Of Sand and Shadows @helloyellow
Chapter 15

Chapter 15: Reunion

They were being followed.

Wes had suspected it for a few days now; he could have sworn he'd felt an unwelcome pair of eyes boring into him from the shadows as he and Rui spent the days combing the streets for more trainers to battle, and was almost certain he'd glimpsed someone—or something—whisk around a corner and out of sight more than once.

He hadn't said anything to Rui. He was pretty sure that if he did, she would poke him in the side and mouth the word paranoid—and maybe it was paranoia. He'd kept his ear to the ground, but since his arrival in Pyrite, he hadn't heard a whisper of Snagem. He was pondering whether to tell Rui just as much when, on the way back to Duking's house one evening, he saw it.

They had just rounded a corner, the fading glow of the desert sunset casting long shadows between the dilapidated buildings on either side of them, when he heard a strange, low buzzing. He snapped his head around, and this time, he was just quick enough to catch a greenish blur before it vanished behind a nearby building. His blood turned to ice.

This was more than just a stranger on their tail.

"What are you looking at?"

Rui wore a look of idle curiosity. He could tell her about his suspicions—but no. He knew who he was dealing with. He could handle this. Wes forced a nonchalant shrug. "Nothing, really. Just thought I saw someone familiar."

"Oh? Who?" Rui's eyes sparkled with curiosity. When he didn't answer right away, she grinned mischievously. "Not Emok, right?"

"Wha—why would you guess her?" Wes scoffed in disbelief.

She shrugged and returned her attention to the road. "I dunno. I mean, don't you two have a history or something?"

"What?"

She glanced back at him in surprise. "Wh—don't you, though? I mean, I figured, with the way she greeted you—"

"Hell no. That's not—it was never like—that's just Emok. She likes to mess with people. Especially me." For some damn reason. Wes huffed and shoved his hands in his pockets.

Rui gave a snort of laughter. "Well, that explains things. No wonder she messes with you. You're too easy to rile up."

"Excuse me?"

She grinned. "You heard me."

"Where the hell did—? That's not—"

She laughed and turned to face him while walking backwards. "Look at you! You just proved my point!"

"I did not."

Rui retorted with a fast quip, but Wes wasn't listening anymore, his ears straining to pick back up the buzzing sound. Try as he might, though, he could no longer see nor hear their follower; they'd likely turned tail as soon as he'd caught sight of them.

Good.

He forced himself to appear as attentive as possible while Rui talked enough for the both of them, but his thoughts wandered for the rest of the journey back to the house.

Tomorrow. He would deal with this tomorrow … for better or for worse.

That night, he dreamed of places, of memories, and of people he would rather forget.


It was especially windy today.

Wes shielded his eyes from the sand swirling through the air and marched onwards, undeterred. Despite the persistent winds, the sun was still as bright and hot as ever. It seemed the desert was determined to make him pay for choosing to spend his lunch break outside.

Not that it mattered. The desert could freeze over, for all he cared; he would rather expose himself to the elements than spend a minute longer than necessary inside Snagem's hideout. At least out here, in the middle of a miniature sandstorm, no one would bother trying to find him.

He made his way to his usual lunchtime spot: a large scrub bush backed up against a cliff, one of the very few sheltered spots that was close enough to Snagem to make it there and back during his break. It was a perfect location, and one that he had only ever shared with his Pokémon and Alden.

Alden, however, would be absent today; he'd been sent on a Snagging mission near Gateon, and, given the distance, wouldn't be back for at least a few more days. Wes would never admit it, but it was different with Alden gone. Being around another human that didn't want to constantly take advantage of him in one way or another was…nice.

He made it to the large tree—well, alright, bush, but the thing was big enough to technically be a tree, and who in Orre really got to determine what trees looked like, anyway—and paused for a moment before calling out his two Eevee to stretch their legs. They loved being outside at least as much as he did, if not more, but it was unusually windy today, and he wasn't sure if exposing their little eyes to the harsh, sandy gusts was a wise decision. He'd only had them for a few months, and even with Alden's guidance, he was afraid of messing something up. What if they got an eye infection, or—?

WHAM.

Wes staggered forward with a yelp.

Always have a proper stance. Be light on your feet. Alden's advice rang in his mind. Be prepared to dodge. Make yourself a difficult target. Use your smaller size to your advantage.

He whipped around, head pounding from the unexpected blow. He sunk into a crouch, steeled himself, and lifted his gaze to meet his opponent's eyes—

A young girl stared back at him. She looked to be his age, but she was much smaller. Her fists were balled, and her stance matched his own. Her grey eyes burned with intense ferocity. She had short, light brown hair that fell just below her chin—the tips were jaggedly cut, the Orre special, hard to do it yourself without a mirror—Wes felt his mind drifting. She must've hit him harder than he thought.

"What are you doing in my spot?" she spat.

"Y-your spot?" Wes spluttered. "This is my spot! Always has been!"

"Liar." She narrowed her eyes. "I've never seen you here before."

"And I've never seen you! Who are you?"

The fire in her eyes calmed ever so slightly, but she kept her fists raised. "You mean…you weren't expecting me here?"

"Why the hell would I?" Wes snapped.

"You're not…here to hurt me?"

Wes blinked. Hurt her? She was the one who'd hit first.

Even though his head throbbed, he took a deep breath and forced himself to stay calm. He'd seen enough people pick fights they thought they'd win. There was a tension in her jaw that bullies never had—she'd picked this fight because she thought she'd had to.

"No," he said slowly. "I'm just…here for my break. I come here every day at this time."

"...Oh. I guess I shoulda figured." She slowly relaxed out of her fighting stance. When she looked him up and down, her gaze was calculating, but no longer threatening. "You look too easy to beat up. Are you the kid Sage is always picking on?"

Wes bristled. "That's none of your—"

"Wait, you have Pokémon, too?" Her eyes settled on the red and white spheres on his belt, and she tensed up again. "Y-you're not gonna set them on me, are you?"

"Wha—no!" Wes stammered. Gods, why couldn't this girl just go away? "Who are you? What do you want?"

She scowled at him. "Well, what I want is for you to go away and let me have my spot, but I don't want you to set your Pokémon on me, so…why don't we just call it a truce and share?"

Share? Share? His head was still throbbing. "I already told you, this is my spot."

"And it's mine, too! My breaks are usually earlier, but I switched with Len today. How was I supposed to know you'd be here?"

He returned her scowl. "Well, I don't want to share. Go away."

Her eyes flickered—Wes saw defiance there, but something else, too…fear?

"Fine!" Her voice cracked on the word. She whipped around and began to make her way back towards the base, against the wind—that must have been why she was walking so slowly, every step heavy, the same way he walked whenever it was time to return from lunch.

Alden's voice rang through his mind. Don't make an enemy when you have the chance to make a friend, kid. Believe me, most of those other kids are just tryin' to survive, like you.

Wes chewed on his lip. Alden wasn't here, but if he were...

"Hold it!" he called out. The girl's back stiffened. He saw her tense, as if contemplating flight, but at last she turned. Her head tilted up, defiant, as he approached. She thought he meant to beat her up after all, Wes realized. The idea made his chest twist strangely. "We can share. Just this once. But in return, you—you owe me, okay?"

It took a moment for his words to sink in.

"Owe you? Owe you what?" she said suspiciously.

He opened his mouth and then closed it. He hadn't exactly thought it through that far. "If I ever have to take my break early, I get to eat here. Deal?"

Her eyes narrowed like she was searching for a catch. "Deal," she said at last. She spat into her hand as she came forward, then held it out. Wes did the same.

The girl tucked a messy strand of hair behind her ear and winced as the wind picked up a little and sprayed them both with a fresh gust of sand.

"I'm Renna, by the way. What's your name?"

She didn't wait for him to answer before she sat in the cover of the bush, settling into the sand to make herself comfortable. She blinked up at him expectantly.

He slowly sat down across from her. "...Leo."

Renna grinned. "Hi, Leo."

There was a moment of silence as they looked each other over. Renna didn't seem like a threat, and she had obviously deduced the same about him. Wes pondered for a moment and reflected on Alden's words once more …

Then he spoke, and his words sealed the beginning of a new friendship.

"Wanna meet my Pokémon?"

The scene swirled and faded, and when it came back together again, the copper sands had been replaced with steely walls. Snagem's mess hall had never been all that much to look at—but then again, the same could be said for the rest of the building.

A small crowd of kids and teenagers huddled against one wall, watching the scene unfold from across the room. Some looked terrified, some eager, and others awed.

Wes staggered under another blow, but held his ground. He glowered at the older boy from under his raised arms. "That all you got?" he spat.

The boy barked out a harsh, bitter laugh. "You really don't know when to quit, do ya, Scarface?"

Wes heard a couple snickers from the crowd. He clenched his teeth and lashed out blindly. He hadn't expected to actually land a hit, just buy a few more seconds, but then—the impact blossomed across Wes' knuckles, and suddenly the older boy was stumbling backwards with a hand over his bleeding nose, eyes wide.

A heavy silence filled the room. The boy narrowed his eyes and drew himself up to his full height—two heads taller than Wes. He pulled his bloody hand from his face and curled it into a fist.

"You…" he snarled. "I'll kill you!"

"Having fun, Fray?"

All eyes turned to the girl standing in the doorway to the entrance, her arms folded and eyes narrowed. Her short, choppy hair had grown some since the day she first met Wes, and she was taller now, though her air of confidence was much the same.

"Stay out of this, Renna!" Wes snapped.

She glared at him. "Shut it." Her gray eyes flicked to the older boy. "Not that I care, Fray, but Scarface here has another Snagging mission tomorrow. Should I tell Gonzap he won't be able to go because you beat him up?"

Fray blinked. "I...uh…" He glanced back at Wes, one hand still cupped around his face. Wes noticed his eyes were watering. "No. This nobody ain't worth any more of my time, anyway."

"That nosebleed was free, though," Wes retorted.

Fray growled, but Renna cut him off. "He's worthless, Fray. Just drop it." She idly raised a hand and examined her fingernails. "Oh, and by the way, Wakin's heading this way, and he's in a real bad mood. I wouldn't stick around if I were any of you." She threw a pointed look at the crowd of kids on the other side of the room.

She didn't need to say anything more. The mess hall came alive with shuffling movement as the kids immediately scattered, heading for any of the three exits. Renna stepped aside as Fray and several others bustled out the door behind her. In less than a minute, the room was clear.

Wes pushed himself off the wall and wiped a dribble of blood from his mouth. He shot Renna a burning look. "I was fine, you know."

"You're welcome."

"I mean it. I didn't need your help."

"Sure." Renna rolled her eyes. "When are you gonna learn, moron? Quit mouthing off to people twice your size! Actually, quit mouthing off, period!"

"He started it!"

"Yeah, and he would have ended it, too!" Renna shot back.

Wes could only respond with a scowl. He knew she was right, but what difference did it make? People like Fray were going to push him around whether he fought back or not. And it wasn't like Gonzap would care unless someone got too injured to work...

Renna relaxed a little, her face softening. "I'm...sorry for calling you Scarface, by the way. I had to convince Fray—if he thought we were friends—"

Wes glared at the floor. "It's fine." After a few beats of silence, he added quietly, "It's better than Leo."

"You …don't like your name?" Renna sounded surprised.

"It's not my name."

"Wha—yes, it is! What are you talking about?"

Wes looked back up at her. "It's a name Gonzap chose for me. But it's not mine. I picked my own a few years ago."

Renna's eyes widened. "Really? You can do that?"

"I don't know if I can, but I did." Wes gave her a small grin. "My real name's Wes."

"Wes, huh?" Renna tilted her head to the side. "How come you still go by Leo, then?"

"I don't think Gonzap would like it if he knew I changed my name from the one he gave me."

She grimaced a little. "You're probably right. He'd think you're rebelling against him or something."

Maybe I am, he thought venomously. Gonzap and his rules could rot; Wes' name was his own to choose.

"Well, then…" Renna stuck out her hand with a wide grin. "Pleasure to meet you, Wes."

He stared at her for a moment, at this fierce, fiery girl who had absolutely no obligation to call him her friend...and smiled. He laughed and shook her hand.

"Nice to meet you, too."

The scenery blurred again, then came back together to the same scrub bush, the same harsh sun. A slightly older Wes sat with his Pokémon and Alden.

Neo and Novo were eating over a scrap of fabric that Wes had laid out for them in a feeble attempt to keep sand out of their food. He'd wondered about scraping up the funds to get a bowl for them, or maybe taking one from the mess hall, but had no idea how he'd keep the thing without it getting stolen...and he wasn't sure how successfully he could get them to eat out of one bowl together, anyway.

As if to confirm this last thought, Novo hunched protectively over his kibble and let out a garbled snarl, as if suddenly realizing he wasn't eating alone. Neo flinched away, tail twitching in annoyance, and responded with a soft growl of his own.

"Novo, cut it out!" Wes said sternly. He scooted Neo's pile as far away from his brother's as possible. This appeared to be good enough, as the hairs along Novo's back slowly smoothed out and Neo returned to his meal in peace. Novo had plenty of dignity, but apparently it vanished once food came into play.

Alden, having seen this scenario play out more than once, merely shook his head and then glanced at his watch. "Is it just me, or is she a little late? That's not like her."

Wes shrugged and took a bite of his sandwich. "She had her first Snagging mission today. Maybe it went late."

Alden's face darkened. "I always said Gonzap starts you kids on those damn missions way too young."

Wes looked up at him. "What do you mean? Mine went fine! And I've been on a bunch since!"

"You've got your Pokémon looking out for you on yours, kid."

"I didn't on the first one."

"Yeah. That time you had me."

Wes scowled. It wasn't that he was ungrateful for Alden's help and guidance over the three years he'd known him, but it frustrated him that the man still saw Wes and Renna as helpless children in need of protection. None of the other adults treated him that way; in fact, now that he'd proven himself to be such a skilled Snagger, he was being pulled into more missions, and being granted more responsibilities on each one.

Alden didn't reply, but Wes could tell he was displeased with this—though Wes had no idea why.

Novo looked up from his kibble and pricked his ears forward. Neo quickly followed suit, and before Wes could glance over his shoulder—

"Wes, Alden! Look, look, look!"

Renna's voice was ringed with excitement as she ran to them, something clutched in her hand and eyes bright with triumph. She reached them, panting, and shoved the object in her hand out to Wes' face: a Pokéball.

"I did it!" she cried, face glowing, hair plastered to her forehead with sweat. "I Snagged my first Pokémon!"

Alden's smile was one of relief, not triumph. "Glad you made it back safe, kid. Who's the new Pokémon, then?"

Without another word, Renna tossed the ball to the ground; even before the light faded, she had scooped up her new companion and held it out at arm's length for them to see. "Look at her! Isn't she amazing?"

"Amazing" was not the word Wes would have chosen. Renna's new Pokémon was a round orange blob, with beady black eyes and four short, stubby legs. It took Wes a moment to realize that the blobby part was a massive head that was twice the size of its body. The creature blinked slowly at him before opening its horrifyingly oversized mouth and greeting them with a rough, grating rumble.

"Inch," it said.

Wes stared. "What. Is that."

Alden laughed. "Well, I'll be damned! Is that a Trapinch?"

"Yeah!" Renna beamed. "Her name is Viria and she's perfect and she's mine and she's beautiful!"

"Amazing" was one thing, Wes thought. "Perfect" and "beautiful", however, were truly stretching things. It had a face like a boulder, and its orange skin reminded him of the desert at its hottest.

Still, he smiled. Renna had been desperately hoping for her own Pokémon ever since meeting Neo and Novo, and he could see just how thrilled she was to finally have one. "Congrats, Renna! You did it!"

"Yeah, I did!" Renna swelled with pride. "Wakin told me I was sloppy, but I don't care. I still got her, didn't I?"

"You sure did, kid." Alden gave her a small smile, though to Wes it looked somewhat forced. "They gonna be putting you on more missions, you think?"

"I think so! I mean, I wasn't great, but Del thought I was good enough to go again. Besides, now that I have a Pokémon, I can do even more! We can work as a team!"

"And we can battle, now, too!" Wes smirked. "Don't worry, I'll go easy on you."

She stuck her tongue out at him. "I don't need you to go easy! We'll trample all three of you—right, Viria?"

"Tra."

Neo's eyes lit up and Novo let out a reproachful bark. "Umb!"

"We'll see about that," Wes said smugly.

The sands swirled again, and this time images flickered past, snippets of angry shouts and tears and dark, shadowed rooms…

"I didn't—didn't mean to—I'm sorry—!" Wes sobbed.

A boy's young, tear-stained face in a dark room as he screamed—

"This is YOUR FAULT, LEO! I HATE YOU!"

The boy's face changed to Renna's, her angry and tearful shout ringing off the walls—

"I did what I had to do, Wes!"

He wanted to scream, to run, to get away from these memories. "Stop it—please—I'm sorry—"

And then, as if granting his wish, everything blurred and faded into dark nothingness.


He awoke slower than usual.

Wes forced his eyes open and sat up slowly. He felt like his brain was slogging through mud. It took him a moment to acclimate himself; he was still getting used to the lack of sunlight from being underground. What time was it? He checked the time on his P*DA and groaned. How had he slept in so late…?

"Bri?"

Novo pricked up his ears from where he sat near the bedroom door—his self-appointed watch post for every night. He blinked up at Wes expectantly.

"Novo," Wes said slowly, "did you help me sleep last night?"

Novo wagged his tail. "Umb!"

Well. That explained things. Wes heaved a sigh and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Look, bud, I know you're trying to help, but from now on, don't use Hypnosis on me unless I ask. Okay?"

The Umbreon's ears drooped slightly, but he held his trainer's gaze. "Bri. Umbri."

"I mean it. I can't afford to keep doing this. It's not…" He paused. "Healthy."

...Not that going without sleep was any better, but he would have to take his chances with that. The fact that Novo had taken it upon himself to use Hypnosis made him uneasy—had he done it before?

Novo looked down at his paws and rumbled a reluctant agreement.

At the foot of Wes' bed, Neo stirred and stretched, parting his jaws in a wide yawn. "Spiiiiiiii…"

A knock at the door made all three of them jump. Novo arched his back and snarled until Wes hushed him.

"Wes?" Rui's voice sounded from the other side of the door. "Um, sorry to wake you, but we have another meeting with Sherles today .. .remember?"

Wes pinched his nose and stifled a groan. Another meeting. Fantastic. He was beginning to wonder what the point of all these meetings were; other than obtaining a few new Pokémon, they had made precious little progress in tracking down any culprits or where the Pokémon were coming from. It wasn't like any of this got settled in meetings anyway. Inevitably, he'd pick another battle, Lon would do his work, and Sherles would be safely back at the station, ready to welcome them with paperwork and agendas. Sherles grilled him about what he'd seen, if any of the trainers seemed related—they weren't, but nothing Wes said would convince him otherwise, so they talked in circles for hours.

He mumbled a response as he forced himself out a bed in a foggy daze. He glanced at the three other Pokéballs on his belt, slung over the bedframe, and heaved a sigh.

If this really was his ticket to Johto, it would be faster to walk.


"That," Silva said slowly, "is a lot of Pokémon."

Rui sat with Wes and the others inside the cavern, each of them around the table that Duking's kids usually used for homework. Secc and Marci had been banished from the room for the duration of the meeting, much to their chagrin ("But why can't we stay? We already know what's going on!") and Lon, who had little interest in dull meetings, had been more than happy to go entertain his Pokémon in the living room.

They all turned to the large cluster of Pokéballs resting on the tabletop; including the four Pokémon Wes had Snagged from Phenac, they now had a total of twelve, with their newest being a Quagsire that Lon had successfully snatched yesterday.

Sherles shook his head and rubbed his temples. "Merciful Arceus," he mumbled, "How many more are there?"

"What are we gonna do with 'em all, boss?" Johnson asked with a frown.

"For the last time, Johnson, don't call me boss—"

Rui looked back at Duking and Sherles across the table. "Well…what are our options?"

"That's the problem," Duking said. "Orre doesn't have anything in the way of Pokémon shelters, and we don't even have a Center in this town we could hope to turn them over to—once they're cured, of course."

He faltered a little at that last statement, and Rui's stomach sank. Despite her insistence that the dark auras of these Pokémon were steadily becoming clearer and purer, everyone else seemed to be getting more and more discouraged by the day. To them, Maku, Nani, and Kohna were all still prone to frenzied fits mid-battle, and she and Wes were struggling to work with them in such a state. It seemed that once they lost control, nothing could reel them in besides Wes shouting at them—and even then, that didn't always work.

Rui chewed her lip in frustration. There had to be a solution somewhere—but where?

"Couldn't some of you take them?" Wes' voice pulled Rui from her spiraling thoughts. "Johnson only has two of his own, right?"

Johnson tilted his head to the side thoughtfully, then shook his head. "Well … nah, that won't work. Sakura and Frego aren't just battling Pokémon, see. To be on the force, Pokémon and their handlers have to go through a lot of behavioral exams, and..."

He trailed off, but he didn't need to finish his sentence. None of the newly Snagged Pokémon would last more than five minutes in a behavioral evaluation.

Silva glanced at Duking. "I mean…you've got room on your team..."

Duking sighed and rubbed his forehead. "It's…it's not that I'm unwilling, but I already have my hands full, what with the Colosseum and the kids…but I could take in a few, I suppose. It could be good for them to train with Omi and Hiro."

"And you, Lycas?" Sherles looked at Wes. "You have room for one more, yes?"

"Technically, yes," Wes said tersely. "But I don't know how smart it would be to take another one. My hands are full with who I've got."

He could say that again, Rui thought. Maku and Kohna were docile enough—most of the time—but Nani alone had enough attitude for all five of his team.

But, to Rui's mild surprise, Wes sighed and said, "If I can find one that I think will be a good fit and won't be too difficult, then…I'll consider it."

That still left them with several Pokémon unaccounted for. Johnson threw Duking a hopeful look. "Well...what about Secc and Marci, then?" he proposed. "They seem mighty eager to be trainers—"

"With all due respect, officer, there is no way in hell I am letting my kids train those Pokémon." Duking raised his head and gave Johnson a hard stare. "If they were normal Pokémon I might consider it, but these ones…they're dangerous. I won't entrust them to anyone but a skilled trainer."

Sherles nodded. "That would be for the best, I think."

"Oh!" Rui perked up. "Why don't you take some, Chief?"

There was an awkward pause in which both Silva and Johnson shifted uncomfortably. Duking sighed again, and Sherles' face was taut. From the shifting auras in the room, Rui immediately sensed that she'd hit a nerve.

"I—um, sorry, I didn't mean to offend..."

"S'okay, Miss," said Johnson. He shifted in his seat and glanced at the Chief. "Boss just…doesn't do Pokémon."

"It's alright, Johnson," said Sherles with a wave of his hand. He looked at Rui with a small smile, but it didn't quite reach his eyes. "I used to be a trainer, Miss Everlin, but I haven't been for nearly twenty years now. Not since I lost my starter on the job."

Oh. Oh. Rui felt her stomach drop and heat rush to her face. "I—oh, Arceus—I'm so sorry, I shouldn't have—"

"It's quite alright, my dear." Sherles' reply was understanding. "You didn't know."

Silva mercifully interrupted the brief pause that followed. "Well…what about you, Rui? Have you ever thought about being a trainer?"

Rui noticed Wes shoot her a sideways glance, though he said nothing. She dropped her gaze to the table. "I...I don't do Pokémon, either. For reasons similar to Sherles'."

Silva frowned, but said nothing.

Johnson stared at her for a moment as he processed her statement. Understanding blossomed across his face. He blurted, "Do you mean you lost a—?"

"What about you, son?" Sherles cut him off with a sharp look before turning to Silva.

Silva blanched. "Wh—uh—me?"

"No, the other Silva," Wes mumbled dryly. Rui bit back a snort.

Duking sighed. "A trainer, Sherles. Silva's never even had a Pokémon, and I certainly don't think his first should be…one of these." He gestured vaguely at the many Pokéballs on the table.

But Silva was now looking at the Pokéballs with a strange look on his face, as though he'd never considered the possibility before. "I mean…I've never had my own Pokémon, but I've spent my whole life around them, and helping out at the Colosseum…"

"Heh. You should give the Misdreavus a try," Johnson said with his usual lopsided grin. "He sure seems to like you, doesn't he?"

Silva paled a little. "H-he likes to torment me. Not the same thing."

It was true that the Misdreavus, Dio, had a nasty habit of tormenting anyone in general—popping out of shadows with a screech, phasing through walls next to people's heads, and pestering the other Pokémon while cackling maniacally—but the ghost was particularly interested in Silva. Rui didn't know much about ghost types, but she and Wes both guessed this was due to the fact that Silva himself had claimed he was not fond of ghost types, thus leading Dio to fixate on his fear.

The worst part, however, was trying to work with Dio in any constructive way. While all the new Pokémon were allowed out of their balls under Wes and Duking's supervision, Dio's antics in particular made him nearly impossible to reign in without having Novo watching his every move.

"I don't think it's a good idea," Duking said curtly. "He's not experienced."

"He has you, though, doesn't he?" Wes said. "If he wants to try, he's got space to train in the Colosseum. And you'll be there with your team to keep things from getting out of hand."

That's a good point, Rui thought. Wes had been utilizing the Colosseum on its off days to train with his team, and it was certainly a relief to have an open space where the unstable Pokémon could be worked with more safely.

Duking seemed to be mulling this over when Silva said, a little quietly, "I wouldn't mind giving it a try."

Sherles gave a curt nod. "Well then, aside from that, it seems we don't have many other options other than to keep up with what we're doing, then. Are things still working in the Colosseum?"

"Well enough," said Duking. "It's a good spot to work with several Pokémon at once, and they do seem to be responding to training, though some are more receptive than others."

Duking, with Silva's help, had been taking as many of the Pokémon as they could to the Colosseum to work and train with them on their breaks. At first, Rui wondered why he didn't simply train with Wes—but she had a suspicion it had something to do with the frosty atmosphere she'd detected between the two. Better not to pry.

The conversation shifted to Wes and Rui and any information they'd been able to gather—which was, unfortunately, next to nothing. Every trainer Wes had battled either dodged his questions, refused to speak to him outright, or simply answered with a smug variation of, "Wouldn't you like to know?"

"No one's talking," Wes said, and Rui could hear the frustration in his tone. "Whoever is responsible for this, they're powerful enough to keep all these trainers quiet. The most I've been able to get is that they seem to be getting these Pokémon after a battle of some kind, but that's it."

Johnson cocked his head to the side. "A battle, huh? Like a special sort of battle?"

"No idea."

There was a heavy silence. The weariness in the room felt suffocating.

"I—I'm taking notes!" Rui spoke up, a little louder than she meant to. "On the Pokémon, I mean. On what's working and not working. I've noticed the ones that have spent the most time with us have much calmer auras than the newer ones, so something is working. I think a lot of it is just…treating them right."

Duking nodded. "I agree. It's pretty obvious they haven't received the best treatment, though it seems to go farther than simple neglect. I know trainers in these parts are rough on their teams, but these Pokémon here—" He jerked his head to the table— "are all showing signs of serious abuse."

Rui nodded, then dropped her gaze to her lap. Even with the savage ones aside, the way Pokémon were treated in this town was horrible. After all, what kind of town had a Colosseum but not a Pokémon Center? (It didn't have a hospital for people, either, apparently.) It was all so foreign here, with the harsh battles and weaponizing of Pokémon. In Agate, Pokémon were friends, companions, another member of the family. While it was true that Agate mostly consisted of retired Ace Trainers from other regions, she'd never realized how different it was from the rest of Orre.

More things were said after that, but she had long since stopped paying attention, and instead mulled over possible solutions to their many problems. Perhaps she could ask Pap or Nan for advice…but that would mean sharing more details about the mission, and causing them more worry…

Rustling and movement made her jump and look up; the meeting had apparently ended, as everyone was rising from the table and breaking off into separate conversations. Wes already standing and gathering up his bag

She frowned at him. "Are you going somewhere?"

"I'm going out to run some errands today. We need more Pokéballs, and Lon said he knew a place that sold some here."

"Oh! Really?" Rui perked up. "Let's go, then!"

"No. I'm going alone." Wes' response was surprisingly curt, even for him. "It's in a not so great part of town, and I'd rather you not come."

Oh.

For some reason, his words hit her like a punch to the gut. Of course he wouldn't want her to come—what she'd seen of Pyrite was shady enough, so she couldn't imagine what the less desirable parts of town were like. And I'm worthless in that department, she thought dejectedly. In a place like that, I'm just…extra baggage.

She knew it made sense for her not to go, knew it was practical and not personal…so why did she feel so hurt?

Rui forced a small smile. "That…that makes sense. I was going to help Marci with her homework, anyway."

Homework. Wes was saving Pokemon. Duking was saving a city. I feel so useless.

Wes wasn't looking at her; he seemed preoccupied with gathering his belongings. He only briefly made eye contact with her to nod and say, "See you later, then," before walking out the door.

Silva and Johnson cheerfully bade him farewell and they, too, began filing out of the room with Duking and Sherles. Rui looked back down at her hands.

If I had stayed a trainer, would I have been more useful…?

"Rui? Care to join us?" Duking was still standing in the doorway and looking at her with mild concern.

"Y-yes, I'm coming!" Rui injected what she hoped was convincing cheerfulness into her tone and hopped up from her chair. Duking ushered her through the door with a small smile.

"You know, we're quite fortunate to have you here," he said lightly. "We wouldn't know where to begin without you and that impressive ability of yours."

Rui blinked up at him and returned his smile, a tiny flicker of warmth replacing the sinking feeling in her stomach. "Oh, I don't know about that. Wes is doing most of the work, anyway."

Duking shook his head. "Trust me, my dear, you're more valuable to this mission than any of us." His mustache twitched as he smiled wider. "I just thought you ought to know that."

Rui wasn't able to answer, as at that moment they entered the kitchen and Marci bounced up to her to tell her all about an art project she was excited about. Rui took a moment to take in the sight of the cozy kitchen, of Secc tucked into his usual seat as Duking ruffled his hair, of the pleasant and bright auras emanating from all three of them.

Not useless. She raised a hand to her necklace and held it tightly. I am not useless.

She would keep repeating those words until she believed them.


Gods, he hated this bridge.

Wes squared his shoulders and clenched his jaw, forcing himself to keep his eyes straight ahead as he walked across the creaky wooden planks. The Colosseum lay just ahead, a once-impressive wooden dome that now looked as though a tornado had ripped through it. No matter how many times he'd trekked across the gaping canyon that separated the Colosseum from the rest of the town, he still felt as queasy as he had the first time.

The bridge swayed slightly in the updrafts from the black abyss below. Wes felt his heart skip a beat and cursed quietly under his breath. He did not relax until he finally made it through to solid ground on the other side.

Wes allowed himself a moment to take a few deep, shaky breaths, then let Neo and Novo out of their Pokéballs. Logic told him they would have been just fine crossing the bridge with him, but the thought of either of them slipping off the edge was enough for him to dismiss that thought.

"Es-prrrrr!"" Neo trilled as he shook out his coat. Novo yawned and blinked sleepily.

"Keep an eye out, guys," Wes said, his voice low. "We're expecting some…old friends."

Both of them tensed and sharply met his gaze. They understood what he meant.

Wes had spent the last hour walking the side streets of town, waiting for her to reappear. He'd kept Neo close, and as soon as the Espeon alerted him with a soft chirp, he'd felt the hairs rise on the back of his neck.

He'd meet her on his own terms.

Wes stepped into the empty Colosseum and made for the training arena, a smaller dome behind the main one that was little more than wooden walls and rafters and packed-down sand for the floor. A few empty oil drums sat along one side—props for training exercises, he figured. He leaned against one and waited.

Neo and Novo sat at attention on either side of him, ears pricked and eyes alert. After several minutes, Neo's tail lashed and Novo rumbled softly. Wes raised his eyes to the hole-y ceiling and spoke, his voice echoing in the vacant space.

"I know you're here."

Several beats of silence. Then—

"Long time no see, Leo."

Her voice, though soft and low, still carried across the dome. Wes flicked his gaze to the entrance and saw exactly who he was expecting to see.

Instead of the usual dark, baggy Snagem uniform, she was sporting a leather jacket and slim, dark denims with sturdy boots. Her short, choppy haircut was long gone; now her hair flowed in sleek, straight tresses all the way down to the center of her back.

"Renna," Wes said quietly.

"Wes." She strode out of the shadows and took up a position a few feet in front of him, though she still kept close to the edge of the room. Never leaving her back exposed, like a good Snagem member.

She leaned against the wall and regarded him with a cold, gray-eyed gaze. "Miss me?"

Two growls saved Wes from having to answer. Novo stalked forward, hairs rising on his nape, lip curled to reveal a sharp set of fangs. Neo weaved around Wes' legs and took a protective stance in front of him.

Renna merely spared them a passing glance. She looked back at Wes with a raised eyebrow. "Turned them against me already, have you?"

"I didn't turn them against you." Wes returned her icy stare with his own. You did that yourself.

"Figures." She pushed herself off the wall and came closer, ignoring how Novo's snarls grew louder with each step she took. Wes gave no command to attack, however, so the Umbreon simply nipped threateningly at her heels as she passed him by.

She came to a stop scarcely a few inches from Wes' face. This close, he could see her smile barely masked sharp edges of anger.

"I'm a little hurt, you know," she said smoothly. "You didn't even bother asking if I wanted to come along for the ride?"

"Slipped my mind, I guess," Wes answered coldly.

"Oh, come now. I know we weren't rainbows and sunshine, but I doubt you'd forget about me so easily." She leaned in, uncomfortably close—intentionally close, he knew.

"Are you done?" he growled.

"Oh, I'm just getting started." Her eyes bored into his. "Tell me, what's this about you running off to play cop?" She raised a hand to fiddle with the collar of his coat in a mockingly flirtatious gesture.

Once upon a time, such a gesture would have meant something to both of them—but that time had long since passed. He pushed her firmly by the shoulder and spoke in a low voice.

"Step. Away."

A gleam entered Renna's eyes, one that Wes knew well, and he wondered if she would push back just to challenge him. Instead, she took a few steps back with a mocking snort, ignoring the growls from Neo and Novo as she moved.

"Even after all this time, it doesn't take much to get under your skin, does it?"

"Don't test me, Renna."

Her eyebrows shot up, then she tossed her head back and barked out a laugh that rippled with cold, righteous fury. When she looked back into Wes' eyes, her own were bright with anger. "Are you threatening me, now?"

"Depends," Wes spat. "What do you want? Why are you here?"

"Isn't it obvious? I've been sent to track you down. Drag you back to Snagem if I can." She crossed her arms. "Wakin assigned me the job himself."

"Of course he did." Wes tried and failed to mask his own anger as he spoke. "Wouldn't entrust the job to anybody but his favorite, now, would he?"

He'd struck a nerve.

She was back in his face before he could even blink; her hands closed around the lapel of his coat as she slammed him into the oil drum behind him, a snarl tearing from her throat.

"Don't you dare go there. You of all people should know—"

"BRI!"

Novo's enraged bark rang in Wes' ears. He saw the Umbreon advancing on Renna, back arched, rings pulsing, ready to tear into her in an instant. Neo flanked her on the other side, his jewel gleaming with psychic energy.

Renna's eyes flicked to them and back to Wes. "Call them off," she said softly, "or I will make things ugly."

Her hand twitched to the two Pokéballs on her belt.

Wes glowered back at her, seething with hot fury. He didn't doubt Renna's promise to wreak havoc, however, and silently returned Neo and Novo to their Pokéballs before shoving her away.

She huffed and straightened her jacket. "Don't go there," she repeated, glaring daggers at him. "Don't you dare."

He scoffed at her. "Am I wrong? One day you hate everything about Snagem and what it stands for, and the next you're sucking up to Gonzap and Wakin, chomping at the bit to do all their dirty work—"

"Well, we weren't all as lucky as you, were we?" Renna snapped. "We weren't all naturally gifted, so some of us had to scrape and claw for every chance to make ourselves useful!"

Wes folded his arms. "Don't make it sound like it was easy for me. You know damn well it wasn't."

"But that didn't stop you, did it?" she hissed. "Didn't stop you from stepping on everyone else to survive, to rise up the ranks, and now you have the nerve to lecture me for doing the same thing, for trying to protect my family—"

"There you have it, then!" Wes shot back. "You protected yours, and I protected mine!"

"By blowing up the base?" Renna's volume rose with every syllable. "Do you realize how many people you could have killed? Kian has scars because of you!"

Wes' stomach wrenched. He'd been careful, so careful, about timing with the shifts on base to minimize casualties, but he'd known there were bound to be injuries. Kian was one of the few grunts he'd never had issues with … but the damage had already been done. He couldn't afford regrets.

"I didn't blow up the base," he said, forcing his voice to remain even. "I blew up the Snag Machines. There's a diff—"

"Oh, sure!" Wes saw Renna's eyes briefly scan his blue coat, then she looked back at him with a bitter, scathing sneer. "I'm sure Alden would be so proud of who you've become, Leo—"

It was Wes' turn to lunge.

He seized Renna by the collar of her jacket and wrenched her face close to his. Rage blazed in his chest.

"Don't call me that, don't ever call me that, and how dare you—"

"How dare I? How dare you! You LEFT!" Her shout echoed painfully off the rounded walls. "You left, Wes, and you didn't tell me anything before you—you—"

Her voice cracked.

Wes stared, shock slowly washing over his hot anger. Renna's eyes glistened with angry tears; her smooth facade from just a few minutes ago having crumbled to dust.

"I..." His grip slackened. After months of watching Renna dive headfirst into the life of Snagem authority, of watching her appear to revel in it, he'd chosen to keep her in the dark about his plans. Perhaps, if they'd been on speaking terms at the time, he might have known how she really felt, and things would have been different…

You were no better, the voice in his head hissed, almost gleeful. You subscribed to that life just as much as she did, didn't you? After Alden—

I know. He clenched his teeth. I know.

Renna was trembling slightly, still glowering at him, and Wes could no longer deny the shame swelling up inside his chest.

"I'm sorry," he said quietly.

Her eyes flashed; she shoved him forcefully away. "Shut the hell up! You think I want your pity? I've made my decision and I'm stuck with it. But don't you dare think for one second it's because I wanted to."

Silence filled the space between them. Wes closed his eyes and ran a shaking hand through his hair, forcing himself to take deep breaths. Renna's remark had cut deep, slicing at him like an icy knife—and she was right.

Wes was nothing like Alden had taught him to be, and he hated himself for it.

Still, she knew better than to call him Leo, knew how much he hated that name and what that meant to him, and—

Wait. Wait.

He glanced down at the Pokéballs on his belt.

A name—

"Dammit, Wes," Renna said through clenched teeth. "If you'd just left the region like a sane person, I wouldn't have had to deal with all of this."

Wes shook away his thoughts and looked back up at her, taking in the frustration on her face. He leaned back against the oil drum once more and folded his arms to hide the fact that they were trembling. "So. You found me. Now what? Going to turn me in?"

She didn't answer right away. Instead, she narrowed her eyes at him and mirrored his stance. When she finally spoke, her answer caught him by surprise.

"No."

He raised an eyebrow at her.

Renna sighed and shook her head. "Even if I wanted to drag you back to Snagem—and I'm not sure I don't—that's not what I'm here for. I was under orders to tail you and find out what you're up to, but nothing more."

What? He frowned. He'd expected Snagem to attempt to drag him back at any cost. What was she playing at?

Renna must have seen his confusion, because then she said, "I didn't get it either—until I came here." She paused. "Somebody here has a monopoly on your head, Lycas. And they're powerful enough that Snagem doesn't want to get involved."

Wes stared at her, a chill running down his spine. "What?"

"That's what I should be asking," she said coldly. "I mean, what the hell, Wes. First you go rogue, then you look like you're leaving the region when I lose your trail…and when I find you again, you're here? Doing something—whatever it is—to piss off someone you don't want to be pissing off, frolicking around with the cops, of all people? What is wrong with you?" She snorted. "And don't think I haven't seen that frilly little side piece of yours following you around."

He bristled. "It wasn't supposed to be this way. I got roped into things I didn't sign up for—but what do you mean, there's a monopoly on my head? Where did you hear that from?"

"You know how it is here. Trainers talk. Somebody's in charge of this town, and it sure isn't that pseudo-mayor, no matter how much he might think it."

"Who, then?"

Renna shrugged. "The only name I was able to get out of anybody was 'Cipher.' People were too freaked out to tell me anything more." She sighed wearily. "Look, I don't know what you're up to here in Pyrite, and I don't know why you haven't just ditched Orre entirely—and that ridiculous girlfriend of yours—but listen to me when I say this, Wes. People are out for your blood—and not just here. Gonzap would love nothing more than to kill you with his bare hands."

"First of all, she's not my girlfriend," Wes said curtly. "Second, I know Gonzap well enough to have figured that out for myself, thanks."

Renna tipped her head back."That stunt you pulled was stupid and reckless as hell, but I will say you missed out on the show afterwards." A bitter grin flashed across her face. "I've never seen him so pissed. Thought he was going to tear down the rest of the building himself in his tantrum. Got some good burns from the explosion, too."

That was satisfying to hear. "Good. He deserved it."

Her eyes glinted with fierce satisfaction. "Hell yes, he did."

They looked at one another. "So…you're not going to turn me in?" Wes asked warily.

"Like I said. I don't think I can, at least not without putting a target on my back. And unlike you, I'm not too keen on the idea." She sighed again, and her face softened a little. "If you know what's good for you, you'll high-tail it out of Orre as soon as you can. There's nothing good waiting for you here."

Wes shook his head. "I can't."

Renna raised an eyebrow."Why? Is it because of that girl?" She smirked. "I know things didn't pan out when we tried to go steady, but—come on, now. Really? Her?"

"It's nothing like that."

She rolled her eyes. "Coulda fooled me, with the way she follows you everywhere and looks at you with those big eyes. She's like a lovesick Poochyena pup."

Lovesick? Wes briefly reflected on the times Rui looked him in the eyes, and distinctly remembered her expressions. Bewildered. Frustrated. Flat out annoyed.

He scoffed. "Please. You're exaggerating."

"Oh, maybe a little. I think my point still stands, though."

He changed the subject to more pressing matters. "What are you going to do, then?"

"I'll stick around, for now. Who knows? Maybe I can strike a deal with this mysterious person who so badly wants to bring you in." This time her smile felt real. "But for now, it looks like my hands are tied. I can't touch you."

"And if things were different?" Wes asked. "Would you really turn me over to Gonzap?"

Renna met his gaze evenly, and for a moment, neither of them spoke.

"I don't know," she said quietly.

Wes didn't know how to respond to that, but he didn't have to; Renna stood up straight, her expression becoming impassive once more. "Well, as fun as this little reunion was, I have other things to do."

"Not going to grill me with questions, are you?" he asked dryly.

She raised an eyebrow. "And what good would that do? Unless you're saying you'll tell me what it is you're doing?"

"Depends. What is Snagem going to do with the information?"

Renna shrugged. "Dunno, that's not my decision. But I can't imagine it spells good news for you or your new friends." She sneered at the last word.

Friends? No, Wes certainly wouldn't call any of them that. But he thought of Rui, of Marci and Secc and the other kids at the house…

He looked her in the eyes. "I can't tell you anything."

She snorted. "I figured as much. I could try to force it out of you, but I'm not an idiot." Her gaze flickered to the Pokéballs on Wes' belt—she'd noticed his three new ones, then. She looked back at him. "Once a Snagger, always a Snagger, huh?"

Wes clenched his teeth and refused to answer.

"Not to worry, I'll get the information I need one way or another." Renna dusted off her jacket and headed for the exit. Wes expected her to leave without another word, but as she reached the door, she glanced back over her shoulder. "And...Wes? I don't know why you're here, but...try not to get yourself killed."

He gave her a wry smile. "I don't plan on it."

She huffed in amusement. "Moron. Give those gremlins of yours some love for me. Cobalt and Viria miss them."

He nodded, and then, in the blink of an eye, she was gone.


Author's Notes:

Uhh, wow, it's been a minute, hasn't it? Haha...

Sorry for the unexpected hiatus! The holidays slammed me hard, and since then I've been collaborating with two new beta-readers to polish current and future chapters! As such, I will be reposting revised versions of each chapter over the next two weeks and hope to have them all finished before chapter 16 is published. The changes I plan to make largely involve scenes with Rui and Duking, so if anything in this chapter feels "off," that might be why. Sorry about that—it will all make sense soon, I promise!

And on that note, I'd like to give a HUGE shoutout to An Author's Pen and kintsugi, who have volunteered to beta-read new chapters! Their feedback has been so ridiculously helpful and I am beyond honored to have their help. Please do check out their profiles and their work—I assure you they are much better writers than I am!

Due to editing, things are going to go off schedule for a little while, but don't worry! I am working to move OSAS forward every day! When things get back on schedule, I will likely keep it to every two weeks just to give my betas time to read and provide feedback.

Thanks for all your support, and I hope you enjoyed this chapter!

*Due to an increasing number of comments per chapter, I'm going to resort back to responding to reviews via PM! Largely because I don't want to grossly inflate the word-count to be bigger than it actually is, and I usually respond to most of you through PMs, anyway, lol.*

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