There comes a time in every child's life when simple acceptance of facts ceases to be enough. When that they had taken for granted becomes curious, then bizarre, then vexing. Children are born innocent and trusting, but children age, and what is taken for granted in youth must be challenged in maturity. Statements which had once carried the weight of truth by mere virtue of being spoken by an authority must be challenged, questioned, and tested.
And so, the day comes for every child when they must turn to those they most look up to, and demand the question which inevitably plagues every inquisitive young mind:
Why the hell are Rock-types vulnerable to water?
It is easy, and tempting, for an adult who senses the impending loss of their unquestioned hegemony over a young mind, to respond with sombre words and sage gazes. The rock stands mighty, my child. Grand and proud, unchallenged. All gaze upon the mountain in wonder, for it is boastful and proud. But water - water is something greater than grand. It is relentless. It does not quit, it does not surrender. It fights, day after day, year after year. And as time passes, that which once seemed immutable is muted. That which once towered over all is worn down to sand, for even the grandest mountain can be weathered to naught by the tireless efforts of a humble stream. And through persistence, and dedication, and unflinching determination, it is the water that endures.
When confronted with this, there are three responses a child might venture.
The first child will say "okay," and go on to a career in middle management.
The second child will nod, thank the elder for their words of wisdom, then get high and write poetry about how queen Beedrill are the real slaves.
But the third child will frown, and point out that the natural phenomenon of erosion is not a satisfactory answer in the context of Pokémon battles. The adult will implore them to consider the deeper meaning of their words. The child will counter that the Geodude wasn't held under a Water Gun for eight hundred years before tapping out. The adult will shake their head and tell the child that they'll understand when they're older. The child then goes on the Internet and discovers peer-reviewed studies on natural selection, as well as a powerful and deeply confusing fascination with Miltank lactation videos.
There is also a fourth child, who does not have this conversation at all. For they ask this question of their father, who is a world-renowned Pokémon Professor, and he explains that the term 'Rock-type' is a misnomer stemming from a shared etymological origin in Old Kanton. He teaches the child that so-called 'Rock-types' are actually defined by a rigid exoskeleton which possesses a superficial resemblance to common forms of stone. He elaborates that the ancestors of these modern 'Rock-types' evolved primarily in certain underground locations with limited access to liquid water, and that these bygone creatures developed the ability to absorb ambient moisture from the local atmosphere to provide themselves with adequate hydration, allowing them to exist in a very specific ecological niche. However, this adaptation causes them to fare poorly in the face of liquid water, which their exoskeletons attempt to absorb. This results in cells expanding until they physically burst, causing tremendous pain, disablement, and the temporary exposure of their delicate organ systems.
The child nods, appreciative of the knowledge but unable to grasp how lucky he was that he didn't get saddled with some berk talking about the universe's intrinsic need for balance.
These were the thoughts I occupied my mind with while I sat in Pewter City's Pokémon Center, waiting for their assessment of Cubone. Admiral had also been taken in to be checked for any lingering effects from the paralysis, and the Venonats for a general examination, but I wasn't particularly concerned about them.
Despite my exhaustion, sleep had made only passing acquaintance last night. The presence of death down the tunnel had unsettled me, worries about Cubone's state had plagued my mind, and every time my eyes had begun to close, I was jolted back to wakefulness by the distant echo of a phantom tap. I had drifted off eventually, but morning came far too quickly, and the fatigue had settled deep into my bones.
No longer preoccupied with thoughts of vanity, I hitched a lift on the first convoy to pass. The passengers had eyed me with sympathy, their only ventures at conversation being are you okay and offers of food and water. I dozed off on the ride, but the rest of the trip couldn't have taken more than an hour. First stop was the Pokémon Center.
I should have been preparing for my battle with Brock, running through potential strategies and contingencies, anticipating what commands I'd need Admiral to know and what instructions I should give him beforehand. But I was drained. There was nothing left in me.
The verdict came, and it was the best I could have expected. Minor malnourishment, fixable with a few days of proper feeding - if I could get him to eat. No physical trauma - the Kangaskhan had protected her child to the last - but the psychological damage was severe. Cubone was only a few months old, and the bond between a Kangaskhan and her child was the strongest in all of nature. No other Pokémon had an entire evolutionary branch induced purely by grief.
He had made no response throughout the examination. No acknowledgment of the nurses, no reaction to their words of reassurance, no reply to the Chansey that had tried to communicate with him, nothing but a reflexive flinch when they drew some blood.
The Venonats - a pair of sisters - were fine, if quite wild. When they had been released into the perspex box - standard procedure for any fresh capture, until their aggressiveness could be determined - one had bared her teeth and spit acid at the nurses, while the other cowered behind her. Admiral, meanwhile, had amused the staff with a little tap-dance routine. One of them had recorded it and, with my permission, uploaded it to the PokéCenter social media page.
Once they were released back into my care, I headed straight for the nearest hotel. It was barely past noon, but I knew I wasn't getting anything done today.
I did manage to force myself to pull out Admiral for a short while, to teach him a few more key codewords. Just stuff I expected we'd need for tomorrow - things like rock, water, enemy, win, lose. Yes and no. I would definitely need to expand his vocabulary, and soon, but it was all I could manage to make sure he'd have what he needed to handle the Pewter Gym.
Leader Brock had acquired a reputation as a first-ring adversary who could be relied upon to be tough, but fair. He typically deployed a Geodude against first-time challengers, providing sufficient challenge without brutalizing them. Occasionally he fielded an Onix, but did not require Trainers to actually defeat it so much as demonstrate their capability at handling oversize threats. And while Onix would certainly represent a tough opponent, I'd seen videos of Trainers with far weaker starters find triumph against him.
It may sound cocky, but the truth is that I wasn't really worried about Brock. First-ring battles were tests of command and control, an opportunity for a qualified Gym Leader to assess the challenger's ability to handle minor contests before progressing to greater challenges. A Geodude - honestly, even an Onix - would struggle to mount a serious fight against Admiral. He was well-trained, he obeyed commands, and the type advantage would be overwhelming. As Leader of the Rock Gym, Brock would be obligated to field only Kanton Rock-types, and Kanto had few that the League would recognise as suitable for a first-ring challenger.
In short, the problem space was small, far worse Trainers than me had gone through unscathed, and I was confident Admiral could handily deal with any opponent he could legally be faced with. I was exhausted, and I figured I'd be better off getting a full night's sleep so I could stay sharp and react to unexpected developments, rather than spending hours preparing for obscure, niche scenarios that were highly unlikely to materialize.
So I went to bed, checking my Pokédex only for direct messages and high-priority news alerts. With none present, I slammed my face into the pillow.
The Gym floor was stone, coated in a thick layer of gravel. Ridges, boulders, and sloping elevation changes abounded, the entire surface a chaotic jumble of rock. At the base of a long, sloping stone lay a fissure, likely struck into the foundations by some spectacular display of power. There were no plants, no life, no hint of anything but stern, unyielding resilience.
I mounted the dais, controlling my breathing as I approached the railing. There should have been more fanfare, more ritual. This is it. My first Gym battle. I should have been a gladiator, stepping upon the sands to the roar of the crowd.
But I was just a boy with a stained jacket and a cap, in an empty room of stone.
Across the room, on the opposite podium, stood Brock. Arms crossed, face still, wearing a khaki t-shirt with an open, grey padded vest. He made no noise and gave no reaction as I reached the railing. A moment passed as he surveyed me, considering, watching. Total silence.
When he spoke, it was without inflection or emotion. Simple, deep, and clear. Even his speech was unadorned.
"Red Oak, of Pallet. You wish to challenge me?"
I steeled myself, projecting my words as best I could without, trying to keep my voice low and masculine.
"This is your first contest. Do you affirm that you understand all relevant League regulations, and are aware of the consequences of misconduct?"
"I affirm it."
"Have you selected your Pokémon?"
He unclipped a Pokéball from his belt, not breaking eye contact, and pointed it towards the ground before him.
"You may deploy when ready."
Admiral's Pokéball was already in my hand. I raised it as Brock had, and whispered the words I had fantasized a thousand times. I was here. It was time.
"Admiral. I choose you."
I pressed the button, and a flash of blue light struck out from the Pokéball as Admiral formed upon the ground. As I did so, Brock did the same, his own streak of energy coalescing in the form of…
I had read about them. The Professor had a beautiful fossilized one mounted in a glass case at home, but live specimens were *incredibly* rare. I'd never seen one in person before.
It wasn't surprising that Brock had one. His Kabutops was a legendary warrior, and had been a key player in his challenge of the Elite Four. But I had never heard of a Kabuto being presented against a first-ring challenger, and while it probably fell within the challenge rating mandate of the League, it was certainly on the borderline. I was not prepared for this.
And it was huge. Difficult to gauge the exact size over that distance, but it wouldn't have been much smaller than a metre long. This was not a fresh hatch. This was a grown, trained Pokémon, and Admiral could not rely on simple water attacks to overcome it.
I gave no command. Instead my mind raced, running through everything I'd read about Kabuto to try and construct a viable strategy. Aquatic Pokémon. Nearly immune to water attacks. Hard outer shell, direct physical attacks ineffective. Underside is fleshy and vulnerable - potential weak point, but has deadly-sharp claws. Four eyes. Two on top have poor vision, mostly just detects light for avoiding predation. Lower eyes under the shell have much greater acuity. It'll have to expose them to see properly - narrow jets of high-pressure water, directed to the eyes. That could work.
Five seconds passed. Ten. I had no idea how many people were watching, but I could feel the pressure of their anticipation.
I'm not doing anything. I'm supposed to do something. I'm just standing here, I have to give a command, I have to look decisive and—
The pressure was building. I took in a short breath, trying to suppress the urge to act rashly.
Stop. Don't worry about them. Focus. Think. Weak points, what does it have?
More seconds. More phantom stares. Brock made no move.
Kabuto are built for water. They don't have tails, if they're flipped upside-down they can't get back up. Get it on its back and you win. But how can Admiral possibly flip that thing? It must weigh five times what he does, he'd need some insane sort of leverage to—
"Trainer Red," said Brock, shattering the silence. "You have not given order to attack. Is there a problem?"
"No, Leader," I replied. "I'm just…"
I trailed off. I didn't know what to say.
"Do you object to my selection?"
I opened my mouth, but nothing came out. I needed to give an order, but I had no idea what. Admiral turned to look at me, tilting his head. Either he needed advice, or he just didn't see the problem.
I need to give him a command. I need to tell him what to do, but what? If he runs in firing water blasts and trying his usual showboating wrestling malarky, he's going to get annihilated. He doesn't have the mass or finesse to toss that thing over.
Leverage. He needs leverage. If he can get the Kabuto to—
"Trainer Red," said Brock, his voice firmer, reverberating through the speakers dotted around the Gym. "You are the challenger. The onus is upon you to achieve victory. You must deliver a command."
"I apologise, Leader. I am considering."
He gave the barest incline of his head. "You have that right."
With that tacit permission to stop and think, the pressure lessened. The desperation to look quick and clever diminished, and my thoughts became that little bit clearer. It wouldn't look nearly so bad to be hesitant with a Gym Leader's endorsement.
Leverage. Use the environment. Push the Kabuto over a ledge. Get it jammed in that fissure, down next to that sloping boulder. Kabuto's entire structure is rigid, it has nearly no mobility. Get it wedged in somewhere, doesn't even need to be completely flipped. Get its claws off the ground, and that should be enough.
Now, how the hell do I communicate that to Admiral?
I ran through what limited vocabulary Admiral had learned, trying to formulate the instructions without having to resort to plain Kanton. Working out what would hopefully be enough to convey my intent, I began relaying my plan in our code. I spoke slowly, taking care to enunciate clearly and ensure he had time to process each individual part, joining phrases to try and connect concepts.
"Admiral. Attack, water. Front, not rock. Attack front water, not-rock. Move forward, move back. Move. Move. Move. Enemy up-down. Enemy up-down, win. No physical attack. Enemy rock. Physical attack, enemy win. Move enemy down low-rock fast, enemy up-down."
He stared at me, frowning in concentration, trying to process everything I was saying. Once I'd gone through it once, I repeated it. Take your time, make it clear. He needs to be on the same page as you. I finished the second repetition and waited, silently willing him to understand. Was this too complex for our simple tongue? Could he grasp that awkward jumbling of words?
He turned around, fully presenting his back to his opponent to face me with a questioning look. Then, slowly, he raised his hands to his waist and, with small, subtle movements, taking care to obscure Brock's view, placed one hand over the other. With a flipping motion, he inverted them.
I broke out into a grin. He got it.
I nodded, and he returned the nod with a shark's smile, baring his teeth.
He charged, breaking into a sprint towards his opponent. Gravel crunched beneath his feet, kicking pieces up as he ran. He bounded over the fissure that stood between them, closing the distance. The floor as a whole was covered with large rocks, but the path between the two was relatively clear.
Kabuto held its ground as Admiral approached, until the gap was down to about fifteen metres. Brock delivered a short series of instructions in his own language, and Kabuto began its own approach. Its claws unsuited to bare rock, it moved slowly, shifting gravel as it progressed.
Admiral stopped roughly five metres from Kabuto, opening his mouth to dispense a stream of pressurized water. It struck one of Kabuto's lower eyes, causing it to flinch and lower its shell, presenting Admiral with only exoskeleton and continuing its slow advance.
"Retreat, down-rock," I called out.
Admiral took a single step back, firing off another shot of water. This one skidded harmlessly off Kabuto's shell. It was followed by another, this one lower, trying to take one of Kabuto's claws from under it. Gravel went flying and Kabuto wobbled a bit, but held itself up and continued advancing.
Ten metres to the fissure. It would take a minute at this slow pace, but this was the Rock Gym. Patience was a virtue here.
Admiral fired a few more experimental shots. At first, it seemed pointless - strikes landing on the shell were entirely disregarded, blasts to the claws and underside caused no more than momentary instability - it was creeping, keeping itself low to the ground, it wouldn't be undone by them. But then a shot struck one of the recessed upper eyes, and Kabuto flinched. It wasn't much - the eyes were small, difficult to hit, and the strike seemed to cause no more than a flash of minor pain - but it was something.
With Admiral next to the fissure, Brock called out a command. Kabuto stopped.
Well, it's not like the plan wasn't obvious. I could hardly expect Kabuto to just wander up to the precipice and wait.
A second series of commands from Brock, longer and more intricate this time. I would have seized on the moment to take action, but I had no idea what would be effective. I wanted to interrupt, to make Admiral initiate some sort of attack before Brock's plan could be conveyed, but the only thing I could think of - beyond taking more potshots at the eyes - was to charge the giant rock with the fearsome claws, and that did not seem a wise notion.
The instructions conveyed, Kabuto waited until another Water Gun had slid off its shell, reared up, and fired a stream of high-velocity bubbles at Admiral. He dodged to the side, catching only a few and not so much as wincing as they connected. He returned fire, but Kabuto hunkered down as he did so, presenting nothing but shell.
Think. What's Brock's plan? Those orders were too long and detailed to just be 'fire bubbles', and they'll never cause real harm to Admiral. Brock knows this. He's planning something. But what?
Nothing came to mind, beyond forcing Admiral to maneouvre. But that didn't seem enough, and it would take a more powerful water attack to achieve even that much. Admiral could tank bubbles indefinitely. And yet, Kabuto made no follow-up play. When the bubbles ceased, it hunkered back down in anticipation of Admiral's return fire, which duly came.
These exchanges continued for perhaps a minute, five or six volleys each way. In the context of a Gym battle it felt like forever. Kabuto had no hesitation in cutting its attacks short when Admiral opened his mouth, so he was unable to land any meaningful hits. Another blow struck the upper eye, but any damage it inflicted was negligible. What IS his plan?
Brock's all about patience. Is he planning to just wear Admiral down? Bubbles take far less water to produce than full jets of water, and Admiral's water glands can't replenish indefinitely. Plus, Kabuto has far greater mass than Admiral, and presumably greater storage capacity. If he can keep this going long enough, Admiral will run out well before Kabuto does. And even if that isn't his plan, whatever's happening now is what Brock wants to happen.
Is he expecting me to reach that conclusion? Kabuto isn't going to move any closer to the ledge without prodding, I can't take it out with just water attacks - is he hoping I'll take my chances with a closer engagement?
Do I have a choice?
I gave the command to Admiral to stop firing. He was just going to drain himself - whatever minor pain he was inflicting with the eye strikes, it wouldn't be enough. Admiral's mouth closed, and he stuck to just dodging bubbles. That'll wear him down, too. It won't take him out, but he'll get tired if he has to keep evading for too long.
I gritted my teeth. Think. THINK!
More moments passed. This is a Gym battle. First ring. Brock's not going to present you with an impossible situation, he's obligated to make sure the challenge is beatable. There IS a path to victory.
Admiral's movements were slowing. He wasn't getting exhausted, but the impetus to dodge was diminishing. He started letting bubbles hit him - it wasn't like they could deal any damage. And all the while, my mind raced. But it wasn't racing usefully anymore, just churning through the same stable of ideas I'd already had, falsifying them again and again, periodically interrupted by vague, frustrated mental screams shouting THINK OF AN IDEA.
And after Admiral had taken a few bubble hits without concern, Kabuto reared up again, the same way it had a dozen times. But this time there was no stream of bubbles - rather, a red glow emanated from its mouth, and a dull maroon beam struck out at great speed. Admiral, caught off-guard, was too slow to dodge, and the beam connected. In a flash, droplets of water beaded across his flesh and were pulled away, speeding back towards Kabuto's glowing maw. Absorb. Kabuto can learn that?
Admiral threw himself to the side, shuddering, rolling as he landed, staying just ahead of the beam as it moved. As he rose from the roll, he wobbled, visibly drained.
The beam traveled, hitting Admiral again, tremors running through him. He was running, sprinting, taking a route around the sloped boulder to position it between him and the Kabuto. It pursued as it lost line of sight - slower than Admiral, but inexorable. It reached the bottom of the boulder's slope, keeping to the edge of the gravel - as the boulder ramped upwards, the gravel gave way to clear stone. But just a few feet from the gravel line lay the fissure. Opportunity?
Hold for a few seconds. Wait until Kabuto's at the narrowest point - in about fifteen seconds, it'll reach the spot where there's only a narrow path of gravel. It'll be right next to the fissure. If Admiral charges him there, he might be able to knock it into the crevice. Not great, but it's the best shot we're going to get.
"Admiral. No move. Stop. Physical attack enemy. Enemy up-down. Stop. Stop."
I really needed to teach him a wait command, but he seemed to grasp it. He looked at me, leaning against the rock, breathing heavily and perspiring, and nodded.
Kabuto neared the bottleneck, still staying as far away from the fissure as it could…and went off the gravel, traversing the bare rock of the ramp instead. It knows its weakness.
Its progress was slow, claws unsuited to walking on stone sans an intermediary to provide more resistance. Its movements were hesitant, finding a small crack or crevice for its next step before raising a claw from an established point. But it was moving, and it wasn't getting any closer to where I needed it to go.
Out of time. Take the shot.
Admiral charged, racing around the boulder at full pelt. The Kabuto seemed to intuit the meaning of my command and stopped moving, bracing itself on the patch of bare rock it stood and raising its head, mouth glowing. Admiral entered its sight, and it fired, beam streaking out towards him.
Admiral made no attempt to dodge, taking the hit. He barreled towards his foe and struck it full-force, thick skull connecting right in its mouth. Kabuto lost its footing, claws scratching exposed stone as it struggled to hold ground. Unable to withstand the tackle, it skidded back, legs digging into gravel as it was driven towards the edge, desperately trying to stop…
Not enough momentum. It held, right at the edge of the precipice. The red light was gone, whatever trauma Admiral had inflicted upon Kabuto's mouth cutting off the attack. But Admiral, now beneath the edge of Kabuto's shell, was finally exposed to its deadly claws. The front pair swung around, one catching him by the shell, the other digging into the flesh of his arm. The shell's front descended, semi-enclosing Admiral, and from beneath I could see that familiar maroon glow again.
I couldn't see exactly what has happening - Kabuto was facing away from me - but noise told the tale. Admiral was shouting, roaring in his croaking little way. Kabuto's shell was bucking as Admiral rained blows from below, the red light cutting off abruptly, getting knocked tantalizingly close to the ledge. But Kabuto's savage claws drew back and struck again, and again, and the shakes from Admiral's strikes grew subtler, smaller.
This was not what I had wanted. My first Gym battle. But Kabuto was no longer moving closer to the precipice, and I would not allow Admiral to become another Golduck. There was only one option left.
I opened my mouth, the words catching in my throat. It took a moment, but I found them, and my tongue began to move.
And then, I saw Admiral.
He'd thrown himself to the side, trying to get out from under Kabuto's shell. He was on his front, clawing at gravel, crawling away. His arms were shining red, what little of his face I could see cut and smeared with blood. A claw caught his leg as he struggled out, opening a new wound, but he jerked his leg away and pulled free, staggering to his feet and breaking into a ragged run up the sloping boulder, Kabuto's scything claws falling out of reach. It reared up and fired another maroon beam, catching Admiral by the leg and making him tremble, but then he was over the boulder's crest and upon its summit. The boulder flattened at the top, presenting a space the linear Absorb could not reach.
Admiral collapsed. Bleeding, exhausted, but safe.
"Rakka?" I called out. His tail flopped from one side to the other, once. Hurt, but can continue.
Great, but continue to what? Ranged attacks don't work. He doesn't have the strength for another melee. Kabuto's already repositioning, moving to a space with more gravel behind it. It's got the fissure behind it, but if the first charge didn't do the trick, then a second definitely won't. Not in Admiral's state, not with that much ground to cover. Sure, Admiral can keep going, but we've got no win condition. It's over.
"Huk," I called. "Varra-krinn."
Stop. Enemy win.
Admiral lay there for a moment, without response or acknowledgement. Then, he turned his head to look at me, face dark, and uttered a short bark of contempt.
I shook my head. "Huk," I said again, more insistent this time. "Varra-KRINN."
This time, he shouted. A loud, furious bark of rejection. Then again, and again, and again.
Perhaps I should have ignored him. Said the words, raised his Pokéball, returned him. Perhaps I should have lost, then and there. It would have been the wise thing to do. But that look in his eyes - that glare, that fury, that utter refusal to accept defeat - I couldn't bring myself to deny it. He would have taken it as a betrayal, as a shame I'd forced upon him. We had accepted defeat before, in the face of Venomoth, and we would go on to do it again. Sometimes, every path leads to defeat. Admiral knew that, and while he hated losing, he would never begrudge me for throwing in when the last hope had faded.
But to make that decision for him, against his wishes, to call him vanquished when his eyes still saw triumph - that, I could not do.
I nodded. Faced with no option but victory, I knelt my head and began to think.
Brock has not declared the challenge lost. That means he still thinks there's a way for Admiral to win - Leaders don't let first-ring battles drag on pointlessly, he'd stop it if there was no hope. He's given me a much greater challenge than he usually does to first-timers - why? Doesn't matter. Focus. He's given me a greater challenge, but it's still a first-ring battle. If there's a way to win, he's probably keeping it open for me. He's fought hundreds of these kinds of fights, he knows he's supposed to let capable Trainers succeed. He doesn't have a reputation for being unfair. He can see a win condition. It's there. I just need to find it.
I looked up at him. He stood stalwart, unmoving. He gave no words, made no attempt to hurry or pressure me. He's letting me see it. Where is it?
What's he doing that's allowing me to win?
I shook my head. No. We've tried that line of thought. Wrong question.
What's he not doing that would cause me to lose?
I surveyed the battlefield, trying to see it from Brock's point of view. If we were reversed, and I was commanding Kabuto, I wouldn't keep it where it is. There's no need to be anywhere near that fissure. It can move to any open space on the field and wait, and there's nothing I'd be able to do about it. He's keeping Kabuto near the precipice. He thinks that's how I can win. So I'm on the right track, I'm just missing something.
What would make Admiral able to knock Kabuto over, that didn't work the first time? The angle's a bit better, the fissure is right behind it now, rather than parallel to Kabuto. Is that enough?
Probably not. Kabuto's given itself a good five feet of space, and the ground there is thick with gravel. It'll be able to dig in, the rocks provide too much resistance. If I can get Kabuto to a space of clear stone floor, it might work.
But Kabuto's not moving. No attack is going to force a maneouvre. Water attacks are useless, it doesn't need to evade them. It can just stay there.
The last piece of the puzzle fell into place. It was so obvious, now that I saw it.
"Admiral. Water attack enemy. Water attack rock. Water attack, no physical attack. Water attack enemy, water attack rock."
He frowned at me. I nodded. He considered it for a moment, and shrugged.
Crawling along the flat top of the boulder, he moved to the crest where it began to slope. As his head emerged over the top, Kabuto reared up and fired another red beam - Admiral ducked back, avoiding it. But as soon as the beam faded, he leaned back over and fired a shot of water. It skidded over the top of Kabuto, ineffective.
Another stream of maroon light. Admiral ducked back, waited, and returned fire. The second shot hit Kabuto's upper eye, causing a flinch but little more. Another beam, another retreat, another attack. The third missed Kabuto entirely, striking only the earth beneath its claws, sending a small portion of gravel flying into the air.
As he ducked back to avoid the fourth Absorb, Admiral's eyes met mine. This time, he nodded back.
The exchange continued for a few minutes. Kabuto would open its mouth and send a beam of dull red light towards Admiral, and Admiral would hide himself behind the boulder's ridge as it came. Then, he would emerge with open mouth and send a stream of water glancing off Kabuto's shell, or hitting one of its upper eyes. Every time Kabuto flinched at one such eye connection, I would shout out in an approving voice, huge smile on my face, "Varrakh-ohm!"
And on every third or fourth shot, when the water struck only gravel, I adopted a grave tone and admonished him, shaking my head and grumbling "Tare. Tare."
Credit to the little guy, he worked it out quickly. After a few of these cycles, he began cheering at the phrase "Varrakh-ohm", and wincing when he heard a disapproving tare. And little by little, piece by piece, the gravel around Kabuto was washed away.
There's no way Brock didn't notice. The deception was a nice touch - in retrospect, we might have oversold it - but he would have worked our plan out long before the stone was cleared. But a Gym Leader's role is to challenge, not to vanquish. He gave no command to Kabuto, no instruction that it should move. It stayed, and when the ground beneath it was bare, and the stone slick with water, I shouted out a new command to Admiral.
"Physical attack. Enemy up-down. Win, Admiral. Win."
Another suppressing beam faded over Admiral's head, and he launched himself from the summit, barreling down upon his enemy. Charging a rock.
No. Not a rock. Just a shell.
The red light struck out once more, but Admiral was already there. Crashing into Kabuto, he sent his foe skidding across the stone floor, claws scraping and flailing in desperate attempt to find purchase. But none was present, and the rear of Kabuto's shell collided with the far edge of the fissure, scraping down the crevice wall, head rising inevitably into the air.
It wasn't on its back - there hadn't been enough momentum for that. Nor was it helpless - it was wedged somewhat upright, at about a 45° angle. The fissure wasn't tight enough to fit Kabuto snugly. Its rear claws pressed themselves against the shelf nearest Admiral, pushing, beginning to rock back and forth, moving its centre of balance.
Admiral wasted no time. He hopped over the crevice as the swings grew larger, got behind Kabuto and, at the peak of its backward swing, jumped up - catching the top ridge of Kabuto's shell and seizing tightly upon it. With all his weight now on Kabuto's back, it overbalanced, shell scratching hideously against stone - and Kabuto fell backward.
Claws flailed in the air. Helpless.
Admiral released his hold, taking a step back. Watching.
And, finally, stopped.
When Brock's inflectionless voice rang out through the PA, it was all I could do to keep myself composed.
"Congratulations, Trainer Red. You have earned the Boulder Badge."
Admiral raised his arms to the sky, eyes shining, and roared.
I'd known for a long time that when I won my first Badge, some sort of celebration would be in order. But I'd never really considered what that celebration might be, and had I been left to my own devices, I'd probably have ended up just spending the night in the hotel with my Pokémon and some ramen.
Fortunately, when Brock clasped my hand at his podium after giving me the Badge - smiling, no less - he gave me an opening, speaking in a low voice.
"Free for a drink later?"
I sat at a table of rough-hewn wood, alone amongst a bustle of noise and rowdiness. Talking, shouting, uproarious laughter, the evening chill of Pewter held at bay by the fire burning at the hearth. I was by myself, striking a deliberately nonchalant pose, nursing a beer, and pretending I didn't hate it.
Is it egotistical to admit I was hoping someone would recognise me and act impressed? Probably. But that day, I'd accomplished the single greatest feat of my life to date, and what I really wanted was validation. For somebody to notice. And nobody did.
There hadn't even been any answer when I'd called home.
I didn't need to wait too long, though.
I saw Brock the moment he walked through the door - I'd been keeping an eye on the entrance since I'd arrived - and gave the most restrained, casual wave I could. He spotted me, waved back, and raised a finger as he walked up to the bar. A moment as he ordered a drink, engaged in some small talk with the bartender, and made his way over to me.
In contrast to his stony demeanour at the Gym, he was now quite casual and cheery. He took my hand with a smile, said "congratulations," and swung himself down onto a seat. He took a long pull of his beer - if his expression was anything to gauge by, actually enjoying it - and, apropos of nothing, gave a laugh.
"Really enjoyed our fight today, Red. Good stuff."
A swell of pride filled my chest. "Thank you, Leader."
He waved me away over another pull from his drink. "Hah, Leader. Brock."
"Brock," I said with a smile of my own, taking a sip from my own beer and not even grimacing. "I'm glad you liked it. I had a great time, too."
"I'm sure," he said wryly.
"I mean, it was hard," I said. "Like, really hard. I really thought we'd lost there."
"So did I. By the time your Squirtle crawled out from under Skellig, I was ready to call an end to it."
"Me too. Why didn't you?"
"Oh," said Brock, leaning back, amusement playing across his face. "I was hoping you'd have the self-discipline to admit defeat. See if you were the kind of idiot who'd keep fighting a battle you'd obviously lost."
Well, we couldn't have misread that one any worse.
"Huh," I said, formulating a response. "Guess I'm that idiot, then."
He shrugged. "Well, you found a way out of it. Eventually. That play with the crack in the ground was pretty clever. Kinda convoluted, but still good."
"I thought you'd figured out what I was doing."
"Oh, yeah. Your Squirtle was dancing around that crack most of the battle, it wasn't difficult. I just didn't think you'd make it work."
I smiled, bowing my head.
"It was good, in a ridiculous sort of way."
My gaze came back up. "How do you mean?"
"I mean, you went about formulating this complex series of gambits to get Skellig over to a crevice, clear out the terrain, disrupt her footing, bet it all on a mad ploy to physically overpower a Pokémon far larger and heavier than your Squirtle, and go to the effort of trying to disguise all that through a transparent deception. And in all that, you missed the obvious solution."
My heart sank. "Oh?"
"She's a Kabuto. Hit her from the sides."
I wished I'd conjured a more eloquent response than "What?", but there we go.
"Kabuto's completely forward-facing. Claws, mouth, everything - can only attack what's in front of them. No maneouvreability on land. Stay behind them, they can't turn around fast enough to fight." He shrugged. "Easy win."
I let his words wash over me for a moment, elation giving way to embarrassment.
"Uh," I said, "can we chalk that one up to crowd-pleasing?"
"Thanks." I took another drink. "See, I thought you were giving me a really hard fight, and I've spent half the afternoon trying to figure out why. And now I'm finding out it was supposed to be an easy one, and I feel kinda stupid now."
He shook his head. "Not easy. You made it harder than it needed to be, but it wasn't meant as a cakewalk. Even if you'd worked out the orientation part, there's still a lot of danger there. Your Squirtle gets overzealous, starts trying to land blows too deep under the shell, a claw can catch him and ruin his day."
I nodded. "Makes sense."
We spent a minute in silence, sipping at our drinks. The lack of conversation weighed awkwardly on me, but Brock seemed quite at ease with it, gazing around the room, seemingly happy to wander through his own thoughts. Eventually, I felt the need to speak.
"I do have a question, Lea-Brock."
"Why did you choose Kabuto for this fight? I mean, I've looked through all the public info on your first-ring fights, it's always a Geodude, maybe a small Onix. It just seemed…"
I tried to find a word less petulant than unfair.
"…different," I ended.
He exhaled, settling down to face me fully. The contented expression he'd been wearing faded, and suddenly I was facing Brock the Leader again.
"You want to know why I went harder on you than the others."
"Well, yes," I said. "I'm not complaining, mind. Just curious."
"Red," he said, pushing his glass to the side, "you know the words we say, when a Trainer wins a Badge?"
"Yeah. Congratulations, Trainer. You've earned the - well, Boulder Badge, or what have you."
He nodded. "That's right. Earned. Not 'won', not 'received'. Earned. Most of the first-timers I get, they're kids. They bring a Pidgey or an Oddish, a Krabby, maybe a Pinsir every once in a while. You can't imagine the number of times I've had a kid come in with his pet Nidoran and try to make it work. They don't have anyone giving them Association starters, they've never had any special mentoring, they come in under-equipped with a dream and a plan and none of the resources to make it work.
"And then there's you. You spend your whole life with one of the world's most accomplished Pokémon Professors for a dad, you get an incredible starter that any of these kids would cut off their right arm to have. Then it gets stolen, you make a joke about it, and within a week you've got another one lined up for you. You step out the gate, and there's paparazzi waiting to take your photo and hand you endorsements. Most Trainers, when they show up to a Gym and it's closed for repairs? They're shit out of luck. They swallow it, and go do something else until the sign on the door says 'Open', and pray they've got enough money to tide them over that long. You throw a fit at a receptionist - word travels, Red - and a Gym Leader buys you a steak dinner to apologise.
"So yes, I went harder on you. I didn't throw a Rhydon down against your Squirtle, but I gave you a proper challenge. Because that's what I do for every kid who shows up with a Ratatta, and I wasn't about to let you cruise through to your first Badge on type advantage. You've had it really, really easy, Red. I know it might not seem like it, because I don't doubt you've had to face plenty of your own challenges. But you're coming into this with every advantage, you've had opportunities rained down on you like most of these kids could never even dream of, and it wouldn't have been fair of me to just toss out the same Geodude I do for everyone else. I can't just give you a Badge. You have to earn it."
I didn't say anything. Couldn't think of what to say. My cheeks were burning, I couldn't look him right in the eye. I knew he wasn't trying to be cruel, but it felt like he was just scolding me.
His tone softened. "Don't get me wrong, Red. You did earn it. But you can't come out of this feeling like you've been unfairly victimized. You're going to have a lot of people telling you how great you are, and you need to remember you're starting out with a hell of a leg-up. Don't let it get to your head."
He paused. "Like your brother."
Now, I looked up at him. "Blue? Have you fought him yet?"
This time, it was Brock's turn to look confused.
"You haven't heard?"
I shook my head. "Had no signal going through Viridian, and I didn't think to check after I arrived. I was kind of tired."
He laughed, his Leader persona fading away. "Oh, man. I'm so glad I get to be the one to tell you the story."
I groaned. "What'd he do?"
"Well, it's a good thing you challenged me when you did. You got here just in time."
"He came through three days ago. Showed up all gung-ho, casual as you like. He sent out his Eevee, I put down a Geodude. Don't worry, a nice big one - taking a challenge from an Eevee is very different from a Squirtle - and you know what he does?"
My face was buried in my hands. "What?"
"He laughs. Faked a yawn. I ask him if there's a problem, and he tells me that he thought Gyms were supposed to be a challenge. Just showboating for the cameras. I ask if he'd like a tougher opponent, and he says 'yes, please.'"
"Mew. So, what'd you do?"
Brock's grin was so wide, I was afraid his cheeks might split open. "Called his bluff. Withdrew Geodude and sent out a Graveler."
"And have you ever seen an Eevee try to fight a Graveler?"
He raised a hand. "Don't worry, I didn't hurt it. Your brother tried all kinds of fancy stuff, but Giliath weighs over 200 kilos. In the end, I had him hold Eevee by the scruff of the neck for a while. It kicked around for a bit, gave up, and your brother had to concede."
Holy shit. "I'm guessing he didn't take it well."
Brock shook his head. "On the contrary. He laughed, said he'd learned a lesson in humility, and thanked me for my time. When the media contacted him, he told them he had no problem with how I'd handled it, that he'd been arrogant and unmannerly, and that it was an important lesson he was grateful to learn. Said he looked forward to challenging me again soon, and 'to show proper respect due to a Leader who has inspired us all.'" He rolled his eyes.
"Yeah. He's good like that. And?"
"The League didn't take it so well. Sanctioned me, said I'd shown poor decorum and had 'behaved in a manner unbecoming the dignity of a Gym Leader.' Brought the League into disrepute, apparently. They offered your brother the Boulder Badge as an apology, and you know what he did?"
"He turned it down. Said he wouldn't accept anything he hadn't earned, and would only take the Badge by winning it, fair and square. Media went wild at that one. So, next day, he reapplies - I recused myself, my brother Forrest took his challenge - faces a Geodude, wins handily, and goes on his way. I've never seen a Trainer show such disrespect to a Leader, and he's come out of the whole thing looking better than he came in."
It's just classic fucking Blue, isn't it? Acts like a complete dick, and comes out smelling like roses.
"Anyway, word came through from the League this afternoon. I've been suspended from Gym duties, pending an inquiry. Forrest will be taking over in my stead. Guess I offended the wrong people."
I gazed up at the ceiling, astonished and yet only barely surprised. "Dammit. I'm sorry, Brock."
He shrugged. "Don't be sorry. You didn't do anything, and I did overstep. Shouldn't have risen to his bait like that."
"He does have a way of getting under people's skin."
"Amen to that," said Brock, lifting his glass. We clinked glasses, and he finished his drink. I managed to hit the halfway point of mine.
"Anyway," he said, "I'm not too cut up about it. I've been thinking of getting away from it all for a while, anyway. Which brings me to why I asked to meet you tonight."
"Oh?" I asked.
"Well, I'd like to take some time away from everything. League inquiries tend to take a while, and I could really do with a bit of time away from the city. Getting back to roots, that sort of thing. I was thinking of heading into the mountain, do some exploring, some meditating, all that good stuff. And if your next stop is Cerulean, then I'm guessing you're headed the same way.
"I was wondering if you'd like to come along."
Obviously, I said yes.
It was only when I'd gotten back to the hotel, head slightly spinning from the alcohol, that I saw the blinking light on my Pokédex signalling a message. I opened it up to see a waiting voicemail, from Daisy.
"Hey Red!" her voice crackled through the tinny speaker. "Sorry we missed your call, things got a bit hectic. Grandpa got a message from Dr. Fuji this morning, got real agitated. He flew off on Ozone a few hours ago. Something going down at the lab in Cinnabar."
This concludes Arc I of Pokémon: The Line.
I can be contacted on Twitter, under the username 'RadHominin'.
The Line will return in February, with Arc II: