But what hasn’t been damaged? History
here means a history of storms rushing the trees
for so long, their bowed shapes seem a kind of star—
worth trusting, I mean, as in how the helmsman,
steering home, knows what star to lean on.
— Carl Phillips
“Professor,” Blanche said, lurching upright on reflex, as though a better posture could manage to wring some semblance of dignity from her hospital gown. “It’s good to see you!”
“Please, just ‘Willow’ is fine,” the Professor said. A pair of forgotten safety glasses to match the set perched askew atop his head were tucked into the front pocket of his perennial lab coat. “I haven’t been your professor for a long, long time.”
“Old habit,” Blanche said, as she did every time he broached the subject. He gave her a kind, tired smile; she wasn’t too sure of the specifics of his current field of research, but they generally tended towards variations on the theme of exhausting. The Professor had always been an enthusiastic proponent of rolling his sleeves up and shoving his hands into the Grimer muck right alongside the rest of them. Rumour had it he hadn’t taken a vacation in decades. He certainly looked the part, the grooves clustered about the corners of his mouth more pronounced than they appeared in the monochrome headshots that accompanied the occasional article on his latest scientific breakthrough, or his crackling, holographic profile in a video call whenever he had a project he thought she might be interested in taking. She never declined those requests, out of what was a probably misplaced sense of duty. Sometimes she wondered if the same counterintuitive indebtedness was why the Professor kept looking out for her long after she’d stopped being his assistant and then Mystic’s leader, both of them enmeshed in the cobwebbing filaments of a shared history.
The Professor settled into the narrow plastic chair at the side of her bed. “So how are you holding up?”
“More than fine.” Blanche cracked a smile. She’d memorised the standard shopping list of medical reassurances and could reel it off at will to all concerned parties. “My convalescence has been remarkably straightforward, and I’ve already been given a clean bill of health. If anything, I can hardly wait to go home.”
“That’s good, that’s good. Spark came by while you were out for the count, by the way,” the Professor said. “He left the bear.” He pointed at the nondescript stuffed toy on the bedside table carrying an embroidered scroll that declared GET WELL SOON! with a limp sort of cheer. “Bear, not Teddiursa, he was quite adamant that I make the distinction clear.”
“Oh,” Blanche said, and shifted. The gesture was uncomfortably personal, considering the last time she’d seen Spark had been a few months ago on the television while aimlessly flicking through the channels, a special guest presenter on some children’s programme. Let’s give a big, warm welcome to the founder of Team Instinct! his co-host exclaimed, at which point Blanche had switched the television off. “Well, if you see him, please thank him for me. But I assume you wanted to talk to me about something?”
“Ah, yes,” the Professor said. “I have a project I’d like to offer you, but I’m not so sure it would be, um, appropriate, given—”
“I’ve been cleared to leave, haven’t I?”
“I suppose so—”
“Then give me the project,” Blanche said. “You know there is nobody who can carry it out to a higher standard than I can, even if—” She gritted her teeth, unwound her fingers from the sheets, forced her breathing into absolute regimented precision. “Even if I don’t have my Pokémon anymore. I can still be useful.”
“Blanche,” the Professor said, gentle. “You don’t have to take it if you don’t want to. There’s nothing you have to prove to me.”
A rush of prickling heat to her eyes. “Of course I want to,” Blanche said. “Please. I need to work on something. You know me, Professor, this is the best way to—accelerate my recovery.”
“Alright, then,” the Professor said, though the creases in his forehead did not slacken. He passed her a manila file. She flipped it open to find a photograph of an ink-on-parchment drawing of a box cut out of stone, captioned Winter Box; beside it was a stylised sigil: Articuno with its wings spread. A shallow, glancing pain like a stray ember caught and flared, but she’d had close to a week of practice at this, the minutiae of her body’s ludicrous insistence on overcompensating for some grave perceived loss, and it guttered out.
“The box contains one of Articuno’s feathers,” the Professor explained. “We’ve been searching for it for decades. Around the time you and Articuno became—untethered, we detected a huge spike in that specific wavelength of energy at the coordinates listed there.” He nodded at the file. “Not much is known about the Winter Box, but Articuno itself is often a symbol of death in the legends, and who knows how a shard of its power may have distorted over the years?”
“So you’d like me to retrieve this artefact,” Blanche said.
“All the information you’ll need is inside. Usual protocols apply, keep your receipts, you know the drill. There’s no hurry, though—I’d rather you took your time preparing. And you’re still recovering, after all. The location’s about five days’ drive up the coast if you take it slow, I hear it’s lovely this time of year.” This was accompanied by a piercing stare; clearly the suggestion was not an optional one.
“One more thing,” Blanche said. “The device Team Rocket used to disrupt the connection—”
“It’s been retrieved. We’ve got a team working on reverse-engineering it so we can counter it in the future,” the Professor said. “Don’t worry, Candela and Spark will be safe.”
“I wasn’t thinking about them,” Blanche said. An inexplicable flash of sadness transformed the Professor’s face for one brief moment. “Why would I? Our spheres of work are mostly disparate. We haven’t contacted each other in several years.”
“Well, you’ll be passing through the region where Spark’s stationed, so you could drop by to see him on the way, if you’d like? You could thank him yourself for the bear.”
“I’m sure he’s completely occupied by his fieldwork,” Blanche said. “I wouldn’t want to impose.”
“I do worry, you know,” the Professor said, quiet. “You three were my favourite lot of assistants. You used to be so close.”
“Thank you for your concern,” Blanche said, “but it is what it is. We knew each other, and now we don’t.”
“I see,” the Professor said, rising to his feet. The odd sadness resurfaced. “Well, I better get back to the lab—let me know if anything else comes up. Take it easy, okay? Don’t be too tough on yourself.”
“I’ll start the preliminary investigation as soon as I get home tonight,” Blanche promised. Days of practice—years, when it came to this particular wound, the history she couldn’t manage to leave behind—and still, the visceral immediacy of her body’s old grief caught her off-guard. She tilted her head back and stared at the bright square of light above her bed until her eyes stung, and told herself that was the only reason for the dampness of her lashes.
“Oh,” Blanche said, unenthused. “It’s you.”
Candela scowled and set a hand on her cocked hip. “I come all the way out here to see how you’re doing, purely out of the goodness of my own heart, after we haven’t seen each other in, like, forever, and that’s the greeting I get?”
Blanche’s fingers twitched on the door, but she stepped aside to let Candela into her house. She hadn’t admitted Candela into her space for a long time and even at this distance her nearness felt stifling, claustrophobic, all of the weight of Candela's presence bearing down on her at once. Candela looked much the same as she had five years ago; a little leaner, a little grimmer, perhaps, or maybe the memory Blanche was working off was overly romanticised and this was how she had always been. There were traceries of fine, unidentifiable scars crisscrossing the backs of her hands, barely visible in the dim light.
“Your hands,” Blanche said. Once she’d known the origin of each one of Candela’s scars.
Candela glanced down at the hand resting on her hip, apparently unfazed by the non-sequitur. “Team Rocket skirmish a couple years ago, nothing serious.”
“I see,” Blanche said. A silence came down between them like a curtain.
“I heard about—about what happened,” Candela said, at last. They both winced.
“Well,” Blanche said, briskly. “The Team Rocket members responsible for the attack were apprehended, nothing of great value was lost, and measures against the device they used to sever—the device they used during the attack are currently being developed, so you won’t have to concern yourself about being targeted next.”
“What about me?”
Back when Blanche knew her, Candela would have rolled her eyes, lobbed off something scathing. This Candela only let out a careful sigh. “Can we not do this, just for a moment? Of course we were—worried about you, when we heard. Spark and me.”
“How kind of you,” Blanche said. “Now, why are you really here?”
“Always straight to business with you, isn’t it,” Candela muttered. “Fine, have it your way. You’re going on a road trip to find this old glowy box, I’m offering my assistance.”
“I’m declining your assistance,” Blanche said.
“Hey, come on,” Candela said. “Do your cost-benefit analysis thing on it or something. It’ll be more efficient if you have someone else you can alternate driving with, and I can watch your back while you do whatever it is that you have to do. Just like old times.”
“So that’s the reason? You think I can’t take care of myself without my—did the Professor set you up to this?”
“What? No, and also no.” Candela’s irritation didn’t seem feigned, but it wasn’t as though Blanche would know any better if it was. “Didn’t you hear what I said about the goodness of my own heart?”
A caustic laugh tore its way out of Blanche’s chest. “But it is true, after all. We might as well stop skirting around it. What good is a trainer without their P—”
“Don’t,” Candela hissed. “Don’t you dare say that. You think the bond between you and your Pokémon can be broken by some stupid Team Rocket thing, just like that? They’ll—find their way back to you.”
Another silence unfurled, billowed. “You really haven’t changed at all,” Blanche said.
“Yes, I have.” Candela’s abrupt fury subsided; she drew herself back in. “And so have you.”
“So!” Too brusque. They both winced again. “Are you cool with me joining you or not? Look, if you really want to go it alone, I won’t keep bothering you about it. But you have to admit, partnering up with me is the sensible thing to do. Isn’t logic supposed to be your thing?”
“Not any more than strength is still yours,” Blanche said, and Candela’s expression faltered. That, too, was unfamiliar. She opened her mouth to drive the barb in further, but what came out instead was, “Fine, then. Do as you wish. I’m leaving at six tomorrow, with or without you.”
“Morning or afternoon?” At Blanche’s flat stare, Candela laughed. “Kidding, kidding. Have you packed?”
“Can I see what sort of stuff you’re bringing?”
“Haven’t you ever gone on a week-long trip before?”
Candela blinked demurely. “No.”
“... My bag is in my room. Please put everything back as neatly as possible.”
“Still the second room on the left?” Candela asked, gesturing at the entrance to the hallway.
“First room, I moved there after—because I didn’t need so much space.”
“Oh,” Candela said. “Uh. Okay. I’ll be quick.”
True to her word, Candela was back before Blanche had too much time to stew in her own existential misery. “Thanks,” Candela said, hovering in the doorway. It should have been a contradiction in terms, Candela and uncertainty, but weren't they both just full of surprises tonight?
“You’re welcome,” Blanche said. The space between them felt impenetrable and distorting as crystal.
Candela shifted, averting her gaze. “See you tomorrow, then,” she said.
Blanche waited until the door swung resoundly shut behind Candela, then retraced Candela’s steps down the hallway, and when she reached her room her pulse was battering at her throat like she’d stepped out of a moving car, the momentum knocking her heart loose from her ribs and into her mouth.
She staggered against the doorframe. Candela had laid out Blanche’s bandolier beside her suitcase. The sight felt like a blow to the stomach, a stone clattering to the bottom of a well. She wanted to ascribe it to malice but knew it wasn’t, it was just another expression of Candela’s staunch, belligerent faith, barely stomachable when they had been children together and utterly eviscerating as adults and strangers to one another. What right did she have to place that faith in Blanche now, after she’d proven time and time again how unfounded it was? All it had taken to sever Blanche from her Pokémon was the press of a button, and then she had been alone.
She’d picked up the bandolier without thinking. It lay soft and inert in her hands, too light: something else that should have been familiar but wasn’t. A swell of exhaustion buffeted her, and the bandolier slipped from her fingers, empty as it hadn’t been since she was ten years old and clutching her new trainer’s license in the Professor’s laboratory. She wanted to throw up. She wanted to cry. In the end she did neither: she bent down to lift the bandolier and replaced it on the hook on the back of her door. Turned off the light and crawled into bed.
At 5:55 a.m. the next day the doorbell clanged and Blanche threw the door open to find Candela, lips a cardinal red, standing there in a gauzy spill of sunlight, offhand or a carefully timed entrance; Blanche wasn’t certain which option was more unpalatable. Either way it had the feel of something she’d seen in a dream, or an omen, though of what she couldn’t say for sure. “Ready to go?” Candela said.
“You’re early,” Blanche said, stepping outside with her suitcase to lock the door behind her. “This is rather unprecedented.”
“I can be punctual when I want to,” Candela said. “I function brilliantly as an adult, thanks.”
“I am sure.” Blanche unlocked her car and motioned for Candela to place her luggage in the boot. It was a perfectly serviceable vehicle, but she still felt a snowmelt rush of anticipatory embarrassment, the old fear of rejection, of not passing muster.
“Surprised you didn’t pack your laptop,” Candela said. “You really gonna last a week without your data?”
“I prefer to consolidate my resources,” Blanche said, “seeing as I am here for work, after all; you, on the other hand, have no excuse.”
Candela shrugged. “Nothing wrong with taking a break every now and again, I’ve got weeks of paid leave, something like that. You driving?”
“Obviously.” They walked to opposite sides of the car and met again inside. Candela’s proximity was discomfiting; her presence in the passenger seat was like sun-heat on the side of Blanche’s face, an unidentifiable formless intensity from the corner of her eye. Blanche shifted away. She adjusted the rearview mirror unnecessarily, took out the map printouts she’d made last night and pretended to study the route.
“Wow, is that a printed map?” Candela leaned forward. “Haven’t seen one of those in a while.”
Blanche bristled, angling the sheets away from Candela. “Contingency plan. If you have an issue with my methodology, you’re free to leave at any time.”
“Hey, I’m not criticising,” Candela said, throwing her hands up placatingly. “Not everything I say is an attack on you.”
This was a mistake of incalculable proportions. The prospect of being trapped in a confined space with Candela for the next week or so made her feel like repeatedly hurling herself against a wall, with about as much reward. She thought about telling Candela to get out of her car and shuddered; no, she couldn’t do that, it would be like giving in at this stage, and if anything her pride in meeting a challenge was still intact.
“Uh… you okay there?”
“Yes,” Blanche snapped, shoving the papers into the glovebox. The engine rumbled to life with a jerk of her wrist and then they were in motion towards the inevitable. It all smacked tiresomely of four-letter words so when they pulled up at a café just before the turn onto the main highway for lunch Blanche was resolutely not mulling over things like fate and doom and other pleasant Monday-morning concepts.
Candela volunteered herself to order for them both at the counter, which left Blanche free to ponder alone the grand question of why on earth either of them were putting themselves through any of this. She’d mostly settled on good old-fashioned emotional masochism, which suited her just fine but Candela perhaps less so, when a hesitant voice piped up, “Um… excuse me, are you… Blanche? Team leader Blanche?”
Blanche started. There was a girl no older than eleven standing by her table and carrying a dozing Sandshrew in her arms. She looked up at Blanche with nervous, expectant eyes. “Hello there. Can I help you?”
“I was, um, wondering if you could evaluate my Sandshrew for me?”
“Ah,” Blanche said. “I am no longer functioning in any official capacity, I apologise—I don’t have a complete set of the necessary equipment with me, so perhaps visiting a Pokémon Centre for a full eval—”
“I want you to do it,” the girl said, then flushed. “Just a quick look-over? I mean. If you don’t mind?”
Blanche blinked. “Of course not.” She held her hands out, and the girl carefully transferred the Sandshrew into her arms. “What’s your name?”
“L-Luna,” she stuttered. “Ah, sorry, I just—I’ve been your biggest fan for ages, all my friends are joining Valor but I’ve always thought Mystic was the coolest. Oh—I mean—I didn’t mean because of the, the ice, I just—I really think you’re amazing.” She’d gone bright red, though her chin was tilted up and defiant.
“Thank you,” Blanche said, and then, more emphatic, “thank you, I—it does mean a lot. To hear that. And well done for having the good taste to join Mystic over Valor. I'll begin my analysis now, if that's alright?”
Blanche manoeuvred the Sandshrew around in her arms, ran her fingers across the top of her skull and along the curve of its spine, applying a gentle, even pressure. “In terms of size, your Sandshrew seems a little smaller than average, but its hide has a healthy, even texture and a good strength. Little one,” she said, addressing the Sandshrew, which stirred and looked at her curiously. She set it down on the tiled floor. “Would you like to show me an attack move?”
It looked to its trainer. “How about Scratch?” Luna said.
The Sandshrew darted forward, claws extended, and swiped at the air. Blanche nodded in approval.
“Its attack strength is reasonable for its size, though not out of the norm, in my estimation. However, this is always something that can be improved with training.” Blanche hesitated. “That concludes my analysis. I… hope that sufficed? I am not able to do more without the required technology—again, I encourage you to visit your local Pokémon Centre for a more comprehensive evaluation.”
“Thank you so much!” Luna said, gathering her Sandshrew back up, though Blanche couldn’t help but feel Luna had expected more from her. “I really appreciate it. We’ll work really hard, I promise, and I’ll do my best to represent Mystic with pride!”
“I am confident that you will,” Blanche said, and did her best to smile as Luna ran back to the table where her family was waiting.
“Baby Mystic trainer?” Candela said. She placed a tray laden with three different salads and twice as many burgers on the table, and slid into the seat opposite Blanche.
“Does it ever surprise you that they remember?” Blanche said. “She addressed me as ‘team leader’ when Mystic is well into its third leader’s term. I am not—I have not been leader for many years, now, and yet—”
“Course it doesn’t surprise me,” Candela said. “As much as I love Valor's newest leader and his admirable dedication to the impractically oversized white jacket agenda, the teams were born under us, so they’re always gonna remember us. This sort of thing doesn’t leave you behind. What did you say you wanted?”
“I don't mind, just pass me whatever's closest,” Blanche said. They divided, devoured. Candela had the wrong of it, Blanche thought. Simply being the first in that position guaranteed her nothing if she couldn’t fulfil the role that was her responsibility and hers alone. In the end she hadn’t even been able to give her trainer what she needed, and what surer measure of inadequacy was there?
“I’m afraid all of the twin rooms have been booked out,” the receptionist said, apologetic. “We only have singles left.”
“Oh,” Blanche said. She hadn't realised this sort of thing actually happened in real life. “In that case—”
“We’ll take a single,” Candela interrupted. Blanche shot her a look of pure incredulity. “What? Do you seriously want to get back on the road for fuck knows how long until you find some other place that isn’t completely booked out? Plus, it’s cheaper this way.”
“Fine,” Blanche said, unclenching her jaw with an effort. “We’ll take it.”
The room was tidy, anaemic. All motel rooms seemed to have the same depressing air of beigeness, a sort of quotidian liminality: bed, desk, chair, framed photographs of places no one really visited. She set her bag down, cleared her throat. “Very well, then,” she said. “I’ll take the armchair, you can—”
Candela pinned her with a withering glare. “The bed is big enough for both of us, and it’s nothing we haven't done before. We won’t even need to share a blanket, if that’s too much proximity for your sensibilities or whatever.”
“What are you trying to pull?”
“Why does everything have to have an ulterior motive for you? Can’t you just trust that maybe—”
All at once the fight bled out of Candela. “Maybe I’m just trying, okay? Is that so hard to believe?”
“Can you really blame me if I say that it is?”
Candela worked a hand into her hair. “So I guess that means we’re at an impasse, then.”
“Suit yourself,” Blanche said.
“Are you going to keep this up all week?” Candela demanded. “Pretending like nothing ever happened between—us?”
It would be easier to hate Candela if it had been anything other than the quiet, mundane tragedy of drifting out of orbit as they grew up and grew apart, and then one day Blanche had looked up and the distance between them had ossified, gone unbroachable, and they were as good as strangers. By that point they'd long forgotten how to talk to one another. So she cauterised the wound: moved out of the bedroom where she kept stumbling across the miscellaneous odds and ends Spark and Candela had left embedded throughout her life like shrapnel, changed her number, ignored all overtures until they stopped coming altogether. Solitude took little adjustment. The months came and went like surfacing for air, and the winded desperation that clawed its way up on sleepless nights was peripheral, manageable. Blanche had spent twenty-odd years learning how to lie convincingly to herself; that this was what she had wanted all along was, for all intents and purposes, the truth.
“I am not the one pretending nothing ever happened,” Blanche said. “Don’t act like you can swan back into my life and pick up where we left off.”
Candela’s gaze went contemptuous, slid away. “You don’t get it, do you,” she said. This she directed at the space over Blanche’s left shoulder. “You never did. Whatever. I’m going to sleep. You can do whatever the fuck you want.”
Wordlessly, Blanche gathered up the necessities and swept into the bathroom to shower. When she came back out Candela had turned off the lights and left a conspicuous, goading gap on the left side of the bed, and Blanche wondered if it would be admitting defeat to join her there or head for the couch, what the rules were for this game they were apparently playing, if Candela had moved the goalposts on her when she wasn’t watching.
She took out the spare blanket from the top shelf of the closet and shook it out beside Candela. She eased her weight onto the edge of the bed, lay down. In the dark her hands were unrecognisable, pale spidery shapes splayed out on the duvet; she kept them still, for fear that she’d curl her fingers and they wouldn’t respond, and at least this way she could tell herself it was a conscious choice, and surely that was worth more than the alternative. They curled up back to back like reversed parentheses, facing away and unknown to one another. If Candela was still awake she didn’t make a sound.
The second day heralded the beginning of the unfamiliar part of the journey. Candela stumbled into the car yawning, hair still sleep-mussed, as Blanche set up the GPS and steered them back onto the highway. “You know, if you want me to go all you have to do is ask,” Candela said.
Blanche chanced a glance at her, a languid arrangement of limbs in the passenger seat like it was a throne she’d been born to. “Well, you’re already here,” she said, shortly. “So you might as well make yourself useful.”
They lapsed into a flinty silence. Sometime before noon Candela put the radio on and the cheery twang of banjos expanded into the hollow of the car; Blanche cringed, reached over to change the channel, and bumped knuckles with Candela, who’d clearly had the same idea. They made faces at one another. Blanche decided to be generous and withdraw, and after half a minute of fiddling with the stations Candela settled on something overly heavy on the synthesisers, though the volume had been set so low she felt rather than heard the sound shudder out of the speakers.
They pulled up at a roadside petrol station for fuel and overpriced ham-and-cheese sandwiches, which they ate in their seats. Candela tipped her head back to drain the last of the water from her bottle, and Blanche’s eyes went to follow the long, fluid column of her neck before she shook her gaze free in irritation. Afterwards Candela took over and it was another twenty-odd kilometres of studiously staring out of the window this time instead of the windscreen, anywhere except Candela in the driver’s seat. Indistinguishable acres of monotonous pastoral scenery gently rolled past to the backdrop of the muffled bass neither of them bothered to turn up or turn off. It felt like the punchline to some cosmic joke: five, ten, twenty years of knifelike wordless longing violent enough Blanche used to think it would flay her open, expose the pulsing red flesh at the core of her that even now beat in syllabic rhythm like a bird hurling itself against her ribcage to the tune of a name, a set of names, only for them to end up here, driving sedately through a countryside straight out of someone else’s retirement fantasies. She leaned her forehead against the glass and made a valiant attempt to doze through the last leg of the journey, uncomfortably aware of the metaphorical resonance of direction and her life in Candela’s hands and whatnot.
At least the night was easier, now that Blanche knew what to expect. “This is the most unsavoury place I have ever set eyes on,” she said, staring at the suspicious patch of discoloured carpet between the bed and the table. “When we wake up tomorrow I will either have been knifed in my sleep or someone will have stolen the car.”
“Don’t be so dramatic,” Candela said, giving the rickety chair in front of the desk an experimental nudge, and sitting down when it didn’t disintegrate upon contact like Blanche had half-expected it to. “I’m closer to the door, if anyone gets knifed it’ll be me.”
Blanche swiped a finger along the top of the bedside table and grimaced when it came back grimy. “There are very large, very obvious cobwebs in the corners of this room.”
“You can stare at them as you go to sleep and think about the, like, ephemerality of life, should be right up your alley. Look, it’s not that bad. There’s even air conditioning, we are in the goddamn lap of luxury here.”
“Well, you enjoy the… artificially cooled air, I’m going to go find some food that won't give me acute gastroenteritis.”
When she returned with more takeout than strictly necessary for one person, Candela had migrated from the desk to the bed and was typing something out on her phone, the bluish light scattering along the underside of her jaw. “If you want some there is probably enough for both of us,” Blanche said, lifting a container of stir-fried noodles out of the plastic bag and pulling apart the disposable chopsticks. Candela made a noise in acknowledgement but didn’t otherwise respond, which left Blanche mildly offended and then angry at herself for being offended, since it wasn’t as if she’d set out to win Candela’s approval in the first place so there was no reason to be seeking it now, and it rather ruined the magnanimity of the whole thing. All in all it was an unsatisfying endeavour.
Taking a shower proved no more fruitful; the water temperature swung wildly and erratically between scalding and refreshing nighttime dip in the Arctic Ocean. Eventually she gave up altogether on the concept of hot water and stood shivering under the chilly, rust-flecked stream for as long as she could. The rest of the food was gone by the time she came back out and Candela murmured a thanks under her breath as she brushed past.
By unspoken assent she took the left side of the bed and Candela took the right. She lay on her side, sleepless, then on her back, listening to the creaking whir of Candela’s prized air conditioner.
A rustle, a slight shift in the mattress beside her. “Still awake?”
Blanche glanced over. Candela had turned to face her. “No,” Blanche said. “Deep in slumber as we speak.”
“Why, are you nervous about being so close to me?”
“I could ask the same of you.” She watched the slight rise and fall of the dark shape that was Candela’s shoulder. On impulse Blanche reached out for her, half-wondering at the impossibility of any of this happening, fingers catching on Candela’s jaw and then the softness of her lower lip.
Candela chuckled, a concession; Blanche could feel the hum of her throat fluttering beneath her fingers. “You used to play the piano, didn’t you,” she said, sleep smearing her vowels. She seized Blanche's hand and swiped a thumb over the divot of Blanche’s wrist, the movement lingering, thoughtful. “I think you told me, once.”
“Yes,” Blanche said. She’d been on the receiving end of Candela’s consuming focus so many times and yet it still felt new, a sweep of heat down the back of her neck despite the darkness. She held herself as still as she could. “When I was young.”
“Why did you stop?”
“I had more important things to do with my time,” Blanche said.
“Mmm.” It was impossible to discern what Candela meant; it was too dark to make out the intricacies of her expression. After all this time they were only fluent in one another in parts.
Candela lifted her hand and brushed her lips over the flats of Blanche’s knuckles. The warmth spread. Blanche jerked her hand away, held it close to her chest, grateful for the dark that obscured both their faces. “Good night,” Candela said, low, and turned her back to Blanche once again.
Contrary to Blanche’s misgivings, the car was precisely where they had left it last night, and in precisely the same condition, too, except for the fact of the figure leaning against the side of the car, bedecked in a screaming paisley shirt that sheared ten years off Blanche’s life expectancy on sight. For three seconds she entertained the fantasy of pivoting on her heel and heading straight back into the motel.
“Wow, guys,” Spark said, as the two of them drew near. The Pidgeotto on his shoulder let out a reproachful chirrup. “I can’t believe you went off on an epic quest and didn’t invite me along, I’m really feeling the love.”
“This is not an epic quest,” Blanche said, “and Candela shouldn’t be here either.”
“And yet here I am anyway,” Candela said, breezily.
“Here we are,” Spark amended, throwing an arm over Candela’s shoulders and sparkling at Blanche. His Pidgeotto, jostled off-balance, took off with a displeased flutter of wings for a more agreeable perch on the car’s bonnet.
“Don’t you have some important research to be leading?” Blanche said.
Spark beamed at her with a blinding intensity that hadn’t flagged once in the twenty or so years she’d known him. She fought the urge to shield her eyes. “Nothing that can’t be left in the capable hands of my assistants for a couple of days!”
It was too much to take. “I don’t need you,” Blanche snarled. “Either of you. The Professor entrusted this to me—I don’t need chaperones—”
“Blanche,” Spark said, more subdued. “We’re your friends. We—just want to help you.”
As if that was still worth anything all these years later. Blanche scoffed and turned away. Weak, was what that really meant. Too weak to hold onto her own Pokémon, and now she was reduced to some feeble, spineless creature who couldn’t even carry her own weight, the threat she posed so tepid Candela could hardly look her in the eyes.
She was shaking, again. Blanche shut her eyes, put a hand against the frame of the car to steady herself. “I didn’t ask for your help.”
“You don’t have to ask.” At least Candela made no effort to moderate her voice, which was a small relief; hearing it from Spark was one thing, but Blanche didn’t think she could stand Candela’s attempts at kindness again. “That’s the point of—it isn’t a bad thing to rely on other people, you know.”
“Easy for you to say,” Blanche said. The old resentment rose in her throat like bile. Her hand moved to her hip, found it bare. “You’ve never needed to.”
Spark flinched. “Blanche—”
“I don’t actually care,” Blanche said. “Invite yourself along, repurpose this into a class reunion nostalgia trip, I don’t care. What does it matter to me.”
“If you really don’t want me to be here, I’m not gonna insist on it,” Spark said. The patented kilowatt smile flickered on, off, on again. “I just thought—it might be nice to see you again. After so long.”
Candela had said nearly precisely the same words, in precisely the same tone, the same suffocating sincerity that left a coppery aftertaste like oversteeped tea or old blood. The blatant lack of affectation was embarrassing. Weren’t they embarrassed? She was embarrassed for them. She wanted to cringe away, throw an arm over her eyes, deflect. To her dismay she found the splinters of it lodging beneath her skin, burrowing home; she’d never been able to withstand it for long and of course this instinct of reciprocation was what had remained out of the great skeletal ruin of what they had built up before. She supposed, again, that she was a glutton for the inevitable pain or, more likely, simply loathed herself too much to pass up an opportunity to gouge open old wounds, which was not even remotely a rational justification but it did the trick, so when the nameless terror-tinged emotion went soft around the edges and she said, “You can stay if you like,” it felt like a foregone conclusion.
Spark commandeered the sound system as soon as he sat down, so the next few hours were spent cruising down the arterial highway to the soulful synth tunes of Carly Rae Jepsen and Koffing and the Toxics. By the time they pulled up to a roadside diner promising the best pancake recipe for miles, at Spark’s insistence, Blanche had driven through at least three reiterations of what he rapturously proclaimed to be ‘the best album of 2015, seriously, Carly is a lyrical genius?’
“Pancakes for lunch, how daring, how unconventional,” Candela said, raising an eyebrow at Blanche.
Blanche gave her a serene smile. The pancakes were adequate but otherwise unremarkable. They got back on the road with Spark at the helm and five hours later the problem of accommodating for three dawned on them as they stood in front of the parked car looking up at the fluorescing VACANCY sign before them.
“How are we going to manage this,” Blanche said.
“Get a room with a double and a single and we’ll rotate,” Candela said. “Whoever gets the single drives first the next day. Sound like a plan?”
“Surprisingly well-thought-out, for one of yours,” Blanche said.
“What do you know about my plans,” Candela said, without any real heat. Blanche gave her a thin-lipped smile and went up to the front desk to enquire accordingly.
As soon as she unlocked the door Candela announced, “I’m taking a shower,” and whirled into the bathroom, slamming the door shut behind her before anyone else could open their mouths. Blanche exchanged a commiserating look with Spark before she realised what she was doing and hastily glanced away, busying herself with unpacking for the night. Spark wilted in the periphery of her vision.
“So is it true?” he said, skirting the corner of the bed to hoist himself onto the desk. “What the Prof said, I mean. About you and Articuno.”
Blanche stopped refolding her clothes. “It’s true,” she said. She held a hand out, palm down. Sought out the skein of elemental something at the back of her mind by habit, though of course there was nothing there any longer. A faint silvery shimmer wisped around her fingers and sputtered out. “That’s about as much as I can do.”
Spark’s brow furrowed. “You mean you can’t—Articuno just isn’t… there anymore?”
Candela had said it then in the disembodied dark and it was true: when Blanche was younger and less occupied, she had taken piano lessons. Years later she tried to play an old favourite from memory; she’d barely gotten a few bars in when her fingers stuttered on the keys and she couldn’t remember the next phrase no matter how many times she started again in the hopes that the muscle memory had held. All those hours amounted to nothing. It was how reaching for something that had once been but was no longer there felt, a fumbled note, half of a reflex, the sudden shocked swoop of stepping into empty air where there should have been ground. The hazy awareness of another mind tangent to hers scarred over.
It was probably unfathomable to Spark, who carried Zapdos in the weight of his bones, the reddish fractaling scars on his palms testament to the depth of their connection; in all the time Blanche had known Spark they had never healed enough to fade completely. She could see the spiderweb of it emerging from just beneath the hem of his gloves. Candela had similar burn scars rippling down her upper arms and across her back, smooth pinkish swathes of skin.
All Blanche had to show for herself was a swatch of numb, frostbitten skin between her shoulderblades where Articuno’s wing must have grazed her the single time she’d managed to summon it successfully, back when she’d first started working under the Professor. She hadn’t even been conscious for it; she only remembered the aftermath, the ice sheeting over the wreck of her lab, the hiss of snow melting, a fading sensation like the brush of feathers. Professor Willow told her afterwards, once the Team Rocket lackeys had been extracted from the ice and rushed to intensive care, that she’d channeled Articuno for nearly half an hour, dangerously close to the extremes of what the human body could handle, and yet Articuno had barely left a mark on her. She’d been grateful, then, but now it was just another reminder of something she had that wasn’t hers at all, given into her care only for the moment, and it didn’t matter what she’d devoted to it because she hadn’t met the standard, she was unsatisfactory, deficient; she had no claim because it had not claimed her, and that was more devastating than anything else. An old wound, scar tissue.
“I suppose you could say that,” Blanche agreed. “Articuno isn’t there.”
In the middle of the night she woke to shards of moonlight spilling in over the top of the curtains. Glanced over to find Candela and Spark tangled together in the pale wash of light. When they were younger they must have fallen asleep like that countless times, the three of them, as children sleeping over and once they were a little older running on caffeine fumes to scrape past midnight deadlines or in shattered, gauzy afterglow. They must have loved each other with a ferocity like storms, then. Colliding and holding in the cupped hands of the bone-white light.
Blanche maintained her distance as scrupulously as was possible in their close confines, but Candela and Spark had no such reservations. They fell back into an easy intimacy without missing a beat, showering one another with an abundance of casual touches that Blanche hated herself for noticing, fingers on wrists, cheeks pressed to shoulders, ankles knocked together. Once she’d walked out of the shower to find Spark examining Candela’s hands with attentive reverence, running his fingertips over the scars there, and the moment felt so private Blanche had to look away.
She stirred her espresso morosely. Across the table, Candela was crammed into the narrow vinyl booth alongside Spark and shamelessly pilfering fries off his plate. They kept up a rapid back-and-forth over nothing in particular, laboratory gossip, something about the current trio of team leaders being bonded to new and mysterious Dragon-type legendaries, as if talking at twice the regular speed would make up for the years of lost time. Which was disconcerting in and of itself: it wasn’t as though they had a reason for falling out of touch; presumably neither of them had actively sought to cut the threads the way Blanche had. A benign iteration of the same sentiment; yet another thing Spark and Candela had managed to declaw into their own neat fairytale resolution.
In the next booth over, a redhead and her dark-haired companion were taking turns to scribble something on a napkin, passing it back and forth and adding increasingly elaborate ornamentation to what appeared to be a snowman. Blanche brought the mug to her lips, set it back down without drinking. Stirred it again, then took a sip when she realised she was doing the manual equivalent of filler noises, which she had always detested on principle. The coffee scalded on the way down, left a too-bitter aftertaste in her mouth.
“—but what do you think? Blanche?” That was Spark, peering at her over his plate where he had meticulously disassembled two burgers and was making short work of a third.
“Sorry, what was that? I wasn’t listening.”
“When we’re gonna get there. Wherever ‘there’ is.”
“If everything works out according to schedule it should be another two days before we arrive,” Blanche said, frowning. “And the destination isn’t exactly a mystery.”
“Yeah, a pair of coordinates in the middle of nowhere, really illuminating,” Candela said. “I searched it up and it was, like, a bunch of trees near a dirt track. Don’t tell me you’re going to know it when you see it. Wait, fuck, are you? Is that why the Professor—”
“I don’t know,” Blanche said, and set the cup down. The liquid shook, nearly spilled over the rim, steadied. Candela had never once shied away from saying what she meant, but now she bit her lip and kept silent. Blanche looked at Candela and Spark pressed flush against each other shoulder to hip like halves of a whole and it rose again, the twinned resentment and longing dark and burning on her tongue, every childish insecurity she’d ever carried. She wanted to look away but she couldn’t. Coward, she thought, and she might have meant any one of them.
Halfway through an episode of some children’s cartoon, Candela swung her legs over the side of the bed they were all piled onto and stood up. “I’m going for a jog with my Pokémon,” she said. “Gotta stretch my legs, be back in an hour.” She stepped over Spark’s gear on the floor, lifted her belt off a hook on the wall, and sauntered out.
Spark sighed and turned the television off. “Are we being productive now? Guess I should check on my team and see how they’re doing,” he said, reaching for his phone.
“What are you actually researching?”
“Oh, like, localised evolutionary variations in the Bulbasaur line? Collecting field data, cataloguing new variants, that sort of stuff,” Spark said, scratching the back of his head. “Nothing that really overlaps with your line of work. You’re looking at correlations between spawn rate and IV levels, right?”
“I am,” Blanche said. “I wasn’t aware that you… knew about it.”
“Of course I know about it,” Spark said, and something rancid as guilt lanced through her. “Why wouldn’t I?”
“Why wouldn’t you? I cut you out of my life, and don’t pretend that you didn’t actually notice it, you have never been able to fool me—”
She stopped herself. The silence went brittle, tremulous. Once, in those first few months after the fact, she’d taken out one of the encyclopaedia volumes lining the third bookcase in the living room to reference some obscure point she was making in a report, and a faded yellow note reading don’t forget to take a break!!!!!!! had fallen out. She’d crumpled it, lobbed it into the bin beside her desk, and hours later when the report was stubbornly refusing to write itself she’d knelt down to fish it back out, smoothed over the discoloured ink with a thumb. Repeated the whole process two or three times, and then it was morning and there were no more excuses for the insomniac desperation that had her caught in its frenetic pendulum swing.
She thought about Spark trawling through toy stores and pharmacies for that bear rather than one of the ubiquitous Pikachu plushes he seemed to have in endless supply, taking the three-hour express train trip down to see her in the hospital after half a decade of careful radio silence, making concession after concession, kindnesses spanning years and she couldn’t understand any of it, why he hadn’t given up on her when she’d done everything she could to make him.
“You don’t even know me,” Blanche said. She felt hollow, wrung out. “Why do you care—why are you doing this?”
“Of course I know you,” Spark said. He gave her the same lopsided smile he’d worn since he was ten. “We grew up together—”
“I’m not the same person I was then!” The words welled up with a pressed-bruise vehemence. “And neither are you—how can you say that when—we’re not children anymore, we—”
“I know you,” Spark repeated, gaze steady. So terrifyingly, wholeheartedly sincere it hurt to look at him. “You’re still my best friend.”
He stepped closer, careful, telegraphing each movement, and when his arms went around her shoulders the rest of her came unstoppered and she couldn’t hold the tears back anymore. She hadn’t cried, then, in the smoking rubble, shards of red and white littering the ground and a pain like her lungs had been wrenched out of her chest, the scale of it so inconceivable it hadn’t hurt at all. But it hurt now, now that the wound was smaller, uglier. How she’d revisited the memory and filled in the gaps with detail that must have been there if not for an unforgivable lapse in observation, the pain something added in hindsight: it must have hurt, and so it did. She cried until the tears stopped coming, and Spark held her as she reassembled herself, piece by piece, and by the time she moved away her breathing was even and her vision was unblurred.
In theory sharing a bed with Spark was a simple undertaking: they went to sleep on their respective sides and woke up with the same polite space between them. In practice Blanche startled awake at three in the morning with Spark’s hair in her mouth and Spark’s arm flung across her stomach and had to extricate her limbs from his without waking him. In practice her skin went cold in all the places they were no longer touching. In practice the morning found her sleepless, heart strung tight as a clothesline, terrified of ceding the territory she’d wrested back from him years ago and terrified that she already had.
“No,” Blanche said.
“I haven’t even said anything,” Spark protested.
“Yet,” Blanche muttered darkly. “The answer is no. We are not going to detour to the wild Vulpix sanctuary.”
“But you can’t go on a roadtrip and then not do anything on the way!”
“The roadtrip is incidental. We have an objective, if you would kindly recall.”
“I vote we go to this Vulpix thing, it sounds cute,” Candela interrupted.
“It’s two against one.”
“I’m the one with my hands on the steering wheel. Also, what are you, twelve?”
“If we were really on that much of a time crunch, you wouldn’t be driving there,” Spark said. Another sign directing them towards the next exit in two kilometres for Vulpix Park came up on the left and disappeared behind them. “Besides, it’ll be fun! We might as well take a proper break, pet some Vulpix. And it’s our last full day on the road.”
“It’s this or another hour of I Spy,” Candela added.
“You two are impossible,” Blanche said, and jerked the wheel with perhaps unnecessary force to take the exit off the highway. Spark cheered. “It’s going to rain.” A faint purr of thunder, as if on cue. “We will be trapped in this… Vulpix Park in the middle of a storm and we will all catch pneumonia and die.”
“Live a little,” Candela said.
“That’s the point,” Blanche seethed, pulling up in a parking space as close as possible to the yellow flat-roofed building with its cheery, anatomically-inaccurate Vulpix mural. From the otherwise-deserted lot, it looked like they were the only visitors. Probably everyone else had more sensible car occupants or better resistance to their whims and had decided not to chance the storm.
They filed into the reception area, upon which, to everyone’s consternation, the girl behind the desk burst into hysterical tears. It was established with some difficulty that she was a lifelong Valor devotee and, starstruck and stammering, she waived the entry fees, though Spark frowned and stuffed a handful of notes into the donations box anyway. Candela signed her autograph with a flourish and a wink, and the girl just about expired on the spot.
“You might want to be quick, though, it looks like it’s going to rain,” she squeaked. “But please do come back anytime! Enjoy your experience!”
“Thanks!” Candela said, flashing her a winning smile. The girl went puce all the way to her hairline and nearly tripped over herself opening the gate to the park.
Overhead, the sky was a baleful distended grey, an electrified smell like unsettled dust. They set off down the dirt trail towards a copse of trees, flanked by wide grassy fields. “It’s so cute that you have a fan club!” Spark said.
“Yeah, she was very cute,” Candela agreed.
They’d reached the forested area. “Did neither of you take high school biology, Vulpix are averse to the rain and this park’s population will certainly be in their burrows in preparation for the oncoming storm,” Blanche grumbled, as the trees opened up before them again into a small circular glade. “We are about as likely to sight a Vulpix as we are to witness Deoxys spontaneously manifesting before our very eyes.”
“Actually, I did happen to run into Deoxys this one time,” Candela said.
“Did you now.”
“Sure,” Candela said, airily. “Fought ‘em in the parking lot behind the old Juice Shoppe over in Lumiose City, it was a real blast.”
“Well, anyway,” Spark said, rubbing his hands with glee, “just watch this.” He strode into the centre of the clearing, sat down, and began to hum something under his breath that sounded suspiciously like the opening refrain of Call Me Maybe. Within the span of approximately three minutes a veritable colony of Vulpix had materialised out of nowhere and were gambolling on and around Spark as Blanche looked on in utter stupefaction.
“Are you serious,” Blanche said.
Spark, his arms and lap full of a preposterous amount of purring russet fur, nodded enthusiastically. “You can come pet them too!”
“I don’t think—” Blanche began, but Candela marched up to her and yanked her down, and the rest of her protest was strangled in an inarticulate yelp. A Vulpix was unceremoniously deposited in her lap. They regarded one another solemnly, unblinkingly, before it performed the vulpine equivalent of a shrug and curled up to nap, a warm, comforting weight across her knees. Blanche hesitated, then ran a hand through the curls on its forehead. She hadn’t had a Vulpix on her team, before.
The peace lasted all of about seven minutes. Then the Vulpix on her lap lifted an ear, then jerked upright, all traces of sleepiness gone, and streaked off into the undergrowth, trailed by every last one of its companions. In seconds they were alone again.
“Huh,” Spark said. “Do you think—”
The sky cracked open. “I told you,” Blanche yelled, “I told you this would happen—” but Candela was laughing, face upturned to the rain coming down in great windowpane sheets, and Spark shrugged out of his jacket in one fluid movement and began hurling it around his head by the sleeve with a raucous whoop, and she couldn’t help the bright, surprised noise that escaped her throat, then: a peal of disbelieving laughter that sliced something loose in her chest, diffracted upwards and outwards through the water.
They dashed for the shelter of a covered walkway by the trees. Blanche pushed her damp fringe out of her eyes, wrung out the loop of her ponytail over her shoulder. Rain hammered down in a hundred thousand darts all around them, clattering off the tin roof with a glassy noise like a snapped string of beads.
Spark’s hair was plastered flat to his skull. He looked absurd, endearingly so. Candela reached out and rucked a hand through his hair.
“You should get Raichu out to shock your hair back into shape, is that how you normally do it?” Candela was saying, raking her fingers through the wet tufts on his head.
“In the rain? Holy shit, I don’t want to die, thanks,” Spark said.
So Candela brought out her Talonflame instead, who obligingly let them use her as a makeshift radiator to get the worst of the chill out of their fingers, and then a little more exasperatedly as an umbrella, balancing her wings like a canopy over them as they splashed towards the exit. She gave Candela a fondly longsuffering look before returning to her Pokéball with a hard-earned candy.
“Why did none of us bring an umbrella,” Candela said, once they were ensconced in the safety of the car and ruining its upholstery. She dialled the heater up another notch, kicked her feet up on the dashboard. At Blanche’s filthy look she hastily removed them again. “Blanche, you’re supposed to be the practical one?”
“We wouldn’t have been in this situation in the first place, if it were up to me,” Blanche said. “Also, there is this revolutionary concept called ‘being responsible for yourself,’ you may not have heard of it but out of my boundless generosity I’m introducing it to you now—”
“But it was fun, right? You have to admit you had fun,” Spark interjected from the back seat, pressing forward against the glove box.
Blanche tipped her head back against her seat and hummed. “It was nice,” she allowed.
Candela and Spark exchanged delighted grins. “You had so much fun,” Candela said.
“If you insist on saying so,” Blanche said, and acceded a smile of her own.
Blanche walked out of the bathroom towelling her hair dry. Candela had her ankles hooked over Spark's left shoulder, both of them watching some late-night crime procedural on mute. She felt struck: a match lit, a bell chimed, transparent and resonant and blown wide as glass, the expanse of her gutted by light and lightness and full to the brim with a soft, nameless emotion.
“Hey,” Blanche said.
“Hey,” Spark said, and then, “I think we should talk about this.”
Her throat seized. All at once the warmth she’d been holding went to ice. “I think we should leave it alone,” she said.
“We’ve put it off for five years, don’t you think it’s time to—talk things through?”
Blanche pleated her fingers into the hem of her shirt. “What do you want from me?”
“I don’t know, an acknowledgement would be nice,” Candela drawled, looking up at her. “Or maybe to stop running away as soon as the situation requires you to demonstrate more than two seconds of emotional honesty?”
“Candela,” Spark said quietly. “That’s not fair.”
Candela made a derisive noise. “What, is that so much to ask? To admit that we used to be part of each other’s lives and, fuck, maybe there still might be something worth salvaging from that wreckage—”
“We fell out of each other’s lives,” Blanche said. Her breath was coming in starts. “It happens. It’s normal. We grew apart, that’s what people do, I told you this already, we can’t go back to how we were before because we aren’t the same people we were then—”
“I know we aren’t,” Spark said. “I’m not—we’re not saying we should go back. We're just saying that maybe we can still figure something out. With what we’ve got now.”
Blanche sat down. The mattress dipped under her weight, steadied. “We tried this already,” she said. “It didn’t work.”
“Doesn’t mean we can’t try again. Now that we know better. Older and wiser and everything like that,” Spark said, a rueful quirk to his lips. “Honestly? I miss being your friend. I even miss those undercaffeinated morning shifts in Prof Willow’s lab with you guys. I’d take a thousand of them anytime if it meant—if it meant we could have stayed together like that.”
Something serrated that could have been either envy or yearning unraveled between her ribs, sweet and aching as smoke. “How can you be so sure,” Blanche said. “How can you be so sure the same thing won’t happen again?”
“Because we aren’t the same people we were then.” Candela unfolded herself from the other bed, long-limbed and lovely in the amber light. “Because we know each other better than that. And if we don’t, there’s still time to get the hang of it.”
“You don’t have to be alone, if you don’t want to,” Spark said. “We used to be close enough for that, at least.”
A silver filigree of memory running from point to point between the three of them, insubstantial and inexorable and pulled taut by the passage of time, but now it held, the interlaced fingers of it bracing them together, binding them together. Maybe this was their fate: to return to one another, again and again, lifelines diverging only to braid themselves together once more, washing back onto each other’s shores. Caught in the thunderous current of that shared history.
Blanche shut her eyes. “I don’t,” she whispered. “I don’t want to be alone. But I…”
The press of fingers at her chin tilted her head up. She opened her eyes to meet Candela’s warm, candid gaze. “Then we’ll be here,” Candela said. Unshakeable in the strength of her conviction, as she always had been. “When you’re ready.”
It was Spark’s turn to drive. The sunsteeped road uncoiled before them, fringed with checkered patches of grass and cracked, yellowing earth. The tops of the trees outside looked like they’d been brushed over with gold leaf. They’d left the highway behind sometime earlier in the afternoon and the car kicked up fitful plumes of dust along the narrowing lane.
The minutes leached by. Conversation ignited half-heartedly and sputtered out. One or two curious Spearow regarded the car as it passed by with watchful, buttonlike eyes.
“We’ll be there pretty soon,” Spark said, fracturing the silence. His gaze didn’t waver from the road. “Couple of hours, tops.”
The car grew quieter, colder, the air of a suspended breath. Candela shifted in her seat, a faint curl of smoke rising from her skin. They were drawing close. Someone had turned the GPS off, but Spark seemed to know the route regardless, steering them through a series of labyrinthine turns until Blanche couldn’t say for sure which direction they’d come from. When their eyes met in the rearview mirror she wasn’t surprised to see the telltale gleam of feral gold in his irises.
A searing pain laddered up her ribs like someone had reached into her chest and grasped hold of whatever was there and yanked. She doubled over, shuddering, even as it faded. “Here,” she gasped out, but Spark was already pulling over, gravel crunching beneath the tires.
She threw open the door and stepped out. A light wind swept goosebumps along her exposed skin, siphoning heat away. A little further down off the road, the overgrown roadside grass gave way to a broken line of scraggly trees.
“It’s in there?” Candela asked, coming to stand behind her shoulder.
“Beyond, I think,” Blanche said.
She set off into the forest, stepping over the burnt-out carcass of a fallen trunk. Spark and Candela followed behind her. She heard the lulling rhythmic swash of the ocean before she saw it; soon enough the leaf litter underfoot grew sparse, then turned to sand, and they were standing on a small, hidden beach with nothing ahead of them except an endless stretch of water in all directions, grey-green and glittering.
“I didn’t know we were already this close to the ocean,” Candela muttered, sidestepping a chunk of driftwood. “Figures.”
At the other end of the beach a cavern beckoned, its mouth partly obscured by shadow. Easy to imagine, in that darkness, that it descended all the way down to the underworld. Salt-spray stung her lips. “I’d best hurry,” Blanche said, motioning to the cave. “It appears that the tide is coming in, and I should take advantage of the natural light.”
“Wait, hang on,” Candela said. “Are you seriously not taking a flashlight? Or, I mean, anything at all?”
“I would prefer not to disturb the local ecosystems,” Blanche said.
“That is the single most fucking stupid thing I have ever—you’re going to trip on a rock and crack your head open.”
“Your concern has been noted,” Blanche said.
“And the tide’s coming in, you said it yourself. You’re going to crack your head open and then drown.”
“I will be out again by the time the cave floods.”
“Are you trying to get yourself killed?” Candela demanded. “Because that’s what it sounds like to me. What happened to your obsession with occupational health and safety?”
“I know what I’m doing,” Blanche said. An icy, remote calm settled over her. The wind began to pick up around them, tousling Candela’s hair into disarray.
Candela opened her mouth, narrowed her eyes. She studied Blanche’s face for a few moments, all singular searing intent, then exhaled and glanced away. “Fine. But we’re coming in after you if you don’t turn up by sunset.”
“Sure you don’t want us to go with you?” Spark said, frowning. “Or we can send Jolteon and Flareon down with you?”
“No,” Blanche said; then, relenting, “I—appreciate the thought. But this is something I have to do by myself.”
The temperature fell off sharply as soon as she stepped into the cave, a bladed chill rasping over her forearms. Blanche blinked, waited for her sight to adjust to the sudden dimness, and started walking. The tunnel sloped gently downwards. She had a brief vision of the walls narrowing around her, the uneven rock underfoot rising to meet the ceiling. Her breath shallowed; she stopped again, waited the panic out.
She could hear the steady hollowed-out clink of water dripping onto stone, and beneath that, the restless roar of the ocean somewhere in the distance. The sound of her footsteps seemed unnaturally resonant to her own ears. Weak, greyish light filtered in through the ceiling, barely enough to see where she should set her next step. She’d been walking for two, three minutes. She’d been walking for half an eternity.
Somewhere in the darkness ahead, the Winter Box awaited. She knew her lore; Articuno was said to appear to the lost and doomed in the moments before the cold claimed them, though the stories were never too clear on whether it was herald or harbinger. Still, what a sight Articuno must have been to those dying travellers—the massive glasslike sweep of its wings, its lashing tail. Shards of half-remembered sensation glimmered in her mind’s eye: the vicious, unearthly silence of ice floes, unmelting snow on the highest mountain peaks, a glacier crawling towards the ocean. The air was still and cool and damp on her skin. It grew darker. She kept walking.
The echo of her footsteps, counterpoint to the sussurating water, began to resolve itself into whispers. She could hear, like leaves sifting and shifting, a glissade of cascading piano notes, Spark’s adolescent murmur, Candela’s sleep-shirred voice saying I think you told me, once. There were tiny slivers of ice dusting the arms of her jacket; she brushed them off with the back of her hand. A faint, pulsating glow caught on the pebbled wall ahead, growing unsteadily brighter as she moved towards it and rounded the corner.
It lay gaping on a truncated limestone dais in the middle of the chamber that opened up before her then, unremarkable other than the fact of the swaying submarine iridescence spilling out of its mouth in every direction like light bent through a glass bottle, crumpled and wavering on the walls. Host of Articuno, it said, in a polyphony of overlapping whispers, water on stone, fragments of human voice, something that was both, and neither.
An image presented itself to her in oversaturated clarity: Candela and Spark as children, leaning towards one another as though magnetised. Herself three steps behind them, holding herself apart with an injured stiffness, and the absurd spike of jealousy that accompanied the memory crushed the breath from her lungs like a fist had closed around them. Suffused her with an iron longing. She took a step towards the dais, and then another. The air seemed to thicken around her like cooling molasses, molten glass; it would be easier, so much easier to stop struggling, to lie down and let the cold claim her. Candela and Spark had never needed her—never needed you, the box was saying, never wanted you there, they were happy without you before they met you and after you left—
“No,” Blanche said, teeth chattering. “I won’t—it isn’t true, they came here with me—they’re still waiting—”
But they’ve always fit together better without you, it said. You have always known this to be true. A rapid succession of flickering images like flipped pages, Candela-and-Spark, blurring until they wove together into a single bright entity. Her knees buckled. She lurched forward, palms scraping the cool, slick rock, a superficial pain. And then a metallic keening noise cleaved through the whispering; Blanche jerked her head up, searching—she knew that cry, she knew who it belonged to—
At the other end of the chamber, Vaporeon’s eyes glowed like lamps, twin points of unwavering brightness.
“Vaporeon,” Blanche choked out. She slumped against the base of the dais. “You came back to me.”
Vaporeon padded around the dais and pressed himself against her calf, simple reassurance of his presence, and Blanche hoisted herself off the ground once more. Ice held, implacable. In the cold its strength was absolute.
Aren’t you afraid? the box said. The light resolved itself into a single sliver of white inside, flaring desperately as she blinked away the softening afterimages. All by yourself in the dark?
“I’ve never been alone,” Blanche said, and wrenched the box shut.
When she emerged from the cave the sky was dimming, bleeding out into a sullen, smudged purple. The water sloshed around her ankles. She barely felt the seeping cold. Vaporeon kept pace at her side as she waded through the shallows back to where the others were waiting. The box was securely tucked under an arm; it had been an awful lot of effort for what was now in effect an ostentatious paperweight.
“Hey, you’re back,” Candela called. They’d let out Flareon and Jolteon in the interim. Now, Flareon bounded up to Vaporeon and nuzzled him; Jolteon uncurled at Spark’s feet and let out a soft noise of welcome. “Looks like everything went alright?”
“As you can see, I am neither concussed nor drowned, and the artefact has been neutralised for the time being.”
Candela whistled. “Nice going. Was it cursed or something?”
“Something like that,” Blanche said. “I’m sure the Professor can sort it out.”
“And Vaporeon’s back!” Spark exclaimed, crouching down with his arms wide. Vaporeon trotted towards him and preened as Spark scritched behind his ears. “So the rest of your Pokémon will be coming pretty soon, I guess?”
“In due time.” They shared a smile, hesitant until it was not. Skin beneath a healing wound.
“So what are you going to do?” Candela said. “When you get back?”
“I don’t know,” Blanche said. “The mission write-up alone will likely take months. After that, I think… I think I might take an extended leave of absence, at least until I get all of my Pokémon back. Someone has to keep the Centre running smoothly and it may as well be me. I suspect the archives haven’t been properly indexed since before we were born.”
“Aw, but it’s fun telling the kids they’ve got the biggest Magikarp on record,” Spark said. “Since the M-O section straight up doesn’t exist or something.”
Blanche levelled a pointed look at him. “And whose fault is that?”
“Hey, don’t look at me, it was Candela’s—how do you even remember these things, that was, like, ten years ago?”
“It’s my special talent. I memorise other people’s mistakes so I can bring them up in arguments years later.”
“Okay, I respect that dedication,” Spark said, “but, uh. Anyone ever told you you’re a scary friend to have?”
“Yes,” Blanche said. “You.”
Spark grinned, then swooped forward to kiss her, a featherlight close-mouthed press of his lips to the corner of her mouth, hands braced on her shoulders. “Knew it,” he crowed. He gathered Jolteon and Vaporeon up in his arms, and Flareon vaulted into an impressive flying leap to drape herself over his shoulders. “Well, I’m heading back to the car before someone makes off with it. See you two there!”
That left Blanche and Candela alone on the crescent of sand. The twist to Candela’s mouth was wry, intimate. Too soon to close the undefinable gulf between them, but it was lessening, increment by increment, a tide washing in, and eventually it too would heal over. When that time came Blanche would step forward and set a hand at the back of Candela’s neck and see how they might still have space for one another in their adult selves; for now she contented herself with the stillness, a meeting of gazes, an oceanside equilibrium where there was no need to outrun their histories.
“I see you’ve got your legendary back, too,” Candela said. “I told you, they don’t let go so easily. Articuno’s a part of you forever.”
“... What do you mean?”
“Your hands,” Candela said, simply.
Blanche looked down. It was fading, now, but there was an unmistakeable fishscale luminescence coruscating over her fingers, silvery blue and sheened like silk, or light glinting off ice. She splayed her hands, then curled them into fists.
Out of the corner of her eye, a flash of white.