At two o’clock the next day, the Solaceon Gym was empty. The crowd from the morning rush-hour had cleared, and the facility entered its second phase of operation. Staff members emerged from various doorways and roamed the halls with their pokéball pouches, chatting as they cleaned up and locked vacant battle rooms.
Gradually, a small amount of trainers sifted in to replace the old crowd. These were the newly-promoted trainers, some starting their very first day of staff battles, and others setting out to complete their third. Their footsteps were slow and hushed on the hallway carpet as they sought out their assigned rooms, each trainer lost in their own focused thoughts, acting out whatever mindset they had set for themselves. Some walked with their eyes fixed firmly ahead, avoiding contact with others, mulling over the taxing few hours they were about to face. Others expressed evident relief at their achievement, striding with confidence, rearranging the pokéballs clipped to their belts in anticipation of battle.
Michael and Henry were among a handful that had arrived early, and sat at the lobby benches waiting for their names to be called. Admissions would be staggered—first the trainers awaiting their final battle day would be called, then those awaiting their second, and finally the first. The trainers filled the neighboring lobby benches, sitting in their own tightly-knit groups and whispering. Michael and Henry had isolated themselves in a corner as far from the front desk as possible, their heads bent over Michael’s notebook.
“… okay, so remember—Flying moves against Hitmonchan and Hitmonlee, because those have to reach us to be able to hurt us. I don’t want to risk it with Croagunk, because they’re supposed to be poisonous, so we’ll use Psychic moves for that one. All non-contact stuff.”
As Michael traced his finger down the compiled list, Henry followed along, nodding. “Okay, but what about Machoke?”
“I doubt the staff will have a Machoke,” Michael replied. “You heard what Leroy said—you can only battle with them if you have a special license. Plus, I think that Lona would want to keep him to herself, like a secret weapon she’d pull out to catch people off-guard.”
Henry nodded. “Yeah, that makes sense… but that leaves us with only Hitmonchan, Hitmonlee, and Croagunk. That can’t be the only pokémon that the staff use. Or do they all have the same teams or something?”
“No, that would make it too easy. They probably have other pokémon too, for the sake of contrast. All of them should be at least partially a Fighting type, though, so in any case, we should be fine with the counters we have.”
Absorbing this, Henry nodded.
There being nothing else to review, both boys eventually settled back and let their gazes trail off into space. Henry, who seemed to be in deep thought, broke the silence with a whisper.
“You know what I don’t get?” he asked, turning to Michael. “Why is it that she looked so different that other day? I know she wasn’t in uniform, but still… it’s like it wasn’t her.”
Michael did not respond to Henry’s inquiry, but they both knew that they were thinking about the exact same thing.
Michael had not immediately comprehended what he had seen when he had locked eyes with Lona the previous day. Neither, it seemed, had Henry, and only now did the full meaning of their encounter come to Michael’s awareness. Ted was in love, unknowingly, with the Gym leader from hell. But even stranger was the fact that the lady in the marketplace looked almost nothing like Lona—in dress or demeanor. The placid, impenetrable expression she often wore was gone, replaced by a liberated calm—almost a cheerfulness. Without the jacket’s accompanying weight, she walked swiftly, as if carried by the wind, seeming like just another lady off on her own business.
She was normal.
And it was wrong.
Wrong like seeing his least-favorite teacher shopping for groceries, or catching the prim-and-tidy school nurse munching on a box of French Fries. But whatever alarm Michael might have felt in such situations of the past, it was nothing compared to now. At first, he had been ready to accept any possibility—that it had been Lona’s less-evil twin; that it was just a trick of the light that he had seen her face—anything but the fact that it was Lona herself. But as time passed, he realized that it was the only plausible option. The more he thought about it, the more inevitable it seemed, until finally Michael was washed over with morbid acceptance.
But beneath that, he was also the tiniest bit curious.
The feeling had permeated his mind ever since the encounter, even in the times when he wasn’t thinking about it. Michael couldn’t give it a name, but the feeling was that of incompleteness, akin to what a scientist would feel when discovering that a whole chunk of the iceberg was underwater. Its mysteries were hidden away in the depths, just out of reach, but at the same time he had to find them. And for a reason he couldn’t fathom, he felt that the truth would impact everything.
These and other thoughts swirled in Michael’s mind as he looked first around the lobby, then down at his notebook, rereading the penciled text. A minute passed, and the reflective state of mind began to fade, replaced once again by the anxious buzz of battle day.
“So what if they do decide to use dual-types?” said Henry, turning to the chart anew. “They might want to test our skills with special moves, after all.”
“But then it’ll be just like partner battles again,” Michael replied. “The staff should be different; I think they’d want to stick more to their theme, especially since they’re closer to Lona.”
“And if they don’t?”
Michael shrugged. “Well, we have counter moves for Fighting, Fire, Water, Grass, Psychic, Ground, Rock… I think that as far as pokémon types go, we’ve got them all covered. What we have to worry about is the physical aspect... Like, if those Hitmonchans are on drugs to make them super powerful.”
Henry burst into laughter, which he fought to restrain, covering his mouth with his hand. “Yeah, and if Hitmonlee decides to run rampage and kick down the walls.”
“He’ll use Burmy as a football.”
“And Machop as a doormat.”
“And everyone will run screaming from the Gym shouting ‘Help! Hitmonlees on the loose!’”
The laughter eventually won over them both, and the boys began to crack up, heads ducked to hide their shudders. It was right then, without warning, that a third voice sounded above them:
The boys jumped. Michael looked up to see Bertha standing before them, leaning slightly on one hip, arms crossed. Blood drained from his face. He hadn’t noticed her approach, and had no way of telling how long she had been standing there. Michael fumbled for words, quickly skating over the mistake. “I—uh… nothing. We were just… talking about a battle Henry had a few days ago. The trainer used a Hitmonlee, and it was really… powerful.”
Henry nodded in agreement. “I lost two to nothing.”
Bertha lifted an eyebrow. The story was a flop and Michael knew it, but he did his best to keep a straight face, knowing that he had no choice but to stick with it. For a while, Bertha’s expression did not change. She looked at them, eyes slightly narrowed, shifting her gaze from one boy’s face to the next.
“Well, that must have been some trainer,” she said, crossing her arms. “It’s not too often I see a kid with a Hitmonlee… I hope none of your pokémon got hurt too bad, Henry.”
“Oh, they’re fine! They’re all fine,” Henry replied.
Before Bertha could say anything else, Michael cut in. “So what are you doing here? How come we never see you anymore?”
This seemed to pull Bertha out of whatever she had been thinking before. Her eyes drifted closed for a moment, and she shook her head. “I’m here to meet with Lona again. I can only see her on certain days and times; the rest I spend at the hotel, or just walking around. And Lona… well, I don’t know what she does, but she always seems to be busy. Schedules, schedules—that’s all she can live by.” Bertha let her arms fall to her sides, and her stance relaxed somewhat. “I was surprised to see you two here, actually. Did your morning battles go all right?”
“We didn’t have them today.” Henry said. “We got moved up to the staff rank.”
“Huh. Well that’s good to hear. I knew you boys could do it.” Bertha returned a tired smile. “But don’t relax just yet; you still have a Leader battle to prepare for. I want you two to make me proud.”
“We will,” said Michael, desperately wishing for the conversation to end. And it did—Bertha did not ask them any more questions after that. She settled into a comfortable pose against the wall, looking out at the rest of the lobby. Michael relaxed somewhat, though in his mind he still scolded himself for letting down his guard. Looking down, he saw his notebook, which was lying closed in his lap, his arms covering it protectively. Had it been like that when Bertha saw them? Or had he snapped it shut out of reflex when she approached?
The possibilities were endless. As his brain scrambled to replay the sequence of events, Michael stole frequent glances at his backpack, wanting to quickly slip the notebook away. But he dared not make a move with Bertha so close by, for if she had seen it, then hiding it would only amplify his guilt. So Michael waited, his back leaned against the wall, tapping his foot against the floor. Henry was silent beside him, staring ahead with blank eyes.
After a length of time had passed, the attendant at the front desk stood up from her chair. “Michael Rowan, Henry McPherson!” she called.
The boys sprang up, and with a slightly hurried pace, went over to the desk.
“Wristbands, please,” the lady said.
They held out their arms, and one by one, the lady marked them down.
“If you need to heal y’r pokémon, go to Room 14 in the right wing. If not, then you can immediately go to y’r battle rooms—Michael, Room 22; Henry, Room 36.”
Nodding in thanks, the boys turned towards the right hallway. As he passed by the benches, Michael stole a glance at Bertha. The Gym leader met his gaze and gave them a thumbs-up.
Maybe I just imagined it. Maybe she didn’t hear anything at all. No—of course she didn’t. All she heard was us talking about Hitmonlee. It could be anyone’s.
Feeling the return of his resolve, Michael squared his shoulders and put the encounter out of his mind. He had a battle to win.
Moments later, they arrived at the healing room, where there were eight heating chambers lined up against the walls like soda machines. The boys had practiced lightly that day, practicing commands and acting out scenarios, but nevertheless saw fit to freshen up their teams.
One by one, Michael and Henry released their pokémon after they finished with the heating chamber to check up on them. All of them were looking good, and reasonably prepared. Caterpie’s pokéball was the last to leave the tray. After putting away the others into his backpack, Michael grabbed the remaining capsule and twisted it open. Something hard and green clattered onto the floor. Michael looked down at his feet, and did a double-take — first blind with shock, then filled with rushing dread when he realized what it was.
Henry, who was already waiting by the door, came over. “What? What happened?” The boy looked down at the cocoon and balked. “Oh, Michael, it’s okay! She’s only—”
“I know what it is!” Michael said. “But dammit… Now, of all times…”
“It only lasts for a week,” said Henry, trying to calm him down. “I’ve seen them evolve before.”
“You don’t get it—what am I going to do now?”
“Caterpie doesn’t know any Flying or Psychic moves. You won’t need her anyway.”
“Yeah, but what if all my counters faint and it’s down to just her? I’ll be done for!”
Henry shook his head. “No you won’t. Look, it’ll be fine. Just… don’t panic, and… it’ll be fine.” The boy nodded in affirmation, though words had failed him, still hoping to transmit his confidence.
Michael returned the Caterpie-cocoon to its pokéball, feeling a nagging uneasiness settle in. Caterpie was small, but her sudden absence left a gaping hole in his team’s formation.
Packing away the pokéball, Michael left the healing room and parted ways with Henry. He found Room 27 and stepped inside. His opponent for the day was a guy—fairly tall, with a neutral countenance. When the man saw Michael walk in, he smiled.
“Hey there.” He lifted his clipboard and read off the paper. “Michael Rowan?”
“Great. Let’s g’t started. Name’s Paul.” Paul began to flip through Michael’s past records. “So you were promoted yesterday, and this is y’r first staff battle. Right. You’ve had some good reviews in partner battles so far, but also some bad ones. The staff have taken note that you’re a pretty tactical thinker, which is good, but early on, you had a tendency to rush. You didn’t think your moves all the way through, and as a result, you passed by many opportunities to strengthen your position. Battling is all about grabbing opportunities, because if you don’t then you can bet that your opponent will. Today we’ll see how well you’ve learned.” He placed the clipboard aside and pulled out a pokéball. “Go, Meditite!”
The capsule burst open to reveal a small, thin-bodied creature vaguely resembling a human form. Its head was capped by a mound of white hair, which partially hid its unblinking eyes.
Psychic and Fighting, Michael thought at once. So they did use double-types after all. Taking no chances, he sent out Ringo.
The Meditite turned out to be a pokémon of average strength. Michael had battled a couple of them in partner rounds, and as far as he could tell, this one showed no sign of being stronger in any way. The pokémon attempted a few Focus Punches and a Confusion, but was easily knocked down by Ringo and Aerial Ace. The Chatot’s swift, precise speed allowed him to evade the Meditite, whose attacks were slow and extravagant, making for a short battle. In a matter of minutes, the Meditite collapsed on its belly, and Ringo swooped over his prey, jostling it to make sure it was fainted.
Smiling in amusement, Paul lifted the pokéball to return Meditite, and Ringo flew away satisfied. Michael’s heart began to pound. So far so good.
The next pokémon to emerge was a Riolu—a small, floppy-eared pup that stood on its hind legs. Its eyes were narrowed beneath a cunning smile.
Fighting and… what else? Steel? Michael hesitated in mental debate, noticing the tiny metal spikes protruding from each of the pokémon’s wrists. Finally, he looked up at Ringo, who was flapping overhead.
“Ringo, use Aerial Ace!”
Paul countered back: “Riolu, Jump Kick!”
The Riolu was tiny but fast—as Ringo swooped down, it sprang up to meet him, delivering a firm kick to the bird’s chest. Ringo was knocked off-course, but in his struggles to regain balance, he managed to grasp the Riolu’s ear and drag the pokémon with him. As Ringo flew, he shook the Riolu around, throwing it up into the air and catching it.
“Riolu, use Revenge!”
Still dangling from Ringo’s beak, the Riolu swung itself upward and kicked the bird in the neck. Ringo gasped, his beak falling open in surprise, and dropped Riolu onto the mats. The blue pup scampered away.
“No, don’t lose him!” Michael shouted. “Peck!”
As Riolu fled across the mats, Ringo hobbled along in pursuit, snapping at its heels. When he gained enough momentum, the bird pounced, pinning Riolu down with his claws, and began to peck. The Riolu squirmed to free itself, but Ringo’s grip held fast, leaving little to do but flinch under the sharp, stabbing beak. But the little Riolu was surprisingly resilient. Long after Ringo became bored of pecking, the pup was still hanging on to its wits. Eventually Ringo stopped, and began to knock the Riolu around with his claws, seeking new ways of dealing damage. Paul had time to give several more commands, attacks which seemed to serve no purpose aside from tiring Ringo out. The Riolu frequently slipped from his grasp, and zipped over behind the bird to deal a kick. When Ringo finally managed to deal the killing blow—a well-aimed Aerial Ace that had caught the Riolu in the middle of a Jump Kick—the bird was so exhausted that he teetered, and had to sit down.
As Paul switched pokémon, Michael tapped his own pokéball, debating on whether or not to send Ringo back. But when he saw Paul release a Machop, he decided against it.
“Come on, Ringo, get up,” he said. “One more and I’ll leave you alone.”
Ringo lifted his head at the Machop and growled in disdain. He ruffled his feathers and took off into the air again. He was able to hit Machop twice with Aerial Ace, but eventually gave in to exhaustion and succumbed to his opponent’s battering. Paul’s Machop wasn’t as fast as Michael’s, but was an ounce more decisive, and was able to knock down the bird with a flying kick. While Ringo scrambled to his feet, Machop aimed a series of rapid punches, which toppled the bird for good.
Michael returned him and sent out Goldeen. The fish emerged in a rush of cascading water, which she immediately pooled into a swirling ball beneath her. Not a single drop sloshed away from the mass—a profound improvement from their first tentative experiments in Hearthome. Michael pointed to the Machop.
“Goldeen, use Psybeam!”
Goldeen flapped her fins, and the water churned faster around her. Her horn began to glow a bright pink, intensifying at the tip, and with a bang, released a beam of psychic energy that hit Machop in the chest. The pokémon stumbled back, hands covering the burned area.
“Now!” Michael called.
Before Machop had time to recover, Goldeen sprang forward, carried by her own wave, and swept the Machop off the ground. Pursing her thick lips, Goldeen began to peck at its skin, leaving tiny indentations. All the while, she carried it across the battlefield, knocking Machop against the walls and floor, till the pokémon was dazed and blubbering. Dropping the Machop onto the mats again, Goldeen finished off with another Psybeam, and the pokémon collapsed.
Paul whistled. “A’right, one more to go… This one should give you a peek at what’s to come.” He switched pokéballs. “Go, Hitmonlee!”
All the jokes and speculation Michael had gone through over the days about Lona’s team made him forget that he had never actually faced a Hitmonlee in real life. It was a tall, leathery-brown creature whose whole body consisted of a torso, supported by two disproportionately long legs. Its arms, in comparison, were reedy and feeble. Instead of a face, two large eyes peered out from the flat plane of its body.
In battle, it demonstrated a calculated combination of stealth and grace, and was both faster and more powerful than any of Paul’s other pokémon. As if recognizing the threat, Goldeen immediately lowered her horn and blasted out a Psybeam, before Michael even had the chance to give the command. The Hitmonlee leaned out of the way, letting the beam hit the opposite wall, and sprang forward. It reached Goldeen in a few swift steps and dealt a kick, tossing the fish into the air like a rubber ball. The water around her began to lose its form, dripping down to the mats.
“Get it back!” Michael shouted. “Use Psybeam!”
“Hitmonlee, Double Kick!”
Goldeen began to fall, but before she had time to gather up the water she had lost, Hitmonlee’s foot knocked her away into the corner. The floating pool collapsed, spilling into a puddle on the floor.
Michael clenched his fist. “Get it back! Get the water back!”
Hitmonlee approached for another kick, its arms spreading out at its sides in preparation to shift its weight. Goldeen made a final exertion, and the water rose into the air, sweeping past Hitmonlee’s ankles and pooling into a sphere around her. Michael immediately unscrewed the pokéball and sent her back inside.
I have to immobilize that thing somehow… he thought. Going back to his backpack, Michael looked over the capsules that remained and mulled over what to do. Going by what the PokéDex had told him, the only way he could damage Hitmonlee was if he bound its legs together first. As he stared at the pile of pokéballs, a gradual feeling of inevitability sank over him. He had only one option.
Taking Caterpie’s pokéball, Michael held his breath and sent her out. The cocoon fell onto the mats like a tube of dead leaves. The Hitmonlee turned away from the corner and looked down at its new opponent. It suddenly struck Michael that he didn’t even know if Metapods could see.
“Use String Shot,” he mumbled.
The cocoon did not move. But right then, Michael heard a faint swirling noise, and knew that somewhere inside, Caterpie was spinning her thread. Seconds later, the silvery strand emerged—but instead of shooting out at Hitmonlee, it lay flat on the floor, piling into a sticky glob as it unfurled. Michael’s shoulders sank.
But the sight of the motionless Metapod clouded Paul’s face. He pondered briefly, then addressed his pokémon: “Hitmonlee, use Vacuum Wave!”
The Hitmonlee bent over the cocoon and began to whirl its fists in a rapid circle, churning up a gust of air. The cocoon rolled over onto its side, but due to the strings weighing it down, remained put. Hitmonlee approached from a different angle, but to no avail—the current generated by Vacuum Wave only tangled the silver webbing further, wrapping it around the cocoon. Seeing no other option, the Hitmonlee gave up hope and kicked back its leg, preparing a kick to sweep the cocoon off the ground. Caterpie went flying, bouncing off the ceiling, the webbing unraveling around her. Hitmonlee continued to kick her around the room, and where Caterpie flew, a trail of white followed, sticking to the walls and the wooden window frames. The cocoon was utterly indifferent to the Hitmonlee’s battering, which only angered the pokémon further, and it continued its rampage across the room, unaware that it was getting itself entangled in the process. The webbing looped around the Himonlee’s ankles and arms, tightening as the pokémon tried to wriggle free. Michael smiled. It was a messy solution, but it worked.
He returned Caterpie and replaced her with Machop. Being the more cautious, Machop quickly skipped over the stray webbing, and engaged Hitmonlee in an impressive rally. With its motions hindered by the string, the Hitmonlee quickly succumbed to Machop’s blows, and fell back. It collapsed in a heap, squirming to free itself from the sticky mess that coated it. Michael immediately switched in Goldeen to deal the final blow. The Psybeam blasted from the fish’s horn and pierced the fallen Hitmonlee between the eyes, after which the pokémon went slack.
Once the standard five seconds had passed, Paul sent back the fainted Hitmonlee and cracked a smile. “Good work,” he said to Michael. “You’ve learned to turn the tides to your advantage. But you could still use some tightn’ing up—you’ll want to make your decisions a bit faster in the future.”
Michael nodded. He could still feel the frantic beat of his heart, and scarcely believed what he had done.
“You can now head out to the healing r’m for a fifteen-minute break,” Paul continued. “Don’t worry ‘bout the walls—we have stuff to clean that up. Just come right back here when you’re done, and y’r second opponent for the day will be waiting for you. Good luck!”
Michel left the battle room and found a healing corner nearby, where he started up a vacant machine and healed his team. There were four other trainers in the room with him. One was still using the machine; the others were seated by the tables against the wall, eating chips, stealing glances at the clock.
Not wanting to spend his time with such somber company, Michael emerged into the hallway and began to pace around. He went all the way to the back of the wing and happened upon a dead end, where a single battle room door stood on the opposite wall. A boy stepped out of it moments later, his back to Michael, a duffel bag hanging from his shoulder. It was Rick.
Seeing Michael, the boy stopped in his tracks. “Oh. Hey.” Suddenly, Rick frowned, lifting his chin. “What are you doing here so late?”
“Staff battles,” said Michael, unable to hide a smirk.
Rick winced. “Oh. Well I’m still in partner battles. Week five and counting. My referee made me stay late to do another round.”
Michael let out a snort. “They rejected you again? Did they at least tell you why?”
“They say I lose too much,” Rick said. “Either that or I don’t win the right way. Same stuff they say every time, really.”
“Well, why did you lose?”
Rick shrugged. “How should I know?”
Michael was about to reply, when a sudden thought occurred to him. He paused. “Let me see your team.”
“Just do it. Come on, let’s go in there.” Michael pointed to the door behind Rick.
The boy hesitated for a moment, then pulled it open. Michael followed him into the empty battle room and made sure they were alone before continuing.
“Okay. Now show me your team."
Rick dropped his duffel bag and began to remove pokéballs, eying Michael incredulously throughout. He sent out the members of his party one by one: Shieldon, Luxio, Bonsly, Glameow, Piplup, and Beautifly. The pokémon were all sluggish from exhaustion, some fainted.
Michael paced around the team, arms crossed like a specialist’s. When he was done looking, he shook his head slowly. “No wonder you’re losing, man. You gotta learn your types.”
Rick tilted his head. “Huh?”
“Well, look—” Michael pointed. “—you have three pokémon that are weak to Fighting. Shieldon is Rock and Steel, Bonsly is Rock, and you’ve got Glameow, which is Normal. All those types are weak to Fighting moves. Luxio, Piplup, and Beautifly are your only safe defenses, but even with that, they’re not good counters. You have to catch a Flying or Psychic type, ‘cause those are the only good moves against Fighting types. It’s obvious why they don’t let you move on—they see you doing well against pokémon of different types, but when you go up against Fighting, you lose.”
Rick shook his head. “No, you don’t get it… cat, you don’t get it at all. That stuff’s not gonna help me. Don’t you see? She’s rigged the game against me! I’ve seen loads of people with Rock or Normal types and they do just fine!”
“Then you use too many special moves,” Michael said. “The staff have told me that before, so all I did was use them less. Just give them what they want; it’s not that hard.”
“Yeah, right. Except they don’t always want what you think they do. Just when you think you’ve got it right—bam, they prove you wrong. You think I don’t know? Trust me, I do. When Lona locks ‘er eyes on you, it’s over. Nothing’s gonna change her mind. If she wants you gone, she’ll get it done.” Suddenly, Rick brightened. “You know what? I’ve been thinking of getting back at her. Lona’s had her way for far too long. She needs to know what it’s like to have all her hard work be shoved back in ‘er face. I’ve talked to a bunch of people and they agree with me. She keeps us here for way too long, and on top of that, she forces us to battle in a non-League-standard way. Technically, as a Gym leader, she has to cooperate with League policy. And she doesn’t. I checked.” He paused, looking at Michael more intently than ever. “Think about this, Mike. Tons of trainers who’re still starting out haven’t made it to this Gym yet. They’re in Hearthome and Oreburgh, battling all-out, spending their time and money to get to the top. But when they get here, what’ya think is gonna happen? They’ll be stomped flat! Those Gym leaders don’t get how it feels, ‘cause they already went through all that. They’ve already won all the battles they needed to win. But we haven’t. Lots of us won’t get to see the gates of the Elite Four Island. Hell, some of us pro’lly won’t even get to hold all eight badges in our hands. And it’s all because of people like her. People who think that they can promise us one thing, then flip it around and make it something else. These Gym leaders think we’re stupid. They think that we have nothing better to than chase their lies. It’s time that changed. The League should be for trainers, not freaking tyrants who think that just because they have the authority, they can do whatever they want with our efforts and the pokémon we caught with our own hands.”
At that point, Rick’s face took on a steely expression, burdened with duty.
"I want to start a petition,” he said. “I’ll get as many signatures as I can — a thousand, maybe two or three— and send it to the League Office to get Lona fired. Someone needs to do something about this. And if I don’t then there’ll be lots of more people like me. People who’re stuck, can’t get anywhere, and feel like life’s run them into a sinkhole.” He paused. “So how about it? Would you help?”
For the duration of Rick’s tirade, Michael had been looking at the window, shifting his gaze from one side of the boy’s head to the other, never meeting his gaze. But now, their eyes locked. Rick extended his hand towards him, fingers slightly curled, waiting to grasp his.
Michael looked at it, and paused.
The fact that he paused unsettled him.
A month ago, he would have accepted no doubt. He would have jumped at the first opportunity to be a part of a grand scheme, to put a deserving adult in their place. He imagined it now—taking Rick’s hand, clasping it like a brother’s, and for the next few days, sneaking around the Gym in between battle sessions, collecting signatures in secret… possibly even stalling his battle with Lona as an act of protest. And then, imagining the look of frustrated loss on Lona’s face when she received her letter of replacement, telling her to get lost, to find a job opening at the nearest fast-food restaurant. Feeling his chest swell with pride when he realized he had made a difference.
These thoughts brought Michael an inward smile. But enjoyed them only insofar as one would enjoy a movie—something that carried no meaning to a person’s life, but served only as a pastime, something to enjoy and forget about. The reel of images quickly faded, as did their pleasure for him, and once again Michael saw the waiting face of the boy in front of him—standing against a room of light, yet still with a perpetual gloom that lurked deep within. It bore no expression, but even so, he could feel Rick teetering between hope and letdown, just as ready to name Michael his enemy as his friend. The burden to decide which had fallen on his shoulders.
Michael searched Rick’s face for a while, but the thing he had seen in it some weeks before was gone. The kid he had identified with during his first battle day had vanished, leaving behind someone who was alien and strange to him.
Michael felt a twinge of annoyance.
He stepped away, silently swinging his backpack behind him. Rick followed him with an unwavering gaze, jaw clenching.
But right before he reached the door, Michael stopped, and turned back with a smile.
“I’ll do it.”
The boy visibly relaxed. “Great. I’ll, uh… keep you posted, then.” He lowered his hand and rubbed together his palms, like a nervous doctor before an operation.
Michael did not reply. He nodded, smiling slightly, and left to return to his battle room.
Late that evening, Lona’s office was dim and quiet. The curtains were pulled down over the windows, bathed in orange light from the floor lamp. The Gym leader sat with her back against the chair, holding a small coffee tray in her lap. She was turned to the far left corner of the room, where the small television set was turned on, blaring a muffled broadcast. Over the years, her use of the TV had drastically declined due to work she took upon herself, and so the box eventually acquired a worn-out look, as well as the insignificant placing it occupied today.
The program she was watching was a rerun of news clips from previous weeks, recaps of announcements she had missed on live broadcast. Lona kept her eyes locked on the screen, her face placid as she listened to the anchorman’s words.
“… and due to the high-security nature of the establishment, little information could, at first, be gleaned from the management of the Eterna Factory. On the thirteenth of June, a statement was released from a factory spokesperson, confirming that the explosion had indeed been an accident, quelling widespread rumors about criminal activity. But the question of what, exactly, the factory had been producing remains a mystery…
… In the weeks following the accident, clean-up efforts have been on the rise, as surrounding towns and even ones far away make donations to support the cause. Chemical reports are gradually being made public, helping us paint a more comprehensive image of the town’s status. While the smoke from the event cleared in a matter of days, it has been confirmed that over 40,000 gallons of liquid chemicals have been spilled as a result of the explosion. While much of this amount has already been removed, surveyors still fear that the chemicals may contaminate nearby water sources. Travel through Cycling Road and Route 211 has been prohibited while cleanup continues. The Eterna government remains optimistic that much of the toxic waste will be cleared by the end of November, however it is uncertain how soon, if at all, the locality will be made habitable again. Significant damage to wildlife has been reported. Rescue efforts are underway to save as many pokémon from the area as possible…”
Lona’s musing was interrupted by a loud knock on the door. She quickly sprang from her chair, shut off the TV, and placed the tray aside.
The door opened, and Bertha stepped in, carrying her usual articles. Without uttering a word, she pulled out the empty chair and sat down, placing her hands in her lap.
The second unspoken rule of their meetings was that no matter how bad things got, there would always be a second day.
Bertha did not open her briefcase this time, or make any move to take the fresh mug of coffee that Lona placed before her. Bertha lifted her gaze and looked directly ahead at the other woman.
“I don’t understand why you insist on remaining blind to the facts. The only way to make any sort of change in League policy is to have money at our disposal. Without that, there’s nothing to build off of.”
Sitting down, Lona shook her head. “You don’t understand. The change that I want—the change that needs to be made—is something completely different from money.” She paused, flipped through a page in her memo pad, and switched the subject. “The boys. Michael and Henry. They will be battling me soon. But I assume that after they leave you will be staying?”
“No,” said Bertha. “I’ll be leaving with them regardless. I have a schedule. And they have a schedule.”
Lona chuckled to herself. “Schedules… that’s all I ever hear from trainers these days. They’re all so eager, so confident… but they have no—no idea what the world is really like…”
Bertha frowned. “Then you really must have no idea how times have changed. Kids do know what’s going on. And they often understand it better than we do.”
Right then, something within Lona seemed to snap. She jerked forward in her seat and slapped the table with her palm. “Better?!”
Bertha jumped, and the coffee sloshed in the mug. A drop spilled out and landed on the surface of the table, but Lona didn’t seem to care. She was livid. “You told me a story last time, Miss Herrida. Now let me tell you something!”
She pushed herself back into her chair, and all of a sudden, her face clouded over, till it seemed that she was looking not at Bertha, but at something in the distant past. “My mother was a pokémon trainer,” she said. “When she was young, the Pokémon League was an organic competition. A goal to strive for. If you weren’t cut out for it, you were either sent home or didn’t try in the first place. Gym leaders didn’t just give badges. They gave lessons. Trainers had to work for their rewards, and if they didn’t, then they’d get beaten to a pulp by the ones who did. My mother raised our family with the same morale she learned as a child. She told us that we had to be ready for the day when we would leave her house and face the world, and that the only person responsible for our success is ourselves. She didn’t expect us all to become trainers, but she expected us to learn from their example, because back then, trainers weren’t just admired—they were respected. They carried themselves with the rightful dignity that they earned through years of discipline and self-teaching. They were a symbol of honor and dedication, and wherever they went, their message followed. They were the pride of their hometowns. The glory of their country. They inspired thousands to follow in their footsteps, if not in career, then in character. And what do I see now? What do I see, in this golden age of technology and supposed progress? I see what was once a symbol of honor to the Sinnoh people be crushed and degraded into an industry! A happy generator of logos and merchandise, clinging to its oh-so-sacred national uniformity, as if without it, the whole country will be torn apart!”
As Lona spoke, she leaned farther forward, till her hands were gripping the edge of the table, and Bertha was leaning back, her eyes frozen in a deadpan stare that was locked on the other woman’s face.
“I had to work for everything in my life!” Lona said. “It was either that or be stuck with nothing! And now I have to watch nine-and ten-year-old children breeze through my Gym, carrying more pocket money than I saw in a month, passing by opportunities as if they grew on trees! They have no discipline. They have no culture, no manners, no sense of guilt when they insult their elders—no sense of the world around them! They put on a hat and backpack and suddenly they’re on top of the world—they can romp around wherever they please; they’ve got Pokémon Centers and hotels bowing to their every whim; the League Heads constantly thinking of new ways of improving their experience… Meanwhile, they have no desire to return anything to the community that raised them up! They don’t understand that those badges they earn mean nothing if they can’t be backed up by skill!”
At this, Lona stood and opened a drawer in her desk. “Let me show you a real badge, Miss Herrida.” And she opened her palm to show Bertha a tiny gold medal attached to a piece of ribbon. Bertha recognized it immediately. It bore the old insignia of the Pokémon League, a Charizard with its wings outstretched and hands clasping pieces of scroll. “This was the badge my mother earned when she defeated the Elite Four in 1941. Her name was Lydia Hodnett. It was the only medal she ever earned in her life, but she didn’t hang it up on her wall like a trophy to boast about. After she beat the League she went right back to training, and later took the next step in raising a family. We all knew that she had been the Champion, but when I found out about the medal and asked her why she never displayed it as proof, she told me that the proof was already all around me. It was in her pokémon, who withstood trial and hardship with her and now had the strength of character to show it. And it was in us—myself and my sisters—from whom she expected no less.” Lona closed her palm with a smirk. “I have yet to see a single trainer who expressed the desire to give rather than take; to be, rather than have.”
She tossed the medal back into the drawer and closed it.
“Do you think it was an accident that after the League became federal property in 1952, it began to exhibit the pattern you noticed today?” Lona continued. “I’m sure you’ve done that research as well—you tell me why the Sinnoh Pokémon League, which used to be the most prominent entity in the 30s and 40s, suddenly decided of its own free will to merge itself with the government.” She put her hands on her hips and gestured for Bertha to speak.
“The League merged with the government because its funds were low,” Bertha said. “People stopped participating and donating, and so to survive, the League had to ask the government to take it under its wing.”
“And do you know what happened?” Lona said.
“The government gave it funding!”
“Oh yes. It gave funding all right. So much funding, in fact, that we drowned in it.” Lona dug around in another desk drawer and pulled out a handful of Cobal badges. She let them spill from her hand like a shower of coins, all identical, clanging against the wood of the table.
“This is what I have to do,” she whispered, sweeping her gaze over the gleaming puddle. “I have to give out these badges to people who beat me in a battle—and I’m not allowed to be too hard on them because it wouldn’t be fair—so that they can move on to the next luxury suite in the next Gym town and do the same. And the next one, and the next one. There’s no challenge anymore, just another pastime like Contests. The League doesn’t mean anything now—not to its proprietors in Snowpoint, or to its trainers. They all see it as some sort of game… a hobby of sorts to demonstrate to the world how special they are, how many trophies they can earn. To them, there’s no meaning behind the battles they win. The other people around them serve no purpose aside from being rungs on a ladder. The pokémon, too. The trainers think that the key to winning is to have the most powerful moves, the best assembled teams, and completely forget the other half which lies in a pokémon’s heart—and their own. They’re a shadow of their predecessors. They think that they’re bigger than everything, that nothing can tear them down. But they’re wrong.” A shadow crept over Lona’s brow. “I’ll show them what a real Gym is like. I’ll show them what the real League should be like. What it would be like if it didn’t spend all its money on useless decorations and pampering!” Flaring up again, she turned her eye on Bertha. “You say that the lack of money is causing our decline? I say it’s too much money! Money that makes those League heads think it’s okay to gorge themselves and their trainers with luxuries. If that’s now they like to express their wealth, then maybe it’s a good thing that Galactic is sucking us dry! Maybe it’s a good thing that the League is finally realizing that its days are numbered! Let the kids all become scientists, engineers. Let them have a model to look up to that says you can only achieve great things if you build them yourself. Pokémon training doesn’t stand for that anymore.”
With that, Lona turned her chair away from Bertha, swiveling towards the side wall. She lowered her head in resignation and closed her eyes. “I know you need my signature, Miss Herrida. But I will not give it to you unless you can prove to me that your petition will put my Gym in a better state than it is right now.”
Bertha sat without speaking. For a while, neither of them moved. Bertha thought of countering back, but the more time that passed, the more she noticed Lona drifting away from her and from the world. She sat with her shoulders down, staring at her bookshelves with an angered, sorrowful expression. One hand kept picking idly at the hem of her jacket.
Lona was so absorbed in her thoughts that she didn’t notice the other woman leave. Bertha stood, gently sliding the empty chair back into its place, and turned for the door. Simultaneously, Lona swiveled towards the back window, covering her face with her hands.
For once, they ended in silence.