Hayley had barely pulled her shoes clear of the locker when the metal door slammed shut with a clang!
"I changed my mind." Hayley looked over to see Connie's flushed, beaming face. Her eyes were shining behind her red-rimmed glasses and her normally sleek black hair was in disarray from her sprinting. She pulled her hand back from the locker and thrust a rumpled sheet of paper towards Hayley. "So, I know I said I really really wanted to start with a Pichu, but—look!" Hayley took the paper from her and looked it over, squinting slightly. It was a black-and-white printout of a round, blubbery seal with stubby paws and enormous eyes. "What do you think?"
"It looks… fat."
"It looks adorable."
Hayley frowned at the Spheal's vacant expression. "I thought you wanted a Pokémon you could dance with?"
Connie waved her hand dismissively. "I can always get one later. Ice-types do great in contests, but they're so rare around here, you know? So I thought I should get one now. Plus, out of the five appeals categories, Spheal do great in cuteness, and their ice and water techniques have beauty locked down, so I just need to pick one more to train it in… Maybe coolness? What do you think?"
"Don't you need to wait and see what your Pokémon is like before you pick what to condition it on?" Hayley handed the picture back and folded her arms. "What if you get a Spheal and it turns out to be super-dorky? You can't use it in cool contests then. And once it evolves into a Walrein, it won't be very cute anymore."
"He wouldn't have to evolve all the way!"
"Then he won't get strong."
"Says you. Glacia, Phoebe and Drake have N-F-E Pokémon on their teams—"
"—Not their main teams—"
"—but you don't see them going and losing, do you? If Sealeo is strong enough for Glacia, it's strong enough for anyone."
Hayley shrugged and went back to tying her sneakers, wordlessly giving up the argument. When it came to debating cuteness versus strength, Connie had picked her side, and there was no convincing her otherwise.
"Speaking of starters, what about you? Are you still waiting to hear back from the lab?"
Hayley groaned. She'd been trying not to think about that. "Yeah, I am. But by now, it can't be good news, right? I think if I made it in, they wouldn't have waited this long to tell me."
"You did fine! I'm sure you'll get in. We studied so hard." Connie's phone buzzed. She slid it open and began thumbing furiously at the keypad. "It probably just got held up at the post office. Who sends actual mail anymore, anyway?"
"The League, I guess."
"They're all a bunch of geezers. Anyway, don't worry about it! You'll get in, and I'll get my Spheal, and you'll get your Torchic, and we'll take out all the gyms and contest halls in Hoenn together. Think positive!"
She was trying. Really, really trying. But she didn't have Connie's gift for optimism, and the wait was wearing her down. She'd never been any good at waiting. Good news or bad, she just wanted to know…
Or so she thought. But when she got back home and saw the envelope waiting on the itchen table, it took her a full three minutes to muster up the courage to tear open the top and pull out the crisply-folded letter inside. The official letterhead of the Birch Pokémon Laboratory jumped out at her as she unfolded it. She skimmed the opening lines, her heart beating in her throat.
Dear Miss Summers,
Thank you for your application to the Littleroot Young Champions' Initiative. Eager new trainers like yourself are what make the future of Hoenn bright! Regrettably, our supply of starter Pokémon is limited, and so only a handful of applicants can be selected for this program. Your scores do not qualify you to receive one of the three…
Her mind shut off. She scanned and re-scanned the last sentence, as though staring at it would make it change, but it still said the same thing: "Your scores do not qualify you to receive one of the three starter Pokémon."
Well, there it was, the answer spelled out in black and white. She wasn't good enough, and that was that.
The Littleroot Young Champions' Initiative was a program for new trainers sponsored by the Birch Pokémon Laboratory. It was an exclusive program that drew hundreds of applicants every year, but only ever accepted three. The way they were decided was through one of the most fiendishly hard trainer exams in the region—a three-hour test that featured questions on everything from type matchups and Hoenn history to essay questions on trainer philosophy, ethics, and the finer points of battle theory, followed by a practical portion with proctored battles using loaner Pokémon. Everyone who applied had their eyes on the prizes for being in the top three scorers: exclusive access to gyms and Pokémon laboratories around the region, a sponsorship to help cover the costs of traveling, and best of all, being granted a starter Pokémon from among the rare species bred by the lab—Treecko, Mudkip, and Torchic.
The last part was what Hayley had had her heart set on. Hayley was smitten with the Torchic family, an infatuation that had begun after seeing a Blaziken demolish Drake's Salamence with a fiery kick to the face during the Elite challenges five years ago. Hayley had followed the annual League rankings of Pokémon faithfully, and every year Blaziken made the top tier, their world-class punches and kicks and blazing fire techniques putting them ahead of almost every other Hoenn native Pokémon. With one of them at her side, Hayley felt like she would be able to take on the world.
The problem was that Torchic were rare—really rare. They were almost impossible to find in the wild, and outrageously expensive to buy from breeders, so the lab had been Hayley's only shot at getting one. And the problem with that was that Hayley was terrible at tests. She'd always been a slow reader and writer, bad at memorizing facts, and when she was up against a time limit—especially with this much at stake—she would freeze up, stuck listening to the seconds tick away. She'd been worried she wouldn't even be able to pass the basic POKE exams she needed to graduate from her school's trainer program, so sitting in a classroom taking one of the hardest junior-level exams in the region next to a hundred egghead trainer prodigies had seemed out of the question. But Connie had pushed her. Connie had insisted she could do it.
So they'd started studying at the beginning of the school year, in September. The two of them had filled Hayley's living room with homemade Pokémon flash cards, encyclopedias rented from the school library, Hayley's old Taillow Scout manuals, and their combined collection of a decade's worth of footage from League tournaments and master-rank contests from around the world. By June the collection had taken on a life of its own, piles of textbooks and videotapes stacked to the ceiling and half-finished worksheets and dog-eared flashcards carpeting the floor. It may have seemed crazy, but Connie had made her think that she could really do it, that she had a chance…
But in the end, it hadn't mattered. Hayley had squeaked by on the POKE exams, and had at least managed to finish the Littleroot exam, but it just wasn't good enough. She'd counted on the practice battle portion earning her back some points, but then they'd given her a Whismur that wouldn't stop crying long enough to listen to her commands—what was she supposed to do with that? It hadn't been fair.
Hayley's face burned pink as her brain started working again. Of course she hadn't been good enough. It had been dumb to think she would be. And now she'd wasted all that time, gone up and embarrassed herself in front of everyone, all for nothing.
She was still staring at the letter. The words had blurred together, and her eyes felt hot and prickly. She stood up sharply, crumpled the letter into a ball, and jammed it into the trash can, knocking the swinging lid of the bin so hard that it did a full circle and swung around to hit her on the arm. So she wasn't getting a Torchic. Fine. She could still do this.
On to plan B.
Hayley didn't tell Connie about her failure until lunch the next day. She hadn't wanted to tell her at all. They'd spent so many afternoons cooped up in the den, wasted so many hours that they could have been used to do doing something, anything else, and she thought Connie would be bitter over all that lost time. But Connie, when she finally broke the news, just gave her a reassuring smile. "Oh well! At least you still passed the POKE. You can find a different awesome Pokémon to start with."
Hayley forced a smile back. Connie was so cheery about it all—of course she'd never let something like this drag her down. Then again, she wasn't the one who'd failed. But they were in this together, and so if Connie didn't mope about it, then she wouldn't either.
Besides, Connie had other things to talk about.
"Addie's getting a Kalos Pokémon for her starter." Connie whispered the words like a spy who'd just uncovered a deadly secret, leaning so far over the table that her hair almost dragged across her plate of pizza. Hayley scrunched up her face.
"How? I thought you couldn't bring Pokémon from other continents into Hoenn." Pokémon from Kanto, Johto, and Sinnoh were okay, but it took a lot of money or a lot of badges to bring in one from someplace other than that.
"You can't. You know, normally. But Addie has, like, a Kalosian relative or something? So she got special permission."
"Wow." Hayley couldn't hide the note of envy in her voice. "What type is it?"
"Dunno. Something good for contests, obviously. Probably a Normal- or Fairy-type… And Clarissa won't stop going on about her shiny Snorunt. I'm going to need something really amazing to compete with them."
Hayley looked across the lunchroom to where Addison, Skye, and Clarissa—the queen bees of eighth grade—were sitting and chatting. So Addison was getting a foreign Pokémon, and Clarissa had a shiny. From their gossip, Hayley knew Skye was starting with a Skitty, which sounded ordinary enough, but supposedly it had already been taught several flashy TM moves. Like Connie, all three of them were going into contests.
"Melinda said her brother's getting her a Bagon." Hayley gestured glumly at the crimson-haired girl at the table next to theirs. "It's not fair. I'm probably going to end up with a Zigzagoon or something."
"Don't think like that! I'm sure we'll both get something great." Connie leaned back and tapped her chin. "Hm… Do you think a Milotic would work?"
"You mean a Feebas?" Hayley asked.
"No, a Milotic. Duh."
"You can't just start with a Milotic. You have to get a Feebas and raise it up first."
"Nuh-uh! Two words: Marvel. Scale." Connie ticked them off on her fingers for emphasis. Hayley shook her head.
"You know you'll mess it up if you make it evolve too early."
"Ugh, you're such a downer." Connie sighed. "So what about you? What was your second choice?"
"I don't know. Still a fire-type, I guess." It wouldn't be a Torchic, but it would be something.
"So Numel, Torkoal, Vulpix…?"
"I don't know," she repeated. "I can't decide—"
"Right? Me neither. I've gotta figure it out before I go to the breeder's next week."
Hayley squelched a small, jealous twinge in her stomach. What she was going to say was that she couldn't decide until she saw what she had to pick from. Connie could pick out pretty much any native Pokémon she wanted from the breeder's, while Hayley was stuck with whatever she could get. But Connie's parents had money, and Hayley's mother didn't, so that was just how things worked out.
Well, whatever. She wouldn't let it stop her, and she wouldn't be bitter. She didn't need a fancy breeder Pokémon to be great. She'd do the best with whatever she got.
She just really hoped it wouldn't be a Zigzagoon.
Hayley's Plan B was the worldwide Global Trading System. Her mother had a Lombre and Wooper, Lily and Foley, left over from her own days as a trainer, and the two of them apparently… liked each other. A lot. Every spring Lily laid a clutch of gooey eggs in the pond in their backyard, and five or six baby Lotad would hatch out of them. Normally her mother made a bit of extra money by selling the babies on the GTS, but she had promised Hayley she could trade one for her starter Pokémon if she didn't get her Torchic.
So after school that day, Haley made another trip to the edge of their backyard, where tall oak trees filtered down the oppressive Hoenn sun. Underneath the trees was a large artificial pond. It was a few feet deep, lined with smooth white rocks and kept circulating with filters built into the bottom and sides. It was too clean and tidy to look natural, but Lily and Foley never seemed to notice the difference.
Speaking of… Foley the Wooper was relaxing in the pond, lying on his back and paddling himself around by sweeping his tail back and forth. Lily, though, was nowhere to be seen. Good. Hayley squinted into the water, looking for a telltale blob of blue and green against the plants and stones. And… There! Hayley thrust both hands into the water and grabbed hold of a round, slimy, squiggling thing. It was a Lotad, barely bigger than her fist. It squirmed and flailed its stubby legs helplessly as she brought it closer to eye level. A few foamy bubbles formed and popped feebly at its beaked mouth.
"Let's see… How big are you?" She hefted it in her hands, but it felt the same as when she'd weighed it two days ago. She frowned. "Aren't you eating?" Her mother wouldn't trade him until he'd grown to at least three pounds, but it felt like he wasn't growing at all. Maybe one of his brothers would do…
A loud ribbit! from behind made Hayley turn around. Lily the Lombre was a few feet away from her, crouched with her back hunched and eyes narrowed. At the sight of Hayley holding the baby Lotad, her eyes grew stormy. "Oh. Uh, hey, Lily. I was just looking, I wasn't going t—aagh!" A jet of pressurized water struck Hayley just under her left eye, knocking her off-balance. She flailed and stepped backwards to catch herself, forgetting that she had only the pond behind her. With a splash, she toppled backwards into the pond, landing ungracefully on her behind. She groaned as the water soaked through her jeans and shoes, narrowing her eyes at the baby Lotad she had somehow managed to keep ahold of in her hands. "Stupid water-types."
It spat a couple of tiny bubbles that tingled as they popped against her nose. Under her knees, Foley floated by on the rippling water without a care on the world, his face still frozen in the same dumb grin.
Hayley didn't know yet what kind of Pokémon she'd be raising for her team, but she was sure of one thing: she was never going to train a Lombre.
Hayley heard her mother's car pulling up the driveway as she re-entered the house, and she booked it for the stairs, but her wet sneakers skidded on the kitchen linoleum and dropped her onto her chin. She was still trying to pick herself up when her mother came in, laden with an armful of groceries. She saw the state Hayley was in and shook her head. "You were bothering Lily again, weren't you?"
Hayley took after her mother, both having the same hazel eyes and freckled, upturned nose, but Hayley was stocky where her mother was willowy, and her bushy red hair hung in tangled curls above her shoulder while her mother's was tightly plaited in a neat braid down her back. Hayley scrambled to her feet, her cheeks flushing. "I was just looking! You said I could trade one of the Lotad for my starter if I couldn't get the Torchic."
"I also said I'd tell you once they were ready to be traded away. They're still babies; you have to give them time."
"You know that it won't be good for them if we trade them away before they're ready. You can't rush these things."
Hayley knew that. She'd been telling Connie the same thing about evolution items earlier that day. But actually waiting was different. Harder. "I know, but…"
"Hayley." Her mother stopped her and moved to sit at the kitchen table, gesturing for her to do the same. Hayley obeyed reluctantly, lowering herself into the chair. She squirmed in her seat as her mother paused to collect her thoughts, squeaking the wet toe of her sneaker back and forth on the tile. "If you're serious about being a trainer," her mother started, "you'll need to learn to be patient. Raising a Pokémon for battle takes a long time and a lot of hard work."
"It's a big commitment, too. It's not like soccer or Scouts, where you can just quit and move on to something else when you get bored. You'll have other living things that will be relying on you to raise them and care for them."
"I only quit soccer so I could study. I still like it."
"But you still had to quit, and that's the point." Her mother reached across the table and laid a hand on her arm. "You can't leave this behind so easily, because it won't be just about you. It's a big commitment. You need to be sure this is what you want."
Hayley stared down at the table and chewed her lower lip. She knew that, all of it. Her mother was always telling her she had to slow down, think things through, take her time. And she tried, she really did, but… It was just so hard. This whole month, it felt like she'd just been walking in circles, waiting for something to happen.
"Can you at least scan them again to see if they're big enough?" she asked, trying to change the subject.
"I scanned them this morning." Hayley couldn't stop a small grumble from escaping her mouth. "I'll check them again tomorrow. And I promise, I'll tell you as soon as they've grown enough."
And so, it was back to waiting.
The rest of the week ticked by. With final exams finished, Hayley had nothing to distract herself from the boredom of the sweltering Petalburg classroom. Why were they still coming to school at all when all they'd done since exams was read educational magazines and fill out worksheets full of crossword puzzles and word searches? She'd rather be outside, even in this heat.
The rest of the class was restless too. The classroom was abuzz with chatter about starter Pokémon, gym challenges and contest strategies, and their teacher could barely keep order. At one point he left the room muttering something about chalk, and the door had barely closed behind him when the entire classroom erupted.
"Argus' bite is getting really strong!" one boy, Caleb shouted into the din, adjusting his baseball cap on top of his messy brown hair. "We were fighting a Zigzagoon yesterday and he beat it in one hit!"
"Ha! That's nothing." Chad climbed up onto a chair and flexed his arms. "Nolan broke twenty bricks yesterday! I bet he can solo Roxanne with no problem."
"Meriel's finally got control over her Water Gun!" squealed Kei, her pigtails bobbing in excitement.
"Nacho's coming in from Kalos tomorrow!" That one was Addison, obviously.
"Yeah, so?" demanded Forrest. "My dad's catching me a Geodude in Rusturf Tunnel, and it'll be way better than any sissy Kalos Pokémon!"
"Slippy ate an entire ham yesterday!" Hayley didn't know if that one was supposed to be impressive or if Cambell just didn't want to be left out. And on it went, until Mr. Burke re-entered the classroom and everyone begrudgingly turned back to their worksheets.
All the talk of starter Pokémon worried her. Almost everyone else in the class either had their starters already, or they at least knew what they were getting. As far as she knew, she and Connie were the only ones who hadn't picked yet. But Connie would know what to get when she saw it, while Hayley… She'd been scouring the GTS every day before and after school, eyes peeled for any fire-types she could grab, but she'd had no luck. There had been a few up for trade, but each had been asking for something she couldn't give—one guy trading a Vulpix for a Scyther, another wanting for a Skarmory for his Growlithe. And of course, there were a whole bunch of jokesters asking for Arceus or Mew in exchange for their Slugma or Numel. She did see one Torchic pop up, and her heart had leapt into her throat, but it was snatched up before she could even click through to the trade offer. She hadn't even seen what they wanted for it. Probably something rare and crazy expensive.
It was on Thursday afternoon that Hayley finally got the news she was waiting for. She came home to a Pokéball and a handwritten note sitting on the kitchen table.
You're in luck! Baby number three had a bit of a growth spurt. You can put him up on the GTS whenever you're ready.
Hayley stood frozen and staring at the letter for several seconds before she grabbed the Pokéball and dashed into the living room. Her mother's computer was set up there, an old but functional PC with a combination scanner/transporter hooked up to it. Hayley placed the Pokéball into the alcove under the scanner and watched the screen with baited breath as a progress bar appeared, filled part-way up, and then hung at 60%. "Come onnn…"
Finally, the computer beeped, and a screen displaying the updated statistics of the Lotad came up. Hayley barely glanced at it before pulling up the window for the GTS. The program was mostly automatic; she just selected the scan profile of the Lotad and the form auto-filled with all the information from the latest scan. Species, gender, level, special moves, even what sort of Pokéball it was registered in—it was all there. All she had to do was write which Pokémon she wanted in exchange. She put her hands over the keyboard, practically trembling with nervous energy…
And stayed like that for what felt like an eternity, staring at the blinking cursor in the blank text box, unable to type even one letter.
This was it. Really it. She'd been thinking about this all week, but now that it was time, she couldn't decide. Even if no other fire-types could hold a candle to the Torchic she'd built up in her mind, Hayley liked some over others. Torkoal were slow, Numel were dopey, and Houndour were mean, but Growlithe were fierce and loyal and Vulpix were incredibly versatile, if a bit prissy. But could she really risk picking just one to ask for? Actually selling the Lotad would take too long—there was all sorts of red tape involved, or so her mom told her—so she'd have to trade it directly for her starter. Thousands of trades went through the GTS every day, but even then, she might be stuck waiting for weeks, even months for a trainer to come along with a Growlithe or Vulpix that they just so happened to want to trade for a dumb little Lotad. And she couldn't make it that long. She couldn't be the last person in class to get their starter, couldn't be the last one to leave. Everyone else would go on ahead and leave her in the dust, and more than anything, she didn't want to be left behind.
What would it be? Pick a Pokémon she wanted and hope someone agreed to trade it to her before she died of old age? Or leave it up to fate, and learn to be happy with what she got? This was her starter, her most important Pokémon—she couldn't leave it to chance. But at the same time… She couldn't wait.
Hayley bit her lip and made her decision.
In the text box labeled "Desired Pokémon," Hayley wrote ANY FIRE-TYPE. The words stood out on the screen like they'd been written in bold. With shaking hands, she clicked on the button to send the trade. The form folded and blinked away, whisked off to cyberspace, carrying her future with it.
The trade hadn't been accepted the next morning, or the morning after that. Three entire days inched by as she wondered what in the world was taking the rest of the net so long—surely someone out there wanted a Lotad? They were common enough in Hoenn, but they had to be rare in other places, like Johto, or maybe Sinnoh.
It wasn't until Sunday afternoon, when she returned from watching a movie marathon at Connie's house, that she saw the blue and white "Pending Trade" button flashing from the computer in the living room. She ran to the computer, barely stopping to kick off her sneakers, and mashed the mouse button to see the offer. The trade window came up, and she hardly had time to register a flash of red in the Pokémon species picture in the lower right before her pointer landed on Accept. The details were all there for her to look for, gender and level and specially-bred moves, but at the moment all she cared about was that someone had finally replied to her posting, and that she might be seconds away from meeting her starter Pokémon—whatever it was.
There was a whoosh as the transporter next to the computer powered up, and a flash of energy as the Lotad's Pokéball dissolved into pure energy and was sucked away. She rocked back and forth on her feet, watching the monitor's loading screen give way to an animation of two Pokéballs passing each other in virtual space. Another whoosh and a zap, and there it was—a new Pokéball was sitting in the alcove of the transporter.
Maybe "new" wasn't the right word, actually. As she picked it up gingerly, holding it by the tips of her fingers, she saw that its red-and-white surface was covered in scratches and smudges, dirt and fingerprints. It had seen a lot of use.
She took a deep and steadying breath, clutched the Pokéball tighter, and stepped away from the computer. She overturned her hand and held her arm straight out in the classic TV trainer's challenge pose. This was it, her first Pokémon.
"Pokéball, go!" she shouted, lobbing it gently across the small room. It hit the opposing wall and fell to the carpet with a muted thunk, and then everything was engulfed in white light. She blinked spots out of her eyes as the light faded, and—