The sun was starting to rise by the time the four of them broke through the treeline and into an open green field. Despite everything, they'd made good time; none of them had wanted to stay in the forest a single minute longer than they had to. But they'd paid for it. Miriam looked dead on her feet, and Gavin's arm was swollen and starting to discolor despite the makeshift sling Howie had made for it. Hayley's legs shuddered under her with each step, her cuts and scratches twinging with each flex. Howie was in the best shape of any of them, and even he was starting to flag, the arm that held his Pokégear drooping down and his blinks turning slow and owlish behind his thick glasses. Thankfully, it wasn't much longer before they spotted the red-colored roof of a rest station in the distance.
The outposts were littered throughout Hoenn, serving as a place for trainers to rest and recover in areas that were too remote to have a manned Pokémon center. The building was tiny, Hayley thought as they pushed through the door, and it looked even smaller on the inside: it was maybe the size of a small apartment, furnished only with a kitchenette, a pair of cots, an automated healing machine, and a cramped bathroom hidden off to the side. Still, it was four walls and a roof, and none of them could turn up their nose at electricity and running water after roughing it for days in the wild.
Each of them dropped their Pokéballs into one of the six slots of the machine, except for Miriam, who beelined for the bathroom and practically slammed the door behind her. The sound of the shower running filled the silence as the rest of them dropped their bags and settled onto the cots. Gavin and Howie sat on one, while Hayley perched on another.
"Um, yeah." Howie was on the phone with emergency services, nodding along invisibly to the person on the other end. "Yeah, that should be fine. Thanks." Another nod. "Thanks." With that, he pulled the phone away from his ear, tapping a button to end the call. He turned to Gavin, who was still ghost-faced and silent beside him. "They said they could be here in a couple hours. You okay with that?" Gavin nodded mutely. He hadn't spoken a word since the Vigoroth attack. And it seemed his silence was contagious, as the rest of them lapsed back in to quiet solitude, each staring at the ground.
"You're still having trouble with Barrett?" Howie's sudden question cut through the air, making Hayley's head jerk up.
"I guess—yeah." Shame reignited in the pit of her stomach, filling her body with a sick heat. "I thought I had it for a while, but… I think he just hates me." The words felt different than when she'd admitted the same thing to Connie nearly a week ago. Back then—and it felt so long ago—she hadn't really believed it. He couldn't hate her. Maybe he didn't like her, maybe he didn't want to follow orders, but he was probably just free-spirited. Somewhere inside, she'd held on to the notion that when she really needed him, they'd put aside their differences and work together. Now, that same hope felt so stupid.
"He doesn't respect you." She flinched at the blunt answer, but she knew it was the truth. "He doesn't want to fight for you because he doesn't see you as his trainer—just someone who happened to end up with his Pokéball. Traded Pokémon can be that way."
"Well, how am I supposed to make him respect me?" Tears pricked at the corners of her eyes, but she blinked them away. After all that had happened, this wasn't going to be what made her cry.
"Usually, you need to make him see that you're worth listening to," he said. "You know—show him that you know what you're doing, and that he's stronger with you than without." He paused, and then sighed, dropping his eyes. "Sometimes, though—if that's not enough—you need to show them that you're the boss."
She glanced back up at him, questioning. He continued. "My dad's Mightyena… He caught her wild, and she didn't listen to him at all. She was crazy, and just attacked him and anyone else who came near her. For a while he thought she was untrainable, but he finally got through to her by proving himself as her alpha. It was a lot of discipline, yelling, physical shows of force. And it was messy, but eventually… she came around."
Hayley's stomach twisted at the thought. He was telling her to fight Barrett? She'd already tried threatening him, telling him she'd lock him away in his ball if he kept trying to maim wild Pokémon—but it hadn't made him like her any more. In fact, it had probably made things worse. She didn't want that to be their relationship; she didn't want to be constantly yelling at him, struggling to get him to do every little thing. She wanted him to like her, not just obey her. She wasn't his drill sergeant, or his jailer—she was his trainer. His friend. Her fingers dug into the scratches on her arms. "I don't want to—"
"You might not have a choice." His eyes, now hard and serious, met hers again. "If he doesn't learn to listen to you, one way or another, he's just going to get worse. You need to do something to get him under control. Now, before he gets strong enough to really hurt someone."
"I know." By now, Hayley's voice was a hoarse whisper. She did know—she didn't want to think about it, but they'd both seen the news. Terrifyingly strong, poorly trained Pokémon deciding they'd had enough, turning on their trainers and anyone else nearby… It was rare, but it happened, and when it did, not everybody got out alive.
The fog of silence sank back over them, and they went back to staring at the floor for an indeterminate amount of time. Eventually, the bathroom door swung open and Miriam emerged in a cloud of steam. She looked almost herself again, her hair and face clean of mud and her glasses set level on her nose, but the scratches along her legs stood red and angry against the pinkish skin. "Shower's open," she announced, retreating to the far corner of the room and dragging her grimy backpack along the floor behind her. Howie shrugged before glancing at Hayley and Gavin meaningfully and entering the bathroom himself.
Gavin still hadn't said a word. Between him and Miriam, the air in the room grew thick and awkward, and the silence was overpowering. Hayley, never great at keeping up conversation, wracked her mind for something to say.
She finally settled for gesturing at Gavin's arm. "Does—does it still hurt?" Okay, fantastic start. She wanted to groan and kick herself simultaneously as Gavin lifted his head and gave her a blank stare. "It's probably not that bad of a break," she babbled on. "Get a cast on it, and you'll probably be good to travel again before the end of the summer—"
"No." The single word rang out, raspy and low, and it shocked Hayley into silence. She opened her mouth to question him, and he shook his head—softly at first, then with more force. "I'm not going back—back out there. I'm going to go home."
What? But… She fumbled for a response. "Gavin, this was just… You can't give up on training already. You need—"
"No." His voice was louder this time. "We all almost died, our Pokémon almost died, and I don't want to do this anymore. I'm going home."
His words sent a chill up her back. Death… She glanced down again, running a finger over the scratches on her arms and legs. Under the bright fluorescent light, they burned an angry red, with dark splinters of bark and wood peppering them throughout. Her fate had seemed so certain in the heat of the moment, but now, she struggled to understand. The events of last night already felt like a dream, slipping away faster the tighter she tried to clutch them. Murderous trees, a rabid Vigoroth—they were like scenes out of someone else's life. The mud that covered her shirt and shorts, now dry and flaking onto the white sheets of the cot, the deeper cut on her calf that throbbed in time with her heart, the rakes and scratches across her arms and legs—all of them told her that this had really happened, but somewhere inside her, she couldn't quite believe it. She wasn't the one who'd nearly died in the forest; it was an illusion, a figment, a story, and now that it was over, everything was going to go on just as before.
A yelp and a thud from the bathroom snapped Hayley back to reality. "There's no more hot water!" Howie's voice was as anguished as she'd ever heard it, as though this was the worst twist of fate in their entire trip. Hayley glanced over at Miriam for an explanation. The other girl just folded her arms, flicked her wet hair over her shoulder, and scoffed.
At some point, Hayley fell asleep. She wasn't sure how or when it had happened, but when she opened her eyes, the blinding midday sunlight greeted her from the window. She pushed herself off the pillow and groaned softly, feeling grosser than she ever had before. Dried dirt tugged at her skin, cracking as she moved, and her hair fell over her eyes in greasy, tangled clumps. She hadn't even taken her boots off. Ick.
As she rubbed the grit and sleep out of her eyes, she saw that Howie and Gavin were gone. It was just her and Miriam in the room. Miriam was still camped out in the corner, head bent over her phone. Both the phone and her Gameboy were plugged into the wall socket, charging up. She didn't look up as Hayley stood, stretching her back with a satisfying crack.
"What time is it?" Miriam didn't answer. Frowning, Hayley stepped closer. She realized that Miriam's eyes were closed, and that the hand holding her phone had gone slack. She'd fallen asleep, too.
Well, she might as well use the time she had to herself. Hayley grabbed her backpack and stepped into the bathroom, wasting no time in turning on the shower. The water was lukewarm, but still relaxing as it streamed over her body, washing away mud and blood along with the last images of the previous night. Hayley sighed and closed her eyes as her muscles loosened and her mind drifted away. In that moment, it was easy to pretend that everything was fine, that the past week had just been a lie. She was together with Connie and her prized Torchic, achieving her dreams the way she'd always pictured. No Barrett or Miriam to contend with, no near-death experiences in the woods. It was all so close, and so comforting…
But it couldn't last. The water turned cold, and Hayley shut it off, drying herself with a damp towel. Clean clothes, at least, made her feel a little better, though she was on her last set; she'd have to do laundry once she hit the Rustboro Pokémon Center. She wound her Pokéball belt around her capris and fastened it tightly, then got her things together and stepped out of the room.
The green light on the healing machine was on, indicating that it was done. Barrett's Pokéball was the only one left on it. She grabbed it and snapped it onto the first slot on her belt without giving it a second look. Barrett… Her stomach turned. She couldn't deal with him right now. She'd do it later. Crossing over to the other side of the room, she reached out and nudged Miriam with her socked foot. Once, twice, three times. On the fourth, Miriam stirred, cracking her eyes open and groaning.
"We need to get going," Hayley told her.
"Already?" Miriam's voice was thick with sleep. "We just got here."
"Yeah, but we have to keep moving if we want to reach Rustboro City by tomorrow morning." The blank stare on Miriam's face asked Hayley, in no uncertain terms, why she should care about that. "Wouldn't you rather be in the city than out here?" she tried. "We could stay at an actual Pokémon Center. They have… food, and stuff."
Miriam groaned, but yanked her chargers out from the wall anyway. "Fine," she muttered, stuffing the cords into her bag. "But once we get to Rustboro, that's it. I'm not going anywhere else."
Hayley gave her a curious look, but quickly pushed it aside, busying herself with tying up her boots and re-shouldering her bag. When the two of them stepped through the door, a warm breeze played across Hayley's face, tugging at her newly clean hair. She inhaled deeply, and sighed. The air was the kind of clean that could only be achieved after a storm, and the grassy plain ahead was green and inviting. The Petalburg Woods still loomed to the south, though, looking shadowy and twisted even in the daylight. Hayley shuddered, deciding that she wasn't going to go back there for a good, long time.
"You should let your Elekid out," Hayley said as they walked along the dirt footpath, cresting over a small hill. "It's a nice day."
Miriam just grunted. "I don't want to."
Normally, Hayley would have just left it there, but today curiosity gnawed at her. She'd seen Miriam's Pokémon; it wasn't something embarrassing like a Zubat, or nasty like a Grimer. It was an Elekid, and in fact, it had saved all of their lives. And after that, Miriam still didn't even want to look at it?
Hayley couldn't take it any longer. She bit her tongue and addressed the Donphan in the room. "Miriam, why are you even doing this? You don't like traveling, and you don't like Pokémon. It just seems… weird, that you'd be out here."
Miriam huffed, and Hayley expected that to be the end of it—but for once, to her surprise, there was more. "My mom's making me do it," she grumbled, eyes fixed down on the dirt.
Hayley thought back to the soft, slight woman she'd met back at Miriam's house, and her eyebrows rose up towards her hair. Miriam's mother didn't seem the type to force anyone to do anything. "Why?" she couldn't help but ask.
"Couldn't you tell her you didn't want to go?"
"I did," Miriam grouched, folding her arms. "I told her I wasn't doing it. But then she got me that little asshole Pokémon, and it fried my laptop, and she told me she'd only get me a new one if I did this shit for three months. It's basically extortion."
Huh. Normally, it was the kid who had to convince their parents to let them go, not the other way around—if their child decided they didn't want to risk life and limb traveling around the world and collecting badges, well, most parents would consider that to be good news. "She must have had a reason," Hayley tried.
"Crap reasons. I don't know what she thinks this is going to do besides get me killed." Suddenly, her face brightened, the ghost of a smile flitting across her thin lips. "Actually, you know what…?"
Hayley watched as Miriam fished her phone out of her pocket and tapped away at the screen. "What are you doing?" she asked.
"Calling my mom." Oh, that was… nice? "I'm going to tell her how this stupid plan of hers almost made me die. Then she'll see just how stupid—hey!" Before she could finish, Hayley had bounded over to her side, snatching the phone out of her hand. "What the hell?"
"Don't tell her." Miriam grabbed for the phone, but Hayley held it up out of reach. She had a couple of inches on Miriam, and she used it to her full advantage, stretching all the way up on her toes.
"That's my phone. Give it back—"
"If you tell your mom, then your mom is going to tell my mom, and then my mom is going to make me come home." It all came out in one breathless spurt. Hayley knew how parents' minds worked; sure, her mother had been supportive when she'd left, but getting mauled by a Vigoroth her first week out was more than anyone had planned for. It was enough to make anyone reconsider, and Hayley could hear her voice already. "I just don't think it's safe…"
"I don't care," Miriam snapped. "Give—"
"Just—just wait until I beat Roxanne, okay?" Hayley was grasping at straws, desperate for any deal she could make. "It shouldn't take me too long, and once I have a badge… I can show her that I'm strong enough to stay out here. Even if she wants me to come home." Miriam's eyes narrowed, her face unconvinced. "Please? It's just a little while…"
"Hello? Miri? Are you there?" A voice called through the phone, soft and tinny from the speakers. Miriam reached for it again, and Hayley reluctantly let her snatch it out of her hand. She'd done all she could do.
"Yeah, I'm here." Miriam stepped away with the phone so that Hayley couldn't hear the other end of the line. A pause. "How's it…? Well, it sucks. I'm still stuck on this fucking route." Pause. "No." Another pause, longer this time. "Yeah, no, I'm not doing that. Look, I've got to go, okay? My phone's almost dead." Miriam began to pull the phone away from her ear, but froze as more unintelligible words crackled through the speakers. Her face twitched, caught somewhere between a scowl and something else. "Uh-huh. Bye." She tapped the button to end the call, and then glanced back at Hayley.
"You owe me. Big time."
Hayley nodded mutely, her whole body sagging in relief. She couldn't make Miriam understand, but… this journey was everything to her. She couldn't go home. Not now.
They fell back into silence as they trudged along the route, Miriam's toes kicking up dirt along the way. It was a few minutes before Hayley tried again.
"Still… You should let your Elekid out. It's not good to leave your Pokémon in their balls all the time."
Miriam snorted. "I told you, I'm not doing that."
"You can't just keep it in its ball forever," she persisted. "You'll get fined for neglect."
That got Miriam's attention. Behind her glasses, her dark eyes sharpened. "Nuh-uh. You're making that up."
"No I'm not. They went over it in class." It was one of the changes the League had made after the Plasma incident in Unova. Trainers were being encouraged to keep smaller teams, and to rotate them regularly so that each Pokémon could get fresh air and exercise. If a trainer kept any Pokémon locked in stasis for too long, they could come under investigation. Sure, a few days wouldn't do it, but… "I just think it would be good to—"
"If it's so important to keep Pokémon out of their balls, then why don't you let yours out?" Hayley's mouth snapped open and shut, but no sound came out. It was true; she hadn't released Barrett since last night. But… that was different.
She was putting off a very awkward conversation.
It was when they broke for lunch that she finally did it. While Miriam pulled out her Gameboy and sat under the shade of a stray tree, Hayley walked some distance away. Once Miriam and the tree had disappeared behind a hill, she pulled out Barrett's Pokéball, sighed, and tossed it to the ground.
The Magby appeared in the usual flash of light. When he saw Hayley standing there, he snorted, a few sparks and a puff of smoke escaping from his beak. Hayley crouched down to his level and frowned, keeping her face as calm as she could muster.
"You want to tell me what that was all about?"
Barrett cocked his head, meeting her gaze with a level stare. "Don't play dumb," she said. "You know what I'm talking about." Barrett huffed, sending out a few more embers that drifted down and burned away on the grass. Then, as though deciding she wasn't worth his time, he broke eye contact and began to turn around. "Hey!" She grabbed the Magby by his shoulder, spinning him back around to face her. Barrett hissed, his scales beginning to glow like stoked coals. Hayley felt her palm and fingers start to sear, but she held on. "Look at me," she snapped, and he did, pure venom shining in his slitted eyes. "I needed you back there. I know you don't like me, but—you're my Pokémon, Barrett. We're supposed to be a team. When are you going to start acting like it?"
They stared at each other in silence as the blisters on Hayley's fingers grew thick and hot. Finally, Barrett grunted and shrugged out from under her hand, glancing away with an unmistakable roll of his eyes. That was it. "Dammit, listen to me!"
She didn't feel herself move. For a moment, she didn't feel anything. But then suddenly the back of her hand was stinging, and Barrett was on the ground. He turned up his head and looked at her, really looked at her with wide, shocked eyes, raising his good arm to feel along the side of his face.
Hayley's breath caught in her throat as she realized what she'd just done.
"Barrett—return." Her voice cracked as she held up his ball, dematerializing the stunned Magby into a cloud of red light. Once he was gone, Hayley fell back onto the grass, stared up into the sky, and panicked.
Oh god, oh god. What had she… She knew what she'd done. She'd hit her Pokémon, her baby Pokémon, her partner, her responsibility. Her chest tightened with a physical pain. It was the one thing you were never, ever supposed to do—you were supposed to raise them with patience, with love, and she'd sworn on all her exams and forms that she'd treat them like members of her own family. She was a liar—an abuser, she thought, tears springing to her eyes. They'd take Barrett away, they'd take her license away, and even if they didn't, Barrett would hate her forever.
This was why she hadn't passed the Birch exam, she realized. They'd seen it in her, known she was bad. Set up for failure from the very start. And they were right—she'd ruined everything.
For the first time in forever, she curled her legs up to her chest, rested her chin on her knees, and cried.