A/N: Hey everyone...so, it's been a while, eh?
...Anyways, sorry for disappearing for, uh, a year. My life changed and very suddenly got a lot busier, and I lost a lot of time and energy that I previously used to write. Don't know how many of you are still here, but this story is not dead. I promise.
Onto the chapter, and thank you for reading and reviewing. It was reading all your comments that got me to finish this.
Murphy's Law: Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong.
Ping Pong tried really hard for a Pokémon that just wasn't very good at battling.
"Jeez," I muttered, after Ping Pong missed a Psybeam for the third time in a row. I immediately felt bad because he turned and gave me an adorably sad look; I apologized immediately and he perked up.
"Why does my life suck?" I said, to no one in particular, when I was certain that the Spoink couldn't hear.
"Your life sucks because you suck," said Amelia, who was her usual reassuring self. "Get good." I picked up an empty Potion container and threw it at her, but it just bounced off her shoulder. Sighing, I flopped on the grass and closed my eyes, going over the past few days.
Amelia, god bless her soul, had stuck with me throughout it all with only minimal complaining. Her own Pokémon were pretty competent, even though she seemed to have an even vaguer idea about Pokémon training than I did. Beaky, the Wingull that was her starter, was a remarkably ruthless fighter that frightened Ping Pong into near-tears the first time we had them spar. Sandy the uncreatively named Sandshrew had a bit of a lazy streak but was remarkably sturdy. But the one I was most jealous of was Ziggy, the Linoone that Amelia had prematurely nicknamed without considering its evolution. Its sleek strength and casual alertness reminded me of the Linoone I'd tried to catch for my starter. I sat up and glanced at Murphy, who was washing her face daintily with one paw. Sandy the Sandshrew made a friendly attempt to move closer to her, and she politely got up and moved a few feet away.
"It's not that bad," Amelia said vaguely as the two of us watched Ping Pong fire off Psybeams haphazardly.
"Yeah, it is."
"Okay, it's a little bad." she shrugged, looking a little gloomy. "Look on the bright side. Those beams are pretty strong if they do hit something. We just gotta work on aim."
We devised a training plan. I would set up numbered targets for Ping Pong to aim at and call out the numbers to tell him where to attack. The goal was to get him to aim accurately and fire as quickly as possible. This went about as well as you can imagine.
"At least he's hitting the targets now," I said tiredly, my throat sore after an entire afternoon of yelling at various passerby to duck when Ping Pong misfired yet another Psybeam.
"Your life does suck," Amelia said cheerfully. She was in a good mood. Beaky had just demonstrated the ability to launch sharp razor-like gusts of wind that were a pain in the ass to dodge. The trainer that Beaky had narrowly missed had yelled at us and said something about "flinging Air Cutters everywhere," so we assumed that was what it was called. Meanwhile, I had a Spoink that was only sort of okay at hitting things.
"At least the Gym won't open for a few days," Amelia said as we called it a day and retreated it back to the Pokémon Center. "Heard Flannery's busy with something or the other."
"What are Gym Leaders busy with outside of battling, anyways?"
"Dunno. Maybe they've got day jobs." Amelia snickered.
The Pokémon Center wasn't too crowded, which meant we each got rooms and beds to ourselves. Dinner was provided courtesy of the cafeteria in the Center, and while the food wasn't great it was still free food. We both gorged ourselves and managed to sneak a few rolls and some fruit into our pockets. Our Pokémon sprawled on the floor, eating canned and dried food out of bowls. Murphy looked slightly unenthusiastic about her bowlful of pellets, so I snuck her some of my dinner under the table. Bubbles was using the water bowl as a miniature bathtub. He looked even uglier when wet.
The television mounted on the wall was airing the news. Amelia ignored it entirely. I watched for a few minutes as the newscaster talked about something or the other to do with a new Gym Leader in Petalburg. I clenched my fork between my teeth and leaned back in my chair as an image of a man in a red jacket appeared on the screen. He looked stern. And very stiff. Probably a lot of fun at parties.
"Wow," said Amelia, who had finally noticed what I was staring at. "Get a load of that guy."
"He looks like a total stick in the mud," I said. Amelia snickered and I smiled to myself, pleased at my own wit, as the newscaster on the screen frowned and glanced offscreen. Her expression changed and she looked at something behind the camera before talking again, more rapidly, as the Petalburg Leader disappeared from the screen and a new headline appeared.
"…interrupt this special report to bring you breaking news: another attack by the eco-terrorist group calling themselves Team Aqua, this time on the Lilycove City Hall—preliminary accounts state that several low-ranking members of the group attempted to set off an explosive device but were stopped by law enforcement—currently it is unclear what motivated this attack—"
A short video clip played of policemen in heavy body armor wrestling a blue-clad figure to the ground. The fork fell from my mouth and clattered onto the floor. I stared at the screen. Then I took another look, just to make sure I wasn't hallucinating.
"Amelia?" I said dumbly.
"Yeah?" said Amelia, who had been trying to nudge a purring Murphy away from her leg.
"You remember what I was saying a couple days ago? About the wannabe gang kids? With ripped clothes? Team Aqua?"
"Yeah, what?" she said, frowning. I pointed at the television. She glanced at it, turned back to me, then the realization hit her and she whipped around to stare at the television, mouth dropping open.
"Holy shit," said Amelia.
I made a sound that was something along the lines of: "Nnnngkk."
"Holy shit," Amelia said again. "They weren't wannabes after all."
"This guy's wearing ripped pants too. Is it like a uniform thing?"
I assembled my thoughts. "I threatened to have Murphy electrocute one of them!"
"Cool," said Amelia.
"It's not cool! It's the opposite of cool!" I yelled. A few other trainers turned to stare at our table, which made me even more nervous. I lowered my voice. "I thought—I thought they were like, kids trying to be tough or whatever—they're actually a serious, for real gang, or like a secret organization, or—"
"—classifying Team Aqua as a terrorist group—" I heard the newscaster say.
"A terrorist group!" I said in utter disbelief. There was no way this was happening. Even my life didn't suck this much. I could deal with not having money or weird Pokémon or whatever—but surely even I didn't have bad enough luck that I would go and piss off two members of a real, actual, bunch of terrorists.
"You beat them up, right?" Amelia crossed her arms. "You think you'll get some kind of public service award for it?"
"No!" I said loudly. "I think I'll get murdered in my bed tonight by some terrorist out for revenge!"
Amelia considered this. "If you die, can I have your stuff?"
"Dude, chill," said Amelia, leaning back in her chair. "It's probably no big deal."
"No big deal—"
"Okay! It's kind of a big deal."
There was a clattering sound as Murphy batted my fork across the floor. I took a deep breath, tried not to freak out, failed and slammed my hand onto the table. "Oh my god," I said dumbly. "I need to take off these clothes."
Amelia stared at me. I registered what I'd said and looked around, hoping that no one had heard. Unfortunately I'd been louder than I intended, because people were staring.
"What I meant to say," I said, lowering my voice to a whisper and hoping my face wasn't as red as it felt. "I need to change my clothes. I need new clothes. Now."
"Eh? Why?" Amelia said.
"If those Team Aqua kids are telling everyone in their gang about the kid who stole their Skrelp," I hissed, "I don't want to look anything like what they say I do! I need new clothes. A haircut. Plastic surgery!"
"Wait, have you been wearing the same clothes all this time?"
"No! Well, okay, I've got like one backup shirt—"
"Okay, that's gross and you should buy another set if you can afford it, even if there are no terrorists after you. And lose the hat," Amelia interrupted, swiftly reaching a hand out and whipping my really nice hat off my head before I could protest.
"I like that hat!" I said, trying to grab it back and failing. "I bought that hat. With money. My money."
"Yeah, well," Amelia said, crumpling my poor hat up and stuffing it into her backpack, "it's nice alright, but it's really eye-catching. Seriously, what made you choose olive green? I don't think I've met anyone else with the guts to wear an olive green hat just for the heck of it."
I scowled. She was right. Not about the hat—it was a nice color and anyone who disagreed was plain wrong. But she was right about needing new clothes.
"Cheer up!" Amelia said loudly as we stood and cleared the table. She nudged me and I almost dropped my tray on the floor. "We'll get new clothes and we won't even have to steal them!"
A few more people were staring at us now. I shoved Amelia towards the door, hoping that we hadn't attracted too much attention.
"Take a picture, it'll last longer," Amelia said breezily at a boy who was staring at us with his mouth half-open.
"Not that jacket."
"No. Come on. It looks ridiculous."
"You look ridiculous!"
"Your face looks ridiculous!"
"I like this jacket!"
"Excuse me," someone cut in. Amelia and I looked away from the jacket I was holding up to see one of the store's employees staring at us with slight annoyance. "I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask the two of you to leave unless you quiet down."
I lowered the jacket and mumbled an apology. Amelia made a grumbling noise but nodded.
Lavaridge didn't have the glamorous boutiques or the sprawling, maze-like shopping malls that Mauville had, but it did have a fair amount of shops that sold clothing. As I'd insisted on finding an outfit that looked as different as possible, Amelia and I had spent the last hour going through every single one of them.
Amelia waited until the woman had left, then grabbed the jacket from my hands and threw it onto a nearby rack. "I'm picking your clothes out," she said. "Come on."
She was better at it than I was. The afternoon consisted of me standing awkwardly around while Amelia threw various outfits at me, yelling at me to try them on. Afterwards, after we'd left the shops with a bag full of new stuff, we wandered around Lavaridge commenting on the Pokémon of other trainers.
"I want one of those," Amelia said, staring so intensely at a passing Manectric that its trainer shot us a glare and hurried past. "Wait, what the heck is that thing?"
I glanced at the Pokémon she was pointing at. It looked like some kind of bird, but it wasn't a Taillow or a Wingull, so I was at a bit of a loss. How in the world was anyone supposed to remember all those names? Besides people who had nothing better to do than sit and read a stack of encyclopedias or something. I hadn't had that kind of time. I didn't think anyone had that kind of time.
"Probably a flying-type," I said.
"Wow," Amelia said. "Good guess. I almost missed the fact that it looks like a bird and has wings."
"Shut up," I said, trying to punch her on the arm and missing. Across the street, the bird-like Pokémon suddenly made a loud chattering sound that sounded almost like speech. As I watched, it's tail began to flick back and forth rhythmically.
"What a weird Pokémon," Amelia said. "I'd rather have a Swellow or something. They're really cool."
"You've already got Beaky," I said, glancing up at the Wingull perched on her shoulder, which squawked at me when we made eye contact.
"Yeah. I do." Amelia patted her Wingull on the head, smoothing its feathers down. It made a cooing noise and rubbed its long beak along her hand. I remembered their first day together suddenly, when Amelia had given Beaky a name and it'd tried to pull her hair out. Now Beaky was cozying up to her with affection so obvious that even I could see it. Had they gotten that close that quickly? I glanced over at Murphy, who I'd let out of her Pokéball to wander. She had clambered on top of an open trash bin and was peering down into it.
"Get off there," I called, and she glanced back at me. For a second I wondered if she would listen, then she flicked her ears and jumped down, padding back over to where we were. I reached down and tried to pick her up, but she squirmed alarmingly and made an unhappy noise, so I stopped.
"Hey, look over there," Amelia said quietly. A girl had stopped by to peer through the window of a candy shop. Next to her was a white-furred, cat-like Pokémon with a single black blade-like horn protruding from the side of its head. Absol.
"Shit," I said. Bad luck, remember? We watched as the Absol sidled up to its owner and bumped its nose against her arm. Almost absently the girl ran a hand along its silky fur and it leaned into her, almost knocking her over.
"Man," Amelia whistled. "I can't believe people actually have the guts to own one of those."
I nodded, watching the Absol, which was sticking to its owner like glue, bumping against her every once in a while. "Hey," I said. "Remember that one time some guy brought his Absol to the park, and Cam slept on the bench they sat on and had the cops called on him?"
"Oh, yeah," Amelia said, snorting suddenly. "Serves him right, the jackass."
"We told him not to!"
"Yeah, we did! Everyone did!"
"But he did it anyways! Why'd he do it?"
"Because he's crazy!" Amelia said, suddenly very loudly and very angrily. "He's crazy! Him and his fucking Beautifly. I hate that stupid bug."
Then suddenly I remembered the story that had been passed around the alleys of Mauville, the reason why despite his easygoing smile, everyone was terrified of Cam: his Beautifly, and how he'd set it on Amelia. I hadn't seen what it'd done until after the wound was healed and Amelia had refused to talk about it except for once, when the two of us had dug up a fresh, whole pizza from outside a restaurant and while we were eating in the park she'd started talking like she couldn't stop. "Its fucking little mouth came out," she'd said, biting viciously into a chunk of crust. "And then it rammed it into my arm, like a knife, and when I yelled and shoved it off it came back around at me again, and got me again, and Cam just sat there and laughed." She'd clenched her fists until she was shaking. "Okay, I was going through his stuff. I hadn't had anything to eat that day, okay? But the way he just set that thing on me and laughed…"
I remembered all this in a sudden flash and shuddered. I didn't know if Amelia had talked about it to anyone else. I doubt she had. But even if she had I felt bad for even bringing Cam up. "Sorry," I blurted.
Amelia looked at me like I'd grown another head. "What for?"
"You didn't do anything," Amelia said, kicking a rock down the street. "It was him and his fucking bug. But one day I'll find him again and Beaky's going to eat it."
"Oh." I ran out of things to say and stared glumly at the sidewalk. Cam was not a nice person. I knew that. But there was a part of me that still wondered where he was, what he was doing. Was he challenging Gyms? He'd mentioned going to Dewford. Had he managed to get there yet? How had he crossed the sea? Was he doing well, like Amelia? Or did spend most of his time wondering what he was doing, like me?
"Oh my god." Amelia's voice interrupted my thoughts, and I looked up as she grabbed my shoulder. "What the fuck. Look at that."
Further down the sidewalk there was a man sitting at a café table. Floating close to him was what looked like a giant ice cream cone, with small crystals of ice dotting its surface and a cloud of mist surrounding it. As we watched, it turned around slowly till we could see a face peering out at us, embedded in the dripping slush.
"What the hell is that thing supposed to be?"
"An abomination," I said a little too loudly, and then we had to duck into a shop before the sentient ice cream's trainer turned around.
Days later, I took one more look at the ring of targets we'd set up and braced myself for failure. "Psybeam, targets two and four!" I ordered, getting ready to duck. But Ping Pong jumped up and the bolt of rainbow light from his pearl hit the two targets dead center, knocking them down. I froze. Amelia stopped her game of tug-of-war with Beaky to stare at us. Even Murphy stopped washing herself to look surprised.
"You did it!" I screamed, falling to my knees to hug the Spoink tightly. He made a squealing sound that I interpreted as either surprise or elation. "You did it! That was—I can't believe you did it!"
Ping Pong wriggled in my arms so wildly that I was forced to let go of him, but afterwards he continued to bounce in place looking more and more excited with each hop. His large black eyes seemed to shine. There was the sound of footsteps as Amelia came running up and pretty much tackled me, knocking us both to the ground. Bubbles squirmed over and began sliming about on top of my leg.
"That finally fucking worked!" she hollered, fist-pumping and nearly hitting me in the face with her elbow. "God! I can't believe it!"
I grabbed hold of Ping Pong with one hand and Bubbles with the other. Murphy, a foot or so away, seemed to make up her mind and padded over. So I grabbed her too, ruffling her fur affectionately as she made a grumpy sound.
"We're gonna do it," I said. "We're gonna beat this Gym!"
"Hell yeah you are," Amelia whooped. "Flannery's not gonna know what hit her! And then you're gonna take me out to eat with the prize money!"
Prize money! I whooped too and our Pokémon joined in, the bunch of us making fools of ourselves in the grass. The sun was shining, not a cloud in the sky. It was going to be a good day. Things were turning out well.
Things were going to turn out horribly. I was going to die.
"What happened to all that stuff you were yelling yesterday?" Amelia demanded. It was the next day and standing in front of the Lavaridge Gym had made me lose all of my nerve. My hands were shaking. I was going to throw up, pass out, or both.
"I don't know," I said. "Maybe we should train another day."
Amelia punched me. She didn't tend to pull her punches, so it hurt. "You're gonna keep saying that every day for the next year if you don't go in right now," she said. "And I'm not going to help you train for another year."
"Are you really trying to guilt me into this?"
"Yeah, if nothing else works."
I shook my head. "It won't work."
"Okay. I guess we'll have to stay here until you make up your mind, even though, y'know, I stayed here for like a week longer than I had to just to help you out, even though I kinda hate this place by now—"
"This isn't working!" It was working.
"I could be in Fallarbor by now," Amelia said, looking pointedly away from me. "Meteor Falls—or I could have backtracked and gone to Slateport, or even Fortree—I've always wanted to see Fortree, but since I'm such a good friend—"
"Stop talking! Give me five seconds—"
Amelia threw her empty soda can into the trash and turned towards me. "Look. You're gonna be fine. I fought her, I should know." Then she grinned in a way that I didn't like. "Hey, you know what? I'm just gonna go in and register for you, if you're too nervous—"
"See you soon!" And Amelia was sauntering into the Gym. I froze, grappled with my fear of entering the Gym and my fear of being registered as a challenger against my own will, and the latter one. I grabbed Murphy, who was hanging out by some bushes and chewing on a leaf, and rushed in after her. The doors opened.
I was immediately hit by a wall of hot and humid air, like inside a sauna. But it was a sauna, I realized, after seeing the clouds of steam everywhere. Who the heck wanted to battle in a sauna all the time? I quickly spotted Amelia, who was not at the registration desk but standing a little ways to the side, staring at two people who were standing near a door on the right wall, talking very quietly. One of them was a young woman, with a head of absolutely crazy red hair. She was wearing loose pants and a shirt that bared her midriff, and even though I knew almost nothing about Gym Leaders or the League, I thought this had to be Flannery. The other person had pale hair and was wearing an expensive-looking dark suit and I had not expected to ever run into him again, but it was Steven.
"Huh," Amelia said thoughtfully to me. "I thought Flannery just stayed in the Leader's room all the time." she jerked her head towards the two. "You think he just challenged her?"
"No, that guy's—" I said, but before I could finish Steven spotted the two of us. Unfortunately, his eyes brightened with recognition when he saw me. Flannery stopped talking and turned around.
"Hi!" Amelia said cheerfully, and started walking over. "My friend here wants to challenge the Gym—"
"Oh, yeah?" Flannery said. "I mean—yes, of course!" she said even more loudly than Amelia, staring at me so intensely she looked almost cross-eyed. I wondered if it was too late to run. "Yes! I recognized you from our battle the other day! You fought bravely, and, uh—your friend, should she also wish to take on the challenge—"
"Register over here first," said a trainer sitting at the registration desk, snickering a little.
"Wh—I wasn't done—" Flannery sputtered, suddenly losing her previous intense expression. "I mean—"
"Riley, was it?" Steven interrupted, looking at me. "I remember you from Jagged Pass. Is this what you were coming to Lavaridge for?"
"Yeah! Uh, yeah," I said. There was going to be no way out of this conversation. "Yeah, I wanted to beat Flannery."
"Victory won't be easy!" Flannery said a little too loudly, with the same, almost theatrical, intensity she'd had previously. "Next to this volcano, my Pokémon and I—"
"Wait," Amelia said, looking back and forth between Steven and I. "You guys know each other?"
"He's the one from the mountain I told you about yesterday," I muttered.
Something seemed to click for Amelia. "Oh, you're the rich rock guy," she said.
A hole opened up under me and pulled me into the earth. One of the walls burst, drowning all of us in boiling water. My head exploded. All of those were things I wished would happen rather than having to watch Flannery, a Gym Leader, and Steven, the Pokémon expert with a lot of money, react to what Amelia had just said. I wanted to crawl under the rug.
Flannery saved me from having to explain by bursting into laughter, all trace of her previous demeanor entirely gone. "Ha! Haha! Oh, wow. Oh, Arceus. Rich rock guy." she wiped a tear from her eye, grinning. "That's good."
I worked up the nerve to glance at Steven. Oddly enough, instead of looking angry, he seemed to be a mix of slightly amused and awkward. My impression of him improved a little. "I guess that's...a fair description," he said.
"I didn't say that," I said. "That is not what I said."
"It sort of was," said Amelia, who seemed to be on the verge of realizing that she'd said something weird.
"Man!" Flannery said, flinging her arms up in the air and smiling at us. "I was nervous, but you're all right."
"Hang on," I said, trying to wrap my head around everything that had just happened. "You were nervous?"
"I'll battle you!" Flannery said. "How many badges do you have already?"
"She's got zero," Amelia said cheerfully.
"Great!" Flannery said. She took a deep breath. "Puny trainer! I accept your challenge! You'd better not underestimate me just because I've been here a short time!" she stepped over to the door, through which I could see a flight of steps. "Show me your strength!"
When I made to follow her up the stairs she stopped, looking at me strangely. "Oh! Uh. These stairs are for the Leader—uh, for me. You have to go through that." She pointed behind me and quickly disappeared through the doorway and the door slid shut, looking like it was never there.
I looked to where she had pointed to, where the floor gave way to rocky, steaming ground and a series of ledges. Set in the ground were wooden trapdoors, through which more steam was rising. "What?"
"You gotta fall through the trapdoor things," Amelia said, leaning against the wall. "It takes you to this weird room full of water, and then water shoots you back up to this floor."
"You're kidding," I said dumbly.
"Hey, no hints!" shouted the trainer at the registration desk.
"Riley," Steven said, and I remembered that he was there, witnessing my life rapidly devolve into a sitcom. "Good luck. I should be going soon."
"Thanks," I said. "Uh, any advice before you go?"
Steven seemed to think for a second. "Remember what I said about detailed commands," he said. "She probably won't expect your Meowth to know Shock Wave. But other than that…" he smiled. "I have a feeling you'll be fine. Flannery is a new Leader, and you might have noticed that she tries not to show it—"
"No kidding," I muttered.
"—but she gives her challengers a fair fight and treats them well," he finished. "Yesterday she was saying how she wanted to get back to her Gym to—"
"Wait, wait," Amelia interrupted suddenly, looking at him. I glanced at her, startled. "How'd you get to see Flannery yesterday? The Gym was closed. I heard she was gone for all of yesterday and a few days before that."
Steven paused. Something about the moment struck me as familiar, though I couldn't think of why. "I ran across her yesterday in town," he said. "She brought it up briefly."
"Huh," Amelia said vaguely. I had known her for long enough to know that there was something important on her mind. But she didn't keep talking. Steven's expression didn't change, but I thought I saw a hint of something in his pale eyes.
"Good luck to you again," he said, nodding at me. Then he turned and left the Gym, the doors sliding shut behind him.
"Yeah. Good luck," Amelia said after a few seconds, turning back to me. "Hey, listen. You're gonna beat her, so—"
"What was all that about?" I asked.
"All what about?"
"Just now. What's bothering you?"
Amelia stared at me with her slightly too-wide, watchful eyes. She opened her mouth, closed it, seemed to wrestle with herself internally, then frowned, kicking at the ground. "I dunno," she said, lowering her voice. "I got a feeling. Your rich rock guy is lying."
"What?" I said. "Why would he do that?"
"I dunno! It seems like something pointless to lie about!" Amelia said loudly. "Whatever. Who cares what Mr. Rich Rock Guy is up to, anyways."
"Are you seriously calling him that?" the trainer manning the registration desk called over again. "That is so weird. And a little disrespectful, isn't it?"
"Oh, shove off," Amelia said, turning her gaze on him. "Who cares?"
The trainer sputtered, leaning forward. "What? What do you mean 'who cares?'"
"Jeez," Amelia said, rolling her eyes. "No need to be such a hardass. It was a joke. We're probably never gonna hear from this guy again."
For a few seconds the trainer was speechless. "Do you—do you know who that was?"
"Steven?" I offered.
"Do you watch television at all? Do you read the newspaper? Magazines?"
"None of those things," I said.
"Nope, not really," Amelia said, frowning. "Hang on, now that you mention it he did look a little familiar…"
"Of course he looked familiar!" The trainer shouted, slamming his hands on the table. "Did you live under a rock? That was Steven Stone! He's the Champion! The current Hoenn League Champion! How could you not know?"
"Ohhhh," Amelia said, snapping her fingers. "That's what he looks like! I thought he was, like, super old for some reason."
"He's the what," I said.
A/N: If you're here, thanks for sticking with this. Coming up next: Amelia does some amateur detective work, and Riley's battle with Flannery begins.