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Gaiien Region: Gods and Demons: Chapter 2

by Keleri

Keleri Our heroes gain another traveling companion and head out to a regional park to catch pokemon.
Chapter 2

A Meeting / The Near Road / Regional Park / We Ran but It Was There Waiting

June 15th-18th, 128 CR

Moriko and Russell rode their bikes to Professor Willow's lab, an H-shaped building with a domed greenhouse and a fenced-off orchard that local kids trespassed on dares. It was outside of town on the road to Umber Village, set far enough back on the cliff for the view of the sea to be mostly obscured by the port's buildings.

A couple of machamp were carrying heavy bags of fertilizer to the greenhouse when they parked their bikes; they waved at them and the pokémon waved back with spare hands.

The lab had a lived-in, homey feeling with all the grad students and postdocs working there. Potted plants and notice boards covered in local flyers were in abundance; rules about keeping hallways cleared had become a little lax. They passed rooms humming with machinery, or with students talking and music playing.

A gardevoir carrying a lab notebook passed them as they approached Prof. Willow's office. "Good luck! A big crowd today!" the pokémon said.

Russ watched him go by. "A crowd?"

"Russ! Are you—oh."

Moriko watched the new arrivals warily: Angela, Dave, Victoria, and Kai were all leaving, carrying day bags and wearing traveling clothes and stylish trainer belts, every inch the well-to-do questants. They looked like a still from a trainer drama with Dave's surfer tan and Vic's expensive genehan hair.

They stopped, seeing her; the silence drew out as they all looked past each other, as tense as gunslingers.

"Russ," Vic said, sudden. "Come with us."

Russ blinked. "Uh, thanks, I'm good—why? I'm going with Moriko."

"You don't have to, Russ," Angela said.


"After what she did?" Kai asked, his eyes flicking over to Moriko.

"After I did what?"

The group's faces crumpled in scorn; Moriko felt her lip curl and she stared back at them, pugnacious, but tiny needles of dread lanced their way up her back.

"Oh my gods," Angela muttered.

Kai: "Seriously?"

The affability started to fall off of Russ's face. "What's this about?"

"What did she tell you?" Angela said, challenging.

Russ smiled. "I can't follow this conversation. I'm traveling with Moriko. Thanks for the invite."

Angela shook her head and drew away, walking past them, and the other three started to follow.

"Whatever you're getting, dude, it's not worth it," Dave blurted out.

"Excuse me?" Moriko said.

Russ jerked back. "I'm gay, you complete raisin—"

"Everyone's a little bit bi—"

"Holy fuck Dave, do not," Vic snapped. "Way to cede the moral high ground, ninnyhammer," she said, casting an apologetic glance at Russell. She clamped her hand around Dave's upper arm and dragged him off, half-seriously.

"Call me, dude, anytime," Kai said to Russ, over his shoulder.

"All the saints," Russell swore, when the hallway was empty.

Moriko's mind whirled. "What the hell was that?" What had she 'done'? And her stomach twisted, embarrassed at Dave's implication. How many people thought that?

She cringed and pressed on her eyes with the heels of her hands. Well, she could see how people came to that conclusion—the village weirdo and the nice boy who was friends with everyone was surely self-explanatory given the nature of the latter, but of course people would seek juicier rumors—

She nearly leapt as Russ touched her shoulder and he jerked his hand away.



"I'm sorry," Russ said. He was blushing, the flush bright on his pale skin. "I'm sorry they were saying that stuff. I don't know what they were talking about." He pulled out his pokédex. "Do… you want me to find out? I'll message them."

I hate it who cares just leave it—but she wanted to know, the part of her that would click through to see violence, to watch in dreadful fascination, it wanted to know. Was it something about how she'd fought with her aunt? About school? About Russ? She felt sick at that last one.

"Of course, I mean, what if it's about you, they think I—hurt you or something—"

Russ nodded, going even redder if that was possible. "Let's just go see Prof. Willow—I'll ask them later, when I'm less mad."

"Sure. I'm sorry Russ, what a clusterfuck—"

"It's not your fault. And for the record you've never—I can't even think of what they're saying—"

"I'm sure it's some rumor, some lie." She took a deep breath. "We're almost out."

Prof. Willow's office door was dotted with photos of her and her students and pokémon: here she stood in her professorial graduation regalia with Vivek as he was titled Professor Mulberry IV; here a candid shot of her registering junior trainer licenses for excited ten-year-olds; here Quintus the machamp lifted a giant barrel and winked for the camera.

Russ knocked and pushed the door open at the acknowledgement from inside.

"Hey guys! Everything okay?" Prof. Willow smiled at them; she was in her forties, average height with wavy golden hair and a colorful skirt peeking out from under her lab coat.

Moriko reddened, wondering how much Prof. Willow had heard with the door closed, and if she noticed how flushed and angry they probably looked.

Russ waved a hand. "Distract us, let's get going."

Prof. Willow shrugged. "Alright—Russell and Moriko," she said contemplatively, pulling something up on her computer. "Could I see your pokédexes?"

They passed them over. Moriko thought of the old, battered one she'd gotten as a preteen here, but they'd upgraded recently and the current model looked great, still shiny. Hers was metallic green and silver while Russ's was red and gold, popular colors with a couple of decals slapped on to differentiate them.

Prof. Willow connected them both to her computer. "Since you two are leaving town I'm going to upgrade the memory and download most of the pokédex and map features—right now they're accessed on an ad hoc basis, but the cloud isn't going to be much help to you in the wilderness."

"Thanks!" Russell said. "Do we owe you anything for the increased memory?"

"Not a problem, this is part of the observation and training you have to put up with as a starter trainer."

"Will it hurt the battery life or anything?" Moriko asked.

"It shouldn't, as long as your 'dex is in low-power mode—it will charge while you're walking, but keep an eye on it, sometimes it will get stuck trying to sync futilely or to an access point that's just out of reach."

Russ nodded. "Cool, we have powerpacks just in case too."

"I'm sure you'll use them. It will blow up with notifications if you come into town or to a hotspot after being away for a while, too, which can be alarming. One of my grad students had a black metal song as her notification sound, and as we drove into Verdure Town we had to listen to overlapping screaming about witches coming out of the dark forest until someone sat on her pokédex."

"…Field trips must be a lot of fun with your group."

"They have their moments."

"Are you able to upgrade us to the adult license as well?" Russ asked.

"Yes, that's part two—that will let you challenge the first gym and keep up to four pokémon. Once you get to tier four you can have six, and send me extras, but I don't recommend it until you have a couple of high-levels. Otherwise it's like having six kindergarteners with razor claws."

Russ nodded sagely. "Four deadly kindergarteners, though, that's fine."

"Your new team members will probably have less energy than Sylvia, if only because the thought of a pokémon needing more attention than that sylpup makes me contemplate alcoholism," Prof. Willow said dryly, tapping her keyboard. "This will take a few minutes."

Russ laughed; Sylvia had mellowed as she'd gotten older, but there had been a time when she had three settings: sleeping, go fast, and go really fast.

"Could we go get Rufus while we're waiting?" Moriko asked.

"Good idea, he's in the back paddock," Prof. Willow said. She turned back to them. "Oh! There's also another trainer here looking for a group to journey with."

Moriko tensed, mentally running over the list of their classmates with trained pokémon.

"Oh—really? Who is it?" Russ asked.

"I'm not sure if you've met him before—he registered here and I gave him a seakitt a couple of years ago. He mentioned he wanted to try the league this summer and I asked him to come around today if he was ready." Prof. Willow leaned forward. "He's already quite knowledgeable about training, he might be a help, in fact. Otherwise I'll send him to the pokémon center and he can start trying to find a group there or online."

"Hmm…" Russell looked pensive. "You didn't suggest he go with Angela and them?"

Prof. Willow made a vague gesture. "I thought it would be good if you two had a third companion. Two is the bare minimum and there have been a few ranger alerts this month, out in the hinterlands. If it doesn't work out you guys can split up at the next town, too. Don't commit to anything with a stranger, but I'd consider it a favor if you gave him a chance."

Russ nodded. "Sure, we can chat with him at least."

They left Prof. Willow to the pokédexes and went out, passing the last couple of labs and a classroom where a grad student was giving a talk to some middle schoolers. The grad student was explaining some principle of pokémon growth or battling, but the young trainers were fidgety, eager to get back out to the practice yard.

Moriko and Russ pushed out the back doors to the nearby pokémon habitats. The fire-type paddock had several volcalf and burnox in it who belonged to other, younger starter trainers. They'd be more active in a few weeks as their trainers headed to summer battling classes, or just wandered into junior battles around town. Kids from families with more money might even take trips to other regions to challenge gyms there.

There was a steaming heated pool for the fire-types and grooming machines. A couple of other pokémon lounged around as well, including a ponyta and a hellion; they might be trades or presents, or owned by traveling trainers visiting or working for Prof. Willow.

Rufus lowed happily when he saw them coming and trotted out of the sandy paddock onto the lawn behind the lab. He was a burnox, a fire- and steel-type bull with a red-orange hide and dark spots, and spirit flames glowing along his head, neck, and tail.

He headbutted Moriko gently and she staggered.

"Hey buddy," she wheezed. "Are you ready to go?"

"A-yup," Rufus said. He hummed as she scratched the biometal plates embedded in his flesh.

"Are you guys Russell and Moriko?"

They turned to see another trainer with a tibyss behind him, the final stage of the water starter Prof. Willow gave out. It was a midnight blue panther dotted with orange markings, tall and imposing: it had its row of orange spinal fins raised a little, challenging, even as its trainer tried to be casual.

"That's us," Russell said, approaching and shaking hands with the newcomer. "You are?"

"Matt. Matthew Reyes, nice to meet you."

Moriko shook his hand as well; they were of a height, but he was stockier, with brown skin a shade lighter than hers and dark blue hair. He was dressed the same as they were, with traveling clothes, a trainer belt, and a huge camping backpack that he'd left by the door.

"Who's this?" she asked, looking at the tibyss.

"Call me Maia," the pokémon said in a deep, hoarse voice.

Moriko smiled. "This is Rufus," she said, and the burnox dipped his head.

Maia inclined her head to him and relaxed her fins a fraction.

Introductions out of the way, Russ asked, "I heard you needed a group to travel with?"

"That's right. I've got all my own gear and I did a couple of summers in Johto as a kid, but I've been hearing all the horror stories here for years. Willow said that she had a bunch of trainers she'd mentored leaving this summer so I figured this was the right time to go."

"Did you go to high school here? I've never seen you around."

Matt's mouth quirked. "I did distance learning; I was in and out of hospitals for a couple of years as a kid and I got used to it. When we moved here I didn't want to do the new kid thing. You might have seen me at the dojo up on the hill, I battled there a couple nights a week."

"Oh nice," Moriko said, "I wish I'd gotten out there more often. That must be why Maia is fully evolved." She should have trained more seriously, but with school and work it was merely the occasional junior trainer battle. Too late now.

"Yup, yup. Good practice."

Maia bumped Matt's shoulder with her head and he scratched behind her ear and along her jaw. He was comfortable with his pokémon, who was affectionate; he seemed to be a good trainer.

"Prof. Willow was upgrading our pokédexes, let's go see if she's done yet," Russ said, to forestall an awkward silence.

Matt nodded and walked ahead, grabbing his bag; Maia seemed to take up the whole hallway as they passed through the doors back into the lab. Moriko recalled Rufus and they went back inside.

"What do you think?" Russ murmured to her as they hung back.

Moriko flicked her fingers. "No objections. Let's see if we can make it to Umber."


They left the bikes with Prof. Willow; Russ's dad would come back to pick them up later. They checked their bags one more time, comparing with Matt's gear, before heading to the bus stop.

After the confrontation with Angela and her group, Moriko couldn't help whipping her head around at every vehicle noise. She glanced back down the road as if her aunt and uncle were about to come screeching up to try to haul her away. She tried to turn it into anger—come at me, then—but she just wanted to run.

Moriko felt a giddy relief as the bus finally arrived, and by the time they reached the station outside of Port Littoral, she felt like a weight had lifted, though not that of her enormous bag. The bus station was busy with traveling trainers drawn in from Littoral and nearby villages, and workers commuting to distant sites like the power plant up the coast. It was the beginning of the league season, with high school seniors leaving school at last and a few college-age trainers, late—their classes had ended in May or so.

Their pokédexes pinged with incidental contacts; it would be interesting to see if they kept running into the same trainers, or to see who would fall behind or rush ahead or go home. Moriko wondered if there would be a wait at the first gym in Umber Village, but it was so close to Port Littoral that some of these trainers might have the badge already after a weekend trip during the school year, if they already had the adult license. They might be going on to Verdure Town instead, or one of the regional parks.

"Excited?" Russell asked Matt, who was wiping his hands on his hiking pants over and over.

"Yeah! Yeah, I haven't left the city much. This will be a test. I can be a bit of a homebody."

"Oh, really? Did you live with your parents?"

"Yeah, they weren't around that often," Matt said lightly. "I rushed through the correspondence courses and did a lot of battling with Maia, some little jobs around town. I would have liked to do a few badges in another region, sooner, but the money wasn't there or it wasn't the right time." He shrugged.

"I almost talked my parents into letting me and Moriko go to Kalos last year but they just kept dithering until it was too expensive and everyone was pissed off. We should've just ran away from home, like in the old days," Russ said, dryly.

Moriko smiled, rueful; she'd definitely lacked the money for that one and trying to get her aunt and uncle on board had been futile. With hindsight it had been hopelessly naïve to think that they'd allow or pay for it. She tried to remember how it had been when she was a middle schooler, if it had always been like this, with the yelling fights and capricious reversals that left her dreading coming home at times. It must have been; they'd taken her to get a starter as a preteen, and she and Angela had even been friendly, once.

She shook her head. "It would have been weird, anyway. Everyone would think we were more experienced, by our ages."

"Actually, lots of people are waiting until they're out of high school to do any badges," Matt said. "Kids still get a starter or a rescue pokémon at the pokécenter but they just keep it as a pet until they're fifteen, sixteen."

"Really? Man, I charged out right at age ten. Junior license, starter pokémon, junior pokédex, the whole bit. I think you were there that day, too, Moriko, with your cousin."

She nodded. She remembered that gaggle of fifth graders and the younger, harried Professor Willow with her mentor, Professor Yew, and the random drawing of the pick order—there were starter pokémon, standard with predictable evolution times and abilities, but also plainer local pokémon like clawbit or krabby.

They'd spent some time with the old professor, her experienced eye matching child with young pokémon, and Moriko had ended up with Rufus, who had been—still was—gentle and patient, and an ebullient battler as well.

"If the league allowed it, I'd have done the first couple badges last summer," Russ said. "We could've taken a bus there, it's the wild areas that are the problem."

"Yeah, that would have been safe enough. So some kids in Kanto or wherever are waiting too? There's nothing to worry about there, though. They don't even do badges during the summer?" Moriko asked.

"There's a lot of pressure to do summer exam prep, schools are competitive there," Matt said. "A young pokémon is a lot of work, too, and people don't want to put in the time."

That was true; low-level pokémon needed a lot of attention. Higher-level ones were powerful and intelligent, but they expended a lot of energy and often slept away days or weeks in pokéballs. They'd had Professor Willow and her employees to keep their starter pokémon busy if needed, but Tarahn had gotten into mischief more than once, wandering around town.

Well, they were on their way. People shifted on the platform; they looked up and saw their bus approaching, the electric motor humming, and they lined up to board.

Eventually the bus pulled away, heading for the Seawood Regional Park. Moriko watched the buildings recede, hidden behind hills, and shifted so the scratchy upholstery wasn't touching her bare skin.

She felt like she could breathe, finally, as forest and fields whipped by out the bus window, and she tried to hold herself back from pressing her face against the glass.

Russ looked up at her from a book on his pokédex and smiled too, and he put out his hand and they bumped fists. "We made it," he said quietly.


Moriko watched the scenery as the bus headed inland, and she started humming the theme from the Legendary games to herself under her breath.

Regional Parks were places where pokémon and trainers congregated; something about them was attractive to pokémon, which attracted trainers, which attracted pokémon looking for trainers. Pokémon could be quite aggressive at testing potential partners, so it was dangerous to go in without your own pokémon.

In the more populous regions, many wild pokémon had partnered with a trainer for a few seasons and then returned to the wild, powerful and attracting notoriety within their societies. It was common for young pokémon, especially those socially low-ranking, to seek out a trainer, and they usually had a clear expectation for the advantages a human trainer would provide.

Since the Gaiien League was newer, the stories that wild pokémon told each other about humans and human trainers were more garbled. Pokémon would still seek out trainers, but more rarely, and they would attack as they would with other wild pokémon, to try to establish dominance or defend a territory. They'd likely end up releasing caught pokémon who didn't have the right idea.

Seawood was in a valley, wooded with a river passing through it and the dry prairie beyond. The bus trundled down the slope, swallowed by trees, and the shadows of the tall cedars alternated with flashes of sun.

They spilled out of the bus with the other passengers, mostly other tier one trainers in new hiking gear staggering under their big bags. A few adult trainers with worn pokéballs stepped off as well and took fishing gear out of the luggage compartment of the bus.

They lined up for a campsite number from the park office. Moriko tried to eavesdrop to judge where others would be, whether to try to catch them for a battle or to try to avoid them. There was a healing machine, so battles would be fine, and they had potions in case a wild pokémon battle got serious further away. It would be good to conserve them—Russ had money from his parents, but Moriko's budget didn't have a lot of wiggle room.

It was early evening when they came to their site at last and did a short inspection, making sure the water pump worked and checking overhead for dead tree limbs. The campsites were well-maintained, and caretaker ground-type pokémon built a slight grade in the soil so that they wouldn't be swimming in a heavy rain.

They let the pokémon out and pulled out their most perishable food for dinner. A couple of clawbit turned up to watch them, but fled as soon as Sylvia trotted over.

"Don't chase them," Matt said, hurriedly, and Sylvia glanced at him and then at Russ.

"They're usually too underlevel if they just run," Russ explained. "Little kids, probably."

Sylvia thumped her long, leafy tail on the forest floor. "Let's go look for some stronger ones!"

"Soon," Russ said, laughing. "Let's get set up here first."

Moriko and Matt set up the tents while Russ made sandwiches. They all had narrow one-person setups, although good friends who didn't snore might have been able to lighten their load with a single tent and leave behind some of the other redundant gear as well.

Moriko set up Russ's tent for him and definitely didn't notice how silky and new the bright synthetic fabric was compared to her secondhand one. She sighed at herself—her tent was fine. They'd tested them out on a rainy night in Russ's backyard and her tent was as good as new after a touch-up with water-repelling sealant on a couple seams.

Rufus and Sylvia played, pushing each other harmlessly: the timbark was faster, darting in to tag the burnox repeatedly with her tail and then spinning away, and he reared up pretending to chase her around the campsite and between the trees. Maia watched, dozing in the shade with her head on her paws. Tarahn had climbed a tree and his yellow-and-purple motley was visible from his smug perch.

After dinner they had a couple hours of daylight left, so Matt left his second pokémon, a huge wood-brown ursaring, to guard the camp while they set out on a short walk.

They followed voices and passed a couple other campsites. Some were absent of campers, or had a guard pokémon—an old and high-level serperior slithered out of the trees near one site, and they gave it a wide berth—and some had fires set up and a pleasant smell of food cooking, or music playing on portable speakers.

The river split around an island nearby, and there were campers wading in the cool water, which was overhung by willows. Maia strode in smoothly and was immediately hit by a stream of water from a silteel, who fled away toward the downstream fishers before she could retaliate.

They saw another group of trainers eye them and then approach. They were well-dressed with day bags, like Angela's group, and Moriko tensed up imagining another confrontation.

"Hey! Are you guys from Port Littoral?" a girl asked, her hand on her trainer belt with two pokéballs.

"Yeah, where are you all from?"

"Beaumaris Town, it's further up the coast, with all the tidal power installations." She made a face. "It's good to get away from home, eh?"

"You don't know the half of it," Moriko said, relaxing. She heard a gurgle behind her; Matt hadn't stopped for pleasantries, and his tibyss had soaked her opponent with a water attack. "Were you looking for a battle?"

The other trainer smiled. "A short one, not to fainting."

"Fine with me." She selected Tarahn's pokéball, watched as the other girl held one out as well. "Ready?"

They released at the same time, good etiquette, and Tarahn appeared, eager, opposite a jolteel that hovered over the stones on the riverbank. It was striped with color like braided wires, with growths resembling lightbulbs in a dorsal ridge.

Jolteel, the marquee pokémon. A water- and electric-type, it evolves from vitreel with age or with a thunder stone artifact. They are a common sight in coral reefs, and gather energy from thunderstorms and the change in the tide.

"Is that your first pokémon?" Moriko asked.

"Yeah, they're all over the place near the power plant," the girl said. "I basically just reached in and took her home. Water gun, by the way."

Tarahn sidestepped, half-hit by the jet of water, and leapt at the jolteel, his claws skittering on the stones. She wove out of the way and hit him with another water gun as he landed. The raigar growled and used an electric attack reflexively, but cut it off and slashed, his claws dragging venomous lines along the jolteel's bright scales.

"Flash, Jilly!"

"Copycat, Tarahn!"

The light-type technique was doubled and a searing glow illuminated the riverbank, casting hard black shadows. Moriko shielded her eyes—it was rare to worry about special attacks at the junior level but sometimes the non-damaging ones could get you. The other girl was left blinking as well, while Tarahn and the jolteel had felt the full force of the flash and were lashing blindly at each other.

Moriko looked at the other trainer and they both recalled their pokémon. Tarahn had taken a couple of hits, but he'd be fine in the morning.

"Nice one," the girl said, and they shook hands. "Are you going to Umber Village next?"

"Yeah, first badge."

"I got it during spring break," the girl said, and she indicated a triangular badge on the inside of her light jacket; it was a stylized dust devil. "Verdure Town, next, for us—but we're a little out of practice. Gotta battle on our way there to fight at tier two."

"Good luck! Do you have a pokémon with a type advantage for the gym there?"

The girl smiled. "And that's another thing! See you 'round."

Moriko sighed gratefully as the other trainer rejoined her friends. There was at least one other person out there who was friendly and normal, and Moriko knew battling, she knew what to say—

"Hey! Wanna battle?"

Moriko looked over the new arrival and declined, seeing Matt and Russ moving down the riverbank.

He got aggressive. "You can't refuse a battle! Are you a trainer or not?"

She frowned, stung, but backed off toward her group. "Sorry, my pokémon is hurt."

"You have two pokémon! Come on!"

"She said no, buddy," Russ said.

"What, are you trying to poach?" Matt said scornfully.

Poaching was challenging someone right after a battle, catching them with weakened pokémon—it was a common way for the hero to lose in trainer dramas, softening the blow to their reputation. That "are you a trainer or not?" crack was straight out of Kanto Quest or Pokémon Journey Kalos.

"Why don't you battle me, then," the kid said. He tilted his hat at a rakish angle. "Or are you a coward?"

Matt laughed in his face. "Are you twelve? That doesn't work in real life."

"You have to, dude!"

"You have to kiss my ass, buddy."

The would-be challenger looked more and more confused at this gambit not working, and stalked off the beach to look for other targets.

"I thought this childish stuff would be done with everyone over eighteen," Matt said, groaning. "Who would respond to that?"

"He kind of pissed me off, I might have battled him," Moriko admitted.

Russ nodded. "Yeah, if you nettle someone—"

"You have to be careful," Matt said. "Even if it's not for money you can be left in a bad spot with all your pokémon fainted."

Moriko glanced at him. "What, that kid? Like he's going to do anything—"

"You never know—"

"So weird," Russ interrupted. "An aggressive performance of the dark rival character from Legendary."

"I guess, and the hero has to fight with honor and accept any challenge, or something. Think again," Matt said. Maia came up behind him and he scratched her neck, eliciting a deep purr. "I mean, not that I'd lose."

"Sounds like you're the cocky rival instead," Russ said.

As the sun set they walked back to their campsite, Maia leading the way with her bioluminescent markings glowing in the dimness. Rufus was a comforting presence beside Moriko, his spirit flames enough to see by without pulling out a flashlight.

Matt's ursaring grunted to them as they walked up and it returned itself to its ball. Their camp seemed to be safe enough unattended, although with kids trying underhanded moves like back at the beach they might have to pack up everything if they'd be gone for longer than a couple of hours.

Russ built up the fire and soon they had a comforting blaze going. The evening was pleasant without it, but it would keep animals away while attracting pokémon. Russ revealed that he'd packed a small bag of marshmallows as well and they set them roasting on sticks, and Rufus requested and received one that was black and on fire.

They sat around chatting and listened to Tarahn attempt to tell jokes, but something was lost in translation—or maybe they really were only funny to him, since Maia and Sylvia just put their heads on the side at what rhythm and intonation seemed to indicate was the punchline. His physical comedy drew laughs, at least.

At one point, Matt looked at Moriko across the fire and did a double-take.

"Are you... half?" he asked.

Moriko's stomach tightened. He'd probably seen the reflection on her tapetum from the firelight. "Yes," she managed to say.

Matt tilted his head and she saw it—the eyeshine on his yellow eyes.

He was part-second crossing. Like her.

She hadn't noticed it in the daytime, and lots of people had genehan hair and eyes, but you had to be part second-crossing to have that reflectivity.

Matt watched her with a hopefulness that he was trying to hide. "You said that you lived with your aunt and uncle?"

"Yes." She closed her mouth on all the things she could say about them. "They're third crossing."

What was unsaid hung in the air between them, and he said instead, "My mom is second crossing. Didn't tell me much about her people, though. Enough to make me wonder."

She looked away, out into the forest. There was nothing to say; she probably knew even less than him.

Matt went on: "I wanted to see if I could visit with anyone who knew more, an, an elder or someone. A lot of the old clans were chased out of Johto and went north, or to other regions."

"I've heard there are more second-crossing people living in the north of Gaiien, but other than that I'm not sure," Moriko said finally.

"...Don't you want to know? Aren't you curious?" Matt asked, a thread of something—annoyance, scorn—creeping into his voice.

She shook her head, poking the fire with a long stick. "What use would it be? It's better if you hide it." She looked at him. "They'll use it against you. Maybe you don't know, since you were homeschooled—"

"Of course I know," Matt said coldly. "You can't hide, so don't try. The people of the second crossing—they have power, techniques we've forgotten—" He made a choked noise and Russ looked at him, but he waved a hand, dismissing.

Moriko shrugged. "It's better not to know. That time is over. I just want to… not be noticed."

Matt said nothing, his face set.

They let the fire burn down and then turned in for the night, the pokémon resting in their pokéballs, watchful with mysterious senses.

Moriko lay in her tent in the secondhand summer sleeping bag. A faint odor clung to both items, of someone's closet and the hydrophobic sealants they'd treated them with. Crickets sang in the darkness; wind rustled the treetops. Moriko thought of rain and checked her pokédex, but the signal was bad and the wi-fi hotspot too far away.

She lay there a long time, thinking, still wound up even after the long day and early start. And her heart sped up unmercifully every time she thought about what had happened: the screaming fight at the house, the problem with the bank, Angela's group watching her with disgust and wariness.

She thought of the kid on the beach challenging her. Are you a trainer or not?

She just wanted to leave. She'd tried to—fit in? gods, that sounded pathetic, but it was true: she'd tried to obey, tried to follow the path of a good student, tried to participate in the all-important milestones like everyone else—and she was a fraud, her heart wasn't in it and everyone knew. She should have taken her savings and run away, skipped school like the dramas—like the old tradition, to leave home and hearth to train with a master with a shared type affinity. There were regions where it was still allowed.

Well, she'd left at last. She didn't want any more trouble. Did that look like running?

She'd felt relief earlier in the day, renewed, skin shed and Moriko the trainer born at last, and now—what could her aunt and uncle do next? Would they try anything else? Send rangers after them? They were adults, they were properly registered with the league, they'd been vetted by a professor, their pokémon had been verified many times.

Moriko tried to imagine something properly nasty, but she could only summon up pranks—or ludicrously escalated situations: fire, murder, false accusations, TV drama absurdities. She groaned softly and covered her eyes.

Tarahn let himself out of his ball, the glow blinding in the narrow tent. He shuffled closer and sniffed her breath, whiskers tickling her face. "You're not sleeping."

She sighed. "I'm trying."

The raigar pricked his ears, turning his head briefly at something. He stretched out his forelegs like the sphinx and purred, wedged between her and the tent fabric, and she stroked his paws.

"What are you worried about?" he said eventually.

She entertained the idea of explaining complex human social expectations to a pokémon. Nah.

"You remember how my aunt attacked me? I'm worried that will happen again."

"That happens sometimes after you're in a battle," Tarahn said. "It's over but your body doesn't know that. It helps if you go back into your pokéball for a while."

Moriko smiled and reached over, scratching his chin. "Where's my pokéball?"

The raigar's tail thumped, acknowledging the difficulty. "You can probably beat her in a battle anyway, she doesn't have any pokémon. So don't worry about it. I'll fight her."

"I wish. But she'll tell the rangers on you."

"I asked Maia if it was all right to fight a human who wants to hurt your trainer, and she said yes," Tarahn retorted. "I believe her, she's very smart."

Moriko laughed softly. "Only in defense—you can thunder wave her, if she wants to fight me." Not that that will do anything until you're level fifty.

"Good plan. Now you can fall asleep." Tarahn leaned forward, smelling her breath again. "You're falling asleep, right?"

Early summer light woke them, shining through the tent fabric. Moriko groaned and tried to turn over for a while, but shortly Russ was up and pinching her toes through the sleeping bag. Matt was already up, restarting the fire from embers. It was cool and breezy, and they cooked instant oatmeal with dried fruit and protein powder while planning the day.

"Have you ever caught a wild pokémon?" Matt asked Moriko.

"Not really I guess, Rufus was my starter and Tarahn followed me home."

"I can show you how, you need to—"

Moriko put out a hand. "No, no thanks, I'm good, I know how it goes."

"Are you sure?" Matt smiled, testing her. "Do you know what it looks like when a pokémon doesn't want to be caught?"

Moriko felt a little prickle of annoyance. "Sure, it will run away after a couple of blows, or even when you first see it."

Matt nodded, reluctantly allowing that she might be familiar with this basic principle. "It's a waste of a pokéball otherwise. Sometimes you'll catch a pokémon who isn't interested, and it's better to just release it on the spot."

She nodded. "Yup, I know that one."

"Did you catch any pokémon?" Russell asked. "Other than your starter, I mean."

"No, I was given Bjorn as a teddiursa, so I was at the limit for the junior license. Would have been nice to go to another region and catch a few more."

"First time for everyone, then," Moriko said mildly.

They packed their day bags and headed out further into the park. The undergrowth was lush and mossy in the shadowed parts of the valley and drier on the south-facing slope, with long grass brittle and yellowed in the sun.

Russ was in the lead when they heard rustling and a clawbit darted out in front of him, and he had Sylvia's pokéball out after a heartbeat.

Clawbit, the hare pokémon. A normal-type, it evolves to warhare near level 20. They are a common sight all over Gaiien. They use their red ears and white tail to signal one another at a distance.

The clawbit flipped to kick powerfully with its hind legs, and struck Sylvia as she leaned away from the attack. The timbark growled, snapping, but her opponent had already withdrawn and was kicking dirt at her face.

"Rootbind, Sylvia," Russ said.

Tendrils of energy snaked out of the ground and caught one of the clawbit's hind legs. It wrestled with them, squeaking, and erupted into a surprised screech as Sylvia bit its back. Furious, it scratched at her face, but she growled and shook her head, aggravating the attack.

"Syl, drop it!"

The timbark obeyed his command; Russ threw a pokéball at the clawbit's slumped form, and it closed and pinged a confirmation immediately.

"Nice one!" Moriko said.

Matt nodded. "Let's head to the next rest site and you can get it healed up."

At a bend in the river there was an empty fire pit and benches, and Matt let Maia out to dip her paws in the shallow water.

Russ released the clawbit and it reemerged still injured, but not phasing into energy, as pokémon did when severely hurt. He murmured something, spraying potion on its wounds, and the hare pokémon squeaked indignantly at the sting as they closed.

"Hey, I'm Russell," he said, holding out a bit of apple to the clawbit. "Thanks for the battle."

The clawbit sat up and looked at him with dewy eyes. It perked up its ears and nose at the treat he held out, and it ran like a shot back into the underbrush.

There was a beat, and Matt laughed—cruelly, Moriko thought, and she glared—but Russ started to laugh too.

"Well, I mean, that's pretty clear," Russ said. "Too bad."

"That's how it goes. You shouldn't have used rootbind," Matt said. "It would have run away after a couple of attacks otherwise. Save yourself the pokéball and potion next time."

Russ smiled ruefully. "We'll see some others. Back to walking I guess."

They saw few pokémon after that, just rustles and then nothing or a pair of fleeing hindquarters. Birdsong and chipmunks were more common, and the hum of insects. At the next rest stop there were adult trainers fishing, and they'd had better luck with trout—no pokémon either.

"I was led to believe we'd be fighting off encounters with a stick," Russ said.

"I wish," one of the fishers said, a woman in hip waders. "Today is real sparse though, normally I have to have my barbaracle do a little battling. Something big might've flown over in the early morning and scared them into their hidey-holes."

"Like an aircraft?"

"Sometimes, but a high-level pokémon would make them hunker down too—it can be hard to judge their intentions if they're passing through and not a local elder. Nothing on my pokédex about it, though—the aura gradient would have been picked up by RES monitoring if it was big."

Moriko was wishing she'd gone to another region again by their turn-around point—they were tired and hungry with nothing to show for it but Russ's failed capture and a couple of attacks traded with a warhare that fled.

They forded the river at a shallows, hoping the opposite bank would be more fruitful on the way back. Matt had Maia out and walking with them, and she sniffed at the roots of trees periodically before finally leaning up a large maple.

A chrystalis was under one of the branches, half-hidden in the bark; it was light gray-blue with a faceted shell.

Chrystalis, the cocoon pokémon. A bug- and crystal-type, it evolves from pilosite near level 10 and to papiliris near level 20. It is almost immobile but can use special attacks to discourage opponents. When it evolves, the cast-off shell is valuable to collectors.

The chrystalis glared at them with one eye as they gathered around to peer at it.

"Want to fight?" Matt called up at it.

"Hark at this brave soul that wants to fight a cocoon," it replied. "Do you steal from infants as well?"

Matt grinned. "What, are you telling me you aren't interested?"

"I hid myself in this tree for a reason, killer, I can't move."

Maia lashed her tail suddenly, scattering an attack headed for her side: glittering stars flew into the undergrowth and dissipated.

"Well, I have one move," it added.

"You're not doing this unobtrusive chrysalis thing very well," Moriko said.

"You should come with me and not worry about it." Matt stroked Maia's fur idly and nodded toward her. "She might even forgive you."

"I'm good," it said. "Go look for a clawbit leaving its parent or a duspine or something."

"We tried," Moriko said. "Where is everybody? We've been tromping all over the park and we've hardly seen any pokémon."

"You think every pokémon knows everyone else? You think I do, wedged under a branch? It's a real hub for gossip—"

"You might say you're a… social butterfly?"

"Russ, no."

"Uh-huh. Keep looking, trainers. Maybe they're by the river, maybe they're fighting over a source, maybe the wartingers are fighting the dusquills again. Maybe a ronin came through and scared everyone. You tell me." 'Ronin' sounded weird when it said it, echoing with subtext and sub-televocalizations.

"Not a ronin, we'd see an alert," Matt said.


"Well… we should," he amended, flipping open his pokédex to check.

Moriko couldn't help wondering at that—the park did seem to be weirdly quiet, but the fishers hadn't seen an alert either.

"Listen," the chrystalis said grudgingly, "if there is something wrong… it doesn't look good that everyone's hiding and you're hooting around as bright as anything. You call them ronin but they have followers and hangers-on, nasty little lightningrods that like to play in the storm and laugh when you get struck. Know what I mean?"

"Yeah," Russ said. "Sorry to bug you."


"Your first pun was better."

"Do you need anything?" Russ added.

"Sure, pick those pieces of bark off the ground and hold them up here," the cocoon pokémon said. "No, the bigger one. Not the rotten ones. Higher."

Shortly the shed tree bark was wedged around the chrystalis, better shielding it from view from the path, and it closed its eye as they left.

They came back to the campsite frustrated and bored, and Matt sidled over to relay his unique wisdom as Moriko set up the evening fire.

"Where'd you learn to build fires? That looks terrible."

Moriko snapped dry twigs, arranging them and papery bark under the tented sticks. Her smile was as brittle as the kindling.

"A ten-year-old could make a better fire than this."

"Maybe you'd like to do it if you're not busy thinking up gradeschool insults?"

"Nice try. Well, if you put it like this—"

"Do your own work!"

"It's easy, just—"

Russell sighed and waved to Rufus, who stepped over. Russ lit a match and tossed it into the kindling, and the fire-type concentrated, inhaling and exhaling. The fire flared, consuming the largest logs.

Matt laughed. "I'm surprised that even got started."

"It's straight out of a textbook—and we have pokémon, I could have stacked them any way!"

"It's more efficient if—"

"I don't care, okay?"

"I'm just saying—"

"Stop saying." Moriko stalked off to find some peace in the forest.

They made it to Umber Village, just barely.

In the end they didn't catch any pokémon, despite walking farther and farther afield, and even packing up their camp to spend the night in wilder woodland. There was a faintly oppressive air over the park, and the other trainers that they spoke to had no luck either. The only people who seemed to walk away happy were the fishers with coolers full of steelheads.

There would be other opportunities to add to their teams, so they packed up and returned to the park office to catch the bus to their next stop.

They saw plenty of regular animals from the bus windows: the fields alongside the road were fenced with bleached gray wood and often contained livestock out to graze. There were usually one or two pokémon watching over the herds, a bright spot of color amid the brown and black and white.

Animal predators usually gave pokémon a wide berth, and a high-level pokémon could hurt a wolf or a bear with elemental attacks as well as teeth and claws. They could get bored, though: pokémon didn't need to eat and so they slept a lot or wandered or conceived extended dramas with their herdmates.

The bus let them off at the fueling station in Umber Village in a swirl of dust and mirage lines floating above the road, though it was barely midmorning. It was going to be a scorching day: the sun was wilting the bleached fields of foxtails and wild grass that the wind made waves in as grasshoppers buzzed.

They walked to the pokémon center and saw Angela and the rest leaving. Moriko averted her eyes and kept walking to the counter.

"Hey," Russ said to them.


They all stood around awkwardly.

"Sorry about where we left everything," Dave said, finally. "How's it going?"

"Could be better, didn't catch anything in the Seawood," Russ said. "Did you guys just get here?"

"Told you we didn't miss anything by skipping the park," Kai said to Vic, who shrugged.

"Nah, we're heading out," Dave said. "We hit up the gym, not too tough."

"Check it," Victoria said to Russ. She flipped something into the air and caught it, probably the gym badge.

"Oh nice, did you have trouble with types?" Russ asked.

Moriko tried not to eavesdrop too obviously; Victoria had chosen the fire-type volcalf as her starter as well, and she was wondering how the other trainer had handled it.

"Nope, I saw a trader earlier this year and picked up an arctrix. No problems."

Oh. Arctrix was an ice-type.

"Cool cool," Russ said. "Are you guys going to stop at the next park or keep going to Verdure?"

"A ground-type would be nice for badges three and four," Victoria said, counting them off on her fingers, "so I think we'll spend a couple of days in Tsugaru for sure."

"Nice, we'll probably be along as well."

Angela checked her pokédex. "Let's move out, everyone—the bus is waiting. See you later, Russ."

"Good hunting, all."

Dave clapped Russ on the back and shook his hand, saying something to him quietly, and he followed his group out the pokécenter doors.

Moriko finished her registration and gave Rufus and Tarahn's pokéballs to the attendant for a quick heal. She sat down at a waiting-room table, letting her bag fall to the ground with a grateful sigh.

Matt joined her after handing over his pokémon; it was Russ's turn at the counter now. He nodded at the doors where Angela and her group had departed.

"Friends of Russ's, but not yours?" he asked.

Moriko shrugged. "They're jerks. Russ gets along with everyone, though."

"Even you?"

"Matt, shut it."

A/N: I blew past my self-imposed deadline for this one but I return with a glorious graduate degree and a pressing need for employment. I hope to update a little faster now that I have all (ALLLLLLLL) this free time.