Chapter 3: Change of Plans
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As of 3/27/21, this chapter has been edited and updated.

Chapter 3: Change of Plans

Sunlight streamed down on the whitewashed streets and sparkling fountains, and there was no respite from the blinding brightness and burning heat as Wes and his Pokémon walked with Rui to the mayor's home. The girl certainly noticed this, as she commented for what must have been the fourth time on how beautiful the city was.

"I haven't been to Phenac in a long time, but it's even more beautiful than I remember!" she said in awe. "It's so lovely!"

Wes shot her a look—or tried to, but ended up looking over her head. He had to drop his gaze significantly to actually make eye contact. Arceus, this girl was small. Just how old was she, anyway?

"Not for years," she said. She still wore a small smile on her face as she talked. "I was just a kid the last time I was here." Her attention shifted to the Eeveelutions striding at Wes' side. "What are their names?" she asked lightly.

"The Espeon is Neo, and the Umbreon is Novo," he said. She already knew his name, so he figured the names of his Pokémon were inconsequential information to give out at this point.

"They're beautiful Pokémon!" Rui exclaimed, admiring Novo's sleek black coat. Neo looked over his shoulder and chirped happily at the compliment. He was always pleased to be acknowledged.

Wes felt a prickle of unease at her comment. He was painfully aware of Neo and Novo's rare species being capable of drawing attention. Fortunately, in a place like Phenac, rare Pokémon weren't an unusual sight; Wes had seen plenty of Pokémon in his days at Snagem, but even he couldn't identify half the Pokémon trotting at their trainers' heels in this city.

Not that showing off had ever been Wes' motivator for keeping his Pokémon out. Neo and Novo were security, an extra set of eyes, and even though Wes hated the awed looks they received from passersby, it was a necessary precaution with Snagem on his tail.

Neo strayed to a nearby waterfall and swiped a paw through the water before bounding playfully back to Novo, who greeted him with an affectionate headbutt. Rui giggled and looked back up at Wes. "So...Wes, was it? Where are you from?

"Nowhere, really."

"Oh? Did you move around a lot?"


"That's so fascinating! I've only ever lived in the same town my whole life, so I haven't been to many places."

Obviously, Wes thought dryly.

"So was there a reason for you moving so much? Was it for your parents' work?" Those blue eyes sparkled excitedly as she talked to him.

Too many questions. Nervousness flitted about in his chest. She was entirely too curious, and every question was making him feel more and more threatened.

The familiar, growly voice rang in his head again. The best lies are half-truths, boy.

"I sort of...grew up on the streets, actually," he answered hesitantly.

Rui's eyes widened and the brightness vanished from her eyes. "Oh." She dropped her gaze to the ground. "Oh. I'm...I'm so sorry. I had no idea."

An awkward pause. Taking advantage of the silence to divert the attention away from himself, Wes curtly asked, "And you?"

"Oh, I'm from Agate Village!" She looked up at him again, appearing relieved to be talking about something else. "It's absolutely beautiful there—have you ever been?"


"Well, you should definitely visit sometime. It's completely different from anywhere else in Orre!"

How would you know?

He was momentarily saved from the agonizing small talk as they rounded a corner and the marketplace came into view. The place was crowded with people and Pokémon alike, dotted with vibrant colors of foreign Pokémon and their trainers. Open-air shops under white canopies lined both sides of the street and offered a wide variety of products that could be found nowhere else in Orre: fresh fruit, imported goods, and a wide variety of fabrics, amongst other things. Vendors, citizens and tourists alike bustled from one booth to the next, and the air was buzzing with snippets of conversation here and there.

"Aguav berries! Hondew berries! Come and get your exotic berries here!"

"How much for this bag?"

"Forty Poké? That's entirely too much, I won't go above thirty!"

"...Wow," Rui breathed in amazement. She quietly soaked in the scene for a moment as they walked, and Wes huffed a sigh of gratitude for the reprieve. It didn't last long, however, because soon she was tugging on Wes' sleeve. "Hey, do you think they'll have Pokéballs here?"

Wes frowned at her. Pokéballs? This girl was just getting weirder and weirder by the minute. "Phenac doesn't sell Pokéballs anywhere."

Rui sighed in disappointment. "They didn't have them in Pyrite, either...oh!" She gasped and was momentarily distracted by a woman who swept past with a sleek, purple-coated feline at her heels. "I've never seen that Pokémon before!"

Wes, however, was still fixated on the first half of her statement. "Pyrite?" he asked in disbelief. He glanced at her outfit: she wore a frilly pink and blue jacket over a dark purple tank top, a white pencil skirt, and pink rubber boots. He had a hard time picturing this girl, neatly dressed and put together as she was, wandering the ragged streets of Pyrite. Not to mention that her bubbly disposition would have stuck out like a sore thumb.

"Yeah." Rui clasped her hands behind her back and kicked idly at a pebble as they walked. "That's where I was when those two thugs..." She trailed off, a troubled expression overtaking her face.

"That's where you got kidnapped," finished Wes bluntly. That didn't surprise him in the least. Pyrite was not known for its upstanding citizens, after all.

Rui nodded, her gaze still fixed on the sidewalk.

"So, let me get this straight. You're not a trainer. Yet you left your hometown and wandered to Pyrite Town, of all places, to look for Poké a region that doesn't have wild Pokémon."

Rui gave a weak laugh and looked at Wes with a wan smile. "Well, when you put it like that, it sounds pretty dumb. But that's the truth, I promise."

"Well, what in Mew's name do you need Pokéballs for?"

"It's for my grandpa," she said. "He's a former Ace trainer, and he's been teaching some of the kids in our village about becoming trainers."

"Pokéballs are useless if there aren't Pokémon to catch them with," said Wes dryly.

"Well, you see, Papi—my grandpa—he's hopeful!" Some of the brightness had returned to Rui's eyes. "There have been rumors of wild Pokémon sightings around the area up north, so he thinks they might be migrating back into the region!"

"First of all, those are just rumors. Second, are you telling me he sent you to get Pokéballs instead of going himself?"

Rui pursed her lips. "W-well. Not exactly."

"'Not exactly?' The hell does that mean?"

She averted his gaze. "I did volunteer to go, but...Papi wouldn't have it. He said it was too dangerous. But he's not exactly young and spry, no matter how much he might think he is, and it had me worried...besides, I'd been wanting an excuse to see the world outside Agate anyway, but no matter what I said, he wouldn't listen, and—" She stopped short, as if to catch herself from rambling, then scowled. "So I just went anyway," she said flatly.

Wes had no idea how to respond to that. Sure, she'd been stupid and reckless to take off like that, but a small part of him respected her resolve, nonetheless.

"Well," he said after an awkward pause, "how do you like the rest of Orre, then?"

Almost immediately a voice screamed at him inside his head. She just got kidnapped, idiot! What kind of a question is that?

But Rui didn't seem to take offense. She shot him an incredulous look, then burst out laughing.

Dumbfounded, Wes could only keep walking as she followed, her laughter continuing for a few minutes until, at last, she was forced to catch her breath between giggles.

"Oh, dear Mew," she gasped, "thank you for that. I really needed the laugh."

Well. He hadn't been trying to be funny, but rather than tell her that, he rolled with it. "...Yeah. No problem."

Rui wiped tears from her eyes and smiled up at him. "I know I'm an idiot for doing what I did, but thanks for not making me feel like one."

He bit back a snort. Well, at least she was aware that she had been stupid...

He was saved from having to come up with a reply as the mayor's home finally came into view. He nudged Rui with his elbow and nodded, and they made their way up the wide stone steps.

True to the atmosphere of Phenac City, the mayor's house held nothing back in terms of extravagance. While not incredibly large in terms of height, it made up for that by sprawling impressively in either direction, showcasing large, gleaming windows and ornate carvings all over the exterior. The front steps led to a wide porch lined with bright white pillars, and the blue double-doors were a sight to behold. Even if Wes hadn't known this to be the mayor's home, it would have been easy to guess.

Of course, the bright banner that stretched across the pillars and read "MAYOR ES-CADE WELCOMES YOU!" was also a slight giveaway.

Rui looked the building up and down with awe. "Are you sure we can just...knock?" she asked in almost a whisper. Wes merely shrugged. He'd never bothered to visit this place himself.

Rui seemed to take this as a yes, as she stepped forward and knocked boldly on the metal doors. Apparently, her recent ordeal hadn't done much to diminish her enthusiasm.

After a brief pause, the doors creaked open and a tall, crisply dressed man with fiery red hair stood before them. He looked down at them with a penetrating gaze. "What is your business?"

"We wish to speak to the mayor, please," said Rui. She met his eyes evenly despite the man's intimidating presence. "It's urgent."

Wes half expected them to be turned away, but the man simply nodded. He eyed the Umbreon and Espeon at Wes' feet. "No Pokémon indoors here. Security policy." Wes begrudgingly returned his companions to their Pokéballs, and they were escorted through the doors.

The cool air inside was a welcome relief from the relentless desert heat. A sparkling crystal chandelier greeted them from overhead, sending multicolored glints of light off the pristine marble walls. A massive flatscreen TV was mounted above a fireplace to their left, and to their right was a handful of plush couches. Straight ahead was a sleek wooden desk, at which sat the mayor of Phenac.

Wes had never seen the mayor personally before, and quickly surmised that he hadn't missed out on much. The man was short—very short—and, like his house, made up for it in terms of width. He was as round as a Jigglypuff, with a puffy mustache and bushy eyebrows to match. His head, though mostly bald, sported two large tufts of gray hair on each side.

"Welcome, welcome!" boomed the mayor. He beamed at them through beady eyes that seemed as though they were stuck in a perpetual squint.

Rui stepped forward and gave a small, polite bow. "It's an honor to meet you, Mr. Mayor."

"Oh, please, call me Es-Cade, my dear!" The man chortled. He rose from his seat and walked around to the front of his desk, gesturing them to the couches. "Please, sit! I insist."

Rui did as requested and took a seat. Wes would have much preferred to stand, but upon seeing the mayor's inquisitive look, he sat with a quiet sigh.

"Eldes, would you please fetch our guests some tea?" Es-Cade pleasantly addressed the red-haired man that stood stoically by the front doors. The man gave a curt nod and strode through an exit at the back of the room.

"Now, what do they call you, my dear?" The portly man turned back to Rui.

"I'm Rui, sir. Rui Everlin."

"I see!" Es-Cade said. He looked at Wes. "And you, my good man?"

"Wes." The mayor continued to look at him, as if expecting more, so he sighed. "Wesley Lycas."

"Excellent!" He beamed again. "And to what do I owe the pleasure of meeting you both?"

Rui hesitated. Wes gave her a pointed look. This was your idea, not mine. She cleared her throat. "Well, you see, Mr...Es-Cade, it's not exactly good news."

Es-Cade's smile faded to a concerned frown. His bushy eyebrows knotted together. "Oh?"

Rui shifted nervously before continuing. "You see, sir, I'm here to report an incident. I was brought to this city because...because I was kidnapped."

"Good heavens!" The mayor's eyes widened as far as his beady face would allow. "Are you quite alright?"

"Yes, I am, thanks to Wes," Rui gave the rogue trainer a grateful smile before turning back to Es-Cade. "But...that's not the whole reason I'm here."

She paused and looked at the floor, as if trying to find the words to continue. "You see, sir, I know this will sound strange and you might not believe me, but...I was born with a gift. That gift allows me to see the auras of people and Pokémon."

Es-Cade's eyebrows shot up an inch or two, and Wes didn't even bother to mask his disbelief as he stared at her. Auras? That did it. Not only had he happened to rescue the most clueless girl in all of Orre, she was also certifiably insane.

"Well, I won't pretend that this isn't...very hard to believe, my dear," said the mayor after a pregnant pause. "Are you certain about this...this gift of yours?"

Rui nodded, her face resolute. "I've had this gift for as long as I can remember, sir. I've always been able to see aura."

"Very well," he mused. He raised a meaty hand and rubbed his chin. "Go on."

"Well, I was traveling through Pyrite when I saw these two men. One of them had a Makuhita and was battling another trainer. I don't know how to explain it, but...there was something wrong with that Pokémon. Its aura was...dark. I'd even say it was evil." She shivered. Her face was solemn and fearful as she recalled the memory.

"And you've never seen this, erm, aura before?" Es-Cade asked.

Rui shook her head. "No, sir, never. I've seen auras of many different kinds, but not like that."

"Could it be, perhaps, that you've never encountered an aggressive Pokémon?"

"With all due respect, Mr. Mayor, I've seen aggressive Pokémon before." Rui's voice took on a stern tone as she raised her head and looked Es-Cade in the eyes. "This Makuhita was something completely different. And the way it battled was...horrible. It really looked like it wanted to kill the other Pokémon."

Wes sat back in his seat, absorbing all this new information. This girl was clearly sheltered—that had been obvious from the beginning. He, unfortunately, had seen Pokémon kill on command more than once. While not every Pokémon was willing to kill, there were plenty more that were either eager enough or desperate enough to do so. It was certainly not unheard of, and something that was all too common in Orre's crime rings.

He wondered if the mayor was thinking the same thing, as the man had a skeptical expression on his face as he listened to Rui's story. "You do know that Pokémon can and do sometimes kill other Pokémon, my dear?" he asked gently.

"I know that!" Rui said in frustration. "I do! But they only do so if commanded, right? Well, this Makuhita was on a rampage and was acting of its own accord—its trainer couldn't even stop it!"

"I see, I see," Es-Cade backed down slightly upon seeing her frustration. "That is very concerning, Miss Everlin. I can assure you that I will assign some of my staff to look into the matter—although, if this Pokémon is in Pyrite, there's only so much I can do."

"I...I understand," Rui sighed. She relaxed a little and slumped back in her seat.

Es-Cade seemed to notice her disappointment. "Do you perhaps have a description of the criminals?" he asked kindly. "I can also try to put out a search for them, and see what we can come up with—ah!" His eyes brightened as the doorman reentered the room with a tray of tea. "Perfect timing, my good man! Thank you kindly!"

The man said nothing, only depositing the tray on the coffee table in front of them before resuming his post by the doors.

Wes didn't trust drinks from strangers, so he quietly declined his tea. Rui and Es-Cade sipped theirs as she gave him a description of the two men. Wes only spoke up to give their names and a description of their other Pokémon he'd seen. He noticed the mayor raise his eyebrows as he spoke of the two Whismur; the odd fact that Wes hadn't seen a Makuhita was not lost on him, apparently, and it likely contributed to his doubt. The man said nothing of it, however.

Once Rui had given all the information they knew, the mayor kindly thanked them for their visit and personally showed them out the door with a smile, promising her that he would look into the case at once.

As the doors shut behind them, Wes couldn't help but feel that they had just wasted a massive amount of time. Rui must have sensed this, too, because he noticed she was staring at the ground with slumped shoulders as they walked to the Pokémon Center.

He released Neo and Novo from their Pokéballs. They both stretched and gleefully bounced around Wes' feet, happy to be outside again.

Rui brightened a little at the sight of the Pokémon. She giggled as Neo brushed playfully up against her legs, then looked up at Wes with a sheepish expression. "You probably think I'm crazy, huh?"

Wes shrugged. "Maybe a little." No point in sugar-coating things.

"Well, you don't have to believe me, but I promise I'm telling the truth." Rui glanced at the Eons walking ahead of them. "For example, I can tell by your Pokémons' auras that they are happy and well cared for. They really love and trust you...and it's part of the reason I knew I'd be safe walking with you." She grinned at him.

Wes decided it wasn't worth pointing out that she could have deduced this from Neo and Novo's evolutions—Espeon and Umbreon only got their evolutions from bonding with their trainer, after all. Instead, he shrugged again and said, "It makes no difference to me. You saw something and reported it, and now you can move on."

Rui bit her lip, but said nothing. Whatever she'd seen in Pyrite—or whatever she thought she'd seen—was obviously weighing heavily on her, and their fruitless meeting with the mayor had done little to help with that.

Not my problem, Wes told himself. He'd done more than enough for this random girl today, and wasn't about to take it upon himself to cheer her up. He wouldn't even know where to start, anyway.

Wes was about to head in the direction of the Center when he noticed Rui stop short. What now? He followed her alarmed gaze to what she was staring at and suddenly he, too, stopped walking.

Someone was heading their way. Whoever this person was, they were massively tall, dwarfing every other passerby on the street. Wes saw the long, flowing silver hair and initially thought it was a woman, but as the stranger came closer it was apparent by the square jaw and bulging, muscular figure that it was a man. But the hair was not what kept his attention; there was something visibly wrong with him.

He exuded an air of cold, crisp, precise cruelty as he walked. Wes had seen his share of men drunk with power who thought they had it all—but this man knew he was in charge, and was keenly aware of his own authority. The stranger passed them on the sidewalk, but not before turning his head to glance at them. Wes met the man's eyes for just a second, and felt a chill trickle down his spine; his eyes were red as blood.

A cruel smirk played across the stranger's lips before he turned away and breezed past them in the direction they came from, head held high, eyes straight ahead.

Wes felt Rui step close to him. He noticed she was shivering. "He was...scary," she whispered.

Wes couldn't help but nod in agreement. He was immensely grateful that such a person was only a stranger and nothing more. He had a feeling he would never want to tangle with that man.

He shook his head and rolled the uneasiness from his shoulders. "Center's just up ahead," he said to Rui. "Let's get inside." She nodded nervously, and the two set off for the wide white steps leading to their destination.

The Phenac Pokémon Center was an impressive sight, even to Wes. He had only been here a handful of times, and he was always just as amazed each time as he was upon his first visit. His negative impression of Phenac and its population aside, he had to admit: they knew how to treat their Pokémon.

The building was a large dome with white gleaming walls and a sparkling glass ceiling. At the back of the room, straight ahead from the entrance, was a marble counter in front of a healing machine and a crisply dressed nurse who chimed a cheerful greeting as they walked through the doors.

To the right, a luxurious lounge for trainers held a TV, plush couches, a small snack bar, and ornate bookshelves adorned with all kinds of literature. A row of video-call booths lined the wall near the shelves.

To the left was an enclosed, glass-walled play area for Pokémon. Wes knew from previous visits that the play area extended through a door in the wall to a larger, fenced-in outdoor area. He'd never used it himself, though—the thought of leaving his Pokémon in someone else's hands was mortifying to him.

"Welcome!" The nurse smiled at them from her place behind the counter. "How may I help you today?"

Rui stepped forward, hands clasped behind her back as she addressed the nurse. "Y-yes, um, could I use your video phones?"

"Absolutely! Right this way, I'll get you started..."

The nurse escorted Rui to the phones and Wes wandered over to the couches to sit and wait. Novo followed, looking around with great interest; he, too, always appeared to be impressed with the place whenever they visited.

"Espi!" Neo pawed at Wes' knee and pointed his snout over to the play area, where an Aipom had its face pressed against the glass, wiggling its tail playfully at the Espeon.

Wes shook his head. "Sorry, bud," he said quietly. "We don't have time today."

Neo sat on the tiled floor with a sigh.

"Tell you what," Wes lowered his voice even further as he reached down to rub Neo's ears. "When we get to Johto, you can play with tons of wild Pokémon every day. How does that sound?"

Neo pricked up his ears and kneaded the floor in excitement. "Spi!"

Johto. Wes had only heard stories of it, but it sounded like a beautiful place, so entirely different from the sandy Orre Region. He'd heard about green forests that stretched as far as the eye could see, of giant shining lakes, of mountains that stretched so high you couldn't see their peaks. He'd dreamed of seeing it from the moment he first learned of its existence.

He took a deep breath and exhaled slowly. Soon. Very soon. Just be patient.

Novo hopped into his lap and he idly stroked the Umbreon's head, lost in thought, until Rui returned and sank onto the couch a short distance away from him with a sigh. Novo growled softly at her abrupt appearance, a quiet rumble that only Wes could hear.

"Well, my grandparents are happy to know I'm safe, but that didn't save me a tongue lashing from Nan." She turned to him. "They're so grateful to you, by the way. I'm sure they'd love to meet you if you'd like to visit!"

"Sorry, I have other places to be," Wes muttered. There would be absolutely no more detours until they reached Gateon.

"Oh, I...I figured as much," replied Rui. There was a note of disappointment in her voice. "Well, you're always welcome if you—"

She broke off suddenly, her eyes fixed on something over Wes' shoulder. He turned his head to see what had grabbed her attention, and saw footage of a burning building on the TV. The words MYSTERIOUS EXPLOSION REVEALS SNAGEM HIDEOUT flashed across the screen.

"What—when did this happen?" She breathed in disbelief.

"You're just now finding this out?" Wes blurted. Surely, sheltered though this girl was, she'd have heard something about it already. He was certain that news of the incident had traveled across every corner of the region by now. Uncovering Snagem's hideout would be earth-shattering news.

Rui surprised him by throwing him a withering look. "Yes, I'm hearing about it just now," she said scathingly. "It's not like I've spent the last twenty-four hours in a sack or anything!"

"...Oh." Wes suddenly felt incredibly stupid. "Right...sorry."

Rui returned her gaze to the TV. "I can't believe..." She trailed off and didn't bother to finish her sentence. Wes left her to her thoughts and continued stroking Novo's fur, watching his yellow rings pulse with light.

"They deserve it."

He looked up in surprise at those words. Rui was still watching the screen, but a dark expression had taken over her features. It was a jarring change from her usually smiling face.

"You think so?" Wes asked.

She turned her eyes to his, and he was shocked at the amount of pure hatred he saw there. "Yes," she said quietly. "I hate Pokémon thieves. Snagem had this coming, and they deserve a whole lot worse."

Wes looked at her for a moment before answering. "I agree," he said quietly.

"Umbriiiiii." Novo's whine broke the tense moment. Wes heard the Umbreon's stomach growl, and suddenly realized how hungry he was, too. He rubbed Novo's ear. "I guess it's time we go, then."

Novo leapt off Wes' lap as he stood. He turned to Rui. "The nurses can help you arrange a ride with someone from here. You should be able to make it back to Agate that way."

Rui stood, too, and bowed her head to him gratefully, hands clasped behind her back once again. "Thank you for everything you've done for me, Wes. Really. I don't have any way to repay you for it, but...I really am gratef—"

Her stomach suddenly rumbled loudly, and she flushed a little in embarrassment. "Sorry!"

Wes narrowed his eyes at her. "Did you say you were in that sack for a whole day?"

She shifted a little. "Well, I don't know exactly how long it was, but it was a long time..."

Wes took a closer look at her. For all her smiles and cheerfulness, he noticed for the first time that she was still a little pale, and her fingers were shaky as she fidgeted with her necklace. "You haven't eaten."

Rui gave him another smile, but this time he was paying enough attention to see how forced it was. "It's fine! You've done more than enough for me today, I can...figure something out..." She trailed off, not looking very convinced at her own words.

She could figure it out, Wes mused to himself. And yet...he had gone long stretches without food before. He knew firsthand how unpleasant it was, and he was certain that this girl had no means of getting food for herself. There was no way she still had any money on her after being kidnapped.

The low voice came into his head again. Remember this, boy. Don't stick your neck out for nobody.

Anger burned in his chest at the intrusive voice. You don't get to tell me what to do. Not anymore.

"Alright," he sighed, turning to leave. "Come on." He gestured for her to follow him.

"What? Where—?"

"We were going to find a place to eat anyway. You might as well come with us." He looked at her over his shoulder. "But after this, you'll really be on your own. Got it?"

"I—what do you—I don't—are you sure?" Rui spluttered.

"If you don't hurry up, I'll change my mind."

Rui blinked at him, and for a moment Wes thought he saw tears in her eyes. He turned his head away and hoped to Arceus he was mistaken. He had no idea what to do with people when they cried...

Rui bounced up to his side. "Where to, then?" she asked brightly. Any indication that she'd been teary had quickly vanished.

"I've got a place in mind," he said. And with that, they strode through the Center doors back into the sunlight.

Wes couldn't help but feel mildly impressed at the speed with which Rui was devouring her burger. It made him wonder just how hungry she must have been this whole time.

His restaurant of choice was closer to the edge of town: a small, dingy, hole-in-the-wall kind of place that he'd always preferred thanks to their low prices and low profile. By Phenac standards, it was "seedy," but compared to the Outskirt Stand, it may as well have been fine dining. The blue painted walls and tiled floor, though scuffed in many places, certainly made it feel a lot cleaner than the dusty old train car.

His Pokémon were happily eating their kibble from bowls on the floor. It was no plate of bacon, but it was better than nothing, and far better than what they had been accustomed to at Snagem.

A waiter stopped by to offer drinks, which Wes declined. He'd need to be fully alert for their journey ahead—though after the long events of the day, alcohol was tempting.

The waiter turned to Rui, but she also shook her head. "Not today, thank you."

The waiter left, and Wes narrowed his eyes at her. "Are you even old enough to drink?"

Rui nearly choked on her fries. "Wha—excuse me?" she asked indignantly as soon as she could speak, "I'll have you know, I'm well over eighteen!"

He raised an eyebrow. "By what, a few months?"

Rui huffed at him. "I'm twenty-one, Wes."

Oh. He was genuinely surprised at that. She was much closer to his age than he'd originally thought, only a year younger than himself. "Sorry. You just look younger."

"I get that a lot, actually," she said dejectedly. She picked at what remained of her food.

"It's because you're short," he said bluntly. He immediately recognized his mistake when Rui raised her eyebrows at him.

"Wow, really? I'm short? Thanks for pointing that out to me, Wes, I never noticed," she said with a dry smirk.

Moron. "I—that's—yeah. Sorry."

Rui snorted and waved her hand. "Don't worry about it, I get it all the time. And even if I were taller, I'd still probably look younger."

"Well, the pigtails don't help," Wes blurted. Rui's eyebrows rose even higher, and he mentally kicked himself. Gods. Was it always this hard to have a normal conversation? He grabbed his water and spent a deliberately long time sipping at it, wishing more now than ever that he'd ordered a beer instead.

Rather than take offense, Rui simply gave him a sly grin. "Well what about you, Mr. Tough Guy? You don't look much older than seventeen."

Wes choked and spluttered on his drink. "I—what—seven—?" He stopped short when he saw that Rui had erupted into a fit of laughter.

He scowled at her. "That's not funny."

For some reason, this only made her laugh even harder and she was forced to grip the table for support. Neo and Novo looked up at her from their meal in alarm and Wes began to feel uncomfortable as heads turned in their direction. Why was this girl so loud?

"S-sorry," she gasped as her laughter subsided. "I honestly didn't think I'd get a reaction out of you, with you being so stoic and all, but that was funny."

Wes grumbled darkly under his breath. Rui snorted and bit her lip in an effort to keep herself from laughing further. Her face held a lot more color now that she'd eaten, and she was, if possible, even more lively than before.

Having finished their meal, Wes stood. "Let's go." Rui and his Pokémon followed him as he paid for the meal at the counter up front and stepped outside.

The sun was horrifyingly low in the sky, and Wes inwardly groaned at the sight. They were behind schedule, but no matter—they'd be on the road soon enough, and all their troubles with Phenac (girl included) would be left behind.

"Briiiii!" Novo yawned and stretched happily in the sunlight, his yellow markings glowing contentedly. Neo padded up between Wes and Rui and let out a soft burp. He blinked sleepily up at his trainer with a lazy purr.

The corners of Wes' mouth twitched into a smile upon seeing them so content and peaceful. For the first time since escaping the Hideout, he allowed himself to relax a little. All that was left to do was stock up on some supplies and hit the road now. It should be smooth sailing from here, he thought.

And then he heard a voice that turned his blood to ice.

"Keep your wits about you, ya hear? He's in this blasted city somewhere."

Wes swore under his breath and grabbed Rui by the arm, pulling her around the building into a side alley. She squawked in protest. "Wes, what're you—hey!"

He ignored her and listened closely. He heard the rough cadence of three all too familiar voices across the street, causing his heart to race.

How could he get out of this without raising suspicion? He looked at the redhead. If she found out who she was… He remembered her face in the Center as she spoke about Snagem. The anger in her eyes, the righteous fury. There was no way she would let him off if she knew. Not a chance.

"Are we sure he's still here?" another voice drawled from where the first one had come from, just across the street. Wes turned his head to listen.

"Shut your trap and quit whining!" the first voice barked. "The faster we get moving, the sooner we'll find the damned rat."

There was no mistaking that gravelly voice. Wes had heard it all too many times before, usually before facing an unpleasant punishment. Wakin, Gonzap's second-in-command, had always loved to dole out the punishments himself whenever he could. Wes glanced nervously at the metal sleeve on his arm.

If Wakin found Wes now, he was a dead man.

Wes' mind raced. He scrambled to think of a way to get out of this city without setting off Rui's suspicions. He certainly couldn't tell her what was going on, nor could he merely bolt away—what if she started calling after him? Caused a scene? Drew attention from those menacing voices across the street…?

A crazy, half-baked idea occurred to him, and he tightened his grip on Rui's arm as he looked back at her again. She was apparently oblivious to the conversation taking place across the street. She seemed much more concerned with Wes' odd behavior and his grip on her arm. He decided to take a chance on her naivety.

"Hey. You said you needed Pokéballs, right?"

"Y-yeah?" Rui attempted to tug her arm out of his grip. She looked frightened. "Wes, can you let go of me?"

"Sorry," he said quickly. He released her and took a step back. Breathe. You need to stay calm. He met her blue gaze evenly. "I know a place where we can get you some. I just thought of it."

Rui frowned at him. "You do?"

"Yeah, but it's...not here. It's a bit of a drive. But I can take you there." The words tumbled out of his mouth before he even had time to think them through.

"That...that would be really helpful! But I don't have any money—"

"Don't worry about it." Damn, he was panicking. Stay calm. Don't show fear. "I'll cover for you. But we need to get going now if we want to make it there at a decent hour."

"Are—are you sure? You've done so much for me today already—"

"I'm sure, let's go." He almost grabbed her by the arm again to drag her with him, but remembered the fearful look she'd given him and decided against it. "Come on, I'll show you to my bike."

He stepped cautiously out of the alleyway, looking around for any sign of Wakin and his grunts. Rui stood a few paces behind him, mumbling in confusion. "Bike...?"

"Neo. Novo." Wes kept his voice to barely more than a whisper. They pricked their ears and stood at attention. "Keep a lookout."

He motioned for Rui to follow him, and they stepped out into the open.

Wes was sure that Rui would hear his heart trying to escape from his chest. He hated having to walk in the open, hated that he couldn't move any faster than a brisk walk, but he knew that darting through the shadows would only raise her suspicions. He could not afford to be caught. Not now. Not like this.

He was grateful that they had at least made it to the edge of the city already for their lunch. They were able to reach the city entrance relatively quickly, and made it to his bike shortly after that.

Rui looked at his monstrosity of a vehicle with wide eyes. "Okay, when you said 'bike', I had a very different image in my head," she said as she took in the massive engine and rusty exterior.

Wes didn't bother to reply to this remark. He'd crouched down to his Pokémon and was muttering a hurried apology. "Sorry guys, but there isn't room for all of you in the sidecar. You're gonna have to go in your balls for now."

Neither Neo nor Novo were very pleased with this arrangement, but he didn't have time to reason with them before returning them to their Pokéballs. They would get over it. What mattered now was getting as far away from this city as possible.

Wes gestured for Rui to get in the sidecar as he slid into the driver's seat. She climbed in awkwardly and nearly fell over in the process.

The engine bellowed as he brought it to life. He thought he heard Rui trying to say something, but couldn't be sure. Rather than wait to find out, he slammed on the gas and the motorbike lurched forward, kicking up a cloud of dust as they flew out of sight and left the blinding white city behind.