"So, Viridian City? Business or pleasure?"
Maybe if Nanu pretended not to hear the question, the young, obnoxiously-perky clerk wouldn't push it.
He already handed over his ticket and identification, so he had no excuse to rifle through his pockets like he had something to look for, but he did anyway. This saved him from eye contact and helped the clerk get the message.
"Er… Any bags for check-in?"
With a nervous, tense swivel of their head, the woman handed back his materials and gave a customary bow. "...Your departure… Is currently on time, at the second gate. Have a good flight, sir."
He declined to say anything. He took the ticket and rolled his carry-on bag behind him.
The gods invented air travel to punish mankind, Nanu thought. Each step of it held unique, hellish qualities: paying a hefty sum. Packing bags and having to arrange for others to care for your things while you're away. Lines. Questions. Waiting. Having to talk to people, then having to sit next to people for hours on end. The only grace in it was that Nanu had flown so many times in his life, that these irritations did not overwhelm him to the point of shooting anyone.
To be fair, the Alolan airport was tiny to the point of irrelevance, with only two gates and a handful of passengers. These days, prices of flights in and out of Alola drove most tourists to make their way via boat, usually to a port in Kalos or Unova, from which flights could be more thriftily arranged. The very wealthy could afford private planes. The rest―businessmen with travel expenses paid and those who had some money to burn―ended up here, desperately trying to shave a day's worth of travel off of their itinerary. Nanu was likely the only passenger whose trip would be at the taxpayer's expense. A perk of being a former Interpol agent.
The flight would be leaving within the hour. He eyed the uncomfortable-looking chairs, found a spot in a row of empty spaces far from everyone else, and took a seat. Yup. Uncomfortable was right. In an attempt to be positive, he brought out a paperback and told himself, at least I can get some reading done.
But he couldn't crack the first page before his cell phone rang.
He first cursed himself for forgetting to turn it off, then produced it from his interior coat pocket. Nanu stubbornly refused to graduate to a smartphone, but his flip phone still had the ability to warn him of the identity of his harasser, so he glanced at the screen and felt his heart rate spike.
He would probably get away with not answering and shutting the phone off until he arrived in Kanto. He would be in the air soon; it was a valid excuse.
But better to get it over with.
Expertly, he held the phone at an arm's length from his face, and more importantly, his ear. He answered the call and said, "What is it?"
Several people turned around in their seats, startled and trying to find the source of the grating, distorted scream. He rolled his eyes up to the ceiling. Deep breaths. "Girl, you are going to pierce my eardrum one day."
"YOU DIDN'T EVEN SAY GOODBYE!"
Oh. Acerola was mad. She did sound a little screechier than usual. Leaving a curt note on the door of the police station apparently didn't win her over. He tentatively brought the phone to his ear, hoping he wouldn't have to yank it back. "Didn't think I needed to."
"Uncle Nanu," she lectured, " Of course you need to! Who's going to watch over the island!?"
Amused by her sincerity, he told her, "Breathe. I'm not even out of Alola yet. Ula'ula's not gonna start sinking until I'm in the air."
"THAT'S NOT FUNNY!" Her voice turned sullen and pouty. "Where are you going, anyway?"
"That far away? For how long?"
"Dunno. A while."
The shrill, kittenish voice drooped. "Awww. But I'll miss you!"
"...I don't really see why."
"Well, fine! I'm gonna name a-a-a-all your Meowth while you're away."
"If you don't want me to, you hafta stay."
"Hmph." Nanu smirked and eyed the other passengers, who by now returned to their solitary activities. Seeing no one sitting close enough to listen in, he said, "I don't negotiate with terrorists."
To his surprise, she seemed to get the joke. She giggled and sighed. "It's okay… I understand. If you're going… I guess it must be really important. You don't like going anywhere!"
"Yeah, yeah. Look, kid. I gotta go."
"All right! Be safe, Uncle Nanu! And bring me something!"
Safe? Nanu dwelled on that thought. Not only would the trip be safe, but deathly boring. He wished he could ask for a different blessing. "I'll try. Now get to bed. It's late."
Upon hanging up, he heard and saw the form of an airplane rolling in toward the gate from the inky blackness. Nanu brought out his book again. Might as well read now; he'd be asleep on the plane.
Calculating together the time zone change and travel time, he arrived to a town in the midst of a cool, autumnal afternoon tumbling with a soft breeze and gentler public. He'd looked into the area's weather and planned somewhat accordingly, so no flip-flops for the time being, and no Alolan police uniform. He'd never served as an officer in Viridian anyhow, so he didn't want to elicit any confusion or unwanted attention. He came fully intending to blend in with the populace.
He almost let himself call it "going undercover." But this was just him, wasn't it? Him, stripped of his titles: no Officer, no Kahuna, no Agent. He rolled his luggage out to the curb, hailed a taxi, and found himself feeling peculiar.
Viridian City had changed.
Nanu found himself noticing this now, despite the fact that he visited the so-named Eternally Green Paradise recently. Three years prior, he flew in on another emergency situation, but because the visit had been so short, and the situation so distracting, Nanu didn't spend any time sightseeing or even taking notice of how the place had evolved.
The changes didn't take him by surprise. In the easy chatter of smalltalk and gossip, in the scanning of news stories, and by sheer attention to urban development, Nanu knew that Viridian City was no longer the sleepy village of dirt and gravel, humble homes and lakeside cottages, wood-panel ramen shops and family-run diners. Ever since the Pokemon League broke ground and the Elite Four made their home up in the city's bordering mountains, and especially when the Viridian Gym opened, the culture and economy of the town shifted. No more did they need to depend on the small crowd of tourists hope to take in the lakeview scenery of Mt. Silver or partake in the valley's hot-spring resorts. Trainers came. And trainers bring―as any town with a gym can attest―all the vitality, beauty, and rowdiness that comes from an influx of youth.
Where Nanu remembered a dirt path lining a row of small shops, now a train station bustled with activity alongside a traffic-clogged streetway. Glossy signs for sleek, modern shopping centers sat parallel to every road, and cafes with outdoor seating were dotted with young people carrying backpacks and drinks. Glass-paneled buildings towered over the once flat skyline; buses hissed and motorists sputtered. The whole downtown rumbled.
The farther the taxi brought him out of the downtown area, however, the more familiar the scenery became. Dilapidated structures yet to be gentrified lurked like skeletons at the outer edge of the city's center, tucked between narrow, cobblestone streets, and if he gave them a careful look, he could recognize some of their shapes, faded colors, and signs, although they were all ghosts of their former selves. Paper lanterns strung from doorways illuminated the businesses still open. Few people gathered there except for a few trainers engaging in battles away from the crowd congestion. Those alleyways had always been prime spots for a good one-on-one fight.
Once the taxi brought him out of the city, he at last had an unobscured view of the hills and mountains that walled in the valley. The area's famous cedar trees crested well above the other vegetation, creating a wall of unbroken viridian color about the town. The autumnal season meant the other trees―the maples and the beech trees and dozens of other species―had exploded into a fireworks display of crackling reds and golds, bronze and flame. On the hillside leading up to Mount Silver, the trees were a breathtaking patchwork of colors. Alola had its advantages as a place of perpetual warmth and sun, and Nanu did not miss the often-bitter winters in Kanto, but there was something about the strong swing of seasons that made Kanto beautiful.
Besides, it beat being stuck in the rain all the time.
Down the short country road, dry leaves pushed by the wind skittered across, life-like in their nervousness. Here, where the paved road turned past grassy fields and bridges crossing creeks, Nanu could remember everything. After almost forty years, it felt like he'd never left.
Stepping out of the taxi, then, was like time travel.
He landed on the street.
At least the neighborhood hadn't changed too much. The high, leafy hedges and the power-lines all along the paved, intersecting roads gave the patch of suburbia an intimate, enclosed feel, and added to the tall gates and walls surrounding each house, it made the streets feel like a maze of hallways with secrets at every corner. Only the upper rooftops of each home were visible from the street, some even more obscured by yellowing tree branches. If you didn't know the area, it could be a disorienting matter.
Nanu had reached his destination, though. The house between the gray-brick wall and the wood pallet fence, the house currently being overtaken by red maple at its roof and shrubs at its feet. Two stories, that plain, unassuming tan color that Kantonians favored as to not appear too showy, tight in width, curtains shut, nothing stirring. A house that didn't turn heads and could be confused with dozens of others. But he knew this one.
The gate into the driveway had been pulled open and left there; security in this neighborhood tended to be lax during the day. It saved him some hoisting.
He passed under the wooden arch that had seen better days, noted the car parked deep in the shrubbery and covered in a tarp and leaves, and the garden―not much of a garden anymore, but some remnants remained: stone statues swallowed by vines, the last of autumn's purple wildflowers poking out of the withered grass.
The path up to the house hadn't been raked, so he had to wade through an ankle-deep layer of dead leaves shed by the monstrous, untended trees overhead. He gave up on dragging his luggage through it and lugged it at his thigh, puffing with an embarrassing amount of strain.
One, two, three. The creaking, thumping sounds of his feet on the wooden steps made memories flood back.
Nanu flitted them aside to focus on the task at hand. He stood before the door―a proud, dark oak door that was probably older than he was.
He groaned. Go figure.
Unwilling to give up, he banged his fist on the door a little harder and hollered, "Sully! Open up!"
Though no voice responded, he could hear a television blaring and a dog barking. Did those count as signs of life? Nanu tugged on the door handle, just to be sure it hadn't been left unlocked. It hadn't. His jostling of the handle put the dog on alert, though; the doggy door at his feet flapped open, and an excited Growlithe stuck its head out to see who had come to disturb the peace. Upon examining him, it continued barking like mad.
"Great." He stuck his face up against the glass but couldn't see anything of importance in the foggy view of the foyer. "If I came all this way and he's a corpse, I'm gonna be real pissed."
Nanu would have to think of alternative measures.
Sullivan was too keen to leave a key under the mat or in some fake novelty rock, and Nanu didn't have any lock-picking tools on him. So instead, he left his luggage on the doorstep and trudged around to the back of the house, from which he could see windows, a second-floor balcony, and a set of steps down into the cellar. As he knew the cellar door was locked (permanently wedged shut from perpetual disuse, as he recalled), he set his eyes on the balcony. Sullivan never locked the sliding door up there. That used to be an easy in, especially when Nanu had reason to slip into the house unnoticed.
The back face of the house was designed in such a way that the railing setting off the cellar stairs lay roughly beneath the balcony, which meant with a bit of balance and acrobatics, a person could use said railing to carry themselves up and climb up the rest of the way. He didn't… remember exactly doing that, but his training told him that was his best bet.
He gauged the jump. Easy, he thought. He even cracked a knuckle before taking a step back and readying himself. Inexplicably, he felt a surge of confidence and took two running steps at the railing.
His muscle memory kicked in. However, his muscles did not take into account that he was no longer thirteen, so within seconds of jumping on top of the guard rail with his first foot, his other foot missed it entirely and he lost his balance. Backwards he went, and he landed on the ground with a powerful thud.
For a blinding second, he thought he had crushed his spine into dust. But he blinked the stars out of his eyes and soon found that no, he'd merely flattened it onto the stony earth, and now everything in his body radiated pain.
He gasped, hardly able to catch his breath. "Okay… Just gonna… Lie here…" He squeezed his eyes shut and shuddered through the agony. "And think about… How stupid that was… Ugh."
Some minutes passed before he even attempted to get up, and when he did, he groaned the whole way. It might hurt now, but he knew the pain would be pulverizing tomorrow.
Cradling his lower back with his palm, he glanced about the yard. At least no one had seen that.
How did he used to get up there? After looking around, he recognized holes in the brick facade. That's right. He'd use them to climb up the wall and hop his way to the upper railing.
Good lord. What a crazy monkey he was. Just the thought of trying that maneuver now made his back scream in protest.
"...Not happening," he said, as if to calm it down. "I'd break my neck."
He'd just have to rely on some old tricks.
If he wasn't so petrified of letting his Honchkrow fly him about, he could launch himself for the balcony. Instead, he erred on the side of caution… and old, quasi-legal habits. Nanu searched his belt and produced a pokeball.
"...Shoulda done this in the first place," he griped. "Kaitō, come on out."
His Sableye materialized on the ground. It squeaked, saw his uncomfortably-hunched posture, and trilled.
"You remember the place," Nanu said. He directed its attention to the house. "I need the front door open."
Sableye chittered and scritched its ear with a hind leg before offering a grunt of compliance and skittering for the wall. With incredible ease, it scaled the bricks, reached the west bedroom window―a familiar point of entrance―and forced it open by tugging and bracing the hefty glass under its shoulders. Once it disappeared inside, Nanu walked back around to the front of the house. It didn't take long, though in the next few minutes he heard thumping, scratching, hissing, and barking that signalled a quick scrap between his Sableye and the defensive Growlithe. A defeated whine and whimper sounded just as the front door creaked open and his purple goblin, perched on the doorknob, grinned proudly at its master.
Nanu grinned back. "Good boy."
He pushed the door open; Sableye disappeared again, perhaps to continue harassing the dog. When he stepped inside, he noted all the lights were off, leaving the interior shrouded in a late day's darkness.
"Sully." He paused at the foyer to kick off his shoes. "I'm home."
Anne Marie kept a meticulous house―she was a born homemaker―so Nanu only had memories of the place as a pristine, orderly environment free of dust and dirt. And as such, up until three years ago, Sullivan had lived in relative ease, able to enjoy retirement while his wife, out of habit and duty, took care of their hold.
Some deterioration was to be expected. Nanu just didn't expect it to be this bad.
The foyer appeared in order, but as soon as he took a left into the living room, he saw debris scattered about the house. It looked like a tornado had come through, then a moving company; stacks of mail, garbage bags, empty boxes, newspapers, dog toys, and books covered every surface. The place hadn't been dusted or vacuumed in ages, if the trails of soil and grit on the carpet and furniture were any indication. And the stench...
Nanu stepped over a collapsing pile of unopened mail and wondered what Sullivan thought he was doing with any of this. Some of it looked partially organized, as if the man had pushed things together intending to put them away, but… Forgot? Lost his train of thought?
In the shadows, he saw the familiar arrangement of the living and dining area. The television at the wall beamed its colorful programming from across the room, casting the white fluorescent glow over the sofa and highlighting the shape of Sullivan's head.
By the slow bobbing, Nanu determined: asleep, not dead.
The volume was on so high that Nanu thought his ears might bleed; he hurried over, found the remote at Sullivan's side, and snatched it up to turn the device off. Blissful silence. A touch exasperated, Nanu tossed the remote back onto the couch and took a good look.
In his prime, Sullivan stood a proud, golden-haired titan, tall and strong-shouldered, an intimidating presence. When he barked orders, you listened. When he admonished, you groveled. His name was "yes, sir," and "no, sir."
Now, everything that had been him had shrunk into this withered frame. Strong cheekbones sank; lionized hair shriveled into faint, white wisps; his skin deeply wrinkled; muscles and height depleted as bones receded. He leaned back with limp and restless posture, wrapped in a robe over unwashed pajamas, lips trembling where shallow breaths whistled out. The sheer exhaustion of being alive would be enough to knock him into sleep, but now Nanu saw other contributing factors. A bandage was bound about his head, and a cast enclosed his right hand.
Nanu sighed and nudged his shoulder―gently.
In his sleep, Sullivan's lips tightened into a hard, uneven line.
"Sully. Get up."
The elderly man snorted, rolled his head, and blinked open a pair of faint, icy-blue eyes. It took a moment of blinking and stirring out of unconsciousness before he showed any sign of recognition, but at last, his eyes widened, and his uninjured hand flew up to seize Nanu's wrist.
"Nash!" Startled and a bit confused, Sullivan tried to leverage his grip to stand up onto his feet, but he didn't have the strength. His voice was warbly and dry, scratching its way from a worn, parched throat. "When'd you get here?"
Sullivan grasped for both of Nanu's wrists this time, forcing a bit of cooperation until he brought himself up from the couch. He let out a breathy laugh. "Aren't you a sight for sore eyes!"
Before Nanu could even hope to put a stop to it, Sullivan turned the simple act of pulling him up into a full embrace; he stiffly wrapped his uninjured arm around Nanu's shoulders, clapped him on the back, and let the hold linger for a bit longer than Nanu liked. He finished the disregard for Nanu's personal space by putting a hand at the back of Nanu's neck and squeezing.
Nanu tolerated this.
"I can't believe it," Sullivan sighed. "I almost didn't recognize you."
Finally, Nanu put an end to the hugging, but he let the man clutch his arm in lieu of his cane, so that he could wobble but still stand. "Hasn't been that long."
Nanu paused, then raised his voice close to the man's ear. "It hasn't been that long."
"H-hold on―" Sully strained his eyes, tilted his head, and muttered, "I'll put my hearing aids in. Where'd I put those―? They might be in the kitchen."
Just when Nanu turned them for the kitchen, there was a thump under the table, and the Growlithe darted toward them. They took their slow steps through the kitchen doorway, and the sight of Nanu dragging its owner about drove it to yap, snarl, and bite the air at the back of Nanu's ankles. It took great restraint for the kahuna not to kick it in the face, but he decided to hurry Sullivan along and place him in a chair.
"Oh, sweetie, sweetie, it's okay." Sullivan burbled babytalk, struggled to bend down, and wrestled the creature into his lap. It squirmed but he cradled it enough to try and reintroduce them. "It's Kuchinashi. Remember?"
The Growlithe licked its muzzle, gave Nanu a wondrous look, then let out a growl. Nanu had only vague memories of meeting the pet on his last visit, so he couldn't blame it for seeing him as a strange intruder.
"She's really very sweet," Sullivan promised. "You can pet her if you like."
Nanu returned the Growlithe's stare and read the dog's face. It said, quite distinctly and with some additional growling, touch me and I eat your hand. "I'll… take your word for it, thanks."
Sullivan still couldn't hear him or his sarcasm. "Hmm… Let's see…" The man turned over a few papers but found nothing. He patted the dog's shoulder. "Sweetheart, can you go get daddy's hearing aids? I can't remember―"
The Growlithe responded with a cheerful yelp, flumped onto the floor, and ran into the living room. Within a minute, it returned, wagging its tail and gingerly carrying a small clamshell case in its mouth.
"There they are. Where on earth…?" Sullivan shook his head, but took the case and thanked the pup with a scratch to the forehead. "She's such a big help. Much better at finding things than I am."
The kitchen's condition was a special sort of disgusting. Not only did a stream of garbage line the walls, bags filled and overflowing, but the counter featured stacks of unwashed dishes and food left out to rot. After Nanu sat Sullivan down in the chair, he had wandered toward the sink, which itself was flooded with rancid water and cutlery. Suddenly, he regretted taking his shoes off, because as we walked, he could feel every granule, every sticky spot, every bit of mystery moisture on the floor. He poked a single plate and an entire extended family of roaches spilled out from underneath.
Nanu didn't have much of a gag reflex, but this was pushing it.
"...There." Sullivan gave his hearing aid one last adjustment. "That's better. Did you want any coffee?"
"Uh…" Nanu glanced about. "You have coffee?"
"I've got a percolator somewhere. Try that cupboard there."
Though he had a feeling this would be a dead end, Nanu searched an upper cupboard and found an ancient coffee machine shoved in the corner. It took a bit of stretching to reach it, and once he brought it down, he popped the cover and glanced inside. He found an unchanged filter overrun with a puffy mound of multicolored mold. "When'd you use this last?"
"That thing? Oh, who knows."
How reassuring. Nanu placed it down and resigned to a coffee-less afternoon for now. His eyes wandered, then lingered on Sullivan's arm.
"I don't make coffee much anymore, see, there's this new cafe that opened up a few blocks down, real nice, a Kalos company I think, it really shows in their pastries―I go there just about every day for breakfast, gives me an excuse to get out of the house, good coffee there, and I can get something to eat, small and cheap, and the waitstaff there are real nice, know me by name, including this cute number who― well I know she's just goofing around, but at my age, hey, I'll take whatever flirting I can get―Nash. Nash, have you heard a single thing I've said?"
Nanu blinked to attention, now realizing he hadn't, and so changed the subject. "...What happened, Sully?"
He bluntly pointed at the hand in a cast.
"This?" The elderly man hushed then fidgeted, embarrassed. "O-oh, right… I guess that's why you're here… Well, it was… My fault, mostly." He rubbed a spot behind his ear. "I was out too late, walking by myself, which I shouldn't... And these two people bumped into me, I thought on accident, but then one of them pushed me to the ground―"
Nanu felt his fingers squeeze on the edge of the counter.
"They didn't do much more than that, but I fell all wrong, busted up my wrist, banged my hip pretty bad, my head, too; they took my wallet and ran. This neighborhood used to be so safe, but still I..."
The image of Sullivan injured and lying on the pavement flashed in Nanu's mind, and it made his blood boil. "Did you file a report?"
"The neighbors that found me―we got to the hospital first, I think a detective came, but I don't…" The man frowned and circled his eyes on the floor. "I don't remember. I might have..."
"Okay. I'll find out." He paused. "Why'd you leave the hospital?"
This question flustered the man; he gave a powerful scoff. "What would be the point of that? Sitting around while they fuss over me. They think because of my age I can't do anything―what do those quacks know? Anyway―you should know I didn't ask them to call you, I didn't want to scare you like that, but I had you as an emergency contact and when I said I had enough and wanted to go home, they went and called you."
Emergency contact? That didn't sound right. "They get in touch with your kids?"
"Oh―no, no." Sullivan met his eyes, saw the surprise in them, and resorted to begging, "And don't you go telling them―they don't have to know."
"I'm not keeping secrets from your family."
"But you know what they'll do. They'll say I can't live here anymore. They already want to stick me in some assisted living place."
Privately, and after re-examining the state of the kitchen, Nanu thought, maybe they should.
Sullivan looked weak and desperate, his faded blue eyes shining with hope. "Please ?"
More than forty years ago, it would have been Nanu gaping up at the man, eyes big, mouth pleading for mercy (which, to a child, meant not being punished for having done something they shouldn't).
Sullivan, as a good parent, never caved.
Nanu would not have been a good parent.
"Hrrngh. All right, all right. I'll... hold off." He rubbed his head, averted his eyes, and grumbled deep in his throat. "Can't promise they won't find out eventually."
As Growlithe settled on the floor at Sullivan's feet, the old man nodded in understanding. "Nash… Hey, Nash, sit down, won't you? You look exhausted."
He was exhausted. And hungry. And thirsty. And overwhelmed. Nanu decided sitting down wouldn't be the worst choice; he collapsed into a chair opposite to the older man.
"I probably forgot to say it, but I'm glad you came," Sullivan assured him. "Even though you really didn't have to."
On the kitchen table, Nanu's fingers slid over mail labeled "PAST DUE." He chose not to comment on it.
"So? Are you staying at a hotel or…?"
"Figured I'd crash on the couch."
"Oh." Sullivan, embarrassed, fidgeted with the hem of his robe. "Well, I would let you, only… That's where I sleep these days." He didn't wait for Nanu to question it. "It's just easier than climbing the stairs every night. Say―your old room's open. I'd offer my bedroom, but it's... Er, it's being organized right now."
Sensing Nanu's lack of enthusiasm, Sullivan said, "There are some boxes of your stuff, too. I held onto them, in case you wanted any of it."
Nanu glanced out the window. Between the black branches of the yard's trees, the sun was beginning to set. He drummed his fingers and felt a sour note coming on. "Left the junk for a reason."
"It isn't junk. Well, some of it is. But not all of it."
"...Should have burned it."
"Nash. Don't talk crazy." Sadly, Sullivan scratched his Growlithe's ears. "Some of it's irreplaceable. At least look it all over before tossing anything." When Nanu didn't argue, Sullivan asked, "How long are you thinking of staying?"
"Erm…" Nanu slumped in his chair, examined the kitchen, and scratched the thready hairs on his head. "I was thinking a few days, but…" He chose not to say that his condition was worse than he thought it would be. "How long's your wrist out of commission?"
"They said it could be weeks, but… I'm really all right here. You shouldn't worry so much."
"At least it'll be good to catch up. You know, you're still quite the topic of conversation around here."
"That's not reassuring."
"I mean it! Some of your old friends are still around. I get to brag on you all the time."
"You really shouldn't."
"...And you're so humble about everything, too! You're this big shot in Alola and you act as if―"
"Alola is a small pond, Sully."
For a few minutes, Sullivan poked at him for details about his current life, especially about the shocking news reports coming out of Alola lately, but Nanu kept things vague and dull. He didn't need to excite the old man's imagination.
And eventually, of course, Nanu tired of idle chatter and decided to get himself upstairs. It would evening in not too long, and with his jetlag, he needed to settle in at an hour contrary to his usual night-owl routine.
The bedroom was smaller than he remembered. Emptier, too. The desk and chair were gone, the posters, the dresser… That the bed and creaky mattress remained was a mercy. A lonesome window faced the westward sun, which peered in like a prying eye and scattered harsh light over the clutter. Boxes and other items stood in piles atop the bed and floor, so he pushed and rearranged what he could, that he could at minimum have a surface for sleep. As Sullivan said, some of the boxes contained discarded and abandoned property of his. At first he ignored this. No need to dust off the unpleasant and painful. But not long after sitting on the bed and staring at a blank white wall, he gave in; his hands were fidgeting, and he wanted to put off his cigarettes as long as possible, because if Sullivan caught sight of it, he'd throw a fit. Nanu grabbed a floor-bound storage box and pulled it toward him.
Dust puffed and flew at his face, and he snorted a cough when he inhaled a whiff. Inside, an eclectic pile of items shoved into one another, most of it junk, as he had surmised. He pushed past the crumbling notebooks and papers, trinkets, clothing, collectibles… (Too many collectibles. As a kid, he'd been a bit of a pack-rat, a symptom of insecurity and too many years being constantly on the move).
Folded and crammed underneath the junk, a leather jacket came into view. He seized it as memories came back. The trim-fit, brown coat was a product of a most particular phase, specifically one associated with the vehicle paired with it.
That dumb, gorgeous motorcycle. He had spent years saving up for it, then babying it and cruising about the city once he finally purchased it. He now found himself wondering if that beauty still rotted away in the toolshed out back. How he used to pine for that thing when he first moved away. Nowadays, his brain could only consider all the ways he might brutally mutilate himself through its misuse; one bad turn, and he'd be mincemeat. No thanks.
The jacket, though, wasn't so hazardous. He held it in his hands, feeling its weight and bulk, and turned it over to its back. It didn't appear damaged, just crimped and a bit faded from improper storage. He must've forgotten it.
On a whim, he tried it on.
It fit comfortably over his sweatshirt. He hadn't grown much since his twenties, it seemed; in fact, he had probably gone a bit thin. He adjusted the collar and felt the fine, tired leather beneath his fingers. It had to have been expensive. The old man in him thought, what a waste of money. And then, would get too much attention from the kids, anyway.
Then he realized, kids aren't here.
Feeling a sliver of liberation, he kept it on. He rode the good mood and made another scoop into the clutter, successfully grabbing something and bringing it to his lap. It was a binder, and though its exterior had no identifying features, he knew what it contained before he opened it. In fact, in the process of picking it up, a photograph slipped out from between its pages and fell face-down on the floor.
Nanu almost didn't want to pick it up. If he had a choice, he would have left it there for eternity to collect more dust. But he stooped down and slid it upright and between his fingers, and his red eyes only briefly touched on the content of the picture. He kept his processing blunt and analytical. Female, tan, dark-haired, late-thirties. Accompanying male, pale complexion, dark-haired, maybe eight, nine years old…
The album fell open. He found an open page to slip the picture into.
Sullivan wasn't wrong to call these items irreplaceable. The nature of Nanu's upbringing and childhood meant a sparseness in records, and especially pictures. He had plenty of photographs of his life in Viridian City, of course―Anne Marie made sure of that. But the first decade of his life had gone up in smoke.
No baby pictures. No family photos. No embarrassing school portraits.
He had two pictures. They included, but did not solely feature, his parents. They also were not very good.
If you're going to have only a few pictures of a person, you would hope that they captured something of their essence―that they represented them at their best, or truest. These did not do that. In both, his parents seemed equal parts distracted and caught by surprise, too unfocused to put on an act, too distant to exhibit any personality. They glanced past the camera lens, faces ghostly, eyes alight with red glare. Shadows.
Someone else might pore over the pictures, thumb them, dwell on them. Nanu gave them a cursory glance then flipped them aside. Despite his best effort, he still felt that ancient singe of resentment he thought he'd buried decades ago.
The rest of the pictures were dull. Life in Viridian City: school, graduation, competitions, police academy.
Nanu ended up nodding off when he tried perusing the material on his side. The sleep went deep and far too long, plunging him into frantic, unsettling dreamscapes. He was beset by a column of fire, metal, and glass, its mouth breathing hot air on his face, its ruby throat breaching the sky and scorching it black. He had to get someone out. He couldn't tell who, but he knew he had to do it, had to, before something terrible happened, so he kept venturing into the pit, and monster's jaws lashing at him, and whenever he grabbed hold of someone's arms or legs, they slew apart dark and slick.
He woke up hours later overheated, overtired, head pounding, and a bit sick to the stomach.
Nanu needed a cigarette.
Limp and starting to feel the creeping stiffness in his spine, he rolled out of bed, groped around in the dark, and found his way into the unlit hallway. He nearly tripped over his Sableye on the way out, as it had rummaged through his things while he slept in search of pretties. He took one suspicious look at it and spotted something silver in color in its grasp.
"Hey. Drop it."
If the object weren't so bulky and hard to carry, the Sableye might have squeaked and hid with it. But it glanced up at its master, diamond eyes full of longing, and plopped the trophy onto the hardwood floor. He would lean down to get it, but his back protested, so he kicked it back into his room.
"I'd let you eat it, but it's not real silver."
He was surprised to find the thing. He didn't remember keeping any of his tournament trophies. Not that the trophies bore bad memories―he didn't resent his inability to get first place. He'd never been an especially competitive kid, and considering the kid who did always get the gold… One couldn't be too disappointed placing as a runner-up.
The upper floor remained undisturbed, and as he glanced past the stairway, he couldn't see, but could properly guess, that Sullivan was either asleep or distracted. Nanu decided this would be an ideal time to sneak out; he snagged the sliding door leading to the upstairs balcony and stepped out. Sableye slipped out with him, and with a silent swoop, it ended up perched on the railing alongside him.
The neighborhood had gone quiet, buzzing with the drone of nocturnal insects, astir only with the passing of an occasional breeze. The dark blue sky extended over the rooftops of the neighboring houses, and the roads glowed with bursts of color where streetlights had turned on for the night. With the sun down and moon up, the temperature had dipped to a soothing chilliness, which was welcome in his current drowsy, clammy state.
He leaned on the railing and smoked, and it was the single most pleasurable action he'd committed in weeks. The nicotine hit him and with worrying immediacy, the cloud of misery, nausea, and muscle pains lifted.
Just as he started to nurse it, though, the noise of opening and closing the door must have roused Sullivan, because lights began to pop in from the house's interior, first downstairs, and then directly behind Nanu. He didn't scramble, despite old instinct warning him to do so. He continued to puff on his cigarette and watched his Sableye crouch like a gargoyle, knowing that it would alert him to any presence behind him. The stairs and creaked loud enough to do that anyway.
The nosey old coot eventually reached the sliding door and pulled it open to poke his head out. "Nash?"
Nanu held the cigarette at his chest and pondered his options. Throw it? Not if he didn't want to start a fire in this dry weather. Instead, he tucked it behind the handrail with his fingers.
"Nash, I wanted to― What are you doing?"
"Oh, you know. Looking at the stars."
A second later, Sullivan asked, already knowing the answer, "Are you smoking?"
"I can smell it."
Nanu took in a long breath and held it, tempering his irritation best he could. He had not flown all this way to be lectured. He decided to place the cigarette back at his lips and take generous puffs. "Let an old man do his thing, huh?"
But Sullivan retorted firmly, "I don't care how old you are; I don't let people smoke in my house."
Nanu turned around to face him and pointed at the balcony under his feet. "I'm not in your house."
"You know that's not what I mean. You're standing on my property."
"And don't roll your eyes at me! If you don't like it, go stay at a hotel."
Was it the jacket, or the cigarette, or the standing on that old balcony that suddenly gave him the intense desire to sass back like a bratty teenager? Of course, teenaged Kuchinashi wouldn't have (or at least shouldn't have) dared, lest he get the attitude smacked out of him. Now, there was significantly less risk involved. He could probably get away with it. Probably.
But Nanu brought himself back into the moment. This was not an argument between a man and child. This was two old geezers grouching at each other.
He assented, "Fine. I'll take it out front."
"I'll go finish this on the street."
When Nanu stepped forward, carrying the burning cigarette with him, Sullivan planted himself. "Well, you're not carrying it through here."
"I can't fly."
"Just―" Sullivan lifted his uninjured hand in surrender. "Please just finish it and be done with it."
Having reached their compromise, Nanu smirked, leaned back, and inhaled sharply. The cigarette curled into a burning stub within seconds. He thought Sullivan would retreat inside, but the man lingered, furrowing his brow, scratching his head. Even though this annoyed him, Nanu tried to keep his tone diplomatic. "You need something else?"
"Oh… No, I only forgot… Shoot. When I heard you getting up, I wanted to tell you..." He took a few seconds longer to think. "Oh! Right. I came up because… Well, I was thinking what all kinds of things you may want to do while in town, and I remembered that a friend of yours stopped by a few weeks ago. I figured I should tell you before I forgot completely."
Nanu straightened onto his feet. His Sableye, sensing the tension in his posture, perked up as well. Of all the things he expected Sullivan to say, this was not one of them. "...What?"
"Yeah! Would you believe it? Just showed up at my door one day, asking about you. Had a million questions. I filled him in on the basics; hope that's okay. Might've have given your number, too, because he said he wanted to get back in touch…"
Nanu gave him an despairing, puzzled look. "Okay, who?"
"The name escapes me right now." Sully gestured in exasperation and clutched his forehead. "Wait… Let's see… He was the one… Younger than you, you were schoolmates. You were in competitions together. Dang it, uh…"
What was this sinking feeling? Nanu knew that description could apply to a number of individuals, but one in particular began to float to the top of his consciousness, like a rotten corpse. He couldn't bring himself to say it in the moment, so he stayed quiet, hoping that Sullivan would veer another direction.
"Always got first place." Sullivan strained, then a lightbulb went off, and he snapped his fingers. "The gym leader!"
Not even hearing himself say it, Nanu uttered, "Sakaki."
"That's right! It's funny. I had always assumed he was out of town, hadn't heard about him in ages… Guess he must be doing alright for himself; he pulled up in this nice car, and… Nash, what's with that face?"
The cigarette fell from Nanu's lip.
Impossible. No, more than impossible.
After all these years.
There was simply no way.
The kahuna lunged forward, startling both the Sableye and the elderly man. He seized Sullivan by the shoulders. "He was here?"
"Yes…! Goodness, is something the matter?"
"He was here. You talked to him."
"That's what I said," Sullivan replied, now getting frustrated and a little concerned. "Am I missing something?"
"Did he leave anything?"
"What? No. No, he said he'd contact you―"
Nanu dropped his hands and steamed in silence. All the symptoms came roaring back with a vengeance; he felt everything crash in, the headache, the nausea, the pounding pulse. The worst thought came as he considered the timing. Had this been done on purpose? Had he been lured here like a gullible chump?
Sableye pawed at his pant leg, chittering its unease.
Dry-mouthed and reeling, he pushed past Sullivan into the house. "...'Scuse me."
"I'm heading out for another smoke," Nanu said, taking the stairs. He waved to the both of them. "You watch TV."
Nanu stood on the front porch, lit up another cigarette, and made his way to the street.
Why now? Why him? It didn't make sense. There were some people of his past that he considered dead, no longer a part of his story, and he counted the Viridian Gym leader as one of them. Nanu hadn't thought about Giovanni in more than ten years, not since the last Team Rocket blow-up, and hadn't seen or heard from him in nearly forty.
He brought out his phone. It was off. He hadn't turned it on since he landed; wasn't like he was planned on any outgoing calls, and he certainly didn't expect any important incoming.
He turned on the phone and checked his history. An unknown caller made contact less than an hour after he landed.
Then again an hour later.
And then again.
No messages had been left, either voice or text.
How was he supposed to interpret this? It seemed desperate―enough to keep making calls to an unresponsive recipient. But not desperate enough to try other avenues, or even to simply show up and pound on the door. The number was blocked, so calling back was impossible. Another sign of caution...
As he tried to think over the roar of his heartbeat and crazed breathing, he couldn't recall seeing any headlines or rumors that hinted at anything stirring in the Kantonian underworld. The region had seen an unprecedented era of quiet, nothing more than the occasional pickpocketing or fistfight.
Nanu planted himself at the street and looked as far into the night as he could. Everything had gone still. The trees stood breathless, the stars cold. His eyes adjusted to the shadows and he couldn't help but scan every branch and path, certain he would find evidence that someone, somewhere lurked in pursuit of him. He knew he was being watched.
From in front of the house, he couldn't see anything. He balanced his new cigarette on his lip and started around the block, where his instinct had led him true: a conspicuous car parked across the way past the corner, tinted windows, engine off. He stopped short and gawked at it, like he expected to be suddenly proven wrong, but eyes were on him―he could tell by the hair raising at the back of his neck.
Standing in the middle of the dead street, he felt his pocket vibrate. He didn't move his eyes from the car, but brought it out, glanced long enough to see the caller ID, and put it to his ear.
"About time you answered. Step into the car, please."
...Wasn't him. The voice was male, but too young, too deferential. Nanu guessed the voice belonged to the driver of the vehicle. Nanu squinted but couldn't make out any forms inside. Boldly, he asked, "Is he in there?"
A moment's hesitation, then the caller admitted, "No."
"I'm not talking to anybody but your boss."
"He's very busy."
Nanu hung up and turned back for the house.
A few minutes passed. He started to wonder if they'd give up and shove him in the back of a van. Force was easier than being polite, after all. But Nanu knew one thing about Giovanni: he prided himself in his silver tongue, and would never pass up an opportunity to talk.
He reached the wooden arch of the garden when his phone rang again. Moment of truth. He grasped the phone and answered, muscles so taut that they threatened to snap.
He put on his best unaffected drone. "Yeah?"
A rumbling, resonant voice spoke into his ear. "Good evening, Kuchinashi. It has been a while."
Nanu frowned and tensed his fingers around his cell. He hated phone calls, especially when they put him in conversations of incredible weight. The electronic distortion messed with his ability to hear the subtleties of voices, and without the speaker present, he had no way to read their facial cues or body language. Now, all he had was the facsimile of a man's bravado tone, a mere hint of who he had become. Nanu was at a disadvantage for the moment―and he hated starting at a disadvantage.
"...You got a funny definition of 'a while,'" he said.
"How is Sullivan doing?"
Nanu clenched his fists.
"Not too hurt, I hope."
"Sore," Nanu replied, desperately trying to flatten the trembling in his voice. "But in high spirits. He ain't the type to stay knocked down."
"I'm glad to hear it." With a deep breath, the man got down to business. "I need to meet with you as soon as possible. Take everything you need, and my driver will bring you to me."
"No. It's late and I need my beauty sleep."
For a while, stunned silence came from the other end. Then, at last, Giovanni's voice returned, prim and professional. "My apologies. I had hoped to make contact with you earlier in the day. However, time is of the essence."
"Your crappy planning isn't my problem."
"I'm afraid I can't adjust the timeline too much. There's too much risk involved. However, your services are of the utmost importance to me, and I am nothing if not flexible. Given your circumstances and advanced age, please feel free to take another hour to prepare."
'Advanced age'!? Nanu huffed but didn't take the bait.
"Just know that you won't be able to return to your home for some time."
"That's going to be a problem."
"I've already arranged a caretaker to monitor and assist Sullivan while you're gone."
"Hmm. Thoughtful of you."
A huffy, low-toned chuckle. "Hardly. I need you undistracted for the work I have in mind. Now, I hope this doesn't need to be said, but to avoid… unpleasantness, you are not to contact any third party about this arrangement."
"Whatever. I don't care enough about you to snitch. Let's just get this over with."
Giovanni responded with more amusement. "Have you changed at all, I wonder? I suppose I'll have to see."
"I look forward to meeting you again... Kuchinashi."
The line died.