Thread: [Pokémon] ROOTS // Professorfic
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Old November 14th, 2012 (5:39 PM). Edited March 28th, 2014 by Haruka of Hoenn.
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Haruka of Hoenn Haruka of Hoenn is offline
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    Hey everyone. I have a big chapter for you today... both in length and in content. The battle scene you will read is going to be the last one for a while, so I spared the length cutbacks. I think it deserves its own few pages. xP

    Other than that, this chapter speaks for itself. There is be a slightly higher-than-usual concentration of swearing in the second post, but not to a great degree.

    Read on...


    The next day, at 1:30, Michael was sitting at a bench in the Gym lobby, his back bent, elbows resting on his knees. It was battle day, but he wasn’t thinking about battling. In fact, he was hardly thinking at all—just staring down at the floor, stealing glances at the clock periodically to see if his hour was up yet.




    In another room somewhere, Henry was battling Lona. Was he winning? Did he open with Clefable like they discussed, or was her team so powerful that it warranted a change of strategy? And perhaps most importantly of all, what would the boy say when he turned up?

    Michael watched inattentively as the other trainers moved past him, going about their daily duties. Their voices were distant to him, as if separated by a pane of glass. All he wanted to think about was strategy—and indeed, in the past hour, he had gone over so many scenarios that his head had begun to ache. For some reason, all of them involved Lona whipping out a powerhouse of some sort and giving his team a clean sweep—or, even worse, all of her pokémon being so powerful that he wouldn’t even be able to faint one.

    Distracting himself, he glanced up at the clock again. The minute hand had jumped—this time by a whole five-minute increment. (He had much experience with doing this in school, especially during classes that seemed to drag on for ages. The trick was to memorize the minute hand’s position, zone out for a while, then look back at the clock and see how much it had moved.) But this time, he was going for the opposite effect. Rather than speeding through time, he wanted to slow it down, to make each minute linger as long as possible. Through it all, he looked periodically at the left doorway, where Henry had disappeared earlier, and for better or worse, would soon emerge.

    At last, a familiar pair of sneakers appeared amongst the others. Henry stepped warily into the lobby, glanced around the room, and when his eyes locked on Michael, he hurried over. One hand was still holding his last pokéball. The other hung stiff at his side, clenched tightly.

    Michael stood from the bench as the boy approached. “Well?” he said. “What happened?”

    For a moment, Henry was silent. Then, he lifted his free hand and opened it to reveal the Cobal badge.

    “I won,” he said. “But she’s tough. Be careful.”

    Michael didn’t know what to make of these words. He and Henry swapped places—the boy sitting down, Michael hoisting his backpack over his shoulder and turning for the front desk. Despite his victory, Henry’s face retained a detached, pondering look, as if there was still something that he couldn’t figure out.

    After signing him in, the attendant pointed Michael to the same hallway, and he went off. He followed the numbers on the doors to the very last one in the lineup—Room 99.

    He stopped before the closed door, and after a brief pause, pushed it open.

    The Gym leader’s battle room was larger than the others, nearly three times as big as a regular one. Wooden shades were draped over the windows, providing light in lined segments along the floor.

    Lona herself stood on the far end of the room, in between two back doors. She held a brown pokéball pouch, but other than that, had no other items on hand. She nodded once as Michael entered, stepping off the hard floor and onto the shifty surface of the mats. Involuntarily, his gaze began to wander — he noticed that the cushions which had appeared clean before were scarred and dented in many places, and if he squinted, he could even make out what he thought to be a footprint in the center of the field, belonging to a big, heavy creature.

    “Welcome,” Lona said. Despite the distance between them, her voice carried over as if she had been standing only a foot away. “Today you will prove to me your worth of the Cobal Badge. Be advised that the rules of partner and staff battles do not apply here. You may switch pokémon as many times as you wish, or keep the same battler, or do anything else provided that it’s within the boundaries of the League rules. That being said, I give out the badge on a discretionary basis. Winning does not guarantee that you’ll earn it, nor does a loss have to be the end for you if you fought skillfully.” She removed a pokéball from her pouch and held it out in front of her. “When you are ready, you may begin.”

    She twisted open the capsule, and out came a burst of light, materializing into a Hitmonchan that landed on its feet in front of her. The pokémon’s body was lean and chiseled with muscle, though by far the most striking detail was its fists—big and heavy, hanging past its knees, covered with red fabric like boxer’s gloves. The creature lifted them with ease, though each one was comparable to the size of its own head, and held them in a defensive position at its chest.

    Michael sent out Goldeen, who slid onto the field atop a stream of water. Once she had pulled all the liquid into a ball beneath her, he gave his command: “Use Psybeam!”

    Goldeen lowered her horn like a lance, and the sound of crackling static filled the room. Seconds later, a thick, pink beam blasted out from the tip, shooting across the field at her opponent. But before it could make contact, the Hitmonchan raised its gloves over its face, and the ray of energy broke against the barrier, dissipating into a thousand tiny wisps in the air. In the same breath, the pokémon’s body swayed forward, like a spear of grass pushed by the wind, and fell into a sprint. Its feet sailed soundlessly over the mats, crossing the distance between them in a matter of seconds. Upon reaching Goldeen, the Hitmonchan leaned back, curling its fist to aim a punch.

    “Dodge!” Michael called.

    Goldeen swerved aside just in time, the stream trailing around her like an elongated tail, and the Hitmonchan’s fist plunged through empty water. She twisted around to strike from behind, but the Hitmonchan proved just as quick—it spun around to face her again, and began to punch at the tail of water, its fists striking so rapidly that they formed a blur of splashes. The punches edged with increasing proximity to Goldeen’s tail, who tried in vain to outrun them, till finally one of them hit true. Hitmonchan’s fist struck Goldeen squarely in the side, knocking her to the floor like a missing tooth.

    The spiral of water collapsed, but the Hitmonchan paid it no mind, letting it slosh over the mats while it caught Goldeen with its foot. Before the fish could wiggle away, the Hitmonchan tossed her aloft, and punched her back against the mats, making her bounce.

    “Get the water back! Get it back!” Michael said.

    But Goldeen’s flails amounted to little. Each time she hit the floor, the Hitmonlee scooped her back up with its foot and tossed her up again, giving no time for an escape. After the umpteenth toss, the Hitmonchan pulled back its fist and punched harder than ever, throwing her like a shimmering ball halfway across the room.

    Lona hadn’t said a single word.

    Goldeen landed with a thump onto the mats and rolled a while before stopping. A second later she flipped over—and a pink Psybeam blasted from her horn, striking Hitmonchan square in the chest. The pokémon stumbled back, ousting a cry.

    Michael grinned. “Again! Do it again!”

    Goldeen shuffled to the side to make a fresh aim, but before she could launch the attack, the Hitmonchan was on top of her, kicking at her side in an attempt to lift her. But this time Goldeen was able to ground herself, retaliating with Pecks whenever the Hitmonchan’s foot came too close. The fighter’s face contorted with pain at onslaught of Flying moves, and his kicks abated, becoming more like struggles for balance as he hopped from one foot to another, trying to evade Goldeen’s beak. But with his tiny feet no longer the center of balance, the Hitmonchan began to teeter, pulled down by the weight of his oversized fists.

    For a split second, it seemed that the pokémon would fall. The Hitmonchan had leaned back on one foot at a sharp angle, its arms groping at the air. But at the last minute, he managed to place a sturdy foot behind him, and lunged forward. In a swift motion, he kicked Goldeen up into the air and prepared to punch. But the fish was faster—still aloft, she spun around, and before the Himonchan could reach for her, a burst of pink light exploded from her horn. The force of the Psybeam blasted the Hitmonchan back, knocking it to the floor. Goldeen landed on her belly just a few feet away.

    “Get the water!” Michael said, slapping his knees with impatience. “Get it back! Hurry!”

    Goldeen spun around to where the puddle of water lay, slowly seeping into the cracks between the cushions. While the Hitmonchan got to his feet, she jumped over to it and pulled what was left of it beneath her. Michael’s shoulders drooped with relief as she rose into the air once more, supported by a stable column of water.

    A short distance away, the Hitmonchan drew itself upright, eyes locking on its target. With a cry, he bolted forward.

    “Water Pulse!” Michael commanded.

    Goldeen sailed over to meet the Hitmonchan, riding atop a rolling wave. Just as she reached him, she jumped, letting the water crash over his head. She sailed over the pokémon’s stooping frame, skillfully pulling the water back beneath her, and performed the maneuver from behind—not giving the Hitmonchan even a second to recuperate. The wave of Water Pulse struck it a second time from behind, and the Hitmonchan fell to its knees, fists dangling at its sides like wrecking balls.

    “Not finish it off! Psybeam!”

    Goldeen rose on a billowing wave, her horn blazing. She launched the Psybeam at the Hitmonchan, who fell without protest, collapsing on his belly with an exhausted oomph.

    Lona lifted a hand and snapped her fingers twice. The Hitmonchan did not move. Pulling open the pokéball pouch, she called it back inside, swapping it for her second pokémon. Michael’s bewildered joy faded into puzzlement as he once more became aware of the Gym leader’s pervading silence. She hadn’t given a single command, and yet her pokémon had moved with steadfast resolution, as if it had been given a script of actions to follow. But at the same time, all of Hitmonchan’s decisions had been its own, as if it wasn’t reacting to the will of its trainer, but to the battle itself.

    Guide them, not command them… All of a sudden, those words seemed to take on a whole new meaning. They lingered in Michael’s mind as Lona sent out her second pokémon—a Hitmonlee. Right off the bat, he knew what he had to do.

    “Goldeen, return.” He called the fish back inside and sent out Caterpie. He unlocked the pokéball and held it out as far as he could, dropping the Bug pokémon onto the center of the field. It was her third day in metamorphosis, and the cocoon had hardened and darkened around her.

    Michael didn’t give the command for String Shot right away. He waited, like Lona waited, and gradually the Hitmonlee began to move away from its trainer, scanning the territory for danger. When it came close enough to Caterpie, Michael smiled. “Now!”

    At once, the cocoon began to shoot out mounds of silvery string, which wrapped and tangled around her opponent’s feet. Once the Hitmonlee realized what was happening, it jumped back in shock—but found that its ankles were already bound by a sticky white band. The Hitmonlee tried in vain to pull its feet apart, jerking its torso from side to side while Caterpie tightened the binds. When she hopped off, the Hitmonlee was left standing like a statue, its arms swiping in a vain attempt to capture her. Unlike the Hitmonchan, however, the Hitmonlee’s stance was completely sturdy. Michael knew that it would take much more to make this one fall.

    Nodding in acknowledgment to Caterpie, he sent her back, and swapped her for his next battler.

    A white bullet burst forth from the pokéball, shooting a brilliant arc through the air like a comet. It morphed into a pair of wings, and upon escaping the cloak of light, Ringo’s black head emerged, claws bared with relish as he out a ringing screech. “LONA LONA DRY AS BONE-A — SLEEPING, STANDING, LIKE A DRONE-A —”

    As Ringo sang, he began to circle around the Hitmonlee, and gleefully planted himself on its head. The Hitmonlee’s arms shot upward in an attempt to capture him, but Ringo slipped away, fluttering instead to the pokémon’s shoulder, pecking and clawing the whole while at its bare skin. Upon Michael’s command, Ringo used Aerial Ace twice, two rapid slashes to the back that caused the Hitmonlee to teeter, but still not topple.

    Frustrated, Ringo pestered more, perching on Hitmonlee’s head and beating his wings. The Hitmonlee swayed to and fro like a reed, eyes wrinkled under the blows, trying to shake off its bothersome new hat. Meanwhile, Michael noticed that the binds around its feet had begun to loosen. Ringo seemed to sense this as well, and the more wiggle room Hitmonlee gained, the more desperate the bird became. Leaning forward, Ringo pulled his feet over the Hitmonlee’s eyes to shut them, and right then, Michael heard a loud snap. Something small and brown knocked Ringo out of his perch, and the bird fell like an autumn leaf, slumping to the floor.

    Michael blinked, unable to fathom what had just happened. The silver rope had snapped, and Himtonlee’s leg had shot upward like a boneless appendage, bending all the way over its head to hit Ringo. It was now lying flat against its face like a spaghetti noodle, bending with the curve of its head.

    With hair-raising fluidity, the leg straightened and lowered itself to the ground. Ringo, meanwhile, was rolling over onto his feet, head spinning in an attempt to discern up from down. He managed to take off again, but with his opponent on the loose, he could not go far. In a couple of swift strides, the Hitmonlee had gained on him—and the tip of its foot shot up towards the ceiling, striking Ringo in the underbelly. Ringo flapped harder, managing to propel himself higher, but the Hitmonlee kicked again, and the bird was knocked in a downward ‘C’ towards the floor. No matter which direction Ringo tried to escape, the Hitmonlee always adapted, its legs stretching like rubber to accommodate any angle. Ringo quickly tired from the repeated blows. His flight grew labored, and his head began to droop towards the ground. Not wanting to risk a fainting, Michael sent him back.

    He rushed over to his backpack, and after a brief impasse, brought out Turtwig. His starter was dropped with a clunk onto the field, shaking himself awake from a light slumber. He turned around, looking up at his trainer’s face, and Michael pointed down. “Shell! Now!”

    Grunting in understanding, Turtwig withdrew, leaving the round, limbless shell glinting temptingly in the light. Hitmonlee approached and gave it a kick, and Turtwig skidded towards the wall.

    “Stay in, stay in!” Michael called.

    Turtwig managed to hold his own for several minutes, curled up in safety while Hitmonlee kicked his shell about, trying to make him emerge. The kicks increased in frequency, and at times, the speed with which the shell skidded across the mats and clashed with the walls made Michael afraid that it would shatter into a million pieces. But miraculously, it didn’t. He was waiting for a specific moment, when Hitmonlee kicked at a specific angle, too blinded by its preoccupation to calculate its moves.

    At last, it happened. The shell was lying in the center of the room, and Hitmonlee lunged for it with a running start, kicking it in a broad arc towards the wall.

    But just before the shell made contact, a pair of stubby legs emerged and pushed off against the wall, with a momentum so great that the shell smacked Hitmonlee back in the face. The pokémon staggered back, eyes puckering.

    “Now, Razor Leaf!”

    Turtwig’s head and limbs popped out of the shell, and a second later, a storm of leaves whipped through the air, hitting the Himtonlee’s flat face like a windshield. They left behind bloody gashes. Landing on his feet, Turtwig attacked again and again, then when the Hitmonlee was sufficiently distracted, ran forward and gave the teetering pokémon an extra push. Hitmonlee fell without resistance, collapsing on its belly.

    Lona waited several seconds, but the Hitmonlee lay still. Silent as ever, she called it back, and sent out her third battler. The light from her pokéball had barely faded before its inhabitant—a small, blue-bodied creature—fled its place of deposit. A dark bullet zipped around the perimeter of the room, too fast for the eye to see, its dash stirring up a light wind. It circled the room twice, then broke free of the walls, rolling itself over into the center point of the battlefield. It was Croagunk.

    The blue frog amounted to little more than the height of Michael’s knee. It stood on its hind legs with its back slightly hunched, its lips spread out into a perpetual, clown-like grin. Seeing Michael, the Croagunk tittered softly, a nasty sound that reminded him of human laughter.

    Michael swapped Turtwig for Goldeen. The fish emerged atop a crashing wave, stopping right in front of her opponent. “Use Psybeam!” he said.

    Goldeen lowered her in preparation to launch the blast. But Croagunk was already gone—the frog had fled for the walls, and was now making a circle across the room, running to take Goldeen from behind.

    “Watch out!” Michael called.

    Goldeen looked askance just in time to dodge a stubby arm, which had appeared at her side only moments prior. She made a clumsy forward jump, pulling all the water with her, and Croagunk landed on its knees from its failed attack. Michael noticed that the fingers of one hand were oozing a thick, purple fluid.

    Poison Jab… shit.

    He knew that there was no hope in using Caterpie, for the Croagunk would be impossible to pin down with String Shot. He would have to win with sheer persistence.

    “Goldeen, confuse it! Peck it, Psybeam it!” Michael paused. “Don’t worry if it hits you!”

    Goldeen did as she was told, though a part of him sensed that she knew her own fate. The Croagunk evaded direct combat, dancing around the pink rays of Psybeam and jets of water she shot at him. He never attacked until he could reach her from behind, and got her with a few Poison Jabs which she was too slow to counter. After hardly two minutes of being out in the field, Goldeen’s body was almost entirely covered by splotches of toxic slime, which trickled into her source of water and mixed around with the current. Already, Michael could see its effects setting in—the fish became less coordinated than before, and had to exert more force than before to keep the water together around her body. But the more time she spent submerged, the more the Croagunk’s venom could circulate around her open cuts, poisoning her further. Michael felt a brief pity, but knew that they had to act soon, or else she would faint.

    Meanwhile, Croagunk was preparing for a new offensive. He had slunk off to a safe spot to the side where he watched Goldeen’s demise, tittering softly behind his palms. It began to tap its feet in a circle across the mats, doing the slow, familiar dance of Taunt.

    Goldeen began to flap her fins in anger, churning the water faster beneath her. Despite her weakness, she managed to rise a little from the ground, and lowered her horn in preparation to attack.

    With a gleeful shriek, the Croagunk lunged, the claws of both hands bared and gleaming.

    “Psybeam!” Michael shouted.

    The tip of Goldeen’s horn blazed with a hot, pink light—and just as the Croagunk sprang for the final blow, a searing blast escaped from it. The frog was swallowed whole by a torrent of light, and dropped fainted on the floor, its spark extinguished by the super-effective combination. Michael smiled in relief, feeling a macabre satisfaction that the Croagunk’s Taunt had come back to bite it.

    He was about to turn to Goldeen, when he noticed to his surprise that she had fallen slack, was letting the water rock her away towards the floor.

    “No!” he said. “Goldeen, get up!”

    But it was no use. The fish continued to sink, and out of necessity to save the water, he sent her back. Returning to his backpack, Michael dropped pokéball in with the others.

    Lona, meanwhile, returned her Croagunk, and brought out her final pokémon. Michael noticed her step back, casting her gaze briefly to the ceiling, and twist open the capsule. The pokéball released a screen of searing light that blocked her entirely from view, expanding into a shapeless mass that towered almost halfway to the ceiling. Gradually, the light assumed a human shape, fading to reveal the Machoke.

    This pokémon was neither big-fisted like Hitmonchan, nor long-legged like Hitmonlee. It had a body that surpassed the musculature of any human being, and stood nearly four heads above its trainer. Its skin was blue, rippling with red veins, packed with muscle from head to toe. The belt it wore shone with a metal gleam from the center of its waist, loaded with all sorts of buttons and grooves. The device was thick and heavy-looking, and seemed to press into the pokémon’s very flesh. Michael sincerely hoped it wasn’t broken.

    As he held out his pokéball, he couldn’t help but glance up and meet the Machoke’s gaze. Its eyes were tiny, but fierce.

    Tightening his resolve, Michael opened the capsule and sent out Machop. The fighter tumbled out onto the floor and sprang to his feet, standing up straight like a gymnast. Upon locking eyes with the Machoke, Machop’s eyes widened, lips parting in curiosity. At the same time, something in Machoke’s face softened, possibly humored at the sight of its lower evolution.

    Slowly, the giant lumbered over, swinging forward its arms, and lifted the smaller pokémon by the waist. Its hands were so big that they wrapped completely around Machop’s torso. Machop remained obediently slack, peering up at his captor. Michael cracked a smile.

    The Machoke remained still at first, as if in thought. Then, it lifted its hands over its head and threw Machop across the room. The small pokémon went flying like a broken toy, hitting the wall behind Michael and sliding headfirst to the floor. When Machop got to his feet, all traces of brotherly awe had vanished from his face. His eyes had narrowed into slits, and he began to curl his fists, jaw clenched.

    Michael clapped his hands. “Go get him!”

    With a cry, Machop lunged forward, dashing across the mats and aimed a flying kick at Machoke’s belly. The larger pokémon hunched its back, shielding itself with its forearms, and Machop bounced off as if he had hit a block of lead. Still unfazed, Machop got up and tried again, this time seeking a weak spot from behind. But he might as well have been trying to dent a boulder—no matter where he kicked, the Machoke would not budge, or otherwise indicate that it had even felt the blow to begin with. Physical overpowering, Michael realized, would be impossible. But with Goldeen gone, he would no longer be able to strike from a distance. His only hope lay in speed, and on the slim possibility that the Machoke would somehow tire out.

    But it didn’t.

    Machop raced around his opponent for a whole minute, jabbing and kicking with hardly a second’s pause in between. But the Machoke stood its ground. It soon woke from its idleness, and began to seek Machop with its gaze, turning as if in preparation to catch him. Sensing that his efforts were in vain, Machop scurried away, and began to race around the room in panic.

    Machoke set about in pursuit, patiently trudging along as a parent would after child. Despite the smaller pokémon’s speed, the Machoke was able to catch up in only a few strides, and every so often helped Machop reach his destination more quickly — whether it was the floor, or the top of the window frame. The Machoke began to knock its prey around the room, much like Hitmonlee had, hitting him against any flat surface its eyes alighted upon.

    The more time Michael spent thinking, the worse Machop’s situation became. Soon, the fighter began to spend more time flying than running, touching the walls more frequently than the floor. At one point, the Machoke stepped away to let Machop get to his feet—Michael saw that the smaller pokémon was stumbling around in confusion, eyes blinking rapidly. At one point, Machop seemed to steady himself, and rose awkwardly to his feet. He lifted a foot to take a step, but midway he paused, swiveling to the side like an old signpost. And without a moment’s resistance, he collapsed. Fainted.

    Dammit. Michael curled his fist around the pokéball and sent Machop back. He watched his pokémon fade away into the light, and silently cursed his ineptness. The Machoke had managed to faint his first counter in a matter of a few throws. And Michael, being too slow to make sense of things, had let it.

    Think faster… think faster… He repeated the mantra in his mind as he searched his backpack for a replacement. Finally, he selected Turtwig. He knew that it wasn’t a particularly good match, but figured that he should do as much damage as he could. Coming back to his place on the battlefield, Michael unscrewed the pokéball, and released his starter onto the mats.

    “Razor Leaf! Quickly!”

    Turtwig obeyed, flicking his head from side to side, and launched a flurry of sharp leaves speeding towards the Machoke. The giant stepped through them as if they were pieces of paper—the majority of them bounced right off its skin, with only a few leaving behind red marks, the same color of the veins that bulged from its neck and arms. Nevertheless, Turtwig kept firing, even as the Machoke kept advancing, till it had dwarfed the turtle in the center of its huge shadow.

    “Run!” Michael shouted. “Move! Don’t stand there!”

    Leaning down, the Machoke clapped his hands over the spot where Turtwig was standing. But the turtle had managed to slip away, escaping through the gap in between Machoke’s legs. Turtwig ran without looking forward, firing leaves in a frenzy behind him, no longer concerned with taking proper aim. The leaves scraped past the Machoke’s body, and the pokémon swerved around, seething with rage. Michael saw that its back was covered with cuts, many of which were now oozing. The Machoke heaved itself at Turtwig, who slipped away yet again, shooting leaves in defense at every chance he got. The giant’s breathing soon grew ragged from exhaustion.

    “Keep doing it!” Michael shouted. But his giddiness was short-lived. Machoke had gained on Turtwig again, and before he could escape, the giant grasped him by the shell with a single beefy hand. Bending back its arm, the Machoke hurled the shell across the room, sending it skittering like a hockey puck towards the wall. Once the shell came to a stop, it moved no more.

    Michael swapped pokéballs almost mechanically. He sent Turtwig back, dropped the capsule into his backpack with the others, and sent out Caterpie.

    The pokéball deposited her in the dead middle of the battlefield, like an offering to the raged, growling beast who flexed his fists nearby. But the Machoke was no longer as ferocious as it had been before—its energy seemed drained, clearly the work of the power belt, which buzzed and blinked as its mysterious function kicked in. The Machoke now stood with its shoulders slouched, its chest rising with rapid breaths. But its warrior’s spirit was unquenched. It looked at the Caterpie with a twisted grimace, and approached in eagerness of playing with its new toy.

    Michael cupped his hands around his mouth. “Use String Shot!” he said. “Make as much as you can!”

    At once, the cocoon began to shudder. A faint, rapid whirring arose from inside, and moments later, it began spitting out globs of white string from its front end. Caterpie no longer cared to dispense it neatly—she seemed to sense the danger too, and by the time Machoke got to her, she had spun out a sizable mound that lay like a lump of spaghetti in front of her. But before she could sever the string with her pincers, the Machoke lifted her and hurled her across the room. A segment of string broke off and followed her trail, wrapping around her as she fell. The cocoon touched the wall and slid down, clattering dryly on the floor. Five seconds passed, and it appeared that Caterpie had been scared into silence.

    Michael was beginning to feel a bitter taste as he returned Caterpie. Dropping the pokéball into his backpack, he took out his last—Ringo. A brief panic gripped him as he held the capsule in his hands. What if he lost? No doubt, Lona would banish him to the lowest trough of partner battles, immersing him in the murky gloom, forcing him to crawl his way to the light all over again. By the time he’d get to staff battles, half the summer would be gone.


    Michael steeled himself. It would not end like this.

    He sent out the bird, upon seeing Ringo aloft once more, he pointed straight at Machoke’s face: “Get him, Ringo! Make that flake sorry he ever crossed us! Use Aerial Ace!”

    Ringo dove forward with a screech, swiping his claws across the Machoke’s cheek. The pokémon’s beefy hands flew after him, but Ringo was far too fast—he swiped again from behind, this time coming back and perching on Machoke’s head.

    “Bang—bang—Ma-choke silver hammer!”

    He began to peck in rhythm, piping loudly the fragments of a song, all the while clawing at Machoke’s head and shoulders. Whenever the pokémon tried to snatch him, he quickly jumped to the other side, and began to sing even louder. The Flying attacks took their toll quickly—Machoke’s gestures became slow, its footsteps heavy and swaying. The giant seemed to have finally reached the end of its string, no longer holding itself in form, wanting only to shut off the bird-boombox.

    Right then, Michael tore his eyes away from the struggle and noticed the pile of webbing sprawled on the mats. His heart skipped a beat.

    “Ringo, the string! Get the string!”

    Tearing his attention away from his captive, Ringo flew off Machoke’s shoulder and followed the direction of Michael’s finger. He grasped the edge of the string with his beak and flew off towards Machoke, letting the webbing trail behind him. He flew in a tight spiral around the Machoke’s legs, winding the string around them, suppressing the pokémon’s attempts at escape. Ringo worked his way upwards, dodging Machoke’s flying fists, binding the pokémon’s torso, and one of its enormous arms against its side. When the string was all gone, Machoke resembled a standing mummy, and could do little but swing at the air with his remaining arm in an attempt to regain balance. Swooping in for the kill, Ringo pushed the Machoke with his claws, and the pokémon toppled like a boulder.

    It writhed and rolled around on the floor, snarling with rage, but Caterpie’s binds held strong. Ringo perched himself atop Machoke’s shoulder and pecked twice at the string. “Stay!” he growled.

    By some invisible trigger, the Machoke obeyed. The pokémon slackened, breathing rapidly from exhaustion, its eyes drifting half-closed.

    The room fell silent.

    From across the battlefield, Lona closed her eyes and inclined her head. “Very good. You have grasped the meaning of listening.”

    She lifted her pokéball, and the Machoke vanished like a bad dream, fleeing in a beam of white light to the opened capsule. The string collapsed onto thin air where its body had been, and Ringo took off, piping fragmented phrases of “Walker!” and “Boss!” in jubilation. He flew a circle over the field, then came back and fluttered over to Michael’s shoulder.

    Noticing the boy’s utter bewilderment, Lona closed the pokéball pouch, and almost slyly, lifted an eyebrow. “I never expect anyone to faint Machoke. Usually it’s enough to keep him out for a couple minutes so I can see someone’s strategy take form. You lasted eight. I’m impressed.”

    Michael gave a weak nod. He looked askance at Ringo, whose gaze was as stern and piercing as ever, and gave a laugh of relief. He let the bird nibble his finger, then sent him back, zipping him up with the rest of his team in his backpack. As Michael turned back around, he saw Lona step forward, and unconsciously, he mirrored her motions. The two met at the center of the room.

    Lona looked down at him, and the corners of her mouth lifted slightly. “My staff have reported your improvements. I’m glad to see you have learned.” She reached into her pocket and pulled out a small coin. White, slender hands placed the badge into his. “Be mindful of your tactics…” she said, “and also remember your purpose for challenging the League. Whatever it is, make sure it’s strong enough to guide you till the very end. That’s the only advice I have left to give.”

    Her eyes lingered on him a moment longer, and he saw them flash with a brief cheer he hadn’t noticed before. Then she backed away, arms falling of their own accord into their folded position in front of her. “You may collect your monetary reward at the front desk,” she added. “Goodbye.”

    Michael looked down at the badge in his hands, sinking his gaze into the pattern of lines etched across its surface. Wasting no time, he hoisted his backpack on his shoulders and hurried out of the room.

    The hallway outside was empty, quiet save for the scattered sounds of battling from distant rooms. With much of the early crowd gone, the Gym was like a vast, hollow shell, even the subtlest motion stirring soft echoes within its walls. Michael walked at a fast tempo, his steps falling in rhythm with the pounding of his heart. He was clutching the badge ever tighter in his hand, feeling the joy of the metal digging into his palm, the relief of its subtle weight as he swung it by his side.

    Towards the end of the hallway, a boy was leaning against the wall, arms crossed. As Michael approached, the kid turned his head, and upon seeing Michael, his face lit up. It took him a few seconds to realize it was Rick.

    “Hey Mike. What’s up?”

    Michael slowed to a stop, and Rick rushed forward to meet him.

    “I’ve been trying to get a hold of you,” he said. “Some idiots went and ratted on me, and now they’ve got all the staff looking for the guy who started the petition. Some of the trainers, too. I swear… it’s like everyone became a Lona spy overnight. We’ll have to be more careful.” Rick paused, and after making sure no one else was around, he lowered his voice. “Listen, I need you to meet me in the mail room tonight. It’ll have to be when no one’s awake, like three or so. I want to type up the next batch of letters. I figured we’d get a lot more people on our side if we told them the truth about Lona—who she is, and what she’s really like when no one’s looking. We’ll get it done much faster if it’s the two of us.”

    After a brief delay, Michael nodded.

    “I’ve already got down the main points, but you can add to the list if you want,” Rick continued. “One of the things I’m gonna put are the hours. Did you know that this Gym has the longest workday out of all of them? It goes from six in the morning to eight in the evening.” He shook his head in exasperation. “Oh, speaking of that… what are you doing here so late? I asked the people at the front desk if you were still here, and they said that you were. Staff battles don’t go this long unless you do really badly.”

    In response to Rick’s questioning look, Michael held up the badge. “I got it.” He grinned. “Swellest feeling in the world, man.”

    Rick’s eyebrows climbed, to the point where they vanished behind his tangled bangs, and his face adopted the look of a betrayed puppy. “You got the badge? No freaking way!”

    Michael nodded. “Yep.” But his smile quickly faded when he realized that Rick wasn’t joking. The boy took a step back, grabbing both sides of his head and took long, rapid breaths.

    “I knew it… my God… this shit just keeps happening over and over again… Everyone—every-freaking-one has gotten the badge but me! I’m still here after four freaking weeks! What the fuck is wrong with me?”

    Michael rolled his eyes. “Don’t be a wimp. There’s nothing wrong with you. Did you do the counter thing I told you about?”

    In a snap, Rick tore his hands away from his face and dropped them against his sides. His face was beet red. “Yeah, like that’s gonna help me. Just because something works for you doesn’t mean it works for everyone. Don’t you get it? That skag Lona hates me! You think that’ll change just because I show up with a pretty team? I’ve tried everything already! Trading, items… everything but petitioning the League Office, that is, and reporting the bitch like she deserves. So if you don’t mind, that’s what I’m gonna do now. Bye, Michael.” Rick lifted his sports bag and turned for the lobby.

    Without knowing why, Michael reached for the boy’s shoulder and pulled him back.

    “Just listen to me!” he said. “I can show you how to beat her!”

    “No you can’t!” Rick pulled against Michael’s grip. “And get off me! I was in this alone from the start, and that’s how it’s gonna be till the end. Why would you want to help me? You have the badge already, now leave!”

    The sound of clacking heels advanced over the carpet, just barely audible over the struggle. Michael was too caught up in a rage to notice. He gritted his teeth and looked at Rick, jerking him by the shoulders as if to snap him out of a stupor. “Did you hear a word I just said? I know how to beat her! Lona is a complete joke! Whatever else she says is just a scare tactic to make you feel helpless. Look—” He dropped his backpack onto the carpet and took out his notebook, holding it out between them. “I have everything right here. I’ve been taking notes on her Gym this whole time. I know Lona’s team, and I’ve found out how she battles. All that stuff about being motivated is a lie—all you have to do is match your pokémon’s types against hers and make sure yours are better counters! Don’t listen to the shit she tells you, dammit!”

    All of a sudden, a hand reached into his field of vision and snatched Rick by the collar. Before Michael could understand what was happening, claw-like nails gripped him by the shoulder and spun him around, and he found himself face-to-face with Lona. Her eyes were blazing.

    In a single stroke, she pulled the boys apart, standing them helpless on either side of her, and turned to cast the full beam of her glare at Rick.

    “So,” she said. “This is how you’ve been preparing. This is how you strive to succeed. By stomping around and demanding that others hinder their own progress to help you. It would be nice if that was really how it worked in life, wouldn’t it? But unfortunately, it’s not. You were a decent trainer for the first week, but now I see that rather than improving yourself, your main goal seems to be trying to change everything else around you to suit your needs. Now I see that you have no understanding of the meaning of effort, of how to act towards your peers, or what help is when it’s given to you!”

    She shoved Rick away so abruptly that he would have stumbled, had he not stopped himself with his heel and advanced back towards her.

    “But you never help!” Rick shouted. “All you do is scream at me and kick me around like I’m your fucking toy! All your other staff at least know what constructive criticism is, and they know battling better than you! Anybody knows battling better than you! And, they know how to recognize it when someone improves! I’m winning in partner battles, but all you’re doing is keeping me in one place!”

    Lona lifted her eyebrows. “Oh? And has it ever occurred to you that maybe I don’t care whether someone wins or not? Have you ever bothered to think that maybe the reason I don’t promote a trainer is because I see, week after week, that he lacks the character his peers possess?”

    “Character?” Rick scoffed. “Look in a mirror! I have more character than you ever will, Miss Walker. Because I, unlike you, don’t try to shove my opinions down other people’s throats! It would help if we actually learned something useful here, but we don’t. All you care about are your stupid papers, your stupid point records, which have nothing to do with the real League we’re supposed to be preparing for. You don’t even train—you just hide in that stupid office all day and act like you’re better than us. What the hell do you know?”

    Lona narrowed her eyes. “Quite a lot, actually. For one thing, I know it’s not an accident that the people who don’t appreciate the opportunities they’re given here are the same ones I see complaining. I also know that there are some people in this Gym who, for the life of me I don’t know why, think that the proper way to beat a Gym is to beg for its leader to be fired. And thirdly, I know that the boy standing in front of me has been lying to me in every word since he came here!”

    Rick froze with a questioning glare.

    “Yes, I found out about the petition,” Lona said. “A group of trainers came to me yesterday and told me their suspicions. I was skeptical at first, but now I see that their facts are confirmed.” She smiled dryly. “Let me guess… you decided that you had finally had enough. You decided that this Gym only exists to make you miserable, that you were the only one who ever got held back in it, and, what more, that I was doing it because I had some special grudge against you. So you, deprived of your last wits, decide that there’s nothing left to do but rebel and exact revenge on the people you don’t like. I must say, that is an interesting concept of success and failure. Spreading lies about myself and my staff, who have done nothing but devote their attention to you and help you correct your mistakes, while putting up with your cheek and disrespect—which you display even towards your fellow trainers when they call you out on it. And then you take it a step further and type a document that, in a nutshell, undermines the efforts of all the people here who ever helped you, both staff and trainers alike. That shows me that you care nothing for those around you, and seek only to manipulate them into getting what you want. You have quite some nerve.”

    At that point, her gaze flickered over to Michael.

    “As for you… I expected better,” she said. “Especially after all you and Henry were doing to prepare. I don’t think he would be particularly pleased with you right now, if he saw this. Or was he a part of your grand scheme too? Funny… because for a moment, it seemed that you two were working hard, that you were really putting forth the effort to improve your battling. But it appears that I was wrong. Turns out you really can’t be sure who’s who until you catch them red-handed.” Lona’s eyes locked on the notebook in his hands, and a shadow fell over her brow. “And to think… for a moment, I almost believed what Miss Herrida had told me.”

    She looked away, and Michael felt a stinging heat bloom inside of him. For once, he had seen something in Lona’s face that he hated even more than anger—her disappointment. He looked down at the red carpet, trying to lose himself in the pattern of gold lines, but nothing he did could erase her expression from his mind.

    “They are in on the scheme!” Rick piped up. “Everyone is! Just wait—when I tell them the truth about you, I’ll get all the trainers on my side! And you know it, because you have nothing to back yourself up!”

    “Stop talking!” Lona shouted. Rick flinched back. “Don’t you dare try to justify yourself in front of me! If I had a wisp less of pity than I do now, then I’d have sent the both of you packing home! As a matter of fact, I should have sent you home the moment you turned up your nose and showed me who you really were—a grumbling, lazy child who rages at problems in life instead of solving them. But I was foolish; I decided to wait, to see if you would change your attitude. Now I see that that’s impossible. Do you think that, honestly, if I were gone, the Gym leader who replaced me wouldn’t eventually notice the same things I did? Do you really think that this is the attitude that will lead you to success in the Elite Four tournament? In anything?”

    Rick clenched his jaw. “You don’t get it!” he blurted. “You don’t get anything! All you want is to be a fucking dictator! You don’t care about anything but your stupid selfish goals, and I was the only one who saw it from the start! I bet it just bothers you that I’m not scared of you—that I unlike everyone else here, realize that you’re a lie! You think that just because Mommy was Champion, that makes you the greatest Gym leader in the world, but it doesn’t. You’re just a bloodsucking freak who’s stuck in the past and wants to turn us all into the trainers you want us to be. But that League’s gone now—Mommy’s gone, and nothing you try to do is ever gonna bring it back. Because no one wants it back. No one wants to make pokémon the whole focus of their life. No one cares about catching all the ones that there are, or traveling the world with them, or going to trainer conventions, holding community tournaments, or anything. You know why all that stuff’s gone? Because no one needs it anymore. And no one needs you! If you dropped off the face of the earth tomorrow, we’d all be happy. But you just can’t accept that. You gotta be the boss. You gotta be the queen of the world—always so mannered, so proper—but all you’re doing is showing everyone how fake you are.”

    At this, something flitted behind Lona’s eyes, though her face remained as placid as ever. The hand that was still holding Michael’s sleeve had slackened. He might as well have turned invisible—Rick and Lona were now standing face-to-face, both of them wearing such similar expressions of fury that it was hard, for a second, to tell them apart.

    “Beneath that shell of yours, you’re just a lonely freak,” Rick chided. “You don’t have a life, you don’t have a family, and you don’t have any friends. And you never will. Know why? ‘Cause you act like a damn princess! You’re always up on your high horse and demand respect from people, but you don’t give it back. You treat everyone like dirt. And you treat me like dirt. You always shout, you always push me around, and you act like I’m a freaking baby!”

    Lona leaned forward. “Then maybe you should stop whining like one, start listening to the shit I tell you, and work on your skills! And if you don’t want to, then leave!“

    “Fine, I will!” Rick grabbed the plastic wristband that was wrapped around his left arm and pulled it off, smacking it against the ground. He grabbed his sports bag and turned for the exit, dragging his feet so they wrinkled the carpet. “I quit the League!”

    Michael stared in dumb shock as Rick stormed down the hallway. Before he could come to his senses, he felt a sudden weight lift from his right shoulder. He turned, looking just in time to see Lona turn her back to him, arms stiffening at her sides.

    “If you have nothing else to add, then you may proceed to the lobby and sign out,” she said. “Congratulations...”

    And just like that, she was gone.

    Lona fled down the hallway till she reached her office, slamming the door so loudly that it trembled on its hinges. From the other direction, Rick’s footsteps faded away into the distance, followed by a loud bang as the front doors closed behind him. Silence rushed back in, leaving Michael alone in the corridor, standing like a pillar and unable to move. Only now did he become aware that his hands had gone cold from shock, and that he was clutching the notebook ever tighter under his arm, as if in fear that it would be taken away. But Lona hadn’t even touched it.

    Unconsciously, Michael’s eyes found the wristband that lay on the floor, and he reached to pick it up, examining its smooth surface. His face was reflected in it as a smudge, colored and distorted by the plastic.

    Rick's words were still buzzing around in his ears, like remnants from a jarring explosion. As he pictured his face, Michael felt a returning spite kindle within him. In a heartbeat, the boy had ruined his own work, had turned away from the door that would have led him to his goal. And it was all because he had been careless, too blindly obsessed with getting revenge on a single person, to see a way out when it was staring him in the face.

    Stupid… Michael thought. His forehead creased in a frown. That’s what you get for hanging out with dweebs… now everything’s ruined. He could’ve listened to me, but no, he just had to run his stupid mouth.

    He closed his palm around the band, and looked back in the direction of Lona’s office. She had vanished there like a mirage, throwing their end of the hallway into a deathly stillness. She could be reporting him this very minute, jotting notes on his Gym record, perhaps declaring his badge null and void. His curiosity began to gnaw at his judgment.

    Stifling his breath, Michael crept up to the office door and pressed his ear against it.

    From behind, he heard a rustle of papers, and the creak of a chair.

    “… yes, Ann, this is Lona. Do me a favor and take Rick Emaldo off the roster for next week… he’s decided not… not to continue… No, I don’t want to hear about that petition! I don’t care who started it! Let them march right up to the League Office if they please. If that’s how they like to solve their problems, then so be it. Tell everyone to stop searching... It’s not fair to the ones who weren’t at fault. And if there’s anyone else left who hates it here that badly, then tell them that they can just go ahead and leave! What do I c-care?”

    A telephone was slammed back into its holder. More papers shuffled. Michael stood facing the closed door, torn between running and staying. His heart was hammering. Any minute, Lona could open the door and catch him—and perhaps he would never lay eyes on the outside world again. But as he listened further, he heard little else. A strange quiet had settled over the room.

    Michael started to turn the doorknob, and to his surprise found it was open. He gave it a light push, and the door swung back to reveal the interior of Lona’s office, quaint and sunny. He stepped inside, still keeping to the door in case he had to run. But Lona didn’t seem to notice. She was sitting behind the desk, her face buried in her arms, the sounds of her sobbing rising from within. The pink jacket was balled up on a table behind her, as if she had tossed it off in a rage, finally tired of its presence.

    Michael didn’t know what he felt as he approached the desk. Shock faded into silence, blotting out everything from his awareness but the single figure in front of him, no longer terrible or imposing, but strangely small against the surroundings. Lona was crying, he realized—really crying—and the sound of it was both sad and frightening, filling his head with such a mess of thoughts that, for an instant, he could barely think. He knew there was a part of him that would have been happy, and not so long ago, would have even strived to bring that moment about — to tear down a deserving foe, like he had done to so many others before.

    But suddenly, that part of him was gone. The Lona Walker who had haunted his mind before had vanished — fallen away like the fragments of a shell, leaving behind the shattered remains of its keeper. And right then, everything clicked. The glares. The whispers. Everything they said had been hidden away inside of her, piling over memories from years past, fueling the storm that was consuming her from within. The timidity had been there the whole time, but it was crushed under layers of scorn, till no one—perhaps not even Lona herself—could sense it. It had emerged in a single moment when Ted had been there, blossoming almost to its former state, but then it slipped from her grasp again, like a tiny light lost amid the raging darkness.

    Rick had been one of many to sustain her downward spiral. He had been a mirror of the person she had turned into—retaliating with the same tactics, toying with her gloom, like so many others who had spoken those same words before. Each encounter only pulled her down further, driving her closer and closer to her own destruction.

    But in the end, it was Michael who had broken her. And oddly enough, he did it without uttering a single word in her direction. It was because she had counted on him, because he had been one of the few to give her hope—catching on to things she herself had lost touch with long ago. But then he took it away. In a matter of seconds, he had wrecked yet another person’s care for him, had ruined yet another thing that he could have done right. And the more Michael thought about it, the more he realized it was all he had ever been good at.

    He stood in place for what felt like hours, numb with indecision, wanting to run but unable to leave. In a sudden, feeble burst, he remembered that he was still holding Rick’s wristband—and felt its slight firmness as he tightened his grip around it. Desperate for something to do, he opened his hand and began to fiddle around with the plastic button, deciding for God-knows-what reason to snap it closed. At last, he did, and a sharp click pierced the air.

    Lona stilled.

    As if sensing that someone was in the room with her, she grew quiet, and after a hanging pause, she lifted her head. A pair of red, puffy eyes emerged from the tips of her arms and locked on Michael’s own—then almost immediately, she hid them away.

    Michael’s blood chilled.

    Lona didn’t let out another peep, but he could feel it as she tensed, and even more so, could feel his own heart pounding, reaffirming his presence with every jarring beat. He had done it. He had fallen into the death-grip of her stare, had plunged past the point of no return, where he would lose everything—his work, his hopes, his sanity.

    His mind began to scramble. The watchful eyes were gone, but Lona was still there, waiting, teetering on the verge of another outburst. Numbly, Michael approached the desk and placed the wristband down in front of her.

    “Sorry,” he mumbled, and stepped back.

    After a minute more of silence, he became assured that she hadn’t heard him, and turned to leave. But right then, he heard a sniff, and a faint rustle as Lona lifted her head from the table.


    Michael stopped. He turned around, just as Lona grabbed a tissue to blow her nose, opening her reddened eyes. She rummaged about her desk and lifted a brown folder, to which a white envelope was clipped.

    “Give this to Bertha,” she said. “It’s my letter of support. Tell her—” She was cut short by a loud sneeze. Covering her nose with the tissue, Lona proffered the folder with her free hand. “Tell her… good luck…”

    After a brief pause, Michael took the parcel. Lona brushed her hair away from her face, and their gazes met for an instant. All traces of the former coldness had washed away from her eyes, leaving them soft and patient. They could have been anyone’s.

    For a minute, he thought of saying something else, but found himself at a loss for words. As he backed away, Lona exhaled slowly and lowered her forehead into her hands. But for the time being, she seemed to have calmed.

    Michael left the office in a daze, unable to fathom what had just happened.

    His mind was still spinning as he walked down the hallway, his footsteps resounding in the silence. Muffled noises of battle fled past his ears, alternating in trance-like synchrony with the silence of empty rooms. He walked at a solemn, deadbeat pace, when a sudden yip-yip tore him out of his thoughts. He stopped in his tracks and looked down—just as a Stunky poked out its nose from one of the empty battle rooms, following a trail of scent.

    The pokémon’s dark fur stood up in tidy bristles, brushing against the edge of the half-door, pushing it out slightly as it emerged. Upon seeing him, the Stunky looked up, its ears flicking.

    Michael stared dumbly at it for a few seconds, till in a half-hearted burst, he recognized it as his own. He might have made a snide remark at it, but right then, he wasn’t in the mood. He continued on his way, not noticing the Stunky patter along in diligent pursuit. Michael passed through the lobby without a wayward glance, forgetting all about the prize money and his wristband, proceeding right by the front desk to the exit.

    A warm, humid wind rushed over him as he pushed open the door, with such force that he had to narrow his eyes. The sun had retreated behind a thick sheet of clouds, casting a gray gloom over the entire town. To the south, a rainstorm was gathering.

    Bertha and Henry stood on the Gym’s front lawn, observing the changing weather. The wind stirred the grass around them, rippling the edges of their clothing. As Michael approached, they turned, and Henry ran forward with a smile.

    “Hey! How’d it go? Did you—”

    The boy stopped short when he noticed the look of blank shock on Michael’s face. His gaze fell to the Stunky, who was running to catch up, and his lips parted. “Michael! You didn’t… you didn’t lose, did you?”

    Michael shook his head. “No.” He held up the badge, and Henry relaxed somewhat.

    “Oh. But then what—”

    Whatever he was about to say was cut off as Bertha came over. “Hey kid. What happened?” Her gaze fell to the folder in Michael’s hands, and she frowned in puzzlement. “What’ve you got there?”

    “It’s Lona’s letter. She signed your petition.” Michael held it out to her.

    Bertha blinked in surprise. “Just now? You mean she told you during the battle?”

    “No, it was after… she just gave me the envelope. She must’ve had it earlier.”

    Bertha looked at him for a few seconds without replying. Then she took the folder and unclipped the envelope, gently peeling off the seal. She removed a typed letter and scanned through it without comment, though her eyebrows lifted.

    She was about to put it back when she noticed a second piece of paper still folded inside the envelope. Michael and Henry came to look as she opened it. It was a written note.

    Miss Herrida,

    I’m glad we were able to come to an understanding. I hope that in the future you will continue to look out for the League’s well-being, and perhaps encourage others to do the same. You have encouraged me.


    Bertha lowered the letter. “Huh. I guess I did change her mind, then…” She placed both papers back, and after a brief paused, looked up at the boys and sighed. “Well, that’s about it for this place. I guess it’s time to head over to Pastoria for the next Gym. I don’t know about you two, but I’ve got all my things. Are you ready to leave today?”

    Henry nodded. “Yep! We don’t have much to pack.”

    Bertha looked at Michael. “How about you?” Noticing his strange silence, she frowned. “What’s the matter? Did something happen back there?”

    Michael shook his head. ”No. Why?”

    “You look like you just saw your ghost.” Bertha smiled at her own joke. Somewhat belatedly, Michael returned the gesture.

    But in a way, he had.


    The boys finished packing in less than an hour, and after turning their keys in to the front desk, they left with Bertha to the rail station. The clouds continued to thicken overhead.

    At the reception counter, Bertha purchased their tickets, while the boys waited in the seating area, amid the shifting, chattering crowds. Since Pastoria City was nearly three hours away, they would be taking an over-ground train, whose tracks would traverse the bogs between the Great Marsh and Lake Valor. All in all, the journey would amount to 500 miles, and would take them to the very edge of Sinnoh’s southeastern shore.

    A short while later, Michael found himself sitting at the window seat of a thin train, looking out at the darkening plains. For the first time, the excitement of leaving was lost upon him. It had numbed, much like the world he saw through the glass, its sounds reduced to a blurry thrum in the pervading silence of his mind. He didn’t feel anything now—not relief, or joy, or sadness.

    Rather, as he stared at the dreary town, part of him wanted nothing more than to go home, shut the door to his room, and forget everything that had happened to him.

    Little did he know, someone far away was thinking the exact same thing.
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