Backstage, while waiting for his turn to perform, Ludwig noticed one of the other contestants was staring at him intently. The boy wasn't exactly the last person he'd want to stare at him like that, as with his weird hair curl and vague grin he was fairly cute, but there was something he just couldn't place about him. A weird feeling, a current in the air, like perhaps they'd met before?
But no, on second glance, it was his Houndoom he was looking at, not him, and he started apologizing once he realized his stares had been noted. "Sorry, sorry!", he exclaimed. "Your Houndoom is just super cute, you know?"
"That's not something I hear every day," Ludwig remarked. "Most people say she's frightening."
Without asking, the guy leaned forward and started to scratch the Houndoom behind the ears. "Aw, but she's a sweet girl, isn't she?", he cooed.
Any thoughts of reprimanding him for it died in his mouth as he saw how his Pokemon reacted so calmly to it. Odd, she normally snapped at anyone else who touched her, save for perhaps Gilbert and Roderich. He halfway wondered how he did that before the subject was changed.
"Oh, you know, I think I've seen you two perform before!", the guy exclaimed. "You were in the Azalea contest a few weeks ago, right?"
Azalea? Yes, that sounded right. That had been his last victory. "Yes, uh…" He tried to remember if he'd seen his face in any contests before, just so he could say something. But try as he might, he couldn't remember, so he quickly improvised. "H-how many ribbons have you won so far?"
"Just one so far, but I-"
He was cut off by a voice on the loudspeaker calling a "Feliciano Vargas" to the stage. "Oh, looks like I'm up!", he exclaimed, and hopped up and started towards the door.
"Ah, b-break a leg!", Ludwig hastily called back to him.
Feliciano smiled. "Thanks, you too!"
In a moment, he assumed his place on the television hanging towards the front of the waiting room. His words were hard to distinguish, but he called out a Whismur in a spray of stars, and it used a Hyper Voice to fracture the stars into shining fragments. Despite stumbling a bit, he didn't lose a beat and the two transitioned into a Shadow Ball followed by a Screech that turned the attack into more sparks.
His performance cast a lot of doubt onto his claim to have only one a single ribbon so far, given how effortlessly he and his Pokemon moved together. But, his Pokemon was not native to the region, so perhaps he had meant he'd only won a single ribbon in Johto so far? Yes, that had to be it. There was no way someone who seemed to practically breathe in sync with their partner in a way no normal human should be able to was as green as he claimed.
Ludwig's intention was to question him on this when he returned to the room, but he forgot about it when Feliciano sat next to him and gave a nervous question. "H-how did I do up there?"
The simple fact of the matter was that he'd been incredible, so Ludwig told him that very plainly.
"You- you're just saying that…" Feliciano muttered, looking away. "I mean, I almost fell on my face like ten times and-"
"And you recovered from it," Ludwig finished. "That on its own is impressive."
A smile returned to Feliciano's face, as did a rosy hue. "Thank you! But it's Whismur who did all the work, you know?"
"Yes, of course, but as its trainer, much of the responsibility for its performance falls on you as well."
Another announcement on the loudspeaker derailed that train of thought from wherever it was headed, one calling for Ludwig himself. He recalled his Houndoom without another word and would have left just as silently had an encouraging shout of "Good luck! I know you'll do great!" not stopped him from doing so.
"Thank you," he called back.
He couldn't say his performance went badly, but it wasn't as fluid as he might have liked. But, despite him being a split second late with a command or two, Houndoom performed admirably. Almost too admirably, considering for a brief moment he nearly forgot he was in front of an audience. Yes, it was fantastic when such a steady rhythm could be achieved, but if nothing else, he was sure he could lose points for not seeming focused enough.
It seemed these blatant shortcomings were near invisible to everyone else, though, as the crowd and judges seemed to think it was acceptable. Once he returned backstage, Feliciano gushed over how well he'd done as well, but it didn't ease his worry. He hated to imagine what might happen if someone with his level of experience didn't make it past appeals. It would be a dent in his pride, not to mention he hated not to live up to all that praise.
A sigh of relief escaped his mouth only after all the appeals had finished and the results shone on the monitor. Both himself and Feliciano had made it to the battle round.
The guy beside him laughed brightly. "That means I'll be able to battle you!", he exclaimed.
That sheer excitement was flattering and a bit embarrassing. "Oh, well, if one of us gets eliminated first…"
Vaguely, he registered the announcer stating the match-ups for the battle round would be showing on the screen, and whatever it was he'd been saying got cut off by the slight shock of seeing his first round pair up.
"Well, I suppose we'll certainly be going against each other," Ludwig remarked.
Feliciano pouted. "Aw, I was hoping I'd get to fight you in the finals. But…" His expression changed to a smile and extended a hand to him. "I'll do my very best anyways! And I'm sure it'll be a lot of fun!"
Ludwig shook his hand and gave a nod. "Yes, I'll do my best as well, and it will certainly be a great fight."
There was another battle before theirs; a girl with a Skitty against a man with a Cacturne. Almost miraculously, the girl managed to win with some lucky hits from an Assist attack. He knew he'd seen the girl's face before, but he couldn't place it.
But it wasn't that battle he cared about. No, the entire time, he was too focused on fighting Feliciano to even register the spectacle on screen. He'd asked him to do his very best, but surely he didn't realize what that would mean. He'd registered Houndoom in both rounds for a reason, after all. Since he'd only started training her recently, she would likely be a fair match for whoever his charming opponent used.
Even so his heart pounded more than it had in a long while when it came their turn. Houndoom would perform well, but he had to remember that no matter how well he had done, Feliciano was less experienced than himself. He seemed like a genuinely nice human being, one of the few he'd been lucky enough to meet, and he didn't want to give him reason to dislike him.
But standing opposite him, he saw the bright spark of drive in his eyes. Feliciano would certainly give it his all, so who was he to deny him that?
"Five minutes on the clock, and begin!"
Feliciano looked almost startled by the announcer, but quickly readied a blue-tinted Poke Ball that released a spray of pink bubbles. "Vaporeon, andiamo!", he cried as his creature appeared and let out an enthusiastic cry.
A type disadvantage, but perhaps that was more fair. "Gehen wir, Houndoom!", he cried out, and a look of shock passed over his opponent's face as his Pokemon landed in a spray of flames.
That look of shock remained, as Feliciano just sort of stared instead of calling an attack. Well, that meant the first move fell to him. It would be rude to make a drastic attack, so perhaps just… "Houndoom, use Howl!", he commanded, and the loud cry echoed through the arena.
This seemed to snap his opponent back into things, as he quickly exclaimed "Vaporeon, Rain Dance!", and a mass of clouds began to form above the battle. Cold droplets pelted from it like bullets, and Houndoom let out a disatisfied huff as a sliver of their points vanished on the scoreboard.
Puddles were forming on the ground now, and both Vaporeon and its trainer looked rather pleased at how things were going. "O-okay, use Acid Armor!", Feliciano called out, and Vaporeon vanished into the growing puddles on the ground.
Houndoom looked around for a moment before closing its eyes like it was trying to hear any slight movement from Vaporeon. It started glowing a bit, even before Ludwig was able to verbalize his next command fully. "Houndoom, Solar Beam!"
Halved power? Yes, perhaps, but it would be super effective, not to mention Houndoom couldn't exactly Bite a puddle or Fire Blast a rainstorm. As Houndoom neared the end of the charge, slight ripples could be seen just behind it.
"Turn around!", Ludwig commanded, but he was cut off by his opponent's cry.
"Vaporeon, use Aurora Beam!"
Aurora Beam wouldn't be very effective, he told himself, and wondered why he'd not used a water-type move. Well, at least until he noticed where the Pokemon was aiming: at the puddles forming from the now almost vanished rain. Ice caught his Houndoom like chains at her ankles, and left her struggling to free herself.
"Great work!", Feliciano cried. "Now, give 'em an Aqua Tail!"
"Fire the Solar Beam!", Ludwig countered, and the beam collided with the Aqua Tail, creating a spray of light that the judges seemed to rather like, since it knocked a good chunk off of both of their scores.
However, that didn't solve the problem that Houndoom was stuck to the ice still, and Vaporeon was sliding around rather gracefully on the frozen field. He could use Fire Blast, but that would only bring the puddles back and restart the cycle.
It seemed reasonable that all his cards were spent, so he simply commanded another Solar Beam and hoped perhaps it might hit, but a barrage of Aqua Tails put an end to that fantasy.
His Pokemon soon collapsed to the ground, and the announcer confirmed it was unable to battle, deeming Feliciano the winner.
For a moment, Feliciano just stared at him as he returned his Houndoom to her Poke Ball and thanked her for her performance. Less than exemplary, but he supposed the win wasn't his to receive.
Stumbling over the quickly melting field, Feliciano came over to shake his hand once again, but that enthusiasm had vanished from his eyes. Now, he just looked somewhere between confused and irritated.
After the battle, he found himself backstage, despite no longer being in the tournament. Truthfully, it was probably because he didn't want to fight for a seat in the stadium, yet he still wanted to see how Feliciano performed in the rest of the contest. And perhaps, given the Rain Dance had soaked him as well, he could find a…
He jumped a bit as he felt something touch his shoulders, but he soon realized that it was a towel. "Um, I-" Feliciano muttered something as he stepped out from behind him, his cheeks a bit red.
"I shouldn't have won that," Feliciano stated. "You know it as well as I do. I freaked out and you threw the first attack, and then you didn't take the chance to melt the ice."
Was he accusing him of throwing the match? Well, he wasn't quite wrong on the first point, but that had simply been a polite gesture for his stage fright. "It wouldn't have made a difference," Ludwig assured him. "You would have simply used the puddles it left and attacked me again."
Despite stuttering out a few syllables as if he were to say more, Feliciano sighed and shook his head. "I still don't think you were trying your hardest."
"My Houndoom is fairly green, as far as things go," he admitted. "Perhaps that's-"
"I feel bad," Feliciano muttered. "Even if you were trying your best, I kind of used cheap tactics."
Cheap? No, that had been quite clever. He tried to tell him this, but he just denied it. "To be fair, I thought you were using a different Pokemon. Like that Crobat you had in Azalea."
"I considered it, but Houndoom needed the experience."
Feliciano sat back down and gestured to him to follow suit. Quietly, he said "I think that battle could have been a lot better, though. Can we have a rematch after I win?"
That confidence seemed a bit unusual for him, but who was he to deny the request. "Certainly," he stated.
As it turned out, Feliciano did not win. His Vaporeon lost to the girl with the Skitty in the very next round, in fact, due to a lucky Petal Dance from Assist. But it seemed more because Feliciano was unfocused than the girl's luck or performance. Just like he'd been at the start of their battle, he kept staring off into space like something else was concerning him.
Once he returned backstage, Feliciano offered a hand to him. "So, wanna find somewhere to have that rematch?", he offered.
Perhaps the fact that a forest clearing a half mile from the stadium was his chosen location should have tipped him off to something being up. He didn't suspect what it was until Feliciano took a deep breath and walked a few paces in front of him, but didn't even attempt to reach for his Pokemon like he'd implied he intended to do.
"Ludwig, I need to apologize to you," he stated. "I really shouldn't have been so aggressive against you, but I wanted to do the best I could. In all honesty, I wanted to impress you. I haven't met many humans as in tune with Pokemon as you are, and I wanted you to see us at our best."
What an odd choice of wording, and an inaccurate one at that. Vaguely, he wondered if he was implying what he thought he was.
It became more likely as he went on. "I don't know why, but I still want you to see that. So, is it alright if I go all out with this rematch?"
"Certainly." If this was what he thought it was, this battle would be far more interesting than he had anticipated.
Instead of bringing out a Poke Ball, Feliciano brought out a very familiar device. He closed his eyes as he threw the glass orb that pulsed with energy into the air, and the form of a Pokemon quickly forming around it. This sight was as familiar as the sky, but he still let out a small gasp of surprise. Not for the act, but for the result, as a Latias was the Pokemon summoned.
"Um, I- I know this seems weird, for me to have such a rare Pokemon, but, well…" Feliciano took a deep breath before spitting out a familiar stream of words. "I'm not really… a human, I guess. I exist to protect Latias, and my big brother exists to protect Latios. A lot of us exist to protect Legendary Pokemon, actually, but we aren't really supposed to make ourselves known. Really, I shouldn't be telling you all this, but you're really cool and I just want you to feel like you can show me everything you've got. I- It's fine if you use more than one Pokemon- ah, but I guess you should heal first. I can go with you, or I can wait here, or I-"
Feliciano stopped the second he realized Ludwig was practically snickering. He turned a bright red and looked away, Latias copying the motion. "I… I'm sorry. You must think I'm some sort of freak, and I guess I am, and it's fine if you don't want anything to do with me."
"No, no!", Ludwig quickly assured him. "That's not it at all! I just, well, I always had thought for some reason Latias's guardian was female. Silly mistake on my part, I suppose, but I feel a bit guilty now."
Egged on by Feliciano's complete confusion, Ludwig produced the glass orb that was dyed the swirling, sparking violet of storm clouds. "Truth is, I should have suspected you the moment we met," he admitted with a sigh. "I felt your presence, Italy. Forgive me for failing to take that into account in our first battle."
Italy smiled a bit when he heard his epithet. "Oh, don't worry! I feel a lot better now, actually. Thought I'd scared off a human. Romano would have been super mad at me if he heard about that!"
Power throbbed at his fingertips. Raikou was as ready for this rematch as he was, so he gladly let it materialize in the forest clearing. Italy leaned forward a bit as if to get a better look at it. "Wow, you're Raikou, huh?", he questioned. "So that makes you… Finland?"
"N-no. Germany, actually."
"Sorry!", Italy quickly exclaimed. "Never met one of the Legendary Beasts before, and I always get them sorta mixed up. Um, so you're Prussia's brother?"
Germany gave a nod. "Yes, shamefully so."
Some odd sort of recognition flickered in the eyes of his fellow guardian. "Wow, he's always said you're super strong, so I probably don't stand much of a chance."
"It takes more than strength to win a contest," he reminded him. "And I don't doubt you have the ability to outshine me."
"Let's put a wager on it to make it interesting!", Italy suggested. "If I win, you have to buy me dinner, alright?"
The slight blush on his cheeks as his said this, combined with Latias's coy smile seemed to imply he meant a bit… more by that than he implied. "Very well, then," Germany agreed. "But if I win, then you'll be the one paying, understood?"
Clenching his fist and stepping forward, Feliciano let out a cry a bit too loud for being as close to the city as they were. "Alrighty then, Latias, andiamo!"
"Gehen wir, Raikou!"