Chapter 5: The Stragglers
The last few weeks of winter and the first weeks of spring into April were busy, although they were unable to leave Aspertia just yet. Rosa and Hugh had to focus hard on their studies, to get through them in time to qualify for the end-of-year exams early. The school and hospital officials came to an agreement not to worry about testing Nate until fall, to see if he needed to be enrolled in school. For now, he sat in on various classes and studied on his own, both to prepare for the journey ahead and to see if he could fix his mind further.
Cheren was busy with finishing his own studies in Aspertia as well as serving some time in Lenora's Gym as one of its Trainers so that he could prepare to take over the position from her. The plan was for Lenora to shut down her Gym on April 20th and for Cheren to open his on the 21st. With that in mind, Nate, Rose, and Hugh started training their Pokemon at the start of April, out on Route 19, in hopes of being prepared to challenge Cheren when he started..
This would not go as planned.
It started early one Saturday morning. Hugh came into the kitchen, greeting Vino who was enjoying a sunny patch on the floor. At the dining table, his parents were watching the news and discussing about getting the house repainted. His sister was shuffling around in her slippers and pajamas still, checking the cupboards and the pantry. “Don't know what to have for breakfast?” he said, grabbed a bowl and spoon for come cereal.
Violet shook her head. “No, I already ate. You're the one who's up late.”
“At least I’m already dressed.”
She shrugged and went back to digging past cans. “I wanted to do some baking, but I can't find any berries. I could make something else, but, I really wanted to try that poffin recipe Grandma sent us.”
“I would help you with it, but it's not much of a poffin without berries,” their mother said. She worked at a restaurant a few blocks over, a job that kept her there for many hours. But she nearly always cooked or baked with Violet when she had a day off like today, something the girl looked forward to.
That didn't seem like a big problem to Hugh. “I saw some berry bushes earlier this week out on the route. If we went out there now, we should be able to pick them.”
Violet's eyes brightened. “Oh, will you take me out there?”
“Of course, but not in your pajamas,” he told her.
She laughed. “Okay, I’ll get dressed! Thanks, you're the best.” She then went back to her room.
Their mother got up from the table. “That's great. Then I hope we can make one your Snivy will like. I'd better check the recipe and see how many you two should get.”
An hour later, Hugh, Violet, and Vino left the house. Violet had brought a sun hat and a basket lined with a flower-patterned cloth with her. Although it was breezy, it was still a beautiful morning to be outside. “Are there berry bushes very far down Route 19?” Violet asked.
“Not that far,” he said. “There's a ledge past the first patch of tall grass, and the bushes are growing just past that.”
“That's good.” They walked quietly down the street for a couple of blocks, but then Violet smiled at some thought. “Hey, you know what? We should have a picnic out on Route 19 sometimes before you and your friends leave Aspertia. We won't get to do that this summer with all of you gone.”
Picnics weren't exactly Hugh's idea of a good time. But his sister and Rosa liked them; they usually went up to the overlook, at most the side of the pond on Route 19. For Violet's sake, he could tolerate one more before getting down the serious business. “Sure thing. And if our parents don't mind, we might even take a day to go over to Flocessy for that. I hear they have a nice park.”
“That'd be fun! I'll have to make a special lunch for that.”
And that was another very good reason to go along with it. “Whatever you want to make. You might even get a taste for traveling doing that.”
“Oh,” she clutched her basket tighter, looking down. “Well, it might be fun for you guys, but I’m not sure I want to travel like that. Maybe get another Pokemon but,” her voice trailed away as she spoke, but she must not have wanted to seem gloomy as she looked back up and tried to smile again. “Actually, I wanted to stay here when I get older, and learn to be a great chef like mom. I can make lots of people and Pokemon happy that way.”
Even as she tried to put a brave face on it, Hugh still hated seeing her sad like that. He knew other guys his age that might gripe about girls her age, especially little sisters, as being annoying. Sometimes he did get annoyed at what she did, but he could never let that feeling stay. He needed to protect her and make her happy. Because after what happened a few years back, Hugh knew he couldn't forgive himself if he let her get hurt like that again. Yes, leaving her would make her a little sad initially. But in the end, she was trying to be happy for him and he wanted to redeem himself from his first big failure.
To keep the morning from being too gloomy, he accepted her change of topic. “I'm sure you can. You make me happy any time you say that you're going to bake now.”
Violet laughed. “I know, because you still try to eat things before they've properly cooled down. I swear, one of these days you're going to burn all the tastebuds on your tongue away permanently.”
Hugh put on a look of mock horror. “That must be the worst fate ever! But some cookies just taste best hot from the oven.”
“I can't imagine how that would be when they scorch your mouth.” But her smile let him know that she wasn't mad at him.
Aside from fighting a few wild Pokemon on the way (Vino made short work of them), nothing much happened on their way to the berry patch. Violet went immediately to searching through the bushes for ripe berries, checking on how many of a kind there were before picking a bunch. Apparently the poffin recipe didn't need a lot of berries, but she wanted to try several varieties to see how they all were. Hugh tried to get Vino to pick out a berry he liked for his poffin, although the Snivy seemed not hungry and indifferent to most. He did try to pull a Nomel berry from a small bush hiding in back of the area, so Hugh pointed his sister out to that one.
“Wow, I didn't think Nomel grew well around here,” she said, looking over the bush. “I wonder how these all got planted here. I hope they don't belong to someone else.”
“I don't think anyone owns this land,” Hugh said.
“Still... well, I might be able to get enough for one poffin.” She started picking through the branches.
While she did that, Hugh continued to keep an eye on things. There was another kid who had come onto the Route to fight wild Pokemon with his own. Taylor, he thought it was. Probably the best battler for the kids under ten, but more because he kept his Lillipup despite his losses where other kids might release a Pokemon after a loss or two. It was a real shame that they'd give up on a Pokemon so soon, so Hugh rather liked Taylor. Once the kid actually thought about how and why he battled rather than just doing whatever because training Pokemon was a way to be cool, he might actually be a decent competitor. For now, it was hard to even call him talented.
Then a man came out of Aspertia's gatehouse. He seemed quite odd because he was trying to be inconspicuous in an all too conspicuous manner. Wearing an outfit that covered him from head to toe in black or gray, with even a black scarf tied around his face and over his black hair, he might have done well in hiding if it were night and if he tried to stick to the shadows. Instead, he was here out in the sunny morning, walking openly along the route. Maybe he was just someone who liked to dress up in costume? But it seemed a strange time and place to be doing that.
The man went over to Taylor and challenged him to a battle. That was fairly normal; Trainers often battled each other when they got close (especially if eye contact was made), which was part of why Hugh was staying out of the area Taylor was training in. On watching them, Hugh noted that the Patrat and Rattata that the would-be ninja had seemed quite strong. But they were still low level Pokemon, so it wasn't that exciting of a battle to be an audience of.
At the end of it, though, things took a turn for the worse. The man had won, keeping his Rattata at his side. The Pokemon was still in a posture of readiness, waiting for an order to attack. “Face it: you're not worthy of being a Trainer,” the man said.
“What a jerk,” Hugh muttered to himself. Sure, Taylor wasn't great, but he was just a kid. His efforts couldn't be brushed aside after a single loss, especially when he gave more effort than his peers.
“I, I'm trying,” Taylor said, clutching his Pokeball to his chest and stepping back.
“Trying is not enough,” the man said, coming towards him. “You and that Pokemon would be better off if you handed it over to me, so do that, right now.”
Creeping alongside him, the Rattata made a threatening, if squeaky, call.
“Hey, jackass!” Hugh snapped, stomping through the grass to get between the man and Taylor. “You've got no right to be doing that to anybody, especially not a kid! You're no better than those pompous idiots that were in Team Plasma.”
“Don't you dare talk bad about us!” the man yelled, glaring at him. He then realized his mistake and tried clumsily to get past it. “I mean, Team Plasma. You can't even see the noble ways of us, I mean, them. You...” he struggled a bit to find his words.
That just incited his anger further. “You're one of them? What hole did you crawl out of? Plasma's been dead for two years.”
“Not dead, just...” he clenched his fist. “Whatever, Rattata, after him!”
“Vino!” Hugh called.
He didn't even have to call out an order. The Snivy bolted forward, catching the Rattata before it even got close, slamming it into the ground, and then hurling it with a backflip back at the would-be thief’s feet unconscious. It disappeared half a second later, and Taylor's Lillipup had taken care of the Patrat. Landing on his feet, Vino gave the Plasma grunt a threatening look, although not nearly as vicious as the one the Rattata had.
Coming closer, Hugh felt like rearranging this guy's face. Normally the end of a Pokemon battle signaled the end of an argument, with no aggression continued. But to hell with politeness and decorum. If he was authentic, this guy and any others from Team Plasma didn't deserve that. “By your own logic, now you don't deserve to have those Pokemon you have,” he said. “So why don't you do as you say first and let your Pokemon go free? Then I have something I need to know from you.”
“My duty to fulfill our mission is more important than that,” the man said. Then, he took off running to the east.
Without even thinking about it, Hugh ran after him. “Hey, get back here!”
“Hugh!” Violet called out, but he hardly paid attention. The members of Team Plasma had disappeared and gone into hiding after their downfall. This was his first real chance at a break in the case.
Rosa spotted Nate and Ruby coming out of the Pokecenter, so she stopped and waved to him. “Hey, Nate! Good morning!”
“Good morning,” he said, sounding cheerful. “You heading out to train today too?”
She nodded. “Yeah, I've got time for that, and to get my homework done tomorrow easily. Want to come with me? Maybe we can go further out today.”
“That would be good,” he said, turned to walk north to the gate. Rosa followed beside him, with Bard going over to ask for a hug. Nate picked the Oshawott up and carried him. “I believe these two are getting too strong to get good experience nearby anymore. Although I wish I had the means to test their intrinsic talents better so that we knew where they would be naturally strong and weak, and then adjust their training around that.”
Huh? Rosa tried to think through that, but it didn't sound right in her head. He spoke it like it was a natural thing. “What? You sound more like you're talking about a Pokemon video game, not actual training.”
“Oh, well, I guess,” he said. In his arms, Bard also seemed puzzled. He took off his shell and tapped Nate in the forehead with it. “That's what I would have done before, but then they weren't this close,” He gently pushed away Bard's shell before patting his head and putting him down. Then Nate sighed.
“No really, what is it?” Rosa asked. Sometimes he could be so moody. Sure, he was her friend, but at times like this she wondered how much she really knew about him.
“You wouldn't believe me, just like the rest,” Nate said, shaking his head. “Don't mind it. To you, it's not that important anyhow.”
“Aw come on, you don't know that,” she said, moving ahead so she could cut him off. “Just tell me what's bothering you.” When he still seemed uncertain, she added, “I trust you. No matter how weird it is, I'll believe you.”
“You should be careful saying things like that,” he said. “We only met a few months ago, after all. You could get in real trouble believing in someone so blindly.”
Rosa shrugged. “Maybe. But, I have a hunch. I don't think you'd lie to me.”
At Nate's feet, Ruby looked up to him, then rubbed her head against his leg as a sign of support. He sighed again, then looked her straight in the eyes. “Rosa... I remembered more about where I came from. Actually, I knew some of it from the start, but then... the place I came from, there were no Pokemon. The only place you could find them were in video games. My mind got scrambled getting here, but when I remembered about Pokemon, it was what I had learned in those games, not with flesh and blood Pokemon like these two. Not only that, but the way I got here was through one of those games.”
It was a crazy thing; the world was more complex than a video game, after all. But, she'd already said that she'd believe him, and he didn't seem to be lying. “Wow, so you already know what's going to happen because you're in a game you played before? That'll be helpful! That is, if you remember in time.”
He shook his head. “Not quite that. The game wasn't one I've played. But when I hear of experience or levels, I'm more familiar with the numbers and formulas used in the game. I have no clue if those are reliable here.”
“Yeah, you might want to be careful of that.” She noticed a boy run by from the gatehouse, but didn't pay heed to it. She tilted her head at Nate. “Well, that is pretty weird and I can see why the doctors and them all would think you were crazy. But if that's what you say, that's what I'll believe until there's proof otherwise.”
“Thanks.” Nate said. “Do you think...?”
“Rosa, Nate!” Violet came running from the gatehouse, looking scared. There was a basket of berries in her hand, but other than her expression she didn't seem hurt.
“What happened?” Rosa said, turning to her friend. “You seem pale.”
“It's Hugh, I'm worried,” she said, looking back to the gatehouse. “There was this man dressed all in black out there bullying Taylor, and he seemed to be from Team Plasma. He was even trying to take Taylor's Lillipup, but Hugh and Vino beat him, then they took off towards Flocessy chasing after him. I don't know if he really was a Plasma, but if he is, they used to never travel alone. Taylor said he was going to tell the police, but Hugh could be in trouble. I was taking a risk just coming back here alone because of the wild Pokemon, as I couldn't come with him.”
“Hugh's good, but that would be trouble if he runs into a group like them,” Rosa said. Then she grabbed Nate's arm. “Come on, let's go after them! We can't waste time.”
“But,” Nate started to say, but Rosa didn't wait to hear him argue against it. She ran to the gatehouse, with Bard soon in a hopping run to keep up with her. Nate and Ruby decided to run after them.
“Be careful!” Violet called after them.
Rosa ran through the gatehouse, avoiding crashing into a man watching the electronic bulletin. She then headed out on Route 19, taking a right to follow it to Flocessy. Thankfully, any wild Pokemon seemed to scatter on seeing them come through like that. But as they reached the cliff that stood just outside of Floccesy, Rosa slowed down. There weren't any signs of Hugh. How far ahead had they gotten? The road to the next town was a straight shot, but what about Flocessy itself?
And it wasn't just that question bothering her. It was quite some distance between Aspertia and Flocessy; not as much as between other towns in Unova, but it had been maybe fifteen or even twenty minutes that she'd been running. It was a bit much; how much further could Hugh and the possible Plasma thief go? Hugh didn't lose his temper often, but Rosa could imagine how he would blow up at the guy.
Nate and Ruby finally got up to her side. “That's the town ahead, right?” he asked. “We can ask around there if they've seen him. There isn't any other way to go, after all.”
“Yeah. Sorry for running right off, but it's Hugh.”
“It might have been good to think a moment, but as it is, we might still catch up to them,” Nate said in encouragement. That was cheering.
“Hey kids!” a voice called from above. Looking up, they saw a man in a long yellow coat and wild red hair. “What's the commotion?.”
“We're not sure,” Rosa called back. “But we're looking for a friend who probably just passed by here, chasing a man in black. Did you see them?”
“Can't say that I have.” Then, the man jumped down off the cliff, even though it had to be twenty feet up at least; a Volcarona and Braviary followed him. “Something this way agitated one of my Pokemon, so I came to see. But it's not like I can understand them exactly.”
Now that he was down here, Rosa recognized him. “Oh, Mr. Alder?”
“Are you all right, old man?” Nate asked looking at him in disbelief.
“Right as rain,” Alder said, smiling. “You're only as old as you feel, you know. And please, don't bother with the mister. Now you two,” he gave them a critical look, both the teenagers and the two Pokemon with them. “You're both Trainers, but novices at that. Did you just start out?”
“Well, not really, but sort of,” Rosa said. “We've been doing some training, but we weren't going to start out from Aspertia until later. It's just...”
“Our friend Hugh has gone after a man who tried to take a boy's Pokemon,” Nate interrupted. “We thought we'd catch up to them in this town.”
He turned serious at that, nodding. “Is that so? I shouldn’t delay you then. Rather, I’ll ask around about them too. Come on.” With that, Alder waved to his two Pokemon and headed into town with them.
“Who's that?” Nate asked in a quiet voice as they entered Flocessy.
Rosa seemed surprised at the question, but then must have remembered what they had talked about earlier. “Oh, that's Alder; he was the League Champion of Unova for many years, off and on. He's so well respected that if something happens to the current Champion, he's the first one they ask to take over, always. I had heard that he lived around here, but I’ve never met him.”
With Alder's help, they started talking to the townspeople. They could certainly confirm that Hugh and the thief had come through, but although the pair had spent some time running through town, they had already left. It didn't sound good, but in hopes of finding Hugh, the search continued onto Route 20. There, through some trees, Rosa heard some voices. “This isn't what we're supposed to be doing, that's what I’m saying,” a woman hissed.
A man answered, sounding winded. “That punk... chased me... all the way... from Aspertia. We should do something...”
Trying not to call attention to herself from the people talking, Rosa waved her hand high and got the attention of Nate and Alder. She then went between the trees carefully, trying not to make noise. The woman spoke again, getting louder. “But this? We shouldn't just change tactics on a whim.”
And there, in a small opening on a footpath, was a man dressed all in black and gray, like Violet had said. With him were a woman dressed similarly and Hugh and Vino lying on the ground near them, not moving. The man of the pair was sitting on a stump “What was... I supposed to do? I tried every trick in the book and couldn't shake him. Since he's here, let's do it.”
“And escalate this?” the woman said as Nate and Alder joined Rosa. “Honestly, recklessness got Team Plasma decimated and we don't need more of it. We'd do better just to take his Pokemon and leave him at this point.”
“Call the emergency number to get some back-up here,” Alder said. After he gave a signal to his two Pokemon, he stepped out onto the pathway. “You'd do better to give up at this point,” he told them. “I’ve heard enough to know that you two are behind the recent string of Pokemon disappearances around here.”
The woman tensed, clenching a fist. Then she glowered at the man. “We're not saying anything,” she said. “Except this: the two of us will not admit defeat, unlike a certain traitor long ago.”
Oddly, Alder seemed to understand that. “You weren't there; I was. And I don't believe you understand the situation.” He had his Pokemon keep an eye on the two thieves, then checked on Hugh and Vino.
It seemed like a bad end, Rosa thought, but as long as Hugh survived, it could still turn out all right.