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Old January 14th, 2017 (6:49 PM). Edited 1 Week Ago by icomeanon6.
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It's "I Come Anon"
     
    Join Date: Feb 2008
    Location: Northern Virginia
    Age: 24
    Gender: Male
    Posts: 1,149
    [Author's note: Some of you may recognize these characters from one-shots I've written before, mostly for the SWC. These include There's Always Tomorrow, A Matter of Stubbornness, Left by the Roadside, Dad's Old Gym, and Hubris Island. Don't feel you have to read them first, in fact I'd prefer you just start here because it's a different continuity. For those of you have read some of those stories, here's an additional note:
    Spoiler:
    Katie's name has been changed to Hanna because "Katie" and "Krissy" sound too similar and Krissy was here first.

    This is going to be one half a chapter story, and the other half a collection of related slice-of-life short stories. I hope you find the two halves to be complementary and equally worthwhile.

    As always any comments and criticism are appreciated. Enjoy!]


    Disclaimer on Content Warnings: I am not well-versed in mental health issues. I have made a good-faith effort to highlight objectionable or potentially disturbing material below, but I wouldn't bet money on my judgment. If you read this and think there should be an addition to these warnings, please message me. If you have questions about the content before reading whether on your own behalf or on another's behalf, please message me.

    Content Warnings (General): Swearing. Violence. Blood. Not recommended for readers under the age of 13.

    Content Warnings (Specific or possible spoilers): Please open this spoiler tag if you require advance notice of certain topics.
    Spoiler:
    Death. Child abuse. Bullying. Irresponsible consumption of alcohol. Irresponsible gambling themes. Suicide themes.


    Will Somebody Stop These Kids?

    Contents:

    *********

    Chapter 1

    May, 2017

    Derek Brooks was struggling to open a jar of caffeine pills. The difficulty stemmed from the fact that he had been awake for the last thirty-two hours. At length he grabbed the lid through his somewhat grimy t-shirt—which he had been wearing for the last forty-one hours—and found success. He swallowed a handful of pills, which by his admittedly hazy calculations should have bought him another three hours before his body was forced to shut down.

    It was a Saturday afternoon, which meant that Derek was hard at work. As of late his office was a studio apartment in a crumbling building in downtown Goldenrod City. It lacked such amenities as air conditioning, a kitchen, tables, chairs, or a bed, but there was enough room for a mattress and most importantly it afforded a perfect view of the adjacent backstreet alley. This was the same backstreet alley that Derek had been keeping close tabs on for the last twenty-nine hours as part of his current assignment.

    Derek’s job was complicated, and its description varied wildly depending on who you asked. If you asked his family, they’d tell you it was something for the government. If you asked the Goldenrod Police Department Human Resources Division and had proper clearance, they’d tell you that Mr. Brooks was a clerk in Archives. If you asked the notorious criminal organization Team Rocket and had the appropriate street cred, they might tell you that he was a disgruntled police archivist who was selling them valuable law enforcement intelligence. And if you asked his actual boss in the GPD, he certainly wouldn’t tell you that Officer Brooks was operating deep undercover to spy on and sabotage Team Rocket.

    This wasn’t quite how Derek had once imagined himself at thirty-three. Most of his now-distant colleagues from the academy had moved up the promotion ladder and didn’t have to tolerate these kinds of conditions. He took some solace in the fact that whenever his mom or sister asked him how his job was going he was required by policy to say ‘fine’ and not a single word of substance. Family was by and large too complicated for Derek to handle, and any amount of potentially frustrating human interaction he could trim from his week was welcome.

    The pill was starting to kick in, so Derek returned to his window and took up the watch again. He was waiting for a ‘Grunt’ member of Team Rocket to retrieve a hidden package of (fabricated) police communication records for which Derek was owed 100,000 Pokéyen in unmarked bills (approximately 1,000 USD). There was only an hour left in the thirty-hour window the Grunt had insisted on. Once the Grunt arrived, Derek would rush out and tail him until he found where he was staying, and later he would wire the place with listening devices and maybe a few cameras. In Derek’s mind there was way less that could go wrong with this plan than could go wrong from making even light conversation with his relatives. It was less stressful to boot.

    Nothing was happening at the moment, but something was bugging him all the same. His eyes wandered away from the alley’s entrance, and then they wandered past the spot with the package and behind a number of boxes. Then his eyes started twitching on their own when he spotted the two boys and a girl who were crouching down there. They appeared to be spying on the very same package with all the subtlety you’d expect from a bunch of stupid kids. Derek’s stomach got caught in his throat for a second as he tried to parse the situation.

    They looked a bit too young to be teenagers and they all had backpacks, so the odds said they were Pokémon trainers. To Derek’s dismay, he had to assume the worst-case scenario that they had heard about the exchange somehow. They were probably thinking they’d have a chance to beat a Rocket with their Pokémon and brag about it to their little trainer friends and rivals. Standard procedure dictated that Derek had to make them leave the area before they got seriously hurt on top of making a wash of his entire week.

    Just as he was grumbling over the prospect of digging out his badge from its hiding place and convincing these little idiots that he had the authority to order them to go away, one of the boys gave him pause. There was something about his face.

    “Is that…?” he muttered to himself. “No. No, it can’t be…”

    He stared for a few more seconds until it hit him. “Oh, sh*t. It is. Sh*t, sh*t, sh*t!

    It was Jason. It was his mom’s sister’s kid. It was that one cousin he saw twice a year. In other words, Jason fit square in the broad category of people described in chapter 98, section 10-C of the Department Policy Guide: “An officer employed at cover-level 3 or above may not disclose their status as an officer to any person with knowledge of the officer’s personal identity. Any disclosure whether accidental or deliberate will be reviewed in an official hearing, with disciplinary action not to exceed termination of employment and a fine of six months’ pay.” All it would take was one post from one relative on any social media platform and Derek was done. On top of that he hadn’t been expecting his annual panic attack about 98:10-C until the family reunion in October.

    Derek stood up, slapped his face a few times, and looked again. There was no doubt it was Jason, which meant he was one hundred percent screwed. He covered his mouth as tight as possible and yelled into his hands so hard it made his throat sore. Before he knew what exactly he was going to do he was grabbing his jacket so as to cover his disgusting shirt and make himself semi-presentable to the outside world. He stood in front of the door and held on to the knob while agonizing over what the hell he was supposed to say. Bringing up the subject of Team Rocket was out of the question, much less the fact that he was the one who had arranged the sale in the first place. At length he steeled his nerves and walked outside. He would just have to think of something on the fly.

    *********

    Jason O’Connor was a bit amazed at his own cunning. He and his friends Travis and Krissy were going to have this Rocket goon right where they wanted him. It was a few days after Jason had snuck around and overheard the Grunt’s plan to acquire the “package” here: “Ya gotta pick ’em up a day late, see? That way it’s real tough for a turncoat to keep an eye on the spot unless they’re doin’ shifts.” Jason’s immediate temptation of course had been to start a battle right then and there, but now his patience was about to be rewarded. He didn’t see how they could lose with a three-on-one surprise attack in close quarters.

    Krissy leaned over to him and started to whisper. “Let’s go over the plan again, just to be safe.”

    Travis leaned over as well. “Way safer to go over the plan twenty times instead of nineteen. Definitely.”

    Jason knew that Krissy wouldn’t take the bait. She ignored the comment and took it from the top. “First Jason throws Rabies’s ball past him to block his escape. Then I send out Lucia and Travis sends out Leviathan. When he sends out his Pokémon, one of us will take the lead depending on the type matchup.”

    So Growlithe, Bayleef, and Quagsire respectively. One fire, one grass, one water and ground. “No types that beat all of ours,” added Jason, “We’re looking good.”

    “Except dragon, of course,” whispered Krissy, “But he won’t have one of those.”

    Travis looked indignant. “Dragons don’t beat water.”

    “On defense, yes they do, same against all the others we’re using.”

    “Nuh-uh.”

    “Haven’t you ever read the types page on your Pokédex?”

    Jason rolled his eyes. He hated it when Travis made boys look like morons. Even though Jason himself hadn’t been quite sure about the dragon vs. water matchup, he knew better than to contradict Krissy on anything you could read in a book. In any case this was no time to lose focus, so he tried to tune them out and listen for footsteps. Then not five seconds later he froze as he heard them coming from the wrong direction. There was someone behind them, meaning they were kneeling in plain sight.

    They all spun around at once, and then Jason saw the very last person he expected standing right there in front of him.

    “Hey, Jason,” said Derek. “Long time no see.”

    Jason was so startled that he only half-noticed that his cousin looked like death. It was almost as if someone had drawn under his eyes with a black marker, and his smile was even more obviously forced than when they took family pictures. Jason glanced over at his friends and saw that they were at a complete loss.

    The silence might have lasted minutes if Derek hadn’t broken it. “I met you last year,” he said, pointing at Travis, “Your name’s…uh…”

    Travis didn’t help him out, and this made Jason realize that he might not recognize or remember Derek. “Oh, that’s Travis. Um, Krissy, this is my cousin Derek. And uh…Derek, this is Krissy.”

    Krissy just managed to stammer out, “…Nice to meet you.”

    And then the silence was back. Jason began to worry that Derek had overheard them and tried to remember whether they had actually mentioned Team Rocket. Not that it was any business of Derek’s, but Jason didn’t trust him not to tell his parents or Travis’s what they were doing. And he especially didn’t trust his parents not to overreact.

    Much to his relief, Derek seemed to be none the wiser. “So what are you guys up to?”

    The relief was fleeting, as Jason hadn’t planned on needing an alibi today. Just as he was about to say something stupid like ‘Ya know, stuff,’ Travis came to the rescue. “Saw a Pokémon back here.”

    Derek tilted his head. “That right?”

    “Eh…yeah. It was one of those, uh…”

    “Magnemite,” said Krissy. It was a flawless save.

    “Yeah, Magnemite. Can’t just find those in the woods so Jason wanted to be extra careful that we caught it.”

    “Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.” Jason nodded his head with what he thought was enough vigor to be convincing. Then he asked, “So…what are you up to?”

    “Nothing really,” said Derek, or rather half-yawned Derek. “I’ve got the day off. Was just bumming around and saw you guys from my window over there.”

    Jason thought they might be in the clear now if Derek had bought their story and if he would simply leave for somewhere else. Then they might beat the Grunt before he came back home.

    “Hey, who feels like ice cream? I’m buying.”

    Jason could have screamed but he managed to hold on. “Well, we were—”

    Derek spoke up again at the same time Jason did. “Actually, I know a good place by the Radio Tower, and I’ve seen plenty of Magnemite in the alleys around there, too. Never here before, though. What do you say?”

    It was checkmate, and Jason knew it. The remainder of the game was purely academic, and Krissy spared him the embarrassment of being the first to surrender. “…That sounds good to me.”

    Travis bit his lower lip as he stood up. “Yeah. I’m down for ice cream. And we’ll probably have better luck over there.”

    “Okay then,” said Jason as he did his best to disguise his disappointment. “Thanks, Derek.”

    Derek made a noise that perhaps meant ‘you’re welcome,’ and led the way out of the alley in a hurry. It was something of a challenge for Jason and his friends to keep up as they walked through nearly a mile of Goldenrod City. It made him wonder whether Derek was actually as exhausted as he looked. The way Derek would veer towards a wall and correct himself at the last inch every few minutes was evidence for ‘yes.’

    Before he knew it, they were all sitting in a booth in a plain but cozy ice cream parlor. It should have been pleasant, but Jason couldn’t shake this feeling that something was about to get him. Perhaps he was still hyped up from being on the hunt for a real, meaningful battle, but the cause was just as likely the fact that his weirdest, scariest relative looked even weirder and scarier than usual. Derek was on one side of the table while Jason and his friends shared the other. It was cramped, but he couldn’t blame Krissy for squeezing onto their side rather than joining Derek.

    Derek’s face was one thing, but it was only now that Jason noticed an even more unsettling element to his presence: he smelled like a Pokémon trainer, and that was no compliment. As a Pokémon trainer himself Jason wasn’t one to talk, but what excuse could Derek have for not showering? And then there was the clinching factor in his strangeness which was that he had ordered black coffee in an ice cream parlor. It was an unprecedented act of weirdness. For the record, Jason also took note that while he and Travis had ordered chocolate cones like normal people, Krissy had gotten a cup of butter pecan like a girl.

    Derek took a long sip from his coffee and shook his eyes open wider. “Hey, you’re turning eleven soon, right?”

    Jason looked around the table for a napkin. “…I did in April.”

    “Right, duh.” Derek rubbed his temples. “Yeah, you started in April last year… How’s Rabies doing?”

    “He’s good. Real strong now.”

    “Hm. That’s great.”

    Then it was back to heavy silence. Jason wondered if they could just leave on their own if they finished their ice cream before Derek finished his coffee. He wanted to get back to the ambush spot, even if the odds were slim that they could catch the Grunt before Derek got back. Besides, there was only so much he could handle of this freak’s abysmal small talk.

    But when his cousin broke the silence again it didn’t sound like small talk anymore. “So Jason,” he said with new composure, “You guys been keeping safe lately?”

    Jason drew a blank. Where did this come from?

    Travis shifted in his seat and stared Derek down. “How do you mean?”

    “Just saying I remember being a trainer. Y’know, loads of time, no parents, pretty easy to toe the line between having fun and acting stupid.”

    “We’re not stupid,” said Jason.

    “That’s why I said acting. Everyone does some dumb stuff when they’re a trainer, and sometimes when they grow up they wish someone had kept them just a little more in check once or twice.”

    This drew in Krissy. “Do you mean people in general wish that or you in particular?”

    “Not me so much. I was pretty boring. You guys seem more fun so I just thought I’d ask. It’s an easy question, and there’s no wrong answer.”

    But Jason knew it wasn’t an easy question. On the contrary it was loaded. Did he know they’d been after members of Team Rocket? It wouldn’t quite make sense if he did. Wouldn’t he have just brought it up? Why would he be so cagey about it? This left two explanations in Jason’s mind: either Derek knew and was trying to pressure them into quitting on their own—as if they could be dissuaded from doing the right thing by someone calling it ‘stupid’—or Derek didn’t know and he was just being an awkward weirdo. When he looked at it that way it was a no-brainer. Derek didn’t know.

    “We’re plenty safe,” said Jason. “Nothing to worry about.”

    Derek still looked serious, but he sat back and drained the last of his coffee. “That’s good to hear.” Then he stood up and checked his pockets. “I’m gonna head home now.”

    It hit Jason that this meant the chance of pulling off the ambush was now zero. Derek talked faster as started to leave. “Hey, give your Aunt Nancy a call sometime. She’s always bugging Jen and me to see if we’ve got any stories about you. Good to see you again, Travis; real nice to meet you, Krissy. You kids have fun out there.”

    And then he was out the door. They all looked out the window after him and saw that he was making a beeline back the way they had come. Krissy shivered a little and moved to the other side of the table so they could get comfortable. “Is he always like that?”

    “No,” said Jason before he thought about it a moment. “I mean, he’s always a little like that, but never that much before.”

    “He was definitely better when I saw him,” said Travis. “That was on day one for us last year. He was sorta like a human being from what I remember.”

    Then Travis looked around the place. The only employee was buried in her cell phone and there were no other customers. It was just them and the Top 40 on the radio. They all leaned in over the table. “Didn’t it seem like he knew?” whispered Travis. “You don’t think he could actually be…you know…the Grunt?”

    Jason couldn’t help but laugh, however strong the gravity of the situation was. “Not a chance. He’s like, the anti-criminal. Jen said he told her off once for downloading music. Oh, that’s my other cousin.”

    “I know who she is.”

    “I didn’t,” said Krissy. “Anyway, even if he’s not a Rocket, it seems like too much of a coincidence to me. Could he be involved some other way?”

    Jason hadn’t thought of that. “I guess. I think he works for the government or something, but you’d think if this had to do with his job he’d just say so and order us around, right?”

    “You’d think.” Krissy shrugged and leaned back again. “So what now?”

    Since all their other plans today were shot, Jason was surprised she had to ask. “We go catch one of those Magnemite, duh.” They could always start taking down Team Rocket again tomorrow.

    *********

    The package was already taken when Derek got back. He leaned his head against the wall of the alley and tried not to think about how many hours he had put toward learning where these Grunts were hiding out. He focused instead on the fact that he probably wouldn’t have learned anything important by spying on them anyway. This sort of setback would have agitated him more back in his early twenties, but by now his career had made him numb to most forms of futility.

    Jason and his friends were a different story. They’d caught him flat-footed and he had no idea how he was going to salvage the situation. It gave him a stomachache. He was convinced—despite all evidence to the contrary—that the stress of talking to children gave him ulcers. It was fortunate he only had the energy to stumble back into the apartment, otherwise he might have gone to one of the bars in the Goldenrod Tunnel to self-medicate with some hard liquor. He closed the door behind him, flipped a light switch that would have been there in another room he’d lived in once, and collapsed face first on the mattress.

    He got his sleep, and by the time he was really awake again it was evening on the next calendar day and he was well north of Goldenrod. Specifically he was walking down a familiar trail through some lush woods to the north of his hometown of Ecruteak City. At some point he couldn’t recall he had showered, changed into decent clothes, and eaten actual food. In that sense at least this day was going better than the day before, but the critical problem was the same.

    He could have bet a month’s salary those kids were going to keep on messing with Team Rocket. He’d read Travis and that girl Krissy like a book, and he could always read Jason like a neon ‘OPEN’ sign. It hardly mattered how transparent they were though when he had no way of telling them with authority to knock it off. This meant he had to try the single aspect of police-work that he struggled the most with: leveraging connections. He looked at the setting sun through the leaves and hoped she’d still be in.

    Soon the path opened up to a wide field that housed a dirt oval for battling, an obstacle course, deep-green wooden bleachers, cheap stadium lights, and a small clubhouse. In the middle of it all was a youngish woman dressed in practical trainer’s gear who was redrawing the oval’s chalk lines. She noticed as he walked up and waved at him. “Hey, Derek!”

    This was the proprietor of the unofficial, unaffiliated, and unrecognized but growing North Ecruteak Gym. Her name was Jen and she was Derek’s younger sister. The age gap between them was six years, but thanks to a disparity in facial line density people usually guessed it was ten years.

    “Hey.”

    “You should have called ahead! What’s up?”

    She was in a great mood, which wasn’t unusual. Derek hated to have to ruin her day. “We need to talk.”

    “Sure thing. Go on in, I’ll just be a minute here.”

    Derek nodded and walked over to the clubhouse. The fresh coat of paint grabbed his attention: white with green trim. It was much more inviting than the dumpy little shack that had stood in the same spot when he was a kid. Even more impressive than the paint was the new door with an actual handle. The inside was far cleaner and brighter than in the old building as well, and Derek was so focused on the walls that he didn’t notice the other person in the room right away.

    “Oh, hey Derek.”

    Jen’s longtime friend Hanna was sitting at the table and typing away on a laptop. She had a number of papers out with complicated diagrams on them.

    “Hey. Didn’t know you were in Johto.”

    “Just visiting for the long weekend.”

    Not that this stopped her from working, Derek noticed. Hanna was a programmer who worked for the renowned scientist Bill out in northern Kanto. It had never surprised Derek that Bill would attract the sort of fanatic employees who would put in hours on a Sunday. Of course, Derek regularly worked weekends as well, but he at least had the decency to be mad about it.

    He dropped his bag near the door and pulled up a chair at the opposite corner of the table from Hanna.

    “You look like hell.” Hanna didn’t mess around, and Derek appreciated that.

    “It was one of those days yesterday.”

    “Hmm.”

    With that Hanna returned her attention to the screen for a few seconds before Jen came in.

    “Woo! Finally done,” she said in a tone she only used when she could gladly go at it for a few hours more. She wiped the dust from her glasses as she walked over to a small fridge. “Derek, you want anything? Soda? Beer?”

    “Beer, please.”

    “Hanna?”

    “I’m good, thanks.”

    Jen pulled out two cans of cheap, weak, nasty beer and threw one over to Derek.

    “Thanks.”

    “Cheers!”

    Jen took her seat and they both took a swig of the awful stuff. Derek contemplated making an investment in the gym provided that 100% of his contribution went to securing a supply of respectable alcohol for the staff. Today though he was in the right mood to drink even this p*ss-water.

    “So what do we need to talk about?”

    This made Hanna look up from her computer. Derek answered, “It’s about family.”

    “Older or younger?”

    “Younger.” He glanced to the side and noticed that Hanna was showing no intention of leaving so far. That struck him as rude, or at least intrusive. “It’s Jason.”

    “Is he okay?” Jen didn’t seem to care that Hanna was in the room.

    “Yeah, he’s fine. I think he might be in trouble, though, him and his friends.” He took another glance and Hanna was still the same. “I was thinking of talking in private.”

    “Hanna knows Jason, it’s cool.”

    “If he’s in trouble,” said Hanna, “I’d like to help too if that’s all right.”

    Derek sighed. He didn’t have the energy to argue. He started from the beginning and told them what he had seen and heard the day before. Naturally he left out any details that he could only have known if he were a cop. In addition he reattributed key bits of evidence to fake overheard quotes from the kids that in reality had come from his own intel and inference. The whole picture he gave was entirely true, though.

    Jen put her face in her hands. “Oh geeze, they’re so clueless.”

    It was a relief that Jen was in agreement with him. He recalled that she and Hanna had been similarly adventurous to the point of idiocy back in their trainer days. He could only imagine what would have happened if Team Rocket had been in Johto fifteen years ago. “I don’t want to tell their parents just yet,” he said, “And I’m sure you don’t want to have to either.”

    “Of course not,” said Jen. “The kids would be devastated.”

    Informing a parent of their trainer’s inexcusable decision-making was called ‘The Death Sentence’ in the police force. Legally speaking a parent needed no reason to have their child’s Pokémon license revoked, and a child journeying without a license was officially ‘missing’ and could be forcibly returned home. It was rare to see an officer who didn’t give warnings to the trainers before going to the parents. “I was hoping you could talk to them,” said Derek. “I think Jason’s more likely to listen to you.”

    “He likes you, too.”

    That was a dubious claim, but Derek didn’t have to address it directly. “Well, Travis doesn’t from what I can tell. And their new friend Krissy definitely doesn’t.”

    Jen made a pouting face. “Oh no, you didn’t scare her, did you?”

    “I wasn’t trying to!”

    Hanna shook her head. “Poor little girl.”

    Derek just groaned.

    “Well, don’t worry,” said Jen, “I’ll take care of it, no problem.”

    “You want a hand?” asked Hanna.

    “Definitely! Thanks a million.”

    Derek took another look at Hanna and considered the prospect. She was a few years older than Jen, a fair deal smarter, and immeasurably harder to read. He believed she was sincere in her desire to help and that she was well-equipped to do so, but something bothered him. Unlike with Jen, there was a possibility that Hanna didn’t buy the entirety of the story as he had told it. Did she suspect he was omitting key information? It was too hard to tell.

    In the end he was more desperate than uncertain. “Sounds good. Jen, you have his cell number, right?”

    “Yeah. Goldenrod’s not too far so I’ll just invite them here.”

    She started pulling her phone out of her pocket, but Derek stopped her. “Maybe wait until tomorrow. His defenses might still be up if you call him so soon after I talked to him. Actually, don’t even tell him I was the one who told you.”

    “Makes sense.”

    It sounded like a plan. Despite himself Derek allowed his shoulders to relax a tad and he finished his miserable beer. “The outhouse is around back, right?”

    “Yeah, you can’t miss it,” said Jen. “Man, it’s so lucky you were there yesterday. I’ll be in the back room doing this week’s paperwork—feel free to stay as long as you want.”

    Derek grunted and took his leave of the clubhouse. It was getting dark and he could hear several Hoothoot in the woods having a conversation as they woke up. This was how an evening was supposed to sound and feel, and he often missed it living in Goldenrod. It was a comforting place, but Derek’s brain had natural defenses against comfort. While he was taking care of his business something was making him agitated again. There was an element of great importance that he had overlooked, perhaps because his sister’s gym had a disarming effect on him.

    As he was returning to the clubhouse, Hanna came out the door and approached him. It was starting to come together: she suspected something, and he’d let his defenses down somewhere, but where? Where was the attack going to come from?

    She met him halfway. “Derek, I’m really sorry, but I looked through your bag.” She held up his badge. His knees nearly melted on the spot and he began to sweat. He felt like the dumbest person alive for going more than ten feet away from that bag.

    “Hanna,” he said as calmly as he could, “You are going to get me fired.”

    “I won’t tell a single person, really,” she said, “Just hear me out.”

    What could he do? She had him by the short hairs.

    “I want to help. Bill’s lab is one of the best in the world; it’s the perfect place to reverse-engineer Team Rocket’s tech. We keep reaching out to the police, but they hardly ever return our calls.”

    “Hanna. Listen. All of those decisions are way, way above my pay grade, and that’s definitely not going to change when you get me fired.”

    She wouldn’t budge. Her eyes were like steel. “You know I’m right. How are you guys going to get an edge on the Rockets when you barely collaborate with other cities’ departments, much less with actual experts like Bill?”

    Of course Derek knew she was right. Anyone who’d spent five minutes trying to get anything out of a police scientist knew she was right. But that was beside the point. “Get this into your head: it’s not my call. It’s not even my boss’s call. They’re so paranoid about spies and moles all the way up they’d never sign off on anything like that. Hell, I’m not even allowed to tell other officers what my assignment is, that’s how nuts they are about this. It’s not my call.”

    “You don’t have to make any calls. You just need to get me some of Team Rocket’s new technology to study and I’ll refer to you as an ‘anonymous source.’ Otherwise I’ll tell Jen about your job. And your grandma.”

    Derek wanted to scream. The odds were sixty percent that Jen would tell a bunch of people, and ninety-eight percent that their grandma would tell everyone. But what Hanna was asking was out of the question. He thought about grabbing the badge away from her. Even if her reflexes were quick it would be no trouble to out-muscle her. But he knew that Jen would believe her even without the badge—to say nothing about how awkward it would be to wrestle with her.

    “Derek, I don’t want to have to do this,” she said. “You’ve always been really great to me and Jen, even when we used to give you such a hard time.”

    Used to?

    “Are you on board or not?”

    He clapped his hand to his forehead. Either way he had exactly one hope, which was that Hanna could keep a secret. It was better her knowing than Jen’s. He didn’t have a choice. “Fine.”

    She smiled and tossed him his badge, which he pocketed as fast as he could.

    “Just one question,” he added, “What else did you see in the bag?”

    “Nothing important.”

    He wasn’t going to let her decide what was important. “Tell me everything. Exactly.”

    “One shirt, one pair of pants, two socks, one pair of boxers, 185 Pokéyen in change, and a bag with a toothbrush and toothpaste. There was a hidden pocket, and the badge was inside that along with a small notebook. I didn’t open the notebook.”

    She wasn’t lying. At least, he didn’t think so. It was dark, and he could never get all the way inside Hanna’s head.

    “Don’t worry,” she said, “Your secret’s safe. And thanks a ton, you’re the best!”

    She turned on her heel and headed back to the clubhouse. Derek followed behind her closely and swore in his head. It was little consolation that she’d only found one hidden pocket.
    __________________

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    Old January 25th, 2017 (4:56 PM).
    icomeanon6's Avatar
    icomeanon6 icomeanon6 is offline
    It's "I Come Anon"
       
      Join Date: Feb 2008
      Location: Northern Virginia
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      Chapter 2

      Route 35 was a tree-lined, well-tended path that connected Goldenrod City to the National Park. A short ways from the main thoroughfare was a small pond, and under normal circumstances the clearing by the edge of the pond was not cordoned off with police tape. These were not normal circumstances, and that was why a small crowd of trainers and locals was standing nearby and trading rumors as the police conducted their investigation in peace. Among the members of the crowd were Jason, Krissy, and Travis. In Jason’s mind he and his friends were no mere rubberneckers. They were on a reconnaissance mission.

      “Plenty of people are saying it was Team Rocket so far,” said Travis, “But I’ve also heard ‘biker gang,’ and ‘guy in clown makeup,’ so who knows.”

      Jason clicked his tongue in frustration. “I don’t think we’ll know for sure unless we hear it from those cops.”

      “Please don’t tell me you want to sneak past the tape,” said Krissy.

      “Course not. I’m not a moron.”

      “Sissies,” said Travis out of the corner of his mouth and in a terrible accent. “Both a’ youse.”

      A challenge! In the face of the implicit, ridiculous dare Jason decided instead to move the goalposts. “You wanna go try it, turd-brain?”

      “You wanna bet 500 I won’t?”

      Krissy sighed and covered her face with her hand.

      “Okay,” said Jason, “Krissy’s getting embarrassed. Let’s quit it.”

      “I still say we should only stop early on her birthday.”

      It was tempting, but Jason refrained from dignifying Travis’s suggestion with a response. Instead he maneuvered his way to a spot in the crowd with a better vantage point of the crime scene. He wished he had a Marill’s ears so he could tell what the cops were saying. One of them was talking to the victim, who was a trainer about their age. Just when Jason was thinking that they weren’t going to learn anything else and that it was pointless to stick around here, the victim ran out the back of the area and into the woods. Jason looked over his shoulder, and it seemed he was the only one who’d noticed. Then he motioned to Travis and Krissy, and they understood and followed him into the trees.

      Jason only had a general idea where the other kid had gone, so they had to move quick and keep their eyes peeled. “Travis,” said Jason, “When we find him me and Krissy are gonna do the talking.”

      “What’s that supposed to mean?”

      “It means you’re a jerk and he’s had a rough day and deserves better.”

      Krissy didn’t seem pleased that their cease-fire had lasted all of one minute. “You could have put that a little more diplomatically.”

      “You’re right, sorry. What I meant to say is that since Travis is such an intimidating badass it’s probably safer if sissies like us talk to the guy.”

      “Thanks, Jason,” said Travis, “I appreciate that.” And Jason knew he really did.

      Their search lasted a few more minutes until Krissy finally tapped Jason’s shoulder and pointed to their right. The boy in question was sitting at the base of a tree and staring at the ground. When they got close the boy acted like he hadn’t noticed.

      “Hey.” Jason tried to keep his voice as neutral as he could.

      Only now did the kid lift his head. Everything around his eyes was red and his nose was a mess. “…What do you want?”

      “What’s your name?” asked Krissy.

      “…Phillip. What do you want?”

      Jason took over. “We’re going after Team Rocket. We’ve just got a few questions.”

      “You gonna laugh at me like the police did?”

      This piqued Jason’s interest. He thought it was awful of course, but it was more likely there’d be some weird clue now.

      “We won’t,” said Krissy. “Promise.”

      Jason was pretty sure that Travis would stick to that promise, too. He was only pretty sure because there was always the chance that Phillip would say something genuinely, hilariously dumb, in which case Travis might not be able to hold it in. Jason didn’t feel bad about considering this cruel possibility because a trainer had to be ready for anything.

      “The Rockets jumped us—me and Girafarig. There were two of them. We fought back, but then one of them knocked me over and I was face down and…and he pushed my head down and I couldn’t tell Girafarig what to do. And then he kicked me in the ribs and when…when I got up they were gone and so was…so was…”

      Phillip was crying again, and there was disgust and disbelief all over Krissy’s face. “Why would the police laugh at that story?”

      Slowly the boy lifted his shaking hands, which held an empty Pokéball. “This is Girafarig’s. The police said the Rockets never take a Pokémon without taking the ball, too. They said this couldn’t be Girafarig’s ball and that I was confused. One of them was smiling. He was smiling!”

      Jason suspected that none of the police had actually laughed and it had only seemed that way to poor Phillip. More importantly, it wouldn’t make sense for Team Rocket to steal a Pokémon without its ball, especially not one that was bigger than any kid their age. Yet it felt like Phillip was telling the truth about the battle, if not about the police’s reaction. And he hadn’t been knocked out or anything so there was no real reason for him to be confused about what had happened either. Analyzing testimony was hard. “Hey,” said Jason, “if we find those thugs we’ll try to get back your Girafarig.”

      Phillip looked up at him. “…You mean it?”

      “Of course! We’re pretty dang good, and we outnumber them too!”

      Krissy added, “We’ll do our best, at least.”

      “What’d help though,” said Jason, “is if you’ve got something one of them touched.”

      Phillip sniffed. “One of them left his stupid card. I didn’t show it to the police.”

      “Can we have it?” Jason thought it would probably be enough for Rabies to work with.

      Phillip pointed to his left, where the crumpled business card was on the ground. Jason pocketed it, and he didn’t blame Phillip for littering. “Well, wish us luck. If we can just find them, I think we’ve got a good shot!”

      “Take care,” said Krissy. “We’re really sorry.”

      Phillip didn’t say another word and returned his gaze to the ground. As Jason began to walk away he worried that he might have overpromised. Beating a Grunt in a battle was one thing and they’d done it before, but he didn’t know if they keep one from running away after they beat him so they could take his stuff. He got a little lost in his thoughts before he noticed that Travis wasn’t keeping up with him and Krissy. He turned around and saw Travis standing in front of Phillip for just a moment before he turned around as well and caught up to them in a hurry.

      “What’d you say to him?” whispered Jason, who wasn’t sure what to think.

      “Nothing.”

      “Whatever.” It was seldom worth the effort to interrogate Travis.

      They kept walking until they should have been well out of Phillip’s earshot as a matter of courtesy. Then Jason pulled the card from his pocket and the first Pokéball from his belt. “Let’s get to work!”

      He pressed the ball’s release switch, and out with a flash appeared Rabies, his Growlithe. Rabies barked, wagged, and looked all over the place for something his trainer wouldn’t mind him biting. Jason held the card over the pup’s nose, and immediately he had to pull back again as Rabies took a nip at it. They were still working on the lesson that going after fingers counted as going after people. “Hey, no! No bite. Smell! Find him, Rabies!”

      Jason moved his hand closer again and this time Rabies sniffed the evidence with his mouth closed. When the fire-type was satisfied, he barked a few more times and pointed his nose toward the direction they had come from. “No, not the kid, the Rocket. Where’s the Rocket?”

      Rabies presumably got the picture and turned to face another direction that went deeper in to the woods. “Good boy! Go get him!”

      Rabies bolted off with a bark, and the three of them chased after him. Jason soon had to call out an order to slow his Pokémon down. He could feel the adrenaline start to pump as they dodged the passing branches.

      Krissy spoke up with short breath. “Travis, we need Pokémon ready, too. May have to fight right away.”

      “Yeah, yeah, I know.”

      The thought was almost too exciting for Jason to handle. He’d never gotten to start a battle by running in with guns blazing before. Rabies’s path for them suddenly led downhill and they picked up even more speed. As they ran down a draw between two ridges, Jason spotted some large boulders not too far ahead. He wondered if the Grunts might be right behind them, and his heartrate spiked when Rabies skidded around the corner and started barking his head off. The word “Charge!” burst from Jason’s mouth almost on its own, so he felt a little silly when they burst onto the scene and found nobody there but Rabies, who was sitting on his hind legs and looking very pleased with himself.

      Travis rolled his eyes and shoved Jason’s shoulder a little. “‘Charge?’ Really?”

      Jason took some deep breaths and felt some color in his face. “It looked promising, okay?”

      Krissy was also short of air, but not as short of focus. “Well, it does look like they were here. And they were littering, too.” She pointed at a few empty beer cans, snack wrappers, and a plastic grocery bag.

      “This really the end of the trail?” asked Travis.

      “Must be,” said Jason, “Or Rabies would have kept going. Doesn’t make sense to me, though—if the trail were fresh enough for Rabies to pick up, you’d think it’d end at the Grunts instead of some place they stopped along the way. Unless…” A light went on in his head. “…There’s a secret entrance around here!”

      Jason’s and Travis’s eyes went wide, and Krissy looked sorry to offer her own opinion. “I think it’s more likely that they were here before the mugging and this is the start of the trail. That would explain why Rabies wanted to go the other way first: it’s where the trail was fresher. He wasn’t thinking about Phillip’s scent.”

      Boring,” said Travis and Jason together. But although Jason couldn’t speak for Travis, he himself had meant ‘boring’ as in ‘Stop being so smart.’

      “Just as well, I guess,” said Jason. “If we went the other way Rabies would’ve run right into the crime scene, and we’d have sure gotten an earful if that happened.”

      As for Rabies, he was the only one present who didn’t look disappointed. While the humans were discussing what their next move would be, he sniffed around some more and grew curious with the small pile of trash.

      “Rabies, get away from that ju—” Jason cut himself off as Rabies dug something out from under the grocery bag. It was a small notebook. He moved in before Rabies had a chance to tear it to pieces. “Drop. Drop. Good boy.”

      The notebook had a black, undecorated cover. Jason opened to the first page and saw a number of clumsy doodles, in the middle of which was a big letter ‘R’ written in red ink with an unsteady hand. “Oh man, you guys. This dude messed up big.”

      “They must have dropped their trash on it, then forgotten it was under the trash,” said Krissy.

      Travis laughed. “Instant karma. Nice.”

      Jason flipped through some more pages. “There’s some stuff in here about quotas, orders from last year… Ah! This month’s schedule!”

      Travis and Krissy both leaned in to read. There was little besides weekly meetings, and if those were at the Rockets’ hideout there was nothing they could do. One item however caught Jason’s attention: a ‘trade’ with someone based out of Mahogany Town. The time was in four days and the location was by a river to the south of Lake Rage. “Must be under the table if they’re going way out there to trade instead of just doing it at the meeting.”

      “Whoa,” said Travis, “If these guys are breaking Team Rocket’s rules too, that makes them, like, double rule-breakers.”

      “One of them is, at least,” said Krissy. “I’ve heard that’s a big problem for organized crime. Hard to keep everyone in line when you can only recruit people who don’t have much respect for authority.

      Jason was seeing more and more poetic justice in the situation. First they got the notebook because the crooks didn’t have any respect for the environment, and now they were going to kick their butts because the crooks were crooks even to other crooks. “Looks like our strategy’s pretty simple, then. We show up there early, and we go to town on whoever gets there next.” Jason loved to see a perfect plan come together.

      *********

      A few hours later the crew was walking east on one of the shady grass paths of Route 36. It was almost sundown so Route 37 would have to wait for tomorrow, but they were still on pace to make it to Mahogany Town and the site of their ambush in time. The more pressing matter was where they were going to set camp.

      “Whose turn is it to cook tonight?” asked Travis.

      “It’s Jason’s.”

      Travis’s face blanched. “Does it have to be?”

      Jason shaped his hand like an ‘L’ at Travis because he wasn’t comfortable with sticking up his middle finger. He was this close to coming up with a more clever retort when his cell rang. “Hold on a sec... Huh?” It was Jen calling, and Jason had forgotten that she even knew his number. He flipped the lid open and put the phone to his ear. “Hi, Jen.”

      “Hey, Jason! How’s it going?” The voice sounded like it belonged to the world’s most cheerful tin can. Jason’s phone may have been old and terrible, but it was virtually indestructible and therefore perfect for taking on a journey.

      “Pretty good. What’s up?”

      “Where are you guys right now?”

      Jason thought that was a weird question. “We’re on 36, why?”

      “Great! I was just thinking next time you were near Ecruteak you ought to come visit the gym! What do you say, how about tomorrow?”

      “Uh…”

      “What’s she saying?” asked Travis. Jason waved him off. He had to think of a quick excuse, or at least stall.

      “I don’t think we can. We’ve already got plans.”

      “That’s cool, that’s cool. What are you up to?”

      And now he was out of time to stall. He needed something plausible-sounding and, more importantly, something that wasn’t ‘Gonna go fight Team Rocket’ or ‘Ya know, stuff.’

      He said, “…Ya know, stuff.”

      “Oh, come on! Tell me!”

      Jason concentrated on the phrase ‘plausible-sounding’ for two seconds before he said, “…We’re meeting some other trainers we know up at Lake Rage. So, like, we don’t have time to stop.”

      “Dude,” said Travis. “What’s she want?”

      Jen was talking at the same time as Travis. “Maybe some other time, then. Actually, I know some really good fishing spots at Lake Rage if you’re interes—oh, hold on a sec.” Jason heard the phone rustle on the other end followed by some words he couldn’t quite make out. Then Jen was back. “Well, I’m gonna let you go now. Have fun! See ya!”

      “Yeah… See ya.” Jason hung up, but he still had a weird feeling for some reason.

      “Hey man, you gonna tell us what that was or what?”

      “She just wants us to visit her gym sometime. No big deal.”

      “Oh, does she work at Morty’s gym?” asked Krissy.

      “No, she’s got her own. Not a real one. I mean, it is real but—”

      “Whoa!” Travis cut him off with a start and pointed down the trail. Where a moment ago there had been nothing there now stood an Alakazam. Its back was turned to them and it was moving its head as if searching for something. Then it spun around and looked straight into Jason’s eyes. It wore a stern expression that seemed to have been carved into its face. Just as Jason was reaching for one of his Pokémon, the two spoons that the Alakazam clutched in its hands bent an inch. The creature teleported away again as quickly as it had come.

      “What the heck was that about?” asked Travis as he absently took a few steps closer to where the Alakazam had been.

      Within the next second the following things happened: the Alakazam reappeared inches in front of Travis, it pressed its right spoon against the boy’s chest, and they both disappeared as Travis’s cry of shock was cut off halfway.

      “Travis!” The scream was Krissy’s. Jason’s mouth was stuck open but his own scream got caught in his throat. The air in front of him and behind him was sucked into the spot where Travis and the Pokémon had stood. It didn’t seem real.

      Krissy’s brain wasn’t as frozen as his was. She grabbed his arm and yelled, “Come on, move!”

      They ran forward a dozen yards, which should have been enough to give them a fighting chance. They turned around again to send out their Pokémon. Krissy was slightly faster.

      “Go, Frostbite!”

      “Go, Ali!”

      Krissy’s Sneasel and Jason’s Ledian stood in front of them. In the spur of the moment, all Jason thought of was using a fast Pokémon with a type advantage. It suddenly occurred to him that Ali couldn’t be strong enough to handle an Alakazam regardless. He also realized that Ali’s only bug-specific move was Silver Wind, which would undoubtedly hit Krissy’s dark-type Pokémon as well. And now it was too late to pull Ali back as their opponent was standing next to where they had just been.

      While its back was turned Krissy shouted, “Feint Attack!”

      As Frostbite contorted herself and seemed to turn into a shadow that fell away to the side, Jason called out the first other attack he could think of. “Comet Punch!”

      Ali flew straight ahead as the Alakazam turned around and levitated just enough that the claws of its feet barely touched the ground. Jason’s Pokémon threw a jab with one of his four small fists but missed by a hair. He kept trying to land a hit, but the Alakazam always ended up a centimeter or less away from the blow. All of the psychic-type’s muscles were relaxed; it didn’t appear to be moving of its own power. Then out of nowhere it planted its feet and braced itself as Frostbite emerged from some impossible blind spot and swung one of her claws. The Alakazam absorbed the punch from Ali and the slash from Frostbite with only a twitch and a grunt, and at the same time it shot out its arms and touched the two Pokémon with its spoons. All three disappeared.

      Krissy covered her mouth with both hands and Jason fell to his knees. This couldn’t be happening, he told himself. Everything seemed to stop to him, and he didn’t remember that the smart thing to do was to run anywhere from their current spot. Only two seconds later the Alakazam stood between him and Krissy and he felt something metal press against his arm. The forest collapsed in on itself and dissolved. His stomach was tied into knots and his whole body spun forward and sideways at the same time.

      And then where there had been forest there were now walls. He was barely on his own two feet and he had no idea where he was. Then without warning someone grabbed him from behind and hoisted him up.

      “Heeeeeey, Jason!”

      It soon sunk in that the word was ‘bear-hugged’ rather than ‘grabbed,’ and that rather than ‘someone’ it was ‘Jen.’ After she set him down Jason got more of a grasp on the situation. They were in the North Ecruteak Gym clubhouse. Travis and Krissy were both leaning against the wall in a daze. Ali was flying around in confusion while Frostbite was struggling furiously to escape the jaws of Jen’s calm Arcanine, Summer. And sitting at the table was a woman whom Jason recognized as Jen’s friend Hanna. She had a laptop out which had a map of Route 36 on its display. Plugged into the laptop was a pink cell phone that Jason was pretty sure belonged to Jen.

      Hanna smiled and waved at him from her chair. “Hi, Jason. It’s been a while.”

      “Oh!” said Jen with a snap of her fingers. “Let’s do introductions. You must be Krissy! Hi, I’m Jen, Jason’s cousin. That’s Hanna, she’s visiting from Cerulean City. Oh, and Hanna, this is Jason’s bestie Travis. I think everyone knows everyone now?”

      While Jen was establishing all this, the three kids were struggling to get a word in edgewise until finally they asked in unison and exasperation, “What was that?

      *********

      A few minutes later all the Pokémon were away and everyone was sitting down at the table. The room was much calmer, but Jason was still bewildered.

      “Now, Jason,” said Jen, “we felt we had to teach you a lesson because you’re being a huge idiot. Same goes for you two.” She said this with a pleasant smile.

      There was only one thing she could be referring to, but Jason decided to play dumb just in case. “What do you mean we’re being idiots?”

      “You’re not fooling anyone, bud. We know you’ve been picking fights with Rocket Grunts, and that’s not very smart.”

      Travis joined in the playing-dumb game. “Who told you that?”

      “Some kid who visited the gym a few days ago. We were chatting and it turned out he knew Jason. That’s not what we’re talking about, though.”

      Jason bet it was that twelve-year-old, Patrick. Patrick was a jerk.

      Jen continued. “Anyway, we wanted to talk to you about it face to face, so I called you and Hanna did some of her magic computer stuff to track the location of your phone, and Marie knows how to teleport by longitude and latitude so that was that!”

      “The program’s not actually that complicated,” said Hanna. “Took me a while to train Marie to work with it, though.”

      Krissy put her hands on her head. “But why? Why not just teleport over to us and talk?” Implicit in her voice was the additional question, ‘What is wrong with you?’

      “Well…” said Jen, “If it were just you and Travis we would’ve tried that, but you’ve got Jason.”

      “Huh?” Jason had no idea what she meant.

      Jen kept talking while still facing Krissy. “Here’s the thing: Jason hasn’t really changed since he was four years old, and I’d know. If I ever told him, ‘Don’t touch that Weedle, it’s poisonous,’ he’d touch it every time. When he got older I tried saying nothing in case I was just encouraging him by saying no, but he’d still go do whatever dumb thing it was anyway. He was impossible to babysit, and he’d only ever learn by messing up.”

      Jason was turning red from embarrassment. “What’s that got to do with it?”

      “It means I know you’re not going to listen to reason, so I asked Hanna to show you how hopelessly unprepared you are. You three just had your butts handed to you by one Pokémon whose trainer was miles away.”

      Krissy objected. “It wasn’t even a Pokémon battle, though. Your objective was totally different!”

      “You’re proving our point,” said Hanna. “Team Rocket isn’t going to try to beat you in a Pokémon battle. They are going to try to get you and hurt you. They don’t play by the rules, you won’t know when they’re coming, and they have Pokémon that are as strong as Marie is smart.”

      Jason recalled Phillip’s story and swallowed. That one wasn’t a real Pokémon battle either.

      Jen took over again. “Now take the situation you were just in and imagine you’d been up against someone who doesn’t love you and isn’t trying to keep you safe.”

      Jason glanced over at Travis to see if he’d help out on defense, but his friend’s mouth was closed as if with a vise and his eyes were looking straight down.

      “I know what you’re thinking,” said Jen, “and you won’t be ready the next time a surprise attack comes, either. If Marie weren’t such a good girl she could have knocked you on your backs literally just by thinking it. You’d have no time to do a thing and you’d probably need a doctor. And a bad guy with a decent Haunter could have put you to sleep almost as fast. So far you’ve probably only met the dumbest Rockets with the worst Pokémon, and if you give them a reason to send anyone better at you, you’re toast. Is that clear?”

      The transition had been slow, but Jen’s voice was no longer pleasant. It had moved past her seldom-used ‘strict babysitter voice’ and into uncharted territory. The last thing Jason wanted to do was give up but there was no way he could keep arguing without sounding like a moron.

      “Jason, you’ve got five seconds to tell me you understand and won’t do it again, or I’m calling your mom.”

      Jason’s spine turned to ice. This was far scarier than the lopsided ‘battle’ with Marie had been.

      “One… Two…”

      He had to buy more than five seconds. “Can we talk it over first? I mean, the three of us?”

      Jen’s face relaxed a little. “Go ahead.”

      The room wasn’t that large, but they tried to get all the privacy they could by huddling up in one of the corners.

      “Jason,” whispered Travis, “your other scary cousin has a point. And your mom would definitely call my mom.”

      “Yeah,” added Krissy. “Do you think this is worth maybe losing your license?”

      “Guys, slow down. This is too important for us to just quit right away. What about Phillip? You think the police are ever going to get his Pokémon back? You never hear about the police getting anyone’s Pokémon back, but we’ve got a real chance.”

      Krissy sucked in her breath. “Do we, though? What if we’re out of our league?”

      “Not against these two, they’re just regular Grunts. We know from the notebook. We’ll beat these two and they’ll be the last ones. Just one more fight. We’ll be fine.”

      Jason could see in their eyes that they were convinced. He knew especially that Travis wouldn’t be the first to blink and expose himself as a sissy little coward.

      “So do we lie?” asked Krissy.

      “Yeah. I know me and Travis can fool her. Can you?”

      “…Sure. I’m not a bad actor.”

      And as Jason expected, Travis didn’t blink. “Let’s do it, then.”

      “Everyone act disappointed. Okay, break.”

      There were three beaten faces in the room as they returned to the table. “We’ll stop,” said Jason in the lowest tone he could manage while still being natural.

      Jen sighed. “That’s a big relief. Thank you.”

      “Hmmpf.”

      “I know this isn’t easy, but you don’t have to prove anything to anyone. You’ve all got so much time ahead of you to make a difference, and someday I’m sure you will. Just be patient.”

      “And we’re sorry if Marie scared you,” said Hanna.

      With that, Jen was Jen again. “Oh, I’m not sorry about that. You’re not on a journey if something doesn’t give you nightmares at some point. Ever been in the Ruins of Alph at night?”

      “…This was worse,” said Krissy.

      “Oh, whatever. You’re gonna laugh about it eventually.”

      Travis slumped on the edge of the table. “…Jason’ll probably be pulling the same kind of thing eventually.”

      “Shut up.” Jason took note that Travis was doing a perfect impression of someone who was still mad but was trying to feel better.

      Then as Jen started talking loud and fast about something, Jason spotted Hanna staring at him. For a moment he froze up. Her eyes were exactly like that Alakazam’s. She knew. He could feel it. Or he thought he did. Now he couldn’t tell if she was just trying to unnerve him on the chance he was lying, or if she was actually staring straight into his brain. Either way, the moment passed when Jen said she was going to let Summer out of her ball so Rabies could play with his mama.

      If Hanna did suspect them, she said nothing about it that evening.

      *********

      In a place miles away from the gym there were six large tree trunks lying on the ground, all of them freshly torn from their stumps. Three Pokémon had recently finished a battle here and they were now back in their balls. Two of them were cut and beaten to the worst shape of their lives, while the other didn’t have a scratch. There were also two trainers present who were wearing matching uniforms, mismatched bruises, and zip-ties on their wrists and ankles. One of them was out cold and the other one was waking up again. A third trainer was wearing a ski mask and gloves, and he hadn’t said a word the entire fight. He was almost done tying the others to a tree that was still standing.

      “You’re a dead motherf*cker, you know that?” hissed the Grunt who was no longer unconscious. He was hissing because he had just lost a tooth. “Soon as our guys find you they’re gonna rip your nuts off and feed ’em to you.”

      Derek said nothing back to him. He wasn’t about to give away any clues, especially not when he might have to do business with them once their boss paid their bail. Instead he pulled the knot tight, grabbed their bags, and walked away. He wasn’t worried about them getting loose before the uniformed police arrived. Since his Pokémon was only mostly under his control, his victories tended to be excessively thorough. He was more concerned about remembering to call in the hint—anonymously, of course. This wasn’t one he wanted to fill out the paperwork for.

      When he was a mile away he opened the bags. Each held a good number of black-colored specialty Pokéballs that he didn’t recognize. Though the red ‘R’ on their fronts made no secret as to the manufacturer, something didn’t add up. Making custom balls could only help you catch and breed Pokémon; it was pointless if you were out to steal them. His best guess was that these new balls boosted strength and aggression, and that perhaps Team Rocket was preparing for something bigger than stealing Pokémon. He didn’t know and didn’t want to rush to conclusions. He tried to open one, but the release switch wouldn’t respond to his thumb, which was surprising. It also meant they might be interesting enough to get Hanna off his back.

      Aside from the balls he found a notebook, and only one. Apparently the other Grunt had lost his somewhere. Derek read through the book and took interest in the trade that was scheduled to take place in a few days.
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        #3    
      Old January 30th, 2017 (5:05 PM).
      Bay Alexison's Avatar
      Bay Alexison Bay Alexison is offline

      O, Dance of Devotion!

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      Noticed you posted this in some sites, so you'll see my review in several places haha.

      I see you're going with the premise of Jason, Krissy, and Travis trying to go against Team Rocket. Not the first time I've seen fics addressing young kids trying to go against an organization, but I am very interested on your take of it. Also looking forward to Derek' role here. Nice to see Jen's gym from one of your previous stories featured. Poor Jason, Krissy, and Travis getting their butt kicked by Marie, heh. Something tells me that trade is more serious than the kids realized.
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        #4    
      Old January 30th, 2017 (6:21 PM). Edited May 27th, 2017 by icomeanon6.
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      icomeanon6 icomeanon6 is offline
      It's "I Come Anon"
         
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        [Thanks for reviewing, Bay! Btw, here's another post now that you've just reviewed. (Lol, timing.) I definitely agonized during the planning stages over the fact that Trainers vs. Evil Team is familiar territory in fanfiction, but I'm pretty confident with the direction the story is going to move in from that premise.

        Speaking of directions, we'll be taking a detour from the main storyline for these next two shorter installments. This week we get to know the titular Kids a little better, and next week Jen takes over (or the week after if something keeps me from writing).]


        Dumb Luck

        April, 2016

        It was seventeen minutes and thirty-three seconds after five o’clock in the morning, on the dot. Jason knew this because he’d been staring at his cell phone’s clock for half an hour. He was still lying in his sleeping bag and waiting for either the sun to rise or his friend to wake up. This was the only time he had ever been up so early when the date wasn’t December 25th. It was his first full day as a free kid.

        “Travis, you still asleep?”

        “Of course not.”

        “Then what’re we waiting for?”

        It was the day after Jason O’Connor’s tenth birthday, and it was arguably just as special. He and Travis Lafayette began that morning in the dark with a breakfast of cold biscuits and water, along with a canteen toast: “To no parents!” They said it together, just as they’d practiced it for over a year.

        They were a few miles north of their hometown of Cherrygrove City. When it was bright enough to see they continued walking up Route 30 at a leisurely pace. Jason smiled and soaked it all in for a while before he asked Travis, “What do you wanna catch first today?”

        “That’s easy, a Wooper.”

        “Gonna have to wait for another day, then. I don’t think you can find any this side of Violet City.”

        “No prob.”

        Jason shrugged. If Travis wanted to have the world’s worst Pokémon team that was his own business. He still felt obliged to point it out, though. “Y’know, you’ve already got Wyvern. You can’t win with just water-types.”

        As Jason expected, Travis didn’t budge an inch. “Sure you can. Water-types kick butt, you’ll see.”

        “Uh-huh, yeah.” Jason had to laugh at the obvious holes in Travis’s theory. He couldn’t imagine his friend would stick with that strategy for too long.

        A bit later they came across a clearing in the forest with a small pond. As Jason didn’t yet realize that there were approximately a million and a half such ponds all over Johto, the place seemed too special to pass up. “Think the guys could use some fresh air?”

        “Sure thing,” said Travis, who then slipped off his shoes and socks and headed straight for the water. When it was up to his shins he unclipped Wyvern’s ball from his belt and let him out.

        Wyvern was a Horsea who was slightly shorter and even less intimidating than the average Horsea. He landed in the water without a sound and wasted no time in swimming to the middle of the pond and back. Travis kicked out a foot to splash him, but Wyvern dodged this and charged Travis’s other foot, nearly knocking him over. “Whoa! You win, you win.” Wyvern gave a happy squeak. After two months of growing accustomed to Travis’s behavior he now usually won. He settled down and balanced on his curled tail.

        Meanwhile Jason opened Rabies’s ball on dry land. Although it was less than twenty-four hours since his cousin Jen had put the Growlithe in his care, Jason had four bandaids on his hands and fingers. ‘I got him to stop biting arms and shins last year,’ Jen had told him, ‘but he’s still got a little more to learn! Good luck!’ In case it wasn’t clear, Jason thought Rabies was the best. Now that he was out in the open, Rabies had his tongue out and was looking for his next victim. Jason thought it would only be nice to help him find it.

        Halfway up a tree Jason spotted a perfect candidate. It was a bug Pokémon with black spots on its red back and wide eyes: Ledyba. Jason pulled out his brand new Pokédex and tapped his way to its page. Dexter’s scratchy, synthetic voice gave some additional information. “Ledyba. It is very timid. It will be afraid to move if it is alone. But it will be active if it is in a group.” It wasn’t a lot to go on, but Jason grinned as he pictured the perfect approach to the encounter.

        “Hey Travis, wanna see something amazing?”

        Travis sighed. “I already know what you’re talking about but you’re—”

        “Gonna catch this one with one shake, first try.”

        “—probably gonna say it anyway.”

        Jason set his bag down and pulled out an empty Pokéball. “Rabies! Up there!”

        Rabies jerked his head skyward in dizzy anticipation of finding something he could bite ‘up there.’ Soon his eyes settled on the Ledyba and he proceeded to bark out a challenge.

        “Give it an Ember!”

        Rabies spat a few small masses of fire at the tree. The flames moved slowly and with little precision, but they got close enough to spook the Ledyba off the trunk. It didn’t move much from there but instead fluttered several feet above the ground, just as Jason expected thanks to Dexter’s help. It and held out its six feet like clenched fists.

        While Rabies continued barking and running around the Ledyba in the hopes that it would come down, Jason set his feet and wound up. He held the Pokéball behind his back at waist-high and focused hard. When a moment came that the Ledyba was facing straight away from him minus a few degrees, Jason felt something and his arm started to move almost before he knew it. He leaned into the motion and slung the ball side-arm. It was a fast throw and broke just enough to graze the Ledyba at what Jason knew was the exact right spot.

        The Ledyba vanished in a flash as the ball opened and closed before it fell to the ground with its center button lit up. A long second followed before it rustled from side to side. That was one. Jason bit his lip as an even longer second went by and the button stayed lit. But just before the second shake that most trainers hoped to see, the light went out. It was already caught.

        Jason’s arms shot up and he cheered so loud that it made Rabies and Wyvern jump, while Travis slapped his own forehead and groaned. “You’ve gotta be kidding.”

        “Yes! Yes! Yes!”

        “Bark!”

        “This is all he’s gonna talk about for a week. Why me?”

        “Ha, ha! How do you like that!”

        “Big deal. It happens to everyone every hundred times they try!”

        “Not for me it doesn’t! Gonna be one in five the whole trip, just you watch!”

        “Yeah, right. It’s just dumb luck, and no one’s that lucky.”

        “You wish! It’s all skill, man!”

        “It’s dumb luck!

        “Well, I thought it was pretty incredible.”

        Jason and Travis stopped. That was a girl’s voice, and they were positive they had been alone. They looked over to the path, and sure enough there was a girl there who was now walking up to them. “The odds are closer to one in two hundred, or point-five percent, by the way, and most experts say your chances improve the longer you’ve been training. Regardless, the probability’s low enough that if you call it and succeed then there’s most likely an element of skill.”

        “Uh…” Jason was trying to figure out whether 0.5% actually meant one in two-hundred. He didn’t know anyone their age who could do decimals and percentages at the same time, and she definitely didn’t look older than him or Travis.

        Travis just rolled his eyes. “What if you call it every time you throw a Pokéball?” He then lifted up Wyvern and directed him to spit water at one of the Embers that was still smoldering on the ground.

        “Still impressive, I’d say.” The girl turned to face Jason. She was all smiles and it was a little weird. “So do you think it’s something in your throwing motion or does it have more to do with where the ball hits the Pokémon?”

        This was new for Jason. All he’d known was that he’d gotten pretty good at it while practicing catch-and-release style before he received his license. Travis had always taken his knack for granted when he acknowledged it at all, so Jason had never needed to put anything into words on the subject. “It’s like, uh… both, I guess?”

        Travis returned Wyvern to his ball, and then dried his feet on the grass and put his socks and shoes on in a hurry. “Like I said, dumb luck. Let’s get going.”

        Jason didn’t want to be too impolite, so he said “See you around,” to the girl before following Travis up the trail. “Come on, Rabies.”

        *********

        It was early in the afternoon when they reached a signpost that indicated the midpoint of the route. “We’ll probably reach Route 31 early tomorrow,” said Travis, “and then it’s not too far to Violet.”

        Jason was looking straight upward and only half-listening to him. “I think I see a sleeping Hoot-Hoot up there. You wanna go looking for some when it’s dark out?”

        “If you have a Pokémon that’s trained to use its head without injury, you can also shake them out of the trees when it’s daytime.” This was not Travis speaking, but rather the girl from before. Jason hadn’t noticed, but they seemed to have met up again.

        Travis tapped him on the shoulder. “Hey. Team meeting.” He then pulled Jason over to the side of the trail while the girl stayed by the sign and studied her map.

        “What’s up?”

        “Dude,” whispered Travis. “That girl is following us.”

        “You think so?” Jason honestly wasn’t sure. There were only so many ways to travel north on Route 30.

        “Definitely. And she’s good at it too. I’ve spotted her a few times since we were at the pond. She’ll probably say she’s just going the same direction as us. Classic girl trickery.”

        “Whatever. If she’s following us we’ll just lose her in Violet City, no big deal.”

        Travis seethed. “You don’t get it, do you? This is just the first stage in her plan. She’s going to escalate. We’ve got to lose her now or we’ll regret it.”

        Jason was even less convinced now and had to suppress a smirk. Travis sounded like the people online who claimed that the Pokémon League was putting apricorn extract in the water as a means of mind control.

        “Come on,” said Travis, “I don’t want to spend the whole journey hanging out with some annoying, know-it-all girl.”

        “Fine, fine. We’ll take a detour and test your theory.”

        And so, without a word to the girl standing on the other side of the trail, Jason led the way west up a steep incline and deep into the forest. When the route proper was well out of sight they turned north again and went over two hills, crossed a stream, and scrambled up a ten-foot ledge. As Jason grabbed the grass at the top of this ledge he finally permitted himself to look over his shoulder. The girl had just reached their side of the stream.

        Jason was dumbfounded. ‘Holy crud, he was actually right.’

        When they were both standing at the top of the ledge Travis let him have it. “I told you. We should start running.”

        “No, that’s stupid. Let’s just clear this up with her.”

        “Oh my god, you’ve already fallen right into her trap.”

        “Shut up and let me handle it.”

        While they were arguing, the girl’s head popped over the top of the ledge. “Hey… You mind giving me a hand?” She sounded a little out of breath.

        Jason did the decent thing and helped pull her up, though he could imagine Travis grinding his teeth behind him.

        “Thanks,” she said.

        “No prob. Hey, listen, uh…”

        “Krissy. And you are?”

        “Oh. I’m Jason, and that’s Travis.”

        She nodded at Travis. “Nice to meet you.”

        Travis glared and said nothing, so Jason spoke for both of them. “You too. By the way, I didn’t ask earlier, and I don’t want to be rude but, um… why are you still following us around?”

        “I’m not following you following you, I’m just going to Violet City.”

        Jason was glad Travis wasn’t a telepath and couldn’t say ‘See? See?’directly into his brain. “Yeah, I figured, but it’s a lot easier over that way. You know, on the road that goes to Violet City.” Jason noticed a tinge of red in Krissy’s face, but that might have been from the climbing.

        “Well, I just started a few days ago and you guys seemed to know what you were doing… So I figured you probably knew a better way there when you left the trail.”

        That sounded plausible. Jason like to imagine that he and Travis looked more experienced than the average beginners, and he could picture himself doing the same thing in her shoes. He realized this also meant that Travis must be counting her explanation as evidence toward his argument that girls were adept at disguising their malicious cunning as normal behavior.

        “By the way,” said Krissy, “How would you like to make camp together tonight? It’s better for the environment if we share firewood.”

        Travis grabbed Jason’s shoulder and pulled him aside once again. “Now you’ve done it,” he whispered. “She’s got you right where she wants you.”

        “You’re crazy. Just hold on, I’ve got an idea.”

        At this point Travis seemed far more annoying to Jason than Krissy did. Jason was inclined against going along with the ‘run away’ plan in part to spite him. That aside, he did in fact have an idea that was diplomatic yet aggressive, and more importantly didn’t require them to outrun her. He faced Krissy again, who had a look of awkward confusion on her face. “So here’s the thing: my friend has this social anxiety disorder.”

        “What are you talking about!”

        “The shrink says he’s got it real bad when he denies it. Anyway, he has trouble around new people and we’re trying to fix it but we also want to take it slow. So what I’m thinking is, let’s have a Pokémon battle. If you win we camp together, work on fixing Travis, and save the trees; and if I win we go easy on him and fight his condition some other day, meaning you camp somewhere else.”

        Krissy didn’t answer right away and looked hesitant. Jason worried that the scenario he’d just laid out didn’t make total sense. If he was honest, he mostly just wanted to have a Pokémon battle. When Krissy did answer, though, she was smiling and sounded awfully confident. “That works with me. I’d love to help if I can.”

        “Jason, you’re a jerk.”

        Jason ignored Travis and said, “Let’s head back to the path. There’s more space there.”

        Krissy followed close behind him while Travis kept more of his distance. This was a great opportunity to give Rabies a real test, Jason thought, and for himself too as neither of them had battled a trainer before. It wasn’t long until they reached their destination. They waited for a pair of teenagers to pass by and then the coast was clear.

        “You all right with a one-on-one?” asked Jason. “All my others are newly caught.” It occurred to him that Krissy had already seen Rabies and could plan accordingly, but there was nothing he could do about that. He just hoped she didn’t have a water- or ground-type as he moved to his spot.

        “That’s perfect.” Krissy already had her Pokéball in her hand. “Ready?”

        “Ready!”

        “Jason, if you lose this then Wyvern’s my new best friend.”

        “Don’t worry. Go, Rabies!”

        “Go, Chikorita!”

        As the small, pale-green creature with the signature leaf on its head appeared in front of Krissy, Jason had two thoughts: that Krissy’s family must have plenty of money, and that this battle was going to be a cinch.

        Travis laughed. “Gee, and I was worried for a minute.”

        “Bad luck,” said Jason. “You still want to do this?”

        Krissy bent down, whispered something to her Chikorita, and then stood back up and answered. “Absolutely. Why don’t you make the first move?”

        Jason shook his head. This was too easy. “Rabies, use Ember!”

        Rabies was wagging his tail off at the prospect. He fired a shot at Chikorita, but she sidestepped it with little trouble. It made Krissy jump a little as well, and she took a few wise steps back.

        “Keep it up, Rabies!”

        Rabies complied with zeal, but Chikorita stayed light on her feet and avoided the shots. Then the fifth one singed her and it was enough to leave a mark. She wasn’t looking too comfortable, but still Krissy didn’t give her any orders. Jason could see it was only a matter of time. Chikorita would run out of luck and energy before Rabies ran out of fire.

        All of a sudden though, he realized that in the process of dodging Chikorita had closed the gap between herself and Rabies considerably. ‘So that’s her plan,’ he thought, ‘buy time until her Chikorita can turn it into a close-quarters fight. Not gonna be that easy! We just have to keep it a long-range battle and we’ve won!’

        “Rabies, get that distance back!”

        Rabies started to run in an arc and was widening the gap again already, but then Krissy shouted her first command. “Now!”

        Chikorita swung her leaf like a sling and a seed flew out on the perfect trajectory to intercept Rabies.

        “Look out!” It was too late, though. The seed planted itself on one of Rabies’s hind legs while he wasn’t looking and he stumbled.

        Krissy pounced on the opening immediately. “Tackle!”

        While Jason was thinking of how to counter, Chikorita charged at Rabies full-steam and knocked him down again just as he was getting up. She put her weight on top of him and the vines that were already sprouting from the seed began to glow. Chikorita seemed to glow as well and now it was as if the fire had never touched her.

        Jason’s confidence had evaporated. “Bite her, Rabies! Get out of there!”

        Rabies struggled to get into a position where he could chomp down on his opponent. Before he managed it Krissy called out, “Let him go, Chikorita!”

        Chikorita rolled off and got herself set while Rabies rose slowly to his feet. He still had his orders and was the first to lunge again. Chikorita jumped out of the way just quickly enough to avoid his teeth and tackled him once more. Jason was in a panic. He had figured that Rabies’s fire and speed would result in a rout, but the fire had failed and now his speed was gone. The vines were spreading. The two Pokémon stared each other down, and the difference in their conditions was stark.

        “Ember!”

        “Ignore it!”

        Rabies was coughing, but he just managed to come up with some flames. Chikorita shut her eyes, ran through them face-first, and collided with Rabies so hard it made Jason wince. He could see that Chikorita was hurting somewhat from the attack, but already the vines were glowing again and Rabies looked like he was at the end of his rope.

        There was nothing to do. Jason’s lip quivered as he said, “Call her off. We give.”

        “Chikorita, return!”

        Chikorita pulled away from Rabies at once and trotted back to Krissy, who said a short, “Good job,” before taking her back into her Pokéball.

        Jason rummaged through his bag for a Potion as he rushed over to his Growlithe. Rabies was in poor spirits as Jason yanked the seed and vines from his leg. The pup’s eyes were more full of disappointment than any serious pain. Jason was a little relieved to see his toughness, and more than a little annoyed to listen to Travis’s poor attempt at containing his laughter.

        “Pffft, sorry. I mean, I feel sorry for Rabies but that was pretty sad, man.”

        “The better strategy would have been to lead off with Bite attacks,” said Krissy in the same upbeat tone she had used before the battle started. “A speed advantage is best used early so as to take control of the battle. In this matchup Ember would have worked better as a finishing move. Of course, against a weaker and slower grass-type it would have been perfectly safe to lead off with Ember. In a more even match though trying to win without a scratch can backfire.”

        Jason suffered through her spiel as he sprayed Rabies with the Potion. “Yeah, yeah.” The medicine acted fast, though it didn’t bring Rabies back to perfect fighting shape. “You did good, boy. We’ll get ’em next time.”

        Rabies whined a little but then returned to his ball with no further complaint.

        “Shall we get going, then?” asked Krissy. “We want to find a good spot before dark.”

        “Sure thing,” answered Travis with no bitterness in his voice, much to Jason’s surprise. It made more sense though when his friend came over to him and whispered in his ear, “Way to go,” with every drop of that missing bitterness.

        Jason clenched his tongue between his molars and stood up again. Krissy led the way with a spring in her step and he followed after her in resignation.

        *********

        Hours later when the three of them were in their sleeping bags around the dying campfire, Jason stared at the leaves overhead and mulled over his mistakes. Any way he looked at it, it shouldn’t have mattered that he led off with Ember. Despite how little he’d ever read about them, he was positive that Chikoritas weren’t supposed to be that quick. What was he supposed to do, just plan on his opponents’ Pokémon being better than they looked? For that matter, there was no way Krissy should have been able to whisper a perfect strategy to Chikorita before he even called an attack.

        That cleared it up, he thought. It was nothing more than that Krissy had somehow stumbled upon the right strategy and committed to it early. It must have been that stupid guess that won it for her. He was certain that Rabies wouldn’t have lost all other things being equal so this was the only possible explanation.

        Jason frowned and muttered two words into the night: “Dumb luck.”
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          #5    
        Old February 2nd, 2017 (10:29 PM).
        Bay Alexison's Avatar
        Bay Alexison Bay Alexison is offline

        O, Dance of Devotion!

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        A nice short piece as to how the boys met Krissy. Figured Krissy would figure out a way to deal with the type disadvantage during her battle against Jason there. Poor Rabies, though. And thus the kids' adventure together begins.
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          #6    
        Old February 4th, 2017 (6:51 AM).
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        Venia Silente Venia Silente is offline
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          While I said so in the idea thread when this story popped up, I think it is worth to repeat that man I like this. Why yes, it is very good to see it being carried out to fruition!

          The premise is kinda a good seller (archetypal kid busts evil team story but have the other characters be like "WHYYYYYYY") that called my attention when the idea was first brought up - not only because the various kinds of intricacies that can be interwoven with such a kind of story (why Pokémon siding with the bad guys, lol adults, lol police, "just shoot them!" and much more), but because this time it seems we have cast just right for making a high-stakes-without-gritty story out of it. I guess we will get to actually look at the entire "adults getting kids BTFO'd" more as the story progresses. Admittedly I'm hopeful for something like a scene where the kids eff up something like a civilian arrest and then they build up a "zany sidekick nobody wants" rep out of it. :p


          We're only getting into it and the story feels somewhat slower or sparser than what I'm used to for opening chapters, which for this time I'm kinda glad for because I have not had much time for reading nowadays. Right now, it's the story I'm currently catching up to on weekends.
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            #7    
          Old February 4th, 2017 (3:16 PM).
          icomeanon6's Avatar
          icomeanon6 icomeanon6 is offline
          It's "I Come Anon"
             
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            Quote:
            Originally Posted by Bay Alexison
            Poor Rabies, though.
            Rabies is a real trooper, he'll bounce back. He might even bounce back better than Jason does, but that remains to be seen. ;)

            Quote:
            Originally Posted by Venia Silente View Post
            While I said so in the idea thread when this story popped up, I think it is worth to repeat that man I like this. Why yes, it is very good to see it being carried out to fruition!
            Glad to hear it! I think you'll like the later parts of the story even more. :)

            Quote:
            The premise is kinda a good seller (archetypal kid busts evil team story but have the other characters be like "WHYYYYYYY") that called my attention when the idea was first brought up - not only because the various kinds of intricacies that can be interwoven with such a kind of story (why Pokémon siding with the bad guys, lol adults, lol police, "just shoot them!" and much more), but because this time it seems we have cast just right for making a high-stakes-without-gritty story out of it. I guess we will get to actually look at the entire "adults getting kids BTFO'd" more as the story progresses.
            "High-stakes-without-gritty" is precisely what I want this to be eventually. When I first started writing I often mistook grit for stakes, but the truth is that the right characters make their own stakes. As for the matter of why Pokemon side with people of certain stripes, I will in fact be exploring some topics along those lines. Ultimately I'm shooting for more of a character-driven story than an archetype-busting one, but I definitely want the character-driven aspects to dovetail nicely with themes related to the archetypes.

            Quote:
            Originally Posted by Venia Silente
            We're only getting into it and the story feels somewhat slower or sparser than what I'm used to for opening chapters, which for this time I'm kinda glad for because I have not had much time for reading nowadays. Right now, it's the story I'm currently catching up to on weekends.
            Pacing is definitely something I'm worried about, so I'm glad you're not offended, lol. Earlier in the planning stages Dumb Luck and the next standalone Fire Safety were going to be as long as the first two chapters, but I decided to cut them down because then the beginning would have been way too slow. I consider the upcoming chapter 3 to be where the first act ends and the second act begins. If things still feel sparse in chapters 3 and 4 then I'm in trouble, but I feel good about what's in store. I'm hoping that when all's said and done the story works equally well in the plot and slice-of-life departments.

            Thanks so much for reading, you guys!
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              #8    
            Old February 9th, 2017 (8:45 PM). Edited February 26th, 2017 by icomeanon6.
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            icomeanon6 icomeanon6 is offline
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              Fire Safety

              March, 2015

              Jen Brooks was departing a bus at the stop closest to Azalea Town. Town ordinances dictated that no paved roads were permitted within a one-mile radius of the Slowpoke Well, meaning that she had a hike through some of her favorite scenery ahead of her just as the leaves were growing back. She loved Azalea Town’s ordinances for this reason, and it helped that she was in no hurry today. Before she took to the trail though, she had a make a call with her ancient phone that could never get a signal in Azalea proper. Even out here by the highway the voice on the other end was scratchy.

              “Hey, boss. You make it there all right?”

              The voice belonged to Carlos, her first out of three employees. “Yup! Just a quick walk and I’m there. Got everything under control today?”

              “Yes, yes, just relax. You know, when you work on your day off you put a lot of pressure on the rest of us.”

              This was true, but she didn’t care. She wanted her new gym open by June. “Pssh, this barely counts as work. Quit worrying about me and focus on getting those bleachers sanded down.”

              “Yes, ma’am.”

              Jen rolled her eyes. Carlos was thirty—basically an adorable fossil—so what business did he have calling her ma’am? She could never quite tell whether this was respect or irony. Perhaps it was both. “Great! I’ll see you guys first thing tomorrow.”

              “You don’t mean at six in the morning, do you?”

              “First thing means first thing! See ya!” She closed her phone and exhaled deeply. This was going to be her first easy day in months. The only things on the to-do list were to pick up an order from Kurt and to enjoy the weather.

              After a light walk through the woods Jen reached the center of town. She adored how the place was hidden from sight until you were practically on top of it. All of the buildings were unassuming wooden structures—besides the sterile and ubiquitous Gym, Center, and Mart—and there was never an overwhelming amount of hustle and bustle. The pace of life here seemed to be set in part by the local Slowpoke. One of them was lounging on a rock close to Jen, and the slow yawn it made almost put her to sleep on the spot. She shook it off and headed to the one home in Azalea where the mood was never so relaxed.

              Kurt’s front door was propped open at all times when Kurt was awake and the weather was at least tolerable, and the busy sound of a hammer striking metal was a constant. As Jen walked in she heard the stern voice of the proprietor. “You work too slow, young pupil. If that order is late, you will have brought shame to this house!”

              “Dad, your shtick is tired and I’m trying to concentrate, so quit it!”

              Jen laughed, as the other voice hardly belonged to a ‘young pupil.’ Kurt’s very adult son was sitting at a workbench in the corner. He was forming the shell of a new ball under the intense supervision of the old master himself. At the sight of a customer, Kurt took on more welcoming airs. “Ah! Jen Brooks, if I’m not mistaken? We weren’t expecting you this early.”

              Jen was impressed. People said that Kurt never forgot a name or a face, but she had always assumed they exaggerated. “Good guess, sir!”

              “No guesses, child.” He closed his eyes and snapped his fingers a few times. “It was November of ’03 when you last visited. You left with a Fast Ball and meant to catch a Ninetales.”

              “Heh, I don’t even remember the month, myself. Never did catch that Ninetales, either.”

              “Pity. And for today you wanted, hmm…”

              The son took a break from his hammering and answered for him. “Six Practice Balls. I’m making the last one now, remember?”

              “Ah, of course. I’m afraid that’s how it goes with my head these days, young lady. I lose things from five minutes ago, but when it comes to five years ago or more I’m still sharp. As I was saying, six is a large number for Practice Balls.”

              It was indeed a large number, as a Practice Ball could be used even after failure to catch a Pokémon. The downside was that anything it ‘caught’ remained wild and would be set free automatically after no more than a minute. Serious trainers found little use for them and would in theory never need more than one regardless. “They’re for the new gym I’m opening outside Ecruteak, sir. We’re going to give lessons on catching Pokémon to kids under ten. Oh, I should say five of them are for the gym. The other’s a present for my cousin; he’s turning nine soon.”

              “That’s a good gift idea,” said the son. “Nine’s the worst birthday. So close and yet so far.”

              Jen nodded and pulled her pocketbook from her bag. “My thoughts exactly. Now, what’s the bill?”

              Kurt took a glance at his ledger. “1,000 each for Practice Balls.”

              “By the way, miss,” added Kurt’s son, “The old man told me you specialize in fire-types.”

              “That I do.”

              “In that case, we’ll let you have them for 500 each if you can talk some sense into my daughter.”

              Kurt grunted in annoyance. “I suppose I can agree to that.”

              “You should find her over by the Well. She’ll be with her Houndour.”

              Since the money was coming out of Jen’s pocket rather than the gym’s meager budget, this was too good to pass up. Her personal finances were going to be tight for a while yet. “What do you want me to say to her?”

              The son put down his tools. “Just tell her what’s she’s doing wrong with her training. I’ve tried talking to her, and her grandpa’s—”

              “I will not dignify her mistake by naming it,” said Kurt as he shook the dust from his apron. “To acknowledge so obvious an error is dishonorable in itself. Such a thing ought to be the student’s alone to correct. If her ignorant father didn’t insist on intervening, I would leave the child to her own devices, but here we are.”

              Kurt’s son rolled his eyes. “…And Grandpa’s being Grandpa. I just want her to play it safe, and if she won’t listen to me I was hoping she’d listen to an expert.”

              “But what’s she doing wr—”

              Not. Under. This. Roof! The very words will corrode the mechanisms in our wares!”

              “Dad, knock it off!” The son folded his hands and spoke to Jen again. “I’m sorry, there’s no dealing with him when he’s like this. I would be most grateful if you could please share some of your experience with my daughter. I’ll have your order finished as fast as possible in the meantime.”

              As amusing as Jen thought it would be to provoke Kurt even further, she decided to take pity on his son for so politely and correctly acknowledging her vast expertise with fire training. “My pleasure, I’ll get right on it! Back in a few!”

              The young father dipped his head in gratitude while the old father shook his and turned his attention elsewhere. As for Jen, she walked out the door pleased with the prospect of being 3,000 Pokéyen less poor. She pondered whether she ought to use the savings to treat her employees to a laughably cheap dinner or save the money for a rainy day as she strolled toward the other side of town.

              But just when the outline of the Slowpoke Well was coming into view, Jen heard the unmistakable growl of an angry Houndour followed by the hurt cry of a young girl. A pit formed in her stomach as she hurried to the source. ‘So much for that,’ she thought. ‘Please don’t be hurt too bad, please don’t be hurt too bad…’

              She found the granddaughter sitting hunched over and clutching her right hand at the foot of the stone wall. Her clothes were traditional in the same vein as Kurt’s and her father’s. The Houndour was on all fours and every inch of her back was tense. A Houndour’s eyes rarely looked friendly thanks to its skeletal forehead ridge, but this one’s seemed even fiercer than usual.

              “Hey, kid, let me see that.” Jen all but skidded to her knees and dropped her bag. The girl was fighting back tears and seemed embarrassed, but she complied and showed Jen her hand. The bite wasn’t too deep, but there were burns along with the fang marks. It was lucky her Pokémon was only a Houndour and not a fully grown Houndoom, otherwise those burns would have been black and would have hurt like hell for weeks at best. “This should be fine if we treat it now. Hold still.”

              Jen kept a loose grip on the girl’s wrist as she rummaged through her bag and pulled out her first-aid kit. There were two vials inside that were marked with flame symbols: one for regular burns and the other specifically for the dark burns of a Houndoom because it was just that important to have one around. Jen didn’t know how close this Houndour was to evolving, so it seemed best to play it safe. She dipped a wad of cotton into the higher-strength medicine. “This is going to sting a little.”

              It was clear from the girl’s face how badly it stung, but she bit hard on her lip and didn’t make a sound. “What’s your name, champ?” asked Jen. In her own humble opinion, Jen’s bedside manner was impeccable.

              “…Maizie.”

              “You’re pretty tough, Maizie.”

              “I… (ow)… I don’t want Moro to know it hurts.”

              Jen almost sighed in exasperation but controlled herself. She wasn’t sure which Pollyanna-esque teen-lit heroine with ludicrous Pokémon-magnetism made kids think that was a good idea, but there were several candidates. “If that’s your reason, you should just let it all out. Pokémon aren’t born knowing not to hurt humans. You gotta let her know how bad it is when she bites people or she’ll never learn. It’s especially important for fire-types.”

              This was enough to convince Maizie. “OW! Ow, ow, owwww!” She was squirming in place and the tears were coming out now.

              “That’s better. Now tell Moro.”

              Moro growled when the stranger mentioned her name, but Maizie pointed at her wound with her good hand and said, “No! Bad! That hurt!”

              Moro quieted down and some of the tension left her spine, but to Jen’s eyes this wasn’t nearly enough. Even her worst-behaved Pokémon when she was a young trainer would have been more thoroughly subdued by the correction. “Maybe it’s time to call it a day. I’d put her back in her ball now.”

              “My dad sent you, didn’t he?”

              “Huh?”

              Maizie’s eyes were fixed in a glare. She tried to pull her hand away, but Jen didn’t allow it. “Not so fast, I haven’t done your other side yet. And what makes you think that?”

              “I don’t keep Moro in a ball anymore. You can tell my dad he can get bent.”

              Jen decided against the suggestion partially on the grounds that she still wanted the discount, but mostly because she thought leaving a Pokémon like Moro out of her ball 24/7 was extremely ill-advised. She knew a few trainers who had a Pokémon that didn’t stay in a ball, but they were exceptions and those Pokémon were invariably docile and obedient. For all Jen knew, Maizie could be years away from having Moro trained to the point where it would be safe to take that approach. She wondered how to convince the girl that this was the case. “That’s a hard way to train. You found it tough so far?”

              “I don’t care if it’s tough! I don’t have to be a slave driver to train her!”

              Jen didn’t appreciate the implication that she herself was a slave driver. “Not sure I follow you. You’ll have to elaborate on that or I might get the wrong idea.”

              “Do you even know how Pokéballs work?”

              Jen tried to forgive Maizie’s tone and attitude as she readied a roll of gauze. “Roughly. Not like anyone in your family does, I’m sure.” Or like Hanna did for that matter. There was that one time she had tried and utterly failed to follow her BFF’s explanation about the ‘unique quantum matrix encoding’ that prevented a caught Pokémon from being re-caught by a different ball.

              “Well, did you know that the stuff in apricorns messes with a Pokémon’s brain? That they can’t run away even if they would have wanted to?”

              “Yup. And did you know that if you don’t ever make human babies lie down for a nap they get real cranky?”

              Maizie was taken aback. Jen guessed the girl had only ever held this debate with the mirror and hadn’t anticipated this response. “Also, if you don’t put up a gate at the top of the stairs the baby’s liable to take a tumble. Same things with walls for cribs.”

              “What do you—”

              “I mean it doesn’t matter if Baby wants to run free and stay awake forever. It’s Mommy’s job not to let her because Mommy knows better than any toddler.” The bandage was all set now and Maizie was ready to go, at least medicinally. Jen gave her hand a good luck pat.

              “But Pokémon aren’t babies! They… Moro wasn’t mine to begin with, she was born in the wild!”

              “One way or another, though, you’ve adopted her and now you’re responsible for her. If you’re going to keep her with you but not keep her under control, you’re not doing what’s best for her, let anyone for yourself or anyone else.”

              “I…” Maizie stared at her shoes. “I don’t want to do what everyone says is ‘best.’ I want to do what’s right. Why do we think we can just take them from their old homes? Who do we think we are?”

              In Jen’s mind this shifted the true content of the conversation entirely. Now that Maizie wasn’t speaking with rhetorical fangs, it was plain to Jen that her stance came from a place of humility rather than arrogance. She’d probably known all along that she wasn’t equipped for training without a Pokéball, but this wouldn’t necessarily matter to a true conscientious objector. So much could change in this kind of discussion just with the pronouns.

              “That’s a tough question, but I can speak for my first Pokémon, at least. I know beyond a doubt that she’s where she wants to be, and she sure doesn’t act brainwashed.”

              “You keep talking about where things end up, but what about right now? How do you justify putting a Pokémon you’ve just met into one of those balls and scrambling its brain so bad it won’t try to go back to its real mom or dad?”

              Jen didn’t want to keep dodging this question, but it was so hard to know the right thing to say in this situation. In truth she had come to her answer years ago; all it had taken was a week of angst when she was fourteen. Jen believed that nature was hierarchical: that there were natural predators, prey, parasites, and symbionts. Among all these natural relationships, the one between human trainers and Pokémon was unique in its benevolence. It was the purest, most loving form of inter-species symbiosis. For whatever cosmic reason, humans were natural surrogate parents to Pokémon, and the Pokéball was just a way of making the transition smoother.

              Was it arrogant? Of course. Did it take the individual Pokémon’s choice out of the equation? Absolutely, or at least at first. Jen didn’t know how Maizie would respond to the raw specifics of her philosophy. It sounded pretty awful if you supposed that Pokémon and humans were the same, and it was hard to convince someone that they weren’t the same if that person’s instincts said otherwise. She didn’t want to draw that line in the sand between Maizie and herself. All she could think to say instead was something like ‘It’s just always been that way,’ but that was even worse. That was what a complacent, condescending adult would say.

              Shoot, was that what she was now? She definitely didn’t want to imagine a whole generation of kids who thought like Maizie did about Pokémon training. Then she might have to call into talk radio shows to complain about the young people these days, ew. The last thing she wanted to do was meet what might be the future and make a terrible first impression, even if the future was wrong.

              “I said it’s a tough question.” Jen wished they were talking instead about whether Maizie could handle this little terror of hers another day without a Pokéball.

              Then a disquieting possibility occurred to Jen. She took another look into that Houndour’s harsh eyes. “How long have you had Moro, if you don’t mind my asking?”

              “Three weeks.”

              The span was shorter than Jen had feared. “And when was she last in her ball?”

              “Two weeks ago.”

              ‘Oh sh*t,’ thought Jen. Maizie was going to have a wild Houndour soon. Given her upbringing, she must have known that an apricorn’s effect on the brain wasn’t permanent until a month had passed, otherwise it wore off. She was probably counting on it.

              “You get the idea?” asked Maizie. “We’ll see who’s right in a few more days, I figure.”

              Then without warning, Moro started barking. Maizie jumped a little, and Jen looked around to see if something else had brought this on. She spotted it at the same time that Moro darted off at it. A Slowpoke that hadn’t been there a minute ago was lying at the edge of the path. Moro knocked her target onto its side, sunk her fangs into its haunches, and shook.

              “Call her off!” yelled Jen. The Slowpoke had protected status here and this could land in Maizie in huge trouble.

              “Moro, return! Moro! Moro!

              There was no change in Moro’s behavior, and Jen swore to herself again. She reached for the first of two Pokéballs on her belt. “Summer! Break ’em up!”

              The Arcanine’s ball opened right on top of the fray, and she came out hot. A single roar was enough to jar Moro’s attention and make her back off a few steps. She was only daunted for a moment though as she sprung up to bite her new opponent’s face. She never made it as Summer knocked her back to the dirt with her paw.

              “Hold her!”

              Summer complied immediately and with just enough force. She trapped Moro underfoot, and none of the Houndour’s fevered struggling and barking was going to change the situation. Summer’s advantage in size and speed was insurmountable.

              “Well?” Jen asked Maizie. “What are you going to do about this?”

              “I…”

              Maizie was holding her bandaged hand and looking totally lost. Jen tried to keep the scowl off her face as she approached the Pokémon. If Maizie wasn’t going to solve this the obvious way, Jen would have to work her own magic to calm Moro down. “You want to come out now, Moro? Then you’re going to have to—Ow! Damn!

              Moro had just spat a ball of fire at Jen’s face. She’d barely managed to turn and block it with her arm. It left a hole in her jacket and a burn on her skin.

              “Moro!” Maizie ran up now, but couldn’t bring herself to move in any closer than Jen had. She looked up into Jen’s eyes, but Jen had no further wisdom to offer. There was no way anyone could reason with an angry, half-feral Houndour.

              “I can tell Summer to beat on her until she’s worn out, but that’s all. It’s either that or you come up with something else.”

              Maizie trembled for what felt like an eternity. Then she broke down. She pulled one of her grandfather’s Level Balls from her pocket and pressed the switch with her eyes closed. Moro was finally out of the picture. Jen thanked the heavens that Maizie hadn’t been so dumb—or at least so disobedient to her family—as to throw away the ball.

              Maizie turned to Jen but didn’t look her in the eye. She was crying. “I’m sorry.” And then she ran off.

              Jen watched her leave and stayed where she was. This day wasn’t turning out to be relaxing at all. Summer walked up and nuzzled her giant head under Jen’s arm. “Good girl.”

              Jen decided she had failed Maizie. Out of all the lessons she could have taught her, she’d gone with the worst one: ‘Your ideals are making things hard for an adult, so quit it.’ She hadn’t helped her, she had just treated her like a problem and solved her. It made her sick to her stomach. She didn’t want to take the money anymore, not for officially becoming the kind of adult she’d sworn she’d never be.

              And now the poor Slowpoke finally groaned in pain. “You said it, Slowpoke.” Jen grabbed the first-aid kit again for herself and for the other patient.

              *

              [Next time it's Chapter 3, and we'll be rejoining Jason, Krissy, and Travis in the present day. Tune in to see what the deal with the Grunts' trade is!]

              [Btw, do people like "next episode previews" with fic chapters?]
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                #9    
              Old February 11th, 2017 (12:18 PM).
              Bay Alexison's Avatar
              Bay Alexison Bay Alexison is offline

              O, Dance of Devotion!

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              This is an interesting short of Jen dealing with fire types there. While Maizie's heart is in the right place, me personally she seems to think this a bit too much black/white and not realize Pokemon like Houndour will be pretty tough to handle as demonstrated. Even Jen had a bit of a hard time there. I do admit to also being like, "wow" when she said for her father to get bent. Other than that, nice to see a bit of Kurt's appearance there.
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                #10    
              Old February 18th, 2017 (9:38 AM). Edited April 13th, 2017 by icomeanon6.
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              icomeanon6 icomeanon6 is offline
              It's "I Come Anon"
                 
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                [Quick reply to Bay's comments in the spoiler tags (not a spoiler, just saving space):
                Spoiler:
                The 'get bent' line was a spur-of-the-moment decision as I was writing it, glad it had some teeth. Maizie having too much of a black/white, naive perspective is what I was going for; in my mind the main issue in the short is that Jen wants to keep Maizie safe, but at the same time she doesn't want to trivialize Maizie's moral perspective just because she's a child.

                Thanks for reading!]


                Chapter 3

                May, 2017

                Travis Lafayette was doing his best to keep his heartrate and expression under control. He was hiding behind a shrub with his best friend Jason and his alleged friend Krissy. Jason was spying on the nearby river through a gap in the leaves with his binoculars, while Krissy was staring into space and undoubtedly strategizing. Between the two of them they had the jobs of looking for the Grunts and finding out how to beat the Grunts covered, so all this left for Travis was the task of wishing nobody would ever show up.

                ‘This is so stupid,’ he told himself in his head. ‘We shouldn’t even be here. Why couldn’t we have just listened to Jen?’

                “Hey Travis,” said Jason. “Who you going to use here?”

                “Wyvern, easy. Nobody can beat him as long as he’s got a river. He’ll clean their clocks.”

                Travis had just reminded himself of why they hadn’t listened to Jen: it was because he was full of crap. As Travis understood it, Jason was too clueless to know what he couldn’t do, Krissy was capable enough that she wasn’t in much danger herself, and he was too much of a coward not to act like Jason. There had been countless opportunities so far for him to point out how out of their depth they were, but the thought of admitting so was far scarier than the thought of going through with Jason’s and Krissy’s suicidal plans. He wondered what the word for being afraid of being perceived as afraid was. ‘Phobiaphobia,’ maybe. It was the sort of question that a phobiaphobe would never ask aloud.

                He dug his fingers into the dirt beneath him. He had to distract himself somehow, but nothing was working. “They’re sure taking their sweet time,” he said. Perhaps fate would take pity on him and Jason would get bored and they’d all leave unscathed.

                “I wish they hadn’t been so vague on the meeting time,” said Krissy, in reference to the fact that the grunt had only written ‘evening’ in the notebook.

                Jason was unmoved. “No big deal. We can wait here all night.”

                That didn’t sound half bad to Travis if it meant none of the Grunts arrived for the scheduled trade. He touched Wyvern’s ball in its familiar spot on his belt and wondered if a Pokémon could sense an apology through the shell. He’d already promised his Seadra twice before that he would put his foot down and convince Jason and Krissy to give up, so he figured promising once more couldn’t hurt. This time he would really do it, at least when this fight was over with. Jason had stated this would be the last one, so all he had to do was hold him to his word. It would be easy as long they made it through one more battle.

                “I think I’m going to go with Specs instead of Rabies,” said Jason. Specs was his recently-evolved Noctowl. “The river might make Rabies nervous, and it’ll really put pressure on them if we’re attacking from air, land, and water.”

                Krissy nodded. “Specs is larger than anyone else we have, too. Depending on the matchup, that could be a real help.”

                “Nah, Rabies doesn’t need size when he’s got that much firepower. He can blow anything away when he’s in the right mindset.”

                Travis did not say the following, but felt he should have: ‘Jason, you colossal dumbass, listen to Krissy when she’s talking freaking strategy!’ This would have been hypocritical. He himself was frequently guilty of failing to give Krissy the credit she was obviously due. At least, ‘obviously’ to everyone except Jason, apparently.

                “Hey! One of them’s here!”

                Travis’s heart nearly stopped. While his friend was popping out of his skin in anticipation, all he could do was struggle to maintain a cool exterior. “Just one?”

                “Yeah. He’s alone. And he’s on our side of the river, too.” Jason put away his binoculars and rubbed his hands together.

                Krissy laid out the possibilities. “It’s either the Grunt our guys were going to meet, or it’s one of our guys and his partner’s missing. I think that makes it a 25% chance at best that he has Phillip’s Pokémon.”

                Travis spoke up, but it felt like someone else was using his mouth. “All that matters is he’s got a 100% chance of losing. We ready to roll?” He cursed whatever had made him fall into the habit years ago of talking like a big-shot regardless of the situation. It was one thing when he was just talking up his pathetic crew of Pokémon, but it was far worse when it meant blowing a chance to keep them out of serious trouble for once.

                Krissy pulled out a single Pokéball. “So we’ve got Specs, Lucia, and Wyvern. How’s this sound: Lucia takes point position, Jason and Specs play it by ear depending on the enemy’s strategy, and Wyvern keeps his distance and puts the enemy off balance with ranged attacks.”

                Travis shrugged. “Guess I can let you guys have the fun this time around.” He wanted to slam his head against a tree trunk for spewing such garbage. Why did he feel the need to pass off self-preservation as generosity? He knew that if he had any integrity at all he wouldn’t let Jason’s and Krissy’s Pokémon take the vast majority of the risk.

                Jason grinned. “Sounds good.” He had a manic look in his eyes. Travis missed the days when he’d actually looked forward to seeing that look.

                They got up and tried not to make any noise. The theory Krissy had put forward earlier was to sneak up until they were too close to avoid being heard, and then charge in. Travis let the other two take the lead so that they couldn’t see him cross his fingers and mouth a desperate prayer to Suicune, the god of clear streams. They were getting close to the edge of the trees now. The Grunt was sitting on his pack and watching the river. A part of Travis had to wonder if he could make it all go away by closing his eyes.

                Krissy suddenly turned around from her position up front and Travis forced himself to act normal. She made a quick hand signal, and the three of them broke into a sprint.

                “Go, Lucia!”

                “Go, Specs!”

                By the time the Grunt knew what was happening, Krissy’s Bayleef was already standing in the middle of the clearing and Jason’s Noctowl was flying in place above her. Lucia wasn’t dramatically larger than she had been as a Chikorita, but she was stockier and even more deceptively powerful.

                For the first time Travis decided not to call out his starting Pokémon’s name as he sent him into battle. He and Wyvern were off to the right and downstream from the others. Wyvern was now a strong, expert swimmer and had no trouble holding his position against the current. Travis found himself hoping that Specs’s distracting wingspan would keep the Grunt’s attention firmly away from them.

                The Grunt rose to his feet and studied his opponents. “Nope, I’m not impressed. If y’all want to reconsider this and head back the way you came, I’ll let it slide. I’m in a pretty good mood today.” His voice was raspy, and it suited the dense stubble on his face and the crook in his eye. The words ‘Yes, please. Sorry to bother you,’ made their way to the inside of Travis’s mouth, but unfortunately they stopped there.

                “Forget it!” shouted Jason. “You’re going to hand over all the Pokémon you stole, or else!”

                “You talk pretty tough, boy. That’ll land you in trouble someday.” The Grunt reached for his belt with both hands and in a flash he sent out two Pokémon: An Ursaring on the ground and a Golbat in the air. With no need for specific instruction, the Golbat flew at Specs like a dart with fangs bared.

                Travis knew it took a confident trainer to command more than one Pokémon at once. He found himself paralyzed as the battle started without him. Krissy and Jason called out orders for Leech Seed and Wing Attack, respectively. Specs and the Golbat engaged in a midair tussle as Lucia flung two seeds with the large leaf on her head that landed square on the Ursaring’s chest.

                “Ursaring, use Taunt!”

                “Lucia, ignore him!”

                The Ursaring reared to his full height and bellowed at the top of his lungs. Lucia dug in and stared him down. Travis could scarcely believe his eyes. None of his own partners would have been able to resist the subliminal urge to charge head on. No one their age could instill that kind of discipline in a Pokémon.

                “Magical Leaf!”

                A cloud of glowing leaves came up from nowhere and surrounded the Ursaring, who began to wail from the fine cuts. Travis came to his senses and realized that if he did nothing this whole fight he’d never live it down. He kept his eyes on the battle but told Wyvern, “Use Bubble Beam. On… on the Golb—” He stopped himself. He didn’t want to hit Specs by mistake. “On the Ursaring!”

                Wyvern sent a rapid spray of bubbles from his snout and hit his distant target dead-on, but it did no more than cause the Ursaring to wince momentarily. Lucia’s leaf attack was clearly causing him far more distress.

                “Forget the Taunt. Move in and tear her to pieces! Use Slash!” He then turned his attention to the Golbat. It was obvious now that Wyvern was a non-factor, and this was both humiliation and relief to Travis.

                The magic cloud followed the Ursaring as he lumbered forward. Lucia played the evade-game, and had the advantage of being able to pass through the leaves unharmed. That half of the fight was promising, but Specs was beginning to look sluggish despite Jason’s spirited direction. Travis didn’t see how Wyvern could make a difference in either skirmish and had no idea what the outcome was going to be. He felt sweat rolling down his face, and then he jumped when he noticed Krissy was looking right at him.

                They locked eyes. She was as composed on the outside as he was in disarray on the inside. She moved her finger in the shape of a wave and he understood immediately. He snuck over to the river and swore at himself for being so worthless under pressure that Krissy had to remember his own best tactic for him. Nobody was watching him as he waded in. He had to lean into the current and be careful with his footing to stay upright. Wyvern swam over and looked up at his trainer for instruction. A Seadra’s expression was always fixed in a glare, but Travis knew to pay attention to his body language instead. He could tell that Wyvern was eager to try something. He put his hand on his Pokémon’s back and whispered, “Big one. Just like we practiced.”

                Wyvern spread his fins wide and Travis felt the pulsing veins beneath his thin exoskeleton. The blood flow was a little too forceful, so Travis rubbed the ridges of Wyvern’s spine slowly up and down until the pressure was perfect. Then the thrust of the river against Travis’s waist grew weaker, and Wyvern began to rise. The water was beginning to form into a mound beneath the Seadra’s fins. Wyvern’s power let only a little of the river move past him and let none of it spill over the sides, so the only way to go was up. Travis kept his hand where it was until the wave mounted so high that he could no longer reach. Where he stood the water was now only at his ankles, and in front of him was a translucent, billowing wall of it. He gazed up at Wyvern until he was fifteen feet above him. “Come on,” he whispered, “You can do it, Wyvern.”

                Travis looked through the water and could just discern what was happening in the battle. The Grunt was still focused on his Golbat and had his back to Wyvern. The noise of four Pokémon fighting at once kept the adult from hearing the imminent attack. Travis hoped that Jason could keep a straight face. Then two critical events passed that Travis barely saw. Specs ran out of steam and fell to the ground, and the Ursaring finally landed a hit and followed it with one that was devastating. Travis saw red on Lucia’s side just before Jason and Krissy both recalled their partners. His chest constricted and everything slowed down as he realized this was the most important moment in any battle he would ever take part in. There was nothing standing between his friends and two hostile Pokémon, and a Rocket wouldn’t give his opponents time to send out replacements. Wyvern was their last shot. “Now! Use Surf!

                The noise was deafening as the pent-up river reversed course and burst forward. A small amount of backwash was enough to knock Travis flat, so he had to imagine the look on the Grunt’s face as the deluge overtook him and his team. The boy scrambled to his feet again. There was a pain in the small of his back and cuts on his elbows, but he could ignore them. As the river began to return to its normal flow he saw the aftermath.

                The Ursaring and his trainer were lying motionless on the ground, but the Golbat remained in the air and was dry. Jason and Krissy were over the moon cheering about the change of fortune. “Great job, you two!” yelled Jason. “We’ll take it from here!” He sent out Rabies while Krissy sent out Frostbite. The Sneasel had eyes for the flying-type right out of the gate and Travis could see her white breath.

                “Cute,” spat the Grunt as he pulled out one more Pokéball. “Real cute.” Then a second Ursaring appeared, no different than the first one had been at the start of the fight. “Golbat, get that Seadra!”

                Travis’s hands shook. Wyvern wasn’t in the river. He was lying off to the side in a patch of wet grass and mud. He managed to lift himself and balance on his tail, but in an instant the Golbat swooped in and knocked him down again with concussive force. Travis stumbled in desperation to the riverbank.

                When he was out of the water the situation had only grown worse. The Ursaring was plainly trying to go straight after Jason and Krissy, and it was all Rabies and Frostbite could do to hold him back. A massive Flamethrower attack was only enough to slow him down. Far away from them the Golbat had Wyvern pinned down and was sinking its fangs into his back. “Wyvern!” Travis meant to say something closer to ‘hold on,’ but the idea was too complicated for his brain to handle in his panic. He sprinted toward them and fumbled for Wyvern’s ball, but his soaked clothes slowed him down.

                Travis was three steps away from being in range to withdraw his beaten Pokémon when the Grunt called out a new order: “Supersonic!”

                Travis stuck out the ball, and the Golbat pulled its head up. Just before Travis could press the switch, the inside of his head was hit with the sound of a dozen ringing bells. His vision split in two and it felt like the din would shatter his skull. He groaned in pain and felt the ball slip away from his fingers. His legs fell out from beneath him and he saw a different scene through each eye. On one side the Golbat had lifted off again from Wyvern, and on the other the blurred outline of the Grunt was facing them. The Grunt threw something. It looked like a black ball. Travis understood none of it and then everything went dark.

                The darkness lasted for more than a moment but less than minute as Travis was jarred from his stupor by a noise that was supposed to be reserved for nightmares. It was the crack of falling trees alongside a roar that made the earth shudder. Travis’s sight came together again and he saw what looked like a green mountain with claws and fangs crashing through the edge of the woods: a Tyranitar. He couldn’t believe that he was truly awake, and he was struck dumb. Travis had never so much as met anyone who claimed to have known anyone who had seen a Tyranitar.

                To his immense relief the towering monster ignored his friends and ran headlong at the Ursaring. He could hear the sound of breaking bones in the collision. The Ursaring fell in a heap, and the Tyranitar raised its stone foot and stomped its opponent inches deeper into the mud. The Grunt cried out in panic as did Jason and Krissy. Out of the corner of his eye Travis saw the Golbat fly away over the river, perhaps never to be seen again. With no one else around except the beaten and the weak, the Tyranitar yelled at the sky.

                A man’s voice came barking out from the trees: “You, Rocket, start running! Turn around and you’re dead!”

                The Grunt dropped everything and fled. For a fleeting instant, Travis thought they were saved. But then he remembered Wyvern.

                Travis’s head was splitting in pain when he looked again to where Wyvern should have been lying on the ground. He wasn’t there. In his place was a black Pokéball with a red ‘R’ on its front. The tears were already in his eyes and unintelligible babble poured from his mouth as he crawled over to the ball. His trembling fingers barely managed to pick it up and his worst, deepest fear came true as he pressed the button over and over with no response.

                “No. No. Open up, open up, open up! Wyvern! Wyvern!

                He screamed. He screamed so hard that it tore at his throat and left him gasping for air.

                The new man was yelling again, but it barely reached Travis’s ears. “You little goddamn morons! I told you to be careful!

                Soon a pair of hands grabbed Travis by the shoulders. “Travis. Hey, Travis.” The hands turned him around and he saw Derek’s scowling face, but all Travis could do was choke and sob. Then Derek said, “Get it together. We’re leaving. Come on!”

                Derek hoisted him up and started dragging him away. “Use your legs. We’re going to fix this.”

                Travis didn’t try to keep up, but Derek didn’t let go and forced him along anyway. “You two, get all that Rocket’s stuff! Move it!

                All the Pokémon present were returned to their balls. Jason and Krissy handled their own and the two fallen Ursaring in stunned silence, and Derek himself recalled the Tyranitar. Travis lost track for a while after that. Someone else must have grabbed his bag, because when they reached the pickup truck back at the main trail all he had on him was Wyvern’s new ball.

                *********

                It was getting dark. Travis was sitting hunched over in the back seat of the pickup truck. His eyes had dried out but he couldn’t bring himself to speak. He cradled the ball and pressed the release switch, but nothing happened. Jason was on his right, Krissy was on his left, and they each had a hand on his back. Derek was driving with one eye on the road and the other on his cell phone.

                “You’re not supposed to text and drive,” said Jason in a small voice.

                Derek’s voice was not small. “You know what else you’re not supposed to do, Jason? You’re not supposed to go picking fights with violent criminals twice your size and smarts, but you couldn’t even make it a damn week after talking to Jen. Unbelievable. And just imagine what would’ve happened if I showed up two minutes later than I did. Two minutes!”

                Those were the first words Derek had spoken since they’d started driving. He closed his phone and tossed it onto the passenger seat. “I just texted Hanna. We’re going to meet her at Bill’s place outside Cerulean.”

                Travis had often thought about going to Cerulean City someday. There were both rivers and an ocean near there. It would have been heaven for Wyvern. He pressed the release switch again, and still nothing happened.

                “Can she help?” asked Krissy.

                “Maybe. She might be able to figure out that thing’s lock mechanism in the lab. I don’t know.”

                That meant she couldn’t, Travis knew. An adult’s ‘maybe’ never meant the answer you wanted it to. Travis took no comfort from Derek’s pathetic attempt at making him feel better. Only one thing could possibly do that, so he pressed the switch again even though he knew nothing would happen.

                “Before any of you ask,” said Derek, “I was out there for work. It’s government work. And if you tell anyone they’re going to throw you in juvie till you’re old enough for real prison. Is that clear?”

                Jason and Krissy both answered “Yes,” in defeated tones, but Travis remained silent. He didn’t know or care whether Derek was lying about the jail part. Why would he tell anyone anyway about Derek’s job, whatever it was? What could it possibly matter? He pressed the switch again.

                “Travis.” Derek had taken some of the edge out of his voice. “I don’t think Wyvern’s in pain. I don’t know if the Rockets did anything weird to that ball, but most scientists say that Pokémon are basically in stasis when they’re inside any ball. Hanna and Bill might be able to figure it out. It’s complicated, but he should be fine. Probably.”

                Travis wanted to tell him to shut up. Derek was worse at trying to console people than anyone he’d ever met. Besides, what made Derek think he needed the attention? Travis hadn’t spent most of his life convincing everyone else of his own toughness just to get pity thrown at him. They all needed to talk to Wyvern instead. Despite appearances, Wyvern was still a baby on the inside. He was the one who was cold, lonely, and frightened, maybe forever. As Travis’s eyes grew wet again, he pressed the ball’s switch one more time and wondered if a Pokémon could sense an apology through the shell.

                *

                [Next time Hanna takes over for Chapter 4, and finds her knowledge put to the test.]
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                  #11    
                Old February 18th, 2017 (10:34 PM).
                Bay Alexison's Avatar
                Bay Alexison Bay Alexison is offline

                O, Dance of Devotion!

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                I admit at the part where Travis held back from telling Jason he should take Krissy's strategy seriously, I thought the same heh. Looks like the battle the kids had with that Grunt wasn't a walk in the park as they thought, and poor Travis being devastated over what happened to his Seadra. Looks like not only we'll get to see Hanna next chapter but Bill also, should be fun.
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                  #12    
                Old February 27th, 2017 (8:50 PM).
                icomeanon6's Avatar
                icomeanon6 icomeanon6 is offline
                It's "I Come Anon"
                   
                  Join Date: Feb 2008
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                  [Quick reply to Bay's comments in the spoiler tags (not a spoiler, just saving space):
                  Spoiler:
                  Poor Travis, indeed. Years ago I envisioned some of these characters as existing to have bad stuff happen to them. I'm not going to say whether that's changed yet.

                  Thanks for reading!]


                  Chapter 4

                  Hanna Maris had just woken up. She was lying on an exceptionally comfortable couch in a spacious basement, the corners of which were stacked high with technical manuals and miscellaneous electronic equipment. This was not Hanna’s home, but it was fairly close. It was the sea cottage and laboratory of her employer, intellectual colleague, and friend Bill. The house only had one bedroom, but the well-furnished basement was always available for those who found themselves working at odd hours. On average Hanna slept down here 3.2 nights out of the week.

                  She checked her phone and saw that it was 5:30. This meant she was still short on sleep but just in time to see the sun rise over the ocean. While she was looking at her phone, she scanned through her last text conversation from the evening before. Derek had informed her in discrete fashion that he’d acquired ‘some stuff’ for her to check out, and they’d arranged that he’d drop it off in person sometime this morning. She had finished the conversation with the following message: ‘gr8, see u then!’ She had almost sent ‘gr8, see you then! <3’ but barely decided against it. As fun as Derek was to tease, she’d put him through the ringer enough for one month. This was a person who twitched when you asked him how his day was going, after all.

                  Hanna smiled. She got up, stretched, and ran her fingers through her hair as if that would make it more presentable. After she climbed the stairs to the small kitchen, she saw that Bill had already made a pot of coffee. She helped herself to a cup and took it with her through the small sitting room and out to the wide front porch. It was still dim out and there was a blue cast over everything. Bill’s house was built on the last solid hill before the land fell away to the sands on the shore. The salt breeze settled on Hanna’s tongue and gave her coffee the exact taste she was now used to.

                  “Morning.” Bill was sitting in his favorite chair and had his eyes on the horizon and its rich colors.

                  “Morning, Professor.”

                  “FYI, I’m still not a professor.”

                  Hanna knew, and she knew Bill knew she knew. It had been fifteen years since she’d made the honest mistake of referring to him as a professor, and she wasn’t about to reverse course now. Besides, she adored the way he sucked in his teeth oh so slightly in resigned annoyance when she called him that. “You taking the day off?” she asked him.

                  “Yeah. I figure I owe myself a Saturday now and then. Everyone else go home last night?”

                  “Mm-hmm. Mind if I use the lab for a side-project today?” Bill’s cottage was roughly fifty percent lab and thirty percent basement. Hanna wished every house were like that.

                  “It’s all yours. This for that friend you mentioned?”

                  “Yup, Jen’s brother. You met him when we were kids, I think. He should be here in a few hours.”

                  By ‘when we were kids,’ Hanna meant when she and Jen were kids, Derek was a late teen, and Bill was in his early twenties. Now she was twenty-nine, he was thirty-nine, and his hair still had perfect curls. There was something cosmically unjust about that, but she forgave the heavens for it. Speaking of which, the sun was just now poking its head over the water. Hanna took the seat next to Bill’s and soaked it in. She had a good thing going with this job, and she meant to keep it that way as long as she could.

                  A few minutes later the sun was in full view and putting space between itself and the sea, and it was then that they heard a vehicle driving up from the inland road.

                  “Guess your friend’s early.”

                  “Guess so.” Hanna now felt a bit silly for assuming that Derek wouldn’t be in such a rush. She had meant to at least shower before he came, but there was nothing to do about that now. Without thinking she ran her fingers through her hair again.

                  “Relax, you look fine.”

                  “Hush, you.”

                  Hanna downed the rest of her coffee and headed for the driveway. She saw a dull-red pickup truck coming around the bend. At that moment a familiar voice popped into her head. ‘Derek here.’

                  ‘I know, girl.’

                  The voice was Marie’s. Specifically, it was the voice that she had imagined Marie would have back when she was a kid and Marie was a Kadabra, only now she heard it without pretending and it truly belonged to Marie. She could even hear it through the Pokéball she kept on her belt, which put a hole in the prevailing theory that Pokémon were in stasis while inside their balls. Or perhaps it indicated an exception based on the particular species. This was one of several Pokéball-related research topics that she explored in her spare time. She was mulling over the possibility of writing a thesis on the matter someday when Marie spoke up again. ‘Rabies here too.’

                  ‘Huh?’

                  If Rabies was here, then presumably Jason was here as well, and presumably Jason was here with Derek. Hanna suddenly felt an uneasiness in her stomach. Part of her was irritated at Marie for not allowing her ten more seconds of believing she was in for a good day, but she knew it was best to be as well informed as possible. Even if it was the tiniest advance warning, it was best to know that bad news was coming.

                  The truck pulled up in front of her. Derek opened his door and stepped down in a huff, and Hanna could see the three kids keeping still in the back. She wondered how early they had woken up this morning to get here so quickly. Before she could say anything, Derek addressed his passengers. “Get out.”

                  Jason and Krissy obliged with hesitation, but Travis stayed where he was.

                  “Travis!”

                  Hanna didn’t approve of Derek’s tone, even if it did get Travis to move. The boy looked sick and exhausted. Without a word, he plodded over to her and handed her a black, custom Pokéball whose manufacturer went without saying. Once again, Derek spoke up before she could find any appropriate words. “I’ll explain inside.”

                  Derek hurried the silent kids along as Hanna led the way to the porch, where Bill was now standing up to greet them. Hanna had the feeling she’d need to recruit his help for this one.

                  *********

                  The most prized piece of equipment in Bill’s lab was arguably the quantum scanner. It was one of only a handful in the world that could provide a real-time, 3D image of the inside of a closed Pokéball. Unlike a normal X-ray, this machine could analyze the sea of quantum information contained within and derive the state of its alternate spacetime. It was of exceptionally fine build to boot, and one the rare occasions when it didn’t work a simple reboot and quick recalibration was always enough to resolve the issue. Except for today. After four tries the display still showed nothing but static.

                  Bill clicked his tongue. “Well, this is embarrassing.” He had led the scanner’s design team years ago.

                  “I don’t think it’s the machine,” said Hanna.

                  Derek was sitting away from the action on a stool with his arms crossed. “You mean a malfunction in the ball?”

                  Hanna shivered. If that were the case, it would probably mean that Travis’s Seadra was dead. Annihilated. Broken up on a molecular level into a soup of meaningless quantum noise. She was relieved that the kids weren’t around to hear Derek say that. She replied, “Not necessarily. It might have a difference in design that makes our scanner incompatible.”

                  “Only one way to find out,” said Bill. He tapped away at the console and turned off the scanner’s quantum features so they could analyze the circuitry and construction of the ball itself. The machine whirred to life again and one minute later they had a set of schematics on the lab’s large main screen. There were wire-renderings of sixteen concentric spheres, each of which was in fact a dense circuit board. After a few more seconds of processing, the spheres were unfolded, flattened, and spread apart to make had a more legible representation.

                  Bill put his fingers to his lips. “Huh.”

                  “Anything stick out about it?” asked Derek.

                  Hanna answered him. “It’s the number of spheres. A normal Pokéball has four and even an Ultra Ball only has eight. Sixteen is unheard of. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s better at catching, but it does mean it’s either doing a lot more processing than we’re used to, or the designers wanted it to be especially hard to reverse-engineer.”

                  Derek’s expression grew harder and harder as Hanna gave her explanation. ‘Help read Derek,’ came Marie’s voice, but Hanna turned her down. She wanted to save Marie’s energy for more pressing brainwork, and besides that she didn’t need help to tell what Derek was thinking in this case. The Rockets’ scientists had obviously put AAA work into this into these new balls, and the police’s own scientists were AA at best. She knew it and Derek knew it.

                  More importantly, she knew that Derek would never deliver any information they uncovered here to his employer. That would lead to questions about where he had gotten the analysis, then (correct) accusations of mishandling evidence, and then, she assumed, dismissal. She decided that if Derek behaved himself she’d ask Bill to share their findings with the police directly and without mentioning Derek’s role. It would take forever to get their scientists to listen and the exchange would probably be one-sided, but what could they do?

                  Bill laid out the plan of attack. “First thing we want to do is identify any novel components. There may also be traditional components split up and spread across different boards to throw us off track, so keep that in mind. Let me know right away if you can’t tell what something does.”

                  “Roger.” As Bill sent a copy of the schematics to Hanna’s workstation, she let Marie out of her ball. The Alakazam stretched her limbs and let out a deep growl. She wasn’t young anymore and thus prone to cramping up when she fully engaged her brain without easing into it. Slowly Hanna’s peripheral vision was filled with a blue glow as her partner began to share more space inside her head.

                  Then Hanna heard a faint mumble that started just inside her ear and moved behind her lips that had the tenor of Derek’s voice. She could tell he was thinking something along the lines of ‘We need someone who can do that.’ She had half a mind to tell Derek that if the police wanted someone who could borrow an Alakazam’s processing power, that someone had better start now with an Abra and train very closely with it for at least ten years. But she didn’t want him to know she had ‘overheard’ him, and instead sent Marie the message to stop eavesdropping and focus on the task at hand.

                  Under Hanna’s direction, the pair entered a rhythm. Hanna would focus on a chip, and Marie would highlight in her mind’s eye all the components it was connected to. Hanna would try to guess its probable purpose by the pin mapping, and if she couldn’t do so immediately Marie would help her file through her own memories in case she was forgetting something. Every few minutes she’d consult Bill, and each time it would turn out to be an ordinary chip divided into counterintuitive parts and obfuscated by redundant or irrelevant operations. It was proving just as tedious and frustrating to decipher as the Rockets must have intended, but with Marie’s help Hanna could go at it like this for hours and hours without her mind so much as wandering once.

                  So sure enough and before she knew it, Marie declared, ‘You hungry.’

                  All of a sudden she felt how empty her stomach was. She looked in the corner of her screen. Dinnertime. That was a little scary. “Hey Bill, you want to take a break?”

                  “Hmm?” Apparently the thought hadn’t occurred to Bill either. They were awfully compatible in this way. “Oh shoot, look at that. Good catch.”

                  Hanna returned Marie to her ball and silently instructed her not to let her massive brain overheat. Then she turned around and was a little surprised to find Derek sitting on the same stool with his arms still crossed. She asked him, “Have you been there the whole time?”

                  “No. I left around noon to make sure Travis ate lunch. Came back at quarter to one. What’s our status? I can’t follow half of what you’ve been saying.”

                  It was one thing to be able to sit for hours while mentally occupied, but Hanna found the thought of someone being able to stay in place for that long in mere boredom disturbing. She hoped he had at least done a crossword or something while she wasn’t looking. “We’ve gone through about two-thirds of the circuits. Still haven’t found out why we can’t scan Wyvern, though, and we don’t know which component is locking the release switch either.”

                  “I care more about the lock.”

                  “I’d be inclined to agree,” said Bill, “but it may take a long time to figure out how to pick it or bypass it. We wouldn’t need to worry about the lock if we had a perfect quantum scan. Then our own tools and programs would be able to handle the extraction and the ball’s opening mechanism wouldn’t matter.”

                  “We need one or the other,” said Hanna, “and it’s hard to guess which way would be faster.”

                  “I think I follow.” Derek stood up. “What do you guys want for dinner?”

                  *********

                  Hanna was chopping vegetables for a stir-fry while Derek mixed the sauce. It was nice of him to offer to cook alone so she and Bill could relax, but Hanna was hungry enough to prefer that things go faster. Over at the kitchen table Bill was talking to their three young guests about their teams and their journey so far, as he did with each trainer who came to visit.

                  Jason was doing most of the telling. “And that was in late March. A few weeks later was when we started to… um…” he trailed off.

                  “That was when you decided to make a difference, right?”

                  “…Yeah. The first Grunt was easy. He had a Raticate and that was it. He ran away before we could get him to give back anything he stole.”

                  Hanna looked over her shoulder. None of them were facing Bill directly, and Travis was staring out the window at the sea. Poor kids. It must have felt like an interrogation to them, especially if they didn’t know Bill.

                  Krissy spoke up next. “We’re sorry to trouble you like this.”

                  Bill waved his hand. “Hey, no. You haven’t troubled us at all. The thieves are the trouble, got that? This is their fault and no one else’s.”

                  A mumble from Derek made its way into Hanna’s brain again with Marie’s help. She wasn’t sure, but she got the idea that he wanted to add something to the conversation. She glanced over at him and saw that tension in his hands and that jumpiness in his eyes that she hated to see so much. The mumble grew louder, and the impression she got was this: ‘Don’t reinforce their behavior. They could have avoided this. We weren’t hard enough on them.’ But he didn’t say anything out loud. Something was keeping his mouth closed, and she had a good guess of what it was.

                  He was acting the same way as when they’d first met. That was back on Jen’s first day as a trainer. He had been playing chaperone to her and trying to catch her a starting Pokémon when Hanna ran into them by chance. Jen had talked up a storm and asked her a million questions, while he had said maybe three words to her. ‘That’s my big brother over there. He’s different, but he’s not as bad he looks!’ Hanna agreed that ‘different’ was the word for a sixteen-year-old who was scared to talk to a twelve-year-old lest some random preteen think he was stupid or weird. And now she wanted to tell him to just let it out and not worry about what Bill would think of him.

                  She realized she was digging into personal parts of Derek’s brain, and once again told Marie to stop eavesdropping for her.

                  ‘You want listen Derek head. Always. I know.’

                  ‘Don’t go do something just because I want it. Do what I say instead, please.’

                  ‘Derek right. Their fault, our fault too. You me fault. Very.’

                  Hanna bit her lip. She’d gone almost the entire day without reminding herself of the portion of the blame that was unique to her and Marie. ‘This isn’t the right time to think about that. Could you blot that thought out for now, please? We have to focus on freeing Wyvern.’

                  ‘Okay. But I bring back later. You me fault. Very.’

                  There was a buzzing noise, and Hanna zoned out for a second and tried to remember what she had been thinking about. Then it occurred to her: chopping vegetables. They had to get this dinner ready so they could get back to work. “How’s it going over there? I’ve only got the carrots left.”

                  Derek had just finished marinating the chicken. “I’m going to put on the rice and then I’ll be ready for the vegetables.”

                  “Great.”

                  Hanna gathered up the used plates from their delicious meal while Derek scrubbed the pans. Then she blinked and wondered why she had just skipped ahead forty-five minutes. She was reasonably sure they had eaten dinner and that the conversation had gone without incident. The most probable situation was that she had asked Marie to suppress a thought for some reason, and a portion of her short-term memory had taken collateral damage. This was prone to happen when she asked Marie to perform this favor too many times in a row. She made a mental note to avoid any more suppression for the rest of the day, whatever it was she didn’t want to think about.

                  “You okay?” asked Derek. “You look woozy.”

                  Hanna snapped out of it. “Yeah. Long day, you know.”

                  “Mm.”

                  She brought the dishes over to the sink and then looked out the window. The kids were on the beach. One of the boys, she thought it was Travis, was in the water. She supposed that was a good sign. “You know, if you were bored watching me and Bill work earlier you can go play with the kids instead. Or just keep an eye on them, whatever.”

                  Derek peeked out the window but only for a moment. “They’re not going anywhere. Not as long as Wyvern’s still trapped.”

                  “I didn’t mean it like that. I was only thinking it might make them feel better.”

                  Derek looked at her in a way that said, ‘Oh, really?’ Maybe he was right. But she didn’t think he had to be right if he didn’t want to.

                  Bill came in through the side door. “You guys can leave that stuff for tomorrow. Let’s get back to it.”

                  There was no argument, and they returned to the lab. Derek went straight to his stool and took up the same position he had held for hours before. While they waited for the machines to boot up again, Hanna decided she had to engage him somehow or it would drive her nuts knowing how bored he must be. “You have any thoughts on this?”

                  “What? No, no, I really don’t know a thing about this stuff.” There was that jumpiness in his eyes again.

                  “I’m not asking you solve it for us. Anything can help, even a question. We might not have thought to ask it ourselves.”

                  Derek stared into space, and Hanna gave him time. “Well, one thing occurred to me. It might be wrong, or maybe nothing. One of Team Rocket’s problems—I’ve heard that one of Team Rocket’s internal problems is that a lot of their Grunts keep some of the Pokémon they steal for themselves, usually to sell without giving their bosses a cut. So I don’t think this ball of theirs is just designed to keep us out, it’s also meant to keep the Grunts from doing anything with them after they’ve stolen a Pokémon.”

                  This grabbed Bill’s attention. Hanna noticed Derek fidget in place before he continued. “So if I were one of the execs, I’d order the scientists to make it so there’s no way to get the Pokémon out without bringing the ball to HQ. And if they have their own custom extraction tools at HQ, their best op-sec would be to have a ball with no re-opening or self-extraction mechanisms at all.”

                  He swallowed and rubbed his forehead. “So… So I think you guys haven’t found the lock because there isn’t even a door anymore. It probably has no functionality for letting a captured Pokémon out.”

                  Hanna couldn’t believe she hadn’t thought of it herself, and Bill was visibly ecstatic. He clapped his hands together and said, “That’s it! I bet that’s it! Oh, we might have wasted days on that rabbit-hole. See, Hanna, this is what I’m always talking about with reverse-engineering: start with the use-cases! Always easier to begin with what they’re doing than how they’re doing it. We’ll focus on getting the scan, then. Thanks, Derek!”

                  Derek stared at the floor. “You’re welcome.”

                  While Bill dove right back into the work with renewed vigor, Hanna walked over to Derek and whispered in his ear. “Maybe this is a lesson for your employers about the importance of collaboration? That they might get their best results if we actually share our findings?”

                  Derek whispered back, “Look, I know you’re right, but they won’t care. I’m not going to lose my job trying to explain it to them.”

                  Hanna returned to her desk without another word and wondered if Derek really knew how right she was.

                  *********

                  It was one in the morning, and they had gotten much farther than Hanna thought they would. That one insight had made so much of it fall into place. Marie sat on the floor with a yawn and closed her eyes. “Do you want back in?” Hanna asked aloud. Marie nodded, and Hanna recalled her.

                  “I think we’ve hit a good stopping point,” said Bill.

                  “Mind giving me an update?” asked Derek.

                  “I’m afraid I’m going to have to say goodnight, so that’s up to Hanna.”

                  “I don’t mind. Night, Bill.”

                  Bill gave them a wave as he exited the room and left them to it. Hanna pulled her chair over to Derek’s and she showed him the schematics on her laptop. “We’ve all but confirmed that your guess about the ball having no self-extraction feature is correct: the release switch connects to an isolated circuit that does nothing. As for these three layers over here, we don’t have specifics but the way they’re wired suggests they have something to do with behavior modification in the Pokémon.”

                  “It’s probably an aggression booster. They have a history of using testosterone and amphetamines on Pokémon. You’ll want to scan for other chemicals in the apricorn cartridges.” said Derek.

                  “I’ll make a note of that. Now over here is one of the more unusual features. It’s a miniaturized version of the hardware we use in the PC Storage System to release Pokémon to the wild. Basically it takes the unique quantum matrix encoding applied to a caught Pokémon which prevents other Pokéballs from catching it and resets it. Make sense?”

                  “You lost me at ‘quantum,’ but sure.”

                  “I’ll try to explain the rest in traditional terms, then.” She frowned. This next part was going to be unpleasant. “Spread across the four innermost layers are the components that are keeping us from getting a scan of Wyvern. Do you know much about public-key/private-key cryptography?”

                  “I recognize the phrase.”

                  “The main idea is that you have one key to encrypt the data, and another to decrypt it. The person writing the message encrypts with the public key, and the person reading it decrypts with the private key. You can’t use the public key to decrypt its own message.”

                  “By ‘data’ here you mean ‘Pokémon?’”

                  “Yes. Usually that quantum matrix I mentioned is simple enough that the PC can decode the Pokémon inside the ball without trouble. In this case though the ball uses an encrypted matrix, meaning we can’t read what’s inside without the right key. The ball itself holds the public key to capture and encrypt, but not the private key.”

                  Derek sighed. “And the Rocket execs are probably the only ones who have the private key.”

                  “I’m afraid so.”

                  “Is there any way we can guess the private key through brute force, like by trying all of them? Or, I don’t know, work backwards through the part that does the encrypting?”

                  Hanna couldn’t blame Derek for trying, but she also couldn’t hold back a hollow laugh. “It’d take a decade to brute force it. And as for working backwards, if I could prove that’s even possible the proof would be worth a hundred million Pokéyen, easy.”

                  Derek rubbed his eyes. “So it’s the execs or nothing. We’re stuck.”

                  Hanna agreed that she and Bill at least were stuck. When it came to Team Rocket itself, that was Derek’s turf. “Maybe it’s time to hand the ball over to the police? I’m sure Bill won’t mind giving them all the info we’ve got, and we won’t use your name.”

                  “It won’t help Travis any. Not even if you share all your data. They’ve never managed to touch a Rocket Executive before, and they’re not going to ramp things up over this. Not with the guys we have in charge now. It’ll take them years.”

                  The lines on Derek’s face looked thicker than ever. She had to wonder if he was going to be dead by sixty at this rate, and it made her sad.

                  They sat for a minute in contemplation. Then Derek sighed and said, “Thanks for doing this, Hanna.”

                  “It’s the least I could do, and don’t forget to thank Bill. I just wish—”

                  At that moment Marie set off something like an alarm bell in Hanna’s head. It went, ‘You fault! Me fault! You fault! Me fault!’ She remembered now. This was what she’d been trying to avoid all day. She put a hand to her forehead and let Marie know that she got the message.

                  “—Derek. I need to apologize.”

                  “Don’t. Jen and I couldn’t talk them out of it either.”

                  “No, you don’t understand. I knew they were lying.”

                  He twitched. “Excuse me?”

                  “They told us they gave up. I didn’t believe them so I had Marie poke around in Jason’s head and I saw there was a 95% chance that he wasn’t telling the truth.”

                  Derek’s eyes grew wider and he opened his mouth, but no words came out right away. Hanna had been dreading this. “Why didn’t you call him out!”

                  “Let me explain. If I pushed him he was just going to dig in and then we’d have had no choice but to lock them up or tell their parents. But I also saw that we’d gotten through to them about how dangerous it was. He was feeling more cautious than before, and Marie felt the odds were five-in-six that he’d get cold feet and quit before they did anything stupid.”

                  “I don’t believe this! You let them go, knowing they were lying, because your Pokémon said they might be fine anyway? That’s insane!”

                  Even if Derek was a basket-case himself, it did make her sound insane when he put it that way. “I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry. I thought the odds were good enough.”

                  “You blew it, then. And I blew it. I should have called Jason’s mom the minute I found out; saved Travis the heartbreak.”

                  Hanna still wasn’t convinced of that. Was the risk really so high that it would have been better to pull the plug from the beginning? “If you’d done that you’d be kicking yourself for not giving them a chance. If we get their licenses taken away there’s no fixing that until they’re adults, and by then they’ve missed their only opportunity to be kids. We can still salvage things as they are now.”

                  Derek put his face in his hands. “‘Not giving them a chance,’ huh? Like a five-in-six chance? Do you realize how much you had riding on not rolling a one?”

                  “They’re not helpless. You have to cut that one in six down again because they might have won their next fight. From what you told me this guy they ran into was better than most Grunts. We still had time to get them to quit for good.”

                  “You’re talking like a kid trainer, now. They all think they’re invincible. You and Jen especially did.”

                  Marie reached up into Hanna’s brain again and brought a mutter from Derek with her. ‘Are you still a little kid in there, Hanna? Do you still think a smart girl with the right Pokémon is safe from anything and everything?’ Hanna wasn’t going to answer this question unless Derek asked it himself. And if he did ask, she was going to ask him if he was still that pathetic little boy who quit his journey after only three years because he was convinced everything was going to kill him.

                  ‘Do you know it was almost a relief to learn you were a cop? If only because it meant you must have outgrown your crippling fear of anything remotely dangerous? Sorry, but I think kid-me was more right than kid-you.’

                  ‘I read Derek more now. Tell you if kid-Derek in there.’

                  ‘No thank you, Marie.’

                  Before Hanna thought of what to say next, the fire went out of Derek’s eyes and he spoke again. “Sorry. It’s not my place to second-guess you when all I could do was pass the buck.” He stood up. “Let’s figure out what to do in the morning. Jason said they wanted to sleep outside, right?”

                  That must have been during the gap in Hanna’s memory that evening. But now that he mentioned it, she seemed to recall that Travis said he preferred the salt-air to the indoors. “Yeah. We don’t have to join them, though. There’s more than one couch in the basement.”

                  “That sounds nicer.”

                  *********

                  Travis was standing just outside the lab door. He should have known better than to have hope, and now it was dashed. He had just heard Derek speak these words: “So it’s the execs or nothing. We’re stuck.” After Derek said that it would take the police “years,” Travis walked away toward nowhere in particular. He didn’t understand what a ‘private key’ was aside from that it was a computer thing, but everyone knew what a Rocket Executive was. That private key might as well have been on the moon.

                  He found himself in front of the screen door that led out to the porch. His entire body felt completely hollow except for his head, which was heavy. Jason and Krissy were sitting out there on the front steps, and he had to make a decision before he talked to them. It was already settled that he was going to find an Executive and get that key, no-hope be darned. But Jason and Krissy were another matter. Wyvern wasn’t their Pokémon. It was bad enough to put Leviathan in danger to save Wyvern, but it wasn’t his place to ask the same thing of his friends’ Pokémon. He wouldn’t even blame Jason and Krissy if they wanted to stay behind. They shouldn’t have to risk losing Rabies and Lucia forever over such a slim chance.

                  So that was that. He would tell them he why he was leaving, beg for whatever material aid they could give him first, and then say goodbye. He opened the door and approached them.

                  Jason got right to it. “You were listening to them, right?”

                  Travis nodded.

                  “What did they say?” asked Krissy.

                  Travis sat on the top step. He swallowed, and then explained everything as well as he could. There was so much that had gone straight over his head, but he got the essentials across. His friends were stunned. They sat in silence for a minute. The only sounds came from the flickering light above their heads and the waves off in the distance.

                  Travis knew he had to tell them about his plan before the night was over, and he almost started to but Jason was faster. “Travis, I know I can’t ask you to risk another Pokémon, but I want to save Wyvern.”

                  Krissy went next without a moment’s hesitation. “Me too. None of this was your idea. We owe it to you, and we’ll get that key for you.”

                  This was backwards. It was supposed to be his problem. What was he supposed to say when they flipped the script on him like this? His eyes had welled up far too many times during the last two days, and now it was happening again. “…It’s better odds with all three of us.”

                  There was a smile on Jason’s face for an instant, but it was gone when he asked, “You know they’re gonna tell on us this time, right?”

                  “I don’t care. If they tell the cops then we stay away from the cops. And anywhere they can track us, I guess.”

                  “No Pokécenters would be tough,” said Krissy. “But none of your parents know my parents. It might take them longer to put me on their list.”

                  “That’ll help,” said Jason. “So we leaving tonight or what? Let’s figure this out quick.”

                  Before they worked out the details, Travis said one last word to both of them. “Thanks.”

                  *********

                  It was seven o’clock the following morning when Hanna stood outside the front door in a state of panic. Wyvern’s ball was gone and the kids were nowhere in sight. She jumped down from the porch and ran twenty yards out as if it would make a difference. “Jason!” No one answered her call.

                  She hadn’t seen the three children sneaking away several hours ago. She didn’t know about the footsteps on the beach that had been washed away by the tide, or that from there Jason had taken flight on his Noctowl while Krissy shared Travis’s Quagsire as they went south. She might have guessed that Travis was good enough of a swimmer that he only needed the Quagsire’s tail, but none of that mattered now. She knew that they were gone, and it was obvious why they had left.

                  She rushed back inside the cottage and found her laptop in the kitchen. If Jason’s cell phone was turned on and sending a signal, then she could still track him. She had told him back at Ecruteak that in order for her program to work on his phone again someone would have to call him again, but that was a lie. The map came up, but there was nothing. She swore and closed her laptop’s screen with too much force. Then she noticed the sheet of paper on the table behind it, next to which was a cell phone.

                  There were a few crudely written words on the page: ‘Nice try Sorry. Thx for everything, we’ll take it from here –Jason’ He hadn’t trusted her either, then. Her heart was pounding. It had been so long since a situation went this far out of her control. What was she going to tell Jen? Or Derek, for that matter?

                  She walked down the basement steps as quickly as she could bring herself to. Derek was still sound asleep, and she stood over him for longer than she thought was appropriate. It felt bad to wake someone up who looked like he’d never gotten a good night’s sleep in his life. It felt worse to tell the most neurotic person she knew that his cousin had run away to raid a den of thieves and cutthroats. She reached down to shake his shoulder and tried not to think about the miserable look that was surely going to be in his eyes in a matter of seconds.

                  *

                  [The title of the next installment is The New Recruit. We'll be stepping back just shy of fifteen years to see when Derek's career started going downhill. Spoiler alert, it was when they hired him.]
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                    #13    
                  Old February 28th, 2017 (10:37 PM).
                  Bay Alexison's Avatar
                  Bay Alexison Bay Alexison is offline

                  O, Dance of Devotion!

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                  Oh hi there Bill. Interesting you have Bill not consider himself Professor since I read another fic that did that too, heh. The conversation between Hanna and Derek over her not stopping Jason was unsettling. And Derek having a fear that everything's out to get him huh? That's probably going to be expanded on The New Recruit, which I look forward to.
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                    #14    
                  Old March 5th, 2017 (6:36 PM).
                  icomeanon6's Avatar
                  icomeanon6 icomeanon6 is offline
                  It's "I Come Anon"
                     
                    Join Date: Feb 2008
                    Location: Northern Virginia
                    Age: 24
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                    [Quick reply to Bay's comments in the spoiler tags (not a spoiler, just saving space):
                    Spoiler:
                    Are you sure that other fic wasn't mine? :P

                    I was hoping that parts of their conversation would be a little unsettling, so that's good. I'm curious to know which aspect(s) of it you found unsettling to see if that lines up with my own thoughts.

                    Thanks for reading!]


                    The New Recruit

                    July, 2002

                    Derek Brooks was standing in an empty hallway at two in the morning at the Goldenrod City Police Academy. He verified that the hallway was indeed empty before entering a door labeled ‘Maintenance.’ He then walked past a series of pipes and supply shelves to a second door which was locked. Per the instructions he had received earlier that afternoon, he retrieved a key from underneath a bucket sitting in the corner and entered this door as well. Now he found himself at the top of a wide, dim shaft with a rusty spiral staircase leading down.

                    Early in his descent he made the mistake of looking between the steps. The sight of the drop made him freeze for a second and he felt a terrible pressure in his chest and bladder. He closed his eyes, took a deep breath, reminded himself that if he fell and died of a broken neck at least he’d never have to fill out a financial disclosure form or attend a job interview again, and kept walking. His therapist had strongly advised against dwelling on the comforting finality of death as a way of coping with fear, but the way Derek saw it this strategy had done fine in getting him through basic training, which would have been unthinkable only a few years ago. You might never guess it by his face, but he was glad to be nineteen and therefore past the toughest parts of his life. He seriously, honestly believed this to be the case.

                    At the bottom of the stairs was a narrow hallway, and at the end of this was a third door. He swallowed, turned his expression completely neutral, and knocked.

                    “Come in.”

                    Inside was a small but much brighter room. The walls even had paint. There were two chairs, and sitting in one of them was the head of the academy, the Captain himself. Derek hadn’t anticipated this. “Sir.”

                    “Sit down, Brooks.”

                    Derek took the other chair. He was at risk of agonizing over why he had been summoned here and losing his composure, so he tried to empty his head.

                    “This is the most secure room we’ve got on campus,” said the Captain. “Pretty nice, eh?”

                    “Yes, sir.”

                    “One question before we begin, Brooks. What made you decide to join the force?”

                    ‘I wanted to prove to my sister that I’m not a coward.’

                    “I wanted to do my part, sir.”

                    The Captain smiled. “Perfect. Just perfect. There’s absolutely nothing in your body language to suggest you’re bullsh*tting me. Does that come naturally or is it practice?”

                    “Practice, sir.”

                    “We’ll take it. Read this.”

                    The Captain handed Derek a manila envelope. Contained within was an official assignment form, the very sort that was on the mind of every recruit this time of year. At the top the words ‘COVER: LEVEL 3’ were printed in bold, red letters. Derek took a minute to read through the whole page. He was going to be an officer at cover-3 pretending to be an archivist at cover-2. That meant he would be allowed to tell people he worked for ‘the government,’ but that would be in reference to his fake job. Pretty complicated, he thought.

                    “Here’s the story, Brooks. The big brass see the writing on the wall with the situation in Celadon City. This so-called ‘Team Rocket’ has Celadon’s department so compromised it’s embarrassing. Our analysts think the Rockets are going to be all over Kanto in a few years, and then it’s only a matter of time until they reach Goldenrod. We’ll need officers who are isolated from the majority of the force and can act independently; they’ll be the ones who can carry out undercover operations without the danger of getting stabbed in the back. Make sense?”

                    ‘This isn’t a tenable strategy. The risk of internal compromise doesn’t outweigh the importance of an officer having sufficient resources and support. The appropriate response to this risk is more pro-active detection of compromise rather than sacrificing overall effectiveness.’

                    “Yes, sir.” Derek didn’t dare express disagreement now, not when he was this close to securing an assignment. If he lost this assignment there was no guarantee that he’d get another position in the force, and then he’d have to apply for other jobs and that meant job interviews. He had to avoid that possibility at all costs.

                    “Good. Now let me explain our thinking with your cover story. The initial psychological profile we took of you wasn’t exactly pretty. There’s a strong correlation between officers with your personality and the ones who end up selling secrets to criminal organizations or foreign governments. Quiet, unhappy, unmotivated, jaded, and all that.”

                    Derek swallowed. He put every ounce of effort he had toward keeping a straight face.

                    The Captain continued. “But the deeper we’ve gone with your profile since then, the more we trust you. It’s been a long time since we’ve had someone with your tolerance for the physical challenges here, to say nothing of all the idiotic rules we throw at you kids. We can’t see you turning traitor out of something like frustration, but someone who doesn’t know you like we do would believe it in an instant. That’s exactly what we need. You’ll sell them fake secrets and bring their real secrets back to us.”

                    “Glad I can help, sir.”

                    “That’s a relief. I’m not going to lie—you’re missing out on a lot of the benefits of being an officer by going this deep undercover, but someone has to do it. Anyway, one last thing we need to discuss is your partner Pokémon.”

                    The Captain handed him another sheet of paper. At the top of this one was a picture and a species name that forced Derek’s eyebrows to jump up.

                    “Lucky you. You’re getting one of our secret weapons.”

                    Secret, indeed. Derek had never heard so much as a rumor that the police had any Larvitar in their possession. He had to wonder if there were members of the force who were walking around with fully-evolved Tyranitar right now. There was no envying whatever crooks ended up facing one of those.

                    The Captain elaborated. “These little bastards aren’t just hard to find—they’re hard to train. It doesn’t take as much skill as you’d think, but it’s taxing as all hell and it takes years of persistence. We think that plays to your strengths, and it helps that you won’t need it in an actual operation for several years anyway. When the Rockets get here, we expect you’ll be one of the first to reach their higher-ups, and if the opportunity presents itself there’s no chance they’ll have anything that can match a Tyranitar.”

                    ‘That approach has a giant hole in it. A rock/dark-type like Tyranitar has too many weaknesses. A handful of inferior but well-trained Pokémon with the right types would hold the clear advantage. If the expectation is that I could handle this group’s best trainers, I need either a team of Pokémon or other officers working with me.’

                    “Sounds like a plan, sir.” Derek had no mind but to take what he was given and work with it. He knew that lobbying for anything else would be more than he could handle.

                    “Knew I could count on you, Brooks. You’ll be officially kicked out of the academy at 0800, and your first orders and badge will be handed to you on your way out. The orders will include where you’re to go to pick up your Larvitar along with your point-of-contact’s information. Your badge is only to be shown to anyone if doing so is essential for the completion of a mission, and your cover is active as soon as you leave this room.” The Captain extended his hand. “Congratulations, Cadet, you’ve graduated. Sorry you’ll have to miss the ceremony.”

                    Derek gave an adequate but less-than-fully-confident handshake. He was still working on that. “Not an issue, sir. Thank you, sir.”

                    “You’re dismissed. I’ll be five minutes behind you, and you’d better be back in the barracks by then.”

                    Derek saluted and walked out with no further ado. He made it ten steps before he began to hyperventilate and had to stop. He covered his mouth and tried to reassure himself. It was alright, it was going to get easier, he told himself over and over. He’d come this far, and he was sure that by the time the Rockets showed up he’d be an expert at talking to anyone. Soon he was under control again, and he hurried along.

                    *********

                    With his uniform in the bag he carried over his shoulder, and the t-shirt he’d worn when he first applied on his back, Derek left the men’s barracks for the final time. Waiting for him just outside was one of his former fellow Cadets, Sheryl. She was quieter than average, and her expression gravitated heavily toward a neutral state like his own. It was for these reasons that he talked with her far more often than with the other Cadets.

                    “I just heard,” said Sheryl. “I’m sorry.”

                    The word going around was that Derek hadn’t made the cut. This provided him his first opportunity to act undercover, which had an undeniable subversive pleasure to it. “Just the way it goes.”

                    He started to walk past her toward the campus’s main gate, but she followed along. “A bunch of us were going to head into town for drinks later. To celebrate. If you don’t think it’d be awkward, I don’t think anyone’d mind if you came too.”

                    Derek felt some irritation. Typically when he and Sheryl talked they stuck to third-party topics. They would discuss books, movies, history, or just about anything besides themselves, what they’d been doing lately, or what they were going to do. She was one of the few people who seemed to get it, which made it all the more disappointing that she had to get all personal now at the end. “I’ll pass. It’s better if they can have an undiluted celebration.”

                    “Well, maybe just the two of us can go somewhere else, then. I’ll buy you a consolation round.”

                    “I don’t need any consolation.”

                    He sped up a little, but she matched his pace. “Okay. Then do you want to go get a drink for no reason?”

                    Derek rolled his eyes. Couldn’t she tell that would just lead to a long, torturous goodbye? Everything changed once you went out of your way to enter a purely social setting, and inevitably they’d have to talk about what he was going to do next, whether they’d stay in touch, how much they’d miss each other, and other matters that set him on edge. He couldn’t imagine she’d want to go through any of that either. He stopped in his tracks and spoke to her face-to-face. It was better to cut a rope with a sharp knife than to try to use your teeth.

                    “Look, we both know we’re not going to be seeing each other from now on, so why don’t we make this quick? Then I’ll be on my way and you can do whatever you want tonight instead.”

                    Sheryl didn’t say anything at first. Slowly her face changed from its natural, predictable state. Her mouth tightened, and for the first time Derek saw something in her eyes closer to pain than indifference. “You know what,” she said, “I’ve changed my mind. You’re not ‘quiet,’ or ‘different,’ or any of the other excuses I’ve made for you. You’re just an asshole.”

                    She started to walk away but decided she wasn’t done yet. “That makes it official: everyone in the unit hates you. Lucky me, I got to be the last holdout. Have a nice life, jerk.”

                    Sheryl stormed off, leaving Derek taken by surprise. He felt bad, naturally, but not in a way that touched his innermost being. He had miscalculated, that was all. How was he supposed to know that she wanted a long goodbye, or perhaps no goodbye at all for some indefinite amount of time into the future? Neither of those options sat well with him, so this was an acceptable outcome. One more bridge burned meant one less person he had to worry about.

                    In his book, shallow friendships were like splinters. It was best to yank them out and deal with the harsh but fleeting pain rather than let them bother you little by little and incessantly for years. He wished he weren’t so afraid of pain, otherwise he could do the same with his family. If he could only cut ties with everyone he knew, or better yet life itself, surely he would finally be at peace. But that initial shock terrified him, and that genetic disease called empathy scared him away from leaving his mother and sister so devastated. He longed to be emotionally numb to the point where he could act as he thought.

                    Maybe being of this mindset when he wasn’t mentally ill or anything did make him an asshole like Sheryl said, but so what? He wasn’t going to see her again.

                    *********

                    August, 2002

                    Two weeks had passed, and Derek was sitting astern in a small sailboat on the open sea. It had one sail and a shallow, fiberglass hull. He had bought it a few years ago in order to get over his fear of large bodies of water. This morning he had taken it out of a storage unit in Olivine City, and his destination was one of the many minor islands on the outskirts of the Whirl Islands. It was there that he would find a carefully hidden package containing his new Larvitar’s Pokéball. It seemed reckless to him that his anonymous colleague in Cianwood could just leave a closed ball somewhere with only the trust that someone would pick it up, but such was the price of secrecy and security.

                    An added benefit from his colleague’s particular choice of secluded location was that it was a beautiful day. It was sunny but there was still plenty of wind. The water was at the perfect temperature, which he was reminded of when the boat hit a wave and took some spray to the face.

                    “Hey Derek, what’s with all the turbulence? I thought you were supposed to be good at this.”

                    That was Jen. It was bad enough that his sister didn’t know how to keep still in a boat, but when she got mouthy was where he drew the line. “Keep it up and the ride isn’t going to be free anymore.”

                    Derek was sharing the boat with two girls who comprised, if he was honest, most of the friends he had left. He had meant to spend the day by himself, but while he had been getting ready to depart from Olivine he’d heard two characteristically shrill shouts of his name from way down the pier. So now he was letting them tag along for a while in part because they turned him into a pushover and also because he had to get used to doing his work in plain sight.

                    The other girl was Hanna, who was respectful enough not to complain about his piloting when she took a mouthful of saltwater. She spat over the side and went back to gazing at the clouds. Hanna was usually quieter than Jen, but only in the sense that almost everyone was quieter than Jen. Today she seemed less talkative than even the average person, though. As he recalled she had turned fifteen recently and was planning on ending her journey soon. She was probably wondering about what came next; he had been there once and understood if that was the case.

                    The leg of the trip that the girls were present for lasted a few hours. When Jen would lean too far over the wrong side he would lean even further off of his to keep the sail balanced. He wondered if he could conscript Hanna as first mate so she could help him throw Jen overboard.

                    At one point the conversation turned to the matter of his job. He hadn’t made it a secret that he was here for business rather than for fun, which was consistent with cover-level 2, which was what he was pretending to be as part of being in cover-level 3. He was sure he’d get the hang of this eventually.

                    “Come on,” whined Jen, “Tell me what your new job is!”

                    “Sorry, can’t.”

                    “I won’t tell anyone!”

                    “That’s what I said when I signed the non-disclosure agreement.”

                    “Teeellllll meeeeee…”

                    As obnoxious as Jen was being, Derek was starting to see one of the perks of having an undercover position. He now had an easy, contractually-obligated dodge for basically any question about what he’d been up to lately. This was going to make family conversations so much easier.

                    “Can’t you at least tell me what kind of stuff you do? Or how it’s going?”

                    “Nope.”

                    “I bet you’re making this up! You’re probably a hobo or something!”

                    “Think whatever you want.”

                    He could play this game for hours, it was so simple. Suddenly though it occurred to him that only two weeks ago he had thought about suicide just so he wouldn’t have to deal with Jen or anyone needling him about how his life was going. That was so awful of him, he now realized. It was possible that his screw-up with the Sheryl situation had hit him harder than he thought. That was all behind him, though.

                    It was around noon when Jen picked out an island and Derek sailed them right up to the beach to drop them off. One of his favorite things about small boats was that they didn’t always need a harbor. Jen jumped out and into the shallows with gusto, thereby rocking them around too much for probably the last time that day.

                    “Just checking again, you guys are good to get yourselves back to the mainland, right?”

                    “Yup!”

                    Hanna debarked with a level of care that Derek appreciated. “We’ve got it.”

                    So that was that. Derek had filled out his act-like-a-decent-human-being quota for the day, so he started to push his craft out to sea again.

                    “Hey, thanks,” said Hanna just before he climbed back in.

                    “You’re welcome.” She was a good kid. If only she would rub off on Jen a little more, he thought.

                    *********

                    It was one hour later when Derek made landfall on one of the smallest, most distant, and more importantly most overlooked islands in the chain. He pulled the boat further up from the water, collapsed the mast, and dropped the anchor on the beach just in case the tide reached the boat again before he did. He took a look around. Much of the island was rocky, and the only trace of another living thing was a set of Krabby footprints. He was mercifully, wonderfully alone.

                    His new job was making a stellar first impression on him. He didn’t expect that he’d get many chances in the future to show up to work in trunks and water shoes at a beach all to himself, so he took a moment to soak it all in before checking his map to find the drop site. It was at the base of a nearby rock formation, and despite the specificity of the description it took Derek a minute to find the box. It was camouflaged perfectly and hidden under a group of stones that any passerby would have looked right past. Inside the dull-grey box was a single Pokéball and a note that read, ‘Have fun.’

                    Derek put the note and the box in his backpack and set it aside. He deliberated a few seconds more before opening the ball. It had been a good while since he’d released his last Pokémon to the wild, so it was possible he was rusty at training by now. He went over the basics in his head, and decided it would be best to come across as firm but friendly to Larvitar. “Here goes.”

                    He tossed the ball a few feet in front of him and there in a flash appeared his new Pokémon. The pictures he’d seen didn’t do justice to the coarse, stony texture of Larvitar’s green skin. It stood at about two and a half feet including the thin, rounded spike on its head, which was taller than he had expected. Its eyes were sharp and focused.

                    “Hey there, little guy. We’re going to be working together from now on. My name’s—AAAGH!

                    Derek jerked his head to the side mid-sentence so as to prevent the leaping Pokémon’s spike from plowing into his eyeball. The result was that only the side of Larvitar’s skull made contact and he escaped with a mere black eye. It was difficult to take consolation in this turn of good fortune while he was still howling in pain from being clipped by what was effectively a flying boulder.

                    He opened his good eye just in time to see Larvitar charging at him again. This time it went for his gut. In another instance of spectacularly good luck, it had its head raised so that it wasn’t leading with its spike. It knocked Derek to the sand and started tearing at his undershirt with its nubby arms. Unfortunately, Derek missed a teachable moment by not recognizing how unusual it was that this Larvitar’s arms were tipped with fine ridges that effectively acted as razor-sharp claws. The existence of this sub-brood of Larvitar would later be documented in 2006 by a renowned biologist in Blackthorn City, while here on this island in 2002 nothing of scientific note was recorded because Derek was too busy getting the tar beaten out of him by the subject.

                    In desperation, Derek summoned all the strength he had and shoved Larvitar off of him. He then scrambled over to its Pokéball and pressed the switch as it tried to rush him again. It vanished into the ball in the nick of time, and Derek shook in place and screamed at the top of his lungs for thirty seconds. This ordeal held the risk of undoing some of the progress he’d made in convincing himself that nature at large wasn’t trying to murder him.

                    He slapped himself on the cheek (the one opposite from his black eye) and pulled himself together. This kind of situation was precisely the sort that he’d spent the last four years training himself to handle better, along with talking to strangers and being able to pee at a urinal while someone was in line behind him. He slowed his breathing to a normal pace and considered where to go from here. As he was short of ideas, he decided it wouldn’t hurt to consult Dexter.

                    “Larvitar. It feeds on soil. After it has eaten a large mountain, it will fall asleep so it can grow.”

                    Derek looked at some of the statistics on the electronic page, and confirmed that his Larvitar was in fact bigger than average. Wasn’t he lucky? In any case, and putting aside the matter that he suspected the description was supposed to read ‘a quantity of soil equivalent to a large mountain,’ he supposed that his Larvitar might just be hungry and frustrated. Basic Pokémon training: be attentive to your Pokémon’s needs.

                    He didn’t feel confident that Larvitar would be interested in eating the loose sand, but the sandstone boulders on the beach seemed more promising. If it ate ‘mountains,’ it would stand to reason that its diet would include solid rocks in addition to soil. Its typing was rock/ground, after all, and the ground affinity should have been conducive to breaking down stone as well. Derek situated himself a cautious fifteen feet away from a boulder and threw Larvitar’s ball at it. Once it was out it looked around for a moment before settling its gaze on Derek.

                    He pointed with his finger. “There! That rock! That’s your breakfast!”

                    To his immense relief, Larvitar seemed to get the message. It scurried up the boulder with trepidation at first, but then it dug in. As incredible as it seemed, before long there was a chunk missing that was half the size of the Larvitar itself. Derek wondered what its intestinal tract was made of. When Larvitar jumped down again it looked slightly less angry and maybe a little contented.

                    Derek steeled his nerves and ventured to approach Larvitar. When he was close he said, “Okay, let’s start over. My name’s Derek, and we’re going to be fighting bad guys. Does that sound fun to you?”

                    Larvitar said no. To put it more literally, it jumped at Derek’s face again. Derek did an even better job at dodging this time, so all that happened was that Larvitar’s arm clobbered the corner of his mouth. What he said next was obscured by his hands. “Rrrrrgh! Frkrng rrtbrstrrd rmgrnnr krryrr!” These noises Derek made were not consistent with how well the exchange had played out, all things considered. He wasn’t bleeding too much, and that toothache was only going to last for a week, after all.

                    He stumbled backwards, got a grip, and saw that Larvitar was standing between him and its Pokéball. It was getting ready to charge again, and he didn’t think he’d be able to get to that ball unscathed. Frantically he tried to come up with a way to proceed that didn’t leave him maimed or dead. All the fundamentals of Pokémon training and battling flashed through his mind. It seemed hopeless, until at the last second he identified the relevant lesson: type advantages.

                    Larvitar ran forward and dove at him. He shifted his weight just like he had learned at the academy, and drove a straight kick directly into Larvitar’s nose. He felt its skin crack. The impact sent both of them backwards and left Derek’s right foot crying in pain, but he was the first one to stand up again. He spat some blood from the side of his mouth while Larvitar struggled to come to its senses. “You see that? Fighting beats rock! That’s why you need a trainer, you stupid piece of sh—”

                    He was interrupted when his right foot sunk six inches into the sand and he lost his balance. Before he could figure out what technique Larvitar was using on him, it came out of its daze and tackled him again. It knocked the wind out of him and he took more scratches, but to his surprise Larvitar pulled back from his midsection and dug after his foot instead. There was a brief tussle, and when it was over Larvitar had his shoe in its jaws. It shook it from side to side like it was trying to break an enemy’s neck.

                    Derek was at a loss. Larvitar chucked away the ruined mass of mesh and rubber that had once been his shoe, growled at it for good measure, and ran off somewhere. He felt vaguely insulted that Larvitar had attributed his kick to a cheap water shoe rather than to him. His head fell back to the sand and he stared at the clouds.

                    In a rare bout of detachment, Derek debated the possibility that his life was not a tragedy as he had long suspected, but rather a mean-spirited comedy. In essence, he felt just pathetic enough to imagine that if Jen were here he’d be treated with laughter rather than sympathy. ‘Sorry I’m laughing, but seriously, you’re getting this so wrong it’s funny!’ said the disembodied voice of Jen, which his brain assigned to thoughts of his that reflected a sunnier view of the world. ‘You gotta be friends with Larvitar first, so stop trying to fight and just be friends!’

                    ‘Shut up, Jen’s voice. You’re a naïve sap compared to real Jen.’

                    ‘According to Bill in his paper on the dynamics of team construction, some of the more aggressive species of Pokémon may respond poorly to traditional bonding techniques. In these cases the prevailing opinion is that the trainer must solidify the Pokémon’s respect before attempting to connect emotionally.’

                    ‘Thanks, Hanna’s voice. That’s much more helpful, even if you’re not real either.’

                    Derek staggered to his feet. He could feel the blood swimming around in his head and every part of his body was aching or worse. Many yards down the beach he saw Larvitar walking away. It occurred to him that it was a good decision by his colleague to drop Larvitar off in a place where he couldn’t run very far. He drew in a deep breath. When he was mad enough, he bolted after Larvitar.

                    His Pokémon saw him coming and it set its feet. Before he was conscious of his own plan, Derek switched to an arcing path from the beeline that he had started on. As he honed in, several miniature sinkholes appeared in the sand near his feet but never under them. He slid, collided with Larvitar, and succeeded in getting on top of it. It thrashed about underneath him. “Stop moving!”

                    Larvitar did not stop moving. In response Derek punched it in the side. He immediately regretted this decision and ground his teeth at the pain coming from his now-bloody knuckles. He yelled at Larvitar so hard that it ripped at his vocal chords. “Hold still! I’ll open your Pokéball over the middle of the f*cking ocean and watch you drown if you don’t hold the f*ck still!

                    Larvitar struggled on, but Derek had it pinned down. It took over three solid minutes, but the Pokémon’s outbursts did gradually lessen in vigor. At long last everything slowed to a halt. They were both gasping for air, but Derek was the clear victor. A few more minutes later he finally decided it was safe. He got off and stood up.

                    “Follow.”

                    Derek took a few steps in the direction of his bag and Larvitar’s Pokéball. After he verified that Larvitar was indeed following him, he picked up the pace. He didn’t know if this spell of obedience would last five days or five minutes, but they had to start somewhere. With luck he had bought enough time to bandage himself up.

                    On the whole, Derek was content with new job so far. Larvitar was much easier to deal with than people were.

                    *

                    [Next time, in Different Ways to Win, the scene moves ahead to the kids' first year as trainers. It's becoming even clearer who the most talented battler in the group is, so Jason challenges Krissy to a different sort of competition in the Ice Path.]
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                      #15    
                    Old March 7th, 2017 (8:04 PM).
                    Bay Alexison's Avatar
                    Bay Alexison Bay Alexison is offline

                    O, Dance of Devotion!

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                    Onto Hanna and Derek's interaction last chapter, I'll have to come back later to provide a more detailed response, but I think Marie's urgency to Hanna to speak to Derek and their talk on chances are what makes me feel the rest of the conversation in that mood.

                    Okay, onto the next chapter. We get a bit more info as to what kind of work is expected of Derek there. I do feel kinda bad for him after that incident with Sheryl there. His interaction with Larvitar is cute, even if it took a while for the Larvitar to listen heh.
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                    Old March 24th, 2017 (5:16 PM).
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                    icomeanon6 icomeanon6 is offline
                    It's "I Come Anon"
                       
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                      Different Ways to Win

                      October, 2016

                      “Chikorita, use Razor Leaf!”

                      Jason was watching a one-sided Pokémon battle. The side belonged to his newish friend Krissy, and on the non-side was an eleven-year-old named Patrick. Patrick was a jerk, so it pleased Jason a great deal to see him so thoroughly outclassed and unsettled. The older boy wiped some sweat from his forehead and took far too much time to call out the next order for his Hitmontop. Despite every advantage they had in speed and strength, everything they’d tried so far had been hindered in some way by Chikorita’s positioning and status-afflicting moves.

                      But as satisfying as it was to watch Patrick squirm, what really had Jason’s attention were Krissy’s eyes. Normally they were wide and inquisitive, and from time to time they were a little delicate and self-conscious, but none of those qualities were present now. Instead they were sharp, certain, and bursting with energy. It was the look of someone who knew beyond a doubt they were going to win, but enjoyed the hunt for victory too much to give any quarter. In all the six months they had traveled together there had been only five times that he’d seen Krissy’s focus and rhythm disrupted in battle. Four of those times she had recovered, and the remaining instance had been against a thirteen-year-old who carried five gym badges. He wondered what it would take for his own team to rattle her like that.

                      Before too long Patrick groaned and said, “All right, all right, we give.” He returned his battered Hitmontop to its ball. Behind him his two friends Vicky and Denise (a pair of twins who were also jerks, according to Jason) could only shake their heads. Jason and Travis on the other hand were all smiles. This was turning out to be a pretty good day.

                      Jason couldn’t resist rubbing it in a little because he knew Krissy wouldn’t. “Hey, Patrick, what happened? Why couldn’t you stink that bad last time when you fought me?”

                      Patrick rolled his eyes. “Seriously, Jason? Get a clue.”

                      “What’s that supposed to mean?”

                      Patrick didn’t answer him and instead walked up to shake Krissy’s hand. “Nice battle.”

                      “Thanks! I thought some of your moves were pretty creative.”

                      “Hmph.” Apparently there was a limit to how gracious a loser Patrick could be. “So where are you guys off to next?”

                      “We’re going to keep going east and check out the Ice Path.”

                      While Jason and Travis gathered up their things, Patrick tried to explain to Krissy that there was no reason to go to the Ice Path except to go to Blackthorn City, which nobody in their first year of training had any business visiting. Krissy in turn tried to explain that they were interested in the Ice Path itself.

                      “Okay, but why? It’s just a really cold cave. That’s it. Emphasis on really cold.

                      “Yeah, we got that. But it’s also the only place you can find a Sneasel.”

                      Patrick scoffed. “Good luck catching one of those. They’re way too quick for newbies. Heck, I wouldn’t even try it yet.”

                      Krissy nodded. “Well, we figure it doesn’t cost us anything but time and Pokéballs, so we’re going to give it a shot anyway.” Jason thought she was way too polite with this massive tool. Who was he to tell them what they weren’t ready for, especially after Krissy had just taken him down without breaking a sweat?

                      “Patrick, are you coming or what?” called Vicky. She and Denise were already back on the trail and ready to continue west.

                      “Yeah, yeah.” Patrick turned to Krissy again. “You’ve got real potential. You shouldn’t let these knuckleheads drag you down with their pointless side-trips.”

                      “Actually, this was—”

                      But Patrick was already walking away, so she cut herself off. Jason wasn’t sure if he should say anything himself, as this ‘pointless side-trip’ had in fact been Krissy’s idea. As the older kids walked away, Jason barely heard either Denise or Vicky saying something to the effect of “I don’t know why she keeps those losers with her.”

                      When they were gone, Travis took on a contemplative tone and said, “In the great, pointless side-trip that is life, Patrick is the talking jock itch that reminds you to change your underpants.”

                      Krissy frowned. “I admire your restraint in not saying that to his face.”

                      “Oh, I would have, I’m just still not talking to him.”

                      “Ah. That explains it.”

                      Jason sometimes wondered if Travis was trying to convince Krissy to leave their group. At the moment though he had other things on his mind. As they resumed their hike uphill, he found himself keenly aware of a possible change in the dynamics of their journey. This was the first time he could recall that Krissy had set a destination for them, at least one that was this far out of the way. Usually he would have been the one to do that, or sometimes Travis.

                      If people started getting the idea that Krissy was their best battler and was also calling most of the shots, it’d look to them like he and Travis had joined up with her rather than the other way around. He couldn’t explain why, but the distinction was important to him. And besides, it wasn’t like Krissy was all that much better than he was—it just looked that way because she never lost her cool in a fight. He told himself over and over that the gap in their abilities was much smaller than it appeared.

                      He realized someone was shaking his shoulder. It was Krissy. “Hey, you in there?”

                      “Huh? Oh, yeah, sorry. You say something?”

                      “I was about to ask how you would go about catching a Sneasel.”

                      Jason felt he should have anticipated this question. Krissy had asked variations of it several times before, and as before he didn’t have a good answer for her. He could picture in his head how he would try to outmaneuver one, which angles he would throw the ball from in different situations, but when it came to teaching it he was lost. Fortunately he had a cop-out ready. “I don’t think you need any tricks if you’re good enough at battling. You can catch any Pokémon if you wear it down enough.”

                      “That’s true, I guess.”

                      Jason didn’t know why Krissy looked so disappointed. That was the closest he had ever come to admitting that she was a better battler. At least when she caught a Sneasel later today it would be after a good, honest fight. This knowledge was nagging at the back of his mind, as was the need to beat her at something, anything. Just like Vicky and Denise said, he couldn’t imagine that Krissy would want to keep hanging around two trainers she didn’t see as at least her equals. All these bothersome thoughts then solidified into an idea. “Hey, you wanna race? First one to catch a Sneasel wins?”

                      This took her by surprise. “Oh, I don’t know. That’s really more your game.”

                      “Maybe not,” said Travis. “Jason’s dumb tricks work best on lame Pokémon that were weak to begin with, and these guys are supposed to be tough. Also you’ve got Mankey, so Jason ain’t winning on fast damage.”

                      Jason was rarely so happy to hear Travis talk crap about him like this, and he hadn’t thought of the fighting vs. ice/dark matchup either. If this didn’t lure Krissy into taking his challenge then nothing would.

                      Krissy thought about it for several seconds, then smiled. “Okay, you’re on. Travis, are you going to play, too?”

                      “Nah, I think it’s impossible, and Wyvern wouldn’t like it in there anyway. We’ll say I win if you both give up.”

                      “Deal.”

                      “Deal,” said Jason as well, and inside his head he was saying, ‘I’ve got you now!’

                      *********

                      An hour later Jason was breaking up some dead branches he’d found on the ground. Makeshift torches wouldn’t provide as much light in the cave as flashlights, but they’d help them keep warm. Travis shivered as he tore the rags. Even at a dozen yards from the cave mouth there was a fierce chill in the air. “I’m regretting this already.”

                      “Don’t be such a baby. Look at Rabies: he’s not complaining and he’s naked.” Indeed, Rabies was raring to go and had his tongue hanging out.

                      “He’s also got a furnace where his stomach’s supposed to be. I’d go skinny-dipping in the arctic if I had one of those. Heck, I’d consider being a nudist full time.”

                      It was at this point that Krissy came out from the woods, where she’d been putting on warm leggings under her skirt. “I don’t want to know what you’re talking about,” she said with a vague look of revulsion on her face.

                      “Just our hopes and dreams, that’s all,” said Jason. When the three torches were ready he held them in front of Rabies’s nose. His Growlithe needed no further prompting and ignited them with his breath. Once they were all distributed he asked, “We ready to go?”

                      “One second,” said Krissy, “I want to let Mankey out where it’s light. He can get anxious.”

                      She did so, and the little ball of fur spun around on his lithe but strong limbs as he scanned his surroundings up and down. He squeaked and grunted something fierce when he saw Rabies, and Rabies barked and made ready to pounce in kind. Jason had to stick his leg in the way to deter him, while Krissy could call Mankey off the attack with words alone. “No, no. We’re fighting in the cave. Wild Pokémon this time, got it?”

                      Now that the Pokémon were pacified, they all walked up to the mouth of the cave. The difference in light was vast after only two dozen steps as the path wound around a corner. Jason could barely see the walls, and he lost Rabies almost immediately when he darted forward for no reason. “Rabies, stay close!”

                      They caught up with Rabies in short order, and not a moment later did Travis lose his footing and cry out.

                      “You okay?” asked Krissy.

                      “Yeah. Just some ice.”

                      Jason noticed a scrape on Travis’s hand from where he had broken his fall. Between the rocks, ice, and darkness they would have to be immensely careful. “We better keep our eyes on the ground.”

                      They moved on. As Jason’s eyes adjusted he was able to pick up more of the glints in the floor that gave away the frozen puddles. After a few minutes the walls of the cave suddenly opened up, and more alarmingly the path fell away to a steep drop. If Rabies hadn’t stopped at the edge one of them might not have noticed in time. They stood near the precipice and slowly it became apparent that they were above a vast cavern with a frozen lake at the bottom. Spread unevenly throughout were a number of small islands. Between the light from their torches and a faint light from somewhere else, it was as if the ice were covered in blue and orange stars.

                      “Beautiful,” said Krissy, but her teeth chattered as she said it. The biting air was moving in gusts now, and it made Jason subconsciously shift his grip closer to his torch’s flame. He supposed that wearing gloves would have been smarter, but he didn’t want to mess up his throwing grip.

                      “Looks like there’s another way down off to the side, here,” said Travis. “Oh, and one more to this side. Course, if you guys want to take the fast way down and finish up sooner I ain’t stopping you.”

                      It was a testament to either Jason’s competitiveness or shortsightedness that he seriously considered Travis’s suggestion. Fortunately the decision was taken out of his hands when Rabies barked up and behind them without warning and spat three embers at the cavern wall. “Jeeze! Watch it!”

                      Even as Jason said this, a pair of Sneasel jumped down from the wall and rushed Rabies. They landed two cuts and shoved him nearly to the brink, but he snapped back with his hot fangs and they gave him just enough room.

                      “Mankey, Karate Chop! The one on the left!”

                      The Sneasel’s ears perked up even as Krissy spoke and it bounded away before Mankey had any chance of making contact. But even though it avoided damage, it was now separated from its partner, who was scurrying in the opposite direction as Rabies made a show of barks and growls.

                      “Stay on her, Mankey!”

                      Mankey jumped forward again with arms swinging. The Sneasel fled down a side path, and Mankey followed it. “Better hurry, Jason!” called Krissy over her shoulder as she rushed off after her quarry and her Pokémon.

                      It occurred to Jason that he hadn’t so much as managed to give Rabies in an order while Krissy had taken control of her own half of the battle. He shook his head and drove the thought away. This was his game they were playing now, and he wouldn’t let her throw him off it. “Go get ’em, Rabies! Fire Fang!”

                      Rabies charged at the other Sneasel and it too retreated, leading the way down the opposite side path. Jason hurried after them both as quickly as he could and tried to keep his eyes downward to avoid the ice. He heard Travis call out behind him, “Hey, you have fun, I’m just gonna wait here.”

                      When Jason reached the bottom he brought his eyes up again to see what the situation was, and at once he slipped and landed hard on his knees. He was wearing jeans, so he decided to check for blood later. Rabies was standing at the edge of the lake and barking at something Jason couldn’t see, presumably the Sneasel. As he caught his breath he wondered if they’d lost it already and would have to find another one. Then he barely noticed a shadow flying in across the ice at a different angle from where Rabies was looking. “On your right! Ember!”

                      Rabies adjusted himself and fired just in time to drive the Sneasel off its collision course. With the extra light, Jason saw that the creature could change direction on the ice in perfect silence and as if it were running on solid ground. It brought itself to a halt with its hind claws and raised its three tail-feathers. Aside from the gold marks on its forehead and chest, its feathers reflected the most torchlight. Without these it would have been nearly invisible.

                      Jason was about to order another Ember attack, but it occurred to him that the Sneasel was far too quick for such a slow attack to work. Before he could think of anything else, it shot itself forward and gave Rabies a nasty scratch on his side before darting off onto the ice again and out of sight. Without warning, Rabies tried to rush after it. “Wait!”

                      Jason’s instruction was a hair late. Rabies slid ten feet away from the shore and predictably lost his footing. He was stuck with no inertia and no good way to build it up, and Jason could picture the Sneasel coming back and dealing him some serious hurt. Without thinking it all the way through, Jason started running. He aimed for Rabies and hoped there was an island on the same trajectory. Then he launched himself onto the ice at full blast as if he were making a sliding tackle in soccer. He managed to snag Rabies with his left arm, and as luck had it they did reach an island before they ran out of speed. But in the process Jason’s torch had gone out. He was still on his backside when he shouted at Rabies, “Ember! At the lake!”

                      Rabies had his footing again in an instant, and his shots revealed that the Sneasel had in fact been chasing them from behind. It dove into the shadows again. Jason stuck the tip of his torch in front of Rabies, and in order to buy just a few more seconds he bellowed at the darkness as if he were a wild Pokémon himself. Whether it deterred their opponent or not, he had a light again before the Sneasel came charging back. “Stay on the land! Fire Fang!”

                      They pulled away from the ice and the Sneasel met them inland. Rabies snarled as he tried to chomp down with sparks flying from his mouth. As before, he missed but managed to convince the Sneasel to back off again. From there things fell into a pattern. The Sneasel varied its angle of attack, but time and again Rabies was unable to hurt it and it was unwilling to take the risk necessary to hurt Rabies. As they settled into the rhythm, Jason set his torch down and dug his flashlight out of his bag to make extra sure they wouldn’t be taken by surprise. Immediately his fingers regretted the decision. They hurt in the tips something fierce, and he was worried they would go numb soon.

                      On the eighth repetition of the scenario, the Sneasel got in close enough that Rabies could sink his fangs into its arm. But he didn’t seem to leave a burn, and after two quick swipes of the Sneasel’s free claw it was free again and was back to the shadows in a blink of an eye. Jason knew this was taking way too long. For all he knew Krissy had already caught hers, while he and Rabies had only just now dealt any damage at all.

                      Then he heard the calls from the far shore. “Hey!”

                      “You alright over there?”

                      It was Travis and Krissy respectively, and they no doubt meant to inform him of Krissy’s victory. “Little busy!” Jason yelled back. The Sneasel darted in again and there was another predictably brief skirmish.

                      But when Krissy called out again it wasn’t what he expected. “Jason, we couldn’t hit her, so I used a Poké Doll! I’ve got a spare if you need it!”

                      Travis added, “Give up, loser! It’s freezing in here!”

                      Jason recognized and accepted Travis’s backhanded encouragement. He’d be a sucker to forfeit now that Krissy had put the ball in his court. Still, if Krissy couldn’t beat one down by now, there was no guarantee that Rabies would be able to before they all caught hypothermia. This thing had them at a virtual stalemate, and even that was assuming one of its friends wouldn’t join in. If it became two on one they would be completely outmatched.

                      He took a deep breath. He was thinking about this all wrong. This wasn’t a regular battle; it was a matter of catching, and no matter what Travis said Jason believed there was always a way to catch a Pokémon faster than you’d think. Since there was no quick way to deal enough raw damage to this Sneasel, they needed to unnerve it to catch it instead. He thought about its behavior. It was clearly out to keep itself from getting hurt, but more specifically it wanted room to maneuver at all times. It was trying to attack and be gone again before it could take damage—it was using a long-range strategy with close-range attacks. If they could get it confined somehow that might stress it out enough for a well-thrown ball to work.

                      Then it hit Jason that Rabies knew one move that might do the trick: Fire Spin. In fact, it was a move he probably should have used already, but for whatever reason it hadn’t occurred to him while he was treating this like a normal battle. Rabies would need distance and a little time, and Jason knew how to get it. “Use Ember, shoot high!”

                      Rabies seemed perplexed for a moment, but he obeyed. He sent several balls of fire up in the air over the frozen lake, and it gave Jason just enough extra light to spot the Sneasel from a distance. He shone his flashlight directly at its eyes, and it froze. Jason shook the light back and forth, hoping to keep their opponent still and transfixed. “Rabies,” said Jason calmly and at a normal volume, “use Fire Spin.”

                      The Growlithe arched his back and drew in a deep breath, while the Sneasel stayed put. Then he breathed out a stream of fire that snaked out over the ice in fits and starts. By the time the Sneasel reacted and tried to run away, the arc had grown too wide to escape. The Sneasel was trapped in a circle of fire, and if it was capable of jumping over the flames it was too intimidated to try. It darted back and forth in a panic.

                      “One more Ember!” Jason didn’t hesitate. He knew the angle he needed for the perfect throw, and that was out on the ice. With a ball in hand he ran toward the lake at full speed, and this time he slid on his feet with his knees bent. Then three arcing balls of fire landed near the Sneasel and kept its attention away from him.

                      He used his left hand to turn himself around, and at the same time he wound up his right. His body missed the fire by two feet, and the Sneasel’s back was to him. He slung his right arm sideways like a whip as he fell off balance. In the split-second before he landed on his back, he saw that the ball’s flight path had just the right speed and break that he wanted. Even though he was still dragging to a stop in the middle of the lake when the ball trapped the Sneasel and shook three times, Jason could infer the outcome from the distant shouts:

                      “Oh my god! Wow!”

                      “Oh come on! That’s a load of crap!”

                      Jason was still lying sprawled out when he started to laugh. He couldn’t wait to hear Travis declare that catching a strong Pokémon after barely damaging it was ‘cheating.’ That this was a victory over two friends was icing on the cake. He was about to raise his fists in declaration of said victory when he felt a sharp pinch in his throwing elbow. It was uncomfortable enough that he raised his left fist alone instead, but he wasn’t going to let a little soreness ruin the moment for him.

                      *********

                      Sometime that evening Jason and Krissy were sitting by a campfire. Travis was off watering the bushes and they were alone. Rather, sort-of-alone: Rabies was out of his ball and occupying Jason’s lap. Jason had just finished treating the pup’s scratches, and now he was using him for some additional warmth as the feeling slowly returned to his fingers. His exhilaration from the battle had worn off entirely and now he was growing tired.

                      “Seriously,” said Krissy, “you’ve got to teach me how you do that. I still can’t believe you actually caught her while barely hurting her, and with a regular Pokéball at that.”

                      Jason shrugged. “I dunno, it’s magic. Also, pretty sure it’s a ‘him.’”

                      “Pretty sure it isn’t. And she isn’t.”

                      Already Jason’s thought process from the battle was escaping him. Maybe someday he would have a decent explanation for his technique, but at the moment he wasn’t even inclined to think about it. There was in fact a part of him that agreed with Travis and thought his own approach was kind of cheap.

                      “For what it’s worth, I think Travis’s wrong,” she said, as if reading his mind. “You’re right to take pride in how good you are at catching Pokémon. There can’t be many trainers out there who can do it like that.”

                      “Thanks. But for real, I don’t think catching better Pokémon helps all that much. If you want to win battles you still gotta have good strategy.”

                      “Why does it need to help you win battles?”

                      Jason wondered if that was a trick question. “Uh, because you don’t want to lose battles?”

                      “No, I mean, by itself it’s still worth… never mind.”

                      There was a lull for a short while, and there was no noise besides the crackle of the fire and Rabies’s panting. Then Jason looked over at Krissy, and saw that she had been staring at him. She’d been awfully excited since he caught the Sneasel even though she lost, but now there was something else in her expression. At first he thought it was a shade of disappointment, but looking closer it was more like she had a question she wanted to ask but felt she couldn’t. Then he remembered the reason they’d gone to the Ice Cave in the first place: Krissy really, really wanted a Sneasel on her team. He’d been so caught up in himself that he hadn’t noticed how obnoxious an outcome this must be for her.

                      “Hey, so, I’m probably not going to use the Sneasel much. Uh, so if you like… I mean, I want you to have the Sneasel. He ought to go to the right team. Or she, whatever it is.”

                      Krissy’s eyes went wide and her mouth hung open. There was an air of apprehension about her, which didn’t surprise Jason. He knew it would have been shameless of her to ask for the Sneasel, so he decided it would be better if he never knew whether she was actually going to ask or not. “Just one condition, though,” he added. It occurred to him that he could address something that had been bothering him for months.

                      “What’s that?” She sounded like she would agree to anything right now.

                      “You gotta give her a real name. Like, not ‘Sneasel.’”

                      “Oh.” She was obviously stumped, and put her fingers to her mouth. “What kind of name should I give her?”

                      “Whatever you want, it’s your call. Sometimes I pick something about the Pokémon. So… since Sneasel’s a dark and ice type, maybe something like ‘Frostbite.’ But better than that.”

                      Krissy stared into space for a good while before turning back to Jason. “Why don’t you come up with a name? I’ll go with whatever you pick.”

                      He wasn’t going to let her off that easy. “Okay, but in that case you gotta give Chikorita a real name yourself.”

                      “Do… do you think she’d like that?”

                      Jason thought that Krissy ought to know the answer better than he would. Then again, he supposed that she didn’t bring Chikorita out just to play or relax all that often, so maybe she really didn’t know. That seemed sad to him, and this was probably the time to correct it. “Course she would. She’s probably wondering why you haven’t told her her real name yet.”

                      Krissy stared into space again, then said, “I bet you’re right. Yeah.”

                      She took Chikorita’s ball from her belt, and Jason preemptively put his arms around Rabies so he knew to stay down. “You ever thought what her name might be?”

                      “I can think of one name. Maybe. But that’s it. Names are really more your and Travis’s thing.”

                      When she said this, a thought hit Jason like a ton of bricks. ‘Oh my god. I don’t know Krissy’s last name yet.’ How could he have gone six months without asking? That was impossible. He must have just forgotten, but that was almost as embarrassing. And he couldn’t ask now; it was way too late for that. He didn’t want her to think he was a lousy friend.

                      Krissy didn’t notice him agonize over this. After some hesitation she pressed the switch. Chikorita appeared beside her in a red flash and looked all around as if for opponents. “Uh, hey girl.” Chikorita stared up at her. “Your name’s Lucia from now on. Does that sound okay?”

                      Jason didn’t know any Lucia, and he couldn’t guess what else it might refer to. But the important thing was that it referred to Chikorita—rather, to Lucia, and that was good enough. As for Lucia, her face was blank and the change didn’t seem to register with her yet, but that was only a matter of time. Krissy rubbed the leaf on her head, and Jason held out the Sneasel’s ball in his hand.

                      “I wouldn’t let her out just yet,” he said. “She was a bit feisty. Maybe give the ball a day to sink in.”

                      Krissy reached out with reluctance, but when she took the Pokéball she couldn’t keep the smile off her face. “Thank you.”

                      *

                      [Next time we head back to the present day in Chapter 5. The kids follow a lead on a Rocket executive, and meanwhile the adults need to find a lead on the kids.]
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                        #17    
                      Old March 25th, 2017 (10:50 AM).
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                      Bay Alexison Bay Alexison is offline

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                      “Don’t be such a baby. Look at Rabies: he’s not complaining and he’s naked.” Indeed, Rabies was raring to go and had his tongue hanging out.

                      “He’s also got a furnace where his stomach’s supposed to be. I’d go skinny-dipping in the arctic if I had one of those. Heck, I’d consider being a nudist full time.”

                      It was at this point that Krissy came out from the woods, where she’d been putting on warm leggings under her skirt. “I don’t want to know what you’re talking about,” she said with a vague look of revulsion on her face.
                      This part made me chuckle.

                      That Sneasel is indeed feisty there. A clever move of Jason getting the Sneasel there, and sweet of him to give it to Krissy instead. Lucia's a cute name for Chikorita there heh.
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                      Old April 20th, 2017 (5:59 PM). Edited April 20th, 2017 by icomeanon6.
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                      icomeanon6 icomeanon6 is offline
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                        Chapter 5

                        May, 2017

                        Jen was sitting at a kitchen table in a cozy house in a quiet corner of Cherrygrove City. She handed a tissue to the woman sitting across the table from her, whose eyes were starting to water. The woman sniffed and said, “Thank you, Jen. I’m awfully grateful you could make it down here.”

                        This was Megan O’Connor, or Aunt Meg as Jen called her. Yesterday Jen had talked with her and Uncle Dan on the phone. She had told them most of the story concerning their son as she knew it, and directed them to contact the police as soon as possible. And now she was following up with Aunt Meg and at the same time trying to reassure her that everything was going to be okay, she swore, honest. At some point she asked, “And you called the Lafayettes, right?”

                        Aunt Meg sniffed again. “Yes. Yes, we did. We went to the station together.”

                        Jen stared at the wall. Barring a clerical error, that meant that both Jason and Travis should have had their Pokémon licenses voided by now. This was the exact situation that she, Hanna, and Derek had gone to such pains to avoid. She hoped that Aunt Meg wouldn’t ask her too many questions about the when and how they’d become aware of the kids’ dangerous project. How could she admit to her aunt’s face that they’d made such a high priority of not telling her anything until they absolutely had to? It felt so stupid and so childish now. How could they have worried so much about protecting the kids from their parents when so much more was at stake?

                        Apparently something similar, at least on the surface, was going through Aunt Meg’s head. “You know they say hindsight’s twenty-twenty. All those nights last year your uncle and I talked about if this trainer-journey thing’s worth the risk…”

                        Jen didn’t say anything just yet. Aunt Meg was taking that thought over a line that Jen would never cross.

                        “I don’t know how many times I thought,‘I never should’ve let that boy get five miles away from me.’ I was this close to putting my foot down just before his tenth birthday. I almost told him, ‘You can do whatever you want eight birthdays from now, but till then you’re staying home and that’s final.’”

                        Maybe Jen was too stubborn and proud, but she found herself thinking like a child again and didn’t feel ashamed of it. If she was going to pick a hill to die on, it would be that the good and right thing for a ten-year-old to do was to see the world—or at least the region—before they had the burdens of adulthood trying to lash them to one place. As for Pokémon training, Jen was utterly convinced that the magic touch needed to properly train and connect with these creatures could only be learned by a child. It you forced someone to wait until adulthood to be a trainer you were robbing them.

                        But still, Jen couldn’t bring herself to say this out loud, not to a scared mother. Someday when this was all just a bad memory with a happy ending she’d have a debate with her on the merits of journeying, but it would be cruel to start that conversation now. Moreover, there were grey hairs on Aunt Meg’s head that hadn’t been there a year ago. This reminded Jen that Jason’s parents had been born a little too early for the boom when youth journeying became nearly ubiquitous. People in their mid-forties could remember a time when the few children who journeyed were delinquent, neglected, or both, and a family might have only one or two serious Pokémon trainers in it. She and her aunt had grown up in different worlds.

                        Aunt Meg’s tears were coming out again. “It wouldn’t be like this if I’d gotten to see him just once since he left home. I’d see if something was wrong, I know it.”

                        This caught Jen by surprise, and she had to ask, “Didn’t he come back for Christmas?”

                        Aunt Meg shook her head. “We got him on the phone for an hour. That was it. We could never get him to call back more than once a month.”

                        Jen hadn’t known; she had spent last Christmas with the other half of her family. She’d always assumed that Jason kept in touch with home about as often as she and Hanna had. It didn’t make sense to her at first, but she didn’t have to think long about it. Jason probably knew his parents too well. If he went out of his way to avoid any contact with home, Jen’s first guess was that he was scared his mom would change her mind and retract her permission. She tried to put herself in his shoes—if she had been worried at his age that Mom would flip out at any dangerous story she told her, she might not have gone home either.

                        The thought sent a chill up her spine. She decided to change the subject to the other reason she wanted to talk to Aunt Meg. “That reminds me, I have an important question.”

                        Aunt Meg wiped her eyes and nodded.

                        “So we’ve reported Jason and Travis, but not Krissy yet. I never picked up where she’s from or even her last name, and we need to contact her parents. I was hoping Jason might have said something over the phone, or if you’ve talked to her yourself—”

                        “Hold on, I’m sorry. Who?”

                        There was a look of honest bewilderment on Aunt Meg’s face, and Jen’s tongue got caught in her throat for a moment. “Krissy. Their new friend. Didn’t Jason ever mention her?”

                        “No, I’ve never heard of her. I thought he was still just with Travis.”

                        Jen had assumed that Aunt Meg would have at least some information on Krissy, even if it was just her hometown. Now she was at a loss as to where she’d find any kind of lead on her.

                        “Tell you the truth,” said Aunt Meg, “I’m relieved they’re with a girl now. At least, I’d bet she has more common sense than them.”

                        Jen nodded, but in truth she thought it was a good freaking question whether Krissy had more common sense. She’d spent all of one evening with the kid and had learned almost nothing about her.

                        She stayed another hour at the O’Connor house and they arranged a plan to go to Cerulean City soon, where they would put up fliers and ask everyone they could if they’d seen the kids. As Jen walked out the front door, though, she had a sinking feeling that the kids were already far away from Cerulean City. She didn’t want to admit that their hopes of finding them might boil down to luck.

                        As Jen stood in the O’Connor front yard, she paused to look at the spot where one year ago she had given Rabies to Jason. He’d hardly believed her at first, and she had to convince him it was alright to take him. ‘Rabies has been looking forward to this for weeks, too. I can’t exactly leave him hanging after I hyped him up for it. What do you say?’ Jen distinctly remembered the look on Jason’s face after she said that, because it was a look she’d worn before as well. People, usually children, looked this way when they learned—if only temporarily—that all the cynical adults who’d ever told them that real life doesn’t work out the way it does in stories were flat wrong. Then he gave her a tight hug without her prompting him for it, which was absolutely unheard of when it came to Jason.

                        But that was then. If you were the ‘cool cousin’ you might get a hug, but if you had a kid’s license revoked that made you just another terrible adult. Labels aside, Jen had to wonder if Jason would ever forgive her for this. Either way, she had to bring him home first.

                        *********

                        It was early in the afternoon and Travis was sitting at the side of a paved road. Standing next to him were Jason and Krissy, who were sticking their thumbs out at a passing car which ignored them. The road was close to the traditional Route 4 path and it led west from Cerulean City. Even though Travis knew in his head that the time they saved by hitching rides back to Johto would easily outweigh any time they spent waiting for a car, he was getting anxious. “You’re sure we don’t want to find an exec in Kanto?”

                        “Very sure,” said Krissy. “Team Rocket’s been in Kanto forever. If there’s an easy Executive, he or she’s in Johto.”

                        “Let’s hope this Russo guy fits the bill,” said Jason.

                        ‘Russo’ was the only name they had to go on. They’d found it on a single page in the Grunt’s notebook. It wasn’t explicit that the name referred to an Executive, but the surrounding text strongly suggested that it did: ‘note 2 self: report pkmn steels on time or Russo will f*ckin kill u. personaly.’ It wasn’t lost on Travis that under normal circumstances the fact that the Grunt was afraid of Russo for his life would be a good reason to avoid him. But that was the pickle: they needed to find someone important enough to have the key, but weak enough that they could handle him. However impossible it was that such a person could exist, Travis was desperate enough to trust luck rather than sense.

                        After what felt like an eternity, Jason tapped Travis on the shoulder. An approaching car was slowing down for them. One of its hubcaps was missing and its front bumper was bent and rusted. As it rolled to a stop and the passenger-side window came down, Travis heard what sounded like cold protests coming from the driver. There were two men in the car, and the one in the passenger seat spoke to them first. “’Sup, guys.”

                        He had a mess of long hair on his head and bags under his eyes, but his voice was friendlier than Travis expected. The driver on the other side of him had a thick beard and wore the expression that people did back in the days before you were allowed to smile in photographs.

                        “Uh, hi,” said Jason. “We’re heading to New Bark or further.”

                        Krissy added, “We’ll settle for part-way in that direction, though.”

                        The driver gave them the slant-eye. “You got gas money?” His voice was deep and his tone was curt.

                        But the passenger waved him off. “Come on, man, it’s good. Give a little to the universe and the universe giveth back.”

                        The driver fumed, and the passenger continued. “You wanna work on that karma deficit, right?”

                        “You owe me.” Then he said to the three of them while looking straight ahead at the road, “Get in.”

                        The passenger smiled, reached over his shoulder, and unlocked the rear door. It was with no small measure of caution that Travis climbed in after Jason and Krissy, but mostly he was relieved they were finally on their way. Even if that meant being confined in a small space with a weird hippie and his antisocial pal. The relief was tempered further when the car started up again and it felt like the wheels might fall off. He found himself holding tight to his backpack and wondering what happened to a Pokémon if its ball got damaged in a car crash.

                        “I’m Salvador, by the way,” said the hippie. “And my traveling companion here goes by the name of Marcellus.”

                        Before either of his friends could say their real names, some combination of instinct and paranoia prompted Travis to say, “Dave.”

                        Jason followed suit without missing a beat. “Mike.”

                        Krissy, however, hesitated before muttering, “Jen.”

                        Travis had once joked that Krissy couldn’t come up with a new name if her life depended on it, and he was angry to be proven right.

                        “So, what are you guys hitchhiking for? Trainers usually walk or fly wherever they wanna get.”

                        This time it was Travis who drew a blank, but fortunately Krissy could cover for them. “We heard about a swarm this morning. Dunsparce. If we want to catch some we need to get there in a hurry. And only Mike has a flying-type, so we needed a car.”

                        Salvador nodded. “Dunsparce, huh? Cool, cool. Pretty righteous. Never seen one, myself. Huh.”

                        Travis had to admit this was quick and good thinking on Krissy’s part. Dunsparce were indeed hard to find but they rarely excited anyone who wasn’t trying to complete a Pokédex. It was a plausible explanation which at the same time was unlikely to provoke follow-up questions. It baffled him that while Krissy could come up with a perfect excuse out of midair, she couldn’t think of a girl’s name on the spot unless it belonged to someone she knew.

                        At this point Salvador moved right into a different thread of conversation that Travis didn’t feel like following. It had something to do with pollution from highway-paving, and Jason and Krissy did an adequate fob of nodding and going ‘uh-huh’ to keep him talking instead of asking questions. If this kept up they’d be out of here in a few hours having drawn minimal suspicion. He looked out the window and tried not to think about anything. This was impossible, of course.

                        Miles along they came to a unexpectedly sharp bend in the mountain road, and the force of the turn shoved Krissy practically on top of him. Then without warning, something in his mind exploded. ‘Get off! Get the hell off me! You’re not even supposed to be sitting there! I’m supposed to be next to Jason, not you! Just go back where you came from and leave us alone!’ None of it made it to his mouth, but it backed up behind his eyes and left him breathing hard.

                        “Yo, Dave,” said Salvador. “You good, man? You’re looking a little carsick.”

                        Marcellus did not take well to that observation. “Wait, what? If one of them’s going to be sick they’re out of here. Now.”

                        “Dude, chill, I was just asking.”

                        “I ain’t cleaning up their f*ckin’ mess, Sal!”

                        “I’m fine!” said Travis in a hurry. “Really. I’m good.” Although ‘good’ and ‘fine’ weren’t the first words he would have picked to describe how he was doing, it was true he was at no risk of throwing up. It took another minute of convincing from Salvador, but they still had a ride. In the hours that followed there were long stretches of merciful silence. Slowly but surely Travis managed to calm himself down.

                        Hours passed, and the sun was getting low in the sky when things took a turn for the stressful again. Without warning, Krissy jumped in her seat. “Oh, shoot!”

                        “Whoa, what is it, Jen?” asked Salvador.

                        Things had been going relatively smoothly, and Travis had no idea why Krissy was throwing that out the window now. Things only got more confused for him when Krissy said, “I left my diary back in Cerulean City!”

                        Travis kept his cool and didn’t ask the obvious question of ‘what diary?’ and neither did Jason.

                        Marcellus, meanwhile, was in absolutely no mood for this. “If you think for one second that I’m going to drive you back to—”

                        Krissy interrupted him. “I’m sorry, can you let us out here?”

                        “You sure?” asked Salvador. “Long way back.”

                        Jason let out a convincingly exasperated sigh. “Wouldn’t be the first time.”

                        “Whatever,” said Marcellus, “It’s your feet.” He decelerated and pulled the car over to the side.

                        They climbed out. The air was light and clean compared to the inside of the car, but that didn’t come close to compensating for how irked Travis was. Krissy owed them one heck of an explanation for this. Before Marcellus could drive off again, Salvador rolled down his window. “Good luck, you dudes. I’m sure your diary’s in a lost-and-found or something, Jen.”

                        “Yeah. And thanks for the ride.”

                        “All good.”

                        And just like that, the beat-up car was on its way and the three of them were alone in the middle of nowhere again. To be sure, they were significantly closer to Johto by now, but Krissy had just burnt some considerable time.

                        “So what was that about?” asked Jason.

                        Krissy let out a deep breath and stared at the ground. “I didn’t notice until a few minutes ago. There were these hidden catches between the seat cushions… like, to lift them up and get at compartments underneath.”

                        Travis failed to see how the vehicle’s optional features could possibly be of significance. “You’ve been inside a car before, right?”

                        “Listen, that car was ancient. They didn’t sell them with moving seats like that. The only cars with secret compartments back then belonged to criminals.”

                        Travis didn’t buy it, and it showed on his face. It was the same with Jason.

                        “Didn’t you guys know that?” asked Krissy.

                        Travis had never so much as heard of it. Yet she had this surety about her, and she’d been right about little things like this so often before.

                        “Well, anyway…” she rubbed her arms before she continued. “That’s when I got suspicious. And then I kept feeling around and I… found this.” She reached into one of her bag’s side pockets and pulled out something small. It was a bullet.

                        “Holy crap,” said Jason. As for Travis, his eyes widened and his heartrate spiked. His body was reacting to the peril even though it was now out of sight and speeding away from them.

                        “They were probably crack dealers,” said Krissy. “Or heroin. One of the worse drugs anyway, I think.”

                        Nobody talked about what might have happened. At the same time, nobody made mention of the fact that they might have been fine. There was an unspoken consensus that this whole potential incident was best left behind them as soon as possible. Jason was the first to break the silence. “I don’t think we should hitch another ride when it’s this late. Let’s just hike for a while and then make camp.”

                        There was no dissent, and they walked over to the side of the road opposing the traffic before setting out. They could at least obey that rule today, even if they’d failed miserably on the ‘don’t get into a car with strangers’ one.

                        *********

                        Late that night Travis’s eyes were closed, but he was still wide awake. Eventually he quit on the idea of sleeping and sat up. He stared at the silhouettes of the trees and tried to solidify a train of thought that had occupied him for the last several hours. It concerned their third wheel: Krissy. It was getting harder and harder for him not to blame her for the predicament they were in. A part of him knew that this was probably his own bias against her, but his solid reasons for thinking so were mounting up. The reasons always seemed clearer at nighttime when there was nothing else to distract him.

                        A whisper came out from the dark. “That you, Travis? Can’t sleep either?”

                        Travis bristled at the very sound of her voice. “Yeah.”

                        “Do you want to talk for a bit?”

                        It was a good thing she couldn’t see the scowl on his face. He knew the decent thing to do would be to politely decline, considering how he was right now. But he couldn’t bring himself to be decent tonight. “Sure.”

                        “Is there anything on your mind? Anything you want to get off your chest?”

                        That settled it. If she asked for it like that, he was finally going to be cruel. He let the air sit for a few seconds. It may have been his better nature trying to stop him. “I’ve been thinking. About how you seem to know everything when it comes to crooks. Like those guys from earlier today. Or Team Rocket for that matter.”

                        “…I wouldn’t say I know every—”

                        “It was bugging me. Why someone who knows exactly what they’re getting into would go after these guys in the first place. Then I remembered you’re a stinkin’ genius so that made sense. You can probably handle yourself.”

                        “That’s not—”

                        “But that leaves me and Jason. You knew we weren’t ready for this, but you dragged us in anyway.”

                        “But… no, it wasn’t just me—”

                        Yes, it was just you!” Travis had to stop himself from yelling. He ended up speaking in something closer to a stage whisper, but Jason’s breathing went uninterrupted and he remained asleep. “You played Jason like a fiddle! He probably thought it was all his idea, but you can’t fool me!” Some part of his mind told him to be careful, to stop talking before he said something he couldn’t take back, but he didn’t listen.

                        Krissy’s voice was breaking up. “Travis, I—”

                        He didn’t let her shift the field in her favor. Even if he wasn’t nearly as smart as she was, he had the fiercer tongue and tonight it was almost moving on its own. “You just wanted some insurance. You needed a few warm bodies to take some hits for you on your dumb crusade and that’s the only reason you ever talked to us in the first place. That’s why it was Wyvern instead of one of yours. That was the whole idea.”

                        Those last words shook even himself, right out to his fingertips. It was so much that he was forced to let Krissy get a word in edgewise. “Travis… you have to believe me. I’d… I’d never do that to my friends. I’d never—”

                        Jason’s your friend. I’m not.”

                        And there it was: the one thing he could say and never take back. It was what he’d kept himself from saying for what must have been a year by now. Perhaps he had only lasted this long because this was only the second time Krissy had talked to him alone at night. Maybe it was because he was still sick in the head from what had happened. Whatever the case, it was said.

                        Travis dropped his head, deliberately rustled his sleeping bag, and shut his eyes tight. He wouldn’t be able to sleep for a while though, as he could hear the stifled sobs.

                        *

                        [Up next is Chapter 6, in which both searches continue. Derek and Hanna pursue a sophisticated but legally dubious route, while the kids face a potentially insurmountable setback.]
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                          #19    
                        Old April 20th, 2017 (9:09 PM). Edited April 21st, 2017 by Bay Alexison.
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                        Bay Alexison Bay Alexison is offline

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                        Oh dear over the hitchhiking incident and what the kids had found out (like the voices you gave for those Salvador and Marcellus heh). What's more unexpected is Krissy's knowledge of drug dealers and Travis not considering her his friend. Yeah, pretty sure that will set back the group for a bit there.
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                        Old May 9th, 2017 (8:05 PM). Edited 4 Weeks Ago by icomeanon6.
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                        icomeanon6 icomeanon6 is offline
                        It's "I Come Anon"
                           
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                          [Quick reply to Bay's comments in the spoiler tags (not a spoiler, just saving space):
                          Spoiler:

                          Quote:
                          Originally Posted by Bay
                          (like the voices you gave for those Salvador and Marcellus heh)
                          That means you liked them more than I do, lol. I'm not convinced they really work.

                          Thanks for reading!]


                          Chapter 6

                          June, 2017

                          Hanna was walking down a narrow, poorly lit hallway in a dilapidated apartment building. She rarely stepped foot in this part of Goldenrod City, but this was where Derek lived. Unless he changed his mind, she was going to help him track down Jason and friends using the police’s private network. It had taken a good deal of persuasion to get him to invite her over, but no threats, which she supposed was progress. When she reached the end of the hall she knocked on door number ten, which had lost its ‘1’ and now appeared to be door zero. She heard the noise from a chain lock, a dead bolt, and a doorknob lock in sequence before it finally opened.

                          “Hey,” said he.

                          “Hey,” said she.

                          Derek looked slightly better than she had expected. He hadn’t shaved or anything like that and his eyes looked like hell, but he was at least presentable. He was even wearing a collared shirt. As soon as she walked in he shut and locked the door all three ways again. The room was startlingly empty, and the mattress in the corner didn’t have so much as sheets on it. “Kind of Spartan, but I was worried it’d be filthy. I guess you’re doing okay.”

                          Derek looked confused for a second. “…Huh? Oh. Uh, no, I don’t live here. I just work here sometimes. Someone else’s name is on the lease, so it’s safer to use the internet from here.”

                          So they both tended to sleep where they worked. Hanna could relate, but his justification seemed odd to her. “Can’t you just use an anonymizer like D0r or something?”

                          “I do both. It’s not like D0r’s perfect.”

                          Hanna made a note not to assume that Derek’s technical knowledge was that basic. He’d clearly done his research on security and privacy topics, which made sense considering both his career and his private paranoia.

                          Derek gestured to the modem/router in the corner and the laptop connected to it. “There’s a spare cable you can use. There’s no wireless.”

                          Especially his private paranoia, she realized. Most commercial routers had vulnerabilities, of course, but she’d never known anyone to be this thorough in avoiding them. She saw there was even electrical tape over the spot where Derek had physically removed the antenna. When she took all this into account, the fact that he’d even told her the apartment’s address showed that maybe he trusted her more than she thought.

                          She sat down on the floor and pulled out her laptop. “So what’s the plan?”

                          Derek sat down as well. “Well, there are two police databases I can get us access to. Neither of which you’re going to tell anyone about.”

                          “Naturally. What are they?”

                          “One’s a citizen database. Names, photographs, addresses, immediate family. No birthdays, which is inexcusable but you can’t ask for much from these clowns. I’m hoping we can find Krissy in there along with her parents.”

                          “That’s a start.”

                          “And the other one’s… well…” Derek shifted his weight in discomfort. “It’s got every Pokémon Center transaction from Johto and Kanto for the last twenty years. Since Krissy’s license is still active, she’s probably still visiting them.”

                          Hanna couldn’t keep her eyes from bugging out. The only people who thought the government held Pokécenter records were conspiracy theorists.

                          “Like I said,” he continued, “you can’t tell anyone about these. Especially not the Pokécenter one. It’d be kind of a P.R. meltdown if it got out.”

                          “Yeah, I guess it would be.”

                          He rubbed his eyes and groaned. “I’m so dead for showing you this stuff.”

                          Maybe he was, but she couldn’t let him think so. “Hey, relax. Nobody’s going to know. It’s our little secret.”

                          Her computer was finished booting, and there was a notification from the network manager. “What’s the password?” she asked.

                          “Let me type it.”

                          She handed him the laptop, and he went out of his way to keep the back of the screen between her eyes and his fingers. She thought for a moment how funny it would have been if she had installed a key-logger on her own machine.

                          “By the way,” said Derek, “And you’re gonna think this is pretty terrible… but I was simplifying a bit when I said there were two databases.”

                          “Oh?”

                          He continued typing after he entered the password, which was arguably a breach of etiquette but she let it slide. “Here. You’ll see.”

                          He handed it back to her, and she found an open window with a directory of over forty separate databases. When it became apparent what the deal was, she was as miffed as Derek suggested she would be. “Are you kidding me?”

                          Derek sighed. “No.”

                          Each town has its own two?”

                          “Yup. Each police department is responsible for its own data. All different software, all different schemas, all different names and conventions. Nothing’s centralized, some of them are down half the time, and they’re all on hardware that’s older than Bill. Sometimes when no one else is using them I can get the results from a simple query in forty seconds.”

                          Hanna suddenly felt a renewed appreciation for her own job. She never had to work with systems that were in such disarray. “But how—”

                          Now Derek was fuming. “Look, it’s a miracle our department has access to the other towns’ data at all. You don’t know what it’s like working with these people. Our tech support never gets back to me in less than a day, and they barely know how to reboot the freaking servers. Hell, I had to buy my own laptop! For work! My boss doesn’t know what attachments are, he makes his secretary print out his goddamn email—” He dragged his hand down his face and took a deep breath. “…Sh*t. Sorry.”

                          Hanna wasn’t offended at his outburst. She’d probably go postal in his shoes. “Sore subject. Got it.”

                          Derek took a moment and then continued. “Anyway, the last dumb thing we have to deal with is that the Pokécenter databases use trainer IDs, but we can’t look up the actual trainers by their IDs. That’s all in another system they haven’t given me access to. Usually when I’m coming in here I already have a suspect’s ID from somewhere else. If we want to find where Krissy last was we’ll have to figure it out based on whatever else we know about her.”

                          “So we can’t use the answer to one of our questions to figure out the other. They’re separate.”

                          “Yeah. If you and Marie can try to tackle the Pokécenters, I’ll start going through everyone whose nickname might be ‘Krissy.’”

                          So she had the hard problem while Derek had the tedious problem. She decided she’d rather be stumped than bored, but it was daunting all the same. She stared at the list of databases and then had a thought that could potentially make her own problem much simpler. “Do you think she could have taken Jason and Travis’s Pokémon in with her?”

                          “Not a chance. Their balls are tagged with their trainer IDs. The cops would be on her before she got ’em back.”

                          Hanna clicked her tongue. In that case she was definitely going to need some extra help for this one. She reached into her bag for Marie’s Pokéball, but as soon as she touched it she felt a familiar, dismissive vibration in her head. ‘Oh, great,’ she thought. That meant Marie was too tired to help her piece through the data. Five years ago Marie could do this every single day for a month, but lately she was crashing every few weeks and hard. Hanna made a mental note to dial down Marie’s workload again, but there was nothing to do about today. As this meant they were going to be here even longer than she thought, she asked Derek, “Think you can order pizza?”

                          *********

                          Around the same time and miles away from there, Jason was sitting on a rock and trying to ignore the soreness in his ankle. Nearby were Travis and Leviathan, the Quagsire. Travis was massaging one of his Pokémon’s fins where he had a sprain. You had to be careful where you stepped in the badlands at the base of the mountains to the northeast of Violet City. A combination of forest fire and rock slide several years ago had left the place uniquely inhospitable. This suited Jason fine in the sense that it was a good place to keep a low profile, but poorly in the sense that they were banged-up and tired enough already. Worse yet, it had been more than two weeks since they set out and they were still short on clues.

                          Krissy was not present. At the moment she was either still at the Violet City Pokémon Center or on her way back. “Maybe she’ll overhear something this time,” said Jason. “There are enough Rockets in Violet. We just gotta get lucky once and then we’re in the clear.”

                          Travis said nothing in reply to this, which didn’t surprise Jason. It felt like they couldn’t get more than ten words a day out of Travis lately. Jason couldn’t wait until they finally got to Russo, if only because it meant they might finally have something that resembled the real Travis again. Until then Jason wasn’t going to push the issue. He couldn’t imagine what Travis was going through.

                          Off in the distance there was a shrill bird-call. It sounded like a Fearow, which under normal circumstances would make Jason excited at the prospect of catching a new species. But they couldn’t afford to go looking for fights; not when they were having enough trouble fending off the ones that came to find them. At this rate they wouldn’t be remotely fresh when the time came. “I don’t think we’ll have to beat Russo outright,” said Jason. “We just have to make it more trouble than it’s worth for him to hold onto that key.” It occurred to Jason that he had said basically the same thing the week before, but it was tough to come up with new topics of conversation when Travis wouldn’t contribute anything.

                          When he turned his head, though, Travis was staring in his direction with dread on his face. Rather, he was looking over and behind him for some reason. Then Jason heard the call from the Fearow again only this time it sounded much closer, and Travis yelled, “Look out!”

                          Jason scrambled forward in a panic, and before he made it two yards he heard the Fearow touch down behind him and strike the spot where he’d been with its beak. He got himself turned around and there it was: wings spread, long neck stretched out, and entirely too close. It screeched at him at a pitch and volume that hurt his head. Jason stumbled back further, and the Fearow stepped forward in turn. It may have been smaller in stature than his own Noctowl, but its wings were wider and everything about it looked more dangerous, especially its long, sharp beak.

                          “I don’t got this, Jason!”

                          He knew it. Leviathan may have been out of his ball but he wasn’t in fighting shape. Jason fumbled for the balls on his own belt. Specs was still recovering and could barely fly, and Ali would get torn apart by the type-matchup, so that left Rabies once again. Jason dropped Rabies’s ball in front of him while still backpedaling, and for the first time in his career he didn’t call his Growlithe’s name as he sent him into battle. At the same time the Fearow lunged and snapped with his beak, and it would have caught up to him if the sudden appearance of another Pokémon hadn’t taken it off guard.

                          “Use Roar!”

                          Rabies put his whole throat into it, but it was still more of a squeal than a technical Roar. His voice was spent from overuse. The weak outburst was enough to convince the Fearow to flap a few paces back, but that was it. The fight was still on. Jason desperately tried to seize the initiative. “Flamethrower!”

                          Rabies’s reserves of fire were deeper and more powerful than his voice. He sent a jet of billowing but directed flame toward the Fearow. His aim was just high, but he singed one of its wings, and more importantly this seemed to discourage it from taking to the sky to attack. Rabies gave it another round, and this time he was on target. He put a fierce burn on the Fearow’s breast, and forced it to defend itself with its wings.

                          Things appeared to be going as well as Jason could hope for, but something strange caught his eye. There was a faint shimmer around the Fearow’s feathers. It was almost like the glow of fire on glass, and it flickered on and off. Then he remembered something from the Pokédex and nearly went into a panic. In the heat of the moment he realized they needed water, and fast. “Travis, you gotta soak us!”

                          Jason ran back to Travis and Leviathan, and Travis understood immediately. “Leviathan, Water Sport!”

                          Leviathan pounded his tail against the ground, opened his mouth, and spewed a copious amount of water all over Travis and Jason. Both boys dove to the ground in the nick of time. Jason’s face was covered and he couldn’t see it, but the shimmers coalesced as a sheer plane of glass. An opposing stream of flame shot out from it: Mirror Move. Jason felt the searing heat just above his back despite his drenched shirt. The Fearow wasn’t even aiming for Rabies.

                          Jason just managed to keep his head and realized that he’d played right into the Fearow’s obvious strengths. That wasn’t how Krissy would handle it. She would neutralize the enemy’s advantages and then pound its weaknesses. Only one weakness came to mind, and he gave a new order without looking. “Rabies, use Bite! Go for the neck!”

                          It wouldn’t have worked if the Fearow had already taken off, but moments later Jason heard a pained squawk. He pushed himself up again, which wasn’t easy with his heavy clothes and the scrapes and mud on his hands. Rabies had clambered onto the Fearow’s back and had its neck in a death grip with his jaws. The Fearow clearly wanted none of it, and finally started to flap its wings again. Jason realized in horror that Rabies was climbing along with it. “Drop! Come back down!”

                          For once Rabies listened the first time at the word ‘drop,’ and he fell onto a rock with a thud.

                          “Roar again! Big one!”

                          The Fearow was ten feet in the air when Rabies tried to yell again. This time a little more of the deeper end of Rabies’s range broke into it. Whether it was because the Roar itself was more persuasive or because of the deep marks in the Fearow’s strong but thin neck, the wild Pokémon flew off. It was heading back where it had come from, and the fight was over.

                          Jason stood still. His heart was nearly pounding out of his chest. At length he felt his back to see if he was burned. It didn’t hurt, but the back of his shirt was noticeably drier than the front. He didn’t know how much more of this he could take.

                          *********

                          It was getting dark when Krissy finally returned. Jason, Travis, Leviathan, and Rabies were sitting around a small campfire closer to the edge of the forest than they had been earlier. The boys were only slightly damp. “Took me a few minutes to find you,” said Krissy. “Why are we over here now?”

                          “Long story,” said Jason.

                          The short version of the long story was that they didn’t want a rematch with what was probably a highly territorial Fearow. Krissy however didn’t seem too interested in either version of the story. She sat down at the fire with nothing more than a non-committal “Hmm.”

                          There was a stretch of silence, and it ended when Jason decided that he wanted to tell the long story even if Krissy didn’t want to hear it. They had to talk about something or he’d go nuts, and in any case it was important that everyone knew the whole situation. He described the battle beat-by-beat and put especial emphasis on how Leviathan may have saved them from the Mirror Move. When he was finished, Krissy finally spoke again. “I wondered why you spent all that time teaching him Water Sport. It’s not a move a Quagsire usually learns. Guess it paid off.” There was something missing in her voice, either energy or attitude, and Jason thought it sounded like she was trying to impersonate herself.

                          Travis said nothing, and just continued rubbing Leviathan’s hurt fin. Now that Jason thought about it, he wasn’t sure Travis had said anything to Krissy in particular for days. Surely that was just his imagination. “So what about you?” he asked Krissy. “Learn anything today?”

                          Krissy stared into space for several seconds before answering. “No.”

                          Jason bit his lip. They needed to make progress soon or they’d lose any chance they had. This used to be so much easier. For a while it had seemed like all they had to do was spend two days watching a road and they’d run into Rockets that they could track or fight. It had never taken more than a week, much less two. Maybe they’d just been on a terrific run of luck that had to run out eventually. “There’ll be one of them on the road tomorrow,” he said. “Got a good feeling.”

                          Krissy didn’t seem to be listening to him, and stuttered before saying, “Oh. I went shopping. Here.” She reached in her bag and brought out a few Potions, which she handed to him. One of them she should have handed to Travis, Jason thought, but then again Travis was on the other side of the fire and maybe she was too tired to get up. He tossed him one in her stead.

                          “I also got you one of these.” She handed him an empty Pokéball. “In case it helps you end a fight early.”

                          Jason was glad to take it. A Poké Doll was far more effective for that purpose—even considering how good Jason was with a Pokéball—but those were expensive. With the extra money they’d had to spend on medicine lately they didn’t have that much to spare. Jason fished around in his bag for some coins, but Krissy said, “We’ll settle up in the morning. I’m… tired.”

                          Jason shrugged. “Whatever you say.” He didn’t see how it was tiring to get reimbursed, but she didn’t seem to be in the mood to argue. For that matter, no one seemed to be in much of a mood for anything. Even Rabies didn’t react much when Jason applied the Potion to a cut on his side and rubbed it in. Later Jason even he had to convince him to drink some extra water for his throat. He remembered something from Jen about how when a Pokémon starts to refuse water it’s getting ready for death, and he was afraid for a minute. But Rabies drank. He just needed some rest.

                          They let the fire die, and at some point the sleeping bags must have come out because Jason was lying awake despite his best efforts to fall asleep. Once again he heard the same nagging question in the back of his mind of whether he was really doing his part. Lately Krissy was carrying them through this ordeal nearly single-handedly, and not just because she was the only one who could step into a Center or Mart without walking right by a “MISSING” poster with her face on it. The nighttime doubts asked Jason if he was just slowing her down; if Krissy was more likely to save Wyvern by herself.

                          The doubts were dispelled quickly. Even if they were a burden on her now, he knew that when the critical moment finally came the task would call for more than one trainer. Even if he and Travis were just there as warm bodies, two warm bodies might be enough to make the difference. Still, he wanted to do more in case one real battler and two warm bodies weren’t enough, but he had no idea what he could do or how he could do it.

                          His eyes were heavy now and things in his head weren’t entirely clear. He vaguely heard something rustling near his sleeping bag. Krissy was in that direction, and in his drowsiness he assumed she was mistaking midnight for morning. It was too early to get up, and they all needed their rest for tomorrow, so he muttered something to the effect of “Go to sleep, Krissy.” Then he finally nodded off.

                          He slept without dreams until he woke up with the sun, or at least what little of it passed through the clouds. He got on his feet, stretched his sore back, and rubbed his eyes. It was a gray, damp morning of the sort that made you want to go right back to bed, preferably indoors. This may have been why it took him a minute of staring at nothing until he realized that they were short one sleeping bag. He blinked once and then his eyes went wide. Krissy was gone and so were all of her things. They all knew better than to go wandering off without saying anything, so he was at a loss.

                          “Travis.” No response. “Travis! Get up!”

                          Travis slowly pulled himself out of his sleeping bag, and as with Jason he didn’t see what was wrong right away. Then he started to ask, “…Where’s—”

                          Jason waved his arms in exasperation. “I don’t know.” There was no trace of her. If he hadn’t been here the night before he would have thought it was a two-person campsite. But then he spotted one thing that was different: there was a note under one of the rocks in the fire ring. He wasted no time in swiping it up and brushing it off.

                          “What’s it say?”

                          He read it aloud. “Dear Jason and Travis—”

                          Travis made a dismissive noise with his lips and shook his head. But his expression turned more serious as Jason read the rest of it.

                          “It’s becoming increasingly clear that our combined teams aren’t in suffi—suf-fi-cient-ly good condition to continue. It’s not your fault and you guys were doing well, it’s just too hard for anyone to keep this up without proper rest for their Pokémon. I was thinking last night and I figured out a lead to get to Russo, and I decided it would be best if…” Jason trailed off for a moment. What followed didn’t make sense to him. “…if I went after him by myself. You can count on me to get the key to save Wyvern, but you guys need to go to a Pokécenter as soon as possible. I know it’ll be hard, but I think you’ll get your licenses back someday.

                          “It wasn’t right of me to put you in this situation in the first place, and I hope this makes up for it, even if you don’t think it’s for the best right now. You’re my best friends and I—

                          “I’m not reading the rest of this.”

                          Jason seethed. He crumpled the letter, but shoved it in his pocket instead of throwing it on the ground. “There’s a whole paragraph of tearful-goodbye bullcrap. Where the hec—hell did this come from!”

                          Travis stared at the ground, and then he said something in the smallest voice Jason had ever heard him use. “I… I did this.”

                          This did nothing but add to Jason’s confusion. “What do you mean?”

                          And then came the explanation. He had never thought about what Travis and Krissy might say to each other while he wasn’t listening, so Travis’s account of this one conversation hit him like a truck. Every last detail threw him for a loop, not the least being the suggestion that fighting Team Rocket had been Krissy’s idea. That was wrong, wrong, wrong. They had come to that decision together, at least he and Krissy had. He was certain about this. But the worst, least explicable part came at the end. “What? Why? Why would you say that?”

                          “I don’t know. I was mad. And cause we’re not. We’re not friends. I don’t even like her. You knew that!”

                          “No I didn’t! I mean, that was all a year ago! You… You got used to her!”

                          Travis was shaking. His fingers dug into his sleeping bag and he wouldn’t look Jason in the eye.

                          Jason asked him, “Why didn’t you say anything?”

                          “What would you have done if I did?”

                          Jason didn’t know what that was supposed to mean.

                          “Would you have kicked her out?” asked Travis. “Would it be just the two of us again?”

                          This question had never, not once occurred to Jason. And why should it have when it broke the most important rule? Any question about your friends was supposed to be easy. ‘Will you do (good thing) for your friend?’ and the answer was always supposed to be yes. ‘Will you do (bad thing) to your friend?’ No. Every time. Was he supposed to believe that one friend had to be miserable unless he left another friend on her own? It was a fake question, and there had to be a different answer.

                          “I’m sorry,” said Travis. “I tried. I really did.”

                          He’d better have, thought Jason. At the moment he couldn’t think of why anyone wouldn’t try to be friends with Krissy. He had entirely forgotten all the time he’d spent agonizing over how much better a battler she was, or how much it bugged him that she didn’t have the competitive decency to celebrate a victory like it came as a surprise. She was a friend—their friend—and that was all there was to it. “Well, you’re gonna have to try harder! And don’t tell me you’re gonna let a girl save your Pokémon without your help! Are you?”

                          “…No.”

                          “Thought not.” Even if they discounted pride, it would be unconscionable to let Krissy run into this with no other trainers to help her. The good news was that she couldn’t get rid of them that easily, not even with that big a head start. He pulled Krissy’s note from his pocket and Rabies’s ball from his belt. He let him out, and as soon as the pup had his bearings he waved the paper under his nose. “Find her, Rabies. Where’s Krissy? Go find Krissy.”

                          “Wait a sec!”

                          They’d forgotten to pack up their stuff. They broke camp in record time as Rabies bounced around in anticipation. Jason took it as a good sign that Travis didn’t slow them down. As soon as they were ready Jason held the paper in front of Rabies again. “Okay, this time for real! Where’s Krissy?”

                          Rabies snatched the letter right out of Jason’s hand and darted into the woods. “Good boy!” Jason ran after him, and Travis was close on his heels.

                          *********

                          Hanna’s eyes were having trouble focusing and her leg had fallen asleep at some point. She got up to walk it off, and in the process she knocked over two empty cans of vending-machine coffee from Derek’s stash. They’d been enough to carry her till four in the morning, but the remaining two and a half hours she’d pushed through by force of will alone. The payoff was that after running on fumes for so long she’d narrowed the field down to four trainer IDs, and four places that Krissy and the others could have visited recently: Cianwood City, Violet City, Pewter City, and Lavender Town. In other words, they could be anywhere from the extreme western end to the extreme eastern end of greater Johto/Kanto.

                          There was a part of her that had gone into this endeavor with the mindset ‘Hey, it can’t be that hard! First narrow it down to whoever has both a Sneasel and a Bayleef, and then the rest should be easy!’ She felt embarrassed to still have such hubris at her age. Even the first step was harder than it sounded, as there were over a hundred such trainers spread throughout both regions. To complicate things further they wouldn’t all necessarily drop off both of those Pokémon in the same trip each time, she had to query each town manually and separately, some of the databases played things fast and loose with timestamps thereby limiting the potential for meaningful correlations and pivoting, some of the ‘databases’ were in fact spreadsheets full of typos…

                          Suffice to say, Hanna could talk for an hour about everything that was wrong and difficult about the task, but the only one around to listen was Derek and he was even more familiar with this maddening hodgepodge of systems than she was. On that note, she decided it was as good a time as any to check on his status. He was still hunched over his laptop on the floor, and his eyes looked even more sunken and dismal than she imagined her own did. She walked over (rather hobbled over, as her leg was still waking up), took a knee, and craned over his shoulder to see his screen. “Where are we at?”

                          Derek moved his head an inch, took a quick glance at her, and then to her immense surprise he laughed. This was a rare phenomenon even under normal circumstances. “What?” she asked.

                          “When your head’s right where it is…” He sounded sort of drunk or maybe high as he trailed off. It was hard for Hanna to tell when she was so tired. He continued, “When you’re right there you’re like, literally my shoulder devil. Y’know, all telling me to divulge police secrets ’n sh*t. Heh.”

                          Hanna rolled her eyes and gave him a shove. “F*ck you. I’m your shoulder angel. Now what do you got?”

                          The half-smile vanished from Derek’s face, and he stared at the screen again. “Got a one-in-a-million or whatever chance that this wasn’t a waste of time. Here goes.” He clicked on a line in the Cinnabar Island window, and after several seconds there came up a page with the title “CHRISTIAN, LAURA JESSICA” and a photograph of a woman in her late fifties or early sixties. Derek put his head in his hands and kept it there for several seconds. At length, this is what he said: “She’s not here.”

                          “What do you mean?”

                          “I mean she ain’t. F*ckin’. Here.” He shut his laptop’s lid with enough force to possibly damage it. “I went over all of them, and there ain’t a single person in Johto or Kanto whose first name, middle name, or last name could conceivably be shortened to ‘Krissy’ who looks like our Krissy.”

                          Hanna didn’t believe it. There were so many people who fit that description that he must have missed a few of them. But he seemed so certain in the finality of his investigation, and she didn’t see any problem with his methodology. Regardless, this was looking worse than she thought. “So are the records incomplete or something?”

                          “They’d better not be. More likely she’s from Hoenn or Sinnoh or somewhere, and moved here after she got her license. Or maybe she pulled her nickname out of thin air, I dunno.”

                          Derek covered his eyes again. Hanna had never seen him like this. He often looked tired of whatever life through at him, but never this beaten by it. It was more disconcerting than she thought it would be. His voice was hollow when he asked her, “So what about you?”

                          “I’m close,” she said, trying to sound more confident than she was. “Really. It’s one of four. I just need to think of a few more ways to narrow it down.”

                          “Hmm. Lemme see.”

                          They moved over to her machine, and she tried to think of where to start her explanation and how to frame it in the most optimistic way possible. While she was bringing up a few windows to show the general trajectory of her four candidates, she had the first turn of good fortune in their entire session.

                          ‘Check rxxxshhchxhx. Check shhhxxrchhrs. Check srcchchshxx,’ came Marie’s voice. It was too complicated an idea for her to convey from inside the ball.

                          ‘Where were you four hours ago?’ asked Hanna through her head.

                          ‘I sleep. You knew.’

                          Hanna found herself laughing a bit as she took out Marie’s ball and opened it. The Alakazam stretched her back and bent her spoons in circles to get herself ready for work.

                          “I wasn’t gonna ask why you didn’t bring her out earlier,” said Derek.

                          “I don’t mind telling you. It’s cause she’s a creaky old lady, and sometimes you can’t move her an inch.”

                          Marie made a deep growl with her throat instead of her mind, presumably so Derek could hear her disapproval as well. “Point taken, Marie,” said Hanna. “Mind giving us a hand?”

                          Marie didn’t mind at all, and without another word Hanna saw the familiar blue glow in her peripheral vision. Apparently her Pokémon had been paying half-attention for about an hour, and had spotted no fewer than ten combinations of date and location where there might be inconsistencies with Krissy’s profile. Hanna had already checked hundreds of such intersections, and dozens of them were off from these by only a week, but somehow she’d missed them. She started typing away. At one point she became conscious that Derek was staring at the glow in her eyes, but other than that she was in the zone. After checking the first seven intersections, only one candidate remained.

                          “Violet City,” said Hanna. She leaned back on her hands and let out a deep, exhausted breath. “They’ve been in—no, probably around Violet City for at least the past week. Krissy’s last Pokécenter visit was toda—yesterday, so they’re probably still close by.”

                          If there had been a single flash of relief on Derek’s face at this news, Hanna had missed it. To her surprise and dismay he said, “Oh, f*ck.”

                          She didn’t really want to know, but she asked anyway: “…What’s ‘oh, f*ck?’”

                          “They’re after Russo. Mariano Russo. Maybe they don’t know they are, but that’s where they’re angling.”

                          “How bad is that?”

                          Derek sighed. “I’d say top-five worst ways they could go about this. Most of the Executives are in charge of one city, and he’s got three. Goldenrod, Violet, Ecruteak. His mansion’s outside Violet. Man’s got ice-blood. He’s the only Johto Exec the Kanto-Rockets don’t joke about.”

                          Hanna couldn’t judge for herself just how bad this was, but the look on Derek’s face and the dread in his voice were more than convincing. “We gotta find them right away, then,” she said. “Search all around Violet. I can take all the time off work we need—Bill gave me his okay. And we just need to call Jen and she’ll be ready to go.”

                          Derek looked away before nodding. “Right.”

                          Without warning, Marie brought a thought from Derek’s head into Hanna’s ear. ‘If I don’t report in soon, they’ll start asking questions. Two weeks is bad enough, but I can’t put off my job for three weeks. I’ll get fired. I can’t get fired. I can’t get fired.’

                          Hanna swallowed. This caught her so off guard that she forgot to chastise Marie for eavesdropping. She didn’t believe for a second that Derek would give up on saving the kids even if his job was at stake, but this was still yet another reason for them to hurry.

                          *

                          [Next time, in Lucia, it is late March of 2016 when a young girl has anxiety about her upcoming birthday among other things.]
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                          Old May 10th, 2017 (4:25 PM).
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                          O, Dance of Devotion!

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                          Jason and Travis's encounter with Fearow there I thought was enjoyable, like how Jason was thinking like Krissy near the end of the battle there. For some reason, I like the paragraph with the "Even if he [Jason] and Travis were just there as warm bodies" line, maybe because of how the prose there addressed the kids' situation well there. Figured that Krissy would try to go against Russo on her own, and sounds like he's the real deal.
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                          Old May 27th, 2017 (4:04 PM). Edited June 3rd, 2017 by icomeanon6.
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                          icomeanon6 icomeanon6 is offline
                          It's "I Come Anon"
                             
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                            [Quick reply to Bay's comments in the spoiler tags (no spoilers, just saving space):
                            Spoiler:
                            Quote:
                            Originally Posted by Bay Alexison
                            For some reason, I like the paragraph with the "Even if he [Jason] and Travis were just there as warm bodies" line, maybe because of how the prose there addressed the kids' situation well there.
                            I like that one too. It's one I hope works best when people have the chance to read the chapters back-to-back instead of waiting, as "warm bodies" is the language Travis uses to accuse Krissy of using him and Jason.

                            Thanks for reading!]

                            Lucia

                            April, 2016

                            Lucia Russo was hanging from a pull-up bar. Her elbows were locked and it had been a solid minute since she’d gotten her chin remotely close. Her arms felt like they were going to fall apart at any second, but she knew that if she didn’t get at least one she would regret it badly. Without thinking about it she began to move her legs to get some kind of momentum.

                            “Arms only.”

                            In that case, she couldn’t do it. She kept hanging there, and every attempt she made from then on at bending her elbows only wore her out further. Sweat rolled down her face as she wondered how long it would be until she was allowed to quit. A minute passed, and then half of another until finally she heard this: “Time’s up.” She let go and landed off-balance. She could feel her own pulse in multiple places, and it was difficult to breathe. She put her hands on her knees and stared at the basement floor, but when she heard the footsteps she forced herself to stand up straight. It was important to anticipate what came next and try to take herself out of it as much as possible.

                            The slap stung her cheek. By her best guess it would look red for two days but she’d stop feeling it by nighttime.

                            “Explain,” said her father.

                            What she said in reply was half acting and half habit. “I didn’t try hard enough, sir.” This answer had been drilled into her head countless times, and a small part of her still believed it.

                            “Go get changed. Battle practice is next.”

                            Lucia often wondered how her father managed to use his words and tones to make someone feel like they were simultaneously unworthy of this attention and deserving of his active contempt. However he did it, she knew he did it on purpose. “Yes, sir.” Slowly she walked out of the exercise room and headed to one of the changing rooms in the western wing of the basement.

                            Before she got out of her gym clothes, she went to the sink and splashed some water on her sore cheek. It didn’t feel better. Then she just barely heard some voices on the other side of the door, so she shut off the water and listened carefully.

                            “…meant was that she’s still only nine, sir. If I recall, I couldn’t really do a pull-up until I was eleven. If I may, my opinion is that this isn’t a reasonable expectation.”

                            “Your opinion is noted, 604, but you are mistaken. It is not relevant whether the expectation is reasonable or even realistic. The price of failure is the same irrespective of one’s ability, and this lesson is essential for anyone who would rise above the rank-and-file of Team Rocket. You could stand to heed it, yourself.”

                            “Of course, sir. Excuse me, sir.”

                            The voices left the vicinity and Lucia took out her regular clothes. The woman who’d been speaking to her father was Alessa, and she was a ‘Grunt.’ Not that Lucia’s father would ever condone the use of such a term. The issue wasn’t that ‘Grunt’ was undignified, but rather that it could be interpreted as even minimally endearing. Her father and the upper members of his staff addressed the Grunts with numbers, instead—the higher the number, the less one mattered in the organization. Lucia however never called Alessa ‘604,’ but just ‘Alessa.’ As Alessa was essentially Lucia’s keeper, her father permitted some level of familiarity as a necessary evil.

                            Suffice to say, Lucia despised her father. It had gotten to the point where she never mentioned her last name to anyone she met if she could help it. ‘Lucia Russo’ could give the wrong idea to anyone who happened to be familiar with Mariano Russo. In fact, her plan was to take it a step further when her birthday arrived in a few days’ time. As soon as she left home with Chikorita, she intended to hide behind a new name altogether. She’d already narrowed the first name down to two possibilities, but she kept drawing a blank on what her new last name would be. In all likelihood she would cross that bridge when she came to it, and in the meantime she had practice to attend to.

                            The practice gym was in the eastern wing of the basement. It was a bright, plain, and spacious room with a thick glass window for observers. It wouldn’t be obvious at first glance, but after having practiced here every day for months Lucia knew exactly which of the tiles in the floor were trap-doors for surprise encounters. Their purpose was to limit the amount of time she had to adapt to the circumstances of a battle, and they reminded her of a book she’d read once on the Colosseum in Rome. The key difference was that instead of tens of thousands of amazed spectators watching there were only her father and Alessa looking in from the other room. Still, Lucia imagined that her father wouldn’t object to Pokémon fighting to the death with themselves or with people here if it held some utility for him.

                            She glanced over to the window, and Alessa snuck her a smile, a wave, and a wink. Lucia knew better than to give her any of those in return while her father was watching.

                            “Just one today,” said the man through a tinny loudspeaker. “Send out your Pokémon to the middle of the room.”

                            “Yes, sir.”

                            Lucia took Chikorita’s ball and threw it per instruction. She said the words, ‘Go, Chikorita!’ in her head but did not dare say them aloud.

                            ‘Do nothing to create attachment between yourself and your tools, whether they are objects, Pokémon, or people. When it becomes necessary to dispose of them to accomplish your goal you must do so without hesitation.’

                            She hated those words, and she hated that she could remember them verbatim. He had said them to her many times when she was awfully young, and even now she faltered when trying to come up with a name for Chikorita other than ‘Chikorita.’ It was a relief that Chikorita didn’t seem to mind. When she appeared in the middle of the room in a flash of red, she looked eager as ever to get to work.

                            “Begin.”

                            Three trapdoors opened in a triangle around Chikorita, and out of each came a single Rattata. Given the distance between the doors and her Pokémon, as well as the predictable moment of hesitation while the opponents got their bearings, Lucia intuited that she had two seconds to come up with a plan. She did so in a little over one and a half. The following—in too many words—is a summary of the rapidly-firing gut feelings and memorized strategies that came into her head:

                            A melee against three Rattata would leave Chikorita too exposed to flanking. Going after only one of them with a ranged attack would also leave her vulnerable to the others. They had to either force or draw the enemy into a more favorable configuration. The Rattata appeared to be either wild or recently caught, and without trainers present they could be counted on to be poor decision-makers, so if Chikorita got on the outside she could probably run fast enough and long enough to get them bunched together. Then Chikorita could hit them all with Razor Leaf. The only potential issue was that Chikorita did not have the advantage in speed that Lucia would have liked.

                            The two seconds passed, and the Rattata began to move. They made a beeline for Chikorita. Lucia’s eyes widened and a hint of a smile found its way to her face as she saw that one of them was a touch slower and a hair smaller than the others. That was the quiet weakness that turned her strategy from a good bet to a done deal. “On your right! Break through him!”

                            Chikorita turned on a dime and took off on a collision course with the one Rattata that seemed marginally weaker. “Keep on going!” yelled Lucia while there was still time to react, just to make sure her intent was clear.

                            Chikorita followed through exactly as she wanted. She made impact with the Rattata not head-on but rather just enough to outmuscle it. While the enemy was knocked down, Chikorita kept on moving. She was outside the triangle. “Go to your right! Don’t stop!” The other two opponents adjusted their course without any surprises, and by the time the first one was on its feet again all three were nearly close enough to each other. “Sprint!”

                            With Chikorita’s second wind, the gap stayed constant just long enough for the Rattata to get themselves perfectly bunched. She had them. Lucia’s head was filled with the image of a Sharpedo smelling blood in the water off the coast of Hoenn. The only way to describe it was as a delicious excitement. “About face! Razor Leaf!”

                            Chikorita flung out a cloud of small leaves from the large leaf on her head even as she skidded to a halt. Scarcely a one of them was wasted. Each of the Rattata was covered in tiny cuts and they all stumbled from the surprise as much as anything. The two that hadn’t already taken a hit came to their feet again, but before they could get close another volley of Razor Leaf took care of them. There were three knockouts and the only wear on Chikorita had come from her own efforts.

                            Lucia let out a satisfied breath. She was this close to breaking out into a big grin, but a sharp feeling in her stomach stopped her. She knew what she would hear if she smiled about a win in this room, and there was nothing she wanted to hear less. The loudspeaker crackled to life again, and her worst fears for the moment came true. “Well done. I see thoroughness, efficiency, and a killer’s instincts. Keep and refine that approach and you will go far in Team Rocket.”

                            ‘Killer’s instincts.’ It didn’t hurt quite as bad as the slap, but she knew it would stick around much longer. Did she forget to keep her expression in check again? ‘I don’t enjoy this for the reason you think I do. I don’t. I don’t. Only monsters like you think like that.’ The Sharpedo and the blood in the water came back to her, and she felt sick.

                            Chikorita had walked over to her feet without her noticing. Lucia shook off everything in her head and let her Pokémon back into the ball without a word. There was no one in the window now, but the door opened behind her and in came Alessa and another Grunt. The other one rounded the defeated Rattata into Pokéballs, and Alessa walked over and clapped a hand on her shoulder. “Great stuff, Lucy! Textbook as always. I keep wondering when the old man’s finally going to trip you up. But I guess that’s not likely with only two days left.”

                            That was what Lucia needed to hear: that she’d done great, but framed in a way that she’d gotten the better of her father rather than played right into his hands.

                            Alessa asked her, “You hungry? It’s getting on dinnertime.”

                            Lucia nodded. “I’m could use some water, too.”

                            “Say no more! Let’s head upstairs.”

                            On their way to the kitchen they passed through the main hall. Lucia didn’t see why all of her father’s visitors went nuts over it. It wasn’t nearly as big as Giovanni’s in his mansion by Viridian City, and the gold trim on the tapestries was duller, too. As they were walking, Alessa kept her voice down as she asked her, “So, did you get to the showdown with Ignatius yet?”

                            “Almost, I think. I’m at the part where Krissy and Erin find out about Saul’s past.”

                            “Oh, that made me cry when I first read it!”

                            They were talking about Cloudburst, which was the third installment in a series of novels about a trio of teenage vigilantes and their Pokémon as they waged war against the nefarious (and brazenly allegorical) Astral Society. Books of this kind were banned in the Russo household, and Alessa had smuggled them to Lucia with the utmost discretion. “I don’t suppose you have book four in paperback?” asked Lucia.

                            “You want it for the journey?”

                            Lucia nodded. It’d kill her if she had to wait too long to find out what happened next.

                            “Sorry, I only have the hardcover. And I don’t think I can make it into town before you leave, either.”

                            “Oh.”

                            “Hey, don’t let it get you down. You’ll be so busy having your own adventure I bet you won’t even miss it.”

                            When she put it that way, Lucia supposed she would live after all. For that matter, and if things went according to plan, her journey could be more similar to the books than Alessa would guess. It would be nice to tell her this, so Lucia found herself wishing as she often did that Alessa’s shirt didn’t have that red ‘R’ on the front.

                            *********

                            One day and several hours later Lucia was alone in her room. It was a quarter to midnight, her things were all packed for her departure in the morning, and she although she was in bed she was wide awake. To be clear, the primary reason she was still awake was because of the flashlight she had on under the covers. This was her last chance to finish the book, and she could only hope there wasn’t a cliffhanger. There were only twenty pages to go and the ending seemed disappointingly far away.

                            She had just finished a scene where it was finally put out in the open that Krissy didn’t reciprocate Saul’s feelings for her. This was all well and good to Lucia. She wasn’t a fan of the whole love-triangle aspect of the story, especially because it was totally obvious that Erin and Saul were made for each other. Maybe after another two books of developments Krissy would be ready for love, but as things stood she was still kind of an ice queen. Heck, it had only been a book and a half since Erin brought her over to the good side. You couldn’t go from bad guy to serious love interest for one of the original duo after only 700 pages.

                            Putting her caustic, abrasive personality aside, the reason everyone loved Krissy was because of what she brought to the battles. Even if it was a little cheap that the author let her predict the obviously unpredictable, she had all the coolest strategies and the most powerful Pokémon outside of the most dangerous of the villains. It was for this reason that ‘Krissy’ was one of the two finalists for Lucia’s new name. She would have to channel some of that tactical genius to defeat her father someday.

                            On the other hand, Erin’s strengths were perhaps where she needed the most improvement. If there was one thing the first three books of the series had taught her, it was that going it alone would be impossible. She needed friends, strong ones and close ones. At present she had one friend who was stuck with the enemy and none besides. Erin’s singular charisma and social magnetism would be invaluable, if she could imitate it. She wasn’t sure if she could deliver a speech on the topic of friendship as well as Erin, but maybe it wouldn’t come to that.

                            So that settled it: as soon as Lucia was on the road she would be Erin. It was an exciting thought, but then she remembered that she needed a new last name, too. It wouldn’t do to go with the character’s surname of ‘Skye,’ as this would be too obvious to anyone who’d read the books. She thought hard about what else she could use. It took five solid minutes without a single idea for her to decide she’d just have to go by her first name, and wing it if the question ever came up.

                            She returned her attention to the book. By this time it was midnight, she was ten years old, and there were only eight pages left until the inevitable cliffhanger.

                            *********

                            It was the following morning, and Lucia was alone in the main hall inspecting her pack once more for good measure. She was reasonably sure she had enough water, and now that she’d quintuple-checked that her compass was in the top pocket she was ready to go. The grandfather clock in the corner struck nine. She was scheduled to leave approximately two seconds ago, but Alessa wasn’t there yet. There was no reason she couldn’t just walk out the door that very moment, but it seemed wrong to leave without saying goodbye.

                            The sound of footsteps came from the stairs above. Lucia felt a fleeting sense of relief, but when she turned around she saw only her father. In that instant what should have been a momentous occasion felt crushingly normal. She looked away and slung her bag over her back.

                            “Lucia.”

                            She turned around once again and stared at his suit jacket. It had been a while since she’d looked him in the eye. “Where’s Alessa?” she asked.

                            “She’s on an errand. She should be back tomorrow.”

                            Lucia’s eyebrows tightened on their own, as this was obviously no accident. It only fit the pattern that he would take every last chance to cut her down until she was free. The door was only a few yards away.

                            Her father continued speaking. “I was going to inform you of the schedule on which you are to report your status.”

                            This was no surprise either. It wouldn’t be difficult for her to lie if things came to that, however.

                            “But I’ve changed my mind.”

                            That was the first surprise of the day, and it caught her off guard enough that she made the mistake of looking at his face. When most people met her father they were fooled by the superficial. They saw a fine example of poise and grooming, but she knew better. It was hard to see unless he wanted you to, but his eyes were like those of an Arbok or a Persian. He could freeze any foe in place as long as they made eye contact. She was stuck.

                            “You see, schedules and reporting are a means of establishing trust. You have already earned mine.”

                            That was impossible. Lucia knew she wasn’t that good at pretending, and only a simpleton could mistake her shallow obedience for loyalty. Her father was no simpleton, so he could only be lying. The question was why.

                            He continued. “This may not come as a surprise to you, but I’ve never seen anyone so young who was so ready to join Team Rocket. It is plain just from the way you fight. None of the meaningless battles these child trainers stumble through will ever be enough for you. You want something with stakes—with teeth—and you know you can only find it here. You’ve already smelled the blood in the water.”

                            She swallowed her tongue.

                            “Go and build your skills, and come back whenever you think it’s time. I’m looking forward to it.” Her father turned away, and without another word he went off to attend to some business of his own.

                            Lucia was alone now, but his words burrowed into ears like long, thin worms. Or maybe they had been there the whole time. How else could he know what was inside her head? ‘Blood in the water’ was exactly it. She had to wonder, even if only for a moment, if he was right. Wasn’t it possible that blood-suckers like him could smell their own kind? What if there was no hiding from them, even if you could fool yourself?

                            She shook her head and took deep breaths. That was probably the whole idea: to make her think that she couldn’t hide and that the rest of her life was already written the way he wanted it. It was a lie. It was just one more lie that followed hundreds, and he couldn’t fool her anymore. The door was unlocked, and there was nobody standing between her and it. She slung her bag over her shoulder and checked that the Pokéball was firmly clipped to her belt. Then she finally turned the knob.

                            Erin walked out of the mansion and onto the road into town. It was a warm morning and the sun was shining.

                            *********

                            Violet City was bustling with activity when Erin reached the Pokécenter a few hours later. There was the expected foot traffic to and from the Sprout Tower to the north, but what had her attention were the considerable number of trainers out trading, shopping, and milling about the local gym. All of them seemed to know what they were up to and how they were going to spend the day, while she herself could only stand in place and hold the straps of her bag. Now that it came to it she found herself lacking momentum.

                            ‘Just stick to the general plan,’ she told herself. ‘Find some potential friends and work on establishing a constructive relationship.’

                            She decided that the first place to look in earnest would be inside the Pokécenter. As she moved toward the glass doors she kept her eyes on a gang of potential friends off to her right, and as a result she accidentally bumped shoulders with another potential friend who was exiting the facility.

                            “Watch where you’re going.” It was an older boy with confidence in his posture and thinly veiled annoyance in his voice. His status as a potential friend seemed questionable now.

                            While Erin muttered an apology in embarrassment, the older boy went on his way. Two girls who appeared to be twins followed after him and both gave her a look of sharp disapproval, which meant they were another two potential friends wasted. Based on what Erin had learned from her reading, that disapproval could be a sign that she wasn’t dressed sufficiently fashionably. She wondered if her skirt was too long or if her jacket’s material was unexciting. But she didn’t have anything better with her, and she wasn’t about to waste her money on clothes, so she continued on indoors to hunt for more prospects.

                            There were two teens by the counter, a guy and a girl, but they looked kind of like a couple. They would not likely be interested in a third wheel. Over in the corner though were three promising candidates sitting on some couches and chatting. They were all girls who seemed younger than thirteen but older than ten, which was perfect. Erin decided they would be her first attempt, so she steeled her nerves, got ready to smile, and approached them.

                            “Hi!”

                            One of them stopped speaking mid-sentence as they all turned to her with blank expressions on their faces. She had forgotten to wait for a lull in the conversation, but it was too late to do anything about that now. The only thing to do was to press forward and act with the self-assurance that everything she did and said was completely normal. “Mind if I sit here? This is my first day!”

                            There was a pause that came dangerously close to becoming an awkward silence, but then one of the girls smiled back and patted the spot next to her on the couch. “Sure, it’s all yours.”

                            ‘Brilliant!’ thought Erin. ‘Everyone acts bubbly and excited on their first day, right? That was a perfect explanation for any unusual behavior.’ She took her seat and hustled to think of something else to say, but fortunately the girl next to her kept speaking.

                            “I’m Sierra. That’s Lauren on the right, and Miss Smiley there on the left is Natalie.”

                            Lauren grinned and said, “Hey!” while Natalie remained straight-faced, rolled her eyes, and waved.

                            “I’m Erin. It’s nice to meet you!” It seemed this group so far had two sunny personalities and one that was colder. Three-to-one sunny might be imbalanced, so Erin made a note to dial her own sunniness back if she could hang around with them for more than a few days

                            “So who’s your starter?” asked Sierra.

                            “Oh, uh, one sec.” Erin unclipped her ball and held it out in front of her. “Go, Chikorita!”

                            Chikorita appeared on the floor, ready for action that wouldn’t come. Immediately every eyebrow except Erin’s was raised. Sierra whistled, and Lauren said, “Man, I’d love to see what car you get for your sixteenth.”

                            Somewhere in the back of her head Erin had already known that only rich kids started out with such a rare Pokémon, but for whatever reason it hadn’t occurred to her that Chikorita would be such an obvious mark on her. She fought back the instinct to show any hint of discomfort, and instead she decided to turn the focus on their difference in experience. “How big are your teams? Have you caught any rare Pokémon?”

                            Have we?” said Lauren with overflowing confidence. “Check this guy out!”

                            Lauren released a Scyther onto the floor in front of Chikorita. The ‘Mantis Pokémon’ towered over her, spread its wings, and flashed its bladed forearms. Chikorita braced herself and crouched down to attack, but Erin recalled her before anything regrettable could happen. “Wow, where’d you find him?” she asked.

                            Lauren was more than eager to tell the whole story, and this story dovetailed into several more stories that took the better part of an hour to cover. Erin found no difficulty in nodding along and listening. After Natalie offered her twelfth factual correction to Lauren’s string of tales—this one addressing Lauren’s inflation of her latest score in the National Park Bug Catching Contest—Sierra looked at her watch and stood up. “Well, we ought to get going. Don’t want to burn any more daylight.”

                            There were nods from the other two girls, and Scyther was recalled. This was the moment Erin had been keeping a lookout for, and she was ready to go full-steam ahead. She came to her feet along with Lauren and Natalie and asked them, “Do you mind if I tag along for a while? I haven’t been able to decide where to go first.”

                            There was another pause, this one even closer to becoming an awkward silence than the first. Natalie tangled her fingers in her hair and made an apprehensive “Um…” noise, but Sierra cut her off.

                            “Don’t see why not. You guys cool with that?”

                            Lauren gave a toothy smile. “Sure! The more, the merrier!”

                            It took another second, but Natalie shrugged and acquiesced. “Fine.”

                            Erin’s new friends gathered their things, and then they were off. This was going even better than she could have expected, and she had a light step as she followed them to Route 31 leading east of the city. The noise of the crowd was replaced by the chirps and clicks of hidden bird and insect Pokémon. The shade under the trees wasn’t too dark and the sunlight wasn’t too harsh: it was a perfect day.

                            Little of note happened the rest of the afternoon. Erin directed Chikorita through her first encounter with a wild Pokémon, a Bellsprout, and it did little to excite her as they had gone through so many training battles already. She did leave an impression on Sierra and Lauren, though:

                            “Man, that Chikorita’s gonna be pretty fierce someday.”

                            “Yeah, and you know some good tricks for a newbie!”

                            Natalie didn’t add anything. In fact, she even looked a little annoyed after the fight. Erin couldn’t blame her, as none of them knew she was working with a head start. Anyway, all it meant was that her friendship with Natalie would take a little more work than the others.

                            Evening came, and with it came the next critical point. Lucia figured that if she could camp out just one night with them, then her position in the group would be nearly secured. The entry was going smoothly so far, but if they happened to split up before nightfall then this would be a wasted effort. Worse yet, they were just coming up to the point in Route 31 where it divided into two, which was a natural place for them to go their separate ways. She figured if she just acted casual everything would work out.

                            And sure enough, “Hey,” said Sierra, “We’re going on ahead to Dark Cave tomorrow. You up for that?”

                            “Sure!”

                            Natalie rummaged through her bag and pulled out a lantern. “I say we make camp now. I know a good clearing a little ways north.”

                            There was no disagreement, so they followed Natalie off the path. Erin stumbled a few times on roots before she realized she had to keep an eye on the ground and take higher steps. Fortunately by the time they reached the flat stretch of grass she had avoided falling on her face and looking like an idiot. Just one more test passed out of the dozens of per day you had to pass to establish a lasting friendship.

                            *********

                            Lucia wasn’t awake. She knew she wasn’t awake because no matter how hard she tried she couldn’t move any faster than a slow walk. She could half-remember that they had eaten dinner and then gotten out their sleeping bags, but now she was trying to run up a mountain trail. The knowledge that she was dreaming did nothing to lessen the frustration of trying to move with feet that felt like blocks of lead.

                            This wasn’t the first time she’d had this dream. Any second the other three were going to show up. No, that wasn’t right, she only thought it was three because three had been the number during the day. The number was two, and there they were. Two other kids her age were at her right and her left. They could move in any direction they wanted and as fast as they wanted, and they did. They moved almost faster than her eyes could keep up with, even though their gait was effortless. This dream was always the same, which meant that soon they would head on up the mountain and out of sight.

                            But then they stopped. They stood in front of her and looked her in the eye. One of them was Saul from her favorite books, and the other was Erin from the same. That didn’t make sense because Lucia was Erin now. Erin looked at Erin’s face and wondered why it wasn’t Krissy in front of her instead if she was Erin. Her confusion nearly led her to miss the next thing that had never happened before in the dream: The other Erin was offering her hand.

                            Erin was too startled to take it at first, but she knew this was what needed and reached out. She half-expected her arm to be too heavy to move, or for the other Erin’s hand to stay two inches out of reach even though it stayed in place. But she grabbed it. The hand was solid and real, and now it was pulling her along. The weight in her feet was gone, and soon they were all moving up the trail as if she were awake. Then the mountain was gone, and so was the daylight, and she was lying on her side but the hand was still there. It was truly, absolutely real.

                            Erin’s eyes opened with a start. She yelped and pulled her hand free. It was fuzzy, but Sierra's face was close in front of her and lit by a dim lantern.

                            “Oh shoot, you’re awake?”

                            Sierra wore a crooked smile. Erin didn’t know what was happening, but it scared her.

                            “Dang.” That was Lauren’s voice. “So close, too.”

                            Erin bolted upright and saw Lauren sitting behind Sierra. She was smiling too, but it was the same smile she had worn all day. Erin’s mind raced to figure out what they were so happy about and why it made her stomach churn, and then she noticed what was at Lauren’s feet. It was a bowl full of water. Whatever was happening, it involved a bowl of water and Sierra grabbing her hand while she was asleep.

                            Even as groggy as she was, it was obvious to her now. She felt her eyes fix themselves into a glare, and her jaw clamped shut like a vise. She got out of her sleeping bag and started rolling it up. It was still dry, and she intended to keep it that way. So she was going to sleep somewhere else.

                            “Hey, c’mon,” said Sierra. “It’s just a prank. And you woke up before we could do it, anyway.”

                            Lauren chuckled. “Holy crap, she looks like she totally wants to kill you!”

                            Erin made sure she had all of her things, and then she stood up and walked away with tears in her eyes. She couldn’t think of anything to say that wasn’t vile, so she said nothing.

                            “Ugh…” came Natalie’s voice from her sleeping bag. “…What’s going… Oh my god. What the hell, you assholes?”

                            Sierra and Lauren just laughed. Erin was now past the edge of the clearing and just wanted to get away from their voices as fast as possible.

                            “Erin, wait!” It was Natalie again. “We’re sorry! It’s okay, you can come back! They’re not going to do anything!”

                            Erin bumped into a tree in the dark. It seemed like everything was spinning even though she couldn’t see. But she kept moving and only heard two more things from Lauren and Sierra.

                            Pfft, ‘sorry?’ Speak for yourself!”

                            “Just trying to show her she ain’t queen of all creation. Would’ve done her a favor, really.”

                            Erin tripped, fell, and scraped her knees. It felt like it tore a hole in her pajamas. She pushed herself up and wiped her face with a dirty hand. If she weren’t so angry she probably could have fallen asleep on the spot. Eventually she found herself back on the main path. She lost track of where she was walking as she tried to piece together where she had gone wrong. In a haze the first thing that came to her was that she picked the wrong name. That was why the real Erin showed up in the dream. She must be Krissy instead. If she were Erin she would never have a problem making friends with people she just met.

                            At some point or another Krissy must have found another place to lie down, because she was curled up in a ball on top of her sleeping bag. She cursed in her head and told herself that she would have to go this alone after all. There was no alternative if she mixed with other kids like oil in water. Her job then was to spend every minute for the next five years or however long it took training with her Pokémon until she was utterly indomitable—like the real Krissy, only better. She had to be good enough and tough enough to win alone because she was always going to be alone. This last thought repeated itself in her head until she was finally asleep.

                            *********

                            Eventually the sun was poking through her eyelids. It was morning, but not early. Krissy stretched out of her uncomfortable position and tried to sort out the sore spots in her back. She stared up at the leaves, and slowly some measure of calm and perspective settled in. It became apparent that there were mistakes in the conclusion she’d drawn the night before. Her new name was indeed Krissy (‘Erin’ just felt off, now), but there was no reason she should give up so soon and resign herself to a solo mission. The only thing yesterday proved was that she needed persistence along with continual revision to her approach.

                            She got up, stretched some more, and changed out of her mostly-ruined pajamas. She assumed those other kids from yesterday would still be going to the Dark Cave, so she decided she would spend the day going south in the direction of Cherrygrove City instead. And she wouldn’t sweat it if she didn’t meet any new friends today, as there was really no reason to hurry. After all, if she talked to four new people a day that would be twenty-eight in only a week. That meant she could go through a lot of duds like Sierra and company without wasting much time at all. The important thing was to be prepared for temporary failure.

                            The whole day passed by in a blur. She had a few encounters with wild Pokémon and she went through the motions with them. She passed some other trainers on Route 30, but she didn’t stop and greet any of them. That could wait until when she was entirely herself again. And this made her aware of another flaw in her plan: if she tried to channel the traits of her fictional heroes too closely, she would always be lacking an element of genuineness in her interactions, and that could effect an insincere friendship. She could fake a name, but trying to be an entirely different person was self-defeating.

                            Later when she was sitting with her back to a tree as the sun was going down, she settled on her new strategy: be Lucia, go by Krissy, don’t try to force a friendship that isn’t there, and be patient. She was able to sleep much better that night.

                            And just like that, Krissy’s third day as a trainer began. Actually, scratch that, she decided it would be better if this were her first day as a trainer. The previous two days were mulligans. She hit the trail again while the grass was still wet with dew, and continued her way south at a leisurely pace. Things felt good that morning, so she decided to at least talk to the first kids she met. Though she would keep her expectations in check.

                            It wasn’t long before she spotted some trainers in the corner of her eye off the main path. They were two boys messing around by a pond, and they both looked about her age. One of them was roughhousing with a Horsea in the water, but he didn’t splash too hard and seemed to let it win. Krissy thought that was sweet of him. The other was standing next to a Growlithe and checking his Pokédex. Krissy thought she heard it say ‘Ledyba,’ and sure enough there was one on a nearby tree.

                            This second boy began to speak, and Krissy decided she could get away with staring and eavesdropping a little while. “Hey Travis, wanna see something amazing?”

                            The boy in the water, presumably Travis, sighed. “I already know what you’re talking about but you’re—”

                            “Gonna catch this one with one shake, first try.”

                            “—probably gonna say it anyway.”

                            Krissy was taken aback by the audacity of the claim alone. One shake instead of three? It was known to happen on rare occasions, but every source she’d read before claimed it was a matter of pure luck. There was no way he could make it happen on command, much less with only one attempt, was there?

                            The boy called for an Ember and the Growlithe complied with gusto. Krissy found herself getting terribly excited and rooting for him despite herself. There was something in the way he carried himself with a Pokéball in his hand that made it seem so possible that he might pull it off. And if he did, that would make him way too interesting to ignore.

                            There was a great deal of barking, and suddenly the boy was all poise and focus. He wound up, and she crossed her fingers.

                            *

                            [Next time, in Dad's Old Gym, a slightly younger Jen takes a trip down memory lane and finds things different.]
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                              #23    
                            Old May 27th, 2017 (10:22 PM). Edited May 27th, 2017 by Bay Alexison.
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                            Bay Alexison Bay Alexison is offline

                            O, Dance of Devotion!

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                            Oh wow, so all of this explains how Krissy knows so much about Team Rocket and her always a strategist with Pokemon battles. I think you did well showcasing wanting to show her excitement in battles but had to restrain herself due to how she was raised. And yeah, I agree that those two girls she was hanging out with were very rude to her and uncalled for. Poor Krissy.

                            I do like the "shark and blood" lines relating to Krissy's father as it gives a glimpse of his personality. However, part of me felt he was a bit too trusting with her since a lot of folks are less trusting of their own kids than that. If I were him, I would have a grunt or someone spy on her, but he's your character not mine lol.

                            With this big reveal now the outcome for what's next sounds even more serious. I already read Dad's Old Gym and told you my thoughts on it long long ago, so I probably won't repeat my thoughts there when you post that unless you made some significant changes. Either way though, keep up the good work man.
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                            Old June 6th, 2017 (5:36 AM).
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                            bobandbill bobandbill is offline
                            shake that booty
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                            This is fantastic. I figured your work would be a good place to start a long-overdue catch-up on fics and damn. Really well structured thus far. Bonus points for it using a lot of the one-shots - and themes - I've read of yours already (I was already intrigued when I saw from the chapter list what the next article would be) - it's really doing wonders for the world-building and including shorts as well is great too. It's certainly a great strength of yours and seeing you explore more themes throughout, either in-depth or in passing, is neat.

                            But easily the most enjoyable chapter was the latest about Krissy. You could see something coming from numerous hints earlier, but I couldn't piece it together until the reveal, and when it happened I could see how it all fitted in without feeling cheated or the like. And it was just a great chapter by itself too, but the punchlines from it were fantastic. Bravo.

                            Characters are diverse and interesting and I particularly like Derek whenever he shows up, but what I've also really enjoyed are the interactions between the people and the Pokemon, battles included. Each one feels fresh, realistic and well thought-out, and you've explored interesting dynamics such as other ways to catch Pokemon beyond weakening them (the Sneasel battle). Larvitar training was also a fantastic segment imo, with a great one-liner to end the chapter and deliver comedy.

                            Complaints... the car scene is sorta important after reflections (and reading Psychic's review) to further raising alarm bells about Krissy, but... some things felt a bit off to me about it. I guess it felt too obvious to me that the scene was a set up to point out that 'Krissy knew stuff only criminals or the like would be into, isn't that weird?' to me, complete with finding a bullet lying around in the car. Bit too much of a jump from the curious hints (e.g. 'hey I don't know her last name whoops') to this.

                            The second part of it is Travis' reaction to her in the car (thinking 'get the hell off me!') and then later that night just didn't feel natural, and I feel it was because it didn't seem obvious enough to me he had such a dislike for her before this chapter. He didn't seem very friendly like him and Jason, but the most that suggested this to me was the scene of him saying to Jason she's following them, which came off as more comedic than anything to me. More hints about this in earlier chapters to better indicate that something isn't right about the two's relationship. Of course maybe I missed such things, but if so it wasn't nearly as well executed as the Krissy reveal was.

                            Couple other things not mentioned by Psychic already over on sppf:
                            Quote:
                            It was of exceptionally fine build to boot, and one the rare occasions when it didn’t work a simple reboot and quick recalibration was always enough to resolve the issue.
                            'and one of the rare occasions'.
                            Quote:
                            She sat down at the fire with nothing more than a non-committal “Hmm.”
                            I feel the full stop should be after the quotation mark here.

                            Definitely keeping my eye for further updates. Do keep it up.
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                              #25    
                            Old June 7th, 2017 (6:38 PM). Edited June 7th, 2017 by icomeanon6.
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                            icomeanon6 icomeanon6 is offline
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                              [Quick replies to Bay's and bobandbill's comments in the spoiler tags. I'd say they're more spoilery for the story so far than they've been in the past, so be warned.
                              Spoiler:
                              Quote:
                              Originally Posted by Bay
                              However, part of me felt he was a bit too trusting with her since a lot of folks are less trusting of their own kids than that. If I were him, I would have a grunt or someone spy on her, but he's your character not mine lol.
                              I was thinking hard about this while writing and still am, and I tend to think of it as "confidence" rather than actual "trust." I'll try to have this make more sense in future chapters.

                              Quote:
                              Originally Posted by bobandbill
                              Bonus points for it using a lot of the one-shots - and themes - I've read of yours already (I was already intrigued when I saw from the chapter list what the next article would be) - it's really doing wonders for the world-building and including shorts as well is great too.
                              It's a huge relief to hear you say that. I kind of wanted this to be the "definitive version" of a bunch of ideas and stories I'd worked on before but not to my satisfaction. I feel like the biggest challenge so far has been charting out where the shorts should fit between the chapters and who gets the narrative perspective when, so if you think it's well structured so far that's great because I was worried that would be a huge liability, and still am for the remaining chapters.

                              Quote:
                              Characters are diverse and interesting and I particularly like Derek whenever he shows up, but what I've also really enjoyed are the interactions between the people and the Pokemon, battles included. Each one feels fresh, realistic and well thought-out, and you've explored interesting dynamics such as other ways to catch Pokemon beyond weakening them (the Sneasel battle). Larvitar training was also a fantastic segment imo, with a great one-liner to end the chapter and deliver comedy.
                              The Larvitar training I think was my favorite part to write. :)

                              Quote:
                              the car scene is sorta important after reflections (and reading Psychic's review)* to further raising alarm bells about Krissy, but... some things felt a bit off to me about it. I guess it felt too obvious to me that the scene was a set up to point out that 'Krissy knew stuff only criminals or the like would be into, isn't that weird?' to me, complete with finding a bullet lying around in the car. Bit too much of a jump from the curious hints (e.g. 'hey I don't know her last name whoops') to this.
                              I agree. I was wracking my brains over how to get the developments I wanted out of that scene without it feeling contrived. Eventually I settled for the least-contrived option I had so far, but if this ever gets a revision that would definitely be a scene I rework.

                              * bobandbill is just cross-posting - he's not referring to a review that an actual psychic put into his head in Issue #47! -Editor

                              Quote:
                              The second part of it is Travis' reaction to her in the car (thinking 'get the hell off me!') and then later that night just didn't feel natural, and I feel it was because it didn't seem obvious enough to me he had such a dislike for her before this chapter. He didn't seem very friendly like him and Jason, but the most that suggested this to me was the scene of him saying to Jason she's following them, which came off as more comedic than anything to me. More hints about this in earlier chapters to better indicate that something isn't right about the two's relationship. Of course maybe I missed such things, but if so it wasn't nearly as well executed as the Krissy reveal was.
                              I was hoping that the scene where Krissy was following them could serve double-duty as comedy and establishing Krissy as a wedge between Travis and Jason in Travis's mind, but now that you mention it I can see that might have been optimistic. I know I wanted Travis's animosity toward Krissy to intensify after Wyvern was kidnapped, but in the process I may have hidden the animosity too deeply prior to the kidnapping. I don't know if it's the first thing I'll change, but I'm definitely taking this under advisement.

                              Huge thanks for the kind words and the crit, my man.

                              A few Author's-Notes-type words here: what follows is a revision of a one-shot I wrote for last year's Small Writing Competition, and it also happened to be Jen and Hanna's first appearance. Just as a road-marker, counting this chapter there are 3 standalone chapters and 6 numbered chapters left in the story. (Letting you know because when you read a book you can see how many pages are left.) Thanks for reading, and enjoy!]

                              Dad’s Old Gym

                              August, 2014

                              It was early one summer afternoon when Jen Brooks was sitting in the forest next to her old friend, Hanna Maris. Jen had her back to a tree while Hanna was lying on her stomach and staring intently through the underbrush. The woods were perfectly quiet until Jen whispered, “Has he done anything yet?”

                              “I think he’s a she, and no,” whispered back Hanna. She was referring to a wild Stantler in the clearing a few dozen yards away from them.

                              Jen looked over her shoulder to see that Hanna was carefully tapping some notes into her Pokédex as she spied on the deer-Pokémon. So far the two of them were doing a good job of going unnoticed. It would be a shame for Hanna to miss something because the Stantler got startled and ran off, or worse yet hypnotized them. Being stealthy didn’t make for the most exciting vacation, but in a way that was part of the point. Their Pokémon journey back when they were kids hadn’t always been riveting either, and at age twenty-five Jen appreciated how much nicer it was to sit in the fresh air than at a desk in a cube.

                              For one thing, you weren’t allowed to drink at work. Jen reflected on this as she closed her eyes, took a sip from her hip flask, and let some of the tension from the past year ease out through her skin.

                              Still, she was getting tired of doing nearly nothing. She leaned over again and tried to read Hanna’s notes. “You said this is in beta now?” Immediately, Jen wondered if she should have opened the floodgates.

                              “Alpha, actually. We’ll put our revision in full beta when the natural language processing cluster works, probably Q4 2016. Then we’ll be able to automatically identify duplicates in the user submissions, and once we weight the duplicate-count with the individual users’ trust-scores…”

                              Hanna rambled on, at a whisper of course, for somewhere north of ten minutes. ‘Oh god, she’s trying to explain the math now.’ Between all the numbers and the liquor, Jen was in serious danger of falling asleep.

                              “…sub-scores based on subject matter expertise. Bill’s working on a machine-learning model to calculate those values holistically…”

                              It just kept going.

                              “…real game changer for accuracy and the time it takes to verify and publish corrections…”

                              (Yawn.)

                              “…and now kid trainers can really feel like they’re contributing to science. Oh, and the interoperability we’re getting with the PC Storage System now is fantastic. It can identify new forms and variations on individual species as trainers catch them and push out the new data to every Pokédex as soon as they connect to Wi-Fi.”

                              Hanna finally slowed down enough for Jen to get another word in. “You, Bill, and Oak can do whatever you want to Dexter as long as he still talks. You get rid of that and I’ll riot.”

                              “I told you, it’s going to be same Pokédex, just less dumb.”

                              After listening to that mountain of technical gibberish, Jen wasn’t in the mood to hear Hanna talk for hours about literally every tiny factual mistake in the Pokédex. She had to steer the conversation in a more tolerable direction, so she went to one of her old standbys. “Hey, so this is a little out of nowhere, but did they have any independent gyms around Olivine when you were growing up? You know, not with the Pokémon League?”

                              “Yeah. Two, I think.”

                              Before Jen could follow up, Hanna continued. “Is this going to be your patented spiel about old, crappy gyms? I remember a lot of it from the last time I heard it. Was that two years ago?”

                              Jen was at peace with her own transparency. “Hey, you just had—”

                              “Shhh.”

                              Jen had started to rise above a whisper. She corrected herself and tried again. “You just had your turn, so now I get to bore you.”

                              Hanna nodded. “That’s fair. Go for it.”

                              That was all Jen needed to hear, so now she opened her own conversational floodgate. “Have you noticed how Leader-centric all the League gyms are? There’s really nothing there for folks our age. Like, who has time to raise as many strong Pokémon as kids do? Back when there were more than just the eight gyms you could always find someone at your skill level at a gym, even in Blackthorn. Try going to a gym there today with only one or two Pokémon.”

                              Hanna scratched her back, which was the most pronounced movement she had made in over forty minutes. “You don’t need to go to a gym to find someone to fight. There are trainers all over the place.”

                              “It’s not the same, though!” (Whoops, too loud.) “…It’s not the same, though. What about tournaments? If we tried the Indigo Plateau today we’d get laughed out of the qualifiers, but the minor-league gyms had tournaments for basically every skill level. Pro, semi-pro, amateur, under-tens… and they always drew at least an okay crowd. My dad was one of the top trainers in the Forest League before it folded.”

                              “Yeah, I remember you telling me that. That was just Mahogany Town and Ecruteak, right?”

                              “Violet City, too. But man, North Ecruteak Gym was the best. It was all outdoors, and they held their big matches at night and sold popcorn—it was something.”

                              Hanna motioned for the binoculars that were lying next to her bag, and Jen handed them over as slowly and delicately as she could. “Just spotted a Forretress in a tree over there,” whispered Hanna. “Anyway, you’re the only one I know who actually misses those gyms. My parents wouldn’t even let me step foot in one—said they had more drug dealers than trainers. And I think one of my friends got tetanus from the bleachers at Olivine Beach Gym. That showed her to sit on a bench that’s fifty percent splinters and rusty nails in short shorts.”

                              “Lies. I wore short shorts in the bleachers at ours all the time and didn’t get tetanus once. And there were hardly any drug dealers at all.”

                              Jen didn’t add ‘I think’ to the bit about the drug dealers, and for the next ten minutes she proceeded to bury Hanna’s skepticism with details about the wonders of North Ecruteak Gym. She covered such topics as ‘…most beautiful part of the forest…,’ ‘…groundskeeper had a Ponyta and let you ride her…,’ and ‘…I had my first battle there, it was so cool…’

                              Jen still had a lot of things to say when Hanna got up and crept back over to her bag. Apparently they were almost done here, so Jen decided to cut to the chase. “You know, if our plan’s to reach Ecruteak tonight and spend most of the day around there tomorrow—”

                              Hanna interrupted as she rummaged through her bag. “Do you want to go check out an abandoned gym and see a bunch of nothing?”

                              It was always a good sign when Hanna didn’t explicitly shoot down an idea right away. “Yes. Super yes.”

                              “I’m fine with that. We’ve got ten whole days on the trail, after all.”

                              Jen silently pumped her fist as Hanna pulled out an empty Great Ball and unclipped the lone Pokéball on her belt. “First let me see if I can catch one of those two and get some more data…”

                              *********

                              A few hours later Jen was staring at the stars as she tried to fall asleep. She and Hanna never stayed in a Pokécenter overnight if it wasn’t raining or freezing. This was mostly because it was always too bright in the Pokécenters to sleep well, but also because their free lodging policy was obviously written with children in mind. Better to leave more room for the exhausted preteens who found all the hiking to be a challenge.

                              Jen on the other hand was anything but exhausted, and that could turn into a problem if she didn’t drift off before Hanna started snoring. She knew thinking about getting to see the old gym again would only keep her awake, but she couldn’t help it. It had been just about this time of year when her dad fought in his last and best tournament. Every last detail of it was still in her head.

                              She remembered walking up to the stands and finding the best seat in the middle section: just high enough, but also just close enough to have the perfect view. She stood the whole time so no one’s head would be in her way. It was a warm night, but not muggy, and the crowd was the biggest and noisiest she’d ever imagined. When her dad and his opponent came out onto the dirt field and everyone started clapping and cheering, she realized that she wasn’t just remembering anymore. Half of her knew it was a dream, and the other half of her was six again. She jumped and shouted, “Let’s go Daddy!”

                              Her daddy was standing in the bright lights. There must have been thousands of people there to see him, and just as many Pokémon must have been hidden in the dark trees and watching from the edge of the forest. Her daddy took out a single green Friend Ball and brought Jen’s favorite Pokémon into the battle: Vesuvius, the Typhlosion. Both of the trainers were down to their last Pokémon, and the victor would go on to the final round. He was so close to winning the Forest Cup.

                              But there was a problem, and it was a huge one: Steelix. Vesuvius was panting from how beat up he was, while Steelix didn’t have a scratch on him. The giant snake flashed its iron fangs. It was scary, but Jen knew Vesuvius could handle it. Steelix tried an Earthquake attack and Vesuvius bounded away from the worst of it with all of his strength. Then he jumped onto Steelix’s back and extended the fire-quills in his shoulders to their full length. Steelix writhed around, but somehow Vesuvius held on and completely torched one of his opponent’s body-segments with a Fire Blast.

                              “Holy sh*t,” said someone sitting near her, “He might actually do it.” Jen couldn’t wait to see the look on this stranger’s face when it was over.

                              Someone else in their section shouted, “Last call for bets! Last call!”

                              “Yo, bookie, up here! Five thousand on fire!”

                              “Brooks is fire, right? Ten thousand on Brooks!”

                              Ten thousand Pokéyen. That was more than enough to buy a ton of Pokéballs. Jen wondered if her daddy would make that much money for beating this guy. And he was almost there. Vesuvius shot more and more flames all over Steelix, and Jen could see the burns setting in. This was it!

                              But then the fire ran out. It had been so hot and so strong a moment ago, but now it was gone. Jen wrung her shirt in her hands and yelled, “Come on, Vethuvivus!” but to no avail. She begged and pleaded but Vesuvius’s quills retracted again and he closed his eyes. Steelix finally shook him off, and then it rammed him with its skull. He skidded and tumbled almost all the way to the stands.

                              Jen was actually relieved to see the referee wave his arms. “Down! Match over!” She started to sniffle as her daddy walked over and brought the world’s best Pokémon back into his ball.

                              There were so many people in the crowd cheering for the wrong person. A lot of them were mad like they were supposed to be, though.

                              “That’s just so goddamn typical.”

                              “Last time I make a late bet, I swear. What a gyp.”

                              Everyone was waiting in their seats for the final round, going to get food, or going to the woods to pee, but not Jen. She made her way under the bleachers and sobbed until it was out of her system. She wouldn’t let her daddy see her crying like this. He was the one who lost, so she had to cheer him up. She couldn’t do that if he knew how sad she was.

                              When her face didn’t feel quite so red, she decided she was ready. She walked back out under the lights and heard everyone chanting to get on with the next battle. Her daddy wouldn’t be there. By then he’d be hanging around the trainers’ clubhouse with a drink in his hand. She walked over in that direction, and sure enough she found him in the shadows behind the building. He was holding a beer and talking to another man in a suit. He didn’t sound happy.

                              “…so just hand it over already and let me get the hell outta here.”

                              The other man held out an envelope, and her daddy swiped it and stuck it in his back pocket.

                              “For what it’s worth, Sean,” said the man, “you have my condolences that things didn’t work out for you tonight. My colleagues would still be interested in landing you some bigger matches, of course.”

                              “I’ve met your ‘colleagues,’ Mariano, and they can suck my dick.”

                              The other man turned to leave. “Duly noted.” He walked into the clubhouse.

                              Now that he was alone, her daddy chucked the empty can over his shoulder. If he was already done with his drink then Jen had taken too long. But then he spotted her, and he smiled as if nothing was the matter. “Heya, kiddo!” he said as he scooped her up. “Having fun?”

                              Jen tried to say what she was supposed to. “I’m really… really sorry y… you lost, Daddy.”

                              “Hey, don’t you worry about that. There’s always next year. Sure was a nail-biter, huh? We gave ’em a real run for their money at the end!”

                              There was a big roar from the crowd. They were all still cheering for the wrong trainers. It made Jen sick. “I thought you were gonna win…”

                              “Listen, Jennifer. There ain’t nothing to be ashamed of in losing. Sometimes all you can do is make it close and put on a good show. I want you remember that when you start training, hear?”

                              ‘When I start training,’ she thought. That was such a long way away, and she wanted so badly to start right then and there. “Do you think I can ever get as good as you?”

                              He laughed. “You betcha. Hell, I’ll bet a million on it, just you wait.”

                              Then he gave her a big squeeze, and she squeezed him back as hard as she could. His whiskers tickled her cheek, and it was that moment that hung in place and stayed with her when she woke up. All of Jen was an adult again. It was early morning, and soon she’d be going back to her dad’s old gym.

                              *********

                              The wide path through the woods to North Ecruteak Gym hadn’t changed since Jen was little. There was practically a skip in her step, she was so excited. “This is the way we’d take every time,” she told Hanna. “You should see the trees here in the fall. Best leaves in Johto, no lie.”

                              “Must be something,” said Hanna. She didn’t sound completely convinced.

                              “Haaarrrummm…”

                              “See, Marie gets it!” All the Pokémon were out of their balls for the walk, and Marie was bringing up the rear. Summer was leading the way, and the third one was in Jen’s arms at the moment. This made for a little difficulty and frustration because—

                              “Ow! Quit it, Rabies!”

                              —he was only three weeks old and still rather bitey.

                              “That’s such a mean name to give a Growlithe.”

                              Jen shifted the little pup to one arm and showed Hanna the multitude of fading marks on the other. “Believe me, I had some much meaner ones in mind.”

                              But even though she complained, Jen was thrilled to have more than one Pokémon again. Like most trainers did when they grew up, she and Hanna had long since given away or set free almost all the members of their old teams. It had looked like Marie and Summer would be both their starters and their finishers, but then a few months ago Summer surprised them. Jen wasn’t about to give little Rabies away for anything, and she happened to think it was a great name.

                              As for Rabies himself, he didn’t seem to care much about names yet and proceeded to whine and nip at Jen’s shoulder. It took a curt bark from his mother to calm him down for a few precious minutes. Jen tousled the cream-colored tuft of fur on his head and smiled.

                              “Anyway,” said Jen, “We’re almost there. Ready to see what you were missing growing up?”

                              “Hmm.”

                              Hanna would come around, Jen knew it. There just wasn’t anything like a real outdoor gym. When she saw a familiar turn in the trail, she knew they had less than a minute of walking left. The first thing that came into view past the last trees was the flat, familiar stretch of dirt that was the old arena. Then they reached the end of the path and entered the wide clearing that was once North Ecruteak Gym.

                              At first glance, it seemed to Jen that the place hadn’t changed much at all. It was just as wide open as ever, although the grass had started to creep in on the edges of the arena. Also, the chalk had long since vanished so it didn’t look particularly like a place for Pokémon battles anymore. And naturally the bleachers were worse for wear and most of them were missing.

                              “Wait…” She was right and wrong, and both in bad ways. The bleachers had indeed fallen into disrepair since last she saw them, as there was now rot in the benches and rust in the supports, but when she thought about it she realized that none of the sections were missing. They had just always been that small. The difference was that now she knew how puny twelve rows was for a stadium, and that in the official gyms the stands surrounded the entire field while these only covered most of one sideline.

                              She had to chuckle at that. Everything looked bigger and more impressive when you were little, after all. The lights at least still seemed tall to her, even though one of the poles had fallen over. “Heh. Yup, this is it.”

                              “It’s nice and open, just like you said.”

                              “Speaking of which,” said Jen as she tried to balance the increasingly eager Rabies, “I think it’s time to let someone get his exercise.”

                              Jen gave up on letting the Growlithe down gently and instead dumped him onto the grass, at which point he darted off to the middle of the field as fast as his tiny legs could carry him. Summer jogged after him, passed him, and then blocked him from running straight into the woods on the other side and out of Jen’s sight. “Summer’s a good mom,” she said, and Hanna nodded.

                              Rabies continued to run around, and by chance he led Jen’s gaze to one of the single ugliest structures she had ever seen.

                              “Wuh…”

                              “What is it?”

                              It was the clubhouse. The hole in the roof and the rusted-shut dumpsters next to it were one thing, but the building itself was squat, drab, and hideous down to the last cinder block.

                              “Nothing…” said Jen, “Just the clubhouse looks a bit different than I remember.

                              Hanna looked over at it and appeared to bite her tongue for a moment. “Did the paint wash off or something?”

                              Jen wanted to say yes. Surely that must have been the case, but if she checked her memories honestly it had always looked like this. Maybe it fit in better when it was dark out. “No. Now that you mention it, I don’t think anything was ever painted here.”

                              Jen shook off this little surprise as well. Nobody ever came to this place for the clubhouse. It was all about the fresh air, the big arena, and the lights, so she walked over to where the center dot used to be. Hanna and Marie followed her, and she smiled. “This is where it all happened.” All of her dad’s big wins, magnificent comebacks, and close losses to better trainers came back to her. She would have watched them from this close if they had let her.

                              And because she was focusing so hard on all the great nighttime moments, she almost forgot the coolest thing to see in the daytime. “Hey, look behind you real quick.”

                              To the southeast you could just see the top four stories of the Bell Tower. The gold spire on the top caught the sun perfectly.

                              “Okay,” said Hanna, “That’s pretty cool.”

                              “Dad always said that Ho-Oh was a season ticket holder. Never missed a battle.”

                              “I thought the legend was that Ho-Oh was going to return to the tower, not that he’s always there.”

                              Jen shrugged and laughed. “I never said he wasn’t full of crap sometimes.”

                              Hanna laughed with her, but then she straightened up. Jen knew that look: it meant Marie was ‘talking’ to her. Marie’s fox-like face remained as still as ever, but the two spoons she held in her hands bent just a little bit. “What’s up?”

                              Hanna was staring a thousand miles away, but all of a sudden she turned to the clubhouse. “She says Rabies found something behind the clubhouse… and it’s… I can’t make out the rest of it. We should go check it out.”

                              Jen and Hanna got a move on, and Jen hoped that Rabies wasn’t trying to eat anything gross. The dumpsters meant it was possible that Marie was trying to say ‘it’s trash.’ They turned the corner, and it immediately became clear that the phrase was probably closer to ‘it’s trash, and it’s on fire.’ There were two old and nasty-looking garbage bags on the ground, and Rabies had torn one open and set a few Embers on it to boot.

                              “Oh, shoot,” said Jen as she rushed over to stamp out the flames that had spread to the grass. At the same time Hanna pulled out her water bottle and dumped the whole thing on the biggest part of the fire. Jen looked closer and was relieved to see that the only contents of the bag were piles of paper rather than something that might smell.

                              One sheet of the old papers was presently in Rabies’s mouth as he sat upright, wagged, and showed it off. “Oh, aren’t you pleased with yourself?” Jen reached down to grab the paper, making sure to give the impression that she was taking it away because he was being bad, rather than that she was graciously accepting the spoils of the hunt. “Let go, Rabies. Drop it. Drop.”

                              It seemed Rabies had no interest in relinquishing his prey to someone who wasn’t going to appreciate it. To compensate, Jen opted for trickery. She waved her other hand near Rabies’s head, knowing it would be too much to resist. Sure enough the Growlithe tried to chomp down on the new moving object, and in the process he let go of and perhaps completely forgot about the paper. The page was both wet and singed, but somehow mostly intact. As Jen straightened it out, she spotted Summer lying nearby. “Don’t let him do this anymore, okay, girl?”

                              Summer growled in apparent disinterest, as if such small fires were beneath her attention. Or perhaps she was just pleased to see Rabies’s progress in learning how to ignite his targets. Regardless, and now that there was no more danger of a wildfire, Jen was interested to see what these papers were.

                              She began to read, and her interest was immediately piqued further when she saw some familiar names. They were two of her dad’s old rivals, and listed underneath were Pokémon rosters she also recognized. ‘I saw this battle,’ she realized as she read the match outcomes. Steelix over Persian, Steelix over Nidorino, Hitmontop over Steelix… it was just as she remembered. It had been a sort of grudge match following a tournament that ended with these two trainers. All the bets from the crowd were even written down, and she saw the payouts the battlers took as their cuts. She felt a smile coming over her face. Were all of the gym’s records here?

                              But something was wrong. She didn’t notice at first, but they shouldn’t have written everything in this order. The trainers, the rosters, the early bets, and the final results were all written in ink. But the mid-fight bets were in pencil. They were also in someone else’s handwriting, and they were spaced around the outcomes as if—

                              Her heart sank into her stomach. The way this was written, you would think the later bets had been placed after the fight was already over.

                              “Jen?”

                              Jen dropped the paper and immediately dug into the bag that Rabies had taken it from. All the sheets on top were ruined, but underneath they were mostly fine. She knew what she was looking for and scanned the dates. These were all too old, and they got older further down in the bag. This meant that what she was looking for might be in the other bag. She moved over on her knees and tried to undo its knot. It was tight, and that made her mad. She grabbed underneath the knot and tore the whole thing open, spilling its contents.

                              “Jen? Jen! What’s the deal?”

                              Jen didn’t answer. She was reading dates and getting close to the one she had in mind. She rummaged and rummaged until she finally found it: July 15, 1995, followed by Sean Brooks.

                              Her hands shook. Someone had written on this sheet of paper all the matchups and outcomes of her dad’s last fight, including a big note, ‘Typhlosion gets on Steelix’s back—ASK NOW,’ surrounded by larger bets than any that were placed before the match started. Then she saw the payouts. Her father got three times as much as the winner.

                              “He took a dive.”

                              “What?”

                              Jen’s eyes were watering. “This was the farthest he ever got. W…Why would he take a dive?”

                              Jen’s fingers trembled beyond her control, and the paper fell to the ground. Hanna knelt down and picked it up. “…Oh. Oh, Jen, I’m so sorry.”

                              If Hanna said anything after that, Jen didn’t hear it. She thought she heard someone else loud and clear, though.

                              ‘Ain’t nothing to be ashamed of in losing.’

                              ‘Put on a good show.’

                              ‘Gave ’em a real run for their money.’

                              Someone she didn’t recognize was in her head. He was trying to rationalize what had been written and done. Maybe he thought he was trying to cheer up a sad girl, but he couldn’t fool Jen. The words were obviously aimed at himself and his own dirty conscience. Whoever he was, she didn’t know him at all.

                              *********

                              It was sundown. Heavy clouds were rolling in, and Jen’s flask felt like it was half-full. She was sitting with her back to the clubhouse’s front door. Several hours ago she had said something to the effect of, ‘I want to be alone for a bit. You can go do whatever. I’ll meet you back in town.’ She stared at the ground and found herself unsure of when she would leave and find Hanna again. If she did that, then Hanna would probably want to talk. And they would probably talk about her dad. She took another drink.

                              It was too dark to see. Jen’s flask felt empty. She held it upside-down over her mouth to confirm. “F*ck.” Then she either tossed it aside or dropped it; it was hard to tell. She felt a buzz in her pocket, which was probably just Hanna texting her again. Jen thought she ought to mind her own damn business. How was she supposed to get her mind off of this sh*t with someone badgering her every ten minutes? She felt around for a rock and threw it at nothing. The motion made her brain swish around in her head a little, and she ground her teeth.

                              Minutes or hours later, a bright light hit her face. It didn’t make her head feel any better and when she tried to cover her eyes she missed. When the light left on its own, everything outside of it looked even blacker than before. She had some strong words for whoever that light belonged to.

                              “…Jen?”

                              Of course. She probably should have guessed who it was.

                              “…Jen, c’mon. Let’s go.”

                              Who did she think she was, trying to boss her around like that? If Hanna was going to be her usual intrusive b*tch self anyway, why couldn’t they talk right here? Before she realized that she didn’t actually want to say anything, words came out of Jen’s mouth. “He never told me.”

                              Hanna didn’t say anything. Whatever. “…That bastard died before he told me anything.”

                              There was a longer pause, and then some predictably know-it-all words came from somewhere in front of her. “Would that have been better? If he’d told you everything when you were little?”

                              What a stupid f*cking question. “Are you kidding?” Jen pushed herself off the ground, and her brain pressed against her skull again. She fought down the nausea and came to her feet. “Would it have been better if he hadn’t lied about it every goddamn time? If he’d been even a little sorry? Yeah. That’d have been better.”

                              More silence. It was hazy, but she could see Hanna’s outline where she held the flashlight. Things were more clear at Jen’s feet, and something compelled her to bend over and pick up a rock. “You know half the men in this town had a gambling problem? He probably kicked off two divorces that night alone.”

                              He and all the other trainers who’d ever battled here. It made her want to put this rock right through one of their eyes, but she’d have to settle for the next best thing. She turned around to face where the clubhouse was. It was all one blur of black and gray, but she hoped to hit a window. She wound up. “F*ckin’ crooks and liars… him and the rest of them!” She let it go and then she heard glass shattering. Jen staggered in place, but not enough to lose balance completely.

                              “Jen… We don’t have to stay here.”

                              Why couldn’t she take a hint? Couldn’t she tell she wasn’t done here yet? Jen looked up and saw the shadow of those miserable wooden bleachers. She felt for one of the two Pokéballs on her belt.

                              “Seriously, we can go right n—” Hanna stopped for some reason when Jen had the ball in her hand. “…What are you doing?”

                              Jen hated having to spell everything out for her. She wound up again and aimed for the stands. “Gonna give Rabies some practice.”

                              There was a noise, the light went astray, and before Jen knew it Hanna was trying to tackle her. She couldn’t move her hand.

                              “Let go!” Jen tried to shove her off, but she found herself turned around.

                              Shut up!” The words hit her like a slap to the face. “Don’t you dare teach a Growlithe to burn stuff down like that! You’re a fire trainer! You know better!”

                              The ball fell out of Jen’s hand. The image of a grown-up Rabies—one who was always as mad as she was now—came into her head.

                              Hanna kept yelling. “It hasn’t rained for weeks! You could’ve torched the whole forest! You think that’d help? You really think those guys were any worse than some sh*tfaced arsonist?”

                              No. Not even close. Her dad never made Vesuvius use fire outside of battle; not even for a campfire. He always said it was better to teach a Pokémon safer habits than you needed to. He never would have done something like she was about to do, not even when drunk. He’d smashed a glass or two, but he’d always sent her and Derek out of the room first, and he’d always cleaned the pieces up himself.

                              And he never, ever used fire because he was angry. Any one of his fire Pokémon knew how to use exactly enough fire to win. Or to lose, but what else did that say? Jen knew she couldn’t get Summer to hold back that well if she tried. And her dad couldn’t teach her how anymore.

                              She tried to hold back the sob, but couldn’t. She fell forward, landed on a shoulder, and then everything started pouring out.

                              “H…He was m… my hero…”

                              She cried on, and then she felt Hanna’s hand on her back. It was the same spot parents usually knew where to put it, and she cried harder.

                              Hanna said, “I know, I know. You always made him sound so great. I still wish I could have met him.”

                              Jen felt like the worst person on the planet. “…I’m sorry. If you ain’t been there to stop me…” She felt a raindrop. It was starting to drizzle.

                              “It’s okay. No harm done. Except the window, I guess, but who cares?”

                              Jen herself thought she might care. It wasn’t the window’s fault. The window was just doing his job, even though he wasn’t getting paid anymore, and then she realized just how plastered she was. Meanwhile, the drizzle picked up into an honest rain.

                              “See?” said Hanna, “There’s no problem. Lugia was going to stop you anyway.”

                              Jen pulled away from Hanna’s shoulder, and Hanna helped her get her balance back. She stood in place, watched the shadows spin, and felt the downpour soak her head as Hanna gathered some things from the ground. Soon Jen had her bag and Rabies’s ball again, and Hanna was helping her into a poncho.

                              “We’ll have to spend the night in the Pokécenter. It’s too dark and wet to get anything set up. Can you walk?”

                              Jen nodded, took a few steps, and then Hanna caught her before she could plant her face in the mud. Hanna put her shoulders under her arm, and they slowly started follow the flashlight’s beam back to the trail. It felt like Jen was forgetting something. Was it her flask? No, it couldn’t be that because she always kept it with her. She was sure she’d remember at some point, so on they walked.

                              They were five minutes into the hike when Jen felt the perspective she’d been trying to avoid creep up on her. “All those years,” she mumbled, “…all those years I wanted that sh*tty gym back. I’m such a moron.”

                              “No,” said Hanna. “You just saw something that was better than what they had in mind. You don’t have to hate the whole thing because of that. They still had good popcorn, right?”

                              “It probably sucked.”

                              She heard Hanna sigh, which didn’t make a ton of sense to her. Hanna hadn’t liked the place from the beginning, so you’d think she’d agree. Jen was about to make some other point, but when the words were supposed to come to her mouth she felt something else there. “Uff—” Without another word, Hanna helped her over to the trees. Jen tried to keep it off of her poncho.

                              Hanna’s hand was rubbing her back again. “Hey,” she said, “Did I ever tell you about the one time I got really hammered?”

                              To Jen’s knowledge, such a thing had never happened. But instead of answering she just let the rest of it drip.

                              “It was last year. I was out with some of my university friends, and I was b*tching about the Pokédex at them. You know, the usual.”

                              ‘B*tching.’ Jen felt bad for calling Hanna one in her head earlier.

                              “Anyway, I just kept downing shots, and by the end of it I was basically screaming at everyone in the bar about how half the stuff in the Pokédex is plain wrong. Like, ‘The first Kadabra wasn’t a human kid, you morons!’ and how Oak was a huge traitor to science for letting them put a bunch of lies in Dexter’s mouth.”

                              “…Makes sense. You kept goin’ on about that when we were kids, too…”

                              The rain was pounding now. “Yeah, so then they kicked us out. And I kid you not, the next morning I saw Bill’s ad in the classifieds for programmers to work on the Pokédex upgrade project, and I got on a bus for Cerulean. Then we made Dexter as smart as I always dreamed he’d be and we lived happily ever after. The end.”

                              Jen would have rolled her eyes, but it was hard to get them to move the way she wanted them to. “That’s a lame story.”

                              “Whatever, I’m trying to make a point. Yeah, your favorite gym sucked, but that’s only because no one ever tried to make it suck less. If you’re going to put this much emotional investment into something, you ought to take some agency in it yourself.”

                              Jen couldn’t follow this. “The hell are you talking about?”

                              “If you don’t like it, then you fix it. You’re the only one who cares, right? So who’s going to stop you?”

                              Jen tried to laugh, but it came out as more of a cough. “That was all years ago. It’s over.”

                              She staggered with Hanna back to the middle of the path. As they continued on their way, Hanna asked, “Wanna bet?”

                              *********

                              Jen woke up. She was lying on a couch in a Pokémon Center, presumably Ecruteak’s. The ceiling wasn’t moving, and she didn’t feel anything in her head. She took that as a good sign, but when she sat up the small hope that she wouldn’t have much of a hangover was dashed. When she thought about having to put on a decent face for the rest of the day—much less the rest of the vacation—she felt exhausted.

                              She got on her feet and stretched. There were a few young trainers still asleep on the sofa across from her, which made her hope that none of her inexcusable behavior the night before had reached any innocent minds or ears. She couldn’t recall arriving at the Pokécenter, but she was dry and clean enough now that she couldn’t have passed out at the entrance. The only one who would remember all the details was Hanna, whom Jen now noticed was conspicuously absent. This usually meant she was at a computer, so Jen dragged herself over to the row of PCs.

                              Sure enough, Hanna was hunched over a keyboard and her eyes were so strained that they hurt Jen’s just to look at them. Also to no surprise of Jen’s, Hanna was surrounded by several empty cans of coffee from the vending machine. She was probably down one caffeine pill as well, as if she’d never graduated college. Jen was about to ask what had kept her up all night, but Hanna spoke up first. “Well?”

                              Jen sighed. “I effed up. I’m sorry.”

                              Marie had been sleeping in the chair next to Hanna, but she woke up at the sound of talking. Jen wished Hanna would follow her Pokémon’s example and get some rest now and then.

                              “We’re going to put a stop to this,” said Hanna. “For real this time. You’re not carrying a flask with you anymore.”

                              Jen nodded and meant it, but she couldn’t resist adding, “Yes, Mom.”

                              Hanna gave her the finger, and Jen didn’t complain. Then her friend pushed herself away from the keyboard and leaned back into her chair. “Marie, crunch these last numbers, will you?”

                              There was a spreadsheet on the ancient, boxy monitor’s screen, and it was too early in the morning for Jen to decipher it. It seemed to be a fine time for Marie, though, as she held out one of her spoons and the keys began to press themselves at a rapid pace. In a matter of seconds the psychic-type was done with her calculations, and Hanna closed her eyes as she gave further instructions. “Okay, now print it. The other document, too.”

                              After a few more psychokinetically-induced keystrokes, the printer at the end of the table came to life. “You go get it,” said Hanna as she pointed at Jen.

                              Jen obeyed. She was ready to read anything that got her mind off of her dad and his awful gym, even if it was just more of Hanna’s nerd work. But then she looked at the first page and saw the title. “What’s…”

                              “It’s your business plan, along with rough cost estimates and revenue projections.”

                              In bold letters at the top it read, ‘Independent, Sustainable, Community Pokémon Gym.’ Jen didn’t know what to think, but she couldn’t take her eyes off it.

                              “You’ll need some other folks on board, of course,” said Hanna, who out of the blue gave a long pitch while barely pausing for air. “And you’ll probably have to operate at a loss for at least a few years. The good news is that since all the hot development around here’s been to the south and east the land where the original gym is should be cheap. The key thing will be to put in the effort to make everything cleaner and more attractive: No splinters, no rust, more paint, and no ugly buildings.

                              “For revenue you’ll want to focus on local parents who want cheap, family-friendly entertainment and activities. Getting participants for the tournaments shouldn’t be too hard—there are lots of local adult trainers who are in it for fun, and kid trainers are always passing through and they love finding new ways to test their skills.

                              “If you find or make some more true-believer weirdos like yourself, you should be able to get enough volunteer work to make it viable. It’ll have to be non-profit for that, and to start out you’ll definitely need to keep a day job, and either find a donor or take out a loan. You have to be extra-clear that there’s going to be no spectator gambling. It has to be safe for under-tens or it’ll go belly-up like the old ones did.”

                              Hanna finally stopped, and Jen tried to digest it all. The whole idea occupied the same space in her stomach as all the lying and cheating she’d learned about the day before. Yet despite that it sounded so perfect, even too good to be true.

                              She contemplated it for a solid minute. She recalled all those battles that had only been disguised as real battles. On top of that the old gym had had drunks puking under the bleachers, fans swearing at the top of their lungs while there were children around, and probably even less savory things she didn’t know about.

                              But the old gym had also been a place to run around in the open with her friends while her dad trained. It was where she borrowed her dad’s Vulpix on her ninth birthday and entered her first tournament, and the size of the arena had made it seem like such a huge deal. Most of all there were the warm nights, the popcorn, and those bright lights. The gamblers never realized what a great thing they had on their hands, or rather could have had.

                              “…Do you really think I can do it?”

                              Hanna said nothing as she was already snoring, but Jen didn’t need to hear her friend’s answer because it was written in ink. And she knew the answer was correct because whenever Hanna and Marie came up with something that involved this many numbers, it was rock solid.

                              As she felt her mouth break into a smile, she thought about finding a part-time job in Ecruteak while she worked on her new gym.

                              *

                              [Next time, in Chapter 7, Krissy tries to go it alone.]
                              __________________

                              Old, Janky Fics
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