Others were starting to notice. Sporegard in particular looked upon the spectacle with complete confusion. “What are you doing..?” he asked the sudden visitor.
The Mienfoo gave only a passing glance to the small Shroomish, but he remained silent past his initial command.
Though still seething, Shroomsworth managed to acknowledge his brother. “I need a moment, Sporegard... stay with the stand--” he instructed, interrupted at the last word by a heavy pull.
Where the Mienfoo went, Shroomsworth begrudgingly followed, strung along by his neck. They exited the Commerce Mushroom to the dim plaza, overcast on that particular day, and weaved around the side of the large building. With but a short journey out of the view of any villagers, Shroomsworth was roughly tossed forward by his neck petal with such force that a few stumbles were all that kept him from going face-first into the grass.
“I come all this way to find you lashing out at others in anger. Explain yourself,” Foo scolded, crossing his arms and looking upon the taller Breloom with disapproval.
“Oh, yes! I suppose I need lecturing from all over the region all of a sudden, is that it?!” Shroomsworth shot back angrily, whipping his tail around in a wide, almost dangerously heavy circle as he turned to face Foo once again. “That bloated imbecile insulted me to my face, after I have put up with him and his idiotic ideas for years! He deserved retaliation!”
Without hesitation, Foo stepped forward, fearlessly approaching the larger Pokemon and glaring up at him. Then, with amazing speed, he caught Shroomsworth off-guard. A terrible, albeit fluid and effortless blow to the stomach with his palm, sending the monocled Breloom doubling over in pain. “You've forgotten yourself. It's below your own standards to speak of others that way,” he stated quite calmly, even after such violence. “I do not wish to play this game of disrespect and complaints. Once again, explain.”
“Heheh... disrespect, you say?” Shroomsworth replied weakly. His body was curled forward after the blow to his stomach, leaving him to hold his claws to it as he winced in discomfort. “I've been playing this 'game of disrespect' since the good Miss Kecleon's thievery put all of this in motion,” he remarked bitterly, glaring right back at Foo through his monocle's lens. The way he had to bow down put them at near-equal eye level.
Another blow, swift as the last one. A kick connected with Shroomsworth's side, forcing him to stumble and fall to his knees. He propped himself up on his claws, eyes facing the ground as he coughed lightly in his attempt to catch the breath that had been knocked out of him. His monocle, dislodged by the impact, hung down into his view.
At that moment, the lightest signs of water droplets fell from the cloudy sky. A light rain was forming in its earliest stages. The mild, cool splashes didn't faze either of the two in the slightest. Foo simply stood over the grounded Breloom, looking on quite seriously. “I don't enjoy this. Speak to me with respect, and I will do the same for you.”
The proposition caused Shroomsworth to go silent, aside from his panting. His head simply continued to hang, masking it under that cap of his. Everything felt so hopeless as he started to consider whether he deserved the minor beating he just took.
In light of nothing but silence, Foo's eyes narrowed. “Do you recall your encounter with the scarred bandit?”
That got his attention. Shroomsworth's head perked up somewhat, just enough that his face was partially visible. The shower all about had progressed into actual rain, though it was light and calming.
“You became angry, and attempted to kill him with your own fists. You were ashamed, and so you came to me,” Foo recalled. “I did not approve, but I understood what your situation pushed you to do. Give me a chance to understand your aggression here.”
“I...” Shroomsworth trailed off. As the sting of the strikes delivered by his mentor dulled, a new pain formed as he tried to think of a way to explain himself. He couldn't. He could only shake his head and give a single, frustrated pound of his knuckles against the ground. It was enough of an outlet for him to calm down slightly once more, though his voice shook as he spoke, “I've never felt like this, Master. Under-appreciated, disrespected... and I keep thinking that perhaps I deserve it. It upsets me greatly.”
“I see,” Foo stated, just before pacing a few feet away. “To that I simply ask: Why do you deserve it?”
The most difficult question. Why? Not because Shroomsworth didn't know the answer. He very much did, and despised himself for it. Something had to be done, and he realized it just then. The Breloom picked himself up onto his feet once more, reaching for his mildly water-stained monocle and placing it back on his face. In the same motion, he turned away from Foo. “Apologies, Master!” Shroomsworth called out hastily, just as he ran off into the rainy forest beyond the village.
Ditched where he stood, Foo was perplexed. It took him several moments before he resolved to follow in pursuit. He had already lost sight of Shroomsworth past all of the many tree trunks between them, but he had seen the direction taken. Several minutes of hunting ensued before Foo would find the Breloom once more, standing among a field of raised, well-carved stones. “Why did you run like that?” Foo asked quite sternly, approaching Shroomsworth from the side. It wasn't until he properly got there that he was able to see two white-petaled flowers held in Shroomsworth's grasp.
Rain continued to patter around them as Shroomsworth took a deep sigh. His eyes stayed focused ahead as he spoke, fixated on the large headstone ahead of him, “In my village, it is shameful not to honor the distinguished dead.”
A closer look at the stone read their recently-deceased Elder's name in chiseled letters. Foo took care not to step forward onto the freshly-disturbed soil covering the grave once he realized what it was. He had no words.
“I was... terrified to come here and accept that he is gone,” Shroomsworth continued. He sounded much more clear-headed than before, though no less shaken. “I felt like a lost child, and perhaps began acting rather childish to match. I apologize for treating you poorly, especially after how far you've traveled.”
“It doesn't bother me to travel. Perhaps it suits me well to pay respects to the late Elder myself,” Foo stated thoughtfully.
“I was out of my right mind when I received the news... I lashed out at Miss PK, yelled at her, blamed her... no one could have seen this coming. She did not deserve that,” Shroomsworth thought aloud. He bent down, allowing the two flowers he had been holding to drop gracefully onto the grave of his deceased mentor. His eyes briefly averted from the scene toward Foo, but quickly turned away again upon noticing that he wasn't being questioned for what he'd just done.
“Are you to return to Tao, then?” Foo inquired. He was always to the point when he could be. It was just how he was, even when he was concerned.
A moment of pause occurred. It was much like when Shroomsworth had his idea the day prior, but this was different. He had help, an experienced second opinion. “... I require your aid, if I am to do that,” Shroomsworth revealed, taking a step back from the Elder's grave as he turned to face Master Foo. “This village will not survive with the Elder that surpassed this one in charge of commerce, however capable she may be at everything else. I had thought to take over, but... I became somewhat selfish in my desire for that. It would best go to someone more suited.”
“Already, you seem to be overcoming your prior difficulties. Perhaps you should first admit that you do wish to return to Tao,” Foo lectured as kindly as he could manage.
A sigh sounded from Shroomsworth among the gentle patter of rain. “... Very well. I would like to return to Tao. My brother Sporegard is more than capable of leading instead, with a little preparation. However... no one will respect him as a leader because he is a Shroomish. They are regarded as simple-minded children here,” Shroomsworth explained, bowing his head and managing a friendly smile. “Your talents would help him attain the respect he deserves in the eyes of his peers, and I could ensure that he's prepared enough before we depart.”
Foo put his fingers up to his chin in thought. “Hmm... if he is willing, then yes, I can do this for you. However,” he paused, pointing an accusing finger up at Shroomsworth, “... I will accept no more changes of heart. You are committed to coming back, yes?”
“... Yes. Yes I am,” Shroomsworth confirmed, retaining his smile from earlier. Immediately after, he bent forward in a brief, polite bow. “I will linger a tad longer. Please, go and meet with my brother at the stand. I will be there shortly.”
Foo gestured similarly, bowing right after Shroomsworth. “Collect your thoughts well,” he wished before turning and heading back the way he came, quickly disappearing into the light mist of rain falling through the trees.
Left on his own, Shroomsworth turned and glanced down at the flowers he left on Elder Shroom's grave. Though it pained him to do so, he leaned down and took just one of the two back into his claw, still leaving the other to respectfully lie where he originally placed it. “I'm terribly sorry, Elder... I know you understand,” he whispered under his breath. With the flower in tow, Shroomsworth exited that proper line of graves. Each one had an Elder's title upon it, but as he went further out, there were other stones. Crude ones, perhaps signaling the burial of the more common villagers.
His eyes set on one. It wasn't far from the proper graveyard and was rather surrounded by trees, making it one of the more obscured ones. The mere sight sent a terrible chill through him. Still, he soldiered through it and stepped forth. The stone itself was crude, but on it was etched a simple, though smooth insignia of a mushroom.
Shroomsworth felt a little more overwhelmed than he did when approaching the Elder's grave, but he still leaned down and placed the flower upon the damp grass next to the headstone all the same. He gazed upon it for a moment after. Clear droplets fell from above his cap as he stood still, obstructing his view only mildly. Not that it mattered; he was rather lost in thought, and continued to be as he silently turned and trudged away from the unnamed grave. Slowly, he made his way back to the village.
”Why, Elder? I do not understand...”
“She was sick, Shroomsworth. She did not last but a few hours after her arrival. You hadn't even hatched by then.”
“But it is not right for no one to know about her!”
“If the village knew of her illness, they would become wary of her offspring. Your life would have become needlessly difficult. The only option was a quiet burial.”
“... I do not care! This is not right at all!”
“It was her dying wish for you to be raised normally even if she would be forgotten. Doctors from abroad assured her you would be healthy, but many of our superstitious population won't accept that answer from foreigners.”
“I dreaded to tell you all of this. I am sorry. Please, honor her wishes and tell no one.”
“... I think I understand... but I do not wish to be here anymore.”
“Very well then. For bearing this knowledge, you may be considered an adult in the eyes of our village, if you're ready. I will not force you. For now, let's head home.”
Then came the next day. Shroomsworth and Sporegard were out of the hub at the earliest convenience after having their respective meals, and were soon darkening the doorstep of the Commerce Mushroom once again. Well... Shroomsworth was darkening it, at least. Sporegard didn't exactly cast much of a shadow.
Once again, the old berry stand was available, and they naturally took it. Anyone from the village was welcome to any stand they felt they could handle on a first-come-first-serve basis, with the knowledge that a notable portion of the funds would go to the good of the village. Of course, everyone would go for the more luxurious and attention-grabbing stands first. After all, they still got a cut of the profits when the day was over.
Never had Shroomsworth bothered to pick any other stand. That single one, it was special to him. He didn't need it to be flashy. It was great just like it was; the same as when it all began for him. He turned to Sporegard, who was so very excited to be helping him, and then he sprang at least part of his idea upon the smaller fellow. “Sporegard... I do so feel I should tend to some business with Arianna. How about you try your hand at this in my stead? In fact... why don't you take over for the day, while I observe? Once I return, of course.”
The little Shroomish's eyes widened, and an ambitious smile grew upon his face. With a single hop, he was atop the stand itself, among the displayed berries. “I would be honored, brother! I would so love some pointers from you, as they say.”
“Excellent! I'm certain you will do a fine job, and we will work on any shortcomings I spot. For now, however...” Shroomsworth turned, making a brief glance back at Sporegard before leaving, “... I must check in with our hard-working Elder...”
And so he did, leaving Sporegard to prove himself as he made his way to the back end of the Commerce Mushroom. As he rounded the corner, he spotted the once-blocked doors to the elder's chamber, now wide open. It felt like as good of an invitation as any, so he stepped right in.
The air of the elder's chamber was surprisingly cool and relaxing, sporting its own natural, rocky fountain much like the larger market outside. Several mushrooms grew around the trickling water as though they were forming within a cave which, by all accounts, wasn't terribly inaccurate. A large, circular bed sat in the very middle of the rather large room, sticking out as the most luxurious thing there. Everything else was either wooden, earthen, or part of the large mushroom enclosing it all.
Most worthy of note however, was the trapdoor leading down to the destination of the village's funds below. It was hanging open, and not long after Shroomsworth's arrival, a familiar masked face appeared, followed by the rest of who it belonged to as she trudged up a flight of steps.
“Ah, Miss Arianna. So good to see you,” Shroomsworth greeted, as well-mannered as ever despite their last meeting ending with his displeasure.
This time around, things were on the other foot. Arianna emerged from the cellar appearing somewhat worn-out. It was hard for Shroomsworth to say he didn't see that coming, knowing her. She may have been dedicated to the village's well-being, but managing its commerce was another thing entirely.
Arianna's eyes laid upon her visitor. It was difficult to judge what she was thinking, but if one had to guess, she appeared relieved. “Shroomsworth... I had begun to wonder if I would see you here again.”
“You should know quite well that I cannot stay away from here, ah-haha...” Shroomsworth remarked, sounding as nice as could be. However, his head tilted with sudden curiosity, “Dare I ask, how are you holding up?”
After being asked such a thing, the Roserade shot Shroomsworth a suspicious glance. “I feel as though you already know the answer to that. Even more, that you reek of an agenda. That's quite unlike you...”
That was more than enough to wipe the smile off of the Breloom's face. “What..? Why would you say that?”
“You have every reason to be displeased right now, and yet here you are, smiling and asking me obvious questions,” Arianna accused. There was no amusement on her end as she stepped close to Shroomsworth, practically glaring up at him.
Perhaps it was worth actually stating his plans, lest she begin thinking he was up to something worse. After breathing in and letting out a deep sigh to prepare himself, Shroomsworth did just that, “I wish to take the position here, under the condition that Sporegard officially assists me. I cannot imagine that I would second-guess the job with a beloved sibling at my side, and I believe he would very much enjoy staying within the village.”
Dead silence followed. Arianna simply stared up at Shroomsworth, quite unamused. Her expression caused him to glance away uncomfortably.
“I would consider this, if not for the fact that I no longer feel that you should have such a position,” Arianna declared. It seemed as though it should be cold, but her words came off more as disappointed than anything else.
Regardless of their tone, they sent a shock through Shroomsworth. “What?! You cannot be serious! The Elder clearly wished for Sporegard and I to--”
“The Elder wished the best for the both of you, and you have neglected to pay your respects even once!” Arianna interrupted in a rare state of irritation. It quickly subsided as she sighed and gazed off to the side distantly, “That is shameful, Shroomsworth. I expected better of you. Your brother would sooner have the position, were he not a child.”
A few sputtered attempts at beginning a sentence escaped from Shroomsworth's mouth. He couldn't think of a thing to say to that. It cut him to the core. Sorrow and frustration began to mix; one for the fact that she was correct, and the other for the fact that she wouldn't even try to understand.
Finally, Arianna took a step around Shroomsworth to the doors of what was currently her room, extending an arm to gesture outward, “I will continue to lead for now. Please, exit and think about your actions, otherwise do not approach me about the position again.”
Though her words were mildly reluctant, they were still stern and unwavering. Shroomsworth had felt vague rejection in his last meeting with her, but this was outright. In a huff, he turned and looked upon the lady briefly, only to stomp out of the room as his frustration took over. The large double-doors then shut behind him, as if to accent how he was suddenly unwelcome.
“This is ridiculous...” Shroomsworth muttered to himself as he weaved through the market once more. To him, it was clear that she took out her unease with being the new Elder out on him. He deserved better, and his mind started on devising attempts to show it. Would he end up undermining her if he did such a thing? For the first time, he found himself not caring.
Without a word, Shroomsworth took his place behind his old stand, staring forward with a terribly displeased look on his face. It was rather difficult to hide after his encounter. He looked down to notice a rather respectable sum of Poke upon the stall itself, given the amount of time he had been absent. Yet, he was in no mood to be much of a mentor at that very moment.
Sporegard, having been atop the stand the entire time, was quite perceptive of this as usual. Brief silence occurred as he looked upon Shroomsworth before inquiring, “Dear brother, did something happen..?”
“No... nothing, Sporegard. Nothing at all,” Shroomsworth quickly blurted out. His claws gripped against the edge of the stand and seemed to be squeezing it hard enough to strain the wood slightly. “Let us... let us simply have a quiet day of sales.”
“Oh...” Sporegard paused, only to apparently come up with an idea as his face immediately lit up with a smile, “perhaps I can tell you one of the Elder's stories! Did he ever tell you of when he met Miss PK and--”
“No! Ahem, no, Sporegard, I am not in the mood for--... eh?” Shroomsworth interrupted in his frustration, only to have something catch his attention. “What about Miss PK?”
“She once came to him and spoke of how she would lose everything she had! He helped her with some of our own expenses, in exchange for help in return. I believe he was simply being nice, though...” Sporegard went on in his usual talkative, excited manner.
Of course, talkative and excited was the complete opposite of how Shroomsworth felt, and somehow, hearing that nice story about their Elder didn't help matters. His mind wandered back to his argument with PK before his departure for Sapling. The things he said, and how he didn't believe her. His claws made a small impression in the wood before he took notice and released it.
It was at that very moment, that terrible time in which Shroomsworth felt so imbalanced, that he showed up. That strange Nidoking, once again weaving his rather wide path through everyone else on his way to Shroomsworth's stall. In his claw he held some sort of small, simple sack.
“Hey you! I'd almost thought you left again!” Trudeau called out with overt friendliness that caused Shroomsworth to cringe in his current state of mind. The Nidoking showed up only to unceremoniously drop the small sack upon the counter-top, allowing it to wilt downward and reveal its contents. Some sort of blue powder.
Once again, Shroomsworth was looking upon a product of which he had no idea what to think. However, this time his eyes drew back up to Trudeau, who was looking so very proud of himself. He felt no restraint against saying what was on his mind, “Why do you come to me and show me these ridiculous things, Trudeau? I hardly even know you outside of this activity.”
Being asked such a thing seemed to throw Trudeau off a bit. His eyes widened, though even with that insult, he simply grinned with those large fangs of his. “Heh, well! You're always pretty critical... I figure if somebody as haughty as you ever thinks one of my products is a good idea, I'll sell a million of them!” the Nidoking explained, only to take the bag of unknown powder back into his claw and turn around. “You're a little too haughty right now though, so I'll come back later.”
As the larger Pokemon began to walk away, something in Shroomsworth's mind snapped. He was so very tired of... everything, and he couldn't take it anymore. His baser instincts longed to take everything out on the last man to wrong him. He stepped out from behind the stand, and his legs seemed to automatically carry him forward. His arms longed to whip forward with deadly accuracy.
Then something happened. A grip upon one of the petals of his neck stopped him cold, brought him out of his near-raged state just long enough for him to turn and see a shocking face. A familiar Mienfoo, looking up at him with disdain. A look that immediately reignited his irritation.
“Master..? Let go of me,” Shroomsworth demanded. Unfortunately, his demand was only met with a harder tug that sent his body jerking in the same direction.
“Outside. Now.” the Mienfoo demanded in kind. His commanding grip refused to ease up.
Others were starting to notice. Sporegard in particular looked upon the spectacle with complete confusion. “What are you doing..?” he asked the sudden visitor.
Restful slumber, followed by a listless day. Time went on, and yet every day after his arrival seemed to adhere to that formula. Still, there were bright points to keep feelings of hopelessness at bay, such as catching up with his childhood friend or spending time with his brothers. In fact, he spent the following few days doing just that, rather than setting foot into the Commerce Mushroom as he usually enjoyed. For roughly two weeks, Shroomsworth would instead aid Ginko in taking care of the little ones. His mind would wander back to what Arianna said to him. It was within his choice to lead the commerce in his village... but her foreboding warning stuck with him. It bred doubts, and that indecision about something he felt so right about before brought a sour feeling with it.
At the very least, the tasks weren't unwelcome. Keeping the Shroomish in line wasn't terribly difficult, as they were fairly well-behaved. Rounding them up for bedtime was the hardest part, as they tended to be very lively.
Four days later and in the very late afternoon, Shroomsworth found himself quietly tidying up as Ginko read a book titled “Outlaws Outlawed” aloud to the children. It was a wholesome, simple, and comical story set in far-off Gambitville, in which a group of bandits miserably fail to rob a saloon. All of the children were listening closely, except for one.
“Brother..?” the little tie-wearing Shroomish quietly spoke up from behind Shroomsworth, who was just pulling himself upright after picking a wooden toy car from the floor.
The toy was promptly discarded into a nearby appropriate box before Shroomsworth turned to his little brother. The weariness in his expression spoke volumes where he did not, but the small Pokemon did have his attention.
Also less energetic than usual, Sporegard waddled forward and looked up to Shroomsworth curiously. “I'm very happy that you are spending so much time with us, but... it is terribly unlike you to stay around the hub all day with not a single complaint. Is something wrong?”
Let no one say his closest sibling wasn't very perceptive. Shroomsworth sighed, allowing his posture to slump uncharacteristically. There was little sense in hiding his displeasure at that point. He looked down at his brother, and was once again stricken with the urge to comfort him as a child. However... he then remembered his own words to Rhodes. The Shroomish before him was treated as a child, yet he was not even that much younger. After all he'd been through abroad, all he'd seen... it was no longer right to him. Honesty would be best.
“... I am tired of everything, Sporegard,” the monocle-wearing Breloom admitted. He took a few steps to the nearest seat and settled into it as he continued, “I spent nearly my whole life under the Elder's teachings, and apparently the respect for my endeavors died with him. Those I thought closest to me do not respect me in the slightest.”
“But that is not true at all!” Sporegard worriedly exclaimed, though not loud enough to interrupt the reading going on across the room. “I have the absolutest respect for you, and I am certain others feel the same! I know Miss Arianna and Mister Ginko do!”
Shroomsworth could only shake his head. Such optimism was nice, but he certainly wasn't feeling it at the time. “I'm not so sure. Miss Arianna does not trust me to fill our late Elder's position, and it is apparently in her hands to dictate such things, as the new Elder.”
“Oh, the Elder told me all about that!” the smaller Pokemon proclaimed with a sudden smile, gaining Shroomsworth's surprised attention as he went on. “Miss Arianna would be the next Elder after him, but he knew she would most certainly dislike the job. He assured me most assuredly that she would eventually seek someone to fill in his role if he were to depart. I'm certain it was you, brother!”
“He told you all of that..? Just how much time did you spend with him in my absence?” Shroomsworth inquired. Though he'd never admit it, there was a tinge of jealousy within him. Such important things that he was never told.
“Very much of it! I was very unhappy when you left, so I asked to see the Elder. He began allowing me to accompany him until I felt better, and spoke with me about many things. I did not get to sell things myself, but I was allowed to help at many stalls. It was quite fun!”
While the jealousy reached a point, Shroomsworth managed to quell it for his brother's sake. After all, at the same time, he was proud. They were carrying a mature conversation, something that he'd never thought of doing with the 'childlike' Shroomish. “I see...” he paused, pondering a question briefly before he resolved to ask, “Sporegard... what do you wish to do when you are considered of age?”
The inquiry brought a boggled expression from the little Shroomish. His eyes wandered off in thought, all while the story reading continued in the background. A brief fit of childish laughter filled the air at the tale's progression, just as Sporegard's face lit with inspiration, “Oh, I enjoyed helping at the market very much! I would love to simply stay in the village and continue doing just that... though I know I will likely have to travel abound, as you did.”
“Mm, perhaps...” Shroomsworth replied thoughtfully. The gears were turning in his head. Maybe there was a way to solve everything! With his first smile of the day, the Breloom stood and looked upon his brother amiably. “How would you like to accompany me to the Commerce Mushroom again tomorrow? Perhaps we can get back into the swing of things, and all that rot.”
Such words brought the characteristic excitement back to Sporegard, warranting a bounce of joy. “That would be perfect! We can even say hello to Miss Arianna!”
“Yes... yes we will,” Shroomsworth assured.
Ginko's story came to a comical, but heartwarming end, leaving the many Shroomish happy. However, many disappointed whines sounded as he closed the book shut between his vines, set it aside, then laid out those dreaded words, “Now then, bedtime is soon for you all! Get yourselves nice and ready.”
And so, one more night passed. It was one of optimism, though. As Shroomsworth once again laid his head down to rest, he felt good for once. Like he finally had a direction again.
Inside the sack given to Shroomsworth was indeed what Rhodes mentioned... though he grimaced at the contents. Some dishes were cracked or chipped, but if the Sneasel's words were true, then it must have been out of his power to do anything about it. At least most were intact, and his spare monocles were there too. His claw reached in to shuffle things aside, looking for something in particular... then he found it. One of the monocles within was a little more crude than the others. The frame was just a little smaller, and the string attached was a bit simpler than the rest. It brought on a relieved smile.
Once again, Ginko spoke up. He slithered close to Shroomsworth and leaned in, gazing upon that specific monocle with interest. “You don't wear that one anymore?”
“Not really, no,” Shroomsworth replied, carefully cradling his childhood eyewear in his claws as he looked down at it. A little dusty, but not a scratch otherwise. Very lucky. “It is a little more difficult to keep on due to its size... but even then, I would never want it to be broken or misplaced.” As he placed it back with the rest of his things, he added, “I had worried something might have happened to it.”
Knowing that he'd brought something so important seemed to make Rhodes happy again. He approached Shroomsworth, no longer wary of the snake that had been throttling him minutes before. “What are you gonna do now that you have your stuff back, Mister Shroomsworth?”
As he carefully toted the sack of goods to the room he had slept in, he considered his options. “Hmm...” he sounded out while pushing the drape aside, setting his belongings just inside the room. He'd arrange them later. He then turned back to Rhodes with a most upbeat smile. “Since you are here, why not accompany me to the Commerce Mushroom?”
From the crowd of Shroomish, Sporegard bounded forth excitedly, settling right next to Rhodes as he looked up at Shroomsworth, “I wish to go too!” He then turned around, gazing at Ginko expectantly, “Please, Mister Ginko, may I go?”
Ginko looked down upon Sporegard briefly before cracking a smile. He shot a temporary glance at Shroomsworth, who was smirking with amusement right with him. “Alright! Truthfully, I'd like to go with you and catch up with my old buddy, but the children do need watching over.”
“Splendid! We can 'catch up' in due time, my good fellow,” Shroomsworth answered as his little brother was already excitedly making his way outside. With a wave of his claw, the Breloom bid farewell to Ginko for the time being, and exited the Hub alongside Rhodes.
Outside, things felt a little less dreary than they did the evening prior. Villagers were making their ways around for this and that. The sky was mildly overcast, making the morning a little darker than usual, but nothing that would stop anyone from getting on with their lives. Most were, as usual, coming to or going from the Commerce Mushroom, and that's where the three would be heading. With Sporegard and Rhodes on either side of him, Shroomsworth made his way there. Soon enough, that huge, familiar arch stood before them, beckoning them to enter the village's enclosed market.
What seemed like, though couldn't have been, scores of stands, booths, and even some enclosures stood before him, separated down the middle by a single, mossy path, marked on either side by rows of various mushrooms. At the far end of expansive holding was what appeared to be an indoor fountain, yet its rocky, natural look suggested that it must have indeed been natural. Behind it stood a constructed wooden wall that effectively enclosed a good portion of whatever stood behind the fountain. From the top of it all hung several giant, glowing flower bulbs, always casting adequate light upon the many Pokemon below regardless of the time of day outside. A curiosity to a newcomer would be that one side of the path had wooden booths completely run by grass-type Pokemon, while the other was much more diverse in both Pokemon and the styles of their stands.
Shroomsworth was proud to have spent much of his life here. He peeked over his shoulder and grinned when he found the young Sneasel marveling at the sight. Further in he went, with the two trailing closely behind him. “It is wonderful, is it not?” he began, gesturing with his claws as he went. “Our local market operates on one side, while we let foreigners operate on the other. They sell their wares, and often partake of ours!”
As the Breloom led the two younger Pokemon through the main path, many stalls were just setting up for the day. From both sides, local and foreign, Pokemon were putting up wares. Foodstuffs from raw ingredients to freshly prepared goods, souvenirs of various sorts, medicinal supplies, toys; the selection was surprisingly vast for such a humble village!
Eventually, they came to a single, wooden stall at the far end of it all. Its sign simply read 'Berries', with a crude painting of assorted berries to the side, obscured by a hanging placard that read 'CLOSED'. It gave Shroomsworth a nostalgic feeling to gaze upon this, his old stall. The place where he started it all. It was big enough for your average medium-sized Pokemon, so he always had to stand on a small wooden block just to see over the counter. He couldn't help but chuckle to himself when he stepped around just to see that it was still there, tucked under the stall with a batch of berries. Others had likely been using the stall on some days, but there were other, more convenient ones that sold the same thing by now.
It was obsolete, but it was his favorite. It just wouldn't do for it to go unmanned while he was around. “Fellows?” Shroomsworth began, stepping up to the counter and placing his claws upon it. It felt so strange to be the proper height. Rhodes and Sporegard stood before him on the opposite end of the stand, and he simply smiled at them,”I think I will commandeer my old post, so to speak, to warm up to being here once more. What say you two be my helpers for the day, hm?”
“Of course, brother!” Sporegard spoke up excitedly. “What shall I do?”
“You have a very important task, Sporegard!” Shroomsworth said with such confidence. Though... he didn't quite have an idea of what task that would be. At least, until he glanced under the stall. There was quite an assortment of berries stowed away in various sacks. Right away, he knew what needed to be done. “You know where the other berry stalls are, yes? Do see what they have on display, so that we may show off something they do not.”
“Oh, smashing idea!” The little Shroomish, with all of the excitement of a well-mannered child, immediately waddled off among the other stalls.
With his brother off on his task, Shroomsworth was left with Rhodes. The young Sneasel had been rather silent, and appeared distant at a glance. As he reached up to pluck the closing placard from the stall, he decided to speak up to break the odd silence, “Something on your mind, dear boy?”
Rhodes didn't exactly snap to attention as though he weren't paying any of it prior. Instead, he glanced up at the Breloom and nodded, “Yeah... Mr. Shroomsworth, I have a question!” Showing a bit less regard for manners than he likely should have, the Sneasel hopped over the front of the stall, letting his legs dangle off the side as he used it as a seat. “Is your brother really a kid..?”
That was out of left field. Shroomsworth was so taken aback that the placard slid out of his claws, harmlessly dropping onto the counter-top. “That's... quite a question. Why do you ask?”
“Well... that guy called all the Shroomish kids, right? Sporegard acts like a kid too, but... somethin' feels different. Maybe he just sounds a li'l older, I dunno...” Rhodes shied away from his explanation and twiddled his claws together the more he went through it, realizing it might be insensitive.
While the truth of the matter wasn't pretty, Shroomsworth couldn't help but smile weakly. “You are actually quite perceptive! Sporegard is, in fact, older than you are,” he admitted, following up with a displeased sigh. “As it turns out, age is not a factor in determining the perceived youth of Shroomish in this village... they are almost all children in the eyes of the other Pokemon who live here.”
“Really..? Why?” Rhodes asked with genuine curiosity.
It was actually a little strange for Shroomsworth to have to explain his village's ways. It was usually a thing best left to Arianna and her scholarly interests, but if Rhodes of all people wanted to know, he could at least summarize. “It is a most interesting traditional thing! As far back as this village's roots take it, Shroomish resided here even longer still. However...” Shroomsworth paused to sigh, gazing down at the aged wooden surface of his stall, “... early texts suggest that they were very simple-minded.”
Apparently very interested, Rhodes turned to more comfortably face Shroomsworth and nodded, hugging his legs to himself rather than letting them dangle.
“The early villagers took them in out of their respect for the forest, seeing as the Shroomish were part of it too. They began teaching them.” After a brief pause, Shroomsworth smiled once again, “Miss Arianna suggests that many of our charitable traditions come from generations of this relationship between the Shroomish and the other villagers. In a way, we were very important to shaping the future, despite unflattering beginnings in history!”
Moments later, that familiar masked face showed itself from behind one of those very shelves. “Shroomsworth?” the Roserade asked with calm surprise. “I'd heard you were already back to sales! You really don't need to push yourself...”
“I'm quite fine,” Shroomsworth asserted. With a few steps forward, he cleared his throat and reached up to adjust his monocle, though the act was more of a minor stall for time than anything. He wished to choose his next words carefully. “... I noticed that you've kept the Elder's Quarters sealed off, despite my return.”
Arianna's expression settled into one of seriousness and concern. Her eyes averted, as though she felt a small amount of shame. Even still, she stepped out from behind the shelf into the open. “... I have been studying our literature on the matter. Our tradition is as such that through the years, the next-eldest member of our village, both aged and wise, takes the position as Elder... as it should be, given the title.”
There was a moment of tense silence as Shroomsworth processed what had just been said to him. “But... but you know he favored me, Miss Arianna...” he challenged, albeit in a low, unhappy tone. Something about that news gave him such a terrible sinking feeling in his chest, to know that anything stood between him and filling the role that his mentor prepared him for.
The librarian gave but a single nod, keeping her eyes to the ground. It was clear that she was no happier with what she'd just said. “I've been looking through our records of birth dates. Elder Shroom, despite his untimely departure, was very long-lived... very few of our current villagers are of even a comparable age. Such is the nature of his kind, I suppose. There is one who was not far behind, however...”
Try as he might, Shroomsworth couldn't imagine who it was. There were elderly Pokemon in the village, sure, but none of them stood out in his mind as particularly wise compared to the late Elder. “... Who?”
With a sigh, Arianna turned away, pacing along the many shelves of assorted books. “The position would now fall to me, as one of the eldest and most studied.”
What a strange thought. Shroomsworth boggled at the news and brought one of his claws to his chin. By that time, the young boy accompanying him had already become bored enough to begin wandering around the lobby behind him, though he suddenly had larger concerns than keeping company entertained. “You..? Ah... in charge of everything?”
“You needn't sound so surprised...” Arianna responded, unamused. Her pacing came to a halt next to a certain shelf, from which her vines plucked a single book. As though she knew just what to look for, she opened it to the exact page she desired and gazed down at it. Suddenly, she took a somber tone, “It sounds like a fantastic idea, to have a descendent of the original healer lead us all, doesn't it?”
It was hard to grasp all of this at once. Shroomsworth had never been told that it would work this way. Why didn't anyone tell him? It didn't make sense. Frustration began to well up within him as he recalled all the time spent learning, listening and growing. It didn't become him, though. He held back. “I... I suppose...”
However, Arianna shook her head. “It is my desire to carry on as the resident scholar... if it were up to me, foreigners would not sleep in our holdings daily. They've brought me nothing but trouble,” she paused, only to calm herself with a sigh and continue, “... but Elder Shroom saw things differently from me. He had talent and experience that I cannot simply learn through a night of reading.”
“Then why not allow me? I've bloody well lived his talent and experience through his teaching!” The distinct feeling of unfairness drove Shroomsworth to pace in a circle as he began to rant, “I've given my all for this guild of Merchants. I've endured ridicule, unspeakable things, threats to my livelihood and even attempts on my life.” At that moment, he stopped and lifted his gaze to the Roserade once more. “Do you think I would not have the same dedication here, Miss Arianna?”
Those words seemed to hit home. Not only with Arianna, but even Rhodes. He stepped up to Shroomsworth's side and finally spoke up, “It's true! Mr. Shroomsworth helped me out!”
Though she was being ganged up on in this case, Arianna couldn't help but chuckle briefly. “If it were that easy, I believe you would have swayed me right there. But...” she suddenly took a much more serious tone, “... This is a very important decision. It goes against our usual traditions for leadership to be passed without infirm or death, much less to one who was happily traveling abroad before this incident. It does not sit well with me to put this responsibility on you without some time and thought.”
Visibly displeased, Shroomsworth grumbled under his breath. Given a few moments though, it did make sense. Perhaps he shouldn't have been so eager to jump into the position... even if he felt correct for it. “... Very well. What of our coffers in the meantime?”
“I will manage what I can... the foreign traders are on their own for management, however.”
Not the most pleasing news. There was little Shroomsworth could do to hide his disappointment as he turned away. “I suppose there is nothing more for us to discuss then. Thank you for your time, Miss Arianna.”
The Breloom stepped past Rhodes silently on his way out of the library, only to have the boy catch up within the mildly-moonlit village square and stop him.
“Mr. Shroomsworth..?” Rhodes asked after a light tap at the larger Pokemon's side. He hesitated with his next words, but eventually, out they came, “... I think I need to go back to Tao now.”
It wasn't that the news was surprising. It wasn't at all, really – Tao was the boy's new home, after all. Something about it hit Shroomsworth hard, just to look down at Rhodes and realize he would have to leave. They might not even see each other often once that happened. Such thoughts drove him to stumble over his words, “Ah, I... I see. I suppose that uh, would be best...”
Rhodes stood staring up at Shroomsworth, hesitating for a few seconds before he leaned forward and wrapped his arms around the Breloom's lower neck in a soft hug. “I'll come back when everything's all rebuilt and stuff, okay? Maybe then you'll be the leader!”
Just like that, with a kind gesture and some kind words, Shroomsworth felt at least a little relieved. His arms extended to wrap over Rhodes's back in a brief embrace. Just like that though, it was over, and the boy was waving his goodbye.
“See you soon!” Rhodes called out. Oddly, he didn't quickly take to the trees as he usually did, lingering and trudging a few unnecessary steps first.
With the last reminder of his life in Tao having left him, the relieved feeling Shroomsworth had quickly dissipated. The only thing he could think to do was tread to his quarters in the hub once more. Once again, everyone had already taken to bed, and he did the same. At the very least, it wouldn't be such a despairing slumber as the night before, but he found himself lying awake for a time, and he couldn't blame any one particular train of thought for it. ======
On the way, with several other salesmen going by, Shroomsworth paused and looked to his side. Both Rhodes and Sporegard were following him, but his eyes laid upon Sporegard in particular. Maintaining his warmest smile, he suggested, “I have a feeling Ginko will become worrisome if you do not return soon, dear brother! Why don't you go ahead to the hub before night falls, hm?”
The younger Shroomish gazed up at Shroomsworth for a few moments, then smiled and gave a single nod, “I would not want to cause a fuss. I will hurriedly make my way!” Before leaving, the small Pokemon turned to Rhodes, beaming up at him similarly. “It was a great leisure to meet you, Mr. Rhodes! Do enjoy yourself.” After giving his best compliments, Sporegard took his usual bouncy steps out of the large, hollowed mushroom and back to the hub with his kin.
Now once again alone with Rhodes, Shroomsworth made his way into that wooden area behind the rocky fountain. Within, it was a dimly lit, traditionally square room with mossy walls, a thin well rising from the middle, and a large pair of double-doors with a stylized leaf engraved into them, held shut by strange vines that grew from the nearby moss. Other Pokemon were approaching the well and pouring some of their earnings into it, and Shroomsworth did the same. The resulting sound suggested that the modest coinage slid down some sort of smooth slope into the depths below. As he did this, he observed that some Pokemon he had seen making successful sales in the market hadn't even shown up. A quiet grumble of discontent was all he had to say about it.
Even with the well being rather thin, Rhodes still leaned over and tried his best to peek into it with one eye. “There must be lots of cash down there!”
The boy's excitement over their funds, meager as they may have been compared to what other areas such as Alomomola or even Tao could bring in, brought a chuckle out of Shroomsworth. “Ah, indeed... it all goes to our elder's holdings. They are expected to spend it for the good of the village,” he explained, gesturing briefly to the large doors before them.
“Oh...” Rhodes brought a claw to his chin in thought. It seemed as though he'd continue on with his innocent questions about the village and the way it worked, but instead, he peered up at Shroomsworth with a tinge of worry in those red eyes of his. “Mr. Shroomsworth... are you gonna be able to come back to Tao?”
As various Pokemon filtered out of the room, things became quiet and a little forlorn without their various footsteps and the jingling of their earnings tumbling down a chute. In relative silence, thoughts came easier, clearer, and soon enough, so did answers.
A sigh did precede them though. “Rhodes... I know you wish to help us both. It is very noble...” the gentleman trailed off. With a few steps forward and an extension of his claw, he took hold of one of the vines upon the late elder's door and idly examined it. Their mere presence was a curiosity, and at that moment, Shroomsworth's eyes widened as a realization hit him. “Something is amiss. Apologies, but we should continue this conversation later.”
The vine fell unceremoniously from Shroomsworth's grip as he turned and hastily made his way to the middle of the room. He glanced down at the sack of remaining money from the day's sales. It was within his right to walk out with it, but what would that accomplish? Instead, he once again tilted it over the well, emptying its leftover earnings into the cache below and tossing the sack aside. Unburdened, he turned and made his way out, but not before turning his head briefly to a confused Rhodes, “Please, accompany me.”
Though it was obvious that nothing made sense to Rhodes at the moment, he sheepishly went along, and the two exited the Commerce Mushroom. On the way out, most of the villagers had gone, but many foreigners remained with their goods, slumbering next to their booths, or even inside if their particular booth was built for it. A definite luxury for the more successful sales-Pokes.
Once outside, dusk was clearly upon the region. Each of the huts' doorways glowed with soft light from within, but Shroomsworth was making his way toward a specific residence. The first one he'd visited upon his arrival.
“Mister Shroomsworth..?” Rhodes's voice sounded softly in the relative darkness. “I've been wantin' to ask you a weird question.”
“A 'weird' question, you say? Make it quick, we've not much distance to cover,” Shroomsworth replied as he trudged along.
“Well...” Rhodes paused in speech, though not in his steps. “How long have Sneasel lived in the forest..?”
That was it? Shroomsworth couldn't help but chuckle in relief. “Oh! That is quite simple, they were... always... hm...”
For as long as his later youth, Shroomsworth considered that Creeping Forest was simply a Sneasel habitat by nature. Yet, now that he thought about it... “I suppose that is an oddity... you and the others had no known parents about the area, yet you are all very young. All the better that you're all living in the village now, hm?”
“... Yeah...” Rhodes responded ponderously, as though that wasn't the answer he'd hoped for.
The conversation came to a somewhat forced end as Shroomsworth wasted no time in pushing the drape of the library's entrance aside, making his way in with purpose. With Rhodes still trailing behind him, he did not find Arianna in the lobby as he had the previous day. Thus, he stepped forth, closer to the library proper. “Miss Arianna!” he called out. The library itself was filled with enough shelves that he couldn't be sure she was even there by sight alone.
While he was obviously a little confused, Rhodes tilted his head with curiosity, prompting a brief bounce in his head-feather. “So when do they get to grow up?”
“That is a good question!” Shroomsworth praised, leaning both of his claws upon the surprisingly sturdy surface before him. “Our elder decides that. At their discretion, they may make it some sort of test, or a reward for one who excels, ah-haha!”
“Wow... it sounds kinda hard to have to do some kinda test to grow up!” Rhodes remarked with amusement. “What'd you hafta do? Sell a whole buncha stuff?”
While trying to quickly find an answer to that question in his head, Shroomsworth tapped his claws upon the sturdy stall before him and averted his eyes. It wasn't really as simple of a story as many might have guessed. “Ahh... oh dear. Well, you see...”
In perhaps the only instance where stalling for time by drawing out a sentence would work, a rather questionable savior turned up. A large, purple form waded through the foreign trade stalls, headed straight for Shroomsworth. “Look who it is!” it called out in a deep, rumbling, yet jovial voice. A Nidoking's large, plated form stepped out over the middle path on his approach. Around his shoulders hung a long, simple, and well-kept cloth draped over the back of his neck that flowed down his chest. It displayed an array of randomly-arranged colors dyed over it, doing wonders toward making the large Pokemon appear as non-threatening as possible.
Despite the welcome interruption, Shroomsworth still couldn't help but breathe a low-profile sigh of dismay. The lumbering poison-type Pokemon approached the other side of his stall, only to hold up what appeared to be, by all respects, a blue rubber ball with a crude happy face on it. It might as well have just been a toy. However, given who this was, Shroomsworth knew it couldn't be that simple, and looked upon it with skepticism. “... What is it?”
“I heard you were back, and I knew you'd like to see some of my hot new products since you've been gone!” the Nidoking asserted before giving the ball a squeeze. Though he apparently put much strength into it, the ball's form only distorted to a minor degree. “I call it a 'happy ball'! You squeeze it, and the exertion pulls all the unhappy toxins out of your body 'til you're happy again!” he proudly explained, looking down upon Shroomsworth with a grin.
It was rather difficult for Shroomsworth to hide how unimpressed he was, especially as the ball was squeezed once more in front of his face, producing a mild squeaking noise. Eventually, he brought one of his palms up to rub one of his cheeks, feeling within them the minor burn of being embarrassed for another living being. “Tell me, Trudeau... how many of these have you sold?”
Just before Trudeau answered, Rhodes reached out and grasped the ball, which he was allowed to hold and squeeze with the dull bases of his claws for the time being. The Nidoking didn't appear to be stingy with his merchandise. “Not many yet – mostly foreign visitors from Alomomola.”
“Oh, thank goodness...” Shroomsworth muttered under his breath. The last thing he needed to hear was that his village was buying into this.
“That's always the story...” Trudeau went on dejectedly, “... I don't know how to reach out to the villagers here about cleansing their bodies, you know? I thought maybe something they didn't have to eat would work...”
“Maybe you should sell it like a toy? It's a nice ball!” Rhodes interjected, smiling up to the Nidoking as he tossed the happy-faced ball as such that it bounced once upon the stall before Trudeau could grasp it.
“Oh, I can't do that. It would be dishonest to call it a toy if it's medicinal!”
Much like several times in the past, Shroomsworth bit his tongue, but he was thinking it very heavily.
Luckily, it was all over as the Nidoking lumbered around, careful of his tail's potentially wrecking sway as he returned from whence he came, weaving through booths harmlessly. “I'll think of something and get back to you. Welcome back to the village and all that stuff!”
As far back as his earlier youth, Shroomsworth recalled that Nidoking. The fellow approached him one day and simply started showing off his wares, all designed to cure some sort of ailment that Shroomsworth had never heard of, or remove 'toxins'. Did everyone contain toxins? He wasn't sure, but it kept happening, and dealing with those run-ins over the years had made him a little weary of it.
As luck would have it, Sporegard returned shortly after that moment, having missed the entire spectacle. He shared his knowledge, and in but a few minutes, the stall was set with its own assortment of berries on display. Sure enough, there were customers in an out within the hour, and for much of the time following. However, there weren't quite as many as in times past. The recent issues in the region had only just subsided, after all. When daylight was winding down, Shroomsworth's humble stall had still managed to turn a profit. With a sizable sack of coin in hand, he placed the 'CLOSED' sign once more when nearing nightfall and made his way to that peculiar enclosed area behind the fountain.
That was good enough for her. Maybe it’d be a really fine pastry, or it could even be a cake, or perhaps... well. It was probably best she didn’t get her expectations up. It would be even better if they weren’t set high to begin with. It was easiest to fully enjoy things that way: no hopes to be crushed if they didn’t exist to begin with!
Instead of getting out of the carriage as they reached the city’s limits, they kept going. It did slow down considerably, though. PK expected them to stop, but they didn’t. They kept traveling through the city, to the annoyance of pedestrians walking through the streets. Eventually, the pier was in sight. Not any pier, but the main one, the Merchants’ Pier, matching--no, exceeding--the Merchants’ Hut of Tao in importance. PK had hoped another destination was in mind, but her hope was in vain. They stopped right in front of the pier, at the very end of the wooden walkway. Twigs didn’t even ask the Zebstrika to stop. It seemed that particular destination had been their goal from the beginning.
PK reached for the handle. “So... where are we going from here?”
“This is it.”
“I’ll be out in a moment.”
PK shrugged. “Kay. Well then.” She tentatively climbed out, expecting... something. What? She was unsure, but this definitely broke the normal schedule their dates had taken on. It was a little thrilling; their outings had become predictable up until that point.
Strangely, a small crowd had started to mill about around the carriage. It made PK anxious. So many eyes looking in her direction!
And then Twigs emerged, a tiny black box in his mouth, hanging by a silky, black ribbon to match. Clearly luxurious.
Suddenly, dread and realization filled her to the brim. This... was not at all the type of present she had expected, nor wanted. Especially not with so many watching. Twigs sauntered up to her, willfully dismissing his audience (despite the fact that PK was certain he had arranged for them to gather at this time!), and very carefully placed the box on the ground in front of her. He tugged off the ribbon, gently pulling one of the two tails, and then flipped up the lid with the flick of a claw. It confirmed PK’s fears and suspicions of the situation.
It was a pair of rings. One was plain and golden, one was ornate with multicolored gems lining the perimeter of the ring (one for every color of the rainbow, she guessed), and they were perhaps an inch in diameter each.
Twigs lowered himself close to the ground. The audience’s excited murmur was slowly fading in anticipation. PK found herself wanting to cry. She didn’t actually succumb to tears, no, but the urge was there. The spotlight was absolutely not the place for her, and here she was, player in a little performance that she hardly wanted to be a part of. Great.
In her desire to leave the scene, she searched for a thousand other topics to think about in that instant. Why here? Why had they stopped here? Why in front of everyone? And then it struck her that the location was very important indeed. It had been specifically chosen, there was no doubt. It was right at the entrance to the biggest pier; precisely where she had first met Twigs, this was where they were both standing. Every landmark around her was the same. This was really, truly that spot.
PK would have given anything to just escape and crawl away. She heavily considered what might happen if she substituted out, but decided that wasn’t something she cared to do in front of many attentive eyes. Besides, it kind of ruined the magic of the trick if someone was watching from every angle.
Enough of that. She had almost been lost in her thoughts, but Twigs brought her back with dizzying speed when he spoke. She felt mildly ill.
“My darling, I think it’s time, don’t you?” Hushed, yet energetic whisperings from the crowd. “Would you do this for me?”
PK’s throat was dry. She tried to say something, but it merely came out as a raspy cry. Twigs didn’t notice.
He spoke again. “Will you marry me?” There was a dead silence, an expectant silence from the bunch encircling the two.
Marriage. Why? Marriage was hardly... it was hardly suited to PK. Everywhere she had been, it was uncommon, mostly for the fact that it signaled an extreme commitment between two Pokemon. Commitment wasn’t unusual, though. That wasn’t the issue. It was that it heavily linked together two Pokemon as one unit. It was kind of like a brand, combining a couple into an entity. It was used a lot in business relationships as a tool to bring separate branches together, out in Alomomola. The very idea sent a chill down her spine. It felt somewhat like she might lose her identity, so it was hardly something she was ever interested in. Over the course of her dates with Twigs, she had hoped that he would understand her lack of desire for marriage, but her suitor apparently was not one for hints.
Unless he was purposely ignoring them.
PK racked her brain, wishing to find a way out of the situation. She very badly did not want to be around so many goddamned eyes scanning her every move. Was that on purpose? PK didn’t want to let down a crowd. But... that was stupid. Who cared what they thought? She must have, because she stammered, not managing to utter any complete word or phrase. Twigs watched, statuesque, with an intensely focused gaze.
PK looked hopelessly one more time for escape, for some way out of the situation, when she saw something to egg her on. Slightly out onto the Merchants’ Pier, about 30 feet out, she saw Anana, looking rather manic.
After an hour or two of searching, the triplet stumbled upon their quarry. It took a lot of extensive searching through the torn planks and fallen walls of northern Alomomola, but finally Rionna was within sight. It was purely by accident; huddled around her ball, Rionna had been taking a nap under a partially built stairway when Chulo accidentally collapsed one of the stairs and nearly landed upon her body below. Her first reaction was to stumble back, and for this error she suffered a lump to the back of her head courtesy of the rotted wood.
Payapa looked over her opponent carefully. There didn’t seem to be any immediate, obvious tricks. Rionna was a scruffy child. A tough, yet quiet, Riolu. She wore a tattered little poncho (which Payapa’s parents would have loathed to see within 20 feet of either of their children), and perpetually carried with her the only other possession to her name, her prized toy ball. It was remarkably sturdy despite the beatings it frequently took from Rionna, her brothers, and Payapa. It wasn’t a looker, but it was a fun toy, and that was what mattered to the children.
Rionna wasn’t very pleased to have been woken up from her nap in such a way, but this simply said to Payapa that this girl wasn’t going to be much of a challenge for her hide-and-seek prowess. If she couldn’t even take a successful nap in a good hiding spot, how on earth was she to find such a Kecleon of stealth? After a little bit of chit-chat, Rionna learned of both the reason they sought her out and of the wager on her head. She agreed to play the game. Payapa became suspicious.
Eventually, the question had to be asked. Rionna was the one to do it. “So, which one of us is ‘spost to seek first?”
“Well, you’re not gonna find me, so I might as well go first. That sound all righty with you?”
Rionna stood in silence for a few moments. Chulo and Gail looked at her with slight apprehension. Eventually, Rionna replied. “That’s fine. But what if you find me? Is it my turn to seek then? Or do we end the game?”
At this, the tiny Kecleon laughed. It was a little rude and a little obnoxious, but the idea that she should lose the game was so absurd that she was unable to contain it. Chulo looked on with unease, but Rionna maintained her proud stance. Payapa cut off her laughing upon realizing the others did not find it quite so hilarious, and then fumbled around for her next words. “Well,” she started, “I wanna finish this game ‘fore my sister gets out here. So if you can find me before... hmm.” Payapa looked toward the sky, briefly calculating the time. “If I can’t find you before about noon, then we’ll just end the game and ya’ll win the bet. Kay?”
This sounded plenty fair to Chulo, but Gail seemed annoyed by the suggested longevity of the game. “That’s way too much time! Anyone could find her by then!”
Rionna spoke before Payapa could protest. “I think that sounds fair. In hide and seek I usually like to both... hide and seek, but I’m okay if you just want me to hide.”
This was not what anyone had expected to hear from the Riolu. Least of all, Payapa. That Rionna should agree so easily was disconcerting. It made her reconsider the order the game should be played in. “Yanno what,” she said, sauntering up to Rionna, “I think I actually wanna hide first. I happen to like it more, and if we’re gonna only be doing one round here to pick the winner, I wanna do the thing I like best. That a problem?”
Rionna clutched her ball momentarily, then eased up a bit. “That’s okay with me. I’ll look for you.”
Perfect, Payapa thought. I don’t even have to do the boring part. I bet I can find some sweet hiding spots today. But which one is the best?
The next course of action was to put Rionna in a dark shanty to count loudly and away from the others. Chulo and Gail scattered in opposite directions, and Payapa immediately sprinted off when the count began. She wasn’t terribly speedy, but she could move it when she wanted. Playing with Rionna had helped her reflexes quite a bit. There was hardly another child so physically adept in the entire bay, counting even those children of the dojo she passed on her way to the shanties. Rionna was strong and sharp.
“No I ain't interested! I'm pissed, on account o' you fuckin' wit' me!”
Devonshire’s attention seemed to have been attained. Gunpowder had finally received some semblance of the reaction he wanted. He also seemed concerned. Gunpowder assumed it was all fake, but at least the two were getting somewhere. In Gunpowder's eyes, at least.
“I ain't gonna be playin' that game, Devonshire! You know what I mean! My dreams! My memories!”
“What sort of dreams, Gunpowder?”
“Wassat? What sort? You made 'em happen! The nightmare! 'Twas made up of all me old memories 'n such! I've only ever told you. No one else. It had to be you!”
Devonshire turned away to ponder, obviously deep in thought. To Gunpowder, it seemed like he was being ignored. Of all things that could happen, the thought of being ignored by Devonshire in such a situation seemed the worst, so it was only natural to jump to that conclusion without much thought.
“W-why won't you listen to me?!”
Gunpowder's voice was shaky, but somehow clearer than ever. So much so that it was hard to recognize. That raspy pirate tone had disappeared, and in its place was the voice of a lost child searching for his mother.
“Devonshire! Answer me!”
“Ah.. Yes. I am sorry, Gunpowder.” Devonshire paused for a moment, albeit brief. “Perhaps I have misunderstood the gravity of your feelings. You did hit me, after all.” Another pause. Gunpowder was growing tired of them. “Now, tell me. Why do you suspect me?”
Devonshire's choice of the word 'suspect' was all too perfect – indeed, all Gunpowder had was circumstantial evidence. Nothing concrete. Just his gut. But that rarely steered him wrong. He didn't like where it was sending him, but he had no choice but to pursue it. He hoped to be wrong, but had no desire to run from the truth. Gunpowder would never run.
“'Cause.. 'twas all personal. It had stuff with Anana.. With Dorsen! I only ever told that t' you! You were the only person I trusted. You were the only one who could do that!”
“Do you really think so, Gunpowder? Have you not forgotten that dragon's rampage? Do you suspect me the culprit of that, as well?”
Gunpowder thought about it. It really didn't make much sense. Devonshire stood to gain nothing from destroying the village. In fact, he'd suffered a loss thanks to the downtime of many members, including Gunpowder.
“Ain't got no reason t' do that, no.”
“I thought not. Would I stand to gain anything from tormenting you, either?”
That was true, too, Gunpowder realized. Although Gunpowder liked to slack off (to which he referred as “relaxing”), when he worked, he worked harder than anyone else in the guild. He was also one of the most physically capable for most tasks Devonshire needed. Torturing Gunpowder at all would be a net loss, just like Sorbet. Gunpowder shook his head at Devonshire.
“I'd not want to do such a thing to you for any benefit. You are a comrade, after all.”
Devonshire seemed to pause on that thought. So did Gunpowder. The silence was a bit awkward, so Devonshire was quick to continue.
“Bits and pieces.. as my memory comes back, it's always fragmented, but slowly.. Slowly I remember. I remember comrades. I would never betray one of them.”
Gunpowder was.. confused. Comrade? Like a friend? Coworker? Devonshire seemed to notice Gunpowder's confusion, though it wouldn't have been hard. Gunpowder frequently sent mixed messages to people, but Devonshire and he'd been working together for so long that it was no longer a concern.
“Ah.. I'm not used to such conversation. We've never really had a discussion such as this. How do you say it? Something.. personal? Not much is personal when you're dead, after all.”
Gunpowder was still discombobulated, but for different reasons. When he had come into Devonshire's office, he was filled with the burning fire of rage, but it had become a dwindling flame. He was still shaking, due to the rush, but he didn't feel the passion anymore. He wasn't sure what to make of that.
Most of the evidence Gunpowder had collected regarding the root cause of his nightmare was guesswork, and that which wasn't stacked against Devonshire being the culprit. Gunpowder had really begun to doubt his accusation. With Anana and Bluegill, he had lost their trust, and he had lost his trust in them, but with Devonshire.. Devonshire hadn't seemed to stop trusting Gunpowder, even if that trust was expressed in an unusual way.
A deep feeling of regret and guilt sunk into Gunpowder's bowels. He had attacked Devonshire, and it turned out to be without reason. He was wrong. He didn't know what to say, but knew he had to say something.
“Er.. Well.. Yeah. 'bout that. I ain't too good at it either, y'see. I start a personal conversation with a swift smack in th' face, y'know?”
The pair laughed at Gunpowder's comment. It was as close as an apology as the two would ever get. It did stick it Gunpowder's mind, though. He did hit Devonshire, and that's usually a recipe for ruined friendships.
“... Not sure if ye can trust me after that. Not sure at all, matey.”
“Gunpowder, were I to judge you for your mistakes, I would have replaced you long ago. We've had countless members come through that door, and yet I keep you here. I keep you here because I trust you. You'll get the work done, and without ridiculous questions.”
Gunpowder was rather flattered, which was a hard game to play with him. The only other capable of such a feat was Bluegill. Or he used to be, before dropping Gunpowder off to rot on land. Asshole.