( Continued from previous post. )

The noise is so loud you don't even hear it at first. You're screaming with both hands in the air, and the roar of the crowd feels like it's coursing through your veins instead of blood, resonating all around you, inside and outside at once. You did it. You won. Absol told you it would never work, but it totally did. This is the best. You are the best. And now everybody knows it.

You realize some of the healers are patting you on the back, murmuring congratulations. The challenger's box rattles back to earth beside you, and the great Nathaniel Morgan scoops his pokéballs out of the healing machine built into its railing. He spends a minute just rolling them in his hand, looking exhausted, but his eyes narrow when they settle on you. "You. Keep up." He sets off towards the stands, and you follow, floating in a dreamy haze and only vaguely aware of the reporters who crowd around the great Nathaniel Morgan, jostling you without appearing to notice you're there.

"Mr. Morgan! Mr. Morgan, how does it feel to be going to the finals?"

"Mr. Morgan! Why do you use so many pokémon without pokéballs?"

"Mr. Morgan! Can you explain how you chose your nickname for the tournament?"

The great Nathaniel Morgan plows through like he doesn't even see them, not a "fuck you" spared for anyone. You hesitate a second, airy mood pierced by the sense that something's not right, before plunging forward into the dark, echoey tunnel that leads beneath the stands.

The great Nathaniel Morgan isn't slowing down. You hurry to stay behind him, try to get close enough to whisper so he can hear without the reporters catching on. "Great Nathaniel Morgan," you start, then yelp when he grabs your arm and drags you sideways into a prep room, slamming the door behind him.

"Just what in the fuck was that?" he snarls, two inches from your face. You can only stare. He's mad?

"Well?" he yells. "What the fuck is the matter with you? You just gonna do whatever the fuck you want on the field, and fuck what I say? You think it's funny? You think--"

You brighten as you realize what he's talking about. "Actually, it was pretty--"

"Shut the fuck up! Have you gone fucking insane? You see the scariest motherfucking blastoise on the entire fucking planet and, what, you pop a huge boner for throwing yourself right the fuck in front of it?"

"What are you even--"

"In the fucking semis? You're going to pull shit like that in a fucking semifinal match, when you know we can't lose? Hell, it was you who wouldn't shut up with the bitching about how much was riding on this, then, you--this? You can't even, you can't--" He's interrupted by a bout of coughing, reaching out to steady himself against the wall.

"Are you done talking now?" you ask.

He shakes his head and wheezes, "I ain't done, you--" But his cough gets the better of him again.

"I knew we had to win that battle. That is why I went out against the blastoise. Because you were losing," you say as the great Nathaniel Morgan slumps down on a bench, trying to get his breath back.

"You--" he manages to get out, but now you're the one who won't let him get any farther.

"You were not believing in yourself," you say peevishly. "You were convinced you were going to lose. I had to do something to turn things around."

"Wh-what?" the great Nathaniel Morgan gasps. "What are you, some kind of fucking shrink? You thought fighting that fucking monster would help?"

"Yes. I wanted you to get mad so you would stop being afraid."

The great Nathaniel Morgan leans forward, face livid and teeth bared. "I don't need your fucking help, asshole. I know what the fuck I'm doing. You think I didn't know we were in deep shit? You think I didn't fucking care, like I just wasn't trying hard enough or some bullshit?"

"Of course I knew you cared. If you did not, you would not have gotten mad when I went on the field. And anyway," you add, cutting off an angry retort, "it worked, did it not? We won."

The great Nathaniel Morgan stares at you for a moment, then looks past you, like he's contemplating something off in the distance. "We won," he says slowly.

"Exactly. Thanks to me. I beat Blastoise for you, remember? And basically Electivire, too."

A brief smile flickers across the great Nathaniel Morgan's face. "Yeah, I guess that was kind of badass."

"More like really badass. So stop complaining. Now are we going back to the apartment or what?"

He's taking the pokéballs off his belt instead. His pokémon take shape in dazzling bursts of white.

"What's up?" Raticate asks. "Did we win?"

Mightyena jumps on the great Nathaniel Morgan the instant she solidifies, and he laughs and hugs her around the neck. She slobbers all over his face, but he just keeps laughing and laughing, hanging on tight while Mightyena wriggles and bounces on her hind legs.

"Well, I guess that's my answer," Raticate grumbles. "Hey! Where's the love?" He jumps up next to his trainer, and the great Nathaniel Morgan gathers him under an arm. The human endeavors to scratch under the rat's chin and handle Mightyena at the same time, but the dark-type keeps shoving up against him until she's nearly driven him off the far side of the bench.

"We won!" the great Nathaniel Morgan says in frank, delighted disbelief. "We fucking won! Hell yeah! Take that, you fucking academy nerd!"

"Okay, but what happened?" Raticate asks. He pushes Mightyena out of the way and settles himself in the great Nathaniel Morgan's lap, stretching out flat while his trainer scratches along his spine. "Some of us were stuck inside a pokéball for the good parts, you know."

The great Nathaniel Morgan's head snaps up when you repeat Raticate's question, and for a second he stares at you like he doesn't recognize you. Then he says, "Oh, man, it was fucking awesome. I mean, I guess you know all about the muk, right? But Mightyena fought a salamence, and then there was this fucking blastoise..."

"I punched an aggron," Graveler offers. She's standing off to one side as usual.

"Well, it's gonna be on TV, ain't it? Like all kinds of replays and shit. You can see the whole thing." The great Nathaniel Morgan chuckles, a dazed but giddy look on his face. "I mean, it's gonna be on TV. All those losers back at base can suck it, I'm gonna go against fucking Red. Here, come on, we gotta celebrate. I mean, we got the money now, right? We should, like, go out to eat or something. Somewhere all fancy, you know? Come on, I'm fucking starving."

He pulls himself up with the help of the wall and gently pushes past his clamoring pokémon. Raticate and Mightyena climb over each other, yelling about what restaurant they want to go to. The great Nathaniel Morgan herds them towards the door, Graveler stomping up behind. He turns back to you, arms crossed over his chest. "Well? You gonna stand there all fucking day, or what?"

You have no idea what he's talking about. He rolls his eyes and motions towards the door.

"I can come?"

"Not if you don't get your ass over here right this second."

You hesitate. There must be some kind of trick. But the great Nathaniel Morgan turns to go, and the door nearly closes behind him before you run up to catch it. The great Nathaniel Morgan ignores you, and you hang around at the rear of the group, curious and somehow hopeful besides. Today is a day for surprises, you suppose.

Absol meets you in front of the restaurant, then appears at your table before the rest of you can even cross the room, and you grin at her showing off. At first you're wary when the great Nathaniel Morgan insists you sit across from him, but after a couple minutes you realize he only invited you so he could keep up with his pokémon's conversation, prodding you to translate between bites of your food. That makes sense, then. You can settle in and enjoy the dinner, an all-you-can-eat buffet for humans and pokémon both.

The great Nathaniel Morgan mostly just listens and shovels food into his mouth. Down towards the end of the table Graveler does the same, steadily crunching her way through a pile of rust-red Indigo Plateau rock. You imagine some poor lackey chef getting shoved out the back door with a bucket and a pick whenever the buffet runs low.

Raticate and Mightyena swap details of their matches, only slightly exaggerated. "What? Your substitute scared the crap out of a dragon? You've got to--well, actually, I can kind of see that," Raticate says. "Anyway, listen, at least you didn't have to literally swim in a muk, which by the way is made of poison death and just the smell could kill you."

"What, you're saying you'd rather face the salamence?"

"Honestly..."

"Well, I couldn't send Mightyena against a muk," the great Nathaniel Morgan says. "I mean, with her nose? She wouldn't be able to take the stench. You did good, buddy. It was a tough fight."

Raticate stares at him, ears flattened against his skull. "Nate, I can smell better than Mightyena."

"But you smell worse," Mightyena says. Raticate throws a gnawed chicken bone at her.

The great Nathaniel Morgan's brows knit together in a frown. "Wait, what? I mean, she's a dog, they got super noses, don't they?"

"I swear, your lot have the best PR," Raticate says to Mightyena.

"Don't know what you're talking about, you filthy, disease-ridden vermin," Mightyena says brightly. "Anyway, that's about it for us, isn't it? Now what were you talking about with a blastoise, Nate?"

"Oh, that. This asshole's the one you want to talk to about that."

You sit back, so surprised your fork clanks off the plate as you set it down. "You want me to tell it?" The great Nathaniel Morgan nods and makes circular "go on" motions with his fork while he chews.

"Well, there was this really big blastoise. She was super old," you begin, and smile as you remember what it was like to stare her down across the battlefield, how scary she was. But you won.

Soon enough you're absorbed in telling the story, arguing back over Raticate and Mightyena's skepticism, getting the great Nathaniel Morgan to back you up on the best parts. Of course you don't mention how you actually won, how you had to change--you don't want the great Nathaniel Morgan getting mad again now.

Raticate's still scurrying back to the buffet now and again to grab more food, but everyone else seems more interested in chatting and slowly finishing whatever's left on their plates. Graveler's no more outgoing than usual, and of course Absol's been quiet the whole time, daintily murdering a couple of extremely rare steaks. The other three banter back and forth about what it would be like to have a salamence on their team, which somehow evolves into the great Nathaniel Morgan regaling them with the story of how he set a high school teacher's car on fire. "So they kicked me out," he says. "And that was supposed to be the punishment! Holy shit, if I'd known I woulda done it years earlier, saved us all some time."

In the end even Raticate's reduced to desultory picking at his plate and the great Nathaniel Morgan's dozing where he sits. You're none too alert yourself, stuffed so full it's almost painful. You've been talking for practically everyone, after all, and as lethargic silence settles over the table it's nice to slide down in your chair and not have to say anything, just smile as you watch Mightyena get increasingly blatant about stealing scraps off her trainer's plate.

This goes on until she gets greedy about some bits of ham at the far opposite side of the plate and ends up knocking everything into the great Nathaniel Morgan's lap. "Come on, come on, let's get back already so I can get some goddamned sleep," the human grumbles. "Someone thought it would be funny to raise my blood pressure right through the fucking roof today. I'm beat." The procession that leaves the restaurant is far slower than the one that arrived, the great Nathaniel Morgan falling asleep on Graveler's back after only a few minutes. Raticate climbs up to join him, curling up to sleep in his trainer's lap.

By the time you get back to the apartment you're feeling pretty beat yourself. The great Nathaniel Morgan and his pokémon pile off to the bedroom while you contemplate the television. But no, even that feels like too much effort, so you climb into your chair and pick up Captain Rubina Roth, who was guarding it while you were away. Curled up with an overfull stomach and the good captain hugged against your chest and the weariness of the day's battle dragging at you, you settle in warm and content for a good night's sleep.

Something cold and sharp seizes your shoulder. "Cordierite-eyes." The hissed word is cold, too and loud, coming from about two centimeters away from your ear.

You sit up too fast, heart racing. The comfortably small chair suddenly feels confining. "What?" For once you don't even try to hide your annoyance.

Eskar perches on the arm of the chair, behind your head so you have to twist all around to even see her. The sliver moon, just visible through the window, lights her gems like shards of colored glass.

"Ah, Cordierite-eyes," Eskar sighs. "Sometimes I worry."

"About what?"

"About you, Cordierite-eyes." For once Eskar's not smiling.

"Me?"

"Yes, you. You worry me, yes, yes."

"Why?" you ask. You want to sleep. Why can't she just spit it out?

"The human," Eskar says. "You know that Illite-eyes will be so displeased if she can't get Lazurite-eyes. But I think, ah, I think, when the time comes, perhaps you will not be so willing to hand him over, you see?"

"What? Of course I will! What are you talking about?"

"Please, please." Eskar holds up her hands. "No disrespect. You know I like you, Cordierite-eyes. We are good friends, are we not? But I think maybe you are also a little too friendly with Lazurite-eyes. Perhaps you think he is not so bad, yes?"

"No!" Your flames cast tall, flickering shadows over walls and ceiling. You can't let them go as much as you like, though, have to clamp down on another yell. The great Nathaniel Morgan and his pokémon are sleeping in the next room, or in the case of Graveler, most likely not sleeping at all. "I hate him! Of course I hate him. Don't be stupid," you go on in a whisper.

"Good, good," Eskar purrs. "But I worry. I do. You see how he tries to manipulate us?" She points to your hand, and you look down. You forgot all about Captain Rubina Roth, and only now do you realize how tight you're squeezing her, so tight her plastic edges are digging into the insides of your fingers.

"Let me see that," Eskar says, and snatches Captain Rubina Roth away before you can say no. One bite snaps the action figure clear in half, and Eskar spits the upper portion carelessly away.

"Hey!" you say, and struggle to uncurl out of the chair and go after it. You flinch back when Eskar shoves the remainder of Captain Rubina Roth in your face, brandishing the torsoless legs like a poker. "No, Cordierite-eyes. No. This is how he buys us, you see? With cheap trinkets like this. Worthless trash!" She reaches into her chest and pulls out a chip of rock--one of the gemstones the great Nathaniel Morgan gave her, you realize. Its glossy surface glints in the moonlight, but you can't tell its color.

"Useless thing. It's dyed, you know. Cheap, cheap trash," Eskar says. "But watch now, Cordierite-eyes. Watch." She drops Captain Rubina Roth's legs and scratches something into the back of the gem, claw squeaking and rasping through a few quick, efficient strokes. "You see?" Eskar holds the gem up for your inspection.

You squint but can't make out the symbol by the shifting light of your fire. "Illite-eyes' own mark," Eskar says softly. "It means you have her protection. Good for one favor, yes? Take it. Take."

You reach out, slowly, and Eskar drops the gemstone into your palm. You feel the scratches on it as you close it in a fist, but still can't tell what they form. "My gift to you," Eskar says. "Very precious. It is good to have the regard of Team Rocket, yes? And we are good friends, are we not, Cordierite-eyes?"

You nod, hesitantly. You don't really want a gift from Team Rocket. You don't want to be friends with them at all. But it could be useful.

"Lazurite-eyes, he tries to bribe with his worthless little gifts. Pfeh! His pokémon, they love it. But we are not so easily bought, Cordierite-eyes, are we? We will not be swayed by cheap trinkets."

Not that she gave you much choice, you think with a flash of resentment. But you already had an action figure like that anyway. And Eskar's right, it's a pretty cheap toy. "No. And you don't have to worry. The great Nathaniel Morgan deserves to go to the boss. I told you you could have him, and I meant it. I'm not a liar. I won't go back on my word."

"Ah, good, good, Cordierite-eyes," Eskar chirrs. "Such a good friend. I am much reassured."

"Is that it? I want to go to sleep."

Eskar shakes her head. "Ah, Cordierite-eyes, ah--"

"What are you doing?"

Eskar hisses a curse between her teeth, head snapping 180° in a single abrupt twist. You know Absol well, though, and you aren't surprised when she steps from the darkness beside the couch.

"Absol! We're just talking."

"I can see that," Absol says. She never looks at Eskar, but the sableye perches tense on the arm of the chair, overwide mouth curved down in a frown. "And why is it that you're talking to this... person?"

"Because I want to," you say, folding your arms over your chest. "Why are you here? You never visit except for training."

"This sableye is not trustworthy. It is not safe to do business with her."

"Ruby-eyes! Please! Such slander!" Eskar says. She freezes, poised on the edge of the chair arm, as Absol tips her blade in her direction. But Eskar's constant smile is back. "Team Rocket always keeps its promises. It's good business, yes?"

"Eskar's on our side, Absol. I asked her to help with the tournament, and she said yes. A lot faster than you did." You shift around in the chair, averting your eyes from Absol's steady gaze. "We need her."

"Need can't justify everything," Absol says firmly, ignoring Eskar's affronted gasp.

You're pretty sure Eskar's only pretending to care what Absol says, but still. You care. It's always the same thing with Absol.

"You didn't have a problem with me being around the great Nathaniel Morgan, and he's from Team Rocket, too. Is this about him? Are you mad because I'm sending him back?"

"The human is of no consequence," Absol says. "You are the one I'm worried about."

"Well, I'm fine. I already told you, I don't want to hear you complain about the tournament anymore. Go away if you don't have anything else to say."

Absol stands there, looking between you and Eskar. For once you think she's being quiet because she doesn't know what to say. "I don't want you to get hurt," she says at last.

"Please, please, Ruby-eyes," Eskar says, holding up a hand. "I am not here to hurt anyone. Cordierite-eyes and I are friends, yes? There is no reason to fear."

"I'm not going to get hurt, Absol," you say. "Now go away already."

She stands and looks at you, until Eskar says, soft as a breath, "Cordierite-eyes asked you to leave."

That brings Absol's attention around to her, hard and coldly furious like you've never seen. Absol levels her blade at the sableye again. "You are the one who should leave," Absol says. "I have not agreed to tolerate you."

"Absol, come on!"

"Is that so, Ruby-eyes?" Eskar says, and there's real laughter in her voice now. "Cordierite-eyes has made their decision, yes? You can't interfere, watcher-cat. Both of us, we know you are bound."

"Absol, I told you to go away. I know you're trying to help, but you're not."

Eskar holds Absol's gaze without flinching, smiling wide, so wide, like there isn't a blade hovering in front of her nose, like Absol isn't standing with claws splayed in the carpet, muscles tense beneath her silky fur. "Cordierite-eyes says to leave," Eskar says quietly.

At last Absol turns away. "We will discuss this later," she says.

"No we won't!" you say, as loud as you dare. You sit with your hands balled into tight fists, flames hissing and crackling in your ears while Absol melts back into shadow. She can't make you. She can't.

"Sorry," you say, unable to meet Eskar's eyes. "Sorry, she just... She can be like that sometimes."

"Worry not, Cordierite-eyes, worry not." Eskar waves a hand dismissively. "Watcher-cats, yes? Crazy, all of them. Let her worry if she will. You will show her, yes?"

"Yeah." You take a deep breath and let your flames die back, slowly, to gutter fitfully at shoulder length. "We'll win the tournament, and then she'll see I was right."

"Of course, Corierite-eyes."

"So is that it?" you ask. "You don't have to worry. I'll make sure you get the great Nathaniel Morgan back."

"Ah, Cordierite-eyes." Eskar looks away from you, wringing her hands clean through one another in little puffs of ectoplasm. "Ah, Cordierite-eyes, I fear there is one other thing."

Your flames are trying to flare up again, from threading fear this time. "What?"

"Well, you see, Cordierite-eyes, Illite-eyes, she is not pleased. 'Why haven't you found them?' she asks me. 'What are you doing out there? Should I send someone else?' So angry, Cordierite-eyes. So angry."

"So...?"

"So I fear I must ask something else of you, Cordierite-eyes. If I were to turn our human friend in, such rewards I would have! But no. Instead I say nothing. And so Illite-eyes gives me nothing, no, not even the smallest treat. So I must ask you for something. Something for Eskar, for her service and her hardship, yes?"

"So what do you want?" you ask after a moment, but you already know, of course, you know before Eskar tips her head and taps a claw against one gemstone eye.

Your stomach turns over, bile souring your throat. You wish you didn't have so much for dinner. "That's okay," you manage to get out. "I can give you another eye, if that's what you want."

"Oh, Cordierite-eyes, you don't understand! Illite-eyes wants Lazurite-eyes so very badly, so very badly indeed. If someone let slip where he was to be found, if they gave just the tiniest little hint..."

"I know!" It's half a shout, choked down at the last second. You have to take a moment to gather yourself before continuing. "I know, Eskar. It's okay. You can have another eye. It's fine."

"Ah, Cordierite-eyes! I like you, I really do. Such a good friend." Eskar gives you a dazzling smile. "But I'm afraid my rates have gone up."