ROOTS // Professorfic
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August 17th, 2012 (10:46 AM). Edited July 26th, 2013 by Haruka of Hoenn.
Haruka of Hoenn
Join Date: Nov 2007
Days passed quickly in the countryside, and before Michael knew it, he was well into his second week in Solaceon.
The Gym became his second home of sorts, and he was soon able to memorize the names and faces of most of the staff. He never got Lona as his referee again, though as she had seemed to promise from the start, he never got it off easy. His losses soon balanced out with his wins, and the very sidewalk seemed to grow worn from all the times he ran back and forth from the Pokémon Center. He healed after battle sessions, and after practicing with Henry, so much that healing soon became a tiring ordeal.
Nevertheless, the experience came to his benefit. His chart continued to grow as he amassed data from his battles and Henry’s. Michael began to think ahead of time, and compiled a separate sheet of strategies for each of Lona’s pokémon. In addition, he was able to glean some things about the Gym from listening in on trainers’ conversations. From what he gathered, the staff battles were on an entirely different level than the regular ones. Not only did victories count, but the way they were achieved would also be taken into consideration. Henry often relayed to Michael stories he had heard, though it was hard to separate the bogus from the plausible. Too often the boy would come running to him with his fists gripping his hair, breathlessly sputtering that a rule had been enacted saying that each time your pokémon faints, you lose points. Or, that the staff use pokémon specially bred by the Daycare to possess super strength. Those rumors Michael discarded without much thought, but there were plenty of others that sounded perfectly logical, and caused him more than a slight worry. Was it true that they would only be allowed to switch pokémon three times? Did the staff really keep records of their battling style and pass them on to the next one in line, to see if they could poke holes in the trainer’s strategy?
Such questions bounced around in Michael’s mind for the whole second week. His concentration on the Gym was broken only by the routine practice-sessions with his pokémon, who after their sixth day, finally mastered the moves Ted had taught them. The Move Tutor inspected them one last time, and congratulated the boys on a job well done.
“Well, there’s not much else I can say,” Ted told them. “You boys are good to go.”
After exchanging some brief pleasantries, he went with them to the front door to see them off. As they started to leave, Henry turned back.
“Wait,” he said. “What if we need to teach more moves in the future? Who will we go to?”
Ted shrugged. “I’m sure there are other move tutors out there. You’ll just have to ask around. If you want to do the teaching yourself, I guess there’s no harm in it, since you’ve already seen the basics of what I do. There are plenty of do-it-yourself books out there. Just make sure you get a really detailed one. But keep in mind, I’m only talking stuff like Whirlpool, or Razor Leaf. Don’t bother with the complicated techniques, because you’re likely to get it wrong, and God forbid, get your pokémon to hurt itself or you in the process. If you’re going to try with the books, at least get advice from someone who knows the field.”
Henry nodded. “Gotcha.”
Ted looked over to Michael and inclined his head. “Take care.” His eyes lingered on Michael’s a second longer, then he closed the door.
Michael stood on the doorstep for a few moments, staring at the wood’s glossy finish. Ted’s parting expression had been kind… but also the tiniest bit nervous, as if he still remembered their conversation from all those days ago. Clearly, Ted felt that he had told them too much, and wanted to take back his words. Michael found it amusing, but also felt a slight pity.
As the days of battling continued, Michael put the Move Tutor out of his mind, and devoted his full attention to attaining an advancement. Finally, on June 24th, his efforts paid off.
After concluding yet another battle day and meeting Henry in the lobby, the boys went over to the counter to sign out. The attendant looked over their files and lowered the folders with a smile. “Congratulations,” she said. “You both have been promoted to the staff battles. Miss Walker and her colleagues have assessed your p’rformance and deemed you worthy of moving on.”
The boys exchanged a glance and smiled.
“This means that you have a new schedule to abide by,” the lady continued, handing them each a piece of paper. “Starting t'morrow, you’ll arrive here at 2:00 in the afternoon. During a three-day per'yd, you will face two staff members per day, with a short healing break in between sessions. Your opponents f’r each day will evaluate your p'rformance. Be advised that demotion is possible, so make sure you do as best as you can.” At the end of her recitation, she offered them a wink. “Congrats, boys.”
When they left the building, Michael breathed a sigh of relief.
No more waking up God-knows-when in the dark and having breakfast at noon… this just made my freaking day.” As he stepped down the stairs, he kissed the paper like an A+ essay and waved it around in the air. (At his school, legend had it that if you did this with the very first test of the year, you would get As on all the others.) Henry giggled and waved his copy as well. Once they had left the Gym’s premises, they folded up the papers and set off down the street.
“Now at least we know we’re doing something right,” said Henry, patting his pocket. “We don’t have to worry about changing our strategy. All we have to do is keep doing what we’re doing, and we’ll be set!
“Man, forget about that stuff—what counts is that it’s almost over! Three more days, then it’s battle with Lona, and then we’re free!” Michael spread out his arms, feeling the breeze, expressing with his every step the relief he felt. The feeling soon caught on to Henry as well, and the boy began to laugh, clutching his stomach.
For the first time in a long while, they had a free day. After healing their pokémon, they stalled in getting back to their room, instead letting their curiosity tug them on an excursion through town. They passed shop windows and open booths, which sold a variety of things from flowers to ice cream. Grocery stores were in abundance, overwhelming almost everything else with a flavorful assortment of fruits and vegetables. The dominant products were milk-derived, to which there seemed to be no shortage.
As they walked down the street, Michael’s eye landed on a small newsstand that stood by the road. It consisted of a large wooden desk with a clerk standing behind it, and on either side of him, racks displaying newspapers on various topics. Many of them were specialized, devoted to subsets of the population who farmed, knitted, or were just looking for a local news source. Most of the big-name papers were also present, among them
The Lakefront Eye,
and of course,
After a bit of searching, Michael’s eye finally landed upon a thin stack of
The Hearthome Times.
He grabbed the topmost issue and unfurled it, almost unthinkingly, to the Arts and Recreation section. And there it was, printed plain for all to see: “Item Evolution, by Michael Rowan.”
He read through the article a couple times, his smile growing ever wider. The words he had written almost two weeks before now seemed strange and imperfect to him, but for precisely that reason, he had no trouble mistaking them for his own. Some parts even stood out to him as ingenious, and he replayed the words in his mind, enjoying the melody in his former thoughts. Jumping towards the end of the article, he read over the brief paragraph Nancy had written as coverage, introducing him and his subject.
“Michael Rowan, a boy of thirteen, is one of many trainers challenging the Pokémon Gym circuit this year. In his travels, he has remained highly observant — taking note of pokémon and strategies that catch his eye. These and many other experiences have given rise to a new, academic interpretation of pokémon training, which noticeably contrasts with the hotheaded, passionate methods of trainers in the past. By coolly thinking through their moves, and doing their homework before challenging the Gyms, Michael and others of his kind may well play a deciding role in the future of the Pokémon League.”
At the last sentence, Michael felt a chuckle escaped him.
he thought to himself.
The trainer of the future.
The title was strangely fitting.
Rolling up the paper, he turned to the salesman, who was waiting for him patiently, and handed over some coins. The man bowed his head in return.
“I am going to keep this until the day I die,” Michael said to Henry as they left the newsstand. “It’s going up on my wall, right over the huge desk I’ll have in my future mansion.”
Henry rolled his eyes jokingly, and Michael waggled his finger in the air. “You’ll see.”
They took the long way back to the hotel, pausing by stores to window-shop. When they arrived at their destination, it was well into lunchtime, which meant that the cafeteria was buzzing with activity—trainers moving about with metal trays, chairs scraping against the floor, and sounds of clattering tools from the kitchen. The boys immediately joined the food line and sat down to eat. While Michael ate peaceably, Henry kept lowering his fork every so often to look around the room, in search of something.
“Where’s Bertha?” he said at last. “She usually comes by here.”
“Probably busy somewhere else. I gotta hand it to her—she really has drive. If I were in her position, I’d just forge Lona’s signature and call it a day.”
Henry searched some more, then went back to eating, clearly unsatisfied. Some minutes later, Michael heard the clang of a tray beside them, followed by a familiar voice: “Hey!”
Michael turned to see that Leroy had come by. He was wearing plain clothes, and his backpack was dutifully handing from his shoulder. Michael nodded at him. “Hey. How’s it going?”
“Pretty good,” Leroy said. “They pushed my shift back into the evening today, so I have time off.”
“What does the Gym do in the evening?”
“Keep records, mostly. Clean up—that sort of stuff. It’s actually pretty cool. With the crowd gone, it’s really calm and quiet. A few kids come in who make appointments, and they get additional battling lessons from the staff.”
At this, Henry looked up. “Hey, that’s cool! I didn’t know the Gym did that.”
Leroy chuckled. “Well, yeah. A lot of people say it’s a pain, but it does do stuff that other Gyms don’t. I’m glad there’s at least one that gives you a little help, ‘cause the League’s not easy. People drop out all the time, I’ve heard, especially in the higher Gyms. I’ve met people who’re on their way back from Pastoria and Sunyshore. It’s not the Gyms themselves that are hard, I think—it’s because of what comes next that most people realize they don’t want to go through it.” With that, he turned down to his tray and began to eat, letting his words trail off into silence.
But Michael had forgotten his hunger for the time being. He kept looking at Leroy, his elbows resting on the table. “And what comes next?”
Leroy paused to meet his gaze. “You don’t know?”
Henry turned to Michael with a similar curious look, though he did more to hide it, since he knew the reason. The boy cleared his throat. “Well, we know the basics of it, right?” he said to Leroy. “When you beat all the Gyms you’re officially qualified for the League Tournament. They do them once every two years, and once you’re qualified, all you have to do is register two months before the next one. There’s a tournament this year, one in 1965… and yeah.”
“Okay but how does this tournament actually work?” Michael asked. “Do you just battle the Elite Four to see if you win?”
Leroy began to laugh. “I’d start reading up on that if I were you,” he said. “Nearly all the trainers I’ve met know it front and back, and they say that it’s nothing like the Gym circuit. For one thing, the Elite Four tournament is when you battle trainers. It’s the League’s way of filtering out the bad competition. Basically, when the tournament rolls around, Sinnoh gets divided into districts, with each Gym being responsible for its own section of the country. So wherever you live, the Gym nearest you is the one you’d go to for the event. They set up a huge arena, and you battle the trainers in your district in a double-knockout tournament. There are five finalists per district, so that makes forty from all over Sinnoh. Once the preliminary rounds are over in all the cities, the finalists go to this special island off the Eastern coast and have another tournament. This time, there’s only one winner. One winner for all of Sinnoh—
the one who gets to challenge the Elite Four.”
“What happens if they lose?” Michael asked.
“Then their name just gets put down in the records as ‘Tournament Winner.’ The privilege doesn’t trickle over to the runner-up, if that’s what you mean.” Seeing Michael’s look of puzzlement, Leroy smiled. “Yep. That’s how it is. The good part is that if you lose the tournament, you still have your badges. So you can train up and register again next time. Most people in the finals are typically older, like seventeen or eighteen. They usually spend a few years after the Gyms to prepare for the Elite Four. Come to think of it, I don’t get why they let people as young as nine get badges. A lot of the young kids don’t really know what they’re doing, and they always end up stalling at some point or another because they lose interest or aren’t able to train their teams well enough. I’d put the mark at eleven, at least.”
Henry breathed a sigh of relief.
“They probably do it to push people into getting a new hobby…” Michael murmured.
“It wasn’t like that all the time, though,” Leroy said. “Before Ricky Sheldon, all the Champions before were in their 30s. Some were even older.”
Henry began to count off the tips of his fingers. “It’s true!” he said. “There was Bob Gordon, thirty-three. Then Alexia Chambers, thirty-one, Barry Thornburg thirty-four, Lydia Hodnett, thirty… they were all adults. This nine-years-old rule must be pretty new, then.”
Leroy nodded. “It is. Lona’s staff say it got put into effect around ten years ago. They say that that was when everything changed.”
Michael’s eyes found Leroy again. “Changed?”
“Yeah. The staff know a lot about it, actually. Some of them have been into the League for a long time, and they say that twenty years ago, it was way different. The League wasn’t as widespread as it is now, but it was way harder. The Gyms were like battling clubs that served as training grounds for the tournament; you didn’t have to beat the leader or anything to advance. Badges were more like medals that you’d earn for demonstrating your skills. You could enter competitions without them, but the more you had, the more recognition it gave you. The one that people wanted most of all, of course, was the badge you’d get for beating the Elite Four.” Leroy paused, then as if remembering something, added, “Oh, and back then, the League was its own identity. The government didn’t need to pay for any of its events because it organized them all on its own. But I guess somewhere along the way, the League decided to let the government step in and take charge.” He shrugged.
There was a brief lapse in conversation as Michael absorbed these last few words. They didn’t carry any special meaning to him, but even so, he wondered offhand what they would have meant to Bertha.
After the boys were done eating, they emptied their trays and left the cafeteria. Leroy stuck around as they ventured down the hall, and they stopped by the lobby to form a triangle.
“So what are you guys gonna do today?” Leroy asked. “I don’t have to go to work anytime soon, so we could hang out.”
“How about we practice?” Henry offered.
Michael responded with a scowl. “Pshaw. Practice?” He began to snicker. Leroy joined in with a restrained smile, and Henry’s flushed with irritation.
“I mean it, guys!” he said. “We start staff battles tomorrow, and I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to be held back another week because I lost my first time. Or were you missing the way that Lona yelled at you, Michael?” Henry crossed his arms with a smirk.
Michael’s laughter subsided, and he stuffed his hands in his pockets. “Yeah, I guess you have a point. But let’s make it quick, okay? No four-hour sessions like last week.”
With Henry leading the way, the boys went out to the backyard. Much like in the other hotels, there was ample space for trainers to roam and socialize. Grass and trees dominated the area, with little islands of pavement set aside for picnic tables. Henry stopped at their usual spot by an oak tree, and the three of them set down their stuff. Once his arms were free, Michael swung them around and clapped his hands together.
“So what do you want to do?” he asked Henry. “Practice the moves again? Check counters? Squirt people with Water Gun?”
Henry giggled. “No. I was thinking we could have a battle.”
“A battle?” Michael perked an eyebrow.
“Yes, a battle. Come on, we’ve never battled before. And now that our pokémon are more powerful, we should test them out.”
“I’m cool with that,” said Leroy. “If you guys want, I could be like your referee. I know the staff are pretty big on rules, so I could tell you what you’re allowed to do and whatnot.”
“Sounds good,” Michael said.
Pulling their backpacks along, he and Henry stepped a distance of several feet away from each other. Leroy knelt down in the shade of a nearby tree.
As he took out his first pokéball, Michael looked over to Henry and gave the boy a smirk. “Are you sure you want to do this?”
“Yes,” Henry replied, with a returning smile.
“You know I’ll win.”
“Well, it’s worth a try, isn’t it? Plus we have to check how well our pokémon learned those moves.”
Michael let out a laugh. “Whatever you say…” He twisted open the capsule and sent out his first pokémon. “Go, Turtwig!”
Turwtig emerged from a flash of light, fully healed and without a single cut or bruise on his body. When he saw Henry, the pokémon clicked his jaws.
Henry was kneeling beside his tote bag, one hand grasping the pokéball he had chosen. But upon seeing Turtwig, he dropped the capsule and switched for another one. “Go, Starly!”
The jet of light from the pokéball shot out into the air and materialized into the screeching black bird. Michael pursed his lips, watching Starly flap in circles above them. He looked down at Turtwig and called him back, fetching another capsule. “Go, Ringo!”
The Chatot emerged, his colored wings flashing, and climbed to Starly’s height in the air. Ringo began to hum as he followed the other bird, sensing the chance to attack. Henry’s smile fell into a determined pout. “Starly, return!” The black bird was plucked out of the air, and moments later another capsule burst to release its replacement.
The white squirrel landed in the grass, static crackling around its cheeks, and began to scamper towards its opponent. Michael jumped forward with two pokéballs, releasing two beams of light—one going upward, recalling Ringo, and the other carrying a tiny body into the grass. “Go, Caterpie!”
The Bug pokémon had barely emerged from the capsule before the air was split by the sound of two more: “Go, Clefable!”
Pachirisu vanished like a mirage, swallowed by a burning torrent of light. When it cleared away, Clefable landed in his place, right in front of Caterpie. Michael gritted his teeth. “Go, Machop!”
He thrust forth his last, unopened capsule and was about to unlock it before Leroy’s voice rang above the din: “Guys, stop!”
Michael and Henry turned in unison to their companion. Leroy ran over to them with his arms outstretched. “Guys, you can’t battle like this!”
“Who says I can’t?” Michael said. “He counters, I counter back.”
Leroy sighed, letting his arms plop against his sides. “Yeah, but then you’ll never get to the actual battle. And that’s kind of important too, you know.” He swept his gaze over the mess of pokéballs that littered the battlefield. “Send them back.”
The boys complied, and their pokémon vanished. Leroy put his hands on his hips. “Now give all of them to me. I’ll pick out the ones you’ll use.”
Michael and Henry gathered all the capsules into their arms and dropped them into the shady grass. Leroy mixed them around and picked two at random: “Caterpie and Starly.”
Michael drew back out of reflex. “No!”
“Yes.” Leroy handed Michael the silver pokéball, and Henry his. “Look at it this way—chances are, not all of the staff’s pokémon will be type-weak to yours. You might have to face one that has the advantage. They take note of every time you switch battlers, and if they see you do it too much, it gets counted against you.” Leroy leaned back against the trunk of the tree and crossed his arms with a smirk. “I’m waaiiting.”
Neither Michael nor Henry could dispute Leroy’s point, so without a word, they took their places on the field and sent out their pokémon. Caterpie landed in the grass, displacing the blades with a whisper, and vanished into the green carpet. Starly dove into the air, fanning out his wings as he tested the air currents, and settled into a circular flight around the two boys. His sharp black eyes scanned the field, searching for his would-be prey. But Caterpie’s coloring blended so well with the grass that even from where he stood, Michael could only discern her by her red pincers, which clicked periodically as she adjusted her position. This gave him an idea.
Michael tore his gaze briefly to the Starly. “Caterpie, come up!” he said.
Caterpie emerged slowly into the light, latching onto a blade of grass for support. Starly’s eyes found her immediately, and he dove forward, kicking up a gust of wind in his descent.
“Peck, Starly!” came Henry’s shout.
Starly folded his wings against his body and plunged into a deadly free-fall, his orange beak gleaming like a spear. Caterpie vanished in an instant, popping back into the shade and scurrying away as fast as her legs would allow. A second too late, Starly realized that his prey was gone. Unable to stop in time, he tumbled into the empty patch, and rolled several times before sweeping his belly off the ground again. He gained height, dirt sprinkling from his flapping wings.
“Again!” Michael called to the grass, eagerly sweeping his gaze across the unmoving lawn. He had no idea where Caterpie was, and as it seemed, neither did Starly. The bird pokémon flicked back and forth across the battlefield, keeping as low as possible to the ground while it scanned the underlayer. By luck, Caterpie’s head poked out just a few feet away, clicking her pincers tauntingly. Starly pounced, but Caterpie ducked out of the way just in time, and his beak plunged into empty ground. Michael smiled.
Across from him, Henry watched with frustration, his fingers curling and uncurling around the silver pokéball. For a while he said nothing. A look of thoughtful determination came over Henry’s face as his gaze trailed over to Michael. Michael responded with a playful wave. He was determined to let the game continue until Starly wore out, then finish with String Shot to bind him in place. But rather than smirking back, Henry’s frown only deepened. The boy looked down at Starly, then all of a sudden he seemed to reach a conclusion. His eyes flashed.
“Starly, use Wing Attack!” he said. “Sweep it over the ground!”
The strange command caught Michael unawares at first, but a second later the logic of Henry’s plan fell into place. Starly began to beat his wings, generating a gust of wind that flattened the grass beneath him. The blades twisted and tangled, and from within, Caterpie reappeared, sailing over their tops like a windblown leaf. The wind tossed her up into the air, and Starly dove, opening his beak to catch her.
Michael took a step forward, forgetting the rules in his excitement. Caterpie tumbled down into Starly’s waiting mouth, leaving behind a trail of silvery webbing that she had just begun to spin in a frenzy. The string wrapped around Starly’s wings just as he caught her with his beak, and they both fell into the grass.
Leroy began to clap. “Woo! Now that’s how you battle. And you thought you’d lose!” he said to Michael. “I’m telling you, that Caterpie’s a fighter. Great work, both of you.”
Michael and Henry untangled the pokémon and called them back. Leroy rummaged through his pile and held out two more. “Machop and Pachirisu!”
He tossed them two new pokéballs, and the battle continued.
From the start, it became clear that the long days of partner battles hadn’t been a waste on Henry. The boy had picked up some tricks, and his pokémon were both nimbler and more confident than they had been before. More than once, Michael found himself on the losing end of the rally: Machop would aim a Focus Punch right at Pachirisu’s nose, only to find that the tiny squirrel had slipped away and was now scampering over his back and shoulders, zapping at the exposed skin. Occasionally Machop dealt a good blow, but his reflexes couldn’t match the squirrel’s speed, and his struggles soon deteriorated into a mindless chase after Pachirisu’s tail. Michael’s good-humored outlook soon vanished, replacing Henry’s face with the face of the nameless enemy. Henry changed likewise, and soon the boys stopped making eye contact, following the pokémon with their unwavering gazes. Pachirisu’s teasing continued until Machop became sufficiently irritated, then Henry dealt the final blow: “Use Spark!”
That static that was cracking around Pachirisu’s cheeks suddenly intensified, and the squirrel’s body was consumed by a yellow glow. The shockwave transferred by contact, and Machop let out a yowl as the electricity seared through him. He collapsed, fingers twitching.
Michael gritted his teeth. “This isn’t over!”
From the side, Leroy held up the next pair. “Burmy and Turtwig!”
Michael hastily switched pokéballs, too caught up in the battle to care that Leroy had given them a Grass-Grass combination. Turtwig emerged, the not-quite-green colors of his body standing out against the rest of the field. Over the weeks, the pokémon had visibly grown in size. Where before, he had been no bigger than a playground ball, the tip of his stem now skimmed just above Michael’s knee. The pads of Turtwig’s feet were rounder and bigger, which made him sturdier.
Burmy landed in front of him a few seconds later, his pink skin immediately vanishing as he pulled over a cloak of leaves. Two yellow eyes peeked out of the pile, blinking at Turtwig with blank wonder. Michael knew that at any moment, Burmy could use Protect, and flee into an impenetrable shell of leaves that could last for whole minutes. He immediately tossed out Razor Leaf as an option, and decided to stick with physical moves.
Turtwig advanced towards Burmy slowly, crouching like a Glameow about to pounce. Burmy remained still, his limbs inching ever so slightly in to the folds of his cloak. Michael could sense the command on the tip of Henry’s tongue, and knew that Burmy could swiftly follow. Michael let Turtwig advance some more, until the two pokémon were only a foot away from each other.
Finally, Henry broke the silence: “Burmy, use Bug Bite!”
The pokémon collided and began to wrestle, growling and scratching. Their struggle traced a slow, laborious path across the field, resembling a game of tug-o-war. Turtwig had ducked his head and was pushing at Burmy with all his might, and Burmy pushed back with his stubby arms, trying to grasp his opponent’s head. Suddenly the formation broke, and the pokémon collapsed onto each other, Turtwig kicking and butting with his head, and Burmy hopping around the blows, stealing occasional nips at Turtwig’s skin. With Burmy on the offensive, Turtwig had the chance to attack as much as possible without fearing Protect, though with Bug Bite on Henry’s side, Michael knew they didn’t have much time. He sensed an impending loss, but he pushed forward without knowing why, trying to uphold Turtwig’s stamina as much as possible. He avoided long pauses between commands, which had been his downfall many times before, and instead kept an active mental involvement. He shuffled around his side of the field, moving whenever his view of Turtwig was obstructed, commanding with his hands as well as his voice.
“Knock him down!” he called, slapping his hand through the air. Turtwig, whose head was turned to the side in defense, suddenly lashed out at Burmy and knocked him back.
“Don’t take that!” Henry replied, hands on his knees. Like Michael, his cheeks were pink and he had shouted himself hoarse. “You got this! Use Bug Bite!”
Michael’s command came a second too late—Burmy pushed himself at Turtwig, making them both fall, and began to bite with greater rapidity than ever. Turtwig withdrew into his shell for safety, flinching aside whenever he felt a jolt from Burmy. Michael let out a groan.
“Don’t quit, dammit! Get up! Kick him, get him off you!”
Burmy began to pound the shell like a nut, though he wasn’t strong enough to move it, and tried to scare Turtwig into coming out again. Michael began to tap his foot in exaggeration.
Right then, Michael saw the tip of Turtwig’s head poke out from its hole. It was followed by the rest of his four limbs, and his tiny tail. The pokémon’s eyes were narrowed, though Michael could tell that Turtwig was nearing the end of his string.
“Now end it!” he growled.
It turned out, that was all he needed to say.
As Burmy made a final lunge from behind, Turtwig swiveled around and met him with his head, butting Burmy back towards the ground. Turtwig hopped after him and began to knock him around. The pokémon had gone through nearly ten minutes of nonstop battling, and were both equally exhausted. The winning blow, it seemed, could be struck by either one.
Finally, Henry’s focus seemed to snap. He stood up straight and moved to the side, so that he could keep Burmy in full view. “Use Protect!”
Burmy eagerly withdrew, just as Turtwig had done, into his cloak. The leaves hardened, flattening against each other and molding into a smooth, egg-shaped shell. Turtwig stopped kicking and stood still, sitting back on his hind legs. Henry’s face was lifted by a hopeful smile. “Burmy, come out!”
At first, nothing happened. Then the green shell began to totter, as if pushed by a brief gust of wind, and fell softly to the side. It did not move again. Henry’s arms fell against his sides in dismay. Michael was unable to fathom what had happened. He beamed, then began to laugh, clapping his hands.
“Woo! Now that’s what I’m talking about! Ha!”
Henry’s face fell into a pout. Before he could say anything, Leroy held up the final two pokéballs. “This is gonna be a good one,” he said. “Ringo and Clefable!”
The boys’ eyes widened in unison. They returned their pokémon and switched for the new set, holding the pokéballs out at arm’s length.
“Ready when you are,” Henry said.
Michael grinned in return. “Go!”
Ringo dove out of the capsule, soaring into the sky as the last traces of light faded from his body. At the same time, Clefable emerged onto solid ground, one arm touching the ground for balance, and straightened to look up at the sky.
“Clefable, use Gravity!”
Michael countered: “Ringo, distract her!”
As Clefable closed her eyes, Ringo flew forward, talons bared. The rest was a blur of feathers and claws, arms and wings grappling to gain the upper hand. Michael soon felt the familiar weight from Gravity set in, pressing down on his shoulders. Ringo’s flight became sluggish and labored, but the bird managed to stay aloft, his head craned down, eyelids half-lowered in irritation. But due to the battlers’ close proximity, the force affected Clefable as well, slowing down her motions. The more she tried to increase the downward pull, the closer Ringo came to her, until his pestering caused her to lose concentration. Clefable altered between releasing her hold on Gravity entirely, or making the weight so strong that she could barely move.
Seeing Gravity’s futility, Henry sacrificed it to take the offense. Clefable used a string of Psybeams, which plunged Ringo into an alternate reality. He began to flap in circles, chasing his own tail feathers, murmuring unintelligible suspicions. Michael tried to calm him, resorting to the strategy he had learned from Rick.
“Ringo!” he called, looking up at the bird. “Do you hear me? Listen! I’m Michael. I’m your friend. We help our friends. I want you to use Aerial Ace. Fight back and use Aerial Ace!”
After a minute of goading, during which Gravity had pulled the bird down a great deal, Ringo finally came to. He locked his eyes on Clefable, recognizing her a the source of his torment, and lashed out with a raged screech. He shot forward like a bullet, wings flat against his sides, and made a sharp swoop overhead slashed at her with his claws. He made a loop in the air and slashed again, making Clefable totter.
Henry curled a fist. “No, Clefable! Use Psychic!”
Clefable steadied herself and closed her eyes. Over the days, Michael had learned to recognize her when she was in deep focus. He knew he had the chance to attack again, but part of him wanted to see what she had made of Jerry’s technique.
After a few silent seconds, Clefable opened her eyes. They were a blazing pink. A wind kicked up around her feet, stirring the grass, rippling the comma of hair on her head.
Ringo was circling madly through the air, sensing an impending danger, but not knowing where it would strike. All of a sudden, the grass beneath him began to stir, crumbs of dirt and leaves kicked up by the twister. Ringo’s outline began to glow with pink light, and the bird’s motions halted. He began to bob freely through the air, not flying, but held aloft by Clefable’s psychic energy. If Michael had come to his senses right then to give a command, it would have been in vain. A sharp pulse ripped across the invisible connection between the two pokémon, and reached Ringo’s body. The bird let out a yelp, then suddenly the connection was severed, and he fell to the ground like a dropped toy. He plopped into the grass and did not move.
The color faded from Clefable’s eyes, and she wobbled on her feet, dizzy from the sudden loss of energy. Michael did not make a move to return Ringo. He simply stood, watching the bird, a part of him still believing that something else would happen. Henry, who must have felt the same, waited as well.
Then, slowly, the lump of feathers let out a growl. Ringo rose to his feet, ruffling his plumage, feathers sticking out at odd ends.
Like a bolt of lightning, too quick for the eye to see, Ringo lunged at Clefable and began to peck and scratch with vicious speed, thwacking her from side to side. After a brief lapse in concentration, Clefable realized what was happening and began to fight back, though her exhausted blows soon fell out of rhythm with her foe’s. When the bird had pestered her past her breaking point, she collapsed, her back rising with rapid breaths.
Still frazzled, Ringo flew back to Michael and perched on his shoulder, digging his claws into his trainer’s skin.
“Fine, I’m sorry." Michael laughed. “It won’t happen again.” Ringo snorted in response, sounding strangely like Michael himself.
There was clear relief on Henry’s face as he and Michael sent back their pokémon. With the battle no longer weighing on his mind, the boy’s face lost that curious look of deep thought it had previously assumed, and was one more bright and Henry-like.
“Wow, I didn’t think it would get that intense!” he said. “Ringo did really well—no, all of your team did!”
“Thanks,” Michael said. “You did pretty good too.”
Off to the side, Leroy stood up and wiped his forehead. “Man, that was some battle! Really impressive, both of you.” He handed the pokéballs back, and the boys put them away.
“I guess it’s true what they say about battling your friends,” said Leroy, crossing his arms.
Michael turned to him. “And what’s that?”
“They bring out the best in each other.”
After leaving the field, Michael and Henry healed their teams and went with Leroy on a walk through town. They wandered well into the afternoon, until the time came for Leroy’s next shift, and he ran off to the hotel to get changed. Michael and Henry were left alone, pacing down a busy street, not following any clear-cut plan of direction. The sun was beginning to set, bathing the town in orange light. To their left was an area of flat, empty land bordered by a low fence. To their right, the street rolled out all the way to the horizon, ferrying cars and wagons on its back.
Henry was eating an ice cream cone that he had purchased at one of the roadside shops, holding napkins in both hands to keep the melting cream from dripping. Michael had purchased a bag of sweets, and the two of them strolled amiably along, enjoying their snacks.
“I’m really glad we did this today,” said Henry, breaking the stretched silence.
“Did what?” Michael replied.
“The battle. Walking around and stuff. It was a lot of fun.”
“Yep.” Michael nodded in agreement. “Think you’re ready for the staff battles?”
Henry shrugged. “I don’t know. I hope so.” He looked up at Michael. “You?”
“Same.” Spilling the last few chocolates into his palm, Michael crumpled the empty bag and dropped it into a waste bin. “Listen, don’t let all the stuff people say get to your head. I bet the staff battles are just like the regular ones, only against more tactical people. And judging by our battle earlier, I’d say we’re good to go.”
“Me too.” Henry smiled. “I’m really glad we met Ted,” he said. “If it wasn’t for him, I don’t think I would have done nearly as well in my battles. Protect came in handy loads of times. So did Psychic.”
“Yeah…” Michael looked up at the trees that dotted the pastures. “Still kinda feel sorry for the guy, though.”
“Come on, look at the facts—he sits in his house all day dusting his encyclopedias. The guy needs a new hobby; something that’ll get him into town, actually talking with people.” Suddenly, an idea came to him. Michael snapped his fingers and turned to Henry with a grin. “You know what we should do? We should find that lady he was talking about and hook them up for a date.”
Henry’s eyebrows climbed to the tip of his forehead. “A date?” He pronounced the word slowly, like it was something foreign and strange to him. Michael nodded.
“Yes. A date. Don’t tell me you didn’t
anything in the way he talked that other day. He obviously saw a girl he liked—and not for the first time, either—and now he wants to see her again. But he’s trying to be sly about it, partly because he wants to save face in front of us, but also because he either hasn’t felt this way about a girl in a long time, or at all. That’s why he keeps her letters at the top of his shelf like that. He doesn’t want to throw them away, because they’re from her, for Pete’s sake, but it still feels strange to read them; it’s like every time he thinks about it, he goes down the same train of thought a thousand times, and it leaves him feeling even worse than when he started out. So he finally decides that it’s all a waste of time, that a girl like that would never look at him anyway, and shoves the letter aside. He lets it sit on the shelf for a few days, then when he’s got nothing to do and feels lonely, he goes back through his papers and ‘accidentally’ comes across the letter again. Then he goes through the same cycle as before. Meanwhile, that girl’s out there somewhere, living her life, happily forgetting all about the guy who met her some weeks ago. She might even like him back, but she’s confused as to why she never sees him, and why he always takes off like a bullet the minute that she does. There’s no progress at all. We can’t just sit and do nothing about it.” Michael turned to Henry with a steely, resolute expression. What he found was that the boy was staring at him in utter amazement.
“How do you
so much?” the boy asked. His eyes looked like they could swallow him whole.
Michael patted his chest. “I’m an expert.”
Henry was silent for a moment, watching the ground. Then he looked up. “Have you had a girlfriend before?”
Michael began to laugh. “That’s like asking a fish if it’s ever seen water. Of course.” Then the smile faded, and he let out a sigh. “Well, technically speaking, I’ve only had two. Two that I’d call ‘official’, like going out and being alone and stuff. Before that, everyone’s a kid, and you know, you never really take it outside of school.” He paused. Henry was silent, but he appeared to be listening. “I had one last year,” Michael continued. “Her name was Rebecca.”
Henry smiled. “Was she pretty?”
"Hell yes. It didn't go too well in the end, though. She ended up moving to a different city.”
Michael scowled. "Her dad got transferred, and her parents wanted her to go to a different school. She said it was to get a better education. Apparently the people at our school were too much of a ‘bad influence’. Hmph. She said she'd keep in touch, but I haven't talked to her since." He turned away, casting his gaze over to the neatly-cobbled border that lined the road.
Henry was silent for a moment. "I'm sorry," he said.
"S'okay I guess." Michael shrugged. “At any rate, it’s not the first time I’ve been called a hooligan. I know she probably wasn’t thinking of me when she said that, but her parents sure as hell were. That’s all adults can think of me. They see me hanging out with my friends and they think we’re getting wasted or something, when we’re not. They see us run out of a store and they assume we stole something, when we didn’t. I skip class once in three weeks, and I get half that time’s worth of punishment. When I get a bad grade they want me to get a good one, and when I do get a good one they assume I cheated. They think a freaking closed door means it’s the end of the world.”
“Well, that can’t be true. I close my door sometimes and my mom allows it… as long as I don’t lock it.”
Michael smiled darkly. “Yeah, you get it off easy. But where I come from, you can be one of two things—a perfect little angel, or an unfixable mess. And for some reason, I’m always on the bad end. Always have been, always will be.”
“So make them see you as something else,” Henry offered.
“You don’t get it. There’s no point. To them, I’ll never be anything but a lump in a chair, that kid who’s letting his life pass by right under his nose. They try to help me, but what they don’t get is that I don’t need their help. And I don’t want it.” Feeling an urge to stretch his spine, Michael straightened, looking squarely ahead. “I know exactly where I’m going. And if I ever forget, I’ll find my way again. I don’t need anyone to do anything for me.”
“Yeah…” came Henry’s sigh. His voice was quiet. “I wish I could be like you.”
Michael rolled his eyes. “Stop it with the ‘me’ stuff. Just be Henry. He’s not that bad a cat… when he doesn’t complain.”
Henry giggled. “I bet that’s true.”
They continued walking, falling silent just as they passed by the marketplace. The plaza was teeming with people, some who rushed between the indoor shops, and others who floated around the tables and baskets that stood in the open air. The boys stopped for a moment, and suddenly, Michael felt Henry grab his arm.
“Michael, wait!” Henry said, pulling him back with a gasp.
“What? What is it?” Michael began to jerk his head around, looking for the source of the boy’s panic. Then his eyes landed on Henry, who was standing with one hand loosely curled into a fist, as if on the threshold of a monumental revelation.
“Didn’t Ted say that he kept seeing that lady in the marketplace?”
Henry glanced over to the crowd. “What did she look like?”
Michael bent his head back as he tried to remember. “Uh… what was it… red heels, cardigan, hat, and skirt.” He looked over to Henry, who was tapping his chin, still not tearing his eyes away from the outdoor tents. “Why, what is it?”
“I think I just saw her,” Henry said. “The hat and heels, I mean. No one else is wearing them.”
Michael opened his eyes all the way, bringing himself to full attention. “Where is she?”
“Hang on… I just lost her.” Henry’s eyes swept across the scene, following a random path of movement, as if trying to locate a fly. Then, his face lit up, and he pointed. “There! Over by the fountain!”
Michael’s eyes landed on a column of gushing water that spurted from a stone bowl in the center of the plaza. A fleeting pair of red heels flew across the pavement, though the body attached to them was constantly flitting in and out of view from behind people and objects. The boys immediately ran in pursuit, keeping the shoes in view as they zipped through the sea of moving bodies, cutting a beeline through the outdoor stands. As Michael neared the figure, he began to discern the details—the brim of a skirt that skimmed past the knees, a blouse of some sort, and a white denim cardigan, where at once an arm came into view, balancing a small purse.
The woman came to a stop beside a basket of apples. She leaned over to examine them, but the sunhat kept much of her shoulder area hidden from view. Nevertheless, Michael became certain at that moment that they had found the right person. He and Henry scampered over to a slim tree and hid behind it, peering out from separate sides of the trunk.
“Can you see who it is?” Henry said.
Michael squinted. “I can’t tell. She still won’t turn around.” He craned his neck left and right, but no matter how he repositioned himself, he still couldn’t see any part of the lady’s face. From afar, the plain, classy style of her clothing stood out from the dressy frills of the other women, exactly like a city person would stand out in the country. “It’s definitely her, though,” Michael said. “Man, we must have some serious luck…”
“I wonder where she’s from,” Henry said. “If she doesn’t live in Solaceon like Ted said, then what if she’s on a business trip or something? She's probably really busy during the day, so she leaves her pokémon at the Daycare Center, which would explain why he saw her there."
Michael thought for a moment, then suddenly he snapped his fingers. “Bertha!”
“What?” Henry turned. He caught on a second later, and his eyes grew wide. “You don’t think… you don’t think it’s her, do you?”
“What if it is?” said Michael. “Come on, it makes perfect sense! Look—Ted said himself that he doesn’t think she’s from here. And Bertha isn’t. Ted said that she dresses differently from how other people dress in Solaceon. And Bertha does! She wears heels and hats, doesn’t she? I never saw the other stuff before, but I bet she just bought them in her spare time!” Michael let out a laugh, slapping the trunk of the tree. The utter perfection of the moment astounded him. The pieces had fallen together in the best possible way, and now all that was left was to somehow get the two of them together.
“This is amazing,” Michael said, unable to contain a smile. “We gotta talk to her. Let’s go.”
He came out from behind the tree, but just as he was about to approach her, the lady stepped away from the baskets and turned around. The breeze caught her midway as she did, making her skirt ripple, and the sunhat tilt away from her head, revealing a pretty, smiling face. And right then Michael understood that the reason he couldn’t see the woman’s hair was because it wasn’t long enough to dip past the brim of her hat, that the reason Ted mistook her for a foreigner was because she had spent the bulk of her time studying and training somewhere else, and that the reason her figure looked so familiar to him from behind was because he had spent the last two weeks spotting it from every angle and distance, hearing it described with anger and awe by a thousand different voices, to the point where the sound of her name stirred dread within his very heart.
It was Lona Walker.
In that instant, an electric shock seemed to course through Michael's body. He stumbled back in breathless shock, eyes bulging, unaware that he was keeping an iron grip on Henry’s shoulder and pulling the boy back by the shirtsleeve. Henry mirrored his reaction, mouth agape, and the boys grabbed at each other’s arms in an attempt to regain their balance. Once they were on their feet, they turned tail and ran away as fast as they could, before the Gym leader could notice them.
Michael ran like the wind, sailing past a blur of shops and signs, their colors winking past him with lightning speed. He continued up the block as far as his legs would allow, till he found a tree that stood alone by the sidewalk and skid to a stop beside it. He leaned one arm against the trunk, gasping for air. Henry appeared beside him moments later, his momentum so great that he fell with his knees onto the pavement. For a minute, both boys were too out of breath to speak. Still shaking, Michael and Henry turned to exchange mute, horrified glances.
A moment later, they burst into laughter.
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