Sooooo, since I wrote a thing that isn't purely smut (or even one that isn't smut at all!) and that I finally posted on FFnet, I figured I might as well go ahead and slap it down here, too. Since it's shippy in nature, I guess this is the right place for it!
It's Ferriswheelshipping (N/Hilda), with some peripheral sides of Dualrivalshipping (Cheren/Bianca), but the focus is on the former. Really mushy, too.
Since it's necessitated, this is posted on my FFnet under the pen name Qu-ko, so no, I didn't steal it, it's me! I promise!
Also, it's like 8500 words. Have fun with that. But I'm lacking in feedback at any given time -- don't let the length scare you away, please!!
In His Own Words
When it appeared, he noticed it straight away. It was new, untouched by dust, unworn by hands or time, and it most certainly did not belong propped up against the headboard of his bed.
The book sat at an angle against his pillow, leather-bound, with sheets of off-white paper inside and a tongue of ribbon coming out of the spine. But when he took it in his hands, he found it was completely empty of words, inside and out. Turning it over and over to find what wasn't there did him no good, so in the end, he was forced to ask his "houseguest," such as she was.
"Rosa, where did this book come from?" N asked.
"White Forest," Rosa replied without skipping a beat, only belatedly glancing up from whatever it was she'd been doing with her C-gear. Then, after a pause, "Oh, you mean... oh. Well, it's a gift. For you. So, you know, happy birthday, since I didn't have any other excuse, and I don't know if it's early or late or anything, so just. Happy birthday!"
It didn't seem like an opportune time to mention he hadn't the foggiest idea when his birthday evenwas,or that the idea of birthday gifts baffled him even more than most occasions celebrated as holidays. "For me? Why?"
"I thought it would be nice," she said with a smile, and N felt himself relax. She was doing it as a friend... That was more important to him than an arbitrary date on the calendar.
"But a book with no words? What for?"
"You can put your own words in it!" When N looked thoughtful, Rosa continued with more confidence. "You can write your thoughts and stuff in it, or jot down notes, or fill it with... well, whatever you want!"
Rosa always gave people priceless things like they were cheap. "Thank you, Rosa," N said. He smiled at her, exposing the mournful part of himself to a ray of warm companionship.
That night, he sat with a litwick kindly providing him light, thinking that perhaps he could put the book to use after all. There wasn't much better of a place to keep his observations of the perplexing things people did, compared to the simple and clean logic pokemon followed by nature. N didn't understand them at all. And yet...
He touched the ballpoint pen to the paper and wrote,
I have received my first birthday gift.
In the last two years, N had traveled the world. He had circled the Tin Tower and the remnants of the so-called Brass Tower in Ecruteak City from up high; he had soaked his feet in the clear water of Lilycove City's shoreline; he had tread the obsidian-caked remnants of Cinnabar Island; he had even stood atop the frozen peaks of Mt. Coronet, high above the sky. He had trekked through the overgrown density of the Great Marsh, through the inky darkness of Rock Tunnel, around the craterous basin of the Lake of Rage, aboard the gondola at Mt. Chimney where ash fell like powder snow. He had been to many continents, to countless cities, to more landmarks than most people would ever dream of visiting in their lives. He had spoken to more people and Pokemon living together than he could keep numerical track of anymore.
He was becoming quite the travel expert, in his own mind. Travel seemed effortless, with Reshiram's whims and impeccable intuition guiding them both, and without need for a map or a plot of course.
In stark contrast to all that, even without Reshiram by his side anymore, trying to find a location with Bianca as the one with the directions made navigation seem impossibly difficult.
N lifted his head to the weak February sun, letting it beneath the brim of his hat to touch his face. He was always fond of the scenery of Route 20, especially when green and verdant in summer and strewn with brightly-colored leaves in autumn. The sound of waterfalls rolling off sheer cliffsides dimly caught his ears — more dimly than usual due to his companion's strained humming.
"Have you figured out Professor Juniper's map yet?" he asked.
"I— I will in a sec, definitely! I totally know how to read a map! I just, um... I don't know where weareon the map."
N glanced over his shoulder at the bony trees snaking out into the sky from a high ledge. "Of course," he answered. Even if he were struck blind right that instant, he was certain he could find his way alone to this cave she'd been assigned by Professor Juniper without a map. She'd apparently asked Bianca to bring along N in the interests of getting a first-hand account from whatever they may find there, and at the time, he'd thought it strange that someone who considered herself a scientist would enlist the help of a man who only had his word to offer her.Hisword had lost its value as of two years ago, after all. But, N had reassured himself as the poor girl proceeded to lead the two of them all over the highs and lows of the route, it was probably a complicated situation in some way he hadn't considered.
And yet... such complicated things were always beautiful. Maybe that was why he didn't succumb to his first instinct for once, to turn her request down and not think twice about it.
Bianca murmured, quieter this time, "It was definitely around here somewhere! Cross the first river, then go west... Yeah, and then..." She shifted her weight restlessly from foot to foot, shouldering her backpack a little heavier from all this time standing around idly.
"Have you ever been there before?" N tried helpfully. Sometimes other humans were more dead weight than not when it came to certain things.
"Yeah! I was there with Professor Juniper earlier this week."
"Did you ask for directions?"
"Yep, and I have them right here! But I don't see any landmarks, so I don't know how to tell where we are... Um, sorry." She bit her lip and lowered her map in defeat. "Maybe we'll just have to look around the old-fashioned way?"
But Bianca hadn't realized N had been keeping eyes and ears on his surroundings in ways she couldn't have. He took a few indicative steps towards a barely-beaten path on the other side of a nearby riverbank, then a calming breath, and said, "The local pokemon have mentioned things about a big cave in a thicket across the river. I think I may know where they're talking about."
"Woooooow," Bianca cooed, perking up and making a small hop to catch up with him, "that's impressive! Good work, N! I think I understand why the Professor wanted you to come with me!"
Do you, now? N wondered, and felt a little guilty about pitying her afterward. He led them southwest towards the unmistakable sound of dripping icicles.
Along the way, after he noticed she had been fidgeting with her hat and eying him curiously, Bianca asked him a question. "Hey, N? Since you can talk to pokemon, is that... Do you, like... Erm, you said you could hear them all in the whole route, so do you think that's sort of like being in a big city full of Pokemon all the time?"
A poorly phrased question, but N managed to glean the sentiment off her, and took a moment to formulate his answer. "You could say it like that. The cities you know are just congregations of people and pokemon. Pokemon live sort of similarly unless they eventually," a twitch of his lips, "find a human trainer to befriend." It was still difficult to find the words that properly described his feelings about the practice of capturing pokemon from their natural habitat, but at least he now knew was no longer the disproportionately terrible thing he once believed it to be. They didn't fear humans or capture like the ones he had grown up with had, but—
"Oh, N! I found it! Hooray, finally!" Bianca crunched merrily through the old snow, dirtying it further with dirt from the soles of her boots, and went inside.
It was a deep cave, in a few different ways; light collapsed into abyss further in, indicating a tunnel that dipped down underground, but the walls curled in almost lovingly around them, and it was so quiet that the mere thought of raising his voice in such a peaceful chamber seemed like sacrilege to N. Bianca paced, clutching the note Professor Juniper had given her. "Um, hold on a sec... Okay, the Professor wrote that the three guardians may have already scattered, but we should look for anything notable inside anyway."
"Notable?" he asked, sending her a quick glance before moving to inspect the dark area in the back, shoes squishing in the mud beneath him. "Notable as in... footprints? Unusual activity?"
"Yeah, like that! Or pokemon living in here, or weird stuff in the water, or—"
N shook his head before cutting her off. "There are no pokemon in here. I can't hear any voices besides yours that aren't coming from outside."
"Woooow... That's amazing, N. It must be like a totally different world to be able to hear all those voices wherever you go, huh?" Bianca responded with a profound note in her voice. N's hands stopped moving. "Well, I'm gonna take some samples of the mud and water. Let me know if you find anything!"
"All right," he said, not really listening to himself. An indeterminate amount of time later, though, he was interrupted by the faintest of sounds; a thready whisper of a voice that stuttered and died off intermittently in the atmosphere around him. He only managed to pick it up as something not a figment of his imagination after a long moment of intense focus, and as he did, it grew gradually louder — closer.
"Hey, N, do you hear—"
"From further in the tunnel," N replied with his usual escalated pace, "yes. As though it's about to emerge from this side."
"Ooh, maybe it's one of the guardian pokemon coming back to its cave!"
A swirl of wind flew in from outside, and the quickly growing swell of footsteps replaced the voices. They were of a human's pace, he noted, and he stiffened with apprehension.
"Hello? Is someone there?" Bianca called, trying to keep a restrained voice. As her greeting reverberated off the walls, both of them heard all of what unfolded next before they really saw it; the girl emerged far enough into the entrance's light to be seen, making the most — thrilling comment N had ever heard.
"Hi, guys," Hilda said, breathless from her mad dash towards the light, "Uh, I guess if you were wondering, it turns out that cave really does go all the way to Sinnoh!"
In the brief period after she returned, the world shook off its muzzy coat of winter. It was as though in coming back home, Hilda brought not a celebration in the streets, nor the mounting chaos that heralded another journey, but the relief of spring to a land tired of cold sleep.
The snow was almost completely melted, freshly dripping from rooftops and rushing away with rivers by the next time he saw her. N was just about to go looking for her when the box dropped into his hands with a clatter that made his heart palpitate.
N blinked; Hilda was staring up at him. He was clearly supposed to be doing something here... He turned the box about as if looking for clues, and then worked it open, sliding a finger under the singular band of tape over the edges. Inside, there were five football-shaped pastries glinting up at him from their foil wrapping.
"They're poffins. I picked up the recipe in Sinnoh and decided to try it out," Hilda explained, wetting her lips.
"Hilda," N inquired, "isn't the February holiday for giving sweets tomorrow?"
"Yes, it is," she sighed, "but I had my mom help me perfect the recipe because I was getting it all wrong, and we made like a million of them, and I'm giving away the extras. I don't want them going to waste, you know?"
N looked away. "I see, I'll accept them then. Thank you," to which Hilda's eyes widened and she shook her head.
"No, no, I didn't mean to make you feel like you did something wrong. But don't go getting any silly ideas, either."
He was missing something here. "I'm not sure what you're getting at, Hilda."
"I mean, you don't need to go out of your way to get me something for White Day next month, that's all. I tell all of my guy friends that, and Cheren knows I'll beat him up if he gets me mushy stuff in return." Pausing, she added, "That's how the holiday's supposed to go, anyway."
"I know. I've seen it celebrated in each of the years we've been apart," he reassured her, feeling a little patronized; the custom was bizarre, and he appreciated the thought, but N couldn't decide how he felt about being told not to celebrate it by the one person who should have encouraged these things. But then there was a short pause, during which he thought he saw a strange expression on her face — something he'd never seen before, and something he never wanted to see there again.
"Well, as long as that's clear," and Hilda didn't wait for a reply before rushing off elsewhere, looking no more mollified than before. N stayed behind, lost in his thoughts. The poffins, he discovered, were pretty good, although he only managed a small helping of them before he was hit with all the fatally doe-eyed looks from various pokemon he'd befriended as of late.
He didn't see Hilda again for the rest of the day, and Bianca seemed puzzled when he told her of his encounter during a coincidental meeting at the Ferris wheel. Apparently, the two of them had made plans to go do something later in the day, and Hilda hadn't so much canceled as just... disappeared. Being Bianca, though, the other girl wasn't upset, just a little concerned.
"No, I'm sorry for worrying you. I'm sure she's fine," N told her. "Hilda is capable of taking care of herself. She seemed well earlier, and I don't think she would have gone out of her way to give people poffins if she weren't."
"Poffins?" Bianca repeated blankly. "What poffins?"
Something lurched oddly in his stomach.
"Did she not give you any? She said she made too many, and was gifting them to others to get rid of the excess?" He found himself pulling out the box to show her, as if she of all people would be hugely skeptical of his story.
"Ohh, I didn't get any. That's not fair, I didn't know she knew how to bake poffins! Why didn't she tell me?"
N frowned at her dismay, but he didn't have time to come up with an educated guess. "Poffins?" Cheren asked from a short distance away, with Rosa following him closely. Two pairs of eyes darted to meet him, Bianca's pixie-green much more alert all of a sudden than N's sullen gray. "I didn't realize Hilda was—"
"—Happy Valentine's Day, Cheren!" Bianca shouted suddenly, thrusting her own box towards Cheren's ribcage. He took a step back to get some distance, and almost tripped over Rosa behind him, who caught him graciously. They'd probably been about to go on the Ferris wheel together, N realized. "I didn't forget about it this time!"
Turning a little pink, Cheren's hand jumped in a trained motion to the bridge of his nose in order to push at glasses that were no longer there, then transitioned into running through his hair instead to compensate. "Bianca..." he said, and cleared his throat, "I'm going to have more chocolate than I know what to do with tomorrow, you realize that?"
He chuckled dryly. "A lot of my female students... Out of obligation, you know. Not— that."
"You never used to get so many when we were kids, so I thought you'd appreciate it! And I mean, I made these myself... You'll accept them, right?"
"Do I have a choice?" The crestfallen pout Bianca wore must have been answer enough, because Cheren followed up with, "Sorry, sorry, I'll eat them. I'm still stunned you remembered, even if you are a day off the mark."
"Oh, Cheren, will you learn to accept gifts gracefully? Jeez. But at least Hilda gave N something, too, so no one's going to be left out!" N felt himself flush for some reason at Bianca's statement. He was vaguely aware of Rosa watching them with a quiet smirk from the corner of his eye.
"Hilda? That doesn't make any sense. She almost gave me a black eye on White Day when we were eight, don't you remember? She hates white chocolate." N's shoulders twitched at the mention. "And the time I got her a bracelet for her ninth birthday, she—"
Bianca waved her hands. "It's okay. I got you something, so that must count, right?"
Color started to rise in Cheren's face again, and he sounded low and awkward when he spoke, a remarkable difference from the composed teacher he had become in recent months. "Yes, it does. Thank you, Bianca."
She seized his wrist without warning, gently but firmly, and started to lure him out of the amusement park. "Hey, Cheren! Come on, let's take a ride on the Ferris wheel, since we're here! We've never been on it together, have we?"
"Bianca, wait, the line is going to be..." He shot a desperate look in Rosa's direction, who only had a wave of the hand and a facetious farewell to offer him. Cheren's protests gradually waned as the two voices got further and further away, and Rosa and N were left alone. She was still smirking.
"Bianca gave Cheren homemade chocolate early for Valentine's Day, huh?" she mused aloud, "He must be pretending. He's not dense enough not to know what that implies. Cheren is so sheepish about this stuff sometimes, it's really cute."
N didn't reply, just stared down at the box absently, using a finger and a thumb to fidget with the loose ribbon. Rosa eyed him. "Hilda gave you those?"
"Were they good?" she prompted without missing a beat.
"I only had a little," N admitted, unsteady, "but I wound up sharing them with some pokemon friends. Everyone liked them, as far as I could tell."
An incredulous stare, and then she snickered once. "I should tell her what a terrible boyfriend you are."
"I'm — what?" he said, stumbling.
"Oh, please. You sure won't be her boyfriend for long if you keep denying it!" Rosa looked proud of herself, but she stopped when N's expression fell. "Oh... Sorry, did I take it too far?"
"No, don't apologize." The look she gave him was questioning, but N continued when her silence ushered in an opening. "It was — very touching. I thought about what a silly holiday this is just earlier today, dictated only by arbitrary values, where the recipient is no less than obligated to pay that gesture forward a month to the day from now. But then I thought, when I was sharing with those pokemon... I wished I could have shared them with Hilda, too..."
Rosa smiled slowly, a sight that only made N feel more tied up in knots. Now it wasn't Rosa's smile he was looking at, it was Hilda's. "I'm sorry to put that on you," he said, bizarre inhibitions putting him in an emotional chokehold, "I don't think I can ride with you on the Ferris wheel today, Rosa. I need a little time to myself."
As he left in a hurry, Rosa asked him in an almost-rhetorical tone, "You've really got a torch for her, don't you?" N simply pretended not to hear.
"Well, he's so cool and businesslike, and she's so sweet and cheerful, and yet they're together now. It's just like my movies!" Rosa marveled, placing a hand on the stair railing as they spied discreetly on the two people at the top of the observation platform.
"Seriously, what? Real life's not like that," Hilda argued back in an attempt to save herself. "Besides, you don't see flowers and hearts appearing all over the place when they talk to each other, do you?"
Cheren looked a little disapproving as Bianca tried to climb onto the railing at the top of the platform to get a better view, nearly falling over in the process. They were out of earshot, but it was easy to decipher what was going on based on their gestures and expressions.
"Oh, I bet they do! Maybe Bianca gets her musharna to use that dream mist to create the illusion of sparkles and glittery bubbles..."
"And then the fire alarm goes off, and the moment is ruined," Hilda broke in dryly.
Rosa flicked her in the shoulder playfully. "Hah. I bet you don't have a romantic bone in your body. You're just like Hugh."
"Wha— I am not!" she defended. "I can be just as romantic as you— well, no, not that much. I'm romantic too, I just... don't usually need to show it!"
"Cool. Prove it, then," was the smug challenge she received in response. Hilda started winding up for a bold lie or twelve, when a tap on the shoulder almost gave her a heart attack. She jumped out of her skin, and Rosa laughed indelicately.
N yanked his hand away, not meaning to startle her, and looking almost as startled himself at her reaction. Scandalized and humiliated, Hilda grabbed Rosa by the shoulders to whirl her around and ruffle her hair buns to the point of dishevelment. She released her unmercifully by the bottom of the long staircase. "Teach you to laugh at my plight!" she yelled through Rosa's squeals. Rosa seemed less than amused that her hair was now in disarray, but it was a minor annoyance — N thought she must have been made to play sister to others sometimes.
"Go home, squirt," Hilda teased with a sly grin. "You can get all hot and bothered over my best friends when you're older."
Rosa turned to look over her shoulder as she walked away and smiled with a coolness she must not have felt, if the dark blush creeping up her face was any indication. Suddenly, N was keenly aware that the smile was being directed at him. "You'd be surprised how things come full circle sometimes," was all she needed to say to make what looked like a shiver crawl up Hilda's back as she watched the pigtailed figure make a swift retreat.
"Aaaaaaanyway," she said emphatically to N once their friend was out of earshot, "did you need something? You don't ever seem to be in Aspertia much."
"You were preoccupied," N brushed off, "it's nothing that can't wait." More like, it seemed like she was watching her childhood friends up on the hill, and he knew better than to interrupt someone in the middle of a personal venture.
"I am not preoccupied, silly. Let's go do something fun, if you're not preoccupied."
He only had time to say, "I'm not," before Hilda hooked her arm into his and pulled, causing him to have to take a few fast steps forward to keep his balance. He noticed her take a final glance back at Cheren and Bianca. Caught up in the motion himself, N peered back at them one last time, too. They had their hands clasped, she leaning into his shoulder as they looked serenely over the hills.
Aspertia City in the thick of spring was a nice place, if a bit breezy. It was bright out, and most of the people on the street consisted of students from the local school sealed off into cozy little groups. N took a moment to enjoy his surroundings, when he noticed other people on the street. More specifically, he noticed them noticing them; the small group of high schoolers catching sight of them, leaning their heads together, and chuckling into their hands, or the younger boy nudging his friend and nodding at them...
It probably looked pretty suspect. The young man who tried to split up pokemon from their trainers, and the young woman who went out of her way to prevent it, walking side-by-side together. One hero and one less-than-hero. Very close together, at that; Hilda brushed his arm frequently, and when he caught her looking at him, she smiled at him, unperturbed.
Was she doing it on purpose? Would it be more or less flustering if it were deliberate?
N said, "I think we're starting a few rumors, Hilda..." Hilda's blue eyes darted about briefly, and then she shrugged.
"I guess people in Aspertia have a lot of free time on their hands," she said, perfectly reasonable. "I mean, look at Rosa. She's a movie star who still manages to find the time to eavesdrop on silly things!"
That was an extremely noncommittal response. "It doesn't bother you?" he pressed, mildly astounded.
"Well, does it bother you?" she returned.
N felt caught, and fumbled to follow up with a cool he did not feel. "I— I meant, it wouldn't bother me if you wanted to walk a little further apart. That's all."
"Oh," Hilda said. "Well, I appreciate you trying to protect my... reputation, I guess, but I'll be okay."
Something about her tone caught his ear in a peculiar way. N gave her a considering look. A long silence fell over them afterward, and N thought it kind of comfortable until Hilda broke it, voice laced with more nervousness than before.
"I'm sorry. This was silly of me. I'm obviously making you uncomfortable."
"I'm not uncomfortable," he disagreed. "I'm just not used to having people looking at me like that. It's making me feel... a little sick." Sick wasn't the right word, but for all the vocabulary that floated about in his head, he didn't have a single one to describe the strange tension slithering in his lower belly right now. Hilda's keen eyes turned to him, like searchlights, like a soul diving into his, and N quickly snapped shut, suddenly terrified that she'd see, and she'd know — what?
Carefully, Hilda took the hand of hers closest to him and worked it around his waist from behind, patting him on the back. "Sorry about that. If it's bothering you that much, I'll confess." They kept walking, and N felt strangely stilted like a robot, moving without any of his normal balance and trying to match her movements instead. He found himself curling into himself a little, the ghostly sensation of the mother's comfort he'd never had. "I... I was kind of using you as a distraction, actually. I mean, we're friends — really friends now — so that's not so bad, but I was just... Cheren and Bianca are together now, I think. I just didn't realize how much I'd really missed. It's like watching from where I was two years ago... Or maybe even earlier than that, back when I was so sure I had that stupid crush on Cheren."
N began to ease closer to her as she explained herself. He didn't need the fine details, but it looked like she felt a little better just by being honest about it with another pair of ears to listen to her. "I guess I— I was jealous. A little. Kind of a lot, actually. I didn't really care about it much, but now I do, and I'm happy for them and also— jealous. I'm jealous, and it makes it worse because I'm also happy for them, and I can't possibly be both at once, can I?"
"I don't know," he admitted, as Hilda gazed at him for an answer she knew he didn't have either. "I'm sorry." Then, he coaxed her even closer into a hug, feeling comfortable about the contact. She rested her forehead on his shoulder, and his chest vibrated when he asked, "Do you feel better saying it out loud, at least? Do you think you can find an answer?"
A small wave of clarity swept over her expression, followed by a smile. N could feel the invisible weight lightening off her back a little. "Oh... I do, a little. I'm sure it'll go away with time. And I'll be honest, I kinda always thought if they ever got together, they'd be really great for each other. It's a good thing."
"I'm happy you trust me enough to talk to me like this. Thank you, Hilda. I'm glad we can share things with one another."
She grinned up at him. "Thanks, N. You're a great friend. And hey, if you ever need something like this yourself..." Hilda broke away from the embrace, letting the thread of disappointment and the cool air slip between them, but patting his shoulders firmly a few times before her touch evaporated entirely. "Just ask me, okay? Everyone's gotta have something sometimes, you know?"
"I know," N said with an earnest smile, "I'm glad I have something wonderful like this."
The idea had bothered him all day. Valentine's Day, and indeed White Day, were about significant others and finding them by giving people you were interested in sweets. All the while, N had been trying to figure that into a mathematical equation. He had one that sounded much better in his head than he knew it would on paper: "Soul mates" are quadratic expressions that can be factored out into two identical binomials, one for each person involved. The idea is figuring out which binomial you are, and then the binomials of those people all around you. When you find your match — if you ever do — then you also find your perfect square and are complete.
Employing all that math consciously was unnecessary when he could figure out any numerical statement placed in front of him with minimal effort; however, when it came to applying it to real life situations, social situations, it was impossible.
He wasn't sure why he still tried. While he waited for Hilda to answer the door, he amused himself by trying to figure out what her binomial would be and why.
She looked blearily at him from the threshold when she opened the door. "What are you doing here? You've never come straight to my house before." Her hair was down, and she was still in her bed wear, an oversized t-shirt. It was printed like a baseball jersey, the kind Rosa wore regularly except far baggier, and came down to just below her hips. N couldn't tell if she had anything else on under it. He stared for a few seconds before jerking his eyes back up to her face.
"I got you something," he told her, and watched curiosity wither slowly into embarrassed glowering. Quickly, he presented the box from behind his back. It was bigger than hers had been, but then, it had to be. It was the tradition, they'd said.
"Oh no." Hilda took the box from him, and began stiffly, "But I told you I didn't want anything—"
"—For White Day," N finished for her. She was staring at him now, the dark expression dropping from her features, and when he reached out to help her open the box and their fingers brushed, her face went red.
He'd made the right call, he was sure of it now.
"Erm, sorry. Please, open it."
An assortment of elegant expensive-looking truffles, all dark chocolate. He could see it on her face — she was trying to decide what to make of this. So, he would help her out, even though she hadn't helped him any last month. "I would've made them, but I don't know how. So I tried to get the most expensive thing the store had."
Which meant, he thought, almost as much, as far as these things went.
Hilda didn't look up, but he could see her knuckles whitening. She said, in a choked sort of voice, "How'd you know?" she asked, "That I hate white chocolate...?"
"Cheren mentioned it in passing. He seemed surprised that you would give anything to anyone on Valentine's Day, as well." After a moment passed, "Your pokemon also said as much."
There was a very long pause, and then the brunette lifted her head.
"Oh, everyone's a traitor! And you, I should've known you'd do it anyway," she told him, and it would have been a genuine complaint, but she was flushed and her eyes were misty. She rubbed at them sloppily with the back of her hand. "The plan was that you were just supposed to eat your damn poffins and forget about the whole thing..."
N hesitated, then reached out to catch her hand against the box. "I tried," he offered politely. "But they were good. Many pokemon also agreed with me."
"Many pokemon..." she repeated, and then laughed, "Oh, you little... I should've known. You've... really grown into your own skin, huh?"
Then a hand rested on N's shoulder, and Hilda stood up straighter, just barely meeting his collarbone. He was suddenly very aware of his height advantage over her, but his tongue caught in his throat, and his breath, traitorous, refused to come in anything but slow enough gusts to keep him conscious.
He couldn't say it, but he was trying. He was about to.
"Good morning, Hilda," her mother's voice sang from inside. N stopped, and the words he had almost worked out fell back into his throat and away. Craning his neck, he could see the beginnings of a conspiratorial smile on her face from the kitchen. Hilda's head turned so fast that he thought he might get whiplash from her long hair.
Sharply, "Mom. Remember what I told you? Don't answer the door today. Not for anyone. Okay?"
"Got it. Not for anyone," she replied, casting a look at N that made his skin tingle. "Fortunately, Hilda doesn't celebrate White Day, so there's no problems with boys to get tangled up in. Right, sweetie?"
"Yeah," Hilda echoed with — disappointment? "Fortunately."
N wondered if maybe they weren't just non-factorable quadratic expressions anymore.
The door of the Pokemon League headquarters' center made a few deep, ominous bangs as she kicked into it with her sole in frustration. Thunder cracked again.
"The only pokemon center I know that would ever close on a holiday— Ughhh! Rosa, you liar!" wailed Hilda. "Seriously?! I don't have any spare clothes or spare shoes with me, and it's about to rain, and it's going to thunder and lightning too, so I can't even fly out of here!" She looked up into the black sky, grown muddy charcoal gray with storm clouds that caught the lights of the league plateau on the ground, and flinched as a single raindrop struck her nose.
In a foul mood now, she was elbow-deep in her bag reaching for her umbrella, her only source of shelter, when the sound of fur ruffling from behind her caught her attention. A couple drops of water hit the wine-red mane of a zoroark, who ruffled herself again, even a little irritably this time, like she was tired of waiting.
The zoroark took off trotting, then flashing into a run when a sudden gust of wind swept across the earth and tossed leaves and dust into her path. Hilda took off after her, forgetting that, to a human, zoroark moved comparatively at only slightly less than the speed of light. The first blast of wind that tumbled down the mountainside of Victory Road nearly shoved her off her feet and sent dust from the recent drought into her eyes. Convinced that perhaps this pokemon was trying to help her, she plowed on, hair tumbling about her face, until the creature retreated with steps as silent as a shadow's into a small cavern, one bored forcibly into the side of the cliff face.
Regaining her bearings out of the wind that was still picking up momentum outside, she stared down the familiar ramp towards an even more familiar wall, and further into the abyss of two years ago.
But it was.
Inside the castle, the ceiling was spotty at best now — sheltering and protective in some places, weak or downright open in others, particularly on the upper floors. Lightning split the sky in half, a crack in a perfect porcelain bowl above her head. Water poured down, drizzling at first but with the promise — or threat — of solid sheets in the near future. But it was a roof, and anyone would be grateful for a roof in a time like this. The zoroark had skittered off deeper into the castle, but there were some personal things she had to investigate first. Such as...
The room had changed just as much as it hadn't changed. The wallpaper tried hard to be cheerful, the toys tried to be eye-catching and distracting, and the airplane mobile overhead did its best to bring some semblance of life into the room, but none of them could quite manage anymore. Everything was covered with a tissue-thin film of dust, and the room appeared to be dead, lost in time.
Hilda turned away and shut the door with a certain heaviness, as though no one would ever enter that room ever again. She was probably right.
"N?" she started calling as she moved deeper into the crumbling halls, "Are you here?" After peering in a few rooms, just as anachronistic the playroom was, Hilda finally found one that was neither abandoned nor broken, one that looked fresh. It was a little spartan, but it was very clearly N's bedroom, the only thing standing out of note being the leather-bound book on the writing desk.
It turned out she'd been right in thinking that keeping a diary would be very like N — sentimental and thoughtful N. She clicked the lamp on, and the bold, intricate handwriting fit him, too. It was so rare to have the chance to learn more about N's inner mentality, someone who seemed so untouchable from where she stood. Even though it was probably wrong, maybe if she was quick about it...
I had been sure that Professor Juniper must think of me as a spoiled child, but still, she asked me to help her. Indirectly, though, and perhaps that's better, as I have no strong desire to talk to her face-to-face yet.
Bianca was on the wrong track in her question, but I didn't answer correctly, either. Being able to hear the voices of pokemon is more like living, knowing only your own language and your own way, and then going into a place of two different languages, only to find yours is a dead language no one understands but you.
But that was why I felt isolated. It was just that they didn't need words to express their feelings. At first, I had seen so many pokemon crying out loud, saying they wanted so badly to speak in words to a sorrowful trainer, wishing they could only let them know how much they cared. To this day, I regret discouraging them. Instead, I should have cried for them, and spoken the words for them.
Hilda smiled. She'd been right about him growing into his own skin way back then, too.
I don't know why I wanted to hug Hilda the same fierce way Bianca did when she stepped out of the darkness. Maybe I should have. I have so many words and no way to express them all cleanly, so perhaps it's time for me to follow the lead of my pokemon friends, and learn how to express my gratitude without words.
That the cave goes to Sinnoh is the most wonderful news I have ever heard.
She chuckled to herself at the mention of her reappearance. Maybe it wasn't the most eloquent or memorable first words to say in two years to anyone, but at least someone had appreciated it. In total contrast, Cheren had given her an earful, and her mom held her so tight, in such solemn quiet, that Hilda thought she might actually have been in trouble at the time.
Hilda dislikes white chocolate. She says she doesn't want anything because of this, but I know how I'm expected to react. I don't want to be a stranger to her world forever. But at the same time, perhaps she wasn't lying — a love that expects nothing in return is the most wonderful of all, just like the love she has for her pokemon.
How could someone so sharp-minded and big-hearted fail to see the qualities reflected in himself? With a grimace, Hilda made a thought, directed to N if only he were a mind reader, that reassured him she was only truly capable of it after he opened her eyes to the whole story in his own right.
I envy her, but I am glad she thinks of me all the same. I have a lifelong friend, too, in every pokemon I have ever met, but perhaps time— Friendships like these change, and become different friendships, or less or more than they once were—
Ridiculous. I've been very blind. Perhaps if Rosa thinks I am carrying a torch, it's a necessary burden. I may be putting the pieces together. I hope so. Maybe a torch is what I need to light the way; and I've certainly been burning like one lately.
—A torch? Rosa said something like that to him? Hilda would have made a note of it for future big-sistering purposes, but instead, she flipped further ahead, seized by a sudden urge to find out more. Something, anything. There was a nagging feeling, manifesting itself as an increasingly itchy spot between her shoulder blades, that suggested she might be getting herself in over her head if she got caught, but... What were the odds of getting caught in a remote place like this?
About that silent communication... She was trying to say something, and I missed it. So far, I'm failing spectacularly at this.
Why can't it be enough? What a painful, terrible feeling jealousy is.
That was all that was written. Hilda frowned. What wasn't enough? March 11th... Was that the day she'd been watching Cheren and Bianca, simmering in her own negativity until Rosa had come along and tried to make her feel better by pretending she was going to write up some silly tabloid gossip about them? It must have been. The day N had made her feel better, after she'd invaded his personal space. That night, as she lay in bed thinking about all the things she had done and all the things she was going to do, like usual, Hilda had found herself regretting her actions. Regretting what she'd done, why she'd done it, and what she'd said about it. He'd taken it so well, and yet... It wasn't enough.
Just like he was saying here. Why couldn't her friendships be enough? He felt inadequate, and she felt selfish.
If Rosa were here to listen in to her thoughts, she'd be making some comment about how that made them a match made in heaven. But... these weren't normal types of friendship things, were they? Could they be, and still be normal? Was there a normal at all?
Was he even talking about the feelings she'd told him about?
I don't think I imagined her disappointment this time. It hurt to hear. I wonder why she insists on keeping such a lonely tradition...
Why does it sound as though it's not important to her? The excuse for what people consider a holiday is silly, of course, but isn't the thought important? It's important to me. I wish I could have gotten that across.
I don't know the words, but I feel them. I want to repay her for caring about me, for dropping a thread down when I was trapped in a dark well and afraid to climb up from rock bottom. I haven't repaid her for anything yet!
It's very, very important. I will say it next time, for certain. If all it takes is to try, then I know words will—
The blood drained from her face as she snapped the book shut all too late. N looked like he might die of sheer horror; he looked so small and mortified that she was about to back down, but then realized she thought she might know what was really going on now.
She needed to see if she was right.
"Thank you," N whispered, one hand flying to clench the planet-fashioned necklace dangling above his heart. "That's what I wanted to say."
After a long moment, Hilda let out a breath she didn't even know she'd been holding. "I always figured you for the diary-keeping type somehow. I just never knew you actually did!" She took her hat off and ran a hand through her hair, trying to make everything seem casual. It came across as more of a nervous tic than anything. Conversationally, she tried, "What inspired you to it?"
"That's... Rosa, she..."
"Rosa?" Hilda laughed genially. "That figures. It's exactly the sort of thing she'd do."
Instinct told her she needed to say something. N was probably thinking the same thing, she realized. But she said nothing, and he said nothing. Seconds ticked away.
Hilda was first to break the thick silence. "I'm sorry I read it. I shouldn't have, and I hope you can forgive me," she supplicated.
"I'm sorry, Hilda... I wanted to thank you so badly, but I—"
"If you can't explain it, it's okay. Don't be sorry," she interrupted, purposely misinterpreting the apology — or was she? Time to find out. "We can play twenty questions if you'd rather do it that way? Easier, I guess."
"Question one: Is 'thank you' all you wanted to say?"
"Yes or no," she pressed, feeling bad about dragging it out like this over the heartbreak in N's voice, but right now, it sounded like he needed a push, or it'd eat at him forever.
He took a deep breath. "...No."
The words just came out, and it seemed surreal that she was saying them at all. "Question two: Were you jealous or someone, or something?" How many times had she been so sure, just to herself, that maybe N was incapable of any negative emotions that didn't have selfless roots?
The last one almost didn't come out. She choked on it, coughed, and then managed, "Are you in love with me?", completely dropping the pretense of the game. Her eyes met the floor.
At that moment, weight threw itself around her neck and shoulders — two hands clasped together over her shoulder blades, two arms laying across her back. Hilda stopped dead. "I... I don't know how to ask. I don't even know how to let you know what I want. But— Please listen to me."
She must have started breathing again by the time N followed up, because she hadn't passed out in the interminable time it took for him to gather his thoughts and his courage. "I don't have any idea what I'm doing, and the things people do are so strange and unfamiliar to me sometimes, but maybe— maybe they're the right things. Maybe you can understand. I've never, ever asked such things of someone else, but... I..."
"N," Hilda said slowly, gaze wandering off to the side, "it's not a big deal, I promise. I want to help you. I wasn't sure for a while, but that's why I went out to look for you when no one knew what had happened to you. That wasn't for anyone else but me. It's okay to be selfish sometimes. It is."
"I'm sorry." He looked like he was about to lose his composure. "If that's how these things manifest, then yes, I may be in love with you."
"It's fine. Actually... I was a little attracted to you by the end, before you left, but it wasn't a good thing at that point." She continued resolutely, reaching up to return his embrace, although it sounded like she was talking to a whole different person now. "I know what you're thinking, but I want you to know this doesn't need to come between our friendship. I won't ask anything of you at all. It's not a big deal, I promi—"
"Hilda, it is a big deal."
That stopped her, made her draw back and stare up uncertainly. She looked more vulnerable and anxious, but at least she was making eye contact now. If anything, it made her seem unguarded.
"I'm going to kiss you now," Hilda said, "so either tell me no, or let me do it and don't make a big deal out of it."
He didn't say anything, only continued to eye her. So she grabbed him then, by the neck of his shirt, and jerked him back against the wall, almost off his feet. Her lips were firm, insistent, hungry; she'd been wanting to do this for a while. They were the only ones in the entire castle, the only light source dim and coming from the old desk lamp.
Somewhere along the line, N had broken away, and had figured out a response to her prior assertion. "It is a big deal," he repeated. "And it should be. We should be — dating, or something. Shouldn't we?"
She squeaked pathetically. That certainly hadn't been something she was expecting.
The low rumbling of thunder from outside barely even registered in Hilda's awareness. Instead, she realized belatedly that Rosa probably saw it coming, at least. Maybe it was because she was such a romantic who occasionally lorded that over the less-girly Hilda, but from what N had written about her saying he had a "torch" for her, and the pointed look she often gave them both when they were together, and the fact that she—
Hadn't it been Rosa who had told her the Pokemon League was open today, anyway?
...Ohhh, that little ****.
"Probably," she acknowledged.
"Can we try that again?" N said, reaching down to cup her face. She turned her face toward his, and he remembered in that brief moment that a horrible chain of events had brought this amazing person into his life, that this amazing person had loved him without reservation and without reason, and that however statistically improbable those things were, none of it mattered as long as they had happened.
Sometimes, things came together without numbers, and were perfect anyway.