Of Sand and Shadows @helloyellow
Chapter 14

Chapter 14: Perspective

"This is where y'all live?"

Lon's face was a picture of shock as he took in the sight of the sizable house. Compared to the sprawling, luxurious buildings in Phenac, Duking's home wasn't extraordinary by any means; it was a simple cabin-style home that might have once looked immaculate, but time and dust had coated it to more or less match the look of the rest of the town and the plateaus surrounding it. But in Pyrite, where most housing options were limited to rundown apartments, it may as well have been a high-end mansion.

"More or less," Wes said. "We're guests here, as are you - so if you're thinking about taking anything, don't." He gave the boy a hard look upon seeing the tiniest hint of mischief cross his face. Wes knew that look all too well, as he'd worn it himself more than once.

Lon scowled. "I wasn't gonna."

Yeah, I'm sure.

As they walked up the steps to the front door, Wes noticed Lon hover back slightly, fidgeting nervously. He then realized the boy had since returned his Igglybuff to his Pokeball, and wondered if he was preparing to bolt again.

Rui must have noticed this, too, as she paused and turned back to Lon with a kind smile. "It's really okay, Lon," she said gently. "It's perfectly safe here."

Lon shifted his weight from one foot to the other, glancing between her and Wes. "You sure? You promise?"

"Yes. We promise."

Wes looked at him and jerked his head to the door. "We'll go inside first, if that helps. Nobody is going to force you inside."

This seemed to calm the boy's nerves a little, and he nodded. Rui then opened the door and they filtered inside, Lon trailing in behind them.

Wes was not prepared for the chaos awaiting them on the other side of the door.

He heard a woman's voice first, a rough cadence that was shrill with distress. As he, Lon, and Rui stepped inside and shut the door behind them, he caught sight of Duking attempting to soothe an elderly woman who was ranting in hysterics.

The sound of the door snapping shut caused her to turn and see them. Her eyes, magnified behind a pair of oversized spectacles, immediately fastened on Wes.

"YOU!" she barked. She pointed a gnarled finger at him and took a menacing step towards him - and it was only then that Wes realized she was absolutely tiny. She couldn't have been any taller than his waist, and Duking's massive form behind her only served to exaggerate her petite frame even further. Her stern, wrinkled face seemed barely large enough for her massive spectacles, which magnified her eyes and gave her a distinct look that resembled a Flygon.

"You!" she said again. "You're the one who destroyed half my wares!"

Wes stared, utterly bewildered. "What?"

"And you chased down this poor boy, too!" She threw a sympathetic look towards Lon, who, oddly enough, suddenly had his hands idly in his pockets and was wearing a smug grin. "What business do you have with him? You street thugs are all alike, targeting helpless children!"

"I think there's been a misunderstanding-" Rui began, but she was promptly cut off.

"Duking!" The old woman whirled back to the mayor, who was pinching the bridge of his nose with a weary sigh. "This is him, the one who destroyed my house! Why is he here?"

Duking raised his head to throw Wes a withering glare. "Of course it was you," he growled.

Wes snarled at him. "What's that supposed to mean? And who the hell are you?" he snapped at the woman.

"Wes!" Rui hissed and jabbed him in the ribs with her elbow. "Don't be rude!"

Lon folded his arms and grinned wider. He threw Wes a triumphant look. "Serves ya right for chasin' me."

You snarky little -

Duking heaved another sigh and gestured to the sofa. "Why don't we all take a seat and I'll explain?"

The old lady gave an ill-tempered grunt and took a seat in a cushioned armchair near the fireplace while Duking sat in another beside her. Wes took note of her multicolored robes and glittering jewelry, and he suddenly realized who she was: Fateen, the self-proclaimed Psychic of Pyrite.

"You're our new recruit, I take it?" Duking asked Lon as he cautiously took a seat on the very end of the sofa farthest away from all of them - and closest to the door, Wes noticed. The amusement on his face from earlier had faded to wary nervousness.

Lon looked Duking in the eyes and slowly nodded.

"A pleasure, then," Duking said warmly, and extended his hand for the boy to shake it. Lon did so, though not without hesitation; the man's sheer bulk was clearly intimidating him. "What's your name, kid?"

The boy glanced nervously to Wes and Rui before answering. "Um. Lon."

"Lon, eh? Nice to meet you. I'm Duking, the town mayor - though you might already know that."

I seriously doubt it, Wes thought. Kids on the street couldn't care less about who had what titles or who was supposed to be in charge; the only thing worth remembering was who was a friendly face and who meant them harm.

Lon stared at him for a moment, then snapped his attention back to Wes with an accusatory look. "You didn't tell me you was workin' for the mayor!"

Wes raised an eyebrow at him. "And?"

"Is this a trap?" Lon bristled. "Are you fixin' to turn me in?"

"Easy, there kid, you're not in trouble," Duking said. "We'll explain everything."

"I certainly hope so!" Fateen said briskly. "I'd like to know what business you have with this poor boy, and why your rogue friend here decided to run him down like a Houndoom on the hunt!"

"I wouldn't have chased him if he hadn't run," Wes grumbled.

Duking shot him a sharp look before addressing her. "I promise, Tee, there's an explanation for all of this." He gestured to the two seated on the sofa. "This is Rui Everlin and Wesley Lycas, and they're volunteers for Sherles and I. They've been working on a case with us. And this -" he then addressed Wes and Rui, "is Fateen, gifted Seer and talented herbalist of Pyrite. She is an honorable woman and deserves your respect." His gaze sharpened and bore into Wes on the last word, and Wes returned it with a glare.

"Pleased to meet you!" Rui said brightly. Fateen looked at her and seemed to soften a little at Rui's smile.

She looked back at Duking with a sigh. "Am I to understand you have plans to involve this poor boy in your investigation?"

"Only if he would like to," said Duking. He spoke to Lon. "Seeing as you're here, I take it you'd like to help us?"

Lon nodded again. Wes could tell he had questions about why the mayor, of all people, was hiring him to steal Pokémon for him, but he said nothing. It was best (and safest) to never ask questions.

"Allow me to explain what it is we're doing here," Duking said. He leaned forward and rested his elbows on his knees, then glanced at Fateen. "Tee, I know you won't approve of everything you're about to hear, but just bear with me until the end."

Fateen's eyebrows knotted together, but she said nothing and gave a curt nod in response.

For the next several minutes, Duking filled them in on the basics of the mission, from the savage Pokémon to Wes' supposed volunteer work to Rui seeing their aura. At some point, Plu the Plusle wandered into the room and hopped onto Duking's shoulder; the mayor idly rubbed the Pokémon's ears as he spoke, and the sight of a tiny creature perched on such a hulking figure was almost comical.

"...And that's where you come in, kid," he finally said to Lon with a small smile. "To be honest, I'm not fond of the idea of putting a kid like you in this kind of danger, but you have my word that we will operate very carefully and do everything in our power to make sure none of the thefts are traced back to you."

Lon shifted in his seat. "My Pokémon will be safe, too, right?"

"Of course."

"This is quite the mess you're in, dear," Fateen said to Duking, her arms folded and a thoughtful, concerned look upon her face. She looked much less hostile than before, though there was still a disapproving air in her tone. "How do you know any of this will work?"

"We don't, Tee. But we have to try. Most importantly, we have to find who is behind this."

"Hm." Fateen mused for a moment, then sighed. "Well, I must say, I'm disappointed, dear. All this work, and you never once thought to ask for my services?"

Duking frowned at her, but Rui spoke up first. "Services? You mean...like, fortune telling?"

Fateen shook her head and waved a dismissive hand. "Oh no, child, none of that. I mean my medical expertise. Surely you'll need someone with treatments available should any of these Pokémon get too close to one of you or your teams."

"I didn't think you would want to be involved in something like this," Duking said with a frown.

"Normally, no. I prefer to let the Trainers sort out their problems amongst each other and to leave it at that. But lately, I've had far one children at my doorstep than I would like with either their own injuries or battered Pokémon. I suspected something was wrong before, and this confirms my suspicions."

"Strange you didn't know about all of this already," Wes said dryly. "Thought you might have seen it coming, what with your Sight and all."

Rui nudged him a second time with a sharp glare, but Fateen merely looked at him. "One does not simply See whenever they wish, my dear. It is a gift that manifests itself whenever it may."

Wes snorted, but said nothing more. Strangely enough, the woman actually grinned at him in amusement.

"You are a skeptic. No matter, however; I see now that you have a good heart, despite your...destructive tendencies. I will quite enjoy working with you, I think."

Wes stared at her. What did she mean by that? Her shift in attitude towards him was rather unexpected - but he caught the faintest glimmer of mischief in her eyes, and he felt unsettled under her knowing gaze.

Duking looked as though he was about to question her himself, but he was suddenly interrupted by a sound at the top of the stairs by the entryway.

A yelp of surprise and a thud caused every head to turn to the stairs to see Marci awkwardly clinging to the banister halfway down the steps, a look of pure horror on her face. Judging by the way she was half-sitting, half-standing on the stairs, it was evident she had slipped.

A hiss came from the top of the stairs, out of sight. "Ugh, Marci!"

Nobody said anything for a moment. Then, Duking spoke slowly in a low voice.

"Marci. Secc. Were you listening in?"

Marci got to her feet and answered far too hastily. "No!"

Duking narrowed his eyes. "Secc. Come on out."

There was a brief pause, then Secc slowly shuffled into sight, standing a step above his sister and looking incredibly sheepish.

"What did you two hear just now?"

The siblings both spoke at once: Marci with a nervous squeak and Secc in a defeated, deadpan tone.

"N-nothing!"

"Everything."

Duking closed his eyes and raised a hand to his face, muttering something under his breath that sounded like, "Arceus help me."

Fateen chuckled and patted him on the shoulder. "Come now, dearie. You didn't really think you could keep something like this from them for very long, did you?"

She had a point there, Wes had to admit. So far, the explanation for Wes' Pokémon had been that they were sick and needed treatment - which wasn't entirely untrue, Rui had pointed out - and that Secc, Marci, and their friends were not to go anywhere near them. New Pokémon would be worked with either in the empty lot at the edge of town, or in the secret cavern after the kids had gone to bed, and Lon's presence would be explained as a relative of Johnson's that needed looking after - but to Wes, the whole thing had sounded rather flimsy from the start.

The gathering was shortly broken up after that. Fateen politely excused herself and left after giving Duking a stern reminder to keep her informed. Duking pulled his kids aside to speak to them privately and Rui offered to show Lon to his room - a guest room just off the living room that had once been Silva's.

Wes shook his head as he followed after Rui and a very dazed, confused looking Lon.

More damn people to deal with.


The following day, Wes inwardly decided to take back almost every complaint he'd ever had about Duking's kitchen feeling too small - it wasn't ideal, but it was much, much preferable to Sherles' small office. At least the kitchen had windows.

He was seated across from the Chief, Duking in a chair beside him, as Sherles once again hammered away at him for any information Wes had on Snagem. Unfortunately, his knowledge had been a disappointment to Sherles and Duking both; while he knew that Snagem had a second base that they had no doubt retreated to after the explosion, he couldn't tell them where it was or what it looked like, nor could he tell them what Snagem ever did with their stolen Pokémon. Such information had been closely guarded, only made privy to the higher-ups in the team.

The irony of this was not lost on him; after all, it had been Gonzap's offer to promote him that had led to Wes defecting in the first place.

Sherles, at least, seemed to be willing to take Wes' answers at face value. Perhaps he figured the Snagger had no reason to lie to them, not in his current situation and certainly not because of any love or loyalty to his old team. Duking, however, had accused him more than once of trying to hide something, which Wes had to repeatedly refute.

Seriously, what's your problem with me?

As Sherles winded down his questioning, Wes was prepared to write this meeting off as another fruitless waste of time - but Sherles didn't dismiss him. Instead, he said something that took Wes by surprise.

"I believe it's time to talk about Miss Everlin," he said.

Wes blinked. "What about her?"

"I'm not entirely comfortable with things as they stand." Sherles straightened a bit in his chair before continuing. "I agreed to your condition not to share your identity with anyone - even my own officers - but I'm having my doubts about keeping things from her." He looked Wes dead in the eyes. "I think you ought to consider telling that girl the truth about who you are."

Wes stared at him for a moment, hardly daring to believe he was actually serious - but the Chief's expression didn't waver. Wes scoffed. "I hope you're joking."

"Why would I joke about this, son?"

"Because it's insane," Wes said flatly. "You think she'll want anything to do with any of us once she finds out I - no, all of us - lied to her face?"

"That is certainly a concern, I won't deny that," said Sherles. "But I can't help but feel the longer this charade continues, the riskier things will be. I can't guarantee your identity will remain hidden. It may be for the best to get everything out in the open sooner rather than later."

His reply had been perfectly calm and steady, yet Wes narrowed his eyes at that last statement. "Is that a threat?"

"No, I assure you it isn't," Sherles said evenly. "Believe it or not, Lycas, I'm only speaking out of concern for you and Miss Everlin. She seems to be quite fond of you, and I believe she deserves to know the truth. After all, this mission wouldn't be remotely possible without her."

"The answer is no," said Wes. "I told you from the beginning that I don't want people knowing who I am, and it's going to stay that way."

Duking, who had been listening to the exchanged with a thoughtful expression, cleared his throat and spoke up. "I gotta side with Sherles on this. My kids are one thing - I didn't want them involved in this whatsoever, and I don't want the integrity of the mission compromised by their knowing about it." He scowled a little before continuing, clearly still unhappy with the way things had played out the day before. "However, Rui is different. She willingly placed herself with you at the front and center of all of this, and it doesn't seem right to be keeping secrets from her."

"'Doesn't seem right', does it?" Wes folded his arms and stared hard at the mayor, trying and failing to keep his rising frustration from showing. "Funny that should come from you - from both of you - when you've blackmailed me into this whole damn operation in the first place."

Sherles raised an eyebrow. "Would you rather I arrested you instead? That was your only other option, if you recall. I wasn't about to let you just walk out of my office, not with the evidence I had against you."

"And authorizing me to steal Pokémon for you?" Wes shot back. "Last time I checked, that was still illegal, with or without your permission!"

Duking snarled. "You've got some nerve preaching to us about what's legal, kid!"

Wes snapped his gaze up to meet Duking's. "Well, maybe it's about time someone told you you aren't above your own rules!"

The mayor stiffened in anger, and looked fully prepared to fire back an equally snippy response when Sherles raised a hand and quieted them both. He looked at Wes, and while his voice remained measured, there was a new heaviness in it that wasn't there before.

"I won't try to pretend that I'm a saint, here," he said. "I was fully aware of what I was signing up for when we set out to find you for this mission, and I knew that going this route would mean doing things I have never once considered in all my years of service." Those icy blue eyes bored into Wes, unwavering as always. "Should my actions in this investigation be made public, I will certainly lose my position and any credibility I have ever had. It's quite possible it would undo everything I have worked for, everything I have strived to build within this force."

Wes glared at him, unwilling to back down despite that intimidating stare. "Why do this, then?"

"I suppose...after thirty years on the job, of giving everything I had to serving this town, of trying to make things better for the folks around here...I got tired." Sherles paused and dropped his gaze, and all at once, Wes could see that tiredness in him; in every line on his face, in the slight slump of his shoulders as he spoke, in the cadence of his voice, in the fibers of his very being.

"I got tired of doing all that and not accomplishing a single damned thing," he said. "And I got especially tired of watching kids die on the streets."

He looked back up at Wes, and there was a quiet fire in his eyes that spoke of decades of exhausted frustration.

"That," he said softly, "is why I'm doing this."

Wes said nothing for a moment; he knew Sherles' sincerity was not the kind that could be faked or invented, and as he soaked in the Chief's words, a thought spoke quietly from the back of his mind: that maybe, just maybe, this was a man he could eventually come to respect.

It didn't change the fact that this mission was still little more than a fool's errand, but it was something, at least.

He spared a glance at Duking, but there was no need to ask for his thoughts on the matter; the man's firm expression of weary determination was more than enough. And, as much as Wes disliked him, there was something to be said for his willingness to take so many children under his wing. Wes wasn't sure he'd ever met anyone quite so willing to go out of their way for street kids without expecting anything in return.

He sat back in his chair with a sigh and finally broke the silence. "Fine. I get it. But that doesn't change my answer." He looked back at Sherles. "My answer is still no."

He could tell by the look in Sherles' eyes that he wasn't satisfied with the answer, but he didn't protest. Instead, he leaned back and sighed. "I won't force you, Lycas, but I won't pretend I like it."

Duking looked at him with an odd, unreadable expression. "Why so adamant, kid? Are you afraid of what her reaction would be?"

Afraid? That word made Wes bristle. He was not afraid of anything, least of all some random, naive girl's opinion of him.

"She hates thieves," he said. "Lost her starter to them some years ago, and has a personal vendetta against them. She finds out who I am, and I can guarantee she won't stay on the investigation. I don't think she'd be too excited about working with a thief - or with people who have lied to her from the very start."

Duking looked at him steadily. "You didn't answer my question."

What do you want from me? Something flared defensively in Wes' chest. Was it anger? Frustration? Fear - no, not fear, never fear, he was not afraid, not vulnerable, not weak. He didn't know what it was - all he knew was that it made him want to snap at the man before him.

Sherles must have sensed this, as he once again intervened just before Wes could say something. "Never mind that. If you've got nothing else to say, Lycas, then this meeting is dismissed."

Wes gave a curt nod, and all three of them rose to leave. He noticed Duking hang back and exchange a few words with Sherles, but he didn't care to stay and find out what they were. He walked out the building and into the harsh sunlight.

Duking's question had unsettled him, but the most bothersome thing was, Wes couldn't figure out why. He wasn't afraid of what Rui would think - honestly, who gave a damn? She was nothing more than a clueless girl from some insignificant town, and he couldn't care less what she thought of him - hell, they weren't even friends. Why would he care?

And yet, despite the fact that he let out Neo and Novo in an attempt to calm his agitation with their presence, the question needled at his mind for the rest of the day.


Maku couldn't remember.

He sat atop the sofa in the living room and watched the world go by outside the large window. It had become a favorite spot of his; here, sitting in the sunlight, he could peacefully ponder without fear or disturbance or interruption - well, most of the time. The smaller humans liked to talk to him sometimes, but he usually didn't mind.

His Trainer, at least, seemed to understand his desire for privacy, and gave Maku his space whenever he desired it. He appreciated that about him.

The sun settled on his skin and wrapped him in a blanket of warmth. Maku liked the sunlight. If he sat in it long enough, it seemed to transport him to another time, another place...another lifetime, even.

He had vague memories - or what he thought might be memories - of his life before cages and needles and cold tiled floors. Sometimes he thought he could remember blades of green grass under his feet, a warm breeze washing over him, the sound of laughter and a young girl with bright, blond hair...

But then, they would fade away. Sometimes he wasn't sure if they were actual memories, or simply snippets from a long-forgotten dream.

Maku couldn't remember, and he was alright with that. He wasn't sure he wanted to remember.

Because if he did remember, then he would have to also think about his most recent memories. Ones of pain and terror and misery, ones he tried his best to blot out and shut out, ones he tried not to feel. He would have to think about how he might have been happy, a lifetime ago, but that it had all been ripped away from him. That laughter and bright sunlight had been replaced with blinding sterile lights overhead and cold, indifferent voices discussing what to do next, what new methods could be tried -

He shuddered and forced away all thought, all memory, all horror that threatened to bubble to the surface.

Maku couldn't remember. He did not want to. He did not.

A soft, playful growl met his ears from behind him; he didn't bother to turn his head to the source. The Umbreon and Espeon were tussling behind him, engaging in antics he'd given up on trying to understand. It was bizarre, the way they were fighting, and yet also...not fighting. No blood was drawn, no yelps of pain or fear ever escaped. What was the point of fighting or battling if you weren't doing everything in your power to win?

Fwomp!

A blur of black and yellow entered Maku's peripheral vision as Novo flopped onto the couch beside him - evidently, his brother had more or less thrown him there in their "fight". Maku turned his head to stare at him, and the Umbreon, splayed on his back with his paws in the air, blinked up at him apologetically before rolling to his feet.

"Play?"

Maku gave a start; the high-pitched chirp could only be addressed to him. He turned around fully, and saw the Espeon looking up at him from the floor, tail weaving excitedly, eyes bright.

He stared. "...Play?"

Neo chirped again, kneading the carpet with his paws. "Yes! Play!"

"What is...play?"

Novo hopped off the couch to sit beside his brother. He cocked his head to the side as he looked up at Maku, looking somewhat perplexed at the question. "Play?" He spoke in a thoughtful rumble. "Play is..."

"Fun!" Neo interrupted with a bark. "Play is fun!"

Novo swished his tail in agreement.

Maku looked blankly between them. "Fun?"

It was Neo's turn to look perplexed. He twitched his ears, and his tail slowed in its movement, lowering slightly to the floor as he pondered how to answer. "Fun. Fun is..."

"Happy."

Maku and Neo both turned to Novo as he answered. He was looking at the Makuhita with a calm, steady gaze. "Fun is happy."

Happy?

Maku frowned. He knew what the word meant, and yet...he wasn't sure he could remember what it was. Had he been happy before? Did it feel like the sun? He was certain he hadn't experienced it in the White Rooms, but if he closed his eyes and pondered, he thought he could remember...a girl's laugh, her arms around him, the trees swaying in a warm breeze...

The images were almost immediately swallowed up by newer, fresher ones; restraints rubbing at his raw, bloody wrists, sharp and painful pricks as needles slid under his skin, the sounds of his own screams echoing off the walls -

No. No. No. He would not remember, he would not think about it, he would not -

"No." The word escaped him in a snarl, a little more fiercely than intended. He opened his eyes and saw Neo flinch at his sudden hostility; Novo continued to fix him with that unwavering gaze of his.

"No!" Maku barked again. "No play!"

Neo's ears drooped in disappointment. Novo looked him in the eyes and responded with a soft, steady rumble. "No play," he acknowledged.

He rose to his paws and nudged his brother over to the other side of the room where they could continue their antics and leave Maku in peace. Maku watched them go, and felt his muscles steadily relax; he hadn't even realized he'd tensed up in the first place.

He turned back to the window, to the sunlight, and closed his eyes once more as he focused on soaking in its warmth.

He liked the sun. He always did - had he? Did he like it before?

He shook his head, cleared his thoughts, and tried to remember.

...Or was he trying to forget?


Neo had a problem.

He stretched his paws out in front of him as he lazed idly on the floor of the waterfall cavern. He'd been dozing beside his brother for a while now, and he was very ready for a change of pace. He reached out a paw and nudged his sleeping sibling.

No response.

Another nudge. Novo did not move.

Neo then reached out with both paws and lightly battered at his brother's back.

Novo cracked open an eyelid and fixed him with a blank stare and a low, rumbling growl.

Neo retreated with a sigh. He knew better than to push further - previous experience had reminded him that, while he might have been the harder hitter of the two, Novo did in fact have a type advantage on him, and would not hesitate to use it when his afternoon naps were interrupted.

Neo rolled to his paws, tail flicking in annoyance.

Yes, he had a big problem, all right: he was bored out of his mind.

Normally, he'd appeal to Wes whenever Novo wasn't reciprocating his desire to play, but on this particular afternoon, his Trainer was in the office beyond the hidden bookshelf door, in a meeting of sorts with the other humans and discussing...something. He knew it had to do with the strange new Pokémon they'd been encountering, but beyond that, he didn't care to know the details.

To make matters worse, the nice redheaded girl was in the meeting with them, thus eliminating all of his first options for a playmate. But no matter; this was a household full of children, after all, and they all relished the opportunity to shower him with attention whenever he appealed to them for it.

He approached the computer desk on the other side of the room where all four kids were gathered and was almost immediately rebuffed.

"Sorry, Neo." Marci addressed him with an apologetic grimace. "We gotta get this assignment finished today. We'll play with you later, okay?"

Neo let his ears and tail droop; Nett laughed and rubbed his head. "Later, we promise!"

Neo chuffed and walked away. "Later" was a problem, because "later" was not "right now."

His gaze rested upon Kohna, who was curled up near Novo, and an idea occurred to him.

He padded up to her and sat directly in front of the Quilava, wrapping his tail neatly around his paws. He cocked his head to the side as she blinked her eyes open and looked up at him with a wide, questioning gaze.

"Play?" he chirped.

She stared at him, a flicker of alarm entering her eyes. "P-p-play?"

Neo purred and rose to his feet, kneading the rough stone floor in excitement. "Yes! Play!"

Kohna blinked at him, then slowly shook her head, scooting away from him nervously. "N-no. No play."

Neo wanted to push her further, but he saw her flames begin to sputter in her anxiety, and decided his brother would not thank him for prodding her into a burning frenzy while he was sleeping beside her. With a sigh, he turned away from her to scope out his next target.

He saw him almost immediately; Maku was sitting upright against a bookshelf, watching the waterfall spill down the back wall, as though lost in thought. Neo took a step forward, but Maku shifted his gaze to him and fixed him with that blank, flat stare of his.

...Right. He'd already tried the Makuhita the other day with no success.

He lashed his tail in frustration. He was so restless, he was so bored, and nobody wanted to play -

A splash drew his attention to the pool of water at the back of the room; Nani, oblivious to everyone else in the room, was frolicking about in the water, evidently having a grand time in spite of herself.

Yes. Yes!

He was at the water's edge in an instant, tail weaving hopefully in the air, ears pricked forward. He chirped a greeting, and Nani froze in her play, her gaze automatically shifting to his. Her eyes narrowed and a growl rose in her throat.

"Play?" Neo mewed.

Nani curled her lip, revealing an impressive set of fangs, and the growl rose to a snarl. "Go. Away."

Neo was undeterred. "Play!"

She snapped at him. "AWAY!"

Clearly, she wasn't understanding what he wanted. He decided to help her out with a demonstration, and swept his paw through the water, flicking a few droplets in her direction.

"See? Pla-"

SNAP.

He just barely managed to dance out of reach of Nani's flailing jaws as she lunged at him, enraged, her movement spraying water in every direction. A bellow escaped from her maw and echoed off the cavern walls.

Yes. Yes. Yes!

"N-N-Neo!" Megg gave a terrified squeak as Nani launched herself from the pool, dripping water onto the floor. "What are you doing?!"

Neo trilled in response, prancing across the floor as he expertly dodged her fangs. "Plaaaaaay!"

He heard Secc urgently say something, heard a bark from his brother from across the room - he was awake, did he want to play, now, too? - but Neo was busy darting and weaving across the room, yapping in delight as Nani lunged at him time and time again.

"Fight!" she roared. "FIGHT!"

"No! Play!"

She spun and lashed her tail at him, managing to just barely glance a hit off Neo's shoulder. He barked, mildly surprised at the amount of force she'd packed into the blow, but no matter; she would learn how to play properly, she simply needed some practice.

He was so caught up in the excitement, however, that he hadn't been paying attention to what was behind him. Neo moved to spring backwards, only to collide into a pile of wooden crates with a solid k-thunk. What were those doing there, anyway? He glanced at them over his shoulder and -

Nani's snarl was suddenly close - very close. He snapped his head back around to see her looming over him, jaws parted as she prepared to lunge -

She vanished in a beam of red light. Neo blinked, baffled, until he caught sight of Wes standing across the room with Nani's Pokeball in hand, an expression of alarm written on his face. The door had been swung wide open, with the kids anxiously gathered around it; evidently, they had interrupted the meeting to put a stop to the charade.

And to ruin all the fun.

"What the hell, Neo!" Wes barked at him. "Are you trying to get yourself killed?"

"I'm sorry, I didn't know what to do, and we were scared she might hurt him-!" Megg's voice was unusually high as she apologized profusely to Duking over Wes' shoulder.

Neo wilted a little and dropped his gaze to his paws. What was so wrong about trying to play?

He heard the sound of Wes' boots on the floor as he approached him. In the corner of his eye, he saw his Trainer crouch in front of him, felt him place a hand under his chin and raise his head until he was looking up into Wes' golden eyes. He was frowning at him, but his expression had softened a little.

"Don't be too hard on him." Rui was close behind Wes, speaking over his shoulder. Her gaze was soft as she looked down at Neo. "I think he was just trying to make friends."

Wes sighed and rubbed Neo's chin. "Are you going a little stir crazy, buddy?"

Neo blinked and nodded. Wes said nothing, but he didn't need to; Neo caught a ripple of understanding from his Trainer, and an unspoken sentiment seemed to pass between them. In all their years at Snagem, they'd spent as much time as possible outdoors and on missions in the field; neither of them had any memories of being stuck inside so consistently, nor of being surrounded so closely by so many people.

They were out of their element here, and Neo knew that Wes was painfully aware of it.

"Tell you what," he said after a brief pause. "After this meeting is over, we'll go to that abandoned lot on the edge of town and you can run and play to your heart's content. Okay?"

Neo lit up at the prospect. "Play! Please! Play!"

A small smile flickered across Wes' face, and Neo purred with joy; it was a welcome, if rare, sight to see. He stepped into his Trainer's arms and rubbed into his chest, his purrs growing louder as Wes stroked his fur. He thought he might have even heard a tiny huff of laughter from him, but Neo couldn't be certain over the sounds of his own rumbling.

"You gotta give me thirty more minutes though, alright? Just thirty, and then we'll play."

Neo chirped. "Yes!"

Thirty minutes of waiting would normally feel like a lifetime; but as Neo sat through the remainder of the meeting in Wes' lap, perfectly content and relishing in the sensation of Wes' hand stroking his fur, it felt like no time at all.


The last few days had been nothing short of a whirlwind - but then again, Rui supposed she could say that about every day since she'd set out on her errand for Pokeballs; it had only been a few weeks since leaving home, and yet, with all the excitement, it felt as though it had been months.

"Rui, dear, are you certain you want to stay?" her grandfather, Eaugun, had asked one morning over a video call on her newly replaced P*DA. The many lines of age on his face deepened as he frowned at her, his worry reflected in his icy blue gaze.

Rui heaved a long-suffering sigh; the question was brought up in every call, and despite her constant reassurances, both of her grandparents never ceased to worry. "Pap, I'm completely fine, I promise. It's not like I'm doing this alone, and Duking and his family have been perfectly hospitable!" She shifted on her small bed so as to sit in a more comfortable position. "Besides, I'm not even the one doing the dangerous work. That's on Wes, and he and his Pokémon can handle it."

"And who exactly is this young man?" Rui's grandmother Beluh pushed herself into the frame, and the concern on her face was slightly more accusatory than Eagun's was. "You've mentioned him an awful lot, yet we have yet to even see him! Really, the least he can do is let us thank him for all he's done for you!"

If she had been speaking to anyone but her grandmother, Rui might have rolled her eyes. Instead, she sighed again and said, "I've offered to have you meet him on one of our calls, but he's - been busy. And he's just not very…"

She trailed off, searching for a suitable word. "...Social."

Truth be told, Wes seemed highly keen on not interacting with her grandparents, though Rui wasn't sure why. She wasn't going to push him, though, and she certainly wasn't going to mention that to them; her grandmother didn't need any additional reasons to be suspicious of him, in any case.

The camera shifted, then the screen blurred into a sudden jumble of color and chaos; Eagun had dropped the P*DA again. Rui smiled a little as she heard Beluh's voice gently chiding him in the background; her grandfather had never been great with technology, and it was rapidly becoming an expectation that he would fumble the P*DA at least once every video call.

After a moment of shuffling, the camera was righted on their faces once again, with Eagun grinning sheepishly.

"Never will get used to these things," he said. Rui responded with a laugh.

"Well, see that you make him join our call one of these days," Beluh said sternly - she was not one to be deterred from their conversation, despite the interruption. "And at least promise us you'll be back home soon, if only just to visit. We weren't exactly prepared to send you off on some grand journey, my dear!"

"Shouldn't that be expected in a family of Trainers?" Rui asked with a grin.

Beluh shook her head with an exasperated sigh. Eagun chuckled at Rui's response. "Does that mean you're thinking about Training again?" he asked.

Rui's breath suddenly caught in her throat; she felt her chest tighten and gripped her P*DA a little more firmly than necessary, feeling the laughter drain right out of her.

"No, Pap. I'm not."

Her face must have clearly reflected her inner feelings, as she saw Beluh's expression soften and she noticed the teasing spark leave Eagun's eyes.

"Never you mind," he said gently. "We just worry and want you to come home safe."

Rui forced another small smile, though judging from her grandparents' faces, she failed to make it a convincing one. "I will. I promise."

"And see if you can bring this friend of yours!" Beluh said. A sly grin slid across her face. "I have so many questions for him."

"Oh, please. It's nothing like that, Nan."

"Are you quite sure about that?"

"What are you - I don't - yes!"

A mischievous twinkle entered Beluh's eyes. "Hmm."

This time, Rui did roll her eyes. "You haven't even met him, and now you're pushing me at him?"

"Who said I had to push?"

Rui was floundering for a response when a shrill cry cut through the audio. "Pi-pi-pika!"

"Ah, yes!" Eagun said brightly. "Rika would like to say hello!"

The camera, no doubt now held by Beluh, panned downward until a round yellow face and two pointy ears came into view.

"Pikaaaaa!" Rika squealed in delight as soon as she caught sight of Rui's face, her red cheeks sparking excitedly. Though her muzzle and the tips of her ears were growing silver with age, the Pikachu still held as much energy and vivaciousness as her Trainer, Eagun.

Rui broke into a wide smile. "Rika! Good to see you!"

Rika took the next several minutes to tell Rui an exciting story, waving her paws and chirping, while Eagun attempted to translate - it was something about the trees near the Relic, apparently.

"She's been quite interested in the Relic, lately," Eagun said with a small frown at the Pikachu. "I can't be sure why, though, and she doesn't seem to know, either."

"Maybe because of the new Pokémon showing up?" Rui said.

Rika tilted her head to the side, then shook her head. "Pi. Pika!"

"No, it's something about the Relic itself, I think," Eagun mused. "But I suppose Pokémon have always been somewhat drawn to it."

That was true, although Rui couldn't ever remember Rika taking a specific interest in the old stone that sat in the center of Agate Forest. Local legends said it was guarded by a powerful and mysterious Pokémon; Rui herself had always liked to believe they were true, even though there had never been much evidence to suggest that they were.

Both Eagun and Rika admitted they were at a loss, and the conversation turned to other things; idle chat about Beluh's volunteer work at the hospital and Eagun's training of the young prospective Trainers, until Rui heard Marci calling for her and she had to say goodbye. Light teasing and cheerfulness aside, she still caught the traces of concern on their faces before the screen went black.

She pocketed her P*DA and ventured out the door with a sigh. I'll be perfectly fine. It was about time I left home and did something, anyway.

Marci met her halfway across the cavern and led her to the living room with a bounce in her step - something the girl always seemed to have, Rui had noticed with amusement.

"I wonder what Pokémon you'll find today!" Marci said excitedly. She looked up at Rui with a wide smile, as if expecting her to throw out a couple guesses. Ever since they'd overheard the conversation regarding the mission three days ago, she and Secc (and Nett and Megg, whenever they came by) had been having a blast coming up with names for the new Pokémon and playing with them whenever Wes or Duking was around to supervise - much to Duking's worry and dislike.

Rui merely laughed and said, "Who knows?"

Lighthearted as her response was, Rui couldn't help but feel a sinking sensation in her stomach; everyone on the investigation was already beginning to feel overwhelmed, and she knew she wasn't the only one beginning to wonder if they'd bitten off more than they could chew. Since adding Lon to the operation three days earlier, things had been rolling forward rather quickly - and soon they had found themselves surrounded by more savage Pokémon than any of them knew to deal with.

Thanks to Lon's skills and Wes' battles, they had managed to acquire three new Pokémon in addition to the Noctowl: a Misdreavus, a Skiploom, and the very same Flaaffy they had spotted on their first day.

However, after evaluating each of them before allowing Wes to officially Snag them, one thing had become painfully clear: they had a lot of work cut out for them.

Misdreavus, whom Marci had named Dio, took it upon himself to wreak absolute havoc whenever and wherever possible, and as a result, needed to be kept under strict supervision whenever he was out of his ball. Nyra, the newly named Noctowl, was still healing from her injury and was adamant on not letting anyone get too close; every change of her bandages came with an hour of coaxing and a plethora of Duking's homemade Pokeblocks. Skiploom, or Pim (once again named by Marci), was mercifully laid back and quite easy to manage - so long as no Pokémon set her off, anyway. Rui was certain she was never going to get the sickly, overpowering Sweet Scent out of her clothes after Kohna had suddenly sneezed and caused the Skiploom to erupt in the middle of the living room.

Perhaps most concerning of all, though, was the Flaaffy. Rui had chosen the name Marlow, but whether or not the Electric Pokemon had any qualms with it, she couldn't be sure; the poor thing immediately curled into a ball and trembled uncontrollably whenever anyone, human or Pokémon, came too near.

"It's odd, isn't it?" she'd asked Wes worriedly after yet another failed attempt to soothe her. "We saw her battling the first day here, and she wasn't terrified of everything then."

"That was a battle." Wes had kept his eyes trained on the shivering lump of fur across the cavern. Even with an entire room of space between them, the Flaaffy's terror was almost tangible. "She couldn't afford to be like this."

"It's amazing she was able to battle at all," Rui murmured. They both kept their voices low in an attempt to keep her calm.

"She had no choice." There was a bitter edge in Wes' tone, and Rui gave him a questioning look. What did he mean by that?

He never gave her one, and the look in his eyes made her afraid to ask.

As Marci led her through Duking's office, Rui heard Wes' voice just before the living room came into view.

"Oh, come on, Neo. You've had your turn for years."

Rui stepped into the room in time to see Neo, padding away from where Wes sat on the sofa and in an obvious sulk. She blinked in surprise to see not Neo, but Maku sitting in his lap.

Wes must have caught sight of the expression on her face, because he merely shrugged and said, "Don't ask me. He just wanted to sit here."

Maku blinked up at her with that usual blank expression of his - although, Rui could have sworn she saw just the slightest hint of contentment there.

She grinned back at Neo, who had curled up in a corner next to his brother with a huff. "Poor guy got booted, did he?"

"Look, I'm not a futon. I can only fit so many Pokémon in my lap at once."

Marci giggled. Rui noticed Secc sitting in one of the armchairs and promptly did a double-take when she saw Bayleef sitting beside him, humming in contentment as Secc rubbed his neck under his leaves.

"Look who's making progress!" she said with a grin.

Wes snorted. "He still wants nothing to do with me."

"Fi's just getting used to people, that's all," said Secc. The Bayleef nudged him affectionately, and the boy smiled.

Rui blinked. "Fi?"

Secc flushed. "Y-yeah. I, uh. Named him." He threw a worried look at Wes, but Wes merely waved his hand.

"It's fine. I doubt he'd accept a name from me, anyway. He seems to like you a whole lot more."

That much was certainly true. After several failed attempts to work with the Grass Pokémon, it had become clear that he actually didn't have many problems with anyone - save for Wes and his team. Rui guessed that, after the beating he took in Phenac, he saw Wes and his Pokémon as a threat, and as such, would have nothing to do with any of them.

Fortunately, he'd taken to Secc quite quickly, and now they could at least count on the Bayleef being in the same room as Wes, Neo, Novo, and Maku without launching into a rampage.

Secc brightened at the response and returned his attention to Fi. Marci looked on with a touch of envy on her face, then turned to Rui.

"Wouldn't it be cool to be a Trainer, Rui?" she asked.

For the second time that morning, Rui forced a smile. "Of course!"

"Why don't you have any Pokémon, then?"

Both Secc and Marci looked at her curiously, but Rui was especially aware of Wes' gaze; he'd never pried for more information since their first day in Pyrite, but no doubt he had his own questions.

Rui shrugged her shoulders and hoped her smile remained a convincing one. "I'm just not cut out for Training, I guess. It's not my thing."

Secc seemed to accept this answer, but Marci's eyes went wide. "Really? I've always wanted to be a Trainer!"

Rui was searching for a proper response when Wes suddenly spoke. "Well, let's get going. Lon's already waiting for us outside." He gently nudged Maku off his lap and called his team to him before returning them to their balls.

Rui let out a tiny breath of relief. It was hard to tell if he'd interrupted the conversation for her sake or not, but either way, she was grateful.

Marci bade them an energetic farewell as they walked out the door. Once Wes informed Lon of their route, the boy set off on his own, this time with an Azurill perched on his shoulder. They had agreed it was for the best that Lon not be seen with Wes or Rui, in case Trainers started connecting the dots and suspecting the boy's involvement. He needed to go as unnoticed and unseen as possible.

"Thanks for that, by the way," Rui said as they headed deeper into town.

Wes raised an eyebrow. "For what?"

She laughed a little. "For saving me back there. I know Marci means well, but I didn't know what to say."

He shrugged and looked back to the road ahead of them. "No idea what you're talking about."

Rui grinned. Of course he would say that.

After a moment of silence, he spoke again, though he didn't look at her when he did. "You'd make a good one, though. If you ever wanted to try again."

"Wh- a Trainer?" she spluttered in surprise.

He rolled his eyes. "No, a street performer."

She looked at him, somewhat befuddled, then grinned. "I think that's the first compliment you've ever given me."

He shifted his bag and looked mildly uncomfortable. "I'm just saying."

"Well...I don't think I'll ever train again," she said. "But...thank you. That means a lot to me, actually."

He didn't reply at first, and Rui wondered if he ever would, but then he muttered a reply. "You're welcome, I guess."

And for the rest of the morning, Rui couldn't stop grinning.


Author's Notes:

...You can tell I didn't have any ideas for a name for this chapter. Oh well. xD

Welcome back for another update! I hope you're enjoying the story so far, and please feel free to leave any thoughts or questions you might have for me! And if you ever catch a typo, please DO point it out, no matter how insignificant it may seem. I'm trying to make this as polished as possible, and extra eyes always help!

See you in two weeks! And since I won't see you before then, happy holidays, Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukka - whatever you celebrate (or don't celebrate), I hope it's a great one! Stay safe, and know that I'm wishing you a wonderful holiday. :)

Responses to reviews:

Readallday1243: So glad you discovered this story and that you're liking it! And - oh? Do I smell a shipper? ;) All I have to say to that is...stay tuned! You won't be disappointed!

Shocker789: Yo THANKS for the hype review, haha! I love that you loved that chapter so much, it's one of my favorites!

Number13teen, rylek196: Responded to you individually but thank you for the in-depth reviews! I love seeing readers' analyses of the characters and how they compare to one another.

WyldClaw, Dabber2121: Thank you both! I hope you enjoy this chapter, too!

jmoul18: AH! What a pleasant surprise to see you here! Thanks so much for leaving your thoughts, it made me so happy to hear what you had to say! It'll be a LONG time before I write an XD novelization, but when that day comes, it will be a blast for sure!

HeartlessBlueAngel448: Wow, it makes me so happy to hear that someone binged my fic! xD I'm totally with you on some elements of the game being unrealistic - Trainers absolutely WOULD have a problem with their Pokemon being stolen irl! As for shiny Pokemon, I don't have any plans to include any in this story. But in my XD novelization...maybe?

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