Missy was done. Fed up. She simply could not handle another moment of those awful Zorua children.
It wasn’t their fault, of course. She had to keep telling herself that. They’d been raised by a bad, a very bad Pokémon; a Pokémon mean-spirited enough to harm a small and defenseless creature like that Jasmine, a Pokémon with enough hatred to demolish half the village and almost kill Sorbet. These children needed more support than any other children would, and Missy the Blissey would be damned if anyone was better at supporting children than her.
But it was so hard.
It was so hard to be understanding when every time she turned around, another normal, good kid was trapped in some delusion of blindness or deafness. Normal, good kids play normal, good games, eventually get tired, and fall into normal, good sleep. They don’t steal toys or pick locks or make you think the kitchen caught fire only to lock you in. Missy could deal with normal, good kids. But when it came to those evil-hearted Zorua, she was done.
In fact, the Blissey’s only reprieve was the upcoming visit from that nice painter from the studio by the memorial. Palette the Zoroark, while not particularly good at painting herself, was the student of the renowned Pal, and she was supposed to paint a beautiful mural for the kids of the daycare. Now, Missy was hardly the catty type, but she couldn’t help from overhearing some juicy rumors. Apparently that Zoroark had been involved with some really suspicious things in the past, embezzling or fraud or something official and criminal-sounding like that, and on normal circumstances Missy would hardly allow a criminal to approach her impressionable charges. Oh, no, not at all.
But Palette had changed, now — she spent her time doing honest (though maybe not the most stylish) business, and even a bit of community service. And even besides that, nobody could really bring themselves to dislike her anymore, what with all that presumed-dead nonsense. In fact, she made the Blissey feel a bit guilty; she’d just been through so much!
In short, despite her reservations about Palette’s talent, Missy simply had to give the Zoroark a chance. It just wouldn’t be very charitable of her not to.
She could only hope the artist would show up soon.
Palette hesitated, then rapped twice on the dainty wooden door with two out of three claws on her open hand.
“Miss Michelle? It’s Palette, I’m here for the mural?”
The daycare had already been emitting quite a ruckus, even outside, but the noise level suddenly spiked. Palette imagined the complaints of fifty tiny assailants being suddenly shaken off in favor of the undeserving doorbell and the undeserving Zoroark behind the undeserving doorbell. It was kind of awful, actually; all those kids, forced by curiosity to stay awake while some strange ‘mon fooled with paints for what would seem like days.
She was interrupted in her musings by a jolt to the snout when Missy finally pushed the door open without much regard to the position of Palette’s face.
“Oh... oh dear, did I hit you there? I’m terribly sorry, please come in, I’ll fetch you some ice...” Missy nearly fell over apologizing, as if her entire reputation was staked on how polite she was to her guest. Palette picked her easel up and let herself be dragged across a small front hallway and off to the right, into some sort of homely, white-tiled kitchen where Missy quickly began digging in a brand new walnut ice chest.
“I’m fine, really, Michelle...” Palette glanced nervously back at a sudden throng of curious children, peeking out from behind the doorframe. Wait, were... were some of those eyes staring at her with... malice?
“No, please, call me Missy!” Missy demanded, oblivious to her guest’s discomfort. “Ah, here we are.” She straightened and thrust something freezing and hard into Palette’s face.
“Hold that, would you?” Palette tried, but it was difficult to juggle an easel and a crate of paints in the same hand. She ended up surreptitiously leaving the pack of ice on the counter behind her. “And, uh, come with me, I’ll show you to your wall...”
“Ce n’est pas grave, Michelle told me that the daycare required a new touch. Something to give it the warmth it used to have. And I have so many commissions, you know?” Pal had looked away from his canvas for a moment, then occupied with an almost-complete portrait of a serene-looking Persian; the Smeargle had seen Palette’s expression, and his voice had softened considerably.
“Listen, ma petite chou, you will do fine! You have been improving rapidly lately! Just make sure you remember what I have been saying about the anatomy, and you will not fail.”
Palette had been unconvinced then, and she was even more unconvinced now that she found herself in a staring contest with the area Missy had chosen. The wall was completely monstrous; it dwarfed her by two high and ten wide at least, despite her height, and it was clear-cut that same barren white as the rest of the circular, carpeted play area. No, there was absolutely no question that something had to be done about it. She set her crate of paints down by her feet, and her easel in front of her, and hesitated before lightly unleashing her pencil on it.
But before she could really get properly started on her design, her mane was tugged hard: so hard the painter actually crashed backwards onto the floor, and hit her head. The carpet was soft, but it still hurt, and she instinctively curled into a ball, terrified.
“Hey, lady, stop that!”
Palette cracked her eyes open.
“P-PK?” she whispered.
The Merchants’ leader disappeared (as if the first time wasn’t enough), and an imperious-looking Zorua was standing over her. The markings on the Zorua’s eyes were the dark sides of two half-moons, and the little tuft of fur on top of her head — bound by a huge, iridescent bead — made an almost perfect paintbrush point, just like Palette’s had. She poked at Palette’s face like a Delcatty playing with her prey.
“What’re you doing, lying on the floor like that?” Palette’s assailant demanded. “I was just trying to ask you what you were drawing. Stop being a baby and get back to work.”
Palette was flabbergasted, but she sat up.
“I am... sorry? It was very rude of you to startle me like that!” She held her knees and stared at her assailant. “But, for your information, I’m trying to paint a mural.”
“You don’t look like you’re painting a mural. You look like you’re fooling around with a pencil!”
“Yes, well,” Palette chose her words very carefully, “looks can be deceiving. You looked like a Kecleon just then, but you weren’t really, were you? And you don’t look very cruel, but you did just interrupt an artist in the middle of creating.” The Zorua looked away.
“Yeah... whatever...” She stared back at Palette with a sudden ferocity. “You should just give up! This wall is huge, you’ll never paint all of it, and besides, us kids will mess it up in no time! You should give up, and get out of here, and leave us in peace!”
The Zorua’s tirade left her breathless. Palette leaned backward just a little bit less.
“Excuse me,” she ventured, “but, what is your name?”
“Name’s Charcoal,” the Zorua said, “and don’t you forget it, ‘cause me and my children– I mean, me and my siblings’re gonna drive you right out the door!”
“I highly doubt that, Charcoal,” said Palette. “Siblings?”
“Yeah, Hatch n’ Tohne are somewhere around here...” Charcoal looked around. “Hatch! Tohne! Get out here, boys!”
“You don’t have to shout,” said a quiet voice from behind Palette, “I’m right here, you know.”
The Zorua across her had the same round eyes as Charcoal, but with an extra maroon crescent around the outside of each one, as if his eyes were being forced constantly downwards and inwards by his markings. His fur swirled around like a stylized candle, but his face couldn’t be more put out.
Charcoal breathed out. “Oh... Tohne,” she said, explaining the panic out of her eyes, “I didn’t see you there.”
“That’s,” Tohne stated matter-of-factly, “because I wasn’t here. Who’s this?” he demanded, gesturing at the Zoroark between them.
“She’s our new target. Duh!”
“What’s her name?”
“You can’t properly antagonize someone if you know their name, idiot!” Charcoal jumped on Palette to emphasize her point, and looked the painter straight in the eye.
“You! What’s your name?”
But Palette was dumbfounded. She hadn’t worked with kids since fighting that Heatran when Sorbet attacked, but there was more than that. These children... were they familiar, somehow? She never knew many other Zorua, but those gold beads and yellow eyes...
Charcoal got bored of the older Pokémon’s unresponsiveness, and turned to Tohne.
“Where’d your brother run off to? I called both of you! He better not be jumpin’ off tall things again.”
Tohne sighed. “I don’t think he’s gone that far, this time. I think he’s tryin’ to see if he can ‘splode those kids outside with his mind.”
The female Zorua bristled noticeably.
“That little... Tohne, I’m gonna go deal with Hatch. Don’t let this,” she jerked her head at Palette, “get too comfortable.” Then she jumped off Palette and strutted toward the door.
“You can just leave whenever you want?” asked Palette.
“Yeah,” said Tohne, “I mean, it’s not like that Blissey’d stop us. She pretends to be all kind and understanding and everything, but she can’t wait for us to be gone. We cause way too much trouble.”
“So why don’t you leave?”
Tohne was indignant.
“Yeah, and where would we go? We ain’t got no home, nowhere! Not since Momma disappeared!”
“Oh, your mother was one of the Pokémon who disappeared? I didn’t hear about a Zoroar–”
Palette stopped. She knew why the kids seemed familiar.
Tohne laughed bitterly, and looked down at the floor.
“You mean you haven’t heard? Her name’s Shade, she’s the one who caused all this. Kidnapped some green fairy thing, and was gonna kill her, till the fairy screamed real loud and everything got all weird.” He paused to look back up at the Zoroark. “What’d you say your name was?”
“I’m Palette,” she said in a daze. “The painter...”
Tohne’s mother... she knew who that was, perhaps. Sometimes, when it was very dark, and she was very alone, she still thought about that dread ritual in the dead of night, when she’d almost died. When she’d met Pal.
If she was right, Tohne’s mother was an evil Pokémon; the sort that’d stoop to killing an innocent Zorua in a desolate patch of woods, or getting a poor painter violently exiled from her village, or making a talented artist break down in tears. But looking at this Zorua right then, and knowing why she felt so uncomfortable, she couldn’t be afraid of him anymore.
She just felt kind of sorry for him.
“You okay, lady?” Palette realized she was making faces, and got her snout under control.
“Yeah, sorry, I just... erm...” She groped and grappled for her next words. “I’m sorry, but... if you know that you need to stay here, why do you make it so hard for Mich– for Missy? She’s only trying to help, and it seems a bit...”
“Ungrateful?” Tohne offered. Palette nodded.
“Yeah,” he said. “It is a little, I guess. And everyone thinks we’re acting this way ‘cause Momma never taught us how to be nice, or something, but that’s not true at all! Momma taught us to be a lot better than this.”
“Then why are you–”
“Hatch n’ Charcoal think if we scare all the other Pokémon off, the nightmares’ll go away.”
Tohne studied the carpet again.
“I don’t wanna talk about the nightmares. I mean, not that you don’t seem nice and all, but it’s just hard to talk about. Especially with them here.” Tohne gestured at a group of children playing Sharpedo and Finneon. The Sharpedo were winning.
Just when Palette was about to retort, Charcoal returned, dragging yet another tricky fox behind her. When the newcomer saw Palette, he broke from her grasp. Hatch?
“HEY! Whatcha takin’ me to the grown-ups for, wench? You tryin to get me interrogated?” Hatch looked Palette up and down with an expression of screwed-up, hateful disgust. His left eye was identical to Charcoal’s, but his right eye was emblazoned with an enormous burgundy five-point star. There was something distinctly unbalanced about the way he carried himself, like at any moment he’d be equally liable to dive for Palette’s throat or topple over.
“This one’s our new target, ya dummy,” Charcoal retorted, “and don’t you dare talk to me that way! Just cause you’re the oldest don’t mean you can treat me like dirt!”
Tohne shrank behind Palette a bit.
“Yeah, yeah...” Hatch rolled his eyes and turned them on Palette. “This is what you interrupted my extra important experiment for? Some stupid menial worker just come to make the walls even whiter?”
“I’m not–” Palette tried to defend herself, but Hatch cut her off.
“Don’t care! Don’t care. Waste of my talents, you are. I still gotta figure out what the deal is with my new powers.”
“New powers?” Charcoal bristled, but Palette was curious now.
“Yeah, my new powers! You stupid or something? We gotta get something for all them Pokémon that disappeared, that’s how sacrifice works!”
Charcoal completely lost it. Her thick fur was enveloped in hot, roaring flames, her half-open eyes went wide with rage, and her face twisted into a snarl. She flew at Hatch and tackled him to the ground, catching him by surprise; he couldn’t avoid it if he tried. Then, she stood over him with a paw on his throat.
“Momma’s. Coming. Back.” Her voice quivered and shook, like it was holding back a tidal wave. “I don’t wanna hear anymore stinking lectures about the way it’s s’posed to be or the sacrifices we gotta make cause it’s just wrong. Momma wouldn’t leave us like that, and you know it!”
“Well,” Hatch grinned, “maybe she wouldn’t’ve if she’d had a proper choice.”
Charcoal shifted more of her weight onto Hatch, as if hoping it’d persuade him to stop talking. It didn’t.
“Not like she was plannin’ on any of this happening in the first place. And I mean, I guess it’s true that fairy was like some kinda ticking time bomb, but maybe it wouldn’t’ve escalated all as it did if it wasn’t for all those enemies...”
“Shut up!” Charcoal shouted, clocking Hatch straight across the snout. “Shut up! It’s not my fault, okay? She was going to kill it, I had to get help! I couldn’t just... let that happen, I couldn’t, it’s not...” The fire went out, and her legs shook. “Tohne! You believe me, right? You don’t think it’s my fault Momma d– Momma disappeared, do you?”
But Tohne couldn’t say anything. Charcoal’s voice quavered.
“A-alright, I need... I’ll just go over and think about things for a bit, maybe. Be– be good, Tohne...” She wandered off toward the door. In another part of the room, Missy noticed the disturbance, and hurried off after her. Hatch just chortled knowingly.
“‘Coal thinks she’s gotta replace Momma, seeing as she’s the one who made her go away.” He laughed harder. “Haha, she’s too young to know much about sacrifice or anything, but she’ll learn. So will you,” he said, with a pointed stare behind Palette, “as soon as you stop hiding behind the enemy.” He turned his nose up at her.
“I got some more tests to do. Let me know next time I’m supposed to babysit.” He put careful emphasis on the last word, like it was absolutely imperative to convey with complete accuracy how childish he thought his siblings were being. Then, he strutted off with the air of a Liepard that had found much bigger game to hunt.
Tohne emerged from his hiding place and lay down, sulking. He must have been the saddest creature in the world, just then; she almost went to comfort him, but she had another job to do. Even if she couldn’t remember why it was more important.
She stood up slowly, picked up her pencil once again, and tried to visualize her stark section of wall exploding into a thousand bright colors. She tried to imagine something that would stimulate young minds, fit the space, and fill the void, but she just couldn’t get past its sheer size. How could she, an unremarkably young ex-Rogue without a past or future, make something beautiful out of so much nothing? A portrait was difficult enough, but this... this was impossible.
“Hey, Palate.” Apparently Tohne had been curious enough to come out of his funk. “Or, whatever your name is. If you’re not here to paint the walls, what’re you doing, anyway?”
Palette sighed and put her pencil down. She wasn’t exactly getting anything done with it.
“I am kind of here to paint the walls,” she admitted, “but not white, like the rest. I am going to turn this whole area into a gigantic painting, called a mural.” She frowned. “At least, in theory.”
“Oh,” said Tohne, investigating Palette’s crate of crafts, “what’s the difference between a painting, and painting?” He peered inside. “And how come you got all these different kinds of paint here? Don’t you just need one to change the color of something?”
Palette froze. No, he... he wouldn’t know about that, would he? Of course, how would he know if nobody ever told him? The only reason Pal hadn’t had to teach her from scratch was... well.
“Er, a painting is like... it is kind of similar to an illusion, because both of them can look like anything you want, you know? But an illusion goes away the minute you stop concentrating it, and a painting stays on the canvas...” Something occurred to her, and she backtracked. “You can produce illusions, right? That is, most Zorua can, but I do not want to assume.”
Tohne shifted. “Well... kind of. I’m not very good at them though, not as good as Momma or Hatch or Charcoal.”
“Why don’t you show me?”
And just like that, Devonshire was there, in the daycare. His wide grin, his shining cravat, his perfect hips were unmistakable. But... it wasn’t a perfect Devonshire; his eyes still retained that unnerving feral yellow, and the Sableye hadn’t had a grey-black tail the last time she’d seen him. But, if Tohne could disguise himself as Devonshire...
Wouldn’t that mean he was the one who ordered the Rogues to knock over PK’s item stand? Wouldn’t that make it his fault that she was exiled?
“Yeah,” Tohne said, still in disguise, “I can’t figure out how to get rid of the tail, or the eyes.” He reverted in an instant. “And I think I got his laugh wrong, too, all that time ago. I don’t think I’ll ever really be as good as Hatch,” he mourned. He looked up at Palette, quizzically. “Is something wrong?”
“I, er...” she stammered, “I just thought of something awful, actually, but it’s not something I want to talk about at this moment. Anyway... anyway, you can’t just use white and black for a big mural like this, because people do not like looking at things that are in black and white! Color makes everything much more interesting.”
“I guess that makes sense,” Tohne admitted, “but why would you just use those three colors, then? Other than white and black, I mean.”
Palette was confused for a moment, but when she looked in her crate, she realized what he meant.
“Oh! You mean the primary colors, right? Red, blue, and yellow are very special to a painter, actually. You see,” she fumbled around for a clean palette, “I can make any other color by mixing two or three of these together.” Palette demonstrated by just barely touching the tip of her braid to the bucket of blue paint and making a little dot on the wooden board. “You see, this is blue, but if I add a bit of yellow...” She wiped her hair off on a rag and dipped it in the pail of goldenrod, though maybe not quite as thoroughly as with the blue; so, when she mixed it into the azure dot, it made a decidedly teal shade of green.
“Oops! Haha, I suppose I didn’t proportion that exactly right. But this is a great demonstration of something I was about to say anyway, which is that if you experiment with how much of each primary you use, you can paint with just about any color in the rainbow!”
Palette looked down at Tohne to gauge his reaction, and she half-expected him to look bored and apathetic. But, she only saw wonder in those wide yellow eyes of his. He reminded her of–
“If you want,” she said, “I could take you back home, to the studio I share with a... with a friend. Not for a very long time, you know, just to show you some more of the things we do as artists. It isn’t as though I’m making very much progress here anyway,” she sighed. “And... also, maybe...” she added hesitantly. “There are not so many Pokémon living at our studio, so maybe, if the three of you did sleep there, you would not have such awful nightmares?”
“You’d do that for us, really?” he said, looking down bashfully. “I’ll definitely ask Hatch and Charcoal if they’re okay with that... I mean, sure, they pretend to be tough and all, but really they’re just as scared as I am. Even Hatch, I think... I don’t think Hatch is tellin the truth right now. I mean, not to me, or to you, but...”
Palette nodded. She understood.
Palette held the door open, and three little Zorua scurried into the studio. She stepped inside as well, lit a gas lamp, and looked around. The place was completely spotless; three of the four easels shone blankly in the moonlight, and the fourth was covered by a blanket. The kitchen floor looked recently mopped, and there were no dirty dishes in sight. No Pal, either, which was odd for this time of night. The artist seldom left the studio at all, really, except sometimes for food, supplies, or ideas.
“Er...” Palette said to her new charges, who were taking in the vista with more than a little bit of wonder, “I was going to introduce you to Pal, but it looks like he is not here at the moment. Would you like me to get you something to eat?”
Charcoal, Hatch, and Tohne nodded fervently.
“Well, then, I shall have to fix something up for you. I should not be very long, but try not to make too much of a mess in the meantime, alright? It looks as though Pal just got finished cleaning,” she frowned briefly before hurrying off to the kitchen.
As soon as she left, Hatch stretched himself out on the floor with his legs splayed. “Yeah, I gotta admit,” he said, “this is probably a pretty nice place to live. I can’t wait till it’s ours.”
“Hatch!” Charcoal scolded. “Don’t say things like that! Palace or whatever’s been real nice to us so far, so we oughtta try and be nice back. Maybe. ‘Sides, we’re only staying in this village till Momma comes home.”
Hatch gave an exaggerated sigh, but didn’t drive the point any further. Tohne was busy exploring the many, many rows of paints on the shelves.
“Hey,” he said, “did you know that if you mix two colors, sometimes you can get a new one?”
Hatch looked up.
“No,” he said, “that’s not how it works. Colors are colors, you can’t just... mix them like that. Stop being so dumb.” To demonstrate, he made a little rainbow in between two paws.
“Yeah you can!” said Tohne. “But it only works with paints ‘n stuff. Like, blue and yellow make green, and maybe you can make some more colors with blue and red and yellow and red too? I dunno, I didn’t ask.”
“Alright,” said Charcoal, “I mean, that’s all well and good, but what’s the point? You can just make an illusion with any color you like. Why would you even mess around with that garbage?”
Tohne was about to retort, but Hatch cut in before he could.
“Hey, y’know, I actually think that’s pretty interesting. Other creatures gotta learn to deal with all those colors and stuff too, right? So it’s a good thing they managed to figure out how.” The oldest of Shade’s children stood up and sauntered over to the wooden shelves covered in huge buckets and medium-sized bottles of acrylics, as well as smaller tubes of oil paints, and stared up at them deviously. “But if mixing two colors makes another one, what happens if you mix three, or four?”
“Well,” said Tohne carefully, “I guess you’d probably get another sort of color. But I don’t see why-”
“But you don’t know, right?” Hatch pressed. “Aren’t you even a little bit curious, Tiny?” Tohne didn’t say anything, but Hatch wasn’t waiting for an answer. “What d’you say? Blue, red, and yellow, right? These ones should work.” He scanned the shelves and found a bottle of blue acrylic paint, a bottle of red, and a bottle of yellow. He jumped up and knocked them down one by one, felling a few extra bottles in the process, some of which popped open and started oozing their colorful contents where they lay.
“Oy, Charcoal, help me get these caps open!” She was only too happy to oblige, and before they knew it, the three primary colors formed three distinct blobs of bright color in the center of the studio.
“Now we gotta find some way to mix it up,” said Charcoal.
“Well, that’s no problem at all,” Hatch beamed, and he ran to grab a rather large brush from across the room. He thrashed about with it firmly in his jaws until the thick paints were not only thoroughly mixed, but scattered all over the room.
However, the mixture hadn’t formed some new type of color, or even an existing color. Instead, the whole mess just made a large brown-black sludge across the white floor. Still, one does not embark on scientific inquiry unprepared for failure!
At that very moment, Palette walked back into the main room of the studio to let the children know that their noodles and broth was ready.
“Tohne? Charcoal? Hatch? I– Oh. Oh no...” She stood transfixed at the destruction.
If Palette had read more stories concerning matters of the heart, she would have been fully prepared for what came next. She might even have expected it a bit sooner. But since she had not, she was taken completely by surprise when the door of the studio creaked open and Pal stepped inside.
Pal looked like he had run afoul of a herd of Bouffalant and then scrubbed the ground in their wake: ragged and tired, lugging some sort of cardboard box that was just a bit bigger than his head. He set the box down gently by the door, stared at the two Zorua standing next to the unappetizing broth of expensive paint, and took in the third Zorua hiding in a dark corner. Then, he turned to Palette.
“What is this, exactly?”
Palette looked around too, and tried to think of a good explanation. What would he assume, looking at all this? She thought of something particularly horrible, horrible enough that it had to be acknowledged.
“They are... not mine.”
“Of course they are not yours!” Pal snapped, impatiently. “I would hope that if anything so momentous happened, you would at least tell me about it a week in advance! Speaking of which, when were you planning to say that we were adopting, exactly?”
“I’m not-” said Palette. “Look. These children... I think they belong to her. You know... the one you saved me from, a long time ago.”
Pal was taken aback for a moment, but he quickly regained his composure. Three little minds tried to process the idea that the strange artist from the daycare somehow knew their mother personally, and failed.
“D’accord,” he hissed, “then I will correct myself. You are not only not telling me things that you should really be telling me, you are trying to get yourself killed! Has it not occurred to you that there are p-possibly people other than yourself who care about your s-safety? Because obviously you do not!”
He continued hastily. “And... and how much progress did you make on that mural? Not very much, yes? How do you plan to become a good artist if you will not spend time perfecting your art? If this does keep up you will end up doing bad things just to survive, like you did before I took you in!”
Palette’s pulse was quickening, but the blood wasn’t warming her veins. It was running cold, and spreading the awful coldness through her arms and legs, making them rigid; and through her mind, hardening her heart.
“Well, fine, then,” she said, with a level voice that wouldn’t stop shaking, “I will clean up this mess, and they will leave. And then I will start packing, because if they don’t deserve a home out of pity, then neither do I.”
All of the color left Pal’s face; his eyes glazed over and his knees trembled.
“Merde,” he said, simply, before staggering back out the door and off into the night.
“You used to be bad?” Hatch asked, moments later.
“No,” Palette asserted. “No, we are not doing this right now. We are not going to talk about that. Instead, I am going to clean up all of this,” she swept a shuddering hand across the dark acrylic devastation, “and the three of you are going to tell me about your nightmares.”
Charcoal fiddled with the fur under her bead, Tohne inspected his left forepaw, and Hatch opened his mouth to speak.
“You are going to do this,” interrupted Pallete, “because I need to know exactly why I just deeply hurt the only one who ever cared for me. Don’t bother arguing,” she said when Tohne drew in a breath, “because I am not going to change my mind. By now, I think you will agree that you owe me this.”
Hatch whistled. “You remind me of Momma.” Charcoal and Palette both shot him a look. Tohne’s fur turned pale.
“Well, er, no... I mean... can we paint them instead? The nightmares?”
Palette stared at him incredulously. “You are expecting me to surrender to you three canvases and our collection of– and Pal’s collection of paints, while the room is still a mess from the last time the three of you touched them.”
“Yes,” Tohne said, “er, but I promise it won’t happen again! Right, Charcoal? Hatch?”
The two of them nodded solemnly.
Palette shook harder. She had to stop herself from reaching out and slapping Tohne right across the face. But instead she wordlessly walked to the back of the studio and fetched tubes of bright watercolors, setting them down before fetching some of the brushes she had used when she was still a Zorua — Pal probably had some irritatingly wise reason for keeping that old garbage around. She picked the three blank canvases up off their easels, placing them gently on relatively clean parts of the floor, and fetched a few cups of water from the kitchen. She left them by the canvases, and then paid her undivided attention to the slick of acrylic disaster splayed across the soft carpet.
By the time the discoloration was only a patch of darker white that she might have been imagining, and the smaller spills by the shelves blended in with the carpet’s many other stains, Shade’s children were putting the finishing touches on their macabre masterpieces.
Tohne had painted his whole canvas impenetrable black, except for a darkened yellow sun with two round eyes, over a spoked crescent moon with its single large eye staring balefully out of the painting.
Charcoal had framed something blue, crowned, and shadowed between two pairs of lines — one straight, one broken. The barely recognizable figure of a Raichu stood fast in front of the shadowed figure, flanked by two... Archen? Ducklett?
Hatch had liberally blotted in greys, blacks, and dark teals around a long white neck and a proud, regal head. But... whatever it was, the darkness around it had enwrapped it with tendrils tapering in ominous hands, covering its mouth and perhaps preventing it from crying out.
All of these nightmares chilled Palette to the bone, but the last made her remember a deeper unnameable fear. She wanted to run, to run far away, and never to return.
“These are,” she managed. “Well, these are certainly nightmares. Um... Tohne?”
“What, erm, I am trying to think of a good way to say this but it is not working, what exactly happens in your dream?”
“Well, it’s kind of... I mean, I’m here, in the village, but nobody else is here. It’s just me, wandering by that statue of the dragon. The fountain,” he said, gesturing straight out the door. “It’s the middle of the day, but then everything’s dark. Not dark like night, it’s like something’s blocking the sun out completely. For some reason, I know it’s the moon, blocking the sun, but it isn’t shining like the one outside.
“It’s some kind of, dark moon?” Tohne shifted uncomfortably. “I wait for it to be daytime again, but it never is. I wait a long time in the dream, but it just stays that way. Forever,” he finished.
Hatch and Charcoal were quiet.
“Charcoal wants to tell you ‘bout hers,” Tohne said quickly.
“No I don’t!”
“Would you mind?” asked Palette. Charcoal relented.
“It’s... there’s some kinda orange mouse, right? And she’s busy, all the stinking time. She’s always fixing stuff that gets broken, cause there are these weird alien-looking Pokémon that are going crazy ‘n stuff, but they run the place or something. A lotta people are... are dying, and the mouse can’t do nothing to stop it,” Charcoal shivered, as if dying were cold enough to steal the summer from the air.
“But, anyway, there’s some kinda king hiding behind that mouse, all blustery and rumbling loud like a thunderstorm. He’s got a weird crown, all bits of metal and panes of glass like it was made outta something else different. And then there’s a big earthquake, and usually I fall off something and wake up.
“There. Happy?” She looked like she would rather sleep than hear the answer. “Hatch? D’you wanna explain yours?”
But Hatch was just standing over his canvas, staring past it into the deep earth.
“I... this isn’t right,” he muttered.
“Usually if I open my eyes, or stop thinking about it, it’ll just go away, but... it’s still there.” Hatch looked up at Palette, his yellow eyes twinged with red and salt. “It’s still there! What if it’s... what if it’s there forever? No... no!”
He raised a paw into the air as if to scratch the painting, or destroy it utterly, but he faltered. The salt finally escaped, flushed from his eyes by a torrent of grief and water, and he collapsed onto the ground, sobbing like the child he was.
“I c-can’t do this anymore, I want M-momma back.” A tear got on the painting, smudging the watercolor base. “I don’t want no stupid powers, or nothing, why d-do we gotta do all these dumb things anyway? Why can’t the dreams just g-go away, nobody here gots to have them. I w-want–” he hiccuped. “I want...”
“Shhh,” said Charcoal. “Shhhh.” She snuggled up next to him, and touched his paw.
“Momma’s gonna come home again, and then everything’s gonna be fine, ok?” She wiped his tears away with a paint-dyed forepaw. “Everything’s gonna be fine...”
“I’ll, er...” said Palette. Hatch, Charcoal, and Tohne all stared at her.
“I’ll go back with you,” she continued. “Sorry that the studio didn’t, um, work out, but perhaps if you know someone at the daycare, it will not be as scary.”
“You... you’d do that?” Charcoal was wide-eyed. “It’s not real nice at the daycare, you know. And you might have to sleep on the floor!”
“That’s fine,” said Palette, “it wouldn’t be the first time.”
So she set the canvases back on their easels, cleaned and stowed watercolors and brushes, blew out the stove, and was on her way.
Later, Pal would return to his studio. The main room would be immaculate, again, and Palette would have left very little trace, except in the kitchen; dinner would be waiting for him there, completely untouched and still mostly hot. He would try to taste a little (no use wasting food, after all) but break down into tears after the first mouthful.
The wall was worse at night.
From Palette’s vantage point on the ground, it stretched upward forever. Moonlight played across it, but the cool rays only emphasized its emptiness. This was not a surface ripe with potential, or some oversized canvas, or even a problem to be solved; it was an oppressive void, a force of nature threatening to swallow Palette and everything she’d ever worked for. It would destroy her, eventually, she thought.
Hatch, Tohne, and Charcoal were somehow asleep. She stared at them, and tried to keep her thoughts on dark moons and hidden kings and proud beasts silenced by strange hands, but she failed. She couldn’t stop herself from dwelling on her argument with Pal.
What had he said to her?
He’d told her the truth, of course. She couldn’t just wish the wall painted, or wish to be someone else, she had to work at it. She knew that, but the way Pal had said it... it sounded as though he really thought she was just going to return to that worthless urchin from so long ago, staking her life for a bit of food. Did he really think that it all meant so little to her — all the progress she’d made, all the trials she’d undergone?
But what had she said to him?
Was it really true? Did he really only keep her around because he felt sorry for her? He had never told her otherwise, and he could be so very hard to read, but... no, there was something more. She couldn’t name it, but it felt... well... it felt like he believed in her.
That was it, wasn’t it? Il y avait son secret. He’d been her guide and her mentor, but also her only fan, and the only one who had ever believed she could become an artist. And now she’d betrayed his trust.
“It’s no use,” she said aloud, staring at the silvery fringe of the window and wishing she could sleep.
“What’s no use?”
Palette looked over quickly. Hatch and Charcoal were still snoring unpeacefully, but one of Tohne’s eyes was cracked open and staring at her.
“Oh,” she said, “you’re awake?”
“Of course I am,” he replied, “but why’re you?” A beat. “Are you still sad about what happened with your friend?”
Palette thought about lying to Tohne, about just telling him to go back to sleep and forget about it.
“Yes,” she admitted, “I suppose I am.”
“I’m sorry,” Tohne said, “it’s all my fault. If I weren’t such a loser, maybe I could’ve stopped them from spilling all those paints, and then maybe he wouldn’t have been so mad.” He sighed. “I’m never gonna be nothing more than the youngest, though.”
“That isn’t true!” Palette retorted instinctively. “You can be anything you want!”
She sat up all the way. “Promise me this, yes? Promise me that if you are unhappy with how you are, you will try to change. If you keep to that promise, I would be a fool not to forgive you.”
Tohne’s other eye opened, and Palette had his full attention.
“Alright, Palette,” he said, “I promise.” Then he closed his eyes, and drifted off into nightmares.
Palette thought very carefully and very deeply. Then it occurred to her that, for once, she might have a plan.
“Tootsie, no! We said we wouldn’t do that!”
The Venipede sighed. “Well, how’re we gonna stop the fire from spreading all the way to Windswept Woods then, Roll? You know what happens if it gets there, those woods are all... windy!”
Roll the Aron rolled her eyes arrogantly. “I told you what we were gonna do! We were gonna do one of those team moves, like in all the stories! Your Rollout with my Mud Slap! We were gonna put the whole thing out in one go, remember?”
“Oh, right,” Tootsie frowned. “How’d I forget that?”
“Dunno, you must have amnesia or something. You gotta get that checked out, Toots, or you’ll never put out fires like the Corps!”
Warm sunlight returned once more to the Tao Village daycare, and with the dry season came the constant threat of inferno. Sure, the cities were well enough protected, but the great wilds between the kitchen and that one Slakoth everyone made fun of? And what of Castle Draclugia? Someone would have to take up the difficult task of making sure all those blazes were properly under control, and the Lollipop Evactuation and Fire Treatment (LEFT) squad would be damned if they wouldn’t have a hand in it.
Tootsie was careful and goodhearted, but maybe a little slow. Roll was her hyperactive and bossy partner in crime, and together they were going to make sure nobody ever got burned up again. Well, after they were old enough for Missy to let them leave, that is. They hadn’t decided who would be the leader, but Roll did have a habit of following Tootsie’s orders in a pinch.
“‘Course I will,” said Tootsie, “I’ll be better than the Corps, even. I’ll– excuse me, miss, do you want something?”
Roll turned around. A great grey monster with a flowing mane of auburn lay on the floor not far away, her chin resting on her claws.
“Please,” the Zoroark said, “call me Palette! And, well, I could not help but listen in. You wish to fight fires?”
“Yeah!” chimed Roll. “We’re gonna be the best in the world, someday.” Her eyes narrowed suspiciously. “Why, you some kinda agent?”
“No, no, not at all!” Palette backtracked quickly. “I was just wondering... fighting fires, would you say that it is your dream?”
“Dream? Like, what you see when you’re asleep?”
Palette laughed musically. “Not really, no. You do not need to be asleep to dream, not at all! A dream is something that gives purpose to your life, when it feels like just living is not purpose enough. Tell me... Toots?”
“Tell me, Tootsie, do you really, really, really want to be a firefighter?”
Tootsie lit up like a firework. “Yes! Absolutely! And so does Roll; right Roll?”
“LEFT, Toots. You bet I do!”
“Then,” said Palette, “it is your dream, and you should hang onto it with every shred of willpower that you can muster. If you do not give up, you will definitely succeed.”
Roll didn’t really understand how she felt about Palette’s words; it was like being hugged comfortingly by a close friend, but with much less physical contact. Still, hearing her talk all about dreams made her curiouser than anything.
“Hey Palette,” she said. “Do you have a dream?”
The Zoroark didn’t answer at first, but stared right back. Then, she made her offer.
“How would the two of you like to be in a painting?”
This ritual was repeated many, many times over the next few days.
Palette eventually managed to talk to every child under Missy’s care, asking each one about their ambitions and offering to include them in her mural. Then she sketched, and erased, and sketched again.
Hatch and Charcoal played together more often now, and though they still refused to talk to the younger Pokémon, they pulled no more cruel tricks. Tohne, however, took an interest in watching Palette’s canvas transform from blank to light grey to blank again, and he was delighted when she was finally satisfied with her pencil outline and began painting the scale model.
Every once in awhile, Palette would notice a shadow watching her from the door, flitting away as soon as she looked. She knew very well who that shadow belonged to, and she missed him dearly, but she could not stop until she had finished. Because she felt so attached to and driven by her work, she did not speak with Pal until the fourth night.
That night, she had finally put the finishing touches on her model, and was dozing off while waiting for it to dry, when he quietly broke the silence of the darkened daycare.
She woke with a start, and her eyes found Pal’s face; clean and composed, like he’d just washed. He was standing over her, but directly in front of her model. He’d been inspecting her work, perhaps?
Presently, he gestured toward it, and smiled weakly.
“Ma chérie, you have been working very hard lately! Your model looks absolutely beautiful. However, I think you deserve a break, do you not?” He extended a paw to help her up, and she took it without a word. Of course, she still had to get up by herself; Pal was never known for his upper body strength.
A few meters away, Tohne listened and thought.
As Pal and Palette crossed the village square, he told her about his last commission.
“Do you remember? Ah, perhaps you were not awake at the time; it was very early in the morning. His name was Twigs, but he brought his step-brother Styx along as well.”
“Twigs?” Palette considered. “Is that the same Twigs who proposed to PK?”
Pal frowned. “Perhaps? I admit I have not been paying attention to much of the village politics lately. Perhaps I should. I certainly he did not, though; he was an exceedingly rude customer. I cannot imagine PK putting up with him for much longer than a minute.
“Alors! He said a lot of very vicious things about Messieurs Shroomsworth and Malt, though his step-brother’s babbling made it very difficult to pick out the words. Eventually, he asked me to paint a portrait of him, so I told him my prices. He ignored me! He said I could choose a prize from his home, when I was there. I asked him why in the name of all art I would be visiting his home. Ma chérie, if only I had not asked.
“He told me that he was not planning on returning to the village soon, so I would have to deliver the finished artwork in person!”
“What,” said Palette blankly. “Did you... mishear him? Surely no one could be that inconsiderate.”
“No,” Pal replied, “I did not mishear, though I thought so at first too. I feel the right thing to do just then would have been to refuse, but... that Meowth’s claws were not looking very good for my canvas, and he looked ready to snap if he stayed much longer. And it looked as though he would stay much, much longer if I tried to turn them away.”
“Besides,” Palette reasoned, “you did need the money, and any treasures you obtained could be sold through the Merchants Guild.”
Pal looked very strange for a moment, as if he wanted to laugh and cry at the same time.
“Yes, yes. Bien sûr! Of course we need money. But I would not dream of selling what I came home with. It is the point of this story, actually. Come in, let me show you!”
The studio was filled with light, because every lantern in the room was ablaze. The four easels stood flat against the back wall, and any detritus of Pal’s profession was similarly cleared away. Palette noticed the huge cardboard box that Pal had been carrying the night she’d left; it was sitting ominously in the very forefront of the room. Expectantly.
Pal hurried over and pried the petals of the box open, peering inside. “Yes!” he said, “it is still as beautiful as before! Come see!”
Palette was more than a little unnerved by his mania, but her doubts melted away when she saw the intricate machine inside the box. Its base was a little metal rectangle, with a circular pad on top and a handle for cranking attached to the side. Next to the pad was mounted a sort of enormous horn, with its mouth agape to the world and its mouthpiece lost in complex machinery that terminated in a little wheel.
“It is known as a phonograph, I believe,” Pal said.
“It... certainly is something,” Palette replied. “But what does it do?
“Well,” said Pal, “not very much, alone. Mais!” He rooted around inside a drawer, and pulled out some sort of disc. “With this, it will make music!”
Palette looked closely at the object in Pal’s hands. It was deep black, nearly as black as wet black paint, and covered in little circular grooves that spiraled outwards from an inner white circle, which itself was punctured through the middle. The inner circle had writing in it, in fancy lettering that Palette could just barely make out:
“UNTITLED, composed by ♬ and performed by the Alomomola Symphony Orchestra.”
“Watch, and see!” Pal placed the disc gently on the floor, and took the phonograph out of its box, setting the machine on the floor next to the wall. He ran the box into the kitchen. Then, he picked UNTITLED back up, and fitted it clumsily into the top of the strange machine. He set the wheel carefully into one of the grooves on the disc, and turned the crank vigorously. The crank made an ugly click-click-click noise as Pal worked.
Then, finally, he let go, and the crank immediately started to turn the other way... but so did the disc, and when the disc moved, the horn of the phonograph crackled and spit and started singing the most gorgeous song Palette had ever heard. She gasped aloud, and Pal smiled broadly.
“Ma chérie, do you know how to dance?” Palette shook her head slowly. “Ah, then, follow my lead. Ce n’est pas difficile!”
Palette couldn’t reach Pal’s hip, as the traditional stance would require, so they grasped claw to paw and paw to claw. Pal showed her, with light motion, how to sway and step to the rhythm, to the ebb and flow of pianissimo and mezzoforte. Her feet stumbled and jerked at first, but eventually she found a sync, and then they were dancing. It felt like the most natural thing in the world, then.
For a measure, or perhaps it was a hundred measures, they said nothing; they were too busy concentrating on their steps, and on each other. But then, for the second time that night, Pal broke the silence.
“Palette... er... about those paintings. The ones which were still on the easels?”
She tripped over her own foot, and crashed to the floor, but caught herself. “Yes, the... the children made those. They had been having nightmares.”
Another long silence. Pal and Palette swayed and stepped.
“Palette,” Pal said finally, “something very big is going to happen, is it not? Something even bigger than those disappearances, even worse than the disaster with that ice dragon.”
“I think,” Palette said, “perhaps, you are right. And those children, caught up in the middle of it...”
“Us as well, caught up in it,” Pal mentioned.
“Us too, yes.”
Pal was silent, again, for a moment, but Palette knew he had much more to say. And he did.
“I am afraid,” he admitted, “of everything I have worked for all these years, just blowing away in some wild wind. I am afraid of losing all of that.” He grasped Palette’s claws tightly. “But, beaucoup plus important, I am afraid of losing you, ma chérie. Please, promise me? Promise me that you will never blow away again.”
“Now, about... about what you said, that night.”
“No!” Palette interjected, suddenly. “No, I... I know I was wrong, you don’t have to–”
“You were not wrong,” Pal said, with a hint of sadness. Palette listened.
“I have never been very good at expressing myself,” he said. “Not in words, that is. And I am afraid that I hurt you, as a result.
“You said, or you said everything but, that I only gave you a home because I felt sorry for you.” He looked away briefly, in shame. “And that was the truth. At least, it was the truth at first. You were a young girl, and I could not live with myself if I allowed a young girl to be endangered so often only for money, you understand?” Palette nodded. He had said as much before.
“I felt that way for a very long time, but I thought I felt that way for much longer than I did. When I thought... when I thought you had died, though, I knew it had been more than that. I could not eat, I could not sleep, and I could not paint. I would have been prepared to give up, you see? To give up everything. Just to see you again.”
“Pal,” Palette said. There were tears in her eyes.
“I have never told you this,” he continued, “so how could I expect you to know? I was a fool, and I deserved those three days to remember what it was like to be lonely again. But, Palette,” he looked her straight in the eyes. “You are much more to me than a lost child, or a student, or an injured animal in the woods.”
“Then what am I? To you?” Palette whispered.
Pal smiled, and his smile made Palette smile, too, and the two of them swayed and stepped circles and pirouettes until the morning.