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  1. #26
    I'm enjoying it, love the Feebas-Marril-Alex scene. :D
    Jolteon Flareon Vaporeon
    Espeon Umbreon
    Glaceon Leafeon
    Eevee

  2. #27
    (So yeah, it's been about two weeks since the last chapter. That's what getting behind on your Nanowrimo while simultaneously attempting to write long reports will do to you. Anyway, I'm keeping the second gym leaders as references to that old fanfic from the original Gym, Hitmonchan's Diary, although I was too lazy to try and find that fanfic just to read what the characters looked like, so I made that part up myself. Long-time TCG players should notice that their Pokémon are based on the Base Set Pokémon of yore. Other cameos that were present in the original SS are planned to be removed. Finally, I should probably make it explicit that, this being a setting where legendaries are, well, legendary, even higher-end gym leaders and League participants use Pokémon that would be considered laughable in online battle, yet in reality are, given the "meta," very powerful when trained well. Hence an unevolved Electabuzz, to say nothing of some of the Rueni gym's Pokémon.)

    Chapter 11 - Nursing Wounds

    The Yala City gym was unspectacular, simply a building with a pokéball sign marked “Gym.” Inside was a small foyer, a few rooms off to the sides, and the door to the arena. The arena itself was simply a large dugout pit in the middle of a very large room. Alex’s first thought was that it looked almost gladiatorial.

    One of the gym leaders was named Stephen, and like the gym he was completely unremarkable: average height, brown hair, nondescript clothes, and looking to be in his mid-to-late-twenties. Alex would’ve had a hard time picking him out of a police lineup. That guy? No, the guy to his left. The other gym leader was named Keith, who looked about the same age as Stephen. His dark hair was tied back into a short ponytail, and his eyes were a piercing shade of green.

    “They use a Hitmonchan and Electabuzz team,” Terry explained to Alex before the match started. He glanced over the pit and at Keith. “Electabuzz. Not Electivire. No one knows why, but they’re well trained.”

    “That means Gastrodon, I guess,” Alex said.

    “I’ll use Flareon.”

    “Why not Espeon?”

    “Someone like Stephen’s going to be prepared for psychics. Flareon’s pretty good offensively—he’ll manage.”

    Alex nodded.

    The ref at the side of the arena raised his flags. “This battle will be one Pokémon each, with no substitutions. Battle will continue until both trainers of a single side have been defeated. Weather effects are illegal. The battle will commence once all Pokémon are on the field.”

    With that, the ref threw down his flags. The four trainers sent out their Pokémon, gym leaders slightly slower than the challengers.

    “Hitmonchan, jab Gastrodon!” Stephen shouted.

    “Monchan,” Hitmonchan said, acknowledging the order. He rushed in at Gastrodon and delivered a quick, brutal jab to the blue and green slug’s face. Gastrodon held its ground.

    “Electabuzz, Thundershock!” Keith called out.

    Electabuzz beat its chest with its fists, electricity sparking over its hands. It thrust its hands forward and the electricity arced at Flareon. Flareon flinched, the bolt dealing little damage but threatening to paralyze it. With a defiant shake of its mane, Flareon resisted the paralytic effect.

    “Scald!” Alex ordered the counterattack.

    As Gastrodon spewed a stream of boiling hot water at Hitmonchan, Terry ordered, “Flareon, Fire Spin!”

    The cyclone of fire parted the battlefield, keeping Electabuzz from easily reinforcing Hitmonchan. Flareon, however, could easily leap through the flames to aid Gastrodon if Alex needed it.

    “Hitmonchan, Haymaker!” Stephen ordered.

    “Hit-Hitmonchan,” Hitmonchan said. It closed in with Gastrodon and rocked the slug with a punch twice as powerful as its jab.

    Well, this is no good, Alex thought sourly. “Gastrodon, Toxic!”

    Gastrodon spat a thick black liquid at Hitmonchan. The boxer hacked and coughed as the sludge hit its face, and tried to spit out what got into his mouth.

    “Now Recover,” Alex followed up the previous order. Gastrodon’s bruises slowly faded while Hitmonchan refocused following the poisonous attack.

    Keith frowned. “Electabuzz, Thundershock again!”

    Residual charge still sparking at its fingertips, Electabuzz extended its other arm and sent a bolt of electricity towards Flareon. This time Flareon couldn’t resist the paralytic effects of electrocution, and while he stood his ground, his legs trembled.

    “Flareon, go reinforce Gastrodon,” Terry said.

    Flareon attempted to leap through the flames, but stumbled and hit the ground face-first. He slowly stood up and limped towards the flames, only to stop at Terry’s order.

    I can’t Earthquake like this, Alex thought. Scald didn’t really seem to do much either. Gastrodon can’t outlast Hitmonchan’s attacks before going down. Guess I have to gamble.

    “Gastrodon, Muddy Water!” Alex shouted.

    Burbling oddly and with fluid oozing out of his body and into the arena floor, Gastrodon kneaded his stubby legs into the developing mud. He then kicked the mud at Hitmonchan, who fell over from the force of the blow. Hitmonchan’s movements as he stood up were twitchier than normal—clearly the poison was beginning to take hold.

    Unfortunately, the muddy water also hit the flames separating the two halves of the arena. While it didn’t extinguish them entirely, it had a significant narrowing effect on them.

    “Electabuzz, go through the flames and reinforce Hitmonchan,” Keith said.

    “Flareon, Flamethrower!” Terry ordered.

    The jet of flame didn’t strike Electabuzz directly, but a glancing blow along its path halted it.

    “Haymaker again,” Stephen commanded.

    This punch caught Gastrodon full in the face, causing the slug to flinch in pain.

    “Now Jab.”

    Another quick punch rocked the side of Gastrodon’s head. Gastrodon seemed disoriented following the blows, and wobbled in place, eyes unable to focus on Hitmonchan.

    “Recover!” Alex tried in despertion.

    Gastrodon burbled in pain, unable to focus on recovering from its wounds. Another Haymaker from Hitmonchan struck it, and Gastrodon slumped to the floor, unconscious.

    “Well, I guess it’s all up to you,” Alex grumbled to Terry as she recalled her Pokémon.

    “Yeah, no pressure, eh?” Terry asked. “Guess I just gotta keep Flareon away from Electabuzz. Lava Plume!”

    Flareon hunkered down and growled. Flames swirled around his body, and with a yelp they exploded around him. Tendrils of fire swept through the air, superheating it. Electabuzz hacked and coughed as it breathed, lungs damaged by the heat and smoke.

    “Thunder Punch!” Keith ordered in desperation.

    Electabuzz was able to muster up enough strength to charge at Flareon, right fist sparking. Its punch hit Flareon in the flank, the force of the impact sending a jolt back at Electabuzz, who recoiled in pain.

    “Fire Blast,” Terry said, a quiet weight in his voice.

    Given the close quarters and Electabuzz’s respiration issues, it had no way of dodging the flames Flareon spewed at it. Its yellow and black fur singed as it was forced back, and it hit the ground unmoving.

    “That could’ve been worse,” Terry mumbled. He swore. “I’m going to need something amazing if we’re to win this.”

    “No pressure, seriously,” Alex said, hoping this would reassure him. “We only need eight badges and there are, what, twenty, twenty-five gyms in the country?”

    “Yeah, but our win/loss ratio is still important,” Terry reminded her as he focused intently on Flareon. The fire preventing Hitmonchan from advancing on him was dying down, and Hitmonchan spent most of its time alone bulking up, yet looking increasingly sickly as the poison began overwhelming him.

    The flames receded to a point where Hitmonchan was able to leap over them, fist cocked back. Flareon was saved a potentially battle-ending blow through the appearance of a shimmering barrier a heartbeat before Terry shouted, “Protect!”

    “Looks like Flareon’s smarter than you’re giving him credit for,” Alex remarked.

    “Yeah, yeah,” Terry grumbled, watching Hitmonchan hit Flareon with another quick jab. Flareon endured the blow, but couldn’t take another. “Oh boy, Exeggute in one basket time. Flareon, Overheat!”

    With his momentum built up, Hitmonchan couldn’t dodge the white-hot jet of fire, which caught him full in the chest and sent him flying. He crashed against the side of the arena, bounced off, and rolled back along the floor, groaning in pain and clutching his chest, blackened and charring white around the centre.

    Rather than allowing the battle to draw out even further, the ref raised a flag and declared, “Hitmonchan is unable to battle. The winners are our challengers.”

    “Aren’t League battles supposed to be nonlethal?” Alex asked.

    “Hitmonchan will live,” Terry said. “I’ve seen Pokémon take worse burns. Can’t deny I feel bad, though. That’s got to hurt.”

    The look on Stephen’s face as he came over to present their Vision Badges suggested to Alex that Terry’s guilt may indeed have been genuine. His was the look of a man whose anger’s sole restraint was protocol.

    Alex couldn’t tell if her ability to divert her focus from that to her own wounded pride was a good thing or not. Once again, she’d managed to do nothing more than stall out one of her opponents and get taken out of the fight early. Once again, she managed to rely entirely on Terry to see them through the battle. Once again, she was going to have to go back to the hotel and sleep off the depression this triggered in her.

    She closed her hand around the small metal pin, not knowing if she could take this six more times.



    It was odd meeting Juliet at her home. Melanie had never been to her Rueni residence before, even though she’d worked with Juliet pretty much constantly since she graduated Azure Heights several years prior. She’d been to Juliet’s Kanto residence, but that place was far smaller. Still, it was nice to see her someplace other than work for once. Juliet had been and continued to be somewhat of a mother figure, albeit a somewhat dark one owing to their shared profession.

    Mismagius greeted Melanie through the door. It was a somewhat unorthodox greeting, as Mismagius’ first action was to recite an odd-sounding incantation. Mismagius then floated back through the door.

    Guess that means come in, Melanie thought. She tried the door and found it unlocked.

    “Hello?” Melanie called out once she stepped inside.

    This time, Melanie was greeted by Sableye, which had an almost feline ability to trip her up. She treaded carefully past the jewel-eyed ghost and met Juliet in the living room. Juliet was sitting on the couch with Sneasel curled up beside her.

    “Please have a seat,” Juliet said without looking up, indicating the recliner.

    Melanie checked to make sure Banette wasn’t occupying the chair already before sitting down. The last time she accidentally sat on a ghost was more embarrassing than painful, but still an experience she didn’t want to repeat.

    “So,” Juliet said once Melanie was seated. She indicated several papers spread out over the table. “The good news is we have a new place lined up. If all goes well, we should be settled in within two weeks.”

    “That makes it sound like the bad news will be pretty lengthy,” Melanie commented. She eyed the floor plan of the new facility. It was titled Beta Site, which she figured to be the name it’d be filed under within Team Rocket databases.

    “Giovanni is doing two things,” Juliet explained. “The first is that equipment and personnel are to be transferred from Japan to facilitate ease of setting up this new lab.”

    “Won’t that raise suspicion amongst the staff?” Melanie asked. “I’ve gotten some awkward questions from some of them.”

    “Giovanni’s orders, not mine. I trust he knows what he’s doing. Most of this can be written off with sufficient amounts of accounting voodoo to keep actual costs and assets buried away from prying eyes. It shouldn't raise much suspicion. The more disconcerting news is that Giovanni is dispatching yet another executive to take explicit control of Team Rocket affairs with Roland.”

    “Well, I guess that solves that power struggle,” Melanie mused. She wasn’t thrilled at the prospect, but could admit that they needed a leader with shrewd tactical sense to combat the false Rockets. “Is it any of the executives we know?”

    Juliet frowned. “Yes. Executive Kenneth.”

    “… Well then,” Melanie said. “I guess Giovanni isn’t screwing around after all.”

    While Melanie hadn’t met Kenneth personally, Juliet had talked about him a few times. Assuming she hadn't been exaggerating, Kenneth was probably the most dangerous person within Team Rocket, the sort of person you're thankful to have on your side so long as you discreetly ignore his methods. Kenneth was, in fact, the one who sent the order not to pursue Alex Lindstrom in Rueni. She wondered yet again if she could somehow find out anything from Sam regarding Alex’s apparent Team Rocket connection.

    “So why Kenneth?” Melanie asked after a moment.

    “Probably because the ‘New Rockets’ don’t know about him,” Juliet explained. “I couldn’t guess past that.”

    “Talk about bringing the biggest gun to bear. What are the two of us supposed to do?”

    Juliet slid a printout over to Melanie, who picked it up and glanced it over. It was a hard copy of a message from Giovanni, ordering Juliet to prioritize development of Beta Site and authorizing use of conventional criminal elements to acquire New Rocket assets. This was a cutely euphemistic way of telling them to make use of whatever thugs and lowlifes hadn’t joined the New Rockets to build up more of a presence, a distraction from Roland and Kenneth’s operations.

    What it lacked in glamour, it certainly made up for in safety. Melanie trusted herself to deal with petty criminals over New Rocket agents any day.

    “What if they attack again?” Melanie asked. “They won’t be caught off-guard by Sam a second time.”

    “If they best Sam, I don’t see what the rest of us could reasonably do.”

    “My Hitmonlee racked up an entire League team’s worth of casualties,” Melanie pointed out. She didn’t want to add that this included two confirmed kills, even though only one, the Golem, was premeditated. Heat of the moment was hardly a justifiable excuse. Regardless, the attack consisted of dozens of Pokémon. Taking only six or seven down wasn't very much.

    “Fighting back without a hope of winning is counterproductive,” Juliet said. “All you’re going to do is enrage your opponent.”

    “So you’re saying if they can overcome Sam, we should just sit down and take it?”

    “I’m saying it’s a viable option.”

    “Even when survival is at stake?”

    Juliet shrugged and looked to Melanie. “I don’t think we’ll ever be faced with such a no-win scenario.”

    “You know,” Melanie said, looking at Mismagius, who was floating about watching the two women talk, “I think there’s a certain level of dramatic irony to our best defense being someone who’d never defend us if she know who we really are.”

    “Don’t think that’s lost on me,” Juliet replied as she idly petted Sneasel.

    Melanie glanced at Sableye, who was crawling around with canine intent, seeming to look for any errant crumbs on the floor. She tried not to think it ominous that most of Juliet’s Pokémon were ghosts.

  3. #28
    Great job! I think that Alex and Terry have too many close to losing wins, lol.
    Jolteon Flareon Vaporeon
    Espeon Umbreon
    Glaceon Leafeon
    Eevee

  4. #29
    Given that the random notes are like a paragraph long these chapters, I think I'll ditch the distracting italics. Also JewelQuest: Yeah, two narrow wins in a row is a little iffy, but it's necessary to drive Alex's first character arc. Rest assured future gym battles will vary greatly in that regard.

    This chapter highlights two things that irk me about writing. The first is that it's very hard to write depression, self-image issues, and other such problems without turning the reader off the story, as it often just winds up coming off as annoying or "emo." Which is actually a problem many real-life sufferers of depression face in expressing their feelings. The second thing is that I acknowledge it's a little ridiculous that almost no Pokémon have nicknames, but this isn't a visual medium. Giving each Pokémon a nickname, while logical, would add yet another layer for the reader to process while parsing text into mental image, which would actually take away from the enjoyment of the story. So, for better or for worse, nicknames will be reserved for show-stoppers like Gilgamesh and Enkidu, even if realistically trainers would be more like Ritchie than Ash, so to speak. Let's ignore that this means Terry once had five Eevees all named Eevee.

    Chapter 12 - Different Ways

    Apparently Alex wasn’t going to get the chance to sleep off her depression, as Terry’s first order of business once they got back to their room was to ask if he could talk to her about something. This request, as innocuous as it sounded, added a layer of fear to Alex’s existing feeling of depressive uselessness. In a span of not more than a few seconds, Alex’s mind created an entire conversation where Terry said he’d had it with their string of near-losses, she’d say it was only two so far and that she was working on improving, and he’d say it wasn’t good enough.

    Terry sat down on his bed and motioned for Alex to sit on hers. She set a confused-looking Marril down beside her and sat opposite Terry.

    “Look, Terry, if this is about earlier…” Alex began, but trailed off as Terry shook his head.

    “What, about the gym battle? No, it’s not that,” Terry said. He seemed to have a very strong interest in his knees, and hadn’t made eye contact with Alex since they sat down. “Look, this is going to be one of those really awkward conversations.”

    Great. Alex’s fears went from being rejected as a battle partner for gross incompetence to Terry telling her that he couldn’t handle being with her because of how she was born. Still, Terry’s indirect approach meant bracing herself was easier.

    “No need for it to be awkward,” Alex said, shrugging. “Be as blunt as you want.”

    Terry laughed nervously. “Yeah, that’s not as easy as we’d both hope. It’s like… well… you remember that one talk in Rueni, right? About how it feels different now that you’re, well, yourself?”

    “If it’s too awkward for you to be around me anymore, I’ll understand.”

    “What? Oh gods no, that’s not it at all,” Terry said with a nervous chuckle, rubbing the back of his neck. “No, it’s, uh, wow, no wonder you look like you’re going to jump out of your skin.”

    “Oh,” said Alex. Provisionally speaking, that was a relief, even if the minor sting of guessing wrong threatened to grow into something less bearable. “Well, what is it then?”

    “It’s just… yeah, it is different, but not really in a bad way, I guess.” Terry took a deep breath. “Basically what I’m trying to say is I’m… starting to find I… like you, Alex. I mean, you know, like you.”

    Alex couldn’t deny it was a surprising admission. She’d known Terry for over a year prior to coming out, and she’d thoroughly friend-zoned him without even thinking about it. He took her coming out well enough, and even stayed friends when she took those first awkward steps in transitioning to live as female. He’d been a great source of support, even though he seemed a little more distant once she started, and not in the repressed-attraction way.

    “Really?” Alex asked.

    Terry nodded. “Kind of silly, isn’t it? I mean, I don’t even know if you like guys or girls. For all I know you just don’t swing this way.”

    That was the back-breaking straw. With an involuntary, incredulous laugh, Alex asked, “What do you mean ‘or’?”

    “I dunno. It just never came up bef…” Terry trailed off. “Oh, wait, I misheard that. Sorry.”

    “You know, when I first heard that most people are attracted only to one gender or the other, I was actually surprised,” Alex mused. She’d take any train of thought other than the suddenly important one. “Must’ve been like 14 or 15 when I learned that. I dunno. My own gender matters so much to me, but I’ve never really cared about other people’s.” She looked at Terry, unable to put off the real conversation any further. “So you actually like me that way?”

    “Yeah,” Terry said. “I’ll totally understand if you don’t, uh, reciprocate the feeling, but I wanted to get it out into the open, is all.”

    The thought that anyone might ever find her attractive was genuinely foreign to Alex. Terry wasn’t the type to be joking about this, yet it still felt on some level like he must have been. As if no other explanation could fit reality.

    “I’m…” Alex said, feeling immensely put on the spot. She hadn’t given the subject any thought at all before, but still felt like she had to answer Terry immediately. Besides, weren’t gut reactions usually better than laboriously thought-out ones? “I’m… not… unwilling to give it a try.”

    “That sounds decidedly noncommittal.”

    Alex shrugged futilely. “Can’t really give you anything more than that. I don’t know how I feel, really, and I don’t want to leave you hanging without an answer.”

    “It sounds better than a ‘no,’” Terry said. It was an obvious enough white lie.

    “Sorry,” Alex said.

    “Don’t be,” Terry said with a smile.

    The prospect of being with Terry felt odd, but, Alex found, it wasn’t undesirable.



    Michael glanced sidelong at the young Rocket meeting him in Pattaya City. Their location was newly established, using a local bar as a front. Officially it was closed for renovations owing to new management, which meant that Michael and the younger Rocket member were guaranteed a measure of privacy.

    “You’re one of the new guys?” The Rocket asked.

    “‘New,’” Michael repeated the word. “There’s a real possibility I was in Team Rocket before you were born.”

    “New with regards to the Idaman situation,” the other clarified.

    Michael smiled politely. “I only just arrived in the country, if that’s what you’re asking. My name’s Michael.”

    “Ryan. I have to say, you’ve managed to get yourself established in a real hurry.”

    Shrugging, Michael looked around from the table he was sitting at. The décor wasn’t his style, which was a good thing. “We simply bought the first place we thought would work.” He stood up. “Speaking of this, how goes outfitting the new Rueni laboratory?”

    “It’s a slow process,” Ryan said. His eyes followed Michael as the older man stepped behind the bar and mixed himself a drink. “Executive Juliet isn’t always… efficient.”

    “From what I understand,” Michael replied, punctuating the statement by downing his drink, which left the wrong kind of burning sensation in his throat, “she’s stuck to her time frame well enough. Tell me, how much of your criticism comes from your own personal issues with Ms. Askacia?”

    Ryan’s soft grunt of annoyance gave Michael more answer than his words. “I’d never want to visit her on my own time, but for the sake of Team Rocket, I’m as professional with her as with anyone else.”

    Michael started mixing another drink. This one would need to have less of a kick than the last. “Does this matter to the New Rockets?”

    “I’m sorry?” Ryan sounded confused.

    “Does this matter to the New Rockets?” Michael repeated, looking directly at Ryan. The younger man wavered slightly. “To them, we’re all nameless and faceless. We might as well all look alike and call each other ‘Team Rocket’ in lieu of names, just as we see them as interchangeable rabble, one New Rocket no different from any other.”

    “I assume this is the preamble to a lecture about how they’re a collection of individuals just like us?” Ryan asked.

    Michael scoffed and leaned against the bar. “We have to live up to their expectations, actually.”

    “I see.”

    “Never underestimate the power of conforming to expectations. The more people see of you that fits with their prejudices, the more they fill in from those prejudices. How else would we have such a number of young men and women within the New Rocket ranks?”

    “Last I heard, several were caught and killed.”

    Michael frowned and stared at the drink in his hand, turning the glass idly while watching the light play through it. “A necessary sacrifice.”

    Ryan sat on a table opposite the bar from Michael. “This was Kenneth’s doing, I assume.”

    “Roland’s methods were judged insufficient.”

    “By whom?”

    “Kenneth.”

    Ryan swore. “You’re telling me one man decided he didn’t like the way the guy in charge was doing things, and decided to grab the reins from him? To waste the lives of good people?”

    “Idealism doesn’t suit you,” Michael said slowly. He downed his newest drink and decided against more. While the second one didn’t burn his throat the wrong way, he didn’t want to risk inebriation.

    “Ignoring that your idealism is no different except for its labels,” Ryan countered with a scoff.

    Michael smiled, looking down at the empty glass. “I said it doesn’t suit you. If you don’t know when to abandon your ideals, you should refrain from developing any to start with.”



    A fringe benefit of being in something approaching a relationship with Alex was that Marril was far less of a bother. The only thing more important to the Pokémon than attention was Alex’s approval, and for the time being pestering Terry was counter to that greater goal. Terry doubted this would last, but planned to enjoy it while it lasted.

    Being taken out of the friend zone was an awkward feeling. It was subtle, but over the course of dinner at a local restaurant was very obvious in the way Alex seemed a bit quicker to laugh, to smile, to make jokes that weren’t at Terry’s expense. The evening was meant to be a first date of sorts, but wound up feeling extremely close to simply hanging out.

    Not that this was particularly worthy of complaint, but still, Terry expected it to be a bit more dramatic.

    The two of them returned to the hotel after their meal, and this time Terry didn’t feel awkward at the receptionist giving Terry a knowing wink. A little annoyed, perhaps, but it didn’t feel like it did in Rueni. Alex showed no reaction, and was in fact probably oblivious to it.

    “Now then,” Alex said after they’d gotten settled back in, “time to see a fish.”

    “You’re still trying the force-feeding method?” Terry asked.

    Alex nodded. “I need Feebas to evolve as soon as possible, which means cramming him full of poffins and candy.”

    “Mind if I watch?” Terry asked. “This should be amusing.”

    “Only if I get to translate everything Marril says,” Alex said.

    “You’re the cruelest woman I’ve ever met,” Terry said, shaking his head. “Well, I’m sure Marril’s wit will run out faster than my patience.”

    Alex glanced over her shoulder while digging Feebas’ pokéball out of her backpack. “You say this within earshot of her.”

    Terry looked at Marril. “She’ll appreciate the challenge.”

    “Ma-mar?” Marril wondered.

    “Literally that’s ‘I-yes?’” Alex translated. “Her grammar takes a bit of getting used to.”

    “I've noticed she speaks in a… I have no idea what you call it, but it’s where each simple sentence is a compound word?” Terry asked.

    “Kind of like German nouns,” Alex answered. She stepped into the bathroom, plugged the bathtub, and started running the water.

    It was certainly cramped with two people hovering over the tub. Terry wondered if Feebas would feel intimidated by two humans looming over him instead of just one. Alex said the fish was nigh insensate, but no being could be so oblivious to its surroundings that it could simply ignore something so potentially dangerous. Feebas were prey, so doing anything to further their own chances of being eaten was counterproductive to basic survival. Unlike Magikarp, they didn’t have sheer force of numbers to ensure propagation of the species.

    Alex turned off the water once the tub was about three-quarters full. She grabbed Feebas’ pokéball and tapped its eye. The ball burst open and Feebas plopped unceremoniously into the water. He beat his fins a little to stabilize himself, and floated on the water’s surface, glassy eyes staring directly at Alex.

    “Looks like he knows his trainer,” Terry commented.

    “Or just the closest looking thing that might be a predator,” Alex said. She took a poffin, tore off one of the ends, and offered it to Feebas. Feebas ignored the food entirely.

    “Maybe he’s full?” Terry suggested.

    “He hasn’t eaten today.”

    “Ma-marri-Ma-ri-ma,” Marril said. “Marril-ma-ma-ril.”

    Alex groaned.

    “Well?” Terry asked.

    “She thinks you’re right,” Alex translated. “She thinks these poffins don’t even count as food.”

    “Want me to try?” Terry asked.

    Alex held the remaining part of the poffin out to Terry. “Knock yourself out.”

    Terry knelt down beside Alex and reached towards Feebas. Feebas attempted to dodge Terry’s hand, but it only took one more attempt to grab Feebas. Fingers pinching the sides of Feebas’ mouth to hold it open, Terry force-fed him the poffin. Feebas made a sickly gurgling sound as Terry released him, and his eyes focused very intently on Alex.

    “I guess that’s one way to do it,” Alex admitted. “I’ve been trying to avoid that method, though.”

    “Well, how’d you evolve Magikarp?” Terry asked. “Force-feeding candy, force-feeding poffins, same thing in the end.”

    “Actually, Magikarp evolved on her own. Remember, this was back when I was first starting as a trainer, like right at ten. Magikarp was the third Pokémon I caught, so I was stuck without any of the little training tricks I can take for granted these days. There was no way I could’ve afforded enough candy to induce evolution at that age.”

    Terry smiled at the mental image of a young Alex trying to get a fish to fight on land rather than flop about uselessly. Terry was somewhat older than ten when he started as a trainer, and he hadn’t focused on League competition, so he had no reason to force his Eevee to evolve. He was all of 16 when she evolved into Umbreon. Thinking about someone walking up to Eevee and prodding her with an elemental stone made him realize just why Alex tried to avoid the rough method with Feebas.

    “So,” Alex continued in the wake of Terry’s silence, “while we’re on the subject of evolution, there was something I’ve been wondering.”

    “Oh?”

    “How did you decide which Eevee would evolve into what?”

    Terry’s mind seized up. The last thing he needed was to give an honest answer to that. “Well, uh, I guess I just see what they want to be. You, uh, learn to tell after a little while.”

    “I still think it’d be awesome if the last one evolved into Glaceon.”

    Terry shook his head. “She’ll evolve into Vaporeon when she’s ready.”

    Terry felt a quick, sharp pain in his ribs, and upon looking down realized Alex had prodded him with her elbow. A less charitable definition of “slender” would definitely involve the word “bony.”

    “I’m the water trainer here,” she insisted with a grin.

    “For now,” Terry said, returning the smile. He cocked his head towards Marril, who was in the water with Feebas, slowly feeding him pieces of a poffin. “Looks like Marril’s made some progress. I guess she’s probably less threatening than we are.”

    “More likely she’s just more silver-tongued,” Alex corrected.

    Terry eyed Marril with suspicion. “Really now.”

    “Ma-Marril-ma-mar-Mar-ri,” Marril said.

    “Probably,” Alex said to the Pokémon.

    Terry didn’t ask for the translation. He could guess what Marril said. Instead, he gave Alex a hug from behind. She didn’t tense up or flinch. “Well, at least you’ll probably get your Milotic soon.”

    “As long as we’re making progress, I don’t mind a little wait,” Alex said with an odd smile, leaving Terry wondering just what she was referring to.
    Last edited by Marril; 12/13/2011 at 01:19 AM.

  5. #30
    Christmas time is upon us, which means more sporadic updates. Alas. At least people get to see me continuing to slow-roll introductions for the reimagined members of Kenneth's group and get a decent infodump on specifically how the League gym circuit works in the process (plus a thinly-veiled rant at user-imposed online battle restrictons).

    Chapter 13 - Three Types

    Darkwood City was a beautiful place, blending Idama’s usually traditional style with surprising modernization. Nearly every building was adorned by vines, hanging plants, even trees out front. It made Alex think of photos she’d seen of Opelucid City, both progressive and traditional at the same time, like two different cities overlaid atop one another.

    Alex and Terry certainly had a lot of time to kill, more than Alex would normally have filled up even in full-on tourist mode, but she didn’t see any reason not to get the gym challenge over with sooner rather than later. The gym itself was very impressive, sporting massive glass doors which refracted light like giant prisms. The floor was made of polished stone and the furniture of high-grade hardwood.

    “Excuse me,” said Terry to the woman working at the main desk after she’d ignored them for too long.

    “Oh, um, sorry,” said the woman, looking away from the screen. It was tilted so that Alex could glance at it, and she was surprised to see that gaming or social networking weren’t to blame for the delay. “How can I help you?”

    “We’d like to schedule a challenge,” Terry said.

    “Right,” the woman said. Her nametag read Chloe. “Just… um… give me one second here. Sorry, I’m new.”

    “It’s fine,” Terry said.

    Chloe tapped a few keys and frowned. “I’m afraid this’ll be one more second…”

    Suppressing a sigh, Alex interjected, “Look, if it’s anything like the software we used back in Kanto, control-shift-F4 will save and close out that records screen.”

    Chloe blinked as this worked. “Huh. That’s handy. You’re good with this stuff?”

    “I did a bit of work at the gym in Cerulean City,” Alex answered. “You learn the shortcuts really fast when you’re the one stuck handling challenges from the rush of kids who’re fresh with their starters after the yearly League new trainer intake.”

    “I just missed that time of the year,” Chloe said. “I hear it’s brutal.” She tilted her head. “Cerulean City?”

    “It’s in Japan. Kanto region.”

    “Ah. Well, it looks like we’re about ready to register. Can I get your names?”

    Terry introduced himself, and Chloe entered the name wordlessly. Turning to Alex, she asked, “Yours?”

    “Alexandra Lindstrom,” Alex answered.

    “Okay. Finally, I’ll just need your trainer cards and we’ll be all set.”

    A knot formed in Alex’s stomach. This was always the most awkward part. Trainer cards had to have the trainer’s full legal name, which wouldn’t be a problem for Terry, since going by a diminutive was understandable. Alex could just imagine the scenario that’d play out once Chloe saw her legal name.

    Chloe swiped Terry’s trainer card through a machine attached to her computer, and an info screen popped up. Chloe gave it a once-over and hit enter, dismissing it. She repeated this process with Alex’s and the same screen popped up. Chloe furrowed her brow.

    “I hate when this happens,” Chloe said. “I probably just made a typo somewhere.” After a moment, she asked, “… Wait, this card says your name is Alexander?”

    Alex sighed. In a dry tone, she asked rhetorically, “It does say that, doesn’t it?”

    Chloe bit her lip. “I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to call my supervisor.”

    It was as Alex feared. League regulations stated discrepancies between a trainer’s legal and preferred names had to be authorized by someone on the gym’s managerial staff. The Neo League’s rules were copied wholesale from the Pokémon League’s, largely for the reason that trainers would be more comfortable competing in a league that followed familiar rules.

    Still, there were no provisions in the books for handling gender-based discrepancies. Inept identity thieves existed and bad trainers would certainly prefer to ruin someone else’s rating instead of their own—but with a name like Alex there was really no excuse. Sure, she could simply be trying to use a nearly homophonic name in the hopes that Chloe wouldn’t notice, but why even consider that possibility given the much simpler and more obvious one?

    Terry gave Alex’s hand a reassuring squeeze. She hadn’t noticed him take it.

    Chloe’s supervisor arrived in moments, and the look on her face suggested to Alex that this wasn’t the first time she’d been frivolously summoned.

    “Is there something wrong?” The supervisor asked.

    “Look, Maya, I know this isn’t really a ‘problem,’ but technically I need your authorization, so…” Chloe said, but trailed off as Maya scanned the computer screen intently, glanced at Alex, glanced back to the screen, and sighed.

    “I don’t see why you would,” Maya said. Her accent was extremely thick. “It’s obvious this young woman is who she claims to be.”

    To keep her mind off the embarrassment of all this, Alex focused on reading her own information. Pokémon League and Neo League ratings were scored independently, although both used the same system. This system operated on individual knockout-to-faint ratio, which skewed the results of double battles. As such, her Pokémon League rating was pretty good, easily in the low professional range, but her Neo League rating was dismal.

    So much for that distraction.

    “I know,” Chloe said. “I just… you know, with that inspection last week, I…”

    “Fine,” Maya said. “You have authorization to override the discrepancy. Which I notice you did on your own with this young woman’s partner.”

    Chloe winced. “I’m really, really sorry,” she said as she finished inputting Alex’s information. She gave Alex back her trainer card.

    “It’s okay,” Alex lied. The exchange made her sick to her stomach, but she wasn’t the vindictive sort. Taking her feelings out on Chloe wouldn’t accomplish anything.

    “Anyway,” Chloe continued. “Um, just to give you the rest of the standard preamble, this gym’s bench number is set to two. Refights can be taken once per season, but with a four-month wait cycle and a rating penalty.”

    “Are battles Type A or B?” Alex asked.

    “Oh, right. Actually, Type C.”

    That figured. Type A was unrestricted—anything short of killing the opposing Pokémon was legal. Type B restricted weather effects and other attacks that altered battle conditions. Type C was the most restrictive, very rarely used, and prohibited certain attacks and even outright banned sufficiently powerful Pokémon. Someone like Sam couldn’t even meet the bench requirements for a Type C gym, which meant Type C effectively banned trainers from competition solely for being too good.

    Terry scoffed derisively. “Well, just give us our date and time.”

    Chloe nodded and supplied the requested information. Their challenge was two days from then, which gave them plenty of time to get ready. It locked their Pokémon lineup, which meant Wartortle or Feebas evolving wouldn’t help any, but Alex was resolved to maintain her confidence in what she sometimes thought of as the three Gs.

    This minor bit of enforced optimism didn’t help Alex as she followed Terry out of the gym, seething not with anger but with frustration. Her mind kept replaying the humiliating scene she had to endure, sparking all manner of unpleasant thoughts she’d never been able to suppress fully. All because two letters out of eighteen weren’t what one woman expected.

    Alex supposed she could always complain to Marril, but even Marril’s patience had its limits.

    “It’s okay,” Terry said as he gave Alex a hug.

    “No it isn’t,” Alex said, unable to meet Terry’s eyes. “I wish it was, but all I can do is pretend.”

    Hands still on Alex’s shoulders, Terry said, “If it bothers you, then you shouldn’t have to pretend. Not anymore.”

    Alex afforded Terry a hollow smile. She wanted to say that she didn’t think Terry could put up with her if she stopped hiding how hurt these little things made her. That’d be giving Terry too little credit, and she was trying not to be negative all the time.

    “Tell you what,” Terry said. “We’ve got the rest of the day ahead of us. I’m sure we can find something fun to help take your mind off this.”

    Alex scoffed lightly in amusement. “First things first,” she said. “Lunchtime.”

    “I think I saw a promising-looking place on the way here. Feeling up for Greek?”

    “Oh, joy. I love food I can’t spell offhand.”

    “That’s a no?”

    Alex rolled her eyes. “It’s a yes. Learn sarcasm, man.”

    “I don’t see that ever happening.”

    “It’s okay. I’ll just have Marril teach you.”

    Terry's grimace actually did quite a bit to improve Alex’s mood.



    “I give up,” Alex said, stumbling out of the hotel bathroom and flopping onto her bed.

    “Feebas got you?” Terry asked, not looking up from his tablet. It seemed to be his favourite way to pass the time after all was said and done in a day.

    “At this rate he’ll evolve in about six years,” Alex whined, muffled by the fact that she was facedown in the sheets. She rolled over onto her back. “Not even Marril can figure it out. I think I got the short-pokéball Feebas.”

    “How can you tell it’ll be that long?”

    “His scales,” Alex explained. “Feebas’ scales change colour as they get closer to evolution. I dunno why that is—it has something to do with some chemical in specific berries, I dunno. That’s more Sam’s area of expertise. Anyway, they go from looking all roughshod to iridescent. Feebas’ have only barely started to change and I actually managed to stick every poffin I made down his throat.”

    Terry set the tablet aside and focused his attention on Alex. “Even forced evolution takes time. Why not just focus on getting Wartortle to evolve?”

    “Because Feebas is registered in my battle lineup,” Alex said. “Every opponent gets to see it before the battle starts. Do you really think I want to be ‘that girl with a Feebas registered for competitive battle’? It looks even more ridiculous than if I had Marril registered.”

    “It’s not like anyone will think you’d seriously use him,” Terry pointed out.

    “Yeah, but it’s just…” Alex trailed off. She rolled over and rotated so she faced Terry when she sat up. “I hate having two of my five being so weak.”

    “I’ve got Eevee in my lineup.”

    “Yeah, but you can evolve her whenever you think she’s ready. I don’t have any control over Feebas or Wartortle.”

    Terry hesitated in his answer. “It’s… not quite that simple. Anyway, your other three are pretty good.”

    Alex wondered why Terry sounded so evasive, but decided not to press the issue. She had secrets she wouldn’t want Terry to learn. It was perfectly fair for Terry to have secrets of his own. For all she knew, Eevee was like Marril and simply didn’t want to evolve, and needed time to get used to the idea.

    Of course, that also meant Feebas might not want to evolve. It wasn’t like the fish ever said anything intelligible, meaning Alex was reduced to trying to guess what went on in his head.

    “This is one of those times I just want to sleep things off,” Alex admitted, flopping back down and staring at the ceiling.

    “Running from the problem only works for so long,” Terry said.

    “I know that. Gods, do I ever know that. It’s the reason I started hormone treatment at 21 instead of like 14.”

    “It’s also the reason you started it at 21 instead of 30.”

    “Good point,” Alex conceded. Intellectually, she agreed with the sentiment, but emotionally speaking her regret was simply too powerful. She rolled over onto her left side, facing the wall.

    Alex heard a familiar patter of small feet on the carpet behind her, then a soft thump on the bed. She didn’t roll over to face Marril.

    “Ma-ma-Marril-ri-Ar-ril-mar,” Marril offered.

    “No, that’s fine,” Alex said.

    “Ar-ril-ma-mar-ar-Marril,” Marril countered.

    Part of having known Alex for over half her life meant Marril knew Alex’s emotional weaknesses. Marril’s offer to make a special appeal to Wartortle wasn’t necessarily something Alex should refuse, but Alex’s desire not to be a burden on others meant too often she refused others’ kindness.

    Marril’s retort, that such “humility” came off as selfishness in its own right, was yet another thing Alex understood intellectually but couldn’t internalize on an emotional level. Marril was more than another Pokémon in Alex’s lineup. She was Alex’s oldest friend. So often she was the only confidante Alex had. Refusing something that might help ease the pain Alex routinely shared with her was utterly selfish.

    Alex sat back up. “All right,” she said to Marril. “If you think it’ll do anything, anyway.”

    “Do I even want to know?” Terry asked as Alex dug her cell phone out of her backpack.

    “It’s nothing you need to be afraid of.”

    “That’s always good news.”

    “I’ll be sure to bring bad news later,” Alex promised as she began to compose a text to Sam.

    She was going to need Sam’s expertise after all.



    Melanie met a newly detached Team Rocket agent at the lab codenamed Beta Site. The building being newer than the old one, it had a much more modern feel, which was a small but appreciated comfort to Melanie after her efforts trying to follow Giovanni’s orders ended almost uniformly in failure.

    The new agent was first to the meeting room. If Melanie’s “dark beauty” as Sam once described it was somehow emblematic of the dark yin of Team Rocket, then this woman was the light yang. She looked to be about the same age as Juliet, and had very fair skin and platinum blonde hair. She also had a certain regality, even nobility to her in her posture, in her stride, in the very way she occupied space.

    By contrast, Juliet looked especially haggard as she stepped into the meeting room. While she pretended to lean against the table for effect, Melanie suspected it obvious even to Elizabeth that this was to cover her obvious fatigue. Dark circles under Juliet’s eyes were common, but now they were bloodshot and unfocused. It was very likely she hadn’t slept in days.

    “You’re the agent Kenneth dispatched to the Rueni region,” Juliet identified the woman. Her voice was slow and deliberate, with a hint of slurring.

    “My name is Elizabeth,” she introduced herself, nodding sharply.

    “It seems you’ve already met my assistant Melanie,” Juliet said.

    “Indeed.” Elizabeth frowned. “Do you mind if I speak bluntly?”

    Juliet laughed softly and pulled a chair out from the table. Sitting down with little grace, she said, “Go ahead.”

    “The information you received said that Giovanni sent Kenneth here to work with Roland on the New Rocket situation. That’s not entirely true. Actually, it’s not even remotely true.”

    “Shame,” Juliet mumbled. “I’d hoped things would be simple for once.”

    Elizabeth looked at Melanie as if to question her trustworthiness discreetly. Melanie ignored the silent accusation. “Kenneth is here of his own volition. We’re working to supplant Roland entirely.”

    “Why tell this to me?” Juliet wondered aloud. “My status as Executive is largely for show. I can’t do much to support you, and I certainly can’t do much to stop you. Are you mocking me?”

    “Not in the slightest,” Elizabeth assured her. “Roland’s blind to his men channeling money and resources to the New Rockets. Worse, he refuses to acknowledge that this is happening.”

    Juliet remained silent. Melanie couldn’t blame her.

    “You’re here to prevent them getting Tribo somehow?” Melanie asked.

    Elizabeth nodded. “They’re bound to try eventually. With that little attack convincing you that they want to destroy it, not steal it, they’re well-positioned to change their approach to one you aren’t prepared for.”

    “I thought isolation was supposed to be why we’re in Idama in the first place,” Juliet said. Theoretically, Idama was enough out of the way that Team Rocket could operate undetected. In reality, Giovanni’s rampant expansionism wound up triggering the formation of the New Rockets. Melanie found herself wishing the Team Rocket higher-ups had left well enough alone and left Juliet in charge.

    Apparently Elizabeth agreed. “Someone down the line messed up. That’s why I’m here. Just keep Melanie close—ignore those orders ‘Giovanni’ sent. I very much doubt Giovanni had a hand in them. Actually, ignore Roland completely. Finishing the Tribo Project is your only goal.”

    “Easier said than done, given recent events.”

    “I’ll worry about that, not you,” Elizabeth said. “I’ve got the people and resources to keep you safe—actually safe, not Roland’s halfhearted ‘send in some people at the last minute’ attempt that wound up costing you your lab.”

    “Do I want to know what you intend to do?” Juliet wondered.

    “As an Executive, it’s your prerogative to inquire, but I think in this case it would be best if you asked me no questions so I can tell you no lies.”

    “Very well. In that case, all I ask is that you keep me apprised of anything that affects me.”

    Elizabeth scoffed lightly. “I’m not Roland. I recognize the value of communication.”

    “Will that be all?” Juliet asked.

    Nodding, Elizabeth said, “I think so. If all goes according to plan, this place should be up and running in days and you won’t have to worry about anything except completing your project.”

    Juliet stared at the ceiling as Elizabeth left. In a weary tone she mumbled, barely audible, “At least this boss of the day is letting us play to our strengths.”

  6. #31
    Keep on going! I love the Alex-Terry-Marril scenes.
    Jolteon Flareon Vaporeon
    Espeon Umbreon
    Glaceon Leafeon
    Eevee

  7. #32
    Fun fact, I hate writing gym battles. The double battle system (Bulbapedia, of which I usually have no fewer than 5 tabs open at any given time when writing, tells me that it's actually called "tag battle" but I'm obstinate and thus use "double battle" regardless) is hard to choreograph coherently while preserving dramatic flow. But they're climactic, provide landmarks to the overall plot, and showcase my interpretations of various strategies and mechanics, so there's no fear of me taking the lazy option and skipping them or having them occur offscreen.

    Chapter 14 - Welcome Reprieve

    The Darkwood City gym matched the rest of the city in splendor. The arena was surrounded by polished marble pillars, and the trainer platforms had display panels that showed a variety of information, such as the relative statistics of Pokémon in the fray as well as their strengths and weaknesses. For a new trainer, this would be an invaluable utility. For one more experienced, it was a needless distraction.

    The gym leaders were named Lawan and Mali. Both were Idaman, which was somewhat rare. The Neo League’s efforts to grow as fast as possible meant they imported a lot of foreign talent, including luring away past and present gym leaders from the Pokémon League. Alex lamented that the first fully Idaman gym she came across was Type C—it spoke ill of Idama that its domestic gym leaders hid behind rules to cover a lack of skill.

    Still, Alex thought as she looked at the two gym leaders from across the arena, it probably explained why the Darkwood gym was so busy compared to the others. The low-hanging fruit of easy wins would be very tempting to anyone on the gym circuit.

    Time to get the battle started.

    “Go, Gyarados!” Alex shouted.

    Gyarados met Lawan’s Empoleon and Mali’s Emboar alongside Terry’s Espeon. Neither challenger felt the need to be sporting—both their Pokémon were their strongest attackers, and could hopefully sweep through the mediocre gym leaders’ Pokémon with minimal effort.

    “Espeon, Psychic!” Terry shouted.

    “Gyarados, Dragon Dance!” Alex followed.

    Emboar was pushed back by the psychic blow, allowing Gyarados time to focus her power through midair dance. Empoleon attempted to close the gap, but Espeon was able to delay its advance with another psychic attack.

    Alex smirked. “All right, Gyarados, I think we can go for one more.”

    Gyarados began swirling in midair again. Espeon probably wouldn’t be able to hold off both opposing Pokémon long enough for the serpent to finish her dance, but Gyarados could afford to take a hit or two if it meant becoming nigh unstoppable.

    “Espeon, hit Emboar again!” Terry called out.

    Espeon ducked into a crouch, eyes glowing fiercely. Emboar writhed in pain and fell to the ground. This attack allowed Empoleon the chance to hit Espeon with a fierce blast of water, sending the psychic Pokémon backward.

    “Ride Gyarados,” Alex hissed to Terry.

    Terry nodded. “Espeon, leap up onto Gyarados’ back.”

    “Earthquake!” Alex shouted.

    Espeon’s feet were mere inches off the ground as Gyarados struck the arena floor with her tail, sending a shockwave through it that struck Empoleon and Emboar, knocking the former flat on its back and ensuring the latter couldn’t stand back up.

    Alex smirked. Emboar was clearly out of the fight, but it seemed Mali didn’t recognize this. Gyarados’ focus gave her incredible alacrity, and Alex couldn’t deny it was hard to keep up with her Pokémon’s attack speed.

    “Aqua Tail,” Alex ordered. “Finish off Emboar.”

    Gyarados whipped her tail forward, striking Emboar in the back and forcing it from its knees to the ground. This time, Emboar stayed down. Mali’s scowl was visible from across the arena as she replaced Emboar with Seismitoad.

    “You want that one, or should I take it?” Terry asked.

    “I’ll do the honours,” Alex replied. “You focus on Empoleon.”

    “Yes, ma’am. Espeon, Shadow Ball!”

    Espeon leapt down off Gyarados’ back towards the penguin, dark energy crackling around him. A heartbeat before Espeon hit the ground, the blackness coalesced into a ball and shot towards Empoleon. Empoleon couldn’t guard against the attack, although it did relatively little damage.

    “Gyarados, Stone Edge!” Alex commanded.

    Sweeping her tail forward, Gyarados threw rocks at Seismitoad, then lunged, breaking the rocks against Seismitoad’s body. This was followed by a blast of light striking Gyarados from behind—Lawan was focusing her efforts on taking down Gyarados, and forcing Empoleon to ignore Espeon’s attacks.

    “Gyarados, Ice Fang!”

    Fangs glowing light blue, Gyarados sunk her teeth into Seismitoad, locking her jaw. Mist formed around Seismitoad as Gyarados drained the heat from the surrounding area. Gyarados spasmed as she was struck by a flurry of rocks thrown by Empoleon.

    “My kingdom for a Blissey or something,” Terry mumbled. “Espeon, Psyshock!”

    The psychic blast hit Empoleon squarely in the back, knocking it forward. Another blast struck Empoleon, this time enough to knock the penguin out. Lawan switched in Yanmega, who started off by emitting a harsh buzz that even Alex found painful. Espeon couldn’t take the sonic attack and his knees buckled. Seconds later, he collapsed.

    “At least this makes my next Pokémon an easy choice,” Terry commented as he recalled Espeon. “Go, Flareon! Flamethrower!”

    Flareon wasted no time in identifying the most flammable-looking target and incinerating it. One of the less talked-about aspects of battle training was how to keep one’s Pokémon from getting overwhelmed upon switching into a fight. In a team battle, a freshly switched in Pokémon had to identify its teammate and their status, while also assessing its opponents. This process couldn’t take more than a second or two lest the opponent gain significant advantage from the lost time.

    Seismitoad caught the side of Gyarados’ head with a glowing punch, but the serpent held on. Ignoring the fact that Flareon’s flamethrower gave it a serious burn, Yanmega flew towards Gyarados, slashing her with its claws.

    “Bounce!” Alex shouted.

    Gyarados briefly touched the floor, then sailed up into the air. She dropped Seismitoad to the ground, then lunged, hitting Seismitoad with her full weight. Yanmega ignored yet another blast from Flareon, and blew a silver wind at Gyarados. Gyarados jerked in midair but remained aloft.

    Mali’s displeasure was visible from across the arena as she switched in a Mandibuzz, whose first act was to tuck in her wings and dive at Gyarados point-blank. Gyarados was knocked to the ground, her movements slowed from all the damage she’d sustained.

    “I think that actually went pretty well,” Alex said as she recalled Gyarados. Gyarados might have had some fight left in her, but there was no need to push her past her limits. For that matter, Alex could afford not to rely on either of her other Gs. “Go, Wartortle! Hydro Pump Yanmega!”

    With Yanmega at the far side of the arena, the force of the water was diminished by sheer distance. Nevertheless, the attack was enough to take Yanmega out of the fight. Lawan’s replacement forced Alex to suppress a laugh. A Hippowdon was a terrible choice against a water trainer.

    “Fun fact,” Terry said casually. “Those things eat cars.”

    “… You’re joking,” Alex replied.

    “It’s rare, but it’s been known to happen. Flareon, Overheat!”

    The white-hot jet of flames struck Mandibuzz, allowing Wartortle a clear shot at Hippowdon. The hippo’s mass meant it would take quite a bit to down it, but Alex’s elemental advantage was overwhelming. Even Wartortle, the weakest Pokémon she could seriously field, would be able to handle it.

    “Fire Fang!” Terry shouted.

    Flareon jumped at Mandibuzz, which hadn’t been able to rise very high into the air following the previous blow. Flames flickering from his mouth, Flareon latched onto Mandibuzz, and Alex laughed as Mandibuzz flapped her wings madly, gaining altitude with Flareon hanging off her.

    “Wartortle, Hydro Pump!”

    Hippowdon charged through the water blast, slowed but not halted. It roared, mouth wide open as it lunged to bite Wartortle.

    “Ice Beam!” Alex called.

    Wartortle leapt backwards, easily dodging Hippowdon’s bite, and spewed a blue stream of energy into the hippo’s mouth. Hippowdon hacked and retched, shaking its head violently.

    “Gods, how are these two even gym leaders?” Alex wondered.

    “Welcome to the Neo League,” Terry said dryly. “Flareon, Lava Plume!”

    Flareon flipped up onto Mandibuzz’s back, fur exploding into flame. Mandibuzz squawked in pain and fell to the arena floor. Flareon finished with a point-blank flamethrower.

    Hippowdon, seemingly incapable of using ranged attacks, lunged at Wartortle once more. This time, with Wartortle backed into a corner, it was able to connect, easily bashing Wartortle aside. Wartortle gave a single pained grunt and slowly climbed back onto her feet.

    “Wow,” Terry said.

    “Eh?” Alex asked.

    “I just looked up the pokédex info on Hippowdon,” Terry said casually, indicating the terminal in front of him. “Looks like I wasn’t joking after all. They really do eat cars sometimes.”

    “Hydro Pump again!” Alex shouted, then she swore. “You realize that just because they suck doesn’t mean you don’t have to pay attention, right?”

    “It’s not like we can lose at this point,” Terry pointed out. “Flamethrower!”

    Were it better trained, Hippowdon might have been some threat on its own. Certainly, the ability to cause earthquakes would have made it a formidable opponent. Hippowdon was, however, nearly useless relying entirely on physical contact. Alex wondered if Lawan’s heart was in it or if she was simply going through the motions—Hippowdon had the mildly confused look of a Pokémon who expected orders but didn’t get them.

    One more pair of attacks later and Hippowdon was knocked out. Wartortle was shaken and looked like she’d be sore for the next few days, but was free of serious injury. Flareon, though slightly worse off, could have weathered a solid blow from Hippowdon and kept on fighting.

    Mali and Lawan met Alex and Terry by the side of the arena after each trainer had recalled their Pokémon. The gym leaders were gracious enough as they handed the two challengers their Spirit Badges, but their voices were slightly dulled by the obvious rote nature of their presentation. Neo League leaders weren’t simply expected to lose like Pokémon League leaders. In fact, a Neo League gym leader who lost too often was liable to be replaced. It was all part of trying to ensure the “elite” nature of the Neo League.

    The sun was still high in the sky as Alex and Terry left the gym. This time she actually noticed as Terry took her hand and gave it an affectionate squeeze.

    “Feeling better?” Terry asked.

    Alex nodded. “Yeah. Or, well.” She took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “To be honest, I’m fighting the part of me that’s trying to bring myself down with some kind of ‘you can’t win without picking on the weak gym leaders’ argument.”

    Terry shook his head. “They were still harder than anyone you fought in Kanto, right?”

    “Outside of the regional tournament, yeah,” Alex said.

    “There you go. Just think of it like how most trainers skip the Viridian gym because its leader is rougher on challenge scaling than Pewter or Cerulean.”

    “Depends on who you fight,” Alex replied. “When I challenged Viridian, the actual leader was in, and he was pretty good about it. I won with just Squirtle and Marril, believe it or not.”

    Raising an eyebrow, Terry said, “You’re way too contradictory sometimes.”

    “No I’m not,” Alex denied.

    Terry scoffed. “Glad you agree with me.”




    David glanced at Charizard, then at his partner Liam. The younger man was earnest enough, and hadn’t been too much of an inconvenience. The problem with David’s investigation was that he relied heavily on his psychic abilities, and a non-psychic couldn’t come close to matching his efficiency.

    Of course, when you stared down an inquiry gone sour, potential cannon fodder was handy.

    The man across the office from David ran a moneylending business widely suspected of having Team Rocket ties. He was ultimately a small, unimportant man, a local whose greatest ambition was to cling to a foreign power in exchange for a meagre profit. This was, in theory, as good a place as any to start working up the chain towards Roland.

    In practice, Charizard was potentially going to be the best negotiator in the room.

    “Now,” David said. “Sit back down and put the gun on the desk.”

    Shan did as he was told, throwing a glare at David and Liam as he slumped back in his seat.

    David glanced at Charizard, then returned his attention to Shan. “What you’re going to do is give me access to your records. I want to know everyone you’ve dealt with in the past three months where the transaction exceeds ten million baht. Think you can do that for me?”

    Actually seeing the records was irrelevant. Shan’s mind darted to one client in particular he hoped David would pass over. Shan sorted through his records and gave David a list of clients, carefully omitting the name he repeated over and over in his mind.

    “You’re sure this is all of them?” David asked.

    “It is,” Shan said.

    “Mind if I take a look through the records myself?”

    “… Yes, please do,” Shan replied at last.

    Choosing to entertain propriety was a foreign concept to David. If you had something to hide, you hid it. You didn’t go along with someone knowing full well what they’d likely do to you if you were lying. Damn the consequences of hiding it—the fact that you might emerge unscathed put that option above cooperation.

    Shan’s records did indeed show an entry with the relevant name. The associated information contained an address in Pattaya City and several notes about the debtor’s business. From the thoughts racing through Shan’s mind, he knew full well that he was working with Team Rocket, and that the “debt” was simply a means of laundering money. The full amount of the note had already been received, and would be recorded with consistent payments over the foreseeable future.

    “I hope you’re finding what you’re looking for,” Shan said with obviously false sincerity accompanied by a forced attempt at a genial smile.

    David returned the smile. “Unfortunately not. Perhaps we were wrong about you.”

    “If I had any dealings with the Rockets, I certainly haven’t told myself,” Shan added. It was a feeble jab at levity, but a required part of their dance.

    It would have been nice to be able to make a joke about not being a mind-reader, but David knew better than to let that possibility enter Shan’s mind even as a joke. While making someone associate a secret with sarcastic humour was an effective means of obfuscation, David couldn’t take any risks.

    David visibly skimmed past the entire ledger. “No, I’m afraid I don’t see anything here.”

    “Fortunate.”

    “Very. I won’t interrupt your business any further, then,” David said. He craned his neck back towards Liam. “Apologize to the good man.”

    “Sorry for the inconvenience,” Liam said absentmindedly.

    “Charizard, what about you?”

    The dragon’s “apology” was, to put it mildly, louder than anyone expected. Both New Rocket members left shortly thereafter.

  8. #33
    You write battle scenes better then I do.....lol.

    Anyway, keep it up!
    Jolteon Flareon Vaporeon
    Espeon Umbreon
    Glaceon Leafeon
    Eevee

  9. #34
    This is honestly one of those chapters where I have it all written up then leave it for a week in indecision because of something that probably doesn't seem all that important to most people. In this case, it's the handling of a non-binary character (specifically, the character in question is genderqueer). Use of female pronouns is something I'm doing largely for the sake of accessibility, as I'm already piling on a lot of things probably unfamiliar to most of the audience with Alex, and adding too much more with a new character (such as alternate pronouns like "ze" and "hir" instead of "she" and "her", which would be more realistic for such a character) might be unreasonably off-putting. Still, it's not something that I plan to dwell upon after this chapter. It is what it is and I'll play it as it lies.

    Chapter 15 - Once Again

    It only took a few days for David to locate the Team Rocket front. Shan’s records were accurate, which came as a surprise to David. If he were setting up such a location, he’d make sure no record of the real address ever entered the books.

    This meant it was a pretty poor lead, but a lead all the same.

    David stepped into the bar. Its lighting was low, and his eyes took a while to adjust given the midday sun outside. The décor was garish, and the tables displayed the Idaman preference for polished surfaces. A man looking to be on the later side of middle age stood behind the bar, staring into a drink glass. He didn’t look up at David.

    “Stay here,” David said to Liam. Liam had a decent aptitude for Pokémon battle, but his situational reflexes left much to be desired.

    Liam nodded in affirmation and moved beside the door. He leaned against the wall and watched David as the psychic stepped up to the bar. The older man still didn’t acknowledge David’s presence.

    David turned his focus to the man’s mind. He was consciously ignoring David, although this was obvious even without telepathy. Unfortunately, the only other thing David could get from the man’s mind was an assessment of his drink. Apparently the mix was off, and the man had an idle desire to take a bartending course.

    “You’re the manager of this establishment?” David asked.

    Slowly, the man turned his gaze up to meet David’s. “I’m the owner, yes. I’m afraid I don’t manage this place on a day-to-day basis. You’re David Kirin, right?”

    “It seems you have me at a disadvantage.”

    The man smiled genially. “It would seem to me you could pluck my name from my head if you so chose.”

    David frowned. This man shouldn’t have known that he was psychic. He absolutely shouldn’t have known David’s real name. Displaying that knowledge was clear announcement of his Team Rocket affiliation. His mind seemed unnaturally disciplined. Was he taunting David?

    “Apparently you can’t,” the man said. “It’s all right. My name is Michael—a real name for a real name.”

    Michael wasn’t lying. David could tell that much. Overreliance on his psychic powers as a magic key into others’ thoughts meant that those powers now failing him was unnerving.

    “Should we dance the dance?” David asked.

    “I’m up for it if you are,” Michael replied. “Personally, I’ve done it too many times to enjoy it anymore, but it’s your decision.”

    David shook his head. “I don’t feel like making a fool of myself. The only thing I want to ask you is how you know my name.”

    “Even without your psychic abilities, it should be obvious.”

    David caught a flicker of identity from Michael’s mind. Michael didn’t think of the person as a name, but as a face. Michael’s mental image of Juliet was somewhat different from the real person, but still recognizable. Apparently the fact that David was supposed to be dead wasn’t as much an advantage as it should have been, assuming Juliet even kept her word. She was a decent enough woman, but Team Rocket had the effect of perverting decent people into criminals who could only get through their days by rationalizing away their actions.

    “All right, so Executive Juliet told you,” David said. As much as he hated the dance of propriety, he was in one now, and followed step knowing full well where it would take him.

    “I’m disappointed,” Michael said.

    David’s frown turned into a scowl. Being manipulated into drawing a wrong conclusion was humiliating. How did Michael know how David divined the relevant information, anyway? Was he psychic himself?

    “Juliet performed research on you, but didn’t document your captivity beyond what her superiors needed to know,” Michael continued. “We fully believed Shan was silenced by a normal New Rocket agent, that Juliet had been truthful when she reported the death of ‘David Kirin.’ It was actually the look in your eyes as you entered that suggested to me that you’re psychic. From there, your identity was obvious.”

    “I see,” was all David could say. Michael was exceptionally sharp, and his mental discipline was utterly astounding. “So, where do we go from here?”

    Rather than answering verbally, Michael raised one hand and David heard footsteps behind him. David glanced over his shoulder and saw two people closing in on Liam. Stopping them without killing them would be difficult, but premeditated murder was the one line David refused to cross, even at the cost of his own life. That ideal was harder to cling to when someone else’s life hinged on his actions. If it meant Liam’s survival, could he…?

    No. David wouldn’t cross that line even if someone else would die as a result of his inaction. He reached down to his belt, fingers inches from Dusknoir’s pokéball before Michael’s voice halted him.

    “Please don’t,” Michael requested calmly.

    David’s hands closed the final few inches towards the pokéball as Michael produced a gun seemingly from nowhere and shot him. Pain blossomed in David’s arm, the force of the impact spinning him around. His fingers spasmed, dropping the still miniature pokéball to the floor. It hit eye-first, enlarging but not opening.

    Arm throbbing, David reached for Charizard’s pokéball with his left hand. He dodged a second shot from Michael, clumsily hit the pokéball’s eye with his thumb, and tossed it in Michael’s general direction.

    Rather than try to fight the dragon without a Pokémon of his own, Michael ducked into the back room. Charizard’s wingspan meant he couldn’t pursue. The danger of Michael popping back out to take further shots at David was minimal—he could still sense Michael’s presence. The Rocket wasn’t going to surprise him.

    Liam’s Froslass wasn’t faring well against the two Rockets at the entrance. David reached for Golem’s pokéball and ordered, “Charizard, go help them.”

    The dragon grunted and beat his wings, taking flight and running headlong into one of the two Rockets. The other pulled back further behind his Grumpig. Froslass was quick, but she wouldn’t be able to get to the Rocket before Grumpig could stop her. Charizard would even those odds, and Golem would push the fight in their favour.

    Suddenly, David convulsed. He felt no pain, but his muscles spasmed and jerked awkwardly. He tumbled to the floor, unable to move. Golem's unopened pokéball rolled away. David's mind worked furiously. The paralysis was the result of an electric attack. David let himself become distracted by Liam’s plight, and was open to ambush. He counted himself lucky it was a Pokémon with Thunder Wave instead of Michael with his gun.

    A thunderbolt arced towards Charizard, striking the dragon. He howled as several scales blackened from the strike. Froslass hung close to Liam, eyes darting between Grumpig and the unseen assailant.

    “All right,” Liam said, holding his hands up. “I give up.”

    “Smart,” a man’s voice came from behind David. “Ampharos, that’s enough for now.”

    David felt Michael turn him and orient him into something approaching a sitting position. The process was humiliating, but he was paralyzed and unable to move. His psychic abilities weren’t going to be any help at the moment.

    Michael shook his head at David. “You shouldn’t have humoured me. That wound looks pretty bad.”

    David tried to ask something, but his mouth refused to work properly and the question came out very slurred.

    “No, I’m not going to kill you,” Michael promised. “Someone at Team Rocket—not Juliet—thinks your psychic abilities are still worth study. The existing data means further research on you will be that much easier.”

    David’s next question was as slurred as the first, but Michael still seemed to understand it.

    “Afterwards,” Michael said solemnly, “you’re to be tranquilized.”



    It took the better part of a week for Alex’s friend to arrive in Darkwood. Alex had to admit a week off with Terry was pleasant, especially when spent somewhere as beautiful as Darkwood. Of course, they also elected to stay in the hotel certain days, much to Marril’s complaint.

    Marril could sod right off.

    In a way, Alex kind of regretted telling the tale of how she announced her fulltime status in Cerulean. No good could possibly have come from it. The meeting at one of the local self-appointed trendy coffee shops was definitely meant to be ironic. Alex was even the one waiting at a table again, although this time she had company other than Marril.

    Seeing Kay in person was different than seeing cellphone photos. Alex was still taller than her by a good three or four inches. Her short and variously green, pink, and purple hair was much more vibrant in person. Her change in fashion since the last time Alex saw her was somewhat odd to see firsthand. She wore an extremely tight sleeveless top which made no secret of the fact that she was binding, complimented by black cargo pants. She could, in fact, have easily been mistaken for a teenage boy had Alex not known better.

    Of course, that's half the point, isn’t it? Alex thought.

    “Hi,” she said as she sat down.

    “Long time no see,” Alex said.

    “Yeah, about that,” Kay said, scowling. “I’m still not forgiving you for thinking I of all people wouldn’t take it well that you're really female.”

    “It was a strange state of being,” Alex admitted. She indicated Terry. “Kay, this is Terry. Terry, Kay.”

    Kay afforded Terry a quick wave from across the table. “Alex’s told me a lot about you.”

    “Do I really want to know what?”

    “Do you?”

    “I don’t think I’ll risk it,” Terry said. “So, um, just so I don’t make an idiot of myself, what, uh, pronoun do you use?”

    “Well,” Kay said, “I was assigned female at birth, so just go with those, I guess.”

    To Kay, the question was simply routine courtesy—if the appropriate pronoun to use with someone seemed ambiguous, you asked rather than assumed. Alex didn’t see why Terry found it awkward. Kay’s awkwardness was somewhat understandable, since she didn't actually identify as female, but outside the gender binary altogether. Given all the difficulty Alex had in getting people to accept her as female at the start of her transition, and even occasionally now, she didn’t want to imagine how hard it was for Kay to get others to accept her identifying as neither strictly male nor female.

    “Mar-mar!” Marril interjected.

    Kay grinned and petted Marril. “Aww, how could I have forgotten about you?”

    “Careful,” Alex said. “She bites.”

    “She’d never bite me,” Kay cooed, scratching Marril behind the ear.

    “Marrrrr,” Marril said contentedly. Her tail twitched rhythmically.

    “I didn’t say she’d bite you,” Alex corrected. “But I’m just letting you know in case she bites Terry. She’s been known to do that from time to time.”

    Terry frowned at the barb. “So Alex says you two go way back.”

    “Oh, yeah,” Kay replied. “I think she was… fourteen when I first met her?”

    “Fifteen,” Alex corrected.

    “Fifteen. It’s such a terrible story when you go ahead and tell it, but like, to put it bluntly, I’d seen a few shows she was in at the Cerulean gym, and I have to admit I was kinda… infatuated.”

    Terry snorted in amusement.

    “Well,” Kay continued, “silly crushes are just part of being a teenager, I guess. Anyway, I approached her after one of the shows and we hit it off pretty quick. Nothing happened romantically, but we became friends.”

    “Totally not just for free tickets,” Alex added with a smirk.

    Hearing her past described with female pronouns was somewhat disorienting. Rewriting history was the generally accepted method of resolving conversational gender issues, but Alex wasn’t prepared for the mental image changes accompanying Kay’s retelling. She remembered performing in those shows. She knew how she looked at the time. She knew all the reasons she attracted fangirls rather than fanboys. And yet her mind substituted a more agreeable image.

    “Well, they were pretty good seats. Anyway, after a couple years she just kinda dropped everything and left. Tossed me a written apology and disappeared,” Kay said.

    Alex looked to Kay. “Seems really stupid in hindsight.”

    Kay nodded somberly. “You were going through a really rough time.”

    “This was your Hoenn run?” Terry asked.

    “Well, there weren’t any gym battles involved, but yeah,” Alex said. One of the benefits of placing in the top 8 of a regional tournament was that it gave you the option to skip the gym circuit for the next regionals you competed in regardless of area. It was enacted to reduce strain on gyms receiving challenges from trainers who couldn’t possibly lose, but in reality all it did was shift the strain onto the regional Elite Four, who oversaw the challenges. This made it a perfect way to run from her problems: It was easy and involved doing something familiar she could immerse herself in.

    “Then that’s when I first met her,” Terry said. “She was… certainly something. One hell of a temper though.”

    Alex elbowed Terry in the ribs.

    “She’s still got it, apparently,” Terry added with a slight wince.

    Thinking back to how she used to act was a bit of a sore spot for Alex. Terry’s assessment of her temper actually downplayed just how harshly she used to lash out at anyone in range, often triggered by extremely minor things. Even Marril hadn’t been fully immune to that uncontrollable anger. After starting hormone treatment, this subsided so fast that even she could see how Terry and Sam could say she was an entirely different person now.

    Anyway,” Alex said, “how’s your gym circuit going?”

    Kay shrugged and spoke a few choice words.

    “That bad?”

    “You ever have to carry a partner in every single fight?” Kay asked. “I mean, at first it didn’t look too bad, but we won two gyms in five challenges. Including here. I basically soloed them.”

    Alex wanted to add that she felt Terry could give the exact same description, but clamped down on that little bit of self-loathing. Besides, she could give Kay a bit of leeway—Kay was an amazing trainer, and had some right to be critical. “I imagine that’d be pretty frustrating.”

    “Yeah,” Kay said with a pained expression on her face, a distant look in her eyes. “So that was the end of it. Even if we got all eight badges in twenty challenges, we wouldn’t have a prayer at the League championships.”

    “You ditched her?” Alex asked.

    Kay shook her head. “She quit on her own. Now I’m stuck in Idama basically on extended vacation.”

    “Could come along with us if you want,” Alex offered. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing, but rather than wondering what she just asked, Alex found herself wanting Kay along. Kay was her best friend, although slightly estranged. It would be nice to spend time with her again.

    “I don’t want to get in the way or anything.”

    “Anyone else might be, but you?” Alex asked.

    Kay chuckled. “Yeah, twist my arm, eh? Sure, I'll turn this duo into a trio.”

    “Don’t I get a say in this?” Terry wondered.

    “You have a problem with it?” Alex asked, forcing any accusatory tone away from the question.

    “Not really. It’d just be nice to have a yes vote.”

    Alex elbowed Terry again.

  10. #35
    Awesome!

    So, I am guessing that Kay is going to be the 'Marril' from the old series? (I've forgotten what you called them...)
    Jolteon Flareon Vaporeon
    Espeon Umbreon
    Glaceon Leafeon
    Eevee

  11. #36
    Ugh. I was hoping to get this out there before all my time was swallowed up with having to move (because I really like this chapter and think it's a good microcosm for the entire series' themes), but alas, it seems I wasn't so fortunate. Anyway, yes, Kay is more or less the same personality, except less childish. She still fulfills the plot roles of being an old friend for Alex and a friendly rival for Terry while getting her own character arc (albeit a necessarily different one than the comparable character in the old SS). I imagine she'll be somewhat of a "love her or hate her" type of character, but then again I suspect SS itself is kind of like that.

    Chapter 16 - With Feeling

    David awoke in an enclosed room similar to the one he’d inhabited during his brief stay with Juliet. The furniture was slightly different, and there were ominous blinking lights around the door, but otherwise it looked identical.

    Gods, my head feels like I mixed up pint glasses and shot glasses, David thought as he sluggishly rolled off the bed. His feet touched down before the rest of him could, saving him a fall. Either his nerves still hadn’t healed from the electric shock, or he’d been drugged a lot harder than he should have been.

    David discovered he was wearing a metal anklet, smoothness only broken at the clasp. He peered at it quizzically and tried to focus his psychic abilities to remove it. Nothing happened. As his mind cleared, he realized he got the same feeling from it as he got from dark-type Pokémon.

    “Well, that figures,” David mumbled to no one. It seemed Team Rocket had technology that could block psychic abilities. He wondered why Juliet never employed it. She was an executive, which was theoretically the highest rank beneath Giovanni. Doubtless she had access to it, so why hadn’t she made use of it? Was it due to some kind of pride?

    “Are you well?” Came a voice from around the corner, spurred by David’s grumbling. The voice was monotone, both clinical and detached.

    “Of course not,” David spat.

    A red-haired woman stepped into David’s field of view. Her face was impassive as she looked at David, as if she only cared about him as a thing, not a person. Frustrated, David tried to read her mind, to figure out what her goal was. It was like trying to read the mind of a dark-type. Strange. He didn’t like how wondering whether someone was psychic themself was his go-to when his abilities failed him, but in this case the feeling couldn’t be explained by mental discipline.

    That’s when David noticed the scars on the woman’s temples. She was a tranquilized psychic. David suddenly felt very cold. Tranquilization was an utterly horrific procedure involving severe mental damage. The woman’s scars weren’t surgical, but the result of a psychic branding that seared her brain, removing her ability to make use of psychic abilities both active and passive. Loss of emotion and some higher thought processes were simply side effects.

    “I’m sorry the accommodations could not be made more pleasant,” the woman said.

    “Not my first time being imprisoned by you guys, anyway,” David commented sourly. “Who are you, anyway?”

    “My name is Lindsay. I have been assigned to be your caretaker for the immediate future.”

    As distasteful as Juliet’s cognitive dissonance was, she was far better company than Lindsay. Every time Lindsay spoke, David could hear the horror she’d been put through. He could hear her utter loss of self in that eerie monotone voice.

    “And once they’re done with me?” David asked.

    “Your mind is to be freed from the chains binding it.”

    David’s chills had never gone away, and now they were accompanied by potent disgust. He flexed his right hand into a fist and opened it, finger muscles taut. Anything to stimulate some kind of muscle, to get some kind of sensory input to keep his mind from focusing entirely on the horror. He felt profoundly sorry for Lindsay, but tried to quash this feeling as best he could. For all he knew, Team Rocket hoped he’d succumb to this sympathy and become attached to her, just like he’d let himself form a kind of camaraderie with Juliet.

    David shook his head slowly. “How can you say that?”

    Lindsay blinked. “Psychic abilities are a burden no one should have to bear.”

    The worst part was David could see the logic there. Living in fear of accidentally hurting or killing someone, of the emotional strain that came from using his powers so freely knowing the dangers… if his abilities weren’t so useful, he could have lived without them. But not at the cost of being tranquilized. Tranquilization was worse than death—the latter didn’t leave a mockery of yourself behind to wear your face.

    David stood up to his full height, towering over Lindsay. He didn’t know why he affected such posture. Lindsay wouldn’t see any difference between that and him remaining seated.

    “Can you at least tell me who you’re working for?” David asked.

    “Team Rocket.”

    “No, I mean who you’re working for. Michael?”

    “It is not my prerogative to reveal that information.”

    David swore and turned his back to Lindsay. “Is there any point in conversing with you?”

    “Most humans are comforted by regular socialization. Easing feelings of isolation is part of my purpose as your caretaker.”

    The road to hell was paved with good intentions. Lindsay wouldn’t lie. She had no reason to, and even a tranquilized psychic working for Team Rocket wouldn’t be prone to duplicity. They simply didn’t have the mental ability to maintain a complex deception.

    “Will I get to meet my captors at some point?” David asked. “Or are you simply going to drug me every time I’m to be your research specimen?”

    “I was instructed to alert my superior upon your awakening,” Lindsay explained. “It won’t be long.”

    David hung his head. He certainly hoped Michael hadn’t lied. He didn’t know if he could keep up hope should Juliet step through that warded doorway.



    Discreet requests for after-hours meetings weren’t exactly new to Melanie, but this was the first time in a while such a request came from Juliet. She doubted very much that Juliet asked for the same reasons Sam would, although that thought gave Melanie an odd amusement. Regardless, if she was supposed to meet Juliet in the secondary lab, it was going to be business.

    Juliet waited alongside Banette and Mismagius, making Melanie wonder if she should have brought Hitmonlee.

    “You’re early,” Juliet noted with a sharp nod as Melanie came within earshot.

    Melanie shrugged. “I’ve got a date with Sam later I’m hoping I don’t have to cancel. You said this was going to be quick, right?”

    “Relatively.”

    “From the hour and the odd location, I’m also going to assume it’s more Team Rocket drama?”

    Juliet nodded again.

    Melanie sighed. “So what’s Roland doing now, anyway?”

    “He’s decided to take the direct approach in trying to control me,” Juliet explained. “You wouldn’t believe it, but the fact that there’s a third executive in Idama is causing a lot of problems. Many higher-ranking agents are actually coming to me to mediate the Roland-Kenneth conflict. Roland wants a permanent tiebreaker.”

    “So how’s he trying to control you?” Melanie asked. Juliet’s rank had always been more ceremonial than practical, but Melanie could believe agents would seek the weight behind that nominal rank in order to resolve conflicting orders.

    “Generous amounts of browbeating, for one,” Juliet said bitterly. “More pertinent is that he’s decided to keep as close an eye on me as he can. Hence the location for this little rendezvous.”

    “It’s to make sure you’re not plotting against him or anything else so devious.” Melanie snorted in amusement. “I thought we were supposed to be working against those ‘New Rocket’ guys, not each other. Can’t Roland and Kenneth leave their little gang war for after all this is done? And I’m not in the country anymore?”

    “I’d follow you right out,” Juliet said. “But our situation is what it is. Personally, I think this is a pretty good incentive to side with Kenneth—say what you will, he’s not the one trying to intimidate me into obedience.”

    “Why even go to this trouble just for a few scientists’ sakes?” Melanie wondered.

    Juliet let out a heavy breath. “You haven’t heard of something called Mewtwo, have you?”

    Melanie shook her head.

    “I’d be very surprised if you did. It was Team Rocket’s first attempt to create an artificial Pokémon. Oh, sure, cloning dead Pokémon from fossils is old technology, and unstable Pokémon like Porygon and Castform are nothing remarkable. Team Plasma created Genesect, certainly, but Mewtwo went a step further. You’re familiar with Mew, I assume?”

    “The Progenitor,” Melanie said with a nod. “Second Pokémon to exist after the Creator.”

    Juliet shook her head derisively. “While no one’s ever seen an Arceus as far as I know, Mew is simply extraordinarily rare and possesses interesting abilities—enough to be a god to primitive cultures, no doubt, but a Pokémon like any other. Still, its genetic structure was interesting enough that, with Mew’s genes as a template, we created Mewtwo.”

    “The fact that I’ve never heard of this is probably ominous.”

    “Very. The first Mewtwo we created…”

    “Oh for the love of the gods, more than one of them.”

    Juliet ignored the interruption. “…was certainly powerful, and for a time Giovanni used him as you would any trained Pokémon. Then he escaped. The tale of attempting to recapture him is a long and sordid one, but suffice to say after that failure we created a second. This too ended poorly, and significantly more violently.”

    “This would be why Tribo isn’t using any existing Pokémon as a template,” Melanie added. It wasn’t a question.

    “Right. Giovanni is utterly obsessed with creating the perfect Pokémon—for all Team Rocket pretends to be better than those Team Whatevers all over Japan, who want nothing more than the flood the land or to ‘free’ Pokémon from their trainers or inflate the bloody sun, we too have our crippling obsession. The only difference is most Rockets never discover what this obsession is. But in essence, the person in charge of the Tribo Project is in a very real sense second only to Giovanni in power, albeit not in a way that can be directly projected over others.”

    “So there’s Roland’s motivation to try and control you. What do you suppose we do about it?” Melanie asked.

    “I have my plans,” Juliet said. “There is, however, one uncomfortable thing I have to ask you to do.”

    “After all this, what could possibly be ‘uncomfortable’?”

    “I need you to reveal my Team Rocket affiliation to Sam,” Juliet said.

    Melanie felt like she’d been punched in the gut. She tried to keep her Team Rocket life separate from her romantic life, and Ryan’s intrusion on one of their dates had been bad enough. But that brush with disaster still didn’t involve Team Rocket’s existence being anything more than an immaterial Other in Sam’s eyes. Given Sam’s past, she might simply choose to leave regardless of her attachment to Melanie.

    “Why?” Melanie asked at last.

    “Two reasons, neither pleasant,” Juliet explained. “The first is practical: If Sam knows about the situation, she’s better equipped to handle actual danger. Not every problem is an easy-to-repel Pokémon assault. Which leads me to the second reason. We have a Pokémon Master working for us. I don’t see any reason not to make use of her.”

    Melanie scowled. Juliet’s explanation reeked of the same dehumanization behind keeping that psychic locked up in the old lab—a disgusting thing to do, but something Melanie could bring herself to overlook so long as she wasn’t personally involved in it. Applying that same level of dehumanization to Sam was unthinkable.

    “No,” Melanie said flatly. Her mind raced, trying to think of a way to justify her reflexive answer.

    “You’re under the impression it was a request,” Juliet said darkly.

    Melanie latched onto an idea, hoping it would be good enough. “I won’t tell her you’re actually a Rocket member—it’d be too close to her previous experiences with Team Rocket. Instead… instead, I have an idea that should work just as well.”

    “Let’s hear it.”

    Melanie explained her plan. After considering it, Juliet gave her approval.



    “Sorry I’m late,” Melanie said as she came up behind Sam. The latter was already seated and from the looks of things had been working on her drink for a while. Melanie gave Sam a quick hug from behind and a kiss on the cheek before sitting down opposite her.

    Sam smiled. “Actually, it’s enough seeing you be the late one for a change.”

    “Law of averages,” Melanie said. “I hope you weren’t waiting long.”

    “Not really. It’s been about ten minutes, I guess.”

    Melanie sighed as she sat down. “Sorry.”

    “Work stuff?”

    “In a manner of speaking,” Melanie said, unable to restrain a wince fully.

    “I wasn’t aware Juliet’s ‘don’t let it get in the way of work’ thing applied to not being allowed to refuse unannounced overtime,” Sam commented drily.

    “That’s…” Melanie began, and paused. She had the choice to drop her plan entirely, to pretend like her problems really were just a bad day at work. She could keep Sam out of the Team Rocket conflicts. For a brief moment, she seriously considered it as a possibility. “That’s one way of putting it.”

    “Somehow I think this is going to come with a story attached,” Sam said.

    Melanie rubbed the back of her neck awkwardly. She wished she knew how much of her nervousness was real and how much was affected. “After dinner, if you don’t mind. I really don’t want to spoil the mood.”

    “It’ll be spoiled anyway if you keep it bottled in,” Sam pointed out.

    “Just… it can wait. Please.”

    “If you say so,” Sam sounded puzzled.

    Melanie thanked whichever god of luck or fate was appropriate that their server picked this time to make another round past their table. By the time Melanie and Sam each placed their orders, enough time had passed for Melanie to change the subject with some level of reasonability.

    Dinner was far from unpleasant. Melanie was used to keeping her Team Rocket membership secret, so that part was nothing new. She barely even thought of it in those terms anymore. Being a Rocket was simply some private aspect of her life that Sam didn’t need to hear about. After all, Melanie never brought up her exes, despite that she thought Sam might actually find the rather dramatic story of a particularly unfortunate one to be rather amusing. Same thing in her mind.

    Melanie opted for dessert, if only to delay the inevitable. She invariably had a second stomach for dessert, and Sam certainly didn’t complain. A bit of sugar would probably go a long way.

    It wasn’t until they left that Melanie brought up the subject of Team Rocket again. The twilit walkway to the parking lot was hardly a dramatic location, but Melanie learned long ago that any attempts to make things dramatic always backfired. Drama happened on its own and natural chaos and uncertainty always made things more tense than the most carefully scripted fiction.

    “So, uh,” Melanie began uncertainly. “You remember I mentioned that thing at the start?”

    Sam stopped and turned to face Melanie. With an understanding sigh, she said, “Out with it. That’s the best way to take this.”

    Melanie glanced about avoidantly. “All right. It wasn’t really ‘overtime’ in the normal ‘extra work’ sense. I’m gonna give this some preamble just so it flows a bit better, okay?”

    “Long story, eh?” Sam said.

    “I assume you remember the Team Rocket attack on the old lab,” Melanie began. The mental image of Sam’s dragons all but effortlessly plowing through a small army of attacking Pokémon gnawed at the back of her mind. It was easy to forget Sam was a Pokémon Master, and while she was hardly the very best like no one ever was, she was still far stronger than anyone in Team Rocket.

    “If they’re planning to attack again…” Sam grumbled.

    “No, they aren’t. At least… not with Pokémon,” Melanie said. Sticking to her planned script was much harder than she anticipated. “They’ve tried the overt method. Now, well… look, the short of it is they’ve pressured Juliet into working with them. Siphoning off our research and any spare resources out of… some kind of protection racket.”

    After a brief pause, Sam swore. She shook her head and looked up at the clouds. “Just never ends, does it?”

    Melanie had a hunch this question was directed inwards. “I…”

    Sam interrupted Melanie. “Tell you what,” she said firmly. “I’ll make it end.”

    This broke all of Melanie’s pre-planned conversation paths. She’d expected to have to talk Sam into helping her, or to direct anger in the right direction. She hadn’t thought Sam might take the fight option instead of the flight option.

    “I don’t even know where to begin,” Melanie admitted.

    “I can figure something out,” Sam promised. “All else fails, I have a good idea of where to turn for a few hints.”

    Melanie idly wondered if Sam was referring to her sister with that. Alex’s apparent Rocket connections stymied even Juliet’s investigations. The fact that Alex began running the Neo League circuit right at the point the conflict erupted couldn’t possibly have been coincidence, especially not given Alex’s choice of travel partner. Terry’s presence was the most inexplicable part of it all—why him alongside someone like Alex? Dozens of unanswerable questions swam through Melanie’s mind.

    “Anything you can share with me?” Melanie asked.

    “Not really,” Sam said. “I don’t even know if there’s anything there. Just… a guess of mine.”

    “All right,” Melanie said. An odd smile crossed her face, leaving her wondering whether it was a subconscious part of her act or whether it was something real slipping through. “You have no idea how much this means to me.”

    Sam drew Melanie in for a tight hug. “I love you, Melanie,” she whispered. “I can’t just let this happen to a friend of yours.”

    Melanie let her arms circle around Sam and absentmindedly stroked her short, chestnut brown hair. She couldn’t bring herself to say anything. At least this way she could pretend to be worth Sam’s affection.

  12. #37
    Is is just me, or is Sam much more easy to sway in the this version?
    Jolteon Flareon Vaporeon
    Espeon Umbreon
    Glaceon Leafeon
    Eevee

  13. #38
    /offtopic

    Ohhh myyyy, it's Marril! :o

    /backontopic
    From Pojo's forum: "you sacrifice synergy to be playing electrodes and rayquazas in a blaziken deck as it is. it isn't broken enough"

    Quote Originally Posted by vaporeon
    However, in a game where you can play 4 of everything, a side deck seems almost worthless

  14. #39
    JewelQuest: The answer to that question is kind of a "yes and no" thing. It helps to look at it from Sam's perspective and experiences. She had a bad history where Team Rocket duped her into working for them, and she thinks she's gotten away from all of that. She's even found a partner she genuinely loves. She's had to repel a pretty large physical attack already (which, as we saw in chapter 9, put considerable emotional strain on both Sam and Melanie), and now Team Rocket's (Team Rocket, New Rockets, she doesn't know there's a difference) trying a more subtle approach that has a much better chance of succeeding at (indirectly) ruining her efforts to date. Her options as she sees them are to run away from the problem again, which she'd probably do if she wasn't in a relationship with Melanie, or to fight it. Juliet and by extension Melanie are simply taking advantage of all kinds of factors that steer Sam's instincts towards fight rather than flight. Still, despite being one of the more naive SS cast members, she's not completely gullible—she's just operating on woefully incomplete and even outright wrong information.

    Tagrineth: Sadly our favourite water mouse is only back in town for fanfic purposes, although I occasionally make forays into other subforums. What can I say, I'm weird and like to tinker with really old stories of mine—fun fact: Alex was pretty obviously trans right from day 1, despite me not knowing what transsexuality was when I first wrote the character at age 10-11 or so (that she's openly trans now is just the product of me, uh, let's just say knowing much more about the subject, rather than being anything approaching a recent development... basically what I'm saying is "tinker with" has less to do with the LGBT stuff that was always there, and more to do with simply getting better at writing crime drama). That said, I do remember you as being one of the more awesome people on here, so it's nice to see you're still kicking around.

    Chapter 17 - Downward Spiral

    “Well, that didn’t work out so well,” Sam announced as she dropped down onto the loveseat, leaning back and staring at the ceiling.

    “Oh?” Melanie asked from what could have been called the dining room had it been a separate room rather than one part of a big room with a different type of flooring. Sam’s apartment left a lot to be desired in terms of floor layout.

    Sam tossed her cell phone to the side, and it hit the cushion with a light thump. “Just… didn’t work.”

    “At least tell me what this huge thing was about,” Melanie said.

    “You’ll just laugh.”

    “I won’t. Scout’s honour.”

    Sam shot a look at Melanie. “Were you ever a scout?”

    “I’ve bought cookies from them before, if that counts,” Melanie said.

    To Melanie’s amazement, Sam actually facepalmed. Anything to lighten the mood given the rather trying week the two of them were going through.

    “It’s… just…” Sam began, and trailed off. “I thought I knew a guy who had Team Rocket connections.”

    Melanie raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”

    “Well, Alex knew him better than I did, I guess,” Sam admitted. “It was pretty long ago though. Couldn’t expect much.”

    Curiosity piqued, Melanie inquired, “How’d she know him?”

    “It’s a long and boring story that doesn’t have much to do with Team Rocket anyway,” Sam said.

    For any other audience, it may have been boring, but Melanie was very interested in anything that might solve the mystery surrounding Sam’s sister. No matter how anticlimactic, Melanie simply had to know.

    “Who knows?” Melanie suggested as nonchalantly as she could manage. “I might be able to offer something.”

    “All right, don’t say I didn’t warn you. Helps to know that our parents separated when we were really young. Mom made no secret that I was her favourite—looking back, I thought Alex was dad’s favourite, but I think he was just trying to make up the difference. Anyway, we were shuffled back and forth a lot, and I never really paid much attention to things at dad’s place, but I remember there was this one guy on staff at school who seemed kind of… odd. Not like odd ‘creepy,’ just like he was hiding something. I never really got to know him that well before some kind of professional relationship sprung up, which would’ve made it awkward to go back and start asking questions.

    “He always made sure the both of us got the best teachers in school, the best distance education when we were out running gym circuits… he even wrote letters of recommendation for me when I was applying to university. Somehow, doors magically opened when he got involved, but no one seemed willing to say much about him. It wasn’t something you notice as a teenager, so it might’ve just been my memories playing with me, but he just had that organized crime… aura to him, I guess you’d call it.”

    Melanie listened to the story with interest, hoping she didn’t seem too engrossed. There was no way to tell from Sam’s story whether the man was a member of Team Rocket or for that matter any other criminal organization, or whether he was simply very well-connected. Still, it provided a potential lead she could have Juliet follow up on.

    “What was his name?” Melanie asked.

    “It was Daniel… something,” Sam said with a shrug. “Uh, Daniel Anderson. What, gonna look him up when you go for your doctorate?”

    “Tempting,” Melanie replied with an odd grin. She didn’t recognize the name, but given the position the man was in he almost certainly wasn’t using his real name. “Just have to tell him what mob princess’ partner I am, eh?”

    Sam’s frown let Melanie know instantly that she’d gone too far.

    “Sorry,” Melanie apologized sheepishly. “I wasn’t thinking.”

    “No, you weren’t,” Sam agreed, bitterness creeping into her voice. “How can you be so cavalier about all this, anyway?”

    “Because the alternative is to freak out, okay?” Melanie countered with more harshness than necessary.

    “Sometimes I think it’d be better if you freaked out more often,” Sam grumbled, barely audible. Melanie didn’t pursue that subject—better to let Sam think her unable to take things seriously than give her reason to suspect her relative calmness came from a position she absolutely should not have been in.

    “Do you think Alex would have any better luck if you asked her to try?” Melanie offered.

    “Probably not. The main problem I ran into is that he just… vanished. I think we’re better off trying to find another angle.”

    “You’re the boss,” Melanie said. It felt strange to say this line to Sam, but past that initial strangeness, slipping into her cover role was surprisingly easy. Not that it particularly eased the strain on their relationship.

    “Yeah,” Sam complained under her breath. “Come to me for help then put me in charge. That's really wonderful of you.”

    Sam’s words were barely audible, and from the tone, it seemed Sam thought Melanie couldn’t hear them. Melanie wished she hadn’t. She stopped herself from replying that Sam was the Pokémon Master here. Besides, Sam did have a point she didn’t know she made—Melanie was underplaying her hand out of fear she’d give herself away, but was holding back too much. Melanie would have to rectify this.

    Sometimes, Melanie thought, it simply felt like it was a race between solving the Team Rocket conflict and her relationship with Sam hitting the boiling point.



    Lindsay lied.

    Or, well, she didn’t lie so much as David read entirely the wrong things into what she said. When the tranquilized psychic said he was going to see Lindsay’s superior, he thought she meant he’d formally meet her, not simply have her present during research sessions that made Juliet’s look humane.

    The most mind-boggling part was he went along with it. The first time Lindsay led him to the lab, produced a needle, and told him she was going to sedate him, he didn’t try to resist. He didn’t resist the second, third, or fourth time either. It likely wouldn’t have done much given the heavy dampening on his psychic abilities and the fact that physical resistance would likely have meant people bursting into the room to restrain him by force, but there was a principle to uphold.

    Wasn’t there?

    David looked at Lindsay as he sat on the bed. The tranquilized psychic often stood at the far end of the room when she didn’t have anything else to do. Try as he might, he couldn’t figure out exactly why. He could guess, but lacking certainty was a new feeling. He didn’t like to think about possibilities unless he was completely sure of them.

    He opened his mouth for a brief moment to say something, but decided against it. Every time he spoke to her, he reminded himself of how he pointedly asserted to Juliet that he wouldn’t let some kind of Stockholm syndrome set in, and wound up succumbing to it anyway. It was a painful memory, but at least resisting the effect was easier with Lindsay because…

    Because…

    Because she wasn’t human. The way David finished the thought unsettled him. For someone who’d been treated as merely a thing ever since he arrived in Idama, he was certainly quick to do the same to others. His mind raced, trying to justify this behaviour. In Team Rocket’s eyes, David wasn’t human because his psychic abilities made him into a thing to be studied. In David’s eyes, Lindsay wasn’t human because her brain had been irreversibly damaged as a result of her tranquilization. Therefore the invalidation of David’s humanity was wrong because he still had full mental capacity, but the invalidation of Lindsay’s was right because she didn’t.

    So, David thought, bonus round: If I get tranquilized, should I accept being treated like a mere thing?

    He shuddered at the prospect.

    “How long?” David finally asked his question.

    After a moment, Lindsay answered, “Estimated start time is approximately eighteen minutes.”

    Approximately. Lindsay’s answer put an importance on individual seconds David couldn’t understand.

    Well, there was no other way to pass the time. David asked, “So, Lindsay, you can’t tell me anything about Team Rocket as it currently is, right?”

    “I may not divulge any information deemed sensitive,” Lindsay said dully.

    “How about your own past?” David asked.

    “I am not restricted from speaking of myself as long as it does not compromise anything currently sensitive.”

    “It won’t,” David promised. His words weighed heavily upon him. He knew he wasn’t seeking information, but justification. “I just wanted to know more about you. How long you’ve been tranquilized. What you were like before then.”

    Lindsay blinked. “I see no relevance in this.”

    “You said people are healthier when they can socialize regularly, right? Well, I want to know about you.”

    “I have been tranquilized for one year and eight months,” Lindsay explained, sounding altogether too much like an emotionless, computerized text reading. “Before my tranquilization I was a coordinator at a shipping concern in Johto. Two years ago, Team Rocket acquired me by force and used me to obtain specific information. Several months later, they eased my pain, and for that I am eternally grateful to them.”

    Eased the pain they themselves inflicted, David thought. No, he realized a heartbeat later. She was referring to the pain of having psychic abilities. “You really see tranquilization as a favour?”

    Lindsay nodded. “My life was so complex before. It was full of uncontrollable emotion.”

    “You don’t miss your work?” David asked, agape. “Your friends?”

    “I don’t see why I would. Friends are simply those to whom you have emotional bonds. I feel no specific attachment to any individual. Similarly, work is merely a task to be performed. I do as directed, nothing more.”

    “You’re putting past events in present tense,” David countered. “You must’ve felt that attachment back then, right?”

    Lindsay offered a minimal shrug. “I don’t think back to before my tranquilization. Those events and feelings are no longer relevant to my life. Dwelling upon them is unproductive.”

    David stood up, looking into Lindsay’s eyes. “But your old friends still have feelings. They’ll still think about you, looking back on this friend who simply vanished one day, on someone who’s dead for all they know. That means nothing to you?”

    “I’m afraid it does not.”

    David swore and paced back and forth. As much as he wanted to believe that Lindsay was still human on some level, it seemed like she was set on proving him wrong at every turn. She had a human face, spoke with human language, and expressed logic in human terms, but at her heart she was only a simulacrum, a gynoid of flesh and bone.

    “Is something the matter?” Lindsay asked clinically.

    “You don’t care that Team Rocket enslaved you, do you?” David wondered, voice hollow. Vocalizing the thought added so much more weight to it than holding it in his head.

    Lindsay tilted her head in confusion. “I am not a slave. I am free to leave their employment, the same as anyone may quit a job.”

    “Why don’t you, knowing what they’re like?”

    “I have no need to. I live comfortably with Team Rocket. They support me in ways which outside society would not. There is no logical reason for me to leave.”

    “Even though they’re criminals to the last man?” David asked. He dispensed with subtlety and added, “How is staying here even remotely human?”

    “You presume a sense of ethics and morality to be human,” Lindsay corrected placidly. Her tone was the same as always. “Those are relative constructs, not absolutes.”

    “Emotion is human,” David announced. “A sense of right and wrong, any sense of right and wrong is human. Memories and attachments are human. Being human means living. It means having dreams and goals, even if they’re unattainable. There’s no point in being alive if you’re a hollow shell existing day to day under a pretense of pure logic.”

    Rather than argue anything David said, Lindsay asked, “Would you make these same statements were I not tranquilized?”

    Lindsay’s question was unanswerable. David would have liked to imagine he would have said the same things, but he couldn’t be certain. The only certainty he had was that regardless of anything Lindsay said, he was still different from her and he’d fight to keep that status quo.

    The door opened and several Team Rocket members stepped through. They were obviously lower-tier thugs given the quality of their clothing. One jerked his head towards Lindsay.

    “Get him ready,” the man grunted.

    “I understand,” Lindsay responded. She turned to David. “It is time to return to the lab.”

    David shot a glare between the two thugs and Lindsay. Grudgingly, he followed them into the brightly-lit hall. His mind felt more at ease the farther he got from the holding room—only that room and the lab had the technological wards that suppressed his psychic abilities. The anklet he wore dampened them but couldn’t eliminate them.

    The lack of mental suppression was like a quick gasp of air to a drowning person. It could only offer false hope rather than change the situation. David found that the brief moments he was in transit were the moments he lived for these days. If, after his conversation with Lindsay, he could even call it living. Could he?

    No, he couldn’t. He felt like Shan, playing along with something he knew would kill him in the end. He remembered condemning Shan for that, and feeling Shan’s death justified. He fought back during Michael’s ambush, and he could fight back now. There wasn’t any reason not to resist except for an encroaching learned helplessness that threatened to render him docile.

    David’s anklet dampened his psychic abilities to the point where using them caused pain all over his body, the product of a strained nervous system. Even worse, they were harder to keep control of, but in this instance David could let that much slide.

    One Team Rocket thug walked in front of David. The other walked behind him, accompanied by Lindsay. Lindsay’s mind may have felt like that of a dark-type Pokémon, but she possessed no immunity to his telekinetic abilities. Limbs threatening to spasm from pain that could easily have paralyzed him, David threw out a blast of psychic force around him, knocking his three captors into the walls.

    David’s pace was erratic. His legs didn’t seem to want to work right. Small wonder, given the strain he’d just put himself under. He tried to ignore the twisting feeling in his stomach as he realized he wasn’t anywhere near out of this yet.

    He glanced behind him and saw Lindsay of all people was the first up. Without thinking, he threw another blast of psychic force at her, this one unrestrained, unfocused. She hissed in pain and fell limply to the floor. It was the rag-doll fall of someone who wouldn’t be getting back up again.

    If Lindsay knew what I just did, David thought, trying to ignore the searing pain now shooting through his legs, chest, and left arm, she’d probably thank me. The real Lindsay, not that twisted, desecrated mockery of her.

    Regardless of someone else’s hypothetical attitudes, this meant David crossed a line he’d danced around twice before. The stroke he’d given that unfortunate trainer at the Saffron City gym was accidental, and while he was responsible, it wasn’t his fault. Shan’s death was premeditated, and while he was responsible for giving Charizard the order, David still felt it wasn’t really his fault. The situation simply demanded it, the same as this one.

    What a load that is, David thought. Wasn’t he ready to let Liam die rather than kill someone if the situation with Michael came to that decision? Funny how his principles failed him now that it was his own life on the line. Now the floodgates were truly open, even though he fully believed Lindsay’s death to be mercy.

    David made it to the ground floor before having to stop to rest. He didn’t see any cameras on the way down, but that didn’t mean Team Rocket wouldn’t know where he was and, more importantly, where he’d go. Telekinetic powers wouldn’t let him fly, so he’d have to leave by one of the exits. That left only two concerns: Whether or not Team Rocket could cover them all, and whether or not David could overcome the people guarding the doors.

    As it turned out, David would never get that opportunity. He didn’t get much farther before running into several more Team Rocket thugs accompanied by the blonde-haired woman he supposed was the local boss.

    Elizabeth. He remembered her name from overheard conversation. If she was anything like Juliet, he could probably keep her talking long enough to figure something out or even just prepare himself for another psychic burst.

    “This is very inconvenient,” Elizabeth commented to no one in particular as she looked at David.

    “I could hardly—” David began.

    “Grab him,” Elizabeth interrupted.

    So much for that. David dodged one thug’s lunge, but found his body simply couldn’t react as fast as he needed it to. He had to risk using his psychic abilities again.

    A bright white flash temporarily blinded him as he tried to use his abilities and he fell to the floor. His vision slowly returned, but only in one eye. Dimly, he thought for a moment that he’d been struck over the head unaware by another Team Rocket thug. He tried to get up, but couldn’t move the blind side of his body. Too late he realized what happened—he’d strained himself too hard and finally something in his brain gave way. Something that couldn't be healed. Something that would swiftly kill him.

    “How unfortunate if this is what I think it is,” Elizabeth commented, standing over David.

    David wanted, at least, to confirm Elizabeth’s suspicion, but his mouth couldn’t formulate the words. His vision began to darken. He reflected that he’d never been as true to his principles as he claimed to have been, but he was proud to have made his stand in the end, no matter what it cost him. While any other day he’d have said life’s downs outweighed its ups, he felt now that this wasn’t true at all.

    With his final breath, David silently thanked the gods for letting him experience a full and varied life.
    Last edited by Marril; 02/12/2012 at 02:10 AM.

  15. #40
    And there goes David. Not that I am too surprised, he wasn't as important of a character as he was in the last version.

    Anyway, great chapter! Looking forward to the next one!
    Jolteon Flareon Vaporeon
    Espeon Umbreon
    Glaceon Leafeon
    Eevee

  16. #41
    JewelQuest: Yeah, that's the problem of shoehorning old elements into the story just because they were in the previous version. The big problem with David was just that he had nothing to do. He couldn't very well have gone along with Alex and company, Sam's plotline couldn't support it now, and he certainly wasn't going to join Team Rocket. Having him join the New Rockets seemed like it was going to work until I wrote the bit with Shan and realized David was far, far too powerful to let run around (basically because he was poised to end the series 10-15 chapters short, more or less the Naomi Misora problem if you've seen Death Note), so I had him run into Michael. I was actually going to draw out David's downfall for another chapter, but I just couldn't justify that what with how the last couple of segments were really more about Lindsay than David. So I pulled the plug (this also explains why David's death is a little sudden). It is, however, one of the things I'll look into expanding and revising once I get around to posting this on FF.net (I plan to start around chapter 20 and fix a few of the things that irk me about the series as posted here, either due to my own mistakes, like the David mess or the pronoun issue with Pokémon in early chapters or the fact that I really should've given more Pokémon nicknames, or otherwise because I don't want to run afoul of the Gym's rating restrictions). But at least we have Kay now, I guess.

    Chapter 18 - Afternoon Stroll

    Raleigh paced down the hallway, annoyed at the message he’d just received. Not only had that Johnny-come-lately Michael succeeded in trapping David, the psychic was now dead under the watch of Michael’s cohort Elizabeth. The fact that Raleigh didn’t know those agents existed before they killed David disturbed him. The fact that they’d so effortlessly removed his best gamepiece all but frightened him.

    How many of those senior agents did Kenneth bring to Idama, anyway? Just those two? Raleigh sincerely doubted that. When his Team Rocket contacts and moles couldn’t do anything more than confirm Kenneth did indeed exist and that his arrival heralded a surge of junior Rocket agents into the country, Raleigh had to operate on gut instinct.

    Raleigh threw open the doors to the New Rocket front business and stepped out onto the sidewalk in Hat Yai. Sunlight temporarily blinded him. He blinked repeatedly, and saw Adair standing by the door, leaning against the building face. Adair was his current contact within Team Rocket. Raleigh rotated through several double agents, one every few weeks, in order to keep suspicion low.

    “Walk with me,” Raleigh said in a harsh, clipped tone.

    “In broad daylight?” Adair wondered.

    “I don’t care,” Raleigh snapped. Absolute secrecy would demand they not speak in public, but the average pedestrian was uncaring. Few even gave mind to the affairs of others, and those who did would certainly not be members of Team Rocket.

    “Calm down, dude,” Adair said as he started to follow Raleigh.

    Raleigh stopped in his tracks and turned to Adair. He let the look on his face speak for him, and turned back to continue walking down the street.

    “Okay, so you’re mad about David,” Adair said. “What are you going to do? Stay mad? Try to get even?”

    “What I’m going to do is hope he didn’t tell that Elizabeth person anything,” Raleigh answered. “While I’m doing that, I’m going to take a step back and focus on these newcomers.”

    “They’re clearly highly experienced,” Adair said. “From what I can tell, they’ve only taken a few weeks to establish an infrastructure that’d take us months to begin setting up. Going off their apparently unlimited resources, I can only assume they’re Giovanni’s finest.”

    “Has Roland said anything about them?”

    “Roland’s just as surprised at their involvement as we are,” Adair answered. He paused briefly as the two men crossed a side street. “If anything, the fact that Kenneth’s come with his own agents means Roland’s no longer the one with the most real influence in Idama. Kenneth can’t match the sheer manpower Roland can field, but I think it’s only a matter of time before some kind of Kenneth-Juliet coalition takes over Idaman Team Rocket operations.”

    Raleigh rolled his shoulders back, and heard a slight popping sound. “I’m not going to dwell on how this happened. It has, and that’s what’s important. I should be thankful we have all of Roland’s information available to us, eh?”

    Adair smiled humourlessly. “We certainly wouldn’t know even this much without it. Speaking of that, what do you want me to bring back to him? I can’t exactly tell him I popped out to Hat Yai to have a chat with the New Rocket leader.”

    “Same as always,” Raleigh replied.

    Adair nodded. “One more thing.”

    “Let’s hear it.”

    “I can’t keep this charade going on forever. I think certain people are getting a bit suspicious.”

    Raleigh nodded slowly. He stopped and leaned against the face of a building—some shop for musical instruments. “Then you’ll have to go to ground after this. Don’t contact me. Just pretend nothing’s happening and stay out of known hot spots.”

    Adair smirked. “I’ve kept myself clean this long.”

    “Make sure you stay that way.”

    “Speaking of that,” Adair added, but didn’t continue.

    Raleigh suspected he wasn’t going to like what Adair said next. “What?”

    “One of the guys who serves as an intermediary between Michael and Roland is going around asking all kinds of awkward questions. Be warned I may have to defend myself.”

    “Warning heeded,” Raleigh acknowledged bitterly.

    Raleigh remembered tempting fate by telling David that Roland was the biggest gun Giovanni could bring to bear. He felt like kicking himself now.



    The next stop along Alex and Terry’s Neo League circuit was Chiang Mai. The city was nowhere near as ostentatious as Darkwood, but had many of the same architectural features. Alex commented after a while that it was like they took that weird double-Opelucid-layering feeling she got from Darkwood and pushed it more in one direction.

    In a lot of ways, Kay’s presence was kind of like a second Marril, albeit one that could speak human languages. They had similar senses of humour, although thankfully Kay wasn’t nearly as much of an attention hog. For the sake of her trainer’s new relationship, Marril was at least putting in a token effort to warm up to Terry, but this came at no loss to Marril’s need for Alex’s constant attention.

    That aside, Chiang Mai was a pretty heavy detour from Alex and Terry’s planned route. According to Kay, the gym was surprisingly easy, even adjusted for the skill difference between the three of them. The gym’s challenge backlog wasn’t too long, and the two of them were able to schedule one for the day after they arrived.

    “So,” Kay said to Alex and Terry as they left the gym after booking their challenge. “Looks like registration went better than your last time.”

    Terry wondered if this was really the best thing to say, but figured that Kay knew Alex better than he did. The statement would’ve warranted instant death if it came from him, but the fact that Kay was often subjected to similar kinds of gender-based scrutiny meant there was no doubt Kay was sympathetic. She’d have to have been, given the fact that Alex confided the Darkwood story to her.

    Alex shrugged. “Kinda.” With a scoff, she added, “The guy ‘only’ recoiled in surprise when he figured it out.”

    Kay winced. “Damn. I’m sorry.”

    “It’s fine,” Alex said. She forced a smile. “At least the line he tried on me afterwards was hilarious.”

    “Oh?”

    “Well, he didn’t want to look like a jerk, so he kinda fumbled around being all, ‘It’s just… you look… really young… for 22…’”

    Kay smirked. “Well, you do, but not enough that it’d be surprising.”

    “You’re luckier than I am in that area,” Alex pointed out.

    Frowning, Kay replied, “Except when they ask to see a second piece of ID trying to get into a bar. Or when you get people who ask if your parents are around.”

    “Grass is always greener, I guess.”

    “Tell you what, let science advance a few centuries and I’ll take you up on that body-swapping offer.”

    “I can just imagine the ads now,” Alex mused. “Stuff like, ’22-year old body, slightly used, originally masculine, altered with extensive estrogen treatments. A good fixer-upper that still needs some work. Brain not included.’”

    “Can’t be worse than some of the Pokémon ads I’ve seen,” Kay replied. “Dear gods, you’d think breeding licences flat-up didn’t exist given how many people don’t seem to have them.”

    “The gods’d have to exist to have anything to do with it,” Alex mumbled scornfully. A moment later, she added, “Sorry, Terry.”

    Terry gave a quiet grunt of acknowledgement. While he did believe in the gods in a loose sense, he didn’t really hold to any specific system of faith, so he didn’t mind Alex’s sometimes caustic atheism—if anything, her apologies for slights against the gods were on the cute side. As far as Terry was concerned, the gods themselves were less important than the lessons to be learned from them.

    Kay sighed and surreptitiously glanced back at Terry. He sensed a story behind this, one that Kay and Alex knew very well but that Kay didn’t trust him with yet. Terry didn’t feel like prying. In fact, he didn’t feel like entering the conversation at all.

    In a way, Terry found the emergence of that fabled thing he thought of as Girl Talk slightly intimidating. It wasn’t a result of any particular subject matter— he simply felt oddly compelled to silence while Alex and Kay chatted about anything, even League-related stuff he could and probably should have gotten in on. The fear was doubly irrational because Kay wasn’t really a woman. She was assigned female at birth and used female pronouns, but existed outside the socially-defined constructs of “man” and “woman.” Terry felt chagrined at how he could so easily accept that Alex was simply a woman assigned male at birth, yet for Kay, who was really neither male nor female, it required significant mental effort and constant self-reminding. That special effort made Terry feel like a bad person for requiring it.

    “So,” Kay said. “What now?”

    “Chiang Mai apparently has some pretty awesome Pokémon contests,” Alex said. “I was thinking we could catch one. You know, just sit back and watch some Pokémon do things other than beat each other unconscious.”

    “Cool,” Kay replied. After a pause, she added, “You know, contests were always one of those things that I understand what you’re supposed to do, but I just can’t make them work.”

    “Me neither,” Alex said. “I can be all, like, okay let’s get this pattern down, and let’s practice it, but in the end it just never really works. I dunno how you get that problem, though. I mean, aren’t you the one who’s all into pattern-based battling? What’s your excuse, eh?”

    Terry scoffed. “Pattern-based? Really?”

    “It speaks,” Kay commented. She turned her head back towards Alex. “Have you taught it any other tricks yet?”

    Terry rolled his eyes. As far as he could tell, this was simply Kay’s sense of humour, and she meant no ill will by it. The fact that Alex often traded these mock insults with Kay was proof enough of that. He didn’t want to be the one to make a big deal of it and ask Kay to stop, but the fact remained that it was wearing enough when it was Alex doing it. Kay didn’t have the advantage of being a friend of two and a half years, so even pretend barbs hurt like the real thing.

    “What’s wrong with patterns?” Alex asked. “I mean, I don’t use them myself, but there’s nothing wrong with them.”

    “What happens when you break the pattern?” Terry countered. Patterns, strings of attacks chained together, were a style he’d tried before and wound up discarding. They were tremendously effective when they worked, but had such narrow uses that training for situational adaptability was the better choice.

    “Branching patterns, dude,” Kay said.

    “I don’t see how you can branch off enough to cover all the realistic scenarios, let alone the corner cases,” Terry said.

    Kay shrugged. “Not my fault if you can’t train your Pokémon very well. Or if your Pokémon aren’t smart enough.”

    That one didn’t feel like a mock insult. Frustration welled up within Terry. “All right, then show me. I wanna see this firsthand.”

    Alex raised an eyebrow. “You really want to battle Kay?”

    “Why not?”

    Alex’s answer was a simple shrug.

    “Do we have time to get to a battle park and back before the day’s contest?” Kay asked.

    Alex pulled out her cell phone and thumbed the power button briefly. “Probably. Go ahead. You versus Terry is something I have to see.”

    After a few moments of struggling with an uncooperative cell phone app, Alex located a park with battle areas and led the two belligerents to it. The miniature arenas were as basic as possible, simply being large asphalt slabs surrounded by chain link fences. Bigger Pokémon would be uncomfortable battling in such cramped conditions, but Terry’s Eeveelutions would be just fine.

    Alex’s offer to ref the match was a token gesture, although it did let her announce the start. Theoretically, if they were to follow League rules strictly it’d let Alex set bench size as well, but Alex deferred that to Terry, who opted for a bench size of one.

    For whatever idiosyncratic reason, Alex only counted to two instead of three when announcing the start time, which threw off Terry but not Kay. As a result, Terry saw Kay’s Blaziken materialize while Espeon’s pokéball was still in the air.

    “Blaziken, eh?” Terry mused to himself. This wouldn’t be so bad, even with the bench drawing the battle out. “Espeon, Psychic!”

    Kay’s order was much quieter. “Fahrenheit, small-size rush.”

    Espeon’s eyes glowed azure, but his psychic powers weren’t enough to stop Fahrenheit the Blaziken from getting into close combat range and pummelling him with repeated blows. Fahrenheit finished that initial combo with a fierce uppercut, sending Espeon several metres upwards. Fahrenheit jumped up after Espeon, spun around in midair, and kicked the psychic away. Espeon hit the ground rolling, squealing in pain.

    Okay, lucky shot, Terry thought sourly as he switched out Espeon in favour of Jolteon. He knew what to expect now. He wouldn’t be caught off guard again. Out of the corner of his eye, he could see Alex watching and smirking.

    “Thunder Wave!” Terry ordered, trying to ignore the fact that his girlfriend seemed to be silently cheering for his opponent.

    Fahrenheit could ignore psychic attacks due to momentum, but he couldn’t ignore electricity. The flaming bird twitched as electricity coursed over his body.

    “Defensive opening,” Kay said.

    Fahrenheit kicked sand up from the asphalt towards Jolteon. He then followed by leaping at Jolteon, but spasmed and stopped before he could continue the combo.

    “Thunderbolt!” Terry shouted.

    Electric arcs played over Fahrenheit’s body, but he still didn’t yield. Flexing his muscles, he threw off the thunderbolt, seeming to suffer only a minimal amount of pain.

    “Small-size balance, second half,” Kay said.

    Fahrenheit swept his leg across Jolteon’s knees, tripping her to the ground. He followed with a fierce karate chop to Jolteon’s back, eliciting a yelp of pain.

    “All right, that’s enough,” Terry grumbled, recalling Jolteon. “You’ve made your point. You can train a Blaziken to attack faster than normal so that when you combo out you instantly beat me.”

    Everything within Terry screamed at him to try and turn this loss into some kind of pyrrhic victory, to attack any satisfaction Kay found in winning. He squashed these petty feelings—even though, objectively speaking, all Kay did was combine multiple orders into single ones, the fact remained she won fairly. Sour as losing was, he’d have to deal with it.

    A hug from Alex helped dispel some of these feelings. “Don’t worry about it,” she said.

    “So I guess I can see why she said she can solo lower-end Neo League gyms,” Terry commented, glancing across the arena at Kay, who was visibly going out of her way to check her pokéballs for problems at a glacial pace. Letting Terry have this comforting moment with Alex. “What an idiot I was.”

    Alex turned towards Kay, called out, “Meet you in a few by the main gate, okay?” and led Terry away. In a slightly annoyed tone, she asked, “So what if you were? A challenge like this is nothing. I guarantee Kay isn’t going to dwell on it. After a day or two, she probably won’t even think about it at all.”

    “Still. What was I going to prove?”

    “That you were annoyed enough to do this,” Alex said. “She’s fairly perceptive. She isn’t going to write this off as ‘Terry being an idiot.’ If anything, she’s going to ask herself just why you threw down the gauntlet when you did. She’ll wonder if anything she did contributed to it. And she’ll probably realize what really happened there.”

    Terry shook his head helplessly. In a lot of ways, he’d rather Kay think him an idiot than realize the petty reason he challenged her. But regardless, he felt really drained. Bottled up emotions bursting the dam had a habit of doing that, and the fact that he’d started a battle out of childish insecurity made him feel even worse. Kay was an old friend of Alex's, and it was natural they'd want to spend some time catching up. There was no reason to act possessive of Alex, as if Kay was somehow threatening. It was a stupid knee-jerk reaction and Terry told himself he deserved this humiliation.

    His problem, though, and he'd have to be the one to work to fix it. Still, Alex was a very understanding person, and Terry wanted to trust that Kay was too. He leaned over and kissed Alex on the forehead.

    Alex smiled and subconsciously bit her bottom lip. “Looks like you picked up in a hurry.”

    “Well, I figure I’ll definitely feel better later, so I’m taking an advance to get it started sooner,” Terry replied. He put an arm around Alex’s shoulders. “Come on, let’s not keep Kay waiting.”

  17. #42
    Really have nothing to say on any specific piece of this chapter, so just gonna say "Great chapter!". :D
    Jolteon Flareon Vaporeon
    Espeon Umbreon
    Glaceon Leafeon
    Eevee

  18. #43
    Chapter 19, whereupon I retcon Terry's lineup a little to include Leafeon and Glaceon. Also a chapter where I try to find more ways to keep gym battles from becoming stale. And plot happens. I really don't have a whole lot else to say, so I'll stop trying to force creativity where it doesn't exist.

    Chapter 19 - Casual Conversation

    Kay sat in her seat, arms crossed, frowning at the battle she was watching. While Chiang Mai was one of the two gyms she’d successfully soloed, albeit with her partner’s Pokémon as meat shields, seeing trainers of an objectively lower calibre attempt to duo the gym and run into resistance was frustrating.

    It was amusing just how Alex and Terry’s specific weaknesses were so different from each other’s. Alex was a good trainer hindered by her single-type restriction and, more importantly, her crippling lack of self-confidence. Terry was a mediocre trainer with a healthy self-image and a wide variety of Pokémon. Which one of the two did better ultimately came down to type advantage more than anything else. Kay supposed they made up for each other’s weaknesses competently enough.

    One of the gym leaders—Lu, if Kay remembered her name—recalled her fallen Torkoal. Alex’s opening had been to focus her Gyarados’ attacks on it with Terry’s Umbreon serving as a distraction to the other leader’s Seviper. Lu sent out an Exeggutor.

    “Gyarados, Fire Blast!” Alex shouted from her trainer platform. The stands were within earshot of both platforms, so Kay heard orders from both pairs of trainers.

    Gyarados reared back and spat a burst of fire at Exeggutor. The palm tree tried to dodge, and was only partially successful. Several of its leaves and at least one of its faces caught fire, causing it to dance about in pain, trying to put out the flames.

    Seviper, meanwhile, had wrapped itself around Umbreon, which was biting and scratching at the snake. Neither Pokémon was especially well-positioned to harm the other, but the positive effect was that it separated the battle cleanly between the opposing pairs of Alex versus Lu and Terry versus Trisha. If Kay remembered anything about Alex’s Gyarados, it was that Gyarados had two strategies available at any given time: Overwhelming physical force, and a variety of elements. If Kay remembered anything about Lu’s Pokémon, it was that they were generally susceptible to Gyarados’ elemental range.

    “Toxic!” Shouted Trisha.

    Seviper’s fangs glowed a sickly purple, with a drop of poison forming at its left fang’s tip. Umbreon’s proximity meant he couldn’t dodge the bite, although his attempts to shake the poisonous snake off his flank were impressive.

    “Gyarados, Aqua Tail Seviper!” Alex called out.

    Come on, girl, you’re better than that, Kay thought, frustrated. Seviper’s poison would take time to build in potency. The correct strategy was to let Umbreon fight until the poison overtook him, focusing Gyarados’ attacks on Exeggutor and, time permitting, Lu’s third Pokémon. Overprotectiveness over one’s partner was a common enough mistake, and admittedly a hard one to overcome, but a trainer at Alex’s level ought to have known better.

    Gyarados surged towards Seviper and slammed her tail into the side of the snake’s head. Seviper hissed and went limp, allowing Umbreon to jump out of its coiled grip. Trisha recalled Seviper and replaced it with a Zebstrika. Exeggutor, in the meantime, rocked Gyarados with a psychic attack.

    “Umbreon, bite it!” Terry shouted a moment too late. Umbreon leapt at Zebstrika, which was already on its way towards Gyarados. Electric sparks crackled around the horse as it struck Gyarados under the jaw with its shoulder. Gyarados howled in pain.

    I wonder if Alex realizes just how badly this limits her options, Kay thought. Alex’s only Pokémon immune to Zebstrika’s electrical attacks was Gastrodon, but the slug couldn’t take much damage from Exeggutor before falling. Once Umbreon fell, Terry would be forced to use either Flareon or Leafeon.

    “Gyarados, Hyper Beam!” Alex shouted, aware that with Zebstrika out, she wasn’t going to get another attack out of Gyarados.

    Gyarados reared back and shot a tight, focused beam at Exeggutor, hitting the tree between two of its coconut heads. Exeggutor was knocked off its feet, flat on its back.

    “The challengers aren’t bad,” commented a man beside Kay.

    Kay turned to face the speaker. He was a middle-aged man, hair just beginning to turn grey. He was dressed oddly formally. “They’re friends of mine.”

    The man nodded. “Well, then I’ve no doubt who you’re cheering for.”

    “What about you?”

    “Oh, the challengers, definitely. Lu and Trisha aren’t the sort of gym leaders you expect to win a given match. Given a token amount of preparation time and a partner, even I could probably beat them.”

    Kay smirked and returned her attention to the fight. Terry’s Umbreon was replaced by Glaceon, and Alex’s Gyarados by Wartortle. It was an odd choice, but odder still was the fact that Exeggutor was still conscious, and Zebstrika had been replaced by Feraligator.

    Wartortle’s involvement was puzzling. She was Alex’s first Pokémon, chosen at the Cerulean City gym twelve years ago, which meant she wasn’t as weak as her form implied. Still, Kay wouldn’t have used Fahrenheit in a Neo League challenge back when he was a Combusken. Kay wondered what Alex had planned.

    “Ice Beam!” Alex shouted.

    Wartortle dropped down onto all fours and opened her mouth. Jagged, azure beams shot at Exeggutor, freezing it. This proved enough to take Exeggutor out of the fight, and Lu replaced it with, of all things, a Tropius.

    “Blizzard!” Terry shouted.

    Glaceon’s ice attacks were significantly more powerful than Wartortle’s, and Tropius never stood a chance. The saurian tried to dodge, but one of its wings got caught by an ice shard, sending it to the ground. Glaceon couldn’t possibly miss at that point.

    Feraligator’s response was swift, and it leapt at Glaceon and tackled her to the ground. Glaceon yelped as Feraligator struck her upside the head, and grunted as Feraligator’s other claw caught her midsection. Feraligator finished by biting Glaceon, latching on, shaking her, and throwing her aside.

    Terry’s obvious replacement was Jolteon, which struck Feraligator with a thunderbolt not even half a second after her feet touched the ground. Obviously, Terry trained her to recognize water-types and act accordingly without hesitation.

    Feraligator howled and stomped its foot to the ground, sending a shockwave through the arena floor. It followed by throwing chunks of concrete torn loose by the earthquake at Jolteon.

    It’s always a shock when a bad trainer finally uses their only good Pokémon, Kay thought. She remembered her own battle against Lu and Trisha. Feraligator forced her to switch not once but twice, although the second switch was probably more Torkoal’s doing than Feraligator’s. Still, if Jolteon fell, Terry would be out of the fight.

    “Thunderbolt it again!” Terry shouted.

    Jolteon struggled to her feet, electric arcs forming in her stiff fur. Her attack was cut short by a Hyper Beam from Feraligator, and Terry was forced to recall his fallen Pokémon. Even so, Trisha’s bench was exhausted, while Alex not only had Wartortle left, but Gastrodon. While not ideal against Feraligator, Kay had no doubt Gastrodon was up to the task.

    “Skull Bash!” Alex ordered.

    Wartortle lowered her head, taking advantage of Feraligator’s exhaustion to ready her attack. She leapt at Feraligator, striking it squarely below the neck. Feraligator roared in pain and reflexively swung at the smaller Pokémon, who dodged the blow easily.

    Feraligator spun around and struck Wartortle hard against the ground, cracking the concrete under her. The blow couldn’t have been good for Wartortle’s shell. Oddly, Alex looked unconcerned. Kay began to assess the possibilities in her head, but stopped herself as she saw Wartortle begin to glow. Wartortle kicked Feraligator’s legs out from under it and began to grow rapidly as her opponent fell to the floor.

    By the time Feraligator was back up, Blastoise had finished evolving. Mid-battle evolution was a potent trick when it worked, but was necessarily limited-use. Kay could only imagine what was going through Trisha’s head upon seeing her opponent’s Pokémon suddenly evolve.

    “Focus Blast!” Alex shouted.

    Blastoise hunkered down, sparks of light shimmering around her cannons for a heartbeat before she shot twin blasts of energy at Feraligator. Feraligator roared and dove at Blastoise in a last-ditch attack. Blastoise’s shell shimmered and Feraligator’s claw bounced harmlessly off it. Half-turned away, Blastoise could only bring one cannon to bear upon Feraligator, and shot it again, this time with a blast of light. The Flash Cannon was enough to take Feraligator out of the fight.

    “Not bad,” said the man beside Kay. She didn’t reply.

    Alex and Terry were led out the main entrance to the arena, and would receive their Heart Badges shortly. Kay stood up and exited through the entrance to the stands, wondering what to say to the two of them. Normally, she’d simply prod Alex with her usual lighthearted barbs, but Terry seemed not to take well to them. Her humour unchecked led to Terry’s reflexive challenge the other day. It left her wondering what sort of medium she’d arrive at.

    As expected, the two challengers were in the main hall waiting for her. Not as expected, the man who sat beside Kay slipped past Kay and towards Alex.

    “Excuse me,” he said.

    “Yes?” Alex replied.

    “If it isn’t too much of a bother, may I have a moment of your time?”

    Kay was certainly confused. Alex’s face showed a bit of unease, but no confusion of her own.

    “Yeah, sure,” Alex said.

    Terry turned to Kay as Alex was led off. “Do you have any idea what that was about?”

    “I was about to ask you,” Kay said.

    “Weird,” was Terry’s only other comment.

    “Yeah,” Kay agreed. Weird indeed.



    As it turned out, “Daniel Anderson” was neither a past or present member of Team Rocket. Juliet couldn’t say she was surprised. Nor was she surprised that her investigative efforts met a simple “do not pursue this issue any further” in the same vein as her inquiry into Alex Lindstrom. The fact that both came from Kenneth’s general direction was, if anything, simple confirmation that Alex did have something to do with this Idaman mess. Alex certainly didn’t seem interested in coming to Sam’s aid, which signified to Juliet that Alex’s role was very deep-cover.

    In a much more immediate and somewhat selfish sense, Juliet wished Melanie would hurry up and get to the bottom of things just to reduce the number of times she’d have to deal with Roland. Times she’d have to put up with the lumbering blowhard. Times like right now.

    “The New Rockets have stepped up their measures,” Roland said darkly. “I trust you know why.”

    “Of course,” Juliet replied dully, wanting this encounter to be over with.

    They were in one of Roland’s fronts in Darkwood, a small deli on the outskirts of town. The legitimate employees had been sent home for the day, meaning the building was left entirely to the two executives. Juliet found herself too used to her spacious lab complex, and as a result the cramped deli felt like a prison with Roland as its glowering warden.

    “Is the data at least useful to you?”

    “Yes,” Juliet said. It wouldn’t do any good to lie. Despite the brusque approach Roland took with her, they were still on the same side. The real power struggle was between Roland and Kenneth. Juliet could afford to play neutral for the time being even if both executives knew it was empty air.

    “Do you have an estimated time to completion?”

    Juliet shrugged. “We could begin our first development cycle within a month. Two months for a viable subject to be produced. Maturation will have to occur normally.”

    Roland grumbled. “I’m not sure I can hold off the New Rockets for that long. Did you know they bombed a location in Hat Yai solely because they suspected it had Team Rocket ties? It didn't, but that's hardly a deterrent. Several Team Rocket agents in the region have been killed discreetly. David Kirin’s death seems to have sparked outright war.”

    “Would you rather they have the psychic alive and working for them?” Juliet asked. Used to their fullest, David’s psychic powers were stronger than many psychic Pokémon. Team Rocket was lucky enough to lose only one local contact and a tranquil to him. In exchange, they’d moved their estimated time to completion up several months.

    “He was barking up Kenneth’s tree when he got caught,” Roland countered. “So much the better.” He sighed and then continued in a harsher tone, “It’s called escalation, Juliet. I’m certain you’re familiar with that quote. You know, ‘He pulls a knife, you pull a gun. He sends one of yours to the hospital, you send one of his to the morgue.’ It may seem like a fanciful bit of cinematic style to someone with no real experience, but let me tell you, it’s deadly accurate. We killed one of Raleigh’s, and he’s doing his best to kill as many of ours as he can. With how elusive Kenneth’s posse seems to be, who do you think he’s going to come after?”

    “Someone less elusive,” Juliet answered dryly. She didn’t need Roland to tell her how much danger Sam, Melanie, and herself were in.

    “You,” Roland said, letting the word hang in the air.

    “Doubtful,” Juliet said. The hardest part of saying something one knows to be wrong was saying it with conviction. Still, it had to be said. “They already tried that and discovered the hard way that we have a Pokémon Master willing to defend us.”

    “You have a home. You have to sleep somewhere. And if that doesn’t rattle your cage, I should point out your precious Samantha Lindstrom has to sleep somewhere, too. Before all this, the New Rockets wouldn’t dare come after you. Too much risk and all. Now? Better learn not to answer the door.”

    The first thing to Juliet’s mind was a snide remark that her Pokémon already handled that task well enough. Mismagius couldn’t be affected by bullets, which might come in handy. Sarcasm would only enrage Roland further, so Juliet clamped down on it.

    Roland stood up and paced around the small shop for a brief moment. He glanced out through the glass door. Juliet wondered if this was for effect or if Roland was looking for someone.

    “I’m trying to keep you alive, you know,” Roland said at last. “But it’s hard given that I have to fight on two fronts.”

    “So?” Juliet asked from her seat.

    “Give me control over the Tribo Project,” Roland demanded. “Take your assistant and even her Pokémon Master girlfriend if it pleases her and go back to Japan. Forget all this conflict. I can keep control over our people here without you if I’m in control of the Project.”

    Truth be told, Juliet was waiting for this. The demand was almost artistic in how many elements it blended together. On its surface, it was a reasonable request, combining an offer of safety not only for Juliet but Melanie and Sam with a reassurance that things would be fine without her. A layer beneath it was a subtle attack on Juliet’s self-esteem as well as pointed ignorance of what such escape would cost her. Juliet would have been lying if she said it wasn’t tempting despite knowing exactly what Roland was doing.

    Slowly, Juliet rose, her gaze fixed steadily upon Roland’s eyes. She circled around the counter.

    “No.” Juliet’s response was monosyllabic. It was her project, and no one would take it from her. She owed Roland no explanation.

    “What a pity,” Roland said darkly. “In that case, I remind you not to answer your door the next time you hear the doorbell ring.”

    Juliet didn't reply. She'd said everything there was to say.

  19. #44
    Good job! Keep it up!
    Jolteon Flareon Vaporeon
    Espeon Umbreon
    Glaceon Leafeon
    Eevee

  20. #45
    So this was, without a doubt, the hardest chapter to write yet. I knew exactly what I wanted to do with it, to the point where I was dropping foreshadowing as early as chapter 1, but actually executing it took several rewrites and I'm still not totally happy with it (I wish I hadn't had to resort to my standard two-parallel-scenes structure, albeit with a weird length ratio, but trying to make it one huge scene didn't quite seem to carry the same impact the final version does). I don't really have a whole lot to say about it other than that, except maybe that I personally find it interesting how Alex's character arc contrasts to other characters' arcs. For someone who's nominally the protagonist (Alex being the protagonist and Sam the deuteragonist, although POV gets passed around freely), it certainly took a while to get her major arc started. Oh yeah, and Conrad finishes filling out the LGBT acronym for the cast list by being the first on-screen *** character, despite a massive total of five bisexual characters so far, if that's of interest to anyone (I don't imagine it is but hey I keep trivia in my random writing notes so there you go).

    Chapter 20 - Free Will

    Alex strode down the hall of a decidedly upscale hotel. It was definitely out of her price range, and succeeded in making her feel underdressed for the occasion—somehow she doubted a light jacket, t-shirt, jeans, and sandals were appropriate for this kind of place. Still, she’d long since stopped caring about what others thought of her. Unfortunately, caring about and being affected by were two different things.

    She reached the appointed room and knocked on the door without hesitation. It opened a moment later. The person answering had very similar features as her, although he was obviously far older. His hair was even the exact same shade as hers, his eyes the same colour. He was fairly well-dressed, wearing what Alex recognized as a kind of business casual Idaman style. He smiled as he saw her.

    “Hi, dad,” Alex said, returning the smile.

    Her father waved her in. Once she was inside, he drew her in for a hug.

    “It’s been too long,” Richard said as they parted.

    “Way too long,” Alex agreed. “Gods, how long has it even been, anyway? Definitely years.”

    Her ignorance of the exact time frame was, unfortunately, feigned. Alex knew how long it had been, how long ago she fled to Hoenn to try and eke out a new life—three years, give or take a few months. Before then, she’d seen her father every few weeks. If her memory was accurate, her last visit was only days prior to her departure.

    “It’s been too long,” he repeated with a chuckle. “I’d say you look different but you might take that the wrong way.”

    “Yeah, I do look a little different,” Alex admitted. “Kinda, I guess. Maybe. I did something with my hair. That could be it.”

    Richard’s smile faded a bit. “I won’t deny the thought of you as my daughter’s taken some getting used to. But what’s important is this: You’re happier this way, right?”

    “I’m actually happy period for once in my life,” Alex replied without hesitation.

    The smile returned. “That’s all that matters. How’s Sam? She never writes.”

    “She’s doing pretty well,” Alex said, wishing she’d mentioned Sam more in her infrequent messages. “She found a job over in Rueni, actually.”

    “Really, now?”

    “She didn’t tell you?”

    Richard snorted in amusement. “The first I heard of it was when I saw her in the news. ‘Pokémon Master repels Team Rocket attack’ or some such.”

    “She really, really hates that title, but it’s hilariously clingy.”

    “Clingy like a jealous ex?” Richard suggested. Alex blinked in surprise at her father’s bluntness, to which he said, “You’re an adult now. You get to hear the fun stuff.”

    Alex shook her head, wondering for what felt like the millionth time why she’d been stuck with her mother all those years rather than her father. “Anyway. I barely hear from Sam, myself, if that makes it any better. She’s really busy with work and her free time’s all taken up by her new partner. All-grown-up scientist has no time to write to her daddy and big sis.”

    “Not to mention she can’t even be bothered to bring her partner home to meet the parents,” Richard added sarcastically. He hugged Alex again. “I’ll tell you what. It won’t be long until I’m free again, and then you and Sam and I can finally spend some real time together.”

    “I’d like that,” Alex said with a smile.

    Richard cocked his head towards the main room. “Unfortunately, I’m going to have to put this reunion on hold. People are waiting for us.”

    The room, Alex saw, was definitely out of her price range. It was more spacious than some apartments she’d seen. In the middle of the room was a fine oak coffee table, around which were three sofas. There were two visibly separate bedrooms and even a kitchenette. Alex felt significantly underdressed compared to the other people in the room, whose attire was even more formal than her father’s.

    Their reception was friendly enough, though, sporting three very familiar faces. All of them looked exactly as she remembered them, except perhaps with a few extra grey hairs on their heads or lines on their faces. The old familiarity was slight comfort to the fact that Alex’s stomach was doing its best to knot itself in apprehension. This meeting wasn’t simply a social call, and she hadn’t expected quite so many people.

    “Wow, it’s like everyone at once or something,” Alex said to no one in particular as she took a seat beside her father.

    “Yeah,” commented a man with shaggy blonde hair and a very expensive-looking suit, sitting on the right-side sofa. His voice had the same light-hearted tone as her father. With a wry grin, he added, “We were all in the area, so we figured why not, eh? Don’t tell me you don’t like me anymore.”

    “All right, Kenny, I won’t tell you,” Alex said, trying and failing to match his joviality. Her tone became a bit more serious and much more inquisitive. “But, uh, seriously, you’re all just here on business at once? I thought it was just supposed to be you and dad.”

    “Well, when I said we were all in the area, I wasn’t joking. For the most part,” Kenneth said. “Unfortunately, Lizzy couldn’t be here today.”

    The nicknames sounded strange to Alex, as if a different Alex had been the one to use them last. Seeing Kenneth again was nice, but the unsettlingly formal tone of the meeting made Alex wonder what was really going on. Nominally she was there to discuss something-or-other to do with her Neo League run. Something important. There hadn’t been any explanation of why she’d needed such high levels of secrecy—no specific details were to be transmitted in permanent form, and she was to delete all e-mail and text messages after reading them. If anyone other than her father had been the one to set this up, she wouldn’t even have considered coming.

    “Look,” said Michael, sitting opposite Kenneth. “I won’t pretend there isn’t an obvious Snorlax in the room here. It’d be insulting your intelligence to pretend this is all a happy coincidence.” He managed a smile, which was rare given how dour he usually was. “Though it is nice to see you again. Richard is always talking about you.”

    Conrad, sitting beside Michael, added, “If nothing else, I’m glad to see you too”

    “Just…” Alex trailed off. The atmosphere had that uneasy hang to it, like something heavy was about to be dropped. “Just tell me. All this buildup’s starting to scare me.”

    “There’s no easy way to put this,” Kenneth said. “You’re aware of the scuffles Team Rocket’s in nowadays, I assume?”

    “Unfortunately.”

    “We think you’re in danger.”

    Alex frowned. “Because Sam fought them off when they attacked the lab she works at?”

    “Partially, but that’s not the main reason.” Kenneth sighed. “This may get a bit complicated, but I’m going to be fully honest with you. The actual gang war isn’t between Team Rocket factions, but between Team Rocket and some group simply using the Team Rocket name. The fake Team Rocket is composed of Idaman gangs who want the real Team Rocket out of the country.”

    “And how do you know all this?”

    Kenneth shot an inquisitive glance at Michael, who shrugged. Conrad looked to the ceiling, remaining pointedly silent. Richard frowned.

    “… Oh Tauros crap,” Alex said as she realized the only answer. She had to resist the urge to grab a pokéball from her bag, and wished she hadn’t assigned Kay to Marril-sit that afternoon.

    “Alex,” Richard said gently. “It’s not what you think.”

    “The hell it isn’t,” Alex shot back. She swore as another realization hit her. “You’re in with them, dad? What the hell?”

    “Like I said,” Kenneth added slowly, holding his hands up, palms outward, “it gets complicated. Why would we bring you here if all we were going to do was reveal our affiliation? The fact that we’re doing this means we’ve no alternative. All I ask is that you give me a fair hearing.”

    “No promises,” Alex said icily.

    Kenneth nodded. “Fair enough. Rest assured what I’m telling you is the truth. I’m a senior Team Rocket executive, peer to few and subordinate only to Giovanni. Now, Team Rocket isn’t a single unified entity. There are factions of sorts. I’ve never believed that Team Rocket should remain a criminal organization. Why should it when our business ventures are so lucrative? Our legitimate businesses in Idama were meant to support the Neo League, to offer investment and material backing to the program. None of that is illegal. The false Team Rocket, the New Rockets as they’re sometimes called, initiated this conflict, and other Team Rocket members are responsible for fighting them. Giovanni didn’t send me here to participate in any gang wars. My primary goals are to oversee and protect our business infrastructure and, now, to keep you and Sam safe.

    “You were always like a nephew to me, Alex—a niece now. Myself, Elizabeth, Michael… we all feel that way about you and Sam. We’d hoped to keep you away from this mess. It saddens me to know that we couldn’t. That’s why you’re here today. You’re in danger and I can’t stay in the shadows to protect you anymore. I’d gladly tarnish your opinion of me a hundred times before letting you come to harm.”

    Alex wanted to believe Kenneth’s story. No, that wasn’t quite right. She wanted to believe her father was a good man, and believing Kenneth’s story was merely a means to that end. Richard and his friends certainly didn’t behave like the thuggish image she’d always held of Team Rocket. Kenneth was her father’s best friend, truly a surrogate uncle to her, and every memory she had of him was pleasant. Michael could be a little gruff and had been the sternest babysitter she’d ever seen, but had a good heart and was surprisingly gentle when he let his guard down. Elizabeth was always patient, kind, and willing to go out of her way for Alex and Sam’s sake. And of course there was Conrad, her stepfather of five years. Alex trusted him almost as much as she trusted her biological father.

    Still… they worked for Team Rocket. Kenneth was, by his own admission, one of their executives. Few mafias were as cold, as brutal as Team Rocket, and Alex couldn’t imagine Kenneth reached his position entirely by fair play. Regardless, upon further thought, Kenneth didn’t seem to be lying. It was common knowledge that Team Rocket had legitimate involvement in most major industries. Someone had to be in charge of that.

    “I… want to trust you,” Alex said to her father. She had no doubt that Terry would be aghast at what she just said. Other than the fact that Team Rocket killed his starter Pokémon, he kept his past regarding them a secret, and Alex had no idea whether Terry was a former member, a victim of theirs, or something else entirely.

    Well, Terry didn’t have to know about this.

    “It’s a lot to take in,” Richard admitted. “It’s so selfish of me to say this, but I hope you can forgive me for hiding this from you all these years.”

    Alex shook her head, holding back tears. “You haven’t done anything that needs forgiving.”

    “I promise… all the mistakes I’ve made, I promise I’m going to—”

    “It’s okay, really,” Alex said, reminded of where she got her style of apology from. “You’re not going to have me doing anything illegal, right?”

    “If I may answer that,” Kenneth said gently. “No, nothing of the sort. I want to keep you safe, not recruit you, although the line between the two may unfortunately have to be blurred a little given the New Rockets’ recent actions. You haven’t told anyone that you’re specifically seeing your father today, correct?”

    Alex nodded. Kenneth had insisted this meeting be kept secret, and odd as that imperative was, Alex obeyed even without knowing Kenneth was a Team Rocket agent. Now that she knew, it wasn't fear that would keep her silent, but respect, as odd a thought as that was to face head-on.

    “Good. The plan is to have Michael ensure your safety. You’ll be free to continue on with your League circuit as if nothing happened, except that now you’ll be coordinating with him, making sure you only take gyms well out of the New Rockets’ path, making sure no one catches up to you.”

    Alex would have much preferred coordinating with her father, but she couldn’t afford to have Kay asking why Richard was mysteriously in the country. Conrad would have been her second choice, but carried similar risks. Seeing her father and stepfather more often could wait for a more opportune time—only a few weeks, if things went well.

    “What about Sam?” Alex asked.

    “Sam’s in good hands,” Kenneth promised. He smiled ruefully. “Good enough that I won’t have to reveal myself to her, actually.”

    “You can thank Elizabeth for that,” Michael added.

    “I will next time I see her,” Alex promised with a hint of derision. Now was as good at time as any to ask the obvious question. “So why did those New Rockets attack her lab, anyway?”

    Kenneth frowned. “It’s because her employer is a Team Rocket agent like myself.”

    “Um…” Alex paused, trying to remember the name. “Juliet, I think? Sam’s mentioned her a few times.”

    “Yes. If I’d known Juliet was going to hire your sister, I’d have stopped her. I’ve always made sure Team Rocket stays well clear of you two. By the time I learned what happened, it was too late to do anything without arousing suspicion.”

    Well, Alex thought, at least that implicitly explained the main reason she was in danger. Sam was unwittingly working for Team Rocket again, and as her sister, Alex would be an easy target for the sake of getting to her. Alex couldn’t deny it was tempting to tell Sam who her employer really was.

    “How’d the New Rockets know where to go, anyway?” Alex asked.

    “That doesn’t relate to your situation,” Kenneth said.

    Alex felt her father’s hand on her shoulder. It still managed to be reassuring despite knowing he was a gangster—at least he still loved her, sharp contrast to her mother disowning her for what felt, on Alex’s end, to be utterly frivolous reasons.

    “If it helps any, you’re doing very well,” Conrad said. “This is a lot to take in.”

    Alex nodded solemnly. She’d accepted harder truths than her father working for a benign faction of Team Rocket. She could accept this.



    Alex’s return to the hotel was very late, well past the time she thought she’d be back by. Sorting out her new Neo League circuit and her methods for contacting Michael had taken hours, and the sun was beginning to set. At some point in the early evening, Kay had sent a text saying she’d handed Marril over to Terry so she could go get some rest. Alex felt completely drained as she walked down the sidewalk to the hotel, and had to lean against the elevator wall as she rode it up to the third floor.

    The door to her room was unlocked, but she knocked anyway before entering. She was met by Terry, who opened the door with one hand while holding Marril with the other. Seeing Marril let him carry her was, despite the smallness of the event, somehow as surprising as learning her father was a gangster—one more surprise for the ever-growing pile.

    “Are you okay?” Terry asked, the concern on his face a mirror to Richard’s earlier happiness upon greeting Alex. Terry led her into the room, and she sat down at the foot of the bed with an unceremonious thump. Marril bounded out of Terry’s arms, landed beside Alex, and climbed into her lap.

    “I guess,” Alex replied dully. Absently, she petted Marril, scratching behind her ears and rubbing her belly. Marril’s tail twitched back and forth lazily.

    Terry sat down beside Alex. “If you don’t want to talk about it, I’m not going to pry. But at least answer me this: Are you really okay? I’m worried, Allie.”

    The pet name was a recent development, this one very welcome, and Alex smiled upon hearing it. “I’m okay. Really. I just… I had stuff to take care of. Nothing we have to worry about anymore.”

    Marril leapt out of Alex’s lap as Terry put an arm around Alex’s shoulders, drawing her in close. Alex closed her eyes and let herself enjoy the warmth of Terry’s body, the gentle strength of his embrace. She wondered if he’d even want to be in the same room as her if he knew what she’d done earlier.

    “If it’s over with, then I’m glad,” Terry said, gently stroking Alex’s hair.

    “You’re cute when you get all protective, you know that?” Alex asked.

    She’d meant for it to be facetious, but Terry’s reply was very serious. “I know you can take care of yourself, but… so long as you’ll let me, I’ll do anything for you if you want me to. I love you. Never forget that.”

    Alex didn’t reply. For the moment, she could pretend that she was just a normal woman with a normal partner, in no danger at all. She couldn’t escape that it was an illusion, but it was a comforting one. Her problems could wait until tomorrow.
    Last edited by Marril; 03/13/2012 at 05:15 AM. Reason: Changed one word in one line and suddenly the whole chapter is much better. Funny how that works, eh?

  21. #46
    Looks pretty good. I sorta like the new idea. Keep it up!
    Jolteon Flareon Vaporeon
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    Eevee

  22. #47
    I'd like to start by offering my apologies to anyone kept waiting for this update. School got pretty hectic and only got worse up until I was done with finals (to give people an idea of how rough it was, I had to write a 10-page essay in 2 days because I had so much other stuff to deal with). But if nothing else, I've got this plus two chapters in buffer written up, which should help us get right back on track.

    Speaking of "on track," one of the things that struck me as I was writing chapter 23 was that the normal SS style feels very forced compared to my usual writing style, so I'll transition to writing that way in the near future. Upside is a much greater focus on character development. Downside is less action overall (speaking of which, this chapter comes about solely because something I thought Melanie said much earlier on was actually said by Juliet, freeing me up to continue developing Melanie in a very morally grey direction). I think it's a fair trade, but if readers disagree, just leave a comment.

    Finally, one of the things that really made me facepalm was the delayed realization that this is, it seems, a story about a trans woman running around Fantasy Thailand. Yeah, I was slow on the uptake with that one. The stereotype isn't that obvious to me, since I see the issue in a different way than (presumably) most of my readers. From now on I think I'll sprinkle in names and places from surrounding countries, since the idea was more "Fantasy South Asia" than anything with the groan-worthy connotations I've probably built up by now.

    Chapter 21 - Loud Greetings

    The beds in the Chiang Mai hotel weren’t all that comfortable when you spent about twelve straight hours on one. Alex supposed that was her fault, since most people got out of bed when they woke up, but she didn’t particularly need to get out of bed in order to think things over. Terry was out, leaving Alex alone with Marril for the morning.

    As if it wasn’t bad enough that her back hurt from lying in an uncomfortable bed for so long, the ceiling was a completely flat off-white, with no colour variations or texture. This made it significantly less interesting to stare at. Alex thought of herself as a serial ceiling aficionado after all the time she’d spent in her life consumed by depression. This morning, she reflected, was only a step or two away from that old agony.

    Kenneth had been right about one thing if nothing else: The situation had to be serious if it meant revealing himself as a Team Rocket executive to her. Her memories of him now seemed… tainted, she supposed would be the word. Every bit of generosity, of help with her schooling, even his help dealing with childhood bullies seemed like just another token gesture from a crime lord wanting to buy the approval of his friend’s children. The time he’d spent with her and Sam, the genuine affection he had for them, seemed diminished in a way. In short, “Uncle Kenny” seemed like less of an “uncle” now.

    “Ar-ril? Mar?” Marril asked quietly, climbing up beside Alex.

    “Yeah, I’m fine,” Alex gave Marril the line. Marril almost certainly didn’t believe her, but it was a ritual of sorts. “It’s the same as always.”

    “Marril Mar-Ar-ril-ar.”

    Alex managed a smile. “I’m just thinking about all this stuff, wondering what I’m going to do. I mean, obviously I’m going to do what Kenny says. Kenneth. Whatever. You remember him.”

    “Mar,” Marril said in a pleased tone. She’d always liked Kenneth, and for that matter Elizabeth and Conrad. She was less than pleasant towards Michael for some reason, although if she could learn to be nice to Terry she could learn to be nice to Michael. “Marri-mar-arril. Marril-mar-mar.”

    “I wish it was that easy,” Alex replied. She rolled over onto her side, facing Marril. “It’s like… it’s like if you made a Pokémon friend and you learned they had a trainer who made them kill people.”

    Marril twitched her ears and her tail flopped to her other side. It was her way of shrugging. “Ar-ril Marril mar-mar-ril-ar-ril-Mar.”

    Alex scoffed. “Nice to know you’d kill someone if I ordered you to, but that’s totally not the point here.”

    “Ril?”

    “No, it isn’t,” Alex insisted, rolling onto her back and staring at the bare, smooth ceiling again.

    Marril hopped up onto Alex’s stomach. Alex reflexively reached down to pet her.

    “Maybe I’m overthinking it,” Alex admitted. “It’s a lot to take in.”

    “Marril Mar-ri, ar mar-arri.”

    Alex blinked and her hand stopped mid-pet in surprise. Marril’s sentence, literally translated, meant “me Terry, you yes-with.” Alex was long used to Marril’s syntax, but she had to run that line through her head twice to realize what Marril was saying. Had Marril said that she and Kay would be there for Alex, then Alex wouldn’t have been surprised, but Marril including Terry, combined with letting him hold her the previous day, meant she fully accepted him now.

    “You really know how to surprise me,” Alex said.

    “Mar!”

    Marril’s ears twitched and she turned her attention to the door a moment before Alex heard a knock. Well, whatever, Terry could let himself in. Even cheered up a little, Alex didn’t feel like getting up.

    Another knock followed, and then Alex heard Kay’s muffled call of, “It’s me, you dingus!”

    Reason enough to answer the door, Alex figured. She got up out of bed, straightened her shirt, and with Marril still in her arms stepped over to the door. Her gait was slow and stiff, a product of the lingering depression she hoped Kay could dispel.

    “Oh, hi Alex,” Kay said. “I was kind of aiming that at Terry.”

    Alex smirked. “He went out, actually. Just me and my trainer here right now.”

    Kay crouched down slightly, bringing herself to eye level with Marril. “Has Alex been a good human?”

    “Mar!” Marril said.

    “Good,” Kay replied, patting Marril on the head.

    “So,” Alex said. “What’s up?”

    “Not much. Just decided to check in on you. You know, see how you’re doing and everything.”

    Alex scoffed. “I got enough of that from Terry,” she said as she led Kay into the room proper.

    “I imagine you would. He seems like the kind of guy who gets all clingy the moment his partner starts having problems,” Kay commented. She sat down on Terry’s bed, facing Alex, who sat down on her own bed.

    “That’s kind of uncharitable,” Alex said, setting Marril down in her lap. She started petting Marril absentmindedly. Kay seemed to take interest in this action, and Alex belatedly kicked herself for not suppressing this particular physical tic—all too often, she felt the need to do something with her hands when nervous or stressed.

    “I… I don’t mean to snark,” Kay said, returning her gaze to meet Alex’s. “I just know there are things you’d tell me but not him. Figured it’d help to have someone you could confide in, eh?”

    The thought was very tempting. Despite Kay’s sometimes thorny personality, she was very non-judgemental. Aside from Marril, Kay was the only one to whom Alex could entrust a secret like hers. Kay might not support Alex’s decision, but there was no doubting she’d understand and accept it, and Alex didn’t have to worry about Kay leaving upon the revelation.

    If only that knowledge made telling her seem like any better an idea.

    “It’s…” Alex began, and hesitated. No, she realized, she couldn’t go through with it no matter how much she wanted to. “It’s actually kind of stupid. I mean like, old-me stupid.”

    “Now this I have to hear.”

    “You know my Feebas, right?”

    Kay smirked. “The one that refuses to evolve no matter what?”

    “That one.” As if she had any other. She forced herself to continue and not get caught up by her own awkward approach. “A little while ago, I went and bugged Sam to see if she could give me any way to force him to evolve. She did, but it involves some stuff that’s… well… not entirely above-board, if you know what I mean.”

    “So you went and contacted some local Team Rocket guy or something?” Kay guessed.

    “I dunno if he was affiliated with Team Rocket or what,” Alex continued. “I just know he was able to help me get my hands on what I need.”

    Kay was many things, but water trainer and biologist were not among those things. As long as Alex could keep Kay from prying, she could bluff her way through the situation with no one the wiser. Sam’s actual advice had been very anticlimactic: There wasn’t any way to speed up the process beyond what Alex was already doing, so she should just keep shoving poffins and pokéblocks down his throat. Sam even sent a joke involving the tale of someone who evolved a Magikarp by kicking it and suggesting Alex give Feebas a turn with the Boot of Evolution.

    “You gotta do what you gotta do,” Kay said.

    Alex shook her head. “If I told this to Terry, he’d freak out at me.”

    “He supposedly had a bad experience, so I guess it’s understandable,” Kay said. She glanced around the room. “Honestly, I don’t see the point in acting as if you can keep yourself clean from Team Rocket these days. Even if you don’t deal with them directly, so what? You’ll wind up buying from one of their businesses sooner or later. I just don’t care either way.”

    Alex looked down to Marril. “Yeah. I guess that’s the best way to look at it.”



    Melanie glanced at Sam. The younger woman seemed dreadfully out of place at the Rueni trade show, an expo devoted to networking and communication technology. The room was packed with booths and displays showcasing developments Melanie could understand but not truly appreciate. If anything, the only thing to be unenthusiastic about was all the twenty- and thirty-something men who tried to make personal conversation with the two women. While there was no shortage of women at the expo, some men simply seemed to think hitting on any woman in sight was a good idea.

    The attention was worse for Sam, since there was always the chance she’d be recognized. Even a foreign Pokémon Master would be widely known in Idama. The expo was trade-only, so Sam theoretically shouldn’t have gotten in anyway, but the risk was still such that Sam wore makeup that changed the tone of her skin slightly as well as a pair of glasses that Melanie couldn’t deny Sam looked cute in.

    “I dunno if it’s just me,” Sam said to Melanie once she was sure no one was paying attention, “but I’m learning a lot about this stuff just by observation.”

    “If we ever have to hack anything, you’re our woman,” Melanie returned facetiously. Sam simply shook her head in amusement.

    Actual field work was a change of pace, even if Melanie couldn’t say it was a refreshing one. The last time she’d done anything remotely along these lines was the time Juliet had her and Ryan stalk Terry and Alex in Rueni. That endeavour was evidence enough that Juliet was far too much an academic to involve herself in Team Rocket’s more sordid affairs, but Melanie’s skills in that area weren’t as shallow as she sometimes pretended.

    I wonder what kind of person Alex even is, Melanie thought. What little she’d seen in person of Alex didn’t tell her anything at all.

    “Tell me something,” Sam said quietly to Melanie, breaking her train of thought. “What are you going to do with this guy when you find him?”

    Melanie offered Sam a thin smile as she turned her attention away from a booth demonstrating some new wireless protocol. “He can’t exactly run without creating a scene,” she explained. “He also can’t refuse to speak to me, not without blowing his cover. All I have to do is get him aside, and, well…” Melanie indicated her bag, in which was Hitmonlee’s pokéball.

    “If you want, I can lend you Sin,” Sam suggested. “He’d be more intimidating than Hitmonlee. He even scares me sometimes.”

    Had Melanie intended to keep to her word, she’d have accepted Sam’s offer instantly, but she couldn’t take the risk that they’d somehow communicate her actions back to Sam. Sin was least likely of all Sam’s Pokémon to care, so Melanie could potentially take that chance.

    No, she thought. I haven’t gotten this far just to be undermined by my own carelessness.

    “He’s probably a little too intimidating,” Melanie said.

    “Ishtar, then?”

    “Hitmonlee will be enough, trust me,” Melanie replied, forcing herself to appear slightly uneasy. In a joking tone, she added, “You could lend me Shamash, though.”

    “Yeah, no,” Sam said with equal good nature. Shamash was far too valuable a Pokémon to be lent to anyone, even to Melanie. Not that Melanie would know how to use Shamash effectively anyway.

    Holding back was uncomfortable. Melanie hated having to hide the sheer predatory intent in her search. The superficial charm used in questioning people needed an additional veneer of legitimacy. In short, she had to suppress her natural tendency to see a target as a thing rather than as a person for fear that she might betray this to Sam somehow.

    In all likelihood, it would have been best not to worry about that. Sam was easily the most intelligent person Melanie had ever met, but her intelligence was analytical and mathematical in nature. She didn’t have the natural talent or experience to read someone’s actions more than one layer down, and still instinctively took others at face value.

    Still.

    Melanie had no idea why she thought of it in those terms, as if naďveté was in any objective sense a childish phase to grow out of. Certainly, it seemed that way to her, even as she clung onto the façade of it for Sam’s sake. Sam, jaded yet innocent, wouldn’t agree—if anything, she wore cynicism as a layer of ill-fitting armour, not as a second skin.

    Getting away from Sam was simple enough. Once Melanie located their target, a man named Liang, all she had to do was tell Sam to “keep watch,” rather meaningless given Liang’s position, but Sam didn’t question it. From there, Melanie reflected that the dance of propriety meant the outcome was inevitable.

    “You’re Liang, right?” Melanie asked as she stepped up to the booth. The displays had something to do with video transmission, and there were a number of screens showing various bland repeating scenes.

    “That’s right,” Liang replied. “Is there anything I can help you with?”

    Melanie leaned in towards Liang. “I’ve got a few questions for you. You know the type.”

    Liang’s expression turned sour. “I bet you do.”

    Wordlessly, Melanie indicated that Liang should step away from the booth. Liang looked understandably hesitant.

    “You can try to run,” Melanie said. “You’d probably even get to security, maybe even get me arrested. But your cover would be blown and you’d have to go to ground somewhere new. Is avoiding me really worth that much to you?”

    “… No,” Liang answered after a moment’s hesitation.

    Melanie led Liang out through the crowd. No one paid the pair any mind—evidently, the trick to going unnoticed as a woman in such events was to be accompanied by a man. This wasn’t exactly new information, but in her mind it made little sense since she didn’t see any real difference between men and women outside of a few meaningless physical traits.

    I doubt Sam’s sister would think they’re that meaningless, Melanie found herself thinking. Then again, Sam herself, being only interested in women, would’ve disagreed with Melanie as well. Sam's preferences were nevertheless fine by Melanie.

    After a quick scan of her surroundings, Melanie risked reaching into her bag to make sure everything was still in place. Her fingers brushed Hitmonlee’s pokéball aside in her blind search. All was right in the world for the time being.

    “I’m not even sure what it is I could tell you,” Liang offered. His voice didn’t waver. Evidently he believed she really was going to question him.

    Melanie didn’t reply. She felt her very frame of mind shifting slightly, diverting all remaining person-oriented focus towards her task. They were out of the main hall now, near a back exit. All she had to do was lead Liang to a security camera blind spot and finish the job. Team Rocket had already taken care of bribing the centre’s security staff, so she wouldn’t run into any trouble.

    Though tempted to offer some manner of pleasantry, Melanie decided against it. There was no point. Instead, once she was sure she was in the appointed blind spot, she shoved Liang against the wall, reached into her bag, withdrew a silenced pistol, and shot Liang three times.

    Gods, I wish it never got easier, Melanie thought as she stowed the gun back into her bag. A year ago, her hands would’ve been shaking after something like that. Two years ago, she’d have felt the need to throw up. Five years ago, the thought of killing another human being would have been unthinkable.

    Now it was just a job requiring a different, segmented frame of mind to perform.

    Still, it was the first time she'd ever killed anyone so pointlessly. The several other occasions she'd had to, there'd been some clear, immediate reason. This time it was just so Sam could have a logical-sounding reason as to how Melanie knew the next link in their investigative chain. Melanie already knew where they were going next. This trip was a giant waste of time in her opinion, yet one more thing that might inadvertently strain Sam to the breaking point.

    She hurried back to the main hall, getting back into a more normal mental state. Thankfully, Sam was where she was supposed to be, and Melanie greeted her with a hug from behind.

    “You’re awfully cheerful for someone who just interrogated a man,” Sam said with a lopsided grin as she turned to face Melanie.

    Melanie allowed herself an awkward chuckle. “I’m simply glad to see you after having to do that.”

    “Well, anything else will just have to wait,” Sam said, grin still on her face. Melanie had to resist the urge to kiss her right then and there.

    “That’s my line, you bloody thief,” Melanie groused in a jovial tone.

    “You get what you came for?” Sam asked as the two of them headed out. No one seemed to pay them much mind, or if they did, Melanie didn’t notice.

    “Oh, yeah,” Melanie answered. “You’re not going to like it, but, well,” she reached over and ruffled Sam’s soft, chestnut-brown hair, “anything else will just have to wait.”

  23. #48
    I think the chapter was worth the wait. I liked the Marril-Alex scene the best, though.
    Jolteon Flareon Vaporeon
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    Eevee

  24. #49
    This is really one of those chapters I can't imagine ever happening in the anime. The crime drama parts of SS are kind of exempt from this comparison in my mind just because they're so different from normal, but this one... well, suffice to say, Alex is definitely not Ash, and it shows. She's a better trainer in a technical sense, but she's not as good at earning her Pokémon's friendship (i.e. it takes her much longer to). Also, the various catchphrase-sounding lines Terry says at the beginning while playing Pokémon Black are just things I say in real life (the Oshawott one is actually my ingame trainer quote), because you can never get too meta.

    Finally, here's something I ran into on a "you know you're trans when..." list: "When mulling over whether or not to write a fanfiction for a certain story, you debate whether or not to write one where the main character is transsexual, either due to the sore lack of such fanfictions, the horrible quality of existing ones, or because you feel it would be interesting." Amusing that my reason doesn't fall into any of those (since it's mainly to do with Alex being partly based on myself, and prior versions were written back when I was in the closet). But hey, it means SS is in a relatively unique genre.

    Chapter 22 - Shaky Redemption

    Terry regretted trying a new bus line.

    Oh, Grey Houndoom seemed like as good a choice as any from the outset. Their rates for this trip were lower than Terry expected. But he hadn’t counted on their numbered seating being on a different pattern than he thought. It would have been logical if, for example, seats 1 and 2 were on the left side of the aisle, and seats 3 and 4 were on the right. This, unfortunately, wasn’t the case, and Terry only learned this after boarding.

    Kay wasn’t an unpleasant person to sit beside, but when he’d intended to spend the long hours beside Alex…

    Terry spent most of the time playing a handheld game. It was a highly simplified Pokémon training game, featuring a kid from Unova somehow becoming a champion on their first gym circuit after receiving their starter, defeating a real-life criminal organization, and apparently saving the world while catching a mind-bogglingly high number of legendary Pokémon. The only real-life trainer with a legendary he’d ever met was Sam, and she only had the one. To his knowledge, she only encountered it after becoming a Pokémon Master, not before.

    Insipid as the game was, it still passed the time. Alex, engrossed with her e-reader, didn’t seem too bored herself. At least she had Marril to talk to if she didn’t find books interesting enough. Kay, however, seemed light on the self-provided amusements.

    “You started with Snivy,” Kay said at one point, looking at Terry’s screen. It was a statement, not a question.

    “Serperior is superior,” Terry replied dully. “You’ve played this?”

    “The other version, but yeah,” Kay said. “Oshawott, for the record.”

    “Oshawott bothers me.”

    “Nothing beats Torchic anyway. Real-life Torchic, that is. Digital just isn’t as fluffy. They need to go all meta and make a Porygon game already.”

    “I thought they already did?”

    “They had that one TV show about Porygon like ten years ago in Kanto,” Kay said. “It gave a bunch of kids seizures. Everyone’s been too skittish to make anything with a Porygon in it since.”

    “Now that you mention it, I heard about that,” Terry said. The news made national headlines, although at the time he was too young to give the subject the respect it deserved. Or even much of his attention.

    “Scary to think it’s been so long,” Kay said. “I still thought I was a girl at the time. Feels like it was kind of before my life, in a way.”

    “I’ve heard Alex say similar. Have to admit, I don’t really know what it’s like to have your real gender not match your assigned one. I always knew people like that existed, but I didn’t really think of it as anything that’d ever affect my life until Alex came out.”

    Kay smiled. “Yeah, people have a bad habit of normalizing their experiences. It goes the other way, too. Did you know that before I met her, Alex honestly didn’t think it was possible for someone to be attracted to only one gender?”

    “She told me this story,” Terry said. “She says she was surprised by it.”

    “Oh, you should’ve seen the look on her face when I corrected her,” Kay said, breaking out into a grin. “It was the purest disbelief I’ve ever seen in a person. She honestly, truly didn’t believe me. I mean, in a way it makes sense. I was her first close friend since puberty kicked in and, you know, she started caring about relationships. I sure don’t care if my partner’s male or female or whatever else, so that was her whole world. I think it would’ve been easier for her to take if someone outside that bubble was the one to break it to her.”

    Kay’s story was undoubtedly meant to be a fun anecdote, but Terry found himself reminded that in so many ways, he was an outsider to Alex’s innate worldview. He was male, she wasn’t. He was only attracted to women, she was attracted to people regardless of gender. He was fine with his body and the social role he’d been given, and she was violently opposed to both of hers.

    It was strange to think that “she” in any of those three thoughts could apply to Kay just as well as Alex.

    “I guess it was easier on my end,” Terry replied thoughtfully. “It’s easier to know where you stand when there’s something you’re fundamentally not. I mean, I’m not attracted to guys, so I guess that gives me a lens I can view guys who are only attracted to guys. I guess it’d also explain why both categories don’t really understand people attracted to multiple genders. You know what I’m talking about?”

    “Oh yeah,” Kay said. “You know, don’t take this as like backhanded or anything, but you’re a lot more perceptive than I gave you credit for.”

    Terry scoffed lightly. “If you tell me you underestimated me because I’m a man, I’m going to have to hit you.”

    “Nah. I don’t believe in contributing to social structures that hurt men as well as women. It’s actually mostly because of how clingy and possessive you were of Alex right when I met you. Then you challenged me to that pointless battle and I was like, ‘Wait, what does Alex even see in this guy?’ I guessed all kinds of things, but I suppose I leapt to conclusions.”

    “I kinda jumped to some about you, too,” Terry admitted. He wasn’t prepared to admit that all his hasty preconceptions about Kay were false, but it paid to be diplomatic. “Tell you what: We each forgive and forget. Deal?”

    Kay’s amused smirk was a little off-putting, but her voice seemed sincere enough as she said, “Deal.” She leaned in closer to Terry. “So there’s something I’ve been wondering. You don’t have to answer this if you don’t want to.”

    “How ominous.”

    “If you’ll excuse my bluntness, but… why you?”

    “Why me?” Terry wondered. It was a question he often asked of himself, but never in such a confusing context.

    Kay nodded across the aisle. “With Alex.”

    Terry’s first thought was that Kay was wondering just how he could have updated his mental image of Alex so easily, going from perceiving her as male to perceiving her as female without trouble. The answer to that was that he simply didn’t see any reason to cling to someone’s presentation when it conflicted with their real gender. It wasn’t complicated. Still, going by Kay’s previous comments, that wasn’t what she was asking.

    “I guess I just go for women I know are trouble, as cliché as that sounds,” Terry mused. He leaned back in his seat. “Everything else is just your standard guy answers, I guess. Why do you ask?”

    Kay didn’t answer. Terry couldn’t blame her. If he was right, she was asking because she wanted to evaluate whether or not he was good enough for Alex. It was an almost sisterly thing to do. He regretted never making friends who’d do the same for him.



    Alex’s back was stiff from too long spent in a bus chair, followed by a night of less than adequate sleep once they reached Son La City. “Adequate” to Alex sometimes meant in excess of ten hours, but still, she hadn’t even gotten enough for a normal person. At least she could blame Terry for the lack of sleep this time, even if she couldn’t complain about it.

    While Alex was determined to avoid relying on Pokémon Centres for shelter, they offered quite a bit of free space out back where she wouldn’t be disturbed and could reach a Nurse Joy if anything went wrong.

    “A” Nurse Joy.

    If anything could prove the gods’ existence and thus their sick sense of humour, it would have been Nurse Joy and Officer Jenny. Science was at a loss to explain them, and took to pretending they didn’t exist. Alex knew she wasn’t the only one who found Nurse Joy more creepy than welcoming.

    Alex tried to push the thought from her mind. She came to the Pokémon Centre because of the large pond in the open area out back and the relative seclusion. There was no point in getting distracted by another identical-to-all-the-others Nurse Joy.

    Kneeling down, Alex double-tapped the eye of her pokéball, and Feebas splashed down into the pond. Like usual, he took a moment to orient himself and proceeded to float helplessly, gazing at Alex with his vacant, glassy-eyed stare. His scales seemed more lustrous than before.

    “Hey, good news,” Alex said to Feebas. “I have more pokéblocks for you.”

    Alex swore she could have seen Feebas give her some kind of emotional expression. It would have been fear had Feebas any emotion to show, but it was her imagination at work, nothing more. She still felt uneasy following Sam’s advice to cram pokéblocks down Feebas’ throat until he finally evolved, but she needed another strong Pokémon for her Neo League circuit. The sooner Feebas evolved, the sooner she could start training him in earnest.

    “Relax,” Alex said in a soothing voice. “You like these, right? I didn’t make them myself, I promise.”

    The platitude was enough to get Feebas to nibble the end off the block. Alex sighed and fed the entire thing to Feebas at once. Feebas shuddered but swallowed it easily. She could see what she imagined to be anxiety in the fish’s eyes. He knew what was coming. It had become a common experience for him.

    “Mar-Marril-mar,” Marril said.

    “Yeah, I know,” Alex replied absently as she fed Feebas another block. Feebas glubbed helplessly.

    Experimentation had shown Alex that she could feed Feebas anywhere between ten to fifteen blocks at a time before he became physically incapable of eating more. Thankfully, he was getting close to evolution. Alex wasn’t sure how much more of this she could take, both because Feebas was clearly uncomfortable with it and because, to put it bluntly, Alex was sick and tired of having to deal with Feebas.

    You get what you pay for, eh? Alex thought bitterly as she shoved another block into Feebas’ mouth. Cheap as Feebas was, she was making up the cost in pokéblocks and poffins.

    “Mar!” Marril exclaimed. Alex blinked in surprise and expanded her focus away from Feebas’ mouth to the fish as a whole. His scales shimmered brightly, but steadily. He was definitely going to evolve today.

    Alex tossed around a quick glance to make sure no one was paying any undue attention. She didn’t have anywhere to do this except for a public place, and the last thing she needed was a bunch of trainers gawking at her or, worse, Nurse Joy or any of her Chanseys or Blisseys strolling by. No one but Marril cared at the moment, so Alex returned to feeding Feebas.

    After the third subsequent block, Feebas’ scales shimmered erratically. Alex stood up and took a step back, watching as Feebas began to glow all over his body and grow rapidly, elongating at frightening speed.

    Within the span of only a few heartbeats, Feebas had become Milotic. He loomed over Alex, gazing down at her icily. Alex broke into a smile.

    Before Alex could say anything, Milotic lashed out with his tail, striking Alex to the ground.

    “Ril-Marril! Ar-ril mar-Marril!” Marril shouted.

    Alex rose to her feet slowly, head ringing. The force of Milotic’s blow could easily have broken bones had she been any unluckier.

    “All right, okay, I messed up,” Alex admitted.

    Milotic would brook no apologies, it seemed, as he lashed out at Alex again, this time catching her right leg with a wet-sounding smack. Alex didn’t fall, but stumbled to her knee, clutching her leg in pain.

    “It’s just… I…” No. It wouldn’t do any good to try and talk Milotic down with empty platitudes. Honesty was the best policy this time. She'd been callous, and Milotic wanted retribution for the way he'd been treated. Her assumption had been that Feebas was largely insensate, and that he wouldn't remember her treatment of him when he evolved. “I messed up pretty badly,” Alex admitted, hissing through gritted teeth. “I just wanted to get you ready for battle sooner. I went on hurting you out of my own selfishness. I’ll understand if you don’t want to have anything to do with me.”

    Too late, the thought appeared in Alex’s mind not in the form of words, but as a concept.

    Alex felt Milotic’s tail wrap around her midsection and she was lifted up off her feet, eye level with Milotic. The air around her chilled, and she swore it darkened as well. Milotics were supposed to be gentle in nature, yet hers acted with cold ferocity, more like a Gyarados moving in for the kill. Alex must have hurt Milotic very badly to get this kind of reaction from him.

    “Is that what you want? My life?” Alex asked. She was well aware that constriction meant she only had limited air available. There was no point in being indirect anymore. “If you want it, take it. I’ve faced death before. I’m ready for it if you are.”

    Boastful as it sounded, it had basis in reality. Prior to medical intervention for her gender dysphoria, Alex’s thoughts at their worst were of little more than ending her own life. Only Marril served as any kind of physical tether to remain in this world, with rapidly fading hope being her sole motivation to continue living. She didn’t want Milotic to kill her, but she wasn’t afraid of the possibility.

    Not that this stopped the sheer primal terror of being unable to inhale.

    “Ril!” Marril exclaimed. “Ar-ril Marril-mar-Marril!”

    Milotic’s gaze turned away from Alex. He looked contemptuously at Marril, bored curiosity in his eyes. Marril didn’t back down, shooting a death glare at Milotic. Alex hoped Marril knew better than to attack Milotic—despite being freshly evolved, Milotic could defeat Marril effortlessly.

    “Ar-ril-ril-ril-mar!” Marril insisted.

    Alex felt Milotic’s constriction ease up the tiniest bit, just enough to let her draw a shallow breath. Marril had Milotic’s attention for the time being, and Milotic was willing to give her an audience to entreat her survival.

    I know Alex made a mistake, Marril pleaded. But she’s truly sorry.

    Milotic’s pained tone communicated that they were well past apologies. Marril braced herself.

    She was under a lot of stress, Marril insisted. She forgot the most important part of being a trainer. But I’ve known her all my life. I know she’s a kind human who loves her Pokémon. Please, please give her a second chance.

    Milotic returned his icy glare to Alex, as if to question her worthiness. Alex felt Milotic tighten up around her again.

    “Do it,” Alex said with her last breath. Her vision started to go spotty as Milotic flexed his muscles, tightening down on Alex.

    Suddenly, Alex was flung back to the ground, landing with a thud. She rolled over twice before stopping, her vision blurred.

    “Ar-ril!” Marril exclaimed, rushing over to Alex. “Mar-ril-Ar-ril?”

    “I’m fine,” Alex lied. She shook her head. As she stood up, she realized how badly she was shaking. Fearless though she was when staring Milotic down, she couldn’t keep it up forever. She also felt somewhat tired in the wake of her initial surge of adrenaline wearing off.

    Alex took a moment to assess her surroundings. She’d attracted something of a crowd when she wasn’t looking. Several bystanders even had their Pokémon out, although they knew as well as Marril that trying to intervene could have cost Alex her life.

    Nurse Joy rushed to Alex, flanked by an Audino. Alex waved the two away. She couldn’t afford to show weakness to Milotic right now.

    Milotic stood before Alex, looking as contemptuous as ever, this time with amusement colouring his expression. The words very well floated through her mind. For the moment, it seemed she had Milotic’s approval. Alex nodded to Milotic and recalled him.

    “Are you all right?” Nurse Joy asked.

    “I will be,” Alex said. She tried to take a step, but her right knee buckled and she stumbled forward. Nurse Joy caught her and steadied her. “I might need a bit of help in the short run, though.”

    “What were you doing?” Nurse Joy demanded as she helped Alex into the Pokémon Centre.

    “Something I didn’t think too hard about first,” Alex admitted, wincing each time her right foot touched the ground.

    Nurse Joy led Alex into one of the treatment rooms and sat her down on a bed. It wasn’t very comfortable, but it was better than standing.

    “You forced it to evolve too quickly, didn’t you?” Nurse Joy asked.

    Alex nodded.

    “Most trainers stop when they see their Feebas’ reaction to force-feeding.”

    “I have no excuse,” Alex replied. The sheer stupidity of her own mistake, and how it had snowballed to the point where it had erased basic empathy, was so painful that she couldn't have discussed it even if she wanted to. “I did what I did. Nothing can change that.”

    Nurse Joy looked like she was about to reprove Alex, but stopped. “Before I get someone to help you to the hospital, I want you to promise me you won’t do anything like that again.”

    “Way ahead of you,” Alex promised, looking down at her knee. “Way, way ahead of you.”

  25. #50
    Milotic's reaction was worst then in your other version...

    But I still think that it was a good chapter.
    Jolteon Flareon Vaporeon
    Espeon Umbreon
    Glaceon Leafeon
    Eevee

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