"I think that's everything. Take care of the gym while I'm away."
"Don't worry, Falkner. You've got nothing to worry about. It'll be like you never left."
Silver watches the two of them from behind a thick pair of hedges and from underneath a broad-leaved tree. He exhales an irritated breath. Beside him, Sneasel chirrups sympathetically. Silver absently pats him on the head, then goes back to peering through a gap in the bushes, watching the gym leader take longer to leave than is strictly necessary.
"I just wish I could be here in person when the kids at the academy visit," Falkner carries on. Silver fights back a frustrated growl. His eyes narrow in spite of himself.
"I've already explained everything to Mr. Dervish," the birdkeeper says. "He said he understood perfectly."
"I just hope they won't be disappointed."
The birdkeeper shook his head. "They won't be," he reassures him. "We'll give 'em the grand tour and everything. Besides, it's not your fault the Pokémon League decided to issue an official summons."
"I know, I know. I just wish they hadn't announced it at the last minute like this."
"It's too bad Violet City is so close. You won't have an excuse if you're late."
Silver grumbles to himself. "You heard him. Leave already." The sky is turning orange, the Indigo League starts tomorrow morning, and Silver is losing patience.
For once in his life, fate has decided to be kind. The sixteen gym leaders of Kanto and Johto, all summoned to Indigo Plateau to compete in a tournament — and one of them is the Mask of Ice. He's spent eight long years waiting, running, and searching. It's all he's ever done and all he can ever remember doing. Now he has his chance, maybe his only chance. He won't leave the tournament until he finds out who the Mask of Ice is, not just for his sake, but for Blue's.
But to do that, Silver has to get inside the Pokémon League. And to do that, it turns out that Silver needs to accomplish the world's worst fetch quest: collecting all eight gym badges of Johto before the Pokémon League starts. Silver would've appreciated more advance notice himself.
Luckily, he'd gotten a head start. He'd already picked up a Hive Badge on his way out of Azalea Town (he considered it a thank-you for a job well done dispatching Team Rocket), and it was child's play to pickpocket a Plain Badge from that ditzy gym leader while he was in Goldenrod City. From there, the next three badges — from Cianwood, Olivine, and Ecruteak — were easy enough with their gym leaders absent. And somewhere on Route 37, there's a trainer who probably now was wishing he hadn't bragged quite so loudly about how easy it was to beat Clair and Pryce.
All Silver needs now is one more pesky badge. He can already feel the smooth metal in his hands. And he'll be damned if this opportunity slips through his fingers because Mr. Chatterbox doesn't know when to get a move on.
"Falkner, you don't have to worry about a thing. I'm sure the kids will be even more excited when you show those Kanto gym leaders what Johto's made of."
"Well, I can't let them down, can I?" Falkner laughs good-naturedly. "I'll show them what a good battle looks like. I hope they'll be cheering me on."
The birdkeeper nods. "Them and everyone else in Violet. So do your hometown proud, got it?"
Falkner nods back. "I will. I'll be back after the tournament with a win under my belt," he says, and turns, as if to leave.
"Took you long enough," Silver mutters.
Falkner stops. "What?"
The birdkeeper shakes his head. "I didn't say anything."
Falkner's eyes sharpen. He scans the street, and lingers on the bushes. Silver feels a brief surge of panic, and has to remember that you can't see through the bushes from the road, that he picked this spot for exactly that reason, that moving will rustle the bushes and give him away. Silver holds his breath.
"Heh," Falkner finally says. "I guess my nerves are getting the better of me."
"Can't turn off that police officer's instinct, can you?"
"Afraid not," Falkner answers with a self-deprecating smile. He retrieves a Poké Ball, and a Skarmory appears with a screech. "Well, I'll be on my way, then," he announces, and leaps onto its back. The Skarmory preens a feather, then without further warning, flares out its wings with a cry and leaps into the air. Silver knows that the tree he's beneath is too dense to see through. He scoots closer to its trunk anyway. He waits until the Skarmory and its passenger are a speck in the sky before he dares to breathe again.
He makes his way over to the gap in the bushes. The birdkeeper from before has disappeared. Silver briefly hopes that he's gone home for the night, but the lights in the gym are still on, so someone must be inside. Silver grumbles.
Silver had hoped that once the gym leader left, the Violet City Gym would be deserted like all the others, and Silver could get in, grab the badge, and get out in a matter of minutes. Having other people there made things a lot more difficult. He would need to know where the badge was, and whether and how it was secured. He would need to know how many people were inside, what they were doing, and how to avoid being spotted. He would have to case the building, and casing buildings took time, and Silver did not have a lot of that.
He could throw caution to the wind and barge inside now. He'd succeeded at more intimidating tasks before. But it would be risky. Getting caught would end whatever hopes he had of getting to the Indigo Plateau. He could wait until the gym was locked up for the night. Which would happen — when? Thirty minutes from now? Three hours? Falkner was a police officer — what if he had somebody watch the gym around the clock? Silver could wait forever and a day, and he'd miss the Pokémon League, and that would be that.
"What do you think, Sneasel?"
Sneasel mumbles uncertainly. Silver feels the same way.
"Okay. We'll wait just ten more minutes," Silver announces, partly to Sneasel, partly to himself. "By then, it'll almost be night. If nobody's left the gym by then… We've done this before. We'll make it work."
After ten minutes, nobody has left.
Silver hesitates. Sneasel chirps questioningly at him.
"I know, I know," he hisses. "I'm not getting cold feet. I'm just getting ready." He takes one last look through the hedges, trying to figure out the best way to get close. The sun rests just above the horizon. The lights in the gym are still on. There are no balconies or ledges: entry through the upper floors won't work. He has to use the door or a window close to the ground. Three children have gathered in front of the gym, throwing a ball between themselves. They're another set of eyes: they'd notice someone climbing in through a window.
But they could also make a good distraction. What if the ball were to find its way through a window? The people inside the gym would come out to see for themselves, and Silver could take the opportunity to sneak in. Now, how does he get the kids to throw the ball at the window?
No, he's thinking about this the wrong way. If one of the windows were to break, and whoever came out saw three kids with a ball, they'd assume the kids broke it. Silver doesn't need the ball. He just has to break some glass.
"Ready, Sneasel?" Silver whispers.
Sneasel nods. Silver nods back.
Silver stands up from behind the hedges. A ball immediately slams into his face.
"Ow," Silver grunts.
"Wow, you really got him!" a kid's voice shouts. It's accompanied by the sound of running feet, and Silver groans. He can't already be caught.
"I didn't mean — I'm really, really, really, really sorry!" another kid's voice shouts, and Silver pries his eyes open. It's the three kids from before, all looking two or three years younger than him: a black-haired boy with chubby cheeks and squirrelly eyes, a girl in overalls with pigtails and a broad forehead, and a short quiet-looking boy with long blond hair; and Silver's attention is most immediately caught by the last of them, because the short quiet-looking boy with long blond hair has somehow managed to attach a shiny green prism to his forehead, much like an Espeon, and even as Silver watches, the jewel catches the last of the setting sun.
"It's just — I didn't see you, and, and — and I'm really sorry!" the girl in overalls apologizes again, bowing deeply.
"That was a good shot, though. Right in the kisser!" the chubby-cheeked boy grins. He pumps his fist.
"Ken!" the girl shouts. "You have to say sorry, too!"
"I didn't even throw it!" the boy named Ken protests.
"That's 'cause you were supposed to catch it!"
"But Naomi —!"
"Yeah you were!" Naomi insists.
"Fine," he relents, crossing his arms and pouting. "But only if Em says sorry, too."
The third kid — the one with the green stone on his forehead and who hasn't spoken yet and who is apparently called Em — the third kid briefly looks up at Silver, and then away. "…Sorry," he mumbles.
Naomi nods. She looks at Ken. "Okay. Now you have to say it," she declares.
"Fine, I'm sorry," he says. "Now we're good."
"You can't just say it like that!"
"What? Why not?"
Silver takes a deep breath. He could honestly care less about apologies and thrown balls and whatever else — all he wants is to get in the gym, steal a badge, and get out. It's simple. But with three kids staring up at him with wide, googly eyes, that task is quickly becoming less and less simple.
"It's okay," Silver says, trying not to let his frustration show on his face.
Naomi looks unconvinced. Ken looks uncaring. Em looks unchanged.
Silver strains to think of a way to get rid of them. He takes too long: Ken has spotted Sneasel. He immediately runs over to him. "Whoa, what Pokémon is this? Is it yours? What's its name? Is that a feather? Can I touch it?" he demands, rapid-fire, already putting a hand on Sneasel's head and grabbing at his fur. Sneasel growls in response — which Silver thinks shows remarkable restraint on Sneasel's part.
"Don't touch him," Silver snaps. He grabs Ken's hand and yanks it away from Sneasel. Sneasel huddles closer to Silver and eyes Ken dangerously.
"Why not?" Ken whines, and Silver can already tell which of the three kids the troublemaker is.
"Sneasel doesn't like being touched," Silver informs them, curtly. "You're lucky he didn't cut off your hand."
"But it looks so cool!"
"I think he looks kind of cute…" Naomi mumbles.
Next to her, Em stares at Sneasel as though he's looking at one for the first time. He tentatively reaches out a hand; then seems to change his mind, and pulls away. He stares at Silver with an unreadable expression (unreadable to Silver, at least — he's never been great at reading people's faces), until he finally notices that Silver is staring back. He immediately turns away from the both of them.
"It's a nice Pokémon," is all he says, and Silver doesn't know if that's an observation or an explanation.
The streetlight down the street suddenly flicks on. Silver is reminded of how little time he has. He also gets an idea.
"It's getting late," Silver says, quickly glancing at the streetlight. "Do you need to be heading home?"
"Aren't you supposed to be home? You're not that older than us!" Ken gleefully points out.
"I'm older than you," Silver tells him.
"Not that older! You can't tell us what to do!"
Naomi shakes her head. "It's okay. We're waiting for our class," she informs him. "They, um. Should be here soon."
Silver's heart stops. "Your class?"
"Uh-huh," she nods, face glowing with giddiness at being able to explain something to him, and not noticing the sense of dread now crystallizing in the pit of Silver's stomach. "Mr. Dervish said — he said that today, um. Today, we were going to get to go inside the gym! Isn't that cool?"
Silver suddenly recalls the conversation earlier. "The kids at the academy," he repeats in a disbelieving daze.
"Oh, you know about it?" Naomi asks eagerly. "Do you want to come, too? You must like Pokémon —"
"When are your friends coming here?" he interrupts her, suddenly urgent.
"H-huh?" she stammers with wide, fearful eyes.
Silver swallows, and attempts to recompose himself. He tries again. "When did you say your friends were coming?" he asks, gently this time, because he needs to know the answer, because he needs to get inside the gym, because he needs to get into the Pokémon League, because he needs to find out who the Mask of Ice is, because if he doesn't —
"U-um, well — soon?" Naomi stutters, looking up at him wonderingly. "I, uh, I don't know —"
Ken grins. "Oh, 'sup, Ichiro?" he shouts back.
Silver takes a deep breath. He turns.
And he sees a swarm of seven- and eight-year-old kids stampeding toward him like a pack of pint-sized Tauros. They immediately surround him like a whirlpool, and now Silver is stuck in the middle of a maelstrom of shouting, shoving, screeching children. Sneasel clutches at Silver's leg.
"Ken, you stole the ball again —!"
"I'm hungry, gimme some of your chips!"
"No-one was using it!"
"Hey, is that a Pokémon?"
"Oh, I know! It's called, um. It's called a Nozzle!"
" — the tall kid? He looks kind of scary…"
"No, it's not a Nozzle! He called it a Sneeze!"
"Hey, stop pushing me!"
"You're the one pushing me!"
"Okay, everyone, settle down, settle down!" a singsong voice announces, and suddenly a mustachioed middle-aged man with a body like a curled-up Sandshrew appears, weaving in between each of the kids with remarkable agility for a man his age and size. "I know we're all excited to see the Violet City Gym, but we can't go inside until we're all quiet!"
The crowd titters noisily — above the talking, there's a smattering of "Shhhhhh!" and exactly one "Be quiet, Ken!"
"Um, Mr. Dervish?" Naomi says, from the very edge of the group. She tugs at the man's sleeve.
"Can he come with us?" Naomi asks, and points at Silver. The sea of children around him instantly parts, and Silver stands exposed in front of the Violet City Gym with twenty-something pairs of eyes locked on his face. So much for anonymity.
"Why do you ask?"
"Um, well," Naomi begins. She pokes her fingers together. "We were playing, and we hit him with the ball — it was an accident, I swear, and, and — I feel really bad about it, and, um. I just thought, if, if I could… It might be nice, you know?" she trails off.
"I see," Mr. Dervish says, stroking his mustache thoughtfully. "That's very considerate of you, Naomi."
Silver crosses his fingers. He prays that Mr. Dervish will say something like: "But we're full up." Or: "The gym is already at capacity." Or: "Honestly, he looks like that thief from the wanted poster and we shouldn't even let him inside."
Mr. Dervish seems to come to a decision, because he pushes himself upright and clicks the heels of his shoes together.
"…And I don't see why we couldn't add one more to the group!" he announces joyously, and Silver is just about ready to commit another crime.
"Really? He can come?" Naomi bubbles.
Silver panics. "No — it's okay, really. I'm —"
"You're coming with us?" a boy in glasses asks. "Do you like Pokémon, too?"
Silver panics more. "Yeah — no — but —"
"Course he does!" Ken decides for him. "He even has a Pokémon! But you can't touch it 'cuz it'll bite your head off."
"No, they're claws — Sneasel has claws —"
"U-um. I'm Kimi," a black-haired girl with a headband introduces herself bashfully. She looks up at him for a brief second, then looks away. "…What's your name?"
Silver achieves peak panic. "Uh. It's… Gold," he says stupidly, and instantly mentally kicks himself for it.
"Gold?" Kimi repeats, looking up at him again, blushing, then away again, blushing. She twirls a finger around the hem of her skirt. "…That's a nice name," she mumbles.
"Oooooh, does Kimi have a crush?"
Kimi buries her face in her hands. "Ichiro, stop iiiiiit—!"
"Gold n' Kimi, sitting in a tree! K-I-S-S — ow!"
"Don't be dumb, Ichiro."
Silver feels a tug on his own sleeve, and of course it's Naomi on the other end. "Um. So you're coming. Right, Gold?" she asks, looking up at him with hopeful eyes. Silver can only look into them for a moment before he has to look away, but when he looks away, he only sees another pair of hopeful eyes, because Silver is surrounded by a bunch of kids who have apparently made it their life mission to force Silver to come with them.
Silver's mouth is dry. "Uh, I."
The front door to the gym slides open. "I thought I heard kids outside!" the birdkeeper from before declares with a smile on his face. "Who's ready to go see the Violet City Gym?"
There's a unanimous chorus of "Meeeee!"
"All right! Now, listen up, because there are two rules that everyone has to follow," he announces. "Rule No. 1: The inside of the gym is big, and we don't want anyone getting lost. So I want everyone to find a handholding buddy."
Naomi latches onto Silver's left hand, the boy in glasses latches onto Silver's right hand, and Silver is officially trapped.
"Rule No. 2: Gym Pokémon are used to being around people, but they're still Pokémon. So I want you all to wait for permission before getting too close to one, okay?"
"You mean — we're going to see real gym Pokémon?"
The birdkeeper grins. "Now, now. That would be telling."
There's a burst of excited murmuring.
Mr. Dervish spins a full circle on his heel. "Thank you so much for doing this for the kids. They've been looking forward to this for weeks now."
"Not at all," the birdkeeper says, and then without further delay, announces, "Okay! Everybody, a single-file line, please! And no pushing; you'll all get to see!" He leads the way inside the gym, followed by eager child after eager child. Silver looks helplessly at Sneasel, only to see the kid named Em — the one with the shiny green stone on his forehead, the one who's said a total of five words this entire time, and four of them about Sneasel — Silver sees the kid named Em standing all the way in the back, not holding hands with anyone and staring at Sneasel, too.
And that's all Silver has time for before he's tugged inside the Violet City Gym.
This was actually an opportunity. Maybe even the perfect opportunity. Silver had been so worried about how he was going to get inside the gym — well, now he was inside the gym, wasn't he? Sure, an entire classroom's worth of children, that entire classroom's worth of children's teacher, and pretty much every single gym trainer had seen his face. And they'd also seen Sneasel. And Silver was right in the middle of a long line of kids, and holding hands with them on top of that. And the kid named Em all the way in the back was still burning holes in the back of Sneasel's head.
But this was actually the perfect cover. Nobody would suspect a child invited in on a tour of stealing a badge. And even if somebody did, with so many other faces, Silver could easily fake innocence, or pin the badge on someone else. Given everything, Silver had actually been lucky to be pulled inside along with a bunch of yowling seven-year-olds.
At least, that's what Silver is trying to tell himself.
"Where are you from, Gold?" the boy in glasses holding Silver's right hand — Yuki — asks.
"Um," Silver flails. "…New Bark Town," he decides.
"Is that far?"
"Is Sneasel from there, too?"
"Uh. Yeah. We're both from New Bark Town."
"What are you doing in Violet City?" Naomi pipes up.
Silver is having trouble thinking of an answer that doesn't incriminate him. "…Visiting Sprout Tower," he settles on.
Yuki makes a face. "That old place?"
"It's not old," Naomi protests. "I think it's pretty."
"Yeah," Yuki scoffs. "Pretty old."
"Okay, here we are," the birdkeeper announces, and stops in front of a sliding door. The crowd of kids fans out around him, leaving Silver in the back, looking on as they gather around the birdkeeper — except for Em, who stands behind them, a full arm's length away. "Now, before we go inside, who can tell me how many gyms there are in Johto?"
"Oh, I know! Eight!" a kid's voice reports proudly.
"That's right!" the birdkeeper says. "And our gym here in Violet City has been around for a long time."
"Huh? But it looks brand-new."
"The building is new, but the Violet City Gym has been open for over 500 years."
The birdkeeper pauses to allow the wave of impressed murmuring to subside.
"Does anybody know who the gym leader is now?"
The birdkeeper shakes his head. Out of the corner of his eye, Silver watches Em shake his head, too. "Close, but not quite! Walker was the last gym leader. Now, the leader is his son, Falkner."
"Are we gonna see him? Are we gonna see him battle?" a boy eagerly demands.
"Falkner's not here today — official league business — but you'll all get a chance to watch him battle soon enough." The birdkeeper motions to the door behind him. "In just a couple of minutes, we'll go through this door, and you can see for yourselves some of the Pokémon we train here at the Violet City Gym. Who knows what type of Pokémon that is?"
There's a brief silence. Em mouths out "Flying-type" to himself, but not loud enough to be heard, and he says nothing else.
"Um… I think it's… Bird-type?" a girl ventures.
"Almost — it's actually called the Flying-type," the birdkeeper tells them. "Flying-type Pokémon come in all shapes and sizes — some are so tiny they can sit in your hand, and others are bigger than your house. They're found all over the world, and more are being discovered every day. Because of that, they can be real tricky to catch, and even trickier in battle! But people who manage to win against one get this little old Zephyr Badge here!" he announces, pulling out a shiny hexagonal badge.
Silver is instantly alert. He scans the hall for other people, for tools he can use. There isn't anything. Even if there was, there's no way to steal it right now without being seen, not with Silver all the way in the back of the crowd and a passel of kids ogling the badge in front of him. He can't just leap to the front without seeming suspicious, and if he just took it, there's no way he'd get out without being caught. He glances at Sneasel. Sneasel looks back at him with a determined gaze. Of course: Silver can distract the birdkeeper, and Sneasel can snatch the badge.
"All right. I'm sure you're eager to see some Pokémon, aren't you?" the birdkeeper announces, returning the Zephyr Badge to a pouch slung over his shoulder. Silver notes how he drops it into the side pocket, the one that isn't protected by a clasp, and knows it'll make it all the easier for Sneasel to take it. They'll wait until the birdkeeper opens the door and has his back turned. Sneasel will sneak up on him. And he'll never even notice that it's gone. Swiftly, smoothly, and it'll only take a few seconds. Silver nods at Sneasel. Sneasel nods back.
"Just one last thing before we go in: whose Sneasel is that?"
Silver's plan is ended before it even begins. He feels like punching a hole in the wall. He settles for biting his lip.
"Oh, he's with Gold," Naomi pipes up, and helpfully points Silver out so the birdkeeper can see him even easier. Silver bites his lip harder. "Sneasel's really cute, isn't he?"
"Maybe so, but I'm afraid he can't come with us," he says, looking straight at Silver. "We don't want to scare the Pokémon inside, so you have to put him in his Poké Ball, if he has one."
"Sneasel plays nice," Silver tries. Sneasel chirps as cutely as possible.
"Nuh-uh!" Ken protests. "You said he'd bite my head off!"
Silver growls. "No, I didn't —"
"Either way, it doesn't matter." The birdkeeper shakes his head. "Sneasel has to go in his Poké Ball. No ifs, ands, or buts."
Silver swallows his ifs, ands, and buts. He returns Sneasel to his Poké Ball.
"Okay, then," the birdkeeper announces cheerfully, but not before shooting Silver a withering look that makes it plain that he expects Silver to be on his best behavior — which is unfortunate, because Silver had planned on the opposite. "Now we're all ready. Follow me," he tells the crowd, and slides the door open with a flourish. Naomi and Yuki instantly reattach themselves to Silver's hands.
True to the birdkeeper's word, the room beyond the door is filled with chattering, chittering, and chirping. There are Flying-type Pokémon sitting in tall cages the height of the room, and there are Flying-type Pokémon sitting in the wooden rafters above. Silver can identify Pidgey and Hoothoot and Murkrow, and there are even some Pokémon he's never seen before. A floor-to-ceiling window runs the length of the room, and beyond it, a flock of Doduo scampers across an enclosed grassy field. Excited murmurs rollick through the crowd of children. Silver can't help but watch each of the Pokémon just a little warily, even though Silver is older now and all of them are far too small to carry his weight. For perhaps the only time in his life, he's relieved Blue isn't with him.
The birdkeeper steps over to one of the cages, undoes a latch, and reaches inside. A pudgy blue bird with fluffy wings like cotton candy hops onto his arm. "Now, I'll bet most of you have never seen this one before," he says, smiling as the bird toddles onto his shoulder. He's right: even Silver, who has seen his fair share of Pokémon during his travels, can't help but gaze curiously at the Pokémon with a body the color of the sky and wings like clouds. All the kids have wide-open mouths and wider eyes — all except for Em, whose face is just as blank and inscrutable as the very first time they met.
"This here Pokémon's called a Swablu," the birdkeeper tells them. The Swablu continues its journey up his body, finally standing proud atop his head. "Anybody want to take a guess where it's from?"
"Lake of Rage!" a boy shouts.
The birdkeeper grins. "Nope. Think farther!"
There is silence as the kids strain to think of the farthest location they can imagine. Em mumbles something, but Silver doesn't get a chance to hear it, because another boy shouts out, "Um, um! Cianwood?"
"Nope. Think even farther. All the way to Hoenn."
"Yep. They live up in the north of Hoenn. They fly in huge flocks, so big that they look like clouds in the sky," the birdkeeper smiles. The children watch as the Swablu turns itself around and around on the birdkeeper's head. It finally comes to a stop and cocks its head, staring curiously at Silver. Silver stares back.
"Why's it going in circles like that?" Yuki asks.
"Swablu like perching on high objects," the birdkeeper explains. "And they're very friendly around people, so a lot of the time, they land on people's heads — oh, there she goes!"
With a chirp, the Swablu hops off the birdkeeper's head and floats through the air. No sooner does Silver realize that it's flying toward him than the Swablu flutters to a stop atop his head.
"Oh!" Naomi cries out. "She likes you, Gold!"
The Swablu settles itself on Silver's head. With every step, its talons dig into his scalp. Silver winces. "…Yeah. It likes me," he mutters.
Kimi giggles. "It looks like a really fluffy hat!"
"It does, doesn't it? In fact, the very first cotton hats were made to look just like Swablu," the birdkeeper explains.
Silver feels the jab of a beak poking at strands of his hair. Then, he feels something soft and downy tickle his head, and finally the bird's warm body against his head. Silver wishes he could see what damage the bird is inflicting on him.
Kimi giggles again. "When it sits like that, it really does look like a hat! You and Swablu look good together!"
Ichiro gasps. "I knew it! Kimi's in lo-ove, Kimi's — ow!"
"Quit it already, Ichiro."
There's a sudden squawking and beating of wings. A Murkrow flaps down from up above them and perches on the birdkeeper's left shoulder. It assesses the assembly of children with an imperious gaze.
"Jeez, couldn't wait for the introduction?" the birdkeeper says to the Murkrow. In response, the Murkrow jabs him once in the head with its beak, as if to hurry him along.
"Well, excuse me, Little Miss Attention Seeker," the birdkeeper huffs, just as the Murkrow turns its head up haughtily. "Kids, this is Miranda the Murkrow. She's the spoiled little princess of this gym — just ask her." The Murkrow flares its wings out in a showy display and nods its head. The sheen of its feathers is blinding.
"She was just a few days old when we found her all by herself near the road to Route 36. Well, we brought her back with us, and took good care of her, and now she's the beautiful creature she is today."
"By herself?" Naomi repeats, eyes wide with concern. "What happened?"
"That, we don't know. Maybe she got lost from her nest, or maybe her parents passed on. Miranda here can't exactly tell us, now can she?" the birdkeeper says, smiling up at the Murkrow, and the Murkrow taps his forehead with her beak again, almost affectionately, the way Sneasel sometimes reaches his claw out for Silver's hand, not for holding, but simply for reassuring him that Sneasel is there. "But where Miranda came from doesn't really matter. We'll keep taking care of her for as long as we can, and Miranda'll keep bossing us around in the meantime."
The Murkrow caws and nods its head in agreement.
"So that's part of what we do here at the Violet City Gym. We take care of hurt bird Pokémon until they're well enough to be on their own again."
"So… like a bird doctor?" a girl wonders.
"You got that right. If there's a hurt bird Pokémon, and the Pokémon Center doesn't know what to do, they bring them here."
A boy makes a face. "I bet Pokémon don't hafta get shots."
"Ah-ah-ah. Pokémon get sick, just like people do. So they get shots, same as people."
"Yeah, really. And if you'll all follow me, I can show you some of the things we do to help hurt Pokémon," the birdkeeper announces. He waves a hand; the Murkrow waves a wing in imitation. The mass of children drifts along behind him, not in anything close to resembling a single-file line. Silver is pulled forward with them, along with the Swablu still making a nest out of Silver's hair. A pair of Pidgey watch them from a railing against the wall. A Spearow swoops down from the rafters.
A kid screams.
Silver whirls: a Spearow is cawing and pecking at a kid's forehead, and the kid is screaming and crying and flailing and hitting the Spearow, trying to get it away from him, but the Spearow only keeps flying in his face and cawing and pecking at his forehead, and Silver suddenly realizes that the kid is Em with his shiny green gem attached to his forehead, and without thinking about why or why not Silver tears his hand from Naomi's and reaches for Sneasel's Poké Ball, and is just about to command an Icy Wind, when a voice snaps like a thunderclap.
"Simon! Stop! Now!" the birdkeeper shouts, piercing the Spearow's squawking and Em's screaming, and the Spearow squawks and flees into the rafters up above them. The birdkeeper wades through the crowd of kids, half of them staring at the birdkeeper, half of them staring at Em, and all with wide eyes.
"Are you okay?" the birdkeeper demands, kneeling down and inspecting Em's face for injuries.
Em swats his hands away. "I'm fine," he insists.
"Maybe you feel fine, but I'd like to make sure," the birdkeeper answers placatingly, and raises his hands again. Em swats his hands away again.
"I said, I'm fine," he spits, so vociferously that the birdkeeper freezes up. Em glares at him, eyes shining with just as much fire as water.
"Oh, Em…" Naomi murmurs.
Mr. Dervish leaps up from the other side of the crowd of children. He dances right up next to Em, then bends down at the waist with a flourish; his body is nearly a ninety-degree angle. "Now, now, Em! Please calm down," he trills in a lilting singsong. "I understand why you're feeling upset. We only want to make sure that you aren't hurt. Is that all right with you?"
Em glowers at everything in sight. "It's like I told you. I'm fine. So just keep that dumb bird and all the rest of these dumb Pokémon away from me."
The birdkeeper furrows his brow in consternation. He glances at Mr. Dervish. Mr. Dervish only shrugs and nods, as if to say that is the best he's going to get.
The birdkeeper stands. "Well… if you're sure," he relents, still examining Em with concern. "Em, right? I'm very sorry Simon behaved the way he did."
Em does not answer. The birdkeeper fidgets, as if unsure whether saying anything else or saying nothing else is the best course of action. Mr. Dervish shakes his head, once, barely noticeably.
The birdkeeper swallows. "Okay. We'll carry on, then. Everybody, follow me."
And as if someone had just flicked a switch, the collection of children rumbles onward, the sound of excited footsteps and cheery chattering filling the space, exactly the same as when Silver had first entered the gym. Silver is carried along with them, but he can't help but turn his head back to glance at Em, more than once, more than twice, so many times that Silver loses track and forgets he's even doing it. The entire time, Em trails along behind them, like an afterthought. That's the same as when Silver had first entered the gym, too.
"Em's just like that," Yuki informs Silver, suddenly, long after the incident and several minutes after leaving the aviary behind. They'd seen a Doduo with a leg cast, and a Pidgey with canvas attached to a missing part of its wing, and the Swablu sitting like a hat on Silver's head had finally bestirred itself to hop off and float over to a birdbath and wash its wings clean. They'd seen all those things, and Silver is still without a Zephyr Badge, even after he's spent more than an hour walking through room after room of the gym. Silver is still without a Zephyr Badge, even as he keeps stealing glances at the short, quiet-looking boy who keeps straggling along behind them.
"Em's just like that," Yuki repeats, matter-of-factly, apparently taking Silver's silence as meaning that he hadn't heard. He tugs on Silver's hand, and Silver obliges him by pulling his attention away from Em and toward Yuki. "You know. All quiet. Likes being alone. Gets mad easy."
"It's not his fault," Naomi reasons, from Silver's other hand. "I'd get mad too, if a Spearow hurt me."
"Em's just shy. That's all."
"Kimi's shy," Yuki argues. "Em's not shy."
"Yes, he is. He's just…" she trails off, staring intently at the floor with thinking-hard eyebrows and a thinking-hard frown. "He's just different about it," she finally settles on.
"Whatever," Yuki shrugs again, apparently content to let the subject die.
Naomi continues anyway. "He's just quiet a lot. So it's hard to tell. But he always plays catch with us. And he's not mean."
"But he hates Pokémon!" Ken interrupts, loudly, suddenly appearing in front of them. There's a cocky smile on his face, as if he's just made the game-winning throw.
"Ken! Shhhhh!" Naomi tells him.
"But it's true," Ken carries on, uncaring and only marginally quieter. "He didn't even want to come to the gym, but Mr. Dervish made him go. He always acts like he's better than everyone. That's why he doesn't have any friends."
"Ken. Don't," Yuki warns him.
"I'm just saying it. I mean, who doesn't like Pokémon?"
Naomi bites her lip. "Well…"
"See? Even Naomi thinks so."
"No, I don't," Naomi protests. "Em just… likes different things."
"But he doesn't like Pokémon," Ken declares with finality. He rests his head on interlaced hands. Naomi's face is red and seemingly ready to burst.
"You know I can hear you," a quiet voice announces, and the three kids instantly go silent. They turn their heads mechanically — Em is standing behind them, expression as quiet as his voice, and in the moment, Silver thinks Em's face should look more like Naomi's startled eyes, or Yuki's troubled frown, or even Ken's told-you-so half-smile. Em's face should look like any one of those — but it doesn't. It doesn't look like anything.
Naomi manages to recover herself first. "Ken — you have to say sorry!"
"What? Why me?" he protests.
"You can't just say things like that about people!"
"You were talking about him, too!"
"Um, guys," Yuki tries, glancing nervously at Em. But Em says nothing more, and even though he does not move, he seems to retreat farther away.
"Because it's bad to say mean things!"
"I was just —"
"Stop," Silver interrupts them, and whether it's due to the tone of his voice or the surprise at hearing him speak or even whatever bare level of respect they afford him for being not that older than them, the bickering stops. "Either apologize or don't. But don't talk about people like they're not there."
The three of them stare up at him. Even Ken is slack-jawed. Silver swallows. He can't decide what to do. He decides to stare back.
"…I'm sorry, Em," Naomi finally says, after the silence fades.
Yuki nods. "Me, too," he chimes in.
The two of them look expectantly at Ken. Ken fidgets. He coughs. He coughs again. He looks as if he's in physical pain.
"Okay, we're here!" the birdkeeper suddenly declares from the front of the group, and Silver's never seen anybody's expression flip from constipation to relief as quickly as Ken manages to.
"This isn't a battle arena," a boy says authoritatively.
The birdkeeper confers briefly with Mr. Dervish, who shakes his head no in response to whatever question was asked of him. Apparently satisfied, the birdkeeper turns back to the group.
"That's because the battle arena is up above us. Everybody, hang tight," the birdkeeper says, and yanks a lever jutting from the floor. The sound of rotating gears immediately churns into the air, and before Silver knows it, the floor is falling away beneath them, an onrush of air brushing against Silver's face and whooshing underneath his clothes. Silver can barely hear the murmurs of anticipation and excitement over the sound of clanking gears and wind winnowing past them, and when the platform suddenly stops with a loud crunch, all of them are standing on the roof of the Violet City Gym.
"Wowee! Are we really on the roof?" a boy bubbles.
"That's right. This is where the battles happen," the birdkeeper announces, waving a hand at the darkening sky. Just as he does so, a pair of floodlights blink on, bathing the roof in artificial light. Even though Silver knows he's on the roof, he finds himself glancing around the Violet City skyline, just to be sure. Sprout Tower seems much smaller than it looks from the ground.
"Hey, is that the school way over there?"
"No way! It's so small!"
"Um, Mister Birdkeeper," Naomi calls out. "Why do you have the battles on the roof? Don't the Pokémon get scared?"
The birdkeeper shakes his head. "Not at all. For Flying-type Pokémon, the sky is their home. Flapping their wings and soaring through the sky for them is like walking for us. In fact, having a wide-open space gives them the ability to do things they couldn't indoors."
"Like what?" Yuki wonders.
"Like… Well, it would be easier to show you."
"Does that mean we're gonna see a Pokémon battle?"
"Yep! …Is what I would normally say," the birdkeeper tells them, scratching the back of his head. "But all the other gym trainers are busy right now. And a Pokémon battle with only one Pokémon isn't much of a battle."
The collective group of children murmurs its collective disappointment.
Then: "I know! Gold has a Pokémon, right?"
And just like that, every kid in the group snaps their heads around to stare at Silver eagerly.
Silver panics. "Uh."
"A Sneasel, isn't it?" the birdkeeper says. "Well, it's fine with me, as long as it knows how to battle."
Silver panics more. "Yeah — no — but —"
"Course it knows how to battle!" Ken decides for him. "He said its teeth are super sharp!"
"No, they're claws — Sneasel has claws —"
"Pokémon battles are just the coolest —"
"I wanna see!"
"Bat-tle!" one of the kids demands, and then another kid chimes in, and then another, and then the entire crowd of children is chanting, "Bat-tle! Bat-tle! Bat-tle!" in a crazed, exuberant frenzy, all of them bouncing up and down as one, as though possessed.
Silver feels a tug on his sleeve, and of course it's Naomi on the other end. "Um. You don't have to, if you don't want," she tells him, even as she looks up with a pair of hopeful eyes. Silver can only look into them for a moment before he has to look away, but when he looks away, he only sees another pair of hopeful eyes, because Silver is surrounded by a bunch of kids who have apparently made it their life mission to force Silver to be in a Pokémon battle.
Silver sighs. "…Okay," he says, and Silver's surrender is immediately met by a triumphant cheer.
Mr. Dervish flounces his way toward Silver through the crowd of excited children, weaving in between the horde as though he's dancing an energetic waltz. "Thank you for indulging them," he sings, landing in front of Silver with a staccato tap, and immediately bends over in a ninety-degree bow. "We cannot afford field trips often, but they are such wonderful learning opportunities. I am sure all of the children will remember this one well. Look how excited they all are!"
Silver looks over the kids, all shouting and cheering and jumping up and down as if they'd all just eaten a mountain of sugar. He grunts. "I can see that."
"Okay, okay," the birdkeeper says, waving his hands in a futile effort at calm. "We'll get started in a moment. If everybody could take a seat over there before we start?"
The kids chatter nosily to themselves, and begin trickling over to the amphitheater-style seating built into a raised section of the roof.
Naomi lingers. "You can do it," she tells him, and lifts her hands. She's crossed all of her fingers, including both of her thumbs. "Fingers crossed!"
"Good luck," Yuki adds, before joining the crowd.
"Rip it to pieces!" Ken demands.
Em is the last to leave. He stares up at Silver for a long moment, as if he wants to say something. He frowns. He looks away. Then he runs to catch up to the others.
"This will be a one-on-one battle," the birdkeeper announces from the opposite side of the roof.
Silver nods. The fewer Pokémon, the better. Start throwing out too many, and there would be questions. Questions like, "How come that red-haired kid has an Ursaring? …And a Kingdra? …And a Gyarados, and by the way, aren't those supposed to be blue?" And those questions would lead to more questions, and would no doubt end in Silver telling his life story to a pack of children, and Silver did not particularly feel much like sharing, thank you very much.
He had felt even less like battling in the first place. But winning a battle meant winning a badge, and although Silver had been planning on stealing one, he wasn't about to be picky about methods. He had been dragged along by a pack of grade-schoolers longer than he would have liked, but if earning the Zephyr Badge in battle managed to be the result, Silver wasn't about to complain.
And getting a Zephyr Badge will be the result. Silver will make sure of that. He's not some newbie trainer challenging a gym with a newbie Rattata. Sneasel's got battle experience, a cunning mind, and a type advantage to boot. Sneasel is the only Pokémon Silver needs to take home a badge.
"And you should also know that I'm not authorized to give out badges," the birdkeeper informs him. "So even if you win, I can't give you a Zephyr Badge."
Sneasel squawks in surprise, and Silver stifles a growl. Nothing is ever easy.
"I believe in you, Gold!" Kimi's voice shouts from the crowd.
"First comes love! Then comes marriage! Then comes — ow!"
"Ichiro. Just. Stop talking."
"Are the two of you ready?" the birdkeeper calls out. Silver's eyes dart around the rooftop battlefield, finally settling on Sneasel. Sneasel's own eyes are uncertain. He makes a high-pitched warble, as though wondering aloud what he's supposed to do now.
Silver sets his jaw. "Nothing's changed. One way or another, we're coming out of this battle with a Zephyr Badge."
That does the trick. Sneasel chirps and nods at Silver. Silver nods back.
"We're ready," Silver announces.
"All right. Then let's go! Yanma!" the birdkeeper shouts, flinging a Poké Ball into the air, and the Pokémon appears with a cry.
"After it, Sneasel," Silver commands, and Sneasel instantly leaps forward, claws bared, only for Yanma to dart away at the last moment. Sneasel tries again, but Yanma evades the attack effortlessly, flying above Sneasel's head and out of range of its attacks, flitting to and fro so quickly that it seems to disappear and then reappear somewhere else a second later.
"Whoa! That bug thing's fast!"
"I can barely see it!"
"Yanma's one of the quickest Pokémon around," the birdkeeper proudly informs them. "And being out in the open gives it the space to use that talent to its full advantage."
Another of Sneasel's attacks misses as Yanma vanishes from view. It instantly rematerializes and launches itself headlong into Sneasel's back. Sneasel croaks as he tumbles along the rooftop.
"Man, Sneeze can't even hit it!" Ken shouts.
"Sneasel," Yuki corrects him.
"And we're only getting started," the birdkeeper calls out. "Yanma, Screech!" A high-pitched shriek pierces the sky, discordant like a chorus of snapping strings. Silver jerks his hands up to protect his ears. Sneasel does the same.
"No, don't —!" Silver shouts. But Silver's warning is drowned out by Yanma's screech, and Yanma rams straight into Sneasel's exposed stomach. Sneasel is forced backward, grimacing in pain, until it finally manages to swat Yanma away with its claws.
Silver grits his teeth. Sneasel needs all of his focus just to keep track of Yanma and avoid its attacks. Letting down his guard for even an instant would leave him wide open. But Sneasel can only keep up with Yanma's speed for so long. If Sneasel gets tired, the battle's over. Silver is used to relying on Sneasel's agility to take down opponents. Now it's Sneasel on the business end of a foe with unmatched speed, and what's worse, Silver is getting the nagging feeling that Yanma is somehow faster than before.
"C'mon, Sneasel! You can do it!" Naomi shouts.
"Um," Yuki pipes up. "Is Yanma… getting even faster?"
Silver's heart sinks. It's not just him. Yanma is faster than before.
"Mm-hm! Outstanding observation, Yuki!" Mr. Dervish trills. "Class, do you recall our discussion of Pokémon abilities? Yanma has just displayed an excellent example of Speed Boost. Quite simply, the longer the battle goes, the quicker it becomes!"
"You mean — it can go even faster than this?"
"No way, that's crazy!"
"…I think I'm gonna hurl…"
"Most Pokémon get tired the longer a battle goes on. But not Yanma," the birdkeeper announces with a grin. Silver watches Sneasel just barely roll out of the way of another of Yanma's tackles. If they can't slow Yanma down, they're doomed. A badge is on the line. They can't afford to fail.
"Sneasel looks like it's really hurting…" Kimi murmurs.
"Man, this turned out to be bor-ing," Ken grumbles.
"You were the one who wanted to watch a battle!" Naomi says.
"Yeah, but this one sucks. And it's getting cold. I wanna go inside."
Sneasel is struggling to keep up with its foe. Yanma darts to the left and right, up and down, forward and backward and forward again, and somewhere in the maze of movements Yanma makes a feint, Sneasel squawks, and before Silver can even blink, Yanma rockets forward — and right into Silver's trap.
It takes only seconds. Yanma starts to wobble. It zigs to the left, then drifts to the right. Then it crashes head-first onto the floor.
"Ice Punch," Silver commands. Sneasel doesn't hesitate. He leaps into the air, and puts the full force of his body into a punishing blow to Yanma's abdomen. Yanma shrieks. Ice crystals have formed on Yanma's wings, and the frigid air radiating from Sneasel's claws only makes them grow larger.
"Now that's what I'm talking about!" Ken cheers.
"But, how did it…?" Yuki wonders.
"What exquisite execution!" Mr. Dervish sings. "The cold air is no accident. While Yanma has been flying back and forth, Sneasel has been using Icy Wind. Look to Yanma's wings, class — see how they are covered in ice? Not only did Sneasel's Icy Wind slow Yanma down, it left it open for another attack. A simply stupendous strategy."
"R-really? Er — Yanma, pull back!" the birdkeeper stammers. The command comes just in time for Yanma to veer out of the way of Sneasel's follow-up.
Silver clicks his tongue. He wishes Mr. Dervish knew how to shut up.
Yanma attempts to retreat; Sneasel gives chase. Yanma's eyes are focused entirely on Sneasel, but its movements are jerky, and much slower than before: ice still clings to its wings. Sneasel should have no problem getting in range for an attack. And SIlver knows the perfect move to target a fleeing Pokémon.
"Now," Silver orders, and Sneasel lunges at Yanma in a full-body tackle. Before, Yanma would've easily darted away, leaving Sneasel clawing at air. But now? The hit connects with such force that Yanma is launched like a cannonball.
"Go, Sneasel! Go, Gold!"
Yanma vibrates its wings in a furious attempt to stabilize itself, so rapidly that it generates a burst of wind that whips across the rooftop and through Silver's clothes. It's not enough to slow Sneasel in the slightest, though, and just as Yanma finally manages to halt its backward momentum all the way on the birdkeeper's side of the battlefield, Sneasel dashes right up to it, readying another blow. Silver is about to put this match into checkmate.
"That was crazy strong! What was that?" one of the kids asks.
Silver glances at Mr. Dervish. "Don't you dare," he mutters under his breath.
"Pay attention, class! Pursuit is a move that doubles in power when used against a Pokémon trying to run away."
"Then, no more running! Yanma, Protect!" the birdkeeper calls out. A barrier of light appears in midair around Yanma. Sneasel's claw bounces off it with an ineffectual tink.
Silver curses again.
The light barrier disappears. Sneasel rushes forward. Yanma tries to put distance between them. The effort is entirely in vain. It has only delayed the inevitable. Yanma is too close to dodge. Sneasel is too close to miss. The battle is over.
"This is it!" Silver shouts, and Sneasel darts forward, less than a foot away now, and Sneasel tenses and raises its claws and swings them forward to deliver the victory blow, and Yanma vanishes. Yanma vanishes, and Sneasel squawks and tumbles forward and crashes right into the birdkeeper.
"It — it missed?"
Sneasel peels itself away from the birdkeeper and shakes itself. Behind it, Yanma is zipping through the air like a bullet, just as quickly as before, as if its wings had never been frozen. Sneasel stares at it in a daze. Silver is certain he looks the same.
"But, but! Yanma's slow now!" one of the kids protests.
"It was," Mr. Dervish corrects the child gently. "But ice does not last forever. Between the heat and movement created by its wings, it was only a matter of time before the ice melted and Yanma was restored to its full speed."
Silver starts. Using Protect was only a delay tactic. And the burst of wind earlier — that was Yanma accelerating the thawing of its wings.
"That's exactly right," the birdkeeper announces. "And now, time's up." No sooner does he finish speaking than Yanma darts over Sneasel's head, tucks its wings away, and drops like a stone.
Sneasel is entirely unprepared. There isn't time to dodge. "Sneasel, Swagger!" Silver barks, in a last-ditch attempt to force Yanma to swerve off-course. Sneasel pulls the move off with only seconds remaining before Yanma is set to make impact with Sneasel's skull. Silver's body is close to snapping. He grits his teeth. He clings to the hope that confusion will get the job done.
It doesn't. Yanma slams down onto Sneasel's head with a tremendous thunk. Sneasel moans, wobbles — then collapses, and does not get up.
"My, oh, my! What a stunning turnabout!" Mr. Dervish says. "It seems that Sneasel is incapable of continuing. Yanma is the victor!"
Silver sprints over to where Sneasel has fallen. "Are you okay?" Silver asks. He kneels down next to him.
Sneasel looks weakly up at him. He chirps sadly.
"It's all right. You did good," Silver reassures him. He reaches for Sneasel's hand and squeezes, reassuringly.
The rooftop fills with the vibration of dozens of running feet.
"That was awesome! Sneasel was like, bam! And then Yanma was like, vwoom! And then —"
"— wish I could fly like Yanma."
"Awww, I thought Sneasel really had it…"
"— and I told you Gold couldn't do it —"
"Be nice, Ken."
Naomi breaks free from the crowd. "Are you and Sneasel all right?" Naomi demands, running right up to them. Silver nods. "But you lost," she points out, wearing the world's longest frown.
Silver shakes his head. "We did our best. That's what matters."
"You really had Yanma and me on the ropes, there. Not bad at all," the birdkeeper says, working his way through the crowd until he stands before Silver. His voice is genuinely complimentary. On his shoulder, Yanma sits, wings finally still. "Have you ever thought about taking the league challenge? You've got real talent."
"Thank you — but I'll pass. I'm not cut out for it."
"Suit yourself. But if you change your mind, make our gym your first stop, okay?"
"…Yeah," Silver murmurs, and grips Sneasel's hand tight. Sneasel grips it back. And when Sneasel finally pulls away after a few very long seconds, he leaves something behind. It is something smooth, something metallic. It is everything that Silver imagined it would be.
"Keep it up, and I bet you'll have your very own Zephyr Badge before long!" the birdkeeper grins.
Silver nods. He curls his fingers around the badge in his palm, and he smiles. "Yeah. I will."
Silver has only one destination left: Indigo Plateau.
He will go there as soon as he can figure out how to escape Earl's Pokémon Academy.
"All done!" Naomi announces, from Silver's right. She's apparently finished with whatever she's doing to Silver's hair. She goes to pick up a mirror from the table. "Now you can look!"
"Nooooo!" Kimi cries, from Silver's left. She's apparently not finished with whatever she's doing to Silver's hair. "You can't show him yet! I'm not done!"
Naomi's face lights up. "Oh! Are you gonna —"
"Shhhh! It's a surprise," Kimi says seriously, and Silver feels the pulling on his scalp stop. "Wait right here," she orders, as if Silver has any say in the matter to begin with. She hops down from her stool. Silver listens to the thumping of her feet behind him as she scampers down the hall.
Silver was still not entirely sure how he got here. He had finally claimed the last of the badges, and the birdkeeper was completely none the wiser as he waved them all outside. Silver had only taken a single step before Mr. Dervish's pack of kids began dragging him along with them, and before he knew it, Silver was sitting inside the playroom at Earl's Pokémon Academy getting his hair done by two eager girls.
Silver is beginning to wonder whether he will ever actually lay eyes on the Pokémon League.
"— and you're no match for my Charizard!"
"Grr-roar!" Ken growls. A red blanket is tied around his neck like a cape, and he's wearing a crude cardboard mask, colored orange with marker, that looks kind of like a Charizard if Silver squints really hard. Ken takes a deep breath and puffs out a burst of air, apparently attempting to mimic a Charizard's fire breath.
"Oh yeah?" Yuki challenges. "Me and Rhydon'll show you!"
A fourth kid, this one in a red shirt and gray shorts, bursts through an open door. An upside-down cooking pot covers his head like a helmet; a piece of paper is folded into a cone and tied around it with string. He roars, too, even louder than Ken.
Ken pulls the Charizard mask up to his forehead. "No fair," he pouts. "You're always Rhydon."
"Charizards aren't supposed to talk," Yuki points out.
Ken ignores him. "Besides, Rhydons aren't red. Everyone knows that."
"You're just mad that you didn't get to be Gyarados."
"Nuh-uh!" Ken protests. He pulls the Charizard mask back over his face to prove it. He growls again, louder than before, and then the kid pretending to be Rhydon growls too, and then both of them are roaring at each other, presumably competing to see who can be the most obnoxiously loud.
The sound of Kimi's running feet returns. Silver feels her place something soft on his head. She runs around in front of him, and stands next to Naomi. The pair of them stare up at Silver's head. Silver fidgets.
Naomi breaks into a wide smile. "It's perfect," she announces.
"I know, I know!" Kimi says. Her eyes are just as excited as her smile. "Look, Gold, look!"
Naomi takes the mirror in her hands and holds it high, right in front of Silver's face. Silver stares into it. His hair has been tied into twin braids, tied off by a pair of frilly bows: the left one purple, the right one bright pink. The ensemble is completed by a crown of pink and white petals nestled atop his head. Silver tilts his head. His brand-new braids slide forward, over his shoulders.
"So, Gold? Doesn't it look good?" Kimi asks.
Silver looks at the two girls. They beam up at him, proud of their handiwork.
There is only one correct answer.
"…It looks good," he tells them.
Impossibly, their faces get even brighter.
"…What? Charizard is evolving!"
"You can't do that," Yuki objects. "Charizard doesn't even evolve."
"This Charizard can! Now, it's… Dun dun da-dun! Mega Charizard!"
"Raaaawwwwwrrrrr!" Ken yells, somehow managing to be even louder than before.
"Then Rhydon gets to evolve, too! Into… Suuuuper Mega Rhydon!"
"— Super Mega Infinity Charizard —"
"— Super Mega Infinity Rhydon Times Two —"
"— Super Mega Infinity Char —"
"All right, everyone!" Mr. Dervish announces, bounding into the playroom. "Dinner is served! Bring your appetites!"
"Dibs!" Ken immediately shouts. He rips the Charizard mask from his face and flings it onto the floor, then sprints into the kitchen. Yuki sighs, but wastes no time in following him.
Silver feels a tug on his hand. "Um. Aren't you coming, Gold?" Naomi wonders.
Silver glances out the window. It's dark, and has been for more than a couple of hours now. It's a long way to Cherrygrove City. It's an even longer way to Indigo Plateau.
"…I have to use the bathroom first," he says. He stands and looks toward the hall to emphasize the point.
"Oh, okay. But don't be long! We'll be waiting for you!" Naomi says earnestly, and then she and Kimi join the rest of the kids streaming through the doorway.
Silver looks around the playroom, at the child-sized tables and chairs, at the stacks of picture books piled atop the shelves, at the wooden building blocks spilling out of their container. Silver kneels down. He picks up the Charizard mask where Ken had thrown it, and carefully sets it on the shelf, right in between an off-color Venusaur mask and a Blastoise mask whose ears are too big and whose mouth is too small. For a moment, Silver wonders whether, in some other world, he might have worn a mask like one of these, a mask that was cut from cardboard and not from ice.
He shakes his head and walks down the hallway. It does not take long for Silver to tug the bows free from his hair. The braids fall apart not long after, just as Silver walks past the bathroom. The flower crown is next. He removes it gingerly, letting it dangle in his hand as he turns the corner, heading for the window at the end of the passage. Silver sets the bows and crown on the floor. Here, he can better see them — the petals are gently round, and subtly fragrant. Silver can tell that they have only recently been cut: the blooms are still bright and vivid. It has obviously been put together with great care. He slides open the window and climbs up onto the sill. It's a shame he'll have to leave it behind.
"Are you leaving?"
Silver freezes. He strains to think of a plausible explanation. Unfortunately, when you're already halfway through crawling out a window, there really isn't one.
He could escape. There is nothing stopping him. He has what he came to Violet City for; there is no reason for him to stay. He could swing himself over the windowsill, drop down the wall, and vanish before anyone could even think of giving chase. He could do all of this, and it would take only seconds. Normally, he would. Silver does not know why he turns to look. Perhaps it is because he is tired; or perhaps it is because he has spent far too much time listening to kids today. Perhaps it is because he has barely heard the voice, and so does not recognize it; or perhaps it is because he has barely heard the voice, and so is instantly able to recognize it. Perhaps it is for some combination of reasons that not even Silver knows.
But for whatever reason, he does turn, and finds himself looking at Em — Em, the kid who hated Pokémon, but who couldn't stop watching Sneasel; Em, the kid who knew more about the Violet City Gym than anyone, but who wanted to do anything but visit it; Em, the kid who wore a shiny gem as if to draw attention, but who trailed after the crowd as if to escape it; Em, the kid who, from before they all entered the gym until after they all left, has never asked Silver a single question, not until now.
And Silver answers him. "I am," he says, simply.
"Where are you going?"
Em looks down at the floor. He frowns. "You're not going to New Bark Town."
Em's frown deepens. He appears to ponder Silver's response. Silver waits.
"Because you're not from there," Em finally says. There is no question attached.
Silver raises an eyebrow. "How did you know?"
Em doesn't respond immediately. He turns his head to look at the corner where Silver has left Naomi's bows and Kimi's flower crown. Silver follows his gaze. "You said you and Sneasel are from the same place," Em says, quiet but certain. "But Sneasel's not from New Bark Town. So, you're not, either."
That catches Silver's attention. Silver doesn't know where Sneasel is from. And if Lance is telling the truth, not even Sneasel knows where Sneasel is from. And yet, a kid that Silver has never met is somehow sure of something that not even Silver is sure of.
"How can you know that?" Silver demands.
"I can tell where a Pokémon grew up," Em answers, as nonchalant as if he'd just observed that Sprout Tower is old or that a Pidgey can fly, and certainly not as if he'd just revealed that he can tell Silver the answer to a question that has weighed on Silver like lead for as long as he can remember.
"You can?" Silver finally parrots, because he isn't sure he's capable of saying anything else.
Em responds with a silent nod.
Silver does not get nervous. If the years of thieving in order to keep himself fed hadn't made sure of that, the years of training under the Mask of Ice certainly did. He's stood down a Lugia that roiled the seas with its wings and snapped ships in two with its breath. But now, sitting on a windowsill, facing a short, quiet boy, Silver's pulse is racing, and his heart is in his throat.
"Then — you know where Sneasel's from?" Silver dares to ask.
Em stares at Silver for several long moments. He looks away. "I… don't know."
"…Oh," Silver says. He tries to keep his tone even, and fails. It's his own fault, really. By now, he should know better than to hope.
"…But it's weird," Em continues, so quiet that Silver can't tell if he's talking to him, or to himself. "This is the first time I couldn't tell where a Pokémon is from. It's not like Sneasel's from someplace I've never seen. It's different. It's like…" he trails off, and frowns into the floor, as if he's trying to figure out what he wants to say.
"It's like it's not from anywhere," he finally decides.
Something in Em's words makes Silver bark out a laugh. Em glances up, startled.
"Heh. You did know, after all." Silver looks down at Sneasel's Poké Ball. Inside, Sneasel's expression is a mirror of Silver's own. He manages another laugh. "Not from anywhere — that sounds about right."
Em falls silent again. Then, he murmurs, "…I'm not from anywhere, either."
Silver does not know what to say to that. He is not skilled at being sentimental. So he says nothing, because there is nothing he can say. He can only look the kid named Em in the eyes, and that, at least, is something that Silver alone can do for him. It will have to be enough.
"I saw, you know. During the battle," Em says, slowly, quietly. His eyes wander over to Sneasel's Poké Ball, then wander back over to Silver. "When Sneasel used Thief, it missed Yanma on purpose. It hit the birdkeeper instead. That's how it stole the Zephyr Badge."
Silver is no longer surprised. It would be stupid to deny it. "You're right."
"That's why you're going to Indigo Plateau. So you can get into the tournament."
Silver pauses. There are hundreds of reasons. Silver has been so focused on finding the Mask of Ice for so long that he could barely be bothered to rank them, let alone name them all. They flash into his head, one by one. For justice. For answers. For vengeance. For a night that is spent asleep, instead of awake, staring up at the night sky, listening to the never-ending questions calling like a Noctowl into the night, brokenly repeating, who, who, who.
And, perhaps, one reason above the others.
"Do you have someone important to you?" Silver finally says. "Someone you look up to — someone you'd never forget, no matter what."
For the briefest of moments, something flickers on Em's face. What it is, Silver cannot tell. Then it is gone, and Em only stares at Silver and does not answer.
Silver looks out the window, to the east, where the sun has long since set. "I have someone I'd help however I can. So that's what I'm doing."
"There is someone," Em finally murmurs, barely a whisper. "But…"
Silver shakes his head. "There is no 'but.'"
"Are they important to you?"
Em nods furiously. "Of course!"
"Then you help them. That's all there is to it."
Em quiets. He holds his hands out in front of him. He gazes down at his open palms, as if he's holding something only he can see.
"But… I don't know how."
"That doesn't matter. If they're important to you, you'll find a way."
Neither says anything more. From the window, Silver listens to the nighttime cries of Poliwag and Poliwhirl coming from the lake near Sprout Tower.
"Emmmmmm? Where are yoooouuuuu?" Naomi's voice comes from somewhere inside Earl's Pokémon Academy.
Em jolts. He looks behind him, down the hall. He looks back at Silver, silently asking him a question.
"…I have to go," Silver answers him.
Em seems to hesitate. Eventually, he nods. "Good luck," he says.
Silver nods back. He gestures to the flowers and bows, placed carefully in the corner. "Give those back to Naomi," he says, then slips to the edge of the sill, and looks down. The ground is just visible in the darkness. Silver should have no problems dropping to the ground below. He shifts his weight. He takes a breath.
He turns around. "For a long time, I thought I had to do things alone. And there's a lot you can do by yourself. Maybe even most things," Silver tells Em. "But you don't have to. It's okay to let others help. Somebody taught me that."
Em stares at him, wide-eyed.
Silver takes one last look at the boy. "I just thought you should know that," he says, then drops from the ledge.
Silver lands almost soundlessly. He lightly dusts his pants. Voices float from the open window.
"There you are, Em! You didn't show for dinner! Everyone was really worried!"
"It's okay. Did you see Gold? He said he had to use the bathroom, but he didn't show for dinner, either."
"Yeah. He had to leave."
"…He had to go home."
Silver rests his back against the wall, and stares into the night. Someday, maybe, that won't be a lie.
"I wish he stayed longer. He didn't even say goodbye."
"He said to give these back to you."
"…Oh. Okay. …I hope he comes to visit again."
"Come on, let's eat, or Ken's gonna take all the mashed potatoes."
The conversation fades, and Silver is left listening only to wind and the faraway cries of Pokémon. He idly pulls the Zephyr Badge from his coat pocket. It should look dull, in the gloom, but somehow manages to catch whatever light is left, and shines up at Silver like a beacon. For a few moments more, Silver examines it in the darkness. Then he pockets it alongside the others, and vanishes into the night.