A Blond Ray of Sunshine is a Fan Fiction story starring Antoshi, along with his best friend and only Pokémon, Fireball the Typhlosion. The story takes place in a future timeline of the Pokémon series.


A young, upbeat Pokémon Trainer named Antoshi travels around Kanto collecting Gym Badges with his best friend and only Pokémon, Fireball the Typhlosion. When Fireball is kidnapped by Team Rocket, Antoshi unwittingly unlocks superhuman powers within him. With the discovery of these powers, and family whom he never knew before, his life starts to change dramatically as he finds out he is destined for much greater deeds.

Author Notes

1) All general replies (“nice story”, “can't wait for the next chapter”) are cool, welcomed, and appreciated. I love hearing all feedback, so feel free to drop me a short comment! Constructive criticism is very much encouraged. I'm always looking to better my writing and make each story more entertaining and engaging. If you notice any errors — grammar, punctuation, plot — please do bring them up. You have the power to help shape this story into something even better!

2) About the title of the story (because I've gotten this question in the past), it is not misspelled. 'Blond' is the male equivalent of the female 'blonde.'

Thanks in advance for giving this story a read. I truly hope you enjoy it!

Genre: Action/Adventure/Supernatural

Rating: T - Violence and Mild–Moderate Language

Current word count: ~204,000 (as of Chapter 33)

Chapter 1

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Part 1: A Blond Ray of Sunshine

⁂ ⁂

On the southern coast of Hoenn, a massive crater had been ripped into the earth. Twisted metal and rubble was strewn about, fires dotted the charred devastation. Water rolled in from the nearby ocean. Echoes of police sirens wailed in the distance.

Slateport City had been entirely decimated. Nothing of the once-populous city was left. Millions of lives, humans and Pokémon, had been lost to the ashes.

High above the remains of the city hovered two shadowy figures. The individuals surveyed the aftermath for a moment before disappearing in an instant.

As word spread, as the police, military, and government personnel came to investigate, and as people grieved for those they lost, no evidence and no leads ever surfaced.

The cause of the destruction remained unknown. It was as though the city had been torn away from existence for no reason at all.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

The otherwise quiet Sea Route 20 in Kanto gleamed under the bright, midday sun. Waves crested beneath a large yacht heading westward across the deep, electric blue. Its purpose was to ferry Trainers from Fuchsia City to Cinnabar Island.

Upon it, a young Trainer named Antoshi held the railing with a childlike grin upon his face. He was a charming boy of twelve years old, with chestnut eyes and hair as yellow as the vivid petals of a Sunflora. 'A blond ray of sunshine' as his mother would call him, much to his embarrassment. His red polo shirt and tan shorts whipped around in the sea winds which offset the heat of the sun.

“This is so amazing,” Antoshi remarked, seemingly to himself.

Beside him, a much larger figure with half-closed eyelids and slumped shoulders groaned as it hung onto the railing for dear life. A Typhlosion, the Volcano Pokémon.

"Sure it's nice," the boy's partner replied. "But why do boats have to move so much? Are we hitting a bunch of rocks?"

It was speaking to him — an oddity that was unheard of for Pokémon who were not Psychic-types. An oddity that usually garnered strange looks and questions of sanity at the boy. Fortunately, the others Trainers were unable to hear them conversing over the ambient noise.

Fun and adventure were the name of the game for Antoshi. For Fireball, it was about not getting seasick. It was the Typhlosion's first time on a boat. The motor and the sound of crashing waves against the hull were much louder than expected, intensifying his queasiness.

“You'll be fine!” Antoshi reassured him, chuckling. “The ride shouldn't take too long. This boat's pretty fast.”

"Too fast and too bumpy for me."

“I could put you back in your Poké Ball until we reach shore.”

"No, that's—" Fireball's eyes went wide with horror. The Typhlosion held a paw over his mouth and quickly made for the cabin.

Antoshi smiled and heaved a sigh, certain Fireball would be all right. He gazed back out at the water, soaking in more of their brief trip at sea. The open waters and all they had to offer felt comforting. He had frequently spent his time camping out in the woods or sleeping in Pokémon Centers. The spring air, mixed with the salt of the sea, exhilarated him. It was not something they'd gotten very much of in their journey.

They were on the cusp of new and exciting experiences in a locale they'd never been to before.

Other Trainers watched from other parts of the ship. A mix of boys and girls, some young and some adults, all of them wearing backpacks similar to Antoshi's red one. A Plusle sat upon one of the girl's shoulders, while a Minun did the same on the shoulder of the boy next to her. They exclaimed behind him, pointing out a handful of Mantine breaching the surface of the water. He turned around with a look of awe-struck wonder to gaze upon Pokémon he'd never seen in the wild before.

The Minun fired off a spontaneous electric attack at the Mantine, missing wildly. “Hey!” its Trainer scolded it.

In front of Antoshi, the shimmering red and blue tops from a bloom of Tentacool and Tentacruel peeked out from the water. Common flying fish jumped alongside them. A small group of Hoppip drifted on the winds high overhead. He grinned and laughed, his spirit soaring, his heart swelling with joy.

Fireball headed back outside to see his friend's excitement. Seeing Antoshi so cheerful rubbed off on him. The two had forged an unbreakable bond of friendship since Antoshi's childhood. Fireball was Antoshi's best friend and partner — his only partner. He was the only Pokémon accompanying Antoshi and the only one he felt he ever needed. Through their combined determination, grit, and some luck, the duo had found victory in most of their battles thus far — much to the chagrin of many of their opponents. After nearly a year and a half of journeying together, they were as close as brothers.

For a moment, he saw a strange, red light envelop Antoshi's body. It was like a transparent flame, flickering with the winds. Fireball took his place by his friend's side.

“Feeling better?” Antoshi asked.

"I think so," Fireball replied with a groan. "By the way, you're doing 'that thing' again."

Antoshi gasped in surprise, tempering his mood. The light seemed to recede back into his body. “I guess I got too excited. Did it look like … anyone saw it?” he added nervously.

Fireball shook his head, taking a look around at the other Trainers and their Pokémon. "No, everyone's too busy looking at the water just like you are." The duo smiled at each other. The appearances of the boy's odd light had become somewhat common for the duo as of late. "I'm just glad we didn't eat before this."

Antoshi laughed, prompting his friend to perk up and laugh along with him.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

A few hours later, the boat reached the marina of Cinnabar Island. After docking, the captain of the boat — a friendly and handsome young sailor named Sean — lowered the gangplank. He headed off first to tie down and anchor his vessel. Once secured, he guided the others to disembark as well.

“Here we are, passengers!” he announced as they filed off the boat. “Welcome to Cinnabar Island! I hope you all enjoyed your ride here. If anyone would like to leave gratuity, feel free to do so. If you do, remember to keep enough money to buy food and supplies for yourself and your Pokémon! Good luck on your journey!”

Most of the Trainers gave Sean a few thousand Pokédollars. He thanked each of them. A couple of the girls giggled and gossiped to each other while walking away from him. Antoshi also left some money, after he and Fireball were the last two off the boat.

“Thank you so much,” Antoshi said to Sean.

“It's no problem, sir,” Sean replied with a grateful nod. “Get out there and make your dreams come true.”

Antoshi grinned confidently. He and Fireball departed, continuing their journey toward a brand-new location.

Fireball walked on his hind legs alongside his friend. Being upright was not an issue for him, having become acclimated to it over the majority of their journey. Doing so also highlighted his abnormally tall height for a Typhlosion, standing at over six feet. While on his hind legs, he towered over Antoshi.

The marina, situated on the east coast of Cinnabar, bustled with people and Pokémon chattering and walking every which way. Once they reached its exit, they gasped in astonishment. They were standing at the edge of a lush, sprawling tropical paradise bathed in the glow of the warm afternoon sun.

The sand crunched under their feet as they traveled along a beachside pathway. Everyone appeared totally carefree, as if every day was just another day at the beach. Tall palm trees lined the paved streets flourishing with people, Pokémon, and vehicles. Amid the sound of the rolling tide, melodious squawks of parrots echoed in the distance. The duo and a few others stopped in surprise as a small cast of Krabby sidled across the path in front of them.

Antoshi took the brief pause to look around with a wide, thoughtful gaze. The beautiful island was what he'd always hoped for when he became a Pokémon Trainer. Traveling to new places, seeing things he'd never seen before, absorbing other peoples' culture and way of life — it was all a huge part of the journey for him. They continued onward once the Krabby passed by.

"Can we move here?" Fireball idly asked.

“This place is really amazing,” Antoshi remarked.

“Looks like we can do a little sightseeing here with the spare time we have.”

Fireball's eyes widened upon spotting various food and snack vendors further down the path. "What about a little snacking, too? I see a cart over there selling ice cream!"

Antoshi chuckled. “I guess your stomach has settled down already. All right, one ice cream cone.”

Fireball grinned and fist pumped in victory. He started to shuffle ahead without Antoshi. The boy's heart sank with dread before he quickly stopped Fireball.

“Wait, Fireball!” he exclaimed, grabbing Fireball's arm tightly. Fireball turned to meet the panicked expression on his friend's face. Antoshi quickly relaxed, smiled nervously at him. “Sorry, I didn't mean to shout. I just … want to make sure you don't … err, run off.”

"Oh," Fireball replied, before the light of realization dawned upon him. "Ohh! I understand now. Don't worry, I'm not gonna run off on my own, Antoshi. I don't do that anymore!"

Antoshi sighed and smiled in relief. They made their way over to the vendor together.

Antoshi's journey through Kanto started out as an interest in seeing new places, as well as training Fireball, who was still a Quilava back then. Along the way, however, Antoshi had to curb his friend's unrestrained temperament. Fireball was prone to reckless fits of excitability and hostility, just like when he was a younger Cyndaquil.

With only one Pokémon, they were forced to train almost constantly early on in order to succeed — far more than they would've if they had filled out their roster. As a result, Fireball's power, speed, and defenses rapidly grew to an incredible level.

However, Fireball's newfound power made him even more disobedient. On more than one occasion, Fireball refused to listen to Antoshi's commands. The fear of Fireball being out of his control was something Antoshi never forgot. It stuck with him throughout their journey.

“What can I getcha?” the ice cream vendor greeted them. He was a cheerful older man wearing an apron and straw fedora.

Antoshi casually pointed to Fireball. “My friend here wants to choose.”

“Buying a treat for your Pokémon? It's not often I see that! Most Pokémon don't … handle ice cream very well.”

“Fireball can eat anything,” he replied with a smirk.

Fireball hummed thoughtfully, looking over the different varieties from behind their glass cover. He gasped, frantically pointing at one.

“Nice choice!” the vendor said, spinning an ice cream scoop in his hand. “One double chocolate-chocolate chip banana fudge swirl, coming up!”

Fireball could barely keep still while he watched the man scoop out a big roll of ice cream. He centered it atop a waffle cone before handing it to the Typhlosion. Fireball's clawed fingers wiggled eagerly before he reached out and took it, staring at it in amazement for a moment.

"Waffle… cone …" Fireball whispered in awe. "A cone made of my favorite food."

“Anything else?” the man asked.

“Water, please,” Antoshi replied.

The vendor handed Antoshi a cold water bottle, made entirely of recyclable paper, from a storage compartment in his cart. Antoshi took his wallet out of his back pocket to pay the man, and the two continued on their way toward the city.

Fireball took a long lick of the ice cream and savored it for a moment. He casually placed the whole treat — cone and all — into his mouth, loudly crunching on it.

So delicious …” Fireball remarked dreamily. “Thank you, Antoshi! I love this place already!”

Antoshi grinned as he took a sip of water. He was happy to see Fireball happy.

With the sun shimmering in their faces, they stopped briefly at a crosswalk. They looked around at the thriving city of Cinnabar. The streets were similar to what they were used to seeing in Saffron City, though nowhere near as noisy as their hometown.

“This place really rebuilt and grew since the eruption destroyed everything,” Antoshi said, putting the cap back on his water.

Both of them observed the colossal volcano looming in the distance. Fireball hummed thoughtfully.

"You told me that was decades and decades ago, wasn't it?"

Antoshi nodded in response. After crossing the street safely, the duo were absorbed into the crowd of pedestrians and Pokémon.

“It's amazing to see how far it's come from starting as a small beach resort. I remember one of my schoolbooks showed pictures of what Cinnabar looked like before and after the eruption. It wasn't pretty but, because of it, the island is actually bigger and much more beautiful than it used to be.”

"Guess that's why there's so many tall buildings and stuff." Both of them gazed upward, finding themselves in the shadows of those very high-rises that loomed overhead.

“Well, let's go find the nearest Pokémon Center. After that, we can ask them how to get to the Cinnabar Gym.”

"Oh, yeah!" Fireball exclaimed. "I'm ready!"

Antoshi found a recycling bin to drop his empty water bottle into. A friendly robotic voice in the bin thanked him, followed by the sound of a powerful suction machine.

He reached into the pocket of his backpack to retrieve his trusty travel-size Kanto compendium. He couldn't help but grin at how weathered it had gotten from heavy usage. It was his source of information for each city and the routes that they visited. Not only was it a map, but it also had directories, people and places of interest, as well as various other information like weather patterns and local Pokémon. With it, Antoshi was able to ascertain which way they needed to go to find one of Cinnabar's Pokémon Centers.

They used the locations almost like home bases. The Centers allowed Trainers and Pokémon to reside in one of their available living quarters for up to twenty-four hours, free of charge. It also provided them with free food from their cafeteria, which was Fireball's favorite part of their visits.

“Looks like it's only a few blocks away,” Antoshi said, leading his friend toward their destination.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Once the duo stepped through the Pokémon Center's automatic glass doors, they were greeted by a rush of cool, circulated air. Gentle music played over the intercom system. The splendorous main area was somewhat busy, though the buildings were always designed to feel at home. It was akin to an oversized living room with couches, tables, chairs, and a tall, curved glass wall at the front bearing its trademark 'P'. Handfuls of Trainers sat or walked around freely; talking, laughing, or playing with their Pokémon.

Antoshi and Fireball headed toward the station counter to speak to Nurse Joy. The Center had a few available rooms left for them to stay in. Antoshi took his wallet out and handed Nurse Joy his Trainer Card, which she scanned to verify his credentials. The procedure marked the time and date of his last known location. The system allowed his parents keep track of him on his journey. She handed the card back to him along with a plastic key.

“Please enjoy your stay here,” Nurse Joy told them with a warm smile. “Remember, supper is served at six, lights-out is at ten, and there is absolutely no battling allowed inside. We have a stadium behind the building for that.”

Antoshi chuckled as he put his wallet away. He looked up at his friend with a smirk. “Yeah, we … get that at every Pokémon Center we go to. Fireball and I had a little incident back in Cerulean City. He used to have a temper problem when he was still a Quilava.”

"Hey, that loudmouth Mudkip was asking for trouble," Fireball muttered, folding his short arms across his chest.

Nurse Joy laughed quietly. “I was given an on-screen alert about it when I scanned your card. As long as you and your Pokémon don't cause anymore problems, you're in no trouble. All of us are simply required to inform you of that.”

“Thank you very much, Nurse Joy,” Antoshi replied. “Come on, Fireball. Let's go get settled.” Fireball nodded and followed Antoshi down a nearby large hallway.

Antoshi tapped the key against the scanner of the door of their room, prompting the door to unlock before they headed inside. The two sighed in content as Antoshi closed the door behind them. The room was small and sparsely decorated, yet cozy. Antoshi took off his heavy pack and placed it on the twin-sized bed before stretching his arms up high.

“Now is as good a time as any to call Mom and Dad,” Antoshi said. “We should let them know we're doing all right.”

"They sure do like to worry," Fireball replied.

Antoshi laughed knowingly as they headed back out to the main area. He loved his parents, but they sometimes ended up being a little clingy.

The pair found an unoccupied videophone for Antoshi to sit in front of. Fireball stood behind him and watched as the boy placed his Trainer Card against the screen, instantly lighting up with a list of his registered contacts. His list only had one, however. He tapped the 'Home' contact, and the phone dialed. The ringback tone played only once before his mother quickly answered.

“Hello, Antoshi!” she cheerfully exclaimed, waving to him.

“Hey, son!” his father added, standing behind her. Antoshi and Fireball waved back to them.

“We got the alert a few minutes ago,” his mother said, “that you signed in to the Cinnabar Island Pokémon Center.”

“You guys wait by the phone every time that happens, huh?” the boy asked with a jovial smirk.

Every time!” both parents exuberantly exclaimed.

A few nearby people curiously turned to him after his parents' loud shout. Making a spectacle out of himself was not something Antoshi was fond of. He nervously lowered the call volume via a button on the screen's frame as covertly as he could, hoping his parents wouldn't realize.

“How is it there?” his father asked. “I'll bet it's beautiful!”

“It really is,” he replied with a nervous chuckle, before regaining his composure. “Fireball and I would love to stay and visit here longer, but the date of the Indigo League Tournament is almost here and we're so close to finishing our run. This is definitely the year we're going, Mom — Fireball and I can feel it.”

“Oh, goodness,” she said, with pride in her voice. “I'm so excited and so nervous for you, Antoshi. I know you and Fireball are going to do your absolute best!”

“We sure will,” Antoshi replied. He looked over at Fireball, who responded with a confident nod.

“Well, we don't want to take up anymore of your time, Antoshi,” his dad said. “You know how clingy your mother gets,” he added with a guffaw.

She cut her eyes at her husband before closing her eyes in defeat.

“Okay, so I am a little clingy,” she admitted. The others laughed in response. She gave her son a warm smile. “That's only because we love you so much, Antoshi. It's always so wonderful when I get to see my big boy's shining face.”

Antoshi turned red and chuckled coyly, looking around to make sure no one nearby heard her remarks that time.

“We're always behind you one-hundred percent, Antoshi!” his dad remarked.

“Love you both,” Antoshi said, grinning. “Talk to you again soon!”

The screen displayed 'Call Ended' before turning off. Antoshi sighed happily. He got up, looking to his friend with a confident grin.

“You ready to go for that seventh badge, buddy?”

"Do you even have to ask?" Fireball replied with a smirk, sharing a quick fist-bump with his friend.

With Antoshi's map stored away in their room, they headed over to Nurse Joy to ask her for directions to the Gym. She informed them to look for a large red building closest to the base of the volcano. Antoshi thanked her again, and the two were promptly on their way.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

On foot, it took the pair a couple of hours to reach the Gym. In the meantime, they experienced some more sights of the city. The late afternoon sun cast a cozy orange glow on their bustling new surroundings. They witnessed talented street performers and artists. They stopped to watch a group of hula dancers. The dancers flowed in sync with each other, as well as with the various forms of Oricorio in their troupe.

Antoshi was taken by surprise when one of the dancers, a young lady, came up to him. He blinked incredulously as she placed a lei in the style of a Comfey around his neck — a common offering for tourists of the island. Fireball grinned, snickering as he watched his friend gawk, slack-jawed by her. She smiled at him, and Antoshi offered a timid smile of his own in response. His heart was pounding, his palms sweating profusely.

She giggled and took her place back with the small dancing troupe. The duo walked away.

"Antoshi has a cru~sh!" Fireball playfully said, with a cheeky grin. "Ask her to travel with us."

Antoshi had been incredibly shy as a child, oftentimes too nervous to talk to new people. Making friends was troubling for him back then. Some of that shyness continued to carry over even as he grew — especially when it came to pretty girls. Fireball typically teased him about it whenever he could.

Antoshi put his hands in his pockets and kept his gaze locked to the ground. “I am not going to ask her to travel with us,” he muttered. Fireball held back a chortle.

"You should go back there and ask her on a date. I'll chaperone you."

“Will you knock it off?” Antoshi snapped.

Fireball burst out laughing while Antoshi stewed, growling to himself. Antoshi suddenly noticed one of his forearms glowing with his mysterious light. He gasped quietly, holding his arm behind his back to keep Fireball from becoming concerned.

‘Gotta relax,’ he thought, closing his eyes briefly. ‘Can't let my emotions get out of control. Just relax. Just relax …’

His hand rattled from the power that came with the light. He tried to restrain it, but it was surprisingly intense. The other people on the street seemed completely unaware of its presence.

‘Don't lose control …’

He clenched his eyes and strained, his forehead sweating, his heart palpitating. As he flexed his hand open, a bright fist-sized ball of red light suddenly erupted from his palm. It shot like a bullet across the street, striking a blue post box which caused it to explode violently.

The people nearby stopped and screamed in shock as metallic shrapnel rained down onto the street. Partially burnt envelopes and packages scattered in all directions.

"Whoa," Fireball remarked, looking at the aftermath just like the other passersby. "What the heck just happened?"

He turned to Antoshi, finding him shuffling away in a panic. Fireball was stunned. It was unlike the boy not to make sure people were okay after such an incident.

"Antoshi?" he said, catching up to his friend. "Don't you think we should check out what happened?"

“They're okay,” Antoshi replied, visibly flustered. He offered his friend a thin smile before turning away to hide a guilty expression. “I saw them from across the street. Everyone's fine.”

"Oh. All right. You picked up on that a lot faster than I did, then! What do you think caused it?"

“I … I don't know. Could've been a prank, or … maybe something went terribly wrong.”

Antoshi steadied his breathing and his nerves, continuing on with Fireball toward their destination.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

They were nearing closer to the Gym, prompting them to put on serious faces. Once the duo crossed another street, they stood before a modest, red building that simply read 'GYM' over its glass front doors.

“Lucky number seven,” Antoshi remarked as they studied the building. “Let's go!”

They marched confidently up to the automatic doors. Before the doors could slide open, the pair ended up walking face-first into the glass. They froze in place, dumbfounded, remaining pressed up against the doors.

"Is it … closed?" Fireball asked, muffled by the glass.

A computerized chirp resonated next to them. They peeled themselves away from the door to find a screen display lit up on the wall next to the door.

“Welcome, Trainer!” the digitized female voice of a pixelated woman said. “This is the Cinnabar Island Gym! If you wish to challenge this Gym's Leader, you'll need to have sharp battling skills and a sharp mind! You will find monitors like this one throughout the Gym, situated in front of a set of locked doors. You are required to answer a question displayed on the screen by tapping one of the four multiple-choice answers, but you only have thirty seconds to make a choice! Get it right, and you may move on to the next room! Get it wrong or let time run out, and you will have to battle the Trainer stationed in each room to progress further. If you wish to keep your Pokémon in tip-top shape to battle the Leader, you'd best answer correctly!”

After a brief pause, Fireball gazed over at his friend. "Is this what school is like?"

Antoshi chuckled. “Yes, but with a bit less pressure. I just hope we come up with the correct answers to whatever—”

“Question number one!” the digitized woman suddenly spoke, surprising the pair. “Which Gym are you at right now?”

The screen displayed each choice, which included 'Cinnamon', 'Cranberry', and 'Cyndaquil'.

"Does that one say 'Cyndaquil'?" Fireball asked. "Pick that one."

Antoshi smirked before tapping on 'Cinnabar'. They were greeted with a green check mark and the sound of ringing bells.

“That's correct! You may now proceed inside!” The doors slid open, granting entry to them. “Don't get too excited, though! The questions will only get tougher from here!”

"Thank you, lady on the screen!" Fireball cheerfully said, waving to the computer. The pair headed inside and the doors slid closed behind them.

They immediately felt tiny beneath the Gym's incredibly tall ceiling. The floor was patterned with red and white tiles. Everything was kept clean and shiny as if brand-new.

They marched up a small set of stairs, which brought them to the first open room. A rotund man wearing loose clothes adorned with flame patterns sat on a chair near the monitor. He was in a class of Trainers called 'Firebreathers', due to their penchant of performing fire breathing displays before battles, as well as their affinity for Fire-type Pokémon. It was hard to tell at first due to his dark red sunglasses, but the man was actually sound asleep. They crept by in an attempt to let him sleep, until the loud monitor came to life.

“Welcome, Trainer!” the digitized lady exclaimed, rousing the Firebreather awake. He yawned and stood up. From behind his back, he pulled out a Poké Ball, expanded it, and tossed it up and down while he stood by.

“Which of the following is true?” the computer asked. Its display showed several choices. 'Fire is strong against Water', 'There are 9 certified Pokémon League Badges', 'Arbok evolves into Seviper', and 'Quizzes are fun!'

Antoshi quirked an eyebrow. “This is a trivia question?”

Fireball hummed in thought. "Seems tough," he remarked, looking over the answers.

Antoshi shook his head in amusement, tapping the fourth answer. “Correct!” the computer told them before the next set of automatic doors opened. “You may move on to the next room.”

As Antoshi and Fireball went ahead, the Firebreather shrugged and sat back down in his chair to resume napping.

“Fireball, you can't read,” Antoshi said, once they were out of earshot.

"Exactly my point!" Fireball replied.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Antoshi put his studious knowledge of Pokémon to use in the Gym. The many books he read on training, Pokémon biology and their natures all suddenly paid off. In his endeavor to gain information and maps about the Kanto region, he had subscribed to various magazines targeting Trainers. His studies and over a year of experience as a Trainer made the quiz questions fun.

The questions did become progressively harder, as they'd been told. 'Where are wild Jynx found?' and 'Can Umbreon learn Sucker Punch?' There were also tricky questions like 'Does Magneton weigh as much as three Magnemite?' The time limit kept him on his toes.

He remained calm and patient, studying each question and carefully choosing an answer. Each room's Fire-specialist Trainer was eager and ready to battle. As the boy continued picking correct answers, they were left with the dashed hopes of breaking the monotony. Antoshi was only focused on getting his one Pokémon through to the Gym Leader unscathed.

After clearing a dozen quiz machines, the final set of automatic doors opened to reveal a large battling stadium.

"Finally!" Fireball exclaimed. "I was ready to fall asleep like those Trainers back there."

On the opposite end of stadium room, a person in a white lab coat laid napping on a sofa. The pair looked around as they approached the challenger's side of the field. The room was just as neat, tidy, and polished as the rest of the Gym. The slumbering Leader seemed to take very good care of it.

They took their marks on the opposite end of a giant Poké Ball etched into the ground, poised confidently and ready for battle, waiting a short time.

That short time turned into a minute.

“I'll bet this is some kind of strategy,” Antoshi whispered to his friend. “All those trivia questions, then forcing us to wait patiently until they're ready. It must be a plan to wear us down.” Fireball nodded in agreement.

Two minutes passed, then three, then four…

As they continued to wait, their shoulders became slumped over from boredom. "Are you sure this is strategy?" Fireball curiously asked.

“Absolutely not,” Antoshi replied flatly before clearing his throat. “Excuse me! Hello?”

“Huh?” a feminine voice responded from the couch. The Gym Leader in the lab coat sat up and stretched, yawning loudly. “I didn't know there was a challenger. The sounds of battling usually wakes me up.”

A girl in her teens with lightly tanned skin slowly got to her feet. She wore dark, black glasses and a conspicuous bald cap that did little to hide the long, orange hair that reached the small of her back. She sported a long, graying mustache on her upper lip.

“I see now,” she said, stretching her sides. “You guys decided to do the boring, brainy route, didn't you? That's pretty dumb. Pretty smart, but pretty dumb. Most challengers to my awesome Gym like to actually get their hands dirty and battle as many of my Trainers as they can. Then I get to pick them off easy because their Pokémon are weak by the time they get here! Well, good job, I guess, 'Brainy'.

Antoshi was flabbergasted. “Err, … you require people to use those trivia machines. It even said outside that you have to have a 'sharp mind' to get through the Gym.”

“Well, duh, I know that! People like you are so boring, though! A lot of the Trainers go through at least one battle here. Sheesh!”

Fireball blinked curiously. "Is … that a mustache?" he asked, keeping his voice low.

“I didn't even know girls could grow mustaches,” Antoshi replied.

“It's not a real mustache, you stupid … person!” she stumbled, angered. She noticed the lei that Antoshi was wearing and suddenly became quite arrogant. “You're lucky I'm even entertaining a challenge from some goofy tourist who wandered inside my Gym.”

Antoshi and Fireball looked at each other in confusion. “I'm not some 'tourist',” Antoshi countered. “I'm a Trainer with six badges!”

“Blah, blah, blah,” she replied, mocking him with her hand. “So what? You've got six badges, but I don't see any extra Poké Balls on you. You're not going to get any farther with just one Pokémon.”

Antoshi smirked. “You may be right about that, but, you're not the first person to tell us that, and you won't be the last we prove wrong! This is our life's work you're facing — our heart and soul—” Fireball interrupted Antoshi's dramatic speech, tapping Antoshi on the shoulder to get his attention. He pointed at the mustache on her face. “Oh, yeah. By the way, why are you wearing that … everything?”

She folded her arms across her chest. “Ha! Of course you wouldn't recognize who I look like, you silly tourist!”

“But, you just look like an old man …” Antoshi trailed off, recalling some famous Gym Leaders from one of his magazines. “Wait a minute, you're dressed like one of the people that used to run this Gym — Blaine!”

She laughed haughtily. “That's right, Brainy! I happen to be his great-great-granddaughter! … In spirit,” she added, with an awkward cough. Antoshi and Fireball both quirked an eyebrow. “Okay, I'm not actually his descendant, but Blaine has been a hero of mine ever since I learned about the history of our amazing island and our legendary Trainers! I promised myself that I would become the most amazing and powerful Fire-type Trainer that Cinnabar has to offer, and guess what? I did! After the previous Gym Leader retired a couple months ago, I took his place, and here I am! I'm kinda new as a Gym Leader, but you're still in for a scorching battle! My name is Blaire — but you can call me 'Blaire the Magnificent'!”

The duo blankly stared at her like a couple of stunned Magikarp.

"That's … kinda cool," Fireball remarked, "and a little creepy, too."

Blaire spun around on her heel in such a way that her long coat flapped dramatically. “So! Let's get the formalities out of the way! Who is this know-nothing tourist standing before me? A Trainer who foolishly wishes to face Blaire the Magnificent with one Pokémon?”

“I'm Antoshi — a Trainer from Saffron City and, yes, I wish to challenge you for the Volcano Badge!”

“Antoshi?” Blaire wondered aloud with a scoff. “That's an odd name like I've never heard before!”

He smiled and shrugged. “I get that a lot.”

“As per Indigo League regulations,” she said, “I'm required to inform you that if you lose this match, you can't request a rematch for another two weeks!”

“I know that one by now,” Antoshi replied, briefly recalling some of their many losses at Gyms along the way.

“Fine then, Brainy!” Blaire replied, grinning confidently, her dark sunglasses shimmering. “As the official Gym Leader of the official Cinnabar Island Gym, I — Blaire the Magnificent — do officially accept your challenge!”

Blaire threw her first Ultra Ball up high with theatric flair. The ball opened in mid-air, a bright light bursting forth from it which took the shape of a large dragonlike Pokémon. As the light faded, an imposing Charizard landed on the ground with a heavy thud. It gave a roar, streams of flames erupting from its mouth.

Blaire caught the ball as it returned to her person almost like a sentient boomerang. She held it at her side, smirking confidently.

Antoshi's eyes lit up as he grinned eagerly. His blood raced with excitement while staring down his competition.

“Starting off strong,” he remarked to himself, quietly. Fireball and Antoshi nodded to each other. “All right, Fireball — go get 'em!

Chapter 2

Fireball stepped up, locking eyes with Blaire's Charizard. With a roar of his own, the upper part of his back ignited. His body radiated a shimmer of heat — a threat display. He was fully focused and ready for a serious battle.

‘A fellow Fire-type, eh?’ Blaire thought with a smile.

There were a few moments of tense quiet between the two sides as they stared each other down, analyzing their current situations. Blaire may have claimed to be new to her role, but she was still a Gym Leader nonetheless. With two badges left and no time to spare before the start of the Indigo League Tournament, there was no room for error in this battle.

Charizard snorted, looking down at Fireball with an upturned snout as though it were above such a challenge. Fireball continued to stare down his opponent, his intense gaze unwavering.

Blaire opted to make the opening move with a dramatic point toward the enemy. “Charizard, use Slash!” Her Pokémon grunted in response, using its wings to soar toward its opponent at ground level.

“All right, Fireball,” Antoshi said, “let's turn up the heat! Use Eruption!”

Fireball dropped down on all fours and sprinted at Charizard.

‘A Fire-type attack?’ Blaire thought as she furrowed her brow. ‘Is he not as smart as I expected? No, … he's using it now while his Typhlosion is still fresh, when it'll do more damage.’

As Fireball neared close, Charizard's sharp claws glowed with a magical energy indicative of various Pokémon moves. Charizard swiped hard at him but missed when Fireball ducked and tackled into Charizard's lower body. He struck with such force that he launched the large, dragonesque Pokémon airborne. With Charizard directly above him, Fireball gave a mighty roar, the flames on his back erupting into a massive pillar of flames that completely engulfed his opponent.

Charizard cried out in pain while Blaire looked on bitterly, unable to help. When the eruption of fire dissipated, Fireball darted out of the way. Charizard crashed back down to the ground. It groaned as it weakly lifted itself back up by its arms.

“Charizard, you okay?” she asked.

Her Pokémon grunted, and gave her a nod.

“Don't let up, Fireball!” Antoshi said to his friend, with a confident smirk. “You know what time it is!”

Fireball nodded in response. The Typhlosion curled himself up in a large ball and revved in place like a spinning tire.

Blaire looked on with a curious gaze. The flames on his upper back spread all the way around him until he was enveloped in a fireball, just like his namesake.

“This is our signature attack!” Antoshi exclaimed. “A special Rollout I like to call 'Rolling Fireball'!”

Fireball's spinning body barreled toward Charizard like a homing missile. The Typhlosion's incredible speed left Blaire stunned and unable to react in time. Charizard was violently thrown to the side from a direct blow of Fireball's blazing Rollout attack. The reptilian beast tumbled to a stop, groaning and growling while picking itself up again.

The attack was flashy and intimidating, but their distinctive Rollout did not change its Rock typing. It was usually not their best — or preferred — choice of attack. However, its typing did make it very useful against anything weak to Rock, particularly a Fire- and Flying-type like Charizard.

Fireball spun around for the next phase of Rollout. His speed and power increased as he aimed for Charizard again.

“He's coming back around!” Blaire said to her Pokémon. “Charizard, use Fly! Now!

With a grunt of acknowledgment, Charizard flapped its large wings and took to the air just in time to narrowly avoid the speeding Typhlosion. The miss caused Fireball to hop out of his Rollout, sliding to a halt a short distance in front of Antoshi. They both focused their attention upon the airborne Charizard.

“Now, Charizard, strike!”

Charizard roared, diving headlong at Fireball with incredible speed.

“Guard!” Antoshi instructed his friend.

Fireball clenched his jaw and crossed his short arms over his chest to brace from the hard impact of Charizard smashing into him. He grunted as he slid backwards. Antoshi put his hands out to catch his friend and stop his momentum.

“You all right?” Antoshi asked as they looked at each other. Fireball grinned and gave him a thumbs up.

Charizard came in for a landing on its side of the stadium floor once again.

“That's impressive!” Blaire said. “From what I've learned, Typhlosions are supposed to incinerate anything that gets near it when it's all worked up like yours is. Just like how trusted humans don't get burned by Rapidash flames, you must have have one heck of a bond with your Pokémon there.”

“Fireball's not just a Pokémon,” Antoshi replied, looking up at his friend with a proud smile, “he's my best friend.” Fireball grinned, nodding in agreement.

Despite scoring a hit, the previous attacks had took their toll on Charizard. It panted heavily, visibly more worn down and battle-scarred than its opponent.

‘Not just a great bond,’ Blaire thought, glancing at her Charizard, ‘but that's a strong Typhlosion, too.’ With her Pokémon on its last legs, Blaire sighed in frustration. ‘One last play,’ she thought. ‘They're not going to see this one coming.’

“Charizard,” she said, “Smokescreen!”

Charizard grunted, using its wings to spin around while exhaling a large, rolling plume of black smoke all around to conceal its position.

Antoshi narrowed his eyes. ‘Why Smokescreen?’ he thought. ‘She doesn't strike me as the type of Trainer to waste time stalling. She almost certainly has a plan in motion, that much I'm sure of. We need to act now and get rid of that smoke before she has time to set anything else up.’

“Use Rolling Fireball!” he said.

Fireball curled up again, revving up to ignite himself into another fireball before charging into the plume. The flames covering his body instantly ignited the dark smoke, creating a brief cloud of fire. Inside the fiery veil, Fireball's attack just missed Charizard. Fireball spun around and hopped out of his Rollout, a short distance from Antoshi once again.

“Now, Charizard, Hyper Beam!” she declared.

Antoshi's eyes widened. With no other Pokémon to fall back on, an attack like Hyper Beam was going to be very costly for them. Charizard took aim at Fireball, charging a bright white sphere of energy in its gaping maw. With a roar, it fired its attack in the form of a long, blinding beam.

Time seemed to stop for the duo as the glaring beam of light soared past them both, coming with inches of hitting either of them. Antoshi gasped in shock once the blast impacted the ground a short distance behind him, creating a moderate explosion that shook the ground.

Blaire was livid with their stroke of luck. “It missed?!” she shouted.

Antoshi closed his eyes and breathed a sigh of relief. Getting hit with Pokémon attacks was always an occupational hazard for a Trainer, and Charizard's Hyper Beam was a particularly powerful one. Antoshi was very thankful it missed him. He quickly shook off his nerves to take advantage of their good fortune.

“All right, Fireball — finish it!” Antoshi said.

Fireball hopped back into his fiery Rollout attack, speeding toward Charizard one last time. There was nothing left for Blaire to do. Charizard was momentarily exhausted from the amount of energy used for Hyper Beam. She closed her eyes before the final impact of Fireball's attack connected with her Pokémon. The attack sent Charizard airborne a short distance before landing hard on its back.

With a weak groan, Charizard finally passed out.

“Yes!” Antoshi whispered with a fist pump. Fireball headed back to his side of the field, standing on his hind feet to face his partner. Both of them grinned in delight. They were feeling fired up, ready for whatever she sent out next.

Blaire grumbled angrily as she held out Charizard's Ultra Ball, recalling the fainted Pokémon into its confines via a crimson-colored beam of light. She stared at the ball for a moment from behind her dark sunglasses.

‘Darn it!’ she thought. ‘Charizard was my strongest Pokémon! I didn't think I'd need any more of my team to send this … 'Antush', or whatever his name is, packing. I'm not going to let this tourist beat me with just one Pokémon — let alone a Fire-type! That's my specialty!’

“Don't get too carried away just because you knocked out just one of my Pokémon!” she said. “I have four! There's no way you're going to get through them all, Brainy!”

Antoshi smirked. “Are you gonna send out your next Pokémon or what?” he confidently replied.

Blaire humphed in defiance. She switched out Charizard's Ultra Ball for a Great Ball. “I sure am — and this one's a doozy! Go, Camerupt!” From the thrown ball came a stubby, angry red camel with two small volcano tops on its back. It gave a deep shout, ready for battle. “Try knocking this big boy out with your fancy little move, Brainy!”

“Fireball, Defense Curl!” Antoshi said.

Fireball curled up into a ball once again, staying in place this time. A bubble-like shield temporarily appeared around his body.

Blaire laughed haughtily. “Oh-ho-ho! That's not gonna save you! Camerupt, Earthquake!”

“Earthquake?” Antoshi remarked in surprise. “Brace yourself, Fireball!”

"I'm on it!" Fireball replied, muffled by his own fur.

Camerupt roared, lifting its forelegs up before smashing into the ground with tremendous force. The ground around Fireball rattled and shook hard until violently shattering around him. Fireball shouted as his balled up body bounced around hard on the jagged, broken, trembling earth. Antoshi steadied himself from the smaller tremors beneath him as well.

“Fireball, you all right?” Antoshi asked as the attack died down.

"Well, … I'm feeling some pain in my back here," Fireball said, still muffled from being in his defensive stance, "but I'm still good to go."

Antoshi smiled proudly. “Our turn, Fireball! Show that Camerupt how we roll! Defense Rollout!”

Defense Rollout?” Blaire mused.

‘Wait a minute, … I remember this combination!’ she thought, gasping in surprise. ‘Defense Curl, then Rollout. Oh, great, this kid actually is some know-it-all nerd!’

Blaire watched in horror as Fireball's flaming body sped toward her helpless Pokémon. “Camerupt, get out of the way!”

Camerupt was far too slow to evade. The impact sent it soaring a short distance before crashing hard like Charizard before it. Camerupt groaned weakly, unable to get back up and collapsed — also like Charizard.

Blaire's eyes nearly popped out from her sunglasses. “What?!” Blaire roared in disbelief. Her Camerupt was already downed. “No way!”

“All right!” Antoshi cheered as Fireball returned to their side of the field. “Awesome job, Fireball!” Fireball grinned once again, feeling very confident.

Blaire gnashed her teeth together. ‘How can this kid's Typhlosion be this strong?! I know Defense Curl doubles the power of Rollout. Even still, he knocked out my Camerupt in just one hit!’

She shrieked and fumed in rage, stomping a foot in frustration before recalling her Pokémon. “Camerupt, return!” She shrunk the Great Ball down to its minimal size, swapping it out with a Friend Ball that was attached to her belt. She expanded the ball, throwing it to the field with less flair and more purpose.

Go, Rapidash!” she exclaimed. The light formed and faded to reveal a large unicorn with a flaming mane, back, tail and fetlocks. “Rapidash, Agility!” The equine Pokémon rapidly trotted in place, its body briefly glowing white. “Now you're in trouble!” she confidently proclaimed.

“Rollout, again!” Antoshi said.

Fireball curled into his attack, revving in place. His body burned brightly as he sped toward Rapidash.

“Rapidash, move!” she commanded. With its Agility, Rapidash had become much faster and more agile than Fireball could manage. The Typhlosion missed his target by a wide margin. “Fire Spin, Rapidash! Lock it down!”

Once Fireball had returned to his side of the field, Rapidash took a deep breath and, with a loud cry, exhaled a vortex of fire that encircled him. Antoshi covered his eyes and stepped back from the flames that burned dangerously close to him. He was unable to maintain visual contact with his friend.

“Fireball! Are you all right?”

"The fire feels kind of nice," Fireball replied, "but I can't move!"

Antoshi clicked his tongue. Fireball was going to be trapped in the vortex until there was no more fuel to churn it. The attack momentarily constricted around Fireball. He shouted as the fire scorched him.

"Okay, it feels a lot less nice now!" Fireball said.

Blaire grinned confidently. “Now, Rapidash — use Bounce!”

Rapidash cried out in acknowledgment. It began to hop up and down, gaining more and more height with each jump until it soared high into the air.

“Fireball, guard!”

Fireball clenched his teeth, crossing his small forearms over his tucked head as best he could. He shouted loudly as the full weight of Rapidash's body landed on him and immediately launched off like a springboard. Fireball fell to the ground with a groan, weakly getting back up onto his feet. He shouted again as the fiery vortex briefly closed in on him.

Blaire laughed haughtily as Rapidash gracefully landed in front of her. “Can't do anything when your Typhlosion can't zip around, huh?!”

Antoshi clenched his fists. ‘We can't afford a loss here,’ he thought. ‘The Indigo League tournament starts in less than two weeks. Having to wait two weeks for our seventh badge means we won't make it there in time.’

“Fireball, try using Rollout to break out of the Fire Spin!”

Fireball immediately curled up and shot into the churning wall of flames. The flames had an unnatural elastic property about them, stretching out like a rubber band. It brought Fireball's momentum to a slow halt until it snapped him back inside the circular vortex.

Blaire laughed again. “Don't worry — I'll put your Typhlosion out of its misery! Rapidash, use Horn Drill!”

Antoshi's eyes went wide with horror. While inaccurate, the move was typically an instant knockout. Rapidash cried out, the horn on its head glowing white and appearing to spin.

“Fireball, keep moving as much as you can!”

"Got it!" Fireball replied. He heaved a sigh before bouncing back and forth on his hind legs like a boxer would. "Come on! Try and hit me!"

The veil of fire masked Rapidash's approach. Fireball gasped as it, and its glowing horn, suddenly burst through the fire. Fireball jumped to the side, stretching his body out to just barely avoid the instant knockout technique. Having missed, Rapidash immediately retreated back to its side of the field.

Blaire remained confident, despite the attack missing. She was able to keep trying, so long as the flames kept Fireball trapped. However, Fire Spin had a fickle mind of its own. It decided when it would peter out. Suddenly, the vortex of fire burst and dissipated.

Both Trainers and Fireball were momentarily stunned.

“No, no, no!” Blaire exclaimed in a panic.

“Now, Fireball!” Antoshi said. “Rolling Fireball!

Blaire grinned. “You forgot my Rapidash is too fast for your Typhlosion to hit, Brainy! Rapidash, get moving!”

“Swerve to the left!” Antoshi instructed.

As Fireball did so, he scored a direct hit on the speeding Rapidash. The high-speed collision sent it flying even further than Blaire's previous two Pokémon. It gave a pained shout upon landing violently, rendered unable to continue after it fell unconscious.

Blaire was left shocked. “But— … but how?! How did you know Rapidash would move that way?”

“I guessed,” Antoshi replied with a shrug. “Well, it was more of an educated guess. Your Rapidash ran to our left the first time it dodged the attack, so I figured it would do it again.”

Blaire remained silent for a moment before the corner of her mouth curled into a slight smirk.

“Not bad, kid,” she remarked as she recalled her Rapidash. “Not bad.”

She gasped when she looked at the final ball she had — a Poké Ball.

‘Oh, crap,’ she thought. ‘I only recently got this Pokémon from a trade. It's not nearly as strong as the others! There's no way it's going to last more than a minute if it gets hit by Rollout.’ She looked at the opposing duo once more. ‘Welp, no other choice now but to go all-in. If I lose, I'm going down in a blaze of glory!’

“Go!” she exclaimed, throwing the ball high into the air. “Talonflame!”

From the open ball came a falcon with orange flame patterns on its feathers, accented with gray, black and yellow. It kept itself airborne, locking eyes with its opponent.

Antoshi and Fireball both gasped in a mix of surprise and awe.

‘A Kalos Pokémon?’ Antoshi thought. ‘Pokémon from Kalos are so rare in Kanto. An exotic Pokémon like that as her final one has to be her most powerful.’ Antoshi's excitement was at its peak, his eyes bright, unable to keep from grinning.

“Talonflame!” Blaire said. “Use Attract!”

“What?!” Antoshi exclaimed in disbelief.

Talonflame kept itself airborne with one wing, using the other wing to mask its beak while blinking alluringly at Fireball.

"Wow!" Fireball said, grinning and blushing, becoming infatuated with the avian Pokémon. "So … pretty!"

Antoshi briefly smacked his hand over his face in disbelief.

“Fireball, use Rolling Fireball!

"Wow…" Fireball muttered, grinning and mindlessly swaying back and forth. "So pretty…"

Antoshi groaned, burying his face in his hands. ‘Please don't tell me our dreams are dashed because of Attract…’

Blaire laughed in amusement. “Love conquers all, kid! Talonflame, use Acrobatics!”

Talonflame screeched in response, flying high into the air before coming down and striking Fireball with her talons several times as she dashed from one side of the field to the other.

Fireball groaned, weakly falling to a knee. "So … pretty," he continued to mutter.

“Come on, Fireball! Snap out of it! We can't lose like this!”

"Can't lose…" Fireball said. "Can't lose to … bird. Very pretty, lovely bird. Can't … lose." Fireball clenched his teeth as he rose to his hind feet. His senses were still dazed from the effect of Attract.

“Are you with me, Fireball?” Antoshi asked with concern in his eyes. “This means everything to both of us. You have to hold it together!”

Fireball groaned again, shaking his head. He turned to Antoshi, giving him a groggy grin and a thumbs up. "I think … I'm good to go."

Antoshi smiled proudly at him and nodded.

“Now we end this!” Blaire loudly declared. “Talonflame, use Brave Bird!”

Talonflame screeched, tucking its wings, falling to a low altitude. It shot headlong at Fireball with blinding speed — enough to cause a visible shock wave.

‘Whoa, that Pokémon's fast!’ Antoshi thought. “Fireball! One more Rollout, buddy! Let's bring it home!”

"All right!" Fireball replied, confidently, curling up and igniting himself one more time. Fireball blasted toward the speeding Talonflame, turning their battle into an impromptu joust.

Both Trainers held their breath in the brief moment just before impact. Talonflame crashed into him and was immediately flung away by the sheer force. Fireball's powerful Rollout attack ended up unwavering. With a pained screech, the bird Pokémon spiraled wildly through the air before crashing hard and sliding to a stop.

With Talonflame unconscious, the battle was over.

Noo~!!” Blaire yelled, infuriated.

Antoshi's face lit up with glee. “Yes!” he shouted. “We did it!”

Fireball rolled his way back to him, extinguishing the flames on his back. Fireball got back to his hind feet with a pained grunt. He shared a high-five with Antoshi.

“No, no, no, no!!” she whined, repeatedly stamping a foot on the ground. “How could I have lost when you only have one Pokémon?!”

Antoshi and Fireball were both elated as they walked over to Blaire. “I told you before we battled,” Antoshi replied. “Fireball and I have a ton of experience — and this is the most important thing to us.” Fireball nodded in agreement.

Blaire sighed, closing her eyes for a moment to cool off. She held her Poké Ball up to recall Talonflame before looking back at the duo with a smirk.

“I will admit, your decision to raise one Pokémon is admirable — and that's a really strong Typhlosion you have because of it. Very few Trainers are willing to stick with just one, but I definitely witnessed just how powerful the bond between a Trainer and a single Pokémon can be. After all, you are putting all of the training and experience of six Pokémon into one! Still, the level of care and dedication you've shown is what being a Pokémon Trainer is all about. You're an interesting one, … er, what was your name again?”

“Antoshi,” he replied, mirthfully.

“Antoshi, right. Congrats,” she said, as she casually tossed him a Volcano Badge, “you just got your seventh badge, kiddo.”

The duo briefly stared at the shiny, red badge cupped in Antoshi's hands. A flood of emotion came over them both, welling up with tears. The badge was another symbol of their hard work and the year they spent committing to this journey. Antoshi looked over at his friend.

“Lucky number seven,” he said, reiterating his remark from before. Fireball responded with an enthused nod.

Blaire smirked at the happy pair, placing a hand on her hip. “You definitely earned it.”

“Thanks,” Antoshi replied. He took out his wallet and flipped open a side flap to reveal six, shining, well-kept badges pinned to it. With a relieved sigh, he proudly added the Volcano Badge to their collection.

“By the way,” Antoshi said, as he put his wallet away, “is your name really Blaire?”

The girl stifled a chuckle. “Depends. Is your name really Antoshi?” she joked. “All right, I'll be honest. Blaire's a nickname I came up with. My real name is Leslie.”

“Why not stick with your real name?” he asked, playfully. “That's what I do.”

Blaire gasped, pretending to be offended. “And miss out on the opportunity to cosplay as the greatest Gym Leader of all time? No way!” She took Blaine's distinct stance with her arms folded across her chest. “Now, you two get out of here before I throw you out.”

“Hope to see you again someday,” Antoshi said with a grin. He headed off, motioning for Fireball to join him.

“So long, brainy kid with the weird name,” she replied. She smirked proudly as she watched the two depart.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

It was dusk by the time they exited the Gym. The sun was setting, bringing an end to another day. Both of them stretched their arms high before sighing in relief.

"I sure am beat," Fireball said, rubbing his back, "and really hungry."

“Same here,” Antoshi replied with a nod as they set off. “Let's get back to the Pokémon Center and get you healed up. Then we can see how much food is left from dinnertime.”

"You know," Fireball said, "we should really have a new meal between lunch and dinner. We'll call it 'dunch'!"

“You are not making that a new word,” Antoshi firmly objected.

"How about 'linner,' then?"

“Absolutely not.”

"Hey, maybe we'll see that cute girl again," Fireball teased.

“I'm ignoring you now, Fireball.”

Fireball quietly chortled in response.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Back at the Pokémon Center, the duo were ready for some much needed food and rest. They'd been on their feet all day and hadn't eaten since lunch. Antoshi and Fireball sat together in the Center's cafeteria amid a smattering of other Trainers and their Pokémon. They joked and laughed together, in high spirits after reaching another milestone in their journey. Fireball had put away a half-dozen trays of food.

They spent a little more time conversing before deciding it was time to retire for the night. They headed back to their room to get settled in.

The room had its own bathroom, allowing Antoshi to get washed up and brush his teeth. He also took the opportunity to fill a canteen he kept in his backpack with water from the sink. The beds in the Pokémon Centers were only big enough to comfortably fit one person. Fireball didn't mind, however. He settled in on his preferred sleeping place: the floor.

Antoshi slipped under the covers of the twin size mattress. He wore his usual sleeping attire of a white undershirt and matching boxers. After turning off the nightstand lamp, Antoshi and Fireball lay awake for a bit, staring at the ceiling in thought.

“We're in the home stretch now, buddy,” Antoshi quietly remarked.

"We sure are! We're gonna win it all, and win it big!" Fireball replied, beaming with excitement. "I can't wait to see how big the tournament stage is at the Indigo Plateau. Are you excited, too?"

“It's all I can think about lately. I'm trying to keep my excitement on the inside, otherwise I'll never get any sleep until then.” Antoshi pulled the covers up tighter and closed his eyes.

"Antoshi?" Fireball spoke up. "Have you given any more thought about why you're the only one that can hear me speak?"

Antoshi grinned in amusement. “Let's continue this conversation when we're not so tired. Get some sleep, Fireball. I hope you dream about standing on the Champion's platform with me.”

Fireball chuckled. "I'm ready for it. 'Night, Antoshi."

The two sighed in contentment before letting their tired minds doze off to sleep.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

That night, Antoshi had a dream. It was a very clear, and very strange, dream. He found himself standing in the middle of a large public park. The setting was completely new to him. It was late evening. He was surrounded by unfamiliar faces; children and their Pokémon playing and laughing while parents watched and chatted amongst themselves. It was a picturesque evening in a place that seemed so peaceful and carefree.

His hands were stuffed in his pockets, his shoulders slumped over. His legs moved of their own accord, the rhythmic sound of grass crumpling under his shoes, leading him to the edge of the park and across the street where a man and woman were waiting. They appeared to be angry with him.

The image blurred and faded. Afterward, he lay awake in a strange bed, in a bedroom he'd never seen before. He carried feelings of anger and sadness in his heart for reasons unknown. From his mouth, a voice that sounded like his mumbled something unintelligible. He sighed heavily and rolled onto his side to get some sleep. Before he could, another voice emanated from behind him.

“Wake up,” the voice whispered to him, but he did not respond. “Wake up!” the whispering voice became louder, echoing in his head. He quickly rolled onto his other side, opening his eyes to see nothing but darkness clouding his vision. The darkness did not dissipate, but the voice got much louder.

"Wake up!" a familiar, jovial voice rang out. With a startled gasp, Antoshi leapt awake. He was in his bed in the Pokémon Center. "Whoa," Fireball remarked, standing beside him. "Sorry about surprising you like that. You okay?"

Antoshi sighed. The early dawn sun peered through the cracks in the room's horizontal blinds.

“Yeah…” Antoshi responded, his voice groggy. “What time is it?”

"Six o'clock!" Fireball said, happily. "Our usual wake-up time. Hope you're ready for some breakfast, because I sure am."

Antoshi yawned and stretched his arms high. “I will be soon. Thanks for waking me, though. I feel like I would've slept in super late. … I was having the weirdest dream.”

"Was it one of those dreams?" Fireball asked, suggestively.

Antoshi rolled his eyes. “No, it wasn't that kind of dream,” the boy replied, while pulling the bed covers away. “Well, let's get ready to go, so we can keep this victory train rolling toward our last badge. How's that sound?”

"Next stop: the Championship!" Fireball declared.

Antoshi laughed as he hopped out of bed to do some rhythmic morning stretches. Even though Fireball's limbs weren't as long, he joined in on emulating the stretches, much to Antoshi's amusement.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

With his backpack on the bed, Antoshi finished putting away his clothes from the previous day. He wore a colorful tank top, white shorts and the same lei the hula girl had given him.

"You're gonna keep wearing that flower necklace?" Fireball asked, curiously, while sitting on the bed. "Didn't Blaire make fun of you for it?"

“I don't mind. If I'm gonna be a tourist, I might as well look like one for the short time we're here.”

"Well, with that shirt on you look like the king of tourists!"

Antoshi laughed as he slipped his shoes on.

“I guess that means it's perfect,” the boy replied, grinning. “Come on, let's grab some breakfast and head out.”

"Finally, food!" Fireball exclaimed, jumping up to his hind feet.

Antoshi pocketed his wallet as well as the room's key card and slung his backpack over his shoulders. He and Fireball left for the cafeteria. They filled up on all the pastries and fruit that they could before heading back into the main area of the Center. They were fueled up and ready for the next leg of their quest.

“Thank you, Nurse Joy,” Antoshi politely said, handing her the room key card, “as well as everyone that works so hard here.”

“Thank you as well, Trainer,” she happily replied.

“Could I ask you a question?”

“Of course!”

“What's the best way for me to get to Pallet Town from here?”

“Well, you're in luck,” she replied. She reached under the counter, bringing out a small digital map of the island on a portable device. “Since Cinnabar Island is such a popular tourist destination, a ferry company regularly carries people between here and Pallet Town.” She pointed to the map's northwest corner of the island. “The ferry leaves from the Northwest Marina every day promptly at noon.”

“Plenty of time to do that sightseeing we wanted,” Antoshi remarked to Fireball, who nodded in excitement. “Thank you again, Nurse Joy.”

“No problem! We hope to see you again!” she said, waving to them.

“C'mon, buddy,” Antoshi said, before the duo eagerly left together.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Having a few hours to kill, the two best friends ventured out on their own personal sightseeing tour. It was a crystal clear morning on the island, with just a slight breeze carrying the salty sea air. The rising morning sun sparkled through waving palm fronds over their heads. A small flock of Butterfree fluttered by, around a congregation of Metapod on some nearby palm trees.

The tropical resort was warm and relaxing. It had a whole new shimmer to it in the early hours of the day. It was also more peaceful with far less people around than in the daytime hours. There were less skyscrapers in the direction they were heading, giving them a better view of the island's natural beauty.

Antoshi deeply inhaled the invigorating breeze that carried the end of winter's cold. He sighed cheerfully. It was his favorite time of the year, even though his birthday was in the summertime. The harsh cold and snow had passed, leaving the air cool enough to keep the sky clear and sunny most of the time.

The way Antoshi walked, so poised and confident, rubbed off on Fireball. He had always viewed Antoshi as a natural-born leader, ready to lead them marching to their next adventure. He always took them down the right path, and never let Fireball down. Much of his own inner strength was derived from the young Trainer's adamant confidence, resolve, and boundless excitement.

A handful of passersby stared and chuckled at Antoshi's choice of attire, which in turn caused the duo to laugh amongst themselves, having fully expected such a reaction.

The two stopped by a few shave ice carts along the way. They tried the unique, different flavors that varied between each cart's selection. Antoshi sipped his out of its paper cup while Fireball eagerly downed his in one gulp. He was very content about it, as brain freeze didn't affect him.

Multitudes of shops, restaurants and malls lined the streets. There were large laboratories in the distance that were closed off to the public. Thoroughfares to them were for personnel only.

Antoshi swallowed nervously as they passed by the same street across from the mailbox he'd destroyed. There was yellow caution tape wrapped around the small hole in the pavement left by him. He sighed, gazing down at his clenched fist. His powers had never gotten away from him like that before. It was a sure sign to him that he needed to keep it in check, otherwise people could get hurt next time.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Antoshi kept track of the time by asking people on the street and checking various town clocks along the way.

"Maybe it's time for you to get a watch," Fireball joked.

“We've done just fine this long without one,” Antoshi replied, smiling. “C'mon, we've got about an hour to get over to that marina before the ferry leaves without us.”

"B-b-but what about lunch?!" Fireball asked in a panic.

Antoshi hummed thoughtfully and looked around. He spotted a nearby cafe and pointed to it. “We can get some food to go from there, but let's be quick, okay?”

"Roger that!" Fireball eagerly replied.

The two shuffled safely across the street and entered the cafe. Just a handful of customers and their Pokémon sat inside as well as at tables just outside the establishment. The air smelled of coffee and freshly baked pastries. It was a scent powerful enough to make Fireball's bottomless belly rumble.

Antoshi ordered a couple of sandwiches from behind a glass display. The proprietor bagged the food, Antoshi paid him, and the two exited with their lunch in hand. Outside, Fireball eagerly held his hands out.

“Ah-ah,” Antoshi chided him, slipping his backpack off and placing it on an empty table. He stored their food away. “We're eating these after we get on the ferry.”

"Well, what if … we went back in and got a couple extra sandwiches for the road?"

“Come on, Fireball,” Antoshi replied, grinning, cinching his backpack over his shoulders. “The sooner we get to that ferry, the sooner we eat.”

Fireball gasped. "Then let's hurry up!" he exclaimed, eagerly racing toward their destination.

Antoshi laughed as he jogged behind his quick-moving friend. “Hey, wait up!”

As they made haste toward the marina, a young adult man took interest in the pair. Leaning against the maw of a nearby alleyway, he calmly watched them shuffle on by. He spotted Antoshi's lei and outfit, indicative of a clueless tourist. He raised and eyebrow and smirked mischievously. He waited until they were a short distance away before casually stuffing his hands in the pockets of his leather aviator jacket and tailing them.

Chapter 3

The duo reached the marina before long. By noon, activity on the island had picked up. A small group of people waited by the largest dock near the marina's entrance.

“Excuse me,” Antoshi spoke up, grabbing the attention of a tall, elderly gentleman in a formal suit. “Is this the waiting area for the ferry to Pallet Town?”

“It sure is!” the man replied, cheerfully.

“Thank you. I just want to make sure we're in the right place. We … have gotten on the wrong transportation before.”

“Glad to help! Say, that's a very nice-looking Typhlosion you have there!”

“This is my best friend, Fireball,” he replied with a proud smile.

The gentleman extended a hand. “It's wonderful to meet you, Fireball!” Fireball grinned while shaking the man's hand. The gentleman tipped his bowler hat at the two. “Well, I hope the two of you have a great time in Pallet Town.”

“Thanks again,” Antoshi said, before the gentleman walked away.

Fireball started bouncing up and down in anticipation. "So, um, what's in those sandwiches anyway?"

“I'm not su~re,” Antoshi replied, playfully. “I think it's a surprise.

Fireball was shocked. "Surprise sandwiches!?" He turned around to face the water. "Where is that ferry?!"

The shady young man following them appeared from the crowd. As he approached, his eyes were locked solely on Antoshi. He noticed the indent of Antoshi's wallet in his back pocket. His eyes lit up, slowly and casually strolling up behind him. He reached down, his fingers just slipping within Antoshi's pocket.

Suddenly, a large man hastily bumped into Antoshi, causing him to stumble backward into the would-be thief.

“Sorry!” the careless man exclaimed before shuffling off.

Antoshi chuckled and turned to the thief. “Sorry about that.”

“Hey, it's no problem!” the young man replied with a nervous, boisterous laugh.

Antoshi turned his attention back to the marina. The thief bitterly grumbled at the convenient mishap.

"Oh, oh! There it is!" Fireball exclaimed, hopping into the air and waving the ferry over.

The ferry blew its horn. At the same time, the thief tried to pick Antoshi's pocket again. He fumbled and pulled too hard on the seam, grabbing the boy's attention. The thief quickly pretended to look around mindlessly, whistling to himself.

Antoshi idly reached back to pull his wallet out. “I guess I should get ready to pay the fare as fast as possible,” he mused, smiling as he watched Fireball continue to jump in excitement.

The thief behind them seethed. Something as simple as picking some kid's pocket shouldn't have been so challenging. ‘Oh, come on!’ he thought. He bit his thumbnail, looking back at the city. He had a look on his face as though he'd remembered something important.

Heaving a sigh, he remained where he stood. ‘A kid with a rare Pokémon like a Typhlosion has to have a jackpot of a wallet.’ He slid his hands into his pockets, keeping his cool, while waiting for the ferry just like everyone else.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

People soon began to board the ferry one by one. Each passenger paid the attending deckhand a small fare to board. Fireball merrily skipped across the gangplank, followed by Antoshi, who paid for them both. The thief calmly slipped past without paying while the deckhand was distracted by a woman asking a question.

Antoshi and Fireball took a seat next to each other on one of the bolted down wooden benches set in rows. The boy took his backpack off, setting it beside them. The thief sat out of their eyesight. He watched them for a moment before reclining across an entire bench. An older woman looking for a seat walked by and scoffed at his manners.

Antoshi unwrapped one of the sandwiches. Fireball went to take it from him. “Now remember,” Antoshi said, momentarily keeping the food just out of Fireball's reach, “we each get one sandwich, okay? Try not to swallow it all in a single gulp.”

Fireball nodded in excitement. Antoshi handed him his food with a smile. The Typhlosion went to take a big bite, but suddenly stopped. "Wait, … what if I get seasick again?"

“This ferry's way bigger than the boat from yesterday — and it's nowhere near as fast. I'm sure it'll be a nice, smooth ride the whole way.”

"Well, in that case, …" he trailed off before taking a bite of his sandwich. Fireball made an endless array of contented noises as he chewed his food. Antoshi calmly ate along with him. Both of them enjoyed their meal while the ferry set sail onto Route 21.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

The slower ferry ride expectedly took a bit longer than their previous seafaring trek did. After eating, Antoshi happily took the opportunity to soak up as much of their surroundings as possible. He and Fireball made their way out onto the starboard deck where they leaned against the metal railing to enjoy the view. Several other people were doing the same further down the ship on either side of them.

"It's a really big world out there, huh?" Fireball asked.

They gazed at Kanto's terrain in the far distance. Memories of previous adventures came flooding back to them.

“Sure is,” Antoshi remarked with a thoughtful smile. “I hope every minute of it has been just as amazing for you as it's been for me.”

"Of course! Every minute of every day is great with my best buddy around." They shared a brief chuckle, gazing to the distance in silence for a moment. "Say, … have you thought about what we'll do after this is over? Y'know, if we … don't make it to the championship? Where do we go from there?"

“One step at a time, remember? We haven't even gotten our eighth badge yet!”

"That's true. … Guess I'm just getting excited now that we're so close to the end."

“Oh, I definitely am, too. I keep worrying that something is going to delay us from making it to the tournament. We just have to keep our cool and go at our own pace like we always do.”

"But, you've always been better at keeping cool than me! I'm ready to sprint as fast as I can to that eighth badge!"

“We'll definitely be moving a lot faster now, don't worry. We don't have much time left.”

The thief made his way onto the deck with Antoshi and Fireball. He made sure no one was watching him before silently creeping up behind them. He was once again just a literal fingertip away from his goal of taking the boy's wallet when the duo suddenly turned around.

“Come on,” Antoshi said to Fireball, “let's go back inside and sit down so you can relax.”

They immediately froze in place upon seeing the thief leaning over in front of them. He panicked and swiftly fell over with a grunt.

“Oh, jeez!” the thief exclaimed, getting back up on his feet with an exaggerated wobble in his balance. “Sorry, I, uh, haven't gotten my sea legs yet.”

The ship wasn't swaying at all, however. The duo looked at him in confusion.

“Hey, you're the guy I bumped into at the marina,” Antoshi remarked.

“Oh, yeah! Wow, funny running into you again!” he replied, laughing nervously. “Well, see ya around!” His legs no longer trembled as he shuffled off in a hurry. Finding his antics peculiar, the duo shrugged to each other and headed back inside.

The thief banged his fist against a nearby wall in frustration. ‘What else can go wrong today?’

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

By mid-afternoon, the ferry neared a small marina at the southern edge of Pallet Town. Antoshi and Fireball stood outside on the upper deck of the ship, taking in the sight of the new location with awe-struck gazes. From their vantage point, they saw many houses and stores lining the roads. The town was quaint and colorful with cars and pedestrians bustling about. The buildings had roofs of all different colors in the spirit of its 'palette' namesake.

Once the ferry docked, its passengers began to file out one by one. The duo headed out of the marina with eager grins, ready to see as much as they could in the short time they had to spare. The would-be thief followed at a distance behind them, still seething from the earlier mishaps.

"So, where to first?" Fireball asked.

Antoshi pulled out his compendium. “Hmm, … I think we should just make a beeline straight through the center of town. It's the quickest path and it has some sights along the way.”

Fireball shuddered as Antoshi put the guide away. "I hate bees."

Antoshi chuckled, marching forth alongside his friend. “Well, maybe if you didn't bother every hive you saw, you wouldn't have such a problem with them.”

"But their honey is so delicious."

With that remark, Fireball's stomach began to rumble. The duo glanced at his belly, then at each other.

“C'mon, let's find a place to grab some food along the way. We'll have an early dinner.”

Fireball nodded happily in agreement.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

The pair strolled down the old-fashioned brick-lined sidewalk — a thematic mix of colorful and white at various points. Everything about the area was warm and welcoming. Many passersby smiled, waved or greeted the duo. Some of them were fascinated with a rare Pokémon like Fireball, particularly at how abnormally big he was. Antoshi chatted with them, introducing his friend to others as well as their Pokémon, too.

The thief watched from afar, arms folded across his chest. He stewed at how friendly the pair were, shaking his head in frustration as they mingled with so many potential witnesses.

Once they crossed the street, they curiously wandered over to a large, conspicuous, two-story house. It had a queue of people around the block waiting to get in. Antoshi's eyes lit up upon realizing what it was.

“Oh, wow,” he said, awe-struck. “This is the old Oak Laboratory! It's been here since the founding of the town. I've heard the current professor is something of a celebrity.” He noticed a sign on a fence outside the lab. “Five thousand dollars just to go inside? I guess we'll have to pass on this part of the tour, Fireball.”

"Fine by me. That means we get to eat sooner!" Fireball remarked, as they continued on their way.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

A short time later, they neared a quaint sidewalk restaurant. Several tables and chairs were housed inside of a small wrought-iron fence.

“'Please seat yourself',” Antoshi read aloud the sign next to the entrance.

"Don't have to tell me twice!" Fireball said, eagerly taking a seat at one of the tables.

“Good thing these chairs are metal,” Antoshi said. “We don't need you breaking yet another one.”

He took his backpack off and sat across from his friend. They each picked up a menu that'd already been laid out on the table. No one else was seated at the other tables, allowing them to freely talk without judging ears listening in.

"I like places like this," Fireball said, "but I really prefer the all-you-can-eat buffets."

Antoshi shook his head. “I'm never taking you to one of those again after we got kicked out the last time.”

"I couldn't help it! They had waffles! Tons and tons of waffles! That's my favorite food!"

“Yeah, and you ate them all. It's a good thing you were able to walk after that or they would've had to forklift you out.”

The two continued looking over the menu when Fireball suddenly began to hyperventilate. Antoshi looked over at him with concern. Fireball stared back with wide eyes, slowly turning the menu around and pointing to a large picture of waffles with syrup. Antoshi sighed and smiled.

A few moments later, a perky, young waitress came out to greet them.

“Hello there!” she said, grabbing their attention. “Welcome to The Sweet Sunkern, my name is Gemma. What can I get for ya'?”

“I will have the chicken salad,” Antoshi replied with a smile, as he set his menu down.

“Very nice! And how about the handsome Typhlosion?”

She chuckled, watching Fireball restlessly bounce up and down in his chair.

“He seems very excited to order!”

Antoshi smiled, sitting back, comfortably. “I know exactly why. He'll have the waffles,” Fireball eagerly nodded to the waitress, “with syrup,” Fireball nodded with further enthusiasm. “and lots of blueberries on top.”

“Sure thing! Wow, you know, that's quite impressive that you can understand your Pokémon so well.”

“Almost like I can hear him speak,” Antoshi joked. Gemma shared a laugh with him.

“I'll be right back with your food,” she said, before heading back inside.

Fireball sighed in content, settling down before picking up his fork and knife. "It took so long for you to teach me how to eat with utensils," Fireball said, smiling. "Just being able to hold them right took weeks. I'm surprised you had so much patience with me."

“It was worth it considering how many napkins you used to go through.” The two of them chuckled.

"It's really nice here," Fireball remarked. Antoshi nodded.

“Yeah, it's much calmer and more peaceful than we're used to — kind of like Lavender Town, except that was more of an … eerie peaceful. Guess that's just how towns are compared to the city.”

"I like it," Fireball said, rapping his fork and knife on the table. "Now, where's my waffles?"

Antoshi sighed. “Next thing I have to teach you is some restraint.”

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Antoshi and Fireball took their time enjoying their meal. The would-be thief watched them from across the street, grumbling as he bit into a hamburger from the food stand he leaned an arm against.

After the duo finished eating, they were back on their way through the welcoming streets of Pallet. They continued to be stalked by the thief.

The pair came across a picturesque town square where several large oak trees grew. Small groups of people wandered around, some of them taking pictures with their phones. At the center was a large, stone statue atop a pedestal in the middle of a man-made pond. Antoshi gasped loudly in awe. A huge grin crept across his face, eagerly jogging over to see the statue up close.

“I've been waiting for so long to see this statue,” he remarked, his gaze unblinking. “Wow, … it's really him.”

"That's the guy you've mentioned a few times, isn't it?" Fireball curiously asked, standing next to his friend. "The guy that became Champion a long time ago?"

“Yep. The legendary Trainer from Pallet Town.”

"I'd love to have been able to battle that Pikachu of his," Fireball remarked with a confident smirk. "Some of the Pokémon I've met talk about that Pikachu, too — it's not all about the Trainers, you know."

“I already know that with you as my best friend,” he replied. The two of them grinned at each other before looking back to the statue. “This statue was built over seventy years ago to commemorate them. … I'm really glad I got to see it.”

Fireball noticed a plaque on a small pedestal near Antoshi's feet. "Hey, what's that say in front of you?"

“Let's see. It says, 'Dedicated to all Trainers and their beloved Pokémon aspiring to be the very best. We—the people of Pallet Town—erect this statue in honor of the sacrifices he and his Pokémon have made, and the people whose lives they've touched. May it serve as a keystone to those who dream and those who endeavor.'”

Antoshi was moved by the poignant words, beaming with pride. They were words that had deep meaning to himself and Fireball. He looked up at the statue again with a smile. “It sure will.”

The pair proudly gazed at the statue a little longer. With a content sigh, Antoshi nudged his friend. “Let's get a move on.” He brought out his compendium again as they strolled away. “According to the map, the Pokémon Center's at the northern edge of town. We'll make a quick stop to give Mom and Dad a call.”

"Sounds like a plan!" Fireball said.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Antoshi and Fireball entered the Pokémon Center, finding it not terribly busy. There was an oddly pleasant flowery scent in the air, most likely from the Roselia sitting by its male Trainer at the far end of the main area. Nurse Joy tended to a couple of Trainers and their lethargic Raticate at the front desk. The duo headed over to the videophones to make their call to home.

Antoshi's doting mother appeared on screen, answering the phone slower than usual.

“Antoshi!” his mother exclaimed, with a surprised look on her face. “You've never called two days in a row! Is everything okay?” Antoshi's father casually walked by in the background, appearing just as surprised as she was before he headed over to the phone.

“Yeah, everything's great!” he replied, smiling. Fireball waved to them from behind Antoshi. “We're actually in the Pallet Town Pokémon Center now. We're not going to be staying here for much longer, though. We'll be on the road to Viridian City by tonight.”

“You got there so quickly!” his father remarked. “And you're leaving already, too? I hope you're not moving around too fast now.”

Antoshi nodded. “Unfortunately, we are, Dad. We have to, though. I hate to leave so soon but we don't have a lot of time before the tournament sign-ups close. That's less than two weeks. We also don't know how tough the Gym in Viridian is going to be, so we might not have any time to spare.”

“I always trust your judgment, Antoshi,” his mother said, warmly. “Sometimes I think you're wise beyond your years. … Well, I'll have another shipment of clothes and some more money ready for you by the time you get to Viridian City, okay?”

“Thanks, Mom,” Antoshi replied, grinning.

“And make sure you send back all your old clothes this time.”

“Aww, but, that red shirt with the white stripe down the middle is really comfy!” Antoshi whined, playfully smirking.

All your old clothes.”

“I got it, Mom. … Oh! We were able to see a few of the sights in Pallet. It's really nice here.”

“That's wonderful, Antoshi! I'm always happy when you're happy, honey. I know someday you'll look back fondly on all these memories you're making. Talk to us again when you get to Viridian City!”

“I will. Love you guys.”

“We love you, Antoshi!” they both said, before the call disconnected.

Antoshi smiled as he got up from the chair. “Looks like we're off to Route 1,” he said, looking at Fireball, who nodded in agreement. “This is the fastest we've ever moved through our entire journey. Think you'll be full enough for the rest of the night?”

"We … still have those snacks just in case, right?"

“Yes, we still have snacks,” Antoshi replied with a chuckle. Fireball sighed and wiped his brow in relief.

As they departed the Pokémon Center for the town's northern limits, the luckless thief kept an eye on them from nearby. Leaning against a lamppost, he spoke quietly to an unknown party on his cell phone. He became progressively more cross with the person on the other end of the call. In a huff, he hung up and put his phone in his back pocket. He angrily straightened his jacket before stuffing his hands in its pockets, following the duo once again.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Antoshi and Fireball reached the gate house separating Pallet Town from Route 1. It was as busy as any crosswalk connecting people from one side of a street to the next. The gate housed a Trainer checkpoint, allowing Antoshi to scan his Trainer Card with the authorities working inside. Like the Pokémon Centers, the scan updated his last known location.

“Thank you,” he said, as he was given back his Trainer Card from the gate's guard. He slipped the card back in his wallet.

“Hey, no problem, youngster,” the gatekeeper responded, adding as the pair departed, “you two stay safe now!”

“We will!” Antoshi called back, grinning.

They entered Route 1 through the gate's automatic doors. Both of them had the same level of intrigue and curiosity on their faces as they did every time they set foot in a new location. The large, spacious route was a long, winding dirt path with patches of large grass at the path's edges leading into the forest. Like any route, there were a mix of Trainers, Pokémon, and pedestrians traveling through. The route was lined with the occasional park bench, litter bins, and set of street lights on either side of the pathway.

On one side beyond the trees, cars drove to and fro. The nearby roadway connected Viridian, Pallet, and other nearby small towns that had cropped up in the past decades. Being neighbored to popular towns and cities attracted homebuyers.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

The duo continued walking until nightfall. Antoshi had scooped up various sticks and twigs along the way, storing them in his backpack's empty side pocket. They found a clearing outside the beaten path to set up camp. Antoshi used the tinder he'd collected, along with a casual puff of flame from Fireball, to bring a small campfire to life. He rolled out his sleeping bag, while Fireball settled in on the ground next to him.

Having undressed into his usual sleeping attire, Antoshi neatly folded his clothes and placed them in his backpack which was set down between himself and Fireball. He climbed into his sleeping bag.

"Another comfy patch of grass to sleep on," Fireball remarked in content, resting his forepaws behind his head.

Surrounded by acres of untouched forest, they happily stared up at the countless stars in the sky. The air was always so crisp and fresh in the forests, especially at night. The breeze caused leaves to rustle softly amid the quiet crackle of the fire and chirping crickets.

"Antoshi," Fireball said, breaking the silence. "Why do you think you can talk to Pokémon?"

Antoshi sighed heavily. “This again?” he asked, looking over at his friend. “How many times are we gonna have this conversation?”

"I just know we'll figure this out! Everyone thinks you're totally crazy or something to be able to talk to me. What do we know about it so far?"

“Well, let's see,” Antoshi said. “After we got our first badge together, we were both really excited. It felt like you and I suddenly had this amazing bond together, like we were an unstoppable team. Then, out of nowhere, you … started talking to me. Before that, I just heard you growl or make noises or the usual 'Quilava, Quilava!' I thought it was a normal thing that Trainers go through after bonding with their Pokémon, so I didn't think much about talking to you in public until I started getting funny looks. Turns out it wasn't some normal thing. Still, journeying all by myself up to that point had been really lonely, and now I could talk to you. How could I keep your in your Poké Ball after that?”

Fireball grinned. "I love hearing the story about how we started adventuring together! Have you thought of anything new about the whole 'talking to me' thing?"

“Well, there's—” Antoshi's eyes nervously shifted away. “Err, … never mind.” Fireball looked at his friend with suspicion.

"Antoshi, I'm your best friend. I know you're not telling me something. Who else are you gonna tell your secrets to, anyway? Who else am I gonna tell?"

“Okay, okay, fine.” Antoshi sighed heavily, thinking for a moment. “I've noticed lately that … well, that I may be different from normal people.”

"I could've told you that."

“Okay, aside from being able to talk to you, I just …” Antoshi trailed off, sitting up in his sleeping bag. “Here. Look at what I found out I can do.”

Fireball also sat up, curiously watching as Antoshi cupped his hands with his palms facing upward. Antoshi stared at his open hands and concentrated intensely, quietly grunting with effort. His brown irises came alight with a reddish hue.

Fireball watched in astonishment as bright particles of light began to form over his hands and pulled together into a large ball. The amorphous orb of light shimmered with a brilliant hue of red and felt comfortably warm. It was identical to the object that destroyed the post box.

"Whoa," Fireball remarked. "What is it?"

“I'm … not sure, but … it takes a lot of concentration … for me to—” the ball of light abruptly burst back into particles and faded away. “… Hold it.” Antoshi sighed, letting his hands fall away. “When I don't concentrate, it just pops like a balloon. It kind of makes me a little tired afterward, too. I don't know why I'm able to do it.”

"That's some crazy puberty you're going through," Fireball joked. Antoshi cut his eyes at him. "I'm kidding, I'm kidding!" Fireball rest a paw on his chin as he thought for a moment. "Well, I've never seen anything like that before. No person we've ever met did it, either. … Hang on a minute. Since when did you have time to find out you could do this, when we're together all the time?"

“Remember the time when you nearly fell off that cliff on Route 14?”

"Yeah, you caught me by the legs and pulled me up. I'm still amazed by how strong you were."

“Well, … when I was holding on to you, I was so scared that I was going to lose you, and that I'd never see you again. That's when I noticed my hands and my arms were glowing red — just like that light that's been appearing around me since then. As it turns out, it isn't just some fancy light, there's definitely some kind of power behind it. It always feels like I have … supercharged energy whenever my emotions peak. Once my arms started glowing, pulling you back up was a breeze. After you were safe, it just went away. I spent a whole bunch of nights awake after that trying to get it to happen again and, eventually, I was able to form that glowing ball I just showed you.”

Antoshi looked away despondently, rubbing his arm.

"… What's wrong?" Fireball asked in concern.

“I didn't want to tell you about this because, … well, honestly I'm a little nervous about it.”

"Why are you nervous? This is cool!"

“I'm unsure about what it means. Right now, it doesn't seem like it has much purpose. It may also mean much more than just a neat light show in my hands. I'm not sure … if this is something dangerous. I can't tell if it's a good feeling or a bad feeling that I'm getting when I use it. It just makes me feel odd inside, like my whole body is shaking with this crazy energy I can barely contain.”

Fireball blinked in confusion. "… And you're sure this isn't puberty?"


"Sorry! I just don't really know anything more than you do. Maybe we should ask someone else."

“Like who?”

Fireball stared blankly for a moment. "Good question."

“Well, maybe I'll just … understand it better in time, I guess.”

"Maybe. For now, we have something cool to look at whenever we're bored!"

Antoshi couldn't help but smile. “I guess there's always that.” He laid back down in his sleeping bag and sighed. “Well, goodnight, Fireball.”

"Goodnight, Antoshi."

Fireball followed his friend's lead, curling up comfortably on the ground. The pair rested up for another busy day.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

That night, Antoshi had another somber dream. He found himself sitting in the same bed he had dreamt about the previous night. He looked down at his hand, finding that he was trembling uncontrollably. He again had feelings of sorrow, but now those feelings were exacerbated and accompanied by fear and panic.

He heard a muffled voice from an unknown source speaking to him. He couldn't discern the words. The voice began laughing — a deep, cruel laugh. He clasped his forehead and shouted in agony.

“Can I really do this?” he mused. “This … this seems crazy.”

“Give it time,” the voice replied.

He panted fearfully, trembling from head to toe. “I feel sick,” he said. “… I can't! I just can't do this! I don't want to do this anymore!”

He raced to his open bedroom window, defenestrating himself. He plummeted toward the ground while the mysterious voice continued its laughter. The moment his body impacted some bushes, Antoshi jolted awake with a terrified shout.

All was quiet in the middle of the night. Fireball was sound asleep. Their campfire had smoldered. Antoshi was in a cold sweat, his breathing ragged. His heart raced from the residual fear and panic of his dream.

‘What is going on?’ he thought, running a shaking hand through his hair. ‘What are these dreams I keep having? It's like I'm having someone else's dreams, … but why do they feel so real?’

Antoshi reached into his backpack, pulling out his canteen of water to drink from. He sighed heavily, putting the cap back on and stored it away before he laid back down. His trembling slowly subsided as he gazed up at the starry night sky. He brought a hand in front of his face, focusing for a moment, summoning the same bright red energy as before into his palm. He clenched his fist to extinguish the light before letting his hand fall away.

‘This strange light … and the dreams have to be connected. But how?’

He stayed awake for a short while, attempting to cleanse his restless mind of the dream by recalling memories of soon after Fireball evolved into a Typhlosion. After having finally bonded, battling together was like second nature to them both — and they realized they were quite good at it. Deciding to keep his best friend as his one and only Pokémon, Antoshi felt it was time for them to take their journey to the next level and challenge Gyms.

Celadon Gym was the first. It was their best option, due to the Gym's Grass-type specialty. However, as was the case with several Gyms they traveled to, they were unsuccessful on their first attempt. A Gym full of Trainers specializing in Grass-types expectedly formulated strategies for dealing with their weaknesses, like Fire-types. Though disheartening at first, they used the defeat to strengthen their resolve and train even harder for the next attempt, and the next, and so on. Eventually, they found success and earned their first badge. That's when they started to believe they could make it all the way to the Indigo Plateau.

The memories were enough to help him fall back asleep.

Just then, the relentless thief emerged from the trees. He smiled fiendishly. With the pair asleep, there was finally nothing to stop him from his goal. He tiptoed toward their campsite. Once he was close enough, he reached down and grabbed hold of Antoshi's backpack.

Fireball turned over and angrily smacked the backpack out of his hand. The thief jumped, stifling a surprised shout. He thought he'd been made, but Fireball was still asleep.

"I'm taking that last pudding …" Fireball muttered, before smacking his lips.

The thief sighed in relief before trying again. “Come on,” he whispered, trying to slowly and gently pry it away from Fireball's heavy paw. Fireball suddenly yanked the backpack toward him. The Typhlosion gently wrestled with it in his sleep, shuffling its contents around, before sighing happily and hugging it tight.

The thief looked on in horrified disbelief. How in the world could he possibly be this unlucky? He resisted the urge to scream at the top of his lungs in rage. Seething, he retreated back into the woods.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

The following morning, the duo awoke almost in sync. They sat up and stretched their arms high. Antoshi's backpack rolled off of Fireball's chest. The two looked at it in confusion, before looking at each other. Antoshi smirked.

“You hugged my backpack during the night again, huh?” Antoshi asked.

Fireball handed the pack to him. "I can't help it. Sometimes I need something to hold while I sleep."

“Well, I hope you didn't get fur all over it again,” Antoshi joked. He unzipped the backpack and pulled out a new pair of clothes. He also took out a wrapped trail bar for himself and tossed a small bag full of Pokémon food to Fireball. “Here you go, buddy. Let's make sure we're fueled up before we head out.”

Fireball didn't bother responding. Before Antoshi even finished speaking, he was already busy munching through the food with a pleased expression on his face.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Wearing a black polo shirt and tan cargo shorts, Antoshi cinched his backpack over his shoulders. He crouched down to tie his usual white sneakers with red chevrons on top.

"Don't you ever get tired of wearing those shirts with collars?" Fireball curiously asked.

Antoshi idly brushed some of Fireball's fur off the backpack's straps. “I suppose so. I don't feel like telling Mom that since she really likes how they look on me. I guess it is kind of bad that my mom still dresses me, but … they look good, right?”

"Yeah! Kind of makes you look like a golf player." Antoshi rolled his eyes, scoffing and grinning.

“Very funny,” he sarcastically replied, much to Fireball's amusement. “C'mon, you. Let's get that eighth badge!”

"Challenge accepted!" Fireball replied, as the two set off toward Viridian City.

The thief watched them from behind a tree, looking frazzled and nearly foaming at the mouth with ire.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

By noon, Antoshi and Fireball neared the northern end of Route 1. They started seeing large buildings towering over the trees, getting taller and closer with each passing minute. The gate separating Route 1 from Viridian City came into view in the distance, and the bustle of passersby started to increase. They rode on high along the gentle breeze carrying them to their destination. Excitement and opportunity were in the air. They grinned at each other, just a short jog away from entering another new city.

A group of young kids soon crowded around the duo. They cooed at the sight of Fireball towering over them.

“Wow, cool! A Typhlosion!” one of them exclaimed, as they all began to pet him.

Fireball grinned. 'Please give me snacks, please give me snacks …' he thought.

Antoshi smiled, watching his friend soak up the attention, while also responding to the kids as they asked him a barrage of questions.

The thief's eyes lit up, seeing that the pair were distracted once again. He casually made his way over to Antoshi, when suddenly a Tauros came rushing down the pathway toward him. He screamed and jumped out of the way of the barreling bull, followed by a Pokémon Breeder chasing after it.

“Tauros, get back here!” the breeder shouted.

“Wow, cool! A Tauros!” one of the youngsters in the group exclaimed, prompting the crowd of kids to head off after it. They accompanied the breeder in chasing the Tauros, laughing and shouting.

“Bye-bye!” one of the kids shouted, waving to Antoshi and Fireball.

“Bye!” Antoshi replied, waving back, before turning to his friend. “You're so popular, Fireball,” he joked.

Fireball chuckled, and the two were merrily on their way again.

The thief stood at the edge of the beaten path, staring at the duo. He let out a frustrated scream, fed up with all the misfortune keeping him from the simple task of stealing a kid's wallet.

“Screw this!” the thief angrily shouted. He broke out into a sprint toward them. The pair heard him coming and turned around just in time to see him snatch Antoshi's wallet before bolting off. “See ya, kid!” he shouted.

The nearby people on the route watched the scene unfold in shock.

“Hey!” Antoshi exclaimed as he and Fireball gave chase. “He stole my wallet!”

"And our badges!" Fireball shouted. He was about to use a Rollout attack on him, but the thief ran into the crowd of people. In doing so, he shoved a lady with long, blue hair to the ground.

“Ow!” she cried out. The duo stopped to check on her.

Antoshi knelt down to the woman. “Are you okay?” he asked in concern.

“Yeah, … I think so,” she replied with a hand on her head. While Antoshi helped her to her feet, Fireball angrily growled before charging into the crowd of people.

Antoshi gasped at the sight of Fireball running off into the frightened crowd. Memories of a more rambunctious Quilava came flooding back to him in an instant. His fear of an uncontrolled Fireball had been realized.

“Fireball, wait!” he called out.

"Don't worry, Antoshi!" Fireball shouted back. "I'm not letting him get away!"

“I'm sorry, I have to go!” Antoshi told the woman, quickly rushing off to follow his friend. “Fireball!”

The thief rushed through the crowd traveling through the gate house, garnering angry yells and complaints as he shoved them aside. He continued running after passing into the Viridian City limits.

He found a nearby alleyway to duck into and pulled out his phone. With his ear to the receiver, he waited for the other party to pick up.

“It's Matt,” he said. “Track my phone, I need to be picked up right now.” The receiver hummed with the sound of a loud, complaining voice. “Just get your ass over here! I'm being chased by some kid's Typhlosion!” He peered his head out of the alley just long enough for Fireball to spot him through the crowd.

"Hey!" Fireball shouted, running toward him on all fours.

“Oh, crap,” Matt muttered to himself before running further down the alley.

Back in the gate house, Antoshi pushed through the crowd, apologizing to the people he bumped into.

“Hey, kid, wait!” the gate guard called out to him from behind the desk. “Come scan your Trainer Card if you're a Trainer!”

“Sorry, I'm in a hurry!” Antoshi exclaimed.

The gate guard had cause for suspicion with two people and a Typhlosion barreling through the gate, and causing a scene. He picked up the phone and informed the Viridian City Police of the incident.

Antoshi's first steps within Viridian City were ones of trepidation. He hadn't seen Fireball since he ran off, and it was starting to scare him. He panted nervously, looking in all directions through the dense crowds of people as best he could. The sounds of pedestrian footsteps marching every which way became deafening. Cars sped by him as he looked across streets. He called Fireball's name along the way, but got no response.

He didn't know where to look, finding himself lost and alone in a loud, busy, unfamiliar city. He was without his Trainer Card, and without his only friend. The sights and sounds overwhelmed him and made him dizzy. His heart sank at the thought of being separated from Fireball.

“Fireball!” he shouted as loudly as he could in panic. “Where are you?!”

Chapter 4

Matt, the thief, raced down a long alleyway with Fireball closing in behind him. He panted heavily, nearly tripping over a pile of discarded wood due to frequently looking down at the display on his phone. He recklessly ran out into the street, blowing through a crowd of people to get to the pavement. Cars screeched to a halt to avoid hitting him, drivers shouting and honking their horns angrily.

Fireball charged through the gap Matt made, pursuing him relentlessly. The thief slid over the hood of a car parked on the side of the street before rushing down another alleyway. With Fireball once again closing in on him, Matt looked at his phone before abruptly turning the next corner.

“Here he comes,” Matt said, loudly enough for Fireball to hear.

Fireball narrowed his eyes and followed him around the corner. He came to a sudden stop, face-to-face with Matt and another person. It was a young woman with dark skin and long, brown hair, standing in front of a parked convertible car with the top down. She wore a sleeveless black shirt that hung slightly over her calf-length jeans, along with black high-top sneakers. She expressed her bitterness at just having to be there.

“Go, Malamar!” she said, tossing out a Poké Ball. The ball opened to reveal a creature akin to an upside down squid. It had no rhythm, no life, no motion to its body — standing still as a statue. Its eyes were brutally cold and empty, as though it had been through terrible trauma. Fireball was unsettled by its glare, too disturbed to want to battle it.

“Malamar, Hypnosis!”

Its eyes glowed in a mesmerizing swirl of colors. Fireball could not turn away from Malamar's gaze. His vision blurred and faded as he fell into a hypnotic state. His eyes rolled closed, falling unconscious while still on his hind legs.

“All right,” she said. “He's out. Let's get him in the—” Fireball suddenly groaned, shaking his head and opening his eyes. Matt and his partner looked on in disbelief.

“Oh, crap,” Matt remarked, watching Fireball get up. “This Typhlosion is tough!”

The young woman sucked her teeth. “Malamar, Hypnosis again! Make it count!”

Malamar did as commanded. Fireball's eyes rolled back in his head before he collapsed to the ground. The young woman carefully walked up to the Typhlosion, nudging him the tip of her sneakers. “Now he's out.”

Both of them sighed in relief.

“You couldn't park anywhere closer, Jalyn?” Matt asked, perturbed. “I had to run a mile!”

You couldn't steal one little kid's wallet sooner?!” she snapped back. “Damn, you're so stupid! You're not even supposed to be here, so don't put any blame on me after you once again prove how useless you are. Sorry that there aren't a thousand nearby alleyways that can fit a car in a moment's notice. How did you even let things get bad enough that you were about to get mauled by some kid's Typhlosion?”

“I got impatient,” he remarked, shrugging. Jalyn stared at him blankly. She shook her head in disappointment before opening the car's trunk. “Look, the point is, I got the kid's wallet and we have a Typhlosion — a strong one! And look at him, he's huge! This big guy can easily sell for millions.”

“Yeah, well, you better hope so. Otherwise, we're dead — literally. With you here, my head is also on the line if you get spotted before we make this delivery.” Jalyn walked over and knelt next to Fireball. She grunted with effort as she managed to roll him over onto his back. “Grab his legs.” Matt followed her instruction while she hooked her arms under Fireball's forelimbs. “All right — one, two, lift.”

The two strained loudly, lifting the heavy Typhlosion, carrying him over to the open trunk. The car's suspension creaked as they laid him inside. They both sighed in relief before Jalyn shut the trunk.

With her hands on her hips, she watched Matt rifle through Antoshi's wallet. “You're a complete idiot,” she remarked. “You were supposed to stay in Cinnabar until the end of the month. Instead, you followed some random kid all the way back here just to steal his wallet. This is why nobody takes you seriously. You're just lucky we managed to bag his Typhlosion. Maybe the boss won't want to gut you for disobeying him once we show him this.”

“He's got a few thousand in cash,” Matt remarked, idly, ignoring her. He opened the side flap to find their seven Gym badges. “Oh-ho, yes. I knew this kid was a pay day. Badges have those little … computer chips inside them. I've seen them go for a hundred grand each. I can get Jeff to buy them off me.”

“Jeff?” Jalyn asked, with a disgusted look on her face. “You mean the creepy guy who sells stuff on the black market that looks like he hasn't showered for … ever?”

“Hey, his money's as good as anyone else's. … It just, ya' know, smells funny.”

“Yeah, well, there's nothing funny about sitting here waiting to get made. Get in the car, Stupid — we're leaving.” Matt scowled at her as she got into the driver's seat. He straightened his aviator jacket and jumped into the passenger side. “Hey! I told you to stop jumping into the car like that! You're going to scratch the upholstery!”

“Whatever,” he muttered, folding his arms across his chest.

She sucked her teeth, exasperated with him. She started the car, slowly drove out of the alley, making her way onto the road. She remained careful to keep her speed restrained to avoid attracting attention while they carried Fireball to an unknown destination.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

A couple hours had passed since Antoshi last saw Fireball. He'd never been separated from his best friend, or even lost sight of him, for such a long stretch of time throughout their entire journey. He continued calling out for Fireball, asking people on the street if they'd seen a Typhlosion.

He held a constant, icy feeling of dread in his chest. He hadn't stopped to eat for lunch at their usual time. He wondered if Fireball had eaten yet, hoping the Typhlosion was simply lost like he was and trying to make his way back to him. He nervously wrung his hands, his eyes wide, constantly on the lookout for Fireball. With a heavy heart, he trudged onward around the city. He refused to rest until he found Fireball.

‘Okay, what do I do?’ he thought, trying to calm his shaky panting. ‘Fireball's not gone. Fireball is coming back. … Now, do I tell my parents? Should I call them? No, I can't call them since my Trainer Card was in my wallet. I can't remember our new home number since we last moved. Maybe I should look for the police instead. … Yeah, that's what I'll do, I'll go find the police.’

He quickly pulled out his compendium, his hands trembling as he scanned over the map of Viridian City to find the police station. Just as he was about to put the map away, he heard the chirp of police sirens behind him. He and others on the street stopped and turned to see a police cruiser slowing to a halt. The driver door opened. Officer Jenny exited the vehicle, wearing her standard blue-violet police uniform and skirt.

Antoshi was shocked by her timing. He waved his arms to get her attention. “Officer, please help!” he called out, as she put her hat on and straightened it.

She stared at him for a moment, taken aback by the fact he was waving her over. It was certainly not the kind of thing a guilty party would do. Not an intelligent guilty party, at least. She shut the car door before grabbing the radio on her shoulder. She informed her station that she was approaching one of the suspicious persons called in from the Route 1 gate, and then approached the frightened boy.

“What's going on here?” she asked.

“Officer! Y—you have to help me! This guy h—he stole my w—wallet and—and my buddy, Fireball — he's a Typhlosion — he went after him a—and he's lost and I'm lost and I can't find him and you have to help! … I don't know what to do!”

“Okay, okay, … slow down,” she replied, calmly. It was painfully clear to her that the boy was shaken up. “I'm here because the gate guard on Route 1 called in suspicious activity involving a blond kid with a black shirt — that's you — along with another individual and a Pokémon. Let's … just take it from there and explain it slower this time, okay?”

Antoshi nodded, wiping the tears from his eyes. He took a few deep breaths to slow his panicked breathing. He swallowed the lump in his throat before trying again.

“Okay, um, … a man stole my wallet on Route 1. My traveling buddy — he's a Typhlosion named Fireball — chased after him and got away from me. I tried to follow them but, by the time I got out into Viridian City, I—I couldn't find him. I've been looking everywhere for Fireball. He's my only friend and I'm really scared and I don't know what to do.”

“All right, I understand better now,” she said. Antoshi sighed, continuing to wipe the tears from his eyes. “Let me bring you to the police station. We'll take care of you and start searching for your friend. You are not under arrest, okay? I am going to find Fireball for you — I promise.”

“You—you will?” he asked in disbelief.

“Absolutely. I can see how much you care about your Pokémon, and nothing would give me greater joy than having you reunited.”

Antoshi took a deep breath and sighed heavily. A lot of the panic from before finally subsided within him.

“Thank you, officer,” he replied, much more calmly than before. Antoshi followed Jenny back to her squad car where she held the back door open for him. Antoshi climbed into the vehicle and Jenny shut the door behind him.

She got into the driver's seat, reaching for her car's two-way radio. She informed her station that she was returning with him in her custody. Once she got confirmation, she put the car in gear and began to drive back.

“So, what's your name?” she asked, looking at him through the rear-view mirror. The boy was seated behind thick glass plating separating the front and back seats.

“Antoshi,” he softly replied, before clearing his throat.

“Antoshi? That's a unique name. I've never heard it before. I'm Jenny, in case you haven't met any of my sisters during your travels.”

Antoshi grinned weakly. “Fireball and I haven't had any run-ins with the law.”

Jenny chuckled. “That's good. Keep it that way.”

As they drove toward their destination, Antoshi solemnly stared out the window. All he could think about was Fireball, and to hope that he was okay. Memories of when he first met Fireball crept into his mind's eye. Antoshi was just a small child back then. Fireball was an almost newborn Cyndaquil, given to him by his parents who had hoped Antoshi would make a new friend.

At one point, the little Cyndaquil burped up a ball of fire that completely singed off Antoshi's eyebrows and some of his hair.

‘Boy, that was some fireball!’ he recalled father say with a hearty laugh.

‘That's what we'll name him,’ his mother replied, while consoling a crying Antoshi. ‘We'll name him 'Fireball'.’

Antoshi smiled at the recollection. His journey had been like a whirlwind of happiness, hard work, highs and lows. He visited so many new, incredible locations. They made countless wonderful memories that Antoshi wouldn't forget for the rest of his life. Yet, it all never would've happened without Fireball. Antoshi clenched his fists, knowing that Fireball would not give up on him if he was in a bind. Amid the fear and dread in his heart, Antoshi was determined to find his friend.

Just as importantly, he knew he needed to keep his emotions in check — especially during such a test of his inner strength.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

The drive to the station was short. Jenny parked the car in a small parking lot outside, before getting out and opening the door for Antoshi. She led him inside the station, greeting her fellow officers.

Antoshi had never been inside of a police station before, and the Viridian station was quite busy. Other officers and their partner Pokémon walked around every which way, phones rang in all directions, the air was rife with the smell of coffee. Jenny guided Antoshi to a small break room that housed several tables and chairs, as well as coffee and snack machines.

“I'm going to enlist the help of a few of my officers on this,” she said. “I'll start working right away to find Fireball for you. You can stay here as long as you like. Feel free to walk around if you need to, but please don't disturb anyone who's working. Otherwise, make yourself at home, okay?”

Antoshi nodded. “Thank you again, Officer Jenny,” he said, quietly. She gave him a reassuring smile before taking her leave.

Antoshi looked around. He was all alone in the small room. He placed his backpack on the ground beneath one of the tables. He paced around briefly before taking a seat. Without Fireball around, everything seemed so eerily quiet. He sighed heavily, his hands clasped. All he could do now was wait and hope for the best.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Jalyn and Matt drove up to a poorly-kept house at the edge of a run-down neighborhood. The sky had become overcast, almost completely white with touches of gray. After they got out of the car, Matt took the lead. He hastily walked up to the front door with Antoshi's wallet in hand. The overgrown lawn was in dire need of maintenance, littered with garbage and belongings.

Matt opened the screen door, giving a few knocks on the wooden front door before standing back on the stoop beside Jalyn.

“So, tell me something,” Jalyn said. “Why did you follow that kid all the way back here just for his wallet?”

“Because, … I … well, I knew that we would get his Typhlosion, too.”

“Oh, man, you are so full of crap.”

Matt sighed, pondering for a brief moment on what to say next. “I don't like to give up on anything, that's why. Yeah, okay, it was stupid and it made no sense — I get it. But I see things through to the end, no matter how crappy the job is.” Jalyn rolled her eyes. He was a completely hopeless endeavor to her.

They waited a minute for Jeff to come to the door, but got no response. “It's the daytime,” she remarked. “That burnout is probably asleep by now.”

“Come on, Jeff,” Matt muttered, knocking harder on the door. “Jeff! It's Matt! Hey, open the door!”

They continued to wait a moment before Jalyn sighed in frustration. “He's catatonic in there. Come on, we have to get to the warehouse and get this Typhlosion off our hands. You'd best hope he sells for a pretty penny because this is the last chance we're getting.”

Matt sighed, following Jalyn back to the car. “Well, what in the hell am I supposed to do with this kid's wallet? I can't sit on this thing forever.”

Jalyn reached over, smacking the glove compartment open, which exposed a handgun housed inside. “Put it in there for now, Stupid.”

Matt scoffed, carelessly flinging the wallet inside and shutting the compartment. He rest his head against his fist, glaring off in the distance as they drove away.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Antoshi stood in front of the window in the break room, staring silently. Various police officers had come and went. Antoshi didn't notice any of them, too busy being lost in his own thoughts.

‘Should I go off on my own? What if Officer Jenny can't find Fireball? What if he's hurt? What if he's … he's—’

Officer Jenny entered, followed by two uniformed policemen. “Antoshi?” she said, snapping him back to reality. Antoshi turned his attention to them. “This is Officer Eric and Officer Robert. They're two of the officers that are handling your case. They have a lot of experience in finding missing Pokémon.”

“Hello there, young man,” Eric said to him.

“Hello,” the boy distantly replied, offering a weak smile.

Jenny approached him, placing a reassuring hand on his shoulder. “I understand how upset you are. Just know that we've got all of our available officers on the lookout for a missing Typhlosion. They're all over the city at all times of the day and night. We're going to find him — it's just a matter of time.”

“Yeah, … I know,” he quietly said, with doubt in his voice. He forced a smile to her before gazing back out the window. Jenny solemnly nodded. The three officers left the room and headed for the station's front doors.

“Poor kid,” Robert said. “Not knowing where his only Pokémon is must be eating away at him.”

“I know what that's like,” Jenny replied, with a pained look on her face.

After they got outside, Jenny heaved a sigh. “I'm gonna head out on patrol for a bit,” she said. “I'll see if I can find anything.”

“Gotcha,” Robert said, as Jenny departed from their company.

From inside the break room, Antoshi watched her climb into her squad car.

‘There's got to be something I can do,’ Antoshi thought, rhythmically clenching his fists. ‘I shouldn't be here doing nothing. I should be out there looking for him, but … what if I can't? What if I never find him? What can I do?!’

He slammed his fists down on the counter in frustration, causing an audible bang. He immediately got a hold of himself, looking around to see if anyone noticed the noise. He slumped back down into his seat with a heavy sigh. He rested his elbows on the table, burying his face in both hands, trying to simmer down. He had no one to talk to, no one to confide in, no one to console him. Holding it together was quickly becoming a painful endeavor.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Jalyn drove into the lot behind a large food market, parking by the service entrance. A handful of rats in a nearby dumpster, including some Rattata and Raticate, scattered as she and Matt both got out of the car.

“I'm still pissed we're bossed around by Chad,” he said, as he shut the door. “That guy is such an uptight prick.”

Jalyn rolled her eyes, leading Matt to the market's back door. “Well, it doesn't matter what you think. He's our boss. He reports to the Boss. So, if you don't want to end up in a shallow ditch, you'll deal with him being your boss.”

“Whatever,” he replied, disinterested.

Jalyn rapped on the door in a specific rhythm. A metal slat slid open, revealing a pair of menacing eyes.

“Yeah?” a gruff voice asked on the other side.

“Delivery,” she said.

“Password,” the man replied.

“What's today, Tuesday?” she asked, looking over at Matt. He nodded in response. “Uhh, origami … paper crane?”

“It's 'fold an origami paper crane,' Jalyn,” the man behind the door angrily replied. “Get it right next time or get lost.”

The slat slid shut. Jalyn scoffed. “You already know who the hell we are, Doorman,” she muttered under the sound of a motor rolling up the nearby shutter. She got back into the car, driving it in while Matt casually followed inside on foot.

The motor whirred again as the shutter door closed behind them. They were in a large loading dock. The air was stale, musty, and painfully quiet.

Jalyn got out of the car just before a man in a pristine black three-piece suit emerged, strolling up to them with perfect posture. He wore an expensive watch, his dark brown hair neatly slicked back, a fresh-cut rose set in his breast pocket. He was flanked by a large, muscular man — the 'Doorman' that Jalyn spoke to. Matt rolled his eyes, leaning against the hood of the car with his arms crossed.

“I certainly hope that's a delivery for me,” the man in the expensive suit remarked. His voice carried a distinct upper-class accent.

“Chad,” Jalyn greeted him with surprise in her voice. “You're … here today.”

“I am, indeed,” he replied, smiling, his teeth pearly white. He snapped his fingers and pointed to the trunk. “Open it, Doorman.”

Jalyn tossed the keys to the larger man. Doorman headed over to the trunk, unlocking it, but keeping it mostly closed.

“Matthew!” he exclaimed, gasping and holding out his hands. “It's such a surprise to see you here! If I recall correctly, you were ordered to take a nice, relaxing vacation in Cinnabar.” Matt pursed his lips and nervously glanced away. “I find it strange that you would … ignore a direct order like that. You wouldn't want me to think you were insubordinate, would you?”

“No!” Matt quickly replied. “It's just … I—I was helping Jalyn with this new delivery. That's why we're here.”

Chad's eyes lit up. “Ah, interesting! So, my two underlings, what have you got for me today? I should hope it's something worth my time.”

“A Typhlosion,” Jalyn replied. “A strong one, at that.”

Chad raised his eyebrows in pleasant surprise. “Really? Very intriguing. Much better than the unimpressive delivery of three little Spoink you gave us a few days ago.” Chad sauntered over to the back of the car. Doorman promptly lifted up the lid of the trunk. Chad's eyes widened in surprise. “Well, this is quite the turn of events,” he remarked.

Matt and Jalyn followed to look at their prized catch. What they saw shocked them.

There was no prized catch. Fireball had vanished.

An enormous feeling of dread surged through every vein in their bodies. Both of them shut their eyes in unison. They had both witnessed Chad perform horrible acts of violence towards those who had failed him. The next words they spoke were going to be the difference between life and death. Jalyn swallowed nervously.

“Chad,” Jalyn spoke up. “I'm telling you, there—” Chad turned and slapped her with the back of his hand hard enough to cause her to stumble back.

Shut it,” he sternly commanded. He had a bitter expression on his face, sharply contrasting his previous cordial tone.

“Hey, come on—” Matt began to speak. Chad cut his cold, glaring eyes at him, causing Matt to immediately pipe down. Doorman stood beside Chad, crossing his beefy arms over his chest, staring down at Matt as if to also tell him not to get involved.

Jalyn turned away, scowling angrily, holding the side of her face with a trembling hand. She quickly stood up straight and stared at him with a calm expression.

“Don't you dare give me some meaningless excuse, you street rat,” Chad venomously said. Jalyn bit her tongue. “I took you in out of the kindness of my heart, and I expect you not to screw with me. Is that clear!?

“Yes, sir,” the two replied in unison before nervously glancing at each other.

Chad recomposed himself, straightening his suit, glancing at the back of the hand he struck her with. He folded his arms behind his back, slowly pacing back and forth for a few moments, looking at them both. The pair were intensely serious, yet with just a small amount of worry and prostration in their eyes. It was just what Chad wanted to see from his lackeys. He hummed curiously, studying their faces before deciding to speak again.

“Now, I'm going to ask you both a very simple question, and the two of you will simultaneously give me a very simple 'yes' or 'no' when I finish speaking. … Were you lying to me when you told me you had a Typhlosion?”

“No,” they both replied, quickly.

He hummed again, staring at them intensely, tapping his fingers against his lips. The two of them were sweating bullets and starting to tremble in fear. Chad forced them to wait for a short while in motionless silence until he finally cleared his throat.

“Well, despite the fact that you two have routinely been the most pathetic underlings I've ever had, I'm going to give you the benefit of the doubt this time. Honestly, I don't care if there really was a Typhlosion in this trunk. If there was, however, I would highly suggest that the two of you go back into the city — right now — and recover it within twenty-four hours. No more excuses — just results. If you don't procure a Typhlosion for me by then, well, … I'd suggest that the two of you never show your faces here again. Should that be the case, pray that no one else from this organization ever finds you for the rest of your miserable lives. Do I make myself perfectly clear?”

“Yes, sir!” they firmly replied.

He looked at the two of them with a menacing glare, before smiling and clasped his hands together. “Very good! That's the team spirit that I admire!” he shook back the sleeve of his suit to glance at his watch. “You have twenty-four hours, staring now. Off you go now!”

The two of them immediately marched into the car before Jalyn turned the engine over. Chad walked over and stood before them at the front of the car.

“Oh, and Jalyn? Matthew?” he said. They both looked up at him with terrified gazes. “Remember: Nobody ever lies to Team Rocket and lives.” The duo nervously nodded in acknowledgment before Chad trilled his fingers on the hood of the car playfully. “Drive safely now!” he said, with a pleasant smile and a wave.

Jalyn waited for Doorman to open the motorized door for them. She quickly backed out into the parking lot and sped away. Chad's expression turned bitter again as the door rolled closed.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

“Damn it, damn it, damn it!” Jalyn screeched at Matt as they drove down the busy streets. “You idiot! How the hell could you not notice that Typhlosion escaped?!”

“Me? What about you!? You were right with me the whole time!” Jalyn smacked her hands against the steering wheel. Matt held a hand over his forehead. “Ohh, crap. We're dead. We're so dead! We're never going to find him — this city is huge!”

“Shut up, okay?!” she replied. “I'm already on edge as it is and I don't need you freaking out next to me. … Now, let's think about this. When could he have gotten away from us?”

“I don't know, uh, … we would've noticed the shift in weight if he just ducked out while we were driving.”

“So, when were we not driving?”

Matt's eyes lit up. “At Jeff's house!”

“And that's where we start.” Jalyn turned at the next intersection, picking up speed. Her expression suddenly became bitterly cold. “I swear, I'm gonna put this Typhlosion down if it comes to it. Chad can make a Typhlosion rug out of him or something but I am not going back there empty-handed.”

Matt was surprised by her remarks. He found them particularly out of character for her. She had always been cross, short-tempered, and sometimes unbearable, but never brutal — that was Chad's disposition. He wondered just how deeply Chad's earlier remarks had affected her. Chad had never spoken down to her like that before.

He glanced at the glove compartment where that handgun rested. Thoughts of what she may end up doing with it swirled around in his head.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

By the time evening set in, Fireball had been wandering between buildings and along the quieter side streets of Viridian City for hours. He panted, drained from the constant moving — and from hunger. For once, eating took a backseat in his mind. Getting back to Antoshi was his top priority. He also needed to keep away from the duo that took him, though he wanted to stay away from humans in general. Antoshi was the only human that could understand him. He was sure that a Trainer would attempt to capture him, thinking he was a wild Typhlosion.

'Maybe I should look for the police,' he thought. '… I'll bet that's what Antoshi would do. He's probably already done that. But, what would they do with me? Would they just lock me up somewhere or would they try to find Antoshi for me?'

He groaned, totally exhausted, falling flat on his belly in an alleyway. He rested for a few minutes to catch his breath.

'This city is one a big, fat, giant maze. Man, I really wish Antoshi was here. He always knows what to do. … Then again, if he was here, I wouldn't be in this mess in the first place. … He's probably running all over the city looking for me. I know he's worrying about me. I have to find him!' He rolled over onto his back, staring up at the sparse, vibrant orange clouds in the purplish evening sky. 'I'm so dizzy. I just hope these buildings stop spinning soon …'

He grit his teeth, sitting up. 'I'll make it back to you, buddy. I know I will. After that, we're going to find that thief and get our badges back!'

Fireball rose to his hind feet just before hearing the sound of a car engine. A bright spotlight from the street started to illuminate the alleyway. He panicked and pressed his back against a nearby wall, keeping out of its sight.

“Fireball?!” an unknown man's voice called to him.

Fireball's heart raced, swallowing nervously. 'Who is that?' he thought. 'How do they know my name? Are they working for that thief?'

The spotlight faded away as the car drove off. He peered out from his nook, making sure no one was around. Once it was safe to move, he continued further on his solo campaign.

Chapter 5

Antoshi had gone outside multiple times to walk around and get some fresh air. He became more and more tempted to look for Fireball himself each time. Ultimately, however, he trusted Jenny and the other officers. He held on to waning faith that they truly would find Fireball. The waiting was wearing on him, but it was what he relegated himself to.

Back in the break room, Antoshi was losing what composure he had left by nightfall. It was a harsh test of his fortitude, and so far he was failing. Being separated for so long, he was worried constantly for Fireball's safety. Was he simply lost or … had the worst come of him?

The boy passed the time by sitting at the same table, setting his backpack down, and reorganizing its contents. In doing so, he eventually pulled out Fireball's Poké Ball. It was so weathered after nearly a decade of wear. The fading red paint on the top half had cracked and chipped in places. There were small dents, dirt, and scrapes all over it. As he studied it, he recalled the times he had to use it when he and Fireball first started their adventure together. He smiled, remembering how uncontrollably rambunctious he was as a Quilava. He sighed, setting the ball on the table in its minimized form.

His leg shook up and down, unable to keep still. He sat in boredom, withdrawing his compendium and quietly skimming over the maps within. He paid extra attention to the map of Viridian, ending up memorizing most of the city's layout by the time he stored it away again.

He folded his arms on the table to rest his head. He was tired and hungry, unable to sleep. His lips briefly curled into a tiny smile as he thought about all the times Fireball complained about hunger.

‘Of course! Every minute of every day is great with my best buddy around,’ he recalled Fireball say back on the ferry.

His heart sank, sliding further into misery. The waiting and not knowing was starting to deeply affect his psyche. He got up, gazing out the window with a forlorn look in his eyes. He watched people walking and driving around, some of them with their Pokémon. He envisioned himself and Fireball in their places, wishing he could be as carefree as they were.

He rhythmically clenched his fists again as they rest on the counter, his mind filling with anger and despair. Officers continued to wander in and out of the room. He noticed them at times, hoping the next individual to walk in would be Fireball.

Jenny entered the room, making her presence known by knocking on the door frame.

“Hey there,” she said with a gentle smile, trying to keep cordial with him.

“Hi,” he replied, distantly. He briefly glanced over to her, but it was as though he wasn't looking at her. His gaze was somewhere else entirely.

“I just wanted to update you and let you know that we now have over a dozen officers searching for Fireball.” Her attempt to keep his hopes up fell on deaf ears. She cleared her throat. “Would you … like something to eat?”

“I'm not hungry,” he muttered.

“All right. Well, how about I get you a blanket so that you—”

“I don't want a blanket!” he snapped at her in frustration before shoving a display of coffee condiments off the counter. “I just want Fireball back!!”

Jenny was shocked at first. There was an obvious sorrow in his eyes that hid behind his bitter expression.

“What's going on?” Robert asked, as he came into the room.

“It's okay,” she held an arm out, keeping the officer back.

Antoshi looked down at the scattered objects, becoming unsettled with himself for reacting so irritably. He looked down at his trembling hands. “I—I'm sorry,” he said, quietly, his expression suddenly wracked by grief, “I— …” He dashed past them, heading out the front door.

They both watched the boy sit down on the steps outside. “It's been twelve hours,” Jenny said to Robert, with a heavy sigh. “Every minute without his friend, waiting and wondering where he is, … I know how agonizing that is.”

“You think it's the Rockets, don't you?”

“Mm,” she nodded. “It's got all the same earmarks. Some innocent Trainer's Pokémon goes missing, they don't know where it went, they never see it again. We've scoured every inch of where he lost his Typhlosion and haven't found anything except some shoe prints and Typhlosion paw prints on the ground in a nearby alley. A Typhlosion can't be hard to spot. I wouldn't be surprised if this was some crafty scheme by the Rockets to lure his Typhlosion away so they could capture it. They don't care in the least about Pokémon, they only care about their profit. I'm just … sick to my stomach whenever I think of the horrible things they do to peoples' beloved friends.”

He placed a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “I know Archie's always smiling down on you for all the work you do to help those Trainers.”

“He is. That was … a long time ago, and I want to believe I've come to grips with it. Yet, every time it happens to someone else, I just feel those scars all over again. I feel it through the look in their eyes whenever they realize … their best friend isn't coming back. …” Jenny closed her eyes and turned away.

“I'll go get us some more coffee,” he quietly said.

“All right.” She sighed again as he left her company.

She continued watching Antoshi for a few moments. She reached a hand out to open the door, but quickly stopped herself. After letting her hand fall away, she decided it best to give him some space for the time being. He was more restrained that she was, and she saw strength in him that he didn't see in himself. He would surely overcome this. She nodded to herself before heading back to her office.

Outside, Antoshi couldn't stop shaking as his emotions boiled over. He had no idea what to do or where to go anymore. The reality that he may never see Fireball again was sinking in. He breathed heavily, staring at the concrete below him, eyes welled with tears.

“This is my fault,” he quietly muttered to himself. “There was so much more I could've done. … I should've paid more attention, I—I should've noticed there was someone following us. I should've been more forceful when I told you not to run off. I shouldn't have stopped to help that lady. I should've— … I should've been faster! I'm a terrible Trainer and a horrible friend!”

He clenched his eyes shut, tears rolling down his cheeks. “I'm sorry, Fireball,” he whispered, before huffing and sobbing into his hands. “Please come back …”

As sadness overwhelmed him, his entire body became enveloped in the soft, transparent glow of the mysterious red light. With his eyes closed, he remained unaware of it. None of the people walking by seemed to witness the spectacle unfolding either.

“I can't be strong, Fireball, not without you here with me …”

The deeper he sank into heartache, the brighter the light became. It began to fluctuate around him until seemingly igniting, giving off the impression of a flickering red flame that swelled much more intensely than any of its previous appearances. Its very presence invigorated him with energy. That extra energy only served to help intensify his sobbing.

Once Antoshi finally calmed down, so did the mysterious light until it dissipated. He took a few deep breaths and wiped the tears from his eyes. He huffed sharply, getting back to his feet and attempting to recompose himself. He headed back inside the station, having no place else to go.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

A short time later, after Antoshi settled back into resting his head on the table in the break room, Jenny came in to check on him.

“Antoshi?” she spoke up, grabbing his attention. He looked up and acknowledged her with a casual glance before looking away. She sighed, taking a seat across the table from him. “Antoshi — I know I've been keeping you at arm's length. I was staying professional and following protocol. Still, … I want to talk to you on a personal level.”

Antoshi's attention perked up. He kept a curious gaze locked on her, sitting up straight.

“I'm not supposed to do this,” she continued, “but I can't help but empathize with how much pain you're in. I've … been in the same position you're in now.”

“You have?” he asked, softly. She nodded.

“I joined the force about five years ago. Back then, I was given a partner Pokémon — Archie, my Arcanine. He was my best friend, and I loved him so much. One night, he and I were sent to investigate a break-in at a Poké Ball factory. When we got there, Archie heard a noise and took off. I tried to call him back, but he wouldn't listen. I went in after him, but … he was gone. Some other officers showed up and we looked everywhere for him. I was overwhelmed with grief, but, like you, I was determined to find him. Months passed, and eventually … I gave up. About a year later, I got a call about a lost Pokémon in bad shape wandering through the city.”

She shut her eyes, becoming visibly uneasy. Her voice began to tremble.

“When I got there, I found out it … was Archie. He'd been … so horribly injured beyond recognition, I thought it wasn't him at first. I got him into the car and took him to the Pokémon Center, but … by then, there wasn't anything they could do. It was too late for him.” She sniffled and let out a shaky sigh, swiftly wiping the tears from her closed eyes.

After taking a deep breath, she looked squarely at Antoshi with a strong, determined expression. Her tone became firm and serious. “That is why I know what you're feeling. That's why I promised that I won't stop looking for your friend, because no one deserves to go through the pain that I endured. I know that, on some level, you felt like I haven't cared. … I care more deeply than you know.”

Antoshi was left speechless, maintaining eye contact with her as Jenny stood up from the table.

“Never give up,” she added. “Never forget how much you love your best friend.”

She straightened her uniform before leaving the room. Antoshi gazed out the window. Jenny's poignant speech gave him much to reflect on.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Fireball groaned, awaking to the sound of a nearby train slowly screeching to a halt. Under the cover of darkness, he had collapsed from exhaustion behind a train station. He sat up, dazed and incredibly hungry. He got up onto his hind feet and began jogging away, determined to get back to Antoshi. Some of the people at the train station gasped and muttered to each other as the large Typhlosion emerged from the darkness and fled past them.

Fireball panted nervously, noticing every set of human and Pokémon eyes that glanced his way. He desperately avoided contact with everyone.

"Psst!" came a small voice, as he passed by a dumpster. "Hey, wait!" Fireball turned around and saw a Rattata standing on its hind legs, gazing up at him with its jaw agape. "Wow, you're a tall one!" the Rattata remarked.

"Thanks," Fireball replied with a weak smile. "I—I gotta keep moving."

"Wait, you look hungry! Would you like some food?"

"Food?" Fireball mused, in wonder.

"Food!" a handful of Rattata exclaimed as they burst out from some nearby trash bags.

"Wow," Fireball said, following the first Rattata as it led him over to the others, "there sure are a lot of you."

"Of course!" the first Rattata said. "We Rattata always stick together. We also don't mind helping the occasional passing stranger — especially if they look like they're in need."

"Help yourself!" one of the little ones said, hopping out of a bag that spilled its contents on the ground. Fireball was unpleasantly surprised.

"Dumpster food?" Fireball asked. "I—I don't know …"

"Trust me, it's good!" the first Rattata replied, stuffing its jowls. "Besides, what else are homeless folks like us supposed to get?"

"Well, I'm not really homeless," Fireball said, sitting down by them. "I'm lost from my Trainer." His remark earned a collective 'aww' from the others.

"You got lost?" the first one asked in concern. "Wait, your Trainer's not one of those jerks that abandons Pokémon, right?"

"No! No, no, he's a really wonderful Trainer. He's my best friend, actually." The others again collectively 'aww'ed in response. Fireball chuckled. "See, I messed up and I ran off from him when I shouldn't have. I ended up getting kidnapped by these two creeps." The others gasped.

"Kidnapped?" the first Rattata asked with a worried expression. "They weren't guys with shirts that had a big letter 'R' on them, were they?"

"No, they didn't have any letters on their clothes." The others sighed in relief. "But, when they had me in the trunk of their car, I remember them mentioning something about 'Team Rocket'."

"Team Rocket?!" the others all exclaimed before hissing, and arching their backs.

"They're the lowest of the low," the first Rattata said. "They're nothing but poachers that kidnap Pokémon and force them into slavery, sell them off for cash, … or worse. Just thinking about what they've done to our brothers and sisters makes my blood boil."

"I'm really sorry to hear that," Fireball replied, quietly.

"It's okay, friend. I'm just glad you got away from them. Anyway, you seem like a stand-up guy, Mr. Typhlosion. Why don't you let us help you find your Trainer?"

Fireball's face lit up. "Really? You'd do that for me?"

"Sure thing! We may be small, but, brother, we got a whole network of friends and family all over the city."

The Rattata scampered up a nearby gutter to get on top of a building. He took a deep, mighty breath. "Hey, everybody~!" he shouted as loudly as he could.

For a moment, there was no response, leaving Fireball confused. He watched as ears, eyes, and snouts quickly began to pop up in every nook, cranny, and shadow. Fireball shouted in amazement as dozens, if not hundreds, of Rattata and Raticate scampered over and surrounded them.

The first Rattata hopped down and stood next to Fireball. "This here is our new friend! What's your name?"

"I'm Fireball," he replied, with a gentle wave to the crowd.

"This is Fireball!"

The others cheered raucously. Fireball chuckled nervously.

"Fireball here has recently managed to escape the clutches of Team Rocket!" The crowd hissed and jeered in response to the name. "I know, I know. But, like many other friends and family of ours, he's now become separated from his beloved Trainer. We have to help him reunite with his best friend!" The crowd cheered once more. "Now, Fireball, tell us what your Trainer looks like so we can spread the word."

"Okay," Fireball said, standing up on his hind legs, clearing his throat before raising his voice. "He's a boy about … this tall," he held a paw out while the entire crowd nodded, "he has blond hair, and he's wearing a black shirt and shorts. Um, … oh, and he also has a big, red backpack."

"You heard him, folks! You know what to do! Let's move out, spread the word, and help our new friend!"

The crowd of rat Pokémon dispersed at once, chattering and squeaking. The first Rattata sighed happily, sitting back on his pile of garbage.

"You can rest easy now, my friend," he said. "Just relax here with us and we'll find your boy in no time at all."

Fireball's eyes welled up with tears, sniffling. "Thank you so much, I—" he stopped as his eyes suddenly spotted something in the trash. "Are those … waffles?"

"Oh, yeah, help yourse—" Fireball dove in and eagerly began to scarf down the food. The Rattata's laughed in amusement.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

In the wee hours of the morning, the Viridian police station was quieter and less populated than in the daytime. Officer Jenny visited the break room to check on Antoshi. She found him asleep at one of the tables, having finally succumbed to his exhaustion. She brought a blanket for him, gently draping it over his back. She noticed he was holding Fireball's Poké Ball.

‘No kid deserves to have to go through this,’ she thought.

She genuinely cared for his well-being, unwilling to go home until her job was done. But, Jenny's own lack of sleep starting to catch up with her. She covered a yawn with the back of her hand. For the time being, she had several other officers on the case in her stead, allowing her time to rest. She headed for the station's small sleeping quarters to do just that.

A few minutes later, a Rattata curiously scampered around the outside of the police station. It sniffed the air, squeaking and standing on its hind legs. It made its way along the side of the building. There, it hopped up into each of the windowsills. It stopped once it reached the one outside the break room.

The Rattata's eyes widened in surprise, staring at the sleeping boy within. It swiftly hopped down, finding the nearest storm drain. It chattered and squeaked in excitement, its voice echoing to its kin below ground. The Rattata sprinted back over to the windowsill, where it tapped and scratched on the glass relentlessly.

Antoshi groaned softly, rousing from his sleep. He looked over and saw the frantic Rattata in the window.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Jalyn and Matt continued searching aimlessly in their drive around the city. They'd been on the move constantly, making only brief stops for snacks, to gas up the car, and to use the restroom. The endless grind felt more and more hopeless with each passing hour of their time-limited search. The pressure was mounting. The creeping sense of impending failure was wearing on them.

The city streets were incredibly quiet at such an early hour. Matt yawned loudly, leaning against the inside of the door. Both of their eyes were heavy, but Jalyn remained adamant in her mission.

“Come on, Jalyn. We've been looking all night. Can we just take a break for a while?”

“You can rest when you're dead,” she replied, coldly.

Matt scoffed, closing his eyes and leaning back in his seat to doze off.

When they turned at the next light, Jalyn spotted a single black and white car heading slowly in the opposite direction. The car had a manually moving spotlight that was pointed at the nearby buildings and sidewalks.

She gasped, recognizing it as a police vehicle. She swerved suddenly, ducking into a nearby residential area to stay out of sight. Matt shouted in surprise, jarred awake by the sudden turn.

“What the hell was that?!” he snapped.

“There was a cop nearby,” she replied, keeping her eyes locked on her rear-view mirror. “I'm sure that Typhlosion's Trainer probably reported it missing by now. I don't know what they're looking for. Hopefully, it's not the Typhlosion — or us.”

Matt sighed in frustration as they slowly drove around the neighborhood for a short while.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Fireball and his new friends sat together near the dumpster, chatting and laughing. They were interrupted by a Rattata sprinting toward them.

"We found him!" the little Rattata squeaked.

Fireball and the others gasped in elation.

"I told you it was just a matter of time, friend!" the first Rattata said. "Come on, we'll follow our guide here to lead us to him!"

The messenger started to scamper off. Fireball and the other Rattata followed behind on all fours.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Matt and Jalyn continued quietly drifting through the narrow roads of the dimly-lit neighborhood. Jalyn wasn't convinced they were out of sight of the cops just yet.

“Come on, Jalyn,” Matt said. “That cop has to be long gone by now.”

“Shut your stupid mouth!” she snapped. “I'm driving!”

Matt seethed, folding his arms across his chest. He idly gazed at the passing houses and side streets, eventually spotting a small group of Rattata going by under the light of street lamps. Accompanying them was a much larger Typhlosion.

His eyes nearly popped out of his head in disbelief. “Wait a minute!” he shouted with such panic that it caused her to slam the brakes. A dog nearby started barking, startled by his shout. “Jalyn — there he is!

She looked at where his shaking hand was pointing. She internally screamed when she, too, saw Fireball.

“Okay, … okay, hang on,” she said, her voice trembling. She turned off her headlights and slowly drove to the next road that Fireball was heading to.

“What are you waiting for?!” he exclaimed. “Let's get him!”

“Relax, you idiot!” she rebuked him, keeping her voice low. “You want people here to wake up and call the cops on us?! Shut up and don't scare him away! Just … be cool.”

The two kept their elation in check as Jalyn drove at the same pace Fireball was moving. Fireball and the others did not notice the car following them in the distance.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Antoshi curiously stood in front of the window where the tiny Rattata was. The Rattata hopped up and down, motioning for him to come outside. The boy was confused.

“What are you trying to tell me, little guy?” Antoshi asked.

The Rattata hunched over and huffed in exasperation. It stood on its hind legs, holding its forepaws out like claws. It made a stern expression, turning its head and breathing tiny puffs of fire with little roars.

Antoshi furrowed his brow for a moment before his eyes went wide in shock. “Fireball?” he asked in disbelief. “You know where Fireball is?!” The Rattata nodded, squeaking in excitement.

That was all Antoshi needed to know. He shoved Fireball's Poké Ball into his pocket and made a mad dash for the front door. The officers in the station were taken by surprise as he ran off as fast as he could.

“Hey, kid!” one of them shouted. “Wait a second! Where are you going?” He didn't answer, shoving the door open and breaking out into a sprint once he got outside.

He met up with the little Rattata at the side of the building. “Hurry, let's find Fireball!” he said. The Rattata nodded before taking off with Antoshi in tow.

At the same time, one of the officers headed to the station's sleeping quarters to inform Jenny.

“Jenny!” he said, shaking her gently. “Jenny, wake up!”

She groaned as she opened her eyes, looking at him. “Huh? … What is it?”

“It's the kid! He went flying out of here like a bat outta hell!” Her eyes went wide.

She quickly pulled the blanket away and got out of bed, still in her full uniform. She slipped her shoes on before the two officers headed for the front door.

“One minute, he was sleeping,” the officer went on, “the next minute, he was out the door like he was on a mission!”

“I have to go after him,” she said, sternly. “It's too dark and too dangerous for him to be running around the city. I know what he's feeling, and I know he wants to find his friend, but he's not thinking rationally right now. I owe it to him to keep him safe.”

“All right. Be careful.”

Jenny hurried out the door, climbing into her police cruiser. She backed out and peeled onto the streets, trying to find Antoshi as quickly as possible.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Once Fireball and his new friends reached the darker outskirts of the neighborhood, they were met with a tall, long wooden fence.

"Let's go around!" the first Rattata said.

They noticed a car's headlights suddenly turn on, pointed at them. The bright lights temporarily blinded them. The tires screeched as Jalyn slammed the accelerator down with a crazed look in her eyes.

All of the Rattata panicked and scattered. Fireball attempted to jump out of the way, but ended up being struck hard by the car. He screamed in pain, rolling over the hood. He launched off the windshield, cracking it, and landed hard on the asphalt before rolling to a stop.

Jalyn brought the car to a screeching halt and parked it. She and Matt couldn't get out of the car fast enough. The Rocket duo cautiously approached him, both of them bringing out a Poké Ball from their pockets to hold at their sides. They both gasped when he stirred to life.

“Damn,” Matt remarked. “He's still as resilient as ever.”

Fireball exhaled shakily, his entire body throbbing with pain. He set his dislocated jaw with a grunt, staggering to his hind feet. He glared at the pair, one eye bloodied and closed shut, snarling at them in rage. The fires on his upper back came alight, prepared for battle. Fireball wasn't content to attack people, but for the two callous ones before him, he made an exception.

“You're worth less than nothing to me,” Jalyn scornfully said. “You don't scare me. Now, be a good little pet and come along quietly. Otherwise, I will kill you.”

Fireball growled, baring his teeth. In an instant, he opened his maw and exhaled a scorching stream of fire at them. They shouted in surprise, diving to the side. When his attack petered out, they looked at each other, before looking at Fireball.

“Fine, you stupid beast!” Jalyn said. She and Matt each brandished a Poké Ball from their pockets. “You want to battle? We can battle.”

"Hey!" the first Rattata exclaimed. "Leave our friend alone!" The small group of Rattata all screeched and charged at the pair.

“What the hell is this?!” Matt shouted, he and Jalyn yelping as the Rattata bit and clawed at their ankles.

The duo threw their Poké Balls out which opened of their own accord. The streams of light that burst forth touched the ground and took shape. Matt's Spiritomb and Jalyn's Malamar stood silently. Both Pokémon had cold, menacing glares. Malamar looked down at the group of Rattata. There was a terrible killing intent in the Malamar's eyes that terrified them to their core. The Rattata fled fearfully.

“Ha! Stupid little pests!” Matt exclaimed, before turning his attention to Fireball. “Spiritomb, use Shadow Sneak on that Typhlosion!”

Spiritomb swiftly disappeared into the asphalt, reappearing in the form of a dark shadow behind Fireball. His uninjured eye went wide from the ominous feeling of dread he felt before Spiritomb struck him from behind.

“Malamar, use Psycho Cut!” Jalyn commanded.

Malamar's finlike hands glowed blue before running at Fireball, who was still reeling from the previous attack. Malamar swept both hands forward, creating a crescent-shaped blade of energy. Fireball shouted in pain as the strike staggered him backwards. He fell to all fours, glaring at them. Trembling in pain, he slowly rose back up on his hind feet again.

'Antoshi …' Fireball thought. 'I have to … get back to Antoshi. I'm not going to make him worry about me any longer. I have to beat these creeps, but I … can't do this without him.'

“Now, Malamar — Hypnosis!”

Malamar's eyes became a mesmerizing swirl of colors just like before. Fireball was far weaker at that point than the first time they used Hypnosis on him. It didn't take long before he fell forward, unconscious.

The Rockets sighed in relief, recalling their Pokémon into the confines of their Poké Balls. Jalyn got back into the car in order to back up closer to Fireball. She popped the trunk, both of them working quickly to lift the heavy Typhlosion up once again.

Just then, panting heavily, Antoshi and the single Rattata appeared at the scene just in time to see the Rockets struggling as they rolled Fireball into the trunk.

“Hey!” he shouted, his voice high-pitched from exhaustion. The pair were shocked as they looked over at him. Antoshi sprinted toward them. The Rattata ran with him, chattering angrily. “Let him go! Now!”

“Oh, you've got to be joking,” Matt remarked in disbelief. “That's the kid I stole the wallet from! That's his Typhlosion!”

“Damn it,” Jalyn muttered as she slammed the trunk closed. “Get in the car, Stupid!”

Jalyn no longer cared about the upholstery as the duo hopped into the car. Antoshi's rage crested upon seeing them trying to flee. They had already taken Fireball from him once — he wasn't going to let it happen again. His adrenaline carried him as fast as he could while Jalyn turned the ignition.

“You're not getting away!” Antoshi shouted.

Jalyn spun the car around, slamming the gas, charging at full speed into the wooden fence that had previously boxed Fireball in. Matt shouted in fear as the boards shattered all around them, damaging the car even further.

“Are you crazy?!” he yelled at her. She didn't answer him, keeping her stern glare forward. She drove up a small grassy incline before getting onto an empty side street.

Antoshi panted as he and the group of Rattatas stepped all over the splintered wood, up the incline, out onto the road just in time to see them speeding off down the road.

“No!!” he shouted in anguish and anger as he they escaped with Fireball. He couldn't run fast enough. His energy was completely spent, falling to his knees in defeat. He'd let them get away.

Fireball was gone — again. He wasn't sure if he'd ever see his best friend again. The police were nowhere nearby. He would have to run all the way back to the station to tell them what happened. By then, it could be too late to do anything.

Antoshi trembled and sobbed, tears welling in his wide eyes. The horrifying end of Jenny's story replayed in his mind. Fireball was likely to meet the same fate. The Rattatas stood by, looking at him with sorrowful gazes. The boy clenched his fists, his eyes, his jaw. He struggled not to cry.

“Fireball …” he whispered. “I … I blew it. I'm sorry. … Please come back. I can't be without you! Please come back! Please come back, Fireball!!”

The rage and sorrow that had been building up inside of him burned like fire in his veins. He shook with anger, weeping in despair. Antoshi suddenly slammed his fists into the concrete sidewalk, cracking it. He screamed at the top of his lungs, unable to hold in his emotions any longer. In a flash, the fiery red light erupted and flared wildly around his body. An incredible rush of adrenaline and vigor surged through him.

The Rattatas were shocked, backing away. They were bewildered at the sight of the glowing flame around him, unsure what to make of it.

Antoshi clenched his teeth, staring at the fleeing car with a vengeful gaze, his normally brown irises glowing bright red. He suddenly noticed the flickering light surrounding him. His expression turned to surprise and curiosity. He looked at his arms and body, patting his chest in disbelief. It was so much more intense than it had ever been before.

Taking a deep breath, he got to his feet and exhaled slowly. All of his previous exhaustion took a back seat while he tapped into an unknown source of power. He had become completely rejuvenated. The mysterious light's very presence reassured him, soothing him with its warmth. Fireball wasn't gone. There was still a chance. He wouldn't let the Rockets take away the most important thing in his life: his family.

With his entire body like an explosive mass of boundless energy, he raced toward the car with an immense second wind. The group of Rattata were too intrigued by the turn of events not to follow him. The boy was so much faster than before, and they had trouble keeping up with him.

As the car quickly rounded a corner, Antoshi did his best to keep them in sight. By the time he turned the same corner, the car had gotten too far from him. He shouted in agony, pushing himself as hard as he could, struggling with all he had to catch up that he suddenly stumbled over his own feet. His arms thrust outward to break his fall, only for him to realize he was not touching the ground yet continued moving forward.

He was flying.

Antoshi let out a shocked cry at his situation, trying to wrap his head around what was happening. The break in concentration caused him to fall face-first onto the street.

He got up with, inexplicably, nary a scratch on him. He huffed with determination, watching the car round another corner in the distance. He took off running once again, fueled by the burning desire to save his best friend. As he hit his stride, he let himself fall forward again and, just as before, he began to fly. He was moving much faster than he could run — fast enough to catch up to the car. He was at a loss for how he was doing it, but remained focused on his target.

The Rattata group gave up on their pursuit. They stayed behind, squeaking, jumping, and cheering for the flying boy.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

At that moment, Officer Jenny was racing in the opposite direction down the same empty street as the two Rockets. Her eyes were focused on the sidewalk, looking for Antoshi. She paid no mind to the two in the passing convertible with the horribly cracked windshield and busted front fender. She gasped and hit the brakes upon finding the young man she was searching for — as he soared over her car.

With her jaw agape, she followed his movements, gazing incredulously out the back window. “No way,” she whispered.

Jenny quickly backed up, spun around, and turned her flashing lights on as she gave chase to the bizarre scene.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Jalyn stuck to the side streets where there were no other cars around.

“Is that kid still following us?” she asked, as she rounded another corner.

Matt saw nothing in the side-view mirror and nodded to her confidently. “Come on, he's not fast enough to …” he trailed off after seeing a reflection of Antoshi flying behind them. “What the hell?!”

“What?” she asked with immediate concern. “What is it?!”

Matt turned around to confirm the sight of the flying kid. Not only was it so, but Antoshi was quickly gaining on them. He sat forward again, his blank eyes wide, his face pale.

“He … is still following us,” Matt replied, dumbfounded.

She was confused until she glanced in the rear-view mirror and saw the same thing he did.

“That-that's impossible!” she screamed. She nearly veered off the road before correcting.

Antoshi was getting closer. Matt continued to stare at him in the side-view mirror, utterly aghast at the sight. He sat quietly for a moment, pondering what to say next.

“Jalyn,” Matt began with a calm, serious tone, “I've … never questioned my life's choices as much as I have in the past twenty-four hours. This — all of this — isn't worth it. The Typhlosion's not worth it, the money's not worth it, my life's not worth it. I can't do it anymore. It's not worth it, it's not worth it. …”

“Pull yourself together, you idiot!” she replied. “We're dead if we don't finish this!”

“We have a flying kid chasing us, Jalyn. All of the mishaps and convenient obstacles along the way — being stopped from nabbing the kid's wallet, Jeff not coming to the door, the Typhlosion escaping, and now this. They're all signs telling me I made a huge mistake. I should've stayed in Cinnabar. I don't care what happens to me now. I'm … I—I'm ready to face my consequences.”

The look in his eyes reaffirmed to her that he'd lost the will to fight.

“Damn you, Matt,” she muttered. She reached over and hit the glove box to pop it open. Its contents shifted around and Antoshi's wallet fell to the floorboard. She grabbed the gun inside and handed it to him.

“Even if you don't care what happens to you,” she said, “I'm begging you to at least care what happens to me, okay? If you want out of this game after this is over, then I promise I'll help you get out. Just do one last thing for me: kill him.”

He gave further thought to his situation, staring at the gun she held against his chest. He closed his eyes, taking the gun with a heavy sigh.

“All this for one kid's wallet,” he reflected aloud.

He turned around, balancing himself while taking aim. The boy was trailing mere meters behind them. The others were not able to see those flames surrounding him or the glow of his eyes.

Antoshi gasped, his eyes going wide with terror as he stared down the gun's barrel. With his life in danger, his irises suddenly glowed brighter and the fiery light around him flickered far more intensely. In an instant, Antoshi's whole world began to move in slow-motion.

His eyesight became precise enough to see the bullet exiting the chamber. It ejected ahead of a burst of fire, followed by a cloud of smoke and tiny, burning cinders of gunpowder. Antoshi pivoted his body to the side with ease, avoiding the trajectory of the bullet by a wide margin.

All Matt witnessed was Antoshi disappearing and reappearing an instant later.

“Wh—what?!” Matt shouted.

“What happened? Did you get him?” Jalyn asked. She glanced in the rear-view mirror. The boy was still giving chase. “You missed?!”

“I— … h—he dodged it!”

“Just keep shooting!”

Matt seethed, firing shot after shot at Antoshi. The boy evaded with the same swiftness each time. He shouted in frustration, chucking the empty gun at him — only to have him dodge that as well.

“Do something!” Jalyn shouted, panicked.

“It's too late,” he replied, slinking back into his seat and hunching over. “It was going to end this way. I should've known it when the universe was working against me to keep from stealing the kid's wallet. I brought this on myself. …”

Jalyn sucked her teeth. There wasn't anything left to say or do to console him.

Both of them shouted in surprise as the car rattled hard as though they were rear-ended. They looked back, watching Antoshi grab onto the car's back bumper. He strained with effort as he pulled the car and dug his heels into the asphalt, gradually slowing the car down.

Jalyn cried out in terror, flooring the gas pedal. The car had already come to a halt. Smoke poured off the screeching tires as it revved and bounced in place. Antoshi's grip was slipping, clamping down so hard on the bumper that it snapped off of the car's frame. The car immediately barreled forward.

Matt and Jalyn screamed as they lost control and crashed into a metal light pole, coming to a sudden stop. The light pole flickered and went out, bent around the car's hood. The two inside were knocked unconscious, faces planted in the deployed air bags.

Antoshi looked at the mangled bumper in his hands, awe-struck at how strong he was. He quickly brushed the thought aside, far more concerned with Fireball. He tossed the bumper aside while jogging up to the car. He grabbed the trunk lid, using far less effort than before to tear it off the frame. Fireball was still knocked out, with no further injuries other than the ones he suffered earlier.

“Fireball…,” he whispered. His eyes welled up with tears, a relieved grin spreading across his face, reaching in to pet Fireball's head gently. The torture of being separated and the wild chase to get him back were over now. He was finally able to relax. As he did, the red glow slowly faded from his eyes and around his body.

Antoshi heard a car racing toward him from behind. He turned to see the approaching red and blue lights of Officer Jenny's cruiser. She screeched to a halt, quickly putting the car in park before getting out.

“Are you all right?!” she exclaimed, baffled by the scene. “What in the world happened here? Were—were you flying?!”

“I— … well, …” he trailed off, chuckling nervously before recomposing himself. “Yes, I am all right. I, uh, I guess I was flying — a little bit.”

With her jaw hanging agape, she walked over and looked at the unconscious thieves.

“Wait a minute, I recognize these two. They're part of Team Rocket!” She reached into a small pocket on her duty belt, tossing out a Poké Ball of her own. “Quagsire, move out!”

The ball opened and the ensuing light faded to reveal an energetic Quagsire that happily jumped up and down.

“Quagsire, keep an eye on these two. Don't let them move.” Quagsire saluted and gave a nod. It waddled over to the side of the convertible.

“Team … Rocket?” Antoshi asked in surprise, his eyes shifting back and forth as he recalled old newspaper articles. “The Rocket Gang still exists?”

“Indeed they do,” Jenny replied. “They have a tendency to disband or go underground every so often, eventually resurrecting in some form with new leaders. It's been impossible to put a permanent end to them. After all these decades, they keep popping up like cockroaches.” She placed her hands on her hips, turning to the boy with a stern expression. “Antoshi, what you did was extremely reckless and, quite frankly, foolish. By chasing after Team Rocket like that, you or others could've even gotten hurt — or worse.”

He held his head down in guilt. She sighed heavily, quickly lightening up on him and gave a warm smile.

“Even still,” she went on, “I can't help but be happy for you. You caught the criminals, your Fireball is back, and I know how happy you must be. You're no ordinary kid, Antoshi. I know that after what I just witnessed from you. I promised that I'd find Fireball for you, and I'm sorry that I couldn't personally deliver on that promise.”

“It's all right, Officer Jenny,” he said, smiling graciously. “Fireball is back, and that's what's important. You still did so much for me. You gave me a place to stay safe, you took care of me, and hearing your story really meant so much to me. You lifted me back up when I really needed it. For that, I thank you.”

The pair smiled and shared brief hug. Jenny walked over to check on the two fainted Rockets.

“Well, looks like they're not going anywhere,” she remarked, in a more authoritative tone. She reached for her shoulder radio. “Central, 10-52, requesting a bus at 74th and … Persian. Also requesting backup; potentially dangerous suspects.”

Jenny gave her Quagsire a pat on the head for a job well done. Antoshi sighed heavily, opting to stay close to Fireball until assistance arrived. He felt so much more exhausted than usual. He sat on the edge of the trunk, barely able to keep his eyes open. He yawned loudly, wishing for nothing more than to get Fireball safely to a Pokémon Center and get himself some much-needed rest.

Unbeknown to them, the pertinacious Jalyn had not only regained consciousness but was already scheming a way to get herself out of there. She slipped a hand into her pocket, expanded the Poké Ball within and threw it into the air. Just as the ball popped open, she quickly opened her door and rolled out.

“Hey!” Jenny shouted, reaching for her sidearm. “Stay in the car!”

Jenny and Quagsire gasped as Malamar landed on the hood of the car with a thud, staring at them with its bitterly cold eyes.

“Malamar, Psychic!” Jalyn commanded. The pair shouted in surprise as they were lifted off their feet by its telekinesis.

“Quagsire! Use—!” Before Jenny could finish, Malamar flung the two further down the sidewalk.

“Now!” Jalyn exclaimed, pointing at Antoshi. “The kid!”

Malamar turned to the startled Antoshi, lifting him into the air.

“No!” he shouted, reaching out in vain to Fireball. “Fireball!!”

He looked at Jalyn with a terrified expression. She stared back at him with a twisted grin and a vicious look in her eyes. Her lack of sleep, the fear of death hanging over her head, and bewilderment over the events of the past day all came together with her typically misanthropic nature to make her finally snap. She was done with everything and everyone, shifting in self-preservation mode. She was getting out of there with that Typhlosion, and she was ready to crush anyone and anything in her way.

“You think you're special because you can fly?” she asked. “How about I teach you how to fall instead?! Malamar, give him a lift!”

Malamar used its psychic powers to send Antoshi high into the air. He screamed, flailing helplessly. He tried desperately to summon the same powers he displayed earlier, but couldn't due to his overwhelming fear and exhaustion. Held aloft by Malamar's powers, he hovered higher than the roof of a nearby ten-story building.

Matt groaned as he came to. He quickly noticed the scene playing out before him.

“Jalyn!” Matt shouted as he pushed the air bag down. “Stop this! You're taking it too far!”

She turned to him, wild-eyed. “Shut up!” she screamed at the top of her lungs. Matt slowly climbed out of the car, keeping his eyes affixed to her as she hyperventilated. “All you've ever done is complain and doubt me and give up! You're a worthless loser, Matt! I'm the one who always has to get the job done! I'm so tired! I'm tired of everything! No one's stopping me now! Malamar, end this damn child!!”

Matt reached for his own Poké Ball and tossed it into the air.

“Spiritomb, use Shadow Sneak on Malamar!” he exclaimed.

Spiritomb appeared behind its former cohort, striking it hard enough to cause it to stumble to the ground. The attack broke Malamar's hold on Antoshi — but there was no one to catch him. The boy fell toward the asphalt.

“No!!” he shouted, panting and screaming in horror as he rapidly plummeted.

His mind spiraled into a level of extreme panic, helplessly watching his end sprinting toward him. He thought of his parents, of his best friend, the day he left home, the happy and carefree moments he shared with Fireball. He never expected he'd be in this situation. He never expected his Pokémon journey to become the end of his young life.

With one last exhale, Antoshi looked at the convertible in time to see Fireball climbing out of the trunk. A reddish flame surrounded him just before he hit the ground.

Everything went black.

Chapter 6

“You must heed my words,” an unknown, deep voice echoed in the darkness. “This is your destiny. Boundless power awaits you.”

“My destiny,” another voice that sounded like Antoshi's responded. “This power has been nothing but incredible to me. I want to know what my destiny holds. I have to know.”

“Then you must end them. It is the only way to start anew. They do not care about you. No one cares about you. They could never understand the level of power you wield. They are all jealous of you. They want to hold you back.”

“They're … holding me back?”

“Yes. Your power is limitless. I will teach you how to unleash your power. But first, you must do as I say. This is the only way to find your true destiny.”

“The only way? … I'm not strong enough. I can't just …”

“You are strong beyond reason! You are capable of power the world has never seen before! Show the parasites no weakness!”

With a soft groan, Antoshi fluttered his eyes open. He lay completely still, letting his blurry vision focus, staring at a bright white light before him. He was at a total loss as to where he was. The memory of his plummet to the street immediately came flooding back to him.

‘Am I … dead?’ he thought. He wondered if the sense of tranquility he felt at that moment was transcendence to another plane of existence.

"Antoshi?" a familiar voice greeted him, quietly.

He turned his head to see Fireball rising from a chair. The boy blinked a few times in disbelief. A huge grin spread across the Typhlosion's maw.

“Fireball?” Antoshi replied, groggily, reaching out with his near hand to touch his friend's face. Antoshi's eyes immediately began to well up with tears. “This is … real, right?” Fireball nodded in response. Antoshi's hand fell away, uttering a trembling sigh as he rubbed his eyes with his forearm. He noticed an IV tube sticking out of his arm, leaving him confused. “What happened? Why am I here? … Where is 'here'?”

"We're in the Viridian City police station."

“I'm here again?” he mused.

There was no one else around in the small room. As Antoshi slowly sat up on what he realized was a hospital bed, something shifted around in his pocket. He dug a hand in to see what it was. To their mutual surprise, it was Fireball's Poké Ball.

"Is that mine?" Fireball asked, awe-struck.

“Of course,” Antoshi replied, with a cheeky smirk. “I've only ever had one Poké Ball.”

"So, you kept it on you. … I just knew you were thinking about me the whole time." Fireball turned his gaze away in guilt. "Antoshi, I'm so sorry for running away. It was a really dumb move and—"

“No,” Antoshi interrupted him. Fireball appeared confused. “I'm the one who should apologize, Fireball. I didn't … do enough. There were so many other ways for me to respond. It's my responsibility to keep you safe.”

"Don't do that to yourself, Antoshi," he replied. "The police told me everything that happened with you. I also heard all about how you were holding up as the day went on. … Please, don't blame yourself for something I did. You're so much better than that. You're the one person I really look up to."

“It's just that … you and I are almost one and the same. If something happens to you, I can't help feeling like it's my fault.”

Fireball placed a reassuring claw on Antoshi's shoulder. "It's not your fault."

Antoshi held his head down for a moment. What was essentially a short time away from his best friend wore on him so severely, so quickly. He only feared the worst the whole time Fireball was gone. Fireball's words resounded with him — as did the memory of what Jenny said to him in private. He focused too heavily on his negative feelings, but left no room to remain strong. That's what Fireball would've wanted from him. He finally understood the folly in how he acted toward Jenny, the other officers, and himself.

He heaved a sigh before nodding in agreement. He looked up at him with a smile. “I'm really happy that you're back. Are you okay? Are you hurt?”

"Well, I was, but the police took me to the Pokémon Center nearby and got me all patched up. Then, they took me right back here so I could be with my best buddy when he wakes up. It was like having my own chauffeur — and you wouldn't believe how much food they gave me!"

Antoshi smirked. “I'll bet you were starving, huh?”

"I would've been, but I found this group of Rattata that gave me some food and then helped me to find you."

Antoshi's eyes widened. “So that's why there was a Rattata that brought me to you.”

"Yeah, they sure were helpful!"

The mood turned quiet for a moment as they reflected on their adventure, both of them smiling.

“So, … how long have I been out?”

"Err, well, it's been … three days since you, ya' know, fell."

“Three days?” he asked, slapping a hand over his forehead as he groaned. “Oh, man, Mom and Dad are probably worrying like crazy about us. We were supposed to call them the same day that we got to Viridian. Now, we have even less time to get that eighth badge. We gotta get going, we don't have much—”

"Okay, wait, slow down," Fireball reassured him. "Let's just take things one step at a time. Isn't that what you're always telling me?"

Antoshi nodded and took a deep breath. “You're right. I guess my mind still hasn't caught up with everything being settled now. I just need a few minutes to take everything in — especially after the whole flying … thing.”

"So it was true!" Fireball said. "I heard some of the officers joking about how you grew wings or something? How exactly did—"

“You're awake!” Jenny remarked, incredulously surprised as she entered the room alongside her Quagsire. “I—I can't even believe it. You've made a full recovery when, in all honesty, you shouldn't even be alive right now.”

“Alive?” Antoshi wondered aloud. “Oh, … man. I hadn't had time to consider how bad that fall I took was. I only woke up a few minutes ago.”

“Well, you've got a lot to catch up on.” Jenny smiled, helping to remove the IV from his arm. “Are you in any pain right now?”

Antoshi stretched his arms and legs out. “No, I feel completely fine, like I got a full night's rest.”

“That's incredible! You've been out for three days. Even if someone had survived the fall you took, I doubt they'd ever wake up. Yet, somehow, when the paramedics came and got you, you had no injuries whatsoever.”

Antoshi pondered the severity of the fall again. “I fell from the top of that building, … and I didn't even have a cut or a broken bone?”

“That's right. Admittedly, I was a wreck when the medics and other officers showed up. I was doing a lot of crying — I thought you were dead. I couldn't bear to look at … what had become of you after the fall. Initially, they had a yellow tarp over you because you weren't responding and they couldn't find a pulse. Then, another officer called me over to come and look at you. When I did, I was just flabbergasted. You were breathing again. It was a miracle beyond anything we'd ever seen.” Quagsire idly meandered out of the room.

“… Wow,” Antoshi remarked, lost in thought. “I thought for sure that I was … going to die. … I—I'm really sorry for making you worry, Officer Jenny.”

“There's no need to apologize,” she replied with a reassuring smile. “Words can't even begin to describe how happy I am to see both of you alive and well — and together again. Luckily, nobody asked what happened to you at first, especially because you had no injuries. Only after they took the tarp off and found out you were okay was about the time I was finally asked why you were in the street. I came up with a story that you were overcome with emotion and exhaustion and you just … collapsed. Still, I wasn't going to let Jalyn go without an attempted murder charge. My report states that I was the one she tried to kill with her Malamar.”

“What's going to happen to their Pokémon?”

“They'll be rehabilitated, put in a comfortable facility where they can't harm themselves or others. You saw the looks in Malamar's eyes, though. Those Pokémon were … traumatized beyond words. It might take a long time for them to snap out of it. Maybe years. Maybe … never.”

“I feel so terrible for them,” Antoshi remarked.

Jenny nodded. “I think it's safe to say they'll be all right now.”

Antoshi curiously looked around again. “But how come I'm here and not, you know, at the hospital?”

“This is where we bring injured suspects in order to keep them separated from the hospital population.”

Fear crossed both Antoshi and Fireball's faces.

“Does … that mean I'm going to jail?”

“Of course not!” she replied, laughing. “It is very much against protocol to bring a civilian here instead of the hospital but, given the extraordinary circumstances of what happened, I made an extraordinary exception for you. We even had a couple doctors come by to check on you a few times. They ran some tests and said you were perfectly fine, just suffering from severe exhaustion.”

“What happened to the two that kidnapped Fireball?”

“Ah, those two Rockets. It was a chaotic scene after you were knocked out so I'll try to piece it together as best I can. Fireball actually had enough strength left to help Matt's Spiritomb take down Jalyn's Malamar. She had something of a … psychotic break after that. We were able to subdue her until more officers showed up. She was arrested, their Pokémon confiscated, and Matt gave himself up peacefully. Fireball didn't know what happened to you until the paramedics started to check on you. He was … quite upset — much more than I was.”

Fireball solemnly nodded.

“After I saw that you were okay,” Jenny continued, “I let Fireball know. That's when they took him away to be healed, though he was quite insistent on staying with you. I promised that I'd take him back to see you once he was better, … and here we all are.”

Quagsire came back into the room, holding a newspaper up to Jenny. She chuckled and took it from him.

“Oh, and you made the papers a couple days ago,” she said, holding it up for Antoshi to see.

Antoshi read the headline, 'Team Rocket Blasts Off Into Custody!' along with a picture of Matt and Jalyn being arrested.

“Did it … mention me by name?” Antoshi asked, worried. “I really don't want my parents to know about this.”

“No, no. You're still underage, so they didn't use your name. In fact, they only made a small mention of you. 'A young boy nearby was also taken to a medical facility for treatment.' That's it. As for me, I intend to keep your secret safe.”

Antoshi smiled and sighed in relief. “Thank you so much, Officer Jenny — for everything.” “Oh, and there's one more thing. …” She reached into her uniform's breast pocket, taking out a wallet. She tossed it onto his lap. “I believe this belongs to you.”

Antoshi took it with trembling hands, his chest swelling with pride.

“Our badges…” he remarked, opening the wallet up. All seven of them were accounted for. Despite being the catalyst for everything that occurred after, his wallet had taken a backseat in his mind as he worried for Fireball's safety. He and Fireball grinned at each other.

“Looks like we're back in business, buddy.” Fireball nodded in excitement.

“Well, I should get back to work,” Jenny said. “The two of you are free to stay here as long as you like. There's also a shower at the far end of the room if you want to wash up.”

“Thank you — again.”

Jenny and Quagsire left the room, leaving the duo alone once more. They gazed proudly at their badges inside the open wallet for a moment. With a happy sigh, Antoshi stood up and put the wallet away in his back pocket.

“That was some ride just to get a wallet back, huh?” Antoshi asked, stretching his arms high.

"Sure was," Fireball remarked. "I really hope we never go through anything like that ever again. From now on, I promise I'll listen to you and stay right by your side — no matter what. That's what best friends do."

Antoshi smiled and sighed, sharing a hug with Fireball.

“'Right by your side'? Where have I heard that before?” he teased, looking up at Fireball.

"Okay, I actually mean it this time."

Antoshi laughed and hugged his friend once more. Afterward, he found his backpack sitting on a nearby chair. He opened it up to store away Fireball's Poké Ball and take out a pair of clean clothes. Fireball opted to take a seat again to wait as Antoshi headed out of the room.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

After having showered and getting a fresh change of clothes, Antoshi picked up his backpack. “We gotta make up for three days of lost time,” he remarked, slinging it over his shoulders as Fireball stood and stretched. “You ready?”

"Heck yeah!"

“First, though, we need to make a quick stop at the nearest Pokémon Center to call Mom and Dad.”

Antoshi and Fireball headed out to give their farewells to the officers in the police station. Jenny waited by the entrance to give Antoshi a hug and a personal farewell. She smiled proudly as she watched them leave, gazing up at the sky for a moment to think about her Archie. With the missing Typhlosion case officially closed, she breathed a sigh of content before heading back to her office.

Outside, the noon sun hung high on a partly cloudy sky. Antoshi grinned from ear to ear, his bright hair shimmering in the light. Things were finally back to normal after what felt like an eternity of tumult.

"Shouldn't you take out your map to see where the Center is?" Fireball asked.

“Nah, I already memorized it,” Antoshi replied, casually. “It's just a few blocks straight ahead.”

Fireball stared at him strangely for a moment. "Wow, you must've been really bored if you memorized the entire map of the city while I was gone."

Antoshi laughed. “I guess that's one way of putting it.”

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

The city's southernmost Pokémon Center was busy, due to how big of a city Viridian was. The duo had to wait a few minutes for a videophone to free up. While a bit uneasy about the limited time they had to get their eighth badge and move on, both of them were just happy to be able to spend that time together again. In the meantime, Antoshi got them registered to stay a night in the Center. He couldn't help himself from grinning as he reached for his wallet, back in its rightful place, in order to take out his Trainer Card. He thanked Nurse Joy as she handed him the room key.

Once a phone freed up, Antoshi sat down in front of it with Fireball behind him. He tapped his Trainer Card against the screen to call home. The phone rang no longer than usual before his mother answered.

“Antoshi!” she joyfully exclaimed. “It took you a little while to get back to us after Pallet Town. I thought you were in a rush!”

“Started exploring the sights again?” his father asked, appearing on screen as he sat next to her.

“Yeah, we got … a little caught up in Viridian City,” Antoshi replied, with a slight smirk. “Fireball and I are here now, though, and we're safe and sound.”

“That's good to hear,” his father replied. “We're glad you're checking in with us. So~, what's Viridian City like?”

Antoshi quickly mulled through the memories of their time in Viridian. “It's … a very exhausting city,” the boy said. Fireball nodded in agreement. “I guess you could say that I already learned a lot about myself from my time being here.”

“Wonderful!” his mother replied. “Ohh, Antoshi, you're growing up so quickly right before my eyes. Promise me that, no matter what happens by the time the tournament is finished, you'll come right back home afterward.”

“I promise, Mom,” he replied with a warm smile. “I'm really happy to talk to you both again. Honestly, I've been thinking about home a lot lately, so I'm feeling a little homesick.”

“'Homesick'?” his father mused. “That's a word I never imagined I'd hear you say, son. You have been gone over a year now. Starting to get your fill of being out on your own?”

“Not even close!” he exclaimed, all of them sharing a brief laugh. “I do miss being with you both. I won't be gone away much longer, but Fireball and I promise we're going to give our absolute best at that tournament.”

“I wouldn't expect anything less,” his mother proudly replied. “We'll be rooting for you at home, sweetie! Oh, and don't forget to pick up your package of clothes at the Pokémon Center!”

“We love you!” his parents said together.

“Love you guys, too,” Antoshi replied, grinning.

The screen displayed 'Call Ended'. Antoshi breathed a sigh of relief, closing his eyes for a moment. It was comforting, after the harrowing experience he went through, to see the faces of his parents and to hear their voices again. Everything truly felt back to normal.

“Let's get us some new clothes, Fireball,” he said, as he sprung to his feet.

"Lucky I don't wear any," Fireball joked. "I don't think they'd fit me."

Antoshi sighed, playfully, and rolled his eyes. They walked over to a small kiosk tucked away in a corner of the main area. Over it was a plastered sign reading 'Parcel Delivery System'. Antoshi swiped his Trainer Card along the side of the machine. It lit up with a list of packages sent and awaiting delivery.

He tapped on the screen for a package sent three days prior. A vacuum tube in the walls whirred, an automatic door under the kiosk slid open. He reached down and took a small parcel from it, prompting the door to slide shut. The pair found a place to sit down and open their mail.

Antoshi unwrapped a half-dozen neatly folded polo shirts and shorts. The clothes still smelled freshly laundered.

“More of these, huh?” he asked, with a smile.

Slipped between them was a small envelope with several thousand more Pokédollars, money which he put away in his wallet. Fireball watched and waited patiently as Antoshi folded away the old clothes from his backpack, replacing them with the new clothes. He placed his old clothes in the package his mother sent, sealed it back up, and headed back to the kiosk to send them home. Once that was done, Antoshi motioned for Fireball to follow him before they headed for the front doors.

Back outside, both of them sighed happily. They felt refreshed, geared up for what was to be the last leg of their long journey. Their next destination: Viridian City Gym, which they began heading toward.

"Man," Fireball remarked, looking around at the open, bustling city. "This place seems so much nicer when I'm not fleeing for my life."

“And when I'm not constantly worrying about where you are,” Antoshi replied with a grin. “Guess we can turn even bad memories into good ones, huh?”

"Yeah, especially when they turn out all right in the end!" The pair crossed the street along with a handful of other people before Fireball continued. "Say, Antoshi, do you want to … talk about what happened to you? You know, you … almost died."

Antoshi sighed and nodded, offering his friend a reassuring smile.

“It was definitely terrifying. It was really the scariest moment of my life. I thought about you, and Mom, and Dad. It was like what people always say, my life flashed before my eyes. When Officer Jenny was catching me up on everything that happened, that's when it really hit me. It's weird, though. I should be … traumatized over it. But, really, I'm just happy to be alive. I'm happy to still be here with my best buddy and my family, because I love you all so much. I don't want to think about how scary that was. I don't want it to weigh on me. I'm sure at times in the future it's going to hit me again, but I gotta look at the positive side. I just have to remember what's important to me, and to be thankful that I'm alive.”

"I'm really thankful for that, too," Fireball said, placing a claw on Antoshi's shoulder. "Also, I never got to ask you something back in the police station. How did you do all that crazy flying I heard about? Some of the policemen there were joking about those two crooks saying you flew after them. Apparently that's how you caught them, but none of the police believed the story. What happened?"

“Well, it … was because of that strange glow around me that shows up every so often. It came back again, only this time it was way more powerful. It ended up giving me this huge burst of really intense energy when I was running after the car. Somehow, it made me able to fly.”

"That is really cool! Can I watch you flying sometime?"

“I don't know if I can do it again — or even if I should.

"You're still nervous about what this all means?"

“A little,” Antoshi said, shrugging. “Still, I have to be thankful for it coming through in a pinch. With that energy, I was able to save you, … and save myself from dying. I just … I can't shake this feeling like there's something more to it. There just has to be. There's something important I don't fully understand yet. Honestly, I'm a little excited, but also nervous about that.”

"Well, at least now you can reach stuff in high places — just fly up and get it!"

Antoshi scoffed in amusement. It was a very 'Fireball' remark. “I'll keep that in mind.”

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

The duo spent a few hours walking around in the growing light and heat of the day. After taking the time to explore some of the city and getting something to eat, they closed in on the Viridian City Gym. The one-story white building was situated in the heart of the city. A long, large pathway led from the sidewalk to the front doors.

The Gym itself was fairly plain, but the lavish landscaping along the pathway toward it was anything but. Antoshi and Fireball found themselves fascinated by the foliage. They walked underneath tall, sculpted hedges in the shape of arcs that went high over their heads. Innumerable colorful flowers lined the edges and far beyond. As they got closer, even more hedges in the shape of various Pokémon encircled the front of the Gym.

"This is cool," Fireball remarked, awe-struck.

“Yeah,” Antoshi added, smiling. “Someone took the city's motto of 'Eternally Green Paradise' very seriously.”

The automatic front doors opened, allowing the duo inside. They were taken aback once again, this time by the grand decor of the Gym's spacious main room. It was warm and cozy, with earth tones on the walls and tile floor — scarred in places from past battles. Large paintings of strangers hung along the walls, with various accents and warm lighting. The scent of potpourri filled the air.

"This is very cool," Fireball said.

“I can't wait to meet the Gym Leader,” Antoshi replied, looking around. “Hello? My name is Antoshi! I'm here to challenge the Viridian City Leader for the Earth Badge!”

A few moments later, a wooden door on the far end of the intricately-patterned stadium floor opened. A tall woman with dark skin and short, green hair emerged.

“Hello there, young Trainer,” she said, as she closed the door behind her. “My name is Elise. I am the Ground-Type Master of the Viridian Gym. Welcome to my humble stage.”

“Humble?” Antoshi replied, quizzically. “This is the most aesthetic Gym I've ever seen.”

“Thank you,” she replied with a warm smile, strolling to the opposite end of the battling floor. “I did all of the decor and the landscaping myself.”

“You did all those hedges out there?”

“I certainly did. Most Gym Leaders see their Gym as a job; a place to clock in and clock out. For me, my Gym is my home. I live here. So, in my free time, when Trainers aren't here for a badge, I pass the time gardening or making pottery like the vases you see all around.”

Antoshi and Fireball were astonished, not just by how well-made everything was, but that one person did all of it.

“Wow,” Antoshi said. “You're incredibly talented!”

Elise chuckled. “I'm also quite talented at Pokémon battles.”

“Where are all your Gym Trainers?” he asked, giving another look around.

“I pride myself on having a 'no frills' Gym experience. Some of the previous Leaders here were … let's say, less than forthcoming. The people of Viridian are happy to have an honest and straightforward Leader for the city Gym — someone who takes her title very seriously. Trainers are also happy because they get to battle for a badge sooner.”

“Aren't you worried battling might destroy the decor here?”

“Of course. The stadium floor has already seen its fair share of battles. The decorations, however, are made quite sturdy. Some of them have protective padding or are adhered in place so they don't move. The paintings you see on the wall are set firmly as well. Those paintings are important to me, as they're portraits of some of the former Gym Leaders here. Seeing their faces helps me to continue the lineage here and uphold the dignity of the Viridian City Gym.”

Antoshi continued to be impressed. Of all the Gym Leaders he'd encountered, none of them seemed as proud and dedicated as Elise was. It was a level of devotion that he imagined all Gym Leaders had before he became a Trainer.

“You seem like a really honest person, Elise. I admire how seriously you take every aspect of being a Gym Leader, and I know I would be proud if I was a resident of Viridian City.”

“Thank you, again. Now, as per Indigo League rules, I have to inform that, if you lose, you cannot attempt a rematch for another fourteen days.” Antoshi nodded in acknowledgment. “Very well. Shall we get on with the battle?”

“Sounds good to us,” Antoshi replied, grinning confidently.

Fireball stepped onto the battlefield, stretching his neck out and cracking his knuckles. He gave a shout, the fires on his back igniting.

“I don't see any other Poké Balls on you, young Trainer,” she said, while reaching for a Great Ball on her hip. “Are you hiding them, or do you believe you can win with just a Typhlosion?”

“Fireball and I are best friends — and he's the only partner I've needed so far.”

Fireball stood proudly.

“That's very admirable. I believe Pokémon should be treated like friends — even like family. However, only having one Pokémon is quite foolish. Allow me to show you why.” Elise threw the Great Ball into the air, which opened on its own accord. “Go, Gliscor!”

The light that poured from the ball took shape and faded. Elise's Gliscor hovered in mid-air and gave a battle cry. It stretched its pincerlike claws out, brimming with energy as it darted from side to side. Antoshi paused for a brief moment to marvel at the Gliscor with a slight smile. It was the first one he'd ever seen in-person. Elise caught the ball when it returned to her.

“You ready?” Antoshi asked his friend. Fireball turned him and nodded. “Then let's make number eight happen! Fireball, Rollout!” Fireball hopped into his ball form and revved in place. His entire body once again came alight. “Rolling Fireball!”

The ignited Fireball shot like a bullet toward his opponent. Elise's eyebrows raised, caught off-guard by Fireball's incredible speed.

“Gliscor, use Toxic!” Elise commanded.

Just before Fireball's attack connected, Gliscor spat up a viscous, purplish liquid that covered Fireball's spinning body. Gliscor was subsequently struck hard, spiked like a volleyball into a small crater in the elegant flooring.

Fireball rebounded into the air. Gliscor groaned before falling unconscious.

Elise's jaw hung slightly agape, surprised at Typhlosion's strength. She hummed with intrigue as she recalled her Gliscor back into its Great Ball.

Fireball rolled back to his side of the field and hopped up to his hind feet. He held his arms out as he and Antoshi stared at the purple poison that was soaked into his fur.

“Very good attack, Trainer,” Elise said, switching her Great Ball for an Ultra Ball. “Unfortunately, your Typhlosion is now badly poisoned and I still have three more Pokémon left. Do you believe your Typhlosion has enough stamina to hold out?”

Fireball turned to Antoshi and gave him a thumbs up. He suddenly coughed up some of the purple liquid onto his paw.

"Aw, man, that's just gross," Fireball remarked, shaking his paw clean.

“I would suggest you finish this battle quickly,” she said. “With only one Pokémon, the clock on that poison is ticking.”

Antoshi stared at her with an intensely serious expression. ‘She's right,’ he thought. ‘We don't have much of a choice here. We have to strike as hard and as often as we can.’

Elise threw out her next ball. “Hippowdon, I choose you!”

From the open ball dropped a monstrous hippopotamus with enough weight to cause the ground to rumble. Sand poured out continuously from the circular vents on its back. It slowly opened its massive maw and roared at Fireball. It activated its Sand Stream ability to instantly create a sandstorm condition on the battlefield. Sand erupted out of its vents, swirling and whipping violently around the stadium, encircling the two Pokémon.

‘Now, what kind of character does this boy possess?’ she wondered with a smirk. ‘Will he let me get inside his head?’

“Things are quickly getting much worse for both of you,” Elise said. “That sandstorm will continuously damage your Typhlosion, and leave my Ground-type Pokémon unharmed. Are you certain you don't want to concede for the sake of your best friend?”

Antoshi ignored her, quick to make his first move. “All right, Fireball! Eruption!”

Fireball took off, running on all fours toward his opponent.

“Hippowdon, Protect!” Elise said.

Hippowdon growled loudly as its body was enveloped in a large, magical blue dome.

Antoshi uttered a shout of disbelief. “Wait, Fireball, come back! Save your energy.”

Fireball screeched to a halt. He stood upright, walking backwards with a puzzled expression.

“Are you really going to stall this one out?!” Antoshi asked.

Elise chuckled. “I most certainly am, young Trainer. My job is to win. That means I'll use any legal battle tactic to do so. I've faced many Trainers before you. I know your Typhlosion is strong and nimble. Your strategy is a full-tilt offense. But since you only have one Pokémon, that means I can simply wear it down with poison, weather conditions, and time. The only thing left from there is to remove your Typhlosion's ability to attack.”

‘She definitely has our number,’ he thought, clicking his tongue. ‘Still, she can't use Protect continuously since it'll fail the more she uses it in a row. She knows that for sure, too. She's probably going to attack in-between those phases. That's our only time to strike.’

Fireball coughed up a smattering of purple poison again, a visual indicator that the poison was wearing him down. Once the protective blue dome around Hippowdon disappeared, Antoshi sprung into action.

“Fireball, now use Eruption!” he said.

The flames on Fireball's back flared out intensely as he raced toward Hippowdon on all fours. He clenched his teeth, squinting his eyes to see through the veil of sand churning through the air via magical means.

He crashed headlong with the incredibly heavy beast, managing to send it airborne. Standing atop a bed of sand, the fires on Fireball's back erupted into a massive pillar of flame that engulfed the monstrous Hippowdon and briefly kept it aloft. Hippowdon gave no indication that it was in any pain. When his attack petered out, Fireball quickly sprinted out of the way. He winced at the grains of sand continuing to pelt him.

“Hippowdon, use Dig!” Elise commanded.

Just as Hippowdon was about to smash back into the ground, it instead burrowed its beefy frame into the sand-covered ground with some help from gravity.

Fireball made it back to their side of the field. Antoshi heaved a sigh of frustration over Elise continuing to use stall tactics. They wouldn't have been in such a pickle if they had even one more Pokémon on their team. Both of them were fully aware of the risks in their single Pokémon strategy, but it wasn't any less frustrating to face an opponent who could exploit their weaknesses.

Antoshi watched Fireball cover his eyes from the whipping sands and subsequently cough up more poison. However, Hippowdon was soon going to tunnel back up for its attack.

“Fireball!” he exclaimed. “Keep moving! Make it harder for Hippowdon to lock on to you!”

The idea was a gamble, especially since Fireball fleeing aimlessly caused the sand to whip harder at him and injured him further. Fireball grunted as he ran around, ignoring the pain as best he could.

“Now, strike!” Elise said.

The ground rumbled under Fireball's feet. He leapt out of the way, avoiding Hippowdon as it charged up through the floor with such momentum that it went airborne.

Antoshi narrowed his eyes. Watching Hippowdon launch out of its burrowed tunnel gave him an idea he quickly acted on.

“Fireball, Lava Plume!” Antoshi shouted.

Fireball's eyes lit up, picking up on the boy's idea, smirking confidently. He dropped down on all fours again, staying in place while keeping his sights set on the mid-air Hippowdon. He gave a loud roar, the flames on his back raging. From his claws, a burst of magma traveled through the ground like a moving volcanic rupture.

The magma reached the pit that Hippowdon had created, causing a large blast of lava to erupt violently out of it. Unable to evade, Hippowdon took a direct hit from the attack. It roared in pain before being sent crashing hard on its side of the field, struggling to pick itself back up. It instead fell unconscious.

With two Pokémon down, victory was in sight. Fireball, however, was starting to look languid. Antoshi was concerned for his friend's health.

‘Fireball and I can do this,’ Antoshi thought, pursing his lips. ‘I know we can. We're already so close to the finish line. If we lose now, we'll have to wait another six months to compete in the next Indigo League tournament.’

While Elise recalled her fainted Hippowdon, Fireball again coughed up more poison. After which, he shielded his face from the briefly intensifying sandstorm. The combination of continuous passive damage and stall tactics meant that the duo still had to slog through an uphill battle.

Chapter 7

“Not bad,” Elise remarked, as she reached for a new Poké Ball. “However, this battle is nowhere near done. Go, Krookodile!”

From the light of the open ball she threw came a bipedal, red crocodile with black stripes and small, menacing eyes. It remained completely still, staring at Fireball with a savage glare. The look of bloodlust in its eyes served to frighten Fireball. His eyes widened, a sense of dread sweeping through him. Its ability, Intimidate, lowered Fireball's overall physical strength.

“Krookodile, Protect!” she commanded.

Like Hippowdon before it, Krookodile's body was embraced by an impenetrable shield of blue light.

Antoshi heaved a sigh of frustration. At the same time, Fireball's cough was getting worse. The pain of being in the sandstorm gradually bit harder. The duo weren't able to do anything other than wait until Krookodile's shield dissipated. Once it did, Antoshi smirked.

“Let's give them a little surprise, Fireball!” he said. “Focus Blast!”

Elise's eyes widened. She was surprised by the sheer variety of attacks the Typhlosion knew.

While the move's Fighting type would be very effective against Krookodile, it was also inaccurate due to Fireball's lack of experience in using the maneuver. Fireball held his forepaws to one side, spacing them just far enough apart to summon a rapidly growing ball of bright blue energy. Fireball steadied his ragged breathing, taking aim at his target.

Elise narrowed her eyes, reading Fireball's movements to predict when he was about to strike.

“Move!” she commanded just before Fireball thrust forth the ball of energy.

The attack covered the distance between them in a heartbeat, flailing erratically through the air while doing so. Krookodile dove to the side, narrowly avoiding a glancing blow. The energy ball vanished harmlessly upon striking the wall behind Elise.

“Crunch, Krookodile!” Elise shouted.

A sense of dread swept over Antoshi. He clenched his teeth, his eyes full of panic as Krookodile sprinted toward Fireball. Krookodile hissed as it opened its long maw, its teeth glowing white with a magical energy.

‘Please don't let this be the end …’ the boy thought, bracing at the same time Fireball did.

Its powerful jaw snapped shut on Fireball's shoulder, digging its rows of sharp glowing teeth in. Fireball shouted in pain, fighting to shove the flailing beast off of him.

The damage was already done by the time Fireball escaped its jaws. He fell to a knee, holding his bloodied shoulder as Krookodile headed back to its side of the field.

“Fireball!” Antoshi shouted in concern. “Are you okay?!”

With a pained look on his face, Fireball forced a grin and nodded.

Fireball's grueling struggle was obvious. Very rarely had he seen his best friend in such dire straits. It upset him and worried him. Antoshi clenched his trembling fists, pondering a tactical surrender. Yet, Fireball's eyes burned with a powerful sense of surefire confidence. The Typhlosion's gaze stirred up memories of their dream to make it to the top.

‘This is our life's work you're facing — our heart and soul!’ Antoshi recalled himself proclaim proudly.

'We're gonna win it all, and win it big! I can't wait to see how big the tournament stage is at the Indigo Plateau. Are you excited, too?' Fireball had asked him not all that long ago.

Antoshi slowly exhaled, closing his eyes for a moment to steady his resolve. He looked toward their opposition with a firm, serious expression on his face.

“All right, Fireball, one more Focus Blast!”

Fireball's body trembled as he held his hands to one side as before. However, just as Fireball began to charge the attack again, Elise was quick to interrupt.

“Krookodile, Protect!” she instructed. The beast was once again surrounded by its protective shield.

Fireball hunched over, coughing loudly while the sand continued to whip hard at him.

“Hang in there, Fireball …” Antoshi muttered.

‘So, he's going to try another Focus Blast,’ Elise thought, holding her chin. ‘There's nothing I can really do to stop it, except to keep Krookodile on the evasive. However, if it does hit, will it be enough? I can't help but wonder just how strong that type of attack from his Typhlosion would be.’

The moment Krookodile's shield faded, Antoshi was ready to give the order.

“Now! Focus Blast!”

Fireball panted, ignoring the excruciating pain in order to charge another Focus Blast. He took careful aim through the endlessly stirring sands before he threw the ball of energy forward.

“Dodge it again!” Elise said.

When Krookodile leapt out of the way for the second time, the ball made an unexpected curve straight towards it. Elise and her Pokémon's eyes widened in shock just before the attack connected and exploded violently. The force of the blast shot Krookodile through the air, flying past Elise, before crashing hard against the back wall. Krookodile was unresponsive.

Elise's was impressed by the sheer power of Fireball's attack.

‘So, it does make sense,’ she thought, staring at her fainted Pokémon. ‘Rather than having a full roster of six Pokémon whose gains are evened out with each other, he instead has one Pokémon that garners all of the strength and experience. With the amount of Type coverage his Typhlosion has, it's as if fighting six Pokémon at once. He's a clever Trainer, but strength isn't tantamount to stamina. His Typhlosion is running on nothing but willpower by now.’

She recalled her Krookodile and grabbed the last Ultra Ball on her hip.

With only one Pokémon to go, exhaustion had taken its toll on Fireball. He groaned as he fell to a knee again. He let out a hacking cough, holding his injured shoulder, clenching his eyes in the fury of the whipping sands.

“Fireball?” Antoshi asked, deeply worried. Fireball had taken an incredible toll that pushed him to his very limits.

‘It has to be hurting him,’ Elise thought, ‘seeing his Pokémon in so much pain like this. Yet, both of them continue on fighting. They have an incredible resolve. For them to push forward and bring me to my last Pokémon after taking such a beating, … I may not win this one after all.’

Fireball groaned as he rose to his hind feet once more. Antoshi was incredulous that Fireball was still standing, let alone ready to continue battling.

“For the sake of your Pokémon's well-being,” Elise said, “are you certain you don't want to forfeit?”

“Not a chance!” Antoshi shot back. He was bitter over Elise's continual badgering. “Fireball's stronger than anyone I've ever known. If he's ready to go, then so am I.”

“Remarkable. That you would get this far with just one Pokémon — a Fire-type — is remarkable. Your determination is truly admirable. However, I'm afraid this is where your battle ends.” She maximized the final ball and threw it out. “Go, Steelix!”

Antoshi and Fireball watched with astonishment as the light gave way to a massive serpent comprised of segmented steel-plated boulders. It towered high over their heads, letting out a roar that rattled the foundation of the building.

"That's probably not good," Fireball joked.

“Let's make the first move!” Antoshi exclaimed. “Fire—”

“Protect, Steelix!” Elise shouted over him.

Antoshi bit his tongue, scowling in frustration. ‘I can't believe this,’ he thought. ‘They all know Protect? She's definitely come prepared for battles like this.’

Fireball coughed even harder than last time. He appeared light-headed, unable to steady his feet, especially in the constant winds of the sandstorm.

“This battle's been going on for some time, young Trainer.” Elise said. “The severe poison has been gradually worsening with every beat of your Typhlosion's heart. How much longer do you think he can hold out?”

Antoshi's gaze shifted to his friend. As much as her browbeating irritated him, she had a point.

"No way!" Fireball shouted in defiance, struggling to keep his balance. "We didn't come all this way just to fail. Not after all the training we did to make it this far."

Antoshi grinned proudly at him. Elise didn't have to understand Fireball's speech to know what he said, she only needed to see the look in his eyes. She smiled and hummed in intrigue.

“Fire Blast, Fireball!” Antoshi said in the moment that Steelix's Protect dissipated. Give it everything you have!”

"Now that's the kind of pep talk I like to hear," Fireball replied with a weak grin.

He brought his trembling claws up to his neck, clasped down, and began to inhale deeply. Small tufts of flame emanated from Fireball's mouth as he summoned up his strength for one final attack.

Suddenly, Fireball collapsed.

“Fireball, no!” Antoshi exclaimed.

The boy's heart sank at the same time Fireball fell to all fours. Fireball groaned wearily, overcome by exhaustion. The poison, the sandstorm, the injures — they had all accumulated to a critical level.

‘We can't lose now,’ Antoshi thought, a panicked expression on his face.

'We're going to win,' Fireball thought.

Elise took advantage of the situation.

“Steelix, Earthquake!”

Steelix gave a mighty roar, its heavy tail stamping the ground and causing it to rumble.

“Fireball, use Fire Blast!” Antoshi ordered once again.

Fireball remained on his knees, managing to straightened his back. He steadied himself amid the quaking earth. He reached up again, holding his neck, straining to bring forth every ounce of energy he had left to give.

The ground abruptly cracked underneath Fireball. With only a moment to spare, Fireball roared as loud as he could. He fired a five-pointed blast of fire from his mouth just before the ground beneath him was smashed to pieces. Fireball thrashed around violently from Steelix's attack. The flames on his back went out.

‘Steelix is too large to evade that,’ Elise thought.

The massive fiery attack struck Steelix's face and exploded violently. Steelix roared in pain, its body toppling backwards from the force of the blast. Just as its Earthquake subsided, Steelix itself crashed into the ground to rumble it further. Its titanic weight created a large crater around its body.

Both Trainers steadied their footing in the aftermath. Elise was in shock. The heat from Fireball's attack was so intense that it caused the steel on Steelix's forehead to melt slightly. Her Pokémon was defeated.

The battle was over. The sandstorm finally subsided. All had become quiet on the sand-covered, heavily damaged stadium floor. Elise recalled her Steelix.

“Fireball!!” Antoshi shouted, ignoring the dangerous, jagged earth jutting around his fallen friend. “Fireball?” he whispered, shaking his friend a bit. Elise walked over quickly to check on them, standing outside the crater. “Fireball, come on. I thought I lost you once before, I can't go through that again!”

Antoshi's breathing became shaky, running a hand through his hair. Fireball wasn't responding. Elise, too, became concerned. Memories of being cooped up in the police station came flooding back as Antoshi started to fear the worst.

"Poi… son …" Fireball whispered in a raspy voice. Antoshi gasped in elation.

“Hang on, buddy, I have just the thing for you.”

He quickly pulled his backpack off his shoulders, zipping it open. He pulled out a large green spray bottle and immediately began spritzing its medicinal contents all over Fireball's wounded body. It worked fast to miraculously heal Fireball's injuries, as well as dissipate the poison from his body.

“Good thing I bought a few Full Restores for an emergency,” he said, sniffling. “You wanted me to buy you pizza instead, remember?”

"Pizza sounds good right about now," Fireball quietly replied with a slight grin. "Starting to feel a little better here. Could you get some of that in my mouth, please? I still have a poison-y aftertaste."

Antoshi smirked and sprayed the Typhlosion's open mouth. Fireball smacked his lips and shuddered in disgust.

"That tastes awful, but it's still better than the poison."

Antoshi sighed in relief, putting the empty bottle away. He slung his backpack over his shoulders and stood up, helping Fireball climb to his hind feet as well.

Elise smiled at the two as they stepped out of the jagged crater.

“That was quite the battle, young Antoshi,” she remarked. “You and your Typhlosion are one and the same. You were always on the same wavelength, both of you just as determined as each other. Truly, you're one of the closest and most caring Trainer and Pokémon pairs I've ever seen. You've done a phenomenal job of raising your Pokémon as a partner and a friend.”

“Thank you, Elise,” Antoshi replied, smiling. “I appreciate it. I'm just really glad Fireball is okay.”

“You could've stopped the battle if you were so fearful for your friend's safety.”

“Well, this is our progress of over a year of journeying through Kanto together. We wanted that eighth badge more than anything in the world. Neither of us were ready to just give up — not on this battle or anything else before it. I guess the two of us are just reckless like that.”

“I understand,” she said, chuckling. “Still, your recklessness brought you victory today.” She took something from her pocket and placed it into Antoshi's hands. “Trainer Antoshi, I confer unto you the Earth Badge. You and Fireball have earned it — and my respect.”

The two friends looked at the shining new badge, the very last one they needed. They breathed a sigh of relief. After long trials and tribulations, days and weeks and months spent training, and constantly staying on the grind, their Kanto badge quest was finally over. The Indigo League was now open to them. Antoshi's eyes welled up with tears.

“You're crying, aren't you?” Antoshi asked, before glancing over at Fireball. Tears ran down the sides of the Typhlosion's face as he nodded. “It's okay, buddy, so am I.”

Antoshi threw his arms out, Fireball bawled loudly into his shoulder. Antoshi grinned, hugging Fireball and patting him on the back.

“We made it, buddy,” Antoshi reassured his friend. “We made it.” Fireball grabbed Antoshi's shirt and blew his nose into it. “Ugh — okay, come on. Really? I have tissues, you know.”

"Sorry," Fireball remarked, sniffling and sighing.

Antoshi shook his head, pulling out his wallet to store away their final badge. He took a deep breath and sighed proudly, wiping the tears from his own eyes.

“Time to cross that finish line,” Antoshi remarked with a grin. Fireball happily nodded back.

“Do take care, you two,” Elise told them. “I, and some other Gym Leaders, will be taking a trip to the Indigo League to watch the tournament. Should you make it, I'll be cheering you on from the crowd.”

“We're going to do our absolute best,” Antoshi told her, smiling confidently. Elise nodded to him.

With that, the two friends departed from Elise's company and exited the Gym. She then sighed and looked around the heavily damaged stadium floor.

“Looks like I have some cleaning up to do.”

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

That evening in the Viridian Pokémon Center, Antoshi and Fireball feasted on all the food they could grab in the cafeteria. Antoshi usually didn't gorge himself like Fireball, but he made an exception for the special occasion. It was an enjoyable rarity, but he knew his stomach was certainly going to regret it later on.

The mood between them had never been more jovial. They'd finally collected all eight badges. An idea that was once nothing more than a far-off dream had become a reality.

Afterward, the duo headed back to their room and settled in for the night. Excitement and big hopes for their future swirled through their minds as they drifted off to sleep. Their biggest challenge was yet to come — and they felt prepared.

Just as in past nights, however, Antoshi experienced another unsettling dream.

Looking through the eyes of another, he stood at the upper floor of a house that had been severely damaged by an explosion. The home's destroyed walls and roof gave way to the night sky. His legs trembled, falling to his knees. The cool, night air briefly swept past him.

“What … have I done?” a voice similar to his own asked in disbelief. “What did you make me do?!”

Antoshi felt overwhelmed by panic, sorrow, regret, and anger. He couldn't stop shaking, his heart pounded, adrenaline surging through his veins. He felt as though his body was about to explode.

“It was what needed to be done,” the same mysterious voice from before answered. “You have now taken the first glorious step toward—”

“This can't be real!” the boy shouted in agony. “I—I don't want this to be real!!”

In the forlorn darkness he let out a loud echoing scream, followed by a burst of black light. The roaring light rapidly expanded out in a massive dome that engulfed and instantly vaporized everything in its path. Once it reached its limit, it exploded violently, quaking the earth for a few moments.

There was nothing left for miles except an enormous crater of dirt. Having seemingly levitated during the explosion, the boy fell back down to the earth. Unconscious, he was left unscathed in the very epicenter of crater.

Just as he hit the ground, Antoshi jolted awake from his dream with a gasp. He sat up in bed, in the dark and quiet of the small room, covered in a cold sweat. He took a look at his hands — he was shaking like in the dream. He held his forehead, clenching his teeth.

‘Why do I keep having these dreams?!’ he demanded to know.

He breathed slowly for a short while, calming his racing heart. His head was filled with an endless array of questions. Was he the one in these settings? Were they some kind of premonition? Were they tied to his mysterious powers somehow? Each of those dreams were so jarringly real, as if they were actually happening and that he'd been there. That voice he kept hearing sounded just like his own.

Once he managed to finally relax, he laid his head back down on the pillow. He stared at the ceiling for a while, trying to cleanse his mind of the images in his dream. He thought about their upcoming trek to the Indigo Plateau instead, smiling at how excited he knew Fireball was going to be once they got there. Soon, he found the peace of mind to fall back asleep.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

The following morning, the duo readied themselves for the end of their Kanto journey. With only five days to go before the Indigo League tournament sign-ups closed, they were eager to get moving on to Victory Road. Their next destination's very name filled their hearts with anticipation and anxiousness.

On their way to the western city limits of Viridian City, they happened across a small electronics store. In the store window, multiple television screens displayed a breaking news broadcast. A handful of people were grouped around, watching the report with great interest. Antoshi and Fireball stopped, curious to see what was going on.

“… who's live in the outskirts of the small town right now with the latest updates. Ruby?”

“That's right, Michael. As shown from our sky camera, the small town of Fern was completely decimated today. The town was home to a thriving population of about seven thousand. This morning, it's nothing more than a massive crater.”

Antoshi's eyes widened in shock as he saw the images of the crater. He felt the wind knocked right out from him. Memories of the previous night's dream came flooding back to him.

"Oh, wow," Fireball remarked, softly. "That's so terrible."

“… have no idea how an apparent explosion of this magnitude happened,” the lady reporter continued. “Joining me now is Johto's military commander General Logan.” The camera zoomed back to reveal a tall, stern man wearing a high-ranking military uniform standing next to her. “General, what can you tell us about this unthinkable devastation?”

“Right now we're in our preliminary investigation,” Logan replied. “At around 0400 hours, we were alerted by local officials who responded to a large seismic disruption and came across what was left of the town.”

“You told me there were no survivors?”

“We believed that at first but we've now found one young boy who appears to be in his preteens or early teens, buried under some of the earth. He was discovered in the epicenter of the explosion.”

Some of the passersby around Antoshi began to mutter.

“Is the boy conscious?” Ruby asked. “Do you have any information on him?”

“The boy is still unconscious at last check. He was airlifted from here to the nearest military hospital. For privacy reasons, we cannot release the boy's identity before establishing contact with his family. I'm afraid that's all we have to share for now.”

“Thank you so much for your time, General. Michael?”

“Thanks, Ruby,” the male reported in the studio said. “We'll be continuing our coverage on the destruction of Fern Town …”

"That's awful, don't you think?" Fireball asked his friend, as some of the crowd dispersed. Antoshi, however, gawked blankly at the television as though in a trance. "Antoshi? Are you okay?" Fireball waved a paw in his friend's face.

“Huh?” Antoshi uttered, snapping back to reality. “Did you say something?”

"I said, 'are you okay?'" Fireball said, appearing concerned. "You look like you saw a Ghost Pokémon or something."

“I …” Antoshi started. He bit his lip and sorted through his thoughts. “That—that scene on the news. I dreamt it … last night.”

"You had a dream about that town on the news?"

“Yes, and it looks exactly the same as in my dream.”

"That's— … well, I really don't know what to say. …"

“I've been having a few similar dreams lately. I've never experienced dreams like these before. They feel so— … so real.”

"First the glowing, then the light show ball, the flying, surviving a fall from a building, and dreams where you see things that happen in other places? What do you think is going on?"

“I don't know, … but after what I just saw, it's now definitely making me nervous.”

As they headed off toward their destination, Antoshi took one more glance at the television screen. The last image he saw was a somewhat pixelated still image of the rescued boy taken from afar. He could only make out the boy's jet black hair.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

End of Part 1

⁂ ⁂

Part 2: Sibling Rivalry

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Part 2: Sibling Rivalry

⁂ ⁂

Kanto's neighboring region of Johto thrives by continuously founding new settlements, like any prospering nation. New towns and cities allowed people from far and wide to settle down — to call Johto their home. Fern was one such town.

Existing for nearly four decades, Fern Town was quiet and quaint. A home of over seven thousand people, it was situated just north of Azalea Town. Its small neighborhoods surrounded by the lush, vibrant green forests made it an attractive prospect to those looking to live closer to nature. Wild Pokémon inhabiting the woods visited frequently, becoming acquainted and friendly with the townsfolk.

Most of the roads were simple dirt pathways. New stores and small buildings popped up constantly. The residents of Fern Town were happy and lived in warm, intimate communities. The town's school and large playground were situated at the center of the town. It was a loving gesture of the town's founders that their young people were literally their future.

Yet, one morning, that future was erased in an instant. Everything and everyone was gone.

The beautiful town stood with its immaculate charm no longer. In its place lay a massive crater of dirt from the aftermath of a devastating explosion. There was no forewarning. There were no survivors, except for a boy with jet black hair lying face-down and unconscious in the epicenter of the crater.

When rescue personnel and news reporters from the neighboring towns and cities came, it was heralded as an unexplainable freak occurrence. The military, led by General Logan, came to investigate. They took the boy to a nearby military hospital. Remarkably, he had not a single injury, but he remained in a brief coma.

As government and local officials sifted through the destruction to try to piece together what happened, they soon realized that what occurred was no ordinary explosion. They truly had no idea what happened to bring about the town's complete erasure. Some of the investigators had growing suspicions that the boy was not simply some miracle survivor. In some way they couldn't fully grasp, it was believed that he was the cause of the town's devastation.

Once the idea became the only plausible explanation left, the boy was no longer treated as a victim. He instead became the culprit of an unspeakably horrific act. One of the very same young people that Fern Town had bet their future on now appeared to be the reason for its demise.

In the middle of the night, government officials came to collect the boy who was still comatose. They had no place for him in an ordinary jail or a prison. Instead, they airlifted him to a military black site on a tiny island southeast of the Whirl Islands.

Under round-the-clock maximum security, the compound was the breeding ground for the government's more controversial, highly-classified experiments and tests. It was there that the boy was institutionalized in a high-tech confinement cell.

The story of the mysterious young survivor quickly faded from the public consciousness. His memory was forgotten, except to those in charge of the compound.

His memory was also forgotten to him as well.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

The boy pounded his fists on the thick, acrylic glass of his cell. His frantic breaths and whimpers echoed around the small room. His hands searched the glass for some kind of handle on the cutout door, or an unlocking mechanism. His heart raced, brown eyes wrought with terror.

“Please, let me out!” he exclaimed, pounding at the glass again.

It was his second day after waking up to find himself locked up in the cell. He had no way of telling time, and those two days in solitary confinement felt like weeks. He had no human contact whatsoever. While he was already past the realization of his imprisonment, a million questions raced through his head. Foremost on his mind was why he was locked up, closely followed by why he couldn't recall anything that happened before getting here.

Having awoken a few days after the explosion, he had no idea who he was or how he ended up jailed. That, coupled with being locked away in a quiet, sterile cell where nobody paid any attention to him, became torturous.

He kicked at the glass with his bare feet, shouting and screaming in a panicked huff. He knew someone was around. Multiple cameras outside his cell were silently watching his every move.

He rest his back against the glass, grabbing fistfuls of his dark hair. He slid down onto his seat, huffing and sobbing quietly.

“Someone help me,” he pleaded. “Someone please help me …”

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Some time later, he laid on the cold floor and stared up at the white ceiling. The walls were white. The floor was white. The bed, the toilet, the sink — all white. The bright, white lights cut into his vision. His surroundings became blinding and disorienting.

He tried to keep himself as calm as possible, and to keep some glimmer of hope in the face of such a dim, depressing scenario. This was undoubtedly some kind of misunderstanding. Someone had to be coming for him.

A familiar humming noise approached his cell. He gasped in excitement, hopping up to his knees and crawled over to a small cutout at the very bottom of the acrylic glass door. A small hovering robot, holding a tray of food, stopped in front of his cell door. It was the second time the robot had come by that day.

“Please, help!” he shouted, as the cutout automatically folded open. “Please! Who is it that brought me here? Why are they keeping me? Please bring me someone to talk to!”

The robot placed the tray on the floor. It slipped a new set of neatly folded white clothing through the slat, followed by the tray of food atop the clothes.

“Is there like a—a communicator on you or something?” he continued. “Is there anyone that can hear me right now?” The slat snapped shut. The robot turned and hovered away. “No, no, no! Wait! Please, please, come back! Please! Don't leave!” He clenched his eyes shut. “Don't leave …” he whispered.

He stared at his food, each item neatly placed in its own segment — a cold and detached way of feeding him. He sniffled and wept quietly, unwrapping a bar of oat and grains and chewed on it.

He was forced to use the sink whenever he wanted to bathe himself. The same robot came by at regularly scheduled times to give him clean towels and clothing. He held on to the hope that someone — anyone — would come and take him away from this nightmare. In the end, however, hope was not enough to keep his sanity.

On many occasions, he went berserk. He screamed as loudly as he could, punching and kicking every wall. The fits of rage did little to release his pent-up stress and fear. To pass the time, he laid on the floor and counted the number of tiny holes in each ceiling tile. He hummed and made up songs in his head. He thought up simple math problems and counted numbers. He spent many hours trying to remember his life on the outside.

Most of his time, however, was spent crying.

With no windows and no clock, it was impossible to know what time it was. He stayed in bed for long periods, sleeping anytime his panicked mind was able to wind down. The bed — stiff and uncomfortable at first — became his place of solitude.

On rare occasions, the muffled screams of people in agony echoed down the halls. He covered his ears each time. The sounds left him terrified and trembling, his mind racing with terrible thoughts. It only compounded his fear of the facility he was locked in, and what they had planned for him.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Within a luxurious office further inside the base, a stern man quietly sat behind a polished wooden executive desk. He wore a service uniform befitting a high-ranking military official. It was the man that had led the investigation: General Logan.

He was leaned back in his executive chair, his feet propped up on the desk. He swiveled a small amount of wine in a glass before putting it to his lips. The boy's cell was shown on a slew of monitors on the wall before him.

Another military official, thinner and wearing glasses, walked into the room. He gave a salute before shutting the door behind him. He laid a folder full of papers on the desk before looking over at the the monitors.

“Is it time, General?” he asked.

“No,” Logan replied. “He's not quite ready yet. We'll give him a week in here and see how he fares.”

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

At the same time, half a region away, Antoshi and Fireball ventured through the incredibly long and treacherous Victory Road. The cave road was dark, mazelike, and unforgiving. There was no food to forage, save for the occasional cave mushroom. It made Antoshi's pre-planning of stocking up on supplies even more significant. Wild Pokémon were out in force, frequently attacking the passing Trainers who disturbed their otherwise quiet home.

With the starting date of the event looming ever closer, throngs of Trainers were passing through Victory Road. It ended up being a pilgrimage amongst strangers, which was typical in the week leading up to the Indigo tournament. A number of those Trainers ended up backtracking, giving up on their endeavor in order to spare their Pokémon or themselves. Some used Pokémon that knew Dig or Teleport to escape, while others simply ran back the way they came.

Despite how terrifying the trek should have been, the duo made their way through Victory Road with eyes full of wonder and hearts ablaze. Antoshi and Fireball were able to get a few battles in with the other Trainers passing through. The battles helped in garnering them some more crucial experience before the tournament.

It took the duo four days to make it to the Indigo Plateau from Viridian City. Antoshi and Fireball experienced firsthand just how tough and dangerous it was to simply make it to the Plateau. Having done so was — and certainly felt like — an accomplishment in itself.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

The final day of the Indigo League tournament sign-ups was coming to a close. Inside of the registration building, Antoshi and Fireball signed in with only a few hours to spare before the cutoff time. They were briefly stopped by a checkpoint inside the building, joining a queue of Trainers waiting to enter. Seeing and hearing the elation of fellow Trainers that successfully made it through Victory Road made them both grin.

The inside of the building was so plain, almost like an office waiting room. It had a large receptionist's desk, bare walls, and a small handful of bland chairs that contrasted with the colorful apparel and vibrant hairstyles of the Trainers and Pokémon waiting in a single file. Antoshi, meanwhile, was dressed in a more modest white polo shirt and black shorts.

For the most part, the room was incredibly quiet. Antoshi and Fireball weren't sure if the others were simply as nervous as they were. Each of Antoshi's eight badges were scanned with a special device by one of the several attendants. A microchip inside each of the badges verified they were legitimate via a chime from the device. Afterward, they were instructed to head through a corridor nearby.

The corridor was surprisingly long. Antoshi and Fireball walked with a handful of other Trainers towards a light at the end of it. They soon found themselves outside, under the clear sky and the glow of the midmorning sun. The pair gasped in awe, standing at one of the entryways of the Plateau's massive stadium. The large battlefield before them was walled off by spectator stands. Uptempo music played over the stadium's intercom system. They looked around with wide-eyed fascination before Antoshi turned to his friend with a huge grin.

“This is so awesome, isn't it?” Antoshi remarked. “Our very first tournament.”

"Heck yeah, it's awesome," Fireball replied, "and there's none bigger than the Indigo Plateau!"

The duo walked around to find a place to relax and wait until competition began. There were hundreds of Trainers and their Pokémon patiently waiting around all over the place. Many stood or reclined on the spacious field, while others took to waiting in the empty stands. More and more Trainers continued to file in behind the duo.

A chime came over the intercom system, followed by a woman's voice.

“The Indigo League Committee would like to remind all entrants that impromptu battling is strictly prohibited. Thank you for your continued patience. Registrations will soon be closing.”

Fireball's eyes darted every which way. He locked eyes with various Pokémon staring at him. There was an intense look in each of their eyes. Fireball bared his teeth, the flames on his back suddenly igniting. Antoshi looked over at him with surprise.

“You okay?” Antoshi asked, placing a hand on his friend's shoulder. Fireball gasped in surprise, extinguishing his flames.

"Sorry," Fireball replied, calming himself. "I keep feeling every Pokémon's urge to battle around here. There's so many strong Pokémon. It's really something else."

Antoshi took a closer look around at his peers, greeted by several cutting glares.

“Oh, I see what you mean now,” he said, surprised. “Why don't we find a place away from everyone else?”

"That's probably a good idea."

The duo headed up into the stands, finding a quiet area to sit down at. The much larger Fireball managed to fit himself into one of the person-sized seats. The view from their vantage point was incredible. They were able to take in the sheer magnitude Trainers and their Pokémon all bustling around, and how small they were in the comparison to the massive stadium. Both of them smiled, content yet restless.

“I'd be lying if I said I wasn't nervous,” Antoshi said, idly tapping his foot to the beat of the music being played.

"Same here! But, just imagine how amazing it'll be when we win. They'll show us on the news and in papers all around the world! 'Trainer With One Pokémon Becomes Champion.' We'll be super-famous, and I'll get all the food I can eat."

“That's impossible — there's never enough food for you to eat.”

"… Fair point!"

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

As the morning went on, the sun started bearing down hard. The clouds hid its glare in small reprieves. A handful of Trainers had packed umbrellas, or had Pokémon large enough to shade themselves in. A number of tournament volunteers walked around around with coolers hanging around their necks. They gave out bottles of cold water, sandwiches, and bags of Pokémon food.

“Thank you again for your continued patience, Trainers,” the woman on the intercom said. “Registration closes in ninety minutes.”

Antoshi capped his paper water bottle after taking a long sip.

“I've been sweating my butt off here,” he said. “but I don't care. We've waited for this for so long. It's kind of like relaxing after crossing the finish line, you know? Plus, the music's kind of nice.”

Fireball was busy enjoying the food he was given to reply.

“I see you're still keeping that Typhlosion outside its Poké Ball,” a young man walking up to them said.

They both turned their attention to him. Antoshi's eyes widened in surprise, standing up with a grin.

“Cory? I never imagined I'd ever see you again!”

“Same here,” Cory replied. Both boys laughed as they shared a handshake. Fireball smiled and waved.

“Wow, it's been a while,” Antoshi said, smiling. “It's so good to see you! You know, I've always wanted to apologize to you for the longest time now, about that incident back in the Cerulean Pokémon Center.”

“Oh, I apologize as well. I don't think you really need to apologize. If anything, it made me realize I need to step up my training a lot. A Quilava beat my star Mudkip so easily. Since then, I get a talking-to about it from Nurse Joy every time I visit a Pokémon Center.”

“Hey, so do we!” Antoshi replied. The two laughed again. Cory glanced at the belt on Antoshi's shorts.

“So, … where are the rest of your Pokémon?”

“You're looking at him,” Antoshi replied, with a casual point of the thumb to Fireball. Cory was flabbergasted.

“What? You never got any new Pokémon since the last time we last spoke?”

“I was originally going to, but … well, it turned out I didn't need to. It's just been Fireball and I all the way.”

“Wow,” Cory said, scratching his head. “I can definitely respect it — getting all the way here with one Pokémon is unbelievable. Honestly, my first thought was that you were completely nuts.”

“We get that a lot.”

“Aside from the 'weird name' thing, huh?” Antoshi laughed and nodded. “It's funny. I like that you refer to yourself as 'we.' Seems like Fireball never leaves your mind. The two of you really are best friends.”

The duo grinned to each other.

“Well, Antoshi, it was great to catch up with you. I'm looking forward to seeing you battle but, really, I'd like to face off against you myself.”

“Same here,” Antoshi replied with a nod.

The boys shook hands again before Cory took his leave.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

“Thank you for waiting, Trainers,” the woman on the intercom said. “Registrations have now closed. Stand by for a tournament official to give you further information. Please remember to hang on to your litter and dispose of it in the proper recycling bins.”

Not long after, a man in white formal attire, complete with a bow tie, emerged from a tunnel at the top level of the stadium. A self-propelled aerial camera pointed at him from a few meters away, lighting up his image on the large display screens at the far ends of the stadium. He wore a headset with a tiny microphone on it.

“Greetings, everyone!” the man said, as his voice came through the sound system. “My name is Cedric, and I'll be the master of ceremonies for this year's Spring Indigo League Tournament! Some of you are returning challengers so you already know the drill. As for the new faces here, let me tell you how we'll be starting. In just a moment, our hard-working tournament volunteers are going to give you a coded, numbered pass on a lanyard to wear. Please be aware that you need to wear these on you at all times for identification. The number represents what bracket you'll be in for the first elimination round of the tournament. Usually, we try to pull in at least five-hundred and twelve Trainers, but this year we have a little less than that. So, a small handful of you are going to get a 'bye' in order to keep the bracket consistent. Don't take that as a free pass, however. You're not officially in the tournament until you're in the top one hundred twenty-eight!”

The volunteers started walking around the stadium field and stands, handing out passes to each Trainer.

“For those of you who don't get a 'bye',” he continued, “you'll have to win two battles to move on to the main tournament! Because of the sheer size of the bracket, we're restricting all Trainers to only using a maximum of two Pokémon! This 'sudden death' style elimination round will test your ability to work with a limited team. So, make those eight badges you earned count! Pick out your team's best two and give it your all!”

“This is extremely lucky for us,” Antoshi said. “Now we just have to win a couple of two-on-one battles. You know all of the Trainers here probably have a full roster of six.”

Fireball nodded. "I can't wait to get started," he said, shifting eagerly in his seat.

“Now, I'm sure some of you can't wait to get started — and you won't have to! The preliminary rounds will commence immediately once everyone has been assigned their numbers.”

"I think he read my mind," Fireball remarked, awe-struck.

“I think he read everyone's mind,” Antoshi replied with a smirk.

“Now,” Cedric said, “if everyone on the stadium floor would kindly make your way up into the stands in an orderly fashion, we can move on to the next phase.”

Everyone on the field did as instructed. Trainers recalled their larger Pokémon into their Poké Balls while others kept their smaller ones with them. The arena floor quickly emptied out. Once clear, the hum and whir of motors and gears began to rumble through the stadium.

Antoshi, Fireball, and most in attendance looked on in astonishment. The massive floor slowly descended several dozen meters before coming to a halt. It rotated itself slowly before rising back up at the same pace and locking in its original position. Instead of one large battlefield, the floor was now scored into four smaller fields, each of them numbered from one to four.

“I'm sure all of you in attendance recognize these stadium markings as the same size you've seen in Gyms,” Cedric said. “That's because they are! The Indigo Plateau's stadium is large enough to hold four simultaneous battles at once. This is how we're going to be zipping right along into tomorrow's main event!”

One of the stadium volunteers walked over to Antoshi and handed him a lanyard. He looked at his assigned number, 147, before putting it around his neck as instructed.

The stadium screens displayed four different tournament brackets comprised of one hundred twenty-eight participants each. Every Trainer was represented only as a number on screen, leaving all Trainers unaware of their opponent beforehand.

“If you direct your attention to the screens,” Cedric said, pointing to one of them, “you'll find your number and the bracket that it's assigned to. The bracket numbers — one, two, three, and four — are all clearly marked on the stadium floor. Once your number is called, you'll make your way to the corresponding battling area for your bracket. That's it for the rules! The matches will start commencing in just a few moments from now, so get ready! Good luck, Trainers!”

Cedric took his leave and the music resumed playing. The stadium volunteers continued to hand out numbers. Despite the upbeat music, the air around the stadium suddenly became much more quiet and tense. It was time for everyone to get serious. Trainers were staring at their assigned numbers, others trying to look around and see what numbers those nearby had.

“Oh, man,” Antoshi remarked with a sharp huff. “I'm super nervous now.” He rubbed his hands together, wiping his sweaty palms dry, his leg shaking up and down uncontrollably.

"I can tell," Fireball replied, watching his friend.

“It's taken us so long to get to this point. We put in so much work, and we've been anticipating this moment ever since getting our first badge. This is what we've worked for. Feels like everything's moving so fast now.”

Fireball placed a reassuring paw on his friend's shoulder.

"We've got this, remember?" Fireball boisterously said. "We're super strong — and super smart! Nothing's going to hold us back now."

Antoshi took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. “You're right. … Thanks for the assist. I can't let my emotions get to me now.”

"No sweat. I trust in you, buddy."

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

The preliminaries kicked off with no delay. With four matches occurring simultaneously, there was a lot happening for the spectating Trainers to take in. They watched and cheered, some even taking note of potential competitors and their strategies.

Antoshi and Fireball watched anxiously. Many fully evolved and incredibly rare Pokémon appeared on the battlefields. Most of the spectators were in collective awe when a Latios, a Legendary Pokémon, entered the field. Its appearance got a resounding reaction not unlike a celebrity. Antoshi grinned and stood up, having never seen one in person before.

The competition was fierce, as expected. Everyone fought their hardest for the chance to become Champion, and to have their names etched into history. One by one, Trainers were eliminated from the competition. It was intimidating for them to see the numbers starting to thin out. By the time it was Antoshi and Fireball's turn, almost three dozen of their fellow hopefuls were already out.

“Numbers 146 and 147,” the woman over the loudspeakers said, “head to field number four.”

The two friends looked at each other and gave a confident nod, ready to test their mettle. Antoshi huffed sharply, his heart racing as they made their way down onto the battlefield. He rubbed the sweat from his palms again, his legs feeling surprisingly heavy while walking down the stairs.

They took their place on the opposite end of the field from a young girl with short, purple hair. Fireball prepared himself for battle, igniting the flames on his upper back. The loud sounds and rumblings of the other battles happening nearby were distracting. It was an unfamiliar setting for the pair.

“Field number four — begin your match!”

“Nice Typhlosion!” the girl exclaimed as she threw out a Poké Ball. “Hope it's not afraid of the water!”

From the opening ball came a burst of light that solidified into a long, blue, terrifying sea serpent — Gyarados. A sudden explosion erupted on the battlefield near them. Both Antoshi and Fireball looked over at it in surprise.

“Don't take your eyes off the prize, kid!” she said with a smirk. “Tiny — use Hydro Pump!”

The massive serpent fired a large, highly pressurized blast of water from its gaping maw at Fireball.

“Fireball, dodge!” Antoshi shouted.

Fireball panicked and leapt to the side. He took a glancing blow from the attack to his lower body. The force caused him to spiral through the air, but managed to land on his feet before spinning around to a halt.

"… That was pretty cool," Fireball remarked, pleasantly surprised.

“You okay?” Antoshi asked in concern.

Fireball nodded firmly to him. Antoshi nodded back, exhaling sharply, trying to block out the distractions all around him and focus on their battle.

“Fireball, use Thunder Punch!”

The girl was taken aback upon realizing the Typhlosion had an Electric-type move in his repertoire. Fireball's fist sparked and crackled with bright, yellowish bolts of electricity. He darted toward the Gyarados, giving a shout and leapt up high, nailing the water beast in the face with a hard right hook.

The serpent shouted in pain as it fell to the ground. Fireball landed and headed back to Antoshi's side. Gyarados strained to get up, visibly worn down from the potent attack. It shook its head, declaring its intent to stay in the fight with an indignant roar. The opposing Trainer smiled at her Pokémon.

“Attaboy, Tiny!” she said. “Another Hydro Pump! Let's make it count!”

“Same plan as before, Fireball!” Antoshi said. “Keep moving!”

Fireball took off running while his opponent took aim at him. With a shout, Gyarados spat up another powerful jet of water. Fireball was suddenly swept away by it. He gargled in surprise, flailing to the ground and rolling to a stop near Antoshi.

“Oh, no!” Antoshi cried out.

“Yeah! Nice shot!” she exclaimed.

Fireball growled as he got back to his feet. The fires on his back had dwindled some. As he shook the water from his fur, those flames exploded back to life.

"Gonna take more than that to keep me down," Fireball said.

Antoshi chuckled softly, continuously impressed by Fireball's confidence.

“Thunder Punch — again!”

Fireball bared his teeth, summoning forth the same electricity into his paw. Just as before, he rushed the Gyarados and leapt up high.

“Dodge it, Tiny!”

Gyarados managed to slither out of the way of Fireball's swing. Fireball quickly spun around, swung again, and nailed the serpent on the back of its head. Gyarados roared in pain, the electricity visibly surging through its entire frame. It fell over, unconscious.

The girl gasped in shock.

“No way!” she exclaimed, her jaw hanging agape.

Fireball went back to his side of the field. He and his friend confidently nodded to each other. The girl humphed as she recalled her Gyarados into the confines of its ball.

“Fine, then. I guess I'll have to use my ace! Go, Flora!”

She threw out another ball. From it, emerged a large yet stumpy reptilian quadruped with a massive blooming flower on its back. Across its forehead, it wore a necklace with a strange gem like a cat's eye marble hanging from it.

Fireball and Antoshi looked to each other in surprise — a Grass-type opponent like Venusaur was fortunate for them. Antoshi found it strange, however. Why would a Trainer competent enough to make it to the Indigo Plateau completely disregard something as basic as Type advantage?

“Oh, but wait!” the girl added. “There's more!”

And there was his answer. She pulled the back the long sleeve of her shirt to reveal a bracelet with a smaller gem, similar to the one Venusaur wore, set into it. She ran her fingers across it, causing both gems to glow brightly.

“Flora — Mega Evolve!” she exclaimed.

The duo watched in amazement as the gems fired out bolts of magical energy that sought each other out and connected. Once combined, Venusaur gave out a roar and began to glow as if evolving.

Many of the other Trainers watching from the stands were fully engaged in the spectacle. Once the bright light faded, Venusaur had grown larger and heavier with a pink flower on its forehead and dark green markings between its eyes.

“Oh, … wow,” Antoshi remarked, nervously.

It was the first time they had seen a real Mega Evolution up close. The stones needed for Trainer and Pokémon were both exceedingly rare and very expensive.

Lost in their battle trance, Antoshi and Fireball's eyes were wide with intensity — their excitement rising from the unique challenge before them. They were focused solely on their battle and no longer distracted by the nearby competitors.

“Flora, Sludge Bomb!”

The lush beast reared back and opened its maw with a deep, groaning roar. It spat out a large, brown gob of toxic muck that shot in an arc toward Fireball, exploding on contact. Fireball groaned, stumbling back from the impact and turning away to wipe the sludge off his face.

"This is so gross," Fireball remarked, shuddering. "Why do we keep getting opponents with poison attacks? I'll take getting smashed over the head with a boulder over this any day."

Antoshi covered his nose from the horrible-smelling poison, staring at their opposition.

‘If what I remember about Mega Evolution is correct,’ he thought, ‘Venusaur's durability is increased as well. I could go with Fire Blast, but it's slower and harder to land. Flamethrower is way more reliable, but it'll take more hits to wear Mega Venusaur down. I'd better play this one on the safe side. We can't afford to make any mistakes now.’

“Fireball, use Flamethrower!”

Fireball shook himself to remove any more sludge he could. He took aim at his opponent, launching a raging stream of fire from his mouth. The heat of his flames were fueled by the disgust of Mega Venusaur's previous attack.

“Dodge it!” the girl commanded.

In a flash, Mega Venusaur darted to the side to avoid Fireball's attack. Antoshi was shocked at how deceptively fast the heavy, stubby monster was.

“Follow it!” Antoshi said. “Keep pouring it on!”

Fireball didn't let up on his attack, aiming the fire as best he could at his moving target. He could only keep a single Flamethrower going for as long as his lungs held a breath. The distance between them forced him to predict and try to lead his opponent's movements.

Mega Venusaur neared the stadium wall. Running out of room to dodge, it leapt back over the pillar of flame. Fireball responded by pulling up, managing to score a hit just before he ran out of air. Mega Venusaur roared in pain, crashing back down to the ground with some of its petals aflame.

Fireball coughed up puffs of smoke while trying to catch his breath.

“You okay, Fireball?” Antoshi asked.

"Feeling a little lightheaded after that one," Fireball replied in a raspy voice, "but I'm good."

Mega Venusaur groaned, getting back to its feet. It shook itself off, cinders falling from its body. Antoshi was flabbergasted that it got up again so quickly.

“Okay, that Mega Venusaur looks in way better shape than I would've hoped,” he remarked.

The girl laughed. “That's thanks to its ability: Thick Fat! Mega Venusaur takes half as much damage from Fire-type attacks!”

“I guess we'll just have to hit twice as hard! Fireball, get up close and then use Flamethrower!”

Both Fireball and the girl were left confused as to what Antoshi was planning. Never one to doubt Antoshi's strategies, Fireball shrugged before he took off running on all fours.

“Flora, give it another Sludge Bomb!”

“Dodge it, Fireball!” Antoshi shouted.

Fireball kept himself as difficult to aim at as possible, weaving back and forth while closing the gap between them. Mega Venusaur roared again before discharging another gob of revolting poison. The arcing attack narrowly missed Fireball, going right over his head.

The girl gasped as Fireball appeared before her Pokémon. Fireball opened his maw wide, drenching the Grass-type in a direct stream of flames. Mega Venusaur roared in agony, taking the full brunt of the attack. Fireball headed back to his friend. Mega Venusaur slowly shook itself off, appearing far more charred and worn down than before.

‘That was a risky plan, and it paid off,’ the girl thought as she glared bitterly at the opposing duo. ‘Sludge Bomb is a single, arcing shot. He was betting on me to use it again, and for Flora's aim to be less accurate if his Typhlosion got in close.’ She glanced over at her Mega Venusaur, who was visibly worn down after the last attack. ‘Now Flora's seriously hurt, even with its Thick Fat. Another one of those and we're done for. …’

“Time to finish this!” she said. “Flora, use Frenzy Plant!”

Venusaur's body glowed with an intensifying shade of green. Antoshi was taken aback, unfamiliar with the move.

“Frenzy Plant?” Antoshi wondered aloud. Unsure of what to expect, his best bet was to play it safe until he and Fireball could make a counter-attack. “Fireball, use Defense Curl!”

Fireball curled into a ball just before Venusaur stomped the ground hard. Massive, spiked roots violently erupted out of the ground, creating a trail that led toward Fireball. Once they reached the Typhlosion, he was struck hard and flung high into the air with incredible force.

Initially worried for his friend's well-being, Antoshi quickly realized that Fireball had been thrown at an angle — one that brought him closer to their opponents.

“Now, Fireball!” he shouted. “Flamethrower!”

Fireball clenched his teeth. Though injured from the powerful attack, he quickly realized what Antoshi did. Even while in pain and constantly rolling through the air, he kept track of Mega Venusaur's position and waited for just the right moment. He opened his maw and gave an intense roar. The flames on his back flared wildly as he let out a Flamethrower so intense that it stopped his momentum and propelled him backwards.

The attack charged forth with blazing speed. The weakened Mega Venusaur could not dodge as it did previously. Frenzy Plant had already rendered Mega Venusaur briefly exhausted and unable to move. Drenched in fire, it roared in agony, toppling over backwards. Its Trainer shielded her eyes from the powerful flames. Once the attack finished, she gasped at how badly burned her fainted Mega Venusaur was.

With Mega Venusaur unconscious, their spirit link was broken. In a flash of light, it returned to its standard form as a Venusaur.

Fireball landed on his hind feet near Antoshi. He suddenly groaned in pain and fell to a knee. He held his ribs, looking at his paw afterward to find blood.

“Fireball?” Antoshi asked with concern as he headed to his friend's side.

"Looks like one of those big thorns got me," Fireball remarked, shooting Antoshi a reassuring grin.

Antoshi smiled and nodded. He quickly took off his backpack and rummaged through it.

“Trainer 147 wins,” the woman on the loudspeaker said.

The opposing Trainer sighed in dismay, recalling her Venusaur into its Poké Ball.

“Good luck,” she said, before solemnly walking away.

As Antoshi tended to Fireball's wounds with a spray medicine, they briefly looked over at her. Neither of them could fathom just how disappointed she was, but it was clear she put as much effort as they did into getting to the tournament. They remained mindful that they'd ended the dreams of a fellow Trainer and her Pokémon. It gave them perspective as to just how quickly and easily their dream could end, too.

Chapter 9

In the early evening, the sky had become a layered mix of bluish-purple littered with long streaks of orange clouds. Antoshi and Fireball sat in the stands. They watched the end of the first round of preliminary matches while enjoying the meal provided for them by the staff. The number of other Trainers had thinned out to half as many as there were hours prior.

“Trainer 501 wins!” the voice on the loudspeaker said. “That concludes the first round. If you haven't already, Trainers, please heal your Pokémon by your own means or inside the stadium concourse where you'll find our Pokémon Center. The second and final round of preliminary matches will begin in just a few minutes.”

The giant screens lit up with an updated tournament bracket. Antoshi furrowed his brow curiously when he saw the number of their next opponent: 145. His eyes lit up. The battle involving '145' was one that he'd witnessed from afar earlier. It was a young boy, younger than him, with dark skin and an almost completely shaved head. The Trainer had used a powerful Tyranitar to knock out both of his opponent's Pokémon. It was quite the intimidating sight. Now they had to face off against that themselves.

“Trainers 1 and 3, report to battlefield one.”

The bracket process started all over again, only this time with tougher Trainers.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

“Trainers 145 and 147, report to battlefield two.”

Antoshi took a deep breath and sighed. The pair nodded to each other, putting their game faces on, heading down to the assigned field. The young boy that Antoshi remembered was already waiting for them. He smirked confidently, tossing a Poké Ball up and down. Antoshi and Fireball stood in their respective positions on their side of the field.

“Battlefield two — you may begin!”

“Go,” their opponent exclaimed as he threw his Poké Ball out, “Lanturn!”

From the ball emerged a cheerful, large blue footballfish with a Y-shaped antenna tipped with glowing orbs. It cried out, raring to battle. Fireball gave his own shout, flaring up the fires on his back. Antoshi wiped a bead of sweat from his forehead, already dreading the impending reveal of the opponent's Tyranitar.

‘That's not good,’ Antoshi thought, huffing sharply. ‘Thunder Punch is effectively useless now and Lanturn's Water-type drowns out all of our Fire-type attacks. … Rollout isn't as effective—’

“Lanturn!” the other Trainer exclaimed, interrupting Antoshi's train of thought. “Use Rain Dance!”

Lanturn did an adorable shimmy from side to side, singing as it did so. A dark cloud emerged high over their quadrant of the battlefield, a downpour of rain falling upon the two Pokémon. Fireball idly lifted his head and opened his maw to lap up a brief drink of water.

And he's setting up,’ Antoshi thought. ‘I wonder … if he watched our battle, too.’

“How do you like that?” their opponent asked, boasting confidently. “Let's see your Typhlosion deal with this!”

Antoshi hesitated for a moment before issuing their next move.

“Fireball — use Burn Up!”

Fireball appeared surprised by the decision. He turned his gaze to Antoshi, who nodded confidently at him. Fireball dropped down to all fours, snarling loudly as his entire body became enveloped in an inferno. The flames were hot enough to evaporate the rain falling upon him. He swiftly charged at his opponent, slamming headlong into it. Lanturn cried out, bouncing and skidding backwards from the force and the intensity of the flames. Fireball headed back to his side of the field.

The flames on Fireball's back abruptly extinguished.

"Aw," Fireball muttered, turning to look at his upper back. "That's my least favorite part of using this move."

‘Burn Up makes Fireball typeless for the remainder of this battle,’ Antoshi thought, staring intensely at their opponents, ‘so now we don't have to worry about the Type advantage. This'll be a long-shot, but it might just be the best chance we have to deal with his first Pokémon.’

“Don't worry, Lanturn!” the opposing Trainer said. “We still got this! Aqua Ring!”

Lanturn closed its eyes and let out a soothing cry. Its body became enveloped by swirling rings of water that rotated around it.

“Fireball, Defense Curl!”

Fireball curled up into a ball, suddenly surrounded by a brief glimpse of a bluish shield. The rings of water around Lanturn suddenly healed some of its battle damage.

“Nice try, fool!” their opponent said. “Your Defense Curl isn't going to matter when Lanturn has no physical attacks! Lanturn, Thunder!”

Lanturn howled to the sky, sending up a large bolt of electricity from its glowing orbs into the dark clouds above them. The clouds flickered with light and rumbled with the sound of thunder. An even more powerful bolt of lightning came down in a flash, striking its target directly.

Antoshi shielded his eyes, clenching his teeth as a loud crack of thunder rang out mere meters in front of him.

“Fireball!” Antoshi exclaimed. “Are you okay?”

Fireball's fur was frazzled and slightly singed all around his body. Some residual electricity continued to flow around him — a visual indication that Fireball had been paralyzed by the attack.

"Ye—yeah!" Fireball shakily replied. "Just p—peachy."

Antoshi recognized the signs of paralysis and felt his heart drop. Frustrated by their stroke of bad luck, he sighed heavily and turned his attention to their opponents.

“All right, Fireball! Rollout!”

Fireball revved in place on the rain-slicked ground before dashing toward the enemy.

‘That combo!’ the opposing Trainer thought, eyes wide with surprise. ‘So, they know some tricks …’

‘If Fireball is unable to attack at any point,’ Antoshi thought, ‘then we're in major trouble …’

Lanturn's maneuverability on land was almost non-existent. The opposing duo were unable to do anything about the oncoming attack. Fireball slammed into Lanturn, causing it to rapidly flip over backwards until it rolled to a stop. It groaned, shaking off its dizziness before sliding back to its side of the field. Fireball remained in his curled form as he rolled back his side as well.

The rain momentarily poured down harder while Lanturn's Aqua Ring healed some of its injuries.

“Lanturn — Thunder, again!”

Lanturn fired another powerful bolt of electricity into the clouds, which came down and struck Fireball. He shouted in pain, his curled-up body tensing as he was rattled with electricity. His fur was mostly frazzled, singed and charred.

Thunder was an immensely powerful technique, and the combination with Rain Dance meant it would always hit Fireball. Antoshi clenched his teeth until the lightning faded away.

“Fireball!” Antoshi exclaimed in concern. “Let me know you're okay!”

Fireball wasn't moving, causing a moment of tension between both sides. The Typhlosion suddenly heaved a deep sigh, having held his breath. Though his body relaxed some, the electricity of his paralysis continued to flow around him.

“Come on!” the opposing Trainer screeched. “Faint already, you stupid Typhlosion!”

"I'm … not going down easily," Fireball said, straining.

Antoshi grinned proudly.

“Fireball, another Rollout!”

Fireball revved up once more and launched himself faster than before across the rain-slicked ground. Lanturn's eyes widened just before being struck. It was thrown through the air, past its Trainer before crashing to a halt. It groaned, suddenly unable to pick itself back up.

“No!” the opposing Trainer shouted.

“Yes,” Antoshi quietly cheered, pumping a fist at his side.

Fireball was still curled up like a ball, leaving Antoshi unable to gauge his friend's status.

“Fireball, how you feeling?” he asked.

"Very buzzed," he replied. "Other than that, I'm still good to go."

Antoshi smiled and stood confidently. The opposing Trainer seethed, yanking the Poké Ball off his belt and recalling his Lanturn in a huff.

“No more messing around!” he exclaimed. He switched the Poké Ball with an Ultra Ball in the same hand, which he immediately threw out. “Go, Tyranitar!”

Antoshi's eyes widened in shock. It was the Pokémon he was expecting — and fearing.

From the ball came a monstrous dinosaurian beast. Covered in thick, green, armored skin, the bipedal Pokémon was abnormally large for its species like Fireball was — and very angry.

“I don't care if your Typhlosion has no Type right now, you're still going to lose!”

“It sure didn't look that big from far away,” Antoshi joked nervously.

"What?" Fireball asked, unable to see anything in his curled form. "What happened?"

The imposing Tyranitar stomped its foot, causing the ground to rumble under its immense weight and power. Fireball bounced a few inches off the ground from the impact.

"… Oh," Fireball added. "I don't want to look, do I?"

“No, probably not,” Antoshi replied, unable to take his eyes away from the imposing beast.

The Tyranitar let out a powerful roar that grabbed the attention of almost every spectator and nearby competitors. Antoshi turned his attention to the opposing Trainer.

“Hey, how did you get that Tyranitar anyway?”

“By catching it — duh!” the Trainer replied. “Stupid!”

Antoshi was taken aback by the indignant response.

“… Okay then,” he muttered. “I see someone's not in the mood to chat.”

From Tyranitar's body, a magical maelstrom of sand kicked up, swirling relentlessly around the two Pokémon. It was its Sand Stream ability. The sandstorm caused the dark clouds and rainy condition to disperse.

"Ow!" Fireball said, as he was pelted with grains of sand. "Not this again!"

‘We have to act quickly here,’ Antoshi thought. ‘Tyranitar's a bit faster than Lanturn, but definitely still slower than Fireball. If we use Rollout again, combined with Defense Curl, it'll have the strength of eight standard Rollouts at this point. But that's not a good enough Type advantage for us to—’ His eyes suddenly lit up. ‘Tyranitar … is Dark- and Rock-Type.’

“Fireball!” he said. “Use Focus Blast!”

Fireball groaned in pain as he hopped back to his hind feet. His tired eyes and burns down his belly finally showed how worn down he had gotten after taking two direct Thunder attacks. The opposing Trainer watched carefully, ready to counteract.

Fireball held his forepaws at one side, charging up a bright ball of energy. However, just as the attack was ready, the electricity around his body surged wildly. He shouted in pain and fell to a knee. The energy in his hands dissipated.

‘Oh, no! Not the paralysis!’ Antoshi thought with eyes aghast. ‘Not now!’

The opposing Trainer smirked, capitalizing on Fireball's misfortune.

“Tyranitar! Stone Edge! Finish it!”

Tyranitar let out an immense roar before stomping its foot. Massive rock pillars jutted out of the ground, rushing toward Fireball like a wave. Fireball was struck hard. The violent impact sent him airborne a short distance before crashing nearby Antoshi. The pillars sunk back into the ground.

“Fireball!” Antoshi cried out in terror.

Fireball groaned weakly, lifting himself up onto his arms. The Typhlosion suddenly fell to the ground. The wind had been knocked from Antoshi's lungs, placing his hands on his head.

Yes!” the opposing Trainer cheered. “We won!”

“Fireball, no,” Antoshi whispered, his eyes welling up with tears. “You can't lose …”

He exhaled in disbelief, dropping to his knees beside his fallen friend.

Just as the opposing Trainer was about to recall his Tyranitar, Fireball stirred back to life.

"Good point …" Fireball replied, weakly, staggering up on his hind feet. "It would be … pretty crummy if we lost now …"

“What the heck?!” the opposing Trainer shouted.

Antoshi was equally astonished to see his friend still conscious. He also got to his feet at the same slow pace that Fireball did, quickly wiping away the tears from his eyes.

"I have … no idea how I'm still in this," Fireball said with a weak smirk. "It kinda feels like I'm dreaming."

“Well, this is definitely our dream,” Antoshi replied, smiling. “Let's make it come true while you're still conscious. One more Focus Blast!”

Fireball nodded and hobbled his way back onto the field. He clenched his teeth upon re-entering the tornado of whipping sands. With his trembling paws at one side, he slowly charged up the same ball of energy as before. He groaned, becoming more dizzy and weak as the attack grew in size.

'Gotta make … this one … count,' Fireball thought. 'I only have one more left in me.'

With a diminished shout, he thrust his arms forward to fire off the attack before falling onto his behind.

“Tyranitar — dodge it!!” its Trainer exclaimed.

Tyranitar leapt to the side with incredible speed that caused Antoshi to gasp in shock. However, Fireball's inexperience and inaccuracy with the move became their saving grace yet again. Tyranitar dodged into the path of the attack.

Focus Blast struck one of the gaping triangular holes in its chest — a glaring chink in its otherwise impenetrable body armor. The spot was a pressure point, amplifying the damage it received for a critical hit. The impact caused a large, explosive burst of light. The tremendous Tyranitar was sent backward, roaring in anguish. It shook the stadium grounds upon landing and slid to a halt.

Fireball grinned, laughing weakly at the incredible sight. He couldn't believe how lucky that was. He groaned wearily, falling back onto the wet, sandy ground.

“Fireball!” he exclaimed.

Antoshi stopped himself from rushing through the sandstorm to his friend's side — doing so would cause a forfeit. He clenched his teeth in frustration, staring at his friend with deep concern.

Tyranitar was not moving. Its sandstorm petered out and its Trainer was left stunned, but quickly became outraged.

No~!!” he screamed at the top of his lungs. He fell to his hands and knees and began sobbing.

“Trainer 147 wins!” the voice on the loudspeaker announced.

Antoshi immediately rushed over and knelt down beside Fireball. He scrambled to pull out another Full Restore from his backpack, spraying his friend with it from head to toe.

“You all right?” Antoshi asked, nervously.

Fireball grinned slightly and gave him a thumbs-up.

"I'm just glad that was the last match of the day," Fireball replied, quietly. "We definitely got put through the wringer here."

“These victories of ours are getting more and more unbelievable — and a lot more slim. It already feels like we're barely scraping by.”

"I'll bet it's all downhill from here," Fireball joked. They both laughed.

The other Trainer sniffled and wept as he recalled his Tyranitar. He covered his eyes in shame as he ran off through the stadium tunnels. Despite how abrasive the boy was towards them, Antoshi still felt badly for him being overwhelmed by the sting of defeat.

After Antoshi and Fireball got to their feet, one of the stadium volunteers holding a clipboard came out to greet them.

“Congratulations on your victory!” the man said. “Please, follow me.”

Antoshi and Fireball grinned at each other in elation. They had made it past the preliminaries. They won their way into the official Indigo League tournament.

The pair were led through a set of large open doors, into one of the areas in the concourse of the stadium. The pair gasped in awe, standing at the entrance of a massive, elegant ballroom. Everything was colored in various shades of purple and blue, accented by white. The walls were lined with couches. The shiny, waxed floor was covered in a plethora of perfectly lined dining tables and chairs. The cool, circulated air was rife with the scent of freshly baked confections.

There were a dozen or so Trainers hanging around in the room already, some accompanied by their small or human-sized Pokémon. With the amount of tables and seats, it seemed it would eventually get much more crowded.

“This is the Indigo Room,” the man told them. “It's the main dining and lounging area for those who pass the preliminary matches. You may come here and dine any time of the day or night. Your assigned table number is …” he briefly jotted down on his clipboard, “14! This will also be the number of your sleeping quarters.”

“Sleeping quarters?” Antoshi asked.

“Indeed. The Indigo Tournament starts tomorrow and lasts for three days. Until then, all Trainers passing the preliminary matches must stay at the Indigo Plateau until the closing ceremonies.” He handed Antoshi a key card and a pamphlet. “This key is for your quarters. The pamphlet includes information of daily events and maps of the grounds. Be sure to wear your lanyard for identification purposes whenever you're outside of your quarters. I hope you and your Pokémon have a wonderful time here. Congratulations once again on your victories.”

He gave them a respectful nod of the head before taking his leave. Antoshi took a brief look through the pamphlet.

“Oh good, another map for me to memorize,” Antoshi joked.

"This is definitely the fanciest dining room I've ever seen!" Fireball remarked. He looked in all directions while Antoshi quietly studied the information in his hands. "I smell food — lots of food. He never said whether we had a limit or if we had to pay, did he?"

“He sure didn't,” Antoshi replied with a smirk, “but that doesn't mean you get to eat the entire kitchen.”

"What other places are there to check out around here?"

“Well, down the hall on the left there's a large Pokémon Center.”

"Which way do we go to check out our room?"

A grin spread across Antoshi's face. He closed the pamphlet and stored it away in his backpack pocket.

“I was hoping you'd ask that. Come on.”

Fireball curiously followed his friend through a hallway on their right. They went out another set of large doors leading outside. They had now exited through the opposite side of the stadium from where they originally entered earlier that morning.

Fireball gasped in surprise. Sprawled out before him was a bustling resort village situated around a large lake. The pair strolled and looked around. Volunteers and staff in all directions kept the grounds and the log cabins that comprised the village tidy. Each of them smiled, waved or greeted the pair as they passed.

"Wow!" Fireball remarked, waving back to them. "What is this place?"

“I just read about it on the map. This place is rented out as a vacation resort most of the year. But, when it's time for a tournament, it's lodging for the participants.”

Fireball's eyes widened in surprise.

"Wait a minute!" he exclaimed. "Do you mean …"

“Uh-huh!” Antoshi cheerfully replied. They came to a stop in front of a single-story cabin with a sign hammered into the front lawn that read '14.' “We're not staying in a room like the Pokémon Center — we get our own little house to live in.”

Fireball started hyperventilating.

"This … is so … freakingcool!" he said.

Fireball was buzzing with excitement as they walked to the front door. Antoshi slid the key card through the reader, hearing a confirmation beep, and the door unlocked. He chuckled as he opened the door and invited his friend to enter first. Fireball squealed in glee, merrily skipping inside.

The duo's faces lit up as they looked around.

“Wow,” they both remarked in awe.

It was as though they were walking into the distant past. The evening sun flooded the charming home that seemed to be constructed in a bygone age. Warm and cozy, almost everything was made of wood, looking so antique that the duo were wary about touching any of it. From the diamond-shape leaded windows, the patterned drapes, and even a grandfather clock. A wooden display cabinet held plates and candlestick holders. A dining table and chairs sat upon rustic, stone flooring. Any amenities they could need were provided; from a couch, television and videophone to a fully-stocked kitchen, dining room and appliances.

"This place is amazing," Fireball said, as the two looked around. "I like it a lot more than the Pokémon Center."

“You don't say?” Antoshi grinned as he asked, sarcastically.

The boy headed into the spacious bedroom, placing his backpack down next to the bed. Fireball followed, peering around the bedroom from the doorway.

"Someday, you and I should live in a house like this. Maybe someplace out in the woods like you enjoy."

“That would be nice.” Antoshi smiled, glancing out the window for a brief moment. They had a perfect view of the sparkling lake behind the house. The beautiful scenery and the splendid peacefulness of the house were far and beyond what he could've ever expected in his many dreams of making it to the Indigo League. “Well, how about we go and do what you enjoy, which is eat?”

"I'm always ready! Lead the way!"

Antoshi laughed as they headed to the front door. “The volunteer that gave us a bunch of info never said I had to dress any differently when we go eat. Guess I'll just wear the same thing I have on.”

"Same here."

“You would say that, wouldn't you?” Fireball chuckled and nodded. The two of them headed back outside. “One of these days I'm going to get you some clothes.”

"Ugh, no way! I'm not some dress-up Furfrou."

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

By the time the two got back to the Indigo Room dining hall, far more Trainers were lounging around with each other and their Pokémon. Food was already being served to the hungry victors of the first day of competition. Fireball asked Antoshi to order several courses just for himself. The duo sat down, ordered, and began to eat.

Aside from the victors, staff, waiters, and volunteers all buzzed around. Antoshi was elated to see so many other fellow Trainers at such a high-class dining room also sitting with their Pokémon. It was an unusual sight, yet it was the norm for the tournament.

A couple of Trainers walked around the dining room with Pokédexes in hand. One of them, a young man in his teens wearing a purple hat, stopped in front of Fireball, holding up the device that looked like two black handles around a holographic light display. The duo were able to see through it from the opposite side. It lit up with a full-body image of a Typhlosion.

“You have a really awesome Typhlosion,” the young man said. “How'd you get him?”

“Fireball was given to me when I was little,” Antoshi replied.

“Lucky you! … Oh, hey, you're the duo that faced that scary-looking Tyranitar.”

“That's us,” he said, with a proud grin. Fireball nodded.

“Wow. You beat a Tyranitar with a Typhlosion of all things. That's really amazing stuff. I didn't see the entire battle, but I definitely saw it after it fainted.”

“Thank you.”

The young man looked around. “Well, I see more Pokémon I need entries on. See you around!”

“See ya.”

With that, the Trainer took his leave.

"You know," Fireball said, "I was kind of expecting the Trainers here to be really full of themselves. It's nice to see most of them are friendly."

“Yeah,” Antoshi replied with a smile. “I was expecting the same, honestly. It's a huge confidence boost for anyone to have earned eight badges and get to the Indigo Plateau. But, with how tough it's been along the way, it's still a humbling experience.” They looked around at all the smiling faces, hearing a couple people in the distance laughing. “They're all probably really happy to make it this far. I know I am.”

"Same here," Fireball replied, with a mouthful of food. "This is the best dinner we've had in a while!"

Antoshi shook his head and sighed in content. Their minds were off the jitters they'd inevitably face in the following day's competition. For the time being, they took all the time they could to relax and revel in their success.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Having been on the move and battling most of the day, the duo were ready to call it an early night. Antoshi laughed as an overstuffed Fireball literally waddled his way out of the dining room, attracting the amusement of others nearby.

“That's one happy Pokémon!” a male Trainer said to them.

"He's got that right," Fireball remarked.

They headed back to their cottage to get settled in. Fireball took his usual place resting on the floor of the moonlit bedroom, groaning loudly and hiccuping as he lay on his back. Antoshi emerged from the bathroom, wearing his usual sleeping garments, toothbrush in hand.

"I know I'm going to sleep really well tonight," Fireball said.

“I hope so,” Antoshi said, packing his toothbrush away. “Tomorrow's going to be the biggest challenge we've ever faced.”

He hopped into bed, slipping under the covers. He sighed heavily, followed by a period of silence between them.

“… It's so incredible to think we finally made it to the Indigo League,” Antoshi spoke up. “We spent so many nights awake just like this, talking about it and dreaming of this moment.”

"Do you think we'll really make it to the end?" Fireball asked.

“Of course. We can't think otherwise. Doubting ourselves now doesn't make sense. We always said we were going for the championship — that's where we're gonna end up.”

"You're right. This is why I listen to you."

“Yeah, otherwise you end up in the trunk of Team Rocket's car.”

"Err, … maybe we could chalk that up to a 'youthful indiscretion'?"

“I'm only joking. I'm the one that taught you that phrase, by the way.” Fireball snickered in response. “Well, we'd better get lots of sleep.”

"Sounds good to me. Goodnight, Antoshi."

“Goodnight, buddy.”

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

The following morning, the duo got up at their usual wake-up time of six o'clock. The sun had just started to break the horizon and peer into the bedroom window. They were fueled by a deep sense of determination. Both remained fairly quiet, getting themselves mentally prepared for what was to be the most important day of their lives.

Antoshi tied his shoes, wearing the same red-and-white polo shirt and shorts he'd worn often. He made sure to put on his identification lanyard on and headed for the door where Fireball was anxiously waiting for him.

He stopped suddenly, heading back into the room to rummage through his backpack for something. He pulled out Fireball's Poké Ball. He may end up needing it, just in case. He stuffed it into his pocket before leaving the house with his best friend by his side.

From his other pocket, he pulled out their information pamphlet. After navigating back through the stadium concourse, they entered a large, bright waiting room. It was mostly white, with a few potted trees along the walls and plants set on tables to break the drabness. There were dozens of rows of linked chairs — plenty of seating for the waiting competitors. Large television screens hung on the walls, though they were off for the time being.

They looked around curiously. Dozens of fellow Trainers had already gotten up well before them. The chatter between them was at a minimum. Some of them kept their Pokémon out of their Poké Balls. All of the Trainers seemed as anxious to get started as they were, and their Pokémon were just as focused.

Antoshi looked through the pamphlet again.

“Well, it looks like the gates open for the crowds at eight,” he said. “Opening ceremonies start at ten — that's when all the competitors are brought out to the stadium grounds for a short time. Then, the first match starts afterward. I wonder how they're going to arrange the matches this time around?”

“Funny running into you again, Antoshi,” a familiar voice said.

They both turned around and grinned.

“Cory! Hey!” Antoshi greeted him.

“Hey there. I didn't think so many other Trainers got up as early as I did. Guess that's to be expected with those serious enough to make it this far.”

“So, what are you doing this morning?” Antoshi asked.

“I just came back from breakfast in the dining area. All the food here is amazing, and they make some great waffles.”

Fireball's whole world suddenly went blank, staring into the distance with eyes wide.

‘Waffles …’ Cory's voice echoed in Fireball's head. ‘Wa~ffles …’

Cory smirked as he looked at the mesmerized Typhlosion.

“What's wrong with Fireball? Didn't get enough sleep last night?”

“No, I think it's because you said—”

"Waffles!" Fireball shouted, rushing off to the dining room.

“… Waffles.”

Cory burst out laughing. Antoshi sighed and grinned.

“Well, I guess we're off to breakfast now. Maybe we'll run into each other again later.”

“Take care,” he replied, before Antoshi jogged after his friend.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

After getting some breakfast in them, the duo hung around in the waiting area. Antoshi passed the time by reading a book from the reading material provided by the staff, while Fireball relaxed out on several chairs next to him.

Some time later, the television screens turned on. Those waiting got to watch the morning newscast. One of the reports was about the ongoing events after the destruction of Fern Town. Antoshi idly closed his book, taking great interest in the report. While the chatter in the room was too loud for him to hear it, the text on screen indicated that the cleanup was expected to last months. A makeshift memorial had been set up for loved ones and the general public to leave their thoughts, prayers, and offerings. Hundreds of flower bouquets, cards, and toys were left in memory of the victims.

Antoshi's chest tightened at the sight of people distraught and crying. It was difficult for him to watch, recalling the incident as it happened in his dreams. Recordings and photos of Slateport City's devastation also came up on screen. Comparisons were made between the two events, leaving the boy to mull over the relation between the two. He didn't have any dreams about the destruction of Slateport. He could only wonder if there really was a connection.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

The televisions eventually changed over to the stadium's closed circuit network. Antoshi and others were awe-struck. Live cameras showed them the sheer mass of people waiting to get into the gate and filing into the stands.

“Wow, that's crazy,” a girl nearby remarked.

“What is that, like, a hundred thousand people?” another person mused.

“Has to be. All those people are going to be watching us? Can I just drop out now?”

There was some boisterous laughing near the front of the room. A male, teenage Trainer hopped to his feet, turning to the others in the room.

“Cowards — out the door!” he shouted to the group, pointing toward the exit. His antics sparked laughs and playful jeers from others. “Go on! If you're scared of the crowd, head home! You'll make it a lot easier for the rest of us to win this tournament! Go on now!”

With the images of the crowds filing in, the Trainers were starting to get rowdy as they mentally prepared themselves. Antoshi couldn't help but laugh to himself at the ruckus, while nervously wringing his cold hands.

Fireball awoke with a yawn amid all the commotion. "Huh? What's happening?" he asked.

Antoshi grinned at his friend. “It's about to be showtime.”

Chapter 10

As the opening ceremonies neared, the stadium was almost filled to capacity. The noise of the crowd became apparent even from inside the waiting area. Anticipation was growing on all sides. Antoshi had long put away the book, opting to sit and prepare himself.

Soon, a small group of stadium volunteers entered the waiting room. They informed the Trainers that they'd be escorting them out onto the stadium grounds in orderly lines. The process went quickly and smoothly. Each line of Trainers was led down a hallway. They stopped just at the entrance of one of the tunnels leading out to the stadium. Fireball stood beside Antoshi.

The stadium's giant screens showed Cedric as he walked out onto the field with microphone in hand.

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to this year's Spring Indigo League Championship Tournament!” he exclaimed. The crowd roared in excitement. “One-hundred and twenty-eight new and returning Trainers from all over the world have proven their mettle in the Kanto League! But, only one will be the victor and move on to face the Elite Four and the Champion himself! Now, without further ado, let's say 'hello' to this year's participants!”

The first group were led out into the sun-drenched stadium grounds. The floor had already been flipped back over to become a single large battlefield instead of four. As the crowd cheered the Trainers on, some of them chose to wave while others kept to themselves. More volunteers walked past the group, directing each Trainer to stand in neatly spaced gaps between each other.

As part of the second group, Antoshi and Fireball headed outside. The noise of almost a hundred thousand people cheering was beyond their comprehension. One of the male volunteers standing by spoke to them as they neared him.

“Stand here, please,” he said, bringing the pair to a halt. He promptly did the same for the next few Trainers behind them.

The awe-struck duo gazed around the stadium. Nothing could've prepared them for how overwhelming it was to be surrounded by so many onlookers. Pride swelled through them as they soaked in the moment. The tournament they'd dreamed of for so long was starting with them as participants.

“We're really here,” Antoshi said. “We're finally here at the Indigo League Tournament. After getting our eight badges, seeing all those amazing cities, and all the people and Pokémon we got to meet along the way. Not to mention the insane amount of training we had to start our journey with to get anywhere. A lot of people doubted us, Fireball, but it finally led up to this.”

"Well, when you sum it up like that, I feel like I'm getting misty-eyed over here."

Antoshi smiled proudly at his friend. “It felt like this was just an impossible dream for the longest time. I remember the times we both wanted to give up and go home.”

"I sure am glad we didn't. This is totally worth it."

Antoshi took great pride in making it this far along with all the other Trainers and their companion Pokémon surrounding him. He felt as though he were part of the upper echelon of Trainers that the Kanto region had to offer. They'd spent countless hours training in all manner of weather, in all different locales, getting dirty and muddy, drenched in sweat and collapsing from exhaustion. Indeed, it made all their grit, determination, and struggle to make it there totally worth it — just as Fireball said.

Once all of the participants were out on the field, Cedric resumed speaking.

“Now, let's say hello to our Elite Four!” he exclaimed, to the elation of the crowd. The stadium's cameras shifted to five people seated behind the glass of the stadium's box seats. “First up, the mistress of Water-types, Sharon!”

The camera zoomed in on a young, blonde woman in a long, elegant, blue dress. She smiled warmly for the camera as it zoomed in on her.

“Second, the Flying-type genius, Nicholas!”

A reserved young man wearing large glasses kept his gaze away from the camera, opting to observe each of the competitors on the field.

“Third, the 'Steel Crusher', Dwayne!”

A large, muscular man with dark, tanned skin, wearing a bodybuilding tank top sat with his arms folded across his chest. He had a stern look on his face. The crowd briefly chanted his name.

“Fourth, the vibrant Grass-type prodigy, Rosie!”

A young girl in a green dress laughed and waved for the cameras with a big grin.

“And finally, our reigning Indigo League Champion — Kristoffer!”

A young man with dark hair covering an eye looked over the field with disinterest. Antoshi looked up at the Champion on screen in astonishment, having never seen him before. He was spellbound by the Champion's gaze.

‘Whoa,’ Antoshi thought. ‘That look in his eyes. He's definitely a Trainer with some serious experience — I can feel it. He's been through way more than what Fireball and I have.’

“Now, ladies and gentlemen,” Cedric continued, “it's time to get this tournament underway!”

The sounds of fireworks went off in the morning sky as flocks of Pidgey and Pidove were released into the air. The duo didn't have much time to enjoy the sight, however, as all the Trainers were escorted back inside the concourse in the same orderly fashion. They were led into a different tunnel than the one they came out from, while adjacent groups headed in the opposite direction.

The new waiting room they were led into was near identical to the first, only with half as many Trainers and their Pokémon.

“Greetings, Trainers,” a different, male volunteer politely said, as he entered the room. “The sixty-four of you here are going to be on the red side of the battlefield. The monitor screens provided here will display the tournament bracket, as well as the current battle in progress. We will be starting the first match very shortly. Good luck to you all!”

The Trainers looked at each of the screens to find their assigned numbers on the tournament bracket. The bracket was also color coded to indicate which matches would be taking place on the first, second and final days of the event.

Antoshi's eyes went wide, gasping in surprise.

"What is it, Antoshi?" Fireball asked.

“We're … the third match up,” he remarked, quietly.

"That's really soon," Fireball replied, just as surprised as Antoshi was.

Antoshi exhaled slowly, closing his eyes to becalm his racing heart. Not long after, the screens shifted to the outside camera, showing a smiling Cedric.

“All right, ladies and gentlemen!” he said. “We're now ready to start the first match!” The crowd erupted into raucous cheers once more. “Trainers 176 and 305 — to the field!”

A large, burly man sitting in the front row with a pointed beard got to his feet with a sigh. He exited the room while stretching his neck.

"Wow," Fireball said. "That guy seems pretty relaxed for being the first one up. Right, Antoshi?" He looked over to see Antoshi staring at the screen, lost in thought. "Antoshi?"

Fireball gently nudged his friend, snapping the boy back to reality.

“Oh. Did you say something?”

Fireball chuckled, trying to reassure his friend.

"Come on, Antoshi, don't worry. We've got this!"

“I'm sorry,” he replied, rubbing his forehead. “It's just that we've never battled in front of a massive crowd before. The competition here is really intense, too. I'll do my best to keep it together.”

"You know," Fireball said, grabbing Antoshi's attention, "I noticed that, despite how nervous or excited you've been, that whole 'glowy red light' thing hasn't appeared around you."

“Yeah,” he replied, looking down at his open hands, “I noticed that, too. I'm not sure what that means. It could be that I've gotten a bit more a handle on it, or maybe … it's just gone.”

Fireball was surprised by the suggestion, though it seemed possible. While he was always concerned for his friend's well-being first, he was a little disappointed by the thought of Antoshi's miraculous powers simply vanishing just as mysteriously as they appeared.

Antoshi, Fireball, and the others in the room watched the first match play out on the screen. Back and forth went the two Trainers' Pokémon while the crowd cheered them on relentlessly. At the same time, Antoshi took note of the expressions on their faces. They were confident, eager — not at all nervous like he was.

“The red side Trainer, Mitch, advances!” Cedric exclaimed.

The camera zoomed in on the large man from before as he looked out at the cheering crowd with a pleased smirk.

"Wow, he did it," Fireball said. "I never would've expected a big, tough guy like that to use a Chansey, but it sure was powerful."

Antoshi observed the next match with intrigue on his face. His hands were clasped against his lips, his gaze almost unblinking. He felt the same sense of wonderment as when he was a child watching the Indigo League Tournament on TV at home.

“Craig's Walrein takes down his opponent's in one hit!” Cedric said.

So many different Trainers,’ Antoshi thought as he stared intensely at the screen. ‘So many strategies. I've got to manage to deal with anything. If we were to face that Walrein … well, it's slow-moving, but hits hard and has a lot of durability. I'd have Fireball move constantly to avoid its attacks, which means his stamina would burn fast, so we'd have to finish quickly. Fire-type moves would work because it's half Ice-type—’

"Antoshi?" Fireball spoke up, interrupting Antoshi's train of thought. "Aren't we up next?"

“Oh, shoot, you're right.”

Antoshi closed his eyes and took a few deep breaths.

“And Golem goes down!” Cedric said. “The blue side's Craig wins!”

Antoshi heaved a sigh before looking up at his friend with a confident smirk.

“Time to make our dream a reality,” the boy said.

Fireball grinned and nodded back.

“Trainers 147 and 476 — to the field!” Cedric said.

Antoshi and Fireball made their way out of the room and down the long tunnel.

The duo inhaled deeply as they were overtaken by the bright sun and the incredible roar of the crowd. Antoshi couldn't decide whether to wave or to just play it cool. He clenched his fists at his side, doing his best to stay focused.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

“Oh, crap!” Blaire exclaimed in surprise, sitting up on her couch in the Cinnabar Gym. “Is that Antoshi?! Son of a gun, he really made it!”

She grinned as she crunched on some snacks, watching Antoshi from a television attached to its own rolling stand. At the other end of the Gym's battle room, a young man was slumped over, groaning in boredom.

“Are we gonna battle or what?” the Trainer asked.

“Hey, pipe down!” she snapped at him. “I gotta watch this match and see how it goes!”

The Trainer sighed in defeat.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

The figure of Antoshi's opponent emerged from the far side of the field. He shielded his eyes from the sun to get a clearer view.

“And, his opponent, a 15-year-old hailing from Saffron City — Cory!”

Antoshi gasped, his eyes wide in disbelief.

"That's some coincidence," Fireball remarked, taking the words from Antoshi's mouth.

Cory stood at his side of the battlefield, smiling as he briefly soaked in the attention from the crowd. He was already holding his first Poké Ball in hand.

“I hope you're as excited as I am, Antoshi,” he said from the across the field.

“I sure am!” he replied, smiling back at him.

“Good! Now I can see for myself just how strong Fireball's gotten!”

The giant displays overhead lit up with information and an image of each Trainer. While Cory's side of the screen displayed three shaded Poké Balls, Antoshi's only showed one with an image of a Typhlosion over it.

“As per tournament rules,” Cedric said, “both Trainers may only use three Pokémon from a pool of six in all matches before the semifinals! However, the red side Trainer, Antoshi, is only using one Pokémon!” The crowd burst into shocked murmurs, along with some smatterings of laughter. “Is the young Trainer simply overconfident or does he have prodigal skill!?”

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

“Interesting,” General Logan remarked from inside the military base back in Johto.

He calmly swirled around his wine. Antoshi's face was displayed on one of the screens in his office. The other screens kept watch on the young boy with black hair, curled up in a corner of his cell. The General looked at the two boys in succession and hummed curiously.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

“Competitors,” Cedric said, “you may begin!”

“I choose you!” Cory said, as he threw out his first Poké Ball. “Lucario!”

From the ball came forth a blue and black bipedal canine. It gave a shout, taking a fighting stance. Lucario held its paw-like hands near its face, eyes locked intensely on Fireball. Fireball responded by lighting the fires on his back. The displays lit up one of the slots on Cory's side with an image of Lucario.

‘That is one well-trained Lucario,’ Antoshi thought, watching the Lucario stand totally motionless.

“Lucario — Aura Sphere!”

Lucario shouted in acknowledgment, holding its hands at one side. In the space between them, it summoned a bright ball of energy — not unlike how Fireball summoned his Focus Blast technique.

“Oh, that's not good,” Antoshi remarked. “Fireball, that attack is going to home in on you so move as quickly as you can!”

Fireball dropped to all fours and sprinted swiftly around the large field. Lucario kept its eyes on its target before thrusting its arms forward. The energy ball chased Fireball for a few moments before exploding at his heels. He shouted in shock, thrown through the air and landing hard on his back.

“Wow, what an attack!” Cedric exclaimed. “Is this already the end for Antoshi's single Pokémon?”

"Not even close, announcer guy," Fireball muttered as he got to his hind feet.

“You all right?” Antoshi asked. Fireball nodded to him. “Fireball — Flamethrower!”

Fireball inhaled deeply, exhaling a powerful stream of fire directly at his opponent.

“Dodge it, Lucario!” Cory said.

Lucario narrowed its eyes and jumped high into the air. Similar to their match against Mega Venusaur, Fireball attempted to follow it, using up the breath left in his lungs. Just before the scorching flames hit, Lucario suddenly vanished.

Antoshi and Fireball both gasped. Fireball immediately coughed up smoke from gasping in some of his own flames.

“Your Lucario is fast!” Antoshi remarked, awe-struck as Lucario appeared back on the ground.

Cory chuckled. “Let's show them just how fast you really are, Lucario! Extreme Speed!”

Lucario suddenly rushed at Fireball with blinding speed before vanishing once again. The crowd cheered in delight. Fireball and Antoshi had no idea where it went, though its rapid footsteps were audible.

“How incredible!” Cedric remarked. “Lucario is moving so fast that the red side's Antoshi and his Typhlosion can't keep up!”

Antoshi panicked, realizing he needed to detect Lucario's whereabouts in order to counter it. It was moving incredibly fast, impossible for his eyes to follow. Antoshi's irises suddenly shifted glowing red on their own accord with the power of his mysterious energy. He gasped upon his senses becoming massively boosted out of nowhere.

Lucario's supersonic movements around the battlefield clearly became visible to him. His eyes widened as Lucario prepared to strike.


Before Antoshi could finish, Lucario appeared next to Fireball and punched his jaw hard. It blinked almost instantaneously to Fireball's other side, striking him in the face face again. Afterward, it hopped back to its side of the field.

Antoshi groaned and shook his head as his eyes and senses returned to normal.

‘What in the world just happened?’ he thought. ‘Why did that happen? …’

Antoshi quickly shifted his attention back to the battle before them. “Fireball — use Inferno!”

"Oh-ho," Fireball remarked, just after setting his jaw, "this is a cool attack."

The flames on Fireball's back flared wildly as he gave a loud roar. The ground under Lucario rumbled briefly before a towering pillar of ghostly blue flames spiraled upward. Lucario shouted in pain, consumed in fires that Cory shielded his eyes from.

When the flames vanished, Lucario was left wincing and holding its arm. Its body was littered with burn marks.

“An incredible counter by the red side!” Cedric said. “Lucario appears to have suffered a burn! How will this affect the tide of battle?”

Antoshi nodded to himself. ‘With that burn, Lucario's physical strength is greatly diminished.’

“Nice move!” Cory said. “That burn is not going to help make this battle any easier, though. We don't need physical attacks to win! Lucario, Aura Sphere!”

Lucario clenched its teeth, holding its arm at its sides again.

‘I wonder…’ Antoshi thought as he narrowed his eyes.

“Fireball, use Flamethrower!”

Fireball exhaled another stream of fire in the same moment Lucario launched its Aura Sphere. The two attacks collided. Aura Sphere was absorbed by the fires and almost immediately dissipated.

Both of their opponents were shocked.

“Whoa!” Cory exclaimed.

Yet, Fireball's attack continued onward. Lucario was struck by the powerful flames, shouting in agony as it was thrown for several meters. It rolled a few times before landing on its front.

Lucario groaned, trembling as it tried to lift itself up before it collapsed.

“Another great counter!” Cedric exclaimed, amid the cheering of the crowd. “Antoshi's wisely chosen Fire-type attack brings down the half-Steel-type Lucario! The tide of battle may be swinging in the favor of the young Trainer from Saffron!”

Cory recalled Lucario into its Poké Ball. Lucario's image on the giant displays was shaded out. Antoshi sighed in relief.

“That was one gamble that paid off,” Antoshi said to Cory. “Good thing you didn't go with another physical attack, otherwise we wouldn't have been able to do that!”

“That was a great gamble,” Cory replied, reaching for another ball on his belt. “Very clever, too. Don't forget I can use two more Pokémon left, with five to choose from!”

“People always like to remind us of how outnumbered we are,” Antoshi said, laughing. “That's not going to throw us off our game, though. We're always outnumbered.”

Cory smirked. “You make a fair point.” He threw out his next ball — a Great Ball. “I choose you — Crobat!”

From the ball emerged a large, bright purple bat with menacing red and yellow eyes. It screeched loudly, flapping its four wings to keep airborne.

“Crobat, Confuse Ray!” Cory quickly commanded. His Pokémon's eyes shifted to a bright, glowing purple.

“Fireball, cover your eyes!” Antoshi said.

It was already too late for Fireball to look away from the mesmerizing glow of Crobat's eyes. His vision became incredibly blurry, unable to formulate a thought in his head. He began to stumble about randomly with a dazed expression.

“Ohh!” Cedric exclaimed. “It appears the red side's Typhlosion has become confused! What does this mean for Antoshi and his solo Pokémon?!”

“Great …” Antoshi muttered in dismay. “Fireball, use Smokescreen!”

"Smokescreen?" Fireball wondered aloud, trying to remember what move that was.

He momentarily snapped out of his daze. He took a deep breath before exhaling a large plume of black smoke that enshrouded most of their side of the field. Afterward, he groaned and held his head while continuing to stumble.

“Crobat, Cross Poison!” Cory said.

Crobat crossed its wings over its face. It summoned forth two swaths of glowing, purple energy in the shape of an 'X' before launching itself into the smoke to deliver it. Fireball stumbled right into the path of Crobat's attack which burst into poisonous bubbles.

Fireball yelled in agony. The broad, searing attack struck vital points in his torso and abdomen. He was thrown hard enough that he fell out of the smokescreen and rolled to a stop next to Antoshi.

"… Did I just get hit?" Fireball asked, wearily. The smokescreen faded away.

“A direct hit!” Cedric said. “Crobat manages to land a devastating Cross Poison despite the Smokescreen!”

Fireball slowly got back to his feet, stumbling back onto the field. He groaned in pain, holding his chest with one hand.

‘That hit took a serious toll on Fireball,’ Antoshi thought. ‘We have to start playing safer. …’

“Fireball,” he said, “use Defense Curl!”

'Defense Curl…' Fireball thought. 'Defense Curl? I know this one…'

Fireball muttered in confusion before suddenly striking his face with his own paw. The crowd gasped in surprise as Fireball gave a goofy laugh.

"That wasn't it!" Fireball said, laughing.

“The confusion seems to have taken its toll!” Cedric remarked. “Antoshi's Typhlosion has struck itself in its confusion!”

Antoshi ran a shaking hand through his hair. Fireball still appeared fine after the self-inflicted damage, but the confusion took away a valuable attack opportunity from them.

“Aerial Ace, Crobat!”

Crobat screeched in response, soaring high into the air. It did a backflip before diving at Fireball with incredible speed.

“Now, Fireball,” Antoshi said, “give 'em a Thunder Punch!”

'Thunder Punch?' Fireball thought.

His eyes went wide, his forepaw suddenly crackling with electricity. Crobat momentarily vanished, reappearing as it dashed by Fireball to strike his face hard with its wing. At the same time, Fireball swung hard and caught Crobat in the nick of time with a Thunder Punch to its midsection.

The result of the traded blows sent Crobat spiraling upward. It smashed hard into the ground, twitching, unable to get back up.

“What an amazing turn of events!” Cedric said. “Typhlosion snaps out of its confusion just in time! Crobat is down! What an incredible display of skill and strength so far by the red side! What an upset this would be!!”

Crobat's image on the displays became shaded out. Cory was down to one Pokémon.

‘Wow,’ Cory thought, recalling his Crobat. ‘Looks like Fireball is still really strong!’

He reached for another Poké Ball on his belt. He gazed down at it for a moment, running his thumb over a star messily etched into its red top. He smiled warmly.

‘You haven't lost yet, my friend,’ Cory thought. ‘Not since, well, …’ he trailed off, glancing over at Fireball.

“Now, let's get our long-awaited rematch, buddy!” Cory said. “I choose you, Swampert!”

Antoshi gasped in surprise, staring down the large, cobalt blue biped. Fireball smirked, giving an acknowledging nod to his old rival. Swampert nodded back.

‘Well, shoot,’ Antoshi thought. ‘I certainly expected him to send out his Swampert at some point. It is a great choice on his part, tactically. He has to know by now that Fireball can use Burn Up. But, … should we use it?’ He glanced at Fireball, who appeared to be fully recovering from his confusion. ‘This certainly won't be like the last time we used the move. It's a gamble either way.’

A breeze passed by as the two Trainers grinned to each other, soaking up the moment of their long-awaited rematch. Their staredown brought back memories of that fateful day when they first met. For a moment in their minds, they were back in the Cerulean City Pokémon Center. Mudkip was facing off against Quilava all over again.

“All is quiet on the battlefield as both sides size each other up,” Cedric said, in a hushed tone. “The crowd has also fallen to a hush in this moment of tension. What could these two outstanding Trainers be planning?”

“Fireball,” Antoshi said, making the first move, “Flamethrower!”

Fireball roared as he fired a powerful stream of flames at his opponent.

“Guard!” Cory said.

Swampert shielded its face with both arms just before the flames consumed it. Once the attack petered out, Swampert thrust its arms out at its sides. While its naturally moist skin was mildly singed, it appeared no worse for wear.

Antoshi was shocked.

‘That is definitely not good,’ he thought.

“Swampert, Muddy Water!”

Cory's Pokémon smacked its hands on the ground, causing a rush of dirt and water to bubble up. The water came to life and quickly began spiraling around Swampert's body like a small maelstrom. It swirled around with increasing ferocity while expanding outward. Once it reached Fireball, it lashed hard at him. Fireball struggled to maintain his ground against the powerful waves of thick, dense water. The water thrashed violently and tore at his body. It felt similar to the sandstorms he recently weathered — with the added torture of being underwater as well.

“Hang on, Fireball!” Antoshi said, shielding his eyes just the same as his friend was.

The water abruptly lost all of its energy, splashing harmlessly upon the ground. Fireball was left soaked and covered in dirt. The flames on his back had dwindled severely. He was hunched over, his breathing ragged.

“Fireball, you okay?” Antoshi asked in concern.

The Typhlosion responded by shaking the muddy water out of his fur. With a grunt, the fires on his back came to life once more. He was intensely focused, keeping his eyes affixed to Swampert. Antoshi nodded in understanding.

“Fire Blast!” Antoshi said.

He brought his hands up to his neck, clasped down tightly, and took as deep a breath as he could muster. With a tremendous shout, he exhaled an intensely bright, five-pointed blast of fire. The flames roared as they raced toward its target. Cory shielded his eyes once again just before the impact of the attack. It exploded violently, echoing around the entire stadium. A cloud of smoke and ash concealed Swampert's frame.

‘Whoa,’ Cory thought.

Antoshi, too, was surprised and impressed. He had never seen Fireball summon forth such intensity in that attack before. He knew just how much this battle meant to Fireball. Not just because of the tournament, but because of the pride at stake against the one Pokémon he considered to be his rival.

As the smoke cleared, both Antoshi and Fireball gasped. Swampert was standing, its arms covering its face yet again. It slowly dropped its defensive stance, still looking to be in good shape.

‘That Swampert went through some incredible training,’ Antoshi thought. ‘Maybe … even more than Fireball.’

Fireball gnashed his teeth furiously, the fires on his back flaring up as a visual testament to the fire in his heart at that moment.

“Swampert,” Cory said, “use Waterfall!”

Swampert gave a shout before it rushed forth with incredible speed that a Pokémon of its size seemed incapable of. As it quickly closed the gap, its body suddenly became enveloped in a jet of water.

“Fireball, dodge it!”

Fireball's eyes went wide, unable to get out of the way in time. He was tackled hard, stuck to his opponent's body as Swampert began to soar high into the air. Fireball groaned loudly, trying to free himself from the powerful momentum. He managed to roll away, but it was to no avail as his opponent darted back down. A large stream of water trailed behind Swampert, reminiscent of a waterfall.

Fireball was again struck headlong by Swampert, helpless against the momentum as they plummeted together. Fireball crashed to the ground hard on his back with Swampert's head firmly buried in his chest. Swampert swiftly hopped back to its feet and ducked out of the way. Fireball was consumed by the falling tower of water, crushed further into the ground from the weight as it rained down upon him.

Fireball!” Antoshi shouted.

Swampert returned to its side of the field. Fireball grunted, struggling to lift himself up. Antoshi was awe-struck as Fireball's fires burned even brighter than before. The Typhlosion's resilience was beyond his belief. If Fireball could just hold out for a bit longer, he'd most definitely outlast Swampert's stamina. Fireball slowly turned to the boy, grinning and giving him a weak thumbs up.

Suddenly, Fireball collapsed. The fires on his back completely went out. Antoshi's heart sank into his stomach. Everything went silent in his head for a moment.

“Down!” Cedric exclaimed. “Antoshi's Typhlosion is down! The blue side's Cory is the victor!”

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

At the Cinnabar Gym, Blaire dropped her bag of snack chips in dismay.

“Seriously?” she wondered aloud. “Well, … I guess it couldn't be helped. They got way further than a Trainer with a single Pokémon probably should, and they put up a heck of a fight.”

Blaire offered a round of applause for the two, while her awaiting challenger grumbled.

“Can we battle now?” he asked.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Antoshi fell to his knees, the world around him seemed to move in slow-motion. The words of their defeat spoken by the announcer echoed in his head. His jaw quavered, clenching his fists, his eyes filling with tears. Their dream had come to a sudden, abrupt ending. Those eager hopes got a cold dose of reality.

Yet, with tear-stained eyes, he looked to his fainted friend who had fought with everything he had for so long. He couldn't help but smile. He sniffled and closed his eyes, breathing a slow and shaky sigh of relief.

‘It's over,’ he thought. ‘Just like that, our long journey in Kanto is over. It didn't end the way we'd hoped, Fireball, but you and I knew we were taking a huge risk going into this just the two of us. We didn't win every battle we faced, but we always persevered. If there's anything I've learned from you, it's that there is nothing you and I can't eventually overcome. We'll overcome this, just like every other obstacle we've had in our way. We did our absolute best. The journey may be over for now, but it's also the beginning of a brand-new one.’

Antoshi took Fireball's Poké Ball from his pocket and stared at it for a moment.

‘I wonder how long it's been since you were last inside here? Six months? Maybe seven? I hate to put you back in, but it looks like I have to. Just for a few minutes, so I can bring you to the Pokémon Center to get you all healed up.’

He held up the ball, pulling his unconscious friend into it in a crimson beam of light.

“Fireball, … return.”

With one hand, he casually wiped the tears from his eyes and stood up as the crowd began to cheer louder. With a long sigh, he faced them. He smiled as proudly as he could, taking his loss with grace. He held Fireball's Poké Ball tightly as he turned and walked away.

“Antoshi!” Cory called out, recalling his Swampert. He jogged over to his opponent, stopping as Antoshi turned to him. “Thank you for battling me. You and Fireball were one of the best teams I've ever faced. I respect both of you a great deal.”

Antoshi smiled gently and gave him a nod.

“Let's hear it for Cory!” Cedric said, prompting those in attendance to applaud and cheer.

As Cory waved to the crowd, Antoshi disappeared back into the stadium tunnel.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

As he promised his friend, it only took a few minutes for Antoshi to reach the stadium's Pokémon Center. He handed Fireball's Poké Ball to Nurse Joy before taking a seat in the nearby empty waiting room.

Nurse Joy soon called him back over once the Typhlosion was fully healed. He thanked her and took the ball back. With a smile, he held the ball out and summoned Fireball from its confines in a bright light.

Fireball immediately looked to Antoshi with a guilty expression.

"Antoshi," he quietly said. "I'm so sorry. I wasn't strong enough, I—"

Antoshi silenced him when he hugged his friend as tightly as he could. Fireball was taken by surprise, but smiled and hugged his friend back. Tears rolled down both of their faces.

“You don't have to apologize for anything,” he said, his voice trembling. “You're my best friend. I love you, Fireball.”

"I love you, too," he replied.

The two lamented for their loss, letting out their emotions as they wept together. It was the end of their long journey in Kanto.

Chapter 11

The duo rested for a short time in the Pokémon Center, sitting together on a couple of chairs. Antoshi idly played with the identification lanyard he continued to wear. Fireball playfully swung his stubby legs, which couldn't reach the floor. They watched the next battle get underway on nearby television screens.

Just then, someone rounded the corner.

“Ah, here they are,” a staff member said, smiling, as he waved an unknown party over. “147?” he asked the duo. Antoshi nodded, confused. “You have some visitors.”

The pair's jaws simultaneously dropped as Antoshi's parents emerged. The boy rose to his feet.

“Mom? Dad?” he asked, grinning ecstatically.

“Oh, Antoshi!” his mother responded with a sorrowful expression.

Antoshi ran over and threw his arms around her. Both of his parents held and consoled him as he cried into his mother's shoulder. It felt like forever since he'd been in their embrace. There was an indescribable sense of relief inside him, brought on by the familiar scent and warmth that only his parents could provide. It was more than enough to mend the hole that their loss left in his heart.

“It's all right,” his mother reassured him, with tears in her eyes. “You and Fireball put up an incredible battle out there. I was so proud watching you both give it your all.”

“I'm sorry,” he said, sniffling and wiping his eyes. “You're right, we did give it our all. I … shouldn't cry over that.”

“No apologies necessary, son,” his father replied warmly, stroking the back of his son's head.

“How, uh, … how long have you been here?” Antoshi asked, clearing his throat. “You said you were busy with work. I didn't think you were coming.”

“Oh, honey,” his mother said, “we could never be busy enough not to be here for you on the most important day of your journey! Of course, we still wanted to surprise you, just in case you won the whole shebang. We're so excited and so proud that you made it this far. To think, our son was on TV for the entire world to see. Ooh, you're like a celebrity now!”

The others laughed. Antoshi smiled gently and nodded.

“Thanks, Mom,” he softly responded. “I needed that, … and I really needed to see you both right now.”

“Antoshi, you're an incredible Trainer,” his father said. “I'm so proud of you and Fireball for your dedication. You could've given up and gone home at any time, but you stuck with it all the way. You made it to the Indigo Plateau and got to compete in this tournament seen all around the world. You're always going to be the best Trainer I've ever known, son.”

Antoshi grinned, wiping residual tears from his eyes.

“Thanks, Dad. I'm so lucky to have the two of you always encouraging me and helping pick me back up. We never would've gotten this far without you both behind us all the way.”

His mother giggled and hugged him tightly.

“You're still going to come home after the tournament wraps up, right?” she asked.

“Absolutely. I can't wait to come back home.”

“Your mother's already got the house all decorated,” his father said. “There's balloons and a banner hanging out in the front yard for you when you get back. … I just hope the balloons are still inflated by then.”

“Me, too!” his mother said with a laugh.

Antoshi grinned and chuckled quietly.

“I love you guys,” he said.

“We love you, too, Antoshi,” his mother said.

Antoshi took a moment to breathe a relieved sigh. He looked up at Fireball with a smile.

“Well, Fireball, are you ready to watch the rest of the tournament with Mom and Dad?” he asked.

Fireball grinned and nodded before pointing to his open mouth. Antoshi laughed as he pulled away from his mother.

“I know, I know. I could go for some snacks, too.”

“Let's all go for some snacks!” his mother said.

With that, the four of them headed off, chatting and laughing together.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

After their loss, the duo spent the rest of the three days taking it easy with Antoshi's parents. Their run was over, and so they watched the rest of the matches from the spectator seats. As expected, Fireball got to eat plenty all throughout each day.

At one point, Antoshi both ran into and introduced his parents to Elise, who showed up to watch the tournament in-person as she'd promised. He got her thoughts on several of the tournament match-ups, and talked over different strategies with her.

Antoshi and Fireball cheered loud and proud for Cory as he continued to advance through the brackets. By the end of the tournament, Cory had made it to the semifinals before finally being eliminated. He was disappointed about the loss, but very proud to have made it to the final four.

On the evening of the final day, all of the participants were called out onto the field once again. The crowd was treated to an extended fireworks display and showers of confetti in celebration of the tournament winner.

"So, what happens to the guy who won?" Fireball asked over the noise of the crowd and fireworks.

“He gets up to six months to challenge the Elite Four,” Antoshi said. “It's one gauntlet, all the way to the end, with no breaks in-between. If he wins all four battles, he gets to face the Champion. If he wins again, then he becomes the Champion.”

"That's really cool!"

Antoshi smiled as he looked at the winner standing on a pedestal in the very center of the field. He was as close as he'd ever gotten to making it there himself. They hadn't won this time, but it was only their first attempt. The fires still burned in his heart to keep on trying.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

"Gimme the window seat," Fireball said. "I want the window seat."

“You always want the window seat,” Antoshi replied, voice hushed. Fireball quietly snickered.

It was the following morning. The duo climbed aboard one of the cars of a train. Rather than walking back, the duo and Antoshi's parents opted to take transportation home together. It was the same mode of transport his parents had used to get to Viridian City. The high-speed train station in Viridian would take them back to Saffron, with some stops along the way.

Antoshi and Fireball chose a seat together, with Fireball expectedly sitting by the window. Antoshi's parents sat together nearby. Antoshi sighed in relief, dropping his backpack to the floor between his legs and leaned back. It was a relaxing end of their long journey across Kanto.

“This is so much fun!” his mother remarked nearby.

As they waited for all the other passengers to head on board, an elderly gentleman in the seat behind Antoshi eased forward to grab his attention.

“Hey there, youngster,” the gentleman said.

Antoshi curiously turned around to face him. “Hello,” he replied.

“I saw you on the television during that tournament. You did an incredible job getting that far with just one Pokémon.”

“Thank you,” he said with a proud smile.

“I was a Trainer like you once when I was younger. I'd never seen anyone use just one Pokémon before. Trainers with one Pokémon achieving great success were always something of a myth to myself and my companions. You're the only one I've ever seen make it to the Championship tournament. There's never been a Champion with a single Pokémon before.”

“Fireball and I were aiming to be the first.”

Fireball heard his name being spoken. He peered over the seat and waved. The man chuckled.

“Well,” the gentleman continued, “I certainly hope this isn't going to make you second-guess yourselves.”

Antoshi shook his head. “It's not. Fireball and I aren't giving up. We're going to keep on trying, and get a lot stronger.”

“That's the spirit! I really hope to see you on that grand stage again!”

“I hope so, too,” he replied with a warm smile.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

It took just a few hours for the duo to be back in the suburbs of Saffron City. The pair smiled proudly as they got out of their family car with Antoshi's parents. Their house was a moderately spacious, two-story affair with several bedrooms, a pool in the backyard, and a sprawling front lawn. Antoshi's neighbors waved to him. He smiled happily and waved back.

“Welcome back!” one of them said.

“Thank you!” he replied.

The cul-de-sac hadn't changed a bit. Everything was still just the way he remembered. Amid a perfectly clear sky, the afternoon sun shone just right, casting its glow upon their quiet, suburban neighborhood. It felt good to be home again.

A couple of youngsters — a boy and a girl — were throwing a ball back and forth in their front yard. They turned and gasped in excitement when they spotted Antoshi.

“It's Antoshi!” the girl squealed.

“Antoshi! You're back!” the boy said.

“Hey there, Jack! Hey, Jade!” Antoshi greeted them. They'd sprouted up a lot since the last time he'd seen them. It made him feel as though he'd been gone for ages.

Antoshi's parents chuckled as the kids rushed up to him.

“We'll meet you inside, Antoshi,” his mother said, before she and her husband parted their company.

“Wo~ow!” Jack said. “Fireball really grew up!”

Jack and Jade looked up at Antoshi and Fireball with wide grins and enthused gazes. The two youngsters certainly appeared to idolize them as their neighborhood heroes. Antoshi smiled and placed a hand on Fireball's back.

“He sure did. We both did a lot of growing up on our journey.”

“That's so cool!” Jack said. “Next year, when I'm old enough, I want to go off on a Pokémon journey like you did. I want to be an amazing Trainer just like you, Antoshi!”

“Me, too!” Jade added.

“Well, I'm not so amazing,” Antoshi said, grinning coyly.

“Oh, come on!” Jack said. “You collected all eight badges — and you went to the Indigo League! We saw you on TV!”

“That is our greatest accomplishment,” Antoshi replied, “… so far. Fireball and I can't get it out of our blood, though. We're ready to do it all over again.”

“Awesome!” the two children said in unison.

“I'm so excited!” Jade said. “I can't wait to be a Pokémon Trainer and go off on adventures!”

“It's definitely the experience of a lifetime, and I hope the two of you have an unforgettable adventure like we did.” Antoshi and Fireball nodded to each other before parting ways with them. “It was good talking to you two! We'll see you again soon!”

“See ya!” they exclaimed, waving to them. “Bye!”

Antoshi and Fireball laughed when they saw the balloons and banner: 'Welcome Home Antoshi'. It was all laid out on the front porch, just like his parents said. They sighed happily, opening the front door and walking inside.

The duo were finally home.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

“I just … want to … go home,” the boy with black hair muttered, mindlessly.

He laid in bed, staring blankly at the ceiling. After suffering through a week of solitary confinement, he was in a constant state of dull emptiness. He felt nothing, saw nothing, heard nothing. He was catatonic, as though sleeping with his listless eyes open.

Inside his office further inside the military base, the General watched the sable-haired boy on the monitors before him.

“It’s been a week now,” he said. “I think he’s had enough time to stew in there.”

With a soft groan, he pushed his chair out and got to his feet.

“Should I accompany you, General?” the other man asked.

“No, that won't be necessary, Colonel Nolan. He's been without human contact for far longer than a young boy should. I'll talk to him alone first.”

“Very well, sir.”

The General walked to the door, grabbing his service cap from the hat rack and put it on before departing his office.

The overwhelming silence surrounding the boy gave way to the sound of footsteps echoing down the hall — and they were getting closer. He groaned softly, breaking out of his trance. He sat up, still dazed and confused.

“Hello there,” a voice spoke from beyond the cell window.

His sunken eyes twitched. He had a weary, dumbfounded expression on his face. It was the first person he'd seen.

“You … are—are you real?” the boy asked. He stood and pressed his hands against the glass.

“I am real, I assure you,” the General replied, smiling.

One of the hovering robots came by, placing a chair behind him to sit down. Once he sat, the robot handed him a clipboard and pen. The boy's eyes shifted between the General and the robot, his jaw hanging agape in awe. He was oddly impressed over the General's control of the robots, which he himself couldn't get to do anything for him.

“Who are you?” the boy asked. “Are you here to get me out? Where are my parents? Can—can I go home now?”

“Easy, easy,” he reassured the boy. “First, let me introduce myself. My name is General Logan. I'm in charge of this facility. I'm gonna do what I can for you but, right now, leaving is a privilege.” He clicked the pen before jotting on the clipboard.

“A privilege? … What do you mean?”

“Well, let's start with the basics. We couldn't find any identification on you, so why don't you start by telling me your name?”

“My name?” he asked. His eyes shifted from side to side, trying to recall his memories. “I—I'm not sure. I can't remember.”

The General took a hard look at the boy.

“I see. … Well then, can you recount the events of that night in Fern Town?”

“Fern … Town? Is that where I live? I don't … remember.”

“You don't remember the … explosion or what led to it?”


Logan went quiet, studying the boy's worried expression. He wrote on the clipboard again.

“Are you proficient with any weapons? Improvised explosives? That sort of thing.”

The boy ran a hand through his hair, groaning in frustration.

“I don't know. I can't remember anything.”

Logan pondered to himself. He stared at his notes while clicking the pen a few times.

“Well then, young man, I'm afraid there's nothing more for me to do.”

“That's it? I—I can go home now?”

Logan got to his feet. The same robot promptly took the chair and carted it away.

“Sorry, I need you to cooperate with me first before we can accommodate you. Maybe the next time we speak—”

“No!” the boy shouted, panicked. “Please don't leave me here! I'm telling you, I can't remember! Please, I'll do anything to get out of here!”

“Whether you remember or not is irrelevant,” the General replied, slipping the pen into his uniform's coat pocket. “Until you can give us a statement that helps us in our investigation, you're going to stay right here — no matter how long it takes.”

The General took his leave, followed closely behind by the hovering robot.

“No! No, don't go!!” he shouted, rapping his hands on the glass. His eyes quickly welled up with tears. “Please let me out! Please, please, let me out. …”

The boy shut his eyes, falling to his knees as he wept.

“I just want to go home …”

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Two months passed in the blink of an eye. The boy with dark hair was still locked in his cell. He lay upon the cold, white floor; his legs propped up vertically on the wall. His eyes were empty, almost devoid of life. Stricken by mania, left to do nothing else but ramble to himself. Hallucinations came and went, oftentimes talking to invisible people. The solitary confinement was working to soften the boy up, but not to give General Logan the answers he was looking for.

Everything was still the same — the horrible, stagnant, routine, sterile same. He had long since gone past all stages of grief, resigned to living out each day in nothingness. Despite how cold, empty, and powerless he felt, he never lost his will to go on. The endless monotony and solitude had affected his psyche so brutally, and yet he hadn't given up the tiny glimmer of hope that rested in his heart. He could only dream about what the world looked like outside the constricting four walls of his cell.

There was a deep, churning swell of emotions underneath his pale, listless gaze. So much anger, sorrow, and fear that had built up inside of him. He was especially vengeful toward the General — his only human contact since his imprisonment. The man had been so uncaring, only wanting to pry memories from the boy which he still could not recall. He never gave the boy an ounce of humanity, nothing to make any attempt to lift the boy's spirits. His mind swirled with terrible thoughts and imagery of revenge against the General. Yet, Logan was the only person who could give him his freedom. He remained amiable towards the man for that reason alone.

A short time later, General Logan came to his cell once more. He was flanked by a slightly taller creature.

“General … Logan?” the boy muttered, in a daze. He slowly got to his feet, his jaw hanging. He pressed his hands to the glass wall between them, as he usually did.

“I brought a friend this time,” Logan said. “This is Slowking. He's a Pokémon.”

The boy chuckled, wearily. “Hello, new friend…” he remarked, mindlessly, in a singsong voice.

“He's going to help you. He's going to see what can be done about your memory problems.”

“Keep your eyes on me,” the Pokémon spoke in a gentle voice. “Just relax.”

Slowking closed its eyes for a moment. They glowed a mesmerizing shade of blue as it opened them again. The boy groaned wearily, his eyes glowing the same color.

“What do you see?” Logan asked.

“Emptiness,” Slowking replied. “Emptiness, giving way to … anger. Such anger. Beyond that, there's … something before I can reach his memories. It's like wading through a dense, pitch-black void. So much … darkness. I've never seen anything like this before. This is something much more than simple amnesia. Something is—aahh!”

Slowking shouted as a bolt of blackish energy struck it between the eyes and staggered it backward.

“What happened?” Logan asked, concerned.

The boy slid down to his knees, groaning and shaking his head.

“There's was … something there,” Slowking said, trembling as it held its closed eyes. “Something inside of him that didn't want me probing around his mind. It was dark; inexplicable. It seemed to be slumbering at first when I was inside, but … I fear I may have awoken it — jarred something to life that was better left alone. It was no Pokémon. A monster, perhaps. A monster … sleeping inside of this young boy.”

“Come, let's get you healed up,” Logan said, helping escort his blinded Pokémon away.

The boy became aware of his surroundings again just as they left.

“No, wait, please!” he exclaimed. “You said he was going to help me! Please let me go home now!” The pair were gone. He all alone — once again. “I just want to … go home. I'll do anything to go home.”

'Would you?' a deep voice asked. The boy gasped and jolted in surprise.

“… Who said that?” he asked cautiously, taking a seat on his bed.

'I did. Do not worry, I am here to help you.'

The boy sighed in relief, closing his eyes. “Oh good, it's just another one of the voices in my head.”

'I assure you, I am much more than just a voice.'

The boy opened his eyes in shock. “Wh—what? You mean, … you're real?”

'As real as I can be. However, the first thing I need from you is to watch your jaw movements. Look closely at the cameras outside.' He lifted his gaze to the surveillance in question. 'They have no way to pick up sound. They cannot hear anything you say because they do not care to hear you cry for help. They only want to observe you. Keep your jaw movements minimal and they will never know you are talking to me.'

He turned his face away from the cameras as instructed.

“I … understand,” he said with some confusion. “But, who are— … uh, I have a lot of questions right now…”

The voice quietly chuckled.

'As is to be expected. I will simply start by stating that I am here to help you unlock the mysteries of your past, and within yourself.'

“You know … who I am?”

'Indeed. I know a great many things about you. Things you didn't even know before you lost your memory. Heed my guidance, for I will guarantee that you are never locked in a cage ever again.'

The boy was completely spellbound by the very idea of freedom. For the first time in a long time, a genuine smile crept across his dry, chapped lips.

“Will I … be able to go home? To see my family?”

'In due time. However, we will continue this conversation later. Be patient; we must plan things slowly and accordingly. First, you must rest. Recollect your thoughts, get your strength back. I will return you again soon.'

“No, please don't leave!” he exclaimed louder than intended. The motions of his mouth and body, talking to someone, were captured on video.

'It is all right,' the voice reassured him. 'I will never be far from you. I am always here with you. … Always.'

With that, all was quiet once again.

His eyes shifted back and forth, mulling over what in the world just happened and trying to make sense of it. He sighed gently, opting to follow the voice's suggestion. He slipped under the white sheets of his bed to rest his eyes. Though it was hard for him to sleep, being catatonic most of the time, he felt some comfort in having someone he could talk to — even if they were just a disembodied voice in his head.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

General Logan returned to his office alone. Colonel Nolan was watching the boy on the screens. The General closed the door behind him, taking his seat and sighed heavily. He popped open the crystal decanter on his desk to pour himself a drink.

“To be completely honest with you, Nolan,” Logan said, “that boy frightens me. There's something so unnatural about him. It shakes me to my core every time I have to talk with him. That Slowking sent to us was supposed to be the best extractor of the mind we have. Instead of finally getting results after two whole months, the kid just … I don't know, attacks him with his mind or something.”

“Why are we still holding him, though?” Nolan quietly asked. “He's just a child that wants to go home. It feels wrong to lock him away for so long.”

Logan exhaled after taking a sip of his drink. He kept his glass in hand, thinking for a moment.

“There's definitely something going on under the surface with him. He's got some kind of power, some secret he's hiding. There's no doubt in my mind about that after what I witnessed today. Whether he's doing so on purpose or not, I have no idea. That child is the only witness to, and possibly the culprit of, a mass murder. Thousands of people are dead, not to mention the millions more that died in the Slateport attack over a year ago. There's too much similarity. There's so much more at work here. … So many questions and not enough answers. I want to know what kinds of weapons we're dealing with here.”

“Weapons, sir?”

The General nodded. “The fate of his home town and Slateport are nearly identical — Slateport's was just on a much grander scale of devastation. He may be using weapons, or he may be a weapon himself, but he's definitely hiding something. Some crucial piece of evidence is locked up in that boy's head. Doesn't matter how long it takes to find out. Higher-ups don't care. The other problem is that we don't know anything about him. All of Fern Town's records were destroyed in the explosion. Our database doesn't have any birth records in Fern Town matching his description and approximate age. As far as anyone's concerned, he doesn't exist.”

“But on what conditions do we release him?”

The General chuckled, taking another sip of his drink. “That's the funny part, at least to me. It's not a matter of when to release him. The higher-ups don't want him released. They never want him to see the light of day ever again. They don't care how long it takes for him to regain his memories. They just want his secrets. They want to find out how he did what he did. After that, there's no more use for him. He's to be erased.”

The Colonel appeared somewhat surprised by the remarks, composing himself quickly so as not to let it show.

“Understood, sir.”

Nolan turned to watch the sleeping boy on the monitor.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

The next morning, the mysterious young boy stirred awake from his sleep. He sat up and yawned, stretching his arms over his head. His eyes and expression looked more alert and attentive than the previous day.

'You are awake,' the voice said, startling him. That was something he needed to get used to. 'You have gotten a full night of rest. Are you feeling better now?'

He took a deep breath, looking at how steady his hands were.

“Yes, I am,” he sighed. “I haven't gotten much sleep since being locked up — just little naps here and there.”

'That is excellent. I can sense that your energy has improved.'

“'Sense?' … What does that mean?”

The voice chuckled. 'It is something you will come to understand more in time. For now, though, you should start to feel yourself returning to normal day by day. You need to get more sleep on a regular basis. Eat whenever they feed you to keep up your strength, and to keep your mind alert.'

“Sounds easy enough so far. … Who are you, anyway?”

'You may call me 'Lazarus.' As previously stated, I am here to help you.'

“Help me how?”

'I will answer your question with a question. Tell me, do you ever dream of doing great things?'

“You mean, aside from the obvious 'wanting to get the hell out of here'? … Sure, I guess.”

'Once you are free from this prison, what would you do if you had the power to make the world a better place?'

“Well, I— … wait, can we backtrack for just a sec'? You think I actually will get out of here?”

'I know you will, because I will help you to earn your freedom.'

A grin spread across his face, pumping his fists. “You'll … help me? What do I have to do?!”

'Settle down, firstly,' the voice said, firmly. 'I told you to keep your movements discreet — remember?'

He quickly placed his hands on his lap. “Right, sorry.”

'I want you to listen closely to what I am about to tell you. … You are far stronger than you can comprehend. You have a unique destiny to reach where you will perform incredible things. You have an astonishing power within you that far eclipses the limits of normal human ability. I want to help you access that power. In doing so, you will earn your freedom from this place.'

“Freedom…” he whispered in awe.

'You do not know it yet, but fighting is in your blood. So, you will fight. Fight to get yourself out from this empty prison. Fight to make yourself stronger, to sharpen your focus, your senses, and your resolve. Fight to become something far greater than any of the pathetic people that locked you in here. You are above them, and you will show them that. To do that, however, you must fight.'

An impassioned look came across his face. He found Lazarus' words inspiring and began to draw strength from the mysterious voice. He clenched his fists, nodding.

“I'm ready to start doing whatever it takes to get out of here.”

'Excellent. We shall not delay in setting things into motion. First, sit up on your bed with your legs crossed and your hands folded. Make sure you are comfortable.'

With a content sigh, the boy did as Lazarus instructed. “Now what?”

'You must learn how to mentally focus your energy through meditation. It is the only way you can train inside of this box. The process will be slow, but undoubtedly worth it. Now, close your eyes.' The boy complied yet again. 'Focus yourself on your goal of freedom. Let not a single distraction creep into your mind. Eat, sleep, train — this is going to be your regimen every single day until you become strong enough to leave. All the while, remain focused on your goal. Continuing to do this will gradually strengthen your resolve and improve your senses.'

“This seems kind of boring. Am I supposed to start feeling something soon or what?”

'Remain focused. Clear your mind. Breathe slowly and naturally. Believe me, this will not be boring. You will understand more soon.'

He remained calm and still for a few moments before sighing in exasperation. He was hoping for faster results.

“I can't do it. I keep thinking about why I'm here and if I'm going to ever get out.”

'You must learn to block distractions in your mind. Remember — the path to your freedom starts with this training.'

He sighed again, shutting his eyes and breathing slowly as the voice had instructed. After a few minutes, he felt an unknown energy began to swirl inside and invigorate him ever so slightly. His eyebrows twitched in response.

“I feel … something. It's like a really warm energy inside me.”

'Very good. Now, channel your emotions. Think back to the anger, the sadness, the despair you felt from being locked up here. Think about how painful it was for you to be neglected and forgotten. Remember your frustration of having no memories, and how your words fell on deaf ears.'

His breathing gradually became more intense. The horrible memories of his confinement for something he didn't recall doing became a much needed spark. That spark ignited the welled-up fuel: the latent anger in his heart that had simmered under the surface for so long. Soon, a transparent dark light began to envelop his body. As he concentrated deeper on those feelings, the light came alive. It flickered gently around his body, like a weak flame.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

As the day progressed, the boy continued to focus and meditate while keeping his negative emotions forefront in his heart. As Lazarus had told him, he only stopped his training to eat, or to use the restroom. Each time he opened his eyes, his broken concentration dissipated the fiery energy around his body. As such, he remained unaware of its existence.

By the end of the day, the boy was becoming exhausted. It became clear that there was so much more to his meditation than simply sitting on a bed for hours. He felt as though he'd been outputting constant physical exertion.

'That is enough for today. You are starting to overexert yourself.'

“I can keep going,” the boy said, struggling to sit upright. “If it gets me out of here faster, I'll—”

'Enough!' the voice shouted loudly enough to make him jump. 'I will tell you when you have reached your limit, and you will stop. Is that understood?'

“All right, all right. … I got it.”

'Very good. We will resume tomorrow.'

“Wait. Before you go, I have one last question to ask. … What is my name?”

'Your name? Why, you only need look into the recesses of your mind. You will find it if you try to remember.'

The boy struggled to sift through the murky depths of his memory. Slowly, something waded to the surface. It was the image of a piece of paper on a table. He recalled himself taking a closer at it, able to make out a name in print.


He gasped, his eyes lighting up. “La— … toshi?” He was awe-struck and overjoyed to remember his name. However, his joy quickly turned to skepticism. “That … sounds like a made-up name. Maybe I'm misremembering.”

'I assure you, the memories you recall are real.'

The boy strained himself to dig up any other memories.

“I can't … seem to remember anything else, though.”

'Your memories will come back in time. For now, get some rest. Tomorrow, I will teach you more of what you wish to know.'

The young boy, now known as Latoshi, settled into bed. He grinned from ear to ear, staring at the plain white ceiling. He was overjoyed, finally able to recall a modicum of his life before his horrible imprisonment. Remembering something as critical as his name was momentous for him. It was just the first piece of the puzzle toward regaining his memories. He wiped a tear from his eye, continuing to smile as he fell asleep.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

The next morning, Latoshi awoke to a strange ringing tone. He shook his head, picking his ear.

'Excellent, you are awake,' Lazarus said. 'Let us not delay in resuming your training efforts.' After yawning and stretching for a few moments, Latoshi got into his meditative position. 'As promised, today I will further your teaching. Resume focusing your energy and concentrating your emotions. Remember your goal.'

With a long, slow exhale, he did as he was told. It wasn't long before the same black aura began to gently flicker around the boy's body.

'Now, keep your mind focused while you open your eyes slowly.'

Latoshi did so, and immediately gasped upon seeing the mysterious black light around him.

“What … is this?” he asked, awe-struck. He kept himself from moving, worried that it might disappear at the slightest twitch.

'I will answer your question after we try a small visual experiment to show you what it is you are trying to develop. Cup your hands as if you are trying to collect water.' The boy again complied. 'Now, focus the energy you see around you into your palms. Will it so that you can shape it into a sphere.'

The boy concentrated into doing so for a few moments. With some effort, he was able to complete his task as Lazarus had asked him. To his surprise, a shimmering orb of black light hovered above his hands.

“Whoa,” he remarked.

'This, Latoshi, is the energy that you possess — the energy you are building toward strengthening. It is the energy of your spirit. It is your 'Ki'.'

Latoshi admired the energy he created for a short time. It gave off a warmth that he found comforting. In some way he couldn't understand, the energy felt like a weapon of phenomenal power.

'Now do you understand? This is only a small fraction of what you are truly capable of.'

An enthused grin spread across the boy's lips.

“I'm ready to keep training. Now that I've seen it for myself … I can't wait to see the level of strength I can reach.”

'Good,' Lazarus replied. 'Very good…'

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Over the following weeks, Lazarus continued to train the boy. As Latoshi's strength grew, so did his confidence and sense of self. He felt so much more relaxed and at ease, allowing his personality to finally shine through. He was no longer the cowering, terrified child when he first awoke in his cell. Having someone to talk to and learn from was immensely helpful in coping with his solidarity — but it also meant the mysterious voice in his head was his only confidant and moral guide.

General Logan continued to occasionally visit the boy. His visits had previously been an event that Latoshi looked forward to with great eagerness. Now, Logan's words fell on deaf ears. Latoshi's meditation was deep enough that he was oblivious to Logan speaking to him. The boy had become incredibly focused and centered within those weeks — a far cry from the rambling, singing, and blank staring he previously engaged in to pass the time.

Day after day, Logan and Nolan were baffled by the boy's steadfast meditation as they watched him via the monitors. Logan himself was becoming increasingly frustrated that the boy continued to ignore him.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

'Another impressive day of training,' Lazarus said as Latoshi lay in bed. 'You have excelled greatly in such a short time span. Your focus has become completely unwavering. You are as sharp as a knife. Your muscle mass has become more lean and defined. How do you feel?'

Latoshi held a hand up to his face, smirking as he summoned some of his energy. His hand also served to conceal his mouth movements from the nearby camera.

“Stronger than I probably have been in my entire life. … That is, if I ever do remember my life before this dump.”

'I know you will regain your memories in time. For now, just focus on your task at hand.'

The boy scoffed in amusement. “That prick Logan seriously offered to let me go home if I talk to him.”

Lazarus chuckled. 'Do not listen to their lies. You know who the only one you need to listen to is.'

“Of course I do,” Latoshi replied with a cocky smirk. “I never would've gotten this far without you. You pulled me out of a dark hole, Lazarus. I owe you my life for that.”

'As I said when we first spoke, I am here to help you. Now, get some rest. Tomorrow is the day of fate; the day you gain your freedom.'

Latoshi closed his eyes with a content smile on his face.

‘I know my name,’ Latoshi thought. ‘I know my power, I know what I'm capable of. I know my destiny. Thanks to Lazarus, I'm finally getting out of here. Just one more day. One more day, and then I'll be out of this hellhole. I'll make every person in here pay for keeping me locked up. Starting with you, Logan.’

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Over the three months that passed since Antoshi and Fireball came home, life had been calm and serene for both of them. The duo relaxed and enjoyed their time taking things easy at home. They watched plenty of TV together and Antoshi got to brush up on his video gaming skills. Fireball got to have all the snacks he wanted, anytime he wanted. Antoshi shared tons of stories with his parents about their journey at the dinner table — a place where Fireball was welcome to sit at. Antoshi was also happy to catch up with over a year's worth of work from his home schooling. For him, schoolwork was fun, and he enjoyed doing it.

They kept their battling prowess from waning by doing some training in the woods, similar to how they'd train when they were younger. On most days, they could spent hours outside just finding as many different wild Pokémon as they could to battle with. Occasionally, they found a passing Trainer to spar with as well.

Preparations were underway that morning for Antoshi's birthday. His mother hung a colorful, decorative banner on the wall — one of many she'd placed around the house.

“I'm so excited!” his mother said. “My boy's going to be a teenager!”

“He sure is,” his father replied, tying off a balloon. “Do you think maybe you're going a little overboard with the fanfare this year, Nikki? It seems … extravagant.”

“Of course not! This is a very important milestone in his life. You're only thirteen once.”

“That's what you say every birthday,” he replied with a chuckle.

Antoshi emerged from his bedroom wearing pajamas. He stopped suddenly, his groggy eyes slowly panning around the decorated living room.

“There's our birthday boy!” his mother said. “Surprise! I hope you like the way we dressed the place up.”

“I … am definitely surprised,” the boy replied, walking around with a grin on his face. “These parties get more and more extravagant every year.”

His father laughed. “That's what I said!”

“Well,” his mother responded, “we didn't get to see you for your twelfth birthday since you were out on your journey. So, I'm making up for it with double the decorations!”

Fireball appeared as well, having the same reaction Antoshi did.

“I'll bet Fireball's never seen so many colors in his life, huh?” his father asked with a grin.

Fireball nodded to him, his eyes wide in astonishment.

“You did an amazing job, Mom,” Antoshi said, smiling, “like you always do.” He walked up to her to share a brief hug.

“Ohh, thank you, sweetie. I'm so glad you like it.” She pointed to the nearby dining room table. “There's a present over there you can open now. Don't worry, there's more presents to come!”

Antoshi and Fireball headed over to the gift. They grinned as both of them shared the responsibility of tearing away the neatly-wrapped red paper. Antoshi opened it and looked inside.

“Oh, wow, clothes! … Again!” he said, feigning surprise. He took out the garment on top: a bright, red t-shirt. He was surprised his parents would get him something so casual. “… Hey, this isn't one of the usual collared shirts you get for me.”

“I know!” his mother said. “I remember you telling me here and there that you liked t-shirts more, so, I got you some! In your favorite color, too!”

“I like how it looks,” the boy remarked, inspecting it front and back. “This reminds me of my eleventh birthday when you got me a bunch of clothes to start off our Kanto journey.”

“Can you believe it, son?” his father asked. “Tomorrow marks two years since you left to become a Pokémon Trainer. Time sure flew, don't you think?”

“Yeah, funny you should mention that,” Antoshi said, with a nervous chuckle. He put the shirt down and turned to his parents, grabbing their attention. “Fireball and I have really been enjoying the time we've spent at home. However, we decided that … we want to get back on the road again. … Tomorrow.” Both of his parents were shocked. “This time, … we want to go on a journey through Johto instead.”

There was a moment of silence. His mother dropped the streamers in her hand.

“… Oh,” his mother said, nervously wringing with her hands like Antoshi would, “I see.”

“I'm sorry for dropping this on you both so suddenly, but … well, it's something we wanted to be totally sure of before I said anything.”

“You could stay at home for just a couple more months,” she said. “Then you could try the Indigo League tournament again in the fall.”

“I know, but … Fireball and I have been missing that sense of adventure we had going through Kanto. Seeing all-new towns and new scenery, and trying new foods was so much fun for us.” Fireball nodded, enthused. “Johto is a whole new place with a brand new attitude. We want to experience that all over again, and we really don't want to wait around for the next tournament — especially not after how quickly we lost the first time. The next time we try, we want to be way better than we are now. We think that training through Johto will give us that boost of experience.”

Both of his parents smiled proudly. Antoshi's mother had tears in her eyes.

“I think I can speak for both of us for a minute,” his father said. “We are very proud of you, son. We're always willing to support you in making your dreams come true.”

“Absolutely,” his mother said, sniffling.

“I'm sorry, again,” Antoshi said. “I hope this doesn't spoil the party.”

“Oh, don't be silly!” his mother replied, wiping a tear from her eye. “We were just a little surprised, that's all. You know we love you and, like your father said, we're always behind you in your decisions.”

“Thanks, Mom,” he replied, grinning.

“Now, who wants breakfast?!” she said. “I think it's a waffles day — what do you think?”

Fireball's ears perked up. He shuffled over to his usual seat at the table and eagerly waited. The others laughed.

“That's a 'yes,'” Antoshi replied.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Antoshi's birthday party went off later that day with the bang of party poppers. It was a small, casual affair with just some of his extended family and some friends from the neighborhood — including Jack and Jade. The two young siblings eagerly showed Antoshi the Pokémon that they'd just started training: a pair of Eevee. They soaked up all the knowledge he had to share with them about being a Trainer.

Antoshi was very thankful upon opening all of the gifts he'd received. He was overjoyed to be surrounded by friends and family on the day before he and Fireball set off on a whole new journey. Fireball himself snuck bites of as many cupcakes and snack chips that he could whenever no one was watching or petting him.

At the end of the day, after everyone went home and all the decorations were taken down, Antoshi and Fireball got ready for bed. Antoshi's new backpack, which was also red, was stocked full of supplies as it sat by the bedroom door. The duo smiled as they stared at the ceiling.

“This bed is always so comfy,” Antoshi remarked. “I was just getting used to it, too.”

"Yeah, I'm gonna miss this floor," Fireball replied. "All the other floors I've slept on just don't feel as warm as this one does."

Antoshi laughed. “Goodnight, Fireball. Sleep tight.”

"Goodnight, buddy."

They closed their eyes with smiles upon their faces, eager for the journey ahead of them.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

At the same time, back in Johto, Latoshi's eyes opened upon completing his meditation for the day.

'It is time,' Lazarus said.

A devious smirk spread across the boy's face.

Chapter 12

General Logan marched around the hallway corner, nearing closer to Latoshi's cell. He was in no mood to be ignored this time, ready for a confrontation with the boy. His superiors, despite their previous willingness to keep the boy locked up for life, were becoming impatient with him. He'd shown absolutely nothing for his efforts in the past three months. Because of that, they turned up the heat on him — results, or consequences.

However, Logan was surprised to find the boy sitting on the side of the bed. Latoshi was staring intensely at him, as though he'd been expecting him.

“Well, now,” he said, “I finally have your attention for once.” He held up a clipboard full of papers up against the bulletproof glass. “Do you see this? These are discharge papers. They're already filled out — all they require is my signature. Once I do that, you're completely free.”

A hovering robot came by, placing a chair for Logan to sit down. Perturbed, the General kicked the chair away. The robot hovered quietly in place.

“You just have to work with me,” Logan went on, “it's all I ask for. You've been in here for over three months now. You're without your family, who've probably given up hope looking for you. Why don't you just tell me anything? Give me something. I'm trying to help you, but first, you need to help me. Okay?”

Latoshi grinned, almost cackling at the General's remarks. “Help me?” Latoshi asked, edging forward a bit. “The moment I was put in this cage was the moment all help was impossible. You, and whoever else you're working with, you don't give a damn about me. You were willing to lock up a kid for the rest of his life as long as it means you get your results in the end. I already know that I will never get out of here — not as long as I don't have my memories back, and you continue to refuse to believe me. It doesn't matter anymore, though. The only help I need now is from Lazarus.”

“Lazarus?” the General asked, confused. “Who is Lazarus?”

Latoshi smiled, slowly getting to his feet. He pressed his hands against the glass while the black light of his energy formed around him.

“You can't even see this, can you? This aura around me?” The General appeared puzzled. “Exactly as I thought. You have no idea how strong I am now, how infinitely stronger I've become since you locked me in here to rot. The pain and torture you've inflicted upon me only served as a catalyst to drive me forward.”

“Pain?!” the General shot back, posturing intimidatingly in front of him. The boy grinned arrogantly in response. “How about all the pain you inflicted on those victims' families? What about the torture that they go through every day and night knowing they can't even bury the loved ones that you killed?!”

“I told you I can't remember anything!” Latoshi shouted. “But that was never good enough for you! You spent these last three months acting as my keeper — watching over me, studying me, never giving me a moment of privacy!”

The General chuckled. “You think you're entitled to anything. No, your rights were gone the moment you caused that explosion. Your rights are gone because you refuse to tell us what we want to know. This prison cell is your coffin. You will never get out of here.”

Latoshi's blood boiled. The situation was exactly as he assumed. It only took a bit of pressure to get Logan to finally come clean and validate all of the hatred the boy had welled up inside of him. He had no regrets for what he was about to do.

“And that's where you're wrong,” Latoshi said, bitterly. His black aura flickered wildly around him. His brown irises shifted to a shimmering black as he glared into the General's eyes with contempt. “You rotten bastard! I'm going to kill you! I'm going to kill all of you!”

He screamed in a rage, slamming his fist against the glass, instantly shattering the otherwise impenetrable barrier. Suddenly, there was nothing separating Latoshi and the General. As the glass broke, a blaring alarm and blinking red lights went off throughout the compound.

“No,” Logan said, backing away in fear. “That's … unreal! No kid's that strong! No one is that strong!”

Latoshi laughed, boisterously. “It's very real. And now, I'm very free.”

“Prisoner escape alert!” a male voice rang out through the facility. “High-value prisoner escape in section A-3! All units are ordered to subdue and capture prisoner! Use of lethal force is authorized!”

“'High-value', huh?” Latoshi remarked with an amused grin. “Wow. Guess I was something of a celebrity around here.”

The General quickly turned and ran, leaving Latoshi to his fate.

'Ignore him for now,' Lazarus said. 'It is time to exact your revenge and earn the freedom you worked so hard for.'

A sinister smirk spread across the boy's lips, rushing down the hallway opposite to where the General ran. As he looked around, he finally saw more of the facility. It was all as cold and white and sterile as he'd been accustomed to. The bright, white lights rolling past disgusted him. He wished never to see lights like that ever again.

He turned another corner. A military policeman in full tactical gear was standing in his way. He came to a halt, shocked, as the man pointed an assault rifle at him.

“Down on the ground!” the man yelled at him. “Now!!”

'Well?' Lazarus said to the boy. 'Are you going to give up already and submit to them or … will you test the level of skill you achieved from the fruits of your labor?'

Latoshi narrowed his eyes. With a shout, he tapped into a level of speed he was unaware of and suddenly vanished. The shocked policeman looked around for a moment before realizing the boy was behind him. He quickly turned around, eyes filled with fear.

“How—how did you …” He suddenly raised his weapon.

Latoshi automatically responded by holding a hand out in front of him. The man was confused.

“What do you … think you're doing?” the man asked. “Put your hands behind your head — now!”

Latoshi sneered, summoning forth the black energy of his spirit that had been forged from the anguish inside of him. His eyes went wide and the muscles in his body tensed. He shouted again, firing a large stream of energy from his palm — enough to cover the entire hallway.

In an instant, the man was completely vaporized.

The energy continued on, striking the far wall and exploding on impact. Latoshi lowered his arm, staring blankly in disbelief at the destruction he'd wrought.

“Did I … did I just …”

'End him?' Lazarus chimed in. 'You most certainly did. Consider that the fate of any others who would dare stand in your way. Now, continue your—'

“It came from over here!” a nearby voice shouted.

A handful of officers rounded the corner. They immediately raised their weapons upon spotting the boy.

“Get on the ground!” one of them shouted.

“Time to go,” Latoshi said.

'Wait,' Lazarus stopped him. 'Stay where you are.'

“What?! They have guns. You know, those things with bullets inside them? Now seems like a pretty good time to run.”

'On the contrary. I want you to use this as an illustration of just how invulnerable you are.'

“On the ground! Hands behind your head!”

'Ignore their commands,' Lazarus reassured him. 'Continue to defy them until they open fire.'

Latoshi swallowed nervously before scowling at the men.

“Get on the ground, hands on your head, or we will open fire! You have three seconds to comply! One! … Two! … Three!”

Latoshi gasped as the sound of gunshots rang out. His irises glowing, his perception of time suddenly slowed down. The bullets whizzed toward him before striking the flaring black aura of energy surrounding his body. They were stopped as though striking a solid steel wall.

The smoking brass bullet casings clattered on the ground around the officers. The bullets themselves fell at Latoshi's feet. Latoshi and the men looked on in disbelief, both sides realizing the boy hadn't been harmed.

'Finish them,' Lazarus said.

“Ha!” Latoshi chortled in amusement, raising an open palm to the men. A twisted grin spread across his lips. With a shout, he fired another large blast of energy to extinguish the men. The attack caused further explosions and destruction to the base.

'More of them will likely continue to file in like ants,' Lazarus said. 'They are a waste of your talents. Now is the time to display the true extent of your destructive power. Escape through the roof.'

Latoshi looked around. “I don't know where the exit is.”

'You may make your own exit, Latoshi. You need only use your imagination.'

He thought for a moment. He looked up, firing an energy blast to punch through the ceiling.

“Hope this works,” he muttered.

With some effort and straining, the black aura around him flickered intensely. He uttered a cry of surprise, kicking his legs as his energy slowly pulled him up off the ground. He carefully maneuvered through the gap he made. He gasped as a gust of wind swept over him — real, outside air.

“I—I'm flying?” he remarked, dumbfounded. “I'm … outside?”

He trembled in awe, hovering hundreds of feet in the air on his own accord, taking in the new sights around him.

'Do you now see what fantastic abilities your power affords you?' Lazarus said. 'This is only just the beginning. First, however, you must rid yourself of the past. Eliminate this facility.'

Latoshi gazed down at the multiple long buildings that made up the military black site.

'Recall the memories. Channel those emotions you felt. Remember how helpless you felt. Remember how tortured and agonized you were.'

Everything Lazarus had to say resounded powerfully within him. The words stirred his emotions, causing his aura to surge wildly. The boy's expression turned sour, his black irises shimmering.

He clenched his trembling fists tightly, summoning forth his energy once more. He held both hands out in front of him, taking aim at the site. With an echoing shout, he fired a couple of large spherical blasts of black energy that spiraled downward and punched holes through the building he'd just escaped from.

There was a brief moment of calm before violent, shattering explosions rang out. Those explosions set off chains of other explosions throughout the structure. Latoshi looked on with an amused grin, wild-eyed. The power he held inside of him was beyond what he'd ever imagined would come from the results of his training.

'More!' Lazarus said in a jovial tone. 'Raze the entire island down to nothing but ashes!'

Latoshi laughed wildly. He sent wave after wave of energy at everything down below, leaving almost none of the site untouched. Before long, the buildings were crumbled, consumed in fire and explosions. It was a beautiful sight for him to behold.

Just then, a military chopper ascended out of the smoke. He narrowed his eyes. From afar, he managed to clearly see the pilot along with both General Logan and Colonel Nolan inside. He scowled at the sight of his captors attempting to flee.

In an instant, Latoshi appeared in front of the helicopter with his arms folded across his chest, smirking and oozing confidence. The people inside were terrified.

“Impossible!” Nolan shouted.

“No…” Logan replied. “It was him all along. He did destroy Fern Town. Now, I finally understand how he did it.”

Latoshi held a hand out. The energy he summoned and subsequently fired at the rotor was invisible to the passengers. The people inside screamed in terror as the top of the vehicle exploded, sending them spiraling helplessly to the ground.

He laughed, watching the flaming remnants explode.

“You know, I kind of hope they survived that!” Latoshi remarked. “I want them to suffer a little longer before they burn to death.”

'You have now earned your freedom. There is no limit for you at this point. You possess ultimate power.'

He gazed at the energy in his palm, exhilaration surging through him. His captors were killed, his prison confinement totally obliterated. They held no power over him, and they could hurt him no longer.

“Yes,” he replied, grinning. “This power is incredible. I'll be able to make a real impact for good in the world — just like you said I could. Best of all, no one's going to lock me away ever again. There's nothing anyone can do to stop me.”

A vision suddenly flashed in his mind. A massive dome of his black energy rapidly expanding out of his body.

“What … was that?” he wondered aloud. “A memory?”

'Do not worry about it. I told you before, your memories will come back in time. For now, savor your victory.'

Latoshi nodded, gazing down at the destruction he'd reaped with a proud smirk.

'From here, we will work together to change the world for the better. People like these — these parasites who delight in the cruel, suffering misery of the weak — they will be purged. We will cleanse the world of its filth and build the foundation of a new world. You, Latoshi, will serve as its king.'

Latoshi paused for a moment, giving thought to the proposition.

“After all of the pain that they put me through. … That pain and despair and hopelessness is a suffering no one else deserves to go through. I'm more than happy to rid the world of those like them. I have the power to do so. I will do it, Lazarus. I'll gladly do it.”

'Excellent. Let us return to the mainland of Johto. That is where we will begin our efforts.'

Latoshi turned and flew off toward the city of Goldenrod. At the same time, dozens of military helicopters were on route toward the island from afar.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Back in Saffron City, Antoshi jolted awake in a cold sweat. He sat up in bed, having witnessed the military base's destruction through Latoshi's eyes.

‘Another one of those dreams,’ he thought, horrified. ‘But why? It's been months. Why did I … see that?’ He laid back down, staying awake for a short while. ‘That couldn't possibly have been … something else that really happened? … No. It's too horrible to be real.’

With a look of concern, he rolled onto his side. He closed his eyes until he could find solace in sleep once again.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

The next morning, Antoshi's Dodrio-shaped alarm clock crowed at six. He rolled over and pressed the 'snooze' button.

“Fireball?” he muttered, still half-asleep, “… Are you awake?”

"Sorta," his friend replied with a yawn. "Waking up early again is going to take some getting used to. We've been sleeping in a lot since coming home."

Antoshi sat up and stretched before rubbing his eyes. “We're about to start a whole new adventure,” he said with a smile. “Are you ready?”

"Absolutely," Fireball replied. The Typhlosion suddenly rolled over onto his side and yawned again. "Just give me five more minutes before we start our adventure."

Antoshi chuckled and shook his head. He slid out of bed to get ready.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Latoshi slowly awoke to a strange ringing noise once again. Laying on the roof of a tall building, he stared groggily at the morning sky for a short time. The pinkish hue of clouds drifting overhead were illuminated by the rising sun. He was left in awe of a sight as simple as the sky. To him, it was the most breathtaking scene he could ever imagine, with endlessly more color beyond the blinding white of his cell. The cries of congregating Spearow echoed in the distance.

His lips curled into a sleepy smile, taking a deep breath of the outdoor air before sitting up. His white clothes had been stained from the black gravel on the roof.

'Morning breaks on our quest for justice,' Lazarus said while the boy stretched. 'For now, we will lay low and plan carefully, just as before. We shall wait until nightfall when most of the insects crawl out from their shadows.'

“How exactly am I supposed to bathe?” he asked flatly, disregarding everything Lazarus just said.

'There are all manner of public restrooms with sinks for you to use, are there not?'

Latoshi’s eyes went wide with fear, recalling the memories of his prison cell. “Absolutely not. I'd rather reek than ever bathe out of a sink again.”

'Your personal hygiene has no bearing on me.'

“Yeah, I guess it wouldn't.”

He walked up on the rooftop's edge, gazing out at the sprawling city of Goldenrod. The morning sun behind him illuminated the city's countless structures. His expression was warm, full of wonder — reflecting the feeling in his heart.

“I can't believe how … happy I feel,” he remarked. “I thought I would never see anything outside of that white room for the rest of my life. There's so many things I want to see and experience. Something out there might just end up jogging my memory. I have to find my home again. I have to find my family.” His stomach suddenly rumbled. “I … also have to find food, too. I need new clothes, so I can get myself out of this stupid, white clothing, and I'll need shoes. What'll I do?”

'Use your power, of course. There is nothing you cannot accomplish. Such trivial tasks do not require explanation.'

Latoshi quietly laughed. “Yeah. It figures I would end up stealing things with my powers.”

He walked along the narrow edge of the rooftop with precise balance, especially for someone that had done very little moving around in three months.

'The world will owe everything to you, and then some. All the riches and spoils you want will be yours when the humans see you for the deity that you are compared to them.'

Latoshi shrugged. “I guess you're right.”

He casually leapt off the side of the building with no regard for his safety. He yawned briefly as his black hair and white clothes whipped in the wind, descending several dozen stories down a dark alleyway. He landed with almost no impact, but scared away the handful of Pikachu scavenging nearby. He stood tall before heading out to the street.

For a few moments, he was overwhelmed by the handfuls of people and Pokémon walking by him. He was surrounded by far more individuals than he was used to. Some curiously glanced at him as he stood in the middle of the sidewalk with a dumbfounded expression. Eventually, Latoshi began his stroll down the street, his eyes wide and full of naiveté. He soaked in all of the sights and sounds and smells around him.

‘This all feels … so new,’ he thought. ‘It's like I've never done this kind of thing before, or … maybe I've never been here before?’

He crossed the street behind a small group, happening upon an outdoor market. Various vendors were setting up their stock for the morning. Displays full of souvenirs, flowers, clothing, and food were all laid out before him. He humphed in amusement.

“Well, this is convenient,” he said, quietly. “Everything I need is right in front of me. How do I even go about this, Lazarus? I can't just start blowing up everything in sight.”

'As I told you before, you need only use your imagination.'

His eyes shifted back and forth, considering what course of action to take. His eyes lit up with an idea, before his irises began to glow black. He suddenly ran as fast as he could, weaving in and out between the pedestrians and the shops faster than any of them were able to see. The vendors all gasped and shouted as a mysterious wind blew past them.

It took only several seconds for him to obtain what he needed. He appeared at the far end of the market, calmly strolling away with an assortment of fresh fruit stacked atop a handful of new clothes.

'Good work,' Lazarus said. 'You are learning how to apply your abilities. The level of precision you showed there was impressive.'

“It's weird,” he remarked. “I moved quickly like that last night, but it's like … I somehow already knew how to do it.”

'That is because you have prodigious natural talent. With my guidance, you will unlock it as quickly as possible.'

Latoshi chuckled to himself, heading into another alleyway to change.

The next time he reappeared, he wore a green t-shirt and similar, lighter colored shorts. He took a bite of a peeled banana, his other arm cradling the rest of the fruit. The people at the market seemed to be none the wiser that he'd stolen from them. He gazed down to admire his brand new zebra-striped sneakers.

“These shoes are pretty nice,” he remarked.

'There will be many more nice things for you to reap. You may continue to enjoy your newfound freedom this morning. We will continue your training later on.'

“Sounds good to me,” Latoshi replied.

He was happy to break in his new shoes, playfully skipping and dancing down the sidewalk.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Fireball sat on the bed while Antoshi looked at himself in his closet mirror. He wore his new red t-shirt and a pair blue jeans — a fresh, casual change of pace from his usual style of attire.

“I really like this look,” he remarked.

"You do?" Fireball asked, curiously.

“Yeah. After all those collared shirts and shorts I went through in Kanto, it's nice to finally change it up.”

"Don't forget the occasional tank top with a million colors."

Antoshi smirked, setting his backpack on the bed next to Fireball. He unzipped it, and they both took a look at the strikingly similar sets of clothes inside.

"Wow," Fireball said. "How many different kinds of red shirts did your mom pack for you?"

“Well, she knows red is my favorite color,” he replied, zipping the bag back up.

"Hope you remembered your toothbrush."

Antoshi chuckled and slung the bag over his shoulders. “Come on, let's get going to Johto!”

"All right!" Fireball exclaimed. The duo eagerly headed to the front of the house together.

“I just hope the Pokémon Centers in Johto don't have us logged as troublemakers like the ones in Kanto.”

"Hey, I thought we agreed that was a 'youthful indiscretion!'"

Antoshi's mother and father waited for him by the front door. He hugged them both, his mother responding by giving him a smattering of kisses. His parents followed the duo as they headed outside.

“You have your ticket?” his mother asked.

“In my pocket,” Antoshi replied.

“Call us as soon as you get settled into Goldenrod City,” she said.

“I will. I love you guys!”

Antoshi and Fireball nodded to each other before heading off to their next destination.

“We love you, Antoshi!” they both said.

His father put an arm around her. They watched the duo head off with pride in their eyes.

“And keep your hair neat this time, Antoshi!” his mother called out. “I put a comb in your backpack for a reason!”

“I make no promises!” Antoshi replied, playfully. “Bye!”

“That boy,” she remarked with a cheeky grin.

“He must be going through 'teenage rebellion',” his father joked as they headed back inside.

“If not combing his hair is teenage rebellion, then we got very lucky, Ralph.”

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Within a couple of hours of walking, the duo reached Saffron City's Magnet Train station. The indoor station buzzed with people and slews of Pokémon walking in all directions. Everything was kept neat and tidy, even despite the large amount of foot traffic. Glass roof panels provided the building with natural light.

Antoshi glanced at his ticket, then at the large clock overhead.

“Looks like it won't be long now,” he said. He looked over at Fireball, who hopped up and down. “… What are you doing?”

"I can't wait!" Fireball replied. "There's gotta be thousands of things for us to do and see, especially in a place we've never been to before. I wonder what kind of Pokémon we'll see there. What kind of food do they have?!" He threw his head back and roared, "I'm so excited!"

His shouting caused a brief moment of silence throughout the entire station. Upon realizing everyone nearby was staring at him, he quickly recomposed himself.

A police officer standing beside the pair cleared his throat. Antoshi turned to him, catching a stern glare from him. The boy laughed nervously.

“All right, Fireball, settle down,” he said, patting his friend on the back. The officer humphed and marched away.

"Sorry. This is just really awesome. We're going on another adventure! Maybe you'll find a girlfriend in Johto!"

Antoshi cut his eyes at Fireball. “Guess I'm lucky I'm the only one who can understand you,” he grumbled.

Soon after, the train approached the station and slowed to a stop. The silvery train was much longer and sleeker than they imagined.

“Whoa,” the two awe-struck friends remarked in unison.

Once its doors opened, commuters began getting off while new passengers simultaneously boarded. Antoshi handed his ticket to the train conductor, allowing them inside. Both of them could barely contain their excitement as they entered the elegant, well-kept car. Fireball eagerly took up a dual seat by the window. Antoshi sat in the rear-facing seats just in front of him.

"This is great!" Fireball said, grinning as he looked out the window. "We're not even there yet and I feel like I'm going to explode!"

“Please wait until you're off the train before you explode,” Antoshi joked, smirking.

After the passengers were on and seated, the train made a slight yet startling jump, levitating off its magnetic track. The train headed back the way it came from, quickly picking up speed after departing the station. Antoshi and Fireball were in awe at how fast the train was. The ride was unerringly smooth, as though they weren't moving at all. They smiled, spotting some of the locations they'd visited on their exploration of Kanto.

"I wonder if we'll ever go visit Hoenn someday," Fireball remarked.

“One step at a time, Fireball. Don't forget, Slateport City still isn't fully rebuilt.”

"Hasn't it been over a year since that happened?"

“Yeah. It was so sad, too. It reminds me of—”

He stopped suddenly, recalling the images of Fern Town's destruction, as well as the military base being consumed by flames.

"It reminds you of … that town on the news. The Johto town?"

“… Yeah,” he replied, staring out the window.

"Antoshi, there's something I wanted to ask you." The boy looked over at him. "About part of the reason you wanted to go to Johto in the first place, it's … because of the dream you had, isn't it?"

“It is,” the boy admitted with a sigh. “Ever since that night, something's been telling me that I should go to Johto. It's like there's something there that I need to see.”

"Well, whatever it is, I hope it doesn't ruin our totally awesome experience in Johto."

Antoshi smiled to his friend. “I hope so, too.”

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

The ride into the neighboring region took several hours on the incredibly swift train. By the time they were passing by the enormous Mt. Silver in the distance, Fireball had curled up for a nap. Antoshi rested his legs across the seat next to him, passing the time by reading a book he brought with him. It was the story of two brothers who went to war with each other over a misunderstanding.

He sighed, closing the book and sitting up in his seat. His fingers curled around his lips, lost in thought as he stared out the window. An odd, tingling pressure in his muscles nagged at him every so often. It became more intense the closer they were to their destination.

Fireball awoke and took a look out the window. "Antoshi?" Fireball said to the inattentive boy.

“Huh?” Antoshi uttered, snapping out of his daze.

"Look, I think we're slowing down."

The train soon came to a stop once again. For a few moments, they sat and stared in awe that they had made it to Johto.

Once they headed off, they realized the station was nearly identical to that of Saffron's. They headed up a flight of stairs until they were greeted by the warmth of the afternoon sunlight. The two gawked at their new surroundings with bright eyes and brighter smiles.

They were in the mecca of Saffron's sister city — Goldenrod.

The city was just as busy as in Saffron. Under the shadows of tall skyscrapers were the sounds of countless people, Pokémon, and cars bustling every which way around them. It was just the daily norm for the hectic city. Residents were out enjoying the warm, summer air and pleasant weather. Planes and blimps carrying various advertisements hovered in the blue sky above. A handful of taxis were parked outside the train station for busy commuters to get around. Businesspeople were chatting away on their cell phones, and tourists like them walked about to take in the sights. The city was like a well-oiled machine moving in constant harmony — and they loved everything they were seeing.

They began their new journey down the bustling streets, taking in the new, yet somehow familiar, sights. Antoshi laughed as a handful of Pichu suddenly dashed by him. Across the street, a kid's show in the park was in full swing. A Delibird handed a small girl a present. She gleefully opened it, and the gift gave off a loud pop before showering her with confetti and streamers. The children and Pokémon all laughed.

“This city almost feels like one big party,” Antoshi remarked, grinning. “I'm really liking it here. It feels like home.”

"Hey, Antoshi!" Fireball exclaimed from a short distance away. "Come on, I'm getting swept away by a tidal wave of people!" The boy realized Fireball didn't hear a word he'd said.

“Coming!” he replied. As he turned away to rejoin his friend, he bumped shoulders with a passerby. “Oh, I'm really sorry! I—”

He went silent, standing before a lovely young woman with long, brunette hair. He had no words, staring into her violet eyes like a deer in headlights. Of all the pretty girls that he'd gone awkwardly silent in front of, she was the prettiest by far.

She responded with a warm smile. “Don't worry about it,” she said. Her voice was like that of an angel's to his ears. “Take care.”

He continued to stare at her, dumbfounded, as she strolled away.

"Antoshi!" Fireball shouted.

The boy quickly snapped back to reality. “Okay, okay, Fireball!” He gave one last glance back at her before shuffling back to his friend.

As they resumed their trek of the city together, Antoshi's gaze was focused more on the ground than their surroundings. The image of the young woman turning to him, her long hair swinging behind her, replayed over and over in his head.

"Seems like you have something on your mind," Fireball said.

“Oh,” he distantly replied. “Yeah, well, I …”

"Come on, you're not thinking of keeping another secret from your best friend, are you?"

“No, it's just, … well, when we got separated outside the train station, I … ran into a girl.”

"A gir~rl?" Fireball asked with a cheeky grin. "Was she pretty?"

Antoshi quietly chuckled. “Yeah.”

"Sounds like someone has a cru~ush."

Antoshi smirked and turned to his friend. “You're never going to get tired of doing that, are you?”

"Not a chance!"

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

At the same time, a few miles away, Latoshi was in the midst of a deep meditation. He sat comfortably with his legs crossed on a park bench, completely calm and focused. His dark aura gently flickered in the breeze, though none of the people nearby were able to see it.

He did, however, get quite a few strange stares from passersby. They were curious at how the boy was able to sit so perfectly still for so long. It got to the point where people assumed he was a street performer and began to drop money in front of him.

“I found my true calling in life, Lazarus,” Latoshi joked, opening his eyes with a grin. “I can make money by entertaining the masses with just my meditating.”

The voice did not answer him, causing him to roll his eyes. He groaned in frustration, reaching down to scoop up the money he'd earned.

“How long are you going to give me the silent treatment?”

'Until you stop fooling around and take your training seriously.'

“I can't help it,” Latoshi said. He casually jingled the coins in his hand before flinging the money into a nearby fountain. “I just got back out into the outside world. There's so much stuff for me to see. It's hard for me to concentrate for as long as I did in that cell where nothing ever happened.”

'Remember what your purpose is — or I will remind you.'

Latoshi furrowed his brow, displeased with the remark. Alas, he closed his eyes and sighed in defeat. He took a deep breath, relaxed and centered himself, returning to his meditation.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

At the same time, Antoshi and Fireball ate together a nearby diner. They were seated in a booth near the window, allowing them to continue gazing upon the sights of the brand new city. Antoshi frowned, casually rubbing his arm as the twinging pressure came back.

Once finished with their dinner, the duo got up. Antoshi cinched his backpack over his shoulders and led Fireball back outside.

“That was great!” Antoshi said. “I really like the food here.”

"Yeah! I never would've imagined Apricorn guacamole being a thing, but it was delicious! Bu~ut, I bet you would've enjoyed it more if that girl you saw earlier ate with us."

Antoshi shook his head. “Y'know, all the excitement of being in Johto means I'm not going to get upset by your teasing today.” Fireball snickered. “Let's head on over to the Pokémon Center. Hopefully they still have an extra room for the night.”

"That'd be nice. Sleeping on the couches they have in the main area is fun, too."

Just a few blocks further, the automatic glass doors of the Pokémon Center slid open for the duo.

"Wow," Fireball remarked. "This place is … literally exactly the same as the ones in Kanto."

Antoshi chortled. “Well, I guess it helps make them feel like a piece of home for us.”

Antoshi spoke to Nurse Joy behind the counter and registered to stay a night in one of the Center's rooms. The duo breathed a sigh of relief and grinned at each other when she did not remind them of the Cerulean incident.

Antoshi thanked her as he took the key card to the room from her. They found a free videophone to give Antoshi's parents a call, letting them know they had gotten there safely. Afterward, they headed into their room to get settled in for the night and get some rest.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

In the dead of night, when the park was completely desolate, Latoshi's eyes finally opened once again from his meditation. More change had been left out at the boy's feet.

'You know what you must do,' Lazarus said.

Latoshi nodded in agreement. “So, it begins,” he replied.

He got to his feet and stretched. He looked around for a moment, stuffing his hands into the pockets of his shorts before going on a trip wandering about the city.

With most people asleep, the streets were much quieter. He kept an apathetic expression while he passed by a bar. A handful of bikers stood around chatting and laughing. One of the larger men with a mullet looked down at the boy and scoffed.

“Better run on home, kid,” one of them said. “The streets are dangerous at night.”

“For you, maybe,” Latoshi replied with a smirk. The men laughed boisterously.

A couple of Sneasel chased a rat into an alleyway. Latoshi stopped suddenly, gazing down the same alley. There were voices emanating from it. Something about people talking in an alley so late at night felt resoundingly suspicious to him.

'Go,' Lazarus instructed him.

Latoshi shrugged and headed into the shadows. The air reeked of rotten food and stagnant water. There was a flickering firelight from a larger opening in the distance.

“… I didn't know what to do,” a man's voice said.

“Well, you know how women are,” a second man replied. “Let's go get a drink or something.”

Latoshi emerged into the light of the burn barrel the two men stood in front of, catching their attention. They were both pale, disheveled, homely, wearing extremely worn and dirty clothes. They looked at him with shocked expressions.

After a moment of silence, the first man whistled.

“Wow, I didn't expect a birthday present so soon.

The other man chuckled. “Hey kid,” he said. “Why don't you spend some time with me and my friend here? We could have some real fun together.”

The two advanced toward him. Latoshi's irises shimmered black. His lips curled into a devious smile.

“Fun?” Latoshi asked. “Yeah, I like fun.”

“That's good, we—”

“Although~,” he sang, keeping the men at bay momentarily, “I don't think my kind of fun is the kind that you would enjo~oy.”

The two men chuckled at each other.

“Well, why don't you show us how you have fun?” the first man asked. “Then, we can show you how we have fun.”

Latoshi snickered in amusement, keeping his eyes affixed to them as they neared closer. The two men had no idea what they were getting themselves into.

“If you say so,” he replied, softly.

Latoshi suddenly lifted the first man up by his neck with one hand before they realized he'd even moved. The other one looked on in shock as his partner thrashed wildly, gasping for air. Latoshi stared at him, his lips curling into a cruel grin.

There was a sudden, loud snap. The man's body fell limp.

The second man screamed. Latoshi tossed his friend's lifeless body aside into some bags of trash. A fitting burial, he felt, for someone who would prey on kids. He casually glanced at the grime on his hand before wiping it on his shirt. He looked at the terrified second man with the same, cold grin.

“So, do you want to have fun, too?”

The man's expression turned bitter. “You little freak,” he replied, pulling out a handgun tucked away in his pants. “I'll put you down!”

Latoshi laughed boisterously. “Oh, that's not going to save you.”

The man clenched his teeth as the boy sauntered toward him. He screamed in frustration, emptying the entirety of the gun's clip at him. Latoshi moved so swiftly, he appeared to the man to be flickering from side to side, moving quickly enough to casually avoid every bullet.

The man's eyes went wide with horror. “What in the hell?!” he exclaimed.

He suddenly let out a croak as Latoshi grabbed him by the neck as well, pinning him to the ground.

“No! Please!” he screamed, struggling. “Let go of me!”

“Why are you so frightened?” Latoshi asked curiously. “After all, we're just having fun — right?”

He laughed, holding his flailing body down, pointing an open palm at the man's face while gathering energy into it. The man screamed in horror — a bloodcurdling scream that echoed around the entire block.

Moments later, Latoshi departed the alleyway as calmly as he entered. With his hands in his shorts pockets, he left their bodies behind without a second thought. Various bystanders soon rushed over to where they heard the screams, only for them to scream in horror at what they found.

He grinned in satisfaction, continuing to travel down the streets of Goldenrod.

'That was an exhilarating display,' Lazarus said. 'This is only just the beginning. …'

Latoshi chuckled to himself, walking down a nearby side street, disappearing under the cover of darkness.

Chapter 13

The following morning, Antoshi and Fireball both awoke at their usual wake-up time. Antoshi yawned loudly, stretching at the same time his friend did.

"Our first morning in Johto!" Fireball said merrily. Antoshi turned to him, looking and feeling exhausted. "You … get enough sleep last night?"

“Not really,” the boy remarked with a groan, sliding out of bed. “I've been … getting these weird sensations since coming to Johto.” Fireball went to speak. “Do not make a 'puberty' joke.” Fireball smiled and buttoned his lip. “It's like a weird … ache in my muscles that just comes and goes. I don't understand why it's happening, but it kept me up for a little while last night.”

"What if it's—" He stopped suddenly as Antoshi glared at him. "I was going to ask if it's your powers acting up again?"

Antoshi paused for a moment. “I suppose that would make sense. I haven't used them in a while, and it is the reason behind every unexplainable event that's happened to us so far.” He took a deep breath and sighed heavily. “Well, it could also turn out to be nothing. Come on, let's have some more fun around the city.”

"Sounds good to me!" Fireball said.

Antoshi took a few moments to stretch, as did Fireball. In the bathroom, the boy splashed some water on his face to wake himself up after the lack of sleep he'd gotten. On their way out the door, Antoshi stopped and headed back to his backpack. He collected Fireball's Poké Ball from it.

“I'd better take this with me again,” he said. “Just in case.”

"You're leaving your backpack here? I guess that means we're staying another day?"

“Sure, why not? Hopefully, Nurse Joy lets us stay again. Otherwise, we'll have to find another place to stay the night.”

The two headed out to get some breakfast from the cafeteria. Afterward, they approached Nurse Joy at the front desk to talk to her. After a moment of consideration, she agreed to let them to stay another night, much to their enthusiasm. Antoshi put the key card and Fireball's Poké Ball in his pocket, and the two headed out to explore more of the city.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Some time later, they came upon a commotion just outside of an alleyway. They headed on over, curious to see what was going on.

The area was cordoned off with police tape. Several police and rescue vehicles were parked along the sidewalk. Traffic cones were set on the road, forcing passing cars to move away from the scene. Dozens of curious early morning onlookers crowded around the taped area.

"Wow," Fireball remarked, as they neared closer. "What do you think happened here?"

The pair found a small gap in the crowd for them to take a peek, although there wasn't much for them to see. Crime scene officers took pictures of small, numbered placards they'd placed on the ground. There was a small crater in the asphalt that other officials appeared particularly intrigued by.

Antoshi gasped quietly. The officers were standing in the middle of a faint, black mist, yet none of them seemed aware of its presence.

“Do you see that?” Antoshi asked.

Fireball blinked, looking all around the alley. "… See what?"

Antoshi's eyes widened, his irises instinctively glowing a bright red. The faint traces of darkness became much clearer to him. It was splayed all over the alleyway — on the ground, the wall, even hovering in the air. A trail of it led down another alley exit. He curiously shuffled off to follow it.

"Antoshi!" Fireball called out, chasing after him. "Where are you going?"

Down at the other side of the alley, there were no crowds or police. The area was only blocked off much further inside. The mist tapered off just before reaching the sidewalk. Antoshi knelt down, wafting his hand through the thin traces. Touching it gave off a cold, ominous feeling that sent chills down his spine.

Fireball caught up to him. "What are you doing? Swattin' a bug?"

“You don't see this sorta foggy stuff right in front of me?”

Fireball shook his head. "Not seeing anything, sorry. You must be more attuned to whatever it is than I am."

“I guess it's more faint than I realized.”

Antoshi frowned, biting his thumbnail as he stared at the strange mist.

"What are you thinking?"

“I think … someone else is here in Goldenrod. Someone … with powers like the ones I used back in Kanto.”

Fireball gasped. "Wow, that's—! … Er, what does that mean?"

“I really don't know,” he replied, standing up. “On one hand, I'm kind of excited to know someone else like me is out there, but … at the same time, this energy is … well, it's all wrong somehow. It's like … it went rotten, I guess? I get a sinking feeling every time I touch it.”

He gasped suddenly, his mind's eye recalling his dream of Fern Town being destroyed, the news broadcast they saw, and his recent dream of the military site. In some what he couldn't understand, he knew the energy in the alley was similar to those incidents.

"Maybe it's just someone's fart you're seeing," Fireball joked, chuckling to himself. The boy had a blank look in his eyes, his jaw hanging. "… What is it, Antoshi?"

“This might be bad. I don't understand my own powers well enough to comprehend what's going on here, but … whoever was here, I think it may be the same person that … destroyed Fern Town.”

Fireball was shocked. "Seriously?! What should we do? Tell the police?"

“I have no idea, Fireball. Like I said, I'm only just getting used to these powers. I don't know what to do or what to expect.”

Antoshi's attention suddenly snapped in a different direction, sensing a powerful pressure in his muscles again.

"What's up? Did you hear somethin'?"

“No, … it was that odd muscle ache again. It felt really intense this time. Something's telling me to check around over there. Let's see if we can find anything.”

"Cool, we're detectives now!"

Antoshi briefly smiled, leading his friend away.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Nearby, Latoshi smirked to himself before biting into a sweet roll.

“I'm sure that bakery store won't miss this one bun,” he said, with a mouthful of food. He swallowed before continuing. “Man, all of the food around here is a million times better than that crap they were feeding me in that prison.”

'Do not forget, your freedom comes at a cost,' Lazarus said. 'You did good work last night. However, that was just the tip of the iceberg. Tonight, I want you to slaughter a dozen of the parasites in this city.'

“Not a problem — especially if they're soulless freaks like the last two.”

'Excellent. …'

Latoshi strolled along, casually, while continuing to take in the sights of the city. He suddenly bumped hard into a passerby heading toward him, causing him to drop his food. Latoshi glanced down at the sweet roll, before cutting his eyes at the person that bumped into him.

His expression turned to disbelief.

“I really have to stop bumping into people,” Antoshi muttered, while Fireball kept walking away. “I'm really sorry, I—”

Antoshi stared into the other boy's confounded look, just as taken aback as he was. Fireball looked around, realizing Antoshi wasn't with him. The Typhlosion turned and gasped at the scene.

Antoshi was speechless. The person staring back at him had the same facial features and brown eyes as he did. If not for the black hair, Antoshi could've sworn he was looking into a mirror. Both boys stared at each other for several moments.

'Who is this boy?' Lazarus asked, curiously.

“Do I … know you?” Latoshi asked. The other boy sounded just like Antoshi as well.

“Uh, … that's a good question,” the blond boy replied with a chuckle. The two of them fell completely silent again. They suddenly burst out laughing in unison. “This is crazy! I've never met anyone that looks so much like me before!”

“Same here, … I think,” Latoshi replied, chuckling nervously. The boys turned their attention to the approaching Fireball. “Is this your Pokémon?”

“He sure is,” Antoshi proudly replied. Fireball waved to the new boy with a bewildered expression. “This is Fireball. He's my best friend, and my only Pokémon.”

Latoshi stuffed his hands in his pockets. “Hey, that's pretty cool. I don't know anything about Pokémon myself.”

Antoshi's eyes nearly popped out of his head. “You don't?!

“Yeah. I'm pretty sure I've never owned a Pokémon before, either.”

“'Pretty' sure?”

“Well, truth be told, I'm actually having some, … err, memory problems. I've been walking around the city trying to see if I can remember anything, but, so far I got nothing.”

“Oh, man, I'm so sorry to hear that. Would you like to hang around with us for a while? We were just exploring the city ourselves.”

Latoshi shrugged. “I don't have anything better to do, right?” The two shared another laugh.

“Come on, we'll check out the sights together,” Antoshi said. “What's your name, by the way?”

“Oh, … I'm Latoshi,” he replied, casually. Both Antoshi and Fireball were stunned.

La— toshi? …” Antoshi uttered, staring at him in disbelief.

Latoshi sighed. “Yeah, I know. It's a weird name.”

“No, no, it's not that, it's—it's just that, well, my name is … Antoshi.”

“What?” Latoshi asked, scoffing. “You're messing with me.”

“No, I'm serious! My name really is Antoshi. Here, I'll show you.” He quickly pulled out his wallet to show the sable-haired boy his Trainer Card. Latoshi was surprised.

“Wow, look at that. You really are named 'Antoshi'. I didn't think there was anyone out there with a … a weird-sounding name like mine.”

Antoshi laughed, putting his wallet away. “Trust me, I've gone through the whole 'weird name' thing more times than I can count. So, Latoshi, what do you say we walk around and blow peoples' minds with our odd names?”

"Sounds good,” Latoshi replied, smiling warmly.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Antoshi and Fireball resumed their tour around Goldenrod with their new companion in tow. Their investigation into the mysterious energy was temporarily put on hold. They traveled to the southeastern edge of the city, where the sprawling Ilex Forest was in sight.

"I could go for some chocolate chip ice cream," Fireball hinted.

Antoshi chuckled and nodded to his friend.

“I like chocolate chip, too,” Latoshi replied, casually. Antoshi and Fireball's looked at each other in shock, both of them coming to a sudden halt. Latoshi hummed curiously, turning to them. “What's up?” he asked.

“Did you … just understand what Fireball … said?” Antoshi asked.

“Yeah, why? Is that, like, something weird?”

“Well, I wouldn't really call it 'weird' as much as it's … just something that Fireball and I have never known any person besides myself to be able to do. No one else we've met can talk to Pokémon, and people typically think I'm crazy when I do it.”

“… Oh,” Latoshi replied, moderately surprised. “Well, if Fireball likes chocolate chip ice cream, he's the kind of Pokémon I wouldn't mind talking to.”

"This is really cool!" Fireball said. "Finally, someone else that understands me besides Antoshi." He sniffled dramatically, covering his eyes with a paw. "I never thought this day would come."

“All right, you,” Antoshi said, patting Fireball's back playfully. “Settle down. I will admit, Latoshi, it is really amazing. Fireball can join in on conversations now. I know he gets antsy when he has to stay quiet for a while.”

Fireball hopped up and down in excitement, shaking Antoshi's shoulder when he noticed an ice cream shop nearby. Antoshi smirked and rolled his eyes before Fireball ran off to head inside.

“Want to join us, Latoshi?”

“Of course, it's ice cream!” The two boys laughed, following Fireball into the shop. “I'll probably just sit with you guys. I don't have any money.”

“That's okay, I'll buy for you.”

“You, … well, you don't have to do that. I don't want to put you out.”

“It's no problem, really! You don't even have to pay me back.”

Latoshi was stunned. “… Seriously?”

“Seriously,” Antoshi replied with a smile. Latoshi smiled back.

“Nice to know there's people out there that'll help me out.”

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

After the three of them got their ice cream, they found an empty table to sit at. Fireball eagerly began scarfing down his towering ice cream cup with a paper spoon. The two boys ate theirs with a little more restraint while they talked.

“So, Latoshi,” Antoshi said, “you're walking around a big city with no money, and memory loss. … Isn't that dangerous? What have you been doing around the city?”

Latoshi chuckled. “You don't want to know. Besides, I can handle myself. I'm way stronger than I look.”

“Same here,” Antoshi replied with a smirk.

“What do you guys do?”

“Well, we came from Saffron City to travel and train in Johto. Back in Kanto, Fireball and I collected every Gym badge and got to the Indigo Plateau. We were part of the top one hundred twenty-eight Trainers in the most recent Indigo League Tournament.”

“And, that's a … good thing, I'm guessing?”

Antoshi laughed. “Yes. We're really happy with how much we accomplished.”

“That's cool. Like I said, I don't know anything about Pokémon or training.”

“Well, if you hang around with us, I could help you learn about Pokémon. We can find Pokémon for you to catch and maybe you can become a Trainer yourself.”

Latoshi smiled warmly. “You know, I … kinda like that idea.”

“It's better than wandering around by yourself, right?”

Latoshi chuckled nervously. “Yeah, … by myself.” He stared down at his ice cream, casually stirring it with his spoon.

Both boys were pleasantly surprised at how they became such fast friends. It was nice for them both to have someone their own age to talk to. Fireball sighed happily after finishing his ice cream.

"I love ice cream!" Fireball said. "That chocolate chip was great — right, Latoshi?"

“Yeah, this is the best ice cream I can remember,” he joked. Antoshi and Fireball laughed, causing him to smile.

'We need to have a chat,' Lazarus said, firmly. Latoshi jumped in response.

“What's up?” Antoshi asked him.

'Leave these two and go find someplace private — now.'

“Uh, I just gotta use the restroom real quick,” Latoshi said. “Be back in a sec'.” He promptly got up from his chair and walked away.

"Antoshi, he—he understood what I said!" Fireball said, giddy. "That's so amazing! … I know this sounds a little out there, but I get the feeling that maybe you and Latoshi just may be related. You might even be … brothers!" Antoshi was surprised at his remark. "You look the same, you sound the same — you also walk the same, by the way — and you both can understand me. Those are a lot of coincidences, don't you think?"

“Well, yes. I … definitely got the sense of maybe being related when he told me his name was 'Latoshi' of all things. He seems really nice and all, but … him being my brother just seems too crazy. How could I possibly have a brother I've never known before?”

"Well, if he's going to hang out with us, you two'd have all the time in the world to figure it out. I can't wait to watch you show him the ropes about being a Trainer."

Antoshi smiled, albeit briefly. “I keep getting an odd vibe about him, though. Maybe it's just the shock of finding out his name.”

"Hey … what about finding the person that left that foggy stuff you mentioned?"

“I'm not sure. I guess we'll just have to look around along the way. Probably best not to tell Latoshi — I don't want him to worry about it.”

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Latoshi glared at himself in the bathroom mirror as Lazarus began to scold him.

'What do you think you are doing?! This is not part of your mission. I told you that your freedom came at a cost. You already took the first step when you escaped your captors. Your hands are stained with the blood of the guilty. There is no turning back now! So, say 'goodbye' to these two and get back to your training!'

Latoshi shook his head. “Antoshi's the only person I've been able to talk to. He and his friend want me to go traveling with them. I can do that and cleanse the filth along the way. We can cover more ground this way.”

'You cannot do both, you idiot! Do you think you can keep mysteriously vanishing from your friend and he will not get suspicious?! Or do you think he will just stand by and watch as you purge the parasites from this world?! He will leave you the moment he finds out what you have done!'

“Enough!” Latoshi shouted in anger, causing his black aura to momentarily flare out. “This is my life! You aren't going to tell me what to do forever! I'm the one with limitless, ultimate power — remember? I can choose when and where I enact my revenge!”

Lazarus chuckled. 'We shall see very soon. I will teach you about your future.'

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Antoshi gasped suddenly, feeling that odd pressure again — and it was strong. It pointed his attention to the bathroom that Latoshi just retreated to, and reminded him of the dark energy in the alleyway. It was then that he recalled the last image he saw from the first news broadcast after Fern Town was destroyed. The boy that was rescued from the crater — a boy with jet black hair. The same hair as Latoshi's. The energy in the alley was the same as in Fern Town's destruction. It didn't take long before Antoshi put it all together.

“It couldn't be,” Antoshi whispered. He slowly got up from his chair, a concerned expression on his face as he stared in Latoshi's direction.

"What is it?" Fireball asked.

Antoshi quickly shook it off, smiling at his friend. “There's … something I just thought to ask Latoshi. Why don't we wait outside for him?”

"Okay, … sure thing," Fireball replied, with some confusion.

The duo headed out onto the street for a few moments. Antoshi had a very intense look in his eyes once Latoshi emerged outside. The sable-haired boy sighed in relief, rejoining them with a smile.

“Well, that was fun,” Latoshi remarked. “Where should we go next?”

“Hey, … Latoshi,” Antoshi said, hesitating. “I, … err, have a weird question for you. Would you … happen to know anything about, well, strange energy?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean, have you ever … felt a strange source of energy that just … well, appeared around your body in the form of light?”

Latoshi narrowed his eyes suspiciously. “That's oddly specific. Why do you ask?”

“Well, I— … this is really awkward. I have … let's call them these weird 'powers'. And, well, I'm able to sort of see and feel the same kind of energy that I can put out — kind of like a sixth sense.”

Latoshi's eyes widened. Lazarus gasped.

'This boy has powers, too,' he hissed. 'Uncanny. …'

“Earlier today,” Antoshi continued, “we were looking for someone that can also use those kinds of powers. I think it's the same someone that's been doing some pretty horrible things lately. Would you know what I'm talking about?”

Latoshi glanced over at Fireball, who seemed very confused by the line of questioning. Suddenly, the mood was not so jovial between the two boys.

“Why don't we head on over to the Pokémon Gym here?” Latoshi replied, idly. “You can show me what being a Pokémon Trainer is like.”

Antoshi was surprised that Latoshi decided to avoid the question. It did nothing to clear Latoshi's name. Antoshi continued to press him. “Someone hurt a lot of people, Latoshi. I'd really like to know if you know anything about it.”

“What about other Pokémon?” Latoshi asked, looking off in the distance. “I wonder what kind of Pokémon live around here?”

Antoshi clenched his teeth in frustration. “You also wouldn't happen to know anything about … the destruction of Fern Town, would you?”

Latoshi turned away, hiding a bitter scowl. The name 'Fern Town' immediately reminded him of the General and his repetitive line of questioning about said town. Hearing it again labeled Antoshi as an enemy in his mind.

“I think … that you and I should talk, Antoshi.”

“Talk?” Antoshi asked, cautiously. “… About what?”

“About this …” To the duo's surprise, Latoshi suddenly dashed away faster than they could follow.

Their eyes went wide in shock. Latoshi was on the other side of the street and across an open field, a distance of several hundred meters, in less than a second. He casually glanced over at them before walking into the Ilex Forest.

“What …” Antoshi uttered.

"Just … happened?" Fireball added.

“Come on, we have to go after him,” Antoshi said, heading across the street. Fireball followed close behind him.

"Not if he runs away like that again!"

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

The duo headed in past the trees near the same place Latoshi disappeared. By the time they got there, heavy clouds were starting to drift over them. The forest, already incredibly dense with foliage, became even darker as a result.

They looked around cautiously while walking further in. Latoshi was nowhere in sight. Large, dark, pine trees loomed over them, creaking and rustling with the wind.

Fireball held onto his friend's shoulders, staying behind him. "This is really creepy, Antoshi," Fireball said, quietly. "Where could he be?"

“I'm not sure. I can't sense his—”

“What do you know about 'strange energy', Antoshi?” Latoshi said, interrupting him. The duo gasped, turning around. He emerged with a smirk, casually leaning his shoulder against a tree with his arms folded over his chest. “I wasn't sensing anything from you before, mostly because I wasn't keeping my guard up. But, now that I know what I'm looking for, I can see that you've also reached spirit awareness.”

“Spirit … awareness?” Antoshi asked, confused. “What is that?”

“Awareness of your Ki, of course — that's your spirit energy.”

“Ki? Spirit energy?” Antoshi looked at his own hands in confusion. “So, that's what that light is that appears around me?”

“It is,” Latoshi replied. “Judging from your reaction, though, I take it you know very little. You've never trained to strengthen it, control it, and harness it. I have.” Antoshi and Fireball were in awe at the revelation. “When was the first time you were able to use it?”

“Uh, … it was when Fireball was falling off of a steep cliff. I panicked and grabbed him and I suddenly found my arms totally enveloped in a red light.”

“That's incredible. Your powers awakened in a moment you needed to use them for good — as did I.”

Antoshi was bewildered by Latoshi's claim. Latoshi grinned, holding his head down. He began chuckling — a chuckle that morphed into a hysterical laugh. Antoshi and Fireball looked to each other in concern.

“What's … so funny?” Antoshi asked, cautiously.

“You don't know how liberating this is for me, Antoshi!” he exclaimed, grinning in elation. “You're the first person I can finally talk to about this! The first person to really understand! The first person I can look at as an equal! Antoshi, you've been so kind and friendly toward me already. We only just met, and yet, I feel such a powerful bond with you. I want to tell you all about my solution to the problems of the world.”

“'Solution?' … What do you mean?”

“There are so many awful people in this world, Antoshi. Unlike you, they care only for themselves. They don't give a damn about others. They inflict pain and suffering and torment. They're heartless, soulless monsters. They are a blight upon the world. It doesn't have to be that way, though! I can use my powers, and I can cleanse the world of evil! Cleanse it of the parasites, the immoral, the perverse! Don't you see? I'm doing them a favor by ending their pathetic existences! Without their evil hearts, everlasting peace will become a reality!”

Fireball and Antoshi were both shocked and horrified. Antoshi again recalled the images from his dream about the destruction of the military base. He had felt Latoshi's relief and elation amid the chaos. He knew Latoshi wasn't joking with his proposal. Latoshi truly was cruel beyond anyone he'd ever met before.

“You wanted to teach me to become a Pokémon Trainer,” Latoshi continued. “I can teach you how to use your powers and do so much more good in the world! This is why we were given these powers! Join me, Antoshi. Together, we can do so much good for this world. We’ll make the world a better place … as brothers. What do you say?”

Latoshi's black aura began to flare around his body. It reeked of blood and killing intent. The deaths of his previous victims hung in the air. It seeped all around Antoshi like an icy embrace.

It terrified him.

What's more, that feeling of tingling pressure came back stronger than ever. Antoshi finally understood it was Latoshi's energy that had been causing it all along.

“No,” Antoshi said, quietly, shaking his head. “No, I won't do it.” Latoshi was genuinely surprised and dismayed. “You're talking about killing people, Latoshi. Nothing about that is 'good.'”

“What are you talking about? They're a festering plague on the earth! They're parasites! They need to be ended! That's what Lazarus made me understand!”

“Lazarus? Who is Lazarus?”

“My conscience, of course,” Latoshi replied, confidently. “It gave itself a name.”

Antoshi and Fireball became even more deeply concerned.

“Your … conscience speaks to you?” Antoshi asked.

“Well, he's a lot wiser than I normally am. Lazarus led me to discover my powers. He helped me strengthen and train and focus myself enough to get me out of the hellhole I was locked away in, and to lay waste to everyone and everything there.”

“So it was you,” Antoshi remarked, solemnly. “You killed those people in Fern Town, and those people on that … island base.”

“How do you know about—” Latoshi stopped himself. “I can't remember anything of Fern Town, but the military base … yes, that was me. They were horrible people, Antoshi!”

“They … they must have had families and people who cared about them and—”

“Are you kidding me?!” Latoshi snapped, bitterly, surprising the duo. “I can't believe you, Antoshi! You're being such an apologist! No, they got what they deserved. You have no idea what they did to me. You think because you have your perfect, happy little life traveling around with your best buddy that you can pass judgment on me? Like that makes you, … what, a moral authority? I was locked up in that facility … for months. I had no idea where I was and they never told me. They never helped me. They just kept me jailed like a wild animal.”

There was no justification for Latoshi's actions in Antoshi's mind. The blond-haired boy only kept his solemn gaze affixed to the ground. Latoshi scoffed in disgust, his black aura flaring around him.

“You think that everything is just so black and white, huh?” Latoshi continued. “Everything just … fits into your life's neat, little compartments. 'Latoshi is awful, he killed all those people, that makes him the bad guy.' I'm the bad guy? And you talk about how they had families? What about my family?! What about the people who cared about me?! Who the hell are you to try and guilt me?!”

“I couldn't ever take anyone's life like you have,” Antoshi retorted, glaring into Latoshi's eyes. “I just couldn't, no matter how awful I felt inside.”

“Gee, wow, what an upstanding person you are, Antoshi — bravo,” he shot back, sarcastically. “Never say 'never.' You don't know what it's like. You don't know how far you would go. No memories, not knowing where your family is, or if anyone is looking for you. Locked up against your will, nobody telling you why, where you are, or even who you are. You don't know how you would react or whether you would do the same thing in my position. I waited for so long. I gave them the benefit of the doubt more times than I can remember. I kept thinking, 'They'll bring someone in soon. Someone will come for me. They'll realize it's all a big misunderstanding and then I'll go home.' I just wanted … to go home, Antoshi. After a while, I didn't know if I was ever going to leave or if they would even keep me alive. … I had to do it. I had to get out of there. I had to survive.”

“You could've escaped without killing anyone!” Antoshi shouted. The bitterness upon his face masked the tears welling in his eyes. He felt deeply for Latoshi's situation, and had no reason not to believe him. It did nothing to take away the sting of knowing someone whom he'd seen the good in, someone whom he'd already bonded with, could be such a cold-blooded murderer. Fireball placed a forepaw on his friend's shoulder in an effort to console him.

Latoshi shook his head. “Maybe you're right. But, that's not what I did. I was terrified out of my mind. I kept thinking that, if I broke out, they were going to find me again. They'd bring me back to that awful place and then they'd make sure I never got out again. I have no regrets. I would gladly go back in time and do it again. I would look into their eyes and I would slaughter them all — and I would do it with a smile on my face.”

“This isn't the way, Latoshi. You don't have to be alone. What about your friends? Your family? Don't you still care about them?”

“My family?” Latoshi wondered aloud.

“You told me you were lost and couldn't remember anything. I can help you find your family.”

“You would … help me?” Latoshi asked, awe-struck. “Even after … everything I just told you?”

“Of course,” Antoshi replied, softly, “because it's what's right. This, all of this you're talking about, the killing, the 'cleansing', the destruction, … that isn't right.”

Latoshi appeared conflicted. He turned his gaze to the ground. Antoshi was a real, living person standing before him, with real emotions that he could feel. He was so much more than some voice in his head, telling him to kill. “I—”

'Do not listen to his lies!' Lazarus shouted. Latoshi gasped in shock. 'Remember who it was that you trusted, who gave you strength when you had none, who gave you freedom when you thought it was impossible. He is trying to lead you astray. Do not listen to him, Latoshi!'

Latoshi pondered it over for a moment. He chuckled and smirked at Antoshi. “That's true,” he replied, leaving Antoshi confused. “I understand now. Good try, Antoshi. I see right through your little charade. You're trying to get me to let my guard down and do what, just give up my ideals? Just like that? You don't even understand a fraction what I had to suffer through.”

“It isn't a charade, Latoshi! I'm—”

“Save it,” Latoshi snapped. “You know, I've changed my mind. You're not fit to help me with my efforts for peace. You're expendable, Antoshi, just like a~ll the rest of the people in this world. No one compares to my strength, and no one can stop me. You're just a stepping stone on my ascension to greatness.” He flared out his black aura again. “I'm going to turn this world into a peaceful paradise by any means necessary.”

“No,” Antoshi replied, calmly. “What you're talking about, … it's a fool's paradise.”

Latoshi scoffed. “Saying that just makes you a parasite, too,” he said, flatly. “You need to be cleansed from this world, like any others who would dare get in the way of my ascension.”

“I don't want to fight you, Latoshi. We can talk—”

“Good!” Latoshi said, in a jovial tone. “That'll make killing you so much easier.”

Chapter 14

The heavy clouds rolling in overhead gradually became darker, setting an ominous stage. Antoshi narrowed his eyes, watching his adversary, cautiously.

“I'm just going to warn you beforehand,” Latoshi said, smirking confidently, “I won't be making this quick and painless. This is definitely gonna hurt.”

In an instant, Latoshi closed the gap between them. Antoshi gasped, his eyes going wide in shock. The red hue of his spirit energy ignited quickly within his irises, his senses increasing exponentially. Before Antoshi could make a move, Latoshi suddenly delivered a swift knee into his abdomen.

Antoshi croaked in pain, falling onto his knees, holding his stomach and gasping for air. Tears welled up in his eyes. It was a level of physical pain he was extremely unfamiliar with. This was the first real fight he'd ever been in.

"Antoshi!" Fireball cried out in shock.

Latoshi stood tall and proud, is black aura flaring. He appeared pleased with himself. “Well, you've already proven to be very durable. A hit like that probably would've killed a normal person.”

Fireball turned to Latoshi, snarling and baring his fangs. "Stop this, Latoshi!"

“I'd suggest you don't get involved here,” Latoshi said to Fireball, casually. “I'm not interested in harming Pokémon, but I may just make an exception if you don't back down.”

"If you think I'm going to stand by and watch you hurt my best friend, you're out of your—"

“Fireball, wait,” Antoshi interjected. He took a moment to steady his breathing before getting back to his feet. He wiped his eyes and a small trail of blood on his mouth with the back of his fist. He closed his eyes for a moment, letting out a sigh of defeat. As much as he wanted not to resort to violence, he knew he had no choice. “You're always fighting the physical side of our battles. Let me handle it this time.” He gave his friend a reassuring smile.

"This isn't … as simple as a Pokémon battle," Fireball remarked, with deep concern in his eyes.

“I know, but I think this is something that only I can deal with.”

Latoshi laughed. “Let's see if that ends up being the case,” he said before dashing at him again. He struck Antoshi on the bridge of the nose with a headbutt, drawing a shout from the blond-haired boy. He again gave Antoshi no time to react, using his superior quickness to strike him with a couple of hard punches to the face.

Antoshi stumbled back, reeling briefly before shaking it off. Latoshi grinned, having far too much fun engaging in an actual fight for once, coming at him again with the same volley.

The sight of Antoshi getting knocked around was torturous for Fireball. He was completely tensed up in rage, forced to watch from the sidelines.

“You're really not going to fight back, huh!?” Latoshi asked in amusement. “At the very least you're resilient as hell — like a really sturdy punching bag!”

With every strike, Antoshi's eyes began glowing brighter as rage built up inside him. He gave off a sudden scream. His own, red aura ignited almost like an explosion around his body — the force and pressure of which pushed Latoshi away slightly. Latoshi hopped backward a short distance. He was intrigued by the long-awaited emergence of Antoshi's power.

Now it's getting interesting,” Latoshi remarked.

The two boys stared each other down for several moments. Antoshi groaned and shook his head. His vision was blurred from the hits he took. Latoshi used to opportunity to quickly race toward him. He shouted, throwing a punch with more force behind it than before. Still dazed, Antoshi reacted instinctively by blocking the punch with his forearms. The impact dug Antoshi's heels into the ground and caused a small shock wave that shook the nearby trees. Both boys were stunned, as was Fireball.

Latoshi shouted continuously with each subsequent strike at him. With no formal experience fighting or using his powers, Antoshi was forced to quickly learn and adapt to the difference in power and skill. He at least managed to continue guarding various points of his body from Latoshi's superhuman punches out of sheer instinct. His rage continued to increase, manifesting in his red aura which burned more ferociously than before. He despised having to fight Latoshi, no matter what the circumstances were. His body continued to fight on, but his heart was aching to stop.

Latoshi reared his fist back, throwing one last, powerful strike. Antoshi clenched his teeth, his eyes glowing brighter, his adrenaline surging. He leapt back in a sudden instant to avoid the attack, leaving Latoshi bewildered and wide-eyed. He had moved just a few paces away, yet did so faster than Latoshi could process.

‘Was he actually trained as well?’ Latoshi thought. ‘Where is this speed suddenly coming from? …’

With Latoshi momentarily confused, a counter-attack opportunity appeared. Antoshi held his hands out in front of him. A ball of bright, red energy gathered in his palms. He was briefly taken aback by its presence, realizing it was the same sort of orb he had shown to Fireball. He quickly focused back on his target, gave a shout, and fired it like a projectile at his attacker.

Latoshi gasped in surprise. He narrowly dodged the blast, causing it to impact a large pine tree behind him. The resulting explosion was powerful enough to break and topple the tree, falling away from the group with loud cracking and a hard thud.

Latoshi backed away to regroup himself, narrowing narrowed his eyes at his rival. ‘What secrets is he hiding? How does someone as soft as him know how to fight like that? Is he playing me for a chump right now?’

Antoshi, meanwhile, gazed down at his palms in disbelief at what just happened.

"Whoa," Fireball uttered. "Antoshi, that was … amazing! I—I had no idea you could move so fast! And that … that bullet thing you shot from your hands! It was just like the light show ball!"

Fireball, too, had recognized it. Antoshi didn't have an answer for Fireball.

‘I … can use that light like … a weapon?’ Antoshi thought.

Latoshi's eyes shifted over to Fireball. ‘The Typhlosion is way too surprised with Antoshi's skills. He has to be doing all of this out of instinct. He's greener than my shirt. …’

'Foolish child,' Lazarus said. 'You are holding back too much. Do not go easy on him.'

Latoshi scoffed. “Whatever. I was just feeling him out.”

Upon realizing Latoshi was speaking to the wind, Antoshi and Fireball both stared at him with puzzled gazes. ‘Is that his 'conscience' he's talking to?’ Antoshi thought.

“So, Antoshi,” Latoshi said, “you seem to have some mastery over your abilities, huh?”

“I …” Antoshi trailed off, clenching his fists and standing confidently. “I do.”

“Interesting,” Latoshi said, “bu~t I think you're lying. You and Fireball were just as surprised as I was when you used that attack. The fact is, you've only just begun to start harnessing your power, and realizing what you can do with it. I've had plenty of continuous training, so I have much more control over my energy. I'm at a level way greater than what you're capable of.”

Antoshi scowled, feeling empowered by his earlier ability. He suddenly dashed toward Latoshi. “Let's find out!” he exclaimed.

Latoshi's shimmering black eyes widened in shock, taken aback at just how fast Antoshi was. It was a speed beyond what either of them had displayed thus far. Rather than going for an attack, Antoshi instead decided to dash all around Latoshi in a random pattern. His speed was great enough that he left fading after-images of himself, giving the appearance of a handful of clones surrounding his opponent.

'He is surprisingly quick,' Lazarus remarked.

Latoshi looked all around in every direction with a confused expression. He was overwhelmed by Antoshi's quickness. Fireball watched in awe at the superpowered young people, astonished by how fast they were able to move and react. Yet, for the two locked in battle, the normal flow of time seemed to be reduced to a snail's pace.

Antoshi leapt forward, striking Latoshi with a kick to the back of the head. Latoshi shouted and stumbled, immediately turning and swinging a fist to counter. Antoshi was already long gone — back in the vortex of after-images. Antoshi's hand glowed red as he summoned forth the energy needed to produce another blast.

'Defend yourself!' Lazarus shouted.

With a bitter scowl, Latoshi crossed his arms in front of him. Antoshi came to a sudden stop, firing the powerful blast of energy in Latoshi's face. It exploded violently enough to send his adversary careening a short distance away. Latoshi grunted in pain, managing to use his momentum to flip backward and land on his feet.

"Awesome, Antoshi!" Fireball cheered. "That was so cool!"

Latoshi looked down at his forearms, finding burn marks left from the energy's impact. He seethed, glaring viciously at his adversary. Antoshi kept on him, realizing he was dictating the pace of the fight. He dashed toward Latoshi swiftly enough to dodge a punch that Latoshi threw at him. He continued darting around him, leaving after-images once more. Using his quickness, he managed to land several shots to Latoshi's head.

Latoshi became bitterly frustrated. He roared, his aura intensifying.

'Focus, you dunce!' Lazarus shouted. 'Do not just stand there — feel his energy out!'

Latoshi put all of focus into watching his opponent's movements, though difficult they were to follow. The next time Antoshi threw a punch, Latoshi spotted it and blocked it with a hand. The blond-haired boy didn't think much of it, keeping up the pace of his assault. Latoshi's eyes began to further adapt to Antoshi's overwhelming speed. He took some further shots, but deflected and avoided most of them.

Their speed was evolving as the fight went on. It became too fast for Fireball to keep up with. However, Latoshi soon became the one dictating the pace. As he realized it more and more, he shot his rival an increasingly confident smirk. Despite his speed, Antoshi saw his rival's arrogant expression clearly.

After having his attacks blocked consistently, Antoshi leapt away to get some space. He hunched over, panting heavily. He wiped the sweat off of his forehead, a stern expression on his face. He did not let Latoshi out of his sights.

Latoshi threw his head back and laughed. “Look at you! You're more winded than I am, and I've been on the defensive! Guess you reached your limit, huh, bro?”

Antoshi heaved a sigh and stood up straight. “I am not your brother.”

“Well, that's just a silly remark. It's inexplicable, but I know you sense just as well as I do that we have to be related.”

Antoshi scowled. “Not a chance. Fireball is more of a brother to me than you'd ever be.”

“Oh, and why is that? Because he's nice to you? Because his ideals align with yours? Sorry, that's not how life works. I'm certain that we are brothers. No matter how much you dislike it, you're certain as well. I mean, just look at us, Antoshi — it's like looking in a mirror! We're not just brothers, we're twin brothers!”

Antoshi glanced away. “How can that be? I—I've never even met you before.”

Latoshi shrugged. “I don't know any more than you do. But, what I do know is that you should join me. I'll forgive your earlier remarks towards me. Come on, we can work together. We can make this world a much better place, you and I. You have so much potential that you don't even see! I'll help teach you how to gain control over your powers. We'll be totally unstoppable!”

“Over my dead body,” Antoshi spat.

Latoshi laughed. “That's a very interesting response,” Antoshi gasped as his adversary appeared beside him, driving a fist into his gut, “because it's one that I can definitely follow through with if you refuse my generous offer.” Antoshi struggled to breathe, hunching over, hugging his abdomen. The strike was unexpectedly more vicious than any of Latoshi's previous hits. “You know I've been taking it easy on you, right? There is absolutely no way you're going to win this fight. I think it's in your best interest to concede.”

“I'm never going to stop fighting…” Antoshi replied. He stood up straight with a groan, stumbling back a few paces. His stamina had been draining much faster than he realized. “Especially … if it means stopping you from harming us and putting an end to your insane idea of a 'perfect world'.”

Latoshi shook his head and chuckled. “Go on, then. You can keep on fighting, Antoshi. The problem is, you're far less trained to deal with your energy than I am. You can't control it and regulate it well, and you have no stamina built up. It won't be much longer before you run completely dry.”

The two boys stared each other down momentarily. Antoshi panted, sweating intensely, swallowing the dry lump in his throat. His hair and clothing were starting to mat to his body. Latoshi's words resounded with him. He began to seriously question whether or not he actually could deal with the sable-haired boy. He trembled in anticipation of Latoshi's next move.

“Would you like to see just how outclassed you are, Antoshi? Don't blink now.”

Without moving from his position, Latoshi threw a jab at him. Antoshi looked on in confusion, until the shock wave from it suddenly struck him in the face. Latoshi laughed, continuing to send long-ranged punches at him for a short time. Antoshi clenched his jaw, guarding his face with his forearms. The moment they finally stopped, Antoshi dropped his guard to find Latoshi standing in front of him.

“Boo,” Latoshi said with a cocky smirk. He suddenly disappeared. “Whoops, I'm behind you!” he said before landing a punch in the small of Antoshi's back. Antoshi fell to his knees, holding his back with both hands, wincing in pain. “This is a pretty wild case of sibling rivalry, huh?! I may be the only one thinking this, but we seem to have a bit of a dysfunctional family.”

“Yeah, … good one,” Antoshi strained out a sarcastic reply.

Latoshi kicked Antoshi's side hard enough to punt him forward through the air. Antoshi shouted, the sheer force of his momentum snapping several large trees in half as he crashed into them.

Latoshi laughed in amusement. “Well, this is so much more fun now.” He looked down at his hands, enveloped in his black aura, flexing and clenching them into fists rhythmically. “I feel so much stronger now for some reason,” he added with a cocky smirk.

Fireball snarled, fuming. His agitation of being forced to the sidelines was at its peak. With a clear opening between himself and the distracted Latoshi, he let out a sudden, powerful Flamethrower. Latoshi turned his attention to the oncoming attack in time to shield his face with one arm, just before he was consumed in a stream of flames. Latoshi shouted, part of his shirt burnt, along with the skin on the side of his torso. His aura flared to life around him. The spiritual energy around him effectively acted as a shield around his body, protecting him from the full wrath of Fireball's attack.

"I won't let you hurt Antoshi any longer!" Fireball roared. As was the case with the Rockets, Fireball was willing to attack humans if he felt they were rotten to the core.

Yet, despite being burned, Latoshi's expression slowly turned to amusement. He laughed hysterically, seeing Fireball's attack as nothing more than a joke. He grinned while inspecting the relatively minor burns that scorched some of his shirt and the skin beneath.

“You think some little Pokémon attack is going to stop me? You're even more delusional than my brother is! This burn doesn't hurt in the slightest. You have absolutely no grasp of the level of power you're facing. Antoshi's a complete amateur with his abilities, so you and he have never seen anything like what I—” Fireball abruptly summoned up another Flamethrower, firing it directly at Latoshi. The boy jumped out of the way to avoid it. “… Now, that was just plain rude,” Latoshi scolded him playfully. “What, did you think you'd get me again?”

"No, I'm just tired of hearing you speak," Fireball spat.

Latoshi clicked his tongue. “Well, that is a shame. I can make things easier on you, though. I'll make it so you can't hear me ever again.” Latoshi held an open hand toward Fireball. “After all, you tend to lose your sense of hearing when you don't have a head.”

Fireball stared into Latoshi's cold, black eyes as the boy sneered at him. As Latoshi summoned his energy into his palm, Fireball quickly braced himself.

'No,' Lazarus said. 'Do not harm him. Not yet.'

“What?” Latoshi wondered aloud, his arm faltering. “Why is that?”

'Because I have something else to deal with this nuisance.'

Fireball was left confused, but knew there had to be some kind of unpleasant retribution in store for him yet. Lazarus began chanting an incantation in a strange language that neither of them had heard before. Its voice emanated from Latoshi's mouth — though Latoshi's lips were not moving. Latoshi was shocked, curiously clasping a hand over his mouth. It did nothing to alter the volume of the voice speaking through him.

From the ground, a black mist began to seep. Latoshi and Fireball looked on in bewilderment as the mist slowly rose up and formed into the shape of a four-legged beast. Curled horns sprouted out from its distinctively canine head. Its long tail extended out with a pointed, triangular tip. Once its body had finally taken shape, and Lazarus' chanting ended, its form became apparent.

It was a Houndoom — yet far unlike a normal one. Its body appeared eaten away, hollow and rotted. Bones were visible through gaping holes in its chest and its legs. Its eyes were completely black with small, red, pinprick pupils. It slowly opened its mouth, revealing its forked tongue and razor-sharp, jagged teeth. Fireball was horrified by its appearance.

“What the hell is that thing?” Latoshi asked, bluntly.

'This is Lucent,' Lazarus said. 'He is my most obedient and faithful servant. He is also very much as undead as he looks. I have decided to let him have some fun.'

“You expect me to just play nice with the doggy over there and let him do all the work? I can easily deal with this Typhlosion, you know.”

Lucent's cold eyes slowly rolled over to glare at Latoshi. Latoshi scowled, expressing his disgust for the beast.

'I am well aware of that. Your battle with Antoshi is not over yet, though. This way, you will not have to waste your energy on the Typhlosion.'

Latoshi sighed in frustration. “Fine. Well, Fireball, it was nice knowing you and all but it seems like 'zombie pooch' here is about to tear you into very fine, very bloody ribbons.”

'Sink your jaws into the Typhlosion, Lucent!' Lazarus commanded. Lucent's head snapped upward in attention, Lazarus' voice ringing through his head as well. 'Make him suffer!'

Lucent gave a horrible, raspy bark of acknowledgment before darting at its target. Fireball stood in place, stricken with fear. His eyes went wide as Lucent lurched at him with its decaying jaw open.

Antoshi suddenly jumped in the way, causing the dog to bite his forearm instead. The boy cried out in pain, tensing all the muscles in his arm as he fought to pull away from the dog's grasp. Lucent locked its jaw in tight and began shaking its head around. Antoshi held up his other hand, firing a blast of his energy point-blank that exploded Lucent's face. The attack sent the Houndoom a short distance away.

Lucent's body had gone totally limp before it rolled to a stop. The demonic dog calmly rose to its feet, glaring at Antoshi. It took its time licking the blood off of its chops. Antoshi inspected his badly injured, trembling arm. He gasped, horrified by the amount of blood he was losing. He had never been injured so severely.

“What's the matter, Antoshi?” Latoshi asked with a laugh. “It's just a little blood!”

"Antoshi…" Fireball uttered, deeply concerned for his friend's safety.

Antoshi held a hand out to him, letting him know he was all right. His hand trembled as he grabbed his wound, clenching his teeth. The others looked on as Antoshi summoned his energy into his palm. He screamed in agony, his injured flesh sizzling to effectively cauterize his wound. Fireball was left in shock.

“Fireball,” Antoshi said, quietly, as his hand fell away. “Rolling Fireball.

The command took a moment for Fireball's mind to register. Once it did, he gave a confident smirk. "Looks like we're back in business," he remarked. He curled up quickly, and began revving in place. The fires on his back engulfed him, catching the opposing duo off-guard. Neither of them had seen anything like it.

Fireball took off like a bullet toward Lucent. The undead Houndoom snarled just before being impacted hard. It was sent a short distance away again, landing on its belly. Lucent got back to its feet, staring Fireball down, coldly. The Typhlosion turned around and prepared to strike again. Latoshi appeared in the way suddenly, kicking Fireball away like a ball.

“That's about enough from you!” Latoshi exclaimed. Fireball shouted in terror as he spiraled through the air, coming to a violent stop against a large tree. He fell to the ground, unconscious.

“Fireball!” Antoshi shouted, panicked.

“I really don't like having to work with this dog,” Latoshi remarked, “so I might as well get some enjoyment out of it.”

Antoshi scowled, turning his attention to Latoshi. He shouted in rage, racing toward his adversary, his red aura flickering wildly. Latoshi grinned in the face of the oncoming attack. As Antoshi threw a punch, Latoshi countered with a hard shot to Antoshi's cheek. The impact sent the blond-haired boy backward into the dirt, flailing and skidding to a stop near his motionless best friend.

Antoshi quickly shook himself out of his daze. He gazed over at Fireball with concern, dragging himself toward him.

“Fireball,” he uttered. “Come on, Fireball. … Please, wake up!”

“How perfect it is to have both of you together like this,” Latoshi remarked. He held his wrist, taking careful aim with his open hand. “It'll be like shooting fish in a barrel!” Latoshi laughed as he fired dozens of spherical energy blasts at the duo.

Antoshi's irises burned bright red as his eyes widened in horror. He quickly knelt with his back facing Fireball, crossing his arms over his chest. He used his aura to shield himself and Fireball, just like Latoshi did earlier, as the attacks impacted him and everything around them. He grunted from the sheer power of the blasts, gradually inching back from the immense barrage. Explosions rang out upon the ground and nearby trees, toppling them over.

Fireball awoke to the noise. His eyes came into focus, making out the image of his friend using himself as a shield to protect him.

"Antoshi …" he whispered. The overwhelming show of force came to an end. Fireball groaned and got to his feet.

Antoshi collapsed face-first, panting, his aura severely diminished. His chest had been burned, his shirt left in tatters. Fireball was horrified. He had never seen his best friend so seriously injured.

Latoshi sucked his teeth. “One of you falls, and the other gets up. It's like a really annoying carnival game.”

With a vicious snarl, the fires on Fireball's back came alight with intense fervor. He glared at Latoshi, who arrogantly smirked back at him. He roared, charging at him on all fours. However, he was abruptly struck by a headbutt to his side from Lucent — denying Fireball his chance to attack the boy.

Lucent pinned him down. Fireball roared as he blasted Lucent in the face with another Flamethrower. The Houndoom whined and jumped away. As Fireball got back up to his hind feet, Lucent charged back in, ramming Fireball hard with its horned head and tackling him to the ground once again. They clawed and bit at each other, both Pokémon fighting with all the strategy and savagery of wild animals.

Latoshi casually turned his attention back to Antoshi. “Well, this is just getting sad. Why don't you concede now and join me already? That'll make all this pain stop.”

Antoshi strained, looking up at his rival with bitter loathing in his eyes. Latoshi chuckled before kicking Antoshi in the face, snapping his head back. The blond-haired boy shouted, holding his face as blood seeped from his nose.

"Leave him alone!" Fireball shouted. He managed to shoving Lucent off of him, giving him enough of a reprieve to attack Latoshi with another Flamethrower.

Latoshi grinned, calmly holding a hand out, using his aura to deflect the scorching stream of fire. Lucent put a swift end to Fireball's flames, lurching forth and biting the Typhlosion across the throat. Fireball's eyes went wide, choking. He struggled to release the undead dog's grip on his neck.

“Well, that was convenient,” Latoshi remarked, nonchalantly. “Now, where was I? … Oh, right!” He stomped hard on Antoshi's chest, drawing an agonizing scream out of the blond-haired boy. He stomped several more times before putting his full weight down on him. Antoshi strained, grabbing Latoshi's shoe. “You know, I think this is pretty symbolic of how you're nothing more than a stepping stone on my way to greatness — just like I told you earlier.”

As Antoshi struggled, he turned his gaze to Fireball. Lucent jaws were still clamped down on Fireball's neck, with the Houndoom shaking its head back and forth. Fireball's struggling slowly ceased, going limp. The sight terrified him to the core, unaware if he just witnessed Fireball's death.

Fireball, no!” he called out. He abruptly screamed again as Latoshi put more weight on his chest.

“Oh darn, Antoshi!” Latoshi said, feigning concern. “I think you might have a few broken ribs there!”

Antoshi reached a shaking hand into his pocket while Latoshi continued to stomp on him. His breathing became ragged and shallow, unable to draw a full breath. Straining and ignoring the pain, he pulled out Fireball's Poké Ball. Getting Fireball out of there and into the safety of his Poké Ball was all that mattered to him. He maximized it, weakly pointing it at his friend. Latoshi took his foot off of Antoshi's chest to stomp the ball instead, shattering it into pieces.

Antoshi looked on in helpless agony. His heart fell to pieces much like the shards of Fireball's Poké Ball. “N— … No …” he whispered. His eyes quickly welled up with tears.

Latoshi laughed in amusement. “You're pathetic,” he remarked, spitefully. “You're way too emotional. All you do is cry over every little thing, like a baby. Killing you almost seems like a waste of energy now.” Lucent let go of the unconscious Fireball. It backed away, licking the blood off of its chops. Latoshi glanced over at the Pokémon briefly, his eyes lighting up with an idea. “I know what I'll do. First, I'll kill your Typhlosion, and let you watch. The look on your face when he's nothing but ashes will be very satisfying.”

“No …” Antoshi whispered once more. “No, … no …” His gaze shifted between the shattered ball, over to his best friend. Fireball was in worse shape than he'd ever seen. It was impossible to tell if Fireball was still breathing or not. He reached out for him, whimpering, tears rolling down his face.

“Then,” Latoshi continued, “I think I'll track down the rest of your family in Saffron City and I'll kill them, too.” He looked down at Antoshi, smirking cruelly.

Antoshi momentarily froze in place. Images of his family, and the memories of his journey with Fireball, raced through his head. His family was the most important thing to him. Not his journey, the badges, the scenery, winning battles, or even the people they met. All of that paled in comparison to how crucial family was to him. Latoshi had crossed a line that Antoshi was not going to forgive.

Antoshi's heart pounded, yet his breathing became deeper and more relaxed. His emotions — from the anger he felt toward Latoshi, to the love for his family — all swirled together. His eyes began to glow a much brighter red. Latoshi looked on in surprise while Antoshi found the strength to slowly rise to his feet.

“Damn … you, … Latoshi…” he muttered. “You monster!” His aura exploded back to life, more intense than before. Latoshi shielded his eyes. The sheer pressure of Antoshi's Ki was strong enough to push him back slightly.

'I see now,' Lazarus remarked. 'The greater the lives of his loved ones are in danger, the harder he fights.'

“You're very interesting, Antoshi,” Latoshi said. “You'll make the perfect partner!”

Antoshi couldn't give a damn what Latoshi just said. He screamed, his bitter eyes glowing intensely. He immediately closed the gap between them, throwing dozens of punches at Latoshi in a matter of seconds, fueled by the emotions burning inside him. Resentful hatred upon his face, tears continued to stream down his face.

Yet, despite the blond-haired boy's sudden resurgence, Latoshi was grinning to himself. He put his arms up, able to shield himself from the strikes — even as they inched him back. There was no spirit energy behind Antoshi's attacks — the boy still did not understand how to use it to fight. With Latoshi's more powerful aura shielding him, Antoshi's punches were no more than angry slaps from a baby having a tantrum.

Antoshi's blitz did not last long. His stamina was still heavily drained from earlier. His body couldn't keep up, his speed faltered, his vision becoming blurry. He staggered against Latoshi's superior defense, panting and sweating heavily, his body hunching over. Latoshi found his opening amid what was left of Antoshi's petering onslaught. He landed a sudden upward blow to Antoshi's chin, sending the boy rolling and flailing to the ground.

“You were destined for greater things, Antoshi,” Latoshi said, “but you could never hope to compare to me!”

Antoshi laid face-up, gasping for air. His entire body throbbed with pain. His eyes had returned to normal, his aura vanished; his Ki was almost totally depleted. Latoshi used his phenomenal speed to appear atop him, slamming a knee into his stomach. Antoshi strained as he cried out, blood flying from his mouth.

With a cruel grin, Latoshi grabbed Antoshi by the hair. He viciously punched the boy's face again and again. Antoshi shouted in pain with each blow, unable to defend himself. Lucent sat and watched with disinterest, yawning as the boy was brutalized. By the time Latoshi was done, Antoshi's face was a bloodied mess. He calmly let go of his blond, bloodstained head. Antoshi lay almost lifeless as Latoshi stood tall and triumphant.

“This was just too easy,” he remarked, wiping the blood from his hands. “You just don't get it, Antoshi. You are not as skilled as me. Every single one of those punches and kicks you gave me this entire time, … they weren't fueled with spirit energy. You can't possibly hope to defeat someone like me, trained to use their Ki, with simple, physical blows like that.”

Antoshi groaned weakly. Every inch of him was in excruciating pain. He managed to open one of his eyes, the other swollen shut. He made out the blurry image of Latoshi standing over him. He clenched his teeth, struggling to get up. Latoshi quickly shoved a foot into his chest, pinning him back down.

“No, no, don't get up,” Latoshi said with a chuckle. “You look like you're pretty injured.” Antoshi groaned in pain again. Latoshi squatted down beside him. “Well, so much for this little 'fight' you decided to put up. It was okay, but, in the end, the person with real training won here. You couldn't have looked any more like a deer in headlights during that fight if you tried.”

Antoshi coughed up blood, struggling to breathe. “… Don't … have to do this, … Latoshi.”

“Sure I do. I explained everything to you already, no need to go through it all again. My offer still stands, though. Why don't you join me, huh? I can help you learn how to hone your abilities. Lazarus can help you just like he helped me. You and I … we can have anything we want, go anywhere we choose. Best of all, there'll be no one in our way that can stop us if we work together. So, what do you say, brother? Partners?”

“Not a chance. … I'll never buy in to your … insane ideals. I will … never join you, Latoshi.”

Latoshi clicked his tongue, rising to his feet. “Well, I guess I have no other choice.”

With terror in his eyes, Antoshi watched, helplessly, as Latoshi took aim at his head and summoned his energy into his palm. Latoshi's eyes widened, keeping his gaze affixed to Antoshi's face. Lucent looked on with an icy stare, completely motionless.

'Do it,' Lazarus commanded. 'Without him, nothing will stop your ascension.'

The corner of Latoshi's mouth curled into an enthused smirk, but it quickly faded. There was glint of concern in his eyes, and just a tiny spark of regret in his heart.

‘Wow, look at that,’ he had said earlier. ‘You really are named 'Antoshi'. I didn't think there was anyone out there with a … a weird-sounding name like mine.’

‘It's no problem, really!’ he recalled Antoshi saying to him. ‘You don't even have to pay me back.’

‘You're the first person I can finally talk to about this! The first person to really understand! The first person I can look at as an equal! Antoshi, you've been so kind and friendly toward me already.

The fear in Antoshi's eyes was like his own reflection in that unbreakable glass of his prison cell.

‘I just want to … go home. I'll do anything to go home.’

Antoshi clenched his eyes shut, tears rolling down his face.

'Do it now!!' Lazarus shouted, angrily. Latoshi screamed in frustration before he fired a blast of energy.

A moment later, Antoshi's uninjured eye shot open. Latoshi was still standing over him.

“Let's just call that a … 'parting shot',” Latoshi said. Antoshi's slowly turned his head to see a crater of dirt mere inches away. “You have a lot to think about after this ordeal. But, I think you'll find it wise to reconsider my offer. Just be aware that I could've done that to your head.”

Latoshi calmly turned and walked away, slipping his hands into his pockets. As he strolled by Lucent, the undead dog closed its eyes. It returned to its ethereal form, sinking back into the earth.

Antoshi watched in disbelief as Latoshi simply left. However, his concern immediately turned to the health of his best friend. With a ragged gasp, he looked over at Fireball, who still hadn't moved at all.

“Fire … ball …” he whispered. He groaned in pain, reaching out for him once more. He needed to be with his friend, to help him, to get him to safety. If he could just do that, then everything would be fine.

Antoshi's eyes abruptly rolled closed and his body went limp, falling unconscious.

Once Latoshi was a short distance away from the duo, he smirked to himself proudly. “Guess I really am as strong as you said, huh?” he asked Lazarus.

Suddenly, a crippling ringing noise blared out in his ears. His eyes shot wide, grabbing the sides of his head, screaming in agony.

'You simpering little coward!' Lazarus shouted over the noise. 'The next time you ever disobey my orders, your punishment will be much, much worse!' Latoshi gasped when the sound came to an abrupt end. 'I will take my leave for a while. Continue your training and do not disappoint me again.'

Latoshi panted, visibly sweating, dumbfounded at what just occurred. “I'm sorry,” he whispered. “I— … I'm sorry. …”

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Antoshi groaned as he briefly regained consciousness. The sun shined brightly through a break in the clouds. A girl with long, brunette hair was knelt beside him. He was barely able to make out her face and violet eyes. It was the same girl he bumped into outside the train station.

The sunlight appeared like a halo around her head. She looked at him with a smile. Her hands glowed with a warm, pink aura, gently pressed against his chest.

“You're going to be just fine,” she softly said.

Just as before, her voice sang to him like an angel. Her words echoed in his head as he groaned and passed out again.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Antoshi awoke with a startled gasp, jumping up into a sitting position. The clouds had mostly cleared up. The evening sun had already set in. He panted fearfully, looking around, spotting Fireball unconscious nearby. He panicked, crawling over to check on him. Fireball was merely asleep, and with no visible injuries on him. A wave of relief swept through him. He sighed heavily, hunched over as he sat down in front of Fireball.

He mulled over everything that had transpired, hoping to somehow wrap his head around it all. He patted his chest, feeling no pain after the torturous battle he went through. Miraculously, like Fireball, he also didn't have any injures. His clothes, however, were still tattered and dirtied.

He suddenly recalled the blurry image of the girl. Her hands were glowing, as though she also had control over spirit energy.

‘Did she … heal me?’ he thought. ‘There are others, then? Others like Latoshi and myself who can use their … 'Ki' as he called it. But, who is she? Does she know Latoshi somehow?’

His eyes widened — she was the girl he bumped into outside the train station. He groaned in frustration, running a hand through his hair. The questions were piling up and becoming too much for him. For the moment, he turned his attention back to his best friend.

“Fireball,” he said, gently shaking him. “Wake up.”

"Huh?" Fireball remarked, opening his eyes. He gasped and sat up quickly the same way Antoshi did earlier. He looked around for Latoshi and Lucent. "Where— … what happened? Weren't we just in a big fight?"

“We were, but … it's over now,” he replied with a weak smile. “Come on, let's head back to the Pokémon Center.”

Fireball was momentarily taken aback. The two of them had just nearly been killed. Latoshi, Lucent, and Lazarus were still lurking about somewhere. Yet, Antoshi got to his feet and casually inspected at his tattered clothes. The boy seemed oddly distant — as if none of it fazed him. It reminded him of how the boy didn't give much thought to the fall that he survived in Viridian. Still, Antoshi's demeanor felt … different this time.

Fireball got to his hind feet. "What about Latoshi?" Fireball asked. "Shouldn't we … go after him or something?"

Antoshi shook his head, turning his distant gaze away. “There's no point,” he muttered. “I can't sense energy like he can. He's way stronger than I am. I'm just not as good as him.”

Fireball was shocked. Antoshi had never been so defeated before. "But, … you're not going to just give up, right? As long as you're going to fight, I'll fight, Antoshi. The two of us working together has always got us through."

“That's not going to help this time!” he snapped, turning a bitter gaze at Fireball. “This isn't some Pokémon battle where we can just shrug off a loss and move on! Our lives are on the line!” The boy was visibly shaken, breathing heavily. He was angry — angrier than Fireball had ever seen before. He turned away and sighed. “I'm sorry, I just— … come on, let's get going.”

"All right, … sure," Fireball replied, quietly.

Antoshi took one more look back at the remnants of Fireball's shattered Poké Ball. He said nothing of it, walking away, idly wiping his eyes. Fireball followed along in silence a short distance behind him.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Latoshi took a deep breath before slowly sighing in content. He opened his eyes, having finished his meditation. He unfurled his crossed legs to sprawl out a bit, resting his back against the large tree behind him. Crickets chirped all around in the quiet peace of night.

“Do I really have to hide in the woods like this?” Latoshi asked.

'Yes,' Lazarus replied. 'For now, we will keep a low profile. Until you grow much stronger, we will stay in the shadows. You may be able to wipe out a large tower with your Ki now, but we will constantly aim even higher. The next time you and Antoshi should face, I want you to utterly decimate him and his Typhlosion. Is that understood?'

Latoshi paused for a moment. “Lazarus, I'm sorry about earlier. I just didn't want—”

'Is — that — understood?' the voice demanded an answer.

Latoshi sighed. “Yes, Lazarus,” he replied, quietly, turning his gaze away.

'Excellent. Always remember who pulled you from nothing and made you extraordinary. Remember who will continue to make you even stronger still.'

“Right,” he replied, while pulling out some nearby grass and tossing it aside. He sighed amid the quiet of the forest. Lazarus' voice had left him. “And, … now I'm all alone again.” He scooted forward to lay down on the ground, staring up at the night sky, his mind swirling with thoughts.

‘I wonder what it would've been like, if I … had actually gotten to know Antoshi instead of fighting him. Maybe the two of us could be talking about Pokémon stuff right now. That would be pretty normal. Kind of like … a family.’

Latoshi suddenly caught a vision of a man and a woman smiling proudly, standing over him. He gasped in surprise, sitting up. His heart swelled with excitement and a sense of warmth. ‘What was that?! Could it be? Was that … a memory?’

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

On the floor in their room at the Pokémon Center, Fireball rolled over in his sleep and smacked his lips. He awoke for just a moment to check on Antoshi. The boy wasn't there.

“Antoshi?” Fireball called out, quietly. He sat up, looking around for him.

Just outside, Antoshi stood on the sidewalk, his mind blanking out nearby cars and passersby. He clenched his fists, trembling with anger, while staring up at the full moon with rage. His irises glowed an intensely bright red.

‘I'll stop him,’ Antoshi thought. ‘I will stop him — no matter what it takes…’

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

End of Part 2

⁂ ⁂

Part 3: Intervention

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Part 3: Intervention

⁂ ⁂

A scream, echoing in the forest. Sounds of explosions all around. Nostrils clogged with the scent of blood. Terrible, mind-numbing pain in every nerve. The horrifying image of Fireball near death.

Fireball, no!’ Antoshi cried out.

Latoshi's laugh echoed all around him. The sable-haired boy's sneering expression was so clear — cold, vicious, methodical.

“Join me, Antoshi,” he said. “Let's make this world so much better by cleansing it of evil.”

“I already know how to make this world better,” Antoshi spat, “by cleansing you out of it!” He and Latoshi shouted as they rushed toward each other.

Antoshi gasped, jolting back to reality, sitting on the edge of a messy bed. Even though he'd only dozed off for a few minutes, he had to recollect himself and remember where he was: the hotel room they were staying. They were safe — far away from the site of the horrific battle between himself and Latoshi.

Only a couple of days had passed since his fight with Latoshi. He'd gotten almost no sleep since then. His thoughts had been consuming him and drawing him into dreamlike dazes, pulling him back into that point in time, causing him to relive the horrors of their fight over and over again. The brutal extent of their confrontation rendered him unable to think about much else. The lack of sleep left him agitated.

He looked over at Fireball. The Typhlosion stood staring out of the room's large windows, high above eastern Goldenrod City. It was a bleak afternoon, the sky was cloudy and overcast. The duo had opted to lay low for a while, staying put in their room. Their exploration of the city, and their Johto journey as a whole, was on hold, indefinitely. The mood between them had been abnormally quiet and somber as of late.

‘What is this power inside of me?’ Antoshi thought. ‘Why? … Why was I given this?’

"So," Fireball said, turning to face his friend, "Latoshi … broke my Poké Ball?"

“Yeah,” Antoshi replied. He looked down at the new, unblemished Poké Ball in his hands, slowly rotating it. “I should've stopped him. I should've … done more to make sure that you weren't hurt, and that your Poké Ball was safe. Now, all that history and those memories with that ball, the one that brought you to me for the very first time, are gone.”

The Typhlosion turned his gaze to the floor. "That's why you went out earlier and bought a new Poké Ball," Fireball remarked with a weak chuckle. "After I saw you with it, I thought maybe … you were ready to get back on the road. I thought you were planning to catch a new Pokémon for the first time, or … maybe even a bunch of new Pokémon."

“We can't get back to traveling yet. I have to deal with Latoshi first.”

Fireball took a seat on a second bed across from Antoshi. His concerned gaze met with Antoshi's brown eyes. "Antoshi, you can't blame yourself over what happened in that fight. You don't have to feel like it's your responsibility to take him on."

“How can I not? I know I'm the only one who can stop him.”

"That's true, but … how? What can we do? You heard him before, he kept going on and on about his training and experience. He— … he beat you … badly."

Antoshi cut his eyes at him. “I know he beat me, Fireball,” he said, raising his voice, “you don't have to keep reminding me, okay?”

"Okay, okay. I—I'm sorry, Antoshi. I didn't mean to …" he trailed off.

The mood turned quiet again. Fireball sighed, looking at the Poké Ball in Antoshi's hands. He reached out and grabbed it with a paw, smiling to his friend, reassuringly. Fireball's body was quickly reduced to a reddish light, pulled into the open ball before it promptly snapped shut. Antoshi watched the ball gently wobble, while the front button glowed red and blinked for a moment. Once it stopped glowing, the new home of his best friend was officially set.

The blond-haired boy sighed, staring blankly. He pondered for a moment, hesitating to let Fireball out again. He placed the ball on the bed, and walked away.

‘I don't want to fight you,’ he recalled saying to Latoshi.

‘Good!’ Latoshi replied back. ‘That'll make killing you so much easier.’

Antoshi sighed, getting into a fighting stance, raising his fists. He grunted, throwing a few straight punches in the blink of an eye. He expressed bitterness. He found himself back in the forest, envisioning Latoshi standing over him with the same arrogant smile.

‘Well, so much for this little 'fight' you decided to put up,’ Latoshi said to him. ‘It was okay, but, in the end, the person with real training won here.’

Antoshi narrowed his eyes, letting those words sinking in. He stood up straight, eyes widening with the spark of an epiphany. He grabbed Fireball's Poké Ball and held it out to finally release him. Fireball materialized, sitting on the bed again.

"Um," Fireball began, "should I … ask why you waited to let me back out?"

Antoshi had a serious expression upon his face before he turned away. “Come on, Fireball,” he said, heading for the door. “Let's get going.”

"Oh. Okay, sure," Fireball replied with some confusion. He followed Antoshi as they exited their hotel room.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Outside, Antoshi marched eastward through the city streets toward an unknown destination. His eyes were fueled with determination, irises glowing brightly with the red hue of his spirit energy. Fireball remained behind his friend as opposed to his typical designation by the boy's side.

The mood continued to be unusually quiet and tense. Antoshi had become fairly distant toward Fireball ever since the fight with Latoshi. A gloomy air hung over the boy. It wasn't the Antoshi he knew and loved. Fireball wanted to say something about it to him, but he was too afraid that it would only anger Antoshi further.

Soon, the city's Gym came into view. Fireball's eyes lit up, gasping in elation.

"Oh, hey! Goldenrod City Gym!" Fireball said. He stopped in front of the white pathway leading to the doors of the large, yellowish building, grinning eagerly. "Man, I can't wait to—"

He looked over to see Antoshi was still walking away. Fireball gave chase after him. "Antoshi? The Gym's over here!"

“We're not going to the Gym,” he replied, keeping his bitter gaze forward. Fireball was stunned.

"Oh. … Where are we going?"

“Just follow me,” he said, flatly. “I'll explain later.”

"Oh, uh, all right then…" Fireball replied, nervously fidgeting with his claws.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Once they reached the wooded outskirts of the city, Antoshi led Fireball into the first open clearing he found. A small flock of Starly flew off upon his arrival. Fireball was surprised, curiously staring at him. Antoshi took a slow look around. The environment was similar to that of the battle with Latoshi. The memories again came flooding back to him.

‘Let's just call that a … 'parting shot',’ Latoshi said. ‘You have a lot to think about after this ordeal. But, I think you'll find it wise to reconsider my offer.’

"So," Fireball said, bringing Antoshi back to reality. "What … are we doing out here in the woods?"

“Training,” Antoshi replied calmly.

"Oh, sweet!" Fireball said, with a relieved sigh. "You know, you had me worried for a sec' there. I'll bet you want to make sure we're strong enough to beat all of the Johto Gyms, huh?"

“We're not training you, Fireball,” Antoshi replied. “I already told you, we can't start traveling again yet. I'm the one who's getting training.” The boy stretched out his neck and rubbed his hands together.

Fireball was left confused. "… Huh?" he uttered, bewildered. Antoshi walked a few paces away, turning around to face his friend.

“Come at me,” Antoshi said. “I want you to attack me just like you'd attack an opponent.”

Fireball's jaw hung in disbelief. "Antoshi … what? What are you asking me here? I can't … hit you. You're not my opponent, you're my best friend."

“We don't have time for this, Fireball!” Antoshi shouted, causing the larger than average Typhlosion to jump. “Every second we waste allows Latoshi to get stronger. He's scheming, plotting, waiting to attack us again. He could very well be watching us right now.”

"Antoshi, … is this really the right call? Are you really going to train to … fight him again?"

“This is the only thing I can think of, Fireball. I don't know exactly what Latoshi's training consists of, but the fact is, like you said earlier, he did beat me … badly. I thought that my powers were strong enough for me to do anything. I could fly, I could pick up cars, but Latoshi's power and skill … were on a whole different level I couldn't even comprehend.”

"I thought that you wanted to try to talk him out of this whole, err, whatever it was he's trying to accomplish."

Antoshi laughed weakly. “We're probably way past being able to talk things over with him at this point. The only language Latoshi understands is fighting.” He spread his stance a bit, loosening himself up. “Now, let's train. Come at me.”

Fireball looked at his friend with deep concern in his eyes. He sighed, looking away for a moment before nodding in acknowledgment. The fires on his back came alight. He made the first charge at Antoshi, growling, swiping a claw at his chest. His attack completely missed, however, as Antoshi had already maneuvered behind him. Fireball turned around, eyes wide with surprise.

“Come on, Fireball,” he said, with a perturbed expression. “I know you and your strength better than anyone. You're holding back already. Don't. I can take whatever you dish out at me. And, well, if I can't … I think you know what that means.”

"Yeah, … that's what I'm most afraid of."

“This isn't the time for us to be worrying about 'what if's. Now, stop messing around and strike!” Fireball hesitated for a moment. “Fireball, use Rolling Fireball!” Fireball was shocked by the command. Antoshi took another few paces back and gestured for him to come forth.

With a bitter growl, Fireball curled himself up. Revving in place like a spinning tire caused the fires on his back to ignite his entire frame. Antoshi's eyes glowed bright red, clenching his jaw, watching Fireball blast towards him in an instant. He leapt over Fireball's first attack. The Typhlosion quickly spun around, coming at him again with greater speed than before. Antoshi side-stepped the next pass, and the one after it. After which, Fireball's speed continued to increase to a phenomenal pace.

Not content to simply dodge, Antoshi decided to take a risk and test his own strength. He braced himself, holding both hands out. He grabbed the spinning Typhlosion, his feet digging into the ground from the impact as he slid backward. The intense flames seared at his hands. He strained with effort, the force of Fireball's attack pushing him back less and less. He quickly managed to slow Fireball's momentum to a complete halt.

Once the flames on Fireball's back went out, Antoshi let go of him and took a few steps back. Fireball leapt up into a vertical standing position.

"You okay, Antoshi?" he asked.

Antoshi inspected the ash collected on his trembling palms before patting them clean. His skin had ended up raw and red from the heat of the flames. He felt no pain from it, and was otherwise fine.

“Yeah,” the boy replied, with a slight chuckle. “Luckily.”

Fireball smiled in response. "That was definitely not something a normal person should be able to do."

“Almost nothing over the past few months has really been 'normal' for me, … no matter how much I wish it were.”

"We still don't have to do this whole 'training' thing if you don't want to."

Antoshi shook his head. “Latoshi … threatened your life, he threatened mine. … He even threatened Mom and Dad.” His expression turned bitter, staring at his clenched fists. “I can't let anything happen to my family. Not when I have the ability to protect them.”

"He could've just been bluffing."

“And what if he wasn't?” he shot back, surprising Fireball. “You saw him just as well as I did, Fireball — he's insane! He hears voices in his head that tell him to … to go out and—and murder people? No, I have to stop him. I'm the only one that can. That has to be why I kept having those dreams about him, and what he did to Fern Town. I know if I try hard enough, I can find the strength to beat him. I have to do this.” He closed his eyes and sighed in sorrow. “I have to.”

Fireball turned his gaze away, unable to offer a response. Antoshi looked over at his friend with a serious expression.

“Now, come at me with Return.”

Fireball's eyes widened. "You want me to use Return on … my Trainer?"

Antoshi scoffed, grinning slightly. He guarded his chest with his forearms. “I'm aware of the irony in that. Keep on hitting me and don't hold back.”

Fireball shook his head with a groan of defeat. He narrowed his eyes before taking aim, swinging at Antoshi with enough force to stagger the boy back. Antoshi clenched his teeth, grunting through the powerful, clubbing strikes. The pain he felt was echoed in his expression and his glowing irises.

‘I've been too coddled,’ Antoshi thought. ‘I've never had to fight for myself. I've always depended on Fireball or my parents, ever since I was a child. I can't be a child anymore. I can't sit by and let everyone else take care of my problems for me, not when Latoshi is out there after threatening their lives.’

He shut his eyes tight, his arms glowing bright with his red energy, continuing to defend.

‘Latoshi was right. I can use my power for good, to do great things in the world. Now, I'm going to use them … to put an end his madness…’

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Antoshi was not the only one focused on training, however. At the southern end of Goldenrod City, not far from where they fought, Latoshi was busy honing his skills within the seclusion of the woods. He stood still, his eyes closed, breathing calmly. His transparent, black aura gently fluctuated around him. There were no Pokémon anywhere near him. The ones that did show themselves quickly fled after gazing upon his ominous, dark energy.

'Now,' Lazarus instructed him.

His eyes shot open, irises shimmering black. He brought his clenched fists up at his sides and gave a long shout. His aura flared wildly, extending further out around his body.

'Concentrate,' Lazarus said.

The boy briefly closed his eyes, his expression turning bitterly serious. A large multitude of energy orbs, each about the size of his fist, suddenly burst from his aura and hovered around him. Latoshi broke his focus to look around at them in awe.

“Whoa,” he remarked. “That's unreal.”

He brought a hand up, which caused some of the orbs on that side to move up. He gasped, waving his hands around, prompting the orbs to do the same. Smirking confidently, he thrust both hands forward. The energy he summoned responded by shooting out in front of him. He kept his sense of amazement as the orbs violently exploded on contact with the trees and ground.

Once the dust had settled, a flat clearing of earth lay before him. Everything for several dozens of meters had been completely ravaged to nothing. Having the power to destroy at a moment's notice made him feel all-powerful, capable of guiding his own destiny. Yet, taking it out on a bunch of harmless trees left him with a feeling of emptiness.

'Outstanding. You successfully improvised a new technique. Your fight with Antoshi strengthened your abilities far quicker than meditation ever could. You truly have excellent potential, Latoshi.'

He curiously gazed down at his hands, summoning up some of his energy to them. “I don't feel much stronger,” he remarked.

'Of course not,' Lazarus snapped, as if to chide the boy. Latoshi furred his brow in concern. Lazarus quickly lightened his tone. 'This is your new baseline of power. Of course, it would not feel any different for you.'

“Well, if you say so.” Latoshi put his hands in his pockets, strolling casually through the destruction he wrought. “So, where do I go from here?”

'As I have told you, your power is limitless.'

“Yeah, … you have said that,” he replied with disinterest.

'… Is there a problem?'

“I just keep— … err, never mind.”

'Tell me. I will not have you keep secrets.'

“It's … about Antoshi. I keep thinking about when we met, and the things he's said, and … I don't— I mean, I just want to talk to him again.”

'You are not to speak to him. There is nothing that needs to be said to him, and nothing he could say will ever matter.'

“But, if I could just—” Latoshi was interrupted by a piercing noise ringing out in his head again — Lazarus' method of punishment. His eyes shot open wide, letting out a scream of agonizing pain. He fell to his knees, covering his ears.

'I told you not to disobey me anymore, did I not?' Lazarus spoke, calmly, over the terrible noise.

Latoshi gasped once the noise suddenly stopped. He panted quietly for a moment, scowling. “I don't think that's necessary to get your point across,” he remarked, bitterly. He was very quickly getting fed up with Lazarus asserting authority over him.

'Let me tell you what is 'necessary': putting your full faith in me. I will not lead you astray. Antoshi is weak. He is unskilled, he is a coward. You are none of those things. I have already proven my loyalty to you. Now, you must do the same.' Latoshi's gaze was fully focused on the ground like a scolded child. The mysterious voice had a point — he did owe Lazarus a great deal. He settled into a sitting position with his legs folded. 'No distractions. Nothing will stop us from our goal. Nothing. Is that understood?'

“Yes, Lazarus,” Latoshi replied, quietly.

'Very good. Now, return to your meditation. You are to continue honing your new abilities until they are as sharp as a sword.'

Latoshi closed his eyes, heaving a sigh before he returned to his training.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

A day later, there were a few small breaks in the heavily clouded, mid morning sky. Antoshi and Fireball's roles had reversed as they continued to train in the woods. Antoshi was on the offensive, while Fireball dodged away from each of the boy's punches and kicks. Antoshi was struggling to land a strike on his battle-hardened Pokémon, especially with his mind continually distracted by the same haunting memories. Nonetheless, he remained ever persistent.

As they pressed on throughout the day, and as Antoshi managed to focus more, Antoshi's speed gradually made significant progress. That improvement came with the intensifying red glow in his eyes, brought about by the fiery emotions stirred up by thoughts of Latoshi's viciousness and arrogance.

‘You're pathetic,’ Latoshi remarked in his memory. ‘You're way too emotional. All you do is cry over every little thing, like a baby. Killing you almost seems like a waste of energy now.’

Antoshi was still not able to tag his target. The constant failure, the lack of sleep, his inability to let go of his memories — it was all wearing on him. He gave a frustrated yell as his red aura exploded to life around his body. In an instant, he suddenly grabbed Fireball by the throat and pinned him to the ground with a violent slam.

"Antoshi!" Fireball strained.

“You think I'm a crybaby?!” Antoshi shouted, enraged. He reared a fist back that burned with the energy of his aura. “Let's see how funny it is when I make you cry!”

"Antoshi, please, stop!" Fireball exclaimed. Antoshi's eyes widened as he snapped back to reality. He quickly let go of Fireball, his jaw hanging in disbelief.

“Fireball, I'm … so sorry. I …”

"It's all right, Antoshi," he reassured him.

He and Antoshi sat down in front of each other. The boy was crestfallen. Fireball knew Antoshi was hurting inside over Latoshi, and what Latoshi had done to him. He was disappointed that his friend chose to manifest that pain as anger. It was so unlike him. Antoshi had always been so kind, friendly, and caring. This rage wasn't like him at all. His best friend was unrecognizable. He was no longer a blond ray of sunshine.

"We've been training like this for hours," Fireball said. "Maybe we should take a break for now. It's a miracle that nobody's come by here yet to see you darting around like a bullet."

“Maybe,” he replied, his voice low. He was unable to look his friend in the eye. “I'm really sorry, Fireball. I went too far there.”

Family was, again, the most important thing to Antoshi. Lashing out at his family made him finally understand how badly misplaced his heart had been. He hadn't seen the situation from Fireball's perspective. He took a moment to steady his breathing, so he could think clearly.

"It's okay, Antoshi. This whole 'Latoshi' thing is getting to you. Why don't we just, you know, go and get something to eat?"

Antoshi grinned and scoffed in amusement. “You never miss a chance for food, huh?” he joked. Fireball grinned. “Still, food sounds good right about now.”

The two of them got up, idly brushing at the dirt and scuff marks littering their bodies.

"You have a little something right here," Fireball remarked, pointing at a glob of mud under Antoshi's eye.

“Oh, I do, huh?” Antoshi smirked, rubbing his cheek, smearing the mud around. “Did I get it?”

Fireball chortled. "Yep, you're fine," he replied, stifling a laugh.

Antoshi grinned and sighed. “I guess that means we should go get cleaned up before we eat. Better call Mom and Dad, too. They probably want to know what we're up to in Goldenrod.”

"Sounds like a good idea."

As they ended their training session for the day, they were unaware that they were being watched. In the shadows of the nearby trees, stood the mysterious girl with long, brunette hair that had healed Antoshi's injuries. She smiled warmly, watching the pair as they left. With a quiet, content chuckle, she turned and headed off in her own direction.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

The duo were back in their hotel room, having cleaned up and gotten something to eat. The clouds had almost completely cleared up by noon. The room's wide-open curtains allowed the bright light to pour in. Antoshi was visibly nervous as he sat at the videophone in their room. Fireball stood behind him as usual. Both of them did their best to put up a convincing front while the phone automatically dialed Antoshi's parents.

“There's our amazing Pokémon Trainer!” his mother greeted him. Both she and his father waved to them.

“Hi, Mom and Dad,” Antoshi replied, offering his parents an embarrassed grin.

“Ooh, I'll bet the two of you are enjoying the sights as usual, huh?” she asked.

“Are the Trainers there tough?” his father chimed in.

“Yes, and … err, yes,” he replied with a nervous chuckle. “Fireball and I have been really distracted here in Goldenrod.” Fireball nodded.

“Well, Goldenrod is as big as Saffron City,” his mother said. “You two will have tons of things to do and see there!”

“How's the food?” his father asked.

“It's great. Fireball and I really enjoyed the—” Antoshi recalled his memory of being in the ice cream shoppe with Latoshi. “The, um, ice cream,” he added with a convincing smile. Fireball was surprised at the remark, realizing where the boy's mind was. “I just wanted to let you guys know that we'll probably be in Goldenrod for a little while longer. We're busy training, and I don't feel like we're anywhere near ready to challenge the Gym here yet.” Fireball nodded again.

“Oh, that's perfectly fine, Antoshi!” his mother said. “Have fun and take all the time you want there. Just remember to keep in touch with us. Your father and I just want you and Fireball to have a wonderful time and remember all the experiences you have in Johto.”

“I'm definitely going to remember all of this,” he responded, with a worried chuckle, as his eyes faltered away.

“Antoshi?” his mother spoke up, grabbing his attention. “Is everything all right? You seem more distracted than usual.”

“Oh, I … I don't know, I guess I just feel a little homesick again. I've been thinking about both of you a lot lately.”

“That's no problem, son,” his father said. “Anytime you want to come home just let us know and we'll set it up for you, okay?”

“Thanks, Dad,” he replied, with a grin. “I really appreciate you both being there for me.”

“Love you!” his mother said.

“See you soon!” his father added.

Antoshi and Fireball both waved to his parents before the call ended. As the screen went blank, Antoshi hung his head down with a heavy sigh.

"Are you okay, Antoshi?" Fireball asked, quietly.

Antoshi rhythmically drummed his fingers across the videophone's desk. He pondered a response for a moment, before scoffing in amusement.

“I'm lying to my parents, …” he muttered, “all to keep this a secret. All to keep them from worrying about me. All because I'm worried about them getting hurt. … It's kind of funny when you think about it.” Fireball did not take his concerned gaze off of his friend. “I hate this feeling, Fireball. I just want this nightmare to be over….”

"So do I," Fireball said, placing a reassuring paw on his friend's shoulder. "But … what do we do?"

“Stick to my initial plan. We have to train — I have to train. I have to get much better than I am now if I want to stand a chance against Latoshi.”

Fireball sighed in defeat, his claw falling away. "Are you sure?"

“Definitely,” Antoshi replied. He got to his feet and stretched.

"Do you want me to train with you again?"

Antoshi turned to his friend with a smile. “I know how uncomfortable you are with this. You don't have to come with me, Fireball. I'll figure something out sooner or later. … I always do.”

"Should I … stay here and wait for you to come back?"

“You can hang out wherever you like. Just … don't go too far, okay?”

"You don't think I might get kidnapped by Team Rocket again, do you?" Fireball joked.

“I want to believe it's unlikely. Still, you're a rare Pokémon, Fireball — the kind that Trainers would jump at the chance to catch.”


“By the way, I ma~y have heard there's a buffet happening in the hotel lobby today.”

Fireball's eyes lit up like fireworks. He quickly headed for the door, pushing Antoshi in front of him. "Man, just look at the time, Antoshi! You're losing sunlight here! Better get to that training right away!"

Antoshi laughed as they headed into the hallway. “Fireball! I don't even have my shoes on!”

Fireball quickly reached back in to grab the boy's shoes by the door, before shutting it behind him.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

That night, Latoshi was focused intensely upon his meditation. His dark aura flickered calmly around him. As per Lazarus' instructions, he performed mental exercises. He envisioned himself in the midst of a violent struggle with Antoshi. They fought in the same location as their initial battle, both of them ducking and weaving through the trees, steadily making their way toward each other.

Antoshi was fast — that much he was sure would continue to be the case. Latoshi snapped his head from side to side to keep his mind's eye on him. Antoshi threw the first punch, but Latoshi was swift and strong enough to block it. Latoshi clenched his teeth as Antoshi followed up with a kick to his chest, which was hard enough to stumble him back.

'Yes, that is good,' Lazarus said to him. 'You must prepare for Antoshi's inevitable return. You must be wary that he will likely be stronger than before. But, also know that he can never defeat you — not with my guidance.'

Latoshi smirked confidently. Lazarus' words once again empowered him. In his vision, he produced the same mass of hovering energy orbs around him as before. Antoshi appeared to be shocked.

'Perfect. The element of surprise will be key. Let him believe he has the upper hand, and then … strike!'

Latoshi launched his attack at Antoshi, who attempted to shield himself. Just as the blasts were about to connect, a voice called out suddenly, breaking his concentration.

“Declan?” a woman called out in the distance. Latoshi's eyes shot open in surprise. He turned toward the source, his eyes scanning the nearby woods.

No one was there. He looked around while getting to his feet.

“Declan!” he heard again, behind him. He turned around, finding nobody once again.

“Who's there?” he called back. He waited for a short time, but no one appeared or responded.

‘What the hell was that?’ he thought. ‘Am I hearing voices … again? Was it some kind of memor—’ His eyes went wide with shock. ‘Am I— … am I remembering something? Something from my past? …’

'Focus yourself, Latoshi,' Lazarus said. 'Do not break away from your training unless I tell you to.'

“Lazarus, I … I think I just had a memory come back to me,” he said, with an elated grin. “I think … I just might be remembering someone.”

'You must not dwell on trivial things,' Lazarus replied. 'Your training and the rise of your power are the most important—'

“Wait a minute,” Latoshi cut him off. “You told me before that my memories would come back in time. Now that they might be starting to, … why are you so eager to distract me from them? I thought you would at least pretend to be happy for me.”

'Because you do not have time to reflect on the past,' he said, becoming audibly cross with the boy. 'Do not interrupt me again when I speak. Return to your training, is that clear? Or shall I remind you of what happens when you disobey me?'

Lazarus' inquisition came with the creeping sound of low ringing in the boy's ears. Latoshi scowled, bitterly pursing his lips. He obliged Lazarus, returning to his meditative sitting position.

'Now, I will give you different scenarios for you to react to. You will continue your image training for the next four hours. Am I understood?'

“Yes, Lazarus,” he replied, disdainfully.

Chapter 16

Several days later, the duo were still checked in to the same hotel room. With the dim, early morning sun peering in through the curtains, Fireball awoke in his own bed to the smell of food. He looked over at Antoshi's bed.

It was empty. The boy was gone — again. A breakfast plate rested upon the nightstand for the hungry Typhlosion.

Fireball sighed in defeat. He sat up, scratching his side. Left to reflect upon their situation in solitude, he reached for the plate and eagerly partook of the food left for him. Antoshi had been on a gradual return to form over the past few days. His mood had improved immensely, though he continued to keep himself occupied with the singular goal of getting stronger. The boy was still a bit distant, lost in thought from time to time. Antoshi still had not gotten much sleep since the fight.

Fireball could only hope for the best, wishing for nothing more than to be done with this ordeal, and for his friend to be himself again. Once he finished with breakfast, he quickly hopped out of bed and made for the door.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Out in the same clearing in the woods as before, Antoshi was in the midst of training. With an intensely focused expression, his limbs blurred while punching and kicking in succession. Training his speed, he ran laps from one tree to the next and back continuously. He was clearing several hundred meters in heartbeats — not unlike what Latoshi had previously shocked them with when they first met.

"You're at it really early today," Fireball spoke, as he approached. Antoshi broke his focus, coming to a halt, smiling to his friend. "You didn't even wait for me to come with you."

“Sorry about that. Training is all can I do lately to keep myself from going stir-crazy. Sleep is pretty much an afterthought for me at this point. I woke up super-early this morning, brought you some food, and headed out here right after.”

Antoshi turned away and balled his fist tight, his body surging with the red energy of his aura. He gave a shout, throwing a punch as hard as he could. His aura flickered intensely, energy exuding off of his fist. The forest's foliage swayed before him, as though a sharp breeze had passed. He was gradually catching up with the abilities that Latoshi had displayed to him. However, he wouldn't be satisfied unless he could far surpass what he knew Latoshi was capable of already — let alone any improvements. After all, Latoshi was undoubtedly training, too. He needed something more, to give him the best chance at soundly defeating his rival.

"Whoa," Fireball remarked. "You sure have learned how to use your energy a lot better."

Antoshi reached down and grabbed the towel he'd brought from the hotel room. “I've been working hard at it,” he replied, wiping the sweat from his face, “considering how many times Latoshi kept pointing out my faults. I'm more comfortable with using my energy offensively now. There's still one little problem, though. I can flail my arms and legs all I want, but … I still don't know how to fight.”

"That … is an issue."

“The only fighting styles I've ever seen were from Pokémon, … as well as getting beat up by Latoshi. I don't think any of that is going to help me very much.”

"What are you going to do?"

Antoshi slung the towel over his shoulder. “The one thing I've ever been good at — learn.”

"Oh, no," Fireball remarked, horrified. "Don't tell me…"

“That's right. It's time to go visit … the library.”

Fireball covered his ears and shut his eyes. "No! Not books! Anything but books!"

Antoshi smiled, patting his friend's side, as they walked off together. “Come on, you. Books never hurt anybody.”

"That's not true. There was that one time when a book on the shelf in your bedroom hit me on the head."

“Oh yeah, you're right! I forgot about that.”

Fireball came to a sudden halt. "Antoshi, wait up a second." Antoshi stopped, turning to his friend, curiously. "I've been meaning to tell you that … well, I'm a bit worried."

Antoshi sighed and looked away. “Yeah, so am I.”

"Not about the fight, really, as much as I'm worried about … you." Antoshi expressed his confusion. "You've been really obsessing over this lately. When this is all over, … and, supposing we both make it out of this alive again, … will we be able to go back to normal?"

“I understand what you're saying, Fireball. I'm sorry, again, for losing myself recently. This … fight with Latoshi is the only thing I've been able to think about. It's only made worse by how I can just barely feel Latoshi's energy every so often. It's so … faint, but it's there. He's far away, but not far enough. It seems almost like he's taunting me.” They both turned their gazes to the ground. “To answer your question, though, I do hope we'll get back to our normal lives. I hope so just as much as you.”

Fireball gave his friend a slight smile. They continued on back to their hotel room.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

After Antoshi took a shower and changed clothes, the two headed out for the library, which was only a couple of blocks away. Once they were inside, Fireball curiously followed Antoshi around, while the boy curiously browsed the aisles. He picked up several books on martial arts, as well as on self-defense. He found an empty table nearby to place them on, before going back to find some more.

With a few, small stacks of books piled up on the table, Antoshi sat down to start reading through them. Fireball, meanwhile, continued to meander around the library. The Typhlosion was trying to find anything to entertain him in the painfully quiet, uneventful building. There was not much besides nonspeaking people scattered randomly through the aisles, some with their Pokémon, and librarians to help others find what they were looking for. That, and books — lots and lots of books.

Given that Fireball himself could not read, he was out of options. He headed back to Antoshi, sitting across from him. Antoshi looked up, briefly, greeting his friend with a smile.

"Why didn't you use a computer to look up the stuff you wanted?" Fireball asked, keeping his voice hushed.

Antoshi pointed a thumb behind him, casually. “That's why.”

Fireball looked over and saw every one of the dozen or so computer terminals occupied, as well as a line of people waiting for them to free up.

"… Oh," the Typhlosion remarked, feeling silly.

Antoshi laughed, softly. “I learn better with a book anyway. The Internet is too distracting.”

"That's true. Don't forget to follow the 'Safe Browsing Rules' that your parents taught you."

Antoshi smirked and rolled his eyes, while Fireball snickered. “Trust me, they're drilled into my brain at this point.”

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

The minutes of studying rolled on into hours. Antoshi was fully engrossed in his reading, setting each book aside as he finished gathering information that was relevant to him. At various points, he would look at two different books simultaneously to compare information. He was enlightened to the basics, like fighting stances, and the proper way to throw a punch, before gradually stepping up the learning curve. He read how to keep from wasting movement, how to block and parry, pressure points to aim for, and how to read bodily movements to predict opponent's attacks.

Fireball gradually slumped over in his seat more and more until he was resting his head and forelimbs on the table. He curiously watched his friend mimic some of the fighting poses in the books.

"I'm so bored," Fireball eventually spoke up.

Antoshi heaved a sigh, and smiled reassuringly at his friend. “I know, Fireball.” He glanced up at the clock on the wall. “Let's take a break for now. We can go walk around the park nearby for a while.”

"Sounds good to me!"

Fireball eagerly got up and headed for the exit. Antoshi deposited all but one of the books into a nearby collection bin. He took the one he was reading with him, checked it out with the librarian, and joined his friend outside. The midday sun hung out with the puffy clouds littered high in the sky. The duo stretched their arms up, taking a deep breath of the outside air, before they set off for the nearest crosswalk.

“It is a really nice day out,” Antoshi remarked. “Good idea getting us outside, Fireball.”

"You said it. Hey, maybe there'll be an ice cream vendor at the park."

Antoshi chuckled. “I know you'll keep your eyes peeled.”

They crossed the street safely and headed down a nearby pathway that led into the aforementioned park. It was a much quieter park than the one they saw outside the Goldenrod train station. Nevertheless, there was plenty of activity around them. Joggers along the path, people sitting together on the grass, and a young man playing fetch with his Growlithe. As the duo walked side by side, Antoshi's nose was firmly buried in his book.

Fireball inhaled and let out a content sigh. "I remember you used to call nice days like this a 'good omen' back in Kanto."

“Yeah, now it's more like 'the calm before the storm',” Antoshi joked, with a laugh.

Fireball expressed his disappointment at the remark. Despite making light of the situation, his friend still didn't come off to him as being back to his old self. Antoshi was too busy reading his book to notice's Fireball's reaction.

“Did you know,” Antoshi went on, “in some old civilizations, women were the ones that developed and mastered different forms of martial arts? That's so cool. I've never even seen a girl fight before. … Though, I haven't seen much combat between people at all.”

"You seem pretty excited about this whole 'fighting' thing."

“Yeah, well, it's almost certain at this point that I'll have to fight Latoshi again soon. It scares the heck out of me, but … I don't really have a choice. I might as well get as excited about it as I can.”

"Antoshi?" Fireball said, grabbing his friend's attention. "I just wanted to say it's nice to see you … mostly back to normal. You seem a lot more confident now. You're not so, … well, angry as you were a few days ago."

“I'm as normal as I can be, given the circumstances,” he replied with a grin. “I'm just … doing my best to keep my feelings in check.”

“Hey, you!” the nearby voice of a youngster called out. “Book Kid and Typhlosion!” The duo turned toward the boy. “Want to battle?”

They both looked to each other with the same expression of elation. “You up for it?” Antoshi asked.

"When am I not?"

Antoshi slipped a Furret-shaped bookmark into his book and closed it. Fireball eagerly took his position a few meters in front of his friend, standing between him and the youngster.

“Cool beans, dude! I've lived in Johto my whole life and that's only the second Typhlosion I've ever seen!”

“Well, I think you'll find that Fireball here is the best Typhlosion you'll ever see, too.” Fireball's eyes lit up, turning to his friend with an enthused grin in response to his friend's confidence. They gave each other a thumbs up.

“Awesome! I love a challenge!” The boy pulled a Poké Ball from his belt. “The name's Gabriel. What's yours?”

“I'm Antoshi, from Saffron City.”

“Antoshi, huh? Weird name!”

Fireball and Antoshi grinned to each other. “Good to know some things never change,” Antoshi remarked.

Gabriel tossed out his first Pokémon from the confines of its ball: a Gurdurr. The stocky, muscular Pokémon gave a cry, raising a large steel girder over its head for a moment before holding it at its side.

“So, are you ready to battle or what?” Gabriel asked. Folding his arms across his chest, he flashed Antoshi a cocky smirk. Antoshi's eyes widened in shock, his heart rate raising substantially. The way Gabriel smirked caused him to recollect images of Latoshi's arrogant expression. “Hey there! Antoshi-dude!” Gabriel said, snapping Antoshi out of his daze. “I said, 'are you ready'?”

“Oh, … we're definitely ready!” Both he and Fireball nodded in unison.

“All right! Gurdurr, give 'em a Rock Slide!”

Gurdurr spiked its girder into the ground, raised its arms up, and gave a long shout. Amorphous orbs of energy appeared high over Fireball. The orbs solidified into rocky boulders.

“Fireball, keep moving!” Antoshi said.

Fireball quickly sprinted around on all fours. "Finally getting a good stretch in after all that sitting!" he remarked.

The heavy boulders slammed down to the ground in a seemingly random pattern. Antoshi studied said pattern, carefully. Each one missed Fireball by a short distance, but were gradually closing in.

“Fireball — stop!”

The Typhlosion immediately did so, coming to a halt mere inches from one final boulder that rattled the ground in front of him.

‘That wasn't bad!’ Gabriel thought, with a look of surprise. ‘They know what they're doing.’

“Fireball, use Flamethrower!”

Fireball hopped on top of that last, massive boulder. He inhaled deeply, before opening his maw to send a powerful stream of fire at the Gurdurr.

“Gurdurr — defend!”

Gurdurr held on to the back of its metal girder, which was still firmly planted in the ground, using it as a shield from the flames.

“Full breath, Fireball!” Antoshi said.

Fireball shut his eyes tight, pouring out as much fire as he could give. The girder glowed red-hot. Before Gabriel's eyes, the metal started to bend and melt. Gurdurr shouted in shock, dancing around in a panic, the intensely hot flames lapping at its feet and sides. Once Fireball's attack finished, he inhaled deeply before sighing in relief, exhaling a large puff of smoke. Gurdurr hopped away from the smoldering streaks of fire on the ground. It swiftly patted out the flames on its body.

Gabriel had a look of concern as he inspected the melted steel. ‘That was pretty scary,’ he thought. ‘Just how good are these two?’

Fireball hopped down from the rock and returned to his position in front of his Trainer.

“Gurdurr, return!” Gabriel said. He held up its Poké Ball, which retrieved it into its confines, along with its melted steel girder. “All right, Antoshi-dude! Your Typhlosion is really strong, so I'll just send out my best Pokémon! It'll be a clash of the titans!” Gabriel switched out for an Ultra Ball on his belt, which he enlarged and tossed out. “Go, Houndoom!”

Antoshi was shocked by the presence of the emerging black-furred demonic dog. His mind immediately recalled the horrors brought about by Lucent, the undead Houndoom aspect that aided Latoshi in their fight. Fireball, too, was not terribly happy to see another Houndoom so soon. He turned to Antoshi, greeted by a blank look in the boy's eyes.

“So, what do you think of my Houndoom?” Gabriel said proudly, his hands firmly on his hips.

Antoshi was on another plane of reality, unable to respond as he stared at the opposing Pokémon. Unlike earlier, Antoshi was not able to snap out of his daze this time.

“Aha,” Gabriel said, “you're giving that 'calm and stoic' reaction, huh? Well, we're not gonna be intimidated by you! All right, Houndoom, use Rocket Fuel!” His Houndoom whimpered and rolled its eyes. The boy laughed. “You hate it when I call it that, huh? Okay, okay. Flame Charge, Houndoom!”

Houndoom gave a snort of fire from its nostrils, its body quickly becoming enveloped in flame. It darted swiftly toward Fireball while Gabriel looked on with pride.

‘Flame Charge isn't Houndoom's best attack,’ Gabriel thought, ‘but, at least it'll give me a good idea of how strong that Typhlosion really is.’

Fireball stood in place, confused, waiting for Antoshi to make the next call. Antoshi, however, was frozen in place at the sight of the Houndoom rushing toward them. His heart raced, trembling fearfully. He recalled Lucent lurching toward Fireball, and how he intervened to shield his best friend with his own body. The smell and the sight of blood running down from his gaping wound were still fresh in his mind.

‘Fireball,’ he recalled his words, after his friend had been knocked unconscious by Latoshi. ‘Come on, Fireball. … Please, wake up!’

Fireball was about to be struck by Houndoom's Flame Charge. The Typhlosion turned around in concern, and gasped at the sight of his friend suddenly enveloped in his red aura.

‘How perfect it is to have both of you together like this,’ Latoshi had said, ready to strike the two with blasts of energy. ‘It'll be like shooting fish in a barrel!’

“No!” Antoshi shouted, aiming his open palms at the Houndoom. In his stupor, he fired a potent blast of spirit energy at the ground between Fireball and Gabriel's Houndoom. The resulting explosion knocked the two Pokémon backwards several meters.

The blast was heard and felt by nearly everyone in the park. Passersby and their Pokémon screamed in terror, some of them running away.

"Antoshi!" Fireball exclaimed, over the sound of falling dirt and debris, finally pulling his friend back to reality. "Why did you do that?!"

“What was that?!” Gabriel shouted. His Houndoom got to its feet and returned to the boy's side.

Antoshi was terrified by what he'd just wrought. People all around him were gawking and staring at the sight. A large crater, the size of an automobile, sat between the two Trainers, and beneath a cloud of dust. Antoshi had no idea what to say to Gabriel, or to any of the bystanders.

“Fireball, let's go,” he said, shuffling away from the scene, quickly. Fireball got up and followed, lagging behind him. The duo were too nervous to look at anyone.

“What happened?” a voice in the crowd asked.

“Was it from a Pokémon battle?”

“I think it was some kind of old, unexploded land mine,” another person remarked.

"Antoshi!" Fireball said, as he caught up to his friend. "Are you okay?"

“I thought I was,” the boy replied, solemnly, “but I realize now that I'm definitely not.”

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Antoshi and Fireball headed straight back to their hotel room. They opted to stay put, uneasy about going out for the rest of the day. Antoshi kept his book from the library, continuing to read and study it in silence while he laid on his bed. Fireball passed the time by resting, looking out the window, and eventually turning on the television. Antoshi sighed, closing the book for the time being. He opted to watch TV with Fireball during the evening news broadcast.

“And, in other news tonight, an explosion rocks Sunset Park in eastern Goldenrod,” the news reporter said. The duo's eyes widened. “Witnesses say an unknown explosive ordnance detonated in an area where two young Trainers were having a Pokémon battle. The Trainers and their Pokémon were unharmed, but the blast made a sizable crater. Police have cordoned the area off. They could not give any further details on the situation and are still investigating.”

“Great,” Antoshi remarked, burying his face in the mattress. “That's all I need now — for the police to come and ask me questions about what happened. What do I even tell them?”

"What's wrong with telling them the truth?" Fireball replied.

Antoshi looked up, gawking at his friend in disbelief. “You want me to tell them that I did that?”

"Of course! Do you really think they're going to believe you when you tell them 'a giant ball of energy came out of my hands and destroyed the ground'?"

Antoshi pondered for a moment. “That … might be crazy enough to work,” Antoshi said, grinning. “The story is way too insane. They'll think I'm nuts and leave me alone. Even though, … right now, I definitely am going nuts.” The boy sighed as he rolled over onto his back, staring at the ceiling. “I have no idea when Latoshi's going to make a move. It was just dumb luck that I bumped into him after sensing his energy the first time we met. I can't pinpoint exactly where he is, not unless he outputs a lot of energy. Right now, he's keeping his energy restrained. I can't do anything until he's ready to seek me out again.” Antoshi scoffed. “I'm sure he'll make that point loud and clear whenever he does show….”

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

That night, Latoshi was in the midst of his meditative training once again. His thoughts, however, were distracted.

‘Who is 'Declan'?’ he thought, furrowing his brow. ‘Is it someone I knew? Someone … I was close to? Was it … me?’ He growled softly in frustration. ‘If I could just remember. … If I could remember that woman's voice. She was calling out. 'Declan.' … 'Declan.' …’


Latoshi gasped at the sound of the woman's voice again. He immediately sprang to his feet, looking around. There was no one around. He exhaled slowly, closing his eyes and clenching his fists.

‘Concentrate,’ Latoshi thought. ‘Try to remember. Remember … Declan …’

“Declan!” the woman exclaimed. This time, however, he didn't open his eyes. He kept them closed, putting all of his effort into trying to scratch and claw his way through to his subconscious. Latoshi recalled a gradually clearing image of a woman with long, wavy blonde hair. He gasped again, trembling in excitement. It was a breakthrough unlike anything he'd had before. His heart fluttered at the very idea of recollecting his memories, and finally being able to tie himself to his forgotten past.

The woman was angry. She was angry at him. He walked up to her, trying to get past her, as she stood at the front door of a house. She blocked the doorway, and he responded by angrily pushing her aside.

“Declan, that's enough!” she said.

“Stop it now!” a man next to her shouted, trying to grab his arm. He immediately yanked his arm away and stormed up a flight of stairs.

“Get lost!” Latoshi shouted back. “I won't listen to you! You're not even my real parents!”

“Declan!” they both called to him.

His vision abruptly turned to darkness. Latoshi fell to his knees, panting and trembling. Tears welled in his eyes as he slowly opened them.

‘Why?’ he thought. ‘Why did … I do that? Why do I feel so much sorrow? Why can't I … remember everything?’ He hunched over, pounding his fists into the dirt as he wept. ‘Damn it.’ He inhaled, shakily, tears falling to the ground. ‘Why can't I remember?’

'Because I will not let you,' Lazarus replied, startling him. 'Oh, so sorry. Did I interrupt your thoughts?'

“Lazarus?” he wondered aloud, falling back into a sitting position. “You … can hear my thoughts?”

'Of course. I have been able to hear and see your thoughts since the very beginning.'

Dread suddenly swept over the boy. “What— … what did you mean you won't let me remember?”

Lazarus chuckled in amusement. 'Ah, I knew this would happen eventually. I knew the truth would have to come out someday.' Latoshi had a puzzled look on his face. 'You truly believed you had amnesia. All those months locked in that prison. You believed me, just like I knew you would, because of what a stupid little child you are. So easy to manipulate and do my bidding.' Latoshi slowly got to his feet, trembling in rage. 'The truth is, … you never had 'amnesia'. I have been blocking your memories and holding them hostage.'

The wind was knocked from his lungs. “My … memories,” he remarked in disbelief. “Give them back, Lazarus. You have to give them back! You're in my body, and relying on me to get stronger! I'm not going to do anything you say until you give me what I want!”

Lazarus cackled loudly, leaving Latoshi confused once more. 'How stupid are you?! You think that you are the one in control? How do you think I was able to see your vision training earlier? I have become just as much a part of you as you are, Latoshi. So, you will never get what you want — I get what I want all the time!'

Latoshi was frightened and bewildered.

'You have never had a moment to yourself this whole time! I know everything that you think and say, so you cannot hide anything from me! You thought you could scheme and plan against me, go against what I tell you, like some rebellious little delinquent? I know that you have been trying to muster up your memories, and bits and pieces of them have slipped through the cracks of the barrier I built around them. But that is not a problem — I can just reset your memories again!'

“No!” Latoshi shouted, grabbing his head.

'Yes, Latoshi! And while I am at it, I shall block out all those fond little memories you made with Antoshi and his stupid pet! You will do my bidding as long as I want you to, and there is nothing that you can do about it because I can continue to lock your memories away again and again! I am the only one you will listen to for the rest of your life! Every time you think you think you have the upper hand with your disobedience toward me, I always have that as my ace in the hole!'

“Please, no, Lazarus! Please, don't take away my memories!”

'Oh, it is too late for pleading now, Latoshi. I cannot let you know of my true plans for you! I did not want to have to resort to this because of how loyal you were, but you have left me no choice! Now, get stronger for me, my puppet! Dance for me as I pull on your strings!!'

Lazarus' cackling echoed through Latoshi's head as he stared at the sky, blankly. All of the positive memories he made, the positive emotions he felt, and the memories of his past life he rediscovered were ripped away from him once again — just as Lazarus had done to him before he awoke in the military base.

When all was said and done, Latoshi stumbled and fell onto his behind. In the quiet of the night, he continued to stare, vacantly, at the ground for a short time.

'Now then,' Lazarus spoke again, calm and collected. 'I think you have had enough time to train, Latoshi. Your power has grown exponentially since you began your tutelage under me. Those men slain by you in the alley some time ago were just an appetizer. I think the table is set for you to enjoy the main course.' A twisted smile of elation slowly crept across Latoshi's lips. He rose back to his feet with aplomb, gazing at the city in the distance. 'The time has come for you to begin purging the evil from this world. Cleanse it in your image, Latoshi. Lay the groundwork for what will become your utopia.'

Latoshi chuckled, stretching out his neck. “Sounds good to me. I feel like I've got a ton of pent-up frustration for some reason, and it needs to be taken out on someone.”

The boy ascended high into the air. He took off, soaring around the city, looking for any individuals whom he deemed unworthy to live.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Latoshi scoured dozens of miles of city streets from way up high. Frustration began setting in, as all turned out to be far quieter and peaceful that night than he'd like. There were no guilty souls for him to pass his judgment upon.

'If they refuse to come out,' Lazarus said, 'you must seek them out.'

“They're hiding like cockroaches,” Latoshi remarked with a bitter expression. “Where would I find these parasites? People who commit crimes, and have hearts of ice? …”

His eyes lit up when he spotted a large compound near the western edge of the city. He flew toward it, its bright spotlights pointing to the sky, drawing him in like a moth. The long facility was surrounded by multiple rows of steel gates topped with barbed wire. His chest swelled as he noticed the sign at the front: 'Goldenrod Penitentiary, Maximum Security'.

'Very resourceful, Latoshi. However, you must remain cautious. These facilities tend to employ advanced technology in their security, not unlike the one you were imprisoned in.'

“What should I do?”

'Move quickly and quietly, if you plan to enter. It is very likely they have heat, motion, or sound detection — even outside. Whatever plan you decide on, make sure it is something their normal, human eyes cannot detect.'

“Then, I should use my Ki,” he remarked. “Those disgusting creeps in the military base couldn't see it when I used it then.”

'Of course. Only those with spirit awareness are able to detect it. So, what do you plan to do?'

Latoshi thought for a moment before chuckling in amusement. His dark aura emanated and briefly flared around his body. He held both hands out toward the prison walls.

“Knock, knock,” Latoshi muttered, grinning, before firing a large blast of energy. The attack caused an explosion that ripped through the solid concrete, shaking the entire compound, demolishing a massive section of the wall. Distant screaming from inside the building followed immediately after. Alarms rang out through the prison.

“Security breach!” a voice said over the loudspeakers. “Southeast corridor security breach!”

“Now, then,” he muttered to himself, “how many of you scum want to party?”

The boy waited patiently as the cloud of dust started to settle. He hummed curiously when he saw a prisoner emerge soon after. Wearing a yellow jumpsuit, the man climbed over the rubble, and ran for the first barbed wire gate. The field he passed through was particularly long, and his yellow clothes made it easy for the guards in the towers to spot him. Amid the chaos, however, there were no guards aware of his escape.

Dozens more prisoners began to follow, forming a few large groups that raced down the field. Latoshi laughed, beginning his descent toward the ground.

“I knew it,” he remarked with a smirk. “Just like cockroaches, they scatter. Don't worry, I'll give you all an early release from your sentences…”

The first man panted heavily, scrambling closer to the first gate. Latoshi suddenly landed in front of him, causing him to come to a startled halt.

“Who—who the hell are you?!” he shouted.

Latoshi gave his response in the form of an amused grin. He disappeared in an instant, leaving the man bewildered until the boy made a dash past him. Latoshi just barely nicked the man's neck with his hand, which burned with a thin layer of his dark energy. Though minor, the strike was more than enough to slice his throat like the edge of a razor-sharp blade. The man's eyes shot open wide with horror, clasping the open wound with both hands. He fell to the ground, choking and gagging, while Latoshi quickly went after his next victim.

He rushed toward a very brawny man who was nearing the first wall. Latoshi appeared behind him, grabbed him by his jumpsuit, and threw him with such force into the metallic wall that he was killed by the impact immediately. His body made a large dent in the wall before he slumped to the ground. Latoshi turned around and fired wild blasts of energy at the groups of fleeing prisoners. The ones that were unfortunate to be struck had their bodies, or parts of them, instantly burned to ashes on contact.

The guards in the towers finally noticed the prison break. They were too perplexed by the sight of the prisoners quickly dying off before their eyes to react. Latoshi moved through the rest of the people in the field, slaying and felling every single one with conviction. Endless screams rang out from his victims. His lips were ever curled into a pleased smirk, blood spattering all over his body and clothes.

Yet, despite how effective and thorough he was, his eyes carried a deep emptiness. It was an emptiness that only became more pronounced as his rampage continued on.

Chapter 17

The following morning, Fireball awoke with a noisy yawn. He sat up in bed, sighing contently as he stretched. The early sun peered in through a gap in the drawn curtains.

"Looks like another nice morning ahead," he remarked. "Guess we didn't have to worry about the police questioning you after all, huh?" He turned to Antoshi, who stared back at him with a deeply serious expression. Fireball immediately became concerned. "You okay? What's wrong?"

“I sensed him,” the boy replied, staring at his bedsheets. “I finally sensed where he was. His energy was so clear to me last night, it was like he was right next to me. It was that same, rotten energy I felt before. I don't know what he did, but … it felt like he used a decent amount of power to do it.”

"What should we do?"

Antoshi chuckled, weakly. He got out from under the covers and sat up. “Nothing now. Honestly, though, his energy seemed really intimidating — and I don't even know if that was his maximum power that I sensed. Whatever training he's been doing, … it's certainly working out for him.” He let out a heavy sigh before perking up, giving Fireball a reassuring smile. “Still, now it means I have a better idea of where his level of strength is. I don't think I'm ready to take him on, yet. I'll just have to do my absolute best to train even harder if I want to show him up.”

"That sounds more like the Antoshi I know," Fireball replied, smiling back. "Just don't leave me out of your training. I'd like to watch, at least!"

“All right, fair enough,” Antoshi said, chuckling.

The boy proceeded to call the hotel's room service to have their breakfast sent up to them. He got up, and got dressed in his newly favored outfit of a red t-shirt and blue jeans. As they waited for their food, the two friends joked and laughed, helping to lighten some of the dour mood they'd been going through as of late. Despite the storm that was Hurricane Latoshi swirling in the distance, Antoshi finally felt like things were at least getting back to normal between himself and Fireball. Just by being there for the boy, Antoshi recognized how much Fireball was helping him to feel whole in his time of need.

Once their food arrived, Antoshi brought it over to the table and chairs set up in the room's small dining space. Fireball turned the television toward them and turned it on before eagerly shuffling to his seat. He licked his chops at the sight of several plates of food before him. Antoshi chuckled, idly turning his attention to the TV as a newscast resumed.

“We want to take you back now to the scene at Goldenrod Penitentiary,” the lady reporter said. “If you're just joining us, seven officers and one hundred twelve inmates were found dead, with dozens more injured. Part of the wall of the prison, as you can see, has been completely blown away.” Antoshi and Fireball were stunned by the sight. The grassy field outside the prison was littered with plastic yellow tarps and evidence markers. “At this time, officials do not have any suspects or any possible motives in mind. No explosives or any sort of explosive device was found at the scene, though there is some speculation that there may be multiple perpetrators at large, given the swiftness of how the scene unfolded. Officials tell us that these victims were all slain within a matter of less than a minute.”

Fireball turned to his friend. Antoshi's hand was trembling as he held his glass of orange juice.

“Latoshi, …” the boy muttered. “This is it. This is part of his horrible 'plan' to exterminate people he believes are evil. … What better place to strike than a prison?”

“None of the officials on scene could give us a cause of death for any of the victims,” the reporter continued, “however, a police spokesperson has said they're investigating whether there may be a connection with the explosion at Sunset Park yesterday.”

"You and Latoshi are making news reports for all the wrong reasons," Fireball remarked. Antoshi sighed, sharply, getting up from his seat. "You okay?"

“I'm fine,” Antoshi replied, retrieving his shoes by the door and heading back to the table to put them on. “It's just that, … well, I know the police have to investigate these things. I just wish they weren't involved. I'm worried more people are going to end up getting hurt or killed over this pointless war between Latoshi and myself.”

"Yeah, I understand," Fireball said, quietly. "This is all so terrible…"

“I better get started training as soon as I can,” Antoshi said, getting up from the table once more.

"But, you didn't finish your breakfast!"

“That's all right. I'm not really hungry after what I just saw, anyway.” He got up and headed for the TV. Fireball quickly scarfed down as much food from both of their plates as he could.

“City and regional officials are asking for the public's help,” the reporter said. “If you have any information—”

After Antoshi shut off the TV, he turned to his friend. Fireball quickly got up, wiping his maw with a napkin which he quickly tossed onto the table. Antoshi slung a towel over his shoulder before they headed out once again. He was eager to put into practice what he'd learned in his books.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

A few hours had passed after the start of Antoshi's rigorous training session. The two friends fell onto their backsides, facing each other, panting from exhaustion.

"Nice moves, Antoshi," Fireball remarked with a grin.

Antoshi smiled back. “Thanks.” He grabbed the towel and wiped the sweat from his face.

"You've gotten way faster and way stronger since that fight with Latoshi already. You learned a lot of really good stuff. I know I'm not going to doubt the power of books ever again." Antoshi chuckled. "By the way, thanks for taking it easy on me. I could tell based off our previous training sessions that you pulled your punches this time."

“I don't want you to get hurt anymore, Fireball. That's the whole reason I'm even doing this.” Fireball nodded in understanding. Antoshi gazed down at his open hands, scuffed with dirt. “I want to keep others from getting hurt, but I have to fight with Latoshi. I hate not being able to resolve this peacefully, but I have no choice.”

"I know how bad you feel having to do this. I'm sure you'll beat him this time, though, Antoshi. Then, you can put it behind you."

“Maybe. I mean, I certainly hope so. If there was a way I didn't have to fight him, I'd rather take that road instead. At the same time, I still have … so much anger. I still feel that rage every time I think about what he did to you, what he said to me, and about my family…” Antoshi's irises glowed bright with the shimmering, red hue of his Ki. He clenched his fists tightly, his aura suddenly erupting to life around his body in an almost explosive fashion. Fireball was taken aback by the sheer pressure being given off by the boy's fiery energy. “The police can't do anything about this — they don't even know what they're looking for, or where to start. They're just going to end up as more potential casualties. I can't let things go on this way.”

"Antoshi," Fireball said, grabbing his friend's attention. "I care about you, and what happens to you. You're my best friend. This anger, though, it isn't like you at all. … I don't want you to lose yourself."

Antoshi sighed and shook his head. His aura faded from his body. “If that's what it takes to defeat Latoshi, then … I may just have to.”

The boy got to his feet, walking away to resume his training. He threw a few rapid-fire combos of straight punches and jabs with such speed that it made them audible. Fireball sat and watched his friend with concern.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Across the city, Latoshi also continued his training in solitude. The blood from his victims the previous night had been cleaned away from his body. He wore a new set of clothes, strikingly similar to his previous green shirt and green cargo shorts. With no memories to distract him, he was solely focused on the task before him.

In his usual spot in the forest clearing he'd created, the boy ducked and weaved, throwing punches and kicks at an invisible target. His strikes, though not as swift as Antoshi's, were strong and significant; powerful enough to cause brief, small shock waves.

'Keep up that pace,' Lazarus told him. 'You will go for as long as I tell you in order to build your stamina. Put your image training to use, and keep your target visualized.'

Latoshi envisioned his blond-haired adversary's nimble movements, relentlessly following them, striking with each opportunity for an opening. He maneuvered in the same endless loop, grunting and growling with each subsequent attack.

'Good. Now use your Ki. Let him see how outclassed he is.'

He came to a sudden halt, while his irises glowed a shimmering black. Holding his hands out, he summoned forth a quick barrage of energy blasts at his imaginary target. He gave a loud shout before firing one final, much larger, shot.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

At that very moment, Antoshi's eyes went wide. He stopped what he was doing, his attention fixated somewhere in the city. Fireball got up on his hind feet.

"What's up, Antoshi?"

“I just sensed someone's energy,” he replied, much to Fireball's shock. “Latoshi is nearby.” The boy quickly marched back toward the city limits.

"Hold on — wait!" Fireball called out, while chasing after him. "Shouldn't we, … you know, think this over? You can't just charge at him the first chance you get. What if there are people around?"

“I'll have to figure something out quickly,” Antoshi replied, narrowing his eyes, bitterly. The duo moved with purpose through the city streets, weaving around passersby and their Pokémon. Antoshi was fixated on his target. He was terrified, but wouldn't let it show. His stern, serious stare contrasted with Fireball's nervous expression.

They rounded the corner of a city block. Antoshi slowed down, his eyes carefully scanning around the immediate area.

‘He's in that café,’ he thought.

Antoshi headed for a small coffee shop in the middle of a business strip. The welcoming bell rang sharply as he barged through the door. All the faces inside stared at him in confusion. He walked further in, toward a quieter corner of the establishment. He clenched his fists, irises glowing red in anticipation of a confrontation that was about to happen in front of onlookers. He gasped in shock, his eyes going wide. He nearly crumbled to pieces upon realizing that it was not Latoshi who he was chasing.

It was the mysterious brunette girl that had healed him.

She quietly sipped from a cup of tea, before setting it down on a plate near a tea kettle. The young woman looked over at him with a warm smile. She wore a shirt with horizontal orange and white stripes, beneath a long, white jacket with floral patterns. Her shirt just barely draped over her tight, white pants and matching, white shoes. Sunglasses casually sat atop her head. Her violet eyes brought back the blurry memory of her knelt beside him. Fireball finally caught up to his friend. He was left puzzled by the girl that Antoshi was blankly staring at.

“It's … you,” Antoshi remarked, quietly. “Okay, … so, you weren't a figment of my imagination.”

She laughed quietly. “Yes, I am real,” she replied. “Please, sit.” Antoshi remained in place, clenching his fists. He eyed the young woman suspiciously. She responded by laughing again. “If you'd like to stand, that's fine, too. Although, you'd be blocking the aisle. I promise you have nothing to fear from me. You don't have to have your guard up like that.”

“I do, if you're working with Latoshi,” he said. Even though he didn't get a sense of animosity from her, there were still too many unknown variables with trusting this complete stranger.

The girl smiled and shook her head. “I don't work with anyone.”

“You're not … going to fight me, too?”

“Of course not. That would be a bit silly for me to heal you just so I could fight you, don't you think?”

Antoshi sighed in defeat, slumping down into the seat across from her. “I don't know what to think anymore,” he replied, running a hand through his hair.

Fireball sat down on a third seat beside them, his eyes shifting between the two. The girl greeted Fireball with a smile. He smiled back, still very much confused as to what was happening.

She took an empty tea cup from a holder on the table, pouring the contents of the kettle into the cup. “You've gotten stronger since the last time I saw you,” she remarked, sliding the tea in front of Antoshi. “You look to be in good condition, physically. Your spirit, though, is very unsettled.”

Antoshi stared, strangely, at the tea cup before looking to her. “What is this?”

“It's chamomile tea. It's perfect for dealing with stress.”

“No, I mean what is all this? Who are you? Why do you have powers, too? Why was I able to sense you? Do you know me or Latoshi?”

She chuckled in response. “I understand this is all very confusing. You must have a million questions.”

“Yeah, try two million questions.”

“My name is Serenity. I'm not here to upset you or harm you. You were able to sense me because I output just enough of my spirit energy for you to do so. I wished to bring you here simply to talk. I'm more than willing to answer the questions that are clearly stressing you.”

Antoshi sighed, heavily. “… You think I'm having stress issues?”

“I know you are. Your aura is agitated. It's churning around your body constantly like a swelling sea. Your heart is filled with terrible anger.”

“You can tell all of that just by … looking at me?” he wondered aloud, before taking a look at himself. “How are you even able to see my aura? I can't even see it.”

“Your aura is always around you, faintly, protecting your body like a second skin. In fact, aura is always around most people — they just don't know it exists or how to use it, like you can. In time, once you get stronger, I'm sure you'll be able to see what I see.”

“Stronger,” he mused. “So, I can reach a level even higher than I'm at right now?”


Fireball cleared his throat, tugging on Antoshi's sleeve to grab his attention. He pointed to the girl, covertly.

“Oh, right. Sorry for ignoring you, Fireball. This is the person that healed our injuries after the fight with Latoshi. She's … actually the same girl that I bumped into outside the Goldenrod train station.”

Fireball's eyes lit up in surprise, turning to her. She smiled, and extended a hand to him.

“It's very nice to meet you, Fireball,” she said.

Fireball smiled back, gently shaking her hand, before turning to his friend. "Quick reminder that you told me she was pretty," he whispered, "and she is!" Antoshi kept his gaze locked on her with a forced smile, ignoring Fireball's remark.

Serenity laughed. “You can communicate with Fireball, can't you?” she asked, much to the duo's shock. “Don't worry — I, myself, can't hear what Fireball is saying. However, being able to do so is just a natural part of your abilities using your Ki.”

“I keep hearing that word — 'Ki'. What does it mean?”

“It's the energy of your spirit. Some people call it ki or chi. The strength of your vital essence, and the ability to apply that strength in various ways. It's an amalgamation of your vigor, courage, mindset, and tenacity.”

“Oh,” Antoshi remarked, looking down at his open hands. “Well, how does spirit energy work?”

“Spirit energy is, as you may have guessed, fueled by the spirit. Strong emotions tend to heighten a person's spirit and can, therefore, make the strength of your spirit energy explode in a pinch — like gasoline on a fire. Love, sorrow, fear, anger; these are all powerful emotions that can ignite ones' aura or serve as a catalyst to unlock ones' latent abilities. Very few people can actually tap into these abilities, though. It also depends on how these emotions are channeled that determines the weight of ones' spirit.”

“You mean if someone turns out … 'good' or 'evil'.”

“Yes. If your abilities are used for pure intentions, then your aura will shine with radiant color. But, if you use your Ki for cruel and selfish purposes, your aura becomes corrupted and reflects the darkness in your heart. I believe you may know who I'm referring to.”

“I do,” Antoshi replied, shifting his gaze downward. “I remember my … powers unlocked when I panicked over the thought of losing Fireball forever. If Latoshi's aura is corrupted by darkness as you say, … does that mean he's beyond saving?”

“Only if you think so,” she replied.

He was taken aback by her statement. “Is it … wrong for me to think that way?” he asked, with guilt in his voice.

“Yes,” she said, before taking another sip of her tea. Antoshi's heart sank, as he and Fireball looked to each other in concern. “That's because there's something critically important about him that you must know before you encounter him again. It's the main focus of why I brought you here to talk.” She took another sip of tea, leaving the duo in suspense, before setting the cup back down. “What if I were to tell you that you're not actually fighting against Latoshi, but, rather, something inside of him?”

Antoshi furrowed his brow in thought. “… Lazarus?”

“That's correct.”

“But … that's a voice he said he hears in his head.”

Antoshi suddenly recalled the sound of Lazarus' voice in the dreams he had of Latoshi. There were two voices: Latoshi, and someone else he was talking to. However, Antoshi never saw who it was coming from.

“Lazarus is not just a voice. Lazarus is a parasite.” The duo were floored by the revelation. “Latoshi is being controlled by a dark spirit, one that uses people like a parasite would.”

“A spirit … parasite?”

“Yes. As you already know, its name is Lazarus. It is a being of pure, spiritual energy that seeks out hosts with awareness of the spirit. It latches on to the host's spirit, essentially becoming a part of them. In order to do that, though, it searches for people whose hearts are easily corruptible, or influenced by negativity. From there, Lazarus coaxes its host into trusting it. The most important reason for why it does this, is that it feeds off of the spirit energy of its host, taking said energy for itself. Latoshi may believe that Lazarus is helping him, but the reality is that Lazarus is stealing Latoshi's energy. The greater Lazarus' power becomes, the more it will be able to force control over its host.”

Antoshi was left in a daze, as was Fireball. All of his thoughts, judgment, and bitterness had been directed at the wrong person all along. He sat silent for a moment before replying. “H—how do you know all this?”

“I've dealt with Lazarus before. I came to Goldenrod because I sensed his energy lurking about. It was either fate, or sheer coincidence, that I also bumped into you outside the train station. Once I witnessed your struggle with Latoshi later on, it was critical for me to tell you that Latoshi is not the evil person you've been led to believe he is. He is being controlled.”

Antoshi's hands trembled as he rested them on the table. Serenity poured herself another cup of tea, giving the boy a few moments to assimilate what she just told him.

“Are you all right?” she asked, taking a sip of her tea.

Antoshi let out a long, shaky sigh and nodded. “Yeah, I … it's just really … I'm not sure what to think.”

“It's all right,” she reassured him with a smile. “This is a lot for you to take in at once. I can understand the position you're in. You've only recently learned about your powers, learning about Lazarus, dealing with it and Latoshi. It's a lot to bear.”

“Would you also happen to know if … Latoshi is my brother?”

“I don't have the answer for that, unfortunately. All I know is what I've seen so far of you both. It certainly seems that way to me. The two of you look almost identical. Maybe someday the two of you will stop punching each other long enough to figure out the answer for yourselves.”

Antoshi nodded gently. “I'll still have to fight him, … and I'll have to give it everything I have, won't I?”

“I imagine so. I think Latoshi is too far gone under Lazarus' influence to be willing to hear you out. If you do fight, you'll be fighting against Lazarus — not Latoshi.”

“You seem to know so much about everything that's going on. Can't you … fight alongside me, at least?”

Serenity grinned and laughed. “I knew you would eventually ask that, but it's not my place to intervene. This is your fight, Antoshi. The actions you take from here on, and the consequences of those actions, are what will determine your future. You and Latoshi both have incredible power. I know that letting fate run its course is the right thing to do. You've only just taken the first steps in unlocking your power, Antoshi. You and Latoshi have far more potential than you realize.” Antoshi's eyes widened with awe. She took another sip of tea. “You won't unlock your true potential until something happens that causes you to push yourself to your limits, similar to when you first unlocked your powers.”

“How … much potential do I have? Is it enough to beat him?”

“I'm not sure, I just know it's there. Everyone's Ki eventually reaches a limit or plateau, but you have a lot left to discover. You can become far stronger than you are now. It depends on your mindset, your emotions, and your vigor. As he is now, Latoshi does not have total control over his powers, or himself. He's only following what Lazarus tells him.”

Antoshi went silent again, taking a short time to process everything again. Fireball looked over at his friend with concern.

“I can feel the sorrow in your heart, Antoshi,” she said with a warm smile. Antoshi immediately perked up and looked at her in surprise. “I know it sounds strange, but with enough spirit awareness it is possible to feel the emotions of others. This entire situation is something you dread, and you don't want any part of it. However, you still feel a responsibility to keep others safe. Am I right so far?”

“Well, … yes.”

She smiled and nodded. “In exchange for all the information I told you, I want you to promise me something.”

“All right. … What is it?”

“Promise me that you'll help Latoshi. He desperately needs help, and I believe that you're the only person who can. Would you be willing to do that?”

Antoshi turned his gaze away for a moment. He recalled the bitterness that their fight created — the pain Latoshi caused him and Fireball, the threats he made, the arrogant smirk on his face. He sighed, also recalling the short, yet pleasant time they spent together as friends, taking a stroll through a new city. A brief smile crept into the corner of his lips, remembering sitting with Latoshi and Fireball in the ice cream shoppe.

He turned to Serenity and nodded. “I promise.”

“Good,” she replied. She reached for a small tote bag hanging on the back of her chair, searching through it.

“But … how? How can I help him?” he asked. Serenity placed some money down on the table.

“I know you'll find the best solution if you look into your heart,” she said. “Don't stress yourself over dealing with this. Just prepare yourself as best as you can. When the time comes — act.”

Antoshi scoffed in amusement. “You have more faith in me than I do in myself right now,” he remarked, glumly.

Serenity slipped the bag over her shoulder and got up from the table. “I've only just met you, Antoshi, but I already know that you are a good person with a kind and caring heart. I think you'll be an excellent leader. You just need to take a step back, quiet your mind, and decide the best course of action for you.” She smiled and placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder. “Take care, Antoshi.”

The duo watched as Serenity put on her sunglasses and exited the establishment, leaving them to mull over everything she told them. Antoshi and Fireball turned to each other.

"What do you think?" Fireball asked.

Antoshi chuckled, weakly. “Think about what? I had tons of questions, and she answered almost all of them. There's lots to think about. … If you mean about what she said, … I guess I don't have any reason to doubt her.”

"I agree. She sure was cool, huh? She was so relaxed, like nothing in the world gets to her — and she seemed super-smart, and nice."

Antoshi chuckled. “I suppose all of that's true. It's just, with all the insane stuff that's been happening lately, I can't help thinking she's bad news somehow.”

"Do you think she really is bad, and she's just putting on an act or something?"

“I don't know, … maybe.” He sighed, heavily. “I did make her a promise, though. I intend to keep it.”

"Hey, you didn't drink your tea."

“… So, I didn't,” he replied with a smile. He picked up his tea cup and took a sip from it. “Mm, hey, this actually is pretty good.” Fireball chuckled as Antoshi continued to enjoy the tea.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

As the next few days rolled on, Latoshi continued stepping up his attacks on the public. He created a trend of going after various correctional facilities, using a combination of his otherwise invisible Ki energy and his immense speed to remain undetected. He tore away walls and even whole sections of each compound, leading to the deaths of hundreds more prisoners. Goldenrod was starting to stir into a state of panic because of the unsolved attacks.

But, as Latoshi kept on killing, there was a growing expression of regret in his eyes. He couldn't understand it, but he felt a shallow emptiness inside him. His heart was calling out for something, but he did not know what. Latoshi ignored it as best he could, continuing to follow Lazarus' orders of training during the day, and slaying the parasites of Goldenrod City at night.

Antoshi, meanwhile, had still not been sleeping much. The constant air of dread looming over him every time he thought about Latoshi kept him on alert. He and Fireball continued to hear of Latoshi's actions on the news. It drove him to push harder, each subsequent story fanning the flames of his spirit; steeling his resolve. From time to time, Serenity dropped in to watch Antoshi from afar, curious to see how his training was progressing.

Each day became tougher to bear on both boys. Antoshi felt he was finally ready and prepared for a confrontation, but he could not discern Latoshi's location. As evening fell on the third day after meeting Serenity, Antoshi wasn't remain content to stay in his room — he wanted to end this waiting game. He and Fireball made a deliberate tour around as much of the city as they could. Even under the dark of night, they continued to trek further and further in all directions. Antoshi tried desperately to feel out his adversary's energy. The search endeavors ultimately ended up fruitless for the duo.

‘If he would just show himself already…’ Antoshi thought, bitterly. The growing anticipation of his inevitable encounter with Latoshi was wearing on him, and on Fireball as well. Watching his best friend in such a contemptuous mood was not something Fireball enjoyed.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

The following evening, back in their hotel room, Antoshi had a video call with his parents to check in with them.

“Antoshi,” his mother said, with worry in her eyes, “are you doing all right? We've been hearing terrible stories about attacks in Goldenrod.”

He reassured her with a nod and a weak smile. “I'm fine, Mom. It is a little scary, but … Fireball and I shouldn't be in Goldenrod for much longer anyway.” Fireball, standing behind him, was surprised by his friend's remark. He couldn't figure out exactly what the boy meant by that.

“You look so stressed, son,” his father said. “Try not to let it get to you. I know you'll be safe, as long as you stay inside. Plus, you have Fireball to protect you.”

“I sure do,” he replied, smiling to his compadre.

“Get some rest,” his mother said. “Okay, honey? I agree with your father — you do look exhausted.”

“You're right, Mom. I will. Sorry for worrying you both.”

“Oh, don't be silly. We have faith in you, Antoshi. We know you'll always make the right decisions.”

He became lost in thought for a moment, thinking back to the promise he made Serenity. He smiled and nodded to them. “Thank you both,” he warmly replied, much to their delight.

“We love you!” they both said, before the call was ended.

Antoshi turned away, rubbing his tired, worn eyes. His lack of sleep had gotten to the point where others could see it in him. He thought he should've been overwhelmingly tired after going so long with so little sleep, but, for some reason, he felt oddly energized. He sat in silence for a few moments, to reflect on what his parents said. With an empowered huff, he quickly got up from the video phone, heading over to the door to grab his shoes.

“I can't stay here,” he said, sitting on the bed to slip them on.

"What do you mean?" Fireball replied. "Where are you going?"

Antoshi stood up and gazed out the window. “I have to go out again. I have to try and find him. I'm not going to get any sleep until I do, Fireball. I have to keep searching for him, so I can finally put an end to this insanity.”

"I want to come with you," Fireball said.

Antoshi smiled, turning to his friend. “I want you to come with me, too.”

With that, the duo headed downstairs, out onto the streets in the early night hours. The streets were still fairly busy with people and their Pokémon passing on by. They made their way directly west for a few blocks.

"Antoshi?" Fireball spoke up. "At … the risk of making you upset with me again, I think that maybe your parents are right. You shouldn't stress out this badly."

“I really am trying not to let it get to me, Fireball. Talking to Serenity, and understanding so much more now, has made me feel a little better. Still, … what else am I supposed to do? I can't take this situation easy. Latoshi's out there, and he's killing people. It feels like he's mocking me, … like he's trying to get me to react.”

"Do you really think this is a message to you?"

“I'm sure of it,” Antoshi replied, narrowing his eyes, as his irises briefly flashed red.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

The duo continued on their westward trek for a couple of hours. They stopped to rest, get some snacks and drinks, and use the restroom along the way. They traveled further through the city than they had the entire time they'd been in Goldenrod.

At the same time, Latoshi stood up from his meditation. He sighed in content before stretching his neck out.

'Excellent work,' Lazarus told him. 'Now, we should continue forth in our righteous crusade.'

“I'm all for crusading,” Latoshi replied, “but … maybe I could go crusading somewhere a little more scenic? Like, … the beach, perhaps?”

'Hrm, … I suppose that will be fine for one night. The humans are likely increasing security around those filthy prisons, anyway. They will be expecting another attack on one of them tonight.'

“Exactly. Might as well take the time to take in the scenery.”

'Very well. I expect you to increase your training when you return here later. You are not to slack off.'

“Of course, Lazarus,” he replied, slyly. Latoshi laughed in amusement, as he took to the sky once again. Before long, sandy dunes and the gentle lapping of the ocean waves along the shore came into view. He headed in the direction of the beach, grinning from ear to ear.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

"I only wish there was some way I could help more," Fireball remarked.

“You already are,” Antoshi reassured him, smiling. “Sticking with me, being my shoulder to cry on, helping me deal with this and understanding this whole situation. … I appreciate all of it, Fireball, more than you know. You've been keeping me sane.” The duo smiled at each other. Afterward, Antoshi came to a halt, sighing, heavily. “I suppose we should head back now. It's gonna take forever for us to get back to the hotel at this point and—” the boy stopped suddenly, his eyes widening in shock and horror. “His energy,” he remarked, trembling. “I … I can sense it!”

Fireball was equally as shocked. "Are you sure it's not Serenity again?"

“No, I'm definitely sure. It was there for just a second, but the pressure being giving off, it's corrupted. It's … rotten, just like what I sensed from him before. Latoshi is nearby, …” he turned and pointed in the direction of the beach on the west edge of the city. “That way.”

Both of them stood in place for a moment, taking in the realization that their long-awaited confrontation with Latoshi was now imminent.

"So, you found him," Fireball remarked. "Are you sure you're ready to go through with this … again?”

Antoshi exhaled sharply, punching his open palm. “I've had an entire week to do nothing but get ready. It's all I've been able to think about. You definitely know that by now.”

"I know, I just … well, like I said before, I don't want to see you get hurt."

“I've already been hurt by him — physically, mentally, emotionally. It was more pain than I could've ever imagined, and it's been gnawing at me ever since. I've gotten used to it now.” Fireball lowered his head and nodded. “Fireball, … I've been waiting until he shows up to say this. There's one thing I need you to promise me.”

The Typhlosion perked up again. "Of course, Antoshi. Anything."

“I need you … to promise that you won't get involved in this fight at all.”

"… Okay, anything but that."

“Fireball, please. I know you're concerned about my safety, … but I'm just as concerned with yours.”

"Fighting is what I'm good at — you know that better than anyone."

“You're an amazing fighter, Fireball, … but, this isn't an ordinary fight. I'm the only one that can deal with him. I'm the only one that should.”

"Well, what about Serenity? She seems like she knows a lot. Maybe she knows how to beat him. You could … call out for help to her with your energy or something."

“No, I can't involve other people in my problem. She even told me I have to deal with this on my own. I have to face him myself, Fireball — that's what I've been training for. There isn't any other way. Latoshi is going to come for me again, eventually, whether by his own choice or with that voice in his head telling him to. I have to put all of this to rest. So, promise me you won't get involved, okay?”

"… All right. I promise."

Antoshi sighed in relief, turning his attention to where Latoshi's energy was. “Let's get going. Hop on my back, I'll get us there as fast as I can.”

Fireball looked at Antoshi, strangely, for a moment as the boy dropped to a knee. Fireball made sure no one was around to see them before wrapping his short forelimbs around Antoshi's neck. The boy hooked Fireball's hind legs under his arms and stood up, wearing the Typhlosion not unlike how he would wear his backpack. Fireball's otherwise heavy weight felt like nothing to the boy.

“Looks like the calm is over,” Antoshi said. “The storm's finally beginning. Time to find out if all that training paid off.”

In an instant, Antoshi took off, down the city streets. Fireball cried out in shock, while holding on for dear life. The boy weaved in and out of people, cars and obstacles with almost pinpoint precision. Those he passed by were shocked and bewildered by the sharp gust of wind that staggered them.

“I'll get us close enough that he won't see us!” Antoshi spoke over the rush of air around them, “but you have to stay there, okay?”

"I think I heard what you said!" Fireball replied. "I'll stay put!"

Antoshi closed in on their destination, covering a distance of a hundred miles in less than a minute.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Latoshi strolled along the beach, casually, his hands stuffed in the pockets of his shorts. Neither of them were aware that Antoshi was approaching them very rapidly.

“This is nice,” he remarked. “Very tranquil.”

'Soon, it will all be yours,' Lazarus replied.

Latoshi laughed. “My very own beach property, huh? That would be nice.”

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Antoshi slowed to a halt in the middle of an empty parking lot near the beach. Fireball groaned weakly, stumbling onto his hind feet.

"That was a little too fast for me to deal with," Fireball said, rubbing his eyes.

“This is where you have to stay. Please, … don't leave from here, okay?”

Fireball bit his lip, forcing a nod. "Please be careful, Antoshi." The boy smiled to his friend, walking up and sharing a hug with him for a moment.

“I'm not going to let him win,” Antoshi said, as they let go of each other. “Not this time. No matter what.”

Fireball looked on as Antoshi ran toward his destination at normal running speed. Being forced to the sidelines tore him up inside, as did not knowing what would happen. He sighed, heavily, tears welling up in his eyes.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Latoshi turned his attention to the sound of a girl shouting in the distance. Curious, he headed over to its source.

“No, stop!” the girl cried out. “Let go of me! Please, I just want to go home!”

As Latoshi approached, the girl, and a large man dressed in heavy black clothing, came into view. Within a thicket of tall beach grass, he held the girl by her wrists.

“I can't let you go now!” the man replied with a chuckle. “You were so rude to me! I think you need to repay me!”

“Well, now!” Latoshi exclaimed, making his presence known. Both of them gasped, turning to him. “Isn't this convenient? Another parasite, right here on the beach. There's an endless supply of you disgusting freaks at every turn.”

“Get the hell out of here, kid,” the man said, brandishing a gun at him, “or, you're next.”

“Ooh, but I do want to be next!” Latoshi said, playfully, jumping up and down, waving his hand in the air. “Please, pick me right now!” The man looked at him in disgust.

“What's wrong with you? Are you screwed up in the head or something? I'm telling you I'm gonna blow your damn head off!”

“Please,” the girl remarked, “don't get hurt because of me…”

A cruel grin spread across the boy's lips. “Don't worry about it,” Latoshi replied to her, his irises turning black. “The only one getting hurt here … is him.”

In an instant, Latoshi closed the gap between them, and grabbed the man by his neck. The man gagged and croaked, struggling in vain as Latoshi lifted him with one hand. He dropped his gun to claw at the boy's arm. The girl fell onto her seat, horrified by what she was witnessing.

“Let— … let go!” the man choked out.

“Sorry, I think you need to repay me,” Latoshi replied with a twisted grin.

“Latoshi!” a voice shouted to him.

Latoshi froze in place, his eyes widening in surprise. The voice was so very familiar. His heart raced as he slowly turned his gaze to find Antoshi standing nearby. The sable-haired boy smiled, his eyes crazed with excitement.

“Well, this is an even better surprise,” Latoshi said. “If it isn't my brother! I thought you'd be too busy cowering somewhere.”

“Latoshi, stop it! Let him go!”

Latoshi turned his attention to the struggling man, sighing in defeat. “Okay, fine,” he replied, before suddenly snapping his neck. Both Antoshi and the girl shouted in horror.

Latoshi smirked, tossing the man's lifeless body near the girl. She screamed, scrambling to her feet and running away.

“You can thank me later!” Latoshi called out to her. He shook his head, turning his attention to Antoshi. “Can you believe the nerve of some people? So ungrateful.”

Antoshi clenched his fists, trembling with anger. “Why do you have to do this? What good does killing people bring?”

“… Well, 'hello' to you, too,” he replied, in jest. “I believe I already explained all of this to you before: people with evil hearts, cleanse them to rid the world of bad, yadda yadda, you got the gist of it the first time. So, what brings you to this neck of the woods? If you say it's to—”

“I'm going to stop you, Latoshi,” Antoshi replied, bitterly.

“I had a funny feeling you were going to say that. Yeah, that's not happening, Antoshi. It wasn't happening before, and it's certainly not happening now. You're making a very serious mistake showing your face to me again. I'm so much stronger than I was the last time we fought. You're lucky I spared you last time, so, get lost now, or you won't be that lucky again.”

As the two boys stared each other down, a mysterious presence came to a stop at a nearby beach access pathway. It was a shorter figure, wearing a long, old-fashioned trench coat, wide-brim fedora, and sunglasses that gleamed in the light of a lamp post overhead. The unknown party watched the conflict between the boys, with great interest.

Chapter 18

While Fireball continued to look off in the direction that Antoshi had gone, Serenity unexpectedly appeared beside him.

“Hello again, Fireball,” she said, warmly.

Fireball jumped in surprise, looking at her in disbelief. 'Whoa,' he thought, 'where the heck did she come from?'

Serenity gazed off into the distance. “Looks like the two of them are getting ready to square off again. It's hard to see anything from here, though. Would you like to move somewhere else to watch?” Fireball nodded with enthusiasm. Serenity smiled and held out a hand to him. “In that case, grab on.”

Fireball hesitantly placed a claw in her hand. She took hold of him, and the two slowly ascended together. The larger Typhlosion flailed momentarily in a panic while she guided him through the air.

'She can fly too?!' he thought. Serenity brought him up to the roof of a nearby building. They were in a direct line of sight of where the two boys faced off.

“I think is much better, don't you?” she asked. Fireball nodded to her, his eyes wide with surprise. She gently laughed in response.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

“So,” Latoshi continued, “I can see you're not here to take me up on the offer I left you. You're not going to score any bonus points trying to look tough in front of me or your Typhlosion pet. Where is he, anyway? Trying to get the jump on me or something? … Come on out, Fireball!” Latoshi looked around with a smirk.

“He's not here,” Antoshi replied, bringing Latoshi's focus back to him. “I'm giving you the chance to make peace. Latoshi, I promise that I'll accept you as my brother, as long as you agree to stop this insanity.”

Latoshi was thoroughly surprised. “Wait, you'd … actually do that?”

‘I wonder what it would've been like,’ Latoshi suddenly recalled his thoughts from over a week ago, ‘if I … had actually gotten to know Antoshi instead of fighting him. Maybe the two of us could be talking about Pokémon stuff right now. That would be pretty normal. Kind of like … a family.’

Latoshi looked away. ‘What was that? Is Antoshi messing with my head with some new power? Or was that a m— a memory? …’ The sable-haired boy shook it off, turning to his rival with a bitter glare.

“Tell me, Latoshi, what are we fighting for? We've got to end this war!”

Latoshi scoffed. “Don't start thinking that sentimental crap will work. It might work on your pet, but, not on me.”

“I already know about Lazarus,” Antoshi said. Latoshi tilted his head curiously. “I know that Lazarus is controlling you. He's manipulating you. This isn't who you really are. Fight against it, Latoshi! Listen to me, and get Lazarus' influence out of your head!”

“Oh, man, whoa!” Latoshi replied, sarcastically, pretending to stumble around. “You—you got me, Antoshi! I—I can feel myself coming back to normal! You saved me! Oh, you saved me!” Latoshi made a bursting motion with his hands next to his head, and an exploding noise with his mouth. Antoshi scowled, unimpressed, while Latoshi laughed at him. “Gee, you sure have everything neatly figured out, huh?” he asked, amused. “But, there you go, again, trying to be the moral authority, thinking you know what's best for me. What kind of epiphany did you have to figure me out so perfectly?”

“I have a new ally now. She told me all about Lazarus and who—err, what it is.”

Latoshi scoffed. “Some girl? You're following the words of someone you don't even know? Someone you can't even trust?”

“You mean like you and Lazarus?” Antoshi shot back.

Latoshi was surprised at first that Antoshi would reply so impertinently. He narrowed his eyes, coldly. “You dare speak down about Lazarus? If not for him, I would still be locked up in that damn prison cell! He's done a hell of a lot more for me than you have, Mr. High and Mighty! Lazarus taught me everything I needed to know to earn my freedom — and, here I stand now, on the cusp of greatness.”

“You don't look all that great,” Antoshi replied, “especially not with some voice telling you what to do, rather than thinking for yourself.”

“Shut your mouth!” Latoshi shouted, vengefully, his irises flashing black. “I will kill you where you stand, Antoshi! Don't test me!”

“You couldn't go through with it last time, Latoshi. You had too much remorse, and you spared me. What I've been saying all along is getting through to you, so, I know you won't do it this time, either.”

Latoshi narrowed his eyes in confusion. “What the hell are you talking about? I didn't have remorse for you. I left you with one last chance to think things over and join me. Looks like you blew it.”

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

“Something is wrong,” Serenity said, shaking her head. “I witnessed their fight. Latoshi showed genuine concern in the moment just before he was about to kill Antoshi. He most certainly would've remembered that, and yet he doesn't. That means Lazarus is suppressing his memories.”

Fireball looked at her with shock. 'Suppressing his memories? It can do that? Man, Serenity really does know a lot about Lazarus. … But, how the heck can she even hear what they're saying from all the way up here?'

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

“I know you want to end this, Latoshi,” Antoshi said, “and I still want to help you. Helping you regain your memories and finding your family — I'm still willing to do that. I know it's what you want, too.”

Latoshi furrowed his brow and looked away. ‘What is he talking about? Help me find my family? Why don't I remember him saying that? …’

'Antoshi is just trying to distract you!' Lazarus shouted, startling the boy. 'Do not take your eyes off of him! He has your guard lowered and will go on the attack!'

Latoshi panicked, taking a battle stance as his aura flared to life. He fired a blast of energy at Antoshi, in response to Lazarus' presumption. The blond-haired boy swiftly avoided it with a tall leap. The subsequent explosion caused a crater in the sand.

Antoshi landed on his feet. He looked back at the aftermath before looking at Latoshi, taken aback. The sable-haired boy was still unnerved for a moment; staring, wild-eyed, at his adversary. He exhaled slowly, stood up straight, quickly regaining his cool.

“Nice try,” Latoshi said, uttering a soft chuckle. “I see what you're doing, and it's not going to work.”

“The only thing I'm trying to do is avoid another fight,” Antoshi replied. “I'm still willing to find a peaceful resolution, just like before. I don't want to fight you, Latoshi. I never wanted to fight you.”

“And, just as I made it clear last time, you're not going to change my mind — no matter what you say.”

Antoshi hung his head and sighed, before giving a nod of understanding.

“At least tell me … why? Why would you would be so cold as to kill all those people?”

“As if their pathetic lives even mattered. I'm ascending to godhood where I belong. They're just insects that have to be crushed along the way.”

“Insects?! You killed hundreds of people, Latoshi! Innocent people who had nothing to do with you or your 'ascension'.”

“'Innocent?' Well, that's just silly. They were all parasites and criminals. But, there you go again, trying to fill my head with lies that—”

“I'm not lying to you, I—”

With lies that only serve to impede my glory. I see past you, Antoshi. My eyes are open. My path is clear. The only voice I listen to is that of Lazarus.”

“It all comes back to Lazarus again, huh? You just believe what he says without question.”

“I do.”

“You think that Lazarus isn't taking advantage of you? You think that Lazarus isn't leading you astray?”

“Of course. Lazarus doesn't lie — certainly not to me.”

Antoshi scoffed in disbelief. “It's incredible how blind you are. The truth is right in front of you and you can't even see it. You refuse to see it.”

“I don't care what your version of the 'truth' is, Antoshi.”

“I don't know what's happened to you, Latoshi, … but I know this is where your campaign ends. You have no remorse for anything you've said or anything you've done. Consider this an intervention. I'm going to stop you from walking down this path.” Latoshi laughed, hysterically.

“That was a good one. Still, think about this for a minute, Antoshi. Just consider what it is you're trying to stop.” Antoshi tilted his head, eying him warily. “I'm offering a world free of violence and evil, where no one preys on the weak. Peace and harmony for everyone. You're the one standing in the way of this just cause. Yet, you refuse to back down and then call me the 'blind' one?”

“Like you said, we already had this conversation before,” Antoshi replied. “This isn't the way to go about your ideals. There are so many better options that don't involve senseless killing. You could use your powers to do so much good for people. That is something I would gladly work with you on.”

Latoshi scoffed again. “Do you really think all those horrible people are worth saving?”

“Yes. I do.”

“What a shame. Still as naive as you were before. People never change, Antoshi — you're proof of that. Your idea is a waste of time.”

“Then that's where we disagree,” Antoshi said. He limbered up his legs, taking a battle stance, keeping one fist in front, the other fist at his side. “This time around, I'm not afraid to stake my life on stopping you. I'm also not afraid to end you.”

End me?” Latoshi replied with a laugh. “You're trying to be threatening now? You really don't scare anyone, Antoshi — certainly not me. You're too much of a bleeding heart; a boy scout. You care too much, you cry too much. You don't have what it takes to get rid of me. You look like a harmless child in your little fighting pose there. Oh, and, need I remind you? The last time we fought, I left you in a pool of your own blood. You can't beat me, Antoshi. You never will.”

“Shut it,” Antoshi snapped. Latoshi grinned in amusement.

The two boys flared their auras out — an initial display of their power. Neither one was impressed or intimidated by what they saw from their opponent. The boys had naught but the pale light of the full moon to illuminate the dark beach. It was more than enough light, as both of them were fully capable of sensing each other's energy. The staredown between them lasted for a few moments, witnessed intently by Fireball and Serenity on the rooftop, as well as the mysterious, trench coat-clad person.

“You have no idea what you're getting yourself into, Antoshi. You have no idea how powerful I really am.”

“The same goes for you, Latoshi. You have gotten stronger, Latoshi — I can tell. But, so have I.”

Latoshi swiftly flew at his rival. Antoshi shielded himself with his arms crossed over his face, while Latoshi punched at him, laughing wildly. Their eyes shone brightly with their respective colors. Antoshi grunted as he was pushed back with each hit. The scenario was not unlike how Antoshi trained his defense with Fireball

‘His strikes are so intense,’ Antoshi thought, ‘even after all that training Fireball and I did. I have to do my best to keep away from him, if I want to gain the upper hand.’

Latoshi suddenly darted behind him, catching him off-guard. Latoshi kicked his counterpart's back with intense force, sending Antoshi diving into the sand, a short distance away.

“Well, that was disappointing,” Latoshi remarked, standing tall. “I thought you were supposed to be 'stronger' now.”

Antoshi climbed back to his feet, slowly. He took a moment to brush the sand off his clothes. He recomposed himself, looking at his foe with a confident smile. He wanted to make it clear to Latoshi that this fight was only just getting started.

“I sure hope you weren't holding back just now,” he said, “because that wasn't very impressive.”

Latoshi was befuddled. ‘That hit had enough force that would've instantly ended our last fight,’ he thought. ‘I guess he has gotten a bit tougher.’

'Do not dwell on it,' Lazarus said, 'and do not let up! Keep the pressure on him — now!'

Latoshi gave a shout, going on the offensive once again. Antoshi's eyes glowed brighter, opting not to defend, but to evade. He continuously hopped backward, weaving back and forth to keep just out of reach of Latoshi's swift, powerful punches. Latoshi clenched his teeth, snarling furiously, as he put more effort in his attempts to land a single blow.

Antoshi's eyes remained wide, carefully studying Latoshi's attack pattern. ‘Watch him,’ he thought. ‘Focus, stay calm, watch his movements. That's how you'll beat him.’

‘What the hell?!’ Latoshi thought. ‘Why can't I hit him?! There's no way he should be able to keep up with me after all that insane training I went through!’

Latoshi held his hands out in front of him, summoning his energy forth. He aimed for a moment, before firing a blast of energy. Antoshi gave a shout, launching his own energy blast to cancel it out. The colliding red and black energies exploded, creating a brief cloud of smoke. Using said smoke as a diversion, Latoshi managed to dart behind his rival.

“Remember this one?!” Latoshi shouted. He threw a punch into the small of Antoshi's back. His fist, unexpectedly, went through nothing more than a blurred image of Antoshi's body, making no contact. Latoshi was stunned.

'Behind you!' Lazarus shouted.

Before Latoshi could react, Antoshi countered with a strike of his own to Latoshi's spine. The sable-haired boy groaned in pain, hunched over while holding his back.

“Yeah, I do remember,” Antoshi replied, acrimoniously.

Latoshi seethed in rage. He grabbed handfuls of sand before slamming a fist into the ground. He was being made a fool of, even after the gains to his power and skill. “Damn it!” he shouted. Latoshi leapt back to his feet, turning to Antoshi with a bitter scowl.

“This isn't some game, Latoshi,” Antoshi said, “and I am not your pawn.”

Latoshi spat on the ground. “You're never going to convince me to back down and see things your way. This whole stupid, naive ideal you have of 'everyone deserves to live' makes me want to retch. You have no idea who I am, or what I'm capable of!”

Latoshi took aim at his foe with open palms once again. He shouted, angrily, firing off a multitude of energy blasts, forcing Antoshi to leap high to evade. The explosions kicked up sand dangerously close to the mysterious onlooker, who gasped and turned away, shielding their face with both arms.

When the sand settled, the onlooker, Latoshi, Serenity, and Fireball all gawked at Antoshi. Instead of landing, the boy remained stationary in the air. He glared down at Latoshi, his red aura flickering wildly.

'Antoshi is … flying?' Fireball thought, awe-struck and grinning. 'He hasn't done that since he saved me from Team Rocket. … Awesome! I finally get to see him flying!'

“So you can fly,” Latoshi remarked, ascending slowly into the air to match Antoshi's altitude. “But, are you as swift in the air as you are on your feet?”

“Why don't you find out?”

Latoshi sneered for a brief moment, before seemingly disappearing. Antoshi's eyes narrowed, glowing bright, following Latoshi's movements as he moved so fast, it was as if he blinked around through the air. Latoshi laughed, his voice coming from all directions.

Antoshi's gaze snapped upward, throwing a jab that connected with Latoshi's own punch. They were both surprised, finding their fists in a deadlock. The two boys threw rapid-fire punches at each other, connecting one after the other with near-perfect precision. Fists striking fists, they both gave a long cry as their auras flared out and their strikes became more intense. The shock waves from their attacks caused the sand below them to kick up.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

“Do you see that?” Serenity said to Fireball. “Their skills become more obvious the longer this goes on. Latoshi has been struggling to land a blow, but, when he does, the impact is much more intense than when Antoshi strikes. That means Antoshi is faster, but Latoshi is stronger. Speed versus power — it's an interesting dynamic. Both of them came prepared, and I think their unique skills put them on equal footing. This is going to be much harder to call than their previous fight.”

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Antoshi's spirit burned with vengeance. His attacks became much faster, managing to slip a punch through every so often that struck his rival's face and chest. Unlike before, Antoshi was now aware of how to weave his Ki into his strikes — thanks, in part, to Latoshi's previous gloating over his own ability to do so. It caused Antoshi's strikes to have immense impact as compared to before. The burning Ki seared at Latoshi's flesh, tearing away at the very essence of his black Ki, gradually wearing the sable-haired boy down in a way that Antoshi could not do in their previous showdown.

Latoshi roared, incensed, suddenly grabbing Antoshi's fists. Antoshi was stunned, taken aback by the overwhelming grip strength keeping him in place. As they struggled for control, their shimmering eyes glared at each other. Their respective red and black auras clashed with each other; vying for dominance, while sending flares of colored energy outward.

Latoshi pulled him closer, suddenly ramming a knee into Antoshi's stomach. The blond-haired boy's eyes went wide, groaning as the wind was knocked out of him. Latoshi laughed, releasing him, kicking his adversary's chest hard enough to send him plummeting toward the ground with a large impact.

Antoshi coughed as he sat up. He held his abdomen, staring up at Latoshi, who hovered high above him with a proud smirk on his face.

‘Okay, so, testing his strength was definitely a bad idea,’ Antoshi thought. ‘I really do have to avoid his grabs and strikes as much as I can.’

In an instant, Antoshi was airborne once again. He weaved around in random patterns around Latoshi, using his superior speed to misdirect the sable-haired boy, and find openings to strike at his unguarded areas. Latoshi struggled to block or deflect. The scene was similar to their first fight, only in midair.

‘He's like an annoying gnat!’ Latoshi thought, before he also opted to fly around in a likewise pattern. The two boys clashed each time they got close, trading quick jabs and blocks. To the spectators, their auras appeared as red and black streaks darting around in the night sky.

'Enough fooling around!' Lazarus spoke. 'Use the upper limits of your strength and put this fight to an end!'

“He's not worth that much effort!” Latoshi replied. Antoshi narrowed his eyes, realizing his rival was conversing with Lazarus.

'Do not be a stupid child!' Lazarus snapped, surprising the boy. 'I am your master, and you will follow my orders! Is that clear?!'

Latoshi's concentration was broken upon suddenly remembering the first time Lazarus yelled at him. ‘This is my life!’ he recalled himself saying. ‘You aren't going to tell me what to do forever! I'm the one with limitless, ultimate power — remember?’ Latoshi stared blankly, bewildered by a memory he was unfamiliar with.

'Pay attention, you buffoon!' Lazarus shouted at him.

Latoshi gasped, shielding himself with one arm, just before an energy blast collided with him. The subsequent explosion pushed him back, slightly. He growled in frustration, glancing at the noticeable burn mark left on his arm. He turned a cutting glare to Antoshi, before flying into him. The two began another deadlock of punches and kicks, using their superhuman speed to avoid the other's strikes.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

“For someone who's been opposed to fighting,” Serenity remarked, “Antoshi certainly has a natural talent for it. They both do.”

Just then, she noticed a couple of young people strolling across the beach together with a Pokémon. They were unknowingly headed in the direction of the fight. Her gaze suddenly shifted to the other side of the beach, where another small group of kids were also making their way in the same direction.

“That's not good,” Serenity remarked. “Antoshi must have told you to stay behind, didn't he?” Fireball nodded in response. “Well, it seems there are some innocent bystanders down there.” Fireball looked along the beach in shock. “This stretch of the beach is supposed to be closed to the public after sunset. I guess they didn't get the memo, … or, they don't care. They're going to be hurt, or worse, if they get too close. But, I think there is a way you and I can help Antoshi during his fight. …”

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Antoshi and Latoshi struggled for dominance once again. Their hands were clasped together in another test of strength. They scowled at each other, trying to push each other back. Their auras burned against each other, sending off more flares of energy. However, Antoshi found himself once again on the losing end of the duel.

‘I should really stop getting lured into these situations,’ he thought. He gave a long shout, amplifying his aura severalfold, and increasing the output of his Ki to the point where they remained deadlocked. His eyes abruptly widened in surprise, sensing something peculiar. ‘Fireball?’ he thought. ‘Serenity, too? Why are they both getting closer? And why can I sense them getting closer? … No, it's not just them. There are … some other people around. People visiting the beach. I can't even see them, but I know they're there. That's crazy. I'm totally aware of everything around us, while still focusing on the fight.’ Antoshi strained with effort as Latoshi clamped down on his hands. ‘Serenity … and … Fireball are trying to get those people away from here. I have to help them. I need to bring Latoshi someplace where innocent bystanders aren't going to see us, or get hurt.’

Antoshi gave another shout, conjuring dual blasts of energy to his palms. Latoshi looked on helplessly as the boy's red Ki shined bright between their hands. He cried out in pain; the resulting explosion burned his palms. Antoshi used the brief distraction to quickly fly away, over the open waters.

'Stop getting outclassed!' Lazarus shouted. 'You are letting him make a fool of you! Now, go after him!'

Latoshi gave another frustrated shout, taking off after his counterpart.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Serenity, having landed out of sight, walked up to the pair of young people and their Pachirisu. “I'm sorry, folks,” she said, in an authoritative tone, “I'm afraid you're going to have to go back the way you came.”

“What?” the young man asked. “Why?”

“Yeah, this beach is public property,” the young woman added, flippantly. The Pachirisu on her shoulder complained, loudly.

“We're fully aware of that, but, unfortunately, a large toxic spill was just found on this beach. It's been shut down by order of the Goldenrod City police.” The young woman was shocked.

The young man, however, found her claims suspicious. “I don't see anyone else here,” he said.

“That's because we've cleared the beach of any civilians,” Serenity replied. “Cleanup crews are on the way.” Serenity shooed the two away, insistently. “This area is extremely dangerous right now. For your own safety, you must leave immediately. Failure to comply will result in your arrest.”

The two muttered to each other, while Serenity stood tall with her hands folded behind her back.

“All right, fine,” the young man said, before they turned around to leave. The Pachirisu turned to Serenity and stuck its tongue out. Serenity chuckled, quietly, before looking to the ocean where the two boys were.

‘Well, this area is extremely dangerous right now,’ she thought. ‘That much is true.’ She noticed, and turned her attention to, the mysterious onlooker in the trench coat. “Hey, you!” she called out, startling the person. “This beach has been shut down by order of the Goldenrod police! Please leave right away!” The person turned away in a panic, shuffling away.

Serenity turned to leave as well, but stopped, suddenly. She looked at the stranger with an inquisitive expression. She glanced down at her palms, rubbing them together to remove some moisture. She hummed, thoughtfully, before jogging down the beach.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

On the other side of the beach, Fireball ran out on all fours to greet the group of incoming young kids.

“Whoa, it's a Typhlosion!” one of them said. The others fawned over the rare sight.

Fireball, however, glared at them, menacingly. He slowly advanced toward them, growling loudly, baring his teeth, and igniting the fires on his back.

“It doesn't look too friendly,” another kid remarked, nervously. Fireball stood up on his hind legs, boasting his exceptional height. He took a deep breath, and exhaled a powerful stream of fire onto the sand in front of them.

“Run away!” one of the others said. The kids screamed and ran away as quickly as they could, leaving Fireball to roar at them from afar.

Once they were far enough away, he sighed in relief. 'I hate to do that to those kids, but I don't want them to get hurt. I know Antoshi doesn't want that, either.'

Serenity met up with Fireball. They nodded to each other before they headed further inland, away from the fight.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Latoshi let out a long yell as he closed the distance between himself and his foe. Antoshi turned around, just before his rival struck him. Latoshi ended up going through another after-image, his fist striking nothing but the light of the moon before him. He stopped, shocked that he'd been outmaneuvered once again. Antoshi suddenly flew at him from above, delivering a powerful heel kick to the back of Latoshi's head. The sable-haired boy shouted, briefly, sent deep into the water with an enormous splash.

Seeming to have a moment's respite, Antoshi sighed, looking out to the shore. ‘I can't sense those people anymore. That's good. Fireball and Serenity must've gotten them to safety.’

In the dark, under the water's rippling surface, Latoshi was fuming with rage. His facial muscles twitched, scowling, while a school of Remoraid calmly swam by him.

‘I won't be made a fool of like this,’ he thought. ‘I'm going to make him suffer before I kill him!’

He turned his attention upward, able to make out Antoshi's image hovering in the air. He took careful aim, holding both hands out, firing off another barrage of multiple energy blasts that swiftly tore through the water. Antoshi was taken by surprise, shielding himself with both arms, the blasts colliding with his aura and exploding.

Latoshi capitalized on the distraction, appearing before Antoshi with a cruel smirk. He spun around, striking at Antoshi with the back of his elbow. Antoshi barely managed to block the attack with his hands, but was still sent soaring a short distance away from the intense blow.

Latoshi quickly sped after him, breaking waves on the surface of the water with his momentum. Antoshi came to stop, facing his advancing foe. Latoshi threw a volley of rapid punches at him, each of which were swiftly evaded or deflected. Antoshi suddenly grabbed Latoshi's arm, turning around and throwing him over his shoulder with a loud shout, sending him back toward the shore.

Latoshi spiraled through the air for some time, finally regaining control by the time he was over land. He hunched over as he hit the sand, his hand raking through it, sliding to a halt. He stared down his counterpart with contempt. Antoshi flew back to the shore, landed, and stood before him.

The bitter scowl on Latoshi's face abruptly softened into amusement. He placed a hand on his forehead and started laughing, hysterically. Antoshi remained unfazed, keeping a stern, serious expression. He wasn't going to fall into some kind of distraction by Latoshi.

“You think you have the upper hand now, huh?” Latoshi asked, amused. “Don't bother answering — it was a rhetorical question. It was rhetorical because I'm about to show you exactly why you're wrong.”

Latoshi threw his arms out to the side, grinning smugly, summoning forth a larger volume of energy from his deep well of Ki. Antoshi took a defensive stance, while Latoshi's aura flared out intensely. Latoshi let out a loud shout, creating countless energy orbs that hovered around him — the same attack he'd practiced. Antoshi's eyes widened in disbelief. The onlookers were equally stunned as him.

“While you were off doing your own so-called 'training',” Latoshi said, “I was pushing myself beyond your comprehension. This is a little attack I created myself. I call it 'Shooting Stars'. Make a wish!”

Latoshi swiftly clapped his hands together. In response, the masses of energy were sent careening toward Antoshi at blistering speed. Antoshi gasped, his eyes going wide. The internal engine that was his spirit revved up with blazing energy, causing his irises to burn red-hot, pushing his abilities further. Rather than fleeing or defending, he instead charged directly into the swarm of Ki. He instantaneously stepped, hopped, and pivoted around the blasts as they darted past him. The boy's body blurred in and out of the oncoming field of black orbs, managing to evade every one of them.

Latoshi was left in shock by Antoshi's incredible speed and dexterity. His shock, however, quickly turned to anger.

‘This can't be!’ Latoshi thought. ‘There's no way he's gotten this good!’ As Antoshi continued to maneuver around the energy, Latoshi clenched his shaking fists. ‘I won't let you, Antoshi. … I won't let you win!!’

Latoshi shouted in rage, firing a much larger blast into Antoshi's path. Antoshi gasped, unable to react in time. The attack exploded in his face, violently, sending him flying backward into the sand. The previous attacks he'd dodged erupted along the beach, kicking up sand in all directions. Countless small craters were left in their wake.

Antoshi cried out in pain, his hands cupped over his eyes. He got back to his feet slowly, his hands falling away to reveal burns around his tightly shut eyes. He groaned weakly, straining to open them.

“Aw, what's the matter, Antoshi? Can't see anything?” Latoshi asked, in a patronizing tone. “Well then, this just got a whole lot more interesting.” Antoshi clenched his teeth, trembling in pain while taking a defensive stance.

Having gotten close enough to see the fight more clearly, Fireball cried out in horror at the turn of events. Serenity remained stoic, carefully watching every detail of the encounter. The trench coat-clad spectator had returned, in the same spot as before, to continue watching the fight unfold.

Latoshi, meanwhile, laughed at his foe's misfortune. Oozing arrogance as usual, he raced toward Antoshi. Though unable to see, Antoshi still sensed Latoshi's energy nearing. He attempted to block, but his body was suddenly racked by the blunt pain of Latoshi ramming a knee into his gut.

As Antoshi hunched over, straining to breathe, Latoshi clasped his hands together and raised them high. He slammed his fists down, across the back of Antoshi's head, viciously driving his opponent to the ground. The blond-haired boy shouted in pain. In an instant, Latoshi punted him like a ball across the beach. His body violently rolled around in the sand, ending face-up. Latoshi kept up the pace, hovering over Antoshi and delivering hundreds of punches to his rival in a matter of seconds. Latoshi laughed wildly, Antoshi's body being thrashed around from the ferocity of his assault.

Fireball swallowed a lump in his throat, his claws anxiously fidgeting. He wasn't sure if this was the end, but seeing his friend being brutalized still terrified him, regardless.

Antoshi groaned, weakly, once the barrage was finished. Latoshi, however, left one last statement in the form of a hard knee to his stomach once again. Antoshi croaked loudly, coughing up blood.

Latoshi hovered himself back up to a vertical base, proudly looking over his handiwork. “Now, everything is as it should be,” he remarked, smirking cruelly. Antoshi coughed weakly, holding his midsection with both arms. “Antoshi, I can't begin to tell you how happy I am to see you as pathetic as you are now! I knew you were no match for me — I just needed to find that one opening. Now, here you are, at my feet and at my mercy, yet again.”

'End him this time,' Lazarus instructed, sternly. 'Do not let him rise from the ashes once more!'

Latoshi smirked as he held a hand out, summoning forth a large amount of Ki into his palm. It was enough energy to make his arm tremble at the sheer power he was holding. “Don't worry, Antoshi,” Latoshi said coldly, “I'll put you out of your misery quickly. That's just how benevolent I am.”

Antoshi trembled and clenched his teeth. ‘Damn it, not again,’ he thought. ‘I have to fight back, but … in my condition, he can just put me down if I even try to move. I can't run; I can't defend myself. He has the advantage. I'm not sure what moves I have left here. It's over for me…’

Fireball suddenly raced toward them. "Antoshi!" he called out. Serenity continued to remain behind, watching from afar.

Latoshi turned to the Typhlosion, scowling. “So, your little pet did come with you.”

Antoshi panicked, uncertain of which way Fireball was coming from. “Fireball, no!” he exclaimed, in a raspy tone. “Get away from here, now!”

Latoshi shifted the aim of his palm from Antoshi to Fireball. “A little target practice, huh? Why not.”

The Typhlosion gasped in shock, just before Latoshi fired a blast of energy at him. The resulting, large explosion sent Fireball soaring backward — right into the arms of Serenity, who caught him just before he hit the ground. As with Antoshi, Fireball's weight was like nothing to her.

She laid him down, letting his head rest on her lap. Fireball's body was littered with injuries, groaning in pain, just as Antoshi was. Latoshi narrowed his eyes in confusion, left to wonder who the girl was. He correctly assumed that she was the girl that informed Antoshi about Lazarus, but, he had no idea how she could know, or anything else about her.

“Just stay put, Fireball,” Serenity spoke, gently. “I can heal you like before.” Her irises and hands glowed with the pink hue of her aura. She started to treat Fireball's wounds, simply by resting her hands on his chest.

"Antoshi is … going to die!" Fireball said, his eyes welling with tears. "Please — you have to save him! I know you can!"

Serenity offered him no response, only watching the scene unfold with the same, seemingly detached demeanor.

“It's okay, Antoshi,” Latoshi said, turning his attention back to him, “you're just a failure. You did a lot better this time, but, once again, you're nowhere near as good as I am. Don't worry, though. Once you're dead, I'll make good on my promise and kill everyone you know so that they don't have to grieve over you.”

Antoshi gasped in a mix of horror and rage. The engine, which had been stalled out from Latoshi's assault, began to sputter back to life, and shift into overdrive. His blood felt like like it was boiling, his body surging with power. A sudden, massive rush of Ki swelled to life within him. The resulting wave of pressure was enough to cause Latoshi to stumble backward. The sable-haired boy grunted, shielding his eyes with one arm, as he looked on in bewilderment.

Antoshi was actually rising to his feet.

“Latoshi, …” he said, his voice trembling, clenching his fists tight, “You're not … going to have your way again!” His vengeful cry was accompanied by another wave of spirit pressure that pushed Latoshi back even further. Latoshi snarled in frustration, struggling to keep his footing. “I'm not going to let this go on any longer! I won't let you hurt anyone else — especially not my family!!” His red aura exploded in a wild frenzy that was beyond anything the others had witnessed from either of the two. All of the muscles in his body tensed, visibly bulging around his lean frame.

"Whoa!" Fireball exclaimed, shielding his eyes. ‘Strong emotions tend to heighten a person's spirit,’ he recalled Serenity explain to them. ‘Strong emotions tend to heighten a person's spirit and can, therefore, make the strength of your spirit energy explode in a pinch — like gasoline on a fire.’

Antoshi's aura whirled and surged brightly far outside his body. His bitter, glaring eyes glowed intensely as he slowly opened them. Latoshi looked on in disbelief. Antoshi had regained his eyesight. It was as if every bit of damage he'd done to Antoshi had been undone.

“What's happening?!” Latoshi shouted. ‘This—this pressure! It's unreal! How … when did he gain all this power?!’

'I don't remember Antoshi ever being this strong!' Fireball exclaimed, in thought.

“Finally,” Serenity remarked with a smile, “he's discovering how to tap into the energy of his emotions.”

Latoshi turned his gaze to Fireball and Serenity. With a devious grin, he held out an open hand toward them. Antoshi's eyes went wide in shock.

“So much for all that power you have,” he exclaimed, firing a large blast of energy. “I can just exploit your weaknesses instead!”

As the attack neared, Serenity calmly closed her eyes, while Fireball panicked and shielded himself.

Chapter 19

Just as the blast was about to hit them, Antoshi appeared to intercept it. He swatted the dark energy away, sending it flying off and exploding harmlessly in the air. Serenity was pleasantly surprised at his speed. Fireball slowly opened his eyes, curious as to what happened. He gasped in shock, seeing his friend standing tall before them.

Latoshi was fuming with rage. ‘He seriously closed the gap between him and his friends before my shot hit them!?’

“My friends are not a weakness, Latoshi!” Antoshi said. “They're my strength!”

Latoshi huffed, incensed by the remark. “Oh, you sound like such a walking cliche, you little boy scout!” His eyes widened as Antoshi marched toward him, calmly. The sheer amount of pressure Antoshi's energy was giving off, and the sense of righteous fury that came with it, was overwhelming. It was a level of power he simply could not match. Latoshi's spirit was already beaten back.

“You threatened my life,” Antoshi said, his voice returned to normal and filled with confidence, “the lives of my friends and those of my family. You tried to kill Fireball. You tried to kill me. Now, you're going to have to face the consequences.”

Trembling, Latoshi scoffed in amusement. “Consequences?” he replied. “I'd love to see what kind of c—!” Before he could even finish, Antoshi shot toward him and punched his cheek. At the point of impact, however, a tiny ember of Latoshi's black aura curiously manifested itself inside Antoshi's aura.

"Wow," Fireball remarked, awe-struck. "Antoshi's fast." Serenity's brow flexed slightly, showing a minute amount of concern.

Antoshi yelled in rage as he gave Latoshi the same barrage of punches as he'd received earlier — multiplied tenfold. Thousands of punches rattled the sable-haired boy around like a rag doll.

‘What the hell is happening?’ Latoshi thought, fading in and out of consciousness. ‘He shouldn't … be … this strong!’

Antoshi struck Latoshi hard enough to spike him into the ground. Latoshi shouted in agony, as an eruption of sand billowed up around him, leaving him in a crater. The crater was further exacerbated when Antoshi flew into the air and fired off a hail of energy blasts at him.

‘This pain,’ Latoshi thought, the energy burning at his flesh, tearing at his clothes, ‘how could I be in so much pain? …’

Antoshi's offensive came to a sudden halt. He landed on his feet, catching his breath for a moment. Having gotten to their feet again, Fireball and Serenity surveyed the aftermath. Fireball's previous wounds had been completely healed.

'Is … he dead?' Fireball wondered, concerned.

Latoshi coughed, weakly propping himself up with his forearms. Antoshi walked up to him, reached down, and grabbed him by the throat. The sable-haired boy struggled and choked, kicking and swinging at him. A few hits landed, but they were in vain. Firmly on a whole new level of power, Latoshi's strikes no longer did any damage to him. Antoshi gave him a deathly serious glare.

“You were right, Latoshi,” he said. “It really is nice to see your enemy in such a pathetic state. Now, I get to end your corrupt ways for good.” Latoshi spat at him. Antoshi responded by punching him in the face hard enough to send him a short distance away. He marched after him to continue his offense.

Fireball looked on, incredulous. 'I can't believe it,' he thought. 'Antoshi, my best friend. All this time you've had this inside of you. This power, this skill, … this rage. I've never seen you like this before…'

‘This is Lazarus' doing,’ Serenity thought, biting her lip. ‘Its evil influence is starting to corrupt Antoshi as well. I can only pray Antoshi realizes that before it's too late.’

Latoshi grunted in frustration, shaking, trying to will himself to get up once more. As he looked at Antoshi stalking him again, he abruptly recalled memories of the two of them and Fireball taking a stroll around Goldenrod City together.

‘What … the hell are these memories that keep popping up?’ he thought. ‘Are they from … before I was in that prison? No, … they're more recent than that. But, why do I know when they happened?’

'You stupid child!' Lazarus shouted at him. 'Focus! Harness your anger! Unleash the rage that burns inside of you!'

“I … I can't,” Latoshi whispered in response.

'Worthless little weakling! I have to do everything for you!'

As Antoshi neared, he charged up a blast of energy into the palm of his hand. Before he could strike, however, he was suddenly overcome by a wave of rotten, dark spirit pressure that stumbled him back — just like what he had done to Latoshi earlier. Antoshi and the others watched curiously as Latoshi got to his feet, hanging his head down. He stretched his arms out, rotating and cracking his joints as though he'd awaken from a long slumber. He inhaled deeply, tilting his head back to the sky, letting out a long, hissing exhale. The boy came off as unnaturally relaxed and spry for someone who'd just taken a violent beating.

“Now I am the one in control,” Latoshi said. Lazarus' voice had audibly fused with the boy's. Their voices were combined as he chuckled, staring Antoshi down. His eyes were fully consumed by the dark energy of the parasitic spirit within him.

“Just what is that supposed to mean?” Antoshi responded, flatly, with an apathetic expression.

“I found it interesting that you would say you are going to finish me,” he said, calmly, “when you have not seen the extent of my power yet.”

Antoshi and the others quickly picked up on Lazarus' method of speaking, and how it differed from Latoshi's. Yet, Antoshi trilled his lips, fully consumed in his own hubris. “I've seen the 'extent' of your power, and how you never shut up about how great you are. You won't beat me this time, Latoshi. I can still outwit you, no matter what you try.” Suddenly, Latoshi was in front of him, throwing a punch that ended up being just barely blocked by Antoshi's hands. The impact caused a brief, but noticeable, shock wave.

Latoshi grinned at him, his eyelids hanging low. Antoshi grunted, holding Latoshi at bay, as the sable-haired boy continued to press his fist into him with great force. He was baffled by his adversary's sudden boost in speed.

“It appears you were not expecting that,” Latoshi remarked. “Your body defended out of sheer instinct. So much for being able to outwit me.”

Antoshi's hands glowed red as he summoned his energy to his hands again. Latoshi cooed in surprise, smirking, as he responded in kind. They fired their attacks simultaneously. Their dueling Ki exploded, leaving a cloud of smoke, staggering Antoshi back. Latoshi burst through the smoke, rearing a fist back. Antoshi went to counterattack, but stopped abruptly. His eyes went wide, sensing his opponent's energy elsewhere. He instead jumped high, avoiding a straight kick by Latoshi from behind. The initial image of Latoshi's body swiftly faded away.

Although believing he was out of harm's way, Antoshi was suddenly caught by a punch to the cheek from above.

‘How?!’ Antoshi thought, mid-strike. ‘Out of nowhere, he's become faster than I can follow!’

Antoshi impacted and rolled uncontrollably across the sand, his body getting covered in it. Latoshi flew after him, while Antoshi regained control of his momentum. He bounced up on his hands, springing high into the air, narrowly avoiding a hard punch from Latoshi. The sable-haired boy's strike hit the ground, the impact knocking up a burst of sand. Latoshi continued to follow him, while moving so fast it was as though he were disappearing and reappearing. The same, twisted grin remained omnipresent on the sable-haired boy's face.

‘He's not going to attack from the front,’ Antoshi thought, panting heavily, keeping his attention away from Latoshi's position. ‘He's using his speed again to—’ Much to Antoshi's shock, however, Latoshi did strike him from the front.

While Antoshi was dazed and reeling, Latoshi grabbed the collar of his shirt. He spun Antoshi around, violently, before sending him crashing hard into the sand again. Latoshi kept on him, giving the blond-haired boy no quarter. He appeared before Antoshi, landing slow, yet powerful, punches to Antoshi's face. Each thunderous strike caused sand to billow in all directions. He cackled wildly, as Antoshi cried out in pain.

“It does not look like you are outwitting me at the moment,” Latoshi remarked. “You seem to be too busy thinking over your strategy. Nevertheless, I have faith that you will come up with something good eventually!”

‘What's happened?’ Antoshi thought, his face being bloodied. ‘It's like his whole personality and his fighting style completely changed. I … can't read his movements the same as I did before!’

‘Lazarus has shown itself,’ Serenity thought, clenching a trembling fist. ‘It's managed to absorb enough energy to manifest itself, taking control of Latoshi's body. With its host's body, it's gained the upper hand against Antoshi. Latoshi wasn't strong enough before to allow Lazarus to possess him. Lazarus must have really pushed Latoshi to his limits in order to store up this much Ki in such a short amount of time.’

Latoshi pulled Antoshi's exhausted body up, by his shirt collar once again. Antoshi grunted, weakly, scowling at his grinning adversary.

“How sad,” he remarked. “You almost had me. You had all the tools and all the power to do it, but, you still could not finish the job when you had the chance — just like Latoshi. I will admit, your sudden bursts of power had me worried for a while. Regardless, it would appear I made the right choice when I chose Latoshi as my vessel.” He broke out into a cackling laugh. Antoshi strained, trying to wrap his head around what Latoshi just said. With a shout, Latoshi suddenly flung him into the air. “Now then, I think I shall use Latoshi's new trick to its full effectiveness. What was it called again? Ah, yes. Shooting Stars!”

He shouted again, creating the same mass of Ki orbs from his aura. Laughing wildly, he took aim at Antoshi while bringing his hands forward. Diminished, and unable to dodge like before, Antoshi screamed as the orbs exploded violently on contact with him. The ones that didn't make direct contact ended up bursting around him, adding to the damage with powerful shock waves. His protective aura flickered, weakly, leaving him vulnerable to the attacks. The dark energy burned him and tore at his clothes, which quickly became tattered like Latoshi's. His adversary continued laughing, watching as Antoshi fell along the shoreline.

"Antoshi, no!!" Fireball exclaimed. Latoshi turned his head, grinning proudly at Fireball. The Typhlosion bared his teeth, trembling, forcing himself to remain on the sidelines after what happened last time he tried to get involved.

Latoshi's attention shifted to Serenity. A bitter expression suddenly came across his face, before he looked away.

‘Yes, I'm well aware that you remember me, Lazarus,’ Serenity thought.

Antoshi strained, weakly lifting himself onto his hands and knees. His body was terribly bloodied. He coughed up some of the wet sand that was also stuck to his face.

“Ah, so there is still some life in you,” Latoshi said. “Well, not for much longer. I think I shall stomp out those last, pesky, flickering embers now.” He leapt high, aiming at Antoshi's head with the heel of his shoe as he came back down. “Quite literally!” he added.

Without looking, Antoshi suddenly caught his adversary's foot. Everyone else was left stunned. He looked up at Latoshi, glaring menacingly.

“I may be down,” Antoshi said, his trembling hand glowing bright red, “but I sure as hell am not out!”

Latoshi jerked his foot away in a panic, just before Antoshi fired off his Ki. The energy blast zipped past, within inches of his face, and spiraled harmlessly into the air.

‘What the hell?’ Lazarus thought. ‘That attack had undeniable vigor behind it. How? Why … can he not just give up and die?!’

The two opponents ascended into the air again. They were nearing their limits; sweating profusely, breathing hard, their shirts torn and tattered. Yet, they fought on, going after each other with a barrage of kicks and punches that was shockingly reminiscent of earlier on.

'This is crazy!' Fireball thought. 'The two of them are … going at it just like before! It's like they hit the 'reset' button on their fight!'

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

At that moment, Latoshi awoke with a gasp, as though he'd been starved for air. He found himself floating in an endless void of darkness, helplessly drifting. His whole body felt paralyzed, unable to move.

‘Where am I?’ he thought. ‘My head feels like … there's a huge cloud around it. I can't think clearly. I can't … keep myself … awake. Am I dreaming? Am I … dead?’

Before him, he stared at the images of the ongoing fight with Antoshi through his own eyes, as if they were television screens in the distance. They were the same eyes that were currently under Lazarus' control.

‘I'm … fighting? I can feel my arms and legs burning — my Ki is surging! But, … I'm just here in the middle of nowhere. What is going on? Who is … controlling my body?’ He thought it over for a moment, blankly staring at the fight. ‘La— … zarus? Is … Lazarus controlling me? How can that be?’ Latoshi's consciousness began to stir. ‘No. I don't want … to be controlled. Lazarus can't control me. Give me back my body, Lazarus. Give back my body!’

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Latoshi's body abruptly seized up. He grunted with effort, struggling to move. ‘Damn!’ Lazarus thought. ‘The boy is starting to regain consciousness. I have burned through too much of this child's energy already! I cannot hope to fight and keep Latoshi's spirit restrained at the same time! I'm not ready to go back yet! Damn it all!!’

Antoshi studied him, curiously, for a moment before taking advantage. He struck the restrained Latoshi with a hard shot to the face, propelling him backward. Latoshi continued to struggle, while falling rapidly.

“I am not done with you!” Latoshi screamed.

“Oh, you're done, all right!” Antoshi replied, following him to the ground.

Latoshi found enough strength in time to land on his feet. He gasped, suddenly finding himself face-to-face with his opponent. Antoshi immediately laid into him with another blistering barrage of punches to his head, arms, and torso. Latoshi was thrashed around helplessly from the relentless assault, blood gushing from his mouth.

Despite the beating, Latoshi grinned, weakly. ‘Very well, then,’ Lazarus thought. ‘If that is the case, then my protégé can endure this pain in my stead. After all, I have a new apprentice who is about ready to join me…’

Latoshi gasped again, his eyes suddenly returning to normal. The boy was in full control of his body once more, regaining consciousness in the midst of Antoshi's brutal assault. ‘What—what the hell is going on?!’ Latoshi thought, panicked, as he was beaten, relentlessly. Fireball and Serenity looked on with concern.

'That's enough, Antoshi,' Fireball thought. 'He's finished! Please stop!'

Antoshi knocked him upward before spinning around and kicking his sternum hard. Latoshi groaned, sliding to a long halt on his shoulder blades before coming to a rest, sprawled out on the ground.

Their fight was finally over.

Fireball and Serenity followed at a distance, while Antoshi stalked his fallen foe. The blond-haired boy had an intense look in his glowing eyes. He grabbed Latoshi by the neck, lifting his limp body up high enough to face him. Latoshi's eyes opened, slowly.

“All that bragging,” Antoshi remarked. “All that confidence, all that cockiness — it looks like you left it scattered along the beach. What a shame, huh? What do you have to say now?”

Latoshi offered no words, only pained groans, and shallow breaths. Antoshi scowled in rage.

'Yes~,' the hiss of Lazarus' voice suddenly became clear to Antoshi. 'You have defeated your nemesis. Bathe in the glory of victory. Revel in your newfound power and might. He will never be able to best you, Antoshi.'

“I am better than you,” he said to Latoshi, in response to Lazarus' remarks. His irises began to darken, shifting from their trademark red into a lusterless black. “There's no doubt now. You are insignificant to me.”

'What has he ever done for you? Caused you pain?'

“You put me through so much pain since we met, Latoshi.”


“I'll never forget the misery you caused Fireball and I.”


“I've been living in torture, fearing the moment I had to see your face again.”

'Threats against your family, your loved ones.'

“Threatening everyone I hold dear to me is inexcusable.”

'You have the power to make it all stop.'

He aimed an open hand at Latoshi's head. “The time has come for you to pay for everything you've done, Latoshi. I've been waiting for this moment: the moment I can finally put an end to this horror.” Antoshi's flickering aura slowly became corrupted with the blackness of Lazarus' spirit. Tendrils of black energy seeped their way into Antoshi's spirit, the parasite beginning to take its hold over him. “I'll make you pay, Latoshi. I'll make you eat all your arrogant words. You're the pathetic one now … and you will never hurt me ever again!” He charged an amount of burning Ki into his hand that was much larger than any of his previous attacks. “I'm going to make sure of it. …”

Serenity looked on, with a serious gaze. ‘Antoshi,’ she thought. ‘this moment is going to define the kind of person you are for the rest of your life…’

'Very good,' Lazarus continued. 'Hold on to that anger. Let it ignite your spirit. You hate Latoshi — you want him to stop. All you have to do is burn him away to ashes. Free me from this weakling, Antoshi. You are so much stronger than he is. And you can still be so much more. …'

"Antoshi, no!" Fireball shouted, fearfully. "Don't do it! Please!" Antoshi gasped, turning his attention to his best friend.

“Fire … ball?” he uttered, lost in a trance. He saw Serenity standing by Fireball. Her earlier plea suddenly replayed in his mind.

‘Promise me that you'll help Latoshi. He desperately needs help, and I believe that you're the only person who can. Would you be willing to do that?’

‘But … how?’ he recalled asking her. How can I help him?’

‘I know you'll find the best solution if you look into your heart. … When the time comes — act.’

He turned to Latoshi once again, whose eyes were welled up with tears. The sorrow and fear in his eyes were utterly apparent. “I'm … sor— … sorry …” the sable-haired boy spoke in a raspy voice.

Antoshi was horrified with himself. He immediately let go of Latoshi, rescinding the energy in his hand back into his aura. Latoshi stumbled back, on trembling legs. Tears fell from Antoshi's eyes as the two boys stared at each other in shock. He panted, fearfully, looking down at his bloodied hands.

‘What … have I done?’ Antoshi thought. ‘I almost … I almost killed him! I'm not like this, I … I shouldn't be this way. This isn't what I promised Serenity. I was supposed to help him, not to …’

As Antoshi snapped out of his vengeful trance, regaining conscious thought, his eyes returned to normal. The fragments of Lazarus' spirit that had infested his aura slowly burned away. He fell to his knees, trembling and sniffling.

Despite his own injuries, Latoshi gazed upon him with concern. “An—Antoshi,” he spoke, grabbing the mournful boy's attention. “I … I really am—”

Latoshi's remarks were interrupted when he grabbed his head, shouting in agony. Lazarus' ear-splitting ringing noise had returned to punish him. The others looked on in confusion, as Latoshi stumbled back.

'Leave now!' Lazarus commanded. 'There is nothing more for you here! Leave!!'

Latoshi immediately did as he was told. He took off into the night sky, while continuing to hold his head and groan in pain.

“Latoshi!!” Antoshi shouted after him. Serenity appeared beside him, grabbing his shoulder in the instant the boy attempted to follow.

“Stop,” she said. “There's nothing more you can do now.”

Fireball was stunned. He looked to his side, realizing Serenity had dashed over there faster than he could think. He jogged over to the two.

Antoshi's shoulders slumped over. He gazed at the ground, defeated. “… I heard him,” he remarked.

“Lazarus?” Serenity asked. Antoshi nodded.

“His voice was so clear to me, like he was inside my head, … just like Latoshi told me. It was such a … hypnotic and soothing voice. He was telling me everything I wanted to hear, feeding all of my negative feelings.” Antoshi looked to the sky, where Latoshi had fled to. “I finally understand now. I understand what Latoshi is going through. I know … how he truly feels. I saw everything in his eyes for just that brief moment. He's been pleading for help this entire time. The honesty in his eyes … it reminded me of his eyes when we first met. That short time we spent that morning when we were actually happy together.” Serenity smiled, letting her hand fall away. “… I almost killed him, Serenity. Lazarus' influence was so powerful that I didn't feel any different at all. I just felt all of my anger boiling over. I … forgot about the promise I made to you. I … I almost did something that I would have regretted for the rest of my life.”

“It's all right,” Serenity reassured him. “That's what Lazarus does. It amplifies your emotions and makes it impossible for you to think clearly. It's exactly what Latoshi's had to deal with all this time. For you, hearing Fireball's voice broke through that barrier and you came to your senses. Latoshi doesn't have anyone like that to help him.”

“We have to save him,” Antoshi said, his aura flaring back to life. “I have to go find him. I—I have to make this right. I have to help him.”

“You've done all you can,” she told him. He looked at her in confusion, his aura receding. “You defeated him in battle, you made him reveal his true emotions. After this, he'll certainly make him question how effective Lazarus truly is. You planted the seed of doubt in him, and so your job is done. Now, it's on Latoshi to take the next step. He has to deal with on his own from here on out. Only he can remove Lazarus' influence. It has to be his decision. The problem is, Lazarus has the ability to block the memories of its host, which keeps its host loyal.”

Antoshi was left stunned for a moment, his eyes going wide. “So, … that's why he seemed so different when I first spoke to him earlier. Lazarus is keeping his memories from him. … That's why Latoshi doesn't remember anything about his past!”

Serenity nodded, gently. “Now you understand the method to Lazarus' influence.”

“All this time, … I've been so angry and so bitter towards him. I thought he was the one I should focus my hatred at. I never knew what he was enduring. Every word of anguish he's spoken about other people — how evil human hearts can be, how cruel people are, … he meant every bit of it because of how hurt he's been all along. I can't believe I … didn't figure that out myself until now.” He turned to Serenity, his eyes full of regret. “You were right, Serenity. He does need my help, more than I ever realized.” Serenity closed her eyes, nodding to him again.

Antoshi stood in reflection for a moment. Afterward, he sighed heavily, closed his eyes, and began sulking away. Fireball and Serenity looked on in bewilderment.

"You still won, Antoshi!" Fireball said. "You saved who knows how many peoples' lives from that evil creep controlling Latoshi."

“That was no victory, Fireball,” Antoshi replied, dismayed. “Not this time. … Not when my heart feels this empty.”

“Antoshi, wait,” Serenity spoke up. “Let me use my powers. I can heal you again in no time.”

“No, Serenity,” he replied. “I think, this time, I should suffer through the pain, … so that I don't let this happen ever again.”

Fireball and Serenity looked at each other in concern. Her expression quickly shifted to a thankful smile.

“Thank you for your help, Fireball,” she said, squeezing his paw, gently. “I hope, someday soon, the three of us can get together again under calmer circumstances. Take care of him, okay?”

Fireball nodded to her with enthusiasm, before quickly following after his friend. Serenity looked toward in the sky for a few moments, lost in thought. She eventually took her leave, walking further down the beach.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Latoshi landed in his usual clearing outside the forest, immediately collapsing to the ground face-first. He panted, groaning and straining, weakly.

“Why?” he whispered, between ragged breaths. “Why did you … force me to leave?”

'You do not question my decisions,' Lazarus said, 'you follow them.'

“You—you took over my body. You took … took control of me.”

'That is because I am the master and you are my marionette! You dance when I pull your strings!'

“You said I was 'stupid' … and 'worthless',” he added, his eyes welling with tears. “After I've done everything you asked without question, … no matter how much I hated doing it. I'm sick of all of this. I don't want to do it anymore. I don't … want you in my life…”

Lazarus laughed in amusement. 'You do not have the strength to eject me from your spirit, Latoshi! I own you!' Latoshi gasped, panting fearfully. 'Do you think that I am going to sit back and let you defy me, child? Do you think that I am going to let you keep these memories of your rebellion against me?!'

“My … memories?” he mused, quickly becoming terrified. “No, you can't … you wouldn't take away my memories! You can't! You …”

Latoshi lay completely still and silent for a few moments, staring blankly.

'Now, tell me who it is that you seek to destroy.'

“… Antoshi,” he replied, in an almost robotic tone.

'And who is it that you owe your life and all of your energy to?'

“… Lazarus. I owe it all to … to Lazarus.”

'Very good. Tomorrow you will find new clothing, and then you will resume your training while you heal your injuries. This is only a minor setback for us. Together, we will emerge triumphant — no matter how long it takes to get it right.'

Latoshi's lips curled into a slight smirk. He closed his eyes, his voice weary. “Yes, Lazarus. … Whatever you … say.”

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

In the dead of night, Antoshi and Fireball spent hours walking back to their hotel room. They were incredibly quiet and incredibly exhausted. Fireball showed constant concern for his best friend. Neither of them complained about the length of their trek, how tired or hungry they were, or how long it took. They merely put one foot in front of the other, and kept on moving. By the time they'd reached their hotel, it was almost morning.

The mysterious figure in the trench coat appeared, emerging from the shadows across the street. Having followed them all the way from the beach, the unknown party silently watched them, as they finally went into the hotel to retire.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

End of Part 3

⁂ ⁂

Part 4: Family Reunion

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Part 4: Family Reunion

⁂ ⁂

Only a day passed after Antoshi's second, vicious fight with Latoshi. A doorman held the door open for them, as the blond-haired boy, and his best friend, exited the front door of the hotel they'd been staying at for the past two weeks. Antoshi quietly thanked the man, who tipped his hat, and headed back inside. Under the warmth of the midmorning sun and the cheerful, blue sky, the duo finally checked out, ready to move on. If nothing else, they wanted to get back to continuing as much of their carefree exploration of Johto as they could. A decision was made to save Goldenrod Gym as their final challenge, so that they would be able to head back home on the Magnet Train afterward.

In the aftermath of the brutal encounter, Antoshi was still fatigued — physically and mentally. The duo had taken an entire day of rest to recuperate. The boy wore a fresh change of the same red t-shirt and blue jeans he'd worn before, along with his backpack. Despite the severity of the injuries Antoshi received, his body had been healing at an astounding rate so far. He still showed some scars of battle, however. His face and blond hair were no longer bloodied, his scratches and bruises were nearly gone, his posture remained tall and straight — not favoring any part of his body. Faint burn marks remained on his arms and around his eyes.

Even though his physical injuries had almost fully healed, the internal scars from the battle left him dejected. Fireball showed deep concern for his friend, who hadn't spoken at all since the conflict's conclusion.

Antoshi had come to the realization of what Latoshi had to endure, and digested that knowledge over the past twenty-four hours. He was being controlled, manipulated, and lied to by the parasitic spirit Lazarus. It had been blocking Latoshi's memories, forcing the boy to believe what it told him, and to obey its commands without question. All along, Antoshi had firmly believed that Latoshi was the mastermind of his own doing. It pained him to think that Latoshi was being treated like a slave, to a force none of them could even see. The regret and sorrow that Antoshi carried was exacerbated by Serenity's warning that Antoshi could not help Latoshi at all. Latoshi had to deal with Lazarus on his own. That did not sit well with him. Neither did the image of Latoshi's eyes, full of sorrow, looking to him as if pleading for help before Lazarus forced Latoshi to leave.

The duo briefly stopped by the library, in order for Antoshi to drop off the book he'd checked out days prior. After that, they proceeded to make their way northward to Goldenrod's city limits.

The morning sky behind the skyscrapers was wonderfully picturesque. Towering pillars of clouds were illuminated by the pinkish hue of the rising sun. Happy tourists stopped on the street nearby to get a group photo with a Dragonite statue sitting in front of a store. A couple of small children laughed as they chased after a rogue Drifloon. None of the cheerfulness around him helped to perk up Antoshi's dreary demeanor.

“What was the point?” Antoshi finally muttered, catching Fireball off-guard.

"… What do you mean?" Fireball replied, quietly. After everything they'd gone through since coming to Johto, he kept his voice low in the hopes of keeping his friend from becoming any more upset.

Antoshi bit his lip. “Why did I even bother … trying to learn how to fight? It was useless.”

"But, that's not true at all. You became way stronger and confident in your abilities. You know how to defend yourself so much better now."

“I can't do anything for Latoshi,” he said, as the children and the Drifloon passed by them again. “I can't help him. I can't share his burden. … My brother's burden.”

Fireball was shocked by the remark. "Your …" he trailed off.

“Yeah, I know what you're thinking. I've never said it before. I never wanted to say it, or admit it. … You know, at this point, I don't even care if he's not my brother. Considering what we've been through already, he might as well be. I keep having this sinking feeling in my heart every time I think about that moment before he flew off. The way he looked at me, … it was like he was family all along. I just can't explain it.”

"It's okay, Antoshi — you don't have to. I'm your family, too."

The boy sighed, shakily, on the verge of tears as he momentarily glanced up to smile at his friend. “I know you are, Fireball. What Serenity said, about how Latoshi doesn't have anyone to confide in like I do, it only makes me appreciate what I have even more.”

Fireball placed a reassuring paw on Antoshi's shoulder. "He's strong," Fireball said, prompting a curious gaze from the boy. "Latoshi is strong. Obviously, I don't know him very much, but even when he was kicking our butts, he did it with everything he had. He has heart, just like you do. I think it's safe to put faith in him and believe he'll kick that creepy spirit's butt very soon."

“You're right, Fireball,” Antoshi replied, wiping a tear from his eye. “I should have faith in him. I'm sorry for putting you through so much lately. It's been really hard for me ever since I started using these powers. Since coming to Johto, I found out I have … a brother whom I've never known before, who then beats us up. Then, I thought I just had to defeat Latoshi and we'd be able to move on and live happily ever after. Now, everything is so much more complicated. … I'm not sure how many more of these twists and turns I can take.”

"At least we'll take 'em together."

Antoshi stopped, suddenly, heaving a sigh before he embraced his best friend. Fireball was initially taken aback, but hugged him as well. It helped to ease some of the dull pain in Antoshi's chest. The Typhlosion's larger than average stature ended up acting as a blockage in the middle of the sidewalk. Neither of them cared about the accessibility of the passersby and their Pokémon that had to walk around, as they were too busy sharing a moment confiding in each other.

The blond-haired boy had achieved enormous strength and was capable of phenomenal feats. He had become stronger and faster than Latoshi — who had completely devastated him the first time they clashed. Fireball knew him as a strong leader that planned his moves, kept a level head under pressure, and always came up with a solution to any problem.

Yet, he was still just a 13-year-old kid.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

At the southwestern edge of Goldenrod, in his usual clearing in the woods, Latoshi sat, gazing up at the morning sky. He, too, had also changed into new clothing. His eyes were glazed over, a weak grin spread across his lips, seemingly lost in a daze. He felt something off inside of him, something he couldn't explain. It was almost like a tickle in his chest. He gave a soft chuckle, which gradually shifted into a loud guffaw, as though he'd heard an exceptional joke. He continued laughing, holding his forehead, unable to stop himself.

'Latoshi!' Lazarus shouted.

Latoshi gasped, loudly, bringing his laughing to an abrupt end. He groaned and shook his head, rubbing his temples.

“Yeah, I'm-I'm awake,” he replied.

'Good. I see that your injuries are healing as quickly as expected.'

Latoshi stretched his arms up high, suddenly uttering a grunt of pain as he held his ribs. “Mostly,” he said, sighing. “That bastard Antoshi got me good. Damn good. How did he get so strong?”

'He is not stronger than you, Latoshi. He is merely faster and he appeared to have formulated a better strategy. That boy is much more clever than I would have expected. However, there is one thing you need to be aware of: Antoshi, either consciously or not, has managed to tap into the energy of his emotions. It happened after you threatened his family again. Because of that, Antoshi has grown substantially more powerful. It is for that reason that you, too, must learn to harness the power of emotion.'

“Well, how do I do that? I already feel like I have a ton of pent-up rage inside me, so I'm ready.”

'Very good. I already taught you the basics back in that prison cell. Now, we progress further. Close your eyes, and focus yourself like you do with your meditation.' Latoshi folded his legs, heaving a sigh, doing as Lazarus instructed. 'Now, visualize your enemy. Visualize the moments when he struck you down — when he dared to lay a hand upon you. Feel the anger and rage that seethes through your heart and permeates your spirit. You must hold fast to that emotion. You must truly believe in it with all of your being. Your emotion gives you strength. Your anger is your power.'

Latoshi focused for a few minutes. He clenched his teeth, straining, ultimately finding himself struggling to concentrate. “I can't seem to focus like you're telling me to. I can't grasp my rage. It's like … water that I'm trying to squeeze in my hands; it's all over the place.”

'That aggression inside you stems from your loss to Antoshi. It should be directed toward him. Harness it; weaponize it.'

Latoshi's aura turbulently flickered around while he strained and seethed. He balled his fists, hunching his back. His output of Ki refused to rise. Eventually, his aura dissipated altogether.

“I can't do it,” the sable-haired boy remarked, sighing. His forehead glistened with sweat. “It's too difficult. I don't understand what I'm doing wrong.”

'If it is too difficult for you right now, then you will work at it. I already gave you your instructions, now you must apply them. You are not to move from this spot until you get it right. You will not eat, drink, rest, or relieve yourself. You will stay in this position on this very patch of dirt until you achieve results. Is that understood?'

Latoshi was shocked. “But, I can't—” His remarks were swiftly interrupted by Lazarus' torturous method of punishment. A deafening, high-pitched tone caused Latoshi to cover his ears and crumple over, while shouting in agony.

'Is that understood?' Lazarus asked, over the terrible noise.

“Yes!” the boy cried out. Latoshi gasped as the sound came to an abrupt end. He panted, sitting up straight once again.

'I hate to do that to you, Latoshi, but you require focus. You need direction. Listen to me, and I will never lead you astray.'

Latoshi closed his eyes, scowling bitterly, resuming his mental training.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

By the afternoon, Antoshi and Fireball headed across one of the many streets of the increasingly busy metropolis. Fireball smelled food nearby, so the duo stopped at a hot dog cart to grab a quick meal. Antoshi smiled, getting his with his favorite: just ketchup on top. Fireball insisted on having everything on it, causing the vendor to engage in some serious stacking skills. The duo went on their way, eating their food as they walked. Unsurprisingly, Fireball made a mess all over his claws and fur. It was one of the simpler things that Antoshi had missed on their journeys.

Not long after, they were finally nearing the last few miles before reaching the city limits. Goldenrod would soon be behind them. Antoshi had a rather stern expression, however, brought on by a suspicious vibe he was feeling.

"So, what do we do about battling other Trainers?" Fireball asked.

Antoshi glanced over at his friend with a reassuring smile. “I know how much battling means to you, Fireball. Considering how our last Trainer battle went, I'm really not ready to try again for a little while. Let's just take it easy, until this whole situation cools down.”

"Of course I do love battling, but I don't want to anything that you don't. If you want to take it easy for a while, then there's no complaints here." He cleaned off some dried relish on his chest before he grinned to his friend. Fireball immediately became concerned upon realizing Antoshi had a rather serious look on his face. "Is everything okay?"

“I guess you haven't noticed,” Antoshi replied, leaving Fireball befuddled.

"Noticed what?"

“… We're being followed,” he said, quietly, narrowing his eyes. Fireball was surprised, turning his head to peer back. “Don't look. It's someone in some weird clothing that completely covers themselves. I don't know what they want, but I'm not okay with being stalked. Not after everything we've dealt with lately.”

It was the very same stranger that had watched Antoshi and Latoshi's fight along the beach. They strolled along at the same pace behind them, still wearing the same long trench coat, large fedora, and sunglasses. In the bright daytime, their ensemble was fairly conspicuous. The clothing was starkly different compared to how almost everyone else on the street was dressed for the summer weather. Whoever they were caught a number of curious glances and murmurs along the way.

Fireball kept his gaze forward with the same serious expression as his friend. "You think it's … someone from Team Rocket again?"

“No idea. I know it's not Latoshi, though. I definitely would've sensed his energy if he was this close.”

'Antoshi's senses have gotten really sharp,' Fireball thought, surprised. 'I never would've noticed that person following us around like that. I don't know if it's from how much stronger he's gotten or … how much more on edge he's been lately.'

“Let's head down this next alleyway,” Antoshi said, casually pointing to it. Fireball nodded.

The duo abruptly changed direction, turning down the gap between two businesses. Their mysterious stalker gasped, stopping at the entrance of the alley. They appeared nervous, looking around for a moment. After a brief pause, they ultimately followed on through, not far behind the pair.

The stalker slowed their pursuit as the alleyway became darker, quieter, and more eerie the further they went in. After turning a corner within adjacent alleyways, Antoshi and Fireball had somehow vanished. The person stepped quietly, looking around for the duo.

When the stranger passed by a recessed wall, Antoshi leapt out at them. The mystery person cried out in shock, as Antoshi dragged and shoved them against the far wall. The impact caused the person's sunglasses and hat to shift slightly. He kept his forearm across their collarbone, trapping them in place. The larger Fireball emerged from the shadows behind Antoshi, curiously staring at their suspicious stalker.

“Who are you?” Antoshi asked. “Why are you following us?!” He eased off a bit upon seeing their wide, terrified, brown eyes staring back at him. “Tell me!”

The stalker suddenly shoved him away as hard as they could. While Antoshi reeled, the stalker bolted further down the alley. Antoshi grumbled, as he and Fireball quickly gave chase.

“Stop!” Antoshi called out. “I'm not going to harm you! Just tell me why you're following us!”

Instead of running back out onto the streets, their stalker made a sharp turn down another nearby alleyway. Antoshi and Fireball turned to follow, finding their mystery person staring down a dead end a short distance away. The stalker panted, fearfully, hands scouring the dark wall for any kind of escape route. The stranger turned around to face the duo as they stood at the mouth of the alley.

“Listen — we just want to talk, okay? Fireball here isn't going to let you go until you explain yourself.” Fireball smirked, pressing his claws up against both walls of the alley to act as a blockade. “Don't try to shove him, too, 'cause he's a lot heavier than I am.”

The stranger panted and trembled in fear, as Antoshi slowly advanced toward them. Just then, the stranger caught a glimpse of a slow dripping faucet on the wall near them. The running water trickled into a small storm drain. The stalker quietly gasped in surprise. Antoshi stopped as the stranger suddenly peeled away from the wall. They turned on the faucet, letting the water rush out. Antoshi and Fireball watched, curiously, as the person knelt down, letting the water flow over their hands.

“I don't think splashing water at us is … going to help you here,” Antoshi remarked in confusion.

The person just chuckled in an oddly, raspy tone, as though they were trying to disguise their voice. Antoshi and Fireball both gasped in shock. The water from the faucet inexplicably bonded and flowed into the stranger's body. Their entire frame became as translucent as the water itself — including their clothes. The stalker gave the duo one last glance, before their body melted down into a large puddle of water and flowed into the storm drain.

Their stalker was gone. Antoshi and Fireball stared in stunned silence for a few moments.

"What … in the world … just happened?" Fireball finally spoke up. Antoshi walked over and pulled the small storm drain lid off to look inside. There was nothing but water, grime, and darkness.

“I have no idea,” Antoshi replied, replacing the lid, “but, this is definitely one of those 'twists and turns' I said I wasn't looking forward to.” With a heavy sigh, Antoshi made his way out of the alley. Fireball followed alongside him.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

A few hours later, as the sun was starting to get low, the duo reached their next checkpoint. After being in Goldenrod much longer than expected, Antoshi finally had his Trainer Card scanned by the guard at the gate between Goldenrod and Route 35. The process updated his current location, which would also send an alert to his parents' tracking device. The guard was as friendly as any he'd met in Kanto, sending the pair on their way with a farewell. Exiting out from the automatic doors, into the pristine canopy of the large, wooded route, they both took a deep breath. Handfuls of passersby came and went past them while they took a short time to soak in their new surroundings.

"It's been so long since we've camped in the wilderness," Fireball remarked. "It's almost like our home away from home."

“You say that about every place we stay,” Antoshi replied, with a smirk. Their mirthful mood was short-lived, however.

"I can't stop thinking about that weird … water … person," Fireball said, as they resumed their trek.

Antoshi sighed heavily. “Same here. I don't know what's going on anymore. I don't know if I should be concerned about this person or not. Although …”

"Although what?" Fireball asked, as the boy kept him in suspense.

“… I know it sounds weird, but, just when I tackled them in the alley, I—I dunno. I got the sense that they were peaceful somehow. They didn't want a confrontation with me. It's the same sense I got when we first met Serenity.”

"Maybe it wasn't a person. Maybe it was a Pokémon."

Antoshi's head cocked back in surprise. “That's … actually a possibility. There's no way a person could just transform into water like that.”

"I bet we'll get answers out of them, eventually. They found us before, they'll find us again."

“Maybe so,” Antoshi replied. He abruptly stopped, and took a look around. “Well, I suppose we should start looking for a nice spot to camp out.”

Just then, the pair heard a sudden rustling in the bushes along the side of the road. Fireball and Antoshi immediately turned their attention to its source.

"What was that?" Fireball asked, as the duo curiously walked up to a tree where the sound came from.

“Maybe it was just a Pokémon we scared off.”

Antoshi found a hastily written cardboard sign taped to the tree that read, 'Free Food and Shelter for Pokemon Trainers!', with an arrow pointing further into the woods.

"What's that say?" Fireball asked.

“A place with free food and shelter for Pokémon Trainers,” Antoshi replied, musing.

"Free food?" Fireball grinned in elation. "What are we waiting for?"

Antoshi hummed in thought. “I'm a little worried about staying in houses in the woods.”

A look a dread suddenly came over Fireball's face. "Oh. You mean … the ghost house."

“I do mean the ghost house. We were both lucky to get out of there without having our souls ripped out of our bodies.”

Fireball shuddered in disgust. "I'll never trust another Ghost Pokémon ever again. … But, hey, what are the chances there are two houses like that? Don't forget, that was back in Kanto. Plus, you're a super-strong fighter now who can kick butt."

Antoshi sighed in defeat before nodding. “All right, we'll check the place out. But, if it even feels like the place is haunted, we're sleeping by a campfire.”

"Good call. Free food isn't worth my soul. … Most of the time."

The duo headed into the woods, following a hastily beaten path through the trees.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

It wasn't long before they neared their destination. However, Fireball suddenly screamed in horror. Antoshi turned to his friend, panicked.

“What is it, Fireball?!” he asked with eyes wide.

"Spider!!" he squealed, frantically tearing away a spider web from his face. "There's spiders! I walked into a spider web and now they're all over me! I'm gonna die, Antoshi! I feel them crawling! They're gonna get me!"

Antoshi watched, quietly, as Fireball ran in circles, swatting at his face with his forepaws. The boy tried his best not to laugh. He walked over, grabbing the Typhlosion by his shoulders to bring him to a halt.

“Stand still,” he said, quietly. “Let me see.”

Fireball whimpered and trembled while Antoshi preened the webbing away from his friend's fur.

"I hate spiders," Fireball whispered. "I hate spiders, I hate spiders …"

“You're all right, Fireball. There's no spiders on you. You must've ran into one of their vacation homes or something.” Fireball sighed in relief. “Feel better?” Fireball nodded to him, expressing his embarrassment. Antoshi chuckled, patting his friend on the back as they continued on their way.

The pair soon came across a quaint, wooded cabin within a large forest clearing. They crossed a properly beaten dirt road for vehicles that led out into the woods. As they neared the one-story cabin, there was another cardboard sign, identical to the first, taped to a wooden beam on the front porch.

"This is really nice," Fireball remarked, as they walked up the porch steps. "Doesn't look haunted so far."

Antoshi chuckled as he knocked on the wooden front door's segmented, frosted glass pane. “Hello?” he called out, trying to look through the glass for signs of life. “Anyone home? We saw your sign along the pathway.”

The door opened, and the two were greeted by a younger girl, just a bit shorter than Antoshi. She wore a long-sleeved, white shirt, and a pleated, dark blue skirt. Her long, bright, electric blue hair draped down past her midriff.

“Welcome, Trainers!” she exclaimed. “Ohh, just one Trainer this time, huh?”

“Yep. My name is Antoshi, and this is my best friend, Fireball.” Fireball waved to her.

“He's so well-mannered!” she remarked. “But, which one of you was I talking to — right?” She laughed, boisterously, waving for them to come inside. “Come on in. I was just about to make supper. I'll bet the two of you are starving!”

“Fireball here is always starving,” Antoshi said with a smirk.

The girl laughed, heading into the modern style kitchen, her bare feet shuffling across the glossy, maple wood floor. Antoshi set his backpack and his shoes near the front door. The inside of the cabin was warm, cozy and clean. The space before them flowed as one, large, open area. The walls were paneled with oak. Bright lights in the vaulted white ceiling overhead illuminated the large living area to their left, and in the ceiling of the kitchen to their right. The left wall seated a couple of tall, four-pane windows, spread apart from each other. On the far wall from them were two open doors which appeared to be bedrooms, a hallway directly facing where they stood, and a third door along a wall to the right of the hallway. The cool, circulated air smelled of pine.

“Well, my name is Mimi, and I'll be your chef this evening,” she joked. “Please, sit.”

Antoshi and Fireball looked at each other with a grin. They took a seat on two of the four pewter gray bar stools, set in front of the kitchen island's white marble countertop. As the stool strained under Fireball's weight, both of them gazed at it in concern. He hopped down, opting to stand instead, as he was more than tall enough to reach over the counter.

“Thank you very much, Mimi,” Antoshi said. “Both of us appreciate it. If there's anything we can do to repay you, we'll be more than happy to.”

Mimi filled a pot with water from the sink and placed it on the nearby gas range. “No payment is necessary,” she replied. “It gets a bit lonely out here, so the company of nice guests like you two is the only payment I need.” She turned a knob to get the water heated before reaching into a nearby pantry.

Antoshi took a look around while Mimi dropped some pasta into the boiling water. “This is a really nice house. I've always wanted to live someplace like this — a quiet, little home surrounded by nature. I really like the peace and quiet of nature compared to the hustle and bustle of the city. Is this place yours?”

“Err, well, yes and no,” she replied, stirring the pasta. “This is a vacation home my parents rent in the winter.”

“Wow. Your parents let you stay here all alone? How old are you — if you don't mind me asking?”

“They sure do! They trust me more than I trust myself, honestly. I'm eleven, since you asked. I'll be twelve in a few months!”

The group heard a shuffling noise nearby. They turned to see a Pokémon slowly sliding out of the far-left bedroom. It was a Lapras, who was being careful not to let the shell on its back touch the door frame. In its fin, it held a feather duster.

“Whoa!” Antoshi remarked, awe-struck, getting to his feet. “I've seen tons of Pokémon, but never a Lapras. They're so rare!”

Mimi laughed. “That's my company all the way out here, and my best friend. Say 'hello' to Bubbles.”

“Hello there, Bubbles,” Antoshi said, grinning as he waved. The Lapras smiled coyly and turned away, sliding itself into another room nearby.

“She's a little shy,” Mimi said. “It takes her a while to trust new people.”

Antoshi took a seat once again. “Oh, I see. I know a thing or two about being shy.” Mimi chuckled.

A few minutes later, she slid a couple of plates full of spaghetti with red sauce in front of the two boys.

“I hope you two enjoy it,” she said.

“Wow, looks great!” Antoshi remarked, picking up his fork.

Mimi sat down on a stool next to Antoshi. Fireball wriggled his claws in anticipation. The Typhlosion picked up his own fork to begin eating along with the other two. Mimi looked over at him and laughed.

“You taught Fireball table manners?” she asked.

“Yeah. He's been a part of our family forever. Whenever we eat at home he sits at the table with us, so my parents and I taught him.”

“That's really cool. I bet you have just about a million stories to tell about your life.”

“Fireball and I have been through some pretty crazy adventures, … especially lately.”

“Why? What's happened lately?”

Antoshi sighed. “A lot of complicated … drama and nonsense. It's nothing worth talking about. It's just been a really wild ride since we got to Johto over a couple weeks ago.”

“Where were you before that?”

“Before that, Fireball and I traveled from our home in Saffron City and went all around Kanto. We beat all eight Gyms there and then competed at the Indigo Plateau.”

She gasped in astonishment. “Really?! Did you win?”

Antoshi laughed. “No, unfortunately. We managed to make it past the qualifying bracket, but we lost in the first round of the actual tournament. Still, top one hundred twenty-eight out of all the Trainers in Kanto is pretty nice. We had some amazing moments to go along with it, too.” Fireball smiled and nodded in agreement. The Typhlosion eagerly went back to twirling more pasta around his fork. “What about you, Mimi? Where do you come from?”

“Well, when I'm not here, I'm at home with my parents in a little neighborhood north of Olivine City.”

“Olivine City? I've always wanted to see what it looks like there.”

“You should definitely go sometime! You can meet my parents, too — they're super nice.”

The two young people chatted away about anything that came to mind while they ate together. They continued to sit together and talk after finishing their food. Mimi laughed, playfully nudging Antoshi's shoulder with her own.

“You are so funny!” she remarked. At that moment, Bubbles emerged from the room she had been in.

"All of the bedrooms are cleaned now," the Lapras said, quietly.

Antoshi froze in shock upon hearing it speak. He was at a loss as to why.

“Thank you, Bubbles,” Mimi said, smiling to her friend. “Would you like to spend some time with our guests?”

"Oh, … no, thank you. I think I'll return to my Poké Ball for the night."

“All right. Goodnight, Bubbles.”

Bubbles nodded. She turned her attention to a Poké Ball being held in the cradling hands of a small statue on a nearby table. Pressing her nose against it, her body was reduced to a mass of red light that was pulled inside the confines of the ball. Mimi sighed in content, turning to her guests with a smile. She noticed the stunned expression on both Antoshi and Fireball's faces.

“What's up?” she asked, curiously.

“Did you … just talk to your Pokémon?”

“Oh, … yeah, I did. I know, a lot of people think it's weird or impossible, but Bubbles and I have been able to communicate since we met. I … hope you don't think I'm crazy,” she added, nervously.

“No, I don't,” Antoshi replied, much to her relief. “Actually, to tell you the truth, I can talk with Fireball, too. Isn't that right?” He smiled and turned to his friend.

"That is right!" Fireball replied. "We have the best conversations together."

This time, it was Mimi's turn to be stricken with shock. “Wait, I—I just heard Fireball speak.” Both of them looked at her in disbelief. “He said … you have the best conversations together. That's … so cool! I've never been able to hear any other Pokémon besides Bubbles speak.”

The duo looked at each other in awe. “Well, now that you mention it,” Antoshi said. “I … may have heard Bubbles talk when she said she was finished cleaning the rooms.”

“This is unreal!” Mimi exclaimed, joyful, surprising the duo. “Fireball, what's your favorite, … um, ice cream?”

Fireball's eyes lit up. "Ice cream? I love all kinds of ice cream! My favorite is 'chocolate banana brunch crunch.'"

“Ohh, that's a good one. I've had that before!”

Antoshi grinned in amazement, watching the two of them converse back and forth. His expression suddenly turned to thoughtful curiosity, as he recalled a very similar conversation play out with a certain sable-haired young man.

“Well, I'm gonna get these dishes cleaned up,” Mimi said, hopping down from her stool to collect their plates and silverware.

“Are you sure?” Antoshi asked. “We'd be fine cleaning up for you.”

“It's fine!” Mimi reassured him. “I'm just gonna put them in the dishwasher anyway. It makes the funniest noises, like brr-brr-brr and bum-bum!” she added, laughing. The pair smiled in amusement.

“Well, in that case, Fireball and I are gonna go outside and get a little exercise.”

“Oh, that's fine. Whenever you come back, we can have dessert and chat some more!”

“That sounds good! See you in a bit!”

Fireball followed his friend to the front door, where Antoshi slipped his shoes back on. Mimi waved to them as they headed out the door together.

Outside, Antoshi and Fireball walked out into the forest clearing.

"You want to train some more, don't you?" Fireball asked.

Antoshi laughed. “You know me well, Fireball. I'm feeling better after that great dinner.”

"Yep," he replied, casually brushing his snout, "I'm pretty smart when it comes to my best bud. So, are we training you or training me?"

“How about … a little of both?”

Fireball gasped in surprise. "I'm definitely ready to get a good workout in. Man, that Mimi sure is nice, huh? She's already the best host we've ever stayed with."

“She sure is,” he replied, distantly, briefly lost in thought. “… Well, anyway, let's get to it.”

"Watch out, wild Pokémon! Here I come!"

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Back inside the house, Bubbles re-emerged from her Poké Ball. Despite being contained within, she remained consciously aware of what was happening around her. She slid along the floor, making her way over to her friend. Mimi greeted her with a smile. The two of them looked out the kitchen window, watching the boys head into the woods.

"So, … that's him?" Bubbles asked, softly.

“That is him,” Mimi replied, sighing happily. “I can't believe how nervous I was! I barely kept it together when he first showed up.”

"Did you … take down the sign?"

Mimi giggled. “I sure did. They didn't even realize the sign on the house was the same one that was on the tree.”

"Are you going to tell him why you brought him here?"

“Not yet, Bubbles. … I just have to wait for the right time.”

Chapter 21

The duo re-emerged from the woods sometime after dusk. Both of them were scuffed with plenty of dirt marks.

"That was so much fun!" Fireball exclaimed. "Man, it feels like it's been forever since I trained. There's a lot of wild Pokémon around here! Your skills look so awesome, too. You were punching and kicking and running around everywhere. You've gotten way faster since the last fight. Is it just me, or have you also gotten a bit more muscular?"

Antoshi curiously looked down at his arms. They had indeed become more toned and defined since their arrival in Johto. “Oh, I guess I haven't noticed. I've been juggling so many other things lately. I haven't even eaten or slept very much over the past couple weeks.”

"Yeah, that's true. I—" Fireball's train of thought was interrupted by the scent of something deliciously sweet. He began sniffing the air. "Is that … apple pie I smell?"

“Oh, that's right. Mimi said she's going to make dessert for us when we—” Antoshi stopped abruptly as Fireball charged toward the cabin on all fours.

"Desse~ert!" the Typhlosion cried out along the way.

Antoshi grinned and shook his head, jogging along behind his friend. Fireball managed to calm himself down a bit, waiting by the front door for Antoshi with an eager tap dance. The boy opened the door and both of them headed back inside.

“Welcome back, you two!” Mimi greeted them. Upon the marble countertop, she gently placed a pie in a tin pan on top of a wire rack. Bubbles had already returned to her Poké Ball.

“You made a pie while we were out?” Antoshi asked, pleasantly surprised. He took his shoes off to set by the door once again.

“Sure did! Well, you know, it was one of those pre-made frozen ones that you just put in the oven. But, hey, I got to put the crumb topping on it myself. Still has to cool off for a bit, though.”

“I think I should probably take a shower in the meantime.”

“No problem. The bathroom is the door in the hallway. Oh! There's fresh towels in the cabinet.”

“Thanks a lot, Mimi. We both really appreciate the hospitality.” Mimi smiled and nodded before Antoshi headed for the bathroom.

"As for me," Fireball said, "I usually just clean off with a hose."

“Well, lucky for you, we have a gardening hose on the side of the house. Would you like me to help clean your back?”

"Absolutely! My arms are pretty short, you know."

Mimi laughed as the two of them made their way outside together. “I've never dealt with any Fire-type Pokémon before. I always figured they'd, like, melt from water.”

"Don't worry, I've survived plenty of meltings," he joked.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

After getting cleaned up, the trio sat around the trio of couches in the living room. Antoshi and Fireball sat on the long couch resting against the left wall, while Mimi sat on the shorter, perpendicular couch to the left of them, sitting closest to Antoshi. A circular glass table sat between all three couches, atop a beige area rug with vine patterns. The group enjoyed their pie and chatted for a while longer.

Afterward, Mimi provided the boys with one of the bedrooms to stay for the night. They thanked her once again, closing the door behind them. The mid-sized bedroom was surprisingly spacious. A double pane window with horizontal blinds on the far wall faced the door. A plush, wood-framed bed rested against the left corner, covered with white sheets and gray pillowcases. A dark, wooden nightstand held a small lamp and another area rug laid next to the bed. Fireball found it to be a perfect sleeping spot.

The two were very content with their sleeping quarters, getting settled in for the night. Dressed in a simple white t-shirt and boxer shorts, Antoshi slipped under the covers, while Fireball took his usual spot on the floor beside him. The two smiled as they gazed up at the ceiling.

"You know," Fireball said, "this room is a lot like your room at home."

Antoshi took a look around. “Yeah, it really is. The window is even in the same spot.” The duo went quiet for a few moments. “You know, there's something I was thinking about. Did you notice how Mimi didn't … say anything about my name? Usually everyone we meet has an opinion on my name when I introduce myself. Mimi just didn't seem to care.”

"Maybe she's just an exception to the rule."

Antoshi laughed. “Maybe so.”

"She really is super nice, though. I'm glad we decided to stop here." Fireball looked over at his friend, concerned. "I'll bet you're still thinking about Latoshi, huh?"

Antoshi took a deep breath and sighed. “I haven't stopped thinking about him. I really hope he's doing all right. I'm worried for him, Fireball. I'm worried that … maybe he won't be able to get rid of this evil spirit inside him. It's been blocking his memories, so it probably keeps making him think I'm his enemy. If that's the case, then, I'll only end up fighting him over and over and over again. I really don't want that anymore. I can't … bear to fight him again.”

"This really stinks. I wish I could help him, too. He was a good friend to us at first. You and I both know the kind of person he really is."

“Yeah. That memory of him is what I'll keep fighting for.”

The duo went quiet for a while once again, lost in their own thoughts of the sable-haired boy. In that time, Antoshi picked up the sound of soft breathing outside the bedroom door. He curiously sat up.

“Mimi?” he called out, quietly. “Is that you?” Fireball also sat up, wondering what was going on.

On the other side of the door, Mimi panicked and jumped. She opened the door and nervously laughed.

“Sorry about that. I was just listening to see if you two were awake. I was heading for the kitchen to get a glass of water, and wanted to know if you wanted a glass, too.”

“No, that's all right. Thank you, though.”

Mimi nodded. “Okay, well, goodnight.”

She quietly closed the door, shuffling over to the kitchen with a relieved sigh. ‘That was close,’ she thought. ‘I don't want either of them to start getting suspicious about me…’

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Later that night, Latoshi was still seated in the same position on the same patch of dirt since morning. He visibly strained, struggled and sweat. He trembled incessantly, rhythmically clenching his fists. His aura flickered weakly, barely able to manifest itself.

“I can't … take this … any longer,” he muttered. “I can't sit here. I want to move. I want to leave …”

'You will continue to sit and focus,' Lazarus replied. 'You will not move an inch until I—'

“I want to le~ave!!” Latoshi suddenly screamed at the top of his lungs. His black aura exploded to life with so much ferocity that it caused trees in the distance to bend and sway. Some Sentret and a flock of birds that had congregated there for the night fled for their lives. He slammed his fists into the dirt, creating small impact depressions. He jumped to his feet, glaring off into the distance with an incensed expression. He trembled and seethed, panting like an enraged animal.

'What do you think you are doing, Latoshi?!' Lazarus said. 'Sit down! I command it!'

Lazarus' demands came with the usual, torturous ringing noise in the boy's head. Latoshi screamed, wringing fistfuls of his hair before he abruptly took off into the air like a bullet toward Goldenrod.

He continued screaming and snarling. Lazarus' method of restraint over him no longer had an effect on him.

'What is going on?! Why will you not heel?!'

His head felt like it was shrouded in an intense fog. Acting purely on instinct and no longer thinking clearly, Latoshi made his way into city. He descended upon the nearest high-rise building in an abandoned area. He heaved for air, his irises glowing intensely black, dropping to ground level. He stared blankly at the building before him, before he suddenly crashed headlong into it, effortlessly smashing through the tightly locked, glass doors. Once inside, he screamed in rage once again. He darted through the main lobby, punching through each of the support beams as if made of cardboard. He slammed through solid walls, busting up everything in sight, until the structure began to creak with an ominous groan.

Floor by floor, the building collapsed in on itself. A cloud of dirt and dust billowed out in all directions. The handfuls of people and cars nearby took note of its collapse and quickly fled in a panic. Some pulled out their phones to capture the inexplicable destruction.

With the building fallen to a crumpled mass of concrete and steel, all fell silent for a moment. Latoshi suddenly burst through the rubble, screaming, taking off into the air once more.

'Damn you, Latoshi!' Lazarus shouted, intensifying the ringing noise. 'Listen to me right now! Heed my will!'

Latoshi remained unfazed by it. Instead, he landed on the rooftop of another empty building and began punching down on it furiously. It, too, began to rumble and buckle, its supports snapping from the sheer force of Latoshi's strikes. It toppled in on itself, creating another plume of dust and debris, to the shock of the confused onlookers.

‘Damn it!’ Lazarus thought, as Latoshi smashed through the outer wall of another building. ‘This stupid child will not heel from my whistle, and he has become too powerful for me to possess him! He is going to level this whole city block!’

The boy threw his arms around one of the main support beams. With a long, strained shout, he lifted up on it until the entire building split from its foundation. He trembled and growled, holding the twenty floor structure high up over his head like a trophy. The framework couldn't take the lack of support for very long until it also fell to crumbling pieces over his head. Latoshi punched through the debris, launching himself into the air.

At that point, police cars started to trickle in with lights flashing and sirens blaring. The thick clouds of smoke made it unsafe for them to get too close. They were forced to get out of their cars and watch from a distance, calling in for reinforcements on an unknown assailant. Latoshi darted around too quickly, not staying in one place long enough for anyone to identify him.

'Damn you, Latoshi!' Lazarus shouted. 'Think! Think, so I can get through to you!'

After he stomped through the roof and darted all the way to the ground floor of another building, he grabbed his hair once again.

“Where are you now, Antoshi?!” Latoshi screamed, as yet another building caved in around him. “Come out and fight me! Fight me right now!!”

Latoshi continued on smashing through an entire city block's worth of buildings — just as Lazarus surmised he would. By then, military and federal vehicles rolled up, and began to coordinate tactical responses. Some of them cordoned off the area, putting up road blocks and signs to keep the public at bay.

Standing in the dead center of all the chaos he'd wrought, Latoshi panted heavily. Under the cloud of smoke, he fell to his hands and knees, trembling. It was at that moment when his eyes turned fully black from the energy of Lazarus' spirit. Finally under the restraint of Lazarus' control, Latoshi had enough consciousness to snarl in contempt — aware that he was being possessed again. Lazarus guided the boy's body, flying through the debris, retreating with haste back to his usual resting area.

Once back in the eerie silence of his forest clearing, Lazarus relinquished control of the boy's body. Latoshi fell face-first to the ground with a weak groan, promptly falling unconscious.

‘He is gradually losing his sanity,’ Lazarus thought. The boy slept peacefully, covered in dust and dirt. ‘I cannot continue suppressing his memories. His anger towards me, and the ignorance of where to direct his anger after I restrict his memories, has caused him to go mad. He will continue to regress into nothing more than a feral, bloodthirsty beast at this rate. I cannot allow that to happen — not after the progress I have made. I must be careful with the memories he makes from here on out…’

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

The next morning, Antoshi and Fireball emerged from their room to the sounds of breakfast being cooked. Fireball eagerly went on ahead, out to the kitchen, while Antoshi sat on the edge of his bed for a moment. He could've sworn he felt an odd disturbance in his sleep — markedly similar to the dreams he had of Latoshi. And, yet, he recalled seeing nothing in his dreams. He shook it off, getting himself dressed into his usual red shirt and blue jeans.

“Good morning!” Mimi cheerfully greeted the boy from in front of the kitchen range. She was wearing a light blue sleeveless shirt with a large Marill print on the front, and white denim shorts. Fireball was already standing at the marble countertop, waiting eagerly. “I hope the two of you are ready for my 'super-extra-deluxe breakfast'! I named it myself.”

"I'm ready for anything with a name like that!" Fireball replied.

Antoshi took a seat next to him. A couple of tall glasses of juice had already been set for them. “Whatever it is, it smells amazing. Do you usually cook a lot at home?”

“Oh, absolutely! Both of my parents are chefs, so it was only natural that I learned how to cook from them.”

Mimi set up three plates with bacon, eggs, hash browns and waffles. She turned to the boys, sliding a couple of plates in front of them.

"Wow!" Fireball remarked in amazement. He said nothing further, eagerly digging in with his knife and fork.

“Thank you again for this, Mimi,” Antoshi said. “Fireball and I really appreciate how kind you've been to us.”

“Ohh, you're very welcome,” she replied, warmly, as she came around to the other side of the island to join them. “You don't have to keep thanking me. Really, I enjoy this!” She sat next to Antoshi with her own plate of food, and the group all started to eat together.

Once they finished, Fireball sighed happily while patting his stomach.

“Why don't you let me clean up this time?” Antoshi asked. “It's the least I can do to repay you.”

“No, that's all right. I'll bet the two of you are eager to get out and train some more.”

“Actually, … I think we should get going to Ecruteak City. We don't want to seem selfish, especially when other Trainers might want to come here, too.”

His response prompted dual whines of disagreement from both Fireball and Mimi.

“Don't leave so soon,” Mimi said, pouting. “You guys can stay here as long as you like — the longer, the better. You can even use the place like a home base.”

"Yeah, come on, Antoshi," Fireball chimed in. "Can't we stay at least one more day?"

Antoshi nervously rubbed the back of his neck. “I—I dunno…”

“Ple~ase?” Mimi and Fireball asked, in unison.

“Okay, fine, one more day.” The other two cheered, thankfully. At that moment, the videophone rang.

“Oh! That's probably my parents,” Mimi said. “I better get that.” Mimi headed over for the phone, while Antoshi made his way to the bathroom.

“I'm gonna brush my teeth really quick before we go,” he said, quietly.

Mimi nodded to him before he walked in and shut the door behind him. She picked up the receiver of a phone with a fairly small hologram video screen. Fireball stood by the front door, patiently awaiting his friend to come back.

“Hi, Mom!” she said. “… Of course, I'm doing just fine. … No, no, nothing yet. I'll probably be here for a little while longer. … Yeah, I do have some company over! A Trainer and his Pokémon are staying with me for now. … Everything is fine, don't worry about it. Everything's all stocked up. … Yes, Bubbles is doing great. She's, well, you know, in her Poké Ball with guests around. … I will. Love you, Mom.”

Just as she hung up, Antoshi emerged from the bathroom. “You have some really great toothpaste,” he remarked.

“Ah, yes, Sparkly Fresh. That's my favorite brand!”

“I think it just be my favorite now, too,” he said, heading for the front door to put his shoes on. “Well, Fireball, let's get a good training session in.”

"I can't wait!" Fireball exclaimed, heading out the door with Antoshi.

Mimi sighed in content, heading for the kitchen to bring the plates to the sink. Almost on cue, Bubbles re-emerged from her Poké Ball.

“Hey there, you,” Mimi greeted her, grinning. Bubbles smiled warmly, sliding her way into Antoshi's room in order to tidy up.

Back outside, Antoshi and Fireball gazed in awe at a loveliness of Ledyba congregating in the open clearing outside the cabin.

“Oh, shoot,” Antoshi remarked, quickly turning back around.

"What's up?" Fireball asked.

“I forgot my wallet.”

"Do you really need it? We're just going to train."

“Yes, I do need it. I don't want to be accused of being a Pokémon poacher again.”

"Ooh, that wasn't a fun time," the Typhlosion remarked, under his breath.

Fireball waited in place as Antoshi headed back up the porch. The boy stopped suddenly, his eyes widening with a look of sheer disbelief at what he saw. He slowly walked over to the window on Mimi's right that looked in through the kitchen. The girl hummed to herself as she washed the dishes.

Antoshi was bewildered by the sight of Mimi's hands and forearms having turned from flesh into clear water.

‘No,’ he thought. ‘It couldn't be…’

Fireball sighed in frustration. 'What in the heck is he staring at?' Fireball wondered. "Hey, Antoshi! Let's get going!" The blond boy, however, remained frozen in place. Fireball became concerned. "Antoshi? …" He headed over to the house to check on his friend. Before he could, Antoshi recollected himself and burst through the front door with purpose.

“Oh!” Mimi exclaimed in surprise. Her arms immediately returned to normal as she turned around. “Wow, that was quick! I didn't expect you to be back so soon!”

“Yeah, I'll bet you didn't,” Antoshi replied, cautiously.

Mimi looked at him in confusion as he stared back at her with great suspicion. Both Fireball and Bubbles emerged to see what was going on.

“What's … wrong?” Mimi asked, laughing nervously.

“It was you,” Antoshi replied. “You were the one that followed us through Goldenrod.” The other three gasped in shock. “You're the one … that turned into that puddle of water and disappeared.”

"Her?" Fireball remarked in disbelief. "But, how can that be?"

“Yeah,” Mimi agreed, becoming visibly uneasy, “that just sounds … totally crazy, right? How—how could I even do something like that?”

She glanced over to Bubbles, who hung her head down. Antoshi walked over to the girl, getting up close to her. She trembled, looking into his eyes, fearfully. Being so close to her, he recognized her brown eyes as the same as their stalker in the alleyway.

“It is you,” he remarked, taking a few steps back. “But, … why? Why were you following us around?”

Mimi remained quiet for a moment, nervously looking over at Fireball. The Typhlosion was just as curious for answers as his friend was. “I … I—I can't answer that.”

“What?!” the boy replied, offended. “What do you mean? You stalked us and you can't even give us an answer why?”

“Yes. I—I mean, no. I mean, … let's just drop it, okay?” The girl was starting to crumble. She turned her gaze away from him, rubbing her arm.

“No way. I'm not dropping this until I get answers from you. You know something about me, don't you? You know something … about my powers?”

“No, I—I don't know … anything,” she replied with uncertainty.

“You know something about Latoshi, or about Serenity. Are you with them? Are you friends with either of them?”

“I'm t-telling you, I don't know what you're talking about.”

"Antoshi, maybe you should ease up," Fireball chimed in, quietly.

Antoshi held a reassuring hand out to him. “Now I know what you did,” he said, grabbing the girl's attention. “You put that sign up because you knew we'd be coming. Then, you took it down and you got back here before we did. That's why the signs were the same.” Mimi's eyes widened, surprised that he managed to correctly deduce her actions.

“You specifically lured us here,” he continued. “I understand you when you said you wanted company, and that it gets lonely out here with just you and Bubbles. What I can't understand is why. Why did you target Fireball and I? You followed us; you picked us for a reason. There's been way too many weird events in my life lately for this to be just some random coincidence. A girl who can turn her body into water is definitely another weird event.”

Antoshi walked up to her again and grabbed her shoulders. She jumped in fright. “Tell me why you brought us here. Tell me who you are.” The girl shook her head. “If you don't tell me right now, Fireball and I are going to walk out that door, and we're never going to come back here.” She gasped, looking at him with a deeply hurt expression. “I mean it. Right now, I don't know if I can even trust you. We'll walk out, and we'll never speak to you ever again.”

“No,” she whispered, “… please don't do that.”

“Then tell me!”

Mimi was on the verge of tears. “I can't! It's … it's too soon! I was going to tell you later! Much later, when I … got to know you better. When the time was right!”

“I'm so sick of all these secrets and mysteries!” he shouted, shaking her. “Tell me who you are!”

“I'm your sister!!” she shouted back at him.

Mimi immediately collapsed onto her knees, sobbing, covering her mouth. Antoshi stumbled backwards, grabbing the marble counter as he bumped into it, having the wind knocked out of him. Fireball looked on in shock. Bubbles shut her eyes, also brimming over with tears.

“No,” he said, quietly. He reached up and held his head. “No. No, no, no, no. This isn't happening again. This can't be happening again. There's no way I have another sibling I never knew about. You're lying.”

“I'm not lying, Antoshi,” she replied, sniffling. “My name isn't … Mimi. … It's Mitoshi.”

Antoshi panted, struggling to breathe. Her name echoed continuously in his head.

“I'm so sorry, Antoshi,” she continued, trembling as she rose to her feet. “I didn't want … to—to tell you this way. … I'm sorry. I couldn't think of how else to approach you to tell you something so serious. Please, … let me explain everything. I promise it'll all make sense—”

“No,” he quickly said, stepping out of the kitchen, away from her. “Don't come near me. I don't know who you are, okay? Just leave me alone!” In an impulsive huff, Antoshi bolted out the front door.

“Antoshi, wait!” she called out, rushing to the door. “Please, don't go!” The boy ran off into the woods, without so much as looking back.

At the same time, the girl now known as Mitoshi covered her face with both hands as she sobbed, uncontrollably, by the door.

"I'll go talk to him," Fireball reassured her as best he could, quickly heading outside to follow after his friend.

As the girl cried, Bubbles slid her way over to her. “Bubbles, what have I done?” she asked, hugging her friend tightly around her neck. “I've ruined everything…” The Lapras closed her eyes, letting her own tears fall.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Antoshi didn't head very far into the woods before he came to a stop in front of a tree. He panted and trembled heavily, his eyes welling over with tears. He grabbed the tree for support, digging his fingers deep into the bark. The boy slid down onto his knees, turning himself around into a sitting position with his back against the tree. He hugged his knees to his chest, sobbing just the same as Mitoshi did.

‘What if … she turns out the same?’ he thought. ‘I can't go through how I dealt with Latoshi all over again …’

A few moments later, Fireball caught up with him. "Antoshi?" he spoke up, softly. "I'm here, buddy."

Antoshi sniffled, rubbing away as much of his tears as he could with his forearm. He looked up at Fireball, eyes red and bloodshot, offering a weak smile.

“Thanks, Fireball,” he replied, clearing his throat. Fireball took a seat next to his friend. Antoshi took a minute to just breathe, and think about what to say. “Guess I … overreacted a little back there. It's just that, … my life's done a complete one-eighty since we got to Johto. Once upon a time, I thought the craziest thing in the world was that I … had the ability to talk to you. Now, I can— … I can shoot energy from my hands. I can fly, and I can run way faster than normal people can see. I've had to fight for my life twice. Apparently, I have a twin brother who I never met before, and is being controlled by some evil spirit. Now, … I have a sister, too?! … Not only that, but they both just come out of nowhere and find me! I feel like I'm the target of someone's horrible joke! … I just don't know how much more of this I can deal with. I never asked for any of this. This isn't why I came to Johto. I just wanted to go on an adventure with my best friend, and to be a normal kid. This is like a dream — a terrible, terrible dream that I just want to wake up from. I want to wake up from all of this, Fireball.”

"Antoshi, I told you plenty of times that I'm always here for you. I'm always here to support you whenever you need it. I see how hard all of this is on you, but … right now, you have to be strong. You've got to be strong for everyone around you, including me. It's not just you and me anymore. There's more people in our world now: Latoshi, Serenity, … and your sister. Right now, we need the old Antoshi back. The Antoshi that's calm, and smart, and thinks things over. The Antoshi that always comes up with the best decision. The Antoshi that … always gives it his absolute best. Remember that phrase?"

“I'm sorry, Fireball. I'm just so scared. All of this stuff is just … piling up more and more and it's—it's so hard to deal with! I've never had to go through anything like this before. I feel like I'm losing myself constantly. Like my life is just falling to pieces.”

"That's why I'm here. I'm always looking out for you because you're my best friend. If your life falls to pieces, I'll be right here to help pick them back up. I know what I said before might have sounded a little harsh, but … I think it's what you need to hear. We need you to be strong, because that's when you're at your best."

Antoshi sniffled and nodded. He leaned over to share a hug with Fireball.

“Fireball, you are my best friend and I love you.”

"I love you, too, buddy."

“I'm glad that you're here with me,” he said, as they let go of each other. “I don't know … what I'd do if I had to deal with all of this on my own.”

"Well, you don't have to worry about that at all. Still, what should we do now?"

Antoshi scoffed and grinned. “I guess I have no choice, huh? I have to be strong. I have to confront Mimi— err, Mitoshi, … and get the answers I need.”

Fireball nodded, standing up along with his friend. Antoshi sighed, taking a few moments to collect himself before the pair marched back toward the cabin.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

“I'm such an idiot, Bubbles,” Mitoshi lamented, as she sat on one of the two shorter couches that faced each other. Bubbles rested on the floor beside her. “I've ruined Antoshi's life.”

"Don't say that, Miss Mitoshi," the Lapras replied, quietly. "You had nothing but good intentions."

“I knew this was a terrible idea, but … I just had to meet him somehow. I shouldn't have blurted it out like that. … I was just so scared when he started pressuring me.” Just then, the two boys returned — much to the surprise of the pair already inside. “Antoshi?” she uttered, getting to her feet with a hopeful look in her eyes.

“It's all right,” he replied, “you don't have to get up.”

Mitoshi nodded and sat back down. With a heavy sigh, Antoshi took a seat on the couch across from hers. Fireball sat down next to his friend.

“Antoshi,” the girl said, “I'm so sorry. I didn't mean for things to turn out this way. Please don't be angry with me…”

“I'm sorry, too. I shouldn't have yelled at you like that. It's just that, you have to understand there's been a lot of crazy stuff happening to me and to Fireball recently. It's really been getting to me. I haven't been eating or sleeping much, and I've been pretty wound up all the time. Because of that, I lashed out at you. Still, it's no excuse. I was wrong to react the way I did.” Mitoshi smiled at him. “Even still, I … do want to talk about this. I'm sure you can guess I have plenty of questions.”

“I understand,” she replied with a nod.

“First, the most important question on my mind is, … well, how do you know for certain that you're my … sister?”

“I only found out around a year ago. One night, I overheard my parents talking and they were … well, they said the craziest things I'd ever heard. They were talking about their 'boys'. My mom said she missed them, and she wondered if they were doing all right, how they looked now, and so on. I thought I was dreaming at first. My parents couldn't have had any 'boys', I was their only child. Well, I … I couldn't stop thinking about it, so the next day I talked to them. I told them what I heard. They seemed a little nervous at first, but they decided to tell me the truth.”

“What did they say?”

“They told me … that I wasn't their only child. A little over a year before I was born, they said they had two sons — twin boys. They were all ready to welcome them into the world, but, not long before my mom was due, a fire burned down their house. They ended up on hard times. They didn't have the money or even a home to raise two boys anymore, so … they had to give them up for adoption. My mom told me that she'll never forget their hair — one blond and the other had black hair. The real ringer here is what she named the babies before they were given up. She named them 'Antoshi' and 'Latoshi'.”

Antoshi hunched over, having the air sucked out of the room yet again. He took a few deep breaths, staring blankly at the glass coffee table. He looked up to the ceiling, to hold back another round of tears.

“This is so … unreal,” he remarked, his voice quavering. “You said that she … gave us up? I—I can't believe this. I'm … I'm adopted? I'm— wow.” The others looked on in concern as Antoshi came to terms with what she told him. “My parents never said anything about this. When were they going to tell me? Were they … going to keep it a secret from me forever?” Fireball placed a paw on his friend's shoulder. “No, you're right. I shouldn't be upset with them. … But, how did you even come to find us?”

“After I learned about you and Latoshi, all I could think about was the two of you. I kept thinking about how I had two brothers out there, and it filled me with so much excitement. I kept imagining about what my life would be like with two siblings, and I had so many dreams at night about meeting you both. A couple months ago, I had … the strangest dream. I dreamt that I was in someone else's body somehow and everything felt so real. This person screamed and let out this huge burst of energy that just destroyed everything for miles. It was such a huge shock that it rattled me out of my sleep. I felt … so much fear, like somehow I had done something horrible.”

Antoshi gawked at her. “That was the same dream that I had. It turned out it was Latoshi. I watched him as he … destroyed Fern Town.”

Mitoshi nodded with a sorrowful expression. “I heard about that on the news the next day. I remembered my dream and I couldn't understand why I had seen that. Well anyway, fast-forward to a couple weeks ago and I ended up feeling this strange sensation in my head. It was like I was seeing something: two tiny little lights, red and black, clashing with each other. It was coming from the direction of Goldenrod City. I just knew this had to be it, I knew it was the two of you. I told my parents that I was going to go on a journey to find my brothers. They were pretty confused, and thought I was joking at first, but, when I made it clear I was serious, they were nothing but supportive. They gave me some money, I took Bubbles' Poké Ball and some supplies and I headed for Goldenrod.”

“How did you get to Goldenrod?”

“By water.”

“You mean you were on a boat or something?”

“No, I … 'swam' there, sort of. With my water powers, I can shoot through bodies of water like a torpedo — it's really neat.” The boys were awe-struck at what she said. “… Well, I'm getting off point. After I couldn't sense you two anymore, I had no choice but to stay somewhere until I could again. Luckily, our vacation cabin was close enough, so I unpacked my things here. I heard the news reports about attacks on prisons and I just knew it was tied to you both. I disguised myself and started taking trips through Goldenrod at night, which is when the attacks were happening, and then I eventually found you two on the beach.”

“… That was when we fought,” Antoshi remarked, his expression quickly turning to dismay. “You … saw that fight?”

Mitoshi nodded. “Your presence was so clear to me. I went over and I started watching. I was so excited at first, but the two of you had such horrible looks in your eyes. I watched the fight playing out and … it was terrifying. The power you both had scared me, and it scared me even more to see you both fighting like that. I was so overwhelmed. Then, a girl with brown hair told me to get off the beach, so I walked away far enough that I wouldn't be seen, but came back again to watch the rest of your fight. I was happy that the two of you made it out alive, but … it wasn't anything like what I had imagined you both would be like…”

Antoshi sighed heavily. “Well, I guess it's only right that I fill you in on what's been going on with Latoshi and myself.”

He proceeded to fill her in on everything he'd experienced since coming to Johto. He included his conversation with Serenity, along with what he learned of Latoshi and Lazarus. Mitoshi was horrified and confused.

“An evil … spirit?” she remarked. “So, Latoshi isn't really a bad person, and that icky feeling I felt from him was from this … Lazarus thing?” Antoshi nodded. “Why aren't we helping him? We can go out right now together and go find him. I'll help pummel this evil spirit thing out of him!”

Antoshi was taken by surprise at the sudden fire in Mitoshi's gaze. He smiled reassuringly at her. “We can't do that. Serenity told me that only Latoshi can get rid of this spirit inside him. There's nothing we can do to help — physically or emotionally. My guess is if we try to help, it'll only give Lazarus proof to Latoshi that we're trying to oppose him. It'll start another unnecessary fight. Not to mention, he can just take away Latoshi's memories afterward.”

Mitoshi's gaze faltered. “What can we do, then?” she asked, her eyes welling with tears. “I don't want him to suffer like this.”

“I don't, either. All we can do is to have patience. You've never met Latoshi, but … I have faith. I've seen the good in him before. He is a good person, and he has heart.” Antoshi turned to Fireball, both of them grinning at each other.

Mitoshi let out a trembling sigh. She nodded, wiping the tears from her eyes. “Well, … I guess that's everything, then.”

“Yeah,” Antoshi replied, sighing.

“Now that we're all on the same page,” Mitoshi said, “where do we do from here?”

“We take things one day at a time,” Antoshi said with a smile. “I think Fireball wouldn't object to staying here for a while.”

Fireball nodded in agreement, enthusiastically. The two youngsters laughed.

"You really are a good person, Mimi— sorry, I mean Mitoshi," Fireball said. "I think that you and Antoshi are a lot alike; kind of like brother and sister!" Antoshi sighed and rolled his eyes while Mitoshi laughed again.

“Fireball is right, though,” the boy added. “You are a kind person, and we would be glad to stay here if you'll have us.”

Mitoshi could barely contain her excitement as she got up, walked over, and grabbed Antoshi's hand in hers. She grinned from ear to ear, her eyes sparkling in jubilation.

“Nothing would make me happier,” she replied. “I've waited so long for this moment!”

Their two Pokémon smiled at each other before looking back at the scene.

“Well,” Antoshi said, as he got up, “I think Fireball and I will take that training session now. I'm sure it'll do us some good to get a little fresh air after that long conversation.”

“I'll be right here when you get back,” she happily responded, stepping back.

“Come on, Fireball,” he said, leading his friend back outside once again.

Mitoshi sighed in relief, watching them head off. “That ended up way better than I was fearing,” she said to Bubbles. “I understand now that Antoshi still has a lot to deal with, and I want to be there every step of the way to help.”

"I'm happy things turned out this way," Bubbles said, quietly. "I know how important this was for you."

“Well, we're only halfway there. One brother down, one brother to go. … I really hope this situation with Latoshi gets better. I've never met him, but I'm still scared for his safety.”

Bubbles nodded, before taking her leave to resume tidying up Antoshi's room.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

"That was a lot to take in," Fireball said. "With everything she said, I think you handled yourself really well there, Antoshi."

“As well as I could. It's not every day that you find out you're … adopted. I'm going to have to talk about this with my parents soon, but I'm not sure when or even how to bring it up. … For now, let's just focus on training.”


With that, the two best friends headed into the woods together for some late morning exercise.

Chapter 22

A short time later, in the early afternoon, Latoshi stood atop the roof of a tall skyscraper. The bustle of Goldenrod City so far below him was muted. A strong, passing breeze blew by him as he gazed off toward the north. He was completely unaware of his rampage the previous night. Lazarus didn't bother to talk to him about it, either.

'You sense that, too,' Lazarus remarked.

“I do,” Latoshi said. “It's Antoshi again. I don't know where he is, but he's left the city for some reason.”

'Will you go after him? Will you test your newfound level of strength?'

Latoshi lips curled into a devious smirk. “I think I will.”

The boy dashed to the edge of the roof, bounding quickly from building to building in the direction of his target. Once he was out of structures to stand on, he took to the sky. He was high enough that people on the ground didn't notice him overhead. An intersecting flock of Pidove panicked and flew around him. He laughed, spinning and flipping playfully.

“Flying feels so effortless now,” Latoshi remarked. “It's like I'm not using any energy.”

'Your willpower and my direction have gotten you this far, Latoshi. Your power and confidence will only continue to swell from here.'

Soon, Latoshi neared the city limits of Goldenrod.

‘There,’ the boy thought, making a gradual descent toward the trees along the forest edge of Route 35. He landed gently, under the cover of the forest canopy. A look of crazed excitement was in the sable-haired boy's eyes. He was elated to get to see Antoshi again, but he did not know why, assuming it was to satisfy his urge to fight.

'Wait, Latoshi,' Lazarus said. The boy obediently came to a halt. 'Do not make your presence known so easily to him. Antoshi will almost certainly sense you nearby.'

“What should I do?” he asked.

'You must learn how to lower your Ki output to avoid detection from afar. Quiet your mind and relax your body.' Latoshi was momentarily confused as to why he needed to do this, when all he wanted to do was fight. Nevertheless, he closed his eyes, letting the muscles in his body relax. 'Breathe slowly and calmly. Your heart and your spirit must not be in turmoil. Keep your entire self composed like a still body of water.' The boy's head hung down, catching on quickly, his breathing having become placid. 'Very good. Your spirit energy will be undetectable if you stay like this. In this state, you could walk up almost right behind Antoshi and he would not sense your presence.'

Latoshi inhaled deeply, bringing his chin up. He chuckled in amusement. “That would be quite a surprise for him.”

'Remember not to use your Ki at all from here.'

“Got it,” the boy replied. He quickly headed through the trees on foot.

‘How miraculous,’ Lazarus thought. ‘To think that he has already managed to completely center himself, even after the chaos he wrought last night. Perhaps there is hope for him yet. I still have to handle him very carefully. I can only be thankful for how childish and naive he is to have accepted my apology earlier.’

Latoshi eventually reached light on the other side. He peered out from behind a tree, looking at the forest clearing and the cabin situated in it.

“What is this place?” Latoshi mused, quietly. He narrowed his eyes, able to see closer details of the house, as if up close, from over a hundred meters of grassy field away. He hummed, curiously, making out Antoshi's aura as he and Fireball ate lunch at the kitchen island. He took note of the girl with blue hair, as she walked around in the kitchen. “Who in the world is that? Is it someone important to him?”

Latoshi watched the girl walk over and give Antoshi a hug from his side. The sable-haired boy's expression shifted into a cruel grin, chuckling in amusement.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

“We're gonna head out for a walk!” Antoshi said, as he and Fireball exited the front door together.

Latoshi perked up, having sat down and rested against a tree out of sight. He peered out again, his hearing picking up their conversation, as though he were right next to them.

“The two of you sure like to stay active, huh?” Mitoshi replied with a laugh.

"Sure do!" Fireball said.

“We'll be back in a bit!” Antoshi said, closing the door behind them.

Latoshi's eyes followed them as they headed off down the dirt road leading into the woods. Once they were far enough away, he sprung to his feet. He dashed across the clearing, swiftly and quietly, managing to use very little of his Ki in doing so. His rapidly stamping feet made almost no noise.

He headed up the porch, peering inside the frosted glass on the front door, before opening it as slowly and quietly as possible. Inside, he crept up behind the girl, as she finished cleaning their dishes.

Mitoshi stopped what she was doing, getting an odd sensation. She turned around, gasping in fright. “Latoshi?” she uttered.

Latoshi was shocked that she knew his name.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

A couple hours later, the duo headed back toward the cabin.

"I can't get over how peaceful it is here," Fireball remarked.

“Like I told Mitoshi, I would love to live in a place like this. I guess now we can get that chance — at least for a little while.” The two friends chuckled. They headed up the porch steps, and Antoshi opened the front door.

They were immediately greeted with the sight of Bubbles staring out a nearby window, weeping. The pair became concerned.

“Bubbles?” Antoshi asked, as he and Fireball approached her. “What's wrong? Where's Mitoshi?”

Bubbles sniffled and sobbed, struggling to speak. "The—the other one came … here," she replied. "He left a n-note on the c-counter…"

“'Other one?'” Antoshi remarked in confusion. He headed over to the counter and picked up the note. His eyes went wide with horror at what he read.

"Antoshi?" Fireball asked. "What is it?"

The boy crumpled the note in a tightly clenched fist. “Latoshi,” he muttered. He kept his dormant frustrations in check, realizing their fight against Lazarus wasn't finished yet.

"What?! How did Latoshi track us down here?"

Antoshi sighed. “I don't know, but he says he's going to kill Mitoshi if I don't 'prove my worth' against him. He knows I don't want bystanders, so he's waiting for us on a mountain to the north. He wants me to fight him again without holding anything back.” Antoshi headed to the front door, kneeling down, quickly digging into his backpack. He pulled out his only Poké Ball. “Come on, Fireball, hop in.”

Fireball was shocked by the request. "You're … taking me with you, right?" The boy's gaze faltered, staring at the Poké Ball as he weighed the option. "Please, Antoshi. I need to come with you. I just got through telling you that I'd always be by your side, remember? I know you don't want me to get hurt. I don't want you to get hurt, either. I have to make sure you're okay."

Antoshi sighed and nodded in agreement. “All right. At least hop in for now. It'll be easier than carrying you around like I did last time.”

Fireball recalled hanging on for dear life on Antoshi's shoulders as the boy raced through the streets of Goldenrod. "… Good point," he replied. He closed his eyes before his body was reduced to a mass of red light and swiftly pulled into the confines of the ball. Antoshi minimized it to a smaller size before slipping it into his pocket.

“Don't worry, Bubbles,” he said. “We'll get her back.”

"Please be careful," she replied, softly, with tears in her eyes.

“I'll do my absolute best,” he replied with a confident smile. He headed out the door, into the clearing, before blasting off high into the air. Bubbles wished for everyone's safety, watching in awe as the blond boy took to the sky.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Antoshi eventually found the mountain by way of sensing Latoshi's energy. His eyesight had become acute enough to make out Latoshi's smirking face from miles away. The sable-haired boy looked up at him, arms folded across his chest, also able to see his rival just as clearly. Mitoshi laid unconscious next to him.

Antoshi descended down upon the large Mt. Mortar, which was a couple of miles wide in diameter. Its center was concave not unlike a grinding bowl, and Latoshi stood in its center. Antoshi landed a short distance from him. The winds were strong at their elevation. The trio's hair, clothing, and Latoshi's black aura whipped around in the gusts. A nearby Absol stared intensely at the duo. It sensed an impending, ominous event, quickly sprinting away from the two boys.

“I always love this part,” Latoshi said with a grin. “This is when we trade barbs back and forth at each other. We get to strut around and try to intimidate each other. It's a nice little build-up to punching each other senseless, don't you think?”

“This has gone way too far, Latoshi,” Antoshi replied. He pulled out Fireball's Poké Ball from his pocket, enlarged it, and let the Typhlosion out. Fireball stared Latoshi down with a stern expression.

“Oh, you're going to have your pet fight me instead? That's awfully … idiotic of you, Antoshi.”

Antoshi shook his head. “No, Latoshi. He's not going to fight you — and I'm not going to fight you, either.”

Latoshi was bewildered by the remark. “Uh, okay? I guess you just want me to kill you, your pet, and this girlfriend of yours? That's fine, too.” He aimed an open hand toward Mitoshi's unconscious body.

“You don't want to kill her, Latoshi. Believe me.”

Latoshi scoffed in amusement. “Oh, yeah? Why is that? Because you're going to cry a lot if I do?”

“While that is true, it's not what I was getting at. Latoshi, that girl is your sister.” Latoshi was blown away by the revelation. “Our sister,” Antoshi added.

“'Our sister?'” Latoshi reiterated in disbelief. “You mean, … you really believe you're my …”

Antoshi closed his eyes and nodded. Latoshi immediately turned his attention to Mitoshi. He stared at her with an intense gaze.

‘I don't know this girl,’ Latoshi thought, his jaw agape. ‘She's my sister? Why don't I have any memories of her? I should know who she is!’

'Stop getting distracted, Latoshi!' Lazarus shouted at him. 'I told you before, this is his way of trying to divert you from your rightful destiny!'

“No!” Latoshi exclaimed to the blond-haired boy. “I know what this is, Antoshi. You're trying to trick me. It's not going to work. Now say 'goodbye' to this girl!”

He held his hand out again, summoning a mass of dark energy into his palm, grinning wildly.

“Latoshi, don't!!” Antoshi shouted in panic, preparing to intervene.

Before Antoshi could react, Latoshi suddenly fired off a blast of Ki, demolishing everything in a small crater below him. He cackled wildly, the dust that billowed out was the only thing left of the spot Mitoshi had been in. Antoshi and Fireball were horrified, and in shock.

‘I … I wasn't fast enough?’ Antoshi thought, trembling. ‘Mitoshi … is …’

"No," Fireball whispered. "How could he? How could he do something so heartless?"

Antoshi trembled, overcome with rage all over again. His irises burned with his Ki's signature color red. He stared down his rival with fury in his eyes.

Latoshi smirked as he glanced over at them. However, his smirk quickly faded — his attention turning to behind the pair. The duo noticed his expression and turned around.

A few meters behind them, Serenity cradled an unharmed Mitoshi in her arms. She calmly laid the sleeping girl back down on the ground.

“What the hell?!” Latoshi exclaimed. “How … how the hell did she just … just …”

“Serenity!” Antoshi said, in a mix of surprise and relief.

"Oh, man," Fireball chimed in, heaving a loud sigh. "I really don't need anymore heart attacks like that."

Serenity smiled at Antoshi and Fireball. “I made a promise to myself,” she said. “I promised that I wouldn't get involved in your struggle unless there was no other choice. I couldn't let Latoshi make a mistake he was going to regret for the rest of his life. Just like I wasn't going to let you do the same the last time you two fought.”

Antoshi's eyes widened in surprise at the revelation. “You mean … you were going to stop me from that final attack against Latoshi?”

Serenity nodded to him. “I had only intended to use my powers as a last resort. I knew that once I did, the possibility of you relying on me for your battles was far too great. You needed, and still need, to become strong on your own. That's why I refused to get involved when you asked me to.”

“I see now,” Antoshi replied, with a confident nod. The three of them turned their attention to the sable-haired boy. “Did you hear that, Latoshi? With Serenity here, this battle is over. There's no need to continue.”

Latoshi was baffled at the sheer ignorance of what was just said. “You think our fight is over because of this bitch?” he shouted. “I remember seeing her during our last fight. So what if she's fast? She's just another insect that I need to squash!”

Latoshi fired a large blast of energy that zipped past the duo and careened directly into Serenity. It exploded violently, leaving a cloud of smoke. Antoshi and Fireball were left stunned at the sight. Latoshi began laughing uncontrollably. Once again, however, his mirthful mood was brought to a screeching halt. Serenity remained completely unharmed.

At that point, Mitoshi began to stir back to life. She groaned weakly, opening her eyes and taking in the scene. “What in the world?” she uttered, sitting up.

Antoshi jogged over to her. “Mitoshi, are you okay?” he asked, kneeling down. Fireball followed, and stood behind him. Mitoshi groaned in pain, rubbing the back of her neck.

“Oww, that jerk,” she replied. “He came to the cabin, and I thought that he was there because he was free of that evil spirit thing. Then, he hits me and knocks me out when I wasn't expecting it. So, I guess I was wrong.” She turned her attention to Serenity, who smiled warmly at her. “Oh, wow, it's you again. The person from the beach.”

“Nice to see you again, too,” Serenity replied. “You were wearing that concealing disguise. I knew I recognized your energy when I got here.”

“Whoa,” Mitoshi remarked, awe-struck. “You knew that was me just by sensing it?”

“Uh, hello?” Latoshi chimed in. “How about we pay attention over here? You know, to the guy who's about to slaughter all of you?”

“There isn't any reason to fight,” Serenity said. “Antoshi has already made it clear he does not wish to fight you.”

“Oh, and you think you just get to decide?” Latoshi shot back. “You know, I'm sick of watching you act like you belong here. I think I'll take you down first out of principle. Believe me, I won't be holding back this time.”

Serenity brushed away some of her brunette hair, displaced by the winds upon the mountaintop, from her face. “You don't want to fight me, Latoshi,” she said, calmly. “You'll only end up disappointed.”

Latoshi scoffed. “Yeah, disappointed at how pathetic you turn out to be.”

Serenity closed her eyes, opting not to make any further remarks. Instead, she walked a few paces toward him, positioning herself between Latoshi and the others.

Latoshi sucked his teeth. “Fine, then. Play it cool. I don't care if you're a girl — I'm going to kill you just the same!” He darted at her with incredible speed, irises shimmering black, kicking up dirt and dust along the way. He swung a fist at her, only for Serenity to sidestep. Latoshi seethed with anger, throwing punches and kicks at her. She responded by effortlessly hopping and leaping back and to the sides to avoid every strike.

Antoshi looked on in disbelief as they passed by him. ‘She's … so nimble!’ he thought with eyes wide. ‘She's not even just dodging, she's moving at an unbelievable pace that I can't even keep up with. Not to mention, I can't even see her Ki! Is she … hiding it somehow? Or is she not even using it at this point?’

“Stop running away!” Latoshi screamed, infuriated. “Stand and fight me, you pathetic coward! And why the hell can't I see your aura?!”

Latoshi and Serenity both came to a sudden stop just a short distance away from each other. Latoshi panted softly to catch his breath, feeling winded already for some reason. Serenity was totally relaxed as she opened her eyes. Her irises burned with the bright, pink glow of her spirit energy.

“You can't see my aura,” Serenity replied, “… because it's far too great for you to fathom at your current level.”

The others gasped in unison, dumbfounded at such a claim.

“Is she serious?” Mitoshi asked Antoshi, quietly. He could only shake his head in response, just as uncertain as she was.

“You're so full of it,” Latoshi said. “Just an amateur talking crap. There's no way anyone besides Antoshi is anywhere near my level — certainly not a nobody like you.”

“Attack me, then,” Serenity replied, calmly. “I won't dodge any longer. In fact, I guarantee I won't even move from this spot.”

Latoshi chuckled, deviously. “Okay! I'll be sure to write that on your gravestone!”

He charged forward yet again, his dark aura flaring, giving a loud shout as he fired off a blinding flurry of punches at her. With one arm behind her back, Serenity calmly blocked and parried every one of his strikes with her index finger. She made good on her vow not to move, and Latoshi proved incapable of budging her.

‘There's … no way!’ Latoshi thought. ‘She's making a joke out of me with just one finger!? Damn her!!’

‘This stupid child,’ Lazarus thought. ‘He has no idea what he is dealing with, even when she tells him directly. I cannot intervene here. He will just have to learn the hard way.’

Latoshi leapt away from her, seething with rage. He panted heavily to catch his breath, wiping the sweat from his forehead. Serenity remained unfazed and composed. She closed her eyes, folding her arms behind her back. Latoshi narrowed his eyes, realizing she was in a poor defensive stance. After a moment, he came at her again. His body blurred into afterimages while moving haphazardly in all directions around her, attempting to outpace and disorient her.

Serenity sighed at his futile efforts. She held an open hand out to her side in the instant before Latoshi appeared to strike her. His eyes went wide, expecting her to fire off an energy blast. However, she simply flicked his forehead with her index finger. The deceptively innocent strike ended up sending him hurling violently through the air. He shouted in shock, before crashing and sliding to a stop against a nearby pile of rocks.

Everyone else, including Latoshi, was bewildered at what just happened. Serenity's power and skill were undoubtedly beyond anything they'd seen before. Latoshi strained and grunted, holding his throbbing forehead with one hand, as he sat up. He felt more drained after that one, paltry attack than throughout the entirety of his previous fight with Antoshi.

Serenity opened her eyes and turned to him. “Do you see now? There's a reason why you're so weak now. It's because the guidance you've been given by Lazarus is contributing to your downfall.”

Latoshi scowled at her, viciously. “What the hell do you know about Lazarus? Just who are you, anyway?!”

“I'm someone who's had to deal with Lazarus before. I've seen and experienced first-hand the kind of chaos and evil it sows. The torture and the strain that it puts on its host and the people that care about them is something I would never wish upon anyone. It's the same strain that your friends and family are dealing with right now. The ones that are here for you at this very moment because they only wish the best for you. Latoshi — that parasite inside of your spirit is not your teacher, and it is not your friend. It is pure evil, and its only purpose is to steal the energy of your spirit.”

Latoshi continued to look at her with a bitter, serious glare. He slowly shook his head in response. “No, that's not true. You're only trying to trick me; to get me to turn against Lazarus like Antoshi's been doing. He's jealous of my power. He's jealous of the heights I can reach, which are far beyond his own.”

“That's not even remotely true, Latoshi!” Antoshi interjected. “I never wanted any of this! I would gladly give up all the power I have if it meant that you were safe, and free of Lazarus!” Fireball was pleasantly surprised at how much Antoshi cared about the sable-haired boy.

'Do not listen to him,' Lazarus said, calmly. 'You already know all of his lies.'

“That's right,” Latoshi replied. “Antoshi is nothing but a pathetic liar who would stoop as low as he can just to get a cheap shot in on me. Instead of acting like the snake you are, Antoshi, why don't you fight me face-to-face?!”

“I am not fighting you, Latoshi,” Antoshi said. “I refuse to fight you ever again.”

Latoshi balled his fists, scowling with rage.

“I'll fight him!” Mitoshi said, surprising the entire group. The girl stepped up, her long, blue hair whipping in the sharp gusts as she stood alongside Serenity.

Latoshi scoffed, trying not to laugh. “You've got to be joking.”

“I'm not some damsel-in-distress,” Mitoshi replied, sharply. “If both of my brothers can fight, then so can I!”

"Have you … ever fought before?" Fireball asked.

“I sure haven't!” she replied with conviction. The remark prompted some serious concern from Antoshi and Fireball. “Still, Latoshi had the nerve to hit me, and I'm not going to let it slide! I'm going to give you a real … thrashing!”

Latoshi snickered, shaking his head in disbelief. Serenity stepped back, looking to Antoshi and Fireball with a reassuring nod. The duo trusted her, backing away as well.

“Fine, then,” Latoshi said, with a nonchalant shrug. “If you want me to tear you limb from limb, so be it!”

Mitoshi's eyes went wide as he flew through the air at her with an arrogant grin. Her irises suddenly glowed bright blue in response. Latoshi threw a punch through her chest — which ended up literally going through her chest. Antoshi and Fireball gasped in surprise; Latoshi's arm was sticking out through her back. Her body around the point of impact had turned into clear water.

“What in the hell is this?” Latoshi uttered.

Mitoshi herself was momentarily surprised. She capitalized on the distraction, shouting as she swiftly punched the side of Latoshi's head. The hard impact sent him to the ground. He groaned, getting back to his feet. Mitoshi responded by keeping on him, landing several rapid punches to Latoshi's face and chest, while he managed to dodge the rest. He shouted in rage, punching back at her with far greater quantity and force. It was not unlike his first fight, trading blows back and forth with Antoshi, although Latoshi held no advantage this time. Mitoshi was pleasantly awe-struck as every part of her body he struck her instinctively turned to water for as long as he made contact.

‘Is this some kind of nightmare?!’ Latoshi thought. ‘How am I getting outclassed by not one, but two girls?! Why the hell is her body made of water when I hit her, but when she hits me it sure as hell feels like flesh and bone!’

Latoshi seethed, far past the limits of his patience. He created a blast of Ki in his hand, firing it through Mitoshi's torso. The blast connected and tore a hole through her, instantly causing her entire body to turn into a watery version of herself with a large hole in the middle. The others were awe-struck by the sight.

“Whoa,” Mitoshi remarked, her voice sounding as though she were underwater. “That's never happened without me thinking about it before.” She looked herself over, curiously sticking a hand through the hole in her chest.

“Are you … okay?” Antoshi asked, concerned.

“I feel okay,” Mitoshi replied. “I don't feel any pain or … anything at all. This is pretty cool! … And, pretty weird. Good thing I don't have to breathe when I'm like this.”

Antoshi grinned, gazing over at Serenity. Her attention, however, was turned upward. She had a deeply uneasy expression on her face.

“No,” she whispered. Antoshi and Fireball both looked upward, followed by Latoshi and Mitoshi. The four of them were shocked and confused when they realized a person was hovering high over them.

‘It's too late,’ Serenity thought, her fist trembling. ‘I suppose this was inevitable…’

"Who is that?" Fireball asked.

The person slowly descended down to the ground — a tall, young man of average build. He was neatly dressed in formal clothes: a dark blue waistcoat atop a matching tie and white dress shirt, along with matching dark blue trousers. His clothing was spotless, and his black shoes were so impeccably polished that the midday sunlight reflected right off them. His perfectly groomed, short, brown hair was slicked back. As he touched down, he had a pleasant smile upon his face. His violet eyes slowly panned around the group, before offering a soft chuckle.

‘What in the hell is going on today?!’ Latoshi thought, scowling, baring his clenched teeth. ‘Who are all these nobodies that keep showing up out of nowhere?!’

“Well, this is truly delightful,” the man said, sliding his hands into his trouser pockets. “I finally get to meet all of you in person at once. Let's see, now,” he turned his gaze to Antoshi. “You're the famous Antoshi, along with your best friend, Fireball the Typhlosion. … We also have the brooding Latoshi, and lastly, the fresh-faced young sister of them both, Mitoshi. That's quite the remarkable power over water you have. I have to say, I adore how peculiar your names are.”

All of them were equally baffled as to how he knew not just their names, but also who they were. The mysterious individual took a deep breath and sighed.

“Yes, the air is rife with the smell of inexperienced Ki,” he continued. “The kind of exuberant, blossoming energy flowing from the passionate hearts of such spirited youngsters. I must say, seeing you three in person only affirms how much potential you truly have. But, where are my manners? Greetings — my name is Collin.” With an arm over his midsection, he offered a polite bow. “It truly is wonderful to meet you all. The looks on your faces tell me that Serenity never spoke of me. Then again, who among us likes talking about the skeletons in our closets?”

“What does he mean?” Antoshi asked Serenity.

She slowly exhaled. “… He's my brother.” The others looked at him in surprise.

“That's correct,” Collin said. “So, here we all are — family. You boys found out today that you have a sister, and that Serenity has a brother. It truly is a monumental day, and I know all of you will remember this for the rest of your lives.” Serenity quirked an eyebrow, finding his remark suspicious.

“Wait,” Antoshi said. “How do you know when Mitoshi told us she was our sister?”

Collin laughed. “Let's just say I'm very attuned to my senses, just like Serenity is. She's been around behind the scenes, following all of you without you being even the slightest bit aware of her presence. That's all right, though. In time, the three of you will metamorphose into exceptional Ki users. As I said, you all have enormous potential, … except for you,” he added, the tone of his voice shifting to contempt. He briefly took his hand from his pocket to point at Latoshi, much to the boy's confusion.

“… Just what the hell are you talking about, you wannabe prick?” Latoshi spat.

Collin chuckled. “Technically, I'm not pointing at you, Latoshi. I'm pointing at Lazarus. I believe my sister already explained it earlier. Lazarus is nothing more than a parasite wasting away your incredible power. It is a shame what he's done to you.”

Latoshi got over his brief shock that yet another person knew of Lazarus. “Idiots!” he shouted. “All of you! You're all mindless liars!”

“I understand that you doubt me, Latoshi,” Collin said, calmly, “but, the reason why Serenity is so intimately familiar with Lazarus is because Lazarus used to control me.”

“No way!” Mitoshi remarked in surprise, reflecting the others' reactions.

“Is this true, Lazarus?” Latoshi asked, narrowing his eyes.

'They are all agents of deceit,' Lazarus replied. 'They are here on behalf of Antoshi to fool you, to take your rightful place at the top.'

Collin smiled gently, waiting a moment in the midst of silence. “… Is he done speaking? I'm sure he just said we're all liars, we're all out to get you, so on and so forth. Here's some immutable truth, however, …” Collin's aura suddenly exploded to life with so much intense force that it caused all of them to stagger backward, save for Serenity. She merely stared at him with a stern, unblinking gaze. The others looked on in disbelief. His aura was just as dark and black as Latoshi's. “Do all of you feel the wavelength of my Ki? Feels familiar, wouldn't you say?”

“Oh, man,” Antoshi remarked, trembling from the sheer power radiating from Collin. “It's like there's two Latoshi's…”

Collin's aura dissipated as quickly as it emerged. “Very perceptive, Antoshi. Remnants of Lazarus' very own spirit energy still exist inside me. I like to keep it inside me as a reminder of those days we had together. I used to be Lazarus' pet project. I've grown and learned of the parasite's fallacious promises since then. Tell me, Latoshi, how much stronger have you gotten since he infected you? Not enough to even touch Serenity. Not enough to keep yourself from being outpaced by Antoshi. Not enough to even defeat your sister who has literally no fighting experience whatsoever. You're already exhausted due to how much energy Lazarus is keeping from you. How do you expect to realize your full potential? What's the point of keeping him around? It's a one-sided symbiosis, Latoshi, and you're the one stagnating.”

Latoshi went silent, hanging his head down. He offered a few snarls and growls for a moment while the others watched him. There was an ominous presence wafting through the air.

Collin chuckled in amusement. “Now, this is an interesting shift in energy. Speak of the devil, for he hath returned.”

Latoshi snapped his head upward, his eyes completely filled with shimmering, dark energy. “Shut your mouth, Collin,” the boy said, his voice combined with that of Lazarus'. “I will not continue to sit idly by while you speak ill of me.”

“There it is,” Collin replied, amused. “That rage, that venom, that spitefulness; it's just like old times. It has been a while, Lazarus.”

“Do not be cordial with me, child. I will just as soon wipe that arrogant look off your face.”

“Interesting that you should threaten me, Lazarus. You're only slightly less feeble than the last time we spoke. What was that, about … eight months, five days, seventeen hours and four minutes ago? You told me then that you were looking for new prospects. At least you didn't lie about something for once. Although, it's quite impressive, Lazarus — you didn't manage to get either one of these boys to kill the other. Your influence is, … well, quite sad these days.”

“Do not be upset simply because I no longer need you, Collin. Do not be upset because you will cease to exist soon.”

“You should choose your words carefully,” Collin replied, with a convincing smile. “You know what may occur if you anger me.”

“I know you better than that, Collin. I know your inclinations. I know exactly what you have planned for these three children.”

The well-dressed young man closed his eyes and laughed. “Fair enough. In that case, I've seen all I need to. I believe I'll take my leave now. Oh, and Lazarus? When the boy eventually ejects your spirit from his, you had best hope it happens far away from me. You also know I'll gladly take the opportunity to end you. I've discovered how to now.” Latoshi glared at him. “Take care Antoshi, Latoshi, and Mitoshi. We shall meet again in due time.”

Collin slowly ascended back into the air. To the group's surprise, he vanished in an instant. Serenity let out a sigh of relief, holding her trembling hands to steady them. Antoshi looked over at her, inquisitively.

‘I've never seen Serenity lose her cool,’ he thought. ‘This Collin guy, … he must have some impossible level of strength that the four of us can't even begin to grasp — just like Serenity.’

Latoshi shouted, angrily, his voice returning to normal. He grabbed his head, falling to a knee. “Damn … you! Lazarus! Give me back my body!” Latoshi gasped loudly, panting for air as he looked up at the sky.

'I apologize sincerely, Latoshi,' Lazarus said. 'I only wished to stop him from sullying my name.'

“Shut up!” the boy snapped. “I'm fed up with all the crap that's happened today!”

“Latoshi, please listen,” Antoshi said. “I really do care about you and your well-being. I'm fed up, too! I'm fed up with this fighting and the hatred and contempt between us. Aren't you?” Fireball and Mitoshi, still in her watery form, both nodded in agreement. “Try to remember back. Remember when we first met? Remember how we bumped into each other in Goldenrod City? You thought it was crazy that we both had such weird names. We went and got ice cream together. Remember how you and Fireball joked about chocolate chip ice cream?”

‘What is he talking about?’ Latoshi thought, looking away. ‘Why can't I remember that? Why can't … why can't I remember how I even met Antoshi? How do I even know his name to begin with? How did we first meet? What's he rambling about ice cream for? …’

Latoshi gasped, suddenly flooded with memories of the ice cream shoppe.

'I love ice cream!' Fireball's voice permeated his scattered memories. 'That chocolate chip was great — right, Latoshi?'

‘Yeah, this is the best ice cream I can remember,’ he joked in response.

Latoshi had the wind knocked out of him. ‘There it is,’ he thought. ‘Antoshi … he—he's telling the truth. How can that be?’ There was a conflicted look in his eyes as he backed away from them. He shook his head in disbelief before abruptly taking off into the air.

“Latoshi!” Antoshi called out. His brother flew off without looking back. Serenity walked over to Antoshi, placing a reassuring hand on his shoulder.

“That's it, then,” she remarked, as they all watched Latoshi flee. “The seeds of dissent are finally taking root.”

“Are you sure we shouldn't go after him?” Antoshi asked, worried. “I could keep trying to talk him through it, … maybe i-it'll give him strength or something.”

“If it were anything other than a spirit parasite, sure,” Serenity replied. “However, our presence would only serve to distract Latoshi. He has to concentrate in order to rid himself of Lazarus. Just as before, we have to leave this in his hands.”

“I saw the doubt in his eyes,” Antoshi remarked. “I think what I said … got through to him. It broke through the blockade Lazarus built in his head. I just want him to remember everything. I want for him to be who he really is.”

A lot has happened here today,” Serenity said with a heavy sigh. “He had to have been wondering why he was fighting, and what he was even doing here. When he went after me, he'd never been so humbled in a battle before. After all of that training and the time spent with Lazarus, he realized he wasn't as strong as he was led to believe. He has a better understanding to the depth of Lazarus' lies now.”

“Good,” Mitoshi chimed in. “Cause I sure would like to meet my brother — the real Latoshi."

"Same here," Fireball added.

“Speaking of real,” Antoshi said to Mitoshi, “what about the real you?”

“Oh, wow,” she replied, looking at herself again. The girl was was still in her watery form. “After everything that's happened here, I completely forgot I was still like this!” She briefly grunted and strained, trying to will her body to take on a solid form once again. “… Okay, well, we seem to have a small problem: I can't turn myself back to normal.”

“I think I might know the solution to that,” Serenity said. “Come on, let's get going.”

“Err, well, I don't know how to fly,” Mitoshi replied.

Serenity smiled at her. “That's no problem. Take my hand.” Mitoshi did so, holding onto Serenity as though her hand was solid. At the same time, Antoshi held out Fireball's Poké Ball. The Typhlosion nodded, being pulled back into the ball's confines. The three of them lifted off the ground, ascending slowly for Mitoshi's sake.

The girl panicked, briefly, before settling down. “W-Wow, … this is so cool!” she exclaimed. Antoshi and Serenity chuckled at each other as Mitoshi experienced her first time flying. The girl made of water, and with a hole in her chest, looked down at the mountain as it got smaller and smaller the further up they went. Her exuberant eyes stayed open wide, helped by the fact that she did not need to blink in her current form. Her jaw hung open, gasping in awe continuously.

The perspective of the world from so high in the brilliantly blue sky was beyond anything she could've dreamt. She'd never flown before, in a plane, or on the back of a Pokémon. It was something she never realized she'd wanted to see and experience so badly. She was able to see the large, beaten paths of routes 35 and 36, along with the sprawling forests surrounding them.

“Ooh, I think I can see our cabin from here! Hi, Bubbles!” she exclaimed, waving.

The National Park was off to her right, Violet City to her left, and the large city of Goldenrod up ahead. By looking behind her, she could even see Ecruteak City. With its wildly different locales, Johto was truly a remarkable sight to behold. She grinned through most of their flight, soaking in every second of the brief trip.

Soon, the trio landed at a large lake nearby Route 35. Antoshi promptly pulled out Fireball's Poké Ball to let him out.

“This is where you wanted to take us?” Antoshi mused, both he and Fireball looking around at the picturesque scenery.

“Indeed it is,” Serenity replied. “Mitoshi, why don't you take a dip in the water and see what happens?”

“Oh, … all right,” Mitoshi replied.

She waded her bare, watery feet along the shore of the lake, inadvertently scaring off a handful of slow-moving Magikarp under the surface. The massive hole in her body began to fill itself back up from the body of water. Fireball and the two siblings looked on in amazement.

“Now,” Serenity said, “try to return yourself to normal.”

Mitoshi focused for a moment. Her skin and clothing slowly became visible, the water appearing to recede back into her body. She giggled in elation, patting her solid form to make sure she was really back to normal. She turned to the others with a grin, holding her arms out, theatrically, to present her regular form. Fireball offered a facetious clap.

“I can't get over how incredible her power is,” Antoshi remarked while the girl stepped back onto dry land. “But, … why is she able to do that?”

“It's rare,” Serenity replied, “but, some people have sort of an 'elemental' spirit energy. They can manipulate their Ki into one specific natural element, and then apply those elemental abilities in various ways. Mitoshi can turn her body into water. As we've seen, she can also use that ability to defend herself and become nearly invulnerable. The only drawback is that she needs water to regenerate her wounds. Still, I'm sure she can discover much more in her mastery over water.”

“Ooh, this is so exciting!” Mitoshi responded, bouncing up and down.

Serenity laughed, grinning at her. “Well, I should get going. I'll come and visit soon. We can sit down and have a proper chat then. I'll even bring tea.”

“She has very good taste in tea,” Antoshi remarked to his sister. Fireball nodded.

“Ah, I see,” Mitoshi replied, smiling.

“Hey, Serenity,” he said, just as she was about to turn away. “There's one more thing I was curious about. If you don't mind me asking, how old are you?”

“I don't mind,” she replied, smiling. “I'm sixteen. My brother, Collin, is eighteen.”

“Oh,” he remarked, not sure what he was expecting. “I guess … that means we need years of experience before we'll be anywhere near as strong as you, huh?”

Serenity chuckled. “Maybe, maybe not. Who knows? Anyway, so long for now!”

The trio waved while Serenity ascended into the air and flew off.

Antoshi sighed in content. “You know, we're really close to the cabin,” he said. “Want to just walk back?”

“Sure thing!” she replied before they headed off together.

"That's fine by me," Fireball said, "as long as we don't run into anymore spider webs."

“Don't worry, dear Fireball!” Mitoshi said, deepening her voice, walking in front of him. She held a hand out, keeping her posture tall and straight. “I'll protect you from any and all spiders!”

Fireball sighed in relief, placing his paws on the girl's shoulder. "My hero!"

The group laughed as they made their way through a thin, beaten path in the woods. Their exhausting day had come to an end, but, that was not the case for the siblings' wayward brother.

Chapter 23

Latoshi stood silently in the forest. Splintered, fallen trees laid around him — the aftermath of a fit of rage. The immediate area was devoid of life, having all fled from his wrath. He glared into the distance with a cold, vicious bitterness. He was unable to let go of the pain, shame, and embarrassment he had to endure atop Mt. Mortar. His mind replayed the images of everyone staring at him, their caring pleas permeating the coldness in his heart. Collin and Serenity's explanations of Lazarus' motives resounded powerfully with him. He never realized Lazarus had been using him all along, … or, had he?

'Latoshi, I need you to listen to me,' Lazarus said, audibly concerned. 'Do you understand? Please, listen to me!'

After a moment of silence, Latoshi's expression suddenly lightened up. He plopped himself down into a sitting position.

“Okay,” the boy replied, in a light-hearted tone. “I'm listening.”

'Latoshi, … you must understand the reason why I withheld those memories from you. It was for your own benefit.' The boy nodded, with an intrigued look on his face. 'You have no time to deal with such ineffectual things like family and memories of the past. I told you that before. You must look to the future; your future, which is bright and full of possibility. I understand that my methods seemed cruel, and I am truly apologetic for that, Latoshi. You must believe that I only did this for your benefit. I was only looking out for you, and your tremendous potential.'

Latoshi hummed in thought. “Very interesting. I understand why you did what you did, and … really, there's no need for you to apologize.”

'So, you have forgiven me, then?'

“Well, I wouldn't be that hasty,” he replied, looking to the sky. “You know, I had a lot of very interesting experiences today and heard a lot of interesting things. I used to think that Antoshi and I were … the only two people in the entire world capable of harnessing our Ki. I thought we were the ones setting the bar of power, but, wow, after seeing Serenity and Collin today and how impressive they are it got me wondering how many others like us there are in the world. More importantly, though, I was totally crushed in two different fights against two people that had absolutely no training from you whatsoever, Lazarus. The kind of training that I got from you, … well, it turns out it's not as effective as I thought. Serenity really hit the nail on the head there.”

'Latoshi, you must understand, you are still young. You are not as experienced as they are. You have much room to grow under my tutelage.'

“Yeah. … I was also thinking about how Antoshi told me he would give up all of his power if it meant I'd be free of you. It's weird, at the time I thought he was just talking out of his ass. But, then, he sparked a memory — a memory I didn't even know I had. You were withholding that memory from me and just calling him a 'liar' the whole time. Now it turns out that I actually don't have any reason not to believe him anymore. Isn't that weird?” The boy laughed in amusement.

'Latoshi, please….'

“And, as I looked at Antoshi, I saw all of the friends he'd made. Friends that surround him and care about him. Friends that are warm, and keep him company, and never make him feel alone. Yet, here I sit, with no company other than a voice in my head. So weird.” Latoshi grinned from ear to ear, sighing in content. He admired the white and blue streaks of clouds drifting in the early evening sky.

'Latoshi, I promise you that you will still—'

“It's such a big world out there,” Latoshi interjected. “There's so many incredible, wonderful things to see. So many places to visit and people to meet. Maybe, someday, I'll even meet someone special to me. The thing is, I can't do or see or experience any of that if I just sit and train forever in my big, old patch of dirt in the woods. So, there's something one last task I have to take care of.”

'Please, Latoshi! I beg you!'

Latoshi chuckled, warmly. “Don't make this out to be such a bad thing, Lazarus. I've learned so much from you … by learning what not to do. However, I have one request. At least tell me the truth. Why did you possess me? What was the real point of all of this?”

'I … hate … you,' the spirit replied. Latoshi smirked, raising his eyebrows in mild surprise. 'Do not take that personally, however. I hate all humans. The point, Latoshi, was for me to take your bottomless well of energy for myself, take your body, and then take the lives of every last human being in the world. Humans are a disease; a horrible, disgusting race of petty, filthy animals. You are, all of you, beyond redemption, beyond hope, beyond the worth of your miserable lives. You are parasites. I wanted you to kill the worst of your kind until you became numb to it. After that, I was going to have you lay waste to every town, city, village, home — everything. Leave nothing in your wake but ashes. Once your kind was extinct, then I was going to dispose of you as well.'

“So, that's where I got all of that from,” Latoshi remarked. “All that hatred toward 'parasites' and the like. That was all your influence, just like Antoshi said.”

Lazarus scoffed. 'And, yet, you still speak of Antoshi — your 'savior.' … You stupid children. You have no idea how hard this was for me. How difficult it was to hold your hand constantly, to console your fragile little ego, to boost your confidence and then have to deal with your snot-nosed counterparts. You miserable little shit. The lot of you make me retch. I was nothing but a babysitter to you. I had to deal with your temper tantrums and scold you.'

Latoshi had a tranquil expression, continuing to smile. “You're still as self-centered as ever,” he remarked, softly. “You think this was hard on you? You ruined my life, stole my memories, destroyed my livelihood and my relationships with my friends and family. You lied to me constantly. You kept telling me that I was unstoppable; I had ultimate power. Nobody besides Antoshi could possibly stand up to me. You said that, even though you knew that people like Collin were out there. Although, despite all of that, I'm not mad at you. I just wish for you to experience the same agony that I did. I wish death on you. I wish for you to die slowly and painfully.”

Lazarus seethed with rage. Latoshi sat up straight, folding his legs, cupping his hands together. He closed his eyes, sitting in the very same meditative pose that Lazarus had taught him.

“Well, I think it's about that time. Here's where we say 'goodbye', Lazarus.”

'Damn you, Latoshi!' Lazarus shouted. 'I will not relinquish my control of you! You are my puppet for as long as I deem you useful! You will never be rid of me! Never!!'

Latoshi's dark aura suddenly flared out with an audible boom, gathering up all of the energy that wasn't being kept from him. Lazarus responded with the same, torturous, high-pitched whistle he'd used so many times on the boy to keep him obedient.

“That won't work on me anymore, Lazarus!” Latoshi shouted, furrowing his brow. “I want you gone! I want you out of me for good! I'm going to use every last bit of strength I have to do it! You're finished!”

The boy's expression turned bitterly serious, belting out a long, loud cry. His aura grew and whipped around wildly. The pressure of his Ki blew away the fallen trees from his earlier huff, while also shaking nearby trees, threatening to snap them as well. The size of his aura exploded, growing twofold in an instant.

'No!' Lazarus shouted, its voice becoming warped. 'Stop this! You are nothing without me! I made you who you are!'

“I hate who I am!!” the boy shot back. The fires of his spirit were ignited. His drive intensified, shouting even louder. His body quaked, his muscles tensed and bulged. He focused his mind, body, and heart, unwavering in his singular goal of expunging the parasite inside him.

From out of his aura, an amorphous blob of pure black Ki pierced out and began discharging. As the black mass grew in size, Lazarus' voice became quieter and more distant in Latoshi's head. With one last, explosive push, the blob of energy was violently thrown several meters away from Latoshi's aura.

Latoshi collapsed onto his side, panting weakly. His aura was severely diminished. The earlier sheer force of his Ki had become almost nonexistent. At the same time, the mass of dark Ki floated around, harmlessly, for a few moments.

"N-No!" Lazarus' voice emanated from it. "No! No! No!! This cannot be happening! You impudent little brat! You stupid, pathetic child!"

Latoshi's voice trembled as he chuckled in amusement. A weak grin was plastered on his face. “So, that's what you look like,” he remarked, quietly. “I guess my idea worked after all. I wasn't sure if … I just had to burn out my Ki or what, but, I definitely felt your presence when I was looking for it. It was like … a splinter wedged under my skin. I just had to … squeeze it out with all my might.”

Lazarus roared, crashing its spiritual body into Latoshi, only to be shoved back each time. ‘Damn it! His spirit is rejecting me!!’ the parasite thought.

“Looks like you're locked out,” Latoshi joked. “Maybe you should try knocking first.”

"How dare you do this to me! After all I've done for you! I saved you from that prison! I guided you and showed you everything you know!"

Latoshi laughed, weakly. “Oh-ho, Lazarus, you have no idea. I'm going to take everything you ever taught me … and I'll use it for good. All those abilities and pointers, I'll share them with my siblings. I'll help them to learn everything I know and we'll become stronger because of it — all thanks to you. Thanks, friend.”

"Do not get cocky, boy."

“Hey, hey, … didn't Collin say he was going to kill you if he sensed you?” he asked, playfully. “That guy seemed pretty scary.”

"Shut your mouth! Your so-called 'friends' and 'family' will never accept you, Latoshi! They all hate you after what you've done to them and to others. They wish you were dead. You're a murderer. Your contemptuous soul will burn in Hell for all eternity."

“Maybe that's all true. Maybe … I don't stand a chance out there in the world like I had hoped. Maybe I'm beyond saving. The only thing that matters … is that you're gone for good.”

Lazarus laughed. It was a humorous laugh that quickly morphed into a wild cackle. "That is where you are wrong, Latoshi. I will never be gone for good. I am immortal. I have lived for many lifetimes, far beyond what your mortal body is capable of. I will always be a part of you until your dying day. I will always be watching you from the shadows. I will have my revenge on you, Latoshi — mark my words. You will never be done with me…"

Latoshi's upbeat composure finally faltered, taking what the parasite said to heart. He feared there was at least some truth to it. The boy showed his concern as Lazarus' spirit sank into the earth, laughing malevolently.

The boy was unable to keep himself conscious any longer. His grueling ordeal was finally over. His eyes fluttered closed, groaning in exhaustion before falling fast asleep.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

After nightfall, Latoshi awoke to a brown muzzle and pair of large incisors in his face. A wild Bidoof uttered a curious sound, tilting its head, staring inquisitively at him.

“Hey there, little guy,” the boy said, groggily. “Did you come to check on me?” The Bidoof continued to stare for a moment. It finally responded by turning and trotting away into the woods. Latoshi chuckled. “Didn't think so.”

He sat up, slowly, groaning and rubbing his eyes. ‘I'm so dizzy,’ he thought, shaking his head. He rested for a few moments to get his bearings, before rising to his feet with another groan. After straightening his back, he looked up at the starry night sky. He closed his eyes, breathing slowly, taking in the sounds of crickets chirping among the gentle breeze.

‘Everything is so much quieter without his voice in my head. Feels so strange now that he's gone. It's peaceful, … for once.’

Latoshi took a look around one last time at the chaos and disorder left in his wake. With a heavy sigh, he made his way out of the woods and onto the wide, beaten path of Route 35. He headed down south, his hands stuffed into the pockets of his shorts. The gate house to Goldenrod and its bright lights were within eyeshot. Being so dark out, the path was illuminated by lamp posts on the edges of the route. A small flock of Murkrow hopped around nearby, pecking at bugs in the grass. He offered a slight smirk to the warm light.

‘This place sure feels comfortable. Lazarus barely ever gave me the chance to take in the sights.’

“Hey there, kid!” a young female Trainer called out, as she stood nearby. “Want to battle?”

“Sorry, I don't have any Pokémon,” he replied, continuing to walk on by.

“Wow,” she replied, dumbfounded. “It's dangerous to wander around at night without any Pokémon with you. Be safe!”

He grinned and gave her a thumbs up. “I will. Thanks.”

The road was incredibly sparse after the sun had gone down. Only a small handful of people passed him by, mostly Trainers. When he entered the gate house, he found the nearest bench to sit down on. He held his forehead, shaking his head.

‘Man, how much of my energy did Lazarus sap away?’ he thought. ‘I feel like I'm going to collapse.’

“Young man?” the gate guard spoke to him. “Are you feeling all right?”

He took deep breath and stretched his neck out. “Yeah. Just a bit tired,” he replied, rising to his feet.

“All right. Take care and get yourself some rest.”

“Thanks,” he replied, sighing, as he headed out into the city limits.

Latoshi wandered around the city, his tired eyes curiously gazing around in all directions.

‘I wonder what I should do now,’ he thought. ‘Where should I go? Should I really … try to talk to my siblings? … I probably should, but … I'm too nervous of how awkward that conversation's going to go. 'Hey guys, sorry for trying to kill you and all that. We're cool though, right?'’ He couldn't help but scoff in amusement, continuing to randomly explore the city. ‘That girl, … Mitoshi. She's my sister? Antoshi didn't know who I was before we met, so, I wonder if the same is true for her. Maybe she's the one that can put the puzzle of my memory back together. … I don't know if I should talk to them, yet.’ He sighed, looking to the night sky. ‘What do I even do with myself?’

Latoshi headed down a lonely sidewalk lined with trees planted in their own little fenced off squares. He stared down at his hand, straining as he summoned a volume of Ki that was paltry compared to when he was with Lazarus.

‘My strength has really dwindled,’ he thought. ‘Can I even still do the basic stuff, like dodge bullets?’ He suddenly blinked back and forth across the sidewalk. ‘Yep, I sure can. Can I fly, too?’ His body slowly pulled off the ground while he strained with effort, his aura flickering weakly. A few meters up, his energy vanished, causing him to fall back down to the street, flat on his face.


Latoshi groaned in pain as he climbed back to his feet, brushing off his face and clothes. ‘How the hell can I dodge bullets but not fly? How does that even make any sense?’ He sighed in frustration, slipping his hands back into his pockets, and continuing onward.

Before long, the first drops of an oncoming rain fell upon him. He was forced to seek shelter under the ledge of a nearby store that had closed for the night. Those drops of rain quickly turned into a downpour.

‘Well, here I am. Hiding out from the rain. All by myself. Yes, sir.’

Once the rain stopped, he headed down the quiet streets again. Eventually, he walked on by an alleyway where he heard a couple of voices. From his experience, alleyways at night typically had less virtuous individuals residing within. He curiously gazed into the darkness, able to make out three men. Two of them stood together, one with a gun pointed at the third man, who stood against the wall.

Latoshi rolled his eyes. ‘Why am I always running into the criminals around this city?’ He sighed in frustration, figuring he'd probably need to step in and help somehow. With his hands in his pockets, he headed into the dark alley.

“… Boss knows you've been skimming off the top,” the man with the gun said.

“P-please, it was just a little bit,” the man staring down the gun replied. “He won't even miss it!”

“Oh, but he does miss it. Now, give back the money you took, and we'll only give you a few bruises.”

“I-I-I don't have it!”

“… What?” the second man uttered.

“I … I spent it already.”

“Very stupid mistake,” the man with the gun said. He sighed heavily. “You know how this has to end. Turn around, on your knees.”

“No, … come on. I can make this up. I'll work twice as many jobs—”

“Shut it. I got my orders. You can either take three in the gut and bleed out, or we can do it quick with two to the head. Your choice.”

“Hello there,” Latoshi said, hands in his pockets. His remark grabbed their attention — they didn't hear the boy approach at all.

“What the hell are you doing out here at this hour, kid?” the other man, without the gun, asked. “Get lost now. This ain't nothin' for you to see.”

Latoshi shrugged. “I think we can agree to disagree on that one. Now, why don't you put the gun away and let this poor schmuck go?”

“Hey!” the man against the wall exclaimed. “Who you callin' a schmuck?!”

“Shut it!” the man with the gun shouted at him, before pointing said gun at Latoshi. “And, you! Beat it, kid! I'm not gonna ask you twice!”

Latoshi had an unimpressed look on his face. “You can ask as many times as you want, but I'm not leaving, and I'm not letting you shoot this schmuck.”

The man with the gun laughed along with his cohort. “You believe this kid? 'I'm not letting you.'” The two of them laughed again, before the man suddenly whipped the butt of the gun at Latoshi's head. The boy responded by casually tilting his head back to avoid it.

“The hell?” the man with the gun mused. The two henchmen immediately began to advance toward Latoshi. “Get the hell out of here, you stupid little bastard!”

Latoshi's expression turned serious. He threw a swift jab to the gunman's abdomen, faster than any of them could see, knocking the wind out of him with a loud groan. He immediately followed up by jumping and thrusting the point of his shoe into the other man's jaw. In that brief moment, both men simultaneously fell over to the ground, grunting in pain. The man against the wall was frozen in disbelief.

Latoshi reached down and took the firearm from the gunman's hand. “Man, I'm really getting tired of seeing these things,” he remarked, looking it over. He hummed, curiously, fiddling with it for a moment until the gun abruptly fired a bullet into the nearby brick wall.

“Hey!” the third man exclaimed, jumping in fright. “Be careful, you dope! You're gonna hurt yourself!”

“Whoops,” Latoshi said, as the man approached him, “that was not what I wanted to do. How do you get the bullets out of this stupid thing?”

“Here, let me show you,” the man replied, carefully taking the gun from him. He pressed down on the gun's side to release the magazine. “There you go.”

“Oh, nice,” Latoshi said, taking the magazine from him. He casually placed it in his pocket, just before the the other two men got back to their feet with pained groans. The boy stared them down. “Now, then, why don't you two get lost?”

“Stupid kid,” the former gunman replied. “You're as good as dead now.” The pair limped their way out of the alley, disappearing from sight.

“Man,” Latoshi remarked. “To think crime these days has gotten so strapped for cash that they can't afford to give two guns to two of their lackeys.”

The man standing with Latoshi breathed a sigh of relief. “Those were some pretty slick moves, kid. Name's Emilio. What's yours?”

“Latoshi,” he replied, shaking the man's hand after he offered it to him.

The man scoffed. “Heck of a name. Never heard anything like it.”

Latoshi shrugged, casually. “So, what did those creeps want from you?”

“Well, … we're all part of the same crew. At least I was, but, … I started taking some of the cash from our scores. I have all these debts I gotta deal with and … I got a kid, too. Little girl, she lives with her mom.”

“What made you decide to get involved with them if you have a kid?”

“It's a long story,” Emilio said, with a disappointed sigh. “I just ain't never been good with holding down a real job. Slingin' and stealin' is what I'm used to. Honestly, kid, you would've been doing me a favor by letting those guys do me in.”

Latoshi responded with another unimpressed expression. “Don't ever say that again, or I'll lay you out like I did to those guys. Your daughter needs her dad. Believe me, … family is important.”

Emilio was surprised at the youngster's keen wisdom. His first impression of Latoshi was that he was just a street punk looking to pick fights for thrills. The man sighed again, nodding in agreement.

“You're right, kid. I-I'm sorry, it's just been a rough few months for me. I've been trying to save up to get out of here, and I've been living in a crappy dump where I'm even behind on rent. That's more money I'm in debt for. I was all set to hop on a train tonight and finally go be with my kid. I was heading back to my place to start packing when those guys you fought caught up to me and jumped me. I don't know if they were tailing me, or if it was just crappy timing.”

“Well, then, I'll help you to get out,” Latoshi said, nonchalantly. “I'll hang out with you and make sure they don't, … you know, come after you again.”

The man stared at him, incredulous. “Look, kid, what you did was impressive and all, but, you should really get out of here. Those guys are gonna come back, and they're gonna bring even more guys.” Latoshi had a disinterested expression on his face. “More guys with more guns? You know, the killing kind?” Latoshi's expression did not change. Emilio sighed in defeat. “You're going to stay with me, aren't you?” Latoshi slowly nodded. “… All right, fine. We need to move quick, and we need to move now. My place is a few blocks away.”

“Let's get going,” the boy replied.

Both of them jogged out of the alley before slowing down a bit, walking at a brisk pace across the street. Running, as Emilio knew, would only attract unwanted attention to them. Their shoes rhythmically shuffled along the sidewalk — the sound made more apparent by how incredibly quiet the area was. The gentle sounds of Hoothoot and Noctowl emanated from nearby trees and along buildings.

Latoshi's eyes narrowed, catching the glimpses of people nearby watching them. “So, this crew you're part of. Just how many people are in it?”

“They have people everywhere, kid,” Emilio replied, keeping his voice low, “especially in this part of town. Don't look anyone in the eye or they'll get suspicious.”

Latoshi sighed and rolled his eyes. Even though his powers were severely diminished, he knew he had more than enough left in the tank to take down anyone in their way — guns or no guns. He held and shook his head again, overcome by passing dizziness.

Soon after, they came to a small apartment building. Emilio led him up the small steps to the main front door, buzzing himself in with a nearby keypad. They headed inside and took the stairs immediately to their left, up to the third floor. The building smelled stale, old, musty, and of cigarette smoke. Walls and floors were in disrepair. Graffiti littered the walls. The metal stairs they climbed became sticky or wet on random steps. People shouting, Pokémon cries, and loud music rang out from each of the floors.

They headed down the third floor hallway. The carpeting had been long forgotten about; matted and torn everywhere. One of the doors they passed by didn't even have a doorknob, but instead, had a knife handle sticking out as a replacement. A couple of tall men in street clothes stood outside one of the apartments, staring the pair down intensely. Latoshi rolled his eyes again. He was itching to step up to everyone glaring at him.

‘I can still mop the floor with all these punks giving us the stink eye,’ Latoshi thought. ‘But, I guess I shouldn't make trouble for Emilio's sake. He's almost home free.’

Emilio pulled out the key to his apartment, situated at the very end of the hall, unlocking the door to head inside. “I'll be as fast as I can,” he said, leaving the door partially open behind him.

Latoshi sighed, opting to lean against the wall outside Emilio's place — not unlike the men who were still staring at him. The boy smirked to himself, avoiding eye contact as Emilio had told him to.

‘I really want to find out what they'll do if I actually step up to them.’ Just then, he caught the sound of loud voices outside. He looked out the cloudy, cracked window at the hallway's apex. There was a large, black vehicle poorly parked against the curb, and four or five men shouting — each holding a gun. Among them were the two men from the alley. The boy groaned in frustration. A handful of people that had been standing on the street started walking away.

The group of thugs waited for another man emerging from the back seat of the car. He stood up tall, wearing a black, pinstriped, three-piece suit, with a freshly-cut rose set in the breast pocket. The man looked around, adjusting his cuffs and necktie for a moment.

Latoshi momentarily had the wind knocked out of him. ‘Oh, crap. I thought that guy that was Collin for a sec'. Then again, Collin can move way faster than anyone I've ever seen, so I doubt he'd roll around in a car with a group of goons. This guy's blond, kind of like Antoshi.’

“He'd better be in there!” the man in the suit said. “Otherwise, each of you are about to get a permanent imprint of my ring on your heads!”

“Yes, sir, Chad,” one of his lackeys said. “We know he lives here!”

“Chad?” Latoshi whispered to himself with a disgusted expression. “What kind of name is 'Chad'?”

“That's not what I said,” Chad replied to his underling, “but, let's go! Come on! Chop-chop!” He clapped his hands, prompting the group to all head for the main front door.

Latoshi sighed, quickly barging into Emilio's apartment. Emilio was already heading toward him, carrying two full canvas bags in both hands.

“We have a problem,” Latoshi said.

“Ay, maldito,” Emilio remarked. “They caught up to us, didn't they?”

“Sure did,” Latoshi calmly replied, looking around his apartment. “You have a fire escape?” Emilio nodded. “All right, go down it and make sure they don't see you. I'll keep these losers more than busy.”

“No, please, Latoshi. Please don't play 'hero' just for me. You don't even know me, and you got your whole life ahead of you!”

Latoshi chuckled, waving him off. “I already promised I'd help you get out, didn't I? Trust me, these guys are chumps. I can handle them.”

Emilio sighed heavily. “All right. I already know you well enough to know you don't take 'no' for an answer.” The boy smirked. “Thank you so much, Latoshi. If we both get out of this, I'll make it up to you somehow. I promise.” Latoshi nodded. Emilio turned and headed for the back window leading out to the fire escape.

Meanwhile, the boy went back into the hallway, pressing his hands against both walls to act as a blockade. He grinned at the two men who stared at him.

‘Watch out, Antoshi. Now, it's my turn to get to be the good guy for once.’

One of the men peeled himself off the wall, posturing in front of him. “What you lookin' at, kid?” Latoshi merely humphed in amusement, having gotten the answer to his earlier question.

“Behind you,” Latoshi replied, turning his attention behind the man. The man turned around, just before the group of thugs with guns came storming up from the stairway. He and his cohort promptly retreated back into their apartment and shut the door. The group of thugs were brought to a confused halt by the kid in the hallway.

“That's him!” the gunman from the alley said. Latoshi briefly waved to him. “The kid is here! Emilio is here, too!”

“Move, kid,” one of the other men commanded. He and a couple others pointed their guns at the boy's arrogant, grinning face. “Now!”

“What is the holdup now?” Chad remarked, walking by them. He came face-to-face with the boy blockading his troops. “Aha, 'the boy with black hair.' Yes, I was informed about you. You did a number on my underlings. I should have you executed for that on principle, but I do have standards. I don't like to harm children. You should consider that a blessing from above. Run along home, now — it's far past your bedtime.”

“Sorry, fancy-pants,” Latoshi replied, “not happening.”

“Why is that?” Chad asked, calmly. “What kind of allegiance do you hold to this washout? Is he … a friend or yours? Family member?”

“No, actually, I just met him in that alleyway.”

“So, why concern yourself?”

“Because I have standards, too, 'Rosy,'” Latoshi shot back, prompting Chad to take hold of the rose in his breast pocket and smell it. “Granted, they're standards that I only adopted since, like, an hour ago, but, I'm learning from someone very important to me. I need to be a better person now, after all the terrible things I've done to him and to others.”

“Wonderful speech,” Chad said, offering a slow clap. “Now, I'm a very busy man and I've wasted enough time here. So, 'be a better person' and move out of my way.”

“Like I told you, 'not happening.'”

Chad sighed in defeat, shaking his head as he looked the boy over for a moment. He snapped his fingers, prompting the other men to advance forward. “Teach him a little lesson about respecting his elders,” he commanded.

Latoshi grinned, remaining confident as they all approached. The boy charged forward, swinging at the first man's sternum with barely enough strength to stagger him back a step. His eyes widened in surprise.

‘A~nd that's not good,’ he thought, immediately before the men shoved him to the ground and started kicking him. Latoshi clenched his teeth and curled into a fetal position, guarding his face and his vitals as the men continued to pummel him for a short time. ‘Now, here I am getting beat down by a handful of chumps. Definitely not how I expected my day to go, but at least I'm keeping them busy. The longer I can distract these pricks, the more time Emilio has to get away from them.’

Chad sighed again, glancing down at his expensive gold wristwatch. “Okay, okay, that's enough. You brutes need to learn self-restraint. He's just a child.” The men immediately backed off. “Now, go search the apartment. I want that greedy little turncoat found.”

Two of them did as he instructed while the others waited outside the apartment door. Chad shook his head in disgust while walking past Latoshi, who groaned in pain.

“How truly shameful,” Chad said. “Remember this day always as you grow. And, do get yourself cleaned up.” He pulled out a handkerchief from the side pocket of his pants, tossing it on top of Latoshi. The boy glanced at the pristine white cloth embroidered with the letter 'C'. He couldn't help but roll his eyes at how full of himself this guy was.

“He's not here!” one of the men exclaimed as he returned. “The fire escape window is open!”

Chad seethed, turning and heading back to the stairs. “Let's go! Get to the car — now! I want him found!”

The group of men quickly followed behind, walking around Latoshi, leaving him in a crumpled heap. Once they left the hallway, all was quiet. Latoshi groaned again and sat up. His pride was more injured than his body, still miffed that he lost a fight to a bunch of weaklings. He hissed, holding his head, feeling that dizziness return.

‘Maybe if I wasn't so damned tired…’ he thought. Just then, a nearby apartment door unlocked and swung open. An elderly woman cried out in horror upon seeing the scuffed, bruised boy on the ground. She shuffled over, holding her hands out to him, frantic. She was on the verge of tears, wailing endlessly in a language he could not understand.

“I'm all right, I'm all right,” Latoshi reassured her, as he slowly got to his feet. “It's okay, I promise. … I'm completely fine. You don't need to worry about me. Everything is fine, please, just go back into your home.” The woman continued talking as he stretched his back.

‘My strength is really dwindling,’ he thought, amid the woman's chatter. ‘I'm so exhausted, but, I've got to see this through to the end. I want to prove to myself that I can be as upstanding as Antoshi is. If I give up now, I'll be just the same heartless bastard as I was before. Still, at this point, I may need a damn miracle to find Emilio before they do.’ The sound of tires screeching outside led Latoshi over to the hallway window again. The car containing the men peeled out down the street. ‘Time to go.’

The woman was crying by the time Latoshi turned to leave. “Okay, okay, I'm fine,” he reassured her again, reaching out and taking her hand. The woman neared closer, hugging the boy as she wept. “Okay. … Okay.” Latoshi grinned nervously as he patted her back. Once the moment was over, he headed into Emilio's open apartment, peering out from the door frame. “Thank you. Thank you very much.” The two waved farewell to each other, and the woman headed back to her apartment. Latoshi shut the door with a sigh. His expression turned serious, racing out the open window to the fire escape. He headed on up, making his way to the roof of the small apartment complex.

‘There's no way those guys knew where Emilio was going,’ he thought, while looking around, ‘otherwise they would've mentioned someplace to look. They're running as blind as I am now. Damn, I wish I could fly right about now.’ Latoshi stepped back a few meters and huffed sharply. ‘If I can't fly, I sure as hell better be able to jump!’ He took a running start, traveling a bit faster than a peak athlete would, and vaulted over to the roof of the next building with incredible jump distance. He looked back and smirked. ‘Not bad. I just hope my strength holds out.’

The boy continued running swiftly, leaping from building to building. Water had puddled on the rooftops in spots from the earlier, passing shower. Latoshi used his heightened eyesight to keep a lookout for his new companion amid the sparse cars and even sparser people on the streets. After covering several blocks, he gasped in shock. Emilio was in sight, heading across an empty parking lot.

‘No freakin' way!’ he thought. He quickly made his way down to the street, jumping onto several balconies to slow his descent before landing on the sidewalk.

“Emilio!” he called out, jogging over to him. Emilio turned around, bags slung over his shoulders, just as shocked as Latoshi was.

“Oh, dang it, kid, what are you doing?” Emilio replied. The two of them moved hastily together.

“What do you mean? I told you I was going to stay with you and keep those guys off you.”

“I was better off by myself! The two of us together, we're gonna be seen! This is too dangerous for you, Latoshi, please just leave!”

“Hey, I'm in this just as deep as you are now. I met your boss, Chad, so he knows my face.”

“Chad knows who you are now?! Kid, you're seriously going to turn your life into a living hell because of this. You know that, right?”

Latoshi scoffed. “Trust me — my life was already hell, and way more dangerous, before I met you.”

Emilio briefly looked over at him, taking note of the seriousness in the boy's eyes. For him, he couldn't imagine what could possibly be more dangerous than becoming an enemy of a crime syndicate like Team Rocket.

“Well, then, let's hurry,” Emilio replied, picking up the pace. “We don't have much time. My train leaves in about one hour, and we've got fourteen blocks to go.”

“Hope your legs are in shape!” Latoshi said, grinning as he picked up speed as well.

“I've been running my whole life, kid!” he replied. Latoshi laughed in response.

The pair stuck close as they headed down several city blocks. They used as many alleyways and roads with no outlets as they could, trying to keep away from the hit squad sent to find them. However, the two of them eventually had the misfortune of being spotted. The very same black luxury SUV from earlier barreled down the rain-slicked one-way street, straight at them, before squealing to a stop.

“Oh, damn it!” Emilio exclaimed. The men inside quickly emerged, guns drawn and pointed at the two. Emilio dropped his bags as they both put their hands up.

“Hmm, I think this might delay us,” Latoshi quipped.

“This is no time for jokes, Latoshi,” Emilio replied. He was already sweating bullets. No way out for either of them. At the very least, he was ready to surrender himself so the kid could get away.

“That's mighty impressive, young man!” Chad remarked, as he got out of the car. “You not only found Emilio before we did, but you also got a fair distance away! You have a bright future as a marathon runner.” He walked up and stood between his men. “To think we found you at a dead end. How very … apropos. With that said, I'm going to be unbelievably generous and give you one final chance, kid. Leave here now. Live your life and never look back. Go and be that better person you promised you wanted to be.”

Latoshi pursed his lips, seeing through Chad's faux compassion. He looked over at Emilio, who insistently motioned for him to leave. He recalled a similar scenario after his fight on the beach with Antoshi.

'Leave now!' Lazarus had commanded him. 'There is nothing more for you here! Leave!!'

“Latoshi!!” Antoshi shouted after him as he fled.

Latoshi closed his eyes. The memory of the heartache he suffered stirred the vigor inside of his heart, stoking the fires of his Ki; invigorating him. He was done leaving the people he cared about behind. The boy turned his attention back to Chad and shook his head.

“If I left now,” Latoshi replied, “I wouldn't be making good on that promise. That person I told you about earlier, … they told me not too long ago that I should use my talents for good. I was too stupid to realize I should've listened then, but, I plan to make up for it now.” In his open palm, Latoshi began charging up a black orb of what little Ki he had left in him. The others around him were incapable of seeing it.

Chad sighed in dismay, shaking his head. “I don't know what's wrong with you, young man. It's like you just don't understand the danger involved here. Even still, I have a job to do. I informed you of the risks many times already.”

Emilio glanced to Latoshi, taking note of the contented smile on the boy's face. ‘What is that kid thinking? Is he really this reckless beyond saving?’

“All right, men!” Chad said. “You know what to do! Take them out!”

Before the men had a chance to fire, Latoshi fired off his spirit energy. It soared past the men in the blink of an eye, collided violently with the SUV, and caused it to suddenly explode. The men in front of the car all fell to the ground. Latoshi immediately grabbed Emilio's bags in one hand, and Emilio himself by the wrist, continuing running off toward their destination.

“What in the hell just happened?!” Emilio exclaimed, struggling to keep pace with the revitalized youngster.

“No idea!” Latoshi replied, hiding a grin. “Must be our lucky day!”

“After them, you idiots!” Chad exclaimed. The men got to their feet, firing their guns in the direction the duo escaped. All of them missed, allowing the pair to disappear down a nearby alley. The men shouted to each other, quickly giving chase. Chad remained behind, left scratching his head as he surveyed the fiery wreck.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Some time later, Latoshi and Emilio made it safely to the parking lot of the train station. The train had just arrived. Both of them took a look back, the last of many since escaping Chad's clutches, to make sure they weren't still being followed. The pair headed up a ramp that led onto the train platform, where they were finally able to breathe a sigh of relief.

“Looks like we made it,” Latoshi remarked.

“Sure did,” Emilio replied, catching his breath. “I don't know how the hell we're still alive.”

“Like I said, it's our lucky day,” the boy said, with a cheeky smirk.

Emilio chuckled and shook his head. “Well, Latoshi, this was one hell of an experience. You are one weird kid, and I've never met anyone like you. Even still, you saved my life. I don't know if you're just crazy or if you're some kind of guardian angel, but you've got a good heart. Sure takes real guts, and some stupidity, to take on Team Rocket like you did.”

Latoshi shrugged, his hands in his pockets. “Hey, I just wanted to help.”

“You did help me, kid — more than you know. I realize now that I can't just give up on my little girl. She needs her dad, just like you said.”

“Get out of here and go see her, then.”

“I sure will, Latoshi. Seeing her face again, … it'll make everything worth it.” The two shared a firm handshake and smiled to each other. “Thank you again, kid. I'll never forget what you did for me today.”

Emilio parted ways with his new friend. He handed his ticket to the conductor, who let him on board. Latoshi decided to stick around for a short time, until the train started to roll away. He and Emilio spotted each other, giving each other a quick wave. He smiled, watching the train carry Emilio toward a new start.

Latoshi heaved a long sigh, turning to the night sky for a moment. With their talk about Emilio's family, the boy's own family was on his mind as well. He turned away, hands still in his pockets, resuming his aimless stroll toward the city.

“That was quite nice of you, Latoshi,” a gentle voice suddenly greeted him from a nearby bench. He stopped in place, shocked, turning to see Serenity sitting and smiling at him.

“What in the world?” he mused, briefly looking around. “You again? Don't you ever sleep?”

Serenity laughed, getting to her feet. “I only sleep when it's necessary. When you learn to control your Ki better, you'll see that sleep is actually something that you can avoid for much longer than normal people. It's something your brother did inadvertently, leading up to the last time you fought on the beach.”

The two began to walk and talk together. “That guy Collin was right about you,” Latoshi said. “You really are watching us all the time without us knowing it.”

“Well, not all the time. I just have some free time right now, and I wanted to check on you. I care about how you're doing, just like how Antoshi and Mitoshi care about you, too.”

Latoshi chuckled. “That's not what Lazarus told me. He said you all wished I was dead.”

She smiled at him. “Have you really been so misguided as to believe Lazarus, even after removing its spirit from yours?”

“You can tell he's gone, huh?” he asked. Serenity nodded in response. “Of course I don't believe him, but, still, … it put into perspective the kind of relationship I have with the only people I haven't killed.”

“You are not to blame for what Lazarus did,” she replied, softly. “Those were its ideas, and its alone. You were being used and manipulated for Lazarus' own ideals. You can't blame yourself for what's transpired — and you shouldn't. You can only look to the better future you created when you rejected Lazarus' spirit.”

“I don't know,” he quietly spoke. “I've got a lot of stuff I need to work out. Most importantly, I have to talk to … my siblings.”

“And, I know they want to talk to you, too. They're patiently waiting for you.”

“Talking to them is going to be one hell of an awkward conversation.” He stopped and looked away with a guilty expression. She placed a reassuring hand on his shoulder.

“Give it time,” she said, earnestly, as he turned to her. “Don't rush off to them because you feel guilty. Let your mind become more settled and really think about what to do next. Decide what's right for you — just like you did earlier tonight when you helped that man. Always remember, your heart is where your strength lies. Only when you commit to your emotions will you find your powers returning.”

“I can only hope my memories return as well.”

“Your memories will come back to you in time.”

“I've heard that line from Lazarus plenty of times.”

“Well, when I say it, you can believe I am telling the truth.”

Latoshi sighed as her hand fell away. “I guess it is better to trust the word of a real person, and not a parasite stealing my Ki.” Serenity laughed, gently. “Besides, you're all right with Antoshi, so, you can't be all that bad.” The pair smiled at each other.

“Well, I'll take my leave now and let you be. I have faith in you to be safe and make the right decisions — just like I did with Antoshi.”

“Thanks, err, … I forgot what your name was.”

“My name is Serenity,” she said, extending a hand to him. “I forgot that we hadn't been formally introduced. Latoshi, it's nice to finally see you for the person you really are.”

He briefly shook her hand and smiled. “It's nice for me, too.”

“See you around.”

Serenity casually headed down the sidewalk, in the opposite direction from him, leaving as mysteriously as she appeared.

Latoshi slid his hands into his pockets, sighing heavily, walking off as well. ‘I really need to get some sleep…’

Chapter 24

It had been two days since Latoshi rid himself of Lazarus' spirit. Antoshi stood on the porch of the cabin, gazing up at the starry night sky. By then, all of the injuries he sustained from his fight with Latoshi had healed completely. His red aura slowly flickered on and off, almost like a firefly. Fireball sat on the wooden porch swing, which quietly creaked under his weight. The Typhlosion ate from a small bag of Pokémon snacks. Mitoshi opened the front door to accompany them.

“What's going on out here?” she asked. “You're making my head go 'bzz-bzz-bzz' with your energy.”

Antoshi laughed, turning to her. “Sorry about that. I'm just … I dunno, sending out a signal for Latoshi. Maybe he's trying to find us. I want to let him know we're right here waiting for him.”

Mitoshi smiled warmly, closing the door behind her, standing by him.

“That's so sweet, Antoshi. I think that's a great idea, and I'd love to join you, but, … I don't know how to do that with my, uh, 'aura' was it?”

Antoshi chuckled. “It's simple enough once you get the hang of it. Think about what matters to you and what you care about the most. Feel your emotions for that from the bottom of your heart. Imagine your emotions like a burning fire that's going to ignite and explode, trying to burst out of you. Focus all of your energy into that and then just … let it out.”

She looked at him, baffled, expecting a little more in terms of instructions. “Uh, all right. Guess I'll give it a shot.” She took a deep breath, closing her eyes, focusing herself in the way Antoshi told her. The boy smiled, as he and Fireball watched her grunt and strain, clenching her fists. After a few moments of trying, she slouched over with an exasperated sigh.

“Did anything happen?” she asked.

“No,” Antoshi said, laughing. Mitoshi groaned in defeat. “Just keep working at it. I know you'll figure it out soon.”

“Well, … what if I … came to train with you?” she asked nervously. “I've been thinking about it lately, and … I'd like to be able to do the same kind of things that you and Latoshi can do.”

“Sure thing,” Antoshi replied. Her face lit up with delight. “I think it might be fun to teach someone else what I've learned so far.”

“Ooh, that does sound like fun!”

"I can help, too!" Fireball chimed in, raising a paw. "I can take a punch like nobody's business!"

“It's true,” Antoshi said, smirking. “Fireball's built like a super reinforced brick wall.”

Mitoshi laughed. “Awesome! So, maybe we could start tomorrow?”

“Sure thing!” Antoshi replied.

Mitoshi headed back to the front door. “Well, I guess I better check on those cookies.”

"Cookies?" Fireball mused in excitement, quickly springing up onto his hind feet. "I'm ready, bring on the cookies."

“They're going to be hot,” Mitoshi said, as they headed inside together.

"Mitoshi, I can breathe fire."

Antoshi smiled, turning his attention to the night sky once more.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

The next morning, Latoshi gasped for air, jolting awake. He sat up on the bottom platform of a fire escape, propping himself up with one hand. A wild Koffing groaned curiously at him, hovering and slowly spinning around, while exuding grimy, putrid smoke from its round body.

The boy covered his nose. “Wow, I thought I was just dreaming that horrible smell.”

He looked up and grabbed the hand rail behind his head, leaping over backwards, landing on his feet in the alley below. The sable-haired boy had managed to get some semblance of sleep here and there in the past couple of days. He hummed curiously, staring at his open palms as he summoned forth some of his dark aura.

‘Feels like my strength is slowly returning, bit by bit,’ he thought. ‘Whatever Lazarus did or stole from me, it was pretty significant. I'm still nowhere near as strong as I used to be. I can't believe how powerful I felt right up until I got rid of him. I guess that was him just sharing energy to make me think what I wanted to. … Am I going to feel depleted like this forever?’

Latoshi took a deep breath and sighed, sliding his hands into the pockets of his shorts. His green shirt and shorts had become dingy, disheveled, and frayed; as were his shoes and socks. His hair was unkempt and started to fall over his eyes. He set out once more on his aimless quest through Goldenrod City. It was midmorning, the streets were bustling with activity. As he emerged from the alley, a woman holding several rowdy Growlithe and Lillipup on leashes passed by him. He chuckled, heading down the sidewalk.

‘It's been almost a few days since I got rid of Lazarus. I thought at least most of my Ki would've returned already. Still, my memories have been coming back in my dreams. Little images and past events here and there, but only of the things that Lazarus kept from me ever since he took control of me. I finally remember everything that happened during my fight along the beach with Antoshi…’ Just then, his attention was immediately pulled away to a specific point in the distance. His eyes went wide. ‘What is that?’ he thought, abruptly jogging across the street ahead of a few cars. ‘Why do I sense someone's presence over there?’

He made his way into a park with a long, broad brick pathway winding through it. He made his way down said path, passed by some cyclists, and a man calling out commands while jogging with his Primeape. He ignored his surroundings, his eyes intensely focused on his target.

‘Who could this be? Why is their energy so intense? Don't tell me it's going be yet another weird, new person I've never seen before, here to make things even more complicated than they already are.’

Latoshi gasped in shock when he neared close enough to see who it was. Past a large fountain statue, sat the impeccably dressed brother of Serenity: Collin. All the muscles in the boy's body became rigid, freezing up, swallowing nervously. The silence between them was pierced by the sound of water splashing down from the fountain.

Damn it. What do I do? This guy … he's the one that made Serenity tremble in fear — and she's way stronger than I am. What if … what if he decides to fight me? Could I take him? Maybe I should leave. I need to get out of here.’

Collin calmly read from a hardcover book resting in his gloved hand, one leg crossed over the other. He smiled to himself, continuously, seemingly oblivious of Latoshi's presence. Despite Collin's placid demeanor, Latoshi's heart was pounding in fear.

‘No,’ Latoshi thought. ‘He already knows I'm here. He had to have sensed me when I was still all the way across the street. Damn it! He was luring me here, wasn't he?’

The boy sighed, straightening his back, staying as composed as possible. He kept his hands in his pockets, walking over to Collin until he was just a few meters away.

“Hello again, Latoshi,” Collin greeted him, without so much as a glance.

The sable-haired boy bit his tongue, glaring at the refined young man wearing his gold waistcoat and white dress shirt, with matching white pleated pants and patent leather shoes. His brown hair was slicked back as before. White formal dress gloves covered his hands. Collin's white gold wristwatch gleamed in the pre-noon sunlight, as did most everything on his person. His ensemble was a stark contrast to Latoshi's unkempt look.

“That's quite the intense look you're giving me,” Collin continued, again without looking at the boy. “If I didn't know any better, I'd say you were … scared of me.”

‘What the hell does this guy want?’ the boy thought, his concealed hands trembling. ‘I'm getting an awful sense of dread just being near him. His energy feels like it's going to swallow me whole at any second.’

“Sorry,” Latoshi replied after a brief pause, “I just forgot to wear my sunglasses today. I have to squint my eyes to see you since you're glowing like the freakin' sun in that goofy outfit.”

The young man raised his eyebrows in surprise, gazing down at his clothing. “You think so? I happen to like this ensemble. You wouldn't be trying to rile me up, would you?” Collin finally looked over at the boy. Latoshi's eyes went wide as they met with his.

‘What's wrong with me?!’ the boy thought, baring his clenched teeth. ‘I'm scared to death of him and he's barely done or said anything! This is so stupid!’

Collin laughed in amusement. “Your muscles are so tense,” he remarked. “Your breathing is becoming ragged. You're fearful of me — don't be. Believe me, I have no intention of harming you; certainly not in the severely weakened state you're in. This is nothing more than a cordial conversation between acquaintances. Come, have a seat.”

“Thanks, but I'll stand,” Latoshi replied, before swallowing the lump in his throat.

“Fair enough.” Collin shut his book and set it aside. He shifted his seating, changing which leg was crossed over the other, while turning his full attention to Latoshi. He curiously tapped his fingers over his mouth, studying the boy. Latoshi swallowed again, beads of sweat starting roll down his forehead. “Like my sister, I've been watching over you and your brother ever since the two of you came to Goldenrod. While Serenity's been more direct in interacting with you both, I've merely observed from afar. Seeing you up close like this just electrifies my spirit.”

“I didn't know I was building my own fan club,” Latoshi replied, wryly.

Collin laughed, resting his arm along the back of the bench. “Yes, there's that cutting wit that you're so good at. Lazarus was incapable of restricting your colorful personality. You are a fascinating prospect, Latoshi. You have so much untapped ability that you can't even fathom. Yet, you're still so … green. You know neither the purest basics of how to fully tap into your Ki, nor what to do with it whenever you do utilize it. You have so much to learn, so much potential growth, and that exhilarates me in ways you cannot understand. You're like raw clay waiting to be molded. If you so desire, I can be the one to teach you.”

Latoshi scoffed. “No, thanks. I've had enough 'teachers' for one lifetime.”

“As I expected,” Collin replied with a grin. “Your spirit is still tarnished with Lazarus' energy. You can't smell it the same way that I do, though. That foul, malodorous stench — it's unmistakable.”

“I haven't showered in a while, so maybe that's it.”

Collin smirked. “I want you to think of the moment when you ejected Lazarus' spirit as … a rebirth of sorts. It's the cusp of a brand new life for you, full of endless possibilities. The path you take from here will shape you for the rest of your life — that 'raw clay' I mentioned before.”

Latoshi shifted his gaze away for a brief moment in confusion. “So, … what, you brought me here to give me some pep talk or something? 'Go get 'em, slugger' and such? I have better things to do, like wander around the city in misery.”

“That's what I like about you, Latoshi. Your brother would never say such things. No, he's far too reserved. You're brash and arrogant; you say exactly what you feel, and to hell with the consequences.”

“You want me to say what I feel? Okay. The more I stand here, the more I feel like this is a waste of my time. I think you're not as strong as Serenity made you out to be. I think you're just some creep in obnoxious clothing who likes to listen to himself talk. Is that good enough for you?”

Collin chuckled, nodding his head. “That's more than good. Just for my own amusement, why don't you take a look behind you? What do you see?”

Latoshi glared cautiously at Collin for a moment, before doing as he asked. “What am I supposed to be looking at?” he mused, turning his attention back to Collin. “There's a giant building that looks like it's made of glass.”

Collin smirked, lifting his head and looking behind the boy. “Look again.”

Latoshi turned once more. His eyes immediately went wide with horror as he watched the giant skyscraper of over one hundred stories crumble to the ground in the distance. People and Pokémon in the park also looked on, screaming, some of them fleeing from the sight.

‘What … the hell?!’ he thought, his jaw hanging, trembling fearfully. ‘Did he just do that? I didn't see or sense anything from him! He was just casually sitting there! No, … he has to be tricking me somehow.’

“Of course, that was just a mote of my power,” Collin remarked, casually.

Latoshi turned to him in shock. “That's not possible. You didn't do anything!”

“Oh, but I did. Like I said, you're incredibly green, Latoshi. What you sense from me is only what you're capable of feeling. I assure you the well goes far, far deeper.”

The boy's horrified expression turned to anger. “But, … why? Why would you do that?! You bastard! There were lives in there!”

Collin chuckled and gazed at the aftermath of the destruction. “Don't get so riled up. You can relax knowing those lives you're so concerned with are safe. She's taken care of everything. Every single person and Pokémon in that building is still perfectly fine. Ah, she always knows when to hover around nearby to clean up after my messes.”

“'She'? Who are you talking about?”

“Who else? Yes, it was quite the spectacle you missed out on. She cleared every single floor before the structure crumbled to the ground. She took count of every living soul in there, protected them by wrapping her Ki around them, then went to the each subsequent floor and repeated the process. I counted, … oh, about two thousand people and a few hundred Pokémon. For the seconds in which all they saw was shrapnel and dust, it must have been the most confusing seconds of their lives. After the building fell, she made sure to give every single one of them a little escape tunnel. Of course, they'll have to wait until the dust settles before they can see anything. I'm sure the news reports will explain it as nothing less than a miracle.”

Latoshi stared at him, blankly. ‘What is this guy even saying? I—I can't even understand anything he just explained. It's impossible for someone to do all of that in less than a minute!’

Just then, Serenity appeared out of nowhere, standing a short distance away from the two. Her hair and clothing was full of dust.

“Bravo, Serenity,” Collin replied, smiling, offering a slow clap, “even though that was such a trivial amount of your ability. You could've come up with so many other clever solutions to that problem. I was just explaining to our young prodigy here everything that you just did.”

‘Serenity?!’ Latoshi thought, looking at her in disbelief. ‘How could she possibly … do … that?’

“Collin, you promised me,” Serenity said, her voice trembling with anger. “You promised that you wouldn't let this happen again.”

“I remember what I promised. I would never let what happened in Slateport happen anymore. This was certainly nothing close to it. I knew you would handle it, as usual. You're always putting others before yourself, after all.”

‘Slateport?’ Latoshi thought, his eyes shifting back and forth as he turned the pages of his mind. He gasped, recalling images of devastation on a television screen. He held his forehead, turning his gaze downward. “Slate … port City?” he mused. “You mean … that city in Hoenn that was destroyed?” He gasped in shock. “You destroyed Slateport City?!”

Collin sat, smiling, with his eyes closed, hands folded in his lap.

“He did,” Serenity replied, sighing. “It was a long time ago, when he lost control of his powers. Since then, he's become far more composed.”

“My baby sister is correct,” Collin said. “I don't partake in such things anymore. Those days are behind me. Now, I enjoy spending my days enjoying the finer things that life has to offer. I simply did this as a visual example for Latoshi. He doubted my power, but … I believe I may have instilled a little faith in him now.”

Latoshi looked back and forth between the two of them in bewilderment. ‘Just what the hell am I dealing with here? These two are on a level I could never have imagined before, and yet, they act so calm and collected about it. They're like deities in human form.’

“Now, then,” Collin said, grabbing his book and getting to his feet, “I believe I shall take my leave. It's going to become quite the chaotic mess for some time around here, and I'd much rather relax in the quiet of my home. May the two of you have a splendid day.” He casually walked away with one hand in his pocket, whistling a tune to himself.

Latoshi sighed heavily, wiping the sweat from his forehead. “Are you … okay?” he asked with some confusion, looking to Serenity.

“I'll be fine,” she replied, walking over to him. “There's something I should've made crystal clear to you and your siblings the first time you encountered Collin. It's best not to test him or rile him. When he gets angry, he … well, … Slateport City happens.” Latoshi was deeply disturbed by the very insinuation. Serenity smiled, placing a hand on his shoulder. “It's all right. I have no reason to believe anything like that will ever happen again. What's more, all those people and Pokémon in that building are perfectly fine. Don't worry about it. Just remember what I told you, okay?”

“Yeah, I—I got it.”

Serenity sighed, looking at her clothes. “I was supposed to have a job interview today. Now, I look like a total mess. I better hurry and get cleaned up, so I don't miss my appointment. I'll talk to you again soon.”

“Yeah—” he started, only to watch Serenity seem to vanish right before his eyes. “… See ya.”

Latoshi quickly stumbled over to the nearest bench and sat down, hunched over, panting softly. He felt sick to his stomach over the sheer power he'd just witnessed, and the implication of even more potentially dire consequences.

‘This is so insane,’ he thought. ‘Here I am struggling to regain whatever tiny scraps of energy I can, while in the presence of people who can level whole cities and rescue thousands of people in the blink of an eye. I'm like a tiny worm in the presence of giants.’

Latoshi spent some time watching police and rescue personnel show up. They coordinate rescue efforts to help every person and Pokémon get out of the massive pile of rubble and twisted shrapnel. The area was cordoned off with police tape, while news crews showed up to report on every second of the efforts. Just as Collin had said, every single one of them was completely unharmed, and easily able to locate inside the many nooks that Serenity made for them.

‘The way Collin explained what Serenity did made it seem so simple. She didn't even look winded when she showed up. What exactly are we dealing with here? And, just how strong is this Collin guy? …’

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

That night, Antoshi, Fireball, Mitoshi, and Bubbles were all gathered in the living room. Antoshi and Fireball sat on the couch directly facing Mitoshi, while Bubbles sat on the floor next to the girl. They talked and laughed, continuing to share the same jovial mood they had since meeting. Antoshi grabbed a balled napkin from the glass coffee table and playfully tossed it at Mitoshi.

“Hey, don't throw that at me!” she said, laughing.

“Mitoshi's just starting to learn how to use her powers,” Antoshi remarked, cheekily, to Fireball. “We're starting off slow, so she still has to work on her reflexes.” Mitoshi blew a raspberry at him before grinning.

"That sounds so wonderful," Bubbles remarked. "I'm glad the two of you are getting along so well. It's the one thing Miss Mitoshi's been wanting for such a long time."

"Sure is wonderful," Fireball remarked, sitting next to Antoshi. "Finally, I have others to talk to!" The others shared a laugh.

Just then, there was a quiet knock at the door.

“I'll get it,” Mitoshi said, hopping to her feet.

As she opened the door, the pleasant expression on her face quickly turned to shock. She gasped, covering her mouth with a hand, stepping back. The others watched her in concern.

“Co—come in,” she said, softly.

The two Pokémon were astonished to see a certain young man wearing ragged, green clothes and a head full of sable hair emerge.

“… Latoshi?” Antoshi uttered in disbelief as he got to his feet.

Latoshi offered a weak smile to the group, unsure of what to say to them. “Hey,” he replied, before turning his gaze away. A moment of awkward silence followed. Mitoshi shut the door.

“Um, can I get you anything?” Mitoshi asked. “Would you like some water? We, err, we have some chocolate chip cookies in the fridge.”

“Thank you, that'd be nice,” he said. “My stomach's kinda been running on empty for a few days now.”

Mitoshi smiled, before promptly shuffling off into the kitchen. Antoshi approached his brother, who was unable to look him in the eye. Fireball stood off to the side alongside Bubbles, both Pokémon watching curiously.

“You're … really here,” Antoshi remarked. Latoshi nodded gently. “You don't have Lazarus' spirit inside you anymore. I can sense that 'rotten' energy is gone.”

“Yeah,” Latoshi replied. “Turns out, I didn't need him. You were right all along, and I see that now.”

Antoshi smiled, warmly, offering a hand to Latoshi. “It's good to have you here.”

Latoshi smiled as well, chuckling as they shared a handshake. “It does … feel good to be here.”

Mitoshi quietly placed down a plate of cookies and a glass of water on the counter. She watched with the same curiosity and fascination as the others. The two boys, who had waged war against each other for what felt like ages, finally made peace with one another.

“First thing's first, though,” Latoshi said. “I wanted to apolog— no, … what am I saying? I could never apologize enough to you for what I've done to you; to all of you. I ended up causing you so much pain and misery. Antoshi, I-I ruined your life. If it wasn't for me, you'd be on your journey through Johto like you wanted, and … I ruined all of that for you. I can never make that up to you.”

Antoshi had closed his eyes to listen, gathering his thoughts for a moment. When he opened them again, he gave Latoshi a reassuring smile.

“It's okay, Latoshi. As you can probably imagine, this direction my life has headed is … something I've given a lot of thought to lately. When I first decided to experience Johto with Fireball, I wanted it to be something I would learn from; something I would grow from and remember for the rest of my life. I think it's fair to say that's certainly the case now. Latoshi, you and I went through so much together in such a short amount of time. I feel like I've grown much more from all of my experiences so far than I would have from any journey across any region. Honestly, the positives that came from all of this outweighed the negatives.” He placed both hands on Latoshi's shoulders, looking him squarely in the eye. “I don't blame you for any of the terrible things Fireball and I had to endure. It wasn't you, and it wasn't your fault. I've waited for this moment ever since you and I shared a simple ice cream together. I always knew you were a good person, and I've been waiting all this time for the real you to come back.”

Latoshi looked into his identical brothers' eyes with sheer astonishment. Just as tears started to well within them both, Antoshi pulled him in and hugged him tightly. The others were pleasantly surprised, though not nearly as much as Latoshi was. He stared blankly for a moment before putting his arms around Antoshi to reciprocate the hug. Mitoshi sniffled and sobbed, shuffling over to them, joining in on their hug. Antoshi chuckled warmly, putting an arm around her as the girl cried tears of joy. Latoshi was further shocked, that this girl, his sister whom he'd never known, cared so much for him. He followed his brother's lead, wrapping an arm around her as well. Fireball and Bubbles were extremely happy for the trio.

“You know, hugging me was probably not a great idea,” Latoshi muttered. “I haven't had a shower in, like, a really long time.”

Antoshi snorted, both he and Mitoshi breaking out into a laugh. “I was trying not to let it spoil the moment,” the blond boy admitted. The two boys grinned as they all pulled away from each other. Mitoshi continued to sniffle and wipe the tears from her eyes.

“Well, thank you for that,” Latoshi said to the girl, “but, you and I haven't really been introduced.”

“Oh, you're right!” Mitoshi replied, offering a trembling laugh. She inhaled deeply to steady her breathing. “Sorry about that. I'm Mitoshi.”

“Mitoshi?” he mused. “Just when I thought the name theme stopped with Antoshi and I.” The trio laughed together.

“Sorry about all the crying,” she said, her lips quivering as she smiled. “It's just so … so wonderful to see both of you together like this. I've dreamed about the first time I could hug my siblings for so long now. I never thought it would ever come true. Thanks for letting me have that moment with you both.” The boys nodded to her.

"I might as well get in on this, too," Fireball said as he approached. "After all, this guy and I have some history together, too."

Latoshi smirked, shaking Fireball's paw as the Typhlosion offered it to him. “That's true. I hope you and I get to share a chocolate chip ice cream again and talk some more.”

"I think you'll soon find out that I'm always ready for food." The others shared a laugh. After which, Latoshi sighed.

“Well, I know you offered me cookies and all,” Latoshi said, “but, … I should probably get going now.”

“No way!” Mitoshi quickly said, expressing her sorrow. “Don't leave! You can stay here with us for as long as you like.”

“I—I don't know,” Latoshi replied, rubbing the back of his neck. “Won't it be pretty awkward having me around as a … third wheel? 'Black sheep of the family' and all that?”

“Of course not,” Antoshi said, firmly. “We would never think of you that way. You're not a 'third wheel', you're a third sibling.”

Latoshi smiled, warmly. “All right, then. If you put it that way, I'll stay for as long as you guys want me around.” Mitoshi squealed in joy, clapping her hands. “Although, I do feel pretty gross in these old clothes. Would it be okay if I took a shower?”

“Absolutely!” Mitoshi replied. “The bathroom is the door in the hallway down there. There's clean towels in the cabinet.”

“I'll get you a change of clothes to borrow,” Antoshi added, quickly making for his room. The group waited until he came back with a plain white undershirt and matching boxer shorts.

Latoshi took them with a grateful nod. “Thank you both. I really— … I really do appreciate this. It took all the courage I had to face you guys again, but, I'm really glad now that I did.”

“Same here,” Antoshi said.

Latoshi heaved a relieved sigh as he headed for the bathroom, quietly shutting it behind him.

“Oh! There's unused toothbrushes in the drawer!” Mitoshi said.

“Thank you!” Latoshi called out from behind the door.

Antoshi, Mitoshi and Fireball all grinned at each other. Bubbles wiped away her tears with her flippers. The two siblings sat down at the counter, leaving an open seat between them.

Latoshi emerged a short time later, shutting the door behind him. He glanced down at the clothes Antoshi gave him.

“All white,” he remarked, “kind of like a clean start, huh?” Latoshi walked over to join them, sitting on the seat they left for him. He wasted no time eating the cookies left out for him. “Thanks for telling me about the toothbrushes, by the way. It's been so long since I brushed, it looked like a murder scene in the sink. These cookies are great.”

“Thanks!” Mitoshi replied, with a smile. “They're from one of those pre-mixed packages, and I just followed the directions. So, I kinda-sorta made them myself.”

“I really appreciate them anyway. It was probably a good idea for me to have something simple like cookies after having not eaten in like a week.” He stopped to take a drink of water. “You guys have already been super generous to me. I don't know how I can make it up to you.”

“You being here is all we wanted,” Antoshi replied. Mitoshi smiled and nodded.

Latoshi sighed, nudging the plate away. “I'm really stuffed already. Plus, it doesn't feel right just eating in front of you guys. You should have some, too.”

The other two promptly took a cookie from the plate. Antoshi passed his back for Fireball to take.

"Sweet!" Fireball said, eagerly tossing it into his mouth. "This is the best homecoming ever."

The three siblings all shared a chuckle. At the same time, Bubbles emerged from the middle of the three bedrooms.

"This room is all cleaned now," she said, quietly.

“Thank you, Bubbles,” Mitoshi replied, smiling to her before turning to Latoshi. He was momentarily stunned that he was able to hear the Lapras speak. “Well, it looks like your room is set.”

Latoshi snapped out of his daze. “My room?”

“That's right,” Antoshi said, as they all hopped down from their stools. “There's three bedrooms, and three of us. So, you get your own room.”

And we happened to have a green blanket stored away in the closet,” Mitoshi added. “Your clothes were green, so I figured you'd like it.”

“Wow,” Latoshi remarked in awe.

Antoshi stood next to him, placing a hand on his shoulder. “Get some rest.”

Latoshi smiled thankfully and nodded to him. “That sounds like a great idea.” The sable-haired boy's spirit was placid and relaxed. He felt so much more at ease than he could've ever dreamed.

The three of them gathered together, sharing another brief group hug. The Pokémon looked on in contentment. The trio heaved a collective sigh of relief as they broke away.

“Well, goodnight,” Latoshi said.

“Goodnight,” the others replied.

After Latoshi headed for his room and shut the door quietly, the remaining two siblings smiled to each other.

“This is a dream come true,” Mitoshi said. “I always hoped this day would finally come!”

“Same here,” Antoshi replied. “I'm really happy things turned out this way. It's like a huge weight's finally off my shoulders.”

"I'm really glad you won't have to fight Latoshi anymore," Fireball added, patting his friend on the back. "Going through all of that — it was one terrible nightmare." Antoshi couldn't help but grin in relief.

“Well,” Mitoshi said with a yawn, “I guess we should all get to bed, too.” She headed over to Bubbles, bringing the Lapras' head down to her, giving her Pokémon a kiss on the cheek. “Goodnight, Bubbles. Goodnight, guys.”

“Night, Mitoshi,” Antoshi and Fireball said in unison.

"Goodnight, Miss Mitoshi," Bubbles replied, nodding respectfully to her, before sliding over to her Poké Ball. She pressed her snout against it, resulting in her being pulled into the ball to get some rest. The others headed into their respective rooms and shut the doors behind them.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Four days passed since Latoshi had reunited with his siblings. After sleeping for most of the first couple of days, Latoshi eventually got to sit down and chat with Mitoshi. She caught him up to speed with everything that she had explained to Antoshi. Latoshi found himself left in disbelief, just like his brother, at the revelation that he was adopted. He, however, did not participate in much activity with them, as he continued to feel quite tired, spending most of the time asleep.

Antoshi continued his training with Fireball and Mitoshi. It became something of a balancing act, as Antoshi had to divide his time training between them equally. During the day, in the field outside the cabin, the three of them prepared for Mitoshi's next lesson.

“All right, Mitoshi,” he said, “let's try to get you to fly. Are you ready?” Fireball stood by, watching them curiously.

Mitoshi huffed sharply. “Heck yeah!” she replied.

Antoshi laughed, warmly. “Well, first, why don't you bring out your aura, like you've been working on?”

Mitoshi nodded and took a deep breath, closing her eyes. She exhaled slowly, focusing intensely. Upon breathing in again, her blue aura slowly emerged from her body and burned like a flame. When she opened her eyes, her irises glowed bright blue.

“Very good!” Antoshi continued. “Now, as far as flying goes, it's kind of like learning how to ride a bike. You focus on one action, then you keep that action up until it gets to the point where you can do it without even thinking about it.”

“And what action is that?”

“Using your Ki to keep your body airborne, like you're lifting yourself up with it. There really isn't any way to teach you how to do that, you just figure it out and perfect it from there. The only advice I can give you is to just keep your output of energy as steady as possible.”

“Oh. … Uh, all right, then.” Mitoshi sighed, nervously, rubbing her hands together. “Okay. Here I go. Gonna learn how to fly.” She spread her arms out wide, closing her eyes, straining to use her Ki in the way Antoshi described. After a few minutes of merely making her aura flicker about wildly, she hunched over with a loud exhale. “… I figured this was going to be an 'easier said than done' situation,” she deadpanned.

“It's all right! Don't rush it, you've got all the time in the world to learn.”

“Right. Don't rush — got it.”

Antoshi and Fireball quietly chuckled to each other. Mitoshi continued straining to fly. She stood on her tiptoes, tried flapping her arms, and tried getting a jumping start. All of it was for naught.

The duo sat in the grass for a while and watched her. At some point, he headed inside to get some snacks for him and his friend. The boy sipped from a box of juice while Fireball ate some vegetable chips from a storage bag. With the front door ajar, Bubbles came outside a few times in-between tidying up the house to see if she was making progress.

“This is so tough!” Mitoshi complained. “I was really hoping it wouldn't three hours, but, here we still are.” The girl sighed in exasperation.

“Don't try to force it to happen,” Antoshi replied. “It's the same concept as when you were learning to bring out your aura. You've got to learn how to use your emotions to strengthen the rest of your abilities.”

“Well, … maybe you could fly and I'll … take notes or something.”

Antoshi chuckled, getting to his feet. “All right, fine.” He smiled, relaxing his mind, allowing his aura coming to life in a rather gentle flicker. His body almost immediately began to ascend into the air. Mitoshi watched, awe-struck, as he hovered several meters over their heads. “You see? Once you learn how to do it, it's easy enough.” He held out a hand to her. “Come on. Try to reach for me.”

Mitoshi groaned in defeat. She stood on the tips of her toes again, reaching up as high as she could. She strained and grunted with effort, her aura expanding and flaring around, wildly.

“Come on, Mitoshi! You can do it! Feel it in your heart! Let the energy of your emotions pull you to the clouds!”

She clenched her eyes shut, tears falling from her eyes, putting out an intense amount of effort. Fireball gasped in surprise, slapping a paw over his gaping maw, as the girl's feet suddenly began to leave the ground.

“That's it, Mitoshi! You're flying!”

Her eyes shot open, gasping and grinning in elation. “I'm flying?!” she exclaimed, looking down. “Oh, my gosh! I'm really doing it! I'm really—!” She stopped upon abruptly toppling forward and falling to the ground. “… Ow,” she muttered, with a face full of earth.

Antoshi grinned, nervously. “You okay, Mitoshi?” The girl sat up, shaking the dirt off her face.

“Yeah, I'm fine!” she replied, giving them a thumbs up.

Just then, a loud, horrifying scream came from the house.

“That sounded like Latoshi,” Antoshi said in concern. He promptly landed on the ground and headed for the front door, the other two quickly in tow. As they entered the house, Bubbles was quite scared and concerned as she looked at the group. He made for Latoshi's room, opening it to find Latoshi sitting on the edge of his bed, which was set in the far corner of the room. The mid-sized bedroom was almost identical in appearance to Antoshi's.

The sable-haired boy was panted heavily, his head in his hands, grabbing fistfuls of hair. “No, no, no, …” he continually repeated.

“Latoshi, what is it?” Antoshi asked, worried, kneeling down beside him.

Latoshi slowly turned to his brother. His eyes were wide, filled with tears. “I-I remember … everything.” Antoshi and the others were flabbergasted by the revelation, yet there was uncertainty as to what him finally regaining his long-lost memories meant. The fact that the boy huffed and sobbed meant he recalled something dire. “I remember— … I remember what happened that night. The night of the … explosion.”

"Fern Town?" Fireball quietly mused.

“My home, … my family, … my parents. Antoshi, I … Lazarus, he … he made me …”

“It's okay,” Antoshi said, sitting beside him. “Just take a moment—”

“No, it's not okay!” Latoshi shouted, surprising the blond boy. “I killed my parents!!” The others went completely silent from shock. Mitoshi covered her mouth with one hand. Latoshi grabbed his hair again, shaking his head as he sobbed uncontrollably. “Why did I want to remember? Why did I want my memories back?!”

The others had no words, only turning their gazes downward. Mitoshi and Fireball looked to each other. They felt it appropriate to leave the room for a short while, allowing Antoshi to console him in peace. He waited by his brother's side until Latoshi's crying started to die down.

“I'm so sorry, Latoshi,” he whispered. “All I ever wanted was for you to stop hurting. I'm so sorry this is happening to you.”

“I can't believe this,” Latoshi remarked. “Of course … this would happen. All I ever wanted this whole time was to get my memories back. I should've known that I was going to remember … something horrible. Why else would Lazarus hold my memories from me?” He closed his eyes, sighing shakily. “I remember how everything started now. It was actually … after I had learned I was adopted. I found the adoption papers, which had my birth name on it. That's where I first saw the name 'Latoshi.' It's how I recalled my name when I was in that prison cell. My whole life, my name had been Declan. Yet, here was this piece of paper with this name in front of me that I'd never heard of, and, it was … my name. I was so … scared and so angry when I found out about the adoption. I was angry at my parents. They never told me, and I felt like I deserved to know. I … lashed out at them. I told them I hated them. I said— … I said they weren't my 'real parents!'”

Latoshi choked back further tears, clenching his eyes shut.

“So,” he continued, “one night, Lazarus came to me. He told me that he felt my anger and my despair. He told me I was so much stronger than I realized, that I had a gift I never knew of. He offered me the promise of 'a new life.' He said I would be free of all of this sadness, and that I would gain power beyond my wildest imagination. I couldn't believe I was … talking to this black cloud floating in my room. Yet, everything he was saying was so exciting to me. I wanted to get out of there so badly. I just wanted to run away, get as far away from Fern Town as I could. So, I … I let him in. He became part of my spirit, and I heard his voice in my mind.”

Latoshi paused for a few moments. He gazed down at his cold, trembling hands, wringing them together. The boys looked up as Mitoshi returned to the room, holding a glass of water.

“Here,” she said, softly, handing it to Latoshi.

“Thank you.” Latoshi took a long drink of water, sighing heavily once he was done. He held the glass in his lap, wiping his eyes with his other hand.

“I had Lazarus' spirit living inside me for a few days. I didn't even realize the change in my personality. I became totally arrogant, and I looked down on everyone. I went to school and acted like such a prick to everyone that I got suspended by the time my first class of the day was finished. Lazarus told me I should use the time away from school to develop my powers, and that's what I did. He taught me Ki control, how to manifest my Ki into attacks, how to use it defensively — the basic stuff. Then, came the point where … Lazarus said it was time for me to move on. He told me I needed to leave my old life behind, so that I could go on to bigger and better things. I needed to 'erase' my past. He talked me into it. I was so drunk off of this power he showed me that I listened to every word he said. So, … I walked out into the hallway outside my parents' room. I pointed my hand at it, and … I pulled the trigger…” Latoshi broke down and sobbed once again. Antoshi and Mitoshi looked at each other with equal parts sorrowful and astonished expressions. “I killed them without even thinking about it. I killed them … leaving them thinking I hated them. I never saw them after the blast, they were just … gone. Once I realized what I did, I—”

“You fell to your knees,” Antoshi interrupted. Latoshi looked over at him in surprise.

“Lazarus' voice,” Mitoshi added, “it said, … 'it was what needed to be done.'”

Latoshi's jaw hung, completely bewildered. “How—how did you both know that?”

“Mitoshi and I,” Antoshi replied, “we both saw it play out in our dreams. We saw … the entire thing, starting from that point. I remember it felt so real, like I was actually there. I could feel your emotions inside me.” Mitoshi nodded in agreement.

“You … saw everything that happened,” Latoshi mused, before scoffing in disbelief. “I'm— … I'm sorry you had to see that. I didn't want anyone else to witness that horrible scene.”

“Don't apologize,” Mitoshi spoke gently. She walked over and sat at his other side. “Neither of us understood what happened, but, … now that we do, it only means that we know exactly how you feel right now.”

“Mitoshi and I are more than willing to share this burden with you, Latoshi,” Antoshi added.

Latoshi sniffled and nodded. “Thank you both. You've both been so great to me already. … Still, … I'll never be able to see my parents ever again. …”

As Latoshi cried, lamenting over the loss he finally remembered, his two siblings held his shoulders tightly. They both held their heads down, tears falling from their faces as well, sharing in his agonizing pain.

Chapter 25

The next day, in the midmorning hours, the three siblings and Fireball walked out into the field outside the cabin. Latoshi was wearing a green t-shirt, which Antoshi had gone out and bought for him, along with blue jeans borrowed from Antoshi's wardrobe. His outfit resembled his brother's red and blue attire. Fireball closed his eyes as Antoshi pulled him into the confines of his Poké Ball.

“Ready to go?” Antoshi asked his brother, tucking the minimized Poké Ball into his pocket. Latoshi sighed, pausing for a moment before he nodded. The two boys took Mitoshi by the hand. “Then, let's go!”

The girl grinned as her brothers helped lift her into the air. She used her own training and ability to help keep herself airborne as well. Bubbles remained at the front door, waving to them with both flippers as they flew off southward into the clear blue sky.

The trio of siblings sailed high, near the clouds. The warm, summer wind whipped loudly around them. They took in the sights of Route 35 beneath them, which gave way to Goldenrod — the city that they were all so intimately familiar with already.

After some time, the two brothers watched as Mitoshi hesitantly let go of their hands. She shrieked and flailed for a moment, losing some altitude, before managing to fly on her own between them. She laughed it off, her face lit up with elation, keeping her attention focused on her flight and managing her energy as Antoshi had taught her. At the same time, she couldn't help but revel in the freedom of flight — despite how scary it was being so high up at first. The blond boy grinned at her, proudly. She giggled, maneuvering up and down, spinning and rolling with her arms out wide. The black undershirt and blue shorts she wore held tight to her body, while the much more loose, blue shirt on top, as well as her long blue hair, flapped wildly in the intense winds. The longer she kept at it, the more comfortable she became — like learning how to ride a bike, as Antoshi said.

The group flew for over an hour without stopping. By then, their destination was in sight. They descended slowly to the ground, just on the outskirts of a wooded area, away from eyesight of nearby people. The trio emerged from the trees, having made it to the remains of Fern Town.

Before them was a memorial park, currently visited by a few dozen people scattered around the area. The neatly landscaped grass was bordered by large, circular pathways, allowing people to stroll and to jog amid newly planted oak trees. Small statues, flower beds, and short, brick walls made up just what they were able to see from their vantage point. More notable were the many memorial plaques and headstones alongside the paths.

The group stood at the edge of a sidewalk, leading toward a parking lot occupied by several parked cars on their right. Antoshi held out Fireball's Poké Ball, releasing him from its confines, allowing the Typhlosion to gaze upon the scenic park. Mitoshi groaned, weakly, falling back onto her posterior on the grass. She caught her breath, visibly sweating, resting on her hands.

“You okay?” Antoshi asked her.

Mitoshi uttered an airy laugh. “Yeah, I'm just a little wiped out. That was a heck of a first attempt at flying.”

Antoshi chuckled in response. “It's really beautiful here,” he remarked, to the agreement of Fireball and the girl. The three of them watched as Latoshi hesitantly walked forward. The sable-haired boy exhaled slowly, gazing out at the long, empty stretch of grassy plain, bordered by a forest, behind the park. Small handfuls of people walked on by along the grass and the paved walkways. Very few cars drove along the nearby stretch of road. The brief sounds of laughing children and Pokémon rang out.

Antoshi took a seat next to Mitoshi, and Fireball followed suit. Each of them understood how important this was for Latoshi.

It couldn't have been a more picturesque day, with pillars of white clouds brushed across the warm, blue sky. A gentle breeze carried him forward as he approached a small memorial area where people stopped by briefly. He stopped in front of a vertical, black marble memorial slab to read its inscription: 'This land is dedicated to honor the memory of the citizens of Fern Town. A beautiful town with over seventy years of history. 7,182 souls were lost one fateful morning. May their memories of their lives continue in our hearts forever.'

He exhaled in awe upon looking out at the makeshift cemetery laid out in the distance. Aside from the thousands of plaques within the confines of the park, beyond that lay thousands of identical headstones dotting the pristine field of grass, set in perfectly spaced rows.

He wandered through them, looking at all of the engraved names — names that were all that was left of the town's residents. Many of the headstones had flowers or balloons or toys laid out in front of them. Each of the gifts that loved ones had left felt like a dagger through his heart.

His town was gone. He was the only one left.

He came to a halt, gasping in shock as he found a shared headstone with the names of his parents — along with his name, too. His jaw quavered. It was a jarring experience to see his own name upon a grave. Part of his memories, his past, his former name, had perished with the town.

‘They think I died, too,’ he thought, his eyes welling with tears. He scoffed and wiped his eyes. ‘So, … it really is the start of a new life. … Just like Lazarus told me it would be.’

He sat in front of the headstone, crossing his legs. He reached out and touched the smooth finish on the cool, hard marble. “It's been a long time,” he muttered, staring at his parents' names. “I finally … came to see you. I know it took a while for me to get here, but, I had no idea what happened until just recently. I'm sorry I didn't come sooner.” He sighed and looked away for a moment. “I wanted to apologize for everything I did. I was … so terrible to you near … the end. I realize now how difficult I had been over the past few years. I was dealing with a lot of things. I never … felt like I 'fit in' at school. I barely had any friends. I started acting out. I thought I was cool acting like a punk and getting into trouble. You were both always so patient with me. You just wanted the best for me, but, I was so shut-in that I never noticed any of that. I just wanted you to leave me alone and I— … I never realized how much that must have hurt you.”

Latoshi huffed and wiped the tears from his eyes. He steadied his breathing for a moment before continuing.

“After … I had found out that … you had adopted me, it was like … I dunno, something snapped inside me. I had this horrible, emotional burden inside me all the time, and then finding out about the adoption made me feel like my whole world came crashing down. It was like my life was ending. I was so confused, and scared, and I didn't know what was going to happen to me. I felt so alone, but, the truth was, I wasn't. If I had just listened to you, if I had just stopped and had an actual conversation with you, … none of this would've happened. I was too weak, emotionally. That's why I turned to Lazarus. It felt like he understood me, and he would take care of me, and that all of my troubles were over. Turns out that was far from the truth.”

He touched the headstone again. “I cried so much over the past few days. It hurt every time I thought about … what I had done. I know it wasn't me that did all these terrible things, but … it's hard not to feel that way. My mistake was letting Lazarus in and giving him the ability to act out his plans. I should've been stronger and smarter, but I wasn't. Now, that's my burden to bear. … I can't keep crying over it, though. I have to be stronger and smarter now. I have to move forward. Even despite all this horrible tragedy, there's a light of hope for me in the end. I have a new family now. I finally got to meet my twin brother, and my younger sister. They're really amazing. I bet you'd have loved them, too.”

Latoshi stood up, exhaling slowly. “I'll come and see you again soon. I want to tell you about everything that's happening with me. I want you both to know … that I'm doing my best to become a better person now. I love you both so much.”

He slid his hands into his pockets, turning his gaze to the sky for a few moments. He cleared his throat, rubbing his eyes once more, before heading back.

The trio were still sitting in the grass, talking and laughing, as Latoshi approached them. They stood up, noticing Latoshi heading over.

“How do you feel?” Antoshi asked him.

Latoshi smiled and shrugged. “Better,” he replied. “It gave me some closure, just like you said. Thank you for talking me into this.” Antoshi nodded to him, smiling. Latoshi sighed, looking to the sky again. “It's so weird when you think about it. None of this would've happened if not for my decisions. We probably never would've met — at least, not so soon. We might not have even used our powers on the scale we did. … It's like realizing the moment when my life suddenly split off into a completely different direction.”

“Do you … regret the way things turned out?” Mitoshi asked, softly.

He smiled and shook his head. “No, I don't — I can't. If I regret it, then, I can't move on.”

“Well said,” Antoshi replied. “There were plenty of times when things didn't turn out the way any of us expected, or hoped. Even still, we'll move on together.”

“Sounds good,” Latoshi said.

“Speaking of 'moving on,'” Mitoshi added, “could you guys cart me back home? I don't think I can fly all that way again.”

The others laughed. “All right, take my hand,” Antoshi said, holding a hand out to her.

“Yeah, and be sure to look both ways, little one,” Latoshi added, smirking.

“Hilarious,” Mitoshi replied, sarcastically, as she grabbed hold of Antoshi's hand.

"So, when do we get to eat?" Fireball asked.

“We'll have lunch when we get home,” Antoshi replied.

"Maybe we could have a … pre-lunch before that?"

Antoshi smirked, shaking his head, before recalling Fireball into his Poké Ball. The three siblings headed back into the woods, before going airborne once again.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

That night, after everyone had gone to bed, Antoshi sat alone on the large, middle couch in the living room. He sighed, moving his Trainer ID card around through his fingers. The door to his room opened, grabbing his attention.

"Antoshi?" Fireball mused, groggily. "It's almost 1 A.M. What are you doing up?"

“Can't sleep,” he replied, as Fireball shuffled over to him. “I've just been sitting here, thinking.”

"What about?" the Typhlosion asked, taking a seat on the couch to his left.

“Well, … Latoshi came to terms with his parents. Now, I have to do the same.”

Fireball went silent for a moment. "When are you … going to talk to them?"

“The sooner, the better,” he replied, staring at his ID again. “I haven't spoken to them since, … well, since I found out. I only went this long without talking them once before, and you know how worried they were when I finally called. It's just, …” his hand trembled as he pinched the card between his fingers, “I kind of feel the same way Latoshi did when he found out. I can't help but thinking that … they lied to me by never telling me.”

"But, they are your parents, Antoshi — you know they wouldn't ever lie."

“I know, I— it's selfish of me to think that, but, … I just wish they would've told me.”

"It's hard. That much I know from what I've seen from you and from Latoshi. Obviously, I couldn't what you're going through, since I barely remember my own parents. But, you know I've always got your back. Whenever you want to talk to them, I'll be right there with you."

“Thanks, Fireball,” he replied. “I was thinking about going as soon as possible tomorrow morning. I was going to ask you to come with me, too.”

The best friends smiled to each other.

"Why don't you get some rest now?"

Antoshi closed his eyes and nodded in response. The two of them got up, and headed back into their room.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

“Are you sure you don't want us to come with you?” Mitoshi asked, the following morning. She and Latoshi stood by and watched as Antoshi knelt down to tie his shoelaces.

“Yeah, I'm sure,” he said, standing up. “This is something Fireball and I have to take care of together. I'll be back tomorrow, though.”

“Don't forget to call us,” Latoshi said. The two brothers smiled at each other, sharing a brief handshake.

“I sure won't,” Antoshi replied. “I'll be thinking about you guys the whole time.” Mitoshi walked up to him, giving him and Fireball a hug around the neck. Antoshi laughed. “Come on, guys, we're only going to be gone for one day.”

“Yeah, we know that,” Latoshi replied, “but, it won't feel the same without our 'fearless leader' around.”

“Is that how you really think of me?”

“You didn't give up on me after learning about Lazarus,” Latoshi said. “Mitoshi also told me about how you would go outside and send out energy in the hopes I'd sense you.”

“You're also teaching me how to use my energy like you do,” Mitoshi added, smiling.

“I just enjoy being with you guys,” Antoshi replied, with an embarrassed grin. “I … I care about you, and I just want to make you both happy.”

“And, that's why it won't feel the same without you around,” Latoshi said.

Antoshi nodded in understanding to them. “Well, try not to miss me too much,” he joked. The others chuckled. He bent down to grab his backpack, slinging it over his shoulders with a content sigh.

“See you guys tomorrow.”

“See ya,” they both replied, while Fireball waved to them. Bubbles, staying near the back of the main area, waved to the duo as well. Antoshi held the door open for Fireball, heading out after his friend did.

Latoshi let out a heavy sigh.

“So, what should we do now?” he asked.

“Hmm, … you know, this whole time you guys haven't watched any TV.”

Latoshi stared at her blankly. “I … thought the TV wasn't working or something.”

“No, it works. The remote should be in a little pocket on the side of the couch.”

“Awesome,” he replied. Latoshi performed a flashy backflip from where he was standing, startling Bubbles, before making a soft landing sitting down on the couch. He reached for the remote where she said it would be, sighing happily, putting his feet up on the table.

Mitoshi grinned. “I'm glad you learned how to make yourself at home here,” she said.

“This place is so cozy,” he replied, “especially with all of you around. How can I not?”

Latoshi flicked the television on and reclined with his hands behind his head. Mitoshi smiled and shook her head, heading into the kitchen to grab a snack for them both. Bubbles quietly returned to her usual task of tidying up.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

In the early afternoon, Antoshi and Fireball headed off the Magnet Train. The boy took a deep breath and huffed sharply. He had a determined expression as they made their way out of the train station and back into their hometown of Saffron City.

"You were quiet the whole ride here," Fireball remarked, as they crossed the street together.

“Yeah, I'm sorry about that. I was just … rehearsing what to say to my head, and what they might say, and how they might react …”

"You could've called them."

“I could have, but this is something really important. It's the kind of conversation that needs to happen face-to-face.”

"That's true, but, I meant you could've called them to let them know we were coming."

Antoshi chuckled. “I haven't been able to call them this whole time because of what I want to talk about with them. I wouldn't be able to keep myself from bringing it up and, like I said, this needs to be discussed in person.”

The duo grew increasingly nervous the closer they got to home. Their serene neighborhood was quiet. Only a handful of their neighbors were out and about, and none of them seemed to notice the pair. By the time he reached for the front door, Antoshi's hands were trembling. He turned the knob and they headed inside.

“Mom! Dad!” Antoshi called out. “I'm home!”

“Antoshi?!” they both responded in surprise from the living room.

Antoshi headed over, finding them getting up from the couch. His mother quickly shuffled over and embraced him tightly.

“Oh, we were so worried!” she said. “You hadn't called in so long after you got to Route 35! We were hoping you'd been taking care of yourself, but, is everything all right? Why did you come home so suddenly?” The boy looked up at his mother, smiling, with tears filling his eyes. “Antoshi, … what's wrong?”

“I, um,” he said, his voice quavering, “… I think we should all sit together to have a talk.”

His parents looked to each other in concern. His father came over to join them.

“All right, sure, son,” he said. He pulled out a chair from the nearby dining room table. “Here, come sit.”

The boy did so. He was promptly joined by his mother sitting on the chair next to him. His father pulled out another chair and brought it over to sit with them as well. Fireball opted to stand nearby.

Antoshi gazed down at his trembling hands, exhaling slowly.

“Did something happen in Johto?” his father asked.

Antoshi chuckled, weakly, rubbing the tears from his eyes. “You could say that,” he replied.

His mother looked up at Fireball. “Well, you're here, and Fireball is here,” she said. “You both look all right. What could it be?”

“It's not really about me or Fireball,” he replied, “it's … it's about you. Both of you.”

His parents looked to each other in confusion. “I don't understand,” his father said.

The boy sighed again. “While I was in Johto, I met a couple of friends my age: a boy and a girl. They're both really nice, and Fireball really likes them, too.” Fireball nodded in agreement.

“Well, that's wonderful, honey,” his mother said, softly.

“It is wonderful, but, … well, the girl ended up telling me something I—I certainly wasn't ready for. She told me that she was actually my sister, and that the other boy with us … was my brother. She'd been searching for us for some time after finding out she had two older brothers that were given up for adoption.” He looked up to see the alarmed expressions on their faces. “She told me that I was … adopted.”

His parents went quiet for a few moments. His father reached over to grab his wife's hand.

“Oh,” she whispered. “I see.”

“Ever since I found out,” Antoshi went on, “it's been eating at me. I had so many questions on my mind, but the main question was: why? Why did you never tell me?”

“We were most certainly going to tell you, Antoshi,” his mother said, her voice breaking, “just … when you were a few years older. We weren't sure you were ready just yet.”

Antoshi took a deep breath, exhaling with an almost relieved laugh. “I was … really hoping that was going to be your answer,” he said, sniffling.

“We didn't keep it from you to hurt you,” his father said, shaking his head. “We just, … well, we certainly didn't expect you to find out on your own like this. We wanted you to go out and fulfill your dream as a Pokémon Trainer. We wanted you to … live your life, and learn, and grow, and just have fun. I'm so sorry you had to find out this way, son.”

Antoshi sniffled and nodded. “I'm sorry, too,” he replied. “I should've called you sooner. I knew you were worrying about me, it's just … I couldn't bear to talk to you for a little while after I found out. I was too scared. But, I couldn't avoid talking to you for very long, so, that's why Fireball and I are here now.”

“I understand, Antoshi,” his mother said, taking him by the hand. Her hand was cold and trembling just as his was. “I'm glad you decided to come home to talk about this. That was very responsible of you. I've always said I trust in your judgment, because you've always had good judgment.”

“That's true,” his father added.

“I'm just … glad to finally get this out of the way,” Antoshi said, chuckling. “But, just out of my own curiosity, could you … tell me about it? How you adopted me and … why?”

“Of course,” his mother said. “You deserve to know.”

“Well,” his father said, “without getting into all of the embarrassing details, after your mother and I were married, we found out that … well, we couldn't have children of our own. Even still, we decided we wanted to start our own family regardless of that.”

“We contacted an adoption agency,” his mother continued, “and, not long after, they called us back to set up a meeting with a newborn baby. We ended up flying to their location in Blackthorn City, and that's when we met you.” The two parents grinned to each other. “You were the most adorable little baby with your little sprouts of blond hair. We fell in love with you immediately.”

“The adoption papers had the name your birth parents gave to you,” his father said. “It was 'Antoshi.' We thought it was a wonderful, unique name, so, … we stuck with it.”

Antoshi let out a soft laugh. “So, my … birth parents were the ones that came up with my name?” he mused, grinning. His parents responded with a nod. “It's funny because … of all the people I've met on our journeys that thought that my name was 'weird' or 'crazy' or 'exotic'. I always figured I had you both to 'blame' for that.”

His parents laughed. “Well,” his father said, “of course we considered giving you a new name, but, … we just liked the name 'Antoshi' too much.”

“After thirteen years, it's grown on me, too,” he replied with a smile. “But, there was one other thing I needed to talk to you both about. … I've given it a lot of thought, and … I think that I'd like to put my Pokémon journey on hold indefinitely.” His parents were surprised by the news. “I … hope you both aren't upset with me. It's just that I'd really like to spend some time with my brother and sister. I really want to get to know them better.”

“Oh, honey, we're not upset one bit,” his mother said. His father nodded in agreement. “We always trust in your judgment, like I said. If that's what you really want, then we want that for you, too.”

“We'd love to be able to meet them, too,” his father said. “It'd be wonderful for us to talk to your siblings.”

“I know they'd love that,” Antoshi replied.

The three of them got up in order to share a group hug. Antoshi sighed with his face in his mother's shoulder.

“I love you both so much,” he said.

“We love you, too,” his mother replied. “You will always be our little 'blond ray of sunshine.'” Antoshi laughed in embarrassment.

“We love you, son,” his father added.

Fireball eagerly shuffled over, putting his paws around all of them with tears streaming down his face. The others shared a laugh.

“We love you, too, Fireball!” Antoshi's father said.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

The duo stayed home the rest of the day, as Antoshi had planned to do. The two of them were extremely content being home once more. They spent the day enjoying time spent as a family, as well as the satisfaction of home-cooked meals. They walked around outside, talked to their friends and neighbors, reminiscing on earlier times. They played games, watched some television, and Antoshi happily caught up with some of his belated home schooling.

"Do you really enjoy doing that paperwork stuff?" Fireball asked, watching him write.

“Oh, yes,” Antoshi replied with a grin. “Yes, I do.”

Antoshi and Fireball got a sound sleep that night. Both of them felt much better being able to address the issue of Antoshi's adoption with his parents. Since last they slept at home, the course of their lives had altered dramatically. Neither of them were perturbed by that or by what the future held for them.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

The next morning, Antoshi and Fireball walked down the path leading away from their home. The best friend duo turned and waved to the boy's parents, who stood together at the front door.

“Good luck, Antoshi!” his mother called to them.

“Try not to have too much fun!” his father added, in jest. “Call us at least once a week, okay?”

“Will do!” Antoshi called back. “Love you both!”

“We love you!” they said together before heading back inside.

The duo headed back down the same street they grew up on once again. Fireball sighed happily. "It was really great to be back home. That whole 'adoption' conversation went swimmingly."

Antoshi was taken aback by the remark. “'Swimmingly'? Your vocabulary is becoming very good, Fireball.”

"Why, thank you," the Typhlosion replied, playfully. "I happen to consider myself smarter than the average Typhlosion."

“You're definitely taller and heavier and eat way more than the average Typhlosion.” Fireball chuckled, warmly. “You're right, though. That whole situation couldn't have gone any better. Now, it's time to head back and see what Latoshi and Mitoshi are up to.”

"I'll bet they passed out from boredom already."

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Several hours later, Mitoshi sat outside on the porch stairs, watching Latoshi as he trained. With a serious expression, he rattled off several rapid-fire flurries of punches and kicks for a short time. He shouted, finishing with a kick powerful enough to cause a visible shock wave.

“That was great!” Mitoshi said, offering a gentle clap.

Latoshi sighed, smirking at her. “It's nice to finally stretch out a bit. It's been forever since I felt this strong.” He grunted, looking down at his clenched fist as he summoned his aura to it. The color of his aura had shifted to that of a dark green. “… Or this green,” he added.

“Oh, hey, that's right,” Mitoshi replied. She hopped to her feet, skipping playfully over to him. “Your aura was black the last time I saw it. Why is it changing colors?” The girl gasped in shock. “Are you a chameleon?”

Latoshi chuckled. “Nah. Last time I checked, I'm definitely human. Still, this is kind of odd. I have no idea why my aura is changing color.”

“We can figure that out later~,” she whined. “You said you were going to train me while Antoshi was gone.”

“All right, all right. Let me think here. From what Antoshi told me, you're still pretty inexperienced. So, I'll figure out where to start by testing how good your sensing ability is.”

“Right!” she exclaimed, standing at attention. “What should I do?”

Latoshi turned to the side. “I'm going to punch a certain number of times, and you just tell me how many you see. Sound good?”

“Sounds great! I'm ready!”

Mitoshi remained fully alert, narrowing her eyes as she stared, unblinking. Several moments passed before Mitoshi finally blinked, and looked at him in confusion. “Are you ever going to start?”

Latoshi raised his eyebrows. “… Seriously?” he asked in disbelief. “You didn't see anything just now?”

“Uh, well, … no~o?” she replied, meekly. “Should I have?”

Latoshi sighed, sharply. “Wow. Okay, then. Looks like we're starting at the basic of the basics.”

Mitoshi groaned in frustration. “Fine. What do we do first?”

“First, you have to tell me how you did that thing where you turned your body to water. I've been wondering about that this whole time.”

“Ooh, that. I've been able to do that for a couple years now. I can't really explain how, it just happens when it happens. I usually need some kind of water source to do it, though.”

“You didn't need any water when I was about to punch you in the chest back on Mt. Mortar.”

Mitoshi shrugged. “Like I said, it just happens when it happens. But, like Serenity explained to me after that fight, if I ever lose any part of my 'water body' then I really do need a source of water to kind of … 'refill' myself.”

“That's so weird, but, I would love to be able to do it.”

“It is pretty fun. So~o, about training me?”

“Okay, let's see. … How about you unleash your aura first?”

“Got it!”

Mitoshi spread her stance a bit. With a determined gaze, she gave a loud shout, her blue aura suddenly flaring to life around her. At the same time, her irises turned a shimmering blue.

Latoshi hummed and nodded, impressed. “Not bad,” he said. He idly gazing down at his open palms, which were visibly slick. “You know, your aura actually carries moisture inside it.”

“Antoshi mentioned that, but, he figured it was a side-effect of having an elemental Ki like Serenity said.”

“Okay, I seriously want to trade Ki with you now. Your power is sounding more and more cool.” Mitoshi laughed. Latoshi sighed and grinned. “Well, like I said, let's go with the basics, okay? How about you just come at me with your best?”

Mitoshi smirked, confidently. “Watch out, I might knock your jaw off again!” she exclaimed, running at him.

“Keep dreaming!” he retorted, smirking just the same as her.

She shouted with each strike she threw at him. He blocked each punch with open palms, smiling, as he gradually moved backward.

“Not bad!” Latoshi said. “Let loose! Give it everything you got!”

Mitoshi kept it up for some time, finding a comfortable rhythm in her punches. After a while, however, she started panting and sweating heavily. Her hair was becoming matted to her head. Her flickering blue aura weakened, diminishing in sync with her faltering energy and slowing strikes.

“Okay, that's good enough,” Latoshi said. As she came to a halt, he suddenly bent down to catch her from falling. “Whoa!” He laughed, letting her lay down on her back. “All right, take a breather. We can keep doing that every day and build your stamina.”

Mitoshi grinned weakly, staring up at the partly cloudy sky. She caught her breath for a few moments while Latoshi sat next to her.

“That was so much fun!” she remarked. “I've never gotten to just cut loose and train like that before. I hadn't ever thought much about fighting, or learning how to fight before I met you two.”

“I think training with you and Antoshi would be a lot of fun,” Latoshi remarked, smirking. “You've gotten a lot stronger since that time you knocked me silly.”

You've gotten stronger, too! I swung at you just the same way as I did when we fought, except now I have more Ki control.”

Latoshi humphed, thoughtfully. “I guess that shows how much Lazarus really was holding me back. My strength is coming back in a big way.”

“Hey, there!” another voice called out from afar. The two of them turned to see the familiar faces of their brother and Fireball.

“You guys are back!” Mitoshi responded in elation. The girl sprung to her feet with a sudden burst of energy that surprised Latoshi. She ran over to them, hugging her brother tightly around his neck.

Antoshi laughed in response. “Hey, you're getting sweat all over my clothes!”

"Aw, man!" Fireball said. "You were training and I missed it? I wanted to watch!"

“Blame Mitoshi,” Latoshi replied, walking up to the group. “She got impatient and didn't want to wait for Antoshi to get back.”

“It's true!” Mitoshi replied, pulling away from her brother. “I'm super excited to start training with you guys for real.”

I think it'll be fun to train with you as well,” Antoshi replied, smiling at her.

The four of them continued chatting as they headed back toward the cabin together.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

The group all sighed, almost in unison, as they sat down on the living room couches together. Latoshi sat alone on the big couch in the middle, Antoshi on the smaller couch on his right, Mitoshi and Fireball seated on the couch to his left. Bubbles slid herself over to rest beside Mitoshi.

“Another amazing dinner,” Latoshi remarked. “I'm finally feeling back to normal again.”

Mitoshi laughed, petting Bubbles' head. Just then, there was a knock at the door. “I'll get it!” the girl said, springing back up. She headed to the door and opened it. Mitoshi gasped in excitement.

“Good evening,” Serenity said, smiling. “May I come in?”

“Of course!” Mitoshi replied, waving her inside, eagerly. “Hey, guys, look who it is!”

“Serenity!” the others greeted her, as Mitoshi closed the door behind them.

“Hello, everyone,” she replied, politely.

“Here — come, sit down,” Mitoshi said, guiding her over to the couch Antoshi was seated at. Serenity and Antoshi smiled to each other as the young woman sat down. Mitoshi was bubbling with excitement, taking her seat next to Fireball again.

“So, what brings you here?” Antoshi asked.

“I wanted to see how everyone was doing,” she replied. She paused for a moment, smiling, as she looked at all of them. “It's quite the sight to see you finally together. It warms my heart like you wouldn't believe. In my opinion, you're all where you should be: together, as a family.”

The others chuckled, looking to each other.

“Serenity!” Mitoshi spoke up, raising her hand over her head. “I've been getting a lot stronger. Antoshi and Latoshi are both training me.”

“I can tell!” Serenity replied with a warm smile. “Your Ki is much more refined than the first time I met you. In fact, all of you have gotten stronger since then.” She turned her attention to Latoshi. “Especially you.” Latoshi was taken aback by the personal remark.

“Oh, hey!” Mitoshi went on. “I just remembered! Latoshi, show Serenity your aura.”

“Oh, yeah, you're right.”

Latoshi held his fist out. Antoshi was surprised, watching his brother summon his dark green aura around his lower arm.

“Wow, it's green now,” Antoshi remarked. “That's really awesome! But, what does it mean?”

Serenity closed her eyes and smiled. “Latoshi,” she said, opening her eyes, “if you'll recall, I spoke to you not too long ago in Goldenrod. I said that your heart is where your strength is. If you open your heart and let your true emotions shine, your powers will return. Just from being here, I can see that your mind and heart have mellowed considerably. You're very relaxed. Your siblings give you strength, and the same is true for them.”

"Hey!" Fireball exclaimed, taking offense to being left out. The others laughed in response.

“Yes, and Fireball's presence gives you strength as well. I'm sorry about that, Fireball.” Fireball folded his stubby arms, smiling in contentment. “The truth is,” Serenity continued, “being around your family has drawn out your emotions and empowered you. Not only has the strength you lost to Lazarus returned, but, you're continually becoming even stronger.” Latoshi grinned from ear to ear, proudly. “Your spirit energy is finally breaking down the barrier that Lazarus created. Your willpower is burning away its leftover energy bit by bit. That's why it's turning green. It appears to be the natural color of your Ki.”

“I've been wondering about that, actually,” Antoshi said. “Why do we have different colored Ki?”

“A very good question,” Serenity replied, “however, I'm not totally sure. It's possible it could be as simple as what color you subconsciously prefer. It's also possible the color of your aura reflects the type of person you are. Antoshi, yours is red. Red is the a color associated with leadership, and strength. Green typically represents loyalty and passion. Blue reflects peace and unity. That, I feel, is fairly accurate to your personalities, don't you think?”

The three siblings nodded, murmuring and looking to each other.

“What about pink?” Antoshi asked. “I remember that's the color of your Ki.”

Serenity chuckled. “Love,” she replied. Antoshi was suddenly a tad embarrassed for asking. “It's my gift and curse. I care very deeply for the people around me — even complete strangers. I only wish for no one to be harmed, and for everyone to live in peace and happiness. I can't bring myself to disdain anyone, … even if I should've cast them aside long ago.” Her smiled faded, her gaze faltering away.

“Collin,” Antoshi remarked.

Serenity looked to him, smiling reassuringly. “It's nothing to worry about,” she replied.

“Well, I have a question,” Latoshi said, boisterously. “Why the heck can the three of us understand what Fireball and Bubbles say?”

Another very good question,” Serenity answered. “Pokémon instincts are more naturally in tuned with the spirit than humans. That's why all Pokémon are able to sense spirit energy, while very few humans can do the same. The bond between humans and Pokémon can run deep enough to the spirit. Since Antoshi possesses spirit awareness, he can 'hear' what Fireball is projecting with his spirit through spoken words. The same goes for Mitoshi and her Lapras. As for why the other two siblings can hear them, too, I believe it's because of your familial bond. Your spirits are deeply attuned to one another by birthright.” Latoshi was visibly impressed by the explanation.

“Ooh, that reminds me,” Mitoshi chimed in. “I'm so sorry I never introduced you to my Lapras. This is Bubbles! Bubbles, Serenity — Serenity, Bubbles.”

“It's very nice to meet you, Bubbles,” Serenity said, smiling warmly. Bubbles offered a coy smile and a nod of acknowledgment.

“'Deeply attuned to one another by birthright,'” Antoshi reiterated. “Is that why Mitoshi and I were able to see through Latoshi's eyes at one point?”

“Did this happen in a dream?” Serenity asked, curiously. Antoshi and Mitoshi nodded. “And, I can only assume it happened when Latoshi was using a considerable amount of spirit energy.” They nodded again. “Then, yes, that's exactly the reason why. The three of you share a very incredible bond with each other unlike anything I've ever seen. You draw strength from your siblings and all three of you strengthen each others' limits. Because of that, I believe that any Pokémon that one of you bonds with automatically bonds with the other two. Truthfully, I think the three of you may soon discover that you can apply the bond between your spirits in ways you never knew. Don't take that as a fact, though, it's just a theory I had floating around in my head. The colors of your spirits may be different, but I feel a powerful sense of similarity and familiarity between them.”

"Sweet!" Fireball exclaimed. "I have three best friends now!" The others laughed, loudly.

“How long will it take before we see the color of Latoshi's real Ki?” Mitoshi asked.

“When Antoshi was only possessed,” Serenity replied, “it only lasted for a few minutes, so the energy from Lazarus burned away almost immediately. However, Latoshi was possessed for months — that's how long I could sense Lazarus' presence inside him. It'll still take some time for him to be completely rid of Lazarus' energy.”

Latoshi nodded in understanding.

“Oh, man,” Antoshi remarked. “I can't believe how selfish we've been. We've asked so many questions about us, we never asked about you and how you're doing, Serenity.”

Serenity chuckled. “It's all right, Antoshi. I'm more than happy to answer your questions if I can. If imparting my knowledge means that the three of you grow stronger and with better understanding of yourselves, then it's very much worth it. But, since you asked, I recently had a job interview at a local supermarket and I'm happy to say I was hired.”

“That's great!” Mitoshi said, the others nodding in agreement.

“Which supermarket is it?” Latoshi asked.

Swalot's in Ecruteak City,” she replied. “Home of the 'Big Gulpin' Discounts!'” she added with a laugh.

“Wait, you live in Ecruteak City?” Antoshi mused.

“Yes. When we first spoke, I had said I was in Goldenrod because I sensed Lazarus' energy. However, I actually live in Ecruteak City.”

“Could we come and visit you sometime?!” Mitoshi asked, eyes sparkling with excitement. “I'd love to see your place. Oh, and to see Ecruteak City!”

“Of course,” Serenity replied. “All of you are welcome to come and visit me whenever you like — as long as I'm at home, of course. I'll even make snacks for us.”

"Okay, when do we leave?" Fireball asked, in a dead serious tone. The others shared a laugh.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

The group continued to chat long after the sun had gone down. Serenity took her leave, heading out the door as the group said their 'goodbye's to her. Everyone remained in the same seats as before. Five small plates littered with pie crumbs, along with small forks, were sat upon the glass table in the middle of the group. Tea cups were situated in front of Antoshi and Mitoshi, while Latoshi had a glass of water before him.

“That was nice of her to stop by,” Antoshi remarked.

“Yeah,” Latoshi added, folding his hands behind his head. “On a different note, there's something that I've been thinking about recently.”

“What's that?” Mitoshi asked.

“Well, I went to visit my parents. Antoshi went to visit his parents. … Looks like there's one set of parents left.”

Mitoshi was surprised by his suggestion. “You … really want to meet my parents— I mean, our parents— I mean … what do I even call them?”

“'Our parents' is fine,” Antoshi said, smiling to her.

“That's so surprising,” she said. “I didn't know if you were ready to meet them, or if you even wanted to.”

“I'd like to,” Antoshi replied.

“Yeah, same here,” Latoshi added. “I've definitely got a few questions I have to ask them. How about you, Antoshi?” Antoshi nodded to him in agreement.

“Okay, then, it's settled!” Mitoshi said. “I'll call them and let them know that I'll be coming back home since … I succeeded in what I told them I was going to do.”

Mitoshi got up, stretching for a brief moment, heading over to the small video phone on the desk outside her room. She hummed to herself, using the screen's navigation to call her parents.

The phone started to ring. The boys looked on with intense curiosity. The phone continued ringing for a few moments before it automatically disconnected.

“Huh,” Mitoshi uttered, looking over at the group, “that's odd. They're always home at this time. I'll try again.” She attempted calling once more, but the phone again ended up failing to connect. “Maybe … they're out or something,” she mused. “I'll call tomorrow morning, and then we can head over there. How's that sound?”

“Sounds good to me,” Latoshi said, as he and the others got up to stretch. “Well, I think I'm gonna get some shut-eye. Goodnight, guys.”

“Goodnight,” everyone else replied to him while he retired to his room.

“Guess we better do the same,” Antoshi said to Fireball. The Typhlosion gave a nod of agreement before they, too, headed into their room.

Mitoshi hugged Bubbles, planting a kiss on the Lapras' cheek. “Well, it looks like we're going home tomorrow, Bubbles.”

Bubbles smiled with joy. "I'm so looking forward to it, Miss Mitoshi."

Mitoshi chuckled, quietly. “Goodnight, Bubbles.”

Bubbles nodded before the girl smiled and parted from her. Mitoshi turned off the lights in the kitchen and living room. Bubbles tapped her snout against her Poké Ball to retreat into its confines for the night.

Mitoshi sighed, smiling proudly, as she gazed at the boys' closed bedroom doors. She had indeed succeeded in her venture. The girl headed into her room and closed the door behind her. Everyone rested up for what was surely going to be an eventful day.

Chapter 26

The following morning, Latoshi waited with his brother near the front door. Both boys wore the same attire as when they went to Fern Town. “I'm kinda nervous,” he remarked, rubbing his arm.

“Same here,” Antoshi replied. “They do seem like they're nice, at least from what Mitoshi's said about them.”

“I'm just worried about it being … awkward, you know?”


“You guys ready?” Mitoshi asked, as she emerged from her room. She had on a casual blue summer dress with white polka dots, black bicycle shorts that were just long enough to be seen past the bottom hem of her dress, and white canvas shoes — appropriate 'flying attire' by her standards. The boys nodded to her. “Let's hit the road, then — or, the sky. You know what I mean.” The two brothers chuckled. Latoshi and Mitoshi headed out the front door.

Antoshi turned to Fireball, who was seated comfortably on the couch and watching television. “Are you sure you don't want to come, Fireball?”

"No, it's fine," the Typhlosion replied. "I don't want to be a distraction the first time you meet your family. This is something personal for the three of you. I'll meet them next time!"

Antoshi smiled, warmly, nodding to his friend. “All right, then. There's food in the— well, you already know where the food is.”

"Yes, I do!" he said, proudly. "I'll try not to eat all of it!" he added as Antoshi walked out the door, shutting it behind him.

The blond boy met with his siblings just outside the porch steps.

“Pretty strange how there was no answer again this morning,” Mitoshi said. “Maybe the videophone's on the fritz or something. Also, before you say anything — yes, I'll be able to handle flying on my own this time.”

“Sweet,” Latoshi replied, taking to the air. “Your hand got really clammy and gross last time!”

“Hey!” she shouted at him.

Latoshi laughed as the girl swiftly flew after him. Antoshi sighed in contentment, ascending into the air to follow behind them.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

Once again, it took the group over an hour to near close to their destination. They stayed close to the clouds as before, not wanting to startle anyone on ground level with the sight of three flying kids. Antoshi gazed down at the sprawling grasslands and farms far below. In his travels through Kanto, he and Fireball never got to see any farmland. The rich, vibrant colors of different grasses and crops, all neatly set in their divided fields was a visual treat for him. Mixes of various animals and Pokémon, from cows and horses to Miltank and Mareep, dotted the landscape.

“Wow,” Antoshi remarked, in awe. “So, this is Olivine City, huh?”

“Err, sort of,” Mitoshi replied, over the sound of the whipping winds. “We live in the outskirts of Olivine. Olivine City is over that way.” She pointed to the south, toward large buildings of varying shapes and sizes near the ocean.

“Oh,” Antoshi said, “hey, that's just like my home back in Saffron City.”

“We can land at that playground,” Mitoshi said, pointing to it. “Nobody's ever there at this time, especially on a school day.”

The boys followed her lead, touching down lightly upon the playground's wood mulch. Mitoshi sighed happily, jogging out toward the suburban neighborhood before them. They followed the sidewalk through the residential area. The large, two-story houses of varying architectures lined up almost perfectly beside each other on either side of the wide street. The area was quiet and peaceful, with neatly cut lawns and freshly planted trees along the road verges. They headed down a few turns before coming to a unique, brick house.

“Wow,” Latoshi remarked, walking up to the front door with the others, “this is where you live?”

“Sure is!” Mitoshi replied. She attempted to open the front door, only to find it was locked. “Aw, man,” she said, peering through the door's glass. The house was quiet inside. “They don't lock the door unless they went out somewhere.”

“Mitoshi!” a voice called out behind them. The trio turned to see an older woman waving to her. She held a leash attached to a pair of Rockruffs.

“Oh, hello, Miss Heather!” she said, heading over to greet her. The boys lagged behind.

“What are you doing here?” the woman asked, curiously. “I thought you'd be with your parents right now.”

“… With them?” the girl asked in confusion. “What do you mean?”

“You mean you didn't hear? Your parents were in a car accident the other day.”

A sense of dread swept over all three of them.

“Wh—what?” Mitoshi uttered, nervously. “W—What accident? Are they okay? Where are they?”

“Last I heard, they were in North Shore Hospital. I can take you, if you'd like.”

“Oh, uh, yeah,” Mitoshi replied, a bit confused. “Sure!”

“All right, let me put these two away. Stay right here.” The woman shuffled off, calling to her Rockruffs to up the pace.

Mitoshi was very visibly unsettled. The boys tried to keep her relaxed, despite also being deeply concerned themselves. Latoshi, in particular, was fearful that he was going to lose another mother and father. The trio remained awkwardly silent, none of them certain of what to say.

Within a few minutes, Heather came back in a white, four-door sedan. The three siblings wasted not a moment getting in. Mitoshi sat in front, while the boys sat in back. The woman promptly drove off toward their destination.

“Who are your two new friends?” Heather asked.

“Hm?” Mitoshi uttered, lost in thought. “Oh, … it's a long story. I'll tell you all about it after we get back home.”

“No problem, I understand.”

The group remained quiet as Heather drove them to the hospital, each of the young people staring out their respective side window.

The car slowed to a stop near the entrance. Mitoshi left the car in a hurry and dashed inside. Antoshi and Latoshi followed behind, confused and concerned. Mitoshi asked for her parents at the front desk. She was told where to find them, and was directed to the elevators. The three siblings headed inside an elevator car, ascending several floors.

The elevator dinged. Mitoshi could not get out quickly enough, squeezing sideways between the doors before they had fully opened. She sprinted down the hallway, finding the room her parents were in.

“Mom?!” she exclaimed, rushing inside. “Dad?!”

To her surprise, her mother, a woman with long, vibrant blonde hair, was comfortably seated in a chair. Her father, a man with medium-length blue hair and a short stubble beard, laid in the hospital bed beside her. His leg was wrapped in a thick cast and elevated. Both of them were equally shocked to see her.

“Mitoshi!” her mother said. She stood up, almost immediately greeted by her daughter's tight embrace.

“Are you okay?” Mitoshi asked, her voice quavering. “Miss Heather told me you were in a car accident, and I was so scared. I thought— … I thought that …”

“Oh, sweetie,” she replied, wiping the tears from the girl's eyes. “We're both just fine.”

“Mostly fine!” her father interjected, guffawing. “I got a busted-up leg!”

Her mother chuckled. “He's in good spirits about it, as you can tell.”

“They gave me some pretty good stuff!” her father said. “Woo-hoo! Don't mind me if I get loopy!”

“Is it … bad?” Mitoshi asked her mother.

“No, no. They already fixed him up. He'll be here for a few more days, though.” Mitoshi sniffled and nodded. She let go of her mother, drying her eyes. “So, how have you been, sweetie? What made you want to come back home? Did you make any progress on your search?”

“Well, it's funny you should ask that,” Mitoshi said, offering a soft laugh, “because I … well, I found them both.”

Her parents were completely stunned by the revelation. They went silent for a moment.

“Y-you mean,” her mother stammered, “you— … you found …”

“You'd better sit down, hon',” the girl's father said.

“Yes, I should definitely … sit down.” She took her seat, staring blankly at her daughter. She blindly reached for her husband's hand, both of them grasping each other tightly.

“Are you guys ready?” Mitoshi asked. Both of them nodded tenuously. Mitoshi smiled and nodded back. She headed back to the door, finding her brothers curiously waiting right outside. “Come on in,” she said, waving them in. “Mom, Dad, … I have a couple of very special guests I want you to meet.”

Their mother gasped at the sight of the two boys coyly shuffling inside. She held a shaking hand over her mouth. Their father was in sheer disbelief.

“Mom, Dad, this is Antoshi and Latoshi,” she said before turning to her brothers. “Guys, … here they are.”

“Hello,” Antoshi spoke, smiling weakly.

“Hi,” Latoshi added, quietly.

“Oh,” their mother uttered, tears running down her face. “I can't … believe it. This can't be real.” She sniffled, slowly getting to her feet. She approached the two boys, unable to contain herself from grinning. “Hello there,” she said, politely. “My name is Anne. It's so wonderful to finally meet you both.”

The boys glanced to each other, both of them chuckling, nervously. Their mother's hair color was just like Antoshi's. Their father's hair was like Mitoshi's.

She reached down, taking both of their hands in hers. She stifled her sobs as best she could. “Your hair,” she remarked, noticing the same thing of them. “That was one thing I could always … remember. The color is just like in my memories. You were both … so small then. So tiny and so precious.” The two boys looked at her, curiously, while she uttered a joyful sob. “The one thing I've always wanted to tell you, … if I'd ever gotten the chance, was that we always loved you both with all our hearts. We never wanted to … let go of you, but, we had no choice. I always dreaded that when you found out that you were given up, that you would resent us. The very thought was like daggers in my heart.”

“We … don't resent you,” Antoshi said, quietly. “Finding out was … kind of confusing for Latoshi and I for a little while, but, … we understand.” Latoshi nodded in agreement.

Their mother grinned and sobbed, weeping for a few moments as she hugged them around their necks. Both of them grinned, hugging her in return. It was a wondrously surreal moment for Latoshi, to be able to feel the warmth of his birth mother's embrace after having lost his parents.

“I'm sorry,” she said, letting go of them. “I got carried away. It's just that this is something Laurence and I have dreamed of for thirteen long years. We figured seeing you both again was just an impossible dream, and that all we could do was hope that the two of you were healthy and happy and loved.”

“You don't have to worry about that,” Latoshi said. “We were all of those things.”

She sniffled and nodded, smiling from ear to ear. “Mitoshi,” she said, turning her attention to her daughter, “this is … the most wonderful thing you could've ever done for us!”

“Yeah,” her father added, wiping tears from his eyes as well, “we can't thank you enough for this gift, Mitoshi. We love you bunches, peanut.”

“I love you both, too,” she replied, grinning, “and—” she put her arms around her brothers, who smiled at her, “I love these guys, too. They're pretty great when you get to know them.”

“'Peanut'?” Latoshi mused, flashing a cheeky smirk at his sister. Mitoshi groaned, rolling her eyes.

“That's her favorite snack!” their father replied. “Ever since she was a little girl. It was one of the first words she ever learned, too!”

“Dad!” she exclaimed in embarrassment, covering her face with both hands, prompting laughs from the others.

“Well, then,” their mother said, taking a seat once again. “Why don't we all sit down? I'm sure you boys have a lot of questions.”

The brothers found a couple of chairs and dragged them over, sitting across from her. Mitoshi sat next to her mother.

“Well, um,” Antoshi began, “I guess the first question we both have is: what happened that made you … give us up? Mitoshi told us the short version of it, but, … we just want to hear it from you.”

Their mother sighed. “Okay, well, it was about fourteen years ago. Your father and I were living in Ecruteak City at the time. We were there for less than a month before a fire broke out. I had accidentally left some candles burning one night, and it started a fire. … We lost our home. We didn't have any insurance, either, so we were completely homeless. We lost everything — well, almost everything, because it turned out I was also pregnant with both of you. It was a very rough time for us. We were living out of our car, going to work every day, but we weren't sure if we would manage to get by for a while. Then, your father, being as reckless as he is, started buying lottery tickets. I was so furious with him when I found the stubs he'd been hiding in the car.”

“I know it was a terrible idea,” their father said. “I just had hope that things had to get better for us eventually. It was stupid, crazy, foolish hope. I refused to believe that things could get so bad for us without some kind of comeuppance in the end. Your mother wasn't speaking to me for a while after that. Then, … the two of you came.”

“I went into labor,” she continued, “and the two of you brought us both together again. I'll never forget it. First came Antoshi, then Latoshi. You were the most innocent, adorable, beautiful angels I could've ever dreamed of. You both were so cute with your little sprouts of hair. … But, we couldn't keep you. There was no way for us to support you or take care of you the way you deserved. We made the decision to give you both up. It crushed us both so much. I didn't speak or eat for a few days.”

“Things were so frustrating,” their father said. “I was so angry and so sad. Everything was being ripped away from us. It felt like fate played a cruel joke on us. But, as it turned out, our terrible turn of fortune came good fortune. Even though it upset your mother, I continued to play the lottery for a while afterward. Lo and behold, I … won! Not just a few hundred or a few thousand dollars, but the whole jackpot.”

“I have to be honest,” their mother said, laughing, “when he told me, I thought he was lying. I got mad at first. I thought it was some attempt to get me to feel better for a little while. But, he was so insistent. He kept showing me the ticket. That's when I realized it wasn't a lie. We were so elated, but, even with our new fortune, we still knew that our boys weren't coming back. After we moved into our home in Olivine, we got a little overzealous and we ended up trying to have children again, probably a bit sooner than we should've. That's when our baby girl came along.” Mitoshi grinned as her mother stroked her blue hair. “And, so, that's the whole story.”

“… Wow,” Latoshi remarked, after a few moments of silence. He looked to his brother. “That's more than either of us could've imagined had happened.”

“It was unimaginable,” she replied, “and I hope the three of you never have to feel the regret and sorrow that we did. We always wanted you to know somehow that we loved you, no matter how far away you were. I just hope that this gives you boys the answers you needed.”

“It does,” Antoshi said, reaching over to hold his mother's hand, smiling at her. She was surprised at first, but she quickly smiled back at him. She clutched his hand tighter, sighing in relief. “By the way, you said I was born first, right?” he asked. His mother nodded. “So, … that means I'm the older brother?” Latoshi was flabbergasted by the revelation.

“Yes,” his mother replied with a laugh. “By just five minutes, of course.”

Antoshi flashed a cheeky grin to his brother, who cut his eyes back at him. Latoshi fumed, quietly.

“There is one more important thing you have to explain to us, though,” Latoshi said, as mother and son let their hands fall away. “All of us, and all the people who have ever met us want to know: what is the story with our names?”

Their mother and father looked at each other in surprise for a moment, before grinning from ear to ear.

“That was your mother's idea!” he exclaimed. “Blame her!”

“It's true,” she added, with a laugh. “When I was younger, I had this incredible fascination with the historical culture of Ecruteak City. That's why we moved there, because I always wanted to be immersed in it. I wanted to engage in the fashion, the lifestyle, the language of Ecruteak. So, I came up with your names as a symbolic gesture of that. Your names are partially derived from mine and your father's — the 'An' and the 'La' portion. I wanted to give both you boys similar names so that anyone who met you would immediately know you were siblings. Of course, it also helped that you two ended up as identical twins, too. After that, though, we decided to give Mitoshi a similar name when she was born — part of which comes from my mother, Miriam. I … just thought it was a unique and endearing set of names to give you.”

“Well,” Antoshi said, sighing in contentment, “I had thirteen years to get used to the name. I've gotten plenty of laughs and strange looks and positive remarks over it. It's definitely been a unique experience.”

“I do wonder,” their mother said, curiously, “why did your parents keep the names for you both?”

“They liked it,” Antoshi replied. “Honestly, I'm very grateful to them for keeping the name. It means a lot to me.” Anne grinned in elation.

“As for me,” Latoshi said, “I actually had the name 'Declan' all my life. I only learned of the name 'Latoshi' when I saw the adoption papers. … It's grown on me, too,” he admitted, with a playful shrug.

“I'm happy to hear that,” she said, laughing softly. “So, would you boys like to tell us about yourselves? We'd love to hear everything you want to share.”

“That's for sure,” their father added. “It's not like I can go anywhere anyway!” He laughed, while Mitoshi chuckled in embarrassment.

“Absolutely,” Antoshi replied with a grin.

The brothers proceeded to fill their parents in on the events of their lives — from Antoshi becoming a Pokémon Trainer and his kinship with Fireball, to Latoshi's otherwise uneventful childhood growing up in Fern Town. Mitoshi joined in to give a convenient story about finding them both by chance, and to explain some of what happened after the three of them met. The sibling trio carefully omitted any remarks about their superpowers, as well as Lazarus, Collin, and all the fighting that occurred.

Their mother and father were incredibly proud to hear of the tales of their lives. They also comforted Latoshi after the realization that he'd lost his parents in Fern Town. Latoshi ended up becoming fairly affectionate with them. They were the only parents he had left, and he cherished the fact that he'd been given a second chance to be their son. He was genuinely happy in their presence. At some point, a nurse came by to give their father some medication.

“Wow,” their mother remarked, “to have a son that's a remarkable Pokémon Trainer, and another son that's a strong survivor. The two of you have lived such incredible lives already! You're stronger and more beautiful than I could've ever imagined. Seeing you here, after all this time, … it's so satisfying beyond words.”

“My sons,” their father said, with tears in his eyes, “I'm so proud of the young men you've grown into.”

“And, we're happy to have met you,” Antoshi replied, smiling at them.

“I definitely agree with that,” Latoshi added.

“Now, I am fading pretty fast,” their father said as his eyes fluttered closed. “Looks like the meds are kicking in.”

Mitoshi sighed, happily, as she got up. “We should probably get going now anyway,” she said.

The others got up as well. Their mother smiled, brimming with pride, hugging each of her children one at a time.

“This was the most wonderful family reunion,” she said. “Please do come and visit us every so often. We'll probably be back home in a couple of days. I'd love to hear about everything that's happening in your lives.”

“We will,” Antoshi replied, with Latoshi nodding in agreement.

The three siblings said their farewells to their mother, as well as to their father, who was fast asleep. They took their leave, all of them beaming.

“That was a great idea,” Mitoshi said, skipping down the hallway alongside her brothers. “I'm so happy you finally got to meet them, and that it went so well. I'm so, so, so happy!”

“Yeah,” Antoshi concurred. “Thanks for suggesting it, Latoshi.”

“I really wanted to meet them so badly,” Latoshi admitted, staring at the ground, his hands casually in his shorts pockets, “even if I was nervous about it. Knowing that I still have a family, a mom and dad, … it all means a lot to me.”

Antoshi put an arm around him, both of them laughing and grinning at each other.

“I just hope Fireball hasn't raided the refrigerator yet,” Mitoshi remarked.

Antoshi's eyes went wide. “… We'd better hurry on back,” he replied, with a hint of concern in his voice.

⁂ ⁂ ⁂

A few days passed since the brothers got to meet their birth parents. Outside their cabin at noon, Latoshi and Mitoshi stood next to each other as they practiced punching drills. The boy wore a green tank top with a white horizontal stripe in the middle, and loose white shorts. Mitoshi wore her previous light blue sleeveless shirt with the large Marill print on the front, along with white denim shorts. She looked over at him and giggled.

“I'm finally starting to see your movements!” she remarked, gleefully. “You've been punching three times for each one of mine.”

“That's great!” Latoshi replied, grinning to her. “You're making some serious headway already. I just wish 'Brainy' would come outside and make some headway with us.”

“I heard that,” Antoshi said, as he headed out the front door. Fireball sat on the porch swing, with Bubbles resting beside it.

“Oh, hey there,” Latoshi said, stopping his training. “Finall