Well, here we go. Time to venture forth into the amusingly distant realm of Arc 3. This will be a short arc, but it will seem far longer due to the fact that I'm going to leave you on that cliffhanger from last chapter until the end of it. Hehe.
Arc 3 - Parabasis the First
Festival of the Sky
Ren awoke sharply, something hard digging into his cheek. “Yeowch!” he exclaimed, rolling away from it instinctively and cracking the side of his head on the wall. “Ow, dammit,” he muttered as he sat up, searching for the source of the pain.
It came in the form of Zangoose, who was still perched awkwardly on the edge of Ren's mattress, one claw extended towards where Ren's face had been just moments before. Ren stared at him uncomprehendingly for a moment before he remembered. “Oh! Right, I told you to wake me up if anything went wrong. But what . . . what's wrong?”
Ren glanced around the room, frowning slightly. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary. The usual Slateport morning sun streamed through the window, splashing familiar golden light across the floor.
“Oh. I see,” Ren said at length. “Mom coming in and opening the curtains was enough to constitute an emergency. Well, fair enough,” he sighed. “I should be getting up anyway. We're going to Fortree today.”
Zangoose hissed in a manner that was almost contented before bounding out of the room and disappearing down the hall. Puzzled, Ren tumbled out of bed and made to follow him before realising he was still in his pajamas.
It seemed his mother had been shopping sometime in the last few days, because when he opened his wardrobe, expecting only to see his single change of clothes, the rack was full of clothes that most certainly would not have fit him five years ago. Remembering how windy Fortree had been the last time he had visited, he picked a pair of black jeans and a blue t-shirt with long sleeves, throwing a zip-up red hoodie and a short-sleeved tee into his bag as well just in case. They fit him remarkably well; his mother had always been good at guessing sizes, he remembered with a grin.
The morning sun in Slateport was powerful at this time of year, so he rolled his sleeves up to his elbows as he opened the window, letting the salty breeze counteract the heat somewhat.
This stuff in the world of dreams . . . everything's happening so quickly, he thought, the memories suddenly surfacing in his mind. That in itself was disturbing. If he couldn't remember what had happened as soon as he woke up, who knew what else he might be missing? Ren didn't remember dreams often, but his experiences in the rings were more than that, he was sure of it. The fact that the memories sought to evade him was worrying.
I can't do anything now, he told himself firmly. I just have to worry about my life at the moment. He felt kind of bad for ignoring his duties as yehktira, but there was really nothing he could do while awake. He had ten nights to convince the spirits to let the Iehkti'na have their way. Ten nights would be plenty. Won't it?
He counted off on his fingers. Seven nights would put him at the following Monday, plus another three made Thursday. The first day of the Unova League. Great.
If the world ends, at least I'll die after my fifteenth birthday. The morbid thought made him chuckle hollowly. Some consolation that is.
Shaking his head in vague amusement, Ren went downstairs to face the day, doing his best to put all thoughts of Ragnarok and ultimatums from his mind.
“Thanks for the clothes, Mom,” he said as he entered the kitchen.
“Ah, there you are, dear! Let me look at you – do they fit all right?”
“They fit fine, Mom,” he said, lifting his arms and half-turning on the spot. “When did you find the time to go shopping?”
“I went yesterday while you were out training with Cole,” she said. “And dear, while I do think he's adorable, your Pokemon is kind of getting in the way.”
Ren glanced down to see Zangoose, obstinately seated right in front of the kitchen sink where his mother was trying to wash dishes. “What are you doing, you daft Pokemon?” he asked with a laugh.
Zangoose yowled hopefully, causing Ren to roll his eyes. “Of course. You're hungry. Now I think about it, everybody else probably is, too,” he added as an afterthought, glancing at the other Poke Balls on his belt.
“Outside, sweetie,” his mother said pointedly, tilting her head at the back door. “I got a big sack of Pokemon food when I was out yesterday. It's by the vegetable garden.”
Ren shook his head in wonder. “You really do think of everything, don't you?”
“I've been a mother for fifteen years, Ren. It's what I do.”
“Thanks, Mom. All right, you,” he added, nudging Zangoose with his toe. “Outside, and stop bothering people.”
The back garden had always been one of Ren's favourite places. Little more than a crevice between the side of the house and the sloping cliff face behind it, it was largely overgrown save for a few square metres that had been cleared directly outside the door. Half of that clear area had been dug up and planted with a variety of vegetables that grew well in the limited sun the area received – broccoli, chard, peas and beans, among others.
It was shady and cool at this time of the morning, offering a welcome change from the warmth of the sun inside. Ren let Camerupt out first, careful to avoid the vegetable patch. The others followed in quick succession, and Ren squeezed past them in the limited space to open the large cloth sack of Pokemon food. Finding a clean scoop nearby, he dumped large numbers of the bulky brown pellets into a stack of bowls of varying sizes that stood next to the food. Absolutely everything, he thought fondly, smiling.
“You guys'll have to eat out here while we're at home,” he told them, putting another scoop in Camerupt's bowl. “There's no room inside. I'll look at clearing some more of this stuff away some time, actually,” he said, kicking at the brambles and weeds that hemmed them in.
Camerupt snorted uncomfortably, and Ren grinned. “Yes, you can trample on it, but for the love of Arceus, stay off that vegetable patch. I'll be back in a few minutes, okay?”
After his own breakfast, Ren collected his Pokemon and headed for the front door. It was already eight twenty-five, and his ride was supposed to be arriving in five minutes. Not for the first time, he wondered what sort of ride it would be. Driving to Fortree would take all day, so that was out. Was he supposed to be flying? But then surely Gerard would have simply told him to go to the airport. Besides, there would have been no need for such secrecy.
“See you later, Mom!” he said quickly as he passed her.
“You're going now? When will you be back?”
“I . . . honestly don't know,” Ren said. “It might be tomorrow, considering how long it takes to get to and from Fortree.”
“Hmm. All right, honey. See you when you get back. Have fun, now!”
“I will,” he promised. Opening the door, he stepped outside and almost crashed into something large and metallic standing on the garden path.
A grating squawk split the air, along with a slightly creaky flapping of enormous wings. Ren stepped back and looked upwards, meeting the sharp yellow eyes of the very large Pokemon blocking his front door.
“Skarmory,” he said. “And one as big as you can only belong to one person . . .” He sidled awkwardly past the giant Flying-type – which stood fully twice as tall as he did – and looked up at its rider.
“Hiya, Ren! It's been a while, hasn't it?”
“Sure has, Winona,” Ren said.
The Fortree Gym Leader grinned, swinging herself down off Skarmory's back with practiced grace. She still wore her favourite blue flight suit, he noticed, with her unnaturally lavender hair flowing out from under the cap. “It's good to see you, Ren. Congratulations on making Champion.”
“Thanks,” he said awkwardly. “It feels weird hearing you say that, you know . . . especially considering I never properly beat you in the first place.”
“Ah, ah, none of that now,” she said good-naturedly. “I know the official result came out as a draw, but I gave you the Feather Badge because I could tell you deserved it. Okay?”
“All right,” Ren said. “I know, I know. You did tell me at the time, but it doesn't stop it feeling weird.”
“Well, let's have a rematch some time,” Winona suggested. “We can see if you really are better than me then. Oh, hello. You must be Ren's mother.”
Ren blinked and turned around to see his mother standing in the doorway, obviously having heard Skarmory's screech. “Oh, Mom, this is Winona, the Fortree Gym Leader,” he said.
“It's nice to meet you,” his mother said, eyeing Skarmory nervously. “I'm Thalia Goodwin.”
“Back up a little, Skarmory,” Winona said quietly, tapping on the oversized Pokemon's side. It retreated a way down the garden path, making room in front of the door for all three of them. “I've come to steal Ren off you for a day or two, I'm afraid.”
“Oh, that's all right, so long as you bring him back in one piece. It's remarkably nice of you to come all this way just to pick him up, though.”
“Oh, I was in Dewford on business yesterday anyway,” Winona said airily, “so I asked if I could drop in and bring him along to the Feather Carnival. The timing was perfect. Actually, speaking of timing . . . we really should be on our way now if we want to get there in time for the start of the festival. I'm sorry I couldn't stop for longer.”
“No, no, I understand perfectly. Go on. Have fun!”
Winona turned to Ren. “Have you flown on a Pokemon before?” she asked. “I don't imagine your Braviary would be quite strong enough to ride on yet.”
For a brief moment, an image of soaring across the third ring on Shadecolour's back flashed across Ren's mind. “Once or twice,” he said.
“Up you go, then,” said Winona. “I'll sit behind you so you don't fall off.”
“Uh,” Ren said, glancing up at Skarmory's towering steel flank.
“Oh, right,” Winona said, the faintest edge of amusement in her voice. “I'll give you a leg up.” Kneeling on the ground, she laced her fingers into a stirrup and gestured for Ren to step into them. When he did, she boosted him upwards, and he managed to scramble onto Skarmory's back.
It was certainly a different feeling to riding on Shadecolour, he could tell already. While the Iehkti'na had been almost intangible, seeming to slip and give under his hands, Skarmory was all solid physicality and pointed edges. He felt more secure atop the Steel-type, but he wasn't sure it would be as good of a conversationalist.
Winona leapt expertly up behind him. “All right up there?” she asked.
“Yeah,” he said, suddenly not entirely sure. If he fell off Skarmory while it was in flight, there would be no question as to the outcome. Somehow, the threat had seemed less potent in the world of dreams, but in the light of day, he was very aware of how dangerous flying was.
“I've been flying on Skarmory for twelve years now, Ren. Nobody's fallen off in all that time,” Winona said from behind him, as if reading his thoughts. “Come on, Skarmory! Hup!”
With a great screech, Skarmory leapt upwards, its great wings unfolding and beating powerfully. In seconds, Ren's house was as a toy against the cliff as the great Steel-type winged its way upward. Ren craned his neck backwards and waved in the general direction of his house, clinging to one of Skarmory's neck ridges with his other hand. Skarmory wheeled and corkscrewed upwards, soon clearing the cliff and setting its sights on the north.
“It's about an hour and a half from here to Fortree,” Winona said, raising her voice to counter the wind blowing in their ears. “Talking up here's kind of impractical, so it's probably best if you just enjoy the view!”
Ren nodded to show that he understood; he was already looking down, searching for landmarks he recognised. After a few minutes, he spotted the Cycling Road below them, snaking back and forth over Route 110. He had biked the track a couple of times, but it was hard work, especially going uphill – an almost two-hour slog. Now he soared effortlessly over the twisting road, catching glimpses here or there of tiny cyclists making their way along one way or the other.
About forty minutes later, they passed Mauville. Skarmory's trajectory took them some way to the east, but Ren spotted the city's buildings glittering in the distance. That's where the Contest is on Thursday. The thought reminded him uncomfortably of Gerard's promise that he would get Ren to compete in a Contest some time. He wasn't too keen on the idea.
Soon enough, the terrain changed as they crossed a twisting blue river and passed over a heavily overgrown road that Ren remembered vividly from his time journeying around Hoenn on foot. Route 119, where it rained almost constantly. Thankfully, the sky was clear today, but there were some nasty-looking thunderheads hanging around on the horizon, and the wind was picking up. Ren shivered and held onto Skarmory's neck a little tighter. While flying was certainly exciting, it wasn't something he planned on making a habit out of. If he could fly by himself, like Braviary, he might consider it, but trusting his own life to the Pokemon beneath him rubbed him the wrong way a little. It wasn't that he didn't trust Skarmory and Winona, but it just felt awfully uncomfortable.
As it was, he was quite relieved when, some time later, the tangled, grassy expanse of Route 119 gave way to the treetops that signified the approach to Fortree. Looking down, Ren glimpsed flashes of activity through the trees as they soared overhead – spots of colour, people and Pokemon moving.
And everywhere there were Flying-type Pokemon. Fortree's natural ecosystem and lack of heavy industry made it a haven for many kinds of Pokemon, but those who took to the sky found a special place among its many levels of forest and brush. Pokemon native to the Hoenn region could be spotted everywhere; Taillow, Swellow, Swablu and Pelipper were among the most common, ducking and diving through the sky in apparent joy at the appearance of Winona and Skarmory. Ren glimpsed an Altaria floating peacefully past, as well as a variety of Pokemon from farther afield. Hoppip and Skiploom from Johto bounced past on a lively breezed, and a flock of Starly – recently introduced from Sinnoh – twittered madly in a particularly tall tree.
Before long, the leafy canopy split apart, revealing a wide area open to the sky. Ren was forcefully reminded of the Glade of Shifting Light, but Fortree's centre seemed infinitely more alive. Every inch of the large, open space was filled with people bustling around busily, setting up stalls, hanging strings of coloured bunting and – right in the middle – building a large circular stage. When Skarmory threw back its head and shrieked proudly, everybody below craned their necks upwards to see. Some waved as Skarmory circled down to the ground, and Winona waved back, leaving Ren unsure as to whether he should do the same. Suddenly, he was inadvertently the centre of attention again.
Winona slipped off Skarmory's back as soon as it landed, and Ren followed her awkwardly. They had landed right in the middle of Fortree's square, next to the raised stage that appeared to be in the latter stages of assembly.
“I need to help out with some of the preparations, Ren,” she said quickly, rubbing Skarmory's head affectionately. “I'll be busy till about eleven thirty, when the Feather Carnival officially opens. I hate to drop you like this, but I promise I'll come back and find you later. I'll leave you with someone . . .” She tailed off, glancing around at the crowd of people that milled around them, many giving Ren curious looks.
“It's fine, really,” Ren said. “I'll find something to do for a while.”
“Nonsense,” Winona said. “Ah, perfect. Karl!” she called, raising her voice and beckoning to a boy about Ren's age who was sauntering past with a lollipop stick poking from his mouth. “Karl, come over here for a minute.”
Looking vaguely interested, the boy wandered over, sizing Ren up casually as he approached. Ren took the opportunity to do the same. Karl was a little taller than he was, with messy black hair that looked like it hadn't been trimmed in years, straggling its way down to his shoulders. His jeans were torn and his brown shirt looked like it had been splashed with yellow paint at some point in the distant past. “You're the new Champion kid,” he said after a few seconds, drawling slightly as he spoke. His face betrayed none of his emotions.
“That's right,” Ren said, deciding to play it safe. “I'm Ren Goodwin.”
“Ren, Karl's a Pokemon Trainer too,” Winona said. “I'll leave you with him for a while. Karl, show Ren around, all right? Try and keep out of trouble until the carnival opens, all right?”
“Whatever,” Karl said, still not taking his eyes off Ren. “Come on, Champ.” He turned and slouched off, not waiting to see if Ren was following.
Ren glanced doubtfully at Winona, who shrugged. “He's a good kid,” she said. “Just a little grumpy sometimes. You'll get on fine, I'm sure.”
“If you say so,” Ren said, raising his eyebrows as he followed Karl into the crowd. When he caught up to the other boy, he fell into step beside him, unsure whether he should initiate a conversation.
Karl beat him to it. “I saw your battle on the news the other day,” he said, ducking skilfully under a large beam of wood carried by two muscular Machoke. “Pretty good stuff.”
“Thanks,” Ren said. “So you're a Trainer too? Have you tried for the League?”
“Eh, that's not really my style,” Karl said dismissively. He stopped beside an empty wooden stall and sat down on a bench, spreading his legs out casually in front of him. “Oi, sit down. I know Winona said to show you around, but you're just going to get stood on with people running round like this. There'll be time for that later.”
Ren took a seat next to Karl on the bench, watching the proceedings going on around him with amazement. The entire square was filled with people, and it was a miracle that nobody was getting trampled on or brained with the large pieces of construction material that were being toted around. “Why is everything happening in such a rush? If you don't mind me asking, that is.”
“Rained like hell yesterday,” Karl said. “All this was meant to be done already, but the rain really made it difficult. We did what we could, but some things are just too dangerous when it's wet.”
“I guess that makes sense,” Ren said with a slight smile, watching a pair of Taillow hanging a string of coloured streamers between two trees nearby. “But you were saying that the League's not really your style . . . what do you mean by that? I thought just about everyone who trained Pokemon seriously was trying for the League.”
“Not all of us, Champ,” Karl said with a grin. “We have our own goals, and some of them aren't quite so lofty. Me, I wanna be a Gym Leader.”
“That's not something you hear every day,” Ren commented.
“You think that's funny?” Karl growled, suddenly belligerent.
“No, not at all,” Ren said quickly. “It's just interesting. I mean . . . all the Trainers I met on my journey talked about going to the Pokemon League and becoming Champion. None of them had anything but that single-minded goal . . . I guess I was no different. But it's cool to meet someone who wants to do something else. Do you specialise in a particular type yet?”
“The Dark type,” Karl said, sounding enthused. “They're just so cool, and they kick so much butt. And would you believe it, there's no Gym for them anywhere? Not here, or in Kanto, Johto or Sinnoh. Not even overseas in Unova!”
Ren frowned as he racked his memory. “Now you mention it, you're right,” he said with some surprise. “I wonder why that is.”
“I bet there's just nobody who's tank enough to train them properly,” Karl said with a derisive laugh. “If you want to train Dark-types, you have to be a total badass. The only people I've heard of who specialise in them are Sidney from the Elite Four here, Karen from Johto and Grimsley from Unova. They're all Elites, though. They were just too awesome to start a Gym, so they went all the way.”
“You don't want to go all the way?” Ren asked curiously. “Why just settle for being a Gym Leader?”
“It's not about 'settling', really,” Karl said, looking pensive. “I just reckon being a Gym Leader would be so much more fun. Elites don't get to battle as often. They take one challenger a year, mostly, and I guess they battle each other for practice every now and then, but a Gym Leader gets to battle all the time. And there's so much other cool stuff you get to do, as well!”
“I guess you're right,” Ren said. “I'm in the same boat as the Elites, I guess. Not much battling to do. I mean, who's going to battle me? I can't accept official challenges, and I'm kind of . . . at a place where there's nobody else on my level. It makes me sound a bit stuck-up to say it, but . . .”
“Lonely at the top, huh?” Karl said. “See, there's why. That's why I want to be a Gym Leader. You get to be right in the thick of it all the time.”
“Nah, being Champion has its perks,” Ren said. “I get to come and see cool stuff like this, for one.” He waved at the increasingly frantic activity that was still taking place all around them. Things were coming together at a remarkable pace, he noticed. Coloured signs were being stapled to stalls, the last few boards were being hammered into place on the main stage, and the chaotic tangle of streamers and flags overhead had been transformed into an elaborate lattice of colour that left plenty of open space – for flying, Ren presumed. People were standing on stepladders and hanging unlit lanterns on wires and poles, he noticed.
“Yeah, this is pretty neat,” Karl said, his voice softening slightly. “The Feather Carnival is the biggest event on Fortree's calendar, you know. Everybody pitches in to help out, even outsiders like me.”
“You're not from here?” Ren asked.
“Well,” Karl said, “I've lived here for five years, so I'm pretty much part of the family.”
Ren was about to ask where Karl had originally come from, but something in the other boy's dark blue eyes – which refused to meet Ren's – told him that it would be a bad idea. Instead, he steered the conversation back towards previously established safe ground. “You said you want to specialise in Dark-types, right? How's that going for you? You've been collecting them?”
“I have two,” Karl said. Suddenly his eyes lit up, making him look unexpectedly young. “Want to see them?”
“Of course,” Ren said. “I don't think we'll have time – or room – for a battle right now, but-”
“Oh, hell no,” Karl said with a laugh, standing up. “I'm not even gonna think battling you. Not with the team I have right now.”
“Fine,” Ren said. “Let's just see them, then.”
“Come on, we'll move out of the way first,” Karl said, glancing around. “We're in the way too much as it is, and Pokemon running around will just make us more annoying. Come with me.” He led Ren back past the stall that they had been sitting in front of. He crashed through some undergrowth for a few seconds, Ren following awkwardly, until they came to another road running horizontally in front of them.
Ren's heart lifted as he saw the treehouses of Fortree for the first time in two years. While a good number of the city's buildings were earthbound, especially the larger ones, there were still many people in Fortree who felt the need to be closer to the sky – and to the trees. Small, lightweight buildings were built on platforms attached firmly to the branches of one or more trees at various heights. Rope ladders and makeshift staircases were the norm, and a vast number of rope bridges criss-crossed through the canopy.
Karl skidded down an embankment to the road, which was entirely deserted save for a few people hurrying towards the square about fifty metres away. Ren followed, feeling vaguely uneasy. It wasn't often he found himself standing on a road with no traffic or pedestrians in sight. Then again, roads in Fortree hardly felt like roads at all. They were hard-packed earth, not tarmac or gravel; they hardly ever saw vehicles heavier than a bicycle. Hidden beneath the canopy as it was, Fortree existed in a perpetual state of leafy gloom that somehow managed not to seem gloomy at all. The shade from the trees that grew all through the city meant that it was cool at ground level, and the whole city was filled with the scent of life – leaves, earth and bark.
I love it here, Ren realised suddenly, hearing the sounds of hectic construction and preparation fade away behind him as he moved away from the square. This city is amazing, not least because it's more alive than any town I've ever been in.
“You awake, Champ?” Karl asked.
“What? Oh, right. Sorry. I was just . . . daydreaming,” Ren explained. It was largely true. He had an picture in his mind's eye of moving to Fortree some day, spending the rest of his life among the trees with his Pokemon.
“Never had much patience for dreamers,” Karl said, fiddling with the two Poke Balls at his belt.
“Isn't that what we were just talking about, though?” Ren asked, puzzled. “How your dream was to be a Gym Leader?”
“Well, sorta. But I'm working at it. It's not just a dream – more like an inevitability.”
“That's . . . good,” Ren said, unsure how else to react. There was something admirable about Karl's dedication, even if he covered it up with a rough exterior. He doesn't seem to be trying too hard to hide it, though, he thought silently. But when he was talking to Winona, he was so grouchy. What's with that?
“So,” Karl said after a few seconds of tense silence. “Want to see the team?”
“Yeah!” Ren said. He was interested to see what kind of Pokemon a person like Karl would raise. Dark-types, obviously. But what sort?
With a loud crack, Karl opened the first Poke Ball. A small purple creature appeared by his feet, vaguely goblin-like in appearance. Its eyes literally appeared to be sparkling blue gems, and it had a mouthful of wicked-looking teeth in its disproportionately large head. “My Sableye,” he said proudly. “Caught him on Dewford Island. He's a real trooper. Half Ghost-type too, so he doesn't take many bad hits – if you can even hit him, that is.” Giggling madly, the Pokemon faded almost completely from view in the dappled sunlight that filtered through the trees.
Ren knelt down to inspect the Pokemon – what little he could see of it, anyway. “Sableye are quite rare,” he said as it faded back into visibility. “You did well to catch one, and he's a big specimen too. They're usually a little more fragile than this one, I think – he's pretty bulky.”
Karl seemed pleased with the praise, but Ren could tell he was trying to hide it. Why would he do that? “You want to see my other one?” he asked, clearly making an effort to curb his eagerness.
“Sure,” Ren said.
Another crack, and a much more familiar Pokemon sat before Ren on the road, cocking its head suspiciously at him as it regarded him with wary red eyes. Its fur was black and grey, shaggy but well-looked after. A long, warped scar ran across its muzzle and right up to its left eye. “This is Scar the Mightyena,” Karl said, an extra note of pride evident in his voice this time.
“Original,” Ren muttered as he reached out to pet the canine Dark-type. Its eyes followed his hand like laser trackers, but it consented to let him scratch it behind the ears, which it seemed to enjoy well enough. “Your first Pokemon?”
“You can tell?” Karl seemed surprised.
“Not hard, really,” Ren said. “There's cues from both you and the Pokemon. Little things like the way Sableye stands facing ever so slightly away from you, like it's not quite comfortable with you yet. It's not as skittish as a recent capture would be, but it certainly speaks of a Pokemon that's used to being a third wheel. That's probably not good, actually. You should probably make sure to look after Sableye a bit more so it doesn't feel left out.”
Karl was staring at him, his mouth slightly open in disbelief. “You're screwing with me, right? You can tell that after just a few seconds?”
“So it's true?”
“Well, yeah, I guess I do use Mightyena more often than Sableye.”
“It's not so much about how often each Pokemon gets to battle,” Ren said, standing up and looking Karl in the eyes. “Some members of my team get used more than others, and I'm sure any top-tier Trainer would tell you the same. It's okay to play favourites a little bit. Everybody has a Pokemon that's special to them. For me, it's Zangoose. But all you need to do is make sure your others get the attention they need.”
“I-I see,” Karl said quietly. “I'll . . . I'll do that.”
“Good,” Ren said brightly, checking his watch. “Shouldn't we be getting back to the square about now? It's five to eleven.”
“Yeah, let's do that,” Karl said.
Ren watched the other boy with no small interest as he returned his Pokemon and led the way back towards the square. Karl was hiding something, he was sure of it. He didn't know what – it might not even be anything major – but there was no question that there was something that needed to be brought out into the open if he ever wanted to be a Gym Leader.
In the square, the majority of the preparations seemed to be complete. Vendors were stacking crates of drinks and making last-minute adjustments to displays, small children dashed about excitedly and Winona was visible on the central stage with Skarmory.
Karl jerked his head towards the stage questioningly. “You wanna go over there? Looks like they're about ready to get underway.”
“Sure.” Ren nodded, and the two of them began forging their way through the crowd.
When they reached the stage, Winona noticed them and extended a hand to pull Ren up next to her. “Come on, Champion,” she said with a slightly mischievous smile. “Do you feel up to making a speech?”
“A speech?” Ren shook his head quickly. “I can't do that!”
“Well, I'm afraid you don't have much of a choice,” Winona said. “Steven told me you're to make a speech whether you like it or not.”
Ren cursed under his breath. “That guy, honestly . . .”
“Come on, it's easy,” she said, her voice taking on a slightly kinder tone as she appeared to notice his distress. “I'll do the buildup and then hand it over to you. You just have to say a few words about how happy you are to be here and then declare the Feather Carnival open. Simple!”
As Winona turned away briefly to talk to somebody else, Ren felt something hit his lower leg. He looked down in surprise to see Karl glaring up at him.
“You pussy out here, you're worth nothing,” he said, his words audible only to Ren due to the noise of the crowd. “Got it?”
Ren laughed despite himself. “Got it,” he said. Inexplicably, he did feel better.
Here we go again, he said silently. This is the time when I stop worrying about stupid things and just do it. He took a deep breath, tilting his head back to look at the sky. As always, several of the ubiquitous Flying-type Pokemon wheeled overhead, relaxed and loose. He could learn a thing or two from them at times like this, he supposed.