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Old February 18th, 2016 (6:36 PM). Edited 1 Week Ago by Misheard Whisper.
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Misheard Whisper Misheard Whisper is offline
"I also happen to be a model."
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Join Date: Jan 2009
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2018: This fic is on hiatus until I can give it the attention it deserves.

Hey everybody! It's 2017, and I'm more or less back. :D This fic is a standalone sequel to my old project, Champion Game. I'll provide a brief summary of how we got this far beneath the chapter list, but for the most part there is no prior knowledge required. This story moves away from the heavy supernatural themes of the original, focusing instead on Ren as a character and his new adventures after his days as Hoenn Champion.



  • Chapter 1 - Nothing More To Do
  • Chapter 2 - The High Seas
  • Chapter 3 - Welcome to Unova
  • Chapter 4 - Over the River and Through the Woods
  • Chapter 5 - The Darkness In The Heart of Pokémon
  • Chapter 6 - VS Burgh
  • Chapter 7 - [REDACTED: SPOILER]
  • Chapter 8 - Adventure of a Lifetime
  • Chapter 9 - The Road to Nimbasa

Brief summary of Champion Game follows:
Spoiler:
Not long before his fifteenth birthday, Ren Goodwin wrested the title of Hoenn League Champion from Steven Stone. He was prepared for interviews and publicity, but not for the new and frightening world of darkness he was thrust into. He discovered that the role of Champion was not merely about being the best Trainer, but also about protecting the very fabric of the universe. Terrifying creatures desperate to invade the waking world haunted his dreams, along with brave warriors who battled them. The fighting was brutal, bloody, and the fate of the entire world hung in the balance. In the end, the battle was won at great cost and the instability patched up, returning peace to both worlds - and Ren's life. After two short years, Ren was defeated and passed on the mantle of Champion to another.
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  #2    
Old February 18th, 2016 (6:36 PM). Edited 2 Weeks Ago by Misheard Whisper.
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Misheard Whisper Misheard Whisper is offline
"I also happen to be a model."
  • Crystal Tier
 
Join Date: Jan 2009
Location: Nimbasa Gym
Age: 23
Gender: Male
Nature: Relaxed
Posts: 3,464


Prologue

Ren sighed. It wasn’t like him – not these days – but he felt increasingly melancholic ever since his tenure as Champion had ended. There was little he could have done about the outcome of the final battle; he had been soundly defeated, and he was okay with that. He had said all the necessary goodbyes as well, leaving the secret world he had discovered in far better shape than he’d found it. With the aid of his predecessor, Steven Stone, he had made sure that his mantle as Champion was passed on securely and in safe hands. The difficult time was over, and he could move on without concern.

But to what?

The sun burned slowly through the sky, tracking inexorably towards the western horizon. It was late afternoon, but it would still be some hours before the oppressive summer sun touched the horizon over Slateport, bathing the sky – and the cliffs upon which he now stood – in a thick, heavy orange.

He would wait; he had time. He had nothing but time.

What had he done before he was Champion? There had to have been something, but he could only remember travelling. The quintessential mark of the twenty-first century teenager’s transition into adulthood – the so-called ‘Pokémon Journey’ – had been all he’d known since he had been old enough to leave. The last two years had been different, though. Based out of Slateport, he had found time to reconnect with his roots, re-establishing contact with family members and keeping busy with his Champion business. In point of fact, he had had more to do in the last two years than ever before: more responsibilities, more friends, more excitement and adventure.

But now, that was all gone. Ren flopped down on the wild, scratchy grass and leaned back against the rusty chain-link fence, which screeched in protest as it bent. A sharp southerly breeze snapped at his floppy brown hair as it raced past, playfully threatening to tear his sunglasses off his head.

On any other day, Ren would have let out one or more of his Pokémon to keep him company, but right now he wasn’t sure he could face any more chatter today. Two years as the Champion had caused him to become far too accustomed to being around other people. Though he wouldn’t trade the friends he had made along his journey for the world, sometimes he longed for those distant years where he really had been alone, save for the quiet company of his Pokémon.

Those friends were gone now anyway, and they wouldn’t be coming back. Not for him. Involuntarily, his hand moved to his neck, where until recently, the Dreamlight had hung on a silver chain. Its absence still stung, though it had been nearly a month now since he had relinquished its power – and its responsibility.

“Responsibility, huh?” he murmured, the breeze snatching the quiet words from his lips and dancing away with them across the bay. Responsibility was something he had had far too much of over the past two years, but he had a strange feeling that it would only get worse from here. He had lived a truly blissful youth, he knew, but it could not last forever. What was next? College? An office job? He was seventeen now – not quite grown yet, but his time was running short.

An image of the letter resting on his bedside table at home flashed through his mind. Dour, professional stationery, stamped black lettering: an invitation from DevonCorp, a job offer dressed up in formalities and doublespeak. Through the unsolicited recommendation of Steven Stone, son of the company’s president, the biggest conglomerate in the Hoenn region was scouting him.

And the worst part was that Ren wanted none of it. Today especially, he wanted nothing more than to cut himself free. Free of responsibility, free of the real world for just a little longer before he had to grow up for real. Was that even possible?

It is.

It was pure escapism, he knew, but the idea had taken root now and it was too late to change his mind. Ren had never been spontaneous. Everything he ever did was calculated, decided after great deliberation and weighing of the costs and benefits. But today . . . Screw it. Ren pulled the PokéNav from his belt, flipping it open and scrolling through the contact list, heart pounding. Did he dare? Damn right he dared. Finding the number he was looking for, Ren punched the call button. A few moments later, he heard the clunk as his friend – perhaps his only friend these days – picked up.

“Ren! Dude, what’s up?”

“Hey, Karl,” he said quickly, a smile growing on his face. “Did you still want to go to Unova?”
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  #3    
Old February 20th, 2016 (11:49 PM). Edited 2 Weeks Ago by Misheard Whisper.
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Posts: 3,464

“You’re going to what.” Thalia Goodwin’s voice was flat with disbelief. She set her laptop aside and regarded him incredulously across the table in their small, sunny kitchen.

“I’m taking the Unova Gym Challenge,” Ren repeated. His mouth quirked into a half-grin as he watched the uncertain battle of emotions flit across his mother’s face. “I already have some of the badges, so it seems like a waste not to finish the job.”

She eventually settled on mildly affronted disapproval, brow knitted and mouth twisted in a familiarly sharp fashion. “Really, now.” She sighed, her consternation evaporating. “Actually, I should have expected this. You’ve never been one to sit still, have you?”

Ren grinned despite himself. “I suppose not. Does that mean you’re okay with it?”

His mother tilted her head. “You know I couldn’t stop you if I wanted to, and honestly, I think this will be good for you. You’re always at your happiest when you’re doing something.”

“You won’t miss me too much?” Ren asked, half in seriousness, half teasing.

“Please. You know I’d rather have you here than not, but if you’re just going to mope around town doing nothing it’s just going to be miserable for both of us. So go on, sweetheart. Make me proud.” She embraced him tightly.

All the tension that Ren had worked up during his walk home evaporated in an instant, and he returned the hug with feeling. He was taller than his mother now, and the difference was immediately obvious as his chin bumped against her ear, eliciting a quiet chuckle.

“Is it really –”

“It’s fine, love.” She cut him off gently, drawing back to hold him at arm’s length. There were the beginnings of tears welling in her eyes, but she seemed to have resigned herself. “Having you home for two whole years has been . . . amazing, but Slateport is suffocating you. You have a natural talent for Pokémon battling – among many other things – and an urge to get out and see the world, neither of which I had as a child. Use them.”

Ren could only nod. What could words do here? He knew she understood, and she knew he knew that.

“When are you leaving, then?” she asked, suddenly all business. “Are you going by plane, or by boat? Do you have a plan for when you get there?”

“Actually, yes!” Ren said with a laugh, raising his hands in mock-surrender. “I’m going with Karl – you remember Karl, right? From Fortree? I thought we’d take the cruise ship leaving town for Castelia next week.”

“That doesn’t leave you much time,” she said with an ever-so-slightly bitter smile. “You’d better start packing!”

***

“Is this really okay?”

Ren looked up from his luggage tags to see Karl squinting up at the gleaming white ship that had recently pulled into Slateport. A top-of-the-line cruise liner, the Royal Unova dwarfed every other ship in the harbour, a hulking behemoth of mobile accommodation and entertainment. “Is what okay?” he asked blankly.

“You know I could never afford this, man,” Karl sighed, pushing his shaggy black hair out of his face. Dressed in a well-worn band t-shirt and ripped jeans, he would have looked more at home at a concert than on a luxury cruise. Then again, Ren supposed he wasn’t much different. The brown cargo pants he wore were designed for comfort and practicality, not fashion, and the orange puffer jacket shielding him from Slateport’s biting coastal wind was little better.

“Which is why I’m paying for it,” Ren explained patiently for the dozenth time. “I owe you for that business at the Weather Institute, remember? And even if I didn’t . . . I’m not going to Unova without my wingman.”

Karl grimaced, but he seemed to accept Ren’s logic. “All right,” he said reluctantly, hoisting his hiking pack with a grunt. “Then we’d better get moving before it leaves without us. You need to, uh, say your goodbyes or anything?”

Ren shook his head, grimacing slightly. “I did that already. Mom had to work, so she couldn’t come see us off.”

“Oh,” Karl said. For a moment, he looked as if he was about to say something else – probably inappropriate – but he simply shrugged and said, “Let’s get onboard, then.”

The Royal Unova truly was a monstrosity, Ren reflected as they passed security and crossed into the ship proper. More like a floating city than any kind of boat, it had more than twenty levels, an onboard shopping mall, movie theatres, swimming pools on the top deck, and who knew what else. It hardly moved in the sedate waters of Slateport Harbour, suspiciously resembling solid ground. Their cabin would be on the fourth level, he recalled, availing himself of a folding map to guide them there. He could use a holiday, he realised. It had been two years and then some since he had finished roving around the Hoenn region, and since then he had been flat out.

Life as Champion had ill suited him, packed as it had been with constant media attention and pointless formalities. He had been invited to two or three different events a week in all corners of the region for most of his tenure: festivals in Fortree; almost monthly appearances on Hoenn Buzz, where he had apparently become a popular feature; even a trip to Unova to sit in on their League Conference two years ago.

At least now he slept easy, although he would almost have traded that to have the nightmares back. He missed his nightly forays into the world of dreams – and he missed Elly. Despite a rocky start to their relationship, they had somehow wound up as fast friends. Despite being an ancient dream-spirit, there had been a vivid, sharp energy about her that made her feel more real than anybody he knew. Saying goodbye had been hard, but such was the way of things. He was no longer the yehktira, the dreamer; in fact, his nights had been empty since the handover, a fact which had been profoundly disturbing at first.

“Yo, Earth to Ren!” Karl flicked him on the forehead, startling him. “You awake in there?”

Ren forced himself to smile. He had walked to their cabin in a trance-like state, and he had at some point arrived outside the door. “Yeah. Just a little tired. I had a lot to do this week before I left.” Entering the cabin, Ren briefly admired the elegant décor before flopping down onto the bed. The cruise lasted six days – he would have plenty of time to explore the ship later. For now, all he wanted to do was sleep.

“Seriously?” Karl grunted. “Do I have to go have fun by myself?”

Ren sighed inwardly. “Nah,” he said, rolling back over and forcing himself back to his feet. “Let’s go have some fun. Everything’s paid for, so we might as well.”

“That’s my man.” Karl was slowly warming to the idea of a luxury cruise, Ren noted. Good. Last thing I need is him sulking too.

The rest of the afternoon passed in a blur of activity. The main body of the Royal Unova was dominated by an enormous, roofed atrium, brightly lit and lined by galleries of shops, restaurants and cafes. The ceiling was arched and vaulted nearly ten stories above deck level, acting as a support for the dizzyingly high entertainment deck. Three glass-roofed swimming pools, plus one in the open air for good weather, areas lined with deckchairs and umbrellas, and more stalls, cafes and arcades dotted the roof. The first time Ren and Karl made it up to the top, though, their attention was immediately caught by a compact, open-air Pokémon stadium on a lower deck towards the stern.

“You think they’d let us use that?” Karl wondered.

Ren shrugged. “It's part of the package, sure, but there’s probably a queue a mile long. Why? You want to battle me?” he prodded, half-teasingly.

“Well... it has been a while,” Karl said, squinting down at the battlefield. “I wouldn’t mind, y’know, seeing how much I’ve improved.”

Ren raised an eyebrow. “Why don’t I see what I can do?”

He might not have been Hoenn Champion any longer, but he was still a recognisable figure. Within ten minutes of arriving at the stadium, he and Karl were waiting in the wings for the current battle to finish, listening to the hum of a sizeable crowd that had gathered for an afternoon's entertainment. The stadium manager had been more than willing to oblige Ren’s request once she recognised him, but he hadn’t imagined she would bump them right up the order to battle next.

The waiting room was small, but clean and professional, outfitted with all the amenities he had come to associate with registered Pokémon League venues. Drab decor, polished metal lockers, a viewscreen to watch the matches – currently switched off – and even a minibar, which Ren ignored. Karl would be waiting in a matching room on the other end of the arena.

A smattering of applause signalled the end of the current battle, followed by an indecipherable announcement over the PA system. More applause leaked into the waiting room, more directly this time as the arena door slid open with a sharp hiss, admitting a young woman dressed fashionably in white and pink. She spared Ren barely a glance as she swept past, her mouth set in a sharp line. He raised an eyebrow, but elected not to comment. Within moments, he was once again alone in the room. Any moment now...

With a chime, the indicator light over the door turned green. “There's my cue,” Ren muttered to nobody in particular, standing up and dusting off his pants – more out of habit than from any lack of cleanliness in the sparkling room. Letting the door slide open automatically as he approached, Ren set out along the short tunnel that led to his end of the arena. All of a sudden, it seemed, his body was remembering this feeling: the racing adrenaline associated with battling, the increased heart rate and heightened awareness that seemed to come along with it. Suddenly cognizant of every footstep, every breath, Ren forced himself not to stop moving, concentrating on the voice of the announcer, who was now in the process of introducing the two competitors.

Pausing just inside the shadow of the archway that led into the arena proper, Ren waited for his name to be called before stepping out, blinking in the evening sunlight. Just like the facilities backstage, the stadium itself appeared to be a mirror of full-sized regulation stadiums, on a noticeably smaller scale. With room for perhaps five hundred spectators, it was still orders of magnitude larger than anything he had expected to find on a ship, but it was no Ever Grande Central – thankfully. Ren had never been one for large crowds, which had made his League challenges difficult, but this – maybe a hundred people at most, lining the lower edges of the shaded stands – he could manage, especially with two years on the highest-profile circuits under his belt.

Realising he’d let himself get distracted again, Ren scoped out the battlefield. It was the same green permacrete he had come to expect in high-end facilities. Durable and shatter-resistant, it was easier to maintain than dirt or grass, but offered less purchase for combatants and added an extra level of danger to physical takedown attacks: rather than ploughing a furrow in the surface, an unsuccessful high-velocity attack – especially from the air – could cause serious damage to the aggressor. Between that, his opponent’s penchant for Dark-type Pokémon and a few other factors that flashed through his head, Ren had almost narrowed down which of his own team he would battling with.

It had only been a couple of seconds, but time seemed to behave strangely whenever he stepped onto a battlefield. Shaking his head, he sloughed off the lethargy that had been gripping him, striding forward with purpose to take his place in the starting box. Realising the stadium’s announcer was still talking, Ren tuned in absently as he watched Karl take up a position opposite him.

“Both Trainers hail from right here in the Hoenn region, ladies and gentlemen! The young man at the aft end is the only recently dethroned regional Champion, Ren Goodwin of Slateport. And at the other end, we have, let’s see . . . Karl Visscher, from Fortree. Single battle, two stock, no substitutions allowed. Give us a good match, gentlemen!”

Ren raised a hand in absent acknowledgement. Was it just his imagination, or was the crowd swelling slightly in size? Pushing the thought from his mind, Ren selected a Poké Ball from his belt, telescoping it to full size. At the other end of the arena, Karl mirrored him silently. No words were exchanged; none were needed.

Thumbing the switch again, Ren revelled in the familiar flash of red light as the capsule split open, unleashing the beast within. Zangoose howled to the sky, a bestial cry of exultation in its sudden freedom. White fur bristling, it took a few practice swipes with its gleaming black claws, almost bouncing on its short legs as it psyched itself up. The irregular slash of red fur across its muscular chest seemed to catch the late afternoon sun, suffusing the Pokémon with an almost iridescent glow – although that may have just been the last vestiges of energy from the Poké Ball playing across its haunches.

Ren grinned wryly, feeling Zangoose’s infectious aggression and eagerness creep up within him. “Sorry it’s been so long, buddy,” he said quietly, his words only intended for his oldest partner. Zangoose growled reproachfully, but kept its beady yellow eyes fixed on the slight teenager at the other end of the arena. A seasoned battler and veteran of many Gym and League challenges, Zangoose had seen its share of official battlefields, so it knew precisely why it had been summoned.

Karl nodded appreciatively, tossing his own Poké Ball with a casual flair that belied his investment in the battle. With a crack, his own trademark partner – a lithe, muscular Mightyena, imaginatively named Scar – appeared on the battlefield. The lacerations on its muzzle that had given the Dark-type its moniker had faded with time, but they were still visible, proofs of a bloody, combative history.

Ren nodded. Karl had done exactly as he expected. The outcome of this battle was decided even before it started.

A referee, who Ren’s eyes had skipped over previously, stepped forward and raised a green flag. “Battle begin!” Just like that, it was on.

This was going to be fast and intense. Both Pokémon were brawlers through and through. “Zangoose, go!” Did he even need to give orders anymore? Probably not, Ren reflected idly as his Pokémon leapt explosively into action, staying low to the ground as it charged towards the Mightyena. Zangoose had been with him for seven years now, battling almost every day. Each could read the other like a book. Still, it didn’t pay to get complacent.

As the gap closed, Ren leapt into action. “X-Scissor! Go in low!” Zangoose complied, twisting its body to take the unusual attack angle. It would be difficult to defend against for the quadrupedal Mightyena, at the expense of some of the attack’s power. Claws gleaming with a dangerous light, Zangoose slashed upwards, but Scar was already moving, leaping over the attack and coming to land behind its confused opponent.

“Scar! Take Down, now!” Karl shouted, gesturing at the off-balance Zangoose. Scar charged with a howl.

Ren quirked an eyebrow. Risky. Potentially suicidal. No time to evade! “Meet it head-on, Zangoose! Close Combat!” Whirling and planting its feet against the solid ground, Zangoose swung a mighty blow at the Mightyena’s muzzle, connecting with a two-way impact that seemed to shake the arena. The two froze in place for a split second, a perfect tableau of raw, brutal combat, before Zangoose followed through with a mighty left hook, its clawed paw smashing into Scar’s jaw and sending it flying out of bounds.

This was no boxing match, however. No victories by ring-out here. “Follow up, Zangoose,” he instructed, control over the battle solidified. “Hit it with a Slash before it can recover!” Zangoose yowled, sensing victory with its animalistic senses, and leapt high in the air, diving at incredible velocity towards its groggy opponent with claws outstretched.

Ren watched with grim satisfaction as Scar could do nothing but twist uncomfortably to mitigate the damage, but Zangoose’s massive claws still scored a decently solid hit regardless. Karl grimaced and ordered another attack, but the Mightyena’s jaws could only snap weakly.

“Finish it, Zangoose,” Ren said levelly as the two Pokémon disentangled themselves and separated, eyeing each other warily – Zangoose with triumph dancing in its eyes, Scar limping and uncertain, but still dangerous. “X-Scissor, once again. It can’t dodge this time.” Evidently Zangoose was in agreement, for it sprang forward with renewed vigour, bringing the claws on both paws slashing down onto its hapless opponent. With a final howl, Scar crumpled to the ground, twitching feebly before losing consciousness. The flag went up and the crowd – wait, were there so many people here before? – roared appreciatively.

Ren paused. The first round had been fast and brutal, as he had expected, but he couldn’t help but be a little disappointed. He knew Karl wasn’t Champion material, but part of him had still hoped for a more even match.

Fixing a smile on his face, Ren waved appreciatively to the crowd. It really had swelled since the beginning of the match as word spread of his appearance. In only a couple of minutes, the audience had nearly doubled in size. He started to feel the pressure, but pushed it aside as Karl returned Scar to its Poké Ball and drew another to finish the battle. The rules they’d agreed on included no substitutions, so he couldn’t have switched Zangoose out if he’d wanted to. The stocky, powerful Pokémon was just getting warmed up, anyway. It bounced on the balls of its feet, awaiting the next challenge. Ren sighed lightly. This battle would be over soon. He briefly flirted with the idea of going easy on Karl to drag the battle out, but discarded it immediately. To a Trainer like Karl, that would be the ultimate insult. Besides, he didn’t owe this audience a show. If they showed up late, it sucked to be them.

The next opponent was Karl’s Sableye. As a Ghost-type, it would be difficult to hit – at least, that was what Karl should be thinking. In reality, Ren knew that it wouldn’t help. A slight ennui set in as he took a deep breath and prepared to continue the battle.

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  #4    
Old February 23rd, 2016 (5:52 PM). Edited 2 Weeks Ago by Misheard Whisper.
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Misheard Whisper Misheard Whisper is offline
"I also happen to be a model."
  • Crystal Tier
 
Join Date: Jan 2009
Location: Nimbasa Gym
Age: 23
Gender: Male
Nature: Relaxed
Posts: 3,464
A reasonably short chapter today. Champion Game had the tendency to meander on and on for chapters on end with very little happening. Lots of introspection, agonising over decisions and Ren talking to himself - all very Ren things to do, but none particularly conducive to moving the plot along. So with this fic, I'm making a conscious effort to keep the pace up - and keep the internal monologues down.

--- Previous Chapter ---


19:15
Thursday

A deep, mechanical churning noise reverberated through the bowels of the ship, alerting Stacy to the fact that the engines had finally started. She allowed herself a quiet sigh of relief, but stayed on alert. They were far from home free. Crammed into a dark, dingy corner between two containers, Stacy and her unfortunate companion were getting far too well acquainted for her liking, but they couldn’t afford to move. Stowing away had been far more difficult than she’d anticipated for a ship this size, and even now, patrolling security guards passed by every half an hour or so, shining flashlights into almost every corner of the dim cargo hold.

Down in the underbelly of the Royal Unova, she felt every roll and wave as the enormous cruise liner pulled out of Slateport Harbour. It would be moving only slowly, she knew, painstakingly extricating itself from the docks and turning to face the open sea, but every minor disturbance seemed to be multiplied down here. It didn’t particularly bother her, but her partner in crime was a different story.

“Staaaace . . .” the other girl moaned quietly, wedged into the tiny space beneath Stacy. “I’on’t feel s’good . . .”

Closing her eyes, Stacy took a deep breath, then exhaled sharply and turned – as best she could in the cramped confines – to glare at her travelling companion. “I swear to Arceus, Roisin, if you throw up on my jeans I will end you,” she hissed.

Roisin gulped, her face almost as green as her vibrantly dyed hair. She had a hand clamped over her mouth and spoke through gritted teeth, as if she could prevent herself from vomiting that way. “’m tryinggg,” she grumbled, her voice thick with consternation. “You know I – ulp – how I am with boats, Stace!”

“Drink some water,” Stacy relented, awkwardly digging a canteen out of her backpack and passing it over. “Not too much, though. We have to last four days on this bucket.”

That reminder didn’t seem to help Roisin much, but she gratefully sipped at the water. “Four days?” she groaned. “Remind me again why I let you talk me into this?”

Stacy rolled her eyes. “Because you love me so much. Now shush. Don’t think about it. Just think about how much fun we’ll be able to have when we reach Unova!”

Closing her eyes and blocking out Roisin’s weak protests, Stacy settled back against the corrugated iron crate, feeling the unyielding material poke into her back. It was going to be a long cruise.

***

Ren was exhausted. After his rapid victory over Karl at the arena, he had been practically mobbed by curious passengers and staff. Technically, he supposed this was his first public appearance since losing his title at the Ever Grande Conference. Still, he hadn’t expected to be fussed over this much – if at all. A large number of the passengers on the Castelia-based liner were Unovans, he had learned, rich folks along for the ride as the Royal Unova made its maiden overseas voyage. Very few of them had come aboard in Slateport or any of the other stops the craft had made. He supposed it was a little too expensive for the average holidaymaker, though between careful saving, appearance fees and his monthly Champion stipend, he had been more than able to purchase two tickets for the one-way journey. He also had plenty left in his bank account to cover expenses over the weeks or months that lay ahead, but he wouldn’t exactly be able to retire on it.

That meant he’d have to look into getting a job, he reflected bitterly as he sprawled on the bed in the cabin he shared with Karl. The other boy was out at the time, watching over his injured Pokémon at the onboard Pokémon Centre. Ren winced as he remembered how badly Sableye and Mightyena had been defeated. Zangoose had come a long way from attempting to tear its opponents to shreds in every battle, but it was still a powerful, highly-trained Pokémon. As much as he didn’t really want to admit it, Karl hadn’t stood a chance.

That would be a problem too, he mused. He knew Unova presented a new set of challenges simply by being an unfamiliar place, full of unfamiliar people and Pokémon, but he was under no illusions. His team of fully trained, Champion-grade Pokémon would make short work of almost any opponent below the Gym Leader level. Was that what he wanted?

No, he realised. It really wasn’t. Winning was good, but winning all the time – and doing it easily – was no fun at all. Could he leave all of his Pokémon behind and start over? Maybe he should keep Zangoose with him. None of his Pokémon would be easy to part with, but abandoning Zangoose would be impossible. Solrock, Yanmega, Braviary, Manectric and Camerupt could be sent back to stay with his mother without too much hassle, though they wouldn’t enjoy it. Could he really justify pushing them aside in order to catch and train new Pokémon?

Rolling over and burying his face in the sweetly scented pillow, Ren groaned. He had four days left on the Royal Unova. He could use that time to think it over and decide afterwards. Maybe even put it off until he’d checked in with the other half of his family in Lacunosa.

He glanced at the six Poké Balls sitting in a magnetic dock on his nightstand. As his partners, friends and long-time supporters, it was almost unthinkable to leave them behind. Then again, it had been almost unthinkable to up and leave for the Unova region in the first place. While he was at it, he might as well go all-in. In for a penny, in for a pound.

At some point, Karl re-entered the room and flopped down on the other bed. Ren was drifting off to sleep by that point, though, so he only vaguely registered his friend’s presence. Dimly, a part of his mind hoped Karl hadn’t taken his loss too personally. They had barely exchanged a word since the battle.

The following morning dawned early. Ren and Karl breakfasted at one of the seventeen on-board cafes, situated on the third level of the gallery overlooking the atrium. The mezzanine was largely empty thanks to the early hour, lending a strangely quiescent quality to the cavernous space.

“Yesterday was pretty rough,” Karl said at length through a mouthful of croissant crumbs.

Ren looked up sharply. He hadn’t expected his companion to broach the subject. “I’m sorry,” he said, averting his eyes suddenly. “I didn’t mean to . . . That must have been kind of embarrassing.” Karl hadn’t exactly been laughed off the field at the onboard arena, but he had been well and truly shown up.

“It's fine,” Karl said, putting his fork down and running a hand through his floppy black hair. “I’m not worried about the battle itself. It’s no surprise that you were better than me, of course, but . . . I dunno. Maybe I just expected to have caught up a bit, put up a bit more of a fight. I was thinking how . . . it’s not really fair to tag along with you if I’m going to be so, well, useless.”

“You’re not useless, Karl,” Ren said with a small sigh. “You're still trying to become a Gym Leader, right? You have to be pretty damn good to even think about that.”

“Look, dude, that’s a long way off. I’m still thinking about that, but I’m not a crazy wonder kid like you. And if you really want me to stick with you in Unova, I’m just gonna slow you down!”

Ren sat back in his chair, glancing away for a moment as he gathered his thoughts. “I think I know how you feel. I think I’m the problem, though, not you.” Briefly, Ren outlined the possibilities he had been considering the previous evening.

“You’re nuts,” Karl said flatly, his own concerns apparently forgotten as he blinked, dumbfounded. “Why would you do that? If I were you, I’d be happy to just steamroll the Unova Gyms and everybody in between. You have strong Pokémon, so use them!”

Ren rolled his eyes. “Okay, sure, but just consider for a second the fact that you’re actually not me. I’ll admit that I kind of started this journey on a whim as a way to get away from everything, but that doesn’t mean I want to take the easy road. The five years I spent travelling around with my Pokémon before I won the Hoenn League were amazing, and I want that feeling back! I want to challenge myself, to use what I’ve learned in a new place.”

“I still reckon you’re a nutter, mate.” Shaking his head, Karl polished off his croissant and regarded Ren with some confusion. “You have some of the strongest, best-trained Pokémon in the world. Literally world-class! Sure, you could probably do fine without them, but why risk it?”

“Because I’ll be bored out of my skull if I don’t,” Ren grumbled, finally admitting it to himself as well as Karl. “Look, forget it for now. I’m still deciding if I want to do this, but I’ll have my mind made up by the time we reach Castelia.”

“And till then?”

Grinning, Ren finished his eggs and stood up from the table. “Party time.”

The next three days passed in a blur. Ren and Karl never returned to the Pokémon battle arena on the aft deck, but there were plenty of distractions without it. From the swimming pools on the top deck to the movie theatre in the lower levels, it was almost impossible to be bored. On Friday, Karl discovered the arcade near the prow and disappeared into it for several hours. Ren joined him for a while, but quickly grew bored of shooting zombies and failing miserably at rhythm games. Leaving his friend to it, Ren left to wander the many levels of the ship on his own.

***

Stacy jerked awake with the sudden feeling that something had gone horribly, terribly wrong. Light. Why was there light? They had been in the dark for over three days now, cramped and uncomfortable in the deepest recess of the cargo hold. Sleeping whenever they could manage to, she was starting to think she would never see daylight again. After the patrols had become irregular – and thus, unpredictable – on Friday, they hadn’t even dared to stand up and stretch their legs, remaining curled up in the corner, tangled in each other’s gangly limbs. Under different circumstances, it might have been quite pleasant, but after three days non-stop, Stacy was getting really sick of it.

So why were there suddenly bright lights shining in her face? Blinking back furious tears from her protesting eyes, Stacy looked up into the unimpressed face of a blue-suited security officer, who was shining a blisteringly white torch on the two of them. “What do we have here?” he sighed. “How did you two get on board?”

Stacy winced. “Don’t suppose you could just pretend nothing ever happened?” she suggested, jabbing Roisin with her elbow. The green-haired girl woke with a grunt, blinking at the guard uncomprehendingly.

“Not likely,” he said. “Up. You two are in serious trouble unless you can produce a ticket.”

Stacy scrambled to her feet, muscles protesting at being unravelled so suddenly. She patted her pockets and rummaged through her bag, but naturally came up empty-handed. Shrugging apologetically, she said, “Umm . . . that’d be a no, I guess.” Helping Roisin up, she regarded their captor cautiously. Could they take him out? No, their best bet would be to make a break for it – some time when he wasn’t blocking their way, though.

“So come on, ladies. March.” He jabbed a thumb over his shoulder, prodding them through the stacked containers. Stacy complied reluctantly, exchanging a cautious glance with Roisin as they were guided through the lower levels of the ship to what appeared to be an employees’ break room. Locking the door behind them, the security guard sat the two down at a metal table. Drawing up a third chair, he sat opposite them with a heavy sigh.

“Can’t a girl get a drink around here?” Stacy quipped, glancing at the coffee machine on the bench.

“Not until you’ve told me what you were doing in the cargo hold.”

Stacy sighed, leaning back in her chair with a creak. “And I don’t suppose you’d believe me if I said we got lost after being tragically separated from our incredibly rich parents.”

“Not hardly. Start talking.”

Stacy paused a moment, but decided honesty was probably her best policy here – even if seasoned with a few creative half-truths. “We ran away from home,” she said. That much was true – even if only for one of them.

“So you stowed away on a ship bound for Unova. Where’d you get on? Slateport?” The guard seemed more curious than anything, Stacy realised. Still, she didn’t fancy sticking around to let him hand them over to the police in Castelia.

“Yeah, Slateport. It just . . . seemed like a good idea at the time,” she admitted with a not entirely affected grimace. “Get away from our families, start a new life in Unova.”

“Well, at this rate your new life might be off to a rough start. Maybe even a stint in prison if you’re unlucky,” the guard said reproachfully. “Don’t you know how dangerous it is to try and smuggle yourselves like that?”

“Seemed pretty safe to me,” Stacy grumbled. “We were perfectly comfortable until you came along.”

“I don’t doubt that. What about your friend? Anything to say for yourself, miss?” He fixed his gaze on Roisin, who still looked vaguely ill. She only shook her head and kept her mouth zipped shut, much to the guard’s annoyance. “Look,” he said. “You’re just kids, right? You’re what, sixteen?”

“Seventeen,” Stacy corrected him. “And I don’t see what bei-”

He held up a finger to cut her off, a strange glint in his eye. “Either way, you’re underage. What you’ve done is illegal, but you probably won’t face prosecution. Not as adults, at any rate. I have to turn you in – that’s my job – so you’ll still be responsible for financial reparations to the company, but I expect you’ll otherwise be let off with a stern talking to. Maybe a fine.”

Stacy felt a grin creep onto her face despite herself. “That doesn’t sound so bad,” she said, nodding slowly.

“Make no mistake, you’re still in a lot of trouble. But believe me, I don’t get my kicks out of ruining kids’ lives - and no offense, but it sounds like you’re not having a great time as it is. It’s not as if we have a brig on board, so you’ll stay here until we arrive in Castelia tomorrow afternoon. Understood?”

Stacy shrugged. “Could be worse.” She glanced at Roisin, who nodded in agreement. “All right. We won’t make a fuss. Now, how about that coffee?”

***

That same Sunday evening found Ren on one of the many sun decks, stretched out in his board shorts on a reclining deckchair. This area was one of the many reserved for passengers who wanted to relax with their Pokémon, so Ren had taken the opportunity to release Solrock from its Poké Ball. The enigmatic Pokémon – little more than a rocky orange disc with yellow spines and eyes – hovered at his side, humming blissfully as it absorbed the rich evening sunlight.

Ren sat up slowly, taking a sip from the fruity drink that sat behind his chair, and looked out to the west, shading his eyes and squinting in the way that Solrock always did. That same sun played across the tops of the gentle waves, sparkling peacefully above the blue expanse that stretched in every direction as far as the eye could see. There was still heat in the sun, though it lay low in the sky; Ren felt it gently warming his face as he turned towards it. Far below, the ship’s prow kicked up sprays of water as it blasted inexorably through the waves, ignoring the ocean’s natural flow as it pressed forward to its destination. Up on Deck 12, however, the Royal Unova’s trajectory seemed slow and tranquil.

Ren turned to his Pokémon, speaking in a quiet voice so as not to disturb the handful of other passengers who shared the deck. “Solrock. What would you think about staying at home with Mom for a while?”

Solrock turned almost imperceptibly towards him, humming in inquisitive alarm.

“Yeah, I know, I know,” Ren said. “It’s pretty sudden. But I’ve been thinking about sending you guys back to Slateport while I travel in Unova. What do you reckon?”

Solrock chimed thoughtfully, spinning like a wheel in midair as it contemplated the question. Ren didn’t exactly expect a direct answer, but at least it didn’t seem too perturbed by the concept.

“Hmm.” Dropping the matter for the moment, Ren lay back on his deckchair. He wasn’t much closer to reaching a decision than he had been at the start of the voyage, and Castelia drew ever nearer. Breathing deeply, Ren emptied his mind and watched the sun track its way towards the horizon.

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Misheard Whisper Misheard Whisper is offline
"I also happen to be a model."
  • Crystal Tier
 
Join Date: Jan 2009
Location: Nimbasa Gym
Age: 23
Gender: Male
Nature: Relaxed
Posts: 3,464
Okay, well. I know I said I wasn't planning on returning to any of my old fics, but I forgot about this one - and I forgot that I'd already written a solid six chapters ahead when I pulled my disappearing act. So we're back on track with some serious momentum for the next few weeks. And in the end, I love Ren so much I couldn't just let him go.

A quick note: the previous chapters *have* been cleaned up somewhat to meet my 2017 standards. It's nothing major, though.


Ren made sure to be on deck as the Royal Unova steamed into Castelia. The sun was high and bright in the sky, shedding bright light on the azure waves in the harbour as the enormous cruise ship made its careful approach, aided by two small tugboats. There was a breeze here that had been surprisingly absent throughout the journey, ruffling Ren’s hair as he stood, gripping the handrail. Karl stood silently beside him, mouth slightly open. Ren couldn’t help but chuckle as he saw the expression on his friend’s face. While he had visited Unova a couple of times before, it would be Karl’s first time – and for a small-town kid who had spent the last few years in Fortree, well, he could only imagine the impact Castelia was having.

The first impression of the region’s capital, as always, was scale. The central business district that started right on the waterfront resembled nothing more than a bristling forest of steel and glass, skyscrapers jostling for prominence as they stretched towards the sky. The familiar crimson frontage of a Pokémon Centre stood out even against the riotously colourful vista that was Oceanfront Road, a welcome sight among thousands of unfamiliar and overwhelming existences.

Oceanfront Road was bustling with life as the Royal Unova came to rest at the largest of the four docks that radiated from it, jutting out into the sea like fingers on a giant hand. As the centre of trade and commerce for all of Unova, Castelia attracted all kinds of people, on business or otherwise. Overshadowed as a tourist centre by Nimbasa to the north, it still pulled its fair share of interest as the major port and most economically developed city in the region, a fact clearly demonstrated by the heaving throngs of shoppers, tourists, locals and businessmen packing the waterfront.

Though far busier and more populous, it still held a certain quality that reminded Ren forcefully of Slateport. The biting ocean breeze, the cawing of Wingull flocks, the smell of brine on the air. Back home, he had often enjoyed spending time down at the docks and now, as they disembarked the cruise liner, he remembered why. Slateport had never been quite this crowded, however, he noted grimly as he forged his way through the crowd of passengers.

“So what’s the plan now?” Karl called, almost having to shout over the noise as he struggled to keep up with Ren. “Is there a Gym in this city?”

Ren paused, regarding Karl with a raised eyebrow. “You want to challenge it already?”

Karl shrugged. “Why not? You can do them in any order, you know.”

“I know,” Ren said, “but I honestly think you should train some more before you challenge this one.”

Karl narrowed his eyes. “What, you think I can’t handle it? Just because you beat me –”

Raising his hands placatingly, Ren cut him off. “No! No, that’s not what I’m saying at all. Look, it’s too crowded here. Let’s go check into the Pokémon Centre and we’ll work out what to do next.”

The Pokémon Centre Ren had seen from the ship was a little further away than he had anticipated; the curved shape of Oceanfront Road made it appear deceptively short, but in reality it took them nearly twenty minutes to reach the refreshingly familiar red frontage. The whole way, Karl lagged behind, all pretence of disinterest abandoned as he gawked unashamedly at his surroundings. Ren steered carefully between traffic and pedestrians as he led them along the waterfront, having seen it all before, but Karl was clearly overwhelmed by the strange and enormous world he had found himself in. Rolling his eyes a little, Ren practically dragged him through the Pokémon Centre’s blue sliding doors, the air conditioning and quiet instrumental music making a welcome change from the heat and bustle outside.

Karl seemed to come to his senses as they entered, returning to his usual disinterested demeanour. Ren crossed the slick tiled floor to the front desk, approaching the only one of the three attendants currently unoccupied.

“Welcome!” she said cheerily, brushing a loose strand of brown hair behind her ear and smiling as he approached. A badge on her lapel identified her as Emily. “What can we do for you today?”

“We just need a room for tonight,” Ren said. “Twin share. Anything open?”

“Of course!” she said. “I’ll just need to see your Trainer’s license.”

“Oh, right.” Ren dug around in his pockets until he found the credit-card sized pass, handing it over.

“Ooh, a Hoenn ID! You don’t see many of those around these days,” Emily said, turning it over and peering curiously at the reverse. “Are you sightseeing?” she asked, swiping the card through a machine and keying in some numbers. Hopefully, the card would still be able to connect to his bank account.

“Actually, we’re here for the Gym challenge,” Ren said.

“I see!” Emily chirped brightly. “Well, if that’s the case, you’re going to need a new Unova license. This will do for today, but I’ll give you an application form to fill out soon as you like, hmm?” She handed Ren his card back, together with a sheet of paper and a room key.

“Uh, I guess so,” Ren said, accepting them hesitantly. “Got another one of these forms? My friend will need one too, if that’s the case.”

“Sure thing!” She drew out a second form from beneath the desk and passed it across, still smiling widely. “Anything else today? Do your Pokémon need any attention?”

“No, they’re fine. Thanks, Emily,” he said, pushing a smile onto his face. Arceus, he had trouble dealing with bubbly people.

As it turned out, although the Pokémon Centre proper only occupied the bottom couple of floors of the skyscraper, several more were set aside for temporary accommodations. In their bare-bones twin room on the fifth floor, Ren handed Karl his copy of the license application form before sitting down at the desk to fill out his own.

Karl dumped his bag on the bed before yanking the blinds open and peering out the small window. It only looked out onto another featureless concrete wall, however, so he grunted and dropped onto the bed. “So what were you trying to say about the Gym?”

“The Leader specialises in Bug-types,” Ren said absently, pulling out his Hoenn license to double-check the ID number before pencilling it in. “Considering your team currently consists of what, three Dark-types? I thought you might want to leave this one for later.”

“Oh,” Karl said quietly. “Alright, fair cop. I still kind of want to try, though.”

Ren sat back from the desk, a thoughtful grin playing across his face. It was a crazy idea, but he had been trying to let loose a little. This could be just what he needed. “How about you watch me challenge the Gym, then make up your mind?” he suggested.

“What, today?” Karl looked ever so slightly flabbergasted. “That’s so not like you, dude.”

“I know!” Ren said, his smile widening as he became more enamoured of the idea. “But it’s still early. The Gym will be open for a few more hours.”

“And . . .” Karl paused for a second, but shook his head and forged ahead. “What about your Pokémon? Did you make your mind up yet?”

Ren nodded firmly. “One last hurrah. I’ll challenge the Gym Leader here, and if I win, I’ll send them home – all except Zangoose.”

Karl frowned. “Okay, I get that. I still think you’re off your rocker, though.”

Ren shrugged. “I can live with that. Hey, tell you what. You’re planning on collecting all the Unova badges as well, aren’t you?”

“Uh, yeah,” Karl said. “Duh.”

“All right, then. Let’s have another battle once we reach the League Conference.”

“With your new team?” Karl asked suspiciously.

“With my new team,” Ren agreed.

Karl narrowed his eyes. “I dunno. That sounds an awful lot like a handicap.”

“Oh, believe me,” Ren said, looking Karl dead in the eyes. “It won’t be.”

Seeming to consider it for a moment, Karl returned his gaze levelly. Finally, he nodded. “Okay. It’s a deal.”

“Good.” Ren swung back around to the desk. “Give me five minutes to finish filling this out, and we’ll go. I’ve got a badge to win.”

***

All things considered, Stacy thought, they had gotten off fairly lightly. Like Jim, the security guard, had predicted, there were no charges to be pressed. An extensive avalanche of bureaucracy and paper at the local police precinct had threatened to swamp them, but after acceding to blood samples, fingerprinting and registration in a number of complicated-sounding databases, they had been discharged with little more than a stern talking-to. Of course, it wasn’t as if their presence in Unova was itself illegal – just the way they’d arrived. If they hadn’t entered from Hoenn, a region with an unrestricted travel agreement, they could have been deported or worse.

Still, it had been suspiciously easy to get away scot-free. “Did you do something?” she mumbled to Roisin as they were summarily ejected into Castelia’s bustling streets.

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the green-haired girl replied, becoming very interested in one of her fingernails.

“Roisin . . .”

“I didn’t do anything!”

“Riiiight. Well, come on. We should get on and find a place to stay.” She would figure it out later. Grabbing her distracted friend’s hand, Stacy ploughed through the throngs of people. She had no destination in mind, rather scanning the various signs hanging from the eaves as they moved aimlessly through downtown Castelia. Hotels were a dime a dozen, but on a budget as tight as theirs she could ill afford to be frivolous. Surely there had to be a Pokémon Centre or something. She still had her Trainer’s license, although she’d been forced to leave her Pokémon behind during their rapid exit from Slateport. Her heart twinged slightly as she remembered Azumarill and the others, most likely still sitting in their Poké Balls on her nightstand. She would have to get in touch with her family and ask them to send them through at some point, but she wasn’t particularly keen to do so just yet.

Before long, Stacy found herself pausing in front of a curious building. Large and vaulted, with soaring beams and large glass windows, it was nonetheless dwarfed by the skyscrapers around it. A wide, paved walkway led between two asymmetrical aisles of trees, terminating at a wide glass door topped by a familiar symbol: the tilted Poké Ball of official League Gyms, the lower half extended into a sort of triangle.

“Stace?” Roisin’s voice jolted her back to reality. Realising she had stopped dead to stare at the Gym, Stacy turned back to her friend.

“Sorry! I just . . . nostalgia, you know? It’s been so long since I challenged a Gym.”

Roisin smiled gently, squeezing Stacy’s hand. “Want to go in and take a look around?”

“I . . .” Stacy paused, then nodded. “Yeah. I’d like that.”

The interior of the Gym was spacious and airy. A large antechamber lined with modern-looking artworks gave way to an enormous battlefield – or was it an indoor garden? Trees of all kinds stretched almost to the glass ceiling, interspersed with bushes and shrubbery, though a large area in the centre of the well-lit room had been kept mostly clear – for battles, she assumed. The ground was grassy and soft, and on a whim, Stacy bent down and took her shoes off, letting her toes sink into the loam. It was damp and springy, clearly having been watered recently. The air was rich with the earthy scent of vegetation, topped off with a fragrant note of perfume that wafted pleasantly through the greenhouse. She breathed deeply, revelling in the strange feeling of finding a natural oasis like this in the middle of the most built-up city in the region.

Roisin hung back a little as Stacy explored the Gym, half expecting to be pounced on and ordered to leave at any moment – but there appeared to be nobody there, at least at first. Towards the back of the cavernous glass room, Stacy paused as she heard raised voices in the trees. Creeping forward quietly on her bare feet, she peered around a large, sturdy elm. Three young men stood among the greenery, apparently quite agitated.

“What do you mean, you’re not taking challengers today?” one of them snapped. He was probably around Stacy’s age, with greasy-looking black hair and a ripped T-shirt and jeans. He waved his hands irritably as he practically shouted at the second man, a very tall, slim type with a shock of curly brown hair. Dressed fashionably in straight-cut pants, a V-neck shirt and a light spring scarf, he held up his hands in a placatory gesture.

“Please,” he said, “I told you, now is not a good time. I have the most terrible artist’s block today, so I couldn’t possibly battle you.”

The black-haired boy stepped forward with a snarl, getting right up in the taller man’s face. “What does that have to do with anything, you pompous, stuck-up jacka–”

“Whoa, Karl. Relax, man.” The third young man moved forward and put an arm in front of his friend’s chest, allowing Stacy a good look at him for the first time. She gasped and frantically nudged Roisin.

“Is that him?” she hissed, keeping her voice low. Roisin nodded wordlessly. The kid had been all over the TV in Hoenn for the last two years. Although he wasn’t particularly memorable, with his oval face, wide brown eyes and sandy brown hair, she had seen him plastered over every newspaper, talk show and sports review in the country. She had even seen him battle live once, at the Slateport Tag Tournament. He hadn’t ever seemed to much enjoy the spotlight that came with being Champion, but always smiled gamely. Ren Goodwin, Slateport’s golden boy.

“Karl, leave it,” Ren was saying insistently. He nodded apologetically to the other man, who Stacy supposed was the Gym Leader. “I’m sorry, Burgh. We plan to leave town tomorrow, so I’ll come back in the morning to challenge you again.”

Burgh tilted his head thoughtfully. “You know, my friends, I’m afraid I won’t quite be out of my slump by tomorrow morning.”

“Oh,” Ren said, his face falling. “Well, I guess I’ll just have to wait until next time we’re in town. Thank you for your time, though.”

As the brown-haired boy turned to leave, nudging his friend – was it Karl? – to follow, Burgh called after them. “You know, there might be something you can do to help me.”

Ren half-turned. “To help with your artist’s block, you mean? I’m sorry, but I was never much of an artist.”

A mischievous smile played across Burgh’s face as he tapped his chin with a finger. “Oh, that won’t be a problem. If you two and your eavesdropping friends over there will join me, we will be five. I think that should do the trick.” He raised an eyebrow in the direction of the elm tree where Stacy and Roisin were concealed.

Ah, muk. Raising her hands guiltily – I’m still holding my shoes too. Oh, Arceus – Stacy stepped out from behind the tree. Roisin followed suit, though she didn’t look remotely embarrassed.

“Oh?” Burgh glanced between the two pairs of teenagers, frowning slightly. “I guess you four don’t know each other after all.”

“I’m afraid not,” Stacy admitted. “What made you think we did?”

“Why, the way you looked at our young friend here,” Burgh said, indicating Ren with a playful twirl of his slim hand. “I could have sworn you recognised him.”

“You were paying that much attention?” Stacy felt her face heating up. “Wait, you knew we were there the whole time?”

“Of course,” he said, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. “But come, come. I’ll still have your help, if you’ll allow me.” He beckoned the four of them together.

Stacy glanced uncomfortably at Ren Goodwin, and the ex-Champion gave her a slightly nonplussed smile as if to say: What can you do?

“All right, my young friends,” Burgh said, clapping his hands together with a beatific smile. “What I need is a handful of intrepid young adventurers to journey with me into Pinwheel Forest, just outside of town.”

Karl snorted. “What, you can’t handle it by yourself?”

“But of course,” Burgh said graciously. “I would be well protected with my own Pokémon, and sometimes I do venture forth alone. But lately, something is amiss in the woods. I would like some capable Trainers to join me on this expedition . . . just in case.” A serious look crossed his face for a moment, as if imparting the true gravity of the situation, before being replaced by a smile again. “The forest is a great source of inspiration for me, and I often travel out there to seek the wisdom of nature. I’d like to do that again this afternoon, but I also want to investigate the strange abnormality I felt when I was there last. Will you help me?”

Stacy grimaced. “I’m sorry, but I don’t have my Pokémon on me. I had to leave them in Hoenn when we . . . left in a hurry.”

Burgh tilted his head thoughtfully. “Well, that shouldn’t be a problem. The Pokémon Centre down the road has a data transfer machine. Is there anyone back home who you can trust to send them through to you? Ah, if you want to help, that is. I’ll make it worth your while.”

Wincing, Stacy nodded. It was probably about time she faced the music. “Give me a minute.” Stepping away from the others, she dug through her backpack and pulled out a powered-down PokéNav. Bracing herself, she turned it on and waited while the screen spiralled through a series of geometric patterns, finally coalescing into a familiar home screen. A few seconds more passed as it searched for a signal, then it began vibrating violently. Dozens of missed calls, dozens of text messages. Mostly her mother, though her other family and friends had been trying too.

Scrolling through the increasingly worried messages, Stacy found herself blinking back tears. Oh, Arceus. Why did I do this? One message caught her eye: ‘Have put Azu + friends in stasis @ PC. Please take them. Be safe xx – Mama’. Taking a deep breath, she steadied herself and typed out a brief reply. ‘Don’t worry. Am fine with Roisin. Thx for sending pkmn’. It sounded hollow, even to her, but she had no time to worry about that now. Marvelling at the fact she still had service overseas – DevonCorp’s technology was truly remarkable – she quickly sent the message and then shut the device down again. She didn’t want to have to face her family quite yet, though she knew she would have to eventually.

Stowing the PokéNav back in the bottom of her bag, she rejoined the others, who were discussing the strange presence Burgh had felt in Pinwheel Forest; at least, Ren and the Gym Leader were. Karl still appeared to be sulking, and Roisin was scowling as usual.

“Have you considered the possibility of a powerful Psychic-type Pokémon negatively affecting the area?” Ren was saying. “It can sometimes happen even without the Pokémon realising it.”

“True,” Burgh said, “but somehow this feels . . . different. It’s hard to put into words, but I hope you will be able to feel it too once we reach the forest.” He turned to Stacy as she returned, tactfully ignoring the tears she knew would be painfully obvious in her eyes. “Any luck, my friend?”

She nodded. “My Pokémon have already been put in stasis, which means I should be able to pick them up right away.”

Burgh smiled. “That’s good news. But, ah . . . what about your friend? You don’t appear to have any Pokémon on you either,” he said, directing his attention towards Roisin.

The taller girl shrugged. “I don’t train Pokémon. Don’t worry about me.”

Stacy winced. “We’ll be right back,” she said, fairly dragging Roisin out of the Gym.

“You’re not actually going to do this, are you?” Roisin asked once they were out of earshot.

“Why not?” Stacy said with a shrug. “Arceus knows we have nothing better to do.”

“That’s true. It just feels a little . . . impulsive.” Roisin came to a stop in the Gym’s foyer, looking right at Stacy in a way that made her shiver. Those deep brown eyes seemed to pierce her very soul. “Are you sure about this, Stace?”

Stacy forced herself to meet the other girl’s gaze. “Yes,” she said firmly, gripping both of Roisin’s hands and bringing them to her chest. “We left because we wanted to be impulsive, right? You wanted to know what it was like to be able to live free, without rules or restrictions. Well, it’s like this. You get to do what you want, when you want, for no reason other than that you want to do it. Okay?”

Roisin’s turmoil was clearly visible on her face, but at length she nodded in acquiescence. “Okay, Stace. I’ll follow your lead for now,” she said quietly.

Stacy grinned. “Good,” she said, then leaned in and planted a quick kiss on Roisin’s lips. “That’s all I ask.”
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