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Old October 23rd, 2016 (7:23 PM).
diamondpearl876's Avatar
diamondpearl876 diamondpearl876 is offline
you can breathe now. x
     
    Join Date: Jun 2007
    Location: Illinois, USA.
    Age: 24
    Nature: Careful
    Posts: 1,568
    Hey, Pokecommunity. I haven't learned my lesson, clearly, because I'm releasing yet another chaptered journey fic that I'm working on. This one's quite a bit special to me, though, since it's the sequel to Survival Project, which is the first fic I posted here and also the first fic I've managed to finish completely, edits and all. Survival Project was a fic that helped me learn a lot of things about myself along the way while going through a particularly difficult time in life. I couldn't resist coming back to work with my characters and see what else they have left to teach me.

    Seeing as how Survival Project was mostly a character study, I would highly recommend reading it before moving on to this fic. For those interested in reading the original, the link is here. If you're entirely new, the fic won't be difficult to follow at all, but I think Phantom Project would be experienced best if you already know about the characters.

    There is a five year gap between Survival Project and Phantom Project. To help new readers learn more about the original fic and about the characters, and to kind of help fill in the gap without breaking the flow of the main fic too often, I've decided to open each chapter with a third person flashback-esque scene that'll set the tone for the real chapter. And as in the original, the real chapters will be in first person, with rotating character POVs.

    Phantom Project will be rated PG-13 for swearing and discussion of heavier subjects such as mental illness and suicide.

    As always, any and all comments are appreciated.

    PHANTOM PROJECT

    0.5

    *

    “Oh, God... My pokémon are illegal.”

    Sai Luart had just come to the realization that he never did update his official trainer's license when he retired, despite how determined he used to be to follow the rules, to do everything right. And now, he’d be breaking a second League rule by adding another pokémon to his full team of six.

    Senori’s tail perked up in response to Sai’s revelation. The furret had been helping to clean the kitchen, but he deserted the task and ran to Sai’s side. “What's that supposed to mean?” he asked.

    “He means he's been working you too hard,” interrupted Kuiora the feraligatr, who ran into the room with a playful expression on her face. Of course she was pretending that it wasn't her fault their trainer was in such distress.

    Senori smirked. “No kidding. Where's my paid vacation?”

    “I'd send you out to New Bark Town, but...” Sai trailed off and grinned too, and then he picked up his starter and wrapped the little ball of fur around his shoulders.

    “New Bark Town?” Kuiora's eyes widened. It seemed like a lifetime ago that she left the place she was born to travel with Sai. “I want to go!”

    “No. You'll end up getting in trouble or something.”

    “Who cares? A little corruption is good for the soul.” These words entered Ezrem the shiny braviary into the conversation, which caused everyone to roll their eyes. He was perched on a nest settled on the floor in the farthest corner of the apartment, away from the kitchen fumes that could harm the egg he was keeping warm underneath his chest.

    “You'd let a mother-to-be get caught up with another trainer?” Despite her words, Kuiora went and nuzzled up to him. “You're the worst.”

    Ezrem shrugged. “You'll still get food and shelter.”

    “I'll protect her!” quipped Rennio the elekid, who was previously thought to have been napping on the small bed located in the apartment's second bedroom. Sai had specifically asked for it when searching for a home.

    “Uh, no. I will.” So said the heroic hitmontop named Atis, who crossed his arms defensively over his chest. Keeping the electric-type away from any source of water was a reinforced habit in this household.

    “Guys, please,” Sai said. He sighed. “I'll ask for a few days off at work, and then we can all go.”

    “Don't forget to ask for your breeder's license, too...” Atis said, motioning toward Kuiora’s belly.

    “Oh, right. Poor baby,” Rennio said, shaking his head. “She'll need protection all her life.”

    Ezrem glared at him, but only said, “It could be a boy, you know.”

    “Still. Poor baby,” said Gracie the quilava. She licked her paws idly, knowing for a fact already that whatever she said would irritate the braviary. Sometimes it seemed that her sole purpose in life was to make him miserable.

    “Go to hell,” Ezrem said, but his actions betrayed him as he subconsciously glanced at the fireplace, which, per his and Rennio’s request, had been covered by a large blanket.

    “Already been there. Got the t-shirt.” She motioned toward the pile of laundry in the far corner, which Senori had yet to get around to. With only one person in the house, you would think there'd be fewer clothes to worry about, but Sai insisted on shopping for his pokémon a little too often.

    “So...” Senori said, “didn’t you have to show them an ID or something when we got this apartment? How’d they not notice you were still technically a traveling trainer?”

    Sai blinked. “Ask Atis,” he said.

    “Er,” the hitmontop started. “I did the paperwork. I put that I would—well, that Sai would update the license right away, but it never happened...”

    “You should have told me!” Senori said, shaking his head. “I would’ve made sure he did it!”

    The team continued to bicker as they usually did. Soon everyone huffed and went their separate ways, but Sai knew they weren't actually angry with each other. It was only a facade they put on so that their trainer could live a normal life.

    Sometimes it seemed as if the contents of his medicine cabinet controlled his life. Sometimes he was able to construct a coherent explanation for how he was feeling during a rough incident. Sometimes he found it easy to laugh.

    Sometimes he was reminded that a little extra help couldn't hurt. During sleepless nights where he’d be hurting, his starter would curl up with him in bed to keep him company. Senori always retold the story of the day they met. I never saw you coming. Now I never see anything coming, even if all the signs are there. Sai would apologize. Senori would smile.

    Sai’s goal was to not feel obligated to apologize. He wanted to forgive himself for being sick. For feeling like nothing but a burden. For those sad times he stayed silent when all his team wanted were answers. When things fell apart in the most unexpected way, he changed his mind. He wanted it back, all that pain, all that grief, so that no one but him had to know the terrible struggle of trying to justify the unwillingness to keep on living.

    //

    The abyss doesn't divide us. The abyss surrounds us. — Wislawa Szymborska

    chapter 1 ; [GRACIE]
    light

    *

    “He's dying, Trainer, dying...”

    I hadn't yet gathered the courage to call my trainer by his first name. His name represented what he had once been—a weapon, a toy to be sharpened and used for all the wrong reasons. He tried to let go of his past after Team Rocket lost their hold on him, but we both knew that there would be some things he’d never grow accustomed to. That’s just what happens when someone else controls your life for too long.

    I think what got to Trainer the most was how he never grew accustomed to wanting things for himself. Team Rocket had set strict rules for his journey that contained his curiosity and freedom from the start. Somewhere along the way—I wasn’t present for the majority of his travels, really—Trainer adopted the idea that he should try to focus on preventing anything he already had from being taken away.

    And what he already had was a decent apartment in Olivine City, Johto—the only place he’d been to so far that felt peaceful enough for him to get a good night’s rest. He had a job at the Olive Grove Bar and Restaurant, which was where he could socialize with other humans. He had food, clean water, a bed… And he had us, his pokémon.

    We were a full team of six until Kuiora and Ezrem’s son came along. Things got crazy with a kid running around in the apartment all the time, but that was a different kind of chaos we could enjoy and be happy about.

    Not too long after that, though, we found out there would be just six of us again soon.

    Trainer stood his ground when he heard the news. No, Senori’s not sick. No, I don't know how old he is! Why are you asking me these things? Let me see him and I'll figure it out... It never occurred to him that a pokémon's life expectancy can be short depending on the species, nor the fact that diseases like dementia can affect us just as well.

    The truth sank in when we remembered what we knew about Senori’s history. Senori had been a clan leader for a family of sentret living on the outskirts of Cherrygrove City. No one knew exactly how long it had taken Senori to earn that title, but we figured he had to have been one of the older clan members. He had left to travel with Trainer, and they had been together for years now…

    I didn't dare say Senori could live a while longer under the right circumstances. I had seen dementia before, and even in the early stages, it's not pretty. My previous trainer, Marty Vondila… He didn't mean to, but he introduced me to dementia and other such nightmares. His mother was trapped in a relationship with an abusive man. Because she feared for her children's safety, she refused to leave. She turned to alcohol and developed dementia before she reached her sixties, as if she willed herself to have the proper excuse she needed to escape.

    Senori exhibited some of the classic symptoms. It wasn't that noticeable, the way he repeated the same phrases over and over, or the way he forgot to take a bath after playing in the mud. I chalked it up to his joking nature.

    We only knew there was a problem when he wandered off once, claiming he would be back soon enough. He was gone for a week. He claimed to have been taking a walk in the forest that separated Olivine and Ecruteak, but had gotten lost on his way home. He told me later that it felt like he was going crazy and that he couldn’t keep up with how quickly the time was passing by. I told Trainer I was worried about Senori and asked if we could do anything for him. Trainer was just as worried, so he had Senori evaluated and soon enough he was given an official diagnosis.

    A few months later, I tried encouraging Trainer to eat dinner at a nice restaurant with one of his friends, who also happened to be Marty’s sister. He agreed to go, I think, more for my sake than his, because his anxiety became too much too quick and he had to excuse himself. I followed him, even after I saw that he was fleeing into the bathroom, even after I knew he was going to throw up the little amount of food he’d eaten.

    “I'm only being honest, Trainer,” I told him. I stood behind him, rubbing my head against the back of his knees for comfort. At that moment I forgot that mercy can be cruel, too.

    Trainer said nothing.

    There was a knock at the door. It was, of course, Sasha Vondila. The two had become friends when they bumped into each other when Trainer traveled through Azalea Town years ago. I wondered vaguely if she would be upset with me after this. I had requested she travel all the way to Olivine, after all, so that Trainer would go somewhere besides the hospital when clearly he just wanted to be by Senori’s side…

    “Sai, are you okay?” she asked.

    Trainer flushed the toilet and stood up straight. “Yes... I'm fine,” he said, his voice strained. “I'll be out in a minute.”

    He went over to the sink, washed his hands and looked at himself in the mirror. His eyes were soft, which told me he appreciated my company despite my harsh words. Being able to read Trainer's moods this way was a skill the whole team shared.

    “It'll be winter soon,” he said after a few moments. He ran a hand through his hair. “You think my hair will turn lighter again?”

    When we met Trainer, he was pale and had jet black hair. When he started going outside more, that changed pretty quick. Senori spent a lot of time teasing Trainer and pretending not to recognize him, as if the boy had become a different person altogether. In truth, Senori wasn't wrong.

    ...Would the two of them be able to laugh about it this year?

    “Probably. Maybe not,” I said. I knew he was just trying to distract himself, but I couldn’t let him ignore the problem entirely. Ignoring the problem wouldn’t make it go away. “You're not gonna do anything stupid, are you?”

    He paused. “I don't know,” he admitted.

    “…Just focus on breathing for a minute.”

    As a quilava, you can tell how I'm breathing because of the flames on my back. I inhale and they evaporate; I exhale and they're let loose. So we sat there and practiced. In and out, in and out. He paced back and forth for emphasis. His tempo matched mine and I felt as if he really, truly wanted me there.

    “He's dying, Trainer, dying... I know you don't want him to go, but...” I couldn’t finish that sentence. Someday Senori won't remember you. Someday Senori will be in too much emotional pain for you to bear and you’ll change your mind.

    Trainer had had enough regardless. He took his right fist and smashed it into the corner of the mirror. I flinched at the noise and cowered in the corner, hoping any broken pieces wouldn’t touch me.

    Trainer flexed his hand and ran it through his hair again, a bit of blood staining his scalp. He turned to me and said, “Sorry. I don't... I wasn't ready for this. You know that.”

    “Yeah. I know,” I said. A quiet tone was all I could muster.

    He got down on his knees and picked me up. I was half his height, but he had grown stronger over the years and he was determined to make it up to me.

    We left the bathroom together. I ignored the cuts on his hand and he ignored my words. An even trade.

    “Sai,” Sasha said, managing a sad smile, “you didn't even drink anything! Why were you in there so long?”

    Sasha tended to be insensitive when she was nervous and didn't know what else to say or do. Trainer wanted nothing to do with it. His expression turned emotionless as he said, “Please. Not today.” He shuffled past her, his grip tightening on my paws as a sort of consolation.

    We stayed quiet on the way home. What had been the use of him reshaping his world when there are inevitabilities such as loss? I wished I could have said just one hopeful thing about that, but I don’t do well words that don’t accept reality for what it really is.

    *

    The glass slid across the wooden table over to me. Atis needed another round, it seemed.

    “Water, soda pop or lemonade?” I asked. It was like asking a human whether he wanted bourbon, scotch or Irish. I thought of Marty's family. This was not the sort of knowledge a pokémon should have.

    “Just, uh… Just water. Thank you,” Atis said.

    I hummed in acknowledgment as I poured the glass, then scowled when I spilled. Senori was better at this, even with his evolved form’s stubby arms. With him gone—almost gone—I would have to suck it up and take over the housework. Dusting, cooking, balancing everyone's schedules with my own... I had no idea how the furret could do it. Pokémon weren't meant for this either, but Senori took care of us like no one else could.

    Senori...

    I attempted to fill the glass again. I slid it back to Atis, and tried to keep my paws from shaking as I said, “Did you find it yet?”

    The two of us had stayed behind while the rest of the team went to the hospital. Atis wasn't usually comfortable without Trainer nearby, but we needed to speak in private. Our talk wouldn’t make for a pleasant night in, but Atis made it bearable by turning on the lights. It took a bit of work for me to reach them. I used the flames on my back to find my way around most nights.

    “Y-Yeah... I did,” Atis said.

    “Well? What'd you find out?”

    Atis turned his head away. He rolled his glass around, the ice clinking against its sides. “Five years,” he said, sighing. “And a half. That’s… about normal for, well, normal-types.”

    A patronizing silence followed. It wasn't every day that we talked to each other, but I needed someone who could read. Our goals were the same when it came to Sai, so Atis was more than willing.

    I didn't know what I had been expecting, but it wasn't this.

    “Are you sure? Did you count right?”

    “Yes!” I blinked at him. “Sorry... Yeah. Sai wrote this a few months after we met him. This was after... after he jumped. I-I made him write down his feelings and experiences for his therapy sessions...”

    “Okay, okay,” I said. “I get it.”

    Atis set down his glass with force, then made his way to the couch. He flopped down on it and stretched his limbs. It was like I was watching a dramatic television show. Atis was acting weird, as if it hurt to be home. I didn't press him and waited for him to make the next move.

    Finally he said, “Is there any food?”

    “I've just been sitting here... How rude of me.”

    “I-It's okay. Really!” Atis said. He sat up and looked at me with pleading eyes.

    “I'm kidding,” I said. “Relax.”

    The kitchen was a mess. The dining table had been moved near the counters as well as all the chairs. We needed something to reach up high, and we didn’t bother to put anything back since Trainer didn’t eat with us much these days. Stacks of dishes lay close to the sink, and spilled coffee had dried up on the tile floor. Open boxes of cereal were sprawled across the counter tops. Our water bowls were empty. I ignored all this and pulled out a bag of saltine crackers from a cabinet for the hitmontop.

    He took a bite of one. “They're stale,” he said, spitting it out in the garbage.

    “Figures.”

    He shook his head. “What do we do now?” he said, not bothering to go down the food route again.

    “I don't know. I’m not sure that we can help Trainer.”

    “Why not?”

    “There's a lot of baggage that comes with... going through what he went through. Abuse, I mean. Of any kind. I can’t explain it very well, even after dealing with it myself.”

    “That... sounds like it’s tough to talk about, yeah,” Atis said as he fumbled with his fingers.

    “Yeah. Can't understand it if you haven't gone through it.”

    “Maybe... Maybe not.”

    “What?”

    “I personally think that there are a few universal truths, one of them being that everyone suffers. People can at least understand that, right?”

    “That's up for debate.”

    “Oh...” Atis stood up, though he didn't seem to have a destination in mind. There wasn't a room or spot in the apartment that Senori hadn't touched at some point, anyway.

    “Universal truths ask for a lot in return because they're not yet understood. Suffering says we should suffer more until we understand, for example.”

    “I don't think that's why Senori's... the way he is,” Atis said. The pause was natural, but innocent.

    “I know.”

    I went over to the coffee table in the other room where Atis had put Trainer’s journal, careful not to let my flames get too close. I struggled to flip through the pages of Trainer's journal, and not just because my paws made it difficult. The handwriting was emotional, like him. On some pages, the text was large and scrawly, and on others, small and sophisticated. I glanced at his words, which I couldn't understand for more reasons than one. I would have asked Atis to read them to me, but the dates that hinted at Senori's age seemed to tear him apart enough.

    *

    “I can't say I want to babysit for you, but...” I said, staring back and forth between Kuiora's joyful eyes and Ezrem's deadly ones. Kuiora had changed from the violent, selfish brat she had been, but Ezrem was as horrible as ever.

    The two parents didn't want their son, Shin, to go to the hospital. I didn’t blame them. The last time they took him to the hospital, he tore a nurse's coat and pulled the fire alarm. The totodile, still in his toddler stage, had been trouble ever since he was born. He was just like his father, really. No one had thought to make the apartment childproof, of course, and we had paid the consequences in full.

    I watched Shin as he tried to dig his jaws into a can of baked beans, and I thought it’d be good for me to not be alone for a day. “...I'll do it because Kuiora's the only other girl on the team,” I said. “Not for you, Ezrem. You’ve let your boy turn into a little hellion.”

    Kuiora sighed. “I agree. Why do you have to be so difficult, Ezrem?”

    Shin's head snapped up. “Hey!” he said, his snout covered in brown sauce. He licked himself clean. “Don't talk about Daddy like that.”

    “It's okay,” Ezrem said, patting Shin with his wing. “I'm not difficult. When I get what I want, in fact, I tend to be pleasant and occasionally helpful.”

    “Yeah. Daddy helped me learn how to swim,” Shin said, shrugging. Bored, he turned to leave the room.

    “You what?” Kuiora said, grabbing Shin by his sides before he could escape. “You can swim already?” But Shin only chomped down on her claws and held on. She glared at Ezrem and asked, “Do you have an explanation for this?”

    “To be fair, I didn't do anything. He was flying on my back and he jumped off into a river and—”

    “He didn't learn to swim overnight!”

    “Actually, he did.”

    “Did you ever think the water-type mother might want to teach her water-type son how to swim?” Kuiora said, throwing her arms up in surrender. Shin let go of her, plopping himself on the ground with a thud, and ran away. “Gracie, you're gonna learn how to swim next.”

    “Senori already taught me,” I said, my voice soft as I shrank back at the memory.

    “Oh,” Kuiora said. “Never mind. ...Should we go? Are you gonna be okay?”

    “Yes. I just—don't like going to the hospital.” I shuddered, not wanting to think of what it’d be like to see someone voluntarily let a doctor do what they thought was best to their body.

    “I see. Senori loved you and you can't even say goodbye to him, is that it?” Ezrem said, speaking loud enough to make sure I heard him.

    Kuiora pushed him away. He flapped his wings, made an excuse about finding Shin, and was off.

    “I'm sorry, Gracie,” Kuiora said. She came up to me and put her paws on my shoulder. She was stronger than me, otherwise I might have tried to deflect the touch. “This is hard on him, too. Senori was like a rival to him, or something close to it.”

    “Yeah, I'm sure. He can be happy.” My voice broke. “He can be the leader now.” Just like he tried to be when Sai disappeared, or so I heard.

    “He doesn’t want to be.” Kuiora said. She let go of me, sat down and sighed. “He knows how much it means to you.”

    “I don't want to lead the team, either! I don't want to be Senori's replacement. I want Senori to not feel… guilty.”

    There was a muffled cry coming from the other room. Shin ran back to us and found comfort in Kuiora's lap. She cradled him while he pretended to cry, mumbling about how mean his father was being.

    “There, there,” Kuiora said. After a few moments her attention turned back to me. “Senori feels guilty for everything.”

    “That's not true.” I shifted in my seat. We were in the kitchen, Kuiora standing on the floor and me curled up on a stool. If I moved too much, I'd fall off. Usually I was more in tune with my surroundings, but being with the family trio always made me forget that. It was different, seeing a mother, father and son fight, but not escalating that fight to outright war. Kuiora set her son down, and Shin started dancing with enthusiasm as if nothing was wrong. Ezrem perched himself next to them.

    “Yes it is! Remember when he broke Sai's favorite coffee cup by putting it in the dishwasher when he wasn't supposed to?” Kuiora said, waving her arm toward the coffee maker. “He kept saying sorry for weeks.”

    That was true. Senori had come to me time and time again, asking for advice on how to fix the problem. He asked Trainer if he could battle to get money for a new one. After a while, Trainer had to make Senori promise he'd stop overreacting, and then the furret was finally able to let it go.

    “Yeah,” I said. “It's hard not to remember.”

    “I don’t know what’s going to happen exactly, but… Yveltal will take care of Senori.”

    “Who?”

    “The god of death.”

    “Okay. But Yveltal won't be taking Senori peacefully, it seems.”

    Even Ezrem had nothing snarky to add to that. Kuiora looked away. She believed in legendary pokémon without hesitation, but she couldn't deny that they, too, could be cruel. Yveltal in particular wasn't anyone I could look up to.

    *

    Olivine City's Glitter Lighthouse had become a sort of refuge for both Rennio and me. The lighthouse was home to several electric- and water-types he could practice sparring with. As a fire-type, I didn't quite fit in, but Rennio always made me feel welcome by telling me that the flames on my back could brighten anyone's spirit, which was just as important as keeping the generator running for the ships finding their way to shore. I believed him.

    I started visiting the lighthouse more when Senori got sick. My anxiety worsened when the apartment was empty for too long, especially at night. Since Rennio worked so hard to keep me from isolating myself, I’d go to the lighthouse and climb the stairs to the top. The sound of crackling electricity got louder the higher I went, making me feel less alone. Rennio’s elekid friends, Corinne and Tamron, lived there and were always the ones to greet me at the top.

    I had been there when Rennio first met them. It shouldn’t have been a big deal, having an elekid meet some other elekid, but Rennio’s life was more difficult than it had to be thanks to Ezrem. That stupid braviary had convinced Rennio that he was the only elekid on earth and that his species was endangered. On that day where he learned the truth, though, I saw a hint of knowing in his eyes, as if he had never believed Ezrem deep down.

    The two stopped speaking to each other shortly after that. The tension was too great, no doubt, but I could tell Rennio missed him. From what I was told, they had been through a lot together before meeting Sai. I didn’t quite know the details. Rennio was able to forget his sadness when he was around Corinne and Tamron, at least...

    Today the three of them were yelling about a common problem the lighthouse dealt with: flying-types.

    “That's it!” Corinne said, chasing after Rennio. She showed no sign of giving up, but she was careful enough to avoid the generator in the middle of the room. “I'm gonna sell you for scrap metal!”

    “What'd I do?!” Rennio cried. He was out of breath soon enough. Corinne crashed into him and scowled as they fell onto the floor. “Ow... Really, what'd I do!”

    “Stop throwing berries out the window! All the flying-types are gonna come in here and peck us to death.”

    “But Corinne...”

    “What excuse do you have this time, huh?”

    “We're electric-types. We have the advantage,” Rennio said, grinning and pulling her in for a hug.

    I shook my head. “The flying-types come around because they know you two are lovebirds.”

    Several noctowl and pidgeotto mocked us outside the windows every day. They squawked nonsensical insults, distracted us from working and bribed us in exchange for our food. Rennio, of course, was happy to oblige. He had been happy when his previous trainer, Annie, fed him berries and it seemed that now he felt the need to be the one doing the feeding instead.

    Corinne and Tamron weren't as thrilled. The two were twins, but didn't have much in common. While Corinne was outgoing, Tamron only spoke when spoken to, and in a manner that made him look tough, but if you bothered him enough you'd see that front disappear and replaced by a more sensitive personality. These traits made it easy to tell them apart, even when they pulled the trick where they wore each other's favorite item: a blue wristband and a red bow.

    “No thanks...” Rennio said. He stood up and dusted himself off, then helped Corinne to her feet.

    “Suit yourself.” Corinne huffed and I shrugged. “Tamron,” I said, turning to the lone elekid watching from the corner, “don't you want to say something?”

    “Yeah, I do,” Tamron said, positioning his shoulders to be rigid and radiate confidence. “Don't give away my food, Rennio.”

    Rennio frowned. For some reason, he could never figure out if Tamron was being serious or not. Corinne didn't care, and went over to the corner to give Tamron a light push. She told him not to be a baby and Rennio said, “Corinne, I thought we talked about this...!”

    Rennio, for my sake, had made it a point to prevent Corinne from being even somewhat violent. She didn't remind me of the monster I had known before, but it was a kind gesture nonetheless.

    “It's fine. This is better than being at the hospital, anyway.”

    “Why do you say that?” Rennio said, walking over to me. I don’t know why he asked. Surely he knew what I was going to say next.

    “I can't be near Senori.”

    “I know... But why?”

    The question came at such short notice. What was I supposed to say to him? That the closer I got to death, the sooner death might take me? Was that at all possible? Marty’s father always made me think so. Sometimes I even hoped it’d happen, but I knew Senori wouldn’t go down without a fight. He was strong and persistent, and I had to be that for him, too. Still…

    “I don't know why,” I said. It wasn't a complete lie.

    Rennio didn't answer.

    I supposed I'd have to go sooner or later. There was no telling how advanced Senori's dementia was now. It had been months since I last saw him and no one mentioned his name in my presence anymore. What if it was too late to have one last laugh with him? ...It was Senori who taught me to question fate, but at that moment I didn't want to think about it.

    *

    For me, it had always been about the pain. The more I could take, the safer I felt... which was why it actually didn't make sense for me not to go to the hospital. There was all kinds of pain to be felt there.

    In the end I went for Trainer's sake. On a cold and windy December morning, he decided to skip work and visit Senori. He hadn't been taking care of himself lately and today was no better. I woke up because he tripped over me. He didn’t seem to notice as he ran out the door without a jacket on, and with shorts on instead of pants. Had I been more alert, I would've woken up Atis and told him to go, but I was too tired. So I followed him.

    When Trainer noticed me, he was quiet. I walked beside him, igniting the flames on my back to a temperature warm enough to make up for his carelessness.

    “Did you have a bad dream last night…?” That was usually the cause for Trainer not sleeping well.

    Trainer shuddered and wrapped his arms around himself. “I might have,” he said, and sped up.

    I caught up to him, but not before zigzagging between a couple passing by, holding hands and not watching where they were going. “What happened?” I say, turning to glare at the two people.

    He ignored me and followed my gaze, then said, “People either see me or they don't.”

    “I… don’t know what you mean.”

    I didn't see what he meant until we traipsed through the hospital’s stuffy corridors to get to Senori's room. The air was thick and the walls a calming lilac color. The pictures on the walls were meant to be inspiring and hopeful, but some were crooked and others, Trainer pointed out, he had seen at the cheapest store in the city. Blue signs, lit up and printed with large text, brought us to our destination soon enough. Trainer spoke with a nurse beforehand to make sure we could go in, and she told us that Senori had been checked on just ten minutes ago and was doing fine.

    Trainer pulled open the heavy door to Senori's room. I didn't know what I was expecting—maybe I had wanted Senori to tackle me to the ground for fun like he used to and then all would be well—but what I saw was a helpless little furret, curled up on a bed with white sheets draped over the side along with wires for a feeding tube.

    Senori didn't acknowledge Trainer’s presence. Senori didn't say hello to me, either, and though Trainer was apparently used to the lack of recognition, it was nerve wracking for me. I paced around the room, trying to keep my breathing steady in case I had to talk. The window at the far end of the room offered a view of a garden outside—which meant we were on the first floor, no doubt at Sai's request. An old TV sat on the dresser across from the bed, and there were two leather chairs in the corner, ripped and frayed at the edges.

    “Ari?” Senori said with a sudden burst of energy, scrutinizing Trainer and me with squinted eyes. He didn't sound normal. His voice was hoarse and strained.

    “No, not Ari. It's Sai,” said Trainer. He pulled me to the side and explained to me that Ari was the one who had banished him from his old clan. I nodded and focused on the buzzing of the machines to ground myself to the present moment.

    “Uh huh. Very funny, Ari.” Senori sauntered over to Trainer, the feeding tube wires trailing behind him. He looked Trainer in the eye. “Are you going to let me come back anytime soon? Gets a little lonely here sometimes.”

    “I know it does. I come by when I can.”

    “Uh huh. You not showing up isn't about some eye for an eye situation, is it? It's not a power game, right? Well, I guess that's what it is... A total power game...”

    Trainer frowned and buried his face in his hands no doubt to hide the pain he was feeling. It was odd, knowing that Senori believed he was speaking with a family member he left behind years ago. It felt like I, too, had left him behind years ago.

    Trainer managed a smile and said, “I don't understand, Senori.” He had mentioned to the team once or twice about Senori having bad days and good days. If Senori was completely confused, this had to be a bad day. “Can you tell me more?”

    “I couldn't save the clan and now you want me to go and save the whole world, is what I mean.” Disorientation. Suspicious and fearful of others. “I'm not a hero or a god... is what I mean.” Repetitive statements. Unable to take care of self.

    I'd seen it all before. My breath hitched, and it was all I could do to not bolt out the door. Have patience. Use nonverbal cues. Refer to the patient by their name. Trainer was doing everything right, but Senori was still dying.

    “You're a leader, Senori,” Trainer said, his voice low and wispy.

    “Yeah. If you say so.” He paused. “For what it's worth, this doesn't hurt. So don't go and cry about it.”

    “...I'm not going to cry, Senori.”

    The furret's eyes widened, as if coming to an important realization. He marched in a circle, contemplating his next move like he might during a battle. Then he said, “Why'd you fight me that day, Sai? Why'd you do it?”

    The shock registered on Trainer's face before he could hide it. The corners of his mouth lifted and the mask faded just as quick as Senori's memory. He stood up and patted Senori on the head, then reached into his pocket to pull out his phone, which he had turned on vibrate before coming. Someone was calling him, and what timing they had...

    “Hello?” Trainer said, the phone pressed tight against his ear. After a moment he glanced at me. I turned away, embarrassed. “Uh, hi... Not quite... She's at the hospital with me.”

    Of course. It had to be Marty. He called Trainer once a week to ask how I was doing and whether he should come to Olivine for any reason. To hear that I was at the hospital must have been surprising. Trainer bent down and put the phone to my ear. He never let me get away with not talking to Marty, insisting that it wasn't healthy to push others away.

    “Gracie?”

    “Hi, Marty,” I said, sighing. Sometimes I wished he'd go back to not being able to understand pokémon speech, but something told me that he'd call regardless.

    “What made you go to the hospital? Is everything all right?”

    I watched Senori curl up into a ball on the bed again, unaware of our presence once more. That was one nightmare out of the way, but nightmares, they tended to pop up one after the other.

    “Everything's fine. I just figured I should come for once, is all.”

    After a moment the phone clicked, and Marty was gone. I felt a little bit older.

    “Huh,” Trainer said. “Reception's not the best here. Sorry, Gracie.”

    It was for the best. I had said what was needed to keep Marty from calling for at least another seven days, and that was what mattered.

    Trainer walked over to Senori and went to pat him again, but he held his hand back. His hand shook and he grabbed his wrist, trying to keep it stable along with his emotions. How did it feel to be Trainer right now? It had to be hard, balancing reality with the voice that lied and said Senori would be okay somehow, someway. ...And how did it feel to be Senori? I couldn't imagine. He had been so open-minded, able to make snappy judgments when it counted. It wasn't the same anymore.

    If Marty called again, I might have said something different. He wanted to know how everything was? Well...

    Marty, we were doing so good before this.

    But Marty...

    Now we're just doing the best we can.
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      #2    
    Old November 7th, 2016 (8:16 PM).
    diamondpearl876's Avatar
    diamondpearl876 diamondpearl876 is offline
    you can breathe now. x
       
      Join Date: Jun 2007
      Location: Illinois, USA.
      Age: 24
      Nature: Careful
      Posts: 1,568
      PHANTOM PROJECT

      1.5

      *

      It wasn't in Atis's nature, like it was in Senori's nature, to indulge in half-truths and spared feelings. It wasn't in Atis's nature to welcome private confessions with open arms, or to laugh politely at boring stories. Senori, loyal and carefree, was the one everyone gravitated toward. Senori was the one who could make things right, whatever the problem was.

      Atis was fine with his secluded lifestyle, and Senori's cordial one. The hitmontop simply nestled into his own small corner of the universe and stayed there. Then Senori got sick and Atis was confronted with a dilemma that had no predictable outcome.

      The two of them stood on the outskirts of Route 40, near Olivine City's beach. Waves rolled up the shore, not gentle like the kind the team had swam in during their first visit to the city. But neither were the waves threatening to swallow the duo whole.

      Senori stared blankly, waiting for an answer to a question Atis couldn't quite grasp.

      “There's always something more you want me to say...” Atis mumbled, kicking away an empty glass bottle choked by seaweed. “And I never know what to tell you.”

      “No, it's okay,” Senori said, amiable as ever. “Sometimes, though, it helps to say the wrong thing to the wrong person.”

      I wish I was human—a former mantra, now like a strange, confusing incantation. He had told it to Sai, only once, and as a secret, no less. If there was ever a wrong person to talk about being human to, it was Sai, whose humanity had been stripped from him for years.

      Did Senori know? He was unusually perceptive, after all...

      Atis rolled his eyes halfheartedly. “For example...?” he said.

      “For example, I'm not going to be here much longer.”

      “You're leaving the team?” Atis blurted out, in a stronger voice than he was accustomed to. Images of his own departure from long ago whirled in his head. Team Rocket had poisoned him, and the vertigo, Sai's false promise had caused nightmares for months

      Atis shook his head. That was all in the past now—not because time had gone by, but because things had to be better now. Atis couldn't accept it any other way.

      “No,” Senori said again. He was determined to contradict Atis at every point, it seemed. “I feel different. I don't know how to explain it, but... Oh, I sound like Sai, don't I?” He paused to laugh. “Sometimes I'll be doing chores and I forget about them halfway through.... In my head I think the same thing over and over without comprehending any of it... Things like that keep happening! Everything's just wrong, Atis. I can't put it any simpler than that.”

      Atis, though he had been trying for years to prepare himself for any social situation life could through at him, once again didn’t know what to say.

      Senori continued slowly, “I've taught Sai a lot of things. And Shin, too. So impressionable. But who's going to teach them now? ...I think it's good. To teach and be the leader, I mean. You learn about the world all over again that way.”

      Atis cleared his throat. “What are you getting at, Senori?” he asked, finally.

      “I'm going to find a new teammate,” the furret said, his face void of emotion. “Do you remember the magikarp Sai caught a while ago?”

      “...It was more than a little while ago, but yes.”

      Senori shrugged. He went on, the words and ideas flowing natural as breathing, but also haphazard. That crisp, cool morning in Azalea Town, five and a half years ago, Sai was manic and caught several armfuls of magikarp for his team to eat. Later, his mania disappeared and he had a change of heart. He released them to Goldenrod City's daycare center, but magikarp, Senori said, were the epitome of patience and perseverance. Someday the magikarp would evolve and represent immeasurable strength. All that fit Sai perfectly, didn’t it? Things made sense, until—

      “Well, I don't have time to travel to Goldenrod. How would I explain that to Sai? How would he deal? ...What if I couldn't find my way back?”

      So said the furret who somehow navigated the team through the majority of the Johto region, Atis didn't say. “Isn't lying defeating the purpose of everything?” he said instead.

      “I... haven't thought this through, I'll admit it. Not because I don't care, but because I can't think. This is not the work of fate, but it's not clarity, either.”

      Atis let him go—not because he didn't care, but because he felt a lack of control seizing him. Senori departed on a Sunday, and on Monday, Sai was already nearly frantic, questioning each member of the team. On Tuesday, Gracie offered to search Olivine's beach, Senori's favorite place to go. All she found, she said, was driftwood full of salts that could make blue and green flames. Rennio kept an eye out from Glitter Lighthouse, never shifting his gaze away from where the sunlit water met the horizon, as if hope alone would bring Senori home. Kuiora looked next. The high tide line was covered with broken shuckle shell bits, torn paper and mantine cartilage. She told Sai a story about how a mermaid sighting once turned out to be a dewgong, and when Senori came back he'd have his own story to tell. Even Ezrem went to the beach, only on Friday, claiming he couldn't stand the sound of the waves lapping like the ticking of a slow-moving clock.

      Atis stayed quiet. Atis lied when he had no choice but to talk. And when Senori came home, he saw the furret hide a pokéball in one of the kitchen cabinets.

      “I caught a magikarp,” he said, voice even-keeled. “To me, Magikarp. To me, I said! I've got good things to eat and better places to swim than this kiddie pool you're in, I said. I fought relentlessly, just like Sai did when we first met...”

      “Of course... Of course you did,” Atis stuttered. How had Senori been able to catch a pokémon in his confusion and without having left with a pokéball to begin with? He didn’t want to know. “So… what happens now?”

      “You introduce her to Sai when I'm gone. Please? And write him a letter from me. That's why I came to you.”

      “What? I-I don't want to meet her—”

      “Not now. Or, well, I know what you mean. So this is what I want you to write...”

      Atis scrambled for a pen and paper as if Senori might disappear quicker than anticipated. This was as close to a living will as a pokémon could have, he supposed. How could he say no?

      //

      chapter 2 ; [ATIS]
      the first gift

      *

      The lights were still on, but the atmosphere in the apartment felt ominous. Dangerous, even. Gracie had left me alone to think after our conversation about Senori's... situation. The introverted side of me should have appreciated that. Instead I stared at the front door, hoping she'd come back and let us stay quiet together. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Sai's journal lying open on the coffee table, taunting me with its presence. It would continue to taunt me until I walked up to close it, but I knew going anywhere near that thing would make it impossible to step away again without reading its contents. By now I must have memorized every word of every page.

      I used to enjoy being able to read and write just as well as a human could. With Senori's letter to Sai added to the mix, that talent of mine seemed more like a curse. Both the journal and the letter were physical reminders of the truth. Truth was... Sai had been sick for as long as he could remember. Senori only became sick recently, and his sickness didn't allow him to remember when he wasn't. What was anyone, especially me, supposed to do with that information?

      I always knew I wore a mask of sorts, but at this point in my life I didn't recognize myself at all. I thought I knew what I wanted. I thought I had what I wanted. Now things had taken a turn for the worst and I was more than willing to run away from everything and everyone.

      ...Why did I torture myself and read Sai's journal, then?

      How are you feeling? I had asked him when he was still in the hospital, recovering from his suicide attempt.

      He had answered very honestly. Like I want to get out of here. And then: I’m afraid you’ll leave when we get out of here after what I did.

      ...I promised him, five years ago, that I wouldn't leave again. It made me nervous, wondering what might happen next. Still he was my reason to stay. That much was certain. Whether or not it'd be worth it, I didn't know. I could only find that out by keeping my promise, and so I took any opportunity to strengthen the resolve I needed to follow through.

      Senori's letter lay exactly where I put it: on the fireplace mantle, near the picture frame that preserved the photograph taken before I was supposed to leave the team for good. Climbing up the ledgestone to retrieve it, I wondered how nobody had noticed the random pieces of paper sticking out. Or if someone had noticed the papers, why hadn't they said anything? Perhaps nobody looked at the fireplace mantle at all these days. There was nothing to see there except the photograph, and acknowledging the past was useless when there was much to worry about in the present. Part of me hoped someone would eventually grab the letter if I kept it exposed and bring it to Sai so that I would never have to.

      I sat on the fireplace mantle. It wasn't that high from the ground, but I could imagine Sai scolding me for being up here when I could fall off pretty easily. He wasn't around to scold me, though, so I didn't care. I unfolded Senori's letter to read it, skimmed it at first, and soon I forced myself to commit every page, every word to memory.

      It was an awkward experience. I wrote the letter for Senori and hadn't altered anything he'd told me. That meant the wording was strange and haphazard. He clearly struggled when he was reciting what he wanted me to write. When Sai finally read the letter for himself, would he understand? Each time I looked the letter over, I wanted to change some things, yes... I didn't need the added stress of attempting to explain what Senori's baffling logic really meant... But then again, Sai himself resembled a puzzle. As a result he was the best at figuring out how to solve them.

      So at least I was slightly comforted, knowing the likelihood of Sai seeing past Senori's confusion when the time came. My job wasn't over yet, though. For this particular nightmare to end, another one would have to begin... unless Senori healed, but that seemed impossible. The doctors had approached that subject delicately, making it quite clear how there weren't yet any studies proving the existence of a cure. My job was to wait and present Sai with his new teammate after Senori was gone. ...But wasn't Senori already gone? He wasn't himself, at any rate. And he never would be again.

      ...Dead. When Senori was dead, I would present Sai with his new teammate. Yes, dead. Senori used the word in his letter. Why couldn't I admit it to myself, too?

      I read Senori's letter one more time. I read Sai's journal one more time, too, for good measure. Neither of these writings told me what to think, or what role I should play in all of this madness. The words simply sat there... and taunted me.

      *

      I needed a distraction or two. Something to keep my hands from shaking and my mind from drifting. I had a set schedule for this exact problem. Today was Wednesday, for example, and I normally dedicated Wednesdays to catching up on the housework Senori could no longer do. With him gone, I took it upon myself to wash the dishes, scrub the floors, vacuum... Anything to keep me moving about and feeling productive.

      But on this particular Wednesday, Kuiora and Sai suddenly asked me to join them for their weekly training session with Chuck, Cianwood's gym leader. I used to go more often to think up battle strategies with them, but I stopped after Sai said he’d probably not want to travel again. Agreeing to go guaranteed a day full of feeling intensely nervous. If we weren't going to talk strategy, that meant I might actually fight. Not to mention the long travel time, which presented the ultimate opportunity to ruminate on everything going wrong in life.

      ...It didn't have to be all bad, right? I rarely trained, so the exertion would exhaust me, no doubt. I'd be able to fall asleep easily that night instead of finding more ways to distract myself until I actually got tired. The housework would pile up, too, giving me more to do on a different day.

      Besides, Sai had to have a reason for wanting me there all of a sudden. Refusing even the smallest request from him right now seemed shameful. So I told him yes, and before I knew it, Kuiora had led us to her chosen place of departure on Olivine's shore. Our massive crocodilian companion lowered herself into the water and motioned for us to climb aboard. Sai positioned himself on her back easily, holding on to the red spikes protruding from her neck. I sat behind him, and remained silent about how uncomfortable her scales felt. A boat would have been preferable, but also slower and more expensive.

      Kuiora darted away from the shore as soon as we were settled. Instead of heading straight toward Cianwood, she brought us close to the Whirl Islands, where the currents were strong but not dangerous. Of course. Kuiora would never forgo the chance to experience her two favorite things in the world—training and water—at the same time. After a few minutes she swam at a consistent speed.

      We were still miles away from Cianwood. Kuiora was focused on swimming, and Sai seemed content with not talking. Somehow I found the silence calming... Just looking at the clouds, the cliffs towering over Cianwood in the far distance, and the ocean itself was enough to fend off the nervousness. For a brief moment I wished Kuiora could tell us the legend about the Whirl Islands and their guardian. She knew it word for word. I had started teaching her how to read, and that legend was what she wanted to memorize first.

      I spent the most of the journey to Cianwood trying to recall what I could about the legend, which wasn't much. I knew a lot of it was about hurricanes, which often originated at the Whirl Islands and threatened to destroy the buildings in Cianwood that weren't sturdy enough. Maybe that explained why I noticed how most buildings looked different from each other as we traipsed up the shore and toward the gym. It was obvious that some preventative measures were taken into consideration. Some buildings were elevated while others were anchored, and there were plenty of rounded rooftops. The city's architects must have been trying for years to find the perfect design that would stand against any storm.

      “Isn't Cianwood famous for researching diseases, too? I can't imagine wanting to build a lab in a place like this...” I said to fill in the silence. Kuiora, usually the talkative one, hadn't yet struck up a conversation.

      I realized the carelessness of my comment too late. Sai flinched and remained quiet.

      Kuiora glanced at Sai and said, “There is no lab, silly.”

      “But then how—”

      “Shuckle juice,” Sai interrupted. “That's the main active ingredient for all the medicines made here. Shuckle only live in Cianwood.”

      “I-I didn't know...”

      “Everyone's surprised when they hear that, yeah. I mean, some diseases still have no cure after decades of being studied,” Sai said, his voice low. He almost sounded bitter about the whole thing.

      “Can we just...” I started, then shook my head. “Are we going to be at the gym soon?”

      That, at least, made Kuiora smile. “We're here now,” she said.

      The gym wasn't as far from the shore as I had expected it to be. And I was no architect myself, but surely the gym wouldn't survive a major storm if it was so close to the water, right? I sighed. Chuck and his fighting-type pokémon had probably insisted on building it wherever they wanted, and with whatever materials they wanted. If a storm destroyed the gym, they could just use its reconstruction as another training exercise.

      Inside, the gym had the appearance of a formal training hall. The floor, smooth and bare, offered plenty of space to spar without worrying about your surroundings. Posters detailing the techniques Chuck taught his pokémon hung on the walls. I felt a spike of nervousness when I realized I would soon be training on that floor, learning all those techniques even though I rarely battled to begin with...

      I was surprised, stupidly so, when Sai asked me not to train, but instead to... clean the dojo? I stared at him, at a loss for words.

      He shrugged and said, “Fighting doesn't always have to be about physical combat, you know.”

      A deep and hearty laugh suddenly came from behind me. Startled, I turned around and jumped back. Chuck, the gym leader, walked up and patted me on the shoulder, laughing harder as I stumbled more. This man clearly underestimated his own strength. ...I got the feeling that a lot of people underestimated him. Most fighting-type trainers I had met were serious, focused and traditional. Chuck didn't even wear a martial arts uniform, instead choosing to go shirtless.

      “What's so funny?” I mumbled, my voice barely audible over his persistent laugh.

      “Sai here has told me a lot about you, kiddo,” Chuck said. “Don't like fighting, eh? Can't say I get why. He's right, though. We clean the dojo before and after each training session, and we keep the shrine out in the back garden looking pristine at all times.”

      A shrine? In a place like this? Immediately my gaze shifted to the door on the far end of the dojo.

      Kuiora sauntered over to the door and opened it, but I couldn't see anything from where I was standing. She explained that the shrine was dedicated to Pangoro, a Kalosian fighting- and dark-type pokémon. Dark-types were known for being temperamental and aggressive, so trainers usually avoided catching and raising them. But the Pangoro evolution line had proved itself to be strong physically and mentally. They often became angry and violent, yes... but they didn't fight senselessly. They fought to protect the weak, and to protect their own beliefs.

      “I'd say anyone can learn a lot from a pangoro,” Kuiora said, smiling at me. I got the feeling that she was usually the one cleaning the shrine, and that this was actually her idea all long.

      She had a point, though. I could only imagine what it would be like, meeting a pangoro in person. Still...

      “You brought me all the way out here,” I said slowly, “to have me scrub and use a mop.”

      “Well, yes... and no,” Sai said. “You don't have to do it if you don't want to. You rarely leave the apartment anymore, Atis. I thought something different might help.”

      Something different? The reason I followed a strict schedule was because I didn't want something different. Sai knew his moods cycled less when he followed his own strict schedule. Break the routine and a manic episode might happen, then a depressive one. I guess... With Senori sick, we went places, did things and saw people we thought might comfort us, even if just for a little while.

      “I'll, uh, clean the shrine. It's fine.” They could deal with the dojo, since they'd be the ones using it.

      I found the cleaning supplies in a shed near the garden. The garden was basically a giant circle with different layers to it. On the outermost layer here was grass, recently cut with a fresh smell. Next there was a wide stone path, then a flower bed covered only in soil because of the upcoming winter season, and finally, at the center stood the statue of Pangoro. Up close, I could see all the small, precise details the sculptor had etched in to make the statue seem as realistic as possible. I wondered how many times it had been knocked down by a storm, or if the bronze material it was made out of could actually withstand hurricanes.

      I swept the debris and dirt off of the path, and patted down the soil to make it look smooth. The statue seemed to tower over me the entire time. When I cleaned the statue itself, I used a soft cloth to reach the places I could. I wasn't tall enough to wipe down the entire thing.

      Occasionally I heard Chuck yelling a command to Sai, or Kuiora cheering happily. There was the clang of weapons, probably spears, and the thud of weights dropping to the floor. I felt like maybe I should have been inside, training together with them after all...

      According to Kuiora, Pangoro showed how you should be strong both mentally and physically. Cleanliness helped with the mental aspect, I supposed. So if nothing else, I was helping them balance the two kinds of strength as they trained inside.

      It would have been easier and simpler to stay at the apartment instead. Sure, I'd be cleaning there too, but I'd have felt more accomplished that way. That was our home, and cleaning it was part of the schedule. That was what I was taught to do as a pet pokémon at the trainers' school in Violet City.

      “You know...” Earl had told me. Earl, the headmaster, and my first trainer. “Teach discipline, and obedience.”

      As if he thought I, of all pokémon, could be rebellious. That lesson shouldn't have mattered so much when survival tactics and budgeting would have helped students more in the long run. Earl always did have his priorities backwards... That was how I ended up with Sai in the first place.

      Even traveling with Sai, there was a schedule of sorts. We woke up, ate three meals a day, battled a gym more often than not, made our way through another route, slept again. Sometimes, chaos ensued. I couldn't control that. It happened, but we got back on track. There was peace in knowing that some things would change, but some things wouldn't.

      “You heard right, yes!” Earl had said in response to my confusion. “Obedience. With enough discipline, you learn to listen, help others. You must also learn to listen to yourself, to obey what heart and mind demands of you.”

      Years later and I had yet to figure out what he meant.

      How was Earl doing now, anyway? Would he remember me if he saw me? Did the kids at the school ever notice I had left?

      ...Yeah, distractions were useful.

      *

      I don't want to do this. I don't want to do this. I don't

      On the ride back from Cianwood, Kuiora swam slower and I thought the training had worn her out, but no, Sai had specifically requested for her to make the trip longer because he had something to tell me. She stayed quiet, as if she already knew what that something was. Deep down, I knew, too.

      The letter…

      “Senori's health is... deteriorating... faster than expected, Atis,” Sai said.

      He's going to have to see it soon.

      I wrapped my arms around myself and looked away. Sai's voice... I hated when he used that voice. I hated when he didn't know how to word things so he kept pausing, drawing out the inevitable and making the situation all the more painful.

      Senori's going to die and you have to carry out his final wishes. There's no way around it.

      “What happened? What's changed?”

      “I... don't know. The doctors told me dementia progresses at different rates, so...”

      “Hard to believe when I saw him just a week ago,” I said sternly.

      There's no way around it.

      “I know that, but... He's not recognizing anyone on the team anymore, Atis, and he can’t move around anymore. I don't know what else to say. I'm sorry.”

      The prognosis was poor to begin with, and I knew that, but that didn't make the news any easier to hear. Dementia in pokémon just wasn't a topic researched much. Not that there was a cure for humans, either, but… When people think of pokémon, they think of creatures that are near indestructible because of their high pain thresholds and ability to control the elements among other kinds of powers. Concepts like aging and sickness are an afterthought, not to mention that the ability to communicate with pokémon is rare. It was a special gift, the doctors said to Sai, being able to communicate with us as well as he could. I can't imagine how confused—and how guilty—he'd have been if he'd not noticed Senori's distress until the furret had already been consumed by it completely.

      And here I was, using that gift to argue with my trainer about something he couldn't control.

      The letter... There's no way around it.

      “You didn't bring me to Cianwood to get me out of the apartment,” I mumbled. Sai became silent. Kuiora started swimming even slower, and I could feel how tense she was. “And you're telling me in the middle of the ocean, of all places?”

      “He did want you out of the apartment, Atis!” Kuiora stepped in. “He didn't want you to isolate yourself or run away from everything...”

      “When have I ever run away? All those times when we were traveling and Sai disappeared...”

      All those times you ran away, I tried to find you!

      Sai opened his mouth to speak more, but found himself at a loss for a few moments. “You're right,” he mumbled eventually. I could barely hear him when he added, “I guess I was trying to keep myself from running away, not you.”

      Sai clearly felt more helpless than he was letting on, so why was I acting this way? I put aside my anger as best I could. I scooted closer to him and wrapped my arm around his, resting my head on his shoulder. He didn't shy away.

      “Tomorrow's Thursday,” I said to him.

      “Yeah... Are we still working our volunteer shift?”

      “Should we?”

      “Um...”

      “I think you should,” Kuiora decided, then sped up as if to officially end the conversation.

      “That settles that, then,” Sai said, a hint of a smile in his voice now.

      The letter... I'd have to take care of it when we got back to Olivine tonight. I doubted I'd be able to rest afterward, and that would leave me exhausted for tomorrow, but if Sai was making an attempt to confront and accept what was happening… Well, Kuiora and Sai were right. I did tend to avoid problems if I could get away with it. Not this time. Running away just wasn't an option.

      I don't want to do this. I don't want to do this. I don't…

      *

      To keep up appearances, I went back to the apartment with Sai and Kuiora, then immediately lied and said I was headed off to bed. They were too exhausted to notice I was in a hurry, nor did they seem to have the energy to say anything reassuring about the terrible conversation we'd had just a short while ago. That was fine. I would have preferred not to be sneaking around, but they were making the job easier and that was... fine.

      I grabbed the magikarp's pokéball from its hiding place and before I knew it, I had made my way to Olivine's beach once again. With the clouds gathered in the nighttime sky, I couldn't see much, just the waves rolling up to my feet and then back out into the darkness. Soon the signal lights from Glitter Lighthouse would shine and help travelers navigate to shore without getting lost. I thought about waiting for the lights to come on so I could greet the magikarp properly, but it would be better if she couldn't notice my nervousness.

      That plan, of course, didn't work in the slightest. When I went to press the button on the magikarp's pokéball, I had to force myself to relax. I had been holding the pokéball so tightly I might have crushed it in a moment of carelessness. It had been years since I was recalled to my own pokéball, but I knew that perceiving the environment around you wasn't exactly difficult.

      Pretenses would be useless at this point. I didn't like her already, and I probably never would. The moment our way of life was threatened, I became bitter because I didn't know what else to be. I released her into the water, preparing to give her the rundown of what was going to happen, whether she approved of the plan or not.

      She turned to me as soon as she materialized. I opened to my mouth to speak, but she beat me to the greeting and said, “You're not the furret I was expecting.”

      “I know...” I mumbled. “The furret left me to deal with you. Sorry.”

      “I can't see your face in the dark,” she said, “but I can tell you're not too happy about it.”

      I shook my head. From the sound of her voice, I would guess that she was still rather young. She reminded me of Kuiora with that quipping of hers. “How much do you know?” I asked her.

      “My name is Glori, to start with,” she said quietly. She went on, “One day a little furret came to the edge of my family's pond at Goldenrod’s daycare and demanded one of us join his trainer's team. He said they'd be short one teammate soon and they needed a replacement as soon as possible. And I know I’ve been stuffed inside a pokéball far longer than I expected.”

      I shuddered and tried not to cry. Senori had hid a lot of details, it seemed. Not that I blamed him, but what would Glori say if she knew that Senori had lost his mind, I didn't really want her around, and that Sai didn't know about her existence yet?

      “Sorry. About the pokéball, I mean. That was my fault.” So much for hiding my nervousness and my disdain for this whole ordeal. I had to stay calm for Sai's sake, and for Senori's. “But did the furret seem, uh, picky about which one of you went with him?”

      “I offered to go because I'm the oldest of my siblings. The furret asked how old exactly and I guess my answer satisfied him enough to take me along. Not picky at all.”

      I shook my head again. What was I thinking, wondering if Sai's old tradition of rolling the dice would matter here? I almost wished it did matter. Those days seemed simpler now, in a way.

      “Are you happy about it?” I asked slowly.

      “You don't say no to someone who wants you, my friend.”

      What I said next came out of my mouth before I could think it through. “Because you're a magikarp?”

      “No,” she said. She didn't seem offended at all, and for that I was relieved. “That should be the standard for everyone.”

      I bit my lip, then asked, “What if your siblings... had asked you to stay?”

      “I doubt they even considered it. Most magikarp are too proud and spend their whole lives trying to prove their independence. My siblings were probably hoping I'd finally leave them alone.”

      I decided then that this Glori bothered me. It wasn't her attitude, and it wasn't that she obviously didn't care about making a good first impression. And I didn't think she was looking down on me or anything... No, it was her confidence that frustrated me and made me want to walk away. This pokémon knew what she wanted, and she took any opportunity she could that would benefit her. She would get along with Sai. As usual, our leader knew what was best for him and the rest of the team.

      I had to tell Glori the truth of everything now, before I could bail on the whole plan like I’d been wanting to. I told her about Senori's sickness and his rationale for wanting to capture another teammate, specifically one of her species. That meant admitting Sai's own sickness... but by the end of the explanation, the lights from Glitter Lighthouse had come on and Glori didn't look as if anything I had said affected her. Her whole appearance radiated with confidence, and it bothered me.

      “Now,” Glori said when I stopped talking, “I can see your face, and you definitely don't seem too happy about this. Why follow through with what this Senori asked of you?”

      I looked away from her and shifted my feet around in the sand uncomfortably. “I... don't say no. Not usually. For any reason.”

      “Hmm.” She paused. “You say Senori isn't dead yet?”

      “Y-Yeah, but you don't have to put it that way—”

      “How do you know?”

      “He's not... himself. Anyone who knows him, knows that.”

      “You're hiding something. Is that like your usual self?”

      “Er...”

      “He must have loved Sai a lot,” she said, not waiting for me to reply. “Can't think of why he'd go through all this trouble if he didn't.”

      “Don't... Don't change the subject!” I said. I didn't want to hear her talk about Senori in the past tense. “What do you think I'm hiding?”

      Glori laughed softly. The waves were becoming faster now, and harsher. She swam up to my feet with one of the waves and said, “How bitter and angry you are. I could sense it in the dark, and up close, it's even worse.”

      “I-I'm not...” I said, trailing off and taking a couple steps backward. “I'm just anxious, and—”

      “Anxiety comes to you when you want to do something, but can't due to fear or any other obstacle that might be in your way. ...You're nervous, maybe. That means you don't want to do something and will avoid the situation at all costs.”

      I closed my eyes, took a deep breath. I couldn't let her bother me... and I should have let the subject go when I had the chance. It was my first time meeting her and she could read me like a book. I hadn't noticed half the things she did until she pointed them out…

      “M-My plan was to have you meet Sai tomorrow. I don't think meeting you in front of Senori would be good, s-so... I'll bring Sai here. To the shore, just before sundown. You'll be here or you won't. I... don't care. If you leave, it won't be my fault, will it?”

      “Oh, I'll be here, don't worry. You could even put me back in the pokéball and release me whenever and wherever tomorrow, really. I want to see what this Sai is like.”

      I stared at her, blinking stupidly. “I don't get you,” I mumbled, turning and starting to walk away.

      “I hope someday you might,” she said, her voice sounding genuine.

      I didn't reply. All the way back home, my nervousness spiked. What if another trainer battled her before tomorrow and she got hurt? They couldn't catch her with another pokéball, but still. What if she really did leave shore? ...What if she didn't?

      “Remember,” I told myself, “it won't be your fault if she's gone.”

      I repeated that to myself over and over, all the way back home.

      *

      On Thursdays, Sai and I volunteered at the hospital's psychiatric unit. We spent a few hours interacting with the patients, or running errands for the nurses if they needed us. We never ended our shift feeling confident that we had made a difference... but really, we had accepted the position knowing we might not always be helpful.

      Every week we met new patients, and at some point we realized that visits to this unit were usually short. But at some point, we also realized that some patients—not a lot, just enough to have us worried—came back not too long after their last visit. One patient said she trusted us, then admitted she'd tell the doctors she was doing fine so they would discharge her sooner. She told them that not because her situation had actually improved, but because she was fighting what she felt was an impossible battle. Stability, even happiness, didn't matter as much as it should have when a patient knew their mental illness would kick in with full force again eventually.

      The unpredictability of our shifts took its toll on us, so we started walking along the beach to relax before going back home to the team's wild antics. I'd keep quiet while Sai stared out at the ocean. He was most vulnerable after our shifts because he was reminded of his own mental illness. He'd tell me it was worth it anyway, and I didn't force him to talk if he didn't want to. If he was depressed, he would eventually allow himself to let his guard down. He'd admit to bottling up his emotions again. Then he'd promise to try harder while I asked myself how he could possibly believe he wasn't trying hard enough already.

      Sai would probably have to try a bit harder after this particular Thursday, and so would I.

      The letter...

      If Sai read the letter and accepted Glori, he was also accepting the fact that Senori was dying.

      There's no way around it.

      He'd told me he was trying hard not to run away from the truth... so I didn't doubt that he'd accept her.

      But remember—it won't be your fault if she's gone.

      Our shift seemed to drag on longer than usual. I kept reaching into the pocket of my uniform—a small blue vest that fit my humanoid form—for Senori's letter, which I'd grabbed before leaving the apartment. Part of me hoped it'd disappear, but the thought of Sai finding it on the hospital floor somewhere had me paranoid.

      At least we were working for the nurses and not sitting with the patients in their rooms. I preferred doing the latter most days... but I was far too preoccupied with what would happen later to be providing emotional support. Going back and forth across the unit looking for equipment and documents made for a decent distraction. Still, Sai had to stop me in the hallway a few times to ask if I was okay. I wasn't doing a good job of hiding my anxiety, apparently. Or was it my nervousness? Glori had pointed out the difference between the two, but I couldn't take anything she said seriously if I wanted to try to be calm.

      When our shift ended, Sai automatically assumed we'd go home the same way we always did. Lucky for me, really... The less I had to speak, the better. My throat felt like closing up enough as it was, so under no circumstance would I say a word about Glori unless forced to.

      Our route brought us past some families preparing to leave the beach before the sun set. While they packed up their belongings, an announcer's voice blared from a nearby radio sitting outside the open door of a beach house. The voice spoke quickly, almost frantically, about a closing sale for a store over in Cianwood. Then they changed the topic to apricorn balls and how Azalea Town might not be the only place you could buy them from soon.

      The two of us listened, saying nothing. A lot was happening around Johto, it seemed... yet all that mattered to me was stealing glances out at the ocean, wondering if I'd catch a glimpse of Glori. Eventually I saw a set of golden fins poking out of the water. My breath hitched. She really was here…! Sai and I had just reached the end of the beach, where there was a rock pool. That usually meant our detour was over and we should go home. Reluctantly, I led him closer to it instead, wondering if he'd protest. He didn't.

      He sighed, as if he'd known this walk home would be different somehow. He fidgeted with his pocket and pulled out an object I recognized instantly: the dice from all those years ago. The team never did figure out where it had come from, or why it was so important to Sai. It didn't seem likely that he'd carry it everywhere...

      My breath hitched again. If he already knew about Glori, then—

      “I don't know the specifics,” Sai said, shrugging. “Ezrem saw you out here last night. He wouldn't have thought anything was strange if you didn't have a pokéball with you.”

      I dragged my feet through the sand, annoyed at myself for forgetting about Ezrem. The flying-type was almost always on the lookout for anyone suspicious ever since we'd settled down in Olivine, just in case anyone from Sai's past tried to hurt him again. Kuiora told me once that Ezrem had other reasons for doing what he did, but I never found out anything more.

      ...Well, the hardest part was over. What else could I do now? I took a deep breath, then handed Sai the letter I'd folded to fit in my hand. I avoided his gaze. Out of the corner of my eye I could see Glori, probably eavesdropping and waiting for the perfect moment to swim up to us.

      Sai read to himself, mumbling only part of the letter aloud. “This is not one of the magikarp you caught... This is one of their offspring. Her name is Glori.” He paused for a moment, then finished, “She will be with you a long time.”

      “Yeah...” I said quietly. “A long time.”

      “...I guess that explains why he randomly disappeared that one time. Not that I have any room to talk.” Sai shook his head. “You were with him for this, Atis? I mean, you had to be. Senori can't write, but did he say anything else?”

      “Something I didn't write down? N-No...”

      Sai stayed silent for a while, then managed a small smile. “Shin could've been our sixth teammate, you know. Then I wouldn't need to pay the monthly fee for that damn breeder's license.”

      “Kuiora wouldn't allow that, ever...”

      “I know,” Sai said, chuckling slightly. He folded the letter back up and fiddled with the dice between his fingers. “Well, I haven't rolled the dice in years, and I don't need to now, I guess. I could roll it for the hell of it, but what does that change? So... where is this Glori?”

      Without thinking about it, I glanced toward the ocean. Glori had noticed that was her cue and was making her ways towards us. She swam slowly, and that didn't remind me at all of her confident demeanor from yesterday. Perhaps she was being careful... Sai feeling too overwhelmed was the last thing I wanted right now, so I could at least be grateful for that.

      Soon Glori was near the shore. Half of her body was still submerged in the water while the other half looked on at us, waiting for a sign that told her it was okay to approach.

      “Um, well, it's getting late now, so...” I trailed off, gesturing toward the darkening sky and then folding my arms. I pretended to shiver. “I'm gonna go sit where the wind can't get me.”

      Before I turned to leave them alone, Sai handed me the letter and told me to hold onto it. He didn't want to just throw it away. I hesitated before I took it. Less than a minute later I was huddled against the tallest boulder in the rock pool, where I couldn’t hear the two of them talk.

      The letter in my hand was crumpled and slightly torn on the sides. I hadn't written it more than a couple months ago, but it was like an old book that had been taken off the shelf to be re-read several times since it had been bought. I unfolded it again, stared at the words without comprehending them. The furret was rarely ever confused before the dementia took hold. It surprised me that Sai wanted to keep the letter... Why, when the letter showed how much he'd changed?

      I watched Sai and Glori for a moment and remembered that Sai had changed, too. He used to act distant and hide secrets from us, yet he was sitting in the shallow water to be near Glori right now, apparently not caring if his clothes got wet. His knees were raised and when Glori said anything, he wrapped his arms around them and leaned in to hear better. Yeah... Sai had changed, too. Now he was honest. Now he could show weakness and not feel ashamed for it.

      I wondered if Senori felt embarrassed when he noticed how he was changing. Knowing him, that was very likely. But he probably thought, too, that being honest with the team and Sai was a lot more important than hiding his illness until the last possible moment.

      ...The letter's words sat there and taunted me still, but at least they were honest.

      *

      “Atis?”

      That was Sai calling me. Why would Sai be waking me up? He'd never done that before outside of an emergency...

      ...Oh. We were still on the beach. That was why. My back ached; the rock I had been lying against didn't serve well as a bed. The sky, pitch black now, meant a lot of time had passed. I asked him how late it was.

      “Almost midnight. I'm sorry, I thought... I thought you'd gone home already,” Sai said. He was using that voice I hated again. “We should head back... I was supposed to take my medicine hours ago, and the team's probably waiting for us.”

      I was sure Ezrem had told them not to worry, but I didn't say anything. He sounded close to sobbing, and...

      “What about Glori?” I asked him, my own voice almost a whisper.

      “Pokéball,” Sai answered simply. “She seems sweet, and I mean that. Though... she just met me and I could tell she thinks I'm fragile. I talked with her as long as I could to prove her wrong. I was going to take her home from the beginning, but... Did Senori think of me as weak?”

      “W-What? Sai, that's not it... He wanted to help you, in his own way,” I told him, struggling to find the words.

      “I don't think I'm weak.”

      “I don't think so, either.”

      That was the truth. He was one of the strongest people I knew. I was the weak one, not him. That's why, when he started crying, I couldn't help him. I couldn't say or be or do anything to make the situation better. I mumbled an apology, and had no choice but to let him feel the pain.
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        #3    
      Old December 20th, 2016 (1:41 PM).
      diamondpearl876's Avatar
      diamondpearl876 diamondpearl876 is offline
      you can breathe now. x
         
        Join Date: Jun 2007
        Location: Illinois, USA.
        Age: 24
        Nature: Careful
        Posts: 1,568
        PHANTOM PROJECT

        2.5

        *

        Ezrem, for all the good it did him, was hiding on the outskirts of Olivine City when he first heard about the egg. His and Kuiora’s child existed in that egg, but he felt no excitement despite all the effort that was put into relaying the news to him. Supposedly Kuiora herself had asked Senori to watch the egg while she went to search the forested area. After a week of asking if anyone knew where he was, her worry for her child outweighed her worry for Ezrem and she chose to go home. She convinced herself that he would just come back on his own time, like he always did. She could tell him about the egg then.

        Ezrem figured that giving up his post and going home would be the right thing to do. Taking care of his family would certainly be more fulfilling than protecting random pokémon in the forest, wouldn’t it? The latter left him feeling empty, that much he knew. It was the same even when he tried to be kind toward Sai and Rennio and the rest of the team. They all looked at him uneasily and worded themselves carefully around him.

        Kuiora, though… She loved unconditionally. She was the only one who could make him feel anything other than obsession and shame. That fact both fascinated and terrified him. He couldn’t stand it, and so he hid. When he finally heard about the egg from a random pidgey, he feigned excitement but carried on as if nothing had changed.

        He flew back into Olivine, weeks later, while the sun still shone overhead. As a flying-type, he found it difficult to navigate in the dark, and the dead of night would make it all too easy to turn around and hide again anyway. This was the safest option—or it would have been, if he were an ordinary flying-type commonly seen throughout the city. He was foreign and, even worse, shiny. The unwanted attention caused him to feel uncomfortable everywhere he went. He struggled to maintain his confident front as he ambled into the apartment, calling Kuiora’s name.

        As it turned out, Kuiora wasn’t in the apartment like he had anticipated she would be. He knew from past experience that if she were here, she would have answered him immediately. He took the time to check each room for her regardless, noting, as he always did, how clean and tidy everything was. The rearranged decorations on the fireplace mantle meant even that was cleaned, though no one ever used the fireplace because of a particular someone’s fear of fire. Thanks to Senori, the apartment could feel like a home for the team. He wished he could stay here more often, but Kuiora…

        Well, even though he specialized in spinning tall tales, no words were sufficient enough to explain their relationship.

        It was almost a relief for Ezrem when the only one in the apartment turned out to be Senori. Senori, at least, was more inclined to believe his lies—but the furret’s presence was conflicting just as well. He had been the team’s leader from the very beginning, a feat Ezrem envied greatly.

        Ezrem wasn’t looking for an argument today. His plan was to have Senori tell Kuiora that he had shown up, but couldn’t wait for her to come back because he had to keep an estranged group of raticate from attacking the forest. The raticate had been allowed to pass through to Ecruteak, but if they weren’t gone by nightfall, something would have to be done to ensure they didn’t hurt those in the forest like they had in the past. Surely Senori would understand the importance of what he had to do.

        Then Ezrem dared to go past the front hallway and saw the egg. His logic: if Kuiora isn’t here, the egg shouldn’t be here either. The egg should be with Kuiora. He didn’t mistrust Kuiora, but instead cursed himself silently for thinking she wouldn’t accept help if it were offered to her. Years ago she would have declined, but she’d changed. Senori hadn’t changed. Of course he’d offer to help her so she could still train and… and whatever else she did nowadays.

        Ezrem decided against saying anything first, knowing he’d greet the furret with a sarcastic quip. Senori seemed to notice his hesitation and merely nodded his head in acknowledgment.

        There was nothing in the family room to distract the furret and give him an excuse to maintain the silence. After a few moments he said sternly, “Welcome home.”

        Ezrem frowned, unsure of how to respond. He took a step forward and asked the obvious question: “Where’s Kuiora?”

        “At the lighthouse, helping Rennio with something,” Senori said, shrugging. “She should be back soon, but—”

        “But what? You’re not worried, are you?”

        Senori offered a thin smile. “Well, no…”

        “She won’t keep you waiting, especially since she was probably stubborn about leaving to begin with.”

        Senori’s ears perked up curiously. “Rennio begged her to go. He specifically needed a water-type to come with him for some reason. How did you know?”

        “You don’t know me very well if you have to ask.” Senori rolled his eyes, but said nothing. Ezrem continued, “I’m not around much, but when I am, I pay real close attention. That way, I can make educated guesses like that and be right most of the time.”

        “Do you think your kid will be as annoying as you are?”

        Without meaning to, it seemed that Ezrem was steering this conversation in the wrong direction. He opted for a simple response and said, “Well, let’s hope not.”

        Senori glanced back and forth between his teammate and the egg. He shifted uneasily where he was standing, and pretended to brush some dust away from the coffee table in the middle of the room.

        “Anyway, if you’re gonna stick around, I might go walk around town for a bit…”

        Ezrem opened his mouth to speak, but caught himself beforehand. How could he possibly ask who was going to watch the egg when the answer was so obvious? “Go ahead,” he mumbled instead.

        “Really?” Senori said, genuinely surprised. “Just, um, keep the egg—well, it’s your egg. You do what you want, but I’ve…”

        Ezrem’s expression hardened as the furret trailed off out of embarrassment. He hadn’t given a second thought to how exactly Senori was taking care of the egg. So much for paying attention.

        He faked a smile. “I heard once that an egg that’ll hatch a shiny pokémon doesn’t need any special sort of incubation. Since we clearly don’t want the kid to turn out anything like its father, we should err on the side of caution and keep it warm at all costs.”

        Senori rubbed the back of his head sheepishly. “Sounds like a tale Kuiora made up,” he said.

        Ezrem waved him off and said, “Get out of here. Sitting on eggs for hours on end doesn’t suit a restless pokémon like you.”

        “That’s… true.” He turned to leave, but paused before he reached the door. “But I meant it, Ezrem. You don’t have to run. Stick around and you’ll see, okay?”

        “You’re as inspiring as ever, my friend. I also spoke sincerely when I told you to get out of here.”

        Senori rolled his eyes, but did just that. He had to hurry to the lighthouse and tell Kuiora about the news. Ezrem was brash and unpredictable, but he wasn’t as bad as he believed himself to be. The egg needed someone to be there for it, and as long as he was the only one available to take care of it, he’d stay.

        //

        chapter 3 ; [EZREM]
        albatross

        *

        You know, I could’ve admitted it. I really could’ve! All I had to do was fly back into the city, prop myself up on the apartment windowsill, and peck at the glass pathetically until someone came to open the door and let me in. I could’ve told Senori or Kuiora or whoever that I’d simply forgotten how to undo the lock myself since I’d been gone so long. That would’ve been a lie, of course, but hey, then I’d have had the excuse to say sorry for inconveniencing them in such a way, and then another quick sorry about how I didn’t drop by to visit more often. They might have laughed somewhat. Even if it was an awkward laugh, I could have felt more at ease about coming home and admitting I never should’ve left in the first place.

        Instead, I kept on coming and going, even after Shin was born. No one tried to stop me. If I was hanging around for a while, great! If not… Well, that just meant that Kuiora had a lot of stories to tell every time she saw me, and since she liked stories even more than I did, I figured she didn’t mind.

        Honestly, if someone had put their foot down and told me to stay, I would’ve. Probably. But in hindsight, I was sure everyone on the team could remember all the times I convinced them to believe or do certain things that ended up going awry. And since they all had a decent set of morals, they probably had the right idea about not confronting me.

        As usual, Senori had to be the one to ruin everything. I only started sticking around permanently again once the white coats claimed that Senori’s prognosis was far too poor to justify the more aggressive treatment methods. It didn’t matter one bit whether Senori was at home or in the hospital at this point. According to them, it was best to make him feel as comfortable as possible and to make his last moments worthwhile for the sake of everyone involved.

        I’d give the white coats credit for trying to help us understand, sure. The nurse who bandaged up my wing back when I was burned was nice enough, so I had no reason not to trust the health care profession. But what they were telling us to do with to live in the moment, and that just wasn’t for me! I planned in advance. I needed to know how others acted and what they were going to say. If I didn’t know, I needed to feel in control. I’d become obsessed with the idea of making what I wanted to happen, happen.

        Senori’s sickness wasn’t something I could control in the slightest. And it wasn’t his fault it turned out so badly, I know, but I hated him for it. Loathed him for it. I didn’t know how dementia progressed, and I wanted to find a way to save him. Saving others wasn’t my forte by any means. To want to save someone instead of hurting them for once… and to only be able to stand by in the end, looking on rather helplessly… I hated Senori for putting me in that situation. All of it reminded me of Annie, really, which made sense. The main difference was that Senori was alive for a while, and Annie was gone before I could so much as blink.

        I had to do something. I was convinced that if I accumulated any more guilt, I’d start drowning in it.

        *

        Unfortunately, there wasn’t any obvious place to start looking for ideas. It pained me to admit it, but I knew next to nothing about dementia or diseases in general, and I hadn’t exactly made any friends in Olivine that could lead me in the right direction.

        There wasn’t time to sit and contemplate my plan of attack, so what could I do? I decided I could start inside the apartment itself. I waited until the most knowledgeable pokémon on the team was home alone and confronted him in the privacy of the living room. Atis had always been a shy, reserved kind of guy, so to say I was surprised when he blew up at me immediately was a vast understatement.

        Not that Atis’s idea of blowing up at someone was very violent. He only chucked a pokéball at my head, which bounced off of me, onto the couch, and then onto the hardwood floor with a loud clunk.

        “Good grief. What’d I ever do to you to deserve that?” I was about to add that, you know, on second thought, he shouldn’t answer. But I couldn’t really think of anything terrible I’d done to Atis except tell a few mean-spirited jokes about him here and there. I repeated myself when he didn’t say anything right away.

        “Wait, what?” Atis stared at me, looking like he hadn’t slept well in days. “O-Oh. It’s just you, Ezrem. I thought you were someone else...”

        I rubbed my head with my wing, since it really did hurt! I couldn’t imagine how hard it would’ve hurt if the fighting-type actually trained himself. “No worries,” I mumbled. “Everyone just left for the hospital, though, so I’m afraid that excuse doesn’t hold up very well. Pokéballs wouldn’t effectively scare burglars away, either.”

        Atis sighed. He sounded just as tired as he looked. “Look, I’m sorry, okay? But don’t play dumb with me! You should know that if I’m stressed out, it’s because of her.” The hitmontop reached down and picked up the pokéball he’d thrown at me, running his hands over its surface scratches and wiping away crusted dirt.

        “Ah, right.” I’d almost forgotten about the day I saw him talking to a magikarp at the beach. It seemed we were all currently preoccupied with something to the point of acting crazy. “That’s fair, except… Hold on. What’s her name again?”

        “Her name’s Glori.”

        I blinked at him rather stupidly. With the way he was clenching his fists, I thought he’d break the pokéball or punch me since I happened to be in front of him instead of her. I’d never seen him this angry before. “Okay, well, Glori the magikarp couldn’t possibly come up behind you like I did. We don’t live underwater.”

        Atis loosened his grip on the pokéball and turned it over in his hands, sighing deeply. “I know that. I’m… not dumb, you know.” He managed a small smile and said, “Sai had her meet the team earlier, and I guess you weren’t around, but everyone loves her. Especially Kuiora.”

        “A water-type teammate sounds like something she’d get excited over, yeah.”

        “I-I know, and I thought that was great, I really did, until she started telling Sai these ideas about how to revamp the apartment so that Glori could stay out of her pokéball all the time…”

        His mouth was still parted, but he couldn’t seem to finish his sentence. “Like the rest of us do?” I guessed.

        “She shouldn’t have to be part of the team!”

        “She shouldn’t have to be replacing anybody, no,” I said, wondering if Atis had always been this vulnerable without showing it.

        “You get it, yeah…” Atis said. He took on a calm demeanor now, allowing his gaze to shift from the pokéball in his hand to me. “She’s in the ball already, you know. She has to be, because how would she travel to the hospital otherwise? Sai was about to leave and I didn’t know if he wanted to bring her. I couldn’t think of a reason why he’d want to bring her, so I held on to the pokéball, a-and then when you snuck up on me, I thought you were him coming back for her…”

        “You don’t have to justify what you did. If I knew you’d lose sleep over it, I wouldn’t have gone and spoiled the surprise for you.” I shrugged, trying not to let him how I actually thought he was acting less like himself and… more like me. “Why don’t I hold on to the pokéball while they’re out?”

        “Are you sure? It’s not a big deal, s-so…”

        “Yes, Atis, I’m very sure. As you pointed out, I wasn’t there when she met the team. Figure I should introduce myself.” Atis frowned, but handed over the pokéball anyway. “Good. Now, seriously, go get some rest.”

        The hitmontop nodded, then walked to one of the bedrooms wordlessly, which was a huge relief for me until I realized I hadn’t asked him for help about researching dementia like I’d meant to. It was just so awkward, remembering what it was like in a pokéball, all those years ago when Annie would recall me for the most ridiculous reasons! She couldn’t control me any other way, I knew, and it was fine, because I could see and hear my surroundings from inside the ball regardless.

        I wasn’t sure when Atis was last recalled to his pokéball, but something told me he’d since forgotten what it felt like. Something told me he was completely unaware that Glori was able to witness our entire conversation and that, once she got the chance, she’d give him a piece of her mind. Something told me that it wouldn’t have been right to add insult to injury, and to find a better way to fix the problem instead.

        *

        My sympathy for Atis was quickly replaced by amusement. He’d been so stressed out by Kuiora’s suggestion to accommodate Glori inside the apartment, and here I was now, trying not to giggle. That’d wake up the poor hitmontop, but I was too eager to listen to Kuiora’s wild ideas and build on them. That’s what the two of us did best as a couple, after all! We took all the bits and pieces about life we didn’t quite understand yet, laid them out bare, and worked out the kinks to fit them together like a puzzle.

        Part of me pondered, just for a brief moment, why I was willing to talk to Kuiora about Glori, but not about Senori, the major problem hanging over our heads. The other part of me knew deep down that nothing could be done to fix Senori, and that Kuiora would sternly tell me so. She used to believe death was a concept invented and brought up in conversation just to scare those who felt vulnerable. She’d grown up and learned a lot since then, of course.

        And speaking of kids… There was Shin to think about. We hadn’t discussed at any length of how to break the news to our boy. We hadn’t discussed much of anything at all lately. I didn’t doubt that she’d managed to explain the situation to him by herself during one of my disappearing acts.

        Well, Glori was on my good side for the time being, despite how Atis felt about her. Since the apartment wasn’t magikarp-proof just yet, she gave me the perfect excuse to go out and wander. I instinctively flew in the direction of my preferred hiding place, which lay north of Olivine. I was always comforted by how the heavily forested area made it difficult for anyone to spot me without the ability to fly, too.

        I swooped in toward one of the forest’s many ponds, claws first, which forced the water to ripple and carry away a group of wooper floating lazily on their backs. That gave Glori space to materialize, and we were near the water’s edge so I could perch comfortably on the grass. I pretended to preen and watched out of the corner of my eye as Glori had to fetch her pokéball before it drifted away to the other side of the pond, where it could be taken by a passing trainer or feral.

        “You and the crew honestly are the worst at greetings,” she mumbled, then ducked back under the water to nudge the ball near my feet with her top fins.

        “We’re a crew, huh?” I said, still not looking at her. “That’s more accurate than calling us a team. I mean, we’re not pirates, but we kind of act like it sometimes. Stick around long enough and you’ll see.”

        Glori grinned. “I can see that. Stealing things just to pass the time doesn’t sound like the worst way to live, at any rate.”

        I grinned back. Why did Atis dislike her again? “My old trainer had a similar philosophy.” I paused, remembering what little I had been told about Annie’s past. “She was terrified of water, though, now that I think about it. So I guess my old crew never had a chance at being real pirates, either.”

        “Well, we’ll see what comes of my arrival, then, Mister… Ezrem, right?”

        “Captain Ezrem has a better ring to it.”

        She rolled her eyes. “You know,” she said, “I would’ve assumed that hitmontop was the ingrate the crew spoke about, not you.”

        That was a dangerous assumption for her to keep, but she was sharp, no doubt. She wasn’t shrinking back at the truth, no, but she also didn’t seem too thrilled to meet my acquaintance. Suddenly I felt slightly on edge, like Atis probably did when she was around.

        “Right. Well. Surely you heard all about the team when you were in your pokéball, waiting for Atis?”

        Glori shrugged. At least, I thought she did. It was hard to judge magikarp body language, since she was mostly submerged in water. “It’s not too easy, trying to eavesdrop from inside a cupboard like the one I was hidden in,” she said. “Besides, that’s irrelevant compared to how I was expecting Senori, not anyone else.”

        “I refuse to believe he actually wanted anyone else to do his dirty work for him, but it seems he didn’t have a choice.” I shook my head and added, “So it goes.”

        “Indeed…” she said slowly, her voice trailing off in a way that told me she knew something I didn’t.

        So I stood there, waiting for her to continue, because there was no way I was going to be the one to appear weak and press the issue! I pretended to preen again until she grew bored and started to swim away from me, probably to see if we were anywhere near the apartment—which, luckily for me, we weren’t. I let her go off on her own, and in fact, I did the same as I flew to the branch of the tree closest to me.

        I shivered when a small, unexpected gust of wind blew past. I hadn’t realized how cool it was, but it made sense. It was almost the fall season again. Then it would be winter, Annie’s least favorite season, and mine as well. There weren’t many excuses I could give the team if I wanted to escape for a while, because what bird in their right mind would willingly brave the cold? They’d tell me to stay in, light the fireplace, but I couldn’t bear it, so I’d say I had to go help out a friend of mine in the forest with something. And that wasn’t a lie, per se. I’d help others, but they weren’t friends, just wild pokémon I came across at the perfect moment. I was tired of saving the forest’s inhabitants, but after all these years, there was still nowhere else that came close to feeling like home.

        I abruptly jumped in surprise as Glori called up to me. I couldn’t hear her, and I wasn’t interested in what she’d said at all, but I flew back down with the meanest look on my face I could manage.

        “I could’ve fallen and died right there, you know!” I said.

        “You’d have had plenty of time to regain your balance and fly away.”

        I frowned at her. “Okay,” I said. “I could also carry you away in my talons and conveniently drop you in a spot where you can’t find water to swim in for miles. Wouldn’t be hard.”

        Glori, apparently crazy on a level comparable to Sai, laughed. “You wouldn’t do that,” she said, and laughed again.

        “No, I wouldn’t,” I admitted, relaxing a bit. “I don’t reveal my evil plans that easily. Not out loud, anyway.”

        “I didn’t want to tell you this, but…” she said slowly, “it seems you don’t know. Sai rushed to the hospital with everyone after he got a call from the doctor. I can’t imagine that it was good news.”

        I took a deep breath. I hadn’t known. That didn’t matter, though. The prognosis was awful from the very beginning, so this couldn’t come as a shock at all.

        “You and Atis stayed behind, then,” I said dumbly. What else could I say? That I’d waited too long to try to help Senori, and already it was too late?

        “My presence wasn’t a priority.” She paused, then added, “Like the hitmontop claimed, I have no right to be here.”

        “And Atis didn’t go because…?”

        “He’s too worried about himself. He doesn’t want to face what’s happening.”

        “Obviously. Nobody does!”

        Glori nodded and grew quiet. I’d seen death before myself, but I hadn’t learned how to deal with it very well the first time around. Maybe death was something you never got used to, which was a strange thing to think, considering that it’s everywhere, every day, all day.

        A few minutes of silence passed, and then she just nodded to me again, so I returned her to her pokéball and flew back toward the city. I wanted to visit the hospital, wanted to say goodbye to Senori, but I doubted that I’d be welcomed despite how the furret had forgotten my name and face long ago. By showing up, I would be intruding on the rest of the team and their final moments with their leader. I could only be comforted by the fact that I hadn’t failed at helping Senori. I hadn’t even tried!

        I flew back to the apartment, noting how empty and blue the sky was. Even the clouds didn’t want anything to do with me today. That was fine, I supposed. Things were just as they should have been. I was alone, and everything below me looked so small, reminding me how big the world was and that I didn’t belong in any part of it.

        *

        When Shin was born, I knew I was in trouble. Totodile were known to be hellions, after all. Raising an innocent little rufflet would’ve been easier. All I would’ve had to do was explain why braviary can fly and why rufflet can’t! Alas, I wasn’t that lucky. At least my frequent escapades saved me from the worst of Shin’s antics, which mostly involved him biting or crashing into things that knocked his teeth right out.

        Now, I’d met Kuiora as a croconaw, and from what I’d been told, she was never that reckless with her teeth. I laughed at her then, since the thought of her being anything but reckless was impossible to imagine. But the very first time Shin sunk his teeth into something and had to be pried free, I happened to be around and saw Kuiora panic. I was the one who was supposed to panic, not her!

        Needless to say, I stopped laughing about Shin losing his teeth anymore, because it wasn’t worth it if it made her feel that bad. Once upon a time I might’ve kept doing it anyway, but the memories I had of Kuiora straying too far from her usual cheerful demeanor were painful to remember. Somehow they were even comparable to the memories I associated with Annie’s death. Annie and me were never on completely good terms, though. I loved Kuiora, and since she was foolish enough to accept me as her life partner, I owed it to her to try to be less of a burden and act more considerate when the situation called for it.

        I had to remind myself of that when I knew the news of Senori’s death was coming, probably as soon as Sai walked in the door. I didn’t want anyone to feel obligated to speak to me; with Glori’s warning, the tension in the room would say it all. Disappearing beforehand to avoid the weeks and months of sadness overshadowing everything in life seemed more appealing, but I owed Kuiora. I owed her even more than that, but I could start here. So I chose to stay.

        The wait dragged on, slow and dull and excruciatingly painful. There was nothing to do in my spare time. Clean dishes, straightened picture frames, a breeze coming in through the window—what would any of that do when someone close just kicked the bucket? My only solace was that Glori might be wrong, that the team would waltz through the door and say, you know, whatever, he’d be around for at least a couple more months.

        I paced back and forth, focusing my attention on the pitter patter of my claws pressing against the floor. If I took a good, hard look at the hardwood, I could see scratches, probably from Shin’s claws, or maybe Gracie’s. Senori always did scold her for letting them get too long. I doubted any of the scratches could be mine, and because it didn’t matter, I intentionally drew my talons across the middle of the kitchen. When I was done, I stood back and admired my handiwork. There, I thought. Now I’d made my mark, but I felt none the better for it.

        Eventually, it happened. It was dark out, and maybe I should’ve been sleeping hours ago at that point, but the team had to come home and I had to be there for them when they did. I’d waited all day, but still I wasn’t ready, partially because no one could ever really be ready for this sort of thing, and partially because the people I expected to have to comfort the most… Well, they weren’t there.

        The teammates who were there walked in one by one through the front door. They were all eerily quiet, so much so that the door creaking open sounded sharp as a gunshot. They weren’t holding back tears or anything like that, and though I considered that a blessing, I was sure they’d just let it all out at the hospital. Rennio’s arms lay limp at his sides, and his head hung low. Knowing him, he’d probably gone to hide while Gracie took on the role of Sai’s anchor. The fire-type maintained her calm composure and led Sai straight to his bedroom to lie down. A few moments later, Atis poked his head out from the other bedroom. His face scrunched up like he’d physically been hit, and then slammed the door shut.

        I’d forgotten Atis was still in the apartment, honestly. Not that he would’ve been the best companion to have, but at least he made silence comfortable. Gracie and Rennio were a different story. I couldn’t ask what I desperately wanted to, not right away, and it killed me. I looked around warily, not looking forward to making the situation worse. Where was Kuiora and where was my son? I didn’t want Senori to be reduced to an afterthought, but I couldn’t help but be worried.

        Rennio moved about aimlessly from the couch to a half-open pantry in the kitchen and back again. I assumed he was waiting for Gracie to come back so they could talk, but more than anything, he just seemed totally out of sorts. When his back was turned to me, I flapped on over to be near him. I figured he’d yell at me for it, but it was a risk I was willing to take, and he’d know I was coming by the sound of my wings.

        But he didn’t turn around, didn’t raise his voice. He didn’t acknowledge me in the slightest. Up close, it was obvious how agitated he was with the large amount of tiny sparks of electricity swirling around his arms. Given how badly he was spacing out, he’d probably shock me on accident if I touched him to get his attention.

        “Um,” I started, rubbing the back of my neck. If I kept to myself, I’d never find out where my family went. “I know I’m the last person you’d want to hear this from, Rennio, but… I’m sorry.”

        The elekid bit his lip and settled for sitting on the couch instead of pacing around, looking like a very stiff robot. He wouldn’t look at me, and that was fine. I doubted I could make any kind of meaningful eye contact with him in a moment like this. Words were always my weapon of choice, and even those were failing me right now. Again, I found myself blaming Senori for leaving me to deal with this nonsense when I could be in the forest, completely oblivious and uncaring…

        “This might be a stupid question,” I said, “and you can tell me if you agree.” Because I was the most stunning example of honesty. Right. But maybe asking an open ended question would help speed things along. “Is there, um, anything I can do going forward?”

        He finally lifted his head toward me, the corner of his mouth turning into a scowl. “Shouldn’t you be at the hospital?” he said.

        “So I guess it was a stupid question!” I replied, and I actually smiled, because Rennio had, as he typically did, told me exactly what I wanted to hear without realizing it.

        “Yeah. Stupider than usual, even.”

        “Well, I thought Kuiora and Shin would come back with you guys, and I wanted to be here.” I shrugged, wondering if he could tell I was being truthful. “But, yeah, looks like I should be there, so—”

        “Mind if I give you a bit of advice?”

        I frowned at the unexpected interruption. The idea of Rennio giving me advice almost made me burst out laughing. If only I could’ve upped and left to race over to the hospital without hearing him out—but I’d already done enough unforgivable things to him, so I forced myself to stay put a while longer.

        I shifted my body uncomfortably and took a step toward him, this time careful not to drag my claws on the floor. “Yeah, I guess. Go ahead.”

        Rennio decided that this was a good time to stare at me now. His eyes looked cold and empty, but I knew him better than that. No doubt he was trying not to let all the emotions stirring inside of him blow up. “I hate you, you know,” he started, sighing heavily. “At least when Annie died, I had you. You acted so strong and got me out of my funk, got me motivated enough to keep going. For the longest time, I thought it was a front you put on for my sake, and I… really, really appreciated that, Ezrem. But then I discovered you just didn’t care about her being gone! It’s easy to keep going when you don’t care.” He paused and rubbed his eyes. “Anyway, I’m sure you’re just dying to get to the hospital, and I won’t keep you. My advice for you is this: don’t do to Shin what you did to me.”

        I flinched at his words. I wanted to say I did care, that it was impossible to prove because you stop believing stuff like that when you find out someone’s a liar, and how could he think I’d make the same mistake twice? I said none of these things. Instead, I gave him a quizzical look, like I was asking for elaboration.

        And elaboration was what I got.

        “Don’t lie to him,” Rennio said. “Don’t scare him more than you have to. If I see him crying, it better be because you’re not letting him steal ice cream from the freezer all day long. You get what I mean, don’t you?”

        I nodded. Rennio had been the young pokémon on Annie’s team. She’d hatched him from his egg and had coddled him from day one. And I’d taken full advantage of his childish tendency to trust anyone and everyone once she’d passed. Now I had Shin, who was just as vulnerable as Rennio had been, if not more.

        “I’ll keep it in mind,” I told him, “if you’ll keep in mind that I meant it when I asked if there was anything I could do for you. I looked up to Senori, too.”

        There were a whole slew of reasons Rennio ignored my comment and went to go check on Gracie and Sai. I decided it wasn’t worth pursuing the conversation and left for the hospital instead, thinking how the elekid had made a good point. If anyone on the team was capable of pulling it together after a blow like this, it was Senori. And Senori was gone, so who did that leave for support? I’d only been able to do it before by lying to myself, and I wouldn’t have recommended that to anyone.

        *

        At first glance, Olivine’s hospital looked less like an important building and more like an old brick house that sat alone atop the steepest hill on the northwest edge of the city. Olivine just didn’t have the population needed to justify adding extra wings to the hospital, and anyway, a lot of trainers and pet owners preferred to travel out to Cianwood for treatment if it was manageable. Sai had considered the idea of moving Senori to Cianwood once or twice, but ultimately decided against it after some research told him that even the doctors weren’t any better at treating dementia.

        But as I crept through the halls for the first time, I realized there were some perks to keeping Senori here. The hallways were spotless, and the desks organized. Whoever worked here cared, and no doubt Senori got lots of personalized care, given how the number of nurses roaming about far outweighed the number of patients I saw.

        What I didn’t see was Kuiora or my son. And what I didn’t want to do was look around long enough to find Senori’s body being moved or something, though that would’ve been the perfect opportunity to say goodbye to him. I’d never feel comfortable doing it in front of the team, after all.

        I shook my head at the thought. I felt I had no right even saying goodbye, and besides, I had business here. My best guess was that Shin had caused some sort of trouble, and Kuiora was working on getting him out of it.

        It turned out that I was absolutely correct. “And everybody says I don’t know my family well,” I muttered to myself as I saw a small flash of blue turn around the nearest corner, followed by a nurse with a panicked expression on her face.

        I followed them as quickly as I could on my feet, not wanting to fly in the narrow halls lest I knock somebody over. Kuiora, as always, was way ahead of me. She was already waiting the opposite end of the hallway he was running in, feet planted firmly to the white tile floor. She caught him with her arms as he failed to duck past her. Normally, I’d expect her to give him a stern talking to afterward, but her expression was soft, like she didn’t have the energy to be angry right now. I couldn’t really blame her.

        “Kuiora,” I said, approaching the two of them, “what’s going on?”

        Obviously, that question didn’t evoke the best response from her. She stared at me, eyes blank, and for a moment I was unsure if she was registering my presence at all.

        “Um. Well, okay, I know what’s going on,” I said quickly, stumbling over my words. After all the years we’d spent together, she could still make me do that. “But what else is going on? Does Shin…?”

        “Oh, he knows,” she said, smiling, even though the totodile was clawing at her jaw. “The doctor came in after it happened and was about to leave again when Shin jumped at him and ripped off his tie. Then he promptly hid it, and he won’t tell anyone where it is.”

        “And that’s why you’re still here?” I said, knowing the answer to that question, too. But in my defense, she should’ve gone home to rest before worrying about punishment. It was just a tie.

        “Well, yeah,” she said, shrugging. “That doctor worked really hard for Senori, but Shin’s having difficulty understanding that…”

        “I think the doctor understands, though, no?”

        “Probably, but—”

        “Shush,” I told her, trying not to sound forceful. “You’re acting like you did when you were a kid! Always obsessing over stuff that doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things.”

        “That’s not true!” she said, but it totally was, and she knew it. She became defensive whenever someone else was right and there was no way to prove them wrong. “This does matter! Shin can’t attack anyone he wants to for no good reason.” Her gaze shifted downward. I had a feeling she was remembering the time she attacked Sai in public for no reason other than to get his attention.

        “Maybe that was his way of telling us he’s sad that Senori’s… gone. He’s known that things haven’t been normal for a while now.” Kuiora remained quiet, and Shin calmed down as well, so I continued, “If it really bothers you, I’ll stay here with him and I’ll see you at the apartment later. But please, don’t push yourself at a time like this.”

        Her silence made me wonder if she’d been listening or not. I was about to repeat myself when she nodded, stood up, and handed Shin to me. I wrapped my wings around him, and the totodile calmed down instantly.

        “Yeah…” she whispered. “This was dumb of me, right? I really do want to go home.”

        “Then go home, and I’ll meet you there later, like I said.”

        Her eyes met mine. “You mean it, Ezrem?” she asked.

        “Yeah, I mean it.”

        Arceus only knew how many times I’d told her that and then broke the promise, but she seemed to believe me, or she simply didn’t feel up to arguing over it. When she disappeared around the corner, and when I heard the heavy doors to this particular hospital wing open and close, I set Shin on the floor.

        “You know I love you, kid, so I’m only gonna tell you this once,” I said. “Are you listening?”

        The totodile cocked his head. “Sure, Daddy, I’m listening,” he said.

        “I’m sure Mom’s told you plenty of stories, right? Ones she heard from Professor Elm?”

        “Yes…” Shin said slowly, “especially stories about how totodile should take care of their teeth.”

        I had to try not to laugh at that. I paused for a moment to regain my composure, then said, “Right. She knows lots of stories, even stories about pokémon no one ever really sees, like the legendaries. But I’ve noticed that, you know, she looks a whole lot happier when she’s talking about you and Sai and the team—everybody she sees everyday. She loves you and the rest of us no matter what, okay?”

        Shin blinked, probably still confused, or at least acting confused. That seemed like a trait he could’ve picked up from either of us.

        I sighed. “Whatever you do, she’ll love you and forgive you. That’s just who she is, but that doesn’t mean you should do whatever you want, because… Well, why did you really steal the doctor’s tie?”

        “Because he was bugging everyone when everyone was crying!” Shin said, jumping up and down. “And he made everyone cry even more.”

        Yeah, that was what I figured. “Where’s his tie now?”

        “I stuck it in one of the rooms. In a fan.”

        I rubbed my eyes, using my wing to hide the fact that I was struggling not to laugh again. “Was it a moving fan?” I asked him.

        “Sure was!”

        Okay, so it was probably ripped to pieces by now. Surely the doctor had plenty more to wear and it wasn’t actually a huge loss, so I told Shin, “Okay. Mom’s not going to be sad or mad about today for forever, but we’ll still have to go over more appropriate ways to express your emotions.”

        Shin nodded. If he really understood what I’d said, I didn’t know. Like I’d told Kuiora, now wasn’t the time to worry about it too much. I carried Shin and tiptoed out of the hospital, mentioning to the nurse we saw on the way out that, sorry, we never did find the tie and maybe we’d look again next time if they wanted.

        Walking out, I kept my head low, still apprehensive at the idea of seeing Senori. It occurred to me that I’d never seen Annie’s body, either. Rennio and me had assumed she’d been burned with the forest, but part of me always thought that, because I didn’t see her body, there was a chance that she was still alive somehow. That logic seemed to apply here, even though it wasn’t really logical logic.

        Wouldn’t it have been nice, though, if I hadn’t killed Annie? If we thought she’d been dead all this time, but she was actually alive somehow? What if she’d been trying to find us this whole time? I wouldn’t actually be a murderer, then. I wouldn’t be as heartless as everyone thinks I am.

        Yeah, that was a nice idea. It was such a nice idea that I fantasized about it all the way home.

        *

        My trainer had, so far, responded to Senori’s death in a curious way. Perhaps I was staring at him rather idiotically for it as he got dressed before the funeral, because he gave me a sharp look that broke me out of a trance.

        “Hey,” he said. “You know something I don’t?”

        “Who, me?” I replied, rolling my eyes. “Never.”

        He shifted back toward the mirror and finished straightening his tie. He mumbled something impossible to hear, and whether he was talking to me or his own reflection, I couldn’t tell.

        He’d remained calm and reserved when I’d expected at least a few weeks of intense depression and intermittent mood swings. Kuiora had told me that the entire team was just as surprised. We agreed that it was a welcome change of pace, especially if his calmness didn’t eventually reveal itself to be just a ticking time bomb in disguise.

        His stoicism bothered me, though I couldn’t pinpoint the exact reason why. Rennio had put it into my head that I’d reacted the same way to Annie’s death, and it didn’t seem fitting for a trainer to follow in his pokémon’s footsteps like that. So on second thought, I selfishly wanted Sai to act in his usual predictable way.

        Sai poked my shoulder to get my attention and said, “Well, how do I look?”

        With his outfit, he seemed older. Wiser, even. His suit was crisp and without wrinkles, and even though the tie he wore was the only one he owned, it could easily fool anyone into thinking it was brand new. The outfit complemented his tanned skin nicely, and it fit him perfectly. He spoke confidently as he told me that the outfit had been tailor-made just for him by a Kalosian acquaintance of Jasmine’s. For the moment, it was inconceivable to me that he had tried to kill himself five years ago by jumping from a seventeen-story building.

        “You look like a man who’s going to live for a very long time,” I said, shrugging.

        Sai laughed with a hint of nervousness. That had to mean he was actually upset deep down, right? He had just put on a pretty convincing mask that could collapse at the drop of a hat. That made sense. He’d done exactly that when we were doing the gym circuit all those years ago, after all.

        I frowned as it hit me just how little I knew him now. I’d have to fix that, since I planned on sticking around.

        “Sai,” I said, then lowered my voice. He may have seemingly been in good spirits, but the rest of the apartment was quieter than I’d ever heard it before. “Um, that was a bad choice of wording, I know, so let me rephrase myself. You look good, but do you feel good?”

        Sai reached inside his pocket and kept his hand there, fumbling with what had to be a small object inside. “Well,” he started, “I rolled the dice and got lucky for a real long while. Now my luck’s run out, and there’s not much I can do about it, so…”

        “I see,” I said, even though I didn’t, not really. “Okay. I have another question. Are you ready?”

        Sai nodded.

        I took a deep breath. “Do you… have an extra pokéball lying around that I could, you know, use?”

        Sai raised his eyebrow. “Are you okay?” he asked, and he sounded genuine.

        “Yes!” I said a little too quickly. “Sorry. I’ve been more of a wild pokémon than a captured one the entire time I’ve been with you—you know, unlike the rest of the team. And I just think it’s time to see what it’s like to be in someone else’s shoes for a while.”

        …Because he had been Rennio's confidant, it was inevitable that Senori should learn about my secrets. The fire, the delusions of grandeur stuck in my head, the loss of Annie and my team... Senori had listened, nodded, and then he’d come to me for verification. I confirmed everything, but Senori didn't scold me. He didn't shake his head and walk away. He told me his opinion of me, defining me from his point of view with a stern, respectful tone of voice. He told me that I didn't have to be the monster I thought I was.

        I’d believed him, and then he’d died before I could prove him right. I always wanted to have him acknowledge all those things he said could change in me, but I never really even tried to prove myself to him. I regretted it, but what could I do now?

        Well, bad luck is said to come in threes. If anything, I’d learned not to believe in luck like Sai did, but two important figures in my life had died. Or maybe Annie hadn’t died after all. I didn’t know. What I did know was that I wanted to be next, but I couldn’t just keep giving in to the urge to disappear. I couldn’t give in to the assumption that I couldn’t redeem myself without Senori.

        Sai blinked, then nodded like he understood somehow. “Sure, Ezrem,” he said. “I’ll buy one the next time we’re at the store, okay? If I forget, remind me and I’ll make it happen.”
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          #4    
        Old March 26th, 2017 (2:48 PM).
        diamondpearl876's Avatar
        diamondpearl876 diamondpearl876 is offline
        you can breathe now. x
           
          Join Date: Jun 2007
          Location: Illinois, USA.
          Age: 24
          Nature: Careful
          Posts: 1,568

          PHANTOM PROJECT

          3.5

          *

          Sai breathed a sigh of relief. This particular office looked nothing like a prison cell. There was furniture here, for one thing, and dim lights overhead that didn’t flicker. Two expensive leather armchairs took up a good portion of the room, a side table nestled between them. The boy couldn’t help but notice the stack of thick textbooks on top of the table. He hoped that they might hold the secrets to his recovery, since he hadn’t had much luck with actually talking to psychiatrists.

          Why did he still come here every week, then, if that was case? The answer to that question changed constantly.

          Glancing toward the window at the far end of the office, Sai saw a deep, dark blue twilight closing in. Another day in his life was almost over. Soon, he could go home and sleep—if his mind slowed down and let him. It had been a long day, after all. It had been a long week. Really, it had just been a long life.

          A wave of restlessness washed over him as he realized someone was speaking to him. Was it Dr. Richards, his former psychiatrist?

          “You’ve told me before, Sai… that bad things happen to bad people, right?”

          Silence. It wasn't Dr. Richards, though the words were similar.

          “Yes.”

          Silence. He had learned that answers were supposed to swift and sharp. Hesitation created mistrust, and mistrust led him to trouble.

          “Okay. What kind of person are you?”

          Silence. Sai watched as the psychiatrist took a handkerchief and wiped the sweat from his brow, and shifted in his seat so he didn’t look as slumped.

          “...That's a really nice suit, sir.” He had to say what was on his mind or it was like saying nothing at all.

          “Thank you, Sai.”

          “I think I'm boring you. Because I don’t know why I’m here today.” Silence. The psychologist’s mouth parted, but no words came out. “I mean, I don’t feel sick, so…”

          “Do you think these sessions have been helpful at all?”

          Silence. There was pain hidden in that silence. Would this psychiatrist be the first one brave enough to hear about the pain?

          No, of course not. No one would ever be brave enough to make it through even half the story. So Sai filled the silence with meaningless chatter. “I don’t know. I’m either going to get better or I’m not. There’s no in-between.”

          The therapist fumbled with the papers on the clipboard in his lap, tapping his pen on each page before moving to the next. Dr. Richards also took notes in the cells. Sai didn’t know what that meant. It probably didn’t mean anything.

          “From what you’ve told me, you eat well enough. Your sleep patterns have improved considerably, and you’ve started exercising a bit more.”

          “Yeah, I train. To be closer to my pokémon.”

          Silence.

          “So. Now I have a question.”

          “Yes, Sai?”

          Sai reached into his pocket and pulled out the black and white die Dr. Richards had given him all those years ago. He looked his new psychiatrist in the eye and asked what the man thought dice might signify if it was used symbolically in a piece of art or the like. Sai kept his gaze firm, but he was still so unaccustomed to seeing human faces that he had to look away.

          Silence. A very, very long silence. The room grew darker. Twilight was here now.

          “Well...”

          Sai, in the end, couldn’t bear to listen. Couldn’t process what the psychiatrist’s answer was. He only remembered that Dr. Richards said black and white were polar opposites.
          It had been a nice gift to receive at the time. But Dr. Richards had been paid by Team Rocket to give him medication that forcibly cycled his moods, causing his own thoughts to become black and white. Things were always all bad, or all good, and because of that, he crashed. He crashed and he drowned. He drowned in his own black and white thoughts, over and over.

          When he was released as a part of the survival project, a thousand different freedoms came to him. But much like how twilight comes and goes, his emotions, harsh and deep, changed so often that he couldn't take advantage of that freedom. He wanted to feel infinite, yet little of him was actually infinite, unless you counted the nights he spent trying not to burst from the pain of loneliness. When he was confronted by that inability to speak, to coincide with anyone else's thoughts or beliefs, then he made use of the coping techniques he had learned in the cells, like he was now. A false sort of contentment traveled toward his heart, which beat with a morose fervor more often than not. Nothing was right, nothing was wrong. Existing was enough of an accomplishment during moments like these.

          //

          chapter 4 ; [KUIORA]
          effigy

          *

          I’d always meant to visit Ecruteak again. The city was so close to Olivine, and it was so full of people who took any opportunity to recount the history surrounding all the sacred buildings and artifacts they’d preserved over the centuries. It would’ve been the best place to bring Shin. Then he’d know that the pictures he saw in my collection of storybooks didn’t just come from someone’s wild imagination! Not to mention I’d heard how the sages of Ecruteak wanted the legendary Ho-oh to acknowledge their strength, so they accepted any and all challengers. If I had the chance, I could’ve beaten them fair and square.

          But it was Sai’s aversion toward Ecruteak that kept me from visiting. Of course, he said I could go whenever, that he wouldn’t worry much because I was strong enough to handle myself. Still, I felt like I’d be disrespecting him as my trainer if I went. During the short time he’d been in the city, he’d tried to battle the gym leader and ended up running away in a panic. That had been the start of the worst breakdown we’d seen from him up to that point, and we almost lost him because of it. If Ezrem hadn’t evolved so he could fly and break Sai’s fall… Well, I didn’t like to think about what would’ve happened to us without Sai.

          Ezrem was also the one who told me stories about Ecruteak in lieu of the townspeople. That was good enough for me, even if he probably exaggerated literally everything he heard from the conversations between trainers passing through to get to Olivine. I forgave him for disappearing in return for his thoughtfulness.

          When I finally did get the chance to travel out to Ecruteak with Sai, it was for Senori’s funeral. I couldn’t wrap my head around Sai’s choice of location, but he explained that nowhere else in Johto met the requirements for the kind of burial ground he was looking for.

          “Besides,” he said, “that was a long time ago, and Senori’s more important than… what happened back then.”

          I felt a little foolish for doubting him. I’d noticed that even though people constantly dwelled on the past, they rarely learned from their mistakes. But my trainer was different than that.

          Sai had wanted to stay in the Pokémon Center the night before to avoid an early trip to the city, but he decided against it to save money. Ezrem insisted on flying the team when he realized that Sai was planning to have everyone walk. No one questioned how distracted the braviary seemed, and no one who had to travel in their pokéball complained. From inside my own pokéball—I’d long since outgrown Ezrem in size—I listened to Sai make small talk with Shin. I thought about how the world would be so quiet without our trainer, and not in the peaceful kind of way.

          When Ezrem landed outside Ecruteak’s west side entrance and I was out in the open again, I shivered. The morning chill was pretty brutal, and the lively pomeg trees that looped around the archway leading to the heart of the city failed to block the wind from reaching us. I stretched out my arms as Shin started to run to me, but he backtracked toward Ezrem, who could warm him up better than I could, anyway.

          We had to find Bellmoore Avenue, which, according to a map Sai brought, was a bit further to the north. Luckily for us, Ecruteak cared a lot about their tourists and their status in the League. Tall street signs stood on every corner, and none of the letters were faded. Atis read them to Sai easily, and then Sai figured out which road to turn on.

          Once, Sai got totally stumped even with the map. He stopped to ask for directions from an older man braving the December cold to pick up pieces of trash that the wind had blown into the streets. By this point in our search Sai was becoming impatient, and he mumbled something about not being on time for anything ever. He almost gave up on the old man, too, when he just kept staring at the map with a puzzled expression on his face. Sai repeated the name of the place with a raised voice, emphasizing each syllable sternly. Finally, the old man understood. He offered a sad, knowing smile and pointed to where the asphalt gave way to a narrow gravel path in an alley.

          Sai both thanked the old man and apologized to him. We moved on, but our trainer plodded along slowly now, looking more like someone wandering about without a destination in mind. Knowing him, he felt guilty for almost losing his temper with the old man, but he’d feel even guiltier if we didn’t find Bellmoore on time. Not that I knew all that much about how humans grasped the concept of time, but Atis was teaching me about it. I watched as the hitmontop placed a hand on his back and pressed gently to get him to speed up the pace again.

          The sound of gravel shifting beneath our feet filled in the silence between small talk about directions. Gracie skipped ahead of the group, probably to see if she could remember where we were now from when she’d traveled here with Marty. Rennio caught up with her to keep warm after he stepped in a small patch of snow stuck between the rocks. I trailed behind them, near Shin and also Ezrem, who was staring at the ground intensely. I stayed quiet. Even though I really, really wanted to know what he was thinking, what I wanted more was for him to just… not run off. It was selfish, I knew, but I needed him here right now.

          At the end of the alleyway, Sai said, “Okay, here we go,” and I guessed that we’d just reached Bellmoore Avenue. Ahead of us was a vast courtyard with all different kinds of statues and flowers and hedges cut in weird patterns, but it was a white sign held up by two circular columns that caught my attention. I stopped to read it, but I had trouble just figuring out that there were two words on the sign.

          Ezrem tapped me on the shoulder with the tip of his wing. “You look rather fascinated with something over there,” he said, his head tilted. “Should I be jealous?”

          “Of course not,” I said, crossing my arms. No one was even by the sign! I did my best to ignore him and keep reading, but the rest of the team was already heading through the courtyard toward the tower looming behind it. “This is the right spot, isn’t it? Where are they going?”

          Ezrem shrugged. He turned his head to glance at Shin, who’d fallen asleep at some point with his arms slumped over his father’s shoulders. “Like I’d know,” the braviary said, his voice quiet. “If it is, though, I don’t see any corpse around.”

          I flinched at his bluntness. At least he’d made sure Shin wouldn’t hear before opening his break, but I gave him the most intense glare I could manage, anyway. He totally deserved it for talking about Senori like he was just some creepy object.

          “What? I’m trying to behave, you know!” he said, then sighed. “Let’s just get this over with.”

          And with that, he started to carefully maneuver his way through the courtyard on foot instead of flying to avoid waking the tired totodile on his back. And then it hit me that he wouldn’t have ended the conversation that way if he was trying to be rude on purpose, so he was… being honest?

          I’d never admit it to Ezrem’s face, but I’d given up on trying to understand him. It didn’t seem like he wanted anyone to, so I usually felt okay about it. But I certainly felt guilty for it now! Hadn’t Sai told him about today at all? Technically, we were holding a memorial service in Senori’s honor, not a proper funeral. That meant there wouldn’t be a body, just a visit to the spot Sai had chosen for him to be buried.

          I hung back behind everyone for a while longer. I was half angry at Sai and the team for not including Ezrem in something important again, half angry at Ezrem for not being at the hospital when he should’ve. I walked on, ignoring the scenery, ignoring the fountain that had water spouting from the mouth of a stone-carved lugia and the fact that I now recognized that the tower ahead was Ecruteak’s rebuilt Brass Tower. When the team was almost out of sight completely, I had no choice but to sprint and rejoin them.

          I paused in front of the solid gold doors leading into the tower, which closed behind the team with a resounding thud that startled me. I took a deep breath, reminding myself that this wasn’t going to be the visit back to Ecruteak I’d envisioned, not least because we came to say goodbye to Senori together. So I wasn’t going to take the attention away from Senori and explain how the Brass Tower had been nothing but ashes years ago, and I wasn’t going to stray from the team to admire all the intricately detailed paintings and decorations. I went to great lengths to show Sai how much I respected and cared about him, and I wanted to do the same for Senori. Teammates were just as important as the trainer, after all, and knowing all the history in the world was pointless if you weren’t part of anyone’s story yourself.

          So no, I wasn’t going to be selfish and reckless like usual. I was going to tough it out and stick by my team the entire time, even if it hurt like crazy, even if it all felt like it a terrible dream happening in slow motion. Finding the courage to follow through would be hard, but courage was the most important part of being strong.

          I pushed open the Brass Tower’s heavy doors and stepped inside, looking straight ahead.

          *

          Sai and the team had made it to the far end of the Brass Tower in the time I’d spent dawdling. I trailed after them yet again, trying to make the pounding in my chest slow down. In hindsight, I was a terrible team member if I had to force myself to do the whole memorial service thing with them properly, but to me, it was the same as recreating the scene where we’d said our goodbyes at the hospital.

          I stood in between Ezrem and Sai, who stood behind a small podium, flipping through a couple pages of a book that was open when we arrived. I didn’t want to know what he was searching for exactly, and had no interest in practicing my reading skills with the book.

          I wondered whether Sai would’ve allowed me to sit this one out if I’d asked. There was no way a spirit like Senori’s could be contained in a grave, anyway, so why bother? For the rest of our lives, he’d be watching us, guiding us like always. The main difference was that we wouldn’t be able to see him, talk to him, travel with him…

          Okay, things would be very different without Senori, and it’d take some getting used to. As long as I knew he was still with us somehow, I’d feel more comfortable with the idea of moving on.

          I watched as our trainer shook his head and turned toward us. “What do you know?” he said. His voice still sounded strained. My chest felt heavy hearing it. He had to know that Senori wasn’t completely gone, too, right? “We’re early. First ones here.”

          Not too many people were expected to show up, really. Glori was already with us in her pokéball, and she’d be released when we found a pond where she could swim. Marty and Sasha had promised they’d show up, of course, and Corinne and Tamron had claimed that they were going to beg Jasmine to bring them until she caved in. It was only right that we waited for them, since they all cared a lot about Senori, and they’d all been insistent about asking us if there was anything they could do to help.

          Unfortunately, no one seemed too sure of what to do in the meantime. Sai closed what I now assumed was the guestbook and went to sit on a nearby pew decorated with ornate brass inlays. I glanced at Ezrem, who seemed unfazed by Shin nuzzling restlessly into the feathers on his neck. Out of the corner of my eye, Gracie and Rennio nodded to each other while frowning. Atis turned in circles, reading some of the writing on the walls to himself and rubbing his elbows nervously.

          I remained where I was, confused. Why wasn’t anyone talking? We didn’t usually dwell on silences like these. We used to say whatever we wanted, whenever, no matter who was around to listen.

          I felt almost smothered, like the air was running out or like I was standing in the middle of an unmoving crowd. Even though the mausoleum’s ceiling reached impossibly high and it was as spacious as a stadium, I couldn’t shake away the weight of the overpowering, tension filled atmosphere.

          The awkwardness was thankfully broken sooner rather than later. A group of women ambled in through a door leading to the back of the tower, which blended in with the tombs on the walls so well I hadn’t noticed it before now. They nodded to us in acknowledgement, and I found myself nodding back.

          Apparently, we could help out with the preparations if we wanted, as a way for us to honor Senori alone, as a team. As one of the women approached Sai to explain the process to him, I got a better look at the oversized white robes they all wore and the gohei hidden in the sleeves. If my memory was still functional, unlike the rest of me, then the gohei preparations would be quick. Then the women—I thought they called themselves channelers—would give us privacy until we left.

          “I mean, I’ll do it,” Sai said with a half-smile. “And it’s up to these guys here if they want to join me…”

          Ezrem pointed to himself and argued that Shin should stay asleep, since he was just a kid. He repeated his reasoning twice, even though no one made any sort of counterargument. Gracie had firsthand knowledge of the preparations already and claimed her flames could be just as troublesome as the braviary’s spoiled rotten son. Glori had the pokéball excuse, and Rennio stuttered to apologize.

          So that left Atis and me. The hitmontop pursed his lips and inhaled loudly, his cheeks puffing slightly as he held in the lungful of air. I offered him a casual one-shouldered shrug to tell him I didn’t mind volunteering myself.

          “It’s fine,” I added out loud, remembering the silence. I kind of did mind, actually, but it was only fair to step up to the task. While I spent the majority of my time keeping an eye on Shin, the team, especially Atis and Gracie, worried about Sai.

          “If I may…” the head channeler spoke, “the feraligatr would be most handy, given her height.”

          “Yeah, looks like it’s pretty much settled,” Sai said. He started to follow the channelers and motioned for me to come, too. He held out his arm at a weird angle, smiling, and I stared, unsure of what the gesture meant and wondering when my trainer had become so mature.

          Ezrem and Gracie and Glori could forget about the idea of replacing Senori. At this rate, Sai would fit the traditional description of a trainer and become the leader himself.

          Sai chuckled. He positioned my arm the same way as his, then hooked both of ours together so he could guide me. I stood taller than him by quite a bit, and, comparing his lanky body to my scales and claws and spikes, no one would guess that it was his embrace that made me feel safe, like a stronghold.

          When we reached a part of the mausoleum where the team couldn’t overhear us, the channelers removed their gohei. The head channeler instructed me to hold one in place after unfolding it and having it touch the floor. I had to be careful not to break the wood because of how thin it was while the head channeler worked to secure a gold, zigzag-shaped, paper streamer on the tip. My height definitely came into play when I was asked to hold the gohei up high and make a few laps around the mausoleum with Sai and them. The streamer would still drag across the floor because of how long it was, but ultimately, the gohei would work to cleanse all the negative energy lingering, and to put to rest any of the deceased that were disturbed because of it.

          “Additionally, we doused each of the gohei in a heal powder specially extracted from a stantler’s antlers. Do not be concerned if the powder drifts away,” the head channeler informed us while the other women finished up with their paper streamers. “We will go on ahead of you so you can follow the appropriate path the ritual calls for. Are you ready?”

          Sai accepted a gohei prepared for him as well and nodded. Our arms linked, I waited for his signal to start moving. I felt a tug and he said, “It’s not too late to say never mind if you want, Kuiora.”

          Without thinking about it, I marched forward, tugging him along slowly. He fell into step beside me. “Now it’s too late,” I said.

          “Yeah, true.”

          Once again, silence took hold. Silence was the last thing I wanted, but Sai strolled along unbothered, humming parts to an unfamiliar song. I thought about teaching him what the unique patterns in the stained glass windows signified, or just getting to the point and apologizing for not being as strong as I expected myself to be during all this.

          We rounded the mausoleum twice, and Sai started having to sidestep the heal powder on the ground left behind by the channelers’ gohei. The amount of negative energy only grew, or maybe that was my imagination. I couldn’t get a sense of how the team was faring from this distance.

          Eventually, Sai pulled my arm closer to his and asked me if he could share a secret.

          “A secret? I mean, sure, Sai, but right now?”

          “Okay, it’s not really a secret. I just wanted your opinion on this,” he replied, raising his gohei and motioning toward nothing in particular.

          “Go for it,” I said, not at all confident about what I was getting myself into.

          “I didn’t… consult the team on any of this, you know,” he said. “There were a lot of choices, like cremation, but then Rennio and Ezrem would’ve started a riot, what with their whole aversion to fire, which I admit I don’t fully get. I respected it, though, like Senori would want me to do, and—”

          “So that explains Ezrem’s confusion, right?” I interrupted, wanting clarification before he changed the topic.

          “Hmm?”

          “He didn’t know about Senori’s, uh…” I trailed off. I could think it, but I couldn’t say it? Pathetic, Kuiora. “You know,” I went on, still failing to summon the courage I needed for the rest of the day. “The thing that isn’t here, but would be, normally.”

          Sai slowed down, and I tried to match his pace even though a million more questions were racing through my head. Eventually, all he said was, “I didn’t want to hurt anyone more if I didn’t have to,” his voice a mere whisper.

          I broke my promise, then, and spouted off the knowledge I knew about the Brass Tower—how durable its structure was so that it could withstand any wild storm or stray battle, especially after the fire from long ago, and how he could, without a doubt, trust Ecruteak to always respect Senori’s memory.

          “Just like you respected Ezrem and Rennio!” I said. I covered my mouth with my free hand, embarrassed by how high pitched I’d said that last part. I didn’t want Sai to know I was trying too hard to keep my composure. But my pulling my free hand caught Sai off guard and made him stumble a bit.

          Before I could apologize, Sai went on, “I used his pokéball as the urn, Kuiora. I didn’t have the money for anything better, which I know Senori doesn’t care about. And I left the die with him, too. Face up, number one, that single black dot. Because it only seemed right.”

          He talked like I hadn’t tripped him. Like nothing else mattered except finishing his thoughts lest they spiral out of control. Like some phantoms from his past, ones we hadn’t heard from in Arceus knows how long now, were stirring and waking up without warning. I held in a lungful of air, suppressing the memory of me catching Senori in the very same pokéball he would stay buried in forever. I gestured for him to keep walking as he went on.

          “I think Senori would’ve liked if part of him could stay in Cherrygrove with his old clan. I hope he doesn’t hold that against me. And the team, that die… I rolled it for almost everyone on the team, but Senori gets to keep it? That doesn’t seem fair, does it?”

          His words, filled with worry and shame and sorrow, this time called for silence. I listened, pretending he was listing the funeral customs of a faraway region to soften the bleakness of our situation. At the same time, I berated myself for wanting to let everything he said go over my head. I used to be oblivious to him back when we traveled, too, because I was only interested if he mentioned my name or if I might get a chance to battle.

          “I don’t want to be here,” Sai said, and he wasn’t referring to the mausoleum. I’d learned enough about him over the years to know the implications of a statement like that. “But I don’t want to go.”

          “We’ll… keep going, Sai,” I said. “We’ll start over. We’ll be all right.”

          He clenched his free hand and looked me up and down, the wild glint in his eyes diminishing just a little, then said, “Start over? God, it feels like just yesterday you evolved for the first time and started throwing punches to knock some sense into me. This is ridiculous.”

          Needless to say, that hadn’t been one of my finer moments. Sai also still beat himself up for greeting Senori with a stealth attack to test his strength. Sai tested Senori and I tested Sai, but Senori never tested anybody. Senori simply thought everyone deserved respect.

          Speechless, I said nothing.

          “Starting over sounds nice, though,” Sai said. “Does that mean you’ll technically be my starter now?”

          I laughed despite myself. “You said it, not me,” I said. If jokes were acceptable as an apology for the fact I couldn’t erase the past, then I could totally take advantage of them, right?

          Sai nodded toward the channelers in response. They had completed their third lap around the mausoleum and were lowering their arms holding their gohei. Somehow, the light in the mausoleum seemed brighter, and when we approached the team, they looked relieved and eager to see us again. I got the feeling they were worried that one of us would fall apart halfway through the preparations.

          Apparently, our trainer thought the same. “That’s why I don’t want to go,” he whispered. He lowered his gohei as well and unhooked his arm from mine.

          “Sai… I—”

          Sai shook his head, and I forgot what I meant to say. “Thanks, Kuiora,” he said to me. “I knew about the gohei, too, but… I didn’t mention it. I figured I’d be doing it alone, so, yeah, I appreciated the company.”

          Dumbfounded, I stood there as Sai went up to the team and asked if someone could hold his gohei, because now his arms hurt. He acted like we didn’t have the conversation we just did, but I knew the phantoms that haunted him wouldn’t leave him alone that easily. And I knew our team could sense his sadness even if he tried to hide it. Rennio and Atis and Gracie rushed to help him, and Ezrem even told Shin, who was no longer napping, to go do what our trainer asked him to.

          Joining them, I vaguely wondered what Sai saw in me at Professor Elm’s lab. The professor raised so many totodile and cyndaquil and chikorita all at once, and Sai chose me out of the group. Sure, I was the only one who’d perfected an attack and the only one who could stand a chance in a fight, but what good could brute strength do when a teammate died?

          I vaguely wondered, too, whether or not he’d choose me—and the rest of us—again if we really had the chance to start over. I liked to think he would.

          *

          Sai had one last surprise for us. He gathered the team for a private meeting near the back wall of the mausoleum right as everyone else arrived. The newcomers busied themselves with signing the guestbook and avoiding eye contact with each other while Sai explained what would be our tribute to the life Senori lived before he traveled with us. Sai couldn’t leave any of Senori’s physical remains in Cherrygrove, no, but another perk the Brass Tower offered was something called the tree of remembrance.

          Sai reached into his pocket, and for a split second I thought he was going to pull out the die and I was going to be really confused. Instead he took out a small brass plaque in the shape of a leaf. He showed us Senori’s name etched on it with fancy-looking letters, and he claimed we’d be adding it to the tree on the back wall here. I hadn’t paid attention to the mural before, thinking it was a mild homage to nature in a place that specialized in indoor burials. And the mural, overflowing with a massive amount of plaques, already seemed complete to me. Senori would fit right in with the rest of the deceased here, though. He had a knack for brightening up the lives of anyone he came in contact with.

          When the team split up, I couldn’t tell if anyone was bothered by his confessions regarding the die and his choices for Senori’s grave. I couldn’t confront anyone about it, either, because Shin wasted no time in diverting my attention toward himself. He rushed off, seemingly unfazed by this whole memorial service thing, and was now trying to knock over a set of empty candleholders.

          I knew I probably couldn’t catch up in time, so I stomped my foot to knock some sense into him. An unfamiliar voice reprimanded me with a comment about slow-moving, disrespectful land dwelling water-types. The voice belonged to Glori, who hovered in a decent-sized water basin located near the team so she could participate in the meeting. Unable to think up a witty response, I chose to physically retrieve my son and drop him into the pool with her so she could deal with him. If Ezrem felt more up to it, he’d call me immature for sure.

          Glori smirked. I didn’t offer any proof that I found her banter funny, though she did keep Shin preoccupied by sending him off on a hunt for loose feathers belonging to Ezrem, and for that, I could be grateful again for the other water-type’s presence. There were just too many kinds of sadness in this one confined space for me to maintain the front I’d put on for Sai.

          I trailed back toward the corner of the back wall, where Glori was out of earshot and Ezrem stood unblinking, unmoving, lost in his own little world. He nodded to me when I approached as if answering a question I didn’t even ask yet.

          I nudged him and said, “Well, what do you think, Ezrem? Was that too immature?”

          “Too immature,” he said, nodding again. “You awful, awful land dwelling water-type.”

          “What? No, you’re an awful, awful…” I started, turning sharply to him. The tip of my tail scraped the bottom of the tree remembrance in the process, and I jumped back, hoping nobody else had noticed I’d just desecrated the memorial. “Ugh. We’re both awful, okay?”

          Ezrem shrugged. “Works for me.”

          I inspected the bottommost part of the mural for damage and relaxed when I couldn’t find so much as a scratch. Reluctantly, I brushed my knuckles against the trunk of the bronze tree, claws drawn together because of their sharpness. The russet slab felt remarkably cool to the touch, and smooth.

          Then I stepped back and strained my neck trying to peer up at the highest layer of leaf-shaped plaques. Maybe Atis would’ve interpreted some of the names with me, if this were the right time and place for a reading lesson. A pang of sadness struck me when I realized that the higher a plaque was, the less likely it’d be acknowledged. There weren’t many creatures out there that could stand eye level with them. What if Ezrem felt that kind of sadness sometimes as a flying-type? He was always soaring above Olivine, on the lookout for trouble, but what if that wasn’t what he really wanted?

          I grabbed the tip of the flying-type’s wing and led him to the growing group of mourners. The braviary, seemingly lifeless like the mural itself, resisted my pull at first with a shocked expression on his face. Like he thought he needed permission to be here. Like he, too, had a million and one secrets hidden. That I knew almost none of them and could only hold his hand to comfort him was just another kind of sadness.

          We passed by Gracie first, who hadn’t ventured far from the back wall herself yet. Two of our guests, Marty and Sasha, had chosen to reunite with her straightaway, and now, the flames on Gracie’s back flickered wildly as Marty bent down to her eye level. We all knew that meant she was uncomfortable, and since her former trainer sidestepped the chance to witness Ezrem’s antics more often than not, I tried to drag him in their direction despite his protests.

          Luckily for Ezrem, Sai took action first. His human friends, seeing him, proceeded to hug him tightly and whisper their condolences in his ear.

          “Close call,” Ezrem muttered.

          “You know that Marty boy saved Senori once, right? In a cave where the boulders started to fall! Senori was almost crushed flat!”

          Ezrem shook his head. “Hey, you still can’t deny their poor sense of humor,” he said, but he waddled over to Gracie and struck up a conversation with her anyway. I smiled as he acted like real shield by lifting an entire wing to block her view of Marty and Sasha.

          Rennio and the two other elekid wandered around aimlessly, eventually settling near an altar with a leather bound book lying closed on top of it. Instead of joking around with each other as usual, Corinne sobbed quietly and Tamron drew circles with his feet while Rennio tried to tell them to keep their chin up. Jasmine, Corinne’s and Tamron’s escort, hovered at the mausoleum’s entrance, her hands clasped behind her back. Her ampharos stood beside her, and the electric-type’s tail drooped so low it brushed the ground.

          Scanning the mausoleum, there weren’t a lot of guests here for Senori number wise, though a crowd lined up outside the mausoleum wouldn’t have mattered as much to him. Senori would’ve appreciated how Marty had postponed his gym battle in Blackthorn City and traveled halfway across the region to say goodbye, and how elekid twins showed up to support Rennio when they’d only personally met the furret a handful of times. Sai had entertained the idea of inviting his mother for a brief moment, since he still saw her for lunch every month or so despite his neglectful childhood. It was just like him to be considerate at his own expense, but he knew how much the mention of his past broke his starter’s heart, so he decided against it.

          Yeah, it was just like him to be too considerate. I watched as he went from guest to guest, and to everyone on the team. I watched as he placed a hand on their shoulder, and I couldn’t hear what he told anybody, but he spoke with a genuine half-smile on his face. Which didn’t make sense, because no doubt he had to be suffering the most out of all of us. When he came to me, his dark blue eyes looked dry and stubborn as he told me that everyone should meet at the tree of remembrance in fifteen minutes. If he wanted to cry, he was holding back, even though no one would blame him for breaking down right then and there. Really, crying was the only response left to have now that all the final arrangements for Senori’s passing were finished.

          I couldn’t deny that I wanted to see more of that from him, though! More proof that he was still brave and still ours and still here. It would be all too easy for him to disappear, literally or figuratively, immersed in his grief.

          Shin was the last member of the team Sai talked to. My son, of course, had used up all his energy by bouncing all around the mausoleum. At least he hadn’t touched anything he wasn’t supposed to. I watched as Sai picked Shin up and brought him to the back wall, where he cradled the totodile and waited, his eyes finally glossing over.

          It hadn’t taken very long for Shin to catch on to how bizarre and funny—his words, not mine—Sai was compared to the rest of us. I brushed his Sai-related questions aside while Senori was sick, until he’d made it visibly obvious that I was upsetting him. Okay, I could’ve explained to him how humans are way different than pokémon, but that almost felt like a lie. We can think and talk just as well as any human, unlike animals, and with our power to boot, I’m not entirely sure why pokémon ended up being trained and not the other way around. Whoever invented the pokéball must have been scared of us and wanted to contain our power.

          Of course, pokémon aren’t scared. We’ve always approached humans to test their strength, because in reality, we need them and we know it. The world they’ve built over the centuries hasn’t been a hundred percent accommodating for us. Any old trainer won’t do, so we’re picky, but we remain loyal when we find that one worthy trainer.

          I’d tried to teach Shin that much, at least. My answer had only deepened his curiosity. He watched Sai more closely after that, and a few weeks later, he came back to ask when we were going to start looking for a new trainer.

          I stared at him, taken by surprise. “Why would we do that?” I said. Waiting impatiently for his response, I had wondered if he thought Senori’s death meant the entire team would go their separate ways.

          But no, that wasn’t it. “I don’t think Sai’s the worthy trainer.”

          The totodile had butchered the adjective, so I hadn’t realized what he meant right away. Still, all I could think to say was, “Why?”

          Shin shrugged. It was just a feeling he had, apparently. I could find a way to deal with that.

          Right now, watching Sai and Shin together from afar, I felt frozen in place, wanting everything to be different yet wanting nothing to change. I couldn’t imagine belonging to any trainer but Sai. I never wanted Senori to go, but it was naïve to think nothing bad could ever happen to us. It was the bad things that had made Sai a worthy trainer to begin with, after all. And we could only get stronger from here.

          Watching Sai and Shin together from afar, feeling as conflicted as I’d ever been, I started to cry, too.
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