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    Actually Prefers Popeyes Kentucky Fried Torchic's Avatar
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    Pokémon: Exodus (PG)

    Hello, here is a short Pokémon novella which I wrote, broken up into nine parts. The original idea came to me in high school, longer ago than I'd like to remember, and it germinated for a long time before I was finally able to put it into words. I hope that you enjoy this revised edition of a story very dear to my heart, Exodus.

    Pokémon: Exodus
    Chapter One
    “Bye, daddy!” Katarina called over her shoulder brightly as she opened the door. “I’ll be home in a few hours!”

    The blonde-haired girl did not get her first foot over the threshold when a heavy hand materialized from behind her and held the door open. Attached to it was her father, his face stern and strewn with a generous dusting of black stubble. “Hold on there, Kat,” he said in a slow, measured voice. “Tell me where you’re going and for how long.” She began to speak, but he soon interrupted Katarina to say, “Slowly, please.”

    It took a conscious effort for Katarina to stop the words from flooding out of her mouth, but she managed it. “I’m going to go on a walk and have a picnic by the river, remember?” she said. “Down by the McGintry’s farm.” She had thought that it would be harder, lying to her father like this, but after spending an hour practicing in front of the mirror last night it was so easy that it was almost frightening. To bolster her credibility, Katarina held up her picnic basket for him to look into and said, “See?” Sure enough, there were sandwiches, fruit, and other foodstuffs inside of it.

    Katarina’s dad dutifully looked inside the basket and nodded. “Seems like a lot of food, Kat.”

    “Well, I’m going to be working up an appetite with the walk, right?”

    “I suppose that’s true. And what’s in the backpack? It looks heavy.”

    There was another question that Katarina had prepared for. “It’s just a blanket for the picnic, and don’t worry, daddy, I’ll wash it when I get home. Promise!”

    Her dad seemed to accept that answer as well, and he scratched his chin idly. “And you’ll be back in time for supper?”

    “Of course!” chirped Katarina even as, under the cover of her shoes, she crossed the first two toes on both of her feet.

    “I guess it’s all right then,” he said and the smile plastered on Katarina’s face became genuine. Her father bent over to give her a hug and a kiss and she pulled away from his scratchy cheeks.

    “Thanks, daddy,” she said and then she hurried off before he could change his mind. Katarina headed towards the road that ran by their farm in a blissful and unconscious combination of running and skipping that only a ten-year-old overflowing with delight could achieve. Her heavy picnic basket swung wildly from her speed and the gentle wind of a perfect early summer morning.

    Her euphoria had dimmed, but only slightly, by the time that she reached the dirt road and Katarina took a chance to look back at the single-story farmhouse that had been her home all her life. It was not the most attractive building. Its sagging roof that leaked when it rained and its unfinished paint job left two-thirds of the domicile’s red surface noticeably more faded and dirtied by the elements. She was going to be away from her home for longer than ever before and farther away too, if everything went smoothly. If it didn’t, Katarina knew that she would really catch hell from her mom and dad.

    But she had assessed the risks and the rewards, and this was the obvious choice. Even though she had had to lie and even though she was not sure exactly what lay ahead of her, Katarina knew that it would be worth it all for the prize at the end.

    Her own pokémon partner… The thought of it made Katarina brim with excitement and wrap her arms around herself. Her memories of home were pushed out of her mind by the bright future that her young brain was dreaming up. Katarina turned her back on the farmhouse and started off down the road with a spring in her step and a half-remembered tune whistling through her lips.

    Last night, while she had been washing dishes after dinner, Katarina had been listening in to her father’s radio. Sometimes her parents let her listen to music or programs designed for children, but most of the time when her parents turned it on, especially when her dad did it, it was to listen to the news. If Katarina had had any better alternative to the announcer droning on about current events than staring at soap bubbles, she would have taken it in a heartbeat, but she did not and so Katarina had found herself hearing about what was happening in the Tinko region.

    Both abroad and in other parts of the country, Tinko was seen as an insignificant backwater, but it had proven important enough in one way. Professor Samuel Oak, the world-renowned pokémon expert, was visiting the region from the mainland. Even a young farm girl knew his name and knew that he was famous for giving pokémon partners to children whose parents could not afford the licenses and other fees. Poor children like Katarina. So, when the newsman on the radio said that Professor Oak was going to be in Tinko City for a week, her ears perked up. The announcer had also said that there was no way of knowing when he would be coming back.

    Before she had put the last dish away, Katarina had made up her mind. She had gone from the kitchen to the bookshelf in the sitting room and pulled out the faded encyclopedia volume that her father had gotten at a swap meet. Then, Katarina had taken the book into her room, sat on her bed, and opened it up to a page showing a map of the Tinko region. With her pointer finger, Katarina had traced a line from about where her family lived to the capital city on the eastern coast. It did not seem very far at all. According to the key on the side of the map, there was about one hundred miles between the two points. That seemed like a lot, but Katarina had run her finger on the surface of the page again and watched it finish its journey in no time at all. To cover that distance in a week, Katarina would have to walk about fifteen miles a day.

    Thinking about the distance in that way did not make it seem easy, but it did make it seem easier. That was all the encouragement that Katarina had needed in order to seize upon her idea and try and turn it into reality. With only some hesitation, Katarina had torn out the page of the encyclopedia with the map of Tinko and winced at how loud the sound of tearing seemed to her ears. But neither of her parents came to investigate, so Katarina had continued with her preparations. For the rest of the night, Katarina had packed up clothes and made some sandwiches and other food. When her parents had asked what she was doing, she had spun them a story about going on a picnic and then had gone back to her work.

    By the time she had to go to bed, Katarina had convinced herself that she was physically ready for the week ahead. All the preparation that was left was in her head. She would be running away from home for a week, but when she came back with a pokémon without her parents having to go bankrupt in the process they would surely be overjoyed. Although Katarina had told herself that her mind was made up, it had still been difficult for her to fall asleep.

    Now that she breathed in the clean country air and saw the land spread out before her, however, the confidence that Katarina had felt when she had first seized upon the idea of meeting Professor Oak was back in full force. The morning sun was high in the sky and Katarina had no doubts that she would complete her trek. Her imagination was already conjuring up images of what awaited her at Tinko City. What would Professor Oak be like, and, more importantly, what kind of pokémon would he give her? Katarina’s head reeled with the possibilities.

    The happy thoughts kept Katarina going for the rest of the morning. Even though her eclectic skipping and running had petered out not long after she had set out, Katarina was still walking at a fairly brisk pace. She was making good time, too; Katarina could already make out the river that separated the edge of the McGintry family’s land from the next farm over and the small wooden bridge that crossed the narrow stream.

    Without warning, Katarina felt the breath hitch in her chest and her backpack and picnic basket feel suddenly heavy. She had never been this far east before. The McGintry’s were neighbors, to be sure, but she had passed their own single-story farmhouse fifteen minutes ago. It occurred to her that she could spread her blanket across any part of the grass that separated the dirt road from the carefully cultivated fields that were the source of the McGintry family’s livelihood, have a picnic, and simply go home. If she would only do that, then she would not have lied to her dad.

    On the other hand, if she went back, she might never get a chance like this ever again.

    That settled it for her. Katarina took a deep breath and took a step forward. Then, she heard a sound some distance behind her and turned around to see what it was. To her horror, the McGintry’s pet growlithe had woken up from its nap and was now barking wildly and straining against the simple rope that tied it to the tree in front of their barn.

    Katarina could not make out the details with her unaided eyes, but her fearful imagination filled in the gaps. She could picture the round face of Mr. McGintry stepping outside to see what all the commotion was about, squinting and raising his hand to shield his eyes from the sun, spying her and then waving her over. In this area of the countryside and at this time of day, there would only be one ten-year-old girl walking along the road by herself. Katarina had no doubt that she would be invited inside and Mr. McGintry would ask her questions, and for some reason lying to a neighbor struck her as a more harrowing prospect than doing it to her father.

    All of that flashed through Katarina’s mind in an instant and she took off at a full sprint from the path and into the field of waving wheat on the opposite side of the road from the farmhouse. Katarina thought that she could barely hear the farmhouse door open over the blood pounding in her ears. Her picnic basket was slamming against her as she ran, but the annoying sensation of wicker smacking against the bare skin of her leg was forgotten when Katarina stumbled and fell just after she cleared the edge of the waving wheat field, skinning her knee as she came to an abrupt halt.

    Fueled by anxiety, Katarina hardly noticed the injury and she crawled forward, moving deeper into the shelter of the wheat stalks. She was careful, but her best efforts did not stop Katarina from damaging some of the plants and she winced at each broken stalk. After the third time that this happened, Katarina stopped and listened. She waited to hear more shouting, the barking of the McGintry’s growlithe, or even a gunshot, but then she realized how ridiculous this whole situation was. She was running scared from the nice man who had been her neighbor her whole life!

    Still, even though her conscious mind knew how silly it was, Katarina did not stand up. Her head and shoulders would have easily cleared the field’s height, and she could have simply walked over to the McGintry’s home to explain everything. Instead, Katarina moved into a sitting position and caught her breath in the gold-tinted shade of the waving wheat. The color of the field’s rolling surface matched Katarina’s long braided hair almost perfectly, and even though she was sure, absolutely sure, that she was not in any danger, this small degree of camouflage brought her some comfort.

    The bright summer sun was almost directly overhead, so Katarina decided that no was as good a time as any to break for lunch. She pulled off her backpack and brought out the blanket that she had packed, spreading its red and black checkered pattern as best she could across a section of the field that was wedged between well-spaced rows of wheat. A few more stalks were broken in the process, but soon Katarina had laid out a small meal for herself. With how much walking she had done this morning, it took no small effort on her part to limit herself, but she had to try and make the food she had packed last for seven days.

    It was nice and quiet in the shade offered by the wheat field, and Katarina could appreciate it a lot more now that she was not scared. As she slowly chewed a mouthful of bread, cheese, and meat, she went so far as to congratulate herself for her quick thinking and marked the whole half-imagined incident as the first triumph of many that she would encounter on her journey eastward. Such was the mind of an excitable young girl setting out on the first proper adventure of her life.

    After she had finished her meal, Katarina carefully replaced the wax paper that she had wrapped her sandwich in inside of her basket and folded up the picnic blanket and stowed it in her backpack. Although the weight of her meal was negligible, to Katarina her basket felt half as light as it did before and she set off on her quest with a renewed sense of purpose.

    Soon, Katarina crossed through the crop of wheat to the side closest to the river. The sun was beating down on her, and she had emptied her flask with her noon meal. It would be a relief to fill it again and to have a drink from the vivid blue stream that bisected her path. There was no sign of Mr. McGintry or his growlithe, so Katarina stepped back onto the dirt road in order to ford the river over the wooden footbridge that she had spied half-an-hour earlier.

    It was not an impressive structure, sitting just a foot over the calmly yet persistently flowing water underneath, but it did represent a threshold between the world that Katarina knew and the one she did not. As such, the young girl felt compelled to stop halfway across its wooden surface and look back at all that she was leaving behind. She told herself that the act was motivated solely by sentiment. Katarina wanted to document this moment, that was all. When she had seen whatever it was that she wished to see, she turned back around and marched promptly over the river and the adventure that awaited her there.

    On the other side of the bridge, Katarina stepped down to the bank of the river to where a cluster of tall reeds were growing and knelt by the water. First her hands and then her canteen scooped up deliciously cool water as Katarina eagerly slaked her thirst. She allowed herself just a few minutes to relish the summer afternoon, but then forced herself out of her reverie and back to the task at hand. She still had miles to go before she could reach her goal for the day.

    Katarina started back on the dirt road and continued heading east. For the next two hours, she did not sing, whistle, or make any other kind of conscious sound. Instead, Katarina was content with simply taking in the new sights of a part of the world yet unseen to her. Much of it was farm fields and rolling hills that were unremarkable save for the fact that all these landmarks were completely new to her. No matter how physically similar they were to the ones that Katarina had known all her life, Katarina found herself taking them in with new eyes.

    Even without her voice adding to it, there was a sort of choir in the air around Katarina as she pressed forward. Birdsong and the fading sound of the river melded with the decidedly unnatural sound of the whistles of distant trains going on errands that Katarina was happy to only guess at. Time did not fly by, but neither Katarina did not mourn its passing.

    Her pace only slowed as she saw that the path that she was on was growing rougher in the distance. It was becoming overgrown with small weedy plants that were colonizing the dirt road from the nearby forest which loomed over either side of the road and cast lengthening shadows with the assistance of the slowly setting sun. There were woods closer to Katarina’s home to be sure, but those were much smaller and were bright and welcoming places where her dad could find some wild game and she and her mother could go hunting for berries or mushrooms. The forest that glowered at her from beyond the dirt path was a dark collection of trees growing thickly together. Katarina could not see through to the other side of the forest, and this made her anxious.

    This uneasiness grew as Katarina drew closer to the forest and her progress began to slow until she was inching along reluctantly. How many bedtime stories and fairytales had she heard, often by fervent request, where monsters living in the woods gobbled up wayward travelers, especially children? In fact, in a few of them, the trees were the monsters! Looking at the eagerly outstretching, grasping arms of the trees with bark so dark that they were nearly black, it was not hard for Katarina to picture the forest snatching her up like something out of a nightmare. She came to a stop a few yards from where the path bent and became undeniably close to the forest.

    Somewhere along the way, the birds had ceased singing and the sounds of the river had long since faded away, though when exactly these changes had happened Katarina could not hope to say. There were no train whistles either. Instead, the wind whistling through the branches of the trees was the only sound Katarina could hear except for her own breathing. The quiet sounded painfully loud to her ears now.

    Then, Katarina shook her head defiantly. How could she be frightened of a collection of trees? If she had seen one tree, she would not have been afraid, and if she had seen a dozen that would not have scared her either. So why should a hundred, or a thousand of them scare her? Besides, she added to herself, it was still daytime. Anyone who knew anything knew that the worst things in those old fairytales happened when the sun went down.

    She was not a baby or some ignorant peasant girl, Katarina decided, but a confident young woman on a mission. Superstitions and fears were just excuses for inaction! Katarina took a deep breath, puffed out her chest, and strode boldly into the shadowed path before her.

    Her immediate reward was a violent collision that sent Katarina sprawling halfway off of the road and into the weeds and wildflowers. She caught a flash of something purple- and cream-colored darting past her and vanish into the deep underbrush of the forest on the side of the path she had fallen into.

    There was not a lot of time to think about the departed creature, because there was another one standing on the dirt road. This one was a lot bigger, and it was clear that Katarina’s current state was its fault. Still, she counted herself lucky that she had only gotten some bruises and dirtied clothes from the collision since the pokémon standing on the dirt road was covered in sharp spikes that seemed to radiate in every direction. Its bright pink coloration warned Katarina and any would-be predators that those spines were poisonous. It was muttering to itself in a low huffing voice, and Katarina strained forward to try and make out its words.

    Apparently, that was the wrong move to make because the pokémon suddenly turned towards her and Katarina nearly went cross-eyed staring at the wicked-looking horn coming out of its forehead and pointing right at her. “Hey, you! Human!” the pokémon barked at her and Katarina could swear her eyes widened to the size of dinner plates. She did not say anything, and so the pokémon continued talking at her, “I almost had that rattata! You lost me my dinner! Do you understand what that means?”

    “Ah, I’m, uh, sorry, Mr. Pokémon,” said Katarina quietly but politely. She was trying to call upon her feelings of strength and confidence from earlier in the day, but too much of her focus was on the pink-skinned pokémon’s horn as it swayed around with the agitated movements of its owner.

    “I don’t care if you’re sorry!” snapped the pokémon harshly. “I need something to eat!”

    The pokémon strode towards Katarina and she let out a small scream, “Please don’t eat me!”

    “Don’t be stupid! You humans never leave home without something to eat! Give it to me!” The pokémon had stopped its advance to speak, but the reprieve was only temporary. It was sniffing the air eagerly as it drew nearer. “Yes, I can smell it. Nothing as warm and satisfying as freshly caught rattata, but it will do in a pinch!”

    Katarina shrunk back in fear and closed her eyes tight as she felt her tormentor’s warm, rank breath waft towards her. But before the pokémon could finish approaching her, a voice rang out from further down the road, near where the dirt path turned a corner and continued out of sight.

    “Stop menacing that poor girl,” it said. The voice sounded firm but raspy, as though its owner had not used it in a long time. “What kind of pokémon are you to be acting this way?”

    Katarina opened her eyes only to stare agog at this new arrival. It was another pokémon, a smaller one covered in brown scales. It stood upright on small but muscular legs balanced by a tail, and it held a white club in one paw that caught and reflected the rays of the dying afternoon sun. Its most striking feature, however, was that the pokémon’s head was almost completely obscured by a skull that gleamed in the same way as its weapon, and Katarina realized that they must be made of the same material: bone. Her potential savior did not look particularly reassuring clad in such grim armor, but Katarina was not willing to look a gift ponyta in the mouth just yet.

    “And what kind of pokémon are you?” sneered the larger creature as it turned around to face this challenge. “A domesticated weakling who will roll over and beg for some morsel from your master?”

    Behind its mask made of bone, Katarina could see the other pokémon’s dark eyes narrow. “I have no master,” he growled, and Katarina was surprised to hear how deep and authoritative he sounded.

    Even the larger pokémon seemed to take notice, and it swayed a little bit on its feet, unsure exactly what course of action to take. The stare-down between the two pokémon did not last long before the bigger one’s more aggressive instincts took hold and it charged forward, leading with its deadly horn.

    “Watch out!” Katarina cried, but her warning was superfluous. The smaller pokémon did not dodge the attack so much as he danced out of its way and slammed the head of his bone club into his attacker’s side with a single fluid motion.

    The pink pokémon roared in pain and frustration and it spun around to jab and swipe at its enemy with its horn. Katarina’s champion, as she had already starting thinking of him, parried the blows with glancing strikes of his own weapon. It was an effective defense when it came to avoiding injury, but the larger pokémon was still using its superior size and weight to push its enemy off the road and toward the cloying undergrowth of the forest where it would be much harder for him to move around.

    Both Katarina and her champion could see that this was what the larger pokémon was doing. But with the former still on the ground and the latter needing all his strength to ward off an enemy whose every attack could prove fatal, neither of them could think of a way to break the cycle before it would be too late.

    The small but valiant pokémon spoke and Katarina could hear the strain in his baritone voice as he continued to deflect the relentless thrusts of his foe’s horn. “Run, human!” he said through gritted teeth. “Run as fast as you can!”

    “Yes, little human,” the other pokémon said, only it made the last word into a vile insult, “run on home! Run and leave your food behind! I’m working up quite an appetite dealing with your friend here!”

    Katarina stood up and absentmindedly brushed off some of the dirt and leaves that she had landed on when she fell from her clothes and legs. “I can’t go home,” she said, more to herself than to the pokémon locked in combat, “not yet.” The young girl took a shaky step towards the dirt road, but her next one was more confident, and the one after that was stronger still. “I can’t go home without a pokémon. Otherwise, it’ll all be for nothing.” She swung her basket in her hand carefully. It was still mostly full of sandwiches and fruit, and she felt its weight tug at her arm at each end of its arc.

    “Eh? What are you blathering on about?” asked the pink pokémon without looking at her. It reared back on its hind legs in order to bring its full weight down for a final attack, but then it caught a glimpse of movement out of the corner of its eye. The brutal creature broke its concentration to glance over, only to realize too late that it was Katarina charging straight at it.

    The aggressive pokémon tried to face this new threat, but its efforts were complicated by the other pokémon, Katarina’s champion. Tired but still not defeated, the smaller pokémon took every advantage of the distraction which Katarina was providing him to land blow after blow on his foe’s body with his heavy bone-white club.

    He was soon joined by none other than Katarina herself, and the girl began whacking the beast from the woods repeatedly with the wicker picnic basket she was carrying. Under this two-pronged attack, the larger pokémon found itself retreating. It backed away from the underbrush and towards the dirt road, not out of any conscious strategy but rather out of a simple instinctual aversion to pain.

    The spike-covered pokémon was mean but it knew enough to see that it had underestimated its prey and her unexpected ally. It would have to escape in order to fight another day. But that did not mean that it had to run away without getting something for its troubles. It did its best to ignore the attacks of the other pokémon and instead watched for Katarina’s thoroughly abused basket. On its next approach, the pokémon let out a savage cry of triumph and skewered the basket with its horn. Then savage pokémon charged, barreling past both of its enemies towards the woods and safety with its prize.

    This plan was to be cut short by a single lucky strike by the weapon of Katrina’s champion. Spinning through the air over the larger creature’s sizable ears, the bone club struck true at the base of the long, but thin, horn and broke it off with a resounding crack. With that, the basket, with the horn inside of it, fell to the ground and the injured pokémon stared at it in dull surprise before turning on its heels and fleeing as quickly as it could. The woods echoed with its howl of pain and humiliation.

    Initially, Katarina and her champion silently basked in their victory. She was the first to break the silence, extending a hand to the diminutive pokémon. “Thank you,” she said, but the words did not sound like enough, so she added, “for your help.”

    He looked at Katarina’s hand and, after the barest indecision, took it. “It was my pleasure, young lady.”

    “Katarina,” she offered.

    “And I am called Exo.”

    She did not know what to say next, so Katarina stooped to the ground to examine the basket full of food that she had almost lost. She opened it up and dropped it suddenly. The horn of the pokémon which had attacked her was still inside, and it was leaking some sinister-looking purple substance that was trickling all over the food. The pokémon named Exo walked around to examine the basket and shifted its contents around with his club.

    “Nidorino venom,” he said simply. “Very deadly. You would get sick, or worse, if you ate anything in there.”

    Katarina nodded dumbly through Exo’s explanation. When he was finished, she said, “That was almost all of the food I had packed. How am I supposed to make it to Tinko City now?”

    The pokémon looked up at her and asked, “You are going all the way to Tinko City? By yourself?” When Katarina nodded, Exo continued, “Striking out on your own without pokémon or family to help you is very…” He paused and took measure of Katarina’s countenance. “Brave.”

    “You don’t have to be nice,” Katarina said. “You can be honest. It’s stupid, thoughtless, bone-headed…”

    “Watch it,” said Exo, and even though there was no humor in his voice, Katarina still laughed a little at his taking offense. She had started walking again and he was following her. “This is not the direction that you came from,” Exo noted. “Does that mean that you are not going home?”

    “No, I’m not. Even if I have to go for a couple of days without eating, I told myself that I was not going to return home without a pokémon and that’s what I intend to do.” An idea struck her and she looked at Exo. “Say, you’re a pokémon, aren’t you, Exo?”

    He looked back at her gravely. “Sorry, but it is as I said to the nidorino earlier. I know no master, human or pokémon.” She looked downcast and they walked along a little further before Exo spoke again haltingly, “I could escort you to the next village at least. It would not be safe to leave you walking alone with that nidorino still out there.”

    “Oh, thank you!” Katarina said with a clap of her hands. “Will it be far?”

    “We may have to make camp for the night, but then we will reach the village early in the morning.” She was about to start down the road, but Exo did not follow her. Katarina looked at him and he explained, “We cannot leave that poisoned food out where any unsuspecting pokémon can get to it. We will have to bury it.”

    Katarina did her best not to grumble. With the two of them working together, the girl and the pokémon soon had excavated a small hole in the ground just inside of the bounds of the woods. Since it was her food that was contaminated, Katarina had the responsibility of lowering the battered basket into the earth. She set it down and looked at it blankly. “I feel like I should say something,” she said.

    “What?”

    “Never mind.” The pair then buried the basket without a word passing between them and started walking down the road together.
    Last edited by Kentucky Fried Torchic; 06-21-2023 at 04:36 AM.
    Dreams do come a size too big. It's so that we can grow into them.

    Current Projects:
    Fanfiction: Pokémon: Exodus (Chapter six of nine posted)
    Nuzlocke: "Dude, Where's My Bellsprout?": A Totally Radical Red Version Nuzlocke

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  2. #2
    Actually Prefers Popeyes Kentucky Fried Torchic's Avatar
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    Chapter Two
    Katarina awoke stiffly with the rising of the summer sun. It took her a few seconds to acclimate herself to her surroundings, but the events of the past day soon came rushing back to her. After he had rescued her, Exo had walked with Katarina and together they had strayed off the well-worn dirt road. The lengthening shadows of the trees as the sun sunk towards the horizon had made Katarina uneasy, so to ward off her fears, she had begun to talk at length. She had tried asking Exo about himself, but since the pokémon provided little information aside from the fact that he was a cubone, Katarina had filled the silence by talking about herself. That had gotten them past the edge of the dark forest, and then they had continued in silence until setting up camp on the low rolling plains.

    Even with only the blanket she had used for her picnic as a bed and her backpack for a pillow, Katarina had fallen asleep almost as soon as she had lowered her head to the earth. She had not seen Exo go to sleep, and this morning he was either already or still awake in the same position when she awoke. When he saw that she was up, the cubone said in his usual gruff voice, “Let’s go.”

    The small brown-scaled creature rose up off of his haunches and started to walk in a northeasterly direction. “Wait!” called Katarina after Exo as she clumsily sprung to her feet, stuffed her blanket into the backpack, and followed him. When she was finally walking in parallel with him, she asked, “What about breakfast?”

    “You can eat while we walk.”

    “Eat what? I’ve got hardly any food left because of that poisonous pokémon yesterday!”

    Exo lifted up his gleaming-white club which he had been using as a walking stick and gestured ahead of them. “I scouted ahead while you were sleeping. There is a grove of bushes with wild berries about halfway between our camp and the village. You can pick something to eat while you walk.”

    Katarina grumbled under her breath, but tried to keep her complaints to herself. Yesterday, she had enjoyed a gentle start to her journey, complete with a warm homemade breakfast. Today, Exo pushed them hard and pressed forward with surprising speed given his diminutive stature. Katarina’s legs were soon sore and her stomach was growling fiercely by the time that the two of them reached a small grove of bushes that sported a fair variety of berries. Katarina picked a bit of everything for herself, sometimes going out of her way or doubling back to investigate a bush that looked particularly appealing. Exo simply grabbed some berries from whatever bush he passed on the straight line that he was forging through the grove. On more than one occasion, Katarina had to rush to catch up with him, but the break-up of the monotonous march was worth it in her opinion.

    After this impromptu meal, the morning passed by slowly and quietly save for the rare update on their progress from Exo, invariably delivered using as few words as necessary. Yesterday morning, Katarina had been able to easily walk for long bouts without saying a word, but today was different. The stillness was much more stifling for her since it felt imposed on her by her companion.

    When they neared the village, Katarina's heart leapt. Not only was it a clear milestone on her journey to Tinko City and Professor Oak and a chance to stock up on some food for the rest of the trip, but she also had the opportunity to talk with someone, anyone, else. Trailing after Exo, she climbed a grassy ridge and saw a welcoming collection of single- and two-story buildings spread out around a central square. The most impressive was the church, of course, but there were also shops, some with living quarters on the upper floor. Katarina also saw a few smaller stalls set up for some sort of local market.

    The girl took in all of these details with an eager eye. Next to her, Exo the cubone made only a single comment about the community below, “There it is.” Then he carefully started down the other side of the sloping hill and continued towards the village.

    “Have you been here before?” asked Katarina as she followed after her guide.

    “A few times,” answered Exo begrudgingly.

    When she realized that was all that he was not going to elaborate, Katarina followed up with another question, “What’s it called?”

    “Brookdale,” said Exo without even sparing a look backwards at her.

    Katarina quietly repeated the name to herself a few times. She was not sure if a village of this size would show up on her map, but Katarina still wanted to know how far she had come over the past day and a half. “Brookdale,” she said one final time with a smile and then turned to Exo. “What do you want to do first?” Katarina asked him.

    He did not answer her, but instead kept walking. Katarina did her best to stare holes through the back of the skull that Exo wore as a helmet, and was rewarded with a heavy sigh from the pokémon. Exo said, “I said that I would escort you to the nearest settlement. Now that we are here, you are safe.”

    “Wait! We’re not there yet!”

    For a moment, Exo deigned to spare a look back at Katarina, but then he said, “Close enough,” and continued towards the village.

    Katarina wracked her brain for something that she could say to change the standoffish pokémon's mind, but without success. But even if words failed her, the girl still seized upon the rudiments of a plan. “What are you going to do here in Brookdale?” she asked Exo sweetly.

    There was a momentary hitch in the cubone’s steps, but he answered coolly enough, “I am only passing through.”

    She nodded noncommittally at his answer, but Katarina kept shadowing Exo as they reached the bottom of the hill and the two of them passed by some of the scattered homes that had been established on the outskirts of the village and finally entered Brookdale proper. After they were within the village, Exo would slow or stop his walking periodically but Katarina matched those changes of pace and never passed him. After the fourth time that this happened, Exo finally turned around and asked her, “What are you doing?”

    “Walking,” said Katarina with exaggerated innocence. “I suppose that we’re just going the same way.”

    Exo’s eyes narrowed and he said evenly, “And where would that be?” He stood as motionless as a statue and watched the girl struggle for an answer.

    The show did not last for long. Katarina was quickly distracted by something in the air and was taking greedy sniffs with her little nose. “Do you smell that?” she asked.

    “No.”

    Katarina said, “It smells like food. Good food too! Come on, aren’t you hungry? Those berries were good, but they weren’t very filling.”

    “Maybe,” admitted Exo after a pause.

    “Then let’s go!” Katarina grabbed one of Exo's paws and started dragging him in the direction of the tantalizing smell of food.

    Exo grumbled something that Katarina did not hear, but he let the girl lead him until they came to a cozy-looking building with a wooden façade and mismatched sets of tables and chairs arranged in front of it. A few men and pokémon were seated there, drinking from glasses with condensation gathered enticingly on the side and served by a harried-looking tangela. The pokémon’s blue-green vines were outstretched in every direction to clean off tables, refill drinks, and to take payments, and the poor waiter’s eyes were darting wildly as it worked to please every customer.

    After it had finished dealing out the beverages on the serving tray balanced on one of its vines, the tangela took note of the new arrivals. “Table for two?” he asked in a burbling voice that both Katarina and Exo had to strain to understand, muffled as it was by the mess of vines that hung in front of his mouth and all over his body.

    “Yes, please!” Katarina answered after she had deciphered the tangela's speech and she followed the pokémon after he said something that had sounded to her like “right this way”. She was still holding onto Exo's paw, and he was curious enough that Katarina did not have to drag him through the open doors and inside of the building.

    The exterior of the restaurant had been interesting enough to Katarina, but inside she found even more things to delight her senses. There was still the smell of cooking food, but now it was suffused with hints of smoke and wood that made her feel like the guest in the home of an old friend. Along with a bar and a door to the kitchen, there were also more of the tables and chairs. All were made of wood and of different designs, but they were interesting enough that Katarina overlooked the lack of coordination. The most thrilling thing to the girl, however, was the pokémon, she was not sure what species it was, seated at a piano and plinking out an up-tempo rendition of some children’s song. When Exo and her stepped inside, the smiling, pink-faced pokémon with wild blue hair sticking out on either side of its head spun around in its chair and waved at them without saying a word while the piano kept playing, even though its fingers were no longer touching the keys.

    “Exo, look!” said Katarina excitedly, but it was obvious that the cubone did not share her enthusiasm. He was scanning the room slowly and methodically, and only agreed to come further inside the restaurant after he had scoped out every possible threat and exit.

    The tangela led them to a table near enough to the doors that they got a nice bit of breeze and pulled out their chairs for them with two vines that extended from his body. While he was doing this, more of the tangela’s appendages provided a glass and a small menu each for Katarina and Exo. Then he mumbled something that could have been, “Your water will be here shortly,” retracted his vines back into the tangled mess of his body, and waddled away to check on the other customers.

    “Isn’t this place great?”

    Exo did not say anything but instead looked at his empty glass skeptically. His stoicism could not deter Katarina, however, and she looked at her menu with a wide smile on her face. For the first time since she had left home, she was going to have a nice warm meal.

    “What looks good to you?”

    “What do you mean?” Exo asked. Katarina started to tell him what the different items on the menu were, but they were interrupted by the arrival of their water.

    It was sloshing over the side of a large pitcher and being carried by a sunburnt boy a few years younger than Katarina. He was grimacing in concentration and only relaxed when he set the water on the table, splashing the surface and the menus and earning a small cry of displeasure from Katarina. After he caught his breath, the boy hefted the pitcher up again and sloppily filled Katarina and Exo's glasses.

    Exo took it all in stride, saying, “Thank you.”

    “What’ll it be?” the boy asked brusquely.

    After sparing a glance at her companion, who still looked profoundly disinterested in the entire restaurant experience, Katarina said, “We’ll have the stew, please.”

    “Two stews. Got it.” The boy hurried off and disappeared into the restaurant's kitchen. He reappeared a few minutes later with two bowls filled to the brim with broth. Chunks of vegetable, meat, and potato made enticing appearances as well. As he neared the table, both Katarina and Exo edged away from the boy, which turned out to be wise since the steaming hot stew splattered over the sides of the bowls and spilled dangerously close to where they had been sitting just moments before.

    Fortunately, the rest of the meal passed without incident. After Katarina overcame his initial reluctance and Exo tried the stew, even he had to admit how good it tasted. She had a hard time getting much more out of him than that concession, so they ate quietly and took in the sights and smells of a restaurant entering its busy midday hours. If she did not have somewhere to be going, Katarina would not have minded spending a few hours just resting her tired feet and enjoying the homey atmosphere. But it was not only her desire to continue her journey that got Katarina moving again. There was also the matter of paying for the food that she and Exo had eaten.

    The young boy came over the second that Katarina had set down her now-empty bowl and insisted, “You and your pokémon gotta pay up now. We need these seats for the lunch crowd.”

    “I’m not her-“ Exo started to say, but Katarina finished for him, “He’s not my pokémon, but my father’s. I’ll go get the money from him and be right back.”

    “I suppose that’s all right,” said the young boy even though suspicion was already creasing his forehead. “Be quick about it though!”

    Never letting her smile falter, Katarina hopped off of her chair and motioned for Exo to do the same. The two of them walked out of the restaurant with Katarina leading the way. Once they were outside again, and out of earshot of the waiters, Exo asked Katarina, “I don’t understand. Your father is in Brookdale?”

    “No,” Katarina said and then, after quickening her pace and heading to the center of the village, she explained, “I didn’t bring any money! I didn’t have any money to bring! We stole that meal!”

    “You stole that food,” said Exo evenly. “I was unaware of the situation.”

    Katarina was quick to fire back, “No one was forcing you to eat, and you weren’t complaining about it either.”

    They walked a little further and Exo asked, “Why not explain the situation to the humans in charge? They cannot fault you for honesty.”

    “Maybe, but they can make me work for them to pay for the food that we ate, and I only have six days to get to Tinko City.”

    The girl and the pokémon were at the village square by then, and they saw that it was abuzz with small carts full of produce whose owners were raucously advertising to anyone within earshot. Piercing through that din, however, was the voice of a boy who had taken up a spot at the very center of the square. He looked to be a little older than Katrina, and was dressed in an old gray army coat and cap that were both too big for him, but not for long. The boy was standing atop of an overturned crate and cupping his hands around his mouth to make sure that everyone knew that he was offering, “Excitement! Glory! Riches! All these things and more can be yours! All it takes is a bit of courage, a bit of luck, and a loyal pokémon at your side!”

    A small circle of onlookers had gathered around the boy and he was clearly relishing their attention. “You there, sir! The man with the sandshrew! Wouldn’t you like to go home from market today with some extra coins jingling in your pocket?”

    “Oh, give it up, Spencer!" a man in the crowd shouted. Katarina could see that it was the same man who the boy had singled out. “Everyone in Brookdale is wise to your tricks by now!”

    “You wound me so, Gerhard!” the boy cried and pressed his hands to his breast. “But no tricks, not today, no sir! And neither is this a mere game of chance, Gerhard, but instead as true a test of skill as you could hope for. And the prize…” The boy, Spencer, closed his hand and opened it again to reveal that he was holding a brightly-polished silver coin between his thumb and pointer finger. “…is well worth it.”

    Katarina had made her way to the front of the boy's audience, with Exo not far behind her. She knew what excitement that the silver coin had awoken in the crowd, even on Gerhard's face, because she could feel it herself. Still, although the hook was baited, no one was biting, yet.

    Then, Spencer made the coin disappear through his fingers just as quickly as he had produced it and snapped his fingers. A small bird pokémon stepped awkwardly from behind of the box the boy was standing on. It had a proud bearing, haughtily tipping its head back like a show pokémon, and its plumage was a mixture of red for its wings, white for its body, and brown for its head feathers.

    “Hey, that’s just a spearow!” exclaimed Katarina before she could stop herself. The same kind of bird pokémon was a common sight flying over her family farm and there were a few rough “scarerows” around the acreage to deter the spearow from stealing their crops. This one did not look particularly impressive, especially with one of its wings wrapped up in a white piece of cloth. Still, at Katarina’s insult, the spearow turned the customary glare of its species on the girl and she shrank back.

    If Spencer was thrown off by this unexpected interjection, he gave no sign of it. “So it is, miss, so it is!” he called out more to the crowd than to Katarina. “Don’t let his name fool you! Ace is just your garden-variety spearow! No different than the ones you might see any day while working in your fields!”

    Some of the men were nodding unconsciously at that, but they still demurred until Gerhard said, “I’m going to regret this, but tell me what your game is, Spencer, and I’ll consider it.”

    “It’s a simple game of fetch!” At his signal, Ace the spearow ducked back behind Spencer’s makeshift platform and returned with a circle made out of thin wooden branches that had been carefully woven together. “You and I will each have five rings to throw, and if your sandshrew can retrieve the ones that I throw before my Ace can bring me the ones that you throw, then you win the prize!”

    Katarina and Exo beside her looked at Gerhard and his stocky pokémon. The sandshrew with its yellow armor on its back and stubby little limbs didn’t look like it would be the best choice for this kind of challenge, but Gerhard had thick muscular arms from a lifetime of hard work. Katarina thought that he could throw one of those flimsy rings pretty far.

    Evidently, the farmer thought so too because he handed off the reins of the ponyta pulling his cart to one of the other men in the crowd and pulled a small collection of coins made out of duller metals. “I’ll take your wager, Spencer, because I’m sure even a scrawny little trickster like you can’t beat me with a broken-down pokémon like that.”

    “Hey, I resent that remark!” cawed the spearow, but he was silenced by a hiss from Spencer.

    To his audience, the boy said, “It’s a wager, my good man! Now, stand back, all of you! Trust me, you do not want to get in the way of these pokémon!” After the crowd had taken a few reluctant steps backward and his spearow had hopped over to Gerhard to give him five of the wooden rings, Spencer tipped his army cap upwards at a jaunty angle and asked, “Ready, Gerhard?”

    “You’ve got this, Buddy,” the farmer said to his sandshrew, whose pointed face was not displaying the same level of confidence. Gerhard ignored that and announced to Spencer, “We’re ready!”

    “Then, let’s go!” shouted Spencer, and he threw his first ring a fair distance away. It landed between two farmers’ carts and as quick as his pudgy little body could carry him, Buddy the sandshrew was waddling towards it.

    Gerhard grinned and took his first ring in hand. He reeled his muscular arm back and swung it forward in a heavy arc. All of his power was behind the throw and it should have cleared the roof of one of the houses bordering the square. Instead, there was a ruffle of wings and, quick as a flash, Ace the spearow had taken flight and seized the ring less than a yard from where it had left the farmer’s hand. Behind him, his white bandage fluttered gently to the earth.

    “What?” sputtered Gerhard. “You cheated! That pokémon’s not injured at all!”

    “I never said he was,” said Spencer with a shrug that the spearow mimicked as soon as he had dropped his pilfered ring at the boy's feet.

    Gerhard could only sputter angrily, even when his sandshrew came trundling back over with a ring in its paws. The poor pokémon was oblivious to what had caused all of the commotion and looked from Gerhard to Spencer and back again.

    “Want to give up?” asked Spencer with good humor. As punctuation, he flicked his wrist and Buddy the sandshrew went running off without a second thought. Then the boy presented the ring that he had pretended to throw with a grandiose flourish of his hand.

    “Not on your life,” grunted Gerhard through gritted teeth and he proceeded to see the competition to the bitter end. His misguided sandshrew completely forgotten, he threw two more of the rings in the same style as his first throw, but Ace the spearow plucked them out of the air just as easily as he had the first one. Gerhard tried something different with the last two rings and threw them in opposite directions at the same time. Ace grabbed the first ring in his beak without any difficulty, and then spun his entire body around and beat his wings furiously to go after the second. That one never touched the ground either, and the spearow returned to Spencer looking plenty proud of himself. Buddy the sandshrew appeared not ten seconds later looking profoundly put out by his failure to locate his target.

    As much as Gerhard blustered and complained, it was clear to the watching crowd who the winner was. The farmer reluctantly gave over a handful of coins to Spencer and said, “That’s the last trick that you’re going to pull on anyone around these parts. I’ll make sure that everyone knows about you, Spencer. You’ll have a mighty hard time finding anyone stupid enough to play one of your rigged games from now on.”

    “Excuse me,” said Katarina as she stepped up to where Spencer and Gerhard were standing. “I’d like to give it a try.”

    A cascade of emotions went across Spencer's face in an instant before he alighted on friendly dismissal. “Sorry, little lady,” he said as he went back to counting his coins, “I don’t want to ruin this lovely day for you by taking your money.” The boy glanced up at Katarina and flashed a smile that was somewhere between charming and oily. “Although I bet you’re plenty cute when you’re mad.”

    “What?” asked Katarina as she blinked back her shock. “No, I mean it! All I have to do is get your rings, right?”

    “Yeah, that’s all you have to do all right,” Spencer said with a sigh. “But look here, doll, do you even have a pokémon to challenge us with?” Katarina looked at Exo who had been watching this situation unfold with very muted interest, and some measure of respect crept into Spencer’s voice when he asked, “The cubone? That’s your pokémon?”

    Exo started to say, “I’m not her-”, but Katarina interrupted him by saying, “He’s not just some performing pet like your bird there! If I’m going to get his help…” At that, Katarina shot Exo a pleading look and mouthed “please”, but she was all business when she turned back to Spencer and said, “…then the stakes are going to have to be a lot higher.”

    “What did she call me?” squawked Ace, but Spencer waved his consternation away.

    “What did you have in mind?”

    “The silver that you were offering that man and the money he gave you just now,” said Katarina.

    Spencer took off his peaked cap and tucked some flyaway strands of his black hair back into place. “Are you sure about this, doll? I mean, I’ve got no hang-ups about cleaning you out, but it doesn’t make me too happy neither.”

    “I’m sure. Can I talk to my pokémon first?”

    “Yeah, that’s fine. Take all the time that you need.”

    As soon as they were huddled together, Exo told her firmly, “I’m not your pokémon, Katarina. Why should I help you?”

    “Well, we didn’t have any money to pay for our food today, right?” The cubone did not say anything, so Katarina continued whispering, “Well, if we win, then that solves that problem. And I know we can do it. I’ve got a plan.”

    Exo did not look her in the eye, but he still said, “Fine. I’ll help you.” Katarina pretended not to hear the edge in his voice. Instead, she told him what she had in mind, and then both of them stepped forward to face off with Spencer and Ace.

    “Ready?"” the boy asked after Ace had given Katarina her set of wooden rings.

    “Ready.”

    With a theatrical sigh, Spencer took one of his rings and threw it lazily into the sky. Before the wooden circlet had left his hand, Exo had already flung his club into the sky. The weapon spun in a wide arc until it intercepted the ring in its path and brought the projectile to a halt. The ring dropped out of the sky and, after his club had come flying back into his outstretched paw, Exo trudged over to where it had fallen. The ring had landed not ten yards away from where the children and pokémon were standing, and Exo easily picked it up.

    “Not bad,” said Spencer approvingly. “But now it’s your turn, doll.”

    Katarina took a ring in each of her hands and looked at them carefully. Then, as swiftly as she could, the flaxen-haired girl threw one ring as hard as she could to her left. Just as he had in the previous contest, Ace the spearow took flight and furiously beat his stubby wings to overtake the ring. He had just taken it in his beak when Katarina dropped to one knee and sent the ring in her other hand sailing low over the ground in the opposite direction. The bird pokémon masterfully reoriented itself midair and darted after his spinning target. The spearow's eyes were focused solely on the ring and he was rapidly closing in on it. As the distance shrunk, Ace opened up his wings and put his clawed talons forward to snatch the ring off from where it had landed on the grass of the town square.

    But Katarina had aimed her throw well, and Ace did not realize until it was too late that his path to the ring took him through Spencer's legs. With a startled caw that mingled with the boy's own shout, the spearow tried to change course, but he had already built up too much speed. Ace crashed into Spencer with such force that he knocked the boy off his feet and they were both left in a heap on the ground. Exo, who had deposited his own ring by Katarina’s feet sometime during Ace's flight, briskly walked over to the boy and the bird and scooped up the four rings which Spencer had dropped when he fell in one motion.

    “We win,” said Exo. Spencer started to argue the point, but in shifting his position to address the cubone, he had situated himself atop of Ace. The spearow gave a pained squawk and pecked at Spencer’s side until the two of them disentangled themselves.

    After the scuffle, the boy looked noticeably unenthusiastic, but he still admitted that he and Ace had lost. The thin layer of dirt that had accumulated on his clothes and cap made him look more like a kid than before, and Katarina was quite comfortable striding boldly up to where Spencer was dusting himself off and thrusting out her hand.

    “Our prize, please!”

    “Okay, okay,” Spencer said as he rummaged around in the deep pockets of his long gray coat. “Are you sure you don’t want to go again, doll? Double or nothing?”

    Katarina laughed brightly at that. “No thanks! I’m pretty sure that trick would only work once.”

    “All the best tricks only work once, doll,” said Spencer with a grin as he handed over the sizable trove of silver and bronze coins.

    “It’s funny though,” mused Katarina. “I didn't have any money to give you if it hadn't worked.” The boy's mouth worked its way open and closed a couple of times without him saying anything, so Katarina took her leave of Spencer. “It was nice meeting you! Thank you for the money!”

    As she and Exo walked away, the two of them could hear talking behind them. “You really should have asked if she was good for the money, Spence,” said Ace irritably as the spearow continued cleaning the earth out of his feathers. “That was pretty stupid of you.”

    “You’re one to talk, birdbrain! You’re the one who knocked me over!”

    Ace shot back, “You shouldn’t have been in my way,” and the boy and pokémon’s squabbling gew more animated.

    They were paid no mind by Katarina and Exo as they walked toward away. The girl was humming softly to herself and seemed oblivious to her traveling companion's slower pace. They had gone for several minutes without talking when Exo cleared his throat and said, “Katarina, I think that I’ve given you more than enough help. Now that you have that money-”

    “What’s that, Exo?” asked Katarina, still distracted by the thoughts inside of her own head. “Can you hold on for a minute? There’s something that I have to do.” And with that, she walked up to the restaurant where the two of them had eaten before and went inside. Curious, Exo followed her at a distance and took up a post just inside its double doors.

    He watched as Katarina intercepted the tangela waiter on his way back to the kitchen with a tray full of dishes and said, “Excuse me, but we didn’t pay for our food earlier today.” The pokémon said something that Exo could not make out, but there was no mistaking the excitement in its voice when Katarina used both of her hands to scoop all of the coins that she had won from Spencer onto the waiter’s tray. Her winnings made an audible clatter as they splashed bronze and silver against the surface of the wooden tray. Most of the other customers in the restaurant were watching Katarina and the waiter curiously at that point, and only returned to their food after the girl said a brief farewell to the tangela and walked back towards Exo. Wordlessly he followed Katarina back outside into the bright afternoon sun.

    “What was it you wanted to talk to me about, Exo?” she asked.

    He thought carefully and then, in a low but not unfriendly voice, he said, “It’s nothing of importance. We should start heading east again.”

    “That’s right!” Katarina suddenly groaned. “We’ve hardly done any walking today! How am I supposed to make it to Tinko City in time?”

    “I know the area,” answered Exo even as he gently guided her into following him. “I’ll help you.”

    Soon the two of them had left Brookdale and were on a road heading towards the coast again. Once again, a silence broke out between them and once again Katarina tried to mend it. “I think that I forgot to thank you for your help, Exo,” she said.

    For a while there was no response, but just when Katarina was about to give up, Exo haltingly replied, “I am happy that I was able to help you, Katarina.”

    Those words only whetted the girl's appetite for conversation and she continued, “That was really neat, I mean, the way that you threw your stick into the air and it came right back to you like that.”

    “It’s not a stick,” said Exo, “it’s a bone.” Katarina's face blanched, but the cubone allowed himself a small smile underneath his mask and the two of them kept walking, and talking, as they walked together.
    Dreams do come a size too big. It's so that we can grow into them.

    Current Projects:
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    Nuzlocke: "Dude, Where's My Bellsprout?": A Totally Radical Red Version Nuzlocke

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  3. #3
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    Chapter Three
    Katarina and Exo had walked for the rest of the day, but since they were more comfortable with one another’s company the going was easier. They had still not talked a great deal, but Katarina had accepted the quiet and Exo had strained to contribute to the flow of conversation. Neither of them was quite satisfied with his or her own progress, yet Katarina and Exo nonetheless admired the other’s. Eventually, they had made camp in a clearing that Exo had used many times on his travels across the Tinko region and the cubone had also produced the pair’s dinner from the nearby stream and vegetation. He had even helped Katarina get a fire going after some struggle and taught her how to maintain it. In-between bites of cooked magikarp, Katarina had wondered just how lost she would have been without her guide.

    The next morning, they woke up with the rising sun and Katarina felt surprisingly well-rested. She washed a little in the stream and got ready for the day ahead. Exo had been prepared to set out before she had woken up, but he waited patiently for Katarina before they set off. The plan was to head north in the morning to avoid walking for hours with the sun in their eyes, then to veer east around midday.

    This far away from the farms and the people who tended them, there were more pokémon about and Katarina did her best to observe all the little dramas that she witnessed. As she and Exo followed their stream north, it became connected to a river and they saw a family of plump, yellow-feathered psyduck enjoying the cool water in a tributary where the current was not as fierce. Lean rattata and plump nidoran colored pink and blue dotted their path, and Katarina was always on the lookout for any sign of the larger nidorino. She did not realize it, but Exo was also constantly scanning the landscape for danger.

    Over the next few hours, Katarina and Exo walked at a healthy clip, but they could not maintain that pace forever. Katarina began lagging behind her companion, just a little at first, but soon she was separated from the cubone by entire yards. It was to her great relief that Exo took notice of this and said, “Let us rest for a while.”

    Katarina did not need to be told twice and she worked her way through the waving grass and wildflowers to a spindly tree that promised at least the semblance of shade. She sat down heavily at its base, took off her shoes, and grimaced. Living and working on a farm was no one’s idea of easy work, human or pokémon, but it was clear that chores had not prepared her for this type of journey. Katarina's feet were blistering, and even Exo would not look at them for too long without turning away.

    They rested in the paltry shade without talking, until Katarina caught sight of something circling overhead. She studied it for a few moments, shielding her eyes from the sun with one hand. Then her face lit up and Katarina said excitedly, “I think that’s Ace! The spearow from the village!”

    “There are plenty of spearow around these parts,” said Exo, but Katarina paid him no mind.

    She stood up on shaking feet, cupped her hands around her mouth, and yelled, “Yoo-hoo! Ace!”

    Above them, the bird tilted on one wing and began to spiral skillfully down to the ground. Exo tensed up at the spearow’s approach, but it was unnecessary. The pokémon landed a respectful distance away and made eye contact with Exo first.

    “Oh, it’s you two again,” Ace remarked. “Just our luck.”

    “Is Spencer with you? Where are you two traveling?”

    Ace lifted his wings and waved off Katarina's questions with a very human gesture. “One question a time, please.” Even after he saw that he had Exo and Katarina's full attention, Ace took some time to make a show of grooming himself, and only after that did he say, “I’m Spencer’s scout.” There was no shortage of pride in the spearow's voice as he explained, “He needs me to look ahead and help him decide where to go next. I gather the information, study the, um, locals, and report back.”

    “So, where are you heading then?” asked Katarina.

    The spearow's bluster faded, and he looked a little sheepish. “I’m not sure if I should tell you.” But Katarina's patience and smile won him over and Ace suggested, “Oh, why not ask Spencer? He’s not too far away, you know.” He then turned around and readied himself to take flight. “Try and keep up!”

    With a running start and a rapid beating of his wings, the spearow took to the air. Katarina and Exo followed the airborne pokémon, the girl holding her shoes in one hand. After they had traveled for five minutes, Ace abruptly let out three short caws and was met with three sharp whistles.

    Soon after that, Spencer appeared over the crest of a hill, still wearing his gray army coat and cap even in the summer heat. “Ace!” he called. “Did you find it?”

    “Afraid not!” squawked the spearow and he landed on the grass halfway between Spencer and Katarina and Exo.

    When Spencer saw them, his face grew confused and then brightened considerably. “Hey there, doll!” he said. “I’m surprised to see you out here in the middle of nowhere! You ought to be living like a queen in that little town with all that money you took off my hands!”

    “Well,” Katarina started to say, but then trailed off. Instead, she decided on a different tack, and said, “I have a name, you know.”

    Spencer smiled at her, and his grin effortlessly met his blue eyes. “And what would that name be, doll?”

    “Katarina.”

    “All right then, Katarina,” said Spencer breezily, “it was nice running into you and all, but Ace and I are kind of in the middle of a job.”

    He began to walk away, but let himself be stopped when Katarina yelled, “Wait! Where are you headed?”

    “We’re not headed anywhere in particular,” said Ace as he fluttered to Spencer’s arm. “We’re looking for something.”

    “Looking for what?” asked Exo.

    Spencer spread his hands wide and said, “Ace heard some wealthy family lost one of their precious growlithe on an outing, so we’re looking for the pup so that we can return it and get a nice big reward.”

    “It should be enough to get us to Tinko City!” interjected Ace helpfully.

    “That’s fantastic!” Katarina said with a bright smile. “We’re going to the capital too, maybe-”

    Spencer shook his head. “No way, doll. Not to be rude, but me and Ace here don't need the help. Besides, you’ve already got enough money, don’t you?”

    “Um, about that-”

    “No, the boy is right,” interrupted Exo as he patted one of Katarina’s legs. “We had better keep moving. There is no sense in getting distracted by a pair of conmen.”

    “We prefer ‘charlatans’!” squawked Ace, which earned him a blow from Spencer.

    The boy and the spearow erupted into another round of arguing while Exo quietly led Katarina away, back towards where they had seen Ace. Katarina did not say anything, but Exo explained, “You only have a short amount of time to get to the coast and find the professor who can give you a pokémon.”

    “I suppose you’re right,” said Katarina, but she still craned her neck over her shoulder to watch Spencer and Ace shrinking in the distance as they walked. “Wouldn’t we be safer from wild pokémon and bandits if we were part of a larger group?”

    “Maybe,” conceded Exo with a grunt, “but that pair strikes me as being the source of more trouble than help.”

    They reached the tree where they had been resting before without incident. After the leisurely detour to see Spencer, Katarina said that she felt up for doing some more serious walking. They continued north, following the path of the river upstream. They were looking for the bridge when they found a pokémon.

    It was a small thing with orange fur interrupted by black stripes and was bent over on its haunches watching a small patch of grass intently. Katarina and Exo kept their distance and saw the grass begin to move, rising out of the earth on its own accord until the top of a blue head and a pair of beady eyes could be seen. The other pokémon saw it too and pounced on its target with a happy bark. It was too slow, and its target gave a short yelp and returned underground to safety. The furry pokémon did not appear to be disappointed by its failure. It looked happy to circle the patch of grass that betrayed the hiding creature’s presence in hopes of continuing their one-sided game.

    “I think that’s the growlithe they were looking for,” whispered Katarina. Exo did not say anything, but he did not look pleased. “See, it’s got a collar around its neck so it belongs to somebody.” She started to creep closer to the playful young pokémon.

    Behind her, Exo said, “Just leave it alone, Katarina,” but she was not listening.

    “Hello there, little one,” said Katarina as she neared the growlithe. It looked up at her, its game with the oddish forgotten. Katarina bent forward and held out a hand towards the pokémon and asked in soothing tones, “How did you get all the way out here?” It watched her approach with rapt attention, and when she was close enough, it pressed its wet nose against Katarina’s palm and sniffed at her hand. The growlithe’s apprehension melted away and it was soon lapping its little pink tongue against Katarina's hand and wagging its stubby little tail.

    “Hey, Exo,” the girl called with a lilting giggle in her voice, “it’s friendly! Come here!”

    Slowly, the cubone moved across the field to join them. As he approached, the growlithe tensed under where Katarina’s hand was petting it and it began to growl. In a full-grown growlithe, it might have been a frightening sound, but coming from a little puppy it only annoyed Exo. Still, he kept his distance. A bite from a growlithe’s sharp teeth was very painful, even if it was only a puppy. “I will be fine with staying right here," said Exo gruffly.

    “See, it’s okay, little growlithe,” said Katarina and she stroked the growlithe’s fur until its growl became a muted rumbling in its throat. “That cubone won't hurt you. He’s a nice pokémon, just like you.”

    “Spare me.”

    The growlithe was happy to ignore Exo, as was Katarina. The girl gently worked her way to the furry pokémon’s neck and rotated the band of blue leather around to look at the jingling metal tags that hung from the growlithe’s collar. They were professionally crafted, that much was obvious even to a farmgirl like Katarina, with a florid script engraved in the brightly polished metal that proclaimed that the pokémon was named “Augustus” and it belonged to the Pryor family.

    She passed that information onto Exo, but the cubone only pointed out, “How does this help us? We don’t know where these Pryor’s live.”

    “Maybe Spencer and Ace do,” offered Katarina.

    Exo fixed her with a long stare. When he spoke, his voice was devoid of passion, but Exo’s words still stung, “This is your quest, Katarina. If you want to be sidetracked and delayed instead of reaching your destination in time, then that is your choice to make.”

    “We’ve been pushing ourselves fairly hard today,” Katarina started to lie. Exo did not stop gazing into her eyes and Katarina stopped and chewed over her thoughts before trying to put them into words again. “At the very least, we should let Spencer and Ace know. They can take the puppy home and we can keep going. It wouldn’t feel right to leave him out here when he’s lost,” she continued, “and Ace was looking too far to the south. It could be a long time before he and Spencer found little Auggie here.”

    “I suppose you are right,” said Exo and he stood up from his squatting position. Then, he made a face underneath his bone-white mask and asked, “Auggie?”

    Katarina shrugged. “I don’t know. He looks like an Auggie to me.” She stood up as well, letting the growlithe go back to playing with the oddish. Putting the fingers of one hand into her mouth, Katarina whistled a long and harsh sound that made Augustus whimper and even caused Exo to flinch. “That ought to get their attention.”

    The girl and the cubone managed to drag Augustus away from his game to a spot closer to the river since Exo thought that Ace's flight path would likely be focused on large landmarks that were visible from high up in the air. Exo was left to tend to the growlithe for a few minutes while Katarina took off her shoes again and dipped her feet into the water. Despite the slower pace that she had been enjoying for the last few hours, Katarina’s blisters were, if anything, getting worse. The cool water of the river was soothing, but it was only a temporary fix. Her thoughts drifted through half-considered measures for her problem, only for Ace flapping his way down over the water and snapping her out of her daydreaming.

    “All right, missy, what do you have to say for yourself?” said the spearow shortly. “I’ve got this great lead on the missing pokémon, right, and I'm telling Spence about it when I hear your call. I tell Spence about it and he says, ‘it’s Katarina,’ he’s sure of it, ‘go and see if she needs help.’ So, I fly all the way out here, wasting valuable daylight, and I find you napping! What do you have to say for yourself?”

    Katarina pointed at the two pokémon sitting together. Augustus the growlithe had somehow gained possession of Exo's bone club and was gnawing on it intently while the cubone watched him with an unreadable expression. “We found the missing growlithe,” Katarina said softly.

    “Ah, um, okay,” said Ace and he quickly began to busy himself with grooming his feathers rather than look into Katarina’s brown eyes. “Thanks.”

    Katarina motioned for Exo to come down by the riverbank and the pokémon brought Augustus after him, leading him by the club still clenched in the puppy’s jaws. Exo grumbled something impolite about the growlithe, but was cordial enough to Ace. The spearow told them that Spencer would be along shortly, and they waited together for him together.

    With the wide-open landscape, they saw Spencer long before he got to them. He was running, at least until he saw that he had an audience, and then the boy slowed down to a brisk pace. He was breathing hard when Katarina and the three pokémon reached him, although he was trying not to show it. “So, you found our little runaway, huh?” he said.

    “That’s right," replied Katarina. “His tags say that he belongs to the Pryor family.”

    “Mhm, that’s our missing pokémon then,” grunted Spencer, his attention was focused on Augustus. Kneeling in front of the growlithe, Spencer ran his hands over the pokémon's body, expertly examining him for any injuries while the confused pokémon tried to shy away from the boy's touch. When he was satisfied, Spencer stood back up again and produced a length of rope from his bag. “Thanks for your help, Katarina,” he said as he looped it around Augustus's collar to make a lead. “Where did you find him anyways?”

    “We saw him playing over there with another pokémon. He was trying to hunt it, I think.”

    Spencer shielded his eyes with his hand and looked at the spot that Katarina had indicated. After a pause, he slowly said, “He was just out in the open? Not hiding in any bushes or under any trees?” Spencer made sure that he was speaking loudly enough for everyone to hear.

    “No,” said Katarina tentatively.

    With shocking ferocity, Spencer turned to Ace and bellowed, “How did you miss him, Ace? His fur is bright orange!”

    “How many times do I have to remind you, Spence, that I don’t see in color?”

    “Still, he’s a happy little pokémon romping around in the grass, and you missed him?”

    By this point, Ace’s own voice had risen to a shrill caw, “You don’t know that he was there all day! Maybe he was sleeping or something!”

    “’Or something’!” mocked Spencer, but before he could unleash another tirade, he was interrupted by the riled-up Augustus sinking his teeth into the leg of the boy's pants. The growlithe’s bite put an end to Spencer and Ace’s fighting, only to replace it with the former uttering some very creative curses.

    After she had fought down the rose-red blush that had spread across her features, Katarina turned to Exo and whispered, “I don’t think that these three should be left alone together.” To her surprise, the cubone nodded in agreement. Then, to Spencer, Katarina said, “Can we come with you to the Pryor’s?”

    The question caused him to halt his profanity and the boy looked embarrassed as he said, “Yeah, I suppose that that’d be all right.”

    “Great! Lead the way!”

    The group continued heading north along the river. Ace had immediately taken wing and was alternating between flying ahead to gauge the path before them and coming back to relay that information to the others. Katarina noticed that the spearow’s words were clipped and his tone was very formal whenever he spoke with Spencer. As for Spencer, he had his hands full trying to drag Augustus after him, tugging on the growlithe's rope leash until sweat was running down his face. He would coax Augustus into taking a few steps, only for the growlithe to abruptly sit down on the grass and refuse to go any further.

    Katarina offered several times to take over leading the obstinate pokémon from Spencer, but the boy refused until twenty minutes had passed and everyone was growing frustrated with their lack of progress. As soon as the rope was handed off to Katarina, the growlithe happily started walking ahead of them with his pink tongue lolling out of his mouth and his stubby tail wagging happily. Spencer did not seem pleased, but everyone else was happy to get moving.

    Although Exo had lapsed back into silence, Katarina found Spencer a more-than-willing partner in conversation. “How long have you and Ace known one another?” she asked as they were crossing a small creek that led into the river.

    “Oh, a couple of years,” answered Spencer as he offered a hand to help Katarina climb the steep bank. “I don’t remember how long exactly.”

    “He’s very knowledgeable, about how to travel, out here, I mean. Was he born in the wild?”

    Spencer shook his head and looked up at the shrinking shape of Ace flying ahead to scope out the next leg of their route. “Not exactly. I found him as a chick, so he grew up with me. We travelled a lot, so he got to know Tinko like the back of his hand.” There was quiet between the two children, and then Spencer said wistfully, “My parents were in the circus.”

    While she was still recovering from that information, Spencer turned the tables on Katarina and asked, “So what about you, Katarina? What's your story, doll?”

    “Um, I grew up on a farm.”

    “A big farm?” asked Spencer.

    “No, just a little one with me and my parents.”

    “Ah, so, what's got you traveling out here then?”

    Katarina smiled brightly and said, “I’m going to Tinko City to get a pokémon partner from Professor Oak.”

    “Wow, Professor Oak, huh?” Spencer blinked his blue eyes a few times before saying, “I don’t understand. I thought the cubone was-”

    “He’s not my pokémon,” Katarina supplied before Exo could say anything. “We met only a few days ago. He’s helping me get to the capital.”

    Spencer did not say anything as he processed this information. After a while, he said, “You two seem to have a pretty good thing going though. Why not just ask him if he would be your partner?”

    Again, Exo opened his mouth to speak, but Katarina beat him to the punch once again. “He would say no. Exo likes being a wild pokémon, I think.”

    “Still, Tinko City is so far away,” said Spencer letting his voice trail off. His eyes darted down and then he asked Katarina in a whisper, “What about this growlithe then?”

    “What?”

    “Why not keep him? Just go home and pretend that you found him in the wild? Everyone loves a cute little growlithe,” Spencer's voice took on a hint of a bitter tinge at that, but he quickly recovered, “and he's young. He probably won't remember where he came from, and he'd probably be happier running around a farm with you than collecting dust with a bunch of stuck-up aristocrats.”

    Katarina looked at Augustus, who was happily ignorant of what was being discussed as he strained against his leash to smell the base of a particularly intriguing tree. She bit her lip and felt both Spencer and Exo's eyes on her. “I- I couldn’t,” she said. “You need the reward money, right?”

    “It’s not really-” started Spencer, but he did not get the chance to finish.

    “Besides, it would be wrong,” said Katarina, and she was proud that her voice only wavered a little. “This growlithe, Augustus, belongs to somebody else. Somebody who gave him a name.”

    “But how do you whether his owner is a good person?” pressed Spencer. “He could have run away from a really bad situation.”

    “Or he could belong to a really nice person, Spencer. Someone kind and loving who’s missing him right now. If I had a pokémon, I would never want to lose him.”

    The conversation was over, but its ghost lingered in the air between the travelers. Fortunately, Ace joined them not long afterward and landed in front of them and, after performing a small bow, began his latest report. “There’s a beedrill nest up ahead that we’ll have to go around. I think that if we take a slight detour to the west we should be able to avoid them.”

    “Thanks, Ace,” said Spencer. “Any sign of the Pryor place yet?”

    The spearow cocked his head to one side as he thought. “I think that we’re getting close, but even if you want to charge through a bunch of angry beedrill, we probably wouldn’t get there before sunset.”

    “I don’t think it would be smart to keep going after dark,” Spencer said. In response to Katarina and Exo's unspoken questions, he explained, “These big plantations don’t like strangers wandering around after dark. Better to wait it out until the morning and then we can return this pokémon without any trouble.”

    “I’ll show you the route that I was thinking,” said Ace and he took to the air only a few feet above Katarina and Spencer's heads and flew a lazy pattern as he guided them and the other pokémon.

    For a while, they had to focus solely on their walking. Katarina was starting to fall behind again, wincing with every other footstep, and the others slowed their pace to accommodate her. Spencer even offered to take Augustus's leash from her, but the growlithe barked at him and Katarina turned him down. They were all slowing down as the sun sunk in the horizon. Ace egged them on by promising, “just over this hill!” and “only a few steps more!”, until he had to fly out of reach when Spencer lunged for his neck. Eventually, even the spearow's enthusiasm flagged and, as the light faded, he started staying closer to the rest of the group.

    “That’s it,” said Katarina abruptly and she plopped down onto the grass, “I can’t take another step.” No one tried to persuade her otherwise and Katarina’s companions joined her in sitting down in the soft grass of the meadow where they had stopped.

    “You said it,” said Spencer with a long, contented sigh. “This is always the worst part of traveling by foot. Now if we had a wagon or a train or something, I’d have plenty of other things to complain about, but right now I can only think about my poor aching feet.” Katarina nodded mechanically, but did not say anything, so Spencer turned to Ace and said, “How about we get some firewood?”

    The boy and the bird headed off to a smattering of trees some distance away and left Exo and Katarina with Augustus. The cubone was the one who broke the silence this time, asking, “How are you feeling, Katarina?”

    “Tired.” Then, Katarina took a deep breath and leaned backwards on the grass. “I’m not sure how I feel, Exo. It feels good to be helping Augustus, here.” Katarina stopped to scratch the growlithe behind the ears and he let out a small yawn from where he was curled up next to her. “But I don’t have the foggiest idea of where we are, and how to get to Tinko City and Professor Oak and my pokémon from here.” Exo was watching her and Augustus quietly, and Katarina tried to figure out what he was thinking behind his bone-white mask. “Do you think I can still make it in time?”

    “I do not know,” he said.

    “Do you think that I should turn around and go home?”

    Exo still had not responded when Spencer came trudging back across the grass with a respectable pile of sticks and broken branches in his arms. “Wish that I could help you, Spence” sang Ace merrily as he swooped low ahead of the boy, “but these wings of mine…”

    Spencer dropped the firewood in a pile with a huff, but put on a big smile when he saw how forlorn Katarina looked. “Hey, why the long face, doll?” When she did not answer, Spencer started clearing a space and arranging the wood for a fire, but he kept an eye on her the whole time he was working. He only let her out of his sight when he reached into the pockets of his coat and pulled out some crumpled-up pieces of paper and a box of matches. Exo came closer and watched with great interest as Spencer turned the pile of sticks and refuse into a respectable fire with little fuss. Spencer even gave the cubone a few matches and showed him how they worked, but had to take back the matchbox when Exo kept starting small fires in the grass with carelessly dropped matches.

    “Incredible,” the pokémon marveled even after they were taken away from him.

    Like the others, Exo was quiet throughout the group's humble dinner, but after everyone had finished eating, he looked up at Spencer and said in his gravelly voice, “You said something earlier about a ‘circus’, Spencer. What is that?”

    “It’s sort of a show, I suppose,” said Spencer. “You know, like a performance?” When Exo gave no indication of understanding, the boy tackled the question from a different direction. “So, you have a bunch of people and pokémon with unusual talents.”

    Exo offered, “Such as starting a fire from nothing?”

    “Not exactly,” said Spencer and he looked to Ace for help, but the spearow only spread his wings and smirked as best as his short beak could allow. “Well, all of them, the people and the pokémon, get together and they show off what they can do to others. They get paid money to do that and travel around the country, going to new places to entertain new people.”

    Exo was still listening attentively, but Spencer's explanation tapered off when he saw Katarina nodding off in front of the fire. “I think that it’s time to go to sleep. Tomorrow’s another day.” He stood up and went over to Katarina and said, “Hey, doll, why don’t you go to bed?”

    She put up a token resistance, but since she was rubbing her eyes the whole time Katarina was convinced to take her picnic blanket out of her backpack and wrap herself up in it. “G’night, everyone,” she said and just like that she was out.

    As Ace folded his wings and settled in for the night, Spencer and Exo both sat in front of the flickering firelight. “It’s Exo, isn't it?” said Spencer. “Why don’t you get some sleep? Don’t worry, I’ll watch the fire.”

    “It is fine,” replied Exo. He and Spencer talked until the fire was nothing more than dying embers and they finally embraced sleep.
    Dreams do come a size too big. It's so that we can grow into them.

    Current Projects:
    Fanfiction: Pokémon: Exodus (Chapter six of nine posted)
    Nuzlocke: "Dude, Where's My Bellsprout?": A Totally Radical Red Version Nuzlocke

    Avatar by the illustrious Neo Emolga.

  4. #4
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    Chapter Four
    On the fourth day of Katarina’s journey, it rained. The skies opened up before the sun rose and unleashed a torrent that woke her and the others and spurred them into moving better than any stern words from Exo could have. The gloomy weather was matched by the gloomy mood of the travelers, and there were flareups of temper as the going grew wetter, muddier, and more and more difficult. Ace and Augustus were particularly miserable, with the spearow seeking shelter in Spencer's arms under the cover of his greatcoat and the growlithe whining and dragging its feet the whole way.

    Katarina had packed her bag in anticipation of an entire week of warm, late summer weather, and now her choice of clothes left her shivering. When she tried to speak, her words first had to navigate past her chattering teeth. The contrast with the warmth and comfort of the fire that she had been sleeping in front of only scant hours ago was striking and within half-an-hour, Spencer had taken off his coat and thrown its gray bulk around her. That helped a little, and it made her responsible for holding Ace. His warmth helped a little more.

    None of it was enough to make for a happy journey, however, and they were all relieved when they found themselves wading through lush fields of wheat and other grains that grew higher than any that Katarina had seen before. The five of them emerged from the swaying stalks onto a small dirt road used by farmhands and saw a stately alabaster mansion in the distance. They did not have long to admire it before a man rode up to them from the direction of the manor and stopped a few feet in front of them.

    He was a grizzled-looking man with large features that appeared to be fighting for space on his less impressively-sized head. He looked at the collection of children and pokémon before him with a lofty air of superiority, but even so his hand was on the grip of his saber. The rapidash that he was riding was obviously a well-bred and well-trained beast as it did not even flinch as heavy drops of rain fizzled and turned to steam upon contact with its fiery mane and tail. Its firelight gave the man and his pokémon an ethereal air, but it also promised much-needed warmth to the tired and waterlogged travelers. The man's countenance promised no such thing, however, and neither did his voice when he said sternly, “You lot are trespassing on the land of the most esteemed Lord Pryor. State your business or be off with you.”

    The man gave every indication that he was anticipating that they take the second option, so one of his eyebrows rose in surprise when Spencer bowed low to the ground and said in a groveling fashion that made Katarina want to giggle, “Oh, noble representative of the House of Pryor, we are but humble travelers who have heard tale of your master’s plight and have sought far and wide to retrieve his missing pokémon and to restore it to him.” Swiftly, before the young pokémon could react, Spencer scooped up Augustus and presented the growlithe to the man on the rapidash.

    “Eh? Is that little Auggie?” asked the man. Katarina tried to catch Exo’s eye, but the cubone stridently ignored her. The man bent over to pick up the growlithe and examined his collar and tags. “This is him all right. Thank you for bringing him back, children.”

    “I believe that there was talk of a reward,” said Ace from in-between Katarina's arms.

    Spencer cleared his throat and said in a more authoritative voice than the wheedling tone that he had been using before, “We would request some shelter from the weather and an audience with the lord of the house to discuss our reward.”

    “You have some nerve, boy, to presume such generosity,” the man began to say but then Katarina sneezed and his expression softened. “Oh, fine,” he grumbled and turned his rapidash toward the manor. “Follow me. We’ll get you warmed up.”

    With varied expressions of gratitude, Katarina, Exo, Spencer, and Ace followed the trotting pokémon. They passed great fields of cash crops and a set of smaller, but still impressive, quarters supplied to the laborers and servants that were the lifeblood of the plantation. The Pryor’s man considered one of those dwellings as they passed, but a glance at the soaked children and pokémon in his care made him think better of it. Soon they were in front of the door of the mansion itself, and the man on the rapidash made a sign to the footman standing by the door in a uniform that carried more buttons than Katarina could count, all of them dazzlingly polished.

    After taking Augustus from his fellow servant, the doorman’s expressionless eyes passed over the unexpected guests and then he reached behind him and opened the huge door into the manor. No one needed to be convinced to hurry inside and away from the cold and the rain.

    Once inside, the group of travelers found themselves in a high-ceilinged room and standing on a lavishly designed rug depicting a pattern of a hero of legend slaying a monster and being slayed by the same in an endless cycle. The rest of the room’s décor was of a similar quality, with expensive-looking vases, antique furniture, and paintings of various stern-looking men and lovely women with red hair.

    “I do hope that you are not planning on standing there all day dripping water onto my inheritance,” said a lofty young voice and all eyes went to a girl about Spencer's age with a lady’s bearing and dazzling red hair the same shade as that of the women in the portraits. She wore a frilled dress that was the same deep, rich blue as her eyes and the same color of the sinewy pokémon that was slithering through the doorway after her.

    “Apologies for the intrusion, Miss Marion,” said the footman who had come in after the others. “These young people and pokémon had found the growlithe which was missing from your father’s kennels and returned it hoping for a reward.”

    The girl, Marion, did not look at the visitors, but instead asked the servant, “I take it that they will want to speak with father then? I can take them there, Gennady.”

    With a low bow, the man said, “If you so desire, Miss Marion.” His nose crinkled and the doorman added, “If you’ll pardon the suggestion, it may be wiser to bring him to them rather than vice-versa.”

    “That will be all, Gennady,” Marion said and she dismissed him with a small wave of her hand. She then turned her attention onto Katarina and the others and ordered, “Remove your shoes and follow me,” with the tone of one who is used to commanding and being obeyed. Katarina had her first shoe off before she had really realized what she was doing, but Spencer was more grudging in his acquiescence. He muttered something unintelligible, but Marion paid him no mind since he was doing what she told him. Once they were ready, the girl spun gracefully on her feet and began striding down one of the hallways that led from the entryway and left the others scrambling after her.

    “Do you see that pokémon she’s got with her?” Spencer whispered to Katarina as they walked. “That’s a dratini.”

    “A what?”

    “It’s a super rare pokémon. A dragon, like in the fairytales.” Katarina's eyes lit up at that, but Spencer’s concerns were more pedestrian. “If her family can afford one of those, then they must be really rich!”

    Marion interrupted their whispering with an “Ahem,” and the group came to a halt in front of a heavy oaken door that was nearly closed. “This is my father’s study. I will go in first and make introductions and then-” She frowned and asked for their names, then resumed, “And then he will ask you to state your business. You will be respectful and to the point. You will refer to him as ‘Master Pryor’ and be on your best behavior, or else you shall be thrown out of the house, and rightfully so. Are there any questions?” Katarina, Spencer, and Ace all started to speak, but Marion ignored them, saying, “Good!”, and vanishing into the study followed by her slithering pokémon.

    “’Master Pryor’, can you believe that?” grumbled Spencer, but he still said it in a voice low enough not to penetrate the door. He shifted uncomfortably on his feet and the others, save for Exo, fidgeted alongside him, but Marion soon returned and held the door open to them.

    “You may enter,” she said loftily.

    Spencer went into the study first, but when they were standing in front of Marion’s father, it was Katarina who took the lead and curtsied to the seated aristocrat. Exo followed suit by lowering himself to one knee and Ace bowed as well. Only then did Spencer lower his head. It was not as deep or weighty a bow as the one with which he had favored the servant outside.

    If Master Pryor noticed this lack of deference, he gave no sign of it. He said in a resounding baritone, “My daughter has told me of the service you have provided to this family in retrieving our missing pokémon. Let me express the gratitude of my house in restoring our growlithe to us. Your efforts in doing so are to be lauded.”

    There was a heavy silence in the room save for the crackling of the fire burning in the study's fireplace. “Not to impugn your honor, Master Pryor,” said Spencer stiffly, “but we had heard mention of a reward for our good deed.”

    “You wish for a greater reward than the satisfaction of doing the right thing?” asked the patriarch with an arched eyebrow. “As you wish then. I will provide you with two-hundred krona for your trouble.”

    “That’s ridiculous!” Ace suddenly blurted out. “I bet that growlithe’s worth ten times as much!”

    “Maybe so,” admitted Master Pryor, his blue eyes cold and penetrating, “but since the pokémon is already in my possession again, you are in no position to haggle. This is not a trade, but a gift for your kindness, and, as such, it is for the giver to decide how far he wishes to extend himself.”

    Ace began to sputter, but Spencer put his hand on the spearow’s head and said in a toneless voice, “We appreciate your generosity, Master Pryor, but we would deign to make an additional request of you and your house.” He gestured to his companions and said, “We have traveled a great distance in search of your missing pokémon and were exposed to the elements the whole while. If you could grant us shelter for a few hours from this storm, we would be most grateful.”

    “You speak well, young man,” said Master Pryor. “Very well, you may stay for the duration of this storm. Marion will be your chaperone.” His daughter looked incensed by this, but she was paid no mind. “If you need anything at all, you are to ask her and she shall help you to acquire it. That is all. You are dismissed.”

    “Excuse me, sir,” said Katarina. “I have a question for you.” Although Marion tried to pull the other girl out of the study, her father tilted his head for Katarina to speak. “Will Augustus be taken care of? I mean, will he be happy?”

    Master Pryor studied her and answered, “I will endeavor to make it so.”

    Marion and her pokémon led the other children and pokémon out of the study. As soon as the door was closed behind them, she hissed at Katarina, “How dare you accuse my father, my family, of neglect of the pokémon under our care?”

    “Oh, come off it, Red! Katarina didn’t do anything like that!” said Spencer loudly.

    “Well, she implied it, and I’ve heard of duels starting for less,” huffed Marion and she walked away without waiting to see if she was being followed.

    Spencer was not willing to let the conversation go that easily. “How about your father’s implying that we're a bunch of stupid rubes who'd be happy to do a favor for him and get nothing for it but a pat on the head, huh?”

    Marion did not reply, but instead tilted her chin upwards and gave a small sniff of ladylike condescension. She led the others up a staircase, her dratini ascending the steps with only a hint of difficulty. The upstairs section of the mansion was just as lavishly decorated as the rest of the dwelling and Katarina and the others were led down a hallway containing a series of rooms. Marion opened a door on each side and showed them into two rooms that had nearly identical layouts with a large feather bed, heavy wooden furniture, and a basin of steaming water. “You can get washed up and rest while my father gets your reward ready,” said Marion crisply and then she turned on her heel and marched back downstairs.

    “Nice girl,” said Spencer, but he did not look as put out as he tried to sound. The lure of a warm bed and bath was too enticing to ignore. “I’ll take this room,” he said pointing a thumb at the open door closest to him. “Come and get me when you're done.”

    He vanished with Ace into the room and closed the door behind him by its crystal doorknob, then Katarina mimicked his actions and stepped into her own room. While Exo took stock of the room, Katarina undressed and began to wash herself, cleaning away what felt like weeks of sweat and grime even though it had only been a few days since she had set off on her quest. When she was done washing, Katarina stayed in the washtub a little longer, closing her eyes from the light of the chandelier above her, and waiting until the water had cooled to a lukewarm temperature. Then she got out, dried herself with a fluffy white towel that would have put those any hotel in Tinko City to shame, and redressed in a clean set of clothes.

    During her bathing, Exo had maintained a vigil by the window, but once she was presentable again, the pokémon asked her simply, “What do you think?”

    Katarina ran her fingers through her still-wet hair for a couple of seconds before she answered, “This place is very nice.” Exo did not say anything, but he did not have to. “Maybe they can help us,” said Katarina hopefully. “I mean, the Pryor’s have so much. They could tell us where we are, and how to get to Tinko City in time to meet Professor Oak.”

    “Do you want to look for Marion or her father?”

    “Yes, let’s do that.” Katarina hopped off the bed where she had been sitting and walked to the door. She paused before she opened it, and asked, “Do you think we should go without Spencer? He could use the rest.” Then, Katarina added, “I also don’t think his attitude would be very helpful.”

    Exo had joined her and said, “I think that would be wise.”

    They crept out of the guest room and down the hallway, mindful of every sound that they made on the creaking floorboards of the old and elegant home. There was no sign that Spencer or Ace heard them, so the girl and the cubone proceeded to the staircase without incident and went downstairs.

    “Do you think that Mr. Pryor is still in his study?” Katarina asked. Exo said that did not know, but it seemed like as good a place to start looking as any. The two of them turned out of the entryway, but within minutes they were hopelessly lost. When they passed by the same suit of armor for a third time, Katarina threw up her hands and slumped against a wall bedecked with a portrait of a gallant-looking man in armor on a rapidash plunging his lance into the side of a fierce-looking gyarados. “I don’t understand. You were so good at directions when we were walking outside.”

    “That was outdoors,” said Exo with a trace of irritability in his voice. The cubone looked around the suit of armor, first at one hallway, then at the other. “I do not understand this place at all.”

    Katarina and Exo stood quietly for a few minutes and plotted their next move. As they were thinking, they heard a sound. It was a heavy thump that rattled the walls and the paintings hanging above them. Katarina and Exo looked at one another and then started down the hallway that they had just come from in search of its source.

    They were fortunate enough that the thumping continued in an uncertain rhythm and it was getting louder and louder as they walked. Down another hallway with an impressive bust of some bearded man that Katarina thought might be a king, there was a tall set of double doors. The sounds of a violent conflict were going on behind them and at this distance, Katarina and Exo could hear the muffled sound of voices as well, though it was hard to make out what they were saying. Curious, Katarina stepped up to the heavy wooden doors and pushed one of them open with a high-pitched creak. She froze in place, but the sounds on the other side did not abate and Katarina chanced to look inside.

    In contrast to the rest of the mansion, the room she was seeing was rough and unfinished. Its walls were made of stone and bare save for unimpressive fixtures that held dimly flickering candles. The rest of the room was similarly functional. The floor was simple wood covered with a generous layer of sawdust. Of much more interest to Katarina was the room's inhabitants. There was Marion and her dratini, but the girl had changed. Instead of the blue dress she had been wearing earlier, she was decked out in sensible set of black pants, a red vest over a long-sleeved white shirt like those that an athlete would wear, and her bright red hair was tied back in a tight ponytail. She looked like one of the illustrations of professional pokémon battlers Katarina had seen in books back home, right down to the determined frown set on Marion's beautiful but severe face.

    The comparison did not occur to Katarina solely because of Marion's appearance. There was also her pokémon, the blue and white dratini. It had been by the girl’s side since Katarina had entered the house, but now it was standing a few yards in front of Marion, closer to the center of the wide room and was swaying back in forth in the best combat stance that its limbless body could manage. Across from it was a different pokémon, a stout creature that looked almost like a child, only almost every inch of its blue-gray skin was bulging with muscles. Its red-irised eyes were narrowed and focused on the dratini and it was breathing heavily. Behind it, about the same distance as Marion was from her pokémon, was one of the Pryor plantation’s immaculately dressed servants. In contrast to the girl’s stern visage, the man looked almost bored behind his thin-framed spectacles.

    “It is your turn, Miss Marion,” he said, and Katarina's suspicions were confirmed. The servant's voice was heavy not only with the usual burden of his class, but also with a tinge of the same impatience that Katarina, Spencer, and the pokémon had been treated to ever since crossing over onto the Pryor’s land.

    Marion gave no sign of noticing the help’s disrespect, however, besides to say, “I’m thinking, Nikita.” Then, she stood up to her full height and jabbed a finger forward dramatically at the man and his pokémon. “Wanda! Use your thunder wave attack!”

    At her mistress's command, the dratini surged forward in an undulating charge. The other pokémon made what looked to Katarina like a half-hearted lunge for her, but the dratini ducked below the smaller pokémon's arms and reappeared a few feet to its left. Then, the white nub of Wanda’s undeveloped horn began to glow blue and crackle with electrical energy, building up until it was released in a burst at her opponent.

    The other pokémon, a machop, Katarina had realized, seized up, but then it resumed its fighting stance, although its movements were a little jerkier than before. Wanda returned to her place in front of Marion and the servant, Nikita, said drolly, “An excellent strategy, Miss Marion. Please allow my machop and I to take our turn.” After the girl nodded, Nikita continued in his laconic voice, “Very well. Beauregard, perform a ‘low kick’ on Miss Marion's pokémon.”

    The machop strode towards Wanda casually, and Katarina was sure that the larger pokémon would do something to stop him in his tracks. But the dratini only tensed up, and Marion along with her, and let Beauregard the machop kick her flank. All the preparation by girl and pokémon was unnecessary as the attack did not move Wanda one inch. But the machop seemed not to care one way or the other as he took his place in front of Marion's equally unperturbed servant again.

    It was the strangest, most unexciting fight between pokémon that Katarina had ever witnessed. Even wild spearow squabbling over spilled seed corn showed more life than these two. But Marion seemed completely invested in this farce. She shifted her stance and shouted, “Wanda! Try attacking with your slam attack!”

    The dratini reared up on the back half of her long muscular body and then launched herself at the ground. With the aid of gravity, the force of her impact made the room rattle and proved to be the source of the strange noises that Katarina had been hearing before. The machop side-stepped the first few attacks, but Wanda continued her flailing motions and, after a small but insistent cough from Nikita, the machop stood in place and let his foe pummel him with the full weight of her body. Wanda slithered away, and the two pokémon took their places once again.

    “What a joke!” exclaimed a voice and Katarina whipped her head around to find Spencer standing not two feet behind her with Ace perched on his shoulder. He strode past Katarina and threw open the doors to the makeshift arena, obviously relishing Marion’s look of surprise. “Is this supposed to be a pokémon battle? Give me a break!”

    The bravado and confidence that Marion had shown only a few seconds before evaporated in an instant and she said in a strange, small voice, “Go away. Please, go away.”

    “No way, I want to watch this little show you’ve come up with.” When neither trainer nor their pokémon met his eyes, Spencer's smile widened. “Are you telling me that you didn’t know? Oh, that’s too funny!” He grabbed a spot of bare wall some distance inside of the room and propped himself against it. “Listen,” he said to the still-impassive servant and his machop, “I know a thing or two about running a con and this isn’t the way to do it. I mean, have you guys even seen a real pokémon battle before? This thing is a total dud. It’s all stiff and fake. A pokémon battle is like a dance, and I mean a fun dance, too. It’s gotta be more than this sham.”

    “If you know so much, then why don’t you prove it?” yelled Marion. Her fists were clenched and her face was as red as her hair. “Battle me!”

    Her manservant stepped towards her and said, “Miss Marion, perhaps it would not be wise to engage with-”

    But Spencer raised his voice over Nikita and said, “Sorry, but it’s just not worth my time, Red.”

    “I can talk to my father!” Marion blurted out. “I can get him to double, no, triple, whatever reward he was going to give you for returning his pokémon!”

    Spencer made a show of looking curious, but even Katarina had known him for long enough to know that the boy was fighting down the grin that threatened to break out across his face. “All right,” he said the weariness of someone forced to make a great concession, “I suppose that I can show you what a real pokémon battle is like.” Then, he turned to the servant and said in his usual mercenary tone, “You’re a witness to this, right, pal?” Nikita sputtered something indecisive, but it was evidently good enough for Spencer. He replaced the servant at his end of the makeshift stadium and whistled sharply.

    Hopping off his shoulder, Ace the spearow fluttered to the ground and looked around the room with his piercing eyes. “What a dump,” he said, but then he was all business as Marion and her own pokémon readied themselves.

    Nikita recovered rather well from the sudden turn of events and he had positioned himself at the midpoint of the room, lending the dusty arena a sense of decorum with his crisp uniform and grave bearing. “In this battle between Miss Marion and this young man-“

    “Spencer!” Katarina called out helpfully.

    “-Spencer, both sides will be limited to one pokémon each. Miss Marion has opted for her dratini, an excellent choice, whereas the boy will be using a common garden-variety spearow.” Nikita ignored Ace’s boos and hisses that greeted his comments and announced, “Begin!”

    Marion had again adopted her impression of how a professional pokémon trainer should look, tensing up so much that it looked to Katarina and Exo as though she might try and join the fray herself. “I’m feeling magnanimous,” she announced loudly, “so you can have the first move!”

    Ace had already taken wing before the girl had finished speaking and found a perch on one of the wooden rafters supporting the room's high ceiling. “Don't think you can back out of this by pretending to be sick,” said Spencer. He looked up approvingly at Ace’s new vantage point and said, “Your turn.”

    “Tell your pokémon to come down here this instant!” fumed Marion. “Running away and hiding is no way for a real pokémon to fight!” It looked as though she wanted to say more, but suddenly a piece of wood pelted the ground between Marion and her dratini.

    Everyone looked up to see Ace was tearing away at the rotting wood of the section of supports that he was standing on. When he had wrenched another piece free with his beak, the spearow transferred it to one of his clawed feet and asked, “Would a real pokémon fight like this?” Ace punctuated his comment by throwing the wooden missile in his claw at Wanda and it bounced off the stunned dratini's head with a dull “bonk”.

    “He can’t do that!” sputtered Marion. Then to Spencer, she repeated, “He can’t do that! You’re his trainer! You’re supposed to give him commands and he’s supposed to follow them!”

    Spencer shrugged, but he had already lost the fight to hold back his smile. “Even if I had come up with this plan, announcing it would have just let you know it was coming. Taking turns and telegraphing your strategy is a luxury that a real pokémon trainer can't afford in a battle.”

    “I thought you said that a pokémon battle was like a dance, Spencer,” said Katarina from the sidelines.

    “Oh, that was just a load of…nonsense. I go with what works.”

    After her outburst, Marion's temper was still simmering as she still issued a command to her pokémon, “Wanda! Use your thunder wave technique!”

    The dratini slithered to a position where she could see Ace in the rafters and started to build up energy for her attack, but before Wanda could direct the waves of debilitating electricity at her foe, the spearow had taken a few hopping movements to a different part of the ceiling where he enjoyed a layer of protection between him and Wanda.

    “Tell your pokémon to stand still!” demanded Marion as Wanda slithered her long body to another section of the arena to try and catch another glimpse of Ace.

    “Why should I?” asked Spencer.

    “Because it's underhanded and cowardly, and if you were-” Her abuse was interrupted by a series of musical whistles from Spencer. Marion glared at her opponent and asked, “What did you do?”

    “I gave my pokémon a command,” replied Spencer.

    Marion had to make a visible effort to tear her attention away from the boy to scan the rafters fruitlessly for Ace, and said, “That's not what I meant! What did you tell him?”

    “You’ll find out,” Spencer said with a laugh.

    “Fine, we can flush your bird out of hiding,” snarled Marion and then she gestured dramatically at her dratini. “Wanda! Use your dragon rage attack on the ceiling!”

    Nikita, Katarina, and Exo all blanched at the command, and even Marion’s pokémon hesitated. The servant was the first to regain his voice and he said tentatively, “Miss Marion, I don't think that this is prudent.”

    But Marion ignored him to continue scanning the ceiling for Ace, and Spencer’s only response to their audience's concern was to slyly wink at Katarina. Then he gave a low mournful-sounding whistle and snapped his fingers.

    “Now!” shrieked Marion and the small mouth underneath Wanda’s white snout erupted with a stream of blue fire. As soon as the attack started, Ace dropped from his hiding place on the other side of room from where Wanda was aiming and sped over the sawdust-covered floor towards the dratini.

    Marion was shrieking at her pokémon to redirect her attack, but by the time that the Wanda could reorient herself, the dratini’s attack had petered out. Without waiting for Marion’s next order, Wanda lurched for Ace as he flew towards her, but the spearow rolled out of the way of the larger pokémon’s attack and continued his flight. He zoomed past the confused dratini and towards her startled trainer.

    Ace took up a perch next to Marion's head, and her ear-splitting scream was cut suddenly short. The claws of one of the spearow's feet were digging into her shoulder while his other set of talons was pressed up against her throat.

    “Yield.”

    Tears were swimming in Marion's blue eyes, evidence of her pain and humiliation. “You can’t do this. This isn’t how pokémon battling is supposed to go.”

    Spencer sighed heavily and held out his arm. Without a word, Ace flapped his way across the room to perch on the boy’s forearm. “Sorry, Red, but that's how it goes in the real world outside of your mansion. If your pokémon can’t protect you, then you lose just like in a straight-up fight.”

    His words did not seem to comfort the girl, but her dratini glided over to her and put her head underneath Marion’s slack hand. “I’m sorry, Miss Marion,” she said gently. “I’m afraid I’ve let you down.”

    “No, it’s quite all right, dear Wanda,” said Marion as she curled her fingers to scratch Wanda's head. “My shortcomings are my own.” She raised her head to look at Spencer past her chin. “I am a Pryor and a woman of honor, so I will speak to my father on your behalf.” Then, under her breath, Marion added, “Even though you cheated.”

    Spencer rolled his eyes and said, “Oh, shut up!”

    Before things could escalate further, Katarina stepped forward and addressed the other girl. “Excuse me, Marion, but I was wondering if you could tell me where we are.”

    “You’re in the home and on the land of my father and the Pryor family,” said Marion simply as she blinked away her anger.

    “I know that,” Katarina said. “What I meant was where are we in Tinko? I need to make it to the capital in three days.”

    Marion put her finger against her chin. “I’m not sure how best to put it. I can show you to a map. Yes, I think that would help.” Then, she barked, “Nikita! Get this mess cleaned up!”

    “Yes, Miss Marion,” the servant said as he and his machop bitterly took stock of the damage and the mess that had accumulated around the room, including the lingering blue flames Wanda’s failed attack had left on the rafters overhead. Ignoring the bitterness in Nikita's voice, Marion led Katarina, Spencer, and the rest of the pokémon back through the wooden double doors.

    As she led them expertly through the winding hallways of her home, Marion asked Katarina over her shoulder, “What business do you have in Tinko City?”

    “I’m looking to get my first pokémon!” replied Katarina excitedly.

    Feeling Marion’s eyes upon him and her unspoken question, Exo said simply, “I’m not her pokémon,” and the girl accepted the explanation without a word.

    “Professor Oak’s visiting from the mainland and he’s always giving away pokémon to kids who can’t afford to buy one, but he’s leaving in a few days so I have to get to the capital as soon as possible.”

    “Wait a minute,” said Spencer suddenly. “Why don’t you just get your dad to give Katarina a pokémon, Red? He’s gotta have loads of them lying around.”

    Marion huffed. “My father’s pokémon are not ‘lying around’. They are painstakingly raised and cost more than you can imagine. They are not for giving away.” When she realized how harsh her words sounded, Marion grimaced and said more gently, “Besides there’s the whole matter of licensing and registration as a pokémon trainer. A man like Professor Oak would expedite that process far more easily than even my father could.”

    After that exchange, Marion led them around a corner and came to a stop before a tapestry that stretched from the ceiling to the floor across a length of wall that showed a painstakingly woven map of Tinko replete with charging knights, dancing maidens, and fierce pokémon. A little way above the center of the landmass that was the subject of the tapestry was a seven-pointed star in brilliant yellow.

    “That star,” said Marion, “marks the location of this manor.” She traced her hand towards the edge of the tapestry, where the green land met the blue sea. “Tinko City is here.” She turned to Katarina and saw that the other girl looked crestfallen. “What’s wrong?”

    “It’s still so far away,” Katarina said.

    Exo patted her leg softly. “I am sorry, Katarina.”

    The group could almost hear Marion's brain working under her head of vivid red hair. “When do have to be there?”

    “In three days,” supplied Exo.

    “Oh, that’s no problem at all then!” said Marion brightly. Relishing the others attention, she explained, “You can just go by train!”
    Dreams do come a size too big. It's so that we can grow into them.

    Current Projects:
    Fanfiction: Pokémon: Exodus (Chapter six of nine posted)
    Nuzlocke: "Dude, Where's My Bellsprout?": A Totally Radical Red Version Nuzlocke

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  5. #5
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    Chapter Five
    They spent the night on the plantation, and not in the servants’ quarters either. Katarina had enjoyed the largest, most comfortable bed that she had ever had in her entire life, and before that a warm, hearty meal where the dishes had been constantly being replenished by an army of stone-faced servants. During the meal, Katarina had pled her case to Marion’s father. Fortunately, with his daughter’s support and Spencer on his best behavior, Master Pryor had been receptive to Katarina’s concerns and he had promised her, Spencer, and the pokémon first-class tickets to Tinko City. “Of course,” he had said after making this concession, “the cost of these tickets will be coming out of your reward for bringing back our wayward growlithe.”

    When Katarina had gotten ready for bed and Exo was still sculpting a make-shift nest out of pillows and blankets, she had told the cubone, “This is great! No more walking and we’ll make it to the capital with plenty of time to spare.”

    “I suspect you are right,” Exo had replied without looking up from the cushion that he was reshaping. “If you had not insisted on helping that growlithe and accompanying Spencer and Ace, we would still be walking.”

    “It’s still raining, too,” Katarina had said after she had glanced outside of the guest room’s window. “I’m certainly glad we’re not lying down to sleep in that storm.”

    Exo had asked, “I am not sure you would have been up for walking for another three days. How are your feet?”

    Katarina had been sitting on the edge of the bed, delighting in feeling it give way under her weight. Her examination showed that her feet were less red and raw than before after spending most of the day indoors and not exerting herself, but they were still far from healed. “They look better,” Katarina had answered truthfully, but something had tipped Exo off and, without saying a word, the cubone had curled up in his tangle of blankets and closed his eyes.

    “Good night, Exo,” Katarina had said quietly and then she had turned off the light.

    The next morning, Katarina and Exo joined Spencer, Ace, Marion, and Wanda for breakfast in one of the mansion’s auxiliary dining rooms. The boys looked as well-rested as Katarina and Exo, but Marion and her dratini looked somewhat disheveled. “My father will not be accompanying us,” Marion said after everyone had finished their meal, except for Spencer who was working on his third helping. “He has some business to attend to this morning, so I will be accompanying you all into town and seeing you off at the train station.”

    “That’s a real shame,” said Spencer around a mouthful of food.

    Marion rose from her seat and said, “Gather your belongings and meet in the entryway in half-an-hour.”

    Katarina cleared her throat and asked, “Could we get someone to come to our rooms and escort us there?”

    “I’ll have a servant come by to gather you five minutes before we’re to set out.” Then, it was Spencer who had a question, but with his mouth still full of food he just gestured vaguely at his plate with his free hand. “No,” Marion said, “we will not pack up any food for you. Unless you want to use some of your reward to pay for it?” In response, Spencer grunted something that might have been obscene and went back to cleaning off his plate. “Excellent. Since that it is all settled, I’ll see you all when we reconvene.” Then, Marion pushed back her chair and strode off into one of the mansion’s labyrinthine corridors accompanied by her dratini.

    “She’s really something else, huh?” said Spencer, as he wiped his mouth with the corner of the tablecloth.

    Katarina laughed along with him and started to clean up her dishes. When a servant came and swiftly took them off her hands, she sat back down and asked the others, “Do you really think that it will work? Going on a train, I mean?”

    Since his companion was still preoccupied, Ace took the lead and said, “Spence and I have traveled by rail a couple of times. It ain’t the same high living that you get in a place like this, but it’s a lot better than hoofing it the way you poor saps have to do to get anywhere.”

    Spencer nodded in agreement and swallowed his last bite. “Not sure when we’ll get to eat like this again, so I’d stock up if I were you.”

    “No, thank you,” Katarina said as she watched Spencer lick his plate clean, “I’ve lost my appetite.” She stood up and retreated upstairs with Exo following close behind. Katarina washed her face and replaced her things in her bag. There was not very much that needed to be done since she had hardly unpacked at all during her stay at the Pryor's manor, and she spent the next twenty minutes alternating between sitting on the bed and pacing the floor. In contrast, Exo had found a seat by the windows and was looking at the world outside without really seeing anything.

    Eventually, a man came by and sharply rapped on the door. Once he had gathered Katarina and Exo, as well as Spencer and Ace from their room across the hall, the servant led the children and pokémon down to the first floor of the mansion. As they walked, Spencer slipped something into Katarina’s hand. She looked down blankly at the wad of paper money she was holding and then up at Spencer.

    “I talked to Pryor,” said Spencer and added with a shrug, “this is your half of the reward for finding his growlithe.”

    “Thanks,” Katarina said, and she repeated the word again because she didn’t know what else to say. She stuffed the money into her bag and promptly tried to forget about the weighty collection of bills.

    At the bottom of the stairs, Marion was waiting for them. The only outward sign betraying her impatience was the small but insistent tapping of her foot on the rug where she was standing. To Katarina’s surprise, the other girl was dressed a similar outfit that she had worn during her pokémon battles with her servant and Spencer. Her bright red hair was tied back in a ponytail and her entire ensemble, from her black cap to her boots done in the same color, retained an air of class and practicability.

    “What's with the get-up?” asked Spencer. “Don’t tell me you’re looking for a rematch.”

    “It’s nothing like that!” Marion replied vehemently. Then she withdrew into herself and what Katarina thought was a guilty look passed between Marion and the servant who had directed Katarina and the others to the front room. “It’s only that I cannot be expected to be dressed in my finest when all I am doing is escorting some commoners to the train station. There’s no reason to dirty a dress over such a menial task.”

    With that, Marion spun on her heal and went outside, her upturned nose leading the rest of her body. Spencer leaned over to Katarina and said in a low voice, “’Commoners’… ‘Menial task’… Does she know how to make a guy feel special or what?”

    Katarina stifled a giggle and followed Spencer out the door and after the older girl. Marion was directing a team of two servants where to store her luggage in the back of the carriage while the pair of rapidash harnessed to it snorted and pawed at the ground in anticipation. “Glad you could join us,” said Marion when she finally deemed to notice the others. “I’m afraid that you’ll have to hold onto your belongings during our trip into town as there is simply no room for them back here. Will that be a problem?” Katarina and Spencer glanced down at their bags in unison and shook their heads as a trunk longer than Katarina was tall was precariously loaded on the back of the coach. “Good!” said Marion brightly. “Go on, climb in.”

    “Those poor rapidash," muttered Spencer, but he lifted himself into the carriage and helped Katarina and Exo up after him. Ace said that he wanted the chance to stretch his wings after being cooped up inside for so long and stayed outside, finding a perch by the wagon’s driver. The last thing they heard from him before they closed the coach’s door was a friendly, “Howdy!” delivered to the impassive driver.

    Marion and her dratini joined them after she was satisfied with the arrangement of her luggage, and then the carriage lurched into motion. It moved slowly at first but gradually picked up speed as the rapidash grew accustomed to the weight they were towing. Spencer had lowered his gray cap over his eyes before they had even begun moving and Katarina was trying to admire the scenery outside her window, but she could not fully enjoy it with Marion looking at her and fidgeting nervously all the while.

    “What is it?” asked Katarina when it got to be too much.

    “What do you mean?”

    Katarina shifted in her seat and said, “You’ve been looking at me funny for ten minutes. What’s the matter?”

    “Nothing’s the matter!” said Marion with a light airy laugh that was transparently false. When she saw that the other girl was not fooled, Marion's face took on a serious cast and she said, “I’m coming with you to Tinko City, without my father’s knowledge.”

    A number of questions occurred to Katarina, and from the resulting tangle she could only pick out a single word, “Why?”

    After glancing at Spencer to make sure that he was truly asleep, Marion said in a hushed voice, “I want to be a pokémon trainer, a real one who travels and battles and participates in competitions. My father has indulged my dreams to a point, but he’s convinced that I’ll grow out of it someday, and he has expressly forbidden me to go to the mainland and undergo the customary pokémon journey. I cannot learn how to be a great pokémon trainer participating in staged contests with my servants. Your friend was right.”

    Spencer lazily lifted his cap up and away from his eyes and smiled. “What was that you said, Red? Something about me being right?”

    Marion snorted, but checked her temper until she was finally calm enough to say, “Yes, you were right. I don’t know anything about being a real pokémon trainer, so I’m coming with you to the capital.”

    “Maybe we don’t want you tagging along,” suggested Spencer, but from his joking tone, it was clear that he was not seriously trying to discourage the girl.

    “We’re going to the same place,” said Marion and then she sniffed, “Besides, I have your train tickets.”

    “Is your father going to be upset?” asked Katarina.

    Marion bit her lip but made a show of waving away the concern. “Father will be furious, and he’ll likely take out his anger on some of the servants, but I will not be gone for long and he will see that I have proven myself and have no choice but to let me go on a pokémon journey.”

    Katarina processed this silently, allowing Exo to put forth his own question, “What is it that you hope to accomplish in Tinko City?”

    “Well,” Marion began to say, but she had to take some time to compose her thoughts before she continued, “I’ve never been to the capital unaccompanied by my father and my mother. Tinko City isn’t terribly far away, but it is enough of a trek that I can show my father that I am capable of a proper journey and that I would be perfectly fine travelling to Kanto and undertaking the league challenge there.”

    “I think that you using your father’s money undercuts your point somewhat,” said Spencer from under his peaked cap. Then, the boy uncovered his face and rubbed his eyes and added, “There’s a lot more to pokémon training than just taking the train from town to town and collecting badges. You have to know how to rough it in the wild.”

    Marion was listening intently, but she still said, “And how do you know that? Have you been on a pokémon journey before?”

    “No,” admitted Spencer with a shrug, “but it’s common sense, I think. Besides, you wouldn’t get very far with the way you think pokémon battling works.”

    Marion huffed in a very unladylike fashion and turned her attention to Katarina. “Do you think that you’ll want to travel after you get a pokémon from Professor Oak?”

    “I don’t know,” Katarina said. “I mean, it sounds like it would be fun to travel around and see new people and places, but I would have to be away from my family and our farm for a long time.”

    “If it’s money that’s a problem, I’m sure that-”

    But Katarina shook her head before the older girl could finish. “That’s not it, well, not all of it.”

    Spencer resumed napping and Katarina and Marion continued to talk, with the pokémon in the carriage offering their thoughts when they deemed it prudent. Marion was in the middle of describing some of the shops that she had visited with her mother the last time that she was in Tinko City when the vehicle lurched to a halt. They waited in silence for a few minutes, and then Ace came back to perch on the bottom of the coach’s open window.

    “What’s wrong?” asked Katarina, and Spencer echoed her question a split second later.

    “Not sure,” the spearow said. “There's an injured pokémon out in the middle of the road making a fuss and asking for passage to the nearest town.”

    “What?” exclaimed Marion and she forced her way over out of the carriage. “We don't have any time to spare on riffraff!” Her dratini, Wanda, dutifully followed her outside, landing with on the surface of the dirt road with a heavy thump. Since they were curious as well, Katarina and Spencer trailed after Marion and her pokémon.

    They rounded the side of the wagon and emerged past the pair of harnessed rapidash which were snorting and stamping at the ground impatiently. From his perch on the coach, the driver was politely but firmly insisting that the pokémon who was blocking the road get out of the way, only to be drowned out by a stream of wheedling pleas and excuses. Said pokémon was a plump creature adorned with brown-gray feathers and a white underbelly. He was leaning on a walking stick tipped with green in order to keep himself upright, but despite the pitiful words that were coming out of his beak, Katarina did not trust him.

    She was hardly alone. None of the members of the traveling party had a sympathetic ear to spare for the squat little pokémon, but even though he had to be aware of that fact, he kept trying to make his case. “Please, I am but a poor old traveler.” He stopped to cough for effect, and then went on, “You have plenty of room for little old me. It will cost you nothing, but you will have my undying friendship as a reward.”

    “Not going to happen,” said Marion curtly. “Let’s get moving, Mikhail.”

    The driver nodded and grabbed the reins but before he could spur the rapidash into action, Katarina said, “Wait! Why can’t we help him? Even if he does try to do something bad, there’s only one of him.”

    “Bless you, dear child,” the pokémon in question said, failing to maintain the affected feebleness in his voice.

    Spencer cut him off before the little pokémon could launch into another monologue. “This guy’s a total con artist. He’ll try something as soon as we let our guard down. Trust me, doll.”

    “How can you tell?”

    “He’s switched which leg he’s favoring three times since we’ve been out here.” Spencer laughed brightly and said, “Look, as one professional to another, you really have to work on your scam. Everything about you screams ‘don’t trust me!’. I don’t know what your game is, but whatever it is you’re after, you’ve gotta work on your acting, your presentation, all of it. That’s your best weapon, especially since you don’t have the muscle to try and knock over an entire stagecoach or whatever on your own.”

    “You think so?” asked the pokémon without the slightest trace of disappointment that he had been found out. If anything, he sounded downright cheerful.

    Marion stomped her foot on the dusty ground. “Enough talking! We have a train to catch! Mikhail! Have the rapidash singe his tail feathers! That should get him out of our way.”

    “Seems like a little much,” said Spencer, but he took a healthy step backwards and pulled Katarina after him.

    Mikhail the driver whistled sharply and the two rapidash opened their mouths and shot out identical licks of flame at the pokémon in front of them. The attacks were nothing serious, intended only to get the would-be hitchhiker moving, and move he did, but not in the way that Marion and her coachman had intended. Instead of fleeing the fiery assault, the pokémon swung his walking stick and deflected the flames with a powerful swing of his weapon.

    Then the strange pokémon charged straight at one of the rapidash, prompting another attack from the larger pokémon. The body of the rapidash being charged blocked its companion from getting a clear shot at their attacker, but the first stallion was still able to deliver a single burst of flames at the smaller pokémon.

    To everyone’s surprise, the attack did not reduce the stranger to ashes. Instead, he threw his walking stick into the attack, splitting the line of fire to either side of him and hitting the rapidash square in the face with his projectile. The startled pokémon took a step back and whinnied in pain as its attacker retrieved his weapon. The rapidash was further startled when it backed into the body of the carriage and turned around to try and look at what was behind it, but this pulled the harness tightly around the other rapidash, which started snapping at its companion, leaving Mikhail to struggle to get the two panicking pokémon back under control.

    “Give me your valuables, all of them,” the feathered pokémon said as he dusted off his walking stick, "and I’ll let you go on your way.”

    Marion's face made it clear what she thought of the ultimatum, but it was Katarina who spoke. “What kind of pokémon are you?” she asked in an awed tone of voice.

    “He is a farfetch’d,” Exo said as stepped forward from the rear of the group. “His name is Endo.”

    “Ah, Exo, fancy meeting you here,” Endo said, sparing only a brief glance away from the still-squabbling rapidash.

    Katarina asked, “You know him?”

    “We have crossed paths a number of times in the past," said Exo. “He’s a wandering pokémon like myself.”

    “Only instead of living off of the fat of the land like good Exo here,” the farfetch’d interposed, “I prefer to rely on my wits.”

    Exo shook his head. “He means to say that he steals from the weak and gullible, not just for survival but for sport as well.”

    “Call it what you like, but I am what I am.” The rapidash had been brought back under Mikhail’s control, although they were still grunting in anger and pulling on their reins. “Call them off, Exo, and let’s settle this pokémon to pokémon.”

    Marion blurted out, “This is ridiculous! My father’s rapidash are more than enough to take care of him!” She started to give Mikhail and the pokémon a command, but she stopped at the “thwip” of Endo slicing through one of the leather straps harnessing the rapidash with the surprisingly sharp edge of his walking stick.

    “Let Exo and I settle this, girl, or else you’ll have a pair of runaway rapidash to deal with.” The farfetch'd held his weapon dangerously close to another part of the harness, but he allowed himself a chuckle as he added, “And, let me tell you, you aren’t going to catch either of these rapidash before your train leaves.”

    All eyes were on Marion. Under the weight of their expectations, the red-haired girl threw up her hands and said, “Fine!”

    “At least you’ll get a chance to see a real pokémon battle,” offered Spencer helpfully, but Marion only glared at him.

    “It is not really a pokémon battle,” Exo said as he walked onto the dirt road opposite where Endo was now standing. “It is more of a duel. It is not only about strength. It is a matter of honor.”

    “And if I win, I get all of your things, too,” said Endo. His walking stick was held in both of his wings and the farfetch’d stood up as straight as his round body would allow him. Exo mirrored his actions, only with his bone as his weapon instead.

    The two pokémon walked toward each other and stopped when there was about three yards of distance between them. Exo and Endo bowed low to each other, then took their weapons of choice and lowered them into the earth. They walked in slow, deliberate strides in a complete lap of the circle that they traced in the dirt. When they reached the spot where they had started from, the cubone and the farfetch'd held up their weapons again and bowed again.

    “What are they doing?” asked Marion, but she was quickly shushed by Katarina, Spencer, Ace, and even her own Wanda.

    Exo and Endo emerged from their bows as mirror images, but the instant that their eyes met, the illusion was broken. Endo lunged suddenly forward with a thrust of his walking stick that Exo batted away with a counter-clockwise spin of his club.

    “Nice,” said Spencer under his breath.

    Exo kept his guard up as he and Endo circled around the perimeter of their makeshift arena. There were no taunts or insults exchanged between the two warriors, only a pause in their silent dance followed a split-second later by Endo throwing himself at Exo with a wild downward stroke of his stick that met Exo’s bone club with a resounding crack. Exo tried to kick at his foe with one of his stout legs, but the farfetch’d leapt backwards out of reach. Endo responded with a few elementary swings, but each attack was easily parried. None of the farfetch’d’s wild thrusts or slashes made his opponent take a single step back.

    The dueling pokémon’s audience was largely silent, so when Endo stumbled and caught himself on his walking stick, their gasps were the only sound besides Exo and Endo’s heavy breathing. Despite the show of weakness, Exo held back and did not attack. Instead, he waited until Endo had caught his breath and resumed his fighting stance.

    “Thought you might finally fall for that,” said Endo with a smile on his yellow beak.

    “I thought you might have gotten old.”

    The farfetch’d laughed at that, but before the sound had even left his beak, he was moving again, thrusting his weapon forward in a deadly pattern of attacks that Katarina and the others struggled to follow. Exo met every attack with small economic motions of his club, blunting each individual segment of the sustained assault without matching their intensity. It was a nearly-identical strategy to the one that he had used against the nidorino which had accosted Katarina four days earlier. As Endo’s attacks kept coming, Exo started to allow himself to move backwards as much could be afforded in the small space of the circular arena.

    An additional minute of flurried blows might have seen Endo break through Exo’s defenses or it might have been enough to force the cubone past the line in the dirt, but neither happened. Instead, Endo pulled back from his attack and stood still save for his rapidly rising and falling chest. The farfetch’d was watching Exo, studying him, while the cubone did the same to him. Then, Endo knelt on the ground and thrust his walking stick into the ground.

    “I yield.”

    Exo nodded once and lowered his own weapon. Then, the cubone walked over to his foe and offered him a paw to help him up. Endo accepted the help to his feet and then pumped the other pokémon’s paw up and down three times in rapid succession.

    “You’ve still got it, Exo,” the farfetch’d chattered excitedly. “One of these days I’m going to find the chink in your armor though, and then it’ll be a different story.”

    “What’s going on?” asked Katarina, but no one had an answer.

    Exo had walked his defeated opponent to the edge of the dirt road and was saying, “I am sure you will one day, Endo. How many times have we dueled now?”

    “This was our one-hundredth encounter,” said Endo immediately. “And I still have only a lone victory to my name.”

    Exo offered some words of comfort, and that surprised Katarina even more than Endo’s sudden and graceful defeat. Afterwards, the farfetch’d shouldered his walking stick and, waved goodbye before vanishing into the trees lining the dirt road.

    “Wait, you fought that farfetch’d a hundred times and he only won once?” asked Katarina as they climbed back into the carriage. “Why did he challenge you? He had to know that he would lose.”

    Exo settled in his seat and rested his club up against the wall of the coach before he answered, “Endo may be a brigand, but he has his own code of honor. I am happy every time that we cross paths and cross blades.”

    “I’m just glad he didn’t try anything funny,” Marion said with a huff.

    “How do you know he didn’t?” asked Spencer. “Maybe you should count and make sure that all of your luggage is still in the back.” When it seemed as though Marion was actually considering ordering the carriage to stop again to do so, Spencer groaned, “It was a joke!” and retreated under the shade of his cap.

    “It’s probably fine,” Marion said more to herself than to anyone else. “Besides, we do have to make up for lost time if we want to catch our train. Mikhail! Faster!”

    Katarina’s stomach lurched as the carriage suddenly picked up speed, driven by the team of rapidash and Mikhail’s colorful exhortations for them to go even faster. But soon she was enjoying the pace and watching the scene of Tinko’s natural beauty unfold before her eyes through the window of the coach. Woods turned to rolling fields and those turned to farms, all interspersed with snatches of conversation with her fellow passengers. Eventually, the carriage pulled off the dirt road and onto the rough uneven street of gravel of town. A sign swung by the road that they were taking that read “Pryortown”. Marion did her best not to appear pleased about that particular landmark.

    There was hardly any time to appreciate the sights of the bustling town, however. They were running late, that much was obvious from the insistent whistle of the train in the station. Since her family’s name was visible from practically every street corner, Marion did not hesitate to direct Mikhail to pull the carriage up as close to the train as he could manage and felt no sympathy for the pedestrians and other vehicles in their way.

    After barreling through the center of the town, they had slowed nearly to a stop. “Mikhail! Can’t you just burn up that farmer’s cart?” Marion was leaning out of the side of the coach, holding on with one hand while the other secured her hat to her head, and scowling at the plodding pace of the traffic in front of them. “My father will buy him a new one!”

    The train whistle blew again and Spencer got out of his seat, slung his bag over his shoulder, and pushed past Marion. His opening the door she was hanging onto earned him a shriek of indignation. “We’re probably within walking distance, Red,” Spencer said and hopped down to the street. “Thanks for the lift,” he said and flipped a small silver coin at Mikhail who caught it and pocketed it in one wordless motion. Ace took off from his perch on the carriage and flew over to join Spencer. Katarina and Exo followed the pair and soon Marion and her dratini were scrambling to catch up to the others weaving through the busy streets of Pryortown.

    The train was just about to leave when Katarina, Exo, Spencer, and Ace made it to the station. They moved to board it, but were stopped by the conductor and his question, “Tickets?”

    “Ah, look,” Spencer said, but before he could start to spin an elaborate yarn, they were interrupted by a familiar voice.

    “Stop the train! Stop the train!” Marion was crying as she dragged a heavy-looking trunk after her. When she noticed people staring at her on the track and from the train, the girl straightened her posture and tried to look as dignified as she could while pulling the cumbersome piece of luggage after her. “I am Marion of the House Pryor. They are my retinue. My father said we are to travel to Tinko City on family business.”

    The conductor took the note that Marion produced and studied it carefully, especially lingering on the parts where Marion had made some hasty edits. “Ain’t your father worried about you traveling without any chaperone, Miss Marion?”

    “Oh, yes, ah, well, don’t let his looks deceive you, but that girl’s cubone is my bodyguard.”

    “He’s not my-”

    The rest of Katarina's sentence was drowned out by a burst of the train’s whistle and the conductor waved them onto the locomotive while bellowing, “All aboard! Last call for Tinko City!”
    Dreams do come a size too big. It's so that we can grow into them.

    Current Projects:
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    Nuzlocke: "Dude, Where's My Bellsprout?": A Totally Radical Red Version Nuzlocke

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  6. #6
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    Chapter Six

    Being on a train was a new experience for Katarina and she was eager to explore the locomotive rattling along the tracks laid for it. But before she could do so, Marion insisted on taking their group to their seats. Although there were plenty of open seats and privacy if they wanted it, Marion was clearly disappointed to find that her family name had not procured a private train car for her and her entourage. “This is an outrage,” Marion fumed as she struggled to maneuver her oversized trunk into the space between two rows of stiff, uncomfortable seats, “an utter outrage.”

    In-between her grumbling, Spencer and Ace offered increasingly rude pieces of advice for where Marion could put her trunk, and snickered every time that the girl’s luggage banged against an obstacle and got stuck. Katarina thought about offering her assistance, but her curiosity about the train was stronger. Besides, Katarina reasoned that her help would do an increasingly frustrated Marion more harm than good. Starting towards the door to the front of the train, Katarina said, “Come on, Exo,” and the cubone followed her past the napping conductor and his watchful growlithe.

    Despite its flimsy appearance, the door was stuck, and it took Katarina three tries to pull it loose and step outside. She was rewarded with the wind whipping wildly at her clothes and her hair flying all over her face, even with the body of the train car shielding her from the brunt of the wind. Katarina’s feet were unsteady as the train swayed on the tracks, and she gratefully clung to the railings for support. It was a terrifying yet exhilarating feeling and Katarina closed her eyes and took in a deep breath of the turbulent air that rushed in to fill her lungs.

    When she opened them, Katarina saw that her companion was not taking the new experience as well. Exo was holding onto the railing for dear life and, even then, his feet were constantly trying and failing to find solid footing. Worst of all, the skin around Exo's eyes, all that Katarina could see of his face behind his mask, was pale. Exo’s silence was not like his usual stoicism, but discomfort, even fear, as he stared at the ground rushing by at tremendous speed. Fortunately, the next door was not as stubborn and Katarina was able to pull it open and usher Exo inside without trouble. Certainly, there was no resistance on Exo’s part as Katarina guided by the arm him through the door.

    Once they were inside again, the cubone seemed to recover some of his color, but Exo still looked very shaken from the experience. As he caught his breath, he was clutching to the armrest of his chair like a drowning man would cling to a piece of driftwood. Katarina stood next to him and waited for him to recuperate and took the time to look around at their new surroundings. This train car was almost identical to the one they had been in before, and none of the passengers, a wide array of pokémon and people who appeared to be from all sections of Tinko's geography and society, paid much mind to the new arrivals.

    A well-dressed man was sitting a row in front of them with his hand resting on the head of his cream-furred persian. The persian opened one of its piercing green eyes to study Katarina and Exo, but it dismissed them as unimportant and went back to its nap. Further up, there was a family of five without any pokémon among them. The three boys, all younger than Katarina, were running up and down the aisles and roughhousing while their mother and father did their best to try and get them back under control. Their shrieks and laughter echoed throughout the confined space of the train car, and made it hard for Katarina to hear Exo without him pulling her closer to him.

    “Can we sit down, Katarina?” he asked, and she helped Exo up into one of the seats opposite the man with the persian.

    “Are you okay?” asked Katarina as she pulled herself into the chair across from Exo so that she could look at him.

    Exo did not say anything at first, then he looked away from the window showing the outside world through dirty and coal-smudged glass and back to Katarina. “I’m fine.” Then, he insisted, “Honestly, I am fine, just a little unwell.”

    Katarina was not convinced, but she said with a smile, “Okay, I believe you. I don’t understand why you were so affected by it though. You were okay on the wagon ride from Marion’s house.”

    “That was different. The speed of rapidash is natural, but no one was supposed to travel this fast, pokémon or human.”

    Katarina’s shoulders shifted up and down. “I think it’s great! We can get to Tinko City and Professor Oak in no time at all, and maybe I can even get home the same way if there are any tracks close enough to the farm. I need to ask Marion about that.” Katarina started to stand up, but Exo weakly grasped at her arm and she let herself be stopped.

    “Can we just rest for a few minutes? Please?”

    Katarina sat back down and said, “Okay.” Then, “You really didn’t like it out there, did you?”

    Exo shook his head. “No, it was too fast, much too fast.” He looked back out the window for a second and then away again. His voice was wistful when Exo said, “I have traveled across Tinko my entire life. I have seen the mountains in the west and walked the shores on the coast. I have been around for many years, Katarina, and I have seen many things. I have seen war scar this land and I have seen the pokémon and the people of Tinko struggle to heal those wounds and learn from them. But there have been many changes.”

    “That’s right,” Katarina agreed. She had not even been alive, but the young girl had acquired her memories of the fighting second-hand from her parents, in their stories and the conversations that had passed between them when they thought that Katarina could not hear, or understand. She had joined her mother in lighting a candle in prayer for the uncles that she had never met and seen her father’s old uniform hanging limply in the closet. These were only faint echoes of the war, but also the closest things that Katarina had of it, and so she had held onto them. Katarina had learned how to do that from her parents too.

    “Pokémon and people do not always see eye-to-eye,” continued Exo in his same far-off tone of voice. “The nidorino from the woods was eager to prey upon you and thought little of me when he believed that I was your pokémon, but he still recognized that you had food and he did not.” The cubone glanced over at Katarina. “Were you afraid of the nidorino?”

    “Yes,” said Katarina. “He was mean and scary and, and dangerous.” She shook her head in a flurry of blonde hair. “I’m sorry.”

    Exo held up one of his paws and said, “Don’t be. You knew that you were in his territory as an intruder. Your fear was a form of respect. Pokémon and people can keep their distance, but both sides can also work together. Ace and Spencer are a team, even if what they do is deceitful, and the humans who train their pokémon to compete in battles or to help with farm work are partners too.” His voice stopped abruptly as Exo noticed Katarina staring at him with her soft brown eyes.

    “I don’t think I’ve ever heard you talk this much,” said Katarina with an infectious smile.

    “Well,” Exo grunted while he shifted in his seat, “it helps me not to think about how fast we are going.”

    “Please, keep talking.”

    Exo looked out the window again and watched the landscape fly by as much as he could stand before he turned his attention back to Katarina. “These trains are what happens when humans try to control the environment instead of live with it. No matter how many machop and machoke they employ to lay down the tracks crisscrossing this land, it does not change the fact that those who lost their homes were not considered. I have met them, pokémon and people alike, and heard their stories. It seems that the lesson that many took from the war was that they need to imitate their conquerors and replace grass and wood with metal and stone.

    “I have been to Tinko City before. I fear that I have seen what the future holds. You will see it too.”

    Katarina did not say anything for a few minutes. She did not know what to say. She tried to look outside and see the beauty of Tinko, sights that she might have never witnessed if it was not for her going on this journey, but after Exo's lecture her eyes had to focus on the smudged window instead of the beauty that lay beyond it.

    Fortunately, Exo soon looked up at her and he said, “I’m feeling better now. We can go back to the others,” and Katarina helped him down to the floor. The two of them walked back to the train car that held the rest of their group. The cubone braced himself before Katarina threw open the door to the outside, and he crossed the threshold and got back inside, all without looking down at the ground passing violently underneath them.

    Katarina followed Exo through the door and closed it behind her. Whatever lethargy had been imparted to her by Exo’s dire words and the stuffy heat of the train car had been undone as soon as she had felt the first licks of cold wind whip across her bare arms, legs, and face. The others had solved the problem of the air growing too hot and musty in the enclosed train car by opening the window by their seats. Marion and Spencer were in the middle of some kind of game set up on a simple metal tray on Spencer’s lap when Katarina and Exo had returned, and Katarina asked what they were doing.

    “It’s a simple game of chance,” said Spencer in the same friendly patter that Katarina had heard enough times to know that it was nothing of the sort. “I put the ball under one of these three cups, try to mix it up, and then Red here has to guess where it is. If she’s right, I give her some money. If she’s wrong, she gives me some money.”

    “It’s not about chance,” Marion said curtly without looking away from the trio of small wooden cups arrayed in front of her, “it’s about observation. I just have to pay very close attention and I can figure out where he put it.”

    It did not sound like a particularly interesting or fun game to Katarina, but she did not have a lot of alternatives for entertainment, so she took a seat across the aisle from the others and watched them play. Marion’s hand hovered over one of the cups but Wanda, her dratini, said in a whisper, “Not that one,” and the girl’s hand drifted over to another one of the identical wooden cups.

    “This one,” she said solemnly and tapped insistently on the top of the cup with her pointer finger.

    Spencer said, “Let’s see how observant you are,” and he lifted up the cup with a flourish only to reveal the empty space of the tray. “Not this time, Red. Wanna go again?”

    “Yes,” said Marion instantly and she handed over a bill of paper money to Spencer’s grasping fingers. After he had been paid, the boy gave an indulgent smile, picked up the cups, and theatrically produced a small red ball in his hand and slipped it underneath one of the cups and then started shuffling them around. Katarina tried to keep an eye on the cup that she thought contained the ball, but in Spencer’s capable hands the individual cups were lost in a flurry of motion. Marion and her pokémon looked thoroughly engrossed in the game, but Katarina could not stay interested in it.

    She stood up without saying a word, but then the train gave a lurch over a particularly treacherous stretch of track and Katarina yelped and grabbed for the nearest thing to steady herself, which happened to be Ace. The spearow let out a startled squawk followed by a harsh cough, and then Ace spat out something that bounced off of the metal tray and into Marion’s lap. The girl looked disgusted, but then her mouth tightened into a small thin line and she picked up the little red ball that Ace had coughed up.

    “What’s this?” Marion asked in a deceptively calm tone of voice.

    “Ace!” gasped Spencer. “How did you get that in your mouth? Say, thanks, Katarina! He could have choked on that! You saved his life!” No one was buying what that Spencer was trying to sell, however, and he trailed off into guilty silence.

    If he was worried about being chastised, Spencer was instead pleasantly surprised. Rather than harsh words, Marion only said, in a cloyingly sweet voice, “You’ll be giving me all of my money back now.”

    “Hey now, Red, don’t kid yourself. I didn’t break any of the rules. I just said that you had to find out where the ball was. You were the one who assumed it was under one of the cups.”

    Marion’s smile did not falter, if anything it grew wider, and she said in that same pleasant voice, “Give me my money back or I’ll have you thrown off this train. And I don’t mean at the next stop.”

    “You’re bluffing, there’s no way-”

    Marion whistled sharply at the conductor who was dozing at the front of the train car with his growlithe. The mustached man awoke with a start and looked around the car with bleary, sleep-encrusted eyes before alighting on Marion and the others. He started to his feet and Spencer quickly turned away from watching him and back to Marion. “Fine, fine,” he hissed. “I’ll give you your money back.”

    “Now.”

    The conductor was only two aisles away now, and Spencer quickly stuffed his hands into the pockets of his heavy gray coat and pulled out a fistful of crumpled up bills and handed them over to Marion.

    “Is there a problem here, kids?” asked the conductor.

    “No problem here, sir,” said Spencer and Ace was quick to nod in agreement.

    The conductor did not say anything to either of them, but instead looked to Marion for confirmation. The red-haired girl did not look up from the stack of money that she was sorting through and said, “I thought that I saw a rattata on the train, but it must have only been my imagination.”

    It was not the best excuse, but Marion delivered it with such nonchalance that the conductor only scratched his head and returned to his seat muttering his confusion under his breath.

    “That was actually pretty good, huh, Spence?” remarked Ace, which earned the bird a smile from Marion and a knock on the head from Spencer.

    “Yeah, yeah, very impressive,” grumbled Spencer. But then a familiar gleam came to his eyes and he added, “Since you have all the money, Red, I think that you ought to pay for lunch, don't you?”

    Marion snorted. “Didn’t you get enough to eat at breakfast? You certainly weren’t shy about trying to empty out my father’s larder.”

    “What can I say? Dealing with you is hard work!”

    Both Marion and Spencer looked to Katarina for support, only for the younger girl shied away and tried to look anywhere else. In the end, though, her stomach overruled her reluctance to get involved, and she admitted, “I’m fairly hungry as well.”

    Marion threw her hair over her shoulder and thrust her nose into the air. “Fine. I’ll go and find some food for you lot, but don’t you become accustomed to it.” Then she rose out of her seat and strode out of the train car with all of the bearing of her breeding while Wanda slithered dutifully after her.

    “Have a seat, Katarina,” said Spencer as he patted the space that Marion had just vacated. “Put up your feet for a while.”

    It sounded like a good idea, so Katarina took Spencer up on his offer and dropped into the stiff chair. “Why are you so mean to Marion?”

    I’m mean to her?”

    “Yes, you are," said Katarina firmly. The exaggerated offense on Spencer’s face was quickly replaced with a sour expression, but he let her continue, “You’re always making fun of her and you tried to take her money even after she helped us by getting us onto this train.”

    “I don’t remember asking her to tag along,” countered Spencer.

    Katarina sighed and asked, “Could you at least try to be nicer to her?”

    One of his hands took off his cap and the other raked through his dark hair, but Spencer said, “Fine. You know what, I’m going to apologize to her as soon as she comes back with our food.”

    No sooner had the words left his mouth that the door to the train car opened with a rushing of wind and slammed close again with a resounding bang. The travelers craned their necks, but instead of Marion and her dratini, they saw a harried-looking man in a conductor’s uniform. He shook his coworker awake and then announced to the drowsy man and the passengers, “We have a koffing outbreak up ahead. Anyone with pokémon is asked to keep an eye out for any of those toxic creatures. Thank you for remaining calm.” Then the man sprinted down the aisle of the car to pass on his warning to the rest of the train.

    Once he was gone, Katarina turned to Spencer and the pokémon and asked, “What’s a koffing?”

    “It’s a poisonous pokémon that gets made by trains and the coal that they burn,” was Spencer's answer.

    “They’re no big deal, just a part of traveling by rail,” added Ace with a dismissive wave of his wing.

    Exo appeared as though he wanted to argue, but he did not speak. Instead, the cubone was content to look meaningfully at Katarina.

    There was no time to linger on it, however. One of the other passengers said, “Here they come,” and everyone’s eyes went to the windows.

    The train went around a bend and everyone struggled to keep their balance as the car was suddenly blanketed in a stream of black smoke. There was movement in the smoke, and Katarina screamed when she saw a face on a round limbless body that was a noxious shade of purple slam into one of the windows with a heavy thump. She was not the only one. The pokémon was there for only for a split second, but then the strange creature smiled and then bounced off the surface of the glass to disappear back into the smoke.

    Just when the panicked cries stopped, there was the sound of a muffled explosion that set off a fresh round of confusion. The mustached conductor had opened the window nearest him just a crack and was lifting up his growlithe to the open space. The furry pokémon was emitting small blasts of fire from his mouth at the koffing that were passing by, and one of those attacks had connected. Katarina and the others watched another burst connected with another koffing drifting in the smoke. The spherical pokémon did not even have enough time to register that it was under attack before it detonated with a boom that rattled the train car.

    “Nothing to worry about, folks!” the conductor bellowed over the din as his growlithe took additional shots at some of the dozens of koffing that were streaming past. “Just Sparky and I trying to clean up after ourselves.”

    Nobody was completely reassured, not even Spencer and Ace, who had both been so flippant about the koffing just minutes before. The air inside of the train car grew smoky and soot blackened the walls and the chairs, as well as the people and pokémon aboard it. There was too much of the thick black smoke filling up the space for it to only be coming from the opening made by the conductor. This occurred to Katarina only a split second before a koffing bounded into the train car's interior through the open window by where she and Spencer were sitting.

    The round koffing floated through the train car to the choked surprise and horror of the passengers. Every time that the koffing struck a surface whether it be wall or ceiling, its round body gave way and it bounced off in the opposite direction. It was so near to her when it passed over Katarina’s head that Katarina could see that its purple body was partially translucent and contained a swirling storm of gases. She could also smell the foul stench that it was giving off through the craterous pores all over its body.

    The growlithe in the conductor’s arms barked at the intruder and made to attack the koffing with its fiery breath. Before it could do so, Ace mightily flapped his wings and sent a column of smoke into the eyes and down the throat of the growlithe, making the little pokémon’s violent barks turn to strangled, hacking coughs.

    “Are you crazy?” Ace shouted at the other pokémon. “If you blast that koffing, you’ll blow us all up!”

    “Then what do we do?” Katarina asked.

    It was Spencer's turn to join the yelling. “We’ll just have to push it back out the window!”

    But that was easier said than done with the koffing still arcing around the train car without any sense of rhyme or reason. None of the other passengers were inclined to help. Instead, they did their best to shy away from the poisonous pokémon and hope that someone else would solve the problem.

    Exo’s silence did not mean that he was averse to action, and the cubone landed the first blow against the trespassing koffing with a throw of his bone club. The weapon bashed into the koffing’s round body and interrupted its path through the air by sending the purple pokémon towards the back of the train car. Its beady little eyes narrowed in anger, but there was no intelligence behind them and the only thing it said in response to the assault was a deep bellowing, “Koffing!” It was still incapable of controlling its movements in the air, and so it was an easy target for a repeat of Exo’s previous attack.

    The koffing flew backwards again, but it quickly ran out of space and hit the wall of the train car over its rear-facing door. Before it could bounce off of it more than a few inches, Exo threw his club again and the koffing slammed into the wall again. As soon as his weapon was back in his paw, Exo did it again, silently and furiously battering the unnatural pokémon into submission.

    “Exo!” said Katarina, but she had to repeat his name twice more before Exo ceased his attacks. Once he had stopped and the abused koffing started to weakly float back up the aisle, she said, “We need to push it back out the window!”

    That made Exo stop and he reluctantly let the koffing drift away from the wall against which it had been battered. When it moved too slowly for his tastes, the cubone ducked underneath it and batted at it with the top of his bone club to help it along. Now that its trajectory was not random, people were not as afraid of the strange pokémon. They still shrank back from it and glared at it, but without the panic they had shown before. The koffing boomed at them with the only word that it seemed to know, but it was an empty threat. When the koffing was parallel with the window, Ace flapped off of the chair where he had been perched and rammed into the unnatural pokémon to send it out the open window and into the dissipating fog of black smoke.

    Katarina and Spencer quickly closed the window, and once it was sealed everyone in the train car breathed a sigh of relief. “Thanks, kids,” said the conductor and he went back to his seat and promptly closed his eyes and began to doze again.

    “That happens every time that this train goes from town to town?” asked Katarina incredulously.

    Spencer opened his mouth to say something, but his mind quickly changed tack when he heard the door to the train car open and he saw Marion and Wanda come inside. “Oh, look, Red's back!”

    He went up to her, but Marion pulled the bag of sandwiches that she was carrying decisively out of reach. “What happened here?” she demanded.

    Katarina noticed that everything and everyone was covered with a layer of black soot. Spencer looked down at his filthy hands and shrugged. “Things got a little hairy in here. We had a little bit of a koffing problem to deal with.” Before Marion could react, Spencer lunged for the bag and swiped it from her and pulled out a sandwich for him. He tossed one to Katarina as well and another to Exo. “Catch!”

    “Ugh, you’re getting the food all dirty,” said Marion and she took the sack of food back. Spencer did not seem to care, though, and took a bite of mingled meat, bread, cheese, and coal dust. “In fact,” Marion said as she looked inside of the bag and saw all of the damage that he had done to the rest of the sandwiches, “take the rest of them too.”

    “Thanks!” said Spencer around his mouthful of food. He caught Katarina's eye and winked at her. Then he swallowed and said, loud enough for Katarina to hear every ounce of forced sincerity in his voice, “Red, I mean, Marion, uh, sorry about, you know, everything. My making fun of you was totally uncalled for, way out of line.”

    Marion blinked her big blue eyes at him and only then did his words register. But her mind was still distracted by Spencer's layer of grime and filth so she only said, “Don’t mention it, please,” and went to look for the closest thing to a clean chair that she could find in the train car.

    “That wasn’t so hard, was it?” asked Katarina when Spencer rejoined her and the pokémon.

    “No, I guess it wasn’t,” Spencer admitted as he held a piece of bread out to Ace and let the bird nibble on it. “She’d better start acting a lot nicer to me though, maybe even apologize.”

    Katarina shook her head. “Apologize for what?”

    “Well, there’s the whole way that she thinks that she’s better than other people.” Katarina waited, and Spencer couldn’t resist flashing his trademark grin and adding, “Plus she cost me a lot of money today.”

    “Money that you practically stole from her!”

    Ace finished his piece of bread and piped up, “Now that you mention it, Spence, it was Katarina here who grabbed me and blew our scam, er, game.”

    “That is a good point,” Spencer said as he stroked his chin. “Maybe you’re the one who owes me an apology.”

    “What?”

    “Or you could repay the money that I lost,” offered Spencer, “whichever one comes easier to you.”

    “You said that I saved Ace's life! Doesn’t that make up for it?”

    Katarina kept eating and arguing with Spencer and Ace and enjoying herself. She failed to notice that Exo had slinked away from the rest of the group and found a seat on the floor between two rows of chairs and was struggling in vain to clean his bone club. But no matter how hard he worked on it, the cubone only managed to smear the soot around without coming close to restoring his weapon back to its previous color.
    Dreams do come a size too big. It's so that we can grow into them.

    Current Projects:
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    Nuzlocke: "Dude, Where's My Bellsprout?": A Totally Radical Red Version Nuzlocke

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  7. #7
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    Chapter Seven
    Katarina and the others could not even think about getting washed up until the train reached Tinko City, so they were covered in filthy coal dust for hours. The soot soiled everything that they touched, and their lungs were tormented by the dust that still lingered in the air of the cramped train car. Even Marion and Wanda, who had avoided the brunt of the koffing attack, still collected enough residual soot that they were scarcely in better condition than their companions.

    The motley group of children and pokémon left the train at one of the three platforms of Tinko City’s central train station with an agreed upon plan. First, they would wash up, then they would find somewhere to stay, and then something to eat. Marion in particular had not eaten anything since breakfast and had been in a foul mood the last half of the eight-hour journey, snapping at Spencer and Katarina, even when the other girl was trying to make peace.

    Fortunately, they disembarked before the antagonism between the Marion and Spencer could boil over. But the size of the city raised new problems for the group. They hailed a carriage to taxi them to the nearest hotel and set off down the paved streets of the capital. Katarina’s neck hurt from looking up at the tallest buildings that she had ever seen before, but she could not help herself. Tinko City was the capital of the whole region and after the war its architects and city planners had worked to make sure it lived up to that lofty title. The four- or even five-story buildings closest to the train station were imposing obelisks of dull concrete that betrayed no hints at what went on inside their walls. From what she could glean from the conversation between Marion and the cab driver, Katarina thought that they held businesses whose customers were men of means and influence from Kanto and beyond. They were a far cry from the general stores and vendors that she had seen thus far on her trip.

    As the driver and his emaciated rapidash with its mane of feeble flames took them deeper into the city, the buildings did not lose any of their height but they gave signs of life from flowers kept in windowsills or clothes hanging from lines strung up between buildings. Harried-looking men and women populated the streets along with small pockets of playing children who looked hardly less dirty than Katarina and the others. Marion did not look pleased by the sights, and she ended her running talk with the cab driver so that she could focus her energies on pouting.

    The beat of the rapidash’s hooves on the cobblestone streets was starting to lull Katarina to sleep when the group came to a stop. The neighborhood in which they found themselves was of a wealthier character than those that they had passed through, much of it embodied by the hotel itself. It was an impressive building, but it lacked the bland utility of the office buildings that blotted out the stars appearing over Tinko City. Instead, the hotel was done up in a garish imitation of the kind of manor in which Marion’s family lived. There was not any one thing that set Katarina’s teeth on edge, but the combined attempt at grandeur added up to something false. The idea of sleeping under the roof of this kind of building made Katarina uneasy, but none of the others remarked on it, so she remained silent as well.

    Marion hopped off the cab, followed in quick succession by the pokémon and other children, and paid the driver. The man tipped his cap at them all and said thank you, and then he and his plodding rapidash went off in search of their next fare. As soon as the money had left Marion’s hand, she had turned her attention to the hotel and strode boldly up to its high double-doors and led her companions inside.

    The inside of the hotel matched its exterior in substance and style, right down to the smiling woman at the front desk. She was wearing more makeup than anyone that Katarina had ever seen before, and her fingernails were long and painted a deep red. Her smile split her face when she saw the filthy travelers approaching her desk. “Why, hello there, children!” she cooed. “How can I help you this evening?”

    Drawing up to her full height and puffing out her chest, Marion said, “My name is Marion Pryor and I would like to request lodging for myself and my entourage.”

    When the smiling expression of the woman behind the desk did not shrink, Marion began to deflate. That concession seemed to signal something to the receptionist, because it was only then that she said, “Of course, I can put you and your little friends up, sweetie, but, ah, are you sure that you have the money for it? Maybe we should wait for your mommy and daddy.”

    Marion's blue eyes flashed, but she kept her voice even as she produced a wad of bills, laid it on the counter, and said, “I assume that this will more than cover our lodging.”

    “Well, yes,” said the woman as her eyes eagerly took in Marion’s display of wealth, “I believe that we can do business with you, young lady.”

    “Excellent, now, as my parents,” she stressed the word, “are not accompanying me on this trip, we shall only require,” Marion paused and looked over at Katarina and the others who had been standing there silently watching her work, “two rooms for the night.”

    The woman in the heavy makeup picked up a pen done up in faux-gold and scratched away at the ledger in front of her. “Two rooms, one night, very good.” Then she looked up at Marion and asked, “I’m sorry, sweetie, what did you say your name was again?”

    “Marion Pryor.”

    Marion turned around to smile proudly at the suitably impressed Katarina and the less-enthralled Spencer, but was forced to spin around indignantly when the receptionist asked, “Pryor. Now, how do you spell that, sweetie?”

    A few minutes later, the group was trudging up the stairs. Since Marion had the keys to their rooms, she was in the lead, but her strides were shorter and her head was down, and not only from the strain of lugging her heavy trunk behind her.

    Katarina tried to lift the other girl’s spirits by saying, “Thank you for getting us these rooms, Marion. It was really impressive how you convinced that woman that you were someone important.”

    “Not really,” said Spencer from his spot in the rear of their party. “In a big city like this, money talks. If you think that flashing some graybacks is anything impressive, you have a lot to learn. I bet that I could have gotten us these rooms for half the price you ended up paying for them, Red.”

    “Is that so?” snapped Marion over her shoulder. “Then why didn’t you offer to help?”

    Spencer smiled unkindly and replied, “Because you didn’t ask. Besides,” he aimed this next comment at Katarina, “I’ve got my money now, and I don’t see why I should be so willing to part with it.” But if he was expecting approval or a laugh from Katarina, Spencer was sorely disappointed. So, he tried another tack, saying, “And don’t think that you can fool us, Red. I know why you only got two rooms for the six of us. You think that you and your pokémon can have a room all to yourselves while us ‘peasants’ pile into the other one.”

    “You don’t know anything,” hissed Marion before Katarina could intervene in this latest spat. “Katarina and I will be sharing a room. You might have decided for yourself that I am an elitist and a snob, but I would never dream of forcing a girl to share a room with you.”

    By then, they were at the two rooms that they had been assigned, 304 and 305, and Marion violently turned the key in the lock and wrenched one of the doors open. Katarina briefly looked at Spencer and then followed Marion alongside Wanda and Exo.

    Inside of the room, Marion was breathing in and out audibly and looked very much like she wanted to slam the door that Katarina instead closed gently. Her voice was still hard, but Marion managed to be civil as she said to the Katarina, Exo, and Wanda, “Here we are,” and gestured to the room around them.

    It was a perfectly functional room, with a bed, desk, and washing basin filled with steaming water. Katarina might have even found it somewhat welcoming, but only if someone else had chosen the room’s decorations. The decor appeared to have been decided by the same person who had shaped the rest of the hotel. On the bedside table, there was a vase of flowers that Katarina recognized as being native to the part of Tinko where she lived, but in the wetter climate on the coast they were drooping instead of standing up straight as they should have been. Over the bed there was a painting of a bowl of fruit, a perfectly inoffensive image, but also one that failed to stir the heart as any of the artwork in Marion’s manor did. The overall effect of the room was rather morose.

    Marion had started towards the bath but stopped halfway and appeared to be studying Katarina and her heavy coating of coal dust instead. “Would you like to wash up first?”

    “Yes, thank you,” answered Katarina and soon she was scrubbing herself clean and turning the wash water black. She and Marion both realized they would need more water if the latter girl did not want to end up less clean after her bath then when it began. So, Marion went down with Wanda to the front desk to request more hot water and was back a few minutes before Katarina was finished.

    As the other girl was drying off and stepping out of the wooden tub, Marion asked, “Are you feeling hungry, Katarina? While I don’t know the city very well, I’m certain that there’s a restaurant nearby.”

    “I am hungry,” said Katarina as she dressed in the last pair of clean clothing that she had packed for her trip, “but not as much as you are, I imagine. After all, you didn’t have anything for lunch.”

    “Oh, yes, I’m afraid that I’m quite famished,” admitted Marion with a modest smile. “Is there any kind of food in particular that you prefer?”

    The two girls talked about food, with additional comments by Exo and Wanda garnishing the conversation, until the hot water that Marion had sent for arrived. After they had replaced the water in the tub, Marion insisted on first scrubbing Wanda’s long scaly body clean before she would even consider taking her own bath. Katarina tried to offer to do the same for Exo, but the cubone quickly shook his head. “I can take care of myself,” he said gruffly.

    Marion was almost done with her own washing when Katarina blurted out, “Are you going to be all right if we eat with Spencer?”

    “Hm?”

    “Well, since the two of you don’t really seem to be getting along and he and Ace could probably take care of themselves. It wouldn't be the first time for them, getting food on their own, I’m sure.”

    Mercifully, Marion cut off the other girl's babbling by showing Katarina her palm. It was not until she was finished wringing out her long red hair that Marion finally said, “No, I believe that won’t be necessary. He might be awful, but he's your friend and I can be civil to him.”

    It sounded as though there she was leaving something unsaid, but when Katarina did not say anything, Marion was content to let the conversation taper off. She dried herself and dressed and then broke the silence with a sigh and said, “I suppose it best that we check in on that malcontent and his bird.”

    They went over to Spencer’s room and knocked. Through the door they could hear him approach, but it did not open right away.

    “What’s he doing?” asked Katarina.

    Marion smiled and shook her head. Quietly, she answered, “He wants for us to think that he’s busy with something important and that we're interrupting him.”

    Katarina did not understand, but, sure enough, when Spencer opened the door he looked somewhat putout. “What do you want?” he said. “I was about to-”

    Waving away whatever story he had prepared, Marion simply said, “We’re going to find some dinner. Would you two care to join us?”

    “I’m not sure,” said Spencer, but Ace flapped past him and over Marion’s head to perch on Katarina’s shoulder.

    “Let’s go, Spence, I’m starving!”

    “All right, all right, just let me get my coat.”

    The six of them descended the in the hotel’s main staircase in a better mood than when they had ascended it. Outside, the sun had set, but it was not as dark as Katarina had expected it to be. This was due to the streetlights, heavy iron poles topped by a single glass orb each. Inside of that transparent sphere was a strange one-eyed pokémon that looked artificial in origin. The little creatures in the street lights were spinning rapidly and producing a surge of electricity that superheated the wire that made up the metal latticework on the inside of each orb and bathed the streets of Tinko City with light.

    Katarina, Spencer, and even Marion gawked at the streetlights and the pokémon powering them. None of them had seen anything like it. Ace and Wanda were also interested, but Exo did his best to ignore them.

    “This is the future,” Spencer said reverently as he put his hand against the metal pole nearest to them.

    “They already have them in Kanto and overseas,” said Marion, but her tone was just as deferential as Spencer’s. “My father is hoping to get some of these ‘electric lights’ at our home as soon as he can find someone capable of installing them.”

    They all lingered outside of the hotel for a few minutes, none of them feeling self-conscious in the slightest. As children, they were still young enough that wonder could exert a significant hold on their hearts. But they were also old enough that it could not last forever, and Spencer was the first to break from the rest of the pack. He strode down the cobblestone-paved street with his hands in the pockets of his greatcoat, whistling, and let the others catch up to him.

    None of the children or pokémon knew exactly where they were going, but they were not worried. Ace flew up above the buildings lining the street on either side of them to see if he could get an idea of where they should be headed, but when the spearow came back down to roost on Spencer’s shoulder, he could only say, “I’ve got nothing, Spence. Everything looks the same from up there!”

    There were others on the streets of Tinko City, but none of them paid any mind to their city’s visitors. Each man, woman, or pokémon that Katarina and the rest passed appeared to be fixated on his or her own errands and thoughts. Katarina watched each of them go by, occasionally falling behind the others, but always catching up after her observations were completed. After turning a corner a few blocks from the hotel and starting down another street, Katarina realized what was missing in the mass of people swirling around the city. She had not seen any families walking together, and that made her frown, although she did not notice that she was doing it.

    It was the group’s good fortune that the boulevard that they were now strolling along was lined with a series of small tables and chairs marking the presence of little cafes that offered a wide variety of meals. A small disagreement broke out between Spencer and Marion about which restaurant they should patronize, but Marion bit her tongue before things could get too heated and asked Katarina to decide. She in turn asked the pokémon for their input. Finally, they decided upon a café that specialized in sausages made up in Saffron style, passing over several other options that promised different dishes from Tinko, but would certainly have fallen far short from the real thing.

    After they had sat down and studied the menu, Marion crooked her finger and motioned for Ace to come over to her side of the table. The spearow hesitated, but then hopped from Spencer’s shoulder to Marion so she could lower her head and whisper something in his ear. She talked quickly and when she was finished Ace said, “You got it,” and took off into the sky.

    Spencer drummed his fingers on the edge of the table and said casually, “What was all that about, Red?”

    “Oh, I was just asking your pokémon for a little favor,” answered Marion lightly. “I wanted to get some shopping done tomorrow and asked Ace if he could find anywhere nearby that is up to my standards.”

    “As long as you know what’s important,” said Spencer with a shrug, and then he thought to add, “and as long as you’re paying Ace for the favor.”

    Marion smiled indulgently and said, “Of course, I offered to buy him a basket of rolls in exchange.”

    Ace was back in time for the group to place their orders with the café's waiter and everyone settled in for a nice, if simple, dinner. Katarina was the center of discussion for at least part of it, since the others were peppering her with questions about her meeting with Professor Oak tomorrow.

    “Do you know what you’re going to say to him?” asked Marion before immediately offering her unsolicited advice on the etiquette and protocol that she would use when talking to the pokémon expert.

    “Do you even know where he is, or how to find him?” was Spencer’s first question, and he and Ace immediately offered their help in locating Professor Oak.

    Katarina was a little overwhelmed by the attention, but she was also happy for the help in planning for tomorrow. Since she had set out on her journey, she had been so preoccupied with getting to Tinko City that she had hardly given thought to what would happen there outside of the broad strokes of meeting Professor Oak and getting a pokémon. The conversation flowed easily and there was an amicable feeling around the table, fueled in no small part by the surprisingly good food. It was only threatened when the waiter returned with the bill for the table.

    Spencer stared at the thin piece of paper and the prodigious sum scrawled at the bottom of it, but he did not move to take it from its place on the edge of the table. Neither Marion nor Katarina reached for it either. Instead, Marion just smiled at Spencer.

    “What?”

    Marion nodded towards the bill. “You were making a big deal about how you could have saved us money on our lodgings, Spencer, so I want to see it for myself.” The boy was biting his lip, trying to come up with the right combination of words to get himself out of the challenge, but his struggling only encouraged Marion to twist the knife further. “Just as I thought,” she said and gave Katarina a look of feigned exasperation.

    That did the trick, and Spencer snatched up the bill and marched into the café. Marion and Katarina shared some laughter at his expense, but tried to tamp it down upon realizing they could catch snippets of Spencer’s talk with the restaurant’s management. The girls and the pokémon could not catch even half of what was being said, but it was clear that things were not going in Spencer’s favor.

    When he emerged, he looked chastised and Marion and Katarina did their best to look as though they had not been eavesdropping, but since they had failed to come up with another topic of conversation their attempt to play innocent failed under the weight of their silence.

    “How did it go?” asked Katarina tentatively

    “Not well,” grunted Spencer and he set off back down the street the same way that they had come.

    Marion waved and yelled for Spencer to come back, but he was either ignoring her or failed to hear her. Fortunately, Katarina’s piercing whistle got his attention and Spencer turned around and sullenly said, “What?”

    “We have to take a different way back,” said Marion. “There’s a shop that I want to check out, remember?”

    Spencer muttered something about wishing he had any money left to think about shopping, but he dutifully rejoined the others as they set off after Marion who was herself following Ace.

    “Just past this corner,” the spearow said after ten minutes of walking, and the children and pokémon stepped out of a side alley and into a wider avenue that played host to a dizzying array of boutiques and other clothing stores. Just as the restaurants had advertised their wares with visual and olfactory aids, so too did these shops attempt to entice customers to come inside with huge storefront windows displaying the latest styles on slender, blank-faced mannequins. For Katarina, who had never had a piece of clothing that she had not been mended by herself or her mother at least twice, it was a totally new experience. Marion saw the awe on the younger girl’s face and was more than happy to grab Katarina by the hand and start taking her from shop to shop and asking her opinion on every piece of clothing in sight.

    Spencer watched them with a wry smile and said to the pokémon, “Girls and clothes, huh?”

    “I believe you meant to say, ‘humans and clothes’,” suggested Wanda and the other pokémon nodded sagely in agreement.

    “I think that you would look really good in that one,” said Marion excitedly, pointing to a bright pink dress that was covered in a ribbons and bows.

    Katarina shook her head and said, “I don’t think so,” but that only encouraged Marion to wheel her around and bolt to another storefront and another dress. But before Marion could make her case, Katarina had slipped out of her grip and was staring at a dress in the window of the store next to one they had just been in front of. It was more of a practical dress than some of the others, but still not one that could be worn on any old day. The dress was a dark green color that Katarina could lose herself in. It seemed richer, realer, than any of the green sights that she had encountered thus far in her travels across the Tinko region. The only one that had even come close was the thick, foreboding forest where she had first met Exo. The fabric was unadorned with any patterns, and the only accessory to it was the wide band of a leather belt cinched tightly around the mannequin's waist. When Katarina looked up, she swore that she could catch a glimpse of her own reflection on the featureless white face of the figure wearing the dress and she could imagine a day in the not-so-distant future when she would no longer be a child.

    All of that passed through Katarina's mind without any words passing from her lips besides, “I like this one,” but Marion smiled just as brightly as if Katarina had said every word she had been thinking aloud.

    Spencer made a big show of yawning and, when that did not pull the girls away from the storefront, he said loudly, “Well, we ought to be getting back. You have a busy day tomorrow, after all.”

    “Yes, I do,” murmured Marion.

    “I wasn’t talking to you, Red,” groaned Spencer. “I was talking to Katarina.”

    “Oh, of course,” said Marion quickly and she reluctantly pulled herself away from the dress in the window, although not before glancing around and memorizing the location of the boutique.

    It was even more difficult to pull Katarina away, and when Marion and Exo finally succeeded in doing so, the girl walked with a dreamy smile on her face. She was talking with the pokémon, Wanda especially, since she had some further questions for Katarina about how most children received their pokémon. With all the talk of Katarina's grand quest, the dratini was seeking reassurances that Marion’s father buying her did not in some way jeopardize Marion’s dream of becoming a famous pokémon trainer.

    Katarina reassured Wanda that this was not the case, and even Ace and Exo provided their own views on the subject, but the spearow seemed to be only half-heartedly invested in the discussion. He was trying to listen in on the conference that Spencer and Marion were holding behind them.

    The twin tracks of conversation could not remain parallel forever and by the time that the group was on the street of their hotel, Spencer and Marion had rejoined the others, and were chatting about the day to come.

    Out in the streets, illuminated as they were by the pokémon sealed inside of the streetlamps, it was easy to forget how late that it was. But once they were inside of the building and then their respective rooms, sleep came quickly to the exhausted children and pokémon even as outside their windows Tinko City glittered through the night.
    Dreams do come a size too big. It's so that we can grow into them.

    Current Projects:
    Fanfiction: Pokémon: Exodus (Chapter six of nine posted)
    Nuzlocke: "Dude, Where's My Bellsprout?": A Totally Radical Red Version Nuzlocke

    Avatar by the illustrious Neo Emolga.

  8. #8
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    Chapter Eight
    Having grown up on a farm, it was a rare occurrence for Katarina not to get up with the sun. She savored this opportunity to feel the warming rays without having to worry about a long day of chores ahead of her. Instead, she would be getting her first pokémon, or so she hoped. The idea made her smile and Katarina looked at the plaster ceiling over her bed as her mind projected all kinds of wonderous creatures onto that blank canvas.

    Next to her, Marion muttered something in her sleep and rolled over, attempting to take a significant portion of the covers with her. Katarina’s smile thinned and she briefly fought with the other girl for a fair division of the blankets just as she had for half of the night. As she struggled with Marion, Katarina saw that Exo was up as well and she conceded defeat to the other girl. It was still warm in the bed, even without the covers, but Katarina took their loss as a sign for her to get up. First one foot then the other dropped off of the bed to the cooler surface of the hotel’s wooden floor.

    “Good morning, Exo,” said Katarina cheerfully but quietly to the cubone.

    He had been watching her since she had started to get out of bed, but only spoke when spoken to. “Good morning, Katarina.”

    “How long have you been up?”

    Exo looked up towards the hotel room’s window before answering, “Not too long, I think.”

    “Oh, okay.” Katarina tried to keep quiet and avoid waking Marion as she crept her way over to Exo. “Have you eaten yet?”

    “No.”

    Katarina opened her bag and produced a single apple, the last of the food she had packed so many days ago. Its red surface was bruised and covered with a thin layer of dirt and dust that Katarina tried to rub off as best she could with the palm of her hand. Then she offered it to Exo, who accepted it with a gracious nod.

    All of the hard work put into remaining quiet was undone when Exo took a bite of the apple and the resulting crunch resonated in the small space. The cubone gave Katarina a look of sympathy, but he did not stop eating.

    Marion grumbled and groaned, but she sat up in the bed all the same. “Is it morning already?” she groused, but she got out of bed more quickly than Katarina had. The sleeves of her frilly pink nightgown jostled as Marion wiped the sleep from her eyes and then ran a hand through her long, curly hair. There were plenty of snarls that needed to be undone, and Marion grabbed a brush from her bag and started to undo the tangles. “Are you excited, Katarina?”

    “What?” asked the girl who was thinking on her own blonde hair.

    “About getting your first pokémon today?”

    “Oh, of course!” said Katarina happily. “It’s hard to believe that it’s finally happening. I almost wonder if I’m dreaming.”

    Marion smiled, grimaced as she pulled her brush through a particularly nettlesome snarl, and then resumed smiling. “Well, if this is all a dream then you have no excuse for depriving yourself! Spencer and I will go and get us some breakfast while you stay here and get ready.”

    Although she attempted to decline the offered meal, Marion would not take no for an answer. That was how Katarina found herself alone in the room washing up after Marion had changed into something more presentable and corralled the pokémon and Spencer to leave the hotel in search of food.

    Katarina had time to dry off and dress herself before the others came back. By then she was more than a little hungry and was excited to see what they had brought her. Breakfast turned out to be a set of breaded pastries with different types of jam fillings. Spencer and Marion were unusually quiet throughout the meal, and Katarina was content to eat her fill before she finally asked, “Is everything all right?”

    The others exchanged a look while their friend cleaned the crumbs off from around her mouth. Whatever they were trying to communicate was too difficult to convey nonverbally, so Marion and Spencer started whispering to each other, as though Katarina could not hear them.

    “You do it.”

    “No, you.”

    “You should do it.”

    “It’d be less strange coming from another girl.”

    Marion did not seem to be able to come up with a counter to that, so she stood up from where she had been sitting on the edge of the room’s bed and walked out the door.

    “What’s going on?” asked Katarina.

    Spencer pretended as though he failed to hear her question, but he soon relented and just said, “You’ll see.”

    Before she could press him any further, Marion swung open the door to the hotel room. The older girl was grinning from ear to ear, but Katarina did not notice that. Her eyes were glued to the beautiful green dress that Marion was holding.

    “This is for you!” said Marion brightly and she thrust the dress towards Katarina who rose from the bed and stumbled to her feet.

    “Thank you,” croaked Katarina, and she cleared her throat and said it again, but this time her mouth would not stop and she said, “Thank you,” four more times in one quick breath. She grabbed for the dress and Marion had the good sense to let her have it. Holding it up in front of herself, Katarina looked down to get a picture how she would look in it.

    Marion recognized what the other girl was doing and said, “There’s no need to use your imagination, Katarina, go ahead and try it on.” Then she led the others out the door.

    A few minutes later, there was a knock at the door, and Marion let herself back into the room. Katarina had been too preoccupied with watching the green fabric flow around her knees as she swayed back and forth to answer the door and looked up from what she was doing bashfully. If Marion had been trying to wash away her shyness, she picked the worst words for the job as, “You look beautiful, Katarina,” made the younger girl’s face turn bright pink.

    “Thank you, Marion,” murmured Katarina. Then, without warning, Marion grabbed Katarina by the arm and pulled her out of the hotel room.

    “You’re welcome, now you can model it. The others are right outside.”

    It was dimmer on the balcony of the hotel with the windows at the ends of the hall not letting in much natural light, but there was simply no way to hide Katarina, especially when Marion let go of her and bounded over to join Spencer and the pokémon in watching her.

    With her knobby knees shaking and her face growing redder with each passing second, Katarina felt less like the beautiful princess that she had in the solitude of the hotel room and more like a child caught playing dress-up with her mother’s clothes.

    Once again, Marion picked up the younger girl’s feelings and returned to Katarina’s side saying, “No, no, no. You simply cannot go out looking like this.” Katarina’s heart fell, but then Marion added, “No, if you’re going to impress Professor Oak, you need to be confident! Straighten up!” The last sentence was an order barked at Katarina as though she was one of the servants on the Pryor estate.

    The strange thing was that it worked, and Katarina found herself up to her full height, an inch below Marion’s. Her knees had stopped shaking now that they had a job to perform. Marion examined her studiously and then her next commands rang out one after another, “Pull your shoulders back! Tilt your chin up! Put one hand on your waist! And don’t forget to smile!" Katarina followed them all without question, feeling more than a little like a doll for Marion, but there was no denying the results. At first, Spencer had certainly been impressed at seeing her clean up, but as Katarina had improved her posture and looked more and more at home in her new outfit, he was looking at her in a new light. That thought threatened to bring about a fresh wave of blushing, so Katarina focused instead on the reactions of Exo and the other pokémon, all of whom, despite their lack of understanding of human concepts of fashion and beauty, nodded and commented their own approval of Katarina and her new dress.

    “Gorgeous,” said Marion approvingly once she was done.

    “Th-thank you,” said Katarina, barely remembering to keep her back straight as she spoke. “This dress, breakfast, the train, everything. Thank you for all of it.”

    Marion beamed, but she also shook her head and her red hair followed suit. “To be honest, I cannot take all of the credit.”

    “Spencer?”

    He didn't say anything, so Marion jumped in and explained, “When I told him that I wanted to buy that dress for you, he insisted on paying for half of it. He said that he wanted to do something nice for you.”

    “Hey, now, Red, keep your voice down,” said Spencer, “I’ve got a reputation to maintain.”

    “And while they were shopping,” piped up Ace, “I was flying around the city and found where that Professor Oak person is holed up! He’s renting a suite about half a mile north of us. He’s got a whole bunch of other people with him, but it looked like most of them were packed up and leaving though.”

    “Oak must not be far behind them,” mused Spencer. “We’d better get going if we want to catch him.”

    He started towards the stairs, and Katarina followed him. Marion shifted back and forth on her feet for a few seconds, saying, “Oh, but we should really do something about her hair, and those dirty shoes look just silly,” but when it was clear that no one else was listening, Marion sighed and went downstairs as well.

    They checked out of the hotel without incident and were quickly back on the streets of Tinko City. In the daytime, there was a lot more activity than there had been the night before, but somehow the strange, small pokémon that were inside of the glass orbs of the street lamps managed to sleep through all of the hustle and bustle of the city come to life.

    “Lead the way, Ace,” said Spencer and the spearow perched himself on the boy’s forearm and started directing the group’s path with sweeping gestures of his stubby wings.

    As they walked, Katarina was so excited that she hardly noticed the sights, sounds, and smells around her. Everything blurred into a happy indiscriminate fog when compared with the crystal-clear vision that Katarina had in her head of meeting Professor Oak and finally getting her first pokémon. Her confidence radiated out from her to a degree that even Exo felt the need to comment upon it. “You are not nervous at all, are you?” he asked, with a hint of amusement in his low voice.

    “Not in the least,” chirped Katarina as Ace signaled for them to turn the corner. “I know just what I’m going to say to Professor Oak when I meet him. I’m going to shake his hand and I’m going to say-”

    Whatever it was that Katarina was going to say, it was muffled by the chest of the man she bumped into. She stumbled backwards, but Spencer and Marion both reached out to catch her before she could fall. Looking up, Katarina saw a stern-looking man in a long white coat and a red shirt tucked into a pair of butternut-colored pants carrying a heavy-looking travel bag in his left hand. Her heart leapt up into her throat, but the man who she belatedly recognized as Professor Oak only muttered something under his breath and brusquely walked around Katarina and the others.

    He did not get far before Katarina recovered and pulled free of her friends’ grasp to start after the pokémon expert. “Excuse me, Professor Oak!” she said. He turned around, still frowning and Katarina started, “I-”

    “Your apology is accepted. Good day.”

    Professor Oak moved to resume his walk, but he did not take another step before Katarina blurted out, “I want a pokémon!”

    That made Professor Oak round on her again, and his voice was even harder as he said, “Little girl, I am a very busy man and I don't have time for any tomfoolery. If you want a pokémon, you should ask your father instead of harassing me.”

    This was hardly how Katarina had imagined this meeting going, but she had to make the best of things. She might never get a chance like this ever again. “Professor Oak, I’m sorry for bumping into you, but I’ve traveled for days in hopes of meeting you and asking you for a pokémon. Will you please hear me out?”

    Professor Oak considered Katarina's earnest face and then those of the pokémon and children who were silently watching them before his attention returned to Katarina. She imagined she could hear his brain working before Professor Oak finally said, “Very well. My ship is departing shortly. You have as long as my walk to the dock to make your case.”

    “Thank you, sir!” said Katarina and she fell in line with Professor Oak and struggled to keep up with his long, powerful strides. “My name is Katarina Zawadski and I live on a farm much further inland. My parents said that we couldn’t afford the licensing to get me a pokémon when I turned ten, but I heard on the radio that you would be in Tinko for a week, so I decided to come here and look for you.”

    “You ran away from home in order to get a pokémon?” asked Professor Oak, and Katarina could not tell if he approved of her or was mad when she nodded. In either case, he added, “With your friends here?”

    Marion and Spencer had both been listening in carefully and perked up in response to this question. Katarina shook her head and explained, “No, I met all of them; Exo, and Spencer and Ace, and Marion and Wanda; after I had already left. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for all of their help. I’m very lucky that they decided to come with me.”

    “Quite,” said Professor Oak and he looked back at the others that were following him and Katarina. “I see three children and three pokémon. Are all of the pokémon in the care of your little friends?”

    “No, sir, Ace, that’s him on Spencer’s arm there, is with Spencer and Wanda is Marion’s dratini, but Exo is, well, he’s-”

    Professor Oak supplied the word, “Untamed?”

    “Yes, but no, not really.” Katarina almost floundered but she caught sight of Exo and that steeled her resolve. “Exo is his own pokémon,” she said. “He knows no master, human or pokémon.”

    “Interesting,” remarked Professor Oak with a few strokes of his calloused fingers on his chin. “And does he still feel the same way, after spending time with you?”

    “You can ask him yourself, sir.”

    But Professor Oak ignored her and continued, “It would seem that the easy solution to your problem is right in front of you. Since you already have a pokémon that is willing and able to travel with you, advanced in age he might be, there is only the matter of the licensing fee, and that could be taken care of in a matter of-”

    Now it was Katarina’s turn to interrupt, and she said, “Professor Oak, sir, even if Exo wanted to be my partner, I wouldn’t say yes.”

    That made everyone falter in their paces, including Exo who said in a low voice, “Katarina.”

    “Exo has his own life and I can’t simply tear him away from it because I want a pokémon. Out there in the wild, living the way that he does, he's something, someone, exceptional. He won’t be as special if he’s my pokémon, and I can’t ask Exo to do that. It wouldn’t be fair to him.”

    “Katarina,” said Exo again, but it was more tender this time.

    Katarina smiled at him and then turned back to Professor Oak and said, “You see, sir, that’s why I need your help.”

    Professor Oak took all of this in without expression, then his stony façade broke. “The way that humans and pokémon live together here… Even if I live to be a hundred, I’m afraid that I’ll never understand this strange country,” said Professor Oak with a sigh.

    “That’s not giving yourself much time,” quipped Ace, and earning himself a smack on the head from Spencer.

    “Very well, young lady, I think that I may be able to justify giving you a pokémon.”

    “Yes!” cheered Marion, but hers was only the most verbal expression of the excitement that everyone else was feeling.

    Professor Oak smiled genially and added, “You can have a pokémon, Miss Zawadski, if you can beat me in a pokémon battle.” Everything seemed to freeze for Katarina as the news hit her like a punch to the stomach. If he noticed her change in her demeanor, Professor Oak gave no sign of it, but instead led the group over to a square with a fountain in the middle of its cobblestone surface. “You can use any one of the three pokémon with you that you desire, but decide quickly. We don’t have very much time.”

    Before the weight of the man’s words could even fully register for Katarina, Marion was already offering up Wanda for Katarina’s use, imploring, “She comes from a long line of battling pokémon, the blood of champions runs through her veins!”

    “No, no, listen to me, Kat,” countered Spencer, “you need a pokémon with experience. Ace has got that in spades.”

    Professor Oak watched the scene playing out before him with some amusement, but he was entirely unsurprised by Katarina’s choice. Indeed, it had been obvious from the outset what her decision would be.

    “Exo, will you help me?” she asked.

    The cubone walked towards Katarina and he offered his paw to her. She bent over and took it in her hand and he said simply, “Yes.”

    “A fine choice,” said Professor Oak as he set down his bag and undid the buttons that kept it closed. He reached in and pulled out a handful of small capsules that were red on top and white on the bottom and examined each one in turn. Finally, Professor Oak selected one with some writing sloppily scrawled on its surface and returned the others to his pack. Then, he said, “Since we don’t have an impartial referee, I’ll keep the rules simple. We battle until one of us admit defeat.”

    “Yes, sir,” said Katarina and she took a spot roughly ten yards across from him. Exo walked purposefully to stand in front of her.

    Professor Oak smiled and lifted the capsule in his hand. “Excellent. Let us begin.” He tapped his thumb against the circle at the center of the ball in his hand and a red beam of blindingly bright light shot out from it. Katarina shielded her eyes from it, and when she was able to see again, Professor Oak was almost completely obscured by the huge, hulking shape of his battling pokémon. It was taller than any living thing that Katarina had ever seen. Its brown scaly skin was marred by protrusions of bone and rippled over the flexing of its heavy muscles body. As soon as it deigned to notice Exo standing across from it, the pokémon raised one of its heavy clawed feet and stomped it against the ground and opened its mouth to unleash a roar that echoed throughout the park and the surrounding blocks.

    If Katarina could have opened her eyes any wider, they would have fallen out of her head. She did not know what it was that she had been expecting, but it certainly was not the monster that was standing in front of her. She tried to look brave, but she did not feel it and her knees had begun to shake again.

    “Would you like to give up?” offered Professor Oak. His voice sounded conciliatory rather than stern.

    Before Katarina could answer, Exo looked over his shoulder and said loudly, “Katarina! You can do this! Trust me!”

    Katarina set her jaw and nodded. She tried to focus on Exo, but it was hard to do so with his opponent crowding her field of vision. She opened her mouth and shouted, “Exo! Attack!”

    A small crowd had gathered around them, drawn no doubt by Professor Oak’s pokémon’s roar and kept by the promise of a spectacle. A collective gasp rose up from the bystanders as Exo launched himself at the behemoth and spun his bone club in his paw until it was a blur. The larger pokémon tried to halt his drive by sweeping its tail around, but Exo jumped over the swinging tail and swung his club into the brute’s side. It hardly flinched from the blow and reached down to crush Exo under the weight of its heavy claws and palm. Exo rolled out of the way of the other pokémon’s attack and put some distance between himself and his titanic opponent. He was already breathing hard. Professor Oak’s pokémon, in contrast, looked mildly amused at the whole encounter.

    “I’m sorry, young lady, but ‘Attack!’ is hardly the command of a battling pokémon trainer,” chided Professor Oak. “It’s understandable to rely on your pokémon to make some decisions, especially when it possesses more experience than you do, but without your help shaping and nurturing its strategy, your pokémon will ultimately have nothing to rely on but its instincts.”

    “Yes, sir,” said Katarina, but she was having a hard time concentrating on his words with his brutal pokémon looking at her and Exo like they were its next meal. She had to prove herself to Professor Oak during this battle if she wanted a pokémon of her own, but how was she supposed to contribute? Exo knew much more about fighting than she did, so he probably would already have thought of any ideas she might have.

    Whatever time that Professor Oak had allotted for her to learn the lesson that he was trying to teach evidently ran out, because the middle-aged man flicked his wrist casually and said, “Now, Tomyris! Pin him!” Without hesitating, the pokémon obeyed its master and rushed at Exo much more quickly than either Exo or Katarina had anticipated given its bulk.

    Exo was standing his ground, but Katarina panicked and blurted out, “Go between its legs!”

    To his credit, Exo did not hesitate and he dove between the heavy footfalls of the larger pokémon and was back on his feet by the time that it had turned around to face him.

    “An adequate move,” said Professor Oak, “but are you going to just have your pokémon run away until it’s time for my boat to leave? Or do you have a plan for actually winning this battle?”

    Again, Katarina tried to think, but she kept running into an insurmountable wall in her mind. How was Exo supposed to beat a pokémon that was more than twice his size and weighed who knew how much more than him? She had never been faced with a challenge like this before.

    But maybe Exo had?

    “What should we do, Exo?” she asked.

    “No one is unbeatable, pokémon or human,” replied the cubone through gritted teeth. “There is always a weak point.”

    Exo’s words made sense, but Katarina had trouble with applying them to the present situation. The hide of Professor Oak's pokémon looked to be invulnerable. Exo’s first attack hadn't even left a bruise on its side.

    “I hope that my kangaskhan doesn’t have you too scared, young lady,” said Professor Oak.

    “No,” said Katarina and she forced herself to look at the massive pokémon with new eyes. It looked impatient and was scratching at the lighter colored stomach with one of its claws. Katarina searched frantically from its tail to its head for a place to strike. Then, all at once, she saw an opening and said, “Okay, Exo, get ready to use your head.” When he nodded at her, she added, “Think about the way that Spencer and Ace do their tricks.” The next nod was slower to come, but Exo lowered himself to the ground, one of his paws landing in a gap between the cobblestones, to prepare for another headlong dash at his enemy. Only then did Katarina order, “Go! Hit it between the eyes!”

    Professor Oak smiled and said, “We’ll play your game, won’t we, Tomyris? Match him.”

    The two pokémon charged at each other with their heads down, with the kangaskhan covering much more distance in the same amount of time because of its longer strides. Exo did not give up though and he rammed his head and his helmet against the top of his larger opponent’s skull. Both pokémon were dazed, but the kangaskhan recovered quickly and started to push Exo back. Exo did his best to resist, but all he achieved was scratching helplessly against the surface underfoot. Then, so quickly that Katarina almost did not see it, Exo brought up his paw and threw fistful of dirt into his foe’s eyes.
    With his vision obstructed by Tomyris’ bulk, Professor Oak could only guess at why his kangaskhan had reared back and was roaring in irritation as it clumsily tried to wipe the debris from its eyes. Katarina and Exo were both ready to press their advantage, and Exo advanced on his handicapped foe swinging his bone club for another attack. He swung once, then twice, but Tomyris had recovered enough to open one eye and the kangaskhan intercepted the third blow. Its claws closed around Exo’s weapon and lifted it up, pulling Exo off of the ground as well, since he refused to relinquish his club.

    He could only fight gravity for so long, however, and Tomyris shook Exo off and he fell to the ground in a heap. Before he could get back to his feet, the larger pokémon had placed one foot on top of his head and was pushing down on Exo at the same time that it was threatening to snap his club into splinters.

    Before either threat could be carried out, Katarina yelled, “Stop! I yield!”

    Tomyris released Exo and even graciously handed him back his bone club without a word of command from Professor Oak. Instead of speaking to his pokémon, Professor Oak addressed Katarina, “A wise choice.” Then, he retrieved the red and white capsule from his pocket and pointed it at Tomyris and the kangaskhan vanished in a flash of red light.

    “I’m sorry, Katarina,” Exo said quietly. He would not look at her, but just stared at the ground, his expression blank behind his mask.

    “It will be okay, Katarina!” said Marion quickly. “I can help you get a growlithe from my father! Everything will be all right!”

    Professor Oak cleared his throat and said, “Things are not nearly so bad as you think they are. Katarina, I’ll give you a pokémon.”

    “What?” said multiple voices.

    “You’ve certainly proven yourself worthy of one,” he said with a wide smile. “I think that most any pokémon would count itself lucky to be your partner.”

    “I don’t understand,” said Katarina slowly. “I lost the battle. I gave up.”

    Professor Oak held up his hand to stop her and said, “Yes, you gave up, but not right away. Even though you were up against a fearsome pokémon that you had never seen before and it was almost certain that you were not going to triumph, you still decided to do your best and help your cubone do the same.”

    “He’s not my-”

    “Second,” continued Professor Oak as he raised another finger, “you were capable of improvising and adapting your strategy when things did not work. You took inputs from myself and your pokémon and used them to try something new.”

    “But he’s not-”

    “Finally, you were compassionate. Admitting defeat was not easy when you thought that you had so much depending on your winning our match, but you still saw that you were in an untenable situation and were mature enough to bring it to an end rather than force the issue and risk your pokémon getting hurt. In short, you were more interested in your cubone’s well-being than in your own ambitions.”

    “Professor Oak, I’ve been trying to tell you-”

    This time it was Exo who interrupted her as he looked up at Katarina and said, “I am not her pokémon, but I am her friend.” Then, to Professor Oak, he said, “Thank you for the opportunity to battle against you and your pokémon. It was an honor,” and bowed to him.

    Professor Oak nodded and then turned his attention back to Katarina and said, “Everything that I witnessed during our battle confirmed what I had gleaned during our walk. I will give you a pokémon.”

    “I’m getting a pokémon,” said Katarina, then, just to hear the words aloud again, she repeated them, “I’m getting a pokémon!”

    “She did it! She did it!” cheered Marion and she threw her arms around Spencer.

    “Now let’s see which one I can spare,” Professor Oak spared as he opened his bag and reached for the capsules inside of it.
    Dreams do come a size too big. It's so that we can grow into them.

    Current Projects:
    Fanfiction: Pokémon: Exodus (Chapter six of nine posted)
    Nuzlocke: "Dude, Where's My Bellsprout?": A Totally Radical Red Version Nuzlocke

    Avatar by the illustrious Neo Emolga.

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