Thread: [Pokémon] ROOTS // Professorfic
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Old February 12th, 2012 (6:25 PM). Edited July 26th, 2013 by Haruka of Hoenn.
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Haruka of Hoenn Haruka of Hoenn is offline
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    Hi everyone. Sorry for the wait. Here's Chapter 22!


    Their departure from Hearthome was swift. After returning the Buick to the dealership, Bertha rented a taxi to the train station, where they passed the time before their train’s arrival by exploring the crowded terminals. It seemed that barely an hour had passed, and then Michael was seated in yet another compartment, looking out at yet another point of departure.

    Bertha sat with them the whole ride this time, though there was little conversation among them. Michael occupied himself with an issue of the Pokémon League Weekly that he had brought along. He had dog-eared a page a couple days ago, and was rereading snippets from an article that had caught his eye: The New Championship.

    … Indeed, how many of us can aspire to such lofty aims? The title we seek as trainers is quite possibly the most sought-after title in the country, that one single word that brings fortune and a level of notoriety second to none: Champion.

    But what does Champion mean? During the course of League history, the title has been tossed around and charged with many different definitions. Around the 1800s, a champion was anybody who could beat their entire town’s population of trainers. Today, it is a trainer elevated above their entire country, one who defeats eight extraordinary battlers and then enters a grueling, winner-takes-all tournament against his peers who have done the same. The modern Champion is just as much a commodity as he is a symbol of determination. Upon his victory, the Champion finds that every trainer in the country has learned his name virtually overnight… and that the money he has earned as a prize is only a shadow of what may yet be to come. In a 1959 commentary, League official Robert Spielz called the Championship: “… the quickest route to influence in the world.” And indeed it is—while the Champion’s influence in League mechanics is restrained, their social power is profound. The Champion of 1957, Bob Gordon (who finally lost to Ricky Sheldon in 1960), managed to raise $200,000 to benefit underprivileged schools in 1959. The current Champion, Mr. Sheldon, is currently advocating to launch a Trainer School program, which will be a private, supplementary program for League-aspiring children of ages 7-10.

    Nearly every single Champion in history has altered the job description during their reign. We long-time League fans often remember the early years, when Champions often reigned for eight years in a row, and when the talented, motivated newcomer was surprisingly hard to come by. Today, however, trainers pour into Gyms by the hundreds, some as young as eight or nine. Those young rookies are part of an entirely different generation, one where talent blossoms early, and will strengthens rapidly. Young trainers are faring better and better in the League Tournaments, so well in fact, that long-time League members are forced to face the possibility of a trainer younger than seventeen rising to the Final Four. Ricky Sheldon himself is the youngest Champion to date—he achieved victory at the age of twenty-one. Bob Gordon, in contrast, was thirty-three.

    Before the decade closes, we might begin to see a new type of Champion emerge. The embarking nine-year-old’s fantasy of beating the Tournament might become reality sooner than he had hoped, when he rises through the ranks and finds himself on the hottest seat in the country…

    Michael wasn’t sure at what point the words on the page began to blur, and when the lighting in the cabin became dim and murky to his eyes. After a while he simply crashed, slumping against the window of the train, arms crossed over his stomach. Henry and Bertha followed suit, each at different times.

    For a long while, the trio slept, barely aware of the train’s vibrations. The black of the tunnel eventually vanished, exposing a beautiful, moonlit countryside. The train was speeding through miles of thick, untamed land, where not a single city structure was in sight.

    An indefinite amount of time passed, and eventually, Michael grew aware of a tiny patch of light emerging from somewhere to his left. It grew increasingly bright, the train’s motor increasingly loud to his ears, and then he was finally brought awake by a light shake of his shoulder.

    “You better wake up,” Bertha whispered. “We’ll be here soon.”

    Michael rubbed open his eyes. When he looked out the window, he felt a sudden shock—the sun was rising over a rolling countryside, thriving with hills, trees, and running brooks. He pressed his nose against the glass, searching the landscape for any sign of civilization, but all he saw was the occasional house tucked away beneath a tree, or settled at the edge of a pasture. Hordes of Miltank were grazing in the unenclosed spaces, their tails swishing in the air. Some of them stood up on their hind legs as the train passed by, their curious eyes following the gleaming machine.

    Great. Another farm town. Michael let out an inward sigh. He couldn’t wait to see what delights awaited him here.

    The train came to a stop beside an enormous archway, which led into a sunny outdoor platform. Michael followed Henry and Bertha through the crowd, gazing up at the stone walls that enclosed the space, and the domed, tent-like roof that revealed a slip of blue sky at its peak. Though the interior of the train station was markedly less impressive than Hearthome’s had been, it wasn’t the barn house that Michael was expecting either—big windows and potted plants were juxtaposed with soda machines and newspaper stands that lined the walls, adding a comforting modern touch. The floor was made of a dark, rough wood that creaked freshly beneath Michael’s feet, as if it had been cut away from a tree only moments before. There were windows everywhere, providing an open view of the sprawling pastures around them. It was almost like walking past a mural—each window’s image was a continuation of the previous. The countryside was huge and low-lying, and reminded Michael of the pictures he often saw on packages of organic produce.

    As he trailed behind his companions, trying to adjust himself to his surroundings, Michael became aware of the people who congregated around him, filing the terminal with voices and movement. The Solacians caught his eye at once. Their clothing was simple and conservative, which made even the calm, leisurely style of Hearthome seem flashy. Men wore vests and flannel shirts, and almost always jeans, as if they had just arrived from a long day of work at the farm. The women strolled around in dresses and frilly skirts, accentuating their long, shining hair with bows and ribbons. Even more peculiar was their speech, which was constrained by a light, yet striking accent Michael had never heard before. They contracted their words, rounded out their ‘r’s, and often used words from a local, unfamiliar slang, that made him feel as if he had stepped into a different world.

    Aside from people, the station was also abundant in pokémon, who could often be seen peeking out from behind trash cans, or tamely snoozing in chairs, completely independently of their owners. Michael (who had instinctively grabbed the Stunky’s cage on his way out of the train) felt the pokémon shift about, obviously making a connection in its little Stunky brain. He gave the cage a light rattle, warning the pokémon not to get too excited. But at the same time, he couldn’t help but look around himself.

    Bertha led them to the customer service desk, which was labeled as such by a paper sign. Behind it stood a young female clerk, who was stroking a Bidoof. Her russet hair was split into two pigtail braids that hung down her shoulders, and swayed cutely when she turned her head. “Hi ther’,” she said to them. “Can I help you?” Her voice had the same soft, summery feel as that of the other Solaceon women, though to Michael, hers seemed more pronounced. He caught her eye for a moment, then quickly looked away.

    “Hi.” Bertha removed the note with the Gym’s address and slid it onto the counter. “Could you please tell me how far this would be from here?”

    The lady examined the paper, her slender fingers tracing the lines. “Oh, you’re lookin’ for the Gym, aren’t you? Just go left from here, or north if you pr’fer, until you find the shopping center. It’ll be right ‘round there, next to the Pokémon Daycare.”

    “Thanks,” Bertha said. “And what about a hotel?”

    “Well, it d’pends what you’re lookin’ for, miss. ‘Course we’ve got Holiday Inn ‘n stuff downtown, but we don’t do much of the luxury here, if you know what I mean. We have a Trainer Hotel, but it’s booked up a lot nowadays, so not ev'rone can get in at first. If you wanta give it a try anyhow, it’s right ‘cross the street from the Gym. You can’t miss it.”

    Bertha thanked her, and promptly made her way towards the exit door. Michael looked up at the lady again before he left, and saw her smile at him. It was a warm smile... and a pretty one. Michael decided that he just might like Solaceon after all.

    They followed the lady’s directions into the marketplace, which, as he guessed, was the thriving city center. But town continued to defy his earlier assumptions: it had a much more modern street plan than Eterna, and sleek, simple buildings whose colors blended warmly with the landscape. The roadways were paved and marked with vehicles in mind, and Michael often saw the old car models he was familiar with cruising with their windows rolled down. The lack of skyscrapers and view-blocking trees made way for the full expanse of the sky, which was like a breath of fresh air after the towering city.

    The familiar shape of the Trainer’s Hotel appeared within a circular plaza of shops and outdoor cafés, teeming with people and pokémon alike. The hotel was distinguished, as always, by its enormous sign, but the rest of its outer appearance was adjusted to match the scheme of the neighboring buildings. It had a flat, brown roof, and framed windows.

    Inside, it was just as unrecognizable—the floor was made of the same dark wood of the train station, and the walls were colored a light tan, adorned with paintings framed in brass. A small sitting area stood in a corner by the entrance, furnished with leather couches and armchairs. It was occupied by a motley gathering of trainers, all doing trainerly things like badge-cleaning and writing in journals. A few of them looked up at the new arrivals, but for the most part they minded their own business, avoiding each other’s eyes. No one was talking. In fact, as Michael looked around the room, he became aware of the strange, pervading silence that hung over the lobby, as if everyone was anticipating some great disaster.

    There was one trainer standing at the front counter when the trio approached. His back was turned. He was having a whispered conversation with one of the clerks, while the second was sorting files in a huge cabinet behind her. She wore a dress as well, though her hair was pulled back into a practical bun. Hailing the clerk with a wave, Bertha proffered her I.D. “Hello. I’d like to rent two rooms, please. One with a trainer discount for the boys.”

    The attendant shook her head. “I’m sorry, but we’re all booked. We have a half-size room op’n, but it’s designed f’r only one person.”

    Bertha frowned. “Hmm. Do you know if any other hotels in the city offer special accommodations for trainers?”

    “In terms of services, no. The things we offer as a League hotel can’t be provided by a regular chain. But in terms of prices, I’m not sure. You’ll have to check with the establ’shments themselves.”

    Bertha tapped the counter, casting her gaze over to the wall. She began to reply, but at that moment, the trainer beside them turned around, tilting his cap away from his face. “Uh, Miss? I’m checking out. I had a regular room, so, if you want I could give it to you…” He looked at Michael and Henry.

    “That would be great,” Bertha said, smiling. “The boys can the regular room, and I’ll take the half.”

    The clerk nodded. “Alright then.” She processed their order, and placed two gold keys on the counter.

    Michael turned to the trainer, who was just preparing to leave, tightening the strap of his messenger bag. “Thanks, man,” he said.

    The trainer nodded, taking a deep breath. “Good luck,” he said. “You’ll need it…” Pushing his cap over his eyes, he hurried out of the lobby, letting the glass doors swing shut behind him. Michael turned to Henry, and saw the same confused look reflected in the boy’s face.

    At that moment, a couple of hotel workers arrived to take their luggage up to their rooms. Bertha placed the keys into her purse and zipped it closed. “We’re going to visit the Gym now,” she said to the boys. “It shouldn’t be long. Everything will be ready for us when we get back here, so you don’t have to worry about your stuff.”

    “So we won’t be going up yet?” Michael said. He had been hoping to unwind a bit after the journey, or at least unpack. But Bertha shook her head.

    “Nope. Sorry. I made a specific appointment with her, and it’ll look bad if I’m late. But don’t worry. I won’t bother you two for the rest of the day. Promise.”

    Michael knew better than to complain, so he nodded and stood silent. He handed off the Stunky’s cage to one of the workers, and Henry helped it into his arms.

    “Easy there,” the man said. He looped his arm through the handle of a luggage bag and grabbed the cage with both hands. The Stunky shifted around noisily.

    “Have fun on your own,” Henry said, stroking the pokémon’s head through the bars. As the crew walked off, he turned to Michael. “We should get him a pokéball one of these days. Then we can stop carrying him around in that dirty cage.”

    Before Michael could reply, Bertha cut in. “All right boys, we’re heading out. Come on.”

    With Bertha leading the way, they left the hotel. As promised, the Gym stood right across the street, just a couple of buildings down. At the first glance, it looked more like a community center than a place of heated competition. The building’s main body was large and square, with a brown shilling roof and an inscription reading ‘SOLACEON GYM’ carved into the stone. Most of the building’s mass was stretched out in the form of two long hallways, which embraced the street on its either side like a pair of arms. The hallways were lined with tall, rectangular windows that reflected the glare of the rising sun. The building had no parking lot; instead a sidewalk sufficed, by which a constant crowd of trainers walked to and fro. Even from the outside, the building looked full to bursting.

    They stood in front of the entrance for a moment, peering up at the carved inscription.

    “I wonder who the leader will be,” Henry said. “I can’t wait to meet her.”

    “Me too…” Michael sighed. “What do you think—blonde or brunette?”

    Henry jerked around, his expression shocked. But a moment later, he began to laugh.

    “What?” Michael chuckled. “Don’t tell me you’re not thinking it too.”

    “Thinking what?”

    He shook his head. “Never mind.”

    “Hey.” Bertha snapped her fingers in front of their faces. “Focus. I don’t want you going in there with any ideas. You’re here to battle, not get dates.” Stepping in front of them, she pushed open the doors. Inside, the lobby resembled the entrance to a karate dojo, or some sort of sports center. There was the same wooden floor, the same cream-colored walls, only this time there were no decorations whatsoever, just flat planes of color. Several wooden benches were spaced across the room, hosting a chattering mass of trainers, who were digging through their backpacks and feeding their pokémon.

    The room was dominated by a vast front desk that took up a good portion of the opposite wall. The doors on its either end were forever opening and closing as a trainer scurried forth from the inner rooms, a wayward pokémon emerged on a trail of scent, or a staff member backed out with an armful of boxes. Michael immediately recognized the Gym staff as separate from the crowd: they all wore matching collared shirts and pants (skirts for the ladies), and name tags that were clipped to their shirt pockets.

    Amid the hubbub, three clerks manned the counter, their heads constantly bent over one task or another. They switched from phone calls to digging through files to greeting trainers, of which there seemed to be no shortage. As Michael looked around, he saw them spilling through the doors and peeking through the windows, like so many ants trying to wheedle into a hole.

    Though he searched thoroughly, he couldn’t find any sign of a type preference. There weren’t any posters taped to the walls, nor were there any plaques bearing the Gym leader’s slogan. Moreover, the town itself did not suggest anything to him—all the others he visited had at least resembled the types their Gyms worked with. Oreburgh, the mining town, obviously had a Rock Gym. The quaint landscape of Eterna turned out to be a likely source for Bertha’s Grass preference. Even Hearthome, with all its towering grandeur, had somehow complemented the unpredictable Psychic type that Jerry loved. But the best he could give Solaceon at this moment was Normal… which, if he was correct, would make the Gym even more beatable than he had originally hoped.

    Maybe that’s why there are so many people here, Michael thought.

    Once the crowd around the front desk had diminished somewhat, Bertha led the boys forward and hailed the nearest attendant. One of the ladies turned to them, looking frazzled, but nevertheless patient. “Hello. Name please?”

    Bertha slid forward her Leader I.D. “Bertha Herrida, Eterna Gym. I have an appointment with Ms. Walker.”

    The attendant looked down at the card and nodded. “Ah. Welcome, Miss Herrida. She’s been expectin' you.” Moving swiftly, she stepped out from behind the counter and led them through one of the back doors. The hallway Michael now faced seemed to stretch out to infinity, like the belly of a huge worm. The wooden floor was replaced by a red carpet, which was stained and trampled from years of wear. The battle room doors were lined up on either side of him, much like it had been in the Hearthome hotel, only here there seemed to be dozens, maybe even hundreds… and that was only one wing of the building.

    The sounds of battling filled Michael’s ears as he walked. He watched the numbers on the doors slide by, until finally, the attendant stopped beside one labeled ‘47’, and entered.

    Inside, the battle room was sunny and spacious. The back wall was almost totally taken up by the window, which had seemed so small from the outside, but was now large and revealing. The floor was entirely covered in tumble mats, much like battle rooms in Oreburgh had been, though here there was clearly no space for spectators.

    As he advanced inside with the others, Michael saw that they had walked in on the middle of a battle—a Bidoof was tearing at a Prinplup with its claws, its buck teeth bared in a feral snarl. The stereotypically tame pokémon had turned into a monster, rolling around with its opponent, growling in response to the Prinplup’s feeble attempts at self-defense.

    The trainers, equally tense, stood at either end of the unmarked battlefield, watching the relay, shouting frantic commands. Above the confused din, a third, female voice rang loud and clear:

    “Give your directions with meaning! With purpose! Your pokémon know what they’re doing—it’s up to you to guide them, not command them!”

    The speaker was a young, slim woman. Michael noticed her before the trainers themselves, partly because of her stance—it was clearly authoritative, right at the center of the action. Her hair was short and dark-brown, completely braid free, and never seemed to get in her face. She wore the same uniform as the other staff, but with a strange addition: a soft pink jacket was tied around her waist, in an almost childlike fashion, swooshing around with her skirt as she jumped between the battlers. Her commands blended in with those of the trainers, just as much directing them as they were the pokémon.

    The Bidoof’s slashes intensified, and the Prinplup’s trainer, a young girl, seemed pressed to give a command to her weakening pokémon. She fumbled for words, but nothing issued from her moving lips.

    “Now!” the woman called.

    Spurred by her goading, the girl blubbered a command. “Prinplup, use Metal Claw!” Her shout vanished in the pokémons’ cries. The Prinplup ignored her orders, and instead went into defensive mode, placing its large fins over its head.

    The woman’s hawklike eyes darted away from the battling pokémon and once again found the trainer. She approached in two swift steps, leaning over the girl’s shoulder. “I want to hear you, Abigail. A soft voice betrays soft will.”

    The girl gulped. At that moment, the attendant cleared her throat, and the lady looked up at the group of people gathered by the door. Her eyes narrowed.

    “Ma’am, I have Miss Herrida here for you.” The attendant stepped away, and simultaneously Bertha advanced to the head of the group.

    The woman gave a nod of acknowledgment. Stepping onto the battle space, she held up her hands to the trainers. “Stop. Send back your pokémon and meet at the center of the field. I’ll be right back.”

    The trainers did as they were told. Both pokémon vanished into their capsules, frozen in their battle stances. In the corner of his eye, Michael saw evident relief spread over Abigail’s face.

    The woman approached, her hands folded neatly in front of her. “Thank you, Mary,” she said to the attendant. “You may go.”

    The attendant bowed her head and left the room. Turning to Bertha, the woman extended a delicate hand. “Welcome to my Gym. My name is Lona Walker.”

    The Solaceon accent was entirely absent from her voice. If he hadn’t known any better, Michael would have assumed that he was still back in Hearthome. After the brief culture-shock he had experienced at the train station, and his hopeful speculating that the leader would turn out to be a cute, bubbly woman with extra-long braids, this was an almost disorienting letdown. There was no trace of Solaceon City in Lona Walker’s straight, businesslike face. None at all.

    If Bertha had felt any surprise at all, she did not show it. “Thank you,” she replied. “As you probably know, I’m here strictly on business terms. Has Jerry told you about my petition?”

    “He told me the main points, but I was waiting to hear more from you about it,” said Lona.

    “Basically, I want the government to cut at least thirty percent of Team Galactic’s funding and give that money to the League. We’ve been losing money to them, and it’s resulted in many of our resources dwindling. If it continues, then the League will likely lose its priority in Sinnoh’s culture, and will no longer be able to provide a quality service to trainers. For my petition to go through, I officially need at least one hundred thousand signatures from Sinnoh citizens, though I’m going for more. And I’m also collecting a separate signature pool from League officials, and possibly people connected to the Space Program itself. I want the President to see that it’s not just one group of people who cares about this issue, and will benefit from the petition’s success.”

    Lona listened with pursed lips, and at the end of Bertha’s speech, she knit her fine brows. “Hmm. I must say, that’s very resourceful of you. But do you think that something as simple as a petition will be enough to change the government’s mind?”

    Bertha gave a half-smile. “Right now, it’s all we have.”

    Lona nodded. “Okay. We’ll discuss this.” At that point, she lowered her gaze to the boys, who had been listening in on the conversation. She looked first to Henry, sizing him up from hat to sneakers, then moved on to Michael. Their eyes locked as if by accident; Lona’s were a dark, beady brown, and in the split second that he held contact, Michael felt a sudden chill run down his spine.

    Those were the eyes of a teacher.

    “Have you brought them here to challenge my Gym?” asked Lona. She blinked once, then slowly turned her head to face Bertha. Bertha nodded.

    “This is Michael Rowan and Henry McPherson,” she said, indicating them in turn. “They’re both good trainers, and they’re willing to do whatever it takes to succeed.”

    “Very good,” said Lona. She turned again to the boys. “Welcome to my Gym. I can already tell that you both have overcome many challenges as trainers to get here. I know that it’s so, because otherwise you wouldn’t be standing in this room. But the journey isn’t over. You still have a long road ahead of you, and if you want to see it to the end, you must be diligent and decisive.” She clasped her hands in a ladylike gesture and continued. “Now, I’m aware that my facility isn’t the biggest, nor the hardest. You’ve probably thought more about how you’re going to enter the Elite Four tournament than how you’re going to defeat the fourth Gym leader of the League. It might be easy. It might not. But the thing I want to make clear is that it’s not my job to give you a hard time here—rather, it’s my goal to make sure that you learn, and that you walk away from this Gym with more than just a token to challenge the next one. I want all my trainers here to learn two things: discipline and technique. One cannot exist without the other. Here, you will learn the value of physical attacks, and how properly conditioning yourselves and your pokémon can be the difference between success and failure in a battle. And if you’re a real trainer, then for you, failure won’t be an option.”

    Pausing, Lona reached into a pocket of her jacket and took out out a notepad and pencil. She began to scribble at a rapid pace. “Your first lesson will be discipline,” she said. “Starting tomorrow, I want you both to report to this Gym each morning at seven o’clock for training. No excuses. If you come late, you’re dismissed. When you arrive, you will each be paired off with another trainer who will be your battle partner for the day. You will battle with them at least twice, and observe their technique. They will observe yours. Your battles will all be refereed, either by myself or by one of my staff, and it is their job to oversee the battle and direct its course of action if flawed. The goal of these battles is not to win or lose, but to master the skill of battling itself. The referee will watch over the match and tell you what you and your pokémon need to improve on. Sometimes you may receive input from your opponent. Other times you may feel like inputting them. Your progress will be recorded by your referees, and when you are deemed ready, you will be able to enter the next round of battles, in which you will be battling the staff members themselves. They use pokémon similar to mine. The battles will get progressively harder, but if you fare well, then soon enough you’ll reach the end of the road—me. However, before you begin, I will have you know that I always split up groups. That means Henry won’t be battling against Michael. Got that?”

    Michael nodded stiffly. His eyes had gone dry from lack of blinking.

    “Good.” Lona pocketed the notebook and handed two identical papers to the boys. Michael looked over what she had written, and felt a growing queasiness settle in the pit of his stomach. They would be going through five days of nonstop training sessions, each with the same unearthly arrive time, after which they would either advance to the staff battles, or repeat the whole thing again. Either way, he would be stuck in Solaceon for a long, long time.

    Michael folded the note twice and pocketed it, hoping that once it was out of his sight it would be gone forever. Henry was still reading his, rocking on his heels as if ready to tip over.

    Lona did not say another word to them. She stepped towards the door, curling her index finger in Bertha’s direction, indicating for the woman to follow. “Miss Herrida, if you would please come with me. I will show you to my office.”

    Bertha and the boys went to follow, but when they reached the door, she stopped them, putting her hands on their shoulders. “You both can roam around here while I’m gone,” she said. “But don’t leave the building. Okay?” She gave them a reassuring pat, and went with Lona down to the end of the hallway.

    Once the pink jacket was well out of sight, Michael turned to Henry and let out a long, grumbling sigh. “Damn it. What a drag… it’s like school all over again.” He took out the crumpled note from his pocket and read over the perfect, handwritten lines. “Seven in the morning. Each freaking day. And we have to battle a bunch of random dweebs who’re gonna try to correct us, too. Who does that chick think she is anyway?”

    Henry gave a dispirited shrug. “Well, it’ll be like training, won’t it?”

    “Uh, no it won’t. I train my own way, thanks. And that’s by coming up with a meaningful type-based strategy, not by using physical fitness or whatever and hoping that I’ll win. Dammit…” Michael shoved the note back into his pocket and quickened his pace towards the lobby, letting his anger churn inside him like a storm. Henry followed in his wake, jumping aside whenever a door opened, or when a young trainer pushed past.

    “At any rate, what do you think her type is?” Michael said, calling back to the general space behind him. “I’m thinking it’s Normal.”

    Henry’s reply came a moment later. “Mmmm… I don’t know. Fighting, maybe?”

    “Could be. But she seems a bit delicate for that, don’t you think? Being a girl and all.” He snickered.

    Henry smiled. “I dunno… she was yelling pretty hard at those trainers back there. She reminds me of one of my teachers, actually.”

    “Pfft. She reminds me of all of mine,” Michael cringed. “And my teachers were a pain in the ass…”

    They reached the lobby, which was the same full house it had been five minutes ago. Michael began to look for a place to sit, when by chance, his eyes found the front counter again. A new face had joined the scene: It was a boy who looked to be about their age, wearing a miniature version of the staff uniform. He was carrying a stack of clipboards in his arms, which he set down onto the counter and began to arrange, his messy hair splaying to and fro. Through the gaps in the curls, Michael saw a familiar pair of glasses.

    “Leroy?” Michael approached the counter, eyes perked with disbelief. The boy looked up at the sound of his name, and when he saw Michael, his face brightened. “Oh, hey! Man, this is like the fourth time this week I’ve seen someone I know here. I swear, this Gym has everyone.” Leroy shook his head. He leaned over, putting his elbows on the table. “So how’ve you two been? Last I saw, you were leaving Oreburgh.”

    “We just got here,” Michael said. “We’ve already beaten Eterna and Hearthome, so now we’re working to beat our fourth.”

    “Wow.” Leroy rubbed his chin. He studied Michael and Henry with new interest, like a pair of intriguing lab specimens. “You guys are really sweeping through. Three badges in two weeks is pretty good. It’s more than what a lot of trainers here can say. Are you still collecting that… uh…” he dropped his voice to a whisper. “Data?”

    Michael grinned. “Yeah. We’ve gotten loads. It helped us pull through every time.”

    “So you’ve been coming up with counters for all the types?”

    Michael and Henry nodded in unison. Leroy seemed pleased. “That’s really cool. It’s almost like you’re doing research on pokémon training. It’s a shame no one’s bothered to do anything like that before. I think the League would be a lot easier if trainers knew how to prepare properly.”

    “Yeah…” Henry murmured. “So, what about you? Are you still filling your PokéDex?”

    Leroy nodded. “I got past the second mark last week—one-hundred species. Our next one is one-fifty, which’ll be due by the end of the month. I have one-twenty-eight. I’d show you, but I can’t right now ‘cause I’m on duty.”

    “Duty?” Michael looked at Leroy’s uniform again. “What, are you a staff member now?”

    Leroy let out a laugh. “Yeah, I wish. But no, I’m just volunteering here in my free time. You know, why not? I help out with the records and stuff, and in return, the staff give me info to fill my database.”

    Michael brightened. “So you know what pokémon the leader has?”

    Leroy nodded, pursing his lips, but before Michael could ask, he held up a finger to silence him. Looking around to make sure no one was watching, he stepped out from behind the counter, and beckoned Michael and Henry towards the exit door. He led them outside, where he rounded the corner of the building to a secluded tree hidden beneath the Gym’s shadow. After scanning the vicinity once more, Leroy turned to the boys and leaned close to speak. “Okay. I can’t tell you a lot right now, because this building’s got ears. First thing’s first: Lona’s type is Fighting. That means that her whole Gym sticks to physical moves, and the staff’s pokémon are really fast and strong and stuff. So when the staff tell you that physical conditioning is important, they mean it. But their weakness is that their pokémon rarely use any other types of moves, and judging from the battles I’ve watched, they don’t know a lot of them. That leaves them really vulnerable to other attacks.”

    “Like Flying and Psychic, maybe?” Michael said.

    Leroy gave him a thumbs-up. “Spot on. From what I’ve seen, those do the most damage.”

    “And what about Lona’s pokémon?” Henry said. “Do you know what they are?”

    “She has a Hitmonlee, a Croagunk, a Hitmonchan, and a Machoke.” Leroy tallied the names with his fingers. “Croagunk is Poison type too, though, so you’ll have to be careful when it jabs you. But it’s really weak to Psychic, and by that I mean really. You shouldn’t have a problem if you just keep hitting it hard with Confusion.”

    “But do you know how she battles, though? Like how she gives commands and stuff? Because she said technique was really important.”

    Leroy shook his head. “I never got to watch her, they only let me see the staff battles. But they use the same pokémon that Lona does, so I’d assume that as long as you’ve got the right counters, you’re good. And remember—I’m a registered researcher, not a trainer, so they tell me a bunch of stuff that they wouldn’t to someone like you.”

    Michael let out a breath, already feeling reassured by their friend’s help. “Good,” he said. “The last thing I need is for her to give me trouble… This Gym is enough of a pain as is.”

    Leroy gave a sympathetic smile. “Yeah, a lot of people say that. But don’t worry—it might seem like it’s hard, but Lona knows that she can’t keep the trainers here forever. The goal of the Gyms is to get people moving, so even if you’re not the best of the best, she’ll let you pass. I think the reason she gives her trainers the whole ‘discipline’ treatment is to keep them scared of goofing off.”

    Michael nodded. At that point, Leroy backed away from the tree, adjusting his name tag. “Well, I gotta go. I can’t stay out for too long or I’ll get in trouble. Did Lona give you a schedule?”

    “Yeah,” Henry said. “We have to report to the Gym tomorrow at seven in the morning.”

    “Okay. Can you guys meet me here when you get out? I’ll be able to give you more info.”

    “Sure thing,” said Henry. “Thanks.”

    “Don’t sweat it. See you guys later.” With a wave, Leroy went off towards the building. Once he was gone, Henry turned to Michael, and by way of companionship, let out a sigh. “Well, here it goes. What do you think?”

    Michael was leaning against the trunk of the tree, hands stuffed in his pockets. He took a long look at the courtyard around them, immersing his gaze in the pale stone of the Gym’s walls. “Think about what?” he replied.

    Henry shrugged. “I don’t know. The Gym. I hope we’ll be able to beat it.”

    “What do you mean? Of course we’ll beat it.”

    “Lona looks pretty tough, though,” Henry said. “She kind of scared me. Just a little, I mean. When she was directing the battle it was like she was a coach, not just a trainer... I think Bertha was right when she said it would only be getting harder from here.”

    “Relax. You listen too much.”

    “Yeah, but this time I really think she means business. I mean, there wouldn’t be such a huge crowd here if people could just beat this place after two days, right? And Lona looks pretty confident.”

    Michael rolled his eyes. “Please. You think I haven’t dealt with people like her before? They’re all the same. Teachers, Gym leaders… they act like they’re all that because they’ve never met their match. No one’s ever come along who doesn’t fall for their tricks. And Lona, I bet she’s just never met a good trainer before. She has this whole philosophy about what training is and how battling should be, and she wants to shove it down our throats. That’s why she’s so confident. Sure she’s been beaten before, but she’s probably never been beaten badly by someone who challenged her ideas. But that’s about to change.” He crossed his arms with finality, looking out at all the trainers that thronged the outside of the building. Their faces and voices blurred into a single chorus in the morning haze. Feeling a sense of assertion rise within him, Michael smiled. “I’m telling you, this Gym won’t know what hit it.”


    The door to Lona’s office closed with a thud, and silence rushed back to fill Bertha’s surroundings.

    She was now standing inside a bright, quaint study, far removed from the outside commotion both in atmosphere and design. The walls were a light, soft brown, the furniture matching the wood of the floor. Books of all sorts were stacked neatly in shelves, which bore numbered labels, and a clock above the door quietly ticked away the minutes. Bertha’s mind immediately associated the room with her mother’s house, which had always been cozy and orderly, and had everything in its proper place. The memory made her relax a little, and gave the Gym an almost welcoming feel.

    After making sure that the door was firmly shut, Lona brushed past, stepping around to a large desk that stood by the window. While her back was turned, Bertha couldn’t help but stare at the jacket again; it had been bugging her from the very beginning. It was as if a huge pink monster had wrapped its arms around Lona’s tiny waist, making her look like a clunky, awkward child. The fabric had an old, ragged look that stood in sharp contrast to the rest of her crisp, laundered attire. Lona had clearly owned it for years, but had either been unable or unwilling to replace it.

    She took a seat behind the desk, spreading the jacket around her like a skirt, and motioned Bertha to a nearby chair. “Mr. Bradford did tell me enough about your petition to get me wondering about the source of your idea. Please, sit down.”

    Bertha sat, placing the briefcase into her lap. Lona opened a small record book and jotted down some notes, and while she did, Bertha took a brief look around the room again. This time, her eyes alighted upon something new—a TV had been shoved into a corner behind a bookshelf, a spot that had been completely obscured from the entrance. It was an old, bulky model with a dusty screen, and like the jacket, it too looked like it hadn’t been accounted for in years.

    Finishing her last sentence, Lona closed the journal and leaned forward, placing her hands on the table. “What I’m most eager to know about is your mentality, Miss Herrida. What made you want to do this in the first place?”

    Bertha took a breath. “It started last June, when Team Galactic put up a factory in my hometown. I was skeptical from the beginning, but it wasn’t until I noticed how much harm it was doing the local environment that I began to investigate it. Being a Gym leader, I certainly noticed how the League’s quality of services was dwindling over the years. I’ve been trying to get a Gym facility built in Eterna ever since I became a leader, but since the town couldn’t provide enough money, I had to rely on the League to help me out. But even after a year, the Gym Office couldn’t promise me a solid amount. They offered for Eterna to purchase in credit, but I didn’t want to put the town at such a risk, so I declined. It seemed that the League had the money, but just didn’t want to use it for some reason.”

    Lona’s gaze remained fixed on Bertha. “And what about Team Galactic?”

    “I didn’t connect the dots until the factory got put up,” Bertha said. “It seemed odd to me how, while the League was in decline, the Space Program seemed to be thriving. So I began to research the federal budget, and found out that the government had been steadily cutting funds from the Pokémon League every year and giving the money instead to Team Galactic, which, according to the charts, has almost doubled its prowess over the country since 1958. Our factory was a direct consequence of that increase in funding. Now, it probably wouldn’t have bothered me as much if the factory had just quietly gone about its business, but after seeing firsthand what it did to the town…” Bertha paused, “and after seeing firsthand what Team Galactic’s concept of ‘management’ is, I’m certain that any other factory built under Galactic’s name is likely to be in the same sloppy hands. And while all this is happening, the League is being stifled. Our funds have been cut at an increasing rate every year, and if this isn’t stopped soon, then future generations might not even know what a Gym is.”

    Lona began to nod, though the gesture seemed more directed at the empty space than at the woman sitting in front of her. “I see… I see that you have a genuine concern. But if I may make a few suggestions, I think you will find that there could be an easier way to go about doing this. For example, instead of trying to take away funding from another source, why not just ask the government to change the League’s budget into a more productive one? The way I see it, Gyms are allowed to spend far too much money on decorations, and aren’t obliged to provide a uniform quality of service to trainers. Some, I’ve heard, serve as nothing more than pit stops, and are more concerned about pushing their trainers on into the next city than whether or not they actually improve their skills. An abundance of money is not necessary to fulfill such a basic requirement of the facility.”

    Bertha shifted in her seat. Of course, in an indirect way, Lona was talking about her Gym. But what was she supposed to have done? What could she have done?

    Gathering her thoughts again, Bertha continued. “I understand. And in due time, I’m sure we’ll be able to take it further and change the League’s policy as well. But right now, our main concern should be Team Galactic. That’s what’s hindering our progress, and as long as we remain in second place, the results of inner reform will be minimal. The Gym towns themselves are suffering. I’ve corresponded with both Byron and Jerry, and I’ve heard secondhand accounts about Pastoria’s Gym, and they all say that they’re feeling the loss of money. Pardon the question, but hasn’t your Gym been experiencing any loss of... well… abundance recently?”

    Lona twirled a loose strand of hair around her finger, and neatly smoothed it back into place. “Not particularly. The only real loss that I would say has caught my attention is the amount of trainers that drop out of my Gym. It seems that many of the entrants perceive the circuit as a one-way-ticket to glory in the Elite Four tournament. But then of course, when they are proven wrong, they begin to whine and complain that things aren’t going their way, and go back home. But I assure you, that is a loss I am perfectly happy to deal with. Not all pokémon trainers are meant for the League.”

    “And for the ones that are?” Bertha said.

    A faint, thoughtful smile crossed Lona’s face. “There have been a few that stood out at me in previous years. Of course, I know how to separate the good from the bad, the hardworking from the lazy. Unfortunately, I get a lot of lazy trainers… so I make it my job to do what the Gyms before me don’t, or can’t.”

    Bertha knit her eyebrows. “Exactly. Take my Gym for example, which I admit is much less productive than yours. For one thing, as I have said before, it’s been in an inconvenient situation in the previous years. I’ve had to give my trainers a speedy run—either win, or leave fast. It’s not only for me, but for their health. Do you understand what I mean?”

    “I do. However, I don’t believe that you should automatically declare any one thing to be the source of your problems. Yes, the League is losing money. Yes, I have had to make some monetary decisions that have recently affected my Gym’s operation. But what I understand, and what I think you should understand too, Miss Herrida, is that this is only a temporary thing. Ten years ago, the Space Program was barely mentioned. Now it’s on the forefront of the government’s mind, so there must be a good reason for it. Whatever they’re trying to accomplish will likely be attained within the decade, and by then the government will be able to restore us to even ground.”

    “All right, but even if your prediction is correct, who’s to say that this ‘decade’ won’t put us through even more budget cuts? It took Team Rocket a good three years to send that satellite up to the moon. I know it’s kind of a stretch to compare the two, but I think it’s highly unlikely that anything Team Galactic plans will take any less time. And if you think that the Space Race will be ending any time soon… then you’re wrong.” Bertha folded her hands in her lap and gave a matter-of-fact shrug.

    “But there’s no way of knowing what Team Galactic is up to, if anything at all,” Lona reminded her.

    Bertha dipped her head into a nod. “I agree. And it would be a lot easier to speculate if we actually knew what the Galactics are doing, but since we don’t, I think it would be prudent to ask this of the government now. Not because I’m wondering whether it will happen or not, but so that it won’t happen. Sitting idly is too big a risk, and frankly, I value the League too much to be pushing my luck like that.” She braced herself for Lona’s next counter, but when her words were met with silence, Bertha went on. “The Space Race is here. It’s not going away anytime soon. The League can either sit back and watch what happens, or it can take a stand to make sure it won’t get left behind. Not to pressure you or anything, but as a Gym leader, your contribution is vital to that goal.”

    Lona placed her elbows on the table and ran her fingers through her hair. After a long silence, she closed her eyes and let out a sigh. “I’ll think about it.”

    Bertha pursed her lips. “If you’re still not convinced, Miss Walker, then I—”

    “Miss Herrida, I said I’ll think about it.”

    Something in her cold, snappy tone indicated that there would be no more questions, no further discussion. Bertha felt as if she had been slapped in the face. The very air seemed to chill. She stared blankly at Lona, who continued to look down at the table with a restrained half-grimace, as if she had been deeply offended by something. Then, calmly, she reached for a piece of notepaper and scrawled a small time chart with her pencil. “You may visit on the following days if you have anything else to add. Good day.”

    Lona pushed the paper forward, and simultaneously turned her chair away towards the window. Bertha mutely took the notecard and got up to leave, awkwardly smoothening her skirt. It was the first time she had ever been kicked out of a room so blatantly, like an unruly child, and the gesture filled her with incredulous defiance. It only intensified when she realized that there was nothing she could do about it.

    As she pushed open the door, Bertha turned around, meaning to give some sort of retort, or perhaps affirm herself that it had all been a misunderstanding. But even if she had managed to find the right words, Lona wouldn’t have noticed. The Gym leader had picked up the coffee mug that had been sitting at the edge of her table, and was sipping quietly as if nothing had happened.
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