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Thread: ~ Heart of the Magma ~

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    Default ~ Heart of the Magma ~

    A/N: Here we are again. I've been productive recently, haven't I? *grins*

    So. Here's the long-awaited re-post for Heart of the Magma. To some old readers, welcome back and I hope to keep you as entertained as I (hopefully) did with the first version.

    Firstly, let's get all those pesky disclaimers out of the way :P I don't own Pokémon (although I have claimed Lance ) and I also want to credit Coronis for some of the names in here. I use a mixture of the manga-, anime- and game-verses, and some of the manga character names in here are from Coronis' synopses as opposed to the published volumes.

    Next, I should apologise for the length -_-;; somehow I managed to almost double the original word count, which means I'll have to publish it in three posts... kind of long for a one-shot, I know, but it really isn't supposed to be divided into chapters.

    Umn... I think that's all, except to say that it's rated PG-13 for some violence.


    ~ HEART OF THE MAGMA ~



    CRYING.

    A baby’s crying, wailing and mournful, confused and frightened. It cut straight to the heart of everyone who heard it, making them pause and look uneasily towards the infirmary as though they could see through rock and steel.

    But it affected none more than the red-haired man striding through the roughly-cut stone corridors of his headquarters, his thin features set in an expression of apprehension, jaw set grimly as though to spur his pace. Behind him, his constant shadow and trusted agent Harland remained calm and silent in the face of potential tragedy.

    Maxie hurried his step, his shoes cracking sharply on the polished tiled floor, anxious to get to the medical ward. Courtney’s transmission had mentioned some complications, but Maxie had been in an important meeting at the time and unable to leave. Even now he hardly saw the gleaming, steel-shod walls he passed, instead seeing the pale face of his pleading wife, her huge blue eyes wide in the that expression which always broke his will.

    She was like a mother to every man and woman under his command, the one who reassured them when they failed or visited them in the sick bay. More than that; she was the base psychologist, knew more about their minds than anyone else, understood them like only a parent could.

    But notwithstanding the many ‘children’ she already had under her wing she wanted one of her own, even despite the danger, the warnings of their chief medical officer, and Maxie had never been able to deny her…

    The crying which echoed throughout the base stopped, leaving a looming, ominous silence, and Maxie’s heart leapt to his dry mouth.

    Please, let them be all right…

    He was hardly aware of the prayer running through his mind or of the fact he’d begun to walk faster, his hands clenched by his sides, fingernails digging into his palms. Not far in front one of his agents rounded the corner into the main hallway, the rounded lights hanging from the stone ceiling illuminating the man’s red mantle in ripples of light and shadow as he rifled distractedly through a sheaf of papers, but upon hearing his leader’s quick step he looked up. Seeing Maxie’s expression, he stepped aside with a rustle of his grey pants, clutching the reports to his chest and grimacing in sympathy. Maxie swept by without acknowledging him – if he’d seen him at all – but Harland gave him a quick, bleak glance, enough for the agent to know that life in Team Magma was about to change – dramatically.



    Absently Courtney kicked her feet against the steel base of the red-padded bench, the brilliant lights of the square room gleaming over the pink bubble she’d just blown with her gum. Her huge brown eyes were fixed worriedly on the double doors at the end of the tiled room, opposite an identical pair nearer her. The circular plexiglass was too thick to see anything from her distance and she couldn’t find it in herself to get up and look.

    She almost didn’t want to know.

    The silence was worse than the incessant crying of the baby, she thought unhappily, leaning forward on her tense arms, her slim fingers gripping the edge of the seat. At least then she knew someone was around, alive, but now…

    Abruptly the outer doors crashed open, springing off the rock walls. Courtney’s heart leapt to her throat and she was on her feet in an instant, her hands tingling with adrenaline, her bubblegum bursting with a pop as she spun about, startled, to face the newcomer.

    “Report!” Maxie barked, his thin face pale and narrow eyes piercing, and Courtney’s mouth dried. Unable to answer, she just shook her unhooded head, her short brunette hair bouncing around her heart-shaped face. Maxie’s fists clenched and he made for the operating room doors, seeming to forget about Courtney as he brushed past her. The young woman glanced anxiously around at Harland, but the Admin’s grey eyes – usually so cunning and enigmatic – were concerned, doing nothing to assuage her fears.

    Maxie never reached the doors.

    Three sharp gazes shot towards Bernard as the stocky, white-clad doctor came through from the next room, letting the doors swing shut behind him, his mask still tied around his neck and eyes downcast. Maxie stopped short, hands flexing tensely as the balding physician looked up with a tight, sorrowful expression and shook his head, subconsciously wiping at the powder still coating his hands from the gloves he’d worn in surgery.

    No… Maxie’s chest froze, tightened to the point that he found it difficult to breathe, as though something heavy was pressing down upon him. He stood frozen, silently imploring his friend to tell him he’d been wrong, to change his verdict. Behind him Courtney turned away, one hand to her lips and shoulders shaking as she tried to suppress the tears that shone in her huge eyes.

    Harland’s mouth thinned, his worried stare on the red-coated back of his stricken leader, but when he spoke his voice was low and hoarse. “What about the child?”

    At that Bernard managed a faint, tired smile, eyes moving to Maxie’s grief-lined face before pushing the door open behind him and beckoning to someone inside. A moment later the head nurse emerged, eyes bright over a cradled bundle of red cloth. Instantly Maxie’s focus changed from inward anguish to the pure, pleading hope of someone who has lost something precious only to gain something else.

    “She’s a strong little girl,” Bethany whispered, her caring eyes peering through wisps of white-blonde hair as she surrendered Maxie’s daughter to him, but he barely heard. Gingerly he folded the fragile child to his chest as though afraid he might break her and she met his grey eyes with bright blue ones of her own. It seemed like she recognised him, because she halted the soft whimpers which had threatened to erupt into wailing, her tiny, pudgy fingers waving.

    Looking into her trusting eyes, Maxie felt the fist around his heart loosen, giving him room to breathe, and though he still ached with pain it seemed more distant and more easily borne.

    With the help of his newest charge, it would soon fade entirely.

    * * *

    Keegan giggled to herself, clapping a small brown hand to her mouth to stifle the sound as she huddled deep into the rocky little niche. She couldn’t let Courtney find her – not yet. Not when she was having so much fun.

    The little girl was nestled behind some large metal crates stacked in a corner of the spacious main hangar, her red-blonde hair tied into a messy ponytail and her jeans and T-shirt, while clean and well-kept, holding evidence of many small misadventures.

    The steel-edged crates nearest to her vibrated as others were added noisily to the outer edge of the pile and Keegan automatically froze to keep anyone from seeing her. It hadn’t been there yesterday and likely wouldn’t be there tomorrow but Keegan had an incredible knack for sneaking away from her guards, eluding anyone who was likely to return her to them (read: ‘everyone’) and finding a place to hide.

    That day it was Courtney’s turn. No one could say that the short-haired brunette didn’t pull her own weight, no matter how difficult Keegan got, although for some reason – far from getting the girl to behave – Courtney’s presence just seemed to encourage her.

    Surveying the hangar slowly with hard, confident brown eyes, Courtney irritably fumbled with the wrapper of a piece of bubblegum. Why can’t Hank help me with this assignment? She wondered with fleeting bitterness, tossing the gum into her mouth grumpily and letting the paper drift groundward.

    It was a stupid question, really. She knew why Hank didn’t help her with babysitting Keegan… but sometimes, when the little fox was being especially difficult, she didn’t think it was a good enough reason.

    To his credit, though, it wasn’t from lack of offering.

    Idly the voluptuous brunette walked slowly through the high room hewn out of rock, her shoes clicking on the cement floor and her long grey skirt rippling with the movement, the twin white lines on the hem marking her as an Admin. She dodged the Magma grunts unloading the broad red helicopter with the absent ease of someone who had long practice of searching busy areas, looking critically at every crate and drum she passed and wishing fervently that Tabitha, at least, was doing something useful instead of training pokémon all day.

    Then she spotted a tall, familiar agent amidst the semi-ordered pathways of the supplies, his brown-haired head bowed over his papered clipboard, pen flicking absently from finger to thumb as he logged the equipment, and hope lit her chest. “Larry!” she barked, quickening her pace to reach him, hiding her glee at finding someone to suffer with her. Larry was one of the few agents in what everyone affectionately called ‘the babysitting squad’, which really just meant he was constantly on-call for babysitting duty. Most of the agents couldn’t handle kids, let alone Keegan, all the time; those that could were part of the group which frequently minded many agents’ families.

    He was also one of those outside the close-knit trio of the FireHeads that Courtney called friend. Although Maxie and his Admins usually elicited a respectful – if informal – disposition from normal agents, the nature of Courtney’s task meant that her relationship with the Team was more one of camaraderie and not as a leader, since she worked so closely with them.

    The thin man looked up at her call and Courtney grimaced, slowing back down as her delight faded at the lines of exhaustion on his thin face and the yawn he just managed to stifle. “Hmmm?” He blinked, rubbing his narrow eyes tiredly.

    Courtney frowned. “You weren’t on duty last night,” she snapped in confusion, nettled that her plans had been thwarted. Larry was one of the most experienced in childcare – probably as a result of his days minding his nephews – so with him on her side, looking, surely they’d have been able to find Keegan in no time.

    But he looked dead on his feet, which meant he’d miss things and not be much help at all.

    Larry looked rueful, tapping the butt of the pen against the forms clipped to the board, covered in his scrawling handwriting. “No,” he admitted in his deep voice as the Admin crossed her arms impatiently over the grey of her dress, cinched at her waist with a leather belt, her eyes still wandering over the square shapes and busy hive that was the hangar. “But I did catch the little fox sneaking down corridor 3-02A in the dead of night and figured she’d slipped past the sentry again. Led me a merry chase; must’ve been a fair few hours before I managed to catch her.”

    In her hiding place not far from where they stood, Keegan winced somewhat guiltily. How was she meant to know Larry had to get up at dawn to help bring in the morning shipment?

    Courtney looked at her scrawny companion sharply, squashing a twinge of amusement. What was that saying? Misery loves company? “And you’re out here, on duty, why?” she demanded, then continued on without waiting for an answer. “Get back to your quarters and get some sleep, you idiot.”

    “I will when I’ve finished this,” Larry waved a hand vaguely at the neat stacks of wooden boxes, in a square formation near the secondary doors opposite the broad helipad exit. “And I’ll tell everyone to keep an eye out for the little fox; we’ve been moving equipment in and out all morning, I wouldn’t be surprised if she’s snuck in here.”

    Courtney ran a frustrated hand through her thick hair. “If only it were that simple,” she muttered sourly, wishing it was. “Maxie has some spare time this afternoon and he wanted me to take her up for lunch.”

    As one, the pair of them turned to look at the glowing digital clock which was inset over the main double doors across the room, perpendicular to the helipad, and Larry blanched at the time. “Good luck.”

    “Thanks,” Courtney snapped grumpily, turning around with a whirl of her long skirt and leaving the unhooded agent behind to return to searching the crates for their ID stamps, his red-and-grey uniform rustling as he crouched to reach the boxes at the base of the stack. A second later there was the whoosh of swinging doors as a frustrated Courtney escaped the hangar.

    In her hiding place behind the gleaming heap of crates, Keegan’s blue eyes widened in horror, her small hands pressed to her mouth. I forgot about lunch!

    Scrambling to her feet, forgetting all about being quiet, she darted to the edge of the pile, scraping past with ease, her shoes thudding on the cement floor. She dashed around the formation of crates that Larry had been cataloguing, but her sneakers skidded on the clean floor, making her stumble and bump against the nearest stack, slipping over to land hard on her elbows.

    For a moment she gritted her teeth against the jarring blow, her head swirling dizzyingly, certain the boxes were about to come tumbling down around her.

    But nothing happened; so, pushing clumps of red-blonde hair out of her eyes, heart pounding with adrenaline, Keegan looked up to find Larry righting the tower, bracing his shoulder and hip against the sturdy boxes to keep it steady. Whatever was in there was clearly heavy.

    Abuzz with urgency, forgetting about the sting of her elbows and hands, Keegan leapt to her feet and flashed a cheeky, somewhat apologetic grin towards the scrawny agent. “Bye, Larry!” she called breathlessly, already running as he turned around with a tiny frown to chastise her, and moments later the doors whooshed for the second time in as many minutes.

    With a sigh, Larry rubbed his forehead exasperatedly with his thumb; then his weariness caught up with him and he couldn’t help but start to laugh.



    Courtney strode down the uniformly rock and metal corridors, her fine features set in a deep scowl of dissatisfaction, her skirt swirling around her knees and scarlet mantle billowing behind her. Anyone who didn’t know her would have turned and run in the opposite direction upon seeing that expression – as it was, some of the newer agents hastily changed the route they’d been planning to take to their destination.

    Everyone else, however, either chuckled in amusement (albeit discreetly) or grimaced in sympathy.

    The little fox was nowhere to be found and Courtney was proceeding to the centre of the base, where Maxie’s office was located, to report.

    Maxie wasn’t that hard a taskmaster, really; he understood that his daughter could be a handful, not at all helped by the way he doted upon her, but Courtney had personal standards to maintain.

    She hated failing with a passion.

    Nevertheless, when she reached the steel door, she took only a few seconds to grimace and compose herself, rearranging the scowl into something more impassive. Then she rapped sharply on the metal with her knuckles and, without waiting for an answer, pushed the heavy door open to enter the luxuriously furnished office.

    She’d already opened her mouth to explain when she stopped short at the sight before her.

    “Hiya Courtney, where you been?” Keegan said cheerfully as she grinned angelically at Courtney’s surprised expression, her short legs barely scraping the ground, scuffed elbows leaning on the ornately carved table.

    Courtney snapped her mouth shut, avoiding Maxie’s amused eyes from across the polished surface of the dark-toned wood, and flopped down on the well-cushioned sofa behind the door, blowing an exasperated bubble. “Elbows down, little fox,” Maxie said indulgently, lips twitching at Courtney’s aggrieved expression when Keegan did so obediently, placing her hands meticulously in her lap.

    The young woman caught Harland’s gaze, standing in his customary place at Maxie’s right side with his muscular arms behind his back, and rolled her eyes skyward. The grey-haired Admin’s mouth quirked up in a rarely amused smile, quickly suppressed when the plainly framed secondary doors swung open, right on time for lunch to be served.

    Some of Maxie’s peers had accused him of being conceited and self-righteous, of having his underlings merely so they could cater to his every whim, but the fact was that Team Magma was comprised of more than just field agents. Every member of the Team received the same benefits, things like quality food while on base; the difference was that Maxie had a great deal more privacy.

    In Harland’s opinion, what people like that couldn’t understand was the fact that Maxie didn’t hold his agents through force or bribery. If they wanted to leave to work their skills elsewhere – and there were plenty of places they could go: the Magma’s smaller rivals, for one, the Elites, the police force – they could, and he wouldn’t stop them. They served him out of respect.

    Which is why the accusations were never made from the same person twice.

    As was her wont, Keegan made up for the comfortable silence of the adults by prattling on about random things she’d seen on her daily ventures throughout the base, as though her ability to be quiet when hiding was offset by constant chatter at other times.

    Maxie let her, inwardly smiling with anticipation. He listened only idly, absently swirling the orange soup with his spoon and recalling the first time Keegan had seen a pokémon battle.

    It had been one of the few times Maxie was able to let Keegan stay with him during the course of the day, not to mention had the time to answer her incessant questions. He knew that Courtney and her entourage were relieved at the chance to take a break (although she had sent one agent to trail them, just in case) and after Hank’s little incident… well. Maxie was the only person for whom Keegan behaved; not even the stern-looking and intimidating Harland could control her.

    Keegan had eagerly asked to see the training room – a doorway that was always kept locked against the curious little fox, which she had never yet managed to sneak through. Maxie had considered this carefully, since pokémon battles could occasionally be dangerous even for onlookers, especially it if was between two of the Team’s best trainers and highest level pokémon.

    Eventually, however, he had conceded.

    It had been an excellent day for it; Tabitha, one of the FireHeads and the Admin in charge of pokémon training, had been battling at the time. If there was anyone who had pure talent at pokémon training, it was Tabitha.

    The burly man had been testing one of the new recruits, a stocky youth with a great deal of potential but lacking in experience. After watching the battle with wide, awestruck eyes, Keegan had, surprisingly, been silent for many moments while they walked back to Maxie’s office, shadowed, as always, by Harland.

    “I want to be a pokémon trainer, Papa,” Keegan had said suddenly, clasping his hand with her small one and looking up at her father with huge, pleading eyes surrounded by a tumble of half-curling gold locks, an expression to melt the hardest heart.

    Maxie had exchanged a somewhat resigned glance with Harland before replying. “Perhaps one day, little fox.”

    Keegan’s face had lit up with that glowing smile that reminded Maxie so much of her mother and, despite his reservations, dispelled any uncertainties.

    “Are you okay, Papa?” Keegan’s youthful, anxious voice broke through his thoughts, and Maxie came back to himself to find the girl cocking her head and studying him in concern, inattentively pushing back the bunches of hair which threatened to obscure her thin features.

    Feeling a little bit mischievous himself, Maxie smiled, making his face crease with a few faint, premature lines. “You were in rather a rush to get here this afternoon.” Keegan’s cheeks were slightly pink and he tapped his fingers together idly, narrow eyes amused as he continued teasingly, “One might think you’d forgotten about me.”

    “Of course not, Papa!” Keegan exclaimed, but her persistent blush made it clear she had, and Courtney smothered an entertained snort.

    “One might also wonder whether or not you deserve the present I got for you,” Maxie went on with almost wicked laughter faintly visible in his expression and making the brunette appreciate, ruefully, exactly where Keegan got it from.

    The girl’s eyes widened and she asked eagerly, “Present? Where?” without even bothering to consider whether he was serious or not. He wasn’t; she knew he wasn’t. Maxie never got angry with her. Frustrated, resigned, amused, yes, but never angry.

    Maxie raised an arched eyebrow, his gaze flickering momentarily to something in the far corner, so the little fox swivelled in her chair to see what he was gesturing to.

    And let out a squeal that had Courtney wincing as the girl leapt out of her timber-backed chair with such zeal that she knocked it over, making it hit the scarlet floor with a soft thud. Keegan didn’t notice; she was too busy dashing over to the round wicker basket in the corner, dropping so quickly to her knees that she skinned them even on the soft carpet. The basket was lined with red silk and nesting comfortably in the centre, curled up with her white-tipped tail brushing her button-black nose, was an eevee.

    At Keegan’s squeal she had awoken with a start, blinking sleepily as the girl rushed over. She yawned, stretching her dainty muzzle wide before clambering out of the basket and greeting Keegan with a tentative wag of her fluffy tail. Bright eyes shining with something akin to reverence, Keegan brushed the pokémon’s brown fur with her fingertips. It was soft, almost like the silk on which the pokémon had so recently be resting, and the eevee mewed happily, nudging Keegan’s hand in a bid for some more petting.

    “She’s really mine?” Keegan asked in a hushed, almost disbelieving voice as the eevee looked up at her with huge, chocolate-coloured eyes, her red collar a stark contrast to the fluffy white mane that circled her neck.

    Maxie allowed himself a smile, knowing she wouldn’t see it. “Of course,” he answered gently, his narrow grey eyes gleaming with pleasure at her reaction. Keegan squealed again and hugged her new companion, squashing the poor eevee into her chest to rub her cheek against the pokémon’s soft fur. “But you must promise to take care of her,” Maxie warned, seeing the breathless, pained expression the eevee was wearing. Keegan nodded eagerly and released her tight grip into a more comfortable one, allowing the pokémon to curl up in the girl’s excitedly twitching arms and smile happily, her long ears flickering with contentment. “And Tabitha will teach you to battle and train properly,” Maxie added. “So be sure to listen to him.”

    “I will, Papa,” Keegan promised breathlessly, her face glowing with exhilaration, and cuddled the eevee blissfully as Maxie leaned back in his chair to watch her, his face creasing with a tiny, contented smile. Seemingly forgotten, Courtney drew her smooth legs up onto the couch, exchanging a pleased glance with Harland. Courtney’s was more than a bit relieved; if Keegan was to begin training it meant that Courtney and her entourage of agents could spent more time watching and less time searching.

    And besides, I think it’s about time that Tabitha took an orientation course in the handling of the little fox… let’s see if he can keep laughing after that.

    * * *

    “Hazel, use Tackle!” Keegan commanded, her thin face screwed up in studied concentration. The eevee which had given her so much joy wore an identical expression, her paws digging into the dirt of the arena as she darted towards the wiry-furred dog against which she was pitted.

    “Houndour, Flamethrower,” Keegan’s opponent ordered, none other than the burly Tabitha. The black-and-red dog dodged to the side, allowing Hazel to skid snout-first into the dirt with a grunt. Artificial light flashed over the bone-like armour on the houndour’s head and back as it opened its jaws wide, spilling crimson flames over its canines.

    “Hazel, use – um –” Before Keegan could think of an appropriate attack, the fire swelled in a coursing stream of heat towards the little eevee, hitting her with a burst of crackling embers and sending her flying across the rocky, high-ceilinged arena. Hazel tumbled head-over-heels with a series of yelps before settling to a singed heap amidst a thinly billowing cloud of dust.

    Keegan rushed anxiously over to her pokémon as the eevee shook her head groggily, ears flapping around her skull. “Are you okay?” the girl asked in a small voice, hand outstretched just inches before touching Hazel’s heated fur. The fox-like pokémon staggering to her dainty paws with apparent disregard for her possible injuries and mewed an affirmative, fading smoke still wreathing off her fur in gentle streams. Keegan smiled in relief and stood up to face an approaching Tabitha with a novice’s timidity. “Was that better, Tabby?” she requested earnestly, peeking up at the man’s rugged face through her slightly curling bangs.

    Off to the side, watching from the bench, Courtney snorted in amusement at Tabitha’s new nickname, chewing contentedly on her gum as she leaned casually against the stone wall. Tabitha threw her a heavy-browed scowl, knowing perfectly well she was laughing at him, and answered Keegan’s question. “A little better, yeah. You just gotta remember your attacks in time, an’ keep in mind that pokémon can and will learn stronger attacks with time an’ practice.”

    Keegan frowned, tugging thoughtfully on a sprig of blonde hair as she looked down at Hazel, but the eevee just looked back up with a puzzled expression, her ruff of fur now tinged grey by ash. “I don’t even know what attacks Haze can learn,” Keegan confessed quietly, her cheeks going slightly pink as though she thought Tabitha had expected her to know from the off.

    “Hazel’s an eevee, which means she won’t learn special attacks like Flamethrower unless you go outta your way to teach her,” Tabitha explained matter-of-factly. “That’s something we’ll do a bit later. But pokémon can also change form to make themselves stronger, and eevees are special like that. There’s five pokémon they can turn into, all different, and all with their own special abilities.”

    “Really?’ Keegan’s tanned face lit up as she absorbed this new information, then plonked herself down and examined Hazel critically. The pokémon mewed happily and jumped into the girl’s arms, licked her face as Keegan giggled. “Changing form sounds fun. How can I teach Haze to do that?”

    “Woah, there, little fox,” Tabitha warned her off seriously, resting his fists on his hips as he looked down at the girl sitting in his shadow. “Some pokémon can change forms as an attack, but Hazel’s not one of ‘em. For her, the change will be forever. And sometimes, they’ll change personalities, too.”

    Keegan looked shocked. “Oh, I don’t know if I want Haze to do that!” she exclaimed, hugging the eevee as the pokémon’s tail lashed wildly in approval. “So what do we do now, Tabby? Are we going to battle again?” Hazel mewed an agreement, jumping out of her mistress’s arms and back onto the dusty rock field, paws pattering eagerly over the ground.

    “Nah, Hazel’s pretty tired,” Tabitha pointed out with a grunt, ignoring the eevee as she batted his boot reproachfully. “Remember what I told you – if you take care of you pokémon, they’ll take care of you. It’s a dangerous world out there, and a loyal pokémon –”

    “– is better’n an unloyal one,” Keegan finished, sounding vaguely disappointed as Courtney approached, her shoes crunching on the rough terrain, and Hazel whipped around to look at Keegan with wide, beseeching eyes. “So maybe we better not, Haze. You’re still hot from the fire.”

    Tabitha nodded in approval even as the eevee veritably wilted with dissatisfaction, opening his mouth to tell Keegan that the lesson for the day was over, when he was cut off by the sound of spiteful growling, echoed by the loud crash of a door flying open.

    Keegan jumped and the other two went automatically for their pokéballs, but all they saw was a grey-and-black poochyena dashing out of the next training room – the one which dealt specifically with newly caught pokémon. The little pup’s thick fur was bristled and his black lips were rolled back over glistening canines as he snarled at the stick-thin agent who had followed him out, looking both irritated and slightly abashed.

    Courtney sighed with mild exasperation, replacing the red-and-white ball to her belt, but Tabitha frowned and ran a large hand through his thick, wavy hair in annoyance, striding towards the woman. “I thought you’d tamed that one,” he snapped.

    The agent shrugged and spread her hands helplessly, a pokéball caught between two of her fingers, her blue eyes both apologetic and frustrated. “We thought so too,” she admitted, shaking back her straight, lime-green hair. “But he’s got a nasty attitude, this one.”

    The only ones who seemed to be paying any attention to the poochyena now were Keegan and Hazel, the former still sitting cross-legged on the ground and the latter flicking her ears back and forth, watching the other pokémon intently as he turned and began to slink away, narrow eyes still warily on the adults.

    “Think you should do something about him, little fox?” Courtney said breezily through her bubblegum without even looking away from Tabitha, but somehow Keegan doubted she was talking about the dark-haired agent.

    “Um, okay,” Keegan looked at Hazel, the eevee’s eyes bright with anticipation. “I think you’d better stop him, Haze.”

    “Eebui!” Hazel agreed eagerly, and in a patter of paws she was gone.

    The poochyena didn’t even know what happened to him, so focussed was he on Tabitha and his subordinate. One moment the pokémon was crawling along, furry belly near to the ground; the next he was tumbling nose-over-tail across the rocky landscape.

    At the sound of his startled yelp, Tabitha turned around, already reaching to pluck his personal pokéball from his belt, but then he saw Hazel standing over the hapless pup, her fur bristling with enthusiasm, and hesitated. Courtney didn’t even move, her arms folded over her stomach, watching with interested eyes as the poochyena picked itself up and snarled angrily, charging at Hazel as dust coated his grey fur and his black-socked paws beat the rock.

    “Tail Whip!” Keegan cried, already on her feet, her fists windmilling excitedly in the air. Hazel jumped aside and spun about, lashing her thick tail towards the poochyena. It hit him on the side and with a high yelp he was sent tumbling again, raising up small clouds of dust, his speed cut with a suddenness that made him land hard on his black nose.

    “Try Quick Attack,” Courtney suggested mildly, ignoring the frown Tabitha threw her, his distant-seeming eyes having been studying the battle intently. He’d been hoping Keegan would pick it up on her own.

    The girl jumped, startled, as though she’d forgotten they were there, and obediently ordered the attack. With a flurry of swift brown paws Hazel was gone, flashing across the arena, crashing squarely into the dazed poochyena in a collision that sent him flying back in a swirl of dust and fur, ending in a painful skid on his fuzzy belly.

    He whined submissively, not bothering to get up, his head down sullenly between his paws and fur matted with dirt.

    “Ah, nice work,” Tabitha congratulated Keegan, still looking somewhat disgruntled that Courtney had interfered.

    Keegan blinked, slightly confused, before a grin spread over her face and she bounced gleefully on her toes. “You mean we won?”

    “Bii?” Hazel cocked her head and purred, sprinkles of dust raining down from her coat.

    “We won!” Keegan shrieked joyfully, dancing around and laughing delightedly while Hazel gambolled happily at her heels.

    Tabitha rubbed his cleft chin thoughtfully. Seems to be about even in experience, an’ he could do with some breaking in. He gestured towards the red-clad agent, who was watching Keegan and shaking her head slowly with an amused expression. “I’ll take over the pup’s training,” the FireHead ordered.

    “Done.” The grunt handed over the poochyena’s pokéball and retreated gratefully, closing the steel door behind her to cut off the sound of Keegan’s ecstatic shouts. The pup was watching the girl with a mixture of confusion and irritation, hunching his head into his shoulders as though hoping to muffle the sound.

    “That’s enough for today,” the burly man told Keegan sternly over the sound of her elated chant as he returned the poochyena to his pokéball with the customary beam of red light, the pokémon looking almost relieved to be put back into peace and quiet.

    For a moment Keegan looked disappointed, but then bounded over to him to give him a quick hug of thanks, barely reaching up to his waist. He looked startled for a moment, and Courtney stifled a laugh with one gloved hand, looking away. “When will I get to battle in double battles, Tabby?” the girl asked eagerly a moment later, tugging enthusiastically at the long red mantle which was draped over the burly man’s shoulders, back to hopping up and down.

    Tabitha’s answer was cautious as he glanced sidelong towards the amused-looking Courtney, who had one eyebrow raised expectantly, and surreptitiously nudged Hazel away from him with his foot when she started to attack his black boot with a similar, fervent excitement to her mistress. “Give it time, little fox. Give it time.”

    Briefly he wondered if it had been wise to agree to tutor the girl, and then – looking back at an entertained Courtney a second time – just as quickly vowed never to laugh at his friend’s duty again.

    * * *
    Last edited by purple_drake; 29th January 2008 at 7:05 AM.

  2. #2
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    Maxie swirled the wine in his goblet absently, leaning back in his comfortable chair as the liquid left a transparent red sheen on the sides of the glass. His narrow eyes rested thoughtfully on the shapeless form of his daughter beneath her scarlet blankets as she slept.

    It was early morning and Maxie was waiting patiently for Keegan to wake; living with the Magmas, who often kept strange hours, had irrevocably turned her into a morning person, much like her father. No matter how late either of them went to sleep, they were always up early the next morning without seeming to suffer any consequences.

    The thin man often watched her sleep at night, after he had finished his work for the day. It soothed him to witness the pure, peaceful slumber of the innocent, made him feel it was all worthwhile.

    This time, however, was slightly different. It was the little fox’s tenth birthday and Maxie knew she was tired of the uniformly rock and metal halls of the base, the stoic tors and shifting trees of the single valley she was allowed to venture. In addition, although there were often other kids in the halls set aside for agents to drop off their families if they ever needed watching while they were out in the field, Keegan rarely went there for long. She, after all, had free reign over the entire complex, whereas they didn’t, and with Hazel as company she didn’t see the need to stay cooped up in a single wing.

    Both of which were matters which had prompted Maxie’s decision: for her birthday present he had decided to let her travel to Kanto.

    He knew that the more they tried to restrict her to the base the more she’d try to get out, and he was worried by the fact that she didn’t have much to do with other children her own age. He was hoping that a journey elsewhere would rectify things, before she went ahead and something terrible happened.

    He shuddered as an apprehensive chill crawled down his shoulders. The wine sloshed in the glass and he set it gently on the low, nearby table, raising a hand to pass anxiously over his straight, swept-back hair.

    The valleys just outside the base were dangerous. The ground was often unstable and they were filled with wild pokémon, strong enough to ward off the average trainer. The last time Keegan had tried to venture out there it had almost turned out to be a disaster…

    Three squads?” Maxie demanded incredulously, turning slightly so he could look at Harland in disbelief without a hitch in his confident stride. “Three?”

    “Three,” Harland confirmed, his mouth just the slightest bit tighter than normal, lined vaguely with distaste. “I don’t think we should give them to him. I don’t trust him.”

    “No indeed,” Maxie agreed seriously. “At least, not so many. Not until he gives us full disclosure on what he intends to do with them.”

    “It could be anything from guarding a special delivery to robbing Evergrande,” Harland said flatly. “And with that many, it’s more likely to be the latter.”

    He was right about that, Maxie knew; the highest number of his people any single patron would need to hire would be one squad, and even that was usually overkill. Clients tended to underestimate the skill of his agents.

    Those that usually asked to hire more than one squad were organisations, like the Pokémon Association or the police force, if they wanted to supplement their own forces. That a single man had the money – and more importantly, the motive – to hire more than that was suspicious. That he refused to give them details was even more so.

    “Keep channels open nonetheless,” he said at last. “But make it clear he’s not getting more than one squad without telling us more of what he plans. As well, you’d best send word to Evergrande – not the Association, he might have bought some of them out – try Drake instead –”

    “Sir!”

    They were interrupted by a shout that made them stop and turn, alerted by the grim, urgent undertones. One of Courtney’s agents, a tiny woman with spiky hair and a perpetually lopsided mouth, was running up the hall after them, her boots slapping on the tiled floor.

    She started speaking before she’d even reached them, in-between gulping down huge breaths. “Sir, the little fox has gotten outside.”

    Maxie went pale and still, but Harland didn’t even hesitate, turning to face the woman more fully. “Tell us more.”

    “We were looking for her but didn’t find even a hint, so Courtney sent some of us up to the command centre – the security tapes caught her and Hazel sneaking out through one of the outer hatches, about two hours ago –”

    “Which one?” Harland demanded as Maxie turned on his heel to begin striding back the way the agent had come, the woman trotting at the Admin’s heels as he followed, her blue eyes reflecting worry.

    “Out at J-junction, corridor C – we’ve already mobilised some search parties, they should be combing the area by now –”

    To Maxie, her voice was now just a buzz. He knew that whatever else she had to say, Harland would hear it; if it was something he needed to know, Harland would tell him. But right now, the most important thing was that his daughter, his little fox, had been wandering outside for two hours now, in one of the valleys that were littered with hidden springs hot enough to burn should she fall in, steep, mountainous hills, and, most dangerously, wild pokémon.

    By the time he reached the outside, the sky overcast, the leaves tinged grey with the scarce ash that the wind blew in from the north, it seemed like half the Team had turned out to help. Tabitha was organising squads of mightyena and their trainers, and he saw Hank standing on a craggy tor above the hatch, his flaxen hair drifting in the breeze and his keen eyes watching the grey sky for their flying pokémon.

    Courtney was the one who met them at the rocks just down from the overgrown, steel-lined airlock, her eyes hard with determination, leaving no room for self-recriminations – at least not until Keegan was found. “This hatch has been closed off for months,” she said grimly. “Ever since we carved that other trail on the other side of the ridge.” She nodded towards the sharp slope that blocked their view of the path just as Hank’s swellow descended towards him, alighting upon the scarlet fabric on his wrist.

    The bird didn’t even bother to fold her navy-coloured wings; instead she ducked her streamlined head and trilled, straightening sharply to point with her beak over her shoulder in the direction she’d just come.

    The FireHead’s eyes met Maxie’s, his resolve evident even in the distance between them, and he nodded. With a jerk of his arm and a beat of her wings the swellow was airborne again, flapping to gain height and lead the way. Chest tight with fear, Maxie followed, aware of Courtney and Harland just behind him, of the agents nearby that were set to their tasks. No one even suggested that he stay behind and leave it to them.

    Dust and pebbles cascaded down the steep gradient as they moved, the leaves of stumpy bushes whipping at their clothes, grass and weeds catching on their feet, but not once did Maxie stop or falter, his eyes on the blue-and-white figure overhead, his breath short and sides aching.


    Please, don’t let anything happen –

    Then they heard something that made Maxie’s heart clench in fear: the bellowing, angry roars of pokémon. Abruptly Swellow banked, her wings tipping up, and she fell like an arrow into the thick foliage just down the way. A second later there was a bestial shriek of pain and the bird rose above the tree-line again, dodging several thick streamers of roiling flames that threatened to singe her wings.

    There came a very human scream of terror and Maxie forgot his fear, forgot the pain in his side, suddenly awash with fury –
    there was something attacking his child –

    His pokéball was expanded in his hand with no memory of how it got there as he skidded down the hill in a wave of pebbles, the ball leaving his hand and hitting the ground before he’d hardly even burst through the low trees.

    He saw Keegan sprawled on the rocky ground.

    He saw the lead slugma raising its head to breathe fire.

    He saw the red light of his pokéball.

    “Flamethrower!” he roared wrathfully as his camerupt materialized, already prepared, her brown fur bristling with heat and heavily-browed eyes dark with anger. The inferno didn’t pour from her mouth so much as
    explode, the air rippling with sheer heat as fire surged across the ridge, meeting the slugma’s attack and making it break on Camerupt’s flames with the crackle of spraying embers.

    Ignoring the burn of the air on his skin, Maxie scrambled down the slab of rock on which he stood, disregarding the enraged tribe of slugma only twenty feet away. He didn’t flinch even when a ribbon of flames coursed just past his shoulder, redirected by the efforts of Courtney’s sleek, cream-coloured ninetales, or hesitate when suffocating smog wisped around him, blown away by Swellow’s beating wings.

    Keegan levered herself up, her clothes singed and torn, her face a dirty mask with tear trails down the cheeks. “Papa!” she sobbed, clutching Hazel tightly to her as he crouched beside her, his red hair whipping in the heated wind of the battle as flames crashed against the heavy, unmoving form of his camerupt, who had planted herself directly between the humans and the slugma, her broad head lowered in steady, glowering determination.

    Distantly he could hear the shouts of his Admins as they commanded their pokémon, heard the remote lash of branches and jangle of rocks as more of his agents came, but he ignored it all, gathering Keegan up in his embrace. One thin, scratched arm went around his neck, the other still clamped around a filthy Hazel, her face buried in his chest as he stood and darted away just as a boulder crushed the ground where they’d been, cracking stone and shaking the earth.

    Although his arms were full he managed to throw his pokéball, thudding against the thickly-furred side of his camerupt and returning her to safety as her position was abruptly swept away in a shuddering cascade of rocks and trees, obliterating the short stretch of level space and dividing them from the slugma. Expertly he caught the pokéball again, mid-step, the stones on the outer wave of the rockslide tumbling against his legs.

    Then there was sudden quiet aside from the nasal calls of the slugma, now sounding distant and distraught, and Maxie straightened up to take stock, still breathing hard, his hair windswept, face lined with dust but eyes clear and alert. To the side a mightyena clawed its way out of a thin pile of rubble, shaking off its matted grey fur and looking the worse for wear but alive. Ninetales jumped lightly from rock to rock down the slope, her coat dirty and tails waving in the breeze on which Swellow was gliding, circling around the area once before banking off to ascend up the mountain and report to Hank.

    Courtney’s boots hit rock as she jumped from the ledge, hurrying towards them both with anxious eyes, her head unhooded, dark hair in disarray. Behind her, Harland was turned towards the agents just now appearing out of the foliage behind him, already barking orders. The entire battle couldn’t have lasted more than a minute or two.

    Maxie looked down to the girl in his arms, still clutching to him like a lifeline, blue eyes wide and frightened as she looked up at him. “I just wanted to see what was out there,” she whispered.


    Maxie sighed and forced himself to relax, only now realizing that he was tense with remembrance. He had never been so afraid as he had then, and even though Keegan had learned not to venture too far from the hatches she still had a tendency to sneak out where she wasn’t supposed to.

    The figure beneath the blankets stirred. Hazel, draped over Keegan’s thin waist, tumbled off and found herself rudely awakened, landing on her nose. The eevee blinked and yawned, stretching, tail swishing, as Maxie smiled at her fondly. He never regretted giving that eevee to his daughter.

    “Papa?” Keegan’s young voice yawned from the bed as she sat up, rubbing her eyes blearily and absently ruffling Hazel between the ears rather harder than necessary. The pokémon was already nestled in the girl’s lap, looking about ready to drift off to sleep once again; Keegan might have been an early riser, but Hazel wasn’t.

    With quick fingers Maxie palmed a small jewellery box that was resting on the table beside his glass, rising and moving over to the bed, his footsteps muffled by the thick, crimson carpet. Keegan crossed her legs under the quilt so he could sit down, disturbing Hazel, so with a sigh the eevee straggled out of Keegan’s lap and instead curled up on her pillow, carefully tucking her dainty black nose under the white tip of her thick, fluffy tail.

    Maxie held out the box and lifted the lid. “Happy birthday, my little fox,” he said simply as Keegan’s eyes widened, alight with surprise.

    “Oh, wow,” she breathed, lifting a gold-chained necklace out of the box. It was a pendant, but a far cry from the ordinary ones sold in jewellery shops; the jewel was a firestone, a rare trinket with the power to evolve certain pokémon. The filigree on the setting was gold to match the chain, slightly too large and ostentatious for a child of ten perhaps, but Maxie knew she’d grow into it. He couldn’t help smiling at the wonder in her blue eyes; even Hazel looked up and cocked her head to see Keegan’s newest acquisition past her mistress’s shoulder.

    “Here,” Maxie held out his hand for the pendant. “Let me put it on for you.” Obediently Keegan handed it to him and shifted her thick ponytail so he could clasp it about her neck. He leaned back, lifting her chin with a finger so he could admire the effect.

    He’d been right, he conceded. It looked slightly too big around her small neck, but the flames which seemed to writhe within the deepest centre of the stone brought out the red highlights in her hair. He smiled again, his eyes crinkling. “Perfect.” Keegan grinned, her face shining with joy. “Just be careful to keep it away from Hazel,” he warned, and the eevee’s ears pricked up attentively. “Tabitha has told you about evolution, yes?” Keegan nodded, so he continued. “This stone will evolve her into a different pokémon.”

    “Okay, Papa,” Keegan said earnestly. “I’ll be careful.”

    “But that’s not all.” Maxie smiled and tapped the stone almost teasingly. “This is only half of your present. It’s to remind you of home while you’re in Fuchsia City.”

    It took a moment for Keegan to realize what he meant, but when she did her eyes widened and her fists clenched excitedly around handfuls of the blankets in her lap. “You mean we’re going on a journey?” Her eyes shone with anticipation. “A real adventure?”

    “Well, perhaps not an adventure,” Maxie admitted, his feelings warring between being amused at her enthusiasm and worried for the same reason. “But your uncle in Fuchsia City has agreed to take you for a while. He’s an excellent pokémon trainer and you’re likely to learn a lot from him.”

    Keegan blinked. “I didn’t know I had an uncle.”

    Maxie smiled at her innocent confusion, absently reaching up to tuck some of her thick, sleep-tousled hair behind her ears. “He’s an old friend of mine, but not really your uncle. He’s also got a daughter who’s about your age, so you should do well there.”

    She studied him with a concentrated effort, her excitement dimming a little. “Aren’t you coming with me?”

    Maxie shook his head, his heart wrenching at her pleading expression. Half of the reason he was sending her was to give her some time off from him – he spoiled her a little too much, he knew that, and it would be good for her to get away from that for a while. “But I won’t send you alone, little fox, don’t worry.”

    At that Keegan relaxed a little, her thin features lapsing into a grin before she threw her arms around him and squeezed. “This is the best birthday present ever!” Maxie returned her embrace with one of his own, stroking her blonde hair gently, content in the knowledge that he could so easily give his daughter so much joy.



    “Are you gonna come with me, Courtney?” Keegan asked, bouncing happily by the FireHead’s side as the brunette guided her to Maxie’s office through the gleaming, steel-shod halls.

    “No,” Courtney shook her head, suppressing a pang of regret. She’d been first on the list, she knew, having been Keegan’s constant companion since she was born, but in the end Maxie had decided on somebody else. Not because they were more qualified, by any means, but because they had begged to take the job, they deserved another chance, and Maxie wanted to give Keegan a greater range of experience than she had now. A different agent accompanying her would only add to that. “But we’ve found someone… suitable.”

    The girl didn’t seem to catch Courtney’s hesitation or the cynically amused grimace she made. “This is gonna be so great!” Keegan beamed down at Hazel, trotting happily at her feets, as they entered the office.

    “Are you sure about this?” Maxie was saying uncertainly to the red-clad agent who had volunteered to guard Keegan, but cut off once they arrived, his slightly doubtful expression clearing when he saw them.

    “Eebui!” Hazel purred an introduction, trotting up to the uniformed man, and Keegan craned her head curiously to see who it was as he turned and grinned at her beneath his long fringe, his hands stuffed in the pockets of his baggy grey pants.

    “Hank!” Keegan’s face lit up and she waved cheerfully, running to look up at him earnestly as Hazel gnawed in playful greeting at his boot, batting at the scarlet cloth which banded around the hems of his trouser legs. “I’m glad to see your hair grew back.”

    Hank grimaced, his expression making it clear that he’d hoped Keegan wouldn’t remember him, as Courtney blew a bubble to hide a s****** and Maxie coughed, looking away. Hank’s run-in with Keegan four years ago had become babysitting legend and he had never been put on that duty again, no matter how much Courtney grouched. He encouraged the girl even worse than his fellow Admin, however unintentionally.

    But when he’d found out that Maxie was sending Keegan to Fuchsia he’d come to his leader’s office and begged to be the one to go with her, refusing to back down even after Courtney had burst into scornful laughter in his face. Later on she admitted that he was as good a choice as any, better than most even, but after the last time Maxie couldn’t but wonder if he was inviting disaster.

    “We’re gonna have so much fun!” Keegan went on excitedly, heedless of the embarrassment she’d caused or of Maxie’s resigned wince upon hearing those words. “When’re we leaving?”

    Almost instantly Maxie’s humour fled. “In four days,” he answered sombrely, abruptly wishing he could go back on his decision or, at the very least, be the one to go with her.

    Hank, on the other hand, was remembering the last time he’d babysat for the little fox and wondered what on Earth had possessed him to be so stubborn.



    It was a windy day on Slateport harbour, with leaves and natural debris skittering over the stained concrete, twirling in an intricate dance of spirals between the passengers now boarding the cruise ship ‘Aquarius’.

    Some distance away from the crowd, the breeze tugged at the clothes and hair of one small party standing near the dockside. Keegan, sporting her firestone pendant, was watching the other passengers with a mixture of curiosity and apprehension while Maxie gave Hank some last-minute instructions. Until the day before, when they had travelled by helicopter to Slateport City, the girl had never seen any adult other than those belonging to Team Magma. Those men and women acted in a very coherent and collected way, so much unlike the people she was seeing now that she wondered how they all knew what they were doing and wasn’t surprised at the occasional sharp tones she heard.

    “Little fox,” Maxie’s voice caught her attention and she turned around to listen, almost surprised – for the hundredth time – to see him in his long black coat, open to show dark slacks and a turtleneck underneath, rather than the red-and-grey uniform as was his usual wont. He kneeled before her, straightening the collar of her white jacket. “Now, you do what Hank says, alright?” Keegan nodded obediently, unable to speak, and smiled nervously. Maxie smiled back and patted her cheek comfortingly, his narrow eyes warm. “We’ll see you again in a few months.”

    “Okay,” Keegan said in a small voice, and then lifted her chin despite the shine in her eyes. It had amazed her how big the world outside the mountains was, amazed and scared her. But if Maxie was fine with it, then Keegan was determined to be too. Impulsively the girl gave him a tight hug, which Maxie gladly returned, ruffling her hair as he rose and stepped aside to allow Courtney to say her goodbyes.

    “Tabitha wanted me to remind you to take care of Hazel,” Courtney said through her bubblegum in a longsuffering tone, and the eevee purred from her position down at Keegan’s heels. “And we thought someone else might want to say goodbye.” Brushing aside her dark-brown coat and the crimson scarf which was draped over her shoulders, Courtney plucked a pokéball from her belt and expanded it, releasing the pokémon inside.

    In a flash of red light a mightyena appeared, shaking his black-maned head. When he saw Keegan he let out a friendly bark, wagging his thick tail. Keegan grinned and threw her arms around him, burying her face in his thick fur. In the past two years Keegan, Hazel and the rebellious poochyena had grown as battlers, and the day Poochyena had evolved was a day of great importance for all of them, proving that hard work paid off and making them more determined in their pursuits.

    “I think Harland has his eye on him,” Courtney added, surveying Mightyena as the heavyset wolf lowered his head to butt Hazel gently on the side. “Even Tabitha agrees he’s come a long way from the defiant little pup.” Hazel put her paws up on his snout and nuzzled him affectionately, purring madly, as Keegan stood. She squeezed Courtney around the waist, hiding the glimmer in her blue eyes, and the Admin put a tender hand on the girl’s head, her scarf trailing in the breeze.

    The ship’s siren pealed, warning the last passengers to hurry. Keegan released Courtney and stepped back, scrubbing at her eyes and looking nervously up at Hank. The young blonde agent, also dressed in nondescript clothes of jeans, a red T-shirt and a jacket, smiled reassuringly at her and held out his hand, callused from over a decade of working with fire pokémon. Gratefully Keegan took it, clutching it like a lifeline as they walked aboard the ship to stand at the stern.

    As the vessel chugged slowly from the harbour Keegan waved frantically at the three figures on the dock, two upright, one four-pawed. Courtney raised a hand in farewell and Mightyena raced across the broad pier, barking madly, until the ship turned away from the marina and out into the sparkling ocean.



    But children don’t change their habits so easily, and so a few days later found Hank hurried down the gleaming, tiled corridor, anxiously checking the portholed doors he passed and occasionally calling Keegan’s name, his voice eerily muffled by the narrow halls.

    She’s run off again… I know Courtney warned me, but come on, there’re only so many places she can hide on a cruise ship…

    Footsteps sounded loudly nearby and his heart leapt hopefully, only to be dashed when the person to turn corner up ahead turned out to be a burly sailer passing in the opposite direction. “Excuse me,” Hank intercepted him, and the broad-faced man paused and turned towards him enquiringly, the oval-shaped blue-and-white azumarill at his feet peering through its long rounded ears at the Magma agent as it gnawed absently on its sphere-like tail. “Have you seen a girl about ten years old, with an eevee?”

    The sailor smiled, his salt-roughened face crinkling with a thousand wrinkles around a dark beard. “Oh, she’s a curious little thing, that one,” he chuckled, and Hank sighed with relief. “Last I saw her she was down near the cargo room.” He nodded back the way he’d come.

    “Thank you,” Hank said gratefully, his youthful face open with the emotion as he raised a hand goodbye and slipped past him to hurtle down the corridor. Startled by his abrupt disappearance, the sailor blinked after him for a moment before looking down at his azumarill, shrugging, and continuing on his way.

    “Bubui.”

    Hank paused, hearing Hazel’s faint voice, and turned from the long passageway he had just been about to walk down. Instead he followed the sound, oddly distorted by the close-aired halls, and eventually came to the end of a rarely-travelled corridor with a blue-cushioned window-seat at the end. Keegan was curled up on the narrow bench, gazing out the thickly-glassed porthole overhead and absently stroking Hazel, ignoring the eevee as she pawed her lap insistently.

    She looked unhappy, Hank noted, slowing his long, quick stride to something less intimidating, and Hazel turned to meet his approach with huge, sad eyes. Gingerly the young man sat down on the other end of the seat, but Keegan didn’t acknowledge his presence and Hank felt a sharp stab of worry. For a moment he wished Courtney were there; he didn’t know much about children in general and Keegan in particular, and had no idea what to say.

    “What’s wrong, little fox?” he finally asked gently, stuffing his hands in his pockets and leaning back on the wall with one foot tucked beneath his other leg, which was draping down the side of the bench. “I thought you’d like being up on deck.”

    “Those other kids were teasing me and Hazel,” Keegan answered, her voice muffled in her knees.

    Hank sighed. Of course. He should have known; he wasn’t too old to forget the bullies that had plagued his own childhood, having been a weedy kid that everyone targeted, whether Courtney wanted to believe it or not.

    Keegan herself had rarely played with other agents’ kids, preferring to roam freely rather than be bound to a single wing of the base, and so spent most of her time keeping herself entertained – often at the expense of the Magma grunts.

    Like me. Hank suppressed a grin at that; enough time had passed for him to see the humour of his own situation.

    The ship, however, was state-of-the-art and luxurious – Maxie spared no expense. The upshot of that was that most of the children there would also come from wealthy families, and some were sure to be spoiled brats, leaving aside the childish capacity for cruelty. “Don’t worry about them,” he reassured her. “If they’re not going to be nice, then you don’t need them.”

    Keegan looked at him over the scuffed knees of her jeans, her hands wiping timidly at the wisps of hair in her face. “Do you still like me?” she asked uncertainly.

    Who told her that? “Of course I do!” he exclaimed, shocked. “What gave you that idea?”

    Keegan looked back out the window, letting Hazel worm her way onto her lap, the eevee’s claws pricking at her shirt as she purred. “I’ve been watching the other kids and their parents,” Keegan confessed. “And… they’re always arguing and disobeying. And then they were teasing me when I said Papa stayed home. They said he must not like me.”

    “Keegan, you know that’s not true at all,” Hank said sternly, reining in his anger at the other kids for making her doubt herself and squashing the desire to talk to their parents. “You know Maxie adores you.”

    “But I was always playing tricks,” Keegan hugged Hazel, squashing the eevee to her chest, her blue eyes glittering with uncertain tears. “And running away.” She looked up at him apologetically. “And I set your hood on fire.”

    Actually, she did a lot more than that, but Hank didn’t correct her; instead he just laughed. “Well, it was funny, right?” He smiled encouragingly. “You did do a lot of stuff, but you never wanted to hurt anyone, did you?” She shook her head violently and he made a confirming sound. “See? You’re not a bad person.” He put a comforting hand on her shoulder, looking at her seriously until she met his gaze. “Never, ever think you’re not loved, little fox. Because no matter where you are, there’s always someone out there who cares.”

    Keegan sniffed and wiped her eyes, abruptly throwing herself forward to hug him tightly, dislodging Hazel from her lap and letting the eevee roll to the floor. “Thanks, Hank,” she whispered and he patted her gingerly on the back.

    “Sure,” he answered tentatively and with a great deal of relief. Obviously he’d done something right.

    Just as suddenly the girl leapt up, startling him, and slapped him on the shoulder with a giggle, her hair bouncing around her thin face. “Tag!” she cried, and raced off down the corridor, Hazel bounding at her heels. Too used to the little fox’s exploits to be put off for more than a few moments, Hank grinned, laughed, taken back to that day so long ago when the same little girl had convinced him – against his better judgement – to play no-holds-barred hide-and-go-seek chasey, before following, his shoes pounding on the tiles in good-natured pursuit.



    Some nights later Hank was laying back on his broad, comfortable bed, wide-awake and examining the plain metal ceiling of his room, listening to the crash of the waves against the bow of the ship and the howl of the wind outside. He sometimes found it difficult to fall asleep at night, distracted by the boom of water against the hull and the faint vibration of the engines.

    In the room next door, Keegan was no doubt slumbering gently, having adjusted well to the change in night-sounds, from the soft tap of distant footsteps in warm silence to the sway and constant noise of the ocean. After the first few days she had paid no mind to the other kids, no matter what they said, and if they came after her then either she ran and hid as she had back at the base or made sure she was within Hank’s sight. The young man seemed to intimidate the kids with just a raised eyebrow and significant expression, making it known that he would tolerate no smart remarks about Keegan when he was nearby.

    It had almost made him choke on his own laughter when he heard two elderly old grannies talking about him when they thought he couldn’t hear, exclaiming over ‘that nice young man’s dedication to his little sister’.

    Somehow it had spread that, even though Keegan’s father couldn’t be with her, her brother was, and that he was some kind of elite pokémon trainer; so it was with awe that most of the youngest eyed the pokéballs on his belt.

    Keegan had adapted to the assumption with aplomb, neither denying nor confirming it, but it was with a shy smile and a sly giggle that she called him ‘big brother’ when she said goodnight.

    It gave Hank an unexpectedly warm glow when he heard it, made him realize exactly why Courtney was so possessive over her duty to guard Keegan, no matter how much she complained about the girl’s fleet feet and mischievous nature.

    Somehow, something somewhere had changed. Despite the fact that she was as restrained as she ever was by the limits of the ship, she didn’t target him at all for her mischief. As a matter of fact, she seemed to avoid it as much as possible, and instead turned to victimising some of the brattiest kids with small pranks and mind games. He never actively helped her with any of them, wanting to keep a low profile with the other parents, but did tell her stories about the complicated pranks he played on his tormentors when he was still a child. Most of them were beyond her skill, but it was something he came to enjoy.

    He almost couldn’t wait until they reached Fuchsia… he had turned to duty at a young age and hadn’t had so much fun in a while, but inside a ninja’s gym there would surely be plenty of entertainment to be had… maybe he could teach the little fox some of the more complex tricks then…

    Without him realizing, Hank’s memories and plans turned into real dreams as he finally drifted off to sleep, a tiny, contented smile on his lips.

    * * *

  3. #3
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    The ship sloped abruptly to the side with a wrench that threw Hank violently off his bed and onto the carpet, alert the instant he hit fabric. Disorientated, he instinctively reached for his pokéballs only to hit the wooden bedside table, bolted to the floor, and cracked his knuckles. Then the ship righted itself and he tumbled back against the bed, still twisted in his sheets, the salty night air cool on his bare shoulders.

    Something’s wrong, was his first thought as he struggled to untangle himself, his heart pounding in his ribs from the rude awakening. The wind shrieked past the porthole set high in the wall, the spray of the water splashing over the thick glass as the waves beat at the hull, rocking the ship unsteadily. Hank staggered to his feet, grabbing his pokéballs and the black shirt he’d worn the day before, and was sent lurching across the room as the ship pitched to the side. He caught himself on the wall opposite his bed, the one dividing his room from Keegan’s, as someone hammered on the steel door, flinging it open.

    It was the sailor with the azumarill that he’d met all those days ago, the one he’d seen around who had kept an eye out for Keegan ever afterwards, but unlike before his coarse face was pale beneath his tan and his brown eyes were bleak, making Hank’s stomach tighten with grim apprehension. The round blue water pokémon clutched at its master's legs as he gripped the doorframe, balanced with the brutal roll of the ship. “Get your lifejackets,” he ordered strongly, his deep voice smooth but with an undercurrent of urgency. “Then come out on deck.”

    “We’re sinking, aren’t we?” Hank asked quietly and without any trace of fear, shrugging on his shirt and buttoning it up as hastily as he could, leaning against the wall to keep his feet.

    Respect flashed momentarily in the sailor’s eyes; usually rich passengers reacted negatively to bad news. Maybe those rumours about the young man being some kind of elite were true after all. “Yes, sir,” he admitted softly as Hank yanked a lifejacket from the nearby wardrobe, absently running his hand through his blonde hair to keep it out of his eyes.

    “Zurii,” the azumarill echoed in a small voice, its black eyes worried.

    “The nearest lifeboats are on the starboard side,” the sailor added helpfully, and left to warn the other passengers with his azumarill waddling quickly at his heels, its kinked tail bouncing behind it. Hank swiftly tugged the bright-orange lifejacket on over his shirt, wrenching open the door adjoining Keegan’s room.

    The little fox was huddled in the blankets of her bed, eyes wide, gripping tightly to Hazel with one hand and the bed post with the other. “What’s happened, Hank?” she cried out fearfully as the ship lurched fiercely once again, making Hank stumble as he made his way to Keegan’s closet to pull out her lifejacket too.

    “Listen to me, little fox,” Hank said urgently, putting the vivid jacket over her shoulders. “Keep tight hold of Hazel and stay close to me, alright? We need to go up on deck.”

    Keegan drew the jacket on over her short-sleeved white cotton top, fingers fumbling as she clipped the front together. Hank picked her pendant up from the bedside table and clasped it around her neck, and then she clutched Hazel to her chest and slipped off the bed unsteadily, allowing the agent to guide her out of the room.

    As soon as they entered the hallway it seemed to become more difficult to keep their feet and Hank gripped Keegan’s shoulder to stop her from tumbling over. His grim demeanour was scaring her, but she knew that as long as he was nearby she was as safe as she could possibly be.

    Because he’s my ‘big brother’, she told herself, huddling against his side as the ship rocked and he caught himself on the wall, supporting her with his spare hand. I know he’s not really, but to me he is, like Courtney’s my big sister. She had never before told the older woman that, but it was true, and she hoped fervently she’d get a chance to do so.

    The sailor with the azumarill was coming back down the dim-seeming corridor, occasionally giving directions to murmuring passengers as his azumarill dodged the forest of legs. The atmosphere in the hallway was generally curious and apprehensive, but not panicked. Not yet.

    He spotted Hank and hurried towards them, shifting between people with skilful ease, his blue-and-white shirt damp with water – he must have just come in from outside. “You’ll have to make it to the port side,” he warned Hank softly. Keegan gripped the young man’s hand and looked up at him with frightened eyes, her spare fingers twined in Hazel’s long fur.

    “Why?” Hank asked cautiously, casting a worried glance down at her.

    “Some of the lifeboats were overturned,” the sailor answered shortly. “And others were destroyed by the waves against the hull. There’s not enough, and that side of the ship is already overcrowded, but if you make it there in time –”

    He was cut off when the ship quaked violently, rocking harshly to one side and making the lights flicker. Keegan lost hold of Hank’s hand and stumbled, colliding with the azumarill in the dark and falling, landing hard on her elbows. Vaguely she heard Hank’s shout, but then the wall peeled open like a flowering bud, yielding to the broken, jagged spar which speared through it like some massive javelin.

    The point caught the sailor squarely in the chest, and in the dim light Keegan caught sight of his surprised expression before he was driven back through the opposite wall in a broken mess. The wind howled in from the outside, spraying the walls and floor with water and debris as she lay there, paralysed, staring at the place where the man had been. Distantly she realized screaming had erupted in the corridor, high shrieks which were echoed faintly through the storm outside.

    “H– Hank?” she whispered, but all her wide eyes could see was that immense block of wood impaling half the ship and allowing the raging squall inside. “Hank!” she screamed, unaware of the tears which tracked down her cheeks, half hidden by thick bunches of damp blonde hair.

    “Bui! Eebuuii!” Hazel yowled, her fur already matted by the salt water.

    Shaking, petrified, Keegan scrambled to her feet, clutching Hazel so hard that the little eevee could hardly breathe; but the pokémon’s claws were also digging with unreasoning terror into her mistress’s skin, leaving tiny red marks. Gasping with sobs, Keegan turned and fled down the hallway, using her size to dodge the older passengers who clogged the hall in their panic.

    She reached the upper deck through the narrow stairs and was immediately lashed by the spray of the sea, the icy-cold rain and the shrieking wind, her wet hair like burning streaks across her face. The ship’s roll and slant was more obvious now and she jumped out of the way as a pile of debris skimmed across the drenched deck.

    Someone rushed up from below, bowling her over, and she landed hard enough to crack her elbow, her cry of pain lost in the howl. Instinctively pedalling backward with her feet to get out of the way, she skated backwards only to end up against the wall, watching with a kind of numb horror at the panicked chaos she could barely see through the storm, but could hear quite well in the shrieks of pokémon and people alike.

    A man without a lifejacket slipped and fell in front of her before scrambling to his feet. His terrified eyes looked up and saw her, an orange beacon in the darkness, and his face lit up with a kind of terrified madness. Keegan shrank against the wall, paralysed, eyes wide in her ashen face as he staggered towards her, yanking the clip open despite her struggles and the tug of her small hand on his wrist, ripping the lifejacket forcefully off her small frame though she tried to clutch to it desperately.

    He never got to use it, though, for at that moment a length of sparking electrical cord whipped towards him, lashing its sizzling end across his shoulders, and he screamed as it seared throughout his body. Keegan flinched away and screamed with him, tucking her head into Hazel’s wet fur until he stopped, the eevee’s own body quivering with fright. The girl heard something hit the deck but didn’t open her eyes, shaking and gasping with heaving sobs, only now noticing the whip-like burns that blistered her arm. Through the smell of the rain she caught the faint scent of smouldering flesh and swallowed her nausea shakily.

    She pushed the throb away and crawled blindly in the opposite direction, eyes half-shut, shivering in her thin, soaking wet night-clothes. She put her hand on something sharp but ignored it, clutching Hazel to her mindlessly as she tried to dodge the legs that almost crushed her beneath their feet.

    I’m scared, I’m scared, I’m scared – Hank – Courtney – Papa –

    Under the jabbering voices and frightened shouts she heard something creak and looked up in time to find a bunch of passengers fleeing as one of the lifeboats’ ropes snapped, sending it careening in her direction. Frozen, she could do nothing but watch, her blue eyes wide.

    Distantly she heard rapid footsteps behind her. Someone grabbed her around the waist, picking her up and bodily moving her out of harm’s way as the lifeboat hit where she’d been with a crunch and shatter of timber. They ended up behind some rocking, roped-down crates, and Keegan looked up to see her saviour was her guardian, his yellow hair whipping in the gale. He set her down, squeezing her on the shoulders. “Where’s your lifejacket?” he demanded.

    “Someone took it,” Keegan choked, burying her head in his chest and shaking with tears and relief. Hank’s here – Hank’s here –

    Without hesitation Hank slipped off his own jacket and put it over her shoulders, forcing her thin arms through. “Whatever you do, don’t let this go,” he warned her, clipping it together. Keegan nodded numbly, not asking where he was going to get a replacement for himself. She felt calmer now that she wasn’t alone, enough so that she noticed the sharp pain in her arm, cooled by the icy rain. Hazel’s soft, almost unnoticeable whimpers stilled and she relinquished her grip on her mistress, leaving tiny puncture marks on her skin.

    “What do we do?” Keegan sniffled, her fist clenching up a handful of Hank’s drenched shirt, clinging to his slender frame.

    “Don’t worry, little fox,” Hank reassured her, giving her a comforting squeeze. “I’ll take care of you. I promise.” Keegan nodded, biting her lip, and when he was certain that she was ready he took her hand, steadying her against the rock of the boat and leading her out of the relative shelter of the crates, back into the vicious wind.

    The girl clung to Hank like a burr as he made his way through the lashing rain, fending off babbling and terrified passengers with a cool ease that was comforting. She was still frightened, but Hank clearly knew what he was doing.

    All the agent cared about was getting Keegan somewhere safe, but his chest was being gnawed out with the terrible, knowing anxiety that even that small goal may well be impossible. If only I hadn’t lost Swellow’s pokéball when that beam of wood – he shut his guilty mind against the thought, his fingers automatically moving to touch the space on his thick belt where the bird’s pokéball had once rested. I hope she managed to escape, was his final thought on the matter before mentally putting it behind him and turning his mind to the task at hand.

    He squinted, using his arm to shade his eyes against the pouring rain and the whip of his hair as he searched desperately for an empty space on one of the few lifeboats left to be lowered into the seething, wrathful ocean, but the crowd of terrified passengers were all struggling for the last seats. As he watched, a wave swelled and bulged, breaking with white foam to engulf a boat filled with shrieking people. A few resurfaced only to be swallowed moments later by another swamping wave. Keegan clutched at his arm, staring with wide, shocked eyes, and Hank turned her away.

    His inattention cost them. Abruptly the ocean crashed against the hull, drenching them in spray, and the terrified crowd somehow shoved them away from the centre of the ship. With one hand Hank gripped the railing at the edge to keep them steady; with the other he held Keegan close as she scrabbled desperately for a foothold on the slippery deck.

    Then, just as quickly, the vessel pitched to the opposite side and sent them crashing through the barrier and into the deep, raging black ocean.

    Can’tbreathecan’tbreathecan’tbreathe – Keegan thrashed, panicking, struggling to reach the writhing surface above. Her lifejacket lifted her through the water as Hazel clung to her, fur swirling in strong eddies. With twin gasps their heads erupted out of the dark water, bobbing like an orange beacon as the powerful waves tossed them about helplessly.

    Keegan shrieked when she felt something grab her arm, swallowing almost as much water from the air as from the sea and all of it salty, but it turned out to be Hank, clinging to a piece of floating debris almost too small to hold his weight. Shivering with cold, he guided Keegan’s hand to the timber, and she clutched at it desperately as a wave swamped over him for a moment before he appeared again, coughing. “Don’t let go!” he choked, and Keegan nodded unthinkingly, one hand holding Hazel while the other clamped tightly onto the board.

    What remained of the ship suddenly loomed out of the storm like some hulking island. A wave swept them towards it, pounding Hank harshly against the metal bow, and he gritted his teeth against the shock that rattled his bones, struggling to keep his hold on Keegan. They couldn’t hear any of the other passengers now, trapped in their own world of wrathful wind and raging water.

    There was a clatter and something dropped from above in a heavy shower of objects. Hank ducked over Keegan protectively as small debris punched the water with heavy splashes, the currents swirling them in and out against the steel bulkhead. A piece of metal rebounded off the wooden debris and glanced off the back of Keegan’s head, making her slump down onto the timber, unconscious, in the same instant that something else struck the hull with a screech of steel, cleaving a broad scrape in the metal and hitting the water nearby – too near! – with a whump that sucked all the air out of Hank’s lungs.

    The ocean swirled once again, bashing him against the wreckage, and a sharp pain erupted across his back. He gasped, not having the breath to cry out, and swallowed water as the waves wrenched Keegan away from him, Hazel’s howling lost in the gale. Inadequate heat spread across his shoulders, down his waist, and he realized dully, as water closed over his head, that he’d been speared by an alloy shaft. He forced his hands to move, seeking the debris that held him even as it pulled him into the depths of the inky black ocean.

    He touched metal and it moved with a strangely muffled shriek of twisted steel. He felt it down to his bones, wresting a voiceless cry of pain from him and losing him the last of his air. His lungs burned, his head pounded, his entire body was a single throb of his heartbeat, and his resistance grew weaker. Blackness encroached on his vision until all he could see was the faint, blurry outline of the little fox shifting with the waves on the surface, and he knew, distantly, that she would be fine… knew it as well as he knew the sun would rise the next morning, whether he was there to see it or not.

    It was enough.

    * * *

    Courtney yawned as she trudged through the corridors of the base, tugging at the brown leather belt which secured the loose grey dress around her middle. It was in the middle of the night, but Harland’s harsh tone of voice had allowed for no dawdling; thus her hood was still down and her dark hair still mussed from sleep.

    She heard the sound of heavy footsteps and the scrape of claws on the tiled floor, and turned to meet Tabitha and Mightyena as they turned the corner. “Any idea what this is about?” She yawned again as the burly FireHead fell into step beside her.

    Tabitha shrugged, his broad shoulders lifting the red mantle draped over his shoulders, longer than was usual because of his rank, but still adhering to the Magma uniform. “Nah, I didn’t ask. Sounded kinda…” He paused, scratching his unhooded head as he search for the right word. “I dunno, strained?” he guessed. “Somethin’ must be up – hope it’s good, I ain’t been out to have some fun in weeks.”

    “Idiot Tabitha,” Courtney tossed her hair at him scornfully as they reached the steel door to Maxie’s office, where Harland kept watch over the Team’s doings at night. “It’s something else.” Tabitha just shrugged and held his peace as she reached for the knob and turned it, entering to find something that neither of them had ever witnessed and never, no matter what the price, wanted to see again.

    Harland was leaning on Maxie’s elegantly carved desk, his fists digging into the tabletop, and in the instant before he turned around they saw his shoulders shaking, his scarlet mantle quivering with the motion, his grey-haired head bowed. But the image was fleeting; as soon as he heard the door open he straightened and shifted towards them, his strong jaw clenched with some kind of stress.

    Courtney stopped short when she saw him, one hand still on the handle of the door, taking in his trembling fists, gripped at his sides, his tense frame, the utter shock still evident in his grey eyes. “Harland?” she asked, startled, as Tabitha loomed behind her and blinked at him in wordless surprise. “What’s wrong?”

    “I just got word,” Harland said in a toneless voice that chilled Courtney to the bone, hardly loud enough to be more than a whisper but carrying shockingly in the silent office. “That the cruise ship ‘Aquarius’ sank in a storm a hundred miles off the coast of Johto. There were no survivors.”

    Courtney went cold and she stared at him, ashen and tight-lipped, only shoved into the room when Tabitha knocked her aside to enter himself, gripping the shorter man’s shoulders hard enough to leave marks, although Harland said nothing. “Hank?” the burly man demanded, his deep voice rough with disbelief, shaking the Admin almost mindlessly. “The little fox?”

    “No survivors,” Harland repeated in something that was less than a whisper, his tone thickening.

    Stunned, Courtney sank woodenly down on the plush lounge behind the door, fingers brushing her lips as she stared wide-eyed into the red-and-gold carpet.

    Slowly, numbly, Tabitha released his grip on Harland, his breath short with the sickened feeling of disbelieving grief in his gut. Not Hank – not Hank – not –

    The little fox –


    “Maxie?” he asked suddenly as Mightyena padded cautiously over to Courtney, his broad head lowered against the heavy sorrow he could sense in the room, and nudged her knees with his snout.

    “I haven’t told him yet,” Harland admitted, now looking down to the floor, for a moment unable to meet his friend’s gaze. Tabitha made a harsh sound of disapproval in his throat, hands twitching as though he ached to shake the Admin again, and Harland raised his head to Tabitha’s accusing expression. “He’s going to need all of us to get through this,” the grey-haired agent said with quiet authority. “I thought we’d need prior warning. And…” His face broke, creasing with tormented lines that Tabitha would have given anything not to see, his eyes hollow with grief. “It’s the middle of the night… I couldn’t wake him… just to tell him that Hank is dead. That… his little fox… is dead.” Courtney wrapped her arms around herself, trembling with suppressed sobs, but she couldn’t halt the silent tears which flowed unwillingly down her cheeks.

    Tabitha’s fists clenched, his teeth gritted, his huge frame shaking slightly as though his sorrow was manifest in a corporeal beast that ravaged him from the inside, but he managed to nod, conceding the issue. It was likely the last peaceful night’s sleep they could give him.

    Dark eyes distressed, Mightyena let out a low, mournful howl deep in his throat, the sound seeming to echo the state of their pained hearts. Tabitha stared unseeingly down at the floor, still as a statue, while Harland turned away, the heel of one palm pressed to his aching temple as he fought to keep what was left of his shattered composure.

    He knew that come morning, he was going to need as much of it as he could muster.



    Maxie stared disbelievingly at Harland. The agent’s head was lowered, his red hood shading his eyes, his face lined with stress and shoulders uncharacteristically hunched. As he spoke Maxie’s insides tightened up and he felt he couldn’t breathe. He was unaware that his face had paled and eyes widened, already glimmering, or that his fists had clenched in an echo of the giant hand which had clamped around his chest.

    Never before. Never before had he wished that Harland had a sense of humour. Never before had he wished that Harland would play so undignified a trick. Never before…

    Harland finished and steeled himself with a short inhale, reluctantly looking up to find Maxie staring, staring in his direction but not seeing him at all, trembling uncontrollably. Then his jaw tightened and he spun wordlessly on his heel, stalking into his inner room, his most private of offices, one into which he rarely ventured. As Harland exchanged a worried glance with Tabitha, overlooking Courtney still sitting in straight-backed shock on the lounge, Maxie slammed the thick steel door behind him, slammed the door which had never before been closed, shutting out the world and all its responsibilities, all its emotions, all its pain.



    “What’s going on?” Courtney asked quietly with jaded eyes, her body feeling numb, as though she couldn’t quite muster the energy to care what the answer was, even though she knew that if it was what she now feared, she would care. She would care a lot.

    Once again she had received an unexpected call, this time during the day; but inside the mountain that housed their base there was little difference between darkness and light. The familiarity of the occasion made her emotions shut down automatically, because she couldn’t handle a rerun of that night two days past. She couldn’t.

    Like the last time, Tabitha was walking with her in near-silence, both of them sharing the grief of a lost comrade and close friend. He had handled the time since then by throwing himself into his pokémon training duties with frightening intensity, pushing everyone far too hard, although no one complained when some of the agents landed in the hospital wing – not even Bernard.

    It had only gotten worse when the battered form of Hank’s swellow fluttered weakly up the slope of the mountain, barely alive. No one knew exactly what had happened to her, but the dead look in her normally keen eyes spoke volumes: she knew the fate of her trainer. She was still in the Team’s Pokémon Centre and the agent in charge wasn’t sure if she’d ever have the spirit to battle again, let alone the willpower to be released and live in the wild.

    Courtney knew how she felt. There were many friendships within the Team, usually between partners, some closer than others, but everyone knew there had been none as close as the FireHeads. Tabitha, Courtney and Hank had been with Team Magma from the beginning, always together, always complementing each other’s strengths and weaknesses, always comrades-in-arms.

    Even after the Team grew and they became Admins, leaving behind fieldwork for primarily administrative duties, they remained the most efficient team of the organisation. One of them dying was like the third leg of a stool being chopped out – the entire edifice threatened to collapse. They, along with Harland, were the pillars that held the Team up, and everyone had assumed that even if one of them was ever taken out it would be in a blaze of glory, because they were simply too strong in body and spirit to go in any other way. Instead it had happened because of some stupid freak of nature.

    No one doubted that he’d done his best to protect the little fox, but that didn’t change the fact that he had, ultimately, failed…

    “Feh, I dunno,” Tabitha answered Courtney’s question neutrally and in a tone that said he cared about as much as she did, Mightyena pattered quietly along behind him. “I’ve been giving my reports to Harland to pass on to Maxie… he ain’t come out of that office since he went in.”

    They came to that cursed room and entered with unthinking motions, because if she did think about it Courtney was sure she’d turn and walk away.

    The atmosphere instantly captured her, tense with such cold fury that it stole her breath away, but the instant her brown eyes alighted on Harland, waiting for them in front of the desk, she knew it wasn’t him, even though his face was lined grimly.

    Then she saw something else, something that made her heart flutter in her chest, a feeling she almost didn’t recognise.

    Hope.

    Because in Harland’s eyes she saw a glint of something she thought they’d all lost, a glimmer of the Admin’s iron will.

    “I’ve been receiving reports,” Maxie’s voice shattered the silence, coming from the high-backed chair behind the desk that had been facing away from them, and Courtney jumped with shock. “About a Team. Team Aqua, they call themselves.”

    The chair spun around to reveal their redheaded leader, elbows resting on the armrests, hands clasped before his pale face, and Courtney flinched at the sight of him, something between sympathy and fear, both of him and for him.

    His angular face was deeply lined with the remnants of distraught, grief-stricken contemplation and his red hair hung lank around his shoulders, but the worst was the look in his narrow grey eyes, darkly rimmed with lack of sleep. They were hard, harder than she’d ever seen them, and filled with a bitter rage that she could tell was just barely leashed, something that danced on the edges of insanity.

    “A Team,” he went on, his voice hoarse, harsh from disuse, from tears perhaps, from anger definitely. “Who are apparently dedicated to expanding the world’s oceans.”

    What? Courtney went tense, gritting her teeth, and for the first time in days her brown eyes flashed with something other than pain as she glanced to Harland, who nodded a confirmation, his expression tight. The only sound was a low, almost bestial growl which might have come from Mightyena but was Tabitha’s alone, his fists clenched at his sides.

    As though the sound was a key Maxie was on his feet in a near-explosion of action, shaking with emotion as his palms slammed down on his desk. The air of the office closed in with the force of his rage, and Courtney suppressed a gasp and a flinch. “The ocean,” he seethed, not seeming to see Tabitha’s minute shudder. “The ocean which stole my little fox from me, which took Hank away into its depths. And they want to expand it!”

    He didn’t seem to be expecting a verbal answer, and Courtney was sure none of them could have given it to him in any case, all of them awash in the fire that was his resolve. It took her back to those days long past, when he had personally led their small band of agents in covert operations, toppling criminals almost single-handedly to help secure the integrity of the Pokémon Association.

    “The ocean is dangerous,” he continued bitterly. “It claims hundreds of lives yearly. This goal, this… delusion of theirs… I will not permit it. I am hereby dedicating Team Magma not just to halting Team Aqua’s efforts, but reversing them. No longer will we work for the benefit of the Association, for the Elite Trainers. With land dominating the world, the ocean will not be able to take life so blithely.” He fixed them with that piercing, fiery gaze rarely seen even back at the beginning, the one that few of the agents nowadays had even glimpsed but which had become legend within their ranks, demanding loyalty and promising retribution.

    The Admins were silent, stunned by this declaration, frozen by the pure will of their leader. It seemed so impulsive, so far-fetched, and yet…

    And yet, how can I do anything less? For Hank. For Keegan.

    Defiantly Courtney raised her chin and stepped forward. “I will continue my service under this new regime,” she announced burningly. Mightyena’s ears flickered forward from where he was sitting by the closed door, head hunched submissively into his shoulders.

    “Aye,” Tabitha growled again, so deep a rumble that it almost wasn’t even a word, massaging the pokéballs at his waist, his brow heavy over dark eyes. Harland said nothing, but he didn’t have to; the new anticipation which glittered in his cunning, taunting eyes was enough.

    Maxie nodded, his features not relaxing, but the lines smoothing out a little now he knew he had the support of those he trusted most, his rage subsiding into the barest restraint. His smouldering gaze turned to the open folder on his smooth, darkly-polished desk and he studied the heavyset, bearded face of his newest nemesis.

    For the death of his little fox, it was time for the fire to wage war on the ocean.

    * * *

    Simon grunted as he yanked at the voluminous net, the thick wire digging into his callused fingers. Beside him his older, scrawnier brother, Peter, expertly shook out the salty water, dragging the extra folds into the bilge and affixing the net to the edge, pulling it taut. Together they hauled the trailing edges skilfully into their small sloop, the fish inside thrashing water against their salt-roughened clothes and tanned skin.

    The stocky, dark-haired brother cast a sidelong glance at Peter, taking in his grim, closed expression, and then decided that Pete wasn’t going to say anything, so he’d just have to start up the conversation himself. “So?”

    “So?” Peter wiped his forehead, securing the slack lines to the boat and checking to make sure they’d hold. The net was too full to pull in completely; they’d have to trawl it back to the city.

    “So is Miriam pregnant or what?” Simon tugged on the rope on the opposite rim, the one leading down to the lobster cage still in the depths, to test the weight on the end of the line.

    Behind him, Peter sighed with a tone that said he’d been hoping his brother wouldn’t ask and didn’t really want to talk about it. “No, not this time.”

    Simon picked on his short tone and clicked his tongue sympathetically as he pulled up the cage, tanned muscles working easily. Although he was a noted bachelor, he knew that Peter and his sister-in-law Miriam had been trying to have a child for years.

    “Well, we should –” he began, lifting his head before cutting himself off as he caught sight of a form in the water, squinting against the light reflecting off the sparkling ocean. “Pete.”

    Peter turned and saw it too, and for a few moments both of them just stared in surprised silence. As it drifted closer they saw it was a girl of about ten, hanging on to a piece of weathered timber with a bedraggled eevee tucked under her arm. She was out cold, an orange lifejacket making her bob on the surface.

    As soon as they realized exactly what it was they both spurred into action, Simon stepping quickly to the motor and making the boat rock while Peter braced himself at the bow. “There was a storm two days ago,” the thin, brown-haired man shouted over the whine of the firing engine. “You don’t think…?”

    “Yeah, I do,” was Simon’s answer, clear sarcasm restrained within his tone as they cruised up alongside the girl, her face obscured by bunches of thick golden hair. Peter reached out to pull her into the sloop while Simon grabbed the eevee threatening to sink into the water, and the debris, freed from its burden, drifted lazily on past.

    Peter laid the girl out on his lap, wiping her red-blonde hair back from her forehead anxiously as the large pendant around her neck flashed scarlet in the sun. She stirred but didn’t waken, her eyes flickering beneath their lids, and a second later Peter exclaimed wordlessly, lifting his hand to show droplets of watery crimson liquid pooling in the lines of his palm.

    Simon cradled the shivering eevee, its ears waterlogged and sagging. “It’s got a collar.” He removed it carefully, straightening the weathered leather out with one roughened hand. “It says ‘Hazel’ on the outside.” Flipping it over, hoping for some more identification, he saw faded words on the inside as well. “‘For Keegan, my little fox,’” he read.

    Peter looked down at the unconscious girl, wiping his hand absently on his damp trousers. “She looks in bad shape,” he noted worriedly. “We’d better get back to the city.”

    “Hear yah.” Simon tossed the collar onto the seat, carefully placing the limp eevee in her mistress’s lap and moving to the motor as Peter reached out to unmoor the lines from the sloop, letting their catch splash back into the water and lightening their load considerably.

    Seconds later they were speeding away from the calm, glittering ocean, towards the shining city of Alto Mare sprawled on the horizon.

    ~ finis

    A/N: *hides* please don't kill me! The sequel story, 'Choice and Consequence', will be up in a week or so.

    Reviews welcome, concrit loved! ^.^

  4. #4
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    I can wait a week!!! Tis even better a second time to read this. It seems more of a prequel than a one-shot really, knowing what comes after this all anyway. Meh good stuffs there PD. I could tell what was added, it seemed a lot more description was put in and it worked very well. Can't wait to read CC!!! I found a mistake and something that confuzzled meh.

    on a sprig of blonde hair as she looked
    I thought she had red hair, you mention when she's hiding she has red hair, then tis blonde then tis blonde with red highlights. Which one???!!!

    tumbled back against the bad,
    tis a typo bed.
    Good stuff can't wait for the main attraction, mwahahahaha.
    Yes people, I have returned.
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    Heart of the Magma's back? Awesome. I remember this......still a good read, as it always was.

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    Ah, hello, jirachiman *waves* ^.^

    About the hair: when she's hiding I actually say she's got 'red-blonde' hair, not straight-out red, but usually I stick stick to calling it blonde because a) its easier, and b) that's the predominent colour ^.^;; sorreh for the confusion.

    As for the typo -_-;; what the heck is that doing in there? *edits*

    ^.^ Thankies! Sorreh, but you're just gonna hafta wait *pokes* :P and it is more of a prequel; that's how I've always viewed it, at any rate, but it's a one-shot prequel, so *shrugs*

    And the Great Butler... sounds like you read the original, but I'm afraid I don't remember you ^.^;; but then, I've been away a while. Thanks! ^.^

  7. #7
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    Oooh, that was REALLY good. I've started hunting your stuff down. I'll keep my eye out for the next bit.

    I really liked how you portrayed Maxie's personality. I never really gave him much of a thought but he seemed really believeable. And poor Hank! I hope Keegan gets back to Maxie, or at least is okay.

    Really well written! I liked it a LOT.

  8. #8
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    Man you have no idea what happens to keegan. Twas a very good fic, choice and consequence, and I'm happy tis being reborn again. We had just gotten to the part... well I can't really tell you now can I??? pooey
    jirachiman out
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    I read the original, not here but on another Pokémon website. I can't remember which one.

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    Hello again, steel-rain ^.^ I'm glad you enjoyed it so much! HotM was the first fanfic I posted on the Internet - ever. Period. So I'm happy I got to finish the rewrite ^.^

    Maxie is actually one of my favourite characters :P but I think I portray him far differently than most people do. I love the thought of him as a father-figure, because in the manga it struck me that Maxie seemed to care a lot more about his agents than Archie did. And then I thought, 'well, what if he had a kid?'

    Thus Keegan was born :P

    And yes poor Hank ^.^; would you believe, he's another of my favourite characters? And I had the audacity to kill him off. Woe is me *looks sheepish* I actually had my sister sobbing into my shoulder when she read that part.

    As for what happens to Keegan *cough* I'm afraid you're just gonna have to wait for that :P

    And hush, you *pokes jirachiman* Don't give away spoilers, now.

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    *smacks wild Aipom around chaotically* o_o;;

    So far, I am loving this. I haven't finished reading, but being as I couldn't wait any longer to review, I went ahead and did so. As somebody already mentioned, the details were cranked up a level, which I absolutely loved. Your characters, dialogue, details--everything--is what I love about you, and I definitely love Maxie and Keagen in this. I shall continue reading tonight and hopefully be finished by the weekend, but I am most definitely proud to see my favorite story make a triumphant return from months (well, maybe a year or so). I missed all of the excitement and long chapters. ;_;
    ~ COMING SOON ~


    Shiftry leapt into the air, shrieking and roaring as she started glowing and absorbing the sun’s light. Leaves shifted and curled at the edges as footsteps sounded on the grass. Her eyes were wide open and crazed, glazed with a white radiance. A slim, dark figure spontaneously crossed overhead, elegant and mysterious as it disappeared within the rose-colored vortex. It all seemed like a medieval fantasy; only reality blended in to make it all seem practical. The new otherworldly essence drifted in, allowing the illumination to bless the woman and reveal herself to the world. Karen had arrived

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    That was excellently done, just as the previous one. I absolutely love reading your works. Heart of the Magma and Brother My Brother were wonderful reads. Simply beautiful, nothing more to add.

    I remember you had a battle on the ship with Keegan against some snotty kid in your other one. Did you take it out? Anyway, you have excellent description there, good structuring to make the story fast-paced at all the right places. I like how you introduced Team Aqua and the incentives behind Maxie wanting to expand the land and whatnot.

    Like Brother My Brother, you left off at a cliffhanger! I would love to know what happens, but of course, it wouldn't have the desired effect from the author, would it? Anyway, keep writing because your stories are always a pleasure to read.

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    Amazing. The original was pretty danged good, but this rewrite manages to crush it like a grape. O_O

    Mmm…nice, long, powerful drama, with great tragic elements…I just love this kind of stuff. ^^ Excellent work on the characters; in particular, I really liked Hank and Keegan. The great pseudo-siblings relationship between them was pulled off very nicely.

    There was some seriously harrowing material in this; the flashback of Keegan’s encounter with the Slugma after sneaking out is a great example, and an even better one is the sinking of the Aquarius. God, that was HUGE, in that awesome cinematic way. Loved it. ^^

    Favorite excerpts:

    Instantly Maxie’s focus changed from inward anguish to the pure, pleading hope of someone who has lost something precious only to gain something else.
    EXACTLY the way I imagine someone would feel and react in that situation; you totally nailed it. ^^

    “Nah, Hazel’s pretty tired,” Tabitha pointed out with a grunt, ignoring the eevee as she batted his boot reproachfully.
    CUTE! I love Hazel, especially when she does things like that; reminds me of my kitties. ^^

    “But I was always playing tricks,” Keegan hugged Hazel, squashing the eevee to her chest, her blue eyes glittering with uncertain tears. “And running away.” She looked up at him apologetically. “And I set your hood on fire.”
    That puts the most priceless image in my head… XD

    Vaguely she heard Hank’s shout, but then the wall peeled open like a flowering bud, yielding to the broken, jagged spar which speared through it like some massive javelin.

    The point caught the sailor squarely in the chest, and in the dim light Keegan caught sight of his surprised expression before he was driven back through the opposite wall in a broken mess. The wind howled in from the outside, spraying the walls and floor with water and debris as she lay there, paralysed, staring at the place where the man had been.
    That would be the first in the series of the moments that elicited that great “Oh, my God… O_O” reaction out of me…

    A man without a lifejacket slipped and fell in front of her before scrambling to his feet. His terrified eyes looked up and saw her, an orange beacon in the darkness, and his face lit up with a kind of terrified madness. Keegan shrank against the wall, paralysed, eyes wide in her ashen face as he staggered towards her, yanking the clip open despite her struggles and the tug of her small hand on his wrist, ripping the lifejacket forcefully off her small frame though she tried to clutch to it desperately.

    He never got to use it, though, for at that moment a length of sparking electrical cord whipped towards him, lashing its sizzling end across his shoulders, and he screamed as it seared throughout his body. Keegan flinched away and screamed with him, tucking her head into Hazel’s wet fur until he stopped, the eevee’s own body quivering with fright. The girl heard something hit the deck but didn’t open her eyes, shaking and gasping with heaving sobs, only now noticing the whip-like burns that blistered her arm. Through the smell of the rain she caught the faint scent of smouldering flesh and swallowed her nausea shakily.
    That’s the second of them…

    The ocean swirled once again, bashing him against the wreckage, and a sharp pain erupted across his back. He gasped, not having the breath to cry out, and swallowed water as the waves wrenched Keegan away from him, Hazel’s howling lost in the gale. Inadequate heat spread across his shoulders, down his waist, and he realized dully, as water closed over his head, that he’d been speared by an alloy shaft.
    And there’s the third. Poor Hank…

    He touched metal and it moved with a strangely muffled shriek of twisted steel. He felt it down to his bones, wresting a voiceless cry of pain from him and losing him the last of his air. His lungs burned, his head pounded, his entire body was a single throb of his heartbeat, and his resistance grew weaker. Blackness encroached on his vision until all he could see was the faint, blurry outline of the little fox shifting with the waves on the surface, and he knew, distantly, that she would be fine… knew it as well as he knew the sun would rise the next morning, whether he was there to see it or not.

    It was enough.
    As well-written as it is tragic. Deserving particular mention is “his entire body was a single throb of his heartbeat”—FRELL, that’s a cool choice of words. <3

    Maxie stared disbelievingly at Harland. The agent’s head was lowered, his red hood shading his eyes, his face lined with stress and shoulders uncharacteristically hunched. As he spoke Maxie’s insides tightened up and he felt he couldn’t breathe. He was unaware that his face had paled and eyes widened, already glimmering, or that his fists had clenched in an echo of the giant hand which had clamped around his chest.
    Another outstanding example of emotions excellently conveyed, especially with regard to the bolded part.


    The quality of this piece is downright staggering—thanks for bringing it back, and better than ever, no less. ^^
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    Souku: :O I can't believe I forgot to reply to you! I'm so sorry! *hides*

    Thank you ^.^ although I don't think I remember you from before either... so I gather you either read it on another site like The Great Butler or are a fellow closet reader? :3 either way, I'm glad you enjoyed.

    That bit you're talking about, yes, I did take it out. It wasn't really all that important, and by the time I got done on Hank's monologue it didn't really fit. Plus, I think Keegan's first priority would be to avoid confrontation rather than condone it, so *shrugs*

    Don't worry, the sequel to this will be up sometime... within the next two weeks, maybe? ^.^;; thanks again!

    Sike Saner: aw, I always love getting reviews from you ^.^ *glomps* thankies!

    Crushed grape *giggles* I'm glad :P and thanks for the amusing image.

    I really like the way Keegan and Hank interact too ^.^ which makes me sad, because they're never going to interact again ;_; actually, it's because of that fact (and because I love Hank too darn much not to consider it) that I'm toying with writing an AU of the Choiceverse... in which the ship didn't sink and Keegan stayed with the Magmas, and all that jazz. Which would have pretty big consequences on the timeline, because that means that the Magmas won't have reason to go after Groudon and the Aquas and all, so... *coughs* anyway. *looks sheepish* I really shouldn't spout off about my future work ideas, it makes it harder to work on the ones I have now.

    I'm really glad you liked the flashback with the slugma ^.^ that wasn't in the original, and was spurred by a review on Pokecommunity which said that Maxie kind of got overshadowed by the FireHeads... so I decided to give him a bit of stage-time, and I'm kind of proud of the way it turned out. Definately one of my personal favourite scenes.

    As for Hazel ^.^ I'm stoked you noticed that! I had great fun imagining Hazel doing those things to Tabitha... as you maybe have noticed, he's not really sure on how to handle kids and it's not like he can punish Hazel the same way he does with all the other pokemon.

    I'm still trying to work out exactly what Keegan did to poor Hank XD I'm so evil, because I was reading through the old copy and thinking, 'setting his hood on fire? That's not nearly bad enough...' :P so poor Hank got victimised by a six year old, and I don't even know how. Any suggestions?

    As for the rest... *bows* I think a generalized 'thank you' should cover it :3 hope to see you around when CaC is finally re-released! ^.^

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    Reading this again reminded me of a billion of the reasons I adore Keegan. I know I'd hate her if I had ot put up with a kid like her, but the way you depict her one can't help but fall in love with the little fox.

    Somehow, something somewhere had changed. Despite the fact that she was as restrained as she ever was by the limits of the ship, she didn’t target him at all for her mischief. As a matter of fact, she seemed to avoid it as much as possible, and instead turned to victimising some of the brattiest kids with small pranks and mind games. He never actively helped her with any of them, wanting to keep a low profile with the other parents, but did tell her stories about the complicated pranks he played on his tormentors when he was still a child. Most of them were beyond her skill, but it was something he came to enjoy.

    He almost couldn’t wait until they reached Fuchsia… he had turned to duty at a young age and hadn’t had so much fun in a while, but inside a ninja’s gym there would surely be plenty of entertainment to be had… maybe he could teach the little fox some of the more complex tricks then…

    Without him realizing, Hank’s memories and plans turned into real dreams as he finally drifted off to sleep, a tiny, contented smile on his lips.
    This is killing me, reading all of this and knowing what's coming. The surprise may be goen with a second read, but the emotions run so much stronger. You grow to really like Hank, and then...

    “We’re sinking, aren’t we?” Hank asked quietly and without any trace of fear, shrugging on his shirt and buttoning it up as hastily as he could, leaning against the wall to keep his feet.
    Just another reason why Hank > pretty much anyone else, except maybe Keegan. This guy's awesome, doesn't even seem to be concerned that the ship's going down.

    Keegan drew the jacket on over her short-sleeved white cotton top, fingers fumbling as she clipped the front together. Hank picked her pendant up from the bedside table and clasped it around her neck, and then she clutched Hazel to her chest and slipped off the bed unsteadily, allowing the agent to guide her out of the room.
    I remember reading this the first time and thinking Keegan would accidentally get Hazel too close to that fire stone.

    Without hesitation Hank slipped off his own jacket and put it over her shoulders, forcing her thin arms through.
    And again... I know it might be partly because Maxie be none too happy with him if he hadn't and Keegan died, but I know in this situation the vast majority of what's drivign him to do this is care for Keegan.


    Loved it--again. Nothing much else I can say about this. It was astounding, and even more powerful this time even though I knew what all was coming.

    I remember when "The Authors' Cafe" was still "The Author's Cafe".
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    --fics--
    NEW:Emory In Viridian- A more realistic spin on a new trainer trekking through Viridian Forest. [one-shot]
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    Tómur -Dark contemplations of an undisclosed Pokemon about nothingness and the end. [one-shot]
    The Traveler - A lonely traveler encounters a malevolent pokemon during the night on Route 8. [one-shot]
    Redead - A Redead's perspective on its own life. [Legend of Zelda one-shot]

    More at my DeviantArt



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