Zoey felt her phone vibrate in her purse for the upteempth time that evening. Out of a combined respect for her company and for the formality of the event, she had been ignoring the calls entirely. Now, however, her patience had worn thin. Pressing her lips together, she pulled it out her phone and glanced at the caller ID.
"Hey, who keeps calling you?" Barry asked curiously from across the table.
"I don't know," Zoey mumbled. "It's an unknown number from Hearthome." Drew flicked his gaze sharply toward her at this.
"Well, maybe you ought to answer it," he suggested. Zoey gave him an odd look, but he ignored it as he rose to his feet and extended a hand to his fiancée. "May, let's dance."
May appeared delighted and nodded eagerly before rising too. They left, and Zoey exchanged a half-suspicious look with Candice, who shrugged nonchalantly. She was a poor actress though. Her lips soon split into a knowing smile, deepening Zoey's suspicions. She frowned; it annoyed her whenever Drew and Candice acted in collusion with each other, and it annoyed her even more that it happened consistently enough for her to become annoyed by it.
Nevertheless, Zoey stood up, excused herself, and took her phone away from the table.
"Hello," she started. "This is Zoey Williams speaking."
"Zoey Williams." Zoey flicked her eyes up to meet a warm, though focused gaze. "What's your pitch?"
Zoey sat directly across from her editor—Homa was her name—in the haphazard circle of chairs pulled together whenever the trainer news desk met. Zoey was one of a handful of contest reporters.
She tapped her pencil against the notebook on her lap and sucked in her breath.
"I would like to write a follow-up to a Coordinators Weekly story from January 2009," Zoey said. "They published photos suggesting that Barry Pearl and Kyle Tribaldos were dating. Tribaldos denied they were together and said Barry—Pearl—" She quickly corrected herself. "—'forced himself' onto him in the photos."
Homa stared, obviously expecting more. When she realized Zoey had planned nothing further to say, she prompted, "And… ?"
"And I would like to follow up on it," Zoey said with a cogent dip in her voice.
Homa let out a short, incredulous chuckle—almost a scoff.
"Zoey, you and Barry are friends," she said dismissively. "It's a conflict of interest."
"Okay, fine." Zoey remained undeterred. "But I still think it's an important story, and someone at the Hearthome Chronicle should follow up on it."
As Zoey spoke, Homa pressed a pair of fingers to her temple, rubbing it. "Important to whom?" she asked.
"Important to our readership," Zoey insisted. "Barry was about to become a Sinnoh Frontier Brain, and his reputation was tanked by these allegations. He was essentially forced into declining the open spot. This story is local to our region."
Homa dropped her hand.
"No. Next pitch."
Frustrated, and still not quite ready to let go, Zoey continued, "Homa, I want to write something that matters."
"Good," Homa said tersely, "then we're on the same page because, quite frankly, I'm not interested in following up on a garbage tabloid's 'story.'" Zoey's lips tightened. Homa finished, "My answer is no. Next pitch. I know you came with more."
The air was tense. Every other reporter's eyes were on Zoey. But she gave a sigh of resignation and turned a page in her notebook.
"Yeah," she said. "The adoptive daughter of a Sinnoh G-Men agent turned 10 this year and entered the contest circuit; it would make for an interesting feature."
The sky was overcast; it was not raining, but everyone was wondering.
Zoey unconsciously clutched the steering wheel hard—not enough to pale her knuckles, but enough to signal she was mad. At least, it would if anyone was there in the car with her.
Her phone rang, its vibrations racketing in the cup holder in which it sat. Zoey ignored it, letting it go to voicemail. It rang again; Zoey glanced at the screen and saw Candice's name at the top.
The light was red. Zoey unfurled her hand from the wheel—then becoming aware of how tight she had been gripping it—and swiped her thumb across the screen before tapping the speakerphone icon.
"Hi Candice," Zoey said.
"Hey!" Candice replied. "Is this, uh, a bad time?"
"Why would it be?"
"You kinda sound mad."
Zoey pursed her lips. She wondered: Was she really that transparent? It took less than three words for Candice to realize she was upset.
"... I got into it with Homa at the pitch meeting," Zoey confessed. "She flat-out rejected my idea for a follow-up on Barry and Kyle. She said it was a conflict of interest and that she doesn't want to follow up on tabloid rumors."
"Ugh." Zoey could perfectly envision the face Candice was making; it was very particular, the way she scrunched up her nose and twisted her mouth into a pout. "That's dumb. I'm sorry."
"It's not dumb. Homa's right," Zoey sighed. "It is a conflict of interest; I'd be wary too if I were in her position. I just… I've been working there for almost a year now, and I hoped I had gained enough capital for her to at least consider it. I should've known better though. I guess I'm more mad at myself than anyone."
"Don't be," Candice tried to assure her. "You know there's more to the story, and you'd like to see it resolved. There's nothing wrong with that."
Zoey only hummed. It was a vague response, neither showing agreement nor disagreement because Zoey herself was not sure whether she agreed or disagreed.
"... So anyway!" Candice continued with a cough. "What did you end up pitching?"
"Your idea actually. The one about Agent Murray's daughter becoming a coordinator," Zoey said.
"Oh!" Candice exclaimed, unexpectedly delighted she had been able to help. "That'll be interesting."
"Yeah…" Zoey agreed, but her voice faded. "Not that I don't enjoy talking to you Candice, but is there a reason you called?"
"Oh, uh, nothing really," Candice replied, suddenly sounding a twinge flustered. "I just missed you, that's all."
The unexpected sentiment fluttered in Zoey's chest. And yet, it came with a sharp prick of guilt, reminding her of the circumstances that surrounded their complicated relationship.
"I… miss you too," Zoey said. "I'm driving back tomorrow." She turned the corner. Her destination—The Burmy Bean, a small coffee shop—was up ahead. "I have to go."
"Nothing," Zoey said quickly. "I'm just supposed to meet Dawn in a few."
"Oh! That's right. She just came back from Hoenn," Candice said, relieved. "Tell her and Lizzie I said hi."
"I will," Zoey promised.
"Okay! Bye, love you!"
Zoey's lips wriggled into a smile.
"Love you too," she said. She pulled her car into the parking lot and tapped to end the call. The car engine's final hum faded as Zoey turned the ignition key. She paused only to briefly check herself in the rear-view mirror—presentable—before opening the door and sliding out.
Dawn was already inside, seated at a small table in the corner. A baby carrier lay at her feet; Lizzie, however, was in her mother's arms.
"Hey!" Zoey greeted cheerfully when she spotted her friend. Dawn snapped her head up and broke into a wide smile.
"Hey yourself!" Dawn replied, rising to her feet to give Zoey a one-armed embrace in lieu of the child she was holding. Dawn sat down again and Zoey hung her laptop bag on the back of the unoccupied chair.
"I didn't keep you waiting too long, did I?" Zoey asked, spotting that Dawn's drink was already half drained.
"No, no," Dawn insisted. She readjusted Lizzie against her midsection. "I came early."
"Well," Zoey said resolutely, "I'm going to order then. We have a lot to catch up on."
"She looks so much like you," Zoey remarked, observing Dawn as she settled a fussy Lizzie down for a nap in her carrier. The comment gave Dawn pause, and she glanced at Zoey, who took a well-timed sip of her coffee.
"You think so?" Dawn inquired, looking back at Lizzie. "I think she looks like Paul."
"The older she gets, the more she looks like you," Zoey elaborated. "She's got his hair and eye color, but her face looks more like yours than ever."
Dawn's expression swelled with a glowing smile. Neither made further comment about the topic, but it strung a good mood above them.
"So what's new?" Dawn said, changing the topic. "Any big stories coming up?"
Zoey half-debated bringing up how her pitch about Barry was shot down, but decided against it as quickly as she thought it up. She foresaw a near-verbatim repeat of her conversation with Candice, and it would contribute nothing except to make her feel more frustrated and drag Dawn into it too.
"Oh, you know," Zoey said with a wave of her hand. "Same old, same old. I'm not the interesting party here. You are. How was Hoenn?"
"It was… good," Dawn said, suddenly choosing her words carefully. "A lot of big things happened—big conversations, big things in the works…"
Zoey guessed the direction of the conversation.
"So did Leaf have any explanation for her sudden marriage?" Zoey asked.
"Huh?" Dawn blinked, and Zoey quickly realized they were not on the same page like she thought. "Oh! That. No, not really. Er… She just said she and Gary got drunk and decided to get married by a Burgh impersonator at a drive-through chapel. I'm not sure whether she made it up or not, but Gary corroborated."
"I wouldn't be surprised if she and Gary conjured up a story like that together," Zoey mused. She decided to take another shot. "Iris must be getting pretty big, yeah?"
"Mm? Yeah, she's close," Dawn said distantly. "She's due in October."
Another miss. Zoey stared through Dawn, mystified. Dawn fidgeted, evidently a little uncomfortable under her friend's piercing gaze.
"What's with that look?" she asked.
"... Nothing," Zoey said, taking another sip of her coffee. "It's just, this is normally the kind of stuff that you get excited talking about. What's going on? Were there talks of a coup d'état at the Champion summit?"
Her ending remark was meant in jest, but Dawn suddenly tightened her lips, and Zoey was flabbergasted.
"... Wait," Zoey said, deadpanning. "Please tell me no one tried to assassinate Max. We've been through that mess before."
"No, no!" Dawn said quickly. "It's not that."
"Then what's going on?" Zoey pressed. "No one's in danger, are they?"
"No," Dawn denied. "It's…" She stopped and surveyed the area, ensuring no one was close, then leaned confidentially toward Zoey. "This is off the record."
"This isn't an interview, Dawn," Zoey said, furrowing her brow. "... I'm not even supposed to interview friends."
"I know," Dawn said. "I just… I need your word you won't take this to your editor. There are a lot of things still being worked out, and everyone wants to make sure they've got everything perfect."
"I won't say anything," Zoey promised, and Dawn sucked in her breath.
"With Max on board now, they've started the framework for a new government," she said in a low voice, and Zoey's eyes widened. "An election is coming."
A/N: It's here! You can expect forthcoming updates every Wednesday and Saturday. A big thanks to mizaaistom for helping me edit this story, captshirogane for always being there to bounce ideas off of, and kasuria for creating the cover art!