Eyes flutter open, but see only darkness. An infinite void, yet a finite shadow overcast.
What happened...? Where...is...
There’s nothing to see in the unending black, but the body exists nevertheless. Limbs twitch to life against some smooth, cold surface, feeling out the form and reaffirming its whole as best they might. The rustle of cloth confirms that this realm of nothing still had sound — and air to travel through it. Reflexively the diaphragm takes the stray thought and runs with it, forcing air to rush into the lungs; the body accepts the air without issue.
“Where is he?”
What is this place... Am I dreaming...?
Still uncertain of safety, the figure curls their form and rises to a practiced crouch tense and ready to react. A familiar sensation, albeit one difficult to describe, reaches the tips of their fingers and toes as they extend their power over the unknowable ground that offers further solace. It’s tempting to launch ahead into the depths, but something in the back of their mind cries out for caution. He moves slowly around, trying to grasp at some further bearing that refuses to avail itself.
“No, h-he has to be...!”
A dark murmur rears its head within his heart before it can be silenced. Did I die...?
As if in defiance of the morbid notion, a bright flash sets the shadows ablaze before them — a green glow fighting back as much of the black world as it can muster. The lost figure recoils on instinct and the rays are soon blocked from their eyes as the lip of a hood falls between them. Reaching down to their neck as they begin to stand properly, they don a pair of tinted glasses hoping to better see what might now be visible.
Alas, no features worth noting exist beyond those of his own well-known body. The pattern of colors adorning his jacket are lost in the monochrome light, but he recognizes it as one amongst his many nevertheless. The padding beneath it and elsewhere on his person are undamaged, as is the backpack strapped on behind him; the rush of relief is tinged with confusion, as if this pristine condition is an illusion that he cannot dispel.
Shaking his thoughts away from himself, the hooded man steps tentatively towards the light, rolling a sleeve up to confirm that its source is indeed not radiating some kind of heat as he approaches. With every step the glow around him flickers about before dimming a small amount as if accommodating his presence — or perhaps slowly losing ground to the all-encompassing void...? Nevertheless, he keeps his pace steady as he walks forward.
“Where are you?!”
Is this, He hears his own pessimistic voice reverberate in his head again, the afterlife...?
Mere inches away from the light’s origin as the fearful words echo within him, his hands clench almost painfully into fists at his sides; fingernails find purchase in calloused palms keeping them at bay. His jaw is tight, and there’s a tension in his chest that he can’t explain.
Without knowing the reason, the hooded figure raises his hand and reaches for the light—
A person bursts forth from the ground, sputtering and gasping for air. Orange and yellow dust give way to brown as he flings off his hood and tries to expel the mouthful of sand that he awoke with. After a lengthy round of coughing and spitting, he takes a deep breath and lets himself fall back to the ground as his brown eyes squint in the sunlight.
Just a dream after all, then...?
“Kōichi, you...!” The light of day is interrupted as a figure steps toward the collapsed man, casting their shadow across their form as they raised something over their head. “...you complete idiot!”
Screaming at the sudden attack, Kōichi manages to roll out of the way as the improvised club smashes down into the sand where he had laid. “W-What did I do?!” He immediately shifts into a ready stance, but the ever-familiar assailant doesn’t pursue him further — instead simply gripping their face with one hand in frustration. In the stark light of day, seeing Pop☆Step’s array of blacks and thick pink hair made him sweat sympathetically from how warm it probably was for her. “...did i miss something?”
“...N-Nothing... Just,” Turning away, the black-clothed performer drew a rag from her coat before pausing. “Only you would get buried asleep in a desert.” She starts using the fabric on her face methodically, speaking with a casual air all the while. “By the way, is that a new jacket you’re wearing? Judging by the hood I assume it’s still an ‘All Might’ costume, but I don’t recognize the design now that I see it in daylight.”
“Oh, the Young Age Costume?” Dusting himself off and standing up, he does an enthusiastic pose to show off the hoodie: the front sports a dark navy blue core with collar streaks of red and a belt very standard for the ‘Symbol of Peace’, while the back has a brighter blue and a look reminiscent of a cape; the sides each have white filling out one area to match the ‘wrist guards’; the pants are a matching pair with it unlike his usual get-up, finishing the white-and-red decal from above the waist and taking on the look of grey knee-high boots with white and yellow accents at the foot. “It’s not as well-known anymore, but it’s one of his earliest costumes from his time overseas and one of the few that actually utilized some small support items. As a matter of fact, this one—!”
“Speaking of overseas.” From behind him steps another familiar figure he knows well, shedding the usual dark trench coat and tugging at the neck of his black undershirt. Wiping their face with the bandana that normally obscures his identity, Old Man Knuckleduster sits himself down between them and fixes them each with a serious gaze. “Do you two remember how we wound up in this place?”
Kōichi crosses his arms in thought, looking up to the sky for a long moment before he fully processes their words and takes in his surroundings — nothing but dry sandy wasteland and occasional rock formations as far as the eye can see. “Wait, where in the world are we?!”
“Idiot..." Pop laments with a sigh, putting the cloth away to reveal she’s wiped away the usual line of black that hides her identity, and framing her blue eyes behind a wide pair of glasses. It’s a strange mishmash of her two primary styles, especially when she pulls out ties for her hair to replace the black ones of her idol persona. “Guess you slept through the whole thing? Or did your sand coffin deprive you of too much oxygen?”
As much as he’s tempted to retort, he can tell from her tone and the old man’s visage that it’s not the time for it. “Um... Well, Pop☆Step and I were following a lead related to Trigger... At some point we ran into Master again, and soon after we got caught somehow?”
“I got called out mid-meeting,” Knuckleduster interjects, “— not that I intended to go along with their plans in the first place, but it turned into a scuffle too soon.”
“ Especially since they were a pretty serious group from what we heard,” the ex-street performer chides. “We’re alright now, but...” She leaves the rest unsaid as she looks away in a huff, and though the meaning is lost upon them her displeasure is plain as day.
“Sorry...” Kōichi offers on instinct. He puts his hand at his temples as he continues recollecting. “Uh, so we lost and they captured us, but I’m not super clear how we got to here from that point. Not to mention this desert seems too flat and vast to be Tottori — let alone the large rock formations — so wherever ‘here’ is certainly isn’t in Japan."
Pop nods, apparently satisfied with that much. “We were restrained in a truck or something, but then at some point there was a burst of light and then,” she pauses and gestures outwards, “we were here? I mean, you were buried, but...”
“It’s possible we were brought here by some kind of teleportation Quirk,” the old man chimes in, “or this is an illusion of some sort and we haven’t broken out of it?”
“If it were the former, then why leave us unbound let alone in the middle of nowhere? And I don’t think—” Pop☆Step continues on, but her voice peters out of Kōichi’s mind as his thoughts turn back to moments before: the strange vision that he witnessed in his slumber.
A bright flash sets the shadows ablaze before them — a green glow fighting back as much of the black world as it can muster.
I was knocked out cold after we got caught, he considered as he went over his memories again, and yet that dream and the details of what happened fit? “Was it a green light?” The words fall out unbidden in thought, and his companions tilt their heads at it for a moment.
Pop replies with a skeptical look. “I at least was blindfolded so I couldn’t even see much beyond the blinding start — must’ve been quite bright — but what would that matter?”
His hand rises to the back of his head. “Just a bit of an instinct, I guess? I don’t know.”
“If you say it was,” Knuckleduster interjects as he places a hand on his student’s shoulder, “there’s no reason not to believe you. We can figure out the hard stuff later.”
Kōichi’s face lights up at his elder’s confidence. “Master...!”
“Aren’t you two are overthinking things a bit?” chides the idol with dismay, resigning her inquiry to being rhetorical. Before she has a chance to speak her mind further however, there’s a rumble in the distance amidst the silence. “Hey, did you two hear that?”
“Yeah. Sounded like an explosion?” Kōichi replies, already pulling the mask up from his collar to obscure his face. The old man says nothing, simply donning his bandana. Their eyes meet, they nod to one another, and each of them start to check themselves over for readiness — brass knuckles slide onto a pair of calloused hands, and layers of padding are reaffirmed beneath the hooded jacket.
“Hold up!” Seeing the pair gearing up for action, Pop☆Step moves in front of them with a swift rebuke of their intended action. “You don’t even know what the circumstance might be. We should gather some bearing on our own situation before we stick our noses into another one. Look before we leap, you know?”
The young man hesitates for a moment and opens his mouth to speak, but then —
Across the desert a much louder explosion echoes out, nearby pillars of stone shuddering from the vibrations. Not too far away, flames and smoke spread into the calm skies like a wound bleeding out horribly. A piece of broken metal sinks itself into the sand a few meters away, noticeably losing a dull red of heat to the air as it slides further in.
Pop look on for a lengthy moment before she can refocus herself back onto her previous concerns, but Kōichi is already ‘gone’; mask, glasses, and hood all back in place, The Crawler leans down to utilize his Quirk and make haste to the danger zone. There’s a gallant lens to her vision for a moment, but she shakes that clear as well and steps forward to pull him back
“Look out!” The old man’s cry snaps her attention around to a noisy machine that had been drowned out in the rebounding concussive sound. Its driver’s attention is distracted by something below, and the hovering vehicle is charging right for her.
With a shriek her foot slams down into the sand with more powerful force than her lithe physique would suggest, sending her tumbling over as the grains absorb the force and throw her off balance; Knuckleduster also dives out of the way in the opposite direction. At the same time the person at the wheel — a young man with grey hair — looks up with wide orange eyes and grips onto his rusty ride, and the whole thing rears up vertically like a motorcycle performing a wheelie.
For the briefest of moments the pair of pedestrians can feel the heat coming off of the bizarre multi-exhaust engine as it pirouettes betwixt them, but narrowly they avoid collision as the bike-like monstrosity does a spin on its ‘wheel’ and seems to skid to a stop upright. The two vigilantes are far less stylish, meeting small sand dunes head first.
The idol is the first to surface in a careful back-tread so as not to bring particles to her lower-body. Making a futile effort to remove the grains from her hair, she turns around to where her fellow walker leapt. He comes up slower, uncaring as the sand trickles down his trench coat and cargo pants, and she sighs in relief at the sight.
To her side, the strange vehicle revs and she locks eyes with its driver, who looks her and the old man over for a moment. Behind the collar of his own blue trench coat, two strange pairs of ears perk up for a moment. The moment is brief — the tanned ‘motorcyclist’ quickly satisfied with what he sees — he dons a silver pair of shield sunglasses and properly starts his ride anew.
“H-Hey—!” Pop☆Step quickly chokes on her words, the hovering one-wheeled chopper kicks up sand and smog as it turns about and begins to depart. “What the hell is that guy’s problem?!” she cries out as their near vehicular manslaughter also becomes a drive-by. “The least he could do is apologize for almost running us over!”
Knuckleduster laughs it off as he shakes sand from his many pockets and folds. “Running from an incident like that doesn’t speak too well for his character, but at least we know there’s people out here. Looked like had some strange pets in his side-along, too.”
Pop bristles for a moment, but lets her frustration dissolve into habitual snark as she pinches the bridge of her nose. “I’d forgotten how cavalier you could be about death-defying nonsense. You could stand to follow your ‘master’ and his example a little less , Ko—” Looking up to find she’s partly talking to no one, her words drop off as she whirls around. “Kōichi? ...don’t tell me...”
“You really need to ask? You saw him when that second explosion went off — must’ve been a big one for the debris to actually reach us from there,” he chuckles a moment at the thought before he breaks into a run. “Besides, my first point still stands. Civilization is better than the arid sands, even if we have to rough up some hooligans.”
“Again? Ahh ahh... For once, I wish this wasn’t our modus operandi.” Objection stated, the idol taps the earth until she feels solid earth beneath her shoe, muttering under her breath as she clears a patch of sand away. “Hopefully the scenery improves a bit. Granular terrain’s as much a pain to look at as it is to Leap off of.” Kicking off again, this time she propells herself with proper direction and angling, catching up with her ally on the way down. Another launch and she soars past Knuckleduster on her way up towards the outer ridge of the canyon and away from the uneven footing.
There’s something about shooting off into the distance that appealed to Haneyama Kazuho long before her Quirk made itself known: the freedom from the oppressive skyline of metropolitan Japan and the grounded reality, as she would later come to quantify. Only the real world could take the fantastical wonder out of a superhuman society, like tearing stars from the sky and burying them in the muck to tarnish their luster.
Finding good purchase atop the cliff, the airborne performer launches further up and even further forward in rhythmic motion. And despite all the worries and concerns she slowly fails to withhold her smile as she flies through the unfamiliar yet friendly skies.
“I am the man from a faraway land — The Crawler!”
Striking a dramatic pose, Kōichi arrives before the blown-up building on his two feet, but only the sounds of billowing smoke and fire answer him back as he sighs to himself and goes back into a moving crouch.
“And I practiced that a lot to manage my balance, too...” His mutters trail off as he takes in the situation, and more importantly the lack of one. Not only does he not find any signs of activity abound, there aren’t even footprints in the sand to indicate that anyone was near the burning brown building from the beginning. “Is anyone out there?”
A random explosion at an abandoned cliff-town in the middle of nowhere? That doesn’t—! The crouched young man shakes his head . No, focus. There might be people badly injured from the explosion inside, unable to hear or respond...!
Gliding forward as when he first arrived, The Crawler moves to the wall of the building and makes a lithe jump onto its flat surface, riding it up and around the shredded opening on the second floor in a similar manner. Peeking inside and coming up empty, he swings his body inside with a well-practiced roll and started scooting around on the intact ceiling.
“Anybody hurt?” He shouts, only to hear his own echo respond from deeper in. “Hello?!” Whatever was going on, the resounding silence brought a chill to his spine as he continued to glide through spotless rafters. Even the residual smell from the explosion seemed to fade away as he traveled further in. “What is this...?”
Dropping down from above Kōichi started walking around instead, taking his time as he confirmed what he understood from above. Still finding no signs of human presences, he finds himself slowly phrasing his thoughts beneath his breath and can’t find it in him to stop amidst the empty air. “Where did you all disappear to, then. Did they all escape with a Warp-Quirk or the like? Are they still hiding somewhere? Or—?”
The alternative made him quiver just imagining it as he came upon an ornate-yet-rundown office. At the back wall sat a pristine desk of polished wood, with a fancy chair at its center pocket that looked even less worn. By comparison, the room itself was in complete disarray: shreds of torn paper and trash litter the all-but-threadbare rug; a pile of push pins lay hastily tossed in the corner, opposite the riddled cork board behind the throne of a desk; stains and dents mar the other walls, and while some obviously cover bits of writing, others seem like the course of regular, violent acts. “There’s clearly coordination to the destruction of evidence and some signs of violence. But to what end? And who made them turn tail and run?”
Gathering up what scraps of paper he could find, Kōichi sits down at the desk ( ’ very comfy chair’ ) and sees what he can make out. “Small upsides: it seems they use the English alphabet — I could spell out hieroglyphs or something, but it wouldn’t tell me anything beyond that — and most of these aren’t handwritten. So... ” Spreading out the scraps, he looks down upon them and begins to assemble bits and pieces that matched. With any luck, it would actually be English.
Time seemed to slow as the college student dedicated his mind upon all that he’d learned back in Japan as he studied his impromptu jigsaw puzzle with vigor and focus. Every fragment was placed with care, as if the open hole at the front of the building would let loose a squall and turn them to dust. All the same, piece by piece a few nuggets of knowledge began to come to light. Exhausting the final shred of paper and confirming it as such, he leaned back slowly in the cushioned seat and looked down upon his work.
“Let’s see what we’ve got that’s coherent, then...” With a needless look around for prying eyes, he positioned himself upon the throne using his Quirk: a good reversal of position for his body position that also meant he could move on swiftly after he was done. “Nope... No good... ‘The’ tells me nothing... Ah, here we go! ...‘Snag’... What does that word mean...?”
The crouching costumed figure raised a hand to his chin in thought. Is that supposed to be like 「motsure」? That would mean they had a lot of complications to use this word a lot, but that doesn’t seem right. I must be missing some kind of context…
He shook his head rapidly at the thought. “Not going to get any closer to understanding by questioning in my head. Any other words to find...? Wait, that looks...!” Catching sight of a small overlap he’d missed, a number of disparate pieces were slowly shifted together. A fairly long word coalesced before him that had more paper fragments than the prominent ‘snag’, but—
‘Pokémon’...? The syllables seem almost like romanized Japanese. What could—?
His thoughts are interrupted as a loud impact resonates up from the floor below, metal being torn asunder and smashed into the fortress. In an instant he’s The Crawler in action; gripped to the ceiling with his Quirk, he’s swiftly on the move. “Another attack?”
Outside, a loudspeaker screeches to life before someone speaks into it in English. “ATTENTION TEAM SNAGEM! WE HAVE YOUR HIDEOUT SURROUNDED!”
Not sure if that’s better or worse, to be honest. Kōichi sighs behind his mask, before he steels himself and minds the way forward. The roof had a big hole in it from the explosions, wide enough to slip out to the canyon above — a nice, discreet exit!
Riding the underside of the third floor towards the stairwell, The Crawler almost loses his grip when someone yells and slams into the 3rd floor hard enough to shake the whole building. Pieces of the structure fall around him in the wake of the impact, but he manages to retain his hold and moves to watch from a distance as footsteps approach the stairs.
A Hero working with the authorities? Watching from around the corner, a grey figure garbed in red and yellow descend the steps with a calm, ready posture. Despite their very short stature and exaggerated yoga outfit, the vigilante could already tell they were nothing like C.C. back in Naruhata: this was a serious combatant. This is getting worse by the second...!
The short hero turns on a dime, locking its black eyes with his own immediately. A long, tense moment grinds at a snail’s pace as the two stare at one another, stone still. Even the sounds of raiding officers fade away as Kōichi senses the tension building, until his obstacle of his escape opens their mouth to speak.
You can not be serious, Kōichi...! Hidden up behind a distant cliffside, Kazuho clutched her hair as more police stormed the eyesore of an outpost. She’d nearly leapt in herself to find him when they’d shown up, but he’d surely heard their declaration — endangering herself would only complicate matters. Why must you always get us caught in one catch-22 after another? And the cops of all things!
Grumbling up a storm of complaints, she slid back down from view as she finished tying her hair back into Pop☆Step’s twintails and drew forth her compact. “Stupid Kōichi and his stupid heroic instincts—” She paused in the quiet tirade, forming the ‘mask’ across her face before picking right up where she left off. “—always saving the darn criminals who never learn their darn lesson...”
Looking back over the ridge, she scanned the police formation, then the building — there was bound to be an opening or pathway that she could expect her friend to slip through, or at least some vulnerability she could direct him to exploit. The upper floors had a lot of openings from whatever had hit it, but the law enforcement below had a lot of vantage points to spot The Crawler’s signature wears. Going back to the blockade, her eyes quickly locked onto a more immediate problem.
“Oh no, no no no...!” Barrelling in from the rear, Knuckleduster had another of his crazy grins that she certainly hadn’t missed with his absence. Even as she slid back, the words of panic began to slip out out unbidden. “You’re just going to make things worse!”
Rising into a crouch, Kazuho clutched the edge of the chasm tightly, trying to think of a solution to halt the trainwreck unfolding before her eyes. I have to get down there... I have to stop him before he attacks them! Still holding the earth as she attempts to steady herself breathing, she slides her right foot between her arms and plants it on the vertical surface. I’ll be alright... I’ll be alright...! I’ll be alright—!
With a twitch of her leg, her Quirk responds to her intent. In an instant the skyline singer’s lunge launches her like an arrow towards the old man’s path. Swinging her other limb like a pendulum, she manages to right herself just in time to land on both feet. She winces in pain but manages to hold her tongue as she whirls around to meet Knuckleduster’s half-covered visage painted with shock.
Surprised? You’d better be, she quips in her head as she clenches her teeth, not daring to draw any attention by speaking so close to the formation. Taking him by the arm, she drags him bodily back towards the nearest alcove of the gorge. At least thanks to that you’re not resisting.
Reaching the outcrop and moving them behind it, Pop☆Step glared daggers at him as best she could as she hissed, “ What do you think you’re doing?! They’re the police! ”
“Don’t look like any cops I’ve seen before,” the old man replied, thankfully recognizing the circumstance necessitated his discretion. “Besides, the kid’s in there and their eyes are up there looking for him right? No better time to give us a head start.”
“By charging into their encirclement?” she retorted with less vitriol, his confidence giving her pause in spite of her own concern. “Even you can’t knock all of those men out fast enough, let alone the kind of trouble you’d get us in attacking government employees...!”
Knuckeduster gave her a smirk as one of his hands held out what looked like a nail gun. “They can’t chase us if they don’t have working vehicles; no fighting necessary.”
Relenting with a sigh, she shook her head and pushed down his weapon before peeking around the sediment. “Busting up their transportation is probably still some kind of offense. Unless we have a ride of our own, it’s not worth the risk.”
“There were some other lifts pulling in further out towards the entrance that I had to avoid on my way in. Definitely not official like those,” he gestures towards the cavalry before them. with the same smirk on his face, “I’m sure we can commandeer one real quick.”
“...” Stepping back, a plan starts to form in Kazuho’s head as she taps one foot in the sand. “Alright, just... Try not to get caught doing it, okay? We need a quiet getaway.”
The elder vigilante nods affirmatively. “And you?”
She releases a tired breath, before leaning back out towards the hideout. Their cars are bound to be faster than what he can get us. Better be sure. “I’ll handle this end.”
She doesn’t look back — through silence and foot-falls alike — but waits until the sound of his boots kicking up sand fades away, before shaking her head vigorously. You can do this. Compared to that jump, this is nothing. “Heh, except the legality,” she mutters under her breath, psyching herself up somewhat. “You’d better make it out of there so I can kick your butt, Kōichi!”
Darting out, Pop tries to keep low to the ground as she sneaks up to the police blockade. Luckily for her, their priorities lay so heavily forward that they’d all moved to the front of the barrier-to-exit (hands at their belts where batons or guns were waiting, she assumed); most of them had even left driver-side doors ajar. Despite the very high-tech dashboards, the state of their interiors did not fit with a well-funded operation to compensate for the apparent lack of good instincts.
Unfortunately the advanced nature of the transport might as well have been magic to Pop☆Step with how little correlated with her familiarities — not to mention the use of English rather than Japanese — but looking about she eventually spied a bright yellow mouse with red cheeks hanging from something in the console.
“Thank goodness for keychains...” she murmured with a smirk as she reached up and withdrew the futuristic key from its ignition and slipped out. “Never thought I’d say that .”
Down the jumbled line of patrol cars she went, with creature designs more unique than the ones before as the signposts of her success. Even the few officers who’d closed their doors had left the windows wide open, and Kazuho found herself thanking the desert heat in spite of herself as she reached across and pilfered a plant-like fae laying in the seat and a large number of gizmos tied along for the ride.
“Don’t forget to leave them somewhere they can find them,” The Crawler whispers.
Naturally, Pop☆Step shoots sky-high in surprise.
Thankfully no one hears her shriek from up above with all the loud action inside, but that doesn’t soothe her thoughts one bit by the time she lands. “ You...! H-How?! ” She hisses out with a fair amount of hysteria, swooping up the bag of ‘keys’ she let plop onto the ground.
At least he has the decency to realize his mistake, judging by the flush behind his mask and his averted eyes. “S-Sorry. Anyways, we should get going: that Pro might have let me go past, but he’ll probably still report me being there.”
“A Pro Hero, here?” she questioned as the two started legging it as quietly as they could while still utilizing their Quirks. “Wait, what do you mean they let you go?!”
Kōichi looked back, confusion shining clear in his eyes. “They just kept talking nonsense and staring at me while I talked at them and slowly slid up to the roof — I guess they actually know who they’re looking for, but I doubt the rest of them will care if they find us about.”
Before the street idol could inquire further, a large van skidded to a stop in the sand before them, fancy implements atop the vehicle swinging about dangerously unhinged. The side door opened up before them as Knuckleduster leaned out the front window. “All aboard?”
“Master!” the college student exclaimed cheerily as he leapt in.
Kazuho turned the sack of keys over in a hurry before joining him inside and plopping into a seat. “Hope this thing has AC, ‘cause I’m getting sick of the heat.”
The old man put pedal to the metal and got them rolling with a fair burst of speed, passing by some pedestrians in a blur before the side door closed. “Now that wasn’t so bad, was it?”
The Crawler started chuckling as he pulled off his mask and hood, which only made Pop☆Step sink deeper into her seat in a mix of frustration and exhaustion. “Jury’s still out.”
“Here’s your bill, Willie.”
The man doesn’t respond at first, looking out the window despondently with his gloved hand holding up his scruffy neck. His tan pinstripe shirt ruffles as he exhales audibly, leaning back into the booth and running his fingers through slicked lavender hair.
Turning away from the light, Willie looks up to meet the gaze of the muscular man laying down the receipt for his meal. His rudy hair is beneath a snazzy patterned bandana that matched his slacks, obscured by monochrome lime-green apron tied about his form-fitting white shirt; every article is noticeably immaculate, a subtle sign of his culinary skill.
“Thanks.” he replies, grabbing a white mug from the table next to his nearly-clean plate and offering it up to his present company. “Can I get some coffee this time?”
“Sure thing.” Taking the ceramic, the burly server walks down the aisle of the renovated locomotive engine to his counter and sink and starts to clean it studiously.
Chuckling as he reaches into his fire-legged blue jeans for payment, he pays the bill and leaves a large gratuity for the establishment’s one-man-operation. Anyone who’d ever eaten at Outskirt Stand knew that the dining brought in more money than the gasoline and rest stop services, and customers were always happy to partake the owner’s excellent cooking. He might not count himself among the oldest patrons, but he wasn’t a regular for nothing.
At the far end of the restaurant, two youngsters let out satisfied declarations that mirrored that sentiment as they rose from their barstools. Judging by the furrowing brows of the man behind the counter, however, they probably didn’t tip at all. Willie frowns at the thought, pulling out a few extra bills. “Hotshot kids thinking they own the place when they’re not even worth challenging,” he grumbles as he puts his wallet back in his pocket.
Watching them drive off in the window, the old Rider sighs wistfully again. It had been a very long time since he last found anyone that truly excited him as a Pokémon Trainer. Setting aside the steep slope that came with living in Orre, he knew all too well that he wasn’t particularly skilled. But over the years of trying he’d learned to recognize the real deal, and someone of that caliber had been sorely absent in his arid homelands.
The pair of punks had been especially egregious. They wore their Pokéballs too proudly; loud boasts at the counter showed inexperience far beyond their swagger; they didn’t even have a good grasp on type advantages. They probably had only battled a handful of times.
Even so, they stood high on an unfounded confidence as if invincible — ‘frogs in a well’, as someone had once explained to Willie. Any humor he might have drawn from their folly dried up like the desert long ago. Now it only left him weary of cheap talk and pointless hype.
As if on cue, the TV over by the counter blares loudly in spite of its low volume. All of the patrons of Outskirt Stand all turn to look as the owner raises the volume for what appears to be an emergency update on the canyon explosion. The newscaster looked particularly flustered as she walked into the camera’s focus, the structure that the police had discovered looming in the background as she took a calming breath. “Authorities have made a stunning announcement on the mysterious building that exploded in Eclo Canyon: It was Team Snagem’s Hideout.”
A quiet murmur ripples through the engine car, and the Rider shakes his head. Organized crime had been in the headlines a lot lately, but they were as much of a disappointment as any other trainers of late. He’d always assumed that to be the case regardless — abducting Pokémon generally was in a bid for ill-gotten power — but a small run-in with a Snagem thug had given him all the confirmation he needed. The only reason they made such a big splash was because of the people they were targeting, who had more to lose than most.
No wild Pokémon had ever been seen in Orre, after all.
“The cause of the explosion is under investigation. At present the police are interested in three unknown individuals leaving Eclo Canyon. Our cameraman was able to catch this glimpse of the suspects, after they commandeered our news van and fled the scene.”
That tidbit catches his interest (and a laugh), so he leans in as a van is shown driving past through the desert. The footage played again slower to show the wide-open door and its masked occupants: An older man in a bandana at the wheel, a girl in a skimpy black outfit with bright pink hair, and a younger fellow in a colorful hoodie and face-wear that hid their features. “If you have any information, please contact local law enforcement immediately.”
The sounds of footsteps reach Willie‘s ear, and his neck turns about to the entrance as a newcomer steps inside Outskirt Stand, humming softly at the video displayed on-screen.
His build marks him as a young man but his gait is measured and weary, like a commander caught in a tentative cease-fire. An orange-and-black gauntlet on one arm sticks out from the rest of his ensemble — multiple layers of blue and black in spite of the heat. He doesn’t remove his wide sunglasses, though having walked inside their silver sheen wouldn’t be blinding anyone.
Weirder styles had come and gone, something sure to continue regardless; nobody cared so long as it didn’t get in the way.
The stranger stands affixed upon the television for a long moment, before walking up and sitting down on a vacated barstool; the dim lighting reveals piercing orange eyes beneath the eyewear. An Espeon and Umbreon trail casually in his wake, taking in the sights, sounds, smells, and beyond of the respectable dive with with equal curiosity and caution.
Watching as the manager pours him a glass of water, the Rider finds himself reaching for the Pokémon hanging on his belt. Even the minutiae of the fellow’s comrades seemed to confirm him as an experienced Trainer, particularly as the pair of them meet his gaze as if registering a potential threat posed by his attention towards them. He pushes past the instinct to withdraw his hand and settles for matching the looks with his own, and eventually they bob their heads and slowly move on.
Thankfully the cook comes by to take the check and deliver a fresh cup of joe, which pulls him out of the blinders and gives him a moment to evaluate. No matter how much he might be itching for a battle there was a time and place for everything, and that minute in the middle of the restaurant was neither. The courteous course of action would be to hold off until the newcomer finishes his business, before challenging him outside the establishment.
So he settles in with his caffeinated beverage and waits.
It’s not as long of a respite as he initially expects: ordering the pair of Pokémon a meal, the fellow asks only for water to drink in relative silence; once their meal is finished, his partners groom one another for a while before he finally asks how much it will cost him.
Seeing him reach into the folds of his coat for money, Willie goes to down the rest of his warm coffee when someone shouts inside from the landing of the locomotive train engine. "Aha...! We've finally found you, you filthy double-crossing traitor!"
Looking out the window, he nearly spits his drink back out at the sight of three shaved stooges wearing matching headgear and outfits. Team Snagem?
As nonchalant as he entered, the newcomer pays them little mind as he lays money on the counter — with an exorbitant gratuity, as well — and turns to step outside without a word. Not getting the hint even as he starts walking past them, one of the goons in the back keeps chatting. "Wrecking the hideout wasn't good enough for you, so you steal the Snag Machine?! You've got some nerve!"
"You really do," the other rear one agrees, "Since you didn't hide out in a public place, we can go all out without worries."
Getting up from his seat, the Rider palms his Pokéballs and heads over to the door. "Unseasoned brats like you? I doubt you'd even be a good warm-up."
"Mind your own business old man," the apparent leader replied with a dismissive gesture, "This guy's just gonna return something that's rightfully ours."
He snorts at that and steps forward to retort, but his face runs right into an invisible wall. "What the-?"
"Espeon..." Upon the ramp, the Sun Pokémon looks back at Willie and gestures chidingly with its forked tail. From its side, Umbreon leaps over the Snagem grunts to stand between them and its trainer as they raise an orange-clad hand up and present their palm towards him.
'Stay out of it,' huh? He realizes, letting his stance relax as he puts his own Pokémon back on his belt.
"This is getting us nowhere...!" The central peon sneered as he and his comrades drew forth red-and-white spheres of their own. "If you won't give it up willingly, we'll take it back by force!" Throwing them down, six creatures formed in bursts of light before the stranger and focused in on the Moonlight Pokémon betwixt them. "Attack!"
The tanned figure smirks as his arm sweeps across his opposition, and his Psychic and Dark duo leap into action.
Willie looks on — no longer physically blocked but frozen in awe — as the mysterious Pokémon Trainer rips apart the trio's teams with brutal efficiency.
For how well they supposedly knew their mark, the ringleader Wakim hadn't thought to open with their one and only Bug-Type (his Forretress) and they paid the price dearly; even still, the synchronization between the two Eevee evolutions was breathtaking. He and one of his allies — Agrev — might have had some advantageous match-ups, but their teamwork was no match as their lithe targets darted about them and struck their own weaknesses. Their other buddy's Smeargle team had a few surprises but lacked finishing power — a drawback of the Painter Pokémon's versatility that Biden seemed woefully unaware of as he cried out with each one's fall.
All the while, their target stood firm as he commanded his duo with gestures alone. Not even Forretress' appearance fazed them, and the Bagworm Pokémon swiftly joined the other ten of the fainted teams with little more exertion than the rest.
The peons looked to their leader for some kind of approval at this, which he gave with a nod as he returned his final ally to his pocket. Throwing one last Pokéball each, Biden sends forth another Smeragle as one might have anticipated — this one with a red tail and warmer features — while Agrev calls out a towering Ursaring. From his front-row seat the Rider is at a loss as to what made these two their trump cards, but he catches the way the stranger seems to recoil a moment upon seeing them and tempers his confusion.
"Shadow Rush," the pair of Snagem grunts declare. The Smeargle suddenly runs past its enemies and charges straight at their commander as a dark aura overtakes its form. Rather than dodge, the Trainer takes the attack head-on with his arms crossed in front of his body, sending them sliding back in the sand. This seems to excite Biden who repeats the order, but Wakim takes a step back from them as Agrev's Ursaring roars loudly to the sky in spite of its Trainer's edict.
Unconcerned with the unusual turmoil among the opposition, the mysterious figure looks to his gauntlet as a Pokéball seems to appear from within its 'sleeve' with a glowing energy. To Willie's shock, he throws it at the Hibernator Pokémon as the light surrounding it seems to take the form of a hand that envelops the disobedient creature, leaving just the sphere wiggling on the ground as if it wasn't owned by another. The Snagem trio are equally surprised at this turn of events, so much so that Biden forgets to command his shiny Smeargle as Espeon and Umbreon lay into it in quick succession.
Agitated, the Painter Pokémon made another purple charge at the trainer rather than his charges, but this time he was prepared for the tackle. Pivoting out of the way, he slammed his left hand into the stumbling opponent and they too vanished in a flash of light; another Pokéball fell from the gauntlet, already shaking as the vanished beast struggled to escape.
Willie couldn't find the will to close his mouth as the spheres stopped moving and Espeon gathered them for the stranger. Did that really just happen...?
At last the Snagem stooges seemed to snap out of their own stupor, Wakim shaking his fist at their enemy as his followers looked to one another with far less confidence. "Blast you...! Don't think this is over! We're going t—!"
"Umbreon!" The ringleader was interrupted as the Moonlight Pokémon jumped up and used Bite on his offending arm, eliciting a shriek of pain as the diminutive creature threw him bodily into his compatriots with a hefty thud. Meeting up with its purple counterpart, the pair sat down upon the now unconscious peons as their Trainer walked over and scratched their ears.
Finally, the Rider gathered himself and ran over to them as the stranger tied up the criminals with some Escape Rope — a bitter irony, to be sure. "Yo, that was—! I mean, I knew you're no ordinary Joe, but...! That was some serious full-throttle! Did you seriously steal their Pokémon?"
The mysterious figure stands and turns to his fellow Trainer, mirror-shades reflecting the sun brilliantly and obscuring his eyes. He stands there silently for a long moment, as if unsure if he should speak at all. "They were stolen to begin with," he answers in a quiet, raspy voice, "I'm simply taking them back." Without another word he heads back toward the ramp into Outskirt Stand.
"You don't say...!" The restaurant patron looks down at the trio with wide eyes. It makes sense now that I consider it, but somehow Team Snagem never clicked. "Yo! Wait up!" he calls up as he turns back around; his words arresting the newcomer. "Need any help busting heads?"
He doesn't turn to face the Rider, only shaking his head. "This is something I have to do alone."
Willie watches the stranger step into the darkness, his Espeon and Umbreon meeting one other's gazes for a moment before following him in.