour or two, I imagine.” With a final nod, he closed the door again. “My sister,” he said, upon seeing Ren's confused expression. “She's studying for her Masters in Anthropology, so she spends most of her time in the library.”
“I see.” Ren followed Steven as he set off again, heading down a different corridor. How big is this floor? Ren wondered. It had taken them a good couple of minutes to get from the lift to the library.
“Your cousin seems like a sensible child,” Steven remarked.
“Strangely, no,” Ren said. “She's usually quite hyper, and I just don't know what's up with her today. Ever since we arrived in Rustboro, she's been . . . pretty strange. Normally she'd have been bouncing off the walls all the way up here, but . . . no. I don't know.” He shook his head. Natasha had been acting strange. Perhaps she really had mellowed out over the five years he hadn't seen her? He was willing to put her initial display of hyperactivity down to excitement at seeing him again, but still . . . there was something strange.
“She'll be fine with Katrina,” Steven said. “She won't brook any nonsense, not while she's studying.” After another couple of turns, he stopped abruptly and opened another door, gesturing for Ren to precede him into the room.
The room was a lot more understated than the rest of the floor, Ren noticed immediately. The red and gold colour scheme remained, but the floor was hardwood and there were no chandeliers. Light came from quietly humming fixtures on the ceiling, and the only furnishings in the room were two low chairs, facing each other across a plain metal table.
“This room is where my father holds his most secret meetings,” Steven said. “The ones where it is absolutely imperative that their contents remain confidential, and the ones with clients who are too pragmatic to be insulted by the lack of an extravagant conference room. I don't know the sorts of people he meets with in here, but it's none of my business . . . yet.”
“It might be, if you have to take over the company from your father.”
“Who told you that?” Steven asked, his eyes narrowing.
Ren inhaled sharply. He had the sense he had said something he shouldn't have. “I . . . assumed it?” he said weakly. “I mean, you're the oldest, aren't you?”
Steven continued to examine him closely as he took his seat and indicated Ren should do the same. “That sounds unlikely. Did Roxanne say anything?”
“She . . . might have mentioned it,” Ren admitted as he sat down on the metal chair, which creaked slightly under his weight. “Hypothetically, that is.”
“Tch,” Steven tutted. “That girl . . . oh, well. It is of no great importance.” He paused, staring at Ren for a few moments, looking him up and down. Ren shifted uncomfortably in his seat, suddenly very aware that his unruly brown hair was sticking up all over the place, a pet hate of his mother's. He was only wearing ratty old jeans and a red t-shirt, too – he hadn't had time to get changed before he left for the train station. He felt very scruffy next to the immaculate Steven in his black pants and collared shirt with its purple zigzags. He sank slightly into his chair, as if it would prevent Steven from seeing him.
“What did . . . you want to talk to me about?” Ren asked.
Steven leant back in his chair suddenly, rubbing his eyes and sighing. “This is an awkward business, Ren,” he said, his voice suddenly carrying an awful lot of gravity. “A most awkward and tiring business. And, setting aside any matters of Champion and ex-Champion for the moment, I'd like you to listen to me as one man to another. Do you understand?”
Ren frowned. Suddenly, Roxanne wasn't the only one acting weird. “What . . . are you trying to say?”
Steven dipped his head slightly and closed his eyes. “I'm trying to say that . . . what I have to discuss with you today is something I'd never hoped to discuss with someone like you. Please don't take offence, but . . . you're still little more than a boy. I always expected to have to tell my successor about this – you can't be Champion forever, after all – but I didn't expect it to be someone as young as you.”
“Will you please tell me what you're on about?” Ren demanded. “You're just confusing me more and more! And just because I'm fourteen doesn't mean you can be condescending!”
Steven nodded. “You're right. I'm sorry. I'm insulting your intelligence if I try to hide anything from you. All I need is your solemn promise that you will take me seriously, because without that this conversation will bear no fruit. Agreed?”
Ren nodded firmly. “Agreed. Now talk, if you have something to say.”
Steven let out a long, slow breath before opening his eyes and looking directly into Ren's. “Let me begin with a question.”
All right! Have another cliffhanger! Happy late Easter!