~~~ *** ~~~ *** ~~~
13. Skull Session
~~~ *** ~~~ *** ~~~
Simply put, there were few words that did justice to how good hot, running water felt against sore muscles – and it was even better when one was bathing properly for the first time in two days. Dalton knew that the water was borderline too hot – he didn’t care. He wasn’t being scalded, and his sore back seemed to like it. Besides, the concept of moderation seemed to have been lost on whoever controlled the plumbing. If it wasn’t this hot, the shower was bone-chillingly cold – and cold water on one’s lower extremities is not a good feeling at all.
Eventually, like many of Dalton’s showers, he had reached the stage where he had stopped washing and started trying to solve existential dilemmas in his brain. In other words, it was time to turn the water off and step out. He’d probably have someone banging on the door soon anyway…
Why did the towel have to be clear on the other side of the bathroom? That seemed really counterproductive…
The door swung open. Dalton’s heart stopped and dove somewhere into his belly.
A blonde had opened it and frozen dead in her tracks. Dalton staggered backward, his hands going straight to his crotch. Why in the hell did this keep happening to him?
The blonde gave a squeak. She wasn’t petite, but Dalton absolutely dwarfed her at his height. Not only was she pretty, but she was wrapped from shoulders to shins in a towel that could have only been covering two things – either a quite skimpy undergarment set with no straps… or (what was more likely) absolutely nothing.
“Wh-wha-who-whuh?” Dalton stammered dimly.
“Why are you looking at me like that?” the girl asked demurely, sounding genuinely confused. It was then that Dalton picked up the voice.
“Wh-Loretta? How the hell…?”
Loretta Burgess – or, at least, this girl that looked very much like her (although Dalton had never seen Loretta quite like this before) – rolled her eyes. She wasn’t wearing glasses, which for some strange reason Dalton found disappointing. Then again, she wasn’t wearing much other than the towel. “Uh… I live here. And you do, too.”
Dalton eyed her suspiciously. “This is a dream.”
“And what if it is?” asked Loretta, her voice growing more sultry by the second. “What… do you wanna wake up?”
“Er…” Dalton uttered noncommittally. She stepped toward him. He took a quarter-step back. He had nowhere to go except back into the shower – and part of him was really contemplating it, just to see what would happen.
“Do you want to see?” Loretta asked, relaxing her grip on the towel just enough for Dalton to notice. “Is that it?”
“See what?” Dalton asked. Loretta smirked knowingly.
“Never mind that for now. You never gave me that kiss, you know.”
Dalton frowned. “I was kind of busy…”
“You’re not busy now, are you?” asked Loretta. “So let’s try again.”
Dalton swallowed hard. “This is a dream.”
“Then, don’t wake up this time,” Loretta whispered, drawing closer. “Stay a while.”
And before Dalton knew it, her lips were on his. Complicated though their relationship was, Dalton wasn’t about to stop her – not that he could even if he wanted to. It was as if his body was on autopilot. Even his hands seemed to be moving of their own free will, finding their way to and through his one-time almost-lover’s flaming orange hair…
…Flaming orange hair?
He’d opened his eyes for just a split second and seen it. He drew back and was looking into another pair of blue eyes…
Red-haired, blue-eyed, covered (as far as he knew) in naught much else but a towel.
“What’s the problem?” she asked, biting her lip and wearing a fox-like grin. “You were enjoying yourself, weren’t you? You know, deep down… this is what you want.”
She took a step toward him again, angled her head, closed her eyes…
He could have yelled, said something. But he didn’t…
Was she right? Did he really want this? Want her?
No more or less than any other guy would, a voice in his muddled brain said to him. I mean… just look at her.
She didn’t kiss him with her lips first. Her forehead and nose touched his.
Yes, she’s pretty. But Loretta was pretty, too. A lot of them are. But this is… different, somehow…
She put her hands up around his neck. Dalton tried to look her in the eyes, but that towel was slipping just a bit with every move she made. As she caressed his face with her thumbs, though, she didn’t seem all concerned that she was one twist or turn of the body away from being (literally) laid bare. Her hands arrived gently at his shoulders and shook… and shook… and shook…
His world went black. He had sense of his eyes again; they were closed. He opened them gingerly, blearily. Again, the face of Talia Renard was floating over Dalton’s field of vision.
“Tali….” murmured Dalton, dropping the last syllable in his fatigue. He felt the soreness from general fatigue. On top of that, his whole body was stiff…
Some places much more (and much more embarrassingly so) than others.
“Why’d you have to get me up so early?” Dalton grumbled, turning toward the wall. He winced immediately as soon as his face was out of sight. Of all possible ways to have framed that question, that one had been the worst.
“Early?” repeated Talia in disbelief. “It’s eight-thirty.”
Dalton was calculating. Finally, he jumped to his feet and blew by her without a further word.
Talia stared at the bathroom door bewilderedly for a moment. She slowly curled into a ball and curled into the empty bunk bed.
“<Enjoying yourself?>” the voice of a Pokémon asked a few seconds later.
“My bed’s too far away,” murmured Talia blearily. Moments later, Sionna jumped onto the table.
“<Right… sure,>” she said, laying down upon it. “<So… are you going to do that thing with him?>”
“What thing?” uttered Talia quickly, her head raising up off the bed.
“<That thing,>” Sionna repeated innocently. “<That thing you humans do with your mouths when you really like someone.>”
“You mean, kiss him?” Talia uttered, her face turning red. “What gives you that idea?”
“<You want to, don’t you?>” Sionna asked, tilting her head.
Talia rolled over onto her back. “It’s not like that.”
“<Oh… so you want to do that… other thing,>” Sionna said knowingly.
“You know… I can bring Fluff out right now,” Talia said calmly.
“<No, no… that’s okay,>” squeaked Sionna, looking very uncomfortable.
Moments later, Dalton reappeared.
“Why do you take speed showers?” asked Talia, sitting up quickly. “It’s not like we have anything in particular to do.”
Dalton frowned. “Well, you could’ve told me that… and I would’ve gone right back to sleep.”
Talia laid down on Dalton’s bunk bed. “You mad at me?”
“Mildly irritated,” Dalton said flatly, sitting on one of the chairs. He sighed heavily. “Well, I guess we can take an early shot at the Gym, right?”
“Gym’s closed,” Talia responded immediately.
Talia grimaced. “Yeah, there was some sort of… robbery or something like that.”
“Robbery?” repeated Dalton, his jaw agape in disbelief. “What the hell would somebody rob from a Pokémon Gym?”
“Well, it’s a Gym, but it’s also a museum and a library… it’s complicated,” sighed Talia. “In any case, the Gym’s not accepting any new challengers until they take care of that whole situation.”
Dalton tilted his head suspiciously. “So why did you wake me up?”
“I want you to meet someone,” Talia replied. She pulled out a Pokéball, which she opened without her throwing it. Light shot into the air and Dalton wondered for a moment whether this was the best place to be doing this. Fortunately, the Pokémon that appeared was quite small. The sound of flapping wings immediately filled the room, but the Pokémon didn’t looked to be shaped even remotely like Lake, the Pidove Dalton had caught the day before. This thing looked rather like a cotton ball with bat wings, if that made any sense. If it had eyes, they were hidden under huge, gray tufts of fur. Prominent on its face was an enormous, pink nose, shaped (unless Dalton was seeing things) like a heart.
“<Oh ->” squeaked Sionna, leaping off the table and diving under the bunk bed. A second later, a short groan came from underneath the bed. Nina staggered sleepily into view.
“<What’s all the noise…?>” she murmured.
This new Pokémon was chittering as it settled atop Talia’s head, still flapping its wings and making quite a mess of the girl’s red hair. She giggled and gently removed the creature in response, holding it in her arms. “This is Fluff.”
The Pokémon greeted Dalton with a chitter and a wide grin featuring a single, lonely tooth.
“Hmm…” murmured Dalton, rummaging around in the pocket of his cargo shorts.
“Woobat, the Bat Pokémon. It emits ultrasonic waves from its nose to learn about its surroundings,” Amanita’s voice said a moment later. “It lives primarily in caves or dark forests, but it’s not unheard of for one to appear in the open by night.”
“That’s pretty much what happened,” Talia explained. “I went out for an early walk this morning, caught him napping in a tree. He woke up and put up a fight initially, but not much of one. I think he sort of wanted to come with us.”
“<Can you put him away?>” a voice mewled. Sionna’s head peeked out from under the bed a moment later. “<He’s creepy.>”
Fluff turned on the spot, his toothless grin growing wider. “<My sweet!>” he exclaimed, fluttering down to Sionna, who promptly disappeared under the bed again. Grimacing, Talia held the Pokéball out toward him. “<Alas, we must part again! But I promise you, my dear lady, my only thoughts will be – >”
He’d spoken very quickly, but had not managed to finish the sentence before the Pokéball sucked him in and shut with a snap.
“I think he’s a little bit… taken with Sionna,” Talia said. Meanwhile, Dalton felt pressure building in his nostrils and face. A bit of a snort escaped him.
Then both teens burst into peals of laughter. Meanwhile, Nina looked from one human to another, shook her head, and slunk back under the bed. Talia gasped loudly, doubling over one of the chairs; she’d laughed herself short of breath. She opened her blue eyes and set them right on Dalton. And that was when a voice said in Dalton’s head:
Don’t go there.
He looked away. It must have been a noticeable motion, because Talia immediately asked, “What’s wrong?”
Dalton couldn’t really tell her – not because he didn’t want to, but because he simply didn’t know.
He was jolted back to his senses by a muffled yell. Voices were coming closer.
“We need some sort of plan, Blake!” a girl’s voice shouted – still muffled, as if the sounds were coming from outside the walls. Talia looked at Dalton again, an expression of recognition seizing her face.
“ – that!” another familiar voice – this one of a boy – exploded, milking the profanity he had used to start the short statement for all its worth. “We don’t have time! We shouldn’t have even come back here! Those guys could be halfway to effing Castelia by now!” he added – only he didn’t say ‘effing.’
“Don’t curse me out!” the girl yelled, sounding hurt and angry at the same time. “This isn’t my fault, Blake. Besides, Burgh said he’d go on ahead…”
“I don’t trust Burgh. Do you trust Burgh?” asked Blake. “I look at Burgh, I see a pretty boy that wouldn’t have the balls to get his hands dirty.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” the girl asked.
“Never mind…” Blake grumbled after a brief pause.
“Are you really gonna chase after them while Sturm’s still in recovery?” asked Whitlea.
“You think Sturm’s my strongest Pokémon? I caught him, like, two days ago,” said Blake, a bit of sarcastic bite in his voice. “Look, I’m taking Macy and Jude and I’m going.”
“You don’t wanna do that,” advised another voice that Dalton recognized.
“What the—” muttered Talia, but Dalton, wanting to hear the whole conversation, put his finger to his lips emphatically and started moving toward the door. “Dalton, no. You remember what happened last time you guys…”
“Who the hell are you?” asked Blake brusquely.
“Somebody you might want to show a little bit more respect,” said the other familiar voice.
“Interpol?” snapped Blake. “This is a Unova problem. Why’s Johto sending their guys all the way out here?”
“Exactly the type of thing a kid would say. Typical,” muttered the other familiar voice.
“What did you just say to me?!” Blake shouted. “Get – off, Whit!”
“Dalton?” murmured Talia. Dalton sighed, kneading the bridge of his nose.
“I’m gonna regret this…”
“If you’d actually bothered to read the badge, kid,” the man snarked, “you’d see that I’m originally from the Sinnoh Interpol branch – well, I’ll be damned. This is just turning into one great big party, isn’t it?”
Blake and Whitlea (the latter with her brown hair floating in gravity-taunting fashion) whirled around on a dime, for Dalton had just emerged from his room into the hallway, and Talia had (somewhat reluctantly) followed. Blake was going white, his lip trembling unsteadily. Dalton tried to avoid looking directly at him. First off, he was rather preoccupied with the appearance of Phineas Assad a few paces up the hallway (looking even scruffier than at their initial meeting, if that was at all possible). Second, for being just fourteen (Dalton guessed), something was seriously off-putting about that kid. There was something just… not quite right, and it had nothing at all to do with the fact that Dalton had hit his twin sister in the face the last time all three of them were together…
“Fancy meeting you here,” Phineas chuckled. “Haven’t given up yet, have we?”
“It’s been three days,” Dalton said flatly.
“What the hell are you doing in Nacrene City?” snapped Blake. Dalton was actually expecting Blake’s first sentence toward him to be a bit more… explosive.
“I’m here for a Gym Badge, obviously,” Dalton answered, trying his best not to roll his eyes at the younger boy.
“You? Gym Badge?” Blake asked, punctuating his comment with the driest, most mirthless laugh Dalton thought he’d ever heard. “At least someone’s got a sense of humor, ‘cause this has been one hell of a day already.”
“You’re an arrogant little s—t, you know that?” snarled Dalton, finally losing his temper as he came nose to nose with Blake, who regarded him with a steely gaze that showed no sign of intimidation. Dalton was tall, but Blake, for being several years younger, wasn’t all that short himself. Not to mention, he looked overall much better fed than Dalton did. (Then again, so did most people.) “We can fight right now if you’re so sure you’re better than me.”
Blake raised his eyebrows, his gaze turning into one of smug indifference. “You still haven’t learned your lesson. Pokémon aren’t weapons of war.”
“Who said anything about using Pokémon?” growled Dalton, clenching his fists. Blake’s eyes flashed.
“Is that a threat?”
“Alright, ladies, break it up,” drawled Phineas, physically interposing himself between the two boys and shoving them away from each other. His eyes darting from one to the other, he said in barely above a whisper, “We’ve got more pressing things to attend to.”
“ ‘We?’ chuckled Blake, physically guiding Whitlea away. “I only work with Cheren, Bianca, and my sister. Those are the only people I trust. And by the way…”
He was almost to the door that led to the stairwell. “Hmm?” Phineas uttered.
“Look at my sister that way again, and I’ll saw your balls off and shove ‘em down your throat. I don’t care if you’re an agent,” Blake said ominously, nevertheless putting an arm around his sister’s shoulder in a mind-bendingly affectionate manner. The reluctance in Whitlea’s eyes was obvious as she disappeared into the stairwell, casting one final look at Dalton before falling out of sight.
Phineas said nothing to this threat, although it did cause him to raise his eyebrows. “Charming kid. A little bit overprotective, though…”
“Overprotective?” repeated Dalton without even meaning to. “She’s fifteen.”
Phineas didn’t even turn his head, but his eyes darted over to Dalton. “Bull.” (And if you think there’s something missing from that word, rest assured, there is.)
Dalton shook his head. “Fifteen, if that. Probably fourteen.”
“Ah. That’s awkward. Well, for what it’s worth…” said Phineas sourly, still looking ahead. “Fourteen-year-old girls don’t look like that where I’m from.”
“Where are you from?” asked Dalton.
“Sinnoh,” Phineas answered. “You didn’t hear me just say that?”
“It’s cold as –” and then Dalton used the best swear you could think of, “— in Sinnoh.”
“Who are you telling?”
“I hate to break up your witty repartee,” Talia piped in, sounding like she was just on the edge of losing her patience, “but there is a third person here.”
“Oh, yeah. You. You didn’t get rid of her?” Phineas turned immediately to Dalton and asked.
“I’m here because he asked me,” Talia interrupted, rolling her eyes.
“You asked her…” Phineas muttered to Dalton, tilting his head knowingly.
“I don’t know anything about this region,” Dalton answered. “I need a guide.”
Phineas’s eyes flattened out. “A guide. A guide. God, you’re hopeless.”
Dalton sighed, although he could feel his eye twitching and wondered if it was visible to anyone else.
“Do you have some sort of business with us?” Talia asked.
Phineas cracked a mirthless smirk. “Funny thing about that… you’re just the people I needed to see.”
Fifteen minutes later (and to Dalton and Talia’s pleasant surprise) the three of them were at a café on Nacrene City’s main street. A dark-haired girl with her nose pierced was sitting on a nearby bench, playing a guitar and singing a song Dalton didn’t know. She didn’t seem to be drawing a lot of attention, although passersby would drop cash in her guitar case every so often. This being the sort of town that it was, Dalton supposed that busking was a normal occurrence.
Phineas looked over his shoulder at the girl, who locked eyes with him for a moment. Then Phineas went back to his coffee for a moment before looking at Dalton, smirking.
“Don’t pretend you don’t think she’s cute,” he chuckled. “I’ve seen you look over there at least twice.”
“Not a chance,” laughed Talia – rather quickly and sharply, Dalton thought. Elbowing the youth, Talia quipped, “She’s too old for him. I guess she’s, what, sixteen?”
“Shut up…” sighed Dalton. “If you have to know… I’m not used to live music. There wasn’t a lot of it where I lived.”
“…Oh,” Talia uttered, sounding a bit sad, which hadn’t been Dalton’s point at all.
“Anyway…” Dalton tried to change the subject. “What’s up with this location? If you’ve gotta tell us something, shouldn’t you have picked a place that was a little bit more… private?”
“Haven’t you seen any good spy movies?” chuckled Phineas. “It’s counterintuitive, but if you’re having a secret conversation, safest place to do it is in as crowded an area as you can. If you’re not yelling, it’s almost impossible for someone to overhear you on accident.”
“So what’s this big piece of ‘secret’ information you need to tell us?” Dalton asked, rolling his eyes.
“It’s pretty simple, actually,” Phineas said, raising his eyebrows. “I want – well, actually, no, I don’t… I need to come with you when you go to Castelia. Or, it’s probably more accurate to say that I need you to come with me.”
Dalton tilted his head distrustfully. “And why would you need me to do that?”
“My boss wants to meet with you,” said Phineas. CLATTER. Talia dropped her fork and looked up at the two young men, her mouth slightly agape.
“The Chief of Interpol wants to meet with… Dalton?”
“Ha!” Phineas threw back his head and laughed. “You must think really highly of yourself. The Chief of freaking Interpol. That’s funny. No, I’m talking about Sinnoh’s Inspector – top guy in our Detectives division.”
Dalton grimaced. “Does this guy have a name?”
Phineas raised his eyebrows. “We all call him Looker. Whether that’s his real name or not, nobody knows… and nobody’s stupid enough to ask.”
“So is Phineas Assad your real name?” Talia asked. Phineas seemed to bristle at this question.
“It’s the only name I know,” he answered.
Dalton sat silently for a moment, wondering if it would have done him any more good to have registered for the Unova League under an alias. Then, he thought about it. If Phineas was an assumed name, he probably changed it to protect loved ones of his from any consequences of what happened in the field.
Dalton, on the other hand, didn’t have any loved ones to protect… and if he had, none of them would be in this century.
“Hang on a second…” Dalton uttered. “I thought you said a couple of days ago that you couldn’t bring us in for questioning.”
“You’ve got an annoyingly good memory,” Phineas commented in reply. “We can’t detain you with the purpose of interrogation, no, but if you’re not brought to us by force, it’s not officially an interrogation.”
“You guys sure like your loopholes,” Dalton said suspiciously, looking askance at Phineas.
“We’ve got to, or else nothing would get done,” deadpanned Phineas in annoyance.
“So you can’t force me to come, huh…?” asked Dalton eyeing Phineas for a moment. “Let’s just say, for the sake of argument… I said ‘no.’”
Phineas’s jaw twitched. “‘No’?”
“Someone in your position isn’t used to hearing that word, right?” Dalton replied. “But I had – I have – other plans. Plans that don’t involve you or your ‘unofficial’ investigation.”
“Those plans wouldn’t happen to involve Pokémon Gyms, would they?” asked Phineas casually. He affected a frown. “Funny… I thought you cared about stopping Team Plasma more than you cared about a few badges—”
CLANG. Dalton had smashed his fist into the table, starting Talia. On the other hand, other than reaching up to steady his toppling mug of coffee, Phineas showed no sign of emotion at all. (In the background, the busker had stopped playing and was now looking at the tense standoff.)
“You don’t understand what I’m trying to do,” Dalton said, half-risen from his seat and looking down at Phineas. “That’s fine with me. I don’t care if you understand or not. But don’t – ever – say I don’t care about stopping Team Plasma.”
“Let me ask you something,” Phineas answered in a maddeningly calm voice. “I watched you battle Colress. And, frankly, he went so far up your *** that I’m surprised you’re even able to sit down. Do you seriously think you’ve got the strength necessary to bring down Ghetsis and Team Plasma all on your own?”
Dalton’s lip curled, but he eased back into his chair. “…I’ll take my chances.”
Phineas chuckled to himself. “You’re one of those ‘lone vigilante hero’ types, huh? Not one for organized authority?”
“Not one for bureaucracy,” Dalton corrected him. “By the time you and your people get through enough red tape to actually do something, it’ll already be too late. Trust me. I’ve seen how this plays out.”
Phineas closed his eyes. “But we – that is, Looker and I… we’re not part of the bureaucracy. We’re more like you. We want to get things done. And we’ve gotten things done. That’s why, even though we’re Interpol’s ‘problem children’… we’re still around.”
“Who’s to say your way’s better?” Talia piped in. Again, Phineas looked at her as if he’d forgotten she was there. “Yes, I know you didn’t ask for my opinion, but I’m giving it anyway.”
“Listen, you don’t have any stock in this,” Phineas responded. “Actually? You’re probably better off just staying out of it –”
“You’re a pig.”
“Talia –” Dalton uttered, caught off guard.
“No – he’s a pig,” repeated Talia. Then, rounding on Phineas, she fixed a steely glare on him. “You’re not saying it because you don’t have the guts, but I know what you’re thinking. Women pop out babies and that’s their only contribution to the world, right? You’re just like my mother.”
“For your information, I don’t think like that,” Phineas answered flatly. “But it’s funny you should bring up your mother. Virginia Ellsburen?”
Talia’s eyes narrowed to dangerous slits, as if Phineas had pronounced some terrible curse upon her.
“She’s filed a report on you. Missing persons,” Phineas sighed. “Unova police are under orders to return you home if they find you.”
Talia made a horrible face of disgust at this revelation – the kind of face someone would make after having someone projectile vomit right onto their shirt. Dalton was thoroughly disturbed; not even she could make that expression look attractive.
“What am I, a lost pet?” she said disdainfully. “She can go to hell as far as I’m concerned – and you’re not taking me anywhere.”
“Did I say I wanted to? Even if I did, I’m an Interpol detective, not Unova police. It’s outta my jurisdiction.” Phineas shrugged his shoulders. “But you’re still not an adult yet in the eyes of Unova law. If I take you under my care and something happens to you, that’s my *** – and probably Looker’s, too. So, frankly, I’d rather you just went away. You can obviously take care of yourself a little bit, so as long as you stay away from any cops, you’ll be fine.”
“And I’ll bet Virginia conveniently forgot to mention my birthday, didn’t she?” Talia asked. The expression on Phineas’s face answered the question. “Of course she did. I turn seventeen in a week and a half – so what do you have to say to that?”
“Well, once you turn seventeen, you’re not my problem anymore,” Phineas said, raising his eyebrows smugly. “But you know Murphy’s Law – if I agree to this, you’ll probably find a way to get yourself killed within a week.”
“Great,” Talia deadpanned, leaning back in her seat. “Thanks for the vote of confidence.”
“Don’t get your blood pressure up,” Dalton sighed wearily. “I’ll make sure nothing happens to her.”
Both Phineas and Talia gave Dalton the same incredulous look for a moment. Talia looked down at her knees and went silent, but –
“You?” Phineas showed some of his teeth in an amused smile.
“I’m the one that asked her to come along,” Dalton replied simply. Phineas’s smile, still there, began to tremble a bit.
“You’re trying my patience, Dalton Gregg. You seem to be under the impression that this is a negotiation,” he said, the tone of his voice changing as he spoke through his teeth.
“That’s exactly what it is, isn’t it? You’re not using force – like you said, you can’t,” Dalton answered. “Which gives you two choices. We can do a really good job watching each other’s backs until we have this meeting with Looker, or… you can go back to your boss empty-handed and tell him you couldn’t get the job done because you were too damn stubborn.”
Phineas sighed through his nose. “Tell me one thing, then… Pokémon Training – at least at the level you’re doing it – is a kid’s game. Why does a guy your age just up and decide to jump in?”
Dalton pondered this question as he looked down at his hands. “Mostly… just making up for lost time.”
~~~ *** ~~~ *** ~~~
Meanwhile, at the Nacrene City Pokémon Center…
~~~ *** ~~~ *** ~~~
Small rocks in this manmade river caused its waters to prattle serenely. It wasn’t real nature, confined inside this manmade fence and directly behind this rather large, manmade building, but Nina supposed it was close enough. At any rate, it was just the sort of place she needed at the moment. Her face contorted as a fierce sort of anger rushed through her, unbidden. She fought down the urge to lash out and attack whatever was nearest for at least the tenth time that day, shutting her eyes tight and listening to the babble of the brook until it was all over.
She tried to ignore the loud cooing up above. A Pidove was circling overhead, spiraling downward effortlessly.
On a tree, a winged ball of fur appeared to have its face buried in a trunk. She supposed he was taking a nap, which wasn’t a bad thing. He was much, much less bothersome that way.
“<What’s wrong?>” a perky voice asked. Nina opened one of her eyes. Staring at her was another Pokémon, its brownish-orange head tilted in confusion.
“<I feel…>” Nina murmured blearily. It was hard to put into words. “<Weird.>”
“<That’s… helpful,>” Sionna the Vulpix said. Nina could tell she was being sarcastic – mainly because sarcasm wasn’t something Sionna usually did. “<What kind of ‘weird’?>”
“<I don’t know,>” answered Nina in exasperation. “<I feel… bloated. Like something’s going to explode from inside me, but it won’t come out.>”
Sionna angled her head in mild bewilderment. “<You sure you didn’t just get a hold of some bad food?>”
“<Very funny,>” Nina deadpanned. She let loose a loud growl of frustration and groaned, “<When’s he coming back?! I need to hit something…>”
“<I don’t volunteer,>” Sionna answered very quickly, taking a VERY long leap backward.
“<You could always fight me if you like,>” someone cawed from overhead. The Pidove was still lazily circling.
“<I’ll pass,>” Nina said. “<I promised not to kill you. Why don’t you go bother Fluff or something?>”
“<No!>” moaned Sionna in protest.
“<What’s so bad about Fluffy?>” Lake asked in a high, ringing coo. “<He seems okay to me…>”
“<That’s because you haven’t seen him awake yet,>” Sionna answered, her six tails bristling uncomfortably. “<He’s a total creeper.>”
“<Creeper?>” Lake repeated, fluttering to a halt atop a limb on the tree to which the freshly caught Woobat was hanging, upside-down and (apparently) by his face. She fluttered her graying wings and sang airily, “<Yoo-hoo….>”
“<Please don’t,>” muttered Sionna, wincing. All of a sudden, Nina growled. Sionna jumped and turned to look at her and Nina was staring back, standing and as tense as a rope pulled so taut it might rip in two. She seemed to be struggling against something.
“<What’s wrong with her?>” asked Lake a bit tactlessly.
Nina, meanwhile, had her eyes shut tight and had started shaking horribly. Then, as quickly as it had come, this attack of… whatever it was… had gone away. Nina slumped to the ground.
“<You’d better get away from me,>” she murmured weakly.
“<I want to help,>” said Sionna.
“<You can’t!>” snarled Nina. Sionna backed away a step, cowed by Nina’s sudden fierceness. She hung her head hopelessly.
“<My sweet!>” Sionna winced again; Fluff had awakened and fluttered down to Sionna’s side. “<What seems to be the matter?>”
“<Could you please stop calling me that?>” she asked flatly.
“<As you wish.>” The Woobat angled himself downward in an imitation of a bow. “<But might I ask why?>”
“<Because it’s creepy,>” Sionna said, squirming.
“<What is this ‘creepy’ you speak of?>” Fluff replied. “<I only wish to be of help to my dearest…>”
“<Look, I’m not your ‘dearest’ anything, okay? So knock it off!>” Sionna screeched.
“<Why do you reject me?>” Fluff queried, finally showing a hint of emotion. “<I only wish to express my undying…>”
“<You want to test that ‘undying’ part?>” snapped Sionna, her patience at an end. “<Because if you keep talking, I just might kill you.>”
“<Can both of you please… shut – UP!>” Nina screamed all of a sudden – except her choice of words was a bit more colorful.
Fluff gasped audibly. “<Such coarse language! Fear not, milady, I shall remove this vulgar creature from your sight!>”
“<You want vulgar, huh?>” Nina uttered, her eyes wide as she backed away, crouched low as she fixed a murderous gaze on the Woobat. “<‘Vulgar’ is what I’m going to do to you if you don’t get the hell out of my face by the count of three! ONE….>”
“<A warrior of honor such as myself never backs down from a challenge!>” Fluff puffed himself up. “<Female or not, if you wish to strike a blow, then you shall fall by my hand!>”
“<You don’t have hands!>” interjected Sionna.
“<TWO…>” growled Nina, and she was well and truly ready to go berserk now.
This non-Pokémon shout got everyone’s attention.
“<Hark! Our lady beckons us!>” chirped Fluff, flitting toward the humans that had walked in.
“Oh, look at that,” Talia mused with a smile as Fluff settled onto her shoulder. “He knows me already.”
“You all been behaving yourselves while we’ve been gone?” Dalton asked Lake, who arrived first, fluttering around his head at eye level.
“<Honestly, if I told you, you wouldn’t believe me,>” she chirped.
“Hey,” Dalton said to Nina, who came trudging up last. If looks could kill, Nina’s eyes would have been a weapon of mass destruction. “You’re not still mad at me, are you?”
Nina made no response – she just kept growling.
“I know what’ll cheer you up,” Dalton said, kneeling down next to her. “I heard the gym leader’s back in town. We’re going to another battle tod—”
As soon as the word ‘battle’ left Dalton’s lips, Nina darted through the nearby doors.
Talia blinked blankly. “Somebody’s eager.”
Dalton frowned, scratching the back of his head. “I think she’s had a little bit of a chip on her shoulder lately…”
“<Um… ‘scume?>” came a chirp from vaguely behind Dalton.
“Hmm?” Dalton whirled around.
“<Um… can I come, too?>” she asked quickly. “<I can fight. Can I come? Huh? Please?>”
“Of course you’re coming,” replied Dalton. “You’re part of the team, right?”
“<Really?>” Lake chirped jubilantly. “<AWESOME!>”
And she soared through the open doorway.
“Dalton, I think your Pidove’s heart pumps energy drink,” Talia answered flatly.
Dalton (feeling a slight lurch in his belly as Talia accidently brought up yet another thing that reminded him of his old friend, Evan, who used to chug energy drinks like nobody’s business) grimaced and replied, “Yeah, I think so, too…”
When the two made their way to the front of the Pokémon Center, Phineas Assad was already waiting for them, but to their great surprise, his appearance had changed drastically. The trenchcoat was gone, replaced now by simple outfit of cargo pants (sort of like Dalton’s shorts but longer) with what had to have been half a dozen pockets – what the hell was he keeping in those? – and a black jersey shirt. Gone also was the scruffy beard. He had shaven clean, taking perhaps a good ten years off his age, to the point where he now didn’t look much older than either of them. Talia pulled up short.
“What’s wrong with you?” asked Phineas, addressing Talia for once instead of Dalton. “Not used to seeing what a real man’s arms look like?”
Dalton had kind of figured by Phineas’s build that he was cut – he just didn’t realize how cut.
“W-what’s that supposed to mean?” she uttered, her eyes flickering over to Dalton before looking at Phineas again.
“What’s the matter?” asked Dalton, now that he’d realized what Phineas was implying. “Got tired of the hobo look?”
“I’ve been told I look like two different people based on if I have a beard or not,” Phineas commented. “As much as I don’t want to look like I’m… fifteen?”
He glanced at Dalton.
“Seventeen,” Dalton said, suppressing a strong desire to punch Phineas right in the jaw.
“Seventeen,” repeated Phineas in a mocking squeak – his voice was marginally lower than Dalton’s normally.
“Keep pushing it,” Dalton warned him. “Just because I agreed to this doesn’t mean I can’t change my mind.”
“What?” Phineas raised his hands defensively. “I mean… come on. You’re skin and bones and you’re a rookie Trainer – at seventeen! They start when they’re about ten or eleven where I’m from. Not to mention you still think girls are yucky. Okay, maybe that’s going a little far… but you don’t have the balls to ask one out. You’re like a twelve-year-old stuck in the body of an awkward teenager.”
“What? I don’t –” Dalton stammered, giving Talia a quick, panicked glance. He was about to say ‘he didn’t think of Talia like that’, but that wasn’t true. Especially not after what had happened that morning. She was still a girl that happened to be friends with him. But she was an attractive girl that happened to be friends with him, who he probably wouldn’t have turned down if she wanted to do… other things. “That’s – that’s none of your business.”
“Haha…” chuckled Phineas. “Look at that… they’re both blushing. They’re so cute when they’re that age.”
Dalton’s face was certainly quite hot, but he was as determined not to look at Talia as Talia was not to look at him.
“So we’re going to the Gym, right?” Phineas added. “Okay, then… bring your little girlfriend and let’s get this over with.”
Dalton, fists clenched, watched Phineas’s back.
“Y’know, Interpol’s gonna be short an agent if he keeps it up,” he muttered, trying to distract himself.
“Are you really going to go through with this?” Talia asked, walking forward to Dalton’s side and sounding concerned.
“Not sure yet,” Dalton muttered distractedly.
The two locked eyes for a second. Dalton found it suddenly difficult.
You’re really gonna let that idiot get you wound up?
“Something wrong?” asked Talia.
Dalton took a step vaguely toward her. Talia backed away.
“What’s up?” she asked, her voice noticeably shaking. A smile flickered on her face, then disappeared, and then her lip did this funny twitch-purse thing that Dalton wouldn’t have noticed if he hadn’t been looking right at her. He shook his head.
“Just… thought I forgot something in the room, but I’ve got it,” Dalton said. “Let’s go.”
When they found the Nacrene Museum, however (Phineas was nowhere to be seen), they also found that they were not alone. No less than four teenagers were standing at the entrance, each of them contemplating it. All of them were familiar as well.
The one nearest to Dalton’s approach was a boy, nearly as tall as Dalton and also nearly as thin.
“Hm?” he uttered, turning his head and looking at Dalton and Talia through his half-framed spectacles. “Hey, guys – we’ve got company.”
Whitlea craned her, neck out, but unfortunately, Blake did, too.
“Yes, me again,” Dalton replied in irritation. “Can you quit blocking the gate? I’m trying to get to the Gym.”
“Gym, huh?” Blake asked. “You’re gonna have to wait in line. The four of us got here first, so we’re trying to decide among ourselves who gets first crack at Lenora.”
Dalton smiled a twitchy smile. “That’s cute. So take your rock-paper-scissors game over to the side, and while you’re doing that, I can have my match.”
Blake relaxed his rather tense gait. “You’re not getting the first shot at the badge; not after all the hard work I did to get that Dragon Skull back. If it weren’t for me, the Gym would still be closed and the cops would still be chasing those Plasma jackasses around Pinwheel Forest.”
Dalton grimaced. “You talk too much. How about this? We battle for it.”
“When are you going to get it through your thick skull?” Blake snapped. “You weren’t worth my time when Chili was tearing you a new *******. What do you think’s changed in a week?”
“You’d be surprised,” Dalton answered.
“Surprised… probably not impressed,” Blake said dismissively. “You might have taken a step to get better in the last week, but I guarantee you I’ve taken two or three.”
“Prove it, then,” Dalton bit back.
Blake’s mouth curled. “You make me sick. Your Pokémon are going to get beat to hell and back if you battle me, and you’re still going to force them?”
“Listen to yourself,” Dalton answered in disgust. “You sound just like those Team Plasma bastards.”
“What did you say to me!?” Blake’s eyes flashed dangerously as he tried to break from the group. However, Whitlea pulled him back.
“Calm down,” she said imploringly. Blake raised a taut finger with his free hand and pointed it directly at Dalton.
“You don’t get to talk down to me,” he said, seething. “You don’t know a damn thing. Not about me, not about Team Plasma, not about Pokémon training. You’re nothing but a drifter, here in Unova to stir up trouble.”
“At least you got the ‘drifter’ part right,” Dalton said, revealing a Pokéball from his pocket and enlarging it. Blake responded in turn. Talia, Whitlea, and the other two teenagers whose names escaped Dalton at the moment (the blonde girl had noticeably been completely silent) started to back away. “As for ‘trouble’? Well, that depends on whose side you’re on.”
“Show me the strongest Pokémon you have,” said Blake. “That way, when I win, you won’t have any excuses.”
“Suit yourself. Nina, let’s go!”
“Macy – fight time!” Blake echoed.
Both thrown Pokéballs burst open, releasing two different but equally agitated-looking species of Pokémon. Nina’s entire small body, from her stubby tail to the spines on her light blue ears, seemed to be on edge. She and Dalton stared across the small, paved gap. The Pokémon they saw was very canine in appearance. Four brown, short, but stout legs sprouted forth from underneath an iron gray canopy of fur. Cream-colored whiskers on the Pokémon’s muzzle made it look vaguely like a man with a very robust mustache. A vague chiming sound filled the air and sparkles shot forth from its body as it raised its head to the sky and let loose a loud howl.
“You look confused,” Blake said. “Macy and I have been together for nearly three years. I found her as a Lillipup, staggering around Nuvema Town, injured, and nursed her back to health. She’ll fight like the devil if I ask her to…”
Macy released a loud bark in assent. Blake smiled.
“But I don’t think that’ll be necessary for an opponent of your skill level.” Blake’s eyes widened. “Macy, use –”
Blake pulled up short as the sound of an opening Pokéball interrupted him. They both saw the flash of light – Dalton to his right, and Blake to his left. A tall, slender, green Pokémon that could best be described as a snake with feet stood in front of Blake’s twin sister, Whitlea.
“Thanks, but no thanks, Whit,” Blake said casually. “Macy and I have more than enough strength to knock off these guys. We don’t need any help.”
“Who said we were helping you?” asked Whitlea, raising her eyebrows. “Rikki needs strong opponents.”
Another strange sound, but Dalton had seen exactly what had happened this time. The other black-haired boy, previously standing silently and observing, had suddenly decided to reveal a Pokémon of his own. (The blonde-haired girl, apparently wanting no part of this exchange, backed away to stand vaguely between this other boy and Whitlea.) This Pokémon was mostly a ginger shade and was quite squat. It flexed its short, stubby arms confidently, the nostrils on its angry red snout flaring.
“Sorry, Blake,” the boy said, closing his eyes and pushing his half-rimmed spectacles up his thin nose. “But I’m not gonna take a backseat to you or anyone else.”
His eyes opened again, revealing a sudden intensity.
“I will become the Unova League Champion – even if it means going through my best friend to do it!”