Without a Master
rated T for strong language and some violence.
“Are you kidding? This doesn’t even cover rent.” Tetsuya’s eyes darted between the wad of cash in his hand and the man who had handed it to him—Kazuma, Team Rocket’s West Olivine branch manager.
“I ain’t here to pay your rent,” Kazuma grumbled. “I’m here to pay you the worth of the pokémon you gave me. You want more money, you bring me better pokémon.”
Tetsuya gritted his teeth. “They’re gonna take my kid away if I get evicted,” he seethed. “Please. I’m doing everything I can.”
“Listen, pal,” Kazuma said, his expression softening slightly. “I’m sorry to hear that. I really am. But you ain’t the only one with kids around here, and this ain’t fucking welfare. You knew what you were getting when you signed up with us all those years ago, and you knew what you were getting when you knocked up that whore. I can’t go making exceptions for you. You want better results, you give me better results, goddamn it.”
Tetsuya felt sick to his stomach. He looked down at the money again—a paltry stack of bills—and noticed his hands were shaking. Some distant part of him wanted to rip the money up in an act of defiance, for some reason. He stuffed the cash into his pocket before he got any more funny ideas.
“Fuck this,” he said. “I need a damn smoke.”
“Come back with a dragonite,” Kazuma called after him as Tetsuya made his way out the door. God, but it would feel good to give that asshole a healthy smack upside the head.
The moist ocean air greeted him as he stepped outside. He walked back to his car unthinkingly, staring at his feet as he walked. It pained him to admit it, but Kazuma was right. He’d been playing it safe since his son, Ichiro, was born. He hadn’t had anything to lose in the old days—he’d put his all into stealing powerful pokémon to sell to Rocket. Now he was careful not to make too much of a scene, cautious not to reveal his identity, and the yield had been… not great.
He drove his car away from the Rocket front and made his way to the beach. It was a quick drive. Once he was there, he got out and leaned against the railing, back to the ocean as he lit up a smoke. The rhythmic sound of the crashing waves soothed his nerves somewhat, and the cigarette sure as hell didn’t hurt.
Tetsuya wanted nothing more than to go legit, to put all this shady and dangerous business behind him. But he’d been with Rocket too long, knew too much. No way they’d let him just walk away. If he tried to fall off their radar he had no doubt they’d come for him. He’d heard the stories. No, he was in this for life now. If only he could find a way to reconcile that with the life he wanted for his son…
He sighed and whipped out his phone. Enough thinking. He’d have to make something work. For now, he pressed the first social media app he saw and started scrolling mindlessly. His eyes glazed over at all the photos of smiling friends and family. Good for them, he thought, taking solace in the fact that each one of their lives was probably only a little less fucked than his own.
A message notification appeared on his screen, from someone named… Sasaki Hayato? He didn’t think he knew anyone with that name. He tapped the banner anyway and squinted at the profile picture. Still not familiar...
“Hey Tetsuya!” the message read. “It’s been a long time! You probably remember me as Hayako.” Tetsuya’s eyes widened. He did remember a Hayako, kind of. She was a shy, awkward girl in his secondary school with long, greasy hair. She mostly kept to herself and sat in the back of the class. He took a closer look at the profile picture, and—yes, he could see the resemblance. But with the changed name… He must have been transgender, Tetsuya realized.
Wow. Good for him. He looked so much more confident and full of life in his profile picture than Tetsuya had remembered him in secondary school. Testsuya found himself wishing his own life had taken a similar trajectory.
“I’m actually messaging you because I saw you were online and noticed that you live in Olivine! I remembered that you went on a journey after secondary school, and as it turns out, I will be in the area soon and have been looking for someone I could hire to escort me on a hike off-trail. If that sounds like something you’d be up for, let me know!”
Tetsuya raised an eyebrow. He liked the sound of “hire.” He’d done some odd jobs here and there before—dealing with pesky rattata colonies in attics, coaching informal battles, that kind of thing—but never something like this. An off-trail hike would be fun right about now, and the extra money wouldn’t hurt at all. It’d be good to spend time with his pokémon again too, in a non-criminal context. If nothing else, every dollar he earned doing this was one he wouldn’t have to earn by stealing pokémon…
“hey,” Tetsuya typed back. “good to hear from you. id definitely be interested in helping you out. what timeframe are you thinking”
“Awesome! I honestly didn’t expect you to reply,” came the response. “Next weekend would be great for me. Is that too soon for you?”
Tetsuya swore under his breath. That was a week away, more than enough time to prepare… but weekends were his time with Ichiro. He pressed his lips into a line and started typing away.
“it might be. depends. where are you thinking of going, anyway?”
Tetsuya stared at his side of the screen anxiously for a while, fixated on the triple-dotted speech bubble that indicated Hayato was typing. He tossed his used-up cigarette into the ocean and lit a new one, inhaling deeply of it.
“Olivine Wildlife Refuge,” the reply read at last. “I’m willing to pay you ₱60,000 for your help. It’s going to be a fairly long, stressful, and potentially dangerous journey.” Tetsuya’s eyes bulged. That would cover rent all by itself. Was this guy fucking loaded or what? “If it sweetens the deal at all, don’t tell anyone about this, but I’m going to see Zapdos. I’ve been tracking it and have reason to believe it’ll be there. I could be wrong, but I’ll pay you the same regardless, and you might get a once-in-a-lifetime experience out of it. What do you think?”
Tetsuya sucked on his teeth. It sucked to have to give up his time with Ichiro, but he’d have to be insane to turn down an entire rent payment. He somewhat strongly doubted they’d see Zapdos, but there was no need to tell Hayato that. Let him believe what he wanted so long as he paid out in the end.
A horrible, brilliant plan began to hatch in Tetsuya’s head.
“sounds great,” he texted back. They went back and forth a bit more, working out logistics and meeting times, but Tetsuya was barely paying attention. He was too busy thinking about his next step.
It was half-past 4 o’clock a.m. on a Saturday morning and Tetsuya was sitting in his shitty sedan in the gravel parking lot of the Olivine Wildlife Refuge, his knuckles white as he gripped the steering wheel. Street lights dotted the area, bathing the area in blindingly white light. There was always a surreal feeling about being outside at this hour, as if the world was simply not designed to be perceived by living beings so early in the day.
It had taken Kazuma some convincing before he was willing to help Tetsuya with his plan. There had been a lot of shouting, a lot of swearing, and a lot of accusations involved. In the end, Tetsuya had won his trust only narrowly. “You know me,” he’d said. “You can trust me. If I’m lying, you know they’ll come for me. I have nothing to gain by lying to you here.” He didn’t think that Kazuma had been truly convinced of his plan at that point, but he’d been willing at least to go along.
In the end, Tetsuya had walked out with three tools on loan from Team Rocket: a master ball; an abra to teleport away with; and a sack of poké balls with their serial numbers filed off, for use in emergencies only.
If all went according to plan, Tetsuya would return to the Rocket branch with Zapdos in that little violet ball. It was the job to end all jobs. He’d never have to worry about money again if he pulled this off. Rocket would be willing to look the other way if the guy who brought them Zapdos decided he was done working for the gang. It was a monumental task, but if he completed it… he was free. At last.
If Zapdos was really there in the first place, anyway. Tetsuya wasn’t particularly sold on that, but now he at least dared to hope. The plan was simple. He’d take Hayato to see Zapdos, and then as they began their return trip, he would excuse himself to use the bathroom or something, then teleport using the abra back to the Zapdos, stick it in the master ball, then teleport back. The whole ordeal should only take a minute or two, and unless he fucked up big time, Hayato would never suspect a thing.
If he did… Rocket would take care of that, they assured him. Whatever it took to capture Zapdos, they would do. All Tetsuya had to do was throw the ball, and his dreams would come true. He could walk away, be free from this life of crippling fear and anxiety, and Ichiro would know only security and wealth. It didn’t even hurt anyone. Whatever Rocket decided to do with Zapdos… Well, that was out of his hands.
Tetsuya was fortunate all he had to do was throw a ball. If he had to drive a knife through Hayato’s chest, he would probably still do it.
By the time Hayato pulled into the parking lot, the eastern horizon was painted with just a sliver of totodile blue. Tetsuya’s heart fluttered with anxiety at the prospect of meeting his old acquaintance again after so long. The physical reaction made him scowl. He didn’t care about this guy. What the hell was his heart playing at? With a sigh, he got out of his car, pulling his backpack over his shoulder, and lit up a cigarette. The last one for a while, probably.
“Wow, Tetsuya! Good morning!” Hayato exclaimed, sounding annoyingly chipper. He was somehow even shorter than Tetsuya remembered—the top of his head barely came up to Tetsuya’s chest. “You’re sure getting started early, huh?” he asked, gesturing at his mouth.
Tetsuya pulled out his cigarette and looked at it. “Yeah, I guess. It’s gonna be a long day. What, you want one?”
Hayato raised his hands to his chest and chuckled. “I’m good,” he said. “It’s so crazy to see you after so long. You look a lot older!”
Tetsuya almost said “you too,” but that wouldn’t have been true. He just shrugged. “You look pretty different too,” he managed. Hayato smiled awkwardly at that. Had that been rude to say? Whoops.
“Well, let’s not waste any time,” Hayato said after a moment, smiling. He pulled out his phone and showed Tetsuya a map of the area. “I’m thinking Zapdos’ll probably be right about here.” He pressed his finger to a remote area near the coast.
Tetsuya nodded. “Okay. Looks like we won’t get to stick to the trail very long at all then,” he said. Hayato shook his head. “Fine by me. Hey, that’s what you’re paying me for, right?”
“Right,” Hayato said, grinning. “Okay, lead the way!”
They set off for the woods together. The area close to the parking lot and trails was mostly scattered loblollies and longleaf pines with little foliage to be seen on the ground—mostly just pine needles, dry grass, and gnarled roots—but it didn’t take long for this to give way to denser vegetation. Flowering dogwoods and waxy magnolias formed canopies over a thick brush of fan palms, holly shrubs, and creepers. Tetsuya quickly released Cutter, his scyther, who immediately spun toward Hayato and brandished his scythes.
“Whoa, buddy,” Tetsuya said even as he saw Hayato tense up behind him. “Relax. This is a friend.” Cutter cocked his head, his third eyelids sliding over his eyes as he sized Hayato up. “I need you to cut through these plants ahead of us so we can get through the woods. Think you can do that for me?”
The scyther continued staring at Hayato for a moment, then pried his eyes away and immediately began to hacking up the vegetation ahead.
“Scary pokémon,” Hayato said with a nervous chuckle.
“He’s, uh, a rescue,” Tetsuya lied. “Gets jumpy around strangers.”
“Mm,” Hayato said. “Oh, I’ve got a pokémon with me too. I loaned out a rhydon. It’s got lightningrod and it’s a ground-type, so it should protect us if Zapdos gets uppity.”
Tetsuya raised an eyebrow. “You expecting that to happen?” he asked.
“Well, not exactly,” Hayato said. “Ideally we won’t even get close enough for it to be a possibility. But it never hurts to be prepared.”
Tetsuya agreed with that, at least.
“This place is so different from Kanto,” Hayato said as they moved through the thicket. “It’s not that far away… Pretty crazy what a little distance can do.”
“Yeah,” Tetsuya said. “Guess so.”
“I’ve spent the last couple years studying ecology at the Vermilion Institute,” Hayato explained. “That’s where I got the rhydon. You spend all day reading about the different varieties of ecosystems, but it’s really something else to just… see it like this. This is the furthest I’ve been from home, you know.”
“Wow.” That was pretty shocking to Tetsuya. He’d spent his late adolescence backpacking across a foreign country on a pokémon battling journey. He hadn’t gotten particularly far, but it was something. He always found it bizarre to be reminded that many people never left their hometowns.
“Oh, here’s something neat I learned. See that thing up there?” Hayato pointed into the distance. It took some squinting and straining of the eyes for Tetsuya to see what he was pointing at, but eventually did—there was a round mass at the crown of one of the trees, almost like a growth of some sort. “That’s a fearow nest. They actually get a lot bigger here in Johto, because they primarily feed on fish whereas the ones in Kanto mostly eat small mammals, like rattata. Here, their access to food is a lot wider, and they get those big old wings so they can fly for longer periods at sea. Bigger birds means bigger nests. Pretty neat, right?”
“Huh. Yeah, it is,” Tetsuya admitted. Bigger fearow in Johto… He wondered if there was any battle application of that fact. There had to be, right?
“The nests are a lot smaller at home, but I’m pretty good at picking them out,” Hayato said. “Guess you could say I’ve got a pretty… keen eye.” He gave a flourish.
Tetsuya knitted his eyebrows. “What? What are you…”
“You know, like… fearow’s ability,” Hayato explained, smiling weakly.
“Oh. Pffft.” The faintest hints of a smile pulled at Tetsuya’s lips. “That’s dumb. Not laughing at that.”
Hayato chuckled weakly. “Zapdos is pretty important to the ecosystems it lives in, as you’d imagine,” he went on. “Articuno brings frosts, and Moltres brings fire… Zapdos brings both the cleansing flame of wildfire with its lightning and the nourishing rains of its thunderstorms. A lot of the places it visits are actually sort of adapted to its occasional presence. They depend on its visits to restore balance and stuff.” He kicked at a bush underfoot. “Looks like this place is a little overdue.”
“That’s pretty interesting,” Tetsuya said, not particularly listening.
“Yeah,” Hayato said, grinning boyishly. Man, wasn’t he getting the hint with these three-word responses? “It’s pretty crazy how big of an impact a single pokémon can have. Really makes you wonder what we’re doing to the environment by letting everyone rush in with their poké balls and capture whole sectors of the ecosystem. We’re just beginning to understand this stuff.”
Tetsuya frowned. He didn’t fully understand everything Hayato was saying, but he was getting enough to know he didn’t like it. After all, he was about to stuff Zapdos into a ball and sell it to a gang. He didn’t particularly relish hearing about how much it would mess up the environment or whatever.
“Doesn’t seem like it matters that much,” Tetsuya said at length. “I mean, we’ve been doing this for like a century now. The world isn’t exactly falling apart.”
“Well, these things take time,” Hayato said matter-of-factly. “But the world does fall apart sometimes. They make us study this one case in our 101 class actually—overfishing in the Blackthorn River actually led to a surge in the yanma population, which had damaging effects on the local vegetation, which actually changed the physical shape of the river and destroyed a lot of habitat…” He kept on rambling for a while, but Tetsuya tuned him out and focused on the motions of his scyther as he slashed the dense thicket out of their way.
Hayato sure did have a lot to say, Tetsuya thought. He was glad that he’d found himself and all that, but boy did he go from one extreme to the next. He didn’t seem to particularly mind that Tetsuya wasn’t paying attention, either—he just kept prattling on and on, about yanma this and swellow that. It was all too much.
“Hey,” Tetsuya said, cutting Hayato off in the middle of a sentence about fish or something. “So… what do you think would happen if some kid came along and caught Zapdos, anyway? Since more and more trainers are going for the legendaries and stuff, you know.”
“Oh, that’s an interesting question,” Hayato said, not seeming to mind at all that he’d been interrupted. “It’s hard to say. That’s something a lot of researchers are looking at right now, what would happen if this legendary or that legendary was captured. I’m not a real ecologist yet, but if I had to guess… Probably without the wildfires in the areas Zapdos frequents, you’d get a big old backlog of kindling just waiting to get set ablaze. That’d be real bad. Some people are suggesting that Zapdos can also direct storms to a certain extent, too, and bring heavy rain to areas that wouldn’t get it normally, so maybe you’d get those areas drying out too. Just sounds like the perfect storm for a hugely destructive fire, really.” He took a breath. “So, nothing good, that’s for sure. But I really hope that we never have to worry about that.” He grunted as he hiked himself over a particularly tall slab of limestone, then smiled, sweat dripping from his hair down his face. “Zapdos is a proud and clever pokémon. I don’t think it’ll let itself be captured. And regulations have been pretty slow to catch up with the developments in pokémon training, but hopefully before long it’ll be illegal to catch Zapdos in the first place.”
Tetsuya grunted. Even if that did happen, it wouldn’t stop him or anyone like him. Too little, too late.
Something inside him twinged anxiously, though. The impact Hayato was describing was on the scale of natural disaster. Could… Could people die? That blood would be on his hands, whether he wanted to admit it or not. Was it worth it? Was he okay with those consequences? He thought his answer was yes. For his son, he would do anything. But he wasn’t quite as sure about it as he had been half an hour ago.
He breathed loudly through his nose and carefully lowered himself down a stony hill. The terrain here was rougher than he’d realized. “Thanks for the answer,” he said at last.
“No problem at all,” Hayato said. Tetsuya could hear the smile in his voice. “It was a great question.”
Tetsuya was mid-eye-roll when a fat droplet of water hit him right between his eyes. He looked up and just barely made out the sky through the canopy overhead. It was dark grey.
“Shit,” he said. “Looks like it’s gonna rain.”
“Oooh!” Hayato exclaimed. He had his hands held out and looked positively giddy at the notion of weather. “That’s so exciting! Maybe we’ll get to see Zapdos in action!”
Tetsuya nodded vacantly and got his rain jacket out of his pack. Hayato did the same. Then there was a sudden flash of light. Tetsuya widened his eyes and waited for the thunder before realizing that Hayato had simply released his rhydon. It snorted and tilted its head, beady eyes fixed on Tetsuya.
“Uh, I don’t think that’s necessary,” Tetsuya said. “It’s gonna slow us down, and we’re not going to get struck by lightning anyway. We’re under a bunch of trees.”
“Hmm, okay…,” Hayato said, sounding kind of forlorn. “Are you sure? I think it would make me feel a little safer…”
Tetsuya barely restrained his annoyance, but he nodded. “Fine, whatever. C’mon.”
The rhydon had some difficulty navigating the terrain as expected, but it didn’t slow them down as much as Tetsuya had supposed it would. The rain steadily ramped up over the next several minutes until the downpour was torrential. Lightning at first every couple minutes, then every minute or so, casting the forest in its freakish light and rattling Tetsuya’s bones.
“We must be getting close,” Hayato said. “This lightning is really—”
As if on cue, a massive bolt of lightning crashed down right in front of them, hitting the rhydon directly on its horn. Tetsuya staggered backward, holding his ears—his hearing was ringing loudly, his vision dancing. “Fuck,” he said, but he could barely hear the sound of his own voice.
Hayato was grinning widely, however. “He’s saved us once and counting!” he exclaimed as Tetsuya’s hearing was restored somewhat.
“That wouldn’t have struck anywhere near us if that thing was still in its ball,” Tetsuya shouted back. The rain was really ripping now, smacking against his back in sheets. Powerful gusts of wind threatened to knock him off his feet. “I really think you need to withdraw—”
His vision was all white again, his ears split by another staggering peal of thunder. He stumbled backward and pressed his palms into his eyes, groaning. When his vision returned, Hayato had recalled his rhydon already. Tetsuya shook his head in annoyance, ears ringing, when he noticed the foliage behind Hayato rustling. It seemed a particularly large palm behind the thicket was swaying wildly and seemed to be… moving?
Realization hit Tetsuya like a ton of bricks. “Hayato, get out of the way!” he shouted, but Hayato just stared at him—his hearing must have still been ringing from the thunder. At that moment, a massive exeggutor emerged from the brush, its dopish expressions contorting with rage as it spotted the pair of rain-soaked humans. Hayato turned to face it and then stumbled backward in shock, tripping over a root and falling hard on his ass.
“Cutter, stop that thing!” Tetsuya cried, gesturing frantically at the exeggutor. The scyther gave a curt nod and then buzzed over to the exeggutor in the blink of an eye, lashing out wildly with his scythes, but it was too late. The exeggutor’s faces were bunched up in concentration, and Hayato was hovering, slowly, off the ground.
“Help!” Hayato screamed, reaching out toward Tetsuya hysterically, his eyes wide with terror. Tetsuya’s breath hitched, his heart threatening to leap out of his chest. Time seemed to slow down. What could he do? The brutish pokémon didn’t seem to care that Cutter was hacking away hunks of its fibrous body. Hayato was firmly in its psychic grips, contorting with pain as he hovered horizontally in the air, his teeth gnashing and his hands flailing in Tetsuya’s direction.
For an instant, a dreadful, terrible thought occurred to Tetsuya.
He could just leave Hayato here. He could just leave Cutter to fight the exeggutor and run away. Cutter would probably cut his losses eventually, and the exeggutor would be too distracted with its newly-caught prey to chase them down. Tetsuya could complete the journey on his own. He could catch Zapdos and teleport away without having to worry about any witnesses. He’d left people to worse fates before, and it fully took care of his problem. He’d be home-free.
In that moment, Tetsuya hated himself more deeply than he ever had before.
“Help me, Tetsuya!” Hayato screamed again. All thoughts of leaving him behind were flushed from Tetsuya’s mind, leaving behind only a foul afterimage that made him feel physically ill. He roused himself from his paralysis and charged forward. There was only one thing to do.
He took the floating Hayato’s hands and tugged on them emphatically, but the exeggutor’s grip was tight. Hayato screamed as the two forces tugged at him; the exeggutor gave a deep bellow of frustration, so low Tetsuya felt it in his bones more than he heard it. With a grunt of frustration, Tetsuya let go of Hayato and rushed at the exeggutor itself, ramming his shoulder into its solid flank. The exeggutor stumbled backward in surprise, and Tetsuya heard Hayato drop to the ground behind him, groaning in pain as he collided with the wet dirt.
Then he felt his muscles lock up. The exeggutor, whose triple faces were screwed up in anger, had him firmly in its psychic grip now. Its eyes bulged as it crushed Tetsuya with its mind; he shouted out in anguish as every part of him seared as if being hyper-constricted. Barely conscious, he moved his arm toward the exeggutor with a loud grunt of exertion, feeling as though a 200-pound weight was tied to his wrist. He felt ready to collapse from exhaustion by the time his hand was a few inches from the exeggutor’s face; with a final burst of effort, he jammed his fingers into the exeggutor’s eyes.
The beast roared with pain, and Tetsuya was released from its psychic grip. He fell into a heap on the floor, his whole body aching and sore as if each of his muscles had individually run a marathon. Without taking a moment to recuperate, he scampered to Hayato, heaved him over his shoulder, and broke into a run. Every piece of him protested, but he pushed through the pain, tears welling in his eyes, and sprinted into the forest. “Take care of it, Cutter!” he shouted behind him, voice hoarse. He was unsure if his pokémon heard him, but he hoped he would know what to do anyway.
Tetsuya ran and ran into the bowels of the forest for what felt like hours. After a while he could physically not move any further—he dumped Hayato onto the ground in exhaustion, then fell to his knees and vomited. He felt like he was vomiting for a century. The rain washed it away as quickly as he was depositing it onto the floor, turning it into a chunky stream that soaked the knees of his pants. He didn’t care. At some point, Cutter buzzed back to his side, panting heavily. When Tetsuya was finally finished throwing up, he placed a hand on Cutter’s back. “You did good,” he croaked. The scyther’s wings fluttered in pleasure, but he didn’t otherwise move.
“Thank you,” Hayato sputtered from the ground. “Both of you.” Tetsuya sat back up straight again at last and wiped his mouth on the back of his sleeve. He didn’t exactly make for the most picturesque savior.
“Of course,” Tetsuya said. “It’s what you’re paying me to do, right?”
A prong of guilt stabbed at Tetsuya’s heart as he watched Hayato smile weakly in response. Just a few hours ago he’d said that he would do anything to secure a future for himself and his son. He’d told himself that if it required driving a knife through Hayato’s chest, he’d have done it. But… he couldn’t. He wasn’t strong enough for that. He wasn’t a cold-hearted killer, and some prices were simply too great. Just the thought of leaving Hayato behind to be torn apart by the exeggutor made Tetsuya want to hurl again. If he couldn’t bring himself to do that, could he really bear the responsibility for the consequences of capturing a god?
He took a deep, shaky breath. “We should turn back,” he said. “I have an abra on me. I can teleport you back to the parking lot. You can just go home and I’ll pick the abra up from you when I make my way back.”
“No,” Hayato said. He laboriously pulled himself to his feet, leaning against a tree for support. “We’re so close. I know it’s nearby, I can feel it.” Lightning crashed nearby, exacerbating Tetsuya’s headache but also underscoring Hayato’s point.
Tetsuya gave Hayato a stern look and opened his mouth to argue when a loud screech split the air, shrill and ear-splitting. Hayato’s eyes bulged in alarm.
“That’s… that has to be Zapdos! We’re so close! Tetsuya, let’s go!”
Tetsuya pressed his lips into a line, excitement and dread battling in his heart. The thought of getting to see Zapdos was genuinely thrilling to him in a way it hadn’t been before; it felt real now. But the master ball was burning a hole in his pack.
Cutter pushed ahead of them, cutting down the thicket in their way dutifully. Tetsuya steeled himself. When they got to Zapdos… he would leave it be, he decided. He wouldn’t capture it. It was just too much. The notion of spending the next month scraping cash together was dreadful, but it was nowhere near as dreadful as what he’d felt before, gazing into Hayato’s terror-filled eyes. When he got home, he would return the master ball to Kazuma, tell him they’d failed to locate Zapdos, and figure out the rest from there. It would be hard, but things had been hard for a while. Somehow, someway, he would have to find a way to manage.
Nothing was worth what he would have to go through to put Zapdos in a ball. It made his heart sink to admit that, but it was freeing too.
After a quarter-hour of walking, they emerged into a small clearing in the forest. Tetsuya knew they’d reached their destination when he felt his hair begin to stand on end. He looked over to Hayato and couldn’t help but laugh—his head was like a fluffy sphere of lifted hair. Hayato let out a goofy chuckle too.
“Holy shit,” Hayato said. “We look ridiculous, but it’s kinda giving me the chills. It has to be right here.”
Lightning struck again, less than a hundred yards away. Tetsuya clenched his eyes shut, then blinked back into focus. He pointed his gaze in the direction the afterimage of the bolt occupied in his vision… and sure enough, there it was.
It was hard to make out from a distance, and it was partially covered by shrubs and palm fans to boot, but those radiant golden feathers were hard to mistake. “Oh my god,” Hayato said. He slowly dropped to his knees, and Tetsuya did the same—best not to be spotted by the enormous legendary pokémon. Hayato moved his hand to his belt, never taking his eyes off Zapdos as he clumsily fumbled for a poké ball. He found it at last and released the rhydon in a burst of white light. The flash apparently caught the attention of Zapdos, because it stood up straight, jerking its head around in search of the light source. Its face, surrounded by a halo of pointy golden feathers, was massive—its beak was like the barrel of a bright orange rifle, long and pointed enough to spear a man through. Its gaze was penetrating, but fortunately it didn’t seem to spot them; it let out a disgruntled squawk and then ducked out of sight again, stirring slightly.
“Holy shit,” Hayato said again. “Holy shit.” He finally pried his gaze off the legendary pokémon and looked to Tetsuya instead, his uplifted hair seemingly moving in slow motion as he turned his head. His eyes were brimming with tears, and a tight, sentimental smile spread across his face. “Thank you so much for doing this for me. Seriously. If it wasn’t for you… I don’t know what would have happened to me back there. You were so brave. And now… I get to see this. It’s a dream come true for me. Thank you.”
Tetsuya’s heart swelled. Guilt and excitement and camaraderie and accomplishment swirled within him, threatening to shatter his impassive mask and reveal the vortex of emotions within. He swallowed hard and managed a little smile back. “You’re welcome,” he said.
And then his backpack strap snapped.
The intact strap remained fixed to his shoulder, tearing the pack in two as the other side slumped. It must have been damaged during the scrape with the exeggutor. Whatever the cause, it didn’t matter now. The pack spilled its contents all over the ground, including—
“What is that?” Hayato said, his eyes widening. Tetsuya feared he knew what he was talking about before he even saw it for himself. “What the fuck is that?”
He looked down, and there it was. A minimized poké ball with a glossy violet upper shell, complete with ergonomic magenta grooves.
Before Tetsuya could react, Hayato snatched it up. “Oh my god,” he said, the color draining from his face. “Where the fuck did you get this? Were you seriously thinking of—oh my god, that’s why you asked me about—oh my god.” He looked back to Tetsuya, his gaze smoldering with contempt. “I led you right to it. I can’t fucking believe how stupid I am.”
Tetsuya was frozen in place, his stomach churning and threatening to release whatever contents it still had left. “Hayato,” he said slowly, his voice trembling. “I need you to give that back to me. Please. You don’t understand what you’re doing.”
“Yes, I do,” Hayato said, the hand with the master ball in it shaking with rage. “I didn’t before, but now I do. I can’t believe this. I can’t believe you.” He raised the ball, fist clenched tightly around it, and Tetsuya swore his heart stopped.
“Hayato,” he pleaded, “I’m begging you. I wasn’t even going to catch it. I mean, I was, but I changed my mind, I swear to fucking God—”
Hayato turned his face away from Tetsuya. As if he couldn’t even bear to look at him. Then he ducked down and placed the master ball on the ground, raised his boot—
Tetsuya abandoned all dignity and fell to his knees, reaching desperately for the ball. But he wasn’t quick enough. Hayato smashed the ball under his heel. Tetsuya reached for it anyway, but Hayato didn’t stop. Another stomp. Another. He crushed Tetsuya’s fingers and the ball alike beneath his boot. When he was done, the master ball was nothing but a small pile of ceramic shards and broken machinery. Gone.
Something deep within Tetsuya snapped.
“You have no fucking idea what you just did,” he said, slowly withdrawing his arm and cradling his broken fingers. He rose to his feet slowly, feeling empty.
Kazuma was never going to forgive him for this. They were probably going to kill him, or worse. Unless… Unless…
“I stopped you from catching Zapdos,” Hayato shot back. “And I’d do it again in a heartbeat. I’d do it a thousand times if I had to.”
A smile spread across Tetsuya’s face, but there was nothing funny about the way he was feeling. “You didn’t stop anything, you dumb fucking shit,” he said. “If anything, you caused it.” Before Hayato could respond, Tetsuya shoved him to the ground with his good hand, then scooped up the sack of poké balls Kazuma had lent him. The backup plan. For use in emergencies only.
Hayato scuttled backward, trying to get back to his feet but just slipping in the mud and falling on his ass again. “What are you doing,” he gasped.
“I’m doing what you fucking made me do!” Tetsuya roared. His shout almost certainly attracted Zapdos’s attention, but Tetsuya didn’t care. What he was going to do next, God himself would be powerless to stop. “I wasn’t even going to catch it, did you know that? It’s what I came here to do, but I decided against it, because... because…” He could barely force the words out. “Because I let myself fucking care about the stupid shit you were saying, asshole! And you fucked it up. You fucked it all up.” He shook his head, barely able to control his own body through all the rage and adrenaline that was pumping through him. “When Rocket comes to take care of you, to make sure no one hears about what I’m about to do, I want you to remember that you caused this. Because you couldn’t just leave things the fuck alone. You fucking idiot.”
Hayato just laid there, staring up at Tetsuya with the same terrified eyes as before. This time, Tetsuya was the monster.
And he didn’t care at all.
“Why are you doing this,” he whimpered.
“Because I fucking have to!” Tetsuya averted his gaze and involuntarily let out a sob. A fucking sob. “This is what my life looks like. This is what the real world looks like. We can’t all dick around in the goddamn ecology department for our whole lives. Some of us have to do things to put food on the table, to keep a roof over our heads. Fucked up things. Things that make you hate yourself. But you do them because you fucking have to. That’s what it’s like. And if I don’t…”
They’ll take him away from me, he wanted to say. I’ll lose everything. My life will become meaningless. But he didn’t say any of that. He just screwed his face up, trying his best not to cry like a pathetic baby.
“You don’t want this,” Hayato squeaked.
“No fucking shit I don’t want this, numbnuts!” Tetsuya screamed. “But you broke my fucking master ball. My head’s going to be on a goddamn pike if I don’t do this now, thanks to you.”
Tetsuya was done with this, and with no time to spare—his shouting had attracted Zapdos, and it had emerged from the bushes and was staring threateningly at them head-on now, its feathers raised and electricity arcing between them. Tetsuya opened the sack of poké balls.
“Stop it. Tetsuya, stop. You don’t want this.”
He squeezed his eyes shut. He was probably moments away from getting a hole burned through his chest by a super-powered lightning bolt.
He didn’t want this. But there was no other way.
He let the balls in the sack fly. They erupted all at once, and a dozen geodudes sprung into being. They were highly-trained pokémon who needed no command—they knew how to do only a single thing, and they did it promptly. They sailed toward Zapdos, whose flurry of electric attacks did nothing against them; sparks flew off their lumpy bodies inertly. They clung to the legendary pokémon, digging their stony hands into its feathers and pulling themselves close to its flesh—then, all at once—
They exploded. Tetsuya threw up his arms to protect himself from bits of flying, smoldering geodude shards; one narrowly missed Hayato. The heat of the explosion surged past them in a powerful wave, almost knocking Tetsuya off his feet. Zapdos let out a blood-curdling scream, then fell to the ground, sparks flying off its feathers and then dying in the air. Smoke rose from its body.
Tetsuya cast the sack to the side; it was useless now, as were all the poké balls it had once contained. There were no pokémon remaining to withdraw; they were just fragments of shrapnel scattered on the forest floor now. Tetsuya pulled another poké ball off his belt, a pink one with cream-colored polka dots and a blue seal. A heal ball.
This one was empty.
Hayato was sobbing as Tetsuya raised his arm to toss the ball. “Tetsuya, don’t do this,” he pleaded, his voice weak. “You don’t want this. It’s not too late. It’s never too late. You don’t have to do this. I’ll help you. I’ll give you money. Please. Don’t do this.”
Tetsuya faltered, his hand next to his head. This was the final moment.
But Hayato was wrong. It was too late. Zapdos lay in a smoldering heap on the ground, its wheezy breaths audible from a distance. He’d already gone too far to turn back. There was only one direction to go from here.
He threw the ball, and Zapdos disappeared in a flash of light. The ball only rocked once before clicking.
Tetsuya’s phone buzzed in his hand. He switched on the screen and spared an uneasy glance at the new message alert. It was a text from Kazuma.
“are you bringing the fuckign pokemon or not? i am starting to get pissed off 🤬”
He sighed and took a deep breath of the refreshing salty air. It had been a week since he’d captured Zapdos, and this was the fourth time he’d returned here, to the parking lot of Olivine Wildlife Refuge.
When he’d lobbed the heal ball at Zapdos on that day, he’d thought he was taking the final step, crossing the boundary beyond which he could never turn back. But he’d been wrong. When he returned home that night, bruised and battered, he’d realized something. Zapdos was in this poké ball. It belonged to him. Until he handed it over to Kazuma… there was nothing anyone else could do with it.
The final step was still ahead of him.
Something about breaking down and throwing the ball had been freeing—the decision, for better or worse, felt like it had been made. Now he felt locked in a prison of indecision, too sickened to turn the ball in but too aware of its value to release it.
He sighed and leaned back against his car, fingering his pocket absent-mindedly with his free hand for his cigarette carton. Empty. He’d just bought it this morning… He ran a hand down his face, head pounding. This last week had not been kind to him; he’d barely gotten a wink of sleep since the hike. It was hard to sleep when he was overwhelmed by paranoia. Surely, he thought, the police would bust down his door any minute; surely Hayato had run to them after Tetsuya had teleported him away and told them everything. Perhaps returning to the scene of the crime was foolish considering that, but somehow it felt safer than staying at home. There was something magnetic about it.
His phone buzzed again. “your going to be in trouble,” the message read. Tetsuya shook his head and switched his phone off, slipping it into his pocket.
He stood there for a moment, leaning against his car with the morning sun shining down on him, and somehow fell asleep standing up. It was the words of a familiar yet terrifying voice that pulled him out of his nap: “I thought I’d find you here.”
Tetsuya snapped his eyes open, hoping it had been an illusion. But there he was, standing before him. Hayato’s leg was in a brace, and he had a single crutch. He looked just about as haggard as Tetsuya felt, but otherwise okay.
“What are you doing here,” Tetsuya said, his heart racing and his hand flying to his car door handle.
“Please, relax,” Hayato said, wincing. “I’m not here to… get you in trouble, or whatever. Listen… You still have it, don’t you? I know you do.”
Tetsuya swallowed hard. Hayato probably brought a whole entourage with him. There had to be cops hiding behind every car in the parking lot. He took a deep breath to steady himself.
“Yes,” he whispered, despite everything. “I have it. With me.” He averted his gaze. “Why are you here?”
“Tetsuya. Listen. Look at me.” He did. Behind his round glasses, Hayato’s eyes seemed to be glimmering. “You did a horrible thing, to Zapdos and to me. An unforgivable thing. But that doesn’t mean you have to just keep making it worse. It’s not too late. I know you don’t want this. You told me that. I know it’s tearing you apart. I know you’re scared. That’s how I knew I’d find you here.”
“You don’t know jack fucking shit,” Tetsuya said, swinging his car door open. “Leave me alone. Go back to your stupid school.”
“Tetsuya, stop!” Hayato said. There was a note of desperation in his voice. “You’re scared, right? That’s why you’re doing this? You love your son, and you’re afraid of what they’ll do to you. Am I right?”
Tetsuya froze but didn’t say anything.
“Listen to me. Is this really what you think is best for him? Living your life in fear, controlled by a group of terrorists?”
“Why are you doing this?” Tetsuya said softly. His hands were shaking. “Did you do this just to taunt me? To make me feel even more like shit? Well, mission accomplished. You can fuck off now.”
“No, you idiot!” Hayato cried. “God, you’re so—I’m doing this because I don’t want you to go through with this! I already explained to you why it’s horrible, and I know that you know it. And it’s not even like you’re some hand-wringing demon who’s getting a kick out of this, it’s killing you. It’s just… wrong, Tetsuya. It shouldn’t happen. It doesn’t have to.”
Tetsuya hung his head. His face felt tight. Hayato was right. He didn’t want to do this. If he did, he would have handed in Zapdos a week ago. But… but what? What else was there? “What the fuck am I supposed to do?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” Hayato said. “What were you planning on doing after you handed Zapdos over? Did you think that would be the end of it?” Tetsuya grimaced. “You’ve created a hard situation. I don’t know what comes next… But every day you’re going to be faced with decisions. And you can choose to do the right thing or not. You keep doing the right thing, even if it sucks, and things will improve.” Hayato gently removed Tetsuya’s hand from the door handle and then shut it slowly. “Right now, you have a choice.”
Tetsuya moved his hand to his belt. His arm felt like it was moving like molasses. He unclipped the heal ball and looked down at it in his hand. It was minimized right now, barely bigger than a ping-pong ball. It looked so innocuous right now, pale pink and lined with polka dots. Such an odious thing.
“Hand it to me,” Hayato said, extending an open palm. “I can do it for you. It’ll be easier that way.”
Tetsuya’s hand began to shake. This was the final moment, truly. He moved the ball toward Hayato slowly, his heart racing. Some part of him still expected the police to emerge the moment the ball left his hand. He pictured the sirens blaring, the guns extended, the booming voices amplified through megaphones. His head being shoved down as he was forced into the back of a police car. A guilty verdict. A lifetime spent—
Hayato snatched the ball out of his hands. Tetsuya’s breath hitched, and his fingers closed around empty air. He immediately began to look wildly around the parking lot, but nothing happened.
“Not so bad, right?” Hayato said. He unclipped a ball from his own belt and released the rhydon. “You ready?”
Tetsuya didn’t nod or shake his head or say anything, but Hayato didn’t wait for his response. He took a deep breath, raised his hand, then threw the ball into the center of the parking lot.
Zapdos emerged in a flash of light and immediately took wing, blasting into the sky and letting out an otherworldly screech. Electricity streamed from its body all the way to the ground. Several of the arcs tethered to the rhydon’s horn, but they seemed harmless. Zapdos abruptly stopped once it was thirty yards or so into the air and unfurled its huge black wings, then turned its gaze down to the pair of humans staring up at it.
It flapped in place for a minute, as if considering them, then squawked and flew off. Hayato placed the ball on the ground and then, just as he had the day before, smashed it under his boot.
Tetsuya didn’t say anything. At once he felt a thousand emotions and he felt nothing. After a few minutes, Zapdos had flown out of sight.
He took a deep, deep breath, then noticed the tears streaming off his face onto his shirt. He wiped them off on the back of his sleeve and choked out a sob.
What did he have now? A debt larger than he could conceive of and nothing to pay it back with, except for his life.
And yet… somehow, he felt freer than he ever had before.
Hayato put a hand on his shoulder as he cried. He stood there like that for a while, barely aware of the physical space around him, the clamoring of random passersby about having seen Zapdos hardly registering to him. He found himself falling into Hayato’s embrace. Hayato hugged him back, tightly. And it felt… good. So good and warm. When was the last time someone had hugged him? When was the last time he’d had a good cry?
“It’s over,” Hayato said. “You did the right thing. It was hard, but… Zapdos is out there again. Everything will be okay.” He paused for a moment, then said: “You just needed someone in your corner for once, didn’t you?”
Tetsuya nodded through his sobbing. He stood there for a little while longer, nodding and crying, then pulled away and wiped his face off on his sleeve. It felt like he left behind a river. He was a mess.
“Thank you,” he managed. He felt so hollow that his words seemed to echo in his chest. “What do I do now? I’m so… fucked.”
“Maybe,” Hayato said. “But you were fucked before.” Tetsuya nodded grimly. It was cold comfort, but now, for better or worse, he’d broken from Rocket. That’s what he’d always wanted, really. Maybe not in these circumstances, but…
“The only step you can take is the next,” Hayato added. “You get to choose which way you’re gonna take it. And you’ve got someone on your side now.”
“Why?” Tetsuya said. “Why would you want to help me, after what I did to you?”
“You tricked me,” Hayato said. “You took advantage of me, you shoved me, you hurt me. But you saved my life too. I don’t forgive what you did, but… I don’t want you to hurt either. I don’t want you to suffer or be punished. I want you to raise above it.”
It was everything Tetsuya had not to cry again. Hayato pulled him for another hug, then looked him in the eye.
“So, do you want to go for another hike?” he asked.
Tetsuya burst out laughing. “Are you fucking serious? Of course I don’t.”
“Yeah, me neither,” Hayato said with a wide grin. “Let’s just get lunch instead, maybe.”
“I can do that.”
Hayato chuckled and started rambling on about some cute lunch place he’d found. Tetsuya couldn’t force himself to listen—his eyes were drawn to the wide blue sky beyond the parking lot, so clear and deep.
For just a moment, he thought he saw Zapdos flying over the swaying pines, and in that instant Tetsuya was Zapdos—flying, unshackled after so long squished into a ball.
Finally, without a master.