As if by magic, the wooper Alex had chased across the grass vanished. In its place stood a plump pidgey, staring up at Alex with its beady eyes.
Alex choked back a scream.
The pidgey seemed unaware of just how unwelcome it was, and as Alex turned to leave, seething with rage, it hopped after him, chirping.
Every morning, he swore to himself the next pidgey that bothered him would get a swift kick on its tail until the lot of them learned to leave him alone. Every day, he came face to face with the first feathery critter of the day and found he didn't have it in him. And by every evening, the number of pidgeys after him was such he no longer dared to harm one of them for fear of deadly retaliation.
He looked at the pidgey over his shoulder. "I don't have anything to give you. And I definitely won't take you with me. They already mock me enough for having two pidgeys in my team as it is."
The pidgey tilted its head. Whether it had understood or not, Alex couldn't say.
"So that's that." He turned back towards the path. "Let's go, Multi."
Multi, his venonat starter, waddled dutifully after him. The pidgey followed, as well.
"Shoo!" Alex waved his hand dismissively. "You're better off in the wild."
The pidgey chirped again. Alex ignored it.
Some minutes later, he was back on the dusty by-way he had left behind when the wooper popped out of the nearby pond, and finally reached the wooden road sign he had previously spotted. It was ancient and covered in lichen, and all he could make of the sign pointing ahead was "Ro-t- 1-"
He sighed. No doubt he was looking ahead at another night camping beneath the stars, followed by waking up soaked with dew and with the customary morning rattata pecking at his gear. The mere thought made him cringe. If there was any pokémon he found as annoying as pidgeys, it was rattatas, and he was certain the little buggers had been the ones to steal his map, which was why he was stuck in this stupid backwater in the first place.
As he adjusted his backpack, he happened to glance behind him. The pidgey was still following him, this time joined by two of its cohorts.
Alex groaned. "What do you want from me?"
The pidgeys chirped on unison.
Alex shook his head rapidly to the side. Whatever. Okay, even if he was still in the middle of countryside, assuming he could reach whatever route the sign pointed at, eventually he was bound to return to civilisation.
"Onwards, Multi." He kept a sharp eye on the pidgeys as he waited for Multi to gain a bit of a lead: so far, they had left Multi alone, but Alex didn't trust them. That done, he pointedly ignored them as he continued skulking down the path, wiping sweat from his brow. The sun was blazing at its full height now, and he could practically feel himself melting.
He heard more chirping from behind.
Three pidgeys had turned into six.
Alex gazed at them dully, only just resisting the urge to roll his eyes.
When he had first headed onto Route 30, flush with pokéballs and excitement for the adventure ahead, he had happily captured the first pidgey that had hopped over to him. He had also taken the second, though with less enthusiasm than the first, and when the first gang of pidgeys gathered, he thought they were there to avenge their nabbed comrades. Instead, they had simply followed him around, making noise and nudging their heads against his shoes, drawing the eyes of everyone else on the route.
It wasn't normal, that was for sure. The closest to such attention from a single species of pokémon he had ever heard of was a story of a trainer who had accidentally antagonised a colony of diglets by stepping on one of them, and for the next several weeks had found the earth shuddering and collapsing under her feet wherever she went. She had escaped this curse by spending several weeks on the second floor of a sturdy building, after which the diglets had apparently decided she had had enough. But staying cooped up in a building did nothing for Alex's predicament: he had tried staying at a Poké Center for a couple of days with the blessing of a sympathetic nurse, and by the time he stepped outside a hundred pidgey had gathered around the building, making a racket and annoying the people of the town.
Since then, he had sucked it up. The pidgeys were yet to harm him and his, and in fact seemed very fond of him: if he stayed still long enough, they would come and rest their heads against his shins.
Still, enough was enough.
He removed Multi's pokéball from his backpack and summoned him back. He then took a swig from his water bottle and braced himself.
The pidgeys hopped closer.
In a flash, he was gone, dashing down the road, leaving dust and pidgeys in his wake. If he ran far and fast enough, he could leave the pokémon behind and earn himself a brief respite from their constant chittering.
After thirty yards, he turned his head.
They still followed. Most were still hopping on the ground and were now very small in the horizon, but two had taken flight and followed at a respectable pace.
Alex cursed and increased his speed despite already feeling his strength waning. He had never been a long-distance runner. When he raced his friends as a little kid, he had won many sprints, but on any longer run he ran out of steam and had to sullenly watch as everyone ran past him just before the finish line. As then, his lungs soon began to burn, and still the chirping of the pidgeys rang in his ears. When he turned to look, he saw he hadn't ditched a single one: in fact, their numbers had doubled.
He swerved to the left and into the tall grass. Right ahead was a tall wooden fence, behind which lay a grove of trees. The fence was old and rotting in places, and without losing his stride, Alex made a beeline to where the top rail had collapsed and jumped across. He barely made it and stumbled the landing, but quickly bounced back and run to the shelter of the trees. There he paused, awed by what he saw.
What he had assumed to be a forest was a berry orchard. The trees ranged from young and sprightly to old and knotty, but all but the youngest saplings were burgeoning with berries. Everywhere he looked, his eyes met with endless blue, pink, yellow, purple, all the colours of the rainbow.
As he waded deeper into the tufty grass and small white flower growing between the trees, he noticed a large building beyond the trees. It was simple, but home-like, with a bright red roof and a flower-filled porch decked with wicker furniture.
Alex was just thinking how cool the shadow on the porch looked, and how nice it'd be to stretch his legs on one of the cushioned chairs when he heard one of the infernal pidgeys behind him. Spinning around, he saw most of the bastards had followed him to the orchard, milling about in the tall grass, several staring up at the berries with obvious hunger.
"Oh, geez." He hastened ahead, only to stop in his tracks as the door to the porch opened.
The woman who emerged from the house had her hair on a loose ponytail and wore a short apron with a pokéball belt attached to it. Alex had never been good at gauging the age of adults, but he assumed she was around his mother's age. More importantly, her lip was curled up into a sneer, like she had just seen her archnemesis.
She thundered towards the orchard, scowling at Alex. "Get those damn birds out of here!"
Alex was taken aback. "What?"
She waved at the oblivious pidgeys. "Those, of course! If you think messing with the harvest is a funny prank, think again!"
Alex glared back. "I didn't bring them here on purpose!"
"Well, get rid of them!"
"I can't! They won't leave me alone!"
The woman's expression softened slightly. She must have seen from his face he was speaking the truth. "Fine. Get over here. I'll deal with them."
Alex shuffled over. The woman drew a pokéball from her belt and called her pokémon forward. A lean, smooth-furred persian leapt onto the grass and languidly stretched itself. Then, spotting the pidgeys, it pounced forward. The pidgeys scattered in a dozen different directions. Pleased with itself, the persian lay down between the trees and began licking its paw.
"Thanks, Geraldine." The woman turned towards Alex. Now that her harvest was safe, her sour expression faded. "You look as red as an overripe cheri berry. Are you okay?"
"I'm fine," Alex said, still surly.
"Don't you have any cooler clothes with you? Or at least something that's not black? At this rate you'll get a heat stroke."
Alex grabbed the sleeve of his sweater defensively. "I said I'm fine."
The woman raised her hands in the air. "Okay, fair enough. Anyway, I just opened a bottle of cold home-made oran juice if you or your pokémon need a break. I assume the pidgeys don't follow you inside?"
Alex felt his resolve waver. Getting away from the sun even for a moment would be like a trip to heaven. "They don't."
"Alright then. Geraldine!"
The persian rose slowly to its feet and loped towards them while giving the air that it had decided to come over all on its own, with no heed to the command.
The woman smiled. "Pick a seat on the porch. I'll be back in a second."
Alex didn't need to be told twice. With a satisfied groan, he threw off his backpack and slumped on the nearest chair. Geraldine took the opportunity to sniff his sneakers, then padded to the table and curled up to sleep under it.
Looking at the dozing pokémon, Alex remembered his own. He recovered Multi's pokéball from his pack and summoned him. "Gonna get some water, Multi."
Just as Multi's antennae shot up in expectation, the woman returned, carrying a pitcher full of blue juice in one hand, and a plate with triangle sandwiches and two glasses on the other. She put them down with practised ease. "Help yourself." She spotted Multi sitting by Alex's feet. "Who's this sweetheart?"
"Multi, my starter."
The woman crouched down and smiled. "Just a second, I think I have something for you, too."
She vanished inside and returned with a bowl of water and another brimming with pokéblocks. Multi shrieked with delight and dug in as soon as he could reach the bowl.
"Now then," the woman sat down on the other chair and helped herself to a sandwich. "Who are you, and how did you end up here? We're far from the nearest gym."
"I'm Alex." Carefully, Alex picked up the heavy pitcher and poured himself a tall glass of juice. "I was trying to find a shortcut to Celadon City, but I lost my map."
The woman's eyes widened. "You are lost. The nearest city is Fuchsia."
"Oh." Alex looked away and took a sip of the juice. It was tasty enough.
The woman saw him pause. "Last year's vintage, I'm afraid. Had you come two weeks later I could've offered the first of this year's bounty."
"It's good." Alex reached for a sandwich, then hesitated. "Um...who are you?"
The woman polished the last of her sandwich before answering. "My name's Sarah. As you probably guessed, I'm the owner of this ranch." She gave him an apologetic smile. "Sorry if I scared you earlier. The harvest is just upon us, and we have trouble with pidgeys every year."
Alex nodded and bit into his sandwich. He couldn't identify the filling, but it was savoury enough and he was hungry enough to eat cardboard if need be. He swallowed, then hesitated. "Wait, you harvest all those berries by yourself?"
Sarah smiled. "My neighbours and their pokémon help me out in exchange for some of the produce. As good as Geraldine is at chasing pidgeys, she can't really help with picking the berries." Geraldine chose that exact moment to let out a mighty yawn.
"Right." Alex continued chewing, but he could no longer taste anything.
"What's the matter? I can get something else for you if you don't like that."
Alex shook his head. "It's not that. It's just..." He stopped. It was stupid, anyway.
Sarah looked at him for a while, then shrugged. "Okay. Don't hesitate to speak up if you change your mind." She turned to smile at Multi, who was making excellent work of his chow. "He's a sweetheart, isn't he? The lynchpin of your team?"
"Yeah." The knot in Alex's stomach tightened.
"How's your team coming along other otherwise?"
"...It isn't." Despite his misgivings, Alex felt all of his accumulated disappointed bubbling upwards to his throat.
"Ah. I'm sorry, I shouldn't have pried."
"I've got a pidgey," Alex said quietly. To hell with it. He might as well get it off his chest. "And another pidgey. And absolutely nothing else."
Sarah frowned, but didn't ask any questions. Alex continued. "I've tried to catch other pokémon, of course. Last week I spent an entire day from breakfast till sun-fall running in tall grass waiting to run into them. They all flee from me. It's only the pidgeys that give me the time of day, and when they flock to me you'd better believe none of the others come anywhere near."
Alex shook his head. "I don't know what's wrong with me. All the pokémon except pidgeys hate my guts."
"Now, you know that's not true. Your starter obviously enjoys your company, and Geraldine likes you well enough."
Alex looked at his feet. Multi was done with his meal and now sat by Alex's foot, trilling softly. Geraldine, meanwhile, had dozed off within arm's reach of him.
Alex shook his head. "Tame pokémon are different. It's the wild ones that avoid me."
He had expected talking about it make him feel a little better, and while he appreciated the sympathetic grunts from Sarah, they also made him remember all those times wild pokémon had recoiled from him. The caterpie that had screamed and rapidly crawled away. The pikachu that had taken one look at him before pouncing off. The magikarp that had somehow struggled itself free and escaped back into the water.
Everywhere he went, it was nothing but disappointment and overeager pidgeys.
He explained all of this to Sarah, who listened attentively. "Has it always been like this?"
Alex shrugged. "I guess. There were always pidgey in our backyard, but my parents' pokémon liked me just fine, so I didn't figure out what was going on until I tried catching my own."
Sarah realised she had a half-eaten sandwich in her hand and took another bite. Some moments later, she spoke. "Well, I don't know why that's the case, but the solution is obvious. If you can only get along with tame pokémon, you will have to trade."
Alex chuckled and lowered his gaze. "I tried that, but who wants to trade for pidgey? I mean, would you?"
Sarah stroked her chin. "Hmm..."
Alex heart sank. "You wouldn't. Not really. It'd just be pity. That's even worse than nothing."
Sarah raised her hands into the air. "Okay, I won't argue about that today. Buying pokémon, then?"
"I'm broke. I can only win against little kids with bugs, and that's almost like stealing their pocket money. Either way, I can't make enough to actually buy something."
"I assume your stance on donated pokémon is the same as for ones traded for pidgeys?"
Alex said nothing.
Sarah paused to polish off the rest of her sandwich and to draw herself a glass of juice. She leaned back with the glass in hand. "In that case, I have a suggestion."
"As I mentioned, the harvest season is upon us. In fact, I was about to start tomorrow." She took a sip of the juice. "The local pidgeys pester us through the entire season, and though Geraldine is good at keeping them at bay, she is getting old and struggles to patrol the entire orchard. Therefore, assuming you don't mind staying here for a few days, I would like to hire you to lure the pidgeys away."
Alex blinked. "Huh?"
"You know, walk around the orchard till they're all following you, then walk to the meadows and stay there till we're done for the day. Like that fairytale of a piper who lured all the rattata away from town." She took another sip. "I've some of my nieces' books and comics here in case you get sick of walking around, and food and board are included. As for the actual payment, after the harvest is done, I will trade with you. It won't be pity, but something you earned through important work." She smiled. "What do you say?"
Alex was stunned. Admittedly, he had wanted to leave the countryside behind him as soon as his legs let him, but this offer was too good to put to waste. So little work for a legitimate pokémon?
He felt no hesitation meeting Sarah's eyes and nodding. "I accept."
Alex woke up, warm and cosy for the first time in days, uncertain where he was and comfortable enough to not care much. It wasn't until several minutes of basking in the morning sun through a chink in the curtains that he opened his eyes and found himself in the guest bed in the loft of Sarah's house. He heard the clink of dishes and a soft humming from downstairs.
Stretching himself, he got up and dressed. He felt a sense of trepidation as he pulled his sweater back on: it really was far too warm for the summer, and paired with the thick gloves he wore with it he often felt he was stuck in an oven.
Still, he wore them for a reason. And since he was alone...
"Pst, Multi." The venonat had been dozing off in a large basket Sarah had prepared for him. "It's morning."
Multi's antennae twitched, and after a moment it opened its eyes.
Alex smiled and patted his lap. "Come here."
Multi clambered onto his feet and climbed to Alex's bed.
Alex hugged it tight. Multi, like all venonat, was extremely poisonous, and his mother had warned him never to let his fur come in contact with bare skin. Thus, the only way he could safely hug him was to wear enough clothes to keep him warm during a mountain expedition.
Multi chirped, and Alex let go, straightening his clothes before heading downstairs.
Sarah looked away from the dishes to smile at him, Geraldine the persian curled around her legs. "Morning, kiddo. Breakfast's at the table."
As Multi spotted his own breakfast waiting near the sink and left Alex's side to chow down, Alex sat by the table. He pulled a face as he saw what waited in the pot. "Oatmeal?"
"It's good for you, and keeps you going till the afternoon. Slap some jam on it if you don't care for the taste otherwise." She pointed at a large pot of pecha jam next to the pot.
After emptying his plate, which in the end had contained more jam than oatmeal, Alex went back up to get his cap and backpack. Sarah waited him with a tightly wrapped parcel and a Thermos.
"Your lunch," she said, handing them over. "We quit around six o'clock, and I'll get started on supper after that."
Alex stowed the parcel away. "Thanks."
Sarah's helpers had already gathered at the porch, chattering happily amongst themselves like old friends. The man in a chequered shirt had an ampharos bopping next to him, and the woman with a sun hat stood next to the biggest donphan he had ever seen.
Alex stared at them, unable to subdue his jealousy. All these people had such cool pokémon, and they weren't even proper trainers. And here he was, wannabe champion, with nothing but his starter and two pidgeys to his name.
Sarah emerged from the house, carrying two massive baskets which Alex assumed were for berries stowed under her arms. Geraldine walked around her feet, managing to keep pace without ever being where Sarah stepped next. "All set then? If you don't mind, Alex, it's time for you to work your magic."
All eyes turned to Alex. He gulped and took a resolute step towards the trees, feeling more foolish by the minute. What if his curse was such that when he actually wished for pidgeys to gather around him, they would all magically fail to appear?
Still, he kept walking. Once he had the fence and the missing rail in his sight, he raised his head upwards. "Pidgeys!"
His ears burned, and he fervently wished none of the curious on-lookers had actually been within hearing distance. Despite these misgivings, as he saw neither beak nor feather of a single pidgey, he was just about to call again when something fluttered to his side.
Alex looked down, and for the first time in months was glad to see a pidgey, pecking indistinctly at the grass by his foot.
The on-lookers murmured appreciatively, with one surly voice loudly mumbling: "Could just be a coincidence, that." This voice of dissidence was soon silenced, however, as several more pidgeys joined the first, and moment later even more followed.
Alex's confidence soared. "Come, pidgeys!" he cried again, with none of the awkwardness of his initial call.
More and more pidgeys appeared, until Alex completely lost track of their number. They surrounded him at all sides, preening themselves and one another, and chirping in a rising cacophony.
Alex turned to see Sarah waving at him, the baskets left on the ground and her other hand curled around her mouth like a megaphone.
Alex raised his hand to his ear. "What?" The noise the pidgeys made had reached such heights he could barely hear his own voice.
Sarah let her arms drop and took a step forward, visibly breathed in, then bellowed. "GO NOW!" Her neighbours winced and clamped their hands on their ears.
Alex nodded and carefully, watching not to step on any pidgeys, waded through the feathery crowd and towards the fence. He turned to see Sarah give him a thumbs up and hopped over, followed by a wave of pidgeys.
Half an hour later, he stepped onto another footpath, this one leading to a wide, untamed meadow. The pidgeys had done the sensible thing and dispersed from before him, instead following him as a loud and still growing flock.
To his great surprise, Alex was enjoying himself. The weather was mild, and the small footpaths across the rolling hills were more fun to walk on than the major routes, and with such numbers on his side, he felt like a general marching an army to battle.
He spotted a single, massive tree above a hilltop, and made a beeline for it. Though he wouldn't have minded walking further, too far and he'd be lost: the acres of of farmland and uncultivated land between them all looked the same to him, and without a map or road signs he would never make it back if he didn't watch out.
Upon reaching the tree, he discarded his backpack with a sigh of relief and leaned against the gnarled trunk. The pidgeys once more flocked around him and, and as it became clear he wasn't about to budge any time soon, spread into a looser group across the meadow. Only a dozen or so stayed next to him; one settled down right by his elbow and closed its eyes.
Reaching over it, Alex opened his backpack. First, he released Multi from his pokéball and placed him on his other side before handing him a treat. This drew the attention of the pidgeys, which Alex ignored as he continued rummaging for the parcel Sarah had given him. The pidgeys better respect his starter's right to eat in peace, or hell had no fury.
Fortunately they seemed to sense the atmosphere, and continued to kick at the ground and hop around instead of bothering Multi. Alex had good time to retrieve not only the parcel, which he set down on the ground as it wasn't even noon yet, but the Thermos and the comic book he had packed with him in the morning. He opened the comic and settled down to read it. Oddish and Co. wasn't his favourite, but he hadn't read this particular installment, and it would pass the time nicely.
The pidgeys moved onto an even larger area as the sun rose to its absolute height, no doubt searching for food. A couple of them, Alex suspected, had left the group altogether and headed to Sarah's orchard. If so, they were Geraldine's problem: Alex couldn't exactly march back for a few strays, not when he was joined by over fifty of the feathery things.
Alex opened his own lunch. The packet contained a bundle of pokéblocks, which he handed over to the eagerly squeaking Multi, a granola bar, three sandwiches, two savoury with leafy greens and one slathered with honey, and a handful of what looked like home-made bon-bons. Though he generally considered eating granola similar to eating dirt, he removed his gloves and started on it. It was soft and sticky, but sweeter than he had expected. He settled for chowing it down, watching the slowly drifting clouds as he ate.
The sandwiches, in turn, weren't much to write home about, at least until he bit into the one with honey. Immediately, he was overwhelmed by rich sweetness the like of which he had never experienced before. He tried to eat slowly, but couldn't help himself and made short work of the sandwich, licking his fingers clean while he was at it. With lingering regret, he pulled his gloves back.
Almost immediately, Multi nudged its head against Alex's arm. Alex frowned until he saw what he was nudging at, the remnants of the parcel that he had discarded on the ground.
"Oh, I forgot! Thanks!" Eagerly, Alex unwrapped the first of the sweets, then, after a moment's hesitation, unwrapped another and held it on his gloved paw for Multi. The guidebook had said human food was generally fine as long as it wasn't a pokémon's daily diet, and if these were hand-made by Sarah, they were likely made of berries anyway.
Savouring the moment despite his earlier haste, Alex eyed the colourful, glazed, almost perfectly smooth surface of the sweet before popping it into his mouth. The explosion of honey, joined this time by the sweet flavours of pecha and mago berries, swept him away.
Alex dozed off soon after, still leaning against the tree, sunlight tickling his feet, the sound of pidgeys gently milling about as his lullaby. He woke up to an impending sunset, with Multi fast asleep by his side.
Gently, he shook Multi awake and summoned him into his pokéball. He always got grumpy if he was recalled while asleep, and would refuse to obey Alex for hours the next time he got out.
It was surely past the time he was supposed to return. With a whistle and a clap of his hands, he called the pidgeys back to him. By his estimate, nearly all of them had remained, but Alex's mind was already on further trouble. All directions looked unfamiliar, and after his nap, he could no longer remember where he had come from.
With a sinking feeling, he descended down the hill, clumsily shuffling his backpack back on. He was hungry again, and he didn't relish the thought of wandering the countryside all evening with a growling stomach.
He reached the footpath the base of the hill, stared, and began to laugh.
The footsteps left behind by dozens of pidgey feet dotted the road in the direction from which he had come.
Sarah's neighbours were once again sitting together on the porch, illuminated by several lanterns. If it hadn't been for the bulging berry baskets by their sides, Alex would have assumed they hadn't moved at all the whole time he had been gone.
They smiled at him once he emerged from the shade of the trees, one even deigning to wave at him. The arm dropped as soon as the gaggle of pigeons appeared after him.
Sarah, who was leaning against the porch, wiping sweat off her brow, continued smiling, then straightened her back and snapped her fingers together. "Geraldine."
At once, Geraldine was before him, lunging towards the pidgeys, all sharp claws and predatory intent. The pidgeys vanished like smoke, leaving behind nothing but upturned dust and a few errant feathers. Empty-pawed, Geraldine yawned and began licking herself.
"Nice work. Come try out this year's harvest." Sarah was gesturing at Alex to come join the others, and he went.
Only once he had a plate of flatbread and grilled berries placed in front of him did he realise how hungry he truly was. He scarfed down the food too fast to pay attention too much to the temperature (warm enough) and taste (delicious), only vaguely listening to Sarah and her neighbours chattering until their discussion turned to him.
"You're the real deal, kid," the droopy-eyed woman on the opposite side of table said to her while spreading honey on her flatbread. She had been the one to wave at him before. "I've never seen something like that for myself."
"Maybe you were a pidgey in your past life," the brawny man sitting next to Sarah said.
"More like the king of pidgeys," the woman next to Alex said, chuckling.
Alex stared at his plate, his appetite waning. He barely tasted the dessert (sweet berry salad), and wasn't the least bit sorry to see the neighbours leaving as the sun set.
Sarah yawned, sleepily scratching Geraldine behind the ear. "Dunno about you, but I'm bushwhacked."
Alex said nothing. He had summoned Multi so he could have his supper, too, and looked on as he chowed down without a care in the world.
"Why do you think the pidgeys follow me?" he asked without looking at Sarah. "Do you think I really am cursed?"
"Hmm." Sarah leaned back, staring at the deep blue sky. "I can't deny it's weird, but whether it's a curse, I couldn't say." She winked. "Maybe Heather was right and you really were the king of pidgeys in your previous life."
"Yeah..." He curled his knees against his chest. He imagined himself as a pidgey, the biggest one of them all, with a gold circlet around his brow. The thought didn't make him feel much better. "I wouldn't mind so much if all the other pokémon didn't hate me."
"It's not all bad, you know. It means any pokémon you do connect with will have a stronger bond with you than with any other trainer."
Alex frowned. "You think so?"
"I know so." Sarah's frown was gone now. Her eyes were still fixed on the empty sky, like she was seeing something she was fond of there. "Trust me."
Alex wasn't fully sure he did, but he found himself nodding.
Sarah granted him a quick smile before turning her gaze back and pointing upwards. "Look! The first star of the night."
Alex stared up at the single shining dot on the uniform blue canvas, and made it a wish that Sarah was right.
The week continued much as it had begun. Every morning, after begrudgingly finishing his bowl of oatmeal, Alex took the pidgeys to the countryside. With time, the hills and valleys no longer blurred together, and he trekked across the lands with a confident stride. He discovered a copse of silver-leafed trees surrounding a gentle stream, and a meadow full of nothing but bright blue flowers. He had climbed the highest tree he had found, only to find a curious pidgey perched on top of it, congratulating him with a happy chirp. Every evening, he came back famished and watched the stars light up the night sky.
The final day of the harvest, Alex took the pidgeys to a nearby lake. He removed his socks and sneakers and waded into the sandy beach and the warm water, watching the sleepy magikarp hiding among the reeds.
None of the pidgeys joined. Instead, they bathed themselves in the sand, rolling around everywhere. Multi tried to follow suit, but unlike the pidgeys, he couldn't get rid of all the sand from his fur no matter how vigorously he shook himself. His antennae drooped in despair.
"Oh, come here." Alex stepped back onto the beach to put his gloves back on them, then lead Multi to the water. After a quick dip, Multi was able to shake the offending substance from his fur.
Alex laughed, but it wasn't long till his darker thoughts re-emerged. The week had been wonderful, if quieter than he usually liked, but the fact was he had taken no steps forward towards becoming the champion. Sure, Sarah had promised him a traded pokémon as a reward, but there was no guarantee it would obey him, or even that it wouldn't run away as soon as it could.
With a sigh, while still keeping his feet in the water, he reached for his backpack and unleashed his two pidgeys, Hermes and Iris. They quickly joined the crew of wild pidgeys, making acquaintances by lightly nuzzling against each other's neck feathers.
Alex turned away and waded deeper until the water came up to his shorts. After so much time casually spent casually hanging around pidgeys, he had finally gotten completely used to their presence. He still didn't like them much, but as he glanced at Hermes and Iris bouncing around with the wild pidgeys, he felt none of the irritation he would have a week before.
With a jolt, he realised he was going to have to trade one of them away.
He hadn't really considered the implications when Sarah had made her offer, and even if he had, he would've been happy to give both away for a single other pokémon. But now, looking at them chirping at one another as they continued deeper into the throng of pidgeys together, his heart ached. Still, sacrifices had to be made.
Likewise, there had to be some way he could put an end to pidgeys chasing after him. Some Poké Center nurse must have seen something similar in the past. And if that didn't pan out, Lavender Town was pretty close to his itinerary, and there he could get checked if he was possessed by the ghost of the supposed pidgey king.
He stayed in the water until the setting sun dyed it the shade of magikarps.
He had been lost in thought long enough to miss dinnertime: only Geraldine and one of Sarah's neighbours, who Alex believed was Heather, waited for him.
"Nice work, kid," said Heather after Geraldine chased the pidgeys away and Alex clambered onto the porch. She had a lined face, but clear eyes and dimples. "We really owe you one."
"Thanks," Alex struggled to keep his smile for more than an instant. "I mean, I am getting paid."
"Yeah, Sarah mentioned that." Heather's eyes briefly glanced towards the house, from where Alex could hear the clink of dishes. "I assumed as much. Can't let a future champion work without pay, now can you?"
Alex averted his eyes and said nothing.
"No need to be bashful. You're a good kid and obviously care for your pokémon. You'll go far."
"I'm not so sure," said Alex. In retrospect, he probably should've kept his mouth shut, accepted the false reassurances and ducked inside to be in peace. Telling Sarah his concerns was one thing, but broadcasting his ineptitude as a trainer to the entire region wasn't his idea of fun.
Some of his misgivings must have been obvious from his tone, as Heather tilted her head and spoke more softly. "You know, if you have any concerns, you should take the opportunity to ask Sarah for tips. You know, wisdom from a former champion to a future one."
Alex's world froze. "What?"
"She was the Johto league champion when she was about your age. Didn't she tell you?"
"Oh." Heather fell silent for a moment. "Well, you should ask her about it. I get the feeling it could help you."
She got up while Alex was still reeling, and with a one last pet to Geraldine, walked off the porch and towards the main gate.
"Good luck," she said with a wave before vanishing into the night.
Geraldine, having lost Heather's attention, walked to Alex and flopped down next to him. Alex scratched her absent-mindedly, his mind on fire.
He kept at it till Sarah came over, wiping her hands on her apron. "Something the matter? I kept some food warm for you."
"You never told me you were a champion."
"I never thought it was a big deal."
Alex gave her flabbergasted look.
Sarah chuckled. "Okay, I guess it was a big deal to me when I was your age." She appeared to consider something for a moment. "Come with me."
Alex and Geraldine followed her into the living room. A small bookshelf, crammed full of books with colourful spines leaned against the wall. As Alex read the titles, Sarah found what she was looking for and pulled out an album with drab brown covers and small pokéball emblem on the front, the exact same design as the one on the front of Alex's shirt.
"Here we go then." Sarah sat down on the old couch and began searching through the album. Alex sat down next to her, while Geraldine curled around both their feet and fell asleep.
Finally, Sarah stopped and held the album towards Alex. The open page showed a girl wearing a massive straw hat, with a blue ribbon around the brim, standing in front of a large pool. The shot wasn't great: the girl's eyes were unfocused and her smile seemed forced, but her pose was confident and her hand was proudly resting on top of a bright-eyed persian. The rest of her team stood around her: by her side stood an ampharos, the exact same height as her, tilting its head as it quizzically inspected the camera aimed at it. And surrounding them all, with its head looming behind the other three and the bulk of its body hidden beneath the water, a fearsome gyarados mugged the camera.
"This is me and my team the day after I won the championship."
Alex turned to look at Sarah, then did a double-take and returned to the picture. The little girl that was Sarah kept smiling at him with her unfocused eyes, but that no longer drew his attention.
"Yes. I've only ever had three pokémon." Sarah leaned backwards with a sigh and crossed her hands. "You see, when I was your age, I had the worst time trying to bond with pokémon. No matter what I did, I could never gain their trust. The only exception was Geraldine," she paused to stroke Geraldine's head, "since she had been living with my parents before I was ever born, and had time to get used to me. All the rest, though, avoided me like the plague. Most other trainers didn't want to battle me because my presence troubled their pokémon, and when I did get a battle, poor Geraldine had to manage all by herself."
Alex had no words. So there really were other cursed people, too.
Sarah continued. "We kept going, all the same. One day, I found a magikarp that had jumped out of the stream and was struggling against the rocks, helpless. It was too weak to make it out alone or even to shy away from me, so I helped it back into the water. I thought no more of it till we set up camp by the river that night, and saw the magikarp was following us, staring at our tent and directly at me."
She chuckled. "It kept at it for the entire duration of the river, and finally I asked it if it wanted to come with us. And wouldn't you know it, it leapt into my hands. It might have been a coincidence, and a magikarp wouldn't exactly bolster my team, but it seemed fated. And that's how I got Christabel."
Alex stared at the massive gyarados in the picture he now knew to be Christabel. "And the ampharos?"
"A bit of an embarrassing story, that. Leoline saved us, actually. It was much later, and we were wandering in the woods after leaving Mahogany Town. It was already dark, and we were very tired, and before I knew it, we had gotten lost. It got even darker when the slight rain turned into a downpour, and I decided to turn back and find some shelter for a night when a bolt of thunder struck the ground just before my feet. A mareep stood between me and the path back, ready to strike again. I figured it was for the best to leave it alone, and hid in a nearby cave for the night."
"In the morning, I found the mareep curled up asleep next to me, and discovered why it had suddenly attacked: I had become disoriented in the darkness, and lost my sense of direction. I had been about to walk straight into a lake. We waited together for the rain to abate, and once it did, he followed me."
"So, my party grew to three. All the other pokémon still shied away from me, and sometimes trainers mocked me for my incompetence. But I no longer cared. I had already found my true companions, even if their number was smaller than usual. So we persisted. And so we won."
"It caused a bit of a stir at the time. Though everyone acknowledged that my pokémon were powerful, nearly all champions had full teams. I ended up giving more interviews than I care to remember, and listening to an awful many people complaining how focusing on just three pokémon instead of creating balanced team was practically cheating." She shook her head. "I learned then what I really wanted was rather a peaceful life with my pokémon without duels. And when a challenger defeated me and claimed the title, I was more than happy to step down and begin work to accomplish my true dream. Which you can see if you look out of the window."
She turned towards Alex, who was staring at his feet. "Truth be told, most pokémon still prefer to avoid me. We never could figure out the reason why."
Alex took a while to respond. A bitterness like he had accidentally bitten into a petaya berry seeped through him.
"At least the pokémon who like you are the useful sort," he finally mumbled.
"There's no such thing as a useless pokémon."
Alex didn't respond. He reached over the couch to see where he had ditched his backpack, and fished out his pokéball. Within seconds, Hermes and Iris were standing on the floor, looking curiously around.
"Oh, geez." Hurriedly, Sarah called Geraldine back. "You could have warned me. Still," she smiled at the pair of pidgeys, Hermes who was now busy arranging his feathers with his beak, and Iris who had taken a keen interest on the rug under the coffee table, "it's nice to meet these two."
Alex stared glumly at the pidgeys. They really were almost sweet now that they were calm and there were only two of them.
"Pidgeots are nothing to mess with, you know," said Sarah.
"I know." Just one pidgeot at the end of the day.
Sarah looked at him in silence for a while as Hermes fluttered onto the coffee table and fell asleep on it, soon followed by Iris. "You can go far with just these two and Multi, you know. How far depends on you."
Alex glared at the table. He had heard platitudes like this before. How was it all supposed to be up to him when the entire world was out to get him?
Still...Sarah had been the champion with just three pokémon...
"It'll be difficult," he finally said.
Sarah nodded. "I won't lie, it will be really difficult." She smiled at him. "You're a determined kid, though. You'll make it, I know it."
She got up and dusted herself, leaving the album on the coffee table next to the pidgeys. "Okay, let's find these two a basket to sleep in and turn in ourselves, shall we? Tomorrow's another long day."
Without further ado, she reached out for Hermes and gently cradled him in her arms as she left the living room. Alex followed suit with Iris. Well, that settled which pidgey he'd trade away.
Despite his ragged bones, he lay awake for several hours after turning off the lights.
Sarah surprised him with pancakes the following morning. They were delicious, especially with jam, but Alex found himself merely picking at the plate, only managing to swallow after seeing the disappointment in Sarah's eyes. He packed listlessly. Even hugging Multi didn't help.
He descended the stairs for the last time, eyeing every corner of the cosy house to press them in his memory. Sarah waited for him with her arms behind her back and two parcels, one small and one larger, on the table.
"Thank you once again for helping me out," she said, never moving her arms. She nudged at the table with her head. "The green one's your lunch for today, with some freshly made sweets for dessert. The blue one has some of my berry juice. The old stock, but hopefully it's good enough. Beneath them, you'll find something else that might come in handy."
As Alex lifted the parcels to put them in his backpack, he smiled despite himself: under them waited a brand-new map and a compass.
"Thanks." As he packed them away, he saw Hermes' pokéball where he had placed it for quick access. Slowly, he reached for it, feeling a lurch in his stomach.
"And finally...never mind that now. Come here."
Frowning, Alex ditched the backpack and turned back towards Sarah. How were they supposed to trade without him having the pokémon at hand?
Sarah was smiling guiltily. "I lied earlier. I cannot trade with you."
Alex blinked. "What?"
"Like I told you before, I only have three pokémon. All of them are precious to me, and although I know your pokémon are more than worthy of a trade, I cannot part with mine." Before Alex could protest, spurred on by a cacophony of strong emotions, Sarah took her hands from behind her back, revealing a large, sky-blue egg.
Alex stared at the egg, stunned. The surface gleamed like a jewel in the morning sun.
"I got this as a gift from a ranger who visited here last spring," Sarah continued when Alex remained speechless. "I don't know what's in it, exactly, but I can assure you it's not a pidgey."
Alex still said nothing, but mechanically raised his hands to accept the egg as Sarah held it towards him. It was smooth and cool, and surprisingly heavy. He stared at it wordlessly.
"Uh...Sorry if this is a let-down." Sarah scratched the back of her neck. "I know this isn't what we agreed on, but I thought it'd be a nice surprise."
Gingerly, Alex placed the egg on the table, making sure it wouldn't roll away. Then, he stepped forward and gave Sarah a hug.
"Oh." Sarah hesitated, then placed her hand gently on Alex's head, briefly ruffling his hair.
Fifteen minutes later, Alex stepped down into the orchard for the last time. He walked carefully, holding the incubator Sarah had provided for him tightly against his chest. Multi waddled by his side, eyeing the egg with curiosity.
Sarah stayed on the porch with Geraldine. She smiled and waved as Alex kept walking.
Alex waved back, then walked towards sunlight.
The bright, cold sun of early March began to set. Sarah threw the last of the damaged branches into the pile below before climbing down, carefully balancing the pruning saw.
The sky had become a velvety blue by the time she was done hauling the cut branches away and got back inside. With a sigh of relief and savouring the pleasant ache that followed a good day of work, she changed to a warm sweater and boiled some water. Geraldine, who had stayed dozing inside as she worked, raised her chin from the carpet and yawned, twitching her ears at Sarah in acknowledgement.
Sarah placed the dried leaves and berry fragments into the strainer, then poured the now steaming water through them. She had earned a nice evening off, and nothing said nice like some home-made berry infusion, leftover pie Heather had brought over the day before, and the final two hundred pages of The Great Rattata Theft.
Before getting started on the book, however, she turned on the radio. It was almost time for the weather forecast, and the spring had advanced to where she might be able to apply dormant oil to the trees without having to worry about freezing temperatures very soon.
She caught the tail-end of the news broadcast. She sat down, sipping the now ready infusion. Geraldine pawed over for some scratches behind the ear.
"—Finally, the Kanto Pokémon league has a new champion today! And he has already caused quite a stir by the constant presence of of his, heh, cheerleaders."
"Indeed he has, Tim. We'll air a full interview with him tomorrow, but for now we're heading straight to the Indigo Plateau. Over to you, Marian."
There was a small pause as the station switched to Marian's side. Sarah had almost forgotten the infusion, and drank of it now.
"Thank you, Kevin," Marian's smooth voice filled the kitchen. "It has been a hectic day here on the Indigo Plateau. The battle between the former and new champion was naturally spectacular, but above all the new champion has caught the limelight due to his fellowship. Even now, they have convened around the building, waiting for the triumphant boy to return from the hall of fame."
Even without straining her ears, Sarah could make out the chirping of a massive flock of pidgeys in the background.
With Geraldine following languidly, she left the table and walked to where her slightly dusty television waited. Sitting down, she began flipping through the channels until she found what she was looking for, live footage from the Indigo Plateau.
As she watched, the champion walked out. A short boy, though he had grown a bit since Sarah had last seen him, wearing a baseball cap and a thick black sweater with decorated sleeves.
Sarah grinned. At least in the current season Alex's outfit made some sense.
As she watched, Alex blinked in surprise at the cameras, attempting to smile and look intimidating, and failing at both. As time went on, however, and the first of the reporters approached to speak, his shoulders slowly relaxed, and the cameras followed him to where commemorative pictures of the champion's team were taken.
The spot wasn't too different to where Sarah had had her picture taken, over two decades before. Both had a backdrop of water, anyway.
One by one, Alex summoned his pokémon.
Sarah smiled as the full team came to view. Multi, now a large venomoth, flapped with next to Alex. The egg had apparently contained a horsea, as he released the next pokémon into the water, and a mighty kingdra reared from the pool.
Several wild pidgeys appeared in the edges of the frames, chirping and milling about as pidgeys were wont to do.
With a thin smile, Alex released the final four pokémon. In a moment, he was surrounded by four enormous pidgeots, their bright manes shining under the lights of plateau.
More pidgeys appeared, some hopping close enough to be potentially mistaken for members of the team. Alex spotted one, and finally, his smile turned into a genuine one. He raised his head, and beamed at the camera.
Sarah smiled back, and raised her mug at the screen as if for a toast. "Here's to you, pidgey king."
A/N: special thanks to the wonderful thechinskyguy