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Gaiien Region: Gods and Demons: Chapter 21

by Keleri

Keleri Moriko has her rematch with Belladonna while Matt and Russ take some time to see the sights. (cough)
A/N: This chapter has a bit more sexual content than those preceding, though still a solid T rating. I promise that there is some character stuff and monster battles in between all the TENDER. FEELINGS.

Chapter 21

Watch Me / Lovers that went wrong / She will be dead and merciless / Songs for monster girls / Gross smooching stuff / if you're gonna get made, don't be afraid of what you learn

—Aug. 17th, 128 CR

"Not leaving after all, mooskeg?"

Vleridin wrinkled her nose at the smoke streaming off the svarog, darkening the air and fouling it. The boar pokémon rooted idly with her blackened tusks, exposing a capsule buried by humans in the yard for pokémon entertainment.

"Who said I was leaving?"

"Let us speak plainly. I remember how you fought with your human, back then."

"She's not my human," Vleridin snapped, automatically. "Spying on me, were you?"

Dzalar the svarog laughed gruffly. "'Spying' sounds like it required effort. There may have been a few people at the bottom of the sea who didn't hear you yelling."

"Are you leaving? Are you trying to ask for company?"

"Oh, certainly not. I don't see why you would think so; I have found my human quite amicable."

"I seem to recall you fighting quite a bit. A day's run of forest burned in all directions. No?"

"That wasn't me. Out of flame, I was reborn."

Vleridin snorted. "That's a neat trick. Are you absolved of what you did before? Who did you eat, svarog?"

Flames danced in Dzalar's eyes. "No-one who mattered. We killed it together, and my family wanted to let it go to waste. I love them, but they are foolish."

"How much of the soul did you eat?" Vleridin asked, calculating. "I don't think you're mad, but madness can be elusive."

"As much as I could, which wasn't much, I now realize—I imagined it would make me a giant. It made me greater than my siblings and my parent, but they could not have imagined how powerful people are, out here, with humans."

Vleridin laughed quietly. "Yes, yes indeed. Be careful in those woods, svarog. You kept your sanity, but left an angry ghost."

Dzalar looked at her, the embers on her burned body glowing and falling, winking away into nothing before they touched the ground. "Where did you leave your ghosts, mooskeg?"


"Nah, I think you should do this one on your own," Russell said to Moriko. "I'll be busy tonight, too, so see you in the morning tomorrow. Get it right this time, you get one chance before we head out."

"Russ—this—with strangers—" Moriko choked out, but Russ cut her off with a gesture.

She whirled and stalked out of the center, Linden following and casting confused glances between them.

Matt's heart pounded suddenly as Russ loomed over him, watching him, sizing him up, eyes half-lidded and a knowing smile on his face.

Loomed? Really? It was a loom on a technicality, that Russ was taller, but he really couldn't achieve a good one with that slouch and stick arms and twig legs.

And yet, and yet, Russell had oozed up to him with a sudden fluidity, and he had a different look, a different way of holding himself.

"You should try it," Russ was saying. "Come with me down to the bars tonight. Cut loose for once in your life."

Matt felt the emotions cross his face one after another and Russell's smile grew even more pleased—pleased at what, at his discomfort? Was that like him?—and he tried to put on a worldly, clever expression as well.

"Maybe," Matt said. "Let's see how it goes. What time?"


"How does it work, with humans?" Maia asked, dragging her claws through cardboard scavenged from behind the pokémon center. "Does he have an egg, and he's looking? Do you have an egg?" She looked him over appraisingly. "I don't see the energy on you, but I guess humans are different."

Matt screamed quietly.

"And why are you distressed about it?" Maia left her boxes and put her broad tiger's head on Matt's chest as he lay on the dorm cot. "Can he make you accept his energy? Is his parent more powerful than yours, so you have to accept him exclusively? You're stronger than him, and I'll beat his pokémon. You can have as many suitors as you like for your egg."

"I don't have an egg," Matt mumbled.

"Oh, it's just for fun, then? It's nice to mingle energy like that, but there can be a lot of feelings involved, so be careful."

Matt sighed and scratched Maia's cheeks, and she whuffed as he ran his fingers through her short, dense fur and stroked the long fin-tines on her jaw. She rumbled and stretched out on the floor, her tongue on her fur a steady rasp.

Matt stared at the ceiling, thinking about… eggs. It had been a long time since he'd wanted to do anything like that. The gray man's hold on his energy—whatever energy humans had that he could take, biochemical, electrical, some kind of nebulous soul-energy—had left him nothing, had left him a paper shell on glassy bones, wandering from task to task in an endless succession of gray days.

It had taken everything he had to just go outside, shower, get out of bed, to complete the suddenly impossible actions that made up a goal as basic as "go to the store". It had wrecked him for weeks to accomplish "go to Gaiien" or "defy magical enslavement". Where was that on a fucking—ha ha—hierarchy of needs? There was nothing left. It had been years since he'd watched racy—or more-than-racy—videos on his pokédex like when he was a teenager.

It had crossed his mind that it might be awkward to journey with Moriko, all those weeks ago, but he'd felt nothing then. And he'd seen her—they'd all seen each other covered in mud and road dust, or reeking in sweaty clothes that probably ruined the pay washers they went into at the end of the week. Their guts had all rumbled ominously, in harmony, on one memorable occasion after bad pokécenter cafeteria food. The dubious intimacy of travel had pushed them together and only confirmed his lack of attraction or desire.

Even after the woman in black had shielded his link with the Gray Prince, broken away a few layers of that nothingness and let a little light in, he still—well, now he was thinking about it, finally.

Russell had changed after his experience, possessed by a demon pokémon, energetically as well as physically, scarred, wounded. He was sharper, angrier, taking the lead instead of hanging back and letting Moriko do what she wanted; still letting her stumble through her mistakes, but giving her grief over them. It seemed logical that a brush with mortality would give Russ better clarity, better purpose.

Matt wasn't sure, though, that that was enough to explain the way that the gawky teenager he'd started journeying with in Port Littoral, all stretched-out-too-far angles and awkward walk, had developed that gliding panther's pace and calculating stare, that barely-restrained sense of amused boredom. Something had changed about the set of his face, about the glint of his gray eyes—shit, shit, he was thinking about his fucking eye color, even.

He was a wreck, a screaming wreck thinking about that absurdly skinny person, about leaning up, far up, to kiss someone—Sam had been taller than him, but—

And thinking about Sam, the grayness slammed down and left him gasping, and all the familiar elements intruded: rain, mud, blood, the ozone smell of pokémon battles, dead pokémon dissolving into sparkling motes, the gray man's laughter. The suddenness, the pure vivisecting clarity of it, still, after years; it brought tears to his eyes. He drew a shaky breath.

Maia nudged his face with her broad nose, breaking his reverie, and he stroked her fur, staring at nothing.


Linden glanced back at the pokémon center doors. "When did things get all weird with you guys?"

"Russ is"—Moriko's eyes flicked over Linden's trainer belt, looking for the red-and-black pokéballs that weren't there—"acting strange lately. Picking up strangers in clubs and stuff."

"Oh. You like him."

"Linden! He's my friend—"

"That's a yes."


"Pro tip: don't worry about all that gross smooching stuff," Linden said authoritatively. "It's boring. It's so boring. Oh my god it's boring. Only one thing is worth worrying about: po-kay-mon."

"I just—"


"Linden, you—"

"Pokémon. You're re-challenging the gym leader, what's your plan? Gonna use your oxhaust?"

Moriko snorted. "She used a varanitor and a tentacruel against me last time, so—"

"Yeah, she might use the same ones again, symbolic and shit. Your oberant and mooskeg are no good—"

"Rude," Vleridin put in from behind them somewhere.

"—want to borrow Abram? He'll take care of whatever she's got."

Moriko found herself smiling at Linden's enthusiasm in spite of her interruptions and flippant attitude. "I said I wouldn't boost any more on this journey. Made it feel weird."

"Suit yourself. Do you want an audience? Otherwise I'mma hit up the tourists at the quay, check this out—" Linden made herself look wide-eyed and credulous. "'Wow, I can't believe I'm in Porphyry City! Hey mister, want to have a battle?'"

"That was spectacularly unconvincing."

"Eh, I have time to practice."

Moriko watched Linden go, and half wanted to call her back.

The poison-type gym was empty; there was no lineup for the signup sheet with impromptu battles to budge. A rest day today, maybe. She couldn't remember the day of the week.

She saw the steps and the arena below, her mind whirling with memory: the sight of Tarahn drowning under sand; Belladonna's pokémon, fey and wild; rage at her own helplessness and the useless referee. She swayed at the top of the steps.

I can't do this. Russell's taunts cracked across her awareness, but it wasn't enough. She felt sick.

She turned and saw Belladonna.

The gym leader was walking along with her professional-model pokédex out, scanning something, humming to herself. She looked up.

Belladonna noticed her, recognized her, her eyes glinting poison-green, and she smiled—or rather, she showed her teeth.

"Cousin!" she said cheerfully. "Come again so soon! Here for another try?"

Moriko felt something stir under her heart, tasted cut grass and coppery blood on her tongue.

"Yes," she said. "At tier seven." Her belt had five badges pinned to it, and a space where a missing one should have been.

Belladonna clapped her hands together. "Oh, cousin, you are in for a treat!" And she frowned suddenly, putting her head on the side. She lunged uncomfortably close to Moriko, and finally drew in a breath, smelling her.

Moriko jerked back. "Stop."

Belladonna threw her head back and laughed uproariously. "Oh my dear, you've come so far! You have come. So. Far. I knew it, I knew it, looking at you! We are cousins, oh we two, catseyed and bright-crowned!" Belladonna looked Moriko in the eye. "Will you tell me? Who, who is your soul-heart?"

Vleridin caught up at last, hooves clacking on the stone, and put her huge head over Moriko's shoulder.

"So, this is the person you lost to," she said, and drew in an exaggerated breath that mussed Belladonna's hair. "Ach, crawling with venom."

Belladonna laughed again. "I see, I see, I smelled her on you, cousin Moriko—oh! For our challenge, let us face one another, soul to soul!"

Moriko blinked, all of her careful planning falling away with a clatter. "You want—what?"

"She is your soul-heart, and she will fight mine."

"You—you have—no. No. Can you even—no, you must have a poison-type, so you'd have a type advantage. No."

Belladonna twirled away, gesturing dramatically. "It's not even about types anymore! It's about will, it's about heart and bone and liver and lungs! Oh, just—regardless of the outcome, I'll give you the badge. There's no winning or losing, there's just the burn of new power in your veins and the smell of blood! It is better than anything, I promise you!"

Moriko recoiled from the naked hunger in Belladonna's face. "Don't you dare throw me that badge for nothing, for pity," she spat.

"Were you this prideful when you were here last, cousin? Oh, my dear, it is a service to me! I have fought a thousand battles and given away hundreds of badges, but nothing, nothing is as good as when we adepts meet at last."

Moriko was already deciding to walk away, but she looked at Vleridin, who was watching the gym leader, calculating.

"What are you saying?" asked Vleridin. "I've participated in several battles since we had our… accident, but they were no different than usual."

"It's different, it's totally different—you, we—we all fight together. Watch! Watch, cousin!"

A wine-colored light bloomed at Belladonna's collarbone, and it bled over her body as her shape changed, was drawn in and blown out, and suddenly the woman was gone and in her place stood a crocodile pokémon in teal and ultramarine, with a mouth that stretched back grotesquely through its body.

Grendile, the glutton pokémon. A poison- and dragon-type, it evolves from goredile near level 50. It is one of the rare pokémon that does regularly consume matter for energy. It will gorge itself on anything it can find—animals, vegetation, occasionally other pokémon—and then sleep for months buried in the river mud.

Moriko stared at Belladonna—at the grendile, as its mouth opened and a grotesque tongue snaked out and licked its own eye.

"Ah," Vleridin said. "Do you want to do this?"

"What, we… fight like that? I have to let you take over? Like that time on the water?"

"There's no letting, there's just being," grendile-Belladonna said, its voice the grendile's, deep and raspy. "From two: one heart, one thought, one breath, one will."

Yes, Moriko thought, her heart pounding. That day, surfing. One sight: the device falling; one will: catch it; two souls: one form.

And our will today? Vleridin said to her silently.

To fight, Moriko thought. To win. To kick her ass, and she could see double, and green flooded in from everywhere.

"See? See?" grendile-Belladonna croaked, and it oozed down the stairs into the arena.

Vleridin-Moriko saw the arena under energy sight: scarred by battle, with little tidbits of a dozen energy types dotting the walls, and broad swathes of poison-type energy still seething on the arena floor. They moved down the steps, hesitantly at first, and then trotting to take the opposite corner.

The grendile started an attack, leisurely, toxic froth bubbling from between its teeth, and Vleridin-Moriko stiffened. But it was to power up the arena systems: the shield triggered, sensing the high-level attack, and it shimmered as it domed and enclosed the arena.

Grendile-Belladonna laughed. "Ready when you are."

They were tall, and strong, and fast—Vleridin-Moriko seized water, summoned it in a great flood from somewhere beneath the sand, and it shot out in jets and geysers until they twisted them together and shot them at the gym leader.

Grendile-Belladonna grunted, taking the attacks, and replied with a sludge bomb, the purple clot arcing out of its jaws and exploding. It hit the arena floor, spattering them with poison that they diluted with water sport.

Part-dragon-type, Moriko said.

Bah, it's not about types anymore, remember?

"I live in the water, too, darling," the grendile rasped. Water flooded into the arena, swirling with sand and shortly with sludge and poison goo. "Can you see me in the murk? Can you see your death?"

They snarled and rose on the water, and shot forward to try a stomp—the direct approach. Grendile-Belladonna rolled to the side and summoned a surf attack, and in the crash of waves it floated briefly, as if bored.

"Come little calf… I can hear your heartbeat. Try to hide…"

Vleridin vibrated with rage, and she said tightly, and then rolling, "Do you hear my hooves, little hatchling? Every step I grow closer. I see you there, fool dragon. I will smash your eggs. I will crush your bones. I will leave your guts swirling in the mud. Find somewhere to hide, little wisp, before someone drinks you up."

The grendile chuckled, cruising in the water. It looped back and opened its mouth and filth spewed out, purple and brown and toxic. Vleridin-Moriko used the water to shove themselves out of the way, to shed the drops of poison that caught them and burned their hide, working into them in a spiderweb of pain.

But the pain was far away: it lacked the immediate blinding feeling of a jarred limb or the sting of the razor; it was the ache of a cramp, and it was annoying. Moriko saw Belladonna's grinning face and the rage followed, not overtaking but propelling, and they bellowed a battle-cry.

They threw up roots, thorny and grasping, to swipe at the grendile's limbs, but it belched poison and the bindings fell away. Vleridin-Moriko snarled, summoning more water and hurling it into the air in huge waves to crash down on grendile-Belladonna, but it slithered and tumbled out of the way, finally leaping out of the water to slap them with a poison tail even as they stood on their jet.

Furious, they summoned nature power, the confused scraps of energy left over in the arena shuddering to life in a whirling rainbow—they tasted poison, ground, acid, psychic, steel, ghost—and they struck the grendile, shimmering, and it growled.

"Hah! I remember some of those hits," grendile-Belladonna said, "and some of them I made."

It vomited up a toxic attack that they diluted with another flood of water—that it shot through, tail lashing, to clamp its jaws on them in a powered-up poison fang attack. They howled, pushing it away with the water, pushing themselves away.

Black ichor welled, bleeding, and Moriko shuddered, trying not to look at it—

This? You're worried about this?

There's so much—

This is nothing! Stay with me!

The poison burned on them, slipped stinging fingers under their hide; it ran in their veins like fire and ice. Their blood ran into the water, mingling with the muck. The grendile had resisted their elemental attacks, its hide faintly scratched by thorns.

We're dying…

Human child, you have never been dying! You have scarcely been inconvenienced!

Vleridin, we're losing!

There's no losing! she replied. We're getting stronger! Win, lose, it doesn't matter! Take all the hollow victories you like; defeated, I will still look down on you!

Moriko thought of the tentacruel, of her useless fury, and she felt the terrible roil of shame in her gut, vivid still—

That won't happen! I'm here, I'm in control. What's a little blood? How many times have we cheated death? This is nothing! Watch me, Moriko!

Vleridin summoned vines—thornvines, bristling with butcher's-knife thorns, and lashed her opponent with them. It snapped at the vines, poison flying off its teeth. She fired off a hydro pump attack that went over grendile-Belladonna's head and burst, sizzling, on the arena shielding.

Grendile-Belladonna laughed, wet and croaking. "You lose something as a pokémon, don't you? It's all wild haymakers and your strongest attacks going rogue. Only an adept can master the beast."

Vleridin-Moriko panted, ichor dripping out of the big gash on their side, but it was far away, far away.

Moriko thought of Vleridin's first battle with her, pierced at the throat by the ignitrice's beak—uncooperative, combative, and, impossibly, still there when Moriko awoke. They had lived through demons and legendaries; the mooskeg had charged in to save her from ghosts. They'd shared bodies, ensouled one another.

They were together, despite everything.

Help me, Vleridin.

"How do you feel about that, grendile," Moriko said, "being mastered?"

It grunted, growling low, and opened its mouth—it opened and opened, past its forelegs, and the huge tongue snaked out, covered in acid.

One last move, Moriko thought. Belladonna does like to see her beasts eating.

Vleridin-Moriko darted forward, the water sport a meager barrier against the acid lick—and they leapt into the grendile's jaws.

They were too tall even for that prodigious maw, and it writhed as they pinched its lower jaw under the ferocious pressure of their hooves. They fired roots down its gullet. It inhaled water and its limbs flailed, splashing uselessly.

They shot it full of water and it bulged grotesquely, gurgling, choking on the vines, and then finally it spat up a tangled mess of poison and acid and withering thornvine onto them.

They staggered away, bleeding, covered in poison. Vleridin's legs shook.

"That's—that's enough, I think," came Belladonna's voice.

Vision tearing, they fell apart, gasping. Moriko scrabbled out and over the wall, kicking off her shoes.

"The acid!" she said, panicked.

"You're fine! You're fine!" Vleridin called, and finally just shot Moriko with water, gently. Pretty gently, anyway.

"Vleridin! Vleridin! Stop!"

Belladonna cackled at the two of them, her grendile rolling around in the mess of sludge and sand and rapidly-draining water.

Moriko sighed, dripping—good thing pokédexes were waterproof—and pulled out a potion for the mooskeg.

She watched warily as the gym leader approached, but Belladonna merely pressed the badge into her hand.

"Welcome, cousin, welcome," she said, and kissed her on both cheeks.

Moriko shook her head, but she clutched the badge all the same. She shuddered, her whole body bright and tingling, as if with fever.

Belladonna grinned at her. "It always takes you strong, your first time. Come have tea with me."


"Going ho-o-ome," Belladonna repeated, taunting. "Come now, the summer not yet over and you, so close to the seventh badge? You are so close to that last stop, cousin."

Moriko stirred the tea, feeling better for its warmth and sugar. "Did you hear about the demon pokémon?"

"Myiaslice! And viratriol! Things out of legend. I'd like to go south and look for one of my own," Belladonna said, with a fey look in her eyes.

"We found them—"

"You? Are you—"

"—and this… person, this woman with white hair and black clothes had to save us."

"The Black Queen?" Belladonna deflated, the manic energy dissolving out of her all at once. For once, she looked normal, like a regular woman with a nice genehan instead of a half-second-crossing wildwoman slavering for a fight. "You… should stay away from her."

"That's what I've heard."

Belladonna waved the coffee carafe. "No, like, really. If she's been around, you should go. Yeah, you all should go home. Something big's going down."

"Do you know about her? What's the deal?"

"She's… trouble. She is trouble, she finds trouble, trouble finds her. We haven't had an earthquake in a while, or a hurricane…"

"Really? She controls the weather?"

Belladonna ignored her. "Fuck, the daikaiju turned up yesterday, of course…"

"She controls the ancient pokémon?"

"Weird people show up in the wake of daikaiju. There are currents in ambient energy, and they throw up weird stuff on the shoals. Mystics, half-cracked veteran trainers looking for the next big thing, cults that want the daikaiju to end it all. She's… not the weirdest, but probably the most dangerous."

"What's she done?"

Belladonna shrugged. "She… look, she has all those pokémon, all those ensouled pokémon," she said, looking out at the sea. "She has, what, eight or nine? That's… look, do you know why the official team size is six?"


You could enter a team of six pokémon into league matches; smaller ones were set by the participants or the gym leader: ones, twos, threes, doubles, triples, melee exhibition matches. Rangers and police would sometimes enforce the six-carry rule in towns for safety and on suspicion of theft; trade brokers could get an exemption as they sought out meetings for pokémon looking for new trainers.

"The adepts of the first people, they… six was the limit. You could push yourself to seven—heroes had seven in the stories, sometimes—but it would fall apart. And to fight past six faints? A feat for the singers. You would bleed for real from that many blows; that much energy would shred your veins." Belladonna looked at her narrowly. "But now anyone can do it, any child. Anyway. A nod to the old system.

"And she, the old woman herself, she has nine. How does she live?"

Moriko thought of the woman in black, a century old with all the color drained out, her smooth face with hair framing it straight and severe, and eyes, other eyes crowding her sockets.

"Not well, I think," Moriko heard herself say.

Belladonna shook her head, sipped from the mug. "I'll tell you what I think. Did you hear any of them speak?"

"They… I didn't see all of them. The charizard listened and nodded along sometimes."

"They're dead," Belladonna said. "They were other trainers' pokémon, pokémon who died for their trainers one by one before the Gray Prince got to them. They died, and she took up their energy."

Moriko stared at her.

"Humans can't metabolize that energy. She just made them part of herself, part of her collection. That's how she has more than six: they're shades of the pokémon that were, and she puts on their guises, puppeteers their shadows. It's why she can't beat the other one."

"Do you know that?"

"An adept, a true adept with six pokémon could do it, even if he is a legendary." Belladonna looked at her sidelong. "You should see what you're capable of, sometime. If you could handle three, the schools would accept you, in the old days."

"How do you know all this? I never learned this, no one taught me about energy until a wild pokémon showed up to do it, or that there are legendaries wandering around in human form but the gym leaders and pokémon profs all know about it—"

"What's with that 'you'? Look, being a gym leader isn't all battles and badges, there's a degree of, community involvement, right?" Belladonna shoved the coffee carafe back into the machine with a clatter. "I train other poison-type specialists and regular local kids or whatever, and I help safeguard the city, and I need to know about all the weird shit—Unusual Occurrences is the fuckin' chapter title, okay?—that could go down. Ronin, ancient pokémon, legendaries, pokémon mystics, the most famous of whom is the Black Queen and the legendary pokémon she's pursuing, the Gray Prince.

"This shit doesn't get publicized because regular people need to stay the fuck away from them, and frankly, we've only been here a hundred years, this shit is still getting written down. All this used to be secrets written on literal scrolls, scrolls written in codes that the last readers died without passing on, stuff that maybe some of the first people still know but after what the third crossing did to them? They—rightly—said 'haha, figure it out, we did, we paid for it in blood'. And now we're paying." Belladonna stopped, panting a little. "You're half—how do you not know?"

"She died," Moriko actually managed to say. "She never…"

Belladonna looked like she wanted to say something, so Moriko went on.

"The red one—I heard he kills people in clubs, in bars all the time, picks up hitchhikers—"

"You met the Wandering Fire too? You told somebody, right?" Belladonna twirled a stylus, half-listening, as Moriko rattled off the professors at the dig back in Port Brac. "Okay. Okay. The rangers are probably here already for the daikaiju. Shit, we need Nocturna to do her fuckin' job…"

"So, what, what should we do?"

"You and your buddies need to go home and keep your pokédexes turned on and your pokémon ready for whatever's coming. I'm going to find out what the adults are doing and why they haven't sent me a fuckin' IM yet. If those cape-wearing idiots are shutting me out again—"

"You're not one of the adults?"

"Shhhh. I walked into that. Go home, cousin."


Russell took Matt to a club and in the dimness and haze from smoke and other drugs their faded traveling clothes didn't matter. He danced with several people, girls and boys and individuals of mysterious gender, but it was perfunctory; he felt Russ's attention on him the entire night.

Plenty of people there were better-looking: curvy girls with low-cut tops, tall girls with rock climbers' arms, handsome dark guys, people covered in genehan tattoos wearing too-small shirts that left nothing to the imagination, but he couldn't get interested; his thoughts slid off like oil, his eyes slid off his partners' faces, looking for a scarecrow watching him like a hunter.

They tumbled out a back door to get some air, and Russ kissed him. And Matt could barely breathe, he could barely see, his whole world shrunk down to just the feeling of Russ's mouth on his and the burning, flushed feeling of his skin as he clutched at him, like he could sink into his flesh just by holding close enough.

"Please—" he heard himself saying—begging—and Russ laughed, he laughed like Sam had laughed, in pure delight that he would do anything, and oh he would, he absolutely—

"You were waiting all day, so patient," Russ said, vaguely taunting in a way that just made it worse. "Not so patient," he added, shooing Matt's hands away from his belt. "Let's go somewhere better than a club alleyway."


Matt crept into the dorm, long after midnight, and found Moriko still awake, browsing on her pokédex.

"You're up late," he whispered.

"How did it go? Pick up some girl?" Moriko said back.

Matt sat down on his cot and let the silence stretch out. "No," he said eventually. "I picked up Russ."

"What? Oh. Oh."

Matt waited for her to say anything else. "Are you mad?"

"No," she said, finally, like she was surprised. Moriko looked at him. "You seem better."

"Yeah. I needed it. Just to… touch somebody, really, more than the getting off part."

Moriko snorted, but she looked pensive from what he could see in the blue glow of the pokédex.

"Did you win?"

Moriko shrugged. "I got the badge. Belladonna wanted to fight me while I was… ensouling Vleridin. She had her own pokémon that she turned into. We beat on each other for a while, and she gave me the badge."

Matt watched her, expecting to see the mooskeg looking back at him or the thread of some dark power, but it was just the same thin girl with a raggedy self-done haircut rather than the cautionary tale of the wannabe adept lost to possession.

And he thought of Maia suffusing his body, shielding him, making him strong, making him as swift as water. There was something to it. So why the warnings?

"What did it feel like? To get… hurt, to get burned? Poisoned?"

"It wasn't… It was like… when you have a good pokémon battle and everyone tries so hard, and, I guess, a little bit of your energy goes to your pokémon to make them stronger. So you're tired too. This was like that, but… more. A lot more," she said, wonder creeping into her voice. "And I felt it, every attack, every blow. But it was… far away, and it just made me angry. Those huge hits, gashes that blood was pouring out of… I didn't even… Vleridin didn't even care. It was survivable, and so…"

"What pokémon was Belladonna?"

"A grendile."

Matt smiled despite himself, thinking of Belladonna's wild laugh from that day they'd fought, and thought of unchecked hunger of a grendile—yes. Yes, he could see it.

"How does Vleridin feel?"

"I'm not sure. I think this is what she felt back in Russet Town. That inspired her to come with us, despite the… rocky start. I don't know. Maybe it's too much. I already…"

"You want to do it again?"

"Yes." Moriko looked at him slyly. "Do you?"

Matt coughed. "Yes."

She looked away. "Good," she said. "I hope it works out."

"Moriko," he said, "you and Russ—"

"We're friends," she barked, and then put a hand over her mouth, too loud in the dorm. "We're friends. And that's all I've ever wanted, despite all the rumors to the contrary. He knew, we both knew he was gay since middle school."

"Sometimes... you know someone's not available, you know it, but even so—"

Moriko crossed her arms, annoyed. "That's stupid, Matt."

He kicked off his boots. "It's been a long trip. Maybe you need it too," Matt heard himself say. "Just to touch somebody."

She gave him a sideways glance. "Are you offering?"


And she looked surprised at that, like she wasn't actually expecting it, and she shook her head. Matt shrugged, and turned, and pushed off his trousers—whew, those needed to be washed—and his shirt. He'd wear his laundry shirt for bed—

He heard a shift of fabric and he didn't turn around—

He felt Moriko behind him, a breath on his back, and he thought of Sam for a moment, but she'd been taller than him, taller than Moriko.

She put her hands on his waist, chastely, for the space of a breath and then drew forward, hugging him. She put her chin on his shoulder and sighed.

"You smell awful," she said, and he laughed at that.

He leaned back onto her, and he put his hands on hers for a moment, and he tried to remember what it had been like when Sam had last touched him a thousand years ago. An unutterable distance between now and then, a perfect moment suspended in time before a fall, a fall that he had never recovered from, that would haunt him all his days no matter what doctors or mystics could attempt on him.

He couldn't deny that it had been easier with Russ, he hadn't been constantly comparing him to someone long gone. He felt Moriko's hands—wiry, nails bitten—and thought of Sam's, and of Russ's, and of the novelty of people being kind to him—against all odds, wholly undeserving, that anyone would be kind to him.

It was still a wonder. He did his best not to deserve it, again and again, like a disease, like a curse.

"I don't want to give you the wrong idea," Moriko said. "This is me being… opportunistic."

"I know," he said. "Me too."

"Oh really? Russ alone not enough for you?"

He laughed. "I told you, I'm offering a service, here. Whatever you want."


"Well… I mean, there are people sleeping over there, but if that's your thing…"

"How little you think of me," she said dryly. She sighed. "I keep waiting for you to say something cutting. Are you going to?"

"I might… if I could think of something."

"Can you be good?"

"I hope so," he said, and he turned and she kissed him. He didn't laugh, but it was clumsy; trying it out on him, he suspected.

Her eyes glinted in the darkness as they had in the firelight at the beginning of summer: catseyes, the mark they couldn't hide. He'd pressed her then about her family, about the second crossing, too suddenly certain that he'd found all the answers. She knew as little as him, and he had scorned her for it rather than trying to recruit her.

Well, he'd always been a damn fool.

"Lie down," she said, imperious, and he thought—unfair, unfair—of another girl he'd permit anything for, do anything for. "On your side."

And he did, quite obediently, and he shifted over when she pushed on him. She slipped onto the cot behind him, and she found his hand and laced their fingers. He felt her breath on his neck as she snugged up close, and it wasn't enough, it would never be, but it was a long sight better than it had been.


In the morning, nothing had changed.

"You smell like Matt," Vleridin said.

"We, uh, slept in the same bed."

"Why?" She added, "Did he have an egg?"

Moriko snorted. "No, no eggs."

Vleridin shook herself, and Moriko leaned away from the yawing antlers.

"Don't mingle energy just for fun," Vleridin said, her eyes and mouth hard as she stared out at the city. "It's a good way to get killed. You don't know who you can really trust in that moment."

"Do you want to talk about it?"

"Nothing to say. She tried to get the jump on me. I won."

Moriko watched her, the moment stretching out, glassy, near breaking.

Who? When? What did you do?

To be in energy form, confronted with an enemy—nothing was worse, Moriko had gathered. There was still so much she didn't know about Vleridin, about the paths she'd walked in the wild.

"Fair's fair," the mooskeg said, distant, and Moriko was afraid to ask.

"Anyway, we didn't... it was just…"—Moriko reddened—"cuddling. Seemed like a good idea at 4 AM."

Vleridin looked at her, appraising. "If it's just a body thing," she said, "then put Tarahn in your bed."

Moriko laughed. "When he was level thirty we could do that, but at fifty he takes up the whole cot. Rufus is made of metal, and you and Liona and Thana, we're not well-acquainted enough."

"We're plenty well-acquainted," Vleridin said. She paused and then snorted. "We've mingled energy, by most reckoning," she said.

Moriko sputtered. See me live all your weird fantasies, internet.

"I'll come in and you can sleep on me if you want," Vleridin was saying.


"Just no moving around and no noises; no talking, especially."

"Oh, good deal," Moriko said, but she leaned on Vleridin's shoulder and scratched her mossy hide. "Thanks for your help at the gym yesterday. I still can't believe—I knew pokémon were tougher than humans, but—"

"Were you hurt?" Vleridin's head whipped around and she nosed Moriko's shirt. "Did the wounds come through on you?"

"No," Moriko said, reluctantly. "They stayed on your body. I'm sorry, it's—"

"No! No, it's perfect. Humans take ages to heal a scratch. This is exactly what we should be doing."

"Vleridin, you—it's not fair that you should be so hurt and I don't suffer—"

"You felt the blows. You were with me. You don't need to suffer for it to matter. My wounds last only moments before I'm healed in an instant in your machines. I told you: I want to see the furthest places of the earth. With you I can go there, I can perceive more color, distance. I can see, Moriko. With you I can fly. With me you are powerful, you will never tire, you will never bleed. Say that you will stay with me, Moriko. Say that this summer will never end."

Moriko watched the mooskeg. Vleridin's gaze was far away, and Moriko wondered if she was thinking of other summers, long ago.

Moriko stroked Vleridin's jaw and drew close to look her in the eye. "The summer will always end," she heard herself say. "But I will stay with you through to the next one and the next, if you'll have me."

The mooskeg sighed and bumped her forehead. "Yes," she said.

Moriko breathed in, smelling Vleridin's musky deer scent and the swampy water-weed odor that overlaid it. "I liked what you said about there being no losing. We're strong, and we'll get stronger every day. Are you ready?"

"Ha! Always. Are you?"

Moriko grinned. "I'll try to keep up."
Psycho Monkey, Ry_Burst, Aura and 2 others like this.
  1. Psycho Monkey
    Psycho Monkey
    I ship it. Matt and Moriko that is. That was also a pretty fantastic battle with Belladona too!
    Mar 8, 2018
    Keleri likes this.