Unlike most of my writing, I'm posting parts of this before it is complete.
Chapter 4a: Perceptions.
James entered his home and gave a nodded hello to the pokemon on his couch, which was returned with a terse "ba'ah." The pokemon in his seat was a flaaffy, munching away at a raw hot dog. Impulses to ask why Frankie was inside his home--watching his television--and why what outwardly seemed to be an herbivorous species was eating pressure-cooked-at-the-factory beef competed for a moment, but since Frankie was a mute, surrendering to either impulse would only receive a slightly sarcastic bleat in return. Many mutes humored the humans that would talk to them as though a meaningful conversation could be upheld, but Frankie became impatient with any question too complicated to answer with a basic gesture.
Mr. Rainier continued wordlessly through his living room for two strides before a shrill squawk caused him to stop and look toward his backyard, just in time to glimpse an immolated grovyle fly across a window's view. He walked out to see Burner easily lifting Sam off of the ground and sort-of to his feet amidst scattered plastic patio chairs. Burner helped him inside while Joe opened his room's window and leaned outside to see the commotion's cause.
Frankie shifted from the center of the couch to make room for Sam as Burner approached to place him upon it. Joe exited his room noisily shaking a can of burn spray and tended to Percival's starter.
Sam addressed his opponent with advice rather than admonition. "Burner, you must be more careful. Someday, you will hurt someone you care about a lot."
Burner hung his head and nodded thoughtfully as he turned to enter the kitchen and fetched Sam a glass of water, which seemed to immediately improve the lizard's condition. The combusken asked if they could face off again, later, if for no other reason than to prove that he would be more careful, but Sam declined.
"When I evolve, we can fight again. Your advantages have grown bigger than my experience."
Joe noticed that James was still standing in the backyard, fixing some disrupted survey stakes. James turned as Joe approached. "Mrs. Finnegan got tired of her yard being ruined by your and Percy's pets, so now they're ruining mine."
Joe hoped to cover with humor. "Well, the way it's taped off, it's like a combat circle, right?"
James re-tied a broken ribbon. "Not for long, unless you plan to fight with water-types. I got the money straightened out, so we'll be getting the pool in next month."
James' son lit up with joy, giving his father a rather atypical hug, vocally expressing his excitement, and running inside to share the good news with his pokemon and guests. James wandered to the side of his home and gazed into the sky, checking the western horizon for a single small cloud that always seemed to be up there whenever he looked for it. "I told you we'd have a pool someday, Nelson."
Joe set aside his good news. As he re-entered the living room, he saw Sam trying and failing to convince his right foot bear his weight. Burner offered to carry Sam in his arms across town to the Pokecenter, but Joe interjected and invited Percival to come over.
Percival seemed more disappointed that Sam had gotten himself injured on a park day than worried about his condition, and recalled him into his ball. "Now that I finally got Fluffy evolved a stage--" Percival emphasized the word "finally" and scowled at Frankie, who returned the glare while casting a few sparks across his horns. "--I was hoping to get Sam started on his way to third-form. I guess that will have to wait a little while. Speaking of evolution, you're letting Grace lag behind. You said the T.D. showed her a couple levels away from going kirlia, come to the park and have her throw Komo around a few times."
"Uh, no. If she evolved, it'd--." Joe did not really have an excuse. "It would ruin her costume."
Percival was unimpressed. "Evolve the costume. You'll just need a little more paint and a witch's hat, which won't be hard to find." As he spoke, a rippled glowing form briefly appeared behind Joe, dimming to reveal Grace gently hovering with a finger to her lips. "Come on, we can grab that stuff while we're out."
Joe hoped to find a better excuse on his second try, but a flashback of a recent dream interrupted his effort, drawing an uncomfortable blush to his face. Unable to turn his neck, "she's got me from behind, doesn't she?"
Percival's tone was flat. "Yep. Does that mean you're coming?"
Grace made Joe nod his head.
"I'll get my stuff."
As Joe walked to his room, guided like a horse by a ralts standing tip-toed on his shoulders, Percival withdrew his other pokeball; the sight of which making Frankie almost choke as he rushed to finish his last hot-dog before being de-materialized.
His backpack exchanged school supplies for what few pokemon supplies Joe owned. Joe turned to exit, but faced a bedroom door telekinetically shutting before him. Grace drifted around his head and tried to give him the kiss that she had showed him, but she hesitated. It would not feel the same with the body that she had now. She wanted to do it with her arms around him, his around her, and with her sensory horn pressed beside his heart. She touched his temples again and replayed a moment of their shared dream when she spoke the words, "I will be able to, someday."
After the boys and their animals left him in solitude, James sat at his desk and stared at an envelope for almost twenty minutes. He almost opened it many times, but resisted, leaving the corner of the envelope's flap bent outward but not torn. "Don't live today for tomorrow," he muttered to himself. James slipped the envelope into a manila folder labeled "POOL" and filed the folder away in his locked drawer, psychologically leaving his troubles behind himself.
Despite her enthusiasm, Grace was not having a very good day at the park. Between Frankie's static preventing her from messing with his mind directly without both suffering paralysis--synchronization of which not affecting his strategy much--and his having been programmed with the T.M. for shock-wave making double-team evasion and short-range teleport dodging worthless, Grace became appreciative that he was just play-fighting with her during her visit to the Finnegan's home. Her pairing against Matthew's kadabra seemed more like a fair fight, but that was because Roscoe turned their match into tutelage, instructing her in ways to focus and enhance her powers by communicating with Grace telepathically while they put on a marginally-convincing show for their audience.
Burner was seeing far more success than his teammate. While the trainers-in-training's pokemon had experience, levels, and sometimes elemental advantage over him, they were seeing first-hand why circuit trainers would spend great sums for professionally-bred pokemon. As dangerous as it was to get within a meter of either a Fighting- or Fire-type in combat, bringing the fight to Burner usually worked best. Keeping a distance just meant dancing around well-targeted embers, and the longer a battle lasted, the more obvious and advantageous Burner's practically-inexhaustible stamina became.
Terrance dealt the cards and Grace got Komo again. Or, to be more specific, Komo got Grace again. Komo had learned to keep his center of mass under control and not to over-extend; as long as he played safe and kept her pressured, she would eventually have to take a hit, and that would end their match. His bulky hands made the limp ralts that he carried seem even smaller than she was. Joe accepted Grace back and gave her a sitrus berry after a couple gentle slaps on the cheek brought her to attention.
Percival took a look around; Burner, Komo, and Roscoe were the only pokemon still standing. Everyone else's were in their balls or lying on the grass recovering. "Okay, it's break time. Let's see who gets page duty." He dealt out the cards again and gave Komo the opportunity to cut the deck.
Solymar was the lucky winner, much to her irritation. "Way to go, lizard lips. Well, my new purse isn't designed to carry you boys' little balls. Komo, make someone volunteer a backpack."
Sensing the group's knowing that he only carried his T.D. and a few items, Joe volunteered his after removing his equipment, and reluctantly recalled Grace to add hers to the pile of balls that Komo soon scooped into Joe's backpack and carried away behind Solymar, who was already talking on her telephone and well away from the group.
Burner approached his master and tapped him on the shoulder. "Joe, does this mean I can fight with Roscoe until she and Komo come back with the other pokemon?"
His question was answered from afar. "You can play with me if you want to!"
Trainers and pokemon alike turned to see the source of the mysterious female voice that seemed to come from a nearby tree. Her blue and black fur serving surprisingly well as camouflage behind the tree's green leaves, Alice was unseen by any but Roscoe before she hopped down from the branch she was using as a bench.
Terrance quipped as she approached the group. "Whoa. If there are riolu in these trees, I'll headbutt them myself if I have to."
Not that there were many riolu running around Rennin, but the ribbons she wore made Joe certain that they had crossed paths before.
She walked up to Burner and asked, "well, do you want to?"
"Uh, yes. But, our masters have to gi--"
Burner's left claw was taken by Alice as she led him into the circle. He was not certain what to do. His mind was distracted by various thoughts. Permission to fight, from both Joe and from this riolu's owner, for one. That he was being challenged by a complete stranger, for two. A third thought was the one causing him the most confusion, but he had no idea how to rationalize it. All three were knocked out of his mind, much like the wind from his lungs, when his chest took a blow that carried him aloft and landed him on his back, seeing now not a blue and black riolu in a loose fighting stance but a cyan and white sky.
"I thought you wanted to play." Alice crouched beside Burner with a genuine look of concern.
He held his breath as he stared up into her intently-focused eyes. That she considered a force-palm that bowled him over to be just playing raised Burner's temperature. "I do."
Alice smiled and returned to a starting position while Burner did likewise.
He intended to take the initiative, attacking immediately and forcefully, and instead he received the initiative in spades as she deftly countered his attacks. Burner backed up and tried to rely on ranged fire-based attacks, only to see her cast copycat and throw them right back. Playing his stamina as a trump card, Burner moved in close again, hoping that she was now tired enough that he could pressure her until she left him an opening without a counter attack waiting in the wings.
At the trainer's bench, Joe realized that this was about the time when Burner started out-running his opponents, and commented to Percival, "I hope he doesn't hurt her. We saw what he did to Sam today."
Terrance laughed and leaned toward Matthew. "Matt, twenty quatloos on the newcomer."
Joe remembered that comment from before; it was something Terrance seemed to say when a small female pokemon was about to win her debut match. "What do you mean by that?"
Terrance just smiled. "Keep watching, about fifteen seconds from now."
Percival broke the suspense for Joe. "She was copycatting his embers a moment ago, so she's at least level 29, and that means she also knows reversal."
Joe knew only moves that his T.D. listed amongst his own pokemon's abilities. "What's a reversal?"
Terrance just smiled. "I said keep watching. See how her antennas are lifting up? Three, two, one."
Alice shouted like a professional tennis player as she delivered a blindingly-powerful blow to her opponent that sent him flying backwards, not unlike the opening force-palm, but this time he flipped forward, completing three-quarters of a turn before landing once again on his back. Alice herself could barely stand and opted to half-crawl to Burner's side. She licked some blood that was trailing down the corner of her mouth. "Hey, you okay?"
Burner slowly opened his eyes and rolled them around a bit before finding the blur that spoke to him. He made a sound of indeterminate value, which she took as a yes.
"You fight good. Wanna be friends?"
He made another sound of indeterminate value, which she also took as a yes.
The trainers as a group stood over the fighters.
"You both look terrible," said the obvious-stating Joe. "I guess both of them need to go to the Pokecenter, too, now." Joe did not mind the trip, but would rather put it off until Solymar returned with both his backpack and his Grace. He asked of Alice, "where is your trainer? You need to be taken care of."
"He's--I can take care of myself." Alice tried again to stand, but faltered and fell onto Burner, who responded only with a sound of indeterminate value. Rolling off of him, she admitted her weakness, slightly. "I just need a minute."
Percival helped Alice to her feet and kept her stable while Joe mostly drug Burner behind them. At the battle bench, Joe sifted through his few supplies for a revival salt crystal while Matthew offered Alice a concentrated health tonic which she graciously accepted, despite its wretched flavor. Joe squeezed the crystal until it shattered in an explosive puff of powder near Burner's nostrils. Three seconds, and he sprang awake, swinging his arms as though he were completely off-balance.
Solymar and Komo returned, fashionably late and full of complaint. "Of course you give me the losing card on the day that every trainer between here and Indan Falls is in line wanting something time-consuming. And, that wasn't the worst of it." She noticed Joe and the jackal sitting beside him. "What is it with this doofus? A wild shiny of notorious species hops into his lap," she glanced at Percival, "your uncle gives him a five-and-a-half-star starter, and now he's got a lucario-to-be."
Alice took another swig of her potion, its acrid personality un-reminding her of her evolutionary difficulties.
Joe shifted nervously. "She's not mine. Uh--"
"--Alice has a trainer, but she was watching us and wanted to join in."
"Oh, the more the merrier." Solymar signaled Komo to give Joe his backpack back. Soon, the table was surrounded by rejuvenated and hungry pokemon, passing around food and berries. The trainers recounted Burner's epic battle for the pokemon who were absent over their lunch.
Afterward, Percival called out the eternal question, "anyone want to go next or do we cut for it?" and Alice seized the Now.
"Her! I need to go home soon, but I've never fought one of her kind before."
Joe really wanted to say no, but Grace was already wiping her mouth with a napkin and headed into the circle.
Since both preferred passive strategies, their fight began with a stare-down. Alice could feel Grace synchronizing with her, and decided that time was on her opponent's side. She closed their gap and intended to outpace Grace with a quick-attack.
Sensing Alice's plan, Grace realized that she could not use that particular technique, but considered doing something similar. She felt lighter, not due to levitation, but something else; she felt as if she was not there and also like she was being pulled to where she wanted to be.
To the audience, Grace seemed to become semi-transparent, with a dark purple tint muting her colors.
Alice lunged forward and swung at Grace, but hit nothing. At that very moment, Grace phased back into existence behind Alice's head and with a half-turn, spun and smacked the riolu on both sides of her head with her fists. The blow was weak, but it kept her off balance and momentarily disrupted her aura senses.
Grace seized the Now. Just as she did to Joe earlier that day, Grace clamped on to Alice's head and drove her forward like a jockey. Alice swung her arms around, hoping to recover her balance, but quickly realized that her stumbling momentum was overtaking her center of gravity and that her center of gravity was overtaking the circle's boundary. Her feet no longer beneath her, Alice fell over, halting her motion and letting Grace be the one victimized by momentum as she was cast off of Alice's shoulders, over her head, and onto the grass. To her credit, Grace did stabilize her fall enough to make it look like she landed on her feet despite her body being nowhere near upright. The survey-stake practice suddenly felt much more worthwhile.
Once again, Grace skipped ahead to receive accolades from Joe, who was surprised, but happy, to give them.
Alice followed, brushing a couple small twigs and broken blades of grass from her fur. "You fight smart. Mister, can I play with your pokemon again sometime?"
Joe noticed Grace scratching at her head. He wanted to assume that she too had debris in her hair, but he did not see anything. "Uh, sure, Alice. Anytime."
The riolu smiled cutely and started along a deceptive path home. She thought over her checklist; she was completing her objectives in reverse. Follow Daddy's rules, check; follow human rules, check; make trustworthy friends, today felt like a good start; find a safe place to live, could be better; hide the ball where no one will ever get it. That one was still a problem. Someone would have to know it was there to find it, but if someone did know, they could get in and out with it in minutes. It needed to be both inaccessible and away from herself. Behind a loose brick in the wall of the abandoned home's cellar was neither.
Joe watched Grace scratch her head again and remembered that he needed to pick up a pokemon shampoo that was approved for feathers; and perhaps verdant grass types, too. It would not hurt to be prepared. "Hey, Percy, what kind of shampoo do you use on Sam?"
Since Frankie was now competing, Percival was paying close attention to the action and did not appreciate Joe's distracting inquiry. "Shampoo? Duh, none. He's a Grass-type and has no hair. Blast him with the garden hose, he's clean."
Grace started scratching her scalp intensely with both hands.
"Actually, it's Burner. My shampoo said it's not for feathers or Grass-types. What am I supposed to use?"
Percival groaned and did not take his eyes off of the circle. "Most birds take care of themselves okay, but there are a bunch of powders you can get, for washing, for fragrance, and for parasites like ticks and mites."
Both Joe and Percival noticed a slow, rhythmic thumping sound, but ignored it; it was probably just a car with its bass cranked up.
Percival's tendency to ramble kicked in. "With feathers, the problem isn't the shampoo itself, but you can't work it in without damaging the feathers, and it never rinses out right so it dries and irritates the skin. The powders sift through and dissolve easily, though most don't need to be rinsed out, anyway--what is that noise?"
Joe and Percival turned, noticing that Grace was bashing her sensory horns against the concrete bench seat behind them. Joe was stunned, but Percival looked low and noticed that she was standing on cyan limbs that now poked two inches beneath her skirt.
"Congratulations, Joe, she's evolving."
"Urraghhhh!" Grace yelled as she assaulted the bench seat with all her might, breaking her front sensory horn off cleanly. While the image of its bloody root being exposed and healed-over within seconds burned itself into Joe's memory, Grace caught her breath, turned around, and began working on the rear one. Five warm-up strikes, one primal scream, and off it came, clattering against the bench seat as it fell alongside the other. She returned to scratching her head furiously above each of two columns of fleshy nubs that were imperceptible bumps before. As her second set of sensory horns forced their way through the flesh she clawed at, she screamed again and fell seated on the ground, closing her eyes tightly behind her now-bloody hands, balled into fists.
The rest of her transformation was, by comparison, straightforward. Her body continued to lengthen while her skirt drew up her newly-exposed legs, and her hair grew somewhat selectively, still doing a good job of covering her face and budding gills. Two minutes after her evolution began, she was standing up, despite some disorientation, and a few seconds more saw her float-leaping to Joe's waiting arms where she received a remark of congratulation from all.
Hunter was piss-drunk again. He always got piss-drunk when he visited Sabrina's Cantina. Hunter liked the place because it was the way he wanted to be: self-reliant and surrounded by wilderness. The structure had only three walls, providing an open-air experience. There was no electricity, water was channeled from the river that flowed over a waterfall a short distance away, and all the alcohol was apparently brewed or distilled on-site, although no customer knew where the equipment was hidden. Of course, half-way up a modest mountain, there were very few customers. All the better for him; Hunter hated being bothered by strangers when things were going as badly as they always seemed to be going when he would wind up within hiking distance of Sabrina's Cantina.
Hunter Hague un-hung his head for a moment and stared at the murkrow that seemed insistent that Hunter immediately read the piece of mail that he carried.
He began with a heavily sarcastic tone. "Let's see, I wonder who this is from. Oh, it says at the bottom. Isn't that swell?" For a single second, he sobered up. "Oh, it is S'Well." Hunter leaned in close to the murkrow's beak. "Do or die, it says. He sent you all the way out here for three little words. Here, you need this more than me." Hunter slid the last sip of his whiskey glass to the murkrow, who turned away, having smelled enough alcohol coming off of Hague's breath.
"Not while you're on duty, right? Here, I don't wanna send you away empty-handed." Hague pulled a small feather from his pocket and let the murkrow carry it off. It was not much too look at in the shade, but it sparked with an eerie iridescence as soon as the day's fading sunlight struck it. Hague continued to the murkrow who had already departed. "And tell that crotchety old fart I want an extra fifty percent when I bring 'em in."
The proprietor cleared away Hague's plate and glass. "You'll never catch him. I told you, he's been luring you around for the fun of it all this time."
"Sabsie, I will. I'm going to get him and give him to that old fart and get my money and never have to work again."
"You know he'll just pat you on the head and tell you to bring him a lugia."
Hague slowly slid off of his bar stool, cast across the bar a handful of wadded bank notes, and put his hat back onto his head. "If I don't ever have to work again, catchin' a lugia sounds like it'd be a pretty neat hobby for a while." The hunter staggered away toward his campsite, drawing a stifled laugh from Sabrina as he collided with objects that were not even in his way.
All her patrons gone, Sabrina drew a heavy rope across the open wall and locked up her product. Hidden beneath an old and dirty rug, she lifted a hidden hatch door and descended a narrow ladder until she reached a cave that ultimately connected to an opening behind one of the local waterfalls. Its inky darkness receded from a point of light born of a wisp of sacred fire that lived for but a single second. Sabrina addressed that place in the pitch black aether and walked toward it carefully. "He said he will be headed for the other side of the falls, tomorrow." She walked until she felt a massive curtain of feathers envelop her body and draw her in. Never with him near was she afraid of the dark.