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Chapter 92
CHAPTER 92

I stretched with my legs crossed and let out a satisfied groan. That had taken less time than I expected since I didn't have to study each Pokemon Candice would use. I had notes splayed out in front of me on my desk, with bullet points that described how Candice fought in each different mood. I leaned back against the table and went over what I had written again.

After scanning each mood Candice showcased before one of her battles, I had filtered all of her moods and placed them in different categories: defensive Candice, offensive Candice (special/physical), stalling Candice, speedy Candice… and wildcard Candice.

Ok, I still wasn't a fan of that name. I scratched it out and replaced it with 'erratic Candice' instead.

These were almost all self-explanatory, and there was always a nuance to them, but erratic Candice rarely came out in battles. That was when she threw every ounce of strategy or plan out of the water and just did whatever she wanted with no consistency. Before watching videos of it, I would have thought that this way of battling could never work. Every trainer that knew what they were doing had at least a general way of fighting that they honed and perfected throughout the years, and a gym leader was the last person I would have expected to just completely ignore that rule. Alas, Candice didn't listen to rules. She made her own.

Still, erratic Candice was a rare occurrence. Sometimes, it worked, simply because of how taken off-guard her opponents were, and other times, it failed miserably because… well, having no plan usually came back to bite you in the ass.

I had made general strategies for each scenario, and my Pokemon would have different roles depending on what we ended up facing. Electabuzz was my ace against speedy Candice, because only he would be able to keep up with her fast Pokemon, but also against defensive Candice since he had the firepower to blow past their defenses and dodge their generally slow attacks— I was assuming that most defensive Pokemon were on the slow side here. But against offensive or stalling Candice, he'd be less effective. That's when my other Pokemon would come in and shine.

Either way, I was done, but it felt inadequate somehow. If I was going into a gym battle, I wanted to know everything, down to every last detail. I closed my eyes and tried to visualize the gym battle and was surprised to see that my imagination of the scene was shockingly clear. Unfortunately, even if I could theorize what Pokemon Candice would use, I wouldn't know their moves anyway, so that was a bit of a dud. Maybe if I battled her last, I could see the Pokemon she used, how she fought on a lower level, and extrapolate the information for my own fight. That'd give me three battles to amend the plan I had already come up with for each iteration of Candice, which was one hour and some change… yeah, I could work with that.

"Time to call Cece," I muttered. "You guys think you can behave if I leave you here?" I said, turning to my Pokemon. My room had been turned into an absolute mess. Electabuzz was throwing pillows at Togetic and Larvitar— the rock type had torn up multiple of them with her sharp horn. Tangela had opened the bathroom door, hoisted himself on the counter, and had been staring at himself in the mirror for the last hour, and Frillish had given up on trying to control everything and was just floating limply in the air with a dejected look.

"Okay, you can't behave. You're coming with me," I sighed. I let them play for another few minutes since I needed to shower and touch up my appearance. I didn't want to make Cece look bad, especially since we'd be recognized outside. I felt the corner of my lip rise when I saw angel touch his reflection in the mirror. He seemed very perplexed at the fact that it was mimicking his exact movements, and I didn't want to ruin his fun by revealing that it was just him. His eyes widened when he saw my reflection enter the bathroom, and he tried to move his vines through the mirror to get to me.

After my shower, I made my way to the sink.

"Scoot over, angel," I said softly as I stared at myself. I washed my face, applied some of the free moisturizer the Centers had, then untangled and brushed my hair. "It's not much, but it'll do, I think. I mean, we're just signing up for a gym battle."

It wasn't a date, even though I did have a few plans, just in case.

Plus, Cece wouldn't care about stuff like how I make her look, I thought to myself. Still, I want to try to not look like a bum.

I felt angel pat my back with a few vines and caressed him back. "Aren't you the cutest boy ever?" I said. He answered with one of his happy stares and wriggled. "Yeah you are," I smiled. "It's Pokeball time, but I might use you later. I was thinking of doing mock battles with your siblings if I have time."

He nodded as I recalled him, and then I returned my entire team. I'd have to apologize to the Nurses for the state of the room when I left.

"Raising kids is hard," I sighed as I grabbed my coat. "But fun and fulfilling."

I dialed Cece's number, and she answered after a few rings.

"Grace," she said happily. "I was waiting for your call. Are you ready?"

"Yeah—" I stepped out of the room and saw that she was waiting in the hallway. I had kind of forgotten that all of our rooms were right next to each other. I laughed and hung up. "Let me send a text to Denzel before we leave. Maybe we can meet up at the gym."

"I'm guessing we're going to be doing things on the way there?" She asked. "You look stunning, by the way. Well, you always look beautiful, but…"

"Thanks," I blushed. "And I did have a few ideas, but I didn't know if you'd be too busy to try them out."

"Well, I've cleared the whole rest of my day for you, my love," she said. The nickname made me shiver, in a good way.

"My love?" I smiled as we stepped toward the empty lobby. "I like that. It's so romantic."

"Thank the Legendaries… it took all of my courage to get that out."

"Well, I'll think of a nickname for you too," I told her. "It won't take long, I'm pretty good with those."

"Well, good might be an overstatement," she said sarcastically. I placed a hand on my heart and made a dramatic face.

"Ow, you wound me," I said. "My Pokemon are perfectly happy with their nicknames, thank you very much."

We kept teasing each other until we saw the absolute sea of people in front of the Pokemon Center. I drew a sharp breath. Snowpoint was supposed to be a quiet city without that many people, but this was an absolute swarm. Luckily, they hadn't entered the Center's lobby, and nothing had stopped them from doing so, so they were at least somewhat respectful. I kept my head down as Cece dragged me through the crowd. Some of them were reporters asking us questions, while most were just curious bystanders who wanted to see the first-year trainers that had survived going through uncharted parts of Mount Coronet on their own.

"May we have a quick interview? We're a small Snowpoint-based channel, and we're interested in your time through Mount Coronet. The whole region is!"

"Ms. Pastel, Ms. Obel please, a word for—"


"Don't call me that name," Cecilia interrupted with an icy tone. "We won't be taking any interviews at this time. Feel free to contact us through email."

I frowned. Sure, she had said she was giving up on the name, and I completely understood and respected that decision, but she hadn't said anything when Chase had called her Obel during our entire trek up to Snowpoint together. The people understood and seemingly dispersed as soon as we passed through the crowd, but the reporters were a bit insistent, and we had to deny them for five minutes straight, and it didn't stop them from taking pictures.

"Man, if that's what we have to deal with in Snowpoint, I can't imagine Eterna," I complained. "I feel bad for our friends there."

"The excitement will die down," Cece reassured me. "Although we'll always be famous, especially when we beat Candice."

"I like the confidence," I smiled. "I was wondering on asking to turn off the camera feed or not," I continued, thinking of Lauren. "I honestly think I might, not even because of my anxiety around fame, but because it helps to keep your cards close to your chest."

"That's a fine idea," she replied with a nod. "I personally won't, and Denzel and Chase won't for sure. I see you've changed your way of thinking about other trainers, though."

"Yeah, Craig kind of indirectly gave me advice, although he didn't really want to. I think staying as hidden as possible will actually work out in the long run, although I wouldn't mind participating in another tournament," I sighed. "My mind's all over the place."

"You have time to think about it."

We walked together for another few minutes when I pointed at a specific building. "Okay, you see that?" I asked.

"They… rent skis?" Cece squinted.

"Yeah, and there's a small bunny hill behind the store for people to try 'em out. I figured it'd be fun since I've never skied before."

Cecilia smirked. "I don't want to boast, but I happen to be a professional. Clarence would take us to a ski resort during the winters, and I got very good at it."

Clarence, I noticed. Right, he wasn't her father anymore.

"Is this going to be like when we went bowling, and you're actually worse than me?" I teased.

"Okay, you're on now."

——

"Are you sure we don't have to pay?" I asked the man behind the counter. "It feels weird doing this for free."

"Of course, you don't!" He said with a booming voice. "You kids have brought more publicity and attention to Snowpoint than I've seen in decades! People usually see us as a backwater, and trainers only stay around to battle the gym. They never spend any money on supporting local businesses, like that Craig guy! He pisses me off. Treats this place like an Arceus damned speed bump. But I see that you're trying, so I'm giving this to you free of charge. Just make sure to visit other places, and we'll be even!"

Right, Craig is here too, I thought. Maybe we could go see his gym battle if he still hasn't battled Candice. I was definitely interested in seeing what a high-level gym battle looked like from up close.

"Well, thanks a lot," I said.

He nodded and handed me ski boots. I couldn't understand how I was even to put these on, and I was too embarrassed to ask the store owner, who had already explained once and just said he'd rent me skis for free. Bothering him again would feel asinine. I hadn't even thought that skiers used special boots in the first place, but it made sense the more I thought about it. How were people's feet supposed to stick on the skis otherwise?

"Need some help?" Cece smirked at me.

"Your competitive mood comes out at the worst times," I chuckled. "Sure."

Cece kneeled at my feet, carefully lifted my jeans, and showed me how to put on the skiing shoes and how to put them on skis.

"The shopowner already showed you how to do it," she smiled. "You're such an airhead."

"Yeah, yeah," I grumbled.

"And… done. Let's get skiing!"

——

"Remember what I explained, Grace!" Cece exclaimed at me. "Parallel to speed up, pizza slice to break!"

"I'm trying, I'm trying!" I yelled. "How are you even going backwards?"

"I told you I was good."

Skiing was way harder than it looked.

Okay, maybe it wasn't since there were literal five-year-olds racing past me like they had been doing this for ten years, humiliating me further. One of them called me slow as she passed me, giggling and snaking across the bunny hill. That caught me off guard, and my legs started to wobble as I quickly lost control of my speed and bumped into Cecilia, causing both of us to fall. One of my skis detached from my boot and flew off down the hill.

"Holy shit," I swore. "I'm sorry, are you okay?"

"No need to panic," Cece said. "I'm fine."

I stared at her for a few seconds, realizing that I was on top of her. It'd be so easy to just lean in. I averted my gaze and helped her up.

"Sorry," I apologized again.

"It's alright, I wanted to kiss you too."

Our relationship was kind of being kept on the down low for now. It wasn't because Cece was uncomfortable with her sexuality being public or anything like that. In fact, I'd say she had adapted incredibly quickly to it. It wasn't because she was scared of her father or his reaction, or because we cared about the further publicity it would bring onto us either. We wouldn't be the first trainer couple to have formed during the Circuit. It was bound to happen if you let a bunch of teenagers and young people travel on their own.

No, it was because we still hadn't told our friends in Eterna yet.

We weren't worried about Pauline and Emilia, they definitely wouldn't care at all, and they'd be happy for us. Justin probably would say he didn't understand, but he'd be for it as well, but Louis…

Louis had been remarkably strong when Cece had revealed that she didn't love him in that letter. Stronger than I thought he would have been, which I supposed was proof that he really did love her. We both feared that he'd take it really badly. Of course, we knew that hiding our relationship forever wouldn't be feasible, but Cecilia wanted to wait until she could tell him in person, and I agreed. He deserved that amount of respect.

"Let's get back up top," Cece said. "Surely you can't be that bad."

"I'll show you," I said, feeling a surge of confidence.

——

"Arceus, you are the worst skier I've ever seen, bar none!" Cece laughed as we exited the store. "Everyone can at least get through a bunny hill after an hour or two."

"You don't understand," I sighed. "I keep getting crisscrossed, and I forget how to move my legs. Then I'm going too fast, so I just fall."

"How is that even possible?" She laughed heartily. "How do you forget how to use your legs?"

"Well, ask my legs! I don't know."

"I don't even think they'd know the answer."

"Rub it in more, won't you?"

"You rubbed it in when we went bowling."

"That was different… kind of," I muttered.

We stopped for lunch in a local restaurant that specialized in seafood— animal seafood. Due to the inhospitable nature of Snowpoint, people had specialized in aquaculture to keep the population fed, and that tradition stuck even now that they could get all of their food delivered from down south. Cece forced me to taste crab for the first time, and it was actually pretty decent. Plus, we split the bill fifty-fifty, which made me incredibly happy. She didn't even ask to pay for me.

Nothing could beat good old fast food, though.

We went on a detour so that I could buy poffins for Frillish, but I ended up buying some for the entire team. Larvitar was going to love these. Cece got some for her team too, which was new. She had acted all embarrassed about it too, which was the cutest thing. After that, we bought new, weather-appropriate coats since ours weren't really equipped to deal with Snowpoint's winters.

Finally, we arrived at the Snowpoint city gym, which wasn't hard to find, since it loomed above every building here. Stepping inside, well, it was empty aside for Denzel and Chase, who were waiting at the counter.

"You're here already?" I asked Denzel after greeting him.

"I've been waiting for you," he grumbled.

"Oh shit, right!" I facepalmed. "I'm sorry, we got kind of sidetracked."

He smiled. "Don't worry about it, just warn me next time you go on a spontaneous date, alright?"

I shushed him, but agreed.

"Ah, right, you guys are hiding," Chase rolled his eyes. "Williams here was telling me about how many interviews he was going to partake in."

"I've gotta seize the moment," he shrugged. "I spent all morning answering forum posts while my team trained, too."

"Waste of time, if you ask me," Chase said.

"What? I thought you'd be the type to do that kind of stuff. Didn't you want to be known as the strongest first year or whatever?" I asked.

"I am the strongest, period," he boasted. "But I'm sticking it up to for-profit media. I'm only answering people who put my name in their headlines, so as you can guess, I'm pretty free."

"Where's the receptionist, anyway?" Cecilia asked.

"He said that he was coming," Denzel said. "Snowpoint doesn't employ a lot of gym trainers this time of year— apparently, they have some kind of part-time system where a lot of the employees here only work in April and May, when Snowpoint gets the busiest."

"Makes sense," Cece nodded. "It wouldn't be sound for the League to pay employees that don't do any work."

"Wrong. I stand with workers," Chase said. "They deserve a win after getting fucked so many times throughout history, and you should do the same. So what if they get a little extra? The League can afford it."

"Okay, don't start preaching," I sighed, rolling my eyes as I leaned against the counter. "Anyway, I actually wanted to ask you something, Chase. When we all finish up with Candice here, what are you planning on doing?"

"I dunno," he shrugged. "I was thinking of going through Celestic and Solaceon to get to Hearthome."

I felt my heart tug. "So you're going to leave? Just like that? Why don't you come with us, we can travel together with the rest of our group—"

"Nah," Chase shook his head. "I'm more of a solitary trainer in the first place. I wouldn't fit in with your pals."

"You're really not as bad as they think you are," I pleaded. "They can learn to know you."

"Don't worry about it," he said with a slight smile. "It was nice traveling with you guys and all, but I've got to get back to doing my thing."

I bit the inside of my mouth and stared at the ground dejectedly. I really thought of him as my friend. A good friend, in fact. A month ago, I would have found the idea laughable, but now, it actually hurt to know he was leaving.

"Hey, no need to look so down for an asshole like me," he said with a slight shrug. "I appreciate you for asking, though… heh, look at that, your cheery attitude keeps rubbing off on me."

"You have mellowed out since meeting us," Cece noticed.

"And it's not like we're never going to see each other again!" Denzel quickly added. "He said he was going to Hearthome, and we're going there too. Even if we're taking different paths, we'll probably come across each other in the city, and then we can hang out."

"Fine," I said before staring fiercely at Chase. "But your ass is getting back in our group chat."

"I told you I didn't like—"

"I'm not taking no for an answer."

"Sheesh," he exhaled. "Fine. Don't expect me to type much, though."

"I want an update every time you get to a city or an outpost," I ordered. "To make sure you haven't gotten yourself killed."

"What if I forget—"

"You won't forget."

"Come on, Grace," Cece smiled. "You're acting like we're separating already. We haven't even beaten Candice yet."

"Eh, I'd say it's a given that we'll beat her," Chase confidently said. "After everything we've done to get here? This fight is going to be easy."

"Don't get too overconfident," I warned. "The last thing you want is to get stuck here for two more weeks. Traveling back down south is going to put us seriously behind in our amount of badges."

"I'll be fine," he said. "Ah, he's finally back," Chase nodded toward the receptionist that walked back behind the counter.

"I apologize for the inconvenience," he said with a small apologetic bow. "I know you're not going to be pleased with this, but Candice is going to be busy today and tomorrow, so the closest we can register you for a battle is the day after that. Her Wednesday mornings are always busy, but this is somewhat of an exceptional circumstance."

"Ah," I said, somewhat disappointed. Well, at least that gave me more time to train and iron out a few deficiencies.

"Ugh," Chase groaned. "Well, it looks like we'll be together a bit longer, Pastel."
 
Interlude - Candice
INTERLUDE - CANDICE

"Ugh, so stupid!" Candice grumbled as she kicked some snow. "Stupid Wednesday!"

Like every Wednesday of the week, Candice Suzuna was in a serious mood today.

The ice type gym leader walked through the snowy route north of Snowpoint with a simple skirt and shirt. Her mastery of ice types had made her body practically immune to the cold, although she sometimes wore coats anyway because they felt comfy. There was no point in bringing one where she was going, though. Candice stared at the looming stone temple that was embedded in the side of a small mountain. It had been built by her ancestors thousands of years ago, and like every Wednesday, she was going to go inside of it.

Officially, the Snowpoint Temple wasn't open to the public because of dangerous wild Pokemon infestations. Never mind the fact that powerful trainers could have handled those without a problem, or the fact that there weren't any wild Pokemon there at all. Sometimes, the occasional tourist passionate about history or cocky trainer had to be turned back by the League trainers that patrolled and guarded the temple at all times. It wasn't that interesting, they said. It was for their safety, they said.

Well, that last part was accurate.

Candice gave familiar greetings to all of the League trainers she met along the way, with a warm smile and all. Soon enough, she was at the Temple's entrance.

"Ayo, Gabe and Paul!" She exclaimed with a large wave.

One of them sighed. "We're not… that's not our names," he said as he handed her ten Pokeballs.

"My bad, I'm terrible with those, but you know that already," Candice smiled. She noticed that her hand was trembling when she reached out for the Pokeballs, but they thankfully didn't.

"Good luck again today," he said, dipping his head. "With whatever it is that you actually do down there."

"Well, classified information and all of that. If you were a better trainer, maybe the League would give you clearance," Candice shrugged as the other trainer handed her a long, white dress and an incense. "Ugh, my hands are so hecking full."

"S'wat you get for shittalking," he chuckled.

Candice grumbled as she climbed up stairs so large that she could barely step up one at a time. She had always thought it to be strange that the people protecting the Temple didn't know what they were actually guarding. The League fostered such loyalty that they didn't even care to know.

The girl took a breath. She would kill to go back to not knowing. Sometimes, it was better not to know.

But enough with those bad thoughts. Being in a serious mood didn't mean that she needed to be down in the dumps. Her cheerful personality always helped her when she was nervous, and she could be a real chatterbox, although there was no one actually here to talk to. The Temple was so silent that all she could hear was ringing in her ears. Parts of the inside had collapsed onto the ground, and some of the floors were slick with ice so slippery that it was impossible to stop, but Candice knew this place like the back of her hand these days. She probably could have reached the bottom floor with a blindfold over her eyes. Finally, she reached her destination. Inscriptions in ancient, illegible writing adorned the walls and the now-opened doors. Candice didn't know what had opened these doors in the first place, since they appeared to be unmovable and indestructible, but that wasn't her problem. She had a job to do.

The ice type gym leader slapped her cheeks to ground herself and stepped into the room with her eyes staring straight at the ground.

Seventeen steps, Candice thought. Seventeen until she saw the thick chalk circle on the ground. She changed into the white dress and took off her socks and shoes before releasing ten Hypno from the Pokeballs the League trainers had given her. Her eyes were still staring away from it.

"Good morning," Candice whispered. The volume of her voice didn't actually matter, but she couldn't help but be quiet.

Good morning, young Candice, one of the Hypno said. She smiled when she noticed that the headache was almost gone now. After all, she had been doing this for almost three years.

Are you ready to begin the ritual? Another one asked. They were all staring away as well. Away from it.

"Give me a little," Candice breathed out.

One hundred and thirty weeks. One hundred and thirty times, Candice had done this ritual. Her grandmother, who had been the previous Snowpoint gym leader, had brought her here right after her victory at the Conference three years ago, although she lost to Flint, who had been a new Elite Four member at the time. Her grandmother had been diagnosed with bone cancer, and so she had asked Candice to make a choice. Either she could come with her to the Temple, take the plunge, and be chosen as her successor, or she could swear off taking over the gym forever.

Candice originally wanted to take another stab at the Circuit, but she loved Snowpoint too much to refuse. Her grandma had taken her into the temple and finally explained why she went missing every Wednesday morning. A ritual that had been passed from Snowpoint leader to Snowpoint leader— although now, it was passed on to gym leaders. A ritual to keep it asleep. The first time she brought her into this room, she had warned Candice not to look at it until she had stepped into the chalk circle, but she had been fifteen. Fifteen-year-olds didn't like being told what to do, so she stared anyway.

She woke up in the hospital two weeks later. Her grandmother had said it was a defense mechanism it used to stay unharmed when it was sleeping, but the chalk circle somehow made it so that only looking would make you pass out if the ritual hadn't begun. If her grandmother hadn't been there to carry her back, she would never have woken up.

Only participants of the ritual were allowed to look. And only when the ritual had already begun. That meant that until her grandmother passed on, she would never be allowed to even steal a glance. The next time she came, Candice decided to actually listen, although she had asked so many questions that her grandmother had somehow been more annoyed at her than at the ever-worsening pain in her bones.

"Why is the chalk there? Who drew the circle?" Candice had asked.

"No one knows." She had answered. "But it is no simple circle. There is psychic energy imbued in it. There is so much of it, and it is so intricate that nothing we have today could possibly recreate this system."

"But what is it that we're actually containing? I want to see."

"Not yet. You are not ready, and uttering a Legendary's name in its presence is foolish. Names hold power, Candice. I will tell you one day, when you are further along your training."


Candice's eyes had bulged. Legendary. The type of Pokemon that she read about in stories. That were myths.

To be in the presence of one had been mindboggling.

Candice exhaled. "I'm ready for the ritual."

The Hypno nodded. Their eyes started to shine blue, and their pendulums began to swing in one uniform motion. They had been bred and trained to use the most powerful Hypnosis possible. Candice stepped into the chalk circle, and her hair and dress started to float up, as if it wasn't affected by gravity any longer. The air was thick and smelled like something was burning. It was hard to breathe, but this was her job. Finally, she stared up at it.

"Its name is Regigigas," Her grandmother had weakly said weeks later in the hospital as she got chemotherapy. "The stories say that it dragged the continents to where they are today. I personally don't care to know if that's true or false."

"Can I look at it with my Pokedex?"
Candice had asked, her eyes shining. She was probably the only fifteen-year-old in the world that had been in the same room as a Legendary.

"Your Pokedex won't say anything," Her grandmother laughed and then coughed. The cancer had been worsening fast, but Candice hadn't liked to think about that. She ignored it and asked another question.

"So why are you… keeping it asleep, then? What if it wakes up?"

"If it wakes up, one thing is for sure. The League will be powerless to stop it, and Sinnoh, along with its surroundings, will be destroyed until it finally stops its rampage and falls into a deep slumber once more. We would have to evacuate millions… but millions more would perish."



The statement had made Candice's blood run cold. All of Sinnoh, gone just like that. And her grandmother hadn't even entertained the idea of fighting it. No one could stand up to a legendary.

"But it'll go back to sleep?" She asked after what felt like minutes.

"It will. It comes and goes in cycles, but it's been due to wake up for thousands of years, which is why our ancestors came up with this ritual to keep it asleep. When the League conquered and took over Snowpoint, they were informed of the ritual and kept it going."

Her grandmother had then explained that if Regigigas ever woke up, its five children would as well. Regice, hidden high up in the cold wastes of Mount Coronet. Registeel, hidden deep inside of the Iron Islands. Regirock, hidden in the Rock Peak Ruins north of the Battle Frontier. The League had agents guarding every single one, turning the occasional unsuspecting trainer away before they could make it anywhere close. There were also two others… but they didn't slumber in Sinnoh.

Candice gulped as she stared at the humongous Legendary Pokemon. Its body was white like marble, with black, writing-like marks all over its body. A yellow band wrapped around its shoulder, and another yellow protrusion ran down the center of its body. Its eyes were dark and hollow. Lichen, moss, and frost grew all over its body. The Pokemon had been overtaken by nature. One hundred and thirty-one times, she had stared at it, but the sight was still deeply unsettling and wrong. Something this powerful shouldn't have existed.

Still, Candice could only see the top of Regigigas' body. The vast majority of it was buried underground. The Temple had apparently been built after one of its rampages, soon after it went to sleep, so they had to build around its body. The young woman began walking around Regigigas with the most powerful Lax Incense the League could produce, and she uttered these words.

"In ancient times, a giant stirred,

A legend born, a titan heard,

Regigigas, with power untold,

In slumber deep, its strength controlled.

Through ages past, a ritual formed,

To keep the giant, forever dormed,

With sacred words and mystic lore,

Regigigas sleeps, forevermore.

Let not the spell be broken light,

For if the titan wakes in might,

The world may tremble and quake in fear,

And all we hold dear would disappear.

So let us honor the ancient rite,

And keep Regigigas asleep tonight,

For in its rest, we find our peace,

And Sinnoh may thrive another week."


At the mention of its name, Regigigas stirred. Artificial, robot-like sounds echoed throughout the room, and its eyes came alive, blinking like glitching computer screens. The entire temple shook. The Hypno intensified their Hypnosis, and Candice steeled herself. The Legend's arm moved a few inches, slowed, and then it fell back into a deep sleep. Candice released a breath she didn't know she was holding and collapsed on her knees.

Young Candice, step out of the circle, one Hypno warned.

She gave her a shaky nod and stepped out of the chalk's boundaries. The ritual was done. She had bought Sinnoh another week.

As she had done for one hundred and thirty weeks. One hundred and thirty-one, now. None of the other gym leaders knew about this. Not even the older generation. It was her burden to carry and hers alone, along with higher-ups in the League. If something happened to her, the League Secret Service would swoop in and quickly train another person before the week was over, but there were also people in the know that would be capable of going through with the ritual if there wasn't enough time. Still, tradition dictated that the next Snowpoint gym leader would be the next ritual bearer.

But how could Candice give someone such a burden? And to whom? Her grandmother had apologized to her before dying, and Candice didn't understand at the time. Now, she did.

Sometimes, it was better not to know.

——

"Ugh, I fricking hate Wednesdays…"

"Everything go alright down there?" The League trainer asked as Candice exited the Temple.

"You perv," she smiled. "You just wanted to see me in that dress."

"I have a girlfriend, and I'm very happy."

"I won't tell her," Candice said as she handed him the ten Hypno's Pokeballs.

"Don't spread lies about me. I'm serious."

The worst part of the week was over, and Candice could finally go back to being her silly, joking self. She was all smiles as she stepped back into Snowpoint. The city had never felt as alive as it had the past few days. People were happy to have their small city be all over the news, thanks to those four trainers that had survived going through Mount Coronet.

What were their names again? Candice wanted to give them her thanks somehow. She hoped that they'd battle her at some point soon. It wasn't every day that Candice could use her lower-level teams, and they had gotten very rusty. Still, unfortunately, she was going to be busy all day, so there would be no time to practice. Candice stepped into Snowpoint's only jail and gave a hearty greeting to the officers stationed there. The city was a tightly-knit community, so crime was incredibly low. Snowpoint was nothing like Jubilife or Sunyshore. Still, every city needed at least some law enforcement, but they were often bored out of their minds.

"Candice! Haven't seen you in a while," he happily said. Snowpoint was small, so she basically knew everybody's face. Although the more accurate statement would be that everyone knew her.

"I'm here to see our guest," she said. It was easy to remember Craig's name. After all, he was extremely fun to battle, and he had beaten her the last two years on the first try. This time would be different!

"Ah, the wonder boy," the officer replied.

"Wonder boy? Come on, he ain't that special," She said, contradicting her own train of thought. "Hope you've been keeping his stay a secret like we asked."

"Of course, of course," he said, waving his hand dismissively. "Follow me."

The officer led Candice to what was possibly the most comfortable jail cell of all time. Hell, there weren't even prison bars! It was just a locked wooden door. Candice stepped into the room with a grin.

"Craig, my boy," she said in a mocking tone. "How does it feel to be a criminal?"

The black-haired man stared at her for a few seconds and rolled his eyes. "Pretty bad, all things considered. I'm kind of wasting time here. I thought I'd be out by now," he complained as he typed away on a laptop. "At least I get to answer my emails. I was very backed up."

"Is that a new computer?" Candice asked.

"Wha— I mean, yes, but why do you even remember what computer I had last year?"

Candice stared at the ground and twiddled her thumbs. "No reason."

"Shi— stuff happens on the road. It broke, and I got a new one."

"Ahem," she coughed after a few awkward seconds of silence. "I came here to tell you that you're free to go. The trainers I sent to check if your story was right or not confirmed that the people your Salamence killed were from Team Galactic. It was tough, you know? Their corpses were barely recognizable, and their uniforms—"

"Please don't describe the state of their corpses, Candice. I just ate brunch."

"Haha… my bad," Candice winced and scratched the back of her head. "Anyway, you're free to go, but I did have a few things to say."

Questions from the League, Candice omitted.

"Go ahead."

"This Savika individual," Candice started. "Are you sure she's not the one that disclosed the lake's location to Team Galactic? The League didn't know about it beforehand, but we were looking for it, so we're wondering how Team Galactic beat us to it."

The League now knew about all three lakes. Verity near Twinleaf, Valor near Sunyshore, and the newly named Acuity near Snowpoint, but due to Team Galactic stealing their files with Rotom, they also knew where Valor was. That meant that both the League and Team Galactic now knew where the three lakes were. Candice didn't know what they were planning to do with them. If her short time working for the League had taught her anything, they must have known the answer. They just weren't telling her and the other gym leaders, at least not yet, but if they weren't, it probably had world defining consequences. She did know that they were building a veritable fortress around each lake to prevent Team Galactic from ever getting near them again.

"They attacked her," Craig sighed. "She's innocent in all of this, leave her alone. She already hates the fact that you're going to be sending League trainers to guard the place permanently. I know I told you that I thought they'd come back, but… why? I know that the lake speeds up your thought process, but that seems like too easy of an answer. Something else must be important about this lake. Something that you're not telling me."

"Believe it or not, I don't know the answer. It's above my pay grade," Candice shrugged. "Now, these kids that you told me about yesterday. Why did you omit their presence this long?"

"I promised to," he said. "Believe it or not, I'm a man of my word. Apparently, the world thought them to be dead. Now that they've revealed themselves, I felt like I could finally talk about it."

Candice's eyes widened. So they were the same kids that had brought fame to Snowpoint? She hadn't even made the link until now. Now she definitely wanted to meet them and chat. Maybe she'd go easy on them for their gym battle… it wasn't like she knew how hard she should go on them anyway, and she would get a lot less complaints if the fight was too easy instead of too hard, especially with all of the attention on them. It wasn't hard to imagine the public outrage if she utterly crushed who had barely made it out of Mount Coronet alive, one of which had been abused by her father.

"I had to lie to them about Team Galactic possibly coming back. Did you know that she was one of the hostages at the Valley Windwords powerplant? I didn't have the heart to tell her the truth," Craig said with a pained look. "She had a panic attack just hearing the name Team Galactic."

"Well, what's done is done," Candice sighed. "Gonna sign up to battle me tomorrow? You're going to have to go after the four kids, though."

"Why not just do it today?" He asked in an annoyed tone. "I gotta get back on the road."

"I'm busy today, I've got to meet with the dock workers' union. They're threatening to strike if they don't get better pay— I mean, I certainly agree since they keep Snowpoint alive, but try telling that to our union-buster mayor. Anyway, the negotiations are going to be a headache."

"Ouch. Good luck with that," Craig said as he grabbed all of his bags. "When I become the Champion, I'm going to delegate all of the political stuff to the League. Can't be bothered to deal with it."

"That's what I thought too, when I became a gym leader. I thought my gym trainers would deal with it, but nope," Candice sighed. "It sneaks up on you, you know? Duty."

Craig stared at her for a few seconds. "You're carrying some heavy shit, I can tell," He said as he clapped her shoulder. "Oh, crap, I swore. Ah, dang it."

"I'm not a kid," Candice said.

"Yeah, you are," he laughed as he left. "See you tomorrow."

Damn it, I've got no chance, Candice thought to herself. If only I was a few years older…

She leaned against a wall and took a few minutes to herself. It was hard to see how confident Craig was when she knew for a fact that even though he would probably win the Conference, he simply had no chance against Cynthia. Candice had battled her a few times for fun, but she utterly crushed her without even going all out, and the ice type gym leader wasn't that much worse than Craig was. Candice honestly believed that no one would dethrone Cynthia until she retired or died. She was a once in a thousand years talent.

Candice wasn't on good terms with the Sinnoh Champion these days. Not after it was revealed that she just watched as trainers died in Eterna Forest due to Team Galactic's interference. Volkner and Maylene thought the same, but Gardenia and Roark were on Cynthia's side. Roark thought that the ends justified the means, and Gardenia was just being Cynthia's lapdog, as always. This created a rift between the two camps, and their relationships were a bit on thin ice. Maylene especially couldn't believe Gardenia was still taking Cynthia's side. She felt the most betrayed out of all of them. Still, eventually, they'd have to talk it out, and Cynthia had told them that she would invite them to chat soon. Face to face, and there, she would finally give them the answers they sought.

The gym leader sighed. Battling Craig would help her destress and unwind, and so would seeing the four kids be happy when they won against her. She'd give them a good show, pretend to be helpless, and enjoy the smiles on their faces.

Candice reset her mood to her silly self as she exited the police station and started walking toward the docks. It would do wonders to calm down tensions between the two negotiating parties, and she'd be able to act as a bridge of some sort. Cynthia had apologized and said she would keep them better informed next time, but not that she wouldn't do it again. That was the straw that had broken the Camerupt's back. Still, Candice knew the weight of duty. She knew it better than every gym leader.

Sometimes, it was better not to know. So at the end of the day, even though she would protest and express her anger, she would keep her head down and listen.

A/N: Here it is, the first Legendary to appear in IWTTS. You probably could have guessed from the vibe of the story in general, but yeah, Regigias isn't a Pokemon you could ever hope to defeat, no matter how powerful you are as a trainer. If I were to put a power level on the smaller ones like Regice, I'd say that Cynthia's entire team (ten Pokemon) might be able to stand up to one of them. Anyway, for the whole ritual stuff, I was heavily inspired by SCP-2845, although it's a much simpler version of it. The entire League as an organization actually has a decent amount of similarities with the SCP foundation. Clearance levels, containing SCPs Pokemon that could potentially end the world/the region, etc. This was more of a lore/worldbuilding chapter, along with small bits of progress with the Team Galactic plot and getting insight into Candice's personality, but I hope you enjoyed it. Also, you're now finally caught up with all the other websites I'm posting on, so from now on, it'll be one chapter per day unless stated otherwise.
 
Chapter 93
CHAPTER 93

"Are you guys ready?!" I yelled out to my team.

Since Candice was apparently too busy just when we wanted to battle her, I had decided to get more practice in for the battle. I felt ready— more ready than I had ever felt against even Gardenia somehow, but tying up any loose ends would serve me well during the battle. My team and I were currently in one of Snowpoint's few arenas, and it was completely empty. That meant I had the entire place for myself.

Electabuzz and Frillish were on one side of the arena. The electric type looked more excited than he had been in a long time and punched his palm as he grinned wildly. Frillish rolled his eyes, clearly reluctant to fight in this mock battle I had organized. He still held a soft spot for Togetic, and he'd probably pull his punches against her, but at least he could practice using Recover and Acid Armor without holding back. On the other side, Tangela and Togetic were their aloof selves, not at all concerned with the fact that they were about to battle. It was angel's first time fighting a member of the family and not just other Pokemon, and princess was busy playing with some snow she had brought in from outside using Extrasensory and harassing him with it.

Larvitar, meanwhile, was grumbling next to me, angry that I wasn't letting her battle.

The way I had set up the two teams had been rather simple. Sure, at first glance, it might have seemed like Electabuzz and Frillish had a clear advantage, but both teams had weaknesses that could be exploited, and it'd be foolish to underestimate Togetic and Tangela. I was planning on letting them do whatever they thought was best. My time through Mount Coronet had taught me that when I thought, I couldn't focus on giving my Pokemon orders all the time, so against opponents who I didn't know well, like Candice, it'd be better to just let them act somewhat independently while I thought up of a strategy on the fly. Of course, against opponents who I could study for days before the battle, I'd easily be ordering my Pokemon around during the entire fight.

Togetic finally finished playing with her snow. I waited for everyone to give me a signal and cut across the air with my arm as if I was a referee.

"Begin!"

Electabuzz roared, then ran forward, cutting the distance between him and angel in a blur as Frillish sent out a quick Shadow Ball at the grass type. As if he had just awakened, Tangela extended six vines forward, ready to catch Electabuzz and stop him in his tracks.

Togetic fluttered her wings, and the air in front of her quickened and sharpened like blades, hurtling toward Electabuzz, cutting his skin and slowing him down. Tangela took the Shadow Ball to the face and shook it off, opting to catch the electric type instead thanks to princess' help. The vines wrapped around his two arms, and he started using Mega Drain. Electabuzz clamored at his teammate, asking for help.

"Let me introduce you to how the team works, sweetheart," I told Larvitar as I crouched next to her. She had always been in her Pokeball when we battled wild Pokemon for her own protection after Mount Coronet, so this was her first time in a while actually seeing them battle. Plus, they were battling each other, not wild Pokemon. "Electabuzz doesn't look like it, but he's actually a little speed demon. Well, a big one now that he evolved. I guess he could be considered a glass cannon. Hits hard but doesn't take hits well. Case in point."

The electric type was struggling against Tangela's vines, but he was quickly losing steam. Frillish answered his call for help, propelling himself with water sport and quickly pelting Tangela's side with Poison Sting. The grass type shook, clearly in pain, leaving Electabuzz an opening. His muscles bulged, and he tore the vines apart before continuing on his path. A small spark lit his fist ablaze, and he hit Tangela right in the face, sending him flying, but Togetic quickly caught him with Extrasensory and gently placed him back on the ground.

"Frillish is like mobile artillery. Excellent at completely destroying his opponents from a safe distance, and he has great mobility too," I explained. "But we've been working on his survivability in battle. He deals less damage than Electabuzz overall, but he can last longer."

Togetic giggled, lifting Tangela with Extrasensory once more, and sent him flying like a cannonball toward a bewildered Frillish. The water type quickly propelled himself upward with Water Sport, and it looked like Tangela would miss—

Angel whipped a vine around one of Frillish's tentacle midair and brought the water type down with him. Electabuzz ran to his side, hoping to help, but Tangela tripped him up by wrapping a vine around his ankle and then pelted him with a Leech Seed. He proceeded to Vine Whip Frillish, who tried to escape, but Togetic's eyes shone, and she restrained him with Extrasensory. Angel continued to hit Frillish until Electabuzz finally rescued him and hit the grass type away with an Ice Punch.

"Angel's kind of my battering ram," I continued. "He's really good at just ruining his opponent's day. His vines are so oppressive and annoying to fight that I don't know where I'd even begin to counter them if I was facing him, but he packs a pretty good punch to boot, although he's fallen a bit behind Frillish and Electabuzz in regards to brute force. Something his evolution will no doubt fix."

Tangela shook himself off, but he was clearly struggling. Back when Electabuzz had been an Elekid, he probably could have shrugged off a lot of these punching attacks, even though they were super effective. Now, though? After two, he was almost tapped out, but so were Frillish and Electabuzz. Too tired to run, Electabuzz brought his hands together, and thunder clapped. A huge Thunderbolt flew toward Tangela, who Togetic hastily protected with an Ancient Power. Frillish was now back in the air, and he was looking at the actual thorn in his team's side. Togetic.

"Princess might lack in power, but she makes up for it with her incredible utility. She's kind of an army knife or a jack of all trades, but that's not a weakness. That's a strength. She can do anything, and she likes thinking outside of the box. I'd say she often flies under the radar, like she did during this fight. I mean, honey could have easily hit her with a Thunderbolt or two, and she probably would have gone down, but they were too focused on Tangela to notice that she was the one pulling the strings."

Frillish offered princess an apologetic look, inhaled, and spat out a Bubblebeam straight at her. Her eyes shone, and she quickly altered their path before retaliating with another Air Cutter so quick Frillish couldn't even dodge with Water Sport. On the other side of the arena, Electabuzz and Tangela were duking it out. Angel kept trying to tie down Electabuzz to finally bring him down, but he kept knocking the vines away with Fire Punch. Still, Leech Seed was slowly taking effect, and after around thirty seconds of this, he had finally slowed enough for Tangela to Bind and Mega Drain him until he fainted, and I recalled him.

Togetic let out a child-like laugh as electricity zapped around her and flew off toward Frillish, who had adeptly Recovered from multiple Air Cutters. Paralysis took hold, but he was strong enough to stay afloat, and he threw another Water Pulse forward. Togetic took the hit, opting to lift Tangela high up enough so his vines could catch Frillish once again and drag him to the ground. Once he was down, he wasn't getting back up. Tangela wrapped multiple vines around his body, and Mega Drained his remaining energy.

I recalled Frillish and clapped. "That was a great battle. Great job on your strategizing, princess. That was the key to your victory. Tangela, you were great as always, and your vine control is on point," I said. Togetic laughed, clapping to herself. She had only gotten hit once. "I'll recall you now and bring you guys to a Center, although I guess Larvitar can stay since she was just watching. Honey's going to be disappointed at himself."

I took another look at Larvitar, whose eyes were still shining from that battle. She probably hadn't even listened to a word I had said, but it looked like battling was everything she had hoped it would be and more.

"You liked that, huh?" I smiled at her. "I have a role in mind for you too, but you'll have to grow up to fulfill it."

You'll be a tank, I thought. Something that never goes down no matter how many hits it takes, like Cece's Deino.

All I needed after that was something I considered heavy artillery, which was something I hoped a fire type could fix, but maybe I was taking it too far with these analogies. Either way, I recalled my entire team and made my way back to the Pokemon Center, satisfied with how that match had gone. There wasn't much else I could do now. All of my Pokemon knew their moves, Cece was busy juggling interviews, fixing her relationship with Scyther, and undergoing intense training for the gym, so we didn't have that much time. Chase was also training, although he was busy bringing up his Snover up to speed with the rest of his team as fast as he could.

Maybe Denzel would entertain me. He was giving his team today off, especially since Eev— Sylveon had desperately tried to learn as many new moves as he could in such a short amount of time. Disarming Voice and Play Rough were what they were focusing on. I gave all of my Pokemon except Larvitar to Nurse Joy, who seemed happy to finally be doing her job instead of sitting at a counter all day. I knocked on Denzel's door before realizing that the goofball hadn't even closed it. I barged in with Larvitar in tow and noticed that he was talking and filming himself on his Poketch. Sylveon was quietly sleeping at Denzel's feet along with his new Snorunt, one of his ribbons loosely wrapped around his leg. I hadn't had many opportunities to acquaint myself with the ice type yet.

"G—Grace," he stammered in embarrassment. "What— how did you even get in?"

I let out an evil smile. "Ooooh, were you making a video?" I laughed as I walked toward the phone.

"No, it's a livestream," he said. "Sorry guys, I'm gonna have to end it here. I'll start again soon," he said before pressing a button on his phone.

My stomach dropped at the mention of livestreaming. "How… how many viewers was that?"

"Ten thousand or so," he sighed. "I was trying out this Poketuber thing. Emilia wants to do it, too, remember? Like Temperance does, although she has her own site so that she doesn't have to split donations with the platform I'm uploading on. Emi gave me some pointers since I had the name recognition and the fame to kickstart my channel. I was just doing a general introduction and stuff. She says she'll start hers when she actually starts getting wins in contests."

"Right…" I muttered before suddenly looking at Larvitar, who was staring at us confusedly. "Was sweetheart… was she in the shot?"

Denzel winced and quickly played back his footage. Larvitar had been in the shot. That meant that thousands of people had seen that I owned a Larvitar. A pseudo-legendary Pokemon. This would no doubt fuck me over and make me even more famous.

I pinched the bridge of my nose. "Damn it."

"Sorry," my best friend apologized.

"No, no, it's my fault. I shouldn't have barged in like that, even though the door was open. I guess I reap what I sow."

"Well, it was going to come out eventually, so maybe it was better to do it now that you're in Snowpoint," Denzel said, trying to cheer me up. "No pesky trainers to harass you or ask you to trade it for their Bidoof, or whatever."

That elicited a small chuckle out of me. "You're right, it was better to do it now. I just wished that it had been in a more… controlled fashion and not an accident. Anyway, how many subscribers you got? Can you get monetized yet?"

"I have twelve thousand subscribers so far, but I haven't linked the account to my trainer card, or built a donation page, or anything like that. I literally just made an account, posted a link on the forums, and went live. I'm still new to all of this."

"Sounds like a good source of income if you build it up, though," I smiled.

"Yeah, people mostly associate Poketubers with coordinators, since trainers travel a lot and don't have time to actually make content, but I'm thinking of ways around that. Maybe hire an editor in the future so that they can keep putting out videos while I'm traveling?"

"Good editors aren't cheap, you know," I said. "But yeah, Temperance probably has one. Or like, an entire team of 'em. There's no way she edits her stuff."

"Yeah. I was thinking of making training compilations, battle montages, and stuff like that, along with the occasional livestream. Either way, this is just stuff for the future. I'll get deeper into it when we get to Hearthome."

"Man, there is a lot of shit happening at Hearthome," I laughed. "Almost makes me wonder if we'll have enough time to do it all."

"Eh, Solaceon's a nice stop if we don't," he shrugged. "Anyway, what brings you here?"

"Nothing, I just finished making my Pokemon battle, and I was bored."

"You made me stop my livestream because you were bored?" Denzel asked incredulously.

"Yeah… sorry? Wanna watch a shitty Center movie or something?"

"Okay," he groaned, grabbing the T.V. remote.

"You're the best."

——

The day of all of our battles had finally come. We all stepped into the gym with a confident stride. All of our experiences from Mount Coronet to Snowpoint had prepared us for this moment. This battle.

Since Candice's schedule was completely free, we hadn't even signed up for a solid timeslot yet. The receptionist yawned as he watched us decide who was going to go first.

"I should be first. You guys are already leeching off my success enough," Chase said loudly. "Let me have some fame too."

"Why don't you just make a channel like I did—"

"Come on, I don't have time for that coordinator shit," he said dismissively.

Denzel sighed. "Anyway, I don't mind going after you guys. Need to see how Candice fights to get the engine running."

"You call your brain an engine? Cringe, dude," Chase retorted. "But fine."

"I'm fine with going last," I said with a raised hand. "I'd also like to see the way Candice fights at our level."

"Sounds good, I'll be third," Denzel nodded.

I'd also see some of her lower leveled Pokemon, but odds were that they would be in no shape to fight after battling Cece and Chase, so that point was moot.

"Okay, Obel," Chase said smugly. "How about we settle this with a nice arm wrestling match?"

"Are you daft? That would in no way be fair," she answered, crossing her arms.

"How about you guys play rock paper scissors? One game. Winner goes first, and loser goes second," Denzel suggested. As always, he was trying to lower tension, although thankfully, the mood was rather playful instead of tense.

"That's a great suggestion," Cece said.

"Fine. One game, though," Chase nodded.

They readied themselves, shook their fists three times, and Chase threw rock while Cece threw paper.

"I win," she said with a vain smile. "Looks like you'll have to go after me."

"Wait! How about a best of three?" Chase asked.

"You said one game," I laughed. "Come on, let's go spectate," I stared at Cece for a few seconds and nodded at her. "You've got this, easy."

"Of course."

It was easy to see how massive the stands were when they were completely empty— wait, there was a man… I squinted. Craig was there, sitting in the front row and leaning against the railing. He motioned us to come over, and we obliged him.

"I thought you were gone already," I happily said. "Where have you been?"

"Oh, you know, been busy here and there. I have a battle after you kids. No matter how I pleaded, Candice was incessant. She wanted to battle you first."

"Sorry about that," Denzel said. "Looking at us fight is probably going to be like looking at kindergarteners, huh?"

"Speak for yourself, Williams," Chase said.

"Well, it won't teach me anything, but it'll be fun. I usually don't do stuff like this, so it'll be nice to feel grounded for a while," Craig said.

"Well, we're definitely staying for your battle afterward," I said. "As long as my Pokemon aren't too hurt, I'll stick around."

"Sounds good. Ah, your friend's there already."

Cece walked onto the platform confidently and looked beautiful while doing so. Candice arrived soon after, grinning from ear to ear. I leaned further against the railing. If what I had seen during my sleuthing was correct, then this behavior would mean that Candice would send out aggressive, offensive-minded Pokemon. The ice type gym leader grabbed a Pokeball and waited for Cece to do the same.

"Erm… Leader Candice, you forgot the rules," the referee on the side of the arena awkwardly said.

"Ah, shoot! It's been so long that I forgot! Um, welcome, challenger! This will be a four-on-four battle with one switch in allowed. I reserve the right to… wait, did the killing part come first, or—"

"Please, just get it over with! I'm dying from secondhand embarrassment!" The referee screamed.

"Sorry, Lily," Candice said, scratching her head.

"My name isn't even Lily. I've been working here since you started as a gym leader…"

"Let's not get sidetracked! Basically, no killing, I choose whatever Pokemon I want, and have fun! Now, send out your Pokemon!" Candice yelled.

Cecilia sent out her Slowpoke, who strangely already seemed awake and ready to battle. It was like he was a completely different Pokemon from usual. I didn't know what training she had undergone with him, but he was definitely stronger and more focused than before.

"Aw, I love Slowpoke! They're so dumb!" Candice grinned and sent out her Pokemon.
 
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Chapter 94
CHAPTER 94

Candice's battlefield was hilly and covered in snow. It was like a fusion between Roark's mountainous arena and Gardenia's flat one, with rolling hills and some trees spread out throughout the battlefield. There was, of course, the customary small lake on the challenger's side, although Cecilia wouldn't need it.

A small Cubchoo appeared in a flash of red, and it sniffled loudly. I frowned at Candice's choice of Pokemon. At first glance, the ice type appeared ridiculously weak. Would it be like Gardenia's Skiddo and actually pose a threat, or was Candice underestimating us?

"Get over there and Slash!" Candice yelled out excitedly, pointing at Slowpoke.

Cubchoo offered a small nod and slowly ran toward the water type.

Cecilia waited until it made it about halfway through the arena, then extended her hand in one graceful, smooth motion. "Psychic, Zen Headbutt," she ordered.

My eyes widened. Psychic already? When Slowpoke hadn't even evolved? The water type's eyes shone brighter than I had ever seen them, and a thick layer of psychic energy surrounded his opponent. Cubchoo winced, clearly already in pain. Unlike Confusion, Psychic not only allowed a Pokemon to lift things with their mind, but it also assaulted a Pokemon's brain with psychic energy. Slowpoke dragged Cubchoo toward him at a terrifying speed just as his forehead glowed blue, and using all of Psychic's momentum, he rammed the ice type with Zen Headbutt. I winced, hearing a loud crack reverberate through the arena. The lack of an audience made it so we could hear the Pokemon getting hurt very easily.

Cubchoo stood back up, clearly on its last legs.

"Ice Beam!" Candice yelled.

The ice type shook its entire body, reared its head back, and blew icy energy toward Slowpoke.

"Divert it back," Cece cooly ordered.

The Ice Beam curved almost one hundred and eighty degrees right before hitting Slowpoke and barrelled toward the Cubchoo, who intercepted it with another Ice Beam, creating a small, frosty explosion in the middle of the arena.

"Crap, you're better than I thought," Candice said with her hands on her hips. "Cubchoo, Yawn!"

The ice type opened its mouth, letting out a huge, exaggerated yawn. Just looking at it made me feel drowsy, and the attack wasn't even aimed at me.

Cece smiled— a competitive smile that let me know instantly that she was about to ruin Candice's day.

"Darling, Disable, then Water Pulse," Cecilia said. "Speed it up."

Slowpoke's eyes gleamed bright blue, then he spat out a huge Water Pulse, which suddenly quickened midway through the arena thanks to the water type's Psychic. Cubchoo was already slow to begin with, so dodging it was impossible.

"Freeze it!" Candice yelled.

Cubchoo inhaled sharply, and a frosty breath escaped from its mouth, freezing the water type attack midair. The Water Pulse fell to the ground and shattered.

"Hehe, gotcha!" She smiled. Candice was obviously buying time for her Yawn to take effect, and Slowpoke was out of range for his Psychic.

Cece recalled Slowpoke, meaning that she was using her only switch in. It was for a good reason, though. Yawn would never take effect again, and Cubchoo could no longer use it. Cecilia grabbed her next Pokeball, and I frowned when she sent out her Deino. It was a choice I disagreed with. I knew she wanted him to evolve and that he was strong enough to easily finish Cubchoo off, but if it were me, I would have saved my strongest team members for last to bait Candice into using weaker Pokemon.

Although I supposed that Cece didn't really have weaker Pokemon.

Deino roared threateningly, and blue draconic energy danced in his mouth.

Candice let out a surprised gasp. "You have a dragon? So cool! Cubchoo, Ice Beam!"

"Hold back, sixty percent. Dragon Pulse," Cecilia ordered.

Whereas Dragon Breath could be described as flames like Incinerate was, just of the dragon variety, Dragon Pulse was a continuous beam of draconic energy that was so big it made the previous move look like a joke. In fact, the move was so powerful that Deino could barely control his head and aim toward the Cubchoo. Still, the little bit of the attack that was aimed properly completely consumed and blew past the Ice Beam and blew Cubchoo toward Kadabra's barrier, tearing one of the trees apart. The ice type was down— and I didn't think anything could possibly stand up to that. And that had just been sixty percent. Cece was back to making Deino hold back again, and this time, I honestly believed it was because Dragon Pulse would have killed Cubchoo at full strength if the dragon type could actually aim it properly.

"Holy fuck," I whispered to myself.

"Cubchoo is unable to battle! Leader Candice, send out your second Pokemon," the referee said.

"Damn…" Candice muttered as she recalled her Cubchoo. "That attack was no joke."

Cece still wasn't responding to her attempts at dialogue and simply waited for Candice to send out another Pokemon. The ice type gym leader obliged her and released a Sneasel. I had been right. Candice was using Pokemon that were offensively minded for this battle.

"Again, sixty percent," Cece simply said.

"It can't aim! Dodge and get close!"

Deino reared his head back, and another Dragon Pulse blew across the arena. Sneasel nimbly ducked and slid across the ice to dodge the first pass, then jumped over the attack to dodge the next.

"Avalanche!" Candice said.

Huge quantities of snow flew upward like a wave behind Sneasel and collapsed all around Deino, who had to stop his attack. Cece clicked her tongue.

"Incinerate it away."

Flames completely melted the snow covering Deino, and the dragon continued the attack, aiming at Sneasel. The ice type hadn't expected Deino to get out of its Avalanche so easily, and it failed to dodge the Incinerate in time. It screeched as flames engulfed its body and fainted right away.

"Sneasel is unable to battle. Leader Candice, send out your third Pokemon," the referee awkwardly said.

I heard Denzel whistle to my side, and I was inclined to agree. Whereas Gardenia had pushed Cece to her limit, Candice looked to be a repeat of Roark, and could we even blame her? It was starting to sink in that even though Cece was in a tier of her own, all of us were too powerful to just have two badges. Maybe she was fighting at the level we were supposed to be at. Even though she was technically allowed to use Pokemon above that level like Gardenia had done with Sunflora against me or Breloom against Cecilia, nothing was forcing her to.

"Man, I'm rusty at these low-level battles," she sighed. "I keep making my Pokemon go in, thinking that they'll just brush off attacks or counter them on their own. I guess that means an easy gym battle for you—"

"Is this a joke to you?" Cece interrupted, finally engaging in conversation.

"What?"

"Is this a joke to you?" She repeated. "I came here looking to be challenged. I want to push my Deino to the next level, and if you keep taking it easy on me, this will be a waste of time. I'm not just looking for a badge, I want to get as powerful as I can to fulfill my promise at the end of the year. Use better Pokemon. You're on autopilot right now. You aren't trying. Wake up."

I understood Cece's frustration perfectly. We all did. It was one thing to win a badge, but the win had to be satisfying. A gym battle was supposed to push us to the brink. Challenge us like never before and push us past our limits. This was… this was as if Candice was playing house. Pretending. I didn't want to win like that.

The gym leader sighed. "I'm sorry, I guess you're right," she said, scratching the back of her head. "I am rusty, but I wasn't really trying. It's been so long since I've been a trainer that I forgot how annoying it was not to get taken seriously. Um, I'll be right back!"

I could see the referee's soul leave her body as Candice hurriedly ran back to her waiting room. I stared at Denzel, and he just shrugged. Apparently, that was… allowed? The rules must have been stretched really thin. She exited around a minute later with new Pokeballs on her belt.

"Sorry for the wait, I wasn't expecting to use any of these," Candice said, pointing at her Pokeballs. "Now, prepare yourself! The real gym battle starts—"

"Just send out your Pokemon!" The referee fumed. "Do you have any idea of how unprofessional this makes Snowpoint look?"

"Yeah, yeah, sorry!" Candice laughed as she sent out a Piloswine. It was just as big as the one we had seen in the wild. The ground type snorted threateningly and kicked up snow.

"Good," Cecilia smiled. "Dragon Pulse—"

"Trip it up with Bulldoze!" Candice interrupted.

During Denzel's battle against Gardenia, Bulldoze had just affected a large area around her Grotle, but Piloswine's Bulldoze was laser focused on the ground under Deino. The dragon type's Dragon Pulse flew off to the side and hit Kadabra's barrier, making the referee flinch.

"Ice Shard! Ice Shard! Ice Shard!" Candice laughed.

Wave after wave of small shards of ice flew off toward Deino.

"Dragon Pulse! Don't hold back!" Cecilia yelled.

"Scratch that, Bulldoze again!" Candice said, canceling her last order.

The ground shook, and Deino missed again, but this time he roared out in frustration. He hadn't mastered the move enough to properly aim it while being attacked, and Candice took immediate notice.

"Incinerate," she said. This time, Piloswine tried the Bulldoze tactic again, but Deino's attack was steady. The flames enveloped the ground type, who cried out in pain as its body caught fire.

"Icicle Crash!" Candice ordered.

An icicle large and sharp enough to penetrate even Deino's scales appeared above the dragon.

"Melt it!" Cece hurriedly ordered.

Deino lifted his head up, but the attack was quicker than what Cece had expected. The icicle didn't just drop, it was propelled by an invisible force and penetrated deep into Deino's scaly hide. The dragon type bellowed out in pain, but he was nowhere near done. Cecilia ordered him to quickly use another Incinerate at Piloswine. The ground type ignored the flames and just ran through them, tanking the damage like it was nothing. When it got close enough, Candice sprung to action.

"Freeze-Dry!" She said, her tongue sticking out in excitement.

First, Deino's stream of flames stopped, and then slowed. I quickly realized that it was his entire body that was slowing down, not just his attack. Frost grew on his scales, and his breath grew icy, but Cecilia was smiling for some reason.

"Finally," she exhaled as if a weight had been lifted from her shoulders.

It took a few seconds for me to understand what she meant. Light completely envelopped Deino's body, and he doubled in size. Then, a second head grew out of its body. Deino had evolved into a Zweilous, just as Cecilia predicted. The dragon type's body was cleared of frost, but the two heads stared at themselves in confusion for a few seconds, and then they fought.

One head gathered dark energy in its mouth and Crunched at the other's neck, while the other roared out in anger and screamed out a few flames. They weren't really dealing any real damage, but Cece sighed and snapped her fingers so loudly that it reverberated throughout the arena.

"Bad! Bad Zweilous!" She screamed, reminding me of her in Floaroma. "Incinerate at the Piloswine!"

Candice was doubled over, too busy giggling at the civil war going on to order her Piloswine. After around ten seconds, she wiped tears away from her eyes. "Oh, man, you're too good," she said. "Piloswine, finish it off. Freeze-Dry again."

The two heads kept fighting among themselves, one of them even having used Dragon Breath against itself, actually damaging its own body. They slowed as their body froze over, however, but I was surprised to see that the heads snapped disturbingly quickly toward Piloswine. It was like watching a hive mind at work. Cece didn't even give out an order. One of the heads let out a huge Dragon Pulse that completely enveloped Piloswine while the other used Incinerate, warming their body and burning their opponent in the process. I watched in awe as Piloswine fell to the ground, its body smoking and unconscious.

"Piloswine is unable to battle! Leader Candice, please send out your last Pokemon," the referee said.

"Okay, that was more powerful than I thought," Candice said as she grabbed her last Pokemon. A blue Sandslash with sharp icicles growing out of its back hissed and sharpened its claws. It was an Alolan variant. The gym must have paid a fortune to have it sent here, since they were rare in the tropical region to boot, only living on a single mountain.

"Incinerate," Cece said, snapping her fingers to snap Zweilous out of their now-resumed fight. One of them turned back to roar and protest at her while the other listened and quickly spat out a stream of white-hot flames.

I frowned when I saw that Candice didn't order Sandslash to dodge, and the Pokemon just stayed there and took the attack. I understood immediately when she grinned and ordered it to use Metal Burst, an attack that was more powerful the more damage a Pokemon had sustained. Alolan Sandslash were steel and ice type, meaning that—

Sandslash swept his arms, and sharp shards of metal flew out of its scaly skin like shrapnel. Metal Burst. The attack wasn't accurate at this distance, but the shards that hit, hit hard. Zweilous roared, and one of the heads, somehow blaming the other for what had happened hit it with Dragon Breath.

"It's distracted! Icicle Crash!" Candice said.

Just like before, a sharp icicle materialized out of thin air above Zweilous and penetrated their hide. This, combined with the fact that the heads were fighting nonstop meant that the dragon type finally went down. Still, it was a testament to its strength that even while fighting themselves, Zweilous was so strong it was almost unfair, and Cece seemed to understand that, since she recalled her Pokemon with a child-like smile. The heads seemed to both be aggressive, but one seemed to be much more irate than the other, while the second seemed to still at least listen to Cece's orders. It was something she was going to have to figure out after the battle.

Cecilia released Fletchinder, who stretched her wings and announced her presence with an ear-piecing cry.

"This is our last opponent, darling. Steady yourself," Cecilia warned.

"Knock it out of the sky with Icicle Crash!" Candice yelled.

Cece simply smirked and started the battle. "Tailwind."

Fletchinder easily dodged the singular icicle and started beating her wings. Wind started blowing across the arena toward Sandslash, slowing it down and speeding the flying type up. But Cecilia wasn't done. She was just starting.

"Agility, Quick Attack, Flame Charge," she said in one continuous order.

Fletchinder's body loosened as she dodged a series of Icicle Spears Candice had ordered. She was already ridiculously fast, but—

I blinked twice, and Fletchinder was already across the arena, flying toward Sandslash with her body wreathed in flames. She crashed into the steel type so quickly that even she had gotten hurt. Fletchinder shook herself off and tried taking flight again, but she barely managed to hobble away before Sandslash could hit her with its claws. My eyes widened when I saw that the ice type was panting loudly, its movements slowed and sluggish. After a few moments, it collapsed on the ground. The damage had taken seconds to actually register in its body. It was done. Fletchinder had taken it out in one combination of moves. She wasn't that powerful, but Cece had made sure that her lack of power would be compensated by making her so fast that it didn't even matter. Arceus, her Pokemon's power, and her skill at battling were ridiculous. She recalled Fletchinder, who was now incapable of fighting due to the recoil from her attack, and strode confidently toward Candice to receive her badge.

"A fuck ton of trainers just watched that battle live," Denzel said with a grin as he turned on his phone. "Her thread's blowing up again, too. This is the fastest I've ever seen a megathread go. Every time I refresh the page, there are at least five new messages, sometimes ten."

"She's excellent," Craig said. "Way better than I was at her age. Looks like Lauren has some competition after all."

I nodded. With this battle, Cece had again cemented herself as one of the most powerful first years in the Circuit, shutting every naysayer and hater dead in their tracks. I wasn't worried about keeping up. I was motivated to train harder. I needed to catch up before our battle in Hearthome, and so did Denzel.

"Pfft, your sister's going to get crushed by me in the Conference either way," Chase said with a smug smile. "My turn next," he said as he left us.

"Any advice you could give her?" I asked Craig, even though I knew he'd probably refuse to answer. Still, it didn't hurt to try.

"I gotta send Lauren a message to tell her to start getting involved. She's got to start looking you guys up. You can only go so far just staying in the wild like a caveman," Craig sighed. He looked genuinely worried for his sister's prospects now, which made my heart swell with pride for Cece. "I'll give you one thing, that strategy with her Fletchinder? Nearly flawless, although she overestimated her Pokemon's ability to take that amount of recoil. She's good for her age, but because she's good, she takes too many risks. That comes back to bite you in the a— in the butt if you don't nip it in the bud early. Tell her that."

"Thank you so much!" I smiled. "Can you give all of us advice like this?"

"Well, it depends on how good you are. We'll see."

My eyes followed Cece, who was slowly walking back into the waiting room. "I'll be right back!" I said as I ran off. I passed a bewildered Chase and waited for Cece in the lobby, but he just shrugged and went on to the waiting room. My girlfriend grinned when she saw me. Even after the battle, she looked perfectly unaffected.

"Oh man, you were so good!" I exclaimed with a wide smile. "You're— you're amazing."

She just approached me silently and— and lifted me up, spinning me around as she laughed. Apparently, that evolution and that win had made her happier than I expected.

"Zweilous was perfect. There are obviously things to iron out, but he's— they're just as powerful as I expected and more," she said, dropping me.

"I can tell," I laughed. "Let's head back. Chase's battle is going to start."

I still needed to study Candice some more, and she would only get better as time went on and she got used to lower leveled battles again.
 
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Chapter 95
CHAPTER 95

After our little celebration, Cece and I hurried back to the stands. Craig had sat back down and pulled up a laptop from a bag, but I knew better than to check. Maybe he was sending that message to Lauren after all.

"Ah, you guys finally made it," Denzel said. "Congrats on your win, Cece. You were badass as hell."

"Thank you. That second half was certainly exhilarating," Cecilia answered.

"Candice still taking a break?" I asked.

"Yeah," Denzel nodded. "The battle should be starting any minute now."

"So Zweilous, huh?" I pondered. "Are you going to name the heads?"

Cece let out a pensive hum. "I suppose I'll have to, but obviously, I haven't come up with different names yet."

"How about… baby and sweetie?" I asked.

Cece slowly turned her head toward me and stared like I was clinically insane, and Denzel laughed so hard he could barely breathe.

"What? It's cute…" I muttered, blushing and embarrassed.

"Baby and sweetie?" My best friend laughed. "I mean, come on, have you seen the damage they can do? You're completely off-theme here."

"I'm sorry, Grace, but I don't think those are a very good idea," Cece said. "Thanks for the… suggestion?"

"You guys suck," I groaned.

"For what it's worth, I find this side of you absolutely charming," she smiled.

I sighed and closed my eyes, retreating into my thoughts. Anything would be better than thinking about what had just happened. What had I learned from Cece's battle? Well, from the first half, not much, but I had at least learned that Candice was rusty with using lower leveled Pokemon. Was that a weakness I could exploit, somehow? Maybe it'd be smart to implement a more aggressive style for my battle, but I couldn't be sure until I gathered more information. From the second half, however, I learned a lot more and confirmed what I had seen in the gym leader's past battles. Candice was a fast pace battler who liked to speak over her opponent's orders, which could be an irritating tactic if you weren't ready to face it.

Luckily, I was ready, and she hadn't really taunted Cece during their fight at all. I knew that she could be a lot more annoying, so it looked like she was still pulling her punches a bit.

The last piece of information I managed to extract from the fight was that since Candice had just used an offensive team of the physical variation, she was unlikely to use the same tactic against me. Candice was an easily bored person, and she never used the same tactic in quick succession. That meant I could mentally scratch that scenario off in my head, making more space for my strategy against the rest of her teams.

I opened my eyes and sighed when I saw that Candice still wasn't back. I didn't dislike her, but her way of running her gym was somewhat sloppy. Breaks weren't supposed to be this long.

"...until I get him back under control," Cece finished her sentence.

"What are you guys talking about?" I asked.

"I was asking Cece why she hadn't bought any TMs for her team yet," Denzel explained. "Her Pokemon are definitely good enough now to easily learn the mid-leveled moves, and she's got the cash for it."

"And I said that I was definitely going to look into buying some for Zweilous, but I'd wait until they listened to me again. Zweilous opens up a lot of possibilities for moves that can blow the enemy apart, though," she smiled. "Earth Power, Flamethrower, Dark Pulse, the elemental fang moves… and the two heads can use two attacks at once, oh how wonderful."

"Yeah, we definitely have a devastating battler on our hands," Denzel said. "Our fights in Hearthome will be interesting for sure— ah, finally."

Candice and Chase finally walked up to their platforms, and the referee let out an exasperated sigh.

"Sorry about the wait, I was thinking really hard about what Pokemon to use. Last battle was kind of lame, but I'm not going to go easy on you, got it?!" Candice yelled. Then, she scratched the back of her head and amended her statement. "Uh, I still have to hold back, though, 'cause otherwise you'd never win."

"Save your breath for when you have to congratulate me for my victory," Chase said as he grabbed his Pokeball.

Even from up here, I thought I saw a glint in Candice's eye. She enunciated the rules again, this time perfectly. Even though Chase had five Pokemon capable of battling, the battle would surprisingly be a four-on-four and again have one switch-in. Cece's battle had only had one switch-in too. Once was a coincidence, twice was a pattern. Candice wasn't going to let us swap out a lot of our Pokemon today, which meant I'd have to adjust my starting Pokemon. Frillish would be a good all-rounder to begin with. Mobile, good offense, and good survivability.

Chase unsurprisingly sent out his Houndoom. I knew that he liked to easily blow past his opponents with the type advantage, and today was no different. Candice sent out an Alolan Vulpix with a grin. Another regional form that must have cost a lot of money, especially considering how expensive Vulpix were in general. If my suspicions were correct, Candice was going to use another offensive team, this time angled toward special attacks. The referee slashed his arm across the air, and the battle began.

"Incine—"

"Shut up! Me first, Moonblast!" Candice interrupted with a shrill voice.

Vulpix let out a smooth cry, and a miniature shining moon appeared in front of her mouth and flew off toward Houndoom. The dark type stared at Chase, loyally waiting for his command. The split second of surprise ended, and Chase swore.

"Dodge it, then Incinerate!" He yelled. "Remember our drills—"

"Keep blasting it!" Candice laughed. "Again, again, again!"

"Will you shut the fuck up?! Houndoom!"

Houndoom answered with a fierce nod. The fire type waited until the last second and easily sidestepped the fairy type attack, but there were more coming. A lot more.

"Run up to it," Chase said after clicking his tongue.

Houndoom gave another nod and sprinted toward the small Vulpix, getting grazed by multiple Moon Blasts on the way.

"Slow him down with Icy Wind!" Candice said.

Vulpix ran to the side, away from Houndoom, and started to inhale.

Chase smirked. "Incinerate."

Houndoom let out an eerie howl and spat out a stream of flames—

"Sike! Moon Blast!" Candice giggled.

Another Moon Blast— albeit smaller and less powerful than the ones that had come before— pushed past the flames and hit Houndoom in the face. The dark type yelped, but he shook himself off and tried again, this time grazing Vulpix's tail. I observed the developing situation with a frown. It wasn't so much that Vulpix was unbeatable, it was that Candice was odd to fight. She broke all norms and etiquette of Pokemon battling, and Chase wasn't used to that at all.

"Is that all you got?" Candice taunted, using the slight lull in the battle.

"Shut the hell up!" Chase raged. "Feint Attack!"

The fire type howled and began prowling around Vulpix, slowly fading into thin air. He reappeared seconds later, right behind the ice type, and hit it away with a strong swipe.

"Burn it!" Chase continued.

"Nuh-uh you don't! Extrasensory!"

Houndoom used another Incinerate, but its path was altered by a strange, psychically charged patch of air. Sure, Houndoom was a dark type and immune to psychic attacks, but that didn't mean the move was unusable.

"Screw it! Keep Feint Attacking, it can't counter you!" Chase said.

Houndoom sunk into the shadows once more. Candice stayed silent, waiting for the attack to come, but Chase grinned.

"Incinerate!"

Houndoom appeared to Vulpix's right and already had the Incinerate out of his mouth before the ice type could even notice anything. The flames consumed Vulpix, who cried out in pain and writhed on the ground, causing me to wince. Luckily it looked like Houndoom had gotten his flames under control, so the pain from the burns wouldn't last for months, only days. Once Vulpix got hit once, that was it. The Pokemon was too fragile to survive Houndoom's onslaught and too weak to dodge or counter it, and another Incinerate did the trick.

"Vulpix is unable to battle. Leader Candice, send out your second Pokemon," the referee said.

Candice immediately grabbed her next Pokeball, not giving her next choice any thought, and sent out a Castform. I raised an eyebrow. I knew that the Pokemon wasn't often used in battle, instead being used in swarms to dissolve hurricanes in Hoenn before they could actually make it to shore.

"Hail!" Candice immediately said. Dark clouds began to form over the battlefield, inside of the building, and large chunks of hail started to fall, slowly weakening Houndoom. Castform started to change too. Its body turned purple and small clouds wrapped neatly around its body.

"What a useless gimmick," Chase said. "Incinerate!"

"Hydro Pump."

Chase's eyes widened when Castform blew Houndoom's attack apart with its own. The Hydro Pump turned the Incinerate into vapor and the force behind the move sent Houndoom flying. The fire type whined as it struggled to get back up, but it fell to the ground quickly afterward.

"Houndoom is unable to battle. Challenger, send out your second Pokemon."

Well, that had been something. I knew that Candice said that she wouldn't take it easy on us, but Hydro Pump? One of the most powerful water type moves? I grinned and shivered in anticipation.

Chase clicked his tongue as he recalled his Houndoom. He thought for a few seconds, his hands hovering over his Pokeballs before sending out his Charjabug. The bug type screeched and sent small sparks flying around him.

"Dig, anti-flier setup," Chase spat.

Chase had spoken about his anti-flying Pokemon strategy a few times, and it was time to finally see it in action. Charjabug quickly dug into the snow, shielding himself from the hail, and Candice ordered Castform to float as high up as possible. For a few seconds, there was a deafening silence, but then—

Charjabug burst from the ground, jumping slightly into the air as strands of string shot out from his mouth and wrapped around Castform. The ice type just shrugged it off, and I knew why. Castform didn't fly with wings. This amount of string wouldn't pull it down. Still, when I looked into Chase's eyes, I knew this was a part of his plan. I understood what he was doing when I noticed that the electric type wasn't letting go. It was attached to the Castform by his thin layer of string.

"Burn it off! Ember!" Candice said.

"Thunderbolt," Chase smiled.

Electricity traveled through Charjabug's thread and directly hit the Castform, who was in too much pain to use Ember. The bug type kept the attack going, not stopping for one second, and the ice type crashed to the ground, but they were still linked by the String Shot. Charjabug was still attacking. Castform returned to its normal state, and the Hail slowly came to a halt.

"Castform is unable to battle! Leader Candice, send out your third Pokemon," the referee said.

"Legendaries, that was unexpected," Candice said. "You caught me off-guard, but it won't happen again!" She yelled, sending out a Vanillish. The ice type was so cold that there was mist emanating from its body. "Ice Beam!"

"Dodge with Dig!" Chase yelled with a sweep of his arm.

Charjabug narrowly avoided the attack and burrowed underground. After around twenty seconds, he jumped out and String Shot Vanillish again. Its body was so cold that the string was frozen solid, but it would still be enough. A smug grin split Chase's face as he ordered another Thunderbolt, but Candice laughed.


"Idiot! You fell right into my trap! Mirror Coat!"

Vanillish's body became almost transparent, and the Thunderbolt bounced back down the string and completely fried Charjabug's body. The bug type let go of the string and fell to the ground with a loud thud, kicking up snow. Mirror Coat bounced special attacks back toward the attacker, and the fact that Charjabug had gone down in one attack showed how strong he was. The bug type might not have looked like much, but it seriously couldn't be underestimated.

"Charjabug is unable to battle," The referee said. "Challenger, send out your third Pokemon."

"Good job," Chase said as he recalled his Pokemon. "But we need to work harder."

"Oh, give your poor Charjabug a break," Candice said. "Maybe you should have known that I wouldn't let you use the same strategy twice, stupid!"

Chase clenched at his forehead and stared at the ceiling exasperatedly. "Shut. The. Fuck. Up!"

He sighed, readjusted his cap, and sent out his Riolu.

"Bone Rush," He said. "Anti-flier setup."

A bone grew out of Riolu's hand, and he seized it tightly. He ran forward with Quick Attack, becoming a blur.

"Again?!" Candice laughed. "Come on, don't just tell me your strategy—"

Riolu's arm bulged, and he threw his bone at Vanillish with all of his strength. The ice type's eyes widened, and so did Candice's.

"Dodge!" She yelled.

Riolu was too strong, and Vanillish was too slow. The bone hit the ice type's cone, cracking it, but Riolu kept going. He kept throwing bones at the ice type.

"Acid Armor, then Ice Beam!" Candice ordered.

Vanillish's body sunk into itself, turned into a jelly-like liquid and bones just passed through it like it was a ghost. Such mastery of Acid Armor was impressive, especially when I compared Frillish's own. The ice type then sent out an Ice Beam toward Riolu, but the fighting type wasn't done.

"Vacuum Wave," Chase quickly said.

Riolu inhaled and hurtled both of his palms forward in one brisk motion. The air in front of him compressed and turned into a vacuum. The Ice Beam simply dissipated, and so did Vanillish's body. I let out a panicked gasp when its entire body just exploded all over the arena, but I sighed in relief when I saw that Candice wasn't worried. The small pieces of Vanillish slowly slithered across the ground and become whole again, but Riolu just started beating the life out of it with another Bone Rush before it could get off the ground.

"Vanillish is unable to battle. Leader Candice, send out your last Pokemon."

"Aw, shucks!" Candice sighed, placing a hand on her last Pokemon. "Well, go!"

A Glaceon appeared in a flash of red and gracefully stretched.

"Come on, it's time to battle! It's been so long, and you sleep all day, how can you even be tired?! Ice Beam!"

"Riolu, hit it with Force Palm!"

Riolu gave a quiet nod and zig-zagged with Quick Attack toward Glaceon, narrowly avoiding each Ice Beam. His palms began to glow with a pale blue.

"Slow him down! Icy Wind!"

The ice type switched tactics, sending a frosty, cold gust of wind toward Riolu. Unlike the narrow Ice Beam, Icy Wind was too wide to dodge, and Riolu slowed to a crawl, leaving Glaceon enough time to finally hit him in the chest and arm with an Ice Beam, freezing him partly.

"Vacuum Wave," Chase quickly yelled. Riolu's arm flexed, and the air was sucked out around it. The quick change in pressure destroyed the ice, unfreezing Riolu in the process, but he directed another wave toward Glaceon, who was helpless and could only take the attack. "Again."

Chase had found a weakness in Glaceon's fighting style. The ice type was completely incapable of countering Vacuum Wave, and the attack was too large for him to dodge. Any ranged attack it sent would be dispersed by Vacuum Wave, and Riolu would always win at close range. On Riolu's fifth Vacuum Wave, Glaceon finally went down. Chase had won his gym battle.

"Congrats," Candice said. "If only I wasn't so rusty… ugh. Who knew fighting at such a low level could be this fun? Being aggressive didn't work, so maybe I should try something else…"

We cheered and clapped for him, but he ignored us and simply walked toward Candice with his hands in his pockets. It seemed like the 'low-level' comment had gotten to him somewhat.

"What'd you think of this one?" I asked, turning to Craig.

The older trainer sighed. "Those anti-flying tactics were ingenious. It shows that he's a good trainer that thinks outside of the box. Unfortunately, once he uses it once, it's completely unusable for the rest of the battle since it's too easy to counter. It also kind of feels like outside of that, he hits his head against the wall until something sticks. It works right now, but it won't in the future. That's all he's getting from me."

"Thanks," I said.

More importantly, what had I learned from this battle? I asked myself. Well, from what Candice had said, she was probably going to use a more defensive team next time. That could mean either stall, or just bulky Pokemon in general. I had also learned that she could taunt you when she wanted to, like she had done at the start. At the beginning of our Journey, all of those months ago, that probably would have gotten to Chase, and he would have lost for sure. Hell, they almost did, but the gym leader stopped midway through the battle, probably because she knew the trash-talking would have made him lose too easily. Still… talking over your opponent sure was a scummy strategy, especially with how loud Candice's voice was. It would be less effective on me, because I had taught my Pokemon to be more independent with their moves and what they did in battle, but Chase was a leader, and his Pokemon were like soldiers. He always told his team what to do unless the situation was dire and it was a life-or-death fight, which was why Candice's strategy had worked so well at the start.

"Well, my turn next," Denzel said with a nervous grin.

"Good luck. You've got this, we're way better than we ought to be at the third badge," I said, encouraging him.

"Give her hell," Cece said. "I find her quite irritating."

Denzel nodded and left.

"Come on," I said. "She's not that bad. She's just having fun."

"I don't know, I find her happy-go-lucky behavior to be somewhat grating," she shrugged.

"It's true that I'd rather she be more serious but…" I trailed off with a sigh, thinking of Gardenia.

"We all have different ways to cope," Craig spoke up with a grave tone. "She has a lot of stuff going on. Being a gym leader isn't all sunshine and rainbows."

We stared at each other for a few seconds and then offered him a silent nod. Chase came back up to the spectating area, and after congratulating him, I gave him Craig's advice, which he shrugged off.

"Your loss, kid," Craig told him.

After another break that had been way too long, Candice finally ran up to the arena, and so did Denzel. I'd need to observe and pay attention to this one too. Each battle offered a nugget of information that slowly revealed Candice's style as a whole.

Only one more battle, and it would be my turn. I had to stop myself from smiling.
 
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Chapter 96
CHAPTER 96

Denzel's battle would be another four-on-four with one switch-in. I had been correct in assuming that every battle would keep those same rules, which was annoying. I personally believed that battles were more fun if you could swap out more because that allowed for more strategizing. I carefully watched Candice fiddle with her Pokeball as she waited for Denzel to send out his own Pokemon. She was less confident than before and somewhat subdued. Gym leaders were used to losing multiple times in a row, but apparently, Candice was the exception to that rule. According to my notes, that meant that she would play it safer this match. Not necessarily that her team would be a stall one or a defensive one, but that she would hold off before just attacking at the fast pace she had done so thus far.

Denzel finally sent out his Buneary. The normal type was clearly more comfortable with being in a gym battle now, she was jumping and punching the air with her ears. Candice immediately released an Amaura. An extinct Pokemon. The rock type gazed around the arena with a playful stare.

"Impressed?" She said, looking at Denzel's befuddled stare. "I got him as a gift from Roark for my birthday. I was hoping to bring him up to my six badge teams, but he isn't there yet."

Denzel frowned. "Um, okay…? Can we start the battle, or—"

"Gotcha!" Candice yelled. "Aurora Beam!"

Amaura rolled his eyes but listened and launched a rainbow-colored ray toward Buneary.

"Quick Attack and get close," Denzel calmly said.

Buneary nodded, glowing as she jumped so hard that the snow under her feet fluttered away, leaving only barren ground and a tiny crater. Amaura tried shooting her out of the sky, but the rabbit twisted her body around the attack. Another Aurora Beam grazed her, but it wasn't enough. After another two jumps, Buneary landed next to Amaura with a loud thud.

"Reflect!" Candice yelled.

"Power-up Punch!"

A thin, transparent barrier appeared around the ice type just as Buneary's right ear glowed bright white and cracked the wall.

"Round!" Candice quickly ordered.

Amaura inhaled, and then let out an ear-piercing cry that somehow frosted Buneary's ears. The normal type pushed through and punched again, and this time it was stronger. The Reflect broke.

"Circle Throw!" Denzel said.

Buneary sidestepped a Body Slam from Amaura, using its forward momentum to grab it, using both her arms and her ears to lift the rock type. She slammed Amaura head-first against the ground behind her.

"Power-up Punch!"

Buneary gave a tired nod. Each subsequent attack was getting more powerful, but it was tiring her out. She punched Amaura's flank, and the ice type was too awkwardly shaped to get off the ground quickly.

"Icy Wind, then Round again!" Candice said.

The rock type reared his head back and spat out frosty wind that slowed Buneary to a crawl, giving him enough time to get back on his feet. He then yelled again, this time freezing Buneary's ears completely. The Pokemon must have had an ability to turn normal type moves into ice type like Pixilate with Sylveon.

"Melt the ice with Fire Punch!"

The tip of Buneary's ears burst into flames that quickly freed her frozen ears, and she jumped back before Amaura could deal any more damage. I was surprised to see that the ice type had taken so many hits, but that confirmed my suspicions that Candice was using a more defensive team. Any of the other Pokemon she had used against Cece or Chase would have been down by now.

"What?! Fire Punch? That's so unfair!" Candice grumbled. "Amaura, Ancient Power!"

Amaura's eyes shone with an eerie blue and lifted multiple rocks from the ground. The control he had over them was just as good as Togetic's, if not better. He threw them forward, and they all converged toward Buneary, surrounding her from all sides, even from above.

"Defense Curl," Denzel said with a pinch of worry.

Dodging was nigh impossible, and he knew it. Buneary curled up into a ball, and her skin shimmered slightly. The rocks and earth crashed into her, and I saw Candice's body relax. The loosened arms, the spaced-out legs, the small exhale that was almost unnoticeable. The quivering fingers. Unfortunately for her, Buneary was still standing.

"Good job," Denzel smiled. "Give me one last Power-up Punch!"

Buneary cried out defiantly and jumped into the air, her ears and arms flailing wildly. Both of her ears shone brightly mid-air.

"Shield yourself! Reflect and Ancient Power!" Candice hurriedly said.

Buneary crashed past the earthen barrier that Amaura had briskly erected and completely destroyed his Reflect as well, hitting the ice type square in the chest. She struggled to her feet, and Amaura went down.

"Amaura is unable to battle! Leader Candice, send out your second Pokemon."

Not hesitating for a second, Candice sent out a Cetoddle. It was my first time seeing the Paldean Pokemon, and it playfully stomped around in the snow.

"Buneary, you've got one more in you?" Denzel asked with a thin smile. The rabbit turned toward him and answered with a smile of her own. "Thought so. Fire Punch!"

"Ice Shard!" Candice ordered.

Buneary took a deep breath, allowing herself a second to rest and jumped once more. Cetoddele summoned a dozen shards and threw them toward Buneary, who managed to punch them away. The normal type was now barreling headfirst toward Cetoddle with seemingly no care for landing on her feet.

"Body Slam!"

Cetoddle's entire body tensed, opting to throw its entire weight at the Buneary instead of attempting to dodge. The normal type flew off, but not before landing a devastating Fire Punch that had been powered up by multiple Power-up Punches.

"Buneary is unable to battle! Challenger, send out your second Pokemon!"

"Amazing job," Denzel smiled, sending out his Sylveon next. The fairy type landed gracefully in the snow without a single noise.

He lost his smile when Candice uttered her next sentence.

"Cetoddle, Rest!"

The ice type plopped itself on the ground and just… fell asleep, and its injuries from Buneary's Fire Punch healed at an incredible rate.

"Sleep Talk," Candice continued.

Cetoddle's body vibrated, and then it opened its mouth, letting out a Powder Snow toward Sylveon.

Denzel clenched a fist. "Get close to it and Play Rough!"

Sylveon used Quick Attack to run across the snowy battlefield. His steps were so graceful that it was as if I was watching him skid across the snow. Luckily, even though Cetoddle could use Sleep Talk, it being asleep still meant that it was terrible at actually aiming. Sylveon easily sidestepped the Powder Snow, and I grinned when I saw that he had lost none of his relentlessness even after evolving.

Sylveon started brutally beating up Cetoddle, kicking it, ramming into it, and pawing at it. Each time he landed a hit, pink imprints were left on the ice type's body. Marks left by the fairy type energy imbued in the move.

Candice hurriedly ordered Cetoddle to use Sleep Talk again, and the ice type Body Slammed into Sylveon. The fairy type took the hit and just kept thrashing Cetoddle around.

"Give me a Double Kick," Denzel grinned.

Sylveon smiled, turning away from Cetoddle and hitting it with his hind legs twice. If I hadn't been used to Togetic, I would have thought that it was unsettling how fairy types were always so brutal with the biggest grin on their face. After multiple ear-piercing screams from Candice, Cetoddle unfortunately woke up.

"Rest again!" Candice said.

Denzel swore as almost all of the damage Sylveon had dealt was undone. This was… a dilemma. Sure, Cetoddle was terrible at attacking when he was asleep, but if Sylveon just kept attacking, he would eventually tire out, even with all of his endurance. How would I have solved this? Buneary was a good answer with her Power-up Punch, but she was already tapped out. I didn't know enough about how Sylveon battled to solve this puzzle, but maybe Budew's Growth…

Denzel seemingly thought the same, and he recalled his Pokemon, using his one and only switch-in. He released his Budew, who announced her presence with her usual screech.

"Woah, that's the biggest Budew I've ever seen!" Candice said with wide eyes. "Sleep Talk!"

"Growth."

At first glance, using a grass type against an ice type would have seemed foolish, but I understood what Denzel was going for. He was hoping to stack up enough Growths to just blow past Cetoddle's Rest before it could wake up and use the move again. Budew's body shone and grew a few inches as Cetoddle started running toward the grass type in his sleep.

"Keep it going," Denzel breathed out.

Cetoddle was bulky, but it was also slow, and so it took a long time to reach Budew on the other side of the arena. My best friend waited until the last possible moment and sprung to action.

"Venoshock!" Denzel said.


Budew belched out purple poisonous fluid, spraying Cetoddle with poison so potent that it was melting off its skin, past its thick layer of fat. The ice type rammed into Budew with Body Slam and woke up soon after. It cried out in pain, which was followed by some kind of clicking noise.

"Rest again!" Candice said.

Once again, the ice type lay down and fell asleep, ignoring the poison eating away at its body. Still, the damage it was healing was substantially lower than before.

"Bullet Seed."

Budew spat out a series of seeds at her opponent, hitting Cetoddle's exposed flesh. Candice ordered another Sleep Talk, and her Pokemon stood up, but it was too weak to even use an actual move. Budew used another Bullet Seed, and the ice type finally fell to the ground. I was perplexed by the fact that Cetoddle would have been a perfectly good Pokemon to switch out and save for later. Nothing else Denzel had on his team could have dealt with it, which proved to me that Candice wasn't going all out. I was getting better at noticing the different facets of how gym leaders held back to not make their battle impossible. They were meant to pose a challenge to overcome, and Denzel had overcome his. Still, the battle wasn't over. What I did learn from this, however, was that Candice never switched. More information. More knowledge for my battle.

"Cetoddle is unable to battle! Leader Candice, send out your third Pokemon!" The referee said.

"Man, that was fun!" Candice laughed as she grabbed her next Pokeball. "Now I wish more new trainers came to challenge me."

"Glad I could be of service," Denzel smiled.

Candice released a penguin-like Pokemon that had a giant ice cube for a head. Eiscue, an ice type from Galar.

"Get in range!" Candice yelled.

In range for what? I thought.

"Bullet Seed!" Denzel yelled.

Budew screeched, and another Bullet Seed flew out of her mouth. Eiscue awkwardly ran toward the grass type, lowering its giant head to protect itself from her attack. The ice cube structure on its head cracked and fell off, leaving only a small circle with a long antenna.

"Freeze-Dry!" Candice ordered, her voice shaking.

"Shit! Venoshock! You've got this!"

Budew's body slowed and slowly froze over, but the attack was slow enough to give her enough time to spray poison at Eiscue. Her special attack was still boosted by Growth. Eiscue's flesh burned, and when I thought Budew would go down, she let out a shriek and glowed white, doubling in size. Denzel watched on with a wild grin as his Budew evolved.

"Why do Pokemon keep evolving when I use Freeze-Dry?!" Candice complained. "That's no fair!"

Roselia emerged from the light, not having lost her perpetual scowl.

"Stun Spore!" Denzel excitedly screamed.

With a threatening screech, Roselia aimed one of its bouquets at Eiscue and launched a bundle of yellow spores at the ice type. Eiscue breathed them in, and its body started to shake wildly.

"Finish it off with Mega Drain," Denzel sighed in relief. Roselia nodded, aiming both of her bouquets at her opponent and draining its energy, healing herself from some of the damage she had taken from Freeze Dry. Eiscue fell to the ground and fainted.

"Eiscue is unable to battle! Leader Candice, send out your last Pokemon!"

"Go, Cryogonal!" Candice yelled, releasing her final partner. The ice type's body shifted and ground against itself as its eyes came alive with a bright blue color.

Denzel ordered Roselia to hit the ice type with another Stun Spore, but it floated up, avoiding the attack and then used Freeze Dry on the poison type. Denzel asked his Pokemon to use one last Venoshock, and she sprayed Cryogonal with poison before fainting.

"Roselia is unable to battle! Challenger, send out your third Pokemon!"

"It's you and me," Denzel said, releasing Sylveon again. "Swift!"

Sylveon let out a smooth cry as pink stars appeared above him and flew toward Cryogonal at incredibly high speeds. It was too slow to outrun the attack, so it opted to get hit and retaliated with a Frost Breath. Sylveon got flat on the ground and rolled to the right, narrowly avoiding the attack, but Cryogonal followed him with his Frost Breath. Sylveon's leg was hit, but he started running with Quick Attack and circled around the ice type.

"Disarming Voice!" Denzel yelled.

Sylveon let out a harrowing scream that made me want to cry, and Cryogonal stopped its attack, taking damage in the process. Denzel ordered another Swift right afterward, and all of the stars hit the ice type, forcing it to lower itself due to the damage it was taking.

"Jump at it and get it down!" Denzel said, seizing the moment.

"No you don't! Freeze Dry!"

Sylveon gracefully leaped at Candice's Pokemon, and his extremities started to freeze. It used Play Rough in the air, headbutting Cryogonal and bringing it on the ground with him, but Sylveon struggled to stand back up due to Freeze Dry.

"Slash and get back in the air!" The gym leader said.

Cryogonal turned its entire body like a wheel, and the angular edges of its body sharpened and glowed white as it cut across Sylveon, drawing blood. The fairy type wrapped one of his ribbons around one of Cryogonal's extremities, keeping it down, rolled on his back, and Double Kicked it, cracking its tough, icy exterior.

"Dang it, I hate fairy types and their tricks!" Candice yelled. "Frost Breath!"

"Disarming Voice!"

Before Cryogonal could even start using the move, Sylveon stopped it from attacking and then kicked it again. It was barely hovering now. Denzel hadn't even used any of his Detects. Victory was in sight.

"Finish it off with Play Rough," Denzel said, his body relaxing.

Sylveon nodded and started relentlessly beating Cryogonal up with that same smile on his face. Cryogonal went down, crashing into the snowy landscape. Denzel had won.

It was my turn now.

Cece nodded at me. I asked Craig to give Denzel advice when he got there, and I met him on the way down. He wished me good luck, and I congratulated him. I would have stayed for Craig's advice, but I needed as much time to think to myself in the waiting room.

——

My mind felt clear as I waited for Candice to finish her break. I had a Pokeball in hand, and I felt at the cold metal. It was comforting, the way it filled my palm and fit in my hand perfectly. I was confident I was going to win, but I would still give it everything I had. I would fight like I was a Pokemon behind at all times. I would give one hundred percent. I had been watching these three battles, along with the others I had seen online, but I had also been watching Candice. I had the information at my fingertips, now I just had to grasp it and use it.

The gym trainer fitted me with the usual microphone and motioned me to move to the battlefield. I walked onto the platform and immediately stared at the gym leader. She was smiling again, but holding herself back. I could tell, because her lips were twitching. She already had her Pokeball in hand, meaning that like usual, she had already decided what to send out, and she wouldn't actually try to counter my choice. I stared at her hand and saw that it was completely steady. No trembling. Her fingers gripped her Pokeball tightly. Confidence, even though she had just lost. That battle with Denzel must have been fun and reinvigorated her spirit. She leaned against her knees in anticipation, but she didn't boast. Excitement, but she was holding it in. Her choice would be balanced. Not too axed toward attack, but not too defensive either. Candice was going to try to figure me out first and then decide how to go about this battle. It looked like I'd be fighting erratic Candice after all.

"...Four-on-four with one switch-in allowed…" Candice was saying.

Soon enough, she finished her instructions, and I released Frillish. Candice released a spherical Pokemon. It looked like a dark rock covered in thick sheets of ice, with pale blue eyes and conical horns on both sides of its face. A Glalie took to the air and stared at Frillish with a wicked smile.

"Buy me some time," I told Frillish. He stared back at me and nodded.

My eyes were still on Candice.
 
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Chapter 97 - Predicting the Unpredictable
CHAPTER 97 - Predicting the Unpredictable

"Buy me some time," I said. I knew very little about Glalie as a Pokemon, so I needed Frillish to stall to fish out its moves all while I kept my eyes on Candice, trying to notice any change in her behavior as I had tried against Gardenia, but failed.

This time, I would succeed.

Frillish wasted no time and sent out a Bubblebeam toward the hovering Glalie.

"Frost Breath!" Candice ordered.

The ice type blew cold air toward the Bubblebeam, causing the move to freeze mid-air and miss entirely. Without Candice's direction, Glalie started to float toward Frillish as fast as it could. I stared at her, and she wasn't panicking at this development at all. That meant that Glalie was more of an independent fighter.

"Shadow Ball," I calmly said. That move couldn't be frozen, so how would Glalie counter it?

Frillish gathered shadows in front of his mouth, molded it into a ball, and sent it toward the approaching Glalie. The ice type summoned a thin barrier, blocking the incoming Shadow Ball.

Frost Breath, Protect, I thought. What else?

"Now, Freeze Dry!" Candice yelled.

"Run away."

Frillish's tentacle began to freeze, but the water type hurriedly used Water Sport to get out of Glalie's range. Our opponent was faster than he was, but with Water Sport, we'd be slightly quicker to get around.

"Water Pulse, then go around," I said.

Now lower to the ground, Frillish spat out an enormous Water Pulse at Glalie, who inhaled sharply and used Frost Breath to freeze the attack again. Frillish was already speedily circling around the ice type, and I waited until he reached Glalie's side.

"Bubblebeam again," I said. There was no need to speed things up yet.

Unable to turn quick enough to freeze the attack, Glalie was forced into using another Protect to stop the Water Pulse from hitting. I stared at Candice again, and I saw that she was still sporting an expression bordering on excitement and neutrality. Glalie seemed to be adept at using Protect, and it wasn't tiring after blocking a move twice.

"Ice Shard!" Candice ordered. Despite Frillish's best efforts, a few of the sharp shards tore into his body. I wouldn't ask for him to use Recover. Not yet. There was no need to reveal my hand, and the damage had been surface level at best.

Freeze Dry, Ice Shard, I thought. That was four now. I had a pretty good picture of how Glalie fought. It wasn't the best attacker, but it made up for its deficiencies by being able to use Protect many times during a battle. It wasn't the fastest, either. It was an all-rounder, like I had predicted.

Now, it was time to go on the offensive.

"Night Shade!" I yelled out.

Frillish noticed my change in tone immediately and understood what I was going for. A shadowy clone appeared in front of him and rushed toward Glalie, who once more Protected. I had noticed something, first in Gardenia's gym battle against Louis, and now here. Pokemon that used Protect couldn't use the move in quick succession. I was going to use that to my advantage and finish Glalie off quickly.

"Hex it!" I grinned.

Frillish's eyes glinted, and smoke started to emanate from Glalie's body. The ice type shivered and convulsed in the air, but we weren't done.

"Ugh, she's got us figured out! Forget the fancy strats. Just get in there and Freeze Dry!" Candice yelled.

"Shadow Ball," I ordered.

Glalie pushed through the pain from the Hex and just flew toward Frillish, just taking the Shadow Ball head-on. The water type once again escaped with Water Sport, but a few Ice Shards hit the back of his head and tore through one of his tentacles. Thankfully he lowered the damage by using Acid Armor without me needing to command it.

"Water Pulse! Keep retreating!" I said.

Still running away from Glalie with Water Sport, Frillish spat out three Water Pulses in quick succession, which were all frozen by the ice type. This was bad. I needed to take it down quickly, or the next part of the plan wouldn't work. Hex was barely out of range from Freeze Dry, so using that without taking damage was too risky. Every water type move would be countered by Frost Breath, so all I had left was Poison Sting, Hex, Night Shade, and Shadow Ball.

"Shadow Ball again," I said. No need to reveal Poison Sting if it wasn't needed. Frillish nodded, but gathering the energy needed for the ghost type move made him slow down. Glalie immediately started to freeze his body, but had to stop when the Shadow Ball hit its face. "Again! Make it stronger!"

This time, Frillish waited, gathering as much energy as he could, akin to Togetic's Fairy Wind, but faster. The Shadow Ball grew so big that it was bigger than Glalie itself, but another Freeze Dry had practically frozen Frillish's entire body over.

"Protect!" Candice said.

I bit the inside of my lip as I watched the Shadow Ball approach Glalie, who stopped its Freeze Dry to summon the protective barrier.

Impact.

The Shadow Ball broke the Protect down and cracked Glalie's icy shell. The ice type fell to the ground and fainted.

"Glalie is unable to battle! Leader Candice, send out your second Pokemon."

"Good job, buddy," I said. He turned back and nodded. His body was half frozen, and he had seen better days, but he had done it.

"Man, I really thought I had ya," she said. "I don't think you'll be good enough to—"

Focus! I screamed internally at myself. Don't listen to her taunts. It was just me. Just me. Now, had I succeeded in taking out Glalie fast enough? I smiled when I saw that Candice wasn't sending out her next Pokemon immediately. She was thinking. She hadn't expected that huge Shadow Ball, and it had rattled her. Candice was sporting a slight frown now, and when she grabbed her next Pokeball, her hold on it was less tight.

My smile grew into a grin when I saw what she released next. A bright blue Sealeo lazily hopped onto the field. Candice was in an erratic mood. That meant that her choice of Pokemon could be changed. By taking out her Glalie as fast as I had, I had ensured that she would want to switch up her strategy and opt for a more defensive battler, and I couldn't have hoped for a better choice.

For now, at least, I was controlling the flow of the battle.

I quickly stopped myself from immediately switching out from Frillish, however. He was hurt, but still in a fine state to battle. I still needed to ensure that Sealeo had nothing to hurt my next choice. My only switch of the battle.

"I wanted to be nice and let you start, but if you aren't going to do anything, I will! Brine!" Candice yelled, snapping me out of my thoughts.

I still needed to get faster at thinking.

"Dodge and Poison Sting!" I yelled, finally revealing the move.

A small cloud appeared where Frillish had just been, and rain dropped with such pressure that it created a small plume of snow on the ground. I looked at Candice and saw that she was complaining about something. I wasn't really learning anything new on that front, so I focused back on the battle and smiled when I saw that small, purple needles had buried themselves into Sealeo's hide.

"Aurora Beam!" Candice yelled.

I grimaced when I saw that Frillish had been too close to dodge this time, and a multicolored beam hit his chest. He was on his last legs now, and he had bought enough time to reveal two moves. I grabbed his Pokeball and recalled him. Now, I knew from past battles that Candice didn't switch, so there was only one good answer to this Sealeo.

"You did amazing," I said before releasing Electabuzz. "You're up, hon."

The electric type cackled as electricity buzzed around his body, and his fur stood on end. He was excited to finally be in a gym battle again.

"No holds barred," I grinned. "Thunderbolt."

"Stop it! Aurora Beam!" Candice ordered.

Electabuzz clapped his hands together as thunder crackled and rumbled around his body. The smell of ozone filled my nostrils as my hair started to stand upright. Sealeo sent out another beam of multicolored energy, and it made it about halfway through the arena before Electabuzz was done charging up.

With a gleeful scream, the electric type extended his hands forward, and a colossal Thunderbolt surged forward, completely overpowering Sealeo's Aurora Beam and hitting the water type. Sealeo convulsed, writhing on the ground as countless volts coursed through his body. After fifteen seconds, Electabuzz ceased the attack, panting slightly, and Sealeo was already down, its body smoking and burned.

"Sealeo is unable to battle! Leader Candice, send out your third Pokemon!" The referee said.

"Fuck yes," I muttered, pumping a fist. "That was perfect."

"Buzz!" My Pokemon laughed proudly.

My excitement petered out when I looked at Candice. She was… angry? In all of the videos I had watched, I had never seen her face like this. But why now? It couldn't be because I was winning— Cecilia had won harder than I had even after Candice had started taking her seriously and actually battling. Was it because I had caught her off-guard? In the high-level battling videos I watched of her, a lot of her challengers had done so. So why me?

With a deep-set frown, Candice sent out a Jynx. The ice type wiggled its hips and made a face, puckering its lips. In other circumstances, this would have been hilarious, but I couldn't get distracted. Electabuzz was bad at stalling to bait out moves, so I needed to go on the offensive right away for this one.

"Thunderbolt again," I said. Jynx was a psychic type, so going anywhere near it would probably mean a loss, especially with how frail Electabuzz was. He clapped his hands once more, sending out a Thunderbolt slightly weaker than the last.

"Psychic," Candice said. Her now calm demeanor was unsettling me, but I knew there was anger behind that placid tone.

I had thought Electabuzz's Thunderbolt to be too fast to divert, but Jynx was apparently good enough to do so. Its eyes shone as it diverted the move to its right, and the electricity only grazed its arm.

"Sing," Candice ordered.

I felt my heart drop. "Don't let it! Thunderbolt!"

Before Jynx could even begin to Sing, Electabuzz fired another attack, forcing it to divert it with Psychic once more. Since it was slightly distracted, the electric attack hit Jynx's chest. We were stuck in a dilemma. I couldn't make Electabuzz approach, but Candice couldn't put him to sleep, otherwise Jynx would take a Thunderbolt, and I already knew she wouldn't be capable of resisting many of those.

The problem was that Electabuzz would tire out first. It was time to switch things up.

"E-Swift," I breathed out.

A dozen stars appeared above Electabuzz, and he infused them with electric energy before sending them off toward Jynx, but I wasn't done.

"Thunderbolt again."

Another Thunderbolt burst through the barrage of stars, forcing Candice to make a choice. Either she could use an ice move to freeze Swift, or she could divert Thunderbolt with Psychic. There were too many stars for Jynx to ever hope to dodge everything. Candice grimaced.

I had caught that wince. That fray in her thought process. That second of doubt that I knew all too well.

"Psychic," Candice winced, opting to get hit by Swift.

I smiled. It was too late. Somehow, Candice had gotten so annoyed at me that she had waited too long to give the command, and Jynx was hit by both attacks. It had gone how I had hoped for, but… what was going on? Candice was an emotional person, but she wasn't the type to get affected this badly. I considered asking her what was wrong, but she let out a frustrated groan and immediately gave out her next order.

"You're pissing me off! We're going all out! Jynx, get up there and grab some trees on the way!" She yelled.

Some trees? My palms started to sweat as Jynx immediately broke into a sprint, swaying her arms like she was a professional athlete. A Pokemon like that had no right being that fast. Its eyes shone as it tore four entire trees from the floor, sending them flying toward Electabuzz. I bit my lip, thinking as fast as I could. How could I counter this?

Electabuzz didn't need my order to start dodging. He weaved to the right, avoiding the first tree, and narrowly ducked under the next one. The next two were trickier. A spark appeared on his fist, and it burst into flames. He punched the bark head-on, stopping the tree in its tracks—

"Behind you!" I yelled.

I felt panic creep up when one of the trees he had dodged came back and hit Electabuzz's back. Jynx was almost up to him now.

"You've got to attack!" I said, steeling myself. "Thunderbolt and run up as well!"

Electabuzz's best form of defense was his incredible offensive capabilities. He started to run, hoping to overwhelm Jynx's Psychic with his Thunderbolt so that he could approach. Behind him, the trees followed, getting ever closer. A Thunderbolt was barely deflected, but the next hit Jynx's face, causing her to drop the tree trunks she carried with a huge crash as they drifted across the snow.

"Fire Punch!" I ordered.

Flames wreathed around both of honey's fists, and he used the small window that his Thunderbolt had opened and started hammering at Jynx. He punched it in the lip before quickly moving on to its gut, going so fast that he was lifting it off the ground. He screamed, bringing his fists together and punching Jynx away before sending another Thunderbolt at the ice type. It didn't get up. I sighed in relief. I had almost lost control here, and who knew what that would have caused. I needed to keep my wits about me no matter what.

"Jynx is unable to battle! Leader Candice, please send out—

"I get it already!" She interrupted. Her expression was downright sinister now, and it was actually scaring me. I had somehow made a gym leader hate me. She grabbed her last Pokeball and sent out a Galarian Darmanitan, who slammed its fists against the ground.

Electabuzz was so tired that I knew winning this fight was impossible, but I still needed to use him to at least figure out how this Darmanitan fought—

"Work Up!" Candice yelled, extending her arm.

Damn it, she wasn't leaving me any time to think anymore. The Darmanitan's muscles bulged, and it slammed its fists against its chest with a menacing cry.

"Thunderbolt!" I said. Battling a Worked Up Darmanitan up close when Electabuzz was this weak would be—

"Avalanche!" She screamed.

From this far? The ground rumbled under Electabuzz, who desperately tried to run away, but it was to no avail. Snow washed over him like a wave at incredible speed, and he cried out as he was buried underground. The volume was higher than what Cece's Zweilous had had to deal with too.

"Electabuzz is unable to battle. Challenger, send out your second Pokemon," the referee said, eyeing Candice with anger.

"Good job, hon," I said, recalling him through the snow.

I had a little bit of time to think now. What was going on? It was like Candice had floored the gas pedal from zero to one hundred in the middle of the battle. I knew gym leaders could raise the battle's difficulty midway through a fight, but I had never seen it to such an extent.

I smiled, licking my dry lips. If this was what she wanted, I'd gladly rise to the challenge. After all, that meant that she thought I could beat her at this level.

I grabbed Tangela's Pokeball and released him. He plopped down on the snow and stared curiously at his opponent.

Angel had one job, and one job only. That was to Poison Power, Stun Spore, or Leech Seed Darmanitan. Anything other than that was extra. I wasn't thinking of this single fight. I was thinking long term. I knew I'd have to use my entire team to take this thing down.

"Avalanche!" Candice said again.

"Lift yourself up," I quickly said.

I had expected that. Darmanitan could apparently affect the entire arena, so it made sense for Candice to keep using the move until it failed. Six vines extended below Tangela, and he sprung himself up, avoiding the deluge of snow behind him. He continued forward, using his vines instead of his feet.

"Icicle Crash!' Candice yelled.

"Dodge!" I countered.

I inhaled sharply when I saw that it wasn't a single Icicle that appeared above angel. It was a swarm. Darmanitan slammed a fist against the ground, and they all crashed into his body, creating a plume of snow. I waited with bated breath, standing on my tip-toes to see if Tangela was alright, and I finally exhaled when I saw that he was still going forward.

"Bind it!" I said.

I was under no impression that he would ever be able to keep Darmanitan still, but I just needed to buy time. Tangela shot out a few vines in front of him, and they wrapped around Darmanitan's arms and legs. The ice type huffed, as if it was laughing, and it simply moved an arm toward itself, bringing Tangela closer.

"Ice Punch," Candice said.

Ice surrounded both of the Pokemon's fists as he waited for Tangela to get close enough, but we were already close enough for what I wanted.

"Leech Seed!" I said.

Tangela's vines writhed, and he shot out a small seed toward Darmanitan. It grew into thorny vines wrapping around his entire body, and no matter how much the ice type tried to tear them apart, they just kept growing.

"Poison Powder!" I said, not letting up.

"Knock it away!" Candice ordered.

Darmanitan's icy fist hit Tangela's face, sending him flying, but I smiled when I saw that purple spores had been left in his place. Darmanitan inhaled, and the plan had been completed, which was good, because Tangela was already down.

"Tangela is unable to battle," the referee hissed, clearly signaling to Candice. "Challenger, send out your third Pokemon."

I already knew it would have to be princess. She was good enough with Extrasensory to block Icicle Crash above her and above ground so she'd be immune to Avalanche. I grabbed her Pokeball and sent her out. She giggled and clapped, slowly raising her altitude.

"Stay up," I warned her. "This is a tough one. Stay sharp. Air Cutter!"

Togetic's wings fluttered, and the air in front of her sharpened, speeding toward the Darmanitan. It tried to dodge, but Air Cutter was too fast. Our practice was paying off.

"Icicle Crash!"

Good, I thought. She was wasting time and energy on something that wouldn't work.

"You know what to do," I told Togetic.

Her eyes shone as she happily altered the air above her. The icicles harmlessly slid off to the side, burying themselves in the ground instead of hitting her.

"Avalanche!" Candice continued angrily.

I frowned, and then I understood. Snow jumped from under Togetic as if it had a will of its own.

"Fly up, and Extrasensory under you!" I said.

Togetic listened, altering the path of the Avalanche, but the snow simply went around the Extrasensory and wrapped back around, reaching her. I winced as she was dragged to the ground.

Darmanitan's control over the move was stronger than I had thought.

"Get in there and Ice Punch!" Candice said.

Darmanitan ran, using its knuckles to propel itself through the snowy ground at surprising speeds. Princess popped her head out of the snow, showing that she was fine, although substantially hurt. She shot me a look, and I gave her a discreet nod.

Stay there.

I would wait until the last possible second… just a little more…

"Ancient Power!" I yelled.

Togetic lifted rocks and earth in front of her, and Darmanitan slammed against it headfirst.

"Push it!" I continued.

Her eyes shone brighter as she propelled the ground forward, taking Darmanitan along with it. I clicked my tongue when the ice type punched it apart with an Ice Punch. He was Leech Seeded and poisoned. When would he go down—

Darmanitan shook as its body began to change shape. The top of its head grew, and its arms retreated into its body, leaving only small hands, and its inoffensive expression turned into an evil, toothy smile. A singular, long flame was burning out of its top half. It bounced around, looking more like a snowman than a Pokemon.

It was also my first time ever seeing a Galarian Darmanitan in this form.

"Belly Drum! We're going all out!" Candice grinned with her tongue hanging to the side.

"Air Cutter!" I ordered.

Darmanitan slammed its own body with its hands so hard that it hurt itself, but then it grew slightly. Veins popped under its snowy body, and the Pokemon hardened. Togetic ignored it, taking flight and sending another Air Cutter toward the ice type. I gulped when I saw that it barely dealt any damage.

"Finish it off," Candice said.

Darmanitan yelled, and another Avalanche dragged Togetic to the ground, at least four times as powerful as it had been before the Belly Drum. Using its small appendages, the ice type punched Togetic in the head, defeating her.

"Burn off the Leech Seed," Candice exhaled. Darmanitan's body burst into flames for a brief moment, easily dispatching of angel's attack. It was thankfully still poisoned, however, and weakening fast.

"Togetic is unable to battle… Challenger, please send out your last Pokemon. And sorry," the referee said.

Sorry? For what? This was exhilarating!

With a slight laugh, I sent out Frillish and immediately set him to work. My win condition was waiting out the poison and never letting Frillish fall onto the ground.

It was time to reveal my trump card. "Reco—"

"Avalanche!"

"Acid Armor!" I hurriedly spoke, changing my order.

Snow hungered after Frillish, quickly rising below him, but the water type changed his state, and he was too gooey to be brought back to the ground. Finally, he managed to use Recover. The tears in his body quickly healed, and he looked almost as good as new. What now? Candice was running out of time.

"Screw it! Work Up and jump!" Candice screamed wildly.

Darmanitan bounced off of the ground, its body somehow enveloped in flames and snow as its fists turned to pure ice.

"Water Pulse!" I yelled, my heart beating against my chest.

Frillish flew backwards, powered by Water Sport as he shot out a Water Pulse. Darmanitan was hit, but he continued flying toward Frillish. I bit the inside of my mouth as the ice type crashed its fist into Frillish, and both of them fell to the ground with a loud crash. I felt sweat drip down my chin as the adrenaline started to drain from my body.

Had it been enough?

Had I won?

Had I lost?

The snow cleared, and Frillish weakly floated up from the ground with his entire bottom half missing.

Darmanitan stayed down.

"D—Darmanitan is unable to battle. Victory goes to the challenger!"

I looked at the ceiling and just breathed for what seemed like ages until I recalled Frillish. He had Recovered again, regenerating much of his body.

I tasted metal in my mouth. Had I bitten it so hard in the heat of battle that I had started to bleed?

I stepped off of the platform as my friends cheered wildly for me. My legs felt like jelly, and I could barely walk straight. My vision was swimming. I wiped sweat off of my forehead. My clothes were so wet that it felt like I had been in a shower, and my heart was pounding so loudly that I felt my pulse up in my ears.

I made it up to Candice, who looked to be in much better shape than I was.

"Congratulations, challenger," she said awkwardly. Her voice sounded distant. Far away, like it was echoing. My ears were ringing. "Um are you okay? Can you give me your trainer ID and Pokedex?"

"Wha— ah, uh, yeah," I exhaled. I felt like I just had gone through a triathlon. I handed her my ID and my Pokedex with a shaky hand. "You're now the owner of the Icicle badge, and I've transferred fifteen-thousand Pokedollars into your account. Um, I've also given you the Avalanche TM."

"Right," I said, shaking my head to focus.

"I'm… I'm sorry I went so hard on you all of the sudden," she apologized. "Now that the battle's over, I realized that I let my feelings get in the way. That Darmanitan was nowhere near your level. Honestly, if you lost, I probably would have given you the badge anyway."

"Your feelings?" I asked as my head pounded.

"Battling you reminded me of battling Gardenia, and we used to have this rivalry, but she's outgrown me. I can't beat her anymore," Candice said with a grimace. "Until I started actually pushing you with Jynx, every time I looked at you… you were just staring at me, not at the battle. You were reading me. She's a lot more subtle about it, but it's unnerving how alike you are. I let my feelings get the best of me…"

I smiled at the notion that I was like Gardenia—

Wait, why was I on the ground?

My legs had given up from under me. I heard Candice's voice in the distance, even though she was right there…

I passed out.
 
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Chapter 98
CHAPTER 98

"Are you sure she's fine? Maybe we should call them again."

"The doctor said it was exhaustion, she'll wake up soon."

"I can't help but worry—"

I opened my eyes and shot right up, bumping into Denzel's forehead. He screamed, falling back and clenching his forehead to alleviate some of the pain.

"Grace!" Cecilia said, grabbing my hand. "We were so worried. How do you feel?"

I blinked a few times and moved my hands around, clenching and unclenching my fist. The headache was still there, but muted. The pain was practically gone, and I could see clearly.

"I think I'm alright," I said. "Um, can I— can I have some water? How long was I out?"

Cece handed me a bottle of water and I started drinking.

"Not long," Denzel answered as he stood back up. "Barely an hour. We called an ambulance for you and the docs said that you collapsed because you exerted yourself too much during your battle with Candice. You're at the Center."

I stared around, recognizing my room. "Right," I nodded. "I was so focused that I guess I kind of forgot to breathe, but I feel alright now."

"The doctor said that you needed rest," Cece said, accentuating the last word. "So you're going to stay in bed."

"My Pokemon?" I asked.

"We gave them to Nurse Joy, along with all of ours that battled," Denzel smiled. "Now come on, rest up."

"Where's Chase?" I said.

"He left a few minutes ago to get his alone time," Cece said. "You know how he is."

I laid back down with a sigh. I had won my gym battle, and I felt incredibly happy, but why had only one fight taken so much out of me? The fight against Gardenia hadn't… but I hadn't been thinking as much, either. These were the kind of battles that I wanted to have, though. The strategizing was my favorite part, along with the battle going exactly according to plan. Reading my opponent's move accurately brought me a high that I could never get anywhere else. But that desperate, racing feeling I had felt when Candice brought out that Darmanitan had been exhilarating as well, especially when I had to scramble around to find a plan on the spot. A plan that worked. I closed my eyes, trying to replay the battle in my head. It didn't bring me the feeling I wanted. It wasn't the real thing.

I wanted more.

"I think I might have a problem," I said.

"What? Should we call someone?!" Denzel asked, letting panic slip into his tone. Cece tightened her hold on my hand.

"No, no," I laughed softly. "Nothing serious. I meant to say that I might be getting addicted to a certain style of battling. I don't think I'll ever be able to do it any other way anymore."

They both let out a relieved sigh.

"Your battle was certainly something," Denzel said. "I was more nervous and excited than for mine."

"Something?" Cece asked, looking at him. "She was glowing down there."

"I don't know what happened, it's like it wasn't even me down there," I smiled. "It's kind of all a blur."

"I get that feeling," Denzel said. "An intense battle can do that to you."

"It was you, and you were wonderful," my girlfriend said.

"Ah!" I exclaimed, suddenly remembering something with a twinge of disappointment. "Did I miss Craig's battle, then?"

My friend nodded. "Yeah, we all did. He won, though. Candice took down four of his Pokemon. I was watching the video. Want to see it?"

"The video isn't like the real thing…" I grumbled.

"You're such a battle maniac," he laughed.

"I told you I had a problem," I said. "Anyway, I know I said I'd rest, but—"

"Absolutely not!" They both exclaimed in unison.

"Arceus, chill out!" I said exasperatedly. "I just want to take a shower. My clothes are all sweaty, and I feel icky."

"Oh…" Cece awkwardly said. "Yes, go ahead."

I nodded, hesitating to stand up. I sighed in relief when I took my first step, confirming that I was at least fine to walk. I grabbed a change of clothes, stepped into the bathroom, and basked in the water's warmth. Even though I felt fine, my body felt so tired. Today I would rest, but as soon as my team was healed, we'd need to have a group meeting and talk about our next steps to improve. Then, there was also the need for me to analyze my battle footage and have my post-gym battle autopsy as I had done against Gardenia. I could think of a few things that had gone wrong already, but that would come later.

Maybe I could…

Ugh, later.

I finally changed into fresh clothes, and when I went to lay back down on the bed, I was surprised to see that Cecilia had changed the sheets so that I wouldn't have to roll around in my sweat.

"You're sweet," I said, kissing her before getting under the covers. She smiled, and the kiss lingered for a few moments. "Thank you."

"Please, this is just the bare minimum," Cece rolled her eyes before snuggling up next to me.

"You kids sure are cute," Denzel said.

"You're half a year older than us, don't call us children," Cecilia said.

"Let me enjoy the small things in life, Cece," he replied. "Anyway, now that you're all freshened up, Emi and the others wanted us to call them. They were worried about you."

"Worried about me?" I asked.

"Yeah, you collapsed on video," Denzel said nonchalantly.

Cece frowned. "Didn't you ask to turn it off?"

"On… video?" I muttered before gasping. I had been so excited to just get to my battle that I forgot to ask the gym trainer in the waiting room to turn off the camera! "Fuck. Fuck. I forgot."

"Well… let's look at the bright side of things…" Denzel tried.

"I'm waiting," I sighed.

"Um, hold on, I'm thinking," he said. "Ah, got it! You're a good trainer, right?"

"I could be better."

"Oh please, just take the win and move on," he groaned. "Anyway, I'm going to act like you answered yes. You're a good trainer. We all are. We fucking got three badges on our first year with no signs of slowing down," he grinned. "That means that you were going to get a lot of eyes on you regardless, so it'd be better to get used to fame now. And it's not like you have a lot to hide. New trainers progress fast. By the time we battle Fantina, we'll have made a lot more progress."

"He's right," Cece nodded.

"Yeah, that's usually the case," he shrugged with a smug expression.

"Don't get too confident now," she chuckled. "Imagine you still being in your shell at the Conference. You can't turn off the cameras there, and there are reporters, fans, and hundreds of thousands of spectators on location, and that's just in the stadiums. You'd be a nervous wreck, and it'd affect your battling. It's better to get used to it as early as possible."

"Right," I sighed. "I still feel restless about it. Eterna is going to be hell. Anyway, let's just call the others and get my mind off of this. Future me will deal with it."

"Ouch. No love for your future self?" Denzel joked as he grabbed his Poketch. "Future Grace will probably be angry at you."

"Well, we all have to do our part," I said as I sat upright in the bed. Cece quickly made space between us.

Right, I thought. They don't know.

"It's a video call, by the way," Denzel specified as he came in closer to get us all in the shot. Our friends answered immediately.

"Finally!" Pauline said.

"Grace, are you doing alright?" Justin asked.

"If Denzel or Cece hadn't been with you, there would have been no way to get news about your well-being," Louis said. "No one in Snowpoint said anything. The gym didn't put out a statement or—"

"I'm fine, guys," I smiled. I froze when I saw Louis' thick scar running across his cheek. "They said it was exhaustion. That battle took a lot out of me."

"That sure looked like it," Emilia sighed. "I was exhausted just looking at it."

Justin sprung up. "You all did excellently—"

"Move over!" Pauline exclaimed, pushing him away from the camera. "You three! You're lucky that you're all the way up in Snowpoint, or you'd be hearing my incessant complaints about being left behind. I want a third badge too, damn it!"

"You okay there, Justin?" Denzel asked.

"Yes," he grumbled.

"Then you better have trained enough not to fall behind then," Cece said. "Any progress on the third member of your team?"

"I found something, but I can only catch it on route 207 near Mount Coronet," she said proudly. "It fits me perfectly."

"Looking forward to it," Denzel said.

"Really?! Um, I mean, yeah, thanks," Pauline smiled.

"What about you, Louis? Any progress with Gible?" I asked.

"Progress is… slow. I've had him let out his anger by making him fight Vulpix and Prinplup as Cece does with her Deino— her Zweilous. Nothing serious, though, it's just practice, and he's been struggling a decent bit. I've also tried to talk to him to make him understand that I can make him evolve."

"Good, good," I said. "I'm proud of you."

"You are the one who set me on the right path," he nodded.

"And Justin?" Cece asked. "Any progress with your father?"

"I wanted to wait until you were back to announce it, but I've reached a deal. The best I could get, considering the circumstances. Instead of getting into the Conference twice, I only have to get in once. It's frustrating, and I probably won't be able to do it this year, but it's all I've got. I can't take over until he retires anyway, so I have time to get in. It's just a shame that I'll have to be doing this for the foreseeable future."

"Oh, you'll figure something out," Pauline said. "Why don't you send your dad a message by winning in the scummiest way possible? Try to stall every gym battle for twenty minutes, like against Gardenia."

"The effects it would have on Pherzen's image—"

"Come on, you've got to try," Pauline scoffed. "I've read the contract. It says that you just have to get in the Conference, not how."

"Plus, it'd be really funny," Denzel said.

"Right?" She smiled evilly. "Imagine that, a man that just stalls making it to the Conference. I'd pay to see it."

"Stalling is harder than it seems at first glance," Cecilia explained. "There's a lot of strategizing involved. There are a few people that specialize in underhanded tactics. I remember hearing about one in Kalos, but I forgot his name."

"Even if I wanted to, I don't even have the right team to do it," Justin shrugged.

"Pokemon can do anything if you train them in the right way," I shrugged. "Emi, what about you and your coordinator prospects?"

"It's been… tough. What I'm suffering the most from right now is move variety, but I'm hoping to fix that by buying some TMs when I get to Hearthome. I wanted to wait to iron out the basics of my Pokemon first, though.."

"You'll have to wait eighteen days for us to get there," Denzel said. "Will you be alright?"

"It'll get lonely, but I'll manage," she said. "Plus, I can finally start making connections. Hearthome is the hub for Pokemon contests, there are bound to be a lot of beginners like me there."

"You'll kick their asses," Pauline said.

"That's not even the goal," Emilia said with a slight smile. "I appreciate your support, though."

"So when will you start heading back?" Louis asked. "We've been dying to see you again, and you won your badge."

"We haven't even thought of that yet," I said. "We'll probably head back down south as soon as I'm alright to go. I'd kill to have a Pokemon that can Teleport."

"Wouldn't we all?" Cece laughed.

"Well, it shouldn't take too long now that we can keep to the routes," Denzel said. "Hey Emi, have you checked my livestream VOD? What did you think about it?"

"It was… fine," Emilia awkwardly answered. I noticed Pauline squirming in place.

"Look at her face," I grinned, pointing to Pauline. "She's going to say something mean."

"N—no," she said, holding back laughter. "Not at all. It's not like it was the most embarrassing thing I've ever seen."

"It was my first time! Come on, give me some leeway!"

We kept talking about anything that came to mind, but after two hours, the call ended.

"That was fun," I said, stretching.

"Now you can sleep," Cece lectured as she laid her head back in the crook of my neck. "I'll stick around to make sure you aren't actually doing anything battling-related."

"Ouch. Zero trust, huh?" I said, bringing her closer.

"Not when it comes to battling," she smiled.

"Alright, I'll let you two get some alone time," Denzel said as he stood up. "Better check what Chase is doing too, he said he'd come back to visit."

"Bye-bye!" I said as he closed the door. I tried leaning in to kiss Cece.

"You know I actually meant it when I said you needed rest, right?" She said.

"Ugh, you're no fun. How about just one?"

"Just one."

——

I woke up sometime later to a knock at my door. I rubbed my eyes, making sure not to move around too much since Cecilia was still asleep, and I gently got up, placing her head back on a pillow. It was dark out, but that didn't mean much, since the sun always set early this far north during the winter.

"I'm coming…" I grumbled. The knocking wasn't stopping at all. I opened the door and almost had to do a double-take when I saw that Candice was at my door.

"Hiya!" She said. "Can I come in?"

I frowned. "Excuse me—"

"I'm coming in, alright? Oh, sorry, I didn't know you had someone else in there. You sleeping in the same bed? She your girlfriend? I kind of sensed that vibe from you two. Cool, cool," Candice babbled as she stepped inside.

"Grace…?" Cece muttered as she got up. "What's going on—"

Her soft demeanor immediately turned to her calm, confident self when she saw that a gym leader was in the room.

"Leader Candice," she said smoothly. "What brings someone of your stature here?"

"Two things!" She exclaimed, making a 'v' sign with her fingers. "First, I wanted to apologize again for my battle against you, Cecilia!"

"You mean… me?" I asked.

"Right, you're Grace. Um, that's awkward. Anyway, you passed out because I pushed you too far, and it's unbecoming of me as a gym leader. But! I want to make it up to you by inviting you and all of your friends to my apartment!"

"To your… apartment," I repeated. "Wha… how?"

How was I casually talking to a gym leader?

"Yeah! That's what I said! I don't know why you had to repeat it all mysterious-like. Um, I've already told your two buddies, they were just in their rooms. The friendly one almost fell out of his chair when I asked, but the grumpy one said that he'd only come if I had something worth his while, so I lied and said I'd give him my training routine. He was so silly! That's, like, a gym leader's most deeply held secret! Obviously, I wouldn't just give it away. Anyway, we're all waiting for you. Oh! And Craig's going to be there too."

My head spun as I slowly registered the ramblings of this madwoman, but I gave a hesitant nod. I wasn't about to refuse a gym leader's request. Cece and I quickly put on our coats and stepped outside. Chase and Denzel were already in the hall waiting.

"So you're back on your feet, huh?" Chase remarked, staring at me.

"Yeah, but I'm still taking it easy," I said.

"Well, let's get going then," he shrugged. "I'm leaving as soon as I get what I want, and then I'll get back on the road at some point tomorrow.

"Stop being so emo," Candice said. "I'm feeling happy tonight, I did better against Craig than usual, and all of the battles were a lot of fun. I don't want you to ruin the mood."

"I don't remember asking you," he said.

"Sorry about him," I apologized. "This is just how he is."

The gym leader smirked. "There's already so much doom and gloom in the world, y'know? Might as well spread some good vibes where you can."

Candice lived in one of Snowpoint's dull, blocky complexes about fifteen minutes away from the gym. We took the elevator to the top floor and entered her apartment.

"Crap, I forgot to lock the door," Candice sighed. "Well, not like anyone would snoop. Welcome to my humble abode. Make yourself at home and all of that."

I wiped my shoes on the rug and took them off. Candice's home was just as small as it looked from the outside, but it wasn't like there were many options in Snowpoint. Plus, she did live alone. From what I could see, the kitchen was connected to the living room, and there was one bathroom and bedroom. The apartment was filled with a lot of… out of place decorations. There were scary paintings on the walls like a small girl holding a knife drenched in blood next to a… corpse, but there were also some cute decorations, like a Snorlax bean bag, and a big heart that read 'live, laugh, love.' None of it actually fit together. It was just a mishmash of different colors and moods. Craig was sitting at the dining table, typing away at his computer like he usually did. He smiled when he saw us, but he looked pale and tired.

"You kids made it," he said. "Grace, how're you doing?"

"I'm good," I replied. "You, on the other hand…"

"Candice went hard on me and forced me to use mega evolution," he sighed. "Now I feel like shit."

"No problem," she laughed. "Drinks? I have juice! All kinds of juice!"

"Sure," I said. "Can I release my Larvitar here?"

"You have a Larvitar? That's so cool!" Candice exclaimed. "Go ahead."

We all asked for different drinks, and I released sweetheart, who looked wary to be in a place with this many people. I wanted to use the opportunity to get her used to strangers, but I'd keep a close eye on her to make sure she didn't do anything foolish, like tear up a couch or something. Denzel and Cece were talking to Craig, and Chase was harassing Candice about her training routine.

"C'mere, sweetheart," I beckoned her. She approached me and hugged my jeans.

"She's the cutest!" Candice smiled.

Chase scoffed. "You said you'd tell me!"

"All in due time, young one," she said, shushing him. "This is a part of it, I'm teaching you patience."

"Bullshit."

"Well, feel free to leave and miss out on my awesome training," Candice shrugged. She handed each of us our drinks. I had asked for grape soda, which she thankfully had. I sipped on the drink and felt at the Poketch in my pocket.

Well, if a video of my battle had been recorded… I discreetly grabbed my Poketch and went on the Snowpoint gym's website. I quickly found my video and handed the device to Larvitar.

"Here," I said. She stared at the screen with a curious expression. "Be careful. Don't break it, alright? You weren't here to see the battle, and your siblings aren't there to tell you about it yet, so I figured I'd let you watch it so you don't feel left out."

I pressed play on the video, and she stared at me with a wide smile on her face.

"Tar!"

"No problem," I chuckled. "Enjoy it, alright?"

I stepped away from her and made my way toward Craig, Cece, and Denzel, who had been joined by Candice and Chase.

"...telling you that all of you guys have potential, you just have to not let the fame get to your head," Craig said. "And don't expect too much for your first year. In my opinion, you're good enough to get seven badges— maybe get to the Conference, but don't expect to wipe the floor with the competition there. It's like an entirely new world."

"I'll deal with 'em," Chase shrugged.

"Ah, Grace," Craig said. "I never told you, but that was some good battling."

"Got some tips for me?" I smiled as I sat down.

"Sure," he said, to my surprise. "You're like Gardenia, that's perfectly fine, but when the battle slips out of your control, you struggle to slow the rhythm back down and take the reigns again. That's something you'll learn with experience."

"Candice wasn't supposed to use that Darmanitan, though," Denzel said.

"Sure, she wasn't," the older trainer replied. "But there'll come a day where, either in the Conference or a tournament, or another gym battle, there'll be a Pokemon that makes you slip up and changes the flow of the battle drastically, where you go from winning handily to suddenly being on your last legs. A paradigm shift. My point will still apply there."

"Paradigm? What is this, a lecture?" Candice complained.

"I know you know what that means, Candice," Craig said. "You just like acting dumb."

"Aw, thank you! I am the smartest."

"I'm asking you to stop doing it," he sighed.

"I thought you weren't going to give us advice, though," I said with a hint of smugness.

"Yeah, but do you know how hard it is to turn down Lillipup-eyed new trainers?" He groaned. "Plus, it'd be better to light a fire under my sister's ass so that she stops being a loner and that she has people to push her further. She's been having it too easy."

I nodded, happy to know that we were all at least at Lauren's level. "Oh! What advice did you give Denzel, by the way?"

"Mostly just some small things to iron out, but he's actually the one I've had the least to say to. He's not too flashy, but he feels like a consistent trainer, and consistency is key. I'd say he has a lot of hidden potential, but he has to unlock it. He's a lot like me in that regard. There'll come a time when he'll probably be the most annoying to face between the four of ya."

"So, you're saying he's the most powerful between us?" Chase asked. "I call bullshit. Seems like you're biased because you see yourself in him."

"You all have strengths and weaknesses—"

"What a boring answer…" Candice grumbled.

"Let me finish! Arceus, you're hyper today. You all have strengths and weaknesses, but some of your styles will fare better against different kinds of trainers. There's no definite answer."

"Like I said. Boring."

The raven-haired man looked to be on the brink of breaking down because of Candice's antics, so he changed the subject.

"By the way, I had a proposition for you kids," he said. "When are you leaving?"

"Probably in a day or two when I'm done resting and our Pokemon are healthy again," I said.

"Tomorrow," Chase answered.

"Great! I have a proposal that would benefit all of us," Craig smiled. "What do you say I fly you down south on my Salamence?"
 
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Chapter 99
CHAPTER 99

My eyes widened at Craig's proposal. A Pokemon's owner needed a license to fly, and if they were caught without one, there'd be severe penalties. In the most severe cases, depending on what happened, you could even be banned from ever flying, have your trainer ID revoked forever, or your Pokemon could even be taken, but those were only reserved for accidents that caused deaths. Most of the time, for first offenders, you would only have to pay a hefty fine. Still, so long as the Pokemon's owner had a license, you were allowed to ride with them, just like a car driver.

"Um… that would certainly help a lot," Denzel said. "But can Salamence support all of us and our bags?"

"Roxie's a tough girl, don't worry," Craig said. "She's carried five people before, and you guys are kids, so you're lighter."

"You said it benefits us both," Cecilia started, crossing her arms. "How?"

"Well, you're going to Eterna, right?" He asked. We responded with a nod. "Now that I've beaten Candice, I need to beat Gardenia too, so we're going in the same direction, but that's not it. It might be temporary, but you guys are the hottest thing in the news right now— you're getting more coverage than any trainers in the Circuit. This might seem a bit cynical, so sorry if it comes out meaner than I want it to, but if I bring you back, I get a lot of positive coverage too. Just make sure to put in a good word for me. It'll reflect badly on you, since trainers will think that it's unfair— especially the other first years, but honestly, after what you've been through, I think the criticism will be pretty muted."

Denzel rubbed his chin. "I mean, I don't see why not—"

"I'm going to Celestic, not Eterna," Chase interrupted. "I'll pass."

"Are you sure?" Craig asked. "It'll take you a long time to get to your next gym battle. By the time you make it to Hearthome, or wherever you're going, some first years might have five badges already. You'll fall behind."

Chase clicked his tongue and thought for a few seconds. "Fuck it," he groaned. "Fine, I'll get to Eterna. I'll visit Celestic later in the year."

"Any reason why you want to go to Celestic in particular?" I asked. His need to go to the small town was intriguing to me. It was mostly famous for being Cynthia's hometown, and where she had started her Journey when she was fifteen, and the Celestic Ruins, but other than that, it was rather barren.

"Nah," he sighed. I had been with him long enough to suspect that he was lying. "It'll be fine."

"That works then," Craig smiled.

"How long does it take to fly there?" I asked.

"Three to four days. More, depending on the weather— if there's a blizzard or the wind's blowing against us. Roxie also has to take a break every ten hours or so."

"Only three days?" Cece said in awe.

"She's a pretty fast flier. But there are a few things we need to go over. Chase and Denzel, your clothes aren't warm enough to fly. It gets cold up there. You also need to buy some goggles to protect your eyes. We'll be going fast, and you don't want anything getting in your eyes. Plus, the wind makes it almost impossible to keep 'em open without them anyway."

"Won't we fall off?" I asked.

Craig laughed. "Obviously not. I have a saddle that has seats for five, and you'll be attached to it. There'd be no way to hold on otherwise. Not everyone is as crazy as Cynthia. Did you know she just manually holds on to her Garchomp? It's a wonder she's never fallen off."

I gave a hesitant nod. I wasn't scared of heights, but flying on a Pokemon for the first time would make anyone uneasy.

"Let me give you all my number so that you can call me when you're ready," the older trainer said. "Don't take too long. I've spent too much time here already."

"What, you don't want to see me?" Candice pouted.

"I like my doses of Candice in moderation."

"Um, Chase," I started. "Now that you're going to Eterna, will you travel with us?"

"No, I'm still going to Hearthome on my own," he said. "But now we'll definitely meet in the city."

"Right," I grinned. "How about we battle there? Cece, Denzel, and I were already planning on doing so, but now that you'll be there, we can add you to the plan."

"I don't see why not," he said confidently.

"Alright!" I cheered. "Maybe we can do a two on two or something."

"Hey! Don't start picking already, we'll figure it out when we get there," Denzel said.

"Okay, I'm taking Obel then," he said right away.

"What if I refuse?" She teased.

"Your loss."

"You kids are so cute," Candice said, resting her head against her hands. "Makes me miss being a trainer. I'm gonna miss you guys."

"We can always come back," Denzel said. "I doubt it's the last time we'll be here, especially since our friends still need to battle you."

"It's going to take months," she complained. "I want to stick you all in little jars and keep you."

I ignored her out-of-pocket suggestion and let the current situation sink in. Somehow, we had kind of just… befriended a gym leader. We were in her home, talking. Only the best trainers that recurringly went through the Circuit and made the gym leaders use their personal teams could usually boast of such a feat.

Maybe I'd get to talk to Gardenia one day.

——

The next day, I had to wait all afternoon for my team to be healed. Electabuzz was the one that had been injured the worst, and Frillish would have been too, if he hadn't been a ghost. Nurse Joy told me to let Electabuzz take it easy for a few days, and I would obviously listen. He had done wonderfully during the battle, but there was no doubt that he had pushed himself past his limit. Using so many Thunderbolts had taken its toll, and Jynx and Darmanitan had done a number on him. I was now back in my room, ready to release all of them.

"Larvi!" Larvitar yelled at my feet. She was excited to see the team again, and so was I. With a flash of red, I let out all of my Pokemon with a beaming smile. Togetic rushed me, knocking me on the ground as she rubbed her head against my neck. Tangela wrapped me in a dozen vines, squeezing me into a hug as he shook excitedly. Frillish smiled slightly and gave me a firm nod.

"Okay, okay!" I laughed. "I get it, I'm happy to see you guys too!"

Electabuzz approached me and offered me a hand. I took it, and he lifted me back up. I brought him into a warm hug. Larvitar giggled as angel pat her on the head.

"You were awesome," I said, before looking at my team. "You all were. Seriously, look at me."

All of my Pokemon turned toward me.

"There were two phases to the battle. The first phase, the one where we had a plan and we were in control. That part was practically perfect. We had Candice exactly where we wanted her and used that to our advantage," I explained. "The second part… well, I can't exactly judge it before watching the footage, since it's kind of all a blur, but I know that we can improve on that," I said, remembering Craig's advice. "But don't take this the wrong way. I'm not saying that I'm sad or anything. Seriously, this was the most fun I've ever had in a Pokemon battle."

"Ele," Electabuzz said, clapping my shoulder with a smile.

"You too, huh?" I grinned. "You've got some serious firepower, you know that hon?"

Togetic giggled, floating above him and placing her head in between his antenna.

"I told you, you were all awesome," I said. "I'm going to watch over the footage now, so feel free to play, alright? We'll work on your next steps for training at some point, but you all deserve a break."

I grabbed my Poketch from my bag, but I also gave Togetic her plushie and Tangela his stress ball. Larvitar immediately yelled and tried to steal both of their toys, and I had to sternly tell her not to throw a fit and that they could share. Unfortunately, Electabuzz had outgrown his already small battery, so I couldn't really give it to him. Thankfully though, he seemed content with teasing Larvitar and bragging about the battle. He sure knew how to press her buttons, especially since she desperately wanted to start battling.

"Well, time for the autopsy," I said with a twinge of anticipation. Frillish was behind me, staring at what I was doing as he usually did when I was working.

I opened the Snowpoint gym website, grabbed my notebook, my pen, and started playing the video. After pushing past the discomfort of hearing my voice on a recording, the first thing I noticed was how unhinged I looked. Even at the start of the battle, I was just staring at Candice with my eyes wide like I was mad. Hell, I was barely blinking. Now that I was looking at it, I could definitely see how that could anger somebody. Candice was a gym leader, but she was still human.

"Well, damn," I groaned. Gardenia was much more subtle about her observations, and when you did catch her looking at you, it wasn't with such a crazy look.

In the grand scheme of things, it didn't matter though. Sure, it had angered Candice, but maybe me looking like a crazy person would unsettle my opponents and throw them off their game.

I definitely needed to remember to blink and breathe, though.

"Here we go," I whispered.

First, there was the fight between Frillish and Glalie. Scouting the ice type's moves had gone exceedingly well, and he had taken minimal damage, but it went a bit off the rails when we switched gears and wanted to take it down. The plan had been to take it down immediately, hoping that the sudden change of pace in the battle would throw Candice off enough to let that happen, but she adapted remarkably quickly. Luckily, Frillish had worked on Shadow Ball enough to break past that Protect, otherwise we would have taken too long, and Candice might have felt like going on a more offensive Pokemon, which might have spelled trouble for Electabuzz.

Thankfully, none of that had happened. But it could have. I didn't want to have any maybe's in my plans. I wanted everything to be iron tight. So what could I have done to avoid this and beat Glalie faster? I could have just said that I could have practice Shadow Ball more so that Frillish could just throw them out like he could with Water Pulse or Bubblebeam and call it a day, but that wasn't enough. If I was placed in the battle right now, with the exact same setup, what would I do? I tapped my pen on my desk as I thought, ignoring my Pokemon's many cries around me.

Suddenly, it came to me.

The Glalie had frozen the majority of Frillish's water type attacks, so I had used Shadow Ball to try and bait another move, but what if I hadn't? I could have made Candice reveal protect by having Frillish quickly move around Glalie with Water Sport and using a water type move behind him so that freezing it with Frost Breath was impossible. Hell, that actually happened during the battle. If I had acted more helplessly and not revealed Shadow Ball until I was sure it could hit, then I would have been in a better spot.

But maybe Frillish would have taken more damage from Freeze Dry or Ice Shard.

For every action in battle, there was a cost. Would the cost have been worth it here? Since Frillish had Recover, I thought yes. There was a huge mistake I had made, however, and that was during Frillish's short fight against Sealeo. Frillish had Water Absorb, but I still made him dodge Brine when he could have used that water to regenerate some of the damage he had taken from Glalie. I had been so focused on grand plans that I had forgotten to look at the little, obvious things. I needed to get better at using abilities in general too, which was something I had largely ignored.

I scribbled some notes and moved on to Electabuzz. His performance against Sealeo had been flawless. No matter how many times I replayed the video, there were no mistakes I could spot there, so I moved on to his battle against Jynx. The start had actually been fine. Despite a close call with Sing, his Thunderbolts were fast and accurate enough to stop the ice type from ever putting him to sleep, and we had slowly been dealing damage, chipping away at Jynx as it desperately diverted our attacks.

"You're pissing me off! We're going all out! Get up there and grab some trees on the way!" Candice yelled in the video.

That was obviously when the problems started. I had said before I had hoped that a quick change in the pace of the battle would destabilize Candice, but she actually used the same tactic on me. Despite's honey's best efforts, I wasn't there to help him, and he took some avoidable hits, like that tree that hit from behind him.

I could have warned him, but I had been too taken aback. I was lost in my head, and then it was too late. Being hit by a tree was obviously no small problem, and it had been enough to almost faint him, but luckily, he had pushed himself to the brink and taken Jynx down with Fire Punch.

Still, if he hadn't been hit by that tree, then maybe he wouldn't have gone down in one Avalanche against Darmanitan. That mistake had honestly all been on me. Like Craig had said, I needed to be better at adapting when the situation was no longer in my favor, but ideally, I'd be able to predict those shifts in the battle before they even happened by watching my opponent's body language. I had noticed Candice's rising anger during the battle, but I thought nothing of it until it was too late, which meant that unfortunately, I wasn't good enough to do that yet, but it was still something to work on. I wrote on my notebook and continued.

"Angel, huh…" I whispered.

Angel had done his job, which was Leech Seed and Poison Darmanitan, but there were still things to work on. First, I should have figured out that Darmanitan's Icicle Crash would be more powerful than the others' after seeing his Avalanche take down Electabuzz. I distinctively remembered watching a video of her battles where the move had been applied in the exact same way, with dozens of icicles crashing into the ground all at once— albeit it had been used by another Pokemon. Unfortunately, in the heat of the battle, I had forgotten that, and Tangela took a hit we could have maybe avoided with foresight, which might have let him paralyze Darmanitan along with the poison. Another misstep I needed to fix.

For Togetic, I had seriously underestimated the control that Darmanitan had over Avalanche. Power was one thing, but the amount of fine-tuning needed to have the move wrap around Extrasensory was mind-boggling. Thankfully, by that time in the battle, I had landed back on my feet, and I was thinking clearly again. Ancient Power had bought us a precious few seconds, and we managed to get Darmanitan into that… second form. I took a break from writing to look it up online. Apparently, it was called 'Zen Mode,' and some Darmanitan had the ability to switch forms whenever they took too much damage. For Galarian Darmanitan, it turned them into an ice and fire type, which is why it burned off Tangela's Leech seed so easily.

The ability was exceedingly rare, however, which was why I hadn't even heard of it before. I was somewhat harsh on myself— I needed to be, if I wanted to get to the Conference in my first year— but I wasn't that harsh, which was why I wouldn't blame myself for not figuring it out.

Lastly, there was Frillish's fight against Darmanitan. There wasn't much to say there. He almost went down to an Avalanche, but we managed to salvage the situation with an Acid Armor. After he managed to Recover, I'd say that we were in the clear.

Not revealing Recover had actually been the key to my victory. If Candice had known that Frillish knew the move, I doubted that she still would have used Belly Drum, which caused Darmanitan to damage itself to the point of collapse. She probably believed that all she would have to do to win was take down an already-injured Frillish.

"Ahhh," I groaned, stretching my arms and legs. Frillish placed a tentacle on my shoulder, and I gently held it. "I know you want me to rest, but I'm not done quite yet. Plus, I actually feel fantastic. No joke."

"Fri…"

"I'm not lying, I swear!" I exclaimed. "I have a few more things to think about, and I'll get back to bed, alright? I've got to be well rested for the trip tomorrow."

Since I felt fine today, we were going to start flying back south tomorrow morning. I felt anxious at the fact that I was only going to get three days to prepare to tackle my newfound fame, but… blegh. We wouldn't stay in Eterna long anyway, but I dreaded the swarms of trainers, reporters, and people who just recognized me from T.V. I did feel good about the fact that we would maybe make it in time for Pauline's birthday in three days. We hadn't told the others we were traveling on a dragon, and I couldn't wait to see the look on their faces when we arrived.

I turned to Larvitar, who was running against one of Tangela's vines while the grass type was preoccupied by standing by a window and soaking up sunlight. When we got on the road again after Eterna, I would begin teaching her new moves and start getting her to battle the wild Pokemon on route 207. It was one of the most frequented routes, especially near the cycling road, so the wild Pokemon there were often weak. If I met trainers with one badge or less, I'd let her battle them too. She was almost at her normal weight of 158 pounds, and she was almost fully grown now, so it was time for her to start battling. I'd break the news to her later though.

I turned off the battle videos and started typing something on my Poketch.

'Fire types available in Sinnoh.'

Due to how cold the region was, in the past, there weren't many fire types native to the region at all. Thankfully— or unfortunately, depending on if you were talking to a ranger— globalization had brought all the regions closer together, and that meant that contamination happened. Paras, for example, were native to Kanto, but like that ranger had explained before we entered Eterna Forest, all it took was for a few trainers to bring Paras there and abandon them for whatever reason, and now they were infesting the forest. Of course, not every Pokemon could be found in Sinnoh, but there were enough fire types for me to work with.

I needed a certain type of Pokemon to fill a role in my team that was still empty. That gaping hole had been felt during the battle against Candice. Heavy artillery, I had called it. Something that could deal a lot of damage from afar, but also take a lot of hits. After narrowing my choices, I was left with a few candidates.

First, the Rolycoly line. I knew they could be found in caves, and we were going to travel through Mount Coronet again to get to Hearthome. Coalossal was great at filling the role I needed, and they learned a lot of powerful fire and rock type moves, but they weren't the best long distance fighters, and a rock and fire type had a lot of weaknesses, which could be exploited by how slow the Pokemon was. Plus, I already had a rock type with Larvitar. It wouldn't be my first choice, but the rarity of the next two might mean that I'd have to catch one anyway.

Next up was Torkoal, which was a slightly better choice. From what I could see, they were also found in Mount Coronet, but they were way rarer than Rolycoly. They were also found deep in the Oreburgh mines, since they sustained themselves off of coal, which was funny enough, since Rolycoly was made out of coal. Did Torkoal eat Rolycoly?

I preferred not to think about that.

Torkoal unfortunately came with its drawbacks as well, though. It was adept at resisting physical attacks thanks to its tough shell, but it sometimes floundered against special attacks, and it was even slower than Coalossal. Plus, the Pokemon was too defensive-minded for what I wanted exactly, but I wouldn't let perfect be the enemy of good. It was still an excellent battler, and the strongest ones could learn Eruption, one of the most powerful fire type moves in the world.

Lastly, there was the Numel line. Camerupt was the most offensive-minded Pokemon of the three, and it could also learn Eruption. The ground typing would also help with rounding out my team. But those offensive capabilities came with a drawback. It was the least bulky Pokemon of the three, and it couldn't take as many hits. Numel were also rare, however, it didn't live on Mount Coronet, but around it and other mountainous areas. It was most common around Stark Mountain, and so were Torkoal, but routes and facilities on the Battle Frontier were restricted to trainers with eight badges, so I wasn't going to get there any time soon.

Rolycoly, Torkoal, Numel. All came with advantages and disadvantages I'd find a way to work around, but one of these three would be my final team member for the foreseeable future, and I'd have to catch it before I was out of Mount Coronet.

If I had to pick one between the three, though? I would choose Numel.

"Well, I'm done," I said with a satisfied smile. "Time to get some rest."

——

I watched in awe as Roxie just let Craig install the enormous saddle on her back. He pulled on it firmly and asked Salamence to move around a bit with it to make sure it was on tight. We were on the outskirts of Snowpoint, since Pokemon as dangerous as Salamence weren't allowed to be out inside of cities or specifically designated areas, and the sun was just rising.

"Now let me repeat this again," Craig said. "Keep your Pokeballs inside of your bag and not on your belt. We don't want any accidents. Then we'd be forced to turn back to look for it, and most of the time, we won't be flying over routes. Everybody go to the bathroom? Everybody eat and drink? We'll be in the air for almost ten hours straight, and Roxie doesn't like it when I interrupt her flying, so I'd rather avoid it."

We all nodded, and he motioned us to step forward. He quickly lifted us on top of Salamence and we attached ourselves to the saddle. There were four seats on her back and one right below her neck, which was where Craig would sit, and they were angled away from Salamence's body so that our legs could hang off the… edge. Cece sat next to me, on Roxie's left, and Chase and Denzel were on the other side. Craig turned back and made sure we were all attached correctly, and he had to tighten Chase's harness. I zipped my coat up to my neck and put on my goggles.

"I'm so fucking nervous," I said, trembling slightly.

"Come on, grow up," Chase complained.

"We'll be fine," Denzel said. "People do this every day."

"That doesn't help whatsoever," I said. "And Chase, don't act like you aren't scared. I see you bouncing your leg."

"Wha— Shut it!"

"Personally, I can't wait," Cecilia grinned. "I'm looking forward to doing this with Zweilous when they evolve into Hydreigon. Talonflame could as well, but they're often too small to lift a person. It depends on how big she is when she evolves."

Craig climbed on Salamence's back.

"Ready? It's going to be really sudden, and you might feel a bit nauseous, but when we get to cruising altitude, you'll barely be able to tell."

I froze. Nauseous?

"Let's go, Roxie," Craig said as he tapped her neck.

Salamence flapped her giant wings and took flight.

I screamed.
 
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Chapter 100
CHAPTER 100

"Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit!" I screamed. "Slow down!"

I shut my eyes tightly as Salamence flew upward so fast that it felt like my spine was getting squeezed. No one answered my plea. We were climbing so quickly that all I could hear was the cold wind blowing past my ears. Even though I was attached, I held on to the saddle for dear life. I hesitantly opened an eye, looked to my right, and saw that Cecilia had the biggest smile on her face and was bending forward to look at the ground. I couldn't see Denzel's face, but his shoulders were stiff, and his fists were clenched around his seat. Chase, meanwhile, had his face turned away from anywhere near the ground. After a minute or so, Roxie gradually slowed down her ascent, and I could finally start to hear again.

"Guys take a look," Craig yelled. I turned toward him and saw that he was pointing forward.

I stared at Mount Coronet in the distance in awe. From this far, we were around a day and a half away, but even then, and even though we were flying, the mountain appeared to tower over us. We had gone through that and lived. Salamence was done climbing now and was gently gliding across the sky, occasionally flapping her huge wings to generate lift. I took a deep, cold breath and finally gathered the courage to stare down. Snowpoint was still in the distance, but it was shrinking rapidly— a testament to Roxie's speed. From here, everything looked so little. So insignificant. But together, everything formed into a coherent whole that held meaning.

"You guys can relax, the worst is over," Craig said.

"Thank the Legendaries," Denzel exhaled. "I've never been on a plane before, and this is terrifying to me."

"This is nowhere near how high a plane actually flies," Cece said. "And you can barely tell you're on one after take-off anyway. This is a lot more personal. A grand experience."

"You're insane," Chase said, his face pale. "Fast travel or not, I'm never subjecting myself to this again, this was an awful idea."

"Oh?" Cece smiled, turning her body toward Chase. "Is the great Chase admitting to a weakness?"

"It's not a weakness, dumbass! Traveling on foot all the time will make me and my team tougher."

"Whatever you say," she replied with a haughty tone. She seemed to take great pleasure in his suffering.

"So, ten hours of this?" I asked.

"Yeah, give or take a little bit, depending on Roxie's mood. How you feeling today, Rox?" Craig asked, rubbing his dragon's neck.

She replied with a gentle growl and beat her wings energetically, gaining in speed and altitude.

"Tell her to stop!" Chase stammered.

"Relax, you're screwed on tight, and no flying types are foolish enough to attack a Salamence. We'll go around Mount Coronet too, so you don't have to worry about any dodging maneuvres."

"Um… dodging maneuvres?" I asked with a hint of worry.

"Oh, it ain't much. Sometimes when we fly close to the Mountain, the wildlife gets a bit angry, and Roxie has to… well, dodge. But again, we're taking a safe route."

I relaxed slightly and leaned back, away from the edge. Now that the excitement was wearing off, the cold was sinking in, especially since it was impossible to move around very much.

"Ten hours, huh?" I whispered, rubbing my hands together.

This was going to be a long flight.

——

Our first stop was late in the afternoon, and somewhere along route 216, where we were all taking a well-deserved break. It didn't look like it, but flying was actually exhausting. Sure, I didn't panic anymore, and I wasn't scared, but I still felt like it was impossible to rest up there. Humans weren't meant to be this high up in the sky, and when there wasn't a huge metallic tube separating you from the elements like on a plane, even relaxing was impossible. It felt like my body had been on high alert for ten hours straight.

Cecilia, meanwhile, had easily fallen asleep around four hours in, and only woke up when Salamence landed. We were standing a few minutes away from camp. It was safe since obviously, Salamence had landed us on a route, and we could easily handle every wild Pokemon here. She was planning on having her daily… face-off with Scyther, where the bug type tried to find an opening to kill her, but first, she wanted to speak to Zweilous again. It would be her fourth time since the gym battle against Candice.

She released the dragon in front of us, along with Slowpoke, just in case one of the heads got any ideas. I was noticing a theme with Cece. Her Pokemon were troublesome to raise, and extremely aggressive. Scyther was an apex predator, and when her other Pokemon evolved, they would be too. Talonflame were notoriously good at devastating local normal type populations, and Hydreigon was one of the most dangerous Pokemon in the world.

Slowpoke was… well an exception to the rule, I supposed.

Zweilous was just as tall as I was now, if not taller. I wasn't about to get close enough to check. One of the heads growled at the other, and they immediately began to fight, using Dragon Breath, Crunch, or Incinerate. Slowpoke shielded us from any stray attacks, and Cece calmly observed the heads at work. Strangely enough, none of them used Dragon Pulse. Maybe they deemed it to be a step too far? It would deal substantial damage to their body if it hit, so it made sense if they only struck with attacks that would only affect the individual heads. They were sharing a body, and if it was injured, it would be to both of their detriment.

"The left one inherited most of Deino's unpent aggressiveness. He's always the one that starts the fights, and he's more vicious in the way he attacks, but he's very driven in his need to obtain strength. I decided to name him Zerstörer, or Zerst for short."

"Zerst? Never heard that name before," I said.

Zerst seemingly noticed his name and blew a small flame toward me, which Slowpoke blocked. I still flinched and felt the heat of the flames on my face.

Cece clicked her tongue. "Bad! Bad Zerst! Behave, or you'll get grounded. No more training for two days!" She yelled. "Sorry about him. It might seem like a lot, but he was holding back against you, and he knew the attack would be stopped… it's just his way of complaining."

He simply responded by roaring at her, sending spit that Slowpoke again blocked.

"He's still feral with others. It seems that he at least recognizes you," Cecilia smiled. If that was recognizing, I wondered what he'd do to strangers. "But yes, it's not exactly a name. It's supposed to mean 'destroyer' in another language."

"Destroyer? You can be so childish sometimes," I laughed.

Cece stared at the ground, clearly embarrassed, and cleared her throat. "Moving on! The other head's given me very little problems. He's less aggressive, but obviously he fights back as you can see. He's inherited Deino's loyalty to me, and he always listens to what I say, but he can be very… protective, down to a fault. I've had to yell at him not to attack Scyther. I decided to call him Sol."

"Sol?" I asked. "That's short for something, isn't it?"

"Yes, but now that you made fun of me for Zerst, I'm not going to tell," she said, clearly vexed.

"So you're just… letting them fight? That seems kind of ruthless."

"I thought so too, but Mark gave me advice on how to raise Zweilous. They won't ever be good friends or get along, but the relationship between the two heads is especially rocky at the start," she sighed. "I'm supposed to let them fight it out, and eventually, a dominant head will be established."

"Aw," I lamented. "That's kind of depressing."

"No, no, you have the relationship wrong," Cece hurriedly said. "Take the Sneasel pack that attacked us, for example. They had a leader, right? They take the decisions, decide where the pack goes, et cetera. It'll be like that, although I'll be the actual leader in the relationship—"

Cece stopped when she noticed that Zerst was gathering a Dragon Pulse in his mouth.

"Zerst. Stop that immediately," she said with a frigid tone.

The head stared at her, clearly angered, but the Dragon Pulse dissipated, and he turned away from her. Sol, meanwhile, gave her a thankful bow. Taking care of these two looked exhausting, and I had an entire team full of babies and children.

"Don't hesitate to ask for our help, alright? You're going to have your hands full with them, plus Scyther," I worriedly told Cece.

She grabbed my hand and held it tightly. "Of course," she smiled. "Which is why I wanted to introduce you to them. Can you call Denzel over? His Sylveon might come in handy if things ever go… off the rails, and I want to tell him the same things I told you."

"Sure," I nodded. "You'll be fine alone?"

"I have Slowpoke, and I have much to talk about with him as well. About his evolution."

I stared at Slowpoke, who had seemingly lost a lot of his aloofness. Just like during the battle against Candice, he was always aware now. The water type looked into my eyes and blinked.

"Gotcha," I said before leaving back to camp.

Well, camp might have been a generous way to call it. It was mostly a singular fire that had been lit by Chase's Houndoom. Roxie was lying down, her body curled up around Craig, who was eating canned tomato soup that he had heated on the fire, and Chase was working his team to the bone with his drills. I made my way toward Denzel, who had also released his entire team.

"Am I interrupting something?" I asked with an amused smile.

Sylveon was desperately hiding behind his trainer, and Snorunt was standing on his back, riding him like a Ponyta with a wide, toothy smile, seemingly ignorant of Roselia and Buneary staring daggers at her. I hadn't been acquainted with the ice type just yet, since Denzel largely kept her in her ball during our walk to Snowpoint, but she seemed like an upbeat kind of Pokemon, reminding me of Togetic or Electabuzz.

"Just some jealousy issues…" Denzel said with a pained look. The two Pokemon yelled out in protest.

"Rose!"

"Bun!"


"Come on, just let Snorunt enjoy this," Denzel groaned. "You practically hazed her when I first introduced you, obviously she's going to be pushed into Sylveon's arms! You did this!"

Snorunt laughed loudly. So loud, in fact, that it almost felt like she was taunting her teammates. Roselia and Buneary, seemingly having forged a new alliance in love, turned away from Denzel with a look of pure betrayal.

"Why are you even mad at me? I'm not even doing anything! Sylveon, tell them!"

Sylveon looked like he was stuck between a rock and a hard place. He gave a half, grumbling answer and quickly lifted Snorunt off of his back with his ribbons and jumped on Denzel's back to escape from his fellow Pokemon.

"You know what, you're all tiring me out. We'll sort this out when we get back to Eterna," Denzel sighed. "I'm recalling all of you. Sylveon included."

He recalled his Pokemon, who all protested loudly, and shot me a dismayed look.

"You've had it rough, huh?" I empathized. "Love troubles?"

"Yeah, I thought I could manage, but now that I've added another member to the team, Roselia and Buneary are going crazy. Snorunt isn't even in love with Sylveon, they're just friends!"

"You sure about that?" I said, half-teasing.

"Yes!"

"Okay, big guy," I laughed. "You mentioned hazing before. Can you let me in on that?"

My best friend groaned with a tired look. "The first time I introduced Snorunt to the team, she was already acquainted with Sylveon, since he was there when I caught her. You know him, he's friendly like that, even though he likes to be alone sometimes."

"Alone or with you," I shrugged. "Anyway, keep going."

"Buneary and Roselia— she was obviously still a Budew— acted all chummy with her right away, which instantly raised my alarm bells, but they somehow convinced me that they had grown and matured enough to befriend Snorunt. Anyway, long story short, she ended up being pushed way too hard when I started training her with the group, but luckily I caught wind of it fast, and now Buneary and Roselia hate her, especially since Sylveon came to her rescue, and he's pissed at them for bullying her."

"This seems like a really convoluted romance flick plot."

"I know! It fucking blows! But at least Buneary and Roselia get along now?" He said with a pained smile. "I hope Feebas is going be more amenable with Snorunt. He's only seen her once before we left the lake, and he didn't have much time to get to know her."

"Hey, maybe when you catch your sixth, Snorunt will ally with them and start this whole process all over again," I said, patting him on the back.

"Right…" he sighed. "Haven't even decided who my sixth will be yet."

I raised an eyebrow. "I thought you had the whole thing planned out?"

"It's a long story… but basically, now that Eevee's evolved into a Sylveon, I need something new."

"You wanted another fairy type?"

"I wanted a Gardevoir, yeah," he nodded. "I'll figure something out. It'll probably be a while until I catch another Pokemon anyway. I need to fix this whole damn relationship issue first."

"That's the smart thing to do," I agreed. "Anyway, Cece wanted to see you," I said, pointing toward where we were. "She wants to introduce you to the heads."

"Ah, the heads," he said with emphasis. "I bet they're just peachy."

"You don't know the half of it. Hey, before you go, Cece named one of the heads Sol. Can you ask her what that's short for?"

He shot me a suspicious look. "I dunno, it smells fishy. Like betrayal."

"Come on. Aren't we friends? Best friends?" I said, leaning against him. "After everything we've been through, you can't do this one little thing?"

"If Cece gets mad at me, I'm going to have my revenge. You know that, right?"

"Why would she get mad? I just forgot to ask her, and I want you to do it, that's all," I lied. "Anyway, go on. You've kept her waiting long enough."

"Arceus…" he sighed as he left toward Cece's direction.

I watched on with a satisfied smile and then turned to Chase, who was seemingly done with his drills and taking a break. He had given his Pokemon water, and he was relentlessly telling them to stay up and not sit down. I approached him and his team, curious to meet his new Snover. I knew quite a bit about his other Pokemon, but the ice type still eluded me.

"Hey man," I said. "Busy?"

"On a short break, so not right now," he answered dryly before taking a swig of cold water.

Riolu had no problems standing upright, but Houndoom and Zangoose were struggling, their legs clearly shaking like leaves. Charjabug, meanwhile, couldn't really lie down, so he appeared to be fine, although upon closer inspection, his breathing was ragged and harsh. Snover was impatient for the break to be over and clamored at Chase, eliciting a smile. My eyes widened slightly. It wasn't often that I saw him smile outside of when he was being a smug jackass.

A smug jackass you could learn to appreciate, though.

"How's your new Snover?" I asked, getting directly to the point. The ice type stared at me with an expression I couldn't exactly place.

"Fits in like a glove," Chase said. "The drive to get stronger is there, and it's probably the strongest I've ever seen it. He's always motivated for our workouts, and he's already at the others' level in battle."

The ice type proudly slammed his fist against his chest.

"Already?" I asked in a surprised tone. "That usually takes a lot longer."

"Who do you take me for, Pastel?" He asked, rolling his eyes. "Do you think my hard work's just for show? I work myself and my team to the bone for a reason."

"Right," I nodded, taking a step next to him. He flinched and stepped back.

"Oh— sorry?" I said.

"What was that for?" He frowned.

"Nothing, I just felt like doing it," I shrugged. "I like being close to my friends."

"Friends?"

"I mean, yes? What did you think we were?"

"Traveling companions that ended up together out of convenience?" He said.

I frowned, feeling genuinely hurt. "Are you kidding me? How— why would I even ask you to meet my other friends and travel together if I didn't think you were my friend?"

"I don't know, I thought that you'd maybe need me to get through Mount Coronet down south," he shrugged.

"So you don't think of me as a friend at all?"

He paused for a few seconds, and the silence grew uncomfortable. "My break's over, I need to—"

"Riolu," Riolu shook his head.

"What? But the—"

"Ri," he interrupted, his tone stern.

The teen scratched his head and groaned. "Fine! I'm not a friend guy. I've never had any friends at all, and I don't know what it's like, okay?! I don't fucking know if we're friends or not!"

"Well, I'm telling you that we are!" I yelled. "Stop putting this barrier between you and us! Let us in!"

"Fuck off," he spat, turning away from me.

"You're such a prick!"

"Yeah! Yeah, I am, and I like it that way, which is why I'm leaving!"

"Okay!"

"Fine!"

Riolu facepalmed, clearly giving up on the situation, and I stomped away angrily. Stupid Chase and his stupid need to be an asshole. I wanted to help him, but he kept pushing me away, like he needed to keep me at arm's length at all times. Maybe that was why he kept calling us by our last names all the time. He didn't want to get too close to anyone. I bet that was why he wanted to leave—

"You two alright?" Craig asked me, interrupting my train of thought.

"What? Oh, yeah. Yeah, just something stupid," I sighed.

"Want someone to talk to while your other pals are busy?" He asked.

"Sure… I don't see why not, I guess."

I sat next to him, and next to his Salamence, who thankfully didn't pay me any mind.

"I just can't with Chase!" I complained. "I want to be friends with him— hell, I thought we were. He was finally starting to be nice to us, and now he just blows up at me… although I guess I blew up at him too."

"Maybe he just needs his space," Craig shrugged. "Some people are like that. They don't mind interacting with others, but at the end of the day, they're a solitary trainer at heart. Like Sarah Newman, for example."

"The girl who beat you last year in the finals?" I asked.

He grimaced. "No need to twist the knife. But yes, that's her. She's one hell of a trainer— one of the best— and we're actually on good terms, but people considered her to be… eccentric. She was always quiet, and when she spoke, she always said what was on her mind, which is why she could be rude as hell," he laughed, clearly reminiscing. "Anyway, that's all to say that we're all wired differently. Maybe Chase is just uncomfortable with the label of friendship. I mean, you are friends, that's undeniable, but do you need to use the term?"

"I mean, no, but he wouldn't let me even step next to him," I grumbled.

"That's his personal space," Craig shrugged.

"I've never had someone reject me so strongly," I sighed. "It hurt."

"I can tell you're a friendly kid. You're like a big… bundle of warmth, and some people don't like to be warm all the time. Do you like to hug your friends, for example?" He asked.

"Yeah, I do it a bunch," I said.

"I figured. Some people aren't comfortable with that level of bodily contact, right? It's the same for personal space."

My eyes widened, thinking of Frillish. "Oh. Oh."

"You get it?" He smiled.

"Yeah, I do completely," I groaned. "I messed up."

Obviously, Chase had messed up as well. He was meaninglessly harsh with his words, but I was the one that had pushed him to that because I wasn't willing to be content with a no.

"Well, you might as well go make up," Craig said. "We're leaving in ten."

"Thank you, Craig," I said as I got up.

"No prob."

I hesitantly walked toward Chase, who clearly acted like he didn't see me until I was literally right in front of him.

"I see you didn't start up your workout again," I said, trying to start the conversation in a non-awkward way. He had recalled his Pokemon as well.

"Yeah, my heart wasn't in it. It was better to stop it here and start again the next time we land before we go to sleep," he shrugged. "Plus we're leaving soon anyway."

"Erm… I wanted to apologize."

"Eh, there's no need."

"No, let me finish," I said. "I'm a friendly girl, alright? So sometimes, I forget that others aren't as friendly as I am, and I think that they'd be okay with everything I spring up on them. I'm sorry I did that to you."

Chase shifted around. "Look, we can just put this behind us and act like nothing happened, and it'll be fine— ah, fuck it. You know what, let's not do that. I'm sorry for blowing up at you, alright? I messed up more than you did, and Riolu chewed me out for it. I'm just new to this whole people thing."

"S'alright," I smiled. "Let's, uh, not tell the others about this, okay? It'd be way too awkward."

"Sure thing, Grace."

My eyes almost fell out of their sockets. "What?"

"Nevermind. You aren't getting any more of those from me."

"What?! No, call me by my name again!"

He waved his hand annoyingly at me. "No, you made it weird, so I'm sticking with last names. Now bugger off."

"Fine," I said. "But that's going in my long-term memory. I'm never forgetting about it."

"Don't make me regret my apology."

I happily left Chase and saw that Cece and Denzel were back in one piece.

"Anything interesting happen?" I asked.

"Not much, just that her Scyther's a piece of work," Denzel sighed.

"He'll come around," I said, and Cece nodded. "We're leaving soon, so you guys should get ready."

When Cece left, I held back Denzel's sleeve and pulled him closer. "Did you get what I asked?"

"Sol is short for Soldat, which means soldier," he sighed. "I hate it here."

I gave him a short hug and smiled. "You're the best."

"Just don't make fun of her for it. She'll know it came from me."

"No guarantees."

"I fucking knew I shouldn't have trusted you!"

——

"I can never get enough of cities at night," Cece whispered.

In the distance, Eterna city loomed.

The city looked strangely dim at night. It was nothing compared to the bright lights of Jubilife or Oreburgh, but it was still beautiful. It had taken us three days to get here, and we had made it in time for Pauline's birthday. Roxie landed on the outskirts of the city, and Craig recalled her.

"Well, it was certainly different, traveling with you kids, but this is where our paths diverge. Stay safe, alright? If you ever meet my sister, call me and give her your phone! Tell her to answer her messages! Tell her that I love her, and I miss her very much, and I would like it if we spent some time together!" Craig said as he got progressively further away from us. We all waved at him until he entered the city, now a speck.

"What time is it?" Cece asked.

"9:34 pm," I said after pulling out my Poketch. "We can make it. You know what Center they're staying at, right?"

She nodded with a devious smile. We had tricked them into giving us their Pokemon Center address and rooms by saying that we'd need them for when we got back. Of course, that hadn't been a lie. We were just back much sooner than they would ever expect. When we finally made it to the city's entrance, Chase was going to head in another direction, down another street. It was time to say goodbye.

"Well, I'm off," Chase said. "Traveling with you all was nice enough. Have fun meeting your pals."

"Let's meet back in Hearthome, alright?" I said. "And don't forget to send messages!"

"I will, I will," he said.

"And don't get into random fights with trainers," Cecilia added.

"Come on, I don't do that."

"You do."

"Not unless they deserve it," he shrugged.

"And don't just do dangerous shit in Mount Coronet just because you've been through worse," Denzel said.

"I've got it! Arceus! See ya."

Now Chase was gone too, and my heart felt heavier. We had gone through so much together, and he was leaving, just like that.

"Well, it's our turn now," Denzel smiled nervously.

"It's nighttime, so hopefully, we can keep a low profile," I shuddered. "Let's go."
 
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Chapter 101
CHAPTER 101

We were recognized almost instantly.

Eterna city didn't have a bustling nightlife like Jubilife and Sunyshore, so I expected to at least make it to the Pokemon Center before kicking up a fuss.

I had obviously been wrong. We were still on the city's outskirts. The less-dense parts of Eterna were mostly filled with expensive family homes from its last expansion a few years ago, but it was the weekend, so some people were still out and about, either driving or walking back home from a night out in the city. At first, there were only whispers. A couple, walking arm in arm, clearly drunk, doing a double-take when walking past us, then saying they must have gotten the wrong people. That there was no way we'd be back here already. A car slowing down next to us, and the driver not so discreetly staring at us after lowering his window, causing us to hurriedly turn our faces away from him. But those were manageable. After all, they didn't actually stop us or talk to us.

"Hooooly shit!" A trainer yelled. He had a Starly comfortably sitting on his head, and the dim, warm street lights shone on his face. "Is that— that is you! Three of the four first-year prodigies! Ricky, wake up!"

The trainer— who was clearly a first year like us— lifted a hand and tapped his Starly's side, and the bird lazily opened a single eye before going back to sleep, evidently uninterested in us.

"Can I get a picture with all of you?" He asked, his voice trembling with excitement. He turned toward me with a look of childlike wonder. "The way you took down that Darmanitan was awesome. I've rewatched your battle at least a hundred times!"

"S—sure," I nodded after taking a deep breath. This was just one trainer, so I was relatively fine, but the fact that I had fans was mindboggling to me. "That should be fine, right?" I asked, turning to the others.

"Yeah, absolutely," Denzel smiled.

"Wait! There's a risk that the others will see it, and it'll ruin the surprise," Cece said.

"Right! Please don't upload it anywhere until tomorrow," Denzel said.

"I won't, I promise!" The trainer smiled.

He was my age, but something about him was so… innocent in a way I couldn't explain. It made him feel younger than I was, somehow. He grabbed his phone, and we smiled for his selfie before going on our way. People were talking loudly about us now, and we had to stop a few more times to take group pictures.

"Let's not do any more stops," Cece sighed. "We're only ten minutes away from the Center, and it'd be a miracle if no one's posted about us online or on the forums already, despite us asking not to."

"They should be partying, I doubt that they'll be browsing the internet," I said. My throat felt dry, and I was sweating buckets now that actual large groups were coming up to us. I really hated this. I could understand why Craig's sister kept a low profile perfectly now, but that path was already barred. Once I took one step toward fame— even though it was against my will— there was no way to turn back.

"Can't be a party without me," Denzel chuckled, waving toward a group of teen girls that squealed at him. It was like a scene out of a shitty romance movie.

"You sure are taking well to your new situation," Cece remarked.

"Well, this is the kind of stuff I've been dreaming about for years, so I might let it get to my head a little," he shrugged.

"I just want to get in a room already…" I grumbled.

"You're doing well, don't worry," Cece smiled.

Denzel perked up. "That's right! You could be throwing up, or crying, or freezing up—"

"Not. Helping," I interrupted. I took a relieved breath when I saw that the Center was finally in view, the warm glow of the building offering me much-needed comfort. My steps grew larger and faster.

Obviously, that had been foolish of me, because when we entered the Center, we were swarmed by a horde of trainers and reporters who had seemingly gotten wind that we were here and guessed that we were going where our friends had been staying.

"Please, a moment—"

"How did you all get here so fast—"

"Can I get a picture? My friends will never believe me—"

"Do we have time for a quick interview—"


The bright lights of the camera flashes, the loud voices speaking over each other and the squeeze of pushing through a sea of people all made me clam up, but Cece and Denzel helped me through.

"Please, let them through!" Nurse Joy yelled. The place was so full that we couldn't even get past the lobby. She released a Chansey, who stared daggers at us. "Let them through, or I'll have Chansey evacuate the premises!" She yelled furiously.

It was as if hell had frozen over. The room was completely silent, and everyone turned toward Nurse Joy. Nurse Joys were one of the most accommodating, nice group of people on the planet, and they had to be. It was one of the most difficult jobs in existence. Long shifts, having to give up your identity for hours at a time, taking care of abrasive young trainers and their Pokemon, seeing children and Pokemon die… the list could go on and on. So the fact that a Nurse Joy had just angrily screamed was not lost on everyone, and we were finally let through.

"Arceus, that was awful," I sighed as we stepped into the elevator, thankfully alone.

"Yeah, people can get a bit pushy," Denzel awkwardly said. "But hey, turn that frown upside down. We're meeting everyone after so long!"

"Right," I smiled.

We reached Pauline's room and put an ear to the door.

"Shit, they're not celebrating at hers. Maybe Louis'?" Denzel said.

"That'd make sense, he always hosts the parties," Cecilia excitedly nodded.

We moved on to Louis' room, practically breaking into a run. I placed my ear on the door and heard muffled voices and music.

"Who wants to do the honors?" I whispered.

"Cece should," Denzel said, nodding toward the door.

Her hand hovered over the door for a few seconds, and then she finally knocked. I could almost hear Pauline complaining through the door, and Justin trying to hold her back through the door. We all stood up straight, waiting for her to open it.

Pauline burst through the door. "Not during my birthday, you ass— Wh— what?"

Pokemon Center rooms were small, so everyone got a good look at us right away, and they were speechless. They weren't even moving.

"Surprise?" Denzel hesitantly said. "Happy birth— woah!"

Pauline rammed against him and grabbed all of us, bringing us into a tight hug. Finally out of their stupor, the others ran toward us and did the same. I was being held so tightly I struggled to breathe, and I felt tears stream down my face. We were back. We were finally back, after so long.

"How did you— how did you even get here this fast?" Justin stammered. "There's no way you could walk—"

"We flew on Craig Goodwill's Salamence," Cece explained.

Emilia's eyes bulged. "Craig Goodwill's Salamence? You know him?"

"We're on pretty good terms," Denzel boasted. "Took us three days to get there, just in time for your birthday, Pauline."

"Happy birthday!" Cece and I both said.

"You guys are so stupid!" She cried. "You could have warned us!"

"Well, it's not a surprise if we do that," Denzel chuckled. "We don't exactly have a gift for you—"

"We're the gift," I said.

"I was getting there! You joke thief."

We closed the door, and they welcomed us in. The room felt packed with so many people, but that was perfectly fine. We took off our coats and bags before sitting on Louis' bed, and he handed us some drinks.

"I still can't believe it," he said with a dumbfounded smile. "We have so much to catch up on."

"And a lot to plan," I added. "Sorry, I just feel like zipping away from the city as fast as I can, if possible?"

"Still as bad with fame as you were, huh?" Pauline teased. "We can talk about leaving tomorrow."

"Don't act all tough, you were crying like a baby five minutes ago," I retorted.

"So were you! Anyway, um, we didn't really plan enough food for three extra people, but feel free to take anything you want. You must be hungry after traveling."

Different kinds of chips were laid out on Louis' desk, along with a half-eaten strawberry cake.

"I'm surprised you're this down to earth on birthday food," Denzel said. "This feels so normal, I was kind of expecting a giant, layered cake."

"Right? Like a wedding cake!" I laughed.

"Pauline's always been cheap with food," Emilia sighed. "She insisted on eating these unhealthy snacks."

"A girl after my own heart," I said proudly as I stood up to grab some food.

"You're taking a whole lot…" Justin remarked.

"I'm a growing girl," I said as I stuffed my mouth with chips. "I haven't eaten these in ages."

"Please don't speak while you're chewing," he chuckled. "Louis, do we have anything else in your fridge?"

"Some leftovers from yesterday's cafeteria food that I took with me—"

"Nevermind."

"Come on, Cafeteria food isn't bad," Denzel said.

"Or at least not bad enough to elicit such a reaction from Justin," Cece added.

"They make some awesome hashbrowns up in Snowpoint. You guys were missing out," I shrugged.

We somehow ended up having an unhinged debate about how Pokemon Center food was either disgusting or at least passable. Unsurprisingly, Denzel and I were on the passable camp, although if there was one, I'd be on the 'good' team.

"Pauline… you traitor," Denzel said.

"I'm sorry, that purée is really bad," She said, crossing her arms.

"Don't call it purée, you snob," he rolled his eyes. "It's mashed potatoes, and it doesn't taste nearly as bad as you make it out to be."

Emilia lifted a hand. "Actually, purée is different than mashed potatoes. Mashed potatoes have a rougher texture, and purée is smooth—"

I placed my head in my hands. "Please, let's not discuss the definition of different potato dishes."

"But she's correct—"

"Justin… think of those poor cooks coming in every day to make food for you ingrates," Denzel sighed, clearly sarcastically.

"Okay, enough about food!" Louis groaned. "The fact of the matter is, they prioritize quantity over quality, which makes sense. Let's just please talk about something else."

"Like that Larvitar you caught, Grace," Pauline said in an accusing tone.

"Right, you did catch one. I assume you got it in Mount Coronet?" Louis asked.

"Her," I corrected him. "And I did, but she's still just a baby."

"I'm so jealous," Pauline said. "A Tyranitar would fit me so perfectly…"

"Come to think of it, it would," Cece said. "They're famously angry and vicious all the time."

"Don't be so smug," Pauline responded. "Anyway, I'm surprised you didn't tell us you caught her."

"More like disappointed," Emilia said.

"I'm sorry, it must have slipped my mind," I apologized. "Honestly, I was kind of hyper focused on getting ready for my battle, and then the fact that I owned a Larvitar got leaked anyway, thanks to this guy," I said, hitting Denzel's shoulder.

"Ow! What the hell?! When we were in Snowpoint, you said it was both of our faults, and now you're blaming me?!"

"Come on, take a joke," I laughed. "I'm going to start training her when we get back on the road, but right now, she's not a battler."

"Pauline, why don't you tell them what you found as the next member of your team?" Justin asked.

The girl hummed. "Fine. It's a Rufflet."

"Holy shit, it does fit you!" Denzel grinned. "A Braviary? That's perfect."

"I have standards," she huffed. "Why do you think I waited so long to catch a third?"

"If you keep up those standards, you'll end up with three Pokemon by the end of the year," Cece joked.

"Damn, you're a lot more playful these days," Pauline smiled. "You've changed a lot."

"Agreed," Justin said. "It's like you're happier— I suppose the fact that your father's been having a terrible few weeks adds to that."

Cece shot me a quick look but then nodded. We were going to have to do the big reveal, probably tomorrow. "I've heard that he's been desperately trying to contact me, but I'll let Clarence stew in his own mess," she said. "I had plenty of money in my account, so I won't have to change my lifestyle that much."

Louis gave her a tight nod. "The rest of our parents haven't cut off the money— probably because they know it'd reflect badly on them. My father's already under fire for raising prices."

"He's still negotiating with the Directorate for a bailout. He's been having to sell more and more shares," Emilia explained.

"Right, and I heard that he's also been asking for lower interest rates," Cece said. "Clarence has been doing the same thing with Unova's government. It doesn't matter. Even though I wish the company would fail, I always knew it was an unrealistic expectation, and I know I haven't seen the last of him. All I care about now is being free, getting strong enough to keep that freedom, and fulfilling my promise at the end of the year."

Justin raised an eyebrow. "You've been talking about this promise for a while," he started. "Could you tell us what it is?"

"Right," Louis nodded. "In Floaroma, Eterna forest, during your gym battle in Snowpoint, and now here?"

"I suppose I will. It was after the… events at Valley Windworks," Cecilia said, looking at me. She then turned to the others. "Do you remember when Cynthia came to my hospital room?"

"Right, she did," Emilia said.

"She talked to me about a lot of things that opened up my path to freedom, but she also challenged me."

I almost choked on my chips. "Challenged you?"

"She asked me to win the Conference, beat the Elite Four, and meet her in battle," she firmly said. "I remember her words like it was yesterday," she said with a glimmer in her eyes. "I personally challenge you. Don't disappoint me. That's what she told me, word for word."

"Arceus…" Denzel muttered.

So Cynthia had also seen Cece that day and challenged her? That was probably why Cece was still as driven as before she had finally been freed from her father. Cynthia's challenge was the goal that kept her going.

"So there you have it," Cece said. Then suddenly, her eyes burned, and she looked at me. "That's why I'm going to win this year."

"We'll see about that," I said, smiling at her. "But hey, no matter what happens, no hard feelings, right?"

She agreed immediately. "No hard feelings."

"I'm feeling left out," Denzel complained.

I playfully slapped his back. "Oh shut up, you big baby. You're obviously included in the no hard feelings pact. Everyone is."

Suddenly, there was only silence, but thankfully, Emilia came to the rescue.

"Guys, thinking about it, we never told you what we all got for Pauline," she smiled.

"The worst gifts of all time," the redhead said. "Except Emi's, of course."

"I'm not getting you anything next year," Louis said. "You complain too much."

"I mean, come on, Louis, Jewelry is so basic! Try a little bit harder. I know you just gave me that bracelet because you didn't know what else to buy."

He awkwardly scratched his cheek.

"See? And Justin, a book about starting my own business? Are you sure you don't want it back, because that seems like something you'd enjoy much more than me."

"I've already read it multiple times, and I think it can benefit anyone, which is why I wanted to give it to you—"

"Yuck. At least Emi got me something good."

"What'd she get ya?" Denzel asked.

"Money and a birthday card with a nice message on it."

"M—money?" Denzel stammered. "Don't you have that already? In ridiculous quantities?"

"Yeah, but if someone gives me money, I can buy myself whatever I want, and it's not my money, so it still feels like a gift," she shrugged, before hugging Emilia. "Thank you, Emi, you're the best."

"If I'm the best, will you do something for me?"

"Anything."

"Will you be nicer the next time someone gets you a gift?"

"Okay, you're asking for a lot here."

We partied deep into the night, but eventually, it was time to go to sleep. I bid everyone goodnight before leaving. Emilia was barely awake, dozing off on Louis' bed. Justin and Louis were talking with Cece about something business-related that I was nowhere near smart enough to understand. Pauline and Denzel, meanwhile, were leaning against the open window and had somehow launched into a conversation about if chess was a game, and I quote, for 'smug smart asses' or not. I shot Cece a look, signaling to her that I was going to be the first to leave, and she stood up.

"I'll bring Grace downstairs so that we can book a room," she said. "Don't forget to book a room, Denzel!"

He turned our way. "Yeah, worst-case scenario, I'll just go crash at Justin's."

"Old habits die hard," Pauline smiled.

We left, and when we entered the elevator, Cece gripped my hand.

"Arceus, it hurts to pretend just to be friends," she sighed.

"It does," I agreed. "But was it that different?"

"Obviously. With the trip with Craig, I haven't kissed you in too long."

"Well, one quick elevator kiss wouldn't hurt, or maybe you can come back to my room—"

"No, it's too risky," she sighed. "What if someone sees me get in or come out? No. We'll tell everyone tomorrow, right after we make plans to leave Eterna."

"I think you're being too anxious about it. It could just be a friendly sleepover. Plus, Louis will be fine with us."

"I don't know, Grace," she said. "I like him, and he's a friend, but I can see it in his eyes. He still isn't over me."

"But he's given up on you."

"Right, but that doesn't mean he doesn't love me anymore," Cece said. "Love can make someone do foolish things. He might have been okay with me finally coming clean about not loving him back, but if he knows I'm dating someone else? He might—"

The doors opened, and we immediately stopped talking. Thankfully, this late at night, people were no longer waiting for us, but we didn't want to accidentally leak something. Not when we were so close from telling the truth. It wasn't like we were doing anything bad, of course. We weren't under that impression at all, but feelings were a fickle thing. It was best to be gentle about this. We booked two different rooms and bid each other goodnight.

Even though I felt anxious, tomorrow could not come soon enough.
 
Chapter 102
CHAPTER 102

I woke up to a soft knock at my door, groaning at the fact that this was happening way too often lately.

"Coming!" I yelled with a half-yawn.

I stretched and lazily shambled toward my door, my eyes still half-closed, and I opened it. Emilia and Cece stood in front of the door with breakfast, and there were a fuck ton of people in the hallway. Even for a Pokemon Center, this was unprecedented. The girls hurriedly entered, and I closed the door. I had kind of forgotten that we were still famous, and that trainers wanted to talk to us all the time.

"Is this deluge of people going to always be here?" I groaned. "Good morning, by the way."

"Someone's cranky," Cece smiled.

"I'm cranky too," Emilia said. "And yes, they're always here. Word's gotten out that you guys are staying here, and the Center is completely full."

My eyes widened. Completely full? That had only happened back in Jubilife when the Circuit hadn't even started yet.

"That's… something," I exhaled. "What time is it, even?"

"Five past noon," Cecilia answered, setting the food down.

"What?"

Emilia sat down on my bed and started eating some cold scrambled eggs. "It took a while for us to navigate downstairs and back up," she said. "Luckily, since Nurse Joy's outburst last night, they all seem to be on their best behavior. It didn't help that Denzel leaked the fact that Craig Goodwill brought you down here last night, and that he confirmed it."

"Right, we were supposed to put in a good word for him," I sighed. "Well, thanks for the food."

"I figured you'd be too anxious to get out there," Cece said softly. "Getting used to fame has to be done slowly and gradually."

Legendaries, I love you so much, I thought. "You figured right, thanks." I sat down and started eating. "So, are the others up?"

The two both nodded.

"What, even Denzel? He's supposed to be the last one up," I said.

"Pauline wouldn't let him sleep. She just kept kicking his door until he woke up," Cecilia sighed.

"And she complains when curious trainers knock on her door, can you believe that?" Emilia rolled her eyes. "Anyway, Justin and Louis are up, and they're all coming here soon. Then we can discuss your plans to get to Hearthome."

"You book a flight yet?"

"I will later today," she said. "Honestly, I'm glad I won't have to travel through the wild again."

"Don't worry about it. You better have all the good Hearthome spots noted down when we get there," I smiled.

"Obviously."

Suddenly, I noticed the dark contents of her drink. "You drinking coffee? Ew."

"What? It helps me wake up!"

"Emi, I'm going to be honest with you," Cecilia started. "I've never seen you drink coffee in my entire life."

"Well, maybe I just wanted to have a lifestyle change."

"Or, you just want to look like a grownup," I teased. "My dad—"

Another knock interrupted us, and Cece went to open the door. Denzel, Pauline, Justin and Louis all streamed into the room as people clamored around them. Denzel tried to stay outside to answer a few questions, but Pauline dragged him in before he could open his mouth.

"Good mor— afternoon. You guys aren't done eating?" Louis noticed. "Should we come back later?"

"Nah, it's fine," I said. "We can just start planning."

"It shouldn't take long since we've already gone over the routes to get to Hearthome before… everything transpired, but I figured we'd need a refresher," Denzel said.

"Emi, can you scootch over?" Pauline asked.

"Sure. Plenty of space on the bed."

"Don't get my bed dirty…" I grumbled.

"I'm not even the one eating!" Pauline yelled.

"I don't know, anything is possible with you."

"Okay, you guys are just ignoring me, that's great," Denzel said, pinching the bridge of his nose. "Look, the situation is relatively the same. Eighteen days of travel or so. The Cycling Road, route 207, having to go through Mount Coronet, and then climb down, and then we're at Hearthome. What I'm thinking is—"

"You better not be implying I'm dirty, Grace," Pauline crossed her arms.

"Seems like you're putting words in my mouth. Maybe you know something I don't," I teased in a provocative tone.

"Let's take this seriously," Justin said.

"Thank you!" Denzel exclaimed. "Um, what I was thinking is that since our Cece, Grace, and I's Pokemon are so much better now, we'll probably cut on travel time, and going through Mount Coronet should be a piece of cake, especially since the Rangers keep that path clear of anything too dangerous except for a short lapse in between the two ends."

"Way to brag, but alright," Pauline nodded. "Everything should be relatively simple then?"

"Yeah, we should be good. We picked up plenty of caving experience."

Louis raised a hand. "So when are we leaving?"

"As soon as possible," Cece said. "I'd be ready to go even tomorrow."

"Can't we wait until Emi leaves?" Justin asked.

"You guys are already behind in the Circuit," Denzel said. Pauline stared daggers at him. "Through no fault of your own, of course! It'd be best if we get going as fast as possible. Waiting would be a mistake."

Louis nodded firmly before looking at Justin and Pauline. "Agreed. Even if we make good ground and take down every gym leader on the first try, we'll have to get to Snowpoint and backtrack to Canalave. Without a flier and a license, we'll barely make it to the Conference, and that's if we don't lose."

I stared at Louis and raised an eyebrow. He had changed a lot since reading that letter. All of his usual self-confidence that had made me liken him to Chase seemed to be gone now.

"As much as I hate to admit it, he's right," Pauline said. "Plus, I'm going to have a lot less time to train any new Pokemon I catch."

"Come on guys, you'll make it," I said, trying to raise their spirits. "We just have to keep pushing forward."

"Right," Louis said. "So tomorrow it is, hopefully in the morning."

"They rent bikes at the Cycling Road's entrance, so we'll be fine on that front."

"I might be out of practice…" Pauline muttered.

"You'll be fine. Riding a bike is knowledge you never lose," Denzel said.

"I'm gonna miss you guys," Emilia said. "We just met again, and you're already leaving… maybe I should come anyway—"

"Absolutely not," Pauline interrupted. "You're not going to force yourself to do something you don't want to. It won't be for long, and we'll be staying in Hearthome for a while."

"Fine," she grumbled. "But I'm definitely coming on foot to Solaceon. That route is relatively easy, I've heard."

Denzel nodded. "Well, that should be it then."

I shot a look at Cece, and she nodded. It was now or never.

"Um, actually, Cece and I have something to say to you all," I stammered, twiddling my thumbs. Now that the moment had come, it was actually difficult to get the words out. She got up and came to stand next to me. "Well, Denzel already knows, but we're… we're…"

"We are dating," Cecilia said, grabbing my hand. I shut my eyes and waited for their reaction.

Emilia squealed and shook excitedly. "Oh, Arceus! How wonderful!"

"Honestly, I was kind of wondering before the whole Mount Coronet thing happened," Pauline smiled. "Since when?"

I breathed a sigh of relief. I had expected them to be supportive, but it was nice to finally hear it. "Well, since—"

"I professed my love for her in Mount Coronet," Cecilia explained.

"Well, this certainly is an unorthodox relationship, but so long as you're happy," Justin said.

"Come on, be a little bit more modern in your thinking," Pauline said, slapping his arm. He yelped and took a few steps away from her. "Gay people exist, get over it. Personally, I don't care about gender."

"No, no, thank you, Justin," I smiled.

"Louis?" Cece asked. The whole room turned toward him.

"Oh, I'm— I'm happy for you two, I just wasn't expecting this, that's all."

I looked at his hands and saw that his knuckles were white. Cece had been right. He did still have feelings for her through no fault of his own, but how could we solve this?

"You're not," I said. "Talk to us about it. If you bottle everything up, it'll be worse. How can we help you get through this?"

"I'm fine, I promise," he smiled as he got up. "Now, let's get ready for tomorrow—"

"Louis…" Justin said. "We know you better."

"Come on, open up," Pauline said, her tone devoid of any of her usual snark. "Grace is right."

"Louis," Cecilia said. "I'm sorry."

"Don't— don't apologize. It's me. I'm the one with the problem."

"Feelings cannot be controlled," she said. "How can we help.?

"I'll be fine, let's just start getting ready—"

"Louis—"

"I said I'll be fine!" He yelled. When he realized what he had done, he froze in place. "I'm sorry. I just need some time alone to pack. Let's meet back tomorrow at the cycling road, okay? Eight in the morning sharp."

We all gave a hesitant nod, and he left. Denzel followed shortly after, saying that he'd attempt to cheer him up, and Emilia, Pauline and Justin left soon afterward, giving us words of encouragement. With a frustrated groan, I fell down on my bed.

"That could have gone better," I sighed.

"Or worse. It's good that we finally got it out. The longer we kept it hidden, the worse it would have been."

"I definitely agree with that," I said. "Think he'll be alright?"

"I hope so, but at least he's trying, which is something he would never have done when I first met him," she said, sitting next to me. "You're taking harder than I thought you would. You seemed confident yesterday."

"I just hate to see a rift in the group," I sighed. "But at least we don't have to hide anymore."

"How can I cheer you up?" She asked with a pained look.

I stared up at her and stared into her eyes. "Hold me."

She smiled slightly, lowered herself and hugged me tightly as she gently stroked my hair. "I love you."

"I love you too," I said.

"Do you want anything? I know you just ate, but I could get you a milkshake. Or we could watch Craig's battle with Candice to cheer you up."

"Just stay with me a while?" I asked.

"You didn't even have to ask, love. I'll stay as long as you want."

——

The next morning, we were all on a tram that would take us to the Cycling Road. Louis had seemingly gone ahead and would wait for us there, but I couldn't help but feel a pit in my stomach, like something was going to go wrong. Emilia was also here, having opted to see us off at the gate, and now that we were close, she was tearing up, eliciting curious stares from the passengers. I laid my head against Cece's shoulder, waiting for us to reach our destination. Even though the situation could have been better, I was at least happy to be out of the city. I wasn't foolish enough to think that things would ever go back to normal, but hopefully, by the time we got to Hearthome, our fame would have died down a bit. I would also need to finally take a look at sponsors and start making some money. I had a lot of things I wanted to buy, and having a decent amount of cash would certainly help. Vitamins, TMs, especially for Togetic, and maybe even Power Items like the Power Lense to speed up our training, although that one was probably a long shot.

Most of all though, I needed to start saving for a Shiny Stone. These formed near Mount Coronet's summit, above the clouds, due to needing an immense amount of light to form, so this was more of a long term project— something that would take me months to save up for. The price fluctuated slightly, but the going price was currently around 745,000 Pokedollars per stone, and considering I hadn't battled trainers in a while, I was completely broke. All I had was the money Candice had given me for winning the battle and some change. Thinking about it, Denzel would also need a Shiny Stone to evolve his Roselia, and another stone to evolve his Snorunt, so he was in a bigger dilemma than I was, although Dawn Stones weren't ridiculously expensive like Shiny Stones were. They were just pricy. There was a much bigger supply since they weren't as rare, so if he got a good sponsor, he'd probably be able to nab one by the time we left Hearthome or Solaceon. He obviously wouldn't use it yet, though, since Snorunt had a lot of growing to do before it was wise to let her evolve into a Froslass, especially since it was a ghost type. Ghost types were notoriously difficult to control after evolving due to all the... pranks they liked to pull. Of course, to a Haunter, for example, a prank might be something that could get someone killed or mentally scarred. Either way, not all evolutionary items were created equal. A lot of them were affordable for trainers if they just saved for a few weeks, like normal Thunder Stone or Oval Stone, while others were in such rarity that they were worth millions, like the high-quality Fire Stones that were needed to make Vulpix evolve. There was a reason newer trainers avoided Pokemon that needed items to evolve.

I needed money, so I would need to finally come out of my shell and start seriously negotiating with companies, but my friends would thankfully be here to help me out like they had last time Retani Industries tried to scam me. If I was lucky and I landed a really good sponsor, maybe I'd be able to get a Shiny Stone by the fifth or sixth badge. Getting one in Hearthome would be a long shot.

And that was if I could restrain myself and not blow my money on too many TMs. I really wanted the Psychic TM for Togetic, but I supposed that could wait. Even though I was famous, it was important to remember that I still only had three badges. Impressive for a first year, sure, but there were still relatively a lot of people like me. I wasn't going to get the best deals in the world like Craig was getting. Companies weren't about to suddenly pay me hundreds of thousands of Pokedollars just because my face was on T.V. a few times— at least not until I had won more badges and tournaments— but if their contract was anything worth my while, they'd probably offer me some TMs. Hell, even Retani Industries had done so, and they tried to scam me!

I hoped I'd be in another tournament soon—

"We're here," Cecilia gently told me.

"Oh, thanks."

We all stepped out of the tram, and Louis was thankfully waiting at the gate to the Cycling Road like he had said he would be, and he looked much better than yesterday. Confident in himself, maybe? I breathed a sigh of relief. It looked like I had been worrying for nothing.

"Good morning," Louis said, his voice steady. "I hope you weren't impeded too much on the way here."

"It's early in the day, so no," Pauline shrugged.

"Well," Emilia sniffled. "I guess this is it."

"Come on, Emi, cheer up," Denzel said, clapping her shoulder. "We'll be back together in no time."

"Yeah…" she sobbed. "I know. It still hurts."

Pauline hugged Emilia tightly. "Stay safe, okay?"

"You idiot, I should be the one saying that."

"Oh, we'll only have to deal with the occasional Pokemon," Pauline shrugged. "You'll have to deal with people. People can be assholes. Don't let yourself be pushed around. If someone's harassing you, tell me when we get there, and I'll fuck them up."

Emilia let out a tearful laugh. "I will."

She hugged us one by one and bid us goodbye as we stepped through the gate. There was a queue that was practically empty due to how early it was, and bikes were lined up by the hundreds beyond it, ready to be lent out to any trainers that passed through here.

"I wonder if they ever run out," I pondered.

"Of bikes?" Denzel said. "No, they have thousands of them in storage in the back. These are the only ones on display."

We shuffled through the quick queue, handing our trainer ID to a League worker there, and we were let through. Suddenly, Louis stopped us, looking into each one of our eyes one by one.

"What is it? Louis?" I asked.

The blond man sighed. "I came to a decision last night, and I think it's the only way I'm ever going to move past this. I think it would be best if I traveled alone for a while."
 
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Interlude - Forums III
INTERLUDE - FORUMS III

Welcome to the League Circuit Forums! The best website to get any League/Circuit related news!

General → Item_Discussion

Topic: How are we supposed to continue?

Original Poster: Raymond_Wheeler (Verified Trainer)

Date: December 4th 20XX


This is an unmitigated disaster.

As a lot of you reading this are, I'm a first year trainer. I thought I was doing pretty well for myself, I mean, I've beaten Volkner and Maylene, and I was going to be on my way to Hearthome. Unfortunately, I'm fucking stuck in Veilstone because potions are too expensive for me to afford any, so I can't actually make the trip through route 215 because the woods there are crawling with wild Pokemon. No matter where I go, I hear the same thing. Newer trainers are getting screwed over by the Bianchi Conglomerate, and our progress has been slowed to a crawl. Potions used to be barely fifty Pokedollars each, and now, they're fucking 200 a piece? I mean, this is outrageous! And that's not even counting the other stuff with inflated prices too!

At this point, the government needs to step in and do something, because a ton of trainers' journeys are being slowed down by this. What happens if someone can't make it to the Conference because of this? Older trainers won't get it, because they've got large sums of money saved, or they have sponsors that helps them out, but for us, the little guys in the middle of it all? We're getting screwed over like usual, and all we're getting is platitudes from the League and incompetence from the Directorate. They're supposed to fucking help us, and they're twiddling their thumbs.

Also, if anyone in Veilstone is willing to, I'd be willing to form a group to get through route 215 so we could get to Solaceon, thank you!


►Emma_Graham (Verified Trainer)

I'm in Pastoria, and I'm in the same boat. I can't get through route 212 without risking my Pokemon, especially that Arceus damned swamp. Off-route Pokemon kicked up a fuss and went onto the route recently, so it's even more dangerous, and rangers are saying it's going to take a week to get everything back under control. A fucking week? I'm already so behind on my badges, this is the last thing I needed to hear! And then this potion thing? I mean, holy shit, talk about the unluckiest year to start my journey!

►Kayden_Martinez (Verified Trainer)

The Bianchis can go fuck themselves and should pay us fucking reparations for what they're doing. Not only did they and the Obels get trainers killed, but now, they're trying to salvage their profits instead of doing the right thing. All they fucking did was offer some shitty PR apology. Harvey Bianchi spoke on T.V. recently and it was obvious he hadn't even rehearsed the speech beforehand, he was stuttering all over the place.

There's been a rumor that the gym leaders will meet sometime this month at the League, and they tend to be better connected with trainer issues than them, since they don't live on an island in the middle of nowhere and actually talk to their constituents. I hope that they try to pressure Cynthia into intervening, because this can't fucking go on. After just a few days of raised prices, I'm already completely tapped out of money, and no one wants to battle me because everyone is fucking broke. There's no way I'm making it through Mount Coronet at this rate.


►Dominik_Washington (Verified Trainer)

You're crazy if you still want to go through there after what happened to Grace Pastel, Denzel Williams, Cecilia Obel, and Chase Karlson. I'm sticking with the eastern side of Sinnoh this entire year.

►Kayden_Martinez (Verified Trainer)

That was another closed-down section of the mountain they tried to get through, not the official path.

►Gemma_Brady (Verified Trainer)

It's a shame what happened to them, but the problem is that this is showing no signs of slowing down. What if we have to deal with expensive supplies for the entire year? Multiple years? This could fundamentally change the dynamics of being a trainer for a long time.

►Raymond_Wheeler (Verified Trainer)

This won't be contained to just Bianchi Conglomerate products… the price of Pokeballs is starting to creep up too. The entire market is about to undergo a massive shock.

►Konstantin_Widdman (Verified Trainer)

I'm a third year trainer sponsored by the Bianchi Conglomerate, and they're trying to pressure me to renegotiate my contract. They want to lower my salary and are acting like some shitty items will be enough to compensate me. I mean, I really don't need a fucking Electric Gem, thank you very much, I'd rather get paid. They really want to cheap out and save as much money as they can from everything.

►Lillian_Webb (Verified Trainer)

Well, fuck. Fuck the Bianchis and fuck the Obels, I guess.

——


Trainers → Events

Topic: So, they're all alive somehow??

Original Poster: Joe_McCoy (Verified Trainer)

Date: December 8th 20XX


So this is a huge surprise.

As it turns out, the four trainers that were supposed to be dead in Mount Coronet are alive and well. Honestly, we don't know much right now, and by the time I post this, the information will probably be outdated because things are moving so fast, but they were first spotted by gRUR, a Snowpoint resident who managed to take a blurry picture of them, and now they're apparently at the Pokemon Center on Cross Street, the same one that has Candice's gym.

So let's review the facts. The ranger report stated that they all 'fell down a chasm opened by a wild Tyranitar.' Yes, you heard that right. A fucking Tyranitar. Now, I don't know about you, but I'd say that surviving that would be impossible, but somehow, they did. Then, they'd have to have survived in the depths of Mount Coronet, escaped, made it back to a route, and all of route 216 and 217 in fucking winter!!!! And aside from a few wounds, they seemed to have made it unscathed.

Now normally, I'd say that this doesn't pass the smell test, but ranger reports don't lie, and well, they are alive, so they must have made it through everything somehow. I'm honestly stoked to see trainers survive, especially since it fucks the Obel Energy Company and the Bianchi Conglomerate even further than they already are after Pauline King revealed the entire truth of the situation. Mind control, arranged marriages, abuse… just yikes. I wish it was possible to boycott the Bianchis without fucking ourselves over, but alas.

Returning to the original topic, I've gone through multiple media websites, and there are a bunch of interviews from Cecilia Obel and Denzel Williams lined up for tomorrow, so stay tuned for that. Denzel is back to posting on the forums again, so feel free to go ask him any questions, although he's probably feeling very overwhelmed right now, but hey, we want answers, damn it!


►Freddie_Gaunt (Verified_Trainer)

This is the best news I've heard this entire year. That entire story was so tragic, I'm glad that they managed to survive down there. I'll definitely be glued to my Center TV all day tomorrow! They're already blowing up everywhere, it's fucking insane.

►Rowen_Robinson (Verified_Trainer)

@Denzel_Williams is planning on doing a livestream at some point in the next few days too, so I'd keep my eyes peeled for that.

►Savannah_Contreras (Verified_Trainer)

Harvey Bianchi and Clarence Obel are fucked. Completely fucked. Not only do they have public opinion against them because of what they did, but now, they're going to get trashed by Cecilia, and we're going to get the truth straight from the horse's mouth. I hope she eviscerates them.

Keep up the pressure! That's how we get them to lower their prices again!


►Rap4God

Has this ever happened… ever? I mean, when's the last time first year trainers went through an unpatrolled part of Mount Coronet and lived? Hell, they only have two badges! This is some Cynthia tier shit.

►Keira_Harris (Verified_Trainer)

Let's not go too far, but yes, it is incredibly impressive. I've heard that they're challenging Candice, since they're already there, so we'll get to see them battle. I'm curious to see how far they've come after everything they've been through. I'm expecting them to win pretty handily, especially since Candice never usually fights at that level, but we'll see.

►FengaSuave

I just wish they were saying more, you know? I mean, Denzel is the only one active on the forums. Chase Karlson uploaded one video and then dipped, and now all he's doing is being toxic to people on his megathread. Cecilia Obel's only taking interviews, and Grace Pastel is completely radio silent. It's honestly kind of frustrating.

►Madeleine_Gallagher (Verified_Trainer)

If she doesn't want to, she doesn't want to. Honestly, this situation will also have some drawbacks. There were already copycats trying to get through Mount Coronet's blocked entrance, and rangers had to renovate the abandoned building and actually stand guard there again to stop kids from getting themselves killed, but now that it's actually been confirmed that they survived, it's going to get even worse. My dad's a ranger, so I really feel for them. Their jobs are really underappreciated.

►Rowen_Robinson (Verified_Trainer)

Well, at least they got ahead of it and stopped any other trainers from getting themselves killed. What's the best channel to watch the situation develop? I'm flipping in between every news channel, and they're all behind the information we already have.

►DiamonDesin

Yeah, that's usually always the case. Reporters are probably scouring the forums to get information. You already have a front seat to everything that's happening, so just enjoy the show.

——


Trainers → Events

Topic: Post livestream AMA

Original Poster: Denzel_Williams (Verified Trainer)

Date: December 9th 20XX


My livestream was interrupted by Grace, and we aren't doing much right now, so I figured I'd move to a text-based format. Feel free to ask me any questions about anything you want, and I'll try my best to answer. Remember to subscribe to my channel to catch any future content, by the way, I'll try my best to keep it coming.

►Terra_Caldweld (Verified Trainer)

Why are you ignoring the fact that your friend just showed up into your room with a Larvitar??????????

►Denzel_Williams (Verified Trainer)

She caught it in Mount Coronet.

►Joe_McCoy (Verified Trainer)

Does it have anything to do with that Tyranitar that dropped all of you into that chasm? That's the only way I can make this entire thing make sense. Larvitar are way too rare.

►Denzel_Williams (Verified Trainer)

Wait, you guys know about the Tyranitar? Well, yeah, the two are linked, but I don't think I should answer questions directed at Grace in her stead.

►HeyYa123

Then ask her! Isn't she in your room still? Come on, we want info.

►Denzel_Williams (Verified Trainer)

Erm, how about no. Respect my friend, please. If she wanted to engage in this forum stuff, she'd be doing it. All you need to know is that she caught a Larvitar while we were in Mount Coronet, and that's her fifth team member. I won't answer questions related to Grace any longer, but feel free to ask anything about me.

►Cody_Atkinson (Verified Trainer)

Fine. Will you be battling Candice, and at what time? I feel like this could be the most watched series of gym battles in a while.

►AppWami

Catch anything interesting during your travels? When you weren't all fighting for your lives, obviously.

►Martin_Nelson (Verified Trainer)

Wati what? We can't learn more about the Larvitar? I'm out then.

——


General → Team_Galactic

Topic: Strange activity near route 222? (REMOVED BY A MODERATOR)

Original Poster: Throwaway2029349828389292

Date: December 11th 20XX


Throwaway account and posting from a coffee shop, because I'm feeling really paranoid right now.

The most you'll get from me is that I was recently at the resort in between routes 213, 214, and 222. One night, I couldn't sleep, so I decided to go for a walk, and I saw the strangest thing. There were a fuck ton of unmarked vans parked all around route 213 that had come from Sunyshore, and they were driving… somewhere to the west. I was too scared to get any closer and there were a lot of Pokemon and people around, but it sure looked like some undercover government shit to me. They're hiding something from us.

I went over the scene a thousand times in my head. Hell, I've almost gaslit myself into thinking it was all just a dream. I've tried to rationalize everything. I've tried telling myself that there was just an issue with a wild Pokemon gone rogue, or that they were just transporting something to another city, but it just doesn't make any sense. There were hundreds of them. Hundreds! Way too much to be dealing with a wild Pokemon, and even then, that's the rangers' job. And if they were trying to transport something, why not just shove it on a plane and call it a day? It's not often that cars drive on routes, and there were even helicopters flying overhead. I felt like I was in an Arceus damned movie.

Now, this could either be a nothingburger, and I'm worrying for nothing. I mean, this is the League we're talking about. If they wanted to hide something, why would they let themselves be caught with their pants down by me, of all people?

But I can't help but think… what if? What if I did come across something I shouldn't have? I managed to take a picture, so feel free to come to your own conclusions. I was terrified, so it's kind of blurry, but here it is.

(open image)


►League_Account_Official (Bot)

This post was automatically removed for breaking rule 22a (no alternative accounts). Feel free to contact the moderators to appeal our decision !

——


Trainers → Cecilia_Obel → Megathread

Topic: Everything about Cecilia Obel

Original Poster: League_Account_Official (Bot)

Date: September 1st 20XX


(Showing page 659/702)

►Goalducc42

So, it's me again. I honestly thought I'd never be doing these write-ups, since I thought Cecilia was dead. I honestly cried when I heard the news that she was alive. Her gym battle was really something else, especially that second half, so I'll try to do what I did for Gardenia's gym battle, but I might be a little bit rusty. I went on a forum hiatus after she fell down that chasm.

Slowpoke: Slowpoke really shone through today compared to his battle against Gardenia. I had definitely underestimated him, and especially his psychic abilities. It seems that Cecilia is leaning more toward those than his water type, which could be a sign for his evolution. As we all know, Slowpoke can either evolve into Slowbro or Slowking, but as it stands, and with how aware her Slowpoke seems and adept with his psychic powers, the facts can only point to it evolving into a Slowking. It's not like Cecilia lacks the money to afford a King's Rock.

But getting back to the battle, do you know how difficult it is for a Pokemon to deflect an attack as fast and powerful as Ice Beam? One only has to look to Grace Pastel's battle for that, with Jynx struggling to deflect Electabuzz's Thunderbolt. Ice Beam is in the same category. So for Slowpoke to have not only deflected, but returned the fucking attack to that Cubchoo is crazy. We didn't see much more, but his Zen Headbutt also appears to be incredibly strong, but Water Pulse seemed to be lacking, which is why I said that Cecilia was leaning into Slowpoke's psychic type. We didn't see much more of him because of Cubchoo's Yawn, but this thing is definitely a beast.


Zweilous: So let me start by saying that I was right when I said that this was a new Cynthia in the making. The forums or the gym battle database didn't exist when she was going through her journey, so there's no way to go for sure, but the stories remain, and her Garchomp was apparently incredibly powerful even as a Gible and Gabite. I think Zweilous mirrors that exactly, I mean, did you fucking see that Dragon Pulse? I won't call myself a dragon expert by any means, but that certainly is one of the most powerful ones I've seen from a Pokemon this 'low level.' Ugh, using that expression hurt me. But that's not it! Not only is Zweilous so incredibly powerful, but both of the heads can use different attacks, like when it dealt with Candice's Piloswine with that Incinerate-Dragon Pulse combination. Zweilous was also able to stave off an incredible amount of ice type attacks. I mean, does the type advantage even matter at this point? And they were fucking fighting themselves! This is still Cecilia's strongest team member, and his evolution only cemented that fact. And don't forget that she asked to get a harder gym battle, I mean, who even does that? And she managed to keep it relatively under control for the battle. By the time she gets to her next gym battle, which should probably be Hearthome, Zweilous will probably be fully on board, and I'd hate to be anything facing him.

Fletchinder: This thing is still employing the same strategy, and it's working. All she has is speed, and nothing else, but don't mistake my assessment for criticism. I mean, you saw how she literally took that Alolan Sandslash in one shot! Cecilia added Tailwind to her usual Agility-Flame Charge-Quick Attack combo, which made Fletchinder go even faster, but unfortunately, the attack was so powerful that it actually hurt her. This is actually a pretty massive problem, especially for a flying type as frail as Fletchinder. It means that after one of those combination attacks, she's basically done, since she can't even fly again, but this problem is temporary, believe it or not. When Fletchinder evolves into a Talonflame, this won't be a problem any longer, and she'll terrorize the sky.

Now, this isn't over yet. Keep in mind that there's still a secret fourth member of her team that she still hasn't even used. That's right, she won three-on-four again, ladies and gentlemen. At this point, I don't expect to see this Pokemon for a while, especially since it'll take so long for her group to get to Hearthome and Cecilia isn't the type of trainer that randomly battles others on the routes. Still, I think that anyone with half a brain should know that this girl is getting to the Conference.


►Donald_Barkley (Verified Trainer)

Another great writeup. I thought I hadn't seen you in a while, but I guess you were taking a break. That Slowpoke observation was actually very astute, and I hadn't made the connection between psychic capabilities and what they evolved into.

►AntiSalami

Yeah, it was something I wanted to bring up, actually. My sister's a trainer, and she owns a Slowbro. I remember asking her why she didn't pick Slowking instead, but apparently, just having a King's Rock isn't enough. There has to be a certain level of intelligence and psychic ability behind Slowpoke, or it won't evolve even with the item right next to it. Her Slowpoke was dumber than a rock, and it didn't change when it evolved, let me tell you that.

►Cody_Atkinson (Verified Trainer)

Oh, shit! So it's confirmed then, that's good to know. I wonder if she'll have a Slowking before her next gym battle then.

►Archive

I love your little summaries, but man, @Goalducc42, I have to ask. Are you in love with this chick or something? I don't mean to offend, but your simping levels are just so off the charts that I'm getting secondhand embarrassment.

►Goalducc42

Legendaries, I'm just a fan! I just want to see her succeed, alright? I know I gush over her a lot, but my heart tingles when I see her battle.

►AntiSalami

Nobody tell him.

►Juan_Capmany (Verified Trainer)

It's true that if I was battling a gym leader, I certainly wouldn't ask them to go hard on me, especially if I had just been through Mount Coronet. I feel like all of these people are insane, but then again, I guess there's a reason they have three badges and I only have one.

►Yvonne_Cardinal (Verified Trainer)

I'm going to try to get to Snowpoint ASAP through the open route from Celestic. Candice might take it easy on me, and I certainly won't complain.

►DaftDunce

That is the dumbest shit I've ever read, especially with February coming up. Have fun dying alone in the snow, buddy!

——


Trainers → Chase_Karlson → Megathread

Topic: Everything about Chase Karlson

Original Poster: League_Account_Official (Bot)

Date: September 1st 20XX


(Showing page 530/542)

►Bryson_Chambers (Verified Trainer)

All I'm saying is that he was kind of the least impressive of the four. Sue me! Yes, he's excellent, and yes, he won rather easily. His strategy with Charjabug's String Shot was ingenious, and his Pokemon are powerful, but after seeing Grace's and Cecilia's battle, forgive me if I'm kind of underwhelmed.

►Candicefitinurmouf

I wouldn't say that if I were you.

►Chase_Karlson (Verified Trainer)

@Bryson_Chambers buddy.

►Candicefitinurmouf

Here we fucking go again.

►Chase_Karlson (Verified Trainer)

I want you to look back on your life and tell me if there's one thing of note you've ever done. Just one.

►Bryson_Chambers (Verified Trainer)

What? Why is this guy typing on his megathread, that's not allowed.

►Sally_Gray (Verified Trainer)

Are you new here? This guy's been doing this since September first, and the mods seemingly turn a blind eye to everything he does.

►Chase_Karlson (Verified Trainer)

@Bryson_Chambers I'm waiting, brother. Come on.

►Bryson_Chambers (Verified Trainer)

I'm not going to stoop to your level. If you can't take a little bit of criticism, then that's on you.

►Chase_Karlson (Verified Trainer)

Oh, I can take your criticism. I've read it, and I've determined that it's bullshit, that's all. Sure, I have work to do, and I certainly will admit that I didn't win in a flashy way, but I did win easily. What I did notice, though, is that you couldn't answer my question. Your profile is private, but I'm going to assume that's just because of your self-esteem issues and that you have zero or maybe one badge at most. What are you doing, man? Instead of shittalking online, why don't you do something with your life and figure out how to beat that gym leader I'm going to assume you're stuck on? Why feel the need to put someone down instead of working on yourself?

►Candicefitinurmouf

Wait, what the hell happened to you, you're like a whole different human.

►Bryson_Chambers (Verified Trainer)

I could say the same thing to you. And you're the one that swooped low and attacked the number of badges I had.

►Chase_Karlson (Verified Trainer)

Oh, so you can dish it out but not take it? Did I ever attack you in any way before you came into my thread and shit talked me? I didn't. And you want to know why I'm on here? Because obviously, I just beat Candice, and my Pokemon are still at the Center, so I had some free time. I've already worked out once this morning too. What did you do today? Stay on your comfy Pokemon Center bed and browse the internet all day? Go outside and get some sun, man, I promise you that you'll start having a more positive outlook on life. Instead of focusing on how good or bad other trainers are, work on yourself and what you can improve, along with your team.

►Emerson_Fessenden (Verified Trainer)

Holy shit, you just got fucking clapped @Bryson_Chambers

►Candicefitinurmouf

LMAOOOOOO

►Bryson_Chambers (Verified Trainer)

Blocked and reported.

——


Trainers → Denzel_Williams → MegathreadTopic: Everything about Denzel Williams

Original Poster: League_Account_Official (Bot)

Date: September 1st 20XX


(Showing page 604/610)

►BaaaaaaB

Roselia's poison is potent as hell, even if we account for Growth. Cetoddle is covered by a thick layer of fat to protect it from the cold and any attackers, so to see that it just melted off entirely made me do a double take. That'll take a while to heal, let me tell you that.

►Samuel_Panella (Verified Trainer)

Ouch. Feels bad, because I think Cetoddle are cute as hell, but that's battling for you. Can we talk about that Sylveon, though? I'm glad to see that Eevee finally evolved, but I honestly thought Denzel would pick one of the more physically inclined Eeveelutions, like Flareon, Jolteon or Umbreon. Sylveon tend to be special attackers.

►Olivia_Hill (Verified Trainer)

Did we look at the same battle? That Sylveon looks to be pretty physically inclined to me, especially that Play Rough. Fairy types are fucking creepy as hell, man. They'll commit the biggest acts of violence with an Arceus damned smile on their face like it's fun for them.

►LivingPokedex

That's the thing, it is fun for them.

►BaaaaaaB

Source: I made it the fuck up.

►LivingPokedex

I'm going to ignore that and chump check you right now. I live on the Lily of the Valley island and my dad works for the League. He's a fairy type specialist, and he knows more about them than you ever will. Fairy types' brains are hardwired toward violence, and I'm not making this up. For fairy types owned by trainers, that can be contained, and they'll just enjoy battling to a ridiculous degree, even if they're getting torn apart, but there's a reason fairy types are the second most dangerous type in the wild after ghost types. They'll attack you for looking at them wrong. The worst ones? They'll fucking torture you and laugh while they do it. Ever heard of Hatterene? Grimmsnarl? Mimikyuu? Sure, there are a few exceptions to the rule, but the fact of the matter is, fairy types are the most violent Pokemon out there, and it's not even close, and the more powerful they get, the more… wrong everything is when you fight one.

►BaaaaaaB

Okay, Arceus, my bad, I believe you.

►Farid_Trabelsi (Verified Trainer)

What do you mean by wrong, exactly?

►LivingPokedex

Fairy types have weird effects on reality. For example, they might get just too lucky all the time. If a powerful fairy type and a human flipped a coin a hundred times, the fairy type would win at least eighty games, but that's not it. Things can get really fucking weird. They can bend reality to their will to a reasonable extent, For example, a powerful fairy type will alter the environment they stay in and make it all… mind-bendy. It's hard to explain if you haven't seen it in action, according to my dad, but it's like their domain, I guess, and they have complete control over everything that goes on there, so needless to say, you wouldn't want to fight a fairy type on their turf.

►Nadia_Armstrong (Verified Trainer)

I don't think bending reality to their will can be reasonable in any way. Is this applicable in battle, somehow? I watch a lot of high level battlers, and I don't see it being done.

►LivingPokedex

No, it's not. It takes years for a fairy type to build their domain. They alter nature around themselves, so they have to stay in the same spot too. So obviously, they wouldn't be able to do it in a twenty minute battle. Like I said, reasonable. The domains also aren't always crazy. Sometimes, it just makes it hard for you to concentrate, for example. Is it otherworldly, eldritch shit? Yeah, of course, but come on, they're Pokemon, we're used to that already.

►Samuel_Panella (Verified Trainer)

Let's stay on topic, guys. Do we have any idea of when Denzel is going to stream again, or what? His AMA was overtaken by idiots who kept asking questions about Grace's Larvitar, so I didn't learn anything of note.

——


Trainers → Grace_Pastel → Megathread

Topic: Everything about Grace Pastel

Original Poster: League_Account_Official (Bot)

Date: September 1st 20XX


(Showing page 699/720)

►Archie_Nikolaj (Verified Trainer)

Remember when idiots earlier in this thread were saying that there was no way Grace Pastel was capable of planning against Gardenia because she had too many Pokemon? Strangely, they're all gone, or pretending they never held that opinion in the first place. Seriously, I know some people still don't believe this, but this girl planned out the entire first part of the battle. Just look at her fucking face during it, for fuck's sake, it's so obvious.

►Sonya_Hladik (Verified Trainer)

It hurts to admit, but I've watched the footage at least ten times, but I think you're right.

►Heterochromia

Holy fuck, did Grace's biggest hater finally see the light? Congratulations, Sonya! That's what I call improving as a person.

►Sonya_Hladik (Verified Trainers)

For the record, I still think she's overrated.

►Esther_Johnston (Verified Trainer)

Okay, but that part of the battle is nothing compared to when Candice used Darmanitan. I tried to cross-reference and see what gym level it was, but she's only used it years ago as a Darumaka, so there's no way to really know how powerful it really was. Still, the fact that she actually took it down is crazy, I really thought she was going to lose when I was watching it live.

►Gabriela_Somerkoski (Verified Trainer)

Want to know what I've figured out? The reason she won was because Candice didn't know that her Frillish had Recover and threw the battle by using Belly Drum. I knew that she was easily excitable, but that was seriously a huge mistake that cost her the entire fight in the home stretch.

►DouvDouv

Isn't it crazy that we're talking about what mistakes the gym leader made and not the trainer with three badges? I mean, yeah it was a throw, but honestly, I never would have thought that Frillish had Recover. I mean, it was almost out for the count when she recalled him, so I honestly thought that she had nothing.

►Veikko_Maunu (Verified Trainer)

In retrospect, it makes sense. I mean, why would you recall a Pokemon that's on the brink of fainting and waste your only switch-in if you didn't have a recovery move?

►Archie_Nikolaj (Verified Trainer)

Yeah, I'd like to see you catching that during a battle, big guy, let's see how you fare.

►Heterochromia

Noticing the little stuff like that is what separates good trainers from the greats. It's one thing to have the most powerful Pokemon, but if you're shit at strategy, you aren't winning anything.

►Candicefitinurmouf

Are you throwing shade at Candice, dude? Because I'm going to fuck you up if you are. Verbally, of course.

►Heterochromia

Calm the hell down, moron. Obviously Candice is a good trainer, she's a fucking gym leader. I was talking about the average joes like you and me. Also, weird to see that you're simping for Candice with that name you have. I'd say that you're the one disrespecting her. Don't you think she's heard that joke a thousand times already? It's not funny, and I'm honestly surprised that username is even allowed.

►Candicefitinurmouf

Humor is subjective.

►Dominique_Bertrand (Verified_Trainer)

Okay, let's not get sidetracked talking about what can fit in someone's mouth or not. Not only is Grace Pastel seemingly excellent at planning a strategy for a battle, especially against Candice of all people, but she's good at thinking of one on the spot too. It was clear that she was thinking about how to win the war, not the battle, which is why she sacrificed her Tangela and her Togetic to buy enough time for Darmanitan to finally go down to poison and Frillish's Water Pulse.

And now that her Elekid's evolved into an Electabuzz, she won't be lacking in firepower for a while, and then there's also that Larvitar she caught, which is going to obviously become a monster in battle. I do have to wonder what she's going to catch for her sixth, but it'll probably be a while until we see that. That Frillish should also be relatively close to evolving, and I don't know how far Tangela's progressed with Ancient Power, or if it even started learning the move at all, and obviously, we don't know how Electabuzz evolves, but hey, maybe she'll figure it out.


►Sonya_Hladik (Verified Trainer)

It kind of hurts me that I find myself rooting for her more and more each day… damn it. It's all because I thought she was dead, and it made me rethink all of my toxicity online.

►Homura_Natsuo (Verified Trainer)

Yeah! All it took for you to get your head out of your ass was for you to think a few children you'd been rude to were dead! Congratulations!

►ABCBA

Ouch, that was some dry fucking sarcasm.

——


Trainers → Lauren_Goodwill→ Megathread

Topic: Everything about Lauren Goodwill

Original Poster: League_Account_Official (Bot)

Date: September 1st 20XX


(Showing page 203/205)

►ChanseyEgg

Holy fuck, you guys will not believe this! Lauren is in fucking Hearthome, I just saw her get a room at a Center!

►Masango_Aboubakar (Verified_Trainer)

Are you sure that was her? She never gets rooms inside of Centers. We've already established that she only goes there to get her team healed at ridiculous hours at night to avoid attention, and she never stays long.

►ChanseyEgg

That was her, there's no mistaking it. All those sightings of her on route 207 were correct, she's going to be battling Fantina soon for sure. I'm going to try to get in to spectate now that we know that she only battles super early in the mornings.

►Christopher_Navarro (Verified_Trainer)

I'm going to do the same, since I'm in Hearthome right now, but I'm honestly intrigued to see if she's going to win on her first try or not. Winning against Fantina on your first try is basically impossible. I only won on my third, and I'm in my second year! Luckily I was battling her for the first badge, and not the second or the third, so it wasn't too bad.

►Aryanna_Taylor (Verified_Trainer)

Those illusions can be a bitch. I beat her last year as my eighth gym badge, and during my first try, I spent a good three minutes fighting a Gengar that wasn't even fucking real.

►ChanseyEgg

Wait were you the one in the illusion? Is that allowed? Glad to see a veteran trainer on Lauren's thread, by the way.

►Aryanna_Taylor (Verified_Trainer)

No, obviously she can't just trap her challengers into a nightmare while she destroys their Pokemon, or whatever, but that's not all ghost types can do. Basically, imagine a Double Team, but with an actual body, not just an afterimage, and that can also use moves that can hurt your Pokemon. That's what I had to deal with, and when I took it down, Gengar just laughed and appeared behind my Samurott's shadow and took her down. Fantina's just a bitch to fight in general, and that's not even the worst stuff I had to deal with. She's one of the only gym leaders that actually still have to hold back when fighting trainers with eight badges.

►Christopher_Navarro (Verified_Trainer)

Right, I remember hearing a rumor about her being better than every current Elite Four member, but she's desperate to retire so that she can fully commit to contests. She's often a judge during performances, you know? And she's always one at the Grand Festival.

►Masango_Aboubakar (Verified_Trainer)

Personally, I couldn't imagine giving up on Pokemon battling if I was that good, but I guess she's pretty old, so maybe she just got tired of it? Either way, we should probably stay on topic. Do you think any of Lauren's Pokemon evolved while she was on the road? They're all in the second stage right now, but it'd be crazy if one of them got to the third stage.
 
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Interlude - The League
INTERLUDE - THE LEAGUE

Cynthia calmly drummed her fingers along her old acacia desk as she read over her morning briefing, which was written and sent to her every day by League officials. The goal was to keep her informed of anything of note happening throughout Sinnoh that she might have missed. A dispute between Solaceon and Hearthome over who had water rights on route 209, a collapsed mine in the Iron Islands that had caused nine deaths and twenty-two injured, the Contest Committee's newest contest hall in Jubilife halting construction because of a strike over poor working conditions… it was just more of the same. Cynthia couldn't be everywhere at once, and the League helped to keep her up to date, which was especially helpful considering her mind was preoccupied with Team Galactic these days.

Garchomp stood tall behind her, as she usually did. The Champion's office was large enough to fit her entire team if she so wished. It was located atop of the League building's tallest spire, and she had a view of the entire southern side of the island from here. Not only did the Lily of the Valley island have the League building on it, but also hundreds of other facilities owned by the government, along with homes for employees and their families and schools for their children. There were stores for them to buy food and other necessities, a port and an airport to facilitate travel and resupply the League with anything it needed. Right now, the island only had League employees and their families— it was closed to any other civilians after all, but during the month of June, it opened, and hundreds of thousands of people would flood in from every region to watch the yearly Conference. Companies were already saber rattling over who would buy the most ad space for the entire event.

Those were thoughts for the future. Cynthia turned the page and let out a satisfied smile. The Bianchi Conglomerate was still practically begging for a bailout, saying that they were an essential company to trainers throughout Sinnoh. Of course, they were telling the truth. Trainers all over the region were having their journeys slowed to a crawl. The price of all supplies had increased, but the real problem was the price of potions, which had more than quadrupled in cost and showed no signs of slowing down. Negotiations with the Directorate were floundering, however. Sophie Richards, the new Prime Minister that had ousted Vernon in a tight vote, was struggling to get her caucus in line and not bringing anything to a vote. Of course, if Directorate members had the numbers, they could force her to bring a bailout package to a vote, but Cynthia had told Vernon to hold back for now. Sophie Richards wanted to give the Bianchis nothing, but Cynthia wasn't sure if that was because of her innate hate for trainers, or because Team Galactic was telling her not to. Memory extraction was off the table, but spying was not, and after having the LSS tail her for weeks and tap her phone, there was still no sign she was in contact with anyone she shouldn't have been. Friends, family, colleagues, everything appeared normal.

Unless she had a middleman that Cynthia had somehow completely missed. Something to warn the Secret Service about if they weren't on top of it already.

Still, most of Sophie Richards' new party wanted to bail out the company by lowering interest rates and giving them an injection of cash to keep them from having to sell too many shares. The company wasn't going to go under, but it struggling so much was hampering the trainer side of the economy, which was inadvertently going to have effects on the civilian economy as well soon enough. They were linked too tightly for the crisis to stay isolated from one another. Meanwhile, Vernon, who had been relegated to a simple member of the Directorate, but was still leading the pro-Cynthia camp, was surgically attempting to get people back on his side to try to regain his old position, but to no avail. No one was budging.

Of course, Cynthia could have swooped in, acted like a moderate, and possibly negotiated a bipartisan deal with Vernon's help. She still had plenty of allies in the Directorate who didn't hesitate to voice their support. It would have weakened the Prime Minister's position greatly, made her side look like a reasonable alternative, and shored up her support among new trainers who struggled with money and civilians who were tired of the gridlock.

But why act when her opponents were making mistake after mistake? Sophie Richards was like a fish out of water. She had wanted the position of Prime Minister, and she had expected it to be an easy job. No, it wouldn't be enough to just weaken her. That would mean that she would keep her job. Cynthia needed to wait for an opportunity to take Sophie Richards down in one fell swoop.

And she already knew how. The day just hadn't come yet. The economy would have to suffer longer.

Suddenly, Garchomp let out a low, menacing growl. A woman appeared out of thin air in front of Cynthia's desk and bowed.

She had no psychic types to Teleport with, but she somehow still managed. She was in her twenties, and her eyes were completely white, with no pupils to be seen, and so was her hair. She was sweating and panting heavily. It seemed that her abilities still took a lot out of her after all these years.

The League Secret Service had created her through experiments that most would consider… unnatural. She was unfortunately the only survivor, and she hadn't been replicated yet, despite Lucian and his psychic types working with the LSS to try to recreate someone like her.

"Good morning, Lou," Cynthia smiled. "Your report, I presume?"

"Yes, ma'am!" She said. Her voice reverberated through the room as if it was otherworldly. "Another Team Galactic base has been found in Jubilife, and I was instructed to report our findings as soon as possible!"

"Well, go ahead," Cynthia said, crossing her legs.

"The base was empty, save for a few straggling grunts that knew nothing of importance, and all of their data had been wiped, so nothing new was learned. We did, however, catch another member that had been trying to escape from the city called Gabriel Watkins, and we extracted his memories. It seemed that he knew a lot about Mars."

The Champion restrained her eyes from widening in surprise. "Did you make sure to interrogate him beforehand?"

There had been multiple incidents reported about League trainers not following guidelines and immediately extracting Team Galactic members' memories without asking them questions first. Luckily, she had gotten ahead of it before any of it could leak to the media and placed the culprits on unpaid leave. Rules were meant to be followed. They could be bent, but not completely ignored.

"We did, ma'am! He was the one that recruited Mars. According to one of our Kadabras, he found her wandering the streets of Jubilife, and she didn't remember who she was or what she was doing there. She already owned all of her current Pokemon— including that Dusknoir, but she didn't seem to know where those came from either. Mars worked with this Gabriel individual for a few days until some higher-ups came and whisked her to 'Veilstone HQ,' which confirms our suspicions that there is a base in Veilstone, which appears to be their main base of operations. Gabriel Watkins heard of her promotion as a Commander a few weeks later."

"Could her amnesia have been an act?" Cynthia asked, leaning against her chair with a heavy sigh.

"That's impossible to know for sure," Lou quickly answered. "But it seems that Jubilife has been completely cleared of Team Galactic. End of report."

"If he knew so much about her, I'm surprised that Dusknoir didn't intervene to stop us like for that other grunt. What could have been the difference, I wonder? Thank you, Lou. I have another request for you," Cynthia continued.

She used the word request, but it would be an order. Cynthia couldn't help but think the LSS had missed something with Richards. A way she was communicating with Team Galactic that was somehow discreet enough to avoid the Secret Service's perceptive eyes.

"Start spying on every member of the Directorate. I want to know their exact habits, schedule, and if they started deviating from those in any way, shape, or form since Rotom leaked all of our communications. Start with… Joey Rumsfeld, Paula McCarthy, Erika Anri, and Isaac Matthews."

If what Cynthia suspected was right, then…

"At once," the woman answered before disappearing.

The LSS never ceased to impress, Cynthia smiled. As her thoughts returned to Team Galactic, her gut was telling her that Mars hadn't been faking that memory loss, and her gut was almost never wrong, but that raised more questions than answers, and the League was still in the dark about the other Commanders.

"Well, it's about time," Cynthia muttered to herself after checking her watch. She rubbed Garchomp's rough scales and recalled her before stepping out of her office.

The Champion walked down the long, spiral staircase that led out of her office. People asked her again and again if she wanted to install an elevator here, but Cynthia always answered no. She enjoyed the League's building too much to sully it further than it had already been. So much history lost to modernity for the sake of practicality. She knew it to be the sound choice, but she wanted to preserve the old gothic architecture wherever she could. On the way to her destination, she was greeted by hundreds of League employees, and she always responded with a warm smile and a nod, along with their names. Jonathan, Terry, Sally, Alima, Caleb— it didn't matter how long ago Cynthia had seen their faces or heard their names, she always remembered and let them know that she did.

Names were important. From names, loyalty could be slowly forged, and each time Cynthia showed that she remembered, that loyalty grew just a little more potent. And Arceus knew that she needed loyalty— the League was the only untainted part of the government Team Galactic hadn't gotten their hands on, although they had no doubt tried.

Cynthia passed by Bertha's office and gave her a warm greeting. The Elite Four had done a good job during the raid in Eterna, and she had expected nothing less. She was the one that handpicked them, after all, although Bertha had been there before Cynthia had even been the Champion. Whereas the Champion focused on running the entire Region in cooperation with the Directorate, the Elite Four focused on running the League itself, and were right under Cynthia when it came to authority. The League was one of the paths many trainers chose when they realized that they weren't good enough to be the Champion, but still too good to just give up Pokemon battling. That meant that they often harbored excellent talents. Talents that would be refined and perfected as they spent more time working for her. Whenever an Elite Four member retired or died, the Champion had the power to pick their successor, although tradition dictated that she would pick someone the Elite Four member wanted. It was the polite thing to do.

Cynthia hadn't been polite. When she had just become the Champion right before turning sixteen, the Elite Four had been composed of old men entrenched in their position that had hoped to use her as a puppet, even after she had wiped the floor with them in battle. They didn't know who they had been dealing with. Cynthia allied herself with Bertha and forced them out one by one. They couldn't exactly be fired— not unless there had been a gross abuse of power, misconduct, or a crime committed, but there were other ways to force them into an early retirement. It had taken years of scheming and hard work, but it was where Cynthia first learned to sharpen her political wits. The first person she chose was Lucian. Years later, she had picked Flint, a close friend of Volkner who had chosen to work for her while the gym leader decided to work for the Sunyshore gym until he was eventually picked as a successor. Finally, the most recent addition was Aaron, who despite being the weakest of the four, showed a lot of promise. Plus, it wasn't just about how good they were at battling. They had to be good at running things at the League, and Aaron excelled at that.

It was, however, the first time in centuries that Sinnoh's Elite Four was only composed of type specialists, which was often a fun fact newer trainers liked to tell.

"I hope I didn't keep you waiting?" Cynthia asked as she stepped into the room. It was deep under the League, away from prying eyes.

In front of her, seven gym leaders stood out of respect, but Maylene stayed seated. Candice and Volkner had hesitated, but the peer pressure had made them stand.

Today, the truth would be revealed, but they would also all be tested.

"Not at all, darling!" Fantina laughed heartily. "It is not often that we all meet, but I'll take every opportunity to avoid battling by relegating my gym battle to my trainers. It is such a bore compared to contests! I'm at the end of my rope."

"We agreed. Four more years, Fantina," Cynthia said. The Kalosian woman was too skilled to be lost just yet. When she retired, nothing would force her to join the fight against Team Galactic if she didn't wish to do so.

"I know, I know. My successor is nowhere near ready yet anyhow," she sighed.

"Volkner, how are the Porygon working?" Cynthia asked.

"Doing great," he answered. "Our digital space should be completely safe from Team Galactic's Rotom. It cost a very hefty sum though, so I hope Sunyshore sees some money from the League—"

"Can we hurry this up?" Candice groaned. "This place blows, I hate it here. Everyone's so serious all the time, it ruins my mojo."

Cynthia stared at the young woman for a split second. She seemed to be happier than usual. Something good must have happened to her recently.

"BAHAHAHAHA," Wake laughed loudly. "You're completely right, Candice! Think about how much more they could get done if they took things a little bit more lightly."

Wake was a character, as always. Thankfully, he had changed from his usual outfit before teleporting here and was wearing normal clothes.

Roark groaned. "Please, have some respect for Cynthia. You two are embarrassing us as gym leaders."

"Right," Gardenia nodded. "If she called us here, then it must be important. Important means that it's serious, so pipe down."

Roark and Gardenia. The two most loyal of the younger generation of leaders, but something was off about them. For Roark, his father's presence probably rattled him more than he let on. There was a lot of bad blood between them, and it had taken the young gym leader a long time to work past his inferiority complex. Gardenia, however… ah. Cynthia understood when she shot an apologetic look at Maylene, who ignored her completely. They were fighting, and it was taking a toll on her emotional state.

"It brings a tear to my eye to see all of the younger generation taking this so seriously," Byron smiled. "With people like you, Sinnoh's future is bright."

Roark clicked his tongue in an irritated fashion, but Byron ignored him. He wore his usual ragged clothes— a white shirt and beige pants with holes in them, a habit he had picked up from his time living on the Iron Islands, Sinnoh's poorest region.

"Can we just get to the point already?" Volkner sighed. "I was in a groove at my gym, and I didn't have to think about anything, it was great. I'd like to get back to that."

Cynthia met Volkner's eyes, and he averted them after a few seconds. He was still angry with her, but less than he had been, which was good news. Only Maylene seemed to be just as furious as she had been when she learned that League had watched as trainers died in Eterna Forest due to Team Galactic's device and done nothing.

Cynthia smiled. Everyone was here. She had assessed all of them. The pieces were set.

"Very well. We can start," she said. "Maylene, I know you're angry with me, but please pay attention."

"Screw you. You're all monsters."

Cynthia had expected that answer, which was why she had spoken to her in the first place. It was meant to be a hidden provocation.

"Maymay, please," Gardenia pleaded, her eyes tearing up. "I've apologized a million times."

Maylene's eyes widened. She hadn't expected Gardenia to start crying, and Cynthia noticed a moment of self-doubt, but it was Roark who finished the job.

"Maylene, we've all made mistakes. We could have done better, but what's done is done, and look at the results. Team Galactic is on the backfoot now!"

"I don't know," Maylene grumbled. "I still don't like it."

"Will you at least talk to me?" Gardenia sniffled. "Please."

"...Fine."

"Sheesh, what did I say?" Candice sighed. "Depressing."

The first step was completed. Cynthia was good with people, and she knew what made them tick. Reconciliation was needed as fast as possible so that every gym leader could work together toward the greater good, which was stopping Team Galactic. It had taken a slight nudge, but it had worked.

The Champion cleared her throat. "I've summoned you all here to talk to you about Team Galactic's true intentions," she said. Immediately, they all sat at the edge of their seat. "I've already told you that they wanted to mess with reality after the attack on the Valley Windworks power plant, but that wasn't it. We have learned a lot about them in recent weeks."

"Tell us everything this time," Volkner said.

"Of course. You're all ready. But first, we'll have to go through a small lesson about Sinnoh's myths."

Cynthia noticed Candice start to pale.

"Myths?" Roark asked. "Does that truly matter?"

"If Cynthia says it does, then it does," Byron shrugged.

"I wasn't asking you—"

"It is important," Cynthia interrupted. "But it was fine to ask."

She was toeing the middle line, as she always did when talking to Byron and Roark at once.

"As you know, I fancy myths and history. It is my hobby, even though I've had less and less time for it as the years went on," The Champion continued. "It is said that when Arceus created the universe, it created three guardians that were born from the same egg. Mesprit, who represents emotion, Uxie, who represents knowledge, and Azelf, who represents Willpower. These beings gave humans the capability to learn, the ability to feel, and a will—"

Cynthia observed the gym leaders' reactions. Maylene was rolling her eyes. Roark did not believe in myths, but he was still listening, and so was Gardenia. Volkner yawned and leaned against a wall, but his attention was hers. Byron and Fantina were staring at her, and Wake was sitting down with his legs splayed out to a ridiculous amount and a huge smile on his face.

Candice was shaking, and Cynthia already knew why. Legends and myths scared her. It reminded her of the ritual.

"—Now, it is also said that these three sleep at the bottom of three separate lakes in Sinnoh. The League took a while to make the connection, but after finding Lake Valor next to Sunnyshore and the reports about the newly found Lake Acuity, we are now sure that those lakes are where these three Pokemon are sleeping. Of course, there's also Lake Verity, which was apparently kept hidden by the people of Twinleaf for generations until Team Galactic found it on their own, and we still don't know how they plan on waking them up."

"Come on!" Maylene yelled. "Those are just stories! Try to take us seriously for once in your life!"

"I am taking you seriously," Cynthia said, staring right through the young gym leader. She swallowed and settled down. "Now, why would Team Galactic want to know the locations of these Pokemon? Well, it's said that Mesprit, Azelf, and Uxie are capable of calming Dialga and Palkia down, but they're also capable of summoning them. For those unfamiliar, those two hold dominion over time and space respectively. That is the only theory we can come up with. Now, we don't know what the exact purposes of this would be, but I don't have to tell you that the results would be catastrophic. The world could potentially end."

Cynthia paused, gauging their reactions. She had dropped that last sentence like it wasn't a terrifying prospect, but Champions couldn't appear terrified. She needed to be strong. Confident. And hope that feeling would trickle down to the gym leaders as well.

"The world could… end?" Roark muttered in disbelief. "Are— we should tell everyone! Call— call the other regions for help—"

"And who would believe us?" Cynthia said. "Like Maylene, the vast majority of people don't believe in myths. The International Police is helping because they think that Team Galactic are just terrorists."

That wasn't the entire truth. Team Magma and Team Aqua had been stopped years prior in Hoenn, and Cynthia only heard about it after the fact in a highly classified report that only she and the other Champions knew about. The world would have ended, but only because whole swaths of the planet might have been rendered uninhabitable, either being submerged in water or covered in magma because of Groudon and Kyogre. This situation, meanwhile, could mean the universe could just blip out of existence. The fact that Hoenn had gone through terrorists wanting to summon Legendaries before meant that Wallace could have perhaps give her the benefit of the doubt. The truth was a lot more simple. Regions were simply self-serving. Even though brutal wars were a thing of the past that the younger generation didn't have to live with— even hers— regions still distrusted and competed with each other, and help wouldn't come until Team Galactic had already summoned Dialga and Palkia. Needless to say, that would be too late.

"How would they even get these three Lake Guardians under control?" Byron asked calmly. "They need their cooperation to summon Dialga and Palkia, from what you've told us."

"And they need them to potentially control Dialga and Palkia themselves," Cynthia added. "But the answer is, we don't know. We don't even know if they're catchable with Pokeballs, or if they'll force them to do so using some other way. We know very little about all Legendaries— a lot less than I'd like— but the LSS and I believe they have a plan and that they aren't just acting in a rash, unpredictable manner," Cynthia explained.

"Is that why you've been sending all of those League trainers to fortify the lakes?" Gardenia asked.

"That is correct."

"And are we sure that they'll hold?" Fantina asked. "If what you say is correct, then an attack will no doubt be coming."

"We're doing everything in our power to make sure that the lakes never fall, and we've been sending reinforcements in a discreet fashion," she answered with a slight smile. A reassuring one, this time. "Keep in mind that they need to capture all three guardians. Team Galactic has less manpower than we do."

"And to think I was a mere four years away from retiring," Fantina sighed. "Although I suppose retiring is meaningless if there is no world left to enjoy contests."

Cynthia shot Candice a reassuring look. "Are you alright, Candice?"

"Y—yeah," she said, her voice trembling. "Uh, who else knows about this other than us?"

You understand better than anyone in this room, don't you? Cynthia thought to herself.

"The Elite Four, the Secret Service, and a few trusted members of the League," Cynthia said. "So not that many people. Needless to say, this meeting doesn't leave this room."

"Of course," Wake said, his boastful attitude suddenly gone. "What do you need us to do?"

"I need you to get back home and act like everything is fine," Cynthia smiled. "Which I know will be a difficult task with the burden you now bear. Be on high alert, especially Candice, Volkner, Wake, and Maylene, since you're the closest to these lakes. And cooperate with anything the LSS asks of you."

"We will," Roark said. "Thank you for trusting us with this."

Candice nodded, her skin pale. "I understand better why you let what happened in Eterna Forest happen. This can't get out. The danger Team Galactic poses cannot get out."

"Yeah, I get it," Volkner sighed. "I'm back on your side. I guess I should have known there's a reason for everything you do."

"Thank you. And sorry for hiding the truth from you for so long."

"I would have rather not known," Candice said. "I would have rather stayed in the dark."

"You cannot. Being a gym leader comes with responsibilities. You know that."

"I do. I do, but…"

"Can we leave?" Maylene interrupted. "I don't believe this story. I think you're taking things out of proportion."

Her fingers were trembling, and her words were slightly slurred. She was terrified, but a part of her was still in denial. It was understandable. She was still young. Maylene would come around. Today had been a success.

"You may go," Cynthia nodded. "Have the Kadabra show you out."

Cynthia had revealed everything now, and the gym leaders were back in her camp. Maylene would come around in a few weeks. Information was often withheld by the League, but it could also be revealed at the right moment to build up trust. And what better moment to pick than when three gym leaders had started to think that Cynthia was the most evil being in the League that was simply abusing her power? She had needed to act now, lest they get any ideas of speaking to the public or the press.

Yes, that just wouldn't have been right. Cynthia wasn't an angel by any means. She had done terrible things, and today, that had been manipulating all of the gym leaders by revealing important information at the best possible time. Cynthia liked each and every one of them from the bottom of her heart, but she couldn't afford to only do what was right. She had to make tough decisions for the greater good. Cynthia was a Sinnoh's Champion. A leader.

And leaders led.

A/N: And there it is, the end of book/arc three (Ch 77 - this). As usual, I'll be taking my one day break, so there won't be a chapter tomorrow. I'd say this arc was pretty good. My chapters are longer on average without my pacing suffering because of it, and looking back on the earlier chapters, my battle writing has improved massively. If there were one thing I wish I were better at, it would be giving the other Pokemon who don't belong to Grace a more solid personality, but there's only so many words I can fit on the page, and I think the story would have probably slowed to a crawl if I did that. One thing I'll try to do next arc is explore the characters' team's dynamic instead of having their individual personalities written out. I think that's probably doable. Denzel, Chase, and Cece's teams are already described in detail, but not the rest of the cast. Anyway, I'm rambling. This chapter was kind of meant to mirror Interlude - The Directorate, and I hope how the League is run makes sense, especially how I chose how the Elite Four are picked. The Champion picking them has always been my headcannon.
 
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Chapter 103
CHAPTER 103

"I came to a decision last night, and I think it's the only way I'm ever going to move past this. I think it would be best if I traveled alone for a while," Louis said with a pained look.

I inhaled sharply as I felt my heart drop. "What do you mean by that?"

"I mean exactly what I just," he sighed. "I… something is wrong with me, and I need to be away for a while."

"So you weren't fine," Pauline said. "Come on, after all this time, we're finally reunited and you're just leaving?"

"I have to do this. Don't try to convince me otherwise, my mind is already made up," he said.

"So what now, then? Are you still going to Hearthome at least?" Pauline asked.

"I plan on doing that. I will still be participating in the Circuit, I just need to spend some time… reflecting."

"Do you want me to come with you?" Justin asked worriedly. "It'll be dangerous in Mount Coronet without Cece, Denzel, and Grace's experience. Plus, your Gible..."

Louis offered his friend a thin smile. "Thank you, Justin, but I'll stay safe, truly. I appreciate the offer."

"Louis…" I hesitated. "Do… can we fix this somehow? You can't just leave. You're—"

"It's not up to you to fix this," he interrupted. "It's up to me. You've done nothing wrong, Grace. Something must be up with me because none of these… feelings make any sense."

"That's okay, feelings don't make sense most of the time," Denzel said, clapping his shoulder. "You stay safe out there, man."

"I will."

"Wait!" I yelled. "Is there really nothing? I— I feel like we can work this out, if we just talk."

"Don't worry, Grace," Louis replied, shaking his head. "I've gone over the options a thousand times in my head. If I were to keep going, I'd grow to be insufferable. Jealousy is a vice I'd like to avoid."

"Damn it," I whispered to myself.

I needed to rack my brain for solutions now. It was as I feared. Louis felt hurt by Cece and me dating, but I had never expected for him to just leave to try to get over her. It was all so sudden. Maybe we could put the relationship on hold for now? No… No, I could never do that. What about cutting down on PDA until we got rooms for ourselves at the outpost and in Hearthome? I… I didn't think that Louis would be convinced by that.

"Well, since we're going in the same direction, I'll wait here for a few hours while you make it through the cycling road so we don't accidentally meet," Louis stated. "That would be awkward for all of us."

How was he so nonchalant about this?

"Louis."

All of our heads turned toward Cecilia.

"I'm sorry."

Our friend gave her a pained smile and chuckled. "Don't apologize for any of this. It's not you or Grace. It's me."

"Make sure to contact us," she said. "And come back, you hear me?"

"I will, it's a promise."

There was nothing I could think of in such a short amount of time to salvage the situation. Louis handed us his part of the huge tent they all carried and Denzel put it in his bag, although it was a tight fit. After that, we each grabbed a bike and left.

Louis was gone.

Just like that.

——

One hour into the Cycling Road, we pedaled past the first rest stop. Cycling through the entire road would take an average of six hours, and each hour, there was a rest stop in case trainers wanted to eat, drink something, or, well… rest. The Cycling Road was organized in lanes, exactly like a normal road, where trainers could come and go using the different sides, although the vast majority of them were going in our direction. The only people that were on their way to Eterna were either trainers from Sinnoh's eastern side, past Mount Coronet who were on their way to challenge Gardenia, or trainers that had gotten defeated in battle and that desperately needed to get back to a Pokemon Center. Needless to say, battling on the road wasn't allowed to stop people from damaging it, but the latter had especially increased with the price increase in potions that was showing no signs of slowing down. All those dejected stares made me feel bad, especially since my friends were rich, so if push came to shove, we'd share potions like we did in Eterna Forest, but my mind was preoccupied with Louis' sudden decision.

"You feeling alright?" Denzel asked as he slowed down and pedaled next to me.

"No."

"Well, I knew that, but I just wanted to start the conversation somehow— ah, I'm not helping, am I?" he sighed. "Sorry."

"It's okay, I just keep thinking back. What could I have done differently? Maybe I could have… we could have delayed revealing our relationship until we were in Mount Coronet."

"Come on, that would have been a terrible idea, and you know it. Louis might have made a mistake, or staying with you might have hurt him irreplaceably. You did it the best way you could have."

I tried to fight him, but I knew deep down that he was right. I wasn't thinking straight. "Yeah… yeah, I guess. I still feel like garbage."

"Well, let's try to cheer you up," he smiled before nodding to our right. "Look at Pauline."

I turned my head and couldn't help but at least smile at her. She was struggling to even pedal straight, and Cecilia and Justin were flanking her to try to stop her from falling, which she had already done once. Thankfully, she wasn't wounded, and her pants stopped her from scraping her knee.

"This is— this is discriminatory!" Pauline yelled. "What about the trainers who can't ride bikes!"

"There are walkable paths on both edges of the road," Justin said.

"Shut it! Nobody asked you!"

"You basically just did…" Cece said.

I chortled and turned back toward my best friend, who was doing the same. I could tell, however, that there was a certain pain behind everyone's laugh. They almost felt forced. As if they were trying to distract themselves from what had happened only an hour earlier. Cecilia had asked me how I was doing more than twenty times already, but I was more worried about her. I wanted to speak to her, but not while she was having some iota of fun. I'd do it tonight.

"I knew she couldn't ride a bike," I smiled.

"Well, she can, just barely. She kind of reminds me of those bikes for little kids with two little wheels attached to the back one."

I gasped. "That's so right! That's why she can't keep her bike straight!"

"I can hear you, jackasses!" She yelled.

"That was the point," I said.

Arceus, this all felt so fake. Plastic. I tightened my hand around my bike's handles and felt my jaw clench.

"Not working, huh?" Denzel said.

"It was nice for a bit, but no," I replied. "You went to talk to him last night. Did you talk about anything? What did he tell you?"

He raised his eyebrows slightly. "I had to ask for a while to get into his room. People were staring at me like I was crazy," he said. "But he did let me in after a while. It's simple, Grace, he's heartbroken."

"I… I thought so," I exhaled. "I don't exactly understand, but it was the only thing that made sense. What did he say?"

"That's… I can't tell you. He told me in confidence, and I'd be betraying his trust," Denzel said.

"Fine. I just wished I could have been there to listen. Maybe I would have found a solution."

"You can't predict everything, Grace," Denzel said. "Sometimes, you've just got to let the chips fall where they may and adapt. Pick the best path forward."

"I just can't understand that," I shook my head. "That's an anxiety-inducing way to live. I'd never be able to do it."

"Eh, you learn to care about the things only you can affect after a while," he said as we passed a slower trainer. "You taught me that."

"I did?" I asked, genuinely surprised.

"Obviously. All those pep talks you gave me weren't for nothing," Denzel smiled.

"But that was only for Pokemon training!"

"Well, congratulations, you played yourself, I now live by those words vicariously," he chuckled. "It's like my whole life philosophy. I just like to think that things will work themselves out somehow."

"I sure hope so," I said.

"Doesn't hurt to be optimistic."

"It hurts twice as bad when you're wrong," I countered.

"Okay, but it makes you lead a much happier life, so I'll take my chances," he shrugged.

"Grace, are you alright?" Cece asked, surprising me so much I almost jumped. "Did I scare you? Sorry."

"It's okay, I'm just feeling jumpy," I said. "But yeah, I'm okay, although I could be doing way better. I think it'll just get some time to let the fact that Louis is gone sink in."

"He'll come back," Cecilia said, clearly sure of herself. "He promised."

"See? It'll work itself out," Denzel smiled.

"Guys, how long until the next rest stop?" Pauline huffed. "I'm dying over here."

——

Going through the entire Cycling Road ended up taking ten hours due to how many rest stops Pauline asked for. I almost expected to see Louis pedal across us due to how much longer it had taken than it should have, but he was nowhere to be seen. Maybe he ended up passing us while we were on a break. Either way, I couldn't keep worrying about this. Louis would be fine. If he wanted to travel alone, I would begrudgingly accept his choice, even though I still wished it could have been different.

Not everything could go my way all the time. It was easy to sit there and think that if I was in his position, I would have done something different. I was almost certain I would have stayed. I had traveled with them while still thinking that Cecilia had been genuinely dating Louis for a bit, but everyone was wired differently. And who was to say I wouldn't have gone crazy eventually and left? Imagining Cece with someone else now… that made me sick to my stomach.

Louis was suffering, but only he could move past this. I would believe him and meet him back with a smile whenever he decided to come back.

There was another gate at the end of the road that was identical to the previous one, and we handed our bikes back before leaving. I stretched my legs and turned to Denzel.

"How much longer are we traveling today?"

"Probably until we can see Oreburgh with the naked eye," he answered. "Should be a few more hours."

"Oh, right, I almost forgot we were getting close to the city again," Pauline panted. "That bike ride tired me out."

"Well, this is still the easy leg of the journey. It'll take a week to get to the outpost at Mount Coronet's entrance," Denzel said. "And you want to catch your Rufflet there, right?"

"Yes, obviously. If I don't, I can still try to find one after we pass through the mountain."

"Well, let's get going then," Justin said. "We should make good ground today."

I turned back toward the Cycling Road and noticed that it had been built over an older segment of route 207.

"Intrigued?" Denzel asked. "Trainers are still allowed there, and it leads to a cave system. There are rumors that you can find wild Gible there, if you look hard enough."

"Okay, you lost me at cave system," I said. "Plus, it'd waste too much time."

"It's nowhere as dangerous as Mount Coronet, but yeah, let's not start randomly wandering into caves. That seems like a recipe for disaster."

"With our luck, something would collapse the ground under us, and we'd get trapped again," Cecilia said sarcastically. "Let's go."

——

It felt good to be traveling with so many trainers on the road again. Route 216 and 217 had been far too quiet for my liking. Something about route 207 being filled with so many trainers filled me with a grand feeling I couldn't explain. Maybe I just enjoyed seeing my fellow co-workers after so long. Cece smiled as she watched Fletchinder fly overhead while Sylveon stood on Denzel's shoulder. Growlithe and Gothorita, who I hadn't seen in a long time, walked alongside Justin and Pauline while Togetic lazily floated with her head on mine.

Of course, there was also another reason for this giddy feeling. I approached a pair of trainers that were traveling together.

"Hey," I waved to the two trainers. "How many badges do you guys have?"

"We both have zero," The boy answered. "Why?"

"Way to embarrass us, dude!" The girl said. "Don't you know who that is?"

"No— wait, fuck! Grace Pastel?! Shit, that's her group back there," he gulped, nodding toward my friends.

"Calm down," I smiled. When I didn't have to deal with a crowd, I could handle my fame rather well, although it still felt weird to just be recognized in the wild. "I wanted to ask you for a battle with my Larvitar."

"Won't you just roll any of us over?" The girl asked.

"No, she's never battled before, and she's still young," I said. "It won't be as one-sided as you're thinking, and I'll even give you a potion to heal your Pokemon afterward. How does a one-on-one sound?"

"Okay, you're definitely on!" She said. "Sammy, film me!"

"What? Why are you battling her and not me?"

"Because you owe me after begging to try Gardenia over and over again. Oh, you were on the brink of a breakthrough, weren't you? Just one more time, and you were totally going to beat her! Now we have no chance of making it to the Conference because of you!"

Samuel's wince worsened the longer she went on, and by the end, he already had his Poketch out of his pocket.

"What, you think Fantina would have been any different?! She's literally famous for being impossible for new trainers to beat, and there's no way I'm going through fucking Eterna Forest to get to Roark and Byron. The first year's always experimental anyway, Sheena," he grumbled. "At least now that we know we won't make it, we get to travel through every town and try every gym once to get some experience."

"Shut your mouth and film, Samuel," Sheena hissed. "And your hands better not shake all over the place. We're posting this online when we can, win or lose."

They certainly were… something. We made some space, and we both grabbed our Pokeballs.

"Go, Koffing!" She yelled, releasing the small poison type. It looked on with a blank stare and kept itself afloat by releasing the gases in its body.

With a smile, I released Larvitar. "Sweetheart, listen up. This is a battle. Your first battle. Let's give it our best."

Larvitar stared back at me with wonder and then nodded. "Tar!"

Time slowed as I stared at my opponent. She looked nervous, but she was hiding it behind a veneer of excitement. No, she was excited. She was battling someone famous. The terrain was rocky, which was perfect for Larvitar, but Koffing being able to levitate meant that we only had Rock Throw to work with, unless we were going to knock it on the ground somehow. From what I knew, Koffing's defenses were excellent, so that was unlikely to happen, especially since Larvitar was still so young.

What she did have, however, was control. My perception of time returned to normal, and a strategy clicked into place.

"Rock Throw, hit it from above," I said.

"Smokescreen!" she yelled.

Koffing coughed and hackled a few times, releasing thick smoke from its mouth to hide from Larvitar. I frowned. Why try to dodge when she could have countered with an attack? Was this a trap of some kind? Larvitar shook her hands, ripping a large rock from the ground and lifting them upward.

"Lift a few from under him," I quickly added.

More rocks burst from the floor and through the smoke, clearing it enough for Larvitar to get Koffing within her sights. She yelled and sent the one she still carried on top of Koffing, knocking him toward the ground.

"Crap! Get back up!" Sheena yelled.

"Again," I said.

Every time Koffing tried to float back, Larvitar would hit it with another Rock Throw from above. This was strange. Why keep trying to float up when the best move was to attack? Spraying Larvitar with a poison type move would shift us to the defensive and allow Koffing to float back up.

"Horn Attack," I ordered. "Keep it down."

Larvitar clumsily ran toward Koffing, keeping it grounded, and lowered her head right before reaching the poison type. She wasn't powerful enough to run him through— which was good. I didn't want to force her Pokemon back to the Center if I could avoid it.

"Smog!" My opponent yelled.

Finally, I thought. No way to protect Larvitar from gases with an attack, but maybe…

Koffing released a poisonous, purple gas. Larvitar couched, clearly in pain, but she had held on long enough.

"Payback."

With an evil glint in her eyes, the rock type slammed her entire body into Koffing, who flew off toward its trainer. It fell to the ground unconscious shortly after. Togetic clapped happily, congratulating her sister, who puffed up her chest proudly.

Her friend Samuel burst out laughing and stopped his recording. "You fucking suck, Sheena! Serves you right!"

"It's Grace fucking Pastel, what do you want me to do?!" She hissed, recalling her Pokemon.

I called Larvitar to me and praised her. Her Rock Throws left nothing to be desired, and he Payback had been incredible as well. Horn Attack could use some work, but she would lose the move when she evolved, so I preferred to focus on the other two moves. Plus, I was going to start teaching her new ones soon.

"Good battle," I told Sheena, handing her a potion. She reached to give me money, but I refused. "It's fine, you were honestly doing me a favor, and things are getting expensive, right? Keep it."

"T—thank you," she said. "Um, how— how was I?"

I let out a pensive hum, thinking back to our short battle. "Your Pokemon's good enough to get your first badge, but you need to work on thinking quickly. When something doesn't work, switch it up. Instead of asking Koffing to get back up, you should have made him attack me right away before we got anywhere close enough to hit you with Payback. If you had done that, you could have regained the initiative and won."

"Grace, are you done? We're leaving!" Pauline yelled.

"Yeah, coming!" I said. "Good luck to you guys," I said.

So what exactly did Larvitar lack? The power issue would be solved with her getting stronger with age and training. I had no doubt that by the time we were in Hearthome, she'd be as powerful as Tangela is now physically, or maybe stronger. I sprayed her with a potion, recalled her, and opened my Pokedex.

"Nice one," Denzel said. "I bet you made their day."

"Maybe," I said. "Would you believe it if I said that I almost overthought so much that I thought she had been trapping me?"

"Because it felt too easy?" Cece asked. "I'd believe that."

"No need to brag," Pauline said.

"Come on Pauline, you're already admitted that they had gotten really good. You were on the edge of your seat during their battles with Candice—"

"That was a secret, Justin! I just want to catch up, alright? I'm going to battle as many trainers as possible!"

"You do that," Denzel said.

"What's with the tone?"

"What? That's my 'happy for you' tone."

I ignored their shenanigans and thought back to Larvitar. Rock Throw had been good enough to knock Koffing out of the sky, but that was because the poison type was slow. If I ever sent her out against other flying types, which was a type she would need to counter in the future, then she would need to learn Smack Down. Rock Slide could work— it was basically Rock Throw, but improved in every single way, including the quantity of rocks, but Smack Down was easier to learn, so I figured it would work well as a bridge between the two moves. I also wanted to teach Larvitar Stomping Tantrum, which would serve as a good base to hit multiple foes at once if we ever needed it, and the ground type would certainly help cover a few weaknesses in my team.

Plus, something about sweetheart stomping the ground all angrily sounded really cute.

——

"Woah," I said, in awe of the view ahead of me. "That's beautiful."

In front of us, Oreburgh stood in all of its glory. The heavily industrialized mining town that supplied Sinnoh with most of its coal and other minerals was chugging along. It was funny to see it after so long, especially when it was so close. If I had a Pokemon with Rock Climb or that could carry me, I could have made it there before the evening even ended, but without them, it would take months to make it back.

And all because the Cycling Road wasn't completed.

"Let's stop here," Denzel said.

"Wait, you actually meant right here?" Pauline asked incredulously. "This is a famous spot. Other trainers will stop by and harass you for an autograph or whatever."

"I agree with Pauline, which is a rare occurrence," I nodded. "Let's get a bit further and get near the edge of the route."

"The city would have been so beautiful at night," Cece sighed. "But alright."

Finally, after another hour of walking, we set up our tent, and with my legs feeling like lead, I sat down inside of the tent while Pauline was tasked with starting a fire outside with her Charmeleon with Justin and Cece. Denzel, meanwhile, had gone off on his own to try to fix his team's relationship issue. Seeing this huge tent after so long reminded me of the time I had to sleep separately from the rest of the group because of my nightmares. They were surprisingly almost gone now. I still had them once in a while, but most of the time, I slept peacefully, which was doing wonders for my mental health. I had been stabbed by Mars in my sleep enough for a lifetime.

"Grace," I heard Cece say as she entered the tent. "You wanted to talk to me."

"Yeah. You know why already," I said with a thin smile.

"Louis, of course," she nodded.

"Over the course of the day, I changed my mind a lot," I started. "I started by thinking that we had made a mistake and that we could have somehow prevented him from leaving. But then the more I think about it, the more I think that a confrontation was inevitable."

"I think so too," she said. "I wasn't going to delay telling him about us for any reason, and you already knew I thought he wouldn't take it well. I just didn't think that—"

"That he would leave," I completed her sentence. "But he did. He said it wasn't our fault, and that he was the one that needed to fix his own issues, so I'm going to take him at his word and believe that he'll succeed."

Cecilia sat and leaned against me. "I know he will. He's strong. He gave up the most out of any of us when he came to save me in Mount Coronet. Louis loved his father, you know? I never loved mine, but he genuinely loved his, and now Harvey's shown himself to be a monster. I think I underestimated how much of a toll everything was taking on him. He's changed since we left."

I nodded. "He's serious all the time."

"Yes, but it goes deeper than that. There were cracks forming below the surface. I think that if he had stayed, there would have been a massive fight, and he knew. He loves us too much to subject us to that."

"He's grown a lot, hasn't he?" I sighed.

"We all have," Cecilia replied as she turned toward me.

Right. We were alone. I leaned in and—

I jumped when I heard someone clear their throat. "Sorry to interrupt?"

It was Justin, who was leaning into the tent and waiting to enter. "Justin. What is it?" Cece asked.

"So I was interrupting. My apologies, but Denzel is gone, and you two are way better at battling than Pauline is— don't tell her I said that, she's still angry at me for that gift," he shuddered. "My head has been swirling with these thoughts since our phone call after your gym battles with Candice— no, since my battle with Gardenia, even."

"These thoughts?" I asked.

"Using stalling as a strategy," he declared. "I think I want to figure out how to do it."
 
Chapter 104
CHAPTER 104

"So you're saying you're actually interested in battling?" I asked smugly.

"I wouldn't go that far," he said, scratching his cheek. "I don't think I'm good enough to get as good as everyone else is, so why not try it this way? I mean, maybe Pherzen's reputation will take a hit, but…"

"If you can make it work and show the world that there's more to the strategy than meets the eye, then Pherzen's image could be left unscathed," Cece said.

"Right, but could I even do that? I'd need to basically start from scratch and train my Pokemon in a completely different manner," he said.

"Would you?" I frowned. "I mean, Sandile can burrow and trap his opponents in Sand Tombs, right? Now, I will say, it definitely won't be enough for your third badge—"

"Especially against Fantina," Cece added. "She's considered the most skilled gym leader, you know?"

"Right, I remember hearing rumors that her true team is as good as an Elite Four member's and that she still holds back against trainers that have gone through the entire Circuit multiple times," I explained. I could tell that he was getting cold feet from all of this, so I decided to continue quickly. "What I wanted to say is that you already have something there. A base to build up from with Sandile."

"Arcanine are one of the fastest Pokemon on land, since they can learn Extreme Speed," Cece said. "And they can also learn Teleport… so perhaps you could work out something with that in the future."

"They can?" he asked with wide eyes. "Growlithe was the one I was struggling the most to come up with something with. I've— I've never felt this fired up before."

I smiled at him. "Now you know how it feels, man," I chuckled. "What about your Lotad?"

"Um… he's actually a Lombre now."

"Excuse me?!" I exclaimed, almost falling over. "Since when?"

"I started up training again after your gym battles, and he evolved while fighting Growlithe," Justin said. "I just never found an appropriate time to reveal it."

"You idiot, there's never a bad time to reveal an evolution!"

"Sorry," he awkwardly smiled. "I was thinking about using Rain Dance and Swift Swim, but it's still all in the theory stage. Growlithe isn't ready to evolve, although I'll try to buy myself a Fire Stone in Hearthome, and Lombre can't use Rain Dance."

"Still, that's excellent progress," Cece said. "Any idea for future team members?"

"Well, I definitely want something more defensively minded to round out my team… I was thinking about buying an Audino. They're rather common, since a lot of Nurse Joys seem to covet them over the usual Chansey. Plus, I figured it'd be nice to have a Pokemon that can help the others if they ever get injured beyond what a potion can do."

"Oh, right," I said, slamming my fist into my palm. "What's the move… Heal Pulse. I know about that."

"There's also Wish, Life Dew, Heal Bell, Healing Wish—"

"Sheesh, you've read up on this!" I said. "I think you've got a real shot at this stalling thing, and if you're as passionate as you look—"

"Passionate? This is just… me trying something new."

Cecilia laughed. "Come on, Justin, you look more excited than I've ever seen you. I bet Pauline would say the same, and she's known you for years."

"It does feel different this time," he admitted with a sigh. "Thank you for this, and sorry for interrupting… whatever it is you were going to do. I just felt like venting and putting it all in the open. I feel more sure about this now, but it's still not a guarantee. I'm just thinking about it," he said as he got out of the tent.

"Well, would you look at that," Cecilia said with a slight smirk. "Justin Gardner himself, enamored with Pokemon battling, even though he's pretending not to be."

"Did you know I was like that once?" I said.

"Really?!" She gasped. "H—how? I can't even imagine you like that, it's antithetical to your whole being."

"Right?" I laughed. "It was before I started this entire journey. I just stayed holed up in my room all day and watched battles on television or browsed the forums or whatever."

"Wait, are you saying that's all you did? That seems like you were still… passionate?"

"I mean, in retrospect, yeah," I shrugged. "But back then, I was in denial, I think. I was too scared of the risks of being a trainer to take the plunge, but my dad gave me a slight push, and I've never looked back. It was the best decision of my life."

"I'm thankful for your father, then," she said.

"For getting me to realize that sometimes, you've got to get out of your comfort zone to get what you truly want?" I said. "Yeah, he was the one that did that."

"And you know… without him, I never would have met you."

I felt her hand on mine and turned toward her. I sneaked another look toward the tent's exit, confirming that Justin or Pauline weren't coming in, and then leaned in for the kiss. She quickly took the lead and gently pushed me down, slowly lowering herself to my ear.

"I love you," she whispered.

——

"Again, so sorry," Pauline apologized. "I should have known something was happening when Justin asked me to hang out by the fire."

"I tried to keep her as long as possible—"

"Then say something obvious, you idiot!" she groaned. "Not that they, and I quote, might be busy. Life's too short to skirt around some words you find scary. Just say they were making out, Arceus!"

We were on the road again, and Mount Coronet stood tall in the distance. It was starting to feel a bit unsettling, how wherever you were in Sinnoh, it seemed to always just be there. An oppressive reminder of how small we were. On a lighter, or stranger note, Pauline had walked in on Cece and I last night, but she was understanding and madder at Justin than anything.

"Come on, Justin, you'll get used to it in no time," Denzel said. "They can barely keep their hands off of each other, it's actually surprising that they managed to do it this long—"

"Denzel, I'm going to end you," I hissed.

He raised his hands innocently. "Come on, don't shoot the messenger."

"Let's just forget it happened, alright," Cece muttered embarrassingly. "Anyway, how close do we need to be to catch that Rufflet?"

"Oh, we should be getting into their habitat right about now," Pauline said. "They live all along this part of the route, up to Mount Coronet's entrance. I was going to ask if you could get your Fletchinder to help me look?"

Cecilia agreed, releasing the flying type, and had Pauline describe Rufflet's appearance to her. Catching a flying type was deceptively hard, even the more common ones like Starly or Pidgey because if they felt threatened, they just flew away. The best way to go about catching a flying type was to hit it hard enough by surprise with your first attack so that they'd be too weak to fly again, so I was thankful I wouldn't need to catch one since I already had Togetic. Catching a Pokemon by surprise like that just wasn't how I did things.

"How are you planning on getting it low enough to throw a Pokeball at it?" Justin asked, enunciating my thoughts.

"It's a Rufflet," Pauline smiled. "It'll want to fight anything that moves. Just get Fletchinder to lure it back to us and it'll be fine."

"Do you know something about Rufflet that I don't?" I asked. "I thought they were just aggressive, not suicidal."

"Not suicidal, Grace. They have balls. Balls. I told you it'd fit me," Pauline grinned.

Justin practically shivered. "How uncouth…"

"Don't get smart with me, Justin."

We kept up a good pace, and even though we were meeting fewer and fewer trainers, they were still in relatively good numbers. I had Larvitar battle a lot more, and she won every single battle. She fought a Geodude, a Helioptile, and even a Bulbasaur, although that one had mostly been because I was too good at strategizing for my opponent to keep up, even with the type advantage. She was progressing incredibly fast, and I almost wanted to move on to trainers with one badge because this felt too easy. Larvitar needed to be challenged to grow quicker, and trainers without badges weren't cutting it. Maybe I'd have Electabuzz train her tonight. Angel would have been the better pick, but I needed to redouble our efforts to learn Ancient Power. He was getting close. His eyes even shone whenever he tried to use the move, but he just needed that final little push, and he'd get there. Hopefully, Togetic would be able to help.

I was starting to miss Savika's lake. He would have learned the move for sure if we were still there, but alas, we weren't, so I had to make do with my current situation. One thing was for sure, he would evolve before my gym battle with Fantina, so that would be fine.

Fantina excited me. I knew that she was a pain in the ass to fight because of her ghost types, especially with my previous... terrifying experiences with those, and I knew that she was an incredibly strong trainer, but I was excited to dive deep into the nook and crannies of how exactly she battled. I would dissect it and solve it like a puzzle, and we'd have an incredible battle. Four badges. Four badges would be a dream for any first year trainer, but I would go further still.

Around three hours later, Fletchinder screeched in the sky and dove down back to us.

"Find something?" Cecilia asked.

The fire type nodded and pointed toward one of the humongous, mountainous cliffs to our left. I squinted and managed to barely see a speck of white and blue, way high up and nestled against one of the thousands of small ledges that covered it.

"That's your Rufflet," Denzel said, shielding his eyes from the sun.

"Darling, could you somehow get it down here?" Cece asked.

Pauline excitedly released her Charmeleon and Gothorita. The fire type yelled as soon as she was told a fight was coming. She seemed to be like Louis' Gible in that regard, always wanting to battle powerful opponents and triumph over them. Fletchinder bolted upward, using Agility to make sure she was faster than Rufflet's top speed as she flew up toward the cliff. At the height they were flying at, I couldn't hear anything, and I could barely see any better, especially with the sun shining in my eyes, but I managed to make out Fletchinder flying so close to the Rufflet she might as well have been grazing it. The wild Pokemon took no time to take the bait, and it flew down after her. The closer it got to us, the more I realized it was way too loud for its size.

The flying type landed in front of us, and it reached slightly above my knees. It beat its wings threateningly, clearly wanting to get us to either back off or fight.

"Rufflet, I challenge you to a battle," Pauline declared, stepping forward with her Charmeleon. The fire type slammed her tail against the ground threateningly, and Rufflet just screeched even louder, causing all of us to cover our ears. "If I win, you're coming with me."

Rufflet's eye twitched, and in a burst of speed, it flew toward Pauline, its beak elongating, and streaks of air formed around it. Charmeleon wasted no time and sent an Ember that at this point, looked more like a Flamethrower at Rufflet. Surprisingly, it just ignored the fact that its body was on fire and just kept going toward Pauline.

"Gothorita," Pauline inhaled sharply as she took a step back.

The psychic type raised a hand and restrained Rufflet in the air, throwing it back— not at the ground, however. She gently placed it back on the ground.

"If you keep attacking me, I'll gang up on you and fight two-on-one," Pauline said. "But—"

With a wild screech, Rufflet took flight again, and this time its wing shone instead of its beak. It was still aiming for Pauline.

"—you'd like that, wouldn't you?" Pauline smirked. "Win the fight."

Gothorita gave her a slight nod and restrained Rufflet while Charmeleon screamed out a Dragon Rage that engulfed it completely. She rummaged through her bag, grabbed a Great Ball, and sent it toward Rufflet. The ball shook thrice and then let out a small 'ding'. Pauline had finally caught her third Pokemon.

We all congratulated her, and even though she was trying to hide it, I could tell she was happy. I knew how much she hated the fact that she had fallen behind us, and this was a way for her to finally feel like she was making progress again. Pauline immediately released the wounded Rufflet and grabbed a potion. I decided to scan it with my Pokedex.

Rufflet, the Eaglet Pokemon. With its powerful legs and sturdy claws, they can crack even the hard shells of Shellder and pluck out their insides—

"Ew. Not cool, Pokedex," I groaned.

—They will challenge anything, even strong opponents, not out of courage, but out of recklessness in a relentless quest for strength.

"Arceus, that does sound like you," I muttered. "You did pick a fight with Harvey and Clarence."

"And I won," Pauline shrugged before turning to her new Pokemon. "Listen up. I'm going to put you through so many hard fights that you could only dream of on this shitty route. I'm the best trainer you could hope for."

The flying type's neck feathers puffed up, making it look bigger than it was.

"Tough girl, aren't you," Pauline smiled. "Let me heal you, and we can start training tonight. Charmeleon and Gothorita pack a punch, don't they?"

Rufflet nodded immediately, eliciting a few chuckles from the group, and Pauline healed her up with potions.

"So since you seem to be going for Pokemon that fit you," I started, holding back a laugh. "Are you going for an Exploud next or—"

"Grace, you little shit!"

——

It was nighttime now, and we had gone through another day of travel. The terrain here was miserable, as Denzel had warned. It was rocky, uneven, and we were going constantly uphill. Luckily we had found a flat spot to set up camp at, but there would be five more days of this until we reached the outpost that separated Mount Coronet from route 207. At least, other than how terrible my legs felt, the rest of the route was easy, easier than route 216 or 217, even. If there was one thing I was glad about, it was that when we were past this section of Mount Coronet, it would be a while until wild Pokemon could threaten us ever again.

"One more time, sweetheart," I told Larvitar.

With ragged breaths, the rock type stomped on the ground, and it shook slightly. Right now, the best way I had found to start working on the move Stomping Tantrum was for her to manipulate the rocks underground enough to make the floor shake, but it wasn't strong enough to even hurt me yet, so there was still a lot to work on.

"Good job," I said, crouching to pet her hard scales. She huffed and smiled at me. "Of course, I knew you'd be able to do it. Let's call it a day for now, alright?"

Larvitar hesitantly nodded and followed me back to the rest of the team. Electabuzz was practicing his Discharge to improve its range, so he was far away from the rest of us in order not to accidentally hurt anyone. Discharge would be my counter against Cecilia's Fletchinder, so I'd need him to be just as good with the move as he was with Thunderbolt. Frillish was taking it easy tonight, but he had practiced the speed of his Shadow Balls.

What I was focused on, however, was Togetic and Tangela, who were practicing Ancient Power. At this point, princess was getting so good with the move that I was starting to wonder if I could have her alter the forms of the rocks somehow. Maybe if I could have her mold it into spikes or something, they'd be better at penetrating Pokemon with heavy armor, but then again, maybe blunt force was more effective. It was something I'd have to work on soon, but tonight was Tangela's night.

"Toge. Togetic," Togetic whispered to me and Larvitar.

"Already?!" I exclaimed. "That's— that's awesome!"

The grass type turned toward me and gently led me forward with a vine.

"Angel," I said. "How's it going?"

He extended a few vines and pointed toward Electabuzz and Frillish.

"You want me to call them?" I asked. He answered with two blinks. "Honey, buddy! Come here!" I yelled.

Electabuzz sprinted toward me so quickly that he appeared in a flash, and Frillish was there soon after.

"I think— I think angel's ready," I declared, trembling in excitement. "Go ahead. Whenever you're ready."

Tangela stared up at me and gave me a firm nod. He closed his eyes and his vines started to wriggle, all independently from each other. When he opened his eyes again, they were blue, illuminating us in a cold glow. A lone pebble started to bounce on the ground, and then there was a rumble. When I thought that he was finally about to use Ancient Power, the shaking slowed and his eyes returned to normal.

I crouched. "Don't stress, you've got this, angel," I told him. "We're all here for you."

Togetic gave a hearty, reassuring cry and clapped her hands. Frillish nodded and patted the grass type on the head. Electabuzz crossed his arms and encouraged him, and Larvitar wriggled her arms excitedly, as if she was on the edge of her seat.

Tangela smiled with his eyes and they shone once more. A huge rock emerged from the ground and soared into the sky, hitting the cliff in the distance and breaking into a dozen pieces.

"Angel— you— you did it!" I squealed. "You did—"

Light enveloped Tangela's body and he grew. Up, and up, until he was way taller than me. Two arms sprouted from his sides, tipped in red, and his vines grew more numerous and thicker. His shoe-like feet turned into short, stubby legs. His eyes had stayed the same size, but they were on the upper side of his head instead of at its center.

"You're so… you're so tall," I exhaled as I stared up at him. He was a foot taller than me now, and he was taller than any of us in the group, including Denzel.

Suddenly, a dozen vines extended toward us and he wrapped the entire family into a tight hug.
 
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Chapter 105
CHAPTER 105

"Angel— that tickles!" I said, barely managing to get out the sentence with how much I was laughing.

The grass type finally loosened his hold on all of us, but he kept Larvitar wrapped in his vine and placed her on his head. She giggled, seemingly happy to be so high up when she was usually the smallest out of all of us. Togetic seemingly wanted the same, and she flew up before plopping herself down on his soft head. Electabuzz wanted to get on his head too, but he was too big, so he jealously grumbled. Still, he was happy for Tangrowth, who extended a hand and pat him on the head, while Frillish just sighed as the grass type held onto his tentacle like a balloon string.

The first thing I noticed was that even though Tangrowth's appendages looked like hands, they were actually bundles of vines tightly wrapped together into a coherent shape. He could extend or retract them like any other vine in his body, and that meant that he could also attack with them.

I grabbed my Pokedex and decided to give him a scan.

Tangrowth, the Vine Pokemon. It tends to ensnare prey by extending its vine-like arms, but it also uses them as bait to escape predators since a lost arm will regrow in a few minutes. Its vines grow so profusely that during warm seasons, you cannot see its eyes.

Well, this was Sinnoh, so I probably wouldn't have to worry about him not being able to see properly and having to shave his vines, and that regeneration speed was an incredible boon that meant that Tangrowth basically had an almost infinite supply of vines in battle unless we were facing a particularly powerful fire type or a Pokemon with a strong fire type move. What caught my eye, though, was that mention of prey. If Tangrowth caught prey, then that meant that not only could they sustain themselves with sunlight, but also with food. I hurriedly unstrapped my bag and rummaged through Togetic's Oran Berries, grabbed a tiny piece of cut-up food, and held it out in front of him. For so long, I had promised him that he would be able to enjoy food one day.

"Angel," I said, my voice slightly shaking. "Can you— can you eat this?"

His eyes honed in on the slice of Oran, and he gently wrapped a vine around it, pulling it deep into his body. We all watched in anticipation, waiting to see if he'd be successful or not. After a few seconds, Tangrowth shivered and bounced around, dropping Togetic and Larvitar. The former caught herself with a laugh by simply floating, while Tangrowth saved the latter with a vine. He had always been capable of lifting her, but he was now doing that like it was nothing, and she hadn't even been at her full weight before.

"Did it taste good?!" I asked with a grin.

The grass type shivered and shook his arms excitedly.

"Do you want more? I'm sure Togetic wouldn't mind sharing, plus I have plenty of other food too. Let's find out your favorite!"

Around thirty minutes of taste testing later, I found out that Tangrowth didn't really have a favorite food. Everything he ate was seemingly the best thing he had ever eaten, and he reacted appropriately, jumping around and shaking every time he ate. I didn't know how exactly it was that he actually swallowed anything, if he had a mouth under all those vines, or if he somehow dissolved the food in there, but at least I had fulfilled my promise to him now.

"You're fully capable of using Ancient Power now," I smiled at him. Sure, the control wouldn't be as good as Togetic's, but she was more of an exception to the rule. "That was the bottleneck that kept me from working on new moves with you, since you needed it to evolve. You know what that means, right?"

Tangrowth blinked twice.

"That's right, we're going to teach you as many new moves as possible before the fight with Fantina," I nodded. "But first, let's see what you can do with what you already have."

To be honest, it was a wonder that we'd gotten this far with Tangela— or Tangrowth now— having so few moves, but his versatility and utility made all the difference. I asked Togetic to raise a few boulders in front of us, which she did, and they were all perfectly spherical. First, I had Tangrowth strike them with Vine Whip. Whereas before, it would have taken a few seconds after an attack for the boulder to be cut in two, now that he had evolved, Tangrowth could immediately make one crumble with very little difficulty. I could tell that he was holding back in order to protect us from any fragments flying our way, even though I had full trust in Togetic's abilities to stop them with Extrasensory. His maximum range as a Tangela seemed to have been fifty feet, but he could easily keep them responsive at eighty now.

Bind was next, and angel could easily squeeze a rock until it crumbled into a hundred pieces. I couldn't exactly test Mega Drain on anything that wasn't alive, but I was sure the move had improved a whole lot as well. For his powder moves, they didn't seem to have particularly improved, but they weren't exactly a big part of our fighting style, so it was understandable.

"Okay, you're extremely strong," I said as I clapped my hands. He was very physically inclined for a Tangrowth, even more so than he had been as a Tangela. Usually, his species were slightly more focused on special attacks. "Now we need to work on new moves."

I scanned him with my Pokedex once more and came up with a list he should prioritize.

"We're going to be fighting Fantina's ghost types, so I want you to work on Knock Off first," I explained. "Gym leaders don't use held items, nor do any official battles in the Circuit, but the move is still dark type, and combined with how far you can extend your vines, it'll be very useful. It'll probably be hard to get started on, but… I have an idea of how to jumpstart the learning process."

Items weren't really used in the Circuit because the League wanted to give every trainer an equal footing, but they were allowed in the Conference. Tangrowth responded with a series of fierce blinks.

"Next one's a doozy," I smiled. "We need to work on Sunny Day, but that's more of a long-term project."

I had said that I wanted to get better at using my Pokemon's abilities, and I was putting money where my mouth was. Unfortunately though, weather moves were notable for how difficult they were to learn and master. There was a long way to go until I reached Gardenia's level with Sunny Day, but the earlier we started working on the move, the better. Plus, if I was going to catch a fire type, then it would synergize pretty well with my future member.

"Last but not least," I said, crossing my arms. "Power Whip."

I grinned when I saw his vines wriggle in excitement at the move's name.

"Believe it or not, despite it being the most powerful move on the list, it should be the easiest to learn. It's a pretty natural progression to Vine Whip, just a bajillion times more powerful. Let's get the others working on their moves too!"

The entire team let out cries of encouragement and got to work— even Larvitar, who I had previously told that she could stop. I called Togetic over and beckoned her to join me with Tangrowth. Double Edge would be lower priority, since Fantina was a ghost type gym leader, but I still wanted her to work on something else, along with helping Tangrowth with Knock Off.

"Princess, you're going to be learning Wish," I told her. "It's a restorative move that's delayed, so I could switch out and heal someone else if I needed it, but you also need to help Tangrowth with his Knock Off."

There were a few reasons I had chosen Togetic to help Tangrowth. First, after working together on Ancient Power for so long, Togetic had become a masterful teacher, and they meshed well together. The other reason was that since princess was a fairy type, any successful Knock Offs wouldn't deal that much damage to her. I looked through my bag, grabbed my knife, and handed it over to Togetic, who clumsily held it with both of her hands and playfully acted like she was about to stab me. It was a sturdy one, so I wasn't worried about it breaking. After all, I had owned it for my entire journey, and it showed no signs of disrepair.

Like I had stated before, Knock Off was a move that rid a Pokemon of their held items, not just by knocking it off of their body or wherever they were wearing it, but by infusing the attack with dark energy to make sure that even if the Pokemon picked that item back up, or it didn't actually get off the Pokemon's body, they wouldn't be able to use it for several minutes. Something about dark type energy screwed with the properties of items, but I wasn't smart enough to explain it in detail or know how it worked, and it wasn't like any of these two doofuses would understand anyway.

Obviously, giving your Pokemon a knife in battle was… not allowed, but the point was that having Togetic hold anything would be a good starting point for Tangrowth. I wasn't sure how a knife was going to be rendered unusable, but it sure was better than anything else I had, and I wasn't about to waste food, and it being a weapon would probably help. After explaining the process a few times, I let them start training and began working on Larvitar again.

The group came looking for me two hours later with looks of relief on their face when they found me. I had forgotten that I hadn't told them that I was going to stay this long.

——

The next day, while we were taking a short break due to how tiresome walking up this Arceus damned hill was, I decided to take Justin to a secluded part of the route. If he was going to beat Fantina, he was going to need my help. Even if he was actually training hard now, I thought that a small push wouldn't hurt anyone. I had to stop myself from asking him for a list of all of his Pokemon's moves and abilities so that I could build a training plan. Micromanaging every part of his training would no doubt suck out the newfound fun he was feeling in the process.

Plus, it was probably somewhat toxic behavior that I was glad I was able to stop. I couldn't micromanage every little thing, especially when it didn't have to do with me or my team. I would speak with Justin about broad concepts and hope that it would help him enough.

"So, Justin," I said, crossing my arms. "Have you found joy in your way of battling yet?"

"What do you mean by that?" He asked.

"Every trainer enjoys battling for different reasons," I explained. "To me, it's all about the planning process and watching that plan succeed, or scrambling to find something else if it doesn't. To Cece, it's making her attacks as powerful as possible and taking down her opponents in the shortest amount of time possible. To Denzel, it's about improvising and keeping his mind going at a steady pace throughout the battle until he wins."

"Ah, I understand," Justin nodded. "Well, I haven't really done much stalling yet, but I do daydream about it sometimes—" he stopped and blushed when he saw me smile. He cleared his throat. "Anyway! My Pokemon and I lack in experience and the moves to implement that type of strategy, so I'd say it's too early to know if I truly enjoy it or not. For all I know, it could be a dud."

"Nah, it's too late," I shrugged. "You caught the bug."

"The what?"

I waved my hand dismissively. "The training bug— but anyway, why don't we have our Pokemon spar a little? Larvitar's been making good progress, and I'd say she's at your level, or maybe slightly stronger, so it'd be good practice for her too."

"Well, it's embarrassing that you've had a baby catch up to me so fast, but I don't see why not," the boy said. "What should I use?"

"Anything works," I shrugged. "But probably not Growlithe."

"Will you be fine if I have the type advantage?"

"Yeah, don't worry about me," I said.

I released Larvitar, who stomped a foot angrily at the ground.

"Did I interrupt your nap? Sorry sweetheart, but we're battling," I said. She immediately perked up and forgave me.

Justin released his Sandile, who liquefied the ground under him and sunk halfway into the floor. The terrain was ideal for both of our Pokemon, but I had one strategy I had hurriedly come up with that I believed would pull me and Larvitar over the top.

"Sand Tomb, then sink into the ground!" Justin ordered.

The ground under Larvitar turned to mud, leaving Sandile enough time to bury himself underground, away from any attacks. Or at least that's what Justin thought.

"Stomping Tantrum," I said.

Last night's intense training bore fruit, and Larvitar cried out angrily as she started stomping the ground, causing it to shake. More precisely, however, she was focusing on the spot Sandile had just been in, meaning that it was taking the brunt of the attack and that he would be forced to unbury and make a move soon enough. I was countering Justin's Dig strategy by pressuring him into making a move. I was the one in control.

After thinking for around ten seconds, Justin clicked his tongue and ordered Sandile to attack Larvitar directly. The ground type hit her with Dig and sent her sliding across the rocky ground.

"Smack Down," I quickly said. A rock quickly flew out of the ground and rammed Sandile's face. "Again."

"Sandile, bury again—"

"Rock Throw under him."

Larvitar raised a rock from under where Sandile was standing, preventing the ground type from hiding away, but even if he did, the outcome of the battle wouldn't have changed. Stomping Tantrum would counter any attempts to hide with Dig. I was just speeding up the process.

Sandile was thrown into the air, and I ordered Larvitar to hit him with one last Smack Down. This time, the rock went over Sandile, and then sharply switched directions, hitting the ground type from above and causing him to be rammed into the ground.

"I think that's enough," I said. "We don't want to go too far. Good job, sweetheart."

"Larvi!"

"Already?" Justin sighed. "Alright, then. That certainly was eye-opening."

"Well, you're not the one that was thrown into Mount Coronet," I told him. "My circumstances made me improve faster than the average trainer. Anyway, let's see if you can spot your mistakes."

Justin placed a hand on his chin and mulled it over for a few seconds. "Not anticipating the Stomping Tantrum, perhaps?"

"No, no, that was fine," I shook my head. "The problem was when you tried to make Sandile bury again when you already knew it wouldn't work. Why?"

"I suppose I just panicked. It's my go-to strategy to escape from tough situations. I always use it to catch my breath during battles, so I just automatically used it."

"Okay, that's the problem," I said. "You never want to be on autopilot during battles, alright? Every action has to have thought behind it. If something didn't work the first time, don't do it again. Now, what was another mistake?"

"I… I don't know?"

"You took too much time to make a decision during the first Stomping Tantrum. Ten seconds. I counted. That was ten seconds where you weren't doing anything and Sandile was just getting hurt for free. Never let your Pokemon get hurt without at least trying to dish out something in response. Every action your opponent takes should have a cost. Sometimes, that cost isn't as high as what you paid, but at least it's something. Next mistake?"

"Arceus…"

——

"So, do you think you've learned a lot today?" I asked Justin.

"Well, I certainly learned a lot more than what I usually do on my own," he smiled. "It honestly feels refreshing."

"Ideally, you want to have these reflective moments after every battle— or at least every difficult battle," I explained. "Spotting your mistakes makes you unlikely to ever repeat them. Anyway, it's not over just yet."

"More training?"

"No, no, just more advice," I said. "You saw my battle against Candice, right?"

He nodded.

"I don't exactly run a full-on stalling strategy, but I do try to scout out my opponent's moves during a battle if I can. I think that's something you might want to try doing, especially when you get better at lasting longer in battles."

"Right, I actually wanted to do that with your Larvitar, but I panicked."

"It takes a lot of discipline," I said. "You've got to keep your finger on the trigger but not squeeze until the exact right time. Finding out what that exact timing is is hard, and I'm not that great at it yet."

"It seemed to have worked rather well against that Glalie, though."

"Nah, I could have gone for it earlier," I said, shaking my head. "If you make it to the Conference this year, stalling won't be enough either, or at least not in the way you're doing it now. Sure, stalling is a defensive battling style, but you need to be more aggressive, I think. You've got to have a plan to actually get a win, not just wait for time to run out."

"Why?"

"Well, first, that's the goal of battles, right? To win. You saw how it affected the way you and Sandile fought, too. You were only focusing on buying time, not actually beating me, but that's not the only reason. It's also about building the habit for the future. Conference battles are thirty minutes instead of twenty like gym battles— or at least at the group stages. When people reach the knock-out rounds, that gets extended to one hour."

His eyes bulged. "One hour of stalling? I don't think that's feasible."

"Right? Even thirty minutes is pushing it, so in the future, at least, you'll need to figure out how to take down Pokemon and stall, but there are a lot of moves that can help you do that. I know it's kind of difficult right now with your limited options, though."

"Hm," he hummed. "What happens if I do stall for thirty minutes or one hour? Hypothetically, of course."

"Well, according to Denzel, the trainer with the most Pokemon remaining automatically wins. If you're tied, it goes into a sudden death battle where the one who takes down the other's current Pokemon first wins the entire battle, and all switching becomes prohibited— if you had any left in the first place."

"So it's like you said, I'd be better off trying to figure out another way," Justin sighed. "Well, it's not like I'll make it in this year regardless."

"Come on, Justin, have some confidence," I said. "You can—"

"Guys, we're leaving!" Denzel yelled out at us.

"Okay!" I answered. "You can make it, you've just got to work hard. This is a rare form of battling, so finding people to emulate will be hard, but the internet exists! You can just look up good trainers that are stallers and start doing the same things they do little by little, and implement my advice too. I try to emulate Gardenia, for example, although I guess that was kind of obvious. I think Cece's doing Cynthia, and I don't know if Denzel is copying anyone yet."

Justin stood and helped me up. "Thank you, Grace. My mind feels clearer after today."

"No prob," I smiled. "Just pay me back in french fries."

——

After six days of grueling travel, we were close to the foot of Mount Coronet, and a huge ranger outpost stood in the distance— bigger than the ones that had been at Eterna Forest's entrance and exit.

Hearthome was getting ever closer.

A/N: So items... Pokemon fics use held items in very different ways. Some ignore them completely, while others keep their same in-game effects. I'm not going to lie, when I started writing this, I didn't want to touch items at all. Some are fine and straightforward, like the Life Orb, but what about the Choice Specs, for example? This might be a personal taste thing, but Pokemon being locked into using one move seems too gamey to me. So I've been slowly trying to rework items to change their effects slightly to make them more 'realistic', if we can even call it that, while some are just too egregious and won't be used at all, it'll be on a case-to-case basis. Either way, with the way I've set up items (with the rules about not being allowed to use them in Circuit matches), you won't be seeing them used for a long time, so this won't come into play for a while.

Edit: Just a heads up, mega evolution is still allowed, I forgot to clarify that.
 
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Chapter 106
CHAPTER 106

"Whew," Denzel groaned as we entered the small, gated community. "We finally made it."

"We made it one day earlier, may I add," Cece said with a slight, pleased smile.

"Despite all of Pauline's complaints and breaks," I said.

"I haven't traveled in a while, so I'm not used to being this active," she hurriedly said.

"Justin looks fine," I noticed.

He perked up. "I might not look the part, but I'm pretty endurant."

There were a lot of trainers here, and from the whispers and conversations I was picking up, a lot of them were simply waiting for the price of potions to fall so that they could make it through Mount Coronet without risking their and their Pokemons' lives. We immediately went for the Pokemon Center and decided to give our Pokemon to Nurse Joy for a small check-up despite them not being that hurt from their travels. After all, it was free, so why not? I practically had to dash to my room to avoid questions from other trainers. Some asked for battles too, which I felt better about, but I'd have to see if people were still interested when I got my team back.

I hurriedly opened my phone to check for messages in our group chat. I hadn't seen Chase or Louis anywhere, but maybe they were here. There were a lot of people, so I easily could have missed them.

I sighed in relief when I saw a message from Chase telling us that he had made it to the outpost, but frowned when I read that it had been sent two days ago. Knowing him, he had wasted no time and entered Mount Coronet already, so it looked like we weren't going to meet him again until we got to Hearthome. I chuckled a bit when I saw that Emilia had tried to converse with him, but he simply told her that he was busy and stopped answering her messages. To me, it was funny, but it had probably vexed Emilia since she wasn't used to how Chase behaved.

Speaking of Emilia, she had safely landed in Hearthome days ago, which was good news. After sending a message, I learned that she hadn't started setting up her coordinator career just yet, but she had bought a few TMs for her team, like Shadow Ball for both Beldum and Aipom, or Trailblaze for Rockruff. Obviously, it would take weeks for them to perfect the moves enough to use in contests, but it was good to see that she was making progress just like us. She was thinking of getting herself a fourth teammate as well, although she was still thinking about which. Now that she had given up traveling in the wild, she was going to buy the rest of her team one by one— which was what coordinators usually did anyway. The most successful ones tended to be swimming in money.

There were still no signs from Louis, and the fact that I didn't know if it was because he hadn't made it to the outpost yet or just didn't feel like speaking to us worried me, but he needed his space, so I'd give it to him. It wasn't like there was anything I'd be able to do from here anyway.

Plus, I had things to think about as well. My quest for a fire type wasn't going very well. I had seen a lone Rolycoly wandering route 207, but I opted not to catch it at the time, since I had hoped that I'd come across something better.

Well, now we were about to enter Mount Coronet, and there were still no signs of Numel or Torkoal. I knew they were rare, but even with Fletchinder's help, we couldn't find any. Hopefully, the other side of Mount Coronet would prove more favorable, although with all the water that flowed through there, that was probably unlikely.

Maybe I'd have to make do with a Rolycoly…?

That'd be so unsatisfying.

After resting for around an hour, I took a quick shower, changed into fresh clothes, and decided to go see what the others were up to. I'd have to brave the packed Center's corridors, but I had to start somewhere.

"Can I get an autograph?" A trainer asked.

"No, sorry…" I mumbled. I didn't even know how to give an autograph. Would I just need to write my name? That was how I signed everything anyway, but wouldn't that be unsatisfying to get? Denzel's autograph was stylized and looked extremely nice. "Maybe another time."

"Hey, can we battle? I have two badges!"

"I'd love to, but my Pokemon are getting looked at right now," I said, instantly more open to dialogue. "Come see me in an hour or two, and I'll probably say yes."

It'd be good practice for Larvitar, who was desperate to catch up with the rest of the team. I wanted to give Tangrowth his first battle too. Although maybe using Tangrowth against a trainer with two badges was unfair? There were no rules about Pokemon battles needing to be fair, but just walking over an opponent wouldn't be what I called fun.

I snapped out of my thoughts when I saw Cecilia walking down the hall with Pauline.

"Hey guys," I smiled. "Whatcha doing? Can I join?"

"No, you've already got Justin," Pauline huffed.

"Hm?" I let out, raising an eyebrow.

"What she means is that we've obviously noticed how you've taken Justin under your wing," Cece specified. "So Pauline's asked me to help her."

"You didn't even ask to help me out, Grace," she complained.

"What? I just wanted to help Justin because you've never had a problem with getting motivated by battling," I said. "Sorry."

"Whatever," she sighed. "I won't give you shit for it, since Cece stepped up."

"Well, you guys have fun then," I said. "Where are Denzel and Justin?"

"In his room," Pauline rolled her eyes. "He's doing 'a few things' before going out to do his usual information gathering. Justin must be out there somewhere. I haven't seen him in a bit."

"Well, guess I'll go see Denzel, then," I shrugged. "Do you want to meet up later—"

We were interrupted by a group of trainers that had followed me there, and Pauline started berating them to no end. I gave Cece a quick nod, which she returned and kept walking to Denzel's room, which was a floor above everyone else's for some reason. I remembered to knock this time in case he was streaming, but he quickly opened the door and let me in, meaning that he wasn't.

"Hiya," he said. "Need something?"

"Sheesh, you're stingy," I grumbled.

"I didn't mean it like that."

"I know, I'm just playing," I said. "Wanted to know what you were up to."

"I was linking my Trainer ID to my video channel so that people can start donating," he explained. "Gotta strike when the iron's hot."

I gasped when I saw the first donation coming in. "Holy crap, you just got fifty Pokedollars from someone!"

Denzel almost squealed in joy and scrambled back to his Poketch. "Holy fuck, already? Look, there's another ten Pokedollar one!"

The donations were relatively small, but together, they'd add up really quickly. Obviously, they'd slow when our popularity faded, but right now, he'd be rolling in money soon enough.

I smiled, feeling happy for him. "If you can keep building off of this momentum, then—"

"Then I might be able to ride this wave for a long time," he breathed out in excitement. "I can't believe I'm making money by doing… effectively nothing. All I've done is one livestream, which Emilia and Pauline obviously found shitty."

"We've been through a lot, you deserve it."

"Yeah… I need to— I need to get myself a laptop or something, like Craig. If I'm going to be spending a lot of time online, this little Poketch screen is going to make my eyes tired all the time."

"You can just get a cheap one," I said. "I might get one too, honestly. I need an application that makes spreadsheets."

"S—spreadsheets?"

"Yeah, so I can measure my Pokemons' improvement over time," I explained. "I've wanted to do it since Floaroma, but I guess the opportunity never came up, and doing it on paper seems like a pain."

"You're such a nerd," he laughed.

"Does it matter if it brings results?"

"I guess not," he shrugged. "Anyway, it's been… an hour and a half. I'm gonna try to see if my Pokemon are good to go so I can try to stream a training session for my channel. Wanna come with?"

"To your recording? Absolutely, as long as I'm not in it!"

"Obviously not! I'd get embarrassed with someone there, I meant to pick up your Pokemon too!"

"Ah, bummer," I said playfully. "But fine. And yeah, our Pokemon are probably good, since I saw Cece and Pauline go get theirs. Plus, I've got some stuff to try out with my team too."

Namely, experimenting with new moves and as I said previously, maybe a battle or two. Entering the lobby, I winced when I saw two trainers get carried on a stretcher. Their bodies were covered in burns, and their skin was practically melted off.

A reality check, if there ever was one. Just like in Eterna Forest, people died here. Even if we had been through Mount Coronet once, we needed to take this seriously.

We went to pick up our two teams and went our separate ways, looking to find an isolated part of the outpost to train at. It was harder than for the Eterna Forest's outposts, since this one just had so many more people, but after around ten minutes of searching, I finally found a relatively good area. On the way there, I walked across one of the few stores, which was depressingly almost devoid of first year trainers, since stuff was still so expensive, but I also walked past the mountain's entrance, and apparently, trainers needed a ticket to be allowed in Mount Coronet just like for Eterna Forest. After asking one of the rangers standing guard there. He explained that the Eterna outpost system had been implemented throughout every outpost in the region for two reasons. First, there was the fact that trainers actually sitting through a class to learn about threats was great at reducing the casualty rate, so the Ranger Organization petitioned to the League to make the system permanent and region-wide, which they accepted without a fuss. The second reason was that surprisingly, trainers themselves had pushed for the system while we had been away from civilization, especially the first years. As the years progressed on, trainers dying was still common place, but it was becoming less and less normalized in society, and routes were becoming safer and safer. Statistics about trainer deaths from Cynthia's time would appear ludicrous to us today, for example.

Either way, it looked like another class for us. Even though we had already gone through Mount Coronet once, I would pay attention. Who knew if there were some crazy Pokemon here that we hadn't encountered up north and didn't know how to deal with?

I released my entire team, who all gave me their respective greetings, and set them to work. Electabuzz still needed to work on Discharge, not because he was struggling with the move, but because how fast he needed to get the electricity out of his body if he was going to deal with Cecilia's Fletchinder. He was also going to babysit Larvitar at the same time, and he would start gently battling her.

"Make sure to take it easy on her, okay?" I whispered in his ear so that Larvitar couldn't hear. She was very easy to upset, and I didn't want her to start stomping all over. "Let her win and stuff."

"Ele," he nodded after a few protests.

Now that Larvitar had mastered Stomping Tantrum and Smack Down, I was going to have her work on Bite, which meant that she could take it easy today. Frillish still needed to perfect Shadow Ball, so that would be more of the same. Who I really wanted to work with today were Tangrowth and Togetic.

The grass type was still struggling with Knock Off, mostly because he didn't know how to infuse the dark type energy that came with the move, and I couldn't blame him. He wasn't a dark type, so it wouldn't come naturally to him. Sunny Day was the same, but that was an incredibly difficult move, so I hadn't expected to make much progress on it at all. Power Whip, though, he had learned ridiculously easily. When it came to hitting and grabbing stuff, angel couldn't be beaten, and he already could use the move consistently, although it was extremely fast, so he still struggled to aim it at his targets. By the time we got to Hearthome, I expected that to be fixed.

The most important thing I wanted to do, though, was tinker with the move Wish.

"Angel," I said, nodding toward him.

He immediately detached his arm, which wriggled and withered on the ground like a dying worm, and then prevented it from growing back.

"Princess, try using Wish," I said.

Togetic nodded fiercely and shut her eyes tightly, and after twenty seconds, a bright light shot up into the sky from her head. Tangrowth then waddled to where Togetic had just been to wait. To a certain extent, she had mastered Wish already, but there was a big problem. Wish was the form a Pokemon's ultimate desire took, and it healed the user or someone around the attack, albeit with a delay. For Togetic, we had found that Wish could be used relatively easily, but it was always weaker than it should have been because she could only use it effectively under severe amounts of emotional stress— when a member of the family was in actual danger. Two days ago, a boulder collapsed on Larvitar after she used Stomping Tantrum too close to one of the mountain's cliffs. Unbeknownst to Togetic, the rock type's scales had protected her from most of the damage, but she seriously thought that her sister had been mortally wounded for at least twenty seconds and had burst into tears. That was the first time she had used a proper Wish, and Larvitar's superficial wounds were healed perfectly. The light had been brighter, and instead of five minutes, it had only taken one minute to come back down from the sky.

That meant that there was a mental block that we needed to work past. A five minute delay meant that the move was practically useless in battle. Sure, it didn't take that much out of her, although it was slow to charge up, but Wish needed to be used with intent. Predicting how a battle would look one minute in the future was incredibly difficult, but five? That was impossible at my current skill level. I didn't want to just randomly have Togetic use the move and hope it was useful when it landed. That wasn't how I rolled. I wanted my plans to be iron tight. Plus, the strategy would be easily exploitable by any smart opponents, especially since using the move left Togetic open to any attacks.

After five minutes, Wish illuminated the sky and came back down, healing around half of Tangrowth's arm.

"You can grow it back," I nodded toward angel. "Good try, princess."

Togetic gave me a disappointed nod, and I petted her to try to cheer her up. Within a minute, the rest of Tangrowth's arm was back. I had him practice a few Power Whips against boulders Togetic raised with Ancient Power until his arm-vines were almost completely shaved off.

Right, that was another drawback of the move. It was so powerful that it destroyed his vines too, although it didn't actually hurt him, and as he grew stronger, I expected that side effect to wane.

"Give me another Wish," I told Togetic. She sent the bright light into the sky again. "Okay, would you be fine if angel hit you a little?" I asked her.

"Toge," she nodded, and Tangrowth hit her with a weakened Vine Whip, dealing barely any damage.

"Now, angel, take a few steps to the right… a little more— there you go. Togetic, you float a little to the left— stop there, that's perfect!"

I had them spaced at the exact same distance away from the Wish. I wanted to see who exactly would receive the move if both Pokemon were at a similar distance, and then if one was further away, or if one was more hurt than the other, and it was all because I wanted to know exactly how to use the move in a double battle. Five minutes later, the Wish came down and immediately entered Togetic's body, healing her slight bruise.

"Seems like it prioritizes the move's user if you're at a similar distance," I pondered. "Let's try again with the same setup, but this time, Togetic isn't wounded, but Tangrowth is."

Due to the move's delay, all of the experiments took around an hour, and what I found out was very interesting. The move was actually extremely predictable, which was good news. It being random would be the worst-case scenario.

First, it seemed that regardless of how wounded both Pokemon were, Wish would always prioritize healing the move's user unless Togetic stood comically far away. The limit I found was that after one hundred feet, it would go to Tangrowth and heal him instead. Now, if Togetic was completely fine and Tangrowth was wounded, the move would always go and heal Tangrowth even as long as he was within the one-hundred feet radius. If I swapped out Togetic for someone else, then the Pokemon the closest to Wish would get healed, unless they were also unwounded, in which case it would go to the wounded Pokemon.

It sounded hard, but it was actually pretty easy to remember. Togetic was exhausted by now, so I rewarded her with some Oran Berries and gave her some well deserved rest in her Pokeball. Tangrowth was still raring to go, since the sun was still out, but I opted to recall him anyway, since I wasn't about to walk around with him and attract even more attention unless I was going to use him in battle. I was amused to see that Larvitar was laughing heartily and celebrating when she saw me arrive.

"Larvitar! Tar! Tar!" She screamed, pointing at Electabuzz, who was rolling around the ground and crying out in pain. He had bruises all over his body, but I knew they were only surface-level wounds. He was pretending.

"You won against honey?" I gasped, feigning surprise. "Aw, good job! You're the best!" I said, crouching and caressing her cheek. I discreetly winked at Electabuzz, who smiled and gave me a thumbs-up.

He was such a good big brother to her.

I recalled the rest of the team and walked back toward the Center, but I was surprised when I caught a glimpse of Justin battling another trainer.

"What are you doing? Stop playing around and fight an actual battle!" His opponent angrily screamed. He had a Dwebble that was just standing around and waiting.

Must be using Sandile, I mused. But had he succeeded in perfecting the strategy we had worked on?

I smiled when I saw the ground liquefy under the bug type and spin around like a whirlpool. Sandile was still nowhere to be seen, but he had gotten good enough with his Sand Tomb to hurt his opponents without coming even close to the surface. Dwebble's trainer ordered it to Withdraw, but it was only delaying the inevitable. He fainted soon after, and the trainer angrily recalled his Pokemon and stomped off my way after hurling a few insults at Justin.

"Hey," I said, stepping in front of him. "If you keep that mentality, you'll never improve."

"What the hell do you even know— oh, Grace Pastel… um, yeah, whatever. Stalling is just annoying."

"There's always an answer to everything," I shrugged. "Anyway, feel free to go. Just don't trash talk after losing, it makes you look real petty."

The boy said nothing and just left, and then I walked toward Justin with a big smile.

"Grace! You were watching?" He said embarrassingly.

"Only caught the tail end," I said. "But good job."

He nodded, scratching his cheek. "Now I've just got to find a way to do the same thing with Growlithe and Lombre."

"I thought you were waiting for TMs?"

"I want to try to see if I can figure out something before that," he said.

"Seems like a fun challenge," I smiled. "Anyway, let's find the others and discuss when we're leaving. Plus, there's that class we have to sit through."

"Wait, again?"

We found Denzel first, who looked half-dead and was practically shambling through the Pokemon Center.

"What happened?" I asked.

"Nothin'. Just some issue with my viewers."

"You can't say that and not tell us what the issue in question is," I said.

"They seem a lot more interested in my team's… romance drama than in my actual training. There are shippers, Grace. Fucking shippers that root for different members of my team to start dating Sylveon."

I burst out laughing, and even Justin was shifting in place and chuckling.

"It's not funny! That's not what I want!"

"You might get more viewers that way," I laughed.

"I agree," Justin nodded. "Why not make the best of a… strange situation?"

"Seriously? I hate you both."

We quickly found Cece and Pauline after that, who were both very amused at Denzel's predicament. After telling the group that we needed to take another three hour class, we decided to just hurry up and get it over with right away, even though we hadn't decided when to go through the mountain yet. The ranger teaching us looked a lot more meek and unassuming than the one that had been in the Eterna Forest outpost, but that wasn't a reason to underestimate him. Rangers were people who were exposed to wild Pokemon more than anyone else— even trainers— so the older they got, the more they tended to scar, and that was if they lived long enough.

This ranger looked to be in his early fifties, and his face was spotless.

"My name is Malcolm Brockhouse, veteran ranger of thirty-five years," he sighed. "I'll be your instructor for this class. Even if this isn't your first time going through Mount Coronet, I recommend paying attention."

He paused, gauging our reactions, and I grabbed my pencil to write anything of note.

"On average, it will take you six days to go through the mountain, but fret not. Rangers heavily patrol the caves, and we've been trying to make it as safe as possible. Unfortunately, however, there is a short lapse of approximately two days in the middle of the path that is less patrolled, and therefore, extremely dangerous. If you do not have at least two badges, I recommend turning back and coming later. There is no point in rushing. If you don't have two badges at this point of the year, you won't be making it to the Conference anyway."

I heard grumbles echo throughout the room, but deep down, everyone knew he was telling the truth.

"I can't force you to do anything, though, so without further ado, let us get started."

Instructor Brockhouse went over what he believed were the biggest threats first, and I sighed in relief when they were Pokemon we had already faced. Of course, an Onix or a Rhydon would still be a big threat, but at least we had some idea of how to fight them. He then continued, going over the smaller threats like Geodude and Machop, but that was mostly it. Obviously, he also gave a first-aid class refresher to the class, along with recommending certain crucial caving supplies that we had somehow missed, like helmet lights. It was true that having a hand free and protecting our heads from any falling rocks would be a great advantage, and I eyed the rest of the group, letting them know that we should buy them immediately after class.

"One more thing before I let you go," instructor Brockhouse said. "There's been reports of a dangerous Pokemon lurking in the mountain. It isn't native to Sinnoh, nor does it actually live here, but it somehow got into Mount Coronet, and all descriptions we've gotten from trainers returning with burns point to it being one thing."

He paused to draw a Pokemon on the blackboard, and I stood at the edge of my seat. Trainers coming back with burns. Fire type. A bipedal, turtle-like Pokemon with a spiny shell and a snout-like nose.

"A Turtonator."
 
Chapter 107
CHAPTER 107

Turtonator. The word echoed in my head, and my ears started to ring. I squinted at the blackboard to get a better look. I had heard of the Pokemon before, but it was my first time actually seeing what it looked like. Cecilia seemingly noticed that something was wrong with me and tapped on my shoulder. I blinked a few times and frowned. Why did just hearing the name have such an effect on me?

"It's native to Alola's many volcanoes, and again, we can't be one hundred percent sure of how it got there, but we have a pretty good idea," instructor Brockhouse said before humming. "It'll take a few weeks to verify this through the Pokeball ID database, but we believe that this Turtonator belonged to a trainer who died trying to cross Mount Coronet. The first witnesses— so around a week and a half ago— reported first seeing it being in a state of complete rage and standing next to a broken Pokeball, which we're attempting to recover."

I felt my heart drop. Trained Pokemon tended to be docile or less aggressive to humans, but a Pokemon that had lost its trainer recently would obviously go beserk unless they had a terrible or abusive relationship. Hell, Craig's Salamence had killed a slew of people after he was just injured by their Pokemon. Brockhouse's theory made sense. It explained why a Turtonator would suddenly show up out of nowhere and why it'd be attacking trainers.

"Since I talked to you about burns, you can obviously guess that it's a fire type, but I urge you to remember that it's a dragon type as well," the instructor warned. "No matter how good you think you are, if you decide to cross now instead of waiting for us to deal with the problem, do not engage. It was last spotted near…"

The ranger trailed off, and I retreated into my thoughts. It wasn't like me to ignore things like this, but Denzel would catch me up on anything I asked. If Turtonator had belonged to a trainer that died, what about the trainer's other Pokemon? Were they still in there somewhere, trapped in their Pokeballs? The rangers would no doubt free them if they came across them, but it was a morbid thing to think about. Still… something was tugging at me.

"...we've retrieved a few lost Pokeballs with other Pokemon from Alola, lending further proof that our theory is correct, but Turtonator has somehow avoided capture until now, and it has shown to be highly intelligent, so again, beware. I went over treating burns in the first-aid section of the class, but if you didn't pay attention—" he paused, staring at a few people in the back of the class. "I cannot force you to retake this course, but I highly encourage it. With that, you're free to go."

I shot up and practically jogged out of the classroom. So much so in fact, that Brockhouse had to call out to me because I was about to forget to get my ticket. I hurriedly grabbed it and anxiously bit the inside of my mouth while I waited for my friends to get out.

"Denzel," I said immediately when I saw him.

"Woah," he exclaimed with a surprised expression. "Something's lit a fire in you."

"I'm going back to my room," I continued, ignoring him. "Can we postpone the meeting we were supposed to have?"

"Uh, yeah, no problem," he frowned.

"Call us if you need anything," Cece said. "We can decide when to leave later. Plus, I'm sure we ought to have at least one day of rest."

"Thanks guys," I said. "Sorry Justin, I'll help you with training later!"

I was running by the time I finished that sentence. Forget trying out Tangrowth in battle, I needed to get to my room now. I entered the Pokemon Center, called the elevator, but opted to take the stairs when it was taking too long. I pushed through the annoying group that liked to stay camped by my door with half-promises of battling or signing autographs later and sat on my desk with my Poketch in hand.

Turtonator.

I entered the Pokemon's name online and looked at what came up. It specialized in defense, and its shell was nigh unpenetrable by physical attacks, but its defense against special moves wasn't anything to scoff at either. Not only that, but it could make its shell explode at any kind of contact, which made attacking it from up close extremely difficult. And of course, it was a good attacker. A really good one, never mind that it was a dragon type. That was just the cherry on top.

I swallowed. The tug was still there. Chase described it when we had still been stranded up north, and now I knew exactly what he meant.

I wanted to catch this thing.

But… a part of me hesitated, still. The ranger had explicitly warned us. This Pokemon was dangerous and aggressive. I'd potentially be risking my life if I even tried to get near this thing. It was smart. It knew about Pokemon trainers, so it would probably go after me right away instead of fighting my Pokemon.

Plus, there wasn't only me to worry about. Could I allow myself to risk the others in such a way? There was no way that they'd just let me try to convince Turtonator to join me on my own—

Convincing Turtonator to join me…

I let out a heavy sigh as I sunk into my chair. The ethics of trying to capture a Pokemon that had just recently belonged to someone were iffy, to say the least, and it made me feel dirty. Not only that, but it meant that actually getting Turtonator to become a part of my team would be extremely difficult, and it'd be attacking me at the same time.

And that was if I could even find it in the mountain. We had its last location, but it probably had moved to someplace else by now.

Did even thinking about this make me a bad person in the first place? Could I allow myself to do this?

I stared at my ceiling and groaned. "I can allow myself to be selfish just this once, can't I? I can at least give it a try, and if it doesn't work out, well… that'll be that."

I pressed the home button on my Poketch and texted Denzel.

Me

Hey. You going to be doing your info gathering?

Denzel W.

Yeah, obv. Why? Need something?

Me

I know this is a lot to ask, but if you could try to find a trainer that ran into Turtonator and ask them about it, I'd really appreciate it.

Denzel W.

I knew it. You want to catch it, don't you?

Me

Yeah, I'm sorry. I know it'll be dangerous, but I can handle it on my own. You're better at getting information from people, so I figured I'd ask you to do that while I keep looking up stuff about Turtonator online in my room.

Denzel W.

Alright, I gotcha. But you absolutely aren't fighting that thing on your own.

Me

We'll talk about that later. Thank you, though. Seriously, I don't know what I'd do without you.

Denzel W.

You'd manage. TTYL.

I stared at my screen with a satisfied smile. Denzel was seriously the best friend someone could ask for, and I'm glad he was with me. I went back to browsing the internet. Even though I wanted to speak to Turtonator, I knew this would be a battle, so I would go at it like I did with any tough fight.

I would come prepared.

——

Denzel whistled a song as he calmly but purposely walked into the Pokemon Center. Grace had asked him a favor, and he'd gladly do it. Cece was off having her daily spat with her Scyther, while Pauline and Justin were battling as many trainers as they could. From what he understood, Grace was mostly teaching Justin how to strategize because stalling obviously needed a huge amount of planning, while Cecilia was teaching Pauline how to use power to break through her enemies. Two distinct styles of battling and two students. Denzel wondered who'd end up on top by the time they ended up battling Fantina. It had almost turned into a competition of some kind to see who was the better teacher.

He kind of wished he had a student of his own, though.

His eyes scanned the packed Pokemon Center lobby, settling on each wounded person he saw for a few seconds before moving on to the next. He was looking for information about a Turtonator, so he needed someone with burns.

His whistling sharply stopped when he noticed a trainer with a bandage over her right arm. She was a short girl with dark hair and a bob cut. Of course, bandages weren't an obvious sign of a burn victim, but what convinced him this girl was one was that her neck was red and covered in blisters, meaning that the burns covered the entire right side of her body, and the edges of her hair were singed. Looking closer, he noticed a bandage right under her jeans too.

Well, there was no point in beating around the bush. Denzel strode up to her and struck up a friendly wave and smile.

"Hey. Can I bother you for a sec?" he asked.

The girl looked up at him angrily, but her expression switched to surprise when she noticed him. "Um— Y—yeah, of course. You're Denzel Williams, right? I'm not crazy?"

"You're probably saner than I am," he laughed. "What's your name?"

"My name?"

"Yeah," he nodded.

"Oh! I'm Caitlyn Spencer. I guess you can call me Cait. Sorry that you have to see me in such a pitiful state, it's like, super embarrassing."

"What?" Denzel scoffed. "Come on, don't apologize for being hurt, it happens to all of us, even top-level trainers," he said, thinking of Craig. "I'm glad you survived, but do you have a group you travel with? And your Pokemon? Did they all make it out okay?"

Caitlyn stared at the ground and fiddled with her hands under the table. "Yeah, I'm okay, I guess, but one of my friends is on oxygen because of smoke inhalation," she said with a grimace. "The rest of them are actually grabbing food for all of us right now," she continued embarrassingly. "Since I have two badges, I got cocky and thought I could fight a Turtonator. I only lived by the skin of my teeth by hiding behind a boulder before a Flamethrower could get to me. Still burned like a motherfucker, though."

Ah, the conversation had naturally progressed toward what he wanted. Denzel liked to break the ice and converse with his fellow trainers, even if they would probably never meet again. There were so many stories to be heard and told, so much information to be exchanged that he couldn't just stay in his little corner like his friends liked to do.

"I wanted to talk to you about that Turtonator, actually," Denzel said. "If you don't mind?"

"No! It's fine," Caitlyn exclaimed. "Ask away."

"Can you tell me how it fought?"

The girl stared at the ceiling, like she was desperately trying to recall what had happened.

"It's fine if you don't remember," Denzel said with a warm smile. "Thanks for trying anyway."

"No, I remember, it's just difficult. It's all kind of a blur, with all the screaming, and the adrenaline… it takes a bit to actually recall what happened," Caitlyn mumbled. "I tried using my Poliwhirl to fight it from a distance, but its flames were strong enough to just evaporate our water type attacks, so then I tried to make it fight from up close and…" she winced. "The shell just exploded. If I hadn't recalled Poliwhirl right after, then… then…"

"It's okay," he said. "Hey, let's just stop this, I can just go and ask someone else."

Denzel didn't want to make someone recall their traumatic memories. It reminded him of Grace and Cecilia too much.

"Yeah… sorry. I don't even know if I'll be able to make it through now," she sighed. "Every time I look at the cave's entrance, my legs just start to shake, and I can't move."

Behind every trainer, there was a story. Laughs, pain, loss, trauma, victories. They weren't just colleagues, they were people.

Denzel leaned forward and clapped her non-injured shoulder. "You take care of yourself, Cait."

"Yeah. Thanks for talking to me. I kind of feel better now."

"Feel free to book an appointment for therapy with the nurses in here. They're really good at their job," he said before leaving.

"Wait! Could I get your number, maybe? I feel like it'd help if I talked to you."

Denzel raised an eyebrow. "Sure, but don't use me as a substitute for a therapist."

He had already been one multiple times, and he had no idea what he had been doing. It was honestly a miracle it had worked out. After that whole debacle, he started scanning the lobby again but stopped in his tracks when he saw that Pauline was staring at him at the Center's entrance with her arms crossed as she tapped her foot on the ground and a frustrated look on her face. Denzel thought nothing of it and walked up to her.

"'Sup?" He asked. "You're staring daggers at me, I'm kind of feeling self-conscious," he said playfully.

"Why were you talking with that girl for so long?" she asked.

Yikes. She was using her accusatory tone and not her playful, ironic one.

"I was helping Grace out with something. Gathering info," he answered plainly.

"Well, she sure seemed to be having the time of her life," Pauline huffed. "She was basically coming onto you."

"Quit it," Denzel said. He had hung out enough times with Pauline to know that whenever she stepped out of line, you needed to put your foot down immediately. "There's nothing there. And even if there was, it shouldn't bother you because… well, you know why."

Pauline clicked her tongue. "Whatever."

"Come on, stop acting so possessive. We're friends. You're being a kid."

"Maybe you shouldn't trust the first girl that shows up," Pauline said. "Justin's and Emilia's parents might be off our backs, but Harvey and Clarence still have skin in the game. She could be a spy."

"I think you should cool off for a bit," Denzel said. "You're better than this, Pauline."

He walked off and ignored her complaints. Why would she be jealous now? After he laid everything on the line back during her birthday?

Just recalling the moment made Denzel cringe, but it had been handled well and maturely by both of them, or at least he thought so. Late at night, during Pauline's birthday, he had asked her out. He had believed the moment to be right, with all of the emotion of their awaited reunion, the party winding down, and people going back to their rooms, but Pauline rebuked him immediately for one reason.

She was dating Emilia. Well, they were de facto dating. Emi supposedly didn't like labels.

The part that made Denzel cringe wasn't that he had been rejected. No, that was fine. He shot his shot and failed. Sure, it hurt— hell, it still kind of did, but the two had agreed to stay friends, and Denzel had been quick to give up and move on, especially with the Louis incident. They had gone back to normal the next day as if nothing had happened. Denzel had never thought about going off on his own. Everyone dealt with heartbreak in their own way, and Denzel never felt the need to get some time to himself. He and Pauline were friends, and nothing more, and he genuinely felt fine with this development. There were plenty of fishes in the sea, although it'd probably be a while until he found someone else that he liked.

The part that made him cringe was that he hadn't noticed that Pauline and Emilia were dating. The signs had all been there. In hindsight, they were just like Grace and Cecilia, but just way better at hiding it. There had always been that vibe between them, but since they never said anything to the group, he felt like he had a chance with Pauline. According to her, Emilia was adamant about keeping the relationship secret, mostly because her parents were deeply set in their old ways and would never approve, but also because she felt uncomfortable with being open with her sexuality, which Denzel felt terrible about. No one should have had to hide who they were. Pauline had even said that Grace and Cece revealing their relationship had almost convinced her to come out, but she chickened out at the last moment— the morning when they left— and opted to say nothing, using Louis' condition as an excuse.

Anyway, the point was, he was fine with the way things were now, but Pauline was seemingly kicking up a fuss and acting jealous at him? And he hadn't even been flirting at all! Sure, Caitlyn had been somewhat shy and flustered, but even if she had a crush, so what? Pauline was dating someone else.

Denzel sighed and returned to his information gathering. His team already almost drowned him in relationship drama, and he had had enough of that daily. Why couldn't life just be simple? If people were more straightforward with each other instead of playing these little games, then society would probably be better off.

The trainer perked up when he saw another person with burns. He stepped toward the boy, who was talking to two other people in his group with a smile, and waved.

"Hey guys, can I borrow a moment of your time?"

——

"Are we ready?" Denzel asked the group. We all nodded and started walking toward Mount Coronet with our tickets in hand.

A day had passed since I had resolved to catching Turtonator, and I had a strategy in place. Not to beat it, but to buy time while I talked things through, and I had also convinced my friends to stay in the back unless things looked really bad after hours of begging, although their psychic types would help to protect me from attacks. Still, I trusted that my Pokemon would be able to protect me, and I knew enough about Turtonator as a species not to fall into its traps.

Meanwhile, Denzel had expertly gathered information for me. I knew the way Turtonator personally fought as an individual, and I knew a bunch of its moves that I'd need to watch out for. Now all I needed to do was find it.

We handed our tickets to the rangers standing guard, and I took a deep breath before stepping forward. We had everything, including a trove of potions. Having rich friends would always come in handy. We also had burn heals and better caving equipment than before.

"Let's go," I breathed out.

We all looked at each other and stepped into Mount Coronet once more.
 
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Chapter 108
CHAPTER 108

It was strange how relaxed I could be in Mount Coronet. Back when I had first started my journey and entered my first cave to get to Oreburgh, I had been restless when the biggest threats there were Zubat and Geodude. Of course, the fact that it was my second time in the mountain helped, but it was also because the rangers had actually lit up this section of the cave. There was no oppressive darkness here. Gas lamps were attached all along Mount Coronet's walls, making it easy for us to actually see where we were going, and most wild Pokemon avoided this section of the cave because of how heavily the rangers patrolled it, and those that were let here were all weak. My eyes widened in surprise when I saw a Cleffa bounce away from us in fear. The Pokemon floated in the air longer than what was normal as if it was less affected by gravity than we were.

Frillish floated by my side, ever vigilant, while Charmeleon, Sandile, Roselia, and Zweilous accompanied the rest of my friends. The fire type, for her part, looked absolutely bored out of her mind, and she often sent Embers at unsuspecting wild Pokemon to distract herself. She blew flames toward Cleffa, who narrowly dodged and escaped with a small squeak.

"Can you tell her to stop harassing the wildlife?" I asked with a sigh. "That Clefa didn't attack us."

"I can't stop her from being who she is," Pauline shrugged. "But try to limit your attacks, Charmeleon."

The fire type grunted in annoyance.

Sandile, meanwhile, was lazily swimming across the ground. I had always struggled to place his personality, especially with how little we interacted, but since training Justin, I had recently gained an appreciation for the ground type. He was quiet, and despite disliking training, he was a hard worker. Roselia walked next to Denzel, occasionally hitting his leg with her flower to get him to walk faster. She wanted out of the cave, and fast.

"Stop hitting me, you little devil," my friend complained. "We're already at a good pace, and we don't want to tire ourselves out."

The grass type's permanent scowl worsened, and she let out a small sound, almost as if she was clicking her tongue.

"Yeah, I don't see you ever doing this with Sylveon. Maybe I should tell him how you were behaving."

"R—Rose!"

Denzel let out a small gasp. He wasn't used to seeing Roselia this flustered. "Okay, I might have been pushing that too far. He's already mad at you, so I won't tell him anything."

"How sweet of you," Cecilia smiled before staring at her own Pokemon.

Zerst and Sol still didn't get along these days, but the latter seemed to have taken the lead in the heads' relationship, and he kept Zerst in line, albeit in difficulty. Zerst's head jerked to the left, and his jaw snapped in anger toward an unsuspecting trainer who was resting with his group. Sol roared and pelted him with a small, weakened Dragon Breath, but the trainers were already scrambling and ready to run.

"My apologies!" Cece said with a grimace. "Thank you for keeping him under control, Sol."

Sol bowed his head, and Zerst imitated him. It seemed like they were both loyal to Cecilia now, but Zerst was still highly aggressive toward anything that moved that he didn't recognize.

Speaking of trainers, there were plenty of them to be seen, especially this close to the cave's entrance. Thanks to the rangers, the first few days would essentially be like walking through a route, although it was already getting colder and colder the deeper we got. We walked past another group, who were walking toward the exit this time.

"Hey, hold on," Denzel called out. "Can I ask you guys a few questions?"

It was a smaller group— three guys whose Pokemon looked to have been through the wringer. A Wartortle was covered in burns, and his shell was practically split. A Bibarel whose fur had been burned off and only had skin exposed and a Sawk's arm was bent the wrong way.

"Make it quick," the boy with the Sawk said. "We're almost out of this hellhole."

"You guys look like you fought the Turtonator that's here, right?"

"What does it look like?" He answered dryly. "Obviously we did, and we got creamed. Luckily, we got out unscathed, but we can't say the same for our Pokemon over here."

"Shouldn't you recall them…?" I asked hesitatingly. That Sawk in particular looked to be in horrible pain.

"The rest of our teams are in worse shape. These are the only Pokemon we have left that can still stand. We've already applied potions, so we did everything we could. Anyway, what do you want?"

The Pokemon here are weak, and there are enough people around to keep you safe, I thought with a frown. Not every trainer was as considerate as we were with our Pokemon.

"Where was it when you saw it?"

"With all the scorch marks it left around, it's pretty hard to miss," another trainer answered. "I wouldn't recommend fighting it, but if you really want to…"

The trainer gave us a general idea of where Turtonator was, and we were back on our way. The further along we went, the more deserted the cave was getting, but we occasionally met more trainers that had fought Turtonator. Personally, I found it strange that the rangers warning people about it seemingly had the opposite effect of what they wanted, and groups of trainers— or at least groups of trainers with multiple badges— were attempting to take it down as some sort of challenge. Some of them were wounded and burned so critically that I feared that they wouldn't be able to make it.

No one ever thought something bad would happen to them. Until it did.

Was I the same?

I saw Justin fidget with his fingers.

"You nervous?" I asked him.

"How could I not be? I think this is a terrible idea."

"I… I didn't want to say it, but I think so too, Grace," Cece said. "At least let us assist you. It's taken down so many trainers already."

I shook my head. "Your psychics will be enough," I said. "I can't say I'll come out of it unscathed, but I have a plan."

"But—"

"Cece," I interrupted. "I'll be okay."

She looked at me with a pained expression. Her face was full of worry.

"We did the same when you caught your Scyther," I told her. "I saw how determined you were to catch him. No words were going to change your mind, right? It's the same for me."

"But we did help with her Scyther," Denzel added.

"We did. But I don't want to gang up on Turtonator if I can avoid it, or it'll hate me after I catch it. If I catch it."

"But with how aggressive it is, wouldn't it just kill you?" Justin asked worriedly. "This isn't like Scyther, who could be stopped with Confusion or Psychic. Even if you can stop a Flamethrower, the heat can still kill you."

"I know," I nodded. "But think about it this way. Turtonator lost its trainer in the middle of a cave, and now a bunch of trainers are trying to attack it. Of course, it's aggressive. Who wouldn't be in that situation?"

"That's… that's true," Denzel said. "Plus, it can't even get out. The rangers would never let it get close enough to the exit. The only reason it hasn't been caught or driven off yet is because it's too deep inside the cave."

"What would they even do with it if they caught it?" I asked.

"Well, they'd probably try to rehabilitate it, and maybe give it to a ranger who'd care for it, but that would take a lot of time and paperwork to get through. Or alternatively, they could give up on that altogether and try to drive it toward a section of the cave that isn't frequented by trainers," Denzel explained.

"I'd be fine with the first option," I said. "But try to drive it off? After it experienced what traveling with a trainer was like? I can't accept that."

"Well, you better hope your plan works, then," Pauline said.

"I already explained it, and you all seemed to think it was fine."

"I know, it's just… some of these trainers looked tough, and they were in groups. Doubt's starting to creep up," she said.

"Aw, are you worried about me?"

"Ugh. Don't get full of yourself."

"She is, and she's embarrassed about it," Cecilia teased.

"So what?! So what if I am?!"

That seemed to have taken the ease off for now. The truth was, I was feeling nervous as well. How couldn't I be, after witnessing all those injured trainers? Sure, I was a good Pokemon trainer for how new I was at it, but from the stories I was hearing, this Turtonator had belonged to an experienced trainer. They had to be, with how strong the fire type was. Most wild Pokemon tended to not employ strategy much, but the information Denzel had gathered… pointed to a different story entirely. Turtonator employed aggressive tactics, had moves that could only be taught to its species via TMs, and most of all, it was intelligent. That was what worried me the most.

Could I convince an old dragon to join me?

Frillish placed a tentacle on my shoulder and murmured a reassuring cry. That was right. All of my Pokemon except Larvitar would be instrumental in this. They were here for me, and they'd have my back. Now all I could hope for was that I'd find the words to get Turtonator to join me.

That was the hole in my plan. Sure, I had potentially figured out a way to buy myself time, but what would I even say? Planning a speech felt disingenuous, and I had no doubt that Turtonator would be able to tell. It must have met plenty of other humans while traveling with its old trainer. The words would have to come from my heart.

Another group of trainers turned a corner with their Pokemon covered in burns, and Denzel called out.

You could never have enough information.

——

"Dragon Pulse," Cece coolly said.

"Keep it trapped!" Justin anxiously yelled.

A Rhydon struggled to get out of Sandile's Sand Tomb as two huge streams of blue energy flew toward the rock type, hitting it in the chest and the head. Its tough armor cracked slightly, worsening its already broken-down state.

"Spore attack," Denzel ordered.

Roselia screeched in annoyance, angling her two flowers forward and sending a bundle of Stun Spore and Poison Powder toward Rhydon. The Paralysis didn't seem to take hold, but the poison did. Rhydon let out an angered roar, and the cave's ceiling collapsed, but Gothorita, Togetic and Slowpoke were enough to stop the Rock Slide from crushing us.

"Water Pulse," I told Frillish.

We were systematically taking down this Rhydon, although it was taking a long time. It had been twenty minute since the fight had started, in fact, and the rock type was still raring to go, despite being severely hurt. It shielded its face from the Water Pulse with its thick arm, but the damage had already been done.

"Roselia, Bullet Seed. Aim for the crack in its armor."

The grass type clicked her tongue, but she obliged him. Ten seeds flew from each flower toward the Rhydon's chest, and the rock type screamed again. It stumbled and fell onto its back, causing the floor to shake.

"You can let him go," Cecilia said.

"Are you sure?" Justin asked.

"Yes. It doesn't want to fight anymore."

Justin quickly ordered Sandile to stop his Sand Tomb, and the rock type begrudgingly walked off, each of its steps making the cave shake. It was only my second time fighting a Rhydon, and I was starting to realize they were all ridiculously tough for some reason. It was no wonder a Rhyperior had managed to take down Larvitar's parent. No one knew how they evolved— even Roark didn't own one, although I remembered hearing about some Frontier Brain somehow managed to get one. His name was Palmer… Palmer something. His kid was participating in the Circuit too, although I hadn't exactly looked him up.

Palmer had caught it as a Rhyperior directly, however, so the evolution was still unknown.

"I'm surprised you aren't going for one of those, Cece," Denzel said, wiping sweat off his forehead. "They seem to fit your schtick."

"I considered it, but I decided against it," she shrugged. "I'd hate not being able to evolve it, and I found two better choices."

We had been traveling for days, and we were now in the dangerous section of the cave. There had been a few close calls with our Pokemon, but our high amount of psychics meant that we were always safe. It was understated how crucial Confusion, Psychic and Extrasensory were to a trainer's survival in the wild. Without them, I would have died at least twenty times. Of course, there was also Protect or Barrier, but they weren't as versatile. They had their uses, though. Protect, for example, would protect a trainer from a Flamethrower's heat.

I adjusted my collar and aired out my coat. It felt somewhat humid.

"Still, this is easier than I thought it would be," Justin said. "I couldn't help but be scared about having to go through here."

"Come on, don't jinx us," Pauline said. "Plus, we still have to find that Turtonator."

"Now who's jinxing us?" Denzel smiled.

This section of Mount Coronet was dark, and devoid of many trainers. We hadn't walked across a group in eight hours, so there was a severe lack of information on Turtonator's most recent location. I knew we were close, however, because some of the rocks here had been charred black.

Cecilia unzipped her coat and sighed. "Isn't it hot?"

"Now that you say it, yeah it is," I said. "It's been getting hotter—"

Suddenly, everything clicked into place, and the rest of my friends seemed to have figured it out as well. It must have been what, fifteen degrees celsius? In Mount Coronet? The coats we were wearing were made for heavy winters.

This could only mean one thing.

"Stick to the plan and let me talk to it," I quickly said as I released the rest of my Pokemon aside from Larvitar.

Gothoria and Slowpoke stepped forward, joining Togetic to defend me from any stray attacks.

I felt my palms moisten and my heart pound against my chest as I heard heavy steps reverberate through the cave and a low, guttural growl. Light shone erratically around the corner, illuminating the entire area. Turtonator walked across the rocky ground, each of its steps burning the floor. It turned away, pointing its shell at us, but still kept its face angled toward us to attack. It slammed its red, jagged tail against the ground, and it bubbled, turning into molten rock. Even with how far away we were and with the effects Mount Coronet had on the temperature, it was now as hot as a scalding summer day, and I was sweating buckets. It'd be worse the closer it got to us.

"Frillish," I exhaled, my voice trembling. I hoped I hadn't bitten off more than I could chew this time. "Drench me."

I felt cold water wash over me, causing my clothes to cling tightly to my skin. Upon closer inspection, Turtonator appeared to be severely wounded. It had bruises and dried blood covering the soft parts of its body, and its shell was practically split in two. At this point, it was running on pure rage and grief. That was the only reason I could find for it to be still standing.

"Turtonator!" I yelled. "My name is Grace. Grace Pastel! I've come to speak to you—"

The fire type growled, letting out a cloud of thick smoke from its snout. It was a Smokescreen, but it was also hot. Flames were dancing in the gaseous substance, and small bolts of lightning occasionally ran through it as well. It had a putrid odor, and the smell clung to my throat.

"Angel, princess," I said before coughing. "Here it comes."

The Smokescreen covered Turtonator's entire body, but I knew from the stories Denzel had found that it was just a bait. I was vindicated when a humongous Flamethrower parted the smoke and rushed directly toward me. Tangrowth and Togetic raised a thick barrier of earth using Ancient Power that slowly bubbled and melted to the ground. Turtonator wasted no time and sent another stream of flames forward, thinking it was catching us off guard, but we responded the same way.

The dragon type roared out in frustration and slapped its tail against its shell, creating a giant explosion that rocked me to my core and sent vibration rocking throughout my entire body. Togetic stopped a flaming piece of Turtonator's shell from landing on my face, and Electabuzz used the opportunity to step forward to step in front of me to protect me from any more stray projectiles, and I thanked him with a small nod.

Seeing that stray piece of shell made me realize that Turtonator's shell wasn't just split because of fighting trainers and wild Pokemon, it was also because it had made it explode too many times without leaving itself anytime to recover.

"Grace, this is too dangerous!" Cecilia yelled. My friends all started to say the same, but I raised a finger and stopped them from talking.

Not now.

"Please, just hear me out!" I yelled. "I don't want to fight, I know you're hurting already! I just have a proposition—"

This time, Turtonator stomped a foot against the floor, melting off the ground. The entire cave started to shake, and the floor heated up dramatically. I almost fell down, but Togetic caught me with Extrasensory. Tangrowth sneaked a few vines around me, and Electabuzz held me in place. Another enraged roar. Another incredibly powerful Flamethrower streamed toward me. The Bulldoze had made Togetic and Tangrowth focused on helping me, and they hadn't been ready for another attack so soon.

"Gothorita!" Pauline yelled.

"Slowpoke!" Cecilia cried out.

The flames stopped ten feet away from me and my Pokemon, but I could still feel its heat. I covered my face with my arms and felt the attack scorch my skin. I cried out in pain and instinctively clutched at my arm, and my face started to burn. It burned, it burned, it burned, it burned, IT BURNED—

Electabuzz grabbed me, shielding me with his body, and I felt a continuous, cold jet of cool water wash over me, easing the pain, and the Flamethrower slowly subsided. I held a hand at my face and winced when I realize that it had been burned. I didn't know how bad it was yet, but I knew that the pain would get worse as time went on.

"K—keep water on me," I groaned to Frillish. Everything was so hot, and my throat felt drier than it had ever been.

In front of me, Electabuzz punched his fist. His fur was sizzling, and part of his arm had burst into flames just from being so close to the Flamethrower, but he was so angry that he didn't even notice. Frillish quickly extinguished the fire, and I was about to call out to Turtonator again when I felt an arm grab my shoulder. It was Cecilia.

"Grace! Enough of this! You're going to die! At least let us help!"

"Cecilia. I have to do this alone."

Another Flamethrower flew out of Turtonator's snout, but two Ancient Powers blocked it far enough for us to be unaffected. If all of our Pokemon started attacking Turtonator all at once, then I was sure it would try to kill me every time it was out of the Pokeball. There was no point to that.

"Please. This is reckless. I don't want to lose you. We all think the same thing."

"Allow me to be reckless just this once," I smiled thinly. "Turtonator needs to be saved."

"The rangers will—"

"He might not even be caught," I interrupted. "I won't take that chance."

I took a deep breath and turned back toward the fire type.

"We can do this all day!" I yelled. "But I won't leave until you hear me out."

The dragon type was in no state to negotiate at the moment. In fact, I doubted that it was even understanding my words, so I'd have to tire it out until it was ready to listen—

A stream of flaming, turquoise draconic energy rushed toward both me and Cece at ridiculous speeds. Gothorita, Togetic, and Tangrowth were too slow, but Frillish and Slowpoke were enough. First, Frillish send out a Bubblebeam that slowly weakened the Dragon Pulse until Slowpoke could divert its path with Psychic. It hit the cave behind us, but Cece and I both felt the heat, and Frillish quickly drenched both of us in water.

How was a Dragon Pulse emitting this much heat? It wasn't even a fire type attack!

"Cece, let me do this," I said again. "Let me be selfish one time."

She stared at me like she was about to cry. "Fine. But if you die, I will never forgive you."

I smiled. "Now get back. It's dangerous here."

I turned toward Turtonator, and my mind began to work. There had been pieces of information missing from Denzel's story, but it wasn't his fault. Witnesses were notoriously bad at recounting things that had happened, even just a few hours after the fact. First of all, Turtonator employed some strategy, and it always aimed for me, but in its current rage-filled state of mind, it was nowhere near as smart as it probably normally was. Second of all, I didn't know if it was because of how powerful it was, but every single attack it used seemed to be embedded with some fire. Even Smokescreen.

So, in essence, every attack that so much got close to me could burn me beyond repair. I felt Frillish pour water on me again, but I still felt hot. It was starting to be like an oven in here, and the bottom of my shoes was starting to melt off. I feared that it would get worse the more attacks Turtonator used. Mount Coronet was probably terrible at diffusing heat. I couldn't wait things out. I needed to change my approach, or I'd be forced to leave.

"Angel, you think you're up for a fight?" I asked him as I wiped my hands on my jeans. His vines wriggled. "This is… this might backfire horribly. You can't use Bind from here—"

I flinched as another Dragon Pulse was averted by Slowpoke.

"You can't use Bind from this far," I continued, pointing at Turtonator. It was so hot around it that the air appeared to distort and twist. "We need you to restrain it long enough for Togetic to use Thunder Wave."

Frillish let out a worried noise, but I stopped him. "We need to slow it down," I said. "It won't be as— as clean as I hoped, but maybe if it's paralyzed, it'll come back to its senses. Get ready."

After we blocked another Dragon Pulse, Frillish drenched Tangrowth in water, and the grass type waddled forward as we looked on with worry. Turtonator roared, and its shell started to glow with a dangerous red hue. Shell Trap, I thought. Fuck.

"Tangrowth, don't get too close!" I yelled. "It's—"

With a mad grin, Turtonator slapped its tail against its shell, triggering its own Shell Trap. This was stronger than the explosion from before. The shockwave ran through my body and brought me to my knees. My jeans started to sizzle on the ground, and I hissed when my hands touched the floor, hurryingly taking them off. The skin was practically all burned off. Another burn. Electabuzz punched a piece of shell away from me, but it blew up on his hand, and he clutched at it. It was horribly broken. Even when separated from Turtonator's body, every part of its shell still counted as a Shell Trap. I called out to Tangrowth, who I couldn't even see in all of the flames and smoke, but my voice sounded distant. My ears were ringing, and my head was pounding. I stood up and blew air on my hands, trying to cool them, and I called out to Tangrowth again.

When the smoke cleared, the grass type's body was covered in flames and ash. Not even hearing the sound of my own voice, I shrieked, and Frillish flew over with Water Sport. I breathed out a sigh of relief when I realized that Tangrowth was fine, although horribly hurt. His body was protected by his thick bundle of vines, and it'd take a while for the flames to chew through them. Nevertheless, Frillish extinguished the flames with much more difficulty than earlier, and vapor was emanating from his body.

He was almost entirely made of water. The heat was so strong that it was evaporating his body.

How… how powerful was this Turtonator? This was while it was wounded.

"Frillish, get back!" I ordered, my voice still distant. I still could barely hear anything because of the explosions.

The water type listened, and Tangrowth wrapped vines around Turtonator, which all promptly caught on fire. The most important part, however, was that his tail and head were being locked in place. That meant that it couldn't create explosions, or aim at us with attacks.

"Princess," I said.

Burning air filled my lungs as Togetic sent a short burst of electricity at Turtonator. The attack surrounded the dragon type, then wrapped around him like a rope and entered its body, and it started to convulse slightly. Not as much as I would have hoped, but it was slowed. Tangrowth quickly used his vines to get back to where we were, and I swallowed when I saw that his body was smoking, still. He smelled like burned grass.

"I'm sorry, but I had to slow you down so that you could think," I called out. "I want to talk to you. Do you understand what I'm saying?"

Turtonator hesitated, then snorted, sending out small puffs of Smokescreen from its snout. Puffs this time, not a continuous stream. I knew what it was about to do. Denzel had warned me about it.

"Honey, get ready," I said. He nodded tightly and stepped forward, his hand still bloody and broken from the explosion he had protected me from.

I knew what was coming. A modified version of Smokescreen that was axed toward offense, and that was too wide to be stopped by our psychic type attacks. Electabuzz was my answer to that. Turtonator roared, and a plume of toxic, fiery smoke flew at high speeds toward us. Electabuzz brought both of his hands forward. He was so close to us, and yet he would use Discharge. All of his training with the move had led to this.

The smell of burning ozone filled my nostrils, combined with the nauseating smell from the Smokescreen, and my hair stood on end. Pebbles rose from the ground as Electabuzz sent a huge wave of electricity forward that grew the further it traveled. It pushed through the Smokescreen, causing it to vanish, and Electabuzz canceled the attack right before it would have hit Turtonator.

Discharge had originally been meant to strike all around its user like Shockwave, but we had practiced it and molded it enough to use it only in one direction. It wouldn't be guaranteed to hit its target, but since he was focusing it on one area, the damage dealt would be considerably higher. The possibilities of Pokemon moves were practically endless, so why not take advantage?

"You've seen the way I fought so far," I said. Each breath I took filled me with a sense of agony I could only try to hide. It was too hot. Frillish drenched me with water again, but that could only do so much in this heat. "I haven't hurt you. I saw you hesitate that last attack. You're starting to be sound of mind again, aren't you?"

My opponent was strong. Terrifyingly so, but it was also terribly wounded. I fully believed my entire team could have dealt the finishing blow if I had wanted to, and then I could have caught it while it was unconscious. Turtonator knew this. It threateningly slapped its tail against the ground, and the impact melted the rocks.

"Okay, that's better," I exhaled. "That's an improvement. Um— I'm— I'm Grace, like I said. You're sca—" I cut myself off. No, not scared. Dragon types wouldn't take well to that remark. "You're annoyed aren't you? You're all alone in this cave, and a bunch of trainers just walk up and started to attack you, and rangers came to try to capture you or drive you off. I'm… I'm kind of guilty of the same, but I want to get you out of this cave."

The dragon type's eyes widened, and it tilted its head in anticipation. I took it as a sign to keep talking. A single wrong word here, and the fight would start all over again. I wasn't foolish enough to think that Togetic's paralysis would actually restrain Turtonator.

"Could you start by lowering the temperature?" I asked more courageously than I actually felt. I couldn't look weak. "I'm getting lightheaded, and that'd be terrible for negotiating."

Turtonator gave me the faintest of nods, and the area finally stopped rising in temperature. At least I knew now that if I managed to get it to join me, then I wouldn't have to deal with an impossibly hot temperature the entire time. This was just an effect Turtonator could have around it if it was fighting.

"Thanks, I'm really grateful," I said. I opened my mouth, but I hesitated. Would starting this by bringing up Turtonator's previous trainer be tone-deaf? But not mentioning them could also seem disrespectful. I didn't know what to do, I didn't—

The fire type stomped the ground angrily, and rocks turned red under its feet. Even though I barely knew anything about it, I immediately knew what it meant.

Talk now, lest you anger me further.

I swallowed. Okay. Okay. "I know you've lost… someone important to you recently," I said. I saw the turtle-like Pokemon wince. "And I'm sorry. I don't know anything about you or the relationship you had with him, but I'm sorry. I heard about your story, and I thought that maybe I could help you get out, but for that, I'll have to catch you."

Emotions flashed on Turtonator's face. Disbelief, indignation, fury. How dare a little girl like me propose such an arrangement? How dare I think that I could replace his trainer?

I raised my hand, expecting the worst. "Wait! I'm not kidding, it's the only way! I could lead you to the exit, but even if I managed to get you through the horde of trainers on the other side, you'd have to get past the rangers, and then they'd keep you. I'm going to assume that since you had a previous trainer, you liked to travel the world, didn't you? You came from Alola all the way here."

I waited for a response, but Turtonator said nothing.

"Or alternatively, you could come with me. I'm also a trainer, as you saw," I said, pointing at my team. "And, uh, I plan on traveling to every region…" I muttered. "And becoming the best! So come with— give me a chance."

Turtonator snorted, shaking his head, and my heart sank.

But then it turned toward me, exposing its red, soft underbelly, and stared.

I grabbed a Pokeball. "May I?"

He gave me an annoyed nod, and I took a few steps forward. I threw the ball at Turtonator, and waited with bated breaths. It took fifteen seconds for it to shake the first time, as if it was still mulling on if it should come with me or not, but after that, it shook another two times and let out a small sound.

I had caught Turtonator.

But I was still a long way off from actually being able to use it in any way, shape, or form. Turtonator still clearly thought me to be some naive annoying child that it could blow off whenever it wanted. Hell, it probably had only let itself be caught to save itself from a worse fate. I'd have to be careful when releasing it outside of the cave.

Still, I smiled. I stepped toward the Pokeball and grabbed it, ignoring the pain I felt from the burns on my palms.

The Pokeball felt hot in my hands.

A/N: Every time I write an important fight scene, it becomes my new favorite. Is this recency bias at work? I hope you enjoyed that. It was a battle against Turtonator, but also the effect it has on the environment itself. Powerful fire types are no joke. You might also have noticed that it's also ridiculously powerful. Some people might dislike that, but there's a reason for it. I didn't just do it because it could make for a cool 'boss battle'. Don't expect Grace to be able to use it in battle or be friends with it any time soon. Think of it like Ash's Charizard in the anime, but worse. Grace is going to have to deal with her first unruly team member. And yes, Frillish doesn't really count, because he came around relatively quickly.
 
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Chapter 109
CHAPTER 109

I felt my legs wobble as my friends rushed toward me. My sixth team member. I had finally caught it.

"Grace, your face!" Denzel yelled. "Justin, get a compress."

Justin nodded and started looking through his bag.

"It's not just her face, her arms and palms are burned too," Pauline sighed. "You almost died."

"No, I had it under control most of the time," I sighed. The air was finally cooling, but I could still barely hear anything. My left ear in particular was hurting really badly. "Cece, can you heal Tangrowth and Electabuzz?"

"Of course," she said with a thin smile. "Never do that again, I was so scared for you."

"Now you know how we felt with Scyther," I said. "But I won't. Turtonator's my sixth, so I won't need to take risks like this for a while. Not until I get my eighth badge and I can get permission to catch more Pokemon anyway."

I groaned in pain as Justin placed the cold compress against my face. This was going to hurt like hell in a few hours. Actually, it already fucking sucked.

"Already thinking that far ahead? You should probably slow down," Pauline said.

"No, no, I was just saying it to calm Cece down," I said, waving my unwounded arm dismissively. "I have no idea who I'm going to catch, and no plans about it."

"You have no idea how many times I tried to stop you, by the way," Denzel said. "Pauline stopped us every time."

"Yeah, I did, but Cece managed to slip through, especially with that asshole of a Zweilous that growled at me for holding her by the arm."

"That was just Zerst…" Cecilia sighed.

"Anywhere else you're hurting, Grace?" Justin asked me. "Or is it just your burns?"

"I felt lightheaded earlier, but I think that it was because of the heat, and my ear's kind of fucked up. Other than that, I'm fine. Thanks."

"Fine is probably pushing it," Denzel said. "But okay. "We should probably move, though. It's a miracle that nothing came to interrupt that battle. Are you good to walk?"

"Wild Pokemon here probably avoided Turtonator like the plague," Cece guessed. "You saw how strong it was. Nothing here could stand up to it in a fight. Maybe Rhydon, but that's it."

"Well, Grace sure has powered up, then," Justin smiled. "As expected of my teacher."

I blushed. "Gee, you're embarrassing me. I won't be able to use Turtonator for a long time, I think. There's no way it's going to listen to me. I don't even think all of my Pokemon could stand up to it in a fight where it's at its full strength."

"That's probably true," Cece sighed. She knew more about dragons than anyone here. "It's going to take a long time for you to gain its respect, but if you can get on a 'doesn't try to kill you every time it's out of the ball' basis, then I'd say you're on the right path."

I chuckled at that. I didn't really think Turtonator would attack me from that short interaction we had had, but who knew how it would feel a few hours from now? At least I'd be able to recall it into its ball as soon as it started acting up. I didn't want to keep it trapped, but I needed to be safe. There was no telling what it was capable of after getting all of its wounds checked at a Pokemon Center.

"Well, let's move, then," I said. "Thank you for trusting me, Pauline."

The redhead's eyes widened. "Yeah, no problem. I knew you'd kick ass."

"What? No snarky remark?" I grinned.

"Don't push it, you little gremlin," she fumed.

"Grace, let me bandage your arm," Justin said.

"Don't forget her hands…" Cece said.

Once again, we started walking toward Mount Coronet's exit. Turtonator's fight marked the halfway point, but we were less than a day away from the dangerous zone. As soon as we left that, we were as good as free.



"Okay, here goes," I sighed, looking at my entire team. Even Larvitar was here. They had recovered from the fight relatively well, although Electabuzz's hand was still broken, and his fingers were all bent the wrong way, which was why I wanted to make this as quick as possible so that he could go back in his ball.

We were only a day away from exiting Mount Coronet, and we had made camp in an isolated part of the cave. My burns still hurt like hell, especially when we had to change the bandages. The friction was horrible, and the pain was getting worse. I could barely hear anything out of my left ear, and holding things with my hands was basically impossible, although I always pushed myself whenever I needed to use Pokeballs. Strangely though, a part of the burn on my arm was painless. Well, I actually couldn't even feel anything there, even touch, and the skin there had turned completely white.

If only I was a Pokemon… one burn heal, a potion, and I would have been as good as new. Turtonator had really done a number on me.

Speaking of Turtonator, I was going to release it again for the first time here for a few reasons. First, I wanted to figure out what was its gender, because referring to Turtonator as it felt dehumanizing— well, it wasn't human, but the point still stood. Second, I wanted to heal its injuries as best I could with potions and Togetic's Wish. Third, I wanted to just speak with it.

"Ready, guys?" I asked my Pokemon. They nodded.

I grabbed Turtonator's Pokeball, which felt hot in my hand, and released it. The fire type stared at us with indifference— or was it disdain? It was somehow still standing after all that fighting and acting like it was nothing.

"Hey again," I said. We were close. So close, in fact, that it probably could have burned me before I had time to recall it. "I wanted to help you with your wounds, and scan you with my Pokedex."

Turtonator snorted and turned away from me dismissively.

"No?" I asked. There was no response. Only the temperature rising by a few degrees. I swallowed, hurriedly and painstakingly grabbed a potion from my backpack, and sprayed its bruises with them. I also ordered Togetic to use Wish, which would help somewhat, but the shell was broken beyond what a potion could do, and we'd have to wait to get to the Pokemon Center for that, just like honey's hand.

"I'm going to scan you, okay?"

I grabbed my Pokedex and pointed it toward the fire type.

Turtonator, the Blast Turtle Pokemon. Turtonator's shell is made out of a thin layer of explosive material that ignites when struck, creating an explosion. It gushes poisonous gases from its nostril and will also strike at its own shell to kill its prey.

Moves: Smog, Ember, Smokescreen, Incinerate, Iron Defense, Flamethrower, Shell Trap, Dragon Pulse, Bulldoze, Scorching Sands, Rock Tomb, Body Slam, Flash Cannon, Solar Beam, Rapid Spin, Scale Shot, Iron Tail, Focus Blast (Click for more information)

Ability: Shell Armor (Click for more information)

Gender: Male


My eyes widened at the incredible array of moves Turtonator had at his disposal. Some of these could only be taught to the species through TMs, just like Denzel had told me! Iron Tail in particular intrigued me, because Turtonator's short tail and little mobility meant that he wasn't the best at using the move, but after thinking about how to apply it for a few seconds, I realized that it was how Turtonator had triggered his own Shell Trap. The move needed Turtonator to take actual damage, which meant that simply touching the shell wouldn't be enough. That was why he hurt himself with Iron Tail. His old trainer must have been incredibly skilled. He probably only used a few against us because those were what he was the best at, and he wasn't in the right state of mind to use the others he had less experience with.

Still… his trainer was powerful and experienced, and yet, they still died in a cave. The proof that one mistake was all it took. One mistake, and a life could be snuffed out.

"So you're a guy," I hesitantly said. "Erm, let me introduce you to the team. This over here is princess. She was my first Pokemon—"

Turtonator ignored me completely and walked off, lying down on the ground about twenty feet away from me. Togetic chirped sadly in protest, but I stopped her.

"Are you tired? Do you want to eat?" I asked. "I have food if you want."

The dragon type didn't answer, so I opted to keep introducing him to the team. I knew he could hear, even if he acted like he couldn't.

"This is buddy. He was my second, and he's kind of reserved, but he always means well. Sorry if he's glaring at you so much, he'll come around," I sighed before pointing to Electabuzz with my thumb out of habit and winced when I felt the skin rub against my bandage. "That's honey. He tends to be hyper, although he's mellowed out with age. Just a bit, though. I don't know if you enjoy battling, but if you do, honey's your guy—"

I took a step back when I saw Turtonator glare at me. Just one look, and I felt instinctual fear. The temperature rose around me, and I started to sweat. Larvitar protested and screamed at the dragon type, but he paid her no mind and kept staring right through me, as if he was judging my every action.

"Okay, I get it," I hurriedly said. "That's angel, and that's sweetheart. We're done."

Turtonator closed his eyes, and the temperature slowly went back to normal. So that was how he was going to do it, then. He recognized that I was the one getting him out of the cave, so he wouldn't try to kill me, but he also wanted nothing to do with me, so if I tried to do any kind of bonding, he'd threaten to burn me.

Well, maybe he needed some space. The loss of his trainer was probably still fresh in his mind, and me swooping in like this probably angered him. I had wanted to ask him if he used to have a nickname, and if he hadn't, then I wanted to give him one, but that was clearly off the table. Even just speaking was off the table.

"I'm recalling you," I sighed. He snorted, seemingly satisfied with himself, and I placed him back in the Pokeball before turning to the rest of my team. "This is going to take a long time, but I want you all to be as accommodating as possible. Obviously, don't let him walk all over you, but don't be aggressive, either."

"Fri…"

"Yeah, I know it's hard. I know he hurt me, but if I've forgiven him, you can at least try," I smiled thinly. "Let's get back to the others."

Today's interaction was a win in my book. Sure, he had threatened to squash me like a bug with a single look and by raising the temperature slightly, but he hadn't done it. Plus, he at least knew everyone on the team now. Things might change when I brought him out of the cave, however. He had only joined me because I promised to get him out, so who knew how he'd feel when I released him on the outside?

Well, he didn't seem to hate me, at least. That hadn't been the impression I got from him. Maybe he just found me annoying to deal with? Thinking back to what Craig had told me during my fight with Chase, it'd be important to give Turtonator his space.

I had recalled Turtonator at the perfect moment, because a pair of trainers walked past me a few seconds later. I had no idea how I was going to go about gaining Turtonator's respect. The last unruly Pokemon I had had was Frillish, but he had come around after a few days, even if he hadn't listened to every command. Turtonator would be a whole other beast. A small part of me hoped that there'd be a breakthrough in a few days and that we'd all become friends, but I knew better. This wouldn't take days. This wouldn't even take weeks. This would take months. I'd try to find out more about his old trainer online when we got to the outpost.

I was in for a long ride, but I had nothing but time. The hardest step, which had been catching him, was already over, and he didn't want to kill me either. I clenched a fist in determination and hissed when a jolt of pain shot up from my hand to my shoulder.

I was going to shower Turtonator with love until he finally yielded. No matter how long it took.



"We're finally out," Justin sighed. After six days of travel, we had reached the other side of Mount Coronet.

The view here was absolutely breathtaking. Pristine rivers ran through deep canyons lower on the mountain slopes, and the outpost could be seen around ten minutes away from here. In the distance, Hearthome stood in all of its glory, with its mix of new skyscrapers and older buildings that came together to create something beautiful. Still, even if the city of warmth and kindness looked close, it was actually five days away because we'd need to walk down the steep mountain, and then through a short flat path. Route 208 was relatively easy, as far as routes went, but the terrain was among the worse to get through.

"Let's get to the outpost and to a Center," Denzel said. "We deserve a break after all of that."

I nodded. "Even though we made it through without much difficulty this time, it was still fucking exhausting. I want to take a warm shower and sleep in a warm bed."

Although with my burns... showering would probably be an agonizing experience. And changing clothes. And sleeping. I sighed.

"The rangers seem to be getting better at keeping Mount Coronet safe," he said. "There weren't as many dangerous encounters as I was expecting. I almost thought I'd see another Gyarados coming out of that giant lake."

My eyes bulged. "Gyarados?"

"Oh… right, I never told you," he sighed. "Yeah, Cece and I saw a Gyarados when we were separated. Didn't fight it, though. It was too strong."

Pauline sprung up. "I'd like a Gyarados!"

"I thought we already agreed on Exploud," I laughed.

We walked to the outpost, but before going to the Center to get myself and my Pokemon checked out, I had one more thing to do. I entered the ranger building and patiently waited for my turn until the receptionist called me over. I strode up there with a slight smile— as much as I could, with how fucking painful these burns were. Hopefully I'd get some painkillers or something because this was quickly becoming unbearable.

"Welcome to route 208's ranger building. How can I help you today? If this is about orientation, we won't run another one of those for three weeks. You missed it by a few days."

"No, no, this isn't about orientation," I said. "You know that Turtonator that troubled you?"

"Of course. What of it—" The ranger stared at me for the first time and gasped in shock. "Um, you look really bad, you should probably get to a Center right now."

"I'll do it right after this. I caught Turtonator, and I'll be keeping him, too."
 
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Chapter 110
CHAPTER 110

"Um, this isn't some prank, is it?" The receptionist ranger asked me.

"No? I was just coming here to notify you because it's important."

"Okay, well— let me call my boss," she sighed. "Jeremy, come take over!"

Around thirty seconds later, a short man with a full, thick beard and long hair came over from the backroom and complained about his break not being over, but the woman just ignored his pleas and hurryingly left to get whoever this boss was. I looked at my shoes and groaned. The soles were still intact, but the bottom was half-melted by Turtonator, and it made it hard to walk. I'd need to buy new ones later today, especially since we were supposed to walk down the mountain. You needed good shoes for that. Still, I felt somewhat sentimentally attached to these white sneakers, although they were stained so much that they couldn't really be called white anymore. I had had them since the start of my journey, and now, I'd have to throw them in the trash soon.

"Is this her?"

I heard a familiar voice, and my eyes widened when I recognized Malcolm Brockhouse— the same ranger that had given us our class days ago before entering the mountain.

"That's her," the receptionist said.

"Well, she certainly looks like she fought a Turtonator," Brockhouse said after a short pause. "Are you sure you don't want to go to the Center first?"

I shook my head. What he had said about how I looked was true, though. The left side of my face and neck were still recovering from burns, and my left arm and both of my hands were covered in bandages. My shoes were half-melted, and my jeans were slightly burned at the knee level. Plus, he couldn't have known this, but I still heard practically nothing out of my left ear.

"Come with me," he continued. I just nodded and followed him. I wasn't exactly nervous, but I hadn't expected to see Brockhouse again at all. After taking me to what appeared to be his office— there was a huge picture of him and who I believed to be his family on the wall— he seemingly noticed my surprise. "You were in my class. Are you surprised to see me?"

"Um, yes," I blurted out.

"We have a League-issued Kadabra that lets us Teleport between both sides," he explained. "I'm in charge of both outposts, and I had some business to attend to here, but that can wait. Sit."

"Um, I don't want to dirty your fancy office chair," I said.

"That doesn't matter, no one uses the office anyway," he shrugged. "So, you've got the Turtonator. I believe you, but could you let us verify it?"

Well, he had certainly cut to the chase quickly.

"I told this to the other rangers, but I'm keeping him, so I'll only let you see if you agree. I don't want to hear anything about how it's too dangerous, or whatever," I said.

Brockhouse smirked. "Did you think I was going to say that?" He asked. "That isn't how we function. You're fifteen and a trainer. You're not an adult yet, but society certainly treats you like one, and we already trust you to make your own decisions. I think you're biting off more than you can chew, but you caught it, so if you want to, you get to keep it. If it ever goes out of control and causes death or injuries, though… then we or the League will be in contact."

I breathed out a sigh of relief and grabbed Turtonator's Pokeball on my belt, trying to hide the pain I still felt when I grabbed things. Brockhouse said something, but since it had been my left ear facing him, the voice was muffled and I couldn't hear what he said.

"Excuse me?" I asked.

He grabbed the Pokeball. "I said I wouldn't have expected a first-year like you to catch this thing. His old trainer was pretty experienced."

"His older trainer? Did you figure something out?" I exclaimed. Finding out about this could potentially help me understand Turtonator better, so I wouldn't let the opportunity pass.

"We did. He was a seventeen-year-old Alolan that had gone through the trials during his first year, and the Johto Circuit the next. He was trying out Sinnoh this year, but as you know, he was killed," Brockhouse said with a heavy breath. He got up, walked to the corner of the room, and placed the Pokeball into some kind of spherical container in a printer-like device with a screen. "He seemed to prioritize traveling over competing, though."

"So this was his third year…" I trailed off. Turtonator had lost his trainer who he had known for more than two years, and yet he hadn't shown any signs of grieving after our battle. "Um, what's that machine?"

"Pokeball scanner. Helps us identify what's in the damn thing without having to release whatever's inside," he said. The screen machine beeped, and a Turtonator image flashed across the screen. "Well, you were right. Since an official, League-sanctioned trade didn't take place, I'm going to need you to fill out a few documents to give you legal ownership of Turtonator," he continued as he grabbed a few papers and a pen. He placed them all on the table in front of me.

I brought my hand forward and hissed in pain when I grabbed the pen and tried to write.

"Um, I don't think I can hold a pen," I said embarrassingly. The friction between my hands, the bandages and the pen rubbing against it was just too much.

"Are you sure?" Brockhouse sighed. "Well, you can always come back before you leave. You're in no state to travel, and you should get yourself checked in at the Center, especially if you can't even write. Those burns look… bad."

"Yeah, I'll do that," I said as he handed me Turtonator's Pokeball. With a painful grunt, I clipped it on my belt. "Um, one last thing. Turtonator's trainer, what was his name?"

"Kamaile Nalanie," he said. The words felt heavy. Like they mattered.

"Thank you," I nodded. I would commit this name to memory and never forget it. I stood up and let Brockhouse show me out, and soon enough, I was at the Pokemon Center. I warned the nurses about Turtonator being potentially aggressive or uncooperative, and I walked to the human wing to get a check-up.

——

"Second-degree burns all along the face and neck, and a second and third-degree burn on your arm," the doctor said. "Another two second-degree burns on your palms, and two first-degree burns on your knees. You certainly went through it, Ms. Pastel."

"Third degree?" I gasped. "Isn't that really bad? I don't feel any pain there."

"Yes, it is really bad," he deadpanned. "Did you not pay attention in class? The reason you don't feel any pain is because the nerve endings have been destroyed. You'll need a skin graft. That implies surgery."

I froze. That… that was way worse than what I thought. A part of my arm was completely white— like a sheet of paper, and I thought that had been weird, but since there was no pain, I thought it was improving somewhat, but I had apparently been completely wrong. I had been in denial. It wasn't that there was just no pain, there was just no feeling there whatsoever.

"I can see you're anxious, but that isn't it," he said. "You said you struggled to hear out of your left ear, correct? Your left ear drum is ruptured, but it'll heal on its own in a few weeks. If it doesn't, or if it starts leaking, you'll need to get it checked again."

"Thank you," I sighed. Surgery terrified me, but if it was the only way… "When can we do this surgery thing? And what does a skin graft imply? Will I be put under?"

"The third-degree burn on your arm is relatively small, so it will be local anesthesia," the doctor said. "We'll take a thin layer of skin from another part of your body and place it on the burned area. After the procedure, you'll need to stay for a few days, since the new skin will need to sit very still— but after that, you'll be free to go, even if the graft won't have completely healed yet. I hope you don't mind scars."

"No, no, it's fine," I said. At least the ones on my face and neck wouldn't be too bad. "What about the area you take the… skin from?"

"Oh, that takes a week or two to heal back as well, but it'll be as good as new," he said. "If you want, we can have your surgery as soon as tomorrow. The rest of your burns will heal on their own with a cream we'll give you."

"Fine," I resolved. The sooner, the better. "Tomorrow it is."

The doctor nodded, wished me well, and left. A few minutes later, a Nurse Joy came into the room and explained the surgery in full detail, including the recovery process, in which I'd have to take care of the graft site by keeping it dry, clear of fluids, and I'd have to keep the stitches possibly for weeks, and that part of my arm wouldn't feel right for months. There were also risks, such as an infection on the graft site, and then she gave me some cream to put on my second and first-degree burns to quicken the healing process. After that, she made me sign a consent form, and then I was put into another room with a bed. They allowed me to wash myself, which had to be done with a soft shower glove because the pressure of the showerhead hurt too much to actually shower normally. Hell, even using the Arceus damned glove hurt my hands.

I had never felt as weak as I did now. The human body was so fickle.

Afterward, I was put in a hospital gown, and they placed an IV drip in my arm that would give me antibiotics and electrolytes, whatever that second thing was. I was given a slew of pills, including painkillers, and finally, I was alone.

Turtonator certainly had done a number on me, hadn't he? I was so used to walking off injuries and letting them heal on their own that I thought it'd be the same here. I'd have to text my dad about it when I could. I had told him I'd be in Hearthome soon, and he was supposed to fly out to see me. He had already booked his flight, so the delay would mean he'd need to extend his stay in the city.

"Kamaile Nalanie…" I trailed off. If my hands hadn't hurt like hell, I would have looked him up to learn more about him—

The door burst open, and all of my friends entered my room.

"Grace! You didn't tell us you'd need to stay at the hospital!" Cece said immediately. "You kept pretending to be fine! What's going on?"

"Well, I didn't know either, so you can't blame me," I said with a thin smile. I lifted my burned arm. "A part of my burn here is third-degree. I need a skin graft."

"Holy shit…" Denzel exhaled.

"You said it. I'm getting it tomorrow already, and we'll have to stay for a bit longer," I said. "It should be fine, though. With all the burned trainers coming through, they've had to do this a lot, and it's always gone well."

"If you say so," Cece sighed. "Do you want anything?"

"Yeah, actually," I said. "Could you grab my phone and text my dad about what happened? I'd do it but…"

I brought my hands up and showed my bandaged fingers. Cecilia let out a small chuckle and grabbed my bag, looking for my phone.

"Hmph. This Turtonator spells trouble," Pauline said. "You made a deal with him to get out of the cave, right? What if he attacks you now that he's out?"

"I'll deal. He's hurting, but hiding it," I said.

"You're too nice for your own good," Justin sighed. "If it were me, I would have given him to the rangers. A murderous dragon is dangerous."

"I can't act like I'm a saint either. A part of me is also doing this because of how powerful he is," I shrugged. "Denzel, can you look up a name for me?"

"Yeah?"

"Kamaile Nalanie," I said. "Turtonator's old trainer."

He whipped out his Poketch. "Gotcha."

"Grace, what should I text to your father?" Cece asked. She was holding the phone and trembling like a leaf. It was cute how embarrassed she was around meeting or speaking to him.

"Well, you can either say that it's you, or you can pretend to be me," I shrugged. I still hadn't told my dad that we were dating— I was planning on telling him in person— but he knew her and my friends' names. "Just start with the fact that I'm actually fine, and then ease into the surgery part."

"Ease into it?" Pauline said incredulously. "How do you ease into that?"

"Leave it to me," Cecilia said with a determined nod.

"What?!" The redhead scoffed.

"Grace, I've got a some results for your guy," Denzel said. "What do you want to know?"

"How he looked and what he was like, maybe?"

Denzel showed me his screen, and Kamaile looked like any teenager. He had tanned skin, his face was square-ish, and he looked to be well-built and tall like Denzel was. Most of the pictures were recent from the news of his death and the whole debacle with Turtonator blocking Mount Coronet that the media seemed to have run with, but some of it was older. Pictures of his younger self during his travels through Alola and Johto.

"He made it through four trials during his first year in Alola, which is more impressive when you realize that there are only seven," Denzel explained. "Then, instead of trying again the next year, he went to Johto and got six badges there. Most of his fights seem to have been won due to his Turtonator's power."

So Turtonator was strong enough to compete at six badges— no, probably seven now, because of how much time had passed since last year's Johto Conference. That was good to know, and it explained why he had been so tough when he had practically been knocked out. Now that he was being healed by the nurses, I was sure that my entire team wouldn't be able to win against him, especially when he could have such an incredible effect on the environment around him. I always knew fire types were capable of emitting heat, but Turtonator had been on another level entirely. Just having one of my Pokemon approaching him would hurt them. Tangrowth could maybe restrain him, but not for long enough, because his vines would just burn off, and Turtonator was probably strong enough to rip them apart now that he'd be at full capacity. Frillish's water type attacks were neutral due to his dragon typing, but they wouldn't deal that much damage either because of all the heat. Togetic lacked in raw power to even hope to hurt him, even with Fairy Wind, and dragons resisted electric type attacks, and Ice Punch wouldn't do much, so Electabuzz was off the table too. It wasn't like he'd be able to even approach him anyway with all the heat. Larvitar might be able to do something when she got stronger and evolved, though.

Well, I knew a fight wouldn't actually happen because I'd just recall Turtonator if he looked like he was about to attack me, but my brain couldn't help but theorize how I would win. Right now, though? There was just no way.

"There isn't that much else about him out there," Denzel said as he scrolled through his Poketch. "He seemed to keep to himself."

"Well, I know he liked to travel, so that lines up," I said. "Oh, did you guys send a message in the group chat too?"

"We did. Emi's worried about you," Pauline said with a slight smile. "She was beside herself. You know how she does that thing where she uses so many punctuation marks and emojis that you can tell exactly how she's feeling through the screen?"

We all laughed at that. "Yeah, I know," I smiled. "Anything about Chase or Louis?"

"Nothing from both of them," Pauline said.

"Not even Chase?" Denzel raised an eyebrow. "That's strange. He went through Mount Coronet before us, he should have been out by now."

"Have you considered the fact that he might just be an asshole?" Pauline shrugged.

"He's got a lot of redeeming qualities," Denzel said.

"I think Pauline and Chase could either get along amazingly well or hate each other completely," Cecilia said. "There's no in-between. Here, Grace."

She showed me my phone to read the message she had typed, which was… ridiculously long. Seriously, this was at least five hundred words long, and it somehow followed an essay-like structure with a short introduction where she introduced herself, a body where she described my condition, and a conclusion that said I'd be fine.

"Thanks," I smiled. "You can send it."

Chase not having sent a message worried me. He had sent one before going through the mountain, and he wasn't the type to forget things easily. Even if he had acted all nonchalant about the promise to keep us up to date, I knew that he knew how important it was to me. Louis… well, Louis probably still wanted his space, but I hoped that he was fine.

Denzel sprung up. "Hey Grace, did you know that Craig battled against Gardenia a few days ago? Do you want to watch the battle?"

"Holy shit! You could have told me earlier! Obviously I want to watch. Who won?"

"Craig."

"Ugh," I groaned. "I wanted Gardenia to win."

"Craig would be hurt if he heard that," Denzel laughed.

"Craig this, Craig that, Justin and I don't know him, so every time you bring him up, we feel left out. Just put the video on," Pauline said.

"Let it be known that I have nothing against you speaking about Craig," Justin sighed.

Denzel put the battle on, but something seemed off about the fight. Sure, high-level battles were incredibly impressive, and they made me wish I was that good. Craig and Gardenia were in a completely different world, and their Pokemons' attacks put even Turtonator to shame. Still, Gardenia's head seemed to not be in the fight. She gave Craig a run for his money, but there were none of her usual battle-long traps that she usually set up. She hadn't even smiled once during the battle, when using her personal team was something that should have brought her incredible joy.

Had something happened to her recently?

Maybe I was just imagining things. None of my friends were saying anything about it anyway. Maybe it was just an off-day for her. Gardenia battled all day long, so I couldn't really expect her to always be flawless. That would be seriously unhealthy.

We spent the next few hours just fooling around and talking. Justin and Pauline left first, since they wanted to train and battle. Denzel and Cece stayed until visitor hours were over. The next morning, a few doctors and a Nurse Joy came into the room and started the surgery. After the initial pain from the local anesthesia injection, everything was smooth sailing. They took some skin from my thigh to put on my arm, although I had to look away. Seeing my skin get cut off? Ew, no thank you.

It went perfectly well, and it really wasn't as bad as I thought it would be, but the consequences would be lasting. The scars would become a part of me forever, and the pain would stay for weeks or possibly months. A reminder that actions had consequences. I couldn't always be reckless and hope things would work out. Plans wouldn't be enough if the power disparity was as large as it had been between me and Turtonator.

At least I could scratch 'first surgery' off my non-existent trainer bucket list. It was bound to happen at some point anyway.
 
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Chapter 111
CHAPTER 111

"Speaking of your favorite song, did you know I've always wanted to play the piano?"

Cece let out a surprised hum and smiled at Grace.

"Really? That came out of nowhere, but I feel like it'd fit you," she said. "Why have you never tried?"

"Well, no time. You know how being a trainer is," Grace replied with a small shrug. "But my therapist Amanda had one in her office, and I never got to play it before leaving Floaroma."

"I'm sure you could find one in Hearthome somewhere…"

It had been two days since Grace's surgery, and like every time she was allowed to visit, Cecilia was keeping her girlfriend company. The others were all busy— especially Pauline and Justin, who were trying to implement their teachers' respective strategies into battle. Grace was recovering well, although patches of skin on the entire left side of her body were discolored going up to her neck and cheek, and the skin graft still needed to heal for another two days before they'd be able to travel. The recovery process would be painful. Cece relaxed in her chair, and Grace sneakily grabbed her hand.

"Worried about something?" She asked.

"You, mostly," Cecilia answered, eliciting a small laugh. "Don't laugh, I'm serious! You're the most reckless girl I've ever known!"

"I said I wouldn't do it again. Come on, forgive me already," she pouted.

"Well, I can't stay mad at you for too long anyway," Cecilia said. "But now, we're even, I suppose."

"That we are," Grace smiled, tightening her hand around hers. "But come on, I know you're worried about something else."

Cecilia inhaled sharply and stared into Grace's green eyes. It was terrifying sometimes, how perceptive she was at catching the littlest things, and the way she applied that in her battle strategies was even more so. She had a gift for finding out how people worked after observing them for just a few days or hours.

"Even if you don't tell me," Grace said as she stood up straight on her hospital bed. "I think I can figure it out."

Cecilia let out a defeated sigh. "You can read me like an open book, can't you?"

"If you want to go train, you can go," she said. "I can be alone for a few hours. I told Denzel the same thing."

"But you're in pain… you're hiding it too."

"I am, but it's not too bad, and it's been getting better," Grace said. "If it hadn't, I wouldn't have been able to hold your hand."

"Fair enough," Cecilia sighed. "Then I'll be leaving?"

"I'm a big girl, I can handle it! Now go before I change my mind and I make you stay the whole day."

"I wouldn't be against that."

Grace laughed heartily. It was like music to Cecilia's ears. How was she keeping her spirits up after what had happened to her? Was she just pretending? Even if she was, Cecilia would be there to talk when she was ready to. "Come on Cece, I'll just watch something on TV. The Nurses will help with everything, and they're only one call away."

"Fine," she grumbled. "I'll be back this afternoon."

The blonde girl grinned. "Thanks! I love you!"

Cecilia's heart spun and danced in her chest. "I love you too."

She kissed her forehead and quickly strode out of the Pokemon Center with her Pokeballs on her hip, and wondered on what to do. Cecilia could either go off and train on her own or find Pauline. Denzel was also training out there somewhere, but for some reason, finding him while his Sylveon was out had been difficult recently. Cecilia would ask him where he had been, and he would answer with someplace she had walked through to look for him and hadn't seen him anywhere.

In the end, Cecilia resolved to find Pauline, but before that, she went to a generalist store that sold everything a trainer might have needed and bought Grace some new shoes. She had sneakily found out her size the day before by grabbing one of her half-melted shoes, and she knew that she needed new ones before they left. Cecilia tried grabbing the closest design to what Grace currently had— some white sneakers. Satisfied with her purchase, she quickly dropped them in her Center room and went back out to find Pauline, which she did in about fifteen minutes.

Finding her hadn't exactly been difficult. She seemed to have garnered a lot of attention due to how much she battled lately, and there was always a small crowd that watched her. Justin, meanwhile, was more discreet with his battles, opting to do that in isolated corners of the outpost. Grace was rubbing off on him.

Pauline stood proudly with her hands on her hips as Rufflet triumphantly squawked with a talon over a Furret's neck. Cecilia had worked with the bird a whole lot, and she was extremely loud and reckless, but the move Brave Bird hadn't been named after Braviary for nothing, or at least that's what the stories said. It wasn't really possible to verify. Pauline's opponent recalled his Furret and transferred prize money to her trainer ID, although loudly remarking that it was scummy for her to take his money because she was rich. Pauline replied by telling him to go fuck himself and giving him the finger.

"Ah, Cece! Did you see me wipe the floor with this guy?" Pauline asked with a confident smirk. "It was like you said, I overwhelmed him, and he could barely respond to my attacks."

"I didn't see it, but it certainly looked like it. Rufflet seems unharmed. How about your other Pokemon?" Cecilia asked.

"Charmeleon took a few hits earlier, but other than that, nothing."

"Good. Let's find a quieter corner to train," she said.

"I thought you'd stay with Grace for a while," Pauline said as they began walking.

"That was the plan, but she practically ordered me to go train. She could tell I wanted to, and Grace would hate it if I started holding my progress back because I was staying with her."

"The little gremlin's freaky like that," Pauline grinned.

"Is that going to be a thing?"

"What? The gremlin thing? I think it's cute and it fits her. You should try calling her that."

"Absolutely not," Cecilia scoffed. "Anyway, right now, it's about you, not her."

They found the spot they were looking for— a fenced area that kept trainers from falling down into one of Mount Coronet's many canyons. A huge river system flowed through them, and some trainers could even be seen down there riding on their water Pokemon, no doubt having figured out that getting off the mountain was quicker like this than just scaling down the proper path.

"Did you do what I asked of you?" Cecilia asked.

"Yes, yes," she sighed, waving a hand. "Ten battles in a row with no trips to the Center. I honestly think I can go up to fifteen now. You saw how my Pokemon barely took any hits."

Cece clicked her tongue dismissively. "Don't get overconfident now. The reason you can go up to ten is because you've been fighting all kinds of trainers— including those without badges. If you want to be able to go up a level, you need to fight ten in a row with at least one badge."

"Fine," Pauline grumbled, flicking her hair back. "What do you have in store for me today, my dear teacher?"

Cecilia grabbed Slowpoke and Zweilous' Pokeballs and released them. Slowpoke wasn't exactly here to do anything, he was mostly here to observe.

And practice speaking to her.

Good… Cecilia… well…

Cecilia's eye twitched at the slight headache. It would have been much more painful if he could speak to her properly, but Cecilia feared that he wouldn't be able to until she finally bought him a King's Rock in Hearthome. Still, from the three words she had heard, she could tell what Slowpoke had meant.

"I am well, Slowpoke," she smiled. "Keep practicing, I'll keep your voice at the back of my mind."

"Wait, he speaks to you?" Pauline asked, her eyes widening. "I thought Slowpoke couldn't do that!"

"He can, although the words aren't clear," she smiled. Slowpoke's psychic abilities were special, after all. When he evolved… Cecilia shuddered in anticipation. "And I've already told you that you should let your Gothorita do the same."

Pauline groaned. "I tried, but the pain… it's like self-inflicted torture."

"It's like training a muscle, it gets better the more you do it," she sighed. "But anyway, release your Charmeleon."

"Easy for you to say. Gothorita's words are smooth and clear, and it's like someone's putting a jackhammer in my head. Are we having her and Zweilous fight?"

"No, not yet. We're having a lesson first," Cecilia said. "What do you think is the biggest weakness our way of battling has?"

Pauline placed her hands on her hips, thinking for a few seconds while Zweilous and Charmeleon growled threateningly at each other.

"I don't know. If using power to blow past our enemies doesn't work, we're fucked, maybe?"

Cecilia's eyes widened in surprised. "Wow, you actually figured it out."

"Fuck off. That sounded like a backhanded compliment."

She cleared her throat. "But yes, using power— shock, and awe to win in a battle is well and good when it works, but what if it doesn't? How would you counter that?"

Hearthome was fast approaching, and they had all already agreed to a double battle— although Chase still was nowhere to be found, so they'd have to wait for him. Cecilia already knew that Grace and she would be on opposite sides, and her girlfriend wouldn't just let Cecilia overwhelm her with power. She was too good for that. Of course, she was doing the best she could to come in a position of strength, such as hiding herself whenever she trained, teaching her Pokemon new moves in secret, and planning to buy TMs behind Grace's back to catch her by surprise, and slowly but surely amassing strength. She had been thinking about this since Snowpoint, and she had recently come up with an answer.

"Argh, I can't come up with anything!" Pauline groaned. "Gimmie the answer."

Cecilia placed a hand on Sol's head and smiled. "Deceit."

"That was an extremely broad answer that doesn't help whatsoever. I promise you that didn't sound as good as it did in your head."

Cece rolled her eyes. Only Grace understood how satisfying answering long-winded questions with one word was.

"They say that you should know thy enemy. As we progress further and further into the Circuit, the number of trainers you will have to watch out for will thin out. At the top, most trainers know each other and their teams, so they fight by withholding information."

"Right, Grace told us something about that."

"Craig explained it to her when we were with him," Cece nodded. "So you must deceive your enemy. Keep your moves hidden until you are sure they will destroy the opposition. For example, your Charmeleon recently learned Flamethrower, did she not?"

The fire type screamed proudly, and her trainer nodded.

"Grace does not know that yet, so take her, for example. When a battle starts, she will usually scout out an opponent's moves. What if you tricked her by only using Ember, Dragon Rage, and Metal Claw? Then she would think that you do not have Flamethrower. What happens when she switches into her Tangrowth because she thinks that Ember is too weak to hurt him?"

"I don't know why we picked Grace as an example," Pauline started. "But I suppose I would catch her off-guard and use Flamethrower, then."

"Right. That was a simple example, but it still applies. Even when prioritizing power, battling is, first and foremost, informational warfare, and you cannot ignore that side of it. I have been doing so for too long."

"Okay, so with Justin, for example," Pauline said, tapping her chin. "If he tries that annoying burying trick with his Sandile against me, then I could try to act helpless and use that technique you helped me and Gothorita develop—"

"No, no, acting helpless is going too far, Pauline," Cecilia shook her head. "We are simply deceiving while still being strong, not acting weak."

"Hm, alright," Pauline said. "Deceiving while still kicking ass. This would work a lot better if I had more moves."

"Well, you'll be able to get TMs in Hearthome, although you shouldn't go overboard. Organic growth will always be superior to artificial progress."

"Sure, I only want a few for Charmeleon anyway," she smiled. "This deceit stuff sounds nice and all, but doesn't it only work once? You can only reveal that your Pokemon has a move once."

"Against recurring and thorough opponents like Grace would be? Yes, but the vast majority of people aren't like her. Plus, there is more to it, but I'll tell you in a later lesson."

"Why not now?" The redhead grumbled.

"Because you aren't ready. But here's a hint. A small slice of the cake, if you will. Deceiving doesn't only apply to moves," Cecilia explained. "Recall your battle against Gardenia. You were outnumbered and fighting two versus three. What was it that cemented your victory?"

"Ahhh," she exclaimed. "Blaze."

Cecilia smiled. "You are in a unique position, Pauline. Did you know that despite abilities like Torrent, Blaze, and Overgrow being so common, a lot of trainers don't bring those to their full potential? It requires walking a very small tightrope, and a lot of Pokemon go out of control when they are affected by the ability. Charmeleon has already blown past that second issue."

"That's fine by me, I like living on the edge," Pauline grinned.

"Perfect," she clapped her hands. "The lesson is over. Throw everything you have at Zweilous, and we will do the same to you. When Charmeleon enters Blaze, the real training will begin."

Blaze, Torrent and Overgrow brought out a Pokemon's hidden potential, so what happened when one trained under its strain?

They would progress and grow ever faster.

Cecilia took her job as a teacher very seriously.

——

"Roselia," Denzel sighed. "For the last time, we are not getting a Grimer."

"Rose!"

"No, we aren't! I know why you want me to get one, you think they're ugly and that Sylveon will hate it. Less competition for you."

"Snoooooooooo," Snorunt laughed.

Roselia clicked her tongue and kicked his leg, which was obviously painless. For as much as Roselia acted like she hated him, Denzel knew that she cared, although depressingly, she liked Sylveon more than him. They had come a long way since she relentlessly tried to kill him with Bullet Seed early in their journey, or just didn't listen to anything he said. Roselia stomped off toward her recently acquired best friend Buneary, and Snorunt sniggered while she sat on Sylveon's head.

"Sylv…" the fairy type sighed.

"Not your fault," Denzel said. "She's gotten better recently. Maybe you guys can come to an agreement soon or something, like she gets you on Mondays, Buneary on Tuesdays…"

"Sylveon!"

"I know you're not a thing. I was mostly joking," he smiled.

"Snooooooo."

Denzel raised an eyebrow. Snorunt loved using extremely long vocalizations for some reason, but he found that kind of endearing.

"Okay, you get him on Wednesdays, then," he said. "We've got to work on your moves soon, by the way."

The ice type's creepy grin widened, and Denzel continued browsing through his Poketch. He was currently looking for a sixth team member, but he was struggling to find one so quickly. It had taken him years to plan his first team, after all, so picking a new Pokemon in a few weeks felt inadequate.

And yet he knew it had to be done.

"Sylvi, what do you think about one of the Oricorio? They seem pretty versatile," Denzel asked as he showed his phone's screen the fairy type.

Sylveon tilted his head, but then shook it.

"Yeah, I'm not really feeling it either," he sighed. "Plus, I'd have to wait until we get back down south. That'd take too long."

He was involving his Pokemon in the decision-making this time. Even Feebas had taken part a little earlier, although he had to recall him a few minutes ago due to the lack of water. Roselia and Buneary kept picking the ugliest Pokemon they could find, while Snorunt just kept picking ghost types, so Sylveon was basically the only one taking this seriously. His Pokemon were training lightly today in preparation for everything that was going to happen in Hearthome. Due to Fantina's ghost types, Buneary was busy learning Foresight in between conversing with Roselia about love or whatever it was that they spoke about these days, but he was also thinking about buying a reusable Shadow Ball TM for both her and Snorunt. Ghosts were the best at taking down ghosts, after all, and the same principle applied to ghost type attacks.

Maybe he could ask Emilia to lend him her Shadow Ball TM… had she bought a reusable one? He quickly shot her a message, and she answered immediately.

Emilia L.

Obviously, I'll lend you Shadow Ball! You didn't even have to feel bad about asking! Does anyone else want it?

Denzel W.

Emi, were you procrastinating by looking at your phone again?

Emilia L.

Absolutely not.

Denzel W.

Yeah… sure… just make sure to work on your contest stuff, alright? Pauline's worried about you, I think. She won't tell me anything, but I can tell. I don't think anyone else wants the move, but I'll ask around.

Emilia sent him a series of emojis that he struggled to decode. What the hell was a man walking supposed to mean? Anyway, he knew Grace was never going to accept someone else's TM, even if it was reusable and had already been bought. It didn't seem like it until you got to really know her, but Grace was too prideful, almost to a fault. Seeing her take down that Turtonator alone and getting burned all over had terrified him more than he thought it would. He had felt just like he did when Cecilia had gone alone into Mount Coronet. Losing any of his friends would damage him beyond repair, and being so dependent on people scared Denzel, especially in a line of work as dangerous as being a trainer was.

"How about a… Dratini."

"Sylveon…"

"Snooo."

"Eh, they do fit every criteria, but they don't really live in the wild in Sinnoh," Denzel nodded. "I've heard you could win one in Veilstone, and they'd be less expensive than getting one from a professional breeder, but the cost would still be in the millions, so I'll probably have to pass. Plus, I'm no gambler."

Dragons were rare in general, but he certainly wouldn't say no to one, especially after seeing how powerful that Turtonator was. Denzel didn't know how long it would take for Grace to be able to use him, but he had no doubt she'd succeed. It was impossible not to like her dorky self, old grumpy dragon or not.

"Dragons seem fun," he muttered. "What else would fit… Swablu?"

Swablu… Swablu fit, and Altaria were big enough to fly on, which was something Denzel considered a must. If he was going to become a content creator, then he'd need to be able to zip across the region fast enough to get to different tournaments or film different stuff. But where could he even find a Swablu? A quick search revealed that they lived in the foggy route 210, which he could swing by on the way to Veilstone.

"You like it?"

"Syl!" The fairy type nodded.

Snorunt grumbled at the fact that it wasn't a ghost type, but Denzel was just happy he had settled on something. He'd need to let it simmer in his head to see if he still felt the same as they got closer to route 210, but that would take a while.

"Okay, Snorunt, are you ready to train?"

"Sno!" She said excitedly.

Denzel was excited about her prospects. The price of Dawn Stones was currently lower than usual, and he was almost sure he'd be able to nab one in Hearthome depending on which sponsor he got. He could have sorted through them here already, but he had decided to wait until Grace was ready so that they could do it together, or she would procrastinate about it until the year was almost over. He'd need to watch out, however. Evolving ghost types too early was a recipe for disaster, and he knew it would be a while until Snorunt was ready to become a Froslass.

Froslass weren't like Frillish, who only had the ghost typing due to having some amount of ghost energy in his body. They were true ghosts, like Ghastly, Duskull, or Misdreavus. That meant that they shared their malevolent nature, which was why there were so many myths and legends about Froslass in the first place. Freezing men and kidnapping them, never melting ice, haunting small villages up north during the old Hisuan period. And ghosts tended to… injure or murder.

Or worse.

"Blizzard," Denzel whispered.

Snorunt shivered, and the temperature started to drop drastically. The wind quickened around them, picking up the materializing snowflakes into a frenzy. Roselia and Buneary shrieked and ran away, and the entire area where they had just been standing was covered in frozen ice.

"Snorunt, Don't aim for them!" Denzel groaned as he facepalmed. They'd retaliate for the next week. Roselia was annoying, but Buneary especially held her grudges for a long time.

Snorunt jumped and laughed wildly. There was one thing only Denzel knew about his Snorunt. Despite being in such a tiny body, she was a fucking genius. He had only tried learning Blizzard to see how close they could get to using the move a few weeks ago, but he was surprised to see that Snorunt easily learned to use it in two days, and she was still figuring out ways to improve the move, and she shared the rest of the team's endurance, meaning that she could use it multiple times in a row.

That was the other reason Denzel didn't want to evolve her yet. An out-of-control Froslass that knew Blizzard? There was no way that he was going to have that on his hands, at least not until the rest of his team was strong enough to fight back. Still, he reckoned that it'd be very useful during the battle against Fantina and his friends. Denzel wasn't as flashy as Grace or Cecilia, but as Craig had said at Candice's party, he was consistent.

He might have been behind right now, but he knew he would catch up.

——

"Thanks, Nurse Joy," I tiredly said as I grabbed my Pokeballs.

Five days in total had passed since my surgery, and I was finally being discharged.

My burns were healing wrong.

I'd be keeping the scars. Forever. Even the ones on the left side of my face. What was this feeling? Was it dread? Disappointment? A mix of the two, maybe? A sinking feeling now that I understood that the situation was finally real.

I shook my head and thought about something else.

I wiggled my toes in the new shoes Cece had gotten me and smiled. I had just gotten legal ownership of Turtonator, and we were finally leaving today. It'd take another five days to reach Hearthome— four if we were quick. I still had to wear so many bandages I felt like a mummy, I couldn't move my arm around too much, and the entire left side of my body still hurt, but it was getting better. My hearing in my left ear was still screwed, but it was also better than it had been. My friends greeted me in the Pokemon Center's lobby, and Cecilia kissed me softly, turning a few heads. We hadn't really made an official announcement or anything like that, but it was pretty obvious that we were dating now. Justin had also told me that there were some rumors about me having caught Turtonator, but that couldn't be confirmed just yet. I'd keep that fact hidden for a bit longer.

"Are you sure you want to leave this early?" Denzel asked. "We can wait another few days."

"Nah, I've held you guys back long enough," I said. "Pauline and Justin need to hurry if they're going to make it to the Conference."

"Not if," Pauline complained.

"Stop it with the semantics," Justin sighed. "I'm glad you're back on your feet, Grace."

"So am I. Now I have to wrangle with Turtonator some more."

"At least wait until we're at Hearthome," Cecilia said. "What if you're burned again in the middle of the route?"

I was about to protest, but I had already told myself many times that I didn't know what Turtonator's reaction would be now that he was out of the cave, so I conceded and agreed. After making sure everything was in order again, we were back on the road. Scaling down Mount Coronet was hell, and we went at it slowly so that I could take it easy. In the end, Tangrowth didn't battle any trainers, which I felt sad about, but I probably would have won against anyone at the outpost anyway. Most trainers worth their while didn't stick around that long. Togetic still tried to work past her mental block with Wish, and she was getting incrementally better at the move, and still helping angel with his Knock Off, which he was finally getting the hang of. Sunny Day still eluded us, however. Electabuzz was still taking it easy because he needed his hand to rest, and Frillish had mastered Shadow Ball to such an extent that he could basically send one out instantly and mold it however he wanted. There was something off about him that I couldn't place, like he was anticipating something.

The new year came and went. In the end, due to how slow I was, it took us seven more days, and we finally made it to Hearthome— the city of warmth and kindness, and the city at the center of Sinnoh.

A/N: There'll be a vote about which chapter comes next on my discord, so make sure to join if you want to participate. Link is in my signature.
 
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Interlude - Mend
INTERLUDE - MEND

Eighteen days earlier

Louis Bianchi quietly dragged his feet across the dirt in the dead of night before sitting down against one of the giant concrete legs that kept the cycling road standing above route 206. He didn't exactly know why he came down there— well, that was a lie, he knew exactly why he did; it was just that actually staying here was irrational and meant that he was just wasting time. He shoved his hands down his jacket's pockets for warmth and settled by the fire he had lit. Prinplup stood next to him, loyal as always. He occasionally stole worried glances at his trainer, but did not actually speak up. Vulpix was curled up next to the flames and watched as they danced in the air, occasionally manipulating them to create moving shapes to distract herself.

Gible, meanwhile, was gorging himself on a wild Starly he had somehow caught. Louis' eye twitched when he heard one of its bone shatter under the dragon's incredible jaw. He had always been like this. No matter how many times Louis had tried to feed him processed Pokemon food in the past, the dragon wanted to kill things. To hunt. Prinplup opened his beak as if he was going to say something, but after a few seconds, he just shook his head and sighed with a strange honk.

The reason Louis had made his way under the cycling road was simple. Trainers were spreading rumors about his friends further up ahead in the route, and he just couldn't bear it. Now that he had left, even just hearing Cecilia's name hurt. The boy groaned in frustration, shoving his head backward and accidentally hitting it on the concrete wall, hurting himself. Louis let out a short scream and rubbed the back of his head while Vulpix and Prinplup looked on with worry. Gible, meanwhile, stared at him like he was just an annoyance.

An annoyance. That was what Louis was to his Gible, and that was actually an improvement to how bad things had been right after the battle with Gardenia. It had taken Louis a while to figure out why Gible had acted out the way he did, but when he finally managed to, it had all clicked into place.

Gible were a prideful and aggressive species, especially when they were young, but his was even more so than usual. Before getting through Eterna Forest, part of that aggressiveness would get weaned off every day or two by having him battle Cece— Cecilia's Deino, but they had completely stopped that arrangement after getting through the forest. That meant that Gible hadn't actually been fighting anything. Sure, he trained by himself, since Louis had been incapable of even getting him to practice with his other Pokemon back then, but training was nothing like the battles that Gible had fought before against Deino, and then in Eterna Forest, and it angered him. There had been no challenge or thrill to it.

That anger built, built, and built until he was finally put in a hard battle again. Against Gardenia. And he went completely rogue.

So how had Louis managed to get Gible back under a modicum of control? Well, he had Prinplup and Vulpix fight him every day. It was good training for them, and it helped him sharpen his skills as a trainer, although Gible wasn't exactly the smartest opponent to face… anything helped, so long as he could catch up to Cecilia—

Louis' fists clenched in his pockets.

He was being so foolish.

"Catch up for what, you damned idiot," he muttered to himself.

When Louis read Cecilia's letter that had set everything in motion, he had been too worried about her well-being to actually let the words sink in. He had, however, been filled with an overwhelming desire to break off their engagement so that she could be happy again. He understood the letter's contents, but the words themselves… took a while to actually get through his head, but Louis had had a lot of time to think in the harrowing weeks when he believed Cecilia, Grace, and Denzel to be dead.

The fact that Cecilia never actually loved him hurt more than anything he had ever felt, but there had been other things to worry about, especially their fathers swooping in and locking them up in that hotel, so he put it off. And plus, who had he been to feel hurt about it? Cecilia had been suffering for months and bottling it all up, so he should have been able to deal with a simple rejection. And yet, when his friends finally called from Snowpoint to reveal themselves to be alive, the tiniest, smallest part of him still hoped for a chance. An utterly irrational thought, but that was what love did to a man's brain. So for some reason, Louis got the idea in his head that if he somehow caught up to her skill and gave her enough space, maybe Cecilia would take him back, so he redoubled his training, and so had the others who had been left behind in Eterna. They had all been motivated to catch up.

And then, Cecilia came back, and Louis practically fell in love again.

Irrational. Stupid. Foolish. Yet, Louis didn't show it. He stayed quiet during the party and didn't celebrate as hard as he had wanted to. He had wanted to let her breathe. To give her space.

But then, she revealed that she was dating Grace, and his world came crashing down. A dash of hope, crushed so thoroughly just as quickly as it had come. Louis hadn't even had a chance from the start. He had just been building these scenarios in his head. These fantasies where Cecilia would somehow see that he had changed for the better and give him another chance.

He had just been daydreaming.

Meaningless delusions that were better fit for a thirteen-year-old boy than him, the heir to the Bianchi—

Louis exhaled sharply. His family name and business were nothing to be proud of. His father, who he had loved dearly, was a monster that he couldn't recognize. He had never been particularly close to his mother either. He had separated from his friends so that he could finally attempt to move on. He had nothing. Nobody—

"Pix!"

He stared dejectedly at Vulpix, who rubbed her head against his leg. Prinplup joined in and tapped his shoulder with his flippers.

"Thank you," he sighed. "I mean it. I've been quiet, hm?"

Prinplup honked softly and nodded.

"Well, there isn't anywhere to go from here but up, I suppose," Louis said with a pained look.

That was right. He still had Prinplup and Vulpix. He had even grown attached to Gible, as awful as the dragon was to raise and control. With his Pokemon to support him, maybe a few weeks alone would be enough to stop his heart from feeling like it was being pulled apart every time he looked in Cecilia's general direction.

"Ah! I finally found you!"

Louis' head darted toward the female voice, and Gible roared angrily at her with blue flames dancing in his mouth.

"Gible!" Louis exclaimed. "No."

The dragon looked at him for a few seconds as the Dragon Rage gathered in his maw. Louis was being tested. Would he show his fear?

He did not, and he continued staring right into Gible's eyes until he stopped and went back to eating.

"Holy shit, I thought I was going to get killed by that dragon. I knew you couldn't control it from your gym battle with Gardenia, but still."

Louis stared at the teenager standing before him and frowned. A Monferno stood by her side, and his flame was almost brighter than his own fire. "Who… who are you?"

"W—what? You don't remember me?"

"No," he simply said. He was in no mood to converse with anyone at the moment.

"I'm Maeve! Maeve Chang! You beat me at the Floaroma tournament!" She yelled angrily.

Louis frowned. No matter how much he racked his brain, the name didn't ring a bell, but he opted to go for the path of least resistance and lied.

"Right. Maeve," he said. "Can I help you?"

"I was following your trail, and it took me the entire day to find you," she sighed. "You beat me last time, so I want a rematch right here and now," she declared, pointing her thumb toward the ground.

"No."

"W—what?"

"No," Louis repeated, turning away from her. "I don't want to battle you. Go find someone else."

"Arceus… what happened to you?" She said, staring at the scar on his cheek, which he instinctively covered. "You were so boastful and loud when we fought in Floaroma, and now you're like this deflated balloon," she frowned. "I guess the stuff with your dad affected you worse than I thought. I heard on the news. Um, I'm sorry I kind of judged you quickly during our battle. I'm kind of bad with people."

"You're forgiven," Louis answered while his thoughts were screaming at her to leave. "Is that it? It's late, and I'm feeling quite tired."

Maeve deflated. "Man, this is disappointing. I built up this whole… idea of you in my head off of our single battle and spent so long dreaming about the day I'd surpass you, and now you just refuse?"

"Yes."

"That's… no, I can't accept that. I'm going to follow you until you battle me."

Louis scratched his head frustratingly. "You'll be disappointed. I want nothing to do with this, I have enough on my mind."

Maeve sat down next to the fire, although she kept her distance from Gible, who was done with his food by now. "Finally. I hate the cold, and Monferno's heat wasn't cutting it."

The fire type bowed his head apologetically at its trainer.

"No, don't worry, it's probably something wrong with me," she smiled. "I mean, what kind of Sinnohan can't handle a little bit of cold? Just me, apparently."

Louis recalled Gible into his Pokeball and looked on in horror as this stranger just inserted herself into his group. This was meant to be a period of self-reflection, and he wanted to be alone for that. He stayed there quietly with her, although she occasionally spoke to her Monferno, but when she fell asleep, Louis recalled his Pokemon and discreetly sneaked away deeper into route 206 and toward the Wayward Cave.

——

"You asshole! You ditched me!" Maeve screamed.

"How did you even find me?!" Louis hissed.

Hours later, Louis had settled down and built another camp so that he could sleep, but Maeve somehow found him again. He understood when a huge Staravia landed next to her and squawked.

"I should have slept under the cycling road…" Louis grumbled.

"No, Star still would have found you," she shrugged. "I told you I'm not giving up until you battle me. I spent weeks preparing for this. We can either do this the hard way, or the easy way."

Louis had somehow gotten himself a stalker, and the most sensible move would be to give in to Maeve and give her want she wanted. Yet a part of him simply refused to be forced to do something he didn't want to do. Louis had hoped to grow into his own man during his time alone. There was no way he'd give in to this girl.

"Well, feel free to follow me until the ends of the earth then!" he yelled angrily.

"Ah, there's that tone I thought I'd get," Maeve said. "And I will. Don't act like I didn't warn you. This is the hard way."

And so, Louis had gained a traveling companion, much to his chagrin.

——

"So this is the Wayward Cave, huh?" Maeve said as she stared at the entrance. "It's been abandoned years ago since they just went ahead and built the cycling road over it, but there are rumors that you can find Gible there. I want one."

"So you mean to say that you weren't just following me to be annoying, then?" Louis complained. Suddenly, an idea sprung in his mind. "Fine. How about you go look for your Gible, and I will wait for you here?"

"Nice try," she said. "But no. I can tell you wanted to go in here too. Why else would you go this way? You'd just be wasting time."

The blond man clicked his tongue and ran his hand through his hair. She was frustratingly perceptive. The truth was that Louis had also heard of the rumors about the Gible of Wayward Cave, and he thought that he could maybe have his own fight one. Gible was getting bored of fighting Prinplup and Vulpix all the time, so Louis wanted to switch things up so that his aggressiveness wouldn't just accumulate like it had last time.

"Fine," he sighed, resigning himself to his fate. "Let's go in, then."

"Finally, you're starting to cooperate."

Maybe he'd get lost in the cave and lose her. As they stepped into the cave, they realized that it was ridiculously dark. Louis grabbed a flashlight, and Maeve released her Monferno, and soon enough, they were on their way to find that Gible. The floor was flat and even, which meant that it was easy to navigate, at least compared to Mount Coronet, but it was a real labyrinth down there. Corridors led to other corridors that twisted and turned, and they would have no doubt gotten lost if Maeve hadn't had the smart idea to mark their path by having her Monferno Mach Punch the walls. Pokemon down here were stronger than on the routes, especially since rangers weren't there to keep the stronger ones away, but they were still manageable. Prinplup and Monferno were enough to deal with any threats, but the toughest ones they had to face were just Rhyhorn or Graveler.

"I'm starting to think this Gible rumor was just a load of crap," Maeve sighed hours later. "I guess it makes sense, since most of Sinnoh's dragons live around Celestic."

"Well, feel free to turn away, I think I'll keep going."

"You can't escape me, Louis," Maeve chuckled dryly. "I mean, come on. Do you really want to be alone?"

"Yes!" He exclaimed, but then stopped when he realized how loud he was being. "I've told you over and over that I need time to myself!"

He shone his flashlight on her, and she paused. "Look," she breathed. "I'm bad at reading people. I've told you this already, but I don't think you realize how terrible you looked when I walked up on you."

"What?" He asked.

"You looked tired and depressed," she shrugged. "A far cry from how you were at the tournament, so I guessed something must have happened to you. At first, I thought it was just the issues with your dad, but there's clearly something else. The biggest sign is that you're traveling alone when you used to travel with your group of friends. Anyway, I figured I'd try to stick around, I guess. Before, I would never have done this, but a nice guy called Scott taught me about helping my fellow trainer and all of that. He helped me cross through Eterna Forest."

Louis' words were stuck in his throat.

"If I'm wrong, it is what it is," she shrugged. "The part about wanting to battle you wasn't a lie, but you aren't who I thought you were. I thought you were a disingenuous asshole all this time, even when the news about your father broke. I didn't want to believe that you were actually nuanced as a person, but when I took one look at you when we met again, I could tell that something was killing you inside. You aren't as good at hiding it as you think. I guess what I want to say is I'm sorry."

"I—"

Louis heard sharp shink, like knives being sharpened on a whetstone, and he pointed his flashlight toward the sound. A group of eight Pawniard stood menacingly and immediately attacked. Louis watched, almost in a daze as one of them jumped at his gut, ready to run him through with their sharp blades, but Prinplup shot it out of the sky with an Ice Beam.

"Monferno, Flame Wheel!" Maeve yelled as she released a Staryu. "Brine!"

Staryu rotated, and water droplets materialized above the group of Pawniard and fell down, littering the ground in small craters. The steel types cried out in pain, but quickly rushed out of Brine's area of effect and ran toward them. Monferno yelled, and his body was engulfed in flames until he looked like a wheel, and he burst through the densely packed group of Pawniard. The fire type move was devastating, but Louis was finally out of his stupor.

"Prinplup, Scald!"

Louis had bought the TM when they had just arrived in Eterna, but it was his first time actually using it against wild Pokemon. Prinplup spat out a stream of superheated, steaming water toward the Pawniard and slowly moved the jet of water to hit each and every one of them while Monferno blurred and Mach Punched another one, cracking its helmet-like head. Now that they had the initiative, they made quick work of the rest of the wild Pawniard.

"Thank you, Prinplup," Louis said. "I don't know what came over me, but… you saved me."

The water type nodded as if he was just doing his job, but another sharp sound caught Louis' attention. Upon shining his light toward the sound once again, a ninth Pawniard revealed itself, but it did not attack. It simply stared at the group of its fainted comrades with a pleased look.

"Pawniard travel in groups led by Bisharp, but apparently, this one didn't like his squad," Maeve shrugged. "And apparently, there was no Bisharp to lead here. No need to take it down if it doesn't attack. Let's go."

"Wait," Louis frowned. He squinted, and this Pawniard's blades appeared duller than the others, which would be a mark of extreme shame for the species. "Why are its blades like that?"

"I don't know, I'm no Pawniard expert," she said. "They usually sharpen them on stones, though."

Louis pondered to himself for a second. His last three Pokemon had been bought. Bought with his father's money. Despite the hatred that bubbled inside of him, he could never take back that fact, but he could certainly do something to rectify it. Louis grabbed a Pokeball and stared at the steel type.

Yes, a Pokeball would do just fine. He was sick and tired of Luxury Balls.

"If I had to guess what happened," Louis said as he stepped closer to the Pawniard. "You were bullied by your group, and they prevented you from sharpening your blades. I don't know why, but I know there's certainly no correct reason to bully someone. Pawniard live in groups, but yours wronged you. Why don't you come with me?"

"Niard," the steel type said with a nod. When Louis was about to throw the Pokeball, however, it stopped him, and continued speaking.

"I don't understand you," he frowned.

Pawniard started jabbing the air with his blades.

"You want to grow stronger?" Louis asked hesitantly. It nodded. "Of course. I'm a trainer. That means that I travel throughout the region and battle tough opponents. You'll see your fair share of battles."

Even though Louis knew that catching up to Cecilia wouldn't get her back, he still wanted to do it. The goal had utterly consumed him more than his need to gather badges and get to the Conference, and it felt like it would give him the closure he needed.

Finally, Pawniard let itself be caught.

——

Pawniard, the Sharp Blade Pokemon. Blades comprise this Pokemon's entire body, but they are dulled by battling. Pawniard will sharpen them again on stones, and it strives to become stronger by fearlessly challenging any foe and training diligently.

Moves: Scratch, Metal Claw, Fury Cutter, Slash, Headbutt, Metal Sound, Quick Guard (Click for more information)

Ability: Inner Focus (Click for more information)

Gender: Male


Pawniard was a male, and Louis noticed that he immediately got along with his Prinplup, which was a welcome change after his troubles with Gible. The fact that he could have the steel type out and about right after catching him meant that he'd quickly accommodate himself to the team and adapt to his new situation, but it also meant that Louis could probably use him in battles already. His moves were certainly impressive for a Pokemon that had been living in the wild and been bullied by his pack, but from the Pokedex entry, Pawniard seemed to be diligent Pokemon that trained day and night, so it made sense.

"Aren't you glad we came?" Maeve smiled as they stepped toward the cave's exit. They were still hours away, but they decided to turn back, since that Gible rumor had apparently been a fabrication. "Now you've got yourself a new Pokemon."

"I suppose so," Louis said, staring at his feet.

"Still depressed, huh?"

Obviously, he was still hurt. This wasn't the kind of situation that someone could simply get over in a few days, but he at least felt like he was making some progress toward his ultimate goal of besting Cecilia. Louis didn't bother answering Maeve's question. Most of their time together was spent in silence anyway, and they had both grown used to it. There were scant conversation topics. In fact, he didn't know the first thing about Maeve.

Should he ask?

"Erm, speaking of new Pokemon, what Pokemon do you have, Maeve?"

The words were dry and forced, but if there was one thing trainers could bond over, it was Pokemon.

"Well, you know about Monferno, Staravia, and Staryu," she said. "But I also have a Skorupi."

That was a lot of S's. Louis simply grunted and gave a curt nod. "That's an impressive team."

"Arceus, let's just not talk, this is super awkward. We're both so stiff."

Louis nodded and sighed in relief. He had tried, at least—

Suddenly, a scream rang out throughout the cave.

"That was a person!" Maeve immediately said. "Hello?!" She yelled. "Call out, we can come and help!"

"help… a… need…"


"I can't make it out," Louis said, clenching a fist.

"Let's just go toward the sound!"

Louis recalled his Pokemon, since they couldn't run as fast as he could, but Maeve kept Monferno out. It took around five minutes for them to realize that they had been going in the wrong direction and that the voice was actually getting lower before finally picking the right direction and getting close enough to make out words.

"I hate this cave! I need help! Anyone?!"

Another two minutes, and this time, they reached the source of the voice. A short girl with pink hair and two long pigtails that went down to her legs. A Kadabra stood next to her, clearly attempting to calm her down.

"You suck, Kadabra! I don't care if you know the way out, this place is too dark, I hate it!" The girl yelled. She paused for a few seconds and winced. Telepathy. "What do you mean, you warned me not to come? Kirlia said it'd be good training, and you didn't even push back— oh. People."

Kadabra's soft look immediately turned sharp and cold as it stared at Louis and Maeve, its spoon bending and twisting threateningly with an uncomfortable shrill sound that was like nails on a chalkboard.

"Um, little girl," Maeve started. "I— we heard you call for help."

The girl angrily stomped the ground. "Little girl?! I'm fifteen, you prick!"

Louis' eyes widened. Fifteen? This girl didn't look a day over twelve. Even Grace, who was short and looked younger than she was, didn't look twelve.

"Well, do you need help or not?" Maeve asked. "I thought you'd be getting attacked by something. This is kind of anticlimactic."

"I mean, I wouldn't say no—" she stopped and winced again as Kadabra spoke to her. "You're too suspicious. These people look fine."

There was another pause. Another wince.

"No buts! I'm putting you on Haunter watching duty, since you're so responsible, ugh," she groaned. "Anyway, sorry about that. My Kadabra hates anyone that isn't me. My name's Mira."

"Louis," he simply said.

"I'm Maeve."

"So cool," Mira said, her eyes shining. "I wish I had traveling companions, but no one wants to stick with me."

"She's not my companion," Louis specified. "She's my stalker—"

"We were just traveling in the same direction," Maeve said before turning toward him and whispering. "Don't ruin our first impression! Are you crazy?"

"What?" Louis whispered back.

"Can't you tell? This girl is fucking insanely powerful," she hissed.

"Why? How can you tell?"

"Her Pokemon, you idiot! Haunter, Kadabra, Kirlia? Those are incredibly hard to raise and train. Here, let me ask her—"

What are you whispering about, children? Do not cross Mira, or I will kill you.

Kadabra spoke to him, and Louis buckled over as searing pain engraved itself in his mind. It was like someone was hammering long nails all over his skull, and the pain kept throbbing long after the psychic type was done talking. The boy painstakingly looked at Maeve, who looked to be in the same predicament.

It was Louis' first time being spoken to by a psychic type, and the first time was always the worst. He wanted to throw up, but he held back the bile building up at the back of his throat. There were no shortcuts. No avoiding the pain. The human mind wasn't built to endure the mechanisms of telepathy. You needed a psychic type to speak to you and endure the pain over and over, and it would slowly lower in intensity throughout the years as you built a tolerance. So for Mira to only have to wince after a few months of the Circuit? She must have gone through hell.

"Kadabra, what the hell?! I told you, no speaking to trainers other than me! That's it, you're getting back in the ball. This is why no one wants to travel with me!" Mira yelled as she recalled her psychic type. She released a Magneton instead. "There you go, at least you can be cool."

Magneton answered by letting out strange pulses that made Louis' ears ring, which certainly wasn't helping with the headache. Were the heads frowning at him?

"Thank you for recalling your Kadabra," Louis groaned as he wiped his mouth.

"That was the worst headache I've ever had, and I never want to go through it again," Maeve said before coughing.

"I'm so sorry," Mira said. "Um, is there any way I can make it up to you? My team makes it really hard for me to make friends."

"That Kadabra certainly was something," Louis sighed. The pain was getting better now, but he was still panting. He wiped drool dripping down his chin and straightened his back.

"He's way too overprotective," Mira grumbled. "But there's also Kirlia, who's too violent, Magneton, who hates people, and Haunter, who's… well, a Haunter. I can't even have him out with other people, or he'll try to kill them."

Louis swallowed. She was being very nonchalant about that, and it creeped him out.

"Oh, don't worry, I won't release him here," she quickly said. "I was hoping to ask Fantina for advice about him in Hearthome if I can impress her in a battle, or one of her gym trainers if I can't. There isn't much info online about raising a Haunter, since no one's suicidal enough to train one. Well, except me."

That certainly was true. Gastly were already almost impossible to control, but Haunter were murderous. There were many stories about them killing their own trainers and escaping, or simply killing other trainers during a friendly battle. Its species was one of the most aggressive ghost types in the world, and that wasn't even counting Gengar. Only a few trainers in the world had one, including Fantina. The evolution method was still unknown by the masses. The stories, though.

The stories made Louis shiver.

"Well, let's get out of this cave then," Louis sighed.

Mira joined them, and they started walking toward the exit, following Monferno's marks.

"What were you even doing here?" Maeve asked.

"I was trying to train, but everything's too weak," Mira shrugged. "My secondary goal was finding Pokemon with high potential in special attack."

Maeve raised an eyebrow. "Special attack? That's your criteria?"

"That's right," she said, proudly placing her hands on her hips. "I'm a special attack specialist, and one day, everyone in Sinnoh will know my name!"

"Woah, that's kind of cool," Maeve smiled. "How many badges do you have?"

"I have three! I beat Roark, Byron, and Gardenia. Did you hear about those guys that beat Candice already? I'm so jealous!"

Louis' throat tightened, and he stared at Maeve to silently tell her no. Mira had somehow not recognized him, and he'd like to keep it that way. The less the conversation steered toward his friends, the better he'd feel.

"Yeah, I heard of them alright," Maeve said with a stiff, bitter smile. "They're all anyone can speak about these days. I'm sick of it."

"Come on, don't be rude. I heard they were going to Hearthome, I hope I meet them! We can travel together on the way there, right? Hey, what Pokemon do you guys have?"

Wait. Louis froze in his tracks. Travel together on the way there?

"What do you mean by travel together—"

"Oh, so you do speak," Mira said half-jokingly.

"He's got a lot on his plate," Maeve interrupted.

"You seem to know a lot about him, for someone who's traveling with him because you're going 'in the same direction'. Anyway, I do mean travel together. I promise I'll get Kadabra in line, and you won't have to see Haunter. I'll go far away when I release him."

"Well, if you can do that, then I'm fine with it," Maeve nodded. "Louis?"

Why was she asking him? It wasn't like she had listened when he told her no.

"Do what you want," he said in a defeated tone. He felt like he had just aged thirty years in the last two days.

——

A few days had passed since they got out of the cave, and the three trainers had settled into a nice rhythm. Louis stayed in his corner with his team most of the time until Mira or occasionally, Maeve dragged him back. Pawniard had taken remarkably well to being his Pokemon, and he had quickly become a force to be reckoned with in battle. Gible was pleased with this added challenge, and he now fought one-on-three battles with his team. Vulpix didn't seem to care much for their new member, opting to stick closer to Louis than his other Pokemon, while Prinplup was glad to have another straight man in the group that took things seriously. Pawniard was also trying to find a rock he liked that he'd keep, but he hadn't found anything so far.

Mira certainly was an impressive trainer. Maeve had redirected her thirst for battle onto her, which Louis welcomed with open arms, but she was certainly as good as Grace, Cecilia and Denzel were, although her lack of type coverage probably meant that she would lose in a battle. She did prioritize special attack over having a diverse team. Maeve struggled to fight back most of the time, but she was certainly getting better at fighting Mira.

Her Kirlia was ruthless, and she fought in close quarters, using her psychic powers to restrain her enemies while she fought with vicious kicks powered up with psychic energy. Was her violence inherent to her fairy typing? Louis didn't really know, since he hadn't seen a Kirlia before. If she hadn't been a female, he would have thought that she would evolve into a Gallade. Kadabra's mastery of Psychic meant that he was a terrifying threat on any battlefield, but he also could Teleport to easily dodge attacks. Magneton, meanwhile, could use Lock-on to ensure that his next attack would never miss. Still, like she had promised, the pink-haired girl hadn't even used her Haunter, but Louis wasn't crazy enough to actually want to see it.

Well, so long as he was left to do his own thing, Louis would be satisfied. They were only a two days away from the outpost, and hopefully, they would let him go and keep going together. He was tired of people.

"Louis," Maeve said, making him jump.

"Maeve, how can I help you?"

"Mira convinced me to come ask you to stop staying in your little corner all the time."

Louis turned toward Mira, who waved at him with a huge smile.

"Later," he shrugged.

"What are you even doing? Brooding?"

"I'm enjoying myself."

"Enjoying yourself by brooding," she said. "Got it."

The trainer clicked his tongue. "Why are you so insistent? You both already inserted yourselves into my travels, and now you're asking me to socialize? Just let me be."

"Because I want to try being friends, Louis!" She hissed. "Because you're hurting, and isolating yourself won't help."

"You don't know anything about me," he said, turning away.

"I know a little bit. I know there must have been a problem with your group, and I know I was also obsessed with traveling alone until Scott beat it into my thick skull that just because I'd rather be on my own doesn't mean it's always the best choice! I would have died if I went through Eterna Forest alone, and I didn't even know any better."

"So?" He said. The words felt hollow.

"So?! What do you mean so? Mount Coronet is coming up, and you're going to try to run away again," Maeve sighed. "You'll die in there. We aren't good enough to get through alone. Mira will help us get through."

Louis brought his palms to his hands and preemptively tried to stop the tears that were coming. He wanted to be alone. He wanted to get away from people, because being close to others reminded him of what he had lost.

No, not lost. What he had to throw away for the survival of their friendship.

"Are you— shit, I'm sorry. I told you I was bad with people. Mira should have been the one to do this."

"I'm so tired, Maeve."

"I— I'm sorry," she apologized again. "Look, just come with us. Hang out by the fire. You don't have to say anything. I don't even say anything half the time, and I just let Mira speak her socks off about anything."

Louis gave her a weak nod before standing. His legs were shaking, and they felt weak.

"Louis," Mira said worriedly. "What's wrong?"

Louis wiped his tears with his palms and sniffled. "I'm alright. I just felt nostalgic."

"Is it about your friends? Cecilia Obel and such?" Mira asked.

Louis felt his heart sink. "You… I thought you didn't know."

"What, didn't know who you were? Come on, I'm a loner, I don't live under a rock."

"But you asked about them beating the Snowpoint gym—"

"I asked about them. That doesn't mean I didn't know them. Or you, as a matter of fact," she shrugged. "It just never felt relevant to bring up until you started literally crying."

"A bit of tact?" Maeve winced.

"I mean, I've put two and two together," she continued. "You were engaged to Cecilia Obel, and now there are rumors about her and Grace Pastel dating. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what happened. Kadabra ran the numbers, and this is the most likely scenario."

Louis couldn't find the words. He just sat there, speechless.

"Mira! You— you can't just say that."

"I consider it equivalent exchange," she said. "Sorry. I told you a lot about my problems and how I haven't found a single friend or person to talk to other than my Pokemon, and how my megathread is filled with toxicity and preconceptions because I own a Haunter. They're spreading rumors about how I'm a crazy trainer killer because there was an accident when Haunter evolved during a battle, and he sent the trainer I was battling to the hospital. Haunter can drain your life force, so he couldn't walk for weeks. The League tried to take him away, and I had to fight tooth and nail to keep him, but my reputation never recovered. And honestly? I can't blame anyone but myself. That's why I don't let Haunter out next to people anymore," she said with a heavy sigh. After a pause, she continued. "Maeve, you've hinted at your inferiority complex and how you worry about how you're falling behind and how being a successful trainer is harder than you could have ever imagined, and you hate the fact that others are getting more attention than you are, including me."

"Why are you telling us all of this?" Louis finally asked.

"So we can all air out our dirty laundry and finally be honest with each other," Mira smiled. "Doesn't it feel good? Do put it all on the table? To not have to hide anything?"

"I… I'm sorry, Mira," Maeve sighed. "You're right. I was— am jealous of you. I mean, three badges?!" She said as tears formed in the corners of her eyes. "Why can't I be as good as the others? I work so hard, and yet I… I…"

"From now on, let's just tell each other everything," Mira said. "We're friends, or at least I think we are. We won't judge each other because of it. If you think I'm being annoying, tell me. If you think I'm boasting too hard about my accomplishments, tell me. If you want me to leave, tell me, and I'll pack. I know I'm forceful, but I was just so excited about finally meeting people… I let it get to my head."

"You don't have to leave," Maeve said. "I like you, there's just that side of me that's envious."

"Envy is a human emotion," she said. "So long as you don't let it consume you, you can let it run its course."

"Mira…" Louis muttered. "I'm still hesitant about traveling with people so soon, but I think after all of that, I can certainly give it a try."

The two girls both smiled at him. The truth was, before Maeve had come into the picture, Louis' thoughts had been filled with self-deprecation, anger at himself and how stupid he had been, and most of all, sadness. Now that she and Mira were there… sure, they were annoying, but at least he thought about other things. His mind was healthier.

"Well, that's that, then," Mira said. "We're going to Hearthome together! And maybe further?"

"Don't push it," he sighed. "Maeve, are you still up for that battle?"

It would be long and arduous— far longer than he wanted it to be, but the road to recovery had begun. He needed closure to mend his heart. He needed to surpass her.

A/N: Mira is actually a canon in-game character that's found in Wayward Cave in the games that's lost, and you can help her get out of the cave. In her double battles, she owns a Kadabra. She also does specialize in special attack Pokemon. I did age her up slightly so that she could be a recurring character in the Circuit, though. And before you ask me, yes, Kingambit does exist in this fic, so look forward to that.
 
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Team Troubled.

Man, this gets pushes off the front page fast.
Also finding Sylveon's harem unexpectedly engaging...
 
Interlude - Coordinators
INTERLUDE - COORDINATORS

Fifteen days earlier.

Emilia picked up her suitcase from the baggage carousel and made her way toward the Pokeball counter. She was carrying a bunch of her friends' things that they didn't have enough space for in their backpacks, like party clothes… okay, it was mostly clothes for the girls, but there were some books and cosmetics too.

Air travel was the crutch that kept Sinnoh's cities connected together. Most supplies to non-coastal cities were sent by air, and travel between cities for non-trainers was also done via plane. Before the invention of the airplane, a person would be expected to live and die in the same place they were born, unless they were a trainer that could brave the wilderness. It was why the League had managed to hold an iron grip over the region back in the day. Communications between cities had been scarce for anyone who couldn't fly or teleport, a region-wide, organized resistance had been impossible.

Emilia's eyes scanned a counter filled with dozens of Pokeballs, and she smiled when she found two labeled with Beldum and Aipom. Rockruff's was an entire dilemma, though. There were three Rockruff Pokeballs on the counter, so Emilia had to call an employee over to scan them with a small, portable device, get their ID, and finally verify which one was hers.

Traveling with Pokemon was always a hassle. People weren't allowed to keep them, or their Pokeballs on themselves in the plane because of the damage they could possibly cause during a flight if there was someone with nefarious intentions or even just an accident, so every Pokeball was placed in a different compartment of the plane, just like luggage. The problem was after the flight, when it could sometimes take ages to get your Pokemon back because people owned the same species of Pokemon sometimes. When that happened, airport employees would have to verify who owned what using the Pokeball ID database like what they had just done for Emilia. Even if trainers never traveled by plane, they weren't the only ones that owned Pokemon. Retired trainers, coordinators, civilians that wanted a companion… they weren't the majority, but they certainly were in high numbers, which was why the rules existed in the first place.

After getting an employee to verify that the Pokeball she had picked up were hers using the same scanner, Emilia walked out of arrivals and grabbed some lunch before leaving. Hearthome was a breathtaking city. At first glance, it looked similar to Eterna due to their shared color scheme, but the two cities were actually fundamentally different. Hearthome was a bustling metropolis that was the third largest city in all of Sinnoh, behind Jubilife and Sunyshore. Whereas Eterna city was stuck in its old ways and architecture, Hearthome was a mix of young and old, with massive skyscrapers mixing with older stone buildings. Furthermore, unlike Eterna, where you could go from one end to another using their well-developed trams, Hearthome had chosen a different path and had opted to develop around car travel. Of course, there were buses and subways, but the public transport industry was nowhere as well developed as Jubilife's. Emilia hailed a taxi and hurriedly got on while he placed her luggage in his trunk. The driver stepped into his car.

"Good afternoon. Where to?"

"The nearest Pokemon Center will do for now, thank you," she quickly answered.

Even though her family lived in Jubilife, Emilia had stayed in Hearthome multiple times during holidays. Her family dealt in real estate all over the region, which meant that they often traveled all over the place. That also meant that they were often involved in politics to lobby Directorate members or mayors to approve of city expansions so that they could just buy up all the land. Stellar Properties— the name of her parents' company— was well known throughout Sinnoh, but they were nowhere as rich and powerful as the Bianchi were.

Of course, that didn't mean much. Emilia would never have to work a day of her life if she so wished. She had been born in privilege, and it had taken a long time for her to realize it.

The taxi driver passed by the Hearthome Contest Hall— the most prestigious contest hall in all of Sinnoh, and where the Grand Festival was held every time. Emilia turned and practically stuck her forehead against the glass to get a better look. Despite all of her times in Hearthome, she had never been inside of there. Only stared at it from a distance. It was one of the biggest buildings in the city, after all— bigger than Fantina's gym, even, and it could fit more than one hundred thousand spectators. Just imagining standing there, being seen by all those people while giving a performance made Emilia shiver in excitement.

But right now, those were all dreams. She still had a long way to go before even hoping to get there.

She paid the taxi, giving him an enormous tip in the process, and quickly checked into the Pokemon Center. She got to her room, showered, and sent a message to the group chat to let them know that she had made it to Hearthome safely. She raised an eyebrow when she caught Chase Karlson sending a message at the same time as she was.

"Well, he saw me type," Emilia told herself. "I might as well introduce myself properly."

Well, they had technically met a few times already, but they never actually spoke. She sent him a short message, saying that she looked forward to befriending him and that Grace, Denzel, and Cecilia had told her a lot of good things about him.

He just told her that he didn't have time and then never responded to her subsequent messages. Emilia clenched at her phone tightly and groaned. If Chase was going to be rude, then she wouldn't try to extend an olive branch either.

"What to do now…" Emilia trailed off.

It was her first time being alone. Truly alone. Even when she had traveled with the group, Emilia had almost never taken any decisions, so now that she was being given this much freedom, everything felt overwhelming. She could stay in the Center and just lounge for the rest of the day with her Pokemon, or she could go train to actually figure out how to be a coordinator. She had been making steady progress in Eterna, but her lack of moves was killing her creativity, so Emilia figured that the best move right now was to buy some TMs.

Or she could take the plunge, go to the Hearthome Contest Hall, and get a coordinator card.

No, no, she could always do that another day. She had time.

First, she would buy the TMs, and then, she'd try to practice with them on route 208. Yes, that sounded like a good plan.

——

"Try a Double Team, Rockruff," Emilia asked. "Then get in a circle."

The rock type nodded, and he split into two, then four, then eight. They got into a circle and turned to face each other.

"Good enough. Now Trailblaze!"

The eight Rockruff barked in unison and blurred forward, leaving a trail of shining, burning grass at their feet and surrounding Rockruff's true body in the center. Emilia squealed and clapped, taking the rock type into her arms and hugging him, ignoring the painful hard stones on his neck. He was already working with the move so well, and it had only been two hours since she had taught it to him. Aipom laughed and jumped on Emilia's head, while Beldum observed with a curious eye.

"What do you think?" She asked, turning toward the steel type. He let out a short metallic clang.

Good…

The girl winced slightly, but she was getting used to the pain— or at least she would be until he evolved into a Metang and managed to fully communicate with her without struggling. Right now, it was like trying to discern words through static. Beldum had also easily mastered Shadow Ball, although Aipom was still struggling with the move, and he could only use it twice before getting tired out, but she was still making good progress. This was like a small performance for herself, and when compared to the ones actual coordinators got up to, it was pathetic, but it was still hers.


"I'd say we deserve a break," Emilia smiled. "Let's head back to the Center."

Emilia was back in her room in twenty minutes, thank Arceus for taxis. She spent the rest of the day resting with her team, with Rockruff and Aipom sleeping on her bed and barely giving her any space for herself.

Go… night.

"Good night, Beldum," Emilia softly said.

——

"Here are the top ten things you must know before becoming a Pokemon coordinator! But before that, a word from my sponsor, Radiant Cosmetics! Radiant Co. is the number one cosmetic company when it comes to both Pokemon and humans, so if you want to look your best during a performance…"

Emilia rolled around in her bed as she watched her twentieth coordinator guide video today. She considered skipping the sponsor, but what if she needed it one day? No, she would sit through and watch it all.

"...use my code, YAPI, and get twenty percent off all of your purchases! Now, without further ado, let's get to the video!"

Her brain felt fried. Every single video said the same, rehashed tips. 'Fake it until you make it', 'only perform when x and y judges are going to be there because they're more lenient', 'take inspiration from the top coordinators'... blergh. Emilia had expected this from smaller channels, but YapiX had six hundred thousand subscribers. She had never been a fan, but she occasionally watched a video or two of hers. YapiX was supposed to know what she was doing.

"Maybe people were copying her," Emilia sighed as she clicked onto the next video, this time from a channel she had never heard about called Ms. Dreamer. "My morning routine… every coordinator should do this? What's with the red arrows? What are you even pointing to, a vase? Ugh."

No, videos wouldn't do it. No guide would help as much as the real thing. What Emilia should have done from the start was just get a coordinator card.

Coordinator cards functioned exactly the same as trainer IDs, although they didn't display your amount of ribbons, since there were simply too many in Sinnoh for them to ever fit in a small card. Emilia stood up and…

Maybe just one more video? It couldn't hurt. Temperance should have uploaded her weekly vlog by now, and she actually had useful information and helped with training routines…

"Hi. It's Temperance. This week, I traveled to Sunyshore for a series of photoshoots, and I opted to use the opportunity to stay and work on this new combination I've been working on for my next grand contest. Unfortunately, since it'll be a grand one, that means a ribbon is on the table, so it'll stay a secret for a while longer. Let's get started on the training routine, and then I'll go in-depth on what I did during my stay in the city. Make sure to check in the description and go to my website for early uploads and donate…"

Emilia settled into her bed once more and smiled. Yes, one more video would do. Just one. She had time.

——

Emilia was over the moon when she got the news that her friends had made it to the outpost on route 207, although Louis still not saying anything worried her. She had spent today working on her training routine and trying to emulate Temperance, but it was hard when she had access to every move under the sun. Temperance being so rich meant that she had access to almost every TM out there, but Emi could have theoretically done that as well. The problem was that her Pokemon had a surprising mastery over every single one, which she could never dream of doing.

There still wasn't much progress on getting a coordinator card. Emilia had tried to get out this morning to get one, but her legs just turned to lead the closer she got to the building. The girl didn't understand. This was her dream. She wanted to do this, but she just… couldn't. A word rang out in her mind.

Worried…

Emilia sighed. "Don't worry, I'll be alright," she told Beldum. "I'm just not ready yet. I'm a complete newbie. I just need to get a few techniques and combinations down and watch a few more videos—"

Emilia jumped as she heard her phone ring. Pauline was calling.

"Evening babe," Pauline cheerfully said.

"Pauline! Are you alone?" Emilia hissed.

"Obviously."

Emilia finally relaxed. If she was on her own, then she could call her whatever she wanted. "Don't roll your eyes at me."

"You could tell?"

"I can always tell. You have that tone you use when you do it," she said with a slight laugh. "Anything new on your end?"

"Nothing much. Just travels, you know how that is, I'm not the biggest fan," Pauline said. "But Cece's been teaching me a bunch! I feel like I'm starting to catch up. I even caught a Rufflet! I'll send you a picture of her later."

"Oh, that's great! So you're a student now, huh?" She teased.

Pauline scoffed. "No, Cece's just helping me. Grace is teaching Justin. He's been really annoying, and he's obsessing over this Audino thing. He says he wants to become a staller."

Emilia's head was spinning. Her friends were making so much progress already, and what was she doing? Nothing!

"Emi?"

"Um, sorry, I was just upping the volume. I always want to hear your beautiful voice."

"I call bullshit, but I'll let you off for now," Pauline said. Emilia could tell she was smiling.

"How's Denzel?"

"He seems to be having fun flirting with girls," she said. There was some bitterness in her tone that Emilia caught. "But he's fine, I guess. But enough about him, tell me about your contest stuff! I've been dying to hear about it!"

Emilia smiled and recalled the progress she had made with her Pokemon, and how she had come up with a combination with Double Team and Trailblaze. She was even starting to figure out how to work with Shadow Ball, although that was more in the experimental stage.

"I'll send you a video of the Trailblaze trick so that you can watch it when you get to the other side of Mount Coronet. Stay safe, by the way. All of you."

"We'll be fine. Grace's been fixating on catching some Turtonator, so it's her I'm worried about."

"Arceus…"

"You said it. She's going to get herself killed one day, but our psychics will be with her, so I think she'll manage," Pauline said before sighing. "At least, I hope. By the way, you met any coordinators yet? I hope you're standing up for yourself while I'm not there."

Emilia almost considered lying for a split second, but she knew Pauline would be able to tell. They'd known each other since they were toddlers.

"Erm, I've been taking it slowly for now," she said. "So nothing yet."

"Emi…"

"I know, I know! I'll get to it."

"Promise me."

"I'll do it—"

"Promise me."

"I… I promise."

"I know exactly what you're thinking. Now that you're finally about to start realizing your dream, you're scared of taking that first step, because you're scared of failing. But you've got to take the first step. If you haven't made at least one coordinator acquaintance by the time I'm in Hearthome, and you don't have your card, I'm going to scold you."

"I'll do it! Arceus, don't threaten me with a verbal lashing."

"I've got to go, okay? It's an early night for me since we have to wake up early, but I'll call you as soon as we get through Mount Coronet."

"Okay," Emilia sighed.

"Good night."

"Good night."

Emilia hung up. There were no sweet farewells such as 'I love you.' That'd make the entire thing feel cemented, and that was an entire another can of worms she wasn't ready to deal with at all, especially if she had to deal with starting her coordinator career.

She took a deep breath and resolved herself. Tomorrow, she would go get her card and speak to people. Tomorrow for sure.

——

Six days later, Emilia had still gotten nothing done, and she thought today would be no different. She had resigned herself to waiting until Pauline came back to go to the contest hall with her. She would never be courageous enough to do so alone. Plus, Grace was in the hospital, and her burns were apparently really bad, and Emilia was worried sick. And yet a single text from Denzel had made her change her mind.

Pauline is worried about you.

Of course, she was. It had been obvious from the start, and yet Emilia had been too blind to see it. No, it would be more accurate to say that she hadn't wanted to see it. Pauline was worried about her being left behind, and she wasn't the kind of person to say that out loud unless it was forced out of her. Denzel had managed to bridge the gap between them through a single text message that he probably had no idea had been so important to her.

"Okay! Today's the day," Emilia exclaimed. She cracked her fingers and grabbed her phone. "First thing's first, making my channel."

Being a coordinator was a much more public affair than being a trainer. Connections, both with other coordinators, the business world, and even judges or the Contest Committee were worth gold. Being a content creator was just one of the many ways coordinators kept their name in the public eye, especially with the younger generation, and Emilia knew she couldn't skirt around that fact. In fact, she had wanted to be one, and seeing Denzel's budding success had only inspired her more… until she actually got to the foot of the metaphorical mountain she'd have to climb to get to the top.

The view from down there was so daunting.

But it was time to take the first step. She quickly created her channel, naming it Emilia Lussier. It was simple for now, and she'd be able to rename it later if she so wished, but it was done. Emilia chuckled to herself like a madwoman. It was scary, how the simplest of steps could feel like such large progress.

Next, it was time to finally get her coordinator card. The girl took a taxi to the Hearthome Contest Hall, and stepped into the humongous building. The floor was covered in a clean, pink carpet, with coordinators and their managers selling their merchandise all throughout the lobby. Hell, some of them even had dedicated stores. There was also a restaurant, two cafes, and rooms people could rent, although they were extremely expensive. Of course, Emilia could have afforded one if she really wanted to, but it was unneeded, at least for now.

The girl wondered if she'd be good enough to have managers one day. Having someone run things for you sure seemed convenient, especially with how bad she was at taking the initiative without her friends there to push her. Sure, she was rich enough to skip ahead and hire one right now, but that'd feel dirty. Unearned. TMs were one thing, but managers would make it feel like she was cheating. After a short wait in a queue, she walked up to the receptionist, who greeted her with a radiant smile.

"Hello! Welcome to the Hearthome Contest Hall, what can I do for you today?"

Here it goes, Emilia thought as she braced herself. "Hi, I'd like to register as a coordinator?"

"Nervous, aren't you?" The man chuckled. She held back an embarrassed squeal and just nodded. "Don't worry about it, everyone usually is, despite how hard they try to hide it. Please hold for a second while I get this form ready for you."

He grabbed a document from a drawer behind his desk and gave it to her. This was different from when she'd signed up as a trainer. Emilia needed to read through a bunch of rules that the Contest Committee had set up, such as having to respect the judge's decisions without complaint or having to pay the committee a monthly fee. Money ran the world of Pokemon contests, and that could easily be seen in the terms and services. The amount wasn't too high, but it'd certainly put a dent in a new coordinator's finances if they were starting from nothing.

Emilia signed the document, had a picture of herself taken— which she had dressed up and put on make-up for, and finally, she was given a transparent, thin card.

So much progress had been made today already, but it was time for the real challenge.

Meeting one fellow coordinator.

——

The huge road leading up to the Hearthome Contest Hall was somewhat of a famous area for both civilians, coordinators, and trainers alike, and it was also an area that attracted an incredible amount of tourists. There was a place there called 'The Coordinator's Walk,' which was a dark sidewalk with the name of famous coordinators that had won the Grand Festival written on stars embedded in the dark slabs. Emilia mulled over her options until she found a girl that seemed to be just as confused and nervous as she was. She took a deep breath and strode up to her with a smile.

"H—hello. Are you a coordinator?"

"Yes! Are you?"

"I am, although I'm a new one. I was wondering if we could maybe connect in some way? Help each other?" Emilia asked.

"Oh… erm, do you have a channel?"

"Y—yes. It's rather new, and I have no videos on there yet, but—"

"Oh," she deflated. "I have to go."

Emilia almost fell over. "What?"

The girl just left her there in the middle of the conversation. Had she said something wrong? Emilia tried again a few times, but every time she talked to a coordinator, they either asked her how much subscribers or ribbons she had, or if she knew important people. Emilia gripped the sides of her skirt. She was standing there, way too underdressed for this cold because of some stupid picture, and she was just getting blown off by people. Should she have tried somewhere else? Maybe Amity Square—

"Legendaries, are you Emilia Lussier?" A girl called out to her.

"What? Y—yes, that's me," Emilia stammered. "Can I help you?"

"I saw you poking around, and I was wondering what the problem was? You seem to be, like, depressed over there."

"I've been trying to make connections. What's your name?"

"I'm Jasmine! Nice to meet you!"

Emilia felt a surge of hope. "Are you a new coordinator?"

"Well, you could say that. I signed up for it this summer, and we're all new until we get at least a ribbon under our belts," she shrugged. "I have a few friends that are staying at an apartment we're all renting. Do you want to come and meet them? Get you started on all this coordinator stuff? I know it seems daunting at first."

Emilia smiled. Finally, things were turning around for her! "Of course! Lead the way."

They started walking. "So, are you staying at, like, a hotel or something? Could we maybe go there and film a video, maybe?"

"A video?"

"Yeah, one where my friends and I pretend that we rented the place," Jasmine said with a smile. "I bet that'd blow up. It'd be a one out of ten!"

"What's a one out of ten?" Emilia asked with a slight frown.

"Arceus, you're really a newbie, aren't you?" She laughed. "On the creator dashboard, it ranks views on your latest video against your last ten videos, so one out of ten is amazing, and ten out of ten is terrible."

"Oh… well, I was just staying at a Center for now."

Emilia hated hotels these days. It reminded her too much of being put on lockdown by Harvey and Clarence. It was impossible for her to relax there. Jasmine stopped in her tracks and turned.

"Really? Like, really? You're a billionaire, and you're staying at a crummy Center? That's where all the trainers are!"

Emilia froze.

"Oh, that's right, I forgot you were a trainer too. Yuck," Jasmine said. "Well, that was a waste of time. Keep trying to make friends, and see where that gets you. Look at you! Are you tearing up? You're a naive little girl that'll go nowhere." she continued. "Well, bye. That was a waste of my time."

She tried finding a good retort, but by the time she came up with something, Jasmine was already gone. If Pauline had been there…

No. Pauline wasn't there. She had to stand up for herself, and she had failed. Emilia wiped a few tears and took deep breaths. She had always been bad at getting bad-mouthed or yelled at. It made her spontaneously tear up, even if she didn't feel that bad about it. That certainly didn't help her as a child when she had gotten bullied. Until Pauline saved her.

"I see you've gotten a good introduction to coordinator culture," a boy laughed behind her.

Emilia frowned and turned toward him. He was a short teen with long, brown wavy hair. "What do you mean?"

"Oh, you know," he smiled. "We're all clout-chasing, money-hungry assholes. That was Jasmine. She and her posse are well known around here. She'd do anything to get a leg up on the competition."

"And you? Are you a clout-chasing, money-hungry asshole too?"

The boy smirked at her. "Sure, but I'm not that bad. The name's Vincent. Vincent Campbell. You?"

"You don't know who I am?"

"Genuinely, no," he shrugged. "I did hear Jasmine call you Emilia, and say that you were a billionaire though, so you must be someone famous."

"I wouldn't call myself famous, my friends are all more popular than I am," she clarified. "They're all trainers."

"Oh, is that why Jasmine called you a trainer earlier?"

"I was one, but then I gave up after one badge because it wasn't for me," she said. "And how long were you even following us for?"

"The entire time. I was waiting for a good time to jump in and save you from her clutches, but she just left on her own."

"Well, Vincent," Emilia exhaled. "That's a little weird, but I'll overlook it. Can you help me find my footing? Right now, I'm a nobody. I have no videos, no ribbons, no subscribers, I don't know anyone important in the industry, and I'm probably terrible at performances. And even though I have a lot, I will not give you any money."

The young coordinator held her breath. She was laying it all on the line.

"Well, Emilia, I've got some time to kill, so I don't see why not."

——

The two teenagers sat in a cafe far away from the Hearthome Contest Hall, and Emilia sipped on her iced coffee. She was still trying to pretend to like the Arceus damned drink, but nothing was working. People said that it was an acquired taste, but the only thing she was acquiring was a deeper hatred of coffee.

"The first mistake you made was trying to meet people at the Coordinator's Walk," Vincent explained as he munched on a croissant. He pointed a finger at her. "That's a real asshole magnet. You would have been better off just asking people around the city."

"But it would have taken ages to find coordinators."

"Yes, but they wouldn't have been an asshole."

Emilia was starting to wonder why Vincent was attached to the term asshole so much. "Okay, what else?"

He frowned, suddenly taking on a serious tone. "The world of coordinators is ruthless. I don't know how it was when you were a trainer, but I know y'all have this helpful, power of friendship shit going on, so this is going to be a complete culture shock for you. Helping other people? Forget it. Out here, it's the law of the jungle. Everyone's for themselves unless there's a benefit to cooperation. Jasmine and her pals, for example, they're only living together because they can't afford rent otherwise. Coordinators can't stay at Centers for free like trainers, and you'll have to stop doing it if you've given up on being one unless you want to be busted— actually, never mind, you can probably just pay the fine. Just try not to get caught abusing all the free stuff trainers get."

Emilia nodded. Worst-case scenario, she'd just be able to sleep in Pauline's Pokemon Center room. The bed was large enough for them both, and she technically wouldn't be breaking the rules.

"Anyway, I'd bet good money that Jasmine and her friends all secretly hate each other and wouldn't hesitate to backstab one another at the first opportunity to get an advantage."

"But you're helping me," Emilia said. "What are you getting out of this?"

Vincent leaned back against his chair. "Can I be frank?"

"I'd hope so."

"You're supposedly famous, and you were apparently in the news. You're rich. If I help you and you're successful down the line, you might help me," he simply said.

Emilia clicked her tongue. "I told you I wasn't giving you any money."

"I know. This isn't about money, it's about favors. Favors go a long way here. That's another thing you'll figure out. Nothing you do should be left unpaid. Doing things out of the goodness of your heart? Forget that. People will abuse you and leave you out to dry when you've outlived your usefulness."

"Arceus, this sounds miserable."

"It is miserable. There are obviously good people too in the industry too, it's just that…" he trailed off and sighed, pausing for a few seconds before continuing. "It's a path made for sociopaths. The bigger the asshole you are, the better your odds will be. Everyone wants to get to the top. Fame, money, success, being a good coordinator… we all want that. We want it so much that we forget to be nice to each other," Vincent said with a twinge of sadness. "It gets exhausting sometimes. But when you're on stage, performing? When the audience is captivated by a move combination you've been working on for weeks, and you fucking nail it? That's the best feeling in the Arceus damned world, and we all keep coming back to chase that high," he smiled, his eyes shining.

"Well, I'm not sure I want to be mean to everyone to get ahead," Emilia started. "But I sure as hell won't give up. I'm going to become a coordinator. I'm going to surpass Temperance."

"The Temperance? That's a high goal, but I respect that," he said. "This is my first year as a coordinator, but it's also yours. What do you say we help each other?"

"No funny business?" She asked.

"No funny business. In fact, I'll help you stay out of funny business. I benefit from you succeeding, remember?"

"Okay," she smiled. Emilia held out her hand, and Vincent shook it firmly. "Let's start immediately. Can you give me ideas for my channel? I still need to buy a laptop to edit any videos, but do I need a better camera? Can you just show me your channel so I can get ideas, or is that taboo? What Pokemon do you have? Can we train together? How long should I wait to sign up for my first contest?"

"That's the passion I like to see in a fellow coordinator," he grinned. "Let's take it one question at a time, or I'll choke on my food."

A/N: The Interludes are over! I hoped you enjoyed getting a slice of what being a coordinator is like. The culture is fundamentally different from the trainer culture I've built up, and I took a lot of ideas from the movie/influencer industry, which I'm sure that can be felt all over the chapter (I mean, there's literally a one-for-one hollywood Walk Of Fame copy, so I was kind of shameless about it.) I'm actually genuinely excited to write about coordinators, which is something I never would have believed when I started this entire thing. I find performances a lot harder to write than battles, so hopefully I'll manage. Next chapter is back to Grace's PoV.
 
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Chapter 112
CHAPTER 112

I stared back into the taxi as my friends groaned and complained about being squeezed together so much. I had suggested taking the bus, but Pauline had been adamant about being driven to where Emilia was staying because it'd take less time, and she missed her a lot. It was true that they hadn't been apart in a long while, so now that they were so close, she was probably incapable of waiting any longer. Due to my burns, they let me sit in the front seat so that I could have ample space and no one would rub on my bandages. The entire left side of my body still felt like a pain factory, but it was slowly improving. According to my doctors, though, the burns were healing wrong, so they'd leave marks. So much for hoping that those second-degree burns would just fade away.

I didn't care too much. I didn't. I didn't…

Damn it, I hated it. I had kept my spirits up and focused on healing, but every time I changed my bandages, and I stared at myself? At those rough, red blotches on my skin all along my side, neck, and face?

I fucking hated it. I felt tainted. But every action had a price, and even though I considered the hefty price I had paid for Turtonator worth it, the decision still weighed on me.

And Legendaries, it felt heavy.

"That's the Center," Pauline told the driver as she pointed toward our right.

I hadn't been in Hearthome long, but I already felt more comfortable here than I had in any other city since leaving Jubilife. The skyscrapers, the bustling streets and the dense, tightly packed blocks reminded me of home, but there were some older buildings sprinkled in as well. Dad had come here a few times in his youth, but it was my first time there. Every time he had taken me on vacation somewhere, it had been Sunyshore or Pastoria for the beaches. He was worried sick about me, and Cecilia had expertly skirted along the fact that everything had happened because of a decision I alone took. Recovering enough to travel hadn't taken as long as I thought, so he was supposed to arrive in two days. He'd probably end up extending his stay for as long as I was here, though. He had saved up a lot of paid leave.

I sighed when I heard someone behind me say something, but I didn't manage to hear. I turned to ask what had been said, but everyone was already out of the car.

It'd be weird to bring it back up now, wouldn't it? I made sure to turn my head slightly to the left so that I could hear properly.

"Thank you, keep the change," Justin told the driver. He looked up at Denzel. "So what now? Should we surprise Emi like you did to us?"

"Wouldn't work, she already knows we're here because someone has a big mouth," he said in an accusatory tone as he stared daggers at Pauline.

"Did you call her?" Cecilia asked.

"I texted her in the car. Now let's go," she said excitedly.

Cece turned toward me. "Are you alright? You seem shaken."

I nodded, but pulled her to the side when everyone walked toward the Center's entrance.

"I'll tell you later tonight. I don't want to ruin things."

"Okay."

I sighed. I'd probably call Amanda again too, which was a shame. Sure, I'd be happy to talk to her again, but it was discouraging to think that I might need therapy again after freeing myself from Mars' hold on me. And for what? Because I thought some scars were ugly on me?

How immature could I be?

But there was another reason. Something that was hidden deep within me that I didn't want to acknowledge or confront.

"Emi!" Pauline squealed. The chestnut-haired girl had already been waiting for us in the lobby. Pauline dropped her backpack, dashed through the room, and hugged her best friend so hard that I thought she'd suffocate her. "Oh, Arceus, I missed you so much!"

"We talked on the phone…" Emilia said, but she couldn't help but smile and hug her back. She went through all of us and embraced us one by one, although she was noticeably softer on me in order not to hurt me. "Grace, how are you?"

"It hurts really badly, but I'm better than I was yesterday and the day before that, so I'll call that a win," I said. "I missed you."

"We all did!" Denzel laughed.

"You guys are the ones to talk! I never felt as alone as I did during those weeks on my own in the city," she said.

"I hope you kept your promise," Pauline said in a threatening tone.

"I did! I made a coordinator friend. His name's Vincent. He's a little straightforward, but he's got a good heart, I think."

"You think?" Cecilia asked.

"Well, yes, but that's beside the point. You can meet him another day. Go book your rooms, and then we can celebrate. I bought a whole bunch of snacks… low quality, just for you," she told Pauline.

"Grace enjoys those too," Pauline shrugged.

"I'll pass, I need to go do something first."

Denzel stared at me. "Are you alright?"

"What? Can't I pass on food for once?" I groaned.

"No, no, you can, it's just… you just never do."

"Today's a bit special. Anyway, let's get this over with."

We booked our rooms, and my friends gave their Pokemon to Nurse Joy. I didn't give mine. I'd need them for later, and they hadn't fought on the route because I hadn't been able to focus on training. I bid the group goodbye as I walked out of the Pokemon Center and hopped onto a bus. I would have taken a taxi, but I couldn't really waste money on those, especially when public transport was free for trainers. Plus, feeding a Pokemon as large as Turtonator was going to cost an arm and a leg. The cost of just traveling and maintaining my team was starting to add up, and I was going to start losing money faster than I was making it. Right now, I had nine-thousand Pokedollars on me, and most of that came from Candice's prize money.

Food was the most expensive thing on my list. Oran berries went for ten Pokedollars a piece, so they were relatively cheap, and they were the only thing Togetic ate anyway, since she was a picky eater. Mago berries, meanwhile, cost forty each, but Frillish didn't really need to eat, so I only bought them occasionally. Tangrowth could feed himself through photosynthesis, so even though he loved every single food, he didn't eat every day. The real money sinks were Larvitar and Electabuzz. Electabuzz ate Pokemon kibble. Pellets of food with all the nutrients an omnivore like him would need, but he was big— almost as tall as I was— and he certainly ate more than me. A single pack could cost hundreds of pokedollars depending on the brand, which I hadn't settled on yet, but at least they lasted a while. Then there was Larvitar, who ate the most out of all my Pokemon, despite her small size. She ate a mix of berries and kibble every day, and sometimes, she'd snack on some dirt she'd find on the routes too.

Still, I managed to keep my money carefully balanced, which obviously meant I couldn't exactly save up for anything. That was until Turtonator came into the picture. Now that I'd need to start feeding him too, I was going to end up broke soon. Of course, my friends would no doubt help me out if I asked, but I wanted to solve this myself. I relied on them too much as is.

And there was a very easy way to solve it now that I was in Hearthome. But later.

Obviously, there was the human cost to add to the equation as well. Food, supplies, medicine, new blankets… things could add up really quickly.

I had to switch buses five times to get to the edge of Hearthome. Their public transport lines were nowhere as efficient as Jubilife's, but I'd deal. Next time, I'd try to take the subway.

I walked back onto route 208 and released all my Pokemon aside from Turtonator. I had considered going to Amity Square for this, since it was a well-known spot for trainers and coordinators alike to hang out with their teams, but there would have been too many people around. Brockhouse's warning was still clear in my mind. One mistake, and Turtonator would be taken away from me.

That meant that the price I had paid would be meaningless. I looked at my Pokemon one by one. Electabuzz crossed his arm and looked into my eyes attentively while Larvitar stood at his feet, imitating him. Tangrowth caressed the right side of my face gently with a vine, carefully avoiding my burns, and Frillish offered me a short nod. I could tell that he was nervous, as he had been recently. I believed he was blaming himself for what had happened to me even though I had told him it wasn't his fault. No water type of our level was ever standing up to Turtonator, and I alone had taken the decision to engage him. It was on me, and not anyone else.

"Prrrrri…"

"Hey princess," I smiled. "I know you like cities, but we've got to do something first."

"Ele."

"Right. Turtonator," I said, nodding firmly. "You know I'm usually good at predicting things, and I've had a week to think about this, so I have… I have a good idea of how he'll react, but I could be wrong. If he attacks, I'll just recall him, so you aren't there to fight. We'd lose anyway."

I heard Larvitar protest and chuckled. "Yes, even you sweetheart. You're here to see if you can figure out what he's thinking. The goal today is just making sure we can at least converse, so don't do anything rash. Frillish?"

The water type's eyes dimmed.

"Tone down some of your hatred, bud. I can feel it, and it's not even directed at me," I sighed. "Can you forgive him or not?"

He thought for a few seconds, and then didn't answer.

"You don't know yet. That's fine, that's better than a no," I said with a slight smile. "You know how I feel about my scars, don't you?"

"Fri…"

"I hate them. I wish they'd disappear, and I hoped that they would, but they won't. And yet, I can't bring myself to hate Turtonator. So please, try your hardest."

He gave me a reluctant nod, and Tangrowth patted him on the head.

I took a deep breath and grabbed Turtonator's Pokeball. "Here goes nothing."

I released the dragon type far away enough from us so that he wouldn't be able to kill me immediately, but not far enough for him to feel isolated. He lifted his head and stared at the sky and then at us. He took a step forward, and grass started to burn under his feet.

"Hi," I said, standing my ground. I hadn't interacted with him that much, but I knew that every interaction with the dragon type this early in the relationship was a test. I could not appear afraid, but I couldn't hurt his pride too badly, either. "I kept my promise. Got you out of the cave."

Turtonator growled and took another step toward me.

"It's been a few days since you were out," I continued. "But if you show me that you aren't dangerous to people, I'll be able to keep you out more often. I'd like that."

He kept walking, raising the temperature to an uncomfortable degree. My Pokemon stepped in front of me and got ready to attack, but I stopped them with a word. Turtonator loomed over me, staring down at me like a bug. There was no respect behind that gaze. Just contempt. I was nothing to him.

And he wanted me to know it. I looked up at Turtonator and gave him a tired smile. His eye twitched.

"What's wrong? Not the reaction you were expecting?" I asked. "What did you think I'd do? Run away in fear? Collapse and cry, maybe? Order my team to attack? Badmouth you?"

The dragon snorted, blowing a few plumes of smoke into my face.

"See? You could have made that burn me or poison me, but you didn't," I said. "It just smells bad—"

Frillish couldn't take it anymore, and he spat out a Water Pulse at him, but Turtonator just snorted and brushed off the attack like it was nothing. Seemingly satisfied with himself, as if he had just proven something, the dragon type turned around and left.

He hadn't expected me to recall Frillish and follow him.

"Sorry about buddy, he can't stand you for what you've done to me," I said, pointing at my face. "I've personally forgiven you, but that's beside the point. I know what you're trying to do, Turtonator."

The turtle stopped in his tracks and snorted spitefully. The temperature started to rise even faster. I needed to be quick.

"You're trying to be unbearable so that I release you. You could kill me, I suppose, but you're too honorable for that. I brought you out of the cave. I saved you. So you won't hurt or kill me. You'll just act like a child and hope that I grow tired of you. I will not."

Turtonator roared in protest, dismissing my words, and the heat was starting to get unbearable now. I grabbed his Pokeball.

"I was right on the money, wasn't I? I tend to be. I will learn to love you, Turtonator, and you will as well, whether you like it or not. I will not berate you. I will treat you with kindness, and when you are ready to talk to someone about how awful you feel about your Kamaile's passing, I will be there."

I recalled him and almost collapsed on my knees. Tangrowth quickly stopped me from falling, and Togetic flew at me. Her eyes were wrought with worry, and so were everyone else's.

"Whew, that was close," I exhaled before smiling. "He was holding back like I thought he'd be, but the heat still almost made me pass out."

Turtonator had made it as hot as it would be in a scorching desert, not hot enough to burn me, and I appreciated that greatly.

"Think you can convince your big brother to calm down, princess?" I asked. "He's always had a soft spot for you."

"Toge!" She smiled.

"Thanks. I'll release him now. He must be worried sick."

And worried sick, he was. He placed his tentacles on my shoulders and started scolding me. This was the most vocal I'd ever seen him. Togetic tried cheering him up, but even that wasn't working.

"I'm sorry," I said. "I know you meant well, but the situation could have gone to shit if you gave Turtonator an excuse to attack. He won't kill me, but he could certainly attack any of you if he was angered enough. I couldn't take that risk."

"Fri…! Frillish!"

"Look at you," I smiled. "You're usually all calm and collected, and now you're acting all scared."

Frillish's eyes glinted, and he frowned at me.

"I… I know this isn't a joke, buddy. I know there are consequences if things go wrong. I know. Just… trust me on this. If we come at Turtonator from an aggressive angle, no one will benefit. Look at honey. He hates Turtonator's guts."

Electabuzz jumped in surprise, and then he awkwardly scratched his head.

"Don't think I can't tell," I said. "I've got eyes at the back of my head! But yeah, he hates him, I mean, he had to travel with a broken hand for days because of him, but he's trying. So please try. For me."

He huffed, nodding reluctantly, and I wrapped an arm around him, bringing his face against mine.

"Thank you. I know you're doing it because you love me. I love you too," I said softly. "Now, let's head back."

——

I knocked on Emilia's door and was let in. Everyone was partying and having a good time, but I personally found loud spaces to be annoying now that the hearing disparity in my ears was so large. It got distracting very quickly.

"Grace, where were you?" Emilia asked. "I can't believe you'd miss your welcome party. Do you want anything?"

"I was busy. Team meeting," I said. "I promise I'll stay longer next time! Forgive me?"

"Hmph. Fine. I want to spend as long as I can with you guys now that we're… almost all back together," she said.

I walked up to Cece, who led me to sit on her lap. "We'll be staying here for a while. It's only the first day," she said as she wrapped her hands around me, carefully avoiding pressing too hard on my burns.

"Good!" She beamed. "Plus, I want you all to be there for my first performance."

We all gasped. Pauline sprung up with a huge smile. "Emi, did you—"

"Yes, I signed up! It's in a week and a half, and it's not a grand contests, so there's no ribbon to be won, but Vincent convinced me to join with him. It's only his third contest."

"Okay, now I've got to meet this Vincent guy and give him my thanks," Pauline smugly said. "He's been doing my job for me!"

"Don't get too full of yourself," Denzel chimed in. "Emilia's the one who took the final decision. Give her some credit."

"Right?" She said, angrily putting her hands on her hips. "Thank you, Denzel. Anyway, I'm super nervous, but I'm also so excited I can barely sit still."

"I'm sure you'll do well," Justin smiled. "I'm excited to see another contest after so long."

"So am I," I said. "But aren't experienced coordinators going to join?"

"Probably," Emilia deflated. "But that's the luck of the draw."

"Now that, right there? That's bullshit," Denzel scoffed. "There should be rules for that. Like different leagues for coordinators at different skill levels so that the most experienced ones don't just roll over the competition."

"That would make sense," Cecilia nodded. "Ever since you explained how contests worked to us, I've found the fact that there wasn't such a system in place strange."

"You aren't the first ones to ask for one," Emilia quickly responded. "I mean, it feels like a common sense reform, right? But the Contest Committee's already shut down the idea multiple times."

"Sounds like bullshit to me," Pauline hissed. "The Contest Committee's probably run by a bunch of out-of-touch old men anyway."

"Well, they make the decisions, so I can't do anything about it."

"What if you become super good?" I asked. "Won't you have influence with the big shots?"

"I would, but obviously coordinators at the top would rather keep the status quo. It benefits them, after all," Emilia said.

"Right, I should have thought of that."

"Well, Emilia isn't like that," Justin said.

"Right. Maybe if she gets to the top, she can bring change to the system. Makes for a good goal, don't you think?" Denzel asked.

"I'm not a big dreamer like you lot," she shrugged. "Right now, I'm focused on my performance coming up."

"Fine…" he grumbled. "But do know that goals make you improve faster."

"Goals can be small," Cecilia said.

"Okay, you win."

We kept partying for a few hours, and Cece kept me company most of the time, and we spoke about everything, but the conversation of course often steered back toward Pokemon battling and training, as it often did when two trainers interacted. We decided that we'd wait for Chase to arrive before battling Fantina so that we could do our big double battle without revealing anything that we had been working on. We were giving him a week to at least give us any signs of life.

I sure hoped he was alright.

Pauline and Justin were going to sign up tomorrow, however, so they'd battle far before we did.

"Denzel," I called out. He was browsing his phone— probably the forums. "You busy?"

"Nah, just messaging some girl," he whispered.

"Ohhhh," I teased. "Do I know her? What's her name?"

"You don't know her, and her name's Caitlyn. I met her while I was gathering information about Turtonator. And it's not like that, she was just telling me she made it through the mountain alright."

"Fine. Killjoy," I pouted. "Come with."

He raised an eyebrow, but followed me anyway, and after telling our friends we were leaving, I led him to my room.

"What are we doing?" He asked. "Please don't ask me to watch some shit movie again, I beg of you."

"They're good because they're shit," I laughed. "But no. We need money, don't we?"

"Yeah, obviously. What's your point?"

"Well, let's start looking at sponsors then."

Denzel grinned. "Finally. I thought you'd never ask."
 
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Chapter 113
CHAPTER 113

I sat to Denzel's left as I grabbed my phone and opened my email. "Didn't you start looking already?"

"I was waiting for you," he shrugged.

"Laptop would come in real handy right about now," I said. "Y'know what'd be a good policy change for the League? A computer lab room where trainers would be able to use them for whatever they wanted in Centers."

"Well look at you, already finding ways to improve our lives," Denzel smiled. "Anyway, this is going to take a while."

"Tell me about it," I sighed as I opened my email.

There were hundreds of messages from different companies that dated back weeks. Some were even from before I had beaten Candice, and a few businesses had contacted me multiple times. Of course, I had ghosted all of them, because having to look at this stuff gave me crippling anxiety. The idea of having to go through it all was worse than actually doing so, however. It was kind of when people were anxious about answering the phone, but when they actually picked up, they were relatively okay.

"Okay, let's sort through the shitty offers first," Denzel explained. "Here, for example. Look."

He showed me an email from a company that had been asking for a meeting.

"This is from Surf Solutions… I don't know what it is they do exactly, and that's a problem, right?" He continued. "If they don't respect us enough to at least tell us that, then it doesn't pass the smell test. I'm not going to look up every company out there, that'd take days."

"Right," I nodded. "Retani Industries didn't tell us what they were about in their email. Emi and Pauline had to explain it to us."

"And look how that turned out. We almost signed away years of our lives. So… scroll down to right after your battle against Gardenia and start sorting through the shit offers."

"You seem prepared," I said, my eyes widening slightly.

"Pauline helped me improve my financial literacy a little. We should probably still ask them if we aren't sure about anything, though."

And so, we began writing off any company that seemed suspicious. Some of them, because they didn't tell us what they were about, like Denzel had said, but others because they had offered us hilariously bad terms in the email, not even as a contract. Twenty potions per month? Come on! They were obviously trying to take advantage of the price hike, and I feared some trainers might have taken the bait. There were also the usual monthly salaries offered, but some of them were bad too. I might have gawked at fifty thousand Pokedollars per month a few months ago, but today?

I knew we were worth more than that.

"Annnnd, done," I said before stretching.

"How many offers you got left?" He asked.

"I don't know, I didn't count. Probably thirty or so."

"I've got twenty-four, and they're all pretty recent," he explained. "Now, I guess we should try to meet as many of these as possible during our time in Hearthome and sign the best deal before we leave."

I nonchalantly agreed, but then froze when my eyes glazed over one of the messages. I had been in such a trance when deleting these emails that I didn't actually read that one of the companies offering to sponsor me was the Poketch Company.

"Holy shit," I breathed out. "I—I think the Poketch Company wants a deal with me."

"Huh? They usually only sponsor high-level trainers! Craig is sponsored by them."

"I… I know. There must be a catch to this," I frowned, carefully reading over the email.

It was a short but concise message that got straight to the point that they had sent a week and a half ago. A first paragraph describing what they did— not that I needed it, they held an effective monopoly over the smartphone industry— then a second one saying that they'd be interested in a meeting and that I should contact them back as soon as possible.

"They don't explicitly say it, but I don't see why the Poketch company would want to meet you unless they wanted to sponsor you," he said. "Damn, I'm jealous."

"My dad works there. Maybe it has something to do with that?"

"How high up is he in the food chain?"

"He's an engineer for their products," I said. "He gets paid a lot, but he wouldn't be able to influence who they sponsor."

"Well, think about it like this," Denzel pondered. "You were almost poached by Retani Industries, who are trying to break into the smartphone market and rival the Poketch Company. Back when we had just beaten Gardenia, I don't think it would have mattered very much, but if you keep gaining traction like you have… it could maybe become a major blow to them."

"Ah, you might be right. Then they'd be preemptively securing me. Plus, since my dad works there, if I did get into the Conference, for example… then wouldn't it be embarrassing?"

"Embarrassing?"

"Yeah, imagine the headlines. My dad works in the Poketch Company, but I'm sponsored by someone else or even a rival. It'd be embarrassing, and my dad could maybe get in trouble if it generated too much negative press. I can't believe I didn't think of this before."

I sighed in relief, and there was a brief pause in the conversation.

"Still," I continued. "There's always a catch with these. I can't rest on my laurels."

"I don't think they'll shaft you like Retani Industries tried to do. The Poketch Company's well known for their sweet deals. I mean, if Craig's working with them, they're doing something right."

"I'm not expecting to be screwed that hard, but I don't know…" I muttered. "Companies value profit over everything. I'm a high-profile trainer, but our novelty's starting to die down—"

"Until you reveal that Turtonator of yours," he interrupted with a grin. "There are only rumors right now. People aren't sure if you caught it or not."

I rolled my eyes. "He's a piece of work, let me tell you. My point still stands, though. We're starting to disappear from the news cycle. We burned bright, but we're burning out quick. Older, high-leveled trainers like Craig… they're like candles. They stay lit for a long time. They're household names. A constant, reliable presence. Which is why they get the deals they do."

"Well, you don't even know the deal they're offering yet. Could be good."

"You and your positive outlook and everything," I groaned.

"Just write them already! You only get offers like these once in a lifetime, and you don't know when they'll rescind it!"

"Fine!"

I rolled my eyes and started typing a short response, saying that I had just arrived in Hearthome and I was available to meet any time. I wrote back to three other companies as well in case the Poketch meeting didn't work out: Bloom & Breeze, which was a well-known clothing brand that delved both into luxury and everyday clothing. Fitstride, which was a footwear company that focused on making durable shoes for trainers. The new sneakers Cece had bought me were from there. Finally, there was RefreshCo, a beverage company that made all kinds of soft drinks, including my favorite grape and orange sodas. Denzel, meanwhile, wrote to ten in total, so he was being a lot more generous with his standards than I was. Now all we had to do was wait for them to write back.

"We won't be together for our meetings this time," Denzel told me. "Will you be alright?"

"I'll have to try," I sighed. "I wish I could bring Cece."

"Closed-door negotiations are a bitch," he nodded. "But don't sign anything right away."

"Obviously. You know me. I don't make the same mistake twice."

He smiled, gently wrapping an arm around me and giving me a short hug. "Alrighty. Let's get back to the party!"

"It's been five hours, I don't think the party's still going."

"If I'd been there, it would have been," he chuckled.

——

We knocked on Emilia's room, and she opened the door after thirty seconds or so. I turned toward Denzel and gave him a smug smile when he saw that everyone aside from Pauline was gone, although she was lounging on the bed under the covers, and she was glaring at me specifically and not Denzel, who looked like he had seen a ghost.

"Oh, shit! Sorry. Party's over, I'm guessing?" Denzel awkwardly asked.

"Yes. Justin's resting in his room, and Cecilia decided to go out on an item shopping spree," Emilia said. She seemed to be worried. Her breaths were tired and short, and her eyes were darting between me and Denzel.

My shoulders slumped. I had wanted to speak to Cecilia, but she was probably going to be gone for a while. It was my fault too. I had told her that I was going to speak to her tonight, and it was still the afternoon. Maybe I was being too clingy.

I took a step inside. "Well, can we hang out—"

"Uh, wait," Denzel said as he pulled my shirt. "Let's go hang out with Justin, Grace."

"What? Justin needs his alone time—"

"No, I'm pretty sure he'll be fine," he interrupted. "In fact, he'll be glad his teacher's spending some time with him."

"But—"

"Bye guys!" Denzel ignored me and closed the door right in my face.

I turned toward him angrily. "What the hell was that for?!"

For some reason, he stared at me like I was a lost cause.

"What's with the look?!"

He sighed and shook his head. "Let's go hang out with Justin."

I clicked my tongue and attempted to get an explanation for his strange behavior, but he wouldn't budge. After going up a floor, we knocked on Justin's door, and he opened in instantly. There was an open book on his desk.

"Grace. Denzel," he smiled. "Come in."

"Sorry, Justin," I grumbled. "I didn't want to disturb your reading, but Denzel was adamant about visiting you."

"Ah, it's not an issue, I was going to take a break anyway."

"Whatcha reading about?" I asked as I sat on his bed.

"Oh, just a book about recent innovations in human medicine," he sighed.

"You're the only one that'd read a book about that stuff. You could have looked it up for free," Denzel smiled.

"I tend to prefer holding a hardcover in my hands," he shrugged. "I'm terrible at focusing with a screen."

"So, what's new in the world of human medicine?" I asked.

"Well, there's a depressing lack of progress, that's what's new," he grumbled. "I don't get how it doesn't anger more people that we can effectively save a Pokemon from anything as long as we get them to a Center, but humans still die from the smallest things."

One didn't have to be smart to see that Pokemon medicine had blown past human medicine in the last century, but Justin was the only one I had seen so angry at that fact. To me, it was just a part of life.

"Ditto in particular are so fascinating," Justin continued as his eyes sparkled. "Their cells can transform into anything they touch after they've come into contact with it once, although they can only store enough memory to hold one transformation at a time," he explained.

"So Grace's scars, for example…" Denzel hesitantly asked. I elbowed him. "What? You won't tell me anything, but I can tell that you hate them!"

"Yes, even your scars. We could potentially place a single colony of ditto cells on your skin, and they'd replace the scarred tissue."

I didn't even bother listening to the small spark of hope that appeared in my heart. "But there's a catch, isn't it?" I asked.

Justin winced. "Human trials have all… failed drastically. The results weren't pretty."

"What happened?" I asked, my fists tightening.

"Pherzen tried starting small. At first, we regenerated lost toes or fingers. For the first few days, everything seemed fine. The new body parts were responsive, and they genuinely felt like a part of the participants' bodies. But after a while… the ditto cells would grow out of control like cancer and overtake the hosts' bodies, killing them in the process. We tried everything. Surgery to remove the cells… it didn't work. There was always at least one left over in the body, and that's all they needed to replicate. They all died in terrible pain, and there's nothing left of them in the end. Just a… purple blob."

I swallowed as I felt a bead of sweat roll down my chin.

"So it works for Pokemon, but not humans?" Denzel shuddered. "Are we just too different?"

"I wished that we could have studied the phenomenon more, but my father shut down the trials immediately," Justin sighed. "I wanted to move the testing to animals like cows and pigs so that we wouldn't have to endanger lives, but the press had already heard of our previous failures, and he wouldn't hear any of it. The victim's families sued and were thankfully paid damages in full."

Moving the testing to animals would have made sense… so why not do it? Maybe Justin's dad just wanted to sweep the whole thing under the rug to avoid negative press, but if the potential was as great as Justin thought it to be, then they could have turned it around quickly enough. Who would care about some dead animals if their grandpa or grandma were getting their cancers cured or regenerating limbs? Justin went on further, theorizing that by using Ditto cells, rejuvenating the human body was even theoretically possible, although that had never been tested.

I was still focused on the previous incident. I felt like something had been hidden from Justin. Something far worse than his already tragic story let on. Companies were driven by profits, and the potential here was so massive if they got it right…

Or maybe I was in and over my head.

After an hour, I left Justin and Denzel alone to speak while I finally entered my room for the first time to shower and change. Showering was still painful, and I was forced to use less water pressure than usual, but at least I could actually do it now. After so long, it was the little things like showering or holding a pen without being in horrible pain that made me truly appreciate what I already had.

I hated looking at myself. I hated it. I avoided the mirror like the plague. Then at least, I could pretend that it wasn't actually me.

Eventually, when night had fallen, I heard a soft knock on my door.

That was Cecilia's knock. Gentle, yet purposeful.

I got up from my bed and let her in.

"Hi," I said. "Buy anything interesting?"

She gave me a teasing, half-smile as she sat down. "Fishing for information, I see."

"Well, I was also genuinely interested," I chuckled.

"I never doubted that," she said. "Are you ready to talk?"

I drew a sharp breath. "Y—yeah. Right to the point, huh?"

What did I even want to say? Complain and whine about consequences for a decision I had taken? Now that the moment had come, the words were stuck in my throat.

"Sit," Cece said, patting my bed next to her

I nodded and obliged her.

"From the moment you were told that you'd be keeping the burn marks, I could tell that you were feeling awful," she said. "More awful than you did when you only had to deal with the pain."

"I…" I exhaled. "I can't bear to look at myself, Cece."

Her eye twitched. "Why?"

It was a simple, stupid question, but the answer was actually quite complicated. I sat there in silence for a good five minutes, trying to come up with what to say. The correct words that would express the feelings I had bottled up all this time.

"Well, it being ugly is a part of it," I sighed. "I look terrible next to you now, Cece. People are gonna talk."

"I don't care. Let them talk."

"I know you don't care, but I do," I said, raising my tone slightly. Cecilia flinched. "I'm sorry. I care. I don't have your thick skin, Cecilia. That's why I keep away from the public and the forums in general. There could be a sea of positivity, but one bad comment is all it takes to ruin my day, and it hurts me more when they talk shit about you than when they do about me."

"What can I do, then?" She asked. "Do you want me to fight back? Pauline and Chase do it."

"No, no, it's my problem. Don't change the way you are," I sighed. "It's just… I already felt lacking compared to you— not in Pokemon battling, but in looks. And now I have this," I exclaimed, pointing at myself. "But that's not it."

"There's another reason," she nodded. "A bigger one."

I nodded tightly. "This… scarring. It's a cost. That's fine," I said. "But it's a mark of my failure. A mark that'll stay there forever, reminding me every day that I fucking failed."

"You… didn't fail, Grace. Everything might not have gone according to your plan, but you still caught Turtonator. He's strong enough to compete at seven badges."

"It's not enough," I sniffled. "I want everything to be iron tight. This plan wasn't. I thought it was, but it wasn't, and I'll have to remember every time I stare at myself. I'm not as good as I thought I was, Cece."

Warm tears streamed down my face, and Cecilia wrapped an arm around me.

"Not as good as you thought you were? You're holding yourself to impossibly high standards."

"Think about it. Think. I hadn't lost anything since… since… I can't even remember when— oh, the fight against you at the Floaroma tournament. I hadn't lost anything I made a plan for since then. Just losing would have been okay. One of the first lessons dad taught me before I left was to not be afraid of failure, so even though it would have stung, I would have gotten over it."

"But not when there's a permanent mark," Cece said, finally understanding.

I nodded and wiped my eyes. "It'll always be there. Fresh in my fucking mind," I cursed. "And there's nothing I can do about it. I was in over my head. I was high on the damn string of victories, and I thought I was invincible. I wasn't."

"That second part is not something I can help you with, although I'll try," Cecilia gently said. "But I'll be the first to tell you that I am in no way embarrassed to stand by your side. You are as beautiful as the day I met you, Grace."

"Come on, you're just saying that to make me feel better. That's objectively untrue," I said.

"It isn't. Look at me. Look into my eyes," she said. I turned toward her. "I am not lying. You can tell."

And I could. Cece had an easy tell when she gave a really obvious lie: she used her confident, smooth tone, and her face defaulted into a neutral expression, just like when she had battled Roark. Right now, she was emotional. Her voice was shaking, and she was tearing up.

"Okay, I believe you," I conceded, falling onto the bed.

"Did you think I was going to leave you because of some scars?"

"I didn't think so, but a small part of me couldn't help but be paranoid and scream what if, you know?"

"Please, I'd never be that shallow," Cecilia said, lying beside me.

We let the silence settle in as we stared at the ceiling.

"Hey," I asked. "When'd you fall in love with me?"

I sensed her freeze next to me. "Where did that come from?"

"Nowhere, I'm just curious," I said, still sniffling from earlier. "Spill."

"Well…" she hesitated. "I think it was after you beat Chase in battle for me, but I didn't realize it until you told me you liked girls. What about you?"

"I don't really know," I admitted. "But I knew in Floaroma."

"That early?" Cecilia screamed.

"You'll destroy my other eardrum if you screech that loud," I said sarcastically. "Surprised?"

"I… yes? I thought I was the one that fell for you first."

"Well, I didn't even know you liked me until you kissed me," I said. "Denzel thought that we were both terribly dense."

We both laughed at that.

"Are you ready to meet my dad in two days?" I asked. "I'm going to make you two pamper me so hard. We're going to the Poffin house, and you're going to make me food. They make human variants, you know?"

"I already want to pamper you without any special occasions," she shrugged. "But I am nervous. I want to make a perfect first impression."

"You'll be fine. He has a heart of gold, just ask Denzel! Although he did scream at him the first time they met…"

"Grace! Not. Helping."

——

The next morning, I woke up to the sound of my phone buzzing. After yawning, I lazily grabbed it and opened the group chat, making sure not to wake Cecilia up.

Chase was finally out of Mount Coronet, and he'd be in Hearthome in five days.
 
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