The nice thing about Mauville was that it never rained because everything was, you know, indoors. Even though there was always noise and flashing lights, and way too many shoppers and tourists, at least I never had to worry about sun or wind or rain. Who needs fresh air, right? I'll take no rain over fresh air any day. Before I lived in Mauville, a long time ago that I don't care to talk about, I got caught in the rain a lot. I hated it. I hated getting wet and waiting for my clothes to try. I hated the feeling of the water as it soaked into my hair, into my skin, dripped into my eyes.

As I fell through the trapdoor of the Lavaridge Gym and plunged into a basin full of hot water, I had just enough time to think about all of this before everything I owned became totally soaked. I yelled. The fall hadn't been far enough to hurt me, but just enough to scare me. And now I was as waterlogged as a sponge.

"Mrrow," Murphy called from above. I pushed my dripping hair out of my eyes and glanced up. As the trapdoor had given way under my feet, she'd jumped aside just in time and now she was sitting at the edge of the open trapdoor, gazing down at me. She did not look excited at the prospect of falling into water.

"Come down here! It's not far. I've seen you jump further." I said. Murphy's fur slowly fluffed up. I doubted she was going to obey.

"It'll be fine. I'll catch you," I said as earnestly as I could. Murphy's large, wide eyes met mine. For a second nothing happened and I was getting ready to see if she'd rather be recalled into her Pokéball when she made a reluctant noise and leaped downwards at me. I panicked and barely stretched out my arms in time to catch her, reeling back a few steps from the force of her head impacting my chest.

"There, see?" I said, scratching her under the chin. She made a disgruntled sound and headbutted the side of my face before leaping out of my arms and onto a narrow walkway at the side of the pool of water. I watched her as she sat down and began to groom herself.

"Come on," I said after I'd had enough of watching her lick herself. "Let's get going."

As I waded through the water in search of another trapdoor I stopped thinking about my wet shoes and started thinking about other thoughts. Some of them were about the battle with Flannery. The rest of them were about Steven, the rich weird guy who also happened to be the Champion. They went along the lines of: What the heck? What the actual heck?

I thought the Champion was supposed to be important. What kind of Champion spent his free time wandering around a mountain looking for rocks? Couldn't he hire someone to find rocks for him? Can't he buy rocks from some fancy mail order catalog? Why walk around an ashy, rocky mountain if you didn't have to? More importantly, why the heck would he not inform a clueless rookie that he wasn't Steven the rock fanatic but Steven Stone, the Champion of all of Hoenn?

"If you were the Champion of this entire continent and you ran into someone who didn't know that, wouldn't you let them know?" I demanded of a random Gym trainer, while Bubbles was busy pelting his Numel with a jet of water.

"Who the hell doesn't know who the current Champion is?" he said. I shut my mouth and contented myself with letting Murphy beat up the rest of his Pokémon. The next three trainers I ran into responded similarly to this question, which made me more embarrassed, which made it all the more surprising when I won. There was a close call with a trainer and his team of three (three) Numel, but otherwise it was…not a disaster.

I was very surprised at how much more smoothly this Gym was going. Having a Pokémon with a type-advantage helped a lot more than I thought it would—no wonder I'd struggled so much at Mauville. It turned out that maybe 99% of the Gym Trainers had never seen a Skrelp in their lives before, and so were very surprised by Bubbles.

"Seriously, that is the weirdest Pokémon I've ever seen," said the third trainer I ran across. She had long hair that she kept in a ponytail and a mildly condescending expression on her face as she looked at Bubbles. I glanced at him. He seemed to wilt upon hearing what she'd said, the tiny dark leaves on his body drooping slightly. It only made him look more pathetic. Out of nowhere, I felt an extreme surge of anger.

"Yeah, well, your dumb slug is oozing that gross red stuff all over the floor, but see how I was too polite to say anything? Shut up." I snapped.

The girl looked pissed. It made it all the more satisfying to beat her. Afterwards Bubbles bounced up to me and wrapped himself around my leg, some emotion I couldn't decipher shining out from his bulbous red eyes. I patted him on the head. He was very slimy. I was going to have to wash my hands.

"If I was allowed to use my actual team I'd beat the crap out of you," the girl called out as I strutted away.

"Well, you aren't, so you lost," I called over my shoulder. I thought it was a pretty cool exit, all things considered, then I fell through another trapdoor and screamed all the way down. There was another trainer waiting below who didn't have any fire-type Pokémon, just a Meditite. I asked her if she was lost. She laughed at me, and then ten minutes later a kid who must have been no older than eight popped out of nowhere and all he had was a Koffing.

"This is a fire-type Gym, right?" I said to him afterwards. "The bottom floor isn't, like, used as another Gym for a different type?"

"Yep!" he said cheerfully. Apparently he didn't see the problem. I chalked it up to just another weird thing about Gyms that I would never understand.

Down trapdoors and up through them again, ambushed by trainers and blasted by torrents of hot water, I somehow managed to make it through the Lavaridge Gym without drowning or being boiled alive. I thought it had taken me an impressively short amount of time, but by the time I made my way up through the final trapdoor with Ping Pong bouncing cheerfully at my feet, Flannery looked very surprised to see me.

"Oh, whoa! You made it!" she said brightly, hastily jumping up from where she had been leaning sprawled in a chair, scrolling through a very expensive-looking Pokénav. "I thought maybe you'd—" she cut herself off, looking oddly guilty.

"Huh? What?" I said, before I had a brilliant flash of insight and realized that though I'd thought I'd been doing well, maybe the amount of time I had taken was…longer than the average. Flannery had looked too surprised for it to be anything but, and the last couple battles had taken a while—stupid Gym trainers bringing their non-fire-type Pokémon. I felt slightly embarrassed, which was quickly overtaken by an extreme attack of nervousness. I remembered the last time I had faced down a Gym Leader, the doors of the Mauville Gym sliding open to reveal Wattson waiting for me with a grin on his face. And the stinging sensation of humiliation as Thorn and Murphy had both fallen. I hadn't noticed it then, but after a few more weeks of battling (and a few more weeks of time to think about it), I had pretty much figured out that I had lost pretty quickly and pretty badly.

"Sorry—" Flannery said hastily. I'd tried to keep my face neutral but some of the anxiety had probably showed. "I mean—challenger!" and she was shouting again. "Don't let the fiery intensity of Lavaridge overwhelm you! I, Flannery….uh, am happy to test your will, and, uh…"

She never finished the sentence. I stared at her. She stared at me. Ping Pong, bouncing at my feet, stared at the both of us looking more confused than I'd ever seen him. I very strongly considered jumping down the trapdoor again.

Flannery broke eye contact first. She gave a long sigh and looked down at her feet, running a hand through her messy hair. Suddenly she seemed very young. Probably only a year or two older than me, I realized suddenly. It was both a comforting thought and a sobering one. Comforting because I suddenly stopped seeing her as the scary strong shouty Gym Leader. Sobering because I realized just how much of a vast gulf there was between her and me—she'd probably been training and battling for close to a decade now. She'd probably gone to Trainer School and left home with a backpack full of supplies and a head full of dreams. I'd been training for—what, barely a couple months? I imagined becoming a Gym Leader in two years. It seemed as likely as Arceus Itself descending from the heavens to hand me a sandwich.

"Uh. Listen, I…" Flannery looked embarrassed. "Can I be honest with you? I only became a Gym Leader really recently. I kinda…" she grimaced. "I'm kinda not sure what I'm doing yet."

She looked so upset that it made me feel weirdly sad for her. Gym Leaders were supposed to be like Wattson—assured and strong. I had to admit that about him, even if he'd been kinda stingy about people taking stuff from the dumpsters next to his Gym. But Flannery looked almost as awkward as I felt.

"Well, I don't really know what I'm doing either," I said. "Amelia definitely doesn't, either, even though she acts like she does. I mean, she named her Wingull 'Beaky.'"

"Oh, yeah! I remember!" Flannery said, perking up. "She was in here last week. Before that she had a Linoone and she called it 'Ziggy.'"

"Yeah, she didn't think that one though," I said. Flannery laughed.

"Okay!" she said, holding her hands up. "Let's battle. Your Spoink is starting to look bored."

I glanced down. Ping Pong had wandered over to the trapdoor again and was peering down it, bouncing dangerously close to the edge.

"Ping Pong, you're gonna fall." I looked over at Flannery, took a deep breath. I could feel my heart racing, the same surge of exhilaration I'd felt before Wattson. But this time I'd win. "I'm ready if you are!"

"Alright, challenger!" Flannery said theatrically, schooling her face into a fierce expression. "I'm, uh, gonna show you the hot moves we've honed in this land!"

Hot moves? But before I could think about it she was hurling a Pokéball into the air. When the flash of light cleared there was a squat yellow Pokémon sitting on the battlefield. I recognized it easily—I'd seen plenty of them loitering around Jagged Pass, as well as in the Gym. It was a Numel. They were slow, I knew that much. Most Pokémon could run circles around them.

"Murphy!" I called, and Murphy appeared in a flash of light. She was still the fastest member of my team, after all, and she'd fought Numel before. It was a no-brainer. "You got this!" I called, buoyed by the excitement and adrenaline, and I was surprised to see her glance back at me almost deliberately. Her tail lashed from side to side and she made a chittering sound. It looked like she was just as excited as I was.

"Fake Out!" I said, another no-brainer. Quick as a flash, Murphy leapt across the field, slapping the Numel in the face with her paws. It flinched just the tiniest bit, which I'd expected. It was a brief moment, but all Murphy needed.

"Bite!" I ordered, and Murphy clamped her jaws onto the Numel's head, digging her sharp little fangs in. I held my breath. Numel were slow, but sturdy–I'd figured that out by now. It would take more than two attacks to down one, but a Bite from Murphy wouldn't exactly tickle, either. I was sorely disappointed to see that the Numel looked distressed and made an unhappy sound, but it did not look as hurt as I hoped it would.

"Curse!" Flannery called out, and I blinked. It was an attack I didn't know. I hated it when that happened. I expected, absurdly, for the Numel to suddenly charge forward, or perhaps a small fireball, but it just hunkered down, making a strange humming noise and glowing with a faint red aura. Murphy and I both braced for the attack, but it never came.

"Bite again!" I said, not knowing what else to do. Murphy snapped at the Numel's flank. The Numel blinked slowly at her. It looked rather stupid. It also did not look very affected by what she was doing.

"Keep it up!" Flannery said, and the faint red glow surrounding the Numel grew a little more intense. Was it going to explode eventually? I was at a loss. Murphy, in the absence of a new command, kept biting at the Numel. It barely looked bothered by what she was doing to it, even less so than before. Murphy looked like she was having a hard time sinking her fangs into it, too.

"It's a defense-increasing move!" I realized, berating myself internally. I'd seen enough Sandshrew and Geodude to recognize one when I saw it—or so I'd thought. But no, was it just that? As the Numel slowly raised its head to stare a suddenly petrified Murphy in the eye I noticed that it was giving her the mother of all death stares. It looked ridiculous coming from something normally so slow and sleepy. And it was rearing up…slowly...

"Get back!" I said, but Flannery called out: "Magnitude!" and the Numel snorted as it slammed its front legs into the ground, creating a shockwave so strong I was almost knocked off my feet. Murphy was actually knocked off her feet and she fell to the ground, looking stunned at the impact. The Numel advanced on her, with a slowness that would have been funny if it hadn't been slightly terrifying.

"Get up and move away from it!" I said.


Before Murphy could shake off the last attack, the Numel slammed its head into her side, sending her flying into the air and across the field. I thought she'd been knocked out for sure, but to my surprise she managed to stumble to her feet and hiss in displeasure.

"Come back, Murphy!" I said, recalling her quickly. No way she was going to be able to knock out that Numel after I'd let it sit there and boost its defense, like an idiot. It was up to Bubbles to down this thing now, though I'd been hoping to save him for later. Still, he wouldn't like being hit by those Magnitude shockwaves...

Inspiration suddenly struck me over the head with a giant hammer. I grinned to myself and pulled out a Pokéball.

"Ping Pong, you're up!" And the little Spoink appeared in a burst of light, bouncing excitedly as usual. He seemed less excited when he saw the Numel glaring at him, and looked back at me uncertainly.

"We got this, okay?" I reassured him. Strangely he seemed to brighten up significantly at my words. "Psybeam!"

The pearl on Ping Pong glowed with a multicolored light as he bounced up and shot a bright beam at the Numel. I grinned. Ping Pong's aim still wasn't perfect, but there was no way the Numel was going to be able to dodge—I hadn't been imagining it, it had gotten slower as well. All it could do was sit there as it was being bombarded—

—the beam of light went a foot over the Numel's head, narrowly missing Flannery. It blinked at me slowly, looking vacantly surprised. I gaped. Ping Pong seemed to freeze in midair and turned towards me, eyes very wide.

"Uh. What? Are you kidding me?" I couldn't believe it. He'd been hitting the stationary targets pretty consistently before. "Psybeam it!"

Ping Pong jumped up and shot another beam of light at the Numel. It missed again, this time even worse than the last.

"Ping Pong, come on!" I demanded, as Flannery took the opportunity to let Numel boost its defenses again. "What's wrong? You could hit all those targets before…" I trailed off. Inspiration, or rather realization, was back and hitting me over the head with an even bigger hammer. I noticed the way he was hopping in place—not the big, bouncy jumps he would do when he was cheerful or excited, but little jittery motions that I hadn't seen him make before. No, I had—the moment right before I caught him, when he'd hopped closer to me, nearly trembling with each tiny bounce out of exhaustion and…

He was nervous! I thought about the way I had felt facing down Flannery and Wattson—jittery, heart racing, feeling like I was going to either fly or burst. Stupidly, it had never occurred to me that he might feel the same as well. Murphy had never acted like this—well, but since when was Murphy fazed by anything? And Thorn hadn't been nervous because…well, he hadn't cared at all. But Ping Pong liked battling, was excited by it—and this was his first big battle. The poor kid, I thought, and for a second I forgot what we were there to do.

"Look. It's okay. Really!" I added quickly, as Ping Pong seemed to droop. "It's gonna be fine. You've done this before, you know how to do this. It's just a target." I glanced at the Numel. It was glowing so brightly it was slightly unnerving, but as I watched it seemed to take it an eternity to even raise its head to look at me. "You can do it."

Ping Pong twitched his ear. I scrambled for something else to say.

"Come on. It's gonna be fun."

For a split second I thought it hadn't worked. Then Ping Pong bounced a little higher in the air, his ears perking up. His big black eyes blinked at me. Damn it, he really was a little cute.

"Nice speech," Flannery said approvingly, and I realized she'd been standing there listening to me the whole time, which really did kill the mood. She grinned at the two of us. "Hope you're ready for this! My Numel's just about ready. Right, Numel?"

The Numel finally finished raising its head and oh, it'd reared up again. It opened its mouth agonizing slowly and made a loud bellowing sound that I had never expected to hear from a Numel. It began to slam its front legs onto the ground. But—and this was probably the first time this had happened—I'd already thought of what to do.

"Jump up high, quickly!" I said. Ping Pong did what he did best, coiling his tail and bouncing high into the air just as the Numel unleashed another Magnitude. The shockwaves tore through the battlefield but missed Ping Pong entirely as he soared into the air. "Psybeam!"

Ping Pong launched another rainbow beam at the Numel. It wasn't a solid hit, but it did impact the Numel's hump and it made an unhappy sound. Ping Pong looked just as thrilled as I felt that he'd made the hit.

"Ember!" Flannery called out, and the Numel slowly raised its head. I remembered all the Numel we'd seen on Jagged Pass and waited till the small burst of flame was just beginning to form in its mouth.

"Bounce away now!" I yelled. Ping Pong leaped up just as the Numel unleashed its attack. Another miss. "Psybeam it again!"

A better shot this time. The Numel actually stumbled, righting itself in a slow, clumsy motion. It was an opportunity if I ever saw one.

"Keep at it!" I said, and Ping Pong hit it for the third time in a row. The Numel made an angry grumbling noise, glaring at the small Spoink that kept moving around too quickly and erratically for it to follow. But it was panting heavily and it looked almost dazed—the last Psybeam had confused it.

Flannery held up a Pokéball. "Good job! Return!" she said, surprising me. Ping Pong looked sorely disappointed as his newest target practice disappeared in a flash of red light. "Nice one," she said approvingly, looking me in the eye. "That one's our loss. Not much Numel can do to your Spoink after Curse lowered his speed so much. And Magnitude won't do anything against something that can just jump above it." She took out another Pokéball from her belt. "This one won't be as easy!" she said, tossing it, and a red, furry Pokémon appeared, landing delicately on the field. Amelia had warned me about this one—it was a Vulpix.

"Psybeam, Ping Pong!" I said, hoping to get an attack in first.

"Quick Attack in, then away!"

There was no way that Ping Pong, even after the confidence boost from fighting the Numel, could have landed in a hit as the Vulpix moved so fast it blurred. The Psybeam missed by a mile as the Vulpix slammed into Ping Pong, knocking the wind out of him, then darted away.

"Flame Burst!" Flannery said, and I was shocked to see the small Vulpix produce a surprisingly large bolt of fire that shot through the air at an alarming speed. Ping Pong tried to bounce aside at the last second, but it was much faster than the Numel's Ember had been. He squealed as he was hit.

"Quick Attack again, in and out!"

"Psybeam the field in front of you, make it hard for it to get in!" I said, hoping that it would work. Ping Pong's erratic aim helped him for once as he hit a swathe of the area in front of him with a rainbow-colored ray. The Vulpix ran right into it, and I was hoping that it would at stop, but it stumbled slightly and ran on to slam into Ping Pong again. He flew backwards from the force of the blow but managed to land on his feet…er, his spring. But he looked exhausted. All that jumping around must have tired him out before and getting hit hadn't helped.

"You did good. Come back," I called, returning him. He was probably as good as down. The Vulpix, and I kid you not, wagged all six of its fluffy tails and pranced around in a circle when it saw Ping Pong retreat. It shot me a look that I thought would have been the equivalent of a snicker, coming from a person.

I deliberated. What now? Murphy was still tired from the first battle—my bad entirely, not figuring out what that Numel had been doing earlier. I sent out Bubbles. Hopefully the type advantage would be enough to turn the tide. The stick-like Skrelp looked even weirder in the steam. Condensation was sticking to his murky skin. He made a happy burbling noise when he saw me, then shot into an upright position when he saw the Vulpix, his bulbous red eyes zeroing in intensely on his opponent. Well, at least he wasn't nervous.

"Scald, Bubbles!"

"Quick Attack to get around it!" Flannery said, and the Vulpix barely managed to dodge the cone of steaming water that Bubbles spewed out. "Now attack!"

The Vulpix made to dart in. I waited for just a second. "Scald it when it gets close!"

Bubbles managed to just graze the Vulpix just before it rammed into him. He fell over, his stubby leaf-like limbs waving in the air as he tried to right himself. The Vulpix had darted back already. So Scald was also too slow. Or maybe it was Bubbles—he wasn't really a fast Pokémon in general.

Flannery decided to make my day even worse. "Confuse Ray!" she ordered, just as Bubbles managed to hop upright. The Vulpix's eyes glowed and glowing orbs of pale light emanated from the tip of each tail, floating in the air before they shot through the air.

"Stay down, Bubbles!" I called out quickly. Bubbles looked confused, but flung himself back onto the ground. The attack barely missed him, but he couldn't stay lying down for long—the Vulpix would walk all over him. And upright he was clumsy and an easy target for a Confuse Ray or Flame Burst. The Vulpix was hopping around excitedly. Murphy could probably match its speed, but she was too tired to last long. Could I slow it down?

Inspiration came back and hit me over the head a third time, probably using up my inspiration quota for the entire year. I decided to capitalize on it while it lasted.

"Toxic Spikes, on the ground around you!"

Bubbles and I had tried this move twice before. The first time against the Aqua kids, when he'd managed to produce a single lonely little spiked thing. Even then the Poochyena we'd been fighting had carefully stepped around it. The second time I'd remembered this and told him to work on making as many as he could, giving him something to do while I was working on Ping Pong's aim. I'd come back to see an entire field of grass littered with unpleasant purple spikes, with Bubbles sitting in the center of them and looking at me proudly. We'd left before we could get in trouble for littering. This time, I was hoping to get a middle ground between the two.

Bubbles arched his neck, eyes squinting till they were red slits, and seemed to almost convulse for a few seconds. The Vulpix stared. Flannery stared. I wondered if it would work, then briefly wondered if I had accidentally broken his brain. Bubbles shuddered, made a horrible burping sound, and spat out… a single purple spike.

The Vulpix made a huffing sound.

Then Bubbles drew back his head and spat out another. And another. And more, and more, and more. He was a fountain spewing little purple caltrops, scattering them across the ground. The Vulpix yelped and jumped back, barely avoiding dashing into a swathe of dangerous little spikes. I couldn't help myself and whooped. Bubbles made a happy mumbling noise.

"Huh." Flannery whistled, staring at Bubbles thoughtfully. "That Skrelp of yours is pretty fancy."

"Damn right he is," I said, surprising even myself with the passion in my voice. "Scald, while it's stuck!"

Bubbles unleashed a wave of water that went right at the Vulpix. I thought we'd had it—it had nowhere to go, pinned in on all sides by the spikes littering the ground. But then it narrowed its eyes, crouching to the ground, and—leaped. So high into the air that I gaped in shock. The Scald only just grazed it instead of the full hit I was hoping for. The Vulpix landed as the steam cleared, in exactly the same spot it'd been standing in—no! No, it had stumbled as it landed, yelping and holding one paw in the air. One of the spikes had found its target.

"Flame Burst on the ground! Clear the spikes!" Flannery ordered. The Vulpix, growling now, spat great bursts of fire at its feet. The spikes were either blasted to the side or burned to a crisp. Slowly but surely, the Vulpix was clearing out a space.

"Scald it while it's busy, Bubbles!" I called out quickly. And this time, finally, the boiling blast of water found its mark. The Vulpix yelped and was pushed back. It looked tired. Not long now, I thought with no small amount of excitement.

"Quick Attack! Jump!" Flannery shouted. The Vulpix blinked, then made another daring leap into the air. There was a brief moment where it seemed to defy gravity and float effortlessly above the ground. I gaped. Bubbles' large red eyes grew even larger. Then the Vulpix slammed into him, ending him reeling backwards. It landed in the patch of ground that Bubbles hadn't bothered to cover—the small bit of ground surrounding him. Bubbles landed heavily on the field. He struggled to right himself, looking dazed, but we'd lost the advantage of range now. The Vulpix was advancing, having passed the spots where the Toxic Spikes were thickest—and most of the spikes had been blasted away by its fire anyways. It had us.

"Return, Bubbles!" I said, feeling frustrated—not with him, but with myself. We'd almost had it. If I'd been able to keep it at a distance for longer we could have done it. But I had one more Pokémon. It was time to fight speed with speed.

A toss of the Pokéball and Murphy appeared. She still looked dusty and worn-down from the beating the Numel had given her before, but from the way her tail swished and her eyes narrowed, I knew she was still in the fight. "Fake Out!"

Moving even faster than the Vulpix, Murphy leapt nimbly into the air and slapped it across the face. It yipped and hopped back, but stumbled as it set its weight on its wounded paw. The poison was still working.

"Bite!" I said, hoping to finish things off quickly. Murphy bounded forward, sharp little fangs glinting, then she seemed to stop, awkwardly hopping and twisting to the side to avoid…one of the leftover Toxic Spikes! Maybe having Bubbles spread so many of them out was a bad idea after all. The Vulpix couldn't move freely, but neither could Murphy. I groaned, then snapped out of it when Murphy was hit by a Flame Burst.

"Murphy!" I said, as she jumped back, hissing. She looked like she was in bad shape. One more hit would probably have done it. But then again, the Vulpix looked just as exhausted and was trembling all over. This was the deciding attack. "Get ready!"

The Vulpix darted forward, still moving quickly on three legs. It was another Quick Attack, and it zigzagged nimbly across the ground towards Murphy, weaving through the spikes. If I'd still had Bubbles out, I would have been worried about missing it with a ranged attack. Thankfully, I thought as the Vulpix closed in, feeling a distant sense of triumph—Murphy had one more trick up her sleeve.

"Shock Wave!"

"What!?" Flannery said loudly as Murphy's fur bristled with static, jolts of electricity shooting out to catch the Vulpix. It made to dodge and ran past, but the electricity arced backwards and caught it. Its limbs contorted and it yelped, stumbling, staggering, then finally, finally, tripping and falling into the dust just a few feet away from where Murphy stood, panting. It made an effort to rise, then flopped back down, whining.

I forgot to breathe. Murphy lowered her head to stare at it, her ears flattened. Then she sat back and calmly began licking her dusty paws. It was at that moment that she looked back at me for one brief second, and I knew that it was over and we had won.

"Not bad! No, that was really good!" Flannery said, recalling the downed Vulpix. She was grinning as she headed over to me. "I didn't know your Meowth could use Shock Wave. It was great! The whole thing was great!"

"…really?" was all I could think of to say. It didn't feel real. Had I really won? Instead of repeating my failure in the Mauville Gym…I'd really, actually won?

Flannery stopped in front of me, her hands on her hips. "Challenger!" she said dramatically, though the effect was ruined by the wide grin on her face. "You have conquered the fires of the Lavaridge Gym! For that, you deserve this!" and she held out her hand. There was something in it. It was small and made of metal, cut and shaped like a burst of flame. It shone in the light. Stupidly, I reached out and took it. It felt oddly heavy despite its size, although maybe that was just because for the first time in my life, I was finally proud of something I'd done. I'd gotten my first badge.

"Heat Badge!" Flannery said proudly. "Cool, huh?" She patted me on the back, still smiling. I realized I was smiling too, so widely it almost hurt. "That was fun! Seriously. You gave a good fight. It reminded me of why I became a Gym Leader in the first place. To battle challengers like this." Her grin turned slightly sheepish. "With or without the dramatics."

"Oh, those weren't bad," I said, buoyed by the swelling feeling of success and pride. "I mean. Uh. Well. Did I really just…" I trailed off, lost in thought, staring at the small badge in my hands. I ran a finger along the wavy edge.

Flannery laughed slightly. "You did it!" she said. "Come on. We can't stay here forever, and, uh…" she glanced back at the battlefield. I followed her gaze. The ground was covered in scorch marks in some parts, soaked in some other parts. Cracks ran through the field from the Numel's Magnitude attacks, and some of Bubbles' Toxic Spikes still clung stubbornly to the ground. "Yeah." Flannery said. "We're gonna have to clean this up."

I was filling out a form that would officially put my win into the League's systems and got to the date when I realized something else. My fingers froze up.

July 26th. Yesterday had been my birthday. I'd completely missed it, what with all the training I'd had to do and the anxiety about the Gym battle crowding my brain. But there it was, the proof, written down for me to see. I wasn't a teenager any more. I was twenty years old.

I wandered out the doors of the Lavaridge Gym almost in a daze. The sunlight had never seemed this bright, or this warm. The grass had never seemed this green.

Somehow I managed to find Amelia. She was sitting on a bench by a fountain, feeding Beaky crackers and frowning in thought. When I approached she looked up at me, blinking her wide eyes.

"Wait, you're done! Did you…" she trailed off. I realized, once again, that I was smiling. Amelia's face slowly broke into a grin to match my own and she whooped, throwing her handful of crackers into the air. Beaky squawked. I hollered. Passerby on the street gave us looks, but who cared? I had my first Gym badge, I was twenty years old, and if the world didn't like me being loud about it then they could go suck it. We laughed and yelled all the way to a diner, where I bought us lunch with my prize money and Amelia demanded a play-by-play of the battle. Then we ducked into a bakery across the street and I bought a cake, for no reason other than I could now. We ate the cake with our hands, sitting on the grass while our Pokémon lazed around. I'd given them all a slice of cake too, on a whim. Murphy had refused hers with a look of polite disgust, Ping Pong had devoured both his and her share. Bubbles seemed perplexed by the whole idea and was currently sitting on his slice, frosting sticking to his slimy skin.

"If I eat any more, I'm going to explode," I said, lying down to lessen the sense of uncomfortable fullness. It turned out that trying to eat half a cake was not, in fact, a good idea.

"Wuss," Amelia said. She was on her third slice and going strong. As I watched, she tossed a chunk of cake at Beaky, who snatched it out of the air. For her, Beaky had been the one to do in the Numel—at dinner she'd told me how the Wingull had flown circles around the Numel, dodging its Embers and floating effortlessly above the miniature earthquakes it created. "Piece of cake," she'd said, and that had reminded me of my birthday so we'd bought the cake.

"Flannery was actually kinda cool," I said, staring up at the sky. The afternoon sunlight was almost uncomfortably warm on my face. It had—and I didn't say this lightly—been the best day of my life so far, probably, and the day wasn't even over yet. "It's weird that she's not that much older than us."

"And she's already a Gym Leader," Amelia said, throwing her arms up in the air. "Right? She's got years and years on us." she fell back into the grass, huffing. "It's kinda not fair if you think about it."

It wasn't fair. The thought had crossed my mind when Flannery had waved goodbye at me, and I'd remembered that though I saw her as a leader and the embodiment of everything strong and cool and impossible to reach, we were almost the same age. And Steven was the Champion, and he wasn't that much older than either of us…was he? Well, he didn't look old, but I had never seen anyone under the age of forty wear a suit for fun. Especially while hiking. I relayed these thoughts to Amelia, mostly just thinking out loud. I expected her to play along, but instead she sat up and stared into space, scowling vaguely.

"I kinda don't like that guy," she said.

"Huh? Why?" I expected her to make a joke about rock collecting being a dumb hobby, or maybe take a shot at him being rich. Instead she stayed quiet for a few seconds.

"I think he lied to us," she said instead.


"About seeing Flannery yesterday, remember?" she turned towards me. "The Gym was closed yesterday."

"Well, he's the Champion," I said, plucking a blade of grass. "I mean. The Gym being closed probably isn't going to stop him from talking to her if he wants to. It makes sense."

"I know that part makes sense!" Amelia said loudly, uprooting a fistful of grass. "But he lied about running into her in town. Why lie about something like that?"

I frowned. Amelia usually had a good gut feeling for most things, even if sometimes it was contaminated by her temper and automatic distrustfulness. "How do you know?" I said.

"I just do! I could tell that he was lying right when he said it!" Amelia threw her hands up into the air. "So when he left I found some of the Gym trainers and asked them, and you know what they said? They said that Flannery wasn't even in Lavaridge yesterday! She just got back this morning!"

"Huh." I deliberated. It seemed sketchy when she put it that way, although I also had no idea why the Champion of all of Hoenn would bother lying to two random trainers he'd barely even talked to. For a second I considered the possibility that Amelia was just being paranoid. Then I remembered the way Steven had paused, just a little bit, before answering Amelia's question. It had been similar to…no, it'd been the same way he'd paused when I'd met him on Jagged Pass and asked him what he was doing. Had he been lying then, too? But about what? And why?

"I dunno," Amelia said, shrugging. She scattered her fistful of grass into my hair. "I don't really want to be involved in, like, some super secret Champion stuff. Or Gym Leader stuff. Maybe Flannery's in on it too. Maybe not."

I snorted. We sounded like two conspiracy theorists, trading notes on how the League was full of Ditto masquerading as humans and trying to brainwash Hoenn. Or something. The ridiculousness of the thought made me feel comforted. "Maybe they're secretly dating or something. And they went on a secret vacation."

Amelia let out a bark of laughter. "You're right. We should sell this story to the tabloids. I'd bet they'd pay us so much money for it."

"Forbidden romance between the Champion and the Gym Leader."

"What's forbidden about it?"

I thought about it for a second. "I dunno. It's probably not illegal for a Champion to date a Gym Leader."

Amelia snorted. "Maybe they're plotting to attack the League and take over Hoenn."

"Maybe they were abducted by aliens."

"Maybe they were abducted by Ditto. And replaced."

"Hey, I was gonna say that!"

As the afternoon sunlight bathes Lavaridge in its warm glow, two young trainers lie on the grass and joke about something that they do not understand the enormity of. Though they will soon.

Not so far away, in the Lavaridge Gym, Flannery sets down two Pokéballs into a healing machine. She runs a finger along the surface of her desk, in deep thought, then opens a drawer. The six Pokéballs she picks out do not contain the easy-win Pokémon she would present to a rookie challenger. She closes the drawer and leaves the room, leaves Lavaridge to head north.

Further away, but not too much further, Steven Stone paces up and down the rocky cliffs of Jagged Pass. He is searching for something.

Even further away, one man dreams of a leviathan slumbering beneath the weight of the waves. Another dreams of a colossus imprisoned beneath the weight of the earth.

And in the the southern reaches of Hoenn, a moving van pulls up to an empty house. A renowned Pokémon Professor runs from a snarling Poochyena and shouts at the person watching: "In my bag! There's a Pokéball!"

A/N: Hello everyone. Terribly sorry for the delay. Finally, Riley has her first badge. If you've stuck with her for this long—I hope the wait was worth it. Reading all your feedback and comments really motivated me to start writing again.

On another note, I think it's natural as a reader to be worried about the pacing of this story. I will say that the pace of the plot is going to pick up substantially from now on. I made the content of these past ten chapters slightly slower because I thought it was important to focus on this stage of Riley's personal growth. Now that she's come this far (although she certainly isn't done growing), the plot can move along a little faster. If you're expecting Riley's journey to be a remix of the journey that the protagonist takes in the games, I think you will be surprised. It's true that at this point Riley plans to complete her badge quest, but things may derail that...

So thank you for your patience. I think things will get interesting soon.

Next up: someone tries to recruit Riley for...something...illegal...