Aesha could almost ignore the questioning call of the owlet at his elbow. Soldering tool in one hand, wire in the other, and bent over a magnifier suspended over an open circuit board, he was not exactly in the position to offer the tiny bird any assistance.
If that stopped the Hoot-hoot, he’d be sure it was sick.
“Hoooo?” A slight flutter of feathers and pinpricks along the length his arm. Nurik had occupied his shoulder. The little delinquent even went as far as to preen.
A small sound of amusement gave him away and he gave the bird his attention. “You have distracted me. Now what?”
The preening didn’t stop and the man’s amusement faded into something more pensive. For all the picking and grooming, there would be no working around the bandages.
Anyone in Verot could debate the pros and cons of the hunting ban at length when it comes to the economic effect on local farmers, people whose heritage relied on the craft, or even the effects on the livestock versus wild pokemon population and their available food resources in each region. Some could discuss the issue until their voices faded; even more could yell with the same result. However, a trainer of a dragon pokemon with a high prey instinct is likely to reconsider his stance on the topic in the face of a stalking Druddigon eyeing her much smaller companions with intent.
Aesha’s jaw clenched at the reminder that he had to keep Rugby contained these last few days. The issue he quietly refused to address had quickly become a glaringly obvious problem. Restlessness had caused Rugby to be more aggressive since the ban had put an immediate stop to her bi-weekly hunts along the border of Tundra and Forest. Her moods were never directed at Aesha, but the other two pokemon on the team…
Aesha set his tools down and propped his chin on his knuckles, staring at nothing as his thought. It was clear to him they increase of meat in her diet was not satisfying the dragon’s need. The issue went beyond an extra few helpings of fatty Diggersby or a special treat of market Spheal.
Dragons were as old as time and their very nature as predators could not be curbed by something as small as being a trainer pokemon. They were primal and wild; any trainer knew that was to be respected. To deny them of that which was as ingrained and as natural to them as breathing bordered on cruelty. Plus, it was dangerous to those around the dragon. Several online forums had reports of dragon/trainer attacks in the last few months. All were people who were in the wrong place when that restlessness snapped.
Aesha sighed and brought his thought back to the present, brushing a knuckle along Nurik’s chest, mussing the feathers he had so adamantly tended. Nurik huffed at Aesha and nipped at the offending finger.
Aesha hummed to himself and a thoughtful frown rested on his lips. “Maybe I’ll give one of those loopholes a chance.”
Those “loopholes” were ideas shared on one particular forum of ways people had gone around the ban. The reasons varied, but the results were the same: perfectly legal ways to hunt.
Perhaps one would work for him. For Rugby’s sake.
“What do you think, hmm?”
His answer was given in the form of various hoots and the fussing of a tiny beak in his own loose hair. Apparently, Nurik took offense to being so near to someone who didn’t take caring for his plumage as seriously as he did.
It took two weeks to finally be ready to follow through with the loophole. In truth, it only took 4 days to get the items he needed. The rest of the time was spent justifying the whole plan. The possibility of even one thing going wrong was nearly enough to turn him off to the idea. Accidental bystanders, miscalculations, personal injury, even jail time were on the list of possibilities. Not to mention the additional threat of being recognized as the eldest son of Hiroki Feiman; a consequence he would not usually consider.
All that and he still didn’t back away from his decision. Besides, it was far too late for seconded thoughts, especially while driving a trailer with two Stantler—bought from a breeder, tagged, and chipped—on the way to the Tundra/Forest border.
Aesha reviewed the loophole in his head once more as he drove the trails. It was one of the more practical plans, though one of the more expensive. You would need to buy no less than ten max repels, contact a livestock breeder (there were seven specializing in this trade), rent a trailer, and secure enough land to accommodate your mon’s hunting patterns.
The last bit was biggest problem. On his own, Aesha did not own the acreage that Rugby needed, but he did have a travel visa to Forest. That’s where the max repels came in. Once he crossed the border he’d clear an area of inferring, wild pokemon and let Rugby’s nature take its course.
He crossed into Forest with no problems. He signed the paperwork, verified the Stantler were his and would not be coming back to Tundra with him. The forum suggested saying they were a gift, but that was a bit farfetched. Aesha admitted to having them butchered. The border control nodded and sent him on. Forest was known for their excellent handing of meats, after all.
The max repels were set in a 3-mile radius and the truck was parked by a stream.
“Alright.” Aesha took a deep breath and let it out slowly. Nerves had him doing it three more times before his face set into a determined frown and he opened the trailer.
The Stantler tittered nervously as he approached them to remove the blinders. He ran his hands along each, from snout to head to the trackers embedded in their ear-tags. They turned on at his touch. It was time. Aesha backed out of the trailer and let the Stantler follow him to the exit. The larger doe was bold and left the bed in a trot, the other trailing behind closely. They meandered nearby for several minutes before Aesha shouted at them to scatter.
He hopped back into the truck to get his tablet. He opened the tracking app and watched the blue dots moved further downstream. Deep breath. Time to let Rugby go.
He rolled Rugby’s ball in his hand for a few moments. He thought about leaving. He thought about Nurik’s bandages.
Aesha released Rugby. All 400-hundred pounds of her shook the ground and a beat of her wings buffeted the undergrowth. Smaller animals would surely scatter if there were any left.
“Hey girl. It’s been a while since you got a good stretch.” Aesha voice was soft with her.
Rugby’s great red head lowered to Aesha and nudged at his chest, her rough skin pulling at his shirt. She rumbled low in her throat. A greeting. Then amber eyes dilated and focused on him in an entirely unnerving way. She caught scent of the Stantler on him. The rumble grew and her jaw opened enough to draw breath, tasting the scent.
Shit. “Rugby, no.” Aesha gripped the sides of the dragon’s head and winced. He forgot his gloves. “No! Listen to me,” Aesha kept his voice firm and waited for the hungry gaze to meet his. “Wait.”
Her eyes flicked away. He gave her head a shake.
Seconds ticked by before their eyes locked and her jaw—thankfully—closed. She huffed heated breath from her nose.
“Good girl.” Deep breath. “Good.” Aesha eased his grip, looking over the one hand he dared to remove from his head. Red, scratched. Tch. “I’m going to let you go. Just give me a moment.” He had to do this right. No fear, no anger, just routine. Still holding the intense stare, he reached in his pocket and took out a third tracker on a chain. Rugby followed his hand’s movement when he slipped the tracker over her head. Aesha didn’t blink.
“I’m going to let you go. Hey!” She jerked at the familiar word ‘go’. “Listen. You come back when you hear it, you hear me?” Aesha waited for a sign she understood. “Rugby.”
The dragon focused long enough to still her body. She was listening. “Good girl.”
Hands dropped from her head, raw and some deeper grooves beginning to leak blood. One, two, three steps away and Aesha let his shoulders relax. Ease and calm he’d spent years trying to radiate to her covered his body. It was a sign he trusted Rugby. It was the sign she needed.
Azure wings spread, ruby jaw opened, and in a gust of wind and scrape of claws on a tree for leverage, she was gone. The hunt was on.
Aesha climbed back into the truck and watched the red dot make its way after one blue dot. He waited.
It was surprising to Aesha to find that his shoulders held no tension as he sat in the truck, watching the red and blue dots move about the digital map. It would make sense to be tense while technically committing a federal crime. However, Aesha recognized this feeling, recognized the calm that came from waiting. When Rugby had her regular hunts, he used the time to do paperwork, or catch up on his reading. He’d give her an hour before she either came back on her own, or he blew the whistle. Conditioning. Who knew?
One blue dot blinked out of existence. Rugby had made her first kill. The first almost always sated her hunger, so it would be longer until the second was caught. Playing with your food, as it were. They were still within the radius and only… He checked his watch…half an hour had passed. They still had time before the repels wore off.
Before Aesha could sink back into his near-resting state, the second blue dot disappeared. “What?” He frowned. Rugby’s red dot was nowhere near it. A few taps and the app confirmed the signal was lost.
The red dot was still on the move towards that area.
An uneasy feeling crawled down Aesha’s back. He had the keys in the ignition before he finished the thought. The truck coughed and sputtered to life and lurched over the roots and sparse undergrowth, heading east. Grey eyes darted from trees to tablet and back, tracking Rugby’s dot and dodging bushes and low-hanging branches.
The red dot grew larger the closer he drove, and—for a brief moment—Aesha felt the foolish for thinking the worse.
The red dot disappeared.
“Shit!” He jerked the wheel left, sideswiping a leaning tree. The passenger side mirror was lost, but Aesha barely paid it any mind. All his attention was on dangerously accelerating with no trails, severely limited sight, and rising panic. “Shit, shit, shit, shit…” The chant filled the cab.
When the forest was too dense to go any further, the engineer had no choice to continue on foot. Leaving everything in the truck but Rugby’s pokeball, he called out into the brush. “Rugby!” A beat. “Rugby!” He caught his fingers between his lips and blew a shrill whistle. It echoed off the trees and he waited. One, two, three, four… He blew again.
One, two, three, fo… A roar—loud, intense, angry
—shook the leaves.
Aesha sprinted towards the sound. He stumbled once over a root, then again over an … antler? No. A bundle of antlers. Confused, he almost stopped. Almost.
A dozen more yards and he felt the air tingle with static and the scent of burnt ozone. Rugby had used Flash Canon. The scene he came in on explained that. Rugby thrashed—all fury—under the heavy weight of chain-link net, held down by five men. A stretch of land and equipment lay in embers at their feet.
He shared the dragon’s rage. “Hey! What are you doing?”
Two men turned, while the rest continue to try and subdue Rugby. “We don’t have time for this!” The biggest one shouted. He gestured wildly in his direction. “Raymond! Get rid of him!”
Raymond was a big beast of a man and he lumbered into view from Aesha’s left. He carried another heavy chain wrapped loosely around his fist. “You ‘ave no business here, little man.”
“Little m--?! She’s mine! Registered.” Aesha shifted a foot back, easing into a ready stance.
“Can’t belong to a dead man.”
He lunged. He was quick for a man his size. The fist missed, but the length of chain the swung behind it cuffed Aesha in the side. It wasn’t much, but it told Aesha what he needed to know. Strike hard, strike fast. He fell back a step and dodged Raymond’s second try, this one trying to grab him. The chain followed in a wide arch, missing its target. This dance didn’t continue long. Aesha ducked under the next swing and struck hard with his elbow. Not enough! He shifted and use the momentum to force his palm up under the large man’s chin, snapping his head back, followed by a swift kick to his ankle. The big man buckled and fell. The ground shook.
What the hell? Raymond was big but not that big.
The ground shook again and Aesha’s attention was back on Rugby. Her claws glowed and the net was cut as easily as if it were nylon. The men had obviously not see Dragon Claw that close, or they would have been fleeing rather than trying to throw the remaining bit of net over the dragon.
This couldn’t continue any more. As she continued to panic, the chances of Rugby flying into a blind Outrage grew nearer. There would no stopping her. Aesha drew out her pokeball. He had better chances of escaping on foot that she did by flight.
His leg was snatched from under him and he hit the ground. Hard. Looks like Raymond was ready for round two.
“You little shit.”
“Let. Go.” Aesha lashed a vicious kick to the man’s face and crack under his heel and Raymond’s scream meant he struck true and broke the goon’s nose. He didn’t have time to be please; the grip on his leg was solid though the man’s pain.
Thunk, thunk, thunk. Three shots in quick succession could be heard over Rugby’s growls. She reared on her back legs, working another Flash Canon in her throat. The light flared and died just as quickly as she slumped and fell to the ground.
“Rugby!” Aesha kicked again and wrestled his leg from the vice-like grip. Rugby was shot! “Return!” But there was no ball in his hand. Where? When? He searched frantically among the leaves and debris and completely missed the new voices in the area.
“Halt! You’re under arrest for suspicion of poaching!” A woman’s voice carried across the area, “Hands up where we can see them.”
Rangers filled the area, Gavantula and Ivysaur at their side, guns pointed at anyone not in uniform. A few of the men raised their hands immediately. Raymond was too busy clutching his face. One hesitated and looked ready to bolt.
“I said, hands up. I won’t say it again,” the woman warned.
The idiot tried to run. A Gavantula caught him in an Electroweb before he got far. The electricity coursing through his body was enough of a warning for the others.
“You, on the ground.”
Aesha knew she wouldn’t say it again, so he raised his hands as well. He never took his eyes off Rugby’s prone form though. They shot her. She could be dead for all he knew. He was too far to tell.
The woman called out orders and the area buzzed with activity. Rangers handcuffed him, along with the other men and collected materials and evidence in the area. Aesha was seething.
One of the rangers approached the woman in charge. “Hey boss, we bagged and tagged everything. We don’t know what to do with the Druddigon. We tried to ball it, but it’s registered.”
“She’s mine.” Eyes turned to Aesha and he straightened his spine, as if the cuffs and soil-stained clothes did nothing to hinder his appearance. “Her ID number is 662939, and she’s under my name. Aesha Feiman.
The rangers shared a look at and man showed the information to the boss for confirmation. “You’re a long way from home, Feiman.” The tone was surprisingly neutral.
“I don’t know what was going on before these men attacked my dragon.” That was the truth. Saying anymore without his paperwork or tablet would make it worse.
“We’ll figure it out at the station,” she hooker her thumb at the group. “Load ‘em up!”
The men and Aesha were lead to a paddy wagon—an honest-to-Arceus paddy wagon—and it was the sight of Rugby being returned to her ball that finally eased the tension in his shoulders. Well, temporarily. Before he stepped into the van, the ranger boss stood near enough for him to hear her whisper, “I don’t know why you’re out here, but you owe me. Big.”
Confusion, question, recognition, realization. “Oh,” Aesha dropped on the bench, “Oh…shit.”
“She’s gonna rip you a new one, Feiman.” The door closed, locked, and the van was moving.
“Imagine,” a near-hysterical laugh slipped out before the woman pacing the room could catch it. “Imagine my complete and utter surprise
when I got a call from Lisette that she was en route to the station with my fiancé
”—she laughed again—“to process his arrest because he was in the company of suspected poachers.” Her hand ran over her hair, gripping her ponytail briefly in frustration, before joining the other back on her hips.
Lark Grier had been a ranger for nearly six years. She was well-liked and felt both useful and fulfilled with her career. Add that to her happy personal life being engaged to wonderful man who doted on her when he wasn’t being an idiot
, she thought she had it pretty good. Currently, said idiot sat in front of her in the interrogation room of a ranger station, handcuffed to the fucking table. The local detective knew Lark (and Aesha) well enough to give her a head’s-up call before the arrest was fully processed and gave them this time to speak in private. Lisette would be calling in favors for the next ten years.
She was pissed. Beyond pissed. A new level of pissed-the-fuck-off. What was he thinking?
“What were you thinking?!”
“Oh I don’t know, Lark,” Aesha began as if seriously considering the question. “Maybe I thought the poachers would make my crimes look better. Getting arrested was on my bucket list. You know, because I planned
“You planned this alright.” She tossed a stack of papers on the table.
Aesha didn’t need to look; he already knew what they were.
“Logs, receipts, maps. All this just sitting in that crap truck you bought—how much was that anyway?—just to give Rugby a little go ‘round? No wonder they thought you were part of that poaching ring.”
“One thing has nothing to do with the other. Everything I did was above the table. Legal.”
“You know that technical bullshit—“
“You know why I did it, too. I even told you!”
Lark shoved the papers at him, some fluttering innocently to the floor. “You never told me this, Aesha! You never told me you’d were talking to people trying to undermine the law.” She took a breath and looked to the ceiling for a beat. Two. Three. “The law, Aesha. The law we—I—uphold.” She didn’t say believe in; they still were at odds about that.
The silence ran thick and the handcuff made a soft sound as Aesha shifted in his chair. “What did you expect me to do? Put her down? The simulations stopped working, she’s been getting aggressive. Attacking the others, attacking me. Next could be anyone, Lark. She would definitely been put down for that.”
“I searched and searched and searched for different ways. Training, relays… shit, I even looked into drugs.” He went to cover his face with a hand, but the chain pulled taunt on the table. Both looked at it. It was a symbol that things had gone terribly wrong. He lowered his hand. “This ban…”
“This law,” Lark corrected, “was put into place by the council to be followed by all people in Verot. All. No one is above it, no matter the reason.”
“Of course I know I’m not above it.” Aesha’s fists clenched as tight as his jaw before he spoke the next words. “But I’m not blind. There are problems the council never ironed out and—” No. They were not having this argument like this. Not here, not now.
“We could have figured something out. You know, as in the both of us.” She sounded so tired at the moment. Tired and hurt. “You act like I wouldn’t understand, like you’re the only one with a dragon. Or did you forget?” His eyes answered that question and another wave of annoyance crashed and slipped away. She continued, “Mira and Theron have done fine whenever they go out. I’m sure the two of them could handle Rugby for a night. It’s when we,”—gesturing between them—“get involved, there’s a problem.” She snorted at the look on his face. “Didn’t think of that, did you?”
“…I did not.”
“You need to start using that head of yours for something other than a place to style your pretty hair.”
Aesha tilted his head, said ‘pretty hair’ carelessly draping his shoulder. “…So you think I’m pretty.”
“Your hair is pretty. It’s a shame it’s attached to an idiot.” The slight quirk of his lip took the sting from her words, but the conversation was done.
Lark was still upset, there was no denying that. Aesha was still in police custody, there was no denying that, either. They would be okay, though. Lark crossed the short distance between them and Aesha wrapped his fingers around hers the moment she was within reach.