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Old August 6th, 2011 (02:07 AM).
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Misheard Whisper Misheard Whisper is offline
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Chapter Seventeen
Solange Ich Lebe

You sure you don't want to come back to our place for lunch, Ren?” Aunt Mary asked. “It's not like it's any trouble. We love having you.”

No, thanks,” Ren said. “Maybe some other time, but for now . . . I need to go back and see my mom. I left all of a sudden yesterday morning, and, well . . . you know how she is.”

I do indeed,” Uncle Roger chuckled. “I grew up with her, after all. Well, if that's the case, I'm afraid it can't be helped. I'm sure she's really looking forward to spending some time with you, Mr. Prodigal Son. We'll have you both round our place some time. I'll see if your aunt Mabel can make it as well. Heaven forbid, we might even get your father in next time he's in town.”

Ren smiled, although it felt a little forced, even to him. “Sure, that'd be nice. We haven't all gotten together like that since Christmas when I was, what . . . eight?” And I haven't seen Dad for three years, he added silently.


He took his leave quickly, promising Natasha that yes, she could keep the books. Despite the fact that there was no train to catch at his destination this time, he hurried along the coast road up to his house with all the speed he could muster.

I'm home!” he called loudly as he pushed the door open.

Oh? Sweetie, you didn't call ahead!” his mother called out from somewhere within the house.

Um . . . surprise?” he tried, following the sound of her voice to the study at the back of the house.

She looked up with a smile when he entered. “It's good to have you back, honey,” she said. “How long do you think you'll be home this time?”

Ren's own smile faltered slightly. “I have to be at a contest in Mauville on Thursday,” he told her, remembering the fact suddenly. “And Steven said somebody would be in touch with me to talk about other things. But at the moment, I'm free until then.”

You'd better not have anything happening on your birthday,” she said seriously, shuffling some papers and slotting them into the filing cabinet. “You keep next Sunday clear, okay?”

I'll do my best, Mom,” he said. “What are you working on at the moment, by the way?” he asked, gesturing to the papers strewn around the computer.

Just an article for the Mauville Mirror,” she said dismissively, sweeping it all to one side. “Leader Wattson's making moves to have New Mauville open by the end of the year, and he wants some coverage and publicity for that.”

New Mauville? That's the power plant they're building up on Route 110, isn't it?”

Yes, but never mind that now,” she said. “Have you had lunch, sweetie? It's nearly two o'clock.”

Ren's stomach growled a negative. “I . . . don't think I had breakfast, either,” he admitted, suddenly realising his neglect. Katrina had taken Natasha to get something while he and Steven were talking, but for his part, Ren had entirely forgotten to eat.

That's bad for you, you know,” she scolded. “Come on, I'll fix you something.” She hustled him out of the study and back down the hallway to the kitchen. Ren instinctively looked up at the ceiling, half-expecting to see his own footprints there, but made himself bring his eyes back down to earth straight away. It wasn't the time to be thinking about that.

He tried to help, but his mother shooed him back to the table, claiming he would just get in her way. Knowing better than to be hurt, he sat himself down and watched as she fried up what looked to be leftover mashed potato from a bowl she had whipped out of the fridge. The generous knob of butter she had dropped into the pan sizzled wildly, sending a simple yet reassuring aroma spiralling through the room.

You always overestimate how much potato you need, don't you?” he said, slightly amused.

Always,” she admitted. “There's always at least a full serving left over, no matter how many people I'm cooking for.”

And you always used to fry it up for me just like this,” Ren said quietly, casting his gaze out the window. “Especially on Sundays. I'd spend all morning out goofing around with Tim, Cole and Natasha . . .”

But you'd always come home at one o'clock sharp,” she reminisced.

That's because Saturday always seemed to be sausages and mash night,” Ren chuckled, watching a Pelipper wing its way slowly through the sky, a small flock of Wingull trailing behind it. Right there, in the familiar open-plan kitchen that he had eaten in every day for ten years, he finally felt like he had come home. Very little had changed. The same magnets were still stuck to the fridge, colourful letters and numbers that still spelled out 'Happy 10th Birthday, Ren'. A slight ache pierced his heart to see that.

It always was,” his mother said with a smile, heaping the crispy mash onto a plate and drizzling it generously with tomato sauce, just as she had always done for him before he had left. “There you go, sport.”

Ren took the plate gratefully, swearing under his breath as he realised how hot it was. He hurriedly set it down on the table with a clatter and reached for a fork from the drawer behind him, swinging his chair back onto two legs as he did so. His mother scowled but passed no comment.

Ren fell silent as he ate, realising just how hungry he was. His mother poured them each a glass of orange juice and sat opposite him to drink hers. “You always used to do that, too,” he noted between mouthfuls.

She shrugged lightly. “Old habits die hard. I sat here with my orange juice every Sunday for the last five years, waiting for you to come home so I could share it with you again.” Her voice was airy and unconcerned, but her eyes betrayed her.

Ren put his fork down and reached across the table to take her hand. She flinched a little, but quickly wrapped her fingers around his own. They were small, he noticed. Back when he was a kid, his mom's hands had always seemed so big and warm and strong, enveloping his own little hands entirely and making him feel safe. They were still warm, but they were about the same size as his own now. He could only wonder how long it would be before hers were the hands that disappeared under his.

She glanced up into his eyes. “Ren, you . . .”

He saw with a shock that there were tears forming in the corners of her eyes. He gave her hand a quick squeeze. “Do you remember what we used to do after lunch on Sundays?” he asked, his voice quiet but forceful.

She nodded silently, the motion causing the tears to slip out of her eyes and run down her cheeks. Ren stood up and walked around the table, an action complicated by the fact that she refused to release his hand. “We always walked down to the little park on Seaboard Avenue, remember?” he said, pulling up another chair so he could sit next to her. “You'd sit and watch while I played on the swings or the slide.”

You loved that slide,” she said, her voice wobbling slightly.

I did,” he said. “It was so big and red. Is that park still there? It didn't get turned into an apartment building or anything, did it?” A shake of the head was his only answer, so he continued, “I think we should go down there, then.”

Now?”

Of course. Come on, Mom,” he said with a smile, standing up and gently tugging at her hand. “Let's go to the park.”

She didn't move for several seconds. When she did, it was to stand up and wrap her arms around Ren. Slightly taken aback, but quietly pleased nonetheless, he returned the embrace, feeling for the first time just how very small and frail she was.

When she finally let him go, her eyes were clear and she was smiling, although Ren sensed it was more than a little forced. “Right,” she said. “To the park it is.”


The park was a half-hour's walk away on a good day, but Ren was in no hurry. He walked side by side with his mother, just as had always used to. After a few minutes of silence, she slipped her hand into his again, entwining her fingers with his as if seeking support. He smiled indulgently.

You don't mind, do you?” she asked. “You're not too old to hold your mom's hand, are you?”

Of course not,” he said.

They walked in silence along the coast road for another five minutes, feeling the brisk sea breeze rushing and dancing along the cliff. Bird Pokemon chirped and squawked from hidden nests above and below them, and there were a few dozen boats on the harbour below, specks of white against a shimmering blue curtain.

Your father called last night.”

Ren looked at his mother, suddenly a little worried. “What did he want?” he asked, making sure to keep his voice light.

He told me that he wanted to see us,” she said, so quietly that Ren had to strain to hear her. “Well, mostly you, I suppose.”

I haven't seen him since my trip to Unova three years ago,” Ren reflected. “Why does he suddenly want to see us now?”

He . . . got married in spring last year.”

What? Why didn't you tell me? For that matter, why didn't he?”

He asked me not to. I've got no idea why, but I guess that's something you can ask him.”

Is he coming back here?” Ren asked. “He hasn't made a business trip for a while.”

No, he wants us to go there. To Lacunosa. He has a house out there with his new wife and her daughter.”

Whoa, whoa, whoa,” Ren said, taken aback. “Her daughter? So does that mean I have a . . . step-sister now? I've had a step-sister and a stepmother for nearly a year and I didn't know about it? For that matter, do they still count as step-whatevers if Dad doesn't have custody of me?”

I don't know, Ren,” she said. “I'm sorry I didn't tell you, but . . . he made it very clear that it was essential you didn't know. I thought he was planning to surprise you or something, but last night he asked me to tell you, so I . . . I just don't know, Ren. He didn't even tell me about it until a couple of months ago.”

He likes his secrets, doesn't he?” Ren pondered, shaking his head. “But still, Unova! Are we going to go? I don't really know if I have time for a holiday right now.”

That's exactly what your father thought,” she said, “so he made a suggestion and asked that you run it by the people at the League. The Unova Conference is happening in a couple of weeks, so he thought you could come out for that. It's being held in Opelucid, which isn't far from Lacunosa, and it's apparently not uncommon for Champions to sit in on the Conferences of other regions.”

I guess that could work . . .” Ren said slowly.

Do you want to go, honey?” she asked, turning to look into his eyes. “I mean, it's up to you. If you don't really want to go, I can just call him back and say you're already booked. I won't make you go if you're not comfortable with it.”

I do want to . . . I mean, I think I do. Can I think about it for a while?”

Of course you can, sweetie,” she said, squeezing his hand. “Let's just get to that park before sunset, huh?”

Outwardly, Ren smiled, but on the inside he couldn't help but feel a little upset. Dad never told me he was even thinking about getting married . . . he called twice a month for the last few years, and he didn't mention it once. What kind of crap is that? I don't know if I can deal with all this as well as the yehktira thing. It's all happening at once. Why is it all coming on so suddenly? It was as if he were suddenly drowning in various responsibilities and expectations. Champion, yehktira and now stepson? Step-brother?

The park was almost exactly the same as he remembered it. The grass was a little longer, the creaky swingset a little rustier, and the bright red paint on the slide a little flakier, but none of it made the slightest difference to Ren. It was as if he was nine years old again. He saw himself scrambling up the ladder and almost tumbling off the slide in his haste to get down it. He saw himself standing up on the swing despite his mother's insistence he sit down, swinging higher and higher until he felt sure he would fall off.

Been a while, huh?” he said. The park was deserted but for the two of them.

Five years.”

Hmm.” Making up his mind, Ren crossed to the slide and pulled himself up the ladder, feeling the rough, rusty texture of the bars under his fingers. At the top, he slotted himself awkardly into the plastic half-tube, his hips almost too wide to fit. He slid down a lot more slowly than he remembered, coming to a stop at the bottom without shooting off the end.

Bit different now, hmm?” his mother said, sitting down on one of the ancient, creaky swings that sat adjacent to the slide.

. . . Yeah.”

Ren's Pokenav blipped loudly from his pocket, causing him to sigh.

Answer it, sweetie,” his mother said with a little smile.

But this is-”

It's probably important. Go on.”

With an apologetic nod, Ren pulled the little red device out and pressed the answer key, standing up and walking a short distance away to take the call.

Hello?” he said, hearing the tiredness in his own voice as he spoke.

Mr. Goodwin?”

Yes . . .”

My name is Gerard Etois. I work for the Pokemon League.”

Oh, are you the one that Steven said would be calling?”

Yes,” said Gerard. “I'm glad he informed you of that, for it makes my job somewhat easier. As Mr. Stone may have mentioned, I will be in charge of coordinating your schedule for the duration of your tenure as Champion. Do you have time to discuss this now?”

Um . . .” Ren glanced over at his mother, sitting alone on the swings, her wavy brown hair swaying in the breeze as she watched him talking. “Not really . . . Would it be possible for you to just give me a brief overview of what's going on in the next few weeks?”

That's wonderful,” Gerard said, although he didn't sound particularly excited. “So . . . Mr. Stone has suggested you attend the Mauville Pokemon Contest on Thursday, correct?”

Yes, he has.”

Well, I've just spoken with the organisers, and they'd be delighted to have you as a guest. They've also asked if you'd like to compete. Would you be interested?”

I've . . . never participated in a Contest before,” Ren said, suddenly very worried. “I wouldn't have any idea how.”

Still, I think it would be a good idea if you did,” Gerard pressed. “It would emphasise your support of the Contest programme, to be sure.”

I don't think so,” Ren said firmly, somewhat taken aback by Gerard's insistence. He relented slightly, though. “Well, not this time, at least. I'll watch the contest on Thursday, and that might allow me to learn something to apply in the future. I'd be lying if I said Contests were something I'd ever thought seriously about participating in, but I suppose it could be interesting.”

That sounds like a splendid compromise,” Gerard said, sounding quite pleased with himself. “We'll try to get you participating in Contests within a couple of months. I'll call the Mauville committee later this afternoon to inform them. But before that . . . there's a festival going on in Fortree City on Tuesday which I think you'd enjoy.”

A festival? What would that involve?” Ren asked suspiciously.

Nothing too taxing, I promise,” said Gerard, sounding faintly amused. “You would spend the day participating in the activities, perhaps give a speech or two, and generally be seen to be involved in the culture. The local radio station is interested in interviewing you as well, I hear. But on the whole, it should be fairly relaxing, in fact.”

Sounds good,” Ren said. It did, actually. He had liked Fortree City a lot when he had passed through about a year and a half earlier, and he had been keen to return for some time. Speeches and radio interviews would have to be dealt with when they came about. “Anything else on?”

Well, on Thursday you have the Contest – that will just be a day trip, of course – and then on Sunday-”

Sunday's out,” said Ren abruptly. He shot another quick glance across to the swings and was rewarded with a smile and a thumbs-up. Feeling emboldened, he continued. “It's my fifteenth birthday, and I'm planning on spending it at home. I'd really rather not do anything unless I absolutely have to.”

Well, ah . . . you see, Richard Andrews has indicated that yesterday's episode of Hoenn Buzz was extremely well received, and he would like to have you back for his Sunday slot next week, where he can talk with you in a lot more depth. He'd really love to do it as a follow-up episode.”

I . . . I can't. I liked Richard, but I really can't. Would it be possible to do it the week after?”

Ah. Now, that poses a bit of a problem,” Gerard said slowly. “You see, the following weekend is the Unova League Conference, and we were thinking of sending you as an ambassador for the Hoenn League.”

Oh.” Ren's stomach dropped about a foot. On the one hand, it fit perfectly with his father's plan to bring him over to Unova – almost too perfectly, he thought briefly. On the other hand, it gave him one less excuse to get out of something which he was growing less and less sure he wanted to do. There was no real reason for his apprehension, he had to admit – it wasn't as if he didn't get along with his father.

Mr. Goodwin?”

Ah, right. Um . . .” Sometimes you have to make choices that determine the future at the drop of a hat. It was ironic, Ren thought wryly, that it was his father's words that came back to him at a time like this. It seemed that they were becoming relevant more and more frequently in recent times, though, and he knew he would have to go with it. “I'll . . . I'll do it,” he said.

You will? Good, good. I was a little worried that you wouldn't be up to it, being as new to this whole business as you are.”

I've travelled before,” Ren said. “I've been to Unova a few times, too – I was born there, actually, though I don't remember much of that time. Besides, my father lives there at the moment, so I imagine I'll be meeting up with him at some stage. I think I'll be all right.” He really hoped that he would be. It was intimidating enough having to go along to the Unova Conference without even taking his new stepmother and step-sister into consideration.

I'm glad to hear it,” Gerard said. “Having a Champion familiar with the region as our ambassador will be good. But this still leaves us with the problem of what to do about Hoenn Buzz. Of course, we can do it after you return, but it really would be better to get it done sooner rather than later. I'll speak to Richard Andrews about that and get back to you tomorrow, or later tonight if possible.”

All right,” said Ren. “Is there anything else on? Before I go to Unova, that is.”

Well . . . the Tuesday before the Unova League, there is a tag battle tournament going on in your hometown of Slateport. Would you like to take part?”

Tag battles? That sounds like fun. I haven't had much experience battling with a partner, though.”

Well, you might learn something, then,” Gerard said genially. “I'll contact the organisers and have them enter you. Well, I think that's all for now – I'll call you back tomorrow afternoon to arrange transport and the like, seeing as you seem to be a little busy right now.”

All right, then. Thank you, Mr. Etois,” Ren said, stumbling slightly over the pronunciation of the unfamiliar name. “I'll talk to you tomorrow.”

Goodbye, Mr. Goodwin.” There was a click, and the line fell silent.

Ren slowly folded up the Pokenav and slotted it back into his pocket, moving back over to sit on the end of the slide again. “It looks like I'm pretty busy over the next couple of weeks,” he said quietly, picking at a loose flake of paint on the edge of the slide.

There was no answer for several seconds, so he tried again. “It also looks like we're going to Unova to see Dad.”

I guess we are,” his mother said, her voice equally quiet.

Are you . . . all right with that?” Ren asked, rising from the slide and crossing to sit beside her on the other swing hanging from the ancient frame. “I mean, I kind of decided that a bit quickly.”

No, that's fine. I guess I was just . . . surprised.”

By what?” Ren asked.

Well . . . by you, I suppose. You've . . . grown up a lot in the last few years. I haven't seen you very much, and every time you come back you seem different somehow. This time, though, it's like . . . like you've reached a certain point. It's almost like you're an adult now. My little boy disappeared when he went off on his tenth birthday, and I've never seen him since.”

Ren didn't know quite what to say. “I . . . it's still me, you know. I think it's pretty understandable that I'd have changed, though. I mean, I don't see it myself, but I guess in five years you'd change a bit.” The words sounded hollow even as he said them; he wondered exactly who he was supposed to be reassuring.

Silence fell for almost a minute. Ren let the swing rock back and forth a little, his toes dragging in the bark on the ground beneath. The trees lining the park rustled gently as a salty breeze blew in from the sea. Tucked into a large niche in the cliff – not unlike the one that Ren's house stood in – the park afforded a splendid view of the ocean and the sky above it, but Ren's eyes reached beyond the horizon. In that quiet moment, he looked out and saw the vast expanse of the universe. He didn't know how much of the vision was his imagination and how much he was actually seeing, but the sheer scale of the cosmos took him aback. There were huge, dark things out there, perfect black against imperfect colour, frightening in their size and omnipotence.

Then he blinked, and he saw only the ocean. He looked back around, at the bark and grass beneath his feet, the trees surrounding him on three sides, and finally back at his mother, sitting on the swing next to him with a strange half-smile on her face.

You all right, sweetie?” she said. “You look a little pale.”

No, I'm fine,” he said. “Just a little tired.” He couldn't help but wonder if that was a side-effect of his adventures in the world of dreams. It certainly seemed that he had been exceedingly tired today – but then again, he considered, it might just be the fact that he had finally come to the end of his journey. His life over the last five years had been so unbearably busy that it might well have simply caught up to him.

Maybe you should have an early night tonight, love. Do you have anything on tomorrow?”

No,” Ren said, not without relief. “Nothing, actually. Tuesday I'm in Fortree for a festival, Thursday I'm in Mauville for a Contest, and then the next Tuesday is the tag battle tournament in town.”

Oh, I think I saw that in the paper. I'll come along and watch you. But it seems you have quite a bit of free time before we go to Unova.”

Yeah, that'll be nice,” Ren said, nodding. “Say, when are we going to leave for Unova? The Conference is on over the weekend, but . . .”

We should probably try and get there by the Thursday, actually. That'll give us some time to spend in Lacunosa with your father before everything starts.”

Ren didn't say anything for a few seconds. Somehow, it seemed there was nothing he could say. At length, he stood up and took a few steps away from the swing. “Let's go home,” he said at last. Let's go home and watch TV and have dinner and go to bed and pretend I'm a normal kid, he added silently, but didn't dare say it out loud.
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